Disclaimer: I do not own any of L.M. Montgomery's characters, although I have a lot of fun playing in her world.

Shirley of Avonlea

Shirley Blythe stood stock-still for a moment and looked about him with satisfied eyes. It was good—good—good to be home again! He hadn't realized just how much he had missed the old place until he was back, seeing the stately old house sitting comfortably in the mellow golden light of the sunset, reminding him rather of a dignified mother cat basking in the evening light with her tail curled comfortably 'round her feet. There was Rainbow Valley, as sweet and wholesome and green as ever, with the sleigh-bells tinkling lightly on the breeze, the Tree Lovers with their arms still entwined around each other and the White Lady as stately and aloof as of yore. There was the Glen pond, shimmering gently in the same breeze that blew the bells, and there, flying out the front door looking as young as a girl, was Mother, with dear old Susan right behind her. Shirley dropped his kit bag in the soft grass and held out his arms to the two most important women in his life.

"Shirley—oh my son—you're home," said Mother, raising her shining tear-wet grey eyes gaze hungrily at his face.

"My brown boy—my blessed brown boy," choked out Susan.

Shirley smiled a little, kissed both of them on the tops of their heads—Mother's still glossy and red despite the few grey hairs caused by the war, and Susan's iron-grey and grizzled—picked up his bag, and walked into Ingleside. Yes, it was good to be home.

They had a party that night, to celebrate the last Blythe or Meredith to return—except Walter, who would never come home and yet in a strange way was all around. Shirley lounged against the fireplace and looked around the family circle with gratification. He never showed much emotion, but his people were all very dear to him, deep down in the quiet recesses of his heart. It just seemed right to have them all gathered together once more. Besides, with that many people around, nobody expected him to do much talking!

Mother and Dad, and Mr. and Mrs. Meredith were seated close to each other, all watching their children as if they couldn't get enough of seeing them. Little Bruce was at Mrs. Meredith's knee, sound asleep from excitement. Jem, Faith, Jerry, Nan, Ken, and Rilla were all in what was jokingly called the "sweetheart's corner." A smile crinkled up the corners of Shirley's brown eyes as they all chattered away like magpies. Una and Di were sitting one on either side of Miss Cornelia, talking comfortably to her. Despite the smiles they both wore, Shirley knew that Walter's death had been dreadfully hard on both of them—although he was equally sure that they both thought nobody but themselves knew of it. It was amazing the kind of knowledge one could pick up when one used one's ears and eyes instead of one's mouth.

Carl was sprawled out next to Shirley, absently playing with Magog. It was the prime place to be, because Susan, who refused to sit still, kept coming out of the kitchen with more and more goodies for Shirley. There were far more than he could possibly eat, but he wouldn't have hurt Susan's dear feelings for anything, so he waited until she went back into the kitchen for more, and then split them with Carl. After so many months of flying-corps food, Susan's baking was nectar of the gods.

Shirley enjoyed his first evening home very much, but he liked it even better when the manse folk and Miss Cornelia had left and the canoodling couples were lingering in Rainbow Valley, and it was just him, Mother, and Dad.

"Well son, it is good to have you back," said Dad approvingly. "The last of our boys to return, and here you are, safe and sound."

"You look—well," said Mother softly.

Shirley smiled understandingly at her. "I am well, Mother." There was more he wanted to say, about the war and its effect on him, but he didn't have her gift with words. After a moment's struggle, he simply said, "It was—good—that I went." That wasn't really what he meant at all, but Mother understood. Mother always understood.

"And now you'll be off to Redmond with the rest this fall?" asked Dad.

Shirley folded his arms behind his head. "No, actually. I want to teach for at least a year first."

"But why?" asked Dad. "There's no need for you to put off college."

Shirley shrugged. "I know, but I want to try my hand at teaching. I want a chance to do some building up, instead of just tearing down. I feel like—like I owe that to the world," he finished awkwardly.

A roguish light sparkled in Dad's hazel eyes. "You know, Shirley, if you teach, you will be expected to actually talk to the children."

The three of them laughed. After their initial surprise, Mother and Dad accepted his decision easily. "Will you try for the Glen school?" asked Mother.

"We'll see," said Shirley. In truth, he had a school in mind, but he wasn't ready yet to share it with anyone, even Mother and Dad.

Then Jem, Nan, and Rilla came back inside, all sparkling with happiness and laughter. Jem clapped Shirley on the shoulder. "Glad to have you back, young brother o' mine. I know it's a ways off, but I need you to promise me that no matter what, you'll stand up with me at my wedding."

"I'll fly from the ends of the earth, if necessary," promised Shirley.

"Good old dependable Shirley," commented Nan as she tripped lightly up the stairs. "No need to ever worry about him."

The words, though lightly spoken, rankled slightly in Shirley's soul. Not that he didn't want to be dependable—he was proud that he'd never broken a confidence or made a promise he didn't keep—but it did bother him slightly to be so taken for granted. Then he shrugged it off sensibly. An off-hand comment certainly wasn't going to spoil his first night home.

The next week they celebrated Rilla's twentieth birthday. Mother and Susan seemed in shock that the last of their babies had left their teens forever. Mother, especially, kept thinking that it did not seem that long ago that she had turned twenty—"At dear old Patty's Place, with Phil and Prissy and Stella and Auntie Jimsie, and the Rusty-cat!" Rilla, dimpled and laughing and glowing with happiness, insisted that they all spend the day in sheer, irresponsible fun. So, for one day, they put the war out of their memories and were children again. They ran down to Rainbow Valley, rolled up their pant legs and tucked their skirt hems into their belts to splash in the brook, Jem and Jerry caught brook trout and Mary Vance Douglas, who had slipped away from the store for the day, fried them; Faith, Nan and Di roamed around picking flowers to decorate the table; Carl and Rilla flung themselves in a far corner watching ants—it was still hard to believe that Carl could only see out of his left eye—and Una took Walter's usual spot under the White Lady and read aloud from a book of poetry. Shirley sat back against a mossy bank and watched it all. He'd never been one to mingle with the crowd much. Already he was starting to feel some of his old dislike for noise and people. When he was flying, once he'd gotten over the initial loneliness of it, he felt peaceful, calm. Even when he was flying in the midst of combat, the cleanness of the air and freshness of the wind had invigorated him. After flying for two whole years, he really felt more at home in the clouds than he did on the earth.

They ate the trout and a batch of Susan's monkey-faces as Rilla's birthday feast, seasoned with laughter and fun. Old jokes were brought forth again as new, Mary told some of her finest ghost stories just to make them all shiver delightedly, Jem and Jerry roughed around with each other and finally ended up falling in the brook fully clothed—it was a golden day. Then, in the evening, shortly before Susan served Rilla's favorite "silver-and-gold" cake, Ken slipped down from the House of Dreams and asked Rilla to go for a walk. The rest of the family smiled knowingly at each other as Rilla, tall and beautiful in her white dress, walked demurely down the lane beside an oddly nervous Captain Ford. It was no surprise, therefore, when the two came back a half-hour later with Rilla proudly yet shyly displaying a glittering diamond on her left hand.

Amid all the hustle and tears and congratulations, Di winked at Shirley and pulled a long face. "Looks as though you and I are the only fancy-free members of this family left! We'll be like Uncle Matthew and Aunt Marilla, growing old together, a bachelor and old maid. Maybe Uncle Davy will let us take over Green Gables!"

Shirley laughed, but he knew perfectly well that Di had met Aunt Priscilla's son Grant in Kingsport last year and been corresponding regularly with him ever since. He'd seen the envelopes lying carelessly around, and he'd overheard Nan and Di talking about it a few times when they'd forgotten he was there. No, it looked as though Di, too, would be heading for matrimony soon, and he would be the bachelor of the family. After all, to court a girl he'd have to speak to her, and while he wasn't shy, he just wasn't that fond of talking—especially not with most girls, who were silly and giggly and grating, and seemed incapable of holding a serious thought in their heads. A girl like Mother, now, that he could do. But then, Shirley reflected, finding a woman like Mother would be next to impossible.

Jem made a show of inspecting Rilla's ring. He himself had given Faith a circlet of pearls—Mother's ring, in fact. She had passed it on to him as her firstborn son, and he had proudly placed it on Faith's finger immediately upon returning from the war. "Not bad, not bad, Ken," he teased, "But I think it's a little too fancy for Spider here."

"Oh Jem!" cried Rilla in exasperation. "How can you still call me that?"

He just laughed and ruffled her curls.

"When do you plan on getting married?" asked Nan practically. Shirley guessed that she was maybe a little worried that Rilla would be married before her. Not that Nan had any kind of false pride, but it would be rankling, in a small village like the Glen, to have your baby sister married first, particularly when she'd only been courting for a year and you had been since before the war. Especially when you didn't even have a ring yet—Nan and Jerry had an "understanding," but nothing beyond that. Jerry hadn't wanted Nan to feel bound to him when he knew he might be killed, and now that he was home he was determined to finish his schooling before he actually proposed.

"Oh, not for a year, at least," laughed Rilla, forgetting her momentary pique at Jem. Nan's pretty face lightened slightly. "Mother always said she wanted us girls to be at least twenty-one before we got married, and Ken needs to finish his schooling and get started in his career."

"Still going to be a writer, Ken?" asked Di eagerly.

"Yes—hopefully books someday, but I'll have to start out in a newspaper, like Father did," said Kenneth. He was holding Rilla's small white hand tightly and looking down at her adoringly. Something tightened in Shirley's chest. He wasn't jealous of his little sister—not at all—but for the first time it occurred to him that it might be nice to have somebody with whom you could share your life.

The next moment the thought was gone, but the impression it left was not so easily dispelled.

Then Susan brought in the cake, all aglow with twenty candles, and everyone chorused "Happy Birthday" as Rilla leaned over, never letting go of Kenneth's hand for a moment, and blew them out. Looking at her happy face, nobody wondered for a moment what her wish had been.