Earlier today, I expressed a desire to write a fic about Darcy’s trip to Chicago, being that I currently live in the northern suburb of Evanston. This is the result of a much-too-late night of writing this instead of a paper due for class on Tuesday.
[I also did legit research to find an event Darcy would possibly go to in Chicago. I don’t know how prestigious it is, and I took the liberty of moving it one week forward in time, to fit with the timetable for this story. But if you Google it, this conference really exists.]
Chicago was one of his favorite airports. The seats were uncomfortable, and the lighting was poor, but there was a decent selection of local food. Garrett Popcorn, which only had a handful of locations around the world, had a stand inside of O’Hare. Gigi usually asked for a tin when he had a layover in Chicago. He made a mental note to pick one up on his way back to San Francisco.
One of the other things that Darcy liked about O’Hare was the underground tunnel that connected the B and C Concourses. Even when he didn’t need to make that journey through the airport, Darcy usually went out of his way to walk through it. It was made up of a long stretch of moving sidewalks underneath a dome of ever-changing lights that never failed to remind him of the Aurora Borealis.
Darcy’s flight landed a few minutes later than he would have liked late Wednesday afternoon. Like everyone else in the plane, he turned his phone back on moments before the flight attendant gave the official okay. He frowned when he saw the time on the screen. He wouldn’t get a chance to walk through the beloved tunnel. He turned to Anne Elliot beside him.
She must have noticed the time as well, because her words echoed his thoughts. “We’ll be cutting it close to make it to the Public Media 2.0 event this evening.”
Darcy’s frown grew. This panel discussion was one of the biggest draws of the SCMS Annual Conference this year. While Gigi had gone with a few Pemberley Digital scouts to South by Southwest the previous weekend, Darcy preferred to take the highly capable Ms. Elliot to the second city for the Society for Media and Cinema Studies annual event. He would be giving a brief presentation on the future of Domino and they would both be taking resumes from potential interns for summer 2013.
He knew that he could have easily sent Ms. Elliot alone, or even with one of their recent up-and-coming managers, Freddy Wentworth. But he was itching to get away from San Francisco and away from the hallways that reminded him of Lizzie Bennet. He was itching to be distracted. SCMS was the perfect excuse to run far away. At the event a few years ago, he had even met an engaging young woman. She was sweet and shy, the complete opposite of Lizzie Bennet. But she was beautiful and had a very comforting presence. They chatted and flirted all weekend, and when they got tipsy the last night, he boldly kissed her.
They spent all night in his hotel room, lying in his bed. Neither of them made a move to do anything more than kiss. But they talked about life, art, ambitions, and their families. She had been raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle, so she was familiar with the trappings of money. He told her about the pressures of running a company at his young age and grieving the loss of his parents. They exchanged phone numbers the next day, but neither of them kept in touch. It was only a month later that Darcy discovered Wickham in Gigi’s apartment, and his entire world turned upside down.
Perhaps I will see her at the conference this year, Darcy mused as he stared out the window onto the tarmac. Fanny was certainly a breath of fresh air. Lizzie’s face swam in his mind, and, as if on cue, his phone buzzed in his hand. Missed Call: Elizabeth Bennet.
Darcy looked down in confusion. He blinked twice, trying to clear away the dirt or psychotropic drugs that must have gotten wedged in his eyes. Because he must have been seeing things. Missed call from Lizzie Bennet?
“Mr. Darcy?” Darcy squinted up at Ms. Elliot, still not trusting his eyes. “Mr. Darcy, we should get going.”
Darcy suddenly realized that the cabin door was open and the passengers were leaving. He was in first class, and was holding up the rest of the plane with his stupefied state. He quickly gathered his suitjacket and briefcase and followed Ms. Elliot out of the plane. He trailed after her like a confused puppy through the airport, down to baggage claim, and then onto the waiting town car. As their driver hurried toward the Drake Hotel, one thought played in his mind on repeat: Why did she call me?
William Darcy was sure that the Public Media 2.0 presentation that evening was excellent. Ms. Elliot clapped enthusiastically when it was finished, and bemoaned that they had missed the first half hour. But William Darcy had not heard a single word. As soon as they settled into their town car, Darcy looked down at his phone again and saw a message he had missed before: New Voice Mail: Elizabeth Bennet.
She hadn’t just called. She had also left him a voice message. What on earth could it be? Why would Lizzie Bennet call him? Was her hatred of him not apparent enough on months of videos? Was her silence not loud enough for him to understand? Did she now have to call him and remind him of how much she hated him? The worst thoughts spun through his head as the panel went on around him. Domino was considering the small coast town of Sanditon, but what if they chose to tell a more urban story? This panel would have been invaluable in that decision.
Instead, William Darcy had flashback after flashback of Lizzie Bennet mocking him, insulting him, and believing lies about him. In a cold sweat, Darcy left Ms. Elliot as quickly as was polite and made a beeline to his room. After firmly locking and latching the door, Darcy stripped off his clothes and climbed into the plush bed. Grabbing the remote, he turned on bad reality television. He publically abhorred it, but it was the only thing that could distract him now. He lay awake for hours, trying to forget about the voice mail that was sitting, unheard, in his phone’s inbox.
Darcy awoke the next morning to the alarm on his phone. There were a few blissful seconds when he did not remember the events of the day before. But as soon as he cleared the alarm away from his screen, Lizzie’s face was staring at him again. It was one of the pictures that Gigi had taken of Lizzie on their tour of San Francisco. Gigi had sent him all of her photos, each accompanied by a winking emoticon. Darcy had not been amused at the time. She had even taken his phone when he wasn’t looking and changed the background to the picture of Lizzie and himself at the start of their day. He had never been able to read the look on her face at that moment. He was too pessimistic to hope that her eyes were admiring anything more than the scenery.
He didn’t have the willpower to delete the pictures, but he hadn’t been bold enough to make one his background. He had settled in the middle for making one of the photos her caller image. Earlier that day, Gigi had insisted they all exchange numbers in case one of them got lost. When Lizzie dug in her purse for her phone, Gigi threw Darcy an oversized wink, as if to say, I’ve got your back. That night, he attached her phone number with the picture of her looking out at Alcatraz. One could say poetic things about her trapping his heart, but, in truth, it was just his favorite picture of the day. Her face was hidden, showing only her vibrant hair. Darcy often felt like he could not understand what was going on in her mind behind the exuberance and playfulness of her personality. This photo captured the Lizzie that he had known: one of mystery.
All of these things flashed through his mind when he saw that photo, as well as the events of the evening prior. He was still on the fence about listening to her voice mail, but he didn’t have time to worry about it now. He had not allowed himself adequate time to get ready for his busy day.
A few hours later, William Darcy was bored out of his mind. SCMS had given them a small booth as a basecamp for the weekend’s events. Darcy and Ms. Elliot both felt that it was imperative that at least one of them be there from 8:30am to 5:30pm. While the sessions were going on, there was little footraffic through the booths. Ms. Elliot had offered that they alternate manning the booth and attending sessions. A weary Darcy told Ms. Elliot to go ahead and attend as many sessions as she wanted to. She was in a much better mood to network and absorb information. Darcy just wanted to crawl under a rock and die.
His mood did not improve when he saw two young women approaching the Pemberley Digital booth with big grins on their faces. The brunette had her hair up in that braided style that Jane Bennet was so fond of. The other girl had short, bright pink hair covered by a brown cap. She was wearing a red bowtie and an argyle sweatervest. It took Darcy a moment to realize that these girls had seen Lizzie’s videos.
“Ohmygod!” squealed the brunette. “I had heard that Pemberley Digital would be represented here, but I had no idea that William Darcy himself would show up!”
The one with pink hair seemed a little more composed. She stuck out her hand to shake Darcy’s. He reluctantly took it. She had a strong handshake, which he respected. “Hello, Mr. Darcy. I’m Julie Hayward and this is Andrea MacDonald. We are big fans of Lizzie Bennet’s video dairies, so when we heard that Pemberley Digital would be hosting a session on Saturday, we knew that this event would be a priority.”
Darcy gave her a terse nod, unsure of how to respond. “Ms. Hayward, Ms. MacDonald. My pleasure.”
Julie continued talking in her direct manner. “We’re film students from Northwestern University. It’s our reading week, so we have a bunch of free time to check out the sessions. I was hoping to talk to you about internship opportunities at Pemberley Digital. How flexible is your timetable? Northwestern is on a quarter system, so we often have trouble with potential employers-“
Ms. Hayward was cut off by the eager squeals of Andrea. “Have you watched today’s video yet? Have you called Lizzie back?”
Darcy inwardly cringed, then grew confused. Had Lizzie spoken of her phone call in her most recent video? Why? Did she give an explanation? It was all that Darcy could do not to pull out his phone and search for the video. Instead, he kept his composure and responded, “I am afraid that I am a bit behind. We have been very busy at Pemberley Digital. And, of course, an event like this is full of hustle and bustle.”
Both girls looked to their left and their right. Few people were mingled among the booths, but most of them looked bored and aimless. This room was not exactly hopping.
Julie raised a doubting eyebrow. “Yes, I can see how preoccupied you are. Well, if you get a spare moment, perhaps you could check out what the love of your life has been putting online for the world to see.”
Darcy felt a flush creep over his face. Was he really that transparent? Did everyone know that he was still in love with Lizzie? Did Lizzie know? Is that why she had been ignoring him for weeks? He had let the last few episodes go by without watching. Jane and Bing had found their happy ending. He was glad that wrong had been righted. In the meantime, he needed to move on with his life.
Embarrassed, Darcy responded with as much coolness in his voice as had been given to him. “If you are not prepared for the chaos of corporate life, perhaps you are not prepared for a place like Pemberley Digital.”
Ms. Hayward blushed in return. Darcy guessed that she had just realized that she was talking to the CEO of a major media company. “I’m sorry,” she said genuinely. “I just know that if someone I loved were sharing their thoughts with the world, I would make sure I had front-row seats.” The two women left quickly. Ms. Hayward slipped her resume onto the stack and Ms. MacDonald not-so-secretly snapped a photo of him with her iPhone. They departed, leaving him more confused than ever. What on earth had been in her last few videos?
Ms. Elliot returned to the booth at the end of the day, her face flushed with excitement. She chatted his ear off all during dinner about the people she had met and the sessions she had been in. Flipping through the notes on her iPad, she gave him the highlights. Darcy half-listened, trying to be polite. He just wanted a moment to himself. He knew that he needed to watch those videos. And he didn’t especially want to be around others when he did so.
Darcy excused himself when dinner was over. Someone that Ms. Elliot had met in a session was waving at her from the bar. Darcy wished her a good night and beat a hasty retreat up to his room.
Knowing it was terribly out of order, Darcy started with her most recent video. She seemed to be as out-of-sorts as he was. She was talking to herself. And nothing seemed to make sense. Imaginary Charlotte asked her what she was afraid of, and she had no answer. Darcy was baffled. Perhaps she was afraid that he would declare his feelings again? That she would have to burn down this delicate bridge of semi-friendship that they had developed? And her voicemail, first heard on her video, was so cryptic. Darcy chuckled at the ridiculous face she made when she hung up. She had teased him for months about being awkward? His actions seemed nothing compared to hers.
Darcy listened to the message on his phone for the first time. He was surprised that she had broadcast it, but with Lizzie Bennet, everything was taped. He listened to the message six times in a row, with a furrowed brow, before he decided to watch the three videos before it.
The first two were horrible. Charlotte re-appeared. She asked Lizzie point-blank about her feelings towards him. Lizzie evaded the question and acted like Darcy hadn’t been embarrassingly obvious about his affection. He grew even more confused. And then Lydia showed up and confessed his part in her drama. Oh good lord. Could no one keep a secret? This was only going to confuse Lizzie more and get feelings of gratitude mixed in with her loathing. No wonder she sounded so confused in her voicemail.
And then, the coup de grace. Caroline entered. Caroline freakin’ Lee. Darcy had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. She stormed in, acting like she was in charge of everything and everyone. Darcy’s heart swelled with pride when Lizzie didn’t back down. And he couldn’t believe it when she flat-out told Caroline that she and Darcy were each in charge of their own lives. She was acknowledging that they both had power in their situation. Whatever decisions they made about their lives, their work, or (gulp) each other would come from them and them alone. Lizzie wasn’t going to allow herself to be manipulated by Caroline, Gigi, Wickham, Fitz, or anybody. Maybe, for the first time, Darcy had a chance to woo her on some solid ground.
He fell asleep that night hopeful for the first time since January 30th.
Darcy wanted to catch the first flight out the next morning. But he knew that he needed time to think and prepare. He couldn’t just call her back. That wasn’t his style. He woke up early and called the front office, asking if they could secure him a bike for an hour or two. They were more than accommodating to a CEO. He gave the woman behind the desk a hefty tip on his way out the door.
There was a lovely, if sandy, bike trail along Lake Michigan. Whenever he needed to think, Darcy took to his trusty bike. This loaner would have to do. The Pacific Ocean was preferred, but the lake was a decent enough substitute. Breathing in deep gulps of near-frozen air, Darcy wondered if spring ever came to the Midwest. He biked up and down the lake, considering all the possibilities. He continued to nix a phone call idea. Using Domino, Skype, or Google + Hangout was too impersonal. He had to be there in person. Words always seemed to clumsily stumble out of his mouth. He hoped he could be more composed with time to prepare and her reaction immediately available on her face.
Damp with sweat, Darcy stopped his bike back where he had entered the trail. Knowing that he was crazy, he decided to toss his hotel key in his bike helmet and dive into the freezing Lake Michigan. What the hell, he thought. What do I have to lose?
The day was torture. He couldn’t decide if it was better to distract himself or obsess over Lizzie. He decided to be distracted. He asked Ms. Elliot to watch the table that day, and immersed himself in the three sessions. The notebook that he had brought along was teaming with notes and doodles. Darcy suddenly remembered why he loved his work.
That night was the reception after the awards ceremony. Darcy would need to do the dreaded deed of mingling with strangers. It was the thing he feared the most, and Darcy was thankful for the well-mannered Anne Elliot by his side. Just as he was starting to truly long for a certain redhead to be at his side instead, Darcy spotted someone else he had been looking for. She was approaching him with her usual sweet smile, followed by a handsome young man.
“Ms. Price, what a pleasure to see you again,” he said, offering her a polite smile.
Fanny grinned in response, looking blushingly up at her companion. “It is Mrs. Bertram now, actually.” She giggled and held out her left hand.
Darcy looked at her rings with an appraising eye. “Congratulations Mrs. Bertram. And am I to guess that you are the lucky husband?”
The dark-haired man offered his right hand for Darcy to shake. “Reverend Edmund Bertram. Pleasure to meet you.”
“William Darcy. Pleasure is all mine, Reverend.”
Fanny linked her fingers through her husbands. With a sharp pang, Darcy realized that he wished Lizzie would do the same some day soon. He looked back up at Fanny’s face and tried to force another smile. “What brings you two to the conference this year?”
“Edmund works here in Chicago and his church is doing amazing things with media and evangelism. We have a staff member who was honored tonight, and we came to support him. What about you, William?”
“The usual. Pemberley Digital is continuing to expand. Our new little toy, Domino, is preparing to enter the next stage. We’re just looking for ideas, investors, and creative storytellers. Perhaps we should be looking into a church like yours, Reverend.”
Edmund slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “Feel free to call me anytime you’d like, Mr. Darcy. I’d be glad to tell you more about our church and hear your take on the future of media.”
Rev. and Mrs. Edmund Bertram did not linger. They soon lost themselves in the crowd again, fingers still entwined. Darcy watched them go with a sad smile. He did not know their story, but he knew what he needed to do. He need to go to Lizzie’s as soon as this conference was over. He needed to put his heart on the line again. The only thing worse than being rejected again would be always wondering if he and Lizzie could ever become a happily married couple like the Bertrams.
Darcy arrived at the O’Hare airport entirely too early. He was eager to get to Lizzie’s. That meant plenty of time to get Gigi her beloved popcorn. And he also had a chance to stroll through the pedestrian walkway.
This must have been his hundredth time walking this path, but suddenly Darcy realized why he loved it so much. Eight years prior, his father had taken him to London on a business trip. The two had met up in Chicago so they could fly internationally together. That was the first and last time his father had ever taken him through this walkway. Darcy had wanted to step onto the moving sidewalk and get to their gate as soon as possible.
But his father had stopped him. His father had said that William needed to sit back, relax, and enjoy the beautiful things around him whenever he could. He told William that if he hadn’t set work aside, he never would have gotten William’s mother to fall in love with him. His father gave him a valuable lesson in priorities that day. Darcy had sometimes forgotten it, but he vowed to forget no longer. The most important things in life took time, care, consideration, and the bravery to take risks.
His heart thumping loudly in his chest, William Darcy boarded a plane bound for his destiny. He did not yet know whether that destiny would be full of despair or hope.