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First Impressions: A Modern Pride and Prejudice Adaptation

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“But, really,” said Mrs. Bennet rather loudly, placing her teacup back into the saucer with a loud clink. “I think that any young man with such an income should really be searching for a wife. What a waste of all that money if not spent on children and a wife.”

Mrs. Lucas nodded in agreement, reaching up one hand to touch the brim of her wide hat. One of the false chrysanthemums tucked into the wide band drooped sadly, its little floppy leaves reaching towards her shoulder.

Ever since she had strong armed her husband into taking a 23 And Me genetics test—and discovering he, and therefore their five daughters—were 88% English and Scottish, she had instituted biweekly afternoon tea in the smaller of the two sitting rooms of The Longbourn Inn. It didn’t matter if half the time the only people who showed up were her friends, or her sister.

Mrs. Lucas was the closest neighbor to the inn and more a friend of convenience, but their children had grown close over the years. “More tea, Eugenia?” Mrs. Lucas asked, picking up the pot and pouring into her cup.

On the opposite side of the room Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest, crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe. Still staring at the women laughing over their tea and gossip, Liz said, “They’re already plotting which of the summer crowd they’re going to set us up with,” recognizing the sound of approaching footsteps.

Jane smiled gently at her sister’s shoulder.

“If Mom was single, she’d probably go out with one of them herself. She just wants to be a cougar so bad.”

Lizzie,” Jane chided. “That’s not a very nice thing to say about Mom.”

Liz raised her eyebrows. “That doesn’t make it not true.”

The sitting room was directly down the hallway from the side entrance of the hotel, mostly used by regulars, staff, and the Bennet family, so when the sister heard it slam, it was easy to guess who was coming.

Lydia and Catherine clattered down the hallway, their heels tapping on the tiles, looking flushed and excited. There was a pair of binoculars around Lydia’s neck and her long, honey blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail that laced through the back of her baseball cap. Her eyeliner was slightly smudged. She snapped a piece of bubble gum and grinned.

“Where have you been all day? Spying on the neighbors?” Liz poked at the binoculars. “If you’re not careful, you’re going to get a restraining order for real this time.”

“That was one time!” Lydia stuck her tongue out. When Lydia was fourteen, she had almost been arrested sneaking in to see her boyfriend, despite his parents refusing the relationship and eventually barring her from the house. “And no, just some specific neighbors. Mom asked us to do some recon on the new renters ‘round the lake. That big house at the end of Netherfield Drive has been empty for two seasons, did you know that? They were asking way too much for summer price—but someone rented it out this summer! So, the new family’s got to be rich.”

“Maybe they dropped the asking price?” Jane suggested.

Lydia tossed her ponytail over her shoulder. “As if.”

Cat grinned wide, damp with sweat from sitting in a car all afternoon, with small tendrils of loose hair sticking to her forehead; she looked a little wild. “They looked rich.”

Jane sighed loudly. “Cat, you can’t tell that just from looking at people. Making assumptions is rude.”

Lydia snickered. “Tell that to the Tesla in their driveway.” She pushed past her sisters into the sitting room, waving her phone in the air. “Mom! We’re back!”

“Oh, Lydia, wonderful! Who did you see?”

Cat ran after her into the room. “You were right, Mom. Someone did rent that house. We saw two dudes walking around outside and it looked like they were talking about the house.”

“He’s so cute,” Lydia sighed as she fell into one of the empty chairs. “I tried to take a picture through the binocular but it didn’t work.” She held up her phone to show off a shaky image of two men standing by the front gate. One of them was taller, with dark hair, and the other was a little stockier with orangey colored hair. It was nearly impossible to make out the face of either man.

“Which one?” Liz asked, leaning over the edge of the chair. She could barely make out a single facial feature, the way the image was pixelated and blurred.

“The one who owns the Tesla, obvi.”

Liz shook her head but pulled the phone out of Lydia’s hand, curious despite herself. Jane stepped next to her to join. Liz thumbed through more of the pictures. The first clear image was of the two men standing next to what indeed appeared to be a Tesla. The dark haired one had his hands on his hips, wearing a white shirt. The redhead appeared to be gesticulating—even from the distance of the photo, she could see the grin on his face.

“Oh, let me see, girls!” Mrs. Bennet cried excitedly. Lydia plucked the phone back from Liz and passed it to their mother. She and Mrs. Lucas huddled together over the images. She clucked her tongue. “So far away. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to get a little closer soon.” Then she giggled like a 12-year-old. Cat leaned over the back of the couch, joining in on sighing over the pictures.

Liz turned her back and make a fake retching motion for Jane to see. Jane covered her mouth, half in humor and half in censure. “Lizzie, stop!” she admonished in a whisper so their mother would not hear.

“Lydia, excellent job, my love. These seem like perfectly lovely men. They must be invited to the start of summer party.”

“What about me?” Cat asked. “I drove us there…”

Mrs. Bennet’s eyes remained glued to the phone screen. “Yes, you too, Kitty.”

“Mo-om,” she groaned, lowering her forehead against the couch cushion, “don’t call me ‘Kitty’ anymore! I go by Cat now.”

Mrs. Bennet smiled vapidly and patted her daughter’s cheek. “You’ll always be my Kitty, baby.” Cat let out a yell, stifled somewhere in the back of her throat, and stomped out of the room. “Now, girls,” she continued, single minded, “we need to find out when they’ll be home and how many people will be staying there…”

~~~~

Like a dog with a bone, Liz thought glumly several mornings later, stirring her cereal and watching her mother whirl around the kitchen in a frenzy. Since seeing proof of the young men on Netherfield Drive, she had been planning the most effective way of inviting them to the large party the Bennets hosted at the start of every summer to kick off the tourist season.

The window above the sink was open and a very pleasant breeze blew around the curtains. Cat sneezed, loudly, several times in quick succession. “Cat will you please stop with your incessant sneezing? It’s impossible to think with that racket!”

Cat blew her nose on a napkin. “Sorry for my allergies. God!”

To fit a family of seven at a table all at once required a very large table. Both the dining room table—long—and the kitchen table—circular—could fit them all, with a little squeezing. Liz kept bumping into Jane, eating her eggs on one side, and Mary, highlighting lines out of a research article on photons on the other.

“Lydia, you should go. And perhaps Jane can come with you?” Mrs. Bennet tapped the back of her pen to her lips. “You are so outgoing, my dear, I am sure they will find you personable.”

Lydia slurped loudly on her offensively green smoothie. “Or something like that.”

“Now, what kind of cookies would be best to bring with you? Something more interesting than chocolate chip. We must make a good first impression.”

Mr. Bennet sighed, very loudly, from the other side of the table and folded his newspaper. “My dear, I am very sorry to spoil your plans, but I have a confession to make.”

Mrs. Bennet’s head shot up; she stared daggers at her husband. “Confess to what?”

“I have already made the acquaintance of the renters on Netherfield Drive. At least the men. Charles Bingley, the one who is actually renting the place, his brother-in-law Ned Hurst, and his friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. I had the excellent pleasure of meeting them last week down at the golf course.” As a general rule, Mr. Bennet did not enjoy the game of golf, but he had found over the years that it was very good for business if he could play. As such, he tried his best to make it to the course every fortnight or so, when the season was right.

He winced visibly at his wife’s shriek of pure delight. “Then they have been made aware of our open invitation?”

“Yes, yes they have.”

“What an excellent father you have, my dears,” she announced to her daughters as she rounded the table in order to peck her husband on the cheek.

He took the affection silently, making faces and wiggling his eyebrows at Liz all the while. She covered her grin with her hand. When Mrs. Bennet pulled back, he folded the newspaper crisply back and in place and said, “There, Cat. Now you can go back to sneezing,” before promptly quitting the room.

~~~~

When Mr. Bennet inherited the inn from his father one of his first moves as exclusive owner had been to move his personal office from the second floor to the first, into the room directly next to the library. It was considerably smaller, with fewer windows, but nothing would have made him more content. He had 11 years on Mrs. Bennet’s age and they had married after a whirlwind romance, despite the differences in personality. Perhaps in another life, where they did not have five children, with their so very different temperaments, personalities, and intelligences, they might have found reason to divorce. But as long as he had his solitude and she her lavish parties and gossipy brunches, they found a peaceful equilibrium for the household.

The family lived on the grounds, behind the hotel in a comfortable farmhouse-style home that had been built by his grandparents when they purchased The Longbourn—he could hardly complain about his morning commute. The Bennet family had owned The Longbourn for three generations. The original venture had been started with a partner. When the two men retired, they passed the business along to their sons, who had a falling out. By the time the present Mr. Bennet was born, the men had split their resources, leaving the Bennets with The Longbourn, and the Collins The Meryton Golf Course and Club. Mr. Bennet did his best not to think about the income that was lost on the club every time plumbing fixtures needed to be updated, kitchen appliances broke, or Mrs. Bennet had found a way to stick her nose in another home renovation magazine. They turned a tidy enough profit during the summer months, but it was all gobbled up by the off-season. And with three daughters in college at once, and Jane struggling to make a career… In some small part (some very small part) he was grateful that Lydia had been so adamant upon taking a gap year.

He mused on the differences of his children as he jangled his keys in one hand, on the way to his office to prepare the accounts for the beginning of the tourist season. Mr. Bennet had been surprised, but resigned, to each subsequent daughter born. Each of them quite mystified him in her own way, except perhaps for Liz. Jane was an unshakeable optimist, determined to see the best in every person she met. After her degree in political science, she was determined to find a job as a political aid in Washington; her eyes sparkled when she spoke of all the changes she was determined to make in the legislation. Mary was bright and her intensity dazzled them all. Her first love was miniature objects and tiny dollhouse décor. Her second was particle physics. But he had yet to interest her in a classic novel or a nice detective story, and their intelligences never quite meshed. Cat and Lydia were the most bemusing to him. Boys and make up and social media… And not three A’s to split between them on a report card. Cat was enrolled only part time in the local community college, but Lydia had whined and wheedled her way into a complete gap year.

At least Liz liked books. His second daughter he could understand. They could speak of plays and history or sit comfortably in silence and read. And even if she did prefer Lord of the Rings or The Brambling Chronicles to Tolstoy and Dickens, at least she listened to audiobooks when she went for her morning run.

As he was walking, he met a familiar figure. “Good morning, Charlotte.”

“Good morning, Mr. Bennet,” said Charlotte Lucas. “Is Lizzie in?”

“She is. I’m sure she’ll be happy for a reason to get out of the house.”

“Oh dear,” Charlotte muttered as she stepped away.

Although Charlotte had been in the same grade as Jane growing up, she and Liz had always been friendly. Their camaraderie was sealed when Charlotte was the captain of the high school cross country team Liz’s freshman year, Charlotte’s senior. While attending the local community college for business administration, she continued to assist the coach and Liz continued running.

She followed the path up to the house, the gravel crunching beneath her sneakers. When she knocked on the front door, it was wrenched open in a moment to reveal Cat. Her braided hair hung over one shoulder. “Hey, Charlotte,” she said in a casual voice, before turning to look over one shoulder and screaming, “LIZ! CHARLOTTE’S HERE!”

“Coming!” came Liz’s faint voice from the kitchen. After a few moments and a clatter of plates in the sink, Liz appeared in the doorway. Her long brown hair was put up in a tight ponytail high at the back of her head and she had soft bangs that came down slightly longer on the sides to frame her face. She was already in a tank top and athletic shorts and she grabbed a pair of sneakers from the towering pile of shoes by the side of the door. Charlotte was always a little impressed that Liz always seemed to find the right shoes on her first try.

“Ready to go?”

“Yep,” she said, tugging on the back of her left shoe till her heel popped into place. “Let’s get outta here.”

~~~~

Despite her short stature, Liz had always been an excellent runner. She kept stride with Charlotte all the way into town. Meryton was a resort town that sat along the edge of Hertford Lake. The lake itself was crescent shaped, the outward bulge being the town and the inward press made up of summer homes and rental houses of varying sizes, from comfortable to excessive. Netherfield Drive held only homes in the latter label, the largest sitting at the end of the dead-end road.

They stopped to rest in the park. Charlotte put one foot up on the edge of a bench and started stretching out her leg. Liz retied her ponytail and started to fill her friend in on the news. “So, aside from sending Lydia and Cat out to stalk them, she’s also planning on setting at least one of us up with them.” Liz took a deep drink from the water fountain and then added, “She’s being ridiculous.”

“Isn’t that always her modus operendi, though?”

“I mean, sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to complain about it! Besides, don’t you think she was going a little too far this time?”

Charlotte only shrugged. As an outsider, all of Mrs. Bennet’s antics looked more or less the same to her; she couldn’t tell the nuances Liz knew. Liz splashed some of the cool water on the back of her neck and they walked together the rest of the way to the Phillips’ Pharmacy, discussing summer plans.

Mrs. Bennet’s elder sister, a Mrs. Beatrice Phillips, also lived in Meryton. She and her husband owned the only pharmacy in the city limits. While it was stocked with normal drugstore goods and had a working pharmacy for prescriptions, it attempted to keep the charm of the resort town by stocking old style self-serve candy, an ice cream and malt counter, and freshly squeezed lemonade. Liz and Charlotte were after the lemonade that morning.

Although it was only the end of May, it was already sweltering outside. Liz could feel the hair sticking to her skin and she pushed her bags off her forehead. “We should have started out earlier in the morning,” she sighed as they stepped into the frigid air conditioning of the pharmacy. The little bell above the door tinkled gently. Liz stood still for a moment, her face pointed up towards the A/C unit.

“Good morning, Mrs. Phillips,” Charlotte called out, walking further into the store. Liz followed her in and took a seat at the old-fashioned laminate counter top, complete with vinyl-covered stools. Her aunt appeared in a moment, coming through the little archway to the backroom, pushing the gauzy curtains that functioned as a door out of her face.

Mrs. Phillips was a little plumper than her sister, her cheeks round and rosy. Her blonde hair was almost always tied or clipped in a bun. “Lizzie! Your mother has been texting me about those young men up on Netherfield Drive!” She waved her phone excitedly.

Liz groaned and slumped her head down towards her arms, folded on the countertop. “Aunt Bea, not you too!”

“It would have been lovely if Lydia had gotten clearer pictures of them.” She sighed, a little dramatically, in a contented way.

Charlotte patted Liz gently on the back and ordered their lemonades.

Chapter Text

“Oh, Mary,” Lydia sighed, “you’re so lucky you have freckles. I wish I had freckles. They would be so cute with my dress!” She leaned forward over the top of the vanity, which was covered in a mess of clutter and spilled makeup. She pulled her lips up in a wide smile, turning her head to catch the light, as she applied blush to her cheekbones.

“You said my freckles were ugly.”

“Okay, yeah, when they weren’t in style—like two years ago. Now they’re hella cute. I saw a girl on Instagram with a tutorial for henna freckles. Do you think I should try it?”

“No.” Mary stood up.

“Wait, wait, I still need you to zip my dress!” Lydia jumped to her feet and shuffled backward towards her sister. Mary jiggled the zipper to free it from a catch in the fabric and pushed it up to the top of the fabric, which barely covered half of Lydia’s back. “Thanks, sis.” She fluffed up her hair in the mirror and then tugged at the hem of her dress. It was green and slinky, made of some satiny material, with thin string straps. She pursed her lips and began applying lipstick.

Mary was the most introverted of the Bennet siblings. She was happier staying home with a science journal or watching tiny cooking videos than going to a party. But as it was hosted at their own hotel, Mrs. Bennet insisted all of her family—daughters and husband—attend. “Besides,” she had added that morning at breakfast, “this isn’t just to meet the new summer crowd, we’re also celebrating Lydia’s graduation!”

And when Mary muttered into her toast, “She hasn’t graduated yet,” no one but Liz took any notice.

“I’m sure she will,” Liz tried to assure her. “She made it through the last three years.”

She hadn’t responded to that, returning to her toast in silence.

In all her life, Mary had never met a set of twins more opposite than herself and Cat. Cat was not particularly academic, always outgoing—something of a determined people-pleaser. She loved media, television and films and even books, mostly popular romances or gory thrillers. Mary preferred to stick strictly to nonfiction or sci-fi and, while she did have a particular soft spot for cooking on YouTube, especially tiny cooking videos, she almost never watched television other than Discovery channel.

Maybe the worst part of it all, she often thought bitterly, was that she actually enjoyed fashion. She liked the process of putting together an outfit, planning her appearance for the week to come. But because her idea of a good look was so different from Cat and Lydia’s, rather than using clothing to bond with her sisters, they wrote her off as weird and uncaring about her appearance.  

Mary slammed the door to her bedroom, leaning against it with a sigh. Her bed, with its blue and gray checked bedspread, was neatly made, a plush throw pillow shaped like an atom sitting at the head. A tidy stack of scientific journals sat on the nightstand, next to her spare set of glasses and a small army of tiny porcelain rabbits that her father had given her for her dollhouse when she was young.

Stepping around the bed, she stepped up to the closet. The front was pinned with NASA posters and postcards with images of all the places in the world she wanted to go to. She reached in and pulled her dress for the evening off the hook on the back of one of the doors. It was perhaps too much for the party, but if Lydia was wearing green satin, then surely Mary could pull off a bit of velvet. It was black velvet, quite short for Mary’s usual standard, and embroidered with tiny silver sequins like stars. The straps came down low on her shoulders, the neckline creating a small swooping V from the center of her chest outward.

She turned to look in the mirror and smudge on a layer of lip gloss before regretfully tugging on a strand of hair. She kept her dark hair cropped to around her shoulders, but no matter how hard she practiced, it never looked better than when Cat styled it for her. Picking up her shoes, she glanced at Cat and Lydia’s bedroom, but Lydia was by herself in it, so she kept walking and stepped through the open door to the other sisters’ bedroom.

Jane was perched on the edge of the bed while Cat twisted her hair into a chignon, bobby pins sticking out of her mouth. She looked up at Mary and mumbled, “You’re next,” around the impediments. Mary waited, gently tapping the heels of her shoes against each other with one hand while the other slid slowly up and down over the velvet, exploring the texture of the dress. When Cat pronounced, “Done!” Jane hopped to her feet and Mary took the open spot on the bed.

Jane stepped over to her dresser and pulled a lipstick and a mascara off the top before stepping into the bathroom. Liz was already at the sink, leaning forward as she pulled at her lower lid in order to slip the contact over her eye. As she blinked away saline solution, Jane came into focus in the mirror. Smiling, as usual, in a dusty rose-colored dress. “I don’t see how one welcome party is going to help us find the love of our life.”

“Oh, but one of us might. It doesn’t hurt to hope, Lizzie, does it?” She put the lipstick on the counter and unscrewed the mascara tube.

Always an optimist. Liz only shook her head. “If any one of us does, I’m sure it will be you!” She turned from her makeup to attend to the heated curling iron. She twisted her hair loosely around the iron and pressing it into ringlets as it cooled.

“Liz, you’re always so hard on yourself.”

“No, I’m sarcastic about other people. They just don’t meet my standards is the problem.”

Jane only shook her head before returning to the finishing touches on her face. Liz unplugged the iron before her turn in the hairdressing seat, where Cat braided a few strands of her hair and pinned them back with a sparkly, fake crystal clip. “You don’t think it’s too much?” she asked, turning her head in the mirror so the ornament caught the light.

“Of course, it’s too much, Lizzie, that’s the point.”

“If you say so.” She shrugged and stood up. After one final glance in the mirror, she stepped out of the bedroom—and promptly found herself in a traffic jam. Mary stood, stiffly, at the top of the stairs, her arms crossed and a sour expression on her lips.

“Mom needs the stairs to take pictures of Lydia. Because she’s graduating. And this is her ‘best dress,’” she added at the end in an uncanny mimicry of their mother. “I don’t see why she can’t just put it on again in two weeks when she actually has a diploma.”

Liz just sighed. “If Mom wants us to be late for hosting our own party, then that’s her prerogative.”

At the bottom of the steps, Lydia had moved on from prom poses to waving peace signs and blowing kisses at the camera. Mrs. Bennet beamed as she walked back and forth for different angles. Mary just signed and rested her elbow on the top of the bannister.

The house had been small for their needs for a long time—four bedrooms for seven people. Liz still remember the fateful day of Room Changing, though not the cause of it. She had been 11, and the twins nine years old. Some fight over space between Mary and Cat had blossomed into screaming and all-out warfare until Mr. Bennet demanded the sisters completely reshuffle their sleeping situations. Liz had slept alone in the smallest bedroom, but she moved into Lydia’s place, where she had been sharing a room with Jane. Lydia took Mary’s spot with Cat, and Mary was given her own bedroom. For the first month after the new arrangements, the house was quiet and polite for the first time in years. The animosity between any of the siblings had never reached that point again—though room changing hadn’t solved the issue of clogged hallways and a long line for food at dinnertime.

Liz always thought the hardest part of it all had been moving her overstuffed bookshelves from one bedroom to the other, shoving boxes of books over the hallway carpet one at a time. She always found a certain amount of comfort in the chaos of a fully-filled house. She had actually requested a quad for her first dorm room.

“Oh dear!” Mrs. Bennet suddenly cried, looking at the clock for the first time. “Girls! Hurry up or we’re not going to be able to start on time!” Mary threw her hands in the air in frustration before walking down the stairs.

Mrs. Bennet ushered her daughters into the kitchen where the table, piled high with various objects, greeted them—extra cutlery and cups, colored tablecloths, and spare serving trays. A certain amount of overflow from The Longbourn ended up in their kitchen cabinets or storage in the basement, if only because it was easier on the Bennets. She loaded up the arms of every child and her husband before leading them out of the house with clucks to hurry or coos over their appearances every so often.

They traipsed across the grounds in a brightly colored line. If she wasn’t so harried, Liz might have felt a little silly wearing a party dress and high heels while her arms were piled up with gray and purple tablecloths.

The Longbourn had a small permanent staff and a larger seasonal one, but in perpetua the Bennet children had always been expected to assist for the major events. Mrs. Bennet’s beginning of summer party was no exception. 

Jane and Liz had always been in charge of tablecloths. As a team, they shook them out over each round table and tied the bottoms close to the legs with lengths of wired ribbons, while Mary followed close behind with napkins that Cat stood folding at the side table, until she was shooed away as the staff began to set up the hotplates and serving utensils for the forthcoming foodstuff.

“I will say,” Liz added casually as they tied the bow off on the second to last table, “if we keep up the pace, we’re both going to be great at running in heels after this.” So said, she snatched up the final gray cloth and practically jogged to the final table.

With everything set, like a maestro preparing an orchestra, Mrs. Bennet tapped on the floor to stop the flow of movement. With everything visually satisfactory, she threw open the doors to allow in the guests.

Like the rest of The Longbourn, most of the ballroom was original. The floors were in a herringbone style, cleaned and waxed to a bright sheen every September and every March. Speakers were set up strategically along the walls so the music could be heard in every corner. The tables were set up in a U-shape around the dance floor, with the food tables behind them, directly in front of the kitchen door. The chandelier, strung for electric lights in the 1920s, was surrounded by smaller hanging lights, none nearly as ornate as the original gold-colored, branching piece of hardware. The walls were paneled with white-painted wood and the skirting had been recently coated in a trendy charcoal. Liz always thought the combination of the original wood and lighting with the speakers and new paint gave the ballroom a feeling of existing outside of time, somewhere in its own period.

She stood back in satisfaction, taking a well-deserved break after her organizing and table-setting. A trickle of newcomers, curious about the well-circulated invitations, turned into a stream of regulars and Meryton residents. The summer in the village of Meryton could simply not start without Mrs. Bennet’s party, after all. Not after it had become such a staple.

Liz noticed Mr. Lucas and his daughter Mariah, so she knew Charlotte must be around somewhere. She stepped over to the bar and ordered a Sprite—her 21st birthday was not until January. She sipped it slowly as she wove through the crowd, looking around for new faces and greeting old ones. She was asked more than once about her summer plans—working at The Longbourn—and what she was studying—English lit—and how she liked university—it was enjoyable. She did her best to field queries about her plans for the upcoming fall—there were still some not-quite-fully-formed ideas to process in that department.

The room suddenly grew quite audibly quieter before suddenly starting up again slightly louder than before. At the change in tone, Liz’s head poked up, but before she could tell what was happening, someone grabbed her arm, pulling her sharply to the side. Then she understood what the cause had been.

A party of five people, two women and three men, had entered the room and they had been given a sizeable berth by the rest of the crowd. The two men at the front were easily recognizable as the men from the photographs, even leaving room for interpretation of the poor quality.

Lydia tugged on Liz’s arm and squeaked in her ear, “There he is!”

“I see them! Stop pulling my arm out of the socket!”

Cat leaned over Liz’s other shoulder. Liz was the shortest of all her sisters and her three-inch heels were no comparison to their skyscraper stilettos. “How much money do you think he makes? I mean, to afford that house.”

“A couple million at least.” She sighed. “But you know what else I heard?”

“What?” Cat squeaked in Liz’s ear. Liz had already made up her mind that she did not want to hear what else Lydia had heard, but her sister was clearly preparing to tell her.

“His friend, Silly Name Darcy, or whatever, he’s like doublequadruple as rich. He has, like, a billion dollars I bet!”

“He’s not a billionaire, Lydia, don’t be ridiculous.”

You don’t know that!” Lydia snapped back, tossing her hair over her shoulder, towards Liz’s face. “Come on, Cat, let’s go introduce ourselves.” They linked arms, leaving Liz by herself, shaking her head.

When she turned, she found herself faced with Charlotte. “Those two are going to get into a mountain of trouble.” After a pause, she added, “Nice dress.”

They were, in fact, wearing the same dress, likely even purchased from the same store. It was a navy blue dress with a deep V in the front, with straps that crossed over the back, and a high-low style skirt. There was a gauzy, pleated belt that tied around the waist in a soft bow at the back.

Charlotte laughed openly. “I think it looks better on you, Lizzie!”

Turning their backs on the guests of honor, they moved to park themselves at a table, grabbing a couple napkins full of hors d'oeuvres as they passed by. The food at The Longbourn was never lacking. While they ate, the music started, a touch too loud, in Liz’s opinion. But within minutes, there were already people on the dance floor.

“I’m going to find Jane,” she said, a little loudly to be heard over the start of the music. “Meet you back here?”

“Sure!” Charlotte took a sip of her wine and waggled her fingers at Liz as a sendoff.

~~~~

Someone had already bought her a drink from the bar. She sipped the reddish liquid from the clear crystal plastic cup, one hand resting primly in her lap.

Liz slid into the empty chair next to her. “Are you having a good time?”

“Everyone just got here!”

Liz nodded to the glass. “Well someone else was having a good time for you.”

Jane blushed. “He was very sweet.”

“Is that all? Just a sweet guy?”

“Oh, Lizzie, you look too deep into things like that.” Jane shook her head.

“Jane! Jane, come here.” The sisters looked up to see their mother marching towards them. If a military battle had ever been led by a short-ish woman in kitten heels and a purple party dress, Mrs. Bennet would have been the face of the campaign. “Mr. Bingley and his friends have arrived. You must come with me to greet them.”

“Mom, please, I’m sure over the course of the—”

“No buts, Jane Margaret Bennet.” She quickly grasped Jane’s hand and hoisted her to her feet before beginning to pull her forward. Defensively, Jane linked her arm with Liz’s. Disregarding their actions, Mrs. Bennett continued to pull both her daughters in an unfortunate line towards the newcomers. “Oh, hello, my dear!” Mrs. Bennet called when they were just a few feet away. Liz did her best not to trip, unaccustomed as she was to wearing high heeled shoes. “Mr. Bingley, was it?” she asked with a bright smile.

“Yes,” said the redhead, answering with his own grin. “Charles Bingley. Call me Chip, everyone does!”

“Oh, charming! I am Eugenia Bennet—my husband and I own The Longbourn. I heard you had met him?”

“Yes, we have.”

“Wonderful!” When making new friends, Mrs. Bennet had the unfortunate habit of punctuating almost every sentence with an exclamation mark. “These are my daughters, Jane and Elizabeth. The eldest of five, if you can believe it!” She let out a tinkling little laugh, so unlike her usual one. “The other three are around here… somewhere.”

But the moment Jane’s name passed Mrs. Bennet’s lips, she had lost Chip’s attention—his eyes were locked on Jane.

“Hello,” said Jane.

“Hi,” said Chip.

Liz bit back her smile and rolled her eyes, moving across the faces of Chip’s friends. She found herself accidentally making eye contact with the tallest of the group, a rather pale man with dark hair, a very shapely jaw, and quite obviously the most expensive suit she had ever seen. A scowl tugged at the corners of his very nice lips and his gray eyes were slightly narrowed. She pressed her lips together very hard to contain a laugh and looked away from him.

“And who are your friends, Chip?” Mrs. Bennet’s question brought them all back to the present.

“Um. Yes.” He ran a hand through his hair. The cliché of his action might, in a book, have made him more attractive or charmingly disheveled, Liz thought, but in reality, it just made him look very frazzled. The effect did match his expression, though, she decided as his eyes continued to flick back to Jane’s face. He blinked once or twice and hitch the smile back onto his face. “These are my sisters, Caroline, and Louisa. Lo’s husband, Ned. And my friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy.”

“Lovely,” Caroline said, cocking her head to a gentle angle and smiling a plastic smile. Louisa merely simpered.

Louisa Hurst was bottled blonde, but Caroline Bingley’s strawberry blonde seemed more natural. Neither woman would have looked out of place with a pair of oversized sunglasses or a tiny dog and an armful of shopping bags, or whatever other Hollywood imagery Liz could think of to denote that perfectly detestable upper-class woman. Ned Hurst’s expression was vacant, his eyes rolling every so often, as if he could hardly believe the company he was in. His fingers kept creeping into his pocket, where Liz was certain he kept his phone. Fitzwilliam Darcy stood a little to the side, his arms crossed low on his torso, with a pronounced scowl on his face.

Mrs. Bennet beamed, either ignorant or purposefully overlooking their reactions. “Excellent, excellent. It’s so wonderful to have new friends in town. Especially on Netherfield Drive, that house has been empty for far too many summers. How long do you think you’ll be staying, Chip?”

“I’m not entirely sure. Through the end of July, I think, at least.” He was still smiling shyly at Jane.

“And what about your friends? How long will they be staying? Fitzwilliam?” she added, turning towards him.

His eyes widened for a second when he realized Mrs. Bennet was actually speaking to him. He had been having a wild daydream, just for a moment, that if he remained as solemn and silent as possible then maybe no one could see him. “Darcy, please. I… prefer it.” His mouth was pulled very tight, his voice slightly strangled, as if the entire interaction gave him a great deal of pain.

Mrs. Bennet made no comment on the name correction and she continued to stare at Darcy. “I had not… decided yet,” he said finally.

“Hopefully, you will stay as long as your friend then!”

Liz had to look away and bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Based on Darcy’s face, there was nothing in the world that could have displeased him more than the current line of conversation.

“Yes, well…” Chip started, and then stopped. His ears perked up slightly at the change in song. “Jane, would you like to dance?”

“I’d love to,” she said, a little breathily. He took her hand in his and holding both appendages aloft, he led her to the dance floor. Satisfied on at least one account, Mrs. Bennet leaned back a little, suddenly eyeing between Darcy and Liz.

To head her off, Liz said very quickly. “Well, it was very nice meeting you all, but I’m going to go meet my friend Charlotte. I told her I’d be back in a moment.” She turned on her heel and fled, weaving through the crowd to move more quickly. “Did you see what my mother just pulled?” Liz cried the moment she was back at the table.

Although at least partly out of loyalty to Liz, promising to meet her back at the table, Charlotte had primarily not moved from her seat because of the excellent vantage point she had over the entire introductory sequence. However, because of the music, she had heard little of it and was eager to respond to her friend. “I did. What did they say?”

Liz ran through the specifics, but focused more on the specifics of their body language. “Oh, the usual, ‘thanks for the invite, so happy to be here,’ but mostly they looked like they wanted to straight up die. Darcy in particular seemed absolutely horrified that my mom actually spoke words to him. And expected him to respond!”

Charlotte paused before responding. “Well, even if they are unfriendly, they’re wealthy and attractive, so that might go a long way with… some people we know.” She gave a little half smile.

“Ugh. Let’s just hope both our mothers keep their mouths shut! If I could drink right now, I swear I would.”

“Come on, I’ll buy you one. This is a chaperoned situation after all.” They walked together to the bar and Liz fielded more familiar, well-meaning questions on school until Charlotte deposited a glass in her hand. “Now, to ease away before they ID you!”

Liz laughed and followed her friend. Before they reached a table, Liz suddenly reached out to put her hand on Charlotte’s shoulder to stop her. “Hold on a second.” She had caught sight of a recognizably tall figure. They stood together, watching him wander in the shadowy edges of the ballroom. Liz slowly sipped her drink. “There’s Darcy, in all his attitude.”

“He’s not very friendly looking, is he? Shuffling around all angry behind the speakers. He doesn’t look like he’s ever smiled.”

“Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe his face is, you know, stuck that way.”

Liz let out a snort of a laugh, belatedly covering her mouth with her hand. Darcy had just come into hearing range and was looking at her, his eyes slightly wide, his brows furrowed low, the corners of his lips pinched tight together. She grabbed Charlotte by the arm and marched away until, at a safer distance, she began to laugh freely. “I think you might be right!” She couldn’t help herself; she thought of a very angry child with Darcy’s face, the scowl prominent and permanent.

Liz had just discarded her plate when Cat appeared at her elbow. “Liz! Charlotte! Come dance with me!” She bounced in place. “It’s my favorite song!” Leaving Darcy and his stormy expression behind, Liz let herself be whisked off to dance.

~~~~

The room had grown quite warm over the course of the night. Liz stepped off the dance floor and, fanning herself with one hand, threw herself into one of the empty chairs that had been tilted towards the dance floor. She watched the swirling organized chaos of the party before leaning back in her seat and laughing a little. Charlotte joined her in a moment. “If we didn’t run together every morning, I think Cat’s dancing might have killed me! See, I’m nearly out of breath.”

“It’s only because it’s so warm.” In a moment, she became aware of a conversation happening to her right. She turned very slightly to catch Chip and Darcy mid conversation.

“Well at least dance—I hate to see you standing around here like an idiot. I’m sure there’s someone you’ll like. Jane can introduce you to one of her sisters! She has, like, three of them, I think.” Chip scratched his head, slightly bemused by the abundance of girls.

“Doubtful. Your Jane is pretty enough, but I haven’t seen anyone else.”

“What about her sister—Elizabeth, I think?”

“She’s fine. Not enough to make me want to dance. There is no woman in the room pretty enough to make me dance tonight.” The word “dance” came out as a sneer, the C turning into a hiss. He started to turn his head and found himself making eye contact with Liz two tables over. She had been in conversation with Charlotte, but she paused, her mouth slightly open and eyebrows raised. He looked sharply back towards Bingley, resolutely turning his back on her.

Liz stifled another laugh, turning back to Charlotte, uncertain whether she should be offended by not being attractive to such a jerk. She was about to voice as much when she saw Caroline, stopped in her tracks, holding two drinks in her hands, her eyes very wide. She must have heard Darcy too.

Still, she mustered up some amount of energy and marched right up to the men. Liz raised her eyebrows at Charlotte, but was distracted in a moment by Lydia’s new dance moves—primarily consisting of grinding on a stranger on the dance floor. Leaving Chip and his unpleasant friends behind, she quickly overlooked their personal drama in favor of her own familial antics.  

~~~~

“Oh, I’m exhausted!” Jane cried, falling onto the living room couch. She pulled off her heels and rubbed one hand over the arch of her foot. Several strands of hair had escaped her bun and they hung around her face.

Only Jane, Liz decided, could so elegantly pull off the “hot and sweaty and exhausted from dancing” look so well. “You made a friend, though.”

“Yes. Yes, I did.”

“Jane, I am so happy for you!” Mrs. Bennett chimed in, sticking her head through the door to the kitchen. “He spent half the night dancing with you and he hardly looked at anyone else!” She disappeared in a moment, followed by the clattering of utensils in the sink.

“Did you, by chance, find out what your new friend does for work?

“Chip is a lawyer! He just graduated from law school and he’s spending the summer in Meryton with his sisters and friends before he begins work at his father’s law firm.”

“Ah, I see, a trust fund baby!”

“Lizzie!” Jane chided, throwing a couch pillow at her. “He may come from money but I know he earned his degree by himself. He’s very smart.”

“Well, you’ve dated enough stupid people, I’m glad you’re raising your standards.”

Lizzie!” Jane cried again, this time burying her face in another spare pillow. “I just met him this evening!”

“Well, I don’t know if you and I were looking at the same face, but I am certain he’s already half way in love with you.”

Jane giggled and pushed the stray hairs out of her face, changing the subject. “And what did you think of his friend, that Darcy?”

Liz raised her eyes skyward and let out a little huff. She leaned closer to Jane and hissed, “Don’t tell Mom, but—”

“What was that, Elizabeth?” their mother asked, poking herself back through the doorway. “Something about Darcy?”

Liz groaned. “Well, Chip tried to tell him to dance with me, but he said” —Liz cleared her throat and put on a gruffer tone—“’She’s pretty, but not enough to make me want to dance with her.’” Liz laughed to herself, but Jane let out a little gasp.

“Well, I never. I’m glad he didn’t dance with you, Lizzie,” Mrs. Bennett said, stepping fully into the room. She held a slightly damp tea towel in one fist, which she clenched to her waist. “He was a very rude young man and I would be perfectly happy never to see him again.”

Jane frowned a little. “Yes, but Mom, he is Chip’s very dear friend. He told me they’ve known each other since they were 13. They went to boarding school together. He does like him very much, I wouldn’t think he’d come to a party without him…”

“Well, in that case, my dear, we may just have to put up with his company.” She patted her eldest daughter gently on the cheek before bustling away, humming one of the pop songs that had been played at the end of the night.

Jane smiled a little sadly at Liz. “I’m sorry he was so rude about you. At least Mom also doesn’t like him? Maybe he was just having a bad night,” she offered as a final explanation.

Liz shook her head and laughed. “Yes, Jane, everyone has a bad night now and again.” Although from the looks of him, Liz thought to herself as she began to unpin her hair, every night is probably a bad one!

~~~~

Caroline leaned back against the seat in the back of Darcy’s Tesla. Darcy was driving, Chip in the passenger seat. He was beaming, and a little drunk, his face very pink from the combination of the two. “Did you have a nice time?” Caroline asked in a purr. She was excited for Darcy’s response—another topic she knew they would agree most heartily on.

“Absolutely!” Chip cried in delight.

Darcy was silent. They stopped at the stop sign (which Ned had sped through in front of them). She could see his long white fingers on the steering wheel in the light of the dashboard.

“What did you think, Fitz?”

“It was… a truly painful experience. Bingley, I’m very grateful to have been invited for the summer, but I am not sure how long I can take it.”

“Oh, come on, Darcy, you do have to admit it’s beautiful here.” He gestured, a little wildly, knocking the back of his hand on the glass, out the dark window at the trees that were barely visible. “Well, in the daytime. You love nature. And hiking and fishing.”

“I do. But the town is tacky.”

“It’s quaint.”

Darcy scoffed. He flicked the turn signal. “It’s a tourist trap.”

Chip shook his head in disappointment. “I had a lovely evening. I think Jane is the most delightful girl I have ever met in my life.”

“Oh, Charles,” Caroline sighed. She had always thought he was far too easy to please. “I suppose I should get to know her. But I don’t see why the town is so enamored with the lot of them. I mean, calling the Bennet sisters the prettiest girls in the county? It certainly doesn’t say much in favor of this place, does it?

“I mean, did you see? That Liz Bennet and her friend…” She had forgotten Liz Bennet’s friend’s name. “And her friend Charlene Something were wearing the same dress? I mean, talk about tacky, right, Fitz? I mean, ew.” She waited several seconds, but neither young man gave her the answer she hoped for. She plucked her phone from her clutch and typed away the same message to her sister, riding in her husband’s car, even though they had already touched on the topic while whispering behind their hands at the dance. At least on that end she received a satisfactory reply.

I kno – can u beLIEVE? Gross.

Caroline grinned to herself and responded.

I bet they wouldn’t do it if anyone IMPORTANT ever showed up here

Chapter Text

Mr. Bennet looked at his second daughter over the tops of his reading glasses. “Elizabeth, are you certain? This is a big decision, my dear. I would hate for you to—”

She shook her head. “No, Dad, I’m sure about it. I know how important this is to Mary. And I know you and Mom can always use the help. It’s not like Cat and Lydia are always around for it…”

“Lizzie, it’s not your responsibility to make up for your younger sisters’ insipidity.”

Dad.”

He raised his hands in defeat.

Liz stood up from the chair across the desk and paused, putting one hand on the back of it. “Can I tell her?”

“Of course. You’re the one who’s making all this” —he gestured with his pen—“possible, after all.”

She beamed at her father, said, “I’ll go tell Mary now,” and dashed out the door.

Mr. Bennet merely shook his head and slipped his glasses back on more securely. As an only child, he could only watch the violent love and constant battles between his daughters with a sort of detached bemusement. Mrs. Bennet understood it all a little better, though never enough to referee.

Upstairs, Liz knocked gently on the slightly open door. “Mary?”

Mary was lying on her bed, flipping through a Nat Geo magazine and listening to music. When she saw Liz, she pushed her headphones off her ears and looked up. “What’s up?”

“I wanted to tell you something. Can I sit down?”

“Ye-es,” she said very slowly, pulling herself upright and crossing her legs. She adjusted her glasses against the bridge of her nose and placed on hand on the face of the magazine to keep her place. Liz, Mary, and Cat all needed glasses, but Liz and Cat preferred more often to wear contacts. Because two out of three of them so rarely wore their glasses out of the house, Mr. Bennet continued to justify purchasing them each essentially the same frames—somewhat wide, square-ish frames, the outsides all black, and the inner plastic a different color for every girl; pink for Cat, blue for Liz, and white for Mary.

Liz sat on the edge of the bed. “Mary, I’m going to take the year off of school.”

“What?” She sat a little straighter, startled by the announcement. “Why? You love school!”

“So we can put my tuition money towards your Switzerland program.”

Mary gasped, pulling her hands up to her face. The magazine flipped closed on itself. “Lizzie, no. You didn’t!”

She could not help but to laugh at the look of complete shock on Mary’s face—her eyes wide and round, her hands pressed to her open mouth. “I did indeed. I organized a leave of absence with the registrar.” 

“You would do that for me?”

“Yes. Unconditionally. I love school, but Mary this is your dream.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she cried out, throwing her arms around Liz’s neck, clasping her tightly. Liz smiled and rested her cheek on Mary’s shoulder, patting her on the back a couple of times.  

Liz added, “Okay, I do have one stipulation.”

Mary grew a little stiff in her arms and pulled back. “What’s that?”

“You have to send me postcards! And texts and emails and letters and tell me what an amazing time you’re having!”

Mary let out a little squeak of pleasure, unable to verbalize her joy. Liz had never seen her smile so hard or so long, save for her nine college acceptance letters. “Yes! Every day if you want!”

Liz laughed. “Don’t let it get in the way of your studies, sis!” She ruffled Mary’s hair like she used to when they were younger.

Even if Mary couldn’t see it, Liz knew the difference between them. Mary had a goal. The joint university and CERN internship program was the first step on a path she had longed for for over a decade. She had passion and determination that had gained her a first-place choice for one of the ten opening spots over the thousands of others who had applied. Liz was… an English major. She loved reading and analyzing, but what difference would it make in the world? She had been struggling over the course of Sophomore year to find a career path that she knew she would enjoy. So, while giving Mary her dream, it also gave Liz time to think.

Breaking the hug, Mary slid off the bed. “What do you think I should pack? Oh, what about weather… it does get very cold in Switzerland, doesn’t it?”

“Sure. You know, you don’t have to be there until September. I think you’ve got a couple months.”

Mary turned to look Liz straight on, placing her hands on her hips, her mouth pressed tight. There was such a look of hardness in her eyes it was clear she was looking for no opinions on the matter. Liz only raised her hands in defeat and answered, “Yeah, it can get really cold.”

Liz eased out of the room as her sister rifled through the closet, muttering to herself about skiing. Half way down the staircase, she nearly ran full into Jane.

“Lizzie, I was just going to run some errands. But, did you hear the library book sale is today?”

“No! I hadn’t!”

“Would you like to come with me?”

“Um, yes!” Nothing like an hour of unnecessary shopping for dirt cheap books to lift the spirit.

On the way out the door, they passed Lydia and Cat in the living room. Lydia was slumped down far on the couch, flipping through channels in the mindless lull that Liz recognized immediately as the utter exhaustion caused by one last round of high school finals. Cat was stretched out next to her, one hand behind her head.

Jane said, “We’re going out for some errands and stopping at the library. Want to come?”

“No. But can you get me a coffee?”

“Oh, me too!” Cat sat up on the couch.

Liz found her shoes and a wide brimmed hat while Jane took their orders. “You don’t have to do that, you know,” she said once they were in the car, a beat-up old minivan that had seen the sisters through thousands of hours of ballet practice, cross country meets, and science fairs over the years. It had once been blue, but over time it had lightened to a murky gray.

“I know. But Lydia’s worked so hard, I think she deserves a treat.”

Liz shrugged. “I guess as long as she’s graduating, that’s all that really counts.

“Lizzie. Just because Lydia never excelled in school like you did, why should you look down on her?”

Because she didn’t even try! Liz wanted to say. She bit her tongue instead and looked out the window, resting her elbow on the edge of the door.

Now that they were into June, the summer season had well and truly started, with families coming to enjoy the lake from all around. There was a steady flow of traffic of visitors coming and going. Although the water was still cool from the winter, there was a sizeable crowd on the beach.

They stopped at the bank to deposit a check, the grocery store, and popped into Phillip’s Pharmacy to say hello to their aunt. Jane bought a graduation card for Lydia, which Liz thought belied Jane’s adamance that Lydia would graduate on time. She continued to be silent; she didn’t want to lose her library privileges, and she wasn’t sure if she would be able to walk back to The Longbourn loaded up with new books.

~~~~

The library was a comfortable-looking old brick building that had been standing long before even Mr. Bennet was a child. It was made of a rounded central building and two wings, as well as a public garden behind it for children’s activities and outdoor reading. The front entrance led into a small, carpeted atrium with small groups of gray, faux leather armchairs and several rickety side tables. To the left was children and young adult literature, to the right adult fiction and nonfiction.

It was more crowded than usual, especially at the start of the season. Along with other Meryton residents, there appeared to be a substantial amount of people popping in to pick up some new summer reads.

“Have anything you’re looking for?” Jane asked once they were inside.

“I always find it’s best never to come in with a list. You might miss something good if you’re too focused on one title.”

“Anything fantasy it is, then.”

“Bonus points for dragons.”

“Gotcha.” She pointed to the chairs. “Meet you back here in twenty minutes.”

Liz grinned and turned towards the children’s section. Mass market paperbacks and sale books by juvenile fiction, hardcovers and trade paperbacks always in the adult section. There was something inexplicably pleasing about holding an absolutely massive mass market paperback. The way it fit comfortably in her hands and could be slid into a pocket, the way they looked stacked on a shelf together… Or maybe it was that the entire table was 25¢ each. Liz always let Jane look through the hardcover books for her. Even though they only ranged from $1 to $5, she didn’t always make the smartest decisions; best to let someone else temper her impulses. 

There were four tables of books, the sturdy white plastic kind with foldable metal legs. She ran her fingers over the spines, feeling the smoothness of the laminated covers and the worn creases from pervious readers. Hunting her way through each table, she slowly gathered a significant pile. At least half of The Wheel of Time series had made it into her arms.

Finally pleased with her pile, she began to wander back towards the atrium. On the way, she passed by a little table she hadn’t noticed before. Glancing at it, she almost dropped her stack of paperbacks. A sign that read “New Releases,” black text on white printer paper, was slipped into a plastic stand. Next to it was a small selection of books, some raised higher by a little shelf. At the very top was the reason for her shock; The Breaking Point by Fitzwilliam Darcy. She stopped to rebalance her armload before creeping closer. There was absolutely no way there was a second Fitzwilliam Darcy anywhere in the world.

The cover was an aerial shot of a street in the rain. People were walking in small groups, most with umbrellas. At the center of the image was a lone figure, holding a yellow umbrella slightly tilted away from the camera, so you could see what appeared to be a man with short brown hair; the title and author were written in a stylized, serif font in dark green. The color was the same on the spine and when she picked it up, she realized the cover image wrapped around to show a tall building, slanted due to the aerial angle, with only one window lighted.

Unbelievable…”

Juggling her purchase pile in one hand and the library book in the other, she scurried back to the chairs, where she unceremoniously dumped her back on a table. With Jane nowhere in sight, she pulled her legs up onto the seat of the chair and turned the book over in her hands. Aside from the plastic library covering and stickers, it seemed untouched, the pages still crisp, the corners sharp.

On the back were two sets of reviews, the first being for the actual novel;

A breathtaking work from a debut novelist…I look forward to [Darcy’s] next novel with baited breath.”

“A heart-breaking story of family love gone wrong.”

“Exquisite.”

There was also praised for what sounded like a short story collection.

“Darcy’s grip of dramatic tension…across only a few pages shows a true artist.”

“[Darcy’s] work is an adventure in form and style…from contemporary to magical realism. He shows a mastery of fiction in many forms.”

Liz was pretty sure if she rolled her eyes any harder she would strain a muscle or lose her contacts behind her eyes. She opened the front cover—it gave the satisfying creak of a new hardback—and turned to the synopsis;

 

When Christopher Albright’s father adopted a second son, it was said by all that all his life would change for the better. He would gain a brother, a confidante, perhaps even a best friend.

They were wrong. Jonathan is smarter, stronger, more attractive… better than Christopher at everything; and just the kind of son their father always dreamed of parenting. Although the family has struggled to find a point of equilibrium, when Christopher returns from a year abroad, everything has changed for the worse.

Told in evocative and audacious prose, The Breaking Point is an explorative delve into family dynamics, brotherly rivalry, and asks the question, can a father’s love be bought?

 

She wrinkled her nose and cringed back into the chair; it sounded far from her usual reading preferences. She flipped to the back cover. There he was. It would, she thought, be impossible to take a bad photo of Darcy, but the image itself was far from a masterpiece. He sat very stiffly for the portrait, his hands folded on a table, and his hair a little longer than she had seen it. He met the camera with little humor—in fact, he looked quite pale, almost to the point of being sickly. She had to tamp down a strange feeling of remorse for his perceived health.

Before she could start reading the bio, Jane called out to her, “Lizzie! I found you a bunch of books, I think you’ll really—” Jane cut herself off as Liz jumped to her feet and whirled around, shoving the book towards Jane.

“Look at this! Look what I found!”

Jane paused and put her veritable tower of books down on the table next to Liz’s and picked up the novel she was offered. “Is this… Did he actually write this?”

“Look at the author photo!” Liz nearly pulled the book out of Jane’s hands in her excitement to flip to the back.

“Oh, my goodness.”

“I need to read this. Immediately.” There was a glint in her eye that Jane did not like.

“Lizzie, what are you planning?”

“What do you mean?” she asked innocently as she began to gather up as many books as possible.

“You… you just want to read the book, right?” Jane piled up the remaining books and followed Liz to the librarian’s desk.

“You can learn a lot about a person by what they write.”

“You’re not going to be cruel about it, are you?”

Liz placed all the books on the counter and smiled sweetly at the librarian. “What is there to be cruel about? If it’s a good book, I’ll tell him.”

“Oh dear,” Jane murmured to herself as Liz helped the librarian bag up all the books. Liz paid for the book sale items and took her receipt for The Breaking Point. Bags in one hand, library book in the other, she marched out of the building. Jane followed behind, more slowly, her hands clasped in front of her.

~~~~

There was a line in the drive through at the coffee shop, but very few cars in the parking lot, so they parked and entered the building. Jane pulled out her phone to check the orders Cat and Lydia had given her, but she looked up at the sound of her name.

“Jane!” Chip called from across the room; he was sitting at one of the countertops near the window. He raised one hand, holding an iced drink, and waved it a little, the ice clattering together. Liz instinctively shrunk back, glancing around for Darcy, but only Caroline and Lo appeared. “Over here!”

“Hi!” Jane’s face was split in a wide grin; she barely even noticed Liz standing a few paces behind, arms crossed as she and Caroline eyed each other warily. “Maybe we should stop running into each other by accident.”

“You’re right. We should do it on purpose.”

Jane’s giggle would have done a middle school girl justice. Liz blinked very hard and held her lips pressed very tightly together to keep from laughing. Lo was on her phone again but Caroline had leaned towards her. She looked like she wanted to say something, but the words didn’t seem to be coming out.

“Would you like to join us for lunch?” Chip offered. “My treat.”

By that point, Jane’s face was nearly scarlet. “Oh, Chip, that would be lovely but I’m afraid we can’t today…”

“Rain check?”

“Please.”

“At least let me buy you your coffees, then.”

“You don’t have to do that! Really! We were going to pick up drinks for Cat and Lydia, and—”

“No, I insist,” he said, cutting her off. He placed one arm very lightly around Jane’s back, just slightly above her waist, and ushered her towards the cashier. She flashed a flushed, cheerful glance back at Liz before he whisked her away.

“Your brother is a sweet guy,” Liz said to Caroline.

“Maybe a little too sweet, sometimes.”

Liz smiled as innocently as she could. “And how are you liking Meryton, Caroline? Lo?”

Caroline only sniffed and said, “This is where Charles wanted to spend his summer….”

“What about Darcy? Doesn’t he have a book tour to go on or something?”

Caroline’s eyes flashed; Lo even lowered her phone a little. “Fitz doesn’t go on book tours. He can do perfectly well without selling himself for the publicity.” She paused, and then asked suspiciously, “Why? Have you read his book?”

“Not yet. Just found it at the library. I’m going to start it tonight.”

 

As good as her word, after dinner she curled up on the couch and dove in.

 

Jonathan Goldstone, soon to be Albright, did not kill his parents. But that did not stop him from confessing to the murders, over and over again, trying to force someone into believing him, admitting to the only sins he never committed.

I doubt it was the first lie he ever told, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

 

It took her several chapters to realize she hated it. It wasn’t the fault of the writing—it flowed well, almost with the natural feel of a conversation, with little dips and turns that, when she almost felt she could put it down, would immediately sweep her up again in the words.

It wasn’t the fault of the narrative voice—she found the word choice engaging, the tone almost soothing. A story told by a fire while holding a cup of tea.

It was the character of Christopher himself who she abhorred. He was selfish and petty—instead of trying to be his own person, he spent all his time and energy trying to do things exactly as Jonathan did. Jonathan was spoiled and cruel to Christopher and his adoptive mother. They were caught in a web of mistakes and missteps, but Liz could not bring herself to enjoy it for the writing. She found Christopher’s character to be hateful, Jonathan’s childish…

And she could not put it down.

Despite the engrossment the book gave her, it was not an easy thing to read. It clocked in at 305 pages, but the next day she was still struggling through, wincing at every new unkind twist and turn.

“Liz, stop.” Jane finally had to put her hand over the open pages; they were sitting on the hard metal bleachers of the high school gym. “You’re at your baby sister’s graduation. If you miss this while you’re… you’re hate reading a book, you’ll regret it.”

Liz looked up at her. The room was the most crowded it ever was; half of Meryton showed up for graduation, and almost everyone was related in some way to at least one graduate. A few people had congratulatory signs. One girl wore the school flag as a cape. A few cheers escaped from the audience as the graduating class began to file in.

She slowly unclenched her fingers from the sides of the book and Jane eased it out of her grasp. She slid it back into Liz’s purse and then pulled the purse into her own lap so Liz was without access. She supposed she should be grateful, but really. The next time she saw the man, she could think of a few words to say about his novel.

~~~~

Mariah Lucas was Charlotte’s younger sister and in the same year as Lydia at school. Although the two had never been particularly close, the friendship between their families often found them thrown together. The party that evening was no exception, save that Liz was pretty sure it wasn’t really a graduation party at all.

She had learned of the particularly extensive guest list from Charlotte and she had a funny feeling it was more of an attempt at a marketing venture than anything else. Mr. Lucas owned an investment firm and many of the Mertyon regulars, who owned their summer homes rather than rented them, were clients.

It was only a house party, however, so there was considerably less chaos of dressing and hairdo-ing than preparation for The Longbourn party had caused. The majority of it was caused by Lydia, who insisted on donning a form-fitting red dress and a pair of dangerous-looking black stilettos.

“You know it’s in a backyard, right, Lydia? That means grass,” Liz said, staring very hard at Lydia’s very pointed heels.

“No, no, my dear sister, I already thought of that.” She reached into her purse and whipped out two pieces of clear plastic; the bottom was a flat, round disk and the top was a hollow cylinder. “Heel protectors to keep me lookin’ fab, even on grass. You just slip it over the point and bam, no sinking into the mud. Do you want some?”

“I think I’ll stick to sneakers, thanks.” She twitched aside the deep blue fabric of her maxi dress to reveal a pair of white canvas sneakers. She was squished between Lydia and Mary in the middle of the backseat.

Because there were seven of them—Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in the front seats, with two girls filling the second row and three in the back—Mr. Bennet had taken another of his rare head of the household mandates and implemented a mandatory seating chart that had been active since Lydia was out of her booster seat. He whipped it out, without fail, every time the entire family got in the car together. Thusly, there had never once been a fight over seating arrangements, at least.

The Lucas family lived in a home that was a particularly extravagant mixture of modern and more traditional lodge or cabin style architecture. It was stone and natural wood mixed with glass, all under a set of steeply sloping roofs. There were balloons tied to the mailbox and strung along the front porch, along with strings of red and yellow streamers. The Bennet sisters filed out of the car as Mr. Bennet opened the door for his wife, her hands being full of casserole.

They followed a series of signs that said, “Party this way!” and “Congrats Mariah and Lydia!” across the stone path that led to the back yard. The gates were thrown open and fairy lights were strung on poles across the rather expansive yard. They were greeted by Mrs. Lucas who fluttered around them before kissing Mrs. Bennet on both cheeks and whisking away the casserole dish. There was already music playing from speakers set up along the backside of the house and Liz could tell Charlotte and Mariah had collaborated on the playlist; she recognized many of the songs from road trips or team cross country practice playlists.

They were not the first ones to arrive, but Liz easily picked Charlotte out. She was standing a little back, surveying the yard. “Do you think the streamers on the side of the house are too much?” Echoing the front, Charlotte had put more streamers on the upstairs balcony and hanging down the sides.

“It’s cute. Besides, how often does your sister graduate high school?” Liz put her arms around Charlotte and squeezed tightly for a moment, then let her go.

“Lizzie, come dance with us,” Lydia called. She had already taken position on the dancefloor, a big sheet of painted plywood that had been staked into the ground. She had Jane and Cat standing with her. “And get Mary too!”

With a tiny bit of coaxing, Liz managed to loop her arm in Mary’s and they joined their sisters. Clearly, Lydia had had forewarning of the playlist from Mariah, because the next song was one of her favorite dance songs, a staple of childhood slumber parties. What started as real dancing quickly turned silly, all the girls jumping and lip-singing along. Mariah had joined them, slipping into the throng. Liz tossed her head, her skirt swishing around her legs and her bangs falling in her eyes, until she began to grow dizzy. She fell back from the throng, laughing, and tossed her hair over her shoulder. She turned to say something to Jane but stopped where she was, still among the movement. One of the other girls stumbled into her before stepping away to dance again.

There he was, looking as haughty and uncomfortable as ever.

She grabbed Charlotte’s arm tight enough that she hoped it hurt as she dragged her friend away from the dance. “You didn’t tell me that Fitzwilliam Darcy would be here!”

“I told you Chip was coming, didn’t I?”

“So?”

“Have you ever seen them apart?”

“Yes! Just three days ago, I saw Chip Bingley in a coffee shop without Darcy.”

Outside of that, then?”

Liz paused. “No.”

“They’re basically attached at the hip. Want one, get the other.” Charlotte paused as Jane ran up to Chip; he greeted her with a quick hug, though they both observed how his hand lingered on her arm for several seconds after they separated. “Poor Jane; she’ll probably have to put up with him constantly.” She gently patted Liz on the head. “At least now you can give him your book review in person.”

“I didn’t mean it,” she hissed. “I’m not going to get into a spat with an author at Lydia and Mariah’s party. Don’t bring it up.”

“That’s very noble of you, Lizzie.”

Liz groaned so loud that a couple of people turned to look her direction.

~~~~

She successfully avoided him for most of the evening, but it became significantly harder when the food was brought out. Served buffet style, everyone took to the tables or moved to fill their plates.

“Liz,” Cat muttered in her ear, “don’t look now, but you’re being watched.” She giggled.

“By who?” Liz asked, looking doggedly forward. There was a puddle of anxious expectation in her stomach; she knew exactly who she didn’t want to be looking her way… She put a spoonful of macaroni salad on her plate and then immediately questioned why—she hated macaroni salad.

“By Darcy.”

It was a close call, but Liz managed to keep her plate in hand. “Oh, for the love of God,” she hissed, continuing to step along the table, filling her plate. After what seemed like a mile of stiff walking and very intentional not looking, she reached the end of the table and executed a sharp 90-degree turn. She marched to an empty table, plopped her plate down, and strategically edged the chair around until she could see him.

Still staring. Not even trying to hide it.

Charlotte took the seat to her right. “Oh, Cat was right. He is looking at you.”

Liz turned her face towards her plate. “How do we make him stop?”

“Ask nicely?”

Liz snorted through her nose and somewhat aggressively stabbed a piece of pineapple. Well, she decided, if he was going to stare at her then she could return the favor. Darcy really was very tall. Over six feet, she thought, and certainly towering over her. He had a very small dimple in his chin and a rather large, slightly beaked, nose. It fit his face, though, giving him a haughty air—easier to look down on everyone with it too. He was wearing a silvery gray shirt that shone, but not in a cheap way, with a dark purple tie, dotted in a slightly lighter shade of violet. The sleeves were rolled halfway up his forearms and his suit jacket was draped over the back of his chair, but there was no denying that the award for most overdressed person at a BBQ had to be split between him and Lydia.

Somehow, Liz couldn’t see Darcy enjoying that distinction.

Finally, finally, he looked away as Caroline took the seat next to him. Liz let out a long sigh that turned into a groan half way out of her throat. Charlotte marked her with a squished little smile, her lips puckered together and her nostrils flared with suppressing a laugh.

“Don’t you dare say anything,” Liz warned, gesturing with her fork. “He’s just trying to intimidate me because I said he looked grouchy.”

“That’s a little generous, Lizzie. You said his face was ‘stuck that way,’ if I remember correctly.”

“Well, it is, isn’t it? Have you seen him smile?”

Charlotte was silent on that, for she would be loath to admit she had not once seen a smile on his face. But she also would not admit that that man’s stare had certainly not been one of dislike.

Caroline was rapidly coming to the same conclusion. She dropped her plat on the table with more force than was strictly necessary and said, very loudly, “I bet I can guess what you’re thinking, Fitz.”

“I very much doubt it,” he replied slowly, keeping his face turned away.

You’re thinking how exhausting this place is and how much you want to leave this stupid backyard party. And wondering why we were invited to such a… family gathering as this.”

“Not exactly.” He still wasn’t looking at her. “I was just thinking how soft and velvety brown eyes can appear in one moment and how sharp and intelligent they can become in another.”

Caroline, whose eyes were blue, flushed and pursed her lips.

Before she could spend too long with her injured feelings, there was a commotion by the food. Ned, who had already had several beers, and not all of them at the Lucas party, was saying to Lo quite loudly, “And how would you like it if put off all your work like that? Just said ‘it’s not important, the only one who can be busy and invested here is me.’”

“Ned, that’s not what I mea—”

“Well, I wouldn’t know what you mean half the time because you won’t look up from your phone, will you?”

Caroline marched to her sister’s side. “Ned. Ned, that’s enough, you’re making a scene.” People were beginning to notice; she shuddered at the thought of this little town of nobodies knowing their gossip.

“Making a scene, am I? I can—”

A man appeared at his elbow, slightly balding in a checkered shirt with a bit of a paunch. He smiled genially at Ned, despite the scowl on his face. “Ned, is it? Now, why don’t you and I go find somewhere nice and calm to cool down inside, all right? Yes, bring your food, there’s a good man, and we’ll just find you somewhere comfortable, no need to worry!” Mr. Lucas bustled Ned out of the garden and into the house in a congenial hubbub, moving quickly enough he did not have time to utter another word.

Lo sniffed once or twice and when Caroline saw she was not going to cry, reverted to her previous plan of attack against Darcy and his impregnable feelings.

~~~~

Mr. Lucas loved to make friends. Meeting new people was one of his favorite hobbies. By extension, he enjoyed making introductions between others as well. He had noticed Fitzwilliam Darcy around town, but not had the chance to really meet the man. He always seemed to be alone or with his group of friends, but he had yet had the pleasure of seeing him socialize outside of his group. But if Mr. Lucas was to introduce him to someone that might be a new friend, then he, Mr. Lucas, would have to get to know him first.

Once he had settled poor Ned in a comfortable, air-conditioned seat in the house, he returned to the party comfortably back in swing once the agitation was removed, he immediately sought out the man. He found Darcy at a table, sitting with the Bingley sisters. But the moment Caroline and Lo vacated their seats at the table, Mr. Lucas swooped in. “Hello! I hope you are enjoying yourself?” Without waiting for a response, he continued, “My name is William Lucas. And you are… Fitzwilliam Darcy, yes?”

“Just Darcy is fine.” He looked down at his hands and fidgeted with his watch. It had a worn, dark brown leather band and a silver and white face.

“I’ve heard your friend Chip is a lawyer. What do you do for a living, Darcy?”

“I’m a writer.” His delivery of the response was so utterly flat, it belied the genuine pain in his eyes, as if he truly wished to be swallowed by the earth and never seen in their company again. 

“Amazing! Anything I might have heard of?”

Darcy sighed. “A book of short stories. A novel, recently.” Mr. Lucas was still looking at him; Darcy realized he was waiting for the title. “It’s called The Breaking Point.”

He was amazed to watch the man’s face, his smile never faltering. He vaguely wondered how in the world someone could be so continuously cheerful like that. Mr. Lucas opened his mouth to say something else, but he paused and got to his feet. “Ah, Liz! Just the girl I wanted to see.”

Darcy quickly struggled to his feet, the chair sticking in the loose ground; it caught him on the back of his knee and tried not to stumble in front of her. He caught a glimpse of her white sneakers, stained with streaks of green from the grass. The length of her dress seemed to swallow her up, but the deep blue was very flattering on her. He was momentarily distracted by the wide V neck that showed her collarbones and some of her shoulders, the sleeves wide and loose. Her bangs were swept slightly over her eyes, her hair overall in a bit of a jumble.

“Darcy, have you met Elizabeth Bennet?”

“I… have.”

Liz took half a step forward and looked up into his face, really looked, for the first time up close. She had thought his eyes flat gray, but the early evening light brought out flecks of green in them. They were ringed with a set of thick, dark lashes.

Mr. Lucas beamed as he patted her on the shoulder. “Our Elizabeth is an English major! I’m sure you two could find some common books to talk about!”

Liz plastered on her best customer service smile. “Thanks, Mr. Lucas, but really, I’m fine. I am certain Darcy and I have very different tastes in literature.”

Darcy thought to protest, but instead he furrowed his brows and clenched his jaw, pulling his eyes from her face towards the ground.

“Now, now, Liz,” Mr. Lucas attempted to chastise, but she was already whisking herself away.

She almost wished she hadn’t read his book; then maybe she could at least have attempted a civil conversation. But it was far too late for that.

Chapter Text

“Caroline and Lo invited me over for dinner. Can I borrow the car?”

“What, dear?” Mrs. Bennet asked, blinking. Her hearing caught up with Jane’s words. “Oh! Will Chip be there?”

“No, Mom. Just Caroline and Lo.”

Mrs. Benet narrowed her eyes. “What time do they want you there?”

Jane looked down at her phone. “Six.”

“Certainly not. Take the ferry.”

“But it only runs until eight!”

“Yes,” she said with a glint in her eye. “And if you miss it, Chip will have to drive you home or perhaps you can stay the night. I’m sure they can spare a room in that house of theirs.”

Mom!”

But Mrs. Bennet refused to listen to her complaints or concerns. There was a ferry that ran across the thickest part of Hertford Lake, carrying passengers from the main town of Meryton to the more residential neighborhoods and back again. While it was fast to take the ferry—drive around took close to half an hour, the ferry only 14—it ran only from 9 AM to 8 PM every weekday. (On Saturday, it was 10 AM to 9 PM and it didn’t run at all on Sundays.)

Jane finally admitted defeat, throwing her hands in the air and running up the stairs to change clothes. Liz was already in their bedroom, lying on her bed and reading a book. Usually so placid, it was easy to see whenever Jane was ruffled or upset. She sat down on her bed in a huff and Liz gently placed a bookmark between the pages. “What’s up?”

Jane told her as she dressed.

The girls had never seriously redecorated their room since they moved in. The walls were still a shade of powdery blue and their furniture was mostly brown wood, save for Liz’s bookshelf and the replacement nightstand Jane had purchased in high school when her previous one collapsed. They could not fit more than two twin beds in the room, and they used blankets and comforters until they were worn through with holes, sharing them between all of the girls. On Liz’s bed was a comforter originally purchased for Cat with, of course, cats on it. The one on Jane’s bed had originally been Mary’s, featuring a rocket ship and the night sky.

“She means well, but—”

“You’re being too generous. She’s trying to set you up with Chip.”

Jane blushed. “But we just met each other! He’s very nice, I like him a lot, but I don’t know…” She paused and bit her lip.

“I know.” Liz got up and gave Jane a quick hug. “You don’t have to explain to anyone you don’t want to. Not even Mom.” She paused, watching over Jane’s shoulder as she put on lipstick. “I’ll walk you to the ferry.”

Jane stood up for an outfit check and, upon receiving the thumbs up, picked up a pair of shoes from the bottom of the closet, and exited the bedroom.

“Have fu-un,” Lydia called out to them as they came down the stairs. They could just see the top of her head where she was lying on the couch in the living room. She raised her arm to waggle her fingers dramatically. Jane looked a little ill.

“Ignore her,” Liz muttered and shuffled Jane out the door.

“I wish Mom wouldn’t share everything with Lydia…”

The early evening air was pleasant to walk through. They followed the main road until the sidewalk began, taking a leisurely pace.

“Really, I don’t know what Mom’s getting at.”

Liz laughed at her. “Yes, you do. You’re just too nice to call her out on it.” Before Jane could continue the thought—when she was thinking very hard, her eyebrows pulled together to make a little V of skin just above the bridge of her nose, and it was already forming—Liz cut her off and said, “Jane, I know you want to like them and they say they’re your friends, but I’m not sure if they really respect you. They don’t seem very nice.”

Jane just shook her head. “They’re just not used to the way life is here! They’re from New York, so it’s really different out here. Besides, Caroline said Lo was having a bad day and she wanted me to help cheer her up! They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t really want to spend time with me.” She fished her phone out of her pocket and passed it to her sister to read the text chain.

Heeeyyy Jane, r u doing anything tonight? Lo’s having a bad time. )’:

Oh no! What happened?? ): ): Yes, I’m free.

Won’t go into it over text. Dinner?

Yes

184 Netherfield Dr. Come at 6.

Ok, c u soon! <3

“They enjoy my company.”

“Of course, they do!” Liz said, handing the phone back. “Who wouldn’t?”

Jane only smiled and ducked her head slightly.

~~~~

Mrs. Bennet was in the dining room cutting coupons when Liz returned. She had always been very methodical about the task, piling each week’s mailings and then clipping them out every Sunday before clipping them together by expiration date. “Did Jane make it on the ferry, Lizzie?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, good. Good.” She returned to her task.

Liz sighed and stepped into the living room. Lydia and Cat were both there, Lydia sprawled out along the couch still, Cat curled up in one of the armchairs, holding the TV remote.

“Ugh there’s nothing on,” Lydia complained. She drew her arm up and pointed a finger at Liz. “Go put on a movie.”

Liz stopped, put her hands on her hips, and raised her eyebrows, staring Lydia down. After a pause, Lydia added, “Please.”

“Sure.” Liz took a seat on the floor, cross-legged, by the extensive DVD collection. “What do you want?”

“List some of them off.”

“Um… The Princess Diaries—one and two—, The Princess Bride, The Wizard of OZ, Lord of the Rings, Eraserhead—”

“Yes! Let’s watch that again,” Cat said, sitting up in the chair.

Lydia snatched the remote out of Cat’s hands. “Why do you always want to watch Eraserhead? That movie’s gross.”

“But the makeup—”

Lydia let out a cry, almost a shriek, that made both her sister jump. “I hate that movie! You’re obsessed, Cat, you’re worse than Mary sometimes, I swear.”

Cat shrunk down in her chair and said nothing as Lydia and Liz agreed on The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Liz put the disk in and then moved one of the pillow-like ottoman seats right next to Cat’s chair. She leaned in close and whispered, “When Lydia goes to bed, I’ll watch it again with you.”

Cat flashed her a grateful smile.

Cat’s favorite part about movie was the special effects makeup. Especially in horror films, often the gorier the better. She loved to dissect the images of each movie monster and watch hours of behind-the-scenes tutorials of how to make it yourself. When she was about 14, she desperately wanted to start an SFX makeup YouTube channel, but Lydia, not quite 13, had quickly stolen the spotlight, forcing her into more traditional makeup and beauty videos until both girls abandoned the project. While it was true, Cat did fixate on films sometimes—the most recent one before Eraserhead was Pan’s Labyrinth—it was never something anyone in the family other than Lydia attempted to discourage.

Liz crossed her legs on the ottoman to watch the movie. Eventually, Lydia grew bored and moved on, and Cat switched over to horror movies. Liz moved to the couch, curling herself up into a ball and leaned the arm. Her eyelids lowered lazily as the screen flickered and screamed at them. She must have dozed off, because when she looked again, she couldn’t tell what movie was on at first glance. Cat had fallen asleep on the other side of the couch.

Liz’s phone buzzed and she snatched it off the side table. It was just past 10 PM. “Mom!” she called out. “Jane just texted me!” After a moment, met only by silence, she opened the text.

Missed the last ferry. Not feeling so good tho ): C invited me to stay over tonight. I’ll text u when I wake up.

Oh no!!! ): Hope you feel better. Let me know!!

Thanks. Will do. Love u, Lizzie

Love you too, sis.

She struggled to pull herself up from where she had sunk into the couch and, leaving Cat dozing to the sound of chainsaws from the television, wandered upstairs.

If Mr. Bennet had had his way, the entire house would have been lined with bookshelves. There was one downstairs that held family books, various volumes that belonged to the sisters or Mrs. Bennet, and many in The Longbourn itself. But Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s bedroom was where the real collection was—aside from Liz’s own. What had originally been a dressing room, or perhaps a very large walk in closet, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had come to an agreement about years ago, when they were first married. Mrs. Bennet’s vanity table and makeup was allowed in the room, but it held no clothes. Instead, it was lined wall to wall with shelves, from leather bound volumes to vintage, cloth-bound books, and newer paperbacks and hardcovers.

Liz found both her parents in the room; her father, reading in his chair, her mother sitting at the vanity, rubbing her face with her various nighttime creams. Liz showed her the phone and she read the messages aloud.

Mr. Bennet snapped his book closed. “Well, my dear, I hope you’re pleased. Your daughter is stranded on the other side of the lake and she has food poisoning.”

Mrs. Bennet clucked her tongue. “She does not have food poisoning, Tom. I’m sure it’s only a stomach ache.” She returned to rubbing her cheeks.

Mr. Bennet met the gaze of his second daughter evenly, though he could see how concern crinkled the corners of her eyes and pulled her lips tightly. “There, there, Lizzie, I’m sure your sister will be fine. She’ll make her way home in the morning, no harm done.”

“Okay, Daddy. Mama. Good night.”

“Good night, Lizzie, dear,” Mrs. Bennet said, planting a damp, soapy kiss on her cheek. Liz wiped it off with her sleeve after she left the room.

The only one of his children Mr. Bennet had passed his bookish tendencies to was Liz. Her own bookshelf was filled to the brim, spilling over with fantasy and science fiction novels, often stacked sideways or placed with two rows on the shelf. The very top shelf was the only one neatly arranged. Along with several knickknacks and postcard-sized pieces of art were two books of short stories and several copies of the same two books.  

She pulled a volume down from the top shelf. Book one of The Brambling ChroniclesClouds Above a Kingdom by William F. Austen. Already a substantial novel at over 600 pages, it had seemed to grow over time, the pages bloating with every reread. The corners of the front cover curled gently upward and the spine warped from handling. It was the same edition she bought brand new at 16. Although she had purchased a hardcover replacement (and a special edition release—with a map!) she always loved to read the original paperback. She took it with her to the bed, placing the book she had been reading earlier in the afternoon on her nightstand. Crossing her legs and leaning her back against the pillows, she slowly flipped through the first pages.

Wren slid her hands over the top of the bark, her fingers finding those familiar notches, worn down by the countless times she had gripped the limbs before. She braced one foot against the trunk and hoisted herself to sit comfortably on the bough. From up high, distance seemed so different. The town was so small, the mountains so close.

And the boundary line she had never before crossed in her life seemed so claustrophobic and unimportant. If she could but set one foot across it, perhaps her entire life would somehow show some ounce of meaning.

Theoretically, The Brambling Chronicles was to be a trilogy. Three related short stories and the first two books had been released in quick succession, but since then there had been nary a word on the third. The first related story had been released years ago, appearing in a small-print, East coast fantasy magazine that Liz had spent a considerable amount of time tracking down, several sleepless nights of stalking online auctions, before paying more than double the initial list price for the collection. The others had been much easier for her to get her hands on.

For Austen to pump out well over 1,500 pages in just two and a half years was impressive, but it was becoming disheartening to hear nothing at all about the next book. Five years is not a long time to wait, in the world of literature for the first to the final book; after all, some people waited for sequels for decades.

In times of stress, she would pull them out again, whether to read or simply stroke their covers it mattered little. Even after so long the raised gold lettering of the title still stood out under the caress of her fingers, though some of the color had started to wear and chip away, showing the jet black of the cover underneath. The spine was comfortably cracked, although there was a small slit on the top corner where the binding was beginning to peel that worried her slightly.

Eventually, she laid off the book and got ready for bed. Brushing her teeth and braiding her hair so it wouldn’t knot during the night. Somewhat optimistically, she set her alarm in time for her morning run, but she had already decided if she hadn’t heard from Jane, she wouldn’t go. Still eyeing her phone in case any new messages came in the night, she crawled under the covers, eventually falling asleep with her hand on top of The Brambling Chronicles.

~~~~

There was no message in the morning, as she expected. Liz let herself flop back down on the pillow. She waited for a few moments before hoisting herself out of bed. She played with her phone for almost half an hour before sending a text to Jane.

How are you?

Liz took her time dressing and readying for the day as she waited for Jane’s response. It was supposed to be a hot one, and she slipped on a gray and white striped tank top and a pair of shorts. She was curling her hair up into a bun on the top of her head when she heard the ding of a response. Only half tied, the bun sat loose on her head, the ends of her hair curling out to stick up at the back of her head.

Still blah. Can u pick me up?

Yeah. Did they not offer to bring you home???

They did. I said no…… I didn’t want to be sick in Chip’s car ;_;

JANE

I would have felt bad ok???

We will come get you.

Thank u

Shaking her head, her hair started to fall out of the tie, and she redid it quickly, leaving it tighter, but just as messy as before. “Jane is still sick, Mom,” she announced, rather loudly, as she entered the kitchen. Mrs. Bennet was humming to herself while she cut up a cantaloupe. “She wants me to come pick her up.”

“And why can’t Chip drive her home?”

Liz let herself fall into an open chair, reaching for the box of cornflakes on the table. “Because she doesn’t want to throw up in his car.”

Lydia made a fake gagging sound. “Ew, Lizzie, not at breakfast.”

Liz didn’t respond, continuing to glare at their mother, who was finally beginning to show a faint hint of concern. “If she’s that ill, maybe she should stay? Perhaps he should call a doctor.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing awful, but she should come home.” The cereal clattered gently in the bowl. She reached for the milk.

“Well, Lizzie, even if I had lent her the car last night, she probably would have been in no fit state to drive!” Mrs. Bennet sniffed, feeling perfectly justified. Mr. Bennet finally lowered his newspaper enough to glance between his wife and his daughter, eyeing daggers in her mother’s direction.

“Lydia and I have the minivan today; we were going into town.” No one but Mr. and Mrs. Bennett were allowed to drive the sedan in anything but dire circumstances. Liz had considered asking for permission to take it out that morning, but she didn’t feel it was worth the pestering. Cat and Lydia had shared a car until just a few months previously, when it was totaled in an accident; they hadn’t saved up the money for a new one just yet, even with the insurance.

“So, you’ll come pick up Jane?”

Lydia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but after we’re done! I don’t want Jane being sick in our car either.”

Fine.” Liz pinched the bridge of her nose very tightly. “Then just drop me off in town. I’ll go sit with Jane and then you can come and get us, okay?”

A grin spread across Lydia’s lips. “Only if we get to see the inside of the house.”

For once, Mr. Bennet stepped in. “Lydia. You will spend a reasonable amount of time in town and then you will go get your big sister. Do you understand?”

Lydia sighed loudly. “Yes, Dad.”

“Good.” Mr. Bennet snapped the paper and disappeared again behind the newsprint. “Drive safe.”

Lydia rolled her eyes so hard it looked like it hurt.

~~~~

Liz said goodbye to her sisters by the lakefront. They parked and walked into town as she headed towards the water. There was a path that followed most of the way around the lakefront, almost into the neighborhood of the larger summer homes. Grateful she hadn’t taken her morning run, she popped in some earbuds and started off jogging down the path, waving at a few people she knew and stopping to pet several dogs.

Well before she reached the end, she was drenched in sweat, and it was almost a relief to reach the end of the pavement. She stopped for several minutes to rest against a large rock in the shade of one of the trees. From that point, she would have to walk uphill, through a lightly wooded area, until she reached the road that led to into the neighborhoods. Luckily, it was a fairly straight shot, cutting off a significant amount of the curving road that had to be driven to reach the streets.

She stood and stretched, feeling her spine crack lightly and fall comfortably back into place. She did her best to hike up the hill, avoiding as many scratches from tree branches as she could, shoving her sticky bangs away from her eyes whenever she stopped to rest for a moment.

Eventually, she reached the road again, and easily followed it to Netherfield Drive. Even without Lydia’s photographs, it would have been easy to tell which house she was looking for. Being unrented for several seasons had done nothing to harm the exterior of the house. There was a tall fence around the edges of the property, mostly built of gray stone, with a tall metal gate that appeared to swing inward. The house itself had a slate gray roof with white siding and blue-painted shutters, flung open around an excessive number of windows, at least 16 on the front of the house alone. There were several cars sitting in the driveway. One of them was the red Tesla from the photos.

She stepped up to the gate and pressed a button on the gray little intercom box. She expected to be asked her name, but it buzzed almost immediately response to her touch and the gates smoothly pulled open. Shrugging, she crunched up the gravel path the door, stopping for a moment to admire the several tall, brilliantly green bushes, covered in sprays of pink flowers. Never having the greenest of thumbs, she could hardly be pressed to name any of the landscaping.

The blue front door opened in seconds of her knock to reveal Chip Bingley, his hair as frazzled as usual, in an untucked white button down and a pair of tan shorts.

“Hey! Elizabeth, right?” He stepped back, waving her in with one wide arm.

“Yes. Just Liz is fine.” She followed him inside. The bright, almost reddish toned wooden floors shone with polish. There was a wide staircase leading to the second floor with a white-painted banister. A large, but tasteful, silver and leaded glass chandelier hung above them, full of tiny, diamond shaped panes in blue, green, red, and orange. “How’s Jane doing?”

“She’s okay, I think.” He colored slightly. “She’s been smiling through it, anyway.”

“Sounds like Jane.”

“She’s just up the stairs, second bedroom on the left.” Chip looked Liz up and down for the first time, seeing her red in the face and slightly bedraggled looking. “Can I… can I get you anything, Liz?”

“A glass of water would be great before I go up to see her.” She paused for a second, still following him. “And, uh, it’s going to be a little bit before we leave. My sisters, Cat and Lydia, have the car. They’re going to have to pick us up. Is that okay?”

“Perfectly fine!” He led her into the kitchen; the room was open concept and, sitting at the dining table several feet away, were Darcy, Caroline, and Lo. Caroline’s back was to Liz, but she turned quickly in hear seat—a moment after Darcy rose. Lo barely glanced in her directly, swiping at her phone and drinking a florescent smoothie that would have made Lydia proud. “Liz is here to pick up Jane. Though they have to wait for their ride!” he added with a chuckle. He pulled a glass from the cabinet and filled it with ice from the fridge.

Darcy was stalking closer, Caroline on his heels. He said nothing but she leaned against the counter and said, “Your ride is coming? You mean to say you walked all the way here?”

Liz gulped down several mouthfuls before replying. “Well, from Meryton. Not The Longbourn. That would have been a bit too far even for me.” She finished her glass, tilting it so far that a bit of ice clunked against her cheek. Chip took it from her hand and refilled it. “I’ll just go sit with Jane. It’ll be like we’re not even here.” Pushing her bangs out of her face again, she gave a cheerful little wave and quit the room.

Darcy’s eyes followed her until she was out of sight. Though she had been quite red in the face, she appeared only breathless because of the heat, not the strenuousness of the exercise. Her eyes had been particularly bright and the color brought a contrast to her cheekbones. As he sat down again, he probed his own thoughts and found himself concerned about one of the small red patches on her shoulder—possibly a sunburn—and quickly tried to shake of the feeling. It was none of his business if she burned while running about the countryside.

He turned, to find Caroline with her back to him, already snickering to Lo. “She looked so gross.”

Lo snorted into her latte.

“God, can you imagine? Hiking around the lake in this heat?”

Chip picked up his breakfast, which had grown slightly cold in his absence while tending to Jane and Liz. “I think it was very sweet of her. It just shows how much she loves her sister.”

Darcy couldn’t tell if it was his imagination or not, but he thought he heard something sharp in the way Chip had said “loves her sister.” His thoughts were quickly called back to the company.

Caroline had returned to her seat and she leaned forward, pressing herself against the table so her breasts peaked out of her low-cut shirt. She put one hand on his arm. “Fitz, you wouldn’t want your sister coming up to some strangers house looking like that, would you?”

“No, absolutely not.”

“Jane’s health is far more important than Liz Bennet’s appearance! I could not care less if she walked here than if walked or drove or… or rode a tandem bicycle!” Chip said, rather loudly. Both his sisters and Darcy looked at him. He pinkened again and, standing up, took his breakfast plate with him out onto the back porch. It is difficult to slam a sliding door, but he did his best, despite only being rewarded with a slightly dull thunk.

Caroline leaned even closer to Darcy. “And has this instance changed you opinion on brown eyes at all, Fitz?”

He met her gaze evenly, looking down his nose slightly. “Certainly not; they were brightened by the exercise. And I thought the blush suited her very nicely.” So, saying, he stood, moved his empty plate to the sink, and disappeared into the living room. After two or three minutes, all Caroline could hear was the furious typing from a keyboard. She pushed her breakfast away in a huff.

~~~~

Really, Lizzie!” Jane protested for the fifth time. “I’m okay. I’m just a little nauseous. It’s probably food poisoning or a stomach bug.” She had borrowed a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants from Caroline, her own clothes neatly folded on the top of the dresser.

Liz was not convinced. She sat stiffly in a chair she had kidnapped from the hallway, trying not to get her sweat on the fluffy white pillow that seemed to be attached to the chair covering. She was about to offer to fetch food or something to drink again when there was a gentle knock on the door. The sisters looked over to see Chip entering.

“Is Lydia here?”

“Oh, uh, no, not yet.” He was making an expression at Jane that Liz couldn’t make out. But Jane seemed to know what was happening; she sat up a little straighter in the bed. She patted the bed for him to come sit down. He perched on the edge and turned to Liz. “So, Ned, uh… Left. He and Lo had a fight.” From the resigned shrug of his shoulders, it was clear it was not the first time. “We rented a cabin up in the state park, and I already invited Jane along. But do you think you might want to join us? Now that Ned’s not coming, we have room. And you’re outdoorsy, right? Lots of hiking around for a few days.”

“Yes,” said Liz very slowly. She did enjoy hiking very much, but she was not exactly thrilled at the prospect of Lo, Caroline, and Darcy’s company in a cabin in the woods.

“Please say you’ll come, Lizzie! Wouldn’t it be so nice to get away from the summer rush for a few days?” They had clearly planned this in advance. Jane’s eyes were wide and expectant, Chip’s expression almost the same.

“I mean, sure…”

“It would be so much fun,” she pleaded, reaching out to take her sister’s hand.

Liz sighed inwardly, her willpower crumbling in the face of an ill sister and a puppy of a human being like Chip Bingley. “Yeah, I can come.”

“Great!” Chip grinned like he meant it. “I booked it for five days!”

Liz’s phone buzzed; the text was from Lydia.

On the wayyyyy ;* ;* ;*

“Oh good,” Jane sighed. “Let me get dressed.”

Liz shuffled Chip out of the room. He was still beaming. “I’m so excited! Have you been hiking there before?”

Liz nodded.

“Oh, good, maybe you can lead us around! I’m absolutely hopeless with directions. When Darcy and I were in school together—” He was still rambling when Jane appeared, a little worse for wear, in her dress from the night before. With her face scrubbed of makeup and her hair pulled into a ponytail away from her face, Liz thought she looked exhausted. There were bags under her eyes and the rims were a little red.

But she put on her best smile ad followed Chip down the stairs.

“Great news, everyone!” Chip announced loudly as they entered the living room. Darcy was lurking in the corner, typing furiously on a laptop. He cautiously looked up as they entered. Caroline muted the TV and Lo briefly looked up from her phone. “Jane and Liz are going to be joining up next week!”

If she wasn’t the one who was going to be trapped with the lot of them, the range and poorly hid looks of horror and disgust across all three faces would have made her laugh out loud. Darcy’s lips went very thin as he pressed them tightly together, his nostrils flaring slightly. Lo pulled her head back so far that it pressed against the chair. Caroline’s face was calm, but her cheeks went as red as her brother’s did when he was excited.

“Liz,” she said in a soft voice that made Liz think of predator cats about to pounce. “Jane was telling us how over the summer all you sisters help your parents with the inn. Do you think you could both be spared? I mean, wouldn’t your mother need you to work at the hotel?” Her lip curled slightly on the word work, like it was a swear or something demeaning.  

“I think they’ll manage all right without us for one long weekend,” Liz replied, attempting to match Caroline’s tone. She seated herself primly on the next cushion over of the couch and was almost gratified to see Caroline inch away. “I very much enjoy hiking,” she added conversationally, watching Chip help her sister into a chair. “I’m sure we’ll all have a fantastic time, don’t you?” She forced a bright smile that, she hoped, might rival Chip’s.

“I’ll be sure to tell Ned all the fun he’s missing out on,” Lo purred. Her acrylic nails clattered lightly on the phone screen as she typed and Liz was certain she was saying something that was not at all related to “fun.”

The painful small talk soon came to an end when Cat and Lydia arrived. Lydia gawked openly at the house, traipsing around the room, barely looking at the sisters she was there to rescue. When she and Cat had completed their self-guided tour, she threw herself into a chair and said, “Chip, your house is excellent.”

Chip smiled back.

“You should totally throw a house party one of these days.” Darcy went white, Caroline sat up straight in her seat, and Lo began to type even faster on her phone. “I mean it! This would be an epic party house.”

Lydia,” Liz hissed, doing her best to gesture at her sister to stop. Lydia ignored her motions.

Chip, continuing to be blind to the reactions of the others, returned her grin. “That could be fun. I’ll definitely consider it.”

Please do,” Lydia squealed, grabbing Cat’s hand very tightly. “It’d be so fun.”

Liz stood up very quickly. “Chip, Caroline, Lo—” she paused, “Darcy. Thank you for your hospitality and for taking such lovely care of Jane, but I really think we must be going now. Lydia. Cat. Come on.”  Chip was getting to his feet to help Jane as Liz marched out of the room, and then out the front door. She waited next to the minivan with crossed arms for Lydia and the keys to arrive.

She was still babbling to Chip as he helped Jane on one side, Cat hovering on the other. What was more surprising was that she spotted Darcy standing behind them. He walked with them out to the front steps but then stopped, arms crossed, leaning against one of the front columns. He watched them as Chip helped Jane into the car, waiting until she was lying down in the backseat before he hopped out and waved a vigorous goodbye to his new friends.

Even Darcy following him back into the house with a black cloud of a bad mood hovering around him could not dampen his spirits; after all, he was quite used to it.

Chapter Text

Liz had always been very particular about the way she packed. She would pair out each day’s outfit in her mind, paring down the items until she had just enough to cover every day. While she did not often go on trips, she had certainly turned the prep work into a science.

Despite the exacting standards of Darcy and the sisters—or more likely because of—, Liz decided to bring some of the sadder pieces of hiking gear. Her oldest, most worn in boots, a high school cross country jacket, the Peter Pan baseball cap that her father had attempted to dispose of, which she promptly save from the jaws of the garbage dump, that had a tear along the back… If she was going to hike all over the state park, she would certainly do it in comfort.

Jane seemed a little more preoccupied. She kept pulling thing out of her drawers and putting them back again. When Liz saw her looking at earrings, she swiped the jewelry out of her sister’s hands. “I know you want to impress everyone, but remember we’re going hiking, okay?”

Jane looked a little crestfallen, but she did put them away. She had recovered by the next morning after she returned home, none the worse for wear, although Mrs. Bennet had put her on tea and dry toast until her stomach growled so loudly around dinnertime that Mr. Bennet could hear it in the next room over.

On Thursday morning, Chip was coming to pick them up. He had told them he rented a car large enough to fit the lot of them—him, his sisters, the Bennets, and Darcy—but Liz wasn’t sure she’d believe the image of Darcy and Caroline in a minivan until she saw it. Although he said he wouldn’t be there until the late morning, Jane set an alarm for 7 AM and wandered around their room anxiously until Liz woke up.

She yawned and watched her sister continue to pace. “Chip said he wasn’t coming until ten.” Jane said nothing.

Eventually, Liz got out of bed, stifling another yawn, and dressed. In the bathroom, she pulled the sleeve of her t-shirt up all the way so she could inspect the skin underneath. The burn on her shoulder had peeled a little, but after rubbing aloe gel on it for a few days, it seemed to be healing nicely. It was only a little red and no longer hurt when she put on a quick application. She carefully drew her hair up into a tight, high ponytail and pinned her bangs to the top of her head to keep them out of her face. At the last second, she also swapped out her contacts for her glasses. Even if they were staying in a cabin, she had yet to forget what happened last time she wore contact lenses on a hiking trip. Even with a cap that screwed on, mosquitoes were drawn to the tiny pools of liquid. She shuddered thinking about those long spindly legs near her eyeballs again.

In the kitchen, Mrs. Bennet was fussing over Jane. “Mom, leave her hair alone. It’s not like we’re going there for the fashion; it’s the woods!” She picked up an apple from the fruit bowl on the counter.

Mrs. Bennet’s glance was stormy. “Elizabeth Mae, I don’t see you meeting any nice young men right now. Chip Bingley was very kind to invite you along, but if you—”

“Mom,” Jane muttered, ducking out of Mrs. Bennet’s grasp, “please.”

Mrs. Bennet raised her hands to the sky. “Fine. Fine. You don’t want my help. If Chip doesn’t take you on a date when you get back, don’t come to me for advice!” She bustled back towards the counter, picked up a knife, and began loudly chopping a pile of vegetables. There was silence other than the hard clunking sound of the knife against the cutting board for several minutes before Mr. Bennet came down to breakfast.

The newspaper was already sitting in front of his chair but he paused before picking it up. “How long are you gone again, Lizzie?”

“Just ‘till Monday night, Dad.”

“Hmph. The house is remarkably free of sense when you are gone.” He snapped the newspaper as he opened it, in time with an increase in the speed of chopping behind him. Liz hid a grin behind her hand. Cat and Lydia stormed into the kitchen so loudly that Jane jumped, spilling cereal on the kitchen table.

“Good! You’re still here!” Lydia cried, slamming her hands on the table. “Write these down, we have questions you need to answer.”

“Questions?” Jane asked quietly, sweeping up the cornflakes. She tossed them in her mouth before pouring milk into the bowl.

“You’ve gotta report on Chip.” Lydia paused. “And Darcy, I guess.”

“He is very handsome,” Cat added, taking one of the empty chairs.

“Yeah, he’s all right,” Lydia conceded, sitting next to her.

“What questions?” Liz asked firmly, resolving already to ask none of them.

“How much money do they have? But more important, do they have abs? I bet Darcy does.”

“Tell us if you see them shirtless!”

“Or naked!” Lydia snickered.

Mr. Bennet’s forehead turned quite red over the top of the newspaper.

“Is Chip gonna ask you out?” Cat asked, leaning far across the table.

“He should.”

“He had better!” Mrs. Bennet finally interjected.

Liz had had enough. She shoved her hair back and slung her duffel bag over her shoulder, batting Cat and Lydia off as she escaped from their mother, who was now holding the knife quite threateningly, down the hallway. “And remind Chip he promised to throw a party, Lizzie!” Lydia called to her sister’s retreating back.

“Don’t you dare follow us outside!” Liz yelled in response before slamming the door. She stopped for a moment on the front steps, holding her hands against her temples. She couldn’t decide which was worse—her mother’s incessant attempts to set Jane up or spending five days trapped with Caroline Bingley and Lo Hurst? She was about to find out.

The door opened and closed again quietly as Jane joined her on the front steps. She bounced on the toes of her shoes. “Calm down,” Liz muttered. “You’re only feeding into Mom’s obsession.”

Jane responded with a slightly panicked glance, but stopped fidgeting.

Liz let out a deep sigh when the car pulled into the drive. It was red and sleek with slightly tinted windows, but Chip quickly rolled down the passenger side, leaning forward so far, he was almost in Darcy’s lap. “Hiya, Bennets!” She could feel her sisters’ eyes on her back; when she turned, there was a ruffling of the living room curtain. “How are you today?”

Jane beamed. “Very well, thank you.”

There was a pause. Jane elbowed Liz in the ribs. “Oh. I’m all right, thanks, Chip.”

Darcy was stone-faced in the front seat, resolutely looking straightforward.

“I hope you’re ready to enjoy some nature! Darcy, get out,” he added with a small laugh, playfully knocking Darcy on the shoulder. “Let Jane take shotgun.”

Liz expected him to protest; he didn’t. In fact, he said nothing as he slowly reached down to unbuckle his seatbelt. He tilted his head slightly, so he was not quite looking at her full on, but very clearly, he was watching Liz. He stepped out of the car, leaving the door open behind himself; Liz resisted the urge to shy back and stood her ground. Chip got out on the other side, after popping the trunk, and stepped around to take Jane’s bag from her. Liz turned away from Darcy and, following Chip, dropped her bag on top.

Cautiously, she peeked around the side of the car. Darcy hadn’t moved, except to step aside to let Jane take the front seat. Completely unaware of Liz’s trepidation, Chip walked back around the side of the car. He clicked a button and the side door slid open. Liz reached up, trying to grab the handle to close the trunk. Without a word, a hand moved over her shoulder, grasped the handle, and shut the trunk with a click.

Liz turned, face to face with Darcy. He wore a gray active jacket, zipped about ¾ of the way up, the neck of a white t-shirt just peeking out. He also had on a pair of slim black shorts with a gray stripe down the side that matched his jacket. In contrast to the expensive-looking outfit, his boots appeared quite worn and well-used, a light dusting of dried mud on the toes and around the eyelets.

She gave him a moment, waiting for him to speak. Several seconds ticked by and, when he was still silent, she pushed past him to climb into the car, rolling her eyes as soon as she turned her back on him. Caroline and Lo had taken the two seats in the second row. Caroline barely glanced up as Liz climbed into the car, not even attempting to move her legs out of the way. Liz had to press her back against Jane’s seat to shuffle in sideways before slipping through the space between the seats to fall into the back.

She had never seen a minivan with leather seats before. They were smooth and cream colored, as pristine as a car commercial. She leaned back in the seat, trying to think of salesman words, like “ergonomic” and “state-of-the-art”, as it cradled her back more comfortably than an easy chair.

The mood was ruined, of course, when Darcy entered the vehicle. Caroline moved out of his way, cooing some apology about making him sit in the backseat. He did not reply as he hunched himself forward slightly, too tall to stand. He was hardly more graceful than Liz had been, fairly toppling onto the other side of the backseat. Liz stifled a laugh. She was pretty sure he had seen her, too, but in a moment, he had pulled his gaze away. He pressed himself tightly into the corner of the seat and crossed his arms. She pursed her lips and, after he clearly continued to refuse to look at her, turned herself forward again. She crossed one leg over the other and clasped her hands in her lap. It was going to be a long ride.

~~~~

Liz didn’t realize she had dozed off until the car bumped over a pothole and her forehead knocked against the window. “Ouch,” she muttered, rubbing at it with her knuckles. She rolled her shoulders slightly until they gave a satisfying pop and turned her neck to smooth out the kinks. When she turned her head to face into the car, she would have sworn Darcy whipped his own face away; when she looked properly, he was staring out his own window, cheek planted firmly on a fist.

Caroline kept turning around in her seat to look at him. “Isn’t it exciting, getting away from people for a few days?”

“Yes.” Liz had never heard anyone sound less excited in her life.

“I think it will be so much fun to get away for a few days!”

Liz cleared her throat very softly. “Isn’t staying in Meryton your vacation for the summer?”

Caroline turned her head over the opposite shoulder so she could see Liz. “Oh. You’re awake.”

“Sorry,” she responded, almost automatically to match the accusatory tone, then tried not to roll her eyes at herself. You owe Caroline Bingley nothing. “Someone woke me up at seven this morning.”

“Sorry!” Jane called from the front, laughing a little.

Liz looked out the window. The woods themselves were fairly familiar; she hiked them often enough with her father, and later her friends, as a child and teenagers, but she hadn’t been out to the state park in a couple of years. The car turned up a road she had never taken before, just on the outside edge of the protected land where architects had been allowed to build rental properties for visitors who preferred not to sleep in a tent; Liz had never before had the luxury.

The road became gravel and the car crunched its way up a long driveway that inclined over a hill, moving with the slight dips in the path. It bounced a couple times before pulling to a stop. There was a general scuffle as Lo and Caroline got out of their seats. Darcy unbuckled his seatbelt but motioned for Liz to get out first. She clambered out and hopped down to the ground, the gravel crunching under her feet.

She immediately reached out to pluck at Jane’s sleeve. “This is a cabin?” Liz hissed. Jane only shrugged and shook her head slightly to keep Liz from going on about the house. I suppose it is technically a cabin, Liz decided after another minute of looking at it. It had pine siding and log-like details along the front. The roof on the front part of the home was reminiscent of an A-frame style building, but she had never seen an A-frame with wings before. Both ends jutted out, each with their own little porches. There was a huge, triangular window across the top floor.

Liz tore her eyes away from the house and nearly smacked into Darcy. She stumbled back a step and he turned to look at her. There was a pause in which she could not quite understand the expression in his eyes and then he thrust his hand out, breaking eye contact and offering her her duffel bag. She took it and he immediately stepped away without a word.

Shaking her head, Liz followed into the house, depositing her bag on a convenient bench next to the door. On the inside, there was a large, sunken living room, with a leather sectional couch and several chairs. On one wall was a stone feature wall with a fireplace and a TV mounted above it. There was a round table pushed towards the back corner of the room with several chairs sitting grouped tightly together. The kitchen could be seen through a large square archway.

At the back of the house was a glass door, leading out to a small balcony and a set of stairs, leading down. When Liz peeked out over the side of the railing, she saw a large patio area with a fire pit in the center. She spread her hands out on the railing and leaned forward with a sigh, breathing in the smell of the woods. After a minute, she turned and stepped back inside.

Chip, Caroline, and Jane were standing together close to the front door. Lo had already taken a seat on one side of the couch, typing away as usual. Darcy was standing a little apart from them, looking out one of the windows. He turned as she approached and quickly turned his head away again, resolutely staring straight forward.

“I’m not sure,” Caroline said, stressing her words very precisely, “what we would like to do for sleeping arrangements.” She was making eyes at Chip, who only held out his hands, marking his innocence. “There are three bedrooms.” She turned her glare pointedly towards Liz. “And four beds.”

There had obviously been some preplan that was ruined by Liz’s presence. However, she would not be intimidated, and Jane’s ability to completely disregard any tension in the room worked in her advantage for once. “Lizzie and I can share a bed, we don’t mind.”

Liz shrugged with a smile and let herself fall down on the couch close to Lo. “We’ve already been sharing a room since I was 11, what’s the difference?”

“What do you think, Caroline?” Lo asked while typing. “Are we due for some sisterly bonding time?”

Caroline looked as if someone had placed a lemon in her mouth, but she was desperate to compliment the taste regardless. Her lips both pursed and attempted to pull up in a smile at once, leaving her with a strained and bitter expression. “I guess we are,” she said finally.

Liz picked up her bag and tugged gently on Jane’s sleeve. “Let’s go put our stuff away.” In the opposite direction of the kitchen was a short hallway with doors that led to a bathroom and two bedrooms. The slightly larger one had a set of twin beds and a window that faced out the back, overlooking the valley. The smaller one had a single bed with a large, plaid-printed comforter over the top. Compared to the somewhat ostentatious architecture of the outside of the house, it seemed quote homey and comfortable.

Jane put her bag on the bed and moved to unzip it, pulling out an amount of clothing that seemed a little ridiculous for five days in the woods. Liz dropped hers on the top of the dresser and made to leave the room. “Oh! Aren’t you going to unpack?”

“Why? Doesn’t it seem a little overkill to unpack for such a short trip? I’m just as happy living out of my bag.”

“Lizzie…”

“It’s not like there’s anyone to impress here. I don’t think the wildlife is going to mind if my t-shirt is wrinkled.” She could feel Jane’s eyes on her back as she left the room. The doors to the bathroom and the other bedroom were both closed and the living room was empty when she entered. She hopped down the little step into the sunken area and nosed around. Over the back of the couch was a thick, woven blanket and there was a coffee table with a selection of magazines and large art books tucked into one of the cubbies at the bottom. On one side of the fireplace was a tall, built-in bookshelf, made of dark, unfinished wood.

There were a couple of cabinets at the bottom—Liz opened them to find a collection of board games. On the most accessible shelves were guidebooks for the area, both Meryton and the woodlands, as well as various knickknacks, like a hand carved animal that Liz was pretty sure was bear, or a little Zen tower of rocks that had definitely been glued together. Most of the reading-worthy books were in the higher shelves. Frustratingly, some of them were turned backwards for an “aesthetic” look. It wouldn’t have been such a problem if Liz could see or reach them more easily.

She couldn’t see what was on the highest shelf at all. Craning her eyes up, she slowly walked backwards a few steps, trying to read the spines. It was still too hard to see, so she backed up a little more. She didn’t realize how far back she had gone until she knocked one knee against the edge of the coffee table and started to tip backwards. An arm caught her just below her shoulders, lifting her back up into a standing position.

Darcy pulled his hand back almost immediately, his expression very flat.

“Thanks.”

He only nodded in response and stepped away. He took a seat at the round table in the corner, deliberately not looking at her. She wished there was someone there to appreciate the face she pulled; she settled for rolling her eyes and sitting in one of the armchairs until everyone reappeared. Lo returned before Caroline and Liz watched her as she glanced between the pair of them—Liz in her chair, Darcy studiously ignoring her—and, for once, did not immediately jump back on her phone. Instead, she took one of the empty chairs by Darcy and leaned forward to whisper something to him. He glanced at her sharply, his eyes quickly jumping over Liz, but said nothing in response. He kept his head down when Caroline came to sit on the couch. Jane skipped the scene entirely, stepping into the kitchen to help Lo put away the groceries.

“Well,” said Chip, clapping his hands together as he entered the living room at last, “let’s wander around and get lost. That seems like the thing to do today.”

“You’re the only one who’s going to get lost Chip.” Caroline had balanced her phone against a stack of books with the front-facing camera turned on. She combed her fingers through bumpy section of hair at the top of her head and pulled it back so it lay flat on the top of her hair, pulling the rest of it up into a ponytail.

Jane stepped up to him. “I’ll make sure you don’t get lost, Chip.” Liz watched with approval as he grinned at her and she turned pink. Liz hid her grin behind an over exaggerated eye-roll.

Chip held the door open, half bowing everyone out, before locking the door.

Almost immediately, Chip and Jane lagged to the back of the group, their heads tilted together, speaking in low voices. Lo moved ahead and, whipping out her phone, she began snapping pictures left and right.

Liz turned her back on them to offer what little privacy she could and soon found herself walking almost in line with Darcy. For once he seemed fairly unaware of her presence, his hands folded into the pockets of his athletic jacket. He threw her half a glance when she stumbled over a root on the path, but said nothing.

“So,” she started, attempting to strike up a conversation, “what kind of a name is ‘Fitzwilliam’ anyway?”

“It was my mother’s maiden name.”

“The Darcy family is very proud of tradition,” Caroline called from ahead of them on the path. “Fitz’s uncle the earl is a Fitzwilliam.”

Darcy shrugged.

“Your uncle is an earl?”

“Yes.”

Caroline stopped walking to let them catch up with her before she continued. “Fitz’s uncle is the Earl of Southampton. A very old family.” Darcy started walking a little faster, leaving the two of them a few steps behind. “I met them, a few years ago. Chip took Lo and I to London to visit Darcy and the Fitzwilliams and Georgie, while she was at school. She went to a boarding school outside of Bath.”

“Georgie?”

“My little sister. Georgia,” Darcy replied, speaking a little quickly, before ducking his head. Caroline had opened her mouth, but closed it again when he spoke.

Liz was tempted to ask him further what it was like to be related to royalty—or nobility, or whatever the proper term was—, needle him on it a little, but she had a feeling that Caroline would be the one to answer her question and not Darcy. Before she could think of a question, he sped up, surpassing both her and Caroline.

As she watched, Caroline also hurried, almost jogging in her attempt to catch up with him. “She might as well give up,” Lo said very softly to Liz’s left. She hadn’t noticed the other sister approach. Liz caught sight of one of the photos on her phone screen, a close up of a bird with a gentle, out of focus background of green leaves and diffused light; it was quite good. “He’s never been interested. Or at least not very, anyway.”

“Your sister seems very determined to have Darcy’s attention.”

Lo nodded and turned her head slightly to look at Liz out of the corner of her eye, watching as Liz adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose. “I don’t think she’ll stop without outside motivation.” She quickly turned away as they reached the first fork in the path.

Liz paused and watched her go. She didn’t want to follow, but she didn’t want to run into Darcy and Caroline if she took the other direction. Fortunately, she didn’t have to take the path. She pulled out her phone and opened the compass app. Turning back towards the house, she checked the direction, and headed off into the woods alone, breathing in the fresh air and letting out a sigh of relief to be away from the party, if only for a few hours.

~~~~

Liz reappeared just before dinner with twigs in her hair. She hadn’t meant to stay out so late, but she had gotten just a little lost—not that she would admit it to anyone at the house. Squaring her shoulders, she marched up to the front door and pushed it inward.

Darcy looked up first. He had a notebook open in his lap and had been tapping his pen against the edge of the page, stopping almost immediately as she entered. Caroline was next to him on the couch and she looked up at first just to lazily pass her eyes over Liz, before pausing to show an expression of distaste at Liz’s disheveled appearance; she leaned back, raising one eyebrow, one side of her lips pulling out into a small frown.

“There you are!” Chip said, grinning. “I thought we’d lost you for a while there! I wasn’t—”

Jane cut him off as she jumped to her feet. “Lizzie! You’re bleeding!” In a moment, she disappeared into the kitchen.

Liz turned towards the sitting room and mouthed, “Where?” Chip pointed towards her cheek and she raised one hand to the skin; her fingers came back damp with tiny pinpricks of blood. She heard the sound of paper towel ripping and the faucet running and Jane returned in a moment. She held the wet towel to Liz’s face.

“Here, clean yourself up.”

“Thanks. I didn’t realize…” She held the damp paper towel to her cheek and left for the bathroom. She wiped at her face a couple times before she entered.

While in theory it made sense, in practice Liz had always found it strange that bathrooms were so frequently beach themed when they lived several hundred miles away from the closest ocean. Lakes—even the Great Lakes—didn’t count. The floor tiles were sandy colored stone and the shower curtain was a pale blue. There were seashells placed fetchingly across the top of the vanity, but she could already tell they were going to get in the way with four people sharing the bathroom.

Putting the towel down, she leaned forward to inspect her face. There was a long, thin scratch down her left cheek that must have been made by one of the branches that hit her in the face more than once. It would heal; Jane worried too much. Liz pulled down her ponytail and shook out her hair so it fell around her shoulders before beginning to pick the sticks and leaves out. She ran her fingers through her hair several times to shake them all loose before grabbing Jane’s hairbrush off the countertop, as hers was still in the bedroom.

By the time she was ready, the scratch had stopped bleeding and she was relatively certain she could handle the company for another few hours. She let out a hard breath, squared her shoulders, and marched back into the living room.

Darcy and Caroline were both gone. Lo was propped up on one side of the couch, scrolling through her phone, Jane and Chip on the other. His hand was resting on the cushion right next to her leg, his fingers curled up just by her thigh, but not touching her. In the moment it took for Liz to decide if she wanted to address their closeness or not, Jane was on her feet. “Lizzie, if you come back all beat up, Mom’s going to—”

“What, ground you?” Liz grinned.

“Well… She’ll try.” Jane smiled too, despite herself.

“Sis, you’re 24. I think you can get out of it.”

“If you need somewhere to hide, my house is always open!” Chip offered.

Jane only smiled and tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear. Liz changed the subject. “Where did Caroline and Darcy go?”

“Oh, just down to the patio. Darcy’s cooking dinner.”

Liz took a furtive step forward, leaning in towards Chip until he reacted with a similar motion. “Is… is that safe? He might try to poison me to get me out of the way!”

Jane hit her on the arm. “Lizzie, stop! Leave that poor man alone.”

“See, this is why he doesn’t like me.” Laughing both at Jane’s reaction and Chip’s face as he strained not to burst out laughing, Liz practically skipped her way out the back door and down the wooden staircase. Even with the company, there was something so fortifying about nature. Being away from the press of the Meryton summer crowd didn’t hurt either.

The back of the house had an excellent view of the woods as they dipped into the valley and spread up across the next hill. Looking across the tree line, she could tell it would have an excellent sunrise, and made a mental note to try and wake up for it one morning.

She could already smell the food cooking before she reached the bottom of the staircase. The patio area was paved with stones and two curved benches around the unlit fire pit. Against the side of the house was a long wet bar and a grill, both pieces built into one long unit. Darcy was poking at the food, Caroline practically lounging beside him, one arm spread across the counter next to the grill.

“That’s being a little optimistic, don’t you think?” Darcy said as he closed the lid.

“I mean, if you think so then—” Caroline cut herself off quickly as she caught sight of Liz. “Hello.” 

Darcy turned quickly and remained, stock still and silent, looking at her. His shoulders had hunched ever so slightly, his chest pulling back. Caroline sighed, flipped her hair over one shoulder, and took a seat on one of the benches. Liz followed, sitting opposite. She met Caroline’s gaze evenly, leaning back slightly to get comfortable on the bench. The sun was setting on the other side of the house and it was beginning to grow chilly in the shade. Darcy was silent, minding the food. Chip, Lo, and Jane appeared eventually. Chip was holding a red and black lighter, the kind with a long neck and a large plastic handle. He put it on the top of the bar and turned away, digging for something under the stairs.

“I’ll make drinks.” Lo stepped up to the bar and started riffling around under the counter.

“Liz isn’t 21 yet,” Jane informed her firmly.

Lo poked her head back up. “Liz, do you care if I give you alcohol?”

“No.”

Lizzie,” Jane admonished.

“Chip, do you care if I give Liz alcohol?”

“N—” Jane turned her glare on Chip, who had just pulled a bag of charcoal out. “Um… yes? Yes, I care and that would be very wrong of us to do,” he said slowly, keeping eye contact with Jane. She nodded approval as he finished.

Lo met Liz’s gaze. “Jane, don’t look at what glass I’m giving Liz.”

Jane let out a long-suffering sigh and threw her hands in the air before plopping down into the seat next to her sister. Chip started pouring charcoal into the fire pit, heading back under the steps for the firewood, and then some pages of newspaper. He was tearing them up as Lo passed out the drinks. Liz wasn’t quite sure what went in them, but they were cool and pleasantly bubbly, with a hint of ginger ale at the finish.

“I… I guess I’ll light the fire, then?” He looked up at everyone with large, lost puppy eyes. When no one offered he added, “Does anyone want to help?”

“I’ve never been very good at this, oh no… Lizzie?” Jane asked, sitting up. “You know how to do this, don’t you?”

Liz shrugged and held up her drink. “Didn’t Mom say fire and alcohol don’t mix?”

Liz.”

She only smiled at her sister and decided the next day she would do her best to stop being a pain. It was hard to give in just yet, though as Caroline let out a huff, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well, someone had better light the fire. I’m cold.” She was wearing the least amount of clothing of the group, a pair of short, ripped denim shorts and a red tank top.

“Sorry,” Liz added in Jane’s ear when Chip had turned away. Jane narrowed her eyes, but there was no bite to the gaze. “It was too easy for me to pass it up.”

“Oh dear,” Chip muttered, mostly to himself. He shuffled around the wood in the pit, getting charcoal on his sleeves. He picked the lighter back up again and the flame licked ineffectually against one of the logs.

Darcy breathed a long-suffering sigh and held out his hand for the lighter, exchanging it for the grill tongs. “Give it here, Bingley—you watch the food. Did you pay any attention to the survival training in gym class?”

Chip handed over the lighter and the newspaper. “Well… No, not really. If you remember—gosh, even I don’t know why I remember this!—but it was such a nice day when old Marlow took us out, and someone must have been cooking, because there was this wonderful smell all through the air—”

Liz interrupted him. “You had survival training in gym class? What kind of school did you go to?”

Chip shrugged, waving the grill tongs around a little airily. “They did all sorts of strange things at that school… A bit like Boy Scouts but, you know, every day.”

“They used to send the student body out to survive in the woods on their own for two days, but they stopped that by the time we got there. The training remained, though.” At that point, Darcy had slid out of his seat and crouched down by the fire pit. Along with the leaves, he crumpled several pieces of newspaper and strategically slid them into the gaps between the smaller sticks and larger pieces of firewood. He flicked the handle on the lighter and held it against some of the newspaper, waiting until the flame caught before moving on to the next piece.

“Oh, honestly, Charles,” Lo sighed, resting her chin on her palm, her elbow on top of the bar, “if you hadn’t passed the bar, I would really be questioning your intelligence.”

He brushed off his hands on his pants and opened the lid of the grill. “My intelligence, dear Louisa, is not in question here. Just my timing.” He paused. “And maybe my attention span.”

Darcy let out possibly the first laugh that Liz had ever heard from him. It was not quite a joyful sound, more of a stifled snort of humor, but it was a start. Once the fire had caught all around the wood, he rose, dusting gravel and dirt from his knees before sitting again. “’Maybe’ your attention span, Bingley?”

“Well, all right, I’m not the most focused of people. I just like to do things quickly.” He tried to take a piece of chicken and put it on the serving plate, caught the edges of the tongs in it, and nearly dropped it as he tried to shake it off.

“Like this camping trip,” Caroline suggested.

“Or spending the summer at Meryton,” Lo added.

“Or picking the rental property,” Darcy said, with a certain degree of censure in his tone.

Chip did not seem particularly chided by any of it. “Yes! Exactly.”

“That is exactly what I might have thought you would say,” Liz said, leaning back in her seat.

“You think you know me, do you, Liz Bennet?”

“Yes, I do.”

Jane sighed and shook her head gently. “Lizzie, don’t tease him.”

Liz raised her hands in innocence. “I’m only being honest! Between lit class character analysis and all the people watching to be done in Meryton and at The Longbourn… I spend a great deal of time on character study.”

Chip clasped his hands together and grinned. “All right, Liz, tell me about myself!”

“You do things very fast because you’re too excited to get on to the next thing. You leave half-finished sentences and half-folded laundry behind you. If your father called you out to his law firm, you’d probably leave everything behind and at the end of your lease, the homeowner would have to call you and tell you what you forgot.”

Lo and Caroline exchanged a glance. Darcy leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he looked at her. Chip put the plate of food down and crossed his arms, the smile on his face slipping slightly. “Well… Fair enough, but I’m not sure how I feel about being seen through so easily.”

“I didn’t mean it as anything, really! While more intricate characters might be more interesting, people who are more direct are often better to know in real life.”

“I think you’re overestimating Bingley’s sureness of himself. He might pack up the house in a hurry, but if a friend knocked on the door and asked him to stay for the week, he’d just as likely stay for the rest of the month.”

“Darcy,” Chip said, quite firmly, “if in this imaginary scenario, I’m to be off to help my father, I would certainly—”

Caroline was laughing. “Now that does sound like Chip!”

“—do my best to—”

“Personally,” Liz said, a little loudly to cut through the chatter, “I think it’s very sweet of you, Chip. To care so much about making your friends happy.” That said, she set her drink down on the bench, stood, and walked purposefully over to the bar to take a plate of food.

Chip looked down at her. “Well, I appreciate you taking what Darcy said for a compliment, but I think you’re overdoing him.”

“Hmm…” was all she said in response, picking up a set of cutlery, but when she turned, Darcy was in front of her with arms crossed.

“Is it a virtue to allow others to make up your mind for you?” he asked, very quietly, so no one but her and Chip could hear.

I never said anything of the kind.” She stepped around him and returned to her seat. Once the plates were filled and the party returned to the fireside, Liz added, “What do you think, Chip, would make Darcy more inclined to forgive your actions?”

“If it were Darcy, I am sure that he would throw his belongings into a bags, throw the bag into his car, and ride off into the sunset without a word to anyone again.”

“Does pure obstinance make up for rashness, then?”

“I couldn’t tell you. Darcy, what do you say? Are we getting your opinions right?”

“I, also, never said anything of the kind.” He turned his gaze on Liz, gracing her with half a smile, one side of his mouth barely lifting, and a soft gaze. His tone, however, was hard. “You put opinions that are not my own in my mouth. However, if I am also playing along, remember this—the friend asking Bingley to stay did so without offering any purpose for why Bingley should stay. There’s no equality in the exchange.”

“Being personable is a vice, then?” Liz set her plate down to match Darcy’s position, both of them leaning towards the fire.

“When it occurs without regard for sense or reality, yes. But maybe it would be more reasonable to wait for the scenario to actually occur before we pick apart the gravity of the situation.”

“Oh, sure,” said Chip, rolling his eyes. “Then we will be aware of all parts of the problem and every misstep I make. And not forget all the moments of the past where my own agreeableness gave me poorer grades or reprimands when those who kept to themselves squeaked by without judgement. If I had been in Darcy’s position at school, I would not pay him mind as I do today. But then, not all of us can be hall monitors, can we?”

Darcy smiled thinly and pulled back, his face rather redder than before. She did her best to turn the laugh into a small chuckle and looked back down at her plate.

“Well, Fitz, what do you think of this character assassination, hmm?” Caroline asked, leaning towards him, shifting her body so one of her long legs pointed in his direction.

Darcy said nothing, watching the fire as a log collapsed in a spray of embers. The conversation evolved passed Chip and Darcy’s personalities as they ate.

“Lo,” Liz said, “What do you do? I don’t think I heard what you do for a living.”

“I’m a fashion photographer in New York.”

Caroline, growing tired of not being a part of a conversation, joined them. “Lo’s the only one who can talk about work and make it interesting. You’re still in school, aren’t you, Liz?”

“Yes. But I’m… taking the year off.” Caroline raised her eyebrows, but Liz refused to justify herself.

Chip said something that made Jane laugh loudly and put her hand in his forearm. He looked pleased, grinning when his eye met Liz’s. Darcy was almost entirely silent throughout the rest of the meal, mostly nodding in response to questions posed his way, until they started to leave him out altogether, which seemed to suit him just fine; he made no attempt to rejoin the conversation.

Jane was the last to finish her food. She made a motion to stand up and take her plate away, but Chip cut her off, taking it out of her hands himself. “Here, let me…” he said as he started to collect the plates. He loaded his arms before stopping to realize he couldn’t take them all on his own. “Oh dear, would someone…?”

Liz jumped to her feet and held out her arms for dishes. He placed some in her hands and Darcy, holding the last plate, put it on top of her pile. She gripped the edges of the plates, holding them steady so the knives and forks didn’t fall off the edge as she followed Bingley up the stairs and back into the house. “Why does Darcy always call you Bingley?” she asked as they deposited the dishes into the sink.

“Boarding school! Old habits die hard—all the teachers called us by last names, we called each other last names… It stuck. He always goes by Darcy anyway, so it doesn’t make much of a difference.”

“Caroline calls him ‘Fitz.’”

Chip shrugged as they stepped back onto the back porch. He glanced down at Darcy, Jane, and his sisters on the patio. Quietly, so they didn’t hear him, he said, “Yeah, well… She heard his family call him Fitz, I think, and sort of latched onto it. Almost no one calls him Fitz anymore except for his sister, Georgie.”

Liz crossed her arms, leaning against the railing. Darcy was kneeling next to the fire, stoking the wood with his back to them. “It doesn’t really suit him, does it? The nickname Fitz, I mean.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” He shrugged. “But then I’ve always known him as Fitz Darcy.”

“Not Fitzwilliam?”

“Dear God, no. What 13-year-old would introduce himself at school as ‘Fitzwilliam?’”

Somehow, it was hard to imagine Darcy every being 13. “Was he always as grumpy as he is now?”

Chip smiled and patted her on the shoulder. “You just don’t know him.”

Liz rested her cheek against the palm of her hand as she looked down again. She certainly did not know him, but so far, he had done nothing to encourage her to continue the acquaintance. In a moment she left her vantage point and followed Chip back down the stairs. 

Chapter Text

Caroline and Lo were late to rise, and they both appeared exhausted when they arrived in the kitchen. Lo had bags under her eyes and Caroline’s eyeliner was crooked, making her expression somehow even angrier looking, her brows furrowed and a scowl on her lips. She pointed an accusatory finger at her sister. “I can’t take another night of this! She kicks in her sleep.”

Lo slid into one of the high chairs at the counter. “Well, she snores. Loudly.”

Jane and Liz exchanged a glance. The Bingley sisters seemed particularly lucky to have never before encountered the absolute chaos of a Bennet family vacation, seven people crammed into two—or sometimes one—hotel rooms.

Liz was surprised when Darcy, very evenly and hardly looking up from his breakfast, said, “Bingley and I will switch with you.”

“Oh, Fitz, would you? You’re so sweet,” Caroline cooed.

He shrugged. “It really doesn’t matter to me.”

“Well, if it will make everyone much happier…” Chip said. He didn’t seem thrilled, but even knowing the man for two weeks, Liz knew he wouldn’t argue with them either. Liz remained at the countertop, but Jane hopped up to help—somewhat ineffectually—in the scuffle of room shifting. Liz watched as Lo and Caroline moved an inordinate amount of baggage for five days from the large, master bedroom, to the smaller one with twin beds. Darcy disappeared and reappeared with only a backpack. As he passed, he seemed to hold his head very stiffly, purposefully not looking at her or making eye contact.

Liz sighed loudly and continued to eat her apple.

The mood was not much improved when, baggage resettled, they gathered in the kitchen again. Caroline was moody, pushing fruit around on her plate, and Lo scowled at her phone screen as it dinged furiously. Darcy looked exhausted, though Liz didn’t think it had had any effect on his usual, dour mood. There were bags under his eyes, dark with a slightly purplish hue. He rubbed his eyes once or twice, but kept his face down.

Chip seemed the only one unaffected, happily chattering to anyone who would listen—which mostly meant Jane—about all the wildlife he had read about in one of the local guide books the evening before. “It said their wingspan is four feet! Have you ever seen one, Jane? They must be massive!”

After another few minutes, Liz had had enough of the gloom. She placed her hands, palm down, on the counter and said, “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m here to go wander around in the woods for five hours a day.” She slid off the stool and walked over to the front door to begin lacing her boots.

Jane followed her. “Don’t be unsociable, Lizzie.”

“I am not being unsociable. I came here to hike and that’s what I plan to do!” She pulled her hair up into a tight ponytail. “Now, you can stay here with them if you like, but I am going out.”

She was already out the door when Jane appeared, still tugging one sneaker on. “Lizzie, wait up!”

Liz smiled at Jane. “I’m glad you’re going to join me.”

“Go easy on me, I’m not used to running like you are!” She glanced back at the house. “I do feel a little bad for abandoning them…”

Liz rolled her eyes and kept walking, taking an even pace that, while slow for her, she thought Jane could match for a while. “It’s not like we’re not going to spend all evening with them anyway.”

“Fair enough.”

Liz waited until they were nearly half a mile from the house and there had been not a single sound of footsteps before she burst out, “Really, Jane, I just don’t know what you see in those girls. It feels like hanging out with Lydia’s friends half the time!”

Jane appeared pained, her eyebrows drawing together and her lips pursing into a tiny frown. She tucked a few loose strands of hair away from her face. “Oh, Lizzie, please don’t start that again. Lo is just struggling right now, but she seemed genuinely interested in my social action work, especially when I told her about my internship application for the DC committee. Caroline may be a bit… self-engrossed at times, but she’s very sweet, honestly. You just weren’t there when I was sick. I wouldn’t have expected any better from even you.”

Well, knowing how good of a sister I am, I suppose that will have to do!” She made a promise to herself not to press the matter further while they were at the mercy of the Bingley sisters, but even Jane’s reassurances were not quite enough to give her confidence in Caroline’s intentions.

“Lizzie,” Jane said, suddenly very serious. “What do you think of Chip?” She linked her arm with Liz’s.

“I think he’s a sweet guy with questionable taste in friends.” When Jane sighed, Liz said, “No, really! He’s the nicest person here. I mean, I know he can’t help his sisters, but I really don’t know what he sees in Darcy.”

“But you like Chip, don’t you?”

Liz placed her hand over the top of her sister’s. “Yes. Very much so,” she assured Jane, and was rewarded with a warm smile.

~~~~

The group did not reconvene until late into the evening, all tired from various excursions. After a dinner that was slightly less awkward than the night before, Chip fell into one of the couches, lounging out, and let out a great, noisy yawn. He smacked his lips and grinned at everyone. Jane took the seat next to him, tucking her ankles together, turning her head in his direction. They spoke softly, Jane giggling several times during their hushed conversation. Liz kept an eye on them as she tucked herself into a throw blanket, sitting in one of the armchairs. She had a small selection of books downloaded on her phone and she picked one at random, only loosely paying attention.

Darcy appeared several minutes later with a very fancy pen and a small stack of cream-colored paper, much thicker than a normal sheet of printer or notebook paper. He settled himself at the round table with his back to the room. After a short sound of the scratching of the pen on the paper, there was a moment of silence, and then several minutes of the back of the pen tapping on the table.

Liz burrowed further into the knitted blanket and waited. She knew it was coming; the room was too quiet and none of the conversation involved her and… There it is, Liz thought as Caroline broke the hushed tones of the room.

“Fitz,” Caroline called out as she walked over to Darcy, “what’s your new novel about?” Liz peeked over the top of her knees to watch the exchange.

Darcy shrugged, not looking up. “I do not want to talk about it yet. But I’m not working on that right now—I’m writing a letter to Georgie.”

Oh,” Caroline cooed, taking the chair next to him, “that’s so sweet. Chip, why don’t you ever write letters to me or Lo?”

“Can’t I just text you?” He paused. “Aren’t I spending the entire summer with my two sisters in a house that I rented with my signing bonus?”

Lo giggled, then covered her mouth, turning away from the conversation she was having with Jane. Caroline glared at her. “Oh my God, that’s not the point. Fitz cares about his sister.” She tossed her head. “Fitz, you have such nice handwriting. It’s so elegant.”

“Thank you.” The pen began scratching across the paper again.

Caroline let out a great heave of a sigh and tried to engage him again. “And how is dear Georgia? Is she better now?”

Liz watched Darcy’s back. He drew himself up a little straighter in his chair, his shoulders going slightly rigid. “She is… improving. I think the semester off of school did her good. If she was not better,” he added in a lower voice, “I would not have come to Meryton for the summer…”

“Oh, good. You should tell her in your letter how much I miss her!”

Darcy turned his head; Liz could see his face in profile. He was looking over his nose at Caroline as she drifted about while speaking to him. “I will mention it. But I know she would appreciate a phone call.”

Caroline turned her head once or twice, with her shoulders pushed back so her chest was out and her neck appeared especially long. “But doesn’t she have any friends over for the summer? She’s not in that big house alone, is she?”

Darcy’s back was still to Liz, but she could imagine his thinking expression as he tipped his head to the side and waited a moment before responding. “No...” he finally answered, drawing the word out into two syllables. “Three school friends are there for now, and a few girls from NYU said they would visit in August and help her back to move back to New York.”

“There, you see! I wouldn’t want to interrupt their fun, then! After all, to an 18-year-old, what good is 23? Practically ancient! I would just be in the way with a call.”

“19.”

“What?”

“She had her 19th birthday on Saturday.”

“Oh!” Caroline cried, raising her hands to her face. “I forgot! Oh no. Fitz, apologize for me, will you? Make sure she’s not angry with me.”

Darcy sighed and combed a few strands of hair away from his forehead. “Okay.” He turned back towards the letter, but Caroline wasn’t done with him yet. She leaned forward over the edge of the table, not quite touching him, and looking at the letter. Then she turned back towards the room, tossing her head as everyone mostly ignored her.

Caroline sighed dramatically. “So young and so talented and so accomplished. She plays the piano wonderfully, you know,” she added, turning her discussion towards Liz and Jane. “An absolute prodigy as a child. She’s majoring in music performance at school. And psychology! I wish I could be as talented as Georgie; I really do.”  

Liz rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. Everyone is talented at something. All of my sisters have very diverse interests, but that doesn’t mean Mary is any more or less talented than Jane. Just because you can’t play piano doesn’t mean you’re useless.”

Caroline seemed to take a moment to process Liz’s insult. When she couldn’t come up with any immediate response, she said, “Mary is… the little one?” Her lip curled in a faint sneer.

“My middle sister, next youngest to me.”

“Hmm…”

Before Caroline could make some disparaging remark about Mary, Darcy cut in. “I disagree, Elizabeth. While there are many ways to be accomplished, the idea of being talented is applied too often to people who do not deserve the title. While there are many people in general who are talented, I wouldn’t consider more than six or eight of my friends to be truly accomplished.”

Is the present company included? Liz wanted to ask, but she knew that would be a line too far. Instead, she said, “Then I am sure you have a very strict guideline for how you consider accomplishments.”

“Yes. I do. There are a great many skills that I believe not enough children and teenagers are taught, which leaves them lacking as adults.”

Caroline excitedly leaped back into the conversation in order to boost Darcy’s side. “Oh, for certain! To be truly accomplished, a woman should be well-read, fluent in at least two languages, able to cook, and have some skill in an art and a sport or other type of athleticism. She should also be passionate about a cause or a career.” Caroline sighed, her eyes flicking to Darcy. “And then there must be something in the way that she carries herself, holds a conversation. A sureness and confidence in her general demeanor.”

“And,” Darcy added, “she should be always seeking to improve herself, through active reading or engagement with the world.”

“Well, I guess I’m out of the running then,” Liz joked. “I’m an absolutely horrific cook. One of the things I’m truly terrible at.”

Darcy had actually picked up his chair, turning it completely so he faced into the room. Caroline simpered at her. “What a pity.”

Two questions battled in Liz’s mind, but she finally settled on one and asked, “And what should men do to be accomplished, then?” Liz rested her chin on the back of one hand and leaned towards Darcy with interest.

Darcy met her gaze without a flicker. “Pretty much the same. Almost any skill worth having for one is worth having for everyone.”

“Do you consider yourself accomplished, Darcy?”

A pause. Caroline seemed about to fill it. “Yes,” he replied. The word was quiet but firm. He meant what he said.

“How many languages, then?”

“I am fluent in French and Spanish. My German is passable.” He picked up the pen again as if ready to end the conversation, beginning to turn back to his letter. Liz was not ready to finish the conversation but Chip cut her off.  

“And we don’t talk about your Dutch, eh, Darcy?” Chip called, leaning back into the couch. He lay one arm along the top of the cushions, behind Jane’s back. His hand rested not quite touching her.

Darcy turned, leaning to the side to flash his friend a glare that would have withered a houseplant. Liz couldn’t help but giggle. She tried to suppress the sound, but it slipped out too quickly, ruining her chance of interrogating him further.

Personally,” Caroline said very loudly, glaring at Liz, “I think that you’re extremely admirable for speaking three languages other than your native tongue. Even if Dutch didn’t work out, you can try again in the future. Did you know, Jane, Liz, that Fitz was head of the French Student Society at school? What about you, Liz? Do you speak any languages? Head up any groups?”

Liz did not want to own up that she had taken Latin only for the required four semesters of language in high school before promptly dropping it in favor of additional English lit electives. “No language clubs, but I was captain of the cross-country team in high school for two years.”

Caroline pursed her lips, slowly looking Liz’s tiny frame up and down. “Don’t you have to have longer legs for that?”

“Caroline!” Chip chastised, but Lo snorted into her sleeve.

“Lizzie’s a very fast runner,” Jane said. Her hands were folded in her lap and she was the very picture of patience.

“Glad you weren’t the coach,” Liz said to Caroline, ignoring the others. “Doesn’t sound like you’d have given me the chance, huh?” She smiled as brightly as she could. “I’ve always had a lot of practice, though, running to keep up with people who have longer legs than I do. But what about you Darcy? Captain any teams?”

“I do not enjoy team sports.”

Liz struggled not to roll her eyes. Of course, you don’t.

Chip laughed loudly. “He was an absolute nightmare on team sports day. Almost gave a boy the year ahead of us a black eye in field hockey.”

“It was an accident,” he said sharply. That was clearly a conversation they had had before.

Chip responded with a winning smile.

Darcy let out a little huff of air and ran one hand through his dark hair. “No team sports. But I regularly engage in swimming, horseback riding…” He jerked his chin towards the windows. “Hiking.”

“I’ve never liked horses. Or, at least, they’ve never liked me,” Liz said casually, looking away from Caroline and Darcy. Jane covered her mouth with a hand, but not before a short laugh escaped.

“Horses… more like the riding ponies at the zoo.”

Shut up!” Liz hissed without any real malice. She snatched the throw pillow from the chair that was squashed behind her leg and tossed it across the room at her sister, also laughing. She turned in time to see a soft smile on Darcy’s face, a gentleness in his eyes that disappeared in a moment when he realized he had been seen.

He eased himself out of the conversation, falling back into habitual silence, and, after another few minutes, folded up the pages of his letter and quit the room.

Chapter Text

Fitzwilliam Darcy couldn’t sleep. He had never been one to toss and turn, so he found himself lying very still in bed, flat on his back, with his hands folded over his stomach, staring up at the ceiling. He had been in the position so long, eyes open, that he could almost make out texture through the gloom.

He could feel the sheets against his skin, slightly scratchy, and warm where it touched his torso and arms. There was a slight breeze blowing through the window, open just a crack. He could hear Bingley shifting in his sleep on the other side of the room. He muttered something once, a short phrase, before the bed creaked as he rolled over. Bingley had always mumbled a little in his sleep…

Darcy was a little afraid to close his eyes. When he did, his thoughts wandered. And it was nearly impossible to keep them in check when he tried to let himself drift off into sleep. Images came, unbid and unwelcome, to his mind.

When she pulled her hair up, loose strands always escaped just at the top of her neck, and they curled delicately against her skin. The way her glasses framed her dark, lively eyes. The way the fire danced when it was reflected in her gaze. When she appeared before dinner, he wanted to go to her and pluck the sticks from her hair, to touch the scratch on her cheek.

With a stifled groan, he finally rolled over, crossing his arms over his chest as he faced the wall and thought about Caroline instead. He should have realized sooner that she was playing some game with the bedrooms, but it was difficult when Bingley was already in on it. Had she really been planning to get him in the same bedroom as her for five days? Well, it wouldn’t have made much difference, as he had already made up his mind firmly on the matter.

It had been a mistake, a grievous one, to kiss her. While he had said very little in general about the incident, though never outright admitting it was actually a mistake, he had hoped that several months of silence on it would solve the problem. But now that they were living in the same house, she seemed more determined than ever. She followed him around, cooing in his ear, and backing him up on every opinion, even if it clashed with her own.

This is all your stupid fault anyway, he reminded himself as he pulled one of the pillows from behind his head and pressed it, cool side down, to his face. It blocked out any remaining light or sounds, leaving him in a comfortable vacuum.

Caroline had always had a bit of a crush on him, her older brother’s tall, originally gangly, now grown into his height, dark haired friend from school, who wrote poetry and rode horses and lived in a great old family estate. Somehow, Darcy’s own shyness had not been a deterrent against her interest—she had taken it upon herself to be his champion, to speak for him when he would not or could not himself. With that amount of hero worship on and off for years, it was not necessarily a surprise that he had caved to it, just a little. At a wedding the previous October, they had danced several dances and at the end of the last, he let her kiss him. She was several glasses of wine deeper than he was and had been leaning towards his mouth for almost an hour, batting her lashes and pouting at him. But he was the sober one; he should have stopped her.

When she asked him about it later, he did his best to let her down gently, telling her he was uninterested in dating her. That it would be uncomfortable, at least for him, to date his best friend’s little sister. In the heat of the moment, he had forgotten himself. But telling her, genuinely, that the kiss had been “a mistake?” No, he couldn’t do that.

Brooding on the issue, he finally fell into a restless sleep, dreaming about Elizabeth wearing Caroline’s gray dress from the wedding as she danced with someone else and refused to make eye contact with him.  

~~~~

He woke early, Bingley still dead to the world, and dressed quickly before making his bed. When he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth and hair, he found himself staring at his face in the mirror. If one stares into a mirror long enough, their face distorts slightly, eventually becoming unrecognizable. As a child, he often found himself sitting and staring until the entire concept of identity became foreign.

While he had never been overly pleased with the sight of own face, he knew others found it pleasant. Even if he thought his nose was too large and Roman, his chin too pointed for the rest of his features. He frowned as he prodded the dark bags beneath his eyes, the most visible testament to his restless night.

With a sigh, he scrubbed the heels of his hands across his features, rubbing his eyes to refresh them. When he looked again, his face felt more solid, and he picked up his hairbrush from the countertop.

The kitchen was still and quiet. The evidence of a slightly chill evening remained in condensation on the window and the faint calls of birds from outside. He watched one, a large gray and red robin, hop about on the patio railing before taking off and disappearing into the trees. Eventually he turned away from the windows and poked around in the fridge to find breakfast.

As he spooned yogurt into a bowl, he wondered for probably the 100th time why he had agreed to spend the summer in Meryton. He knew, of course, logically why he had accepted the offer; he hadn’t seen Bingley in months and wanted to spend time with him, he had been cooped up at home with Georgie for far too long and, now that she was slowly healing, they needed to spend some time apart. After all the anger he had poured into his latest novel, he could hardly bear to look at the desk where he had sat, writing it, for eight hours a day.

“You can write anywhere, Darcy, you know that! Just come, it will be a good time,” Bingley had cajoled him over a phone call less than two weeks before he even decided what state he wanted to spend his summer in, let alone the house. “Bill and Lo’ll be out for the summer. And I’ll do my best to keep Caroline off your back.”

Well, he was doing a terrible job at that.

He almost jumped at the interruption when he heard footsteps coming into the kitchen. “Good morning, Darcy,” Jane said in her usual sweet tone, stifling a yawn. “How did you sleep?”

“I slept… fine.” As soon as he said it, he realized she may not have been asking just for the sake of politeness. She looked at the bags under his eyes, shrugged, and stepped over to the coffeemaker. He sank back into himself, playing with the chunks of granola on top of his yogurt, the thought of putting food into his mouth suddenly disgusting. It was much easier when there was a third, known, party in the room. He could exert himself, when necessary, to be outgoing with a stranger, but he usually spent several days beforehand gathering the energy to do so. He had never made a habit of making new friends and, at age 25, he was pretty certain it was too late for him.

Of course, if Jane was awake, it meant… He winced slightly when, several minutes later, Elizabeth appeared. It had meant that the second Bennet sister wasn’t far behind. He played with his food as Liz sniffed at the coffee and plucked an apple from the fruit bowl. She slipped into the stool two down from him and started rolling the fruit around between her palms. Well, the dream hadn’t entirely been incorrect; whenever his eye did meet Elizabeth’s, she turned away very quickly. Stop being an idiot, he tried to tell himself firmly. He was pretty sure it wasn’t going to do any good.

Luckily, he was saved by Bingley’s appearance. It didn’t calm him, exactly, but Bingley’s propensity for continual chatter took a great deal of the pressure to speak off of Darcy’s shoulders.

“Liz!” he cried cheerfully. “Since you seem to be the woman who knows these trails best, I was hoping you could help me.” He pulled a map out of one of his pockets and unfurled it on the counter and handed her a pen. Darcy watched as Bingley quizzed Liz for as much information about the park as she could offer. He noticed a freckle just by her left eye. It crinkled when she smiled, which was often.

Bingley and Liz, with some small assistance from Jane, had finished with the map well before Louisa and Caroline made their morning appearance, both looking particularly disheveled. Caroline, especially, was looking pale under her foundation. She didn’t even take the time to flirt with Darcy before declaring, “I can’t take another night of this! She kicks in her sleep.” Her pointing finger followed Lo around the kitchen as she pulled herself up into the chair between Bingley and Darcy.

“Well, she snores. Loudly.”

Darcy thought of informing them that snoring was an issue their brother shared in common, and that Darcy had put up with it for five years in a dormitory, but decided against it. Knowing what he did of Caroline, she wouldn’t let it go if Louisa kept her up every night, and would complain every morning until it was over—or someone solved her problem for her. Keeping his eyes tilted towards his bowl so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with Caroline see her eyes brighten with hope or expectation, he said, “Bingley and I will switch with you.”

The response was instantaneous. Caroline’s expression cleared and she smiled at Darcy, coming to stand right by him. When he did finally look at her, he realized she must have been watching Jane, for she had added the other girl’s blushing head tilt to her own repertoire. “Oh, Fitz, would you? You’re so sweet.” She placed her hand on his arm.

He shrugged, trying to move her off. “It really doesn’t matter to me.”

“Well, if it will make everyone much happier…” Bingley dropped his pen and map on the table. It was as close as he came to grumbling, that grudging acceptance. Darcy could tell his friend’s frustration as he moved, somewhat rigidly, to the bedroom, tossing his belongings sloppily back into his bag. He sat for a moment on the end of his bed, looking at the mass of churned covers on Bingley’s before standing up again. He had only needed to slip three or four items into his backpack to be ready. “Don’t know why we didn’t think about this earlier,” Bingley muttered to himself as he dug around, picking up fallen objects. “Caroline said she had this all planned out for the best, but no, Lo and Bill had to have another fight and Jane is off—” Bingley stopped himself with a glance up at Darcy.

His friend said nothing as he left the room. Bingley possibly being a part of Caroline’s games was a frustration, but not necessarily a new one; Bingley had never discouraged Caroline’s advances. Darcy paused and swallowed when he caught sight of Elizabeth, still sitting in the kitchen, slumped gently to one side. Her hair was loose, hanging gently around her shoulders in soft waves, falling over the back of the chair. He walked quickly by her, keeping his head forward.

In the master bedroom, Jane was standing, holding Caroline’s bag open as she put her belongings in it. If Bingley was messy, his sisters were even worse. The room looked as if they had been living there for weeks, not a single night. He stepped to the back of the room and tucked his backpack into the closet. When he turned around, Caroline was practically standing on him. “Fitz, really, I do want to thank you.” She put her hand on his arm again, holding a little tighter. “I really appreciate it.”

“Caroline, please don’t.” He pushed her off. “You’re welcome.” He inched around her and went back to the kitchen. He could feel Elizabeth watching him as he took a couple of quick bites from his breakfast and then gave up entirely on the food. Trying to get as far from Elizabeth as the room would allow, he backed himself into one of the corners and leaned against the counter.

You’re being ridiculous, he told himself, going silly over a girl you’ll never see again after a month. He crossed his arms and tried to tune out the noise. Bingley was going on about some bird to Jane. “It said their wingspan is four feet! Have you ever seen one, Jane? They must be massive!” She smiled and laughed, covering her mouth with one hand. He vaguely remembered Bingley trying to tell him about the same bird a few days earlier, but none of the information had stuck.

He used to be a better listener. What was happening to him? He thought of an exercise one of his professors had assigned, freshman year, his first creative writing class—collect a list of facts from your friends and teachers and use them in a story. He thought about trying it again just to try and put himself back together. If he tried, really tried, would Elizabeth have a conversation with him? One where he could glean ten random facts? That seemed a little optimistic.

His reverie was broken as Elizabeth slapped her hands on the counter and pushed herself back. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m here to go wander around in the woods for five hours a day.” She slid out of the chair and left the room.

“Oh dear…” Jane muttered. “Let me just…” She hurried out of the room. Darcy heard her say, faintly, “Don’t be unsociable, Lizzie.”

“Won’t be seeing Liz again for the rest of the day, then, will we?” Caroline asked with a glint in her eye. “Not that I mind. Chip, really, why did you invite her along?”

“To make Jane happy.”

Caroline rolled her eyes skyward but before she could comment again, Jane poked her head back into the kitchen. “I’m sorry, I hope you don’t mind—I’m going out with Lizzie. See you later!” Before Bingley could respond, she ducked out again and opened the door. Before it was closed behind her, they heard her call out, “Lizzie, wait up!”

“Honestly, I don’t know what they get up to in that town. The Bennet sisters the prettiest girls in town? Please. Aside from Jane, I mean, Chip. She’s sweet but her sisters…” Caroline clucked her tongue. “Fitz, would you—”

But Darcy cut her off. “Come on, Bingley, let’s go find our own path to hike. I’d rather be outside right now.” He didn’t look back at Caroline, but he could imagine her expression. He pulled on his shoes, ignoring the hissing in the kitchen, and slipped out the front door.

In a few minutes, Bingley joined him, holding the map that Elizabeth had marked. Darcy noticed writing was quite pleasant to look at with gently sloping “N”s and rounded little “A”s. Bingley pointed at the map. “Here, I was thinking we should try this path, see how it makes this nice loop? It shouldn’t take too long.”

Darcy held back a sigh. “Yes, if you like.” Bingley had never been the outdoorsman that Darcy was. While they were both pale, Bingley had the almost porcelain tone of a doll, to match his orange hair, as well as boyishly round cheeks that he had never grown out of. If someone were to look at a picture from their years at Lancaster Academy, Bingley would have been the most immediately recognizable on sight.

He also knew that Bingley would not have recommended the path himself if he didn’t have something to say, preferably away from his sisters. But they had been walking for over a quarter of an hour before he started.

They had just stopped for a water break, Darcy admiring a particularly bright-eyed bird perched on a low-hanging branch when Bingley said, “So, what do you think of her?” He bounced on the balls of his feet.

“Of Jane?” Darcy asked sharply.

“Yes, of course! Who else?”

Darcy shrugged and began to walk again; a different face had come to his mind first. “I think she’s very sweet.” The way he said it did not sound like a compliment.

Bingley wrinkled his nose. “Well, don’t say it like that. Besides, that’s Caroline’s word.”

“Yes. But, really, it’s the only descriptor that comes to mind. Bingley, I hardly know her. Whenever we’re at a party, she’s always talking to her sisters or to you or to Caroline and I’m—”

“And you’re hiding in the corner, praying that no one will see you.” He raised his eyebrows at Darcy. “Don’t try to deny it! I know you too well, Fitz.”

“Fine, fine…” Darcy mumbled, not quite owning the remark. “But I have not had much of a chance to speak with her. From what I’ve seen she is generally well-liked and friendly with everyone. Unlike her sister, who seems to enjoy picking fights.”

“Well, when you have such an easy target…” Bingley grinned as Darcy groaned.

“And here I thought you were my friend!”

Bingley laughed and clapped him on the back. “Personally, I think Liz quite entertaining.” He paused, growing more somber. “But Jane—I am being serious, Darcy, what do you think of her?”

Darcy looked at his friend. Bingley’s eyes were bright and earnest. “I think… that I should be asking what you think of Jane Bennet.”

“Oh. Oh dear, I hoped you wouldn’t ask that!” he said with a reluctant chuckle. “I like her very, very much. But I… don’t know if I like her, d’you understand? I might. I probably do.” He sighed and rubbed one hand against his shoulder. “But if, y’know, anything happens… Fitz, you’re my best friend, and I’d want you to be friends too.”

Darcy could not say that he did know. He had seen Bingley infatuated before. Even in love, of a sort, before. It was only a little different this time, but Darcy could not help but admit it was different. He did not say as much, but he made a promise to himself to attempt to interact, at least a little, with Jane Bennet.

Eventually, the talk of the Bennet sisters died out and their discussion turned to other matters, like Bingley’s upcoming position or Darcy’s recent publication, but when they turned back, neither man was quite satisfied with the outcome of the conversation.

~~~~

After dinner, Darcy seated himself at the table, conveniently shoved in the corner and out of way—and eye sight—of everybody. He turned his back to the living room and began a long overdue letter to Georgie.

 

My dear Georgie,

I find, when I am having difficulties, it’s easier to write my feelings down. I know you won’t tell me if anything is wrong on the phone, but if you need to talk… You can write it to me, if that will help you as well. I hope you will continue to confide in me, Georgie. I love you, but I am at a loss for how to help you best sometimes…

You asked for all the details of Meryton, so I’ll do my best to give them to you. I feel very out of place there. It is not at all like Pemberley and I miss it dearly. People there are very friendly, but to the point of excess, like they want us to join in on everything. I was hoping for a restful summer excursion, but it feels more like the place is trying to swallow us up.

Right now, I am with Bingley, Caroline, and Louisa, along with another set of sisters, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, in a cabin by a state park. Bingley is particularly taken with Jane, and Caroline and Louisa have become quite friendly with her as well, I believe. Things with Elizabeth are… less certain.

 

He paused, crossed out the last line about Elizabeth, scribbling it out until it was nearly unreadable, and began tapping his pen against the table to give himself time to think of what next best to say. He had been in the habit of handwriting letters to her since he was at boarding school and she was old enough to read, when phone use was strictly monitored. At times it was freer communication than even texting or a video call could provide. But he was not yet certain what—or if—he wanted to say about Elizabeth. It might be better to wait until he could laugh it off as a summer infatuation.

“Fitz, what’s your new novel about?” Caroline asked sweetly, walking up to him.

He sighed. The room had been too quiet. “I do not want to talk about it yet. But I’m not working on that right now—I’m writing a letter to Georgie.”

Caroline slipped into the chair next to him. He could feel her leg pressed very close to his. “Oh, that’s so sweet.” She turned towards her brother. “Chip, why don’t you ever write letters to me or Lo?”

From the other side of the room, Chip groaned. “Can’t I just text you? Aren’t I spending the entire summer with my two sisters in a house that I rented with my signing bonus?”

Darcy heard Louisa laugh, but he remained resolutely looking forward. A bit like a bear, really—if he didn’t play along with Caroline, if he didn’t engage, maybe she would get bored and walk away. Caroline leaned in towards the room. “Oh my God, that’s not the point. Fitz cares about his sister.” She turned her gaze back to Darcy, inching closer. “Fitz, you have such nice handwriting. It’s so elegant.”

“Thank you.” Keep ignoring her, keep ignoring her

 

Elizabeth is Jane’s younger sister—there are five daughters in one family, if you can believe it! Jane and Elizabeth are much closer than Caroline and Louisa have ever been, which is why Bingley invited her along.

Elizabeth is quite the hiker; she has gone out every day so far. I wish Bingley or one of his sisters showed as much interest in nature. You know how frustrating it is when I try to hike but others in the party always want to turn back. I would head off on my own, like Elizabeth, but I did come to spend the summer with Bingley and I wouldn’t want to—

 

Caroline sighed deeply and leaned towards Darcy again, a few strands of her hair falling over his paper. For a second, he wondered if any of the ink would rub off on the strawberry blonde. “And how is dear Georgia? Is she better now?”

No question that could have come out of Caroline’s mouth—save, perhaps, for “What are your current feelings towards Elizabeth Bennet?”—could have winded him anymore than that in the moment. He struggled to think as he pulled himself upright in the chair. In Darcy’s discomfort, he was more likely to become still and proper rather than to fidget or flounder. Caroline knew next to nothing of what had occurred over the last six months other than Georgie’s sudden leave of absence from NYU and her return to Pemberley. “She is… improving. I think the semester off of school did her good.” He was uncertain how either of them would have taken it if she had been in such shape, alone, in New York City. The near-hospitalization probably would become an actual stay. He pushed back a shudder at the thought and added, half to himself, “If she was not better, I would not have come to Meryton for the summer…”

Caroline was as oblivious as ever. “Oh, good. You should tell her in your letter how much I miss her,” she remarked cheerfully.  

Darcy clenched his jaw as he turned towards Caroline. She was smiling and blinking at him in a vapid way, an expression he had seen her turn once or twice on other men she had dated in the past. “I will mention it,” he replied, eventually, shortly. He intended to turn back to his letter but another comment spilled out. “But I know she would appreciate a phone call.” Bingley had called her, several times, over the past few months, and even asked to speak to her when his chat with Darcy about their summer plans was finished, but Caroline had sent her only a handful of texts since January.

Caroline tilted her head in an innocent, “I’m-not-sure-what-you-mean-Fitz,” type of way and said, “But doesn’t she have any friends over for the summer?” before unnecessarily adding, “She’s not in that big house alone, is she?”

As if Darcy would have left her alone. He took a moment to collect himself before he answered, slowly, “No... Three school friends are there for now, and a few girls from NYU said they would visit in August and help her back to move back to New York.”

She beamed at him. “There, you see! I wouldn’t want to interrupt their fun, then! After all, to an 18-year-old, what good is 23? Practically ancient! I would just be in the way with a call.”

Darcy bit the inside of his cheek. “19.”

“What?”

“She had her 19th birthday on Saturday,” he clarified, looking away from Caroline again.

“Oh!” Caroline clapped her hands to her mouth in exaggerated concern. “I forgot! Oh no. Fitz, apologize for me, will you? Make sure she’s not angry with me.”

If I can remember yours and Louisa’s birthdays, surely you can remember Georgie’s. But he sighed and ran one hand through his hair and simply said, “Okay.” He was not in the mood for her exaggerations.

 

—abandon him, despite his preferences for indoor activities. I will get Louisa to send you some of her photos, though you will probably receive them before the letter. If there’s time before you go back to school, you and I should—

 

Caroline, still looking for attention, leaned back in her chair slightly and sighed, loudly. “So young and so talented and so accomplished. She plays the piano wonderfully, you know,” she said, looking past Darcy. He realized she must be addressing the Bennet sisters, the only ones in the room unacquainted with Georgie’s skills. “An absolute prodigy as a child. She’s majoring in music performance at school. And psychology! I wish I could be as talented as Georgie; I really do.” 

Darcy expected everyone to continue ignoring her. But then Elizabeth spoke. “Oh, come on. Everyone is talented at something. All of my sisters have very diverse interests, but that doesn’t mean Mary is any more or less talented than Jane. Just because you can’t play piano doesn’t mean you’re useless.”

There was a long pause. Darcy put a fist to his mouth, hiding a grin. At least someone had the nerve to call Caroline “useless.”

“Mary is… the little one?” Caroline finally said.

“My middle sister, next youngest to me,” Elizabeth snapped. Impatient.  

“Hmm…” Darcy could tell Caroline was thinking of something—probably not nice—to say. He could have let her continue, allow the conversation to drift away without him, but the prospect of engaging Elizabeth was too tempting.

He turned in his chair, resting one arm across the top. It was difficult to see Elizabeth from his angle, but maybe that was for the best. He said, “I disagree, Elizabeth. While there are many ways to be accomplished, the idea of being talented is applied too often to people who do not deserve the title. While there are many people in general who are talented, I wouldn’t consider more than six or eight of my friends to be truly accomplished.”

“Then I am sure you have a very strict guideline for how you consider accomplishments.”

“Yes. I do.” He thought about his parents, his mother dead for 17 years, his father for four, and all of the expectations they had for him and Georgia. They were high but fair; he certainly used every skill they expected him to master on a weekly, if not daily basis. Yes, the world would be a better place if people were a little more accomplished. “There are a great many skills that I believe not enough children and teenagers are taught, which leaves them lacking as adults.”

For once, Caroline’s intrusion was not unwelcome. He listened with approval to her list; it was similar to one his father had laid out for Georgie once. She carried on for a while, listing every piece of it she could remember.  

When she stopped speaking, he looked up at her. She had almost all of it, even if she didn’t necessarily meet every criterion. His neck was beginning to hurt as he craned around to look at Elizabeth. “And, she should be always seeking to improve herself, through active reading or engagement with the world.” There was nothing worse than some person finishing school and stopping their learning. There was little he disliked more than people who were content to be stationary. When he finished, he realized the letter to Georgie would have to wait. He stood, picking up his chair, and turned it so he could look into the room. He crossed his arms and met Elizabeth’s gaze.

She smiled, but not necessarily warmly. A joke glittered in her eyes as she tucked her elbows on top of the arm of her chair and rested her chin on the backs of her hands. “Well,” she said, “I guess I’m out of the running then. I’m an absolutely horrific cook. One of the things I’m truly terrible at.”

Something fluttered in Darcy’s chest and he tried to tamp the feeling down. “What a pity,” Caroline said in a sugary, high voice. She did not sound very sorry.

Elizabeth’s eyes flickered between the two of them before turning her gaze squarely on Darcy. Something squeezed in his chest and he nearly missed her question. “And what should men do to be accomplished, then?”

Men? Ah, yes, Caroline had specified women, hadn’t she? He squared himself. “Pretty much the same. Almost any skill worth having for one is worth having for everyone.”

Her grin grew wider, almost predatory, big and bright. She was laughing at him. “Do you consider yourself accomplished, Darcy?”

It was very difficult to breathe. He heard Caroline open her mouth to answer for him and he forced himself to answer. “Yes.” Even with the strange pain, he somehow loved being caught in her gaze, the full force of her dark eyes on his face.

“How many languages, then?”

“I am fluent in French and Spanish. My German is passable.” Another pause. The self-deprecation seemed to help. You have a letter to write, he told himself firmly and moved to pick up his pen again.

He thought he heard her about to ask another question but Bingley was already laughing and he knew what was coming and he winced preemptively. “And we don’t talk about your Dutch, eh, Darcy?”

He put the pen down again and turned to glare at Bingley. He had been taking an extra course, outside of the normal load, around age 16. He had received his first C and promptly dropped the class, too anxious about his marks to try to keep going. It was not his proudest moment, but did Bingley always have to bring it up? A little shiver dropped down his spine as he heard Elizabeth giggle. Not her normal, large and cheerful laugh, but a sweet small sound.

Darcy picked up his pen again, turning it in his fingers. Caroline broke in, loud and hard, “Personally, I think that you’re extremely admirable for speaking three languages other than your native tongue. Even if Dutch didn’t work out, you can try again in the future.” She paused with a glint in her eye that made Darcy want to duck away. “Did you know, Jane, Liz, that Fitz was head of the French Student Society at school? What about you, Liz? Do you speak any languages? Head up any groups?”

Elizabeth was smiling again, her eyes glittering with her own private joke. “No language clubs, but I was captain of the cross-country team in high school for two years.”

Caroline made a great show of looking Elizabeth up and down—or at least, what could be seen of her. Her tiny frame was wrapped in a blanket and curled up in the seat of the armchair. “Don’t you have to have longer legs for that?”

“Caroline!” Bingley cried, finally showing some concern for the turn of the conversation. Louisa let out a quick snort of a laugh, belatedly covering her mouth with a sleeve.

Jane came to her sister’s defense. “Lizzie’s a very fast runner.”

Unconcerned with any of the commentary, Elizabeth turned her gaze to Caroline. Darcy was unsure if he was imagining it, but her look seemed less bright when she turned it to Caroline. Her smile did not reach her eyes. “Glad you weren’t the coach,” she said simply. “Doesn’t sound like you’d have given me the chance, huh? I’ve always had a lot of practice, though, running to keep up with people who have longer legs than I do.” She returned to Darcy. “But what about you, Darcy? Captain any teams?”

“I do not enjoy team sports,” he answered simply, still balancing his pen between his fingers. It was so frustrating to have to rely on others for things you could do yourself…

Bingley laughed at him. “He was an absolute nightmare on team sports day. Almost gave a boy the year ahead of us a black eye in field hockey.”

“It was an accident!” One of his only moments of detention, he knew it had been caused when Eric Riley nearly tripped him. They had ganged up on him and the puck. And he would have deserved it, too, if I did give him a black eye.

Bingley only grinned; the same expression he had worn when he picked Darcy up from serving his time assisting the janitor.

Darcy smoothed his hair and repeated his denunciation. “No team sports. But I regularly engage in swimming, horseback riding…” He glanced out the window, leaning his chin towards the outdoors. “Hiking.”

Elizabeth looked ready to laugh again. “I’ve never liked horses. Or, at least, they’ve never liked me.”

Jane burst out with the most Elizabeth-like sound Darcy had ever heard from her. She cried, “Horses… more like the riding ponies at the zoo!”

Shut up!” Elizabeth struggled for a moment and extricated a pillow from the mass of blanket and she tossed it across the room at her sister, both of them laughing. She caught him looking at her and he realized, belatedly, that he was staring. He did his best to smooth his expression and the moment was gone. He turned back to the paper, but it was almost impossible to focus on the letter with his thoughts so tangled up from the conversation. Once they had moved on without him, he folded the letter and tucked it in his pocket, intending to finish it on his own.

He left for the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed, laying out the pages on the nightstand. As he sat, staring at the paper, he found the letter to be inadequate to his feelings. But he couldn’t bring himself to burden Georgie, whatever advice he gave her about opening up to him. He was the older sibling; it was up to him to help her, not the other way around, he told himself firmly.

 

—go for another long hike. Apple will like that, I think.

How is his training going? We’ll need to decide if he’s airplane worthy or if I should drive him up to New York for you. At least he’s a good car riding dog.

I miss you, Georgie. I know you would have found many enjoyable aspects to Meryton, but I respect your choice to stay home this summer. God knows I barely have the strength for all these parties and social gatherings. I have had a couple ideas for new novels, but I won’t tell you about them yet. I don’t want to jinx them like I did with the idea about the Grand Canyon. Give me a few months with the ideas and then we can have a nice long chat. There’s one character in particular I think you’ll find especially amusing.

Please, write to me, text me, call me… whatever you need, at any time. I can be home in two days if you need me—just say the word. I hope you’re enjoying yourself with your friends. Make sure Macy gets to DC; I know she’ll be heartbroken if you don’t take her there.

Your loving brother,

Fitz

 

He looked over the letter. It would have to do; he was far too flustered to perfect it. He was still rereading it when Bingley entered, making a great show of yawning. “I don’t know why you abandoned us, Fitz. You were finally having an interesting conversation, weren’t you?”

“Yes. But I did promise a letter to Georgie and it’s been several days… And I won’t be able to post this until after we get back to Meryton,” he added with a frown as he folded the letter once again and slipped it into the envelope.

“How is she?” Bingley asked, suddenly serious.

“Better. Much better than before. You were right, though, the dog was an excellent idea.”

Bingley nodded and clapped him on the shoulder before standing, stretching, and walking over to the dresser. Bingley knew more than Caroline about the incident, but Darcy had not shared the specific details, just a general outline. If Georgie continued to refuse to press charges, he was not sure he could tell anyone the particulars. He let out a deep sigh. Well, it doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t dare cross me again, he reassured himself as he stood and also began to prepare for bed.

~~~~

Several hours later, Darcy found himself in the same predicament of the night before. He could not sleep, not close his eyes, without those unwelcome pinpricks shivering up his skin and thoughts of a set of lively, laughing brilliant brown eyes. But this time, he was trapped in bed with another person. Though Bingley was a deep sleeper, Darcy was afraid if he tried to toss and turn, he would wake his friend and then he might have to explain himself. He shuddered.

He was aware that he drifted in and out of consciousness a few times, fielding strange dreams about losing Georgie in the subway system, Caroline calling him from above the station to leave New York, Elizabeth sitting on a bench, silent and grave as she watched him try to catch a subway car just by running… He woke again and sat up, leaning forward in the bed to rest his elbows on his knees. Cool air from the slightly open window blew across his bare shoulders.

Eventually, he gave up for the night; proper sleep would not come and he didn’t think he wanted the staccato dreams that would only cause him to toss and turn. Instead, as slowly and gently as he could, he slipped out of the bed. From his backpack, he pulled out a sweatshirt and pulled it over his head before he picked up his phone from the nightstand. It was too dark to write with pen and paper, but the memo app on the phone would do just as well. There were lines, disjointed, unconnected with story, trapped in his head that needed to come out.

Maybe written in prose, he could understand them better. He traced his fingers along the edges of the phone as he stepped through the cool darkness and into the living room, doing his best not to look at the time on the screen. With a sigh, he fell into the same chair Elizabeth had vacated just a few hours before. He brought one hand to his face, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to gather his thoughts before he began to write.

Chapter Text

Liz breathed out. The room was dark and the air had the cool stillness of the predawn about it. Moving the bedclothes as little as possible, she pulled herself into a seated position, crossing her legs beneath the blanket. She glanced at her phone with slightly bleary eyes; through the blur, she thought she read it as five-something. She covered a yawn with one fist, stretching out the other arm, and arched her back until it cracked comfortably. More refreshed in a moment, she reached out to search for her glasses, her fingers fumbling over the nightstand until they connected with the plastic frame.

She slid them on, the room growing into still dark but sharp focus. She yawned again and rumpled her hair before sliding out the bed. She pawed around until she found the clothing she had laid out the night before, silently dressing. Jane rolled over in her sleep but didn’t wake as Liz eased through the door and into the bathroom.

Lo and Caroline had spread their chaos to the now shared bathroom. Liz did her best to ignore the four different face creams and three tubes of lipstick on the counter as she quickly ran a brush thought a snarl of hair, but it reminded her of Cat and Lydia’s bathroom at home.

You’re not here to look presentable, she reminded herself firmly as she pulled her hair up. You’re here to hike and ignore the company. Her intention upon accepting the invitation had been to spend as little time as possible in the company of anyone besides her sister and Chip. So far, she was doing at least a passable job of it. With a final glance in the mirror, she tucked one loose strand of hair behind her ear and brought the hairbrush back to the bedroom. Assured that Jane was still sleeping soundly, she left for the living room.

She padded almost silently down the hallway in socks, one or two boards creaking slightly. She cut through the middle of the sunken room and scurried over to the sliding patio doors. She could see a brightness around the tops of the trees, pink streaks in the sky. With a sigh, she stepped outside and waited, watching.

The air was a little warmer than it had been the day before, and thick with humidity, though not uncomfortable. She waited, arms stretched out across the railing, as the forest around her came alive with chirps and chatters of the animals. She sighed slightly and pulled her arms in, folding them together before resting her head down and basking in the sunlight.

“Enjoying the view?” asked Darcy from the sitting room.

Liz jumped slightly and turned around. She hadn’t noticed him—or hadn’t heard him come in. He was sitting in one of the armchairs, his long frame folded up into the seat. His hair was unbrushed and wavy, sticking up slightly on the left side of his head. There was a night’s growth of stubble on his chin and cheeks that set off the angles of his face. He was wearing a sweatshirt and a pair of athletic shorts, appearing the least manicured Liz had ever seen him. He was holding his phone in his hands, the screen glowing gently; the inside of the house was still shadowy.

She paused, her back to the light, laying her arms across the bannister. “Yes. You didn’t look like you were, though.”

“No. I’m writing,” he admitted, waving his phone at her. “It was still too dark to write by hand when I woke up and I don’t have my laptop.”

“Do you always wake up this early?” she asked, almost impressed by his work ethic.

He offered her a rare smile. “No, not usually. But I couldn’t sleep. What about you? Do you always wake up for sunrise, Elizabeth?”

“Not usually.” She paused before stepping back into the room. “And you don’t need to call me Elizabeth. The only one who does is my mother, when she’s angry. Liz is fine.” She pulled slid the glass door closed.

He turned his head, mumbling something.

She took the opportunity to perch on the arm of a chair, almost on the other side of the room from him. “Sorry, what was that?”

“I do not prefer nicknames.”

“What about your sister? Don’t you call her ‘Georgie?’”

“That’s different.”

Liz paused, and then decided not to press it. After all, she had never heard Darcy call Chip ‘Chip’ or Lo ‘Lo.’ She twirled the end of her ponytail around her finger and changed the subject. “So, why are you sitting out here so early, typing away on your phone if it’s too dark to write?”

He shrugged slightly. “Deadlines and contracts to meet. I have enough to do without wasting free time when it’s so easily handed to me.” Darcy shrugged a lot Liz was beginning to realize. He turned his face away, ducking it back towards the phone, breaking eye contact. “And… sometimes words just…” He paused, holding his phone more tightly. Tried again. “It’s difficult to explain to someone who isn’t a writer. Sometimes words and phrases just get stuck in my head and I have to let them out on a page. Too many ideas at once, it’s hard to keep them all straight. Other ideas press them out of the way.”

She had never heard him talk about himself for so many sentences together and she drew a little closer. He seemed to realize it as well and he began to draw back into himself almost before her eyes. He looked down at his phone again, typed a couple more words before turning off the screen.

Liz took a seat on the couch and decided not to mention his book. It really wouldn’t be fair, she thought, to attack him like that. She could keep her opinions to herself on that matter at least. She pulled one leg up and rested her chin on her knee, watching him.

Darcy seemed very cognizant of her gaze; though he never looked up at her while he sat, he fidgeted with the phone, running his fingers along the edges, turning the screen on and off several times, no longer getting any work done. Finally, he stood and gave her a half nod before disappearing back through the kitchen into his own room.

Liz sighed and stood. Pushing the now empty chair towards the bookshelf, she stood on the seat and reached up, picking a volume at random. It did not look very interesting, some semi-recent thriller, but she preferred reading off paper instead of screens when she was troubled—or, in this case, frustrated.

It wasn’t a very good book, but she read over 50 pages of it before anyone else woke up. She happily pushed it aside, marking her place with a stray pencil off the coffee table. First Jane, then Chip, came into the kitchen, and they were having a pleasant chat about boat rentals in Meryton until Darcy reappeared, freshly shaven and correctly dressed, back in his subtle-but-obviously-expensive athletic jacket. He seemed in an even sourer mood than usual, barely looking at anyone and hunkering down at the end of the counter like a black hole. Chip tried, and failed, to engage him in the chat. When he turned away, Liz caught his eye and rolled hers dramatically. Chip covered a slight grin with a fist.

Caroline, who had never been very good at reading the room—or at least acting in a way the room dictated—and Lo bustled in. Caroline immediately fell on Darcy, asking him questions about the trail and where he planned to hike.

“I already know what path I want to take,” he said, without offering any additional commentary.

“Oh, good, I’m glad someone knows where we’re going.”

Darcy sighed, very softly, at the “we.” Liz couldn’t tell if Caroline hadn’t heard or just ignored the sound. How that girl ever hoped to convince Darcy of anything, Liz had no idea, for, unless she was taking his side in an argument, she never seemed to do much that he enjoyed. She found herself hoping that they would be perfectly miserable together and then stopped immediately—what an unkind thought. Jane would be ashamed of you!

She stayed in her seat and watched as Darcy, eventually, eased out of his seat and moved to walk out of the kitchen, almost as if he hoped to pass by unnoticed—it wasn’t going to happen while Caroline was watching, though. She hopped out of her seat and followed him out of the room. Lo paused, looked at the others, and took an apple from the fruit bowl before following behind.

Liz let out a soft laugh and shook her head at them. After they heard the front door open and close, Liz waited for another fifteen minutes. Eventually, she looked up at Chip and Jane and, mostly hoping they would decline the offer, Liz said, “I’m heading out. Want to come?”

Jane, who was not the hiker Liz was, elected to stay back. “You will be all right on your own, though, Lizzie?”

“Absolutely,” Liz assured her. “You don’t need to worry about me!”

Chip seemed momentarily torn, but seeing as his sisters had walked off with Darcy, leaving just him and Jane in the house, it was much easier to make up his mind. Jane waited on the porch until Liz was out of sight.

~~~~

Liz had not intended to see anyone for the rest of the day, but an hour later, she found herself face to face with Lo, Darcy, and Caroline. They were walking together on the path, Caroline holding Darcy’s arm, though she seemed more focused on the gesture than he did, but their heads were together, speaking softly. Lo was on his other side, holding her phone loosely in her hand, also engaged in the conversation.

Darcy looked up first as Liz accidentally cracked a stick under one boot. He appeared surprised for a moment, stopping quite suddenly. There was something very sprite-like about her in the woods, he thought, as she was already built with a small and delicate frame. There were leaves in her hair again, loose strands waving gently in the humid air. Her cheeks were pink and slightly flushed in the heat. She stopped before them, resting he hands on her hips, her eyes laughing with that eternal, private joke.

“Would you like to join us?” Darcy asked, somewhat hesitantly. A glance passed between Caroline and Lo. “The path doesn’t seem wide enough for four across, does it?” Darcy looked at her and attempted to extricate his arm from Caroline’s grasp, but Liz stopped him with a hand.

“Don’t bother! I am perfectly fine on my own. Besides,” she added, eyes lighting from Darcy’s face to Caroline’s, intending for them to see the glance, “I wouldn’t want to interrupt anything, would I?” With a grin and a wave, she disappeared up a path without them.

Darcy watched her go while attempting to shove the strange feeling of loss that had overcome him down into a little box where he would not have to confront it.

“Liz Bennet is so strange,” Caroline said, redoubling her hold on Darcy’s arm. “She shouldn’t have come if she didn’t want to spend time with us.”

Darcy said nothing, thinking that by that logic then he should probably not have come either.

“And Fitz,” she added suddenly, breaking into his thoughts, “I suppose you hadn’t seen, because you spend so little time in that… town, but their aunt runs the pharmacy and she is a terrible busybody. Always clamoring about her nieces.”

“I didn’t particularly like any of the assumptions she was making about Chip,” Lo said, shaking her head.

“For people without money, they are horribly preoccupied with how much Chip is going to make.”

Darcy admitted he had heard little of the gossip. “When we return, I guess I will need to spend more time in town…”

“Don’t be so sad about it, Fitz, I’ll come with you.” She let out a tittering laugh. “Protect you from the tourists.”

A crack of thunder broke the air. Caroline jumped.

“Maybe we should turn back,” Lo said, glancing at the sky. Dark clouds were rolling in and a breeze had picked up. He nodded. “There wasn’t rain on the weather report today,” she added with a sigh, whipping out her phone once again and glaring at the X through the signal bar. She had enough reception at the house, but out in the woods there was next to nothing. She fussed with the device the whole way back to the cabin.

Chip and Jane were sitting together on the patio at the bottom of the house, pressed up close together. He had been regaling her with a number of pranks he had pulled first as a student at Lancaster Academy for Boys and then later, when he was a law student. “Oh, there you all are! We were afraid you were going to get caught out in the rain.”

Caroline sniffed. “We have more sense than that, Chip.”

Jane glanced at them all. “And Liz?”

Lo shrugged. “We saw her a while ago, but she wasn’t with us.”

“Oh dear…”

Chip took her hand. “I’m sure she’s perfectly fine. She’ll make her way back, just like she has done for the past few days.”

“Does she often make a habit of wandering alone in the woods?” Darcy asked, suddenly feeling a prickle of concern for the young woman.

Jane sighed. “Yes. When we were little, she’d go to the lake by herself without telling our parents. Drove Mom nuts… The best thing that ever happened to her was joining cross country, I think. Then she had a reason to run around in nature all by herself.”

The temperature dropped dramatically as soon as the storm broke, freezing them all inside the house. “Though I suppose,” Chip said with a sigh, leaning his face against the side of the sliding door, “that even if we wanted to be outside still, we’d all be drenched. Look, the rain’s coming sideways now!” he added as the large droplets began to patter against the glass. He moved away from the patio towards the middle of the living room.

Jane nibbled on her thumb as she stood next to one of the front windows, the fingers of her other hand clasped around her wrist. “I’m getting really worried. Maybe I should go out and find Liz…”

“Liz knows this place much better than the rest of us,” Chip assured her. “If anyone will be fine, it will be her.”

Darcy watched them from his own spot by the windows next to the door. He held his hands clasped behind his back as his stomach did a strange little wiggly flip inside of him; he could feel the anxiety radiating off of Jane and he worked very hard to convince himself it was that—and only that—which disturbed his thoughts. He turned his face back to the glass; rain streamed down it in rivulets. The tree by the house whipped, the leaves flicking across the panes. He thought to open his mouth, then stopped. He could make out a figure through the chaos outside.

Within minutes of Jane’s question, the front door banged open to reveal Liz, grinning from ear to ear and completely drenched. “It’s a bit wet out there, isn’t it?” An unflattering description might be a wet dog, Darcy thought before immediately chiding himself. Her hair was loose around her face and shoulders, plastered to the skin, with her glasses as beaded up with water as the windows. She laughed aloud, shaking her head a little, and the thought of a dog returned. A medium sized dog, cheerful and excited by the rain, not quite understanding why those around her were not thrilled by the rainstorm outside. She seemed to revel in the damp, the aghast stares of himself and Caroline simply washing over her like so much water. Liz met his gaze with a hard grin, her eyes as sharp and knowing as they had been at the Lucas party. He looked quickly away.

“Lizzie! Oh, Lizzie, thank God, I was so worried!” Jane cried, throwing her arms around her sister.

Liz patted Jane gently on the back. “I’m all right. The rain wasn’t too bad until a few minutes ago, really!”

“So, you just kept going even when it started? Oh, Lizzie…”

Liz laughed again and began winding her sopping hair into a coil that she perched at the crown of her head to keep it from dripping more on the flooring. She pulled off her glasses and the room became a soft blur. Her t-shirt was stuck to her skin, the neck pulled out of shape, so one side of the collar pressed against her throat while the other was distended so it lay against her shoulder, showing the skin of her throat and collarbone. “Could someone wipe these off for me?”

Even as she asked, Jane had already stepped away, saying, “Let me get you a towel! Or maybe a couple!”

Darcy realized he was the closest person to her. Caroline’s eyes on his back. He took the frames from Liz and quickly wiped them clean on his shirt. He glanced at the lenses and then paused, cleaning them once again, so the streaks were gone. He handed them back, putting the edge of the frames into Liz’s hands before she could see them being returned. She was shivering slightly, he noticed, her skin turning to gooseflesh before his eyes. The sleeve of her t-shirt dripped gently onto the floor.

The thanks cooled on her lips when she realized Darcy had been the one doing the cleaning. He took several hasty steps back as Jane reappeared with two towels in one arm and a bathrobe in the other. She shoved the towels in Darcy’s hands as she firmly wrapped her sister in the robe. Without looking at him, she reached out and he silently handed her back one of the towels. Liz was looking at him around Jane’s arms as the girl wrapped the towel around Liz’s head. “That’ll stop you dripping everywhere, at least.”

“Th-thanks.” Her words came out as a stutter from a chatter of cold.

Jane’s look of shock at the sound was almost comical. “Elizabeth Bennet, you won’t be getting hypothermia on my watch!”

“Jane, I’m not getting hypothermia,” Liz complained as Jane bustled her towards the couch, “it’s the middle of June!”

Jane was having none of it. “Give me that other towel,” she snapped at Darcy. He jumped a little and handed it to her without a word. She pushed Liz down to sit on the couch and wrapped the second towel around her bare calves.

“Jane,” Liz said again, much more mildly, “stop fussing. I’m fine.” She pushed Jane off and leaned down to unlace her hiking boots. “It’s just a bit of rain, not like we’re in a Victorian novel. I don’t think anyone’s died of a head cold since 1899.” She scrunched her nose as the bottoms of the shoes squelched as she pulled her feet out. Jane snatched them up immediately and placed them directly next to the fireplace. Liz struggled to pull off her socks, which had suctioned to her feet through the damp.

Caroline wrinkled her nose and inched away. Liz only laughed and pulled herself into the warmth of the bathrobe, giving another little shiver. She sat, gently steaming, as the fire and the room began to warm her. Her skin had been very pale, other than her cheeks which were red from the wind, when she first entered the house, but she was beginning to look healthier. Eventually, Jane left her side.

After a few minutes of coaxing, she convinced Caroline to nose through the cabinets at the bottom of the built-ins, and they found a pile of board games.

“Oh, I love these,” Jane said, pulled out several of the shiny-coated boxes. They played a lot of board games in the Bennet household; as a houseful of five children, there had always been enough people to play whatever game was requested. She ran her fingers over the top box. “Does anyone want to play?”

Darcy had ambled over and he was standing behind the couch, half looking at Liz and half watching Caroline and Jane empty the cupboard. “Are you trying to scare me, Darcy, by staring at me?”

He blinked. “Excuse me?”

Liz pulled the towel away from her face, hair falling into her eyes as she leaned to the side to look up at him, smiling. “You’re here to tease me about staying out in the rain or make fun of the state I’m in. Or to make fun of Jane and me for liking such”—she deepened her voice, trying to imitate him—“’childish pursuits when we could spend our time with more edifying pursuits.’”

Somewhat detachedly, he thought, she does have the tone right… “No, not at all,” he assured her, but he did not further explain himself.

Liz rolled her eyes and looked back to the other side of the room. Jane had offered and Caroline had vetoed so far: Life, Mouse Trap, and Clue.

Caroline rifled around in the cabinet a little more and, jokingly, held up a mostly white box, wiggling it slightly. “Twister? Although I suppose we might have to be a little drunk before we start that.

No,” Darcy declared. Liz glanced back up at him. His hands, which had been resting on the back of the sofa, had gone a little pale as he gripped the wooden backing. His expression was sour.  

What’s his problem? Liz draped the towel she had taken off her hair over one shoulder and left the room to change into clean, dry clothes. The robe was almost completely soaked, so she hung it on the hook on the back of the door before, shivering again, she pulled off her wet garments. She lay them somewhat awkwardly on the back of the dress and on the nightstand on her side of the bed in hopes they would dry before she had to pack them away again.

She hadn’t expected it to be so cold and the only pair of pajama bottoms she had were a pair of thin cotton shorts. She put them on, grateful to be in dry clothes, and pulled a thick crewneck sweatshirt over her head. She riffled around in Jane’s bag, searching until she found a pair of fuzzy socks—Jane never left home without them, regardless of how warm it was or wasn’t going to be.

She also took on the knots in her hair, which the wind had blown into tangles. When they were mostly free, she braided it loosely so it fell over one shoulder. Rubbing her hands together to keep the feeling in her fingers, she returned to the living room.

They had decided in a game of cards in her absence, though she couldn’t quite tell what the game was. Darcy had his back to her and he was gently tapping his hand against the top of the table. Lo was dealing and she was the first to see Liz enter the room.

“Would you like to join the game, Liz?” Lo offered, as Liz sat back on the couch, right next to the novel she had left off reading in the morning.

“Oh, no thank you. I’d rather read, I think.” As soon as she picked up the book, she realized that was mostly a lie. The book really wasn’t very good.

“You are quite the reader, aren’t you, Liz? I did hear you were studying English lit at school, didn’t I? I suppose you are an avid reader, then and find everything else terribly boring.” Caroline paused, eyeing Liz’s still somewhat bedraggled appearance. “Well, aside from hiking, I guess.”

“That’s very unfair. I read a lot, but I wouldn’t say I’m avid. I enjoy plenty of hobbies and interests outside of books.”

“Primarily fiction?” Darcy asked in a flat tone. He turned to eye the book she had in her hands.

Liz snapped the book shut. “Yes. And what of it? You write fiction, Darcy.”

“Yes.” But not that drug store drivel, was the implication in his tone.

Call,” said Chip, rather loudly, attempting to bring attention back to the game. “And if she doesn’t want to play, leave her alone.”

Liz could feel Jane’s eyes on her. She didn’t have to look at her to know they were full of concern and mothering examinations. Well, they already had one obsessive mother, she didn’t want to deal with a second. Frustrated with the lot of them, Liz tipped the book back onto the coffee table and left the room to go to bed early.

Chapter Text

It was still raining in the morning, the sky gray and gloomy. Liz had caught a bit of a cold in the night and every time she sneezed, Jane shot her a disapproving glare, her eyes narrowed, teetering on the edge of smug, a silent “I told you so.”

The mood of the entire party felt particularly low. Chip rose significantly later than usual, by which time both Liz and Darcy, had taken seats in the living room to read. Liz was on one side of the couch with the terrible thriller, while Darcy was in the armchair on the far side, reading something he had brought along with him. Periodically, Liz attempted to glance at it without his noticing. She thought it was called The Peacemakers, but it could possibly have been The Pacemakers; it was hard to tell from so far away. Lo and Jane sat together at the table as Lo showed off some of her photography on her phone. Rather than break the near silence of the sunken part of the living room, Chip took one of the empty chairs at the table.

Caroline swept into the room at a quarter past nine, also with a book in her hand. She took a noisy seat on the far end of the couch, the side closer to Darcy, and arranged herself in a lively manner, with much huffing, rustling of pages, and squeaking of leather upholstery. She could not have read for more than 20 minutes when she moved around again, waving her book rather wildly in Darcy’s direction until he looked up at her. “Fitz, look, I’m reading your novel!” Liz tried not to physically wince when she recognized the cover. Another copy of The Breaking Point. She turned away, and found her eyes wandering to Darcy. She watched as his mouth grew tight and he dipped his gaze away when Caroline added, “When I’m done, you’ll have to sign it for me!”

Darcy, rather than appearing flattered, did not seem pleased by the prospect. “I don’t see the point of book signings when you’re friends with the author. You have access to the original already.”

“Oh, take it as a compliment Darcy,” Chip said airily.

Darcy continued to scowl, sliding down slightly lower in his chair. After a few minutes, he placed is index finger against his page and closed the cover of the book, putting his elbow on the arm of the chair, his cheek against his fist.

Liz glanced over the top of her novel to watch Caroline watching Darcy. She seemed to be thinking with a certain amount of urgency; she chewed against her bottom lip, the fingers of one hand gently tapping along the cover of her book. “Chip,” Caroline said suddenly, “Did you seriously mean what you said last week about hosting a party. The little Bennet… Cat?”

“Lydia,” Jane and Liz corrected her in unison.

“Right. Lydia. The one asking for a party, did you mean that?”

“Sure! Why not? There was nothing in the lease that said I couldn’t.”

“Well, I don’t know why you would decide without first consulting those living in your home. I don’t know about you, but personally, I believe there may be… one or two of us who would rather not play host to a lot of strangers.”

Chip scoffed out a laugh. “If you mean Darcy, then he can go out before it starts. Or go to bed, if he likes! Caroline, really, I may have earned the money from our father, but I am still the one who rented the house.”

Caroline sighed heavily. “Oh, very well.” Her eyes flickered to Darcy’s face.

“Bingley, I assure you, I will not dictate who you can and cannot have to visit in your own home.”

“Why, thank you, Darcy. I’m glad at least someone appreciates that.”

Liz closed her own book around a finger and turned towards Darcy; he met her gaze with cool calmness. “Let me guess,” she said with a certain amount of bite to her tone—she had not forgotten his insult at the start of summer party. “You disapprove of all music, parties, or general merriment and never listen to music unless it’s a classical composition that’s 200 years old. You’ve never danced in your life.”

Darcy tipped his head slightly as he looked at her, his eyebrows slightly furrowed in confusion, but the tiniest hint of a smile turning the corners of his lips upward.

Caroline seemed offended for him. “Fitz can ballroom dance,” she told Liz, loudly.  

“Oh, I see. Is it on your list of ‘Accomplished Human Being’ skills?”

“No.” He looked as if he was considering adding it, though.

Although in most situations Liz would have found the idea of a young man with a thorough knowledge of ballroom dancing breathtakingly attractive, the idea of Darcy owning it as a skill was both expected and extremely off-putting. It made her want to fake gag for Charlotte’s amusement. Unfortunately, Charlotte wasn’t there—all she could do was touch her forehead, the curve of her palm hiding her eyes from Darcy and Caroline, and shoot a wide-eyed look of frustration in Jane’s direction.

Jane only returned the gaze with a disapproving expression and Liz rolled her eyes before returning to her novel. Someone had just shot the president and she wondered idly if she had missed some key plot point, but didn’t bother turning back to find it. Darcy returned to his book as well and the room fell quiet again.

Caroline seemed to be struggling with the task at hand. After another few minutes, she tossed it aside and stretched her arms, arching her back to show off her figure very conscientiously, turning herself towards Darcy in a manner that Liz knew could not be comfortable in the least. “I do enjoy a good book. When I buy a house, I hope it has space for a nice, large library. As nice as the one in your home, Fitz, I should hope!”

Darcy acknowledged her with a slight nod and turned the page in his book. When she received no further response, Caroline sprang to her feet and began to pace the room. She had a pair of particularly long legs, which she personally found to be one of her best features. They were the reason she preferred short skirts and shorter shorts. Despite her movements and general din, Darcy remained perfectly engaged in his book.

“Liz,” Caroline said suddenly, turning from the window. “Care to stretch your legs with me? After sitting all day, it is nice to move a little.”

Somewhat bewildered, Liz set her book aside and stood up. Caroline waltz over and slipped her arm through Liz’s, holding the smaller girl’s forearm in a tight grip, her red-painted nails biting into Liz’s skin.

Her purpose realized at last, Caroline felt a particular pang in her chest as Darcy, at least, glanced up from his book. It was a slightly apprehensive glance, to be sure, still hiding behind his book, but it was a look.

“Care to join us, Fitz?” she asked after the first revolution of the room.

He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Wouldn’t that ruin the purpose?”

“The purpose? What purpose? Liz, do you know what he’s talking about?”

“No.” She turned her head towards him and though his expression was still grave, there was something brighter than usual in his eyes. “But we shouldn’t ask, he’s only baiting the question in order to tease us.”

That did bring a smile to his face, even if it was a slightly sardonic one.

Caroline, however, could not contain herself the way Liz could and eventually she burst out with, “Fitz, what are you talking about?”

“One possibility, Caroline, you and I both know you consider your figure to be best admired while you’re moving, in which case I am in a much better position to admire you from my seat. And the other is that you two may have some secret confidence together. You might be whispering secrets about all of us. If that is the case, I should definitely remain in my seat, for you would never bring me into your little meeting in front of everyone who you’re speaking about, would you? Besides,” he added, meeting Liz’s gaze with a glint in his eyes and a smile that turned up the left half of his mouth, “I wouldn’t want to interrupt anything, would I?” 

Caroline, who was genuinely embarrassed by his little speech, turned to Liz in hopes of finding solidarity. “How nasty, Fitz! And you say I am mean. Liz, how can we retaliate? What should we say to punish him?”

“I have always found that laughter and teasing are the best response in situations like these. You know Darcy better than I do—what should we tease him about?”

She gasped, bringing one hand to her mouth and easing the tension on Liz’s arms slightly. “No one laughs at Fitz.”

Liz tossed her braided hair behind her shoulder and repeated, “’No one laughs at Fitz?’ Don’t be ridiculous, everyone needs to be laughed at. What are his fatal flaws?”

Caroline scoffed, turning her noses up at the idea. “Fitz cannot be teased. He is too rational and thoughtful and…” She was running out of praise to fit the conversation.

Liz bit the inside of her mouth; she was beginning to think she should have turned her laughter on Caroline before Darcy. Her own list of Darcy’s faults was far more thorough in just a few weeks of acquaintanceship than Caroline’s was of nearly a decade.

When Liz called him “Fitz,” his heart felt as if it had tripped—stuttering for a moment before speeding up. It only lasted for a few seconds and he was soon able to join in and straighten out Caroline’s excessive praise. “Caroline is giving me more credit than I deserve, I assure you. And even the best man in the world can be laughed at by someone who is looking for a joke.”

“Well, I hope I never laugh unfairly at anything that is good. I swear that has never been my intention. However.”

He dipped his head in acknowledgement. “However.”

Liz had freed herself from Caroline’s grasp and she stood alone in the center of the room, hands on hips as she looked at Darcy. He was still in his seat but the book lay entirely closed in his lap. Caroline was beginning to regret ever involving Liz in her plan.

I only laugh when people are silly or whimsical or preening. But I suppose you have none of those faults?”

“I have done my best to always be honest about my own nature, not to deceive. While it may not be possible to avoid them entirely, I do try.”

“As I said!” Caroline declared, forcing her way into the opening in the conversation. “Fitz is without flaws.”

Caroline. I’ve told you that isn’t true. I admit, I can have a temper when the situation warrants it. And at a certain point, I don’t forgive. My good opinion, once lost is lost forever.”

Liz raised an eyebrow. “You hold grudges.

No.” His forehead furrowed. “No, I…” He stopped again, balling one fist into the palm of his opposite hand, trying to think of the right translation of what he had said. “I don’t give second chances.”

“I hope you work very hard not to make up your mind until after you know everything possible about the situation.”

“I do.”

Liz turned back to face Caroline. “I suppose you’re right, Caroline. I cannot laugh at that.”

“I have always believed,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “that everyone is prone to some natural personal flaw that is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. It is tied to their nature.”

“Oh, I certainly agree with that. Your flaw is to hate everyone.”

“And yours, Elizabeth, is to purposefully misunderstand them.” He was smiling again, the expression strangely gentle, despite his words.

She paid him with a slightly sour smile and threw herself back into her seat on the couch, picking up the book again. Caroline, not entirely certain of what had just transpired, left her own novel alone and did her best to entice the others into a game of cards.

~~~~

Liz was not sorry to be leaving. Unable to hike the trails, the trip ended with a soggy whimper, leaving them trapped inside until it was time to pack the car on Monday afternoon. Caroline refused to help load the car as she didn’t want to get her hair wet, so Chip and Darcy made more than one trip each, taking bags to the car. With an eyeroll directed specifically at Caroline, Liz grabbed the girl’s final bag, along with her own, to take them into the car.

She marched down the front steps and across the driveway, the damp gravel slipping under her feet. She lost her footing for a second, one sneaker sliding hard against the wet stones. A hand clamped against her forearm. Liz didn’t have to look up to tell it was Darcy, but she did anyway, the drizzle streaming across her glasses. “Thanks.”

He let go of her after a second, saying nothing about it. She tossed the bags she was carrying into the trunk, muttering, “We have to stop meeting like this.”

She was slightly hopeful that Caroline, after seeing her monopolize Darcy’s attention—entirely accidentally—on more than one occasion, would be happy to sit in the very back of the car. But she was out of luck there. “Liz, would you be a doll and take the backseat again? My legs are so much longer than yours, it’s so uncomfortable.”

Liz sighed and pushed a few damp strands of hair off her forehead. “Sure.” She paused. “But what about Darcy’s legs? He’s taller than both of us.”

Caroline tossed one hand airily. “He’s always been sweet about taking the back. Lo gets terribly carsick.”

So, Liz and Darcy found themselves shoved into the far back seat again. Liz would have been somewhat willing to hold a conversation, but he seemed disinclined to speak. He crossed his arms and legs, scrunching himself off to the side of the car, barely looking at Liz through the long drive.

Caroline attempted, once again, to engage him, turning around every few minutes to make a remark or ask a question, but he was not in the mood to be spoken to. He answered with single syllables, when he answered at all. She pouted for a short while, but her need to talk overruled her annoyance and she eventually engaged Lo in a discussion of upcoming due dates for sponsored posts on Caroline’s lifestyle blog.

“I’m sorry the last couple of days didn’t turn out better,” Chip was saying in the front seat.

“It’s not your fault, Chip,” Jane assured him with a hand on his arm. “You can’t control the weather!”

Liz watched as they beamed at each other through the rearview mirror. Assured of their mutual affection, Liz slid her glance over to her companion in the backseat. Darcy was looking resolutely out the window, despite the steam and the water droplets making it nearly impossible to see anything outside. She had no interest in exerting the effort to draw him out. Unlike Caroline, she was content to let him mope silently for as long as he chose.

Eventually, he loosened up slightly, rearranging his long limbs in the small space he had behind the seat. He could have moved to the middle and used the aisle between the second row to stretch his legs, but that would have required his sitting directly next to Liz. And neither of them wanted that.

She had never been so happy to see The Longbourn as Chip pulled past it and up the driveway to their family home. In the front seat, Jane was chirping thanks and gratitude enough for both the sisters, effervescing about how much she would like to spend more time with him and his sisters.

Liz glanced over at Darcy. He was silent.

“Well… Bye.”

Caroline simpered and waved; Lo didn’t even look up from her phone. Darcy crossed his arms again, even more tightly than before, and looked somewhere over Liz’s right shoulder, his mouth in a tight frown. Liz resisted the urge to roll her eyes until she had clambered out of the backseat, not particularly caring that she accidentally knocked Caroline with her knee as she rushed to escape the car.  

For his part, Darcy waited until both girls were inside the house before he climbed out and took Jane’s empty seat in the front. He was quite glad to see the back of Elizabeth Bennet and whatever strange sorcery she held over his heart—or at least his thoughts.

~~~~

“So, how was it?” Lydia asked, leaning far across the kitchen table. She couldn’t quite reach Jane’s hands, so her fingers were splayed across the wood, scarred with years of age and children’s antics. When they arrived, both Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were in The Longbourn, but Cat and Lydia had been there to greet them. They could faintly hear Mary’s speaker playing upstairs.

“We had a very lovely time,” Jane assured her.

“And how was Chip?”

Jane paused, looking warily at her youngest sister. “He was very sweet and gentlemanly.”

Lydia lowered her voice slightly. “Did you ki-iss him?”

Jane turned pink. “No! No. I didn’t.”

“Aww.” She sounded more disappointed than Jane.

“Did you have fun, Lizzie?” Cat asked.

Liz waved a hand. “Oh, you know me, give me some woods and a pair of sneakers and I’m happy to entertain myself.”

“So, it was terrible?”

Lydia!” Jane chided.

“Lizzie only talks like that when she doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Jane looked at Liz, concern written on her face. “Oh, Lizzie, did you really not enjoy it?”

Liz rolled her eyes. “No, Jane. I had a perfectly fine time. Chip is very nice man; I only wish his sisters and his friend could be as pleasant.”

“Ooh, Lizzie, do tell.” Lydia waggled her fingers and Cat hid a laugh behind her hand. “How did it go with Darcy?”

“He’s… not my favorite person in the world,” she replied, edging her words carefully. “He’s not very social, is he?”

Jane looked at her hands, suddenly very interested in inspecting her nails. “He’s not,” she finally murmured in agreement. Liz raised her eyebrows and held out a hand, offering Jane’s responses as evidence to her benefit. “But he is very clever, isn’t he? Caroline seems to think so.”

“Yes, but what do you think of him, Jane?”

“…Well, Chip likes him a lot.”

Liz let out a laugh. “If Jane Bennet can’t list your positive features, then I really don’t know who can!”

Although Jane attempted to defend Darcy once or twice more during the evening, Liz refused to listen. “No!” she declared, laughing, “You had your chance and you didn’t come up with anything!”

When their parents returned, their mother, unfortunately, had a similar list of questions to those posed by Lydia. “Well, really, Jane, I don’t see why he would invite you all the way out there and not once ask you to go to dinner with him,” she huffed. It was not at all the outcome she had been expecting or hoping for.

Their father had a fairly different take on the situation. He sat with Liz in the living room, his book (a history of the Napoleonic wars) opened in his lap as he listened to his daughter rant about Darcy and the Bingley sisters with much amusement. “And he spends all his time being entirely silent or being extremely self-absorbed. He’s so proud of all his ‘accomplishments.’”

“Which you seem to find very lacking.”

“All I can say is, I did read his book and I certainly didn’t think much of it.”

“How very unfortunate that he should fall under your literary criticism, my dear. Maybe next time he’ll write more to your specifications.”

Dad, that’s not what I meant!”

“I know,” he said with a smile, pulling himself out of his seat. He kissed her on the top of the head before retiring for the evening, taking his book with him.

Liz waited until she and Jane were alone to begin her own postmortem of the trip. “Did it live up to your hopes?”

“I think so,” Jane said, running her brush through her hair. “I guess I wasn’t really hoping for anything in particular.”

“Mmm,” Liz replied, trying not to discourage her from continuing.

Jane climbed into her bed and hugged her knees. “I do like him, Lizzie. Very, very, very much. More than anyone I’ve ever met before. He is very handsome, isn’t he?” she added, almost as an afterthought.  

“Well, you’ve certainly had similarly kind thoughts towards less handsome and less charming men. I like him very much as well. You could do much worse than Chip Bingley!”

Jane laughed for a second, but her expression quickly fell. “Lizzie,” she murmured after a moment of thought. “I’ve been thinking about it, but I’m not totally sure I… should I… Should I tell him I’m ace-spectrum?”

“Has he asked you about it?”

“No.” She paused. “He… He hasn’t exactly asked me out yet either… but I have just been thinking if he’s expecting me to return advances or make any of my own, that I should just… let him know.”

Liz frowned at his stupidity—what was taking him so long to ask the sweetest, most affectionate girl in the world out yet?—and shook her head. “You don’t owe him anything. Until he asks you on a date, it’s not his problem, is it?”

“I… I guess not.”

“It isn’t, Jane. You don’t owe yourself to anyone, okay?”

“Okay.” She smiled back, a little weakly, but it seemed to appease her mind for the moment. She said no more about it and they shortly fell asleep.  

~~~~

The conversation with Charlotte the following day went a little differently. They finished their early morning run at the coffee shop. Liz used her reflection in one of the front windows to pull her hair up in a halfway presentable bun before they entered and ordered. Starting at the painful car ride and moving on, Liz explained every minute of the five days in excruciating detail.

Charlotte was quite silent throughout, aside from some “hmm” sounds and appropriately timed little gasps. She stirred her coffee with the straw and drew lines down the side through the condensation, waiting patiently for Liz to finish her side of the story.

“And I do not know what that man’s problem is. He doesn’t talk for hours and then he bashes my taste in books or makes fun of people for not being able to do one little task… Like, sorry not everyone in the world is as perfect as you are. Jerk.”

Liz.”

“What?”

“Don’t be so blind, honestly. He’s into you.”

Ew. Charlotte, don’t say that!” She could think of nothing less appealing than being the subject of a romantic gaze from Fitzwilliam Darcy. “And don’t tell Caroline, you’ll break that girl! The way she carries on…”

Charlotte raised her eyebrows and tilted her head, trying to impart a significant look, but she said nothing further on it, changing the subject back to Jane. “And how does Jane feel about Chip?”

“She’s crazy for him. Head over heels.”

“But he hasn’t said anything yet. Hasn’t asked her out yet.”

“No.”

Charlotte pursed her lips and sipped her drink.

What?”

“It would be better if she showed more feeling about it. You know, encouraged him a little.”

Liz scowled. “She is encouraging him. I’ve never seen her spend more time with anyone. She fawns over him.”

We know that, because we’ve known Jane for our entire lives. But to Chip, it might look as if he’s being treated the same way everyone else is. All she needs to do is help him along a little bit.”

“I would never tell her to betray herself like that! If Chip is paying any attention, then he would know exactly what Jane thinks about him. She doesn’t owe him performative sexuality jut to make him feel good. She could ask him out, if she wants, or he could. But I’m not going to tell her to get his interest based on a lie.” Liz angrily emptied her drink and brought the empty glass up to the bussing station. Although she did leave the building without Charlotte, she still waited outside for her friend. While she was not really angry, the expectations others had for her beloved sister frustrated her to no end, until she had to take them out on someone—even if that someone happened to be her other best friend.

Chapter Text

Outside of Meryton was a military base that often served as grounds for basic training for new National Guard recruits. The young men and women would take their free time in town or, at times, spend a week or two after the training had finished in Meryton as a well-deserved rest.

While the eldest two Bennet sisters were away, the youngest two were happily busy making friends among the enlisted men. The elder two Bennet sisters had been home for a little over a week before they met any of their sisters’ new acquaintances.

“We were going into town to meet some friends and do some shopping. Lizzie, do you want to come with us?” Lydia asked, leaning in through the doorframe. “I asked Mary but she told me to go away. Ugh.” Lydia rolled her eyes. “That girl needs a break. I wish she could learn to chill.”

Jane and Liz exchanged a glance. “Sure,” said Jane.

“I’m going to double check with Mary,” Liz said.

“She doesn’t want to come!” Lydia called after her, but Liz only shook her head.

She knocked gently on Mary’s door. “Come in.” Liz poked her head around the doorframe. Mary was lying prone across her bed with a pair of headphones on. She pushed her glasses further up her nose and leaned up to look at Liz, pushing the headphones off one ear. “Hi.”

“Hey. Lydia said you didn’t want to come into town with us. Are you sure?”

Mary shrugged.

“Okay. If you’re sure. But you’re going to be in Switzerland all year, so if you want to spend any time together, you just need to say so, okay?”

Mary chewed on her lip for a second. “Maybe I do want to come.”

Liz smiled at her sister. “Okay!” She closed the door behind herself. Lydia was waiting on the top of the stairs. “I don’t know what you said to her, but now she wants to come.”

Lydia rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

As the day was a particularly pleasant one—blue skies, not too hot, a pleasant breeze off the lake—Liz cajoled her sisters into walking rather than driving into Meryton. They were less than half way there when Mary pulled off her NASA crewneck, muttering something about it being “too hot for her wardrobe.”

Lydia nudged her playfully. “Good think you’re going to go live on top of a mountain, then! Just think about all that snow.”

Mary opened her mouth to correct Lydia, thought about it for a moment, and closed it again; it wouldn’t do any good anyway. Liz patted her on the shoulder as she tied her sweatshirt around her waist.

They made short work of the easy walk, waving to acquaintances they passed, Lydia stopping for several minutes to giggle with one of her high school friends. “Come on,” Cat finally said, pulling her away—the only one who wouldn’t get an earful about the interruption. “If we’re late, I don’t think anyone is going to wait for us.”

Lydia waved an energetic goodbye and skipped ahead. “If you say so, Kitty. I wonder who Denny’s bringing with him…”

“Dunno,” Cat said, looking forward.

“And these… young men,” Jane said cautiously, “how old are they? And do they know you’ve just graduated high school, Lydia?”

Lydia clucked her tongue. “Oh, Jane, don’t be so stiff. We’re all adults here. And it’s not like they’re going to live here, they’re just in town for now. There’s nothing wrong with making new friends.” So saying, she hooked her arm in Cat’s and pulled even further ahead.

Jane lagged back, touching Liz on the shoulder and giving her a look. Liz nodded back. It was all very well for her to criticize Jane for mothering her, but in the case of Cat and Lydia’s antics, she usually agreed that they needed to be reined in. That thought in mind, she was slightly surprised by the sight that greeted them towards the center of town, sitting on one of the curved benches that ringed a large fountain in a decorative outshoot of the walking path.

There were two men, both well-manicured with very correct posture, in button downs and shorts. They both stood at the approach of the sisters and the taller one raised a hand, beckoning them over.

Cat and Lydia giggled at each other for a moment before approaching. Lydia leaned forward, arching on her toes so she was nearly as tall as the shorter man. “Ooh, Denny, who’s your friend?”

The tall one, who was apparently named Denny clapped his hand on the shoulder of his companion. “This is George Wickham.”

“Ladies.” His eyes twinkled as they hopped from face to face of each sister. They stopped to rest on Liz and she returned the smile.

George Wickham had an easy grin. He was a bit on the stocky side, but clearly heavily muscled. He had a prominent dimple on his left cheek when he laughed, showing a set of movie-star-perfect teeth. His sandy brown hair was short and neat, with a slight natural wave to it. He also had just the slightest hint of an accent, but Liz couldn’t quite place the region.

“We knew each other back in grade school, out in Baltimore. Lost contact but then, hey, wound up in the same National Guard basic. Thought we’d stick around together for some more of the summer, have a bit of fun in Meryton between all the work for training and time at base.”

“How fun.”

“Lydia,” Jane said softly, touching Lydia’s elbow, “would you like to introduce us to your friend?”

Lydia tossed her ponytail over one shoulder. “This is Jake Denny! And these are our other sisters—Jane, Liz, and Mary.” Lydia paused and then added, for George’s benefit, “Oh, and I’m Lydia and this is Cat.” She pointed each Bennet out in her turn.

Denny whistled softly and touched his tongue to one lip. “Whew, Lyd, you told me you had a lot of sisters, but damn, seeing you all together…”

“There are a lot of us,” Jane admitted, with a soft smile.

“Jane is the oldest. Then Lizzie, then Cat and Mary are twins, and then me!”

“Never been so happy to be an only child! Eh, George?” He elbowed his friend in the side.

A funny look crossed George’s face, as if someone had just stepped on his toe but there was nothing he could do about it. He lips pulled taut for a second and his eyes narrowed slightly, before they flashed once and his expression cleared. “Oh, I don’t know… I wouldn’t’ve minded having a brother or a sister!” He smiled at the confession. “What do you think, about having all these sisters?” Although he didn’t address the question to anyone in particular, he was looking somewhat closely at Liz.

She smiled. “I kind of like the chaos. It feels very homey.”

Mary shook her head in a tight little motion. “I can’t wait to get away from it…”

Liz laughed. “Yes, we’ll miss you too, Mary!”

“Where are you going, Mary?” George asked solicitously.

“Switzerland. I’m going to intern with CERN.”

“Wow, that’s amazing!” There was a sound of genuine interest in his voice that she so rarely found at home, she found herself blushing slightly.

Lydia broke the moment with a loud groan. “U-ugh. Yes, Mary’s very smart, but we’re not here today to talk about school. I didn’t graduate to keep going on about class!” She grabbed Denny by the hand, beginning to yank him slightly to the left. “I said I’d show you around town!”

Laughing good naturedly, Denny allowed himself to be dragged several feet before he pulled her to a stop and made her wait for the rest of the party. She rolled her eyes, tapping one foot impatiently against the sidewalk.

~~~~

As they were leaving the soap shop—Lydia and Cat both stopping to buy several bars, despite their overflowing bathroom cabinet—George stepped up to the door and, with a flourish, opened it for the group. Liz was the last one through and she thanked him for the favor.

“Oh, that’s part of the training, of course. They teach us to always hold doors open for pretty girls.”

“You do lay it on thick, don’t you?” she asked cheerfully as he stepped out onto the sidewalk.

George gasped in mock horror. “Lay it on? No, I’m being serious, Liz! It’s in the handbook. Isn’t it, Denny?”

“Oh, yeah. Definitely,” Denny responded from ahead of them with a laugh, not looking back.

Liz rolled her eyes but smiled at him regardless. “So, little Liz, tell me about yourself.”

She scoffed. “Little? Well, now I’m inclined to really be your friend.”

“You’re not denying it?”

Playfully, she poked her nose in the air, facing away from him. “No, but that doesn’t mean it’s polite to bring it up, does it?”

“You’re so short!” he teased, pulling on a strand of her hair while he laughed. “People must confuse you for being the baby all the time!”

Lydia openly laughed; she was particularly proud of her height.

“They do not. They just have to look at Cat and Lydia to see the difference!”

“Hey!” Cat cried, good-naturedly. She showed George her own shy smile.

But he persisted with Liz. “You are, you’re tiny! What, people must think you’re 14 or something!” He poked her in the shoulder and, laughing, rested his arm on top of her head. She tried, and failed, to wriggle out of his grasp, raising herself on her toes, trying to knock him off.

A bright red car—Darcy’s Tesla—pulled up, quick and quiet, next to the curb and Chip immediately sprang out of the passenger side. “Jane! Morning! I was actually thinking about coming out to see you later…. but here you are!” He glanced between the sisters.

 “You haven’t forgotten about the party, have you?” Lydia asked with more solemnity than Liz had ever seen her apply to anything of consequence. “Because I was serious about that.”

Chip laughed and shook his head. “On the contrary! I’ve been thinking a lot about that party and I have a couple options, but we’re narrowing it down.” He listed off a couple of days in July. Lydia vetoed one immediately, but said she was perfectly fine with the rest. Once they hacked out a date, he moved onto a vague outline of what he was planning.

During the conversation, Darcy had rolled down the window about halfway, leaning his arm against the edge of the door, as he took in the group. Cat kept glancing at the car, but Lydia was distracted, practically jumping around the street as Bingley passed on the details of the party.

Liz, therefore, was the only one to witness what passed between George and Darcy. As soon as Darcy’s eyes alighted on the other man, his face turned paper-white and his jaw clenched visibly; George immediately removed his elbow from Liz’s head. She flashed her gaze up to George’s face, which had turned a sunburnt red. He gulped and tried to flash a weak smile. Darcy pulled his face away in an instant and rolled up the window all the way.

Liz was, in fact, so distracted by their little interaction that he entirely missed Jane, putting her hand on Chip’s arm and asking quietly, “Chip, are you coming to the 4th of July picnic?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world!” He grinned widely at her.

Denny watched them both, before taking in George’s face and the then-closed window of the Tesla, thinking very fast but saying nothing.

Chip looked around at the sisters and then stepped back off the side of the curb. “Yes, well, anyway, just thought I’d share in person, since it was so convenient!” He raised a hand again. “Anyway, see you soon, Bennets. Jane.” With a final, beaming smile he slid back into the passenger seat of the car and Darcy tore off far above speed limit.

George made a face as they disappeared down the street, eyes narrowing as the back end of the car turned the corner. His distaste was lost in the scuffle as Cat and Lydia both started speaking, very loudly and at the same time, about the party.

“What about me, Lydia?” Denny asked slyly. “I wasn’t invited and now I feel so sad hearing what I’ll miss out on.”

Lydia laughed. “Don’t be stupid, Denny. You can be my plus one.” She glanced down the row of her sisters’ faces, lighting on Liz, a glint in her eye. “And George can go with Lizzie.”

George’s expression morphed seamlessly into a perfectly pleasant and cheerful one. He matched Lydia’s grin and replied, “If she would be happy to take me, a lowly National Guard recruit!”

Liz was not quite so fast to drop her concern over Darcy’s response. She murmured some agreement about being more than willing to take him and they continued on again, Cat pointing towards the store she wanted to enter next. Liz waited until they were engrossed in their shopping once again before she caught George, touching his hand to get his attention.

“What was that?” she hissed.

George held his mouth in a tight line. “Not here.” His eyes flicked up the row of young women. “If we get a chance to talk alone…”

“Not likely. Not with this family.”

He smiled, a real smile that touched his eyes, and dipped his head in agreement.

“Would you like to come to the picnic?” Lydia asked suddenly, turning around to look down the line at George.

He met her gaze, continuing the smile. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world, darlin’!” Once she had turned back again, he muttered to Liz, “Not today, but if we can find some privacy at that picnic…”

Chapter Text

The week of the Fourth of July was always chaos in Meryton. With days off of work and children out of camp, families needed somewhere pleasant and cool to relax. And where better than a resort town by a lake? All of the Bennet sisters, even Lydia, who often slunk away to flirt with the teenage sons of guests, and Mary, who preferred to stay in her room and had convinced their father of the necessity of it—insisting she needed to work on her studies instead—were required to take the desk, checking guests in, lugging suitcases, or answering calls from those already settled in rooms.

Taking advantage of the glut of visitors in town, most restaurants and some stores in town closed on the 4th, in favor of a large fundraising picnic and fireworks event, with all the proceeds raised going back into the community and the schools. It was charming, in a small-town sort of way, but it had been such a staple event that it was welcomed by the Meryton visitors.

The Longbourn ran on a skeleton staff the day of and the entire Bennet family attended the picnic. For several years, Jane had run the high school sponsored raffle, and Mary had played as part of the high school band. It was as significant an event to the family as it was to the town.

Each sister had one particular thought to make the work lighter, the frustrating guests more tolerable to managed. For Jane, it was the thought of seeing Chip at the picnic. She had heard the old high school band that usually played patriotic songs slightly out of key was being replaced with a semi-community filled swing band and she was hoping Chip would dance with her. She enjoyed dancing very much. Liz was hoping George would make it to the picnic; she had been burning with curiosity about the silent animosity between him and Darcy. Whatever it was, it seemed still a tender subject for both men, judging at least by George’s words and Darcy’s face. Cat and Lydia, who had no such romantic attachments just yet, were both looking forward in raptures to the long weekend off and Chip’s upcoming house party.

The morning of the picnic, Liz was rifling through her closet, trying to decide what to wear when Jane came back into the room, running a brush her through her hair. Liz let out a theatrical gasp. “Jane! It’s 4th of July and you’re not wearing the dress!”

Jane smiled a little as she pressed a clip into her hair. “But I look okay, don’t I? I thought maybe it was a bit… much. This year.”

Jane had, for the last four 4th of July fundraiser picnics, worn a red, white, and blue dress, with big white stars around the skirt and red and white stripes across the top bodice. Instead, she was wearing a green dress with a pattern of white flowers, with big brown button down the front and strap sleeves that tied into bows on her shoulders. “You look adorable. But people are going to talk, you know! They’re going to ask you where the dress is.”

“Oh, that’s okay. I just… I mentioned something about it to Caroline but she didn’t think that it was, you know… Well, she thought it was a little costume-y.”

“Rude of her.”

Jane looked at her skirt. “She’s not wrong, though.”

“It’s once a year! You can wear whatever you like, regardless of Caroline Bingley’s opinion on fashion.” If she wasn’t thinking about George, Liz might have taken her own advice and put on the first piece of clothing her hand touched. But she put more care into it than that, carefully pulling her hair into a bun at the top of her head and pining all the loose hairs down. She finished with a swipe of red lipstick, tugging at her blue skirt once more.

Mr. Bennet was standing by the bottom of the staircase looking at his watch. “Well, Lizzie, I think we’re in the running for ‘longest amount of time to get ready for an event that is not a wedding or graduation.’ What do you think, my dear?”

“Dad, don’t worry about it. We’ll get there on time.”

“I’m not worried about getting there on time; I’m more tired of waiting.”

Liz only shook her head and stepped into the living room. Mary was sunk down low on one of the couches, reading a travel guide to Bern. “Planning your weekends already?”

Mary smiled over the top of her book.

Mrs. Bennet bustled into the room, sliding one earring into place. “Where are the rest of your sisters? If they don’t hurry, we won’t get a good parking spot!”

“You might have to tell them yourself, Mom. They’re not going to listen to Mary or me.”

She only shook her head and hurried up the stairs, pushing past Mr. Bennet, who was still counting on his watch. Eventually, they all made it into the car. Liz sat in the back seat, this time on the right window side. It was Mary’s turn for the center, with Jane on her left. In front of them, Lydia and Cat were both talking a mile a minute about the guests—especially the young cadets—who would be in attendance. In the front seat, Mrs. Bennet giggled. “Oh, girls,” she sighed. “When your Aunt Bea and I were younger… We chased a young man or two in uniform ourselves!”

“Mom, don’t encourage them! You know those ‘young men’ are too old for them!”

“Now, now, Lizzie. You’re only young once. A few flings in your life is not a terrible thing; helps you know what you do and don’t want in a man.” She put her hand on her husband’s arm. Mr. Bennet was silent, but Liz could imagine the look of amusement on her father’s face.

Despite Mrs. Bennet’s fears, they found a convenient parking space right in the front of the parking lot. And then, soothing Liz’s own fears, she saw no one of the military persuasion as they entered the gigantic tent. There were several tall, white event tents erected end to end to create a long, shaded space. At the front, there were teenagers and community members selling raffle and food tickets, and then a large amount of picnic tables and the food being served on one side of the tent. At the far end, the band was set up in front of a dance floor. One side was draped with canvas and plastic windows, the other side open to let in the breeze, the overflow of tables spilling out into the open field.

Mrs. Bennet, already fanning herself with a paper fan she picked up front the front table, glanced around and said, “Oh, look, there’s Joanna.” She waved to her friend and headed forward into the tent.

Lydia stood on her toes, looking through the relatively small crowd of people who had already gathered. She flattened her feet, a pout on her lips. “I don’t see any of the cadets yet.”

“Or Chip,” Jane murmured. “He did say he was coming.”

“I’m sure he’ll be here.” She glanced at Lydia, who had turned to watch the entrance hopefully. “I’m sure they’ll all be here. Come on, let’s grab a table.” Liz took Jane and Mary with her, leaving Lydia and Cat still watching the entrance, their father engaged in a conversation with one of his friends at the raffle ticket table. With seven of them, they filled almost an entire table alone. Jane fretted, smoothing her skirt once or twice and touching her hair to check the clip was still in place.

In the first fifteen minutes of their sitting, three people sauntered up to ask about Jane’s dress, Mary’s upcoming studies abroad, and Liz’s plans for the school year. Liz, with a tight-lipped smile, individually assured each the middle school principle, a woman from Church, and the head of Mrs. Bennet’s book club that she would, in fact, find many interesting and useful pursuits to occupy her time during her year out of classes. Mary was so annoyed with the questions she left to fill a plate in the middle of a conversation, breaking off mid-sentence to escape. Liz was quite exhausted even before her mother returned, already fretting about Chip’s non-appearance before she even sat down. “And he did say he was coming, didn’t he, Jane?”

“Yes,” she replied, so quietly that her voice was difficult to hear over the crowd and the playing of the band. (Liz noted with interest that they were both much better than previous years and playing far more appealing music, mostly swing and dance songs.) She clasped her fingers in her lap and Liz placed one hand over top, giving her a reassuring squeeze.

“Come on, let’s go get something to eat,” Liz said as Mr. Bennet, Lydia, and Cat all appeared with plates of food. She pulled Jane out of her seat and escorted her to the serving tables, brushing her along every time she paused to look at the entrance. “Food first, then love life.”

Lizzie. He’s not…”

“Well, that’s the current problem to fix, then, isn’t it?” She pushed a paper plate into Jane’s hands. “After the hiking trip, Mom keeps acting like you two are an item.”

“I know. I wish she wouldn’t.” Jane looked glumly down at the tray of hamburger patties. They seemed greasy and lumpy, each piece coated with a dull, almost artificial shimmer. It wasn’t just the meat, though; all of the food on the table appeared unappetizing, even dishes she would have favored on a normal day.

Liz watched with disapproval at the small amount Jane put on her plate, even ignoring the cherry pie at the end of the table. “It’s not just Mom, though. I mean, I don’t know why Chip hasn’t done anything—”

“Maybe he’s just shy or… or uninterested,” she said glumly.

Liz poked Jane in the arm. “If you think Chip’s uninterested, you and I haven’t been looking at the same boy’s face.”

It wasn’t Liz’s assertions that cheered her sister in the end, though.

“Girls!” Mrs. Bennet cried as soon as she caught sight of her two eldest daughters returning. “Look who came to join us!” She held out a hand to reveal Chip, Caroline, and Darcy, all squeezed together on the opposite side of the table. Caroline was practically in Darcy’s lap as she inched away from Mary who, slightly oblivious, had pulled out her guide to Bern to read while she ate.

Liz smiled at them, trying to decide who looked more out of place—Caroline or Darcy? Darcy was still in long sleeves, despite the heat and the informality, a checked white and purple button down, the sleeves rolled to his elbows. Caroline’s strawberry blonde hair was French braided and she had in a particularly ostentatious pair of dangling earrings that glittered in the light.

Chip was the only one at ease, grinning comfortably and wearing a very tourist-like Hawaiian shirt with large palm leaves printed all over it; it clashed with his hair, but that just added to the charm of the image. It fit better than an off-the-rack shirt, though, just as tailored and well-made as any of Darcy’s shirts. “Jane!” he cried, as excited as if it had been months, rather than three days, since they had last seen each other.

“Hi, Chip!”

“Caroline. Darcy.” Liz’s grin twisted slightly to hold back a laugh as she sat down, slotting herself between her mother and Jane, which put her directly across from Darcy. He looked absolutely miserable, poking unenthusiastically at a piece of chicken on his plate with the plastic fork. He barely met her eyes, but Caroline turned to her, smiling openly. There was something sharp in her eyes and a predatory glint to her flashing teeth.

“Liz.”

“How are you enjoying your summer so far, Chip?”

“Oh, it’s been excellent! I’ve been having a great time. Shame it rained for half the hiking trip, but what can you do, I suppose. Eh, Darcy?” he added, nudging his friend.

For a moment, Darcy seemed absolutely lost on the topic of conversation. He floundered for a second, blinking several times and turning his head when he looked up to meet Liz’s inquiring eyes, preferring to meet Mrs. Bennet’s gaze, despite all the trouble it would bring him. “What? Oh. Yes. Nothing to be done about the weather, no.” Caroline’s gaze flicked between Darcy and Liz, glaring daggers.

“Are you seeing anyone, Caroline?” Mrs. Bennet asked suddenly in honeyed tones, rather than picking apart Darcy’s curt and unsatisfactory answer.

The question took Caroline by surprise, like an unexpected blow to the stomach. Even if Mrs. Bennet didn’t understand the particulars, she could see something was passing between Caroline and Liz, and she would be damned if she wasn’t on her daughter’s side first.

“Not at the moment.”

“What a shame. Well, hopefully you’ll find a nice young man very soon. Now, Jane,” she said archly, changing the subject and leaning in towards Chip, pushing Liz into Jane so they were leaning uncomfortably to the left. “Jane has always been a favorite in town. More than a couple young men staying in town for the summer have asked her out before. And you should have seen the line by her locker in high school—six boys asked her to prom, if you can believe it!”

Mom,” Jane chided, blushing crimson. Liz could feel her beginning to sink in her seat, hunching herself away from the conversation. “I’m sure Chip doesn’t want to hear about people from my past who I never even dated. That was a long time ago,” she added somewhat frantically, turning to Chip. But Mrs. Bennet waved her off.

“They were all very sweet. Now, there was one young man I remember well—although I couldn’t tell his name for the life of me!—and he was terribly taken with her. He wrote her several pages of love poetry, though she was but fifteen at the time.” Mrs. Bennet sighed. “He was from Georgia, I think… Well, it came to nothing, and that is a long way for a relationship at so young an age.”

“Personally, I think it was the poetry that did him in.”

“Lizzie,” Jane said, slightly louder than her rebuke to their mother, as the band had begun to play again.

“You said yourself they were particularly awful. I have never seen anything destroy a budding romance like poetry before.”

Darcy leveled his gaze on Liz’s face. “Didn’t Shakespeare call poetry ‘the food of love?’”

“Yes, he did, but only of a hearty, healthy love. It’s too difficult to swallow for a new, pink love, and with no other encouragement, it is just as likely to wither away entirely. Terrible meter and overdone rhyming are some of the worst offenses against the English language.”

Darcy seemed torn. He blinked a couple of times, processing what she had said, and appeared about to laugh as he tried to open his mouth to respond. Caroline, as usual, cut him off. “How sad. I find love poems charming.” She batted her eyelashes a couple of times.

“Same,” Lydia said with a long sigh, leaning across the table. Caroline visibly flinched backwards, seemingly horrified to have one of the little Bennets agree with her. “If someone would write me a poem like they did Jane, I’d be happy for months.”

“Wouldn’t it be just that romantic,” Cat agreed.

Caroline let out a sort of disdainful sniff and looked down at her nearly empty plate. After taking a few more bites of food, she said, “Fitz. Let’s go…” She mumbled the last words and they were lost in the noise of the tent. Although Liz doubted that Darcy had actually heard what she intended to do, he agreed and eased himself off of the bench seat. Chip watched them off with an expression of a puppy being abandoned. He did not look forlorn for long, though, as Mrs. Bennet coaxed him into a new topic of conversation.

~~~~

As a new song started, Chip’s ears perked up and he smiled. “Jane, care for a dance?”

“Oh, yes, I’d love to!” she replied quickly.

Chip hopped out of his seat and stood as Jane swung herself over the side of the bench. He offered his hand and she took it; Chip helped her to her feet and they headed to the dance floor together. Mrs. Bennet watched with an open smile, letting out a titter of a laugh, before standing as well. “I’m going to see if Mrs. Lucas is here yet,” she informed Liz. “Behave yourselves, girls!” she added over one shoulder.

“Yeah, whatever,” Lydia said, quietly enough to not be heard. “When do you think George is gonna get here?”

“Or Denny,” Cat added.

Mary closed her book and put it on the table. “Will you ever stop thinking about boys? Of all the things you could be doing with your lives right now… and this is how you’re spending your summer.”

Cat and Lydia blinked at May who, without another word, pushed her book towards Liz, indicating for her to keep it, and stood up, disappearing into the crowd. “Geez,” Lydia finally grumbled after almost a minute of stunned silence. “What is wrong with her today?” When she received no answer, she plucked on Cat’s sleeve. “C’mon, Cat, let’s go see who’s around. We’ll be back in a few!” They left Liz, suddenly alone at the once full table, her hands resting on top of Mary’s book.

It really wasn’t fair, she decided eventually, examining her own thoughts, that Lydia and Cat would be the ones told off when she, Liz, was also thinking about her own boy. She wondered when George would show up—or if, the cadets in general were quite notorious for standing girls up when their weeks and weekends at the base were done—and what he would tell her about Darcy. Darcy himself was also something of a puzzle for her to work on. He was rude, often, and not particularly pleasant to spend time with, but surely, he wasn’t as bad as the way he come off when writing his book?

Liz drummed her fingers on Mary’s book and pursed her lips as she turned her head to look into the crowd. Well, speak of the devil… Darcy returned, popping up almost out of nowhere. He must have shaken Caroline off, because she did not appear anywhere near him for once. He glanced around the tent and, finding Liz’s face, immediately began walking towards her.

Liz bit back a groan and tried to pretend she was very busy with her napkin. He still walked over to her, stepping up close enough that he could speak comfortably under the volume of the band and so that she couldn’t ignore him.

She spoke first, as polite as she had been in front of Jane and her mother. “Darcy.”

“Elizabeth.” He inclined his head and held out his hand. His smile was tight and not entirely genuine looking. “Would you care to dance?”

Liz grinned back. “Oh, I see. You’re trying to give me a taste of my own medicine? Well, I won’t play along with the joke. I know that you plan is to mock me for wanting to dance.”

Darcy pulled the hand back.

“Besides, isn’t swing too modern for you?”

“I never confirmed or denied my preferred genre of music.”

Liz waved a hand, pushing away his non-answer. “If I accept, you’ll say the song is bad or that my form isn’t up to your standards, because I lack the accomplishment of ballroom dancing lessons. No, sir, I won’t play your game!” She let out a laugh that sounded fine to her ears, but she knew the effort it took to get it out.

He was silent for a moment, looking into her eyes, his face quite blank. After a few seconds, he inclined his head and said, “Very well,” in the most neutral tone she had heard come out of his mouth yet, and turned to walk away.

She watched him walk away before she let out a huff of a sigh and crossed her arms firmly across her chest. She turned to realize that Lydia and Cat were sitting next to her again, both wide-eyed and slightly slack jawed. “Did… Darcy just ask you to dance, Lizzie?” Cat asked after several stunned seconds.

Liz felt her face growing slightly warm. “Yeah. And I turned him down. So what?”

“So what?” Lydia squeaked, actually rising slightly from the bench seat. “So what is what happened in that cabin?”

“Nothing.”

Lizzie. Tell us!”

“There’s nothing to tell.”

A sly grin spread across Lydia’s face before she said, “If you don’t tell us, then I’m gonna tell Mom what we just saw.”

Liz’s eyes flashed. She could just imagine their mother’s reaction, her mingled hysterics over Darcy’s income and semi-fame as well as her refusal to dance with someone of such status, all battling her general dislike of the man for his attitude towards Meryton and the party at The Longbourn. “You will do no such thing.”

“I won’t?” Lydia asked archly, leaning forward and resting her chin on her fist. Cat, who was sitting between her two sisters, slowly began to lean back in her seat, fingers white as she gripped the edge of the table, trying to both keep her balance and get out of their way. “Or what, Lizzie?”

“Or…” Liz thought quickly, jogging back through every wrongdoing she had seen Lydia commit that wouldn’t also get her in trouble. “Or I’ll tell Mom that you dropped her favorite perfume bottle on purpose to hide that you had used it all up before going to a party.”

Lydia narrowed her eyes but pulled back a little way. “I just wanted to tell you that Denny and George aren’t here yet, but apparently you’re busy with something more interesting!”

“I am not.” So, saying, she picked up Mary’s book and opened to a random page, not even registering the words. Why in the world would Fitzwilliam Darcy ask her to dance? They had last parted on perfectly indifferent terms and she thought it was in their mutual interest not to bother the other—or speak at all, really. But he came up to her.

“Oh, look!” Cat said, rather more loudly than necessary, breaking the tension between her sisters. “There’s Charlotte.”

“Charlotte, Charlotte!” Lydia cried suddenly, waving her hand high, no longer able to contain herself. She had to tell someone or she would have burst. She practically vibrated with pent up energy until Charlotte was in close hearing range. “You’ll never guess what just happened!” Liz buried her face in her hands. “Darcy asked Liz to dance with him!”

Charlotte’s expression brightened significantly. “Ooh, did he?”

“And she turned him down.”

Charlotte began to laugh. “Of course, she did!”

Liz was gearing up to defend herself when Jane returned, her face flushed. She fell onto the empty bench across from her sisters, fanning herself with one hand. “It’s very hot, isn’t it?” she asked as a pleasant breeze, cooled by the lake, blew through the tent.

No,” Lydia said. “How’s Chip?”

“He just left.” Jane was smiling, Liz was pleased to see. That boy was at least starting to do something right.

“He’s not staying for the fireworks?” Lydia cried, almost sounding offended.

“No, they wanted to go back and watch them with Lo and Ned. Oh, thank you,” she said as Mary appeared, her arms full of water bottles, the plastic perspiring in the heat.

She started handing them out and said, “There’s a girl looking for you, Lydia. I don’t know her name.”

Lydia, realizing she couldn’t look around effectively from her seat, clambered out from the bench and raised herself on her knees on top of the bench. “Harrie!” she cried, waving one hand so violently she almost knocked her elbow into Liz’s face. Liz ducked in time and Lydia let out a quick, “Sorry!” before jumping to her feet and throwing her arms around a girl no one at the table besides Cat and Lydia had seen before.

“Hello!” she said, quite cheerfully. “You’re the Bennet sisters, right?” She did a quick count and paused as she came up with one extra.

Charlotte raised her hand. “I’m just a friend. Charlotte Lucas.”

“Right!” said the girl brightly. “I’m Harrie Forster. New in town, my husband’s just been stationed at the base.” Harrie Forster was younger than Jane, Liz thought, and she seemed particularly pleased to waggle the significant diamond on her finger around. She had blonde curls and a pleasant spray of freckles across her face and shoulders; her smile was slightly gap-toothed. She hooked her arm through Lydia’s as if they had known each other all their lives and said, slightly quieter, “Den and George told me to tell you they’re coming. They just had to wait for… a D to be gone, if you know what I mean?”

Liz interrupted Lydia, who was about to say that no, she did not know, and wanted to be let in on the gossip at once. “I know, Harrie. Thanks.”

“Right! Well, come on, Lyd. Cat.”

Liz handed Mary her book back, watching Harrie pull Lydia and Cat away. As soon as they were out of earshot, Liz turned on Charlotte. “What do you mean ‘of course, she did?’ Yes, of course I turned him down!”

“I don’t see why you hate the man. He just seems shy to me.”

You didn’t read his book.”

“Maybe you should give a book repot, then. Then at least the poor man can defend himself!” She was laughing again.

“Turn who down, Lizzie?”

Liz sighed, deeply. Charlotte’s misguided insistence was going to be the absolute death of her, she decided. “Don’t tell Mom,” she started severely, shaking a finger at Jane. “But Darcy asked me to dance. And I said no.”

“Oh! Why not dance with him, Lizzie?”

“Because I don’t like him, that’s why! I don’t see why it’s so difficult for everyone to grasp.”

“Is this about his book still?”

Liz groaned. “No! I mean, not really. I don’t have to defend my literary tastes to you! Besides, he’s rude and annoying and he eggs Caroline on to be awful all the time—”

Lizzie. Caroline is not awful.”

Charlotte tipped her head to the side with an expression of disagreement but remained silent. “Fine, agree to disagree. But when has Darcy been nice to anyone?”

“I feel like that’s a very loaded question,” said a voice from behind her. Liz craned her neck, turning in her seat, to see George Wickham, smiling at them all. “Hey,” he said to Charlotte. “Don’t think we’ve met.”

Charlotte raised one eyebrow. “No, I don’t think so either. Charlotte.”

“George.” He turned. “Oh, and this is Denny. Say hi to the girls, Denny.”

Denny waved. He looked away at the sound of his name being screamed by Lydia, turning his wave towards her and immediately left. “Well, he’s gone,” Charlotte murmured, a laugh behind her words.

“Hey, Liz, want to dance?”

“Love to!” She jumped to her feet and George took her by the arm. She caught sight of Charlotte’s face, her lips pursed, as she walked away. She returned the look with a smile of her own.

He was a good dancer, putting his whole body in the movements. Liz was glad for the six months of extracurricular swing dancing she had taken in high school; she nearly remembered most of it. “So,” she said finally, when he pulled her close and turned them both at the end of a song, “what did Darcy do to the point where you won’t even come to the same public gathering as him?”

He glanced around, muttering in the new quiet, “Let’s… wait until the fireworks, okay?”

Liz looked him up and down. “And you are going to tell me, aren’t you? This isn’t just an excuse to spend time with me?”

George graced her with another of his toothy grins. “Oh, darlin’, do I need an excuse for that?” The band struck up a new song and he twirled her, one hand pulled up high, before catching her again at the waist.

~~~~

As the evening grew darker, people began to filter outside of the tent, taking chairs and blankets with them. The fireworks over Hertford Lake had always been applauded by both locals and out-of-towners, and often drew people from the surrounding three or four counties just for the night show.

The Bennets always brought several blankets to fit them all, especially as Mr. and Mrs. Phillips had joined the family for the evening. Liz snatched one of the smaller tartan blankets and disappeared with it before Lydia or Cat could ask to join her and Wickham. He took the blanket from her and purposefully sought out a quiet corner under a tree, where he laid it out. Although the view wasn’t the best, they were guaranteed some privacy.

“Is now the right time, George?” Liz asked after glancing around to make sure no one—her sisters or otherwise—was watching them. She folded her legs to the side, the blanket scratchy against her bare skin.

He leaned back slightly, resting on his hands, also looking around. “Sure. I guess so.”

“So. You know Darcy?”

George flashed a hard smile. “Oh, Fitz and I are old… friends, you could say.” He paused on the word “friends,” pulling it out to multiple syllables.

“How old?” she asked curiously, leaning closer towards him.

George paused and bit his lip. “How well do you know Fitz?”

“About as well as I would ever want to. We’ve attended a few of the same parties, but we spent four nights together in a cabin on a hiking trip, along with his friend Chip, and his sisters.”

“And is he well liked in town?”

Liz shrugged. “Not particularly. He’s something of a fascination, I think. I mean, we get a lot of wealthy people renting homes for the summer, but not quite on Darcy’s level.”

George nodded solemnly, but the corners of his mouth were beginning to poke upward, just slightly. “We’ve known each other since childhood—or, I guess, knew each other in childhood,” he corrected with a sneer. “We practically grew up together in Pemberley—until he was shipped off to school, anyway. Our fathers worked together, practically partners. Do you know what the Darcy family business is?”

The fireworks had started over the lake, showers of blues and reds beginning to pop against the dark sky.

“Not really. I know that he’s extremely wealthy, to the point where he can entirely focus on a writing career. And that he was sent to an all-boys boarding school.”

George nodded. “Well, it’s a lot of charity, mostly. And entrepreneurship training, where they make most of the return. Old Mr. Darcy was very noble, a stand-up guy and all that. He and my dad, they worked together for a long time, starting way before Fitz and I were born. I was about 14 when my father died.” He raised a hand to pause Liz’s consolations. “It was a long time ago, don’t worry about me just for that. I went to Baltimore to live with my aunt, but it’s not so very far from Pemberley and I went out often enough to see them all. I think Fitz was jealous that I got to spend more time with his father than he did, way off at school most of the year.”

Liz’s mouth was growing dry; she was beginning to see an uncomfortable amount of similarities between George’s story and Darcy’s novel. But he wouldn’t be so bold as that, would he?

“So, Mr. Darcy offered to help me pay for college and maybe get me some internships or a job, if I studied business.” He paused for dramatic effect his words accented by several small pop pops of fireworks. “And then he died. Fitz paid out the semester but refused, point blank, to get me an internship. Just because he doesn’t have the brains for money or business deals—off doing his writing thing—doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t handle it.”

“No!”

“Oh, yes. He did. Just because he couldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, he denied me the chance.”

“It’s… hard to believe he would be so different than his father, from the sounds of him.”

“Hard to believe?” George asked sharply. Then he stopped and collected himself. “Yes, they are different. There is one way that Fitz and his late father are alike,” George admitted after a particularly loud blast. “He loves to take care of others—in his own way. One of his favorite pass times, taking care of people who he can control. His sister, for example. Georgie used to be the sweetest little kid I’d ever met. Then Fitz went off to school and it was just her and Mr. Darcy, so sometimes I’d go out there with my dad and, you know, like, play with her. With dolls and stuff. She was like a little sister I never had. But when Mr. Darcy died, it really messed her up. Like, really… off. She was 14, Fitz and I were both 21. He became her sole guardian pretty soon after that.”

Liz perked up at that. “Did he? I mean, that’s quite selfless of him, especially if he was only 21—”

“I’d save your praises ‘till after you hear why he did it.” He paused. “Did you hear she was out of school last semester?”

“Yes,” Liz said, leaning forward slightly.

“Do you know why?” There was a hard glint in his eye when he asked the question. It made her almost afraid for him to continue.

“No,” she answered, a little breathlessly.

“It was because Fitz didn’t like the people Georgie was associating with. He said they were ‘bad for her’ and she could find better friends.” He let out a scathing laugh. “She’s an adult, he has no right to dictate who she spends time with! Doesn’t matter, though. She’ll do anything that boy says. If he told her to drop out and be his secretary, she’d probably do it.” He stopped again, leaning even closer to Liz, so she could feel his breath on her bare shoulder. He smelled of peppermint and something else, fresh and clean. The ocean, maybe? Liz couldn’t quite put a name to it. “You know what’s worse, though? He’s put her through this so long, she believes him. Georgia Darcy’s very full of herself. All the money in the world can’t buy a nicer personality, y’know?”

Liz thought of Caroline Bingley. “Oh, for sure.”

“Fitz enjoys being a law unto himself. He’s the only one who can be in charge, y’know? Georgie could’ve gone to his uncle or his aunt and he could have kept to himself, but no, he chose to put himself in charge of her so he could keep bossing her around. But she likes it. Last time I talked to her, I tried to get her to get away from him, said he was controlling her. And she said no. I mean, I guess I get family loyalty, but that boy’s bad news. Bad, bad news.

“Besides, it’s not like he really took care of her. Shipped her off to boarding school in England first chance he got. He barely had to take care of her after that, anyway.”

For the first time, Liz wasn’t quite sure about what George was saying. While most of his remarks on Darcy played well into her image of the man, when he spoke of Darcy neglecting his sister, she thought instead of the letter. Maybe he doesn’t know they write letters to each other.

But no, the rest of it, she could see. He did spend an awful lot of time telling others what to do and what to think.

“George,” she asked very quietly, “have you read Darcy’s novel?”

“Nope, darlin’. Wouldn’t touch that thing for the world. Have you?”

Chapter Text

Darcy sat alone in his room on the bed, legs crossed. It was the closest he had come to a panic attack in years. He closed his eyes again, to focus on his breathing. His head felt light, a little floaty, almost insubstantial. He forced himself to breathe through what felt like a belt around his chest.

George

Wickham.

He had hoped—he had expected, perhaps optimistically—never to set his eyes on the man’s face again. And there he was. Talking to Elizabeth.

Touching her, even.

Why did that make him so angry? He ran his hands though his hair and opened his eyes. Just seeing the man again should have been enough on its own, but somehow the circumstances heightened his feelings. Would George be brave enough—or stupid enough—to seek him out? Darcy very much doubted it. The last time they had spoken, December 19th, he remembered the day vividly, they had nearly come to blows. Darcy had a good four inches of height and George had cowered, ducking away. He took the money and ran.

Darcy could hear Ned laughing, loudly, downstairs. He had been almost aggressively cheerful since he returned, not speaking to Louisa as much as Darcy might have thought he would. He had not asked what, specifically, the argument had been about most recently, but their strife seemed to be going on much longer than was typical.

The sound brought him back more firmly to the present. He straightened his shoulders and swung his legs over the side of the bed, smoothing his hands across the wrinkles in his slacks, pressing the soles of his feet firmly to the floor. No, he wouldn’t be brought down today. Darcy was almost certain he had the upper hand over George at any rate. 

Darcy leaned forward again, hunching his shoulders slightly downward, and ran his hands through his hair again, rumpling it completely so it needed to be combed smooth again. He used the time to fully calm himself, feeling the hard, smooth plastic of the handle, the pull of the teeth through his hair, the number of times he brushed. One, two, three… By the time he put it down again, he was entirely back in order, mind and body.

He left his room and went down the stairs, through to the kitchen, which seemed to be inordinately noisy. Ned and Louisa were on the couch in the sitting room, a significant amount of space between them, Ned leaning away from her. She was sitting very stiffly, her hands clasped in her lap. Although they appeared to be watching TV, whatever program that was on was playing so low Darcy could barely hear it ten feet away. Caroline was sprawled in one of the armchairs towards the side of the room, scrolling absently through her phone, one elbow on the armrest, her opposite foot perched on the seat of the chair.

Darcy turned in towards the kitchen, where Bingley was the cause of the noise. A pot was steaming and he held the lid aloft in one hand, a wooden spoon in the other, but he seemed at a loss for what to do next, as he stood staring at it for several seconds, gnawing on his bottom lip. “How long do you boil potatoes for mashing again?” he asked suddenly without looking up. “I can’t tell if I’ve overdone them or underdone them.”

“Depends. How big did you cube them?”

“…Cube?”

“It’s going to be a while.” Darcy took the pot lid out of his hands and glanced into the boiling where, where four large and completely uncut potatoes lay, jostled gently by the bubbles. He put the lid on. “You’re supposed to chop them up before you put them in the water if you want them to cook faster.” He could have continued, citing the textural differences between a peeled versus unpeeled potato in different preparations, or bringing up questions on how and when to season the water, but Bingley was already far out of his depth. Instead, he said, “You didn’t boil anything else, did you? Or steam vegetables?” He tried to hide the note of distaste in his voice.

Bingley quickly shook his head. At least the lesson on steamed Brussel sprouts got through to him

Taking control of the kitchen, Darcy began to order Bingley about, making him fetch ingredients from the fridge or change the oven timer. Caroline heard Darcy’s voice and left her spot in the sitting room, stepping over to observe. She leaned against the side of the counter, watching him as he worked.

“Chip, you really have to pay more attention to Fitz when he’s cooking. You’re so good at it, Fitz. I don’t know why you even let Chip try.”

“If he doesn’t try, he’ll never learn. And neither will you,” he added, looking up at her.

She scoffed. “My cooking is better than Chip’s.”

“Not by much,” Louisa called from the living room.

Caroline scowled and turned. “Well, I wasn’t asking you, Lo!”

Darcy bit back a sigh and emptied the put into the sink, catching the potatoes in a strainer. They peeled easily at least, the skins slipping off. He put them in a bowl and then handed it over to Bingley who took it sheepishly before beginning to mash the potatoes with a fork. “Dinner will come out somehow,” he said with a soft laugh.

Darcy clapped his hand on his friend’s shoulder for a second, squeezing gently in a show of solidarity.

~~~~

Caroline dropped her fork to her plate with a clatter. “Chip, are we really going to that stupid community picnic? You’re not being serious, right?”

Yes! I don’t see why not! Besides, Jane asked specifically if we would be there. You wouldn’t want to make me a liar, would you?” he asked, flashing a smile.

Caroline ignored the entire second half of his statement. “Because it’s a community picnic. If you’ll remember, we don’t live here.”

“Not with that attitude we don’t.”

“You rented a house for the summer! That doesn’t mean you’re moving in permanently.” Bingley was silent for several seconds and Caroline went strangely pale. “You’re not! You have to go back to DC! Dad put you—”

“I know what Dad did! I was there when he gave me the instructions, thanks very much. But if you’ll please remember, you, me, and Lo are now grown adults and everything Dad says has just a little less weight, don’t you think?” He stabbed a carrot on his plate. “Besides. If you’re so worried about someone being the new face of the company, why don’t you go to law school and see how you like it, Caroline.” He let out a particularly harsh laugh. “Oh, wait, let’s remember who couldn’t take the pressure and dropped out after one semester. Don’t lecture me about the family business when you’re not a part of it.”

Caroline had turned a particularly vibrant shade of pink; she always turned red around her throat and forehead when she was embarrassed. She stared resolutely downward, though it was clear she wasn’t seeing the plate. She picked up her fork again, moving her fingers very carefully so it made no noise against the edge of the dish.

Darcy was silent; he was no stranger to family legacies. Although the Darcy family business had changed significantly in form over the last several decades, it had been his father’s, his grandfather’s, his great-grandfather’s life’s work. And Darcy chose writing instead. His aunt, who was not a Darcy had been more upset by his choice than his father had been, but for the first three years of his college career, there had always been some amount of sadness whenever he talked about his classes.

Even as a member of the board of directors with an active hand in selection of company goals, the two questions remained: Was he doing enough? And would his father be proud? Bingley, at least, could ask those same questions directly to his father’s face.

Bingley added, suddenly, “I told him if he took that Fair Use case, I didn’t want to be a part of it. But oh no, if I’m going to be the face of the company, I have to be the face of the case…” His scowl slowly melted and he sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Whatever. Too late now anyway.” He put down his fork.

Ned cleared his throat somewhat over loudly and started asking questions about the upcoming holiday. Even as Caroline groaned about the picnic, Bingley perked up a little at the sound of fireworks and spending time with Jane Bennet. Darcy observed the conversation silently. He still remembered Chip’s questions about Jane from the hiking trip, Darcy’s opinions on the girl’s feelings towards his friend. He promised himself to spend more time watching Jane, and much less on her sister, the next time they met. If Bingley already had questions about the girl’s feelings, then Darcy’s opinions could hardly do any harm, he thought. And it is a good idea to look at someone other than Elizabeth

He wiped his mouth with his napkin and pushed out his chair from the table, taking his plate with him. He heard the sound of a couple other chairs coming out from the table. Ned had also stood, leaving his plate on the table, reaching into his pocket for the now-habitual packet of cigarettes; he had taken up smoking again sometime between the last two fights with Louisa. Bingley brought his plate with him, following Darcy into the kitchen area.

“Darcy,” he said softly so the others wouldn’t hear, putting his hand on his friend’s arm. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

“Yes.” Darcy put his plate next to the sink and Bingley stacked his on top.

Bingley then glanced at his sisters, still sitting at the table, and pulled Darcy out of the kitchen, back into the little laundry room next to the garage. He fumbled for the light on the wall. Darcy crossed his arms and leaned against the washing machine.

“What happened today in town? I haven’t seen you act like that in… in years.”

“It’s… nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

Fitz. I’m going to worry about it because something is wrong.”

Darcy swallowed, feeling a muscle clench in his jaw. He hadn’t told Bingley the full extent of Wickham’s behaviors, despite the ever-lengthening list. He was also nearly positive that Bingley and Wickham had not been in the same room together for almost eight years; his failure to recognize the man was hardly unexpected. He thought for several seconds, trying to decide the best course of explanation. The truncated version, the old list of crimes, would have to do. “Do you remember George Wickham?”

“Yeah, he’s that… Uh, he was the son of your dad’s assistant, right? The one you don’t talk to.”

“Yes.”

Bingley continued to watch him expectantly. Darcy rubbed one hand against the back of his neck. “Well. He’s here. In Meryton.”

“Here? How did you find out?”

“I saw him.”

When?”

“Today.”

“And you didn’t say anything?” he cried, taking a step closer.

“It was… not the time.” There had been plenty of things he could have said, had thought about saying, ranging from racing off, leaving Bingley behind to actually getting out of the car and hauling him off of Elizabeth himself. Really, he snapped in his mind, what is your fascination with that girl? “There was nothing that could be done and I did not care to share our disagreement with the world.” Because, of course, that would entail more lies and half-truths, more excursions into memories he preferred not to think of whenever possible.

“And you’re still not talking, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes. He and I will never be on speaking terms again,” Darcy replied firmly, a hard bite to his tone.

Bingley paused, looking Darcy up and down. He was used to Darcy’s coolness towards those who troubled him, but this white-faced fury was something different. Darcy’s words might be calm and hard, but he was shaking slightly, clearly thinking of something more than simple theft. “Fitz, what did this Wickham character do?”

Darcy could have laughed. The half frightened, half curious tone Bingley took, the way his inflections sounded so much like Bingley’s father, always trying to fix everything… It was too late to repair this, though. “He… Well, I told you. He took advantage of my father and tried to embezzle $35,000 from the estate. At least, I think it was only 35…” Darcy scowled. “He might have gotten more. Tried to punch me in the face when I rescinded the job offer.”

Bingley nodded, very slowly. He knew he was not quite the most perceptive judge of character or expression; it was one of his personal weaknesses, but even he did not have to have known for Darcy for over a decade, been his best friend, lived in the same dormitory as him, to tell that whatever Wickham had done, it was far, far worse than the embezzlement. He spoke so calmly about the money and the theft—not at all like the shaking anger he had been presenting before. “Okay,” he said finally. “But if there’s anything you want to… talk about. Or, you know, work out or anything… I’m here to listen.”

“I know.” He remained standing stiffly, his expression still sullen.

Bingley nodded slowly and put his hand on Darcy’s shoulder. “I just don’t want to see the thunderstorms come back if I can help it at all.”

Darcy winced and then put his hand on top of Bingley’s. “I know.” His tone was a little warmer. “Bingley, I know. Thank you.”

Bingley smiled again, much more warmly and a little more pleased with his progress on Darcy and left the laundry room. He’ll tell me eventually

Darcy sighed and slumped back against the wall, a dull ache inside his chest. It wasn’t that he doubted Bingley’s discretion—he had shown himself to be a fully trustworthy source years ago. And he owed Bigley so much—probably his life, at the least—but it was so difficult to explain without injuring others, sharing private conversations without permission.

He decided to speak to Georgie about it. If he explained the thunderstorms, then maybe she would allow him to speak freely. Despite the depth of his history with Bingley, it was still up to Georgie’s discretion.  

~~~~

Thirteen is a hard age to leave home for the first time, especially when it involves throwing a classful of adolescent boys into a dormitory with minimal introductions beforehand and expecting them to live and sleep peacefully together. Beyond the expectations of homesickness and varying levels of attempts at stoicism and manliness, the genuine emotional upheaval of puberty is a difficult obstacle to overcome in the best of circumstances. No matter how many councilors Lancaster Academy hired or how many hours were allocated to allowing phone calls home, there were always growing pains and impediments of tradition to be overcome.

Bingley, who had had little trouble adjusting to his new lifestyle, took a relatively short amount of time to discover such truths. In less than two months, he was thriving in the atmosphere of the school, his naturally outgoing and effervescent personality giving him both the means to make friends and enjoy the constant time he was able to spend with them. While he got on well with the majority, there was one particularly small and quiet boy by the name of Fitz Darcy who he had trouble getting through to, despite his efforts and offers of friendship. His mealtime invitations were rebuffed, his questions about class answered sharply and shortly.

Eventually, Bingley’s interest began to wane and he spent far more time with those who welcomed his offers. One night in late October, he awoke with a chill. The temperature of the dormitory had dropped dramatically and the boys would not find out till morning that high winds had caused a power outage for five- or six-mile radius near the school. Shivering slightly, he crawled out of bed and wrapped himself tightly in his bathrobe before digging for a pair of socks in the shelf at the bottom of his bed. Then, he picked up the empty glass from his nightstand and walked towards the door. Strictly speaking, the boys had a curfew of 10 PM, later as they got older, but he was sure he would be excused for wanting a drink of water. He eased the door open, carefully stepping over the creaking boards to the left of the wardrobes. It was, after all, a time-honored tradition, sneaking out of the dorm late at night; he knew perfectly well what boards squeaked and which stairs groaned.

He walked quickly down the hall, passing the bathroom directly next to his dorm room. There was one bathroom on the second floor that he was convinced had better tasting water than the others, despite knowing the assertion seemed downright ridiculous. He couldn’t help his taste buds! Outside, the moon was full and it cast lines of light across the hallway. The huge trees outside writhed in the wind, the branches interrupting the illumination and scratching against the windowpanes with a sense of urgency.

Bingley shivered again, not quite from the cold, and started down the stairs. He nearly tripped face-first as he slid on the corner of a blanket, knocking his knee into a huddled little shape. “Ouch!” he cried, more from surprise than pain, and promptly clamped one hand over his mouth, the other still clutching the empty water glass.

A pale, thin face looked up, half in shadow, half illuminated by the moonlight. Even in the dark, he could see the boy’s eyes were puffy, his nose red from continuous rubbing. “Darcy?” Bingley asked, easing himself down several steps. “Are you okay? I’m sorry I hit you in the back.”

“’S okay,” he said in a sad little voice. He had taken the blanket off his bed and it was huddled around him, cocooning him in a way that must have made the cold of the staircases much more bearable.

“I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“No.”

“And you won’t… won’t rat me out, will you? I only wanted a drink of water.” He held out his cup as proof.

Darcy returned the look with a watery smile. “Then I’d have to tell them about me, too.”

Bingley paused and then carefully set his cup on the steps. “Are you okay? I mean, it’s awfully cold out here, don’t you think you should go to bed?”

Darcy shook his head.

“Are you feeling homesick?”

Darcy shook his head again and then added, “Just sick.”

“Like, go to the nurse sick? Go to the hospital sick?”

“No. Like… Like I just don’t feel well.” He took in a slightly shuddering breath that Bingley thought looked very much like it hurt. “My stomach feels bad, but it’s not from food or anything. And it’s… It’s like there are thunderstorms but they’re in my head.” The boy buried his face in his arms again.

Somewhat awkwardly, Bingley placed a hand on his knee, patting it gently, before pulling his hand back. When Darcy didn’t move, Bingley then put his hand on Darcy’s shoulder—or at least what he thought was his shoulder, it was difficult to find through the folds of the blanket. “Do you want me to sit with you?”

Darcy looked quickly up at him, his eyes wide with surprise. “You… you’d do that?”

“Sure,” he said, drawing his knees up to his chest.

Darcy said nothing else for several minutes. Slowly, he began to unravel the blanket. “It’s very cold. Do you want…?” he started to ask, holding out part of the blanket like a cape rather than finished his question. Bingley inched over on the stair so Darcy could drape one side of it around the other boy. They remained there for Bingley couldn’t say how much longer, silent camaraderie broken only by the wind against the walls, the trees on the windows, and their own beating hearts.

Finally, Bingley yawned widely and rubbed his fists against his eyes.

“We should go back to bed,” Darcy said softly. He pulled the blanket back, wrapping the cape back around his shoulders. Bingley leaned back to grab his glass, no longer thirsty. They walked back to the dorm together, nodding goodnights outside the door, before walking silently to their respective beds.

In the morning, Darcy started out as if nothing had changed, dressing in his little corner and finding his typical, solitary breakfast spot in the dining room. But Bingley, who was no lover of routine and rarely sat with the same person two days in a row, filled his tray and marched directly up to Darcy. Without fanfare, he slid into the opposite seat and leaned in towards the smaller boy. “Thunderstorms better today, Darcy?”

Darcy looked up into Bingley’s eyes and realized as he did that his lungs were not quite so tight as usual, his mind not so angry and loud. He showed a small, rare smile and honestly replied, “Yes.”

~~~~

“Oh my God,” Caroline cried, almost triumphantly, as she entered the room. “You’ll never believe the conversation I just had.” She threw the door closed behind herself.

Darcy realized he should have stayed in his bedroom to write instead of coming down to the little den. He just wanted to work somewhere else, but Bingley was taking a call in the office and Ned had taken over the kitchen table with a folder of papers and his laptop. He had thought the little room would be out of the way enough.

Apparently not, he thought as Caroline threw herself into the chair opposite him. He lowered his laptop screen slightly, both to look at her more easily and to cover some of his work. He waited for her to speak, which she did without need for further invitation. Waving her phone, she said, “I was just talking to Jane about the stupid picnic thing that Chip wants us to go to and she was telling me all about it. Apparently it’s a fundraiser for the high school, ugh”—she rolled her eyes at that—”but then she said she always wears a red, white, and blue dress! Like she’s 12!”

“It is the 4th of July,” Darcy offered, though he did find the sound of the outfit to be somewhat childish as well. “Some people get into that sort of thing.”

Ugh,” Caroline groaned again, sprawling back in her chair. “I mean yeah, but it’s just so… small town. Like, I like Jane, but she’s just not with it all the time, you know?”

Darcy inclined his head but offered no comment.

“What does Chip see in her? It’s not like there aren’t other girls who are more…” Caroline waved one hand vaguely, trying to impart a concept to Darcy that he wasn’t quite sure he understood. She did not elaborate. “Whatever. Honestly, he should just sleep with her and get over the crush.” She eyed Darcy significantly. “I mean, that’s always worked for me in the past.”

Darcy lifted his computer screen higher, hoping the back of the laptop would impart his message. He looked back at the screen, toying with a sentence. She wrapped her hand around the ladder rung… No, not quite. The wooden rung of the ladder was rough under her fingers, a knot in the wood pressing against herfinger? No, that was it either. He hit the backspace key several times.

With a half glance over the top of his laptop, he could see Caroline had narrowed her eyes, watching him intently.

The wooden rung of the ladder was rough under her hand. She could feel a knot in the wood pressing against the pad of one finger, a splinter poking into her thumb.

Caroline stood up, shaking her head so her hair tossed around her shoulders and turned her back on him in a wide and exaggerated movement. She wrenched the door open, almost slamming it on her way out.

Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose. Bingley had been flat out lying when he coaxed Darcy into staying for the summer. “You can write anywhere!” Hardly. At least, not with Caroline attempting to monopolize his attention, Louisa and Ned fighting half the time, and Bingley’s mooning after local girls taking up the rest of his time. He had not yet signed a new contract, at least, since The Breaking Point was still such a new release, so he could afford to take some time off of writing—he just didn’t want to. Or, if he did, he wanted it to be on his own terms, not due to distractions or frustrations.

He closed the computer again, slowly tilting his head to one side then the other so his neck cracked loudly. Leaving the laptop on the coffee table, he stood and stepped over to the window. The glass was warm from the sunlight, almost hot under his hand when he put it against one of the panes.

They had come to Meryton at the end of May and it was now July 3rd. In slightly over five weeks, the only people outside of the household they had spent any significant amount of time with were the Bennet sisters. That loud, chattering group, who seemed so similar at first glance… It had quickly become apparent in the cabin that the noise of the youngest overpowered the subtleties of the elders. He bit the inside of his lip and let himself fall into thoughts of Elizabeth, beaming and soaked to the skin, so proud of her little adventure out in the rain.

She never let a thunderstorm get to her. What must that be like? Shaking his head at the foreignness of such a concept, he returned to his seat, trying to ease back into the words. They had come so easily before Caroline’s interruption, but he had a bad feeling he would be staring at a screen for a few hours with little to show for it. Instead of forcing himself to sit through it, he closed the computer once again and brought it upstairs with him, intending to start a new letter to Georgie—though he certainly wasn’t going to ask her about Wickham or Bingley.

~~~~

How can they stand this?” Caroline asked, appalled, as she peered out of the window. “It’s so…” She paused, searching for the word. “Provincial,” she finally spluttered, taking in the points of the white tent, the little table with red tickets, and the steadily lengthening line of people leading inside.

Bingley snorted a laugh. “You’ve been reading too many of Darcy’s books, Caroline. You’re going to sound like him soon.”

She rounded on him. “And is that a bad thing? Chip, you should be more considerate of your best friend! I don’t think—”

Bingley raised his eyebrows at her through the rearview mirror. “I wasn’t insulting him. I was just saying he talks like a thesaurus.”

Although neither of the Bingley siblings could see his face, as Darcy was looking out the passenger side window, Darcy grinned. It was the same critique Bingley had been saying of him since they started advanced placement classes at Lancaster, and it had never really stung anyway, a term of endearment more than anything. “You don’t need to defend me, Caroline,” he assured her. His eyes were flashing across the parking lot, looking for… Well, he told himself he was looking for the Bennets—any of them—but he was really searching for Elizabeth.

“Ugh, Lo was right not to come.” She glared out the window as she unbuckled her seatbelt before jumping out and slamming the car door behind her. She crossed her arms and leaned back slightly so one shoulder pressed against the side of the car. “Bet she’s doing something loads more interesting.”

Bingley deemed not to answer her. Darcy stuffed his hands in his pockets and followed behind his friend, not bothering to look and see if Caroline was coming. He heard her footsteps hurrying behind them in a few seconds. She was already fiddling with her phone in one pocket by the time Bingley paid for their meal tickets.

~~~~

“Why, Chip, there you are!” a familiar voice trilled. Darcy winced but Bingley beamed, turning to face Mrs. Bennet. “We were almost afraid you weren’t going to come. Jane will be absolutely delighted to see you here.”

“Great!” He motioned for Darcy and Caroline to come with him by swinging one elbow as both his hands were full. “How are you today, Mrs. Bennet?”

“Just wonderful, Chip, thank you so much for asking.” She had a large paper fan in one hand, which she used rather vigorously. There was a small amount of space open to her left, one of the younger girls on her right. On the opposite bench was the youngest daughter—Lydia, Darcy reminded himself—and the other one, who wore glasses, reading out of a book. Darcy recognized photographs of Switzerland when he glanced curiously over her shoulder. “Join us, please!”

“Thanks!” Without asking for Caroline or Darcy’s opinion, he immediately took the empty seat on the opposite bench from Mrs. Bennet, taking the far edge. Darcy immediately slid in next to him—did he imagine it or did Mrs. Bennet’s smile flicker, just a little, as he did?—and Caroline continued her usual course and shoved herself into the little remaining space.

The Bennet to her left remained oblivious, turning another page in her book. Darcy was very aware of Caroline pressed uncomfortably against his side; he did his best to ease away from her, but there was nowhere for him to go, even with Bingley on the very edge of the bench.

He let himself sink, just slightly, staring down at his plate instead of engaging with the conversation. He poked disinterestedly at the food on his plate with the insubstantial fork. He looked up again only when Mrs. Bennet said, “Girls! Look who came to join us!”

The only girls missing were…

“Jane!” Bingley cried excitedly, making a motion as if to rise. He thumped his leg against the edge of the table before quickly realizing that it was a bad idea to stand. He stayed in place, smiling at her.

Jane returned the gaze, her eyes bright. “Hi, Chip!”

Elizabeth was smiling out of more than politeness, a laugh held back only by the grin. “Caroline.” Her eyes flicked to his face. “Darcy.” Did she draw his name out longer than Caroline’s? She looked at him for a moment longer, that he was sure of. Jane took a seat on the edge of the bench, directly across from Bingley, leaving Liz to put her plate on the table across from Darcy. He was very aware of how short her skirt was as she smoothed it against her legs before sliding into the seat.

At the side of her bun, a loose thread of hair stuck out, twisting outward, curling towards her shoulder. He thought, wildly, for a moment of reaching out and tucking it back in with the rest of her hair. For a long second, as she turned her bright, laughing eyes on him, he thought she had heard him, read his thoughts somehow, and was mocking him for it.

“Liz,” Caroline said coolly. She grew very stiff against Darcy’s side, pressing her leg, if possibly, even harder against his. He quickly took a bite of food, hoping not to be asked any questions. When he looked at Elizabeth, the curve of her cheek, the shade of red on her lips that accentuated the shape, though a more pressing and frightful thought intruded; he thought of Wickham again, putting his hands on her. The food was like ashes in his mouth, dry and crumbly and tasteless; it felt like he was choking on it. He scrambled for his cup of water and took a long sip, still working on clearing his throat. He had just put it down again when he felt Bingley nudge him with his elbow.

Darcy looked up, met Elizabeth’s eyes, and quickly looked away. He found himself landing on Mrs. Bennet as he struggled to recall the question. “What?” he asked, giving himself an extra second to collect his thoughts. Something about hiking? Right—the rain. He swallowed again and said finally, “Oh. Yes. Nothing to be done about the weather, no.”

Focus, idiot. He tried not to look at Elizabeth again, forced himself to glance away.

Something, though he missed what, was passed to Mrs. Bennet and she suddenly changed the subject sharply, asking, “Are you seeing anyone, Caroline?”

Caroline’s hand knocked against Darcy’s leg and she straightened in her seat. In a somewhat strangled tone, she replied, “No, not at the moment.”

Mrs. Bennet smile and leaned over and forward slightly, moving her torso in Bingley’s direction. “What a shame.” Darcy didn’t think it sounded like she thought it was a shame. “Well, hopefully you’ll find a nice young man very soon. Now, Jane. Jane has always been a favorite in town. More than a couple young men staying in town for the summer have asked her out before. And you should have seen the line by her locker in high school—six boys asked her to prom, if you can believe it!”

Darcy frowned, suddenly listening more attentively. What is she trying to imply? Was she trying to say that Bingley had competition? Or that Jane was easily changeable. Whatever it was, it seemed particularly mortifying to her daughter—she had gone very red and was huddling away from her mother slightly. “Mom, I’m sure Chip doesn’t want to hear about people from my past who I never even dated. That was a long time ago!” She turned towards Bingley, eyes wide and innocent.  

Mrs. Bennet seemed intent on ignoring her daughter and she pushed away Jane’s objections with a smile and wave of her hand. “They were all very sweet. Now, there was one young man I remember well—although I couldn’t tell his name for the life of me!” she added with a laugh, “and he was terribly taken with her. He wrote her several pages of love poetry, though she was but fifteen at the time. He was from Georgia, I think… Well, it came to nothing, and that is a long way for a relationship at so young an age.”

Is she trying to make Bingley jealous? Next to him, Caroline had leaned forward during Mrs. Bennet’s chattering, clearly wondering similar thoughts to Darcy.

Elizabeth seemed aware of her mother’s faux pas; she squared her shoulders, sitting straighter in her seat, and raised her chin slightly. “Personally, I think it was the poetry that did him in.” She smiled a sharp smile. Darcy thought he could imagine her preparing for the rebukes her words would entail, but she had driven the attention away from her mother’s words with just a sentence.

Lizzie,” Jane cried loudly, still mortified.

“You said yourself they were particularly awful. I have never seen anything destroy a budding romance like poetry before.”

Don’t, Darcy tried to tell himself as, distantly, he realized he had opened his mouth to take the bait. “Didn’t Shakespeare call poetry ‘the food of love?’” What does she want from a newly-wooing partner, then? he found himself wondering.

“Yes, he did, but only of a hearty, healthy love. It’s too difficult to swallow for a new, pink love, and with no other encouragement, it is just as likely to wither away entirely. Terrible meter and overdone rhyming are some of the worst offenses against the English language.”

Darcy had never been much of a poet—he preferred fiction—but at one point he had written a few verses he was quite proud of. What would she think of those? Describing eyes in poetry was such a cliché, but the exception, surely, had to come for Elizabeth’s eyes. They were— What in the world are you doing? He tried to break himself from the whirlpool of thought that Elizabeth’s eyes and words seemed to have sucked him into when Caroline spoke.

“How sad. I find love poems charming.” She touched Darcy’s leg again.

“Same.” Darcy had almost completely forgotten the table was full of Bennet girls when Lydia spoke for the first time. She sighed, loudly and mostly for effect, and eased towards Caroline, who pressed herself even closer against Darcy, her side almost completely flush with his own. “If someone would write me a poem like they did Jane, I’d be happy for months.”

Her sister agreed, loudly. “Wouldn’t it be just that romantic?”

Caroline, somewhat pettishly, pushed some of the food around on her plate and then threw her fork down. “Fitz.” She put her hand on his wrist and whispered, “Let’s go literally anywhere else, I can’t sit at this table one more second!”

Purposefully not looking at Elizabeth, he said, “Okay.” Leaving with Caroline was preferable to remaining and making a fool out of himself. Sitting at the crowded table was becoming claustrophobic.

However, when they stood and moved away, taking their plates to one of the nearby trashcans, he realized it wasn’t just the table that was causing him troubles. His mind was crowded and the overly warm and filled tent was becoming stifling. The band at the far end of the tent played, he thought, overly loudly, but well, and there was a significant crowd dancing, some far better than others. He recognized the tune they were playing; his father had always had a soft-spot for Swing music.

“Let’s step outside for a while,” Darcy offered to Caroline. “I’d like to get out of the tent for a bit.”

She nodded, ever eager to follow his suggestions. “You wouldn’t think a half open tent would get so sticky and humid!”

He dipped his head in agreement. They stepped out onto the grass by the side of the lake and he immediately began to feel more comfortable, freed from the press of strangers and the noise of the music against his ears.

“I honestly have no idea what Chip sees in this place. Do you, Fitz? I mean, at least you’re from a small town.” She narrowed her eyes as they watched from afar while Bingley stood and, offering his hand to Jane, swept her off to dance.

“Yes, I did. But Pemberley isn’t this… veneer of ‘quaintness.’ It’s an actual, living place, not a front for tourists.”

“Yes!” she cried. “Thank you! I tried to tell Chip, but he refuses to listen to me whenever I try to talk sense to him.”

Darcy crossed his arms and offered no reply, though he did consider how often Caroline tried to convince Bingley of her superior position and taste, rather than proposing a sensible commentary. They stood for a moment in the shade of a large tree before Darcy indicated that they should head back. 

Caroline squinted through the glare of the sunlight bouncing off the white top of the tent and began to speak again, unprompted. “What must it be like, to have such a lot of children!” she said. “I would absolutely hate it. I can barely live with two siblings, let alone four. Fitz, wouldn’t you just hate to have so many sisters? I am sure one is enough!”

“No, I’m not sure I would like it,” he murmured in response.

Darcy let her continue to speak, though he completely lost the topic in only a few seconds; he was more involved in thoughts of Wickham’s hand on Elizabeth’s arm. There was no reason for him to be so caught up in the thought. Damn him, he added sourly, rubbing one hand irritably against the opposite wrist; the leather strap of his watch was beginning to chafe in the heat. He had seen Wickham for all of four minutes and the sight of him was still haunting Darcy three days later. Was there nothing sacred, no association safe from the thought of him? Not even a thought of Elizabeth Bennet?

And why was he so fixated on the girl? She was pretty enough—certainly far more than he had given her credit for on their first introduction. She was witty and spirited. There was something about her that always seemed to be laughing.

And she was incredibly loyal to her family and sisters, always defending them despite their… He stopped his thoughts, catching again the familiar voice of Mrs. Bennet and Chip’s name in her words.

“Caroline, wait.” He put a hand on her arm and moved slowly. Mrs. Bennet had her back to them and she was speaking loudly, gesturing with her hands. “And it’s obvious the boy is absolutely enamored. And all that money. Of course, Jane would never want to stay at home but it would be nice for her to have the option, wouldn’t you agree?”

One of them women, who he didn’t recognize, laughed. The other, Mrs. Lucas, nodded her head in agreement. “I would love for Charlotte find her place. She has had such a difficult time with the job market and she simply hates working for her father. But she is so stubborn…”

“Just like little Lizzie. Really, it’s no wonder the pair of them spend all their time together. But I suppose not everyone can be as lucky as Jane seems to be!”

“They do make a sweet couple,” said the woman he didn’t recognize.

“Oh, Bea, don’t they just. I’m practically giddy, thinking of the grand-babies already!” She let out an almost shockingly girlish giggle. “And with his background, she’ll be set for life.”

“It would be very comfortable.”

Mrs. Bennet tittered. “More than comfortable, I should hope! Only the best for my dear girls, you know. Tom is ever so concerned with money, but if the girls marry well, then I’m sure there won’t be any second thoughts about it. I said to him only yesterday—”

Caroline’s hand was pinching Darcy’s skin, her nails pointing sharply into the skin of his exposed forearm. “No,” she hissed. “She wouldn’t dare. But surely… Jane can’t think that way, can she? Oh my God, Fitz, what if she does? You can’t let her… her entrap him like that!”

“Don’t worry, Caroline,” he heard himself saying. “Your brother’s not going to marry anyone because they want his money.” Did Jane believe the same as her mother? Was she only interested in Bingley for his money? Darcy realized he had failed miserably already at his task, to observe Jane for Bingley. Continuing the theme, his mind jumped quickly from Jane’s feelings on wealth to her second sister’s. Somehow, he couldn’t allow himself to believe that Elizabeth, with all her brightness, thought the same way that Mrs. Bennet did.

Caroline looked over to the dance floor with an expression of disgust, looking vaguely nauseous. “I’m going to go get Chip. Let’s get out of here.”

“If you think that’s best…” If you think that’s best? Of course, it is—you’re better off leaving immediately. But he watched Caroline walk off for a moment before finding himself moving back into the tent. He found the table without even trying. She was already looking at him, one hand placed on her younger sister’s book. She was not alone, the two youngest sisters huddled together at the far end of the bench seat. Darcy let his eyes flick over them for a moment before attempting to forge on. However, when he met her eyes—her expression was quite neutral—he found himself at a loss for words. Luckily, she spoke first, saying his name just as coolly as she had before they ate. “Darcy.”

Surely, she isn’t as shallow as her mother. “Elizabeth.” Don’t do it. He extended his hand, palm up, offering it to her. “Would you care to dance?” His fingers tingled slightly, and he found himself half hoping she would take them, half wanting to clutch them back into a tight fist and shove the appendage back into his pocket.

Her smile could have cut him; she showed teeth. “Oh, I see. You’re trying to give me a taste of my own medicine? Well, I won’t play along with the joke. I know that you plan is to mock me for wanting to dance.” Almost grateful for the refusal, he did remove his hand and then immediately began struggling to think of a rebuttal. “Besides,” she added, almost offhanded, “isn’t swing too modern for you?”

He did his best not to laugh, to keep his face calm. “I never confirmed or denied my preferred genre of music.” How little she knows about me.

She was still smiling, a much gentler expression as she slid into the conversation. She waved a hand and said in explanation, “If I accept, you’ll say the song is bad or that my form isn’t up to your standards, because I lack the accomplishment of ballroom dancing lessons. No, sir, I won’t play your game!” She followed her words with a bright laugh.

Darcy realized he was staring at her face, trapped in place. As she rejected him, he realized how very much he did, in fact, wish to dance with her. Instead, he said only, “Very well,” and turned on his heel. There was some relief in the action, the same as when she refused his offered hand, but the new memory was seeping a kind of regret as well. He could feel it, a dark gloom slowly creeping in on him; uncomfortably alike to the thunderstorms of his mind.

He clenched his hand a couple of times until the prickling in his fingertips stopped.

There you are!” he heard Caroline call. “I was afraid—well, we were looking for you.” She had her hand on Bingley’s arm, appearing very much like she was holding him in place.

“I don’t see why we have to leave now. Everything’s just getting started. And I wanted to watch the fireworks here,” he added in a slight whine, sounding very much like his 13-year-old self.

“You can see them just as well from our yard as you can here. Fitz,” she said, suddenly rounding on him, “are you all right? You seem awfully pale.”

“I’m… fine.”

Bingley peered up at his friend, suddenly dropping the argument. He allowed Caroline to draw ahead of them on the way back to the car, putting his hand on Darcy’s shoulder to ease him to a stop. He had always been a tactile person, ready to share his friendship through a touch, a high five or a tap on the shoulder, anything like that. He was the only one, besides Georgie, who Darcy allowed to poke and prod him at his will. “Are you all right, Fitz? You don’t seem very…”

“I’m fine.” He started walking again, taking his paces just a few steps faster than before, suddenly anxious to leave the event. Caroline had clearly not yet told him what they overheard. She’s probably waiting for me to do it myself

But as unwilling and unprepared as Darcy was to break the news of his new paramour’s probably gold-digging status, he found he had been given a wide berth without having to request it. Bingley anxiously did his best to give Darcy space, as he had found before that time and room to breathe could be as useful in wafting away the storm clouds as talking could. Bingley wasn’t going to ask until Darcy indicated he wanted to talk.

He found the silence suited his mood. He rested his chin quietly against his fist, with his elbow resting on the inside ledge of the car door as they drove home, the mood considerably dampened when compared to the morning. Caroline was quietly fuming in the backseat; Darcy as sure she was considering some unpleasant revenge against Jane. Bingley’s eyes flicked back and forth between the pair of them, quite at a loss for words.

When they arrived home, Louisa was sitting at the kitchen table, one leg crossed over the other, reading a magazine. She appeared distinctly ruffled, her hair out of place and a definite amount of smudging around the edges of her makeup.

“Hey. How was the… picnic.”

“Oh, I think it was all right. I really—”

“Don’t listen to him, it was a complete hot mess.”

“Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that.” Darcy was pretty sure she meant it as a genuine, if mild, remark, but Caroline seemed to find it sarcastic.

“Well, I hope you had a better afternoon than us, Lo,” Caroline snapped. She dropped her purse on the chair next to her sister and stomped off into the sitting room.

Louisa patted at her rumpled hair and said nothing, though she flashed a vague smile at her brother. “Lo?” Ned called from upstairs.

“Coming!” She got up from the table. Bingley had taken the seat next to her newly vacated chair, picking disinterestedly at one of the sheets of newspaper scattered across the top.

Louisa moved to step past Darcy, who was still standing by the hallway door and he leaned down slightly to whisper to her, “Caroline and I may have something to discuss with you.”

She returned the comment only with a quizzical look and then a tight little nod. Explanations would come later.

~~~~

The only one cheerful at dinner was Ned. He seemed determined to make up for the past arguments with Louisa, as well as the time he had spent away. He thanked her, loudly, whenever she mixed him a fresh drink, going so far as to peck her on the cheek or take her hand for no reason at all.

Bingley sighed and picked at his food, looking wistfully towards the other side of the lake where the community picnic could just barely be seen, though the stark white of the tent was a convenient marker.

Darcy found himself drinking slightly more than was his usual habit, though Louisa’s mixed drinks often tended towards the sweet with just the subtle background notes of alcoholic bite. They were certainly easy to drink more than one’s fair share of. He spent a lot of time focusing on his drink, slowly tuning out the noise around him more and more until all he could see was the sharp focus of the object in his hand.

He didn’t snap out of it until the fireworks started, loud and brilliant. He realized he was sitting on the patio, off in the corner by himself. He tried resolutely to stare forward at the colors exploding over the lake, almost desperately forcing himself not to think, to keep his mind blank, but he found his gaze drawn back to his drink once again. It was a pale red color, a twist of lemon peel sitting comfortably in the bottom. The glass was beginning to perspire in the heat, the ice cubes melting lazily into tiny nubs. He watched as they gently tapped against each other, revolving over the surface of the drink. He could feel the dam breaking in his mind, the willpower that kept his emotions in check slowly listing to the side. He placed his hand, one finger at a time, around the edge of the cup and thought, finally, I am in love with Elizabeth Bennet…

Chapter Text

Someone had finally spread the word that Fitzwilliam Darcy was in town—and had been for almost two months—and there was a waiting list on The Breaking Point. Liz sighed as she looked at the screen, putting her number 15 in line for the single copy. After speaking with George, she desperately wanted to read it again, to pick apart whatever Darcy had been thinking and saying about her new friend.  

She wasn’t just going to read it this time, she was going to tab and note take… It would be better to have a copy that I can write in, she thought, but she didn’t want to pay money for it or to have to put it on her shelves.

She hadn’t told anyone, not even Jane, about what George had told her. As angry as she was about Darcy, if George wanted to keep it to himself, she could respect that. And if they were going to actually be in the house on Netherfield Drive, she didn’t think it was a good idea to turn everyone against their host’s best friend.

She did see him again, though, one morning after her run. She said goodbye to Charlotte in the park and walked into town to join him for lunch at one of the little sandwich shops that catered to people like Caroline Bingley and Lo Hurst, with vegan smoothies and buzzwords like organic and grass fed written in script as a decorative border around their menu. The food was good, though.

George already had a table and he jumped to his feet as she entered, even pulling her chair out for her. She murmured a thank you and fingered the plastic covered menu, keeping her eyes down as she scanned the list just so she could prepare herself before she had to meet his eyes.

When they had ordered, he reached out and took her hand on top of the table. “So.”

“So.”

“Tell me about yourself, Liz Bennet. You know all about me after that lovely evening discussion, but I know nothing about you.”

She shrugged, trying not to keep looking away from him; the way his eyes washed over her face, a gaze so soft it was almost a caress, made her blush, even squirm a little. “Well, I have a lot of sisters.”

He laughed.

“I’m studying English and literature at a”—she paused to laugh as well, quoting, “’small, liberal arts college in Iowa.’ Um, I like fantasy novels, scary movies, and running. And nature.”

“You sound like you’re writing an online dating profile.”

“I can’t cook—that’s something you won’t hear on a dating profile,” she offered. He was still holding her hand when the waitress appeared with their food; she tried to pull away but he held on for several seconds longer before, finally, releasing her. “I don’t think I’m very good at talking about myself, honestly.”

“What a shame. I’m sure you’re a very interesting topic, Liz.”

She only shook her head with a laugh. “I think my sisters are far more interesting than I am. They’re much more talented, too.”

“Well, I’m sure not everyone can write a paper on…” He stopped, fishing for a topic. “Um, 19th century literature.”

“That’s very sweet of you to say, but I think you’re wrong!”

He smiled again, shrugging his shoulders in a loose, almost careless way, as if to say, “oh well, I tried!

As they ate, the conversation evolved passed Liz’s personality and hobbies into summer plans. He was particularly interested in the type of people who rented the lake houses for the summer. “They’re less the rich and powerful and more the rich and children of the powerful who are bored for the summer.”

“Like Fitz,” he offered.

She hadn’t intended to bring up, but agreed. “Yes, like him.”

“Have you been in the house? I mean, it must be something if Fitz has agreed to stay there for so long. It has to fit his standards.”

“Yes, only briefly. But I’m actually going there again in a couple days. Chip’s throwing a party. I think Lydia is inviting your friend Denny. I would invite you, but—”

“But what?” he asked in a voice so smooth it was almost a purr.

“Well, I wouldn’t think you’d want to go to the same house as Darcy. I mean, wouldn’t you be uncomfortable?”

He answered with a smile. “I won’t let someone like ol’ Fitz ruin my fun. He’s already made too much of an impact on the rest of my life! If I can make it, I assure you, I will be there.”

~~~~

You’re being ridiculous, she attempted to tell herself firmly as her hand drifted towards one of the least-worn pieces of clothing in her closet. It was a deeply scooping red dress that fit just a little tighter on her hips than she would usually prefer, with two straps the crossed over the mostly open back, falling low on her shoulders in the front. She had originally bought it, at Lydia’s insistence, for her freshman year of college formal dance, but had been too nervous to wear it in the end.

She turned slowly, observing herself in the mirror. The fabric of the skirt hit just at her thigh; somewhat self-consciously, she tugged at it slightly, pulling it down a little lower, and then stood on her toes to try and see the hemline again in the mirror.

The bedroom door opened and a face poked through. Lydia’s eyes grew wide, taking in the sight of her older sister. “O-oh, Lizzie!” Lydia cried, “Are you trying to tell George something?”

“Shut up,” Liz told her affectionately, turning back to the mirror and picking up her mascara tube from the side of her desk. She leaned towards the glass, raising her eyelids to swipe the wand through the lashes.

Lydia grinned widely and slipped inside. She glanced at herself in the mirror, pouting slightly, and opened her mouth to rub a touch of lipstick off one of her teeth. When she was satisfied, she blew herself a little kiss. “Where’s Jane?”

“Bathroom.”

“Can I borrow her blue heels?”

“I don’t know, you should ask her.” Liz ruffled her hair slightly, trying to decide how to style it for the evening.

She jumped slightly when Lydia yelled, “JANE!”

From behind the closed bathroom door, there was the sound of a dull clunk and a muffled, “Ouch!” before the door swung open. Jane looked through, her hair falling over one shoulder. “What do you need, Lydia?”

“Can I borrow your blue heels? The ones with the chunky heel? I don’t have anything that matches my dress.” Lydia plucked at the fabric, a tight fabric in navy blue, covered in delicate floral embroidery in reds, greens, and silvers.

“Sure.” Jane disappeared back into the room.

Lydia pranced over to Jane’s wardrobe and began rifling around at the bottom, looking for the shoes. She began humming to herself softly before letting out a little, “Aha!” before emerging from the thicket of fabric, triumphantly raising the shoes by their straps. She cradled them in her arms and turned back to Liz who had begun snapping a thick clip decorated with a series of small clay roses into place at the back of her head. “Are you going to try anything with George tonight?”

Liz met Lydia’s eyes through the mirror. “I don’t even know if he’s coming,” she admitted. “But I’m also not.”

Lydia pursed her lips and raised one eyebrow. “It’s okay, Lizzie, you don’t always have to put on a show of being a good influence for the baby.”

“It’s not a show,” Jane replied, reentering the room. “Lizzie is always a good example.”

Liz grinned at her elder sister. “Thanks.”

“So, you’re just gonna go tonight and make eyes at Chip, huh?”

“Going to parties isn’t just about making out with boys,” Jane answered in a sharper tone than usual. “Don’t you just enjoy going for dancing and seeing friends?”

“Uh, no.” She cocked one hip to the side, resting her hand on it. “I’m going to see Chip’s house, and then I’ll dance with Denny and then I’ll probably dance with his friends. He said he got a whole bunch of them invited. So, it’s a little bit about dancing, it’s a lot of bit about seeing cool houses, and it’s super about being with boys.” She let out a laugh, tossing her hair out behind her shoulders. It rippled in a blonde sheet down her back.

Jane sighed and shook her head. “Lydia, I really don’t think you should be going to a party with a 25-year-old. I know you think Denny is a nice boy, but—”

“Well, too bad! He’s already invited!” She turned on her heel and marched out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Jane sighed. “I’m worried about that girl.”

“Well, take a number. I mean, at least we’ll all be there with her tonight.”

“Yes, I guess so… There’s still a lot of trouble she can get into.”

Liz only shook her head. “Don’t tell her that, though. She’ll take it as a dare.”

“Oh, dear. You’re right…”

“Jane! Come on, don’t worry about it. It’s one night. We’re going to Chip’s house, we’re gonna dance a bunch, and then we’ll come home with everyone intact, okay?”

She sighed as her only answer and turned back to the vanity.

Liz left her in their room and crossed the hall to knock on Mary’s door. “Are you sure you don’t want to come?”

Mary was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of old sweatpants, looking very comfortable in a pile of pillows. “It’s going to be loud and crowded and… And Lydia’s not going to leave when I want to leave.” Liz nodded and moved to close the door again but Mary added, “Thanks for asking.”

“No problem. That’s what big sisters are for.”

~~~~

Charlotte was already on the front steps when the Bennets arrived. She waved and climbed into the very back row. Lydia turned around in her seat to talk to her. “Excited, Charlotte? Did you invite anyone?”

When she admitted that she hadn’t, Lydia only let out a little laugh and turned around in her seat. None of them quite knew what to expect; but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a normal house party. It seemed to have taken Chip quite a bit longer to arrange for more than just making a playlist and buying some party snacks.

The front gates were already open when they arrived, the driveway packed with vehicles, many with out of state license plates. Most of them were of new models, especially when compared to the Bennet’s old family minivan.

“That’s gotta be like…” Lydia muttered to herself, counting quickly as they walked towards the house. “There are at least 30 cars.”

“When did they have time to meet this many people?” Liz asked no one in particular.

~~~~

Instead of walking through the house, the guests were funneled around the side, across a paved walkway edged with manicured bushes and vibrant, flowers in purple and red and orange. There was a little gate at the end with a white wooden trellis twined with vines and buds; they stepped through into the yard.

Liz hadn’t seen the space beforehand, so she had nothing directly to compare it with, but she could hardly believe it had looked so ethereal before. If the Lucas’ were proud of their fairy lights as decoration, it was hardly comparable to the hanging ornaments at the house on Netherfield Drive. Huge bulbs were strung up high above the party, interspersed with silver and blue paper lanterns. A huge dance floor was set up across the grass at the far end of the property, just before the edge of the lake.  

There were three tables of food, cut fruit and tiny savory finger foods, elegant pastries and puddings. Small, round tables were edged around the side of the house, each set with silver tablecloths and delicate chairs with curling metalwork as the backing.

“Well, they are showing off, aren’t they?” Liz muttered, intending to speak to both Charlotte and Jane. However, as she said it, Jane caught Chip’s eye and he turned away from the table and waved widely to her. She immediately bound away to meet him. Liz laughed and shook her head. “Well, never mind. We won’t see her again tonight.”

“It is very impressive, isn’t it?” Charlotte asked, watching Lydia and Cat gape at the scene.

“We’ve gotta tell Mom,” Lydia said, turning back to her sister. “The Longbourn should look like this. Like, all the time!”

“Wouldn’t that be something?”

“It’s gorgeous.”

Liz almost told her to tell Caroline and then stopped herself. She was not in the mood to be sending compliments in that girl’s way. Thinking of Caroline, she glanced around, searching for their hostess. While she didn’t see her anywhere immediately, she did, much to her chagrin, spot Darcy. He was standing right by the side of the house, half in shadow, staring in Bingley’s direction. Just as she started tugged on Charlotte’s sleeve, pointing her in his direction, he turned his face unmistakably towards her. They made eye contact before she whirled on the spot, turning her back on him. “What’s he doing?” she hissed with some urgency.

“Lurking.” Charlotte flicked her eyes to her friend’s face. “Or maybe he’s trying to be subtle—”

“Darcy’s never been subtle a day in his life. How can you be subtle with a name like ‘Fitzwilliam?’”

“He’s trying to be subtle about watching you. A secret admirer,” she added with a hint of a squeal in her voice.

“Ugh. You’ve been spending too much time with Cat and Lydia. They’ll permanently damage your thinking if you keep it up. Darcy doesn’t like me. I mean, I don’t think Darcy likes anyone except for Chip—and even then,” she added under her breath. “But he doesn’t like me, I insult him to his face half the time we speak. And the rest of the time, I do my best to ignore him.”

“Maybe if you stopped insulting him, he would be nicer to you,” she suggested lightly.

Liz laughed. “And what fun would that be? It would take all the purpose out of speaking to him.”

Charlotte opened her mouth to speak but changed it to a shake of the head as the music started. It was coming from a live DJ by the side of the dancefloor. The music was so loud, Liz could feel it vibrating in her chest, in that deeply booming, almost electrifying feeling that she hadn’t thought could quite be achieved in an outside setting—but then, she was often happy to be proved wrong. Just… not in the case of Darcy.

When she turned back, he had disappeared and she let out a sigh of relief; she was actually quite interested in investigating the culinary offerings, but was not especially interested in approaching Darcy to do it.

Lydia and Cat had apparently had a similar notion. Cat had picked up a small plastic cup of a layered custard concoction with berries on top, while Lydia spent half her time looking at the table and the other half glancing at the entrance. A steady stream of party-goers was still entering from the path. How Chip and Caroline had somehow come up with such a large number of guests, Liz could hardly guess.

“This is really good!” Cat said in a meekly surprised voice. She took a second spoonful of her dessert and offered it to Lydia, who waved it off.

“Not yet, Cat…”

“Who are you waiting for?”

Lydia narrowed her eyes at Liz. “As if you don’t know.”

“I’m only looking out for you, Lydia,” Liz said as evenly as she could. “And if Jane is being… distracted by the boy who’s too stupid to ask her out, then I have to do it.”

“I’m not a baby, Lizzie. I’m 18. Last I checked that means I can hang out with whoever I want.”

“You can do that, yes. But everyone is just asking you to temper that freedom with a little common sense.”

Lydia turned the full force of her glare on Liz, clearly preparing to gear up for some argument, when her eyes caught another wave of entrances. “Oh, Denny’s here!” she cried, turning away from Liz and throwing her hands in the air to catch his attention. He had arrived with at least twelve other young men, all sporting variations of military-approved haircuts. He returned the gesture and strode toward them.

“Hey there, Lyd.”

She stood on her toes and actually kissed him on the cheek, her mouth moving dangerously close to his. Liz made a movement to separate them, but Lydia had already come down to her usual height. She beamed up at him. “Let’s go dance,” she said, sliding her arm into his.

He resisted for a second, stepping up to Liz and leaning down to whisper—at least, what could pass as a whisper in such a raucous setting, “George gives his regards. He said you’d know why he didn’t come.” Liz nodded as he turned away, doing her best to stifle the frown. Of course, she had suspected that he wouldn’t be attending, but it was still disappointing. Even if she didn’t want to admit it, she had been thinking, at least a little, of George’s reaction to the dress. She watched Lydia and Denny walk away, trying to decide whether to be more concerned with her budding relationship or Lydia’s.

“What’s happened with him?” Charlotte asked, taking Liz’s arm. She had heard every word as clearly as Liz; Denny was either not very practiced in the art of quiet speaking or simply didn’t care much for the secrecy of the message. Charlotte knew very little about George Wickham, other than he had danced with Liz and the pair had met more than once. Liz had even sent her a selfie of the two by the lake.

“Bad blood. A disagreement about money and a job…” Liz was not inclined to say too much in Darcy’s own house. “I wish he had come, but I guess I don’t blame him for wanting to stay away. I definitely wouldn’t have jumped at the idea of coming.” She only slightly regretted wearing such an exposing dress.

“Hmm…” was all Charlotte responded. She was still determined to meet George, because they had yet to have a conversation past a cursory greeting. She was both curious and wary of the man her best friend had suddenly been spending so much time with, this brand new and perfect stranger. But her opinions on the men her friends dated always tended towards the critical.

“It’s fine,” Liz said, half to herself. “I shouldn’t have expected him to come anyway. Really.” The last word was definitely target only towards herself.

“I’m sure you’ll see him around, Lizzie.”

“I’m glad at least someone is having a good night,” Liz said with some relish as she noticed Chip and Jane already on the dance floor. She was pleased that Jane had missed most of Lydia’s antics and that her night wouldn’t be ruined with worrying over their sister. If Liz’s date wasn’t going to show up, she might as well assign herself the job anyway, she decided.

~~~~

Lurking was a good word for whatever Darcy was doing. He slipped through the crowd, appearing in odd places. He was there almost every time Liz looked up. Half the time he seemed to be look at Chip and Jane, but the other half she would have sworn he was staring at her.

Perhaps unfortunately, she didn’t have the time or the energy to worry about Darcy when she had to keep all her energy to clean up after Cat and Lydia. Both girls had wormed their way into line for the open bar and Liz couldn’t be certain how many drinks deep either one was. Cat had taken it upon herself to introduce herself to every man she had never met before on the premises. She alternated between flirting—“Have you ever been around the lake on a boat before? It’s just the prettiest view,” she said to one man, putting a hand on his arm. “I would love to take you out on it one night. I know how to drive a boat but I bet you’d be a natural at it.”—and loudly espousing her almost-relationship to the hosts—“Do you see that girl dancing with Chip? That’s my sister, they’re so in love, isn’t it just the cutest?”

“Cat,” Liz told her sternly, pulling her off from pawing at a young man in a blue tie. “Jane and Chip haven’t gone public with anything, and we should respect their privacy.”

“Okay, but they are cute. Aren’t they, Lizzie?”

Liz rolled her eyes and admitted that, yes, they did look cute together. She distracted Cat by strategically offering her a brightly colored, but non-alcoholic drink. It kept her sated for a short while, but the placebo of the alcohol kicked in and Liz had to steer her away from begging the DJ for a list of specific songs a few minutes later.

While she was handling Cat, though, Lydia was going even more wild. She tore around the dance floor for a while, her pointed heels a menace to other people’s feet. She knocked into Jane more than once, though her sister corrected her gently and tried to convince her to take a seat.

At one point, when Chip slipped off to grab drinks, Jane returned to the dance floor to corral Lydia; as the song ended, she abandoned her new partner to usher Lydia into Liz’s waiting arms, before running back to the other side of the lawn to meet Chip. “I’ll take her,” Liz promised. “You go have fun.”

“Thanks, Lizzie.” She gave her sister a sad smile before she left.  

Take me? Ugh. How many times do I have you tell you I’m not a baby to be taken care of?”

“If you can’t hold your drinks, then yeah, you do have to be taken care of.” She wriggled in Liz’s grip.

As if on cue, Denny appeared at Liz’s arm. “Lydia, would you like to dance again?”

“Um, heck yeah. Lizzie, get off me.”

Denny glanced at Liz, looking almost as if he was about to say something, and then stopped as Lydia slipped her hand into his. Liz raised her hands and said, “Fine. But try to calm down, okay?”

“Yeah, whatever,” Lydia replied over her shoulder as she pulled Denny away.

“Enjoying yourself?” asked a silky-smooth voice from Liz’s other side. She turned to meet Caroline with a level gaze, even as Caroline slowly roved her eyes up and down, clearly judging Liz’s dress. Caroline was wearing a silvery dress that seemed to match her own theme. It had a wide neck and gathers of fabric like little capes on both shoulders.

“Yes, thank you.”

Caroline smiled coldly. “You know, Lizzie, I have heard an interesting rumor that there is a new man in town by the name of George Wickham.”

“Yes. I would have to say that rumor is correct.”

And that he was considering coming to my little party tonight.”

Liz crossed her arms. If Lydia could bring a plus one, then why couldn’t I… “I don’t know. There’s a possibility. There are lots of men from the base here tonight.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly; the smile had taken on a plastered appearance, a false grin on a plastic face. “Yes. Well, most of those men have never had an argument with my brother or his friends.”

“I wasn’t aware that George had ever had an issue with Chip.”

Anyone who has an issue with Fitz has an issue with Chip. And with me,” she added in a sharp tone, taking a step closer to Liz.

Liz let her weight drift to her other leg and she tilted her head back to look up at Caroline, her own lips turning up into a smile to match. “I don’t know what Fitz has told you, but I promise it’s not what you think. And really, I was under the impression it was an issue between George and Darcy, not anyone else.”

“That may be… but remember that Fitz has more friends than George will ever have.” She paused and her eyes flashed as she glanced over Liz’s shoulder. “Or you will, for that matter, if your sisters keep acting like that.”

Liz whirled around. Lydia was in the center of a ring of people on the dance floor, another drink in her hand. She let out a loud call, though her words were garbled by the music. “Oh no…” Liz turned, but Caroline was already gone. With a sigh of frustration, Liz ran her fingers against her temples before marching over to, once again, removed Lydia from the ongoing situation.

Lydia let out a scream of a laugh, spilling her drink—when had she gotten her hands on another one?—as she raised her arm above her head, dripping onto the dress of a girl standing close by her. Liz cringed as Lydia whirled in a circle before falling back into the arms of a waiting man—not Denny, noticed a strangely detached part of her mind. He helped her gingerly to her feet, but Jane and Liz appeared, one on either side, and hauled her off. Despite her protests, she escorted her far away from the dance floor, towards the other side of the yard. There was an empty table, a few plates of half-eaten hors d’oeuvres on the top of it. They put Lydia in one of the chairs.

“Sit,” Jane told her sternly, holding one shoulder as Liz ran off to find a cup of water.

As Liz was returning, she heard Lydia say, “Why do you always ruin the fun? Ugh. Just leave me alone.” Lydia had clamped her hands over her ears and was resolutely not looking at Jane.

Jane colored slightly. “Lydia! I’m not going to let you—”

“Jane,” Liz said gently, cutting in. “If we leave her, she’ll be fine. You won’t leave and you won’t drink anything else besides water, okay?”

“Fine. Just as long as you stop lecturing me,” Lydia groaned, taking her hands off her ears. Her eyes were slightly bloodshot and she was starting to look exhausted, the high energy of the party already starting to wear off.

“Do you promise you’ll stay here and cool off?”

“Sure… sure…” she mumbled, rubbing one hand in her hair. She gave a little yawn and leaned forward towards the table.

When Jane looked like she wanted to stay, Liz plucked at her sleeve, tugging at her until she started walking. They sat at their own table much closer to the rest of the party. Liz put her hand on Jane’s shoulder. “I think she’ll be fine—for now.”

Jane shook her head. “Maybe we should take her home. Oh, Liz, I don’t know…” The last line came out particularly distressed as she noticed Chip striding back towards her, a plate of food in his hands.

“I thought you might be hungry, so I picked some things out for us to share,” he told her as he arrived.

Liz jumped to her feet, offering him her newly vacant chair.

“Oh, Liz, I didn’t mean to drive you off!”

“You didn’t, don’t worry! I was just going to find Charlotte again. Enjoy,” she told them before stepping away. She sighed at the freedom of letting her two younger sisters go for a while. Lydia, as promised, had remained at her table, and Cat was wandering about, admiring the decorations, seeming quite oblivious—thank goodness—to the various men in the garden.

Charlotte, for her part, had had a fair amount of success with partners for the evening. She stepped off to take a short break and found Liz quietly watching the party, still in full swing.

“I admit I’ll be a little glad when this is over.”

“What, babysitting two nearly-adult women not to your taste?”

“At least when Mom holds her parties, she and Dad are there to almost temper them. But they’re wild here. I can’t imagine what they must be like at their friends’ parties.” Liz shuddered slightly. “Yeah, I’m really glad I don’t get to see them in action there.”

“Ooh, don’t look now,” Charlotte cooed suddenly, looking over Liz’s right shoulder, “but your secret admirer is coming.”

For a wild second, Liz thought she meant George and her heart fluttered as she turned, ready with a smile. The expression melted as Darcy appeared before her, looking as out of place as usual. He was in a blue button-down and a silky gray blazer. The collar was open slightly, showing his throat and the hint of the white t-shirt underneath. He had one hand in his pocket. As he started to speak, it seemed to take an inordinately long amount of time for the words to leave his mouth, as if it was a struggle to say them. “Do you… want to dance?” He offered one hand.

Liz paused. She must have misheard him. The guitar riff must have drowned him out. There was no way he was trying to ask her again. “Sorry,” she said, raising her voice to be heard. “I don’t think I heard you right!” No, absolutely not.

Some kind of expression tugged at the corner of his mouth; his lips twitched and the muscles in one cheek and his jaw tightened. “I said, will you dance with me?”

He was asking again. Her mind went blank. She couldn’t very well refuse him now, anyway. “Okay.” She could feel Charlotte grasping her forearm so tightly the skin pinched between her friend’s nails, before the grip suddenly loosened and, with a slightly press between the shoulder blades, she found herself forced to take a step towards Darcy. She somewhat hesitantly took the offered hand and walked with him to the dance floor. She glanced back just once, in time to see Charlotte waggling her fingers and mouthing, “Have fun!” He moved very stiffly through the crowd, parting the way slightly until they found an opening.

He had large, pianist hands, with long fingers that swallowed hers up almost entirely. Liz realized she was curious, despite herself, to see him dance for the first time.

It was a slow song, but it was no ballroom dancing. Although he moved quite gracefully, they did not share the comfortable silence of two well-matched partners but the awkwardness of a school dance attended by two parties that did not want to be there. As uncomfortable as she was, she would have been content to say absolutely nothing to him—at least until she realized that speaking might be far more uncomfortable for him than the silence. At last, she said, “I like this song a lot. What do you think of it, Darcy?”

“Yes. It’s good.”

A sigh. “Well, now it’s your turn to say something about how many couples are dancing or the turnout at the party.”

She caught a glance at his face, half illuminated in the cool blue of the stand lights. “I would be happy to say whatever you wish me to say at the moment. Only, I’m not sure—”

“That will have to do for now. Although,” she added quickly, “I might say that I think private parties usually preferable to the large and public ones.” He did seem, if only slightly, less irritable than he had in their other public engagements.

Instead of responding to her question, he let go of Liz’s waist and spun her out, his hand guiding her every step. She could not help but to think of George the first time he twirled her, the movement having just as much ease and a little more gentleness than her previous partner. As he pulled her back in, he asked, “Do you always speak while dancing?” She could feel his breath on her ear and the side of her cheek.

“No, not always. But unless there is a reason to be silent, I think it would be a little strange to be so completely silent for so many minutes all together. Although I’m sure some people are just as happy not to speak and find it more comfortable if the topics are presupposed.”

“Do you say so for yourself or because you assume that is my preference?”

“Both.” She smiled. It was much easier to do than she was afraid it would be, despite her anger for George’s mistreatment. “You know, I believe we’re much more alike than you might think. Neither of us is inclined to speak at length unless there is something to say that will amaze or amuse the whole room. I never speak until I know I can say something profound or pull a laugh out of my audience.”

The song changed. It was still a slow one and, while Liz was prepared for him to stop immediately, to drop her hands, and disappear, he continued both dancing and speaking. “Whatever you believe about my inclinations, I would never have called that a correct picture of you.”

“But then, you hardly know me.”

He dipped his head slightly. “Perhaps not entirely. But my first impressions of you have yet been correct.”

Your first impression of me was as an unattractive dance partner, Darcy, but look where we are now. She returned with a tight smile and, unable to control herself, she ventured into more dangerous territory. “Firsts impressions are always important, wouldn’t you say, Darcy?” When he didn’t reply, she pressed on. “Only just last week my sisters and I were lucky enough to form a new friendship—”

His hold on her hand grew suddenly very tight, the motion coming so suddenly she stopped speaking, before he eased his grip. “If you’re talking about George Wickham, he has always been blessed to make friends, at least on first appearance, wherever he goes.” He paused and added in a deeper tone, his voice almost a growl, “Whether he can keep those friends is something else entirely.”

“Well, from the sounds of it, he has certainly lost your good opinion. And in a way that I am sure will financially affect him for the rest of his life.”

Darcy’s face grew pale enough that it appeared quite sickly in the blue glow. “Wickham is hardly—” Liz had leaned forward with curiosity, but he cut himself off, flicking his head as if to shake off a thought. “Wickham never opens his mouth to say a word that would serve to hurt his character.”

“And is that unusual? Most people have at least some personal pride.”

Darcy’s gaze was stormy, his eyebrows pulled together as if he was concentrating very firmly on some thought. “When that pride is backed by real learning and personal strength, then it is certainly justified.”

“But not in George.”

“I’ll make no further comments on the matter.”

Fine. As you are someone who is so firmly set in his opinions, I should hope that you don’t allow yourself to be blinded by bias before you set them.”

“I am,” he replied curtly. “As I told you at the cabin, I consider all the possible evidence before I finalize my conclusion.” He paused. “Why exactly are you—” His expression cleared slightly as he came to an understanding without her explanation. “Oh. Oh, of course. You’re trying to make me out the same way you did Bingley.”

“Yes.”

The anger from earlier began to clear slightly and a much gentler smile crept onto his face. “And how is it going so far?”

Very poorly.” She stopped as he swung her around, feeling his hands at her waist, placed strategically on the thin strip of fabric below the open back of the dress but above anywhere too intimate for their short time knowing each other. The hand held tight, but not uncomfortably so, cradling her back. A moment flashed to mind, a real ballroom, with synchronized dancing, some party from an old movie. She met his gaze with a raised chin, barely taking in an expression she couldn’t read. “You are very contradictory as a character, Darcy.”

The song ended, but the change in instruments and tempo hardly registered with either one.

“How do you mean?”

“Everyone seems to give me such different accounts of you, it’s difficult to make out what to think of you. Chip was much easier to understand.”

They had stopped moving, but neither of them noticed, the other dancers continuing to move around them like the heart of a whirlpool.

“Well, you were at least so kind to him as to turn his faults to virtues.”

“And I thought we had already covered your singular fault.”

He moved to shrug and then, with a visible effort, stopped himself. “Elizabeth, I might… request that you don’t attempt to sketch me out so closely for the moment. I’m afraid your image of me would do little credit to either of us just now.”  

She could have responded with many thoughts, most of them concerned with George’s treatment. But his face was so grave and sincere that she did not feel it would be honorable for her to break his thoughts with comments on the past.

He was still holding her hand tightly, his fingers clasped around hers. She began to pull away and, in a moment, he let her, easing his grip so she could slip out of it.

Chapter Text

Darcy crumpled his second piece of paper and tossed it towards the wastepaper basket. It bounced on the rim, tilting for a second before falling back and down onto the floor. Darcy sighed and scrubbed the heels of his hand over his face.

It was almost two in the morning; the fireworks had ended at 11, almost three hours ago. He knew he should have gone to bed, but every time he tried to climb beneath the sheets, his racing, almost electrified thoughts forced him out again.

Ever since he had allowed himself to think the words, admit them, at least inside his own head (I am in love with Elizabeth Bennet.) he had thought himself almost irredeemably stupid for refusing to accept it for so long. He had been staring at the girl, hoping she would speak to him, seeking her out, for weeks. His stubbornness was perfectly unjustified; at least giving a name to the affection meant he could try to control it.

Darcy pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and tried again. At the top he wrote “Pros” on one side and “Cons” on the other before drawing a straight line horizontally beneath the two words and another, vertical line straight down the center of the page. List making always helped him organize his thoughts, whether on a business venture, a plot of a story… or apparently his love life. If he wasn’t so engrossed in his work, he would have laughed at himself.

Under the cons, he wrote:

  • Ridiculous family members
  • Indelicate mother
  • Obnoxious sister
  • Jane??

Then he crossed out the last point. If Elizabeth was so different than her younger sisters, then surely any questionable thoughts Jane may or may not have had about Bingley’s wealth wouldn’t have been passed on to her…

But what if that was only because he hadn’t made his interest apparent? (Not that he had necessarily consciously acknowledged it before, but he couldn’t rule it out.) No. That was ridiculous. 

Nothing in the way she spoke or dressed or acted told him Elizabeth Bennet was interested in money. He dragged his hand over his face, pressing the ball of his thumb against one eye until multicolored spots like fireworks erupted in his sight. Eventually, he lowered his hand, moving to rest it against the edge of the desk. He pressed the pads of his fingertips against the wood until the skin around his nails turned pale.

He stared at the empty pros list for several minutes without moving a muscle. What were the pros to this situation? She was beautiful and witty and sharp. Even when the point of her tongue was directed towards him, he relished being the center of her attention, even for just a minute or two at a time. Even when she misquoted him back at himself or attempted to bait him to ridicule…

Moving his hand slowly to the empty column, he added simply:

  • I love her.

And then added once again to the cons list:

  • She has no idea

~~~~

Darcy knew he would never quite understand Caroline as he sat back and watched her plan for the party that she was so dead set against hosting. She wrote up an elaborate menu list and doggedly selected songs, as well as the order they were to be played in, before ordering an expensive lighting display that would cover the yard.

Bingley meandered over one afternoon, eating an apple as he prodded through Caroline’s mountainous stack of papers. “You should change some of these songs around,” he said through a mouthful. He swallowed. “Put a bunch of slow ones together. That’d be very nice.” He grinned and straightened his collar.

Caroline snatched the papers back. “I’ll do what I want with the music because I’m the one putting all the work in!”

“Well, it is at my house.”

She glowered. “And if you get sticky fingerprints over any of this, I’ll… I’ll…”

“Right. Well, you come up with your revenge, do let me know, won’t you?” He turned his back on her and stepped out the patio door.

As soon as the doors had closed behind him, Caroline whirled on Darcy, who had been observing quietly in the kitchen. “We have to tell him.”

“I… I know. I just don’t know when.”

“When? Now! Before the party!” She bit the end of her pen. “I don’t think we can uninvite them or anything, but at least we can try and keep them separated. Then she’ll, you know, get the message he’s moved on.”

Darcy frowned and shook his head, his thoughts venturing once again to Elizabeth. If she was innocent of such thinking… “I’d… I’d like to see her one more time.” No, not Elizabeth. “Jane, I mean. I want to see her with Chip, see how she acts. That way we’ll know for sure.”

“Of course, there will be more proof that way.” She turned back to her papers. “I’ll be sure to watch her at the party.”

Darcy thought that might be the end of it. She certainly never seemed to be enjoying the planning phases, but Caroline continued to work on the project with the same level of zeal as before.

“Caroline,” he ventured tentatively one evening after she finished 30 minutes of speaking, and then yelling, at the catering service over the phone, “I thought you said you didn’t want to make friends here.”

“I don’t,” she snapped back.

“Then why are you… working so hard on this party?”

“My enjoyment of Meryton has nothing to do with the impression I want to give to people.”

Across the room, Bingley shrugged his shoulders up to his ears.

“I am making a point.”

Darcy, after a moment, responded only with a short nod.

~~~~

Darcy dressed with more than usual care for the party that evening. Not that he didn’t put thought into his appearance, but—the objective of the night had weighed on his mind as he slowly parted through the shirts in his wardrobe, feeling the fabric beneath his fingers until he fell on the right texture and color.

Almost guiltily, he touched the cuff of one dark blue shirt. The fabric had a slight sheen to it that caught the light in almost peacock blue iridescence. He had seen Elizabeth in a similar shade several times. And the edges of her glasses were blue. It could not hurt him to wear a color she clearly seemed to enjoy… Could it?

He did up the buttons almost angrily, the jerking motions straining the threads ever so slightly. It was not the time or the place and she was not the person to be falling in love with. The thought followed him like a black cloud as he walked down the stairs.

Caroline was in the kitchen when he entered, sitting at the table. “You’re coming?” she asked, a slight tone of astonishment in her voice. She had one earring in, the second one dangling between her fingers. “Like, for real?”

“I don’t know why that should be a surprise. It’s not like I have very far to go, just downstairs and out the back door.”

“No, but Chip said you would, like, go to bed or hide in your room—”

“He was only joking, I promise.” That was also somewhat untrue; Darcy had been known to hide in his bedroom when parties were being thrown even in his own house.

“And,” she paused, lowering her voice, “I thought you were just going to, you know, pop down and look at Jane for ten minutes and then come back in.”

“I had considered it. But I wouldn’t think it would be fair to give her such a short amount of time…”

Besides, in this instance, he had two motives, one reasonable, and one personal and ill-advised.

The first, of course, was to closely monitor Jane Bennet. She would be away from her mother’s influence and her actions would say much about her feelings towards his friend. If Bingley was too caught up in his own emotions to observe, Darcy was willing to see it through once and for all. The second would likely lead to disaster, but… He was desperate to dance with Elizabeth Bennet. The compulsion from the 4th of July picnic had not abated, even after his multitude of lists. He wanted to hold her hands, just once, at least, before he left.

And they would be leaving, for no other reason than to protect Bingley from Jane. Not that he would have to convince Caroline; she had been itching to escape Meryton since the first week of June—he would just be giving her a reason now. Darcy tapped his fingers nervously against one leg, a staccato rhythm that Georgie would have been proud of on the piano; he was still there, standing alone in the kitchen, when Bingley came down. Obtuse as always, he passed by Darcy’s slightly pale face and drawn in shoulders without comment, although his nerves seemed hardly in better shape than Darcy’s. He smoothed his hair in the reflection of one of the windows, fidgeting with his collar and tie. “What do you think, Darcy?”

“You look fine.”

Darcy watched him frown through the reflection. “I don’t want to look just fine—I want to look good. Or… nice. I don’t know.” He put his fingers to his hair again.

Darcy looked down at his own hands. How could he help his friend to preen when he was about to commit pre-meditated heartbreak? He clenched his hand into a fist. And when he was already so desperate for her sister? Darcy remained silent and, eventually, Bingley threw his hands in the air and gave up on his grooming.  

No, Darcy told himself rather fiercely as he met his own gaze in the mirror of the window. You’re allowed to wear any color you want. But he couldn’t help but feel especially guilty for picking out Elizabeth’s favorite color. He fidgeted with his cuff again before turning away.

For once, Caroline wasn’t in the mood to compliment his clothes or show off her own short skirt or low-cut dress. She stood imperiously on the patio, ordering catering company staff members and movers from the furniture rental service around. Darcy looked down at the top of her head from his position on the balcony before stepping down the stairs. A very flustered young woman with an armful of gray fabric was wrapping it to the best of her ability around the bannister of the staircase; he did his best to keep out of her way as he passed her, sliding against the other side of the stairs to give her room. She had already been to work on the columns around the patio that supported the upper balcony, because each one was wrapped in the wide, ribbon-like cloth.

He stepped back into the semi-shadowed area of the patio to wait. Although he knew the faces of most of the guests, he would have been hard-pressed to remember any names. Where did Caroline even meet half these people? he had to wonder. He stood in his spot for several long, silent minutes.

Just as he was starting to grow bored of the exercise, they arrived. His breath caught in his throat, sticking as if a physical force had stopped the exhalation. She arrived flocked, as usual, by a number of other girls. Mostly her sisters, though one was missing, replaced with her friend Charlotte. He had never seen her in red before, and somehow it was a shock, like a blast of flame when he expected a gentle dunk in a bucket of water. All of the elements of Caroline’s party dresses that he did his best to ignore were suddenly apparent in full force.

Two of the Bennet sisters were staring around, open mouthed at the décor, but Jane had already left her party behind, running towards Bingley, who had been edging around one of the food tables. Darcy had to give her a few grudging points for that at least. But if she was determined to fool them all, not heading towards Bingley at the first opportunity would certainly be a glaring mark against her.

His eyes turned back towards Elizabeth. He tried—at least half-heartedly—to convince himself it was only in order to give his friend a moment alone with Jane. His eyes would be on them often enough during the course of the evening. He felt his heart shudder in his chest when Elizabeth met his gaze. Before he could decide on his next move, her eyes widened slightly and she turned sharply on the spot to look directly away from him.

What might have been a mercy turned quickly deadly as it gave him an opportunity to appreciate the open back of her dress, the single cross of straps across her shoulder blades and the expanse of skin beneath. Putting a hand up as a blinder to one eye, he forced himself to turn away from her. If he hadn’t, he was afraid what he might say or do… More than one of the possibilities involved him running to her side and professing his affection right then and there.

He was almost grateful when the music started, too loud by far, but almost blissfully distracting from his thoughts. Focus, dammit. You have to focus! She had been there for all of five minutes and already the entire evening was falling to pieces.

He caught sight of Bingley leading Jane by the hand towards the dance floor, feeling a sudden pang of jealousy. He crossed his arms tightly over his chest and leaned back slightly, resting his shoulders against one of the columns, narrowing his eyes as he watched his friend dance with vigor. Although Darcy had taken far more lessons than Bingley, as he started before coming to Lancaster Academy, and was technically more skilled, Bingley had always had a certain joie de vivre about the entire exercise that Darcy could never muster. More than once he had been shown up by Bingley, in class, or even by Wickham at the much earlier lessons because he simply couldn’t figure out how to improvise. If they stumbled a step, either of them could make it up with a flourish and a turn, but Darcy found himself struck dumb by the misstep.

“Can you even see anything from all the way over here?” Caroline asked, her voice close to his ear. When he turned she was barely inches away from him, standing on her toes to try and match his height.

“I can see just fine.”

“Do you know what you’re doing? What you’re even looking for?”

“Of course,” he responded curtly.

She drew a finger down the sleeve of his blaze, resting her fingers against the back of his hand. “Would it help at all if we went to dance? You’d have an excuse to follow them onto the dance floor. We could both see how Jane is treating him that way.”

Darcy pulled away. “No. This is fine.”

He watched a shadow cross her jaw as she clenched it tight; a beam of blueish light reflected from her eyes. “Have it your way, Fitz.”

He inclined his head before she walked away. Almost immediately, he was glad that she was gone because a group of men who had to be the National Guards members from the base appeared. Cold terror clenched at him as he waited for Wickham to walk through into the yard. He held himself so stiff that his shoulders began to ache; he could hear his heartbeat in his ears.

Darcy had not even felt this much anxiety when Georgie was in trouble—at least then he had recourse for action. But Wickham had done nothing in Meryton—yet—and his hands were tied unless he was willing to expose his sister. Of course, Wickham had already thought of that, so he could act as he pleased even with Darcy in town…

As Darcy watched, the man who had been with Wickham that day in Meryton practically pranced through the yard towards Elizabeth and her sister. His smile was as cocky as Wickham’s, though perhaps a touch less venomous. Darcy’s stomach felt like he had swallowed an ice cube whole and it sat, hard and uncomfortable, somewhere in the center of his abdomen.

The soldier reached the Bennets and the youngest one kissed him on the cheek. Elizabeth seemed to disapprove of the match; she emanated disapproval and Darcy could have sworn he saw her eyes narrow even from his far-away observation point. The soldier said something to Elizabeth before he whisked Lydia off to the dance floor, where Darcy’s attention should have been focused; Bingley and Jane were still there, after all.

But, no, Wickham did not appear and after several minutes, Darcy began to relax slightly, if only to his previous level of anxiety. George Wickham was a lot of things, but he had never been stupid. There was no way he would show his face at Bingley’s house. At least, not with Darcy around. They both knew which side Bingley would take on the matter; it was the one instance where his charms would not take precedence over the truth.

With a slight shudder, Darcy attempted to ground himself in the present by listing a series of facts. He was at a party in his friend’s yard. There was music and food and dancing, a cool breeze off the lake. Georgie was safe in Pemberley with her school friends. Wickham was nowhere to be found. And it was imperative that he watch Jane Bennet and not her sister. His best friend’s happiness, at least for the foreseeable future, was desperately at stake.

Jane Bennet’s sister seemed particularly intent on spreading the word that, true or not, Jane and Bingley were a couple. Darcy listened with a frown as she ran about, clearly somewhat tipsy, attempting to impress every man with her bit of news. Elizabeth attempted to corral her away and he caught the end of their conversation.

“Okay, but they are cute. Aren’t they, Lizzie?”

“Well, yes. I think they look nice together and they certainly act the part.”

Act the part? Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of… Acting. Darcy watched as she set her sister down at a table, wiping one hand against her brow before leaving her again.

The longer he watched her, the more unreasonably angry he became with the girl and the entire situation. He had to hide his affections, but Jane Bennet had no reason to conceal herself from Bingley. The longer he watched her, the more irritated he became. He could see no outward signs of affection or love in her. She smiled sweetly and laughed both for Bingley and for others. When Bingley stepped off to get a drink, Jane accepted another’s hand to dance, even for a short song. At the end of it, she dragged Lydia, who had been causing her own ruckus, over to Elizabeth. When she traipsed back to Bingley, he seemed none the wiser and she never appeared to tell him. While certainly not a punishable offense, it painted a picture of the whole as disinterest in affection, nothing more. Even the little tag team actions she had with Elizabeth sat poorly with him; they were so skilled at controlling their sisters and putting up a front, what stopped them from acting that way in other situations? He wasn’t sure what he disapproved of more—the elder sisters’ deceptions or the younger sisters’ indecencies.

On the whole, he was left with a deep sense of foreboding, which was only heightened when Caroline walked up to Elizabeth. Seeing them together suddenly made him appreciate just how small Elizabeth Bennet was. Not that Caroline was the tallest woman in the world, but at just over average height, she almost towered over Elizabeth. They stood quite close together, likely so they could hear over the music. As he watched, Elizabeth crossed her arms firmly over her chest, her elbows jutting out into almost defensive points.

He wondered what they could be talking about. He doubted she was giving her the heads of up their suspicions about Jane… He tried to look back towards Bingley, but his gaze was drawn back in only a few seconds to Elizabeth and Caroline. Elizabeth seemed completely displeased with the topic at hand. She cocked one hip and glared at Caroline.

Darcy noticed Lydia before Elizabeth did. She had gone wild again, calling attention to herself. Several people who Darcy couldn’t even attempt to name had formed a circle around her and she was yelling something rendered incoherent by her own volume and the thrumming of the music. Without speaking to each other, without even seeming to communicate, Darcy watched as Liz and Jane both made a grab for Lydia, pulling her out of the spotlight, despite her visible struggles against them.

He let out a deep sigh and forced himself to keep looking forward, not to follow Elizabeth as she went. He had seen enough. Between the chaos of her sisters and Jane’s own apparent veneer of interest, there was nothing that would make him want to encourage any ongoing romance between Jane and Bingley.

While the thought of leaving was generally pleasant, he let his mind branch out to consider all the aspects of such a quick and bold move. If they left Meryton as soon as they could convince Bingley of Jane’s lack of affection, he was certain he would never see her again. That unpleasant thought was what spurred him on and before he even realized it, he was walking towards her. She was standing with her back towards him, speaking to Charlotte. The other girl caught his gaze and smiled before she said something to Elizabeth.

She took what seemed like an inordinate amount of time to turn around. It felt like his stomach dropped out of him as the smile that had been on her face as she turned changed, dripping into a tiny frown. Her eyes pinned him to the spot. Bingley’s requested swath of slow songs had just begun.

“Do you… want to dance?” He fumbled with his limbs, forcing one arm to stretch out, offering a hand, palm up.

She looked as if she were about to laugh, his question sliding over her. “Sorry,” she said, overly loud, even for speaking above the music, “I don’t think I heard you right!”

Oh. She was certainly joking. Darcy almost smiled before he tried again. “I said, will you dance with me?”

Elizabeth opened her mouth slightly, the laughter slowly leeching out of her gaze. Charlotte was holding onto her arm; something must have passed between them because, as Darcy watched, Charlotte gripped her friend very tightly in a squeeze before loosening her grip. And Elizabeth responded, “Okay.”

With a small movement that both surprised and thrilled Darcy, Elizabeth stepped quickly towards him, almost tripping over one shoe. Finally, finally, she took his hand. Her fingers were so small in his; he could wrap his fingers entirely over the back of her hand while her delicate fingers barely made it halfway down his. It took him a moment to realize he was nearly dragging her, pulling her along in his enthusiasm. He attempted to consciously slow himself to a more reasonable pace.

He stopped in an open spot on the dance floor and took one of her hands more firmly in his, placing his other hand at her waist. The attractive qualities of the dress from afar made it quite difficult for other reasons. There was only a thin strip of fabric and he found himself brushing the skin of her back more than once.

It was a wonder such a long-anticipated event could cause such a rush of sheer terror. He knew he was focusing too heavily on his feet and the way he moved. Everything about it felt stiff and formal and… Perhaps for the first time, he began to understand a little of what his dance teachers had attempted to impart over the years; the technical correctness of his steps, while graceful from the outside, did nothing to match the spirit of it. And certainly not Elizabeth’s spirit. She was too bright and lively for such formality.

There was obviously something on Elizabeth’s mind. Her features scrunched and twisted a couple of times, seeming to squirm under his gaze. For his part, Darcy would have been completely content to hold her in absolute silence. He was doing his best to soak up the moment and remember every step.

She spoke suddenly. “I like this song a lot. What do you think of it, Darcy?”

“Yes. It’s good.” You idiot, he quickly chastised himself. Even to his own ears, the words sounded foolish and slow.

She clearly was expecting something from him. She sighed deeply at his answer, which even he had to admit was perfectly unsatisfactory. “Well, now it’s your turn to say something about how many couples are dancing or the turnout at the party.”

Somehow, those both seemed like frightening broad topics. Where would he even start? “I would be happy to say whatever you wish me to say at the moment. Only, I’m not sure—”

He was almost grateful she cut him off, a dramatic role of her eyes. Sometimes (just sometimes) there was a little of Lydia about her. Or maybe it was a little of Elizabeth around Lydia. “That will have to do for now,” she said, brushing off his comment. He watched as a thought occurred to her and that beautiful glint came to her eye. “Although, I might say that I think private parties are usually preferable to the large and public ones.”

He could not work out her joke. To give himself a moment to think, and perhaps as a little experiment, he did the most daring thing he could think to do in the moment—he improvised the steps. He moved his hand away from her waist and spun her, thinking very hard not about the topic at hand but on every piece of advice he could think of from both dance teachers. He tried to keep his arm movement smooth, not stiff or jerking, as he guided her out and then back towards him. When he took her waist again, he leaned forward slightly to murmur, “Do you always speak while dancing?” He was suddenly very aware of the proximity of their faces, normally so far apart. He straightened quickly.

When she answered, he could tell she was playing with him, poking and prodding, looking for weak points. “No, not always. But unless there is a reason to be silent, I think it would be a little strange to be so completely silent for so many minutes all together. Although I sure some people are just as happy not to speak and find it more comfortable if the topics are presupposed.”

He did his best to bite back a bark of a laugh, imagining Bingley showing him cue cards and tossing the occasional thumbs up his way. “Do you say so for yourself or because you assume that is my preference?” He could hardly imagine Elizabeth being happy to stick to the conventions of conversation in any circumstance. She never had yet, anyway.

She was smiling again. “Both. You know, I believe we’re much more alike than you might think.”

I would never dream of making a comparison

“Neither of us is inclined to speak at length unless there is something to say that will amaze or amuse the whole room,” she continued. Her eyes glittered and he readied himself for the next attack. “I never speak until I know I can say something profound or pull a laugh out of my audience.”

Darcy could hardly believe Elizabeth had ever held her tongue for such a trivial reason as that, let alone the insinuation she was making about his own character. “Whatever you believe about my inclinations, I would never have called that a correct picture of you.”

“But then,” she replied, tilting her head slightly, her tone practically a purr, “you hardly know me.”

Slowly, he nodded. Yes, he hardly knew her practically, but his original assumptions… It was impossible to describe, but there was something so keenly familiar about her. He already felt like he knew her for an age by the time they set foot in the cabin, despite speaking hardly more than ten sentences to her. “Perhaps not entirely. But my first impressions of you have yet been correct.”

His words seemed to have struck something and her expression changed, her eyes turning hard as flint. The smile on her lips faltered just a little. He felt a pang in his chest again, watching her humor fall away. “First impressions are always important, wouldn’t you say, Darcy?” Her tone had turned cool and sharp like a blade.

He tried to swallow around the lump in his throat, afraid to be struck with the point of it.

“Only just last week my sisters and I were lucky enough for form a new friendship—”

Darcy didn’t realize that his grip on her hand had tightened until she stopped speaking. With a great deal of effort, he very slightly loosened his grasp on her small hand. He had been wrong; even if Wickham wasn’t physically at the party, he had still come that night, always ready to play Darcy for the fool and to take advantage of every situation he could possibly worm his grimy hands into. “If’—If? Who else could it possibly be?—“you’re talking about George Wickham, he has always been blessed to make friends, at least on first appearance, wherever he goes.” Painfully, he added, “Whether he can keep those friends is something else entirely.”

Yes, Wickham had certainly lost his fair share of friends. He could lose more friends in a month than Darcy had ever had in his entire lifetime, only to gain the same number back again with a word and a smile.

Elizabeth drew her words back, still in the shape of a knife, and struck him again with her response. “Well, from the sounds of it, he has certainly lost your good opinion. And in a way that I am sure will financially affect him for the rest of his life.”

“Wickham is hardly—” Always ready with a half-truth. Darcy forced himself to stop, trying to remind himself that there was not proof he had ever gotten any of the money into his own account. And the settlement afterwards was more than reasonable… It was too sticky a situation to explain in a single night when, he reminded himself sharply, you’ll likely never see this woman again in your life! “Wickham never opens his mouth to say a word that would serve to hurt his character.” There. That was a fact, at least. A provable one, even.

Her face had grown very red. “And is that unusual?” she asked hotly. “Most people have at least some personal pride.”

Ha. Pride is only reasonable when there is something to be proud of. Wickham had none of that. “When that pride is backed by real learning and personal strength, then it is certainly justified.”

“But not in George.” It was her turn to tighten her grip on his hand, but her fingers were so small, despite the strength of her grip, it hardly made a difference.

He knew he had said too much. How could he warn her when he couldn’t even tell her what to be wary of? “I’ll make no further comments on the matter.”

Fine. As you are someone who is so firmly set in his opinions, I should hope that you don’t allow yourself to be blinded by bias before you set them.”

He was starting to feel warm under his collar, a shiver down his back. He took a deep breath and found himself falling into his grounding exercise again. The revolution of their steps, the noise in his ears, the feel of her skin on his hand, the smooth, soft fabric of her dress under his fingers… He pressed his hand tighter to the fabric and responded, more harshly than he meant to, “I am. As I told you at the cabin, I consider all the possible evidence before I finalize my conclusion.” You’ve already asked me this before, Elizabeth. What kind of answer are you looking for this time? But when he couldn’t figure it out on his own in a second, he gave in, beginning to ask the question, “What exactly are you—” The cabin—of course… He interrupted his own words with the answer. “Oh. Oh, of course. You’re trying to make me out the same way you did Bingley.”

There was something about her expression when she met his eyes. Soft and… sad? Was she sad? “Yes.”

He wanted to reassure her, or maybe just to keep hearing her voice when she wasn’t yelling at him. “And how is it going so far?”

Very poorly.”

Well, yes. Of course it is. Most of what you’ve been told is a lie.

“You are very contradictory as a character, Darcy.”

“How do you mean?”

“Everyone seems to give me such different accounts of you, it’s difficult to make out what to think of you. Chip was much easier to understand.”

Yes, I should think so. He wears his heart on his sleeve. “Well, you were at least so kind to him as to turn his faults to virtues.”

“And I thought we had already covered your singular fault.”

He almost shrugged it off. He would have, before the 4th of July. And then he remembered, This is the last time you will see her. And he couldn’t, couldn’t leave her with such an incorrect image, even if Wickham was going to rip it up the day he left the state. “Elizabeth, I might… request that you don’t attempt to sketch me out so closely for the moment. I’m afraid your image of me would do little credit to either of us just now.” 

She looked up at him, silent. The soft curves of her cheeks were lit in blue light, brightening her eyes. He thought, for a second, that he could memorize the face but… the features, he could, but never the expressions.

He became aware that she was trying to pull her hand out of his. Slowly, he opened his fingers to let her slid her hand through his. He watched her go, standing quite still for almost a minute before he resolutely turned his back and stepped towards the house.

Chapter Text

“What’s wrong, Jane?” Liz asked several mornings later as she returned from her run. The sun was bright and hot and she was sweating uncomfortably, even after she had splashed several handfuls of water over her face in the park.

Jane was in the living room, her knees pulled up to her chest as she sat in one of the chairs. She wasn’t actively crying, but Liz could tell at a glance that she had been, and recently. She rubbed one hand against her nose and handed her phone over. In a watery little voice, she said, “Caroline sent me these this morning.”

Liz unlocked the phone and it opened to Jane and Caroline’s conversation. She scrolled slightly to find a note sent earlier that morning.

 

Hey babe! Sorry been soooo busy. But Chip has to run outta town. Lo and I are going with him. She’s gotta DEAL with Ned. Like, ew.

Oh ok. Are you coming back?

IDK yet. Chip might get busy with work. Probably gonna go hang out with Fitz and his sister down in Maryland. She’s so freakin adooorable! Love that girl.

Lease is up in a couple weeks NEway, so we might just ride it out.

Have fun in Maryland! Say hi to Chip.

Thanx girl. Keep in touch babe <3

 

Sometimes an exclamation point in a text carries more weight than the words. Jane’s shoulders were slumped down and her hands hung loose between her knees as Liz gingerly slid the phone across the arm of the chair back towards her.

“I mean, it doesn’t mean forever. It’s not like he doesn’t have your phone number.”

“Then why didn’t he text me?” she asked heatedly. The emotion was too much for her and she burst into another little sob.

Liz found the ottoman and pulled it over to sit at Jane’s feet, patting somewhat awkwardly at her sister’s leg while she cried. Jane was always the one who did the comforting… “Maybe he thinks he’ll come back and Caroline just doesn’t want him to.”

Jane made a noncommittal, sniffly sound.

Somehow, Mrs. Bennet took the news worse than her daughter. She stared down at Jane’s phone in disbelief, reading and rereading the text messages several times. “I don’t understand,” she said, more than once. As she struggled through the reading, Cat and Lydia came down. They looked from Jane’s tear streaked face to their mother, staring at the phone.

“What’s there not to understand?” Lydia asked, standing on tiptoes to see over Mrs. Bennet’s shoulder. “Chip’s outta here. Bad luck, Jane.”

Cat made a sad little cooing noise and tried to hug her eldest sister. It was an awkward hug, Jane still wedged into the corner of the chair and Liz sitting in front of her. Jane rested her forehead on Cat’s shoulder and patted at her hand a couple times.

“’Bad luck?’” Mrs. Bennet repeated, her first new sentence. “’Bad luck?’ It’s more than that! I’ve never seen anyone, even a young man, act in such an outrageous manner. The way he led you on, Jane! How dare he?” Her face was beginning to grow quite red and she puffed out her chest at the indignation. “Ridiculous.”

Jane rubbed one hand vigorously against her eye. “Mom. Please, don’t. I’m sure Chip didn’t… didn’t mean to…”

“Desert you?” Lydia offered.

“Break your heart?” Cat suggested.

Jane let out another dangerous little sniffle, shaking her head. Liz wrapped one arm around Jane’s leg and gave her a quick hug.

“Please don’t blame him.”

Mrs. Bennet fumed. “I’ll blame whoever I want. He shouldn’t be allowed to behave this way! Him or his friends, stringing you along like that!”

Jane buried her face in her hands, effectively ending the conversation. Cat continued to paw at her, doing her best to help, but Mrs. Bennet took her lamentations back to the kitchen. Lydia threw herself on the couch, typing something on her phone.

Liz stepped up to her and, leaning down, whispered, “Don’t spread it around too much. That’s not fair to Jane.”

Lydia didn’t respond verbally, only rolling her eyes.

“I mean it,” Liz said firmly, putting her hand on top of Lydia’s phone. “Let Jane be sad on her own for a little while.”

“Yeah, whatever. It’s not like Mom isn’t going to blast it all over the neighborhood. Everyone in town is going to know by tomorrow anyway.”

Liz had to admit she had a point. Her shoulders slumped slightly as she pulled her hand back and glanced at Jane again. Cat tried to catch Liz’s eye, looking quite at a loss, but Liz left her to it. In all the hubbub, she had just realized she had not yet seen Mary that morning. Normally, she was one of the earliest risers of the Bennet sisters. She had not even appeared for breakfast.

Liz jogged up the stairs and walked down the hallway before stopping in front of Mary’s door, bending her head down slightly to listen. She could hear a rustling noise, followed by a couple of thumps, a muffled curse, and then more rustling.

She raised her fist and tapped her knuckles against the wood. “Mary? Are you all right in there?”

“What?” asked Mary on the other side.

“I said—”

The door yanked open in her face. Mary appeared, pink cheeked and vaguely disheveled on the other side, her hair tumbling out of a bun at the top of her head. “Yes, I’m okay.”

“Are you sure? You don’t look okay.” Liz was tempted to reach out a hand and touch Mary’s forehead to check for a fever. “Can I come in?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Mary stepped aside to show her usually pristine bedroom in a state of disarray. The bed was only half made and there was a pile of clothing at the end of it, another stack on top of the dresser, none of it folded.

“What’s going on?”

Packing. What does it look like I’m doing?” Mary closed the door again before turning to face Liz, resting her hands on her hips.

Liz took a seat on the end of the bed. “Do you think you have to start this early? I mean, you’re not leaving until… what, September?”

“Classes start in September. I’m leaving in August,” she snapped, as if her itinerary should have been the forefront of Liz’s mind.

“So you have lots of time. It’s only July, not August.”

“No, but it’s the end of the third week of July—almost the fourth. So, two weeks until August. And there are four weeks in August. And then it’s the last week of August and I have to get on the plan on the 29th! So, it’s… it’s only five weeks to pack! I’ve been ignoring it all summer and I have to… I have to be ready.”

“I… Okay.” She put her hands in her lap. Having learned from experience, there was no use in attempting to argue with Mary when she was in a panic. The best thing to do was listen and nod until she worked herself out of it or asked specifically for help. She watched as Mary popped around the room, pulling shirts out of drawers, removing hangers before shoving them back in again.

It became quite difficult to stay silent after a while and she tried again. “Mary, really, you don’t have to hurry so much. I know saying five weeks sounds very short, but there really are a lot of days left.”

“Auntie Mel and Uncle Howie are going to be here and they’ll cut into my time. And Mom always has things for us to do around The Longbourn. And…” she stopped, clearly trying to think of some other excuse for why she had to continue packing at that very moment.

“I know you’re nervous, but—”

“Nervous?” Mary asked, her voice pitched slightly higher than usual. The words seemed to stick in her throat. “No, I’m not!”

“Hey, hey,” Liz said again, standing up and taking Mary by both wrists. “It’s gonna be okay. I’ll help you any way I can, okay? You just have to ask for the help.”

“Okay,” she answered, very quietly.

“Instead of taking your whole life apart, why don’t you just start with a list?”

She nodded silently, starting to cry. Watching the tears stream down her sister’s face, Liz suddenly had the spark of an idea. She squeezed her hands gently against Mary’s wrists and said, “Hold on a second. Wait here and don’t keep pulling your room apart, okay?” She turned Mary and directed her down into the seat on the bed Liz had just vacated. She slipped out the door and hurried back down the stairs.

Jane was still curled in her chair, Lydia on the couch. Cat had left, giving up on the ineffectual comforting. “Jane?” Liz asked, somewhat hesitatingly

“Yeah?” Her voice cracked on the response.

“Do you want to keep feeling sad for a little while or do you want a distraction?”

Jane was silent for a few seconds. She slowly rubbed her fingers along her cheek, wiping away the tears. “I think I want to be distracted.”

“Great, I have a job for you!” Liz held out her hand to Jane and helped pull her out of the chair. Liz continued holding her sister’s hand, trying to squeeze it reassuringly. Lydia barely glanced at them over the top of her phone as they left the living room to head back upstairs. “Mary, I brought you a helper,” she announced, reentering Mary’s bedroom. “Jane’s going to help you list everything you need to bring, so that way you don’t have to put all your stuff in a suitcase until you’re getting ready to go.”

Jane rubbed at her eyes again and nodded in agreement. “Do you have a notebook?”

“Yes… somewhere.” Mary looked at the chaos.

“Here, let me help you find it…”

Liz watched them for another moment before nodding to herself and stepping out of the room.

~~~~

Despite the drawbacks of her appearance, the most convenient time to meet with George was often in the mornings, after Liz and Charlotte finished their run. The day after Jane’s exchange with Caroline, George was waiting for her in the park, already holding an iced coffee for her.

Charlotte, after drinking deeply from the water fountain, raised her eyebrows at them both before waving her goodbye. Liz waved back before turning to George. He grinned and offered her the cup. “Thanks!” When she turned the cup, she saw her name written in black sharpie on the side, with a little heart underneath. She blushed and George grinned wider, gesturing her towards a nearby bench with one outstretched hand.

They both sat and she crossed one leg over the other, leaning towards him so her skin almost brushed against his. After several long, refreshing sips, she lowered her drink and said, “Did you hear?”

“Hear what?” he asked, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

“Chip and Darcy, the whole household, they disappeared practically overnight. Caroline told Jane that Chip had been called home for work.”

“You don’t sound like you believe that.”

She twisted her mouth to the side. “Well… Caroline never seemed very… enthusiastic about Jane and Chip. She was always nice to Jane, but it was obvious she couldn’t wait to get far, far away from Meryton. She might have, you know, helped him along in deciding to move on.”

George nodded. “I certainly wouldn’t put it past any of them.”

Liz looked at him for several seconds long and then she put her hand on his arm. “You didn’t come to the party. I was wondering…” She let the question trail off as he nodded again.

“No, in the end I… I thought maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea. Wouldn’t want to cause trouble if Fitz got all bent out of shape over it or something. Y’know, his usual style.”

“If you were in the right… And it wasn’t even Darcy’s house, it was Chip’s. I’m sure he wouldn’t throw you out.”

“He would do anything Darcy says.”

She frowned. “But if you were in the right…” Despite his actions towards Jane, it was difficult to imagine Bingley taking Darcy’s side in this scenario as he was so in the wrong. “But I suppose they have been friends for a very long time.”

“Yes. Ages...” George trailed off. He seemed to be thinking very hard about something; he stared silently at the lake for several minutes together before he moved so suddenly it caused Liz to jump. He snatched a flat rock from the side of the path and chucked it at the water. It skipped four times before sinking with a satisfying plop. “Did you know Fitz and I took dance lessons together?”

Liz shook her head but didn’t answer. She had thought that there was at least a little similarity between the two men’s movements after dancing with both of them only days apart.

“Of course,” he added, preening slightly. “I was always better than him at it. He’s too… stiff and… Y’know, Fitz-like.”

Liz grinned. “Of course.”

He laughed. “Ol’ Fitz always hated it when I showed him up. I remember once when we were, like, maybe nine or something. Not very old, anyway, and he had his first ballroom dancing lesson because our dads wanted us to be able to dance at the company party. Well, he got all mixed up on the steps and I was a natural. I was bigger than him then, so he wasn’t going to hurt me much, but I thought he was gonna punch me when the teacher told me how good I was doing and then she went over to correct his form.” His expression faded a little and he cast a sidelong glance at Liz. “’Course, he did punch me eventually, but it had nothing to do with dancing then.” He laughed again, but it was a much harder sound. He then draped one arm over the back of the bench, resting it behind Liz’s shoulders but not quite touching her.

“How awful.”

George responded by leaning in closer, bringing his arm down and touching the back of her neck with his fingers. She felt her pulse spike slightly as she inched closer to him as well, tilting her head up to accept the kiss.

~~~~

Although the overall opinion on Chip Bingley was largely unchanged after his departure, save for the general sympathies felt towards Jane and Mrs. Bennet, there was a tidal wave of dislike thrown out about Darcy. Almost everyone had a poor opinion of him, from his generally gruff manners to his flashy car and his overall disinterest in getting to know the town. Liz couldn’t prove it, but after hearing some particularly pointed comments about the Darcy family wealth, she was pretty sure that George had shared his side of the story with more than just herself. While she couldn’t blame him for his anger, or even for the little revenge he had exacted, it did seem just a touch petty to keep going on about it after Darcy had left town, almost certainly for good.

About two weeks after they had gone, Mr. Bennet grinned at Liz over the top of his morning paper. “Lizzie, you didn’t tell me you started writing for the Meryton Herald. I would have been happy to proof your article.”

“I didn’t.”

“Hmm,” he responded with a laugh. “Then maybe you’ll find this amusing.” He handed a section of newsprint over.

It was the arts page and it contained a prominently billed book review of The Breaking Point. “Oh dear,” she muttered, beginning to scan it. “I was under the impression that most papers prefer to print book reviews of new releases… Darcy’s book came out in April.”

“Yes, I also thought that, but perhaps the writer was just looking to chase a little notoriety.”

“Personally, I don’t mind if anyone gets a little notoriety at the expense of Chip or any of his friends for the way he treated Jane,” Mrs. Bennet interjected sharply. She nearly slammed the plate of pancakes down on the table in her haste, making everyone already at the table jump.

“Hmm…” was Liz’s only reply. But Darcy has done enough on his own to earn this. She scanned across the article and phrases popped out to her: “…a sullen, post-coming-of-age narrative…rife with the decline of family relationships. There are no winners at the end of The Breaking Point, unless the characters feel satisfaction from the ‘I told you so’ mentality.” She tapped the back of her spoon to her lips. “Not very complimentary, is it?”

“Isn’t most of it similar to your own reading of the book?”

“Well, yeah, but I didn’t put in the newspaper.”

Mrs. Bennet sniffed loudly. “Maybe he deserves it.”

“The waiting list for the book is going to be ages long,” Liz added, putting the page down. “I was hoping to reread it…”

“Why would you want to do that to yourself?” Cat asked as she piled pancakes onto her plate. “Didn’t you hate it?”

Liz shrugged. “I mean, yeah, but… Well, there’s something I want to check.” Not only did she want to reread it, now knowing the story of George’s past, she had promised she would read and report the particular facts to him. Her original synopsis had left some parts out that she knew would be important.

She was lucky, though; her hold on The Breaking Point had gone into the library system long enough before the scandal of the book review that she had it back in her hands only a matter of days after it showed up in the newspaper. She got her hands back on the book at the start of August. The librarian who checked her out placed the book, still glossy and crisp, into her eagerly waiting hands. “Did you see what Mike had to say in the Herald?”

“Of course. I think everyone did.”

The woman nodded slowly. “I haven’t had a chance to read it myself yet. I hope you like it more than he did!”

Liz smiled but didn’t answer, simply tucking the volume under her arm as she left the building. She was certain she would enjoy it just as little on the second read through as the first. It only took her two sittings to get through, the first one curled up in a rocking chair on the wraparound porch of The Longbourn, the second one sprawled on her stomach on the living room couch.

After finishing it the second time, she immediately turned back to the beginning, searching for the introduction of the two main boys, about fifteen pages in to the story, in order to reread it.

 

 

“Hello,” I said as politely as I could, holding out my hand to him, because I could think of no other appropriate gesture.

He responded with a wide smile, his lips spreading to show a mouthful of bright, sharp teeth. He didn’t say anything and he didn’t take my hand either. My—our—father laughed and patted Jonathan on the shoulder. “Play nice, boys.”

Our father’s footsteps had barely stopped echoing in the hallway before he leaned close to me and said, “You know, I killed my other parents.”

“What?” I exclaimed, stepping back from him.

He crossed his arms, his smile never faltering. “It’s not even that hard to do, if you do it right. All I had to do was tell everyone I did it and they never suspected a thing. Everyone wanted to take care of me in ways they never did before.” He raised one hand to his face, inspecting his nails as, aghast, I pressed my back against the table, unable to move any further away. “Now all they want to do is help me.”

“If you killed them, you’d be in jail!” At a young age, I had, what I thought, was a strong grasp on the law. My sense of justice was ruffled at the idea of anyone, even a young boy just my age, getting away with such a heinous crime.

“Would you? Be in jail, I mean.” The question sent a shiver down my spine.

“Yes.”

Although he held his ground, it became my life’s purpose that day to expose him as a fraud. A liar.

If there was one thing I could not stand as a child, it was a lie.

 

After taking a moment to breath in the words, she closed the book again and lifted herself up to sit straight, swinging her legs around to cross in front of her body. She chewed delicately on her right thumb nail, tapping the fingers of her other hand against the back cover of the book, making a satisfying pattering sound.

The story did line up in ways to George’s, but it left jagged edges in some places. The only question was why Darcy would make such a poor character of himself? There were moments where Christopher was the hero, but by the halfway mark, he had fallen just as far as Jonathan, both characters fighting for their father’s affections. Even if Jonathan was portrayed as a cuckoo sneaking into the nest, Christopher was hardly justified in taking action that injured his family, in some instances physically, just to try and remove Jonathan. Somehow, the pieces and parts of the book didn’t add up to match the images she had of either man.

Don’t be absurd, she thought finally, slamming her palm down onto the top of the book. It’s just fiction. Liz pulled her hair back from her face and tied it off in a tight ponytail. She then tucked the book into the crook of her elbow and headed upstairs.

She paused outside of her bedroom; there was a noise coming from inside, slightly stifled. More crying? Liz grimaced and slowly eased the door open. When she stepped inside, she found Jane sitting at the desk in front of her laptop openly sobbing, her shoulders moving with each breath that wracked her chest. Liz felt her own muscles tighten in sympathy and she pushed the door open wider, barging in. The only explanation she could possibly think of was, once again, Chip Bingley. “All right, what did he do this time?” she asked, immediately on the defensive.

Jane turned in the chair, her mascara running a little, her eyes red and blotchy… and a grin broke wide across her face. “Oh, Lizzie!” she said between hiccups, “Lizzie, it isn’t that! Someone dropped out of the internship program and I’m next in line to take their spot. Come and see!” She gestured Liz towards the laptop screen, where an acceptance email was waiting.

Back in March, what felt like ages before, she had applied for an internship position with a DC advocacy firm, mostly assisting with clerical and grunt work. “But,” she had said happily at the time, just hitting send on the application, “it’s paid and it will get me in the door!” There had been silence for over five months.

“That’s great!” Liz said, throwing her arms around Jane’s shoulders. She could feel Jane almost vibrating with happiness as she gripped Liz’s forearms in a grateful squeeze. “I’m going to miss you so much! It’s going to be so quiet without you and Mary around all year.”

“I can’t wait to tell Mom!” Liz, her arm still tight next to Jane’s throat, felt her sister swallow and she said, in a much softer voice, “Maybe this will get her to stop talking about Chip.”

I wouldn’t count on it, Liz thought, but aloud she said, “Yeah, maybe.”

Their mother was, as always, as animated in her joy as her sadness. “Oh, Jane, I knew you could do it!” Mrs. Bennet told Jane tearfully, hugging her eldest daughter tightly. “How wonderful! And,” she added inevitably, “with Chip already in DC, perhaps you two can reconnect. Pick up where you left off.”

Jane, cringing, didn’t respond. Liz pushed a pile of cutlery towards her, offering the excuse of setting the table so she could stop talking. Mrs. Bennet didn’t seem to mind the non-response and she hummed as she finished preparing dinner.

When the news was spread to all the Bennets, they responded with various congratulations on all sides, Mr. Bennet nodding his approval, and Mary even giving Jane a somewhat reserved pat on the arm. All except Lydia, who narrowed her eyes. “Jane,” she asked in her sweetest voice as the excitement began to temper, “how long is this program going to be?”

“It’s all year.”

Lydia raised her eyebrows. “Is it, then? Well, when you go, Mary, I’m going to make Cat sleep in your room. It’s only fair, if Lizzie gets her room all to herself.”

No!” Mary sat very straight in her chair. “No, she can’t have it!”

You’re not going to be here! You can’t tell us what to do when you’re in another country!”

“But it’s my bedroom!”

Lydia rounded on Mrs. Bennet. “Mom. Make her let Cat sleep in her bedroom. I don’t want to have to share if Lizzie gets a room to herself!”

“I don’t want either of you messing with my stuff!” Mary responded.

Liz could sense the argument ramping up. She sighed and let herself sink slightly in her seat. Maybe having a slightly quieter house wasn’t going to be such a bad thing…

Chapter Text

Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Phillips had a considerably younger brother named Howard Gardiner. He and his wife, Melanie, always came to Meryton to visit at least twice a year, once at Christmas and once at the end of the summer. They had three children, ages seven, four, and not quite two, who were favorites of the Bennet sisters; the girls doted on their little cousins quite fondly.

They had not even been in the house for over an hour when the eldest child could be found showing Liz how to make a sword from spare cardboard and paper towel rolls, the middle child was quietly playing in Mary’s room with the dollhouse, and Jane and Lydia were cooing over the baby.

Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet were taking a stroll in the garden, where Mr. Bennet was pointing out the new vegetable patch, and Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Phillips, and Mrs. Gardiner were having a cup of tea in the kitchen. A quiet cup for Mrs. Phillips and Gardiner, but a rather noisy and tearful one for Mrs. Bennet. She blew her nose loudly into a tissue and continued. “Jane does her best not to show it—she is such a strong young woman—but oh that Chip Bingley. He used her terribly! Playing with her heart for three months straight and then leaving without a word! At least his sister was kind enough to send poor Jane a message.”

Liz, who had just stepped into the room to fetch a pair of scissors to help build what was quickly becoming a cardboard fort, did her best to bite her tongue. Good enough to send Jane a message! Ha. She and Darcy probably orchestrated the entire escape plan without even asking Chip. He’s not the one you should blame.

However, she wiped her dour expression clear as she reentered the living room. Emma was standing on the couch, one foot lifted on the arm of it. She raised one hand to lift the slightly overlarge pirate hat away from her eyes and cried, “Have you the supplies, matey!”

“Aye, Captain Emma!” Liz responded, raising the cardboard up as an offering.

~~~~

Mrs. Gardiner was almost closer in age to her nieces than her sisters-in-law. In understanding, she was most alike to the two eldest. After listening to Mrs. Bennet speak for so long on the subject of Jane’s woes, Mrs. Gardiner was interested to hear news from the source.

Hoping to work some of the children’s energy off before dinner, helped Eddie on with his shoes while her nieces helped the older girls. Elle, the younger girl, kicked her feet when Cat tried to tie her sneakers for her, narrowly missing catching her toe on Cat’s shoulder. It was a relief to usher them out the door and across the expansive grounds. “Don’t go too close to the lake!” Mrs. Gardiner called to her children. “And keep an eye on Eddie!” she added as the little boy toddled after her sisters.

Cat and Lydia were quick to run after their little cousins; both were quite fond of the children. Jane and Liz stayed back a little to walk with their aunt. “Jane, your mother was telling me all about what happened this summer with Chip Bingley. Really, how awful! But if you want to talk about it, I’m here for you,” Mrs. Gardiner offered as soon as the children had run out of earshot.

“I think Mom has been overselling the entire ordeal,” Jane responded, somewhat stiffly. She could finally say the names “Chip” and “Bingley” without bursting into tears, but the tradeoff had been a somewhat angry or sharp tone when she did have to talk about him. “She makes it sound like she expected him to propose to me at any second, but he never even asked me out!”

Liz let out a loud “Harumph,” to show exactly how she felt about that part of the whole mess. Mrs. Gardiner smiled slyly at her niece, half in agreement, half shushing her so that Jane would continue.

“Of course, I’m upset that he… left. And hasn’t texted me back. And—” She cut herself off angrily. “But there was nothing between us, so he’s perfectly within his rights.” She dragged one palm against her cheek; Liz peered over, but she couldn’t tell if there were any tears.

“Oh, Jane, I’m so sorry, honey. Sometimes men can be… stupid. If he’s got any brain cells, he’ll come back, I’m sure. It will be up to you if you want to forgive him or not. But for now, you’ll just have to do your best to move on.”

Jane nodded, not looking at either her aunt or sister, and they lapsed into silence. She was saved from needing to respond by the reappearance of the two girls. Emma marched forward, trailed by her sister. Her pirate hat was still on, but it was cocked far to the side, almost threatening to fall off her head. “Jane, come play with us!”

Please?” begged Elle, her eyes wide. In one hand, she clutched tightly to her doll.

“Yes, of course!” Jane said with a little laugh. She was not especially sad to be abandoning the conversation about Chip.

“And what did you think of him, Liz?” Mrs. Gardiner asked as Jane was carried away by Emma and Elle.

Liz sighed and shrugged at first. After a pause, she said, “He was very… nice, I guess. I mean, at the time anyway. He could have better taste in friends. Though,” she added, thinking on it for a moment more, “I suppose he couldn’t help who his sisters are and they were pushing him around just as much. I know I can’t help it at least!”

Mrs. Gardiner shook her head. “No, you can’t always choose your family. But you can choose to make up your own mind.”

Exactly. But his friend! Ugh.” She actually grasped her hands into fists at the thought of him, her cheeks going slightly pink. The change in color was not lost on Mrs. Gardiner. “I mean, I don’t even know what he saw in Darcy. They might have known each other forever, but he was such a stuck-up jerk, like, all the time.”

“Hmm.” Personally, Mrs. Gardiner thought Liz was very stuck on the thought of a man she hadn’t seen for nearly two months. The name itself was quite familiar, though. Where had she heard the name before? She knew it would gall her until she remembered. However, with Jane gone, she decided to change the subject. “And have you been seeing anyone, Liz?”

“Well…” She debated for a second before saying, “No, not really. But there’s someone I’ve been kind of interested in.”

“Oh?”

“His name is George. He’s one of the new National Guard recruits, but he’s been staying in town this summer with some of his friends who are in his troop. He’s from Baltimore too, actually—or a little ways outside of it, at least. He’s very charming, a good dancer… The whole package, really.”

“And what does he do? I mean, besides the Guard?”

“Well…” Liz hedged, “He’s kind of between jobs right now. That’s how he can spend so long this summer… But this will help pay off his student debts. And those were—well, he got ripped off by someone who promised to help him pay for school and get a job. It was so unfair.”

She nodded slowly as she listened. “Yes, I think I would be very interested in meeting this man.” He certainly had Liz’s loyalty; she wondered how long they had known each other. “To talk about home if nothing else.” She smiled and then let out a little cry. “Oh, of course! I don’t know how I could have forgotten to mention it earlier! Howie and I were thinking that we would love to go to Switzerland to visit Mary. And since you’re not in school this year, we would love for you to come along with us.”

“Wow! Auntie Mel, are you serious? That’d be amazing!”

“Yes, we thought so! I have quite a bit of vacation time saved up and with the promotion… We thought it would be an excellent way to use it. Of course, some of it will depend on your uncle’s job, but I think it will be a lovely trip.”

Liz was so thrilled by the idea that she even jumped up, without being asked, to assist her mother with dinner. Mrs. Bennet, knowing Liz’s skill level in the kitchen, set her to prep work rather than any of the actual cooking while simultaneously directing the other Bennet sisters to prepare the dining room.

The dining table in the Bennet house could comfortably fit eight people, and uncomfortably 10. Unfortunately, along with the five Bennets, there were two Phillips, and five Gardiners, so there would always be overflow. The compromise was a rotation at the children’s table—in this case, the kitchen table—between the daughters. On the first night, Liz and Jane, as the eldest, had the honor of eating at the grown-up table, while Mary, Cat, and Lydia were relegated to the kitchen to eat with two of their cousins. Being only two, Eddie had already been fed and put to sleep in one of the bedrooms upstairs.

The first topic of conversation was Jane’s internship. She had begged Mrs. Bennet not to tell anyone until her position was confirmed, but she could finally, proudly share her accomplishment with the rest of the family. “And I’m really excited about it. I know I’ll learn so much, even if I’m only in back offices and things. I’m a little nervous about dealing with some of the opposition, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out! Only… Only, I was hoping, Auntie Mel, Uncle Howie, that I could stay with you for a month or two while I save up for an apartment—and I’d be happy to help look after the children too! I didn’t know it was coming so soon, so I didn’t really have money saved and housing is just so expensive in DC…”

“Of course, you can stay with us, Jane! We’d be delighted to have you. That was extremely unfair of them to give you such short notice.” Mr. Gardiner nodded his agreement, passing a serving tray to Jane.

Jane only shrugged and took the dish she was offered. “They can’t help when people have family emergencies, I guess.”

“It’s Jane’s benefit anyway, despite the timing!” Mrs. Bennet declared, spooning potatoes onto her plate.

“Oh, dear…” Jane said quietly. “Mom, that makes it sound like I stole this from someone.”

Mrs. Bennet simply clucked her tongue and said, “Don’t worry about it, my love.”

Jane looked at Liz for help, but she only shrugged.

“MOM!” Emma called suddenly from the kitchen, “Cat won’t let me have any more bread!” There was a muffled scuffling sound and then Lydia’s voice saying, “Ouch!”

Mrs. Gardiner peered through the archway with some alarm. “I’d better go deal with them…”

~~~~

Mrs. Gardiner had the chance to meet George after they had been in Meryton a little less than a week. Several of the National Guards members who had been staying in town expressed interest in spending time with the Bennet sisters more than once, so Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Phillips invited them all over to The Longbourn for an evening. As there were not enough people to fill the event room, the bar had been turned into a lounge, the tables in the dining room moved away so smaller parties could converse as they chose.

Liz was pleased to see that Lydia had moved on from Denny to a younger man who still had a rounded, baby-face, making it quite difficult to place his age. More appropriate for an 18-year-old anyway, she thought. She was waiting near the front; he had said he wouldn’t let her down again… She hadn’t stooped so low as to wear the red dress again, though.

She needn’t have been so concerned—George Wickham arrived, with Denny in tow, as always. He flashed his smile at her and even kissed her sweetly on the cheek.

Without much preface, Liz told him, “There’s someone I’d like you to meet!” Liz slipped her arm through his and began to pull him to the other side of the room. George raised his eyebrows and let a little smirk creep onto his face. Meeting the family was always something of an accomplishment.

He walked with her through the bar, almost all of the tables filled with pleasantly chattering groups and couples, up to a table in the far corner. A woman in her late 30s with dark hair and eyes was sitting alone, although the seat opposite seemed to have been somewhat recently vacated—there was a jacket over the back of it. Liz snatched a stray chair for George and nearly pushed him into it before she took the chair across.

“George, this is my aunt, Melanie Gardiner.”

Mrs. Gardiner sipped her drink and said, “So, you’re the infamous George Wickham.”

George’s face turned slightly pale for a second, his eyes widening, and his lips pursed and then twisted, as if he had suddenly tasted something unpleasant. But then Mrs. Gardiner smiled at him, showing her joke, and his expression cleared in an instance. “Yes, I am, ma’am. That would be me.”

Mrs. Gardiner blushed. “Don’t be ridiculous, I’m not ‘ma’am.’ Mel is fine.”

“Mel, then.”

"Liz tells me you're from the Baltimore area. I am as well—I was curious if you knew anything of Lambton, a little bitty town, just outside—"

"Oh! Yes, I do," he said quite earnestly, flashing his east smile. "It's just next to Pemberley."

"It does sound familiar."

"I spent a fair amount if my time there as a kid. I moved to Baltimore to live with my aunt when I was about 15, but before then, that's where I lived."

Mrs. Gardiner tried to press him on details of the place, but George could only shake his head. “Oh, of course, it’s such a beautiful little town. I've a few friends still in the area, but I have to admit it's been a while since I last spent time there. Some disagreements and the death of my aunt have made it… difficult for me to go back." He paused, catching Liz’s eye. “Bad memories, you know. Besides, life always seems to get in the way, doesn't it? Even if I wanted to go back, I don’t know where I’d find the time.”

"That it does. I admit I haven't managed to make it back to Lambton since Howie and I were married... oh Lord, it's been almost 12 years!" She found herself too distracted by the way time had lapsed before her eyes to comment much on George Wickham's general manners and demeanor. But later that evening, after he had left, she found she was not overly pleased by him. He was as charming as Liz had painted him, but she was not entirely substance behind the appearance. On the other hand, she finally remembered where she had heard the name Darcy—the Darcy Foundation had been a donor in just about every event she could remember from childhood until she moved to Baltimore proper. She resolved to probe both subjects the next day, when Liz and she had planned a few hours in Meryton together. 

First, they stopped in a little café for lunch, discussing Liz’s admittedly lackluster plans for the upcoming year. “I’ve been thinking about maybe trying piano again, but to be honest, I don’t think it’ll stick. Practicing has never exactly been my forte. And I’m sure Mom will keep me busy with all the chores Cat and Lydia refuse to do.”

“Honey, you have to have some plans other than that.”

Liz shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll probably spend a lot of time with Charlotte, read a lot of books I’ve been meaning to get to…” She sighed and twirled the straw around in her drink. “And… you know, figure out what I want to do for a job after I graduate.”

“Have you had any thoughts?”

“Some,” Liz hedged. “But I don’t know how… feasible some of the thoughts have been.” She was a little nervous about jinxing herself—or for her ideas to get back to her mother. “Well…” she asked quickly, changing the subject, “what did you think of George?”

Mrs. Gardiner raised her eyebrows slightly and considered her response. “I know you are far too sensible a girl to go and fall in love simply because I warned you not to, so I think I can give you all the warnings necessary.

“I’ll admit, George is very charming. But I do have a warning—don’t get too attached until he asks you out properly. I would hate to find you in Jane’s position, heartbroken over a young man who never even asked her on a date.”

Liz nodded slowly. “Yes, I can understand that.”

“And he’ll probably be leaving town again at the end of the summer. Long-distance relationships are not always wise, unless you know your partner very well—well, I don’t have to tell you.”

Liz grinned. Freshman year of college, she had dumped her boyfriend, still living in Meryton when she left for Iowa, after he cheated on her. Neither of them had been especially serious about it and the end of the relationship hadn’t stung particularly strongly for either of them. “I know you mean well. But I don’t think I’m in love with him. Maybe I could be, in the future, but…” She stopped to think, slowly sipping her drink, and had to admit that most of what she liked about him wasn’t necessarily a draw to commit to something so long-term. “Yes, I think I can safely tell you that I am not in love with George,” Liz finally assured her aunt before they left the café.

Mrs. Gardiner waited until they were inside a shop before she touched on the subject of the Darcy man. “You know, Lizzie, I was thinking about it and I believe I have heard of the Darcy family,” she said casually, holding up a shirt against her torso in the mirror. “It took me a while to place the name, but once I did… I mean, who hasn’t in that area of the world? I’m sure every free t-shirt I got from school had their company logo on the back from the donations they made to the event. I never met them, but I always heard the old Mr. Darcy was a pleasant sort of man.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard enough good things about the old Mr. Darcy. A pity the new one is so unlike his father.” Her rather forceful sniff told Mrs. Gardiner there was more feeling behind her niece’s reaction than feeling some “pity” over it.

For her part, Liz was hesitant to mention that Darcy was the likely coordinator behind Chip’s hurried exit from Meryton. DC was much closer to Pemberley than Meryton and, as angry as she was, she was not willing to allow a rumor without some legitimacy to travel anywhere it might do some real harm—at least to Chip, if no one else.

“Did you get to know him well?” she probed after a long silence.

Liz sniffed, her nose raised slightly in the air. “Not really. I mostly knew him in conjunction to Chip.”

Despite Mrs. Gardiner’s careful questioning, she could get little else about the man out of her niece.

~~~~

“Liz, can I get your help for a minute?” Mary asked one evening. Liz had been reading on her bed while Jane and Cat were up at The Longbourn babysitting their cousins; their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were out to dinner.

“Sure. What’s up?” she asked, slipping her bookmark back between the pages and followed Mary across the hall.

Mary pointed. “I want to move my dollhouse. I can’t leave it in my room if Cat’s going to sleep in here.”

“Are you sure? You haven’t moved it in—”

“Ever. I’ve never moved it.”

Liz looked over at the construction. It was not a mass marketed dollhouse, made of plastic, but a tall, wooden one, sitting on a little table, about the size of a card table, wedged into the corner of the room. Liz had no idea when it had come into their house, but Mary had claimed it as her own from almost the very beginning. She spent hours crafting the furniture and papering the walls, redecorating every time she thought her skill had improved. By the time she was 15 or 16, well past the age when most girls stopped playing with dolls, she had crafted a miniature mansion, exquisitely detailed from floor tiles to baseboards, tiny portraits on the walls and logs in the fireplace.    

In the essay, which Liz and Mr. Bennet had both edited, that she submitted to the Switzerland program, Mary had explained her love of particle physics through her love for the dollhouse—the creation of the miniature, the examination of the minuscule, helped put the world into perspective. The wild fluctuation in size helped her see the size of everything.

“Do you think this is the best idea, then?”

Mary scowled. “I don’t trust either of them. And Mom’s not going to stop anyone from wrecking it. You’re the only one who’s going to take care of the house.”

While slightly flattered, Liz pursed her lips. As much as she wanted to encourage Mary to be kinder to her sisters, Liz didn’t necessarily disagree that it was a good idea for her to move any fragile possessions out of the room. “All right,” she said finally. “I see your point.”

Mary went around the little house closing all its tiny shutters and moving all the furniture away from the edges of the rooms. Carefully, she and Liz eased their fingers under the edges, turning and inching until it was off the top of the table and in their hands. With Liz moving backwards, Mary directed her into the other room.

Jane’s desk was always immaculate and, with just a bit of nudging, they pushed her laptop far enough out of the way to lay the dollhouse on the top of the desk. They both stepped back to inspect their handiwork, making sure nothing inside was damaged. “Thank you, Liz.”

“No problem.”

Liz crossed her arms as Mary left the room, humming something, and then leaned back against her bed. She didn’t mind the dollhouse in her room; it wouldn’t be in the way, with Jane gone. But the largeness of it, sitting there, suddenly made it feel so much more real—Jane and Mary were going. And Liz was stuck at home.

Chapter Text

When Liz had been younger, she always looked forward to the end of the summer season with pleasure. It slowed down towards the end of August, drying up almost completely by mid-September, except for the somewhat rare childless, trendy couples who could afford to take their vacations when everyone else was busy with school. True, it did mean the Bennets had to tighten their belts a little more; without a serious source of income, the winters were often hard, especially when The Longbourn required repairs and renovations. Most of their income did get poured into the inn. But it also meant more time with her father and finally having her parents’ undivided attention—at least, as undivided as it could be with four other siblings. It meant time for family visits and going out to dinner, being able to go out on her own without running into a crowd of people who didn’t live in Meryton.

But, as she watched Jane pack and she considered the coming year with no school and few remaining friends, she found the end of the season perfectly detestable. Jane could see the glumness on her sister’s usually cheerful face, how she seemed to sink into a moody gray cloud when the energy in the house was low.

“I’ll miss you,” Jane told Liz for the fifteenth time that week.

Liz did her best to smile genuinely. “Me too. But it’s no different than going to school, right?”

“Yes…”

Liz shrugged. She sat still, watching Jane pack for several more minutes before she heaved herself off the bed and left the room. She walked slowly down the hallway, tugging on a strand of hair, twisting it around one finger. She could hear her cousins laughing downstairs, the pleasant murmur of voices drifting out of the kitchen.

She walked to the staircase and walked down a couple steps before taking a seat on the edge of one, drawing her knees up to her chest and resting her cheek glumly against one fist. Mary was the one getting on an airplane tomorrow, and Jane was the one getting in a car to drive hundreds of miles away, but she was the one overcome with such a deep sense of melancholy that it made her almost sick to her stomach.

She tried to probe the feeling, questioning its cause. Of course they had scattered before, first Jane, then herself, then Mary heading to college. But it had always been with the implication of nearness or coming back… Now Jane was taking a position that would hopefully lead to a career, and Mary was going to be on a different continent for almost an entire year.

Liz let out a deep sigh—something she had been doing a lot in the last few days—and hugged her knees tighter.

It was hard for her to tell if it was fortunate or unfortunate when she had to set her own feelings aside as they took Mary to the airport. The airport itself was almost two hours away. They left Lydia at home with Emma, Ella, and Eddie, but Mrs. Phillips joined the Bennets and the Gardiners in their two cars.

Over the past few days, Mary had gone from buzzing excitement to becoming quieter and quieter every day. Liz glanced into the backseat; Mary sat almost silently with her hands clasped on her knees. Cat sat against the other window, glancing over at her twin every few minutes, but never saying anything. Liz could feel the tension between them like a physical object, a taut string between them. After watching Cat look over again, Liz turned forward. She hoped the distance might shock Cat into trying to grow closer to Mary, but there was no guarantee it would happen. She had shared her hope with Jane, who, in her usual, overoptimistic attitude, had been quick to second the notion and applaud the idea.

By the time they pulled into the parking structure, Mary had clutched her arms around her torso and hunched forward slightly. Cat attempted to comfort her, awkwardly reaching out to pat her shoulder and back—unfortunately, her tactics were as ineffectual as they had been as she tried to help Jane. Mary pulled herself together on her own before Mr. Bennet even turned off the car.

Although she looked a bit green to Liz, she seemed to have rallied well. Well enough to argue with their mother, anyway. “You don’t all have to come in…” Mary muttered, watching her aunts and uncle climb out of the other car. She was clutching her backpack and standing sandwiched between Liz and Jane on the sidewalk, twisting her feet and balancing on the outside edges of her shoes.

“Don’t be silly, Mary,” Mrs. Bennet told her, a bit crisply in Liz’s opinion. “We want to say goodbye. None of us will see you until next June!”

“Well…” Mrs. Gardiner said very quietly. Mrs. Bennet either ignored or didn’t hear her.

Mr. Bennet placed Mary’s suitcase on the sidewalk next to her and took the duffel bag from Mr. Gardiner. He secured it on the top of the bag and twisted the handle towards his middle daughter.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Mrs. Bennet chided him. “Don’t make her carry it herself.”

Mom,” Mary groaned, “I’m going to have to take it all by myself eventually; I think I can handle it.”

“I know, honey, but you don’t have to do it now.” She barely glanced at her daughter, her eyes flicking to the signage hanging from the ceiling. “Now then—what’s your airline again, Mary?”

Mary sighed and held out her phone, her ticket pulled up on the screen.

“Excellent, excellent… Well, come on, then.” She made a little beckoning motion with her hand, trying to draw the admittedly large family crowd forward.

Mary took a step back, muttering, “You really don’t all have to come…” before following her mother towards the elevators. Jane did her best to comfort her, cooing reassurances in her ear as they all piled into the elevator. Liz found her hip pressed into Mary’s suitcase.

The doors opened into the foyer of the airport, right in front of the check-in lines. They had to walk almost the entire length of the floor to find the right airline. The line in front of the desk was huge, snaking all the way through the marking cords. Mary seemed almost relieved at the sight. “You can say goodbye here, you don’t have to wait for me. You’ll only get to say goodbye at security, then.”

Mrs. Bennet opened her mouth to protest, but Mr. Bennet stopped her with a hand to her shoulder. “Very well, my dear,” he said, rather gruffly, before scooping Mary up into a one-armed hug. They moved down the line, some farewells more tearful than others—mostly on the part of Mrs. Bennet, who erupted into sobs as she grasped her daughter, crying out, “My babies are all grown up!” Mrs. Phillips and Mrs. Gardiner had to pull her off when it became obvious she wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.  

After Jane gave her hugs and gentle reassurances, Liz stepped up to her shoulder. She and Jane had both always been much more tactile in their expressions of love than their younger sisters, so she found herself somewhat surprised when Mary returned the hug she offered with equal force, her fingers gripping tightly at the back of Liz’s shirt. Very quietly, with her face pressed hard into Liz’s shoulder, Mary murmured, “I love you, Lizzie.”

“I love you too, sis.” She ruffled Mary’s hair with one hand, the other wrapped tightly around  

“I’ll send you real letters, if you want, along with the postcards.”

Liz smiled as she pulled out of the embrace, holding Mary by her shoulders. “That would be cute but I think digital might be a little more efficient!”

“Okay.” She smiled shyly back. Then she turned her gaze to Cat, her smile fading slightly. She bit her lip for a moment and then offered her arms to her twin.

To the surprise of almost the entire party, Cat burst into tears and threw herself at Mary. Somewhat bewildered, Mary tried to pat her on the shoulder in almost the exact same mannerism Cat had herself been using. Through her tears, she managed to get out, “I’m going to miss you, Mary!”

“Oh…” Jane edged around to the side, making sure Cat couldn’t see her, and jabbed Mary sharply in the side. Then she jerked her head towards Cat, glaring until Mary choked out the words, “I’ll miss you too, Kitty.”

It was not Mrs. Bennet but Cat who was escorted away in tears. Jane plucked at Liz’s sleeve before they reached the cars and whispered in her ear, “You might have been right about this helping their relationship!”

“We can only hope.”

~~~~

“It’s always so sad to part from friends, and even more so with family!” Mrs. Bennet lamented the morning the Gardiners were to leave. Jane was leaving with them; her father was to join her on the drive to DC and they planned to caravan the two cars. The night before, he, Jane, and Liz had packed, unpacked, and repacked the family minivan.

The goodbye was almost as tearful as Mary’s, but Mrs. Bennet had several more important things she wished to impart to her eldest daughter than she had for the middle one. “Now, Jane, you must remember that if you see Chip—”

“Mom, please. I’m not going to go looking for him. I don’t even think I want to see him,” she added with a very un-Jane-like scowl.

Mrs. Bennet patted her hands. “Yes, yes. But if you do, remember to show him what an impressive internship you’re a part of.”

“And how successful you are and what a catch he missed,” Lydia added slyly.

Jane went slightly pale. “Please don’t try to set me up with him again. He made his choice and it was to leave.”

Mr. Bennet made a big show of checking his watch. “What time did you say you wanted to get going again, Howie? Shouldn’t we get going?” he asked pointedly, looking at his wife.

Mr. Gardiner laughed. “Take all the time you need. It’s not such a bad drive.”

Mr. Bennet shot him a narrow-eyed look in reprimand for not backing him up.

While Mrs. Bennet continued to fuss over Jane, Liz was saying her goodbyes to Mrs. Gardiner. “I’m so excited for our trip!”

“I hope we’ll know more by the time we see you for Christmas.” She glanced at her husband for a second and then leaned forward, lowering her voice. “There’s a… possibility Howie might be getting a promotion sometime in the near future. That might affect when we can go.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Liz told her brightly. She could feel the force behind her smile; thinking about getting to see Mary in the spring was the only thing keeping her from bursting into the same fit of tears that Cat had had at the airport.

“Yes. We’ll see what happens one way or the other.” She hugged her niece tightly. “You’re a good girl, Lizzie. I’m sure you’ll find some interesting ways to amuse yourself this year, even without school.”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

Mrs. Gardiner kissed her cheek and gave her hand a little squeeze. “Now, you’d best say goodbye to your sister.”

Liz’s heart thumped uncomfortably in her chest. “Right.”

Jane was standing next to the car, her hands twisted together, but she unclenched them and reached out for Liz as she approached. “Lizzie!”

“You have to text me every day!” Liz commanded, gripping her sister fiercely. “Weekly video chats!”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Jane said, laughing a little. Her arms were wrapped right around Liz. “I might be very busy.”

“You can never be too busy for me.”

“I guess you’re right.” She laughed again and, too soon, released her grip. With a last look at the house and her siblings, she slipped into the driver’s seat. Mr. Bennet stopped to kiss his wife and give a swift hug to the greatly reduced number of daughters—spending slightly longer on Liz than the others—before he took his seat in the passenger side.

As the remaining Bennets waved goodbye from the porch of the house, Mrs. Bennet said, with a small sigh, “I do hope she meets a nice, young congressional aide with some money. That would be just the man for her, I’m sure.” She stopped for a second and then added, “Or maybe a justice clerk. One of them would do.” 

“Mom,” Liz groaned, “just let her life her life for once. She doesn’t have to be in a romantic relationship to be happy, you know.”

Mrs. Bennet raised her eyebrow. “Well, I don’t see you going out on very many dates, Lizzie.”

Instead of answering, she threw her hands in the air and stomped back into the house.

~~~~

The bedroom was incredibly lonely when she woke up in the morning. She lay very still in bed for several minutes, listening to her own breathing, missing the sounds of another person. Rather than getting up to get ready for the day or take her usual morning run, she lay still, burrowed in her blankets, although the room was overly warm for the amount of covers on her bed. It felt like a gentle weight was pressing her against the mattress; she could have fought it, if she chose, but she didn’t, instead laying there almost an hour past her usual rising time.

“Liz? Are you awake?”

She glanced, bleary-eyed at the door; without bothering to knock, Lydia had pushed it open several inches, staring inside. Liz yawned. “No.”

“Oh, good.” She pushed the door all the way open and waltzed into the room.

“Go away, Lydia.”

“Lizzie, stop being so emo!” Lydia said, jumped up to sit next to her on the bed.

“No,” Liz groaned in response, rolling over and trying to yank the covers back up around her shoulders. Lydia didn’t budge.

I know something that will make you feel better.”

“Do you?”

“Do you want to guess?”

“Not really, no.”

Ugh, you’re no fun.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Liz yawned again and rubbed one hand through her hair as she sat up. “What do you have to tell me, Lydia?”

“There’s a certain someone waiting for you.”

“…Someone?”

“Oh my God, don’t be so dumb. He’s waiting outside so Mom didn’t see him.”

Liz jumped out of bed. “George didn’t say he was going to be in town!”

Lydia grinned and shrugged.

“And Mom definitely doesn’t know he’s here?”

“Yeah. But I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. Then she’ll at least get off your back for not dating anyone, right?”

“George and I aren’t dating,” Liz corrected her as she grabbed a pair of jeans off the back of her desk chair.

“Mmm, okay, Lizzie. I mean, I don’t think you’re pretty enough to be waiting around for outside in this humidity, but what do I know? I just know you.”

Liz threw a balled-up t-shirt at her—which Lydia successfully dodged—before continuing to dress. “Good thing you’re not the one waiting outside for me, then.” She turned to the mirror, quickly brushing the knots out of her hair. She glanced over at Lydia, fluffing and running her fingers through her hair in the Bennet sisters’ code for “hair check.”

Lydia looked her up and down and rolled her eyes. “Here, let me do it.” Liz handed the brush over and in two minutes her hair was sleek and smooth, pulled neatly into a high ponytail. Lydia wouldn’t let her leave the room until she had changed out of a band t-shirt and into a plainer one. “Stripes are so basic, but they are you, I guess, so that’s fine.”

Not entirely sure whether she wanted to hug Lydia or punch her, Liz settled on waving bye and, after checking the coast was clear on the first floor, running down the stairs and out the front door.

“You didn’t say you were coming back to town!” Liz cried as soon as the door was shut behind her. She didn’t stop, though, ushering him off the front porch and away from the windows. She had known her mother to snoop out of windows before, thinking she would catch one of her daughters with a boy. In this case, she would have been right. “I thought you left last week!”

George graced her with one of his wide smiles. For a soldier, he didn’t have the most perfect posture, but it left off the same kind of careless charm as his smile did. His stance was too wide and his body listed slightly to the left; he often had a hand in one pocket. He had let his hair grow slightly since he was last on base and it had a softly rumpled look, managing to look sweet instead of awkward in its spikes.

“I did. Just… some lease stuff with my apartment. Came to crash with Denny while they iron out the kinks.” He shrugged and took a step closer to her.

“You should have told me.”

He stared at her for a moment, his eyes searching her face. Then, without preface, he took another wide step forward until he was almost on top of her. He pushed her against the side of the building, a little roughly, holding one shoulder back as he kissed her. “How’s that for an apology?” he asked, his lips still brushing hers, his breath on her mouth.

She needed a moment to find the air to refill her lungs. She could feel her heart beating fast in her chest and the warmth on her face had little to do with the temperature outside. “I think we can make a start here.” She wrapped one arm around his neck and let him reach around her back, breathlessly returning his kiss.

After they stood in that manner for several minutes, they moved to the back garden and sat on the little stone wall around the vegetable patch. They were pressed close together and the kissing continued for another minute before they pulled apart.

“So, listen,” Liz said slowly, fingering the neck of his t-shirt, “there’s a concert in a couple of weeks that I was thinking about going to. Would you want to come?” She had planned to invite Charlotte, but Charlotte had already left with Mariah when Liz found out about the concert. What she never knew won’t hurt her.

“Oh, I don’t know… When is it? Because I’m on base next week, but then I gotta head out.” He showed her half a smile, rubbing one hand against the back of his head.

“Oh… Okay.”

“Sorry, darlin’.”

“No, it’s all right. Just thought I’d offer.” She lowered her arms from around his neck and tried to take his hand; as she moved for it, he pulled it out of her grasp and leaned back slightly so his weight was resting on his palms as the gripped the back edge of the wall. 

They lapsed into silence. She thought about her aunt’s warning. “Do you want to go into town today?”

“Oh, sorry, Liz, I don’t know if I can.”

She nodded.

“I mean, I have plans. But if you want to go inside first… Maybe we can see if I’m free later.” He stroked one finger down her cheek, his other hand reaching towards her.

She pulled out of his grasp. “No, don’t blow anyone off for me.”

He stopped moving, appraising her. Something changed in his eyes and he dipped his head slowly. “Right, of course. But we should do dinner soon, while I’m still in town.

She smiled. “Yes, of course.”

His movie star smile returned as he kissed her again and left.

~~~~

Liz was usually able to shake herself out of a stupor, but for some reason it hung on tightly. If Charlotte was around, perhaps she would have more motivation to run through it, using the exertion to push herself out of the stupor—but Charlotte was off helping her sister Mariah move into her new dorm. Liz knew she should have gone for a run that morning, but it had just been so difficult... Besides, she justified to herself, if I had gone out, I would have missed George. Not that their conversation had been especially fulfilling, but he was clearly distracted. She hoped he had good luck with his apartment issue.

She was lying on her bed, failing to read her book, when Cat knocked on the door. “Liz, do you want to come into town with me?”

Yes.” She jumped to her feet, grabbing a pair of sandals from the foot of her bed. “I need to get out of this house for a while.”

Cat grinned and dangled the car keys between her fingers, jiggling them so they clinked together before catching them again in her palm.

“Did you ask Mom if you could take the car?” Liz asked as they walked out the door and across the lawn towards the garage.

“…Well, no, but I did bring this.” She reached into her purse and whipped out the grocery list. “She can’t get too mad as long as we go to the supermarket when we’re done. And it’s not like we can be expected to not use any car while Dad has the minivan.”

Liz shrugged, deciding not to press the issue. “Fair enough,” she said as she buckled her seatbelt. “Just don’t ding the bumper on anything!”

Cat clucked her tongue as she back the car out. “You know I’m a better driver than Lydia.”

Liz thought back to Lydia’s days with the temporary license and shuddered slightly. “Yeah, I do.” As they were driving, she rolled down the window about halfway and let her head rest against the side of the glass, the wind ruffling through her hair.

They stopped in the pharmacy to pick up a couple things and to say hello to their aunt before moving on to one of the dress shops. Not overly inclined to shop, Liz rested her chin on her fist while she sat in one of the chairs by the dressing room and “yea’d” and “nay’d” her way through Cat’s possible purchases.

Bags in hand, they stepped out onto the sidewalk and were promptly sidetracked in front of the electronics store. Not a big box shop but a family owned place, they sold primarily media, like movies, and music, but also camera equipment. There must have been a recent shipment because the front window display was completely new.

“I was thinking about getting a new camera,” Cat said softly, looking through the window and placing one hand longingly against the glass. There was a large Nikon on a pedestal next to a tripod and a light kit. “To, like, maybe shoot some shorts or a screen test or something. But they’re so expensive…” She sighed deeply and lowered her hand. “I should keep on going for the car, huh?”

“I mean, that’s what I would do, but it’s up to you.” She looked over into the next window in front of the optometrist’s office. “What would you think if I got new glasses?”

“We wouldn’t all match then!” She said it as if the idea was almost offensive.

“Well, yeah, but they might be more my style.” There was one pair with metal frames she had had her eye on for a while. Before either of them could say more, they were interrupted by a call from behind them.

“Elizabeth! Lizzie Bennet!” Liz and Cat both pulled to a stop on the street. Cat turned quickly but Liz took her time, feeling a pit in her stomach at the familiarity of that voice.

“Bill… I didn’t know you were in town.”

“Oh, I didn’t tell anyone I was coming. Ruins the whole concept of a surprise inspection, doesn’t it?” Bill Collins let out what could only be described as a poor stage laugh, a forced “hahaha,” emanating from his torso. The worst part of it was, that was his real laugh. Liz had known him since grade school and he had always sounded like that, a strangely pompous child who skipped from toddlerhood right to an awkward hybrid of adolescence and middle age. She was not at all surprised to see that, in the several years since they had seen each other last, he hadn’t changed. “Yes, I came to check on the golf club, see how it’s doing.”

He smiled at them both, his grin more pained than genial. Bill had somewhat limp-looking dark brown hair that he had tried to comb into something crisp and neat, but it really just fell somewhat uncomfortably against the right side of his head. He had a round, open face and big eyes that, rather than making him appear friendly, looked overly innocent. 

“Well… That’s really great. Listen, we’ve got to get going or we’ll be late for…”

“Doctor’s appointment!” Cat chimed in. She let out a fake cough into one balled up fist. “We have to go to the doctor.” She coughed again.

He turned to her with his eyes narrowed slightly in concern. “Oh dear. I hope it’s nothing serious?”

“It’s fatal and very contagious.”

Bill jumped back a few steps. Liz elbowed Cat in the side. “It’s neither of those things, I promise. But we do have to go. Nice seeing you,” she added out of politeness rather than genuine affection.

Bill nodded, showing his pained smile again. He took a step back towards them. “Listen, I was hoping to discuss some… business matters with your dad sometime.”

“Then you can take it up with him.”

“I’d love to come over for dinner if your parents will have me one night!”

Okay. Sure. But you should really ask them. Come on, Cat.” That left them with no choice but to hurry across the street and back to the car. “Don’t look back,” Liz had to mutter several times, trying to force Cat to keep going forward. “Don’t look at him. It will only encourage him.”

Cat unlocked the trunk and dumped her bags in. “Oh my God, what’s he doing talking to use?”

“I mean, he wants to talk to Dad. So…”

Cat wrinkled her nose as she climbed back in the driver’s side. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I want to talk to him.”

Liz just lifted her hands helplessly.

“I don’t want him to come to dinner either!”

“I don’t think there’s much we can do to stop that.”

Cat could talk of nothing else besides Bill Collins while they drove to the store and checked off the items on the list. “Do you think he’s still… y’know, weird? Like, as weird as before?”

“If you mean, do I think he’s going to keep telling everyone what he thinks they should do with their life, then yes. He’s always been like that, though,” she added, picking up a box of penne.

Cat covered her mouth before a giggle burst out. “Don’t tell him you’re taking a year off school! He’ll go nuts.”  

Liz groaned as she tossed the box in the cart. “Do me a favor and don’t bring it up, okay?”

“Sure, Lizzie,” she said, still laughing. “It’s not like he’s not going to find out.”

“Do you think he’ll try and offer me some ‘gainful employment’ again?” she asked, doing her best Bill Collins voice.

“Absolutely.”

“Of course, saying you’re a film major won’t very good either,” Liz warned.

Cat’s face fell as she realized the veracity of her sister’s words. “Oh God,” she groaned. “What if he tries to convince me to go into accounting again?” With that unpleasant thought to guide her, she was very quiet, at least for herself, on the ride back home. Her silence was quickly broken almost as soon as they made it back home. “Mom! Mom! You’ll never guess who’s back in town,” Cat cried as soon as they had walked through the door, slamming her hands on the kitchen table.

Mrs. Bennet looked up from the home décor magazine she was perusing, a red pen in one hand. “Who, dear?”

Bill Collins.”

Hmm.” She put the pen down. “Well, I suppose he must be here to finish with his father’s house.” The last time they had seen him had been the previous December, after his father died and he was there for the funeral and to clean out the house. She glanced down at her magazine and added, “I think I might have seen it listed for sale…”

“Oh, don’t mind me, just trying to get all the groceries inside by myself,” Liz said from the hallway, her arms laden with bags.

“He said he’s here to figure out what he wants to do with the golf course,” Cat told their mother, ignoring Liz.

Mrs. Bennet’s eyes flashed. “Is he?”

Liz made as much noise as possible as she dumped the plastic bags across the counter tops. “Sure would be great if someone gave me a hand putting these away,” she added to deaf ears.

“He wants to talk to Dad about it,” Cat added in a slightly hushed tone. The golf course was rarely discussed in a business capacity around their mother; although she had never known the Bennet family when they benefited from the joint ownership, she considered it the greatest travesty of the family that the income did not help their family.

To both Liz and Cat’s surprise, their mother smiled at that. “Does he? Well, then. When your father gets back, we will have a lot to discuss.” She paused. “Do either of you girls know what Bill likes to eat? A good meal can do a lot of good for a business proposal…”

Cat and Liz shared a glance. A week after the funeral, Mr. Bennet had suggested inviting him over for dinner but Mrs. Bennet had outright refused to host him under their roof.

She had a strange smile on her face and she kept tapping the pen against her lips as she walked around the kitchen, clearly thinking something she would not voice to her daughters. She hadn’t even questioned them about how they made it to the grocery store or wondered where the car keys had been—or noticed when Cat did her best to surreptitiously slip them back on the hook by the back door.

When their mother didn’t bring it up again that night, or the next morning, Liz began to relax. She took her morning run again, already impatient for Charlotte to return, even though she had only been away for two days so far. After she returned and changed out of her running clothes, she kissed her mother on the cheek and said, “I’m going up to The Longbourn. Dad wanted me to look at some papers he left in the office. I don’t think it’ll take too long—probably be back in time for lunch.”

“Thank you, dear.” Mrs. Bennet had no idea what her husband wanted Liz to work on, but whatever it was, it was probably far out of her wheelhouse. As far as she was concerned, as long as she planned the events, coordinated a few weddings, and was allowed to redecorate as she liked, she was perfectly content to let everyone else spend their time with the finances and management.

It was also rare for her to have the house to herself; Lydia and Cat had headed out shortly before Liz to spend the day on a friend’s boat. She hummed to fill the silence, pulling out her decorating magazines again. She enjoyed keeping up with the trends, but Mr. Bennet always said there wasn’t enough time or money to keep the hotel as updated as she would like.

She had just dogeared a page with a particularly nice wallpaper when the doorbell rang. She closed the magazine and went to see who it was; she opened the door to Bill Collins. It was unseasonably warm for the first week of September and he was sweating slightly in his long-sleeved shirt. “Oh! Mrs. Bennet! Good afternoon. I was hoping…” He stopped for a second and then continued, “I was hoping Mr. Bennet was in. I wanted to speak to him about, well…” He cleared his throat with a soft “ahem.”

Almost immediately, her mind jumped into gear. She knew she had to be pleasant to him in order for business discussions to move forward at an appropriate pace. So she said, in her kindest tones, “I’m sorry, Mr. Bennet isn’t home right now. He’s helping Jane—do you remember Jane? She’s our eldest—move to Washington DC right now.”

“Oh. Er, that’s perfectly fine. I was just hoping…” He stopped and took a step forward, first glancing over her shoulders and then leaning in towards Mrs. Bennet, saying in a whisper, “I was just kind of hoping that Liz was around?”

“She is,” Mrs. Bennet responded slowly, raising her eyebrows as she inspected the situation. “Would you like to come in?”

“Oh! Thank you.” He stepped in through the door. Glancing at the pile of shoes in the corner, he leaned down and untied his own before placing them neatly on the edge of the doormat.

“But she’s up at The Longbourn right now, not in the house.”

His expression fell slightly. “Ah, I see. Should I go up and see her or—”

“No, no, dear, please come in. Come with me, let me pour you some tea. Or coffee? Which would you prefer?”

“Um, tea would be fine, thank you.” He slipped into the chair she offered him and put his hands flat on the table while he watched her bustle around the kitchen, pulling out the kettle and a large box of teas.

“Pick whichever you like,” she told him as she filled the kettle and placed it on the stove. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he fumbled through the box, pulling out one of the brightly colored packages. He held it nervously between his fingers, crinkling it until the kettle whistled. She brought it and two mugs to the table, pouring. “Do you take milk or sugar? Lemon?”

He cleared his throat again. “Lemon and milk, please.” She didn’t seem quite as angry with him as last time they had seen each other and his courage grew the longer she wasn’t snipping or yelling at him.

“Now, Bill,” Mrs. Bennet said as sweetly as she could, taking her seat, “if I remember correctly, you used to have such a darling crush on Lizzie. Or do I misremember?” She hid her smile as he turned scarlet before her eyes.

“Well. Um. Yes, I—I did have one, yes.”

“And what about now?”

“Well, I don’t…” He looked down at the mug sitting between his hands.

“I really think you two would make a sweet couple. She’s still single, you know,” Mrs. Bennet added, forcing sadness into her tone. “It’s such a shame. I really think her last boyfriend hurt her very much. If only someone would help her out of that…” She shook her head. “There’s so much heartache in this house. You know, recently, Jane had the most atrocious incident. There was a very pleasant—”

“Lizzie is still single?” he asked, clutching tight to the mug even though it burned his fingers slightly.

“Oh yes. Very much so,” replied Mrs. Bennet, surveying him over the top of her own mug.

He took a sip, burning his tongue. The beverage seemed to give him courage. “You know,” he said finally, speaking as much to cool his mouth as to make a friend, “I think it was very unfair of my grandfather to split up our business and yours. I mean, everything his father worked for and he just took it apart. I was thinking that maybe we could… come to an agreement, you see?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Bennet practically purred, “I do.”

“Of course, I’ll have to wait until Mr. Bennet returns home to hash out the business of it, but I think it will go a long way in re-allying our families. Not that there are many people left in mine.” He cleared his throat again.

“Bill, would you like to stay for lunch?” Mrs. Bennet offered suddenly. “Lizzie should be back by then.”

“Yes, thank you, Mrs. Bennet. I would greatly appreciate the invitation.”

Chapter Text

Mr. Bennet returned to Meryton several days later, on Sunday. He was met by his three, over-excited daughters, all bursting to speak at once. “Dad! Oh, thank God you’re back, he’s driving us nuts!”

“Mom keeps inviting him over for dinner, I don’t know if I can take it anymore!”

“Please, please, please you have to tell Mom to stop letting him eat at our house.”

“If he tries to tell me about banking one more time, I’m going to scream!”

He bit back a laugh as he looked at their wide-eyed, frantic faces. “I’ve been away a week and not even a hello, girls?”

Liz stepped forward. “Welcome back, Dad. Tell mom to stop inviting Bill Collins over to dinner or one of us is going to stab him in the eye with a fork.”

“And then Mom’ll have to deal with blood stains on her carpet and bail,” Lydia chimed in.

Mr. Bennet ignored her, frowning instead at Liz. “Bill Collins? I thought your mother hated the man.”

“She used to. But now he comes to dinner almost every night and I can’t take it anymore!” Cat cried, almost yelling.

“What’s he doing in Meryton?”

“Trying to decide what he wants to do with the golf course. But he wouldn’t talk about it in detail until you got back. Because you’re the man in charge.” Liz rolled her eyes.

Mr. Bennet bit back a chuckle as he pulled his bag out of the backseat. “Lizzie, I think it’s more that it’s my name on all the accounts.”

“But he could have told Mom what he was planning, even if he couldn’t actually, like, enact any deals or anything,” she argued back as they all walked towards the house together. “I’m honestly more surprised he’s been so quiet about it. He certainly likes the sound of his own voice enough when he’s talking about other things.”

“If I have to hear about”—Lydia put on a high, dreamy voice—“Lady Catherine one more time—” She cut herself off with a high pitched shriek in the back of her throat.

“Hmm… I see.” He pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose and hefted his bag more comfortably in his hand. He entered the house, his daughters filing after him, and greeted his wife. He expected her to say something on the matter, but when she was silent for several hours, he brought it up before dinner, especially when she said nothing of any possible guests.

“Genie,” he said somewhat gently, “the girls have been telling me you invited Bill Collins over for a meal four out of the six days I was gone.”

“Hm, dear? Oh—yes, Bill Collins. He’s a nice young man. Very polite. Doing very well for himself.” She smiled.

“And may I ask what occurred for you to reconsider your stance on him? If I remember last December you were not quite as—”

She made a little noise in her throat and waved one hand to push away his arguments. “Yes, yes, I know what I said. But that was when he was planning on continuing to own the golf course exclusively.”

“And he doesn’t anymore?”

“Well, I told him I really wasn’t interested in all the specifics. You’ll have to ask him about it. But he mentioned something about… mending bridges.”

“Ah,” he said softly, not quite to his wife. Liz was justified in complaining about the man, but at least Mrs. Bennet had put him in the position of not explaining the business details. 

~~~~

Please tell me Bill isn’t coming over for dinner tonight too,” Cat said first thing as she came down for breakfast.

“He is,” Mrs. Bennet replied, a slightly smug smile pulling at her lips.

Cat groaned and fell into the chair next to Liz. “How can you stand it? I don’t care how angelic he tries to make his Lady Catherine out to be, I bet she’s just an old hag!”

“Catherine! Don’t be rude; you’ve never met the woman,” she scolded.

Cat grumbled into her bowl of cereal as Lydia pulsed her breakfast smoothie on the other side of the kitchen.

Mr. Bennet turned a page of his paper. “Well, if he and I don’t come at least to a tentative agreement tonight, then it may be the last time he comes over for dinner, so you can take some solace in that.”

Mrs. Bennet huffed loudly. “I wouldn’t! I hope you come to a very good agreement. Really, it’s not fair that your father and his grandfather should take out their animosity on you and our girls! The money is as rightfully theirs as—”

Liz had heard enough. “Lydia,” she said loudly over the pulsing of the blender, “do you still want help hanging that shelf?”

“Ooh, yes, thank you, Lizzie!” she answered, looking away from the machine. As she did, a burst of thick, greenish liquid jumped from the top, spitting against the wall. She jumped. “Oops…”

Shaking her head, Liz left the kitchen as Mrs. Bennet threw a rag at her youngest daughter, ordering her to clean up immediately. She stepped out the backdoor and headed for the shed next to the garden, where they kept most of the tools necessary for building and leveling. It was a squat, brick building that was always musty inside, boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter, with a rack of garden supplies, a cabinet of tools, and a hefty wooden workbench with a disorganized pegboard at the back of it. The windows were thick with spiderwebs and the floor was always slightly dirty.

Liz liked to think of herself as moderately skilled in the area of home improvements, and she was certainly more confident in it than any of her other sisters, except possibly Mary. But while Mary was far more interested in the intricate and theoretical details, Liz liked to follow their father around the house and The Longbourn, holding his hammer and nails for him whenever he chose to tackle a project himself.

Putting up a shelf was easily in her comfort level. She fished through the cans of nails and screws on top of the workbench, putting a few gingerly in her pocket, pointed ends facing away from her skin, and pulling out a handful of brackets of slightly different sizes. Then she found the tape measure and shoved it into her other pocket, though it pressed uncomfortably against her hip. She pulled out the big, orange plastic level and reached out for the heavy, electric drill. With her arms filled, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to take one of the ladders inside as well. Shrugging, she left it, turning to go back into the house.

She had to kick against the backdoor, knocking with one foot, until someone let her in. Her hands were too full to open the handle on her own. Lydia bounced on her toes, slurping green liquid from her glass, as Cat took the level out of Liz’s hands. “Call me if you need anything,” Mr. Bennet told her, looking over the top of his newspaper again.

“Thanks, Dad. But I think I’ve got it!” She hefted the drill over one arm and used her newly freed hand to pull the tape measure out of her pocket. Then, she followed Lydia upstairs, Cat walking behind her. Their shared bedroom was a shock of pastels, with every possible texture and color of fabric strewn across the ground and furniture, vaguely smooshed into lumps to identify which piles belonged to whom.

Liz kicked some of it out of her way as she stepped over to the wood of the shelf. “Tell me where you want it.”

As Lydia pointed, Cat walked to the far side of the room and took a seat by the window. Their bedroom faced the front of the house and there was a big window seat with a cushion upholstered in pale blue fabric with unicorns across the top, remnants from Cat’s 6th birthday request. She crossed her legs and watched back and forth between the window and Liz’s little construction project.

First, Liz measured the length of the shelf, and then she climbed up on Lydia’s desk chair to measure the wall where she wanted the shelf. She balanced on the chair, holding her hand out for the level before marking up the wall. She rested one knee against the side of the desk to keep herself steady as she drew X’s where she intended to drill.

She handed the level back to Lydia and fitted screws onto the drill bit and was just about to start when Cat called out, “Lizzie!” so loudly that Liz jumped and almost fell off the chair.

“What?” she complained in response as she righted herself, gripping the back of the chair with one hand.

“Charlotte’s back! She’s just at the door now.”

“Well, give her a second. She’s going to ring the doorbell…”  

“I bet she’ll listen to us about Bill if dad won’t!”

“Oh, Lizzie, ask her if we can go to dinner at her house!” Lydia said. “I don’t know if I can stand another night of this.”

The chime rang through the house and Cat jumped up from her seat, Lydia following her out the door. They raced down the stairs before Liz and yanked open the front door before falling on her, squealing with giggles. “Charlotte, you have to help us!”

“We’re being held hostage in our own home!”

They clawed at her jacket, mostly playfully, but there was a certain amount of urgency behind the yanking. She looked up to see Liz standing close to the bottom of the staircase. “Hi, Charlotte. Welcome back.”

“’Hostage in your own home?’” she asked.

Liz grimaced and replied, “Do remember Bill Collins?”

“Yes… vaguely.”

“He’s back in town to handle some business with the golf course and Mom’s had him over, like, every night this week. He’s got about four topics of conversation that he likes to rotate through and he just keeps going on for hours.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” Liz responded earnestly. Cat and Lydia let out dramatic groans. “When he’s not talking about himself or his perfect job, he’s telling everyone else how they can better themselves. He gives out life advice that’s completely opposite to everyone’s interests.”

“And then he goes back to talking about Lady Catherine,” Cat added with a grumble. She seemed to take their shared name as a personal offense.

Liz began to delve into his usual discussions, a hard bite in her voice, with her sisters helping her along.

“I’m sure he’s really not that bad, Lizzie,” Charlotte said after several minutes of Liz’s diatribe.

Fine, you come have dinner with us tonight. Then you’ll see how bad he is!” They both ignored the frantic gesturing from the younger girls.

Charlotte only shook her head and followed her friend downstairs in slight bemusement as Liz asked for, and was granted permission, to invite Charlotte to dinner.

~~~~

He arrived, uncomfortably early as ever, at 4:45 PM sharp. “Why does he keep acting like we eat dinner at five,” Cat hissed, kneeling on the window seat again. From her vantage point, all she could see was the top of his limp hair and the shoulders of his checkered shirt. He was holding something in his arms that was difficult to tell from above. Then she prodded Liz in the side. “Besides, you were supposed to get us dinner at Charlotte’s house, not have her over!”

Liz glanced over at Charlotte, who was sitting on Lydia’s bed, looking through Lydia’s high school yearbook. “Well, she didn’t believe me.”

“I’m sure he can’t be any worse than any of my dad’s business associates. I mean, you want a snooze fest, I’ll get you one.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’d fit right in.”

Perhaps it was Charlotte’s longtime practice as her father’s pseudo-secretary, or her more easy-going personality, but she was not having the reaction to the thought of Bill that the Bennet sisters hoped her to. Despite their insistence, she continued to assure them all afternoon that he was, in fact, not the worst or most boring person in the world, just a little bumbling, but well meaning.

“Girls,” Mrs. Bennet called up the stairs. “Bill is here! Why don’t you come down to the living room to wait for dinner?” It was said pleasantly enough, but was also unmistakably a command.

Cat remained sitting on the cushion at the window for several moments longer while the others stood and stretched. “Come on, Cat. The sooner we go down, the sooner it’ll be over.”

Cat narrowed her eyes. “You know that’s not true. Last time you said that, Mom pulled out the family album!”

Liz winced and nodded her agreement. “Touché.” She waited until Cat and Lydia were out in the hallway before closing the door behind them all.

“Good evening, Catherine!” Bill said from the hallway as the sisters walked down the stairs.

Cat glared at him and jumped down the last two steps onto the floor. “What’s so good about it?”

He floundered slightly, his expression falling. Liz took pity on him after a second and cleared her throat to get his attention. “Bill, I don’t know if you remember my friend, Charlotte Lucas? She’s going to be joining us tonight.”

He turned his awkward smile on her. “Hello, Miss Lucas. I’m glad to meet you and I’m happy you’re joining us for dinner!”

“Um, thank you. You can just call me Charlotte.”

Cat and Lydia giggled, but Bill resolutely ignored them, still smiling at Charlotte. Liz turned away from him and asked her mother, “Where’s Dad?”

“I think your father is still up at the inn… Hmm… Well, dinner won’t be ready for a while. Girls, why don’t you all take a seat in the living room and entertain our guests?”

Looking mutinous, Lydia stomped into the other room. Bill made a twitching little movement and Liz realized, as he held out his arm, that he was motioning for her and Charlotte to walk through the arch first. Liz did her best to restrain her eyerolling and plucked at Charlotte’s sleeve.

Lydia had already snatched up the magazine she left on the coffee table the evening before and was pointedly and noisily flipping through it. A widely grinning and conventionally attractive actor graced the front cover; Liz thought he bore at least a passing resemblance to George. Cat sat on the ottoman, her eyes glancing every few seconds towards the stack of DVDs that she had been attempting to reorganize the night before.

Charlotte, the only one in the room who had not heard everything Bill had to say at least four times over, took it on herself to entertain him. “What did you get your degree in, Bill?”

He beamed at her. “I doubled in business and theology at Dartmouth. I was told that those two degrees were incompatible, but I showed them wrong!”

Charlotte nodded politely as he launched into his tirade of ethics in commerce and the money behind purchasing second or vacation homes. Liz watched her blink several times, trying to keep her eyes from glazing over. Leaving Charlotte to it, she walked over to the couch and half sat, half fell onto one of the cushions.

Eventually, Bill came up for air. “And what about you, Charlotte? I know Liz isn’t in school,” he said with a pointed glance in her direction. Liz glowered back. “But I’m sure you finished your degree?”

“Yes,” Charlotte answered slowly, sinking down into the seat next to Liz. “I studied administration and property management at the community college.”  

“You know,” he said, taking a seat on the couch on Charlotte’s other side, “Lady Catherine has been searching for a property manager. The current man is not nearly up to Her Ladyship’s standards…”

Liz narrowed her eyes, glancing at him across Charlotte. “But I’m sure Charlotte wouldn’t want to move all the way to Pennsylvania and leave everyone behind,” Liz answered pointedly and a little overloud.

Charlotte made a little noise in her throat, neither ascent or descent, not looking at either one of them. She folded her hands in her lap. Bill let out another of his chesty laughs. “Oh, but I haven’t even asked for her resume or references yet!”

Liz’s lip curled and she inched back from him. Before she could say anything to get herself in trouble, though, Mr. Bennet returned from The Longbourn. He kissed his wife on the cheek, commented on how good the dinner smelled, and then disappeared upstairs until it was time to eat, hoping to regain some stamina before he attempted any conversation with Bill Collins if the man was, indeed, as blusterous as he remembered.

~~~~

Mr. Bennet sat at the head of the table. He looked down the length of the table; it was as full as a usual summer night at dinner, but instead of Mary and Jane, their seats were filled by Bill and Charlotte. His daughter’s faces were glum, his wife’s almost smug, and the faces of the guests were expectant.

He took a moment to inspect Bill Collins. There was something about him that appeared very squashed. His nose was small and round, his face quite short, with large cheeks. His shoulders were very broad compared to the rest of his frame, although they slumped down where they met his arms. His skinny red tie seemed even smaller when compared to the width of his torso.

Mr. Bennet thought it might be best to get a measure of the man before they started on any business dealings. Therefore, although he knew his daughters would object, he chose to start on a topic where he knew Bill would shine. “Mrs. Bennet told me you’ve found a very comfortable position just recently.”

His eyes lit up; Liz, Cat, and Lydia all groaned. They had heard the speak about ten times in the last three days. “Why, yes, I have, sir! I live in Pennsylvania now, in this little town called Hunsford. I’m the housing and programming coordinator for this absolutely beautiful condominium complex called Rosings Park. The owner is the most amazing woman. Her name is Lady Catherine de Bourgh—the sister of an earl—and she chose to live in America after university. Wonderful person, really. She built the whole complex from the ground up. She even helped design it, if you can believe. It is fantastic, the best place I have ever lived!”

He stopped, took a deep breath, and, before anyone could stop him, immediately launched into the minute details of the place, from the occupancy and number of condos to the acreage of the land the buildings sat on.

And, can you imagine, not only did my position come with an absolutely beautiful condo at such a reasonable price, I am actually living directly below Her Ladyship’s apartments!” His eagerness to share the fact seemed to overcome him and his voiced turned into a squeaky chirp.

Cat tried to cover her laughter by eating a mouthful of food. But she tried to swallow too fast and Liz had to thump her on the back to stop her from choking on her baked potato. “Thanks,” she muttered, grabbing her water glass.

As it seemed Bill would never run out of words to speak, Mr. Bennet took a moment to stare at his plate, slowly cutting his chicken. He weighed his options—listen to Liz complain about being excluded from what was, essentially, her right to hear about the family business or his wife argue against speaking about money at the dinner table. When there was a momentary lull in Bill raptures, Mr. Bennet said quickly, “So, Bill, have you decided what you want to do with the golf course?”

“To be honest, unless I have a reason to stay in town, I intend to sell the property.”

“And who do you intend to sell it to?”

“Well…” he said slowly, dragging out the word. His eyes did a little dance, hopping first to Liz’s face, then to Mrs. Bennet’s. “I hadn’t entirely decided that yet. It depends on a few things, I think. You know, interest of purchase, of course, and who can offer the right price. I am in the middle of an internal audit, trying to figure out its worth. My poor, late father, may he rest in peace, was never the most financially minded of men and I fear he let the accounts flounder somewhat.

“Of course, I would never let anything like that happen on my watch. It was not his fault, especially towards the end, but I hope to rectify everything he caused with inaction and—”

“Do you have any buyers?” Mr. Bennet asked abruptly, cutting him off.

Instead of answering immediately, Bill let his eyes fall to his plate, and then, his head still bent towards the table, he craned his neck slightly so his shoulders were squeezed in towards his head and he looked at Mrs. Bennet. Just a quick glance but it made Mr. Bennet narrow his eyes. His wife might know more about the business than she implied…

“No, not yet.”

“Well, let me know the ballpark of asking prices. If you do end up selling it, perhaps we can work something out. Now, does anyone else want dessert?”

~~~~

“Lizzie! Lizzie, hold on a second before you head out—” Mrs. Bennet called to Liz, several mornings later. “I have some chores I need you to do today.”

Liz stopped, pulling one earbud out of her ear and let it hang against her shoulder. She already had one sneaker halfway onto her foot. “Okay, Mom. But can I do it when I get back? It’s supposed to rain later and I don’t want to run in the rain…”

“I know, honey, but I’d really like you to get these done soon.” She smiled blandly as she held out a list to her daughter.

Liz sighed and took the paper. She flicked her eyes over the page. “Mom… none of these are—”

“I’d really like you to stay in and do these.”

“Fine.” Liz kicked the running shoe off her foot. At first, she let it fall but then, before she let herself turn away, she picked it up and placed it next to its mate.

For the next two hours, Liz brought up two boxes of dishes from the basement, rearranged the pegboard in the back shed, and kicked all the stray pebbles out of the grass and back onto the walking path from the back of the Bennet house out towards the lake. All of it was rather grim busy-work and she watched the ever-darkening sky with resignation. When she returned to the house, she filled a cup of water and watched Mrs. Bennet silently. While she drank it, she considered her options.

She accepted fairly quickly that, if she attempted to head out for a run again, she would be stopped—and also likely get rained on if she did make it out the door. Instead, she fetched a book from her room and fell into the couch, wriggling her back against one of the pillows to make a comfortable dent for her to rest against. If she had to resign herself to whatever event her mother was waiting for, at least she could do it in comfort. 

Mrs. Bennet kept looking out the window, peeking around the curtains and then looking back at her daughter, clucking her tongue. When the doorbell rang, she jumped to her feet and moved to greet the person she had been waiting for.

Liz leaned back, dipping her head backward over the arm of the couch, to see who her mother was greeting. She caught a quick, upside-down view of Bill Collins and immediately righted herself again, burying herself back in the pages of her novel. She purposefully did her best to block out the soft buzz of voices.

Sometimes it is a detriment to know one’s house too well. Although she refused to listen to what they were speaking about, she could tell where they were by the squeaks and groans of the floorboards under their feet. She could hear her mother walk from the front door around the back of the room, while Bill came up close to the couch.

He cleared his throat but, when she didn’t move, began to speak. “Liz, would you take a walk with me? Just out to the garden?”

She blinked slowly as she looked up from her book. “Well, I—”

“Yes, Lizzie, why don’t you go out with Bill and show him around the gardens? I’m sure he’ll enjoy seeing them.” Mrs. Bennet was smiling widely at her, her eyes large and insistent, almost bug-like. “Especially since you didn’t get to take your run this morning…”

Liz looked between the pair of them and then, sighing inwardly, slipped the bookmark between the pages and closed the covers. She didn’t like whatever they were up to. Without looking to make sure he was following, she went over to the door and slipped on her shoes, leaving the door open behind herself. She waited until she heard his footsteps behind her to pick up her pace, quickstepping around the back of the house.

She followed a little pebble-covered lane towards her father’s garden, which was housed in a large area fenced in by a stone wall that came up, at least on most people, about hip height. It was a little taller on Liz; she had to jump a little to sit on it and wriggle herself into a comfortable position.

She stopped at the open gate, holding out her hands to show it off. “Well, here it is. A vegetable patch. Full of plants.” She looked at him; he was very studiously staring at a clump of green beans near the front right corner of the garden. “Most of the summer stuff is done now, but the fall growths will probably be ready to be picked soon. Probably before the middle of October.”

He nodded, but he clearly had as little interest in the vegetable patch at that moment as she did. Liz sighed and looked up. The sky was a flat, pale gray, with little distinction between the clouds. When she dipped her head down again to look at him, there was a light sheen of sweat on his forehead, even though the weather had finally cooled down.

She crossed her arms and leaned back against the little wall around the garden, watching him, wary and expectant. He had never been lost for words before and the idea of Bill Collins being silent was almost frightening. He stared at her for a second and then licked his lips and let out a little cough as he gathered his thoughts. Some idea made him smile, just a little one, and he straightened his shoulders. He preened slightly before launching into his speech with no expectation of rejection. “Liz, I need to tell you how violently in love with you I am!”

If that had been the first time he said it, she would have laughed out loud. It was hard to imagine Bill doing anything violently, least of all being in love. “Bill…”

“No, no, let me go on. It is true I have had a… crush on you for some time—possibly ever since I left Meryton when we were young. I knew coming back, I would likely see you, although I had no idea you were back at home and not at university! But I knew that I could only do justice to the memory of our ancestors if I made amends.

“I have been… very taken with you as strongly now that we are seeing each other again as I was before. And of course, before I left, Lady Catherine saw me working so hard for her and she deemed to tell me, to give me some advice, that I might be happier if I found a nice girl to settle down with! She is the most thoughtful and considerate person I have ever had the pleasure of working for!” A dreamy little smile passed over his face for a second. Then he cleared his throat, bringing himself back to the point. “But that is the mindset I was in when I first returned to Meryton.

“’And what,’ I thought to myself, after only a few days here, ‘would be better than a Bennet and a Collins marrying?’ Not only would we redeem our great-grandfathers, it would be an important move to reunite the properties into a single business again. They would both be far more profitable, certainly. If my business degree from Dartmouth has taught me anything, joint branding is really the way to go with these kinds of endeavors. They can support each other much better when—”

Liz felt like he had rolled over her with a steamroller, the torrent of words pushing her down. She finally found the words to interrupt him and his misjudgment by crying, “You can’t be in love with me because you know nothing about me!”

His cheeks when pink. “I forgive you, but I think you severely misrepresent my feelings! Personal knowledge isn’t the end all of love.”

“And you,” she spluttered, “have made several incorrect assumptions! Firstly, that I’ve been waiting to date you. Second, that any relationship we have would lead to marriage. And third that I would put my own happiness on the line for some stupid golf course!”

He had clearly never imagined the reaction he was receiving to his proposal. He stood in the vegetable patch, his shoes half sinking into the moist, not-quite-muddy dirt, his mouth open just a little. He remained in that position for several seconds before something clicked into place in his mind and he smiled. “Ah. Yes, you want me to prove that my interest in you isn’t purely based on the business part. Of course. Don’t worry, Liz, my feelings for you are very deep and I have the utmost respect for you. I know some girls like to play ‘hard to get,’ and refuse the first and even second date. And, of course, don’t worry about your degree. I know I may have been unkind about it over these last few weeks, but I promise I won’t hold your unfinished studies against you.”

Liz groaned, raising her hands to her head. “I swear, Bill, I’m not playing hard to get. I am legitimately not interested in dating you, with or without the golf course.” What made it worse was her mother knowingly sending her into this confrontation. “Nothing you said was about me! Everything was about what someone else—mostly dead people—would have wanted from us!”

Bill blinked a couple of times, trying desperately to understand her rejection as just a postponing of acceptance. “Give me a reason to stay in Meryton,” he said finally, in a slightly cracking voice. The words sounded hollow, as if he had learned them from a romance film and was trying to emulate the emotion. “Give me a reason to stay and run my family business.”

Liz pulled her hand out of his. “No. That only works when the woman is in love with you back. Besides, you know you’ll just want to go back to Pennsylvania regardless of what I say to you.” She couldn’t imagine his love for any woman running deep enough to part him from his beloved Lady Catherine.

He switched tactics. “What reason do you have of turning me down?” he demanded.

She shook her head. “Do I have to have a reason?”

Bill’s expression darkened and he licked his lips. “Is it… because of another man?” he asked.

Liz opened her mouth, paused, and closed it again. Was it because of George? Well, she had been hurt by his brushing her off, certainly, but not necessarily more so than if any friend were to treat her like that. How did she feel about that man? After she had briefly inspected her feelings, she answered coolly, “No. There’s no one else.”

“Then I don’t understand. Why won’t you give me a chance? Surely you know how good the reconciliation will be for your family!”

Liz set her jaw. “Bill. Your business dealings and my love life have nothing to do with each other. You can make any financial decision you wish without involving me or my affections. There’s no other man, but I don’t love you.”

He stared at her, breathing quite hard, his chest jumping up and down slightly as if he had just gone through a great burst of exertion. “I’m sure that when I bring it up again, you’ll be more interested—” he began tightly.

She let out a cry of frustration. “No! No means no means no. This isn’t some game I’m playing. I hope you would understand that I respect you enough not to play with your heart and that you might respect me enough to take what I’m saying at face value!” Without waiting for him to reply, she pivoted and marched back towards the house.

She found her mother waiting expectantly at the door. Mrs. Bennet took in Liz’s stormy face and the lack of Bill returning behind her with several blinks. Before she could speak, Liz rounded on her. “You knew what he was going to say!”

“The poor boy deserved a chance to ask you out, Lizzie.”

“Deserved a… He could have asked me anytime he wanted! You didn’t have to throw me at him. And my answer was always going to be no.”

“Oh, Lizzie, just give him a couple dates. He’ll be much more likely to bring the golf club profit back—”

“No,” she said flatly, kicking off her shoes. “Don’t be stupid.”

Elizabeth,” Mrs. Bennet barked, putting her hands on her hips. “Don’t call your mother names. You’re the one who’s being stupid, if anyone is. If you would just understand—”

“Oh, I’m being stupid? Well, you’re not the one being asked to go out on a date for… for monetary purposes! That’s basically prostitution!”

Mrs. Bennet gasped. Her pale skin had gone quite red all over, splotchy on her cheeks and neck. “Elizabeth Mae Bennet! How… How dare you speak to me like that! You’re—” She spluttered, looking for the right words. “You’re grounded until you see some sense!”

Liz’s face had started to take on a similar hue to her mother’s, her own cheeks turning pink with the emotion. “You can’t ground me! I’m 20-years-old!” Some of the hair of her ponytail had come loose in her animation and several strands lay around the sides of her face.

“And you don’t have to live in my house!”

If anything could have roused Mr. Bennet from his books, the shouting match in the front hallway was a sure thing. He sighed and closed his book when he felt the muffled yelling coming from downstairs had gone on long enough. He placed it back on his nightstand and hoisted himself out of the armchair. Out in the hallway, he saw Lydia and Cat huddled at the top of the staircase, peaking through the slats of the bannister to look down. He did his best to quietly shoo them out of the way, well aware that they would return to their lurking the moment his back was turned.

As he walked slowly down the staircase, he was greeted by the sight of his wife and second eldest daughter standing several feet apart in the hallway. “And you didn’t give him a chance!” his wife argued.

Liz let out a sound that seemed halfway between a laugh and a sob. “A chance? Mother, I don’t—”

“May I ask,” Mr. Bennet said in his mildest tones, “what is going on here?”

They both turned to look at him. Liz fumed silently as Mrs. Bennet began, “Tom! Bill has asked Lizzie out and she refused him.” When neither husband nor daughter commented on her perception of the situation, she let out a great huff of breath and marched towards the door. “I’m going to check on Bill.”

“Yeah, you do that, Mom,” Liz muttered angrily, but too quietly for Mrs. Bennet to hear her. After the door slammed, she crossed her arms tightly over her chest and tried half-heartedly to resist her father’s gentle hands guiding her into the dining room for a bit of privacy. She stared at him in stormy silence, not offering further comment.

What, in Heaven’s name, is going on, Liz?” Mr. Bennet asked as soon as he had checked that Lydia and Cat were not hovering around.

“Bill asked me out. He said he wanted to share the business with us if I dated him. I said no. Mom freaked out.” She rested her waist against the side of the table, clenching her fists when they crossed behind her elbows. “I really don’t think I’m being unreasonable. Actually, I don’t care if she thinks I’m being unreasonable.” Liz tossed her head.

Mr. Bennet rubbed one hand under his glasses and across the bridge of his nose. “No, you have every right to refuse him.”

Liz scoffed. “Right? Dad, I don’t think I need you to tell me—”

She was interrupted by a slam of the front door; it hit the frame so hard some of the windows in the front hall rattled. They heard Mrs. Bennet before they could see her, her feet stomping across the wooden floor. Her usually neat bob of blonde curls was springing loose curls at the edges, giving it an overall windswept and harried appearance—matching her expression perfectly well. “I just met Bill as he was leaving. He told me he was very surprised at what you said to him, Elizabeth.”

Liz returned her mother’s glare with a hard expression, her mouth pulled tight and her eyebrows high, nonplussed by the words.

“He said he is going away and he won’t ask you again.”

“Good.”

“Elizabeth, stop being ridiculous!” She took a step towards her daughter, but Mr. Bennet scowled and stepped in. “No, it’s clear who’s being the ridiculous one here. You cannot make Lizzie date anyone she’s not interested in, and frankly, as far as I can remember, in 21st century America, it is strongly frowned upon to connect one’s business affairs with their personal romantic relationships.”

Mrs. Bennet’s eyes flashed as she looked back and forth from one face to the other. “Fine. Fine! I’m only trying to help you. But if we go bankrupt without access to the golf course, then I—”

Mr. Bennet took his wife by the shoulders. “My dear. We have gone on perfectly well for many years without the golf course. We will keep on going without it.” He took one hand off her and made a quick gesture behind his back, towards Elizabeth. While he turned Mrs. Bennet away, Liz took her chance to slip out of the room.

~~~~

Bill did not show his face again in the Bennet household for after his failed attempt to ask Liz out, but that didn’t stop Mrs. Bennet from huffing, scowling, and generally harassing her daughter. Liz returned the favor by refusing to hear her criticisms and spending more time outside than usual, despite both the string of rainy days and Charlotte’s sudden lack of availability for their morning runs.

When Mr. Bennet, very gently, attempted to break the news that Bill was selling the golf course to a third party as he “didn’t feel it necessary to keep himself tied to Meryton any longer,” Mrs. Bennet burst into a bought of hysterical accusations that Liz only escaped by fleeing into The Longbourn’s library for several hours.

Her father finally came to fetch her. It was raining again; she could hear it against the windows and tell from the water he shook out of his hair and scrubbed from the lenses of his glasses. “Liz?” he asked, inching the door open. She had only turned on one of the side table lamps, leaving the rest of the room in darkness.

“Yeah.” She coughed slightly to clear the sudden thickness in her throat. “Yeah,” she said again. Her knees were drawn up to her chest, her sock-clad feet resting on the edge of the chair cushion.

“Can I sit down with you?”

She shrugged, raising her shoulders up to her ears before lowering them slowly.

“Thank you,” he said, and did. He met his daughter’s gaze. She had been crying at some point, her eyes slightly pink and tender behind the lenses of her glasses. She curled up more tightly, resting her arms on the side of the chair and her cheek against the back of one hand.

“We should talk about your mother. I know that she—”

“Is being absolutely insane?” Liz snapped back, the expression in her eyes quickly turning from the soft, post-crying languor to a hard retort.

Mr. Bennet shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Lizzie, I’m not excusing her”—he quickly held up one hand to silence Liz’s complaint—“but I am trying to give you some context.”

She crossed her arms, huddling deeper into her chair.

“You know she and Aunt Bea never like to talk about their childhood. Your mother never had much of a support network, so it’s hard for her to imagine the one that you have. Her worst-case scenario is bankruptcy or leaving you girls destitute.” When Liz tried to interrupted again, he raised his eyebrows and stared at her until she closed her mouth again, slumping back into her seat with crossed arms. “Now, you and I both know that likelihood is slim to impossible, but she’s stuck on the worst-case. And if she can see any way of saving you from that, then she’s going to try. Even if it means foisting you off on perfectly senseless young man who happens to be selling a golf course that my father barely had a hand in running.”

Liz bit her tongue and considered her words very carefully. To say something is “unfair,” even when the label is true, can, at times, come across as whining or complaining if the tone is used wrong. While her mother’s treatment of her was unfair, she was still living freely under her parents’ roof—even if it was mostly because she sacrificed a year for Mary. Finally, she said, “I see.”

Mr. Bennet pressed his lips together, forming a glum line. As if reading her mind, he offered, “I know it’s not fair, Lizzie. But it will blow over soon enough. Just wait for… for Mary to publish some research or Jane to call us from DC and tell us she has a boyfriend.”

Liz let out a little laugh at the unlikelihood of that. “If it’s not Chip, then I doubt it will be anyone for a while.”

Mr. Bennet stood, and then held out his hand to help her up as well. “Well, we could always remind her about the sudden departure of Chip and friends.”

“Then she will leave me alone.”

~~~~

Despite the boost the talk with her father offered, Mrs. Bennet was still indignant about the Bill incident. After he left town with merely a text of gratitude for their hospitality and several dinners, she took out her frustration by snapping at Liz several more times, which quickly turned the tentative equilibrium back into a battle.

Liz was fuming in her room after another spat with Mrs. Bennet when there was a knock on the door. When she didn’t answer, it slowly inched open until Cat could stick her head through the gap. “Lizzie, Charlotte’s here to see you.”

She looked at Cat for several seconds and then slid off the side of her bed. “Mom say anything new?”

“No…” She gently chewed her thumbnail for a second and then added, “I’m sorry Mom has been so… weird… about it.”

Liz sighed and shook her head as she walked towards the stairs. “Yeah. It’s not your fault.” She tried to shake herself out of her funk as she trotted down the stairs, wriggling her shoulders, hoping to loosen some of the knots. She ran one hand through her hair and did her best to smile at Charlotte as she reached the bottom of the steps. “Hey! It’s too bad we haven’t gone out running in a few days.”

“Yeah…” She stood in the doorway, her weight drifting to one leg. She had her hands twisted together in front of her stomach and she looked away from Liz before saying, “Do you want to step outside? It’s just stopped raining finally.”

“Okay.” Liz pawed through the mess of shoes by the door to find her sneakers and followed her friend out, off the patio and down into the front yard.

Yard was perhaps a loose term for the area in front of the Bennet house. There was a large, detached garage, and a wide area of pavement that met gravel driveway. Jane and Mrs. Bennet had spent several summers attempting to liven up the area with bushes and pretty flowers, but no matter how hard they tried, it always looked a bit bedraggled before the start of October. Most of the flowers were dead or eaten by wildlife and all the bushes were dropping as their leaves didn’t so much change color as shrivel up and drift from the branches.

Charlotte’s car was parked slightly crookedly on the paving in front of the garage. She kept looking at it as they walked, somewhat aimlessly, away from the house. Liz tucked on hand in her pocket, slowly swinging the other one, more determined to not address Charlotte’s mood rather than oblivious to it.

Liz began to tell her, animatedly, with much gesticulating and exclamation marks about the latest abuses her mother had thrown at him. Other than a debrief the day after the disaster of Bill’s offer, they had not spoken at all outside of a long series of severely truncated texts.

Charlotte stopped walking, finally, at the very edge of the gravel path, just in front of a clump of bushes that were still resiliently attempting to hold onto their leaves. She took a deep breath, seemingly steeling herself, and turned to face Liz. When her friend reached a natural breaking point in her speak, she said, somewhat softly, “I have some news for you.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I have a new job.”

Liz smiled. “That’s great! Where are you working?”

“Rosings Park.”

The smile on Liz’s face froze in place. “I’m sorry?”

“Bill Collins offered me the job again. I gave him my resume, he made a couple of calls, and they gave me an offer.”

Liz laughed; there was a slight buzzing in her ears and the back of her neck felt suddenly extremely warm. “Oh, very funny joke, Charlotte. Truly hilarious.”

Charlotte frowned. “Liz, I’m not joking.”

“You are.”

“I’m not.” She crossed her arms over her chest, one hand gripping the opposite elbow.

“You’re… serious. You’re going to take the job.”

Yes. You know how long I’ve been trying to get into career! This is an amazing opportunity.”

Liz raised one hand to her face, shoving against her forehead, struggling to find the words. Finally, she settled on, “He’s gross!”

“Didn’t you say it’s about business, not personal life? This is about business. And I won’t be working directly for him, I’m working for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. We’ll just happen to be in the same city.” She stopped, frowning. “I thought you might be happy for me, Liz. This is the kind of job I’ve been looking for—it’s not like I could take a year off to figure out my life!”

“And I thought you had standards! But maybe we were both wrong.”

Charlotte grew extremely still, staring at Liz. Liz could hear her pulse rushing in her ears. “Yeah,” she said finally. “Maybe we were.” She nodded a couple of times, moving her head very gently, and then turned on her heel, walking towards her car.

Liz stayed where she was for another half minute before turning and running away from the garage. She didn’t realize she was crying until she was several steps into the house. She found herself stumbling to a stop in the middle of the kitchen, her shoulders shaking as the sobs came.

Chapter Text

If there was anything to truly regret, it was that she didn’t see Charlotte off. Neither one texted the other for a week complete before she left town and by the time Liz realized what day Charlotte would be moving out, it was too late.

She spent the rest of October moping around the house, struggling to finish books or watch a movie through to completion. Even George’s appearance the day before his weekend on base failed to raise her spirits. They met in the lounge of The Longbourn. After sitting with him for several minutes in near silence, he playfully poked and prodded her cheeks, trying to force a smile out of her.

She shoved his fingers away. “George, don’t.”

He raised his hands in innocence. “Sorry. Didn’t know you’d take it that way.”

Liz sighed, letting her shoulders slump. “No, I didn’t mean to snap at you. I’ve just had a very rough month.”

Apparently.”

“Someone else asked me out. Except he did it like he expected me to be grateful to him.”

“And you turned him down?”

“Duh?”

He graced her with a new smile. “Did you say no because of me?”

Liz rolled her eyes. “No, I said it because I don’t owe him a relationship.”

“Aww, don’t be like that, you can play along.” He reached out for her, trying to put one hand around her shoulder.

She held up her arm again, intercepting him and pushing his grasp away. “Please don’t touch me right now.”

“Right. Right, of course.” He continued to smile and chat, but the mood began to cool significantly. After another half hour of talk, he stood up to leave. “I’ll be on base all weekend and I think I have to head home right afterwards. Not sure if I can stay and, you know, spend time or anything.”

Liz nodded. “Okay. Just let me know when you know anything!”

Although his goodbye was as warm as ever, it was particularly short, and she sighed as she watched him leave. Men.

~~~~

The silence of the house made everything she was feeling worse. Or, the diminished noise, at least. The quiet magnified her unhappiness. Neither Cat nor Lydia could ever be considered silent, but without two more bodies, there was a certain damper on the activity.

Although Lydia was free to do as she liked, Cat shut herself up in her room several nights a week to work on papers and editing her films. As optimistic as Liz tried her best to be, it was difficult with her support network scattered to the winds. The most visible example was the empty bed in her room; she hadn’t slept alone in a room, with some minor exceptions, for almost 10 years.  

She was spending more and more time video and voice calling her two absent sisters, but for once, Liz found more solace in speaking to Mary than to Jane. The problem with Jane was that she always wanted to talk about everyone else’s problems. When Liz was glum or less sarcastic and animated than usual, she wanted to investigate and solve the issues. Mary was, on the other hand, an excellent distraction, always excited to tell Liz about the latest lecture she attended, experiment she was participating in, or mountain she had looked at.

Liz was also putting more time into helping her mother at The Longbourn. She folded sheets and extra towels, polished silver before it was stored for the winter, and spent one particularly long blur of a day fitting just about every throw pillow in each of the rooms with a new slipcover. She mowed through so many audiobooks while helping to redecorate the rooms, she thought she was in serious danger of running out of things to listen to.

Although she wasn’t necessarily enjoying her time off of school, she was determined to make the best of it. She found herself, in fact, so dedicated to her tasks that she found she was losing track of time. The rest of October passed by in such a haze that she barely even noticed the beginning of the new month.

“Lizzie! Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie!” Lydia cried one Thursday afternoon at the beginning of November, pounding against Liz’s bedroom door.

What?” Liz finally called back. She had a well-timed pillow to throw when Lydia entered, but the younger Bennet was too aware of her tricks, and Lydia ducked in time.

I just saw George Wickham out on a date with Mary King! You know that, girl the year ahead of you who had braces for, like, six years!”

Liz sighed and slumped back into her seat. “So what?”

“’So what?’” Lydia repeated back, aghast. “Weren’t you, like, dating him?”

Liz shrugged, sighed, rubbed one hand over her face. She thought back to their last conversation in October. “Not really. Actually, no. Not at all. He’s free to do as he likes; we’re all adults here. He never asked me out or called anything we did a ‘date.’”

Lydia let out a deep groan. “I guess. Sucks for you, I guess, missing out… But I don’t know why anyone would go out with her. I mean, her mouth’s okay now, but her hair is so frizzy and I don’t think she’s ever heard of tweezers.”

Liz clucked her tongue. “Lydia, don’t. I sure she’s very nice.”

Or,” Lydia countered, “her dad just owns the yacht rental on the lake.”

But Liz held up her hand and refused to hear anything more about George or Mary King. She quickly changed the subject. “Do you want to talk to Mary? I was going to call her.”

Lydia sat still for a moment and then said, “Yeah, okay.” There was no sarcasm in the tone, her voice smaller and quieter than her usual tone. Aside from the family calls, she had not spoken directly to Mary in almost two months.

Liz checked the clock on her phone and did some quick calculations, trying to figure out what time it was in Switzerland. When she was sure of the time, and that it was within the given window, she grabbed her laptop from the top of her desk and brought it over to the bed. Lydia wriggled over so they were sitting side by side, their backs against the pillows, and Liz opened up the call app.

It rang for a minute with no answer. Liz frowned, tipping her head to one side. “Huh. I’m not sure where she—oh, here she is.” The app had opened itself again and the call was ringing, this time from Mary’s end.

Liz answered and they were greeted with a slightly lopsided view of Mary’s dorm room. There was a loud thunk and the camera righted itself as Mary sat it upright on her desk. She was still wearing her coat, but she was unwinding her scarf as she eased into camera view. There were a few flakes of snow in her hair, but most of it had melted, making the cloth on her shoulders dark and damp, making her hair hang lank around her face. Her nose was red. A little breathlessly she said, “Hi, Lizzie! Sorry I almost forgot I…” Her voice trailed off as she stepped away from the computer.

“That’s okay,” Liz said, smiling at the camera, though Mary couldn’t see her. “I’ve got Lydia here too.” She nudged Lydia in the side with an elbow.

“Hi, Mary,” she said to the empty screen.

There was a muffled response of, “hello,” from somewhere in the room and then Mary returned, slipping into the desk chair. She smiled a little shyly at her sisters, her lips slightly chapped and raw, maybe even a little swollen looking. With her coat off, she revealed a square-necked gray sweater made of chunky yarn.

Liz wrinkled her nose. “How cold is it there, Mary? You look completely frozen!”

“Oh, I’m okay. It is a bit chilly. It’s about zero, I guess, or maybe a little colder—oh, sorry, I mean 32!” she corrected quickly, grinning at their aghast expressions. “I’ve been thinking in Celsius. I mean, everything is in Celsius and, really, it’s just so much more logical, isn’t it? All the numbers are so much cleaner to work with, it’s so nice…” As she spoke, she began running her fingers through her dark hair, smoothing out the knots that wind and show had created, slowly moving chunks of hair from her left shoulder to spill over her right. When almost all the hair had migrated to her right shoulder, a dark, reddish circular bruise became apparent on the pale skin of her neck.

Lydia gasped loudly, pushing Liz’s hands away so she could grasp the computer, pulling the screen closer to her face. “Mary! Is that a hickey?”

Mary clasped her hand to her neck, her cheeks turning scarlet. “What?”

Oh my God it is!” Lydia crowed so quickly it all came out sounding like a single word. “Mary’s in looove!”

Mary shook her head vehemently. “I have no idea what you mean,” she said, in a squeaky voice.

“You’re a bad liar!” Lydia declared, grinning. “Tell us!”

Instead of answering, Mary stared pointedly away from the computer screen. Lydia, vibrating with expectation, began chanting, “Tell us, tell us,” in a low, almost hypnotic voice. Mary only continued to shake her head.

Rolling her eyes, Liz put her hand on Lydia’s wrist, holding tightly until she stopped. “What’s their name?” Liz asked in a much softer, coaxing tone.

Mary continued to refuse to look at the camera. “His name is Fynn.” Liz could see her smiling a little when she tilted her head.

““Aww, cute. Tell us about him!”

“He’s from Austria. And he’s studying astrophysics. We met at a study group in September. Don’t tell Mom!” she said quickly, in a sharp voice. Then, in a softer, pleading tone, she added, “Please don’t tell her. I couldn’t bear it.”

Lydia had a calculating look on her face, like she was planning some kind of blackmail, but Liz grabbed her hand and said loudly, “Of course, Mary, we wouldn’t dream of telling her until you’re ready. Right, Lydia?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure. But what does he look like?”

Eventually the conversation drifted away from Mary’s new boyfriend. She brought them up-to-date on her internship and her upcoming midterm exams. She also told them about a skiing trip she and Fynn had taken with some friends.

“You ski?” Lydia asked in an incredulous voice. “Since when?”

“I… don’t. I mostly did a lot of falling down. I made it down the mountain at least a couple of times in the end.”

Liz nodded approvingly. She doubted she could have ever gotten Mary to go skiing—or try many other new activities. This Fynn sounded like he was good for her. After about an hour, they signed off. Lydia even promised to join in on another call soon. “And I’ll make sure Cat comes next time.”

Liz closed the lid of her laptop and brought it back to her desk. Still sitting on the bed, Lydia said, “Who knew she just had to go to Europe to find a boyfriend.” She paused, considering. “Maybe we should all go to Europe.”

“Well, we should, but only for education, personal edification, or general enjoyment. I don’t think it’s reasonable to go to Europe looking for a date.”

Lydia only sighed and tossed her hair. She slid off the bed and added, “Don’t be such a downer, Lizzie,” on her way out the door.

~~~~

Despite her happiness for Mary, if Charlotte hadn’t come home at Thanksgiving, Liz wasn’t sure if she would have made it all the way to Christmas without going stir crazy. Lydia was spending more and more time away from home with her friend Harrie Forster while Cat spent far more time on her studies than Liz could have ever expected.

Although Liz had always been outgoing, she did not have a wealth of close friends. Charlotte had always been the pinnacle of those, half a step even above Jane. It was hard for her to tell if the longing she felt for her friend was made worse by the terms they parted on or not. She had resolved well before the holiday that she would seek reconciliation. While Charlotte’s choice still troubled her, to some degree, the idea of continuing the void of conversation was intolerable.

With that in mind, she sent a very tentative text to Charlotte in the morning, the day before the holiday.

Hey, Charlotte. Are you in town? Do you want to come over to… talk?

She wasn’t sure when she expected a reply, but she certainly hadn’t thought it would be nearly instantaneous.

Yes, definitely. When?

Is now fine?

Sure. Be over in 10

Suddenly a little anxious, about the meeting, Liz went to sit in the living room and ignore the book she was trying to read—some mid-19th century classic she was finding intolerably dull, despite its literary merit. She had resorted to flipping pages, skimming the beginnings of paragraphs, when the doorbell rang. She jumped to her feet so quickly that the book fell of the edge of the couch, losing her page.

She ran forward and pulled open the front door. Originally, she had hoped to keep her composure, mostly expecting a calm, rational conversation about why she had been so angry, but also why she was perfectly ready to forgive. Instead, the instant she set her eyes on her friend’s face, she threw her arms around the taller girl’s body. “Oh, Charlotte, I was being so stupid last month! I’m so sorry.”

Charlotte patted Liz on the back and smiled, though Liz couldn’t see it.

“I was just… George was just so… and then I was so mad at Bill that I couldn’t even—”

Charlotte squeezed her arms more tightly around her friend. “Lizzie, it’s okay. Don’t worry, I’m not angry with you.” When she pulled back, they were both beginning to cry around their broad grins. “Besides,” Charlotte added in a softer voice, “Bill’s an absolute idiot anyway. I’m sure you would have gone absolutely nuts and murdered him within two weeks! Believe me, you’re not missing anything.”

“Has it been absolutely terrible? And I thought you didn’t have to work directly with him…”

Charlotte chuckled. “No, I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve worked with worse. And we work together as little as I can arrange it, I assure you. Sometimes he just needs some… encouragement towards the right idea. He gets around to it eventually. He just… likes to be very friendly. Not inappropriately so, but he just wants to be part of every conversation.”

“Well, I could have told you that,” Liz said with a laugh. She meant it in the kindest way possible, working very hard to not sound like she was blaming Charlotte for anything again.

Liz motioned for Charlotte to come in, but as she stepped over the threshold, Charlotte quickly grabbed Liz’s forearm, giving it a little squeeze. Quickly, she said, “Oh, and before I forget! Mariah’s going to come stay with me for a couple weeks in January before the spring semester starts and I was hoping you would come with her. I won’t have to work too much and... And I’ve really missed you.”

Liz smiled, returning the sentiments. “Yeah, I’d love to!”

“Oh, thank God, please take her!” Lydia yelled suddenly from the top of the stairs. “She’s been moping around for months! It’s so annoying!”

Liz looked up the steps to see Lydia watching them. She reached behind herself to grab a scarf off the coat tree, balling it up and throwing it up the stairs; it fell short and wrapped against one spoke of the bannister instead. “I’m not going until January! And stop eavesdropping,” she added.  

Lydia groaned loudly and they heard her bedroom door slam.

I’m being annoying?” Liz asked, turning back to Charlotte. “Someone doesn’t listen to herself talk.”

Charlotte only shook her head and laughed again. “Oh, Liz, I’m so excited. I’m really looking forward to having you come stay. And it’ll be over your birthday, too! We’ll have to do something special. Besides legal drinking,” she clarified. As they walked into the living room, she added, “There’s actually a really cute bar I’m excited to show you…”

~~~~

It was easy to ride the high of their reconciliation all the way until Jane returned home. She came with the Gardiners, arriving at nearly midnight the Friday before Christmas. The greetings were quick—with the children already sleeping, they said hello softly before Mrs. Bennet took them up to The Longbourn, into one of the suites they often reserved for visiting family and friends; there was simply not enough space for more than one or two additional people in the Bennet home.

Liz, seeing how exhausted her sister was, lugged Jane’s suitcase up the stairs, despite protests. She pushed it into their bedroom, excited not to be alone again. When she door had closed behind them, she threw her arms around her sister. “Jane!” Jane let out a laugh of delight and returned the embrace. “I’ve missed you so much.”

She had remained in DC for Thanksgiving, staying with the Gardiners instead of coming home. But Liz had kept her up to date through texts and long video chats. “It sounds like you’ve had a very… interesting few months, Lizzie.”

“Yes. You have no idea. I mean, you do, but, like, you don’t. It’s been absolutely exhausting.” As if on cue, she let out a huge yawn. “Ugh, and Mom wants to change all the wallpaper in The Longbourn. She and Dad had it out over that.”

“Oh dear.” Jane stretched and walked over to her bed, hopping up on the side.

Liz turned to her own bed, sitting on the edge and pulling her knees up to her chin. “But, come on, tell me about your few months. You’ve hardly said anything about it!”

“Well…” Jane had a habit of twisting her hair around her ring finger when she didn’t want to talk about something. She was winding it tightly, staring at her own striped socks instead of her sister’s face. “It’s been… busy.”

“Jane…”

“Very busy.”

“Is it not what you hoped it would be?”

“Oh, no, it’s not that, exactly…”

But Liz could tell it was that—and probably more. She pushed herself off her own bed and stepped across the room to join Jane. She opened her arms and Jane rested her head on Liz’s shoulder; Liz closed her arms around her older sister. “Then what is it, exactly?”

“It’s a lot less… helping people. And a lot more carrying coffee and being argued with. I know politics is arguing, but it just all feels to pointless.”

“It’s no Habitat for Humanity, huh?”

“No,” Jane groaned, closing her eyes. Two summers previous, she had volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and returned to Meryton both invigorated and covered in splinters and bruises. Her eyes still closed, she said, “No. It’s fine. It will just take some more getting used to.” There was a very forceful kind of cheerfulness in her tone, hard but brittle.

Liz was uncertain if she should prod more, lest she crack. Instead, she said, “Jane, it has been almost four months… I’m not sure there’s much more getting used to that can be done.”

“It’s okay, Lizzie, really.” She pushed herself upright and graced Liz with an absolutely inauthentic smile. “I’m okay. Just tired from the drive.”

“All right. We should both get some sleep, then.” But she didn’t believe Jane at all. If it was such a struggle… She refused to let herself think about it further as she climbed into bed. There was nothing she could do that moment, so it was better to save it for morning, when everyone was fresher with some rest.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Bennet had no interest in Jane’s work troubles when they all sat down for breakfast; she only had ears for news of Chip Bingley. “What do you mean you haven’t seen him?” she asked in a somewhat accusatory tone, her eyes narrowing slightly.

“Really, Mom, I haven’t heard from him or seen him. I’m sure he’s really busy. And DC is a big…” She paused, looking at the waffle on her plate. “Well, okay, DC isn’t that big, but it is very full of people. And we work in such different sectors, I’m sure it’s not going to be very likely for us to meet by accident. So, there’s isn’t really any point in talking about it. Okay?” Liz noticed that Jane’s voice rose as she gave her little speech, the pitch tilting upward as she struggled to keep it from breaking.

Mrs. Bennet was clearly far from satisfied, but she let it lie with a little harrumph. No more questions were asked of her as the Gardiners arrived a few minutes later, knocking noisily against the backdoor as they entered through the kitchen. With much squealing and jumping, the little cousins swarmed their elder cousins. Damp kisses and hugs chilly from the outdoors were exchanged before the children mobbed the breakfast dishes, devouring the remaining waffles in two minutes flat.

The mood brightened significantly and it wasn’t long before Emma and Ella were begging Cat and Lydia to join them outside to build snowmen. It took a while, but Mrs. Gardiner managed to catch Liz by the arm and pull her into the dining room for a quick, private word.

“I have some… mixed news for you, Liz.”

“Oh?” Liz stepped back, placing one hand on her hip to look at her aunt.

She was smiling slightly as she leaned forward for a conspiratorial whisper, “Don’t tell your mother yet, we’re hoping to share the news at dinner, but Howie was just offered a new job—a liaison position to the Mexican embassy in DC. He’s very excited about it, but I’m afraid his start date is going to cut into our travel plans to Switzerland…”

Liz did her best not to let her expression drop. She had been really looking forward to seeing Mary and meeting Fynn. “Oh. But I’m glad he got the promotion, at least! That’s really good.”

“We didn’t want to completely stop our travel plans, though. We were thinking about possibly doing a little road trip, maybe hiking around Baltimore? You could come down to spend a few days with Jane before, if you’d like. I’m sure the kids will be more than happy to see you.”

She tried not to sigh. Mrs. Gardiner was right, it wasn’t Switzerland. But she would still spend a few weeks out of Meryton, get to spend time with Jane and her little cousins… The smile Liz turned on her aunt was genuine, though perhaps not the ecstatic expression a trip abroad would have garnered. “Yes, for sure! I would really like that.”

Mrs. Gardiner beamed at her niece. “I knew you would take the news in stride. I am sorry to miss Switzerland, but there will be enough to occupy us. And it will be so nice just to spend some time together.” She squeezed Liz’s hands before stepping away and out of the room.

Chapter Text

The time around Christmas had been difficult for the Darcy siblings for a long time. It had seemed a magnet for misfortune and terrible events ever since their mother, the late Lady Anne Darcy, had passed the day before Christmas Eve closing in on two decades previous. And even when some calamity did not occur, the gloom of the past seemed to linger in the air, turning a cheery holiday into a dark, anxious one.

As Fitzwilliam Darcy drove north, he did his best not to dwell on the particular misery of the previous Christmas. At least this time he knew exactly who would be in Georgia’s apartment when he arrived in New York. He thrummed the fingers of his left hand against the top of the steering wheel, waiting for the light to turn green.

From the town of Pemberley, Maryland to New York City was an optimistic three-and-a-half-hour drive, usually closer to four. He didn’t mind the time alone; it gave him time to clear his head.

Or would have, normally. But he had been spending an even greater amount of time than usual alone for the last four months and it was beginning to wear on even his solitary heart. All he had had time to do was think. He could tell his writing was suffering. It took him longer to fill a page and half the time the words were unusable in the end. Somehow, when Bingley had been in law school, they had had more time together. But with Bingley working and Georgie back at NYU… He could feel the press of the silence at times, close and cloying.

He knew his agent would be on him after the winter holidays, but he did his best to ignore the inevitable. Luckily, he had bought himself almost the whole month of January off already. The thought of just a little more time cheered him better than any thought he had had all day, except for seeing Georgie, and his mood was significantly brighter as he passed into the Holland Tunnel.  

When he stopped at a traffic light, Darcy double checked the address. After Georgie left school abruptly at the end of the previous fall semester, Darcy let her lease run out, told her he would help her find a new building. When she moved, he insisted she find a building with a doorman. Although he hadn’t really expected to Wickham to show up again, he refused to take any chances on it—especially after seeing his sneering over the summer.

He thumbed the turn signal with a scowl and a little shiver. He would be perfectly happy to never set eyes on George Wickham again. If they met again in 50 years, it would be too soon. Always, it seemed, as soon as he had one happy thought, another dark one brought him down again. He fidgeted in his seat as the New York City traffic forced his car to a crawl.

The idea of Wickham moving on to new prey was not a comforting thought. The thought hovered over him like a cloud all the way to Georgie’s apartment. He pulled up into the front driveway and put his car into park. He hadn’t brought the Tesla up—he didn’t want Georgie’s dog sitting in the back for several hours and he didn’t feel like organizing his route along charging stations.

He slipped out of the car and locked it. He was met immediately by the doorman, who recognized him and let him leave his car where it sat. “Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy!”

“Good afternoon, Sam. Is my sister in?”

“I think so. Are you bringing her home for Christmas?”

Darcy nodded. “Of course.”

In the lobby, he signed in at the front desk, nodding at the seated security guard. Another security feature he appreciated; the elevator required a key to get to the residents’ floors. He inserted it into the slot and pressed the button for Georgie’s floor. He fiddled with his keyring as the elevator ascended, grasping and releasing the keys so they clattered gently.

When the doors opened, he stepped out and walked down the hallway. There was a little table set up with a large, draping plant that seemed too large for its pot, the leaves so long they crept towards the floor. Next to it was a little piece of cardstock, folded into an upright triangle shape; on it, Darcy recognized Georgie’s handwriting. It read, “Please don’t step on my leaves!” with a little smiley face next to the exclamation mark.

He grinned and, two doors down, slid the key into the lock of her apartment door. He pushed the door open and called out, “Georgie?” into the empty sitting room.

There was a patter of socks on the hardwood floor and Georgie appeared from around the corner. Georgie had always been long-legged and lanky, taking after Darcy in her height. He used to jokingly call her a giraffe, when her limbs just seemed a little too big for the rest of her body. She was followed by the click of hard nails and her dog slid into the room, his paws struggling to get traction. “Fitz! You’re early!” she cried, throwing herself into his arms. “What do you think of the new hair?”

He hugged her so tightly that he lifted her off the floor a few inches, even despite her height—5’9 (“And a quarter!” she was always sure to stipulate.) to his 6’2. He let her go and took a step back to admire it; much shorter than before, it barely brushed her jaw. Without the weight of the length, the natural waves seemed springier and more prominent. “It’s lovely,” he replied, kissing her on the forehead.

“I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so happy to see you!”

“What about Thanksgiving? You just saw me a few weeks ago.”

They had shared an admittedly rather tragic Thanksgiving together. Instead of returning to Pemberley, Darcy came up to New York, where, with both of Georgie’s roommates out of town, it had been just the two of them and the dog in the apartment. Neither one had been in particularly cheerful moods and, though the food was good, the weather outside was bitter cold and they spent most of their time inside.

“That doesn’t count. I’m ready to come home.”

“I know.”

The interesting thing about attending boarding school is that “home” becomes a very subjective term. Although both Darcy siblings spent more of their childhoods living in different states—in Georgie’s case, a different country—than the Darcy estate, their connection to it was as strong as if they had lived all their lives there.

Georgie dashed back to her bedroom, followed by the dog, to finish packing and Darcy stayed in the living room. He sat on the edge of the couch, half listening to the muffled rustling through the wall. She had never been good at packing, always leaving things until the last moment.

The sitting room was small, with two squashy couches, one a fading velvet, the other gray, with an excessive amount of throw pillows on each one. The rug was a faded gray and white with geometric designs across it, with tassels along the short ends. A few were missing around one corner where, Darcy remembered being told, Apple had chewed them off the first week in the apartment. It was hard for Darcy to say exactly where Georgie’s influence over the décor ended and her roommates’ choices began.

He knew her roommates, of course—after the incident he had insisted on vetting them personally—two girls also studying at NYU. One was a classics major, the other another performance major, though her primary instrument was saxophone. He thought them both very nice girls, both as young as Georgie, if not quite so naïve. They had seemed a little afraid of him, though, when they stayed at the Darcy estate over the summer.

It was my own fault though, he considered somewhat glumly as he leaned back against the couch cushions. He had been in a terrible mood through all of August, after leaving the house in Meryton early. Bingley had gone back to New York, for a short while, but then moved down to DC early. In no humor to entertain guests, he locked himself up in his study or the library at the house and commenced to fail spectacularly at writing anything of substance.

He sighed and thought firmly, Enough is enough. You’re going to have a good Christmas and then you’re going to go visit Aunt Catherine and then you’re going to actually write something!

He looked up at the soft click of nails on wood. Apple had returned and he was staring quizzically at Darcy, inching forward, but not close enough to touch. He waited until Darcy was firmly watching him before he sat, cocking his head and continuing to hold their eye contact.

“What?” he asked finally, feeling awkward having a staring contest with a dog. “You just saw me three weeks ago—it’s not like I’m a stranger.”

Apple let out a little ruff of a bark.

Darcy felt distinctly ruffled. “Don’t take that tone with me.”

Darcy heard the distinctive snap of the lid of Georgie’s electric piano closing and a final rustling. “Making friends?” Georgie asked as she stepped back into the room, her backpack slung over one shoulder, a wheeled suitcase handle in her hand.

Darcy held his gaze level with the dog. “Making progress. Maybe he’ll even like me by the end of your break.”

“He doesn’t dislike you, Fitz. He’s just jealous.” To prove her point, Georgie dropped her bag on the side of the couch and waltzed over to her brother. She pecked him on the cheek; Applet let out another bark. “See?”

“He should be grateful to me. I’m the one who found him for you!” he responded, slightly indignant.

Georgie only shook her head and laughed. “I do hope he gets over it eventually, though,” she added as she clipped the leash to his collar.

~~~~

On Bingley’s encouragement, Darcy had looked into therapy and emotional support dogs. He had thought about applying for an actual psychiatric service dog, but that required a certain amount of doctor visits that, while taking a fair amount of time to schedule, Darcy was also certain Georgie would refuse to attend.

Instead, he spent his time combing through trainers’ websites, searching for a dog who, while possibly no longer in a program, would have a certain amount of useful, and hopefully comforting, skills. He had been in luck, one particularly snowy morning three days before Christmas.

There was a woman and her children all training dogs for psychiatric service. There was one pup in the group, a mixed Springer Spaniel and Border Collie, who was being pulled from training after he consistently failed to stay on task in public, much more interested in approaching strangers, looking for attention and treats. Darcy had barely looked at the photo before deciding that was the dog for Georgie.

He contacted the woman immediately, offering a brief summary of their situation—his sister was going through a terrible emotional upheaval, but due to several extenuating circumstances he knew she would flat out refuse to go to doctors who would be able to give her leave for an actual service dog—the adoption went through quickly and smoothly.

The day after Christmas, he drove out to Baltimore to pick up the animal. The woman had been waiting on her porch with the dog in a large crate. His little brown and white head could be seen through the bars on the front, his body huddled under a hand stitched blanket. “He’s a good boy,” the woman told him, a little tearfully, “but I’m not sure if he’s cut out to be a service dog.” She quickly wiped her face and let out a short laugh. “Oh, sorry, I always get a little weepy when they get adopted out.”

“I think he’ll be perfect for my sister.” Darcy moved forward, crouching down in front of the kennel to look at the dog.

The dog had promptly growled.

“Apple!” the woman reprimanded sharply. She turned to Darcy, concern creasing her forehead. “I’m sorry, I’ve never seen him do that before… I promise he’s—”

Darcy raised a hand to stop her explanations. “It’s all right. He’s not going to be my dog anyway. As long as he likes my sister, everything should be fine.”

Despite Apple’s growling and whining protests, they hoisted the crate into the back of the car. The woman also included a harness and a leash, as well as a few toys. Darcy had already been to a pet shop that morning, picking up bowls and food. He hadn’t wanted to spoil the surprise by bringing anything obvious into the house before the dog arrived.

On the drive back to Pemberley, Darcy looked frequently into the rearview mirror. What little he could see of the dog was huddled in his crate, nestled in the blanket, listlessly chewing on the end of a plastic bone. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to be my dog,” he assured the animal after several minutes of silence. “You’re for Georgie.” It felt strange, talking to a pet like a person. But he hadn’t had the chance to talk to anyone in so long… He hadn’t even told Bingley the whole of it. “She’s my sister. She’s going to love you, I’m sure.

“Something terrible happened to her, so you have to look out for her, all right? She’s… having her own thunderstorms right now and I don’t know how to get her out of them. There was a very, very bad man. His name is Wickham—I’m going to show you a picture later, see if I can get you to attack on cue…” The concept of it almost made him laugh, in a hard, angry way. Not a support dog, but a guard dog for Georgie, trained only to stop one single person from coming near her. “I didn’t tell her you were coming. I want to see if I can make her happy, if just for a little while. It’s not a good thing that she needs the surprise, but I think you’re a pretty good surprise, don’t you?”

The dog let out a low ruff as if in agreement.

~~~~

“Are you sure you’re all right to drive all the way back?” Georgie asked in the hallway, calling him back to the present. “I can drive some of the way.”

He waved off her concern and took her suitcase so she could focus on juggling Apple’s leash and the giant dog bed she had rolled up under one arm. “I’ll be fine. If we need to switch, I’ll let you know.”

Apple was clearly aware that something new was happening. He wagged his tail hard and wound around Georgie’s leg, pawing at Darcy and turning the walk of a few feet from Georgie’s apartment door to the elevator into a several-minute-long production. “Stop!” she moaned, without much conviction, as Apple smooshed her into a corner of the elevator, energetically licking her arm and hitting Darcy with his tail.

It took some maneuvering to get out of the elevator again on the ground floor, but the dog was at least much easier to corral in a wider space. On the way out the front door, Georgie called to the doorman. “Have a good holiday, Sam!”

“You too, Miss Darcy.”

Georgie beamed. Apple let out a cheerful yip as he walked by, wagging his tail until Sam quickly reached down and scratched him behind one ear. Darcy pulled Georgie’s belongings in the trunk before pulling the backdoor open for Apple. With only a little coaxing, he hopped up into the seats, nestling his head against his front paws as Darcy carefully pulled the car out into the New York traffic.

While it was not fair to say he hadn’t been aware of how lonely he was before finally setting eyes on his sister, he did allow himself to realize how purposefully he had been blocking out his enjoyment of her company. They had always been close; the six-and-a-half-year age gap had only served to strengthen their bond. There had been little of that rivalry between them that siblings close in age seemed to feel towards each other.

Now, if only Bingley were there to join them, then everything—almost everything, anyway—would be perfect. The ghost of an idea came to him, the thought of inviting Bingley, and possibly even his sisters, to stay while Georgie was on spring break…

Darcy let his eyes slide over to glance at his sister. She was leaning against the door, her right elbow propped up next to the window. She wasn’t looking at Darcy and her cheek was pressed gently against the window; he could see the small puffs of condensation her breath caused on the glass. No, he didn’t think she was quite recovered. Not yet. But at least there were no new bandages that he could see on her wrists or forearms. The dog continued to pay special attention to those body parts, however, from what Darcy had seen so far.

Georgia Darcy had not always been so quiet. She had been shy, certainly, for most of her life, from the original childishness of hiding behind her father and brother’s legs to the older and slightly more reserved style of waiting to be spoken to. But when she was with friends and family, she was not silent. She was loud and vibrant in a way that her older brother never had been and could hardly understand. And he loved her for it, loved her the same way he loved Bingley, both for their openness and love and the way they were both so alive.

Georgie’s brightness had not helped her to escape the Darcy family gloom, however, and she was known to retreat into silence when she struggled or faced trauma. It was likely the cause behind her delay in speech—she was over three-and-a-half before she spoke her first full sentence, more than a year after their mother died.

But the real, identifiable, first instance, though not the worst of it, had come when she was 14. Phillip Darcy had been driving at night, a business associate in the front seat, and his daughter in the back. After the fact they had told Darcy it was raining heavily, pouring in sheets from the sky.

Between the slippery road and the animated discussion the two men had been engaged in, the old Mr. Darcy lost control of the car, the tires swerving and skidding across the slick asphalt, sending them careening towards a lake on the left-hand side of the road. In an effort, perhaps, to avoid sending the car fully into the lake, he swung the wheel sharply to the right, crashing the vehicle nearly head-on into the thick trunk of a tree.

Darcy had been abroad, in Provence, France, and when he made it back to the States nearly five days later, Georgie was still in the hospital, refusing to speak a word. She was still silent by her 15th birthday the next month, refusing to speak during the custody hearing as well, though she wrote a long and impassioned letter informing the judge of her preferences.

Darcy still shuddered to think how close he had come to losing charge of her—though in fairness, he had only been a 21-year-old college student at the time, with no personal source of income save for one surprisingly popular novel publication.

Refusing to let himself dwell any longer, Darcy tried to clear his mind with a tiny twitch of his head and a straightening of his shoulders. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. I was thinking we should stop for lunch before we drive back.”

“Yeah!” She quickly glanced into the back. “But we have to go somewhere that we can take Apple…”

With a knowing smile, he suggested her favorite, dog-friendly fast food restaurant.

“Ooh, yes! It’s not too bad out…” she said, though she didn’t sound entirely convinced. They both glanced at the thermometer in the car—it was about 45 F outside. “But they always have heat lamps out anyway,” she added quickly. They could both hear Apple panting happily in the back, his tail wagging and thumping against the seats. “Will you suffer a little cold for my dog?” she asked, a faux-pout on her face.

“Well, not for the dog.”

“For me then?” She arched one eyebrow.

“Of course.” It had always been difficult for Darcy to deny his sister anything. They had been together so little, first when he was away at boarding school, then college, he felt obligated—though enjoying it all the while—to give gifts and follow her every whim when they did spend time.

The Darcy siblings had rarely been allowed fast food as children. The freedom to eat what he liked on weekends out of school had been something of a revelation.  He shared it with her when he could on holidays home, but it was mostly a privilege he indulged in with his friends, at least until he became her guardian.

No matter how many times they went out for fast food, though, he would always associate it with one night in June, during her first mute period. There was a period of time immediately after their father’s funeral, once Georgie had been released from the hospital, and before the custody hearings were scheduled that Darcy found himself completely in charge of his silent sister. Aside from a number of therapy appointments and a few checkups to see that her concussion was healing well and her stitches could be removed, they had nowhere to go.

They—mostly Darcy, as Georgie stayed in her room as long as she could, or sat mute and slightly disheveled on the piano bench when she did make an appearance—spent hours a day fielding calls and visits from well-wishers, family friends, business associates… And the kitchen table, then the fridge and freezer, began to fill with food. The fruit was easily eaten, and the baked goods following. But the savory dishes, the baked trays of dishes that would feed an army, let alone two rather skinny siblings, quickly piled up.  

There are only so many casseroles one can eat before they all start to taste the same. It had come to a point where, despite the sentiment behind the abundance of home-cooked dishes, the idea of eating another tray of baked, mushy pasta and unrecognizable ground meat was almost nauseating. The idea of cooking crossed his mind, but the physical act was simply too difficult to muster.

He remained at it for a while, diligently heating up each meal in its turn, suffering through the merest mouthfuls necessary for nourishment. But while he could force himself to eat the stuff, he could not do the same for Georgie. Her appetite had petered off, shrinking to almost nothing, until she stopped coming to the dinner table at all.

He had wheedled and begged, pleading with her to come and eat something. She responded only with silence from the other side of her locked bedroom door. When he was tired of knocking and ready to give up for the night when the thought struck him. Of the times they couldn’t share food, he had written to her of many a late-night excursion to a 24-hour chain diner or poor-quality sandwich that always tasted better at one in the morning.

Unable to ask her what she wanted, he stopped at several restaurants in the area, getting approximations of all her favorites. He piled the greasy paper bags in the passenger seat, a tempting tower of delicious, once-contraband foodstuffs. It didn’t take long to coax Georgie out of her room when he got it all in the house. He wasn’t entirely sure if it was the distinctive crinkling of the bags or the wafting scent of French fries, but she appeared at the top of the staircase, looking paler and thinner than just the day previous. Her dark hair hung limp and a little knotted over one shoulder. She was wrapped, not in her own dressing gown, but one that Darcy recognized with a slight jolt as their father’s; it was quilted and made of a brown and cream striped material. Although neither of them knew it yet, Georgie would hit one final growth spurt before the end of the year, so it still hung long on her, the sleeves four or five inches over her hands.

Darcy lay the spread of food across the coffee table like a salesman presenting his wares, hoping the presentation would coax Georgie to eat when nothing else had worked. At first, she sat numbly on the couch, huddled deeply in the robe, not speaking a word. He did his best to keep up a steady stream of cheerful nonsense from his spot, cross-legged on the floor, though he wished he could give up as thoroughly as she.

But his persistence was rewarded when she pushed a pillow off the side of the couch so it fell on the floor. She eased herself down to sit on it and, rolling back one sleeve, reached out to quickly grab a cardboard container of onion rings. She held it in her hands, careful not to stain the fabric with grease, and finally, finally began to eat.

~~~~

They got lucky with a parking spot and only had to walk three blocks. Georgie kept a tight hold on Apple’s leash as they ordered. He stuck his nose in the air, excitedly sniffing the scent of burgers and chicken, his tail whapping hard against Darcy’s leg. He seemed to have learned the words for the dog-friendly menu as well as his name, because he gave out an excited whine, almost raising himself on his hind paws as Georgie said them.

She had to yank him away after that, half pulling, half coaxing the dog out onto the patio as Darcy paid and took the service buzzer. He followed her outside in a minute; she had taken a seat directly beneath one of the tall heat lamps, the head of it shut behind a metal, mesh grate, the bulbs inside glowing orange. Apple was lapping energetically from a metal dog bowl of water, the sides a little grimy with the slobber of previous pets.

Darcy wrinkled his nose. “Good thing dogs don’t care about germs, I guess.” He passed her a cup and set his own down before he took the seat across from her. The lamp was warm on his face, but it left his back and legs still subject to the chill of the slight breeze. He tucked his scarf more tightly around his neck and raised his cup towards her in a toast. “To a successfully completed semester!”

She smiled a bit mechanically. “Don’t say that until we have my grades back, Fitz!”

Darcy only shook his head, still holding his cup aloft. “Even if you don’t, I have faith in you. And you said so yourself, you loved your classes!” She nodded slowly and Darcy finally lowered his hand. “Aren’t you excited that you’re almost a sophomore?”

She slowly twisted her cup between her hands, picking at the seam on the lip, where the paper rolled over itself. “No. I’m still a freshman. I only took three finals last… last year, and I failed one of them. I only have two credits and they’re both for music, so I’m… I’m just a freshman who had a couple extra courses is all.”

Darcy watched her. Georgie was hiding her face slightly, shrinking away from his gaze. She had pulled herself deeper into her coat, turning her chin towards her left shoulder. Apple let out a whimper and, leaving the bowl, he trotted up close to her, putting one paw across her knees. “Georgie, look at me. I don’t care what grades you get, okay? And I don’t care that you’re still a freshman. Some things are more important than academics.”

She rubbed the heel of one hand across the skin under her eyes, though Darcy couldn’t tell if she was actually crying. She placed the other on Apple’s head and, still not looking at her brother, said, “Dad would care.”

Darcy scowled. “No. He’d agree there are more important things—like your health! I think you’re doing his memory a disservice.”

“But, Fitz—”

Darcy reached across the table, grabbing Georgie’s hand before she had a chance to hide or engage it in fidgeting again. He held her fingers, squeezing them tightly. “I mean it, Georgie. Dad would not be mad or upset at you. You’re doing an amazing job. I’m so proud of you.”

He could not tell if her cheeks were pink from emotion or the cold. The plastic buzzer started going off, gently vibrating the table, and he squeezed one more time before letting go of her hand. As he stood, reentering the restaurant, he chided himself. At one point, he had been considering telling Georgie he had seen Wickham over the summer—but how could he ever? She was not quite as healed as he had been led to believe through their correspondence and short moments together during the fall.

The food seemed to revive her a little. After she placed Apple’s treats carefully on the ground for him to devour, she slurped her milkshake, shivering as she drank it.

“Are you sure you want to be drinking that right now?”

Y-yes!” Her teeth chattered with the cold, but she continued to grin. The conversation became much lighter as they ate, touching briefly on specifics of classes and final papers that he hadn’t heard yet.

Darcy was still eating, mostly just picking at his food, when she wiped her face with a napkin before crumpling it and tossing it back onto the tray. She stood, stretching, and said, “I’ll be right back.” She stepped over the dog, who had lain down at the side of her chair, and slipped through the glass door back inside.

He glanced down at Apple who, seeming to read his intent, began to wag his tail, raising himself into a sitting position. Darcy held out a French fry and Apple immediately gulped it down, licking Darcy’s fingers before he could pull his hand away. He wiped them off and glanced back at the dog.

Apple wagged his tail again, expectantly watching the tray.

Darcy had to admit that, while he enjoyed nature and being outdoors, he had been somewhat neutral about animals for a long time. As a child, he had gone through the almost obligatory phase of begging his father for a dog but, never receiving one, he had drifted away from his love for pets. He wasn’t sure if it was because Apple was his sister’s dog or if he was genuinely interested in the dog, but he felt a particular burning desire to make friends with him.

But he felt he had made a good start by the time Georgie returned and said, “Ready to head out?”

When they climbed back in the car for the long drive home, they both shed their outer layers, tossing coats, scarves, and hats into the backseat. Apple spent several minutes energetically sniffing in Darcy’s jacket pockets, looking for something interesting, before he gave it up and pushed the coat onto the floor behind the driver’s seat.

Georgie fiddled with the radio, clicking through songs so fast Darcy hardly believed she heard them, as they started the long trek out of the city. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, given the proximity to Christmas. There were a lot more people trying to get in than out.

She finally gave it up and dropped her hand down from the dials. “What day’s Robert getting in again?”

“On the 29th. Late flight, though. We can probably come back day-of.”

Georgie sighed and leaned back in her seat, curling her legs up so they were half resting against the glove compartment. “I can’t believe that he’s going to fly the whole 11 hours just to go stay with Aunt Catherine for two weeks. Like, what a rip off!”

Darcy bit back a chuckle. “She’s still as much our aunt as she is his. It’s not polite to ignore your relatives, even the ones you don’t like.”

“I know, Fitz, but it’s bad enough you’re going to stay with her. At least that’s only a few hours’ drive. He had to come to an entirely different country to sit in a chintz chair and listen to her tell him how to live his life.”

“He’s also coming to see us.”

“I know. That’s the fun part of his trip!”

Darcy had to admit that, at least in some small way, Georgie had every right to feel alienated from their aunt. After their father’s death, despite her proximity, she had refused to take joint guardianship over Georgie with Darcy. True, she was often busy with their cousin Anne’s care, but she employed a veritable army of assistants and caretakers, so what difference could shared custody of one 14-year-old make? Privately, though he would never admit it to anyone—especially not his aunt or his sister—Darcy thought that their Aunt Catherine had been a little offended by Georgie’s muteness.

Their uncle James had stood up instead to become her guardian until Darcy graduated college and it had just seemed that much easier to enroll her in a boarding school halfway between Southampton and Bath. Although Robert, their uncle’s youngest child, was a couple years older than Darcy, he had spent a lot of time with Georgie while she was living in England.

Even when she started speaking again, she would respond to questions, but, after Darcy, Robert was the second person she had voluntarily conversed with.

“Well, I’m looking forward to it anyway. I sent him a ton of videos of Apple. I hope he’s excited to meet him.”

Watching the road, the only answer Darcy gave was a gentle dip of his head.

~~~~

As he helped Georgie pull her bag out of the car, the feeling of discontent Darcy had hoped he had shaken off in New York returned in full force. Not all at once, but with intention, starting as a hard-prickling feeling along his hands and neck, spreading down his back. A long-fingered hand gripped at his heart, squeezing so tightly it was almost difficult to keep a straight face.

Georgie seemed somewhat oblivious to his discomfort, which he was grateful for; she had her back to him, staring up at the house. She was standing just out the doors of the garage, which had once been a carriage house. Their grandfather had converted in for cars in the mid-1950s.

Apple seemed more cognizant of Darcy’s troubles. The dog whined softly, attempting to circle Darcy’s legs. Darcy only clucked his tongue at the dog and attempted to nudge him away as he put the suitcase on the ground. “Come here, Apple,” Georgie called to him, snapping her fingers to beckon him. He trotted to her side. With no other people in sight, no leash was needed. He followed her up the brick path and through the side door of the house.

While Darcy rolled the suitcase towards the stairs at the heart of the house, Georgie stepped off into the living room to lay out Apple’s bed. Darcy waited until she had walked several feet in front of him before he let out the smallest of grins. His ears pricked with anticipation as he listened hard, waiting for…

Fitz!” Georgie practically screamed. “Fitz, you didn’t!”

He laughed as he let go of her bag, quickly walking through the doorway. “I did,” he answered calmly.

She stared, quite enraptured, by the instrument on the far side of the room. Where once had stood the family upright piano was a new baby grand, an antique made of dark brown wood with carved legs and real ivory keys, only slightly yellowed with age.

“You’ve been complaining for ages that the old piano wouldn’t stay tuned, so I thought you deserved a replacement. I didn’t get rid of it,” he added quickly, reading the question in her eyes before she could ask it, “I just moved it to the den. You can put a lot of plants on top of it and ignore it like every other family with a piano.

“This is your real Christmas gift, mind you. I would have waited till the actual day, but I wasn’t sure if I could move it into place on my own.”

She laughed again and nearly threw herself onto the bench, the legs featuring the same carvings, the sides of it rounded with engravings. “Oh, I don’t care. It’s amazing, Fitz! Where did you find it?”

“I was on Long Island with the Bingley’s in early October and we were just sort of… wandering around. I saw it in a second-hand music shop and first thing I did was ask if it could hold a tuning.”

She dropped her hands on the keys, immediately falling into some musical passage Darcy didn’t recognize. Just as abruptly, she stopped. “Well, it does, so that’s a leg up on the old one, anyway.” She rested her hands on her lap, smiling up at him again. “Thank you, Fitz. It’s beautiful.”

He returned the smile and began to pull her suitcase up the stairs.  

Chapter Text

It had been a long time since it was so difficult for Darcy to get up and out of bed. He was used to the sleeplessness, the restless dreams, even the waking at early hours. At least then he could get up and stare aimlessly at his computer screen or a blank page for a few hours. That, at least, had some slight amount of productive feeling to it.

But, rather than helping his mood, somehow Georgie’s presence had made it even worse. He didn’t blame her—indeed, he had no idea why her presence was weighing on him so heavily. Or, perhaps, it was unrelated, some unlucky quirk that his depression decided to rise to a peak just at the time he could finally enjoy a few days with his sister.

When he looked out the window the morning of Christmas Eve, the sky was a flat, dull gray color, which he thought complimented his mood rather thoroughly. Just to indulge himself in the grayness, he struggled into a thickly knit gray turtleneck before he walked downstairs, his shoulders sloping all the way.

As if in direct defiance, Georgie was dressed in a hideous—and hideously bright—Christmas sweater. It was striped with alternating bands of snowflakes and piano keyboards, where the black keys had been knit with green instead. “Oh, you’re up.” There was something flat in her tone. It wasn’t excitement or regret at his presence, but her words did hint at some additional thought.

He nodded, glancing around the room. “Oh, you found the tree.”

“Yes. It’s a bit sad, isn’t it? But I guess it will have to do.”

Darcy shrugged and sat. The tree was no more than two feet high, an artificial pine with built-in lights normally meant to be a secondary tree, perhaps set somewhere on a little table in the midst of many other decorations. It sat on one of the armchair side tables with a scrunched up, cream table runner wound around the base, approximating a tree skirt. 

When the old Mr. Darcy was still alive, they had always had a real tree, usually some giant thing that he, usually accompanied by one or both of his children, would pick out personally. Then, they would festoon it with ornaments, ribbons, and strings of lights, before showing it off at a series of Christmas parties, some for business, others for friends, before culminating in a family party the night of.

But after he died, there hadn’t been much point—in the tree or the parties. With Georgie in England, Darcy found himself spending most of his Christmases at the Fitzwilliam residence. He had had one, particularly underwhelming holiday alone and at home. The sad little tree was the only remnant of that night.

And they hadn’t even bothered to put it up the previous year.

He was still staring at it when Georgie said, softly, “I was going to take Apple out for a walk. Do you want to come with us?”

“No.” Once again, his tone was harsher than intended. “No,” he quickly clarified, “I’d like to try and get some work done today.”

Georgie sighed. “Oh, but it’s Christmas Eve today… Shouldn’t you take the day off?”

Darcy only shrugged and shook his head slightly. She sat quite still, staring at him for several seconds. He realized she wouldn’t stop until he left, so he pushed himself out of the chair and left for the library, which he had usurped as his office long before he inherited the house. Even as a child, he had gone in there often with a notebook, scribbling out nonsense stories that had never again seen the light of day.

The library was down the hall from the main living room, the door just behind the stairs. It was a particularly large room, longer than it was wide. He had had his father’s desk moved in, pushed towards the far end of the room. The shelves were built of dark wood, all antique or build to look that way, most of them from the original building of the house.

Somehow, his little laptop always seemed so out of place, too modern for the setting. The brightly colored spines of his personal books, all gathered together in the shelves just behind the desk, also stood out. Their sleek plasticized spines and glossy dustjackets differed boldly from the older, duller leather and clothbound volumes that had been with the family for generations. In the times he felt his loneliness or emotional discontent most keenly, it felt almost as if the eyes of the past were on him, watching his back, his every movement and keystroke, every word he typed on the screen.

Depending on the day, it could be a good feeling or a bad. On the good days, they supported him, encouraged him. On the bad, they judged every word he wrote.

He was beginning to regret his agreement to a quiet night in before the day even reached noon. While he wasn’t particularly interested in doing anything festive on the anniversary of their mother’s death, he was in no mood to sit in semi-silent contemplation.

The cursor blinked on the nearly empty page, but he could barely focus on the words he was trying to write. He felt restless and the quiet of the room pressed against his ears like a vacuum. He tapped his fingers against the edge of the desk, the lip of the computer—anywhere but on the keys. His attention was then caught by the tidy stack of papers on the corner of the desk—the application for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He had printed them several weeks before, but hadn’t made any headway on filling any of it out. Reaching out, he touched his fingers against the corner, twisting the paper slightly. The thought of going so far away from Georgie—and the convenient airports or trains to get to her—did not set well with him.

 There was an unpleasant wriggling feeling in his stomach, not quite to the point of nauseous, but just on the edge. That same, low-level discomfort reminded him forcefully of his first run-in with the endless casseroles, though served originally by his father. They had been accompanied with by the somewhat unpleasant sound of a toddler gnawing on carrots and strawberries with her tiny teeth. 

Forcibly, he pushed the thoughts of funerals and family out of his mind. Even if it was the anniversary of a death, that didn’t mean he had to dwell. He rubbed furiously against his eye, pressing so hard with his fist that he saw fireworks, and got to work, imagining himself physically clearing space in his head, pretending it was an overstuffed room to be cleaned. He sat almost motionless for a full minute, focusing on his breathing and the mad dash of reorganization in his thoughts. He tried to push the images of his parents from behind his eyes, to exist in the moment rather than suffer for the past. And… when it was all swept from his thoughts, cleared away like cobwebs and dusty boxes, the same intrusions from his drive up to New York took the forefront of his thoughts once again.

Death was an old weight. He knew the press of sorrow and the pangs of loss from old. But this was something new. He had felt the bite of love before, but he had always moved on quickly enough. There was one grudge, but he had never experienced anything like this feeling before.

He had seen Elizabeth last in July, a full five months ago, and she still called to him. Whatever longing he felt for her expounded his discomfort of being at home. When he looked up, away from the computer, he could practically imagine her, sitting in one of the armchairs with a book or standing on the ladder, reaching for a high shelf on pointed toes, her fingers trembling just out of reach of the volume.

Darcy snapped the lid of the laptop closed and pushed his chair forcefully away from the desk. Clearly, there was no work to be done that day. He should have stayed with Georgie when she asked him to… Thinking to make amends, he left the library and returned to the sitting room, straining his ears for the click of Apple’s nails or the much louder sound of Georgie playing scales or some other warm up.

The room was empty and he felt his shoulders slump. If it was possible, he felt even more down and disappointed. Contrarily, although he desperately wished for his sister’s company, he did not want to search her out—if he did so, she would know something was wrong. He stepped further into the room, casting his eyes over the couches, half wondering if he should wait her out. There was evidence of Georgie’s recent inhabitance in the room—a dog toy on the rug, a new book on the coffee table…

With a jolt, he recognized the cover of the book, a glossy, eye-catching hardcover. It was the same one Elizabeth had been reading during that complete disaster of a hiking trip in the cabin. Before he could even think, he had snatched the novel up in one hand, gripping his fingers tightly against the dustjacket; they pressed hard against the raised letters of the author’s name. When he noticed his thumb was denting the silvery “P,” he quickly dropped the book back down to the table, but it was too late and her image was invoked.

He could still see her bright brown eyes as they peeked over the top of the book to watch him laughingly. “Frightened of a book?” she would ask him if she were there. And how would he have answered?

With a yes or with a lie? Another half-truth?

Unable to answer this imagined phantom, he retreated from the room, back to the library.

~~~~

He did not see Georgie again until dinner time. He had half hoped she would eventually be drawn to the piano, but every time he returned to the sitting room, walking a wide berth between himself and the offending book, the bench was empty. By 6 o’clock, Darcy realized he was starving; he had eaten nothing all day but his late (for him) breakfast. He left the library for good, heading towards the kitchen. Despite his famished state, the thought of the necessary energy it would take to cook a meal was both daunting and unmanageable.

Instead, he began to sift through the upper cabinets, looking for something quick to prepare. Unfortunately for him, an enjoyment of cooking and a preference for healthy eating left his kitchen quite bare of most ready-to-eat foods.

The sliding door in the sitting room, always stiff when the weather was chill, groaned open. He heard the jingle of tags on Apple’s collar and a soft laugh, then the footprints of girl and dog. He turned in time to meet them in the doorway.

Georgie’s cheeks were flushed with the cold. Her knit hat was pulled down low on her head and the ends of her hair sprung up from the bottom of it, flipping upward. She was in the process of pulling off her gloves as she approached. “Oh, good, you’re making dinner. I’m absolutely starving.”

He paused, glancing down at the can in his hand. “Thinking about it. Do you want to order in? I don’t know if anything is open Christmas Eve, but…” He put the can down on the countertop; eating whatever was in it was even more unappealing than the thought of cooking.

Between their two phones, they tracked down an open restaurant and called in the order. When Darcy hung up, he turned back to find Georgie staring at him expectantly. Apple sat by her side, mimicking the gaze; he found it slightly unnerving. “What?”

“I was hoping you’d light a fire!”

“If you’re cold, just turn up the heat,” he snapped. Almost instantly, he regretted his tone.

She seemed to take his remorse for granted, though, and only rolled her eyes. “It’s not because I’m cold. It’s not Christmas without a fire, Fitz.”

Darcy raised his eyebrows. “I think you’ve spent too many winters in drafty old English houses. It’s hardly cold enough to warrant—” He stopped speaking as she gestured out the window, where fat white flakes were lazily drifting towards the ground. “All right, all right. At least it’s snowing now…”

She beamed as he knelt on the stone edge of the fireplace, filling it with logs and smaller sticks. While his back was towards her, he took a moment to scold himself; Last Christmas was awful enough. You can’t let your moping ruin this Christmas for Georgie as well. He pulled the matches from the edge off the mantlepiece. Once it was lit, he stoked it a little higher and then slipped the grate firmly around the front so Apple wouldn’t burn himself by accident.

When the food arrived, he ate in near silence, allowing Georgie to go on about anything and everything that crossed her mind, from the upcoming semester’s classes to Apple’s confusion over the slightly frozen lake on the edge of the property.

When she tried to help him clear up the leftovers and dishes, he flatly refused, stopping just short of shoving her out of the kitchen. His impulse was only half altruistic; on one hand, he wanted to far outweigh the previous Christmas, giving her the break he knew she deserved, but on the other… He wanted to indulge himself in a good few minutes of wallowing.

He stood above the sink, head bent slightly, as he piled up the dishes. Why couldn’t he stop thinking about her? He knew, logically, that he would more than likely never see Elizabeth Bennet again.

He watched as the water sluiced off the remnants of sauce from one of the plates. Perhaps, he thought, as he rubbed the soapy sponge over the dish rather than putting it in the dishwasher, it is the same as being stuck in traffic. With nothing else to think about, I wander back to the unpleasant.

Not that thinking about Elizabeth was strictly unpleasant. The act itself was almost guiltily enjoyable. But the afterwards, when he fell back into his senses, and remembered she was far away and he had told Bingley that the other Bennet was a poor choice for romance… It all became unpleasantly muddled.

With a sigh, he wiped his soapy hands off on the towel. What would she say about the predicament? Laugh at him, most likely. Poke fun at his solemnity until he stumbled into embarrassing himself. The thought nettled enough to make him question, in a more scathing fashion, yet again why he could not keep the image of her dark eyes or open, laughing mouth, out of his mind.

The warmth and quiet of the sitting room was almost immediately comforting; as he stepped into the room, if just for a brief moment, it felt like a great pressure had eased from his chest. Georgie was humming something to herself. She sat, cross-legged on the floor with a brush, a nail file, and a set of heavy-duty clippers. Apple held out one paw over a towel as she snipped and clipped away at his claws buffing out the sharp edges.

His uptick in mood lasted almost until he reached the couch. Then, he caught sight of the book again. He paused then, eyes flicking back to his sister. “Georgie, is this your book by any chance?” He tried to keep his voice light and nonchalant, hoping not to give away how his heart beat uncomfortably in his chest when he looked at the cover, one finger tapping just below the title.

“What?” She glanced up at the volume. “Oh, yeah. Lia lent it to me for the break. Sorry if it’s not up to your usual literary standards or anything, I just wanted a mental break.”

He waved the excuse off and sank into a corner of the couch. He watched her for a while, his eyes pulling in and out of focus, his knuckles digging into his cheek. His brooding made nearly blind to the expression of concern on her face, the way her eyes tightened as they followed his sharp movements; first he tossed the book, a little roughly, back onto the table, and then he returned to his previous spot on the couch, crossing and knotting himself up into the corner. She could see his face only in profile, cast orange by the flickering firelight. She could see the tension points at the corner of his mouth, the creases of his forehead, and the furrowing of his dark eyebrows.

In a quick moment of decision, Georgie rolled up the dog grooming tools into her towel, making more noise than strictly necessary. The metal clippers clinked against the tines of the sturdy brush. She let out an exaggerated yawn, stretching her free arm out and away from her body. “I think I might turn in.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Already?”

“Well, if I don’t get to bed early enough, Santa might not come!” She winked, eliciting the smallest of smiles, a mere twitch at the corner of her older brother’s lips. Apple followed her out of the room and up the stairs to bed.

~~~~

Slowly, Darcy flickered his eyes open, taking a great gasp of air. It was only a dream. There was something hot and wet pressing insistently against his cheek. He blinked a couple times, clearing the sleepy blear out of his gaze to find Apple painting expectantly in his face.

"Ugh." He wiped his cheek on a corner of the bedsheet and slid away. Unfortunately, Apple seemed to take the newly freed space on the bed as an invitation and he clambered up, resting his muzzle against one of the pillows. Darcy narrowed his eyes at the dog. "Did Georgie put you up to this?"

Apple whined very softly and nudged his nose until the pillow was pressed against the headboard and he could put his head on his folded paws.

Stifling a yawn, he said, "Not talking, are you, hmm?"

The dog only stared. Stretching, he raised himself up in the bed and glanced towards the side of the room; the door was closed. He still couldn’t rule out Apple having done it on his own—as a nearly former service dog, he had been taught how to open and close doors on his own. Darcy made a hmm sound again and ruffled his fingers through his hair before pulling on a sweatshirt and running a brush through the mess. The clock on his nightstand said 8:48 AM and there were no new messages on his phone. He put the phone in his pocket and stepped into his slippers before turning back to Apple who was still lying contentedly in the warm spot from his body.

“Well? Are you coming?” When he put his hand on the doorknob, the dog leapt out of bed, kicking the covers back into a tangle. He trotted ahead down the hallway, looking back more than once, his tail wagging excitedly, to make sure Darcy was following behind.

“Are we friends now?” he asked the dog softly at the top of the stairs.

Apple whacked him in the leg with his tail before he bounded down the stairs.

Georgie was sitting on the floor in the sitting room, right next to the tiny Christmas tree and in front of her tidy stack of gifts. Several of them were already unwrapped and there was a light sprinkle of snow-like tissue paper crinkles around her feet. She was wearing a dark green dressing gown and pale pink, silk pajama set. Her hair was loose around her face, combed but not quite tame.

“Guess who I found in my bedroom when I woke up,” Darcy said as he strode into the room, Apple still keeping pace.

"Happy Christmas, Fitz," she said smilingly, using one of the colloquialisms she had picked up in England and not addressing his comment.

"Did you put him up to this?" Darcy asked, nudging the dog gently with one slipper-clad foot.

Apple glanced back at him and then bounded forward with a woof, lying his body at Georgie’s side. He slipped his muzzle on her knee. She put one hand on the top of the dog’s head. "I have no idea what you mean. Maybe Apple didn't want you staying in bed so late. Especially on Christmas day." She paused and fiddled with a bit of tape stuck to her finger. Then she peered up at her brother through a lock of hair that had fallen into her face, a sly little grin on her lips. "Besides what happened to Mr. Early-to-Bed-Early-to-Rise?"

Instead of answering, he merely grunted a noncommittal sound and threw himself on the couch a little more forcefully than intended. He was looking at the mantle, but he heard her expression in her voice, much softer and smaller than a moment before. “What about your presents, Fitz?”

When he looked at her, fully, she could see the bags under his eyes. She waited for him to speak; after several moments of silence, he slid off the couch to join her on the floor. She promptly tossed a soft package at his face. Apple’s tail thumped against the floor. “See, it’s not so difficult,” she said gently as she slid a set of packages towards him. “Just try to have a little fun.”

He smiled weakly back, before dropping his eyes to the gift now sitting in his lap. When he pulled the paper open, it revealed a set of writer themed ties, the first with typewriters, the second, ravens, and the last with open books. Georgie giggled behind her hand. “I hope you like them.”

“I do. Thank you, Georgie.”

It was more interesting for him to watch her than pay attention to his own gifts. She squealed when she unwrapped a new pair of hiking boots—“You’ll have to break them in,” he warned—and a foldable, thin plastic water bowl—“To make sure Apple has clean water next time we go on a camping trip.” She almost cried when, after opening a blank music composition notebook, two New York Philharmonic tickets fell out into her hand.

“You’ll have to thank Bingley for that one,” Darcy informed her. “I told him how you feel about von Weber.”

While she remained nearly incoherent, he looked at his own presents and was not displeased to find the majority of them to be books. He ran his finger along the edges of a particularly fine edition of The Necromancer, or The Tale of the Black Forest, close to chuckling. Ever since he had given a passionate mockery of the more ridiculous Gothic novels in their last year at Lancaster, Bingley had made it a point to find as many prime examples of the genre as possible.

Looking very pleased in the middle of her pile of wrapping paper, Georgie grinned. “I guess I should go get dressed, huh?” Without waiting for an answer, she scooped her gifts into her arms and exited, Apple on her heels.

The energy left the room with her. Darcy waited until he heard her reach the top of the stairs before he began to pluck up shreds of wrapping paper, balling them up and tossing them into a plastic bag. He took it out to the kitchen trashcan before sitting back on the couch. He opened the cover of his new book, but his eyes refused to focus on the words.

When Georgie returned, her hair was pulled away from her face with a row of brightly colored clips. She was wearing a fashionably oversized burgundy sweater and there was a small stack of additional wrapped gifts in her arms. She knelt carefully by the tree and started arranging them in a little pile.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m setting up Apple’s gifts. I’m going to record him opening them for my YouTube channel.”

“I…”

“Don’t worry, those videos are super popular because they’re adorable.”

“There are… That is, multiple people post that kind of content?”

“Oh yeah, everywhere.”

“Right. I think this is the part where I say I’m out of touch with today’s youth culture.”

“Don’t worry, you’ve been out of touch with the youth since you were 12.”

He leaned forward in his chair, slightly needled by her words. “Even if you happen to be right, you don’t have to say it out loud.”

Georgie only clucked her tongue at him and poked around some of the packages, putting them into a more attractive shape for the camera. Darcy shook his head at her and pressed himself out of the chair, leaving the unread book on the seat.

It was cold outside, but he barely felt the slight breeze through the knit of his sweater. Snow was falling again, just as gently as the evening before. Most of it wasn’t sticking to the ground, melting as soon as it hit the paving stones, leaving the surface slightly darkened. He tipped his head back, blinking when the flakes fell against his eyelids and lashes. The cold brushed pleasantly against his aching temples.

Darcy had slept very poorly, his night populated by dreams that prominently featured Elizabeth, Wickham, and Georgie. Wickham had smirked at him, laughing openly, as he held Elizabeth’s hand and they walked away from him. He tried to follow them but, from the opposite direction, he heard Georgie calling for him, crying. When he turned, he couldn’t find her, and while his back was turned, Elizabeth retreated further and further. Finally, he ran after her, calling her name for what felt like hours until she turned around to look at him.

“What do you want?” Elizabeth had asked, all while holding Wickham’s hand. The other man smiled almost manically.

“You have to let go of him.”

“Why?”

“Because… Because he hurt—” His words cut off with a gasp of breath. Every time he tried to say Georgie’s name to warn Elizabeth, the pressure tightened on his throat until he thought he would surely suffocate.

He had awoken to the feeling of choking, only pulled out of it by the warm, wetness of the dog’s tongue. He let out a groan and pressed his fingers to his forehead, massaging the skin. He should have tried harder in July, to warn Elizabeth. Wickham wasn’t safe for anyone, but if word got back that Darcy had broken his word and spoken about the previous December…

Well, Wickham wasn’t the only one who would be injured.

How would she have taken the news, if he told her and if she believed him? He amused himself for one particularly indulgent moment with the image of Elizabeth punching Wickham in the face; he wouldn’t put it past her. It was almost enough to make him smile.

~~~~

This time, he purposefully avoided Georgie. Looking too closely at her made him think of the dream again. He tamped it down with a shudder and hid in his bedroom like a teenager. Sitting on his bed with his legs crossed in front of him, he opened The Necromancer and tried to read. Every time his focus drifted, he forced himself back to the present, reading the same line five or six times until he fully took in its meaning.

He had made it barely 30 pages in when there was a soft knock on his bedroom door. He opened it to Georgie. “Do you want some cocoa?” She clasped her hands in front of her stomach, her shoulders drawing in towards her body, and her eyes large and hopeful.

He acquiesced and followed her to the kitchen. She made it on the stove with hot milk and spoonfuls of dark powder from a black can labeled “drinking chocolate.” As she stirred, the heavy scent of chocolate filled the room.

He waited until she left the kitchen before reaching up into one of the upper cabinets that held the liquor. He poured a somewhat excessive amount of amber liquid into his chocolate and stirred it up with a spoon.   

He slurped it from his slightly-too-full mug as he followed into the sitting room. Apple came up to him at once. Somehow, lying in Darcy’s bed seemed to have done the trick better than any amount of bribery or petting and scratching he had performed up until that point. Apple actually nuzzled his nose directly into Darcy’s hand and licked his wrist before bounding off to sit at Georgie’s side.

Darcy took his usual spot on the couch. Georgie had built up the fire herself sometime during the day and it was flickering merrily behind the grate. They sat in silence, save for the sounds of drinking and Apple’s panting, for several minutes. Georgie watched him from the other side of the room, her knees drawn up onto the sofa, her hands clasped around a pink mug. Apple had his muzzle resting on the cushion at her side. “What’s wrong, Fitz?”

“Wrong? I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t be stupid, Fitz, you’ve been acting weird all week. Besides,” she added, dipping her head so she could sip noisily from her cup, “you’ve spiked your hot chocolate. You only drink hard liquor when you’re especially upset.” She put the mug down on the side table.

At least he had the grace to color, helped on by the warmth of the room and the whiskey mixed into his mug. He took a hasty drink so he wouldn’t have to respond immediately and almost spluttered on the alcohol. He had definitely put too much in; he had done it quickly, hoping she wouldn’t notice. His shrug was more miserable than the nonchalant gesture he intended it to be, his shoulders drooping back down as he finished the gesture. “I’m fine. I’m sure it’s just… being home.”

She narrowed her eyes, leaning forward slightly. “No, it’s not ‘just being home.’ You get over that in, like, three days.”

Darcy felt a surge of anger at her for prodding him when he asked her to leave it, and he said so, snapping back a retort of, “I’m fine,” before his response had fully registered. Georgie stood very still, quite taken aback, even raising one hand to put distance between them and to keep him away. Apple let out a soft growl in the back of his throat, not even lifting his head to look at Darcy. Darcy took a deep breath. “Georgie, I’m sorry. That was very unfair of me. I just don’t know if I can explain what the problem is.”

Her voice warbled slightly. “Okay. I didn’t mean… You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to say anything.” She added in a whisper, “Don’t be mad.”  

His next emotion was no longer directed at her but at Wickham. He could see on the exposed top of her arm, just below the shoulder, a long, thin scar—the remains of stitches and the memory of an argument. The last physical evidence of Wickham on her personage.

And, ever cyclical, his thoughts returned to Elizabeth again. Not her eyes or her voice or the feel of her fingers on his hand, though—none of the things he loved about her. Instead, the image of Wickham’s arm on her head, his hand brushing her shoulder, came to mind again. Was that the real source of his discontent? The way he had left her in Wickham’s grasp? And his dream…

Darcy drew a deep breath, searching for courage. “Her name is Elizabeth,” he admitted abruptly, staring very hard towards the window, refusing to meet his sister’s eye. “And I will probably never see her again.” It was snowing harder.

Georgie’s eyebrows drew together. She remembered the name from his letters, the long lines he wrote about her. His references to her had stopped abruptly just before he returned to Pemberley, and he hadn’t mentioned her at all since. While it had been obvious there was something about her, she hadn’t realized his feelings were still so strong. “Why not?”

“Because she… lives far away.” He paused. As true as it was, they both knew the distance was not the problem. Georgie knew her brother too well to ever believe a few hours’ drive would get in the way of anyone he truly cared about.

She waited silently for the real reason.

Eventually, Darcy hung his head. “And because I think her sister is untrustworthy.”

Georgie stood then, moving over to sit next to him on the couch. “Well, that’s just her sister, isn’t it? Why should that stop you and Elizabeth?”

He looked at her then, fully in the eyes. Although she couldn’t read the reason, she changed her approach before he stumbled into an explanation. “Fitz, will you tell me about her?” She put her hand on his wrist. “I know you don’t always like to talk about things, but I’m here now. Wouldn’t that be so much easier than a letter?”

He bit the inside of his mouth, looking down at his sister. They had spent so much of their lives communicating through letters, the written word, that it had somehow become difficult to talk to her when they were in a room together. He could talk to Bingley… so why couldn’t he speak to Georgie? “When I first saw her, I didn’t think she was at all beautiful,” he started slowly. “But I was wrong.” It was less difficult to admit out loud this time. “She’s very clever. And funny—witty, that is. She likes to pull apart hypocrisy and fallacy but it’s so enjoyable to watch that sometimes it didn’t even matter that it was me she was picking apart.” He didn’t notice, although Georgie did, the slow, gentle smile that stole over his face as he continued to speak about Elizabeth. “She likes being outdoors. When I went with Bingley to the cabin, she was the only one who really hiked. Even if she did go off by herself. She’s very small, but she never let that stop her from athletics and running…” He sighed. “She has a very… different sort of family, but she stands above them all, I think.”

“She sounds… like she would have been good for you.”

He shrugged. “Maybe. It could have gone just as badly as last time, though.”

“Oh, Fitz, you idiot,” she said, not unkindly. “You should have told her what you’re feeling. You’ll never know if you don’t try! Just be honest.”

He shrugged again, letting his gaze fall. “Well, it’s too late for that now…”

Chapter Text

Luckily, Liz did not have too long to dwell on the disappointment of one plan before the fruition of another arrived. On New Year’s Day, Liz helped Mariah and Charlotte pack up their two cars to head out to Hunsford.

Although Liz helped Mariah navigate most of the way, they put Charlotte on speaker phone and pretended they were in one car. “You’re turning 21!” Charlotte said when they were safely on the highway, with no new turns for Mariah to navigate for the next hour. “Baby’s all grown up.”

Mariah pouted. “I wish I was 21.”

Charlotte’s laugh crackled as it leaked out of the speaker. “Don’t worry, you’ll be there in a few years. Then I’ll take you out for your first drink too.”

Liz was so overjoyed to be in Charlotte’s company again for more than an afternoon at a time—even if only through a speaker phone—that she barely even thought of the reason for their falling out in October. Mariah and Charlotte had spoken far more consistently, so there was nothing to stop Liz from imparting every innate detail of her life over the last three and a half months, from her new speed records to the hideous wallpaper Mrs. Bennet had attempted to convince Mr. Bennet that they must repaper all of the guestrooms with. “Mint is fine for ice cream, but I don’t know if I could stand 35 bedrooms all covered in white floral and mint green walls!”

Charlotte’s laugh came out tinny and a little distant, but Liz still smiled as she adjusted herself in the seat. It was nice to have someone around who appreciated Mrs. Bennet’s absurdities without tending towards the unkind, as Mr. Bennet often did.

They stopped at a rest area about 40 minutes out of Hunsford to switch drivers.  Charlotte and Mariah popped into the convenience store for snacks and a hot drink, but Liz stayed outside. The sky overhead was full of steel-gray clouds, thick and heavy with the promise of snow. Her breath curled in pale puffs in front of her face when she exhaled. The parking lot and the highway were surrounded by thick growth of trees. Although they were nude of leaves in the winter chill, she could easily imagine the lush, green beauty of summer. Some had patches of emerald moss across the trunks; fluffy bird’s nests were visible in the crooks of the branches.

She sighed as Mariah and Charlotte appeared in the doorway, clutching paper cups of coffee. At least if the scenery continued, perhaps the visit would not be as difficult as she feared. Liz straightened and did her best to smile at her friends, working hard to banish the last of her doubts; Mariah passed Liz the keys before moving to the passenger seat.

She made a concerted effort to be optimistic and the drive passed quickly. Before long, Liz followed Charlotte’s car off the highway and the streets of a small town. Hunsford was very different than Meryton. There was clearly more affluence; the money could be seen in the brick walls of the shops, the clean white frames of the windows and doors, as well as the gentle sparkling silver Christmas decorations and the festive scenes that still filled the windows, made of posed mannequins and goods to buy. Even in the heart of winter, with all the leaves gone from the trees and the annuals dead, it was obvious at a glance that in the spring and summer all the little gardens and plots of greenery on the edges of the sidewalk were impeccably manicured.

She followed Charlotte’s car down a quiet side street where the trees were taller, casting a canopy over the road even without their leaves. They passed a large stone and concrete sign at the entrance to a parking lot that said “Rosings,” in large, swooping script. Snow sat on tufts of bushes, outlining the dormant flowerbeds in crisp white.

For a condo complex, Liz had to admit the buildings were rather handsome. They had an almost Georgian row house appearance, with white doors and window frames standing out from the red and cream brickwork. She peered through the light sprinkling of snow to follow Charlotte through the resident’s parking lot. They drove out into one of the backlots. Charlotte’s parking spot was labeled for her but with much animated hand-waving and gesticulating, she imparted to Liz that she should drive into the next aisle, where she found spots labeled “Guest Parking.”

She pulled in as straight as she could, but the car to her left, in a resident spot, was twisted almost over the line. She had to ease the door open and slip out of a narrow crack. Charlotte had already come over to meet them; she leaned one elbow against the side of Mariah’s car. “So, what do you think?” Charlotte asked in a slightly forced casual tone. Although her body was relaxed, Liz could see a slight tightness in her eyes as if she was waiting for a blow or an insult.

She was waiting for Liz to judge her choice again.

Liz looked away slightly, tilting her face towards the building as she said, “It’s… kind of charming, I guess. It’s nicer than I thought it would be.”

Charlotte’s responsive smile was much more genuine than her previous expression. She pushed herself off from the car and stepped towards the back, speaking as she moved. “There are some really beautiful paths around the back, with a lot of greenspace. They’re good for running.” She paused a moment to help Mariah hoist her suitcase from the trunk. “It’s been kind of cold, though, so I’ve just been going to the gym instead.”

Liz sniffed and pulled her own bag from the car. “Wimp.”

Charlotte grinned. “Always.”

“And here I thought I’d have my running partner back for a few weeks!”

“Okay, I’ll go with you but only when it’s not snowing.”

Liz looked at the sky. “This? It’s barely falling!”

She responded only with a non-committal “hmph” and led the way into the building. Liz only laughed and, after grabbing her own bags from the trunk and closing up the car, tossed Mariah her car keys. The entryway was tiled and scuffed with muddy slush; Liz wiped her boots on the saturated mat before following into the hallway.

It took her a few seconds of tugging on the handle before she realized she was struggling to pull it not over flat, industrial gray carpet so common in apartment buildings, but plush, thick-piled green. The walls were painted in cream and white stripes with dark wood molding along the bottoms. They passed doors with doormats out front, often paired with tall umbrella stands or dark-topped tables with silver or gold legs.

Liz paused in front of a large, delicate nature painting. It was of a bird on a flowering branch, suspended in the frame without the support of the rest of the tree. The bird’s beak was open in what she could only assume was song.

The sound of wheels struggling over the carpeting stopped. “Coming, Liz?” Charlotte called to her.

She stared at the painting for a second longer before turning. “Yeah.” She had to pick up her bag and carry it a couple inches above the floor, but she could go much faster that way. “To be honest… I thought it’d be, like, kind of tacky.”

“Oh, no, it’s not really. I mean, I was surprised too. The person selling it isn’t the most trustworthy source.” They both laughed at the memory of Bill’s overenthusiasm. Charlotte was dangling a keychain in one hand, all the keys on the ring clinking against each other and tapping on the plastic back of her access card. They walked a little further before she stopped in front of the second to last door in the hallway. “Here’s me,” she said cheerfully.

Mariah took her bag back as Charlotte unlocked her apartment door, shouldering it open and kicking off her damp shoes by the front. The outside had been blandly elegant, but the inside of the condo looked much more like Charlotte. There were plants on most of the shelves, tendrils of vines curling around the furniture or creeping up a wire frame on the wall. She had neat stacks of hardcover books on the shelves and frame movie posters hung behind the red couch in the living room.

Charlotte tossed her jacket on the back of one of the chairs. “I’ve only got the one guestroom, so Mariah, you can share my bed.”

“You don’t need to do that, Char! I can sleep on the couch,” Liz offered. “Mariah can have the guestroom.”

After a few minutes of friendly squabbling, they agreed to Charlotte’s original plan. Mariah took her bags to Charlotte’s room, and Liz to the guestroom. Liz threw her bags in, barely taking time to glance around at the large white comforter or the pale blue walls; she would take time later to inspect it all.

She returned to the main room and crashed on the couch next to Mariah. Mariah had her feet propped up on the edge of the coffee table and she was playing with the TV remote, though the screen was still blank.

Charlotte was in the kitchen. The door led from the little entry hallway, but there was a counter and open space for her to look out at her sister and friend where they sat in the living room.

“Ugh, I’m starving,” Mariah complained after a few minutes of silence. “We should eat something.”

Liz nodded in agreement just as her stomach growled.

Charlotte laughed. “Honestly, I’m not sure what I have in. But I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like cooking after that drive!” They heard her shuffling papers around and the closing of a drawer; when she came out again, she waved a fistful of takeout menus. She traded the menus to Mariah for the TV remote.

While Liz and Mariah read over the menus, she quietly flipped through the TV directory, looking for a specific movie.

“Indian?”

Charlotte clicked a couple more times until she found what she wanted. She directed their eyes towards the title of the movie. “Sure. Nothing beats Indian takeout and a period romance.”

~~~~

Liz knocked on Charlotte’s door bright and early. And it was bright—the clouds from the previous day had cleared and the snow lay only in a thin layer across the ground. Normally, she would have banged and called out, making a general nuisance of herself, but she didn’t want to disturb Mariah more than necessary. Although she had happily offered to take the couch, offering Mariah the guestroom, in the end, the two sisters shared Charlotte’s larger bed, leaving the small guestroom to Liz alone.

“Charlotte,” Liz cooed as she eased the door open. “Come on, get up.” She ducked out of the way of the thrown pillow. “C’mon, I live with Cat and Lydia, you’ve got to try harder than that. What happened to the coach mentality you had when you were training us all?”

“I think I lost it when I stopped trying to convince the freshman to pace themselves better,” was the grumbled response. Charlotte yawned and ran one hand through her hair.

“Whatever. Get your workout stuff on! You need to show me all the good places to run.”

Charlotte shook her head. “All right, all right… Give me ten minutes.”

Liz rolled her eyes and went back to the guest bedroom to brush her hair more thoroughly. The room was decorated in white, gold, and pale blue, and made Liz feel like she was sitting in a cloud. She stood before the mirror on top of the dresser and carefully dragged the brush through her dark hair. She twisted a few strands around her fingers; it was getting quite long.

When she heard a noise from out in the hallway, she quickly tossed the strands over her shoulder and pulled it back with an elastic. She zipped up her medium weight winter running jacket and stepped out of the room.

Charlotte was still yawning, but she had on a pair of joggers and a long-sleeved top, her hair pulled back by a thick headband that sat snuggly over hear ears. “When I say I’m cold, we’re coming back inside,” she warned.

“’If you’re cold, you’re not running hard enough,’” Liz replied cheerfully.

“Ugh. I hate it when you quote me at myself.”

“Whatever you say, coach.” She went to pull on her shoes as Charlotte rifled through the hall closet for her jacket. The windbreaker material crinkled as she bent her arms into the sleeves and then stuffed her lanyard into one of the pockets.

Liz bounced on her toes while Charlotte knotted her shoe laces. “It’s not going to get any warmer outside even if you take your time.”

“A girl can dream.” She adjusted the cuff of her pants and rose to her feet. “All right, let’s get this over with.”

Liz followed her down the hallway, her step noticeably springier than her friend’s. She resisted the urge to hum, thinking it might be a little over the top obnoxious. Charlotte pulled the outside door open, standing still and grim, with her fingers on the handle. Liz stepped outside first. Not that she would admit it to Charlotte, but the wind was a bit nippy. It immediately chilled her nose and cheeks, reaching cool fingers under her chin and down her collar. She rolled her shoulders, almost wishing she had a warmer running jacket.

She tipped her head towards the sky as Charlotte checked that the doors had closed behind them. The clouds were pale and flat—threatening snow, though it wasn’t yet falling. The sun was a slightly brighter spot behind the coverage, glowing almost white compared to the grayness around it.

Charlotte stamped her feet a couple of times to warm her toes and gestured outward. “Which direction?”

“You know the paths better than I do.”

Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “Not by much.” But when Liz refused to pick, Charlotte shrugged and turned towards the right, walking through the parking lot and picking up the pace again when they found a strip of sidewalk between the back of the condo buildings and a grassy hill that sloped up to the road.

Liz let Charlotte set their pace, following the easy, loping stride across the even walk. It had been shoveled clean, the snow piles on either side of the pavement perfectly packed and squared away; there was barely even a hint of ice on the walkway. Liz could feel her ponytail tapping gently against her shoulders, swinging with the movement of her body.

She waited several minutes before she said a word. They could see the back fence of the property before Liz asked in a light, playful tone, “So, how’s the job?” There were deeper subjects she wished to broach, but wanted to start out slowly.

Shrugging while running—and the movement being recognizable—is a talent Charlotte had mastered long ago. She performed the feat once again. “Can’t complain. The benefits are good, hours aren’t too bad. Pay is much better than working for my dad!”

“What exactly do you do?”

“Well, I do lots of the finances. So, I help Bill budget when he’s planning events. I make sure all the billing statements go out and the payments get into the business office. I help Lady Cath—”

“Do you really call her Lady Catherine?” Liz interrupted. “I mean, I thought Bill—”

“Oh yeah. She insists upon it.”

“I mean, to her face, but not out here?”

Charlotte shrugged again, her expression impassive. “I’ve gotten used to it, I guess.” As they reached the fence, they turned and Charlotte led the way through a wide gate. Beyond the grounds of the Rosings complex was a large park with a lake at the center. It was ringed by a paved, dotted with trees along the edges, getting thicker the further away from Rosings they ran. Liz could tell that she was in she was in better shape than Charlotte because they ran at a much slower pace than she was used to.

She used the time to observe the scenery. Maybe it came from growing up in a resort town on the side of a lake, but Liz always liked bodies of water, no matter how large or small they were. There was a thick growth of rushes and water plants around the edges, and the center seemed to be frozen quite solid. There were benches along the edges of the path with curling armrests and solid legs with just enough slope against the back that they seemed inviting to sit in, even with their slightly covering of snow. She could almost imagine what it would look like when everything was blooming.

At the far point of the slightly oval pond, they slowed from a run to a jog to a walk before finally stopping to rest against the side of a bench. Charlotte leaned forward with one heel against the seat of the bench, stretching out her leg.

With her head faced away, Liz felt a little braver. She still felt she had apologies to make, even though they had made up at Thanksgiving. “I’m… I’m really sorry. Bill is just… Well, he’s kind of the worst. I didn’t want you to be, like, trapped here with him or anything.”

“Aw, Lizzie, are you worried about me? Honestly, I hardly ever see him. He’s got plenty of his own work to do.” Charlotte laughed as she straightened up. She put her hand on Liz’s arm. “Please, don’t worry about me. I’m really, really happy here, Lizzie. I don’t have any regrets.”

Liz nodded, not entirely convinced, but happy enough that Charlotte was happy. She pulled the elastic out of her hair and tied it up again more tightly.

“And what about you?” Charlotte asked as they turned back towards the buildings. “You’re going back to school in the fall, aren’t you?”

“When Mary is back from Switzerland, yes.”

Liz watched her feet as they paced in an even rhythm across the ground. She knew what would come next. “And have you thought any more about what you want to do after you graduate?”

She looked down at her fingers, clenching and unclenching them a couple of times. The cold was making them stiff. “I… I don’t know. I still don’t know. Everything I can think of that I really want to do requires another degree…” She shook her head. “And I don’t know how I’m going to be able to afford that.

“I’ll probably just work at The Longbourn for a couple years, maybe see where that gets me. I sort of looked for scholarships, but there were so many for teaching. I really don’t think I’m cut out to be a teacher.” Liz let herself fall silent. For a few minutes, the only sounds were their deep breaths, their feet on the pavement, and the hum of morning traffic. She hadn’t said it aloud to anyone yet, and doubted she ever would, but she was just a little bit grateful to Mary for necessitating her break off of school. It delayed the inevitable of paying for real life just a little bit longer.

Eventually, Charlotte said, “We’ll workshop it.” Her voice was easy and confident, calling back to Liz’s dizzying stack of college applications and her endless writing, deleting, and rewriting of her application essays. They had workshopped those together too, and she was accepted to 11 out of 12 schools in the end.

“Definitely,” Liz said, trying to sound more confident. But it was terribly difficult to be assured about any such looming questions of the future.

Charlotte buzzed them back into the building and they stood together in the little entrance for a moment, stamping their feet and warming their hands. “It may not have been snowing, but it’s too cold for this, Liz!”

Liz laughed and shook her head, already trying to move on. She had all the way until September before she was back in school. Surely the future could wait just a few more months. “Aw, you know you love it.”

Charlotte only shook her head and then placed her hands far back against her hips; she stretched until her back popped. “I need to head out to the store. Do you think you and Mariah can entertain yourselves for an hour? There’s, like, no food in the house.”

“I’m sure we’ll think of something to do.”

“Great.” Charlotte swung her lanyard on her fingers as they walked back to her apartment. “I won’t be too long, and when I get back, we… can…” She paused with one hand resting against the doorknob.

Liz opened her mouth to ask what was happening, but Charlotte silenced her with one raised hand. She leaned her ear close against the door, listening intently. “Oops,” she muttered softly and then immediately swung the door open. Liz then heard the noise Charlotte had been hearing.

It was a loud voice, speaking quickly and a little breathlessly, about Hunsford. “And I really think that more people should be aware of the little gems that are hiding on the other side of the highway. They’re not taking advantage of—”

Mariah was curled up on the corner of the couch closest to the door. She dipped her head back to look at Liz and her sister as they entered, her expression strained as her mouth held slack and her wide eyes begged for help. Bill Collins was sitting next to her on the couch, his legs spread wide enough that he took up more than a full cushion of space; when they entered, he had been gesticulating widely with both hands, but he stopped as soon as he cut himself off. He beamed at both of them.

“Ah,” Liz muttered under her breath. She hung back a little way, crossing her arms and leaning one shoulder against a corner of wall.

“Good morning, Charlotte!”

“Hi, Bill,” she said bluntly. “What are you doing here?” She tried to ask the question in a pleasant tone, but it still came off as blunt.

Bill didn’t seem to notice. “I came to greet your guests!”

Mariah leaned her head back even further. It looked as if she was trying to roll off the couch. Charlotte’s back was to Liz, so Liz couldn’t see her expression. She watched for a second as Charlotte’s shoulders tensed, drawing towards her ears, and then relaxed. She spread her hands open and took two steps back. She glanced back towards Liz with an apologetic expression.

Bill hopped—it was the only word for the movement he made, almost throwing himself forward and practically springing upright—to his feet and immediately advanced towards Liz, before she even had a chance to flinch back. He stopped much too close to her, encroaching beyond the accepted friendly speaking distance.

“Hello, Liz.” His smile was earnest, but a much timider expression than was usual for him. He bounced on his toes a couple of times.

She paused, considering her next move. “Hi, Bill.” She decided it would be best if she made the first overtures of peace; she was on his territory, after all. She was the one coming to visit. Determined to end the awkwardness once and for all, Liz stuck her hand out in just as stiff and formal a mannerism as Bill would have used and asked, “Friends?”

“Ah.” He looked at her hand and, just when she thought he would not, he took it, shaking far more firmly than necessary, pumping her arm a little too vigorously. “Friends.”

She did her best to smile as pleasantly and genuinely as possible. He seemed almost relieved that she brought it up first and did his best to overcome it by being overly friendly, in the most platonic sense.

“So,” Charlotte said, filling the silence when it pulled on for too long. “We were just about to head out to the grocery store, so if you—”

“Excellent!” Inexplicably, Charlotte’s news brought back Bill’s wide grin. Charlotte drew up her eyebrows and cocked her head slightly to the side. Seeing the confusion around him, he explained, “I came with plans to offer a tour—but since you live here, you obviously don’t need one, unless you want it again!” He guffawed for a moment at his own joke. “If you are going to the store, then I can entertain your guests for you!”

“Oh,” Charlotte said quickly, suddenly the recipient of frantic glances from both Liz and Mariah. “I – I mean, I thought we were all going to go together—”

“I don’t think that’s necessary. Getting a personal tour of Rosings will be much more interesting than a grocery store!” He beamed, if possible, even wider, and looked around at them all, refusing to understand the various expressions of horror that greeted him.

“Ri-ght. Yes. I guess I’ll go change then, and head out…” She made a move towards her bedroom but quickly turned in the little hallway, stepping backwards. Once Bill had turned his back, she mouthed, “Sorry!” towards Liz and Mariah.

Mariah draped herself dramatically over the arm of the couch. Liz couldn’t feel much sympathy for her; Liz had already spent her fair share of alone time with Bill. From Charlotte’s bedroom, Liz heard her closet door slam shut and the rustling of fabric. They were almost entirely silent until she reappeared. Mariah perked up slightly as she reentered the living room, hoping maybe she had changed her mind and that she would not leave them alone with Bill.

Charlotte only raised her hand and said, “I’ll be back in a bit.”

Mariah stared after her sister until the front door closed.

Bill had clearly been using his time to think about where he would start the tour. Almost immediately, he launched into his introduction. “What did you think of the design of the outside?” he asked first, clasping his hands behind his back and leaning in towards Liz.

Liz cautiously raised one eyebrow as she answered, less enthusiastic to him than she had been with Charlotte, “It is… nice. I don’t think I’ve seen many buildings that look like it.”

Bill grinned, Cheshire-like, as he caught her in his clumsily laid snare. “Excellent. You’re right, it is unique! Did you know that Lady Catherine hired the designer herself? She wanted to evoke some of her favorite buildings near her former home in the South of England.”

Both girls did their best to nod as if they were interested. The rest of the hour went pretty much the same. First, they followed him out of the building and into the freezing parking lot, where he toured them around the property, pointing out where he pointed out where all the flowers would be if the ground was frozen solid and covered in snow. He stopped every few feet to exclaim over the state of the landscaping, detailing the awards the designs had won over the years.

Only when they were thoroughly chilled did he bring them back inside. Starting at the front lobby of the main building, he toured them through what seemed like every hallway in the place. Every room was a great joy, the pinnacle of Lady Catherine’s forethought and taste. “I was lucky enough to see some of the original plans. Lady Catherine hand wrote notes on what general use rooms to include!”

There was a gym available for general use that they stopped in for a few minutes. While Bill droned on about the wall colors, Liz inspected the treadmill. It was one of those impressively high-tech pieces that could be raised for increased resistance. If Charlotte refused to join her outside and it did snow, she decided she wouldn’t be opposed to taking her morning run inside for once. There were a few other machines and a weightlifting bench, with a row of free weights pushed up against the mirror wall.

He spoke long enough for her to ascertain there were two sets of each weight from three pounds to fifteen, three resistance bands each of four different strengths, two exercise balls, and two half-domed Bosu balls. She had just turned her attention towards the mats hanging on the wall when he decided he had told them enough about the gym. She did not have to be convinced that it was time to leave.

“Now, up on the next floor—”

“There’s more?” Mariah half groaned, half sighed.

Bill blinked as he took in her words. When he did, his chest began to puff up like some mortally offended bird. “Of course, there’s more! Did you think that was all? Just that little bit? Rosings was listed as one of the top condominium complexes in—”

“I think,” Liz said quickly, putting her hand on Mariah’s shoulder in solidity, “what she means is that it’s just, um, so much to take in. Maybe it would be better if we… came back to it later?” She winced at the suggestion of interest in a further tour, but they would just have to work hard to get out of it later.

Her explanation seemed to appease him, though. He nodded his head sagely. “Of course, of course. It’s all so much to take in, isn’t it? I’ll bring you back to Charlotte’s apartment so you can process it all.” He gestured for them to follow, but he had only made it a few steps when he stopped again. “Well, would you be open to seeing one more room on the way back? It’s on the way after, all.”

Without waiting for a response, he nodded to himself and started off again.

“Do you think we could make a break for it?” Mariah hissed in Liz’s ear.

“Probably, but it might be better just to go with it—I don’t even think I could find the way back to the apartment on my own now!”

He turned them down a short hallway with a set of tall double doors at the end, the dark wood inlaid with a set of angular lines that formed a pattern when they were both closed. Bill stepped in front of them and stood directly in front of the doors, fiddling around with the handles. Then, with the air of a gameshow host revealing the prize, he pulled the doors wide for them to see. “This is the entertainment room. Lady Catherine wished for there to be an accessible social space for the residents to share, so she built this room.”

While perhaps not nearly as remarkable as Bill seemed to think it was, it was a very nice and very well stocked rec room. There was a pool table right by the door they entered, the cues and rack hung neatly against the wall.  Along the back wall was a white, floor to ceiling bookshelf. The upper shelves were neatly spaced, with a combination of books both so random and so aesthetically pleasing that they could only have been placed for decoration. Little pots and pieces of wintertime décor, like glittering branches full of fake leaves and plastic pinecones, were artfully spaced around the volumes. The bottom shelves were more of a pleasant jumble, full of cracked spines and well-thumbed corners. Books were piled on their sides on overstuffed shelves, or listing gently to the side on sparser packed ones.

In the center of the room was a large TV with a DVD stand next to it, ringed by modular couches and a number of armchairs. One the far end was a large, upright piano pressed against the wall. There was a short stack of books and stray sheet music on a little table.

Liz stepped a little further in and ran her fingers along the soft green felt of the pool table as Mariah took a seat on one of the large leather couches. It creaked when she moved. “This is nice,” she told him, the first time she didn’t feel like the compliment was being forced out of her. She could imagine herself coming to read in the room or watch a movie with Mariah when Charlotte needed to work.

Whether Bill could tell the difference between a genuine compliment or not, he seemed pleased with their approval. Even Mariah was less mortified at seeing the room; she spent a couple of minutes looking over the movie selection.

With markedly higher spirits, they returned to Charlotte’s apartment. She was in the kitchen when they entered, rustling bags and organizing packages in the fridge. “There you are!” she called without looking up from her sorting; her voice was slightly muffled by the walls of the fridge. “I thought you were lost for good. I was just getting ready to search for you,” she added, emptying the last bag.

“I would never get them lost,” Bill assured her, taking a seat uninvited on the couch. “I know Rosings too well for that.”

Mariah very visibly bit her tongue. Liz refused to look at either of them, afraid she might laugh aloud, and perched herself on one of the countertop seats.

“Well, anyway,” Charlotte said in a falsely bright tone, breaking up the silence as she walked out of the kitchen. “Thanks for taking them around.”

“My pleasure. Unfortunately, we didn’t complete the tour, so in the next few days I’ll be sure to take them around again. We only went through the grounds and the first three floors. We completely missed out on—” He continued to speak, listing every aspect of the building they had yet to see, from the upper balcony space to the reproduction windows two floors up.

Despite their best efforts, they just could not seem to get him to leave. Charlotte tried several times, with hints and nudges, attempting to encourage him to think of other duties he might have, but he was steadfast in deflecting every hint.

“Shouldn’t you be going soon?” she tried around lunch; though he ate little, he was still a loud presence at the table, and finished off the last of a few pieces of food she had been hoping to save for another day. “I’m sure Lady Catherine left you some work to catch up on—”

“No, I am completely free! I finished all my work before New Year’s and she generously gave me off until next Monday—just like you Charlotte! Which was so kind of her; I really didn’t expect to have such a long New Year’s break—”

Charlotte grimaced as he set off again, listing the high merits of his benefactress.

“Why don’t you just ask him to leave?” Liz demanded of Charlotte as they carried the dishes into the kitchen. “I mean, I get not wanting to be rude, but this is really—”

Charlotte only sighed and leaned her hip against the side of the counter. “I mean, besides the fact that I have to work with his incredibly fragile ego every day?”

“Well, yeah.”

“He’s just going to twist it around. You try it—he’ll probably just invite himself to dinner when you suggest it.”

Liz narrowed her eyes. “Fine, I will.” She dried her hands on the kitchen towel and stalked back into the living room.

Bill was humming to himself as he read through a sheaf of papers that he had pulled from somewhere. Despite his denial of having work to do, they were clearly related to Rosings’ business.

“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable reading that somewhere else?” she asked, leaning against the wall and crossing her arms.

He looked up with a shy smile. “Well, these are actually Charlotte’s. I wouldn’t want to remove her work without her knowing.”

“I thought you said you didn’t have work to do today.”

“Oh, no, I don’t. But there is always work to be done.”

“Why don’t you take the day off, then, and go home?”

He tapped a line on the paper. “I was hoping Charlotte could answer some of my questions about this account, and then I can answer more of your and Mariah’s questions about Hunsford!”

“I’m sure Charlotte would be happy to answer most of those…”

“Yes, but I’ve lived here so much longer than she has. I don’t want either of you to feel like you don’t know what you—”

Liz sighed as he continued, closing her eyes when he chattered on. Nothing short of showing him the door and closing it in his face would make him leave. And since it wasn’t her house, she wasn’t quite ready to do that. She returned to the kitchen as Charlotte placed the last plate back in the cabinet.

“You were right,” she groaned. “You’d better make an extra serving for dinner.”

Charlotte drew up one eyebrow, imparting her “I told you so” in a silent gloat.

~~~~

During dinner, Liz purposefully attempted to steer the conversation away from any subject in which Bill could participate. She avoided asking any questions about work or the area, instead focusing on Charlotte’s contacts with her friends from college or their mutual high school acquaintances. She also encouraged Mariah to discuss her own experiences of the last semester.

They could not keep avoiding the topic forever, though, and eventually the conversation rounded back to plans during the visit.

“I’m not sure if they’re open tomorrow, but there’s this great sushi place downtown. We could go there or the day after if—”

“Oh!” Bill cried suddenly, dropping his fork so abruptly that Charlotte jumped when the metal hit the edge of the plate and stopped speaking. “How could I forget? So stupid of me! I can’t believe that I wouldn’t—”

Yes, Bill?” Liz asked with a snap. “What did you forget?”

Turning in his seat, he addressed himself more to Charlotte than to Liz. “I took it upon myself to inform Lady Catherine that your guests arrived. I believe she will be sending you an invitation to dinner in the next couple of nights. Please don’t make any plans you can’t cancel! I would hate for her to be disappointed.”

“How… thoughtful.”

Not hearing Charlotte’s hesitation, Bill beamed. “Of course! It’s what I would have hoped you would do for me.”

“I’ll be sure to remember that.”

Mariah paused for a second and then said in a very small voice, “Who exactly is Lady Catherine? I mean, besides your and Charlotte’s boss?”

Charlotte and Liz both immediately flinched. Bill puffed up his chest in preparation. “You don’t know who Lady Catherine is?”

“Um… Not really. I mean…”

She didn’t have to finish her sentence before Bill set himself off. “Lady Catherine de Bourgh is one of the foremost inhabitants of this half of Pennsylvania. As the child of the earl of Southampton, she was no stranger to charity work. She came to America to study—”

Charlotte watched Liz through the rest of Bill’s speech, waiting for her to register any of what he was saying. Instead, she watched as her friend lined green beans on her plate and created artful swirls of pasta, not listening to a single word out of the man’s mouth.

~~~~

“Lizzie,” Charlotte said almost as soon as Bill had left, “I do have some… unfortunate news for you.”  

Liz raised her eyebrows warily. “Oh? And that is?”

Charlotte cleared her throat delicately. “You remember Fitzwilliam Darcy and his, uh, uncle the earl? The earl of Southampton?” she added pointedly.

Liz rolled her eyes. “How could I forget?” Clearly, she had done too good a job of blocking Bill’s ramblings out.

“Well. There aren’t very many people related to nobility in America, are there?”

“No. No, there aren’t.”

“So, maybe it wouldn’t be a surprise if the earl that Darcy is related to is also… the one Catherine de Bourgh is related to.”

“…You’re kidding.”

“I’m not. I asked about it, because I was as surprised as you—Catherine de Bourgh is Darcy’s aunt.”

“Well. I better do my best not to mention him, huh?”

“No, probably not. I don’t think she’d care for your opinions on him!”

 “No, I wouldn’t think so. I mean, I would have been happy never to see him again regardless of the circumstances, but if he finds me at his aunt’s house, that’d just be embarrassing!” She laughed at the absurdity of the thought and began to pile up dishes from the table. 

Chapter Text

Now,” Bill said, very solemnly, looking both girls up and down, “when you meet Lady Catherine, you must remember that she is nobility.”

Mariah nodded frantically, looking pale and somewhat apprehensive. However tired she was of Bill, the idea of a meeting the daughter of an earl was daunting. Liz did her best to hide her smile as she stood listing to the side slightly, with her hand placed on one cocked hip. Bill had come down to Charlotte’s apartment, painfully early as usual, in a charcoal suit.

Firstly, because of her relationship to her brother the Earl of Southampton, she must always be addressed as ‘Lady Catherine’ or ‘my lady’ or ‘her ladyship.’ She always prefers the distinction of rank and who can blame her? How many people in America can claim a hereditary title?” He let out his little titter of a laugh and cleared his throat.

“Second, you must always remember your manners. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are imperative. Keep your elbows off the table, use your napkin… All elementary, perhaps, but necessary. She is a most particular on this instance. I have seen her take grown men to task for using the wrong fork on their salad! Thirdly, you must—”

“Bill?” Charlotte interrupted in her sweetest tones, “Bill, I think you’re getting a little carried away with yourself. They’re here to visit me, not to come and work for Lady Catherine.”

He paused, thinking very hard. There was a light sheen of sweat on his forehead. “Yes. Yes, of course, Charlotte, I had quite… carried myself away, hadn’t I?”

“Only a little.”

Right you are then!” he cried, suddenly animated again as he clapped his hands together. “Well, come, let’s not be late!” He gave a little shudder, as if the thought of tardiness was a nightmare beyond his wildest fears.

He quickly retreated out the door and, turning on his heel, led the way to the elevators. Liz rolled her eyes at Charlotte before moving to follow him.

Lady Catherine had not waited several days, but one, to extend her invitation. It came as an embossed note in Charlotte’s mail in the morning and Bill showing up at her door promptly at 4:30 as a personal escort—Liz was not pleased to learn he had been invited as well. Despite herself, she found she was fascinated by the prospect of meeting the woman who seemed to control Bill’s psyche so completely.

The elevator took them all the way up to the top floor—one of the ones Liz and Mariah missed out on during their tour. The doors opened. Mariah blinked up at the chandeliers hanging from the hallway ceiling. Liz found them a bit ostentatious, but the younger girl seemed enthralled. The carpet was the same plush as that of the lower floors, but it was somewhere between gold and beige, completely spotless despite the pale color. The art hanging on the walls was not the delicate studies in the other hallways but bold landscapes that all seemed to be of the same area. “The south of England,” Bill informed them as they walked. “Mostly Kent and Southampton.” Liz dragged back for a second to admire a large piece in a gilt frame of a very pretty bridge, built of white and brown stone, that arched over a river.

“Come on, come on,” Bill called from down the hallway. With a last glance at the picture, Liz turned and trotted up to them. They had congregated outside the only door in the corridor; rather than a number, the name De Bourgh was painted in curling black lettering over the top of a bronze doorknocker. Bill stepped up and took it by the ring, smartly rapping it twice.

A woman barely older than Liz with her hair in braids opened the door. She had flour on her chin and a half wiped away smear of green sauce on her apron. Without a word, she stepped back to let them into the apartment. Without waiting for her to lead the way, or even tell him what to do, Bill strode through the entry way, past the kitchen and the dining room, and into a large sitting room. There was a couch against one wall and a blue chair that was turned slightly off center so it could look directly towards a matched pair of armchairs with high backs. He settled himself with ease into the turned chair and looked expectantly back through the archway. Liz halfway turned before fully entering the room.

The girl who opened the door had followed them and she ducked her head awkwardly. “I’ll go get her ladyship.” The title sounded strange in such an American accent. Bill—and Charlotte—seemed nonplussed by her timidity, so Liz chose not to dwell on it. Instead, she took her time looking around the room.

What could be seen of the walls was a striped wallpaper and white skirting board. Almost every open piece wall space was covered in pictures, a combination of photographs and painted portraits. Many of them were of a skinny, pale, blonde girl, wearing an oxygen tube in a few of the images, but not in most of them. Also, in most of them, it seemed to cause her great pain to smile. Liz could pick out her progression from sad looking child to awkward teenager. There were wedding photos of, Liz assumed, Lady Catherine and her husband. Lady Catherine’s face was obscured in most of them and Liz couldn’t get a good look at her, even when she stepped up to picture and peered closely. She had to fight the urge to rest her knees on the cushions of the sofa and lean in even further.

Instead, she stepped carefully back and focused on another section of images. There were a few that seemed older, the edges discoloring slightly. In one such photo, three figures sat upright in their chairs, stiff and formal. There was a boy, no more than 16, and two girls, probably about 12 and 8. He was in a suit and both girls were in prim little dresses. Liz assumed they must be Lady Catherine, her brother the Earl of Southampton, and Darcy’s mother. They did not look unhappy, precisely, but it was hard to tell if they were so solemn because of the photograph or their nature.

Bill cleared his throat suddenly, very loudly, coinciding with the sound of heels clicking sharply across the wooden floor. Liz turned in time to see him jump to his feet and give her a glare, his eyes wide and warning, as he jerked his head towards the door—not the one they had entered through—where the sound was coming from. He clasped his hands in front of himself, squaring his shoulders as he faced the door.

They heard the end of a woman’s sharply spoken sentence. “—I would have expected you to be more grateful to your aunt for this position.” The door began to open.

The girl mumbled, “Yes, ma’am.”

The speaker, who could only be Lady Catherine, clucked her tongue. “Speak up when spoken to,” she demanded as she stepped into view, pushing the door all the way open. Without looking back at the girl, she instructed, “You may go back to the kitchen now. I expect dinner to be on time tonight.”

Then she turned to her guests as if nothing strange had occurred. Although she had no reason to, Liz expected her to be older. But Lady Catherine was her father’s age at most, not much more than 60. Her hair was a sandy blonde color, going gray at the roots. She had a long, almost pointy face, with large eyes and lips on the thinner side. She bore almost no wrinkles, but her expressions were very stiff, removing the question of natural grace or Botox. Her eyes were a pleasant gray color that, upon closer viewing, did look very much like Darcy’s. They were highlighted, somewhat unpleasantly, by a light cover of green eyeshadow. She was nearly as tall as Darcy too, with broad shoulders and wide hips below a defined waistline.

She opened her mouth to show a tight, unenthusiastic smile, as if she wasn’t used to wearing the expression. Her accent had an almost forced quality to it, the overly clipped tones of a BBC drama. Liz had a sudden flash of thought—what if she faked the accent to supplement one lost over such a long time spent in America? The idea was hilarious to her in ways she couldn’t vocalize and she wrested with her features, struggling to keep them smooth as Lady Catherine kissed Bill on both cheeks.

“And these are your guests, Miss Lucas?”

“Yes, Lady Catherine. This is my sister, Mariah, and my friend, Liz Bennet.”

Mariah was so overwhelmed that she attempted to do a kind of half curtsey, half bow, but as she was wearing pants, it only looked in the end as if she was trying to do a ballet move. Liz only said, “Hello. It’s very nice to meet you.”

Lady Catherine ignored them both. “Liz… Short for Elizabeth, yes?”

Liz thought she was about to be in trouble. Had Darcy said something to his aunt? “Yes.”

“Then I will call you that,” she said with a sniff, turning away and looking towards Bill. “I do hate nicknames. I don’t see the purpose of a diminutive of the name your parents already gave you.”

Liz could only blink in surprise and say, “Oh.” But Lady Catherine had already moved on, turning to Bill to ask him a question about taxes for the current quarter. Liz looked to Charlotte for help, but her friend only shook her head and shrugged, offering no explanation.

It wasn’t until Lady Catherine settled herself into one of the two tall armchairs that Bill and Charlotte sat. Following their example, Liz took a seat on the edge of a cushion upholstered in an insipid pink and cream floral pattern. Mariah practically fell into the seat next to her. Liz reached out to squeeze her hand quickly, though she mentally rolled her eyes at everyone in the room.

She continued to speak almost exclusively with Bill. Mariah jittered one of her knees up and down, frequently glancing towards her sister for assurances. Based on Charlotte’s relaxed posture and relative disregard for the conversation happening around them, this was not uncommon behavior. She leaned back in her seat, purposefully not looking at Liz lest her friend start pulling faces. Liz took the hint and sighed, crossing her arms, before continuing to look around at the photos and paintings decorating the room. There were more images framed on the end tables and slotted into the bookshelf that she hadn’t seen before—it was against the wall next to the archway they had entered through.

The door that Lady Catherine had come through remained ajar during her discussion with Bill—or, rather, her lecturing at him as he nodded his head gamely and saying, “yes,” or, “of course!” in all the right places—and through it, Liz could hear a number of sounds. A door opened and then closed again. The wooden floor creaked. Something rubber squeaked against the ground, followed by a shuffling sound. Liz watched with increasing interest as a young woman appeared through the gap and then eased her way into the sitting room, walking with a pair of forearm crutches as aid. She moved slowly, like she was trying to walk as quietly as possible. But when Bill saw her, he nearly rocketed to his feet. Lady Catherine half turned in her seat and said, “Anne, is that you?” She winced slightly, still partially hidden by the door, and then moved forward with a little more momentum.

She was clearly the girl from the pictures, but she wore her hair differently. Rather than the lank bob or shoulder length cut, it was now in a short pixie style with bangs longer in the front, swept to the left side of her face. It sat somewhere between “too cool to talk to you” and “high schooler who cut their own hair with kitchen shears.” Where it rested against her thin cheeks, it leaned more towards the latter. Her eyes were huge in her face, made larger by her thin, pale eyebrows and almost white ring of lashes. She had on dark brown, almost black lipstick but no other makeup. There was a piercing over her right nostril that hadn’t been in the pictures; a stud with a small red stone, maybe a ruby or a garnet.

She was tall too, but much thinner than Lady Catherine. She was all drawn into herself, her shoulders narrow, and with little bust or hips to speak of. She wore a number of rings on her fingers, but the chunky jewelry seemed far too large for her delicate hands. There was also a thick braid of yarn around one wrist. Her pale eyes swept over the room, lingering a few seconds longer on Liz’s face than anyone else’s.

With a practiced motion, she placed herself right in front of the second armchair, right next to Lady Catherine, lifting her crutches out of the way of her legs as she sank into the cushion. Once seated, she unhooked the cuff from her right arm and swung it over her body. It clacked against the left crutch as she pushed them together and leaned them against the side of the chair.

“Hello,” she said finally in a high, pinched and slightly breathless voice. “I’m Anne.”

Before Liz could open her mouth to speak, Lady Catherine took the introductions into her own hands. With a magisterial finger, she pointed out each person in turn; “William Collins, Charlotte Lucas, her sister Mariah, and Elizabeth Bennet.”

She coughed softly. “Welcome.”

Lady Catherine jumped on the sound. “Do you need your inhaler?”

Anne shook her head. “No, Mum, I’m fine.”

Lady Catherine watched her for a moment longer and then placed one hand against her daughter’s wrist, the shape of it huge and broad compared to Anne’s relatively small one. “I am tremendously proud of my Anne. She has overcome so much in her life!”

Anne smiled at her mother, but the expression quickly turned into a grimace when Lady Catherine looked away and it was only Liz looking at her. Liz stifled a laugh.

“She never let her weakness—”

Disability, Mum,” Anne corrected sharply, in a tone that said she’d done so many times before. “It’s Cerebal Palsy, not an unnamed death sentence.”

“Well, your lungs—”

“My lungs are just fine when it’s not so wet and cold!” Anne pulled her arm out from beneath her mother’s grasp and coughed again.

Lady Catherine raised her newly freed hand to wave it vaguely in the air, fluttering away Anne’s comments. “Not in front of the guests, dear.” When her daughter did not protest, she continued. “She is an artist.”

Anne ducked her head slightly, turning pink. But she took in a wheezing breath and did not speak.

“She works with fabric and yarns, which is just so unique—don’t you think so, William?” She gave him only time enough to nodded his head eagerly before she continued. “She has had a great many shows around the country and sold pieces to collectors and even a few art museums! Her work is on display at—”

Liz sighed and leaned back against the couch cushions. She fidgeted the toes of her shoes against the edge of the area rug, ruffling the fabric of the pattern back and forth. She looked up from under her bangs, not wanting to be caught staring. She flicked her eyes around the room before they settled on Anne. Despite the boldness of her haircut, Anne seemed to have shrunk a little in her seat, her shoulders rolled in slightly as she glanced up at her mother more than a couple times, watching her speak. Lady Catherine easily took up all the space in the room with her loud voice and forceful presence and there seemed little space left for her daughter—even when the daughter was the subject of discussion.

“What about you, Elizabeth?”

Hearing her name, Liz straightened in her seat. “I’m sorry, what about me?”

Lady Catherine pursed her lips. “Are you artistic?”

“Me?” she laughed and shook her head. “No, not really.”

Charlotte leaned forward slightly in her seat, resting one elbow against her crossed knee. “You played piano, Liz—that’s artsy.”

“All right, I played for a while,” Liz demurred, holding her hands out, palms open, in defeat, “but I didn’t keep up with it. And I never made anything of my own. My younger sister, Cat, makes things. She’s the artsy one. She likes to make films and do special effects makeup.”

Lady Catherine raised one eyebrow into a high arch; the corners of her mouth turned sharply. “What kind of special effects makeup?”

“Like, gore and scars. You know, for horror movies. Or alien makeup for sci-fi pieces.”

Both her eyebrows raised higher.

“She’s the most interested out of all of us,” Liz continued cheerfully, egged on by Lady Catherine’s expression—a mixture of disapproval and scandalization. Anne grinned, returning Liz’s expression.

After a moment of silence, Lady Catherine sniffed loudly. “How many siblings do you have, Elizabeth?”

Picking up her tone, Liz purposefully positioned herself casually, resting one elbow on the arm of the couch, slouching her torso towards it. “Four. All sisters.”

“Five daughters!”

“Yep.”

“Where do you fall in the order?”

“Second eldest.”

Before Lady Catherine could begin to dive really deeply into her interrogation, the girl appeared in the doorway, her apron stained with a rainbow of color. She fidgeted where she stood, rubbing the top of her shoe against the opposite calf. “Dinner is ready, ma’am.”

“Stand up straight when you speak to me or guests, Annabelle!” Lady Catherine snapped.

Annabelle put her foot down. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. We will be in the dining room shortly.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Annabelle almost whispered before turning and quickly disappearing from the archway.

Lady Catherine shook her head. “Good help is so hard to find the in the United States! When Danielle is on her break, this household is useless!” So saying, she pulled herself to her full height and turned out of the room.

She swept out barely a glance at her daughter, who was still working to extricate herself from the cushions. Bill threw himself immediately out of his seat, almost running forward to follow at Lady Catherine’s heels.

Liz, Mariah, and Charlotte each held back a few paces as Anne finally managed to push herself out of the chair. She moved quickly once her crutches were hooked on her forearms and the four of them followed Bill and her mother into the dining room.

The first thing Liz noticed about it was that it was yellow. Extremely yellow. The walls bore full sheets of buttercup yellow with tiny white floral designs in straight columns across the surface of it. The second thing she noticed were the birds.

Across one wall was a gigantic cage with several levels of branches and ledges for the brightly colored birds to hop across. One of them, a small white and yellow bird with a plume on its head, twittered incessantly. She stepped forward to look at the birds, but as soon as she came within half a foot of the cage, a different bird with bright red feathers launched itself towards the bars of the cage. She jumped back when it snatched at the metal with its claws, shaking the entire structure. She wasn’t about to ask why Lady Catherine chose to keep a birdcage in the dining room, with all the screaming and chattering they were engaged in after the humans merely entered the room; she looked for an empty seat instead.

There were eight chairs at the long table. Lady Catherine settled herself at what was clearly the head, not the foot, her arms settled primly on the armrests of her seat. Bill had already taken the chair to her left. Rather than sitting in the open chair to her right, Anne put herself to Bill’s side. After a brief pause, Charlotte took the chair to Lady Catherine’s right, Mariah sticking closely by her side. Deciding she would rather brave the unknown than be closer to Lady Catherine, Liz slipped into the empty chair next to Anne.

She folded and refolded her napkin in her lap as their dinners were brought out two plates at a time, the plates coming to Lady Catherine first, then to the other. They had to pass her inspection; though she turned none back, she clucked and tutted over them, remarking on the cleanliness of the plates and the evenness of the saucing. Mariah fidgeted as well, while Charlotte looked pointedly away. Anne only looked at her hands.

When Liz received her plate, she picked up her fork, intending to begin eating. Bill made a horrible coughing, harrumphing noise, but it took her a second to realize he was making it at her. He stared at her and she glanced around the table, trying to figure out what his intention was. Only when Lady Catherine took her first bite did he drop his eyes to his own plate.

Liz sighed and started to eat. It was good—a flaky fish with a lemon sauce over green beans, blistered tomatoes, and roasted potatoes. After a few minutes, Liz turned to Anne. Keeping her voice low under the scrape and clatter of cutlery, she asked, “You said you don’t like the cold and wet—I take it you don’t live out here?” She didn’t want Lady Catherine to answer for her daughter again; so far, he seemed deeply invested in whatever Bill was saying.

Anne smiled. “No, I live out in New Mexico, near Santa Fe. I find I’m not as allergic to as much as I am up here and I can breathe better when it’s dry.”

“How did you end up down there?”

“I was homeschooled during high school. It got really hard for me to get out and spend time with people, so I got really into art. There were so many videos online on how to knit and crochet, how to sew and embroider… I got really into it. Since I didn’t have some of the necessary background that so many colleges look for, I thought I’d shoot for art school. I ended up being accepted to one in New Mexico and when I went to visit I just… fell in love. And while I was out there, my joints didn’t hurt so much, and I could breathe so much easier…” She sighed—the air caught in her throat for a second, a hitch of the lungs rather than a sad sound—and smiled. “I love it out there.”

“Wow, that sounds so cool. I’m from a resort town, on a lake. It’s cute. I like it a lot. But I guess I’m not as in love with it as you are with New Mexico.”

“I’m sure you’ll find your place someday. You’ll know it when you see it.”

Liz tried to return the happy expression, but she rubbed at her cheek with one hand. “Yeah, I hope so. I guess I’m more concerned about finding a career first.”

Anne nodded. “That is the hard part…”

“So, do you have any roommates?” Liz asked quickly, changing the subject off of her and her uncertainties. She wasn’t sure how old Anne was, but she seemed young enough to still live with a college friend.

Anne beamed at the question. “Yes. Well—a little more than that. I own a house with”—her voice dropped at the word—“my partner”—before raising again. “Marisol Jenkinson. We met while I was in school and she was working—”

Bringing her volume back up had been a mistake that both girls realized too late. Lady Catherine abruptly cut off whatever topic she was discussing with Bill to jump into her daughter’ conversation. “I don’t know why you don’t let me hire her full time, Anne, I really don’t. She seems like a very capable young woman, and it would make it so much easier for you to focus on your art if you’re not so worried about your health all the time.”

“Because I want a girl—a friend, not a nurse!” Anne’s face turned bright red as she spoke. “She doesn’t even work in the right area. She’s an orthopedic nurse!”

“I don’t see why that matters. She should know well enough to help you get around, make sure all of your medication is in order.”

“I can do that by myself just fine. She’s my friend, not an employee!”

“You don’t take good enough care of yourself, Anne.”

“And you just want to throw money around until everything is fixed.”

There was a long silence. The birds in the cage took their chance to flutter and call out. Liz looked at her plate and ate a few bites; she jumped when she was called on. “You are a college student, Elizabeth?” Lady Catherine snapped, finally taking her eyes off of her daughter.

“Yes, um Lady Catherine. I’m an English major.” The title felt strange to say aloud. She did not offer that she was taking a gap year, certain it would lead to further uncomfortable interrogations.

Oh, an English major. How interesting.” She did not sound particularly interested; she spoke the words in an off-handed tone, her voice dropping off at the end of her sentence. “You know, my nephew is a writer.”

Liz winced; Charlotte smirked. Mariah, wide-eyed, glanced back and forth between the three faces and hoped she wasn’t missing anything. Unlike Liz’s sisters, Mariah was not in the habit of eavesdropping and knew little of Darcy in general and almost nothing in specifics.

“But I suppose, then, you must be a great Shakespeare fan.”

Liz admitted that she was and tried not to laugh as Anne rolled her eyes again.

“Oh, excellent. It is always such a tragedy to meet people who cannot appreciate the classics.”

Liz nodded politely, but Bill shook his head in great, earnest agreement. He even opened his mouth to speak, but Lady Catherine silenced him with a gesture. “Would you consider yourself anything of a Shakespeare scholar, Elizabeth?”

“No, I don’t think I would. But as a junior, it’s really too early to specialize in any one subject. And Shakespeare plays as an overall specialization is really much too ambitious for an undergrad. You need a stronger background of comparative lit before you dive into the Bard.”

Lady Catherine narrowed her eyes slightly. “And do you think you speak for all undergraduates that it is too ambitious a mode of study? I am sure my Anne would have done quite well, if she had been inclined to study literature.”

Anne bit her lip and turned her face away, but seemed unable to continue to confront her mother.

Liz dipped her head slightly. “I wouldn’t speak for all undergrads, but I wouldn’t think anyone would want to take up such a heavy load of study unless they considered pursuing a doctorate in the subject.”

Lady Catherine let out a little hmph and said, “You do give your opinion decidedly for such a young person. And not even in school at the moment.” She shook her head slightly and gave a little cluck of her tongue. Then, having decided she was finished with the subject, waved Liz off suddenly. “Well, no matter. You know, there is a wonderful little theater just down the road. They have put on a number of plays this season. Charlotte, you should take your friend to see a play,” Lady Catherine commanded her suddenly, turning her full gaze on Charlotte. “You would do her a disservice by not bringing her.”

To Liz’s surprise, Charlotte let out a little laugh. “But it was supposed to be a surprise! I already bought tickets—they were going to be your birthday present, Lizzie.”

She smiled across the table at her friend. “Aw, Char! Thank you! Now I know why you wanted me to bring a nice dress!”

Lady Catherine raised her eyebrows in approval. “Good. I am glad you will have a chance to enjoy the culture of this lovely little town. How long will you be staying?”

“About two weeks. Mariah has to get back to school before her classes start again.”

“What a shame. I find Hunsford so lovely in the snow. Don’t you, William?”

“Yes, Lady Catherine! I do think—”

She cut him off without a glance; he promptly shut his mouth when sound came out of hers. “Anne is staying through the beginning of February. But I suppose you do not have the luxury of setting your own schedules as students.” It sounded like an insult when she phrased it the way she did.

Anne groaned. “Mum. It’s not their fault! And you know I’m only staying through the end of the month because Robert and Fitz are coming. I wouldn’t—”

Liz didn’t hear the rest of her sentence; her eyes flashed to Charlotte’s face. Her friend had taken the moment to conveniently cover her mouth with her napkin, but Liz could tell from the stretch of her cheeks and the wide shape of her eyes that she was laughing. Very gently, she placed her fork on the edge of her plate and dropped her hands to her lap. Why had she allowed Charlotte to talk her into coming to Hunsford? The whole idea was terribly mismanaged and she had no one but herself to blame.

Surely, though, in a complex as large as Rosings he would be easy to avoid. That was some small mercy.

Chapter Text

They left New York immediately after breakfast, leaving them a comfortable margin for the six-hour drive. Darcy started behind the wheel; they would switch off somewhere mid-Pennsylvania, so Robert wouldn't have to adjust simultaneously to wrong-side-of-the-road driving and New York City traffic.

Robert Fitzwilliam was the youngest son of the current Earl of Southampton, the older brother of both Darcy's mother and their aunt Catherine. He was closest in age to his American cousins, being not yet 31. He was shorter, more solidly built than Darcy or their cousin Anne, and had a far more open countenance. If Darcy was inclined to shy away from a difficult social situation or awkward moment, Robert was ready to embrace or laugh at it.

True to both their forms, Robert was the one asking the questions, while receiving less than loquacious replies. He drummed his fingers along his knee and began the interrogation. "Still single, then, Fitz?" He had waited until Darcy was looking up into his rearview mirror so he could watch his cousin's expression; Robert's lips twitched as he saw Darcy's eyes widen at the question.

After a long silence, Darcy simply replied, "Yes."

"Hmm..." He leaned his elbow against the side of the door, tipping his head towards the window.

"And what about you then?" Darcy asked sharply.

Robert laughed. "Oh, single, certainly. But which of the two of us has been defending a dissertation?"

Darcy rolled his eyes, even though Robert couldn't see it, and still suddenly. Since when had he begun to use that mannerism? Trying to shake it off, he muttered instead, "You earned your PhD over a year ago."

"Fair enough." Robert leaned back in his seat, crossed his arms over his chest, and glanced over at his cousin. Darcy seemed particularly pale and off put by the topic of conversation. More so than his usual stiffness at personal matters. "You're not still on about that French girl, are you?"

Darcy changed color again, blushing slightly. "No. It's not... quite..." He struggled with his response. No, he was not on about "that French girl," not really, but she had certainly left a strong enough impression on his romances. And others. He pursed his lips, considering what to respond with—what to share and how much. "No," he said again, his voice a little stronger. "But if you must bring her up, one of my very good friends, he was recently in—almost in a relationship with a girl who I didn't think..." Darcy paused, trying to decide how to phrase the situation. "I just didn't want her to turn out to be another Antoinette, you know? She seemed so disinterested."

Robert frowned, tapping one hand against the dashboard. "I suppose. But, surely wasn't she... I mean, of course I wasn't the other party in that whole affair, but surely those were extenuating circumstances?"

"Yeah. Maybe," he responded gruffly.

"You should try dating again."

"I have! I've dated!" His voice rose, hotness behind the words that did nothing to disguise the deepening of the blush on his cheeks.

Robert raised his eyebrows. "Going on dates doesn't mean dating, Fitz. Not every girl is after your money and not all of your friends are after your estate."

Darcy let out a humorless laugh. "Doesn't seem like it, though, does it? Not one relationship I've made in the last five years—friendly or romantic—has turned out nearly as innocent as I was hoping for. And I'm sure the only reason the business side hasn't gone to Hell is because of contracts."

"Fitz." Darcy stopped at the red light and turned to look at his cousin. "I think you're exaggerating just a little bit. Despite your extraordinary bad luck for the last few years, closing yourself off to new relationships isn't the way to fix it."

In response, Darcy only grumbled and flicked the turn signal.

~~~~

Darcy knew he had been lucky in life in many instances. For one, he had not suffered heartbreak until he was almost 22-years-old.

They had met on the first day of international student orientation at the university in Provence. Her name was Antoinette Barnaud and she was one of the local representatives in charge of assisting the new students in acclimatizing. She had long, honey blonde hair and big, brown eyes, with a light spray of freckles over her nose and cheeks; one large, dark freckle sat just at the top of her lips on the left side. Her cheekbones were high, her chin a little rounded, but with a distinct curve to it. She was prone to wearing floaty blouses in the summer and turtleneck sweaters in the winter. She was, in almost every aspect, extremely French.

It hadn't taken long for him to become extremely smitten. It had seemed only natural when she came to him and offered her love first. It was not exactly that he thought that highly of himself to feel he was owed love; it was just that most things in his life thus far had gone according to plan. There were setbacks along the way, of course—quite large ones, like the death of his mother and his poor mental health—but everything he tried, he seemed to accomplish. The dream college, a guaranteed place at the school in Provence, publication before he even had a creative writing degree... When Antoinette picked him out of the crowd, it was just another successful tick in his life plan.

One date turned into two, then three, then four. Before long, they were spending weekends in Cannes and Monaco and holiday breaks in Paris together. She was easy for him to be around, not because they were entirely similar or even had many of the same interests, but because she was so outgoing, willing to speak for them both, to tour him around and speak to him when he was inclined to be silent. She just seemed so full of life—he hardly had to offer up anything of himself.

As a testament to their relationship, just four months in she accompanied him to Southampton for Christmas. He was nervous; he had never brought anyone home before. His French was better than her English and he found himself as her main translator. While he found the idea enjoyable before they reached his uncle's home, he realized quickly there were some issues with the arrangement; their interests pulled them in different directions.

Darcy liked children. He found them willing listeners, or willing speakers, and their judgements, while harsh, were unpretentious and not based on any grown-up expectations that he both adhered rigidly to and dreaded terribly. His eldest cousin was the father of a toddler and his next cousin had just recently given birth, and he wanted to spend time with the little ones he so rarely saw. Antoinette was clearly uncomfortable with them. She declined to hold the baby, laughing a little and admitting she was afraid to hold her. But she actively shied away from the toddler who ran freely through the house, offering up sweets and toys to everyone he saw. Not everyone likes kids, Darcy told himself. There was no need to chide her for avoiding them.

Antoinette's disinterest in the children was less troublesome to him, though, than her disregard for his sister. Georgie was 13, lost somewhere in the chasm between child and young woman. Already idolizing her brother and living without a mother since toddlerhood, she immediately took to Antoinette, alternately vying for her attention and peppering Darcy with questions about living in France. She tried, too, to speak to Antoinette in French.

Georgie had better ears for music, even at that age, than language, and her accent was atrocious. Bad enough, even, that when Antoinette said she couldn't understand what the younger girl was saying to her, Darcy could almost believe she was telling the truth.

She had no problem with the adults, though. More than once, she sought out Mr. Darcy. It didn't take him long to come to his son and, after clapping him on the shoulder, say, "I think you have a real catch here, son." Darcy practically swelled with pride.

A few mornings later, she sat in the little window seat in their bedroom as he dressed. She pulled the curtains back to drag her fingers along the cool glass. After a few minutes she let the curtain she was holding back drop and turned to look at him. "Let's go out today! I don't want to spend the entire visit cooped up in the house."

"Okay," he replied softly as he buttoned his shirt. "Where would you like to go?"

"There was that little Christmas market set up in the middle of town. Let's go there."

"I'll ask Georgie if she's game. And maybe Robert and Victoria."

She shook her head, and stood, walking up close to him. She was very tall, and they were close enough in height that she didn't even need to tip her head back to look into his eyes. She carefully placed her hands on his arm, her fingers holding tight to the skin at his wrist and the fabric of the shirt close to his elbow. "No, let's go, just you and me. I want to spend time just with you."

Darcy frowned, taking half a step back, pulling her hands free. "We have all the time to spend together when we go back to Provence. I want to spend time with my sister!" He knew it was about Georgie—he had seen her jaw tighten when he said his sister's name.

She scowled and tossed her head. "She's just a child, though."

"Yes. And she won't be for much longer."

"Good," Antoinette grumbled. But she did not press the issue and eventually she left the room without him. She disappeared for the rest of the day, returning before dinner with full bags and snow in her hair.

Eventually, he made himself forget about how she had acted at Christmas; with no one competing for his attention after the end of the holiday, she was back to her cheerful, loving self. If the accident had never happened, he would probably still be with her, maybe even living in France.

He remembered the day distinctly. It was late April; the air was warm but the sky was clouded thick with gray. He had no classes on Thursdays, but Antoinette did, and did his best to use the time to write. He had taken a notebook to a café where he ate a leisurely lunch and drank several cups of coffee, sipping each slowly as he dragged his eyes across the page in front of him. Several times he flipped back to read past passages.

Try as he might, he couldn't focus on the words. Every time he brought his pen to the page, thoughts intruded on his concentration. There were too many stories competing in his head. Try as he might, the one he needed to write evaded him. Shorter concepts came to mind, as well as other novels.

And... something else, not related to his writing. He was thinking about Antoinette. The sound of her laugh. How bright her brown eyes were when she turned her face just right and the sun caught them. How alive she was.

He twirled his pen around between his fingers. After Anne Darcy passed, her presence had been tidily cleared out of the house. He remembered sitting on the couch next to Georgie as their father hurriedly packed boxes around them, moving with swift precision as he sorted into keep and get rid of. While the discards were whisked away, the items to be kept filled plastic totes and cardboard boxes of all sizes for Darcy and Georgie to dive into in the future.

One of these boxes was a heavy, wooden case with a gold lock on the front. He had distinct memories of her jewelry case being emptied into it before it was locked and placed in the family bank vault.

Though he had never seen inside the box of jewelry, he was certain there must be a ring in there. Idly, he sketched an engagement ring in the corner of his notebook. He would have to speak to Georgie first, of course... As the only daughter he felt the pieces were rightfully hers, and it was only fair that he should seek her permission to gift any pieces.

When the next waiter passed, he raised his hand and requested the check—he had been unproductive enough for one day. As he waited, it began to rain. Slow, at first, barely a dripping drizzle. He slid his notebook back into his bag but declined having the umbrella on his table opened. He paid the check immediately and moved to stand. As he reached for the bag hanging on the back of his chair, his phone rang.

He didn't recognize the number, but it was American, so he answered anyway, remembering to switch to English at the last second. "Hello?"

"Am I speaking to Fitzwilliam Darcy?" A man's voice; not one he recognized. It was deep and rich, pleasant to listen to.

"This is he." The rain picked up the pace and the drizzle became thicker. Fat droplets plunked against his cheek, but he wiped them away.

"I'm afraid I have some bad news, Mr. Darcy. There was an accident last night and—"

Darcy never knew if the static that interrupted the cool, collected voice on the other end of the line was real or just his mind playing tricks on him. "I'm sorry?" he asked blankly, feeling the rain as it saturated his hair and trickled down the back of his neck. "I don't... I don't understand."

"Your father and sister were in a car accident. Your sister will be fine. Her injuries are relatively minor, but she's being kept under sedation. Your father is on life support. You were listed as next of kin for both of them."

He gripped his hand on the slippery back of the metal chair, clenching his fingers hard around the bar. "I... I was? What about my aunt?"

"Would that be Mrs... erm, Lady Catherine de Bourgh?"

"Yes."

"She is on file, but—"

"I'm in France."

"Wherever you are, you still have power of attorney."

"I..." The world felt like it was spinning, the invisible bands constricting around his chest. He was afraid he might fall, so he sat down again. "What should I do?" he asked in a smaller voice.

"Are you asking my advice?"

"Yes."

"I would fly home immediately, if I were you."

"I understand."

Last-minute tickets are expensive and he needed to book two: a regional flight from the closest airport, then an international one into the DC airport. But they were purchased by the time Antoinette returned from class.

She slowly took in his small, packed bag, his satchel slumped on the floor next to the door, in the place she usually dropped her backpack when she was in a hurry—the way he always hated. Even his shoes were disarrayed, lying at right angles next to each other, rather than lined up. He was still wearing his jacket, streaked with rain. "Where are you going?"

He stared at his laptop for a few silent seconds; when the screen went black, she saw his blank expression reflected back. He closed the lid and pulled the power cable out of the wall. "There was an... an accident at home. An emergency. My father and my sister are in the hospital. I have to return to America immediately."

She nodded slowly. "Do you want me to come with you?"

He almost said yes. But two things stopped him. First, the way she had pulled away from Georgie at Christmas, refusing to engage or entertain her attentions. He would need to spend all of his time with his sister once he made it home. And secondly, the tone in which she asked the question. It was very flat, almost perfunctory. A duty she had to offer, not one she wanted to.

"No. You stay and finish the semester. Help me make sure I can take my finals when I come back..." He barked out one painful laugh that stuck in his throat before turning out of the apartment and shouldering his bag.

Mr. Darcy died, of course. It didn't take long. It had been raining; he was driving with a business partner in the passenger seat, Georgie in the back. He lost control of the car and veered into a lake. His partner hadn't even made it to the hospital alive.

Georgie was... fine. Physically. But she wouldn't speak. She didn't even cry when Darcy, with the help of doctor trained in breaking news to family members, told her their father was dead. Her silence frightened him. He found himself speaking more than he possibly ever had in his life, attempting to coax the words out of her.

And, ever practical, despite it all he continued to work on his assignments. Although most expectations had been waived, he still had essays to write and finals to take. He called Antoinette frequently, asking her for assignments. She ended every call asking when he was coming back to France.

At first, he hadn't minded. Her asking made him feel missed and wanted. But after a while, it became repetitive, her asking in harsher and harsher tones when he was coming back. Eventually, he answered, "I'm coming back to take my finals, but I'm not going to stay over the summer. I'm trying to get custody of my sister."

There was silence on the other end of the line. Finally, she said, "But what about the apartment? I can't afford that on my own!"

"I... I know. I'm sorry. I'll do my best to help you find a roommate or a sublet."

"It was supposed to be us!" The other end of the line crackled. "If you wanted to go home, you should have just said!"

"Want to go home?" he replied sharply, his anger flaring. "I don't think you understand what's going on here! My sister isn't well. She's not coping with the death of our father and I need to be here—I'm her brother!"

Her laugh—short and sharp—pierced him keenly. "I do not know why you're doing this. You're practically a child yourself! And you want to be in charge of a little girl?"

"I won't leave her alone."

"She doesn't need to be alone! Let your aunt or your uncle take her."

"But I'm her br—"

"Yes, yes, I am aware," she spit back. "Don't bother looking for a roommate, I will save you the trouble and find one on my own."

Before he could say anything else, she hung up the phone. He was just a little bit grateful; he didn't think he could have come up with a way to salvage the situation even if he tried. He stopped using her as a middleman for his classes, requesting the professors email everything they could to him and using another third party when necessary.

Georgie had still not spoken yet when Darcy returned to France to sit—or suffer—through his finals. He flew through London on his way back to pick up Robert, who was coming to help him move out. He had a second, more selfish motive for bringing his cousin; he didn't want to face Antoinette alone.

His feelings had changed completely in less than a month. In April he was halfway to proposing. By May, all he wanted was for it to be over. They had barely spoken after the apartment conversation and he had only initiated two calls, both of which had been short and perfunctory.

He had never been so grateful they lived apart. When he and Robert entered Darcy's apartment, it was blissfully empty and bore few marks of her presence. He made up the couch for Robert and the next few days were spent in an alternating blur of studying and packing. Robert folded his clothes while Darcy sorted books and office supplies into piles of keep and donate. The timing, so close to his father's death, left him with the jarring memory of the weeks after his mother's death. Only, he wasn't ridding the house of hospital beds and saline bags but medium quality pots and second-hand plates. Death and decluttering would always go hand-in-hand in his mind.

There were still finals, though. When Darcy was in class, Robert moved boxes and put away all the pieces Darcy planned to carry or ship back to the States. And when Darcy returned one day, there she was, sitting stiffly on the couch. Robert looked over his shoulder a couple of times before either of them noticed Darcy in the doorway.

"What are you doing here?" Darcy asked her in French. He wanted to be angry, he wanted his words to be hard and sharp. They came out brittle instead.

She almost jumped. But she did immediately get to her feet. "I came to say good-bye."

Darcy crossed his arms.

"Since you're so obviously set on moving back to the United States."

Robert's French was rudimentary at best—he switched to German when he was 13—but he didn't need to understand the words to heard the edge to Antoinette's voice. He did recognize Etas-unis, though. The US.

"I am."

She moved quickly, stepping up close enough to hit him—or kiss him. Darcy jerked backwards. "You are making a mistake," she hissed.

"I am not."

"You could come here and live free. You don't even need your publishing anymore—you have family money now!"

"It's not all mine. My sister—"

"I keep telling you, she's a child!"

"Yes, and she won't be a child forever."

She tossed her hair over her shoulder. "You're giving all this up for what, a girl who's not all there? It's not worth your time, Fitz! You don't have to be there. Find a doctor, send her to school... I don't care! All that money, and you think you'd be better at fixing problems."

Darcy blinked slowly, processing her words. "My sister," he said after a pause, finally capturing the sharp tone he wanted before, "is not a problem to be fixed."

"She may not be the problem, but she has problems."

"And sending her away isn't going to fix them. She's not going anywhere until she's good and ready to. Now please leave." Darcy turned and wrenched open the door. He held it open, his arm stiff and fully extended, until she walked through, grabbing the knob on her way and wrenching the wood from between his fingers.

Robert waited until she had gone, the door slammed behind her retreating back, to ask, "What did she say to you?"

Darcy only shook his head.

They left the city without seeing her again. Darcy never told anyone what she said to him, and hardly ever brought her up without it being asked of him. But he certainly didn't forget about the affair. It seemed to dog at him at the most unexpected moments.

It had been one thing to find himself emotionally gutted over money. It was entirely another to see it happen to his sister. For it to happen a third time on his watch? No, he couldn't allow that. Jane Bennet certainly was not George Wickham. And maybe she wasn't Antoinette Barnaud either—but she was close enough.

~~~~

Robert was relieved when they pulled into the parking lot. He regretted pushing Darcy so hard; after a few rounds of questioning, Darcy had slipped away to hide in his own brooding thoughts. Once Robert took his turn behind the wheel, it was practically like being alone in the car. Even when he turned on a channel of obnoxious pop music, Darcy had remained silent.

He sighed. He was in for a long few weeks. As much as he loved all of his cousins, Darcy and Anne were both a little hopeless. When Darcy worked himself into a mood, he was impossible to spend time around, let alone speak with, and Anne was more often silent in her mother's company—though, admittedly, she had become somewhat more forceful in the last few years. It remained to be seen if she had kept it up or not.

He didn't have to wait long to find out, though. Anne met them at the door. She grinned at her cousins, offering each a one-armed hug, her other hand holding her crutches. "You made good time!"

"Robert is much better at driving on the wrong side of the road than he thinks he is."

Robert pretended to bask in the compliment. Then he glanced around. "Where's Aunt Catherine?"

"I didn't tell Mum you texted yet. I thought I'd give you a couple minutes to brace yourselves."

Robert rolled his eyes, but he appreciated the gesture. Maybe she had kept up her boldness. Growing up, he thought it only natural that Anne, despite her American-ness, would call her mother "mum." It was only after he got older and realized that Americans had their own did he find it a little strange at his aunt's insistence on the British title. He often wondered how long she had worked and how she had enforced "mum" over "mom" in her household.

She asked about his flight, and then their drive, while they walked down the hallway. Everything had gone smoothly enough that there was little to talk about. She pulled ahead a little as they neared the end of the hall. "Anyway, I hope you got the message to bring a tie."

Darcy rolled his eyes. "We can't visit Aunt Catherine and not bring a tie. You know how she gets about dressing for dinner."

Anne pressed the elevator button and then turned so they could see she had scrunched her nose. "That's true." She shuddered delicately at the memory of one particular pastel pink dress with a skirt so puffy it was even more difficult than usual to walk.

"Why this time, though?" Robert asked as he pressed the elevator button.

"We're going to the theater tomorrow," she said in an accent that mocked her mother's over done British one.

When Robert grimaced, she laughed, "No, no don't worry! It's nothing like Mum's taste in movies, I promise!" They had more than once suffered through Lady Catherine's boring, annoying, or downright depressing tastes in films before. "It's just Shakespeare." She led the way into the elevator; the boys followed.

"A tragedy?" Darcy suggested, one eyebrow raised as he leaned back against the corner railing.

"No, not even! A comedy. Much Ado About Nothing."

"Sounds like fun."

"Well, so do I—but you know Mum's idea of fun."

Robert tried and failed to cover his snort of laughter. Even Darcy rose out of his gloom enough to smile at them both.

Chapter Text

While it is not a prerequisite to be a lover of Shakespeare as an English major, it certainly helps. Luckily for Liz, she was a rather ardent fan of the plays, even if she would never consider herself to be a Shakespeare scholar, as some people might expect. Even a few days later, thinking back on the absurdity of the conversation, she had to laugh.

An undergraduate Shakespeare scholar? Highly unlikely. Although, Liz thought suddenly, tapping the back of her hairbrush against one hand, poor Anne Darcy, if she wasn’t talented as an artist, who knew what her mother might have shoe-horned her into being interested in? She shook her head, running her fingers through the newly formed curls to loosen them into waves.

She plucked up her cardigan from the top of the dresser on her way out of the bedroom. She could hear voices in the sitting room. “Of course, I would have come anyway, but since Lady Catherine herself recommended going to see it, I don’t know how I could have possibly not seen this production.” Bill, unfortunately, had also invited himself out to the theater. He had innocently asked Charlotte what day her tickets were for and then immediately purchased his own for the same evening. She had little hope he would be in a different section, knowing both his personality and her own luck of late.

Her mood, after he insisted on joining them in Charlotte’s car, was only slightly mollified by his pious reminder that carpooling was good for the environment. “By letting me ride with you, we’re saving the world an entire round trip’s worth of gas!” he reminded them solemnly as he buckled himself into the front passenger seat. “Of course, it would be better if everyone walked, but needs must.”

“Compromise—how about we pull over and you walk?” Liz muttered under her breath. Mariah knocked her knee against Liz’s shin but covered her laughter with a cough.

He didn’t hear her, continuing on with his environmental protection speech. “Or maybe I’ll get out and walk…” she added after a few minutes, more to herself than Mariah. Her general interests in green energy and good environment practices were completely overtaken by the sixth minute into his rambling guidance.  

Luckily, he had moved on by the time they reached the theater—though after fifteen minutes, even the history of the town and the acting company wasn’t exactly riveting. She had a momentary detour of thought as he pulled out his ticket and, of course, was in the same row as they were. Right next to them, in fact. Ticket checked and guidance given by the usher, he picked up right where he left off. “In 1964, I believe, though I could be off by two or three years, Stanley founded the Hunsford Players with another four actors from New York. There was a very interesting exhibit on the actors’ histories that they hosted just last year and the upstairs space! Of course, Lady Catherine offered some funding to keep the exhibit up permanently, but unfortunately—”

 Feeling only a little bad about it, Liz took half a step back just before they stepped into the row and gently slid Mariah in front of her, so she had to sit in the seat next to Bill, rather than Liz. Charlotte watched it all unfold but waited until they were seated before leaning over to chuckle in Liz’s ear before whispering, “That’s a rude way to treat my sister, Lizzie.”

Liz only shrugged, smiled, and opened up her playbill.

~~~~

The house lights rose at the end of the third act and Liz let out a long, slightly overdramatic, sigh, pressing one hand against her cheek. She glanced sidelong at Bill, weighing the risks of her joke. “I guess we’ll have to thank Lady Catherine for the recommendation. The play is very good.”

She watched amusement as he almost burst at the compliment she paid the lady. “Oh, absolutely. I will make sure she hears your thanks at the earliest available opportunity.”

“Sounds good, Bill.”

Charlotte stood. “Listen, I was gonna go get a drink. Do any of you need anything.”

Liz stood up. “Good, I’ll join you. I wouldn’t mind walking around for a minute.” Mariah waited for half a second and then jumped to her feet, afraid to be alone with Bill. More to Liz’s disappointment, he stood up as well. He followed them down the hallway, but instead of walking with them into the lobby he took a left turn towards the bathrooms. Liz sighed very softly.

As soon as he was out of sight, Charlotte let out a little groan and rested the back of her hand against her forehead. “I just can’t believe you would thank Lady Catherine before me! Though I suppose she did recommend the play to you, even though I bought the tickets first.”

She punched Charlotte lightly in the arm. “I was kidding; I’m really thanking you! It’s really good, Char, I’m having a great night.”

“I’m glad you like it!”

Liz grinned.

Mariah had been silent, gently creasing the corners of her playbill. Charlotte looked at her. “And what about you, Mariah? I know Shakespeare’s not really your thing, but what do you think?”

“It’s all right.” Mariah shrugged. “I just like the plays better when they translate them into, you know, now English. Not Old English.”

Charlotte quietly muttered, “Oops, you shouldn’t have gone there,” in Mariah’s ear as Liz turned with an “Actually…” As they waited in line for refreshments, she gave a somewhat truncated version of her “Evolution of the English Language” speech that had won her a regional essay award junior year of high school.

“As different as it seems from the way we speak today,” she continued, stirring the ice in her drink with the tiny black cocktail straw as they stepped away from the bar, “it was really just ‘Early Modern English’ that Shakespeare was writing in. There’s a significant change from—”

“Miss Lucas, I didn’t realize you were coming to tonight’s performance.” Lady Catherine stood before them, craning her neck forward to more easily insert herself into their conversation.

“O…h…” Charlotte’s cool persona from a few nights previous took a few moments to surface. Her expression shifted as she pulled herself together. “Yes, what a coincidence!”

Liz looked down, still fiddling with her straw.

“And how are you girls liking the performance?”

“It’s very good. Lizzie was just saying how much she enjoyed it when intermission started.” She gently nudged her elbow into Liz’s side.

“Yes, they’ve done a great job!”

Lady Catherine’s lips were pursed in a sort of dry smile. She nodded her head knowingly.

They were standing off to the side of the room, near a few padded benches, though Lady Catherine hadn’t been sitting. She had her back to the wall and glanced beyond the girls several times. When it became clear she wasn’t going to leave, nor to offer them an easy out of the conversation, Charlotte asked in a slightly resigned tone, “Did you come alone tonight, Lady Catherine, or is Anne with you?”

She moved her gaze fully towards Charlotte with a glint in her eye; clearly, she had been waiting for them to ask the question. “Anne is with me, but my nephews as well. They just arrived in town the other day, and it’s so nice to have the company.” And then she said the words Liz had been dreading: “Oh, but here they come now; let me call them over.”

Lady Catherine leaned around Elizabeth and made a sweeping motion with her arm, calling people forward. Liz had to stop herself from physically placing one hand over her eyes, as if not looking could somehow change the moment she had found herself in. Instead, she turned slightly to glance in the same direction as Lady Catherine and hope her irritation didn’t bubble out in public, trying only to look through the corner of her eye. Charlotte, in the same moment, turned slightly away, biting down on the skin of her knuckle to keep in a laugh. Mariah, standing between them, frowned and crossed her arms, not totally sure what she was missing.

Anne stood between the two men. One of them, dark haired and Roman nosed, was halfway through speaking. His face was turned in profile, but still unmistakable. The other was looking forward and he returned his aunt’s wave. Anne’s eyes brightened when she saw who her mother was speaking to. “Oh, hey, Elizabeth! Mariah! Charlotte!”

Liz squared her shoulders, took in a deep breath, and said, before turning to look properly, “You can just call me Liz.” Then, she turned all the way.

The instant Liz set her eyes on his face, her jaw clenched and she let out a tiny groan through her teeth. Would she ever escape this man? He seemed to feel something similar, for his eyes had taken a startled roundness and his expression was openly of surprise. She had been joking about meeting him at his aunt’s house!

Lady Catherine moved around them to stand with her family. “Ah, here they are! Anne, of course. And these young men are The Honorable Professor Fitzwilliam, and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.”

The professor laughed slightly. “And I’m sure, Aunt Catherine, that ‘Robert’ will do very nicely for me. I require no titles from not-students!” He lowered his voice, tipping his head towards Liz, Charlotte, and Mariah. “And don’t worry about ‘The Honorable,’ bit either.”  

Anne laughed as Lady Catherine tutted very loudly. “Robert, really, I don’t see why you don’t encourage the use of your title. It is your birthright! Now, if Anne had a title—”

When Liz finally caught her breath and wrenched her gaze away from Darcy—who was still staring at her, seemingly completely locked in more shock than she had first felt, which she didn’t think was fair, because even though she had had forewarning and he had not, she hardly expected him to remember her, let alone feel something at seeing her again!—Liz could see a fair amount of family resemblance between the two men. Robert had a similar tall, angular frame, and held himself in the same proper and erect manner as Darcy. He appeared several years older than Darcy, however, and wore a slightly more comfortable weight. He was fairer than his cousin, too, his hair a warm toned dirty blond. He had blue eyes, instead of Darcy’s gray-green, and a softer jawline, but his nose was similarly peaked at the bridge.

Darcy had changed little since August. He was slightly paler, perhaps, but his wardrobe was certainly the same, overly manicured style—not out of place at a funeral (both his wardrobe and his demeanor). He also continued to watch Liz, picking up the habit in an instant, almost as soon as the surprise at seeing her there had melted. His expression returned to its typical stoicism but his eyes never left her face.

Liz tried not to wrinkle her nose or show too many outward signs of disdain. “Darcy and I are… already acquainted.” She had no idea how to phrase their relationship.

Lady Catherine raised her eyebrows. “Are you? Fitzwilliam, how do you and Elizabeth know each other?” She turned away from Liz when asking the question, directing the inquiry only towards her nephew, as if he were the only one in the room.

“We…” He looked Liz up and down again, just for a moment. She crossed her arms, wondering what answer he was prepared to give his clearly indominable aunt. “My friend Charles Bingley and I spent a lot of time in the same town as Elizabeth over the course of last summer.”

“How nice.” She clearly did not find it nice at all. “I suppose you will want to join us for dinner, then, since you are already friendly?” Liz felt a moment of panic and her thoughts jumbled together as she attempted to think of the least offensive way to tell Lady Catherine, in no uncertain terms, she would have liked to never speak to Darcy again and would be much happier without joining them for dinner. Lady Catherine was completely immune to the tumult in Liz’s mind; her eyes alighted over the small group, counting, and added, “And is William here as well, yes?”

“Yes, Lady Catherine. I don’t know if he’s gone back into the theater or—”

“Good, good,” she said, clearly not listening to anything Charlotte had said. “Invite him along as well.”

Liz was doing her best to watch Darcy while at the same time not look at him all. It turned into an uncomfortable movement of keeping her face and body rigidly forward, turned towards Lady Catherine, while her eyes flicked towards him several times to peek through her hair and see if he was still watching her; every time she looked, he was.

As Lady Catherine moved on in her loud, authoritative voice, Robert nudged Darcy. “Fitz, if we still want drinks, we’d better get in line.”

Darcy tore his eyes from Liz with obvious effort. “Right.”

“Can you get me a vodka-cran?” Anne asked.

“On it!” Robert said. Darcy returned to silence; he was looking at the floor.

As soon as his back was turned, she felt her shoulders slump and relax. She was also pretty sure she had learned her lesson not to make jokes and jinx herself. She considered pulling Anne aside and asking her why Darcy was… Well, whatever way he was! But she was afraid the girl might tell her cousin and then where would Liz be? Or if Lady Catherine overheard her question… Better to ignore him.

Or to attack first—that seemed to work pretty well over the summer. It was only when she fell silent that she seemed to come out the disadvantaged from their tête-à-téte. Like Bingley’s party, when he asked her to dance. If she had been just a little quicker on the wit draw, she probably could have avoided that too. While always being on her guard mean her visit was a little less restful than hoped for, she could live with it if it gave her the upper hand.

Not that Darcy seemed inclined to be talkative. In fact, she decided as she watched him slump his way back to their little party, following close behind his cousin, he seemed even less talkative than he had been over the summer. An absurd thought, really, because how could he possibly be quieter?

She had to fight her body to keep herself from crossing her arms at the sight of him. She settled for squinting her eyes slightly. He met her eyes this time, his mouth pulled into a hard line. He had two clear plastic cups in his hands, one bright red and full, the other half empty already with something pale yellow and bubbly.

Anne tapped on Darcy’s arm and he quickly handed her the fuller of the two drinks. She took a long sip and then handed it back to him, placing her hand back on the handle of her crutch. Their movements were quick with the near mindlessness of routine.

The lights flickered, dipping in and out twice, signaling the start of the next act. They said their quick goodbyes and parted. As soon as they were around the corner, Liz grabbed Charlotte by the arm, pulling her to a stop. “Charlotte! Why did you accept the invitation? You know exactly how I feel about Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.” For the name, she put on her best attempt at a Lady Catherine voice, but her spirit was not quite as invested in the joke as she had been earlier in the week. Someone pushed past them, heading back into the theater.

Charlotte smiled tightly at Liz as she loosened her friend’s hands and gently tugged her forward. “And have Bill on my case for the next decade? I don’t think I could stand the workplace harassment.”

Liz paused. “Charlotte, you didn’t say—”

But her friend quickly brushed off Liz’s concern. “Really, I’m joking. Besides, I haven’t forgotten when he asked you to dance!” She laughed as Liz spluttered and became a little more serious. “But it’s just one little dinner, Lizzie, okay? They’re both so… particular about things like decorum that I swear it will just be easier to go instead of refusing. Oh, speaking of—” Bill was already back at their seats. His face split into a wide grin as Charlotte quickly filled him in on their dinner invitation.

Liz waited until Charlotte took her seat and Bill was no longer listening before she spoke again. “Fine, fine…” she grumbled, sinking further down in her seat. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to talk to him.”

“No one said you had to.”

“Although if I try to, maybe we’ll prove once and for all that he doesn’t care about me.”

“Mmm,” was all Charlotte replied as the lights of the theater dimmed. She had been watching Darcy’s eyes, even if Liz hadn’t. She would really have refused the invitation, if she could, though, to save her friend some amount of discomfort. But as she could not, she was more than happy to observe Darcy back in Liz’s presence again.

Liz glowered her way through the rest of the play. How nice it must be to have a Benedick ready and willing to take your side in an instant. Well, all she had was a cold George Wickham and Chip Bingley deserting her sister. But she wasn’t above fighting her own duels. That thought was at the forefront of her mind as she nearly marched her way out of the theater.

Charlotte trailed behind her, amused, Mariah slightly confused, and Bill completely oblivious. It wasn’t until they reached the car, though, that Liz paused with her fingers already on the door handle. “Wait… They never told us where we’re going for dinner. Are we going back to Rosings or something?”

Charlotte shook her head and climbed into the driver’s seat. “Well… She really only eats at three restaurants, at least that I’m aware of. And those are in a rotation.”

“And the last time I ate with her, we went to was Evergreen, so next is Amore Italiana,” Bill added, his voice smug. Liz could see his little self-satisfied smile in the rearview.  

Liz wasn’t sure if she should be more horrified by their thorough knowledge of her eating schedule or the fact that she had an eating schedule. Instead of commenting on it, she sat back in the seat, resting on foot against the edge of the floor hump. She slipped her hand in her pocket and pulled out her phone.

She was already in the messaging app, on her message history with Jane, before she stopped to think. As much as she wanted to complain to Jane, she realized she couldn’t. Not only would it bring up painful memories for her sister, she’d feel obligated to pass along anything—good or bad—that she learned about Chip. Even a lie of omission felt dirty when she was speaking to Jane.

The thought occupied her mind on the rest of the short drive to the restaurant. Did she want to ask Darcy about his friend? What would she do with the news, if he offered any? What could Fitzwilliam Darcy do to ease her sister’s pain? Not much that she could think of. Liz sighed and rested her cheek against the cold window glass.

~~~~

The restaurant was more industrial than Liz would have picked for Lady Catherine’s taste. The outside was all worn brick and metal, with huge windows along the walls. Over the front walkway was a steel trellis, strung with winter-brown vines and snow. The name was written in a cursive sign dotted with lights over the top, centered with the door. Liz and Mariah followed Bill and Charlotte up the pathway. Bill pulled a few steps ahead, listing to the left. When he reached the doors, he peered through the window, looking through into the lobby. “She’s not here yet.”

Charlotte nodded and also stepped back, away from the door. She let out a sigh and tucked her hands in her coat pockets before tipping her head back, up towards the awning above them.

Liz and Mariah shared a glance when no one made a move towards the door. “Um, aren’t we going to go inside?” Liz finally asked.

Charlotte lowered her face and pulled her mouth to the side and looked down at the ground. “Lady Catherine prefers when people meet her outside.” Her breath spiraled out of her mouth in a pale puff. Liz began to tap her feet on the sidewalk, pulling her hands back inside her sleeves when her fingers began to grow stiff and numb.

Although the cold made it seem like ages, they didn’t have long to wait before Lady Catherine and her party arrived. She wore a huge, black fur coat with thick cuffs and edging along the hood. The individual strands caught the light, turning them glossy and almost living. She moved five steps ahead of everyone. Darcy followed her more cautiously, appearing out of the parking lot like some kind of apparition. Or personal demon, Liz thought.

Robert and Anne were even further behind. Anne seemed to be having trouble with her crutches. “Careful, there’s a patch of ice here,” Robert warned. He held out a hand, offering help to ease her around the slick spot and over the lip of the pavement.

Against her better judgement, Liz couldn’t help but notice how Darcy cut a particularly alluring figure in a tailored wool coat. There was a blue scarf wrapped around his neck and chin, his cheeks, the tip of his nose, and the top of his ears pink in the cold. His hair was ruffled, pushed over more to the right than the left. He wasn’t looking at her but staring pointedly ahead; she could only watch him in profile.

She had never been more determined to be angry with a person in all her life. She could hardly look at him without feeling the bubbling of disdain in her stomach. Instead, she worked with difficulty to keep her face neutral, her hands clasped in front of her. She didn’t need to speak; Bill was already ready with his usual effusion of meandering compliments and deferences.

Neither Lady Catherine’s daughter nor her nephews seemed especially interested in what he had to say, though he attempted to ingratiate himself to them as well. Darcy mumbled something and Anne just smiled, though her eyes looked exhausted. Robert laughed openly as he held the door open. It was a friendly sound, though, as if they were both in on a joke. Bill’s responding chuckle was small and nervous. Robert ushered everyone in before him with a smile.  

Lady Catherine didn’t even need to speak when she approached the hostess podium; the woman untucked the grease pencil from behind her ear and said, “Your usual table, ma’am?” When Lady Catherine nodded, the woman marked an X on her laminated table chart and plucked out an armful of menus from a shelf, handing them to a pair of waiters who seemed to appear the moment Lady Catherine nodded.

Liz had never met anyone with a “usual table” before and she watched with slightly detached bemusement as they were whisked through the restaurant, two waiters serving as shepherds towards the back room. There were several tables in it, all separated significantly more than the tables in the main dining room were. “For more privacy in conversations,” Bill murmured to her as explanation.

There was a round table which was efficiently being slotted with extra chairs. Although they all fit in the end, it was definitely a tight fit. Close enough to brush elbows with your neighbors at least.

Liz immediately veered off to the side. Not next to Darcy, not next to Darcy… When Robert moved around the edge of the table in the opposite direction, reaching for a chair, she darted forward, grabbing the back of a seat at random. She found herself sitting kitty corner to Darcy, between Anne and Charlotte. It was worse than sitting next to him, she realized quickly. Every time she raised her head, she had to look at him.

Even though it was obvious from the discussion in the car that Bill and Charlotte had been to this restaurant more than a few times, Lady Catherine plucked up her menu and began, loudly, to read off the listings, giving her opinion on each dish. “Their Bolognese is passable, but the spaghetti al limone is much better. For the fish, I never eat sole, but the branzino is without a doubt the most superior dish on this half of the menu.”

When she moved on to telling anyone who would listen—so, Bill, a politely nodding Charlotte, and a very tired-looking Anne—exactly what dish they should order for dinner, Liz decided it was time to start a new conversation. As Darcy was not a suitable conversation partner, she turned with more gusto than she felt towards Robert. “Your aunt introduced you as a professor!” she said, speaking slightly louder than her usual voice to make sure they could hear each other over Lady Catherine’s ministrations.

His mouth twitched like he was holding back another laugh and replied with an easy, “Yep. New position at the University of Birmingham. There’s a focus on research, so I do a bit of field work along with my teaching.”

“What’s your area?”

“Psychology, focus on adolescents. I did a lot of work in secondary school counseling while I did my degree and those kids really swayed my interest. What about you, what do you do?”

“Oh, I’m still in undergrad. English major.”

“Ah, so Fitz writes the books and you get to tear them apart, right?”

Darcy was very rigid in his seat, looking intently down at his menu. She smiled. “Right.”

The return of the waiter silence her and Lady Catherine regained control of the table’s conversation as soon as he left again. She covered a frankly astounding number of topics between the ordering of drinks, the arrival of the appetizers, and the beginning of dinner proper. Everything from her run for a city council seat—she had held the same one for nine years, which Liz personally found unethical—to the establishment of a food and wine festival in the summers. Based on the way she described it, one might be forgiven for thinking that the woman singlehandedly planned, fundraised and funded, and blocked off the street for the event. Everything short of actually cooking the food herself. Except for the menu planning, which she seemed also to have had a hand in.

“And after his start at the festival, Monsieur Boucher opened his frankly delightful little French bistro on the other side of town. I only hope their menu would be up to your standards, Fitzwilliam. I find it almost all delicious, but we must admit that everything is so different when it’s imported rather than fresh. I wouldn’t want to compare it to your time in France!” She let out a short, frankly painful sounding laugh. “Especially the delicacies! I can tell the difference in the escargot. But I would never dream of ordering some sourced in the United States.”

Darcy seemed disinclined to answer—there had not been a direct question in her statement. Liz pushed a piece of chicken around the sauce on her plate, pulling it through a line of sauce. “I mean, really, who does enjoy delicacies? I really think that they’re just foods no one wanted until someone decided to charge an inordinate amount of money and now people feel obligated to enjoy them.”

Before Lady Catherine could respond—she started to think of a reply, pulling herself very firmly upright, getting into what Anne liked to call “scolding position”—Robert laughed. “Don’t tell my dad that! He likes a bit of foie gras and caviar at the best of times.” He grinned slyly at his aunt as if to add, “A family trait!”

Liz lay her fork down as she leaned forward slightly to confess, “You know… I’ve never actually had caviar.” She didn’t need to turn to see the scandalized expression on Lady Catherine’s face because she knew it was there.

“Well, if you want some, I know where you can get it. You’ll have to come back to England with me, though!”

“Is that an invitation, professor?”

Robert laughed again and Charlotte was the only one to see Darcy’s face quickly turn, dropping his gaze away from Liz. He never noticed her, and when she finally slipped back into the conversation, the topic had changed.

Liz was pressing Robert for more details on his life; she was trying to find the divergence between the cheerful stranger and his frankly unpleasant aunt and cousin. “Do you have much family? Presented company excepted,” she added lightly. Robert had a pleasant smile, she decided.

“Some, yeah. Mother and father, of course, and two siblings, both older. A brother and a sister and four nieces and nephews.”

She nodded. “I’m the second oldest in my family.”

“Liz has four sisters,” Anne said softly, though Liz couldn’t tell if she was quiet due to reverence at the number or a lack of breath. She looked at Darcy. “Can you imagine? That’s far too many.”

“I know; I met them.” A hint of a smile twitched the edge of his mouth. Darcy making a joke? Liz dropped her eyes and folded the edge of her napkin, running her fingers over the crease. When she looked up again, his expression was back to blankness.

“Mmm, yes, you did meet all of them. My eldest sister has been working in DC for the past four months. Darcy, you live near DC, don’t you?” she asked archly.

His eyes flicked to her face. After a pause—short enough not to be questioned but long enough to cause discomfort—he simply replied, “Yes.”

“Have you or Chip ever run into her? I know it’s a big place, but what with him being a lawyer and her being a Congressional aid…” She let the thought trail off, gesturing with one open palm. “It’s possible.”

Another pause, even longer, occurred. “Yes, it is possible. I haven’t seen her,” he said finally in a gruffer tone.

“Hmm,” was all she said.  

When Liz turned away, returning to her conversation with Robert, Charlotte continued to watch as Darcy’s shoulders slumped minutely inward. He dragged his fork across his plate, staring well past his food. She slowly twirled her fork through her pasta and wondered if there was any way she could help him along…

Chapter Text

The house lights lifted and Darcy stretched his arms. He paused when his shoulder cracked. It didn’t hurt—the movement actually felt good—but he scowled and gingerly lowered the arm anyway, resting his hand on his leg. He had to force his fingers into stillness, to keep them from twitching and jittering. He shifted his weight.

The feeling of discontent had followed him, waiting until moments of calm to pounce. It was all right while he was moving, driving between cities and wandering New York with Georgie and Robert. But now that he was stationary in Hunsford, it was back. Pulling one leg back, he pushed himself forward and stood. He would have left without comment, but Robert, Anne, and Aunt Catherine all turned to look at him almost simultaneously; the eyes unnerved him. “I… I was just… I don’t know, I just want to walk somewhere.”

Both Anne and Robert noted the hesitation in his voice. Robert followed him up. “I’ll go with you.”

Darcy nodded sharply and took a step, starting to move away.

Anne lowered her head slightly, crossing her hands in her lap. “I would… come with you too, but I might slow you down.”

Immediately, Robert assured, “No, don’t worry about it. You should come if you want to.”

She smiled and began to push herself to her feet, adjusting the crutches as she went. With Robert standing and waiting in front of Darcy, Darcy found himself trapped in the aisle. After a moment of waiting for Anne to finish fiddling with her crutches, he found himself tapping his foot and immediately forced himself to stop. There was no reason for his impatience. He bowed his head and waited to follow Robert out of the aisle.

Aunt Catherine fanned herself with her program. “Are you going to the lobby for refreshments? I will meet you there shortly,” she said without waiting for an answer. Darcy merely dipped his head in acknowledgement. Anne finally situated herself with her crutches, so he didn’t bother to answer verbally. They moved out of the row and into the hallway beside the auditorium in single file, Robert at the front, Anne at the back, and Darcy sandwiched between them.

They hadn’t gone far, just out of earshot of Aunt Catherine, before Anne frowned and prodded Darcy in the back. “What’s wrong with you, Fitz? You’re so out of it,” she complained. Robert stopped himself from sighing aloud but, as his back was to his cousins, he allowed himself to roll his eyes. Something being “wrong” with Darcy was not exactly out of the ordinary. But even over the past few days his cousin had seemed especially out-of-sorts and he was curious what sort of response they would get. He walked towards an alcove by a window where they could speak in relative privacy.

“Um…” Darcy didn’t know how to explain himself. He clenched his jaw while he thought. When Robert stopped to lean his back against the corner of wall, Darcy walked right up to the window. The winter sun had already set and the snow outside was illuminated only by the gentle orange glow of streetlights.  

I’ve been struggling to focus on my writing, I’m worried about my sister, my best friend hates his job, and even though it brings us geographically closer than we have been in years I’ve only seen him three times in six months… and I’ve been pining for a girl I saw last in July. He didn’t think he could tell them any of those things for a number of reasons—beginning with the fact that they saw each other less than twice a year and ending with the fact that he found the entirety of the list to be absurd, or at least a little melodramatic. So, lied. Or at least stretched the truth a little. “I’ve been… trying to decide if I should apply to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop or not.” It was one of the things that had been bothering him.

“Trying to decide?” Anne squeaked.

“It’s a really big decision.” He braced his forearms against the windowsill.

Robert crossed his arms and edged closer, though he kept his back pressed against the wall. “What do you mean it’s a really big decision? You should go! If you get accepted—”

“You’ll definitely get accepted and you have to go!” Anne interrupted.

“All right, if I get accepted, there are a few things I need to make sure are in order. If I put all my time into another degree, I need to appoint a temporary head of board for the Foundation. And I need to make sure Georgie is prepared.”

Anne shook her head quickly, unconvinced, but Robert winced. “Oh, she’ll be all right!” Anne had heard—and seen—far less than Robert had over the past five years. She had been having severe health problems of her own at the time of Mr. Darcy’s death and Darcy had worked incredibly hard to keep the most recent incidents quietly shrouded from the rest of the world. Including both Anne and Aunt Catherine.

When he replied, he was almost ashamed at the thickness of his voice and the rough scratch at the back of his throat. “I don’t want to leave her without backup—I can’t do that to her again.”

“Georgie will be fine and you’d be in Iowa, not Antarctica!”

Darcy decided to let it drop. “I know, I know… And then there’s the question of literary merit.”

Robert joined in with Anne at knocking away that excuse. “Come on, Fitz. You’ve banged out all sorts of genres since then. What do they call it, stylistic breadth? I don’t know, but I think you’ve proved it since then. You have all sorts of pieces to show.”

Darcy grimaced. “I know I do. But is anything really going to outweigh the early books?”

“Sure, you used a pen name. And no one’s really gonna care. Not readers or the public or whomever. You shouldn’t care what they think if the program accepts you.”

“I don’t care what other people think! I do care what Aunt Catherine thinks.”

All three flinched away from the memory; Aunt Catherine had read, and annotated, an advanced reader’s copy of his first novel. It had ended with tears from more than one observer, a little bit of yelling, and a lot of silent sulking. The consequence was uniform silence on all of Darcy’s earliest literary pursuits. “Aw, Fitz, don’t let her back you down. She’s a stick in the mud.”

Believing I shouldn’t care and not caring are two entirely separate issues!”

“Okay, but you can move on. It’s not like—”

“Not like what, Robert? You’ve never had a problem with your parents telling you what not to do. All I have is Aunt Catherine telling me she doesn’t like a novel I spent years on, and all I have is my kid sister telling me she likes it just as much as she did four drafts ago. It doesn’t exactly have the same weight! No, no, don’t make that face!” he continued hotly. “Just ask Anne what it’s like to be on the receiving end if you don’t believe me! She’s been in a relationship with the same woman for almost five years, but she—”

Anne reached out and grabbed his hand, her thin fingers surprisingly strong. “Fitz… Fitz, please shut up,” she said in a hoarse, hissing whisper. Her eyes were closed. “What if she hears you?” Her breath hitched in her throat; she hacked a cough.

He turned to Robert with a hard glint in his eye. “Aunt Catherine is in the lobby, Anne, it’s all right.”

“Point taken. I guess.” Personally, Robert didn’t think Aunt Catherine was all that scary. But then he lived in a different country than her. After far too long a pause, Robert cleared his throat and said in an artificially cheerful tone, “Well, I could go for a drink, and you sound like you need one.” He pressed his hand against Darcy’s shoulder, quickly pulling away after a few seconds. “Let’s go find Aunt Catherine, shall we?”

Anne needed another second to steel herself, but once she shook off the moment of panic, she nodded. As they retraced their steps down the hallway and past the theater door, Anne focused closely on her feet, not quite ready to meet Darcy or Robert’s eyes. She knew she would have to tell her mother someday, but she never seemed to work up the nerve. Every time she thought about it, the bottom of her stomach dropped away and her heart thumped in her chest.

Luckily, when she looked up, something more pleasant than the thought of coming out to her mother met her gaze. “Oh, hey, Elizabeth! Mariah! Charlotte!” She moved in front of Darcy to greet her new friends.

He was halfway through a step when almost stopped and ended up stumbling. His heart stuttered to a stop and then picked up again beating in double time. He was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to feel so ill just seeing a person; there was a ringing in his ears and his throat constricted. He felt his stomach drop out from inside him. The object of his frustrating obsessions there before him, when he never expected to see her again, speaking to his aunt of all people! For a fraction of a second, he came close to genuinely considering ending the conversation, turning on his heel, and walking home. Whether home meant Rosings or Pemberley, though, he wasn’t entirely certain at the time. After a moment of herculean restraint, the thought passed.  

Elizabeth hardly seemed pleased to see him, but that didn’t seem to matter in the moment. He tried—and failed—to not stare at her. She was wearing the same shade of lipstick that she had been on the 4th of July. He tried to step back and consider why he remembered that; that didn’t work either, and he continued to look at her mouth, the way her lips twitched with silent expressions. Just the sight of her was enough to drive him to distraction, as if he hadn’t already been tormented by the memory of her for months already, all through the fall and winter.

She wasn’t supposed to be here. Had his constant fretting somehow summoned here?

He barely had enough of a grip on his senses to notice Aunt Catherine stepping towards their trio. He swallowed and tried to pull himself together, still not taking his eyes off Elizabeth. “Ah, here they are! Anne, of course. And these young men are The Honorable Professor Fitzwilliam, and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.”

Robert’s laugh was soft, but Darcy could hear the frustration behind it. Aunt Catherine’s obsession with titles—especially in America—had always been a mystery to him and he took every opportunity to remind her not to use his. “And I’m sure, Aunt Catherine,” he corrected gently but firmly, “that ‘Robert’ will do very nicely for me. I require no titles from not-students!”

It was only a slight relief when Elizabeth removed her eyes from his face, because he quickly found himself not looking into her eyes. The gauzy straps of her green dress cut along her shoulders, revealing hints of skin through the sheer fabric. A small pendant on a short chain hung just below the hollow at the base of her throat.

Not expecting any recognition, it was with a jolt that he heard her admit to Aunt Catherine, “Darcy and I are… already acquainted.” He had been pretty sure she would throw off all former knowledge and purposefully ignore him any time they met again. Somehow, it was even worse that she was willing to acknowledge him.

Are you?” Aunt Catherine asked, a faint tone of surprise in her voice. “Fitzwilliam, how do you and the young lady know each other?” Her words were mild, but he could hear the undercurrent of disapproval. He could hardly wait to hear what terrible infractions Elizabeth had committed in Aunt Catherine’s presence.

“We…” He realized that in keeping his gaze away from her soft brown eyes he was behaving indecorously by looking at her elsewhere. It helped when she crossed her arms and shifted her weight, showing less of her low-cut neckline. “My friend Charles Bingley and I spent a lot of time in the same town as Elizabeth over the course of last summer.” Only the summer? The time felt simultaneously to be endless and painfully brief. Less than three months dominated his mental calendar.

His stomach swooped when Aunt Catherine added in a dry tone, “I suppose you will want to join us for dinner, then, since you are already friendly?” The concept turned his brain to mush as he nearly forgot how to string a sentence together. He was still entirely uncertain whether the plan was a good or bad one when Aunt Catherine moved on, asking about another person who was quickly invited when Charlotte Lucas affirmed that he was present.

Robert’s elbow in his side knocked Darcy out of his silent staring. “Fitz, if we still want drink, we’d better get in line.”

Darcy heard himself speak as if from a great distance. “Right.” Seconds after Anne requested her own drink, he forgot what she asked for. Fervently hoping Robert had a better handle on the situation, he followed his cousin over to the line. Coming close to lights down, it had shortened considerably and he had only a few moments to recollect himself before they reached the bar. He could tell Robert was purposefully ignoring him, but it was better than being asked what was wrong.

He almost moved to down his drink straight, but forced his hand to stop, knowing he was watched by Robert, the bar tender, and who knew who else in the room. He picked up Anne’s drink to steady himself and focused on just walking across the carpet without tripping. Of all places and all people… Elizabeth Bennet. And worse, Anne already seemed to know them, so there would be little escaping the company… Anne nudged him and he handed her her drink, playing with the white cocktail napkin with his newly freed hand.

He sighed, very softly, with relief when the lights flickered, signaling the performance was ready to begin again. It was less difficult to keep his thoughts in check as they returned to their seats and settled in for the second half—this was more likely due to his still stumbling mind than any amount of self-control, though.

Only when the lights went down did he let himself loose to think. He barely heard the words being spoken on the stage, he was so engulfed in his own thoughts. What was he supposed to do? He had been so preoccupied by the thought of her for so long, the time spent in the same room with her was like a physical blow to his already battered heart. How was he to stand it?

It was his own fault, really, for letting himself be so taken in. How could he have saved Bingley only to fall into the trap himself?

But maybeMaybe he could just salvage the situation! He straightened a little in his seat, continuing to stare forward but barely seeing the stage at all. Maybe this was just what he needed! If he could just meet her straight on and really spend his time tackling the… crush or whatever it was he felt for her, then perhaps he could overcome it. And she was there, in person; there was no way for his memory to trick him into remembering her as wittier or prettier or any other –er than she really was.

Though… He clenched the fingers of one hand as he thought it, in just a few moments of reunion, she had proved herself to be considerably more beautiful than he had remembered. Which just seemed wrong, somehow. Unlikely. How could his memory have been so much less than the original? It really didn’t seem possible.

~~~~

Darcy regretted how little attention he paid to the play, but his preoccupation felt justified—he had done his best to purge every thought, every idea of Elizabeth’s beauty and humor from his mind. He had steeled himself for dinner and he was relatively confident that he could sit at the same table as her, make his usual level of conversation, and, most importantly, not stare.

As prepared as he was, he really couldn’t tell if it was better or worse that, on the way out of the theater, Aunt Catherine was stopped by a trio of women. “Lady Catherine!” one of them cried in delight at the sight of her. “Lady Catherine, I must tell you—I wanted to speak to you about Olivia Pope!”

Aunt Catherine fairly beamed. “Do you? Excellent! Tell me what you think of her.”

The woman, who had bottle-red curls and slightly watery blue eyes, launched into an exaltation of the merits of Miss Olivia Pope. It took Darcy at least a minute to gather that she was a nanny, as the excited adjectives seemed to get in the way of the subject of her sentences. He crossed his arms, expecting a long wait.

Anne was less patient than he was; she shifted her weight from foot to foot, leaning heavily against her crutches until her back was slightly sloped. “Mum,” she said finally in a voice fainter than usual, “I really need to sit down.”

For a moment, Darcy almost thought Lady Catherine was going to refuse. He watched as her eyes jumped from her daughter’s face to his and then Robert’s. A slightly frown tugged at the corners of her lips; she was being robbed of the chance to introduce her nephews once again. But she didn’t argue. “Oh, very well. I’ll only be a moment longer.” She slid her hand into her purse and dropped the keyring in Anne’s palm. Anne then passed the key off to Darcy before adjusting her grip on the handle of her crutch. Darcy twisted the ring around between his fingers, grateful that she had handed them to him. It gave him an excuse to walk ahead of his cousins.

While Robert continued to conscientiously help Anne through the parking lot—the newly fallen snow had yet to be cleared, and it covered the slick patches in white camouflage—Darcy moved at a stuttering pace ahead of them. His long legs and anxious mind wanted him to move quickly, but his ingrained etiquette refused to allow him to abandon his cousins for the safe solitude of the interior of the car.

Though it may have felt like forever, it didn’t take them long to reach it. After Darcy unlocked the car, he decided the least he could do was open the door for Anne. As he held it, one hand on the top, the other on the handle, he couldn’t help himself from glancing around the quickly emptying lot, searching for any sight of Elizabeth. When Anne was seated, Darcy carefully closed the door behind her and slid into the backseat. Robert was already comfortable, one leg crossed over the other, his elbow up on the top portion of the car door. He watched Darcy, but said nothing as his cousin seemed to collapse into the car.

Darcy had only a few seconds of peace to sink into the frigid leather of the seat before Anne turned as well as she could—she often had trouble with hip rotation, especially in the cold—resting much of her weight against her left elbow, to see Darcy in the backseat. “Do you really know Liz?”

His head was still tipped back towards the ceiling, his chin and nose jutted upward as his most prominent features. “Yes. I said I did.”

She laughed softly. “She’s very cute, isn’t she?”

Darcy made no answer, though he clenched one fist hidden in the darkness of the car and slowly lowered his head.

“Makes me miss Marisol…” She sighed softly and changed the topic. “Tell me about her sisters!” she commanded with a quickness inherited from her mother but in a far less magisterial tone.

Thinking of nothing kind to say immediately, Darcy squirmed. “Why don’t you just ask her about them?”

“Because I’m asking you. I’m trying to figure out what it’s like to grow up in such a full house! When you ask people with siblings what it’s like, they never give you a good answer. But you saw them.”

He sighed. “Oh, I don’t know… I really didn’t see them that often.”

“Often enough to remember her.”

Darcy winced. How could I forget? “I suppose,” he said warily. There was no gentle way to phrase his memories, only less cruel ones. Her mother is a loud, overbearing gold-digger, her sisters are either entirely oblivious or following the same path, and her father has no interest in social decorum. “They’re all very different from each other.”

“You could say that about any family.”

Not the part I thought. “I guess. Anne, I don’t know,” he said again, pressing one shoulder against the door of the car. “I really only spent a little time with her and her eldest sister and even then, it wasn’t very long.”

“So, tell me about her.”

He was saved from an immediate response by the arrival of Aunt Catherine. She opened the driver’s door and, before even moving to sit, barked at her daughter, “Anne, sit properly. You’ll hurt yourself.”

Anne grumbled but slid back down into the seat.

Darcy leaned forward while Aunt Catherine was still fumbling with her car keys and murmured, “I really think you would be better asking Elizabeth about it.” The least he could do was respect her for her own merits; if they were never to meet, what good would it do to expose Jane to Anne? It would only hurt Elizabeth. He turned his face towards the window and refused to even engage in any further questions until they arrived at the restaurant.

His resolve, strong enough in the blackness of the theater and the cool interior of the car, wavered a little at the sight of her, so he allowed himself only a single look. Admittedly less elegant, there was something strangely charming about the combination of a black puffed jacket and the short green skirt of her dress. It jutted out slightly where the coat cut into the line of the dress. She had shoved her hands in her pockets and was bouncing slightly on one foot and then the other. He did his best to act extremely interested in the fake plant he could see through the front window, sitting next to the hostess stand. It sat in a red pot, the leaves drooping a little more than seemed intentional. The gloss had worn off the tops of the leaves, leaving it a dull little thing.

He found himself sympathizing with it, but almost immediately shook off the feeling. Surely he was made of stronger stuff than that. He noticed, for the first time, a man he did not recognize—probably the William Aunt Catherine had mentioned earlier. He was shorter than Darcy with light brown hair. Barely paying attention to the words, Darcy murmured something in response, continuing to watch Elizabeth out of the corner of his eye.

When Robert held the door open, Darcy waited for everyone else to enter before him. Darcy purposefully refused to interrogate the emotions that welled up inside of him when the man walked besides Elizabeth and leaned down to whisper something in her ear. He also refused to acknowledge the relief when the man stepped quickly away to follow at Aunt Catherine’s heels.

Robert nudged him, almost making Darcy jump. “What’s up with you?” he muttered. “You’re still acting… weird.” The even for you part was unsaid but acknowledged by both parties.

Darcy shook his head. “Later.”

Robert sighed just loudly enough for Darcy to hear before he stepped around the edge of a tall, decorative divider to take a seat at the table. Darcy couldn’t help but to watch which chair Elizabeth chose. It would be too much to sit beside her, but maybe if he faced her, he could begin the work of undoing whatever spell he found his heart was under.

Almost as soon as he decided it, he regretted the choices. But, already seated, he would just have to live with it. The lighting of the restaurant was dim, but there was a pendant light just behind her, and it set off a shine in her long, dark hair. When she moved her head to the side, her bangs gently brushed her eyebrows and framed her eyes.

The sounds of the table washed over him, swelling and dispelling like a tide. He was as removed from the discussion as a stone on the beach. He felt like stone, too, practically frozen in place. Even when he wanted to turn his head and look away, he could not. Like a magnet or a spell, he was drawn to her.

When she looked up from the menu, he struggled to keep his expression blank. But her eyes quickly slid from his face and she turned towards Robert instead, rotating her torso to look actively at him. With her face turned away, he forced his head down, jerking his neck in the process, so he could no longer look at her.

His ears prickled with every word she said, though he tried to not even listen. It didn’t work very well. When Robert explained his position at the university, Darcy felt a sudden squirm of unease in his stomach, though he knew it was unfair, and he listened with slightly more attention.

“Psychology, focus on adolescents. I did a lot of work in secondary school counseling while I did my degree and those kids really swayed my interest.”

Darcy sighed. Yes, it had been unfair of him to suspect Robert would disclose anything sensitive. As much as he disliked the idea of lying in general—or, in specifics, to Elizabeth—he was not at all prepared to reveal any of Georgie’s medical history at the dinner table with near-strangers around.

He felt himself twitch as Robert said his name; “Ah, so Fitz writes the books and you get to tear them apart, right?”

“Right.” He could hear the laugh behind the single word response.

He was reminded forcefully of a particular night in Meryton… At Charlotte Lucas’ parents’ house, if he wasn’t mistaken. Elizabeth had been asked a similar question but had been far more dismissive then. Or maybe it was just the person asking it who was the problem? Was she more willing to discuss literature with Robert?

Before Darcy could fully examine the implications of that line of thought, the waiter appeared. Though he had been staring at his menu for almost ten minutes, he had hardly read a word of it. When asked, he ordered the first dish that caught his eye. As soon as he handed the menu over, he regretted the loss of his concealment. Now it would be odd if he did not look up.

Luckily, before he could fall back into the trap of Elizabeth’s eyes, Aunt Catherine caught his attention, telling him a great deal of information that he mostly filtered out. It was easy to nod and pretend—for she really never let anyone else get a word in edgewise—that he was engrossed in her conversation. It was easy, also, to allow his eyes to slide every minute or so.

One sleeve of her dress had slipped lower than the other, but she had made no move to pull it back up. There was a dark freckle just on the edge of her right shoulder. The restaurant was fairly cool and he could see the faint down against her skin when it stood in reaction to the cold. A loose strand of hair followed the line of her neck, turning up in a curl when it touched her shoulder. Though she spoke rarely, he could see when her eyes glinted with laughter or her lips pursed to hold in a chuckle. He was entirely engrossed in the tiniest actions and motions she made.

Then, she looked at him. It took him a second to understand why, trying to fight his blush, when he realized Aunt Catherine was addressing him. At least, she said something about France, so he assumed she was speaking to him. He missed almost the entire sentence, though, so he wasn’t entirely sure what response she was looking for. He had not even begun to form one when Elizabeth said, “I mean, really, who does enjoy delicacies? I really think that they’re just foods no one wanted until someone decided to charge an inordinate amount of money and now people feel obligated to enjoy them.”

Darcy blinked a couple of times, trying to process her statement. Clearly, he had missed something important, but he had no idea what. He was also waiting for Aunt Catherine to jump the poor girl. (Even if he did suspect she could hold her own against his aunt.) Before that happened, though, Robert laughed aloud. “Don’t tell my dad that! He likes a bit of foie gras and caviar at the best of times.”

He stopped scrambling to catch the thread of the conversation when she leaned forward, towards him and Robert. Her collarbones stood out sharply against her skin, the shadows and the light catching her cheeks in such a way that made them appear warm and velvety-soft. “You know… I’ve never actually had caviar.” He knew she was joking—at least from context—but rather than the edge of laughter at the end of her sentence, he was struck more by the softly conspiratorial tone at the beginning. It was… inviting. It made him want to lean in as well to let himself fall into the secret too.

Robert had none of Darcy’s preoccupations. “Well, if you want some, I know where you can get it. You’ll have to come back to England with me, though!”

“Is that an invitation, professor?”

Darcy was grateful when she settled back into her seat and he finally managed to wrench his eyes back to his own plate. The whirls of pasta in sauce seemed as unappealing and inedible as a plate of string and glue would. Why could everyone else joke and play with her, but not him? The secrete of easy rapport had never before felt so simultaneously unattainable and desirable. 

He would have drifted through the remainder of the dinner conversation had Elizabeth not specifically hit on Anne’s main questions of interests when she asked Robert about his immediate family.

“Some, yeah,” he answered comfortably. Envy was not Darcy’s primary vice, but he and Anne both felt some jealousy for the easy, straightforward family life the Fitzwilliams enjoyed. “Mother and father, of course, and two siblings, both older. A brother and a sister and four nieces and nephews.” Robert had never really been in line for the title of “earl,” but Darcy had never heard him complain about it either.

Elizabeth nodded as she listened. “I’m the second oldest in my family.”

When she did not seem inclined to elaborate, Anne jumped at her chance to find out more—and share what she already knew. “Liz has four sisters,” she said, mostly to Robert. Darcy glanced up in time to see her staring at him. “Can you imagine? That’s far too many.” He could hear rebuke in her tone.

“I know,” Darcy assured her. “I met them.” He hadn’t expected Anne to have her chance to find out more so immediately, but he supposed it was fair. He had told her to ask Elizabeth herself, after all.

In a tone Darcy didn’t quite understand, Elizabeth said, “Mmm, yes, you did meet all of them.” Then, without even the slightest of pauses, she jumped subjects. “My eldest sister has been working in DC for the past four months. Darcy, you live near DC, don’t you?”

He couldn’t help it; he met her eyes. He looked desperately, attempting to gauge… Well, something. Darcy wasn’t entirely certain what he was hoping to see there, but it certainly wasn’t the hint of sarcastic mockery that he found. “Yes.”

His answer didn’t seem to be enough. He also realized he was having a hard time looking away again, now that he let himself slip. She held her fork loosely in the fingers of one hand while she held up the other. “Have you or Chip ever run into her? I know it’s a big place, but what with him being a lawyer and her being a Congressional aid…” She let the words hang in the air for a few seconds before adding, “It’s possible.”

With a sense of detachment, he felt the hot shiver of a panic attack slip down his back like a cloak. Staring into her eyes, he felt utterly trapped—though not entirely in a bad way. Why was she pressing the matter?

He realized it was his turn to talk again. “Yes, it is possible. I haven’t seen her.”

“Hmm.”

He stared down intently at his plate as he worked to regulate his pulse, a touch of anger lighting in his chest. It was true, he had never seen Jane Bennet. But he didn’t want to hold half-truths over Elizabeth—so why did she have to ask him that?

His mind tried very hard to convince him that he had been right about the Bennet sisters to begin with, they were all bad news. His heart refused to listen.

Chapter Text

It was snowing. A quarter of the way to a blizzard, wind whipped through the trees outside, brushing the flakes against the windows and the side of the building. A thin skin of ice had formed just on the bottom edge of Liz’s window.

“I guess we’re not running outside this morning, huh?”

Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “We? No. You can, if you like.” As if to accentuate her point, a few branches scrapped against one of the windows, squeaking sharply. “But I’m certainly not going out there.”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Liz said with a laugh. She lay her jacket—the same team cross country jacket from high school—over the back of a chair and held out one bare arm. “I was thinking about hitting the gym Bill showed Mariah and me when we first got here.”

“Mmm,” Charlotte replied through a mouthful of breakfast. She swallowed. “Like I said, you can do what you want.”

“You’re not coming?”

“I’ve got work to do, Lizzie. My break’s over. I did work it out, though, I won’t be full time while you’re here, but there are some new accounts opening at the end of the month and I need to make sure I get their down payment paperwork sorted away.”

“Oh.” She wasn’t really sure what she had been expecting—that Charlotte could just drop everything while she was there? Possibly. She cleared her throat and picked up her empty water bottle from the table. “That’s fine. I can make myself scarce for a couple hours if you need me to!”

“Nah, you’re fine.” Charlotte took another spoonful of cereal. “The inside gym is pretty good, so you should be all right there. Hopefully the snow will calm down and they’re good about shoveling, so you can head outside again in a couple days probably.”

“Great!” Liz said with more cheer than she felt. She fiddled with the zipper on her jacket, pulling it up and down along the teeth so it made a metallic scraping sound. “Great,” she said again, her voice fading. She slipped the jacket on over her tank top and slid her phone and headphones into the pocket and stepped into the kitchen, filling her bottle from the cold tap. “I guess I’ll be back in a bit.”

Charlotte nodded, not looking up from her breakfast. “Yep, see you later! I’ll try not to work too late today; don’t think it will be a problem.”

As she walked down the hallway, she swung her water bottle in one hand and continuing to play with her zipper with the other. While she really had come to spend time with Charlotte at least a small part of her—probably larger than Liz was willing to admit—had come to see if Charlotte really was as happy with her new life as she said she was. And Charlotte really did seem happy with her work—happy enough to dive into it on a Monday morning. Her apartment was nice—a comfortable size for a single woman. Hunsford, while not exactly lively, was larger than Meryton and it seemed a little realer; less tourist-fake and more lifelike. She seemed perfectly equal to the task of handling both Lady Catherine and Bill, and was at the advantage that when they were in a room together seemed content to speak to no one else.

It was just… When Liz left for college, she could always count on Charlotte being there. Like her parents and the Longbourne, she was a staple of Meryton. Even when Liz moved forward in her life, there was always a safe place to return to. The safe place was still there, but it felt a little bit smaller without Charlotte in it. It’s just something new to get used to. And she’d be back at school before she knew it! It didn’t matter how small Meryton was then.

She dropped her hand from her jacket zipper and pushed open the door to the little gym. She was pleased to find it empty. Maybe it came from using the high school gym at the same time as the boys on the football and basketball teams, but she always felt at least a little performative when there was another person there. Like she had to earn her place through perfect form and impressive weight lifting and—

She stopped in her tracks, her fingers still around the door handle. The gym wasn’t empty. He had been hidden behind one of the large pieces of equipment next to the door. It didn’t matter that his back was to her or that he was wearing an unfamiliar gray t-shirt and black joggers. She knew it was Darcy. She could tell from his hair, from the hard set of his shoulders… and from her own, extraordinarily bad luck at running into him at all the worst times. He didn’t seem to have heard or seen her yet, so Liz very gently eased the door shut and pressed her back against the wall to catch her breath.

As she hunkered in the doorway, she decided she had three options. The first was to slink away, to come back later to work out or even head outside. She could already tell from the flurries out the window she wasn’t about to do that. The second was to sneak into the room. She could make very little sound, at least until she turned on the treadmill. The third was to barge in.

Remembering her vow from the theater that she would be on the attack this time, she went with the third option. Making a nearly obscene amount of noise, she shoved the door open again, letting it fall back behind her with a thunk. He moved to glance over his shoulder and then look forward again, but ended up doing a double take as he realized it was not a stranger who had just entered, but Liz Bennet. He half turned to look at her with the same startled expression on his face that he had worn a couple nights before.

She took a few seconds to stare at him, waiting for him to speak. There was a red and yellow striped shield on his t-shirt and words she recognized as French. When he didn’t speak, let alone move, she turned her back on him to roll her eyes. She let out a little sigh and reached up to yank the scrunchie out of her hair, quickly running her fingers through the strands before throwing it back up into a lopsided ponytail.

It took a few moments of inspection before she felt comfortable enough with the fancy treadmill to attempt to turn it on. She stood a little to the side of it, running her fingers over the buttons, not sure if she was brave enough to make it tilt. Once she decided she was not, she stood on her toes to reach high enough to slip her water bottle into the holder and then hopped up on the bed. The track gave a pleasant little bounce beneath her feet.

She glanced sideways. Darcy kept looking at her, but acting the whole time as if he wasn’t. He would do a rep with the weights and then pause, drinking his own water or fiddling with his little white towel, his eyes flickering towards her in the mirror or even twitching his head to glance her way. He always seemed to duck away a second too late, because she kept catching him in the act.

Liz found she was almost embarrassed that he was clearly as unhappy to be in her presence as she was to be in his, but far worse at hiding it. Perhaps it was pity that made her assure him, “If it wasn’t snowing as hard as it is right now, I’d be running outside. There’s that nice little path around the pond… Much better than running inside.” At least it meant she wouldn’t have to put up with him out in the park, she decided as soon as she said it.

He nodded slightly, though an expression she couldn’t interpret seemed to twitch his eyebrows, and put the weights down silently. At least he can do one thing right. She compared him to the muscled-up, try-hard boys at the gym who took weights that were far too heavy and chucked them on the ground with a bang, feeling approval for the first time. He rubbed the back of his neck with the towel and moved to the other side of the room.

Well… in all fairness, she wasn’t exactly interested in talking to him either. She popped in her earbuds and flicked through her phone, picking up in the audiobook where she left off last before shoving her phone into the mesh pocket of her leggings.

 

“It’s a very long way down,” she said in a very small voice. She was already feeling a heavy sensation of vertigo after looking into the long, dark tunnel for only a few seconds. Wren pushed herself back from the lip; the stones were worn smooth but the grout bit into her palms, leaving texture behind. A chunk of it crumbled beneath her fingers.

The man laughed. “Is the little birdy afraid of the dark?”

No!” Wren answered a little too quickly and with enough force that she could no longer allow herself to turn back. He continued to chuckle as she pulled the lantern out of his hand and peered back into the hole, draping her body halfway over the wall to get a better view. The lantern illuminated further down the ladder, showing that it had all its rungs at least for as deep as she could see. It seemed to be the only thing in the pit; a ladder and stone and grout walls for feet and feet.

It reminded her of the time Auggie and his friends dared her to get in the well while their parents were at market. They helped her into the bucket and slowly lowered her in, jerking the rope every minute, half to frighten her and half to make sure she was still alive. That hadn’t been so scary, just wet and slimy. They had given her two coppers and a sweet bun when she clambered out a quarter of an hour later.

Wren took a deep breath and shoved the lantern back into the man’s hand. She would be getting much more than a couple of coppers when she made it out of this hole.

Pretend it’s just a well, she chanted to herself, it’s just a well, it’s just a… very, very deep well. She placed both hands on the top of the wall and heaved herself up, first to her knees and then a kneeling position. She could feel where the scabbard bit into her hip. As she scooted around to face him again, the sole of one boot knocked a pebble loose from the structure. It clacked as it hit against the other stones, bouncing and rolling its way down into the darkness. She froze, though her legs began to ache from holding the position for so long.

Wren and the man waited far longer than necessary before speaking again; they both knew they would never hear the stone hit the bottom. When she could no longer crouch, she began to ease herself backwards, her feet searching for the top rung of the ladder. “Someone will be here when I get back?”

“Sure, they will, Birdy. We want the package as much as you want the gold.”  

 

Liz missed the act of literary analysis more than she would care to admit. The need had actually driven her back to a popular Brambling Chronicles forum, one she hadn’t been active on in years—but if Austen wasn’t going to write more, she and other fans were more than happy to overanalyze the already-released text. It hadn’t taken her long to find a newly popular theory that “the man” from “The Pit and the City” could be found in chapters 11, 15, 23, and 32 of Water Below the Castle. While it was easy to carry around Water Below the Castle—even as it clocked in over 700 pages—it was a little more inconvenient to bring all of the related short story collections. Audiobooks had the advantage of being already attached to her phone and being able to multitask while she worked her way through the stories.

She was not paying as close attention as she might have intended just then. Through the corner of her eye, she watched Darcy in the mirror. Eventually, he eased up on his staring and focused back on his workout. After a few minutes of him doing nothing more interesting than a round of push-ups and more weight lifting, she forced herself to focus back on the audiobook and the running. She had set the pace a little fast, but she decided she wanted to push herself—it wasn’t that she was showing off.

Between almost never running inside and the high pace she had set for herself, Liz found she was growing quite warm in her jacket.   Still jogging, she wriggled out of her jacket and tossed it so it fell onto one of the nearby exercise benches. The weight of the pocket pulled it down so it fell in a puddle on the floor. She could feel her ponytail swishing against the bare skin of her shoulder blades, a sensation she always associated with summer.

She reached out for her water and took a swig before increasing the speed again, just a touch higher. Just before it really kicked in, she grabbed for her phone, turning up the volume a few notches. It didn’t take long for her to tune out everything but Wren and the long, long climb down.

~~~~

Liz ran until the end of the story. Of the three Brambling Chronicles stories, this was her favorite—though any one of them would certainly have been enough to take her focus off Darcy. She had been so focused, in fact, that she never saw him leave.

Stepping off the treadmill, the room was in perfect order, as if he had never even been there at all. If only she could pretend that! Shaking her head, she stepped over to where she had thrown her jacket and then paused. She would have sworn it fell on the ground after she tossed it… But there it was, folded on the edge of the bench. Shrugging, she grabbed it, laying it over one shoulder for her walk back to Charlotte’s apartment.

~~~~

Charlotte was in the kitchen when her phone rang—the landline, not her cell phone. Liz hadn’t heard it ring in all five days she had been there. She and Mariah were sitting on the couch and they both leaned over the side of the couch. They heard Charlotte pick up and say, “Hello?... Oh, hi!... No, we’re not doing anything.” There was a long pause. “Sure, we’d love to… Yeah, that would be fine… Okay, see you in a bit!”

She couldn’t help but laugh when she stepped out into the living room to find Liz and Mariah practically on top of each other, both sprawled over the arm of the couch as they tried to listen to her conversation. Before they could ask, she said, “That was Anne de Bourgh.”

Liz, who had been lying on her back and looking upside-down at Charlotte, rolled over, tipping Mariah to the floor. “Hey!” she cried indignantly.

Liz ignored her. “How did she even get your number?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t ask. Probably looked it up in the building directory.”

“There’s a building directory?” Mariah asked from the floor. She had settled herself on knees, with her legs folded beneath her.

“Yeah. Lady Catherine insists that every condo in the building have a landline.”

“That’s…” Liz couldn’t find the word she wanted, so she settled on, “old-fashioned.”

Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “You’ve met the woman. She is literally the definition of old-fashioned. I think she likes the idea of getting her hands on literally every person in the building at any minute of the day. But she’s the one who pays for it, so no one complains.”

“What did Anne want?” Mariah asked, circling the conversation back.

A grin spread across Charlotte’s face, the left side of her mouth pulling up slightly higher than the right. She glanced at Liz as she said, “Anne and her cousins are extremely bored of being cooped up at Lady Catherine’s and they wanted to know if we’d like to join them in the rec room. I said we would love to.”

Liz pushed herself up higher on the couch, resting one knee against the arm. It didn’t make her much taller, but it did give her the leverage to gesture with her hands. “’We’ would not love to do anything of the kind, Charlotte! ‘We’ would be happy never to be in the same room with Darcy again.” She had said nothing of that morning’s workout.

“Hmm… Then can we talk about why everything seems to be about Darcy?”

“It’s not!” she answered hotly. When Charlotte said nothing, only raising her eyebrows once again, Liz pulled back. “All right, but you’ve met him. He’s a wet blanket with a superiority complex.”

“He’s not the only person that’s going to be there. You can sit on the other side of the room and ignore him if he talks to you.”

Liz opened her mouth to continue protesting but Mariah, still on the floor, said, “Um, I kind of want to go.”

“Ha! Two to one, you’re outvoted. We’re going.”

Liz sniffed; her eyes narrowed. 

Charlotte laughed. “Aw, Lizzie, don’t be so mean. I mean, would you like to be cooped up with Lady Catherine in that apartment for two weeks?”

Liz crossed her arms, throwing herself hard enough back at the couch cushion that she bounced a little. “I’m sure they’re having a very nice time together.”

“Have a heart! Forget about Darcy for a second, what about Robert, does he deserve that?”

“Ugh fine. But I’m logging an official protest!”

“Noted. We’re still going; you’re still out-voted.”

Although she got up without protest, Liz continued to drag her feet while putting on her shoes. She regretted only bringing Water Below the Castle as it was far too thick and tall to slip into a pocket. At least her phone would offer minimal escape, though she still wished she could text Jane.

There was no one there yet when they entered the rec room. Mariah took a seat back on the squeaky couch while Liz stepped over to the shelves to inspect the proffered bookish escapes. She had yet to find anything of interest when Anne arrived, her cousins in tow. She moved more stiffly than she had the last time they saw her, her hips seeming to stick as she took each step. “Sorry we’re late. I had to”—she gestured back towards the boys—“corral everyone.”

Despite herself, Liz walked closer so she could cross her arms and lean her hip against the back of the couch. Robert was holding… something, which seemed to be knitted and red, made out of some thick yarn or wool. Darcy was tangled up in the string that was still attached to the project, his arms full of red, blue, and brown skeins. Her interest immediately waned when she found him looking at her. She turned her back at once, returning to the bookshelf.

Picking a volume at random, she leafed through the first couple of pages, read half a paragraph, and closed it again. She picked a good time to look back at the room—Darcy, having emptied his arms onto the seat of one of the chairs, turned stiffly towards the pool table. Robert took a little longer as he waited for Anne to settle before he handed over whatever he was carrying. She lay the huge swatch of dark red, knitted fabric across her legs. Robert held out a hand, though one look at his face clearly showed he had no idea what kind of assistance to offer, and Anne waved him away. He gave a little shrug and a smile when Liz caught his eye before he stepped to the other side of the wall to pick up his own pool cue. Darcy was already placing the balls in the rack, watching his hands very intently as he worked to place each one facing the same direction.

Liz rolled her eyes and took a seat close to Anne, resting the closed novel on her lap. “What are you knitting?” she asked at the same time Charlotte said, “What are you crocheting?”  

Anne brandished the single hook. “Crochet for now, around the edges. Most of it is knitted, though. And it’s an anatomically correct heart. I started it a while ago, but I didn’t like the way the veins were coming out, so I ripped out my stitches and reworked my pattern.” She ran one hand along the fabric, her fingers bending over the raised shapes of veins and arteries.

“Is it hard to make a pattern?” Charlotte asked, sitting on Anne’s other side. Mariah even put down her phone to catch the conversation.

Anne seemed flustered by the sudden attention. “No, not really. Well, maybe. I just have a lot of time to give my projects.”  

“But you usually get something out of it,” Darcy said. He rested the bottom of his cue against the ground while Robert took his shot. “It’s not as if you’re just making things because you have nothing better to do.”

She clucked her tongue as she stabbed more thread through the project. “Fitz, that’s a bad attitude to have about art. You’ve been spending too much time with my mother… Just because this is a commission, it doesn’t mean I can’t make things for fun!”

Charlotte reached forward and ran her fingers over the edge of it, towards the bottom where Anne wasn’t holding on. “Oh, but someone asked you to make this for them?”

“For a show, actually. I was invited to show a piece in an all-disabled gallery installation.”

“Nice,” Mariah said, with feeling, from the other side of the room.

“Yeah, it’s pretty excited to get to be recognized for my talents.” As she spoke, she continued to thread the hook through the yarn without looking, staring over her shoulder at Darcy instead. “I like to take all my opportunities, not wait around for a relative to tell me if they approve.”

He didn’t meet her eyes; he took his time aiming his cue and pocketed two solid-colored balls at once. When he straightened up, he shrugged his shoulders unevenly, seeming to hide behind the left, which was raised higher than the right. Before he could respond to her, Liz decided she didn’t need to know what was going on to join in the conversation. “Oh, Darcy’s very recognized for his talents.” The way the corners of his mouth turned down told her he heard the inflection on “talents.”

“My writing has been… successful. Some pieces more than others.”

Anne tried to laugh but even the short conversation seemed to have winded her; her breath came out in a harsh wheeze. Her right hand shook slightly and she raised her left to press against her chest. Before Darcy could fall silent—or become completely overtaken by Liz’s jabs—Robert slipped himself into the dialogue.

“Now, now, being modest isn’t going to help you out of this one, Fitz.”

“I am being factual, not modest!” he argued. “I don’t think very many people read The Sky in Black and White.”

Liz vaguely remembered the title—wasn’t that the short story collection mentioned on the back of his terrible book?

“Well, I’m not talking about that one. You know before that, when you were writing—”

They never got to hear what else Darcy had been writing because the hallway door opened, letting in a flood of painfully familiar speech. “—and if you would prefer,” Bill said in his usual, not-suited-for-indoors voice as he held the door open for Lady Catherine, “I can contact them in the morning.”

“Yes, I would certainly prefer—ah, there you are!” she said, casting her eyes on her daughter and nephews. “I was wondering where you three had disappeared to. I told you I was not having a late-night of working.” Though Darcy and Robert barely paused to take in her appearance, Charlotte jumped to her feet. Liz vaguely wondered if that was expected of her as well. Mariah, having the same concern, had half risen, her phone gripped tightly between both her hands.

Anne only turned in her seat to look at her mother. “No,” she said in her health-enforced soft voice, “but I wanted to spend time”—she paused to cough—“with them.”

“Hmm… Are you cold, dear? It’s much warmer upstairs in the apartment.”

“I’m fine.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard, my dear. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. If you need to rest, I understand.”

“I’m really fine, Mum.” Though her words were even, there was definitely a current of defiance in her voice.

“Hmm,” she murmured again and stepped over to the couch, taking Charlotte’s now empty seat beside her daughter. Without complained, Charlotte sat next to Mariah.

Bill remained on his feet, hovering behind Lady Catherine. “When I make the call in the morning, your ladyship, would you prefer if I—”

She waved him off with a hand. “No, no, hold off on business for now, William.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He continued to bobble behind her, shifting from one foot to the other.

Before Liz had time to laugh—or at least wonder if he was getting a headache from so much neck moving and head wiggling—Lady Catherine confronted her with a question. “Didn’t you say, Elizabeth, that you play piano?”

She straightened in her seat. “I used to, yes.”

“Then you must play for us,” Lady Catherine demanded unabashedly and gesturing towards the piano on the other side of the room.

“Oh, I really couldn’t.” She let out a little laugh to cover her surprise. “It’s been so long.”

“No, but hardly anyone uses that piano. It will be nice to hear some music.”

Anne winced. “Mum,” she began, but Mariah cut her off.

“Aw, Liz, you’re being hard on yourself. You’re pretty good.”

Liz tipped her head. “Yeah, I was pretty good three years ago!”

Lady Catherine waved off her excuse. “I am certain you cannot have forgotten that much. Why, when I was a girl, I desperately wanted to play, but my father preferred not to buy a piano. I took flute and to this day, I can still play a number of pieces.”

Deciding it wasn’t worth her time to argue, Liz shrugged, dropped her book on the seat of the couch, and walked over to the piano. Robert paused and then put down his pool cue, leaning it against the edge of the table. With his hands in his pockets, he ambled over to the piano. “Sorry about that,” he muttered to Liz on the pretext of looking at the piano book in her hands. “But I am curious as well.”

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s not your fault. Honestly, she’s kind of funny if you don’t think too hard about it.” Liz closed the book and picked up another one; none of the pieces were familiar and they were all too difficult for her to sight-read. “I’m warning you, though, it’s not very good. Everything I ever learned to play was super basic.”

She would have been glad of Robert’s company if his presence didn’t mean Darcy’s pool game was left one man short. When the knock of balls fell silent for over a minute, she glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder through the curtain of her hair just in time to see Darcy lay down his own cue and make his way over to them. He edged around the couch, appearing as if he was purposefully keeping out of eyeline of his aunt. While Liz was watching him, Anne worked hard to catch her eye, trying to impart an apologetic expression.

When Liz nodded slightly and shrugged at her, Anne moved to stand. She slid the project off her lap and was halfway to her feet when Lady Catherine lay on hand on her daughter’s wrist without really looking at her. “Where are you going, my dear? Sit down. You’ve had enough trouble with your hip as it is.” She turned back to Charlotte. Anne stiffened but dropped Liz’s gaze; she returned to her crocheting.  

While her attention had been distracted, Darcy had managed to creep up on her. Taking to the opposite side of the piano as Liz and Robert, he tried—and failed spectacularly—to look nonchalant by resting one shoulder against the wall and leaning in towards Liz. Instead of seeming casual, he appeared more if he was on the deck of a boat that was listing heavily to one side; he kept his spine too straight and his shoulders too rigid.

She slid the last music book back onto the shelf. Another unrecognizable collection. Without looking at Darcy, she said, “I know what you’re here for. But it’s not going to work.”

“You do?” His question sounded genuinely baffled.

Rather than answering immediately, she quickly shuffled through the stray sheet music, searching for any familiar piece. Halfway through the stack she found a particularly shabby copy of “Clair de Lune,” which she plucked out and quickly thumbed through to make sure all six pages were present. It was one of the few songs she still vaguely remembered playing all the way through. She dropped the pages on the music stand. “You are here,” she finally said slowly as she settled herself on the piano bench, “to frighten me. You’re going to compare my playing to your sister’s and tell me it is sub-par. But it’s not going to work! I am not afraid of you—I’ll play all the better for the intimidation.”

Darcy blinked twice. Then, a strange expression crept its way across his face. His eyes narrowed lightly, his eyebrows lowering, as a tight-cornered smile pulled at his lips. “Ah. Well, I know you enjoy saying absurd things that you don’t actually believe, so I won’t by offended by that.”

In response, Liz only laughed at his idea of her and put fingers hands on the piano keys. She didn’t see Robert raise his eyebrows at Darcy over her head.

She began to play. She knew at once her tempo was too fast, but it was difficult to slow down when relying solely on muscle memory. Her fingers wanted to fly over the keys and she was afraid of stumbling along the way. She ignored the pedal markers all together.  “The ideas that your cousin is going to give about me. Don’t listen to anything Darcy has to say, Robert!”

“Oh, I usually don’t listen to anything he has to say.”

“Robert…”

“Fitz, I’m joking! Really!”

Darcy made a disgruntled little hmph sound, but the opening was too good for Liz to pass up. “It’s not that hard not to listen to anything Darcy has to say, considering he never says anything.”

“I… talk,” he struggled to say, proving her point immediately.

“Oh, to your friends and family. But not to anyone else! You should have heard what people in Meryton were saying over the summer. I mean, when they weren’t talking about Chip.”

Robert chuckled. “Oh, Fitz as the talk of the town? I’d never believe it!”

“Well, to be fair, it was more his friend Chip Bingley.”

Robert considered the comment. “Yeah, I can see that. But come on, what were they saying about Fitz? I’ve never known him to make much of a splash.”

Liz watched her fingers for a few bars as she decided it would be unfair to go quite into depth as to the opinion Darcy had left behind himself. Instead, she asked, “Did you read the book review the Meryton Herald put out?”

“I…” Darcy paused. “Of my work?”

Liz nodded, missing a note. She played on, pretending she hadn’t noticed.

“I did not.” He seemed taken aback that the Herald had put out any review.

She bit back a chuckle. “Well, maybe that’s for the best then.”

Darcy frowned, drawing his eyebrows together as he fell silent for a moment. He seemed ruffled; it was with slightly less composure than usual that he said, “My self-worth isn’t based on the opinion of small-town newspaper book reviewers.”

Liz smiled but didn’t speak. There were several things she could think of to say in response but none of them were kind. She liked her humor sharp enough to nip a little, but not enough to draw blood. Instead, she glanced back at Robert. “Well, what do you think? I mean, besides every moderately skilled pianist learning this song at some point?”

“Oh, I don’t mind it,” he assured her, turning the page of the music for her so she didn’t have to interrupt her playing. “I think you’re quite good, really.”

She laughed. “You’re too kind,” she said in a playful voice, pretending to turn her face for imaginary cameras.

While Lady Catherine’s attention was diverted back onto Bill as he continued to ask her increasingly anxious questions about the next day’s upcoming phone call, Anne tried to rise again, intending to join in on all the gossip she was missing. Unfortunately, her mother wasn’t as engaged as Anne had hoped, for Lady Catherine’s hand shot out and clamped against Anne’s for a second time. “Where do you think you are going?”

“Oh, Mum, I’m just trying to go over to Fitz and Robert… I can’t hear what they’re talking about.”

“Well, that’s no fault of yours.” Turning a little in her seat, Lady Catherine called to the three by the piano, “Speak up so the rest of us can hear you! What are you talking about?”

Darcy blushed, but it was Robert who saved the day. “We’re talking about music, Aunt Catherine.”

“Ah, yes. ‘Clair de Lune?’”

“Yes,” Liz answered without turning away from the piano. She didn’t see Bill’s scandalized face as she replied without the honorific.

Liz,” he started to hiss, intending to admonish her, but fell silent when Lady Catherine spoke.

“Yes, most children learn ‘Clair de Lune’ sometime in their lessons, don’t they? Well, you play decently enough, but you should really practice more.”

There was a pause as Liz continued to play. She was nearly at the end of the song but Lady Catherine wasn’t prepared to listen. Instead, she continued speaking over Liz’s playing. “You should come to this room and practice every day. As you see, there is a lot of music for you to choose from, so you won’t have trouble with that. It will be very good for you.

“I’ve always found the discipline of music to be vitally important for children. I think it is a great thing for them to learn instruments! Do you play, Charlotte? Mariah?”

Mariah only shook her head. “I used to play clarinet. It didn’t last very long, though,” Charlotte said, her voice softer than Lady Catherine’s out of respect for her friend’s playing. Her courtesy was unnecessary, though, for Liz finished the song with a couple of wrong notes, but a flourish on the final bar that she hoped made up for it. She turned around on the piano bench to watch Lady Catherine speak.

“A shame! If Anne had been in good enough health to play, I’m sure she would have been marvelous. But with all the doctors’ appointments and treatments…” She shook her head. “A great loss, I know. And how is Georgia’s music getting along?” she asked, turning to Darcy.

Liz glanced sideways to watch him as he spoke. He had stopped pretending to be casual and was back to his aggressively straight-backed posture. “Very well, Aunt Catherine. She’s been invited to play with a professor at a gala in February.”

“How wonderful!” It was the first time Liz had heard Lady Catherine react in a way she deemed appropriate.

“I can show you a video, if you want, of her playing.”

“Yes!”

Darcy pulled out his phone. As he scrolled through an app with a slight frown on his face, Liz slid off the piano bench and returned to the couches. There was an open cushion next to Mariah, so Liz took it. She tucked her knees up on the seat of the couch, leaning her elbow against the arm of the furniture.

Darcy found what he was looking for and followed her footsteps. He typed quickly on his phone before tipping it on its side and handing it to his aunt. Then, he took a few steps back, heading behind the couch and back closer to the pool table. After a few seconds of silence and a short shuffle of paper, the opening bars of a song began to play. Soft and slow at first, it grew as the song went on. Though Liz was far from an expert—clearly, based on her recent performance—she could hear the talent behind the keys. Notes were not plunked or simply hit but coaxed into existence. There was definitely more appropriate use of the pedal than Liz herself had ever mastered.

While Lady Catherine watched the phone, Darcy watched her. Though he smiled, the expression didn’t quite reach his eyes; he seemed to be focusing on something very specific. After about thirty seconds, he glanced away, eyes wandering until they caught Liz’s. She looked back with what she hoped was a neutral expression. He held the eye contact for much longer than usual. Though his smile disappeared there was some deep emotion in his eyes, something he seemed desperate to communicate.

She felt her heart beat just a little faster as his cheeks grew pink with a flush. When he finally broke their gaze, she felt confused and flustered. Crossing her arms, she leaned back into the couch and tried to focus on the music. She wasn’t sure if it was because she was looking at his face or for some other reason, but he seemed far more expressive that even than she had ever seen him before.

As the video continued the song took on a distinctly mournful air. Despite the feeling behind it, Liz had to bite back a rather vindictive grin—it definitely would have been a piece she would choose for Darcy’ personal theme song. Clearly Georgia Darcy had at least some of the personality quirks in common with her brother.

She rested her cheek on her knuckles and tried to remember what George had told her about Darcy’s sister. It hadn’t been much, really, just that she was as aloof and proud as her brother. To be fair, based on what Liz was hearing, Georgia Darcy did have much to be proud of. But talent or no, neither Darcy nor Lady Catherine or even Georgia Darcy had any excuse.

Liz sighed and lowered her hand to the arm of the couch, laying her chin down and closing her eyes as she listened.

Chapter Text

If she didn’t know any better, Liz might have thought he was following her. The first time it happened, the day was gray, the sky filled with clouds and fog in the air.

The run started out lovely. It was cold and gray, but almost damp, in a strangely pleasant way after the constant dryness of the blowing wind and the interior heaters. Her bangs and the tiny hairs around her face quickly became saturated, sticking to her skin and leaving a trail of water on my forehead and cheeks. It all sounded terrible unappealing in theory, but in practice it was invigorating, waking her up and soothing her winter-dry skin.

She pushed herself harder than she had in a while, flying over slips of ice and buckles in the pavement. When her ears began to feel cold, she wished she’d worn a headband over them. When they became numb, then hot, she shook her hair out of its ponytail and let it fall over her ears and behind her shoulders. It only helped a little but she didn’t want to slow down.

Rather than listening to an audiobook or music, she had opted instead for silence. She could hear the gentle rumble of traffic over the wind in her ears. The soft calls of the winter birds. The rustle of the dry branches and the crunch of snow.

Liz was panting by the time she reached the bench at the far end of the park. She stretched one leg and glanced down at her watch to check her time, and then paused. It was difficult not to be competitive about running after so many years of tournaments and times and goals. Not for the first time, she wondered if she should train for a half marathon or a marathon; it might be good to have a goal again. She wondered if she could get Charlotte to help coach her, just for old time’s sake.

As she flexed her fingers, trying to get some feeling back into them, she heard footsteps approaching, moving at an even jog with a much slower pace than she had been taking. It took a moment for her to realize who the figure running towards her was.

Darcy wore a red knitted cap pulled snug against his head. A few locks of his hair poked out from under the brim, gently curling upward. He appeared decidedly uncomfortable, though it was difficult to tell if it was from the cold—which had whipped his cheeks with color—or some other reason. He passed with barely a sideways glance and without breaking stride before stopping at the next bench over, about fifteen feet away.

Liz watched him for a minute. He didn’t really stop to stretch or catch his breath, didn’t move to sit down. Instead, he held his shoulders very stiffly before reaching for his phone in his pocket. He dipped his head to look down at the screen.

She frowned, crossing her arms. Hadn’t she just told him she preferred to run outside? Surely that would have kept him in the little gym. He relaxed slightly after a second; she had seen enough of her sisters to be able to tell in an instance, even from behind, that he was typing something into his phone just from the gentle bob of his elbows.

After another minute, she wondered if it might become awkward if she didn’t move on. What if he turned around and tried to talk to her? She shuddered delicately and, after sweeping her hair back from her shoulders, picked up her pace again. As she passed him, also keeping her face resolutely forward, refusing to allow herself to turn long enough to even glance at him, she thought of the time they spent in the cabin and the couple of times he had stopped her from falling. If I slip on a patch of ice in front of him and he feels the need to catch me again, I might as well die. She could feel his eyes on her like a shiver down her right side.

It was not as hard to not slip on the ice as she feared and she exited the park without incident. Though she was flustered enough to forget to ask Charlotte for a coaching pep talk, she was not so offput to mention the chance meeting.

She might have written it off, eventually, had it not happened again. The next two mornings when she went out to run, he was there. The second day he was out much earlier, but still after she had already started on her run. One the third, infuriatingly, he seemed to have figured out what time she started and he actually met her at the door.

He at least had the grace to appear embarrassed about the meeting; Liz didn’t think her expression was one of outright dislike, but she couldn’t entirely certain. She did roll her eyes, though, when he held the door open for her. She did wait until she had already stepped through and could do it without him seeing at least.

Although she had a pair of headphones in her pocket, she knew it would be exceedingly awkward if she were to take them out immediately and ignore him. She also felt hampered from taking off running immediately when it was obviously that they were heading in the same direction. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of meeting his gaze, though, nor did she wish to engage him in conversation. If he wanted to speak, he’d have to be the one to do it.

They walked in firm silence all the way to the gate around the edge of the park. Liz stopped their, placing her hand against the gate, and let her eyes drift to the side. Darcy was staring at her with an almost frightening intensity; upon meeting her eyes, he wrenched his gaze away. She rolled her eyes and decided firmly she wouldn’t let his presence ruin her morning run. Forgoing civility, she struck out without asking if he was ready or commenting on her intentions. It didn’t matter—he seemed ready almost the instant she was.

She set her pace much faster than usual and regretted it almost immediately. Though she struggled with her own speed, Darcy had the advantage of height. At least a foot taller than her, his legs easily kept stride.

Despite not wishing to give him an opportunity to talk to her, she knew she had to stop her usual resting bench. Her fear from the previous day nearly came true as she placed one foot directly into a patch of slick black ice and felt herself begin to wobble backwards. Luckily, her speed was great enough to let her fly past the ice without incident.

With a great huff, Liz finally stopped, trying to clutch the stitch in her side as surreptitiously as possible. Infuriatingly, Darcy barely seemed winded. She had always been better suited for long runs than sprints. She crossed her arms over her stomach and breathed through her mouth; it was warm enough that no condensation formed around her breath.

When she glanced up again, Darcy was openly staring at her with the same intensity; his brow was furrowed and his gaze seemed restless. It didn’t feel objectifying, the way he was looking her up and down, not exactly, but it was still uncomfortable. There was some thought in his gray eyes that she decided she didn’t like. Though the stitch was gone, she pressed her arms closer around her body, as if in protection.

He swallowed visibly and dropped his eyes away from her. She almost thought he would remain silent the entire time when he spoke, with obvious difficulty, asking, “Are you… well?”

Liz had to take a moment. Whatever she was expecting him to say, it certainly wasn’t that. She had to swallow back a laugh before she could say, “I’m fine.”

“And… and what do you think of Huntsford?” There was a certain desperate quality to his question. It might have been endearing if she could focus on anything other than being aggravated by his mere presence.

She raised her eyebrows and responded with the same stock answers she had given to Bill. “It’s cute. Nice. I’m glad Charlotte is happy here.”

Darcy nodded and said nothing else. But he didn’t move. Didn’t stop staring at her. She cursed the etiquette of social niceties that required her to respond and said, “Are you enjoying your visit with your aunt?”

“It’s… fine.” His expression gave nothing away, though his words didn’t sound enthusiastic.

“Do you see your aunt often? Is it easy to get here from…” Other than knowing of Pemberley, Liz realized she didn’t exactly know where the town was. Maryland, somewhere, she vaguely recalled.

Darcy didn’t seem bothered by her unfinished question; he left enough of his own sentences unfinished. His eyes had wandered away from her to peer rather intently at the ground. “It is easy to come and see my aunt…” He added something in a low mutter; between the wind and the traffic, Liz didn’t quite catch it. “But not as easy to see Robert or Anne,” he continued slightly louder. His eyes flashed back up to her face, returning to his previously intense expression. “But I suppose with your friend living here now, you might come often.”

Liz shrugged, twisting away from his staring. “Maybe. If I can get away.” She did not think it likely that she would often have the chance to see Charlotte.

“But you would like an excuse to see her.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I mean, yeah, she’s my best friend—besides Jane,” she couldn’t help adding. Darcy didn’t react to the name that she could tell; his expression was still hard to read. Even with all the staring, his mouth had not moved to smile nor frown. “Why wouldn’t I want the chance to see her?”

“Mmm.”  

When it was clear he was finished speaking, and Liz had regained all her breath, she moved to run again. Like the first time, he didn’t need a cue to follow and keep pace. It was with relief that they finished the full lap of the park—at a slower pace than before the bench, though. Liz slowed enough that Darcy took the cue to stop and move towards the gate.

That was all she was waiting for and Liz immediately turned in the opposite direction, back towards the park.

“Are you… not coming back inside?” Darcy asked softly after she had taken three or four steps away from him.

She paused to look back. He was standing framed by the gate, one hand resting against the post, the other hanging at his side. His hair was slightly disheveled from the wind and the exercise, his cheeks quite pink and flushed. “Actually, I thought I would take a second lap today. So, I’ll see you around,” she added with as much brightness to her tone as she could muster.   

Darcy’s lips parted as if he was preparing to speak, but he quickly pressed them closed. The hand at his side had risen, almost reaching out towards her, but he curled his fingers over and slid it into his jacket pocket. He nodded and, after another long stare, turned away.

Liz fumbled in her pocket, pulling out her headphones, turning up the music almost too loudly. As they parted—Liz heading back around, Darcy walking back inside—she was left with the distinct and uncomfortable feeling that Darcy had actually sought her out on purpose. It was impossible, though, just a series of unfortunate coincidences. Unless he was trying to punish her for appearing in what was could rightfully be considered his space. She wouldn’t put it past him, but neither would she let him intimidate her. If he was going to drive her mad, then she would just have to push right back.  

~~~~

Mariah sighed. She flipped a page in her book and sighed again. She groaned.

“What are you making noises about over there?” Charlotte asked without looking up from her journal. There were sheets of colored paper, pens, and stickers spread out around her on the coffee table; she was sitting on the floor with her knees tucked to the side.  

Mariah was at the bar top with a large textbook open in front of her. “Professors shouldn’t be allowed to assign reading over breaks! I thought I was done with that when I graduated high school.”

“Sorry, kiddo.”

“It’s not fair.”

Charlotte shrugged and picked up her scissors.

After a few seconds of silence, Mariah made another disgruntled sound. “And it’s so boring, ugh,” she added, trying to get a rise out of either her sister or Liz.  

“Mariah, I took a class on business income tax law. I don’t know what to tell you about boring.”

“You’re no fun.”

There was more near silence: Charlotte finished cutting out her paper and began pasting it into her journal. Liz sat on the couch, scrolling back and forth through her text messages, trying to decide how to phrase a note to Jane. Mariah continued to struggle with her textbook.

It didn’t take long for her to break the quiet once again. She grabbed a handful of pages and turned them with a crinkle and a thump. “Who writes these? I’m going to scream if I have to keep reading. What do you think the textbook writers feel like when they write this?”

Charlotte closed her journal and began slipping her papers into an untidy pile. “Well, I think that Lizzie and I should leave so you can get some homework done.” It didn’t take long for her to pack away the rest of her supplies in her pencil box and scoop the lot of it up into her arms. Liz was grateful for the excuse to slid her phone back into her pocket and tuck her book into her elbow.

As they stood, Mariah cried, “No, don’t leave me!” She let out a little whimper and dramatically lay one arm over her eyes before tilting her face towards the ceiling and leaning far enough back in her chair that it threatened to tip backwards.

Charlotte had little sympathy, but her tone was gentle when she spoke; “Don’t act like I don’t know you—if we don’t leave, you’ll never get that reading done. You’ll just keep complaining for the next hour instead of making your way through.”

Mariah grumbled again but said nothing as they stepped out the door.

Charlotte had the grace to wait until they were definitely out of hearing range from the apartment before she began archly, a laugh in her voice, “So, Darcy’s following you now.”

Liz stiffened slightly and gritted her teeth. She already regretted sharing the few tidbits of information that she had with her friend. “Ugh, no. Probably not. He probably just wants to make a nuisance of himself.”

Hmm,” was all Charlotte replied, her tone lilting, not sounding at all convinced.

What?” Liz was suddenly grateful that she hadn’t touched on the conversation from the morning.

“That’s the same as following, isn’t it? Being a particular nuisance to just one person.”

“I mean in general he wants to be a nuisance. It’s, like, his personal brand or something, I swear. He likes to make other people do what he wants.” She shifted her book from the crook of her elbow to sit against her chest, where she crossed her arms over the top of it. And annoying me to death is clearly what he’s going for this time.

Charlotte “hmm”’d again, but Liz refused to give her the satisfaction of an answer. She was quiet as they stepped into the rec room. Taking her supplies, she immediately settled in front of the large coffee table, spreading them out in almost the exact arrangement they had taken in the apartment. Still wary of Charlotte picking up the subject of Darcy again, Liz placed herself on the furthest couch. She rested her back against the arm so she could keep watch on Charlotte in case she tried to pull anything else.

Instead of asking about Darcy, though, Charlotte reached out for the remote, tossing it between her hands a couple times before asking, “Do you mind if I turn on the TV?”

“No, that’s fine.” Settling into her seat, Liz gingerly cracked the cover of her book, keeping her eye on the spine. It cracked dangerously along the first third; she was pretty sure she would have to take some tape to it soon or it might begin falling apart in her hands. Slowly, she eased herself back into the pillows, propping her book gently against her legs.

Charlotte turned on the TV and then lowered the volume to a nearly inaudible drone for a pleasant background hum. Paper shuffled between them ass Charlotte cut and pasted shapes into her journal and Liz slowly turned the page, only half taking in the words he read. She was more engrossed in Jane’s predicament than in Wren’s—though she didn’t know the outcome of either.

She still hadn’t told Jane that Darcy was there. It bothered her that she wanted to tell Jane about it—it was difficult to tell if she wanted to vent her frustrations or say something real about his presence, though. Did she have something to say about it? She certainly had nothing to say about Chip, and she knew that was where the conversation would lead if she didn’t carefully direct it. At least Jane’ story was unfolding in real time, so there was some action that could be taken. As for Wren, all she could do was wait for Austen to publish another novel or story.

She didn’t notice when the sounds Charlotte was making changed, turning from the snip of scissors to the folding of paper and the drag of a thin tipped pen. Her friend finished her creation before asking, “Hey, Lizzie, want to play?”

Liz lowered the book to see Charlotte holding a piece pointy, folded paper in her hands. It was one of the pieces of origami paper Charlotte used to decorate pages of her bullet journal, covered in blue and green flowers. It took a few seconds for Liz to realize it was a fortune teller, one of those popular with middle school girls.

“I don’t think I’ve seen one of those things in, like, five years.” After carefully slipping her bookmark between the pages, she left her book on one cushion, moving to the other couch to join her friend.

The little fortune teller was folded into a series of triangles that Charlotte slipped over her fingers. When pushed out fully, it was shaped a little like a flower. In her neat script, she had written a series of colors along the four “petals” of the outside.

Liz tapped one—green.

Charlotte moved the paper edges between her fingers, counting out the number of letters in the color. She stopped, holding it open to a new set of choices. “Pick a number.”

“Seven.” She knew the trick; pick odds for the other set of numbers, even for the same ones you saw.

After seven counts, Charlotte revealed the flaps labeled one through four. “Pick again.”

“Hmm… Three.”

The corner of Charlotte’s mouth twitched up but she quickly bit her lips, straightening their expression. Liz grimaced, waiting for the joke. She watched as her friend made a long show of slowly unfolding the paper flap, smoothing out the creases.

Charlotte cleared her throat. “You… are going to go out with Darcy.” She barely made it through her sentence before you broke into a peal of laughter.

Shut up, Char. You didn’t write that!”

Charlotte only shook her head, holding the fortune teller out of Liz’s grasp. “You have to admit—”

“There’s nothing to admit! I don’t know why you insisting on pushing him on me.”

Charlotte snorted and then covered her mouth with one hand. While she was distracted, Liz lunged forward, grabbing the paper out of her hand. She jumped to her feet as she unfolded the edges, her eyes scanning Charlotte’s writing. “It’s rigged! All the answers are ‘Darcy will ask you on a date,’ ‘Darcy is going to kiss you,’ ‘Darcy is going to marry you...’ Ugh!”

“Sorry, who’s marrying Fitz?” asked a familiar voice in a mild tone.

Liz practically threw the fortune teller back into Charlotte’s lap as she took a quick step backwards, only causing Charlotte to laugh harder. Robert and Darcy were standing in the doorway. Robert was grinning at them both, looking pleasantly amused and working to cover his own chuckle, but Darcy didn’t seem to find whatever he was missing funny. His arms were crossed over his chest, clutching a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other, a pronounced scowl on his face. “Sorry, Charlotte’s just… joking around.” She took another step back, glancing at Darcy again. Firmly decided against a repeat of that morning’s awkwardness, she added, “Mariah’s probably done with her homework now. Or she’s died of boredom. Either way, I think we should go back to check on her.”

Without stopping to consider the effect of her hasty retreat, she turned on her heel and marched out of the room. She was halfway down the hallway when Charlotte caught up with her. “Lizzie! Lizzie, hold on.” She was still laughing. “Don’t be silly—”

“Oh, I can’t be silly when you are being ridiculous. And embarrassing.”

“One, no I’m not, and two, sure. Isn’t that my job?”

Ugh!”  

“Lizzie, don’t be so blind—can’t you see how he looks at you?”

“I’m sure he’s just watching for something to disapprove of.” She caught sight of her friend’s face and scowled. “No, really, Charlotte. When has he ever even been nice to me, let alone said he… he even likes me? I don’t mean love, I mean like, like, a real person. Fitzwilliam Darcy has never looked at me with any other intention than to find fault. And I think he and I both will appreciate you not forcing feelings down our throats.”

Charlotte waited until Liz turned to squint her eyes. But she said nothing else until they made the turn down the hallway to her apartment. Liz stopped suddenly, throwing one hand up to her face in exasperation. “Oh, shoot—I left my book!” She glanced over her shoulder with a small frown. “I guess I should go get it.” There was real exasperation on her face; Charlotte was beginning to think poor Darcy’s chances were more hopeless than even she thought.  

“Do you want me to go back with you?”

Liz sighed and shook her head, turning around all the way. “No, it’s okay. I’ll just be a second. Meet you at the apartment!” Walking quickly, Liz retraced her steps across the hallway and up a flight of stairs. She was more annoyed with herself than Charlotte; was it more embarrassing to have spent time in the room after the fortune teller or to have to slip back in to retrieve lost possessions?

Probably the latter.

She paused for a second, her hand on the doorknob. She could hear voices inside, quietly enough that their words were muffled by the door. With a quick huff, she squared her shoulders and twisted the knob.

Darcy and Robert were sitting on the couch she and Charlotte had just vacated—luckily not too close to her book. Robert sat sideways on the cushion with one arm thrown across the back of the couch as he leaned in towards his cousin. Darcy was hunched over, his face towards the floor.

“Fitz,” Robert said almost harshly, “don’t be ridiculous! I’ll gladly tell her exactly where she can throw her opinions. You’re perfectly justified in taking the program. You should be proud, regardless of what Aunt Catherine says.”

Darcy leaned backwards and rubbed his hands over his eyes. “Yes, I know, but I just can’t—” As his hand slipped down, he opened his eyes and stopped his sentence short before quickly dropping the hand away from his face. He made an awkward, jerky movement, pushing himself into a standing position, holding one arm out against the side of the couch.

Following Darcy’s gaze, Robert also turned to look at her. Surprised by the sudden force of the attention, Liz paused where she stood, one hand still holding the edge of the door, the toe of one foot stopping slanted against the carpet. “Sorry, am I interrupting?”

Robert opened his mouth but Darcy shook his head. “No, not at all,” he said quickly, sounding flustered. He sat back down again.

Liz pursed her lips and quickly stepped the long way around the two men, walking around the coffee table to reach the other couch, her eyes scanning the seat as she walked. “Well, I won’t be long anyway, I only came down to… Ah, here it is.” She snatched Water Below the Castle from where it had slipped between the cushion and the back of the couch before holding it up triumphantly, flashing the cover to face Robert and Darcy. The cracks on the spine were sharp and pronounced, the stark white of the cuts showed through the navy blue. It wasn’t dog-eared—Liz would never do that to a book—but a well-loved book is easy to tell the by corners. The edges go fuzzy over time, the sharp points of pages softening to rounded bump, creasing and warping with love and fingertips.

Even from a distance, it was clear to see it was an often-read copy.

A strange look flooded over Darcy’s face; he grew very pale, his eyes pulling wide in his face, and he hunched back a little in his seat. Robert watched them both, his lips quivering with something that Liz recognized in an instant as barely-suppressed laughter. Without stopping to question, she hugged the book to her chest and sped out of the room.

Chapter Text

Darcy was uncertain where to be appalled or overjoyed when he finally got his timing right. It took three tries, but he managed to meet Elizabeth before she had entered the park. When she said good morning, there was a sigh in her voice that left him tongue tied and nearly silent.

At least he could open the door for her. He had no way to explain it, but it was almost thrilling to do so. Perhaps it was the expectation of a morning spent at her side. As he watched her step, stiff-backed, through the doorway, Darcy forced himself to take a second to shake himself back into shape. He could certainly not allow himself to follow her around the park, puppy-ish and impolitely mute.

He was just flustered. Everything was happening so quickly! Or, quickly for him, at least. He needed to get a handle on his emotions before he could allow himself to speak on the matter. He could not precisely say that he was happy about the turn of events, only it felt so much more inevitable than it had yet.

~~~~

At first, he wanted to be angry when she told him where she ran in the mornings. Why was she telling him? He did his best to ignore her as he finished his workout—and then spent the next several hours trying very hard not to dwell on it in his free time.

He was still fretting on it into the early evening when Anne suggested they spend time… Well, anywhere but her mother’s house. “We’re going down to the rec room,” she told him, rather than suggesting it. Robert seemed to already be in on it; he had his shoes on. “And I invited Liz and the Lucas sisters.”

Why?” The question was sharper than he intended, but, too late, it was out of his mouth.

Anne gave him a look. He had seen it before from her and Robert, and even on occasion from Bingley. It usually involved the narrowing of eyes, the tightening of mouths, and sometimes the shaking of heads or various “hmm”s and “hmph”s. When he didn’t reply, she sighed. “Because I’m bored and you and Robert are just going to play pool because you always play pool. I want someone to actually sit with me.”

“We could sit with you. If you asked us to.”

“Yes, but now you can play and I can make new friends. That seems like a reasonable compromise to me.”

With no real argument against it—nothing that he could say without giving himself away—he shrugged with as much nonchalance as he could manage. He maintained his silence as Anne filled his arms with yarn from her latest project, most of it still attached to the huge creation she had passed on to Robert.

Darcy spent so much of the walk—had it always taken so long to travel from Aunt Catherine’s apartment to the rec room? they seemed to go on for miles and miles—dreading spending the evening in her company, trying to decide what to say and how to say it, that he did not plan ahead to prepare himself for the actual seeing. No matter how many times they met, every instance of meeting felt like the same—like stepping out a door into a windstorm. Not cool or hot but chaotic.

His eyes were drawn, almost magnetically, away from the Lucas sisters to find her standing on the edge of the room, in front of the bookshelf. His heart squeezed at the sight of her. You need to get a handle on yourself. If he thought the last few months had been painful, it was nothing compared to what he felt every time he saw her again in person. It was one thing to suffer a dream, but quite another to watch it appear in the same room, yet entirely out of his grasp.

It was strange to see her at Rosings, surrounded on every side by evidence of his aunt and her tastes. Among the not-always-tasteful rich florals and creams, expensive leathers and oiled wood, she sat as a bright smudge. She was wearing her glasses again and the blue rims clashed gently against her bright lilac sweater. Her bangs were pushed to the sides and the rest of her hair was caught up in a bun on the top of her head.

For the first time in months, he thought of his list again. Elizabeth just didn’t fit in his world. He could not in good conscience compare the summer party thrown by her mother to the Darcy Foundation galas, let alone the levels that the Fitzwilliams reached even with their simplest social events.

He could never win with Elizabeth; even the simplest of thoughts brought him down low. Darcy vowed again, another silent and half-hearted resolution, to get over it already. His shoulders slumped as he tossed Anne’s yarn into a chair and then slouched his way over to the pool table, pulling cues and the rack off the wall to ready the game.

It was not the most engrossing task, however, and he found himself half listening as Anne explained her project. It irked him when she implied that the only want in creating such intricate projects was time.

He interjected, “But you usually get something out of it. It’s not as if you’re just making things because you have nothing better to do.” As usual—or at least, as it seemed more and more frequently—he had not said exactly what he meant. As soon as he said them, he regretted the phrasing.

Anne was not pleased with it either. “Fitz, that’s a bad attituded to have about art. You’ve been spending too much time with my mother… Just because this is a commission, it doesn’t mean I can’t make things for fun!”

Darcy ducked his head, refusing the correct himself. He meant, by making it her profession she had the time for art. It was the same with his writing—he couldn’t always write what he pleased, because in the end, the manuscript had to sell to someone. Anne was right in one regard, though—Aunt Catherine considered it a wasted effort if it could not be read by or displayed to the public. Though even then, she had opinions on what should or should not be popular with the public.

If only I could say everything on paper! Moodily, he mulled over the concept of a world where every communication could be imparted with a pen and a piece of paper. He decided he liked it much better than the one he was living in and filed it away for further writing exploration.

Darcy let himself tune out most of the conversation, but Elizabeth’s voice sounded particularly sharp in his ears. He kept his eyes glued as tightly as he could to the green felt table, watching Robert—stripes—knock somewhat clumsily against one full color ball, positioning it close to the far-right pocket.

As he readied himself to take his next shot, Anne raised her voice to remark pointedly, “Yeah, it’s pretty excited to get to be recognized for my talents.” Instead of looking at Anne, he took his time at the table, slowly aiming, adjusting his position, and checking his aim once again. “I like to take all my opportunities, not wait around for a relative to tell me if they approve.” Carefully, he struck the cue and neatly pocketed two solid-colored balls.

Only then did he turn around; moving slowly, he steeled himself to defend his position on the Writer’s Workshop once again—it wasn’t necessary, just preening. It might be a waste of time and money. He could get published very well without it, thank you very much… Before he could mention any of the reasons he continued to convince himself were valid, Elizabeth spoke.

He knew she was going to speak before she did, and that knowledge frightened him a little. He had seen the tiny motions before; whenever she came up with something she found amusing, the left corner of her mouth would quirk up slightly, only to quickly drop down to hide the thought. Then, she would swallow a little and wet her mouth to speak. “Oh, Darcy’s very recognized for his talents.”

Her voice was pointed when she said “talents.” Darcy tried not flinch, remembering her insistence from the summer that they had no literature in common. He smoothed his expression again and tried to meet her eyes with more calm coolness than he felt. “My writing has been… successful. Some pieces more than others.”

He was watching over Anne’s head, still looking towards Elizabeth, when his cousin began to cough. Her the thin strands of her blonde hair quivered slightly as she dipped forward with a heavy wheeze. What might have been a laugh cracked in her throat.

Darcy jumped a little when Robert clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Now, now, being modest isn’t going to help you out of this one, Fitz.”

Half grateful, half regretful, he tore his eyes away from Elizabeth’s face to argue with Robert. He tried to be calm but he could hear the waver in his voice, his words stiff and stilted. “I am being factual, not modest. I don’t think very many people read The Sky in Black and White.” He could feel—or at least imagined he could—her eyes still on him. They burned against the back of his neck.

Robert sighed, sounding exhausted. “Well, I’m not talking about that one. You know before that, when you were writing—”

The door on the far side of the room swung open and a half-familiar voice cut in loudly enough to stop Robert. Darcy couldn’t place the voice until he saw the face. William Collins and…Aunt Catherine. She shook her head slightly as she cried, “Ah, there you are! I was wondering where you three had disappeared to.” He didn’t wait for her to finish speaking before he turned back to the table. Whatever might have been said that evening was entirely erased.

He put more energy into ignoring Aunt Catherine than he did into playing pool and he missed two easy shots in a row. Darcy felt his teeth grind together as he stared at the empty expanse of green in front of him. Although he was certain Elizabeth had stopped looking at him ages ago, he was still acutely aware of her presence in the room. He wanted to talk to her, but also simultaneously to leave and never be seen again. It did not feel right to stand in, essentially, Aunt Catherine’s home and to ignore his foolish fantasies at the same time.

Robert kept glancing at him, but he never said anything. Darcy knew he was concerned, but luckily not enough to ask any questions. At least not yet. He wasn’t entirely certain how he would answer his cousin when those questions were asked.

Just as he was resolving, once again, with just the same amount of insubstantial will as last time, to just get over her already, Aunt Catherine said her name. Darcy flinched slightly, though couldn’t help but listen to the question. “Didn’t you say, Elizabeth, that you play piano?”

“I used to, yes.” Her words were more clipped than usual.

Darcy kept his head down and leaned his hip against the edge of the pool table to listen with increasing surprise. Beyond the good-natured joking with her sister, he was so used to thinking of Elizabeth as a force, completely outside of the influence of others. Even Aunt Catherine, who was a completely different type of force.

And yet, he stood there and watched as she was goaded and coerced into playing the piano. When she admitted defeat and stood to walk to the instrument, Robert followed her, setting down his pool cue without looking at Darcy. Watching him retreat, Darcy immediately felt a sting of… Was that jealousy? He blushed in response to the emotion and chided himself. There was no call for any emotional response.

He suddenly felt awkward, standing by himself holding a stick to play a game that required two. He passed the cue between his hands a couple of times, curling and uncurling his fingers around the pole. He tried to keep his eyes to himself, but the goal was doomed to failure before he even tried.

As he watched, Liz looked up from the music book she was flipping through and smiled up at Robert.  

Darcy set his pool cue down, resting it against the side of the table, and walked very stiffly but quickly to the other side of the room to join her and Robert at the piano. That was his downfall in the end—it was easy to trace the domino line from that choice to the conclusion of the evening.

Standing next to Elizabeth, especially when she was sitting, he just felt tall. Large. Uncomfortable with his height. Darcy pulled his arms in when he reached the piano, holding them tight to his sides as he leaned one shoulder against the wall. Robert shot him a glance, first questioning, but, when Darcy shook his head gently, it turned to a small, encouraging smile, joined by a shrug.

Elizabeth loudly flipped a page of the music she was holding and said, “I know what you’re here for. But it’s not going to work.”

Darcy paused. “You do?” He didn’t even know what he was doing.

She put the book down and ran her fingers over a few pages of stray music as she began to respond very slowly, enunciating each word; “You are here to frighten me. You’re going to compare my playing to your sister’s and tell me it is sub-par. But it’s not going to work! I am not afraid of you—I’ll play all the better for the intimidation.” Her words picked up speed by the end of her thought. She took her chosen music to the piano.

She was… laughing at him. But he didn’t feel the same kind of derision he did towards others who did the same. “Ah. Well, I know you enjoy saying absurd things that you don’t actually believe, so I won’t by offended by that.”

He realized a moment too late that she didn’t like his answer. She turned away from him quickly and made a scoffing sound in the back of her throat before setting her hands sharply on the keys. She began to play. “The ideas that your cousin is going to give about me. Don’t listen to anything Darcy has to say, Robert!”

Robert responded brightly, “Oh, I usually don’t listen to anything he has to say.” His words were even enough that they gave nothing away.

Elizabeth was small enough that Darcy could easily look over her head at his cousin. “Robert…”

Robert picked his head up to flash Darcy a wide smile and a wink. “Fitz, I’m joking! Really!” he added when Darcy’s expression remained stony.

Instead of responding, he cleared his throat and looked down. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Elizabeth’s face, so he looked at her hands instead. Her fingers curved over the keys. Having watched Georgie play from the age of five, he knew correct form just as well as your average child piano prodigy.

Elizabeth did not have correct form. Her shoulders sloped too far forward; her spine curved slightly. She missed keys, jumping across the piano to catch the notes she dropped. Although he knew his aunt would, Darcy would not compare her playing to Georgie’s.

Without looking up from the instrument she added in a deceptively sweet voice, “It’s not that hard not to listen to anything Darcy has to say, considering he never says anything.”

He was taken aback by her words enough that his reply came out stilted and nearly stuttering. “I… talk.”

The smile that spread across her face set his heart aching once again. It moved slowly at first, her lips parting slightly before the corners stretched and pulled upwards. The bottom of her eyes squinted slightly, moving upwards at the press of her cheeks; her eyelashes gently grazed the rounds of her cheeks and her eyes sparkled as they rested squarely on his face. “Oh, to your friends and family. But not to anyone else! You should have heard what people in Meryton were saying over the summer. I mean, when they weren’t talking about Chip.”

Even when she turned her gaze back to the piano, he couldn’t pull his eyes from her profile until Robert laughed. “Oh, Fitz as the talk of the town? I’d never believe it!” He grinned at Darcy, who pulled back slightly, crossing his arms and easing his shoulder back against the wall.

“Well, to be fair, it was more his friend Chip Bingley.”

Robert was still looking at Darcy; he did not receive the acknowledgement of a smile or a nod that he was looking for. Instead, he shrugged. “Yeah, I can see that. But come on, what were they saying about Fitz? I’ve never known him to make much of a splash.”

While Darcy did not particularly care what the people in Meryton thought of him, he was curious to hear what Elizabeth had to say about her first impressions of him. He tried not to think about his own commentary on her—he had been very wrong to think of her as not even pretty. She was far more than that.

It took him a moment to realize she had changed the course of the conversation. He only half heard her question when she glanced at him from under her eyelashes, still mostly paying attention to her playing.

“I…”

Her words finally registered; “Did you read the book review the Meryton Herald put out?”

“Of my work?”

She still wasn’t looking at him, but she missed a note. The gap in the melody sounded sour. Elizabeth nodded.

“I did not.”

“Well, maybe that’s for the best then,” she replied with a laugh in her throat.

Finally, he was able to pull his eyes from her. They dropped to his hands where his fingers twisted around each other. Unbidden, he remembered the first time he had shown Aunt Catherine his writing, before the literary fiction and the realism. “I have no time for dragons, Fitzwilliam. Why don’t you try and write something nice and historical?”

When he said, “My self-worth isn’t based on the opinion of small-town newspaper book reviewers,” he winced at the roughness of his voice.

She graced him with one more smile before turning back to Robert. Darcy fought the urge to collapse against the wall, instead pulling himself up very straight and holding his shoulders stiffly back. His once firm willpower seemed to have turned to marshmallow and it was all soft and sticky, growing more pliable every time she turned her gaze on him. If it lost any more structure, he was afraid it would collapse in on itself.

Aunt Catherine’s words cut through his thoughts, cold and unwelcome. “Speak up so the rest of us can hear you! What are you talking about?”

He knew he was lucky to have Robert there when he responded for the three of them, “We’re talking about music, Aunt Catherine.”

Were they? Robert and Elizabeth were, certainly. Darcy hadn’t heard a word of it.

In a tone Darcy knew very well, Aunt Catherine said rather dryly, “Ah, yes. ‘Clair de Lune?’” He winced for Elizabeth’s sake at the disappointment in the words. He had been the object of them enough times.

There was no fear in her voice when she answered. The words slid off her like rain drops.  Darcy kept his expression in check but he had never seen anyone so openly disregard his aunt’s direct criticism. And neither had Aunt Catherine, he decided, from the quickness with which she changed topics. First to Anne, and then to Darcy. “And how is Georgia’s music getting along?”

Darcy swallowed and tried to shake off the strangled feeling that had crept up on him. At least he had an excuse to speak about something pleasant. “Very well, Aunt Catherine. She’s been invited to play with a professor at a gala in February.”

“How wonderful!” It was the first time Liz had heard Lady Catherine react in a way she deemed appropriate.

“I can show you a video, if you want, of her playing.”

“Yes!”

Darcy pulled up Georgie’s YouTube channel, sliding through her playlist of piano songs. He settled on one a little over a year old. It was not her most cheerful piece—one of the few created in the aftermath, between the end of Wickham and her return to Pemberley. He could understand why she insisted on playing, even when miserable, but he couldn’t understand the need to record it. He had seen the video before she scrapped the clips at the beginning and the end that showed her face, her pale skin and her hair pulled into a tight, lank ponytail. Darcy did know, though, that a more solemn piece would be better suited to his aunt’s taste.

He passed the phone to Aunt Catherine and stepped away, folding his hands behind his back. Georgie’s hands moving over the keys could only hold his interest for so long, and the video itself was not as pleasant if one knew the background of it. It was easier not to watch too closely. Before he could consider or pretend that his eyes were merely drifting about the room, they settled on her face.

Elizabeth was looking at him too. Looking into her eyes, he felt what he could only describe as the opposite of a jolt. It was warm and pulling, whatever it was. He wanted to sit next to her, to take her hand and tell her every feeling he had drowned in over the last few months.

Normally so composed, her eyes grew a little wide and she colored. When he finally looked away, Darcy felt as if he had just seen her for the first time. He had known, objectively, that he was in love with Elizabeth Bennet for months—seven months and eight days, to be precise—but he worked so hard to keep those feedings in a tight, tidy box that even when they spilled out, he could usually stuff them back in. Perhaps they had been seeping out for a while but somewhere between watching her play the piano and handing over Georgie’s playing to Aunt Catherine, the seams of the box burst. There was nothing remaining for him to place those feelings in anymore.

~~~~

Darcy didn’t consider himself much of a runner, but he prided himself on staying in shape; keeping pace with her wasn’t so difficult. He couldn’t tell if he allowed himself to do it or if he just wasn’t strong enough to withstand it, but he found himself caught up again in the snarl of emotions, threads of conflicting ideas that battled for his attention. He had no clue how to resolve the conflicts on his own.

Just as she started without warning, she stopped nearly as abruptly with one final burst of speed that brought her to rest just by one of the benches. She dipped her head slightly and then straightened up. As Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her torso, seeming to struggle for breath, a cold jolt of anxiety struck Darcy in the chest.

He watched her closely for any of the signs of a panic attack, at least as how he knew them. She was breathing rapidly, though not quite panting. Though her arms were wrapped around herself, her hands seemed to be pressing against her sides, rather than holding herself entirely.

Elizabeth looked up, meeting his gaze. Her eyes seemed clear and there was no trace of emotion in expression—at least until she frowned up at him and pressed her arms closer against her body.

Darcy swallowed. His lips parted. He was going to ask, “Are you okay?” but at the last second he changed the adverb to “well.” It sounded stilted and strange to his ears, but it felt much less intrusive. He tried not to wince when she tipped her head to the side to look at him, her eyebrows drawing together for a moment.

After a second of confusion, she quickly wiped the expression from her face. It wasn’t always easy to read expressions, but he did feel he was getting a little better at reading hers. Too bad he always seemed to be making a mess of it…

“I’m fine.”

The fear subsided a little when she lowered her arms to her sides. Before he could think about what he said, he opened his mouth to speak again. “And… and what do you think of Huntsford?” Why had he asked that? Why could he only talk when he was being careless? Any calculated attempts to make conversation always left him without words or sounding terribly cold. But he wanted to hear her voice.

And, well, he wanted to know the answer to the question too. If they… He wouldn’t let himself think the rest of the words, but a silent picture of them side-by-side at dinner in Aunt Catherine’s apartment was all he needed to think of to find the courage to stand his ground and keep talking like a fool. If that’s what it took to get his answers.

When he returned to the present, Elizabeth was looking up at him, her head tilted very slightly to the right, both eyebrows raised. An expression he would classify similar to Anne’s look. Only he didn’t know her well enough to interpret the expression. All he could do was stare back impassively, admiring the warmth of her eyes even in the cold winter light.

Her response was quite monotone. “It’s cute. Nice. I’m glad Charlotte is happy here.” The last words were added in a softer, more hurried tone. They had a different quality to them than the first two sentences.

Darcy had never been confident in his interpretation of spoken words—it was much easier to understand actions—and he had to think very hard to begin unravelling what she had just said. He was still puzzling out her words when Elizabeth spoke again.

“Are you enjoying your visit with your aunt?”

That tone he could understand—incredulity. That was fair enough. “It’s…” Darcy stopped. A long series of answers ran through his head. It’s great to see my aunt. She’s the closest thing I have to a mother. I enjoy seeing my cousins. I love my aunt but sometimes she’s difficult to be around. It’s hard to be here without my sister even though she hates it. It’s all worth it to see you again. I want to spend time with you.

I love you.

“Fine,” he finished. He dropped his gaze to the ground. He couldn’t think straight when he was looking at her. With the toe of one shoe, he hesitantly nudged at a leaf that had been frozen to the asphalt of the path. It didn’t budge, but the edge tore slightly.

“Do you see your aunt often? Is it easy to get here from…” She paused long enough for him to realize she wasn’t going to finish the sentence.

“It is easy to come and see my aunt… thought always easy to be around her,” he added under his breath. He didn’t think Elizabeth had heard him, but he jumped forward to answer her question before she could remark on the comment. “But not as easy to see Robert or Anne.” He couldn’t help it; he looked up at her again and ruined his composure once more. Those brown eyes drew words out of him whether he wanted to say them or not. “But I suppose with your friend living here now, you might come often.”

Before she turned away from him, he watched her lips twist, pressing together and forming a frown. He watched her in profile as she said, “Maybe. If I can get away.” There was a touch of defeat to the words.

The top of her ear was a bright, unhealthy red. It must have been freezing. He couldn’t blame her gaze this time when he spoke. “But you would like an excuse to see her.”

Elizabeth looked back at him, tipping her chin up above her shoulder so she could meet his eyes. “I mean, yeah, she’s my best friend—besides Jane. Why wouldn’t I want the chance to see her?”

Well. He had gotten his answer, but he should have known before what it would be. It was hardly different for him and Bingley or Georgie. “Mmm.” He wiped the toe of his shoe against a patch of relatively untouched snow, smearing it with grime as he cleaned the fabric, freezing his foot in the process.

From the corner of his eye, he watched her shake her head and then move back into the center of the path to begin running again. Shaking out his foot, he stepped over a slick patch of ice and followed.

He was slightly mesmerized by her ponytail. He watched the thick rope of hair swing gently from side to side. It looked smooth and silky and he very much wanted to run his fingers through it. Instead, he dipped his head down towards the ground again and curled his hands into his pockets. When she slowed down, her hair stopped swinging; it felt down against her back, revealing its slightly crooked position on the back of her head, skewed towards her left shoulder.

Darcy took several steps to the side, moving towards the gate back to Rosings, intending to open the door for her again. It took him a few seconds to realize she had continued walking, not following him towards the path. He rested one hand against the gatepost when he looked at her. “Are you… not coming back inside?”

She turned, looking windswept and wild. Her eyes were bright, her face half pale—around her chin and forehead—and half red—through her cheeks and nose. Though her hair looked silky from the back, the front had been thrown into disarray. Her bangs clumped over her eyes and stray hairs stuck out around her face. He noticed, too, the remains of a tear in her jacket. The seam of the left sleeve was slightly jagged near her elbow and had been stitched up somewhat sloppily with thread of a darker gray. The zipper on one of the side pockets was popped off as well, leaving the teeth bare and jagged.

When he looked for it, it was easy to find the tell-tale marks of disrepair.

And once again, he found himself slinking low into despair. She and I are made of very different stuff.

Elizabeth smiled and his heart quivered. He couldn’t enjoy the expression; with his newest revelation, it felt as if she were laughing at him. He felt his fingers twitch as if they were trying to bridge the once again insurmountable divide.

“Actually, I thought I would take a second lap today. So, I’ll see you around.”

I’ll see you around. Could one heart survive such sudden starts and stops? Every time he decided he must move on, she reached out to him. Darcy wanted to speak, but once he opened his mouth, he realized he did not know what to say. Instead, he wrenched his hand back and down, pushing it into his pocket. Elizabeth didn’t move.

It took more effort than he would have admitted to anyone for him to turn away from her.

~~~~

Robert was looking at him, watching closely through narrowed eyes.

What?”

“Are you all right, Fitz? You seem a little…” Robert paused as he tried to find the right words to explain the change in his cousin’s countenance. His face was slightly flushed. True, Darcy had the tendency to blush when embarrassed, and he had been outside running and the weather was cold, so there were reasonable explanations for the color. There was also a jittery quality to his movements, what could only be described as a spring in his step when he moved—though it seemed more the product of pent-up energy than any kind of cheeriness. He just seemed different than the tight-laced cousin Robert was used to. “Keyed up,” he said finally, though that wasn’t quite the right word for it either.

“Am I?” Darcy asked, running one hand through his hair, combing a few strands off his forehead.

“Is this still about the Writer’s Workshop?”

It took a second, but Darcy finally answered, “Yeah.”

While Darcy appreciated his tidy explanation for any change in his demeanor, the constant discussion of the program was beginning to wear on him; he wished he hadn’t harped on it quite so hard the evening at the theater. Or, maybe, he wished that he wasn’t so visually flustered by Elizabeth. Even the thought of her was enough to throw him back into distraction.

He managed hide in plain sight, settled on the sitting room couch with a blank page of his notebook open across his knees, knowing even as he settled himself into position no words would be written. Instead, he tapped the back of his pen rhythmically against the page, creating enough noise for his aunt to censure him more than once; “Stop making that racket, Fitzwilliam!”

“Yes, Aunt Catherine. Sorry,” he would reply, only for the fidgeting to start up again in another quarter of an hour. Something inside his chest felt hot and frantic, tight against his ribcage.

Lunch was as close to torture as any event he could imagine. Anne was having one of her worse days; her breath came in wheezing gasps and every twist of her spine caused her face to spasm with pain. Aunt Catherine’s solicitudes did not take long to shift from motherly to overbearing. She worried over Anne’s plate, commenting on every other bite her daughter took, pressing her to drink more of both water and hot tea.

Even if Darcy had not been so preoccupied, it would have been a relief to leave the table. As long as the meal felt, it was cut short when Anne, almost inaudibly, the air sticking in her throat, excused herself and rose from the table with obvious difficulty. Taking up her crutches, she moved with a slow, loping walk, favoring her right leg as she struggled to keep her back straight.

Robert and Darcy shared a glance as soon as she had rounded the corner. There was a long-held agreement between the cousins that any day Anne was feeling particularly unwell—ill enough to confine herself to her room—Darcy and Robert would spend their time elsewhere, so she couldn’t hear the enjoying themselves in the sitting room or the dining room without her.

Darcy picked up his notebook on the way out the door, though he knew he would get no work done regardless of the setting. He avoided Robert’s gaze, fidgeting far more than he usually did. He still felt restless as he turned his pen between his fingers and scrunched the corners of his notebook. He studied his nails and walked quickly enough to pull ahead instead of looking at his cousin.

He only slowed when he heard muffled shouting coming through the door to the rec room. It was hard to make out the words, other than “rigged” and “Darcy.” Darcy, if he had been alone, would have lingered in the hall. He would have attempted to listen through the door, waiting for the spirited discussion to end before he interrupted. Robert had no such qualms; he reached out with barely a pause and pushed open the door in time to hear, “‘Darcy is going to marry you...’” followed by a groan of… some deep emotion. It could as easily have been frustration as disgust.

At least, that’s what he told himself firmly enough to believe it. Not quite sure what to do with his expression, he settled for a rather formidable frown, hugging his notebook to his chest with one hand.

Even if Darcy hadn’t known her voice as well as any of his closest friends by then, he still wouldn’t have needed to see her face to know it was Elizabeth speaking. He could recognize the sheen of her dark hair and the gentle slope of her shoulders with ease. She had a bit of paper in her hand, held out towards Charlotte who was sitting on the couch, laughing uproariously.

Robert took half a step forward. “Sorry, who’s marrying Fitz?” he asked, his tone as polite as it possibly could be, being halfway to laughing.

Elizabeth jumped at the sound and dropped the paper. She turned, her eyes widening as they caught sight of the two men. She opened her mouth then closed it again. For a second the tip of her tongue darted out to touch her bottom lip. She swallowed and said in a voice much louder and faster than was her wont, “Sorry, Charlotte’s just… joking around. Mariah’s probably done with her homework now. Or she’s died of boredom. Either way, I think we should go back to check on her.”

Darcy could not quite describe the emotions that her eyes brought up as they lingered on his face. He didn’t notice the tiny frown, but his stomach dropped as she turned away and rushed from the room.

Charlotte laughed again, more softly, and turned to the pair with an indulgent smile on her face. “I don’t know why she’s being so dramatic. I was only teasing.”

“Teasing about what?” Robert asked, stepping forward to attempt to glimpse the paper in Charlotte’s hands.

When she saw him looking, she quickly closed her fingers around the object and her eyes slid to Darcy’s face. “Oh, nothing too important. Mostly an inside joke.” She put the paper in her pocket and leaned down to scoop her journaling supplies into her arms. Looking up again, she said distinctly to Robert, “I’ll let you know if it keeps going in case you want to join in the fun.”

Without a further word, she turned and followed her friend out of the room.

Robert made a “hmm” sound that Darcy didn’t like. Darcy also didn’t like being the butt of other people’s jokes, and whatever joke Charlotte had been making was uncomfortably close to some kind of truth.

He threw himself down on the couch.

Robert sat next to him, crossing one leg over the other. “Your face is all red.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’ve been in a mood all day.”

Neither of them said, “Darcy’s always in a mood,” but they both thought it. Darcy wished for Elizabeth’s bravery, even a few ounces of it. He wasn’t entirely sure what he would do with it, though, once he had it.

On the back of no other evidence, Robert picked up the most obvious conclusion. “I really, truly don’t see why you’re so caught up on this writing thing. It is, quite literally, the only writing program I’ve heard of out of America. Name recognition’s got to mean something.”

“I’m sure it does. Aunt Catherine does care about prestige… But I think it’s nullified if she hates the work I put out.”

“Well blast her and her literary tastes! No, I’m serious!” he added quickly, watching Darcy’s mouth turn down at the corners. “Fitz, don’t be ridiculous!”

The door opened very softly. Robert wasn’t sure if Darcy heard it, so he powered on ahead with his pep talk. “I’ll gladly tell her exactly where she can throw her opinions. You’re perfectly justified in taking the program. You should be proud, regardless of what Aunt Catherine says.”

Darcy leaned backwards and rubbed his hands over his eyes, pressing until he saw stars. Robert had never had to rely on their aunt for support. He had two parents to ask for it. “Yes, I know, but I just can’t—”

A few things happened nearly simultaneously. First, Darcy glanced back behind himself, towards the door. He stopped speaking, almost frozen in place. There was a heartbeat of stillness before he nearly threw himself into a standing position, grabbing at the arm of the couch to keep his balance. His face had only just returned to its normal color, but Robert could see his cheeks rapidly blushing again.

She didn’t move. “Sorry, am I interrupting?”

“No, not at all!” His voice rose at the end of his exclamation. Robert covered his mouth with his hand and leaned away to get a to get a better look at both of them at the same time.

As Elizabeth stepped out from behind the door, Darcy fell back onto the couch.

Robert straightened in his seat. Ah. I see now. Once he realized it, it was obvious to see the source of Darcy’s discomfit. His distress over the Writing Workshop, while likely genuine, paled in comparison to whatever feelings Elizabeth Bennet drew up in him.

He watched with renewed interest as she eased her way around the coffee table, towards the second couch. He noticed the way her eyes refused to rest on Darcy. “Well, I won’t be long anyway,” she began, still not looking at either of them. “I only came down to… Ah, here it is.” As she spoke, she reached out to pick an object up from between the couch cushions. When she held it out, he could see it was a book.

The cover was faded with age and wear; the shiny coating over the top of the paperback was peeling slightly at the corners. In the foreground, a girl stood with her back to the viewer, a dagger in one hand and a leather satchel in the other. She stood on a hill overlooking a once-vibrant green valley with a wide, blue river that wound its way into the horizon, stopping short to disappear into the far hill in the background, a well-fortified castle perched on top. Across the top in thin gold lettering, it read Water Below the Castle.

Even if Robert didn’t know the book as well as he did, the cover itself would have been instantly recognizable. He made himself sit very still and very quiet as Elizabeth nodded to them both and quickly disappeared out of the room, back through the door she had entered.

Darcy followed her closely, though she never met his gaze, even turning in his seat to follow her exit.

Robert had the decency to wait to speak until after he heard the doors close. “Was that—”

“Shut up,” Darcy snapped, not letting Robert finish his sentence but without turning to look at his cousin. He seemed unable to turn his head from the door she had just disappeared through.

“It was though! And a well-read copy too. You can hardly read the title on the spine! Does she know?”

“Shut up,” Darcy said again, his only response to the question. He added quickly in a low, hard voice, “And you’re not going to tell her either.”  Without looking at Robert, he pushed himself out of the chair and left the room, walking in the opposite direction from Elizabeth.

Chapter Text

“But I don’t want to go to dinner with Lady Catherine or Fitzwilliam Darcy or Bill Collins,” Liz would have said if it hadn’t sounded so much like whining. “I don’t want to sit and talk to a single one of them for more than five minutes at a time!” she would have said if she didn’t think it would pain Charlotte or get her in trouble.

Instead, she made do with deep sighs and long eye-rolls, until Charlotte promised, cross-her-heart, that it would be a short evening. “All we have to do is sit at the table, eat whatever fancy dinner Lady Catherine is serving us, and nod along through coffee. When her back is turned, we can sneak away and watch whatever trashy movie they’re showing on late-night TV tonight.”

Rather than being soothed with time, Mariah seemed to grow more and more flustered with each invitation to Lady Catherine’s. She was entirely silent as they approached the apartment, despite both Charlotte and Liz whispering encouragements to her and patting her shoulders gently. It was hopeless; she answered with nothing but a few barely comprehensible squeaks when they were let through the front door. Danielle, Lady Catherine’s maid who had returned from her holiday, shared a rueful smile with Charlotte. Charlotte nodded in return and put her hand back on Mariah’s shoulder, guiding her towards the living room.

Liz, for her part, found she was just as equal to the match of Lady Catherine’s grandeur, stuffiness, and pompousness as she had been at their first invitation. Even if she did feel she was gearing up for battle every time she heard the woman’s name.

Or set her eyes on Darcy.

He was there too, of course—he was everywhere she looked, it seemed—standing very straight but tucked up in the corner. Even half hiding, he was hard to miss, both due to his height and the way he seemed to drain the color out of the room around him. Between his black hair and jacket, he was like a tall, skinny black hole surrounded by pink floral looming in the corner. He wasn’t wearing a tie; his white shirt was perhaps not as crisp as usual and it was unbuttoned one lower than was usual as well. There was a small shadow at the base of his throat where the skin curved inward.

“I’m so glad you could come,” Lady Catherine said in her usual, condescending manner. As if they had begged to come. Liz turned her back on Darcy with some relief. Besides the nephew and the aunt, the only one around was Bill. He radiated the same frenetic energy he always did in the woman’s presence. If he wasn’t trying to act so dignified, Liz was certain he would have bounced on his toes. As it was, he still swooped around Lady Catherine any time she spoke, waiting for even the hint of an order.

“Of course,” Charlotte said, her voice peppy and saccharine sweet. “We were honored to receive the invitation.” She was still guiding Mariah with one hand and she eased the girl into a chair.

Liz glanced around the room once more before asking, “Where is Anne? And Robert?” She had hoped she somehow missed them, but no, there was still only Darcy. Liz plopped down onto the couch cushion furthest from where he was looming.

“They’re coming, they’re coming,” Lady Catherine murmured dismissively.

Another sentence Liz didn’t say for Charlotte’s sake: “But they’re the only reason I came!”

She was slightly distracted when Darcy appeared as if he were going to sit next to her; he stared very hard at the empty side of the couch. One of his feet moved to take a step. Liz clenched one fist where her hand was hidden by her thigh and willed her expression to remain blank.

Darcy paused. He moved his foot back. Then he sat in a chair by the window. Liz relaxed her fingers. She could hear a clock ticking on the other side of the room. She dragged her toe against the floorboards in time with the rhythm. There was a faint sound of movement coming from the kitchen and a slightly stronger smell. It was garlic and herbs—thyme, rosemary, sage—and butter. She willed her stomach not to grumble as she continued fidgeting.

On the other side of the room, Bill tried to engage Charlotte in an utterly mind-numbing conversation on the topic of property taxes. She seemed interested enough, though, because she shot back a number of questions. Whatever they were talking about seemed to please Lady Catherine, for she graced them with one of her stiff-cheeked smiles.

They seemed to sit for an eternity; Liz noiselessly kicking her feet, Mariah twitching every time Lady Catherine spoke, and Darcy a silent and judging presence in the chair. They were none of them invited to join the conversation, though it wouldn’t been much good if they were—Liz and Mariah knew nothing on the subject and Darcy… Darcy is being Darcy, Liz thought coolly.

Something dinged in the kitchen, the chime sounding only for a few seconds before it was stopped, followed by a gentle clatter of plates. Another minute more and it was succeeded by the gentle clack of a low heel on hardwood.

Danielle entered the room. Older than poor Annabelle, she was about 35 and knew what she was doing. She had a broad face and brown curls pulled up into a bun. She walked purposefully up to Lady Catherine and waited for the woman to address her first. Danielle dipped her head slightly towards Lady Catherine. “My lady, dinner is ready,” she said softly. “Would you like to tell the kitchen to wait or do you want me to fetch—”

Before Danielle could fetch anyone, the missing parties very slowly entered the room. Anne came in first. She seemed rather the worse for wear; the blue and white buttoned shirt hung a little loosely on her shoulders and there were bags under her eyes that the somewhat unevenly applied concealer didn’t hide. Robert walked very closely at her side, not quite touching her but with one arm out behind her, as if he were ready to catch her in a moment’s notice. She seemed a little unsteady, but she moved with slow, even movements.

Robert spoke with a smile, “Sorry for the delay! I needed Anne’s help with something and it just couldn’t wait.”

Anne kept her head down and she offered no comment. She waited for her mother to fuss over her for a moment before moving to the dining room. Lady Catherine tried to pull her towards the seat on the right-hand side of the table, but Anne shook her off, purposefully seating herself on the other end. With a hmph and a sniff, Lady Catherine sat directly across from her. If she could not get her daughter to sit by her side, she was happy enough to glare at her from the other end of the table and make mental notes on how little she ate.

Liz knew she needed to be strategic about where she sat, so she hung back a few steps, pausing in the doorway. Darcy had to walk by her, pulling his arms in so he didn’t brush her by accident—or on purpose—glancing down at her as he walked by. She did not look at him directly, but she gave a little grimace when he took his seat.

He sat on the far side of the table, right next to Anne. If Liz sat where she had intended, she would be directly across from Darcy. If she sat as far from him as she could get, she would be next to Lady Catherine. One down from Darcy would have to do, but at least she would be across from Robert. He smiled at her when she took her chair.

Charlotte, following after Liz, tapped one finger against her lip. She noted the stiffness in her friend’s neck as she looked purposefully at Robert or at Anne, never lingering her gaze between them. She sighed and shook her head before taking the seat directly opposite from Darcy. Charlotte tried to catch his eye more than once, but when he was not looking particularly intently at her friend, his gaze was dropped to his empty plate.

The last one in the room, Mariah balked the necessity of sitting next to Lady Catherine, but she was also too frightened to make a scene. She slipped into the chair, grateful at least to be next to Liz; that would protect her, at least a little.

Talk swelled and folded as Danielle and one of the cooks brought in their plates, whisking away the empty ones placed at the settings. Darcy seemed as disinclined as usual to speak; his cousins’ words flowed around him like water around a unmoving stone. Unfortunately for Mariah, even with Bill on her left side, Lady Catherine grew bored of her conversation before long and turned to the girl with her own questions. “You are at university, are you not?”

Mariah only nodded.

“And what are you studying? Following in your sister’s footsteps?”

“Um… I’m undeclared,” she said in a wisp of a voice.

Liz put her hand on the younger girl’s arm and gave it a comforting squeeze; she could see Lady Catherine beginning to puff up her chest in preparation for a declaration.

“Undeclared! I hope you do not waste too much of your time deciding. I really think councelors in high schools should do a much more thorough job—like you, Robert! I’m sure you did a very good job telling your students which career they should pursue when they were in school.”

“I… I did my best to help every student I could, Aunt Catherine,” Robert replied in a firm, diplomatic voice. Liz could tell there was something else he wanted to say behind his words, but he was clearly smart enough not to come out with it.

“Good. Better councelors in schools and firmer parenting are what we need to get the youth motivated. Lord, parents letting their children go into school not knowing what they want to do… Parents become so lenient with younger children, wouldn’t you say, Charlotte?” Before Charlotte could answer, Lady Catherine posed another question. “And you have a brother as well, don’t you?”

“Yes, Lady Catherine. A younger brother.” Mariah seemed to deflate a little once the attention was not on her.

“And what about you, Elizabeth? You said you had swarm of siblings, did you not?”

She wasn’t sure about the intonation on the word “swarm,” but Liz put on her best, bland smile and replied, “Yes, there are five of us.”

Lady Catherine shook her head. “So many children. How old are the rest of them?”

“All of my sisters are out of high school.”

“My goodness,” Lady Catherine said without much emotion behind the words. “Your family must be spending a fortune on university.”

“Well… My eldest sister is graduated. And my sister Cat is going to community college. But my youngest sister isn’t in school right now and…” Liz paused. Lady Catherine’s mouth had pulled into a tight, judgmental line, her eyebrows rising towards her hairline, as Liz spoke, her gray eyes widening. She knew the woman would have something to say when she finished.

But Liz refused to allow herself to be cowed by such a self-centered yet insignificant woman. She set her shoulders and finished, “And I’m currently on a gap year so my sister can study abroad.”

Lady Catherine’s expression turned from harsh to severe at that. “I don’t hold with gap years. That is another waste of everyone’s time. And you see what I mean about younger children and leniency! Your younger one not at school, and not starting a career either?” She shook her head in condemnation without waiting for Liz to confirm her suspicions.

Liz frowned; just because she guessed correctly about Lydia’s status didn’t give her any reason to judge. She didn’t even know Lydia’s name.

“And being told to take time off of school just so—"

“Oh, no one told me to take the year off. I just decided to.” She set her mouth and raised her chin. Show no fear. Keeping her eyes on Lady Catherine, she missed Robert’s pleasantly surprised smile, Darcy’s widening eyes, and Anne’s small, secret grin. She kept her face towards her plate but her eyes flicked up towards Liz more than once.

“Why would you do that?” In her surprise, the accent slipped a little, showing a hint of the more neutral American sounds that had crept into her voice over time.

There were several answers Liz could have given to that question. All of them were true, to an extent, but some of them made her look much better than others. She shrugged. “Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for dreams.”

“But what do you get out of it?”

“I get to see my sister happy, studying physics at CERN.”

There was a moment of near silence, save for the gentle scrape of cutlery, the sound of a glass returning to the table. As she clearly could not win against Liz’s personal values, Lady Catherine moved on to the next issue. “And why anyone would have so many children if they can’t afford to take care of them all, I’ll never understand! If you can’t send them all to college at once…”

Liz could not quite tell if Lady Catherine had no understanding of money or of family relationships. Although she charitably chose to lean towards the former, she was not particularly inclined to continue the conversation. When no question immediately presented itself, she turned away at just the wrong moment to meet Darcy’s eyes.

His fork was hovering over his plate, more or less forgotten. He was staring at her again with the blank expression on his face that seemed so prevalent over the last few days. His brows seemed less furrowed than she had seen, but his mouth was pressed into a thin line, the edges of it curving downward.

Apparently it was unsafe to look anywhere. She stabbed a potato more out of frustration than malice towards the food and did her best to keep from looking towards either Darcy or his aunt for the rest of the meal.

~~~~

They all fit in the sitting room, but it was a tight squeeze. Liz, Mariah, and Charlotte all took the couch while Lady Catherine took what seemed to be “her” seat. Bill brought in a dining room chair so he could hover at her right side. Anne sat in her same chair as the first evening they had come, resting her crutches to the side. Robert pulled the seat from the window over by the couch, leaving Darcy with the remaining armchair.

It took him a moment to take it. He was as jittery as two days previous. He titled his chair to an awkward angle, not quite turned in towards the circle of the conversation. Every time Lady Catherine spoke to him, he had to turn his head to look towards his right shoulder.

Rather than listen to what his aunt had to say, Robert was far more interested in the way his cousin and Liz never quite seemed to look at each other at the same time. When she tapped her chin or adjusted her glasses, Darcy would stare quite openly, but the moment she turned, he would snap his eyes away to attend to Lady Catherine or Bill, or whoever was talking at the moment. He remained almost entirely silent, never offering a comment and answering direct questions in as short of phrases as possible. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. First, they were flat against his thighs, then he slipped them into his pockets. He pulled them out again to cross his arms but that position didn’t last long either. They went back into the pockets after a minute.

Liz seemed the more disinterested party. She would look at him, sometimes, but always with a small frown.

Anne was trying her best to engage her in conversation, but it was one of the days where speaking was difficult. Her breath caught in her lungs and her words came out insubstantial. The longer she failed to get her thoughts out audible and coherent, the more frustrated she became. As Robert watched, she clenched her hands into thin, pale fists, the fingers squeezed to tightly her arms trembled.

When she gave up trying to speak, she crossed her arms over her lap and hunched over slightly, tossing a glance in her mother’s direction. Robert knew she was trying to gauge how much of a scene Lady Catherine would make if she chose to bow out of company early.

Hoping to give Anne an out of the conversation if she wanted it, Robert inched his chair closer to the couch. He leaned towards Liz. “So, you’re on a gap year…”

Liz’s eyes shot to his face.

He laughed softly, holding up his hands. “No, no, I don’t mean it like that!”

She relaxed, resting her elbow on the arm of the couch. “What do you mean, then?”

“Unlike my aunt, I think gap years are a great idea.”

“In theory, anyway. And I’m glad I could help Mary. She has a bit more…” Liz sighed and waved one hand ineffectually, gesturing towards something conceptual. “Well, she has a lot more of a life goal than I do right now.”

“Aw, life goals are a bit overrated. In my professional opinion, anyway!”

“Isn’t it nice to know what you’re doing with your life?”

“Sure, but it just takes a while to get there.”

She sighed again and rested her cheek on her palm. Her eyes drifted off of Robert, beyond Anne who was still hunched in her chair. Darcy was looking at her again. His chair, turned away from most of the room, was very slightly tipped towards her. He seemed to be surprised by getting caught; he quickly jerked his head away to stare at nothing but the center of the rug. Liz rolled her eyes slightly and turned her gaze back to Robert. “I guess that’s the nice thing about gap years; they give you some more time. Not a lot, though.” She frowned. “Not much at all, really.”

“You’ll get there.”

The expression deepened. “That’s what I’ve been told. And then my mom says hurry up and figure it out because Jane and Mary and Cat all seem to have… Never bothered about Lydia, though.”

A quick grin flashed across Robert’s face and he cracked the knuckles of one hand. “All right, you want to figure out what to do with your life? Right here, right now, let’s do it.”

Liz straightened slightly. “What, seriously?”

“Sure! You heard my aunt; I was in secondary school counseling for a while. I have a psych degree; I know how people thing.” He paused. “Well, I know how children think… Um, don’t be offended by that!”

“I’m not,” she assured him. “You’ll be more helpful than anyone I talked in high school, I’m sure of that. Where do we start?”

“I mean, what do you like?”

“Ugh, I don’t know. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? Running. Books. TV. Libraries. I like working with kids, but I definitely don’t want to be a teacher. I don’t think I’m cut out for it.”

“Librarian?”

She groaned softly and turned her hand from tipping outward to facing her; she rested her chin on her knuckles. “I’ve thought about it. A lot. But you need a whole other degree for that. And I don’t… I don’t think I can justify that. I don’t know if it’s the career for me, if you get what I mean.”

Robert raised his eyebrows. There was an arch look in his eye, as if something had just occurred to him that he wasn’t quite ready to share yet. “No,” he said slowly. “No, I don’t. Explain that to me.”

She scrunched her nose in a quick scowl but then said, “Well, I mean… Yeah, I’m interested in it… It’d be really cool to work in a library, yeah. Maybe a big fancy one. But I don’t know if it’s my dream job. I don’t know what my dream job is.” She lowered her hand, sitting upright on the couch again. She let the one drape back on the arm of the couch, the other falling into her lap.

He didn’t seem satisfied with that response, but he prompted her to go on. “And if you graduated right now, what do you’d think you’d do then?”

“I expect I’d just… go home. At least for a little while. My parents own a hotel and they can always use the help. Save up a little money. But after that… I really don’t know.”

Robert smiled gently and put his hand over hers. His palm was warm, large and square, and comforting. “Your job doesn’t have to be a calling, Liz. Not everyone has a perfect match in every part of their life. There’s so much focus on professional callings, perfect families, soul mates… It doesn’t always start out like that. Find all three seems a little absurd to me. Sometimes you just have to find the right fit and see how it goes. Life isn’t about absolutes, not all the time.”

Liz bit her lower lip gently between her teeth and glanced over at Charlotte on the other side of the couch. She and Bill had picked up their discussion about taxes from before dinner and she was gesturing with one hand as she tried to emphasize a point. “The right fit… I suppose you don’t always know right away, do you?”

“Sometimes.” He shrugged. “Sometimes there’s just a click. And other times you just have to… figure it out.”

“And you had that click?”

“Yeah. I did. But not everyone’s that lucky; don’t beat yourself up about that part.”

Liz smiled and rolled her eyes at him. “Oh, and I suppose you use this on all the poor, lost undergraduates who have no idea what to do with their lives?”

He chuckled. “Actually, no. Please let me know if this pep talk worked for you in about six months. I might need to write it down in case I need to give it to any year 11s next time I do a stint at a secondary school again!”

“I will take detailed notes on my career path for you!” Liz promised with her own laugh. Robert noticed, though he was pretty sure Liz didn’t, the way Darcy’s eyes grazed her face at the sound, and the way he flushed very slightly.

Robert squinted and flicked his eyes between the pair of them, considering. He wondered if Liz would answer the questions that Darcy would not. He should have paid more attention in the car ride down!

Before Robert could muster the energy to pose his next round of questions, Lady Catherine began her own line of inquiry that derailed the rest of the evening. “Fitzwilliam,” she demanded in a lull in the spirited tax chat between Bill and Charlotte, “tell us what you’re working on right now. I am sure everyone would be interested in that.”

Darcy’s base coloring deepened to a dark flush. He shook his head, his shoulders sloped very slightly inward. “You know I don’t like to talk about projects I’m working on.” His hands were out of his pockets again and he worried the fingers of his left with his right. “When it’s in the second draft stage I can tell you more.”

“Yes, yes,” she tutted dismissively, “but at least tell me if it is it a piece of literature or one of those magic-y books that take up so much of your time? I know you…like that sort of thing, but I hate to think of you spending so much time on nonsense.”

Darcy dropped his eyes from everyone, throwing his gaze back towards the patch of carpet he had found so interesting before. He said in a strained but normal volumed-voice that sounded very much like he wanted to mumble or whisper the response, “Some of both, right now.”

Liz frowned, comfortable staring openly at Darcy only because he was not looking at her for once. Charlotte leaned forward in her seat. “’Magic-y’ books?”

He looked up at that. Liz couldn’t understand why his gaze slid past Charlotte, the one who had asked the question, to fix on her face. She had never seen such an expression on his features before; far more animated than usual, there was almost a look of…fear. It added a new flavor to his already discomfited appearance.

There was silence when no one answered. His voice was stiff when he finally said, “They’re just... I wrote… a fantasy series. Under a pen name. I was… A lot younger. Much younger. It’s been a while so…” He let the thought trail.

Robert quickly covered his mouth with one hand as his lips twitched, fighting back a smile. It took a moment for him to straighten the expression and lower his hand, but there was a glint in