She shouldn't be, (it's not like she's trying to climb a mountain or slay a beast—she's just eating dinner with Rum), but her stomach twists and her hands shake and her teeth chatter against her glass every time she tries to take a sip, and she's so jittery she thinks she might drop her food all down the front of her dress.
She's nervous because this is not like other dinners. Not like chicken parmesan at Granny's or crab legs at the little seafood restaurant by the docks. Not like hamburgers and Cobb salad and casual pancakes just before Ruby switches the diner over to lunch menus at eleven. Not even like ice cream or the picnic by the beach. (This time he's cooked pork chops with mandarin oranges and garlic mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley, and it tastes like heaven when she can actually get it to her mouth.)
This time it feels like a date.
The other outings have been dates (technically), she knows. But this feels like a flowers and candlelight, wine and soft music, chocolate mousse for dessert and kissing afterwards kind of date. (This time it feels like it matters.)
She's confused (because there's nobody around to regulate her feelings—and some days she doesn't even feel qualified to dress herself, let alone sort through matted options that lay before her like a tangle of yarn). She doesn't know if she wants to be on a date with him. She doesn't know if she wants to sit here (in the place that used to be Belle's) and force smiles across the table. She doesn't know if she's a smitten kind of nervous or a too-deep-too-fast kind of nervous and she needs to get out.
(She doesn't know if she wants him to kiss her, but she doesn't know that she doesn't want him to, either.)
He stops eating. Lays his fork and knife down on the side of his plate and takes a sip of water. His expression looks like he walked face first into a tangle of brambles, but he keeps his voice calm (and she appreciates the effort). "Is something wrong?"
She purses her lips and shakes her head. Shrugs. "I don't know."
"Is there… anything I can do?"
She wipes her mouth with the napkin from her lap, and her lipstick leaves a smear of red against the navy cloth. "I don't know," she says honestly.
He was smiling when they started dinner, but he isn't smiling now. Now his eyes plead with her; now he's terrified she'll walk out and leave him sitting at the table, (like she's left her father, like she's left him so many times before). Now he looks nervous and that only makes things worse.
"I think… maybe I just need some air?"
She wants to comfort him like he's comforted her, and maybe it's not a lie. Maybe she really does need some air, and the breeze and the sky and the low-hanging sun will stop her head from spinning and stop her heart from trying to pound out of her chest. Maybe it will vanquish the walls and the doors, and she can surround herself with flowers (instead of the trappings of his power), and the sky (instead of the house where Belle used to live, in a place filled with her memories).
He smiles an exact smile, a careful smile, and pulls his cloth napkin off his lap. He folds it twice and lays it neatly beside his plate before standing. "How about we take a stroll in the garden?"
The air feels lighter, already less stale (even though he hasn't opened the door yet) and she smiles. "Okay," she says.
He fetches his cane from where it hangs on the edge of the kitchen counter, and she thinks he might be relieved, just like her. (He hasn't mentioned Belle, but Jane can tell, she can see the loss in his eyes just the same as she can see the photograph of them together above the mantelpiece, or the way one bedroom door was kept locked when he gave her the tour of the house.)
She folds her napkin (into a triangle, with a tiny smile on her lips) and tucks it under her plate. She stands, and runs her hand down the front of her sleek black dress to smooth out the wrinkles.
He holds the door for her, hand gesturing to the outside.
She wanted out, (but not away), so she lets him walk her along the little garden path that wraps around the house. Side-by-side (too close together or too far apart and she can't quite tell the difference any more), they pass ferns and a lattice of creeping vines, following the brick laid path onto his back patio.
The patio opens onto a manicured lawn, landscaped and cultivated and surrounded by a tall wood fence the colour of honey. Several trees, a little bench tucked under a tall black maple, flowers and bushes and an herb garden, and a small shed tucked neatly in the far corner. It smells of wet grass and peat moss and just-blooming flowers.
She stops at the edge of the bricks.
He stops too. Only his cane crosses the border, plants itself firmly onto the soft ground grass.
"You don't want to keep going?"
She does. But she's in heels and he has a cane and it hardly seems wise. (And that the edge of the patio seems like some sort of barrier, like moving from brick to grass is one step too far.) "I don't want to aggravate your leg," she says. "It seems like it's bothering you tonight."
"It is." His eyes flick up towards hers, and his mouth twists up. "But no more than usual."
She stares out at the yard and spots a line of pockmarks across the immaculate grass—little indents she follows with her eyes, around the trees and bushes, through the garden, to a rake leaning against the fence and a green apron hanging folded over the back of a patio chair.
"Did you do all this yourself?" she asks.
"You sound shocked."
"I didn't know you were such a gardener," she says.
"Well," he gives a little shrug and shifts his weight, adjusting the angle of his knee and digging his cane a little deeper into the grass, "It seems I'm just full of surprises."
She smiles. "I'm very observant."
"Indeed you are."
And he is surprising.
Surprising like the way he stands with his free arm hanging loose, (like her hand belongs in his, pressed against his palm, and he's unbalanced without it). Surprising like the way he stares out into the garden and smiles at her without really looking at her, (as if he knows that she feels unbalanced too, as if he can feel the magnets between them, as if he always planned for her to stand a single step closer).
The sun is setting (and the warmth is leaving), but that's not the only reason she moves towards him. Not the only reason she rubs her fingers together, to work up the nerve. She moves towards him and works up the nerve because she doesn't know what she wants (but she knows he needs touch as much as she needs touch, and she knows she's wanted to touch him since the day they he showed up in her library with a picnic basket).
And so she slides her hands into his. His palm is warm (and her skin crawls). But it's a good kind of crawl, (perhaps a smitten kind of crawl), and she doesn't entirely hate it because she knows he'll let her go if she asks him to.
For a moment he doesn't move. He stands stock still, as if shot, as if a bullet blasted straight through his shoulder and he's in shock and he doesn't remember who he is and the world is in chaos—and then his fingers close on hers. Gently. Feather-light. (As afraid and tentative as she feels, with something happy and heartbreaking all at once wavering in the back of his gaze.)
"Thank you," he says, after a long moment (in which he barely seems to breathe).
"For everything," he says, and he smiles.
She bites her lip and tries to ignore the rising heat in her face. Thankfully the sun is setting fast, and everything in sight glows as pink as her cheeks.
"We, uh…" She clears her throat and coughs into her free hand and tries to sound nonchalant. "We can go back, if you want?"
"We don't have to," he says. "If you're still hungry, I could bring our plates out here."
"It's okay," she says. "I think I'm ready."
He nods once and turns, and she slides her hand into the crook of his arm.
They're not quite in sync—his gait is a little awkward, and the rhythm of his cane feels out of step with their feet—but it feels good. It feels good, and he feels safe (and his navy dress shirt is softer than she expected, and his arm is warmer, and his muscles firmer). And she thinks she likes it.
"I'm sorry I ruined dinner," she says.
"You haven't ruined anything."
"It's probably cold by now."
"A problem easily mended, my dear."
She watches his face (because he watches where they're going so she doesn't have to), and tries to read his expression. "Magic?" she asks.
His lips twist up and he shrugs, and the extra bump in their already awkward gait causes her to stumble slightly. He steadies her and smiles. "I suppose we could do that," he says. "But I was referring to the microwave."
He pulls the door open and she laughs (and she's still unsteady, still wobbly on her feet because she's in heels and the bricks are uneven and he makes it extraordinarily hard to concentrate) and squeezes his arm a little tighter.
They finish dinner (thanks to a functional microwave), and eat a lovely dessert of chocolate mousse. They do dishes, and listen to the radio, and laugh at things that aren't particularly funny, and then he drives her back to the hospital. They sit in the parking lot, in the red leather interior of a black Cadillac, and talk until her throat grows sore. He walks her to the front door and bids her goodnight.
He doesn't kiss her, (but she's most definitely a smitten kind of nervous… and she doesn't think she'd mind).
She doesn't remember high school, and her father isn't here, but Jane feels like a skulking teenager as she slips across the lobby and down the hallway to the wards. Except for an awkward and apologetic wave to a nurse by the coffee machine, she manages to avoid mostly everyone else. By the time she's halfway to her room, she carries her heels in one hand and her blue peacoat in her other—and she's glad she didn't ask the coffee machine nurse to help her with the zipper at the back of her dress, because when she turns the corner, she sees Doctor Whale sitting in a plastic chair just outside her door.
"Jane, hey." He stands. "I was hoping I'd catch you."
"Is—is something wrong?" she asks. (He's a doctor and it's long past midnight, and from everything she's read that's never a good combination.)
"No, not at all," he says. He smiles at her, (and if something was wrong he wouldn't be smiling). "I was just hoping to talk."
He spreads his hands (one holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee and the other with a flip-notebook) and shrugs. "No time like the present." He looks over her coat and shoes and dress, and then checks his wristwatch with a frown that crinkles his forehead and dampens his smile. "Unless you had other plans, of course."
She shrugs and sets her shoes and jacket on the floor, tucked in beside the wall. "Nothing that can't wait. Just sleep."
"Completely overrated," he says, and drains the rest of his coffee as if to prove his point.
"So… what did you want to talk about? At one in the morning. In the hallway."
"Well, you're moving tomorrow," he says. "And I don't work on Thursdays—not including emergency surgeries or women too pregnant to wait until Friday. So," he shrugs his hands into his pockets, notebook and coffee cup both disappearing into the white labcoat, "I just wanted to say goodbye while I still had the chance."
She smiles because he looks so sheepish, (and because it's the only way she can keep her eyes from watering). "I'm not going anywhere," she says with a laugh. "Just down the street."
"I know," he says.
"And the library is public—or, will be. You can come visit any time."
"I know," he says. He pulls his hands out of his pockets (but leaves the notebook and the cup in his lab coat) and folds his arms. "But to be perfectly honest, I'll be bored without you. After all, I don't get a new amnesia patient every day."
"Well, thank goodness for that."
"Although we do get considerably more than average. But, out all the amnesia patients I've personally treated…" he pauses, and smiles with teeth flashing and eyebrow cocked (and blue eyes soft, looking at her like a person and not like a patient and not like a ghost), "…you're my favourite."
"And you're going to make my cry." She bites her lip and stares at the floor so she doesn't have to meet his eyes.
"Hey, no, don't do that." He smiles, and she manages to smile back, and he hands her a plastic wrapped package of tissues from yet another pocket. "You should be celebrating. This is what you've been waiting for."
"I know," she says, and she's amazed at how fast their roles have changed (and maybe they support each other, and maybe they're less doctor and patient and more… friends).
"I'm very happy for you, Jane."
"Thanks, Doctor Whale."
"Viktor," he says. He tucks the tissues away (and she notices he keeps a spare one clutched in his own hand, and swabs at his eyes when he thinks she's not looking). "I have to get back to work," he says. "But I'll see you at the opening next Saturday."
"You don't have to work?"
"I wouldn't miss it," he says. "Of course, excepting emergency surgeries or pregnant women."
"I'll miss you."
He coughs (into the tissue, and he clutches it tight in his fist), and gives a shrug like it doesn't matter. "Let me know if you ever need anything, ever, and I'll be happy to help."
"Goodnight." He picks up his plastic chair and begins walking down the hall. She collects her shoes and jacket from their place on the floor, and his footsteps stop. "Jane?" he asks.
"Have a good life out there," he says. (The confidence in his tone makes her think that maybe she can.)
"No need to thank me," he says, and starts back down the hall with the chair tucked under his arm. "You deserve it."
And maybe confidence is catching, (because he says she deserves a good life, and for the very first time she feels like she does.)