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Summer

There are four class rules on Lizzie Bennet’s syllabus:

Respect your books, my time, and each other.

Cite your sources.

Do not engage in gossip or rumors.

No seriously, cite your sources.

“What’s the difference between gossip and rumors?” Emma asks on the first day.

“Rumors are almost always false,” Lizzie explains. “Gossip almost always makes them true.”

William Darcy starts as a rumor.

The new hire was foretold in June, a passing topic of faculty lounge chatter when details of the parking lot repavement and various summer plans were exhausted.

“I want to go to Reykjavik and stay in one of those ice hotels,” Charlotte had mused, blowing on her tea. “In reality, I’ll be sitting on ice packs in my unairconditioned apartment while I revise my reading list.”

“Do it with a vodka tonic and you’re halfway there,” Lizzie said. “Speaking of budgets, was the math spot ever filled?”

“For now. Some new guy; Ivy League, apparently.”

“Taught there or went there?”

“Both.”

Lizzie’s first thought was that it must be someone very old, followed closely by what the hell is he doing here?

That’s as much mental energy as she gave him before finals gave way to summer. She goes to graduation and hugs every single one of her seniors, the best, most bittersweet part of her job.

“We’ll come back and visit, Ms. B., we promise.”

They don’t, but that’s how it should be.

Lizzie’s used to being the one who stays.

When she was in school, she ached for summer vacation like any other kid, for bare feet on hot sand and popsicles for lunch, for days so long that night ceased to exist.

Now she finds the lack of routine tedious; everything is sticky, hot and suffocating. She fills her days the best she can, like weekly lunch dates with Charlotte, where they don’t talk about work or how the days already feel shorter. She gets ahead on her reading for the year, sitting plastered next to her bay window and a fan to create a breeze that isn’t there. She takes a part-time job bartending a few nights a week, not exactly glamorous work, but Carter’s is the one place she doesn’t have to worry about running into current students (she’ll occasionally run into a former one, home from college, and if they can prove they’re keeping a B average, she buys them a shot).

Come August, she’s itching for her classroom, to go home smelling like books and dry erase markers instead of smoke and tequila. It’s a particularly hot and muggy night, and the smell of sweat that’s not her own mixes with the usual offenders. She’s pretty sure she was owed a break a couple hours ago, but the bar’s packed with locals looking to escape the heat, and there hasn’t been a minute to sit down since her shift started.

In the midst of pouring shots and opening beer bottles, her eye catches on something at the end of the bar. Specifically, a book, held by someone who wasn’t there five minutes earlier. No drink in his hand, just a worn copy of a title she can’t make out. The lighting is so terrible, she can’t imagine that his pretentious hipster frames are doing anything to help him read.

“There are libraries, you know,” she says as she wipes down the counter in front of him.

He glances quickly at her, then back down.

“In general, or nearby?”

“Both, I guess. They’re quieter and have better chairs.”

“Yes, but no alcohol; apparently a prerequisite when meeting a friend.”

It’s been too long a night for words like “prerequisite”.

“Did you want something?”

“What’s your mezcal selection like?”

“I haven’t heard of it, so I’m guessing not great.”

He tsks, muttering something about small towns she can’t quite hear.

“Then scotch, neat. Macallan if you have it.”

She looks up at the top shelf. No one ever orders anything that expensive.

“The tall guy isn’t working tonight, I’d have to get the step stool...is well okay?”

“It’s fine.”

“Have you read it before?” Lizzie asks as she pours, nodding at the book.

“Not this one, no.” His speech is short and clipped and clearly she’s irritating him. She would have been better off getting the step stool; at least that way she’d have a chance at a tip. She starts to move down the bar when he continues.“I read ‘War and Peace’ in college and promptly swore off the Russians.”

“Really? ‘Anna Karenina’ was the reason I majored in English.”

He makes a dismissive noise.

“Then you must have had a better professor than I did.”

“Yes, actually, she--” inspired me to become a teacher, she wants to finish. But Lizzie keeps her summer self separate from the other nine months of the year, and she can’t imagine that someone with a pocketwatch chain dangling from his vest knows anything about needing a second job to supplement income.

“She was great. Anyway, you should give the Russians another chance.”

He holds up the book.

“What I was doing before this conversation, if you recall.”

“My apologies,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Tell Anna I said hi and if you need anything, ask someone else.”

“And if I need explication as to why I should continue reading?” he says, louder over the din of the crowd.

Lizzie shrugs.

“Then you know where to find me.”

And just like that, she’s whisked away into the late night rush. She never sees him leave, and the only evidence he was ever there are a few crisp bills that more than pay for his drink. Then, in elegant cursive on the back of his tab:

I admit, it’s compelling. The people of Russia thank you.

She’s too tired to fight the half-smile that comes over her.

--

“I’m pretty sure they’ll have pencils. Mechanical ones at that,” Charlotte says, eyeing the boxes of Number Twos Lizzie’s buying in bulk. It’s a tradition of sorts, drinking expensive iced coffees while they restock on supplies on the last Saturday before they return to work.

“Didn’t you hear? Mechanical is so 2002.”

“Does that mean I should return these glitter pens?”

“Shh, Charlotte, they can hear you.”

“So Macallan never came back?” Charlotte asks through her straw.

“Nope. I’m not surprised, he was definitely just visiting.”

“Too bad. Intelligent discussion about Russian literature is a rare occurrence at Carter’s.”

Not just rare, non-existent.

“Either way,” Lizzie shrugs again. “Summer Lizzie can finally hang up the apron and ill-fitting tank top. Oh, hey, let’s hit the party supply place while we’re out. This is the year we tie for the Halloween door contest, I can feel it.”

“That’s going to be tricky this year,” Charlotte sighs.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m moving classrooms.” The cart jerks to a stop.

“That’s impossible.”

“It’s the new math teacher; he specifically requested a chalkboard. Markers stain his shirt sleeves, apparently.”

“Jesus,” Lizzie rolls her eyes. She hates this guy already.

“Honestly? I’m happy about it. Not that I’m not going to miss my wonderful neighbor,” she adds. “But if I have to live in an ancient apartment, it’d be nice not to have to teach in an ancient classroom.” Lizzie slings an arm around her friend’s shoulders.

“Who am I going to talk to between periods?”

“Maybe the new guy is chatty.”

Rumors are almost always false.

--

Fall

There’s magic to the first day of school, Lizzie won’t be convinced otherwise.

She wakes up early, too excited to sleep, and bikes the few miles to campus, her blue linen skirt billowing at her legs. Most mornings she won’t have time to take such a leisurely route, but it’s a new year and an empty whiteboard, and she wants to enjoy these few hours before it gets cluttered again.

Everything is the same. The wood-paneled halls steeped with the smell of lemon cleaner, the click of her heels against the scuffed tile floor. She bounces up the stairs to her floor, to her wing, past Charlotte’s room--

No, not Charlotte’s. Not anymore.

The door’s open, the room empty. She intends to just peek her head in, but her feet have their own agenda.

It’s so different from when Charlotte occupied the space. No art, no decorative touches at all. Gone is the length of butcher paper on the wall filled with student’s names and quotes (“Write down the one you really wanted to use, the one the yearbook denied,” Charlotte had told them).

It’s too early for the AC to be on, but Lizzie shivers anyway.

“Can I help you?”

She jumps, pressing a hand to her heart.

“God, you scared--” Her heart is given no time to recover before it plummets.

The suit. The frames. The blue eyes that show absolutely no sign of recognition. She’s suddenly overwhelmed with the memory of scotch and old paperbacks.

“You…” she points. “...are the new guy, right?”

He nods, a single jerk of his chin.

“William Darcy. Mathematics.”

Of course he would teach math. Anyone who can’t appreciate “War and Peace” is doomed to teach math.

“I’m Elizabeth. Bennet. But everyone calls me Lizzie.”

She waits, because surely he remembers. Granted, she never told him her name, it was dark and who knows, maybe writing pithy comments on the back of receipts is his thing.

“Did you need something, Ms. Bennet?” He goes to his desk and opens a textbook, a visual cue for “get out” if ever Lizzie saw one.

“Nope,” she calls behind her as she walks out into the hall, mentally slamming the door on summer. “Welcome to the neighborhood. Mr. Darcy.”

-

How’s the new guy?

Lizzie grits her teeth.

Not chatty.

-

“...and tomorrow we wrap ‘Frankenstein’, which means your papers are due. Don’t forget to include a link to your character moodboards, and along with a Works Cited page, I’ll need a source for every picture you find; before you ask, no, Pinterest doesn't count. So all that said, before the bell,” Lizzie perches on the edge of her desk. “Questions? Comments? Observations about life in general?”

Emma’s hand shoots into the air.

“Have you met Mr. Darcy yet?”

“Of course. We share a wall; I brought over a casserole and everything.”

The class dissolves into murmurs and hushed snickering.

“Oh come on, guys, it was a joke. Please tell me this isn’t the most interesting thing happening on campus.”

“Well no, but he’s so…” Emma stops and blushes. “Educated.”

“The dude drives a ‘79 Aston Martin DB8. It’s slick.”

“Thank you, Alex. Did you get his plates while you were at it?”

“Personalized. WMDARCY.”

The bell mercifully rings, saving Lizzie the strain of not rolling her eyes.

“Okay, get out of here. Extra credit for whoever brings something new to talk about tomorrow.”

-

No one is capable--or at least, interested--in talking about anything else.

“I heard he gave a pop quiz on the first day,” says Mrs. Bates, adding a third packet of vanilla creamer to her coffee.

“I heard he gave detention in every single class for talking. He made Marianne cry.”

“Marianne cries at everything.”

“I heard he puts down dogs that eat homework,” Lizzie grumbles into her granola bar. Charlotte throws a napkin at her.

“Too dark for a Wednesday. Why are you so grouchy?”

“Because I heard that he told his neighbor not once, not twice, but three times to ‘keep the excessive noise to a minimum’. If he thinks I’m just going to roll over and teach differently--”

“Ahem.”

The entire lounge stills.

“Just getting some tea,” Darcy says, looking through the cabinets. “Do you have Egyptian Chamomile?”

No one knows who exactly he’s talking to, but there’s a collective shake of heads.

“Hmm,” he abandons his task with a sigh. “Pity.”

They watch him go.

Then, a whisper.

“I heard he has his lunch messengered from a different restaurant every day.”

-

“Generic Kool-Aid and stale cookies. Remind me what we used to do on Friday nights?”

Lizzie fills a paper cup with cherry red punch.

“Study. Thai food. Pajamas.”

Charlotte sighs.

“Those were the days.”

Manning the refreshment table for the Welcome Back dance ranks somewhere between decorations and dance floor monitoring in the chaperone hierarchy. The most it requires is making sure the punch stays untainted, a task suited perfectly for Lizzie’s eagle-like vision and Charlotte’s ability to communicate through a single raised eyebrow. Luckily, they’ve never had to use either; these are good kids who are smart enough to know that booze isn’t going to make it taste any better.

As the teacher with the least seniority, Darcy’s relegated to enforcing respectable behavior on the dance floor. He watches from the sidelines, hands clasped behind his back, looking bored and generally unpleasant.

“You should go give him a cookie,” Charlotte nudges her elbow.

“Yeah, right. ‘Oh, chocolate chip? Do you perchance have any madeleines? Any petit fours?’”

“You’re terrible.”

“I’m right.”

“Hello everyone!” Emma, student body president, chirps from a microphone on the DJ’s stage. “Welcome to the Netherfield High Back-to-School Dance! Let’s give it up for our Vikings who are going to dominate the Longbourne Lions at their first home game tomorrow!”

“Yay sports!” Lizzie whispers, earning a snort from Charlotte.

“This year, we are thrilled to welcome the newest member of our esteemed faculty, Mr. Darcy!”

“Boooooo.”

“Lizzie, shut up.”

“Who, in addition to receiving two coupons for a free milkshake at Clara’s Ice Cream Castle, will now have the honor of dancing with last year’s Teacher of the Year, Ms. Bennet!”

Lizzie nearly drops a cup of punch.

There’s a huge roar of applause, kids whooping and cheering, as a spotlight shines in her eyes.

“What’s happening?”

“You’re dancing. Apparently.”

Lizzie steps out of the light, blinking to find Darcy standing in the middle of the gym floor, his chin tucked to his chest. He’s not just embarrassed, he’s terrified.

“Well,” she tries with a laugh, but it comes out more as an awkward cough.

Their hands stutter across shoulders and hips until he finally takes her right in his left, another hand gently on her hip. “I Swear” croons from the speakers, a traveling disco light spilling the floor in reds and purples.

Darcy has his eyes cast upward, seemingly praying to a god for a small catastrophe. As if this dance isn’t one already.

“I don’t think I’ve slow danced since my senior prom,” Lizzie says, just to say something, forcing a smile. “How about you?”

“I went to an all-boys academy.”

“Must have made it hard to figure out who leads.”

Darcy quirks an eyebrow.

“We didn’t have dances.”

“No, I know, I was--it was a joke.”

“Ah.”

Lizzie glances over at Charlotte who, like any true friend, is convulsing with barely contained laughter.

“Are you liking it here? It must be quite a change from the Ivy League.”

“Yes, it is.”

“And where was it that you taught?”

“Harvard.”

“Is that your alma mater?”

“Is it customary to talk this much while dancing?”

Lizzie sets her jaw.

“It’s been awhile. I must have forgotten my manners.”

Years later, the song ends. Lizzie curtsies theatrically, playing up the hilarious joke the kids seem to think this is. But she’s not laughing.

She grabs her purse from behind the bleachers.

“Where are you going?” Charlotte asks.

“Home, to spike my own punch.”

-

“I heard he gave her one of his coupons for being a good sport.”

“My brother said he saw her and Ms. Lu at Carter’s after. They made a drinking game out of Dance Dance Revolution.”

“That explains the wrist brace.”

--

“Ms. Bennet, do you have a moment?”

Lizzie swivels her chair toward the door, pulling her feet from her desk.

“Anything for you, Mr. Darcy.”

He’s all business, hands planted firmly at his sides as he steps into the room.

“I have to tell you that I found your teaching practices today extremely rude and intrusive.”

“Well, I teach Hamlet the same way every year and this is the first time I’ve had complaints.”

“This is the first time that you’re sharing the wall with someone who employs frequent testing of the material. That requires concentration, an impossible task when there is actual sword play occurring in the next room over.”

It’s so they understand the frenetic energy of the final scene, Lizzie wants to argue.

“You could have said something.”

“Previous requests for a more manageable volume have gone ignored. I was forced to move my test to the library, disrupting the entire class. I had planned on beginning a new lesson tomorrow, and instead we’ll be using the first half of class to make up for the lost time.”

He takes a breath, pausing to clean his glasses with a handkerchief.

“I’m a patient person, Ms. Bennet, but I’m very protective of my time and that of my students. Should it be wasted again, further action will be taken.”

It’s the most animated she’s ever seen him, clearly passionate about his work, something she can begrudgingly respect.

“If you’re done swatting my nose with a newspaper, may I say something?”

She doesn’t wait for him to nod.

“I’m sorry about today--if I’d known there was a test going on, I would have made other arrangements. But my methods are my own and they’re effective; I can show you the grades to prove it. We’re all doing important work here, not just you, and as your peer and colleague, I ask that you show the same respect.”

“Respect for you or for your methods?”

“They’re one in the same.”

He looks at her like he can’t imagine respecting either one, but he comes to a decision with a sigh.

“Very well.”

Darcy turns to go, then stops at the door.

“Should any of your students wish to learn more about fencing, I know of an instructor.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

--

It finally feels like fall, the crisp air biting at Lizzie’s cheeks as she bikes to school.

“Do you not own a car?” Darcy had asked one morning, as she locked it to a rack with the other students’.

“What a weird question. Do you not own a bike?”

“I do, in fact.”

“And I own a car. We’re practically twins.”

Sniping aside, they’ve reached an understanding, orbiting around each other in relative silence. She takes her classes to the theater on days when it’s bound to get loud, and he lets her know when it’s a non-testing day.

“So you can wreak havoc at whatever volume you choose.”

“It’s Shakespeare, Darcy, not anarchy.”

“Isn’t it?”

He’s got a point. She won’t admit it.

Homecoming is a month long event, with weekly pep rallies and dress-up themes every Friday “to show your Viking spirit!”

Lizzie never imagined a life that included owning multiple viking helmets, but they come in handy during Beowulf.

She also never thought she’d be schooled on historical accuracy.

“What the hell are you wearing?”

Darcy looks at her as he steeps his Egyptian Chamomile. Or, she’s pretty sure he does, it’s hard to tell with the mesh veil.

“It’s a spangenhelm.”

“I know what it is.”

“Then why did you ask?”

Lizzie sighs through her teeth.

Why are you wearing it?”

“It’s Friday. Spirit Day. Vikings.”

She points at her own spirited helmet.

“These are literally a dollar at Party City.”

“This ‘Party City’ is making a killing on amateur historians.”

“I said I knew what it was!” she calls after him as he leaves, just as Charlotte comes in with her lunch.

“What was that about?”

“He--he just--is it winter break yet?”

“Oh, friend.” She hands her a pudding cup, fresh from the cafeteria. “You need this more than I do.”

-

Staff meetings are bad enough, but having them on a Friday night is a special kind of cruel. Lizzie tuned out Principal Collins somewhere between the new report card system and state testing, opting to play Hangman with Charlotte on a legal pad instead.

“...and with the district tightening our financial belts, it looks increasingly likely that there will only be room in the budget for one field excursion.”

Finally, something she cares about.

“Per department?”

“One total.”

Well, shit.

“Rick, what about proposals made last year? And the year before that and, you know, the year before that? Will they be given preference or maybe weighted more--”

“We’re quite familiar with your intention to travel to the south land, Ms. Bennet, but yours will be reviewed just like any other for cost and educational benefits. And if there are no more interruptions, I declare this meeting adjourned.”

Lizzie doesn’t know where he got an actual gavel from, but she has a few ideas of where he can put it.

“It could still happen,” Charlotte tries to reassure her.

“Maybe.”

“Want to continue this over martinis?” She waggles the unsolved puzzle.

“Yes please. I’ll meet you there.”

Lizzie gathers her things, wondering what the average punishment for threatening a school official is, if it’d be worth it if it meant that they’d finally get to go--

“What’s in the ‘south land’?”

Darcy appears next to her, a leather messenger bag slung across his chest. Casual Friday means he’s dispensed with his usual vest and tie. She’d bet good money that he doesn’t actually own a pair of jeans.

“Taking them to Disneyland to illustrate the bastardization of fairy tales?”

No. I want to take the seniors to The Huntington in L.A.”

“To see the First Folio, correct?”

“How did you know?”

He shrugs. “An educated guess. It’d be a long way to travel just for the high tea.”

Lizzie doesn’t mention that they would absolutely go to the high tea, time permitting.

“Well, we’re likely not traveling at all, so.” She walks away, but he falls in step with her.

“So,” he clears his throat. “What does one do around here on a Friday night? Assuming all the barns have been raised.”

“I get it! It’s hilarious because we’re hicks. Why are you asking me? Have you been a shut-in this whole time?”

“Truthfully, yes, but I’d rather not end the evening on such a mundane note. I’m, umm…” he pulls something from his pocket. The coupons from the dance, wrinkled, like they’ve been stuck in his wallet since he got them. Bessie, the pink cow mascot, smiles from the waxy paper.

“I don’t know what to do with these.”

“Take them to Clara’s. Exchange for free milkshake. The end.”

“I’m not entirely sure where it’s located.”

Lizzie taps on them.

“That’s the address. There’s only one Main Street, and I’m sure you have some fancy GPS that can get you there.”

“You mean the one pre-installed on all modern cell phones? Yes, I believe I do.”

Lizzie arrives at her car, grateful for the chance to get away.

“Well, this has been fun--”

“If you know where it is,” he says quickly, quietly. “Perhaps--it’s been years since I’ve had a milkshake; I’d hardly know what do with a second.”

For a minute there, she thinks there might be an implied question, an invitation. She can just imagine it, splitting a malt with two straws for all the senior class to see.

Their faces would almost be worth it.

She plucks a coupon from his hand.

“Problem solved. See you Monday.”

--

“You’re kidding.”

Lizzie downs the last of her martini.

“Nope.”

“Darcy? Darcy was your one night book stand?”

“Oh god, please don’t ever say that again. That was excessive.”

“Excessive is the way you stared at the door every night, hoping he’d come back.”

“I did not. You weren’t even there!”

The great and awful thing about having Charlotte for a best friend is how little bullshit she’s willing and able to tolerate. But instead of judging, she’s smirking.

“I think you like him.”

“Okay seriously, how old are we?”

“That’s why you’re so frustrated. Because he’s an ass and you still want to jump him.”

“I’m frustrated because he’s an ass, period. And is that how low I’ve set my bar? That it’s been so long since I’ve had anything resembling a relationship that I should fixate on some guy I talked to for five minutes just because he didn’t try to drunkenly grope me?”

“You’re right, I’m sorry. I was only kidding. Mostly.”

“Charlotte--”

“You should just tell him,” she barrels on, twirling an olive in her drink. “I mean, it’d be a funny story. You guys could start over.”

“No thanks.”

“Suit yourself. Come on,” she taps on the legal pad with her pen. “You still have two legs left.”

“Char, I don’t like him.”

“Just pick a letter, Lizzie.”

--

It’s Halloween, and after an entire day of her students’ generosity with candy, Lizzie’s regretting the corset.

She should know better by now, after years of dressing up as rotating Shakespeare heroines. It’s not the most original idea for an English teacher, but when Jane had gifted her the brocade Elizabethan gown a few birthdays ago, she looked for any excuse to wear it.

“Are you sure you’re allowed to steal from the costume department?” she’d asked her sister, home from her senior year at UCLA.

“I am the costume department. I made it with you in mind anyway. That blue is just,” she kissed the air. “Perfection, if I do say so myself.”

This year, with a unit on the Taming of the Shrew, Lizzie’s forgone the cape to resemble a simpler Katherine. But she still fixes her hair into an ornate braid, complete with a beaded headpiece a la Elizabeth Taylor.

“So ‘Taming of the Shrew’,” she underlines the title on the whiteboard. “What do you guys want to talk about? No mentioning Heath Ledger.”

“Disguise,” Emma says from behind an elaborate peacock mask.

“Good, fitting,” Lizzie scribbles the word on the board. “What about disguise?”

“It allows the characters to break through barriers that would otherwise keep them apart.”

“Excellent. What else? Buster Posey, care to chime in?”

Brandon lifts his catcher’s mask.

“Uhh, it’s about love?”

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“It’s unrequited? Or maybe forbidden?”

“There’s a very good chance you’re making this up as you go along,” Lizzie points the marker at him. “But you still bring up an interesting point. Whether forbidden or unrequited, social standing is an obstacle of that love in a way that’s different than the other marriage plays like, say, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. This is good, what else?”

“What about first impressions?”

Lizzie stills at the whiteboard, steeling herself before she turns around.

“What are you supposed to be?”

Darcy leans against her doorway, his hands in his pockets, like this is perfectly normal for fifth period.

“Hypotenuse,” he says, the slightest twitch at the corner of his mouth as he points to the triangle frame around his neck, earning an appreciative laugh from the class.

“Shouldn’t you be teaching the merits of the hypotenuse right about now?”

He shrugs, peering into the candy bowl by the door.

“The juniors are at PSAT prep, so I have a free period. I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to see the chaos for myself.”

Lizzie rolls her eyes and turns back to the board.

“Despite the unwelcome interruption, Mr. Darcy gave us a natural segue into Kate and Petruchio’s first meeting. Let’s open to Act II, Scene I--yes, Emma?”

“I’d like to use my extra credit, please.” Even through the feathers, Lizzie can see a wickedly mischievous glint in her eye.

“Okay,” she sighs. “What did you have in mind?”

“Since we have a guest, how about you and Mr. Darcy read the scene?”

This is met with a roar of approval and the satisfaction of Darcy’s face draining to white.

“What is she talking about?” he asks.

“I give extra credit one of two ways,” Lizzie explains. “They can take the points for an essay or use it to create their own lesson plan, essentially teacher for the day. Though Emma, I’m failing to see the pedagogical significance.”

“Mr. Darcy is a newcomer, just like Petruchio,” she says with an innocent shrug. “And it’s Halloween, so our disguises give us the ability to change our status, like from student to teacher and vice versa. Plus, it’ll be really fun.”

In this instance, Lizzie wishes she hadn’t taught them quite so well. She picks up an extra copy and tosses it to Darcy, eyebrows raised in a challenge.

He looks from her to the text, and takes off the frame.

“Good morrow, Kate--for that’s your name, I hear.”

-

“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”

“My remedy then is to pluck it out.”

They circle each other in the middle of the room, desks pushed against the wall with students perched on top.

“Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.”

“Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.”

“In his tongue,” Lizzie swallows. Was Taming of the Shrew always this graphic? She’s going to get phone calls from parents before the day is over.

“Whose tongue?”

“Yours, if you talk of tales. And so farewell.”

“What, with my tongue in your tail?” He laughs in character, confident and daring, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips. “Nay, come again, Good Kate. I am a gentleman.”

He sweeps his mouth across her skin, barely a kiss, but enough to short circuit her brain.

“That I’ll try.”

And then she slaps him.

Not especially hard, but hard enough that she’d probably issue detention, or at least a stern warning, if a student did it. The entire room’s gone still; in the corner, she can see Emma’s manicured hand clasped to her mouth.

Darcy holds a hand to the offended cheek and stares at her, bewildered.

The bell rings.

No one moves.

-

“Trick or treat.”

Darcy glances up from his desk.

“If I had to guess, a trick.”

Lizzie peers back into the empty hallway before stepping inside his room. “I wanted to say thanks for being a good sport today. You were kind of ambushed.”

He keeps his eyes on his desk, twirling a pen.

“Emma has a future in litigation.”

“Or hostile takeovers. Also, the kiss on the hand? What the hell?”

“As I recall, I was not the only one who took liberties.”

“It was in the stage directions!”

“Ah, so that’s what your students are learning? That inference in the text should be saved for college?”

“Spare me. Some advice from someone who’s been here longer than you even know? It’s a small school; by now, everyone thinks we made out in front of the entire class.”

He considers this.

“Then by your own theory, everyone also believes that you subsequently punched me.”

“Well...yeah, probably.” She rubs her forehead. “I’m sorry. It should have been a stage slap.”

“Or perhaps no slapping at all next time.”

“Ha, next time. You’re hilarious.”

“I’m sorry, too. I was caught up in the scene.”

Silence falls. The back of her hand tingles.

“Well, have a good night.”

“Krackle?”

“Excuse me?”

He holds out his own candy bowl.

“Your bowl was full, but the Krackles were missing. I take it you pre-screened the bag?”

Lizzie bites the inside of her cheek.

“Thanks.” She takes one. Then two.

“See you tomorrow, Mr. Darcy.”

“Good night, Ms. Bennet.”

-

“Hey, I come bearing magazines.” Lizzie maneuvers the door to Charlotte’s classroom with her foot, carrying a stack of copies of Real Simple, Time and Vanity Fair.

“Awesome, can you put them with the others in the corner?”

“If there’s room. You got a haul this year.” Lizzie organizes hers into neat piles as she snoops through the other titles, careful not to linger on an issue of “The New Yorker” addressed to a William Darcy.

“Their interests are varied, I wanted them to have options.” Charlotte’s gratitude project is a favorite among her students, a class-wide collage of images to represent what they’re thankful for. If Lizzie’s curriculum is all volume and moving parts, Charlotte’s is a quiet introspection, believing that everything found in literature is first found within. Lizzie teaches the class she wants to teach, but Charlotte’s is the one she’d want to take.

“Are your sisters going to make it home this year?”

“Doubtful. We can’t pry Lydia away from Florida, and Jane works eight days a week. I’m not sure I have the energy to handle my mom on my own. Would it be terribly sad if I stayed home, made a turkey sandwich and watched the parade?”

“Objectively, yes, but you’re asking the wrong person, because I think that sounds great.”

“Come over! We’ll have Friendsgiving. Oh, we’ll marathon ‘Friends’!”

“Twist my arm.”

That night, Lizzie finds an ad in an old copy of Glamour for toothpaste and cuts out the shape of two friends, beaming with their cavity-free teeth. She pastes it right under the word “Gratitude” the next morning.

-

Lizzie knows something’s wrong when she’s hand-delivered a memo by an office assistant.

Principal Collins, not yet having cracked cloning, is unable to be in multiple places at once, which means his primary use of e-mail is to micro-manage from afar: “Reminder that using the color printer requires senior administrative approval”, “Please return all souvenir magnets to their rightful place on the refrigerator; they are a part of a collection and here only on loan.”

Any real business that needs conducting is communicated through paper, in colored ink no less.

“You summoned?” Lizzie raps on the open door to his office.

“Ah yes, Ms. Bennet, do come in and be seated.”

An array of snowglobes lines his desk, like pawns on a chessboard. Lizzie once made the mistake of turning one over and was nearly suspended for insubordination.

“We are fast approaching the halfway point of this most productive school year, the first of Mr. Darcy’s tenure at our institution of learning. As you might remember from your beginnings in the English department, we use this time to evaluate the new faculty member through a rigorous, day-long classroom evaluation. Given your proximity, I am enlisting you to conduct said evaluation.”

It’s a testament to what he thinks of her as an educator that her primary qualification is location.

Even as Lizzie argues that she’s only a colleague, not a superior, that she’s really not the person to fairly assess his skills as a teacher, she knows she’s lost the battle.

“You make an excellent point, Ms. Bennet, but you have also proved mine. As Mr. Darcy’s direct superior, I am vastly qualified and as such, far too busy with other school matters. You’ll sit in on Friday; I’ll make substitute arrangements.”

Lizzie agrees by way of leaving.

Incapable of being anything but on time, Lizzie arrives at his classroom on Friday a half hour before the first bell or anyone else. It’s just as void of decoration as it was the first day of school, the only notable difference being a pewter frame on his desk. A small part of her wants to snoop, but it’s drowned out by the larger part that says she doesn’t care. It’s probably just him shaking hands with Larry Summers, anyway.

The clock inches closer to the first bell. She can hear a flurry of feet and activity on the other side of the door, everyone racing to and from their lockers, but no one’s so much as poked their head in.

Finally, just as she’s ready to give up and use her day off to blow money at Sephora, Darcy opens the door.

“There you are.”

“Where was I supposed to be?”

“Collins didn’t tell you--we’re in the cafeteria today.”

“Okay, what joke am I not getting?”

He tosses her an apron.

“You’ll need this.”

-

Lizzie didn’t even know they had a kitchen.

Logically, she knew the food came from somewhere, but given the quality, she figured the most that was behind the buffet line was a wall of microwaves.

Darcy’s class is divided into four prep stations, each with their own assortment of pots, pans, measuring cups and grocery bags.

“A week ago, with your respective teams, you chose a recipe and gave me a shopping list,” he starts, pacing the perimeter of the kitchen. “The contents of that list are in your grocery bags. You may unpack them at this time.”

No one should command that much attention in an apron, but the students do as they’re told, unveiling the ingredients one by one.

“You’re probably noticing that there are some discrepancies. Metric measuring units, celsius thermometers, powdered sugar instead of confectioner’s, etc. Rest assured that I have supplied everything you need in order to successfully prepare your dish. Your assignment today is to use the necessary calculations and conversions to do so. To keep things fair and interesting, Ms. Bennet and I will also be participating. You may begin.”

The kitchen explodes with activity, everyone running to and from ovens and mixers, pencils scratching equations only to be erased and tried again. Lizzie watches it all with barely suppressed awe.

“I know you’re here to observe,” Darcy says quietly, pulling his own ingredients from the grocery bags. “So I won’t put you to work.”

“I mean, I do have an apron.” She grabs the recipe from the table, and can’t contain the laugh that escapes her.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, just...madeleines.”

“They’re delicious.”

“I know. Pass me the butter.”

Math isn’t her strong suit, and neither is cooking for that matter, but she’s able to keep up with him, cracking the eggs without losing any of the shell and zesting a lemon while he checks on the others’ progress. He’s encouraging, pointing at errors and nodding with a smile when they’re fixed. He talks with his hands, animated and totally in his element.

Lizzie really hopes Mr. Collins doesn’t want a copy of her non-existent notes.

By the end of the period, everyone is messy, exhausted and happy. Some chocolate chip cookies were burned and one group’s lemon bars had a tree’s worth of citrus in them, but as Darcy reminds them, “I grade on effort, not edibility.”

The bell rings and the students file out with their baked goods in plastic bags to enjoy throughout the day. Lizzie collapses across the counter.

“You’re telling me we have to do that five more times?”

“I thought you of all people would appreciate the unconventional method,” he says, carrying a tray of dishes to the sink. “I’m sure you must think I’m showing off for the evaluation, and I suppose I am.”

“You think?”

“But this was always on the curriculum. I have a time-stamped copy, if you’d like to see it.”

“I believe you. It’s...well, it’s genius. I would not have fallen asleep in algebra if my classes were anything like this.”

“Obviously, this isn’t a typical day. Ninety percent of the time, it’s lectures and textbooks.”

“And tests,” she says knowingly.

“And tests. But that’s all you do in a college setting, and while it has its place, it can be incredibly tedious for students and professors alike. Here you still have some flexibility, a chance to get them looking at the subject in a way they hadn’t considered. In forty-five minutes, we may have inspired someone to go to culinary school; that’s an incredible responsibility.”

Lizzie looks at him, then at the counter.

“No pressure or anything.”

“Indeed. But it’s its own reward, no? It’s why we love what we do.”

We.

“If Collins knew that this evaluation came with dessert,” she says. “I think he would have reconsidered doing it himself.”

“I specifically requested that you conduct the evaluation.”

She looks at him sharply.

“Why would you do that? I mean, given our...start.”

“Precisely because of our start. I feared others would consider my background and trust in that alone to speak for my effectiveness. I had no such fear with you.”

Lizzie scrapes at a particularly stubborn crumb on a plate.

“My instinct is to be offended. But I think that might actually be a compliment.”

“Must be the fumes,” he says, tightening his apron as he resets groceries for the next class.

-

Mr. Collins,

Per your request, I spent this past Friday observing Mr. Darcy’s math curriculum, his methods and practices, as well his interaction with students.

I can say with absolute certainty that Mr. Darcy is an exemplary educator, one who cares deeply about his students, working to create an environment that fuels creativity and critical thinking. He gives careful consideration to how he can most effectively provide students with the tools necessary to succeed in both mathematics and in life.

His application of the material, at times, may seem unconventional, but I believe the administration and the faculty--myself included--could learn a great deal from his passion and ingenuity.

For a tangible and delicious example, please enjoy the included plate of madeleine cookies.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Bennet

--

Breaks are really anything but, especially when Lizzie has a pile of essays to grade and leaves them until Sunday to do it, too full from sweet potato latkes and Charlotte’s famous cranberry sangria to be even remotely productive.

There’s a little coffee shop she goes to sometimes, just for a change of scenery and the honey cinnamon lattes that keep her eyes awake and lines of Times New Roman from blurring. It’s empty today, just her and her favorite table by the window. The sky’s covered in a duvet of clouds, fickle with a light rain that comes and goes. But Lizzie’s warm from coffee and her favorite cardigan, with earbuds and classic movie scores for company; in short, as close to a perfect afternoon as it gets.

The bell above the door jingles.

“Ms. Bennet.”

It’s the first time she’s seen him outside of work, not counting the night at the bar, but even a holiday weekend doesn’t stop him from dressing like he could burst into spontaneous lecture any minute.

She pulls out an earbud.

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

“I’m grading,” she says, as if the stack of papers and red pen didn’t make that clear.

“It appears we had the same idea.” He gestures to his messenger bag. “I very much regret issuing a test in every period right before the holiday.”

“Rookie mistake when you don’t have TAs to do your grunt work anymore.”

He glances around at the empty shop.

“Well.”

“Do you--I mean, you have the pick of the place, but.” She nudges the opposite chair with her foot, and he stares at it like it might swallow him whole.

“I won’t disturb you?”

He almost definitely will, and she mostly only offered to be polite, but he’s already setting his bag down on the chair and apparently they’re doing this.

“Their chamomile is good,” she nods at the counter. “I think they add vanilla.”

He nods, a twitch at the corner of his mouth.

“Thank you.”

He brings her back another latte and settles in with his work and aside from occasionally bumping knees under the table every time one of them shifts their weight, his presence is barely a ripple in Lizzie’s concentration.

Suddenly she’s ten essays down and the sky’s turned a foreboding shade of gray. She frowns.

“Something wrong?”

“I biked here.”

Darcy looks out the window at the impending weather.

“We can wait it out.”

We.

“Okay, break time.” Lizzie tosses her pen on the table and stretches her arms above her head. “No work talk for five minutes.”

“Tell me about your field trip.”

“I said no work.”

“I don’t think you consider it work,” he says with a sip of his tea. “Tell me.”

It’s all the prompting Lizzie needs. She’s written the proposal so many times, believes so strongly that this isn’t just something she wants to do but needs, that it pours out of her. How important it is to make what they teach tangible, that it’s one thing to read the words but another thing entirely when they see the original text.

“I mean, I’m guessing. I’ve never…”

“You’ve never seen it.”

Lizzie shakes her head.

“I tried to bribe my history teacher on my tenth grade trip to Washington DC to go to the Folger Library so I could see the First Folio, but five dollars was surprisingly unpersuasive.” She looks at the last of her latte, swirling the remaining foam. “It probably sounds like I have selfish reasons, and maybe that’s a part of it. But I know what it would have meant to me at that age, and if they take nothing else away from what I’ve taught them, I can at least give them that.”

When she looks up, he’s watching her, like he hasn’t stopped the whole time she’s been talking.

“I think they’ll take a great many things away from your class, but I agree, the trip would be a tremendous gift.”

“And a tremendous expense. It’s never been approved, and if the budget is somehow even tighter this year?” Lizzie shrugs sadly. “Maybe someday. A last hurrah before retirement.”

He hums in thought, picking up her empty cup.

“Would you like another?”

She really does.

Their five minute break turns into an hour which turns into two. They split a raspberry danish and argue over the Oxford comma (she’s con, he’s pro). He tells her about Harvard, the dissonance of going from student to teacher and never leaving in between.

“Why did you leave?” A week ago it would have felt intrusive; a week ago she wouldn’t have even cared to ask. But somewhere over the course of the afternoon, he’d relaxed into something more relatable, a person with smudged glasses and raspberry jam on his French cuff.

The question hangs heavy on him, and he drums his fingers against his cup, carefully choosing his words.

“My family is here. Well, not here; San Francisco. It’s been a difficult year and I felt that I should be closer to lend a hand.”

“And this was the first job you could find?”

He shrugs.

“It’s closer than Cambridge.”

“And so much more cultured. Really, you lucked out.”

He chuckles softly.

“That I did.”

-

When it becomes clear that the rain isn’t going to let up, he offers her a ride home in what is literally the nicest car she’s ever seen.

“You’d make a killing on Uber,” she says, running a hand along the black leather interior.

“Something to remember for the summer.” He pulls in front of her building. “If you need assistance with loading the bike into your car tomorrow afternoon--”

“I’ll be good, thanks. Charlotte and I are pros. Thanks for the ride.”

“See you tomorrow, Ms. Bennet.”

She ducks into the rain, and only once she’s safely inside does he pull away.

--

So they’re friends now. Or something.

“When did that happen?” Charlotte asks over lunch the next day.

“I don’t know. Somewhere around the second danish, I think. Did you know he grades with a monogrammed pen? I wish I were kidding.”

“Fancy. Discuss any Russian literature in the six hours you guys were there?”

“Let it go. I’m starting to think he’s not even the same guy.”

Charlotte just smirks into her salad.

--

“I saw them in the window on my way to the bookstore. They were totally on a date.”

“I think he loaned her his umbrella. She gave it back to him after school and he tried to get her to keep it so she threw it in his trash.”

“Rude.”

“I don’t know. He was weirdly smiley through the rest of my detention.”

“If you stopped texting in class, you wouldn’t get detention.”

“If I stopped texting in class, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

--

Ms. Bennet,

I hope you’re enjoying your weekend, so much so that this e-mail will go unread until we return to work on Monday.

I wanted to inform you that on Friday afternoon, while returning the book you loaned me to your classroom, I noticed a rather large spider on your whiteboard. Given that you’ve made no mention of a class pet, I assumed it was an unwanted intruder.

All this to say that while I had every intention of returning “This is Water”, it was sacrificed ushering the spider out the door and into the wild. A new copy is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday.

Sincerely,

W. Darcy

-

Mr. Darcy,

The only spiders I appreciate are writers who befriend “humble” pigs. Thank you for relocating this one in a humane way; I hope he/she enjoys the book.

(Mildly curious as to why you couldn’t give the book back once the spider was free)

I was going to wait till Monday to ask you this, but since you e-mailed...I need a favor.

I’m scheduled to teach Saturday school next weekend, but I just found out my sisters are coming up for an impromptu visit. Would you be willing to trade weekends with me?

-

(Let us just say that, like you, I prefer my arachnids in a text, not literally on it.)

Under any other circumstance, I’d be glad to exchange weekends, but unfortunately I have a prior commitment that cannot be rescheduled.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help. I hope you can still enjoy your visit with your sisters.

-

(You’re scared of spiders and still got rid of it for me? Brb, engraving your medal for bravery.)

No biggie. I’ll ask Charlotte to cover. Enjoy (?) your prior commitment.

-

“If I don’t get a burger in two minutes, I’m literally going to die.”

“I’m literally going to make you walk there if you don’t stop saying ‘literally’ when you mean ‘figuratively’.”

Lydia throws her head back against the headrest.

“You are ten thousand times nerdier from September to June, you know that?”

“Okay you two, I am literally going to turn the car around if you don’t stop sniping,” Jane shoots a warning look in the rearview mirror.

“Oh my god, finally. I need animal fries, like, yesterday.” Lydia dances in the front seat and Jane laughs and Lizzie’s heart feels a thousand times lighter because all is right in the world.

That’s the kind of day it’s been; hugging and bickering and side-by-side-by-side pedicures. Window shopping, heavy on the window, because they’re all “broke AF” according to Lydia, and eating everything that she can’t get back in Florida.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I will take Palm Beach over this sad two-lane highway we call a town any day. But if I could eat a double-double off of a hot dude’s six pack, I’d never leave.”

Jane wrinkles her nose.

“Okay, new subject. Lizzie, how’s school?” There’s a teasing lilt to her voice, like she already knows the answer.

“Good. The usual end-of-the-semester craziness.”

“I talked to Charlotte. She said you made a new friend.”

“Okay, Mom.”

“Ooo, is that the hot math teacher?”

“Who told you he was hot?”

“Like, every freshman I coached in cheer who’s now a senior. They texted me pics, see?”

“Oh my god, Lydia, delete those. Immediately.”

“Wait, no, show them to me first.” Jane looks at Lydia’s screen, her perfect eyebrows arched. “Oh, he’s very handsome.”

“You’re both ridiculous. He’s...nice. We got off on a weird foot, but I don’t know. He loves teaching and he’s great at it; I respect that.”

“Everyone says you guys went on a date.”

“Umm, no. We ran into each other at Java the Hut over Thanksgiving break.”

“Did he pay for your coffee?”

Lizzie tears at her straw wrapper, heat burning her cheeks.

“It wasn’t a date.”

Jane and Lydia exchange a look.

“You guys, I am only now starting to come around on the idea that he’s not an east coast hipster jerk. One thing at a time, okay?”

Another look.

“Moving on,” Lizzie stands to throw away her trash. “Who wants fro-yo?”

“Are you paying?”

“Anything to end this conversation.”

Dessert in hand, they amble along the outdoor shopping plaza, pointing at shoes they can’t afford and clothes that Jane could make better and more beautiful.

“Can we go to the Apple store? The audio on my phone is jacked.”

“Spilling beer in the microphone will do that.” They turn the corner, and Lizzie stops.

“Hey, isn’t that your hot math teacher?”

She sees him across the way, walking arm-in-arm with a petite brunette, who’s laughing at something he’s said. He smiles--a real, actual smile, with teeth and everything--as he wraps an arm around her shoulder, placing a kiss on her temple.

“Your hot math teacher has a girlfriend?”

“I guess? I mean, he’s not-- ugh, I can’t believe him.”

“Can’t believe what?”

“I was scheduled to work today and asked if he could trade so I could see you guys, and he said he had a ‘prior commitment’. Now Charlotte’s stuck doing it when clearly he’s swamped.”

“Maybe whatever it was got cancelled,” Jane offers. “Or ended early.”

“Or he lied because Saturday school is the actual worst.” Lydia shrugs. “I would.”

“Whatever, it’s fine.” Lizzie forces a smile. “Apple store, right?”

Lydia loops her arm through hers. “We’ll get you a hot Genius’ number while we’re there.”

-

“There you are,” Charlotte jogs up to meet her in the hallway. “You owe me a gym membership.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve had to literally run to catch up with you this week. Where’s the literary fire?”

“It’s almost finals, you know how crazy it gets. Though thank you for reminding me, I have to go pick up ‘The Inferno’ from the library.”

“So...you’re okay?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know,” Charlotte shrugs. “I could show you some text messages from a few days ago that would suggest you aren’t.”

“I was mad on your behalf! You got stuck with work because of him.”

“Technically I got stuck with work because of you, but I appreciate the outrage. I would have to do it another weekend anyway, Lizzie, and you know that. So tell me why you’re really upset.” She pulls her to the side of the hall, out of the way of students rushing from one side of campus to the other.

“I just--I’m tired of getting whiplash. He’s sort of cool at the bar, he’s a jerk at school, he’s nice at the coffee shop, he lied to get out of work. He needs to pick a lane.”

“What does it matter? Why do you care?”

“I don’t! Why do you? Do you have nothing better to do than to gossip with Jane about him behind my back like we’re actually back in high school?”

Charlotte flinches just as the warning bell rings.

“I do have better things to do, actually, like teach a class. And so do you.”

“Charlotte,” Lizzie tries, but she’s already walking away.

-

Lizzie stays until almost 9:00 that night, until there’s literally no more work left for her to do. It’s been quiet for hours, the after-school clubs gone, team practices over, even the janitors are home by now.

If she were hiding, she’d say it was safe to leave.

When she finally goes to lock up, she realizes she’s been found.

Darcy’s sitting with his back against the wall, legs stretched in front of him, balancing a book in his lap. There’s a take-out box that smells heavenly, with cutlery and a Styrofoam cup by his side.

He glances up.

“Oh good. You’re alive.”

“What are you still doing here?”

“I haven’t seen you at lunch all week, and rumor has it you’ve been staying late,” he says, holding out the box to her as he stands. “I thought you might be hungry.”

“I had the rest of my lunch for dinner, actually.”

“Take it anyway. Cold chow mein makes an excellent breakfast.”

“No thanks,” she says with a tight smile. She walks away quickly, but his long strides catch up with her, one for every two of hers.

“How was your weekend with your sisters?”

“Great. Yours?”

“Productive. I’m glad Ms. Lu was able to assist on Saturday; I thanked her again this afternoon.”

Lizzie scoffs.

“I’m sure she loved that.”

She can feel him glance at her, and it only makes her walk faster.

“I wanted to speak with you about your field trip.”

“It’s late.”

“Not tonight; perhaps this weekend? I thought we could meet at the coffee shop Saturday evening, if you’re free. Dinner, even, depending on the time.”

“There’s no field trip,” she says, her thumb hammering at her key fob.

“Not yet, but--”

“No, Darcy, not ever. There was never a field trip, there isn’t going to be one; trust me, this is not a battle worth fighting.”

He steps back, eyeing her with concern and confusion.

“Is something wrong?”

Yes. Everything.

“Nothing,” she sighs, rubbing a tired hand across her face. “Just stressed. And I can’t this weekend.”

“I understand,” he nods. “Some other time then.”

“Sure.”

“Goodnight, Ms. Bennet.”

“‘Night,” she says, already closing the door behind her.

--

“Maybe she’s getting fired, and she’s working late to convince them not to?”

“Maybe. I saw her at the MAC counter on Saturday trying on every shade of red lipstick. Retail therapy if ever I saw it.”

“Poor Ms. B. I hope she went with Ruby Woo.”

--

As holiday parties go, the one for the staff is a surprisingly good time.

Collins rents out a ridiculous house a few miles outside the city, where everything is open fields and stars, far enough away from the spectre of school that they can drink without guilt.

Lizzie’s never had a problem with the guilt, or the lack thereof.

Especially this year. Her self-made stress turned into the real thing once December came around and everyone hunkered down into the trench of finals. It’s never as simple as a test or a final paper in Lizzie’s class; she likes to keep things interesting right to the very end, to hold herself and the kids accountable for staying engaged and excited instead of burning out. This year culminated with pilot episodes for an adaptation of any book they’d read over the semester. There was a Soprano’s-style Hamlet and Frankenstein as a documentary; one group set The Odyssey in space and it worked so well, Lizzie genuinely wished it were a real thing.

There are still report cards to turn in and the new semester looms large, but as far as tonight’s concerned, everyone is officially on vacation.

Lizzie’s celebrating with her second peppermint vodka on the rocks, which is better than her first but probably not as good as the third she’s already pouring.

Pace yourself, says Charlotte’s voice in her head. Lizzie looks around for the real Charlotte and finds her across the room, talking with the other department heads. She glances Lizzie’s way, and promptly turns back.

It’s been two weeks since their fight in the hallway, the longest they’ve gone without speaking. Knowing she’s being irrational doesn’t stop Lizzie from digging her heels in even further. She should apologize, she knows she should apologize.

She tops her drink with the candy cane garnish instead.

Fresh drink in hand, Lizzie does a perimeter check. It’s all the usual suspects; the music teacher playing carols on the baby grand, the guidance counselors huddled over a plate of fudge. The only wrinkle in the tableau is standing by himself, looking out at the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the living room.

Her ego, still bruised and tender, says she should go get a plate of crudites and leave a room’s length between them for the rest of the night. She’s piling on the bruschetta when she overhears the office admins; not hard to do when they’re both in their eighties and don’t believe in hearing aids.

“Deep pockets on that one.”

“Well they must be if he arranged a private tour of the observatory.”

“Oh it’s not just a tour; he rented it out for the whole night.”

“Who did?” Lizzie asks, literally butting in between them.

“Mr. Darcy, dear. He’s taking his seniors to the Griffith Observatory in L.A. over spring break. But of course you already knew that.”

She nods.

“Right. Excuse me.”

Somewhere, the Ghost of Christmas Parties Yet to Come is telling her that this is not the time to have this conversation. Not when she’s all acid and an empty stomach, hurt and embarrassed, embarrassed for hurting at all.

That afternoon at the cafe--how he’d nodded and listened and used words like “tremendous gift”. Had he known then?

She taps him on the shoulder. He glances back with a quick double take before he turns completely toward her.

“Oh, Ms. Bennet. Merry Christmas. You look...quite nice.”

“And you look festive,” she says, pressing a finger into his holly-shaped tie clip.

“A gift from my sister. Silly, I know, but--”

“So the Griffith Observatory, huh?”

His eyes widen, more with excitement than surprise.

“You heard. I was hoping to be the one to tell you--”

“Yeah well, good news travel fast.”

The space between his eyebrows creases.

“You’re angry?”

“You’re fucking right, I’m angry.”

He tenses, glancing at a nearby cluster of people pointedly not listening.

“Perhaps we could discuss this outside,” he places a hand on her elbow and she jerks it away.

“Who the hell do you think you are?”

“At this moment? I’m incredibly confused. If this is about not consulting with you first--”

“This is about so many things, I genuinely don’t even know where to begin.”

“The beginning, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Which beginning exactly? Shakespeare? The first day of school? The bar? Or have you blocked that one out? I know I wish I could.”

“The bar? What are you--”

“You knew,” she grits through her teeth. “You knew how much that trip meant to me. And fine, forgive me for ever thinking we were friends; it’s bad enough that you’d do this to another colleague, but you took that away from my students. And that is just--just the absolute worst part.”

Tears strangle her voice. He doesn’t even have the decency to look the least bit sorry; he’s just staring her like she’s speaking a different language.

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” he says quietly.

“No, actually, for the first time this year, I understand everything perfectly. You’re a privileged, arrogant, selfish asshole and I take back every good thing I ever said about you in that goddamned evaluation!”

“Ah, Mr. Darcy! Ms. Bennet!”

What?” She turns on an unsuspecting Collins who, given the plastic smile on his face, did not pick up on even the tail end of her rant.

“A very merry Christmas to you both! I presume you’re discussing the details of your joint excursion to Los Angeles.”

“Joint?” Lizzie looks at Darcy, who is staring into his drink.

“It was a marvelous idea on Mr. Darcy’s part; the bulk rates on travel and lodging for a group that size are simply remarkable! Not to mention that mathematics and the humanities are so rarely paired, and the district sees enormous potential in that. I tip my hat to you both!”

He does, literally, jaunting away like a healed Tiny Tim.

Lizzie’s head swims.

“If I may,” comes a quiet voice.

“I have to go.”

She makes her way through the crowd and out the door. Not even Charlotte calling her name is enough to stop her.

--

Winter

Charlotte always says that they’re lucky to be teachers because they get two New Years.

“Like we get the one in January with everyone else and then an extra in September. That’s two chances for resolutions.”

“But they overlap,” Lizzie’d argued. “You’re three quarters of the way through your new year when another one starts. At that point, why not start over on November 13th? Or February 4th?”

“I’m supposed to be the logical one, Lizzie Bennet.”

Lizzie doesn’t wait until the New Year to start over.

It’d taken five minutes of begging, and the promise of coffee and pastries from her favorite bakery for Charlotte to finally open the door.

“You look like shit.”

Lizzie shrugged.

“Wallowing will do that.”

And god, had there been a lot of it. A lot of crying over “White Christmas” and a particularly heartbreaking Hallmark commercial. A lot of saved e-mails in her draft folder that she doesn’t have the courage to send.

After the apologies and the hugging and mass consumption of coffee, Lizzie almost feels like herself again. There’s still a long walk to go on the road of swallowed pride, but now that Charlotte can actually look her in the eye, it all seems a lot more manageable.

“Have you heard from Darcy?”

“No, and I don’t expect to. I mean, I was…awful. Drunk and belligerent and honestly any time I think about it, I feel hungover all over again. But--”

“Really? There’s a but?”

“Look, I’m not proud of what I did, but my anger was not unwarranted. He went over my head, Char.”

“To get you your dream field trip!”

“This was not the dream. It was supposed to be my way on my terms, not a pity invite from someone who had a better idea.”

“So what, you’re going to turn it down?”

Lizzie picks at the remains of a cinnamon roll.

“I think I have to.”

There’s a considerable stretch of silence until Charlotte puts down her coffee and sighs.

“Lizzie, I love you. And despite everything, your need to do everything yourself is one of the reasons I do. But at the end of the day, this isn’t even about you. All you’ve wanted since you started teaching is to give your students something like this, and now that it’s being handed to you, you’re going to say no? You’re going to look the kids in the eye every day from now until the end of the year knowing that you could have given them that gift and chose not to because of your ego?”

“But--”

“No, enough with the buts. You know why Jane and I were talking before Christmas? Because she was worried. She’s gone, Lydia’s gone; all you have is work and me, and I’m not saying that’s not an awesome life--because let’s face it, anything including me is awesome. But maybe you need to let people in a little more, especially when they’re trying.”

“Even if they’re irritatingly well-dressed while they’re doing it?”

“Especially then.”

Lizzie gives her a half-smile.

“I missed you. Can I borrow your laptop?”

--

Darcy’s already at the coffee shop when she gets there, a pot of tea and two cups waiting.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says as she sits. “I wanted to get here first, classic power move.”

He takes a sip of his tea.

“You wanted to talk.”

She takes a deep breath and dives in.

“I’m sorry. Actually, ‘sorry’ doesn’t even begin to--I was an ass. Even if my anger was justified, you didn’t deserve that kind of public humiliation.”

Darcy tilts his head.

“Your anger was justified?”

“That’s not the point.”

“Let’s make it the point.” He leans forward, arms crossed on the table, ready for battle. “Aside from my not telling you--”

Aside from? There’s no putting that aside. I was blindsided, Darcy, how do you not get that? What on earth kept you from including me in the planning? From giving me some say in my own trip?”

“Because it is by a sheer miracle that the district agreed to fund it at all. Even as I made my case, I was sure that it would be turned down yet again. If I had included you, given you even the smallest hope that it might happen only to have it fall through...I did not want to let you down.”

The last part is rushed, said more to the table than to her. Her head swims like it did the night of the party, except there’s no alcohol to blame this time. She’s unnerved by the tone of his voice, the guard he’s letting down even while he wears his usual armor.

“I should have told you the moment it was approved. It was my fault for wanting to give it some...ceremony.”

Lizzie takes a long sip of her tea.

“Well, there was plenty of it, thanks to me. I just still don’t understand why.”

“Why what?”

“Why this trip, this idea.” Why me?

“This hasn’t been an easy adjustment, my moving here. My teaching style and practices transfer well enough, but I’ve still felt...disconnected. When you first told me about your ideas for your trip, it resonated with me. A passion project to tether myself to the school, to the students. Especially since there is a good chance this will be my only year at Netherfield.”

It’s the punch she didn’t see coming, and it’s unsettling, just how much the surprise feels like disappointment.

“I’ve been in talks with the head of the math department at Berkeley. It’s the environment I’m familiar with, it’s closer to my family, the pros far outweigh the cons. This trip would be a chance for me to do something meaningful and lasting before I leave.”

He sighs, heavy with regret.

“Now that I say it out loud, it sounds terribly selfish.”

“No more selfish than crafting a field trip around fulfilling a life-long dream.”

They pause, at a stalemate, until he clears his throat.

“About the bar.”

“Oh god.” A whole new degree of humiliation burns at her cheeks. “Forget about it, seriously. I shouldn’t have said anything--”

“I remembered you. That first day, in the classroom.”

It’d be easy to write it off as a lie, but something in his voice tells her it’s the truth.

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“The look on your face suggested that I shouldn’t. I thought either you remembered and wished you hadn’t or didn’t remember at all; neither option was particularly inspiring.”

“Even my face doesn’t know when to shut up. I’m sorry. Again.”

“I think we should dispense with the apologies and move on. We’ll be working closely this semester and I don’t want anything hanging over us. Do you agree?”

He extends his hand.

“Seriously? We’re shaking on this?”

“Ceremony.”

So she takes it. His thumb closes over the back of her hand, not far from where he kissed it all those weeks ago, and something flares at the spot, warm and electric.

She pulls away, and he smooths his tie.

“There’s a great deal of planning to do. When would you like to start?”

“Now?”

He pulls a notebook from his bag.

“I hoped you would say that.”

“Thank you. I should have said that first.”

He’s solemn with sincerity when he nods.

“You’re very welcome.”

--

Any lingering reservations Lizzie has about this joint venture are gone when they tell the seniors after school on the first day back. There’s cheering and a thousand questions at once, even though she knows that most of their excitement is about sun and sand and just getting away (if she’s honest, she’s looking forward to that part, too. She can’t even remember the last time she went on an actual vacation).

“So obviously, the first priority of this field trip is educational, and Mr. Darcy and I will be finalizing the itinerary with that in mind. But it is your trip, so we’re open to your suggestions. What do you guys want to do?” Lizzie swings her legs from her seat at the edge of the stage, while Darcy mans the whiteboard they rolled into the theater.

“The beach!” someone shouts.

“What about one of those movies in the cemetery?”

Darcy writes down every idea, no matter how preposterous (“hike to the Hollywood sign”) or infeasible (“red carpet premiere”), in neat and elegant script, his shirt sleeves rolled up lest they come into contact with a dry erase marker.

They survey the board later after the kids are dismissed, an eraser in each hand.

“I think we can rule baseball out,” she says, striking through the words.

“Indeed. I would also like to eliminate the Getty Villa.”

“Uhh, whoa there,” Lizzie holds a protective hand over the board. “That was my idea.”

“It’s redundant. The Huntington should more than suffice--”

Suffice?”

“I only meant that instead of two similar museums, we could use the time for something else, something more varied.”

“Alright Mr. Variety, then the trip to the Federal Reserve is out.”

Darcy splays a palm across the words.

“Your reason?”

“It’s boring.”

“I beg to differ.”

Lizzie swats at his hand and erases the already smeared words. They go back and forth like that, giving and taking and compromising. She doesn’t have to go to the costume exhibit at the design school, and he admits that seeing the space shuttle isn’t entirely relevant.

“We should do something recreational though,” Lizzie says. “Give them a break from all the learning.”

“Like a theme park?”

“Like the beach. It’d basically be free.”

“They could run off their energy,” Darcy considers, tapping a marker to his chin.

“Are they teenagers or dogs?”

“You know as well as I do what they’re like by sixth period. I’ll do some research on crowds, cleanliness, et cetera.”

“Whatever makes you happy. Good work today,” Lizzie says, packing her things.

“It’s dark by now; did you bike to school this morning?”

“No, took my car. I figured this would go late.”

“Ah, well. Good.”

She fiddles with her keys and wonders if she’s just imagining that he sounds disappointed.

-

“Guess whaaaaaaat?”

“Whaaaaaat?” Jane giggles.

“I’m coming to see you!”

“What? No!”

“Yes!”

“When?!”

“Spring break! Starting April 13th!”

“No!”

“Yes!” “No, Lizzie. I’m out of town starting on the 12th.” She can feel Jane’s frown from hundreds of miles away.

“Are you kidding? What is it? Can you get out of it?”

“It’s a class for styling editorial shoots. I mean, I could see if they’re offering it another time…”

“Yes! I mean, if you want to. I really want to see you and introduce you to everyone.”

“Who’s everyone?” her voice brightens.

“You know, the kids.”

“Wait, is this a field trip? Lizzie, did you get your field trip?!”

Lizzie tells her the whole story, even the parts she’d like to forget.

“Not a shining moment for my dignity. But everything’s okay now and I’m really excited. We both are, Darcy and I.”

“Well, now I’m excited! I’ll figure out the class thing. I’m dying to see you. And to meet everyone.”

Lizzie presses the phone closer to her ear, smiling.

“I can’t wait to see you, too. Only 98 days to go, but who’s counting?”

-

Darcy’s counting, apparently.

She glances at his open door on the way to her room (a reflex these days) and sees an equation in the corner of the chalkboard, with “ Days until L.A.” written beneath it.

“Is that a countdown?” she asks, leaning in his doorway (a habit). “A really geeky countdown?”

“I can’t say I agree with the ‘geeky’ part, but yes.”

“You’re in geek company. I have one, too.”

“In rhyming couplet, I assume.”

“Obviously.”

The first bell rings.

“Still on for this afternoon? The cafe at 4:00?”

“Certainly. Have a good day, Ms. Bennet.”

“You too.”

When the final bell rings, Lizzie starts a new countdown.

Only eight hours until 4:00.

--

Lizzie always assumed that getting the trip approved would be the hard part.

Paperwork, as it turns out, is infinitely harder.

There are permission slips and insurance forms, waivers that say the school isn’t responsible for anything that goes missing, including children. There are itemized budgets and written objectives for every stop on the itinerary and she might have to sign all of it in blood, she hasn’t quite gotten that far.

“I changed my mind. I don’t want to go anymore.” She faceplants into a stack of papers.

A pen pokes her in the arm.

“We’re nearly halfway there.”

“No, we’re not. For every form I fill out, two more appear. I will be here until I die.”

“Would a latte revive you?”

She squints up at him from the table.

“Espresso. Double. Tell them to keep them coming.”

These are her afternoons now, straight from school to the coffee shop where they push two tables together for more working area and drown in legal jargon and caffeine. For whatever kind of regular Lizzie was before, she’s reached a new level, now on a first name basis with the baristas who ask if she wants her usual. What she used to think of as “her” place is now “theirs” and it’s becoming harder to remember a time when he wasn’t working across from her, his monogrammed pen caught between his teeth as he works out a problem.

“I brought you a single espresso and a green tea, to balance things out. And in the hope that you might stop bouncing your knee.”

“Thanks, doc.”

He gives her a mock glare, winding up for what she’s sure is an equally mocking retort, when his phone rings.

Lizzie tries and fails not to look at the caller ID.

Gigi

“I should take this. Excuse me.”

Her eyes follow him out the door, watching as he casually paces in front of the shop, smiling like he did that day at the mall.

“Hey Lizzie, does William need his receipt?” Anne, the barista, appears at the table, waving a piece of paper.

“Sure. Probably. I can take it.”

“He’s got you alternating the hard stuff with tea, huh?”

“Right? As if I’m some amateur.”

“It’s cute he’s looking out for you. How long have you guys been together?”

Lizzie nearly spills green tea all over their hard work.

“Oh, no, it’s not--we just work together.”

“Whoops,” Anne laughs. “I just assumed, it seemed so obvious. Sorry.”

Lizzie waves her off with a smile, settling back into the paperwork, reading the same lines over and over until they’ve lost meaning.

“My apologies.” He’s back, tucking his phone into his pocket, picking up where he left off.

It’s not like Lizzie doesn’t see it, in that objective, scientific method way. The hours they’ve spent together, the easy way that their bickering always turns to banter, discussions about teaching philosophies that give way to personal stories that don’t have air to breathe in the classroom. And in any other universe, Lizzie would have made coffee turn into dinner and lingering at her doorstep. At least, she would have entertained the idea.

But that’s not the universe she lives in and, honestly, she’s relieved. It takes the pressure off; do not pass “go”, do not have a crush the guy who saved your field trip and oh by the way is leaving at the end of the school year. She can just be grateful and focused, not worry about what every look and pause and knee pressed against hers under the table means.

“Do you have the list of charter bus rentals?”

“Sorry, what? Oh, yeah, right here.”

He takes the sheet, giving her a small smile. He taps her cup.

“It’s going to get cold.”

“Maybe I like my green tea iced.”

He smiles again, more knowing this time, and turns back to his laptop.

“You don’t like green tea at all.”

--

The bad news, predictably, comes on a Monday.

She can hear the words Collins is saying, even if she can’t quite process them.

Re-allocation of funds, higher priority, budget deficit, two thousand dollars.

“So the trip is off,” Lizzie interrupts, because that’s obviously what he’s getting at. Darcy sits next to her, tense, staring at a snowglobe like he’s repressing the urge to throw it across the room.

“Temporarily suspended until you can procure the necessary funds, Ms. Bennet.”

“Oh, is that all? A quick trip to ATM? Here let me just write you a check--”

“Now, there’s no need for dramatics--”

“I think Ms. Bennet is well within her right to be frustrated,” Darcy bites. “She’s worked tremendously hard, and now that hard work may not come fruition because funds we were promised are suddenly gone, through no fault of her own.”

“I assure you, Mr. Darcy, no one is more upset about this than I. If there is anything I can do to help, please do not hesitate to call on my exemplary problem-solving skills.”

-

“We could eliminate something from the trip.”

They’re sitting in the stands of the baseball field, watching practice. Defeated but undeterred, they’d left Collins’ office and instead of their usual route to the parking lot, they walked in silent agreement to brainstorm.

“Let’s consider that a last resort. If we’re going to do this, it should be done the right way. I’m not particularly interested in anything less than what we planned, are you?”

Lizzie shakes her head, shivering. It’s not the worst of winter, but it’s still too early to be outside when the sun is so low in the sky. Darcy sheds his blazer and hands it to her.

“Thanks,” she says, curling it around her shoulders. “So if we can’t eliminate anything, what are our options?”

“I could…” he starts. “That is, I’d be happy to--”

“Absolutely not.”

“People make donations to schools all the time.”

“Maybe where you’re from, but not here. And the amount you’re talking about is insane.”

“Not for--” he stops, dropping his gaze to his feet.

“Not for you. That’s what you were going to say.”

“I’m only trying to help.” He says it softly, all but pleading, and she’s so tempted, the ‘yes’ already forming on her lips. She told Charlotte she’d let people in and let them help, and here he is offering, wanting this as much as she does.

“You understand why I can’t let you do that, right?”

Darcy nods.

“I do. So that leave us with fundraising; ideas?”

“Bake sale? I hear you make a mean madeleine.”

“They’d sell so fast, it’d practically be cheating. Shall we continue this conversation somewhere warmer? Preferably with food?”

“Yes, please.”

He stands, and when he offers his hand to help her up, she takes it.

--

“Henry saw them at practice the other night. He totally gave her his jacket and they held hands.”

“Lucy says he has a girlfriend. She saw them at Yogurtland a few weeks ago. Total player.”

“What kind of toppings does he get?”

“So not the point.”

“Probably granola.”

“Oh my god, totally granola.”

--

“We know how we can raise money for the field trip.”

Emma stands at Lizzie’s desk, Alex behind her, his shirt sleeve wrinkled from where she no doubt dragged him along.

“Who told you we needed to raise money?”

Emma gives her a sympathetic look that says oh please.

“We’re thinking a silent auction. Get teachers, staff and students to donate something, even if it’s just their time, so it doesn’t cost them anything.”

“We did it for the track team last year to help cover the trip to state finals,” Alex says, handing her a spreadsheet. “Just some examples of what was donated and the average bid.”

“People bid on you washing their car?”

“Emma’s idea.”

“With the caveat that he did it shirtless. There was a whole bidding war; it got ugly until I swooped in.” Emma waves this away with a flick of her hand, and Lizzie smiles at the violent shade of red Alex turns. “It costs next to nothing to set up and almost everything goes for way more than face value. What do you think?”

Lizzie thinks it’s their last shot.

So after a week of mild nagging and Emma calling in her “people” (Lizzie seriously doesn’t even want to know), the gym is unrecognizable, with refreshments and passed hors d'oeuvres, light jazz playing through a portable sound system as people make their way from table to table.

“Your idea is so much better than mine.”

Charlotte scoffs as they watch from the bleachers. “Only you would think that video editing software and lessons on how to use it is better than your ‘get out of an essay free’ card.”

“At least yours is useful! I’ve gone corrupt.”

“Ladies,” Darcy climbs the stairs to their row, a napkin in each hand. “Crab cake?”

“Thank god, I’m starving,” Charlotte says. “How did Emma manage to get a wait staff?”

“She’s being cagey about the details. Every time I ask her, she tells me not to worry about it,” Lizzie shrugs.

“Mysterious circumstances aside, I think this looks quite promising.”

“You’re awfully calm for a guy who donated his car for prom. Are you sure that’s safe?”

“I may have hedged my bets,” he says, leaning in to her shoulder. “I told Alex I’d pay half if he were the one to win it.”

“Cheater.” She smiles and waits for him to look away. He doesn’t.

Charlotte coughs.

“Actually, I should make sure that plan is not in the middle of backfiring. I’ll see you at the end?”

“I’ll be here.”

“Does your bike come with a third wheel, because I’d make a great one,” Charlotte says once he’s out of earshot. “You’re sure he has a girlfriend?”

“I saw her with my own eyes. I mean, not like it matters. We’re just friends.” Even as she says it, the words sound tired and old.

“Who was it that said the lady doth protest too much?”

“Queen Gertrude, and you’re an English teacher.”

“And you’re in denial, but whatever. Eat your crab cake.”

-

Two thousand three hundred and forty-two dollars.

It’s Lizzie’s new favorite number.

Two thousand three hundred and holy shit forty-two dollars.

She makes Alex count, then count again, then count in front of Darcy, then makes Darcy count because she has to be sure that the earth isn’t going to open under her again.

“Two thousand three hundred and forty-two dollars,” Darcy says.

“Count again.”

“I assure you, it’s not going to change.”

“And we get to keep it?”

“We raised it, we earned it, it’s not going anywhere except promptly to the bank. I’ll deposit the funds myself, if it would make you feel better.” He closes the cash box with a satisfying click, and Lizzie feels like she can finally breathe.

“It’s really happening, isn’t it?”

He smiles at her, relief and gratitude softening his features, brightening his eyes.

“I promise, Ms. Bennet. It’s really happening.”

They take their time walking to their cars, the afternoon sun casting long shadows in front of them. There’s still a bite to the air, but its edges are dulled, a promise of warmer things to come. Maybe it’s a victory high, or maybe it’s that she just doesn’t feel like going home that makes her do it.

“Do you feel like celebrating?” she asks as they reach their cars, parked conveniently next to each other. “We could grab a drink, toast to overcoming the last hurdle?”

He watches her carefully, biting the corner of his lip in thought.

“I would love to, and if it were any other night I would, but--”

Two thousand three hundred and he has a girlfriend forty two dollars.

“No, of course. It’s totally fine. Actually, I should get home anyway. With all of the auction prep, I’m insanely behind on grading.”

“I’d like a raincheck,” he says quickly. “Perhaps when when we get to L.A.”

“Sure,” she nods, knowing it’ll never happen. “When we get there.”

--

Spring

Lizzie being the person that she is starts packing a week early. Or at least tries to, until she sends an emergency text to Charlotte.

“What do you mean you don’t have clothes? What are those things on your body right now?” Charlotte runs a bored hand through a rack of dresses.

“I have school clothes and bar clothes and nothing in between, unless you count my Miss Piggy pajamas.”

“So you’re concerned about people seeing you in your pajamas? Very interesting, Lizzie Bennet, very interesting.”

“I’m regretting asking you already.”

“No, come on, this is good. Treat yo self, and all that.”

Four hours of shopping later, she’s loaded down with bags and she rewards Charlotte for her patience with an Orange Julius.

“That was exhausting. No offense, I love you, but I’m never doing that again.”

“Lydia always says you should stretch first,” Lizzie says, typing at her phone.

“What’s got you all distracted?”

“Darcy needs Jane’s driver’s license info for the chaperone paperwork.”

“I can’t believe you managed to swing no parent chaperones.”

Even if this is the first field trip Lizzie’s led, she’s been on enough local ones to know that while the parents are well-meaning, they’re also complete micro-managers. When it’d come time to submit names, Lizzie pleaded with her sister, offering meager compensation and her eternal love (“I’m fine with the cash,” Jane had teased.)

“So just the three of you?” Charlotte asks.

“No, Darcy’s bringing a friend.”

“Friend like, a friend?”

“I didn’t ask.”

I didn’t want to know.

Charlotte lets out a long whistle.

--

The night before they leave, Lizzie texts him, willing to bet she’s not the only one who can’t sleep.

I feel like I’m forgetting something.

Sunblock?

Two bottles of SPF 1000 in my bag.

Sounds like you are more than prepared.

How about you? Tie clips organized? Vests pressed?

Would you believe I’m not bringing a single one?

Well, this I have to see.

Soon enough.

-

It’s a morning of opposites.

Her alarm is too loud in her too quiet apartment. It’s early, Lizzie’s running late. She’s starving and she can’t eat a thing. It’s a miracle she makes it to school at all, with one giant suitcase to last her the week, two cardigans because bus temperatures are iffy, and no coffee because she didn’t want to worry about if she left the pot on the whole time she’s gone.

The parking lot is full of parents dropping off their kids, hugging them tight like they’re going off to war instead of four hours down the 5. She’s making her way across the lot to the bus when she sees him, and stops when she sees who he’s with.

Of course that’s who he’s bringing. The girl from the mall, looking like one of those tabloid pictures of celebrities in airports, effortlessly cool in an “oh this old thing?” t-shirt and jeans way. Lizzie’s anxiety sets up camp in the pit of her stomach, clearly intending to stay the week.

It’s fine, this is fine, on some level you knew that this is what would happen.

“Lizzie!” The girl spots her, waving manically, all but skipping over to her and Lizzie’s so confused about so many things, like why she knows her name and more importantly, why she’s pulling her in for a hug.

“It is so nice to finally meet you! I swear, my brother has literally been nothing but ‘Ms. Bennet this’ and ‘Ms. Bennet that’ since September.”

“Gigi,” Darcy sighs, coming up beside her. “It’s too early for the incorrect use of ‘literally.’”

“Normally, yes, but in this case it’s true. Thank you so much for letting me tag along, Lizzie. I’m great with kids, I swear.” Lizzie can’t help but notice that she looks no older than any of the kids herself, but the word “brother” is playing on a loop in her brain, and it’s only when they’re looking at her expectantly that she realizes she hasn’t said a word.

“Yeah, of course. I’m glad you could come. We’re meeting up with my sister, too, once we get to L.A.”

“How fun! I’m going to go grab a seat up front; motion sickness is a bi--”

“Ahem,” Darcy warns.

Big pain in the rear end, is what I was going to say, obviously.” She winks, waving as she climbs the stairs to the bus.

“So that’s your sister.” Sister.

“Indeed. First impressions aside, I can vouch for her skills with this particular demographic. Also, good morning.” He hands her a cup of coffee she didn’t even notice he was holding. “If you’re anything like me, you didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“Thanks.” She takes a sip, and the jolt of caffeine makes her feel like her eyes are really open for the first time all morning. Every interaction, every invitation, every sidelong glance over the past six months flashes before her and Lizzie feels like she’s been reading a book in a different language, only now being handed the translation.

She looks at him, taking stock of his dark wash jeans and a cotton button down that makes it clear there’s no undershirt below the hollow of his throat.

“Ready?” he asks.

Oh no.

-

Four hours feels like four minutes, and Lizzie couldn’t tell you if it’s from sleep or the coffee or the fact that she spends the entire ride telling herself not to look at the row across from her. She’s so consumed with the task that she doesn’t even realize they’ve made it until the bus exhales into park.

“Why are we stopping?”

“We’re here,” Darcy says.

Lizzie looks out her window, and by god, there are palm trees.

Their motel is small, but charming, with a retro-chic vibe that’s totally suited to the prescription Ray-Bans he’s sporting.

“Nice choice, Darcy.”

“Very ‘Mad Men’,” Gigi agrees.

“Oh good, the very thing I was going for.” He smiles, leading the way to the front desk, the gaggle of paired-off seniors behind him.

Lizzie pulls out her phone.

I’M HERE!!!!

Yay!!!! Dinner?

Let’s make it drinks. Doors get taped at 9:00.

So strict ;)

Darcy hands her two keys.

“Your room and mine.”

“Your--what? Why?”

He shrugs.

“Just in case. I have one to yours as well. Is that alright?”

“Yep, great, that’s...great. Good call.”

-

Gigi, as it turns out, is a terrible chaperone.

She doesn’t so much help wrangle the kids as she does experience everything with them, marveling at the observatory with the same enthusiasm and wonder. They have the place to themselves, the whole day to explore the exhibits, watch the Foucault Pendulum, the Tesla coil, a presentation on the history of the Griffith. When the sun sets and the sky twinkles with the only stars brave enough to fight the city lights, they line up at the outdoor telescopes to watch them.

Lizzie finds one pointed at the moon, gasping at the blindingly clear image of its surface.

“That’s the Tycho crater,” Darcy says next to her, his voice a breath away from her ear. “To the southeast is Maginus.”

“They name everything up there, don’t they?”

He laughs, low and quiet, and tugs gently at her elbow.

“Come see the Orion Nebula.” He says it like it’s something she could hold in her hand, like he’s the one who could put it there. And in the warmth of the April breeze, closer to space than she’s ever been, she feels like he already has.

-

Once doors are taped and the headcount triple checked, Lizzie heads down to the bar where she tackle-hugs Jane, ignoring the withered looks from the other guests.

“I ordered you a drink already,” Jane says as they take a seat at a table. “I figured you’d need it.”

“Actually, it’s been a great day. Travel is always exhausting, but the observatory was...invigorating.”

“I know, I love Griffith Park. I go hiking there with work friends sometimes.”

“You hike? Who are you?”

“Yes, I hike! I do lots of things!”

Jane tells her about all of these things, about the hiking, the raise she’s this close to getting, about one of her pieces being featured in the paper.

“I mean, it was just a picture from a show, not like a profile or anything. But it was still pretty neat to see ‘costumes by Jane Bennet’ in print.”

“That’s amazing, Jane!”

“It is, isn’t it? It’s crazy--wait, isn’t that…?” She trails off, pointing at the bar, where Darcy and Gigi are ordering a drink.

“Lizzie,” Jane’s eyes go wide.

“It’s a really long story, I need you to go with me on this.”

“Hey guys!” Gigi bounds over, cocktail in hand, Darcy not far behind. “Oh my gosh, you must be the sister!” She pulls Jane into a hug, her standard greeting it seems.

“Jane, this is Gigi. Darcy’s sister.”

“Oh. Oh!” Jane’s eyes grow even larger. “Wow, so nice to meet you!”

“Holy crap, I love your dress.”

“She made it,” Lizzie says proudly, because she knows Jane won’t.

“Are you kidding? Do you take special orders? Because seriously, I would buy one in every color.”

“Gigi, perhaps we should let them enjoy their drinks.”

“No, please sit!” Jane says. “We can squeeze four, no problem. I want to hear all about your day.”

Gigi, blessedly, does the talking for them. Darcy sips at his drink quietly, glancing at Lizzie at least as often as she looks at him. Travel suits him, she decides, or maybe just being anywhere outside of school. Her mind travels too easily back to the night at the bar; had she known then what she does now, she would have kept the conversation going, moving on from dead Russians to books in general, what they read because they want to not because they feel like they should. She would have told him when her shift ended, she would have--

“Right, Lizzie?”

“What? Sorry, I was…”

“The tape on the doors thing,” Gigi repeats. “I mean, I get it, but who started that?”

“Probably Mr. Boyer on Lizzie’s tenth grade field trip to D.C.” Jane teases.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re bringing that up.”

“What happened?” Gigi leans in.

“Nothing.”

“She got caught making out with Jason Reynolds behind the ice machine after curfew.”

Lizzie takes a gulp of her drink, glancing at Darcy over her glass. He can barely contain a smile.

“Really.”

“Yes, I’m the first person in the world to make out with someone on a field trip.”

“Not even. William totally got caught with Caroline Lee, at a cotillion no less.”

“Thank you for that, Georgiana.”

“Ooo, I got full-named. I should go before he busts out the middle.” Gigi downs the last of her drink. “See you guys tomorrow.”

“I should go, too,” Darcy says, following after her. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Jane.”

“Very nice to meet you.”

Lizzie watches them disappear into the elevator, until Jane’s voice cuts in.

“Do I need to put tape on your door?”

-

Lizzie could easily give in to distractions--namely, Darcy’s darkened jawline from not having shaved since they got there--but she’s too busy making sure that she comes home with as many students as she brought. All week, it feels like she does nothing but count as they go from stop to stop. She panics when they somehow add a kid, and Darcy has to gently point out that she counted Gigi, sitting next to Emma, who’s managing a flawless manicure while on a moving bus.

But when she’s not worrying or counting or worrying about counting, she’s genuinely enjoying herself. They get hot dogs at Pink’s, where she’s absolutely horrified by Darcy’s choice in condiments (“Only mustard?” “And plenty of it.”) and sample fresh produce at Grand Central Market. She remembers why she wanted to do this; not just the trip, but this crazy, frustrating, incredibly rewarding job. She watches these kids--soon to be adults--marvel at the Rain Room at LACMA and ask Jane insightful questions on their tour of UCLA. It turns out Lizzie isn’t the only one grateful for this trip, and she has sixty daily thank-you’s as proof.

The Huntington is their last official, educational stop; Lizzie scheduled it that way because she likes grand finales (or, as Charlotte puts it, “dramatics”).

(As someone else would put it, “ceremony.”)

Just the sight of it is overwhelming, a sprawling estate on lush greens that looks like something out of a period film. But it’s everything on the inside that Lizzie recognizes--the art, the photographs, the manuscripts; it’s what she’s made up of.

“And here we have the First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.” Lizzie holds her breath.

It’s a book in a plexiglass case, and it is everything.

“Well?” Darcy whispers next to her. “What do you think?”

There aren’t words. She just takes his hand and squeezes.

He squeezes back.

-

“You know, my father was an English teacher.”

They’re walking through the gardens, traveling from Australia to Japan in a matter of feet.

“Really?”

Darcy nods.

“My mother was one of his students. It’s not as scandalous as it sounds,” he laughs. “He was a graduate student, assisting a professor in her Literary Theory class. He gave her a ‘C’ on her first paper which, for anyone who knew my mother, did not go over well. She cornered him after class and told him exactly how he misunderstood her thesis and that she deserved an ‘A’. He used to say that by the time she was done, he was in love.”

Lizzie notes the past tense, wonders if anything needs to be said, if it’s even her place. But his tone is light as he tells it, and it’s a beautiful day, and maybe it’s okay to just let it be that.

“Did he change her grade?”

He smiles.

“No, but she let him explain why over dinner.”

-

That night, Lizzie lays in bed, turning the key to a room that’s not hers over and over in her hands.

-

“Sometimes, I can’t believe I live here,” Jane says.

Lizzie smiles against the sun, letting the sound of her sister’s wistful voice mingle with the waves.

“I can’t believe you don’t come here everyday. I would.”

“You could, you know. The district is so big, it wouldn’t be hard to transfer.”

It’s tempting, the thought of turning this week into something more permanent. Closer to art and culture, to sand and salty air, to Jane. To be the one who leaves instead of constantly saying goodbye to the ones who actually do.

A year ago she might have considered it, when the things that kept her home felt like an anchor, weighing her down with a lot of self-made “have to”s. Now it feels less like she’s being held back, and simply just held in place, safe and tethered.

“Better not,” she says. “Too many distractions. I’d never get anything done.”

“I figured as much,” Jane rolls onto her stomach on their shared beach blanket. “Though something tells me you’re just as distracted back home.”

“Jane!” Gigi’s voice breaks in. Lizzie props up on her elbows to see her running toward them, Darcy, as usual, following behind. “Come play volleyball? I’m getting killed because my brother can’t spike to save his life.”

“What ever gave you the impression that I could, I’ll never know.”

Lizzie notes his swim trunks and lack of a shirt and thinks that if volleyball isn’t his sport, something clearly is. Water polo, maybe.

“I’m not sure I’ll do much better, but what the heck.” Jane skips away with Gigi to the nearby net, and Lizzie keeps her eyes on the water because anywhere else feels dangerous.

“Can I join you?”

“Sure.”

He sits next to her, arms resting on his knees, so close that she can feel heat radiating from his bare shoulder.

“How long has that been going on?” Darcy nods his head in the direction of Alex, fireman carrying Emma into the water as she squeals in mock protest.

“At least freshman year, probably even before that. Unofficially, of course; she has no idea.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I know. You can see it from space, right?” Lizzie shrugs. “Maybe he’ll work up the nerve at prom.”

“I don’t envy him.”

Lizzie uses the shade of her sunglasses to glance at him, but he keeps his face neutral, staring straight ahead.

“Or maybe she’ll wake up and take the hint.”

He looks at her over his shoulder.

“Meet him in the middle.”

Lizzie nods.

They turn and face the ocean.

--

That night, they have a last-hurrah dinner in the hotel restaurant. All the kids are there, the guys in their nicest slacks and girls in their Homecoming dresses. There’s a toast with sparkling cider, a lot of stories that are funny now but won’t be when they try to tell them back home. Lizzie catches Darcy’s eye from across the table, and he tips his glass to her, a shared smile between them.

We did it.

Lizzie goes to her room feeling full and relieved. Somehow they pulled this crazy thing off and she wants to celebrate the same way she has every night of the trip; watching cable TV in her hotel bathrobe.

She’s one coat in on a pedicure, courtesy of Emma’s nail polish, when there’s a knock on the door.

Darcy leans against the doorframe, cheeks pink from a day in the sun.

“I was just doing my tape rounds,” he starts without preamble. “And caught Jonathan Willoughby in Marianne’s room with this.” He dangles an unopened split of champagne like it’s a used tissue.

Lizzie frowns.

“Room checks aren’t for another hour--oh. Nice, very sneaky. What’d you do?”

“He has detention every afternoon from now until the end of the year, as does Marianne, though they’ll be serving it separately. I think Marianne considers that the bigger punishment.”

“I guess we should get rid of that,” Lizzie says, pointing at the bottle.

“I suppose you’re right.”

Neither of them move.

“Or…”

“Water glasses are in the bathroom,” she says, opening the door wider to let him in.

-

The hotel is old enough that it still has balconies off the rooms. They lean against the railing, sipping their contraband, while the pool glows from below, the palm trees black against the twilight.

“Where’s Gigi?”

“She asked your sister for karaoke bar recommendations. If they have a thorough showtunes catalog, there’s no telling when she’ll be back.”

“And you didn’t want to go?”

He glances at her, then back at the view with a smirk.

“Do I strike you as the karaoke type?”

“Assumptions haven’t gotten me very far this year.”

The silences are as comfortable as the ones they decide to fill. They talk about the trip, the parts they loved, the things they’d do differently. At some point, Lizzie realizes that not only did she never change out of her robe, she doesn’t care. Not when the air is sweet with orange blossoms, she’s seen a First Folio, and she’s drinking cheap champagne with the guy who helped make it happen.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Certainly.”

“Why didn’t you ever come back to the bar?”

“I thought I’d embarrassed myself in front of the beautiful bartender enough for one summer.”

Lizzie’s cheeks flood with heat.

“You weren’t embarrassing. You were...annoyed.”

“And I took it out on you. I’m surprised you even noticed my absence.”

“Hard not to notice when the guy who reads in a bar stops showing up. Did you ever finish the book, by the way?”

“That very night.”

“And?”

He shrugs, inspecting what’s left of his drink.

“It was fine.”

“You loved it.”

“I did. Can I ask you something now?”

“Shoot.”

He turns to look at her and everything is close; the air, his hands, him.

“Had I come back...what might have happened?”

“I probably would have learned what Mezcal is.”

“Lizzie…”

It’s the first time he’s said her name, the first time she’s ever heard it sound like that.

She answers him by taking the glass from his hands, setting it aside with her own. He closes the space left between them, a hand on her hip, fingers skimming against her collarbone to brush the hair back from her neck.

“William,” she says.

This close, she can smell the lingering sunscreen on his skin, the bite of champagne on his breath.

The voice that follows the knock on the door is just shy of panic.

“Ms. Bennet?”

Everything stills. Lizzie presses her forehead to his.

“You have got to be--one second!”

She lets herself look at him for one agonizing moment before she pulls away.

“Can you, umm--”

“I’ll just--”

He ducks into the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind him. Lizzie scrubs a hand over face and takes a deep breath.

“Hey, Catherine.”

“I’m so sorry, Ms. Bennet. I know it’s after hours and we’re not supposed to be out, and--you were asleep.” She says the last part like an apology.

“No, I wasn’t, I was--what’s up?”

“Oh, Emma is sick. Like, super sick. She’s throwing up and we think it might be food poisoning; I told her that food truck was sketchy, but--”

Of course. Of course.

“Okay, it’s okay. Go to the vending machine and get a couple of Gatorades and I’ll be there in two minutes.”

Catherine leaves, and Lizzie pads to the bathroom.

“Hey. I’m so sorry, but I have to--”

“I heard, don’t apologize. Do you still have the key?” he says to her hand, brushing his thumb across her knuckles. She swallows and nods.

“When you’re done, if everything’s alright…”

“I will.”

-

She never uses the key.

Instead she spends the night on the phone with urgent care, sitting next to Emma on the bathroom floor, alternating giving her sips of Gatorade with saltine crackers.

Alex takes over the next morning, and normally Lizzie would say something, but given what’s caked in Emma’s hair, she’s fairly certain there’s nothing to worry about.

Exhaustion and the ache in her back from where she slept against the tub means she uses the two hours before they leave to shower, pack and grab a bagel for the road. She doesn’t see him until they’re on the bus, and even then, she can’t bring herself to look at him.

He doesn’t have any problem looking at her.

Lizzie manages a few hours of fitful sleep on the ride home, but it’s not until everyone’s accounted for and left with the right family that she truly lets herself relax. Even if it’s short-lived.

“Have I said ‘thank you’ enough? Seriously Lizzie, thank you so much for letting me tag along.” Gigi hugs her, tighter and more encompassing than her first.

“You’re welcome. Thank you for your help.”

“William, you’re my ride, but if you guys need to, you know, debrief or whatever, I could take the car and Lizzie could bring you back later or--”

“That’s okay,” Lizzie cuts in. “I think we all want to get home.”

Darcy says nothing.

“Oh. Well, if you’re sure, I’ll be in the car. Take your time.” Gigi smiles and waves, disappearing around the bus.

Somewhat alone, Lizzie allows herself to really look at him. He looks like he slept about as well as she did.

“Well, we did it,” she says, trying for casual. “I should be the one saying ‘thank you’, this wouldn’t have been possible without--”

“About last night,” he cuts in. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re--oh.”

“I think--no, I know I overstepped my bounds.” His voice is deep with regret and Lizzie tells herself it’s a good thing, that they’re both on the same page, that they both knew what happened--or almost happened--was wrong. He’s leaving, she reminds herself. This was always going to be temporary.

But it wasn’t just you. I met you in the middle.

“It’s fine. Let’s just forget it, yeah?”

And because she’s running on four hours sleep, she holds out her hand. He takes it.

“Thanks again. Mr. Darcy.”

“See you Monday, Ms. Bennet.”

They walk to their cars on the opposite ends of the lot.

--

Lizzie goes back to work expecting things to look the way she feels on the inside: unsettled, unfinished. But the bells still ring at the same time, the cafeteria food still as tepid as it tastes, the same old coffee in the faculty lounge. She sips at it anyway, in between Charlotte’s demands for a play-by-play of the week.

“You didn’t text me once, so I’m guessing it was as great as you’d hoped.”

“It was. It was great.”

Charlotte blinks at her over her tea.

“That’s it? Where are all the exclamation points?”

“Still recovering from bus-lag, I guess.”

“Pretty sure that’s not a thing. Your lack of enthusiasm wouldn’t have anything to do with our missing math teacher, would it?”

It did, in fact. Even giving his classroom as wide of a berth as she could while being right next door, she could feel that he was gone before she even noticed the substitute teacher. Gone for how long, nobody seems to know. Collins won’t tell her anything and the sub is annoyingly tight-lipped.

“I have lesson plans for the week,” she says with a shrug. “That’s all I know.”

Lizzie reasons that he wouldn’t be the type to just up and leave, not with only a few weeks left in the year. Not without saying goodbye to the students. To her.

Still, a tight coil of dread unwinds inside her, and when the last bell rings, she sprints to Charlotte’s room.

“Hey,” she says, out of breath. “Do you still have those magazines?”

--

Thanks to a current subscription to Wired, Lizzie knocks on Darcy’s front door exactly seven minutes after the last bell.

“Ms. Bennet?”

It was only a few days ago that she saw him in nothing but swim trunks, yet somehow the thin t-shirt and drawstring pants he’s sporting feel a thousand times more intimate.

“I came to give you these,” she says, handing him the day’s report from his substitute teacher (it’d required a lot of arm-twisting and maybe a couple of small lies). “Also to tell you not to move to Berkeley.”

They’re both still holding on to the small stack of papers. He pauses.

“I’m sorry?”

“Wait, no, sorry. That is why I came, but I’m not going to say it. I guess I already did...god, can I start over?”

“I think it would be best if you did.”

Lizzie takes a breath and steps inside, pacing.

“What I mean is that even though I don’t want you to move to Berkeley, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. I’ve only ever lived here, I teach at the same high school I went to, and I’m okay with that. I like it, actually, but I know that most people don’t. So go to Berkeley if you really want to, but before you do…”

She crosses the few feet to the doorway where he’s still standing and kisses him. There’s shock and surprise, followed closely by an enthusiastic reply that sends the papers fluttering to the ground as he takes her face in his hands.

“Had I not already decided to stay,” he says between gulps of air. “That would have been very convincing.”

“Wait...what?”

A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.

“Perhaps I should have led with that.”

She fists at his t-shirt with a mild shove.

“And you just let me go on like that?”

“I did.” He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, fingers skimming the length of her neck. “You showed up at my door in the middle of the afternoon; forgive me for wanting to hear you out.”

“So you’re not leaving? After what happened on the trip--and then you weren’t at school, and I thought--”

He shakes his head.

“I have a cold.”

Lizzie pieces the state of his clothes and hair and his nose a shade of red that she assumed was a sunburn.

“A cold.”

“Most likely picked it up on the bus. You’re likely to catch it now, I’m afraid.”

Lizzie considers this, tugging at his shirt.

“You’re staying here for the culture, I’m guessing.”

“Obviously. And the local bar with an excellent mezcal selection.”

“And bartenders who are going to make you read Tolstoy’s entire canon.”

“That will take a very very long time, I’m sure.”

He presses his forehead to hers, warm to the touch.

“How sick are we talking exactly?”

“A sore throat. Nothing tea and some rest can’t cure.”

She tilts her head up, smiling against his mouth.

“You’ll have to live with one out of two.”

--

“They’re totally hooking up.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

“He’s given her a ride to school every morning this week.”

“Her car could be in the shop.”

“They are stupid smiley. All the time. We didn’t have a single quiz in trig. In trig!”

“It’s the end of the year, everyone’s delirious.”

“They’re both wearing turtlenecks. In May.”

“....eww.”

--