Kerri's hands shake ever so slightly as she fills the cup with tea, realizing she doesn't know how Hubert takes it. He's sitting across the table, his arms folded across his chest as if a shield. But he's here, and that's something, she reminds herself.
As she pours the tea, she wants to tell him how proud she is of him. She wants to tell him how in those dark days following his father's death, he truly brought hope to the villagers. But she says nothing like this, for fear of scaring him off.
"No sugar, please," he says quietly, sensing her question before she can even ask it.
She places the cup within his reach and then reclaims her seat. "I can get some lemon if you'd like."
"No, thank you."
The tea smells of chamomile, rose petals, spearmint, and lemon. The taste is strong, but soothing, though far too tranquil for this night. She knew it was to be a restless one, even before he decided to join her. She takes a sip from her cup and sets it back on the saucer. He does the same, the tiny clinks of china upon china sounding as loud as the bells of Graylside in the small, uncomfortably silent room.
It was here, on a rainy September afternoon, nearly eighteen years ago, that she set eyes on him for the first time. She still remembers the midwife placing him into her arms and that first little coo escaping his tiny lips as he shifted in his blankets. She recalls the feeling of his little fingers wrapping around one of her own as she introduced him to Aston. She could still hear Aston asking her what she wanted to name him, as he had named Asbel and thus it was her turn to come up with something. She had laughed at that, and decided to name him after her paternal grandfather, a man she respected and was particularly close to before his death. He had encouraged her to become educated rather than just live as a lady of leisure. He brought her books and told her of far off places, always reminding her that the world was bigger than Barona. Naming her son for him seemed respectful at the time. But now, seeing the man her child had become, she knows it was the perfect choice.
A tiny sigh escapes her lips and she reminds herself to tell him about his namesake at some point.
He notices this, as he looks up at her, but he says nothing.
"I'm worried about all of you," she says quietly.
"We'll be fine," he sighs. "Asbel has a talent for accomplishing the impossible. I honestly believe he thinks it's fun in some misguided way."
She gives a laugh at his assessment of his brother. "I suppose the same could be said for you."
"Or all of us. We did manage to go to another planet after all."
His arms finally uncross and he rests his hands demurely in his lap.
She asks him what Strahta is like and he gives a detailed, eloquent answer. It isn't the words that interest her, though. Looking at his face, she's trying to read his gaze, kept protectively behind his glasses. She isn't listening to what he says, but how he says it. She's watching his lips quiver around the syllables, hearing little inflections in his voice, and following the hint of the accent he developed from his adoptive country.
He always had an extensive vocabulary, even as a child. While his brother looked for adventures in forbidden places like Lhant Hill, Hubert happily found them in his books and toy ships. He had never been a particularly strong boy, especially after an illness ravaged him in his sixth year. Those days were dark, and she and Aston even feared they'd lose him. But he endured, fighting the disease with a vigor that amazed even the town doctor. After that, she would tell herself that he may not be as strong as his brother, but he thought a great deal more when he spoke, and in that way, he resembled his father.
A glance around the room brings back memories of the times when he'd try and climb into bed with her and Aston. His brother would tell him horrible tales of "The Willow Man of Lhant" and other such made up frights just to see poor Hubert run in terror. No amount of reprimand and punishment would stop Asbel from these taunts, but as Hubert learned to read, he became less gullible. Though, she still treasures the sight of seeing her two boys, then only seven and eight years old, curled up together in a makeshift fort in their room to hide from a terrible storm. Hubert may have outgrown falling for his brother's lies, but neither of them managed to outgrow their need for each other.
She watches as his finger traces the handle of the cup as if looking for guidance as to what to say next. His hands are rough, calluses showing in between his fingers, and telling of the grueling training she knows he's been though. Aston had told her, all those years ago, that part of the adoption terms for his son was that he was to be sent to the prestigious military academy in Strahta. She knew he had the mind to be a great strategist, but wondered if the combat training would be too much for him. But here he was, dressed in the uniform of a lieutenant, and known throughout his country for his skill with a blade.
At first, it seemed odd to her to see him as military officer. She couldn't believe the words of servants that night. "Master Hubert has returned! He's returned and saved us all!" They had shouted throughout the manor. She ran out into the town, desperate to catch a glimpse of him amongst the crowd. Tears ran down her face as she stared at him, but he wouldn't even look directly at her. When he did give her a glance, it was full of anger, contempt, and incredulity. All of which she felt she deserved.
As he lifts the cup, she notices the thin three-centimeter long scar on the heel of his left hand is still visible, all these years later. He'd earned that on one of his childhood adventures with Asbel when the two of them had wound up in a place they shouldn't have been. She remembered holding him, trying to keep him calm, as his father had sewn the wound closed, all while scolding his brother.
"I owe you an apology," he says suddenly. "The words I spoke before were unwarranted and cruel."
"It is I who owes you one," she replies.
He shakes his head. "Then let us accept them and move on. I'd rather not spend all of our time offering regrets of the past as then there won't be as much time to embrace the future."
Kerri smiles at the simple wisdom of his words and while she wants to jump from her seat and throw her arms around his neck, she does not. Instead, she reaches a hand across the table and grasps his firmly. "I agree. I am just glad to have you back in my life."
He nods at this, and his eyes fall to her wedding band that she now wears on her right hand. He supplies, perhaps to put her mind at ease, "I was well cared for in Strahta."
"Your father said the Oswells were very wealthy."
"Yes," he says, sliding his glasses up his nose and his tone turns bitter. "Garrett certainly has made a name for himself."
"It seems you have done the same, to earn such a rank at only seventeen," she says as she raises her cup to her lips. Though she's seen how strong he's become, most telling of his success was how his soldiers respected him and served him loyally without question, despite his young age.
"I am merely serving my country," he says quietly. His expression betrays that he is unsure of how to accept the flattery.
She smiles at him. "Spoken like a true knight."
"There are no knights in Strahta," he corrects her, but his words hold the form of a gentle tease. "Merely soldiers."
"I would argue they are the same."
He lifts the pot to offer her another cup and she nods. With measured precision he fills her cup, and then his own, before resting the pot back upon the tray. "Perhaps, though Asbel might disagree. I'm sure he thinks that being a knight is much more romantic than being a soldier."
She laughs. "Ah, but he has yet to even notice Cheria."
"I believe he notices her," Hubert says with an amused wave of his hand. "But he hasn't the slightest idea what to do with her."
Kerri smiles again, and the laugh she gives this time is hearty and welcoming. She doesn't ask if Hubert has a girlfriend. She knows he does not, though she can tell there is the hope of something there, and he isn't nearly as oblivious as his brother in that regard.
Earlier in the evening, as they sat down for supper, she watched how he carefully selected his seat next to the Amarcian woman. She had grinned then, seeing the two of them engaged in pleasant conversation as the rest of the table talked. Her intuition was only further confirmed when Pascal flicked a pea at him and for an instant his usually stern face broke into a smile and even a tepid laugh.
Then, when dinner had ended, and Pascal had insisted that she must tinker with some contraption that absolutely could not wait, Kerri noticed just how Hubert had watched the girl leave. Rather than keep his usual firm stance of attention, he leaned on the door frame and stared as she disappeared into the night. And, his expression held the very same look of longing and desire she had seen so many years ago in his father's eyes.
They finish the second cup in near silence, and he stands up. "I must rest," he says, though the way he speaks those three words tell her that he will return and the conversation will continue, some time in the future.
"Yes, I wish you well tomorrow," she says, rising to her feet. She again fights the urge to throw her arms around him and give him a hug wrought of seven years of anguish. Instead, she reaches a hand to his shoulder for a simple, grounded, maternal touch.
He tenses at the gesture, but doesn't back away.
"I would like to write to you, Hubert," she says.
He gives her a nod. "I would like that. I will leave the address in the study. You would do best to write me through the army mail. It is more efficient."
"I'll do that."
"Mother," he says, and her eyes do their best to swift away the tears that nearly fall upon hearing those two beautiful syllables. "I will return. I promise you this."
She nods and forgets herself and her insecurities in that instant and grabs him into an embrace. He doesn't resist, and after a moment she feels him put his arms around her back and give her a warm and needed hug.
Kerri cries into his shoulder, but he doesn't leave or even attempt to push her away. He stands there, letting her grief rain onto his coat and doing his best to soothe her with the gentle, albeit somewhat awkward embrace.
He doesn't know it, and he'll never know it.
But those were the exact words his father had said to her only nine months ago.
Just before he left for his last battle.