It was sunset when Anne and Gilbert arrived at Patty's Place, just hours after the game. Anne looked no better than Gilbert did- although she had agreed that they needed to talk. She turned from the gate, and Gilbert silently followed her into the old orchard that lay behind Patty's Place. Anne instinctively headed for the oldest and darkest of the trees to huddle beneath, hardly seeming to realise that he was still there. He approached her cautiously. She had been remote while Gilbert was attended to by Doctor Edmonds from the hospital- whom Professor Daniels introduced as one of the doctors on the Redmond Medical School board. Gilbert had only nodded stiffly, knowing that Daniels was making a point by bringing him to see the head of the hospital.
He lowered himself to the ground with a groan, and Anne almost rose in apology at the sound.
"I'm sorry, Gil- I- I forgot that you were hurt," she mumbled.
Gilbert gave a sardonic laugh. "Well, we do have bigger things to deal with, don't we?"
He sat against the tree with a heavy sigh, and for long minutes there was silence between them. Surreptitiously, he studied her, his look worried. He'd expected her to fly off the handle at the professors in the office- and yet what had happened was even more frightening. He'd watched the colour recede from her face as she dropped lifelessly into the chair beside him. There she stayed, her grey eyes glassy and terrified. He'd argued on behalf of them both then, but to no avail- eventually, they were told that a decision needed to be made by morning.
When no sound had come from her in some time, Gilbert stared at her in the growing darkness, his face inscrutable. He had to do something.
"You have to admit, this is seriously overdue," he said conversationally, adjusting his sling.
Anne's white face turned slowly to him, and Gilbert saw a flash of something dangerous in her grey eyes.
There she is.
He spoke again, his manner detached. "How many times do you think we have been landed in scrapes that the rest of the world would hang us for?"
Anne's mouth dropped open in shock. "This is rather more than a scrape, Gilbert."
"Oh, I know," he answered dryly. "All the same, it makes you think- we practically got away with murder in the old days, didn't we?" Her pointed chin was out, and he felt some relief as he saw her coming back to life again.
"We once arrived at my house dripping wet in front of the entire Avonlea sewing circle," he noted logically. "Then Marilla caught me climbing into your bedroom window, looking for Davy's ball-"
Anne's cheeks flushed in exasperation. "Gilbert, I wasn't even there then."
"Yes, and Marilla knew it too- still, it would have looked bad. And Charlie caught us trying to untangle a fishing hook from the back of your skirts when I took you fishing last summer."
Anne's eyes were smoldering. "So we deserve this? Is that what you are trying to tell me?"
Gilbert swung around to face her now, his look regretful. "You know I don't mean that, Anne. It's- it's just us. I wish both of us had used some common sense- it looked bad, and we're facing consequences that neither of us was looking for- but you and I will always know what really happened. And so will those who care for us."
Anne shivered. "They'll hear about this at home, won't they?"
Gilbert hesitated. "Yes. We'll be lucky if the news doesn't make it home inside a fortnight."
"That's if we don't try to permanently silence Charlie," Anne muttered vindictively, making Gilbert snort.
"Don't think I haven't considered it."
Anne folded her arms, her eyes glittering. "Well, murder aside, there's only one thing to do. I'll leave."
Gilbert's hands clenched, his heart pounding. He'd been waiting for this. "Anne, don't-"
She turned to face him now, her voice hard. "Gilbert, you heard what they said- your reputation is able to survive this. Mine can't. As unfair as that is, it's a reality."
"And what will your leaving prove?" he said heatedly. "That you're the guilty one, and I'm just allowed to continue on, no questions asked?"
"That's the way it is-"
"No!" he shouted, making her blink in shock. "If you think I'll just let you take the fall, Anne, then you don't know me at all."
Anne leant forward and gripped his forearm tightly. "No. This is strategy, Gilbert. Remember? You taught me chess-"
"Anne, this is not a game-"
"-sometimes you need to sacrifice one piece to ensure that the other can accomplish the goal." Gilbert's fear doubled when he felt Anne move closer to him, her voice low. She rarely came so close; and she never spoke this way to him. She was actually planning to go. "It won't work. You know that even now- you're just being stubborn. You give up here, we both fail- I give up, you at least can continue. I'll tell him it was all my fault."
Gilbert bounded to his feet and walked away, his hands coming up to cover his anguished face. She was wrong. She couldn't know how he felt for her- she couldn't understand. Else why would she suggest this? He swallowed, the pain in his shoulder only second to the one burning in his chest. "There's got to be something else we can do."
"You know there isn't." She turned to him dully. "I'm sorry, Gilbert- I'm sorry about everything. I would never have wanted to stand between you and you becoming a doctor. I'm sorry that it will be harder now- but I'll go so that it doesn't get any worse. He can't punish you if I take responsibility. You can weather this, Gil- you're strong enough to make it."
"And you can't?"
There was a faint smile on her face. "I told you, I'll live. I just won't be able to do it here. I'll- I'll find a teaching position somewhere until all this dies down."
Gilbert stared at her in horror. "You can't expect me to stay here if you leave because of me."
Anne shook her head. "All this is for nothing if you leave now. Without me here, you have a chance." She felt the prickle behind her eyes then, and blinked hard. "I need to know that you will be fine. I won't be able to live with myself if you aren't."
"And I need to know that you will be," he said hoarsely. "Anne, we've got to try and talk some sense to Hallett in the morning- he's got to understand that it was an accident-"
Anne shook her head. "He won't," she said dully. "It's over."
Gilbert stomped back to her, his face set. "Fine. Then you'll just have to go ahead and marry me." At her choked cry, he spoke quickly. "You were in that meeting, same as me. Everything has changed, Anne- but they said if we married, that there was a chance. We wouldn't lose our places, wouldn't have to start over- and you could stay in Kingsport." Anne's eyes were on him then, trying to ascertain if he was serious.
A desperate Gilbert focused on her pale face. "Anne, you know how this plays out. How far will you have to go to run from this? How long would you have to teach to save to go to another college? We have got through with scholarships and sheer will- your university records would be needed to transfer, and if word ever got out-"
"I know!" Anne cried furiously. "I lose my chance to get my BA. I know that. But if it's between me not finishing and both of us not finishing, then I have no choice."
"And I'm telling you that leaving is a bad one for you," he said savagely. "They told us that it was possible to survive it."
"By lying?" He paused in his tirade at her deadly calm voice. "By pretending that two exceptionally intelligent but poor college students decided that they were so much in love that they got married without consent from families, or without any regard for their education? What would that prove?"
Gilbert forced himself to relax, and let out a shaking breath. "Anne, honestly, I didn't even expect them to even hear us out today. But they did, and they were trying to help. The university is bound by its own rules, and we are walking a very narrow road to get out of this now."
Anne walked to Gilbert then, desperate hands reaching to grasp his lapels to make him look at her clearly through the darkness. "Gilbert, you would be 'getting out of this' with a wife," she enunciated slowly and clearly. "You are one of the finest minds in the world- and you are suggesting that the best case scenario is for you to get married halfway through your degree- let alone before three years of medical school. Are you seriously trying to tell me that that is the best solution you can come up with?"
He glared down at her coolly. "If that's the solution that doesn't have you throw away your entire future to save my neck, then yes."
"You have a poor opinion of my ability to survive."
Gilbert gave a mirthless laugh. "Oh, I know you can do it, Anne Shirley. You've got more strength and nerve than anyone I know. But what will it cost? Leaving the girls? Moving far from Marilla and the twins to work? The gossip, the smallness of others- always trying to avoid talking about why you left university here, always knowing that you didn't get to finish- you love it here."
Anne sighed distantly. "I do."
"And what would I do without you?" She looked up at his impassioned face in shock. "Do you have any idea what you mean to me, Anne? If you think I can see you face the consequences alone and just continue on blithely, then you're wrong." He raked a hand through his brown curls and spoke hesitantly. "Look- putting everything else aside for now- would it be so very bad? Marrying now?"
Anne paled, watching the wind scattering damp leaves on the floor of the orchard. She sank down onto the ground, her arms surrounding her bent knees. "Gil, I didn't plan to marry for a long time- if at all," she said softly. "Like you, I wanted more than Avonlea could give me. I'm- I'm not ready for marriage- and I'm not willing to steal the experience of finding that from you. You deserve better."
Gilbert's voice was faint, as he tried to process her words. "So you never thought about marrying? Not at all?"
Anne's look was distant. "I had my ideals, I suppose. Percival had to come from somewhere, didn't he? Someone tall, melancholy and inscrutable- who spoke in poetry, and would brood darkly- he wouldn't know about my temper or the necessities or hurts of life." He voice was low, and something in his heart broke a little with her soft words. "So many of my ideals have fallen, Gil. I was determined that this one wouldn't. But he doesn't exist- that's why I wrote him. I know that. And if he did, the point would come when I would have to tell him who I really am- where I'd been- including what happened to drive me away from Redmond." A tear fell down her cheek, and her voice was broken. "I've ruined everything."
Like an old man, Gilbert sat down beside her silently. His heart clenched as she rested her head against his shoulder, her slim body trembling. He cleared his throat as he put an arm around her, and tried to smile.
"Come on, we can do this, Carrots," he said thickly. "We'll try to convince them in the morning. Alright?"
She tipped her head up in the light of the moon, tears falling down her face. "I would do it, Gil," she said shakily. "If I could take this away from you I would- there's no one I care about as I do you. But you and I deserve to be able to choose- and to not be stuck together just because we had to." She could see the reserved look on his face, and her voice tightened. "When I was a child I was shunted about from house to house with no consent. I never had a choice. I ended up at Green Gables by default- you know that- and if Marilla hadn't wanted me, then I would have gone to live with Matilda Blewitt. And I couldn't have done anything about it," she said with a desperation that hurt his soul, and he bowed his head in defeat. "I know that I couldn't do it again."
Gilbert raised a hand to roughly wipe his eyes. He drew in a deep breath, and his arm around her tightened. "I- I wouldn't ever want to take that from you. But I won't lie- I don't want to lose you, either. I want it all- Redmond- and you. I want- I want you to choose me."
Anne gave him a bewildered look. "Gilbert, don't you want to find love? Someone beautiful who won't let you down, won't make you angry-"
Gilbert made a disgusted sound. "Now what would I want a wife like that for?"
She couldn't stop herself from smiling, then. "You and I are friends, Gil."
"You're my best friend."
Anne paused in shock. "Don't be silly, Gil- Fred- Stuart? Even Charlie?"
"Anne, be serious- none of them holds a candle to you," Gilbert said brusquely. "I don't understand it myself- you and I just fit together. You can feel that, can't you? What we have is unique. When anything happens in my life, you're always the first one I want to talk to. So when I think about trying to get through all this in one piece, the rumours, the battle to stay here, telling family and dealing with everyone's opinions- I'd rather do it with you. My parents are best friends- there's nothing they don't tell each other."
Anne looked at him, bewildered. "And you would settle for that?"
He laughed slightly, then. "Anne, nothing you or I do would ever be considered settling. We don't have it in us to do it. And marriages of convenience used to be fairly common-"
"And your mother always worried that one of the Avonlea misses would stop you from coming to college by doing something foolish," Anne fired back. "You know how much she wanted an education for you. How do you think she would feel now?"
Gilbert grimaced. "Honestly, I think she'll ask what took me so long." He watched her face pale, and sighed. "Anne, my parents adore you- that's no reason not to do this." He sighed, rolling his injured shoulder with a wince. "Anne, I would never force you into anything. And if we had no feelings for each other I wouldn't even suggest this. But we have friendship, respect- admiration, similar goals, the same worldview- we care about each other- and we are both immensely good looking."
At this Anne choked, turning to see the slight grin on his face. "Well, if anyone could make me laugh about it, it's you," she commented. She echoed his sigh, and for a moment there was no sound but the wind in the firs. "Everything has changed now, hasn't it?" she whispered.
He met her eyes honestly. "Yes. If you decide no- I- I will accept that, even if it breaks my heart to see you go," he said quietly. "But before you do, please tell me you will consider it."
The fight was evident in Anne's eyes, and she frowned. "It wouldn't work. We would be living together."
"No space, no privacy from each other-"
"I think we are both capable of being mindful of each other's feelings-"
"We would fight, misunderstand each other, you would see what this-" here she brandished a red curl fiercely at the boy who had once teased her- "-looks like in the morning-"
He shrugged. "Yes, and-?"
Anne sighed, exasperated. "Marriage, Gilbert- for better or worse, forsaking all others, Gilbert, children, for heaven's sake!"
"And mutual society," he said mulishly. "I know the vows. And we- we wouldn't be doing that- not yet, anyway." At the bright flash of colour on her cheeks, he sighed. "Look, finishing college first would have to be part of the deal. If we- if we were to do that, the odds are that neither one of us would get to finish."
Anne glared at him then. "You couldn't become a doctor if you didn't complete this degree."
Gilbert exhaled, slumping back against the tree. "Anne, that was never a certainty-"
"It was what you were working toward!"
He shrugged, his elbows resting on his knees. "Yes. But like you said- things have changed. And it doesn't follow that it would be worse." He saw the anger building on her face and turned to face her squarely. "I'm not giving up. I plan to finish out this degree, and to see what the future holds after it." His eyes were on the distant horizon, and he chose his next words with great care. "If I was doing that by your side as your husband, knowing that my best friend would graduate with me instead of being halfway across the country, then I'd be happy. We have eighteen months until we finish college. That's more than enough time to figure out what we want- and when it's time to make decisions for our future, we can do that- we can do all of that- er, it- then." He flushed at the unintended slip, and to his surprise, Anne began to laugh nervously.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be impolite," she said, her cheeks hot. "It's just hard to imagine us like that."
"It's not that hard," he said, his voice gentle. He took her hand in his then. "It comes down to you, Anne. I think we could do this. I don't want you going off on your own, trying to live with a mess that we both made. Don't think that I don't understand what you would be giving up." His voice was husky, and her grey eyes were fixed on his. "You wanted love, you wanted romance. If you choose this- if you choose me- I will chase after those things with everything in me. You deserve no less."
The silence between them was longer this time, and when he looked down at her, it was to see a tear falling down her cheek, and she shook her head as she repressed a sob. "I'm not ready for this, Gil. I'm not ready to be married. I don't- I'm not-" she broke off, almost incoherently.
Gilbert could only nod, his jaw clamped against the flood of grief that hit him at her words. He was silent as he pulled her into his arms, comforted slightly by the way she nestled under his chin. The two of them sat unmoving for some time in the old orchard together, until they heard the clock in the distant lounge room chime nine o clock. Gilbert pulled away from her with a gentle look, and helped her to her feet with his good arm.
"We'd better get some sleep." His hazel eyes were on her own, and Anne flinched at the pain on his face. "When will you tell the others?"
"I'm best to do it now. I- I need to start making plans," she said shakily.
Gilbert tried to breathe, his chest constricting. "Will you promise to write to me?"
"If you write back." She tried to smile, her brow creased in hurt. "Gilbert, I need you to tell me that you forgive me for today- I shouldn't have gone to you- I was wrong- I know that you are angry-"
His brow creased in hurt, and he stroked a finger down her cheek, a gesture that she would never have allowed him, once. "Alright, I am, a little," he said softly. "But I understand why you did it." His smile twisted painfully. "If it was you who was hurt, I'd have knocked down buildings trying to get to you."
Anne gave a choked laugh. "Then you would be as foolish as me."
His face crumpled then, and he drew Anne into his arms tightly. He'd dreamt of holding her like this for so long. Of what it would be like to feel her body against his, wanting him, and only him. Now, on this night that might be their last, he cradled her head to his chest, the other wrapped around her slim waist. He turned his face to press a kiss into her red hair, and released her, his lips quivering. He nodded, and attempted to meet her eyes. "I'll be here to pick you up at seven in the morning. We'll go there together, alright?"
At her nod he closed his eyes sickly and turned, wanting to forget the look of pain on her face. A minute later the gate to Patty's Place clanged shut behind him, and he set his jaw as he strode up Spofford Avenue.
He'd known it. She wasn't ready- and she'd seen a life without him.
Gilbert shoved his hands into his pockets, hardly seeing the streets through eyes that would keep blurring with tears. He knew that she cared. He knew that she loved him- and he might never have another chance with her if she left. Could he do it? Could he let her go, knowing the gossip and slander that would follow them both? Each word would pierce him like a knife- and she would be gone.
The late November fog drifted in from the harbour as Gilbert walked on doggedly, hardly noticing the soreness of his body in the cold. This was what a Blythe was meant to do. He was to tread the path before him unflinchingly- his pa had impressed that on him between great, hacking coughs that shook his frail frame.
Gilbert tugged the sling off his arm roughly as he walked. He would do this. For her sake he had to release her- if he needed to hold onto her by coercion, she would never truly be his. That would be worse than what they were facing now.
Gilbert turned onto the street that led to his boarding house. Redmond's dark buildings now lay between him and his bedroom, and he found himself scowling at the silhouette of the bell tower in the distance. He wouldn't lie to himself- the blame for the situation rested squarely on both of their shoulders. Still, the least understanding- the smallest amount of questioning could have led Professor Hallett to a different conclusion.
Gilbert set his teeth, turning toward home. He needed to get warm, he needed sleep. Then he would figure out what to do.
Well, scholarship or not, he wasn't done yet. He was not yet willing to concede defeat, neither was he willing to acknowledge that his time with Anne was coming to an end.
All he could do was to pray for a miracle.