A/N: I was "leafing" through my old FFN fics and rediscovered this one. I already have the next chapter, but I've been postponing posting it. It's probably riddled with errors, and if anyone would like to beta, please leave an email in your next reviews (heh, that will make them review!). I'm excluding Mr. and Mrs. Hurst from this retelling, because they're rather dull characters and a waste of time and energy to write about here. They would only be superfluous. Imagine it as a twisting of the book and new movie, and sort of subtly ignore the fact that I kind of say they're there in the first chapter. Assume with me, if you will, that they're staying somewhere else. XD
Also, I read through the reviews – and was amazed at how many there were! Okay, so most of them were just telling me to fix where I said "Pemberley" instead of "Netherfield" (Oops!), but still, I was very flattered and touched. If not for the restrictions on author's notes, I would reply to all of them (I attempted a while ago and got to at least six pages, though, so maybe I shouldn't).
It was not long before Jane was invited to Netherfield to dine. Of course, Mr. Bingley could not properly extend the invitation himself, so it was Caroline Bingley who wrote to her favorite of the Bennet sisters – the only one she held in the least regard. If Mr. Darcy had asked her to offer a similar note to Elizabeth, Caroline certainly had no memory of the event.
Jane rode out on Bolt, shivering in the rain. Elizabeth gazed out the window worriedly. The night grew dark and still no sign of Jane, nor word from Netherfield. Dusk was falling when Elizabeth's worry grew inconsolable. She claimed she had a headache, went upstairs, and snuck out the window, leaving no more than a brief note on the bed. She became frightfully muddy in her rush to the stables, but couldn't bring herself to care. The rain was little more than a light mist now, and the hostlers had left for the night. She struggled a little with the saddle, but hurriedly got onto Poppy and sped the mare into a canter. She was terrified and impatient. What if Jane had not reached Netherfield? What if she was ill? What if Bolt had thrown her like he had Elizabeth less than a month ago, and she was lying somewhere in a ditch?
Elizabeth saw no one on her ride to Netherfield, since all the Meryton folk were indoors and many were abed. The road to Bingley's manor was muddy and porous, and she feared for her horse, but this time she reached her destination without disaster.
A very surprised-looking porter greeted the wet and bedraggled lady.
"Your name?" he asked.
"Elizabeth Bennet. Has my sister come?"
"Miss Bennet arrived a few hours ago but took ill. She is resting in a guest room. We sent a messenger to Longbourn half an hour ago; surely he would have arrived already."
"I left twenty minutes ago, and must have missed him on the way," Elizabeth replied, relieved to hear that even if her sister was sick, she was not dying in a ditch somewhere. "Is Jane very ill?"
"I do not know, Miss Bennet. I could go ask at the house, or you could come up and ask yourself?"
"I would very much like to know personally. I will go up, if someone will care for my horse?"
"I can do that, Miss Bennet."
"Thank you." She strode purposefully to the large house, giving up on looking presentable.
"Miss Bennet! We thought you wouldn't be attending," Bingley remarked upon her arrival. She blinked.
"I am told my sister is ill. I would have waited until tomorrow to call, but I was very concerned and must have departed before your messenger reached the house. If you do not mind, I should like to see her."
"Of course, of course," said Bingley. "I will show you her room."
"Thank you," she said once more.
"You are welcome to stay – we will send to your parents for clothes for Jane and you in the morning."
"You are too kind, Mr. Bingley…I'm afraid I didn't bring anything. I am out of my mind with worry for Jane. She is very susceptible to disease, and after a terrible scare with pneumonia when we were both young…I am not myself when she is sick."
"Well…here is her room," he murmured, hand resting on the crystal doorknob briefly. The door creaked open as he pulled away.
"Thank you again, Mr. Bingley. Jane, I am sure, is just as indebted to you." Elizabeth slipped by him with a whisper of fabric.
"Lizzie?" came the soft call.
"I am here, sister," replied the younger Bennet. She tended to her big sister's whims through the night, applying wet cloths to bring down the fever. She hardly slept.
The following morning, someone beckoned, "Miss Bennet?" from behind the door.
"Mr. Darcy," she smiled upon answering it. "My sister is feeling a little better this morning, but still quite unwell. Could the household be prevailed upon to send up a breakfast for both of us? I would not wish to impose upon your meal with the Bingleys."
"It would be no imposition. If you do not mind leaving Miss Bennet to her own devices, Charles will be glad to hear of her improving health from your own mouth. And…I would be glad of your company."
"You are very kind, Mr. Darcy. I will be certain Jane is comfortable, and come down directly." She started back inside, but paused. "Only…Netherfield is very large, and I was in such a hurry to see her last night. I'm afraid I don't know where the breakfast room is."
"I will wait in the hall, then, until Miss Bennet is comfortable," Darcy resolved the issue handily. Elizabeth curtsied and closed the door behind her. In less than a minute she was by his side once more, and took the offered arm.
"Forgive me for asking, but you were certainly eager enough to come when Jane took ill – why did you not attend with her?"
Elizabeth looked shocked. "I was not invited, Mr. Darcy."
He frowned. "Your sister received a letter from Miss Bingley, did she not?"
"And you were not included?"
"Well, no. And I did not think much of it, since Mr. Bingley and Jane so enjoy speaking together. I would truly only get in the way."
"You would not get in my way. I asked you be included in the invitation, and find myself quite displeased with Miss Bingley for disobliging me."
Elizabeth couldn't help a small smile at this. "I'm certain she was only afraid that you would prove capable of preferring my company to hers."
"I find already that I am capable of this," Darcy admitted. "Miss Bingley is one of those women with a keen interest in fashion which they must support through a keen interest in wealthy men."
"The very sort sensible wealthy men attempt to avoid," mused Elizabeth. "You said something to that affect, didn't you?"
"I may have done such a thing. I believe the table is down this hall," he motioned with his free hand.
"You are not doing so well at avoiding Miss Bingley."
"The flaws of her conversation are far overwhelmed by the benefits of her brother's companionship. Besides, that is one of the chief reasons for having young Miss Bennets over. With you and Jane, her eye will not be quite so fixed on me. Also, you prove a welcome distraction from the displeasing nature of Miss Bingley."
Elizabeth smiled. "I am pleased to be of service."
"Here we are," he said softly, holding the door. He paused, not letting go of Elizabeth's arm.
"Mr. Darcy, there you are!" called Caroline. She set her eyes unpleasantly upon Miss Bennet, and resisted the urge to sneer. It would not do, after all, to appear unsightly before Mr. Darcy.
"I was unaware my whereabouts were in question," he rebutted, leading Elizabeth into the room and holding her chair. He was very reluctant to part with her arm.
"Darcy, you did take a bit longer than expected," Mr. Bingley shrugged. "How is Miss Bennet …Miss Bennet?" He seemed to regret his choice of phrase immediately. Elizabeth covered a smile with her napkin.
"A little better this morning than last night, I think. She is still quite unwell, I am afraid. If it does not trouble you, I ask that I be allowed to stay until she is recovered enough to ride back to Longbourn, if our mother does not send a carriage before then."
"It is no trouble at all," replied Bingley instantly. "I am very pleased to have her here; and you as well. Though certainly the circumstances of both your visits distress me, I always enjoy guests."
"Miss Bingley," Mr. Darcy began. She looked up eagerly. "Miss Bennet has informed me of something very curious indeed. Apparently she was excluded from her sister's invitation to dine."
Mr. Bingley looked appalled. "Caroline, you neglected Miss Elizabeth Bennet? As I recall, Mr. Darcy asked she attend." He winked at Elizabeth.
"I apologize," Caroline lied to Elizabeth. "I am not so well acquainted with yourself as your sister. I must have forgotten Mr. Darcy's request."
"I find nothing to forgive, I am certain." Elizabeth hid her sarcasm as best she could.
"Truly, though, you rode in the rain because your sister was late returning? What curious constitution." Her tone made it clear she did not approve of Elizabeth's curiosities.
"It was hardly raining when I set out," Elizabeth replied. "I was quite worried Jane did not arrive, or was waylaid on her return."
"Wouldn't your own ride be even more dangerous? All alone in the dark? Surely you would never support Georgiana performing such a foolish endeavor, Mr. Darcy."
Darcy held his steady gaze on Caroline Bingley for a long moment. "No, I would never ask or expect such dangerous behavior from Georgiana. But I am her brother, and inclined to protect her. I would ride through a blizzard if I had the smallest suspicion she was in danger. If there is nothing wrong with my protectiveness, certainly there is nothing wrong with Miss Bennet's. She may be a younger sister, not an older brother, but some things – some kinds of love – transcend age and gender."
Caroline pressed her thin lips together and returned to her meal.
Elizabeth spent most of what time she was not eating with Jane, who was showing steady, but very slow improvement. Mr. Darcy continued to escort her everywhere, and whenever she was persuaded to pass a few hours in the parlor on the piano or reading in the company of the Bingleys and Darcy, he seemed most content to either listen to her play or read his own book beside her.
It was difficult to judge how much was his actual value of their odd relationship, and how much was his truly apparent dislike of Caroline Bingley. Elizabeth found her own distaste for the woman growing each day she did not deign to visit her so called "intimate friend," Jane.
It was a week before Jane was well enough to ride, and Mrs. Bennet had been back and forth with the carriage every other day since then, attempting to persuade Elizabeth to return to Longbourn and leave Mr. Bingley and Jane alone.
Elizabeth had replied each time that she would not return home until she was certain of Jane's health, and she would never be certain of Jane's health if Jane were not within sight. Darcy smiled each time she said this.
Caroline had told her several times that they all admired her devotion to her sister, in a tone of voice that was decidedly unflattering. Caroline usually added unsubtle hints that Elizabeth was infringing on her brother's gracious hospitality.
Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, however, frequently engaged Elizabeth in serious conversation, card games, and other engagements. As Jane improved, she was fully included in their entertainments. It was Caroline who seemed less and less welcomed, to Elizabeth's imaginings.
Both gentlemen saw them off when Lydia, Kitty, and Mrs. Bennet arrived in a carriage to fetch the displaced sisters. The horses had been returned to Longbourn days before. Mr. Darcy helped Elizabeth into the coach, withdrawing his hand quickly, not meeting her eyes. Again, she was not quite sure if she imagined the faint blush of color in his cheeks.
"I don't see how you two stand that prideful Mr. Darcy," Mrs. Bennet scowled as the carriage rattled away.
"He is not prideful," Elizabeth replied. "He is awkward at social functions. There is quite a disparity between the two. He is much more comfortable meeting people one at a time in a small party than trying to remember thirty names at once in a large party."
Jane just smiled. "I am certain he improves upon acquaintance; unfortunately I was unable to further my acquaintance during my infirmity."
Their mother abandoned the subject for a more favorable one; Charles Bingley.
"Lizzie, say you'll come with us to town tomorrow!" begged Lydia. "The Netherfield ball will be lovely, we all need new ribbons. Say you'll come!"
Lizzie sighed at her younger sister's enthusiasm. "I suppose. Go ask Jane if she wishes to come as well."
To their great misfortune, the next morning Mr. Bennet announced they would have a dinner guest, a "stranger and a gentleman."
Mr. Collins was a terrible bore, but he was prevailed upon to escort four of the young Bennet sisters to town.