Disclaimer: I own nothing to do with Gilmore Girls.
He hadn't noticed her flip open her phone as she walked into the school. He'd just seen her walk away from her well-wishers and thought that this was his chance. His chance to do what, he didn't quite know. He'd played it over in his mind again and again and still he had no idea what he was going to say. Ambushing her in the shadowy hallway with a trite hello lacked the finesse he was still so anxious for her to acknowledge. Why, in the name of all that was holy, had he let himself come back here?
"I think that I loved you but I'm over it. Goodbye, Jess."
He stopped short as he heard her speak. Clearly this was his chance to hear her tell whatever loser currently didn't deserve her that she loved him. Again. If she followed her declaration with the admittedly incongruous announcement that she still hated Tristan he'd have to rip off his ears with his bare hands since there was no more appropriate implement immediately visible. His jaw clenched as he cursed the plainly self-destructive impulse that had led him to believe that revisiting his own personal chamber of horrors was a good idea.
It was the tone of her voice that was his nemesis this time. He'd steeled himself against the knock-out blow he knew her eyes could deliver, the unexpected smile or blush or her tucking her hair behind her ear- all the simple gestures that he was too well aware could floor him. But he hadn't been prepared to recognise the kind of pain that he believed unique to himself in her voice.
She was perfectly in control yet grieving, the same anguished tone he'd used when last he'd had the opportunity to say goodbye. He knew he'd got the grieving down that night. He also knew she'd seen through any semblance of control he'd mustered. He wondered if she'd felt the hurt on his behalf, if she'd had any concept of what he was feeling then. There was no comfort in knowing that she'd certainly understand now. Nevertheless he couldn't help the momentary vindictive triumph that flashed across his mind as he realised that sometime between their last encounter and now, the bagboy had bitten the dust. Needless to say, where she was concerned his jealousy was never far away and he also couldn't help the tortured wondering whom the Jess was that she'd loved.
He wondered whether he should turn and run. He could still arrange an accidental meeting outside in the midst of the strangers that had once been his subjects when he'd passed for royalty in their twisted kingdom of privilege and desire. Or he could choose to walk away, keep walking from the whole damn idea that seeing her again wouldn't mess him up completely. He was still wondering when her phone snapped shut and she slowly turned around.
The form in front of her took shape and she jumped as she realised she wasn't alone. Her eyes were brighter blue even than usual, he noticed, though he couldn't tell if they shone with too many tears already shed or those that had still to fall. As they fixed on his, another scene played before his eyes- the once she'd sought him out to be each other's comfort. He hadn't welcomed her presence then and he doubted she welcomed his now. Then again, he was fairly certain she'd never welcomed his presence in this or any sphere of her existence.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean…."
With that recollection came another, less welcome, less remembered because every time the scene had played in his mind the ending had been different, a wish whose only chance of coming true was in his dreams. But with her in front of him he had to remember the reality of her desperate retreat. Now he was apologising for the nothing that he'd done this time- heaven knew he had enough apologising to do without adding in things that hadn't been his fault- for fear she'd run before he even had a chance to say hello.
The sound of his name cut him off mid stumbling apology.
It was a pity that whatever mature notions of restitution, of penance, that had driven him back to this godforsaken place hadn't thought to re-educate the sophomore mind that reflexively connected with his voice the moment he'd been required to speak.
For a second she looked affronted and he opened his lips again, hovering between another apology and saying her name again in the hope that she might not have noticed his slip.
She grinned, and his pure pleasure at her smile drowned the hurt that she still thought of him in such terms. Perhaps he deserved it. He'd deserved it once and she had no reason to suspect a change.
His hands were shoved firmly in his pockets in case they'd find some way to offer a handshake or, worse still, a hug she was bound to reject. He'd had enough rejection from her to last a lifetime and yet here he was, seeking out more just in case time should start to dull the pain she'd doled out to him in the past.
She was oh-so-aware of the eyes fixed on her, making her uncomfortable as he always had, though she'd never cared to study why he should cause her to feel so awkward. Consideration of her reaction might have borne an answer so obvious it would have horrified her. Self-knowledge wasn't one of her strengths. Self-preservation was her forte.
"I enjoyed your speech."
"You were here for the whole thing?"
He nodded. "This is the day Chilton's finally behind me- when I can stop feeling guilty about the shame I've brought on my parents by not being here."
She was silent for a moment at his bitter sarcasm.
"How was military school?"
He shrugged. "I graduated."
He shrugged again.
She fidgeted and he figured she was looking for some means of escape. Silently he cursed himself. Bad enough to have put himself back in this situation but if he let her go without putting an end to it he deserved all of the abuse that Paris would undoubtedly throw his way when it came to her ears.
"I- I didn't mean to walk in on your phone call," he said lamely, though it was true. "I just wanted to say congratulations."
"It's all right." She stared at the phone in her hand. "It didn't matter."
He nodded as though he understood.
"And I'm sorry for being such an ass to you."
"It's all right," she repeated. "I got over it." Another small smile.
"I presume my unfortunate departure didn't result in the group failing Shakespeare- Paris would have had me lynched by now."
"No- Paris played Romeo."
His eyes widened and she rolled her eyes at his obvious interest.
"Still the same one track mind I see. But I suggest you erase whatever perverted picture you have in your head right now before you traumatise both of us for life. She didn't kiss me."
He breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Just as well. I don't know what I'd have done if you'd told me she was a better kisser."
Rory laughed. "I imagine there would have been irreparable damage to your ego. I guess I missed that opportunity but it wasn't an image I wanted floating in anyone's mind."
He desperately wanted to prolong this conversation. At some point he'd grown aware that it was the longest they'd spoken without trying to kill each other since she'd talked him into dating Paris. She'd looked away from him again and he wondered if she was about to excuse herself.
"Of course, I wouldn't have had anything to compare her to just then," she said, glancing back at him quickly. "As far as I remember you wouldn't kiss me goodbye."
His eyebrows shot up. He'd been prepared for almost anything but the unlikely event of her flirting with him, however harmlessly.
"Your boyfriend was watching. I was in enough trouble as it was. And as I recall you'd spent the previous couple of days making it very clear you wouldn't kiss me even if your grade depended on it."
He couldn't stop the acid creeping into his tone at her implied assertion that she might have let him. He didn't know how much better or worse that would have made everything. Either it was a grotesquely missed opportunity or a cause for celebration that at that moment in their history she hadn't hated him. Briefly he remembered the days leading up to that night, the way she'd been with him and with Dean. He wondered now which of them she'd been trying to protect, wondered if he'd had a little more perception at the time and less of a compulsion for self-annihilation how things would have turned out.
"I- no!" Her face had flushed at the question, the deepening pink of her cheeks highlighting the blue of her eyes. Reflexively she took a step back, folding her arms.
"I wondered…." she admitted diffidently, when she felt there was enough of a barrier between them again, wondering what she was doing having a conversation like this with her long lost adversary moments after having hung up on Jess.
"I don't see a boyfriend watching now," he observed, a challenge in his eyes to make her move closer.
"He broke up with me. Or at least, he didn't break up with me. He just left."
Her voice was bewildered, as though she had yet to come to terms with what had happened.
"I'm sorry," he said genuinely. "The phone call?"
"He must be crazy. You're not that easy to leave behind, even when there isn't a choice."
She blushed again. "He didn't think he had a choice."
She thought that it was she that must be crazy, carrying on a conversation like this with the boy who'd been her sworn enemy from the day she'd entered these halls. She remembered that other moment when they'd almost called a truce, when she'd known briefly that he was just a boy, for all his bravado, a flesh-and-blood human being who could hurt just as much as her.
"I'm sorry too," she said suddenly, surprising herself.
"What for?" He was genuinely astonished.
"I wasn't very nice to you either."
"I started it."
One hand had made its way from his pocket to wave her apology away.
"You did too," she admitted. "I was provoked but I did retaliate. Even Paris told me I was mean to you."
"I probably deserved it."
"You're not very good at apologising," he observed. "How is it that you're saying sorry and still making me feel guilty?"
She giggled. "I have many talents."
His eyes involuntarily raked over her as he tried to drag them back to hers.
"That you do, Mary."
She rolled her eyes. She'd forgotten how often she did that when he was around. If he hadn't left, she wasn't sure that her eyes wouldn't have got stuck mid-roll at some point over the past year and a half. But weirdly this felt familiar, comfortable.
"Are you sticking around?"
Her question was more abrupt than she'd planned but she could see Lorelai through the door looking impatient. Or distressed at being left alone with Emily and Richard.
"I'm going to Louise's graduation party. Apparently I'm fully rehabilitated and can be a normal member of society again."
"Maybe I'll see you there."
"I hope so."
His eyes held hers as she backed towards the door, colliding with Lorelai who had just come in search of her daughter. He turned quickly and walked away before there could be any need of explanation or introduction. It was enough for now that Rory didn't seem to want to kill him.