'Finger puppets?'

“Finger puppets?”

Finger puppets!” Ete echoed, trembling with her own portent. “Puppets you wear on your fingers!”

Generous Aileann said, “We can make one for you, too, Da!”

'We can make one for you, too, Da!'

“No, we can not! Da can’t have one. He has to watch our show!”

Aileann shrugged. “His puppet can watch, too, maybe.”

“Puppets can’t watch a puppet show!”

Domnall pointed out, “People can watch a play put on by people.”

'People can watch a play put on by people.'

Ete folded her arms and looked a snarl at him. Aengus hastened to speak up and stifle the argument.

“I know what, girls. You shall make me a thumb puppet!” He stuck up his thumb and wriggled it beneath Ete’s nose.

Aileann laughed, but Ete turned her scorn onto him. “There is no such thing as a thumb puppet.

Aileann laughed.

“Isn’t there? Ach, never mind then. I’m certain Cousin Cat will think of something else on my body that one can hang a puppet on.”

He winked up at Cat, and Cat smiled a feline smile. “If I find we haven’t cloth enough to cover your thumb,” she said, “I can always make you a puppet for your something else.

Aengus laughed, and finally Cat did, too. Their attempts to cheer one another up were beginning to bear unsuspected fruit. Looking for ways to make Cat laugh did Aengus more good than any amount of trying to convince himself that he ought not allow himself to repine.

“Come along, girlies,” Cat commanded. “Methinks your Da has had a cup too many of wine, and he’ll be snoozing into his plate like your Grandda ere long.”

I shall make you a thumb puppet, Da,” Aileann promised as Cat herded the girls away.

Aengus called, “Ach, do not bother yourself, darling, if you haven’t time enough. Make your own finger babies, first, for your show.”

'Make your own finger babies, first.'

Ete turned back to correct him. “Finger puppets!

Aengus chuckled as he watched them go, wondering how two sisters could be so little alike, and yet so equally, so utterly beloved. To forestall his tears he stuck up his thumb and studied it.

The maids waited until Paul and Derbail had crossed the threshold of the hall, and went straight to work clearing the tables. The departure of the lady of the house was their signal; they had the habit of cleaning up around lingering Aengus and his dozing Da.

“Hope she doesn’t find the time to make me a thumb puppet after all,” Aengus said to himself. In the last weeks he had regained his childhood habit of talking over his father’s unconscious head. “I’ll be damned if I have to sit there a half hour watching a finger puppet show with my thumb sticking up in the air.”

'I'll be damned if I have to sit there a half hour.'

Domnall said, “Better your thumb than your something else.

Aengus laughed and looked around for something he could throw at him. He settled on ripping a hunk off the loaf beside his plate and pitching it at Domnall’s chest. Domnall picked it up off his lap and threw it back, giggling. Aengus supposed he did himself good by making Domnall laugh, too.

“What are you even doing here, still?” Aengus asked him. “Don’t you have a Gaelic lesson to be giving? It’s the first time in a week I’ve seen you stay long enough for pie.”

Domnall slumped back in his chair and fed himself a crumb of pie crust from his plate. “No longer,” he said. “Rua just left for Raegiming yesterday, remember?”

'No longer.'

“I know Rua did, but Gwynn didn’t.” Aengus paused to let this observation sink in. When Domnall’s cheeks were pink enough he added, “Don’t you be telling me you were going there to help Rua with her Gaelic.”

Domnall twitched. “She’s our kinswoman now, isn’t she?”

Aengus stuffed a pinch of bread into his mouth and sat back to chuckle wickedly as he chewed. There was no doubt he did himself good by teasing Domnall about Lady Gwynn.

“It’s not the girls who are kinswomen now who should be a matter of interest to a young buck such as you. It’s the girls who aren’t kinswomen yet.

Domnall sucked in his breath and sat up, blinking wildly, apparently startled by the mere idea.

Domnall sucked in his breath and sat up.

“Go, man,” Aengus said. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

“I can’t just… go, by myself,” Domnall pleaded. “What can I tell her? I forgot Rua was gone?”

“You needn’t tell her anything. Just go.”

'Just go.'

“But – ”

“Just go! Listen to me, lad. You’ll never have a chance like this again. Just go, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Rua’s gone – so what? You’re going to see Gwynn. If you wait a day or two or ten, then it may seem odd, but today it’s easy. Just like every other day. Just go.”

“But… then she’ll think I was only going to see her!”

'But... then she'll think I was only going to see her!'

Aengus laughed. “The devil! That’s what she’s supposed to think, young idiot! Ach! Tell him, Da!” Aengus took his fork and reached between the lamp and the pitcher to poke his father’s arm. “Eh, Da! Look alive, there! What do you say?”

His father snorted awake, but he did not lift his head from his folded arms. “Fuck off!”

'Fuck off!'

Aengus laughed in glee. “See there?” he said to Domnall. “Da says you should go.”

Domnall giggled. “I’m supposed to take romantic advice from Colin?”

“Ach! Who better? The old man has only to say a few words, and the ladies swoon at his feet. That is, if they’re standing in range of his breath. Eh, Da? What do you say?”

'What do you say?'

He poked his father again with the fork to see what the oracle would next pronounce, and he was not disappointed.

His father woke and twitched his arm just far enough to make an ominous clatter in the cups and dishes surrounding him. “Bite me, Aengus!”

“Ach! Careful, Da, that’s the sort of endearment a man ought to save for a lady he’s knowing well.” He waved his fork at Domnall. “We shall ask him for more advice when you’re a little farther along, man. But ‘Fuck off,’ he’s right about that. That’s the first step in every love affair. So fuck off, now. The day’s a-​​wasting.”

Domnall smiled at his fidgeting fingers, but he made no move.

Domnall smiled at his fidgeting fingers.

Aengus leaned across the table. “Go on, now. I can see you’re thinking of it.”

Domnall grinned bashfully and shrugged.

Aengus smacked his fork down. “Aye,” he said harshly, “and you had better cut it out.”

'You had better cut it out.'

Domnall blinked at him, startled at the sudden change in tone. But Aengus was serious.

“If we’ve learned one thing lately, my lad, it’s that thinking about doing something doesn’t count for anything. And if we’ve learned two things lately, it’s that time wasted is never coming back. Every day you spend thinking about going to see her is a day you’ll not be spending at her side. And no gentle god will be coming along later and tacking those days back onto the end of your life. Nor onto hers.”

Domnall breathed heavily and bit his lips together.

Domnall breathed heavily and bit his lips together, as if he might cry, but he nodded. His eyes remained dry.

“Now fuck off.”

Domnall nodded again and slid back his chair.

“One more thing.”

Aengus reached out an arm, and Domnall stepped around to his side. Aengus squeezed his hand.

“Remember: there’s no shame in loving a girl out of your reach. The only sort of girl worthy of you is a girl you’re not worthy of.”

'Remember: there's no shame in loving a girl out of your reach.'

Domnall set his jaw and nodded sharply. He looked emboldened, like a man about to depart on a sacred quest. Aengus hoped the divine spark would last at least as far as Nothelm gate. To preserve it, he resisted the urge to give the lad a farewell spank as he turned away.

He watched Domnall stride out, self-​​important but so endearingly small. He wondered whether the god was cruel or kind who had taken his wife and left him the little brother he had always wished he had.

He wondered whether the god was cruel or kind.

To forestall his tears he said to his father, “Don’t know what the fuck I just said to that lad. Seemed to work, though.”

Aengus snorted and smiled, but his father sprawled limply across the table top, probably drooling onto the back of his arm. The maids came and went, clinking dishes, but they had the habit of working around Aengus and his father without a glance. Aengus could only smile so long alone, without return of a smile.

He picked up the pitcher and reached for his cup. If he had learned a third thing lately, it was that thinking was the one thing he could no longer bear.

He picked up the pitcher.