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Hors de Combat, Hors de Commerce

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Margaret had boarded the train with John: this fact could not be gainsaid. The transience of the railway-station setting, the thick steamy air, and the tightening of his supplicating fingers around her wrist combined to make her dizzy, and they made her reckless, as well; and so she offered no objections as he bumped and buffeted her like a balloon, lighter than air, up the stairs and into the passenger car. Her heels ringing against the metal under her feet served to remind her that she was tethered by gravity, even if at that precise moment she was entirely unable to feel it.

It wasn't until the train pulled out of the station that she began to realise her untenable situation. Alone with a man, traveling where? To his home? To Milton, at least, which belonged to him in her mind, and where no social ties save one existed to house her. She thought that there might be no greater felicity than to be John's, in John's home -- their home, when one considered the situation in a certain way -- in a city whose landscape, for better or for worse, had been forged partly by him. To be surrounded completely by him. Still, in her present circumstances she could not possibly just follow him home this afternoon, to be greeted at journey's end by a decidedly hostile Mrs. Thornton.

For all that she knew herself to be headed north, in the wrong direction, she hesitated to broach the subject. John -- strange to allow herself to think of him as John -- was looking every bit as dazzled and delivered by their chance meeting as she was, and she wanted never to see him looking any other way, wanted to wait as long as possible to see the hard pragmatism seep back into his face. Long handfast minutes passed, then, both of them smiling longer than they ever had in each other's company, before she was able to shatter the silence.

Eventually, she firmed her resolve and spoke up. "John."

"Margaret." His thumb stroked lightly along the inside of her wrist, and for a moment the world contracted to those two square inches of skin before expanding again, and for a moment her voice failed her. She cleared her throat, and continued:

"John, we simply cannot return to Milton together, you know."

And there it was, the stubbornness back in him. She felt a stab of regret, dear as his implacable chin had become to her. The thumb had stopped stroking, and she regretted that too. "And why not?" he asked her.

"Where should I begin?" She shook her head. "There are many reasons, and do not say to me that you must be told them all, for I will not believe you when you say it."

His returning smile was not soft in the least: rather, it was wry and knowing. "Very well, then, I will not say it. But, Margaret, what makes you think that I am not prepared to consign all of your undoubtedly sensible reasons to the devil?"

She laughed. "I do not think it. I expect that you are willing to sweep the entire city of Milton -- the entire country of England -- before us. But I would like to remind you that when the sweeping is done, we will have to live in the ruins."

"With my mother, and your Aunt Shaw."

"With, as you say, your mother and my Aunt Shaw. And I am not ashamed to say, John, that the thought terrifies me."

He scoffed. "You, terrified? Nonsense. You are the bravest woman I have ever met."

"Be that as it may, I am terrified, I assure you." She assumed an ingenuous expression. "Scared silly. Positively petrified. Deeply dismayed."

"Yes, please do use all of the words you know on me. You won't change my mind about your bravery, you know; but I see that I am also not to change yours about this. And though I don't intend to defer to you for the rest of our lives --"

"Oh, no! I cannot ever imagine your doing any such thing!"

"-- I admit that your arguments, whether you have given them voice or not, are sound ones." Now his look did soften. "They had occurred to me as well, but I've been hoping that it would take them longer to occur to you." His fingers prised hers apart, and she was startled to see that she still had his Helston rose clutched in her fist, much the worse for wear, now. He picked the crumpled flower from her open palm and tucked it into his lapel. "So we are agreed that you cannot come all the way home with me. What will we do instead? Shall I install you in a Milton hotel, and shall we call Dixon to you?"

Dixon! There was a welcome thought. Margaret had come to depend more and more on Dixon in the past horrible, wondrous, tumultuous months, and the mere idea of her bracing presence was enough to bring some peace to Margaret's uncharacteristic flutters, but the idea of summoning Dixon to Milton without direct explanation really did cow her. "No," she said ruefully. "Dixon must be eased into the idea of coming back to Milton almost as surely as your mother must be eased into the idea that we are to be..." She stopped, feeling ludicrously uncertain for a moment.

"We are to be married, Margaret, with all possible speed. Do you think that we will end in any other way?"

"Well --" she hesitated. "No, not precisely. Just -- just that you didn't ask me."

It was John's turn to look shocked. "Did I not? I must have!"

"No, you most assuredly did not," she said tartly. "I believe I would remember if you had. I believe your exact words were 'I shall claim you as my own in some strange presumptu--'" she stopped mid-word at his mortified countenance. "Very well, I will not finish that sentence."

"I can only be grateful that you will not! But in fact, though I might not have said the words in the station, I have proposed to you long since. Have you forgotten that wretched scene in your upstairs parlor?"

Margaret flushed hotly; she leaned into him, the wool of his coat brushing her cheek. "No, I have not. I think I shall never forget that day, or my treatment of you. I only hope you will not hold my gaucheness against me."

"I could not do so, now that I've got what I wanted then. Indeed, we ought to put my first proposal behind us instantly. I think neither of us showed to advantage on that day."

She felt feverish with shame and remorse. "I recall no grossness in your manner, though it is generous of you to claim your share in it. You were everything that was proper, and I everything that was not." She paused. "I find myself wanting to go on, but I am putting it behind me now, as long as you accept my apology."

"I accept it, excellent girl."

There was a short silence. His thumb stroked across her wrist again, and she shivered delightedly, guiltily, looked down at his hand, and wondered that after everything, he should not want to let it go. They sat in tableau, their stillness belied by her beating heart, her trembling fingers, and she hoped that his heart was beating as quickly and knew herself to be selfish in her wish. She looked up to find him regarding her seriously, such an expression on his face as she had never seen, nor expected to see. It was the look of a man who had longed and suffered and survived both, and the intensity of it humbled her, almost frightened her.

He must have seen something in her own face, for he blinked, and when his eyes were open again in the next instant, the expression was gone. He smiled at her again. "Well, in that case, and since we are speaking of what we'll next do, shall I do it properly? Shall I escort you to your Aunt Shaw and ask her for your hand?"

"Oh dear. You know she will be outraged."

"Yes. But I think I should allow her outrage, and hope you will allow my mother's, and perhaps they will express it and come quickly to accept."

Margaret pursed her lips. "Must you remind me how much better a person you are than I?" she asked him, finding no resentment in her at this circumstance. "Sir, I accept your challenge --"

"It was not a challenge, I assure you --"

"I accept your terms, then, and that is what we will do. We will change directions at the next stop, and you will brave my Aunt Shaw, and then later I will brave your mother at Milton, and then we will be happy." She looked away from his face, again too much for her -- how could he call her brave? -- and asked quietly, "And will we be happy, do you think? Will we really?"

John seemed ready for this question. He did not flinch from it; his gaze, though smiling, was steady and direct on her face. His hand on her wrist tightened. "Yes, we will. Margaret, we really will. Do you doubt it?" He took a breath. "I will be the practical and hardheaded man of industry, and you will keep me human. You will be the strong-willed idealist, and I will keep your feet on the ground. And we will fight over things we believe in, and we will sometimes be misunderstanding each other still, and all our relatives will be creating no end of trouble, and our friends and associates will not understand what keeps us together. But we will understand. And as long as we keep understanding, we will be happy."

She felt something tight ease in her at his words. "Oh, John, I will not doubt it. We will, won't we?" She laughed, and added, "if only to prove all of those other doubters wrong." There was another silence, and his hand on her wrist loosened, slipped down to cover her fingers and move them, to pinch the tips together in a gesture that felt shockingly familiar to her, shockingly dear. It brought sudden tears to her eyes.

"Do you know," he said, breathlessly, that look suddenly back on his face, and she forced herself not to look down again, "do you know that I saw you and your father doing this once? He was using your fingers for sugar tongs. You were both laughing."

Margaret gasped faintly. "No, I didn't know you had seen. We did do that, sometimes."

John held his hand over hers still. "I wanted that, then," he said to her in a voice almost too quiet to hear over the steady throb of engines and wheels. "I want it now. Margaret. My dearest Margaret, may I have it someday?"

"John, I want it too. You may have it. Now, or someday, or any time you wish." She paused, and laughed shakily while he used his other hand to brush the tears off her cheeks. He brought her hand up to kiss, and neither of them said another word for a long time.