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Trippingly, on the tongue

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Anne has been back in Avonlea for nearly six months when she rounds the corner and walks headfirst into Gilbert Blythe.

She doesn’t realise who it is at first – it has been years since they were not-adult-not-children together, and although he hasn’t changed much (a thing she notices just as soon as she notices who it is), it’s not like they were every actually close enough physically for her to know the feel of his body as it stumbles against hers. His hand is warm, fingers wrapping around her elbow so that she doesn’t fall, and he smells like the forest.

“Oh, I’m so sorry miss – honestly I wasn’t paying any attention – and oh look, you dropped your – here let me – is there any way I can-” He might be a man now, but he still stammers and rambles when he’s embarrassed, head still bent as he tries to shake the dirt off her novel. She smirks at the sight.

“Why, Mr Blythe, are all the Parisians as clumsy as you are?” Anne is relieved by the steadiness of her voice, even though her heart is thumping in her chest and her mind is whirling with questions as to why he is back, why now. She is also relieved that he gapes at her in unabashed astonishment, and that for once her red hair doesn’t betray her and force colour into her cheeks. “And as mute?” She adds, cheekily, at his silence.

Blinking still, Gilbert straightens and whips off his hat – a fedora, rather than the soft caps that used to nestle in his dark locks. She watches his fingers work the rim nervously. “Anne!” He shakes his head in self-aware embarrassment, “I didn’t realise it was you. Here.”

The book passes hands, and Anne’s breath catches when their fingers brush. She laughs to cover her startle, and tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear so that she doesn’t have to meet his eyes when she asks, “Have I changed so much?”

Gilbert is quiet, and Anne is abruptly very aware that they are standing on the corner of the post office, and that several women are huddled not too far away, eyeing them unsubtly. She turns, taking his forearm, “Shall we walk, and catch up?”

He seems to catch her meaning, because his eyes dart in the group’s direction momentarily. He meets her eyes again with a smile though, and adjusts her grip on his arm so that he is slightly supporting her, “Miss Shirley-Cuthbert, it would be a pleasure.”

They cut down out of the Avonlea main street, down a track that leads to the copse of trees between their two properties. Neither of them seems to choose this direction, and neither of them seems to be leading.

Anne asks about Bash, and Dellie, and Miss Stacey, and he laughs and tells her that he too can’t break the habit of calling their old teacher by that name, and before she knows it they have crossed the little bridge by the lake, and they have lost half an hour laughing and reminiscing about old times. She doesn’t tell him about Matthew’s illness, and he doesn’t talk about Paris, and neither of them ask how in the world they have managed to end up in this tiny little place, so far from where they set out for.

Gilbert has just told her a story about Dellie, who loves to ride with her father and is constantly trying to sneak out to take the horses by herself, though she is far too young. His impression of Dellie creeping across the kitchen floor has Anne doubled over, one hand clutching her stomach as she laughs fully.

Gilbert quietens first, and when she straightens he is watching her with a small smile on his face. He leans against the fence post, hands in his pockets, and he looks strong and sure in the afternoon light that scatters across the lake of shining waters. She is still giggling, and he watches her happily until they are both quiet. In her contentment, she does not feel awkward under his gaze – or perhaps there is too much history, too much fondness there for her to feel that way.

“What is it?” She asks at last, when he stays quiet.

Gilbert Blythe’s smile is as wide and genuine as ever, his brow furrowed in that familiar-but-forgotten way, “I was just thinking… You haven’t changed a bit, Carrots.”

After that, they see each other nearly every day.

He turns up at the end of the school day to walk her home, and she appears at his front door on the weekends with news from Rachel, and they sit and talk about nothing for hours on end. Bit by bit, the stories come out. She tells him about Matthew, how his heart stopped one day and though it restarted, he hasn’t really been the same since. Gilbert brings ginger, and chamomile to soothe his breathing and his sleep. She tells him that Marilla’s eyes are getting worse again, and Gilbert appears with an old text book full of diagrams so that he can sit with her and explain exactly what the doctors and oculists don’t tell her, and he answers her questions and comforts her fears. In turn, he tells her about Paris. He describes the city, how it felt to walk among all that architecture and beauty and history. He tells her about the food, and they laugh over Anne’s faltering French.

He still marvels over the progresses in medicine, and he doesn’t hold back from giving her the details of even the goriest things he’s seen. She drinks it up, peppering him with question after question until Marilla sticks her head into the kitchen and reminds them that even doctors and teachers need to sleep.

She makes him one of Mary’s old recipes, and he declares himself in raptures.

It takes them a while to get to the part of the story they share.

It is nearly winter, and the light is just failing in the late afternoon as they walk slowly across the fields towards Green Gables. The lights are on in the downstairs windows, casting long shadows. Anne huffs her breathe so that it appears as a cloud in front of her, and Gilbert copies, mocking her. Anne doesn’t realise that Gilbert has paused by the gate – it isn’t part of their normal routine; normally, they continue up to the house where Marilla has prepared two cups of tea for them to sit with on the porch.

Today, Gilbert has taken a moment to look up at the sky, and Anne waits patiently.

“I can’t wait for it to snow,” he tells her finally, still looking upwards. “Paris was so beautiful in the snow, but there’s nothing like these wide, open spaces where the snow lies like a blanket.” His lip quirks, and he looks down at her with a smile of self-aware cleverness, “A very cold blanket.”

Anne rolls her eyes, loops her hand through the crook of his arm to pull him towards the house. A thought trickles through her mind, nudging her. She has thought about it before – once or twice or semi-obsessively – and now with just the two of them and the sheltering heaviness of dusk, she steels herself and asks, “Did Winnifred like the snow?”

Gilbert nearly trips over his own feet, he stops so abruptly.

Colour floods into Anne’s face as he gapes at her silently. Panic and embarrassment bubble over, and she opens her mouth to babble anything, anything at all, but then Marilla opens the door and the golden light suddenly bursting over them startles Anne out of her shock. Gilbert too, as he blinks, shaking his head a little, and that little frown appears where he is trying to string the right words together. But Anne’s courage fails then, and she takes a step back towards the porch, “Coming Marilla!” She calls, though Marilla has not beckoned them, and she spins away from Gilbert, hurrying up the stairs. She manages to glance back at him as she steps over the threshold, tossing a “goodnight” out of highly-enforced common courtesy, and catches a fleeting glimpse of him still lit up in the light from the kitchen, hat askew, one hand raised as if he had planned to stop her running.

“Why, Anne!” Marilla comments in surprise when she turns to find Anne alone, back pressed to the coats and breaths coming in uneven pants, “Where did Gilbert go? I set out a scone for him.”

Anne meets her mother’s eyes, notes the amusement and exasperation on her face, and groans. She had thought she was done making a fool of herself in front of this boy.

“It was so embarrassing!” Anne covers her face in her hands, peeking through her fingers at Diana’s ceiling. Even the pale blue – as with all things Diana, so perfect – taunts her. Rolling onto her side, she gazes dolefully at the crib, plays absently with one of the many ribbons that cascades gracefully from the sides. “Dear Eliza,” she addresses Diana’s baby girl solemnly, “How lucky you are to not have discovered boys yet.”

Diana snorts, and scoops the girl up, “Please, you should see the way that this one plays her father.”

The man in question has just ambled into the room, a smug smile on his face as he observes his two favourite girls. “Don’t blame me because I’m her favourite, dear,” Fred admonishes his wife playfully, giving her a kiss on the cheek as he picks up his daughter. “I’m going to take Eliza for some air, so you two can have proper adult gossip time.”

He and Diana share a look full of secrets and pride, and Anne watches the couple. “It’s nauseating how perfect the two of you are,” she tells Diana, only half serious as she throws her legs off the sofa and sits up. But Diana is looking quite serious all of a sudden, taking a couple of purposeful steps and sinking down next to Anne. She picks up Anne’s hand, clasping it firmly, but she doesn’t say anything.

“What is it?” Anne asks immediately, worried for her friend, and her friend’s beautiful family. Diana has been well since Eliza was born but it was a difficult pregnancy and there are sometimes complications that aren’t immediately obvious and oh god if anything happens to Diana or Eliza or even Fred now –

“Anne,” Diana says gently, interrupting her best friend’s fearful mental rambling. She smiles, but it does nothing to quell the rush of worry in Anne’s heart.

“Diana if you’re not well, please just tell me quickly.” Anne blurts out, seizing her bosom friend’s shoulder.

Diana blinks owlishly at Anne, “Not well? Oh Anne, you’re always rushing to conclusions!” She shakes her head in fond exasperation, but her amusement quickly dies, “Actually, that’s what I want to speak to you about…”

When Diana fails to expound quickly, Anne goes as far to give her a little shake.

“You’re telling me,” Diana feels out the words tentatively, “That you, after having spent weeks in Gilbert’s company – often just the two of you, which had plenty of tongues wagging across Avonlea, I can tell you – just asked him about Winnifred?”

Anne feels the usual flicker of guilt in the depths of her stomach, swallows around the remorse she feels for not being a better friend, “I know, okay Diana. I know I should have asked him how he was doing when he first moved back to town, but I didn’t want to upset him and then it never felt appropriate and he just left his fiancé for heaven’s sake so how was I meant to – how on earth…” She takes a breath to calm herself, to recollect, and then says it flatly in a low voice, “I know I was a bad friend in not offering him support.”

But when Anne looks up at Diana, expecting reproach, all she finds is confusion: “Anne, what are you talking about?”

… “Well, Winnifred of course.”

Diana still looks confused, “For not offering him support when he broke things off with Winnifred?”

There’s a frisson at those words, but Anne wills it away shamefully – she had assumed, of course, that things had been called off, but hadn’t actually had it confirmed until now. The past three years, in fact, she had never once spoken of Winnifred (and only Gilbert himself in passing commentary until he returned), and this was the second time the other woman had come up within the same number of days. She is excited, and relieved, that Gilbert is in fact not engaged, but that is less important than making sure that he is okay. “Yes, exactly.” She confirms to Diana.

Diana’s eyes are still wide and uncertain, “Three years ago?”

“Yes Dia-” The air falls out of Anne, taking the end of her assurance with it. Something is constricting her windpipe, she is sure, and the same unknown adversary seems to be limiting her ability to understand what Diana has just said. “What?” She chokes out, finally.

Diana’s confusion matches her own, though they seem to be confused about different matters, “Gilbert and Winnifred? They broke things off years ago?”

Anne shakes her head, because there is no way that could be true, “No, because he went to Paris with her?”

“No, he-”

“He proposed, and got accepted into the Sorbonne-”

“No, Anne-”

“And they moved to Paris-”


“He proposed, they were engaged-”

“No!” Diana actually jumps to her feet, hands on her hips, and Anne startles out of her trance.

“I don’t understand.” The red haired girl whispers, tortured eyes fixed on her best friend. Diana’s mouth opens and closes, her hands raise into the air in wonderment and then clasp together in vexation. She takes her seat, and a deep breath with her eyes closed.

“Anne,” she continues in a voice of forced calm, “I don’t understand how you don’t understand this. This is not news. Gilbert never proposed to Winnifred. He broke things off before then, but got into the Sorbonne anyway, and has been living in Paris by himself.”

Anne shakes her head, the old certainties turning her into a disbeliever, “No, remember, I wrote him a note” (here, her voice chokes a little, though neither of them will ever admit it later) “and then you said – you said¬ – at least he didn’t pick Winnifred over me.”

Diana looks at her dubiously, “Exactly? He didn’t pick Winnifred over you.”

“Because he picked his future. You know, the one he got from promising to marry Winnifred!”

The women sit then, both locked in their own world of silence as the truth settles around them, the stark reality finally sinking in as to what exactly happened.

“He got into Paris without Winnifred,” Anne starts.

“And no one wanted to hurt you by telling you he chose that future anyway,” Diana admits.

“And so I thought he went with Winnifred.” Anne finishes sorrowfully.

She grimaces. Diana leans forwards, eyes filled with tears in the swift and beautiful way only Diana manages to achieve – a thing Anne has always envied for its tragical drama, “I’m so sorry, Anne! I though you knew, and I just didn’t want to talk about it too much because you were so sad!”

Anne shakes away her bosom friend’s apologies, “No, Diana, don’t apologise, it’s not your fault – I didn’t want to talk to anyone about anything, then, and then we all went away to Queens…”

Diana smiles tearily, “Forgive me?”

Anne hooks their pinkie fingers together, “Always.”

She thinks back to that time, as Diana rubs her fingers over her eyes, remembers how bitterly sad she felt every time she thought about Gilbert, how everyone tread on eggshells around her, how she was so wrapped up in her own world that she didn’t understand what she could now see were people trying to tell her.

“I mean,” Diana bursts suddenly, “You live with Rachel Lynde, how could you not know!” They break into giggles, which the emotion of the moment pushes forward into cackles, and that is how Fred finds them a minute later, Diana leant forward over her knees, arms wrapped around her own stomach, and Anne leaning across her back, both of them out of breath from laughing so hard.

“Children,” he admonishes in jest, “Do try and be good role models to poor Eliza here.”

Anne leans back into the sofa, still giggling, “Oh Fred, guess what a fool I’ve made of myself this time.”

Anne half expects Gilbert not to be there the next time she leaves the school house. This is a lie that she tells herself, because it’s Gilbert, and of course he’ll be there, and she knows it because she is not surprised when she finally finishes tidying up the class and steps outside and he is there, sitting on the steps waiting for her.

His smile is guarded, but he takes the hand she offers to pull him to his feet, “Good afternoon, Anne.”

“Good afternoon, Gilbert.”

Gilbert takes his hat off, and runs his fingers briefly through his hair before he starts speaking. Anne suspects that he must have rehearsed, because he has such a look of determination about him instead of his usual endearing blundering. “I’m sorry,” he tells her simply.

Surprised, Anne cocks her head, “For what?”

Gilbert smiles abashedly, shrugging one shoulder, “In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure. But there was some kind of misunderstanding and it tends to be my fault when that happens, so…”

Anne clasps his forearm, “No, Gilbert, this time it is entirely my fault.”

The taunting look he levels at her is filled with amused affection, and she huffs a laugh at his implication, “And you better remember this moment because it’s the only time I’ll admit being wrong to you!”

They set off down the path, and Gilbert is quiet to allow Anne to gather her thoughts into coherence. In honesty, she has been thinking about it since she left Diana’s, so it does not take long, but she enjoys the silence as they trace the familiar route to Green Gables and above all fears the vulnerability her coming admission – however vague she makes it – will expose. “When you left for Paris,” she says simply at last, “No one told me – and I never asked – so I assumed you went through with the plan and went with Winnifred.”

Gilbert pinches the bridge of his nose, rubs the furrow in his brow, “It’s been three years,” he says in incredulity. “How has this not been cleared up in that time?”

Anne shrugs helplessly, “We all headed off to Queens, and you weren’t around, and it just never came up in proper conversation!”

“You live with Rachel Lynde!”

Anne laughs at that, though Gilbert seems quite serious, “I’m sorry, okay! I just didn’t know, even when you came back.” Gilbert can’t seem to wrap his head around that, and Anne doesn’t blame him because she had been so shocked yesterday to learn the truth, and Diana too, and she imagines Marilla and Matthew will be too. Not to mention Rachel herself, heaven forbid she find out.

“So you thought I was engaged this whole time?” Gilbert asks finally, stepping ahead to pull up a low hanging branch.

She smiles her thanks, “I thought that you must have called off your engagement when you left Paris.”

“You didn’t think we’d married sometime in those three years?”

Anne pulls a face. She’d thought about it, but dismissed it, “And not have Bash and Dellie there? Anyway, someone would have told me that I’m sure.”

She wants to ask him, now that she understands what there is to ask, why he ignored her letter. Why her confession hadn’t changed anything for him. Whether he had even read it. She wouldn’t blame him, if he hadn’t; she could still picture his earnest face, all that time ago, admitting that she was what made him doubt Winnifred, and how desperate he had seemed before the girls dragged her away. At the time, she had been angry he hadn’t responded, but with time came the perspective that as deeply as she’d been hurt when he left, so deeply he must have been hurt by her. Instead of dragging up a long futile discussion, she moves on, “Marilla made scones, will you come in for some tea?”

Gilbert assents, but the two young adults who enter the kitchen are both weighed down by questions unasked.

Matthew dies on a Tuesday, and they bury him that Saturday.

The wind is sharp, but other than that the day is beautiful – more so than Anne would have liked. If she had her way, the sun would cower in fear of reigning over a world that did not contain a Matthew Cuthbert, could never again hope to contain his like. The rain would poor, and the mud would pool and stick around people’s feet as a constant, clinging reminder of how awful everything was. Marilla could say that he was in a better place all she liked; Anne wanted him here.

More people than she expects turn out for the funeral: no doubt a mixture of the announcement in the newspaper and Rachel doing what Rachel does best. It is touching, to know so clearly that the way Matthew enhanced people’s lives was so widely felt and respected, but another part of her wishes she could keep even this small part of him to herself. Diana presses close, and Anne keeps Marilla’s hand clasped in hers, and that helps.

It is exhausting, to Anne, to play pretend. Even though pretending has long been her forte, even though she never thought the day would come when her imagination – her pride and joy – couldn’t while away even part of the despair she feels. Matthew would wrap a hand over her shoulder, and say something sweet in that gruff, embarrassed way he expressed emotions, and Anne would love him; but Matthew isn’t there and Anne still loves him, and that hurts more than she knew was possible.

She helps shepherd people into the drawing room, helps pass around the food and accepts people’s condolences with short smiles and sharp nods, but it doesn’t distract her from the screaming in her head.

“Anne,” Diana pulls her close for hug, in the privacy of a corridor.

“Anne,” Cole kisses the top of her head, and she inhales his perfumed, metropolitan scent.

“Anne,” Marilla sighs, and it sounds like a prayer.

Gilbert doesn’t speak to her, but he does seem to materialise between her and everyone she doesn’t want to talk to, and although she doesn’t formally register this as deliberate she still feels the gratefulness like a soothing balm on her heart.

And then, a week later, Roy appears.

He looks as Roy always looks: handsome, in that usual polished way of his. He wears black, but his clothes are still a fashionable cut, and he still smells like cologne when he leans forward to press his lips to Anne’s cheek. Anne is glad to see him, but surprised, because they hadn’t exactly left things as friends, and he had never been to Avonlea besides. It is this thought that she seizes upon, and within moments she has swept him out of the door for a tour of the town. They walk arm in arm and she points to everyone she knows house: some that he himself knows from Queens, and the others with a funny anecdote in hand so that soon his is fully apprised of the comings and goings and scandals of everyone in Avonlea. Rachel, Anne thinks, would surely be proud.

It is a kind distraction, especially so because Roy never met Matthew so she has nothing to remind her of him, but it is over all too soon because Roy turns as they walk over the bridge, pulling them to a stop and taking both her hands in his.

“Anne,” he says, uncharacteristically earnest, and she knows already what he will say, “I’m so dreadfully sorry about Matthew.” Part of her thinks of asking him to say Mr Cuthbert, because he wasn’t familiar with Matthew and now he never would be, but it is her own bitterness fuelling that, and Matthew wouldn’t have minded besides, so she pushes it down along with the familiar burn of pain. “I know how like a father he was to you.” Roy continues, and this time Anne actually feels angry.

“Thank you,” she says in clipped tones, when even the anger drowns in her sorrow.

Roy swallows, looking nervous for the first time. It is unfamiliar to Anne that she is confused for a moment, trying to think back to the last time that Roy looked at her with that uncertain expression on her face. It comes to her the same moment that he starts speaking again.

Roy Gardner begins sadly, “I know that we haven’t really kept in touch in the year since you left Queens. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought of you, Anne – because I have, and often. I still do.” Anne closes her eyes, suddenly exhausted.

Does he really think this an appropriate time?


“And I know,” Roy presses over her with an earnest look, imploring her to let him finish, “That you will be heartbroken right now, and that no offer could make you excited. But I hope you know that all I want is to take care of you, if you’ll let me.”

When he doesn’t speak for a few seconds, Anne tries her luck again, “Roy, you know how I care for you, and how touched I am that you’ve come to see me.”

He interrupts again, with a wry laugh, “Just to be clear: I’m not proposing.”

The relief that floods Anne is sharp, and she laughs with it, closing her eyes with a dramatic expression, “Oh thank God!”

Roy laughs too, though he elbows her side gently, “Oi! No need to be so happy about it!” Taking his arm again, Anne pulls him over the bridge, still smiling. “I just meant that I want to be here for you, if you need it.” Roy is saying, but Anne isn’t listening anymore because she can see what’s up ahead, and knows what it means.

“Anne Shirley-Cuthbert, there you are!” Rachel comes barrelling towards them. All in black still, she is quite terrifying, and Anne notices Roy’s arm tighten on hers with some amusement.

“Rachel, I didn’t know you were in town.” Anne greets smoothly, “Roy, this is my dear family friend, Mrs Rachel Lynde. Rachel, this is Mr Roy Gardner, a friend of mine from my days at Queens.” If Roy notices the way she tries to stress friend, he doesn’t show it as he shakes Rachel’s hand. Rachel certainly doesn’t notice, for she eyes Roy up with that particular look in her eyes that Anne has come to know intimately.

“Well, I shan’t keep you young folk from your fun!” Rachel says after introductions, and in a twirl of her skirts she has bustled off to find her next victim.

“A pity you didn’t propose,” Anne comments wryly, “Because Rachel will have half the town thinking you did before you’re even on the train home.” Roy laughs in disbelief.

But then: Roy doesn’t know Rachel.

Anne’s prediction – Anne’s fear – comes true sooner than she thought. She has only just taken off her hat, having arrived home from seeing Roy off on his train, when Marilla rounds the corner. Anne’s first thought is that Marilla has some colour in her cheeks for the first time since Matthew – But then Marilla’s hands fly to her hips, and Anne remembers.

“Anne Shirley-Cuthbert! What is the meaning of this? I’ve had no fewer than three – three – people stopping by this afternoon to congratulate me on your engagement!”

Anne laughs, because there is nothing else to do. The ghost of Matthew shakes his head at them from the other side of the room, trying his best to mind his own business, and she misses him fiercely for the solidarity he would show. “I’m not engaged,” she promises Marilla, unlacing her boots, “My friend Roy – remember Roy, from Queens? – came to offer his condolences, and as we were out on a walk we bumped into Rachel…”

Marilla understands instantly, “Honestly, that woman!”

Anne hums her agreement, considering the matter closed, but Marilla only turns half way before rotating back to face Anne with a puzzled expression on her tired face, “Roy was the one that proposed, is that right?”

The door thuds behind them loudly, and both women spin, startled.

Rachel beams back at them, her small hands wound tightly into the jacket sleeves of a very surprised Gilbert Blythe. “Well then!” Rachel wagged a finger, “I knew it! I was just saying to young Gilbert here – I saw it plain as day – that I’d just seen you about town with a fine young man.”

Gilbert’s eyes don’t leave Anne’s face. They are locked together in a silent battle of perplexed abandon, unable to leave each other’s eyes without an answer and unable to fully formulate the question. “Congratulations,” Gilbert croaks finally, after a suspiciously long pause.

Anne physically shakes herself out of her stupor, a tremor running up her spine and she takes a jerky step towards Gilbert, “No! – I mean, thank you, but it’s quite unnecessary.” Taking a moment internally to curse Rachel and her meddling, she places her boots by the stove and takes a step – surprisingly vulnerable, in her stockinged feet – towards one of her oldest and dearest friends. “I’m not engaged.”

Gilbert visibly exhales, and steps around her to pace the room, “Is it strange how often we seem to have this conversation?”

Anne laughs, “I’m glad you think so, too.”

Gilbert stops in front of the stove, warming his hands. He looks around, checking for Marilla and Rachel – who have vanished, mysterious but not subtle – before he says, “So, to confirm: neither of us is engaged.”

His voice is low, and his eyes pools of honey in the lamplight of the kitchen, and Anne finds quite suddenly that she can’t breathe. The easy, friendly atmosphere of just a moment ago has gone, replaced by something warm and inviting. “That’s right.” Her voice is barely a whisper, and her entire body trembles with the sudden urge to take the final few steps forward and press her lips to his. It is so strong that she nearly falls, lightheaded, and so strong that it distracts her from actually going through with it.

She has wanted Gilbert for so long – longer than she has ever admitted to, longer than she has ever known – that she thought the wave of need for him had become dull in its familiarity; but just then it washes over her with a force that she’s not sure she can hold back against. It is a surprise, and not a particularly welcome one, because although Gilbert once liked her in that way he did after all decide against it, and she values his friendship far too much to pursue the matter. She clenches her fists, and wills her arms not to rise so that she can bury her fingers in his curls the way she has imagined she would.

Oblivious to her inner turmoil, Gilbert looks at her with concern, noting the sudden tension in her stance. “Anne,” he murmurs, but he makes no move to go towards her, “How have you been?”

Slowly, Anne comes to feel the eyes on the back of her neck, the ever present presence of dear Matthew. At once, the moment has vanished, and she is cold again. As though he knew, Gilbert steps forwards then, wrapping both his arms around her shoulders and tucking her face into his chest. He is warm, around her, and his heart beats like a comforting drum under her ear. Of all the comfort Anne has been shown since Matthew died, Gilbert’s feels the most like home.

“He was such a kind man,” Gilbert murmurs in her ear, “And I’ll never stop admiring him for that.”

Pity, Anne has always found hard to deal with. She didn’t need their pity, because she had known Matthew and that was a thing to be celebrated. She didn’t need their pity, because it did no good. She didn’t need their pity, she needed her family back.

She didn’t know why she hadn’t realised that of everyone in Avonlea, Gilbert could understand this the most.

She twists in his arms, stretching up on her toes to press a lingering kiss on his cheek. Up close, she can see the gold around his pupils as they dilate, can marvel at how long his eyelashes are, at how soft his lips look.

Behind them, Marilla clears her throat suddenly. Anne supposes that the speed her and Gilbert leap apart must have been comical – he has to swerve from tripping over her boots, and her face blossoms into colour as she tries to smooth down her skirt – but that doesn’t excuse the delighted chuckles of Rachel as she observes. It’s all Rachel’s fault, really, anyway.

“Are you staying for dinner, Gilbert?” Marilla takes pity on the pair, smiling affectionately at the young man, “There’s more than enough.”

But this seems to remind Gilbert of something, for he straightens very suddenly, “Oh!” His voice has an edge of guilt, “I forgot! I came to invite you all to Sunday lunch tomorrow, after church. Dellie has taken up an enthusiasm in the kitchen and we’re all chipping in to teach her the little we know. I can’t promise it will be any good, but the more the merrier!” He glances at Anne, still blushing.

“My!” Marilla nods warmly, “How kind! We’d be delighted.”

Gilbert leaves not long after, and Anne instantly excuses herself to rush up to her room, and she pretends she can’t hear the laughter from downstairs nor feel the tingle in her lips where her mouth had met Gilbert’s cheek.

Gilbert hadn’t lied when he implied chaos at the Blythe-Lacroix household.

There seems to be flour everywhere, and there is a faint smell of burning, and Bash seems to singing more than he is helping, but the three guests are more than used to this by now and they fall naturally into the fold, lending a helping hand where they can and getting out of the way as quickly as they can when they can’t. As always, Marilla ends up doing most of the work, though Gilbert and Anne are always rushing to take over, while Miss Stacey – Muriel! – and Rachel try to entertain Dellie and Bash causes mischief. This particular day, Bash has just whispered to his daughter the delights of tying people’s shoelaces together, and she is creeping around under tables while the adults try to grab her.

Gilbert laughs loudly when Rachel gets down on all fours, and accidentally flicks the potato he had been mashing over his shoulder, where it lands in a minor explosion next to the stove.

“Gilbert Blythe!” Marilla admonishes without anger.

Anne mimics her silently, and Gilbert shakes his head in amusement.

“Lovebird!” Bash calls from the other side of the room, “Come and grab this little angel’s legs before she tries to assault anyone else!”

Gilbert blushes (Anne does too) but crosses the room, “I wonder who she got the mayhem gene from?” He teases Bash, and together they sling the giggling child over Bash’s shoulder.

“Save me!” Dellie screams in delight, but her erstwhile protector – Mrs Lynde – has had enough chasing about for one afternoon, if her collapse onto a chair by the table is any indicator.

Anne comes forward instead, brandishing a wooden spoon. “Away, beast! Release the fair maiden, and fight me like a man!”

Bash gives a yelp, and takes flight, vanishing through the kitchen door with his daughter over his shoulder and Anne jogging after them. Anne can hear the laughter from the kitchen, but she ignores it so that she can properly vanquish her foe. Soon, Bash falls to his knees and deposits Dellie on the ground, calling that he is defeated and tucking Anne’s wooden spoon under his arm as though it is a real sword.

“I think we need a doctor in here!” Anne calls merrily, as Dellie takes her hand and they dart through to another room.

“Quickly!” Dellie whispers, “We have to hide in case the dragon wakes up and takes me again!” This was very true, Anne agreed, and they crawled together beneath the living room table, round the back of the sofa, whispering a battle plan under their breaths. They are nearly to safety – the door outside, where they can go and collect some wildflowers that they will fashion into crowns to protect them from the evil dragon – when Dellie dares a victorious grin over her shoulder, mistimes a movement, and crashes into a side table. Anne moves fast enough to prevent any damage, grabbing the scanty items on top before they can fall over Dellie, but Bash has been alerted to their presence and charges with a roar into the room.

Screaming, Dellie abandons the plan and takes off down the corridor.

Anne does not – can not – move.

Taking a moment from his theatricality, Bash glances at her before leaving after his daughter, “Ah, Miss Shirley-Cuthbert, I’m afraid Gilbert’s pen is not actually mightier than the sword!” And then he leaps out of sight, and she is left with the sound of his footsteps, and her questions.

Gilbert’s pen, Bash had said.

Gilbert’s pen, but this was certainly not Gilbert’s pen, and Anne knew that for a fact because it was actually her pen. The pen she had given Gilbert after the schoolhouse had burned down. Then pen she had written him to ask it back for in the note she told him –

In the note she had left him.

She did not think he would have kept it, after all this time.

“Anne?” Still on the floor behind the couch, Anne jumped, and Gilbert – who had stuck his head into the room to look for her, but not seen her, hidden as she was, turned around again at the sound. “There you are,” he said cheerfully, and he swaggered in with his hands in his pockets. Anne got to her feet shakily, “I think Dellie is nearly worn out, which means we should be able to eat…” Gilbert’s voice trailed off. Now that Anne stood in front of him, he could see what she held in her hands. He rubbed his hand through his hair, tried for an embarrassed grin, but when he was met with her shocked silence his hand dropped to the side and he sighed.

“Why do you still have this?” Anne asked quietly.

Gilbert worried his lips between his teeth, not meeting her eyes, “I forgot about it, at first. And then it was a comfort-”

“You forgot?” Anne snaps, overcome by a wave of irritation. Tears spring to her eyes as she feels her humiliation all over again, and she is transported to being sixteen, and rejected. “I explicitly asked for it back, how could you forget?”

Gilbert blinks into the force of her anger with bewilderment, “You asked for it back?”

“Don’t you dare, Gilbert Blythe! I can’t believe you’ve actually forgotten – when it’s the most embarrassing moment of my life – and you’re just going to deny it!” Gilbert’s eyes widen like saucers, and she can plainly see that he doesn’t understand, but she also can’t see how on earth he couldn’t understand. She couldn’t have been any clearer in her note.

“I’m sorry,” he stammers, “I really didn’t understand-”

“Didn’t understand!” Anne seethes, “Which part was too unclear for you in my note? Was it “may I have my pen back?” or was it “I love you”?”

Now Gilbert’s mouth actually does drop open, and he gapes at her. Now, Anne curses her anger that makes her speak before she thinks. Now, in the quiet, Anne can almost hear the electricity crackling through the space between them.

Gilbert swallows, licks his lips, “What?” Anne flushes, overcome with embarrassment (why doesn’t she ever learn!) and tries to leave quickly, but Gilbert is faster, even half dazed. “What did you say?” He demands again. Anne tries to twist out of his grip, but it is firm around her arm and she is suddenly reminded of how much of a man he is now, as he spins her writhing form gently to face him. “Anne,” his voice is gentle, the threads of understanding in his mind coming together, as she knew they would when she said that – clever as he was.

“Anne, did you write me a letter telling me that you loved me?”

Anne closes her eyes, tears threatening to flood over, “You didn’t even read it?” She whispers. She has waited a long time for this knowledge; had given up on ever finding out. She had thought over and over again about which she would prefer: that he had ignored her in full knowing or ignored her through ignorance. Now, she thought she had been foolish to think that ignorance might have been the kinder of the options. Nothing could possibly be as excruciatingly humiliating as this moment.

“Anne,” Gilbert presses again, fingers tightening on her shoulders to match the increased desperation she can hear in his voice when she doesn’t open her eyes. “Anne, I never received your letter.”

In a moment, Anne stills. She opens her eyes, and she can read the honesty on his expression – as devoid of colour as hers is flushed. He looks as devastated and overwhelmed as she feels. “You didn’t get my letter?” She whispers, not trusting herself to speak louder for fear that she will shatter, so fragile she feels.

“I didn’t get any letter,” he whispers back, fervent as a promise.

There is a clatter from the corridor, and Bash’s big frame bounds into view. The world that had narrowed to just the two of them widens again, and Anne can suddenly hear the noise from the kitchen, smell the food. “Lovebirds!” Bash exclaims (part of each of them curdles when he calls them that, though both of them are too stunned to respond), “It’s time for-” Too late, his eyes inform him he is interrupting, and he cuts off suddenly. He babbles incoherently for a moment, points towards the kitchen with a jerky nod, and vanishes.

Anne clears her throat and steps away from Gilbert. Through Bash’s eyes, she can picture the scene: Gilbert’s strong hands at the base of her neck, tilting her head up towards him; the tears in her eyes; how very close their faces had come without them knowing. She rubs the tears, tries to pin back some of her hair that had come loose when she was trying to run away. She can feel Gilbert – now a respectable distance away – trying to rearrange himself similarly. “That’s twice in two days we’ve been caught in a compromising position,” Anne tries for a joke, but Gilbert’s answering laugh is choked.

Lunch is a merry affair, once Anne manages to imagine the conversation to the back of her mind. Gilbert is quieter than normal, and Bash keeps glancing between them suspiciously, but Dellie is enough of a combination of her father and mother to shine in centre stage, and before Anne knows it they are packing up some leftovers and saying their goodbyes.

Anne has just hugged Miss Stacey – Muriel! – when she hears Gilbert behind her. “Actually, Marilla, Rachel – if you don’t mind I was thinking I might take Anne on a walk down the lane: make the most of the sunlight before winter takes it away again.” Gilbert speaks charmingly, smoothly; Anne can picture the confident, easy smile on his face as he asks. She can also picture the knowing looks that all the other adults in the room are sharing, not so discreetly.

“Why, of course, Gilbert!” Marilla even sounds thrilled, and then her two allies are out of the door and Gilbert is holding Anne’s coat out to slip her arms into.

“See you soon!” He promises Bash with a smile, and holds the door open. The air is cold outside, but still, and the snow lies unbroken in the direction he leads them. Anne loves it like this: like a page that is still to be written upon; a story about to start. They don’t talk for the first ten minutes, taking the walk up lovers lane in silence until they reach the cliffs. Anne thinks it is suitable, because depending on what Gilbert says next, she just might have to throw herself off them.

Unfortunately, because Gilbert is a doctor, he might still save her, so maybe it wouldn’t be worth it after all.

“Anne.” Gilbert is firmer than she expects when he stops. With all the white on one side, and the unbroken horizon of the sea on the other, he suddenly looks very small, and very alone. He forgot to bring a scarf, Anne notes, but he doesn’t seem cold. He doesn’t fidget with nervousness either, or pace, as he is prone to, but stands still and meets her gaze head on. “Anne, I’m only going to say this now, and if you don’t want me to I’ll never speak of it again, because I value your presence in my life so much and I would never wish to do anything to harm our friendship, or your opinion of me.” He pauses then, as if asking for permission, and doesn’t continue until she gives a tiny nod.

“The way I understand it, it goes like this:” Gilbert takes a step towards her. “I asked you, by the bonfire that night – poorly timed and worsely executed, true – but I asked you if you loved me, and you said no.” Anne flinches, but Gilbert presses on, “And then, you wrote me a letter saying that you did in fact love me, right so far?” Anne’s lip trembles, but she nods again. If she loses Gilbert, she’ll be damned if she loses her dignity too. “But I never got the letter. And so when I moved to Paris, you thought I’d gone ahead and proposed to Winnie, and that I’d changed how I felt about you.” He seems to take her silence as assent, because he takes another step towards her, close enough that he could catch her if her legs gave out, as they felt like they would any second.

“But, Anne,” his voice is so soft it’s a whisper, “That means that I loved you, and thought you didn’t love me, and you loved me, and thought I didn’t love you.”

A tear drops down her face, and neither of them make a move to brush it aside, eyes met in torturous understanding – finally – of how much they had lost.

“It was all just miscommunication.” Gilbert realises, and he sounds so small and sad that this time Anne takes half a step towards him. He raises his hand then, cradling her face tenderly, thumb against her tear track. He is gazing at her with such heartbroken wonderment that she thinks she might blow away if the wind started, so enveloped by him is she. They stand like that, locked in a not-quite-embrace, each lost to their shared history.

Finally, Anne heaves a sigh, and turns her face away. To know that they had come so close, to not achieve what they both wanted because they were too young to be properly brave – it hurt more than she would have guessed. But it hurt slightly less, because now their friendship could continue without any questions, without her having to guess whether there was a chance for them.

It is just as Anne is formulating this opinion that Gilbert straightens, and she looks back around at him. He looks more determined, suddenly, and he winds his fingers through hers; who is grounding who she isn’t sure, but it doesn’t seem to matter. “In the spirit of no further miscommunication, then,” Gilbert Blythe says calmly, plainly, “I think it’s only fair that I tell you unequivocally: I am in love with you, Anne Shirley-Cuthbert.”

Beside the cliffs, in the snow, Anne finds herself lost for words. That Gilbert Blythe – Gilbert Blythe – should be saying these things, after so long and so many shattered hopes, and that he should be doing it so calmly. Well. How on earth was a girl meant to react to that? “Always have been,” Gilbert adds, just as she is about to find her tongue, “Always will be.” And she loses it again.

How long they stand, as Anne tries to collect herself together – she is sure that she’s actually physically spiralled to pieces, because her head is definitely in the clouds and her heart seems to have left her body entirely, because it is surely too big to still fit inside her chest – she isn’t quite sure, but Gilbert waits quietly, apparently trying to stay true to the cause of not complicating matters.

“Gilbert,” she manages finally, but that is all she can manage because she is laughing quite suddenly, and her legs have (quite without her permission) carried her forward so that she could fling her arms around his neck, and drag him down. She is still laughing when her lips meet his, and she has to shift a little so that they fit together properly, but she doesn’t care because she has dreamt and dreamt and dreamt about kissing Gilbert Blythe, and the silly man came out without a hat on which is quite enough invitation for her to slide her hands up and into his hair, finally.

Gilbert's hands are firm on her waist, lifting her up onto her tiptoes so that he doesn’t have to lean down so much, pulling her into him so that they are chest to chest, toe to toe, heart to heart.

Later, much later, they wind back down the lane, his arms around her shoulders and his sweet murmurs in her ears, trading stories of all the times they have loved each other and not been able to express it, commiserating over their shared foolishness. It takes longer than it should, because Anne cannot stop from twisting to press her lips against his – she will never get used to the thrum of his pulse under her thumb, she is sure – and he always responds with such enthusiasm that she laughs, and then he laughs, and his laughter makes her want to kiss him again, and it is a cycle that she hopes she will never leave. She tucks her nose under his jaw, breathing in the heady scent of him, when a thought occurs to her.

She pulls back, grinning up at him, and he winds her red hair around one of his fingers as he smiles back.

“What is it?” He asks with a chuckle.

She presses one, two, three chaste kisses to his lips, stepping back when he tries to chase them down and putting a firm hand on his chest, “Now then, Mr Blythe, if you’re quite done taking liberties…” She teases him, pausing so that he grins as he waits. “May I please have my pen back?”

Gilbert’s laughter echoes around the trees, and he catches her around the waist and spins her in the air. She screams in delight, wrapping her arms around his back and nestling in to the warmth of him, revelling on the feel of his chuckles. “You can have everything, Carrots,” he whispers into her hair.