Chapter Twenty: I'm only hoping as time goes you can forget

The acrid scent of smoke is subtle at first, filling the bathroom like a gas leak. She rolls the cigarette between her fingers, ignoring the ash that falls onto her silk nightgown. After it burns down to her fingers, she lights another, and stretches out her legs, resting them atop the edge of the bathtub. Propping an elbow on the toilet tank, she waits for the smoke to grow thicker. She won't stop until the room is shrouded with the gray fog and her skin is rank with the smell.

She puts the cigarette out in the sink, leaving a violent black streak against the white porcelain of French perfection. She does not feel guilty. She picks up the matches, fumbling with the small package she bought at the first hyper-marché she passed when she arrived three days ago. The flame burns orange and bright; the cigarette glows when she lights it. This time, she fits the cigarette between her lips, testing the taste with a quick flick of her tongue. She inhales carefully and chokes, coughing up smoke. When she is calm, she inhales again. And again.

Outside of the bathroom, someone enters the hotel room. The intruder calls her name and she jumps up, throwing the cigarette into the toilet. She throws the pack into the bathtub and thrusts the curtain closed. Before she can do another thing, Blake opens the door.

"So you are in here."

"You could have knocked," Rory says.

Frowning, Blake looks her up and down. "You're not dressed."

She touches her clothes self-consciously. Her nightgown is wrinkled and one size too big; it hangs off her at an angle. "No."

"I wanted to take you to dinner tonight."

"I'll take a shower now. I'll be ready in no time."

Without waiting for a response, Rory turns the shower on. She goes to close the door, but Blake remains in its entrance, looking thoughtful.

"I need to get in."

"Then get in," he replies.

She slips off her nightgown, revealing a pair of panties and nothing else. Blake smiles appreciatively and holds out his hand. She takes it, allowing herself to be reeled in. He drags his fingers through her hair and down her back. He kisses her forehead, and she closes her eyes, listening to the shower beat against the pack of cigarettes.

"Why was he there?" Blake asks. She tries to pull away but his hands tighten on her hips. "I deserve to know, Rory. You're lucky I waited until now to ask."

"He just wanted to see it," she whispers.

"Bullshit."

She pushes his chest, and he lets her go. Frustrated, she snaps up her nightgown and puts it back on. "I want to stay in tonight," she says, turning off the shower.

"Rory, we're going to talk about this. He humiliated me in front of my friends and family – "

She whips around. "What are you talking about?"

"He walked you down the aisle. You were clinging to his arm so tightly I thought I'd have to pry you off."

"We were friends before you ever came into the picture." She pushes past him into the bedroom. "He was doing me a favor, walking me down."

"He kissed you in front of the entire church!" Blake shouts, slamming the bathroom door shut.

"It's customary."

"Are you out of your – "

She cuts him off, speaking over him. "Are you forgetting that you're the one who invited him?"

"Oh, this is great. It's my fault now."

She throws her arms up into the air, at a loss. "You sent him the invitation! The only reason he even knew the date of the wedding is because you told him!" She jabs a finger in his direction, narrowing her eyes. "He was out of our lives for six months, and you brought him back in. Don't you dare take this out on me."

"He was gone?" Blake demands. "Gone for good? Out of the picture?" He slams his fist into the bureau, knocking over the lone champagne glass from the night before, when he drank alone. It hits the carpet with a soft thud, rolling unbroken into the wall. "He's never gone, Rory! He never will be!"

"Not if you keep bringing him back."

"Reserve any plane tickets recently?" he shouts, coming toward her.

Her eyes widen. "Were you spying on me?"

"You ordered a plane ticket every month he was gone!"

"You were keeping tabs on my credit cards?" She throws open her suitcase, not waiting for confirmation. She pulls out the first pair of pants she can find. "I need to get out of here."

"No, wait." He grabs her elbow but she pushes him away.

"Leave me alone."

He encircles her waist, leaning his chin on her shoulder. "Please calm down."

She hangs her head, staring at the assortment of clothes she has bought with Blake's money. Expensive blouses, designer dresses; buried beneath hundred dollar jeans, diamond studded earrings lay, waiting to be worn.

"We'll never move past him if you never let it go," she warns. "He's gone. Let him stay gone."

He kisses her neck, brushing his nose against her hair. "Rory," he hums, "you were smoking."

She slams the suitcase shut, her limbs strangely heavy. She almost falls into bed from the downward motion.

"It's a disgusting habit," he advises. "Don't start now."

She licks her lips, saying nothing. She can still taste the cigarette, smell the smoke. It's the faintest pang of guilt.

"I want to get past this, Rory, okay? This is our honeymoon. I want to take you to Le Jules Verne tonight, and after, I want you and I to visit the very top of the Eiffel tower." He sighs, disappointed at her silence. "And tomorrow, I want to go wherever you want."

He leaves her side to grab a manila envelope he discarded when he first came in. Dumping it on the bed, dozens of booklets fall out, each advertising a different country, a different attraction.

"Pick one," he says simply. She stares at him, unmoving. "Rory, take a look."

England. Australia. Ireland. Spain. Egypt. It's a pile of forgotten dreams of foreign lands and daring reports; she touches the pamphlets, thinking of a cameraman, a microphone, and fear. Exhilaration.

"I don't understand."

"I have reservations everywhere," he explains. "All you have to do is pick the place."

She digs in deeper: Italy. Greece. Japan. India. Russia. Sweden.

"I can't – " She covers her mouth, and swallows back something unidentifiable. She doesn't know where to start.

Blake looks over at her, his gaze smoldering. "He never would have been able to give you this."

>

Jess rubs his eyes and stifles a yawn. He has been sitting in front of the computer screen for hours, determined to complete the editing job. Every time he thinks he's done, he remembers a particular scene that could be cut down, a scene that could be better, a scene he didn't proofread enough. Thanks to his new perfectionist attitude, he'll never finish.

"Um, Jess, it's like, ten-thirty," Ted announces from the doorway.

"I'm aware," Jess replies, not looking up.

"Yeah, but it's ten-thirty at night. I left hours ago."

"I'm almost done."

"Whatever, I'm not complaining." Ted plops into the chair across from Jess's desk. "I'm just a little worried, you know, about your mental health."

"I'm fine."

"Oh." Ted nods. "Well, okay then. Good." He watches his friend type for a few minutes, the tap-tap of keys the only sound. "So, hey, Jess."

"Mm?"

"I was wondering when you were planning on paying me back for that trip to Connecticut you just, you know, had to take. It's been a couple of weeks and my rent is due… well, it was due last Tuesday."

Jess freezes, his fingers stiffly resting on home row. "Soon."

"Jess…"

"I promise. I've cut back on the hours at the café, and I need to pay rent and for class… we're not exactly bringing in a lot of money here, Ted." He pauses. "Or any money, for that matter."

"That'll all change soon. I promise."

"Sure." Even though he is broke, and the company has been in the red since the building's purchase, Jess doesn't care. He likes the work he does now, the hours he spends immersed in reading, the smudges of red ink left over on his fingers. He wouldn't trade this for any amount of money; he likes to think he wouldn't trade this for a girl either.

"So what was that trip for?" Ted asks. "You practically ran out of here after I lent you my credit card."

"It was nothing," Jess replies, shutting down his computer. His vision has begun to blur; it's time to call it a night.

"Right. The last minute trip to Connecticut where that little brunette lives was nothing. Okay."

"Ted, don't start," Jess warns. "I don't want to get into it."

"You're not thinking of moving back, are you?" Ted asks, suddenly panicked. "That little seductress. I should have known."

Jess sighs, leaning back in his chair. "No, I'm not going back." Not now, not ever.

"Then what? It did have something to do with her, right?"

"I went to see her get married, alright?" Jess stands and gathers a pile of papers. He grabs his workbag from where it rests on the floor.

"Get married?" Ted pauses, thinking this over. "How long has she been dating the guy?"

"Forever," Jess states. He slings his bag over his shoulder. "Four years, I guess."

"Four years." Ted's mouth goes slack as he ponders this new development. "So you and she…"

"I don't want to get into this. I'll pay you back soon, okay?"

"Yeah." Ted shrugs, brushing it off. "Take your time."

>

Life after the honeymoon is stagnant. Rory isn't sure what she imagined would happen when she came home and Blake returned to the office, but she hoped for more than this.

Emily shoots her a look from across the room, her fingers fluttering near the napkin in her lap. Rory picks up the cloth napkin monogrammed with the Landon name, and places it in her lap, smoothing out the creases.

This is the fourth luncheon she has hosted in her home, inviting Emily and the DAR group to partake in gossip over tea. Rory is the youngest in the room by far, but an accepted member of the group. Emily's friends love to fawn over her, asking her questions about her marriage with Blake and if children are expected anytime soon.

(The answer is always no.)

Rory supposes she likes these days best when she has something to fill up her time. In the morning she watches over the cook and maid, making sure the meal is properly prepared and the house is kept tidy. The afternoon passes with mindless chatter and expensive tea, and in the evening, Emily usually stays for dinner, saving Rory from a silent meal with her husband.

Other days, however, are eternal stretches of time, with morning and afternoon blending in a sunless haze. Rory sleeps later and later now, only getting out of bed when she can no longer stand lying still, watching time slip by.

"So Rory, you've been married three full months now," Heather Denton gushes. She leans over, covering Rory's hand with her own. Her perfume is floral and too strong. "How is married life treating you?"

"It's fine," Rory answers tersely, politely extracting her hand.

"That's it, just fine?" Heather winks at Rory like a teenage girl and laughs. "I'm sure it's more than fine. I've seen your husband. He's quite the looker."

The rest of the women laugh. Rory doesn't blush.

"Oh really, Heather," Emily chastises. "Could you be any more crude?"

"Probably." Heather grins devilishly. Her graying hair is dyed platinum blonde and her lips are painted a deep red. Her attempt to look younger is laughable. No one in the group can stand her classless tendencies and unabashed vulgarity, yet she is always present, always invited. Rory has yet to grasp the politics of the rich.

"Rory, are you home?"

Each head swivels in unison toward the entrance of the living room. Blake appears seconds later, briefcase in hand.

"There you are." He grins broadly and the women gaze at home fondly, happy for the young lovebirds.

Rory stands and greets her husband with a chaste kiss on the cheek.

"I was hoping to take you to lunch," he says quietly, so only Rory can hear.

"I have guests."

"Then I suppose I'll have to join you." He sidesteps his wife and sits on the couch. Rory drops down beside him, returning the napkin to its proper place.

"You two look so perfect together," Jennifer Hutton says. "You remind me of my husband and me when we first married."

Blake takes the compliment in stride. "Thank you."

"Your wedding was so beautiful, I don't think I ever got the chance to tell you that," Linda Fowl speaks up. "The church and the flowers, and my goodness, Rory, your dress."

"Thank you," Rory echoes her husband hollowly.

"I can only hope my daughter finds such a great catch," Linda continues. "Rory, you're so lucky to have found a man like Blake."

Emily clasps her hands together. "He's wonderful. Isn't he wonderful?"

Rory forces a smile. "Wonderful, Grandma."

>

Rory winces at the sound of shattering glass. She watches Blake pace in front of her, stopping only to kick a piece of furniture or smash another expensive decoration.

"You've been lying to me." She says nothing in defense. She knows that if she waits, he will eventually yell out all of his anger. When he is calm, he will kiss her, apologize, and have a maid clean up his mess. These ridiculous fights have spanned their entire relationship; she's used to this.

"I want children, Rory. We agreed we would start trying."

"No," Rory correctly quietly, feeling the need to jump in. "You decided."

"I can't believe you're still on birth control!" he shouts. "Here I am thinking that soon enough, we'll have a baby on the way, and you're preventing it!"

"I don't want kids yet!" Rory yells back. "Did you hear what I said? You decided for us!"

Blake holds his head in his hands, breathing heavily. "Have you been talking to him?" he demands. "The maid said you spend all morning and part of the afternoon in bed. Do you call him?"

Rory deflates into a nearby chair, suddenly exhausted. "I haven't spoken to him since the wedding. You know that. I just – " She sighs, tears filling her eyes. "I can't keep having these fights with you."

"Are you crying?" he asks softly. "Don't cry. I'm sorry."

"You're sorry," she says blankly. "I'm sorry. We're always so sorry."

"He's breaking us up, Rory." Blake's voice is full of malice. Somehow, every fight they have, every problem they experience is traced back to Jess. And he's sick of it. "All over again."

"Could you go, please?" she requests, staring at the carpet. "I want to be alone."

>

Jess taps his fingers against his desk. Anxiety and exhilaration run through him, and he cannot sit still. He uncorks the bottle of champagne and pours three glasses. He looks in the hall, but there is no one there. He drinks alone, waiting.

Finally, Ted arrives, a half-hour after the arranged time.

"Where have you been?" Jess asks good-naturedly. Right now, everything about Jess is easy and happy; his muscles are relaxed and his mouth is free to form a smile. He takes another sip of champagne, offering his friend an untouched glass. "And where's Carmen? I want to get her drunk."

"Carmen's not coming."

"Why not? The celebration's for her. She's got her book coming out. She should be in here, drinking from the bottle."

"She's not coming back. Her book isn't getting published. We're never going to make any money."

Jess almost drops his half-empty glass. He places it on his desk, next to the keyboard. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm sorry, Jess. I don't know what happened."

The doorway is suddenly filled with the imposing presence of an unrecognizable man. He makes a note on the clipboard in his hands before looking up at Ted and Jess.

"You have until five today to clean out the building," he explains in a bored voice as if he has no time for this. "If you do not vacate the building by five, you will be trespassing and you will be arrested. Do you understand?"

"No, I don't," Jess speaks up. "What the hell is going on?"

"Henry sold the building," Ted mumbles.

"What?" The ground begins to shake but Jess is the only one who notices. "When? We never talked about…"

"Henry sold it for twice the price he paid. He asked me how he could have passed up an offer like that."

"Simple, he could have said no. This is our fucking company!"

The man in the door clears his throat. "It may be your company but this is building isn't yours. Blake Landon has acquired this building legally, and he demands it be demolished immediately."

Jess grips the edge of the desk, squeezing until his palm is red with the indentation and the promise of blood.

"It was a gift for himself," the man continues, "to commemorate six months of marriage to his beautiful wife."

>

Rory excuses herself to use the ladies' room, where she locks the door and leans her head against the cool glass of the mirror. She is tired tonight, dizzy from the flutes of champagne she has drowned herself in and the strong cologne Blake wears. She fingercombs her hair and reapplies lipstick, scrutinizing her appearance until she is sure she is presentable.

She slips out of the door quietly, hoping not to make waves. She hates being noticed by Blake's friends or her grandmother's friends; there is an assortment of people who know her, but she cannot remember their names.

Her cell phone rings, and she answers it, despite it going against proper etiquette. She lingers by the wall, where she can see her guests mingle and laugh and drink. She is thankful for the distraction.

"Hello?"

"Is this Rory?" an unfamiliar voice asks.

"Who is this?"

"Listen to me, you stupid bitch, I want you to thank your husband for me. Jess and I really appreciate being thrown out of our work."

The voice and a face click inside her head. "Ted?" Her hand tightens on the phone. "Ted," she repeats. "What are you talking about?"

"Happy anniversary," he sneers. "Tell your husband we appreciate the reminder."

"Ted!" she nearly yells. "What happened?"

"I found your number as I was going through some old paperwork. Jess and I had to pack up a year's worth of work. It's all in boxes now, sitting around, collecting dust."

"I don't – " She swallows nervously. "I don't understand."

"We have no place to reopen and no money to do so," Ted announces. "Thanks for fucking us over. Have a great night."

The harsh click of the dial tone is loud and unforgiving. She turns her head and catches Blake's eye. Without breaking contact, she snaps her phone shut and shoves it in her purse. Blake frowns and walks toward her, realizing what has transpired.

"No," she whispers. She meets him halfway, pushing him back into the room where the guests continue to have a good time. She will not sweep this under the rug; she will not hide this. She's so tired of putting on the façade of a happy and loving marriage. This time, Blake will not get away with what he has done.

"You bastard," she snaps. She digs her heels into the floor, pushing his chest. He's afraid if he tries to push back, she'll yell or fall, and everyone will notice.

"You vindictive, manipulative, son-of-a-bitch!" she shouts. Every guest freezes. Even a waiter with a tray full of drinks pauses in his task. Blake bumps right into him, and both hit the ground in a heap of broken glass and spilled wine.

"How could you do this to him?" she demands. "He's gone! He's trying to get his life together and you just take it away!" She ignores the whispers of the crowd, the hungry eyes dying for more. "You ruined his life, and I will never forgive you for that. Never!" She takes a step back, her hands raised as if to surrender. "I can't do this, Blake. I'm so sick of this. I'm through, do you understand?"

"Rory," he begs. He is back on his feet, reaching for her.

"I hate you," she spits. She spins around and stomps out of the room, leaving Blake to clean up the wreckage she has left in her wake.

>

When he enters the bedroom later that night, she sits on the mattress calmly, dressed in pajamas, her hair neatly brushed. Her breathing is even, her muscles are relaxed. Blake crawls onto the bed behind her, and she doesn't make a sound.

"Rory?" He touches her back, surprised when she doesn't flinch. "Rory, say something."

"I'm sorry I made a scene," she whispers. "I shouldn't have done that."

"Your grandmother is furious. She's going to come over tomorrow and talk to you."

"Okay."

"Are we alright?" he asks quietly. He rests a palm on her shoulder, and she doesn't shake him off.

"We're fine," she answers. "But I'm exhausted. I just want to go to sleep."

"Sure, of course." He kisses her cheek, and turns off the lamp. "I love you, Rory. I hope you know that."

She pulls on the sheet, trying to disappear underneath. "I know."

He finds her hand in the darkness and squeezes. "Good," he whispers. "Don't forget it."

>

Two weeks later, Rory is ready to leap out of her skin as she sits beside Blake at her grandparent's house. The party is a small gathering thrown by Emily and Richard to celebrate Blake's birthday. A few close friends of his are present as well, but Rory is barely aware. She keeps her hand on Blake's throughout the night, giving him all of her attention.

"When do I get my gift?" he asks with a wink.

"Soon enough." She kisses his mouth quickly before either grandparent notices.

"I'm looking forward to it."

She entwines their fingers, looking thoughtful. "You should be."

She has been planning his gift since the night she blew up at him. Every chance she gets, she relives each second of her anger, and it gives her strength; courage. She looks at her watch and decides it is time.

"I think I'm going to head home now, if you don't mind," she announces. "I have a terrible headache."

"Oh, so soon?" Emily asks.

"What about my gift?" Blake pouts, touching her beneath the table.

"Soon," she promises.

She gathers her coat and purse, and kisses her grandparents goodbye.

"Happy Birthday." She hugs Blake, kisses his cheek. "I'll see you later."

On her way down the steps outside, she passes an unfamiliar man whose purpose she immediately recognizes. "He's inside," she advises.

As she pulls out of the driveway, the man rings the doorbell, and the weight inside her chest is gone.

>

At home, she drags her suitcase out to the car, carelessly throwing it into the back. She dumps her jewelry box over the dining room table, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets skittering every which way. She leaves her wedding ring in the middle, a beautiful centerpiece.

"You can take whatever you want," she tells the maid. "Just make sure you leave the ring."

>

Quarter after midnight, Jess's channel surfing is interrupted by a knock on his door. He ambles over, his attention still captivated by the TV screen.

He throws open the door, and he's flying, tumbling through space. The world may continue to turn, but he is knocked off alignment, hurtling toward a black hole.

"I love you." She says it outright without hesitation. She throws her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. "I'm sorry for taking so long. I'm sorry for being so stupid. I'm just so sorry." She releases him, wanting to see his face when she tells him. "It's over, Jess. All over. I left him."

"Rory…" His face betrays nothing.

"I served him with divorce papers. It's happening. I'm not going back on this."

"Jess, you finished the soda," Charisma pouts, coming to the door. "Oops." She blushes. "I didn't realize we had company."

Rory stares and stares and it don't compute. She doesn't understand; she refuses to understand.

"This is Rory," Jess introduces. "She's just stopping by. Can you excuse us for a minute?"

"Sure." Charisma heads for the couch. Jess steps into the hallway, closing the door behind him.

"Her name is Charisma. I met her in class," Jess explains.

"How long?" Rory asks, barely breathing.

"Since the wedding." He rubs the back of his neck. "Her dad is going to get me a job at his company. It's nothing big. Just until I can find something better. Something permanent."

"Are you in love with her?" It hurts to ask, to even consider the idea that someone else can fill her place.

"Yes," Jess says. "No. I don't know." He stares at Rory, her trembling hands, her pursed lips, her wide eyes. This time, she's the one that's waiting.

"But I want to find out."

"No." She shakes her head to emphasize the point. "No, Jess. Don't do this."

"Do what?" he demands. "You're part of the past, Rory. I moved past you."

"Are you happy?" She takes his hand, brings it to her face. "Because I don't know how to be happy without you."

She kisses him soundlessly, a simple brush of her lips against his. Hiding her face in his chest, she is afraid to look up, let go. He feels the tears through the thin material of his shirt.

"I'm leaving him," she insists. "And you're leaving me all over again."

"I told you this was over. I walked you down the aisle, and you married him. You looked right at me, and you married him anyway."

She takes a step back, stung. "You didn't come to stop it! You came to say goodbye."

"You could have stopped it. Over and over, you chose him over me."

"No!" She reaches behind her, touching the wall. She's afraid she'll fall through the ground, fly away.

"This is my life now." He gestures to the apartment door. "Here. Without you."

"You're doing this to punish me. I know you're mad, and I know I messed everything up, but let me fix it." She almost moves forward to touch him again, but at the last second, she doesn't. "I'm going to make this up to you. Let me make this up to you!"

"No," he says simply. "It's too late."

It's a small sliver of a crack in the middle of her heart. She feels its movement, the way her breathing reaches a lull as her body fights to regain normalcy. She breaks down in front of him, not caring to hide her tears or her desperation.

"Oh god," she whispers. She turns away from him and starts down the hall. Her car is outside, packed with a suitcase and her stupid, childish hope for something better.

"Rory." He does not go after her. She does not face him. "Don't go back to him. Just… go somewhere else. Go be a reporter. Go to Europe. You can start over."

She waits, and when he doesn't say anything else, she heads for the stairs, not looking back.

>

It's nearly a year later when he visits New York and finds her picture in the society pages of a local newspaper. She and Blake grin out at him in black and white, both of their hands resting on her stomach. The caption boasts of her pregnancy; she's four months along.

Jess takes the paper back to his hotel room, and stares at it until his vision blurs and all he can see is their hands clasped together, a promise for the future. He shakes with endless rage, ready to implode with the knowledge that she could be his now, be here with him in bed, and he could be happy.

Happiness is that intangible, unreachable dream he has been chasing since birth; he thought he had found it in her. He had glimpsed it in her smile and in her kiss, but it's gone now; he's ruined it once again.

The light melody of hate fills his head, and it's familiar and comforting; he closes his eyes, hoping it will sing him to sleep. The repetition fuels the anger, and he burns slowly in an anonymous hotel bed.

It's a long while before he realizes that the song has changed, the mood has shifted, and the hate is no longer directed toward her. It's back where it belongs, locked into a position of self-loathing and self-destruction.

He hates himself.

Later, he thinks, he'll buy himself a drink to celebrate his loneliness.

(the end)


A/N: Wow, that was a fun ride, wasn't it? Thanks for reading and reviewing and yelling at me and cursing Rory and telling me how much you cried. I appreciate everything. I hope you enjoyed.