This one-shot has been written in one hour on the theme "Attention" (first in French under the title "Mes regrets on été balayés par ton inattention" then I translated it as usual). My mind of someone who wants to work in EHS in industry thought directly about risks. At first it was industrial risks, and John getting hurt after the end of the story, but I decided otherwise.
Disclaimer: North and South isn't mine but Elizabeth Gaskell's
John took the book that Miss Hale – Margaret – was handing him. "I shall treasure it," he said, a thin smile on his lips.
It only was a Plato, but he'd belonged to Mr. Hale, and his daughter had seen him worthy enough to keep it. Among all the belongings the young woman would leave behind her after her departure for London, it was maybe the only one she'd given to someone. All the others would be sold.
Soon, the only things remaining of the Hales in Milton would be memories and a tombstone. Margaret's life in the city had been impacted by grief and suffering, and John regretted it. He regretted so many things about Margaret and seeing her leaving when he couldn't do anything about it was heart-breaking. He tried to keep a neutral expression and didn't show his sadness. He would drown it in his workload as usual. And he didn't lack work at the moment because of Marlborough Mills' situation.
Margaret's Aunt pressed her to finish her farewells, and John followed them as they left the house for the yard and the carriage that was waiting for them, full of their luggage.
A thick cover of snow covered the ground, and Mrs. Shaw took extreme care not to fall on the stairs.
Margaret turned to John with a sad smile. "Goodbye Mr. Thornton." She extended her hand and John's engulfed it whole when he took it.
Her hand was fresh, and he realised he didn't want to let go of it. Reluctantly, he released her. But as long as he could see her, he wouldn't stop to watch over her. He refused anymore misfortune happening to her.
His intuition was salutary. Aunt Shaw's weight had compressed the snow that had become slippery, and John saw Margaret falling backward with a surprised cry. "Margaret!" He shouted as he ran to her.
She landed in his open arms, and his already fast-beating heart when she'd lost her balance became a frenetic beating chaos when he felt her against him.
It was the second time she was in his arms, at the exact place where she'd embraced him the first time during the strike. He gulped as he realised that and helped her to get on her feet, averting his eyes. But his hands didn't leave Margaret's shoulders.
"Mr. Thornton." At Margaret's clear voice he fixed his eyes in hers. "Thank you. I – I wasn't aware of where I was walking."
"I'm used to being careful about my workers' safety. If anything happens to them, there would be a lot at stake: my production of course, but the health of a man or a woman, and the well-being of a family. So, I keep my eyes open, I'm careful."
"I realised late that despite your severe demeanour you were attentive to have competent and healthy workers. You take care of others in your own ways."
John's heart jumped in his chest. Were there the slightest chance she accepted him, he had to seize it as soon as possible. Without thinking twice, he hugged the young woman before she could react. "Miss Hale… Margaret," he breathed in her ear. "I know that Marlborough Mills' situation is concerning, but if you give me the opportunity, I'd wish to court you with the intention of marrying you."
Between his arms, Margaret started. She straightened and gave him a confused glance. "I thought your opinion of me was made up, that you wouldn't think of me as such," she whispered softly.
"I lied. I lied to you, I lied to me," he admitted. "I'd told you I loved and would always love, and yet I believed I would be able to forget my feelings for you."
Margaret's cheeks reddened, but it wasn't only because of the cold air. John couldn't help but smile.
"Mr. Thornton, I'm so sorry for what I told you that day."
"That's in the past, and many things have changed ever since. But my feelings are still the same, whatever I could have said."
Margaret bent to put her forehead on John's chest. "Mine… have changed… I don't even know when. Maybe the day I thought I had lost your good esteem forever because of what had happened at the train station."
"It had been stated that you weren't there, that the witness had made a mistake." John knew he shouldn't smile, because of what had really happened, but Margaret's closeness didn't erase his smile.
"Thanks to you, however, the secret about my brother's presence is safe."
A brother? No one had ever mentioned a second child in the Hale family, how was it even possible?
Margaret stepped back to give a suitable appearance to their conversation in case some people were looking at them. She explained the story of her brother, Frederick, of the mutiny and of the threat on his life if he ever tried to come back to England.
"Then I'm happy to have helped him leave safely, even with all the misunderstandings it had created."
"Now that I'm the only Hale keeping that secret, I'm feeling free to tell you. But no one else must know. Higgins might already know about it, thanks to Mary." Margaret anchored her serious gaze to his eyes, and John nodded.
"I promise you on my honour, that nobody will ever know that your brother came here."
Her happy smile warmed him more than he expected. "Thank you for everything, John." His breath caught in his throat when he saw the sincerity in her eyes. "Come when you can and write to me as far as possible. We can't materialise anything as long as I'm grieving but I'll wait for news of you eagerly." Margaret glanced down before focusing back on him. "Goodbye."
With one last smile, she turned and took the stairs, this time carefully. She was about to climb in the carriage when John stopped her. He didn't know how he'd managed to reach her so quickly, but he didn't want to let her go before he'd done one thing. He gently took her hand and kissed her reddened knuckles. "Margaret, wait for me. If you'll have me, I'll come to you. Write to me too, to the mill, so Mother and Fanny won't meddle with this," he said in a breath, giving her one of his rarest smiles.
Margaret nodded and he helped her climb in the carriage, letting go of her hand at the last moment.
John didn't stop the tear from escaping his eye while the carriage left the yard. His heart bounced happily, and he was delighted with Margaret's inattention because it had allowed them to settle many things and reduce his regrets to see her leaving. Because she would be back.