Author's Note: Updated to correct a few typos.
It was her second night at Netherfield - Jane's third - and thus far, Elizabeth's least comfortable. Jane had a definite fever and tossed restlessly as her sister provided what comfort she could. Uncomfortable to be sure, but Lizzy was not deeply worried. Experience from various occasions when one or another Bennet daughter was unwell told her that Jane was in no real danger. Patient washing of her sister's face and arms and holding a cup of cool water occupied a number of hours until that moment when Jane's fever finally broke and she slid gratefully into peaceful slumber.
Lizzy took a moment to hand over the basin and cloths before lovingly tucking the blanket a little more securely over Jane. The maid gave her a sympathetic smile and spoke softly, "I'll be here until dawn; Nichols will send Anna up to take over and as soon as Miss Bennet wakes, we'll let you know." She was a local - indeed, her cousin worked at Longbourn - and had known the Bennet family all her life.
"Thank you, Mary." Tired as she was, Lizzy could only smile in quiet gratitude as she pulled her shawl around her shoulders and left Jane's room. Her own was a dozen steps down the hall and she had almost reached it when movement caught her gaze. Incredulous, she saw Mr Darcy, most improperly dressed. In shock, she stood frozen for several moments until something about his walk and unaware gaze penetrated and she recognised what was happening. "Sleepwalking. Oh... dear." Swallowing a burst of giggles, she thought to turn back to seek the maid's assistance when she observed Mr Darcy's proximity to the stairs. Drawing a sharp breath, she acted swiftly.
Keeping her gaze firmly on his face, Elizabeth gently took Darcy's arm, as she would were he escorting her somewhere. From a few rounds with her sister Mary in the midst of a sleepwalking episode, she knew it was better not to wake them and to that end, she attempted to gently turn him away from the stairs and back towards his own room. "Come Mr Darcy," she murmured, not quite able to keep amusement from her soothing tone. "It is… this way -"
Her words were cut off as Darcy looked down at her, his expression one of boyish good humour that was in great contrast to every previous glance he'd sent her way. "Elizabeth." He spoke in a tone of such affectionate warmth that she was shocked again. Blushing fiercely under that gaze, she tugged on his arm. If he would only move a safe distance from the stairs, she could flee for Jane's room and the maid therein! "Ah, my darling," Darcy continued, "What hurry?"
The intimacy of his tone made Lizzy's stomach clench. To have such a man speak so adoringly! "Just... you must..." She frantically sought the words to get him moving. Away from the stairs. Safe.
"I must?" he queried musingly. "Oh yes, I must..." And before Lizzy could escape, he caught her face in his hands and kissed her.
It made her toes curl.
She wanted to melt into his arms.
Could she be dreaming?
It was a wonderful kiss. Better than any he'd dreamed of before, and kisses from Miss Elizabeth Bennet had featured in quite a few dreams of late. But it slowly sank into Darcy's awareness that this was not a dream. Coming awake in a rush, his disorientation was extreme - he stared at her face a few inches from his own and the look of dazed, slumberous shock in her expression. He stumbled back a half step, vaguely seeing the hallway but not understanding.
Elizabeth wrestled with her own confusion until she felt him step back and remembered - again! - the stairs that were just behind him. Without thinking, she grabbed his hand and stepped back herself, pulling him away from that precipice.
"Miss Bennet!" Darcy stumbled as she pulled him forward and tightened his own hand on hers. Swaying unsteadily on his feet, he looked behind him and finally pulled together enough of his wits to understand that he had been sleepwalking and had come very close indeed to disaster. "Good God! I... I..."
Gripped by a sudden wish to laugh hysterically at just how thoroughly Darcy had been discomposed, Elizabeth could not quite quash it - her shoulders shook as she firmly turned the befuddled gentleman toward the hall that she presumed led to his room. "Mr Darcy." The scolding tone was quite spoilt by the humour that ran through her voice. "Go. To. Bed." And with that, she gave him a little push in that direction.
Darcy managed a few steps before looking back, and the sight of Elizabeth – quite dishevelled, one hand half covering her mouth and her beautiful eyes brimming with mirth - was almost too much. "Ah... I..."
"Bed." Lizzy repeated sternly, pointing the way. "Before I must rescue you from those stairs yet again!"
He fled, the musical sound of her half-supressed giggles she was plainly trying to hold in chasing him until he regained his chamber.
The sound of his door shutting cut into Elizabeth's laughter and she gasped and shivered before whirling to flee back to her own room. Rapidly, shed her dress and pulled on her nightgown before diving under the covers as she attempted to assimilate the extraordinary encounter. Her thoughts resisted order but Elizabeth was determined.
To start from the beginning - he was sleepwalking. I imagine he does not do so often, or else he would have precautions in place! And therefore he was dreaming. About me? She recalled the words he'd spoken while in the depth of his dream and more, the expressions she'd seen on his face. Even with the dim candlelight from the hallway scones, she could not hesitate in saying he'd looked at her with extraordinary admiration... and affection. "Not handsome enough." Lizzy whispered the remembered words and once again, they stung. "Oh dear." Now, with the utterly delicious sensations his kiss had evoked intruding no matter how much she tried to set it out of her mind, she was forced to admit that a least half the sting of that phrase had been because she had admired him in those moments before his rejection. "Oh yes, vanity is a weakness indeed." Ruefully, she faced the truth of her own prejudice, contemplated it and sighed. "It changes nothing. He is still a proud, disagreeable man. Just one who kisses remarkably well." She abruptly laughed again as she recalled once more the totality of his embarrassment. Oh - I must thank him however! I shall remind him how dearly I love a laugh and thank him for providing such an opportunity. It is little enough, and likely all the recompense I shall get!
With that thought, Elizabeth surrendered to sleep and disturbingly sensual dreams.
Darcy was agitated in the extreme as he leaned against his newly shut door and did battle with his memories. "I shall conquer this!" he muttered to himself as he flushed yet again at his thoughts. From leaning to pacing, he methodically worked his way through what had happened. "Sleepwalking." It was a most disgusted exclamation. "Dear God, I have not done that since…"
"Since Father died. And before that, not since I was a small boy. Why now?" The question had no answer and so he set it aside. "To wander the halls, nearly fall down the stairs, and to expose myself to Miss Elizabeth Bennet." He considered what he had done and flinched. "She would be within her rights to demand marriage in recompense for such behaviour." It was a whisper, said as he stared across the room at the mirror, his reflection a ghostly one. "Marriage to Miss Elizabeth." The word hung in the air as he waited for his repugnance to surface. It did not. Instead, that last vision of her in the hallway interposed itself. "Dear God." Darcy flung himself into a chair. "I am a fool."
He stayed there, brooding. While he conceded that he did not at all mind the idea of Elizabeth as his wife, he could not reconcile himself to the idea of her family becoming his. "Her lack of fortune matters not in the slightest, her connections could be tolerated I suppose. But their manners are unendurable." Shuddering, he rose and added a log to the nearly dead fire before continuing to brood. It did not cross his mind that Elizabeth would not demand marriage. He knew well how desirable a match he was, and how such a marriage would secure the future of her sisters. The material temptation was, he believed, too great for any lady in her place to resist.