Summary: Follow Mary Bennet in her quest to discover her true self, as unlikely friendships are formed, tentative romances occur, and attempts at matchmaking (or insufferable meddling) run wild. Also featuring Kitty, Georgiana Darcy and Susan Price. Crossover with Mansfield Park.

Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Jane Austen's genius. Only this plot is mine, along with a few original characters.

Big thanks to all the reviewers! Replies can be found on my forum.

The Earl was in a foul mood. Out of all his grievances, one was not easily dismissed, and she went by the name of Miss Susan Price. The night of the ball, she had caught his eye straightaway.

Quite unsophisticated, to be sure- extraordinarily artless- she was exuding raw energy and was smiling so brightly she effortlessly eclipsed all the other simpering misses…How transparent her face was! From the looks she was giving her cousin and her friend, she intended to pair them up. It was a wonder that nobody had picked this up already, for she was far too easy to read.

From local gossip he had learnt of her circumstances- this certainly accounted for this alarming straightforwardness. There seemed to be no one to teach her how to navigate the tortuous waters of good society- Sir Bertram, he understood, was often absent; Lady Bertram struck him as being the most serene lady he had ever met; as for Bertram, whose seemingly ever-present joviality grated on his nerves, he highly doubted that he would advocate prudence and restrain to anyone. In their latest outing, the Earl had noticed that Miss Price had not given up on her matchmaking attempts, despite (or because of?) his sister's and Glowner's manoeuvres. Out of kindness, he had taken upon himself to advise her against getting embroiled in such schemes- he knew firsthand that Annabelle could get nasty when she was thwarted, and he trusted Bertram to be man enough to escape her clutches.

The impish young lady's answer had been infused with ingratitude for this gracious advice; she had clearly stated that she would pay him no heed. His lordship was a man made of sterner stuff, but he was not used to dealing with young ladies who spoke their minds. He was a master at uncovering treachery and could issue cold set-downs whenever he was faced with devious opponents; but Miss Price, with her offensive (yet refreshing) directness had thoroughly unsettled him.

As he walked, he found himself coming face-to-face with Lord Glowner, which did nothing to improve his already foul mood. A curt nod was given from each side.

"I see you are not in Harding's company. I hear that he is courting a beautiful heiress."

Glowner's mocking eyes taunted him:

"It did not take him long to recover from the sorrow of his parting with Miss Rickman. Thirty thousand pounds could alleviate any man's sorrow anyway."

"You are familiar with slander, aren't you?" the Earl replied disdainfully.

"Slander? Have you considered that being Rickman's closest friend, I would know exactly what happened?" Lord Glowner stressed the words meaningfully.

"You would know, wouldn't you?" the Earl shot back.

Lord Glowner paused for a moment:

"Do you want Rickman to share the story with Harrison? We shall see how he shall judge Harding's conduct."

The implied threat was not lost on the Earl.

"Let us be civil, for everyone's sake- and keep the matter private, as it should be."

"Well-spoken," Lord Glowner replied.

This was a sunny day for a promising excursion, Kitty thought. True to his words, Mr Clifford had called on to renew his offer; she had been allowed to join his group, with the attendance of Mr Frederick, Mrs Harding's second son.

Miss Fairhill's gaiety set the tone of the company- Kitty felt herself falling back into old patterns, following the lead of someone more exuberant than she. A Miss Halifax rode with them, hanging on every word, and looking quite amazed at being admitted into such an elegant circle; Kitty providing her share of the entertainment with colourful descriptions of London's assemblies. Once or twice Mr Clifford galloped in front of them, claiming that his horse needed the exercise then he went back to the ladies. Kitty admired his masterful stance and billowing cloak, irresistibly recollecting the image of a valiant hero riding to his love's rescue.

Miss Fairhill was growing restless:

"Why, what a fine rider you are, Mr Clifford! I am no meek horsewoman either- what do you think of a race?"

Mr Clifford was doubtful, but Miss Fairhill was headstrong and her excitement was picked up by her horse. A sense of foreboding entered Kitty's mind:

"Pray, Miss Fairhill, be prudent! This road is not safe for a race!" she entreated her.

Miss Fairhill scoffed- once again, Kitty was reminded of Lydia. She took off, leaving them all startled. She was no great horsewoman and her hold on the reins was tenuous; they watched in horror as she suddenly lost her balance, fell and hit her head. Miss Halifax shrieked; Kitty covered her mouth in shock. They dismounted, Mr Frederick and Mr Clifford hastened towards her. Kitty found herself between Miss Fairhill's aunt, who had stepped out of the carriage and was succumbing to a fit of hysterics, and Miss Halifax who was crying helplessly.

She was shocked; she felt she could root on the spot, but to her own amazement, her mind was working clearly. Mr Clifford had brought back Miss Fairhill's horse, and was running in agitation his hands in his hair, repeating "What to do? What to do?"; Mr Frederick, crouched down next to the unconscious young woman, was unsuccessfully trying to call her back to attention.

The fourteen-year old's eyes met Kitty's in dismay. There was no one among them to take the lead under such dire circumstances; and only two of them had not lost their wits entirely. Kitty had always favoured action over reflexion- she did not dwell on her own feelings. She was able to ignore Mrs Fairhill's and Miss Halifax' hysterics- eighteen years in the company of her mother made one immune to such wailing- , correctly surmising that Miss Fairhill was the only one in need of real assistance.

"A doctor, we need a doctor!" she choked out. "Mr Frederick"- he was a good rider and a look at the distressed Mr Clifford persuaded her not to entrust him with too delicate a task "do you know where Mr Campbell lives?"

"I do; I shall fetch him right away!"

"Do not forget to tell him exactly what happened to Miss Fairhill, and be as quick as you can!"

She then requested Mr Clifford's assistance in moving carefully Miss Fairhill on the side, and she sacrificed her new shawl to cushion her injured head. Mr Clifford paled at the sight of the blood; so did Kitty, but she was peeved at the sheer unhelpfulness of the gentleman. In exasperation, she tended to Miss Fairhill herself and sent him to appease the other ladies. She doubted that he would calm them, but this was a case of choosing the lesser evil.

Miss Fairhill briefly regained consciousness as Kitty maintained a steady flow of conversation- this she was adept at. Her eyes were glazed over, but Kitty felt some comfort in the fact that she was not lifeless. It was some time before Mr Campbell arrived, though to be fair, Mr Frederick had made haste. The young physician took over, focused and efficient: Kitty answered his questions mechanically. She was relieved to find him clear-headed and purposeful. He wasted no time in telling them that as per Mr Frederick's indications, they had arranged for Miss Fairhill to be transported in a carriage; the Debenham's house, which was close, would host her. He went on and disposed of Mr Clifford by asking him to escort Mrs Fairhill and Miss Halifax in their carriage. He asked Kitty to stay with him and Miss Fairhill for the time being; he congratulated Frederick for his efficiency and sent him home to tell his family the news, account for Miss Bennet's absence and arrange a carriage to retrieve her later. All of this was made so fast, with such authority, that nobody protested the plans.

In the carriage, then at the Debenhams' house, they exchanged few words save for him quietly giving instructions and her following them. He was not loud, concise in his words and gestures; but he managed to pierce the fog of her mind. In spite of the anxiety the situation warranted, she was reassured by his silent competence. In the midst of the turmoil, of servants rushing in and out of the room with hot water and bandages, of Mrs Fairhill and Miss Halifax claiming words of reassurance for their nerves, he stood without his concentration being shaken and Kitty did her best to match his efficacy.

At last Miss Fairhill, while still weak and affected by her fall, did show some signs of recovery.

"You were a great help, Miss Bennet; I cannot thank you enough for your assistance," Mr Campbell said at last.

She nodded, feeling tired. He looked at her with a frown:

"Pardon me; I am inconsiderate. You have not paused for a moment since the accident- you are shocked, I shall ask the servants to bring you hot soup."

Kitty thanked him for his concern, to which he replied remorsefully:

"I should have been concerned much earlier- I fear I have taken advantage of your kindness, Miss Bennet. Yet I could not ask the others," he trailed off out of courtesy for her companions.

Kitty smiled- oh she understood him!

"Yes, I believe they were very much distressed. My insensitivity allowed me to be more of service," she joked.

"Miss Fairhill owes you a great deal," he said warmly. "From what Mr Harding told me, you displayed an invaluable presence of mind."

Kitty blushed under his praise. All of a sudden, she felt more gratification in this compliment than in all the other gallantries other gentlemen had bestowed upon her. This was a man, she felt, whose good opinion had to be earned- a man (although she had deemed him plain and staid only two nights before) who was worthy of admiration.

Later, at the Hardings', she narrated the accident to her audience, but her mind was elsewhere. She went to bed in a state of confusion, all her first impressions of Mr Campbell erased to be replaced with an infinitely more flattering picture of the gentleman.

Mr Clifford called the next day. He was bringing news of improvement for Miss Fairhill. He spoke eloquently of the evils which had befallen their poor excursion, and after a suitable amount of time spent commiserating on poor Miss Fairhill's state, he resumed his complimenting Kitty on her dress and complexion. This fell on deaf ears; Kitty could only contrast his amiable but vacant countenance with the ready intelligence behind Mr Campbell's eyes. Unaware of his fall from grace, Mr Clifford rambled happily; and for the first time ever, Kitty looked at a gallant gentleman and found him incredibly dim-witted.

"Do you enjoy theatre, Mr Bertram? Mr Maddox said so. We have common tastes, then," Miss Sanders stated.

Mr Bertram politely inquired after her tastes.

"Oh, tragedies, without doubt. Such exquisite language which explores the very soul of humanity; this is what I read," Miss Sanders asserted.

"Indeed, I do not care much for comedies," Miss Maddox said. "They are often crude and unsophisticated."

"I shall confess that I am a lover of comedies," Mr Bertram tossed lightly. He smiled benignly at the mortified Miss Maddox: "I have no claims to refinement and sophistication."

"Which comedies do you like, Sir?" Miss Sanders recovered.

"I have a partiality for Much Ado," he said.

Mary looked up at that, for this was her favourite play.

"Shakespeare," Miss Sanders commented, mollified. "Of course Shakespeare can do no wrong- you have chosen your comedy well, Sir."

"A comedy? With such dark, almost tragic parts?" Mr Maddox interjected. "I always found Claudio's treatment of poor Hero cruel and incomprehensible. To slight the lady, on the day of their marriage, charging her publicly with betrayal? "

"Well, he did believe her to be guilty," Miss Sanders replied. "His behaviour, though cruel, was not incomprehensible."

"Jealousy is a powerful motivation," Lord Glowner added.

Mary spoke up:

"The public humiliation Claudio inflects on his fiancée is despicable, regardless of his beliefs. He also displays a shocking lack of judgment! In his readiness to believe slanderous reports and to be persuaded of their veracity, there is a lesson for all of us, I think: that is, to stay clear of external influence when one forms a judgment; to collect information and reports from different sources…"

"I understand you, Miss Bennet," Lord Glowner interrupted, "but you must admit that it was not mere hearsay that Claudio believed. He witnessed his fiancée's infidelity- with his own eyes. It was staged, of course; but he could not discard this evidence, could he?"

"He was allowing himself to be led down this path, from the very beginning; allowing the deceivers to put a very convenient piece of "evidence" in front of his eyes. Not once did he use his capacity for reasoning," Mary protested.

"What do you think, my lord?" Miss Maddox intervened.

"People are all too much prone to believe malignant gossip", the Earl said soberly. "It is a very common foible of human nature to jump to the worst conclusions."

Susan could not resist:

"Is it a very common foible of yours too, my lord?"

"When I believe the worst of someone, Miss Price, I assure you that this is the result of my own observations; I never let the opinion of others influence my judgment!" he replied firmly.

"Indeed, Miss Price," Lord Glowner added with a touch of irritation, "the Earl is blessed with the utmost confidence in his judgment; such confidence, truly, that he would ignore any report, any glaringly obvious evidence which did not fit with his own opinion!"

"Well, what do you say, Harrison?" Mr Bertram cried out. "You and I are outnumbered; so many philosophical critics! I shall not care to give my opinion after them."

"You tease us, Mr Bertram; for you do have a ready opinion, don't you?" Mary asked.

"Some of you condemn Claudio, the others take his defence. All of you think as rational creatures, discussing at length evidence, reasoning and judgment," Mr Bertram said. "I take a simpler view-the view of a crude and unsophisticated mind, I am afraid. Claudio is a fool, who does not deserve his lady's love; for had he truly known and loved her, he would have thrown the blackguards out of the window and made no further enquiries."

"Hear, hear!" Mr Harrison exclaimed. "Faith and trust ought to prevail on any calumnies!"

"How admirable," Lord Glowner said in derision; "but a dangerous gamble, I should think, to rely on faith and trust only. You ignore the cool intellect in favour of the impulse of feelings."

"Are feeling and sympathy to be excluded from sound reasoning?" Mr Bertram questioned. "Are they not at the root of our actions and decisions? I should not find it wise to ignore them. Besides, the cool intellect itself may be tricked; imagination can make leaps and bounds as well as an untamed horse."

"What is your opinion, Miss Bennet?" Lord Glowner asked.

"I do understand Mr Bertram's point. Surely one must be able to reconcile intellect and feeling to achieve…" Mary said slowly, trying to pinpoint the right word. "Harmony," she uttered at last.

"A most diplomatic answer, Miss Bennet," Lord Glowner taunted.

Ever the peacemaker, Mr Harrison bristled:

"What is wrong with diplomacy?"

"Glowner, you wrong Miss Bennet's character," Mr Bertram cried out. He smiled suddenly at Mary: "I have yet to hear her profess opinions which are not her own."

Eyebrow raised, Lord Glowner considered Bertram's defence of Miss Bennet; Miss Sanders could not be satisfied with the turn of the conversation:

"Beatrice and Benedick, I believe, are seen as the highlights of the play. I do not understand their popularity; Beatrice always appeared to me as a very impertinent sort of woman and the attachment between them quite contrived. "

"They are matched in wits," Mr Harrison offered.

"There have been more unequal matches, to be sure," the Earl conceded.

Lord Glowner sneered:

"A solid foundation it is! Unending discord and contention! It is unlikely that two people who are never of the same mind could discover in themselves affection for the other!"

"I think their attachment stems first from gratitude. They are led to believe, through their friends' ill-advised attempts to bring them together," (at this Susan reddened, highly aware of the Earl's ironic gaze), "that they have inspired affection in the other. Then, their imagination takes flight: every word the other says becomes fraught with meanings, even a simple invitation to dinner!" Mary said.

"You do not believe that double meanings play a significant part in courtship and wooing, then?" Mr Harrison inquired.

"Not at all," she replied. "We should all strive for the utmost clarity of speech."

"How exacting! And, I believe, very dull, for there is no eloquence to be found in simplicity" Miss Sanders said disdainfully.

"I do not think so," Mary countered. "Plain, simple language which speaks to the heart as well as the mind is eloquent enough."

"Indeed; like Miss Bennet, I shall advocate simplicity. Furthermore," Lord Glowner added, his blue gaze trying to pierce Mary's very soul, "simplicity can never be plain." His voice dropped to a lower tone: "There is tremendous beauty to be found in it."

Mary, astounded, could not trust herself to speak. What was Lord Glowner getting at?

With a levity which sounded a bit forced to the most attentive listeners, Mr Bertram interfered:

"You are perjuring yourself, Glowner; why, those simple sentences of yours are ridden with double meanings!"

Valiantly, Mr Maddox changed the subject:

"Then, Miss Bennet, you do not believe that the seeds of affection were already planted in Beatrice and Benedick long before their friends' ruse?"

Mary, still confused by both gentlemen, was thankful for the interruption:

"I have always thought they were a warning: how easily swayed we are in spite of our better judgment; how prone we are to delude ourselves," Mary replied.

The Earl could not remain silent:

"Quite so; even the most sensible beings can prove fanciful creatures where matches are concerned."

Susan directed a glare at him before she could check herself. He caught it and offered his most insincere placating expression in exchange.

Miss Maddox could not bear this discussion any longer:

"Please, why are we looking so closely at the motives of fictional characters? What are they to us? Indeed; I fail to see how their predicaments are ours!"

Her plea was heard, and the group went back to tamer subjects.

"Beatrice and Benedick deserve more credit," Mr Bertram said as Mary took her departure. "Do you not think that they were aware of the other's worth all along?"

"They did not show any signs of regard for each other before their friends' plot," Mary replied. "Their sudden change of heart happened right after they heard of the other's supposed affection."

"Such a sudden change of heart," Mr Bertram countered. "Are they so fickle? Or had they yet to acknowledge what was in their hearts?"

"What part of this change of heart, as you put it, was their own?" Mary challenged. "What part was the result of their friends' false reports?"

"For others say thou dost deserve," Mr Bertram quoted. Mary recognized Beatrice's words- and the rest came to her suddenly, as she mouthed them along with him:

"And I believe it better than reportingly."

She was bested; he had won their argument. He did not smile triumphantly, only bowed as they parted; but she spent the rest of the day musing over their small debate.

Kitty stared at the content of the letter she had received. Concerned, Georgiana asked her if she was feeling well.

"Lydia," Kitty whispered at last. "She has given birth to a little boy."

Georgiana paled.

"I am sorry, I should not have mentioned..." Kitty began, upset at her lack of delicacy.

"Please, Kitty, do not apologize. It is your sister, and as for him...If I cannot hear his name now, when shall I be able to forget it all?" Georgiana said.

Kitty nodded.

"I did not even know that she was with child...Do you think the family knew?"

Georgiana was unable to lie.

"I overheard Elizabeth and my brother," she admitted. "It would seem that your sister has applied to Jane and Elizabeth for their...assistance," she concluded lamely.

This was very much like Lydia, Kitty thought. She would exert herself to write if she saw advantages to be gained from the penning of letters.

"This is it," Kitty stated in an unsteady voice. "I had not fully realized, until now, that she and I would never be the same as before."

"Kitty," Georgiana pressed her hand.

Her eyes were a little blurry, but Kitty shook her head.

"It is alright, Georgiana. I shall miss her, but I do not miss the girl I used to be in her company anymore."

"Lydia is so young. She is barely a child herself,"a distressed Mary said to Mrs Traumayn.

"What of her husband?"

Mary could barely keep the scorn out of her voice. Her husband, indeed! Hardly fit to be an officer, a gentleman, a husband...What father would he be?

"He is not a good man, I am afraid," she stated. "I pity my sister, but I pity the poor innocent creature even more. It is unfair that he sould pay for the sins of the parents."

"Your elder sisters will help them," Mrs Traumayn suggested.

"Money can only help so much"- with Wickham's gambling debts, and Lydia's managing skills, how much will remain for the care of the child?- "the education of my nephew may be neglected."

"You are very concerned about him. You must have been a very caring sister."

Mary felt a pang of remorse.

"No, I fear I have not been caring enough. I did not pay enough attention to my sisters' lives. I prided myself on my observations, but I was not able to discern Wickham's character when my mother invited him to dinner, nor could I detect Lydia's inclination for him."

"Do not be so harsh on yourself, Miss Bennet. Your family did not suspect this man's duplicity either."

Was her family a good example? Mary could not tell; but she had examined her own conduct. She had been remote from the proceedings, satisfied with empty moralizing; indeed, she had not used her judgment. This was a mistake she would not make again, she resolved. She would observe, and if the need arose, she would act, armed with sound reasoning.

The image of her father, used to retreating to his study whenever he was called upon to act, flashed in her mind. Mary still yearned for his approval, someday; for an appreciation of her comments, for a sign which would erase the slight of being included among "the three silliest girls in England"- but she was beginning to see his failings. Unlike him, she would not be guilty of indifference.

-as usual, I hope you enjoyed this chapter and I'd love to have your thoughts on this!

-Next chapter: Kitty has a light bulb moment, changes are considered all around...