After a quick jog across the south road of the valley, Buck reached the door of his mother's house. As he walked through, he heard a clatter in the living room. He chuckled as he entered, noticing how they all studied the place settings in front of them or whatever they happened to have in their hands.
He sat down at the table across from Hilene and said, "Relax, folks, I saw you all watching me from the window."
The tension in Hilene's shoulders dissolved. He loudly tapped the table in front of Buck. "Well then? What happened? Are you going?"
Buck thought about holding them in suspense for a while, and might have done had Hilene not been there. But Hilene was clearly about to explode with desperation to know.
He looked at each of them in turn and said, "The prince is to be married to Duchess Pires of Resador, and he is taking me with him. And also Myal I think. If Merhen doesn't give her permission she may well sneak away in the dead of night."
"Wow," Hilene said, quietly and without really looking at anyone. "So it's actually happening." He looked up. "You finally achieved what you were trying to do. It... worked."
Buck shrugged. "Well, it's not like I can take that much credit for it. In fact most of the crucial moments I was just sort of rambling. But yes, I guess in a sense I got what I came here for. I really do think it's the best thing for Erson, and it was his idea in any case."
"Uh-huh," Hilene said, tracing shapes on the table.
Buck glanced at Dorrea and Victane, but neither said anything. They were both smiling though, eyes fixed on him as they beamed.
"Buck, can I talk to you?" Hilene asked.
"Sure," Buck said. As Hilene stood up he realised he meant outside. He followed Hilene around the back of the cottage, where the ground continued the incline but the wall of the valley.
As soon as Hilene stopped, he said, "I'm not coming."
"Uh... okay," Buck said, giving himself a moment to process that. He knew Hilene had no love of Resador, but that was still where his job was. He could imagine the broad themes of the answer to his next question, but to buy himself more time he asked, "How come?"
"I never enjoyed living in Resador, not for my whole life. It's so much more relaxing up here. You can say what you like, and it just... floats away, never to matter again. Down there you let three words out a day and they still drop into this miry pit of gossip and complications and-" Hilene's eyes started darting around, his hands searching the air.
"Hey, hey, it's okay," Buck said. "I figured you felt something like that. Victane said you were never a fan of the scheming back in the city."
Hilene's eyes snapped back to Buck. "You talked to Victane about me?"
"Yeah, on that first night. Just like how I asked you about why he was so quiet on the walk out of the city limits," Buck said.
"See, this is exactly what I'm talking about!" Hilene exclaimed. "You're basically the closest I have to a friend and you talk about me behind my back then never speak to me for two weeks just so you can marry some prince off to some Duchess when they barely even like each other. Does that not just sound all kind of messed up to you?"
Buck frowned. "Well, I wanted to know why you were behaving so differently. And I'm sorry for being away, but I had to put in a lot of work."
Hilene groaned and looked up at the sky. "Work for what? Why do you care so much about this?"
Buck bit his lip. He cared quite so much because Resador was his home, which Hilene would never understand. But also, the prospect of his father returning - could he tell Hilene about that? It would be another secret for him to keep, but perhaps it would be easier for him to understand, a more personal motive.
Before he could make up his mind, Hilene added, "And if you wanted to understand me, you should haved talked to me! Me! I swear, Buck, you make absolutely no sense to me."
Buck jerked himself out of his thoughts and said, "I'm sorry. I really am. I never meant to upset you."
Hilene sighed. "No, I know that. I just wish you'd think about the way you are with people sometimes."
Buck didn't have a clue what to say to that.
"Look," Hilene said. "I'm going to stay here, look after your mum's farm. I still get the odd glance here and there but I know exactly what that's saying and I've figured out who to talk to to get it dealt with, swiftly and directly. Myal's fostered a good environment here."
Buck nodded along with what he was saying. "Wait, my mum's farm? Where's my mum going?"
"We've spoken about it," Hilene said. "Dorrea and Victane would go with you to Resador, if that were to be Erson's plan. And I would have a place here, to maintain the land and the cottage."
"Mum's coming with me?" Buck nearly started jumping up and down on the spot. That was really all he needed to make this homecoming even more special.
Hilene smiled. "Yeah, she's missed you."
"I've missed her too," Buck said. He hadn't thought about it much, since he'd been living with her for three weeks, but it was true. Simone was a wonderful companion, and he did tell her everything that was going on in his life, but he missed having someone who could respond, and tell him about their day too.
"I really didn't mean to be so harsh," Hilene said. "Just think about what I've said, please?"
Buck nodded. "Of course. I'm so sorry to have hurt you, and I'm glad you've found somewhere to be happy."
Hilene smiled, dipping his head. "Thank you."
"Okay, now, since you're going to be living here, do you know where I can find the horse master? I have to post a letter for Erson," Buck said.
Hilene chuckled. "I do, yeah, come on. Wait, have you been here this whole time and not sent a letter to Pires."
Buck's eyes widened as he started to follow Hilene. "Oh no."
Hilene burst out laughing as they walked back around to the front of the house. "Oh my word! She's been sitting there twiddling her thumbs this whole time?"
The tips of Buck's ears slowly heated up until he could hear the blood going through them. "Oh no."
Hilene kept laughing all the way to the horse master. It could have seemed rude, but if this was his catharsis, then Buck was happy to give it to him.