AN: All characters are the property of the incomparable Lucy Maud Montgomery. They're used in this derivative work with love and respect and without commercial gain. This was originally written for the Yuletide Treasure challenge as a gift for marginalia. Thanks to paranoidkitten for great services in the cause of last-minute betareading

In her more dismal moments, Stella wondered if it was her inevitable fate to be left just a little behind. After she came to Patty's Place, she was sure of it.

There had been a moment at Queen's College when a red-headed young lady had visibly hesitated, shyness and friendliness combating all too clearly in that exceedingly expressive face. Stella, shy herself, had realised that the other girl was trying to make up her mind to come to talk to her but didn't quite have the courage to approach her. She would have laughed at the absurdity of this girl of all girls being shy of her, Stella Maynard, but her heart was beating in odd hurting jumps that didn't quite make for laughter. She had been almost surprised that she had passed her entrance exams, given how often her attention had been distracted by a white, set face under glowingly ruddy hair, staring at her own paper as if she could discover the secret of the universe in it. When the papers were collected the girl's face had suddenly blossomed like a lily, grey eyes shining from within in a way Stella thought only happened in books. The red-headed girl had a delicately drawn face, dominated by those large eyes and the soft set of her mouth, the most distracting sprinkle of freckles lending warmth to the pale skin. A face made to dream with, Stella had thought; a face she instinctively felt she could ishare/i dreams with, and perhaps even a face to dream over. And this was the girl who seemed afraid Stella would reject her offered friendship!

Stella began to smile, despite her own clammy palms, wanting to reassure the stranger and invite her over; but her smile was slow to ripen, and before her lips had even parted a slender golden girl had stepped forward and offered a hand to the red-headed stranger.

"Forgive my lack of formality," Stella had heard her say, "but I felt the need to cling to someone in this place, and I felt instinctively you were as badly in need of a chum as I am, and I feel sure we should befriend each other. I'm Miss Grant."

"Miss Shirley." The red-haired girl's shyness melted away in the light of her own smile. "My friends call me Anne."

And that, as Stella wrote very decisively in her journal that night, was that. Even though Anne had seized on her the very next day, Priscilla had already established her place as Anne's foremost college chum, and Stella had to be content with second place.

Second-place was something to be grateful for, when accounts were reckoned up. Priscilla, once Stella had swallowed her resentment with practiced grace – for after all, was it not only a more grown-up version of a thousand schoolyard not-quite-best friendships? – was all kinds of wholesome mischief and dear darlingness wrapped up in one deceptively elfin girl. It was no wonder Anne adored her so unreservedly. As for Anne herself… Stella would sigh to herself, and try not to think too hard about just what Anne was like. A girl like Stella was wildly lucky to have two such chums, that was all.

Stella consoled herself just a little with the thought that when Anne returned to Avonlea and her Diana, Priscilla herself would be in the second place. After all, every girl was allowed just a ilittle/i pettiness on occasion. It was one of the acknowledged privileges of being born a feminine creature.

When Stella heard that Priscilla and Anne would be attending Redmond College together, she allowed herself one white night of staring at the ceiling all night, then accepted her fate. She could, she firmly told herself, resign herself to another year of being a country school ma'am while Anne and Priscilla roomed together and grew into womanhood together. She would survive. She might even learn some valuable life lessons and become a better woman for it. She rather doubted it, but it might be so.

Stella kept their letters under her desks, affectionate epistles that seemed to breathe of life and learning and growth. As some child stumbled through his lessons before her she surreptitiously read, Priscilla's letters full of jokes and merriness and Anne's full of more delicate fun and cobweb fantasies.

I don't share these fancies with everyone, Rose-Red, even my dearest and best, she wrote once, and Stella read it over and over, long after the words were engraved on their heart. Priscilla and Phil are dear, good girls, but somehow you understand.

Stella kept the compliment close to her heart, and tried to ignore the pairing of names, even if they haunted her at three o'clock in the morning. Priscilla and Phil, Priscilla and Phil… She had thought Priscilla and Stella hurt, but losing her second place was far more bitter.

Stella fed off daydreams, convenient as she spent little enough on board and lodging, frantically saving every cent she could. She would be a year late to Redmond, but perhaps she could catch up. And she had her own plans… some snug closet for the three of them, for she did not dare to hope Anne would abandon Priscilla, even if she was selfish enough to want it when Priscilla was such a dear. Even when she learned Anne and Priscilla's new chum would live with them, she kept hope that it would all be for the best; maybe Priscilla would pair off with Phil, and Anne would have all the more time for Stella. Three was an awkward number, after all.

She knew it was hopeless the very first time she saw Phillipa Gordon's crooked smile, and the way Anne visibly melted over it. Stella had yielded second place while still teaching school.

She smiled and clasped Phil's hand in genuine warmth. If one must yield, one might as well do so with a smile.

The inhabitants of Patty's Place were scattering for Christmas, but Anne had insisted on holding 'a real cosy little Christmas of our own, right here' before they kissed goodbye for the nonce. They stoked the fire up high and curled before a spicy-scented tree, caring not one whit for what Miss Patty would have had to say about the needles scattered on the rug, and sipped hot drinks as they exchanged their presents.

It was a delightful night, even if Stella had the prickling painful awareness that the way Phil spoke to and caressed Anne throughout the night would be regarded as shameless flirtation, if Anne had been one of her adoring swains and not a mere girlfriend. Of course, Stella knew perfectly well that Phil was in no way or manner flirting. No one thought any ill of the way Phil openly adored her Queen Anne; none had that little niggling thing wrong with them that Stella did, that insisted on interpreting Phil's little intimacies as of tender intent and feeling jealousy scratch her heart with every smile and compliment and touch.

As soon as was humanly decent, Stella suggested opening the presents. Anything to un-entwine Phil's fingers from Anne's own. When Phil lovingly dropped her nut-brown shining head to Anne's shoulder, Stella suggested that Phil be the one to distribute the parcels. Stella thought for one moment that Aunt Jamesina gave her an odd look at the suggestion, but she pushed the thought away. She was sure her voice hadn't been ithat/i rough.

For all she had insisted on the ritual, Anne played very little attention to the exchange of gifts. Anne sat enthroned in the middle of the little crowd, her lap filled with triumphant cat. Rusty had pounced on the very finest red bow from the very largest present, and despite Stella's scoldings and the thwarted attempts of the Sarah-cat and Joseph, had managed to carry it off to the safety of Anne's lap. He ostentatiously batted it about now, casting insolent looks at his rivals, and Anne's attention was fully turned on him, glowing with the fond pride of a cat owner whose beloved pet has behaved particularly shamefully.

Priscilla, who had spent five minutes tying the bow on Anne's present just so, gently scolded her. "How is that cat ever to learn to become a reasonable member of society if you encourage him in his wickedness so, Anne?"

"Him is clever pussens, him is. Him deserves the ribbon more than naughty cross Prissy," Anne remarked intelligently, her eyes shining like silvered mist and her pale cheeks softly reddened with the flush of happiness. Priscilla contemplated her silently for a moment, then dropped to her knees before Anne and wrapped her arms around her waist, ignoring Rusty's squawk of distaste and abrupt exit.

"It's for you anyway, so if giving it to that beast of a Rusty gives you happiness, then do so. Merry Christmas, belovedest."

Anne didn't answer, but embraced her tightly and kissed her cheek.

"Don't they make a lovely picture together, Stella?"

Stella looked at them clinging together, two moonlight girls with pale skin and large dreamy eyes, and her throat and eyes ached. She turned abruptly away, to meet Aunt Jamesina's wise, knowing gaze.

Stella managed a gay laugh, tinkling on the air as falsely as a lie. "So pretty! But for all that, Aunty, I think Phil leaves us all far behind."

"Of course I do, honey," said Phil, calmly joining in on the conversation. "But you're not so bad yourself. You've the eyes of the wickedest thing that ever walked the earth, and I thoroughly approve of your figure and your colour. Your looks are all wrong for you, though."

"Perhaps Pris and I were mixed up at birth," Stella suggested.

"Phillipa may have more than her fair share of superficial charms - although it's very bad for her to be aware of it," Aunt Jamesina said in stern response to Phil's unrepentant grin, "but for all that, there's just something about Anne."

"There is indeed. Isn't this room close? I think I need a moment's air." Stella stumbled to her feet and slipped out to the kitchen, not caring what the others thought. She pulled down the coat and hat she kept there, and crept out into the still, white night.

The air was icy outside, and Stella breathed deeply in, letting it cut into her throat, somehow taking away the rest of the pain. This was real, was controllable. Anne's slim white neck and gold-spangled lashes, why on earth should they hurt her? Priscilla and Phil, well, that was purely natural feminine jealousy. But Anne, for all she was not really beautiful at all, somehow ihurt/i…

She heard the door swing open behind her, and didn't move even though she knew, somehow, who it was. She would recognise that particular step if she stood outside Heaven.

"Aunt Jimmy sent me out to tell you that you'll catch your death of cold out here." Anne hugged herself, shivering.

"I'm sorry."

"And so you should be." Anne made no attempt to move either. "Stella, don't you sometimes wish…"

"Wish what, honey?"

Anne's eyes were fixed on something that appeared to be a Spofford Avenue gatepost, but that Stella suspected was far further away. "Phil says that keeping house together is all the fun of being married without being bothered with men." She added, with seeming irrelevancy: "Diana is being married very soon, you know. Perhaps… perhaps it's always awkward when it's one's own bosom friend, but…"

I know, I know, thought Stella, wishing she was Phil or Priscilla and could reach out and put her arms around Anne, kiss her white forehead. If she was Phil or Priscilla, perhaps she wouldn't want to so very badly. Perhaps it was wanting to that made it impossible. "You wouldn't want to do without men, though. Rory, at least." It was odd that she could say Rory's name without pain, when even Priscilla and Phil, who she loved so, hurt her sometimes. Rory simply seemed… unimportant.

Anne blushed becomingly, or at least… The light was not very good, but Stella had the distinct impression that although Anne had lowered her lashes and head as if she was consumed by maidenly blushes, if Stella touched Anne's cheek it would be as cool as ever.

"Sometimes I wish this could go on for always and ever… just the four of us in Patty's Place." Anne shook herself suddenly. "Come in, dear heart. I want to give you your gift." She wound an affectionate arm around Stella's waist and pulled her inside.

They hesitated in the kitchen, taking off outer wrappings, Anne still had Rusty's ribbon clutched in her hand, and she laughed when she saw Stella eye it. "I think this would suit you better than me, my rosy-red Stella. Scarlet clashes with my hair almost as badly as pink."

She leaned forward and wound the ribbon around Stella's hair, bending in close, her so-dear, laughing mouth close to Stella's own. It took only a moment's lack of control for Stella to lean forward just a little, feel Anne's winter-cold lips against her own, catch and pull at and caress the sweet mouth against her own.

She stepped backwards in sudden panic as soon as she realised what she was doing, stumbling over her skirt as well as her words, as Anne stood there, unspoken words on her own newly kissed lips. She knew her face was as red as her ribbon, as hot as the tears starting to her eyes.

"Stella – I –"

Stella considered running, considered falling to her knees and weeping, considered taking Anne in her arms and kissing her breathless, regardless of Rory and Gilbert and the women in the next room. Instead she forced a laugh, like forcing blood from her heart.

"Merry Christmas, dearest Anne."

Anne stared at her with wide grey eyes for one moment, and then leaned in and kissed Stella full on the lips, quick and honey-sweet. "Merry Christmas, Rose-Red."

She took Stella's hand and pulled her back into the warm room full of Christmas cheer.

Stella sat quietly by Aunt Jamesina, leaning her head on the arm of her chair. After a moment, she felt a hand stroke her hair in silent sympathy.

She had no idea how much her aunt knew, or guessed. And perhaps in the morning she would need sympathy. But right now, Stella was aware only that Anne had already given her the Christmas gift she wanted.

For just a few moments, Stella hadn't felt second-best to any other girl.

end