I started writing this as a short little fic for the Jeanuary day 24 prompt, "Jean's Heart," and then it took me 5 days to write, sooooo here we are. Enjoy!
Lucien stepped into the kitchen with an air of wariness. It was strange, really. This was the house he'd grown up in; spent his life here until he was 9, and his summers until he was 17, and the place was still familiar to him, even after decades of being apart from it. But it wasn't his house anymore, not really. Within a few weeks, he knew, his father would be gone, and the house would be his in name and deed. But it wasn't really his house anymore, and there was a woman here who seemed to walk around as if she owned the place. In every quantifiable way, she deferred to him just as she did to his father, but in her demeanor there was an air of belonging, of authority, which threatened his sense of ownership. The woman was Jean Beazley. She was quite the most competent woman he'd ever met, and quite the most caring with regards to his father, but he was certain she didn't care for him at all. Presently, she was at work in the kitchen, no doubt cooking dinner, but he was in need of a cup of tea, and so Lucien stepped into the kitchen with an air of wariness.
"Doctor," she greeted, glancing up from her work to offer him a tightlipped smile. She was all politeness around him, and he wondered, not for the first time since he'd arrived a week ago, if she was simply biding her time until he left and she could wash her hands of him and find a new job. He was certain he'd ruined any chance of her finding him tolerable when, a few days after his arrival, he'd made a drunken comment about his father's less-than-admirable character. Jean did not take kindly to him speaking ill of the man she seemed to admire so much, particularly as he was nearing the end of his life.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked, wiping her hands on the apron tied round her waist.
"Uh, no, I just came for some tea."
"On the stove," she said, nodding her head toward the kettle.
He watched her as he fixed his cup. She was scooping some sort of ground beef mixture into two large casserole dishes. "What are you making?" he asked, when the silence had stretched on too long.
"Shepherd's pie," she replied, reaching for the bowl of mashed potatoes that sat behind the dishes.
"Isn't that a lot for the four of us?" he asked, as she began spreading a layer of potatoes on top.
"This one's for us," she said, gesturing to the dish she was currently filling. "The other is for the Harrises." To Lucien's furrowed brow, she added, "Charles Harris died yesterday. A stroke, they think." She gave a slow shake of her head, but the steady, sure movement of her hands never faltered as she filled one dish and then another with the comfort food.
"That's awful," said Lucien, treading carefully. He couldn't remember meeting a Mr. Harris, but he figured Jean must be close with the family. "I'm sorry, Jean," he added softly.
"Oh, I didn't know him, not really," she replied quickly, brushing off his concerns with the tone of her voice and the shrug of her shoulders. "His wife sits behind me in mass. We talk sometimes."
Lucien had finished making his tea by now, but it didn't seem right for him to leave, so he leaned back against the counter and took a sip.
"That was how I found out," Jean continued, as she turned to open the oven. Picking up one casserole in each hand, she slid them side by side onto the rack. "She wasn't there yesterday, and I asked after her, and our mutual friend Judith told me what had happened."
Lucien nodded, realizing belatedly that Jean was faced away from him and couldn't see the gesture. "And Judith, she asked you to cook?"
Jean was turning back to gather her dishes from the table, but at that she paused, giving him a curious look. "She didn't have to," she said simply, like it was obvious.
And perhaps it was, Lucien mused as he sipped his tea and Jean moved to the sink to wash the bowls and utensils she'd used. It had been a long time since he'd lived in Ballarat. He searched his mind, trying to remember if anyone had brought food when his mother died. He thought he could remember some close friends of his father's coming through the house, giving him kisses on the cheek that lasted too long and insisting on helping with the cleaning and in the garden. They must've brought food too, he thought, for he hadn't gone hungry, and he was sure his father didn't know a thing about cooking—that was, after all, why he'd hired a housekeeper.
Jean Beazley. The rambling train of Lucien's thoughts had circled back to where he'd started. She'd admitted herself that she wasn't a close friend of the Harrises, but she was cooking dinner for the widow because she could, though no one had asked her. She picked up the last dish in the sink, and he realized he'd been staring at the back of her for too long. He took his cup of tea and made his way out of the kitchen, but not before throwing one last glance in the direction of the woman he'd found to be mostly cold and judgmental thus far. He was beginning to rethink his rather one-dimensional assessment.
Lucien didn't go straight back to the house when he left the funeral home the day after his father's death, having spent the afternoon making preparations for the funeral. The old building held too much of Thomas Blake within its walls, not to mention a housekeeper who probably hated him, and the bar he wandered into was much more enticing. Eventually, someone at the bar who either recognized or pitied him - or both - offered to call him a taxi. He accepted, knowing he was much too drunk to drive, and deciding that the issue of retrieving his car was a problem for the next day.
That was how he found himself stumbling into his father's house after dark, wondering if it was worth it to change into pajamas before falling into bed. He was a bit surprised as he closed the door behind him when he realized the light in the parlour was still on, and even more so when he found Jean sitting there on the sofa, an empty glass in her hand and a faraway look in her eye.
She looked up as she heard him come in and rose to her feet, setting the glass down on the coffee table next to a bottle of sherry. "Lucien," she said, a tender smile on her lips lit a spark of irrational anger in him—the last thing he wanted was this woman's pity.
"Didn't think anyone would be awake," he said.
She shrugged. "Hard to sleep on a night like this," she confessed. "And I wanted to…" she began to say, but seemed to rethink her words. "You made it home alright?" she offered lamely.
He ran her words over in the fog of his mind. Had she waited up for him? In the short month they'd known each other, she'd certainly learned of his tendency to drink to excess, and she must have known that today would find him indulging in the habit. Had she really wanted to make sure he made it home safely?
"I took a cab," he finally responded. She nodded, and it seemed this short, strange conversation was over, so he began to make his way to the door, begging his feet to travel in a straight line, at least until he was out of her sight.
"Tomorrow, I'll start on the master bedroom," she said, and her voice stopped him in his tracks. "Get it ready for you."
"Jean, you don't have to- please, you've already…" his mind and mouth worked against him, refusing to complete a sentence.
"I don't mind," she softly insisted. "And I'll need something to do. I won't be cooking much this week." He frowned, at a loss for her meaning. "The meal train," she said, by way of explanation. "Rebecca Long was here this evening with a casserole. There'll be plenty more." Lucien only stared dumbly at her, and she pressed her lips together in another gentle smile. He found it somehow less angering this time.
He watched as she cleared the bottle and glass from the table. "Goodnight, Lucien," she said as she passed him, and in a moment she was gone.
She was surely out of earshot by the time he found the presence of mind to respond. "Goodnight, Jean," he said into the empty room.
Jean was the central focus of his thoughts as he readied for bed, but it was a welcome distraction from all that had plagued him for most of the day. The thought of her, staying awake until she knew he was safe and at home, left his mind in a swirl of thoughts and feelings.
That soft smile of hers replayed in his mind. Maybe it wasn't pity, he thought as he lay down to sleep, maybe it was something else. Maybe it was kindness.
Lucien woke long after breakfast, with a pounding in his head and a strange, hollow sort of grief in his heart. The former, he had done to himself, but the latter felt entirely undeserved, and he forced himself to get out of bed, to dress, to make his way downstairs. As he did, he was greeted with the sound of Jean's voice mingled with another. He followed the sound to the kitchen and found Jean with her back to him, putting something into the fridge as a woman he didn't recognize stood at the counter with a cup of tea.
The other woman was dark-haired, dressed smartly, he guessed in her mid-fifities. "That should cover you for lunch today and tomorrow," she was saying. "I believe Evelyn will be by later today with some- oh! Hello," she said, cutting herself off as she saw him standing in the doorway.
Jean turned around, shutting the refrigerator. "Doctor Blake," she greeted, and he wished she wouldn't call him that—the twinge of pain in her eyes matched the one in his own heart. "This is Elizabeth King."
"Pleased to meet you," he said, shaking her hand.
"The pleasure's mine," she assured him. "Jean speaks very highly of you, Doctor."
Lucien could not help the way his mouth fell open, and he flashed a glance at Jean, who was finding the inside of her teacup very interesting in that moment. "Well, she's very kind," he replied. "Thank you, for the-" he gestured helplessly in the direction of the fridge.
"Oh, it's nothing," she insisted, shaking her head sadly. "I'm so sorry about your father."
Lucien swallowed, hard. He supposed he'd have to get used to accepting condolences he didn't deserve. "Thank you," he said again, not knowing what else to say.
"Well, I'll get out of your hair," she said, setting her now-empty teacup down on the counter. "Jean, thank you for the tea."
"Oh, don't mention it," Jean was quick to respond. "Thank you."
Elizabeth lifted her purse from where it sat on the counter and made for the door, stopping to offer Lucien a sympathetic smile. "Doctor Blake," she said politely. He simply nodded as she left, and Jean followed her to the door.
Lucien watched them go, his mind spinning. He told himself it was the hangover and the events of the previous two days, but there was more to it than that. He'd just lost his father two days ago, and was now faced with grieving a man he'd spent his life running from, in addition to the flurry of emotions that accompanied his return to Ballarat. There were plenty of conflicting subjects to fill his mind—and yet his thoughts returned to Jean.
Jean, who disapproved of his drinking, his language, his tendency to sleep in. Jean, who had tended to Thomas Blake to his final breath, summoned Lucien to his father's deathbed, and hardly allowed him to speak a critical word of the old man. Jean, who had every right to grieve Thomas, while Lucien himself had none, who made him feel more guilt with every kind smile and gentle word.
Jean, who cooked casseroles for grieving widows, who made such friends as would return the gesture in a heartbeat, who speaks very highly of you, Doctor.
She's very kind, he'd replied, perfectly casual, but now the weight of his own words sunk like a stone into his heart. She was incredibly, impossibly, unjustifiably kind, and he didn't know how he could ever attempt to repay her.
His rambling thoughts were put to a stop when the subject of them returned to the kitchen, her steps slower and heavier than when she had left. As she passed by him, she held out a hand, and he realized she was offering him a bottle of painkillers. Slowly, he took it from her, his lips parting in wonder, but she continued to the stove, fixing another cup of tea—for him, he assumed, though he hadn't asked her to.
"How did you…" he started to ask, eyeing the glass bottle in his hand, but she just glanced at him over her shoulder, a knowing look in her tired eyes, and he couldn't finish his question. Of course she knew he'd need them; she'd seen him in his drunken state the night before. Because she waited up for me, his mind forced him to remember, but he ignored the thought and opened the bottle, dumping two pills into his hand.
In a moment, she was pressing a warm cup of tea into his hands, her eyes soft and weary. She still hadn't said a word. It seemed she had put on a mask of her usual welcoming brightness for the sake of Elizabeth, and the interaction had taken all of it out of her. But not her kindness, he thought, swallowing down the pills with a sip of hot tea, prepared exactly how he liked it. He was beginning to think nothing in the world could take her kindness from her.
She started to turn away from him but he reached for her, stopping her with a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Thank you, Jean," he said softly, though it wasn't nearly enough. He caught her gaze and held it, as long as she would let him, pleading with his eyes for her to understand what he didn't know how to say.
She looked at him with that tender, breathtaking smile, the one he knew now had nothing to do with pity and everything to do with compassion, and he thought maybe she did. Maybe she heard the words that did not pass through the air between them, but through a hand on the shoulder and a look in his eye. Maybe she could read between the lines of his gratitude in the same way he was learning the language of a casserole dish, a cup of tea, a light on in the parlour.
"You're welcome, Lucien," she answered, and then she left, most likely headed for his father's bedroom, to make it into a place where he could be comfortable.
He leaned against the doorway, took another sip of his tea, and replayed her words in his mind, feeling the deep truth of such a simple statement.
He was welcome. Truly, undeniably, welcome. She had made sure of that.