The prompt, as given by SKoW:

It was an arranged marriage with both sides too considerate of the other to notice just how much they were each suffering.


Mister and mistress Ailey were married in the spring of 1874, and have since lived together in their flat above Mister Ailey's bakery in London. To those that knew them, they were a charming pair, one to be equally admired and envied. Nathan Ailey was a handsome young man— a remarkable success for his age and occupation, especially since he hadn't enough money, nor property, to open up his bakery, until after his betrothal to Elizabeth Snippet a mere two years ago.

Elizabeth Ailey (née Snippet) had also been making a name for herself, from even before her bond in holy matrimony. She inherited the boutique that belonged to her father once she aged to one and twenty, and worked there every day thereafter. It was only in good fortune that the man her parents agreed for her to marry did not exercise his right to redistribute her, now his, property, even more so that he actually allowed her to continue in her endeavors, so long as she kept up her duties in the home as well.

Every evening after she would arrive home from the boutique, she immediately started preparing dinner as she waited for her husband to close the bakery and come upstairs. Tonight was no different— except for Nathan coming home before dinner was fully put together. Just as he did whenever he would reach the flat and dinner was not yet complete, he grabbed his spectacles and a book before situating himself comfortably in the rocking chair.

It always unsettled her how he never said anything to her upon entering, aside from asking what she had made for dinner, or in today's case, how long it would be until they could eat. She could never tell whether or not he was angry with her. Granted, he was never one to get his dander up with anyone, but from what her companions had shared, men typically wished to come straight home to a meal, and would become rather cross if they had to wait. He would not have to wait often, of course, but on the rare occasions he did, he would give no indication of being anything but indifferent toward the situation, which seemed lovely in retrospect, but all Elizabeth wanted was for him to explicitly declare whether or not he was miffed with her.

Nevertheless, she scurried around the kitchen quickly in efforts to get dinner out as soon as possible. Once it was all finished and on the table, she called him over and he strolled toward the food, sitting down and digging in without a word.

"How was work to-day?" she asked, picking up a piece of bread she picked up from the bakery earlier.

Nathan swallowed his food before answering. "Fine." He cut himself another piece of roast beef and almost put into his mouth, but stopped himself abruptly to ask, "Yourself?"

She started detailing the events of her day to him, both glad that he was kind enough to ask, and eager to keep up what little conversation they had. By the time she had finished her recount, Nathan had eaten everything off his plate and listened quietly, showing neither disinterest nor desire to comment on anything.

As she still had a full plate of food in front of her, he took his plate, fork, and knife into the kitchen and went back to reading. Elizabeth accepted the neutral silence and ate her dinner in it, but couldn't help but feel discouraged, just as she did every time she unsuccessfully tried to converse with him.

Once she was finished eating, and then cleaning, she grabbed her sewing kit and sat back at the kitchen table to fix a client's trousers. Nathan must have gotten bored with his book, because not twenty minutes after she started her repairs, she felt him come up behind her, pushing her hair out of the way to press a hot kiss to her neck. Whatever he lacked in speech, he deftly made up for physically. Her body buzzed with excitement as he continued teasing her neck, his hands slowly dragging themselves up her body to undo her dress. Ripped trousers forgotten, she turned around and brought his lips up to hers as she let herself get lost in his blazing touch.

Later that night, lying next to her husband's sleeping form, Elizabeth traced odd shapes on his arm after her many futile attempts to fall asleep. It was always like that whenever they would lie together after their intimate activities— he would drift into a peaceful slumber, while she pondered the mystery of how they could know each other's bodies so well, but let everything else be left unsaid. Though they had been married more than two years, it would shocking to find that he knew her favorite color, especially since, she didn't know his either.

The next morning, as Elizabeth was bumbling around her tailoring shop, fixing this dress and finishing that one, one of her most frequent visitors stopped by.

"Oh, Rebecca, look at you!" Elizabeth exclaimed, rushing over to give the woman a kiss on each of her cheeks. She had only been noticeably pregnant for the past month or two, but it seemed as though every time she could come by, her stomach grew more and more.

"The only upside to being pregnant is that I am not obligated to wear a corset," Rebecca groaned. "But with all the vomiting and soreness, all I really want is for this baby to just come out already."

Elizabeth started measuring Rebecca as the two tittered about the upcoming birth of Rebecca's child. "And how is Richard dealing with all of this?"

"Oh, he's been absolutely lovely," Rebecca said, beaming. "So caring and asking whether I need this and that. I got really lucky, marrying him."

Humming noncommittally, Elizabeth tried to mask the envy that started bubbling in her stomach. Rebecca and her husband were the best of friends, always smiling and laughing together, whereas Elizabeth felt lucky to get a three word answer out of Nathan. She and Nathan may have been wealthier than the other couple, both of their businesses being more successful than Rebecca's husband's, but she would probably trade with her if asked. To make matters worse, Rebecca was having a baby, and had been married for only half the time Elizabeth had.

"How are you and my dear brother getting on?" asked Rebecca once she was through being measured.

She was asked this question far too often, and had long since perfected her airy way of answering. "We are doing absolutely fantastic. I honestly could not be any happier."

"That's lovely to hear!" If only it was the truth, Elizabeth thought bitterly."You two are still coming around for supper to-morrow, yes?"

"Yes, I believe so."

"Oh wonderful! I should do well to remind Richard later; lord knows his memory could use a bit of help." Rebecca took her pocket-watch out of her bag. "Elizabeth, darling, I must get going. I'm due for tea with Richard's mum soon." With a quick goodbye, she was out the door, leaving Elizabeth to go back to her work.

For the rest of the day, there were not very many customers that came into the store, leaving Elizabeth to hum about to herself as she worked. At six o'clock, she packed up her things, and headed back home. The boutique was only three blocks away, so she walked, on the way, stopping at the nearest market and butcher shops to get food for tonight's dinner. She worked quickly today, not wanting to have to make Nathan wait two days in a row.

When she neared the door to the bakery, she started to hear laughter; one of them a gentle, womanly giggle, the other, deep and soothing. Upon entering the bakery, she received a pretty big shock: Nathan Ailey was laughing, something she'd only seem he genuinely do once or twice. She was, in fact, so shocked, that she had not even thought of how improper it was of this woman to be standing so close to her husband without anyone else present in the room. The woman he was talking to, who was probably too wealthy to be considered low class but too poor to be considered middle class, seemed to notice that Elizabeth had entered the room and looked over at her and let her smile grow impossibly wider.

"Is this Elizabeth?" she asked, casting a glance back at Nathan. "She is certainly beautiful."

"Hullo, Elizabeth," Nathan greeted with a slight bow, the traces of merriment already washed away from his face.

She curtsied. "Good evening." The other woman opened her mouth, but Elizabeth continued before she could say anything. "I think I should be getting started on dinner right about now, if you'll excuse me. It was lovely meeting you!"

With a final curtsy and an adieu from the other two, she quickly made her way upstairs, her heart already weighing her down. What was she doing wrong?

Unlike the night before, dinner was on the table when Nathan came up the stairs. Upon his arrival, the two dug in, eating their dinner in complete silence. He did not seem to notice that anything was off, and Elizabeth was far too occupied with her mind to make sure he wouldn't. She was almost certain that he was not having an affair with the woman, as he was always in the bakery or upstairs at home. On top of that, it was not as though Elizabeth didn't comply to his every need. So it was not an affair, but then, why was he jesting enough to make her laugh? More importantly, why did he not jest with her as well; she was his wife, after all.

"Rebecca, could I ask you a question?"said Elizabeth as the two stood alone in the kitchen.

"Of course."

"Has your brother made any, erm, complaints about me?"

Rebecca's head tilted in confusion. "No, why do you ask? Does he seem upset with you?"

"I don't know," Elizabeth answered truthfully. "He was always a quiet man, but I thought he was at the least, contented. But he never speaks to me, really, but with anyone else, he seems perfectly normal."

She had, since last night, discovered that this was true. By the time the Aileys were standing outside Rebecca's home this evening, Elizabeth had still not gotten over yesterday's brief encounter with that girl and her husband.

But it turned out he could carry a conversation and look interested while doing it. All throughout dinner, he and his brother in law drank ale and gabbed on about sports or something-or-other. She was too occupied with her ever darkening thoughts to pay much attention. She still could not yet tell whether she was angry or upset, and to whom those feelings were directed at.

"I've never known my brother to be quiet, actually," Rebecca said. "This is most peculiar, and I shall get to the bottom of this."

"Oh no, I musn't make you go to such lengths for me." Elizabeth wanted to accept the offer, but it was already not proper of her to complain about the husband she was supposed to only have positive thoughts about.

Rebecca waver her hand in dismissal. "Oh nonsense, you are my friend, as well as my family." Deep down, she was happy Rebecca said that, but she gave no outward inclination of exactly how thankful she really was.

The women walked back into the living room, each carrying two bowls of soup the group would be having as an after-supper course. Elizabeth glanced over at Nathan countless times, wondering what was going on in his head. She did notice that after she came back from excusing herself to the power room, that he was studying her just as she was studying him. It unnerved her slightly, but she didn't say anything, and neither did he.

As the two walked home, the difference was highly recognizable. Usually their silences were comfortable and the only tension was from Elizabeth herself. Now, however, she could have sworn that Nathan was feeling the tension as well. Weird. Neither of the two spoke a word on the way home, and neither of them spoke as they got ready for bed. It wasn't until Elizabeth was sitting on the edge of her bed did one of them finally say something.

"Are you happy?"

Elizabeth blanched at his abrupt question, swerving her head to face her husband with questioning eyes. "Yes."

"I am not sure whether I believe you." He was edging into dangerous territory, that was for sure. Elizabeth wisely kept her mouth shut, knowing that he did not want to hear her lie, and at the same time, would not be happy with the truth. "Are you happy?"

When she still didn't answer, he reached forward and brushed a strand of hair from her face. "You may speak freely, and I beg you to not tell me a lie." His muddled brown eyes bore into hers with nothing save for sincerity. To say she was shocked by his sudden need to know how she felt about their marriage would have been just as obvious as pointing out that the sun was bright.

"No, I'm not happy."

He nodded, unsurprised. "May I ask why?"

"May I still speak freely?"

"As you wish."

"You are my husband," she said, trying to sum up her elongated turmoil into a sentence, "but I feel that we are strangers still." It would have been enough to stop there, but the dam had been broken, so she continued on. "I haven't a clue about you, and you, me. I thought that you were just a quiet sort of man, one with very few words to say on any given topic, but I only just find that you are not. I do not know whether to think that you find me unpleasant or that you just do not like me. It does not feel good, being bound to a man in holy matrimony who will speak to anyone but his wife."

He sat up then, bringing his legs into an Indian-style cross and running a hand through his hair uncomfortably. "I-er I was not aware you that way. Rebecca informed me tonight that you felt like I did not care for you, but I did not know it was this severe. I suppose an explanation of my behavior is in order, yes?"

Elizabeth pushed herself up as well, sitting across from him so they were eye-to-eye once more. "It is neither my desire— nor right— to demand any sort of explanation from you."

"All the same, you want one." Nathan reached out and took her hand, his first time doing so since the day they wed without holding it against their bed, wall, or some other miscellaneous piece of furniture as he had his way with her. She could not help the small smile that graced her face thereafter. "I want you to understand something: I never wished to hurt you, and I take full blame for making you believe that I did."

She should have been relieved; not only was she finally speaking to Nathan, he also said that he had no intention of causing her any of the despair that she had been feeling. On the contrary, she started to wonder why she had been put though two full years of silence and paranoia. "The truth is however, I am not happy either. I never wanted to be a baker, and I did not really want to be married yet, either. Most people married around two and twenty years of age, just as we did, but I wanted to travel to Italy and paint."

"So why court me?"

"I courted you for the same reason you accepted my proposal. Our parents pushed us together, did they not? Yours because they wanted you married before you turned five and twenty, and mine because 'painting is not a suitable career.' They were friends, so they stood behind the curtains and orchestrated our relationship."

"You paint?" she asked.

Nathan shrugged. "When I can."

"Could I see something of yours?" She could immediately tell that he was going to decline by the way he shifted.

He removed his had from hers and scratched the back of his head before replying, "I don't think I am all that comfortable with you seeing anything." At her solemn nod, he added, "But perhaps one day I will be."

It was such a simple sentence, but so filled with promise. "You think so?" she questioned, not being able to keep the hopeful timbre out of her voice.

"I think it is about time I take my head out of my arse and give you the chance you so deserve," he said. It warmed her heart to hear him say that. Would this mean that he would start to be jovial and banter with her like with the girl in the bakery?

They started breaking off into tangents, asking question and exchanging stories. It was all just barely scratching the surface, but Elizabeth was enjoying every second of it, and the fact that they somehow shifted so that their backs pressed against the headboard, their hands intertwined between them and her head rested on his shoulder only helped.

In the middle of an anecdote, Elizabeth yawned, causing Nathan to chuckle. "Perhaps we should get to sleep."

She frowned. The last thing she wanted to do was go to sleep. What if, by the time they woke up tomorrow, everything went back to the way it was? After having a hint of what Nathan was like when he opened up, she wanted more, to constantly move forward and not spend a moment at a standstill.

But she supposed he was right; she was so tired by now that her eyelids were almost too heavy to keep open. Nathan pulled the cover up enough for her to slip under and draped an arm around her waist.

"Good night, Elizabeth," he said, kissing her temple.

"Good night, Nathan."

And she could only hope for more to follow.


A/N: Thanks for reading, everyone! And Merry Christmas if you celebrate it :)