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Duck for Cover, PG

Summary: Rilla has something to discuss with Theodore. Prompt: The body grows slowly and steadily but the soul grows by leaps and bounds. – Rilla of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery

--

"Take a walk with me, Theodore," Rilla commands, and Rilla has such a way sometimes that Theodore finds himself hurried out of the side door and along the stone path before he is really aware of it.

"I don't want to go for a walk," Theodore snaps, pulling his arm free. Rilla has had time to collect a cloak for the winter weather; he is merely in his training attire. "I want to go practise."

There is something indefinably different about Rilla today. Theodore purses his lips, trying to work out if it is a hairstyle (though there is little hope that he would recognise a change here), or a change of clothes (likewise).

"Ah, practising. Would Sir Theodore be practising the art of swordplay... or of poetry?"

Theodore stops in his tracks, his stomach sinking. "I don't know what you mean."

Rilla smirks at him, holding her delicious secret in a little longer. "Don't you? You left an early draft inside one of my books - at least, I hope it was a draft, and not the version you sent Lady Victoria. I hear the Nond boy writes her wonderful poetry."

It has happened at last. Theodore doesn't know whether to be thankful that he can stop dreading the moment one of his siblings discovered his fancy for Lady Victoria - Lady May as he is allowed to call her. It could have been worse; much as he loves Clarisse, he doesn't think he would like her to have held the information over his head. "Shut up, Rilla," he says quietly. "You know there's a lot I could say about how you carry on with my best friend."

Rilla's face softens, and she squeezes his arm. "Theo, I'm sorry. Please - trust me. This way."

She indicates, but does not move, her large hazel eyes fixed on his. Dignity bruised, Theodore considers flouncing off, but that has always been more Rilla's style than his. Besides, he is interested, despite himself. "It looks like rain," he says gruffly, to let her know she hasn't been forgiven.

Rilla makes a dismissive noise. "When has a little water stopped Sir Theodore?" She looks slyly at him, and this is why they will never be close. Rilla has that older sister knack of pressing where it hurts. "It wouldn't stop Lord Theodore."

"Being inanimate stops Lord Theodore," Theodore grumbles, and he knows that he should not have mentioned the rain; now he is in a weaker position. "Fine. But if I get sick, I... reserve the right to exact revenge."

"Fortunately for me, you have the constitution of an ox, dear brother," Rilla says lightly, heading off towards the orchards.

Theodore, as Rilla had discovered, is not the poetic sort, but the sight of the orchard, even with its bare trees, makes him stop a while. The orchard really captures the essence of Dunlath for him. He know Olau boasts an orchard, but the Dunlath orchard is almost a member of the family. He has seen it frothy with blossom, blazing with autumn leaves, and there is nothing sweeter than the first apple of the season. Unless one of his siblings has eaten it.

"No fief can match Dunlath," Theodore comments, noting that Rilla has come to a stop, too.

Although Rilla's mouth forms a smile, her eyes don't respond. "Do you think so? Sit with me a while, Theodore."

The ground is damp and muddy, but for once, Rilla sits apparently without thought of her light-coloured skirts. Theodore has often considered Rilla would be more fun if she concentrated less on her clothes, but the lack of concern now makes him uncomfortable. He sits, cross-legged, eyes on the orchard rather than his sister. It is easier that way.

"Would you always want to be at Dunlath?" she asks.

He looks up at her, suddenly alert. "You can't get rid of me, Rilla. You don't rule Dunlath yet - I've a right to live here." He holds more, furious words back. There was a time when he would not have stopped himself, but his knight-training has taught him to test his opponent's hand before showing his own.

She half-laughs, waving away his fierce protest. Rilla has two staple reactions to fall back on - tears or smiles, and Mithros does he hate it when she meets his anger with laughter. "Oh, Theodore. I didn't say anything about getting rid of you. I asked if you would always want to be at Dunlath. I mean, is there anywhere else you'd rather live? This isn't a trick."

Theodore thinks it probably is a trick. He leans back, hands landing in the dirt. "It's not practical for me to live anywhere else, Rilla. Court's expensive and dull, and May - well, you've seen my poetry. May is not for me. Sometimes I think her grandfather doesn't like me." He pauses, and Rilla's face is so earnest, so serious, that he continues, "The rest of the time, I think he hates me. So, I couldn't go live at Naxen either."

To Theodore's surprise, Rilla doesn't make a pithy comment, won't tell him that she thinks Duke Gareth has the right idea about him. "But where do you want to live?"

He hesitates - what is she after? - before confessing, "Here. Always Dunlath. Always."

She smiles at him, and the net has not closed yet; there is something more that she wants. "Me, too. I would live out my days with wolves and ogres and as few visits to Corus as I could manage." She traces a pattern in the ground with a stick. "Ansis and I like to play 'what if' games. You know, what if you hadn't been friends with Ansis, what if the sky turned purple, what if we had endless winters."

"You and Ansis are stupid," Theodore decrees; he has no wish to hear of happy couples. Not when he had to write to May last week, letting her know that she was free to marry somebody else. If she hadn't known that already.

There's a soft light in Rilla's eyes as she thinks of Ansis - or maybe it's just hearing herself spoken of as part of a pair. "Would you marry your May girl, if you were the heir?"

"If I were the heir, you'd be dead," Theodore points out bluntly, as the first fat drop of rain falls on him.

"Theodore!" Rilla exclaims, though he doesn't really see what's so dreadful about the truth. That's why he's the spare, after all. "Just - just play the game."

"If I were the heir," Theodore repeats obligingly. "I'd marry her if she'd have me. I'd marry her tomorrow if I could."

Rilla looks at him, and he wonders with alarm if she is dying. He can't imagine life - Dunlath - without his older sister. "What's she like?"

He means to say, "Beautiful", but really, May is so much more. "She's wonderful," he says instead, thinking his sister might appreciate that more. "She's sweet and kind, and she makes me laugh. I-" his cheeks flame, but he continues - "I can see us together, always. I know that if I only had something to offer her, I could... well, I wouldn't be ashamed to approach her. She's given me to understand she doesn't mind my situation, but, Rilla, how could I face her family, knowing they would find me wanting?"

It is, Theodore reflects, typical of his situation that the skies open at that very moment. He gets to his feet, and turns in the direction of the castle, but Rilla pulls him the other way.

"What are you doing?" Theodore demands, allowing her to drag him across the orchard nonetheless. Neither of them are adequately dressed for this weather, though Rilla has the added advantage of her cloak, and they are already both soaked to the bone.

"Just follow," she pants, and he shakes his head at her.

Presently, they reach the edge of the forest, which affords them some shelter, though not as much as a castle with four walls and a roof would have. Rilla tugs him some way into the forest, and finally stops at the base of a large evergreen, which at least affords some protection from the icy rain.

"You are insane," Theodore tells her, as is his duty. "You are going to catch a cold, and you will blame me, and you will be unbearable."

She smirks at him. "And you, dear Ted, will be quite able to be a bear." Theodore is about to comment that she has been spending too much time with Ansis, but he stops himself. Things are much better when Rilla and Ansis are on good terms. "Come closer; you can share my cloak. You know, Julian would be able to light a fire right now."

"Well, I'm sorry that I'm not Julian," Theodore bites out, stung.

Rilla stares, then laughs. "I am quite as hampered as you in these matters, you know. Theodore, I love Ansis."

This evidently is a statement she's been building up to, but Theodore is mute. Even a blind man could tell that much, the way they are together.

"Do you love May?"

Only so much that it chokes him, that he thinks of her every day - not all day every day, but every day nonetheless. So much that he writes to her when he cannot see her, and Theodore hates writing letters. And so much that he wrote his last letter to her, a tear-stained pathetic mess of parchment, drafted over and over, advising her to marry the Nond boy.

Rilla is waiting for an answer, and Theodore nods, wary.

"I thought so. Lady Agatha was in the year above me at the Royal University, and we'd talk, sometimes. Anyway, here we are. I love Ansis, and you love May, and we both love Dunlath."

"Did you hit your head this morning?" Theodore wants to know. It is the only possible explanation.

"Don't you see?" Rilla's eyes are sparkling, and her cheeks are flushed; feverish, no doubt. Douglass will have Theodore's head for this. "It all works out. I can marry Ansis, and you can mar- well, ask May, for there's no guarantee she'll have you, and you can have Dunlath."

What?

"How can I have Dunlath?" he asks, perplexed. The rain is still falling steadily, through the gaps in the trees, but they are still masked well enough for the moment. One of the Long Lake pack stands a few feet away, watching them. They are not tame, the wolves, but sometimes they mix with the family. He has seen Mother and Rilla sit with them, and the wolves nuzzle them, for all the world like the hunting dogs at play.

Rilla holds her arms out to the wolf, and he trots up, allowing Rilla to run her hand down his back, and murmur things in his ear that Theodore cannot hear.

"I've started at the end," Rilla says, abruptly. "Theodore, how would you feel about being heir to Dunlath?" Theodore makes no response, can make no response. Is she teasing? It is a very Rilla thing to do. "I love Ansis - but Ansis has Cavall, and he cannot give that up. But you love Dunlath as much as I love Dunlath. It is not an easy thing to do, Theodore, to choose between Ansis and Dunlath. I couldn't give Dunlath up to Julian, or to Clarisse. What do you say?"

Theodore tries to speak and, embarrassingly, finds himself choked with tears. He has pictured May turning up, telling him her grandfather doesn't care if they live in a hovel, or the king granting him new lands, or a hundred different scenarios, but never this. "Mother-?"

"Approves," Rilla replies, her eyes overbright. Oh, Mithros, she is going to cry. If Rilla cries, he doesn't think he'll be able to hold back. "Do you?"

Somehow, he cannot tell her how honoured he is. This is too much for Theodore to put into words, although he manages a, "Yes", and his voice cracks on the word. Rilla throws her arms around him, laughing and, he suspects, crying as well.

A paw nudges his right thigh; he pulls away from his sister to find the wolf observing him. It is not a normal thing for a wolf to do, but the wolves around Dunlath have never been normal. Theodore has the distinct impression the wolf is passing judgement. Before he can wonder if an heir should look more distinguished than Theodore does (dripping rainwater all over the place), the wolf is gone.

Theodore wonders if he passed muster, and supposes he will have to wait to find out.

Rilla exhales, and beams at him, and he hopes she will assume his face is wet because of the rain. "Let's tell Mama together. Oh, Theodore. Things are quite perfect."

It is then that Theodore concludes that Rilla is definitely deluded. It is still raining, but she insists on heading straight back to the castle, slipping and sliding several times in the mud.

In the end, they don't get to tell Mama together; Douglass meets them at the door, and Rilla is sent straight to bed. Theodore escapes attention, and is rewarded with his mother's smiles and warm arms.

He could get used to this heir business.

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