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In the Depth of Winter

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Noon brought Neil to Pemberley, and he found Darcy and the Bingleys huddled in the bedroom where Elizabeth was.

Bingley and Jane immediately consented to take leave when the doctor asked for a moment of privacy for his patient, but Darcy would not go so easily this time around.

"I really think it would be best if you waited outside—"

"I am her husband, Neil," Darcy overrode him imperiously, channeling every ounce of the generations of noble blood that ran through his veins. "I think it is best I stay. I have every right to be here."

"It is not a question of rights, but of your peace of mind," Neil retorted exasperatedly. He would not back down from his friend's tone; he had known him far too long for that.

They continued on this way for some time before Neil finally conceded with a sigh, and Darcy was allowed to stay as he looked Elizabeth over for any signs of change in her condition, good or bad. Darcy was on his feet for most of it, lingering over the bed as he took in with bloodshot eyes every half-twitch of Neil's lips into a frown and furrow of his brow as he inspected her vitals.

Neil straightened up and looked to Darcy. "Her pulse is not as strong as I would like it to be, but she has not worsened."

"Is she out of danger then?" Darcy demanded.

"Well, it is possible—"

"Is she out of danger?" he repeatedly more insistently.

Neil studied him conscientiously, before giving his answer in a slow voice. "I am afraid she is not entirely in the clear. As I said, she has not worsened, but she has not improved enough for me to be absolutely certain. Her lips still retain that blue tinge to them, which…" He trailed off seeing Darcy's face, and put his hand on his shoulder. "This sort of thing takes time, and recovery is different for everyone. She could stay like this for quite some time—"

"Do not say that," he shuddered, shrugging Neil's hand off and taking a step back from him.

"—but a week from now be as healthy as she was before the accident ever happened. Darcy, you have to get a hold of yourself. For her sake."

"Neil, I am trying," Darcy answered with demented air, running his fingers through his hair. "You have no idea how damned hard I am trying."

"Have a little faith. Elizabeth will not give up so easily."

Darcy nodded distractedly, and Neil walked towards the door to take his leave after promising to call again to-morrow evening.

"Thank you, Neil."

.*.

When the dinner hour came, Mrs Reynolds called the gentlemen and ladies to the dining room.

The four of them had crowded into the bedchamber to be together, though whether they stayed more for Mr or Mrs Darcy was difficult to say. Georgiana put aside the novel she had not really been perusing and trifled with the chain around her neck as she awaited the others. Bingley took Jane's hand to help her from her seat.

Though Darcy thought he was past feeling shock any longer, he perceived something in that moment that triggered the very sentiment, and his senses experienced what must have been akin to being struck by lightning.

As Bingley lifted Jane to her feet, moving her after sitting for so long in one attitude, her shawl fell away from her shoulders. It was then that Darcy, watching them, took in the distinct curve of her belly protruding from her slender figure.

Jane was with child.

His mind went reeling. To his staggered psyche, snatches of images surfaced in a churning sea of memories. Disconnected scenes that had meant nothing to him in the nerve-wracking hours he spent with his sister, friend, and sister-in-law while holding watch over Elizabeth suddenly melded to form a cohesive truth: Bingley's particular attentiveness to his wife; Jane's hand perpetually resting on her stomach protectively; her fastidiousness to ensure her shawl was always securely covering her.

They must have intended to share their joyous news with him and Elizabeth in person during this visit, but things being what they were, had decided not to say a word on the subject until a time when Elizabeth was well and able to revel with them in their felicity. Between her shawl and the high-waisted style of her dress, if Jane had not risen in exactly the manner she had, Darcy might never have been the wiser.

Bingley and Jane were already half out the door when the former noticed that he had not moved.

"Darcy, are you not coming?"

"No," his voice was rather tight. "I have not the least bit of an appetite. I am sorry to be such a poor host, but Georgiana will be much better company. Go on."

Jane opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it again without a word. Georgiana was earnestly scrutinizing his face. In her devoted attention to her brother, it had not escaped her that his complexion had grown pale, and she had yet to move far from her place by the fire. Darcy just wanted them to quit the room without launching an attempt to convince him to go as well. The three of them sensed his determination, and in a moment, they followed the housekeeper out.

He had not planned to join them at dinner in the first place, for what he said was true, but his resolve was cemented by the discovery he had just made.

Unbidden imaginings of Elizabeth's fate and their future bedeviled Darcy, and despite her being within arm's length, loneliness crushed him. He sat on the edge of the bed, stroking her white cheek.

His heart-wrenching line of thought induced him to submit to the question he had been wondering since seeing Jane: Would Elizabeth live to bear their children?

Even thinking about the cruelty of a reality void of that happiness caused him pain more excruciating than any other he had ever known.

The Bingleys returned to the room once again before retiring for the night. They resumed their silent vigil for the rest of that evening.

Mrs Reynolds showed Jane and Bingley to their quarters, and as he watched the couple's retreating forms, Darcy felt a wretched twinge of envy at their ability to seek solace in one another.

.*.

Sometime in the twilight hour, it had begun to snow.

At first, only a few feathery flakes drifted across the sky, but when the sun rose, the snow was still coming, and the entire sky was white like a blank canvas. By the afternoon, it was falling thick and fast, coating the roads and filling the windowpanes on top of the already present layers of dwindling ice that had been resting there.

Darcy, sleep once again eluding him, observed this all from the bedchamber window.

Early in the day, Jane and Bingley came to try and coax him into leaving the room to stretch his legs, clear his head, or take something to eat, but Darcy still adamantly refused any meals and their offers to stay with Elizabeth in his place for even a little while, choosing instead to stay holed up with her as he had been since the night before last.

Jane, all demureness and compassion, would not relent. "I will take very good care of my sister, you need not worry."

He shook his head at her from where he stood. "Thank you, but no."

When they continued to argue, his stress bested him and he lashed out at the Bingleys.

"Jane is right. It does neither you nor Elizabeth any good to have you wasting away in here, no good at all," Bingley was importuning. "Take a turn about the house, Darcy, or at the very least—"

"Dear God!" Darcy finally interrupted with a violently fierce tenor. "Do neither of you understand what she is to me? How can you think I could possibly leave her?"

He swiveled around to face Bingley directly, his eyes blazing. Bingley was shrinking back and looking like he feared for his friend's sanity while Jane, in the chair near Elizabeth's bed, seemed stricken.

"After all the time you have known me, do you truly believe me capable? Would you abandon Jane, if you were in my place and she in Elizabeth's? Whether I am to stay here another hour or one thousand, I will not go. I cannot! If you won't comprehend that, then I ask you both to go and leave us in peace."

At the end of his outburst, the room was filled with an oppressive silence. Darcy felt like a scoundrel for the manner in which he had spoken to them. He realized they only wanted to ensure his well-being, but he meant every word of what he said.

Eyes downcast, he began, "I apologize—"

Bingley cut through him. "There is no need for it, Darcy."

Ever forgiving, Jane's eyes seemed to echo her husband's sentiments. Nothing more needed to be said on the matter, and nothing was.

Afterwards, Georgiana came to sit with him for a time. Unaware of what had passed with Bingley and Jane, she too tried to convince him to leave Elizabeth's side, and Darcy was at great pains not to lose his temper again. Brother and sister stayed together, watching Elizabeth for nearly an hour. By afternoon tea, seeing that she could not persuade him, Georgiana left in forlorn spirits.

At half past three that afternoon, there was a knock at the door. Mrs Reynolds entered, in her hands a silver tray laden with a steaming china cup of tea, buttered toast, fruit, and an assortment of other foods. Apparently, she would bring him something despite his protestations. Setting the tray down on a small side table, the housekeeper watched the brooding figure of her master as he stood alone at the window, looking blindly outside with his hands clasped behind his back.

"I do not think Dr Neil will be able to make the journey here, Mr Darcy. The roads are in too terrible a condition for walking, or even to come on horseback."

"I do not think so either, Mrs Reynolds," he agreed lowly.

.*.

Evening had come and gone.

There was no sign of Neil coming up to Pemberley, and Darcy knew it was foolish of him to think it would be otherwise. The weather was downright dangerous to head out into, eddies of snow making it difficult to see anything beyond the end of your own nose.

But he could not help but be undone at this further turn of events. What if there was some sort of emergency and Elizabeth needed medical attention in the middle of this blasted storm? No one would be here to help, and the realization of it made him turn cold.

Every so often, anger, hot and irrational, would flare up in him. Why was she not waking up? She should have made a sound, moved a finger, done something by now. Yet all she did was lie there hour after hour in an unendurable charade of eternal sleep. Did Elizabeth not understand what she was doing to him with this agonizing waiting, what a horrific wreck his life would become if…if he lost her?

When his tangled thoughts reached this point, always Darcy's hold on his ire would slip away to be replaced with shame and despair. It was not her fault, he knew. Elizabeth was fighting for her life and he was raging senselessly.

The constant fluctuations of his emotions on top of his sleep deprivation infused him with a deep-seated weariness.

Without Darcy realizing it, sleep overtook him.

.*.

A tremulous breath was drawn in, her breast rising high as she inhaled deeply.

After a while, her eyes fluttered open, adjusting to the light. Elizabeth's body felt clumsy and stiff as she tried to raise herself up. She only vaguely remembered in snippets what had happened after she fell into the pond, like it was some waterlogged nightmare.

When her eyes finally became accustomed to the flickering flames in the grate, she turned her neck with difficulty, her head heavy and throbbing.

Fitzwilliam. Her heart skipped a beat.

Darcy was slumped in a chair by the window, fast asleep with a troubled frown twisting his lips.

He must have pulled her out.

How long had she been insensate? She tried to see out the window behind him, noticing the heavy downfall of snow, but was unable to judge the time. Her eyes went back to her husband and her heart ached thinking of the worry he must have suffered.

Elizabeth cast the heavy covers off from on top of her and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. The whisper of her bare feet on the floor was the only sound in the room apart from the occasional pop of the fire as she crept over to him. Only centimeters away from him, she could see how exhausted Darcy looked even in sleep, with dark shadows under his eyes and unshaven cheeks.

She lightly caressed his face. He stirred before his eyes blinked open, and even then they took a moment to clear and for understanding to dawn in them.

"Elizabeth," he breathed.

Relief flushing his face, Darcy swept Elizabeth off her feet and into his lap, having to forcibly stop himself from absolutely crushing her to him. He started to kiss her, his lips tender and hot on her face, her throat, her lips. He acted like a man given a second chance at something he thought he would never have again, and in a way he knew he was. Feverishly, he nipped at her skin and laced his fingers at her waist, not roughly, but frantically all the same, wanting to be sure what he had in his arms was real and not a dream that had come only to taunt him. Elizabeth let him ravish her, stroking his face and neck soothingly as she returned his hungry kisses.

He drew away to press his lips to her hair, and as she leaned into the comfort of his chest, she felt him quaking. Looking up at his countenance, she saw tears pooling in Darcy's eyes, and even as she watched, a few of them slipped from his lashes.

She took his face in her hands and brushed away the stray tears with the tips of her fingers, murmuring to him, "Shh, my love, shh. All is well."

"Do not ever frighten me like that again," Darcy half-sobbed, struggling to regain his composure.

"No, Fitzwilliam. Never again."

"I am so sorry, Elizabeth," broke from him in a quavering whisper.

"What have you to be sorry for?" she said, her eyebrows rising. Her wide eyes searched his dear face.

He seemed incoherent and unable to string together his thoughts. "Your life is more important to me than…it is my duty…I should have—"

"Hush." Elizabeth brought up her fingers to strain against his lips, divining what he could not bring himself to say. "It was an accident. No one is to blame, least of all you. You, Fitzwilliam, saved me."

Darcy gripped her convulsively. She slid her hand away from his mouth and tilted her face up to kiss him very softly. With a contented sigh, she rested her head in the crook of his neck. They sat thus entwined while the snow on the windowsill continued to swell higher and higher. Elizabeth shivered.

At once, he got to his feet with her cradled to him. "You should not be out of bed. You need to stay warm. I do not know what I was thinking letting you stay exposed like this."

Striding over to the bed, he placed her on the sheets and pulled up the layers of quilts to her very chin.

"And where are you going?"

He had begun to withdraw to his chair instead of sharing the bed with her, as if she were too fragile for any such thing, when Elizabeth asked him the question with incredulity in her voice.

Her eyes told him to join her, and he longed to comply.

Walking over, he pulled away the covers he had neatly tucked about her and crawled in beside her, throwing the comforters back over them both. Elizabeth shifted under the blankets to be nearer to him, and Darcy took her in his arms and pressed her body close to his, resting his chin on top of her head.

Outside, the snowfall at last began to wane.

Wrapped in the comfort of one another, Darcy and Elizabeth drifted off to sleep.