Charlotte doesn't like it. Not one bit.
When she finally gets back home to her other family, the site has mysteriously come down and the dust is starting to settle. Still, it seems like the Bennet family has been taped and spackled back together and all the seams are showing. They're all too careful, too polite, and too quiet. It's not the Bennet home with which Charlotte is familiar. Jane wears dull clothing, but still smiles; while Lydia fluctuates between angry and depressed, subdued when tired. Despite the other two, the one who bothers her the most is Lizzie.
All things considered, she imagined returning to find Lizzie pushing full steam ahead to meet Dr. Gardiner's requirements for her altered graduation plans. Unfortunately, Charlotte finds the complete opposite. Lizzie is taciturn and loses focus when others are having conversations that don't concern her. She barely smiles, and when she does it's half-hearted. Her appetite dwindles to the point where Charlotte has to practically force-feed her lunch.
Charlotte finds it all rather perplexing up until she partakes in a vlog episode with Lizzie. This Lizzie is the closest to her old self that Charlotte has seen in nearly a month. She may not be as demonstrative or dramatic, but at least she manages to hold a conversation. Of course, the conversation is about Charlotte and has nothing to do with Lizzie or her family.
Once Lizzie reaches up and shuts off the camera, Charlotte rounds on her best friend, taking advantage of old!Lizzie.
"What was that all about?"
"What was what?" Genuine confusion crosses Lizzie's features, so Charlotte knows this wasn't an intentional plan to direct attention elsewhere.
"Why were you asking me all those questions about work?"
"Because I figured everyone would be curious as to what you've been up to and how life is going for you."
"Right, that's understandable. But…" Charlotte pauses, trying to find the right words to say. "What about you, and what you've been doing? How you've been doing?"
"They don't really want to know that. No one does."
Lizzie lets out a breath between pursed lips and stares at the wall for a moment. "When I started this vlog for my thesis, not a lot was going on in my life. I was pretty average. In the meantime a lot has happened. And yes, I made the choice to share most of that with the Internet, I get that."
She rises and tucks some hair behind her ear, making her look much younger than she is. "But over the past… almost year, they've grown to feel entitled to what goes on in our lives. Especially recently, after… everything," she places her hands on her hips and looks straight at Charlotte.
"I'm tired of the intrusion. All of it. Everything. The only reason I still film these things is because I'm required. I don't care what thousands of people think of Lydia's choices or Jane's employment status or where the hell Darcy is. In a few months, this will be a fascinating study for an anthropologist. But right now, it's my life. So I'm steadily pulling back, giving them filler, making it to where I can just… fade out."
Not caring for the way she says the last part, Charlotte's brow furrows in confusion. "Lizzie… you started this knowing that some people would have an opinion... of the choices you made and how you lived your life. It's even got it's own subheading in your thesis paper!"
"Yes, some people. I didn't think that I'd have a couple hundred thousand viewers. It's much different and much worse. I stopped reading comments months ago unless it’s absolutely necessary. Look, it's my life. I have no desire to have strangers critique the way I live it. It's just a video to them and my… my ego, I guess? Maybe my pride, I don't know... I can only take so much of a beating."
Lizzie unplugs the camera and takes down the small tripod. Once she carefully stows the equipment, she asks if Charlotte wants to walk up the street to get some coffee. Nodding, Charlotte goes with her best friend, carefully changing the subject to something much lighter and more carefree.
Still, this isn't Lizzie. This is someone who is closing herself off to everything, and Charlotte can't figure out why.
No. She doesn't like it one bit.
A couple days later when the episode is posted, Charlotte spends it watching Lizzie. Her genuine smile when Charlotte told of a recent accolade, her smirk regarding Ricky's continuous antics, and a frown when Catherine's name was mentioned. Afterward, she scrolls down and reads the comments, most of them asking about Lydia, some criticizing Lizzie for her behavior, some asking where Jane is, a majority are really glad to see Charlotte (she feels her face flush at that), but a considerable number of people keep asking about Darcy.
Charlotte is almost overwhelmed by the comments people make on the vlog. It's then that she starts to understand Lizzie's conundrum. Lizzie actually has to read a lot of this for her thesis.
In the beginning, it was fun. They both would pour through the comments, rewatching the videos to laugh at their facial expressions or things they'd said. But now, Lizzie shuts her phone off on days that she posts and hardly touches her computer at all.
It must be rough, having thousands of people judge her for her actions or what she happens to say in a four-minute insight of her life. Lizzie felt incredibly guilty for what happened to Lydia. The camera barely captured the amount of self-loathing she put herself through.
The only thing that makes it better is when Lydia shakes Lizzie out of it the night the video posts. Unable to witness the event, Jane makes a comment about it the morning after when Charlotte drops by for Mrs. Bennet's famous pancake breakfast (it is legitimately the best thing in town).
Lydia and Lizzie descend the stairs together, both with puffy, sleepy eyes indicating a night spent crying and talking. They placed the actual blame on George, Lydia took ownership of her own actions, while Lizzie acknowledged their rift and her desire to fix their relationship.
When they take a seat, Lydia absently places her head on Lizzie's shoulder as Lizzie sips her tea, working to refocus her eyes in the daylight. They resemble lost kittens and are mildly adorable.
After that, they appear to be on the mend. They certainly still bicker a lot, but their relationship is much more open and less antagonistic than it once was. Charlotte wonders if they both climb in bed with Jane and sleep curled up together like they used to.
Still, Lizzie remains much more reserved and pensive in a way that makes Charlotte think that her sisters and graduating aren't Lizzie's only concerns. If she had more time, she would spend it trying to break down this insurmountable wall Lizzie has constructed. But right now, she settles for the delight in having Lizzie smile, albeit wanly, at her again.
Regardless, no matter how hard the Bennet sisters work at preserving and fortifying their bond, the outside world continues to press on around them.
Specifically Bing Lee.
And some other guy.
Two weeks after Jane gets a job and Lizzie is nearing the completion of her thesis project, Bing Lee returns to town.
This news drops at the most inopportune time. Lizzie, Jane, and Charlotte are out shopping for an "interview outfit' for Lizzie. Even though she's not yet a graduate, she's locked on two interviews, one of which is at a company very near Charlotte’s, which is infinitely pleasing.
After two hours of looking around, Jane does what she always does and grabs five different items, drags Lizzie into a changing room and works her magic. It truly is magic, because Lizzie comes out looking professional and confident, both of which Charlotte is sure Lizzie does not feel at the moment.
"Looks like a winner. Please for the love of God, let this be over."
Lizzie looks to Jane, who nods her satisfaction, sending Lizzie to change into her regular clothing.
Charlotte, holding Lizzie's purse, hears it chime repeatedly as Jane wanders off to look at headbands. Knowing Lizzie won't mind, Charlotte pulls out the phone and can't help but gasp. It's Gigi Darcy, texting Lizzie.
Hey friend! I really am sorry it took so long to reply to your email. A lot has been going on, and I wasn't really sure what I could tell you without making anyone angry.
Anyway, I just wanted to give you a heads up, Bing is coming back to your area. He has a primary care rotation and will be at Netherfield for the next month and then has a break afterward. So… let me know how that goes.
A confluence of emotion rushes into Charlotte's mind: confusion over an ominous email; curiosity because Bing is actually coming back here; and general interest in Gigi as a person who clearly cares about the Bennet sisters (she may or may not have been one of the reasons Lydia finally opened up to Lizzie).
"Charlotte?" Lizzie's eyebrows rise at the look on Charlotte's face.
"Hey, yeah... Your phone kept chiming and it was driving me crazy."
"Sorry about that," Lizzie accepts her phone and purse, shuffling the items in her arms. "I love this store. I don't have to worry about how poor I'm going to be when I leave it."
Charlotte smiles, enjoying this carefree moment before Lizzie reads the screen. When she does, Lizzie stops dead in her tracks.
"Are you kidding me!?" She asks the screen, eyes wide in shock. Looking up to Charlotte she seems to be at a loss for words. "What even? What am I supposed to do? Or say?"
Before Charlotte can answer, Jane walks up behind Lizzie, a concerned look on her face at Lizzie's words. "Say about what?"
Charlotte sees the hesitation on Lizzie’s face, but knowing that she's been caught, she turns to Jane, holding out her phone for Jane to read.
Jane loses a little color and swallows really hard, but other than that, there is no reaction.
"Oh, that's… nice." She hands the phone back and looks at her sister, tight smile on her face. "Lizzie, don't look at me like that; you either, Charlotte. I'm fine. Bing has to come back for school. He'll be too busy, and I have a job again. It's no big deal. Come on, let's get your stuff so we can meet Lydia for smoothies."
Lizzie looks directly to Charlotte and both make a silent pact to keep an eye on Jane. If Lizzie notices that Jane hardly touches her smoothie or if Charlotte catches Jane checking Bing's twitter page, they simply glance at each other and carry on.
Brave front or not, they both can tell that Jane is freaking out — in a practically perfect way, of course.
Bing has been in town for four days. In that time, Charlotte's returned to work and must suffer these events at a distance. One afternoon, Charlotte gets a text from Lizzie saying that she ran into him at the grocery store when she was with her mom.
Cool your pits, Lu. Video is loading as we speak. Watch it.
The re-enactment with Lydia is pretty amazing. The comments blow up immediately and everyone starts calling for a guest appearance. A lot of people want Bing to wear his scrubs, which… Charlotte doesn't get but wouldn't mind. Once she's finished scanning the first page of comments, she calls up Lizzie to gush.
"That was the best version of your mother to-date," she says by way of hello.
"You think? I didn't even exaggerate the number of times she commented on his absence or his abrupt departure. OR how often she mentioned Jane. It was practically every other word. I have to say, as much as I love the guy, I didn't mind seeing him squirm a little bit."
"Did he mention the videos at all?"
There's a moment of careful silence as Lizzie searches for the right words. "At this point? I hope he hasn't. Because if he's watched them and still made no attempt at apologizing to Jane or anything, then maybe he's not as great as we thought."
Charlotte nods and hums in agreement. "Good point." She wants to bring up one other thing, but can't figure out the way to do it without causing Lizzie to clam up, something she's been doing frequently when their conversations approach emotional waters too deep to tread.
Instead, she opts for the easy way out and decides to make Lizzie's day. "I've got good news. Ricky and I are going to the Young Innovators Conference next week. Which means I get a three day weekend before we go."
"That's great!" Lizzie shuffles something around in the background. "Are you coming home then?"
"Yup. I need to get a couple of my demos before the trip. Just for exposure."
There's a pause. "What do you mean? I thought you liked your job."
"Just because my job works for me now doesn't mean I can't aim higher." Charlotte tries not to sound defensive, but Lizzie has a talent for honing in on her insecurities.
"Charlotte, that's a wonderful idea," Lizzie replies, surprising Charlotte. "Do you need me to get anything ready for you?"
Charlotte smiles at her phone, wishing she could see her bestie. This is the Lizzie that Charlotte loves — the Lizzie that the audience at large doesn't often get to see. The Lizzie who goes out with Lydia for dinner then stays up until two in the morning finalizing her thesis and making up for lost time, just so she can receive her diploma (because she certainly didn't get to walk the stage at graduation). The Lizzie who has so much on her plate already, but wants to help Charlotte take the next step in her career.
"Actually, the reason I brought it up is both Ricky and I think you should come with us to the conference. It'll be a great networking opportunity and there are bound to be employers there."
The silence on the other end causes her to imagine Lizzie freezing, probably biting her lip and picking at her nails. "I… wow. You sure?"
"Definitely. We'll take care of the rest. You will stay in my hotel room, we're driving up there, and conference fees are already covered. Just, have your bags ready to go. It'll be great!"
Charlotte hopes her enthusiasm travels to Lizzie, but all she gets is a rather meek reply, which further underscores how recent events have beat up Lizzie's confidence. "I hope so. Really."
"Trust me. It will. I have to go. I'll email you the info."
“It’s no big deal. Really.”
There's one day left of their conference and Charlotte is growing frustrated. Being in this environment is both vexing and exciting for her and Lizzie, but the latter is clearly suffering. Lizzie has always been the more creative of the two of them, and she seems overwhelmed at the entire event. When they're at dinner that night, Charlotte makes Lizzie spill.
"No. I'm holding the fries hostage until you tell me what's going on."
"Charloooootte…" Lizzie doesn't even bother to hide the whine. Maturity is for losers.
"Seriously, what's going on? I've never seen you more in your element. But then I find you sitting outside this afternoon looking like someone ran over your puppy. What am I supposed to do with you?"
"Nothing. Nothing is wrong. This place is great. Beyond great. It's just that I talked to Jane last night…"
Charlotte stiffens and watches Lizzie carefully. "Oh."
"Apparently mom won't stop talking about Bing, and Lydia may have pulled one of her mild stalker moves to find out where he's working."
"Yeah. I think Jane's ready to move out."
"That's great? Right?"
"Yes. It's great. It is. We all need to move out. The no-money thing isn't as much a problem for Jane. But what bothers me is how cautious she is when it comes to talking about Bing."
"Has it occurred to you that maybe she really is okay?"
There's a silence that makes Charlotte feel mildly silly for asking. She gets the Bennet sisters, but she doesn't always get them. She freely acknowledges that the only person closer to Lizzie is Jane, so of course Lizzie would be able to tell whether or not Jane was okay.
Oh. "Oh. Got it. I thought… I didn't think it was that bad."
Lizzie looks off to the side and gets that distant look Charlotte has grown to hate. "I think Jane dove head first into work and a new life and was doing better in L.A. Coming back home has just… it hasn't been good… for either of us. Stuff that she hasn't sorted out is kind of rearing its ugly head. I think once she sees Bing and moves out, she'll feel better."
Ha! There it is, the unacknowledged admission for which Charlotte has been waiting. Lizzie sometimes projects her feelings onto Jane and is doing it at this very moment. Charlotte is about to pursue that very topic of how Lizzie's been acting when she drops this little gem without preamble.
"I was offered a job."
Nearly choking on her water, she looks over at Lizzie, gob smacked. "Congratulations! It's at Pemberley Digital, right? Someone called from there recently, asking for a reference and I've been waiting for —"
"Woah," Lizzie holds up both hands to halt Charlotte. "Pemberley? No. They… that… that ship has sailed." Lizzie swallows, fixating on the table. "I can't go back there… ever. No, this uh. This company is different."
"What's wrong with Pemberley Digital? It's a few hours away and you loved it there! You were the happiest I've seen you in months! And besides, you've got the Darcys and Fitz, I just… I thought —"
Lizzie is already shaking her head before she replies. "Charlotte, no. Too much has happened. I — I can't."
"What could have possibly happened for you to decide not to return? I thought…" No, she doesn't finish that line of thinking. Instead she looks Lizzie dead on. "You can't or… you won't?"
Lizzie sets her jaw and gives Charlotte something akin to a glare. "Can we just not? Right now? You've gotten two different companies to review your work, your company just won a lucrative contract, and we managed to avoid dinner with Catherine and Ricky. Please, it's been a good day. Let's keep it at that."
Charlotte frowns at the way Lizzie shuts down, knowing that there's a lot more going on than she's willing to admit. It makes her frustrated, but she can also see the way Lizzie worries the edge of her napkin and plays with her straw. After a few minutes of stewing, Charlotte sighs and stands up.
"Come on, you owe me ice cream," she says, but really means I'm giving you a pass this one time, but next time I ask, you better have answers.
An understanding smile flits across Lizzie's face as she stands. "Yeah, yeah, I knew I shouldn't have bet against you earlier. Ricky totally name-dropped more than five times."
It doesn't dawn on Charlotte until Lizzie is curled up in the bed opposite her that she forgot to ask about Lizzie’s job offer.
Before Ricky and Charlotte begin non-stop work on their project for a much larger, much more influential company, he gives Charlotte ten days of leave a few days after the conference. It's perfect because it matches up with Jane's birthday at the end of her vacation block.
The first morning back, Charlotte meets Lizzie and Jane at the coffee shop halfway between both their houses. It easily has the best coffee in town and the scones are to die-for. They settle around a table and start chatting.
"I thought your mom was coming," Charlotte asks as she sets down her coffee.
"She and Lydia are coming soon, they needed to drop by Uncle Phil's house."
"Cool cool. So Birthday Girl, what's the plan?"
Jane smiles softly, looking mildly excited. "Oh, I don't know… something simple and nice. I really just want to see a bunch of my friends and have a great evening."
"We could have it at The Chart House!" Lizzie offers and is shut down. They run through five different restaurants and start floundering.
Jane shakes her head at the last one. "They don't take reservations. Maybe we should just have it at home."
Lizzie frowns. "Mom doesn't even let me keep stuff in my room. Do you really think she'll let you have a party?"
"What about a picnic?" Charlotte states. "Or a bonfire down by the bay? Make it BYOB, that way you won't have to deal with buying the alcohol or cleanup, and you can get a bunch of the guys to cook all the meat."
Jane's immediate smile and nod show a winner. "That sounds great, Charlotte. I can't think of anything better or more relaxing."
"Lydia and Mary can organize the music." Lizzie and Charlotte share a grin.
"Definitely," Jane replies as she sips her tea and turns to Charlotte. "Do you think —"
The way Lizzie stiffens and stares behind Charlotte and Jane halts the conversation. Her face blanches and her lips thin in displeasure.
"Lizzie?" Jane asks as Charlotte turns to see what she's frowning at. Bing just walked inside the coffee shop, wearing scrubs and a fleece jacket, with Darcy right behind him.
"What is Darcy doing here?" Charlotte mutters just as Darcy happens to spot them after placing their order. Turning quickly, Charlotte watches both Jane and even Lizzie grow flustered as Bing and Darcy approach with their drinks. It would be comical if Charlotte weren’t so worried about the potential of a verbal train-wreck.
"Hey ladies!" Bing says with a smile, looking exhausted but still the same old Bing. "I've been meaning to drop by, but my hours have been insane. How have you all been?"
Pleasantries are shared, but Charlotte can't take her eyes off a flushed Lizzie who is looking everywhere but at Darcy. Interesting. Bing is effervescent and carefree as usual, making Jane slowly feel at ease. Indifferent, Darcy only says one or two words, but his gaze is fixed primarily on the way Bing interacts with Jane.
And then… Mrs. Bennet and Lydia show up. The small coffee shop can't handle this kind of excitement and Charlotte only wishes she'd brought popcorn. As greetings are delivered again, Mrs. Bennet takes over the conversation as per usual. She's mostly civil to Bing, but is borderline rude to Darcy, something that finally makes Lizzie say more than two words.
"Mom! Wo— actually, now that you're here we were hoping you'd give us your thoughts on what Jane wants to do for her birthday," Lizzie cringes as she says it, immediately realizing she probably shouldn’t have shared that in current company. Of course, Lydia seizes this golden opportunity.
"Oh that's right! The party," Lydia smiles. "You're coming, right Bing? You should totally come. You too Darcy."
Bing hesitates, clearly a bit overwhelmed. When he looks at Jane, she nods and smiles invitingly. "It'd be great if you and Darcy," she looks up at his sentinel, "would join us. We're going to have a picnic and bonfire at the park by the bay next Saturday."
"Oh that's great! I'm pretty sure I'm off, but even if I'm not I'll find someone to switch with me." Bing practically oozes earnestness.
"Great," Jane smiles, flushed yet again. "It's been so good to see you."
"Likewise," Bing replies as he rises. "Darcy and I have to get going. This man is making me go on a bike-ride after a 36-hour shift. Relentless."
"Bike-ride? Like with the spandex shorts and everything?" Lydia smirks.
"Lydia!" Both Jane and Lizzie huff. "Disregard that," Lizzie says with gritted teeth, grabbing Lydia's wrist. "She was kidding."
"Have a good day, Mrs. Bennet," Darcy says stiffly as he turns and nods to the rest of them, his eye falling on Lizzie, "ladies."
Bing waves as he and Darcy walk outside, heading to Darcy's car. Charlotte watches in silent wonder as Jane tries her hardest to act unaffected while Mrs. Bennet and Lydia chatter away, commenting on Bing and how great the weekend is going to be.
Lizzie, well, she drifts away again.
It's the night before the party and all the supplies are assembled and mobile invites are sent. It’s going to be a good crowd, and Charlotte can't deny her excitement. All the girls are collected in Lydia's room for a sleepover, drinking wine, and struggling through with frequent bouts of laughter.
Over the past week, Charlotte has divvied up her time between relaxing, hanging out with Maria, and driving around with Lizzie. They've been hitting up their old hang out spots, reminiscing and getting nostalgic. Looking back, it seems very final to Charlotte, like Lizzie is saying goodbye.
Speaking of, something still offh with Lizzie. Charlotte has a suspicion she knows what it is, but is still too afraid to broach the topic. Instead, she listens to Jane and Lydia laugh as Lizzie tries, but fails yet again, to paint her toenails without squirming.
"Ugh. This is so unfair. You guys know I hate feet," Lizzie huffs, making a sour face.
"I offered to take you out to get a pedicure with me and Lydia," Jane says as she braids Lydia's hair.
"Those places are even worse. Strangers and feet. Noooope. No thanks. Hard pass."
"Oh Lizzie Bennet, I'm going to miss you and your weird self when I go back to work."
Lizzie pouts at Charlotte, throwing her arm over Charlotte's shoulders, giving her a sloppy, wine-fueled kiss on the forehead. "I'm going to miss you too. A lot."
"How'd the interview go today, Lizzie?" Lydia asks as she ruffles the feathers of the boa around her neck.
"Good," she replies, somewhat guarded. "I liked it, I'm just… not really sure it's what I'm looking for."
"What are you looking for?" Jane asks softly, Charlotte gets the feeling they have this discussion a lot.
Lizzie sighs and looks up at Jane, suddenly sad. "I honestly don't know anymore."
That's probably the most genuine answer Lizzie has given lately and it resonates with all of them. Breaking the solemn moment, Lydia coughs and stands up, intent on rectifying the situation.
"We're out of wine. I'll be back. Lizzie, don't let Jane put on her weird emo music."
"Promise," Lizzie criss-crosses her heart as Lydia steps over Charlotte's legs and out the door.
Lizzie grins at Jane who somehow knows what's coming next. "Lizzie, don't. Stop. I'm fine. Don't give me that look."
"I didn't say anything!"
"You don't have to," Charlotte smiles at them. "But seriously Jane. How are you? Can you really deal with seeing Bing again?"
"Oh, I forgot to tell you," Lizzie smirks. "Jane has seen Bing already. He dropped by yesterday and took her out to dinner."
Jaw dropping, Charlotte gasps. "Are you serious? You've been keeping this from me all day!"
"Charlotte! Don't stray from the topic. Let's talk about how this one didn't come home until, what… one in the morning!?"
"It wasn't that late," Jane shakes her head and looks to Charlotte. "Don't give me that look, Charlotte. All we did was talk. I promise."
"Ha," Lizzie snorts. "Right. Did he apologize for being a push-over?"
"Lizzie," Jane's voice takes on a tone of warning, causing Lizzie to sigh.
"I'm kidding, you know that. I think Bing is a wonderful human."
Jane simply smiles and pushes on. "We caught up with each other and what's been going on lately. And yes, he did apologize for leaving so abruptly. Lizzie, I don't think he ever watched your videos."
Lizzie shrugs and twists the cap on the nail polish, holding her feet out for inspection. "Good. It's not like they paint me in a favorable light and he’s one less person to whom I need to apologize. Let him enjoy blissful ignorance."
Charlotte grins at Lizzie then looks over to Jane. "So, what does it mean? Are you still considering him?"
A demure smile crosses Jane's face, but she is still hesitant. "I’m not there yet. If anything, I'm considering the possibility."
"That's great, Jane," Charlotte reaches over and squeezes Jane's hand.
Lydia ducks her head into her room, "Jane? Your phone is ringing."
Jane hops up and grabs her cell phone from Lydia, answering it in the hall. Charlotte looks at Lizzie and takes a strong fortifying breath. She needs to know, has to know, before the picnic tomorrow.
"Hmmmm?" Lizzie is preoccupied with writing a sonnet on Lydia's quote wall.
"What happened in San Francisco?"
Lizzie stiffens, but keeps her face to the wall, providing a smart-ass reply. “An internship?”
"You know what I mean. I watched the videos and read all the comments. You can’t deny what was on film. I even tracked Team FiGi. Why won't you talk about it?"
Capping the pen, Lizzie turns slowly. "There's nothing to say. I interned at Pemberley for a brief period, left due to a family emergency, and then it was over."
The way she says over catches in her throat in a way Charlotte can't ignore. She continues, gently. "Right before you left, Darcy, William Darcy, asked you out on a date in front of thousands of people. You mean to tell me that nothing happened? Nothing remarkable between videos?"
"Yep." Lizzie crosses her arms stubbornly and returns Charlotte's look of doubt with assuredness. "That was the only notable thing that happened while I was there."
They have a stare-off for a few moments, neither one backing down.
Charlotte frowns, tired of the hedging. "Bullshit. I saw the way you looked at him. You can't honestly think I'm going to buy that."
Tucking her hair behind her ear, Lizzie's face flushes. "What do you want me to say, Charlotte!?"
"The truth! You've been like this for weeks now!"
“The sighing, the distance, the fake smiles. I’m tired of it. What happened up there?”
Lizzie’s gaze turns to the ground as she remains quiet for a solid minute, making Charlotte wonder if she’s going to kick her out. When she looks up, something finally breaks inside Lizzie. She starts again, her voice soft.
"Okay, fine... Sure. I loved it at Pemberley. A lot. I loved working there and I loved the city and all my coworkers. Yes, my opinion changed completely about Will once I'd been there for a while, something that Gigi was very happy about," Lizzie sighs and looks up at the ceiling, biting her lip.
"And yes, okay, we hung out a couple times,” Lizzie’s voice cracks and gets higher and softer as she forces the words out, “and it was freaking amazing… But then George happened. George. Freaking. Wickham… and I haven’t really heard from Will since.”
Spent, Lizzie is breathing heavily and frowning. She stands and continues to bite her lip, looking upwards as she tries to keep from tearing up.
Charlotte stands and comes over to rub Lizzie's back, making an astute observation. "You called him Will."
Finally Lizzie breaks, a short laugh that precedes the tears. Charlotte hovers, wholly unprepared for this outburst. "God this hurts, so bad. I don't… I just…." Lizzie steps away and grabs her midsection, bending over. "I just want it to stop."
"Lizzie —" Charlotte tries approaching again, but Lizzie backs away.
"No, don't. Please." Lizzie straightens quickly, shaking her head. "I've been dealing with this for a while. I just need a minute."
Charlotte watches in absent wonder as Lizzie looks away and focuses on breathing, clasping her hands behind her head.
"But… why keep this to yourself?"
"How exactly would I broach this topic with anyone? Jane lost her job. Lydia was publicly humiliated and had her heart broken. I'm barely finishing my graduate program. Where in any of that, does it seem like a good idea to dwell on my feelings for someone who clearly doesn't return them anymore?"
"You don't know that.”
"Trust me," Lizzie says firmly as she swipes her eyes, blinking away the tears. "I know."
Lizzie lets out a deep breath, and shakes her head. "Drop it, Charlotte. I'm not doing this anymore. I can't. Tomorrow will probably be the last I see him for a very long time. All I have to do is get through the party and I'm good."
"What do you mean?"
Lizzie walks over to Charlotte, placing her hands on both her shoulders. "Listen, tomorrow is about Jane being happy. Lydia is finally turning over a new leaf. Let's focus on them for a while. I… will be fine."
Before Charlotte can reply, Lydia bursts in with brownies and more wine, while Jane carries a plate of cookies. Lizzie places a paper crown on Jane's head while the brownies get passed around. A heavy beat starts emanating from the stereo and the evening quickly spirals downhill until they end up a tipsy lump of sugar-coma victims on Lydia’s bed.
“Sweet dreams, ladies,” Lydia whispers.
“I love you guys,” Lizzie says as she reaches for Charlotte and squeezes her hand.
Charlotte squeezes back. Tight.
If Lizzie smiles too brightly, laughs too loudly, or moves too quickly, no one says a thing. Charlotte notices, but admires Lizzie's attempts at appearing cheerful for Jane's sake. Endowed with new insight, Charlotte watches events unfold with fresh eyes, scrutinizing every action.
Earlier, Darcy showed up with a lightly bruised cheekbone and Bing with an ace bandage on his hand. Charlotte muses that Bing visiting Jane two nights ago had to do with whatever he and Darcy fought over. Regardless, the two friends act like nothing is wrong, so no one does anything but wonder.
For the most part, Lizzie hasn't stayed still long enough to give Darcy the chance to approach her. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been watching. Fortunately for him, Lizzie sits out a round of beach volleyball with Charlotte, giving him the chance to drop by. He offers greetings to both ladies, his gaze drifting between them both.
"How is everything, Charlotte?" Darcy asks stiffly as he shoves his hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts; the most casual she's ever seen him.
"Pretty well, actually. Ricky and I start on a new project next week," she replies, admiring the remarkable stiffness of Lizzie's spine. Darcy asks what the project is about and relaxes as Charlotte explains the first stages of what they're doing.
"That sounds like an ambitious plan. If you ever need any help or some assistance with that editing program, I'd be happy to open up our offices."
"Thanks, that's… very generous. I appreciate it." Darcy isn’t so bad. "How has work been for you? I read about the issues with the Domino app."
Darcy clenches his jaw and looks away. "Work is... It's been incredibly busy lately. Though this isn't common knowledge, we've been working on absorbing another company. I've hardly been home the past month."
The way he says this and his frequent glances at Lizzie cause Charlotte to wonder if this is his way of explaining why hasn't been communicating with her. Instead, Lizzie just glances at him and nods, but offers little else. So he clears his throat and tries again.
"Jane was telling me that you submitted your thesis on Monday, Lizzie. How'd it go with Dr. Gardiner?"
Lizzie looks up at him, tucking her hair behind her ear. "It went pretty well, actually. We're meeting with the Review Board on Monday to discuss my… case."
Darcy nods, his chin tucking briefly before Lizzie pushes on. "How are Gigi and Fitz?"
A flash of a smile, Darcy moves into easy territory. "Great. Gigi has a tennis tournament coming up and Fitz — well, he's Fitz. He's always doing well. He finally got into that restaurant he wanted to take all of us to."
Before Lizzie can ask him anything else, one of Jane's friends breaks up the conversation by calling Lizzie for another game of volleyball. Several others chime Lizzie's name, making it nearly impossible for her to refuse.
"Sorry," she says regretfully as she pushes out of the chair, giving Darcy an apologetic look. "Duty calls."
Lizzie accepts the proffered ball and returns to the sand court, taking her position before she prepares to spike. Charlotte glances over at Darcy whose eyes are glued to Lizzie's form. She's pretty sure she could set herself on fire and Darcy wouldn't notice at that point. He remains with Charlotte for several minutes, completely distracted by Lizzie and without conversation.
Laughter from their left draws Darcy's attention. It's Jane and Bing, laughing with each other and completely oblivious to everyone else. Charlotte watches as Darcy stands, excusing himself quietly to take a call as his phone buzzes. She loses Darcy in the crowd, but finds her attention captured by Lydia and Mary who are messing around with guitars and singing lame 90s covers.
A while later as the sun sets, people start scrambling for cameras as the guys work to ensure the bonfire is ready.
"Crap," Lizzie says as she glances at Charlotte. "I left my camera in the car. Do you need anything?"
Distracted by a pair of very defined, tan male torsos walking by, Charlotte shakes her head. "Nope. I'm good."
Lizzie turns and walks away down the steps towards the parking lot. A few minutes alter a cool breeze breaks Charlotte's attention, causing her to remember that her sweater in the car. Turning, she means to call for Lizzie, but she’s long gone.
"Lydia, I'm heading to the car to get my sweater, need anything?"
"Can you get mine too? It's yellow. Thannnnnks!"
"Sure." Charlotte starts descending the steps, but stops when she sees Lizzie and Darcy in the parking lot. She can't tell if they're talking, but they are certainly standing far closer than she ever remembers seeing in the past. Lizzie reaches up and touches Darcy's face, on the side where the subtle bruise and cut are, shaking her head. He jerks away at first, but a look from Lizzie causes him to relent.
A few moments later, he grabs her hand and pulls it away, saying something. He then releases her wrist and walks away. Charlotte doesn't realize she's going down the stairs until she's nearly upon Lizzie. When she catches up to her, Lizzie is staring in the distance, biting the corner of her lip like she does when she's trying not to cry. Charlotte looks around for Darcy’s car, wanting to rip off his head for putting that look on Lizzie’s face.
"Lizzie?" Charlotte says quietly, breaking Lizzie from her thoughts.
"Hey," she turns, a glassy sheen to her eyes with a too wide smile on her face. "Did you need anything?"
Charlotte watches Lizzie closely for a moment, deliberating. Lizzie is trying so hard not to break. Knowing when to back off, she nods slowly and asks for the keys. "I need to get my and Lydia's sweaters out of the car."
When they return up the stairs and to the group, everyone is passing around sparklers and beer. A great combination.
"So Lizzie," Bing says as they walk up to the group, handing them drinks. "I understand you've had some job offers. Decide on anything yet?"
Lizzie takes a long pull from her beer, and smiles up at him. "Yes, actually. I just did as a matter-of-fact."
"Really?" Jane asks, surprised. Lydia and Mary stop joking and turn to listen to Lizzie. Charlotte gets the feeling that Darcy had something to do with this decision.
"Yeah, I've been considering this one company for a month or so and finally had a teleconference interview with them on Friday. They made me a pretty great offer, so, yeah. If all works out, I'll be starting in a month."
"That's great!" Bing replies, genuinely happy for her. Charlotte can't help but focus on the one glaring question that no one is asking.
"Lizzie, where… is this job?"
The thin smile seems to fade from Lizzie's face. She looks first at Charlotte then her sisters. "It's…" she clears her throat, offers a weak grin. "Chicago. The job is in Chicago.” Suddenly the smiles slip off several faces, Lydia’s worst of all. “Surprise?!"
Sensing discomfort, Bing beams at Lizzie and congratulates her warmly as do several others.
Despite the slight stinging in her eyes, Charlotte tries not to notice how tightly Lizzie squeezes when they share a congratulatory hug.
"I'm not ready for this," Charlotte whispers, eyes closed tight.
Lizzie pulls away, swiping a tear from her face as a forlorn Jane and Lydia stand behind her. "Neither am I."