"Evie," Rick asked pleasantly, pulling his camel up alongside of hers, "tell me why I shouldn't murder your brother."
Evie glanced over her shoulder to see that her brother had found a bottle of god knows what in one of the saddlebags and was now rip-roaring drunk. He laughed gleefully, calling for her to join him, waving so enthusiastically that he nearly knocked himself out of his own saddle.
Evie sighed. "We'll have to keep an eye out to make sure he doesn't fall off unnoticed and get left behind on accident."
"How'd you put up with him your whole life? I'd have strangled him when we were both still toddlers."
Evie was quiet for a long moment, remembering their childhood, and then said, "He wasn't always like this."
"Yeah?" Rick asked casually, clearly curious but also clearly willing to let it go if Evie wasn't inclined to talk about it. How did someone like him, she wondered, pick up such tact?
"It was common enough, for the ones who came home. I don't know anyone whose brother or father or cousin returned from the war as the same man who left."
"The war? As in, The Great War?" Rick said incredulously. Evie didn't blame him. "You're telling me he served? I figured your parents had bought him out of it."
"They tried. But he wanted to go, his head all stuffed with silly nonsense about glory and valor and honor. He and all of his friends believed those recruiting posters, they wanted to fight the good fight." Even all these years later, anger still shook Evie's voice at the memory.
Rick shook his head. "No such thing as a good fight. I'm guessing he found that out the hard way."
Evie nodded. "I don't know how many of them were volunteers and how many of them were just making the best of what they couldn't escape. But I know how many of them didn't come home."
"Was he on the front lines?" Rick asked with surprising gentleness.
"I'm certain he was. He has never, ever talked about it though. Not when he came home, and never since. His letters were cheerful at first, brave and hopeful and foolish. We hoped he might stay out of the worst of it. But though he couldn't tell us where he was, the letters began to change. Not that he wrote of the horrors of war, he would never want Mother or I to read that. But he spoke less and less of his ideals and more about trivial things. A card game, a patch of flowers, his commander's silly mustache. He never spoke of the war, save to let us know that someone we knew wouldn't be coming home. I don't think he expected to, himself."
"No, probably not," Rick agreed somberly.
"I think that when he did survive, he didn't know what to do with himself. How do you live a life you never expected to have? How do you go to garden parties and discuss society news over tea when you've seen so much death? He'd let things slip, sometimes, when he was very, very drunk. That nothing seemed real, that nothing meant anything, that he wanted to be with the friends he'd lost, that he wasn't sure that he really did make it back - that we might all be a dream of his dying mind as he lay bleeding his life out on the battlefield." Evie's voice shook again, but not in anger this time.
Rick reached out to take her hand, and she gave him an unsteady smile. "I love my brother. I always have, and I always will. But I miss the brother I grew up with sometimes."
"I'm sure he misses that Jonathan too," Rick told her.
"I just wish I knew how to help him," Evie sighed. "I know he'll never be the same, I know I can't ask that. But I hate to see him so reckless, I hate to think he's hurting underneath that flippant attitude."
"You do help him, Evie. You love him. You love him no matter what, you stick with him no matter what, but you don't stand for his bullshit either, you pull him back when he goes too far. I know it doesn't seem like much and it sure as hell doesn't seem like enough, but take it from a guy who survived the war solo - it makes all the difference in the world."
Evie squeezed his hand and gave him a soft smile. "Mister O'Connell, you continue to pleasantly surprise me."
Rick smiled back. "Wouldn't dream of anything else, Evie."