The "Bard-ly" descriptions belong to Mr W. Shakespeare.

As the two of them led their horses around a curve in the path to Longbourn, Darcy's heart thumped with dread. He saw a fluttering at a front window- was that a flurry of dark hair? Was it her? How am I to act? he thought anxiously. It has been but a month since she- will she ever look at me? What must she think of me? Did that damned letter change her opinion? Suddenly, the uncertainty he had felt in the immediate aftermath of his proposal poured out, making his breathing uneven. His eyes closed as he trusted his horse to follow Bingley's until they reached the front of Longbourn.

As they dismounted, a pair of young boys rushed from the direction of Longbourn's stable and Darcy handed the reins over to a small, freckled boy that he vaguely remembered from the last time he had been in Hertfordshire. Taking several deep, steadying breaths, he followed Bingley up the steps and waited for the housekeeper to answer the door.

Steady, he told himself, pausing outside the entrance to the sitting room. Please be at home, please be at home, he chanted to himself, and before he knew it, they were being led in. Mr. Charles Bingley, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Bow, not too low. Do not cringe as Mrs. Bennet's- there it is, that high-pitched keen. Would be pleasant enough would she but learn to modulate her tone. Greet the ladies, Charles. Bow, not too low. Is she- she is here, she is here, she is here.

"Mrs. Bennet, I do apologize for our sudden appearance, but we just returned, you see, and-"

"My dear Mr. Bingley! Oh, but you are always welcome here! And your friend as well." Darcy noted with amusement that Mrs. Bennet's displeased gaze upon meeting his eye rivaled that of his aunt when she was in high dudgeon. How he would relish the event should the two of them ever meet!

Darcy suppressed a grimace as he bore the silly (yet understandable, he had to admit) flailing of Mrs. Bennet, so pleased was she to see Bingley returned to the country. In point of fact, he welcomed any distraction from the errant pounding of his heart. The lady invited them to sit and he glanced around, frantically trying to locate whether there was a spot near enough to Elizabeth that he could observe her yet not so close as to make her (or him) uncomfortable. He could not meet her eye, did not wish to meet her eye. He felt ill-equipped for the task despite all of his mental preparations.

It seemed to be by design that there was an available seat next to Miss Bennet and Bingley sat, flipping the tails of his coat with a flourish. With both frustration and relief, Darcy noted that Elizabeth was surrounded by her two youngest sisters and instead seated himself opposite the two fair-haired people looking at each other with shy enthusiasm.

He realized that it was time for his plan to take effective action- he would need to engage others in conversation. Steeling himself, he prepared to ask Mrs. Bennet whether they had been enjoying pleasant weather when one of the younger sisters (Miss Catherine?) rushed to the window.

"There is someone coming! Again!" she exclaimed, pulling aside the lacy curtain. The youngest- Lydia- rushed to her sister's side while everyone else in the room looked up in varying degrees of alarm. Darcy's ears buzzed with premonition; it could not. He dare not.

"Well, girl. Do not keep us in suspense. Who is it?" Mrs. Bennet's piercing voice made Darcy's neck tense and it was all he could do to prevent his teeth from grinding. Honestly, woman! Again, his mind compared the lady's high-pitched keen to that of his Aunt Catherine's surly monotone and he grinned to himself.

"I- I-" Kitty and Lydia exchanged confused looks and in unison turned toward Darcy. Feeling both disgust and anxiety, he turned with the rest of the party as the housekeeper appeared in the doorway.

"Mr. William Darcy."

Darcy chanced a look at the ladies (but not her) and was thoroughly amused at their stunned faces; he then fixed his cousin with a glower. Standing abruptly, he walked forward to stand next to William, turning to face the company.

"Mrs. Bennet, my apologies. I had thought that my cousin was to stay at the house." He resisted the urge to kick the man in the shins. "May I present my cousin, Mr. William Darcy, lately of America." He introduced the ladies and each curtsied. He noted the looks of astonishment on all present and Bingley's look of abject delight.

"Sir, I had not realized you had a cousin. It is no doubt that you are related, the family resemblance is strong, is it not! But how delightful! Will you be staying in the country long? America! Oh, but you have journeyed far. Do you have an estate there? Is Mrs. Darcy with you? Oh, oh, were that Mr. Bennet were here to greet you, but he is locked away in his study. Kitty! Go and fetch your father! Oh, oh, but this is such a surprise!" The three men present all appeared amused, even Darcy. Were he not so annoyed with William's sudden and unwanted appearance, he did believe he might actually smile.

While Miss Catherine went off to search for her father, Darcy took the liberty to steer his cousin to his abandoned seat, whispering furiously into his ear, "What are you doing here?"

"Such a delight, Mrs. Bennet!" William said loudly, pointedly ignoring Darcy's question and turning to the still flustered lady. "I had heard that your daughters were the most beautiful girls in the south of England, and I am pleased that it was not a gross exaggeration. But the apples do not fall far from the tree, if I may be so bold." He leaned forward with an elbow on his knee and winked at the lady. Such presumption!

Mrs. Bennet blushed and stammered, and Darcy took that moment to fully gaze upon Elizabeth for the first time since entering the room. Does she appear pale? She is not sick, is she? Still so beautiful. He noted with delight that her eyebrows were arched high on her forehead and a delicate half-smile appeared on her face. He sighed inwardly.

He found that William was still speaking. "…But then, Darcy here did inform me that you set the best table he had ever attended outside his own homes, so I had to see for myself the goings-on at Longbourn. My curiosity simply would not be repressed." Darcy startled as all eyes turned toward him; Bingley's face was without price, his look of shock was that extreme. Elizabeth's eyebrows arched even higher than they had been at William's extreme raillery toward her mother.

"Come now, Darcy," Bingley began, his voice brighter than it had been in months, and he realized that there was a direct relationship toward that man's general good mood and the proximity of Miss Jane Bennet. Bingley's face screwed up in momentary confusion as he glanced at William, then back to Darcy. "Err, Fitzwilliam Darcy, of course. Tell the ladies all about your newfound relation." For a moment, Darcy was confused, so focused had he been on surreptitiously studying Elizabeth Bennet; he realized that an answer was required and that perhaps this- his tendency to pause and gather his thoughts- was the reason society often found him disagreeable and arrogant. Attempting to appear more neutral, he cleared his throat before speaking; although he spoke toward a corner of the room and tried very hard not to stare at her, all of his words were directed at Elizabeth Bennet.

"My- he is my father's cousin. Or, rather, his son William. He moved to America after his father's death. William here has recollections of meeting my father as a child, but I had never heard of him until he appeared in London several weeks ago. Had he not reminded me so much of my own father, I daresay I would doubt the relation. It was a… shock to meet him the first time." At least that part was true, he thought to himself. How he abhorred deception in any form, especially when she was the one being deceived!

"How extraordinary," Elizabeth murmured, and for the first time, their eyes met. A jolt, a delicious feeling of light swept through him. They held each other's gaze for a moment longer than necessary before she turned toward the window. Was that a flush of pink? How wonderful she looks. Previously, he had seen her flush in anger, in shock; in furious pride. Never in- dare he think it- pleasure. At least he thought it was pleasure. How frustrating to not know her thoughts! Once he had been so certain. Such arrogance! He would give his much talked-of (comically underestimated) ten thousand a year to know what she was feeling toward him at that very moment. Was she mortified to be in his presence? Did she regret refusing him? Had her opinion altered even a little? All these thoughts swirled about him, muddling him, his elation at being merely feet away from her and his dread that she could possibly not wish him there nearly overtaking his senses. He realized with much embarrassment that his inattention had caused a lapse in conversation when William elbowed his arm.

"Darcy?" he said, amusement plain in his voice. Well, it would not be the first time you were caught staring at Miss Elizabeth Bennet, he thought .

"Forgive me, I was not attending."

"Indeed," William murmured. "Mrs. Bennet has invited us to dine and Bingley here says that he has no objections; what say you?" Darcy risked a glance at Elizabeth and noted with a pang that her expression was neutral; did she not wish for him to stay? Should he not stay? Perhaps they should not stay. He could always return on the morrow.

A ghostly image of Elizabeth in pain, Elizabeth in distress; the imagined, future Elizabeth in peril, and that decided it. Trying his best to arrange his features into the most pleasant version of themselves, he smiled and said, "I think that is a splendid idea."

The call to dinner saw the emergence of their host. Mr. Bennet had not answered Kitty's plea to satisfy her mother and join the party in the sitting room, so it was with great pleasure that Mrs. Bennet berated her husband.

"Oh, Mr. Bennet. How you delight in vexing me! Did Kitty not inform you that we had guests, and that one was a gentleman unknown to you? Here, you see, are Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy- you remember him, dear- and Mr. Darcy's cousin! Is it not extraordinary? Apparently," and here her voice softened in tone if not in volume, "he was unknown to our Mr. Darcy." He smiled to himself- our Mr. Darcy. When had the lady's visible distaste for him softened?

"Really? Mr. Darcy, a pleasure. Bingley, Darcy, good to see you again. I trust it was err, the fine birds that brought you back to Hertfordshire?" He glanced pointedly at his two eldest daughters. Both the younger gentlemen flushed at this while William laughed heartily, and Elizabeth rushed to her father's side, whispering furiously into his ear as they walked arm-in-arm toward the dinner table.

Darcy found himself seated across from William and in between Jane and Catherine. Elizabeth was directly across from him, just to William's left, and he had to wonder at the seating arrangements. The avaricious Mrs. Bennet must have planned it this way.

What if she thinks to have William for Elizabeth? Oh, it was too distressing to dwell on.

Trying to come up with something to say, Darcy made several attempts at starting a conversation, but Catherine was fussing with the napkin in her lap and whispering with Lydia. Jane was engrossed in whatever Bingley was saying. With a heavy sigh, he slowly picked up his spoon and leaned in, smiling at the wonderful smell of the soup before him. William had not been embellishing; Mrs. Bennet certainly did serve a fine table.

Rather than exerting himself making small talk that he was sure would not be attended, he focused on trying to hear what it was that William was saying that could make Elizabeth smile with such serene beauty.

He only realized he had been craning his neck forward when he had to swiftly turn his head; Jane had softly inquired after him, but he unfortunately did not hear what she had said.

"I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet; my mind was elsewhere. What was it that you asked of me?"

"I- I was wondering about the other Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy," Jane said, appearing momentarily flummoxed at the double appellation and then smiling softly in amusement. Remembering William's warm regard toward the lady, he smiled in return and decided to attempt putting his next plan into action once again- that of seeming pleasanter to those around him.

"I shouldn't wonder at your curiosity, Miss Bennet. Is it not extraordinary? I have a cousin of which I was unaware," he began, hoping his voice was warm and engaging. He soon forgot that he had been trying to spy on William's conversation with Elizabeth as he told her sister, albeit briefly, how his cousin came to find him.

"So you are to see him settled in London? But how generous of you, Mr. Darcy!" Jane exclaimed, and he noticed for the first time the sincerity in her expression, that there was true warmth and approval in her eyes. He was momentarily taken aback before chiding himself that not all ladies said things simply to gain his approval.

How wrong I have been regarding Miss Bennet, he thought, chastising himself once again for his past presumption.

"Oh, but you are generous, Mr. Darcy! And how wonderful for you, Mr. Darcy! Oh, but so many Darcys. Oh, it is vexing, indeed!" It appeared that Mrs. Bennet had been listening in on the conversation from down the table.

"I daresay we shall have to bear the vexatious number of Darcys with equanimity, my dear," Mr. Bennet said, saluting her across the table with his soup spoon. Darcy would have found the man's lack of respect toward his wife disturbing had it not all been so comical. He smiled briefly before addressing the table at large, focusing his gaze on his soup spoon and hoping that he was not disrupting the flow of general conversation.

"Ah, quite right, Mr. Bennet. In fact, I'm afraid I shall be adding another Darcy to your acquaintance soon enough. I do apologize, I- that is, I hope it is not too much to ask that I bring my sister Georgiana around? My other cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, is currently accompanying her from Pemberley." At the mention of Georgiana he noticed that Elizabeth's head snapped in his direction. Ignoring the renewed whispering about "A colonel!" from more than one lady present and pushing down the jealous flames licking at his throat when Elizabeth smiled at the mention of Richard's name, he returned her smile. "Georgiana is quite anxious to make your acquaintance in particular, Miss Elizabeth. And the Colonel expressed his desire to be in your company once again."

"Miss… Miss Georgiana wants to meet me in particular?" she asked softly, her eyes meeting his, and it was extraordinary. Quite astonishing, really, the ability of one glance to blur the periphery; the surge of sentiment that flowed through his body, veins suffusing with warmth, heart beating that much faster. The people around were mere impressions, the candles dimmed the room, the smells of dinner and the sounds of silver clinking against porcelain all muted, all ignored, all unimportant. It was her, it was him, it was a bright light, a shimmering moment, no breath drawn, no words uttered. A passing thing, a mere half-second in the span of time, yet time immortal and time immeasurable.

God, how he loved her desperately.

He blinked, breaking the spell they both seemed to be under, and he glanced around the table. Only William seemed to have noticed, and he smiled in triumph. Ignoring that gentleman's pointed looks, he again addressed Miss Elizabeth.

"Err, yes. It would seem that our cousin Fitzwilliam explained to her in great detail 'the young lady who spoke her mind to Aunt Catherine and was liked all the better for it.' You see, Miss Elizabeth, my sister is a soft-spoken, quiet sort of girl, and the thought of challenging our Aunt quite shocked and delighted her," he said. He chuckled thinking of the letter he had received from Georgiana expressing that exact thought, and his chuckle turned into a broad grin. When he looked up again it was to see a stunned look on Elizabeth's face. Wondering what could have garnered such a reaction, he was about to continue but had forgotten what he wanted to say.

"Yes, yes, it all sounds wonderful. Are we to be flooded by all the Darcys of Derbyshire, I wonder?" Mr. Bennet said aloud, tapping his mouth with his fork.

"Papa," Elizabeth hissed, but Darcy chose not to be offended by the man's impudent remarks. It was evident that Mr. Bennet was the sort of man who enjoyed the foibles of the human condition, and while he could certainly sympathize, he was not one to make sport in such a manner. It was of little importance, at any rate; through Elizabeth's silent gaze of disapproval he saw exasperated affection, and if she loved her father, then he would, too.

"Do not trouble yourself, Miss Elizabeth," Darcy said quietly. His voice growing firmer with resolve, he then addressed her father. "I'm afraid you really will be flooded by all the remaining Darcys in England, sir, and a Fitzwilliam to boot. Perhaps the garrulous nature of my Fitzwilliam cousin will cancel out the shy arrogance of the Darcy party." He then calmly speared a viande with his fork, praying that his pert tone had not offended.

There was a momentary lull in the conversation at the table and when he looked up, Darcy noted with alarm that all eyes were locked on him. Elizabeth appeared mortified, Bingley's eyes the size of saucers. William was shaking his head in amazement. Then, from Mr. Bennet's end of the table, a soft chuckle gave rise to loud merriment. Darcy glanced from the corner of his eyes and indeed, the gentleman was laughing with glee.

"Well, this is capital! Mr. Darcy, I'd no idea you could be so charmingly self-deprecating. Still waters run deep, eh?" In the past, Darcy would have bristled at the comment, but he could see that Mr. Bennet truly did not wish to offend. He was merely speaking his mind, and Darcy could respect that.

Darcy bowed his head gravely while resisting the smile pulling at the corner of his lips; a salute of sorts, and before fully tucking in to finish the rest of the excellent repast, he sneaked a glance at Elizabeth. She seemed to be appraising him, and he certainly hoped he was not found wanting. Not this time.

It had not occurred to Darcy throughout the meal that the separation of the sexes after dinner would mean not only spending time without Elizabeth in the room, but spending more time with her father. He both dreaded and anticipated the event as he was led into Mr. Bennet's study; dreaded because honestly, who would be able to ascertain what was to come from the man's mouth next? Anticipated because he looked upon it as an opportunity to continue improving the opinion of those around him. An idea had been playing out in his head regarding whether he ought warn Mr. Bennet as to the vicious character of his former friend, but he had not fleshed out any sort of plan in detail. He was not entirely certain that the intelligence would be ignored, at any rate. Later; there would be time later.

"Mr. Bennet, if I may. I have some excellent cigars that I procured whilst in London," William said upon entering and being invited to sit. Darcy wondered where he had procured such a thing as he himself did not particularly enjoy the pastime, but in the name of exerting himself, he primly selected a smallish cheroot-looking thing and attempted to look urbane while balancing it between his thumb and forefinger.

Mr. Bennet poured out a measure of brandy in a glass and handed it to William, then followed suit with the younger gentlemen. Raising his glass, he solemnly declared, "To many a fine bird, gentlemen!"

"Many a fine bird," Darcy murmured, taking a sip. He noted with chagrin that William knocked the entire thing down with a practiced flick of his wrist. Bingley grinned happily, taking a gulp and turning his head to the side.

"Nice and dry, this one. Not as sweet as I'm used to. Is this from town, sir?" Bingley took another sip and shook his head. Darcy, too, had noted the mellow, somewhat smoky flavor.

"If I'm not much mistaken," William said, "this would be an extremely fine cognac."

"Cognac!" Bingley exclaimed, looking suddenly impressed. "I'm sure I've never tasted it. However did you-"

Mr. Bennet looked rather proud of himself. "Now, Mr. Bingley. Were I to tell you, then surely you would know. 'Tis a family secret, you see." He lay a finger to the side of his nose before pointing it at Bingley, and they all laughed, William the loudest.

"I rather like you, sir," he said, slapping Mr. Bennet on the back. Mr. Bennet smirked and raised his glass in salute.

"And I you, for anyone who can make my Lizzy laugh and blush at the same time must have some wit about him. Tell me, what was it you said to make my cleverest of daughters appear momentarily tongue-tied, sir?" Darcy noted that through Mr. Bennet's distinct sarcastic tone was a hint of caution, perhaps even of warning. So you do have a protective bone in your body, he thought, silently congratulating the gentleman. Perhaps warning him about his former childhood friend would not be so difficult a task.

"Oh, mere small conversation, sir. I was telling her of America. You have a, ah-" and he paused, trying to gather his words (or more likely catching what it was he really wanted to say regarding Elizabeth), "She is clever, is she not?" For the first time since he had met him, Darcy saw that his older self appeared nervous. What had they spoken of? He suddenly felt it imperative that he knew yet sensed that William would never divulge the details. Oh, but this was too irritating!

Darcy waited impatiently for the separation to come to an end, doing his best to refrain from repeatedly glancing at the old clock on Mr. Bennet's mantle. He had to pull himself from silent contemplation repeatedly and on more than one occasion felt Mr. Bennet's amused gaze on his face. He was almost certain that the gentleman was teasing him, for surely with his pointed comments on "fine birds", he knew what Darcy was up to?

Then again, Darcy found Mr. Bennet's gaze often alight on Bingley, so he chose to relax his shoulders a bit and give that gentleman the benefit of the doubt.

"Come, gentlemen. Hell is empty and the devils are here, into the breach once more, all the world's a stage and we are merely players, and other apt Bard-ly descriptions," Mr. Bennet finally said not above a half-hour later; with that, Darcy succumbed to the temptation to gulp down the contents of his glass, amused that Bingley was doing the exact same thing. With a happy grin, Bingley bounded after the two elder gentlemen, and Darcy followed at a slower pace if only to steady his confused thoughts and oscillating emotions. Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast, he thought to himself with a smile, silently answering Mr. Bennet's unasked-for challenge.

sorry, dudes. funeral, job-hunting stuff. i'll try and be better about writing more...

once more into the breach, dear friends, &c. -w