"Anne! Anne, are you coming?"
Gilbert's voice rouse her from her stupor as she stared throughout the window, gentle smile tugging on her lips as she pondered over the true meaning of words read so beautifully by Miss Stacy just mere moments earlier. She hadn't been inattentive, not this time anyway – if she had been, her teacher would have noticed that a second after and brought her to heel. Today however, Anne Shirley-Cuthbert couldn't be more focused; even if her wandering gaze suggested the opposite.
The class was over now, however, and her noisy colleagues made sure she took notice of it. They weren't mocking her – no one really did anymore, not after Gilbert had come back and given everyone a piece of his mind on bullying Anne, or anyone else... And certainly not after what had happened between Billy Andrews and Cole. Still, the children of Avonlea were not the kind to stop and think of the beauty of the day, or the poetry hidden behind the thin curtain of reality, constantly waiting to be held up a little, if only to peek at the other side of it. It was Anne's dreams, it were her pleasures, and since Diana Barry was not at school that day, there was no one to wait for her to share them.
No one except himself, of course.
"Anne, are you alright?" he tried again, walking over and leaning slightly towards her, as if afraid to spoil the daydream she was currently living. She didn't react, blind to his presence like she was blind to the whole world around her, and it took all of his will not to laugh cordially at her antics; that would hurt her feelings no doubt, and that was about the last thing Gilbert wanted to achieve.
It was enough he'd done it once.
Still, Miss Stacy wouldn't be there forever, and she still needed to lock the doors before she could go home herself. Bearing that in mind, Gilbert leaned over a little more and hesitantly, he covered his friend's hand with his own. She winced at his touch, turning abruptly, and gave him a look she probably would give to a ghost, if she ever was unlucky enough to encounter one. She blinked before lowering her gaze and then locking it with his at once. Gilbert gave her a small, apologetic look and took his hand away, hoping the gesture caused her to feel nothing but surprise.
He nodded towards the threshold. "Come on, we've got to go. Miss Stacy is waiting for us to leave."
Her reaction was as sudden as expectable. Her head made another sharp turn, and then she practically jumped to her feet, nearly spilling her school supplies on the floor. She began to pack in an almost feverish pace, making Gilbert's smile widen as he shook his head at her.
"Don't wait for me, Gil," she said between gathering her pencils and stripping her books together, fluttering like a morning bird in the haste no one expected her to feel. "Really. In fact, could you please go and tell Miss Stacy that I'll be there in a moment? Please?"
The boy nodded silently and did as he was told, somehow able to resist the urge to look back at her and see if she followed him with her eyes as he knew he would had the roles been reversed. He missed the glance she gave him, as well as the astonishment that reflected on her freckled face for a split second after he'd done as she'd asked. He was almost proud he didn't – or he would have been, if only he'd let himself admit how much of a heroic act it really was for him.
After all, it should have been the easiest thing in the world.
Anne followed his steps just a few minutes later, ready to apologise to Miss Stacy, expecting her teacher to be the last person she'd see before her solitary journey home – only to encounter Gilbert Blythe awaiting her by the door, her coat in his arms, as he held it up for her.
He saw her roll her eyes and once again restrained from laugh.
"May I?" he suggested with a slight raise of his brow, sending her another crooked smile instead, holding the coat even higher as she came closer to him.
"Of course not," she shot back immediately, snapping the coat from his hands while concurrently jamming her books against his chest to hold them, making him change his sudden role from a rack to a shelf. She wasn't annoyed with him, not really – he could see the tiny wrinkles around her mouth, indicating that if anything, she was amused by his sudden civility. He watched her put on the coat, and wanted to help her with her hat; but she didn't let that happen. She was quicker in her movements than he was – and now she also had the advantage of being able to use her hands.
It might have been unfair – but Anne didn't seem to care in the least.
She took her books from him then and finally, they left the room, sending Miss Stacy awkward, apologetic glances on their way out while she only shook her head at the not so unexpected sight of the two.
Gilbert thought that, in a way, it was nice to leave the school like this, with no one else to disturb them.
He definitely could get used to it.
"I'll walk you home," he said matter-of-factly, as if it was the most natural thing to do; as if he would do that on any other day. It was a lie, of course – Diana would probably be back to school in a few days at most, maybe a week if he was really lucky... But it still was a lie he wanted to believe. That one day Anne would recognise a kindred spirit in him as well, and that little moments like this would finally become a part of his everyday reality instead of remaining the scraps of dreams he always felt they were.
Of course, he'd be a fool to think that his fantasy could last for more than a second – and once again, it was Anne herself who spoiled it.
Not that he could blame her.
"You don't have to do that," she remarked as she looked around, trying to determine whether all of their friends had truly left. "Just because Diana isn't here doesn't mean I can't find my way to Green Gables, you know."
"I never said that," he offered, his grin replaced by a sheepish expression.
"And it's not like I'm afraid to walk alone, either."
"Of course not."
"And I really don't want you to make a detour just because you think it's the right or proper thing to do."
"And how about I walk you home simply because I want -"
"Hey, Blythe! Playing with the orphan dog again?"
They stopped in their tracks, frozen in space. Anne's face seemed to lose all colour – Gilbert's immediately gained a dark shade of red.
Of all people in Avonlea, they had to come across the one they despised most.
"What is it, Gil?" they heard him ask mockingly. "You're lost for words? Your friend seems to be pretty good with them, especially the big ones that bear no real meanings – maybe she could help you with some?"
"Shut up, Bill," Gilbert growled, instinctively stepping closer to Anne and giving the intruder a deadly glare the latter chose to ignore. Just like his words, really.
"You really are lost. I thought you'd be a little more feisty after what you did to me last time."
"What, isn't one whipping enough?" he called out more openly now, taking a step towards Billy as if he truly was readying himself for a fight. "Do you want me to serve you another one?"
"Gilbert, don't," Anne said then, right when he was about to leave her side and confront the stupid moron in front of him, probably smacking him against the same poor tree the moron was leaning on. He stopped at her words and looked down at her. It was her who was squeezing his wrist now, and at first he was too taken aback to understand what she meant by that. He looked at her questioningly. "It's not worth it. Come on."
Following her quiet request wasn't easy, not when his blood was boiling like it was right then. He did, however, because not so deep inside he knew she was right – there was no immediate danger, so he supposed it was better to leave things be for now.
Even if only because she wanted it that way.
Yet, he couldn't miss the change of air that occurred after the incident – Anne was walking faster now, her head held high and her lips pursed together, both things she usually did when she wanted – needed – to prove the whole world that she was above its wrongdoings, its hatred and prejudice.
That she was above the bullying that for some reason never seemed to end.
"Anne, slow down," he suggested hesitantly while he tried to catch up with her, let alone get her attention; he turned around quickly to make sure Billy wasn't following them. "He's not coming. And I'm here. There's no need to run."
The girl swallowed uneasily and gave him a brief glance before she shook her head at him silently.
"Please, Anne. If you don't want to talk, it's fine. But it's too cold to race home like this, you're gonna catch your death before you get to the fence."
He noticed the change of expression on her pale, worried face. It was as if she suddenly remembered something, and the memory was vivid or pleasant enough to make her forget about Billy Andrews, if only for a moment. Whatever it was (and Gilbert surely didn't know that) it seemed to have worked just fine and reflected not only on her countenance, but also in her step as she finally returned to her natural pace.
She glanced up at him again, this time gracing him with a small smile.
He immediately felt the weight being lifted from his heart.
"That's what Mrs Barry always says," she explained a moment later, shifting her sight again, this time fixing it on the horizon before them. "Every time we come back too late, or leave the house too early, she threatens us like this. It's exactly what she said when we tried to act out a part of Lord Tennyson's Lancelot and Elaine – I was already in the boat, flowers in my hands and all... Jane was giving instructions, Diana had even said her farewell and if it hadn't been for Mrs Barry, they and Ruby would undoubtedly have pushed the boat on the lake. But of course, my luck wouldn't have it."
"Wait," Gilbert frowned, his concern battling his disbelief. "You were Elaine?"
She only huffed. "If this is supposed to be another rude allusion to my hair, you'll do better keeping it to yourself. And it wasn't my idea, I'll have you know. I wanted Ruby to play her, but she refused, for reasons I still cannot bring myself to understand."
"No, no, that's not at all what I meant!" her companion answered, startled with the sudden turn their conversation had taken. "It's not about you playing Elaine, it's about anyone doing it. I mean, I was sure you put some kind of a doll in that boat, or maybe left it empty and just adorned with flowers."
Anne's eyebrows rose up immediately.
"Why on earth would we do that?"
"Well, isn't that what that famous imagination of yours is for?" he tried to justify his apparently ridiculous thought. "So you can experience something without having to recreate it exactly as it was?"
"Gilbert Blythe, for such a clever person, you can be really silly sometimes."
"She's dead in that poem, Anne."
"Of course. I guess that's why Ruby refused to act the part."
"But you didn't?"
"Do I look to you as someone who withdraws at the prospect of a little threat, especially when there's so much to gain in return? A threat that itself is so romantic that it's almost more tempting than a positive outcome of things?"
Their eyes met then, hers filled with the excitement she succumbed to so easily, his full of joy the sight gave. His heart fluttered, just like it did every time he saw her happy. She was a ray of sunshine, or maybe even the Sun itself, brightening the dull world that seemed to lose its colour as soon as she disappeared from his vision.
And she was braver than anyone he'd ever known.
"No," he admitted eventually, looking fondly at her, only half hoping she hadn't yet realised how much he already cared for her. "You most certainly don't."
They were hardly moving forward at this point, their initial trot reduced to less than a stroll – but Gilbert didn't mind. He still hadn't found out when Diana would be coming back or, in other words, how many more afternoons he would get to spend like this, with the most astonishing redhead by his side, teasing, laughing, watching her – that however, was of no meaning to him. She could let him walk her home every day for the rest of their lives and yet, he knew he would still treasure every second of it.
They came to a halt at the sound of a cracked branch, both snapping their heads towards the source of the noise. It could have been an animal that stepped on that stick, or it could have been wind, or maybe something else entirely – Gilbert's first suspicion, however, was far more unpleasant than that.
After all, it was pretty hard to find a thought more unpleasant than Billy Andrews.
Fearing that Anne's thoughts would follow the same path, Gilbert looked down at her, ready to divert her attention with any topic at all. She didn't seem particularly perturbed or scared – thank Heaven for that – but she wasn't cheerful, either. If anything, she was focused, a little anxious maybe. Her brow was furrowed, and as much as Gilbert adored the tiny wrinkles that formed on her forehead every time she concentrated, it was not the sight he desired to see now. He needed a distraction, anything to snap her out of this sudden stupor which only threatened to sour the mood.
He clung to the first thought that came into mind.
"I hope Diana's alright?"
It must have been a good choice, because as soon as he finished the sentence, Anne's eyes were on him. He wasn't sure whether it was because what he'd said was interesting to her, or the opposite, it was the most nonsensical question he could possibly have asked – probably the latter, judging by the way she stared at him, with the same surprised look she'd given him earlier this afternoon. Gilbert cleared his throat.
"She wasn't at school today, I thought maybe she wasn't feeling well," he explained carefully, still hoping she would not see right through his little scheme and let herself get engaged in the conversation. "I suppose you're the best person to ask about her well-being."
"Oh, that," she answered half-heartedly before fixing her gaze at the very same spot she'd been watching before. She tilted her head a little, clearly involved in her observation. "She's alright. They all went to see Aunt Jo yesterday – Miss Barry, that is – and they must have stayed for the night; Diana told me it could happen. She'll be back tomorrow, the day after at most."
As important as it was to him to maintain the conversation, it was hard for him to say more than a quiet "Oh," which, in turn, came out of his mouth quite involuntarily. He bit the inside of his cheek, annoyed with his own reaction (What had he expected? That he really would get the chance to walk Anne for the rest of his sorry life? As if one time wasn't a miracle enough!) and bore his own gaze into the tips of his shoes as he shifted uncomfortably.
He truly was a cluck.
Nice job, Blythe, he mused to himself, as he fought the sudden urge to turn on his heel and run away, since apparently the Earth was in no rush to open up and swallow him, no matter how much he wished otherwise. Goodness gracious, if only Bash was there to see him. He would probably have to move out from his own house, for he certainly couldn't stand the taunting that would undoubtedly come after this.
Or maybe not. Maybe it was only in his head, and no one except his agitated self could notice anything. Not even Sebastian, and most certainly not Anne, who still appeared too caught up in her own thoughts and daydreams to pay much or any attention to him. All he needed was to look up, and make some use of this stupid mouth of him, say something, anything and -
"What did Billy mean by 'the last time'?"
"Oh, nothing. Nothing at all," he stammered, while his mind raced, searching for some more educated explanation. "He's just talking nonsense, like he always is so you really shouldn't -"
"And whipping? What whipping?" she asked again, as if she hadn't heard a word he'd just said.
She was looking at him now, successfully making him lose those scraps of confidence he had left. Her greenish eyes were filled with question as well as the determination to receive a proper answer to it. Gilbert realised there was no escaping it now – he well knew that when Anne set her mind onto something, she would not let it go if her whole life and happiness depended on it. She was more stubborn than he was, and even though he couldn't yet decide whether he found the quality more irritating or endearing, it sure as hell didn't make him feel any more comfortable with himself, let alone with the truth he was about to admit.
At least now he knew he needed to do it.
"It's an old story, really," he said quietly, simultaneously trying to understand why looking into her eyes suddenly proved to be so challenging. "He was being an idiot, making some nasty comments about you some… some months ago. I told him to shut up about it, but, well. He didn't listen."
"So you punched him? For me?"
"Billy Andrews is a fool deserving a punch for far more than bullying you, Anne. Although I won't deny it, it was probably that that made me react the way I did."
She nodded in acknowledgement, and yet, something was telling Gilbert that she wasn't entirely satisfied with his answer. Like if she didn't believe him, or maybe like if she couldn't quite comprehend the idea of someone caring enough to stand up and fight for her. The idea wasn't new to him; he knew that after everything she'd been through before he'd even heard of her it was more than difficult for her to accept herself, and even more so to believe that others were able – and willing – to accept her, too.
Still, he could not have foreseen the next question she threw at him.
"Why are we friends?"
He almost choked at her words.
"What is that supposed to mean?" he inquired, astonished. He met her gaze then, and saw her frown intensify as she appeared even more resolute than before. He sighed. "I don't know. I mean, do we really need a reason? People tend to look for company, and I certainly don't wish to go through my youth alone, no matter what you may think."
She shook her head.
"No, Gilbert. Why are you friends with me?"
Once more that day he found himself left speechless, and once again, it was due to his lovely friend's behaviour.
How was he supposed to be anything around her when she could and did stupefy him so easily?
He wanted to answer but couldn't find any of the words necessary to do so – and she herself was talking long before he did.
"I mean, you are Gilbert Blythe, right?" she mused, her gaze one again trailing off his face. She looked smaller now, with her back hunched and her lips pursed even as she spoke. "The Gilbert Blythe. The boy everyone wants to be friends with, from Diana Barry and Ruby Gillis to Billy Andrews and Josie Pye. You had been that boy years before I came to Avonlea, and if your reputation ever suffered, it was because you decided to link your name with mine. And that's not fair – not to mention, pretty stupid of you, too."
She glanced back at him, only to see him gaze at her with the same look he gave her so often, full of concentration while completely void of understanding at the same time.
He gave her a small, disbelieving smile. "I'm under a strong impression that you think way too highly of me, Anne Shirley-Cuthbert. It has never been everyone that wanted to be friends with me."
"Oh, drop the act, Gil," she retorted, her annoyance clearly increasing. "I hate fake modesty and it's even worse coming from you. I'd have to be blind not to see the respect all of the boys have for you, and I know for certain that Ruby would be thrilled to be noticed by you, and I'm very much sure Diana wouldn't mind it, either..."
"But you do?"
"Stop mocking me, Gilbert! I'm just trying to make some logic out of it, that's all!"
"And since when is friendship about logic, Anne?"
He was standing closer to her now, and speaking in a hushed voice. He still didn't know where to go with that conversation, how to stir it to make them come to their conclusions in the fastest and least painful way. Mere moments ago he'd been as good as smirking at her, while at the same time an irrational fear was starting to overshadow his young, uncertain heart. She was so determined to have this talk, there and then, for no explainable reason, really, and it almost seemed as if she wanted him to admit they should not have been friends. It could be either because she needed a firmer affirmation of their friendship...
...or because she needed a fair reason to end it.
He felt his heart drop at the thought. He scolded himself for coming to such assumption so... recklessly, and yet, he couldn't chase the thought away entirely.
"I'm just saying that we literally have no reason to be friends, Gil." He heard her say softly a moment later; he wondered if she realised how much her words affected him. "Why would you pay any mind to me when I did nothing to justify that? You had saved me from Billy before you even learned my name and I hardly thanked you for it. I whacked you with my slate, I kept pushing you away in the rudest manner and I said some absolutely unforgivable things at your father's funeral, because I was too stupid to know any better. I'm an orphan, who has nothing to offer but troubles. You could be friends with anyone in our class, Gilbert, with people you've known for years and years, who resemble you much more than I ever could, and somehow you choose to waste your days with some plain, skinny Anne Shirley. Tell me that's not silly at best."
You are silly at best, he wanted to tell her after he finally inhaled, something he'd been too afraid to do for what seemed like eternity. She had to be silly, in some way at least, or how else could he explain the utter blindness she had just presented to him? He wanted to laugh cordially at her, or maybe step even closer and just take her in his arms just to assure her that her hypothesises were as ungrounded as they could be; but he knew that was not what either of them needed.
So he leaned over her, just a very little and, grinning widely, he said. "Anne Shirley-Cuthbert, for such a clever person you can be really unobservant sometimes."
She jerked her head up to fully face him; she even opened her mouth, ready to respond but this time, it was Gilbert who didn't let her.
This had been taking them too long already.
"Anne, I want you to listen to me, carefully. Even if you were plain, and you certainly are not, why do you think it should change anything? You don't choose your friends by their looks, not the one you really care about... At least I know that I don't."
"That's obvious," she muttered under her breath.
Gilbert decided to ignore her, and instead, he raised his hand and gently tapped his finger against her forehead and the loose strand that happened to fall onto it. "I choose you for this."
Anne held back a snort but rolled her eyes at him nevertheless.
"Again, if you're mocking my hair, I'd like you to know it's a very bad time for doing this."
His smile only grew wider. "I mean your brain, Anne, and everything you hold inside it. Your wit, your ideas, your imagination, too. I have no need for a pretty, boring friend that would agree with everything I say or do. I want someone who can make me grow, who'll push me forward even if that's the last thing I want at the time. Someone who will challenge me – and blast me if you don't do that every single day."
Her expression softened a little, and once again, Gilbert had to fight the urge to take her hands into his and never let her go.
"I still whacked you with that slate," she said.
"Well, no one had done that before, for sure."
They both chuckled now, relief sweeping over them. They resumed their walk back home right after, staying silent, enjoying the crisp Spring air of the forest around them and each other's presence in it. Anne shook her head for what seemed like a twentieth time that day but still, she said nothing.
Once again, it was Gilbert who did.
"There's more to it than this, you know," he said, resolved on clearing any remains of doubt that could still hide inside his friend's beautiful mind. "It's your kindness, Anne. That's what keeps it all together, I guess."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Are you sure you're talking to the right person? Because 'kindness' doesn't sound very much like me."
"Yes, it does," he opposed. "When I was away on that steamship, I thought all strings connecting me to home were lost. And then when this whole gold fever arose, you thought of me and wrote to me – and we barely were on speaking terms back then."
"It just seemed like a right thing to do. I felt you should know about this."
"You were the only one that did."
"I was the only one who had any idea of contacting you."
"See? Clever and kind."
She laughed wholeheartedly this time, and Gilbert was positive his heart skipped a beat at the sound. They both came to a halt then – the Cuthberts' gate was just a few feet away now, the sight mercilessly announcing the end of their journey together.
Anne, however, didn't seem particularly eager to leave, either.
"You know, Gil, your company may result terribly in my attempts to fight my vanity, as Marilla keeps reminding me I should be doing constantly."
It was finally his turn to raise his eyebrows at her. "How so?"
"The clever and kind thing. You keep saying that and I may become nearly perfectly happy with myself."
He laughed again, before asking. "What makes it just nearly?"
"Well, this, of course," she answered with a smile, taking one of her braids in her fingers and lifting it a little to emphasise her words. "Although Mrs Linde was kind enough to say that she believed my hair might darken significantly as I grow up, and it has indeed darken after I cut it off last winter. I often wonder – and there's my vanity again – whether it's possible it will change so much that it's in fact more dark than red?"
Gilbert took a while to ponder over the question, and then smiled, his expression as genuine as it was serious.
"I honestly hope not," he admitted resolutely. "No matter what you think of it, taking away your red hair would be like... Like erasing an E from your name. It would make you less of an Anne – and Lord knows I'd hate to ever see that happen."
He nodded his goodbye, his fingers brushing against the edge of his cap, and set off towards his own house.
He sincerely hoped Diana wouldn't be back too soon.
Author's note: Another shirbert story and posted much sooner than I initially planned to. But hey, where's the fun in writing if you don't get to share your works? So here I am with a another one, hoping you will, or in fact, have enjoyed it.
Until next time, my dear Kindred Spirits!