"So, which is the Mr. Shirogane?" Lance leaned into Plaxum as he asked, doing his best to get a better view of the newcomers through the large crowd.
“He’s the taller man on the right,” Plax whispered.
Lance glanced to his brother beside him and saw the moment Adam’s eyes found Mr. Shirogane. His typically serene brother’s eyes widened, eyebrows rose, and mouth dropped open.
“Beside him is his very good friend, Mr. Kogane,” Plax continued.
Lance half-heard Plaxum, unable to help the giggle as he poked Adam in the ribs, earning Adam’s elbow into his own side (all while Adam kept his eyes glued on Mr. Shirogane). Another laugh escaped him as his own gaze finally found the two men as they walked past.
For a split second, he was pinned by wide dark eyes. His own eyes widened, his breath caught in his throat, his stomach swooped — and then those dark eyes jerked forward as the man they belonged to continued on his path to the front of the room.
Lance wryly shook his own head at himself. To have had such a reaction upon first sight to someone — when he’d just teased Adam for reacting in that very same way!
“Come! Come!” their mother demanded as she appeared beside them. “You’d do well to keep your smile bright, Adam, for Mr. Shirogane’s friend has twice that of Shirogane each year, plus he owns half of Derbyshire.”
Lance glanced towards the men their mother was shuffling them towards and caught the friend’s scowl as he glanced around at the people gathered at this assembly.
"The miserable half," Lance murmured, earning Adam’s elbow into his side again.
“My daughter, Plaxum, you’ve met,” Sir Lucas was already saying as they reached the group. “And this is Mrs. Bennet and three of her children.”
“So good to meet you, Mr. Shirogane,” Lance’s mother said with a curtsy. “This is my eldest son, Adam, and then Lance, and Pidge.”
Lance shifted so that Pidge could be seen, as she’d been left to stand behind their mother. He knew she hated these events and he offered her a small commiserative smile. She rolled her eyes in response but offered a small smile back as she squeezed in beside him.
“I have two others, Matt and Nyma, but they’re already dancing,” their mother continued to beam at the two men.
“I’m so happy to meet you and your family,” Shirogane proclaimed in response.
Lance’s smile grew more sincere as he listened to Shirogane’s pleasant voice and watched his gaze lock onto Adam.
“May I introduce my good friend, Mr. Keith Kogane.”
“How wonderful to have you join our little community,” Lance’s mother proclaimed as they bowed in response.
Lance curiously watched Mr. Kogane as he rose from his bow, still scowling into the crowd, barely acknowledging Lance and his family in their introductions.
“I hear the Netherfield library is one of the finest in the country,” Lance commented to Mr. Shirogane.
“Yes, I believe it must be,” Shirogane replied. “Fills me with guilt, though. Not a very good reader.” His eyes widened in alarm for a moment as he glanced towards Adam. “Not that I can't read. I can read, its just —”
“I know what you mean,” Adam said with a kind smile. “I wish I read more, but there’s always so much else to do.”
“Yes, exactly!” Shirogane agreed. “Mr. Adam, if you’re not otherwise engaged, perhaps you’ll join me for the next two dances?”
Adam’s smile was small but quite pleased as he offered a bow. “I am not engaged, sir.”
Lance thought Shirogane’s answering pleased grin was going to split his face in half. Shirogane offered an arm to Adam and Lance stepped aside as the two of them made their way to the center of the room where others were dancing.
Lance’s mother sent him a significant look as she walked away, Pidge trailing behind her. She was surely returning to their father’s side, which would give her a better view of Adam dancing with Shirogane. But it left him standing suddenly alone with Mr. Kogane (where had Plaxum gone?!)
“Do you dance, Mr. Kogane?” Lance finally asked after a few painful moments of silence.
“Not if I can help it.”
Lance knew better than his younger siblings (not counting Pidge who had no interest either way) not to be taken in immediately by a pretty face. However, as he slanted a sideways glance to take in Kogane’s profile, he found it unfair just how pretty he was — those dark eyes appeared to be indigo in color, his facial features were delicate, and his black hair was almost unbelievably shiny. And now — now — he had to possess a perfectly gravelly voice on top of it?
However, a pleasing face and enticing voice were not enough for Lance’s interest. He offered a small bow before turning his back to Kogane and maneuvering through the crowd and away from him. He offered a few grins to some friends as he passed them before he finally made his way to Plaxum’s side, where he scolded his friend for ditching him beforehand. At least now, however, he had his own excellent vantage point of Adam dancing with Mr. Shirogane.
Plaxum tilted her head towards him as they watched the dance. “Lot of eye contact between those two,” she murmured, as familiar with Adam’s typically shy disposition as the rest of the Bennet family.
“Looks like a real smile on his face as well,” Lance replied. “I’m glad one of us is having a good night.”
“You need some punch,” Plaxum declared as she began to drag him to the refreshment table for two glasses before they found a new place to rest against a column.
“I want to dance,” Lance griped as he leaned his back against the column and sipped his punch. “Can you see Adam from here? Is he still dancing?”
“You’re the one with the legs,” Plaxum laughed.
“Keith, you should dance. I hate to see you standing around in this stupid manner.”
Lance’s eyes rounded as he realized Shirogane and his friend were on the other side of the column where he and Plaxum stood. The two of them shuffled closer in an effort to remain unseen.
“You know I don’t enjoy dancing, Shiro,” that gravelly voice replied. “Besides, you are dancing with the only handsome man here.”
“He is the most beautiful creature I've ever beheld,” Shirogane stated in such a breathlessly happy voice that Lance could only grin widely at Plaxum in response to hearing it. “But his brother, Lance, is very agreeable."
Plaxum wiggled her eyebrows at Lance, while Lance tried to hide his own bashful smile.
“He’s perfectly tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me,” Keith replied.
Lance’s smile fell from his face as ice ran through his veins.
“You should return to your partner and enjoy his smiles, Shiro, instead of wasting your time with me."
"It wouldn't hurt you to dance, Keith." Shiro's voice trailed off as it became apparent the two gentlemen were moving away from the column.
"Don't be upset, Lancey Lance,” Plaxum implored immediately. “If he liked you, you'd have to dance with him.”
Lance forced his smile back to his face and nodded as confidently as he could manage. "True, and I wouldn't dance with him for all of Derbyshire.”
"Come on — you wanted to dance, we’ll go find agreeable dance partners,” Plax declared as she dragged him back into the crowd.
He accepted an offer to dance with Mr. Shirogane — who spent the dance asking Lance what Adam enjoyed doing in his free time. Mr. Shirogane then did his duty by dancing with several other partners as was expected of him as a newcomer (and he had also earned a few more points from Lance when he’d asked Plax to dance — she was older than most of the unmarried people in their town and sadly didn’t receive as many offers to dance at these assemblies anymore).
"Your friend, Plaxum, is very amusing," Mr. Shirogane said with a genuine smile as he appeared by Adam’s side after his dance with Plax.
"Yes, I adore her," Lance agreed.
"It is a shame she's not more handsome,” Lance’s mother announced.
"Mama!" Lance exclaimed, painfully aware that not only was his mother about to embarrass Adam (and the rest of her children) but that Mr. Kogane had joined their group behind Shirogane.
"Now, it is Adam who is the beauty of the county,” their mother continued. “Why, when he was only fifteen, there was a man who was so much in love with him that I thought he would make Adam an offer... Although, he did write him some very pretty poetry."
"Well," Lance jumped in, desperate to turn the attention away from Adam’s former suitor as well as Adam himself, as Adam hated this sort of attention from their mother, especially in front of strangers. He could see the anguished blush already crawling across Adam’s face. "That settles it. Obviously, we should all avoid suitors who compliment with poetry."
"I thought poetry was the food of love?" Mr. Kogane asked, looking far too innocently curious for someone Lance was already disinclined to like.
"If it's a real love, then sure, rhyme away, and hope that your partner swoons. But if it's only a slight inclination, then I think it should be avoided altogether,” Lance stated surely.
"So, what do you recommend?” Kogane asked even though the attention it garnered him from their small group seemed to startle him as he glanced around before focusing back on Lance, “to encourage swooning?"
"Dancing,” Lance asserted, meeting Kogane’s eyes directly, “even if one's partner is barely tolerable."
There was definitely a thrilled satisfaction as he watched a startled realization cross Kogane's expression. Still, he was a gentleman’s son, so he waited until he had turned on his heel and was walking away before he let a smirk appear on his face.
“Mr. Shirogane is just what a young man ought to be,” Adam sighed as he tied the front of his night shirt. “Sensible. Funny —”
“Handsome,” Lance interjected. “Conveniently rich —”
Adam threw the shirt he’d worn this evening at Lance’s head. “You know I do not think thoughts of marriage should be driven by money.”
Lance caught the shirt midair and threw it back at him. “I agree. Only the deepest love will induce me to marry anyone, which is why I will likely be a life-long bachelor.”
"Do you really think he liked me, Lance?"
Lance climbed into his own bed, and while his back was to his brother, he let himself roll his eyes where Adam couldn’t see. Adam’s forced tone of disinterest wasn’t doing a solid job of concealing the hope Lance could hear in his voice, and he was much too fragile when it came to issues of the heart for Lance to tease.
"Yes, Adam. Shirogane danced with you for half the night and stared at you for the rest of it," Lance reassured. "And even though you are far too easy to like people in general, Shirogane seems very friendly. I approve of your interest in him.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far yet,” Adam countered. “We just met.”
“Yes, but since one of us will have to marry well in order to save the family as Mama says, and you are the handsomest of all of us —”
“I am not.” Adam didn’t try to hide his eye roll from Lance.
“It will still be up to you to marry into a fortune, so I approve of Mr. Shirogane for the task. For now.”
"I still can’t believe what his friend said about you,” Adam sympathized as he fell into his own bed across from Lance’s.
“Shirogane is so pleasant, it doesn’t make sense that he would have such a disagreeable friend,” Lance said thoughtfully. "I could more easily forgive Kogane’s vanity if he hadn’t wounded mine. No matter, I doubt we should ever speak again."
Adam sighed and rolled away to stare out their window with a goofy grin. Lance watched his older brother, happy for his happiness.
“I think this is the start of great things,” Adam said, voice quiet.
Lance shifted his head on his pillow so he could also stare out the window over Adam’s bed. He hoped his brother was right.
"I hope you're happy, Mama," Lance sighed as he stared at the rain that pelted their sitting room’s window.
“Of course I am,” she replied cheerfully. “Now he will have to stay the night, exactly as I planned.”
“If he gets sick —”
“People do not die of colds, Lance,” she chided.
“No, but he may perish from having such a mother,” Lance murmured quietly.
“What were we to do? The invitation was for a simple lunch. How could we expect Shirogane to fall in love with your brother over a single meal? What would’ve been the point?”
“I am going to go Netherfield in the morning,” Lance decided.
“I suppose you’ll want the carriage?” his father asked from his reading chair.
“No, father, I'll walk.”
“It’s at least three miles!” his mother complained. “You won't be fit to be seen when you arrive!”
“I’ll be fit to see Adam, which is all I want. You know he won't enjoy being there alone for so long.”
“There is nothing for you at Netherfield,” his mother stated. “You should come into Meryton with the rest of us to meet the officers.”
Lance leaned down to kiss his mother’s head on his way out of the room. “I’ll send your best wishes to Adam, Mama.”
Lance had assumed that upon arrival to Netherfield the next morning, he’d be shown directly to Adam. He hadn’t counted on being immediately escorted into Netherfield’s breakfast parlor. And he definitely hadn't counted on being face to face with Mr. Kogane again. Or to be immediately introduced to a new face.
He offered a bow to the group and then a genuine smile for Mr. Shirogane, who appeared to be the only one in the room happy to see him.
“Mr. Lance, you remember my friend, Mr. Kogane, but let me introduce you to Lotor, Keith’s cousin, who just arrived to stay with us.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Lance offered to Lotor.
“Did you walk here?” Lotor replied, skipping the pleasantries to offer a sneer at the mud that trailed up the calves of Lance’s pants.
“I did,” Lance replied, determined not to squirm under the scrutiny. “I came to inquire about my brother. How is he?”
At the unexpected sound of Kogane’s voice, Lance’s head turned to look at Kogane before his brain could tell him not to. The two stared at each for a moment before Shirogane cleared his throat to draw his attention again.
“I’ll show you to him,” Shirogane offered.
Lance nodded in agreement before bowing to the room and quickly turning on his heel to follow Shirogane upstairs.
“I had a doctor come this morning to check on him. He said it’s a severe cold, but some rest will help his recovery.”
“I appreciate you taking such good care of him.”
“Oh, it’s a pleasure,” Shirogane rushed to say before he stumbled over his next few words. “Not that it’s a pleasure that he’s ill, just it’s a pleasure that he’s... here... being ill.”
Lance smirked at Shirogane’s back but dropped it before the man turned to face Lance again.
“He’s in here,” Shirogane said, indicating the door they’d reached.
“Thank you. I'm sure he’s far more comfortable here than he would be at home.”
“I would like to keep him comfortable,” Shirogane assured, “and I’m sure having you here would do that. So, I'll have your things sent from Longbourn?”
“We’ll see you at dinner, then?”
Lance thought of Kogane and Lotor downstairs and how he’d like to do almost anything but spend more time with them. But then he considered Shirogane’s hopeful face and thought of Adam’s comfort to have family here with him.
“That would be very generous of you, thank you.”
Shirogane beamed as he retreated back down the hallway.
Lance blew out a breath and then put on a brave face as he softly knocked and entered the room Adam had been given.
“I don’t know who’s happier at you being here,” Lance teased as he straightened his tie in the mirror that stood in Adam’s lavish room, “Mama or Mr. Shirogane.”
“I feel so terrible,” Adam’s hoarse voice complained. “But they’re being so kind.”
“I wish you could come down with me,” Lance sighed. He turned towards where Adam lay in bed and pulled at his lapels. “Should I embarrass you too much, do you think?” He glanced down at his older jacket, which had once belonged to Adam, before looking back to his brother.
Adam tsk’d. “Lance, you look quite handsome and you know it. Try to enjoy yourself.”
Lance pressed his hand to Adam’s forehead, and when he was satisfied, he made his way to the door. “For you, Adam, I will try.”
Although he was sat next to Mr. Kogane at dinner, the meal wasn’t entirely uncomfortable, if only because Lotor didn’t stop speaking, affording them quite a long period of time without any uncomfortable silences.
“Is your brother okay?” Keith asked quietly while Lotor was in the middle of telling Shirogane about his recent trip across parts of Europe.
Lance startled but quickly recovered as he turned towards Kogane and met those pretty indigo eyes with a brief nod. “He seemed a bit feverish at lunch —”
“Feverish?” Shirogane cut in, voice and expression both alarmed.
Lotor grunted his displeasure of being cut off but turned his attention to Lance and awaited his response with the others at the table.
“The fever seems to have broken,” Lance assured. “I feel he may even be well enough to travel home tomorrow.” He hoped.
Shirogane looked an amusing mixture of relieved and disappointed, which Lance would relay to Adam when he returned to his room later.
“Well, I'm glad to hear he’s recovering so well,” Shirogane offered.
“Thank you,” Lance said with a quick glance in Kogane’s direction, who he found was still watching him closely. He furrowed his own brows in the other man’s direction in question and Kogane snapped his head back towards his own plate in response.
“Do give my regards to your sister,” Lotor directed to Kogane as he wandered about the drawing room they’re retired to after dinner.
Kogane currently had his back to the room, occupied at the one desk, while Lance sat on one of a pair of couches, reading a book he’d pulled from the neighboring room’s library. Shirogane sat across from him without anything to keep himself busy, apparently happy enough to be in their company.
“Please tell her that I long to see her again,” Lotor continued, and Lance found himself entertained by watching Kogane’s hand twitch every time Lotor spoke.
“I already told her once, as requested,” Kogane confirmed.
“I do dote on her,” Lotor sighed. “I was quite enraptured with her design for a new painting.”
“Perhaps you’ll give me leave to defer your raptures for a future letter. I do not currently have the space to do them justice,” Kogane stated, delivered in so dry a tone that Lance actually had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep a smile off his face.
He wondered if the cold and arrogant Kogane’s dry wit was humorous on purpose, or if the man lacked the social skills to know that it could be taken in such a way. Either way, he was startled to realize he’d been staring at Kogane and his eyes darted away. Unfortunately, as he looked away, he found Lotor’s eyes steadily on him, even as he continued his walk around the room.
“You would be quite impressed with Miss Kogane’s paintings, Shirogane,” Lotor stated.
Shirogane nodded in interest and fluffed a pillow in his lap. “It's amazing how some have the patience to be so accomplished.”
“What do you mean, Shiro?” Kogane asked without turning.
“Everyone can paint or embroider or play piano,” Shirogane stated with a smile. “It seems everyone is quite accomplished.”
Lance smiled at Shirogane’s optimistic tone. He often teased Adam for always thinking all was good in the world. It was nice to see a similar personality trait in the man who had captured his brother’s attention.
“I know of only a small handful of accomplished people.”
Lance’s smile fell into a frown at Kogane’s comment.
“Nor I,” Lotor added.
“You must have very high expectations,” Lance surmised.
“Oh, indeed,” Lotor answered. “An accomplished person must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages to deserve the descriptor. As well as something in their air. And manner of walking.”
“And they must improve their mind with extensive reading,” Kogane added, gaze flicking to Lance's book before returning to his letter.
Lance snapped his book shut. “Ridículo,” Lance mumbled, his mother’s native language rolling off his own tongue naturally.
Mumbled or not, it was enough to have Kogane’s head perk up from his letter and focus quickly on Lance.
“I am no longer surprised at you knowing only a handful of accomplished people,” Lance stated. “Now I’m surprised that you know any at all.”
“Are you so severe that no one could be considered accomplished?”
“I’ve never seen such a person. They’d certainly be a fearsome thing to behold.”
Shirogane snorted from his seat at Lance’s comment while Lotor’s eyes only narrowed at Lance in response.
“Mr. Bennet, come take a turn around the room with me,” Lotor requested.
Lance regretfully placed his book on the cushion beside him before joining Lotor who began to lead him in a more purposeful trail around the room than his former meandering.
“This is refreshing, is it not? Rather than sitting idly.”
Lance sent a longing look at his book again. “It's a small sort of accomplishment, I suppose,” he finally replied.
He caught Kogane’s eyes on him as he and Lotor neared, before those dark indigo eyes quickly returned to his letter.
“Keith, will you join us?” Lotor asked.
Kogane shook his head even as he continued to write. “You can only have two motives, Lotor, and I would certainly interfere with both of them.”
“Whatever can he mean?” Lotor asked.
“The surest way of disappointing him will be to ask nothing about it,” Lance replied.
“No, do tell us, Keith.”
“Either you are in each other’s confidence and have secret affairs to discuss” — the flat look Kogane sent them told Lance what he thought of that option — “or you are aware that your figures appear to the greatest advantage by walking. If the first, I shall get in your way. If the second, I can admire you better from here.”
“Shocking,” Lotor admonished, although his smile ruined the attempted scolding. “How should we punish him for such a statement?”
“We could always tease him,” Lance stated.
“Oh, no,” Lotor said, tone serious, “Keith is not to be teased.”
Lance paused by Kogane’s desk. “Are you too proud, Mr. Kogane? Would you consider that a fault?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“We’re trying to find a fault in you,” Lance pressed.
“Perhaps it's that I find it hard to forgive the follies and vices of others, or their offenses against myself. My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.”
Lance let his eyes trail over Kogane’s stoic expression. Kogane appeared to say what he meant, without extraneous words. It was a trait Lance begrudgingly respected.
“Oh dear,” Lance finally sighed, “I cannot tease you about that, which is a shame, for I dearly love to laugh.”
“A family trait, I would expect,” Lotor stated archly as he wandered to the other side of the room again.
Lance sent him a tight smile before retreating to the couch and his forgotten book.
He received a genuine smile from Shirogane as he sat. And ignored the way Kogane’s eyes stayed on him an extra few seconds before he finally returned to his letter.
Lance woke early the next morning and placed a gentle hand against Adam’s forehead, relieved to find it cool. He stretched as he rose from bed and wandered to the large window that overlooked the stable yard.
He watched Kogane ride into the yard and dismount, pat his horse’s neck affectionately, before sticking his own head under a nearby pump, dousing himself in cold water. He threw his head back when he was finished, throwing his hair out of his face before his gaze rose dangerously close to where Lance stood in the window.
Lance turned away quickly.
“Adam, do you think you’ll feel well enough to leave today?”
Lance continued to read his book from the day before, especially since he found that if he focused on the book, Lotor was less likely to try to speak with him.
They were waiting for the doctor to finish with Adam. Lance hadn’t thought that Adam needed another doctor visit, especially for a simple cold, but Shirogane had insisted, especially since Lance intended to take Adam home that day.
The appearance of a butler sent a small chill down his spine, even before the man announced, “A Mrs. Bennet, a Miss Bennet, a Mr. Bennet, and... a Miss Bennet.”
“Are we to be invaded by every Bennet in the country,” Lotor sneered, despite Lance’s very present Bennet self sitting nearby.
Kogane and Shirogane rose quickly from their seats as Lance’s family entered, with Lance following suit. Lotor huffed before he finally stood as well.
Lance held his breath as his mother and siblings smooshed themselves into the twin couch across from him, unsure of what would come out of his mother's mouth. He prayed for the doctor to hurry and interrupt them so they could escape Netherfield and happily never see this lot again (well, he could allow for Adam to see Shirogane in the future).
“What an excellent room you have here, sir,” his mother began. “Such expensive furnishings. Oh, I do hope you plan on staying, Mr. Shirogane.”
“I do! I find the country most diverting. Don’t you agree, Keith?”
“I find it perfectly adequate,” Kogane stated dully. “Even if the society is a bit less varied than London.”
“Less varied!” his mother exclaimed, clearly offended. “Why we dine with four and twenty families! Less varied! And Sir William Lucas, for instance, is a very agreeable man. Much more genteel than others, half his rank.” She sent a pointed glare in Kogane’s direction and Lance cringed inwardly.
“Mr. Shirogane, is it true that you promised to hold a ball here at Netherfield?” Nyma asked, nose in the air in that manner that Lance had seen her practice because she thought it made her look more regal.
“A ball?” Shirogane asked. “You think I should?”
Perhaps Lance had only just met him, but he could already tell that his siblings could be dangerous around Mr. Shirogane, for he was agreeable enough to go along with any of their ideas. He looked to his mother for help, but of course she also had her own pleading face directed at Shirogane...
“It’s an excellent way to meet new people,” Nyma said, nose still tilted upwards. “You should invite the militia. They're excellent company.”
“Oh, do hold a ball!” Matt exclaimed.
“Matt,” Lance said, voice low but full of warning.
“I think dancing is an extremely useless way to spend the time,” Pidge grumbled. “It would be okay if there were discussions of science, but it's always just dancing.”
“Discussions of science don’t sound much like a ball,” Lotor chided.
“Thank you, Pidge,” Lance said, happy to at least have had Nyma and Matt silenced for the time being.
“When Mr. Adam is recovered, you shall name the date,” Shirogane stated happily.
Lance couldn’t hold in the newest cringe in response to the squeals of delight happening on the couch across from him (save for Pidge).
“That is generosity for you, Nyma!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed, shooting another small glare at Kogane.
“Really, I can't thank you enough for your hospitality,” Adam stated with one of his demure smiles as he and Mr. Shirogane stood beside their carriage.
“You're welcome any time you feel the least bit poorly,” Shirogane jested, looking innately pleased and bashful all at once.
“Thank you for the stimulating company,” Lance offered as he walked out alongside Lotor. “It's been most instructive.”
“Not at all,” Lotor replied, and Lance hoped Nyma was witnessing how ridiculous Lotor looked right now with his nose in the air so she’d quit the habit. “The pleasure was all mine” was said in a tone that indicated the opposite.
Lance turned towards Kogane next and only offered small bow, which Kogane returned. As he began to ascend the carriage, he felt a hand within his own, supporting him up until he was solidly in the vehicle. He turned in surprise and found his hand captured within Kogane’s just before Kogane dropped his hand and turned on his heel to head back into the house.
Lance glanced down at his own hand and wondered at the phantom pressure from Kogane’s warm fingers and the tingling feeling that run up his arm towards his shoulder.
He sat in his seat and refused to look back towards Netherfield again.
“Collins, the dreaded cousin,” Lance told Plaxum as they moved through Meryton with Adam.
“The one who is to inherit your family home when your father passes?”
“Yes,” Lance grumbled. “He arrives tonight.” The fact that their grandfather had disliked his own son’s choice of wife so desperately that he would will away the family home from his own grandchildren...
“When does he arrive?”
“Tonight, per a letter he wrote our father,” Adam replied. Despite their shared darker skin tone, the cooler fall air had turned his brother’s cheeks a bright pink. Although it had been a few days since they left Netherfield, Lance worried for a moment that maybe this was too soon to go into the village following Adam’s cold.
Lance pulled at his scarf, intending to wrap it around Adam, when the wind blew it out of his hands and to the ground ahead of them.
“Oh, hold on,” he murmured to Plax and Adam, but when he turned to run after his scarf, he found it offered up by a handsome young man in a militia uniform.
“Yours, I believe?” the man asked, small smirk pulling at his mouth.
Lance nodded, taking the scarf back, which he quickly wrapped around Adam’s neck just as Nyma and Adam raced up to them.
“Oh, Mr. Griffin, how perfect you are!” Nyma praised.
“He picked up my scarf as well. Did you drop yours on purpose, Lance?” Matt asked with a wink.
“Mr. Griffin is a Lieutenant,” Nyma sighed.
“An enchanted Lieutenant,” Griffin added.
“What are you up to, Nyma?” Adam asked suspiciously.
“We’re just looking for new ribbons,” Nyma said petulantly.
“White, for the ball,” Matt added.
“Should we all look for ribbons together?” Griffin asked and Lance found himself fighting a blush as Griffin seemed to direct his question directly to him.
“I shan’t even browse,” Griffin declared as they walked into the millinery shop. “I can’t be trusted. I have very poor taste in ribbons.”
“Only a man truly confident of himself would admit to that,” Lance said, remaining near the front of the shop while his siblings and Plax made their way into the back room where the newest ribbons could be found.
“No, it's true. And buckles. When it comes to buckles, I'm lost.”
“Dear, oh dear. You must be the shame of the regiment,” Lance teased, pleased to see an easy smile on Griffin’s face.
“A laughingstock,” Griffin joked in return.
“What do your superiors do with you?”
“Ignore me,” Griffin stated, suddenly a bit somber as he avoided Lance’s eyes and poked a hanging ribbon. “I'm of next to no importance, so it's easily done.”
Before Lance could inquire about this sudden change in mood, Nyma poked her head out from the back room.
“Lance, lend me some money.”
“You already owe me a fortune, Nyma.”
“Allow me,” Griffin offered.
“Oh, no, Mr. Griffin, she’s—”
Griffin handed a coin over to Nyma. “I insist.”
Nyma beamed at him before raising a haughty eyebrow in Lance’s direction.
They bid farewell to Plaxum after their purchases were made, and Lance was quite satisfied when Griffin offered to walk them back to Longbourn.
“See?” Nyma stated. “He’s perfect.”
Lance had no reason to disagree. Griffin was certainly handsome and looked incredibly... proper in his uniform. He smiled more often than not, but rather than Shirogane’s easy smile, Griffin’s seemed to indicate that he found humor in his surroundings. As if he was aware of an inside joke. Lance wanted in on it.
“Will you be stationed here all winter, Mr. Griffin?” Lance asked, cold grass crunching under his boot as they walked, even though it was still midday. The cold weather was coming quickly this year.
“I believe that is the plan, unless we can find some action.”
“Lance, look!” Adam whispered loudly, his face lit up as they watched Shirogane and Kogane approach them on horseback.
Shirogane dismounted from his horse and hurried to Adam’s side, looking positively delighted to see him. He quickly pulled his scarf from around his own neck and wrapped it around Adam’s, bringing Adam’s total number to three. Lance resisted the urge to retrieve his scarf for his now cold neck.
“We were just on our way to your house to see you,” Shirogane said.
At that, Lance peered up at Kogane, surprised that he would willingly come to Longbourn when it was a visit that Shirogane could make on his own without it being considered improper.
He wasn’t surprised to find a frown on Kogane’s face, but he was surprised to find such a severe glare directed at Griffin. Griffin, in turn, lifted his chin in Kogane’s direction with a frown covering his own face.
“Mr. Shirogane, how do you like my ribbons for your ball?” Nyma sung as she skipped around the group, waving her large handful of ribbons behind her.
“Very beautiful,” Shirogane stated with a pleased smile.
“He is. Look at him. He's blooming,” Nyma teased over one of Adam’s shoulders.
“Oh, Nyma!” Adam chided.
“Be sure to invite Mr. Griffin,” Nyma continued to sing as she resumed skipping. “He is a credit to his profession.”
“Nyma, you can't invite people to other people's balls,” Adam scolded just as Mr. Kogane turned his horse and quickly rode off without a word.
“Of course, you must come, Mr. Griffin,” Shirogane said earnestly. “If you'll excuse me.” He quickly mounted his horse to follow Kogane, but shouted over his shoulder as he left, “Enjoy the day!”
Mr. Griffin was rather quiet for the remainder of their walk to Longbourn, and while his siblings entered the house, Lance lingered outside to ask if Griffin would plan on attending the Netherfield ball.
“I hope to,” Griffin said. “Um, how long has Mr. Kogane been a guest at Netherfield?”
“About a month, I suppose. Are you acquainted with him?” he asked, pouncing on the chance to get to the bottom of the earlier glares.
“Indeed. I have been connected to his family since infancy.”
“You are surprised by our cold greeting earlier,” Griffin stated, correct in reading Lance’s expression. “Are you well acquainted with him?”
“As much as I ever want to be,” Lance said. “I recently had to spend a few days in the same house with him and found him very disagreeable.”
“Well, I cannot pretend to be sorry about that,” Griffin confessed, eyes traveling over Lance’s form that had a blush rising to his cheeks. “But I speak out of turn,” he quickly offered in apology. “Do you really wish to know the truth about my past with Mr. Kogane?”
“My father managed his estate. Keith and I played together as boys. The late Mr. Kogane treated me like a son, loved me like a son, and in his will, he left me an estate. He knew it was my dream to become a clergyman. But... Keith was always jealous of how his father treated me and he denied me the estate upon his dear father’s death. He gave it to someone else instead.”
Lance couldn’t hide his disgust, “How cruel!”
“So, now I am poor soldier. Too lowly and unimportant to be noticed.”
“I’m so sorry,” Lance said solemnly. “I can’t believe Mr. Shirogane would remain friends with a person like that. He should know what he is like.”
“One day I am sure it will come out. But not by me. I'm not one for spreading personal information in that way.”
He sent Lance a sad little smile and Lance offered him a wide smile in return, hoping to comfort.
“I hope his presence won't keep you from attending any of the local social functions,” Lance said.
“No, if he wants to avoid me, he shall go,” Griffin said. “I refuse to hide away. I'm sure the local events will be too fun to miss.”
Lance’s smile grew, thinking of the difference between Griffin’s positive attitude about their country events versus Mr. Kogane’s clear disdain for their society.
He bid Griffin farewell after that, and his happy attitude about making a new friend (as well as learning that his disregard for Kogane was well justified) lasted all the way until that evening, when Mr. Collins finally arrived.
“What a superbly featured room,” Collins said at their dinner table that evening. “And what excellent boiled potatoes. Which of my dear cousins should I compliment the excellence of the cooking?”
“Mr. Collins,” his mother huffed, “we can certainly afford a cook.”
“Excellent,” Collins said with a nod. He was a stout little man, shorter than Lance and his siblings, save for Pidge. His beady dark eyes roamed over Lance and Adam in a way that had Lance distrusting him immediately. “I'm pleased to hear to the estate does so well. I am happy to have as my patronage, Lady Haggar de Bourg. You have surely heard of her?”
“No,” his mother said with only lightly veiled disinterest.
“My small rectory abuts her estate, Rosings Park,” Collins said proudly. “And she often condescends to drive by my humble estate in her little phaeton and ponies.”
Lance’s gaze drifted down to his father, who he found slouched in his chair (the posture alone told Lance what his father thought of this foolish man). He watched his father hide a smile behind his cup.
“Does she have any children?” his mother asked, the true savior of the dinner as she worked to keep a conversation going.
“One son,” Collins said with a nod. “The heir of Rosings and very extensive property. I often tell Lady Haggar that her son was born to be a Duke, because Lotor has all the superior graces of elevated rank.”
Adam caught Lance’s eye from across the table and mouthed Lotor?
Lance nodded, for surely Kogane’s cousin, Lotor, had to be the same man Collins spoke of now. If Rosings Park was as grand as Collins described, it would certainly explain Lotor’s entire being.
“These are the sort of little delicate compliments that are always acceptable, and to which I feel bound to pay,” Collins said, leering to the side where Adam sat beside him. Adam’s eyes widened in surprise before he subtly leaned away to take another bite of his meal.
“How happy for you, Mr. Collins,” Lance’s father stated, “to possess the talent for flattering with such delicacy.”
Mr. Collins nodded with satisfaction and Lance took the cue from his father for how to further this discussion.
“Do these pleasing attentions arise from the impulse of the moment or are they the result of practiced study?”
Adam kicked him under the table and Lance did his best not to laugh.
“I do sometimes amuse myself by arranging such little elegant compliments,” Collins said seriously, as he was apparently incapable of understanding that he was being teased by both Mr. Bennet and Lance. “I do, however, try to say them with an unstudied air.”
“Oh, believe me, no one would believe your manners to be rehearsed,” Lance disclosed.
Nyma choked on her drink beside him. Adam kicked him again.
“After dinner I thought I might read to you all for an hour or two. I have with me Fordyce’s sermon, which speak eloquently on this point. Have you read Fordyce’s sermons, Mr. Bennet?” Collins leaned in to ask Adam directly.
Adam sent a help me look to Lance. Lance was pretty sure his brother shouldn’t have kicked him so many times.
Thankfully, Mr. Collins’ voice gave out after only one hour of reading, so Lance was free to peruse their own library for something to read, while feeling mournful for the book he didn’t get to finish at Netherfield.
“Mrs. Bennet,” Mr. Collins spoke quietly to the matriarch. He had pulled her aside for a discrete conference while his cousins were busy on the other side of the room. “You do know that I have been bestowed by Lady Haggar de Bourg a patronage of no mean size.”
“I have become aware of the fact,” Mrs. Bennet replied tiredly.
“Well, it is my hope that I should soon find a partner to manage it. And since I am the heir to Longbourn, I thought it would be most prudent to mend the family rift by choosing such a partner from Mr. Bennet’s children.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed, “That is quite honorable of you, sir.”
“And I have to inform you that the eldest of Mr. Bennet’s children has caught my... special attention.”
“Oh, Mr. Collins! I'm afraid it's incumbent on me to inform you that Mr. Adam is very soon engaged!” she whispered quickly.
“Yes, but Mr. Lance beside him in both age and looks would make anyone an excellent partner. Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Collins?”
Collins let his gaze drift to where Lance sat, a book in his hand although he was currently smiling as he spoke to Adam.
“Yes, very agreeable alternative.”
Mrs. Bennet beamed at him before smiling in the direction of her handsome son.
“I still think there must be a misunderstanding between Mr. Kogane and Mr. Griffin,” Adam said, brows pinched as he worked to get Lance’s hair to stay where he wanted it.
“Oh, Adam, do you never think ill of anybody?”
“Well, how could Mr. Kogane do such a thing? I'll discover the truth from Shirogane at the ball this evening.”
“No, if it's not true, let Kogane contradict it himself. Till he does, I hope to never encounter him.”
“Poor, unfortunate, Mr. Griffin.”
“On the contrary, Griffin is twice the man Kogane is,” Lance countered.
“And, let us hope, a rather more willing dancer,” Adam laughed.
“I hope you will not hog Griffin tonight, Lance,” Nyma said, poking her head into their room. “Matt and I want to dance with him, too, you know.”
It would be improper for him to dance with only Griffin for the entire night, but just the thought had Lance laughing as he shooed Adam’s hands away from his hair so he could stand and pull on the fine new clothes his mother had insisted on for all of them.
While part of him wasn’t happy to be returning to Netherfield, Lance was immediately impressed with the dazzling lights from the numerous candelabras and chandeliers as they entered the reception room.
Mr. Shirogane approached their family group immediately, greeting their parents first before focusing his delighted attentions on Adam.
“You’re here. I'm so pleased.”
“And so am I,” Adam agreed with a returning smile.
“And how are you, Mr. Lance?”
Lance had tuned out their mushy greetings to each other to begin searching the room for Mr. Griffin. He jerked his head back to Mr. Shirogane when he heard his name repeated.
“Are you alright?” Shirogane asked. “Are you looking for someone?”
Lance wasn’t sure what to make of Shirogane’s sly little grin; surely, he couldn’t already know of Lance’s interest in Griffin?
“No! Just admiring the general splendor, Mr. Shirogane.”
“It is lovely, Mr. Shirogane,” Adam agreed.
“Please, you must both call me Shiro.”
Adam shot Lance one of the brightest smiles he’d ever seen. They'd both heard Mr. Kogane refer to Mr. Shirogane as such, and it was a compliment to be asked to use such an informal name.
Shiro offered an elbow for Adam to take so he could lead him further inside, just as Lance overheard his mother (loudly) proclaim to a nearby friend, “I daresay I have never met a more pleasant gentleman! Do you see how he dotes on him? Oh, Adam is always doing what’s best for his family...”
Lance bit back a sigh and trailed behind Shiro and his brother, peeking into each side room’s open doors where he discovered wonderfully placed diversions such as a card room and a buffet before they reached the grand ballroom at the end of the hallway.
He kept his eyes open for Mr. Griffin. And was unaware that Mr. Kogane had stalled in his own steps when he first spotted Lance in all of his fine new clothes, long legs wrapped elegantly in dark pants, overcoat snug over wide shoulders and tapered to his thin waist, long neck that led to a striking jawline and piercing blue eyes, hair styled perfectly but still so soft in appearance.
Keith glanced across the room at Shiro. His ridiculous friend (who had already secured Adam Bennet’s hand for a dance) waggled his ridiculous eyebrows at him before glancing pointedly at Lance. He had strongly urged Keith to ask Lance to dance tonight, and Keith wasn’t one to back down from a challenge from Shiro.
“Plaxum!” Lance greeted his friend and complimented her new clothing. All of the women had turned up in white fashion and the lack of color somehow made his friend's bright blue eyes stand out. Lance hoped that she received many requests to dance tonight.
“Lance,” Adam said in a rush as he quickly approached them, “Mr. Griffin is not here.”
“What do you mean he’s not here? He must be here,” Lance urged, fighting down the disappointment he could feel in his chest.
“He has been otherwise detained,” Adam replied.
Lance turned away from his brother, intent on continuing to search the room, and almost ran right into Mr. Collins.
“I hope you’ll save the first dance for me, Mr. Lance,” Collins requested.
Lance looked desperately back towards Adam and Plaxum, and found that Adam had already left, no doubt to return to Shiro’s side. Plaxum only offered an amused smile.
“I didn’t think you danced, Mr. Collins. Would it be improper?”
“I do not believe it incompatible with the office of a clergyman to divulge in such an innocent diversion.”
Lance tried to smile politely.
“In fact,” Collins continued, “several people, her ladyship included, have often complimented me on my lightness of foot.”
Plaxum’s smile only grew more amused. Lance tried not to openly grimace.
He walked with Collins to the dance floor and situated the pair of them near Adam, and although Collins had begun to speak to him —
“Dancing is of little consequence to me, but it does provide an opportunity to lavish —”
Lance turned to Adam with a questioning look.
“Apparently your Mr. Griffin has been called on some business to London,” Adam provided. “Though my informer tells me he would be less inclined —”
“— to lavish,” Collins continued, trying to gain Lance’s attention, “delicate attentions to your partner.”
“— he would be less inclined,” Adam continued, “if not for the presence at Netherfield of a certain gentleman.”
“That gentleman barely deserves the name,” Lance growled.
Lance turned with the dance and was suddenly facing Mr. Collins again, who paused in his own movements to say, “It is my intention, Mr. Lance, to remain quite close to you throughout the evening.”
Lance sucked in a breath and wondered what he had done wrong in a previous life.
As soon as the dance was over, he barely offered a bow before he scurried off the floor and grabbed Plaxum’s arm to drag her out in the main hallway. Surely, she could save him from this already disastrous evening.
However, as if his luck couldn't be worse, he ran directly into Mr. Kogane’s chest once they entered the hallway. Lance appeared to be slightly taller than Kogane, but what Kogane lacked in height compared to Lance, he appeared to make up for in muscle. His chest was solid. Lance scrambled to right himself without the need to grab hold of Kogane’s arms, fearing they’d be equally impressive, which was just... confusing.
Lance couldn't help but notice Kogane’s fine overcoat or the way his vest matched his indigo eyes. His dark shiny hair was pulled back in a white ribbon. He looked quite handsome, which was also... unfair.
Lance bowed in greeting, as if he hadn't just bulldozed into the guy and received a bow in return. But, before he could make his escape, Kogane actually opened his mouth to speak.
“May I have the next dance, Mr. Lance?”
Lance stared at him, stunned, for what was likely a beat too long before saying, “You may.”
Kogane bowed, hiding his pleased expression as he did so, before turning and entering the ballroom.
Lance grabbed Plax’s arm again and dragged her around a corner into a side room.
"Did I just agree to dance with Mr. Kogane?!"
"I daresay you will find him quite agreeable,” Plaxum laughed.
"That will be most inconvenient since I've sworn to loathe him for all eternity!" Lance groaned.
Plaxum only laughed again and pushed him towards the ballroom.
Lance stood opposite Kogane on the dance floor. A few pairs away he could see Adam and Shirogane lined up to dance again. And at his back, he could practically feel Collins’ beady eyes upon him.
They began to move as the music began, although both remained silent for several beats of the Sarabande.
When Lance could bear the silence no longer, he said, “I love this dance.”
“Indeed. Most invigorating,” Kogane replied dryly.
They continued for a few more moments in silence. Lance noted that while Kogane’s movements were stiff, he hit every move of the dance correctly, likely a result of his expensive upbringing.
“It's your turn to say something, Mr. Kogane,” Lance reprimanded. “I talked about the dance, now you should compliment the room or remark on the number of couples.”
“I'm perfectly happy to oblige,” Kogane said, and if Lance didn’t believe he knew Kogane’s range of emotions already, he would say that Kogane was actually jesting with him. “Please advise me on which you would most like to hear.”
“That reply will do for present,” Lance said archly as twirled around Kogane’s back. “I might say that private balls are much more pleasant than public ones. But for now, we may be silent.”
“Do you talk as a rule while dancing?”
“No. No, I prefer to be unsocial and boring,” Lance quipped, unable to keep a small laugh from his voice.
“Doesn’t sound like you at all,” Kogane deadpanned.
Lance eyed him steadily, sure that there was mirth in those eyes.
“Tell me,” Kogane said, “do you and your siblings very often walk to Meryton?”
Lance’s eyes narrowed, sure that he knew where this question was leading. His earlier disappointment that Griffin was not here tonight returned ten-fold, shoving whatever pleasant feelings he had been feeling during this dance with Kogane harshly away.
“Yes, we often walk to Meryton.” He was slightly ashamed to feel his own nose rise in the way he despised on Nyma (and had also recently witnessed on Lotor). “It is a great opportunity to meet new people. In fact, when you met us, we had just had the pleasure of forming a new acquaintance.”
Lance enjoyed the fleeting feeling of pleasure that rose from the new (and more familiar) disgruntled expression on Kogane’s face.
“Mr. Griffin is blessed with such happy manners, he easily makes friends everywhere. Whether he is capable of keeping them is less certain.”
“He has been so unlucky as to lose your friendship,” Lance stated. “I remember you said that once your good opinion is lost, it is lost forever. You are very careful, then, to not judge too quickly?”
Kogane appeared confused even as he kept his eyes on Lance through their choreography. “Where are these questions leading?”
“I’m trying to make out your character, Mr. Kogane.”
“And what have you discovered?”
“Very little,” Lance replied as the music ended. “I see such different accounts of you that I’m left quite confused.”
“I hope to afford you more clarity in the future, sir,” Kogane replied, expression somewhat resigned as he bowed in thanks with the end of the dance. Lance had moved away before he even straightened again.
Lance didn't spot Plaxum right away, but that didn’t stop him from moving out of the ballroom as quickly as he could. He made his way into the buffet room but before he could even busy himself with a plate of food, he found himself sighing in aggravation when he spotted Matt and Nyma quickly downing glasses of wine before giggling as they had their glasses immediately refilled.
Worse was that Kogane and Lotor entered the buffet soon after and planted themselves next to the buffet’s front table, destroying Lance‘s hopes for food since he refused to go over there to retrieve a plate.
“Mr. Lance, you didn’t tell me you were acquainted with Lotor de Bourg,” Mr. Collins accused as he came up behind Lance. And is that Mr. Kogane of Pemberley in Derbyshire?”
“I believe so,” Lance said weakly.
“He’s Lady Haggar’s nephew. I must go make myself known to him.”
“No, Mr. Collins,” Lance whisper-shouted after him as he began to walk away. “He’ll consider it an impertinence!”
Lance watched from a distance but still felt hot with embarrassment as Mr. Collins tried to interrupt Kogane and Lotor. The sounds and movement in the entire buffet froze (with the exception of Matt and Nyma’s giggles) as Mr. Collins’ raised his voice to try to capture Mr. Kogane’s attention.
A surprised and, frankly, irritated Mr. Kogane turned around to find Mr. Collins, who quickly pointed a finger right in Lance’s direction as he spoke to him.
Lotor left Kogane’s side to saunter past Lance on his way out of the room. He glanced pointed at Lance’s still giggling siblings before glancing back towards Collins. “What interesting relatives you have, Mr. Lance.”
Lance only bowed in acknowledgement, unwilling to speak further with Lotor. Then he escaped the room, beelining to the front parlor for some breathing space, only to find Pidge belting out a song, despite her inability to hit the high notes. He turned away just as their father walked over to shut the piano lid while trying to politely say, “You’ve delighted us long enough.”
He decided to find Plaxum and, unfortunately, overheard his mother’s voice as he made his way through the crowd, “Yes, ten thousand a year! And he dances every dance with Adam. No one else will do!”
“Apparently my family is having a competition to see who can expose themselves to the most ridicule,” Lance murmured to Plaxum when he finally found her.
“At least Mr. Shirogane has not noticed,” Plax assured, nodding towards where Shiro was currently grinning and smiling in Adam’s direction, even though they were paired with different dance partners.
“I think he likes Adam very much,” Lance said with a smile.
“But does Adam like him?” Plax asked. “Very few would be truly in love without proper encouragement. Mr. Shirogane likes him enormously but might not express it further if Adam doesn’t help him on.”
“Adam is just shy and modest,” Lance protested. “If he does not see Adam’s regard for him, he is a fool.”
“We are all fools in love,” Plax laughed. “He does not know Adam’s character as we do. Adam should move fast and snatch him up. There is plenty of time for Adam to get to know him after they are married.”
“You would not act like that if it was yourself,” Lance said with a shake of his head as he watched Nyma dance with a soldier. The soldier leaned in close to say something and Nyma threw her head back and practically shrieked in laughter.
“I do not have the luxury to be picky,” Plax mumbled to herself.
Lance’s temples hurt at breakfast the next morning, not from abusing alcohol, which was surely what was ailing Matt and Nyma. While he typically enjoyed a night out dancing, last night had been an evening filled to the brim with embarrassment, a test of patience, and developing new skills as he snuck around in order to avoid Mr. Collins.
“I have never had such a good time in my life as last night,” his mother stated after shushing Pidge’s piano playing. “I invited Mr. Shirogane to dine with us as soon as he is able. I promised at least three courses.”
Lance slowly began adding some fruit to his breakfast plate. Their father appeared practically asleep at the other end of the table.
“I am sure we’ll be having a wedding at Netherfield in less than three months,” their mother continued merrily.
Lance glanced to Adam, who was sipping his coffee slowly beside him. Adam offered a shy but pleased smile. At least Adam’s night had been a success.
Mr. Collins joined them, but instead of taking a seat, he seemed to hesitate next to the table before finally clearing his voice to speak.
“Mrs. Bennet, I was hoping, if it would not trouble you, to have a private audience with Mr. Lance this morning.”
“Oh, yes!” his mother exclaimed, jumping up from her seat. “Lance will be very happy, indeed.”
“Wait,” Lance jolted, feeling panic seize his chest. “Mr. Collins can have nothing to say to me that anyone need not hear.”
“No nonsense, Lance. I desire you stay where you are. Everyone else out —”
“Please don't leave me,” Lance whispered as he grabbed hold of Adam’s sleeve.
“— Mr. Collins would like a private audience with your brother.” Their mother grabbed Adam’s other arm and pulled him from the room. Adam sent Lance an apologetic look as well as a small half-smile.
Lance turned desperately to his father next. Don’t go he mouthed. But his father also sent an apologetic, if not resigned, look as he folded his paper and slowly stood to leave the room.
Suddenly left alone with Mr. Collins, Lance frantically glanced at both of the room’s exits before he slowly turned his head to look at Mr. Collins.
“Dear Mr. Lance, you can hardly doubt the purpose of this discussion. My intentions have been made too clear to be masked. Almost from the first moment I entered the house, I singled you out as the partner for my future life.”
Lance stared at him despondently.
“But before I run away with my feelings, perhaps I may state my reasons for marrying.”
Lance’s breathing stuttered at the mere mention of the word. Collins didn’t appear to notice.
“Firstly, it is the duty of a clergyman to set the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly, that I am sure it will add greatly to my happiness. And thirdly, that it is at the urging of my esteemed patroness, Lady Haggar, that I choose a spouse.”
There was a distinct thump from outside one of the doors, then a giggle, and then a shushing noise. Count on his family to not allow him to die of embarrassment alone...
“My purpose in coming to Longbourn was to choose a spouse among Mr. Bennet’s children, as I am to inherit this estate, and such an alliance would surely be agreeable to everyone.”
It hurt Lance’s heart to know how true that statement was... but his heart also seized as he watched Mr. Collins drop to one knee beside where he sat frozen in his breakfast chair.
“And now nothing remains but for me to assure you in the most animated way of the violence of my affections.”
“Mr. Collins,” Lance stated.
“And that no reproach on the subject of your fortune will ever pass my lips, once we are married.”
Lance pushed himself to his feet.
“You are too hasty, sir, for I have given you no answer.”
“I must add,” Collins continued as if Lance had not spoken, “that Lady Haggar will thoroughly approve when I speak to her of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualities.”
“Sir, I am honored by your proposal, but I must decline it.”
Collins appeared immediately taken aback, but then merely shook his head and said, “I know that there are common responses to proposals, such as not wanting to seem too eager —”
“I am perfectly serious!” Lance insisted. “You could not make me happy and I am convinced that I am the last person in the world who could make you happy.”
“I flatter myself, cousin, that your refusal is a natural delicacy. Besides, no matter how attractive you may be, it is by no means a guarantee that another proposal of marriage may ever be made to you.”
“Mr. Collins,” Lance said sternly.
“Therefore, I must conclude that you simply seek to increase my love by suspense.”
“Sir,” Lance stated, voice still stern, “I am not the sort of person to torment a respectable man. Please understand me, I cannot accept you!”
Lance stormed out of the room, choosing the exit he was sure was empty of his snooping family members. The other door fell open as he was leaving, spilling his mothers and siblings into the breakfast room. Adam and Pidge appeared quite astonished, while Matt and Nyma were practically falling over with laughter. His mother, however, glowered in the direction that Lance had escaped.
“Headstrong, foolish child!” She crossed the room intent on chasing after Lance. “Just a moment, Mr. Collins! We’ll have this little hiccup cleared up immediately!”
“Headstrong?” Collins asked, frown etched into his face as he considered this descriptor.
Lance escaped as far as the edge of their yard before Longbourn’s moat stopped him. His arms crossed tightly across his chest as he tried to catch his breath, not winded from the run but from the morning’s torment. His heart sunk with dread when he saw both of his parents approach him, since it meant his mother was bringing his father to back her up.
“Father, I can't do it,” Lance pleaded immediately.
“You will go back in there and tell him you will marry him,” his mother demanded.
“Please, I cannot.” He kept his eyes pinned on his father and noted that his father looked extremely uncomfortable, as he often did when faced with conflict. He wasn’t sure what it meant that his father was remaining silent for now.
“Think of your family!”
“No.” Lance hugged his arms tighter around his torso.
“You will have this house!” his mother exclaimed. “And save your family from destitution!”
“I cannot marry him.”
“Go back and tell him you made a mistake!” his mother insisted.
“You cannot make me!”
“Mr. Bennet, say something!”
“Lance,” his father stated calmly. “Your mother insists that you marry Mr. Collins —”
“Yes, or I will never speak to him again.”
“Well, Lance, from this day on, you must be a stranger to one of your parents,” his father continued.
“Who will take care of you when your father is dead?” His mother threw her arms in the air as she spoke.
“Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins... And I will never see you again if you do.”
Lance could practically faint in relief. “Thank you, papa,” he said, giving his father a quick hug before he raced back to the house. He could hear his mother behind him.
“Ungrateful child! I shall never speak to him again! Not that I take much pleasure in speaking to anybody! People who suffer as I do from nervous complaints have no inclination for talking. Nadie sabe cuánto he sufrido...”
Lance couldn’t worry about his mother’s nerves at this moment, not when his own had been tested and trampled on last night and again this morning. He raced to find comfort with Adam, only to find Adam sitting on the steps, pale and trying to hide a letter in his lap.
“Adam, what it is?”
While Lotor smirked, Keith glanced at Shiro, who sat watching Netherfield grow smaller behind them. He appeared to grow more despondent with each turn of their carriage wheels.
Keith sat resolute and turned his attention to the view outside his window, determined not to look at Shiro for a time. His friend would feel better once they were back in London.
Lance moved quickly to pack Adam’s best clothes into a trunk at the end of his bed.
“I don’t understand what would take him from Netherfield so suddenly,” Lance murmured as he tossed a few more things into the trunk.
Adam pulled both shirts out and tossed one aside before at least folding the other. “Read it, I don’t mind.” He pulled the letter from under his pillow and handed it to Lance.
Lance eyed his brother to make sure he was okay with him reading the letter before eagerly opening it. It was not a letter from Shiro, as Lance was expecting, but a letter from Lotor.
“Mr. Kogane is eager to see his sister,” Lance murmured aloud, “and we are scarcely less eager to see her again. I really do not think Miss Kogane has her equal for beauty, elegance, and accomplishments, so much so that I hope to see her very soon suitably matched with a member of our traveling party.”
“Is that not clear enough?” Adam asked faintly.
“That they can see that Shiro is in love with you and they are trying to persuade him otherwise?”
“I don’t think they are capable of knowingly deceiving anyone. Lotor is clearly aware that Shiro has feelings for Mr. Kogane’s sister and he is trying to be polite by making me aware of it.”
“Shiro loves you, Adam, do not give up. You will go to our cousin’s house in London. Let it be known that you are in town and I am sure Shiro will come to see you.”
After they saw Adam off in a carriage that very afternoon, Lance took to their room and slept until the next morning, exhausted from the drama of the past twenty-four hours. At least Mr. Collins had left to have dinner with Plaxum and her parents. Plaxum was a saint for taking him off their hands for the evening.
At least, that’s what Lance thought until Plaxum and Mr. Collins returned the next day.
Plaxum had requested to speak to Lance alone, and Lance happily agreed, thinking that Plaxum was just getting him out of the house and away from the dreaded Mr. Collins.
“My dear Lance, I've come here to tell you the news,” Plaxum said once they were alone outside. “Mr. Collins and I are... engaged.”
“What?” Lance gasped. He thought he’d been stunned by Collins’ proposal to him yesterday. The level of shock he felt now definitely topped that moment.
“I can see you’re surprised.”
“Surprised? Plax, have you even had a conversation with him?”
“I’m not a romantic, like you, Lance,” Plax stated, unfairly exasperated.
"He's ridiculous! Ridículo!"
"Hush! All I ask is for is a comfortable home.”
Lance continued to gape at his oldest friend. “It’s not too late to change your mind.”
“Listen, he’s not... interested in sharing a bed with me. He just... He needs to bring home a spouse for the approval of his patronage, Lady Haggar de Bourg. I am convinced I will be as happy with him as with anybody.”
“Plax, that doesn’t mean you just marry him!”
“He’s offering the protection of marriage, Lance. A chance to run my own home. I am twenty-eight years old. Already a burden to my parents! I will be out of options when my father dies. And I'm scared. So, don’t judge me, Lance.” Plaxum turned on her heel and shouted over her shoulder as she left, “Don’t you dare judge me.”
“Plaxum!” he called to his friend’s retreating back.
That winter was the loneliest that Lance could ever remember being. Adam remained in London with their cousin. Plaxum married Collins and moved to the parsonage in Kent. Even the militia packed up to relocate to Brighton, carrying Griffin out of town with them.
He spent a lot of time in his room reading or joining his father in his horticultural studies, anything to avoid Matt, Nyma, and their mother’s moaning about the militia’s departure.
While it may have typically been the last place Lance would want to visit, when Plaxum wrote to invite him to Hunsford Parsonage for a visit in early spring, Lance practically jumped at the chance.
Not even seeing Mr. Collins in person again could dampen his spirits as he jumped out of the carriage upon his arrival and embraced his oldest friend.
“Welcome to our humble abode,” Mr. Collins called out.
Lance offered Collins a bow before they began to tour the outside. It was a charming little rectory, with chickens roaming and vegetable and flower gardens.
“And from here we have a nice view of Rosings Park,” Collins declared proudly with an arm sweeping in that direction, “where we are honored to dine at least twice a week. Her ladyship’s carriage is often ordered for us. I should say one of her ladyship’s carriages, for she has several.”
Lance looked to Plaxum who gave him an exaggerated nod.
“Lady Haggar has also directed quite a few improvements both inside and outside of our home. And I have quite a few plans for improvement here as well, such as a lime walk. I flatter myself that anyone would be quite happy to call this place home.”
“My dear, I think our guest is tired after his journey. Come, Lance, I'll take you inside for some tea.”
“My wife encourages me to spend as much time in the garden as possible, for my health.” Collins waved as Lance headed inside with Plaxum.
He managed not to send her a suspicious look until they were seated within her personal parlor inside.
“What?” Plaxum asked innocently. “It is good for his health.”
Lance huffed out a small laugh and drank his tea as he admired the room.
“We should not be disturbed, for he rarely comes in here,” Plaxum said. “Lance, it's so good to see you. I do miss you. But it is such a pleasure to run my own house, to no longer carry the guilt of being an extra expense to my parents.”
“I miss you too, Plax.”
“Plaxum, come here!”
Plax jumped from her seat and raced to the front window. “What is it?” she called out to Mr. Collins. “Oh, Lance, come look.”
Lance rose and joined her at the window, where they saw Mr. Collins bowing and speaking to someone at a carriage at the end of their lane.
“How are things with Griffin?” Plax asked as they watched Mr. Collins bow a few more times.
Lance sighed. “Griffin has not written to me since the militia left Meryton for Brighton. Nyma keeps up with a few of the soldiers, however, and she says that he does well.”
“Oh, Lance, I'm sorry.”
“We didn't have any sort of understanding,” Lance offered with a shrug. “I haven't even seen him since before the Netherfield ball. And while I wish I could’ve said goodbye to him before he left, I have found that I haven't truly missed him. Not like I've missed you and Adam all winter.”
Plaxum squeezed his hand as Mr. Collins raced to the window to speak to them.
“Great news!” Collins said breathlessly. “Great news! We have invited to dine at Rosings tonight.”
Lance flicked his gaze between Plaxum and Collins to determine if the dinner invitation was the great news.
“Do not be uneasy about what you wear, Lance,” Plax said. “Just put on whatever you brought that’s best.”
“Lady Haggar is not averse to the truly humble,” Collins added.
Apparently, it was the great news.
“One of the finest views in all of Europe, is it not?” Collins asked as they walked across the neighboring field towards Rosings.
Lance could admit that all of Mr. Collins’ previous descriptions certainly made sense, elaborate though they had seemed, for this was certainly the grandest manor he had ever seen.
As they entered the main parlor, his eyes were drawn in several directions as once due to the spectacularly grand (to the point of being hideously overdone) décor. The room was full of heavy furniture and rows of servants. Lady Haggar didn’t even turn her head as they entered, instead she sat straight and rigid and waited until Lance, Plaxum, and Collins were bowing in front of her to look upon them.
“So, you are Lance Bennet.”
“I am, your ladyship,” Lance replied, slightly surprised that she would already be familiar with him. Lady Haggar’s eyes traveled over Lance’s form for a moment before she hummed an indistinct sound.
Although they were mostly dark colors, Lance knew (mostly thanks to Nyma) that Lady Haggar wore the latest fashion from London, even for this simple dinner hosted within her own home. Lance could see the family resemblance between her and Lotor in her facial features (as well as the sense of importance and superiority that radiated from them both).
Beside Lady Haggar sat a beautiful young woman who offered Lance and the rest of his party a friendly smile, but instead of introducing the woman to them, Lady Haggar indicated behind Lance and said, “I believe you know my son, Lotor.”
Lance bit back a sigh at the thought of spending an evening in Lotor’s company and turned with a forced smile on his face to greet him. Only to drop the smile immediately when he saw who approached with Lotor.
“Mr. Kogane,” he said, quite astonished. “What are you doing here?”
“You know my nephew as well?” Lady Haggar asked, tone hard and insistent.
Lance tried to reign in his shock. “I had the pleasure of meeting both your son and your nephew together in Hertfordshire.”
“Mr. Lotor and Mr. Kogane, I had no idea we would have the honor of...” Collins cut himself off when Kogane sent him a hard look.
“Mr. Lance,” Kogane said, expression softening as he turned to Lance instead. “I am a guest here with my aunt. Please let me also introduce Allura,” he said, indicating the young woman beside Lady Haggar, “she is also a cousin to Lotor and myself.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Allura said cheerfully.
Lance returned her smile gratefully, happy to see a friendly face among this family.
“I’m also pleased to meet you, Mr. And Mrs. Collins,” Allura continued. “Keith and I only arrived last night, but Aunt Haggar was telling us you are her neighbors?”
Lance stood (no one else had been invited to sit) and listened as Collins and Plaxum shared greetings with Allura while Lady Haggar began to give orders for their meal. He let his eyes travel over towards Kogane, still surprised to be in the same room with the man again. His eyes dipped to the ground quickly when he found Kogane’s dark eyes already on him.
Thankfully, they were led into the dining hall shortly after, but Lance found himself near the head of the table where Lady Haggar was seated, with only Kogane seated to his left to separate him from the somewhat harsh woman.
“I trust your family is in good health, Mr. Lance?” Kogane asked.
“They are. Thank you.” Lance paused as his soup was placed in front of him. “My eldest brother has been in London these past few months. Have you had a chance to see him?”
Kogane seemed to freeze for a moment, before recovering and murmuring, “I haven't been fortunate enough, no.”
Lance still hadn't received any letters from Adam with confirmation that he’d seen Shiro. And now he didn't know what to make of Kogane not seeing Adam. Of course, if Kogane was traveling with his cousin, Allura now, instead of Shiro, it still gave him hope that Adam had been able to see Shiro during his London stay.
“Do you play the piano, Mr. Bennet?” Lady Haggar asked.
“A little, ma’am, but not very well.” Lance responded before attempting to get a spoonful of soup.
“Do you draw?”
His spoon faltered in the air. “No, not at all.”
“Your siblings, do they draw?”
“That is very strange,” Lady Haggar professed. “But I supposed you had no opportunity. Your mother should’ve taken you to London every spring for the benefit of the masters.”
Lance was still balancing soup in his spoon. “My mother wouldn’t have minded, but my father hates London.”
“Has your governess left you?”
“We never had a governess.”
“No governess? Five children and no governess? I’ve never heard such a thing. Your mother must’ve been a slave to your education.”
Lance couldn't help smiling at this. “Not at all, ma’am.”
“Are any of your younger siblings out?”
“Yes, ma’am, all.”
“All?” What? Five out at once?” She sent a significantly scandalized look to Mr. Kogane. “The younger ones out when the elder are not married? Your youngest sibling must be very young.”
“Yes, my youngest is not sixteen.” And maybe Adam would’ve stopped talking there... Lance just... couldn't. “But I think it must be very hard on younger siblings, not to have their share of amusement just because the elder are not married. It would hardly encourage sibling affection.”
“You give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person,” Lady Haggar criticized. “What is your age?”
“With three younger siblings grown up, your Ladyship can hardly expect me to admit it.”
Lady Haggar looked astonished. Collins shifted in his seat uncomfortably. Mr. Kogane glanced at Lance with a bit of admiration.
Lance was finally able to eat his soup, so he didn't notice any of it.
“Music is my delight,” Lady Haggar stated as they sat in the drawing room after dinner. “There are few people in England who have better natural taste in music than myself. Come, Lance, you will play something for us.”
“Oh, no, I —”
“Come, come, Lance,” Collins cut in. “The lady insists.”
Lance tried not to outwardly cringe as he rose and made his way to the piano. It was too bad this large pretty instrument was about to be wasted on his poor talent, he thought to himself as he adjusted the music sheet options until he found a familiar song.
The room was eerily quiet as he played the first few notes before Lady Haggar thankfully began to speak again, talking loudly over the music as she asked Mr. Kogane how his young sister had progressed with the piano.
Lance breathed a small sigh of relief as the attention of everyone in the room moved elsewhere. He had to concentrate on sheet music in front of him, but he still overhead Kogane state that his sister ‘Played quite well’ (because of course she would. Lance was sure she was just as dignified and elegant as her brother because —)
“Come over here to intimidate me, Mr. Kogane?” Lance asked, cutting off his own internal tirade when he realized Kogane had approached the piano.
“I know I could not intimidate you, Mr. Lance, even if I wished it.”
Lance let his eyes drift to peek at Kogane. While the man’s face remained impassive, Lance was sure there was a teasing glint in those indigo eyes.
“What was my cousin like in Hertfordshire?” Miss Allura asked as she joined them and poked Keith’s shoulder teasingly.
Lance’s fingers fell off the piano keys as the opportunity to possibly embarrass Kogane rose perfectly in front of him.
“Do you really want to know?” he asked and watched as Miss Allura nodded while Kogane’s face seemed to shutter in discomfort. “Be prepared for something truly dreadful. When we first met at the public assembly, he danced with no one, even though there were plenty of people without partners.”
“Allura, I need you,” Lady Haggar announced.
Miss Allura chuckled and winked at the two of them before leaving them to rejoin Lady Haggar.
Lance smirked back towards the music sheets as his fingers realigned over the keys to begin again.
“I do not...” Kogane paused long enough that Lance stopped playing again and turned his attention back to him, “... possess the talent to speak easily with people who I am not familiar with,” Keith professed, ever so quietly, as if he were sharing a great confidence with Lance.
Lance glanced to the rest of their group, and when he was satisfied that they were all busy in conversations with each other, he turned back to Kogane and leaned in so that he could mimic Kogane’s low tone and keep their conversation between them (not that he was sure why he cared if Kogane was comfortable or not).
“I do not play this instrument as well as I should,” Lance said, “but that is because I do not take the time to practice.”
Kogane’s gaze trailed slowly over Lance’s face in a considering manner before meeting his eyes again.
“True, but I think you have spent your time much more wisely.”
“What are you two speaking of over there?” Lady Haggar demanded of them. “I must have my share of the conversation.”
The corner of Kogane’s mouth twitched, a hint of a smile, before he left the piano and returned to his aunt’s side to speak with her (which also served to save Lance from having to speak to her). Lance glanced towards Plaxum and found his friend watching him closely with a smirk and a raised eyebrow.
He frowned at her and returned to his song.
“Dear Adam,” Lance murmured as he wrote, already thinking of how to describe Collins in his natural setting to his elder brother.
He barely heard the sitting room’s door open before a maid appeared and announced Mr. Kogane’s arrival as he was shown into the room.
Lance straightened in his seat, eyes wide and voice astonished as he said, “Mr. Kogane!”
Kogane stood just inside the door and offered a bow.
Lance remembered himself and stood to offer his own bow.
“Please be seated,” Lance offered as he returned to his own seat. “I’m afraid Mr. And Mrs. Collins have gone on business to the village.”
Kogane remained standing and didn’t respond, although he did venture a few additional steps into the room, arms tucked strangely behind his back. The next few moments were spent standing in awkward silence. Lance’s eyes traveled to the walls of the room as he pretended to admire the paintings.
“This is a charming house,” Kogane finally said. “I believe my aunt did a great deal to it when Mr. Collins arrived.”
“Yes,” Lance agreed, a hint of laughter in his voice as he thought about Collins’ never-ending descriptions of all the updates Lady Haggar had bestowed upon the estate (shelves in the closet!) “She could not have bestowed her kindness on a more grateful subject.”
“Mr. Collins seems very fortunate in his choice of spouse,” Kogane stated, curious eyes focused on Lance in a way that had Lance wondering if Kogane had somehow heard about his rejection of the proposal Collins had offered him.
“Yes, he seems quite happy to be married and I'm happy to find my friend settled in a comfortable place.”
“It must be very agreeable to be settled so easy a distance from her friends and family.”
“Easy distance?” Lance objected. “It’s nearly fifty miles from Hertfordshire!”
“That’s little more than half a day’s journey on good roads,” Kogane said with a shrug. “I’d call that pretty easy.”
“I suppose,” Lance conceded, although his tone conveyed his continued doubt.
“I believe you wouldn’t want to be settled too near your own family?”
Lance met those indigo eyes that were currently pinned on him, earnestly waiting for his response. “Well, no.”
Kogane nodded at that, looking innately pleased, although Lance wasn’t sure why he would be.
“Should I call for some tea?” Lance asked.
Instead of responding, Kogane traveled the few steps required to reach Lance where he sat before he finally pulled his hands out from behind his back.
“I brought this for you.”
Lance blinked down at the book Kogane was offering him. It was the very book he’d been reading while staying at Netherfield while Adam had recovered from his cold last fall.
“I noticed you weren’t able to finish it during your stay, so...”
Lance dragged his eyes from the offered book up to Kogane’s face and found growing worry in his expression as Lance only stared in response to the offering.
Finally, Lance took the book from Kogane’s hand and watched as his features softened when Lance beamed a smile at him. The book was large enough that their fingers didn’t meet with the interaction, and Lance told himself it was dumb to be disappointed by that.
“I had wanted to finish this. Thank you, Mr. Kogane.”
“Keith. I mean, I would — it would be nice if you would call me Keith,” Kogane stated, tone bashful but determined as he finally moved to take a seat in the chair across from the writing desk where Lance was situated.
As Keith settled in his chair, Lance tried to decide how he was supposed to react to such an informal suggestion, while also doing his best to ignore the slightly giddy sensation rolling in his stomach.
“Is this offering so that I may become more accomplished, Keith?” Lance waved the book about before placing it gently on the desk.
Keith’s brows furrowed and he appeared so incredibly chagrined that Lance almost felt guilty. Keith’s mouth opened, likely to offer further explanation, but Lance noted (happily) that Keith’s objections deflated when he caught the teasing look in Lance’s eyes, the small smirk pulling at his mouth.
“You’re teasing me,” Keith stated. And perhaps he didn’t smile or laugh, but his eyes narrowed in a mock glare and there was a vast change from the scowls Lance was accustomed to. Keith appeared... content.
“Lance!” Plaxum called out from the front of the house as she entered.
“Well, good day, Mr. Lance,” Kogane said as he practically leapt out of his chair, offered a quick bow, and escaped the room without another word or a chance for Lance to reply, just as Plaxum appeared in the doorway.
Plaxum offered a quick curtsy as Kogane passed her, then turned a teasing smile towards Lance.
“What on Earth have you done to poor Mr. Kogane?”
“I have no idea,” Lance answered honestly.
Plaxum’s head tilted in consideration as she observed Lance. She had only been teasing (she had a pretty good idea about why Kogane had stopped by). Lance, however, appeared genuinely confused.
“And to call on us in such a familiar way?” Plaxum pushed.
“He never would’ve stopped by just to call on me.”
Lance still looked lost.
Plaxum sighed. Daft boy.
Lance watched Mr. Collins scurry after Lady Haggar and Lotor after that Sunday’s service. Plaxum had her own duties to attend to with the congregation's children. He hadn’t seen Keith in the throng of the congregation during the service and wondered if he had already left his aunt’s house to travel elsewhere. Although, if that was the case, Lance was surprised to see Miss Allura present, since he’d been under the impression that they were traveling together.
When Miss Allura requested a walk with Lance to enjoy the beautiful weather, Lance accepted the offer, grasping at a chance to dig a little for information.
“How long are you in Kent?” Lance asked as they began down a pleasant path that would lead through the nearby flower fields.
“As long as Keith wishes to stay, I am at his disposal.”
“I barely know him and yet he’s always traveling with someone new. I’m surprised he doesn’t marry, enlist a full-time travel partner.”
“They would be a very lucky partner,” Miss Allura replied with a happy laugh. “Keith is very loyal. From what I heard on our journey here, he recently came to the rescue of one of his closest friends just in time.”
“What happened?” Lance asked, curiosity insanely piqued.
“He saved him from an imprudent marriage.”
Lance faltered, even his foot stumbled slightly before he asked, “Who was the man?”
“His closest friend, Mr. Shirogane.”
“Did Mr. Kogane give a reason for this interference?”
“There were apparently very strong objections to the young man he was interested in.”
“What kind of objections?” Lance rushed to ask. “His lack of fortune?”
“I believe it was his family that was considered unsuitable.”
Lance’s chest felt tight as he pictured his favorite brother’s heartbroken expression when he learned that Shiro had left Netherfield.
“So, he separated them?” Lance’s voice was soft with disbelief, even though he knew the story to be true.
“I believe so. I know nothing else. Mr. Bennet, are you feeling okay? You look quite pale suddenly.”
Lance shook his head, the tightness in his chest growing to a dangerous swirl of hurt for his brother and growing anger towards Kogane.
“I think I just need to return to Mr. Collins’ house,” Lance stated as calmly as he could.
“I’ll walk you there?”
“No. Thank you. I can manage.”
“Okay,” Miss Allura agreed with a small curtsy. “Hopefully I will see you again soon at Rosings.”
Lance offered his own bow and then took off, away from the rest of the crowd spilling out of the church. He rushed into a wooded path and angrily stomped through the forest, only increasing his pace into a run when rain began to pour over him. He sprinted for the safety of the nearby Temple of Apollo and rested only when he could lean against its beautiful circular outer walls.
Unfortunately, the rain had not cooled his anger, and he was not alone long enough to calm when he startled as Kogane appeared next to him.
He glared at the other man, but Kogane didn’t notice, his own face twisted in what appeared to be agitation as he began to speak.
“Mr. Bennet, I have struggled in vain and I can bear it no longer. The past months have been a torment.”
Lance stared at him in bewilderment, his own anger momentarily forgotten. He always considered Mr. Kogane to be a person in control of his emotions, which didn’t match this distraught person in front of him.
“I came to Rosings with the single objective of seeing you. I had to see you.”
“Me?” Lance asked.
“I’ve fought against my better judgement, my family’s expectation,” Kogane continued, “the inferiority of your birth, my rank and circumstances... all of that but I'm willing to put it aside and ask you to end my agony...”
“... I don’t understand,” Lance finally said when it seemed that Kogane had nothing further to add to his rant.
“I love you,” Kogane stated simply. “Most ardently.”
Lance gaped at him in utter shock.
“Please do me the honor of accepting my hand.”
The confusion whirling through Lance was practically painful. He could hear his own voice shaking when he was finally able to speak.
“Sir, I appreciate the struggle you have been through and I am very sorry to have caused you pain. Believe me, it was unconsciously done.”
He couldn’t force his eyes upwards to meet Kogane’s face. Instead, he focused on the sound of the rain hitting the concrete and nearby forest as he stood still and quiet in front of the other man.
“Is this your reply?” Kogane’s voice had lost the frantic edge from before, but now his voice had a harder edge than even Lance was accustomed to.
“Are you laughing at me?”
The shock of the question got Lance’s head jerked up quickly to finally meet Kogane’s disgruntled expression.
“Are you rejecting me?”
“I’m sure the objections you described, which hindered your feelings for me, will help you in overcoming the rejection.”
Kogane suddenly looked as though Lance had slapped him across the face. Lance let his eyes drop to the ground again. There was a long moment of silence before Kogane spoke again.
“Might I ask why I'm being rejected with so little attempt at civility?”
“I might ask why you decided to insult me while telling me you like me against you will!”
“No, I didn’t mean —”
“That could be reason enough but you know I have other reasons!”
The hand Kogane had been running through his hair fell to his side. “What reasons?”
“Do you think anything might tempt me to accept the man who has ruined the happiness of a most beloved brother?”
The flash of realization and guilt on Kogane’s face told Lance he knew exactly what Lance was talking about.
“Do you deny it, Mr. Kogane? That you separated a young couple who loved each other?”
“I do not deny it.”
“How could you?”
“Because I believed your brother indifferent to Shiro.”
“I watched them carefully at the Netherfield ball and it was clear that Shiro’s feelings ran much deeper.”
“That’s because Adam’s shy!” Lance insisted.
“Shiro can also be shy but he was persuaded that Adam did not feel the same for him.”
“Because you suggested it!”
“I did it for his own good!” Keith argued. He ran a hand through his hair again and Lance was distracted for a moment, upset that all the hair just naturally fell back into place even though it was damp from the rain. “I wasn’t going to stand by and watch him get his heart broken. I was kinder to him than I am to myself,” he muttered.
That part stung, Lance had to admit, though he wasn’t sure if it was because Kogane obviously hated that he even liked Lance or because Lance didn't like the mental picture of a heartbroken Keith. He told his traitorous heart that it was the first reason.
He decided to push, sure that there was more to Kogane separating Shiro from Adam than what he was saying.
“I suppose you suspect that his... fortune had some bearing on the manner.”
“No, I would not do your brother the dishonor,” Kogane stated. “Though, it was suggested...”
“What was?” Lance demanded when Kogane only stared out towards the forest instead of finishing his thought.
Keith turned back to him and only hesitated another moment before speaking again, “It was made perfectly clear that an... advantageous marriage —”
“Did my brother give that impression?”
“No! There was, however, I have to admit... the matter of your family.”
“Mr. Shirogane didn’t seem to vex himself about our family,” Lance fumed.
“It pains me to say this, but there was a lack of propriety shown by your mother, your younger siblings, even your father on certain occasions.”
Lance sucked in a breath as the embarrassment he’d experienced during the Netherfield ball hit him hot once again.
“Forgive me,” Kogane said with a deep sigh. “You and your elder brother I must exclude from this.”
Lance crossed his arms tight across his chest and turned to stare at the beautiful surroundings. He was still slightly soaked from the rain and was sure it was only the heat from his righteous anger that was keeping any shivering at bay.
“And what about Mr. Griffin?” Lance inquired, voice much quieter and calmer than it had been a few moments before.
Mr. Kogane’s voice, however, was sharp as he replied, “Mr. Griffin?”
“Yes.” His voice only wavered on that one word before he continued strongly. “What excuse can you give for your behavior towards him?”
Kogane closed the distance between them, brows deeply furrowed. “You take a great interest in that gentleman's concerns,” he hissed.
“He told me of his misfortunes,” Lance insisted.
“Oh, yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.”
Lance frowned. “You ruined his chances and yet you treat him with sarcasm?”
“So, this is your opinion of me,” Kogane huffed. “Thank you for explaining. “Perhaps these offenses might have been overlooked, had your pride not been injured —”
“— by my honesty in admitting scruples about our relationship. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your circumstance?”
Lance gasped, anger burning under his skin as his arms fell to his sides. He took a step even closer to Kogane, allowing him to be practically nose to nose as he furiously replied, “And those are the words of a gentleman! From the first moment I met you, your arrogance and conceit, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others, made me realize that you were the last man in the world I could ever be prevailed upon to marry!”
He was panting by the end of his tirade. The words had felt good to say, but now that they were out... From this close he could see that Keith’s eyes were practically purple — just unfairly pretty. And maybe he had been dense about Keith’s feelings before, but now he could see the want in Keith’s eyes as they traveled across Lance’s face. Lance’s own eyes dropped down to Keith’s lips and Keith tilted his head slightly, as if he was going to close the distance between their mouths.
Then Keith blinked and upon reopening his eyes his face was carefully blank.
“Forgive me, sir,” Keith said quietly, “for taking up so much of your time.”
Then he was backing away. Turning away. Walking away.
The sound of rain returned loudly to Lance’s ears and something heavy settled in his chest.
Lance returned to the Collins’ house soaked and was able to use the chill as an excuse to remain in bed for most of the next day.
He felt numb. Not the relief he’d experienced after turning down Mr. Collins’ proposal. There was also no pleasure in being able to tell Mr. Kogane exactly what he had thought of him.
It was afternoon before ventured out for a walk, giving Plax a poor excuse about why he should walk alone (he felt bad about leaving her behind, when he was here to visit with her, but he was surely going to be poor company today).
The woods in Kent had some very interesting trees, some of which were completely covered in vines, and he couldn’t decide if the vines would make them easier or harder to climb. The fresh air had just about cleared his thoughts when he heard a rustle on the path ahead of him. He froze when Kogane came into view. He wasn’t sure what his own face was doing, but Keith looked... sad. Lance’s chest felt rather heavy again.
“I thought I might find you walking,” Kogane finally said. “I brought this for you.” He stepped closer before offering Lance a letter.
Lance eyed it warily before raising his eyes back to Kogane’s face without taking it.
“It does not renew the sentiments which were so... disgusting to you before.”
Keith’s eyes were trained only on the letter, so he missed the way Lance’s entire face flinched with the statement.
“I would just like the opportunity to address the two offenses you laid against me.”
Gingerly, Lance accepted the letter.
“I’m leaving now for London,” Kogane added. “You won’t have to be concerned about seeing me again at Rosings.”
Lance shook his head, unsure even as his head moved about what he was trying to convey.
“Safe travels, Mr. Bennet,” Kogane said quickly, face carefully neutral before he turned quickly and marched away in the opposite direction.
Lance stared after him until he was out of sight before slowly turning around to head back the way he had come. He tore open the letter and began to read, Keith’s gravelly voice filling his head as he did so.
Dear Mr. Bennet,
I had not long been in Hertfordshire before it was clear to me that a marriage was expected between Shiro and your brother. Given that they had only recently met, I began to watch them closely. While it was clear that Shiro was quite partial to your brother, I did not see the same regard returned from your brother towards Shiro. I did find your brother cheerful and engaging, but I was also quite certain that Shiro was going to be soon heartbroken.
Therefore, Lotor and I convinced him that we should return to London immediately. You may believe my motives to be insufficient, and I am sorry for wounding your brother. But I believed I was protecting Shiro and that your brother would not suffer pain from our departure.
For these same reasons, I hid from Shiro that your brother was in London this past winter.
At that, Lance stopped walking and glared down at the impressively neat handwriting. “Insufferable man,” he growled. No wonder Adam never wrote to say that he had seen Shiro...
As for the other, more serious accusation regarding Mr. Griffin. Griffin and I grew up together. I was an only child for a long time and my father loved Griffin for being a close friend to me. As such, he provided Griffin a valuable living. But upon my dear father’s death, Griffin told me he had no intention of becoming a clergyman. He demanded, and was given, the value of the living instead. Then he promptly left Pemberley and I heard through acquaintances that he had sunk into a life of idleness and gambling. He wrote only to demand more money, which I refused, and he severed all contact.
But, last summer, Griffin appeared, as if by design, during my sister’s travels with her governess and declared passionate love for her. He had even convinced her to elope with him. She was but fifteen years old.
Luckily, I met up with my sister the day before the planned elopement and she confessed everything to me. Griffin’s main goal was her thirty thousand pounds, but revenge upon me would’ve been an added incentive. I was lucky to convince my sister to cancel the elopement, and upon seeing me, Griffin left angrily.
I do not know what lies Griffin has told you about me, but I can assure you that what I have written here is the truth. My cousin, Allura, has been most devoted in helping my sister recover from her heartache, and she can account for the honesty of this letter. For my sister’s protection, we have not shared this information with anyone else.
Lance's hand tightened around the letter in shock. He would feel comfortable enough to ask Allura if he truly needed proof, but, instinctively, he knew Keith's words to be true. His heart hurt for the heartache that must’ve befallen Keith’s younger sister and vowed to himself that he would keep this secret for her sake.
“Lance, are you alright?”
Lance’s head jerked towards Plaxum as he hid the letter quickly behind his back. Apparently, he’d managed to walk all the way back to the Collins’ garden.
Plaxum was still worriedly peering at him.
“I hardly know,” he said, voice weak.
Plaxum ushered him inside and sat him in her parlor before calling for tea. He had to wait until he was alone in bed that evening to pull the letter out of his pocket to read the closing:
P.S. As we shall never meet again, I wish you all the happiness for the future
He wished for the return of the numbness from that morning.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Lance,” his mama stated upon his first steps into Longbourn. “Your cousin Hunk and Mrs. Garret just arrived with Adam from London.”
“How is Adam?” Lance asked.
His mother only shook her head and offered a sad smile. “He’s in the drawing room.”
Lance rushed there and hugged Adam tight before he sat down with him, grateful that the rest of their siblings appeared to be busy elsewhere.
“I’m quite over him, Lance,” Adam stated plainly, even though Lance hadn't planned on broaching the subject of Shiro yet, if at all. “If he passed me in the street, I'd hardly notice. London is so entertaining.”
Lance tried not to scoff. “Adam,” he said quietly.
Adam shook his head. “It's true,” he insisted. He ran his hand along the back of their couch before trying to change the subject. “What news from Kent?”
Lance stilled but forced himself to exhale in the next moment and shake his own head. “Nothing. At least not much to entertain.”
Lance tried to smile just as they were interrupted by screaming.
“Lance!” Matt yelled as he entered the drawing room. “Tell her!” He pointed to Nyma who skipped in behind him.
“Matt, please stop making such a fuss,” their mother said as she followed them in and took a seat in her chair.
But Matt was practically sobbing, face red and tears on his face. Lance sat upright, immediately alarmed.
“Why didn’t she ask me as well?” Matt asked.
“She probably can’t afford it,” their mother insisted.
“Because I'm better company,” Nyma proclaimed. The wide smile on her face had Lance narrowing his eyes at her, considering how upset Matt was. Nyma patted Matt’s shoulder condescendingly and Matt slapped her hand away.
“Matt, what is the matter?” Lance asked.
“I’ve just as much right as Nyma!” Matt declared.
“If only I could go to Brighton,” their mother added.
“And also,” Matt continued, “because I'm two years older!”
Finally, Adam leaned over to Lance, “Nyma’s been invited to go to Brighton with the Forsters.”
“A little sea-bathing would set me up very nicely!” their mother declared.
Nyma skipped around the room. “I shall dance with the officers every night!”
“Please, papa, don't let her go.”
The confusion on his father’s face was clear. He shifted in his seat and avoided Lance’s eyes as he said, “Nyma will always be difficult until she's exposed herself... in some public place... And we can never expect her to do it with so little inconvenience, as under present circumstances here in Hertfordshire.”
Lance pressed his palms to his father’s desk in order to lean in, “If you, dear father, do not take the trouble to check her... she will be fixed forever as the silliest and most determined flirt... who ever made her family ridiculous! And Matt will follow, as he always does.”
“Lance, we shall have no peace until she goes,” his father sighed.
“Peace? Is that really all you care about?”
His father shifted in his seat again, clearly uncomfortable. “Colonel Forster is a sensible man. He will keep her out of any real mischief. And she's far too poor to be an object of prey to anyone.”
“Father, it's dangerous.”
“I am certain... the officers will find people better worth their while. Let us hope, in fact, that her stay in Brighton... will teach her, her own insignificance. At any rate, she can hardly grow any worse. If she does... we'd be obliged to lock her up for the rest of her life.”
Lance stormed out. It was no wonder their family was treated with contempt.
“Shay and I are about to travel through the Peak District, Lance,” Hunk said with a smile. “We’d love to have you join us.”
“There won’t be any soldiers around, but the scenery is beautiful,” Shay added.
“The glories of nature. What are men compared to rocks and mountains,” Pidge murmured.
That evening, in the darkness of their room, Lance quietly admitted to Adam that he saw Mr. Kogane while he was in Kent.
“Why did you not tell me?”
Lance wasn’t sure how to respond. He’d never felt so alone in the presence of his brother. He felt a tear roll down his cheek.
“Did he mention Mr. Shirogane?” Adam queried quietly.
“No,” Lance whispered.
“Oh, what are men compared to rocks and mountains,” Hunk said with a silly grin before taking a bite out of his apple.
“Or carriages that work,” Shay laughed, tossing Lance an apple where he sat perched on a nearby tree trunk while they waited for their broken wheel to be repaired.
Lance laughed as well, grateful to be in the company of two of his favorite people. “Where are we anyway?” he asked — not that it mattered. He was miles away from the stress of worrying about Nyma being let loose on a camp full of officers.
“I think we’re quite close to Pemberley,” Shay replied.
Lance stilled where he sat. “Mr. Kogane’s estate?”
“Yeah, that’s his name!” Hunk said. “I’d love to go see it. Shay’s father often mentioned that Pemberley has an impressive lake for fishing.”
“Let’s not,” Lance rushed to say.
Hunk and Shay sent him twin questioning glances.
“Let's just not. He’s so — He’s so —”
Hunk laughed. “So what?”
“He’s so rich.”
Hunk’s laughter only grew louder as he pushed himself to his feet when the coachmen signaled their carriage was repaired. “What a snob you’ve become, Lance.” He offered Shay a hand and lifted her easily to her own feet. “Poor guy can’t help it.”
“It's located right next to Lambton, where I grew up. I always wanted to tour the great house,” Shay disclosed quietly.
Lance pursed his lips, but offered Shay a small smile, silently conceding to her.
“He won’t be there anyway,” Hunk offered. “These rich men are never at home.”
Lance climbed into the carriage after the pair and hoped Hunk was right.
The sound Lance released upon first setting eyes upon Pemberley was some mix of a broken laugh and a sorrowful whimper.
“It is grand,” Shay whispered from beside him.
“Imagine living in a manor such as this,” Hunk added, his own tone reverent.
Lance repeated the broken-laugh-sorrowful-whimper noise.
Hunk landed a heavy hand on Lance’s shoulder and shook him a bit. “I agree, it's hard to imagine.”
When the housekeeper assured them that Mr. Kogane was not at home, Lance took his first steps into the grand entryway and was immediately lost in admiration as they traveled through multiple rooms. They toured a breath-taking library and passed an unbelievably lavish staircase.
In the gallery, he paused at a bust made in Keith’s likeness and, just for a moment, let the sadness and small twinges of regret he’d been trying to ignore wash over him — even though the bust’s blank eyes didn’t hold the same mournful disappointment that Keith had expressed when Lance had last seen him.
“And this is Mr. Kogane,” the housekeeper stated as she appeared next to him.
“Quite handsome,” Shay praised. “Does it look like him, Lance?”
“Oh, does this young man know Mr. Kogane?”
“A little,” Lance replied with a nod to their tour guide.
“And is he not handsome?”
Lance’s gaze returned to the small sculpture in front of them. “Yes, I daresay he is,” he said quietly.
“And over here is a portrait of his sister,” the housekeeper offered.
“Oh, I've heard she’s quite lovely,” Shay said.
“Yes, she plays and sings all day.”
Lance remained where he stood, even as he was aware that the others were moving on to look at the next portrait. He marveled at the way the sculptor was able to replicate Keith’s hair, his expressive eyebrows, the fine slope of his nose, the unique shape of his large eyes.
“Is his sister at home?” Lance asked. When only silence answered him, he turned and found the room empty. With a sigh and one more glance at Keith’s sculptured face, he turned away and wandered down the next hall, listening for his cousin's voice.
It wasn’t Hunk’s booming voice that caught his attention, however, but the pleasing notes of a piano. He followed the music until he came to a slightly open doorway, giving him a view of a young woman at the piano, her back to him as she played. The melody was familiar, something Pidge often played at home, giving him his first bout of homesickness since he left.
He turned his attention to the rest of the room and immediately marveled at the lavish, gilded furniture, floor to ceiling windows, and dozens of Baroque paintings. It was spectacular. A stark contrast to the garish rooms he’d been exposed to at Rosings Park.
The piano’s bench scraped suddenly across the ground, drawing Lance’s attention back to the girl as she pushed to her feet, long blond hair whipping to the side to keep up with her as she laughed and threw herself into the open arms of —
Lance audibly gasped at the sight of Keith Kogane in front of him, lifting his sister into a hug.
Keith’s head jerked in his direction and Lance barely made eye contact before he scrambled to duck out of sight and run to the first exit he could find.
He'd made it all the way to the edge of an outside terrace before he heard Keith call out his name. He forced himself to stop, taking a moment to suck in a breath before spinning in place to face Keith as he finally caught up to him. Keith looked surprised but, Lance noted, he didn't appear to be angry to find Lance in his home.
Lance fidgeted with his hands, sure that embarrassment colored his cheeks, as they stared at each other in pained silence.
“I thought you were in London,” Lance finally said.
Keith shook his head. “No. I'm not.”
“No.” Lance repeated.
Another painful silence passed before they both began to speak at the same time.
“We wouldn’t have come —”
“I came home a day early —”
“I’m so terribly sorry.”
“I had some business to attend to here.”
Lance could only meet Keith’s eyes for a few seconds at a time. There was a strong emotion in those indigo eyes that he couldn’t quite place.
“I’m visiting Derbyshire with my cousin and his wife,” Lance finally offered.
“Oh,” Keith said on an exhale. “And... are you having a pleasant trip?”
“Very pleasant,” Lance said with a nod, still finding it difficult to meet Keith’s eyes fully. “Tomorrow we go to Matlock.”
Keith’s startled tone earned Lance’s eyes on his face as he tried to determine what had Keith so quickly vexed.
“Are you staying at Lambton?” Keith asked.
Lance nodded. “Yes, at the Rose and Crown.”
Keith nodded as well, eyes traveling to the ground as if he were deep in thought. Lance tried not to grimace — Shay had said Lambton only had the one inn, Keith likely knew where they were staying without him pointlessly announcing it.
“What do you think of Pemberley?” Keith asked suddenly, head nodding back towards the manor behind him — as if Lance could miss it. His eyes searched Lance’s face as he waited for a response.
Lance’s eyes widened in surprise at the abrupt query, but only for a moment. His face subconsciously relaxed as his eyes traveled over the pretty manor and the expertly landscaped lawns.
“It’s beautiful,” he sighed with a relaxed smile. “Really, Mr. Kogane —”
“Keith,” the other interrupted quietly.
Lance paused and met his eyes for another moment. “It's a lovely home, Keith.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“I'm not sure there's anyone who could think otherwise.”
“But your good opinion is rarely given,” Keith said, a hint of smile at the corner of his mouth. “And more worth the earning.”
Guilt hit Lance again; he didn’t deserve such praise or the appearance of that rare pretty smile.
“I’m so sorry to intrude,” he rushed to say.
Keith swiftly shook his head, mouth dropping open as if to say something, although Lance didn’t give him a chance.
“They said the home was open to visitors. I had no idea...” He shook his head and bowed quickly before turning to walk away.
“Can I see you back to the village?” Keith hurriedly asked.
“No!” Lance blurted out before pausing to collect himself. He sent Keith an apologetic smile. “I’m very fond of walking.”
“Yes,” Keith acknowledged with a small sound that could’ve been a laugh. “Yes, I know.”
Lance bowed again and turned away to begin the trek back to Lambton.
He made it all the way into the Rose and Crown’s noisy dining hall before he realized that Hunk and Shay had likely been worried about him when he’d gone missing earlier. Thankfully, he spotted them immediately at a table, but he ducked behind a curtain when he spotted Keith standing at their table, speaking directly to the pair.
Lance offered a strained smile to a bar maid who gave him an odd look for his hiding spot but refused to budge until Keith not only moved on from their table, but also left the hall altogether.
“I told you he walked back,” Hunk said to Shay as Lance slid into his seat at the table.
“I can't blame you,” Shay said. “It is a beautiful countryside. I dearly miss it when we’re in London. Oh! Lance, Mr. Kogane was just here. He said he’d seen you earlier. He was so friendly! Wasn’t he friendly, Hunk?”
“Very friendly. He invited us to dine with him at Pemberley tomorrow,” Hunk said. “You don’t mind staying in Lambton another day, do you?”
“He wants you to meet his sister.”
Lance enjoyed the small thrill that danced up his spine as he realized that Keith’s strange reaction to Lance’s mention of Matlock was because Keith had been disappointed to learn that Lance was leaving Lambton so soon. Enough that he had sought out his cousin (a stranger to Keith!) in order to personally invite them back to Pemberley.
Plus, Keith wanted Lance to meet his sister, which was very much A Big Deal. Although, he did wonder why Keith would want to make the introduction considering Lance’s refusal of his proposal.
“I have no idea why he’d want to introduce me to his sister,” Lance breathed.
“Really? No idea?” Shay asked, expression coy.
As they were led back into the lavish Pemberley drawing room that Lance had so admired the day before, beautiful piano music drew them in. And just like yesterday, the bench scraped the ground as it was pushed backwards so that Keith’s younger sister could rush to meet them, Keith on her heels, trying his best to keep up with her.
“My sister, Romelle,” Keith said, a proud smile lining his face.
Romelle had barely rose from her curtsy in greeting before she was speaking. “My brother has told me so much about you. I feel as though we are friends already.”
Lance was ready to agree with her statement upon those first few seconds of their introduction. With her excitement, easy smile, and large eyes that matched her brother’s, he was already inclined to think her a sweet and friendly girl. Lance felt a familiar comfort around her, similar to his own siblings or even Plaxum.
Her appearance also had Lance thinking back to Keith’s letter — to Griffin trying to seduce this young girl into marriage for her fortune — Romelle appeared even younger than Nyma!
“That is a beautiful instrument,” Lance complimented.
Romelle’s face brightened. “Thank you! My brother gave it to me.” She turned to beam at Keith. “He shouldn’t have.”
“Yes, I should,” Keith replied quickly.
“Oh, all right.” One of Romelle’s shoulders rose cheekily as she grinned back at Lance. He found he couldn’t help mirroring her mirth with his own grin.
“Easily persuaded, is she not?”
Lance fought back a smile as he watched Pemberley Keith tease his sister.
“Your unfortunate brother once had to put up with my playing for an entire evening,” Lance told Romelle.
Romelle’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “But he says you play so well!”
A blush immediately filled Keith’s cheeks and Lance begged his own face not to do the same at the sight of it.
“Then he has perjured himself quite profoundly,” Lance said with a laugh.
“No, I said quite well,” Keith haltingly explained.
“Oh, well quite well is not very well. I'm satisfied.”
Lance bit his lip as he met Keith’s fairly fond gaze with one of his own.
The moment was only broken when a gentle sway from Romelle captured Keith’s attention. Lance caught the playful side eye and smirk she sent her big brother.
“Mr. Garret, are you interested in fishing?” Keith asked suddenly.
Lance shifted to the side so that Keith could speak more directly to Hunk. He sent Hunk and Shay a slightly embarrassed grin in apology for completely forgetting that they were even in the room.
“I have a well-stocked lake,” Keith continued, “and its occupants have been left in peace for far too long. Maybe after lunch, you would like to ...?”
“I’d love to,” Hunk beamed.
Shay sent another purposefully coy look in Lance’s direction.
“It is so beautiful here,” Lance said, practically shoulder to shoulder with Keith on a small hill that overlooked the lake where Hunk and Shay could be seen laughing along the shoreline. “Thank you for being such a gracious host. I’m sure my cousin will speak of nothing else for days, especially considering the two fish he caught.”
“He would’ve caught more if someone remembered to be quiet while fishing.”
“Hey!” Lance bumping his shoulder into Keith’s would be a move that would leave Adam feeling scandalized. Lance did it anyway and earned a small half smile from Keith. “I was sharing useful fishing techniques.”
“And yet you forgot to mention the remain quiet so you don’t scare the fish away rule,” Keith said dryly.
Lance chuckled and let his smile spread wide across his face. “I will be sorry to leave Pemberley.”
“I could offer another invite?” Keith’s voice was quiet, hesitant, but he still searched Lance’s face for an answer rather than shy away from his possible response.
“I don't think you’d have any trouble persuading my cousin to return for another visit,” Lance replied softly. “And Shay actually grew up in Lambton —”
“Really?” Keith asked, gaze darting over to Shay, she was currently reeling in her own fish, with Hunk cheering next to her.
“You don’t recognize her at all, though, do you?”
Keith expression turned sheepish as he lightly shrugged. “We may have met as children. I used to escape into Lambton to avoid my studies.”
Lance huffed a laugh at the image of tiny Keith avoiding his duties.
“I was often too shy to speak to the children I'd see in Lambton,” Keith confessed.
His eyes returned to Lance’s and Lance offered only an understanding nod and a small smile, which Keith met with a relieved look on his own face.
“I’m sure Shay would like the opportunity to remain in the village for another day...”
“For Shay, then,” Keith offered with a cheeky grin, “I’ll invite your traveling party for another afternoon at Pemberley tomorrow.”
“For Shay, perhaps we will accept,” Lance teased in return.
The setting sun glittered over the ripples in the lake and was delightfully warm on his skin, but it wasn’t the cause of the heat threatening to overtake Lance’s chest. He let himself bask in both.
“Lance,” Keith said quietly, voiced as a question.
Lance turned his attention to him, but Keith was keeping his eyes trained on the lake ahead of them.
“If you had met me here first...” Keith began.
Lance waited, but Keith seemed to either stall out or regret speaking in the first place, because nothing further was forthcoming; his eyes remained pinned on the lake.
Still, Lance knew what he was asking.
“If I met you here first?” Lance spread his arms over the beautifully landscaped lawns, glittering lake, and impressive manor. He kept his voice coy, doing his best to keep Keith from regretting asking in the first place, from retreating to the colder man Lance had first met. “I’d totally swoon.”
The huff of laughter Keith released was the perfect sound. His smile grateful and pleased.
“I’ll request the carriage to return you to the Rose and Crown,” Keith commented pleasantly. “If Mr. And Mrs. Garrett would like to return tomorrow, I could have the carriage pick you up at noon?”
“Romelle will be quite excited.”
Lance hadn't even finished buttoning his waistcoat before he left his room and headed downstairs to the Rose and Crown’s drawing room. There was no reason for the rush, he still had at least half an hour to wait before Keith was due to pick them up, but he had hopes that maybe Keith would be early.
He was tugging at his cravat, thankful that he had a lightweight silk option since the temperature was only going to get warmer throughout the day, when a maid entered the room and handed him two letters.
“Thank you,” he said with a smile as he accepted them. He'd wondered why he hadn’t heard from Adam prior to this and he could tell immediately that his brother’s poor handwriting was likely the reason. He sat down to read, grateful for the distraction while he waited for Keith.
After tearing through both letters, he was no longer feeling grateful for the distraction.
“Mr. Lance,” Keith greeted as he stepped into the room, although he faltered a moment later when he saw Lance wipe at his eyes. And when Lance sniffled, he rushed to sit in the chair across from him. “What’s wrong?” Keith implored, eyes wide, “Are you ill?”
“No, I am quite well,” Lance said even as he continued to sniffle. He stuffed both letters into his pocket. “But I need to find Hunk. We'll need to leave for Longbourn immediately.”
“Excuse me,” Keith called loudly over his shoulder.
When the maid from earlier peeked her head into the room, Keith quickly asked her to find Mr. Garret.
“Here,” Keith offered, pouring Lance a glass of water. He watched Lance gulp the water before asking, “You’ve received bad news? Is someone in your family ill?”
Keith was being so kind, but the last thing Lance wanted to do was tell him about the contents in his letters from Adam. Once Keith knew... Lance would surely never see him again.
“No,” Lance whispered. “They’re all quite well.”
He didn’t even realize that his hands were fidgeting in his lap until one of Keith's hands covered them both. Keith’s thumb began to rub back and forth on the back of his hand, and that act of kindness had Lance’s eyes threatening to fill again.
“Lance?” Keith whispered, head tilting as he tried to capture Lance’s gaze.
“It’s the most dreadful news,” he finally confided, deciding on the spot that he at least owed Keith the reason for his upcoming sudden departure. “Nyma has... run away. With Mr. Griffin.” He watched as Keith’s expression grew pained. “They left together from Brighton to Lord knows where. She has no money, no connections. She could be lost forever.”
“What’s being done?” Keith implored.
“My father has gone to London to search for her. But he hates London. He doesn’t know the area at all. What can he hope to accomplish?” Lance wiped at his eyes again, but left his other hand safely enclosed under Keith’s.
“This is my fault,” Keith concluded quietly.
“No.” Lance shook his head. “I should’ve shared what I knew with my siblings, especially before Nyma left for Brighton.”
“This is grave, indeed. I wish there was something I could say to make this better.”
Over the next few harrowing weeks, Lance would often think back to this moment right here. He'd think of the way Keith sat huddled with him, making him feel like they were the only two people in the world. Of the way Keith had kept Lance’s hand tucked safely within his own. His quiet voice. His sincere eyes.
Of how his free hand had reached up to wipe away a tear from Lance’s cheek.
He’d think of these moments because what came next was a constant mixture of despair and anger and worry for and towards Nyma.
As well as heartbreak. Because he was sure that he would never see Keith again. This scandal was going to devastate the Bennet family’s ability to move in respectable social circles.
Hunk and Shay had rushed Lance home before they returned to London so that Hunk could help Mr. Bennet navigate the city.
Lance wished he could’ve been more useful in London as well, instead of home trying to constantly console their bed-ridden mother.
“Why did the Forsters let her out of their sight?” she was currently sobbing. “I always said they were unfit to take charge of her.”
“Now she’s ruined,” Pidge murmured.
“You are all ruined!” their mother exclaimed. “Who would marry any of you with a fallen sister?” Adam tried to offer their mother a new handkerchief. Lance just turned away to stare out the window. “Poor Mr. Bennet will now have to fight the perfidious Griffin... and then be killed!”
“He hasn't found him yet, Mama,” Lance offered, but only because Adam was sending him say something eyes.
“And then Mr. Collins will turn us out of the house before he's cold in his grave! Nyma must know what this must be doing to my nerves. Such flutterings and spasms all over me. My baby Nyma. How could she do such a thing to her poor mama?”
Because she does not know who she’s dealing with Lance thought as his gaze returned to the rose garden that sat outside his mother’s window. He felt guilty all over again for not telling Nyma about Griffin’s true character when he knew she would likely see him during her stay in Brighton.
“Are you sure we can't go out to see a show tonight, my dear?” Nyma asked as she sprawled across the bed in their small inn bedroom.
“Uh, no, not yet,” Griffin replied from where he worked at the desk. “I have some business to take care of. These things always take longer than one expects.”
Nyma sauntered over to him and let her hands slide over his shoulders before leaning over his back and ducking her face next to his. “I can't wait to see my siblings’ faces when I return with such a handsome husband. I hope we can get married at Longbourn. Matt will have to be my attendant.”
Griffin shuffled his papers, mostly debts from local vendors that he didn’t want Nyma to see.
Nyma pushed herself off his shoulders and sauntered away to sit in their small window seat. “It makes me laugh to think that I've done something none of my siblings have managed! And I, the youngest of them all!”
Griffin tried to keep his aggravated sigh at her ongoing speeches to himself. A dowry from her wasn’t a guaranteed thing yet.
“Oh! What is he doing here?” Nyma gasped, staring down towards the street out their window.
Griffin spun in his seat, “Who?” he asked, alarmed.
Nyma laughed as she turned back to him. “You’ll never guess.”
“Who?” he demanded.
She frowned at his tone, but said, “Mr. Kogane.”
As much as Lance hated sitting at home just waiting for news, Adam tried to remind him (and their mother) that no news could mean good news.
The sentiment didn’t work on either of them but Lance (unlike their mama) at least tried to hide his pessimism from Adam.
And then it just so happened that a letter for their father arrived on the very same day that their father returned to Longbourn.
“Papa, there’s a letter!” Lance handed it over before his father was even descended fully from his carriage.
“Let me catch my breath,” their father replied, moving stiffly and looking slightly overwhelmed as not only Lance but also Adam, Matt, and Pidge surrounded him.
“It’s in Hunk’s writing,” Lance insisted.
Their father stopped in the front path and tore open the letter. Lance glanced to Adam and held his breath until their father finally spoke.
“Hunk has found them.”
“Are they married?” Matt asked.
“Wait. I can't make out his handwriting.”
Lance grunted impatiently and took the letter from his father’s hands.
“Are they married?” Matt repeated.
Lance skimmed over the beginning of the letter before speaking. “They will be, if father will send them one hundred pounds a year. That is Griffin’s condition.”
“A hundred pounds?” Matt asked, clearly astonished.
“You will agree to this, Father?” Lance asked.
“Of course, I'll agree. God knows how much your cousin must have laid on that wretched man.”
“What do you mean, Father?” Pidge asked.
“No man in his senses would marry Nyma under so slight a temptation as a hundred a year. Your cousin Hunk must have been very generous.”
He continued inside, Matt and Pidge following closely behind, but Lance hung back with Adam.
“Do you think it a large sum?” Adam asked.
“Griffin is a fool if he accepts less than ten thousand pounds.”
Adam gasped, “Ten thousand? Heaven forbid.”
“Nyma married!” Their mother exclaimed, practically running down the stairs as Lance and Adam rejoined the others inside. “And at sixteen, too! I must put on my things and go tell Lady Lucas, oh to see her face!”
“We should write to thank Hunk, Mama,” Lance reminded.
“And so he should help! He is much richer than us and has no children.”
“How can you say that?” Lance replied with a frown.
“A daughter, married!”
“Is that all you can think of? Do you know what Hunk must have had to do?”
“When you have five children to secure in marriage, Lance, tell me what else with occupy your thoughts, then perhaps you will understand.”
“You don’t know what he’s like,” Lance murmured quiet enough to not be overheard.
“Mrs. Griffin! Oh, how well that sounds.”
Lance stood back as their mother grabbed Matt's hand and dragged him back upstairs with her.
“Now, where will they live? Purvis Lodge could do. Ashworth could work, but it's too far off. I couldn’t bear to have Nyma ten miles away.” Her voice trailed off as they turned the corner upstairs.
Lance was happy to see his baby sister safe, but Nyma’s triumphant face as she climbed out of her and Griffin’s carriage was almost more than Lance could bear. He greeted her stiffly and sent Griffin a glare when the man attempted to greet him.
“We passed Sarah Sims in her carriage,” Nyma gushed to their mother as they walked inside, “so I took my glove off and let my hand rest on the carriage so that she might see the ring!”
Lance rolled his eyes at Adam and Pidge as they followed the rest of the family inside.
“You must all go to Brighton,” Nyma declared as she took a sip of wine while they ate dinner, “for that is the way to get married. I hope you have half my good luck.”
“Nyma!” Lance said, furious. He switched his water glass with her wine glass.
“I want to hear every little detail, Nyma dear,” their mother said.
“Oh, mama!” Nyma said, leaning over to show their mother her ring again.
“I’ve been enlisted in a regiment in the North of England, sir,” Griffin said to Mr. Bennet.
“Glad to hear it,” their father responded gruffly. It hadn’t escaped Lance’s attention that their father had not yet made eye contact with Griffin since his arrival.
“We’ll be near Newcastle,” Griffin continued. “We travel there next week.”
“Can I come and stay with you?” Matt asked Griffin.
“Absolutely not!” their father replied.
“Well, the morning of our wedding came,” Nyma continued from the other end of the table, “and I was in such in a fuss.”
“I don't want to hear,” Lance grumbled.
"There was Shay preaching and talking away... as if she was reading a sermon,” Nyma complained. “She was horrid unpleasant.”
“Can't you understand why?” Lance demanded.
“But I didn't hear a word,” Nyma continued, obviously not hearing a word from Lance, either, “because I was thinking of my dear Griffin. I longed to know whether he'd be married in his blue coat.”
“The North of England, I believe, boasts some spectacular scenery,” Pidge announced.
“But then Hunk was called away and I worried who would be our best man if he didn’t come back? Lucky he did come back or I would have had to ask Mr. Kogane, which I really didn't want to do”
Lance immediately perked up, “Mr. Kogane?”
“Oh, I forgot! I wasn't supposed to say anything!”
“Mr. Kogane was at your wedding?”
Nyma leaned in close to him and began to whisper. “He was the one that discovered us. He paid for the wedding, Griffin’s commission. Everything. But don't tell anyone. He told me not to tell.”
Lance stared at her, stunned. “Mr. Kogane?”
“Stop it, Lance! Mr. Kogane is not half as high and mighty as you sometimes.” Nyma switched their glasses back and took another sip of wine. “Matt, have you seen my ring?”
Keith was ushered into a beautiful London apartment where Shiro greeted him warmly. Keith’s face remained grim, however, as he sat down with Shiro and began to talk.
Shiro’s cheerful face slowly transformed into a dumbfounded expression.
“I hope that we can continue to be good friends now that we are brothers,” Griffin said with a charming smile when he found Lance in the garden.
Lance nodded stiffly as Griffin fell in step beside him.
“I heard from your cousin that you were recently in Derbyshire?” Griffin queried.
“And I thought I understood that you had seen Mr. Kogane while you were at Pemberley?”
“I did,” Lance said with his first real smile. “He introduced me to his sister.”
“And how did you like her?”
“I liked her very much,” Lance said with another warm smile.
“Well. I'm glad you liked her,” Griffin said, even if his tone betrayed the opposite. “She must have improved greatly since the last time I saw her. I remember her being quite a spoiled child.”
“She’s likely gotten over the most trying time,” Lance allowed, simply thinking of how Griffin was now married to someone who (in Lance’s opinion) had not matured past that trying time yet.
“Did you happen to go by the village of Kympton?” Griffin asked.
“I don’t think so?”
“I only ask because that was the living that I was supposed to have had from Kogane’s father. I think it would’ve suited me very well.”
“And how would you have liked making sermons?” Lance asked, voice friendly even as his eyes narrowed.
“I thought I heard that there was a time when sermon making was not something that interested you as it seems to interest you now.”
As they’d finally reached the front door of the house again, Lance offered a quick bow before saying, “Come, come, Mr. Griffin. Now that we are brothers, let us not quarrel over the past.”
Griffin’s flabbergasted expression gave Lance high hopes that Griffin would never seek pity from Lance with his stories ever again.
“Oh, my dear Nyma, when shall I see you again?” their mother asked, hugging Nyma tight as they all stood on the front steps to wish the Griffins goodbye.
“Oh, I don’t know. Not for at least two or three years,” Nyma shrugged.
“Two or three years! Mr. Bennet why must you be so cruel to not take us into the North Country?” When their father only sighed heavily in response, she turned back to Nyma. “Write to me often, my dear.”
“Married women never have much time for writing,” Nyma lectured, damn nose in the air again. “My siblings may write to me,” she laughed as she climbed into the carriage, “for they will have nothing better to do!”
Lance was maybe not heartbroken over Nyma’s departure, but he squeezed Matt’s shoulder in sympathy as Matt stood quietly watching his closest childhood playmate and best friend leave. He wondered what sort of young man Matt would become now without Nyma’s constant influence.
“Oh, there is nothing so bad as parting with one’s children,” their mama sniffled as the carriage drove away. Lance moved to her next and wrapped his long arms around her shoulders. “One seems so forlorn without them.”
“Did you hear, madame?” Mr. Hill asked their mother a few days later as they were shopping in Meryton. “Mr. Shirogane is returning to Netherfield.”
Lance quickly looked to Adam, who didn’t show much of a reaction other than a quiet interest in his eyes. It was only their mother who was outwardly thrilled and eager.
However, a split second later, she tampered her enthusiastic response into feigned disinterest as she shrugged and turned to speak directly to Pidge. “Not that I care about it. Mr. Shirogane is nothing to us. I’m sure I never want to see him again.”
Subtle, mama, Lance thought with a wry smirk.
His mother turned away and even began to walk as she continued, “No, we should not mention a word about it.”
In the very next moment, Lance, Adam, and Pidge stopped in their tracks when their mama halted and spun around again to address Mr. Hill behind them. “Is it for certain?”
“Yes, Mrs. Nichols is ordering a haunch of pork. They're expecting him tomorrow,” Mr. Hill shared.
“I don’t know why he thinks we care,” their mother announced as she turned to leave again. “Come along, children.”
Lance sent the very confused Mr. Hill a wave as they walked off. Then he landed a comforting hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed it a few times.
“It’s all right, Lance,” Adam waved him off. “Not that I'm afraid of myself, but I dread other people’s remarks.” Adam smiled bravely as he pushed himself to walk ahead of Lance and Pidge.
“He's here! He's here. He's at the door!” Matt announced as he ran into the parlor. “Mr. Shirogane!”
“Mr. Shirogane!” Their mother leapt from her seat. “Oh, my goodness! Everybody behave naturally. And whatever you do, do not appear overbearing!”
"Look, there's someone with him,” Matt murmured, face thoughtful as he continued to stare out one of the front windows.
“Mama!” Adam exclaimed, pulling at his shirt as if that would remove the wrinkles.
“Mr. What's-his-name," Matt continued. “The pompous one from before.”
Lance froze, breath caught in his throat at the implication of what Matt was saying hit him.
“Mr. Kogane!” their mother exclaimed. “The very insolence of it. What does he think of coming here? Keep still, Adam. Pidge, put that away at once. Find some useful employment. Oh, my Lord! I shall have a seizure, I'm sure I shall.”
“Matt, the mess!” Adam said, pointing to a side table.
Lance leapt back into action himself, helping Matt clear the table as he forced himself to continue breathing.
“Pidge, sit down at once! Pidge!”
Lance sat heavily in his chair, book open in his lap, just as Mrs. Hill opened the door.
“Mr. Shirogane and Mr. Kogane, ma’am,” she announced.
“Good day,” Shiro said with a bright smile as soon as he entered, Keith following him closely.
They had barely completed their bows before Lance’s mother began speaking.
“How very glad we are to see you, Mr. Shirogane,” she said quickly. “There's been a great many changes since you went away. Miss Lucas is married and settled. And one of my own daughters too. You will have seen it in the papers... though it was not put in as it ought to have been. Very short, nothing about her family.”
“Yes. Yes, I did hear of it. I offer my congratulations,” Shiro offered, face fully pink as he stood awkwardly, still just inside the door.
Lance’s eyes locked on Keith as his mother spoke. He was so sure that the last time they spoke would have been the last time they would ever see each other. It was almost painful to have him so close and yet feel so far away now, as Keith kept his eyes trained on Shiro.
“But it's hard to have my Nyma taken away from me. Mr. Griffin has been transferred to Newcastle, wherever that is. Thank goodness he has some friends.” She shot a glare in Keith’s direction and Lance died a little inside.
“Do you hope to stay long in the country, Mr. Shirogane?” Lance asked, determined to steer the conversation away from Nyma’s marriage. Keith was fully aware of it anyway, and maybe, if their mother stopped talking, Shiro and Keith would speak more than a few words.
Shiro offered him a small grateful smile before directing his smile towards Adam. “Just a few weeks, for the shooting.”
Lance watched Adam nod in acknowledgement before his gaze dropped away. Lance frowned a bit. He knew his brother had been hurt by Shiro’s departure, but he certainly wasn’t going to convince Shiro of his interest with this behavior.
He let his own gaze return to Keith and was immediately rewarded with Keith’s dark eyes already focused on him.
“When you have killed all your own birds, Mr. Shirogane,” their mother said, “I beg you will come here and shoot as many as you please.”
“Thank you —”
“Mr. Bennet will be vastly happy to oblige you... and will save all the best of the coveys for you.”
Lance couldn't bear the silence from a certain tall dark and handsome gentleman any longer. “Are you well, Mr. Kogane?”
“Quite well, thank you,” Keith stated, expression amiable.
This was the polite conversation of friendly acquaintances. Lance wanted more.
“I hope that the weather stays fine for your sport,” Lance added, feeling somewhat determined to keep those eyes on him.
“I return to London tomorrow.”
Lance stilled, eyes wide as he stared at Keith. “So soon?” he practically whispered.
Keith only ducked his eyes away. The miserable feeling Lance had just experienced when saying goodbye to Keith in Lambton returned to sit heavy on his chest again.
“My Adam looks well... does he not?” their mother asked.
Adam gazed serenely up at Shiro and Shiro seemed helpless but to smile fondly and nod. “He does indeed.” There was a slight pause in conversation as those two stared at each other before Shiro straightened his spine, pulled his shoulders back and said, “Well, we must be going, I think. Keith?” he signaled, turning to Keith before bowing to the rest of the room. “It's been very pleasant to see you all again. Mr. Lance, Mr. Bennet.”
"You must come again,” their mother called out, stalling Shiro’s suddenly frantic escape for a moment. “From when you were in town last fall... you promised to have a family dinner with us. I've not forgot, you see. At least three courses.”
Shiro bowed once more before he bolted for the door.
Keith, for his part, appeared just as startled as the rest of them, even as he stood solidly in place. He bowed to the room. “Excuse me.”
Lance’s mouth fell open, desperate to say something to prevent him from going, but Keith was out the door before he even had a chance to think of something.
The miserable feeling in his chest only felt heavier.
“Most extraordinary,” their mother voiced.
“We were going to walk in,” Shiro continued to rant to Keith as he paced around a field that sat out of view from Longbourn, “and she was going to say, 'sit down.'” Shiro groaned. “So, I feel... Oh, it's a disaster, isn't it?”
Keith offered a light shrug. He was trying to be a supportive friend, but he’d never actually seen such a disastrous attempt at a proposal before. And he had a rejected proposal in his pocket! (But at least he’d managed to say the words...)
Shiro marched up to him and bowed. “Mr. Bennet.”
Keith bowed as well, “Mr. Shirogane.”
Shiro backed away suddenly and began muttering to himself again.
Keith looked longingly back in the direction of Longbourn as he thought of blue eyes and a somewhat crestfallen expression when he’d had to leave so suddenly.
“I go in and I'll just say it,” Shiro declared.
“Yes. Exactly,” Keith encouraged.
Shiro groaned again.
“Well, I'm glad that’s over,” Adam sighed from his seat on the couch beside Lance. “At least now he and I can meet as indifferent acquaintances.”
“Oh, yes,” Lance mocked, knocking his fist into his brother’s shoulder. Lance didn't care what Adam said about being 'quite over' or 'indifferent' towards Shiro, not when he knew Adam still had the scarf Shiro had wrapped around his neck that cold day before the Netherfield ball tucked away under his pillow.
“No, you cannot think of me so weak as to be in danger of heartbreak now, Lance.”
“I think you're in great danger of making him as much in love with you as ever,” Lance teased, doing his best to lift his brother’s spirits, especially as he could hear his mother complaining to poor Pidge nearby about the awkward visit. “Did you see the way he was staring at you?”
“It didn’t seem to mean anything before,” Adam murmured. “I'm sorry, though, that he came with Mr. Kogane.”
Lance shook his head. “Don't say that,” he said with a thin voice.
Adam’s brow furrowed. “Why ever not?”
Lance sighed heavily, not sure why he had even kept so much from Adam on the subject. “Adam... I've been so blind.”
Adam’s confused expression turned worried with Lance’s wobbly voice. “What do you mean?”
Matt ran back into the room and darted back towards the front window. “Look, it's him! He's back. He's come again.”
Lance, Adam, Pidge, and their mother raced to the window as well, which is where they were caught as the drawing room door reopened and Shiro came striding in unannounced.
“I know this is all very untoward,” Shiro said, “but I would like to request the privilege... of speaking to Mr. Bennet. Alone.”
Their mother’s eyes could not be any wider as she began shooing them out of the room. “Everybody to the kitchen. Immediately. Except you, Adam dear. Of course.” She squeezed Adam’s hand and stopped on her way out to curtsy to Shiro. “Oh, Mr. Shirogane, it is so good to see you again so soon.”
Shiro waited until the door shut behind them before gently placing his hat on the nearby table and striding confidently across the room to where Adam stood beautiful in the sunlight.
“First, I must tell you. I have been the most unmitigated and comprehensive ass.”
He knelt down in front of Adam and Adam’s hand quickly covered his own mouth. Shiro felt near tears himself as he watched Adam’s eyes begin to shine.
“I would like to ask you to marry me, Adam.”
Adam sniffled as his hand fell away from his mouth and fear seized Shiro once more at the possibility that Adam may turn him away.
Instead, Adam’s response was a choked, “Yes, a thousand times yes.”
The door behind them burst open and Mrs. Bennet, Matt, and Pidge came crashing back in.
"Thank the Lord for that. I thought it would never happen!”
Adam felt like he was struggling to decide whether he should laugh or cry in happiness as his family hugged him. Although, he couldn’t help but notice that Lance had disappeared.
“He made me so happy, Lance,” Adam gushed. “Did you know he was totally ignorant of my being in London all winter?”
“How did he account for it?”
“He thought me indifferent to him!” Adam threw his hands in the air, the thought preposterous to him. “Lance, if I could only see you so happy,” he stated, tone a little more serious than it had been only a moment before.
Lance was sure it meant that Adam had caught his red-rimmed eyes when he’d rejoined the family for dinner. So far, however, Adam hadn't pressed him on the reason for his earlier crying. Knowing Adam, he was surely waiting for Lance to reveal it to him on his own time.
Lance didn’t want to take away from his brother’s momentous evening, however. So, he only shrugged and stuck his nose in the air before saying, “Perhaps Mr. Collins has a cousin.”
Adam fell over on his bed as he laughed and Lance smiled, truly happy for his brother.
“What is that?” he asked a moment later, though, when they heard carriage noises outside.
They met their entire family in the hallway, most carrying candlesticks for light, and began venturing down the stairs before loud banging began to sound on their front door.
“Lady Haggar,” Lance gasped as the elder woman was revealed when his father opened the door.
Lady Haggar barged inside and eyed Lance from head to toe as he and the rest of his family stood huddled in their dark entryway.
“These are your other children, I suppose?” Lady Haggar directed to his mother.
“Yes, your Ladyship.” His mother did her best to smile despite the surprise intrusion. “All but one, my youngest is lately married. And my eldest was proposed to just this afternoon.” Their mother sent Adam a proud smile and Adam smiled bashfully in return.
“Could I offer you a cup of tea —”
“Absolutely not,” Lady Haggar stated coarsely, interrupting their father. “I wish to speak to Mr. Lance Bennet. Alone.”
Lance could feel his family's bewildered stares in his direction, but he didn’t meet any of their gazes. He merely lifted an arm to direct Lady Haggar into their closest parlor and closed the door behind them. He lit an oil lamp and then stood waiting, refusing to offer her an immediate seat after the way she’d just spoken to his father.
“You can be at no loss, Mr. Bennet, to know why I am here.”
“You are mistaken,” Lance said, certain his face was doing a credible job expressing his confusion and uncertain how she could miss his expression. “I have no idea.”
“Mr. Bennet, I warn you, I am not to be trifled with,” she lectured. “A report of a most alarming nature reached me that you intend to be united with my nephew, Mr. Kogane.”
Lance’s mouth fell open in amazement that any such rumor could exist given his and Keith’s actual past.
“I know this to be a scandalous falsehood,” Lady Haggar continued, “though I did not wish to offend my nephew by assuming it possible —”
Lance began to frown, feeling the offense intended by her words.
“— I set off instantly to make my sentiments known.”
“If you thought it so impossible then I can't imagine why you would come all this way.”
“To hear you contradict it directly, Mr. Bennet.”
“Your coming here would rather be a confirmation, surely, if such a rumor exists,” Lance said coolly.
“If? Do you pretend to be ignorant of it? Has it not been industriously shared by yourself?”
“I have never heard of it,” Lance denied gruffly.
“And can you declare there is no foundation for it?”
“I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your Ladyship. You may ask a question which I may choose not to answer.”
Lady Haggar gasped. “This is not to be tolerated. Has my nephew made you an offer of marriage?” she demanded.
“Your Ladyship has declared it to be impossible,” Lance replied, crossing his arms tightly across his chest.
Lady Haggar glared at him. “Let me be understood. Mr. Kogane is engaged to my son. What have you to say to that?”
Lance’s eyes narrowed as Lotor and Keith’s past interactions flashed in his mind. Yes, Lotor was haughty and seemed slightly possessive around Keith, but Keith’s actions would never allow Lance to believe an engagement existed between those two.
“Only this, if that were true, then you have no reason to suppose that he’s made an offer of marriage to me.”
“Obstinate boy!” Lady Haggar fumed, feathers clearly ruffled. “Their union has been planned since their infancy. Do you think it can be prevented by a young man of inferior birth, of no importance in the world!”
“Mr. Kogane is a gentleman. I am a gentleman’s son. In that we are equal.”
“But who is your mother? Where is her family from? Oh, I know it all! Including that your own sister’s elopement resulted in a patched-up marriage only achieved at the expense of a rich cousin!”
Lance kept his chin up but inwardly cringed at the insult to his own dear mother and the fact that Lady Haggar knew about his family’s very near scandal with Nyma.
“Heaven and Earth. Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted by you next?”
Lance didn’t want anything this horrible woman said to stick to him, but she was certainly striking blows now.
“Tell me once and for all,” she demanded. “Are you engaged to him?”
His arms fell to his sides but he kept his back straight. “No. I am not,” he said quietly. He hated the relief he could see on her face.
“And will you promise to never enter into an engagement with him?”
“I will not.” His voice was still quiet, but he didn’t bother to hide the growl in his tone. “You have insulted me in every possible way and can now have nothing further to say. I must ask that you leave immediately.”
He turned and swung open the door, revealing his entire family still huddled on the other side.
“I have never been thus treated in my entire life!” Lady Haggar’s outraged tone shouted back at him as she passed by his family and retreated back out their front door.
“Lance?” his mother asked.
“Just a misunderstanding!” Lance announced as he quickly climbed the stairs.
When it was near dawn and Lance was still wide awake the next morning, he crept out of the house and went for a walk into the open countryside. Very soon grateful for the jacket he’d remembered to grab as the morning mist was cold against his face.
As the sun rose, and the mist began to thankfully evaporate, Lance caught movement in his peripheral. He was concerned only for a moment, wondering what stranger could be passing through their fields, but something about the way the man walked dismissed his concerns.
Plus, he’d recognize that pretty, black head of hair anywhere.
Keith strode towards him, pants tight, tall riding boots, shirt half-opened, overcoat completely unbuttoned. If he was bothered by the cold, he certainly didn’t show it. His hair was loose, framing his face perfectly. As he got closer, Lance noted that his beautiful ivory skin was paler than normal. There were dark smudges under those unique indigo eyes.
Lance blatantly stared, almost afraid that if he looked away Keith would disappear like some strange figment of his imagination.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Keith confessed quickly when he reached Lance, eyes scanning Lance’s face.
“Nor I,” Lance confessed, tugging his jacket in closer across his chest to keep away the cold air.
“My aunt arrived at Netherfield.”
“Yes,” Lance chuckled darkly, “she was here.”
“How can I ever make amends for such behavior?”
Lance swallowed and slowly shook his head. “After what you have done for Nyma, and likely Adam also, it is I who should be making amends.”
“You must know — surely you must know, it was all for you.”
A soothing wave rolled through Lance’s chest at Keith’s words, at the crystal-clear affection Keith shared with his expression.
Something in Lance’s expression must have been pleasing back to Keith, for his shoulders relaxed and his face softened further.
“My aunt’s comments had the opposite effect than the one she intended,” Keith admitted. “When she said you had refused to promise not to enter into an engagement with me...”
“Yes,” Lance said with a small huff of laughter, “because you know enough of my frankness to believe I'd abuse you to all your relatives if given a chance.”
“It gave me hope,” Keith confessed. He took a deep breath before saying, “If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes have not changed, but one word from you will silence me forever.”
Lance only stared back at Keith. He admired the way the rising sun’s rays made his hair shine in what was an otherwise still dreary mist-covered setting.
Encouraged, Keith took another step closer. “If, however, your feelings have changed, I would have to tell you — you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love... I love... I love you. And I never wish to be parted from you from this day forward.”
Another wave rolled across Lance’s chest with a burst of love and affection. He closed the distance between them so that he could take one of Keith’s hands between his own.
“Well then,” he said as he kissed the back of one of Keith's hands, glancing up only to catch Keith’s flushed cheeks and expression of awe and joy. “Looks like I’m swooning.”
Keith snorted even as he leaned his forehead to rest against Lance’s.
Keith entered their bedroom, sniffed the air, and then narrowed his eyes at Lance. “Where is it?”
“What, my love?”
Keith tried to bite back the smile the term of endearment always created. He walked over to their bed and began flipping pillows in all directions.
“Keith Darcy Kogane! Our pillows do not go on the floor, you heathen!” Lance scooped up the ones that had dropped and began tossing them back on the bed. “What are you looking for?”
Keith turned to him, having looked under all the pillows. “You hide lavender in here when you think I've had a rough day.”
“What, did I marry someone with a bloodhound nose?”
“'Tis one of my many virtues,” Keith deadpanned.
“Tomorrow we’re going to look up the word virtue for you.”
“Brat,” Keith said affectionately, wrapping an arm around Lance’s waist and pulling him to fall onto the bed with him.
Lance laughed as they fell and then snuggled into Keith’s chest. “You don’t like lavender?”
Keith slipped his hand under Lance’s sleep shirt and massaged his way up the smooth muscles in Lance's back, reveling in the way Lance always arched into his touch.
“I do. I can just never figure out where you’ve hidden it.”
Lance glanced up and smiled at his husband’s expression. What he used to think of as scowls were clearly pouts that needed to be kissed away. He pushed himself up on an elbow so he could reach Keith’s mouth and do just that.
“It's sweet,” Keith murmured between kisses, “that you know when I may have had frustrations in my day and set up our room to be comfortable for the evening.”
“Hold that thought,” Lance said, sitting up so he could return the pillows to their proper place and then nudge Keith until his head was on a pillow and they were nestled under the blanket.
When Lance was back in his arms, long toned body lined up snugly against his own, Keith ran his fingers through that soft brown hair.
“You know I only need you for this room to be comfortable, right?”
For it was a truth universally acknowledged that Mr. Keith Kogane was a much happier man now that he was wedded to Mr. Lance Bennet.
Lance sighed happily. “Swoonin,” he whispered before leaning up to kiss his husband again.