This is entirely the fault of augrah, who gave me the idea of this pairing a while back. The idea came back to me the other week while I was reading the book, and this happened for me to inflict on the world. And, since it's her birthday this weekend, I couldn't resist. Have a fabulous day, darling!

A Different Life

"A silent recognition was established between them whenever the chances of the day brought them across each other's paths. They had never exchanged a word; nothing had been said but that first compliment; yet somehow Margaret looked upon this man with more interest than upon any one else in Milton."

-Chapter Eight, North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell

Margaret never did know quite what to make of Nicholas Higgins.

She knew he was a good man at heart; she was absolutely certain of that. It was in his eyes, in the way he looked at Bessy while he thought nobody was looking. There was kindness in his heart. It was just that the walls of sorrow and anger were built so strong around it.

As she got to know the Higginses better, her attention was more and more diverted away from the original attraction. It wasn't that she cared any less for poor Bessy; the girl had been a dearer friend to her than any she had known in London or Helstone. She wasn't going to stop caring for Bessy, but her interest was caught in many ways. She wondered at Mary, and imagined to herself what might be done to brighten the place up a little, but the enigma that occupied her thoughts the most was Nicholas.

He intrigued her, he bewildered her, and sometimes, he frightened her.

The first time she saw him drunk was awful. She had hated leaving Bessy alone with him… in a strange way, she had simply hated not being there. He was so unrestrained, much more than usual. In that state, she could unlock a great many of his secrets, if only she could. She was so very enticed by the idea of working him out, it was taking more and more of a precedence in her thoughts. She wanted to know him, to know what made him angry and what thrilled him. She wanted to be the one to thrill him.

Of course there were distractions. She could hardly be thrilling the father when the daughter, her friend, was dying. So she put her own desires apart, set about taking care of those she loved.

It seemed that poor Bessy's death was followed in mere moments by her mother's, and she should have been wrapped up in her own sadness – but while she grieved, he was there, a dear friend to her in those hardest of times. She met him everywhere, and rough man that he was, there was always something gentle about him in those moments. And she loved that tenderly, even more than his roughness enticed her.

Did she love him? It seemed so absurd a notion. She, the well-respected daughter of a clergyman, raised in the fineness of London society, love a factory worker more than twice her age? It was such nonsense! She couldn't think what her poor father would say. The shock might finish him off. All her friends would be so unhappy, so distressed by a match such as that, and she would hate to hurt her friends. What would Mr Thornton say? Besides, he couldn't feel more than a paternal affection for her. And as exciting and attractive as she found him, she didn't love him.

~o~

She had been determined to quench those feelings that she did have. Admiring him was preposterous. But when she visited him, a mere few days before leaving for London, her admiration overflowed.

They were walking together, in the dark; Mary gone ahead home with Boucher's children, while they lingered behind, alone. Margaret was lost in thought, remembering where she was only a few years ago, dining with her aunt and Edith, or in conversation with any number of amiable gentlemen, or sitting at home in dear Helstone with her mother and father. Was it only a very few years? It felt like a hundred. How she missed that life, and yet she would not go back. There was something about Milton, about the workers and masters and the hierarchy and society, about Bessy and Mary and Mr Thornton and Nicholas, that she loved dearly. How could she bear the idea of going away? She knew her aunt would wake her.

"What's troublin' you, lass?" Nicholas' voice broke through her reverie, surprisingly gentle and less surprisingly welcome.

"I was thinking…" Margaret hesitated, but the honest, kind look in her friend's eyes allowed her to continue. "I was thinking how empty my life will be if I am forced to leave Milton."

There was a faint blush in his cheeks – or was she imagining it? – and he ducked his head briefly, before reaching to take her hand. "Time was you hated this 'ere place, I reckon."

"I did," she said, "but there are certain… attractions…"

She never finished her sentence. She found that she could not; and when she realised why, the understanding of it flooded through her. It must have flowed from her eyes, because when they met his, he put his hand to her cheek and he tenderly kissed her.

She had her fill of him, letting him ease her pain and show her something magically new. Her soul was warmed, and even as the kiss ended, and her hand slipped from his, she didn't move away. At least for a moment, and then realising what she was doing, she staggered backwards.

"Oh, Nicholas… Mr Higgins… I…"

He looked a little upset for a moment, but it was gone almost at once. Whether masked or eased, she couldn't tell, but there was only kindness in his eyes when he told her he understood. And she stepped forward again, into his open arms, and she sobbed. A different life was ahead of her now.