Emma and George fried their fish, which Emma thought tasted better than any fish she'd ever eaten in her father's house, and then they went to bed: Emma, to the cozy bed tucked into the cottage's small bedroom, and Knightley, to his pallet next to the fire.
On further reflection, however, this didn't sit well with Emma, and after pacing the floor in front of her bed several hundred times, she found a wrapper and cautiously ventured out into the main room of the cottage.
"I don't think it's right that you should sleep on the floor of your own cottage," she blurted to the dark room.
The large pile of blankets that was Mr. George Knightley rolled over, sat up, and stared blinkingly at her. "What?" His voice was gruff and gravely.
Emma bit her lip. "I said, I don't think it's right that you should sleep on the floor."
George's brows drew together. "Where should I sleep?"
Emma hesitated, and her breathing quickened. "I— er— that is, you should sleep on your bed," she finally stammered out.
He frowned, and finally shook his head. "I would not have you sleep anywhere else, Emma; I'm really quite comfortable on the floor." He smiled reassuringly at her, "let me enjoy the chance to be chivalrous."
"It's your cottage and your bed," she protested. "And— my fault that we do not share it together."
George slowly moved to his feet and came and grasped her hands gently. "Emma, darling, again I must tell you: this is not your fault. Don't think of it!" Letting go with one of his hands, he trailed a finger down her cheek. "I want to bring you joy, dear friend."
Emma trembled and felt a strange need to fight off tears. "This is all so terribly unfair to you, and all for just a neighborhood friendship! How I must have nagged you all those years, trailing after you and bothering you, and now you are stuck with me for... to never escape me!" She broke away from him and sat down on the sofa, staring at the dying embers of the fire.
For a long while, George stayed standing, as if frozen, lost in his own thoughts. Finally he came and sat beside her, and again his hand sought hers as he brought it to his lips for a gentle kiss. "Oh, Emma," he said quietly, bringing her hand still in his to rest in his lap. "You have it all backwards."
"I usually do," she sniffed.
George laughed affectionately. "Oh, no, darling, you have it all backwards because you value yourself far too little!" He squeezed her hand, and gently reached over and turned her chin toward him. "Do you think an old bachelor like myself could ever be happier with anyone other than you?" Emma started to answer, but he put his finger against her lips. "You're so loving and kind, always thinking of others—eager to see the best in everyone—you make friends among those who are not your equal, you endure the dullards, you exalt in goodness, you forever try to better yourself and put others first... the very reason you are here with me now is because you put others first! You sacrifice and you don't complain. You apologize and do your best to put everything right for everyone, from stable boy to lord of the manor— oh, Emma!" He looked down and smiled as he added, "And you put up with me and my demands and my unthinking ways and bluntness and crudeness."
Emma made to interrupt, but he quieted her again. "You never once annoyed me, Emma. I've watched you since you were so young, and found plenty of things to reproach—because I am far too critical—and you were so young. But, oh, Emma, you have grown entirely, despite the failings of your guardians and friends, and you are an amazing woman." He looked directly into her eyes and softly concluded, "I'm the luckiest man alive to call you wife, dearest, even if I sleep on the floor for the rest of my life. You are enough. Being in your presence is enough. Emma—" he hesitated a fraction of a second, but said it at last: "Emma, I love you." George looked at the pile of blankets abandoned on the floor. "And I will sleep on the floor before the hearth until the end of our lives if only it will make you happy."
Emma's eyes brimmed with tears, and her heart ached with hope and confusion. How could one feel so much belonging and yet still so much uncertainty? George said nothing more, and just sat, gently stroking the back of her hand, and they sat together in silence while Emma thought of what to say next.
"George?" She finally began. "You are much too good. I know I've railed at your censure so many times, but you have nearly always been fair, and your insights have made me a better person, for all that they may have been hard to bear in the moment and roughly said. You speak of my goodness, as of bringing baskets to poor families and befriending Harriet, but you've done real things, helped your tenants establish lives and you've done so much good in Highbury—you are renowned for your justice and mercy and industry. And you have been so kind to John and Isabella, and to my father. And to me." She swallowed. "I feel I don't know exactly what love is, but I'm quite sure that there is no one in the world I could ever love as much as I could love you."
George squeezed her hand. "Perhaps we shan't be so miserable together after all, Emma," he said shyly.
"That isn't all I'd like to say, although I am petrified to say the next part," Emma said awkwardly, "but I think—I trust you. Why may we not share the bed? And... lie separately, I mean," she blushed.
George's gaze turned keen, concern drawing his brow. "Emma," he said, and stopped.
"I... not out of obligation, George. I want to try," Emma said slowly.
George took a deep breath. "Then we will try," he agreed, and he helped her to her feet.
Emma's stomach did a flip-flop at the sight of the bed, but she steeled herself, walked to her side of the bed, and sat down.
George slid in on the other side, laying down neatly before she could do likewise.
She stared at him, unsure again, unmoving, and the silence grew long.
"Emma?" he asked. "Do you want me to leave again? It's fine—"
"I... I could lay on my side, away from you," he offered, turning as he spoke. "See if that helps."
She slipped quickly beneath the covers on her own side. "Thank you," she said quietly.
"I love you," he answered.
It seemed to be his answer for everything.
The morning sun blazed through the window and onto the coverlet, and Emma awoke feeling strangely warm. As consciousness drifted slowly back, she remembered where she was, and with whom, and realized that strange warm feeling was George. His arm was draped lightly across her hip, and her back was snugged against his chest.
Emma inhaled, feeling every inch of her skin wherever he touched it, and pondered the feeling. It might be described as pleasant, she thought, safe in his slumber.
George awoke with a start, an exclamation, and projected himself so rapidly backwards off the bed that he tripped and fell conveniently into the wingchair beside the bed. He met her gaze. "Emma, I'm so sorry!" he exclaimed.
"You're sorry that your sleeping self is not as noble and fastidious as your waking self?" She laughed, a little teasingly.
"I'm—that is—" he looked at her confusedly, and Emma's mirth increased.
"I survived an entire night in your bed, George," she beamed.
He squinted at her, uncertain. "You did," he agreed. "Did you doubt it?"
Emma tilted her head and considered her answer. "I didn't doubt it, exactly, but it is still good to know," she said finally.
George nodded. "Shall we get some breakfast?" he asked, rising to his feet and holding out his hand to her.
Emma paused, then took his hand, but made no move to get up and join him. "Sit with me a moment, George?" She asked.
He sat, being careful not to encroach on her space any more than necessary.
"I think I enjoyed that feeling of waking up near you," Emma said quietly.
His gaze again flew to hers. She was beginning to like that sharpened, interested look on his face, and she smiled.
"I would like for you to kiss me, George." Her voice was strong and decisive, although her cheeks pinked.
He bit his lip. "The last time you said that, you—you got more than you were wishing for," he stammered.
"I trust you," Emma answered simply.
George looked at her, uncertainty written plainly on his face. She smiled gently at him. "I don't know how," she said at last, when he still made no move toward her, "or I'd kiss you."
"Teach me, my dear Mr. Knightley?" she pulled gently on his hand, and finally he settled on the bed next to her.
"There's not much to learn," he answered, very slowly leaning toward her, and planting a light kiss on her lips, then drawing back.
"That was like a—a feather," Emma said.
"It tickled?" George's voice was uneven, and Emma adored it.
"No, silly. But I'm sure there is more, isn't there?"
George coughed. "I suppose."
He grunted. "Emma—"
"I'll tell you to stop," she assured him.
He leaned toward her again, snaking his hand behind her neck and pulling her in toward him, too, running his fingers through the hair at her nape, then softly kissing her again, his mouth warm against hers, pressing, but not too much.
"Should I do anything?" Emma's small voice was muffled against his lips, and he drew back.
"You're doing beautifully," he assured, "though you might like—you could open your mouth a little; relaxed."
She nodded, eyes wide and face flushed, and he kissed her again. This time he kissed her for quite a while, and then he kissed her ears, and brushed his kisses down her neck and tangled his fingers in her hair.
George sighed her name, and then drew back. "I think that was... an education, Emma," he said slowly. "Would you like breakfast... now?"
Emma was lost, but slanted her eyes at him. "Was that all there is to kissing?" she asked.
She continued. "I recall you warning me about a different kind of kissing," she reminded him. "So I know you know about it," she teased more confidently than she felt.
George looked at her carefully. "You are... curious, Emma?" When she nodded, he stood up. "Emma, I don't want you to feel—I don't know if you understand... I don't want you to feel pushed."
She looked steadily at him. "I don't."
"I know what I said," George continued, "but I was wrong—I do want you, and I want you to experience all of... of marital love... but, I don't want you to do it with an ounce of obligation."
"George," Emma said softly. "I don't understand everything I am feeling, but I know I didn't want you to stop just now." She patted the bed beside her. "Come back, and teach me more."
He took a deep breath, and sat down, kissing her softly and long and deep again, pulling her gently down to the mattress, where he laid beside her and kissed her even longer, his fingers surprisingly adept at her nightdress's buttons. He kissed her shoulders and her back and marveled aloud at her skin, the softness and the smell overwhelming his senses. He kissed her and she begged him to continue, until in the end they forgot about breakfast and didn't feel the slightest hunger for food until suddenly it was noon, and they lay cozied together in the bed once more.
"Would you like me to fetch you some lunch, Emma?" George asked her softly.
"We could eat it here," she said lazily, happily.
"'Tis a good thing there aren't servants in the cottage," he laughed.
"I think we should come here often, husband," Emma answered. "I never want to leave."
A/N: Wow. So this story was a long time in finishing, and i'm not thrilled with the quickness/awkwardness of that, but I hope it is closure! I will have to figure out how to edit stories on ff and fix some of the earlier mistakes, and perhaps think of a better last line. Thank you all so mcuh for sticking with me. YEARS! Craziness. So much has happened...do you realize this story is before #metoo? So much has changed in the way people think about these issues, and in the way even I think about them. It's an interesting experience to reread and complete a story that started so many years ago. Thank you for sticking with me, and come back later to see if i ever get around to editing this properly!