Summer had arrived in Avonlea. In all truth, summer had arrived in Avonlea several weeks earlier, but the inclement internal weather of Anne’s life of late had rendered the view rather cloudy from her window for a while there, and so perhaps it was better to say that summer had arrived—finally—in Anne.
And what a summer it was.
The Snow Queen had advanced her reach so far that year that, with Anne’s window thrown open to the warm breeze, her outermost boughs reached past the casement and allowed the scent of blossoms to settle without having to do the tremendous injustice of cutting any sprigs loose. In the deliciously lazy few hours after lunch, the sun was in its prime and perfect position to extend its rays into the gable room, that so beloved tree stepping in again to render the light not sharp or overbright, but soft and golden and glorious, throwing shifting patterns on the floorboards. All the air was warm, perhaps under other circumstances too warm but with the light wind, the shade being indoors offered, the lack of necessity—there, in her own space—for long thick stockings or fussy aprons, no one to tell her to roll her sleeves back down her arms, rather than oppressive the afternoon seemed sweet, a little sticky but not unpleasantly so, stretching out slow and endless like toffee.
The house was quiet, Matthew tending the back field and Marilla having retreated to Rachel’s for the afternoon, leaving Anne alone but for the beating embodiment of her sudden shift in seasonal outlook, making himself quite at home as he lay, barefoot and trousers rolled to the knee, nose in a book with his head hanging upside-down off the edge of Anne’s bed.
He had more freckles, in the summer. Anne could count them all, if she wished to, but for the moment found herself quite content to sit propped up against the footboard, a book of her own in her lap, watching.
Well. Almost content.
“I don’t believe for a moment that actually works.”
“Sure it works,” came Gilbert’s reply as he lazily turned a page, the book obscuring his face for a moment though she could hear the smile in his words. “The brain needs oxygen to function, oxygen is carried in the blood, blood is as amenable to the affects of gravity as anything else, therefore: lying upside-down makes your brain work better.”
“There’s a logical fallacy in there somewhere, I can smell it.”
“Oh can you?” Gilbert asked, the smile in his voice broadening. “Where?”
“Don’t know,” Anne replied with a sigh, flicking a strand of hair out of her eyes. “It’s too hot to think: ask me again in Autumn.”
“I strongly suspect neither of us will remember to raise the argument again come Autumn.”
Anne snorted. “Me, miss an opportunity to point out a flaw in your intellectual argument? I think not.”
“Well that’s true,” Gilbert agreed, his smile finally reappearing to Anne’s eyes as well as her ears as he set his book down, still open, on his chest. Blinking at her a few times (and looking rather comical doing so, being as he was upside down), he sighed. “I’ve been reading the same three pages for half an hour and I don’t think I’ve taken in a word of it.”
“Probably too much oxygen to the brain,” she quipped back, before setting her own book aside. “I never would have thought there was any circumstance that could deter me from the written word, but even I am struggling to process much from the page on so compellingly syrupy an afternoon,” Anne said, swallowing down a yawn and swinging her legs round so that she could lie back besides Gilbert, eyes drifting shut. “It’s like bathwater: I just want to fall asleep.”
“If you fall asleep now you won’t tonight, and then you’ll have hell to pay from Marilla when you refuse to get up in the morning.”
“Oh why should we get up in the morning, anyway? There’s so much day to be getting on with at the moment, surely some small portion of it could be given over to that most delightful and rare of luxuries that is the lie-in?”
“I thought mornings were for chores around here,” Gilbert said with the grin of one allowed entirely free reign over his own comings and goings.
Anne groaned. “Oh don’t, it’s summer: a season much too romantical to be tainted by the likes of laundry before ten in the morning. And don’t think I can’t feel your smugness without looking at you, Bash keeps you on entirely too long a leash.”
“Hey, I do laundry!”
“You do laundry precisely when you do everything, which is at whichever point in the day suits you. I love Marilla with the depth and wholeness of my heart, but Lord in Heaven does the woman love a schedule. I swear, once I have my teaching certificate and the promise of endless, uninterrupted summers, I won’t be getting out of bed before eleven a single day of them. I won’t even sleep that long, I’ll just wake up and stay in bed for hours and hours and hours, simply because I can.”
Gilbert’s grin softened at this, all teasing and fond. “I don’t reckon you could last ten minutes in bed after waking up without being bored to tears.”
“I certainly could,” Anne insisted, warming to her theme. “I’d keep a veritable mountain of books on my bedside table and spend the whole morning just reading. Maybe I wouldn’t even bother with a bedside table: just pile up all my books on the floor and balance my coffee on top of them.”
“If you don’t plan on getting out of bed,” Gilbert began slowly, clearly aware that he was walking into a trap and full of the imminent delight of being thus caught, “how do you suppose you’ll be getting ahold of coffee?”
Anne paused, then rolled her head ever so slightly to the side and cut a pointed and speculative glance at Gilbert.
The beaming, boyish smile that overcame his face was thrilled.
“Now that seems decidedly unfair.”
“Well,” Anne sniffed, returning her gaze to the ceiling. “Doctors don’t get summer holidays.”
“That is a sore wound and rubbing salt in it is actually very cruel.”
“Oh how you shall suffer, upheld as you shall be as a paragon of upright gentlemanliness wherever you go—”
“I’ve no doubt you plan to make that very difficult.”
“Positively fawned over by your grateful patients bringing you flowers and cakes and… and jars of various preserves—”
“From which you will get equal if not greater enjoyment, so you are, in advance, welcome.”
“People naming their dear children after you—”
“God, I hope not.”
Anne pulled up short at that, snapped out of the playful exchange as she turned again to Gilbert with a frown. “Well what’s that supposed to mean?”
His face screwed up in evident distaste. “We have to swear an oath, you know: Do no harm. Not sure I’d be able to say I was honouring my promise if my presence lead some poor child to being named Gilbert.”
“What’s wrong with Gilbert?” Anne asked, contrarily offended on his behalf. “I like it.”
He gave her a look that suggested she might have gone quite mad.
“Well I do! I don’t think I’d considered it all that much prior to coming to Avonlea, and… I will admit for a while it did prompt a thrill of what I generally assumed to be rage, but now… names are just words for people, aren’t they? Gilbert is the word that means you, so naturally it has to be one of my very favourites.”
Again his faced softened, became something that wasn’t exactly a smile but was so unflinchingly open, so tender, Anne was of half a mind to look away. She didn’t.
“You know,” he said, absently tangling their fingers together on Anne’s faded quilt, “for someone who seems to relish in being mean to me you can be incredibly sweet when the spirit moves you.”
Anne shrugged. “I contain multitudes.”
Like that, the broad, delighted grin was back. “That’s Whitman—Song of Myself.”
“I know. I might have to wait until sunset at the moment but I have managed to do some reading.”
“And you chose to read Whitman.”
“Of course,” Anne said, genuinely a little baffled that he seemed so very pleased by the fact, as though it wasn’t obvious the copy of Leaves of Grass would leap directly to the top of her extensive to read list the moment he placed it in her hands. “I know it means a lot to you.”
He simply blinked at her for several moments, before his mouth went crooked in a wry smirk. “I might start handing you copies of The Lancet, just to see if you could force yourself through all that dull writing.”
Anne, forsaking for a moment the mantle of a mature young woman, stuck out her tongue. “Now who’s mean?”
“I suppose we’re equal.”
“Well then, rejoice old world, for all is as it should be.”
He squeezed her hand, his eyes soft and brown-sugar warm, something in them that, even in the summer, always seemed to remind her of Christmas. He smiled. “Yeah.”
Anne wasn’t sure, with all the years and years of promise she had ahead of her in order to test the truth of such a belief, that she’d ever grow accustomed to this part. For all the marvellous, sweeping romances she’d read through the years not one of them had ever truly provided any great detail on a kiss, shying away into the vagaries of metaphor which, while lovely, paled in comparison to the focus and specificity of the real thing, and to that entire grand pasture (until recently existing entirely unbeknownst to Anne even in her wildest imaginings) of all that was around a kiss in and of itself.
For example, this: those breathless moments leading up to it, wherein contact became an inevitability and yet still—even after several seemingly eternal weeks of increasing familiarisation with one another—the thrill of nerves, the restless, impatient aching in the palms, the sides of the neck, the small of the spine that those eyes, suddenly heavy, brought forth in her. The fading out of the outside world, only ‘fading out’ wasn’t quite right, it was more like fading in, all the focus that had been spared for other things narrowing its scope (and how could she ever have imagined that a narrowing of scope might bring such a rush of muchness!) until all it encompassed was her, and him, and them—this thing that they became together, united in purpose and humming like one of Miss Stacey’s wires, the length and breadth of them startling and electric and alive.
God, he hadn’t even touched her yet. Perhaps attempting this with their heads hanging off the edge of the bed wasn’t their wisest of plans: the whole thing left her light-headed enough when she was the right way up.
Still, Anne had never been one to back down from a bad idea, and Gilbert had never once tried to dissuade her—only ever asked for the chance to join in.
He asked her now, with the tilt of his head, his breath warm in the already warm room, the soft downturn of his softer eyelashes blurred to dark brown smoke from this close (and he really was terribly good at getting that close without Anne entirely realising it was happening. Probably she should ask how he did it, but really she already knew that the answer was magic).
Anne, as she was so often inclined to do where he was concerned (now that she had allowed her inclinations the free reign they rightly deserved) said yes.
Oh, she was certain she’d never get used to this.
It started soft, as it usually did, the barest brush of lips that sparked and made her breath catch, reminded her that she was breathing at all. His fingers, still intertwined with her own, tightened their grip involuntarily, and even with her eyes closed Anne could feel the furrow of his brow, that little line of concentration and control that baited her, bothered deliciously at her until she inevitably managed to soothe it flat, until he relaxed and melted into it like clay under her hands.
That wasn’t just yet, though: that part came a little later.
For now it was delicate and fluttering, not indecisive but unhurried, a little awed. There was no reason, Anne had concluded, no reason at all why placing one’s mouth on someone else’s ought to be so thrilling to every last thread of her, except for the fact that every point of contact, every movement of his lips against her own (a little firmer, now, a little longer, a little more intent) sang with the knowledge that this was Gilbert, Gilbert with the good heart and the gentle hands and the lopsided smile and the brilliant mind, and that that mind had chosen in that moment to put his mouth to her, to kiss her this way and then that, that of all the things that he could have elected to be doing right then it was kissing her that he wanted… that was where the thrill lay. Kissing in general, she supposed, might well be fine enough, but kissing Gilbert…
He shifted his attentions from Anne’s top lip to the bottom, and she pressed her sudden advantage to slot them together properly, like puzzle pieces sliding into place. Surely no-one else would fit her the way he did? Surely they were made for each other, when they worked together so well?
Ever so gently, his teeth scraped against her lip, and any question marks in her thoughts turned to dust.
Loathe to lose the contact, Anne decided against trying to sort out which fingers belonged to who on their entangled hands, instead rolling onto her side just enough for the hand she had spare to reach Gilbert’s face, trace the high of his cheek, the cut of his jaw of which she was so inexplicably fond—perhaps because its sharpness under her palm felt so very real, perhaps because the roll and motion of it took her back, again, to the mechanics and deliberation and will—his will, Gilbert’s!—behind his mouth on hers, or perhaps because of the way that every time she touched him there he shivered a little, and she felt the kick of it in her bones. She felt rooted, certain of and one with her skin in a way she rarely had the luxury of experiencing: she knew she was solid, and grounded, and there, because Gilbert was, and she had moved him. What a power that was, she thought as her fingertips skimmed the shell of his ear, found their way to the curls at the nape of his neck (which she had found she was also tremendously fond of)—to know that she could put her hands on him and he would move for her, just like that. She couldn’t entirely fathom what she’d done to deserve such a thing, but then she felt the instinctive shift of her own spine under his hand as it found her waist, and realised perhaps that was it: the utter trust it took Anne to be able to respond to him without thought or hesitation was a gift that earned the same in return. It was about balance, and faith, and equality, in this as in all things between them.
She loved it.
She ran her fingers down the line of his throat to his collarbone, felt him draw a sharp breath straight from her own lungs as his hand flexed, tightened against her waist, and then gave her breath back in the shape of her own name.
She wondered whether that was one of his favourite words, too—it certainly sounded that way, when he said it—and decided it was only fair she got the same opportunity to voice the name of her own joy that he did.
Things blurred and sharpened then, the passage of time becoming hazy and malleable even as otherwise minute details—the exact pinpoint location and pressure of his thumb against her ribs, the back of her foot brushing against his shin, how she could just feel his heartbeat against her palm with her fingers hooked over his shoulder, the only fast thing in a world gone slow as honey.
What a thing, to feel with her hand the impact she had on the heart of him; to know his love (he loved her, he loved her!) as something tangible, this thing she’d longed for no longer only curled through the landscape of her imagination but right there, held close, a rhythm against her skin.
His mouth sought out her throat, the exact spot just above the collar of her dress where her pulse beat strongest, and how could she do anything but smile, laugh breathlessly at the reassurance he was searching for? Yes, she said, with her fingers tangled in his curls, with the tilt of her head to make room for him, yes, Gilbert Blythe, I love you too.
And so they went, the tick of Anne’s clock forgotten amidst the heady sweetness of being together, and close, and in love in their own little corner of the world, into which nothing else might enter and from whence no-one might remove them.
Or… almost nothing. Almost no-one.
Divinely and determinedly distracted as she was, even Anne’s dubious sense of self-preservation cut sharply through that most pleasant of fogs at the creak (oh blessed creak!) of the kitchen door. Gilbert, who had eventually corralled enough mental direction to unwind their joined hands and set about one of his favourite pursuits—the utter destruction of whatever sense of order Anne had managed to impose upon her hair—displayed less wisdom, taking a few moments to respond not to the sound of the door itself, but the sudden tension of the girl in his arms.
“Anne?” he asked, withdrawing with evident reluctance from the crook of her neck, eyes dazed, colour high in his cheeks and—and this Anne noticed with a dangerously distracting level of satisfaction—his hair just as dishevelled as her own would inevitably be.
“Shh,” she hissed, utterly still as she strained to hear any further sound from downstairs, as yet hopeful that she might have been imagining things.
Footfalls, sharp and eminently recognisable. Anne’s eyes snapped back to Gilbert’s, wide and alarmed as the same sudden understanding dawned on his face. “Marilla.”
Sitting bolt upright (and fighting the sudden head rush the movement prompted), Anne let out a soft curse she’d never have voiced in any other company, hands flying to one of her braids as Gilbert followed suit, the protocol for such a disruption already perhaps an undignified level of established.
“I thought you said she wouldn’t be back until five?” Gilbert whispered sharply, doing, Anne had to admit, an admirable job of not becoming sidetracked as he combed his fingers through her hair and set about reconstructing her right braid.
“She’s an autonomous being, Gilbert: evidently she changed her mind! See this is precisely why we should meet at your house instead of here.”
“And risk Hazel wandering in? If you’d like to explain to Bash how his mother came to have a heart attack then be my guest!”
“You have a barn, don’t you?”
“You have a barn!” Gilbert replied, sounding just a little hysterical as he fumbled with her ribbon and dropped it. Twice.
“My barn is regularly occupied by both Jerry and Matthew, idiot.”
“And mine by Bash.”
“Better Bash,” she said, turning her focus to the potentially tricker task of flattening out Gilbert’s hair into some semblance of decorum, “than Marilla.”
“I… that’s fair. Okay, what am I doing?”
Anne bit her lip, casting about the room for escape routes. “You could climb out the window?”
“Out the window?” he repeated, managing to sound simultaneously amused and horrified. “Anne, I’d land directly outside the window downstairs, do you not think she might notice?”
“Well what if I climbed out the window?” Anne asked, rather clutching at straws at this point.
Gilbert was evidently trying to swallow down laughter. “What good would that do?!”
“Fine, okay, okay you’re just going to have to be quiet and hope she doesn’t come in here, and then we’ll… figure it out.”
“Anne, what do you—”
“Shut up, shut up she’ll hear you just, just shh!”
“Alright, alright I’m—” he stopped mid sentence, falling abruptly silent at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Again they stared at each other, eyes locked in panic, although it became rapidly obvious that this was a mistake as Anne felt a fit of giggles bubbling up her throat.
“Anne? Anne, are you up here?”
Praying that the Good Lord (being entirely responsible for sending trouble her way) might allow her passage through her current trials unscathed, Anne swallowed the laughter down and attempted to even out her voice. “Afternoon Marilla!”
If the look on Gilbert, eyes screwed shut and the back of his hand pressed to his mouth as his shoulders shook silently, was anything to go by, her attempt had failed.
“Oh, you are home! I’d not have expected to find you inside on a day like this,” came Marilla’s voice again from the other side of the closed door.
“I… it’s only, you know,” Anne began a little desperately, thwacking Gilbert with the back of her hand as the trembling of his suppressed laughter increased, “sunburn is such a tremendous pain to be dealing with, I thought I’d better not chance it.”
“Well now. How uncharacteristically responsible of you.”
At this Gilbert threw his head back, having to turn his hand to cover both his mouth and nose as tears pooled at the corners of his eyes, the suggestion of her responsibility whilst she desperately fought to evade the detection of a young man in her bedroom clearly proving itself too much for him. Not today, and perhaps not even tomorrow, but some day soon Anne was going to push him into the Lake of Shining Waters for this.
“Yes, well. Thanks.”
“Well I’m only back for a minute or two—Rachel’s gotten it into her head that she absolutely must furnish you with a new quilt when you leave for Charlottetown, honestly that woman has too many sons and is far too intent on spoiling other people’s daughters,” Marilla added in a undertone which threatened to unbalance Anne’s tenuous grasp on herself and reduce her to Gilbert’s level of amusement, “so she’s sent me back to collect all my patterns that she might judge the most appropriate.”
“That’s… that’s very kind of her. She really needn’t trouble herself.”
“As I have endeavoured to explain to her, though she’s having none of it. Still, I don’t suppose it can do any harm—I do hate to imagine you getting cold all alone, come winter.”
Something about the tone of Marilla’s voice bled the hysterical amusement from the moment, leant it a fond softness that Gilbert clearly felt too, since he was able to uncover his mouth and reach for her hand, thumb brushing softly across her knuckles.
Anne squeezed his fingers. “I won’t be alone.”
“No,” came Marilla’s reply, before a pause. Anne, who was well acquainted with Marilla’s various pauses, could hear the smile in it. “No, I don’t suppose you shall. Well, anyway, I just thought you ought to know my return may be a little later than I’d anticipated, what with Rachel on a mission, so you and Matthew may have to fend for yourselves for dinner. Stick to the stovetop, mind, and don’t be laying a finger on the cake in the pantry, it isn’t for you as you well know.”
“Yes, Marilla, I know.”
“Good. And enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”
“You too,” Anne replied, the tension slowly draining from her shoulders as she heard the footsteps retreating back down the stairs and then, a few moments later, the opening and closing of the kitchen door.
A further few beats of silence, and then a great relieved sigh from her co-conspirator. “Well. That was a bit close.”
Anne, entirely without hesitation and displaying the height of dignity, picked up the small cushion Marilla had sewn for her and whacked him over the head. “You rogue, you utter disaster of a man, could you not have made a little more of an effort to contain yourself? She could have heard you!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Gilbert laughed, sounding anything but as he raised his hands in defence.
“You are not, scoundrel, you’re no good at lies and they don’t become you so you’d do much better not trying. See if I invite you here again.”
“Perhaps it’d be wiser if you didn’t,” he replied, still evidently amused. “Wouldn’t want Marilla thinking you aren’t responsible.”
“Oh she already knows I’m not,” Anne said primly, standing at last from the bed and smoothing out her skirts. “It’s your dishonourable conduct she’d be shocked by: she thinks you’re such a nice young man.”
“Most do,” Gilbert agreed cheerfully, leaning back against her headboard with that lopsided grin again, entirely at his leisure. Oh how intolerable of him, to make her love him so even when he was being absolutely insufferable. “And what do you think, Miss? Do you find my conduct to be dishonourable?”
Though he smiled, Anne was attuned enough to him by now that she could detect the undertone of sincerity in the question. Seating herself again on the bed beside him, she raised a hand to his face then ran it back through his curls, flooded with impossible fondness at the way he leant into the touch. “I believe… that there surely cannot be anything dishonourable in offering a young lady precisely the affection with which she longs to be treated.”
“Well then,” he said, his hand coming up to cover hers where it had come to rest against his cheek. “Can’t imagine anyone else’s opinion matters all that much.”
Anne grinned. “Except Marilla’s.”
“Except,” Gilbert said, tilting his head in deference to her point, “perhaps Marilla’s.”
They sat like that in tender silence for several long moments, before Anne sighed and broke it. “You do realise you have to leave now, right?”
The wide-eyed, childlike disappointment on his face was Anne thought, tremendously comical. “What, why?”
“Because if you don’t we’ll only end up having this exact palaver again in a few hours.”
“We’ll keep an eye on the time!”
“Do you have the faintest idea what time it is now? No, don’t look.”
Having been instructed away from the small clock on Anne’s bedside, Gilbert narrowed his eyes. “… One…ish?”
“It’s half past three,” Anne informed him, unimpressed.
Blatantly disbelieving, Gilbert sat up to get a look at the clock himself. “It never is, it can’t…” He stopped, blinking at the hands. “Are you sure that’s right?”
Anne grabbed his hand and pulled, tugging him up from the bed. Probably her pillows would smell like him that night. “Come on, out.”
“No, Anne, come on, don’t make me go home: Dellie’s teething, the crying’s unbearable.” He fought her as she dragged him to the door, not hard but enough to make her laugh at his recalcitrance. And to think, she’d once thought mystery and melancholy to be the grand romantic ideal: how much better this was, to love and be loved by someone who shared his feelings with her unreservedly, however fleeting or ridiculous they might seem.
“Then don’t go home,” Anne suggested, pulling him behind her down the hall, then giving him a gentle shove in the direction of the stairs. “Go for a walk, get some fresh air: they say it’s terribly good for you, Doctor Blythe.”
“Sunburn isn’t,” he argued, somehow managing to reach the ground floor without falling as he took the steps half-backwards, eyes still on her as she followed him. “It’s a terrible pain to be dealing with, I hear: I could be laid up in bed for days, and then how would you feel?”
“Find some shade,” Anne said, restraining a grin as she held the kitchen door open for him.
“Surely, being the far greater adventurer of the two of us, you’d be much better at such a search than I would,” he said, standing firm in the doorway and giving her a look of such utterly unconvincing false innocence she couldn’t help but laugh. “Come on, it’s a beautiful day: how could you stand to miss out on it? And think—it’s a matter of weeks before we’re off to the city, surrounded by smog and buildings and the great urban sprawl.”
“Eight weeks, which is in fact two months.”
Gilbert elected to ignore this correction. “Think how badly you’ll long for a summer afternoon with trees and flowers and rivers then. Can you really throw away this chance, when it’s right here for the taking?”
Anne crossed her arms, fighting a smile and doing, she knew, a very poor job of it. “I suppose it is a glorious day…”
“Glorious,” Gilbert agreed, nodding enthusiastically.
“And I wonder… have I introduced you to my very favourite tree yet?”
He tilted his head, considering. “The Sugar Maple, up near the Andrews’ place?”
“Elm, outside of town—past the old bridge beyond the schoolhouse?”
“Then no, I don’t believe you have.”
“Well then,” Anne said, answering his triumphant grin with one of her own as she fetched her hat from the hook by the door and slid into her boots. “Who am I to deny the most wondrous call of summer?”
“Who indeed?” Gilbert replied, grabbing hold of her hand and pulling her beside him, out into the sun.