Author's note: This pulls from both the BBC adaptation and the original by Elizabeth Gaskell, though I'll never do her justice. We start after the train station, on the way back to Milton.
Chapter One: Yet Angels Brought You to Me
Outside the train compartment, shadows of trees danced past and the horizon darkened to deep gray-blue; the engine churned ahead of them, jostling the cars as it pulled them on towards Milton; and Margaret Hale was floating. She did not hear the engine pulse. She did not feel the car sway, or even the seat beneath her. John Thornton's left arm held her shoulders and his right hand rested in Margaret's lap, his thumb lazily skating along the curve of her wrist. She could feel the warmth of his closeness, and every so often the wind of his breath, faint against her ear or the back of her neck. The cabin lamps had been lit, and staring at the window she could see his reflection behind hers, floating with her, watching her with curious, kind eyes. She had seen them together like this in her most precious dreams, but even in dreams, she did not imagine his countenance to be so tender.
"Tell me what you're thinking," John said, his voice a pleasing hum, thick and sweet in a way that tightened her chest. Margaret turned and lifted her head to gaze at John's face, and was surprised to realize its closeness. She had to tilt her head back to be able to see him well, and even then she felt she could not hold the blue of his gaze without feeling overcome-so she looked at his nose, his chin, his jaw. Pieces of a picture that made her want to weep. In truth, she was not thinking on any one thought-her psyche was all tumbling, delighted abstractions, a basket of fruit spilt over, sweetness stretching out in every direction.
"I fear my thoughts are so scattered I would have difficulties grasping only one," Margaret said, meeting his eyes only briefly again.
His face was alight, his cheeks high, forehead crease-less. He bowed his head forward as if to kiss her, the tip of his long, fine nose whispering past hers, his eyes drooping shut. John's stubbled cheek brushed against hers as a cat might nuzzle, and he kissed her cheek before pulling back to say quietly, "Then, pray, tell me as many secrets as you will."
Margaret was unnerved. She feared nothing risked ruining this moment more than her speaking, but presently she couldn't imagine denying John Thornton anything (a thought which scared and delighted her more).
"I suppose ... I am thinking of Mr. Bell, for one."
"Mr. Bell?" John's head moved back, eyebrows pulled together in question, his head tilting as his smile shown down at her. She wondered if he'd laugh.
"Yes," Margaret spoke, trying to measure out her response. "Mr. Bell was full of mischief, and he seemed to know me too well. I wonder-I wonder if he hadn't anticipated this, all the while. And I wonder at the gift he has given." She looked down, squeezed his fingers, but refrained from her compulsion to kiss each of his knuckles.
"I wonder at the gift you have given me," was his sweet reply, and when she met the sea of his gaze her chest seemed to seize and begin a steady vibration all at once. A swell of tears smeared her vision, and John moved his hand to cradle her cheek. She leaned into his palm. She could not look at him.
"John ... these past months while I've been so far from Milton, I've never stopped thinking-" She stopped. Shuddered against his open hand. The shake of his head was so slight she wondered if she imagined it.
"-when I left Milton, there I left all my happiness. A place where I might finally find purpose in a life thus far adrift. It wasn't until I met you that I saw what purpose, what drive, ones' life could have. You live with such integrity and meaning. Since I left, I've found rather little meaning in anything. In London, I am hollow ... without ... oh, God ... "
Then her hands made to cover her face briefly, but, oh, she did not want to hide from him, and so she took his hand from her face and pulled it close to her chest, cradling it, studying his long fingers in the lantern light, tears spilling out. She kept her head down-she knew that if she looked up into the blue now, she would shatter. I cannot. I cannot.
Her voice quivered. "I have not prayed for this because I knew myself undeserving. I have caused you such strife, while you ... you have saved me from ruin. I have offended you at every possible turn, and after all this you meet me with grace. Even after Outwood Station. After you must have thought-but you must know, there has never been anyone else!-but I dared not pray. Only hoped. And I have been so very afraid, these months, so full of dread that you might never know how deeply and singularly I am in love with you, and have been since before I knew what love was."
And then, oh, he was kissing her-sweetly, but not so gently as on the platform where they first kissed.
The way she loved him felt fierce in its newness and suddenly, she found her emotions churning quite desperately, and who was this? The hum of her body when he was near was familiar enough, but this indulgence in it was strange and frightening and so good and she felt a stranger to herself. If she had searched inside herself, she wouldn't have found the Margaret Hale who would turn her face at such notions. That Margaret had succumbed. Now here was Margaret Hale, who had kissed and been kissed. Margaret Hale, whose heart and hands and lips craved another so wholly. So quickly. So furiously.
She found her arms wrapping around his neck, clinging to him as she had once done when she was frightened for him. As she did, John's arms wrapped around her shoulder and her waist, pulling her closer, his head tilting to press his mouth more firmly against hers, his fingers stroking just beneath her shoulder blades, and when he sighed into her kiss she couldn't keep from moaning gently.
Her moan broke a spell. John pulled back slightly, his breath coming quick, and he leaned his forehead against Margaret's. Long moments passed where all Margaret could hear was his breath and the thudding of her heart. She reveled in the swelling of her lips, her mouth tasting of his. Her fingers stilled themselves on the back of his neck.
"Say that you'll marry me, Margaret. Tell me you will be by my side, always. I cannot wait another minute to be certain. It's too painful."
Drawing in a breath, Margaret tilted up her head, looked into the blue, and her soul burst into a thousand fires that fizzled and haloed about her.
"I will marry you, John Thornton, and then be by your side, always."
John could have wept for his happiness, and very nearly did, as he peppered Margaret's face with gentle, frantic kisses-he couldn't keep back bursts of desperate, shaking laughter. After some moments of his kissing her tears this way, she began to laugh in kind, and he held her face in his hands, full of delight, chest heaving, voice trembling.
"I will not let you down, Margaret, Love, I swear to you. My life's work will be to bring you joy."
"And my life's work will be the same," Margaret smiled.
"When shall we wed? I'm desperate to never be parted again," John sighed, leaning in for a kiss, and another, happily unable to stop. Now this face was his to kiss, he couldn't imagine ever wanting to cease, ever wanting to pull away from her pale, smooth skin, the halo of a fragrance like jasmine, her soft, pink lips, the delicate skin of her eyelids. He placed a kiss at the corner of each eye as Margaret took his hands in hers, biting her lip.
"Before we set a date, you should talk to your mother, and I to Aunt Shaw. Only, I'm not certain I want to imagine their responses just yet." She rolled her eyes gently.
"Don't worry," said John with unsurprising confidence as he pulled the little yellow rose from his breast pocket and placed it gently behind Margaret's ear, which brought forth a delicious blush. He wanted to draw the color out with a kiss. "My mother wants every happiness for me, as I'm sure your Aunt does for you-and so they will understand." He brought her hands to his mouth and pressed his lips to the back of each. He could not stop. Today he had hope. He hadn't felt it in too long.
"Yes, I'm sure you're right," Margaret giggled-something she would have scoffed at Edith for doing, once upon a time-and he so enjoyed the sound that he turned her hands over to kiss her palms in hope of drawing out more, but instead she sighed deeply, and raising his eyes to her, he saw her expression darken pleasantly. Her countenance pushed against the little restraint he had mustered, and he closed his eyes for a moment, inhaled, and squeezed her soft hands. My dearest, only love.
"I regret that I cannot ask your father for your hand", John started, watching a wistful glaze come to Margaret's eyes. "I like to think he would have said yes. In his absence, I feel I should write a letter to your brother, to ask for his blessing."
He could just make out the widening of her eyes, the tremor at the corners of her mouth. "You know about Fredrick?" He couldn't tell if she was panicked or relieved, and he stroked her hands to encourage her.
"Higgins told me-and if I'm right, Mr. Bell might have tried to tell me before he left. I know now it was him at the train station, the night I saw you. And I-"
"No," Margaret pleaded-
"-Love, I am sorry for my jealousy. It caused you only pain. But to the future-I should write to your brother, and make my intentions known. What do you think?"
"I think," Margaret replied, "that you are a good man, and Fred will be pleased to receive a letter from you and know I am so loved. He hates that he is not able to be here, for he feels it his responsibility to care for me. He will be happy to know that I am not alone."
"No. Not alone."
The train began to slow, and for the first time since she entered the train car, John looked past her and out the window. Everything that wasn't Margaret seemed so dulled. "Back in Milton," he breathed, and squeezed her hand again. He loved it and he dreaded it. He was happy to bring her home, and he was not ready for the journey to end.
"I will take up a room at The Bishop tonight," said Margaret decisively. "That is not so far from Marlborough Mills. In the morning I will write to Aunt Shaw, and to Fred as well."
"You will not come home with me?" John started, and quickly he added, "We have guest rooms made, and I could stay in my office-"
"No, of course not," replied Margaret, and of course she wouldn't dare to stay at Marlborough House tonight. She was a Lady, and he was foolish not to think more clearly on the matter. He nodded as she continued. "It would not be proper, and I could not do that to your mother. I would not wish to make her feel so ill at ease in her own home."
"Your home," John was quick to correct her. "Mother and I are tenants in your home."
"Nonsense. My name is on the deed, but I have not made it the home that it is. We will be married, and then we will live together happily, all of us. But I do not wish to pull the rug from underneath Mrs. Thornton. It will be hard enough for her to accept me as a daughter-oh, no, John, I am certain she will-but we must let her adjust."
John found himself so smitten by the kindness in Margaret's face that he could hardly bear it, and as the train crawled into the station he leaned in once more for a sweet, lingering kiss. The way her lips moulded to his, the gentle parting of them, the infinite softness, threatened to undo him. This divinity would drive him mad. This woman.
"Come," Margaret whispered, "let's away."
The coach ride to The Bishop was brief, and for their parts John and Margaret both were remarkably restrained. They rode in mostly-contented silence, sitting across from one another in the cabin as it carried them toward the center of town, just across from Milton Cathedral. When John helped her down the coach step, she delighted in the chance to hold his hand again, if only briefly.
After her bag had been taken inside, they stood on the steps of the hotel entrance, their bodies just closer than perhaps they should have been, Margaret peering up at him with wide, happy eyes.
His chest was thrumming. "Are you sure you won't join us for dinner tonight? I'm sure it would be no trouble."
Margaret cast her eyes down, smoothing her skirts. "I'm not so sure of that. I should not intrude tonight. Besides, I am tired from travel, and fear I wouldn't be engaging company. I must sleep."
On the contrary, John thought as he marveled at her, no thought seemed so pleasing right now as her sleepy company. Now in his mind she was curled up in her bed, a smile playing on her lips as she slept.
Now in his mind she was stretched out on a familiar duvet, wrists meeting in a cross above her head, dark-eyed, heavy lidded, lips parted—perhaps not sleeping—
Margaret looked at him as if she couldn't quite make him out, but as he watched her brow lift he felt certain she knew that the fade of his smile wasn't due to unhappiness. His chest heaved a stilted sigh as he looked down at her, unspeaking, brows furrowed, and he splayed and stretched his fingers at his sides. He barely kept from groaning her name.
"When may I call on you tomorrow?", he asked, and she inclined her head gently.
"As soon as you will," said she. "I have only to post some letters, and visit the dressmaker-I have brought little with me-and I have no other engagements. We should go over the papers Henry prepared for me. I know you will be eager to reopen the mill."
That's right, John remembered. There's a mill.
"I will call at noon, then, if you'll join me for lunch."
"Indeed, I'd be delighted," she smiled, lifting her eyes to him. Then they stood in silence a moment more, while John studied the dimpled corners of her mouth with glad fascination and desire-but he knew he could not kiss her soft face here, so he bent forward and took her hand, kissing it and pressing his nose into her wrist, just so, just for a moment, with his forehead almost touching her arm.
If he could, he would drop to his knees and press his face into her hands, kiss her palm and wrists.
If he could, he would wrap his arms about her waist, lift her up, bury his head in her bosom, clutch her to himself, draw in her radiant warmth, trail kisses up her neck to the spot just below the wisping curls behind her ears …
If he could-
-but now, he reminded himself, there's no if. Now, there's only when. Now he didn't wonder, nor suffer in vain. Where once there was crushing emptiness, now there was only her, and the promise of her. When she would become his wife, and-
It was with the greatest reluctance that he raised himself back up, and seeing her flush he wondered with amusement (and too little guilt) if he had embarrassed her, though there were few but footmen about the entrance to the hotel. Margaret clasped her hands back together, pursing her lips in that maddening way.
"Goodnight, Miss Hale."
"Goodnight, Mr. Thornton."