Nothing like Lancelot

Dignified exits are difficult enough when one is soaked and heavy with mud, but they are almost impossible when the long legs that once held you up suddenly refuse to work. Anne had only just made it to shore and hauled herself onto the grassy bank, when her knees gave way and she fell to the ground with a graceless flop.

It was as if every drop of heat-giving blood had collected in her middle, tumbling over and over like a woozy, silken whirlpool. She had to get away from him, yet her feet wouldn't move. Anne attributed this to her kidskin boots, which were smothered in thick red clay. She was busying herself with the fiddly laces when Gilbert dropped down beside her.

The fact he had chosen this place to land was the only proof Anne had that he had seen her. He lay on his back, one knee drawn upward, as the pond water streamed from his body. By the time Anne had removed both shoes and peeled off her stockings, he was gazing at the sky. His hands cradling his head as though this was just some pond-side picnic.

Despite his apparent nonchalance and despite the afternoon sun, his forearms were pricked with gooseflesh and his lips were a pinkish-blue.

"You'll catch your death," Anne said, spitefully.

"I caught your life," he snapped back.

Anne had no idea how to respond to that, and shuffled forward on her knees to rinse her boots in the pond. A moment later she shuffled back, one boot still in her hand.

"What's that supposed to mean – do you think I was trying to – end myself?"

"Sorry Anne, what did you say? Your teeth are chattering so loud I can't make out a word."

Anne now had a good idea why Gilbert was lying low. The tall reeds that surrounded them provided a buffer from the wind. The same teasing wind that had loosened the braid attached to her head as she stood on the bridge, and blown it into the water. Anne was convinced she would have reached it if Gilbert hadn't turned up. And before she knew what she had done, she threw her boot (the muddy one) in the region of his handsome head.

Gilbert dodged it without too much trouble and grabbed at it almost lazily. Pondering her boot for a moment he tossed it into the reeds behind him.

"And you can fetch it too," Anne said, tilting her nose in the air.

Gilbert leaned on his elbow, then slowly stretched forward to wipe his hand on her muddy skirts. As a means to get clean it proved a useless gesture, but what he really wanted was Anne's attention, and he knew he had it now. Anne darted forward to snatch her skirts away, when he grabbed her by the wrist. It didn't take more than the merest tug to send her falling on top of him.

Cool water was squeezed from the space between her breasts and pooled in the hollow of his throat. The heat in her abdomen spread up to her neck and turned her cheeks a tell-tale red.

"What do you think you're doing?" she hissed.

"You're a fine one to talk," he said. "I know you why you cut all your hair off, Anne, I know that you've been crying. I know what you've been reading, and I know why you came here. Your proud act isn't going to work on me."

"What act?" Anne was incredulous. "I had a perfectly good reason for coming here today, which you would know if you had bothered to ask. But I know you won't, you're too stubborn to admit maybe someone knows better than you!"

Anne shifted away, not as much as she could have, but enough that his nipples showed stiff beneath his soaking shirt. He should have caught his breath long before now, yet his chest was heaving as she slowly withdrew.

"Let me go," she said, softer now, as she realised he was still holding her wrist.

"No I won't. You're freezing, you need to stay low."

"And use you like a warming stone? I don't think so, Gilbert –"

"No, you don't think, do you, Anne?" Gilbert accused her. "You just follow your romantic little heart."

Anne did something that surprised him then, and began to laugh. His grip immediately loosened and she rolled onto the grass beside him.

"You think I'm the romantic one?" Anne said, with a stubbornness equal to the man beside her. "I cut my hair because – I had measles, that book you saw is a course text for school. I couldn't be more sensible than Jane Andrews herself. Meanwhile you –"

"Me?"

"Yes you," said Anne with satisfaction. "You came all the way out here like – like Lancelot, thinking you had to rescue me."

Gilbert sat up and brought his legs to his chest, wrapping his arms around his knees.

"I'm nothing like Lancelot," he said stiffly. "That fool never knew what he had."

He turned away and stared hard at the bridge. Droplets of water trickled down his face, and Anne clamped her hands around her knees too, afraid if she didn't she wouldn't be able to stop herself from wiping them away. Being in his presence again, especially now he had regained his strength, was as confusing as it was wondrous. The body she had cared for, had sheltered in, had held, had become as familiar to Anne as her own. Now that Gilbert had returned to health he clearly didn't need her. Yet his clenched jaw and resolute expression only made Anne want him more.

Wet red tendrils clung to her cheeks and she nervously brushed them away. But Gilbert was barely aware of her movements, instead he found himself thinking about Roy. The man had everything, wealth, prestige, position, and would rather keep hold of all it and protect his reputation, than take any risk on Anne.

"I came here because I have some news about Gardner," he began, his voice almost lost to the wind. "I wasn't sure how you would take it. Now that I do, I want you to know you're going to have to fight me, and I mean really fight me, if you try to do that again."

He nodded toward the bridge, then turned, his eyes on her mud smeared skirts. "There's no good way to tell you this. He's engaged… to Christine. They're returning to Kingsport this evening."

His eyes strayed to her small white feet. Anne inched over, curling her cool fingers over his.

"I had no idea, I'm so sorry."

Gilbert wasn't sure he heard her right, and lifted his gaze to her face. Anne's grey eyes looked to be welling with tears, as if she felt pity for him.

"You're sorry?"

"Well, yes…" Anne said, a little warily. "I might be sensible, Gilbert, but I'm not heartless. I've known all along how you felt about Christine. Your mother told me everything."

Gilbert was looking at Anne as though she had just thrown another boot at his head, and recoiled the same way.

"You think I… after everything… that I would…"

He couldn't seem to finish one thought, and looked like he was going to be sick. Anne sat there, watching helplessly as he got to his feet and began pacing around, before searching for his jacket and boots. She got up and hurried after him, her muddied skirts plastered to her thighs. When she finally reached him he was trying to get a wet arm into the sleeve of his jacket. He threw it down in disgust.

"And this is what you think of me?" His hazel eyes flared dangerously and his chest swelled with each breath. "Anne, I cleaned you, I lay with you, I brushed your – your hair. What kind of man does those things when he is promised to someone else?"

"What kind of woman would I be, if I let you care for me like that when I had feelings for Roy? I just wanted your friendship back, Gilbert. Isn't that why you tried to save me?"

His eyes flicked down the long column of her body, draped in a clinging white dress. And a memory came of Anne in her nightgown, and the night he woke to find to her standing above him. He was suddenly afraid that he might do now what he had dreamed about then, and reluctantly shifted away.

"Isn't it?" Anne said, and waited for his answer. In the desolation of his silence, she forced herself to continue. "I know I'm difficult and proud and romantic, and I rush headlong into trouble without thinking it through. But you do those things too, Gilbert – though I guess you've never thrown anything at my head…" She bent down and retrieved a boot lying among the reeds. "You can throw one at me if you like. I won't even move, I promise."

Gilbert stood there, a frown on his face as he stared down at his boot.

"Throw anything you like then, throw mud, water, I don't care, just please, please… don't throw our away our friendship!"

It might have sounded like a joke to anyone else, but Gilbert knew this plea came from her heart. He didn't have to look at her face to know that, but he sought it anyway because whenever he was with Anne, her fairy-like features were the only thing he never tired of seeing. A scowl, a tilt, a Queenish look, what did he care, so long as he could fall into the clear grey depths of her eyes – and keep falling.

Though his feet stood firmly on the ground ,he felt like he was falling now. His stomach lurched and the cry he would have made had the world beneath him vanished, was lodged in his throat. Not when he was ill, nor in all their years together, had he seen this girl look at him the way she was looking at him now.

Yearning, mud-spattered, spirited yet forlorn; her little pointed face framed with wisps of wet curls. Her small mouth gaping slightly, her tongue darting over her bottom lip, and her eyes – her impossible, impossibly luminous eyes – shining and wide and urging him on.

Gilbert grabbed the boot from her and dropped it with a thud, then he strode away to the edge of the pond. It was here he once asked her forgiveness and revealed his wish that they could be friends. He never dreamed that he would be the one to reject her pleas now.

The sigh he made was like a knife through Anne's heart; the words that came next like the blow that would slice it in two.

"No Anne," he said, "I don't want to be friends."

It was as though that knife had pinned her to the spot. The ground beneath her began to blur as she begged herself not to cry. She did not notice, because she never believed it possible, that the sound of feet striding towards her could belong to the man who was grabbing her now.

He reached around her waist and pulled her to him, so fast and with such force she almost fell back. His other hand was all gentleness as he cupped her jaw and lifted her chin, until her perfect freckled nose was almost grazing his.

"I can't do it, Anne. I can't stand for you to think for one more second that I am only looking to be your friend. I want to be your husband. I long for you to be my wife. If you don't want that then I'll find a way to live with it. But I don't want there to be any more confusion between us."

His voice was strained yet full of hope, and his hazel eyes were searching. Anne could not say a word, but that hardly mattered, he saw her answer when she smiled up at him.

The kiss that followed was fierce, almost desperate, the second tender with sweet relief. Anne moaned softly as she felt his tongue brush over hers, and it wasn't her knees that gave way then, it was his. She didn't remember much of the tumble. All Anne knew was the smell of crushed grass and the bliss of being tangled up in his arms. He was grinning with a dazed sort of happiness, giving him a beauty that was almost too much to bear.

As she pressed her lips into the side his neck, Gilbert tenderly nuzzled her ear. From the day she left his home he had imagined kissing her there, though he never imagined it would make her laugh. Her whole body reverberated, sending waves of pleasure straight through him. But it wasn't enough to for him to feel it, Gilbert needed to see her again. He rolled her on top of him, and found himself marvelling as a child looks up at the stars, that this laughing, blushing, joyful girl lying on chest was Anne.

"I didn't know you were ticklish there."

"I didn't know either," Anne sighed.

"I love that there's so much I don't know about you."

"I love you," Anne said.

In an instant his playful eyes became serious, and his hands were cradling her face.

"Is this real," he asked her, "please tell me this isn't some fever dream, are you really here in my arms?"

"I love you, Gilbert," Anne answered him, shyly. "I wanted to tell you for the longest time, from the minute I heard you were ill, nothing mattered to me but being with you – oh Gilbert, if only you knew…"

He drew himself up a little and smoothed back a curl with his thumb.

"I know now," he said, kissing her gently, "and I want you to know... Anne, I never stopped loving you."

Thank you for reading and for all your lovely comments, I treasure every one. Just two chapters to go now, then the Fever Dreams will end. :o)