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Plain Jane

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The house is dark when Jane pulls up in the driveway. She isn't terribly surprised at that. It's the end of the month and no doubt her husband is off somewhere, making sure to exact every last penny of rent from some of his numerous, hapless tenants. Besides, even on days when there's no rent to collect from anyone, he rarely manages to get home from the shop very early. Or, if she's being honest with herself — and isn't that always her preferred course of action? — it isn't so much that her husband rarely manages to get home early; it's more that he rarely bothers. And really, who can blame him? Jane smiles mirthlessly, and gets out of the car.

Tonight, the walk up the path to the front door seems to take much longer than usual. Every step Jane takes feels twice as heavy as it should be. She's carrying books, of course, but that isn't the problem. She's always laden with books, regardless of whether she's on her way to the library in the morning or coming back in the evening. Even when she leaves the house on an errand, she invariably carries at least one book with her, 'just in case'. No the books aren't the problem. The books are never the problem. Tonight, other things are weighing her down, weighing on her mind much more heavily than the strap of her book bag could ever weigh on her shoulder.

She isn't sure why everything seems more than usually grim tonight. Today hasn't been exactly a stellar day, but it hasn't been all that different from every other day, either. She worked late, as she often does, so there's no problem as far as that goes. In fact, there wasn't a problem at all until she left the library this evening, maybe ten or fifteen minutes after eight. She'd locked up, made her way out to her car, opened the door to get in and… blam. It was as though years of frustration and disappointment had been lying in wait and had chosen that moment to ambush her.

She'd sunk down into the driver's seat, trembling, trying to make it all go away, desperately reminding herself to count her blessings and be properly grateful for everything she had. She sat there for five minutes, ten. Her list of blessings remained stubbornly — pitifully — short. Eventually, she turned the key in the ignition. Maybe having to concentrate on the road as she drove would fix whatever strange mood had captured her. That's what she told herself, all the way home.

That hadn't helped either. Jane fails to be surprised.

Walking up to the house, now, she takes another shot at counting her blessings. It can't hurt, and it's not as though she can think of anything right now that's likely to be more effective in combatting this… feeling. This… wistfulness and terrible sense of something lacking.

She grabs hold of the strap of her bag, clutches the pile of extra books tight against her chest, and pulls herself up straight. Her tread is firm now, not just heavy, and she walks faster up the path. Blessings. She needs to concentrate on blessings.

There's her career, for a start. She's always loved books, so what could be better than to spend her working life surrounded by them? True, her career as the head — only — librarian at Storybrooke Free Public Library is hardly going to set the world on fire, but it's satisfactory enough. It's enough to make do with.

She's always loved books, even if a great part of that love has always been in reading books as a means of escape from the mundane world that surrounds her, envelopes her, suffocates—

She stops, and closes her eyes for a long, tense moment. She takes a breath, and opens her eyes again, but it's another long moment before she continues walking.

She's always loved books. But maybe that doesn't have to mean that she devotes the rest of her life to Storybrooke Library's collection. Books may be found in places other than Storybrooke. Many other places.

When she was younger, Jane always wanted to travel and see the world. When did she stop wanting that? When did—

She's materially well off, she reminds herself firmly. That's another blessing. She's never going to have to worry about starving in a gutter, or whether she'll be able to afford the heating bill over winter. She doesn't have to hesitate over the price of even the most rare and expensive books, any and every time that one catches her eye. Jane is married to the wealthiest, most powerful man in town, and money will never be an issue.

Her marriage.

Like her job, Jane's marriage definitely isn't going to set the world on fire.

She's well off, she reminds herself again. Never having to worry about money is a luxury that few-

Jane lets out a cry, staggers, and very nearly drops the armful of books she's carrying. Pain shoots through her foot. She's missed the bottom step — or, rather, not missed it, and stubbed her toe. Hard. She pulls off her shoe and hops around on one leg for a moment, biting her lip to stop herself from letting loose a string of curse words.

Mrs Gold, the prim, staid librarian would never say anything that could be considered remotely unladylike.

Jane stops biting her lip, and lets out a heartfelt: "FUCK!"

It's the most satisfying thing she's done all day. In fact, it's the most satisfying thing she can remember doing at all. And how utterly pathetic is that? When did her life become like this? When did she become no more than this?

Jane bites her lip again, but this time it's not to stop herself from swearing.

She places her right foot gingerly on the bottom step, holding it awkwardly to one side in an effort not to put any weight on her throbbing toe, and hobbles up the front steps. She knows that what she needs more than anything right now is something to lean on — like, say, a walking stick. She lets out a laugh that's almost a sob.

Her mood is not improved by the time she makes it to the front door, and slides her key into the lock.

She dumps her armful of books down on the stand in the hallway, and hangs her book bag from one of the hooks beside it before shrugging out of her coat. As she reaches up to hang her coat from one of the other hooks, she catches sight of her reflection in the small, oval mirror set into the hallway stand. Her face is drawn and pale, and wisps of hair are coming loose from her habitual tight chignon. The grey jacket of her business suit is looking more than a bit rumpled after the long day at work, and the Peter Pan collar of her white blouse is slightly askew. Even her glasses have slipped partway down her nose, adding to her overall dishevelled appearance.

The woman in the mirror seems like a stranger, and the fact that she's not as neatly put together as Mrs Gold always, always is, is the least of it. The hairstyle — the one she wears every day — the business suit — identical to the rack of suits that hang upstairs in her closet — and even the glasses that she's always had to wear in order to see further than the end of her nose: all of it seems wrong, unfamiliar. Not hers.

She shakes her head impatiently, trying to pull herself together. She's Jane Gold, and before that Jane French. She is who she is. There is nothing else. She's all too well aware of that. But somehow she's looking at her reflection again, and she can't bear what she sees. The next moment, she's tugging the pins from her hair, ungentle in her haste and unheeding of the pain as strands of hair snarl and pull tight. She flings the pins away, one by one, not caring where they fall. Her eyes remain fixed on the woman in the mirror all the while.

The last hairpin drops to the floor at her feet and all of a sudden her hair is free. She runs her fingers through it, combing it back out of her eyes. It tumbles down over her shoulders in thick, loose tresses, and she looks like… She doesn't know what she looks like, except that she definitely doesn't look like Jane Gold. She's never worn her hair like this, never. She knots it into a chignon every morning without fail, and at night she plaits it into a long braid right before she goes to bed.

She wonders how people might react if she wore her hair down about her shoulders like this to work tomorrow.

People. Or maybe just one person.

There's still no sign of her husband. Jane drags her gaze away from the mirror and checks her watch. It's almost twenty to nine. He should be home soon. She should start dinner. She should… Her eyes stray down to the hallway stand's single drawer. She always brings in the mail if she arrives home first, and leaves the letters addressed to her husband in that drawer for him to find when he gets in. In her distraction today, she realises, she forgot to check the mail on her way from the car.

Sighing, she pulls her right shoe — a sensible, low-heeled grey court shoe to go with her sensible grey suit — out of the front pocket of her book bag, and carefully wriggles her foot back into it. Her toe is still throbbing slightly, but at least it's no longer so tender that she can't bear to wear her shoe.

Now she's ready to go out and get the mail, and then she'll come back in, and fix dinner.

That's what she should do.

Jane looks in the mirror again. She knows her eyes are blue, but even she can barely tell what they look like behind the thick lenses of her glasses.

It's easier to look away this time.

The mailbox proves to be empty. She feels the first drop of rain on her face as she shuts the mailbox. This is Maine, so of course she shouldn't ever be surprised when it starts to rain. It makes her want to curse again. She hastens up the path, determined to beat the rain inside, and equally determined not to stub her toe on the bottom step this time.

Jane doesn't stub her toe. She's just short of the front steps when her foot slips in the damp gravel. She scrabbles desperately to regain her balance but it's already too late, and her feet slip from under her. She lands hard on the gravel, and the pain from her stubbed toe is nothing to the pain that shoots through her ankle this time. She whimpers as she lies there for a few agonisingly painful moments, her ankle on fire as hard little pebbles press against her skin, until she manages to pull herself up into a sitting position. She feels around for her glasses, and finds them close at hand — and, mercifully, intact. Getting to her feet takes longer, and she can't stop herself from crying out when she makes the mistake of putting just the smallest bit of her weight on her right foot.

She can't even hobble up the front steps this time. She has no choice but to hop. It's undignified, and painful, as each movement jolts her ankle and makes her bite her lip in an effort not to cry out, but somehow she makes it to the top of the steps.

She doesn’t beat the rain inside. By the time Jane's — more or less — standing in the hallway again, she's more than a little bedraggled, as a swift glance in the mirror confirms. She moves — hops — into the large living room, and sinks down into an armchair. She kicks off her left shoe, and leans down to carefully remove its mate. Even such a gentle movement has her wincing in pain. Her thick grey tights come off next. She wriggles around in the chair until she's managed to pull them down to her thighs, and then it's just a case of sliding them — slowly carefully gently — down her legs. The tights have saved her legs from being badly scraped, at least, but the fall onto the gravel path has left them laddered and full of small holes, and they're a write-off. She winces as she rolls back the last bit of stretchy grey nylon and her ankle is finally revealed. The skin is an angry red, tending towards purple, and the joint is already swelling up. It will need to be iced. Jane's really not in the mood to get up yet again, but she doesn't have much choice. There's still no sign of her husband.

She hauls herself to her feet — foot — and hops to the kitchen. She's practically in tears by the time she makes it to the refrigerator, though whether they're tears of pain, misery or sheer frustration, she really can't say. Perhaps they're all of that, and more. There's a small pile of top-of-the-range cold packs in the freezer, which her husband uses on his damaged knee from time to time. Jane ignores those, and perversely grabs a bag of frozen peas instead. She takes a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the refrigerator door before she slams it shut, and then makes her undignified way back to the living room. She makes a short detour to retrieve a wine glass from the cabinet in the corner. It's a large one, intended for red wine rather than white, but it's just the right size for her purposes. She doesn't just want the largest glass of wine possible, she damn well deserves it — needs it — after the evening she's had. Particularly since the evening is far from over.

She fills the glass very nearly to the brim, and sets both it and the wine bottle down on the coffee table before seating herself on the chaise longue. It's a ridiculous piece of furniture to own in this day and age, so of course they own one. She rarely chooses to sit on it, and never reclines. Reclining is not Mrs Gold's style.

Jane gathers the cushions that are neatly arranged near the head of the chaise longue and tosses them down to the other end so that they make an untidy pile. She lifts her left leg up onto the chaise longue, then clasps both hands carefully around her right knee and hoists her right leg up onto the cushions. It's the peas' turn next: she leaves the packet balanced haphazardly on her ankle. The cold plastic bag is blessedly numbing, but also damp with condensation. She should have wrapped it in a towel, Jane realises belatedly, but she can't quite bring herself to care enough to actually get up again and fetch one. Instead, she reaches for her glass, takes a long sip of wine and… reclines.

She's still reclining when she hears her husband's key in the front door. She waits, listening as he enters the house and shuts the door behind him. She doesn't call out to let him know where she is. He'll come looking for her, if only to check what's happening — or not happening — with dinner.

A sudden crashing sound from the hallway makes Jane jump, and she cries out, half in pain as she jolts her ankle and half in dismay as wine spills down her blouse.

A split second later, the living room door flies open, to reveal her husband standing in the doorway. Jane's shocked at the sight of him. He's still in the same chequered shirt and dark suit, complete with pocket square, that he was wearing when he left the house this morning, but that's where the resemblance to her always calm, always impeccably groomed husband ends. His tie is crooked, and his hair is flying every which way. Maybe those differences could be attributed to being caught out in the wind and rain. Maybe. But he looks pale, far paler than usual, and his eyes rake over her with an intensity that is wholly foreign to the man she's shared her life with for far too many years.

Jane swallows another mouthful of wine, and sets her glass down on the coffee table with exaggerated care. Her husband watches her every move. The look in his eyes is… She doesn't know what that look is, except that she's never seen it there before.

The changes in his appearance are unnerving but, for all that, they're not what shocked her. It's all the little, familiar details that seem off, much more so than the differences that today has wrought. He is that same strange combination of familiar and unfamiliar that she saw before, when she looked at her reflection in the mirror.

Her husband's eyes are still on her, darting here and there, taking in every detail, as if she's some remarkable sight instead of just the dull little wife who faded into the background long ago. Neither of them has said a word. They must present quite the odd picture — or would, if there was anyone here to see - with him standing there silent and brooding in the doorway, while she reclines regally on the antique Georgian chaise longue with a bag of frozen peas on her foot and wine staining her blouse.

Jane clears her throat. "What was that?" she asks, just as her husband exclaims, "You're hurt!" and rushes forward.

Jane blinks. She can't remember ever having seen him rush before. His limp doesn't seem to hamper his speed, because he's at her side before she has time to pick up her wine glass, and then he's falling gracelessly onto the end of the chaise longue by her feet. His attention is at once focused on her ankle, and he reaches down, fingers stretched out, but he stops just short of actually touching her. His hands hover in the air just above her ankle, as though he's uncertain of what to do next. Watching him, Jane is shocked all over again: his hands are trembling.

"What was that?" she asks again.

He looks up, and Jane immediately wishes she hadn't spoken, because then she wouldn't have to meet the look in his eyes. She still doesn't know what that look means, but it's powerful, and it's all directed at her.

"What?" he says, and now he looks slightly puzzled, though that frightening intensity hasn't left him.

"I heard a crash just before you came into the room," Jane says, not looking at him as she takes up the wine bottle and tops up her glass.

"Oh," he says. "That was… It was… Something fell. It doesn't matter."

Jane takes a sip of wine, keeping her eyes fixed on the glass. Her husband is usually so careful with his many possessions. It always matters when something breaks.

"How did you hurt yourself?" he asks. He sounds oddly hesitant, and he still hasn't touched her.

"I slipped on the path," Jane says, and she can't stop herself from tensing as she waits for his reply.

"You should take better care," he says.

She looks up sharply, surprised at the quiet statement. There's no impatience in his tone, none of the expected scorn at her clumsiness — just something that sounds like concern.

His fingers twitch in the air, and at last his hands move down to her ankle, but he still doesn't touch her. Instead, he lifts up the bag of peas. She can't stop herself from wincing slightly at even that tiny movement, and she hears him draw in a sharp breath.

"How long have you been sitting here like this?" he asks, and now Jane can hear something else, some stronger emotion, creeping into his voice, though it sounds like he's making an effort to hold it back. It's tense and strained, whatever it is.

She bites her lip, shrugs jerkily, and tries not to tense up even more. "I don't know. Ten minutes, maybe?"

"Only another ten minutes of cold, then," he says. It's not really a reproof, and it doesn't sound at all like his usual cool, judgemental chiding at her failings, but there's still that tightness to his clipped statement, that suggestion of something that he's holding back.

Maybe that's what has Jane bristling, and saying, "I know not to ice a sprain for longer than twenty minutes at a time."

He doesn't deign to reply to that. Instead, he gets to his feet. "I'll be back in a moment. Wait here," he says, as though there's any likelihood of her standing up and hopping away.

Jane swallows a laugh, which ends up sounding more like a sob, and stares down blindly into her wine glass.

He stops in the act of turning away. "I'll be back in a moment," he repeats, and his voice sounds hoarse now. He turns and hurries away, before she has a chance to look up and catch his expression.

He returns almost immediately, carrying one of the cold packs from the freezer and a dish towel. He took the bag of peas away, Jane realises. She supposes it's for the best, and is mainly just grateful that he hasn't commented on the peas at all, or asked why she didn't use a cold pack in the first place. He's gentle, but she can't stop herself from catching her breath as he smooths the towel out along her leg and over her foot. His hands go still and he casts a swift glance at her. Jane swallows hard. His eyes have lost none of that strange intensity from before, and in their depths she sees something terrible and painful.

She can't really say why she should hurt to see his pain, when she's the one laid up with a foot out of action. But she does hurt. It's like a leaden weight on her chest, heavy and impossible to ignore.

"It's all right," she says. The words sound hopelessly inadequate and foolish, since she doesn't have any real idea what, exactly, is supposed to be all right, but it's too late to wish them unsaid.

If anything, the expression in his eyes becomes even more dark and disturbing — and more difficult to look at. "No, it's not," he says tightly, and turns his attention back to her ankle. He arranges the cold pack carefully across her ankle, and then wraps the ends of the towel over it. Almost immediately, Jane can feel the cold pack starting to make its presence felt through the towel. The feel of the smooth, heavy linen is much more comfortable than the shocking cold of the bag of frozen peas directly against her skin, though she isn't about to admit that to her husband.

"Thank you," she tries again.

"Don't thank me just yet. I haven't finished," he says, with just the slightest suggestion of his customary sardonic humour, and gets to his feet again.

"Why?" Jane asks. She feels as if she's missing some crucial part of the conversation.

"Well, for a start, you need to get your arm seen to," he points out.

Jane lifts her left arm, ready to argue the point — except that now that she looks at it, she notices the small cuts and abrasions peppering the skin on the underside of her wrist, where it hit the gravel when she fell. She lets her hand fall back into her lap.

"What else?" she asks. "You said, 'for a start'. What else is there?"

"Then we need to get you to the hospital, so that a doctor can check that the damage to your ankle isn't anything worse than a sprain," he replies steadily.

"No," she says firmly.

"My dear," her husband begins. It's the wrong thing to say. He hasn't "my deared" her once tonight, but she should have expected that it would be only a matter of time.

"No," she says, more sharply this time. "I'm fine here for now. I don't want to move. It hurts."

"And that's why you should see a doctor," he counters. "To make sure that-"

"If it hasn't improved in the morning, I'll consider stopping by the hospital on my way to work," Jane says, and she's proud of how firm she's remaining in the face of his opposition. Unfortunately, she undermines the effect somewhat with a sudden gasp of pain as she moves her foot slightly and dislodges the cold pack. She closes her eyes against the pain as her husband goes to move the cold pack back into position.

Her husband is looking down gravely at her when she opens her eyes again. "My painkillers are in the usual place, if you want them," he says quietly, "though it would be best to wait for a bit, after the wine."

"I don't want any painkillers. I'd rather just have the wine," Jane says, clutching her glass against her chest so forcefully that a little wine spills over the side and on to her blouse. She knows her voice sounds querulous and childish, rather than anything like the defiantly dignified tone she was trying for. Abandoning the wine and taking painkillers for the pain would be the sensible thing to do.

Jane's not feeling sensible. She's spent what seems like a lifetime being sensible. Right now, she doesn't want to be sensible ever again.

"As you wish," her husband says, and inclines his head stiffly in acknowledgement before he turns and leaves the room.

Tears spring to Jane's eyes, and she wipes them away impatiently. She's overwrought, that's all it is. Anyone would be, after knocking the wind out of themselves like that and hurting their ankle, and dealing with the black thoughts that had consumed her before that, never mind having to cope with whatever it is that's going on in her husband's mind as well. She shouldn't feel bad that she was sharp with him. She should have been sharp with him long ago; maybe then he would have paid more heed to her opinions before this and her attitude tonight wouldn't come as such a shock — to both of them. But she does feel bad, because the husband she's been reacting to, the husband she's been accustomed to for so long, is not the husband who's been sitting at her side tonight. This husband doesn't dare so much as to touch her skin as he tends to her injury, and quietly makes common sense suggestions about medical care. This husband watches her every move like… like it hurts him to look at her but he can't bring himself to look away.

Jane wonders what's happened to him today, because clearly something has, but she knows there's no point in asking. He'll just brush off the question if she tries. Regardless of how shaken up he is, Jane doubts that that aspect of his personality has changed. Mr Gold only shares information when he chooses to, when there's some material or tactical advantage to him in the sharing. As his wife, she knows that better than most.

Her mood is uncertain when her husband returns a minute or two later, carrying a tray containing a small bowl and a few items from the medicine cabinet. The tray is perfectly steady, despite his uneven gait and the fact that he's carrying it in one hand. He sets the tray down on the coffee table next to Jane's bottle of wine, and drags a footstool over in front of the chaise longue so that he can sit down. He busies himself with the items on the tray, first pouring some antiseptic into the bowl, which Jane now sees is half filled with water. The water goes cloudy.

Setting down the bottle of antiseptic, he turns to her. "Your wine glass," he says, holding out one hand.

Jane's fingers clench tighter around the stem of the glass.

"I can't dress your injuries until you take your jacket off, so you'll need to put down your glass first," he explains, still holding out his hand.

Jane leans down and places the glass on the coffee table, on the other side of the wine bottle.

He doesn't comment on her action, or even give her so much as an irritated look. Instead he just sits there and waits silently as she leans forward and awkwardly shrugs out of her jacket. The stitching on the seam has ripped, Jane notices as she tugs at the left sleeve, and the edges of the fabric are fraying. She might be able to mend it, though there's no real need. It's just habit, habit and needless thrift, that make her even consider it, when part of her recoils at the thought of wearing this jacket — or any of its dozen clones upstairs — ever again.

Her husband doesn't comment when she drops the jacket on the floor, either. He simply dips a cotton ball into the bowl, and then holds out his free hand again.

"Let me see to your wrist," he says. "Please."

It's the 'please' that does it. He's said the word to her countless times, in countless different ways, coolly polite or peremptorily demanding, and just about everything in between. He's never said it like he really meant it before, though. He's never said it like he really was asking her.

He's never said it like this.

She holds out her hand in turn, palm up to expose all the small hurts. The visible ones, at least.

Hesitantly, he reaches out and takes hold of her wrist, his fingers curling around the back of her hand to steady it. His hand feels dry and surprisingly warm against her bare skin. She looks down at their joined hands, and notices how his light olive skin and strong, capable-looking fingers provide a startling contrast to her small, pale hand. Jane's always disliked the way her hands look, tiny and delicate and impractical, as though they belong to some silly, overly girly heroine in a romance novel instead of belonging to… well, her.

She looks up at her husband, mostly just so that she doesn't have to keep looking at her hand. He blinks rapidly, several times, his lips thinning into an unhappy line, and looks away quickly, suddenly focused on dipping the cotton ball back in the bowl.

So much for that, then.

The water is warm, but the antiseptic solution stings slightly as her husband dabs the cotton ball against broken skin and then wipes it in long strokes across her wrist. Perhaps she makes some small reaction, because his hand — the hand that is still holding hers in place — shifts beneath hers, and his thumb rubs gently, soothingly against the back of her hand.

Jane feels tears prick at her eyes again. She wants to blame them on the physical shock of falling and hurting herself, on drinking too much wine on an empty stomach. She's honest enough not to do that, though.

She knows why she suddenly wants to cry.

She draws in a deep breath, sniffling slightly as she tries to pull herself together.

"My apologies. I can't do much about the sting," says her husband, mistaking the cause of her — latest — upset. "I'll be done in a moment."

He reaches for a band-aid, but Jane catches at his arm to stop him.

"It's fine. You don't need to bother covering it up. Better to let it breathe." It's a sensible observation, just the sort of thing anyone would expect to hear from her, but the words form on Jane's lips almost automatically. Neither of them is paying much attention to what she's saying; they're both staring at her hand, still clutching his sleeve.

How long has it been since she last touched him voluntarily, even this much, without his initiating the contact? Jane can't remember. She suspects that her husband can't remember either. She's not surprised about that: she's surprised that he's even noticed. But then, he's full of surprises tonight. Jane wonders what the next one will be.

He's the one who ends the contact. Jane suddenly finds her fingers grasping at empty air, and the next moment her husband is on his feet, cane in one hand and tray in the other. The liquid slops over the sides of the bowl and onto the tray.

"You haven't eaten?" her husband raps out, startling her. He shifts in place, standing straighter, his expression sterner, for all the world like a cat that has fallen off a window ledge and is now desperately trying to pretend that it was all part of the plan.

"No," she says, and bites her lip to keep the slightly hysterical laugh that's bubbling up inside from bursting forth.

"Don't move," he says, and Jane bites down on her lip even harder to stop herself from making a retort that she knows she'll regret the moment she says it.

She takes a deep, steadying breath. "I'm not going anywhere," she says.

He opens his mouth, but it's a moment before any words come out. He's staring at her again. "Good," he says. "That's… good." The look in his eyes has softened to something almost friendly. For an unnerving couple of seconds, Jane thinks that he might smile.

But then he's turning away from her, and moving quickly towards the door. Jane suspects that all of the contents of the bowl will have spilt out onto the tray by the time he reaches the kitchen or the bathroom or wherever it is that he's going with it.

She sighs and leans her head against the raised back of the chaise longue, utterly worn out by everything that this day has brought her: the sore ankle, and her husband's odd behaviour, and her own unsettled emotions most of all. She's not hungry. She just wants to close her eyes and let sleep wash everything away.

She hears her husband come back into the room, but it's only when he lifts the cold pack off her ankle that she reluctantly opens her eyes.

"Here," he says, and holds out the plain navy blue comforter from the single bed in the study for her to see. He catches a few hours' sleep in there sometimes — oftentimes — rather than bothering with negotiating the stairs up to the master bedroom after working late into the night.

He catches hold of the corners of the comforter and shakes it out over her.

"Thank you," she says as he bends to smooth the edges of the comforter into place.

He doesn't respond. She can feel his hand against her hip for a fleeting moment, through the thick layer of the comforter as he tucks it in along the raised side of the chaise longue.

She pulls the comforter up under her chin and closes her eyes again. He doesn't say anything more, but she knows he remains standing there, beside her, for longer than he has any need to before he leaves the room. She listens to his distinctive, uneven tread as he walks away from her, and out into the hallway.

Perhaps she dozes off after that, because it takes her a moment or two to realise that someone's saying her name.

"Sit up," her husband commands, but gently. He's carrying another tray, Jane notices groggily as she slides her glasses back up her nose so that she can see properly. She pushes herself up on her hands and wriggles into something like a sitting position, wincing as her foot slips against the raised side of the chaise longue. The pain is duller now, no doubt thanks to the numbing effect of the ice pack.

Her husband sets the tray down across her lap. It's bigger than the other one, a proper breakfast tray with legs that fold down on either side of her. She didn't know that they owned anything like this, but she really isn't surprised that her husband had one stashed away somewhere. If ever there was a man with a knick-knack to suit every possible occasion…

He's hovering beside her. Waiting for something. She feels suddenly self-conscious. She's not used to having his full attention like this, not when he's not admonishing her about something that she's done, or failed to do. She glances up at his face, and finds no judgement there. Concern, yes, and more. There's something deeper and darker lurking in the depths of his eyes, something that she still can't put a name to. Right now, she doesn't have the strength even to try. His eyes flicker from her face down to the tray and back. He's waiting to make sure that she eats, she realises.

Jane's still not at all hungry, but she looks down dutifully at the contents of the tray. Eating may well be the only way to get her husband to stop looking at her like that. There's a bowl of soup and a plate of buttered toast on the tray, as well as a silver soup spoon, a neatly folded napkin of heavy white linen, and a small silver cruet set.

She recognises the soup immediately. It's what remains of the split pea and ham soup that she made at the weekend.

"Hearty peasant fare?" she enquires, glancing at her husband again. He always mocks her liking for simple food, and most particularly that she chooses to cook it herself, in a kitchen that's as well equipped as that of any three-star restaurant.

"Quick to prepare and easy to digest," he counters. "And I know that you like it."

Jane is ready to respond until he adds that last bit. It's one thing to have her husband seeing to her physical comforts and treating her injuries, but it's something else, something somehow far more personal, to hear him admit to taking her likes and dislikes into consideration.

Flustered, she turns her attention back to the food. She grabs the salt shaker from the cruet set, and liberally sprinkles the soup with salt, though it scarcely needs any, considering the number of ham hocks she used in the making of it. She takes up the spoon and stirs the salt into the soup before tasting it. It's too salty, but then she knew that even before she added the extra salt. She wishes she'd grabbed the pepper pot instead.

After that, she takes some time unfolding the napkin and arranging it on her lap just so. It's a relief when her husband crosses to the armchair opposite the chaise longue and finally sits down. From this far away, she's almost able to pretend that his eyes aren't fixed on her.

Jane manages to get through half the bowl of soup, and even a few bites of toast, before she tosses her napkin back onto the tray and officially gives up on dinner. She picks up the tray, and is twisting rather awkwardly in place, trying to set it down on the coffee table, when her husband materialises by her side. For a man with a cane, he can certainly move quickly and quietly when he chooses to. He leaves the cane propped up against the end of the chaise longue and takes the tray from her not completely unresisting grasp. She's a little irritated to see that both the bottle of wine and her glass have vanished from the coffee table, even though she'd forgotten about them until this moment.

"Thank you," she says, but there's enough sharpness to the words for her husband to cast a swift, uncertain glance at her.

It's not fair, Jane thinks, and doesn't know whether she means the sudden, confusing solicitous attention he's been paying her all evening, or her own uncharacteristic, wildly swinging mood, and the unpredictable way she's been responding to his every look and word and deed.

She feels unutterably weary, irritable and so very not herself.

"I'm sorry," she says, trying to soften her tone. "I'm just tired."

"No," he says, lips tight, as though he's annoyed. But he pauses then, and his expression is somehow open and exposed like she's never seen it before. "There is nothing — nothing — for which you need apologise." His voice has turned low and rough, and he grips the sides of the tray so tightly that his hands shake and the crockery rattles. He looks… stricken, Jane decides. Bereft, like he's lost something precious, and is painfully aware that it's all his fault. Why he should look that way when speaking to her, though: well, that's a puzzle that's in perfect keeping with everything else that's happened in this house this evening.

"I'm tired," Jane says, not because she's trying to deflect the conversation but simply because she doesn't have any idea of what else to say, and has no energy left for dealing with anything at all. "I think I'll go to bed." She pauses, for longer than she really intends, but, absurdly, she finds she needs to gather her courage to ask the question that is waiting to be asked.

Her husband seems to take her silence as a sign that the conversation is finished, because he turns away to set the tray down on the coffee table. He straightens, and looks down at her again. Now is the perfect moment for her to speak.

"Do you mind—" Jane begins, just as her husband says quickly, "Perhaps you should—"

They both fall silent, and Jane gives him a rueful smile.

"You first," her husband says, gesturing for her to speak.

Jane laces her fingers together, looks down at them, forces her hands apart, curls them into fists, and looks back up.

"I was wondering if you'd mind if I slept on the bed in your study tonight. I don't think I'm up to dealing with the stairs right now," she says.

Her husband lets out a deep breath, and it sounds a lot like relief. "I've already made up the bed with fresh sheets," he says.

Jane blinks. She'd been expecting him to disagree, she realises, to coldly argue the point and tell her exactly why it was a bad idea. And any other night, she would have been right to expect that. But not tonight.

"Thank you," she says, and this time it's sincere. He's being thoughtful, caring, considerate, all the things that a good husband should be and— She can't deal with this right now. She needs to get to bed, and close the door on this evening, on the world in general, and most definitely on the husband who she suddenly doesn't seem to know at all.

She pulls back the comforter to inspect her foot. It's purpling nicely, and should look quite impressively colourful come morning. She lifts her foot slowly and carefully off the pile of cushions and then twists around into a proper sitting position so that she can lower it carefully to the floor. All the while, her husband remains close by, hovering again. He doesn't say it in so many words — or any words at all — but it's clear that he's ready to help her if she needs it, ready to catch her if she slips and falls.

She doesn't fall, but his hand is waiting at her elbow, ready to support her the moment she braces her hands against the side of the chaise longue and tries to stand. She grabs hold of his hand, tightly, as she pulls herself up, letting him take most of her weight until she's properly upright. He doesn't comment, doesn't move. He's just there, silent and steady as a rock, and reassuring in a way that only makes her more certain that she wants this day to end as soon as possible.

It feels like a major achievement when at last she's standing straight — well, mostly straight — on her left leg, while making sure not to let her right foot touch the floor. She's still holding her husband's hand, mainly because he hasn't made any attempt to release hers. She waits a moment, and a couple of moments more, and when he still makes no attempt let go, she finally pulls her hand free and clutches at the raised end of the chaise longue to steady herself.

"Thank you," she says, once again. It seems as though she's had more cause to offer her thanks to him tonight, and to truly mean it, than since… since…. Well, for longer than she can remember.

"It's nothing." His voice is low and quiet, and his words are heavy with sadness, and something more than that. Remorse? For things he's said or things he's done — or not done? Before tonight, Jane would have been positive that her husband was incapable of feeling anything like that, most particularly in relation to his disappointment of a wife.

"No, it's not nothing," she says, just as quietly.

He doesn't reply, but he also doesn't make any attempt to move away. He's standing there beside her, so close that it's unsettling, and his eyes are fixed on her, as though he's not even aware that there's anything else in the room.

She should say something more, Jane knows. No doubt things between them will be back to normal by morning, and she's unlikely to get his full attention like this again anytime soon. Or ever. This is an opportunity she may not be given again, an opening for a conversation that they need to have. But strength fails her, courage fails her, and instead she says, "Uh, good night, then."

"Let me help you to the study," he says, crooking his left elbow in invitation and reaching with his right hand, less than completely gracefully, for his cane.

Jane follows the movement of his hand with her eyes, and when her gaze returns to his face she finds that he's watching her again, watching her watch him.

He snorts softly, and his lip curls back in the mockery of a smile. "I know it's a case of the lame leading the lame, but it will be less awkward than hopping all the way down the hall. Trust me."

Jane stares at him, wondering if he's aware of what he's just said, because, really, that's the heart of everything she's been feeling tonight. Jane doesn't trust him, and doesn’t want to trust him.

"I— Thank you," Jane says, "but there's no need."

She bites her lip, waiting for him to tell her that she's wrong and he knows best. But he doesn't. Instead, he finally looks away from her, moves away from her, and bends to gather up the comforter, which has slipped halfway to the floor.

"I'll bring this in for you," he mutters.

Jane nods slowly, suddenly finding it hard to drag her gaze away from him. She's seen him every day of her life for years, but she's never really looked at him from this angle before. His dark, hand-tailored trousers are as familiar as her own grey skirt and jacket, but somehow she's never noticed how very good the cut is, and how well it suits him. How well it suits the shape of his—

Jane swallows, her mouth suddenly dry. She feels hot all over. She clenches and unclenches her fingers restlessly, not sure what she wants to do with her hands. She is sure that she desperately needs to get out of here, at least, so she holds her right foot out carefully in front of her, and takes a single hop. The movement sends a jolt right through her, right down to her ankle, and she welcomes the distracting sensation even as she winces at the renewed pain. She takes another hop, and another. For some reason, this time it seems a great deal more arduous than hopping all the way up the front steps and into the hallway did before. Maybe it's because she's starting to come out of the initial physical shock now; maybe it's because this time she's acting through choice and not by necessity. By the time she reaches the door, she's finding it hard to hold back her whimpers, and is very nearly at the point of accepting her husband's offer of assistance after all. She leans against the doorframe, and sighs.

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather lean on my arm, or perhaps take my cane?" her husband asks from right behind her.

Jane jumps in surprise, and then she finally does let out a real cry of pain.

He's there at her side immediately, a hand at her elbow, and leaning in so close that she can feel the soft wool of his trousers brushing against her bare leg and the tickle of his warm breath against her cheek.

She shakes off his hand, irritated with him and with herself as well. "I'll be all right once I'm in the hall and can keep my hand on the wall as I go," she says.

She doesn't wait for him to reply, but reaches for the doorknob and opens the door. Her progress down the hallway is halting and awkward, and she's gritting her teeth against the pain every time she takes another step or braces her hand against the wall. When at last she stops outside the study door, it feels like victory.

Jane pushes open the door — it's made of heavy, dark-coloured wood, ornately carved, and is as old-fashioned as it is impractical, like just about everything else in this out-dated white elephant of a house — and manages to get herself the rest of the way into the room. The study is much as it always is, dominated by her husband's heavy oak desk and the various cabinets of curiosities that line the walls, but she sees that her husband has been busy while she was dozing on the chaise longue. The small bed in the corner is made up with fresh sheets, just as he promised, but there's also a pile of extra pillows near the foot of the bed, ready to prop up her foot, and one of her nightgowns is laid out for her as well. She hadn't even considered what she was going to wear to bed tonight. It's probably just as well that her husband has a talent for planning ahead.

There's a quiet knock at the door behind her. Jane clutches the back of the desk chair and twists around on her one good foot.

Her husband stands in the doorway, clutching the folded comforter against his chest with one arm, and looking more uncertain than she's ever seen him. He clears his throat and asks, "Is there anything else that I can get for you?"

"A toothbrush, maybe?" Jane asks in reply. She's joking, sort of, because he's already done more for her tonight than she ever would have asked for. Besides, no one ever jokes with Mr Gold.

"I left a new one for you on the sink in the downstairs bathroom," he replies in all seriousness.

"Thanks," Jane says weakly, yet again.

He inclines his head slightly in acknowledgement before finally coming into the room. He leaves the comforter on the end of the bed, and turns to face her.

"Well, then," he says. "Since there's nothing else I can help you with…" He pauses, looking over to the bed. "Unless you need some additional assistance, perhaps?"

"Uh." Jane follows his gaze and realises that he's looking at her nightgown. "Oh. No. No-no-no. It's all right. I'm fine," Jane says, too quickly. She can't do it, can't reveal herself to him like that, however innocently. Not now. Not tonight.

"Of course," her husband says, with another tiny nod of assent. He closes his eyes as he does so, closes them for a bit too long. When he opens them again, he gives her a tiny smile. A sad smile.

"Thank you," Jane says, for what feels like the thousandth time. "For everything you've done tonight. I appreciate it all. Really."

"I know," he says, but his expression remains unchanged. He comes closer, until he's standing right in front of her, and rests a hand on her shoulder. "Good night, Jane."

Jane tilts her head to receive his customary good night kiss in the air somewhere above her cheek, so her eyes widen in surprise when she feels the press of his lips against her temple. It must last for only a second or two, but it feels like an age until he draws back, ever so slightly, and she can feel his hot breath against her skin. His hand has left her shoulder and is stroking her hair where it's falling against the side of her neck. She pulls away from him, almost stumbling in her haste.

She ends up half falling down onto the bed, and then staring up at him in shock. He looks back at her unflinchingly. She has no idea what the kiss is supposed to mean, but clearly he's not about to apologise for it. And he's not making any move to leave the room, either. It takes her a moment to work out why he's still standing there, and then she realises. He's waiting. She heaves a sigh that's not quite relief.

"Good night, John," she says. His name feels strange in her mouth. It's simple, straightforward, ordinary — everything that her husband is not. The only way it could suit him less would be if it were coupled with an equally common surname. She almost lets out a giggle at the incongruous thought of her husband answering to a name like John Smith. At least he has Gold as a surname to fall back on, and use almost to the exclusion of all else, so he — and everyone else — can ignore the fact that underneath he's just another man called John.

His lips quirk into something that's not a smile, and then he's gone without another word. The door closes quietly behind him, and she's alone.

Jane busies herself with undressing and getting ready for bed. It's not much more difficult to do than usual, apart from wriggling out of her skirt, and the nightgown slips on easily over her head. It's dove grey flannel, plain and unadorned, and so voluminous and shapeless that it's impossible to tell what sort of body hides beneath it. She has a drawer full of nightgowns upstairs, every one of them almost identical to this one.

Apart from being comfortable and warm, what she wears to bed has never mattered to Jane before. It doesn't matter to her now. And yet… She thinks again of the rack of grey suits in the closet upstairs, and the drawer of flannel nightgowns, and resolves to go shopping for some new clothes at the earliest opportunity — and to buy some new nightwear before she buys anything else.

She doesn't see her husband when she goes back out into the hallway and hops the short distance to the bathroom, though the downstairs lights are still on, so he can't be far. There's no sign of him on the way back, either.

She sinks down onto the bed and takes off her glasses, leaving them safely out of the way on the end of the desk. Then she spends some time arranging the extra pillows into a nest for her foot. Satisfied, she reaches down for the comforter, and pulls it right up to her chin, just the way she likes it, and snuggles into the pillows.

She reaches out to switch off the lamp, closes her eyes, and then… Well, then she has a problem, because she's run out of distractions. Because now she can't stop herself from thinking about everything that's happened tonight. Because, more than anything, now she can't stop herself from thinking about the feel of her husband's lips against her skin and how, if she'd tilted her head just so, he could have kissed her lips instead of just her temple.

Jane lies there in the darkness and reminds herself that everything will be back to normal in the morning. The thought is not as reassuring as it should be. At all.

It's a long time before she drifts off to sleep, and when at last she does, she dreams of a world covered in a thick grey mist. She hears her husband's voice, calling her from somewhere deep inside the choking greyness, but she can't find him, no matter how hard she tries to see.