Author's Note: Thanks so much for the interest in my stories that I haven't posted. I'm kind of busy with stuff right now but I'll try to organize them so I can send them out to people who want to read them over for me. I just finished this one like five minutes ago, with some help from my good buddy T.S. Eliot, and hey, if it's done, why not, right?
Setting: The bus, as Jess is leaving. Yes, it's been done before. I haven't done it, though. I hope neither Rory or Jess is too out of character.
Rating: Strong PG-13 (lots of references to sex, and some pretty major swearing)
Disclaimer: Kind of goes without saying . . .
"The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word
But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken
Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew
And after this our exile."
T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
She looks up and they lock eyes. It's typical for him to be just sitting there, looking supremely bored in that gorgeous and rebellious way, a book balanced on his leg. Yes, she should probably be surprised, or a little confused, but he's Jess (a personification of unpredictability in its darkest and most addicting form), so she accepts his presence on the Lysol-scented bus without question.
He's wearing his leather jacket. That makes her uneasy for some reason. What bothers her more is the way he instantly pretends he hasn't seen her, turning to stare stubbornly (carelessly?) at the trees outside. She feels the pit of her stomach twist, and she can't tell whether it's because he refuses to look at her or because he always makes her insides coil a little bit.
After a moment of waiting in which he doesn't look back, she considers ignoring him (if he wants to act like a pouting five-year-old, let him). Then she remembers how his mouth softened when he thought her attention was on the screen and not on him during Almost Famous, how his hands burned scalding paths across her body, how his eyes were screaming at her just a couple of nights ago on the lawn in the middle of slick, hot grass, trying to tell her a thousand things and then looking broken before he walked away.
She wants to be mad at him because she can never resist him, and now is no different. Especially now, when she wants to be working furiously to bandage them, when she wants to tell him without actually having to tell him that she didn't truly want him to stop at Kyle's house, and to be perfectly honest, that terrified her just a little bit. There's half a second in which she fights her instinct because she has been avoiding him for days, but then he taps his fingers absentmindedly against his knee and she's done for and it's decided.
He watches her walk up to him, scaring the hell out of him (he will not admit that). In a quiet, natural move, he nudges his duffel bag discreetly to his left, further under the seat in front of him, and he wishes very much her face was not so delicate and her eyes were not so clear and her hair was not so soft. His damn heart is slamming in his ribs, which he finds pathetic. It's nothing more than a mass of muscle tissue stuffed with blood, but it's like he can feel it against every nerve of his body.
No one is supposed to see him leave. That rule applies a thousand times more strongly to Rory, and it was pretty damn strong to begin with.
Closer, closer, closer. He'd like to think he's not going to lie to her, but he probably is. He's a jackass and he's not optimistic enough to think that he has suddenly been transformed over the last five seconds. She's glancing up at his face periodically from where her eyes are timidly fixed on the floor, and that's his fault, he made her head bow when she's near him.
He thinks about swallowing but knows the effort would be futile. His face betrays nothing of his emotions, and for once, for once in his whole life, he wishes that it would. "Hey."
"Can I sit?"
He wants to say no because he doesn't want to have to say anything else. He's a selfish bastard and he knows it. But he can't refuse her. She has bedroom eyes, doe eyes, angel eyes, and he just can't. "Uh, sure, sit." And then because the silence is killing him, he says, "I thought you took an earlier bus." (Translated into his language, this is: 'I didn't mean for it to be this way, I didn't want you to have to see this, I didn't want to hurt you anymore, forgive me, please, and if you can't do that, forget me, please, because I'm a screw up.')
However, Rory appears to be lacking a Jess dictionary this morning.
"My first class got canceled today."
He thinks about what they would have done any other day. He would've skipped school (ironic) to be with her, brought her to a bookstore, kissed her behind shelves of Burkowski, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, who would all act as guardians against the clerk that would throw them out if he caught them. But today is not any other day.
"Oh." He always makes an effort for her to say more than he normally would because he knows she wants him to. He tries even now, lying in his own blood, figuratively speaking (or is it literal? He can't remember). "So what's been going on?"
He kind of wants her to say, 'I've been missing you,' but she doesn't. He's pretty sure she has, though, and he can't decide if it just makes things worse or perhaps a little better (remember, he is a selfish bastard). "Nothing much." For the first time he wants to call his sweet, innocent Rory a liar. The urge passes quickly. "Fran died."
He considers saying, 'Her and me, both.' It seems a little heavy.
"I went to her funeral yesterday."
He thought about going, too. He probably would have if he wasn't so ashamed to see her. The whole avoidance thing backfired to hell, though, when she almost came to the diner and he almost came to her on the sidewalk. That's their whole relationship (almost, almost, almost) and it's all his damn fault.
"Luke went, too."
He's studying the curve of her ear and thinking about beautiful. She can't tell.
"I saw him there." That's the soft, Rory 1.0 Version of, 'Where the hell were you?' He decides to plead the fifth.
She understands that he isn't going to compromise with her (she never really thought he was capable of compromising, in the first place), so she still refuses to look at him and says, "He was in the back."
Say something, say something . . .
His throat is hot and he feels sweat gathering between his shoulder blades and all at once he's half leaning towards her, muttering, "I can't take you to the prom. I couldn't get tickets." Because, you see, out of all the things he needs to tell her, that one seems the most important. He doesn't understand why it's so suddenly and viciously damn crucial for her to hear that from him, but it is, because the idea of anyone else telling her that kills him a bit. But he isn't prepared for the way her eyes widen with hurt; the little "Oh" that escapes her mouth like someone has punched her.
He thinks about explaining, but he knows he's not able to, so he finally whispers, "Sorry." What he means is, 'I'm sorry, I'm so fucking sorry, I wanted to take you, I wanted you to smile at me and make me feel like I did something right, I didn't mean to push you that night, I don't want to shove you into sex, it wasn't even about sex, it was about a million other things I can't tell you, I wanted to forget, I hate myself for doing it, I'm scared to ever touch you again and I'm terrified not to.' Typically, she understands what he leaves unspoken, and he'd like to think she does now, but she's staring at her shoes, not at him. He knows she doesn't.
This wasn't in the plan. Definitely, definitely not in the plan.
She wonders if it's because she did something wrong. She thinks probably, that he must be angry with her, that she shouldn't have made him stop at Kyle's party, and guilt and shame and confusion make her blush. It's not the adorable blush he will never tell anyone he likes. It's a sad blush that makes his fingertips hurt.
She wishes it were raining. She doesn't know why (well, she kind of does, it has something to do with wanting white and spinning and lilac blossoms and mascara running down her face to mix into the pavement).
He wishes it were raining. He doesn't know why (well, he kind of does, it has something to do with wanting to hide his goodbyes and to have someone make him stay and for the sky to cry for him because he doesn't know how to).
But it's not raining, it's a beautiful soft almost-summer sun, and it makes the dust that lies on the window of the bus sparkle. He thinks about kissing her; it seems almost like a sacrilege. It's already a little hard to believe that once not so long ago he was free to kiss her whenever he wanted. He figures it was a damn horrible thing for him to do, to defile something like her.
The disappointment in her heart is overshadowed by the feeling of being caught in some great motion that she can't stop and never gave permission to start. It pulls at her skin and scares her, this feeling, and when she lets herself glance up at him through heavy fawn-colored lashes it nearly kills her. "Why are you here?"
She asks this because she has always been afraid of him stepping a foot out of Stars Hollow. Even though he doesn't say it anymore, she's pretty sure he wants to leave so badly that once he crosses the border he will run, run, run and forget to come back.
She watches the defiant gleam of sarcasm in his eyes. "This is public transportation," he says flatly. He's avoiding her question and she can feel it
He's not sure why he's being a smartass, especially to her, especially because it's all his damn mess and not hers and he's a screw up who shouldn't be near her (there's a little more martyrdom in him than he imagined, like a washed up and pitiful version of Jake Barnes). He watches the sadness in her face steel a little more into anger and is glad. For many reasons.
"Decided to become Kerouac?" She's only half-joking.
"Subtract the whorehouse and yeah, pretty much." So is he.
Her stop is coming up. She can see it rolling toward her out the window, the promised land, an escape from whatever it is on this bus that's suffocating her, an escape from his eyes that are hard but tortured again like they haven't been in a long time, from the calluses on his hands that she wants to trace with her fingers.
But she will not run away like he does. She absolutely refuses to. So she says nothing.
He raises his eyebrow but will not admit he knows this is her stop. He absolutely refuses to. So he says nothing.
Finally, she says, "I'll get off and walk."
He thinks about forcing her to get off the bus now. It's a fleeting thought with no substance and he decides to wait her out instead.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I,
I took the one last traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.He'd like very much to tell Robert Frost his thoughts on that poem: it's a load of crap. There is no difference, you just hurt the same people in varying ways, sometimes it took longer and sometimes it was shorter, but it always led back to the same fucking mistakes you'd made again and again.
When he refocuses, she's looking at the floor near his boot. Dammit, dammit, dammit!
"I hate that bag," she whispers, and it's all she can say, because she feels like she's drowning. Maybe she is. He's lied to her enough that this part, the bag and all it implies, just might be true.
He doesn't know what to say (not that he ever has), so he remains silent. He thinks acid is being poured all over his body, eating through his skin. He can't do anything right; he can't even disappear right.
A tear slips down her cheek and his chest feels shattered.
"W-where . . .?" She trails off, looking at him, the rest of her unspoken question heavy and pressing in on every bone in his body. He doesn't want to tell her, doesn't want to make this harder than it already is, and he stares stoically ahead.
He thinks of the word love, clawing away from it, trying to escape it, but it wraps itself around his neck as if it were a rope.
"Say something, Jess, please!" It hurts him more when she begs than when she doesn't. He sees her, eyes big and shiny, mouth trembling, and he reduced her to that, he did that to her, he's taken an innocent glass creature and cracked her into a million microscopic pieces (His hands have always been too rough and too dirty and he's always broken anything he's touched and he wonders why the hell he thought she'd be different).
"What? What do you want me to say?"
All the words she previously thought she was going to use – 'Why don't you tell me hey, it's been great making out with you, hope to catch up with you later for sex or something" – are meaningless and empty and her throat has no room for the meaningless or empty. She opens her mouth but no sound escapes.
Her blood thunders in her ears. He studies her for a moment, sees nothing, lets a glare flash across his eyes, and looks back at his feet.
It's a one-worded question that weighs on him so much he believes his ribcage is being crushed. He pretends he doesn't hear her, but of course they both know he does, and dammit he doesn't understand why she's not ready to give up on him yet. "Answer me."
She's never really demanded anything from him before and he doesn't know how to deny her. He thinks of a million reasons to give, but the only one that makes any sense to him is the only one he trusts himself enough to say as he studies golden highlights in her hair (although he is afraid to stare at her). "I screwed up."
For the first time since she sat down next to him, she touches him. A miniscule brush of delicate fingers against his sleeve. It's almost enough to break him.
"The party? I'll talk to Luke. I'll explain it, I'll tell him, Dean started it and you had to defend yourself, and –"
"Dammit, Rory, no." He rakes a hand through his hair, fingering the pack of cigarettes in his pocket that he just bought this morning and smoked half of. She falls silent. He wishes he could trace her collarbones. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. "Believe it or not, it doesn't always come back to dear old Dean."
A little intake of breath to his right tells him he's hurt her again. I'm a jackass, everyone warned you, I'm a son of a bitch and you should have listened to them. He would like to tell her he's sorry.
She collects herself quickly because she is not helpless, he's stupid if he thinks that, and she says with a voice that reminds him of iron being melted and molded, "Then why? What's up with the whole running act? Got scared?"
The mocking passes his tolerance level and he slams himself back in his seat. She thinks it's because she's made him angry, she can't possibly know how correct her biting words were, and he's clenching his fingers and trying to breathe, remember to breathe, dammit all, who gives a fuck about breathing. "I can't do this crap anymore!"
"This!" A voice like a razorblade, vicious, not to her, never to her, to the rest of everything she personifies. "Goddammit, this whole damn town!"
"I don't care about them!"
That sobers him like ice cold water or a million tablets of Advil. He wonders if she's telling the truth and the flashing in her eyes answers him yes. He's accidentally changed her forever and she will never be the same.
"I'm not graduating." Raw words, honest like he has never been to her. The idea of telling the truth has always scared him, because he has been taught (accidentally?) to always be afraid of the truth. He hates that she makes him say it anyway.
She gives no reply for a moment. He feels her shift and stare at her patent leather shoes. His fingers are clenched so tightly that they're digging into his palm, and it'd be good if he could feel it, but he can't.
He's a monumental screw up. And her silence confirms it. Ironically, he feels a bitter grain of vindication because he was right, he should leave, he's disappointed her just like he was so fucking afraid to do in the first place. It's a vindication that stings.
Dammit all. She should have come with a warning label.
He doesn't know how to explain it. Nuclear wars, another standoff with Cuba, a hostage situation in Iran, he just can't remember what the hell brought him to this point anymore. So he shrugs. She knows better than to ask again. The bus continues to rumble down the street. She thinks of the silver asphalt spinning beneath her, unreeling in great shining ribbons.
"I'm going to stay with my dad."
It's strange how she never thought of his dad before. How she thought she knew him completely but really never knew him at all, how she was terrified to ask of his past, to ask what had made him learn to walk so quietly and watch everyone so carefully.
"Yeah." A pause. "He lives in California."
California. For a brief second she can't separate it from the moon. Her body is rigid but still she's trembling, staring straight ahead, thinking leave, leave, leave, and wondering how she ever expected him to stay, especially with her, who is not enough to tie him down and she feels guilty that she failed him.
Her breaths come out uneven and harsh. He hears them but pretends he doesn't (what the hell can he do, really?). "Don't go."
She watches his eyes snap up in surprise, and for the second time in her life – the only other time being when they were lying in the wreckage of a mangled car – she sees fear dance across his face. He hides it instantly, but it was there, and it makes her heart pang. "Rory . . ."
"Please don't go."
This is secretly what he was afraid of when he climbed onto the bus. Yeah, he told himself he was leaving without telling her because he didn't want to disappoint her, because he didn't want to hurt her, and that is partially true, but the other reason is he kind of always knew she could make him stay. And his gut is twisting.
"Rory, I just can't –"
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry about what happened at Kyle's party, and about letting you start just to make you stop, and not following after you and avoiding you and I wouldn't have except I didn't think that you would –"
"It has nothing to do with that, okay?" He fingers his cigarettes again nervously and he cannot bear the idea of her thinking this is her fault (that was one possibility he never considered). "At Kyle's . . . it had nothing to do with . . . I mean . . . I'm a guy, of course I . . . but it was other things, and I just wanted to . . . forget and . . ."
He's ashamed to say the next part. She keeps her eyes locked on his all of the sudden and he knows he has to.
"Sex is something I'm good at," he says lowly, not wanting to go deeper into it, not wanting to remember the guilty screws underneath dirty sheets and in corners and in back alleyways, especially not wanting her to imagine them, because it would not have been like that for her since she is celestial and forever and pure. "And I wanted . . . to do something I was good at." He doesn't add the 'For you' part.
She blushes. It's an embarrassed flush that creeps across her cheeks and down her neck. But she doesn't look away. "I just . . .don't run away from me," she says, like that can keep him here. It can't. The innocence in her electric blue eyes might.
There's something in her gaze that says quite plainly, 'Yes, you are,' and he knows she's right. He can't bear to look at her any more so he stares out the window for a moment and watches the trees roll by.
"I . . ."
He knows what she's going to say and he knows she will only say it if she means it and his knuckles hurt and God, God, God he doesn't want her to say it because dammit, that will break him and he doesn't want to force it out of her and he just doesn't want it out of her since it means too much and seconds hanging as ice shards on rope of lightning . . .
"I love you."
It was an unspoken agreement between them, up until two seconds ago, that they would never say it. That they didn't have to. That it was too cliché, too Jane Austen for him and too damsel-in-distrees, too Charlotte Bronte for her. So he never expected it to pierce him like it's doing right now, like flaming nails or bubbling tar (and why is he comparing it to methods of torture?). He never expected that it would do this to him, leave him speechless and make him want to touch her and make her scream.
He'd like to say it back. He feels it, too. He tries for her, it's always for her. "Rory . . . I . . ." Frustrated, he drags a hand through his hair as the bus drives on and jolts them. "It's not as easy for me . . . No one ever . . . not even Liz . . ."
She looks like she understands. He doesn't want her to, and he doesn't want her to be able to know another damn thing he's terrified of. His words choke in his mouth and try to suffocate him. She whispers, "It's okay," but it's not, not to him.
They're coming closer and closer to his stop in Hartford. A kind of dread he's never experienced before sits in the bottom of his stomach and desperately he starts memorizing her every feature, the length of an eyelash, the dusting of freckles on her nose, the shape of her lip.
"Stay with me," she says, not pleading anymore, not begging, and not demanding. Just a whisper of a wish both of them want.
"You know I can't."
She smiles sadly, a crystal tear slipping down her cheek, and he finally touches her. He knows he shouldn't. He knows he's unworthy. He knows she's a thousand of the things he can't reach and he can't deserve. But as his thumb glides over her skin and brushes away the tear, her hand reaches up against his, and he can't move. "I know," she murmurs.
The bus groans to a stop in front of the station. He (who can never stop playing with fire even if it kills him) leans forward and touches his lips to hers. She wonders why she feels like they're Kamikaze suicide bombers, or maybe swirling through a vacuum, always, always, always reaching. The things she tastes in that kiss and sees in his eyes, the million apologies, the million moments that should have been theirs, the million words he can't say, are all too beautiful for her to look at and they hurt her very much. She closes her eyes and threads her hands through his hair.
Smoke, leather, ash, aftershave. Living, coming, going, dying.
It's all the same to her.
As always, their fights swirl away from them like ash on the end of one of his cigarettes, a violent change of emotions, a hungry desire and a thirst and a terrifying, terrifying place where want and need blend together so thoroughly she can't separate them. He pulls her against him like he wants her imprint in his skin, each cut of her bone against his, ribs touching. She feels the rush she always gets from kissing him, because he is unpredictability and rashness and impulsiveness, he is night and night is him (she could not get this rush from a free fall off of the Empire State Building).
Then he moves away. And she's watching him leave. And an hour ago he thinks she was probably expecting him to pour her coffee that evening.
Huh. He would laugh, it's so damn ironic.
The thing that almost makes him change his mind is when she reaches out for his bag before he can and hefts it over her shoulder to give to him. It's her eyes, her clumsy saddle shoes, her carmel-colored hair, and then his bag. It seems like his bag is desecrating her. He takes it. She looks at him with a question, and he knows what it is, 'Can I go with you?' He shakes his head. She nods.
He almost tells her that she saved him, even if the process isn't complete yet, she redeemed him and preserved him and she is a goddess to him.
After giving her a gentle kiss on her temple (skin on skin still scares him a little), he thinks that if he stands still one second longer he will be riding back to Stars Hollow with her and it will eventually suffocate him, so he steps away. It's just after he's turned around that there's an unbearable clawing, tearing, gnashing, ripping in his heart and he has to, has to, has to say it, despite the fact that he is a damn weakling now and she's done this to him.
He can't leave without letting her know.
So he turns to her again, watching her there, standing lost and used and broken like a doll left in the rain, the only truly honest thing life has ever let him touch, innocence that has perhaps destroyed him as much as it has salvaged him (he doesn't know whether to thank her or despise her for that). And he takes a deep breath and realizes there is no use trying to keep her out. She has already ravaged him.
"I can't stay. That town . . . it's killing me . . ." He looks at her because it's the only way he knows how and he begs her to understand.
"I know." Her voice is full of sobs now (it was never supposed to be like this).
His fingers wrap around the strap of his bag, so tightly his knuckles are white. "I . . . I love you." He swallows as the tears on her eyelashes overflow and begin to drop on her neck. "I loved you the whole time."
She crosses her arms in front of her chest, and the smile she gives him is perhaps the most painful thing he's ever endured in his (very painful) life. Tears fall thicker now, until she's crying and laughing at the same time and he understands how she feels because he kind of feels that way too. He thinks the word 'cliché' can go to hell. "I know."
He turns around and refuses to look back because that's how he's always been, but he can feel her watching him and he thinks of sweat and white bedsheets and jasmine and rain, rain, rain, sticky Indian summer heat, morning cigarettes, shared book collections.
The sun burns through the black leather of his jacket. He should have left something with her, a T-shirt, a watch, all of his goddamn paperbacks, he's not sure. But what he doesn't know is that he didn't have to leave behind much. She has a promise he never said with words and that's enough for her (because she really does love him with all his bruises and shadows and sharp edges and addicting darkness).
She stops crying and sits down. The seat next to her still smells like him. She rubs her fingers over her lips and doesn't go to school that day. Her mother never asks if Jess said goodbye, and she never tells, and life goes on (albeit broken). She has dreams about him. She doesn't think they are quite as good as reality was, and she almost hates him a little bit, even if she sort of understands why he left.
Three weeks to the day that he walks away from her, a letter arrives in the mail. There's no return address, but the stamp from the post office says Venice Beach, California, which is as good as his name. She stares at it for a moment, presses it to her, wonders, and then slides her pinkie beneath the envelope to open it.
There's two lines scribbled in his precise, somewhat cramped handwriting. She watches a teardrop blur her name in the upper left corner.
1-310-693-4241. I know it's long distance. Use it, please.He doesn't sign it. He doesn't have to and he knows this. She thinks it's a little cocky of him, but she's smiling despite herself, and her finger trembles an hour later when she finally picks up the telephone she's been staring at to punch in the numbers. She should have known that she could never hate him for long (it's a weakness of hers).
He answers. His voice sounds basically the same. He doesn't sound happy until he realizes it's her. And then, she knows by the change, he's smiling one of the smiles he has never given anyone else.
In that second, she decides he's probably worth the wait, and even if he isn't, she really doesn't care. Maybe that's exactly why she closes her eyes with the violence of excess pleasure when he tells her Yale is 2,889.8 miles from Venice Beach, and he's pretty sure the car he's planning to buy can scrape through every single one of them.
"White light folded, sheathed about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream."
T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday