This story is for Alinyaalethia, because it was our shared ruminations about Rilla and Ken that put the idea for it in my head in the first place. And as the idea refused to leave me alone until having been written out, this, then, is my attempt at blasphemy (or, you know, 'putting things right').
Special thanks again and always to Anne O' the Island, who patiently and kindly sacrifices her time to hunt for my mistakes. I am forever grateful!
Of things silver and golden
She can't sleep.
She's been tossing and turning for hours now, but sleep has proved elusive. There's nothing else for it, really, so she crawls out of bed, quietly opens the door – lest it decides to creak –, then tiptoes down the stairs.
"Is that you, Rilla? Can't sleep either, then?"
The voice makes her start, before she relaxes again. It still takes her a second or two to recognize Jem. She thinks this might pass, with time.
She turns, sees him sitting in the darkness. "No. You?"
He shrugs, and that's how she knows he's been having nightmares again.
She knows not to ask him. Di did, the other day over breakfast, and he did not react too kindly.
"White night, I s'pose. Keep me company?"
So she pads over to him, avoids the creaking floorboard, and settles herself down in an armchair opposite his. She draws her knees up to her chest and peers at him. His face is strangely white in the darkness.
"So, what's keeping you awake then, little sister?"
He's stopped calling her spider, she's noticed. Hasn't really, since coming back. She finds she likes little sister far better, at least when she doesn't dwell on the little-part.
"Oh, this and that." She's being evasive, she knows. But even in the darkness of night it is... hard to confide in a brother who's never been a confidant before.
"Oh, come on. Don't be that way. Tell me." It would be an order, but for the playfulness infused in it. There's something forced in the way he tries to be playful, cheerful, she's noticed. It's like he's trying to be the Jem of old, for all of them, but isn't. Neither of them is, so she wonders why he so struggles to admit having changed. Possibly he's not forcing the cheerfulness on their account, in the end.
Maybe it's that realization making her answer, or maybe it's that, well, he's the only brother here to confide in. Or either, it might really be just down to the darkness. In any case, "My head's been keeping me awake, running around in circles."
"I know all about circles," he nods. Perhaps he does.
She settles her chin on her knees, wraps her arms around her legs. He, too, keeps his limbs close, she notices. It's certainly not the way he used to sprawl out, before.
"You've been out all day," he observes suddenly.
Well, yes. She sighs softly.
He, in turn, perks up. "So, there's the rub! Trouble in paradise?"
She frowns at him. "Not trouble and not paradise."
"Ford behaving himself then?" He tries to be light-hearted but his eyes, she sees, are concerned.
"Ken's the perfect gentleman, if you must know." Or, well, he is by her standards of gentlemanly behaviour, anyhow. She's quite certain her standards do not match up with those of the wives and widows of the Glen, but what the wives and widows of the Glen don't know…
"So, what's bothering you?"
Another sigh escapes her lips. "Oh, it's probably nothing."
In truth, it probably really is nothing. She's fairly certain they are engaged now, at any rate. The way he kisses her would unquestionably be quite improper for two people not engaged, even by her own standards. Only… they've never really spoken about it. She supposes they will get married, but when or where or how she does not know and does not dare ask.
"So, talk about nothing, then," her brother demands. He's still good at getting his way, war has not robbed him of that.
She frowns. "It's just… I care for him, very much so. But sometimes, when he gets all broody and absent-minded, I have no idea what's on his mind."
And, though she does not have much experience with being engaged, she is quite sure you should be able to tell what's inside your fiancé's head. Just… half of the time, his thoughts might as well be a mystery to her.
"Sometimes I feel like I don't even know him at all." She doesn't realize she's said it out loud until she does.
A click of his tongue. "Get to know him then."
She remembers, now, why she never used to go to him for advice.
But already, he rushes to explain his point. "No, no, I mean it. No need to glare! I'm only trying to be helpful, really. If you feel you need to get to know him better, then tell him so."
Tell him? She almost scoffs. She can hardly go up and just tell him!
Her brother, with unusual sensitivity, picks up on her feelings. "See, that's the problem, I think. I know you think him all kinds of wonderful and sure, he's a friend, but… he's the same as all of us. He's really just a man."
"I know that."
"But do you? You've had him up on a pedestal ever since we were children. And in my experience, no-one deserves a pedestal! Honestly, Ken's as mortal as the rest of us – alright, no need to give me that look! That might not have been the best way of putting it. There, I admit it. But still, he's quite human and it's high time you realize that."
"Who made you the expert on matters of – well, this, anyway?" She can't say heart. Or love. She refuses to.
A shrug. "Maybe I'm the expert by virtue of being the only one able to hold down a stable relationship?"
"Nan and I had much the same conversation a couple of evenings ago. She and Jerry have more of a shared past to build upon, but other than that, 'Sometimes I feel like I don't even know him at all,' sounds pretty familiar. Might even have been the exact same words. I mean, how can you not know that? Don't you girls ever talk?"
No, not really.
She doesn't say that, of course. Not that Jem needs her to, anyway.
With an eye-roll and a shake of the head, "Really, you should try it sometime. Talking. Might make them realized you stopped being fourteen a while ago and it might make you realize they're only half as scary as you think they are. Talk about pedestals, really. And – hey, where are you going?"
"To bed. Not being fourteen anymore, I find myself quite unwilling to let you be mean to me," this, primly.
She knows using word like 'mean' makes her sound all of fourteen, honestly, only she can't think of another way to put it.
"Ah, no, not being mean. Here, sit back down, will you? I don't mean to tease – no, really, I don't! Consider it brotherly advice, then. Indulge me, be so kind. I've missed almost five years of it."
Almost twenty years, with her. But this too, she doesn't say and this time, he doesn't guess at it either.
"So, talk then?" She raises her eyebrow at him.
He nods. "Talk."
She considers telling him to take his own advice. It's not like he's doing much talking at all, is it? But she swallows the words. It's not her place, she reckons.
"You know what? Maybe I will. Talk to him, I mean." She doesn't think she will, not really, but what's the use in arguing?
A smile flashes her way and it makes her wonder. It seems important to him, this giving her advice-thing, when it never used to be in the past. Maybe it's him trying to re-carve a role in this family, that had to do without him for almost five years. It can't be easy, she reckons.
Silence falls between them, the companionable kind, and, watching him in the darkness, she thinks idly, that, despite everything, she is quite glad to have him back, after all.
It's only the next day, in the sacred valley of their childhood days, where she is to meet the man she is almost sure she will marry, that her brother's words come back to her. Talk, he'd said.
Well, she doesn't get a proper chance to talk, initially. Instead, she is scooped up in his arms and he kisses her, a little more thoroughly than might be strictly decent, but she cannot bring herself to care. She quite likes kissing him, she's found. And in these moments, there's no question of them not understanding each other. It's only when words come into this, that things get muddled.
A not so very short time later finds them settled in the little hollow at the feet of a tree, his back against the trunk, her sitting opposite him, cross-legged.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
She starts. His gaze, attentive, is fixed on her.
"You'd be overpaying," she brushes it off. Tries to, anyway.
"Let me be the judge of that?"
She's prepared to make a joke out of it, or try to distract him somehow. She'd succeed, she's quite sure. He's calm, relaxed, likely would not insist on being told.
Only… only there's the memory of Jem, of last night, unbidden, and she suddenly halts, grows quiet. What if…?
What if Jem, for once, might be onto something?
The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them. "I just – I just got thinking the other day, about… oh, I don't know. About us, I guess. About how little time we spent together before – before all of this. And whether that's really –" She breaks off.
Enough, she wanted to say.
Now, he's not relaxed anymore. He's sat up, eyes her closely. "Two evenings of passing fancy and little substance to them, you mean?"
She doesn't know whether to be glad he understands – or a little insulted. So, she just shrugs in reply.
"I've considered that myself, actually. Our – can I say courtship? Our courtship has not exactly been very traditional. We didn't get much of a chance to do it right, so we had to do it our own way. Courtship by letter, if you will. Doesn't mean there's nothing to it."
But did they have a proper courtship, she wonders? By letter it was, alright. Remembering some of those letters he had written, the ones to make her smile and blush, she thinks he might be right. Remembering some other letters, the shorter kind, from later on, she can't help wondering.
Still, his eyes hold her gaze. He's thoughtful, eyes moving about her face. "I always longed for another of your letters, you know, while I was over there. Reading about your life, what you were up to, the shenanigans of your Junior Red Crossers and the gossip around the Glen – it always was a very welcome escape."
Has that really been all she's written about? Junior Red Cross and gossip? She feels her cheeks warming.
"Some might call it ignorance," she remarks, quietly.
A shake of his head. "Really? Well, I call it strength."
He must have seen the doubt in her eyes, for he reaches forward, strokes her face, his fingers dancing along her cheekbones for a second or two. She feels herself lean in.
"I mean it, you know. You are strong. Here, let me explain. I know you must have had your own struggles these past years and yet, from your letters, no-one would have guessed. You put your own feelings aside to write clever, funny, loving letters and none of them ever failed to light up that darkness for me. There were times when I lived only from one letter to the next."
She opens her mouth, but words won't come. She's never known the importance her insignificant letters held for him. To hear him say so – it makes her feel shy, all of a sudden.
"I didn't get many letters like that, you know. Father's were usually full of ruminations on politics and philosophy. Not that I blame him – when I was younger, it used to be our special game, picking a historical event and wondering how the world would look today had it transpired differently. He merely tried to keep that up while I was in Europe, only… when you are in the midst of it, you don't want to hear someone wonder about how war might have been avoided, had things just happened a little different. I never told him, but half of his letters I ended up using as tinder. Persis', too, actually."
She's surprised to hear this. She had always thought they had a special understanding, them being their parent's only children.
"Her letters were basically a running commentary on every action happening during the war. I get that it was her way of trying to keep a connection to me, but more often than not, I found myself wanting to scream at her. Like, I know we took Vimy Ridge, I lost a good dozen of my men doing it! It was really only mum's letters I could suffer, and yours. Those letters were what kept me sane. Which, you know, is telling in itself. Here was I, living and breathing your letters, and yet never even offering a line of comfort in return. Just goes to show I'm the weak one."
Which is kind of him to say, only, she knows it not to be true. How could she think him weak when his sufferings were so much greater than her own?
But she doesn't have the words, so instead she just reaches for his hand, holding it tight, hoping he'll understand anyway. His smile tells her that yes, maybe he does. And perhaps, she thinks, some things do not need to be put into words after all. Sometimes, it's quite enough just to be.
So, it's a different thought she tries to form into a sentence. "I am – glad my letters helped you over there. Sometimes I feel I did so little during the war and it's good to know I helped even in a small way."
He looks at her, incredulous. "You need to give yourself more credit. You did quite a lot and apart from that – you saved a life, Rilla. There's no higher calling than that. Even if you never do anything else in your life, you've done enough just saving that kid."
She shakes her head, decidedly. "It was only by chance." Had she not driven up to the Anderson farm that day…
"Oh, maybe. But then, isn't everything? We live by chance, and we die by it. There's nothing else to it. So, why not save a life by chance as well? Doesn't detract from it."
The way he says it, she thinks he might know what he is talking about.
"Have you ever done it? Saved a life, I mean." The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them.
A beat. "Some. But I took many more."
His eyes, suddenly, are guarded, and with a jolt she realizes it's because he half-expects her to be appalled, to move away from him. Instead, she scoots closer, curls up against his side. It's not that the thought doesn't horrify her, but… who's she to judge him?
Seconds pass, then his arm moves around her shoulder and his lips press into her hair.
Yes, some things need no words to be expressed.
They stay that way, for several long moments, and when he does speak at least, she instinctively knows he's trying to put the topic behind him – for the time being, at the very least.
"How's the kiddo, by the way? Settling in with his father, then?"
Well, apart from the fact that James Anderson still does not possess many of the qualities one looks for in a father….
She doesn't say this. Of course she doesn't. How could she? Talk to him about fatherhood! Quite unthinkable, really.
But at the same time… he's been so honest, so very open with her. Suppose she try the same? Just say what's on her mind instead of what she thinks he might want to hear?
So she takes a breath. Says it anyway.
He laughs easily. "Remind me to ask you about the details on that one someday, yes?"
She nods, returns the laugh. Breathing comes a little easier.
"He's quite well, Jims is. He's a blessed child anyway. I like to imagine his half a dozen guardian angels up in heaven, fighting for who gets to look out for him."
What she doesn't say is that she misses him terribly, her war-baby, every single hour of every single day. Not because she feels that she can't tell him, really. It's just that she's never told anyone. It's private, this.
"And you being the chief angel, right?" His eyes twinkle and she feels herself blush.
"Anyway, I always enjoyed reading about the scrapes that kid got himself into and out of. You had a way of portraying them that had me laughing out loud. And it was evident how much the two of you adored each other." He settles himself back against the tree stump, drawing her closer, so she has to crane her neck a little to look at him.
"You liked reading about Jims? I was never sure whether to mention him to you. Whether you might find it… awkward."
He turns his head, looks down at her. "What gave you the idea?"
Honesty, she reminds herself. Another deep breath.
"I – well, I wondered sometimes. Your letters – I felt they got shorter later on. Not that I'm complaining, but…" She trails off, unsure.
He tenses. "After Passchendaele." It's not even a question.
She frowns, considers. It might have been after Passchendaele. Only… only she hadn't realized he'd been involved in this. With the majority of their boys in England – Jem on his officer training course, Jerry convalescing after being wounded at Vimy Ridge, Shirley training with the Flying Corps – and Carl being saved by a minor ear infection and a two-week stint in a hospital by the coast, she'd gotten the impression they had all escaped it. Never once had Ken's letters indicated otherwise!
Sensing her confusion, he nods. "Oh yes, I was there. It was what got me promoted, actually. We were brought in to finish it, you see. Went over the top and seconds later, our captain was blown to pieces. Good man he was, too. Left a wife, three children. Anyway. Somehow, by chance, it fell to me to lead the company onwards. I did, or tried to. And after it was over, they slapped a third pair of stars on my shoulders, handed me responsibility for a quarter of a thousand men and told me to do my best."
His eyes have become unfocused. He's not entirely present anymore. Maybe she will always have to share him with memories.
"Thing about being an officer is, your main task is to get your men out. Every man staying behind is a personal failure. And the more men you lead, the more you lose." Somehow, she knows he could tell her the exact number of men he's lost. Maybe their names, too.
"And Passchendaele… hell can hold no surprise for a man who has seen Passchendaele. It robbed me of my words. I wanted to write, so very badly, and just spent an endless amount of time staring at a blank page. Before, I collected moments – funny moments, poignant moments, interesting moments –, to fill my letters with. Anything I did or saw, I tested out for letter-writing potential in my head. After Passchendaele, though, I couldn't see anything funny or poignant or interesting any more. It was all – grey. I hated how curt my letters had become, but I could not think of what to write. Humour I couldn't do, certainly not romance. There was only the truth and I couldn't write about that."
He's staring ahead now. There's a sharpness to his features and she recognizes it as pain. She hates seeing him hurt.
"You – you might have. Written about the truth, I mean. I wouldn't have minded." Her voice is small.
A shake of his head. "Oh, I know you wouldn't have. This wasn't about trying to protect you. Not really. I was being selfish, actually. See – I had to keep you separate from that war. In my mind, I had to keep you separate."
He looks at her now and, quite suddenly, she can see the mask slip. That façade of jovial, confident, easy-going Ken Ford. At its cracks, she sees glimpses of something rawer, quieter, more painful. He's not so different from Jem, she realizes. Both of them selecting which parts of themselves to show the world and which to keep hidden. And it is only when they become unguarded that the rest of them becomes visible – the pain, the terror, that terrible brokenness.
Only, the way he holds her gaze… maybe this isn't really him being unguarded at all. Maybe it's him letting her see.
She reaches out, weaves her fingers through his. His thumb strokes the back of her hand.
"Whatever little faith I had managed to preserve through those two years in France, I lost at Passchendaele. I was – adrift, if you will. The only thing to keep me anchored was that memory of you. This I could believe in, even as everything turned to ashes. I could not risk losing that by tainting it." His gaze moves away from her face, settles on the entwined hands.
This is different from what they taught her at Sunday school, she thinks. But perhaps a good many things are different from what they taught her at Sunday school. At any rate, she likes the thought of two people believing in each other.
She also feels she already knows him a little better, this man sitting next to her. Not the mask he keeps up, for the world's benefit or for his own, but the man beneath, who knows fear and hurt and anger. She might love him all the more for it.
Him drawing her closer, her head against his chest, his chin settling on top of it, they fall into silence. As the minutes pass, she feels the tension leave his body. Maybe time is really all it takes, she thinks.
His voice, unexpected in the silence, makes her start. "Do me a favour?" He sounds surer now, calmer, but she's glad to notice that their closeness remains.
"Sure, anything." Which might be considered hasty, but feels right to her. There isn't much she wouldn't do for him, anyway.
"When you feel like you want to know something about me, will you ask?"
Raising her head, she looks up at him. "Oh, like, what's your favourite food? Your favourite colour?" She's teasing him, she realizes. She doesn't think she's ever teased him before.
His face is straight, but for the glint of amusement in his eyes. "You'll be happy to hear I am not a picky eater. As long as it's not bully beef and biscuits, chances are I'll like it. And as for colour… red sounds good, doesn't it?" This with an appreciative glance at her hair.
She rolls her eyes in response. "Be serious!"
"Oh, alright then. My favourite colour? That would be blue. Azure, I should say? I'm not sure it's called that. The kind of blue the sky gets on a summer day at dusk, when the world is already dark but the sky is still that bright, brilliant blue. As a child I always felt anything was possible in that particular hour."
She knows that hour of dusk. It's an otherworldly one.
"Mine's green. All dark, like those fir trees over there. It reminds me of this valley, green does. I've spent a lot of time here in past years and… when I see that shade of green, I can smell the trees and feel the grass and –it calms me, I guess. Oh, and it also goes with my hair exceptionally well." The last, to lighten the mood, but not entirely in jest. She's preserved a certain kind of harmless vanity for herself.
"So does blue," he points out and she nods. She's already made up her mind to make herself a dress the exact colour blue he described, even if it'll mean scouring half of Charlottetown for the right cloth.
He's still looking at her, quite openly adoring, and she finds it doesn't make her as uncomfortable as it used to.
"See, that went well, didn't it?" He asks. "I mean, sure, there's still a lot we need to learn about one another, but we've got a lifetime to do it after all. And I already know learning every little detail of you will not be duty but delight to me. To be honest, up until recently, I had this idealized version of you in my head, all untouchable up on her pedestal."
Wait, what was that? He having her up on a pedestal? She blinks surprised. The world seems to shift, suddenly.
He's still speaking, though. "But, really, the more I get to know the – well, the touchable version of you, the more I prefer that one. With all your quirks and dreams and little weaknesses and everything that makes you human. I know I shall enjoy finding out so much more about you and about what makes you you. Oh, and also – well, the touching part is not so bad." The last, with a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Quite impulsively, she reaches up, brushes her thumb over the scar on his cheek. Then she leans in, kisses him – it's the first time she has kissed him and she finds she quite likes this, too. So does he, judging from how his arms circle around her, pull her closer. There's an argument to be made for talking, she thinks absent-mindedly, but the touching part really isn't so very bad at all.
Then, she doesn't think very much for a while.
Thus, they spend the afternoon getting to know each other, both in the way that requires words and in the way that manages without any words at all. Only when dusk starts to fall, the sky a bright, brilliant blue, do they make their way over to Ingleside. And, strolling through the valley, she thinks idly that she understands her siblings now – Rainbow Valley lends itself exceptionally well to sweethearting.
Walking beside him, her hand firmly in his, she also finds herself silently agreeing with him. They have a lifetime. Their wedding will come when it will, and where, but there's no rush. They're both here and alive and, for once, they have time.
On reaching Ingleside, she lets them in by the backdoor. Voices carry over from the parlour, leading them there, hands still firmly clasped.
The moment she steps over the threshold, she knows something is amiss. The air has a strange quality to it. Faces turn to look at them, as conversations fall silent. Something, clearly, has happened.
Her first instinct is to ask for a telegram. She's spent too many years being terrified of telegrams for that not be her first instinct. But no, she reminds herself, the time for telegrams is past.
"Did something happen?" Her own voice, strangely high.
It's her father, taking a step forward. "I've just come back from the Anderson Farm."
Fear crashes over her like a wave. She feels her legs give way. She can't breathe.
But then there are strong arms catching her and her mother's voice, clear and loud, carrying over the general confusion. "He's alright, darling. Jims is well."
The wave subsides. She gasps for air.
Jims is well.
But still her legs feel wobbly and she is grateful for him helping her over to one of the sofas. "Are you alright?" His voice is a quiet rumble against her ear. She wants to answer, but finds she cannot, and just nods instead.
Dimly, she is aware of Susan, scolding. Not her, though. "Really, doctor dear, to scare the poor mite like that! Would you look at how pale she is? I thought she would faint, then and there!"
Her father looks suitably admonished, so it's her mother, sitting down on her other side, answering the question she has not yet thought to ask. "Your father was called to see to James Anderson."
She takes a breath, realizes that words have returned to her. "How is he?" Not that she cares, particularly. The wellbeing of James Anderson only interests her inasmuch as it concerns the wellbeing of Jims.
"His wound got infected. Probably a fragment of bone carried through the body and causing an infection." Her father, in doctor-mode, his voice all matter-of-fact.
"Will he be alright?" Will Jims be?
Her parents exchange a glance. "He died this afternoon."
She feels her heart beating faster all of a sudden.
"What's going to happen now?" What's going to happen to Jims?
Another glance passes between the parents. "Nothing is decided yet, but Mrs. Anderson will probably go back to England. She has no ties here. I expect Jims will be given into the care of a relative."
"Those relatives that already didn't want him the last time around, you mean?" There's a vitriol in her voice she didn't know she possessed.
Why, oh why is everyone looking at her?
But she knows, doesn't she? Last time, it was her, sweeping in to carry that boy away from an uncertain fate. An uncertain fate is what awaits him now. It would be perfectly logical for her to do the sweeping again, only… that's hardly for her to decide, is it? Not alone, anyway.
She cannot look at him.
Pure instinct demands she drive over to the Anderson Farm right this evening, take her war baby and bring him home. Home, where he belongs, has always belonged. But she can't ask that of him, can she? To watch her walk down the aisle with a child attached to her skirts. Another couple's child, nonetheless.
Only… Jims hasn't felt like another woman's child in a very long time. Not to her, anyway.
Still, she can't possibly ask it of him.
She takes a deep breath, starts to turn, when –
"Say what, Rilla-my-Rilla – where do you keep that soup tureen?"