For all of Bash’s teasing, he knows. He knows in the way she steals into his thoughts; in how she lingers in the notes of a song that bursts out of him with too much joy; in the way she frames the edges of home when Bash asks him about Avonlea; in the way her letter falls open from well-worn creases when it’s not tucked safely away in his pack.
But it’s one thing to know it, even if only his most wistful thoughts. It’s another thing entirely to admit it to Bash, and to give him another reason to rush him home. Avonlea is already calling to him all the time, and it’s hard to know how much is heartache and how much is homesickness. He’s taken Marilla’s words to heart and wants Avonlea to be a choice if – when – he comes back.
(Through it all his heart whispers come home someday and he gets no rest at all.)
So slowly, his protests to Bash’s sharp eye weaken, and sometimes, when he’s not careful, he dreams about treasure hidden away in Avonlea.
He comes home rich in memories of sea salt and mangos and bottomless depths just below his feet, and nothing seems quite the same as he left it. Winter bites at his nose, and the house is filled with old memories that he’d rather not revisit, driving him back to school instead.
(Anne, on the other hand, is the same as ever.)
“Anne,” he says, blinking away the sun and heady with the effect of being home again (home) while she seems frozen in shock.
“You’re back,” she says, staring at him like a wild creature caught in a snare, and then anxiously exclaims, “There’s no gold!”
“I know,” he says, thrown off his footing once again, and hesitates, adding, “I heard. That’s not why I came back.”
He’ll never understand how she can spin him about and steady him, all at once. It shouldn’t be possible.
(He’s so very glad she is.)
“It’s really good to see you,” he adds when she doesn’t answer, and with everyone watching them he suddenly hopes that the stupidly glad note in his voice isn’t as obvious to everyone else as to him. The last thing he needs is a dozen more Bashes on his case, or worse – he knows – on Anne’s.
And just like that, from the corner of his eye, he sees understanding bloom in Diana’s eyes as she looks at him, to Anne, and then back to him.
(He’s done for.)
Diana, being the actual good person and friend she is, doesn’t betray his secret. He almost convinces himself that he imagined the whole thing and that his secret is still safe (relatively safe, with Bash in the house) when he loses his footing all over again leaving town one day. He’s actually feeling pretty good about life and Avonlea in particular when Diana falls into step next to him.
“Hello, Gilbert,” she says brightly and smiles at him. It’s a friendly smile with none of the particular interest he’s seen (avoided) from others, but it’s a smile that also means they’re going to talk business. She’s wearing a satin blue bow, which he’s sure only catches his eye because he’s seen one just like it in Anne’s hair.
“Hello,” he says, unsure where this is going. “How are you, Diana?”
(He knows, but – )
“I’m glad you came back,” she says. There’s no hurry to her steps, and courteously he slows his steps to match her speed. “A lot happened while you were gone.”
That’s the understatement of the century. He still has a hundred questions about the boarders at Green Gables, the gold hoax, the rumor that it was Diana and Anne who exposed them, how Anne –
“But now that you’re back,” Diana continues, indifferent or oblivious to his silence, “some other things might…change.” She looks at him piercingly and he wishes he could disappear into thin air. When he was six, he fell down the new well his father was digging. It hadn’t been that deep yet, but it was more than he could climb out by himself. He’d been stuck there all afternoon and half the night before they’d found him, and he can still remember the cloistered, trapped feeling of the place.
He somehow feels more trapped now than he ever did then.
“Things change all the time,” he points out, feigning obliviousness, and Diana’s mouth twists inscrutably.
“I mean,” she says, “some people have different feelings than they did before.”
She knows. She knows sheknowsshe –
“and I don’t want anyone getting hurt,” she adds. “No matter how silly they can be.”
If he could have kept his brain ahead of his mouth at this moment, he thinks he’d probably trade the whole farm to have the next moment back.
“Anne’s not – ” he starts, heat already in his tone. Anne’s not silly. But she hadn’t said Anne, and in the narrowing of her eyebrows, he knows he’s lost the battle.
Some of the townspeople treat Diana as if she’s a bit simple. He knows in that moment how dreadfully, deeply, horribly off the mark they are. She stops and stares at him full on, and she’s clutching her basket with nervous force. He suddenly realizes she’s worried, and not about Anne – or at least not just about Anne. She’s not doing this to gossip, or be mean, but because she loves Anne.
“I know,” he amends awkwardly, too late. He thinks he understands. Anne’s position at school is always tenuous, brief spells of peace between war, and he remembers how badly she’d been treated by some in those first weeks. He understands now that it had something to do with him, and a repeat performance is the last thing he – or Diana – wants. Especially now. “Anne isn’t silly,” he adds, testing the waters, “but you’re right. She’s never had it easy here.”
Some of the tension goes out of Diana’s body as she exhales shakily. Anne is known to have a temper – her reputation precedes her all the way to Charlottetown – but he sees some of that same fire in Diana now.
“Good,” she says, pleasant demeanor returning with cultured practice. He starts to think that that’s the end of it, and that at least – although Diana knows – she has no interest in holding it over his head – but when they come to the end of the main road, and Diana turns towards home, she pauses once more and smiles at him, a shadow of amusement flickering back into her eyes.
“She kept your letter,” Diana says. “I shouldn’t tell you, but she kept it – in a place where we meet.” She pauses, considering, and shrugs. “She doesn’t know I know, but she didn’t want anyone else to see it.”
“That’s not like her,” Gilbert says, his pulse quickening, and Diana smiles conspiratorially again.
“No,” she agrees. “It isn’t.”
As Diana disappears to the rich end of Avonlea, his eyes follow her, his heart hammering away in his chest, and has to shake his head to get himself moving again. He doesn’t know exactly what’s changed while he’s been gone, but when he gets home, he pulls out a worn letter and turns it over in his hands once more.
(It’s something like hope.)
Diana’s confidence gives him no expectations of Anne’s feelings; she is caught up in a private drama of her own that he feels removed from. While he was gone, she became more a part of the town, part of the school, and made at least one new friend in Cole.
For all that he has no expectations – he dreams.
(He dreams, and he plans.)
If he has any idea of a future, a future beyond the limits of Avonlea, it cannot be a future like his past. It cannot be a future of near poverty, and backbreaking work, and death. It must be the exact opposite, and so he sets upon his new dream. If he is to build a future, it must be a warm future, worthy of hosting the very best of friends, and more.
Unexpectedly, the dream puts him in direct conflict with its ultimate, unspoken hope, until –
Well, it’s funny how things work out sometimes.
(Tragical romances and all.)
On the cart ride back to Green Gables, she sits next to him and smiles, bright and friendly. Over Anne’s shoulder, Bash catches his eye, briefly distracted from his new bride, and Gilbert ducks his head. Anne waits about ten seconds before launching into a conversational stream about Miss Stacy and the Lake of Shining Waters and her hopes for the next term and Queen’s Academy exams until they pass the Blythe Farm and Bash helps Mary out of the cart. Anne watches them in rapt silence, eyes wide as Mary’s feet touch the ground, and doesn’t speak until they’ve pulled away, heading towards Green Gables at last.
“I’m glad you’re staying with us,” she says, pulling herself out of deep waters. In front of them, Marilla nods in agreement as Anne builds up steam. “The room you’ll be staying in is so very nice, Gilbert. It has big windows and looks out over the road and the sun comes into and casts a golden glow over everything inside of it.”
In front of them, he sees Marilla’s mouth quirk in amusement or exasperation, but it really does sound wonderful, and he tells Anne as much.
“Thank you again for letting me stay with you,” he says, and Marilla and Matthew both smile back at him.
“You’re quite welcome,” Marilla says, and glances over at Anne, who is about to say something else. “It’s very nice of you to give Bash and Mary this time.”
“I think it’s so romantical,” Anne says, unable to keep silent a moment longer. “To have that time alone, in their first days of marriage, with the glory of spring all around them! Just think of it!”
“Anne Shirley-Cuthbert,” Marilla says, a warning note in her voice, “I forbid you to think of it.”
Before he can stop himself, Gilbert snorts in amusement and Anne’s aghast face turns into wry delight.
“It is very romantical,” Marilla adds, softer now, “I’ll grant you that, Anne.”
But when the cart’s stopped, and Gilbert offers Anne a hand down to Green Gables, Matthew catches his eye and Gilbert’s heart jumps at the look on his face, reserved but stern all the same.
The week at Green Gables is the happiest he’s been since Alberta, and it’s as much Marilla and Matthew as it is Anne. There really is something magical about Green Gables, and the way the light drifts into the rooms. Blythe Farm doesn’t capture the light nearly as much, and in some ways, Anne seems even more Anne in this place, a halfway point between reality and dreamland.
There are challenges as well, challenges he never saw coming. The first morning he’d been there, she’d knocked on his door to go down for breakfast, but he’d opened the door without thinking about how he hadn’t brushed his hair or put his room to rights and really, he could have done without Anne Shirley seeing him in mid-morning disaster. Another night, he’d gone to investigate a noise downstairs and had run into her nicking sweets, but all he really remembers is the cascade of her red hair, loose and tousled, and then having to go back to his room and sleep. He’d spent the better part of the night staring at the ceiling in exasperation, and couldn’t look at her all the next morning.
But then, again –
He learns that Anne really is not one for conversation before breakfast, and it takes her a good hour to work out her worries of the day. He helps Jerry around the farm, and Marilla makes sure he eats a full meal, worrying about how he’s a growing boy. He works with Matthew in the barn, quiet and easy, and stumbles across Anne reading in every nook and cranny of Green Gables, and when he suggests they study together for the Queen’s Academy exams she hesitates almost not at all.
“Only if you accept,” she says, “that I am going to get the top place.” There is something in her manner of a lawyer setting terms and conditions and he grins, accepting. “Challenge accepted,” he says, and shakes her offered hand.
(Slowly – steadily – hope grows.)
“What was it like having Gilbert at your house?” Ruby asks eagerly. Matthew and Jerry had built them a new writing cottage, sworn to secrecy, and Anne feels Diana’s knowing eyes on her. At least there’s no jealousy or anger in Ruby today and she seems more interested in news than prior claims.
“He was just a boarder,” Anne says, avoiding Diana’s look. “We’ve had boarders before.”
“I bet he looks wonderful in the morning,” Ruby says dreamily and Diana’s look switches back to exasperation.
“I wouldn’t know,” Anne says, “and now if we could please stop talking about Gilbert Blythe?”
(But as they start to write, the image of a boy with tousled hair flits across her memory, and her pen runs dry.)
It’s not for several months more that hope becomes something more; something he can hold onto and give back to another. It comes when they’re visiting Cole and Diana’s Aunt Josephine in Charlottetown; a reunion mashed with the Summer Soirée that Diana had insisted he attend.
In the riot of music and dancing, he still feels out of place in his best suit. Anne and Diana had shooed the rest of them away while they stayed upstairs with Miss Barry, and he can’t help looking around for them every few minutes.
It does not, unfortunately, escape Bash’s attention – but he’s mercifully spared any comments.
Just as even Cole is wondering where they are, a chorus of oohs goes up near the stairwell and he spots Diana at its base, resplendent in dark red and almost unrecognizable. Her hair is pinned up and somehow it makes her look more grown-up than he and Cole put together.
“I wonder where Anne is,” Gilbert says absently, but the crowd is trailing after Diana as Miss Barry leads her to the piano. Looking back, Gilbert finally spots her, anticipation settling warm in his stomach. Anne is at the bottom landing of the stairwell, the higher shadows holding her back. She’s wearing a darker blue dress than her old one, but her hands are twisted into the fabric as she looks down the stairs. She’s put her hair up like Diana’s, and it was probably Diana who helped her. It’s grown almost as long as it was before, but even still loose tendrils have escaped to drift freely around her face.
“She looks nice,” Cole says, and heat flushes into Gilbert’s cheeks. He doesn’t dare look at Bash, let alone speak; he doesn’t trust himself right now. He can’t seem to look away from her, and any moment she’s going to catch him staring and he’ll be in trouble because even if she doesn’t hate him anymore, this is not something friends do and –
“It’s funny we ever talked about getting married,” Cole adds conversationally, “with how things turned out, but I suspect she won’t have a shortage of offers now.”
Gilbert splutters awkwardly, and Cole and Bash exchange grins while he tries to collect himself.
Cole sneaks another glance at Bash, who smiles even wider.
“Yes, married?” Bash asks innocently, and Gilbert wants to curl up and die. “I’m sure Blythe would be very happy for you and his friend.”
Cole looks back and forth between them before tilting his head in understanding. “Anne didn’t tell you,” he says, almost to himself, and Gilbert lets out a long breath.
“No,” he says. “I hadn’t heard you two were engaged.” He’s not sure if Cole is joking; he didn’t know there was anything like that between them, and he can’t even begin to ask for answers right now.
Cole shakes his head, a secret kept. “It was conditional on us not finding ‘romantical kindred spirits,’” he says, and looks meaningfully at Gilbert. “A child’s game. You should go talk to her, you know.”
It may be that Anne Shirley-Cuthbert is secretly engaged to an artist who can give her better scope for her imagination than anyone else, and that everyone in Avonlea knows his secret while he knows nothing back, but he still gets some satisfaction out of the look on Bash’s face when he says, “You know what? I will.”
His face is still warm, and his stomach is still doing back flips, but Anne beams with relief when she sees him walking towards him. She’s still on the bottom landing, high above the party, like a goddess surveying the land. A very nervous looking goddess, but still –
“Hello,” he says when he reaches the bottom of the stairs. “Were you planning on staying up there all night?”
She smiles, relaxing a little as she says, “I’m quite fine up here, but thank you.”
“If you’d like to come down,” he says, “it’s quite nice here. If you like, I can show you around.”
She rolls her eyes at that, but she starts down the stairs all the same, and the closer she comes, the easier he feels. There’s something about being in her sphere that just makes being easier, and he couldn’t explain it to anyone but Anne herself. When she steps off the last stair, he offers her his hand, and she takes it almost by surprise.
Nobody is watching them, for now.
“Thank you,” she says, and lets go just as quickly as they step out of the way of dancers. It’s not like any Avonlea party Gilbert has been to, or even the Trinidad party Bash had invited him to. It somehow seems to be a thing alive in itself, and only for one night.
“It was very beautiful last year,” Anne says, eyes shining as she continues to take it in. “It was a tribute to Miss Barry’s Gertrude, and it was the most wonderful night of my entire life. I’m glad she’s continuing it, in her memory, and I shall always wish I could have met her before she died.” There’s a long pause before she adds, “but I still feel very alone in the midst of it all.”
“I know the feeling,” he says and she tilts her head, watching him. Something warm is growing in her eyes, and it feels like magic in itself. It’s enough that he turns to her boldly, and as properly as he'd ever learned, offers her his hand again.
“Would you like to dance?” he asks, and keeps his eyes on hers. If it’s not totally his imagination, she looks a little unsteady too. “Anne?” he asks, hoping he hasn’t driven her away, before she – slowly this time – slips her hand into his.
“Have you done this before?” she asks quietly, holding his hand tightly as he rests a hand on her waist. “I haven’t. I don’t want to step on your toes,” she says, “but I’m afraid I’ll have to apologize in advance.”
Tentatively, he pulls her a little closer and hears her suck in a breath, looking up at him. There’s something like trust in her face, and it switches a light on inside him he didn’t know was there.
“Don’t worry,” he says, and smiles comfortably. “I’ll stay with you.”
(Fumbling, and trusting, they take their first steps.)
“Did I ever tell you,” she asks after a comfortable silence, “that Cole and I once made a pact to get married?”
The sun is setting over the hills of Avonlea and the bright pinks and oranges of the dusk sky draw Gilbert’s eyes back to Anne’s hair. They’d started out almost properly, when Marilla and Matthew had been outside with them, but now Anne has her feet tucked under her as Gilbert shifts his arms more securely around her middle. It’s an awkward angle for him, propped into the corner of the bench so Anne can rest against him. He doesn’t care one bit. He could stay here forever.
“No,” he finally answers, his lips brushing against the top of her hair, “but Cole did, years ago.”
She starts in his arms, twisting around to look up at him. “He didn’t!”
“He seemed to think it was irrelevant when he told me,” Gilbert assures her. “But we can check with him first before we call the minister, if you want.” He can’t help smiling; he’s been smiling all day. Anne, in utter contrast, looks aghast before she settles back against him.
“No,” she says, and he can hear the note of pretend indifference in her voice, “I think he’s settled and quite happy himself now. I wouldn’t want to disrupt that.”
“Ah, I see,” Gilbert says with wry amusement. “So I’m your consolation prize.”
A horrified look crosses Anne’s face until he nestles his cheek against hers and she sighs, turning his face towards her properly.
“No, Gil,” she says firmly, and brushes her lips against his, a light touch that shuts out the rest of the world. “I chose you, fair and square.” She pulls him closer still, stealing a true kiss that lingers with the words on her lips, and this –
(This is what Gilbert knows.)