Lyndon knew, as soon as he saw Rusza approaching the house, that trouble was starting. He didn’t need to be introduced to the two women with him. He knew who they were just from Crystallin’s abrupt departure from the porch. Still, he waited quietly as everyone rushed forward to greet Rusza. He continued to wait in his place as Rusza introduced his girlfriend and her mother to everyone. He even waited through the murmur that followed the girlfriend’s announcement, “Rusza and I are getting married, so he wanted me to meet all of you.” When the introductions came around to him, he nodded his acknowledgement, said, “Hello,” to both of the guests, and then got up and went where he knew he would find Linnie.

And he found her just as he expected to find her: depressed and angry. To distract her from the thoughts that made her so unhappy, he said, “Will you wear something like this when we get married?”

“Probably. Don’t you like it?”

He shrugged. “It’s a little fussy. And I can’t imagine how I’m supposed to get you out of—” Then he stopped, realizing he had said too much.

But his slip of the tongue made Linnie laugh with that sparkle that made her seem so much older than he was. “That isn’t something you need to worry about. The same women who put me in will take me back out so I can wear something more practical to our new home, wherever that will be. And I won’t tell Daddy that you thought about taking me out of my clothes.” She was teasing him.

He felt his face burn hotter as he tried to answer her casually. Honesty compelled him to admit, “It gets tougher not to think thoughts like that. I missed you a lot this last time you were gone.” To himself, he continued, And being alone with you makes it even tougher.

But Linnie seemed to read his thoughts, as if she had the same sympathy that Uncle Everard had. She went to the door and called Mica to come to them. Lyndon couldn’t tell if he felt relieved or frustrated by this intervention, but he knew it was for the best. Mica, he noticed, seemed different somehow, less autocratic and more inquisitive. He even asked about Lyndon’s relationship with Linnie, which he had never shown any interest in before. His presence also made it possible for Lyndon to put his arm around Linnie. Lyndon decided the intervention was a relief after all.

But then a voice from the hallway interrupted, just as they were growing comfortable together. Lyndon felt Linnie’s shoulders and back grow tense as his dad gave Rusza the first serious talking-to that Lyndon had ever heard him give. When he mentioned how unusual this was, Mica actually declared that Lyndon’s father should be worried, and Linnie flinched.

But it proved easy enough to distract Linnie from her unhappiness again, just by showing an interest in her jewelry-making hobby. He decided to try making a bead ring as an answer for the carved bone ring she had given him. It was harder by far than making a flower ring for her, as he had done since they were small. The beads were slippery and miniscule, hard to keep hold of and hard to string onto the fine thread. As soon as Lyndon felt he had made progress, he got distracted once too often by something Linnie said, and the beads flew every which way. Lyndon went after them, as did Linnie. To Lyndon’s surprise, so did Mica. He helped until they could find no more loose beads.

“Thanks,” Lyndon told him.

“You’re welcome. They are hard to keep under control.”

Aunt Feilin came in eventually to warn them to get ready for supper. Linnie finished cleaning up her space first and went to wash her hands, leaving Lyndon alone with Mica. 

“Will Aunt Feilin mind if I borrow some tools?” Mica said. “I want to keep working on this tonight while everyone’s talking.”

“She won’t mind,” replied Lyndon. He too gathered up a few of the tools Linnie had showed him how to use.”

“What are you making?”

“A bead ring for Linnie. She gave me this.” Lyndon tugged at the chain around his neck. “I can’t wear it, because I’ve grown, but I want to give her something too.”

“You have grown,” Mica observed. “You must be two or three inches taller than when we left in the summer.”

“You grew too.”

Mica looked down at himself. “I got a little slimmer, but I don’t think I grew.”

“You aren’t an ass at all anymore,” Lyndon said. “That’s growing.”

After a startled moment, Mica laughed. “Well, thanks for that, Lyndon.” He kept chuckling all the way to the family room. 

There were more people now, and that threw off the seating arrangement so that Lyndon couldn’t sit across from Linnie. He got as close as he could and had to content himself with a three-quarters profile view.

As a mark of respect, Grandpa Gar asked Grandpapa Nigel to say the prayer over the meal. Lyndon bent his neck, quickly confessed in silence the thoughts he kept having about being more intimate with Linnie, and was just moving into his own private word of thanks for family and food when Rusza’s half-yelp brought Lyndon upright. He was on the same side of the table, just four seats down from Rusza, and he wondered at first what could turn his shameless brother almost purple with embarrassment. Then Aunt Hapzah said in her usual scolding voice, “Miss Demyan, let’s come to an understanding. When we pray at this table, we are taking an opportunity to turn our thoughts and souls toward the Only One. We do not use it as an opportunity to grope our boyfriend’s crotch.”

Lyndon glanced at Linnie and saw on her face an expression of such disgust as he had never seen there before. He watched her while the discord played out. Linnie did hate discord so. By the time they started in on the food, she was depressed again. Lyndon stretched out his sock-foot and found hers to nudge her into better spirits. She looked up so quickly that Lyndon was caught admiring her long eyelashes. He dropped his gaze in embarrassment, but Linnie set her other sock-foot on top of his in an intimate gesture that made him blush even more.

It didn’t help that Grandmama Penelope started in on how much he resembled Grandpapa Nigel. That made Lyndon want to squirm in his chair, having so many people looking at him. But then Linnie caressed his foot with hers. Lyndon nearly forgot anyone else was there besides Linnie.

She got up to go the first moment she could. Lyndon got up to follow her and caught up on the porch. “Oh, I wish they would go away,” she muttered to herself.

Lyndon restrained himself from putting his arms around her to comfort her. “Give them time, and they will.”

She jumped from surprise. “I didn’t know you followed me. You’re so quiet on your feet, Lyndon. But you know, the mother was right about you. You’ll be a handsome old man someday. Well, I think you’re handsome enough right now.”

Lyndon’s heart started beating faster. He had to sit down before he tried to kiss her.  “You’re sure it isn’t too chilly out here for you?” he said, just to have something to say. He couldn’t hear her response over the pounding of his heart. He did hear her say, “Do you think she’s pretty?”

Lyndon gave the first answer that came to his flustered mind: “She’s pretty, but you’re mine. I don’t want anybody else.”

Linnie gave him a long, fond look. “You do blurt out the sweetest things sometimes,” she laughed as she sat on the bench next to him. “I’m glad you’re beside me. I don’t want anybody else but you, either.”

He was glad when Grandpapa Nigel came out to join them on the porch. It freed him up just enough from the responsibility of self-control that he could safely hold hands with Linnie. To his happy satisfaction, Linnie stayed sitting beside him for a long time, almost until the sun went down. Grandpapa Nigel kept the porch from getting too chilly, and enough people stayed out with them that Lyndon held Linnie’s hand the entire time. 

But eventually, the time for separation came as the men of the family gathered to escort Michael to the house where he and Helena would live. Lyndon held Linnie’s hand as long as he could. What provoked him to release her wasn’t their departure for Michael’s new home. It was Rusza, making a weak excuse about putting away his luggage. Lyndon knew his brother too well; the only time Rusza jumped to do a chore voluntarily was when he had something to hide. He chased Rusza up the stairs and into their shared room. “What are you up to?”

Rusza wheeled around, startled. His duffle bag lay open at his feet. In one hand, he held a small paper packet. “Why is it any of your business?”

“Because I’m your brother,” Lyndon replied, “even if you’re starting to make me regret that. What are you up to?” A thought broke across his mind. “Is that the bracelet?”

Rusza turned dark red. “Yes.” He pulled a flat wooden box out of his bureau drawer. “I’m putting it in here. It was just a childish impulse, so it goes in with all the memories of my other childish things. Satisfied? Now run back to your master and tell her all about it.”

Lyndon boiled inside. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides before he realized it. “You hypocrite. Who was totally controlled by a girl he didn’t even have a relationship with yet? I’m not telling Linnie any of this. It’ll only make her sadder, and you’ve already hurt her enough.” Then another thought came to dismay him. “Don’t you dare ruin Michael’s big day too. I don’t know why you bothered coming back.” He turned sharply and ran back downstairs before he said anything more that might go beyond the limits.

Before he followed the men of the family out into the street, he paused beside Linnie just long enough to murmur, “I have to tell you something tomorrow.” Then he took off before Helena could see just how angry he was and start worrying over him.

Michael was radiating enough of his stored sunlight that no one needed a flashlight. He was so happy, happier than Lyndon had ever seen him. He led the way to a small house farther out toward the fields.

Lyndon gazed at the little house with a strange feeling in his chest. He didn’t need to hear his father telling Grandpapa Nigel, “This is the house Nirva and I started our married life together in.” Lyndon didn’t exactly remember the house. He had been just six years old when his father had moved them all back to the family home with Grandpa Gar and Grandma Apple. This house struck him with a powerful, inarticulate feeling of homesickness as he approached it. When he walked through the front door behind Finn, he knew exactly where to hang his coat. He knew which way to turn to go to the kitchen. He knew turning the other way would take him through a door to a formal parlor. When Michael opened that parlor door, Lyndon had a sudden, painful moment of expectation that he would hear his mom call out, “Did you leave your mucky shoes at the front door?” In fact, he had already slipped out of his shoes, out of a long-forgotten habit.

“Rusza, are you all right?” Their dad went back through the crowd to stand by Rusza. “You don’t mind coming back here, do you?”

“Why should he mind?” Lyndon asked, still agitated.

Grandpapa Nigel put his arm around Lyndon and led him toward the kitchen, away from the rest. “You were too young to remember, or maybe you never knew. Rusza was the one who found your mother Nirva dead. It was here, outside in the back garden. She was lying in the grass…” He cleared his throat. “It’s a hard thing to remember.”

“I’m sorry I made you have to say it, Grandpapa.”

“Just… try to show Rusza a little more compassion, right? It’s hard for brothers to get along, but it’s worthwhile.”

They went back to the parlor. Everyone else had gone in and sat down, and Holst Meir had arrived during those few moments. Uncle Everard was saying, “…have their own traditions for this night, which obviously I have never taken part in, not being a woman, but this is the tradition I received from Gar, who learned it from his father and grandfather. Tonight, Michael, if you have any questions, any advice you would like to have, anything at all, tell us. We are here to prepare you for the responsibility that comes with becoming a married man. We will help you understand more of yourself and your background, as well as we can, and offer you any counsel you ask. We also are here to pray over you, to pray with you. This is a solemn night, a preface to a joyous morning.”

“Just having all of you here is joyous already,” Michael said.

Archet grasped Michael by the arms. “The only thing that could make this day happier for me is if your mother could have been here to see it. I never want you to think of this house as a sad place after today. I want you to find comfort for all your sadness in the arms of your bride.” He was already in tears. “Oh, I made up my mind I wouldn’t do this,” he said with a laugh.

Michael threw his arms around him. “It’s fine. It’s fine, Dad. I know.” He drew back to say, “Finn, I want you to know this isn’t going to be our permanent home. I’ve talked with Helena and with Dad. This house is closer to the fields, so after Helena and I save up money for a couple years, we plan to take an apartment or something closer to the GC. We want you to have this house, when you find someone you love.”

Finn looked like the statement had knocked him back a step. “Thanks,” he said.

“I think we should begin with the obvious,” said Grandpapa Nigel. “Michael, why do you love Helena?”

“This might take all night,” Michael laughed.

“Try to be concise,” said Uncle Everard in his dry tone.

His sons all laughed, and Michael grinned. “I’ll try. Helena… she’s both fragile and strong at the same time. I think that’s what first caught at my heart. She knows how terrible grief is, and she can still smile. I love how hard she tries to use her sympathy for others. She does such a good job, dealing with Elder Stone’s quirks and smoothing things over with difficult people. I’ve always been impressed by that. I knew from growing up around you, Uncle Everard, that human-based sympathists need to be especially careful about how they use their sympathies. Helena has always been so careful. She takes that additional responsibility so seriously that I just automatically trust her. And it never hurt that she’s a Southern girl, with that dark hair and slender figure,” he said with a sheepish smile. “I grew up admiring Southern girls from our annual visits.”

Grandpapa Nigel laughed. “You have good taste, Michael.”

Mica raised his hand as if he was still in school. “I want to ask how you got her to fall in love with you.”

This made Michael blush a little. “She tells me she was in love with me a long time before I paid any attention to how well we go together. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t have to do anything; she came to me like a present from the Only One.”

Mica sighed. “I can’t find anyone who can give me advice on getting a girl to fall in love with me,” he said. 

Michael, surprised, said, “Have you found a girl you like, Mica?”

Nodding, Mica said, “But she turned me down when I asked her to marry me. Lieutenant Ietta said I jumped too many steps, going straight to the proposal. She was good enough to advise me from a woman’s perspective, but I’d like to talk with a man who has been in a similar position. I just can’t find one. Dad said Mom fell in love with him first, and Lieutenant Jock said the same, and Grandpa Gar, and Uncle Kent.”

Michael laughed. “I never expected to hear something like that from you. I bet Dad could give you some advice, right, Dad?”

“I definitely could. I fell for Nirva the first time I laid eyes on her,” Archet said, “but she thought I was just an idiot kid and wouldn’t take me seriously for the longest time.” 

“I didn’t know that,” said Lyndon. “Why did she think that?”

“Because he was an idiot kid,” said Uncle Everard. 

“I was eighteen,” Archet said. “It was my first time away from home, when I went with Everard for my four years. I decided I wanted to go to South Territory, because I knew Everard was from the south. I too admired Southern girls,” he told Michael with a sparkle of humor. “I admired them a little too much, and Nirva had gotten to hear about me before we ever met. She was older than me by a few years. She was full-time army, whereas I was just doing my four years in a halfhearted fashion. I didn’t even notice her around until that day.”

“It never fails to entertain me, hearing you call it ‘that day’ as if it were an epoch-making event,” said Uncle Everard.

“It was for me,” Archet retorted. “To this day, I still wake up in a cold sweat some nights, after dreaming of that woman dragging herself toward us.”

“The first time you saw a late-stage infection,” Slate said.

Archet nodded with feeling. “I froze up in panic. Everard was hauling me backwards to put distance between us and her.”

“And I was calling for assistance,” Uncle Everard said, “because I could see you were in no fit condition to do so.”

“No, I was not,” Archet agreed with emphasis. “I don’t even remember hearing you say anything. I just remember seeing Nirva put herself between us and the infected woman. I had never seen anything as brave in my life. That fierce concentration in Nirva’s eyes… I fell in love. But it took me the rest of my four years to persuade her to take me seriously.”

“How did you persuade her?” asked Mica.

“Oh, in my case, it started with becoming serious myself,” Archet admitted. “She thought I was just flirting with her, like I had done with so many other girls. I decided to take a leaf from Everard’s book and forget about having fun for as long as it took me to win Nirva over.”

“That resolve lasted ten days, if I recall correctly,” Uncle Everard added.

“True,” said Archet, “you can’t change your whole personality, no matter how in love you are. It’s a good thing Nirva wasn’t as serious-minded as I first assumed. She took work very seriously, but she loved to play too. Even so, I still had to be on my best manners when I was out with her and the rest of the company, or she might dismiss me as an idiot kid again. What I’m trying to say is, you need to get to know what your girl is really like, and there’s no way to do that unless you spend time with her, listening to her and talking over all kinds of things. Who are you interested in?”

“Sanna Taivas,” Mica said.

This made the rest, apart from Lyndon and Uncle Everard, pause for an astonished few seconds.

“It’s as Michael said about Helena Jeru,” Mica continued. “I saw how much she had suffered, but she can still be kind to others. Too kind, sometimes.” He glanced toward the corner where Rusza sat. “It makes me want to protect her from getting hurt any more, or at least, if I can’t protect her, to stand by her through it. She is a good, intelligent, and devout girl. I know now what happens to me when I keep bad company. If I joined myself to her, I would never need to worry about ever sliding back into my errors, because she tells the truth without flattery. I can trust her to seek out the right thing to do, even when I can’t trust myself to do so.”

Archet recovered from his shock to say, “I’m… impressed, Mica. I wish you well. It’ll be difficult for you, with her traveling so often. If you exchange letters often, you can still get better acquainted. Just look at Lyndon. He and Linnie wrote to each other daily when she was away. I have no idea what they found to talk about at that rate, but they seem to be doing well.”

This directed everyone toward Lyndon. He shrank in on himself a little.

“Lyndon,” said Uncle Everard, “is there something you want to tell me?”

He blurted out, “I’m sorry, Uncle Everard. I’m having real trouble not having impure thoughts about Linnie. I accidentally admitted it to her, and she said she wouldn’t tell on me, but I hate keeping secrets. I’m trying hard, but… she’s just so…”

“You are so precocious,” Everard said. “But I understand. You’re growing up. Naturally, that means you’ll start experiencing grownup desires. If you exercise grownup self-control at the same time, you won’t go far wrong. The real problem comes with the combination of adult desires with childish impetuosity. I trust you, Lyndon. I know that you want to do what’s right, whatever your desires might tell you.”

Lyndon found this less embarrassing than he expected.

“Tell Uncle your plans, Lyndon,” Michael urged him.

“I’m fifteen in a couple weeks,” Lyndon said, “so I can sign up for my four years, but I’m going to enlist instead. Dad said he’s willing to give permission. I want to do two years in South Territory, at the secondary hospital, because they have a special research lab. Then I want to do the other two years in East Territory, at another specialty hospital. Then I’ll be qualified to apply for a post in Dad’s lab back here. Grandpapa Nigel already said he can serve as my temporary guardian while I’m in South Territory. I’ll apply for legal adult status there when I turn seventeen, so I won’t need a guardian for any of my time in East Territory.”

Uncle Everard reached out a hand to ruffle Lyndon’s hair. “You have a well-thought-out plan. If you can carry it out, then I see no obstacle to your marriage with Linnie.”

Lyndon grinned in relief. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’re putting a lot of effort into this. That makes a father feel reassured about his daughter’s young man,” Uncle Everard said.

“I have to put in the work. Linnie had a fifteen-month head start on me from the beginning, and I… I want her to look at me like a man.”

“Isn’t it just like Michael,” Slate said out of the blue. “We get together to help him, and he has us helping everybody but him.”

The older men laughed at this. “That is like you, Michael,” said Archet.

“I like hearing what everyone else is doing,” Michael protested, also laughing. “It helps me know that everyone is all right, and that’s important to me.”

“You worry too much,” Holst Meir declared.

“Don’t let your worrying nature distract you from your responsibilities as a new husband,” said Grandpapa Nigel. “For a while, at least, be sure to give your bride undivided attention. You are still a part of this family, but you are starting a new family at the same time.”

“That’s part of the reason behind the newlyweds’ new home,” Uncle Everard pointed out. “To serve as a haven for the first days of building your life together. Think of it as a marriage incubator.”

“That,” said Archet, “is the least romantic thing I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s where Michael and Helena will need to nurture the new habits that will make their marriage strong. I doubt there will be a lack of romance involved,” said Uncle Everard. “Michael shows every sign of what a poet once called ‘being pierced through by the beauty of a soul.'”

“That is a beautiful turn of phrase,” Michael said, “and it’s so true. Helena has true beauty of soul. Who said it?”

“It’s from an old book of poetry called Blazon of the Affections,” Uncle Everard said, “written by an anonymous poet. The verse tends to be on the erotic side; hence the anonymity. But it is a traditional gift for newlyweds. It depicts a pair of young lovers newly joined in wedlock, learning to know each other, heart, mind, and body. I believe I saw a copy on the table in the entryway, among the other presents.”

Mica stood up, but Uncle Everard grabbed him by the back of the shirt. “Much too early for your stage of research,” he declared.

Michael chuckled along with everyone else. “I never knew you read poetry, Uncle.”

“Your grandparents gave us a copy of that book when Cora and I married. I found it profoundly helpful. Cora, very sensibly, decided to put it away somewhere safe when the boys started to get old enough to read. Not even I know where she hid it.”

“I bet it’s in the museum,” Slate said.

Uncle Everard replied, “I have always assumed as much. That brings me to a practical question for you, Michael: do you have any questions for us about the wedding night itself?”

“No, thank you, Uncle,” Michael said hastily.

Larimar gave a sharp laugh. “Still remember when Dad sat you and Mica down for the talk about puberty, don’t you.”

“What was wrong about that?” Uncle Everard said. 

“Most people are at least a little embarrassed to discuss those sensitive matters,” said Archet. “Even many doctors. You just talk things out without mercy, Everard, and somehow, that makes it all the more embarrassing for the rest of us. You have no sense of embarrassment at all.”

“That isn’t true,” Uncle Everard countered. “Just recently, I received a compliment that I found quite embarrassing. I didn’t know where to look.”

“No one can ever tell with you,” said Archet. “What was the compliment?”

“Do you suppose I repeat my own praises?”

“Especially when it was embarrassing in its original,” Grandpapa Nigel laughed. “Ah, Everard, Archet, you’re as good as a tonic, the two of you together.”

“Were they like this when they were our age?” Michael asked.

“Oh, and more than this. They have calmed with age. They could make Nirva laugh like no one else could. You said, Archet, that she loved to play. I don’t think you realize how much you taught her that love of play. She was our most serious child.” He turned to Michael. “Marriage often teaches you your weaknesses more than any other relationship. Do you and Helena balance out each others’ weaknesses with your strengths?”

To this, Michael had no ready answer. “I think I know my own weaknesses. Like worry.”

Holst said, “And worry.”

“And maybe worry,” Larimar added.

“Am I that bad?” Michael said.

“Yes, you are. As your friend and rival, I say it to you plainly: you are. You think you hide it well, but you don’t.” Holst reached across the space between their chairs to grip Michael by the shoulder. “You are a great big mother’s-help. I don’t know what it’s like to marry somebody with soul sympathy, but you do realize, don’t you, that she can always tell how you feel?”

“The positive side of that is that you don’t need to tell her,” Archet said.

“The negative side,” Uncle Everard said, “is that you won’t need to tell her. Do you see where we’re taking this, Michael?”

It took about a minute for Michael to start to answer, “If I tell her what I feel, especially when I’m worried…” Then he went silent again. “She’ll know anyway,” he started up again, “so it’s better to…” Another period of quiet thought passed by. “I have to be honest,” he said. “That’s where I’m starting from, isn’t it?”

“It starts a little before that,” Uncle Everard said. “You have to be aware first. How often are you consciously dealing with your worries before they become too heavy to ignore? When you were a boy, sitting up all night with your brothers, were you aware of what you were doing by not telling your father?”

“What?” said Archet. “When was this?”

“Later, Archet. What does this tell you, Michael, about yourself and how you might come to change through your marriage to Helena?”

“It tells me I take too much upon myself, I guess.”

Holst reached out, grabbed Michael’s hand, and lifted it into the air as if Michael were a winning prizefighter. “And the man finally gets it!”

“Trust your wife with your worries. Do not make her watch from the outside while you suffer.”

Michael took his hand back from his friend. “I never thought of it that way.”

Grandpapa Nigel said, “It’s hard to see yourself clearly sometimes. Do you know what Helena’s weaknesses are?”

“I can’t say I’ve noticed any yet,” Michael admitted.

“Then watch for them. No one is without weakness. Each of us has his or her sensitivities and secrets,” said Everard. “I learned Cora’s mostly by accidentally triggering them. If I could redo the early years of my marriage, I would try to be more observant of her. Human thought sympathy tends to make a person insensitive to emotions to begin with, but I grew up without an example of a long-term relationship between a man and a woman until I came in contact with the Tate family. I only remember my mother pursuing a series of short-term relationships that ended when she tired of them or when she offended one of them. She had human thought sympathy too,” he added by way of explanation. “So I was unaware that two people, living in close quarters for long periods of time, require considerably more respect for each other than people who can come and go as they please. I wouldn’t want any of you boys to learn that the hard way, as I did.”

“It is a hard thing,” said Grandpapa Nigel, “to see a marriage where courtesy and respect are absent. Even if the marriage lasts, the husband and wife are to be pitied, because they provoke each other to misery continually. Your Helena seems a sweet, good-tempered girl…”

“She is,” said Michael earnestly.

“…but even the sweetest girl has days when she just doesn’t have the patience for you,” Grandpapa Nigel finished. “You must provide enough patience for two on those days. She must do the same for you on the days when you are provoked with her. You can’t imagine it now, but it will happen.”

Michael had a doubtful expression, but Lyndon said, “It’ll happen.”

“Not yet fifteen, and he already speaks from experience,” said Finn.

Michael laughed softly. “I believe him. He and Linnie have been together their whole lives, practically. They know all each other’s weaknesses by now, I bet.” He leaned sideways to look into the corner where Rusza sat. “You’ve been quiet, Rusza. Not a word from you since we sat down. Are you all right?”

Rusza lifted his head at this direct question. “Mm, fine. I’m just a little tired, and it’s not like I can give you any advice, so I figured it was better if I kept quiet and listened. And I’m having a hard time keeping my tongue in check lately.” His gaze sought Lyndon out across the room with a kind of sadness. “I’m fine with just listening.”

“Right,” said Michael uneasily, “but if you want to talk, I’m willing to listen.”

“No, tonight’s your night. I don’t want to ruin it.”

“I’m so glad you were able to make it that there’s no way you could ruin the evening,” Michael declared. He reached down and rubbed Rusza’s head vigorously. “You’re my little brother. It’s hard, getting used to you being away all the time as a soldier when I still remember you as a scrawny little kid, up to your ears in mud most of the time. It’s good to have you home for a while.”

“Mm,” said Rusza. “It’s good to be here with everybody.”

Holst said, “Well, at least we know you’ll be a good mom, Michael.”

Michael swatted him.

Even as he grinned at this, Lyndon fell to wondering what kind of a mother Linnie would be.

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