Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
A/N: I have been warned that I sometimes write my characters like hormonal teenagers, which is maybe more appropriate here than in the story about the 60-year-old zookeeper. Anyway, just let me know if any of this angst is gratuitous :P
"Do you think it's weird that we haven't seen Raddig all day?" Myal asked Buck. They were standing at the corner of the main hall, just to the side of the stage. In front of the stage, Erson was sat at a fold-away wooden table with a stack of papers in front of him. Before him, a long queue stretched all the way out the doors at the back of the hall, as farmers lined up to detail their livestock and crops for the month.
Buck sighed and leaned against the stage. "I don't know... He might just be at the back of the queue."
"I don't just mean that," Myal said, briefly glancing at Erson. He seemed engrossed in the figures he was scribbling down. "He missed his shift as steward, and we had to go without because Holyon was tending the field. Now Holyon's stuck up there because Raddig still hasn't showed. He sent a note down with one of the cowherds who passed him."
Buck rubbed the back of his neck. When he had offered Raddig the money he needed to buy a ship, he'd taken it immediately. Buck was wondering now if he'd left the valley that very night. He hadn't been expecting an emotional goodbye from the man who was literally scamming Erson, but he could at least have left a letter so it wouldn't be up to Buck to explain what had happened.
"Myal, can you keep a secret?" Buck said. He actually felt his voice crack a bit as the weight of the past two days hit home.
Myal's eyes widened and she leaned forward to whisper, "What? What is it?"
"Raddig's gone," Buck said. The words came out all rushed, and slightly louder than he'd have liked. But at least they were out now.
"What?" Myal exclaimed. She gulped and spun around. Buck saw that a few people had glanced in her direction, but she just giggled and turned back around to Buck. Buck laughed and leaned in with his hands steepled as if he was concocting a fun scheme for the next performance night. In a way he was scheming, because everyone rolled their eyes at them and went back to their business.
"That was quick thinking," Buck said.
"People leave you alone if you seem like you're planning a party," Myal said.
"Fair enough," Buck said. "We should probably still go somewhere else though."
Myal nodded and led him out into the corridor. "Okay, what's going on?"
Buck explained as much as he could without giving away the fact that he had paid off Raddig with Pires's money. He had been wondering what lie to tell to explain why he'd done it, so that he wouldn't have to reveal he wanted Erson free to marry Pires. But when it came to that part of the story, he found himself narrating his argument with Raddig with a fury that had been rumbling in his stomach for days. He had to fight to keep his voice low. So it was fairly easy to suggest that his motivations had been to keep Erson safe.
When he was done, Myal said. "I fucking knew it."
"Myal!" Buck hissed. But he found himself laughing. He'd never heard her swear before, and the absurdity snapped the tension in two.
"I'm sorry but I did! There was something so cold about him. He wasn't just quiet. Your friend Victane is quiet. Loilyn the singer - she's quiet - when she's not singing about backsides. But Raddig's just mean," Myal said, folding her arms. After a moment, her arms dropped to her sides and she said, "Uh... do you want me to tell him?"
Buck could see the panic in her wide eyes and her mouth left hanging open. How could he ask her, after she'd spent all that time trying to show him how much fun life could be up here, to tell her brother that the man he wanted to marry had disappeared, and had never loved him in the first place?
"No, that's okay," Buck said. "I'll tell him. I just have no idea when. Won't he be worn out once he's finished with this?"
"Sort of," Myal said. She tilted her head back and forth. "He will be tired, but he and I usually go for a walk afterwards to stretch our legs. I can just have you go with him instead. I'll say I have, you know, a party to plan."
Buck smiled and wondered if she'd ever considered a career in Resador. "Okay, that sounds alright. Should we go back in there now?"
"I actually don't think it would make all that much difference. Erson gets so focused on report day - it's probably why he hasn't noticed that Raddig is missing," Myal said. She fidgeted with her hair. "Buttane, can I have a hug?"
Buck nodded vigorously and wrapped her up in a hug, squeezing tight. When they pulled apart, her eyes were slightly wet, and he could feel some moisture seeping through his linen shirt.
"I'm going to go to the bathroom for a bit," she said.
Buck nodded, not wanting to make her try to get more words out. He took a deep breath and walked back into the main hall. Erson looked up briefly, but if he noticed that Myal was missing he didn't show it. It was handy that he was so absorbed, because Buck couldn't take his eyes off him as his mind strayed again and again back to how devastated he was going to be.
Eventually Erson was finished with his business for the day, and Myal never did return.
"Er, Buttane, hello," Erson said, standing up and coming over to the stage. "Have you seen Myal?"
"Uh... not in a while," Buck said, wondering if he said it if Myal had stayed away on purpose.
"We usually take a walk together after these notes have been taken," Erson said, scratching his head.
"I think she wasn't feeling great," Buck said, which really was not a lie. "I can come for a walk if you'd like?"
Erson smiled, and Buck's heart broke all over again.