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A Very Tragic, Romantical Secret (Understanding of a Pre-) Engagement

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Gilbert tucked his chin against a brisk September breeze and hurried along Theological Hall’s carefully manicured lawn. Young men and women were grouped across the grass, buzzing with excitement. He wound his way between them, searching for his friends.

Turrets stretched from the sprawling brick building up to a bluebird sky, and a bell tower stood tall and proud above the ornate front doors. Theological Hall was the center of Queens College, the fine institution at which Gilbert had been a pupil for the past fortnight.

The campus was lush and vibrant, its refined landscape made crisp and colorful with autumn’s changing leaves. Gilbert’s eye was drawn by an especially spectacular maple tree. Caught in the glow of late afternoon sunlight, its orange and red leaves burned like a bonfire.

“Watch it, coming through.” 

Gil twisted around and jumped back. The crowd behind him parted as two upperclassmen lurched past, lugging a bronze statue between them. It was a likeness of the lady Justice, about three feet tall from head to plinth, with her book in one hand and her scales in the other. 

“‘Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence,’” were the words engraved at her feet.

“What’s that?” a girl beside him asked her companion, watching the young men stagger forward.

“It’s the Lady of Learning,” someone called, their voice rising above the crowd’s inquisitive murmurs. “The first place team of this year’s Fall Freshmen Scavenger Hunt will take it home for the year!”

Gilbert grinned and pushed his way onward. He had a feeling that such a prize would be greatly coveted, and he was determined to be of assistance in its conquest.

He found Moody, Josie, Ruby, Charlie and the others on the wide stone steps leading up to the hall, basking in the sunshine. Moody jumped up at his approach and pompously shook his hand. Gilbert greeted the others with warmth. He’d started classes late, having been delayed by his apprenticeship at Kingston Hospital, and hadn’t seen much of anyone since he’d left Avonlea for the summer.

He’d barely time to wonder where Anne was, when he heard her dulcet tones calling up the stairs behind him. He turned.

She took the steps two at a time, not looking up from the sheaf of papers in her hands. Her frilly white dress was tied with a blue ribbon around her waist, childlike and delicate despite her long skirts. One hand held her hat to her head against the wind, decorated with flowers as always, little white sprigs of baby’s breath between soft blue petals. Her other hand clutched the stack of papers and a fistful of skirt, wrinkling both in her haste to reach them.

“I’ve read the first clue!” she called, breathless. “It’s obvious— That trophy will be ours!”

She paused at the first landing, looking up when she reached Ruby’s feet.

“Oh!” She stopped short at the sight of him.

The wind stained her cheeks pink. Gilbert tried not to stare. She looked different— Her hair was up, he realized belatedly. He wasn’t used to seeing her without her twin braids, but of course they were at college now. They weren’t children anymore.

“‘Lo, Anne.” He nodded. She peeked up at him cautiously, golden lashes fluttering at the low sunlight. Gilbert warmed at the sight of her, his face creasing in a smile before he could wrestle it down. Her cheeks glowed in response.

“Are you playing for team Avonlea?” she asked. Two copper curls hung loose from her elegant coif and brushed against the bare slope of her shoulder. Gilbert’s pulse thrummed in his ear.

“Of course.” He jammed his hands in his pockets and slouched. He suddenly felt very awkward.

“Thank the Celtic goddess Rhiannon!” She jumped the last few stairs between them. “I don’t know if you’ve seen, Gilbert, but the winning prize is a glorious bronze likeness of lady Justice with the most dignified quote beneath— Well, I don’t suppose that would matter much to you, but it would sit ever-so-charmingly in the corner of my rose garden… anyway, I’m sure you, Gilbert Blythe, would never back down from the pursuit of a competition well won?”

“Certainly not.” He straightened, just holding back his smirk. “And I’m always determined to do Avonlea proud.”

Her eyes grew wide and misty. “How wonderful.” Gilbert watched with consternation as she swayed on her feet. He reached to steady her on instinct, but she caught herself, snapping quickly upright. The apples of her cheeks were bright and pink. “Here, uh,” she waved a piece of paper in his face, “here are the rules.”

He plucked the page from her grasp, and she turned away, distributing the rest to their teammates.

“Each team has a set of clues to follow which will take us around campus,” she explained. “That’s the point— to help us become familiar with Queens’ buildings and grounds. To win, we must collect each clue in order, and be the first to find our way back to the Lady of Learning.”

‘Seal with wax thine anecdote; then stop here to post thy note,’” Ruby read aloud. She looked to Moody, confused.

“Perhaps the community bulletin board?” he suggested.

“No, no, no!” Anne exclaimed. She bent her head over the clue scrawled in elaborately curled writing at the bottom. Another tendril at the back of her elegant, grown-up twist escaped and tickled the delicate knob between her shoulder blades. Gilbert stared. His mouth was dry.

“It’s the post office, of course!” She twisted around, and Gilbert found himself nose-to-nose with her wild-eyed excitement. She gazed at him, brows raised. He started when it dawned on him she waited for his reaction.

“You must be right,” he agreed, a bit tongue-tied, then tried to elaborate. “You always are.” His stomach dropped when she bristled and huffed, but then she studied him, thoughtful. He felt his cheeks burn in spite of himself, and he lowered his gaze, neck hot inside his scratchy wool scarf.

Keep it together, Blythe, he scolded himself.

“Thank you, Gilbert,” she said softly, “I’m sure your generous use of hyperbole in this instance is in earnest.” She turned, then, and began the unenviable task of herding their peers to the post office for no other reason than because a piece of paper told them to. Gilbert watched her for another dazed moment, then jumped to help.

He never told her he’d chosen to end his courtship with Winni. They’d seen glimpses of each other since then, but hadn’t truly spoken since before he went to Kingston for the summer. She’d heard of it somehow, of course.

An unmarked envelope had found its way to his desk sometime in July. Neatly folded inside was a magazine clipping. Gilbert recognized the curlicues on the typeset from a literary magazine Anne subscribed to. His fingers traced and retraced the words.

It's all I have to bring to-day,
This, and my heart beside,
This, and my heart, and all the fields,
And all the meadows wide.
Be sure you count, should I forget, —
Someone the sum could tell, —
This, and my heart, and all the bees
Which in the clover dwell.

— Emily Dickinson

There was no note or return address, but Gilbert knew with absolute certainty the poem was from Anne. He didn’t know why she’d sent it to him, though, and hadn’t quite enough courage to ask. Instead, he’d dithered embarrassingly for two weeks, before he steeled his nerve and posted his reply.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.

— William Butler Yeats

The exchange was not explained or repeated. 

Now they’d been together at Queens College for two weeks, and Gilbert was determined to resume their friendship.

He was going to find a way to make Anne smile. Then, he was going to make her laugh. Then, he would probably say something to annoy her, just to let her roll her eyes, and then he would make her laugh again. Then he would hold her hand and tell her that he loved her. 

First things first.

They followed their clues to the registrar’s office, and then to the dining hall, where half the freshman class appeared to have been distracted from their hunt by a generous spread of punch and cookies. Charlie and Josie joined them, promptly abandoning team Avonlea.

Gilbert swiped a cookie and then ducked outside the crowded dining hall. He joined their dwindling group in the hallway and stood behind Anne, reading the next clue over her shoulder.

“‘Take heed,’” she announced aloud, “‘classes here may be sanguinary; proper attire keeps us sanitary.’”

“What’s sang-win-erry?” Ruby asked, repeating aloud the unfamiliar word.

“I think it has to do with one’s family relations,” Anne said, a crease between her eyebrows. “Perhaps the hall of records—”

Gilbert couldn’t help it. He laughed.

“It means ‘bloody!”’ He exclaimed, and snickered at Anne’s affronted expression. Ruby shuddered and pulled a face, but Gilbert hardly noticed. He knew exactly where the clue led.

“Mr. Peters, the lab assistant in my first-year biology course, is always saying that: ‘proper attire keeps us sanitary.’ He must have said it five times my first day!” Gilbert’s excitement mounted. “It means the medical wing of Theological Hall, surely. C’mon, I’ll show you. I have classes there three times a week.” And, without thinking too closely on his actions, he grabbed Anne’s hand and dragged her down the corridor to the front doors.

She exhaled a happy sigh when they stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine. Her hand clutched reflexively to his, and they shared a moment, reveling in the crisp bite of approaching winter. 

Their friends lagged in the doorway. Gilbert paid them half a mind, but he could tell their interest in the hunt was waning.

He turned to Anne. His stomach fluttered when he found her gazing up at him, blue eyes wide.

“Shall we?” he asked. Inexplicably, he removed his hat and held it against his thudding heart.

She nodded slowly, lips curling upward. Gilbert promptly forgot about the others and pulled her down the sidewalk. She giggled, skipping a bit to keep up.

He released her hand to open the door at the east wing of Theological Hall, ushering her inside. Shadows fell thick as dust when the door snapped shut behind them.

His shoes clicked down the tile corridor. Her boots scuffed hastily alongside him.

“These are the third- and fourth-year labs,” he explained when they passed a series of windows on either side of the hallway, revealing neat rows of tables with equipment stacked against the walls. “Doctor Ward put in a good word for me, so I’ll sit in as third assistant next semester.”

“Third assistant?” she queried.

“It’s mostly clean-up and dung removal.” He gazed longingly into a corner laboratory, one hand on the windowpane. “I can’t wait.”

“Good for you, Gilbert,” Anne said, settling against the wall opposite him. She crossed her arms and cocked her head. “You’ve always been so focused. I admire that about you.”

Gilbert raised an eyebrow, a smile itching at the corners of his mouth. “Really?”

“Mm.” She lifted a shoulder and studied her hands. “It’s why I was surprised when you told me you were considering an engagement last spring. Really, Gilbert. You’ll be grateful not to have a wife distracting you from your studies.” She looked up to find him gaping at her. Her eyes skittered away, a blush blooming across her cheek. She hurried to continue, stumbling over the words. “We’re much too young to be getting engaged anyway.”

“I—” Gilbert didn’t know what to say. “How old were your parents when they married?”

The question spilled from his lips without thought. Her eyes widened. He cringed almost immediately.

“I’m sorry, Anne, that was stupid of me—”

She shook her head. “No, I didn't have the chance to tell you. I followed a few leads and learned a bit more about them this summer.”

“That’s wonderful!”

“Yes.” Her smile was brilliant. “My mother was a teacher with red hair, and my father would send her poetry.” Gilbert’s mind flashed to the magazine clipping tucked safely inside his Bible, locked inside the desk in his bedroom. His heart stuttered, cheeks warming, but Anne didn’t notice. Her eyes grew dark. “They were so young when they— when they died. My mother was just nineteen.” She blinked up at him. “Nineteen, Gilbert! It’s such a tragically romantic age.” 

“I’m nineteen,” Gilbert said.

Anne stilled. Her mouth opened like she meant to keep speaking, but no words came out. It occurred to Gilbert that was perhaps not the most empathetic thing to say.

“I—“

“‘Doth thou need a specific tome? Come, bring thy notes; no more studying at home.’”  

They turned. Moody read aloud from a slip of paper in his hand, pacing down the hallway toward them. He looked up when he finished and shook it in the air.

“How did I find this before the two of you? You had at least a five minute start on me.” He gloated, too distracted by his triumph to notice he might be interrupting.

Anne looked from Moody to Gilbert and back again, eyes wide. Her lips parted, and she briefly looked so lost it was almost comical. Then with a shake of her head, she pulled herself upright and swept imperiously down the stone hallway to snatch the clue from Moody’s hand. 

Gilbert followed, drawn irresistibly behind her. Silently, they read the words scrawled upon the slip of paper one more time.

“The library,” they said together.

Even Moody’s enthusiasm for the scavenger hunt waned in the face of Anne and Gilbert’s shared reverence for the Library at Queens College, a tall, airy building that had quickly become one of Gilbert’s favorite places on campus. Moody parted ways with them as they mounted the stair to the third level, insisting it made more sense to split up and search for the next clue. Gilbert knew him well enough to see his eyes glaze over at the prospect of traversing another floor of the library, forced to listen to his bookish friends’ running commentary.

The third level was the top floor of the library, where rows and rows of dusty books were stacked close together, and light streamed from tall windows set every few feet in the walls. Gilbert had been to a library, of course, before coming to Queens. But he’d never had the time or the right to dawdle, to explore the multitudes of worlds within its pages, to sit within its hoarded knowledge, sprawled upon a comfy-looking armchair in the corner. There was something magical about it, this freedom of access to mankind’s best thoughts and ideas, and Gilbert was earnestly grateful.

“I used to dream I had a library like this when I was in the orphanage,” Anne murmured. “In my stone tower where I was a beautiful princess, unfairly imprisoned.” Her eyes traveled up a gleaming wood ladder to the top row of books, stacked all the way to the ceiling.

Gilbert smiled. “Cordelia,” he said, as though they reminisced about an old friend.

Anne startled. “Yes, that’s right.” He saw her glance at him sideways.

“Would you ever dream of being rescued?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Sometimes. Mostly, Cordelia liked the tower. She just… got lonely.” Her cheeks burned with another blush, and she looked away as though she’d said something shameful. Gilbert opened his mouth, intending to probe further, when she straightened and gasped.

“Look, Gilbert!” Anne rushed across the room to a small sitting area around a fireplace. On the mantle was another likeness of the Lady of Learning, a smaller version than the statue they had seen that afternoon. She picked the statue up in one hand and discovered yet another slip of paper beneath it.

“‘Roses grow beside the chapel. Feel thou peckish? Grab an apple.’”

Gilbert followed and plucked the clue from her hand. He read it again, sure he was missing something. Anne sighed loudly, a playful smile dawning on her lips.

“I might have known I couldn’t keep a hideaway secret from you, Gilbert Blythe. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you planned it this way.”

“Is that so?” Gilbert said, playing along though he didn’t quite follow.

“Mhm.” She paused, watching him. Dust swirled in a pane of light slanting from the window high above them. They weren’t alone, but the handful of other students sprawled at desks between the stacks felt very far away, paying them no mind.

“Reedbarrow Hall has a lovely little courtyard hidden in one corner— Well, it’s not that small;  large enough for a chapel and rose garden, and even a beautiful miniature apple orchard.” Her voice grew soft, hushed in the already quiet space. Gilbert felt a tingle behind his ears at the intimacy of her whisper. “There are only four rows of apple trees, but when you stand right in the center and get very quiet and look up at the sun, it feels just like the orchard at the Barry’s back in Avonlea, if you can believe it. It’s my secret place, Gilbert Blythe, my sanctuary. You wouldn’t deprive me of my sanctuary, would you?”

Gilbert heard the teasing lilt of her question as though in a dream.

“Certainly not,” he whispered back. “I’d rather you weren’t deprived of anything. But this once, would you share it with me?”

He’d never tire of that blush, sweet and freely given. She nodded and held her hand out for the clue. He passed it to her, brushing his fingertips lightly along her palm, and it felt like a promise. She pocketed the slip of paper safely with the others.

The sun was setting as they exited the library, lending a golden, almost dauntless cast to the evening. Still, it wasn’t until they mounted the stair to Reedbarrow Hall that Gilbert summoned the courage to ask.

“Anne,” he said, holding the door open for her. He willed his voice to remain nonchalant, and mostly succeeded. “Did princess Cordelia have any great romances?”

Anne stumbled on the top step, head snapping around to gape at him. “Certainly not! I was just a child—”

“Imaginary romances,” Gilbert rushed to clarify. “And I wasn’t asking about you, I was asking about Cordelia.”

He let the door fall closed behind them. Anne led him into the darkness, hurrying to stay just a few steps ahead.

She waited until Gilbert’s stomach was tied into knots, and he was sure he’d finally overstepped that last boundary that would end with a slate cracked over his head, when she finally answered.

“No.” She turned a corner, and stopped when the hallway ended at a small doorway. Gilbert stepped forward eagerly when she pushed the door open, drawn by the golden sunset and the sweet scent of apple trees. Anne turned to him on the threshold.

“Cordelia didn’t think too much about romance, though she hoped it would happen to her someday. She gave little thought to the groom, but desperately wished to be a bride, and planned her dream wedding,” Anne’s eyes shone, rising from the sturdy trunks to branches laden with fruit to warm afternoon sky, “in a bright, sunlit orchard just like this one.”

They passed together into the courtyard, set snugly within Reedbarrow Hall’s four walls. Earth sprouted damp and green at their feet, and high above their heads, a wisp of clouds reflected the colors of the sunset. They trod down rows of apple trees, branches bowing with the weight. Further ahead, a small chapel rose from the grass, stained glass glowing with a multitude of colors, brilliant even from a distance. Roses grew like whiskers around its circumference.

“So, princess Cordelia would get married here,” he commented, glancing about the courtyard with evident delight. “Would you?” Belatedly, he realized they were holding hands.

“Someday, perhaps,” she said, eyes sparkling. She didn’t seem to notice the recent hand-holding development. The orchard had cast its spell over her, too. “There’s plenty of time for that after I’ve become a teacher and shaped the impressionable young minds of my pupils.” 

Gilbert nodded. “But someday, if the situation were right, would you be married in a place like this?” 

Anne’s brow creased. “I would,” she said slowly, her voice darkening with suspicion. Her eyes traveled down to their clasped hands. She startled and made to pull away, but he tightened his grip, holding her fast.

“I see.” He coughed and rocked back on his heels. “Would you marry me?” He posed the question as before, schooling his face to innocence.

Anne froze. “What,” she stammered, “you mean, someday?”

Gilbert shrugged. “Sure.” He lifted an eyebrow, a silent challenge.

Anne’s cheeks burned as red as an ambrosia apple. “Well, one can never know the future…” She trailed off helplessly. A copper curl nudged against her neck. Her eyes flicked up to meet his, then fell to her feet. Gilbert felt his blood rush, circulating just beneath his prickling skin. He leaned forward, painfully eager for her to continue.

“...but I suppose I would, yes,” she said and cleared her throat awkwardly.

Gilbert blinked. “Really?” He made a token effort to keep the grin off his face before giving in, wide and dopey. Something like victory thrummed in his chest.

Anne peeked up at him, a hesitant glance that paused, arrested by his smile. Her eyes widened, alarm sliding over her face. Gilbert quickly schooled his expression.

“Gilbert,” her voice tightened, rising in pitch, “this is hypothetical, isn’t it? Oh, why must you delight in embarrassing me at every turn—”

“You didn’t say ‘hypothetically’,” he pointed out. “You said, ‘someday.’”

“But you asked me in a hypothetical manner!” she argued. Her eyes were bright, her bosom rising with feeling. The blush had drained from her face except for two splashes of color high on her cheekbones. He stepped closer.

“Just to get you to admit it.” He quirked a grin, unabashed. Her mouth fell open.

“Gilbert Blythe, you rotten boy! You tricked me.”

“You can be very stubborn, Anne,” he said with utmost patience. A delicate crease formed between her pretty brows. Gilbert turned her palm over and cradled it in his, practically buzzing in his skin. They stared down together at his calloused fingers wrapped around her thin ones. He was quiet for a moment, allowing warmth to build in his chest and buoy him forward. She took a sharp breath, and he panicked, thinking she meant to rebuke him. “I want to tell you something,” he said in a rush. She stared at him, blush rising once more. His heart raced. “And I think you’re ready to hear it. Are you?”

Her jaw had dropped slightly, lips parted in distraction as her eyes flicked between his. Her tongue swiped at her bottom lip, pink and moist. Something quivered deep in Gilbert’s stomach. Slowly, she nodded.

He slid their palms together, twisted his fingers between hers. “I’ve never met anyone like you. I have admired you and your bravery, wit and kindness to others for as long as I have known you. You are smart, and sweet, and passionate about so many things.” A chuckle got lost in his throat. He squeezed her hand for courage, comforted when she didn’t pull away. “I’ve loved you without your permission for quite some time and I don’t mean to stop, but I was wondering, hoping rather, if I might have it now.”

He tried not to seem to expectant. She blinked, dazed.

“If you might have… what?” she asked. Her gaze lingered on his mouth. Gilbert shivered like a newborn calf.

“Your permission,” he repeated.

“To— to love me?” She squared her shoulders and met his eyes directly. She was trying to be brave, but he could tell she was lost at sea, clutching to his hand like an anchor.

He nodded. “It would make things much less complicated.”

“For you, perhaps!” Anne exclaimed. “I’m not certain I’m not hallucinating this whole conversation— I might have gotten into the moonshine again, gotten drunk and dreamed all this—”

He couldn’t help it. He tugged her into his space— much too close to be appropriate, Mrs. Lynde would knock him upside the head for it— and carefully wound his arm around her waist. He held her loosely, an aggravating six inches between them, gazing down at her upturned face. Her freckles looked darker than usual.

“It would be a dream, would it?” He smirked, pulling her imperceptibly closer. “To learn that I love you?”

Her breath was shaky. “Far be it from me to be ungrateful for the greatest gift one person can bestow upon another, that of being loved and admired and ch-cherished.” Her voice broke and she dropped her head, but not before Gilbert saw her eyes grow wet. “Especially from you,” she murmured, so quiet he had to stoop to hear.

She couldn’t seem to look up just then, so Gilbert pushed his luck. He wrapped both arms around her and pressed their chests together. She startled, grasping at his biceps. Gilbert’s eyelids drooped at the soft swell of her bosom against him.

“Anne.” His voice was rough, so he cleared his throat, took a deep, tingling breath. “Do I have your permission, then?”

She was tense, her breath harsh and fast. Her pulse beat in the delicate notch at her throat. Her fingers tightened on his arms. “I am so grateful—” Something must cross his expression, because she hurried to add, “and I don’t want you to stop, but, but... just what are you expecting from me?” 

Her face was so fearful he almost laughed. “Nothing has to change if you don’t want it to. I just wanted you to know, and to know that you know I know… that you know. I think.” She huffed a begrudging laugh and relaxed against him. Gilbert felt himself softening, his tongue running away from him again. “And that if you ever need anything- a study partner, an accomplice in crime, anything- you know you can ask me, whatever it is.”

“Even if I want to be first in the class, and you’re the only student above me?” she challenged, pulling away to pin him with a beady eye.

He grunted, pretending to think it over. “Even then,” he acquiesced. She gasped. His fingers curled around her waist. “But I know you’re too fair-hearted to ask such a thing of me.”

She giggled and patted his cheek. Gilbert’s ears tingled. “It’s not my fault you’re so easily bamboozled,” she sighed.

His face hurt from smiling. “And, of course, I want you to marry me someday.”

Her hand stilled against his face, eyes widening again. “Are you asking— I mean, are we en—”

“Certainly not.” He tried not to feel too stung when she sagged against him with relief. “You’re much too young, and haven’t taught any impressionable young minds in the classroom yet.” He opted not to mention the three years of medical school ahead of him. “No, I’m afraid it’s a long road for us, before I can well and truly sweep you off your feet.”

She hummed, a response Gilbert wasn’t entirely sure how to parse. “So we’re not engaged.” She tilted her head, confident again now she was back on familiar ground. “But we are…”

“Pre-engaged,” Gilbert supplied, just a tad hopefully. “That’s rather romantic, isn’t it?”

She drew back, horrified. “Surely not! Pre-engaged sounds tawdry, almost. Perhaps one could countenance an understanding of a pre-engagement— or a pre-pre-engagement—”

“Good lord, Anne,” he said, “how many times do you expect me to propose?”

She met his eyes, scowling—

— and together they dissolved into laughter. Gilbert was transported by the experience, holding Anne close in their mutual mirth, watching her cling to him as she shook and gasped for breath.

“Very well,” he agreed through the last of his chuckles, “we are pre-pre-pre-engaged,” adding the extra ‘pre’ just to be the pain in Anne’s side she’d grown accustomed to. “And you give me permission to love you.”

He gazed at her expectantly, hopefully. She bit her distracting bottom lip and nodded.

He couldn’t think what else to do but grin stupidly at her. She returned his smile, and they looked at each other for what occurred to Gilbert was probably an embarrassingly long time.

Anne shifted, her face growing troubled. Gilbert waited patiently.

“Is it— that is—” She cleared her throat. “Pre-engagements are usually secret, aren’t they?”

Gilbert paused. Anne regarded him intensely. He met her eyes. 

“A secret engagement is romantic, surely.”

She melted against him. His heart stuttered and his knees went weak, but he gathered her up, scolding himself to firmness. His stomach fluttered uncontrollably.

“A secret engagement between kindred spirits who understand and lo-love one another, who make no demands on the present but promise more in the future if it still be desired, must be the height of tragical romance,” Anne breathed, beside herself.

Gilbert smirked. “Tragical romance sounds good.”

“It’s terrible,” she rebuked him. “But one would never wish it otherwise.”

He smiled at his singular girl— my secret future wife, his brain supplied. “I love you.” He didn’t mean to say it, but really, he did.

She gaped up at him. “I- I do, too,” she said, which was quite a lackluster response from a normally vibrant elocutioner, but Gilbert decided to let it go when her hands slid up his arms and clutched at his shoulders. His head felt light, vision swimming when she pushed herself onto her toes and nudged her nose against his.

He swallowed. “It’s a shame, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to speak to you like this again.” His voice was low and hushed, their faces close together.

“That’s the tragical part of it,” she whispered back.

His knees gave out, and they stumbled backwards together. Anne giggled through her gasp, the delight on her face nearing ecstasy. Gilbert, bewitched as always by her lack of guile, felt his courage mount, and was intensely grateful for her expressive nature.

“Anne,” he said before he lost his nerve. “Who knows the next time we can understand each other this way. It could be years before we find another moment like this—”

“Not years, surely,” she exclaimed. Gilbert was warmed by her dismay.

“I wouldn’t normally be so bold, but…” He layered his voice with earnestness. Her eyes narrowed.

“Can I kiss you?” he asked. “I won’t tell anyone,” he hurried to add. “No one will know… except for us.”

She exhaled in a rush. “Alright.” He leaned forward, eyes alight, but then she raised a hand to ward him off. “Wait, I’ve changed my mind.” He’d only a moment to droop before she continued, “I want to kiss you.”

“Hold still,” she added, leaning closer, as though Gilbert hadn’t turned to stone at her words. His heart gushed in his ears. She pressed their lips together, soft and dry, and he lost sense of time, his cares and worries, floating in the ether of her kiss.

“How was that?” she asked when they parted. Gilbert stared at her mouth, pained to think it had just been attached to his, but now was separate again.

“Mm,” he said, and pushed his nose against her temple. “I need a better understanding…” he brushed his lips down her soft cheek, nuzzled his face against its warmth. “So tragical…”

She giggled and turned to meet his mouth. “But romantic, too,” she murmured between kisses. “Our little secret.”

The sun had set before they remembered the scavenger hunt, the Lady of Learning long claimed by another lucky team. Team Avonlea would be disappointed on their behalf, but Gilbert wasn’t too bothered. Time spent in pursuit of a worthy goal was never wasted, he knew.