ask me, i won't say no (how could i?)
Word Count: 1,387
Spoilers: Set around a year post-series, with references to season two and "The Real Paul Anka"
Summary: Sixteen, she reminds herself, was a long time ago.
A couple of weeks before Mom and Luke's wedding, Jess shows up. Rory almost has a heart attack the first time she sees him, sprawled casually on a bench with a copy of something folded in one hand. It's like when she tries to shuffle cards: the past six years turn into aces and jacks and queens of hearts – all over, kaplooey, away from her – and all of a sudden she's still dressing in blue plaid five days of the week and pretending not to like-like him. He looks up and she turns around and stumbles the other way. She's not sure, but she thinks that might be the protocol when you kiss your ex-boyfriend while you're still with your current boyfriend who has since become your ex-boyfriend, leaving ex-boyfriend-the-first to become – a friend, a nothing, a guy on a bench. Her heart pounds so hard she thinks she might faint, which is inconvenient, because there's no one in the immediate vicinity to catch her besides Kirk.
When she asks later, Luke tells her that Jess hadn't give much of an explanation – just said he'd missed good ol' Stars Hollow, wanted to get a jumpstart on his best man duties. "Completely sincere, as usual," Luke finishes. He sighs, but there's affection behind it.
"Huh," Rory replies, striving for casual and landing somewhere around spazzy.
That night, she sneaks into Doose's for five packs of Twizzlers and two bottles of chocolate sauce. (Mom's determined to master the art of candy spaghetti, but needs help operating under the radar. Luke swears he's not getting married just to have his wife go into a diabetic coma two days later.) She's coming out, bag in hand and feeling a little like Sydney Bristow, when he appears out of nowhere and falls into step next to her.
"Sorry I kissed you," he says, hands-in-pockets.
"Sorry I let you," she answers.
The corner of his mouth tugs up.
"Don't tell Luke," she adds with a glance in the direction of the diner. "About the Twizzlers and the chocolate sauce, I mean. Not about the – um, kissing, or anything."
"My lips are sealed," he promises, and slips away just as smoothly as he'd shown up. For a second she's tempted to throw out a 'Good night, Dodger' – for nostalgia's sake, or something – but she bites her lip at the last second. Sixteen, she reminds herself, was a long time ago.
"'Night, Dodger," he calls then. She smiles.
From there on out it's mostly like starting over, or maybe just picking up where they left off.
"Logan got me a Birkin bag once," she volunteers one night, after Jess tells her about one of his buddies who blew three months' pay on a necklace for his girlfriend and then got dumped two weeks later.
The diner's closed, dark except for the moon and the streetlights, and they're opposite each other – him behind the counter, her on one of the stools, both leaning in a little more than they need to. A mutual consensus on the necessity of ice cream has resulted in a carton of Neapolitan open between them – no cones, but they're making do. A generous-bordering-on-grotesque helping of maraschino cherries has helped to ease the pain.
The Smiths are on the stereo, turned up just loud enough to catch the drumbeat and the occasional fragment of Morrissey. Jess is pounding his free hand lightly against the countertop, mimicking the beat. "A what?"
"It's this big deal designer purse," she explains through her mouthful of ice cream. "Like, a really big deal. For a little while I got worried my grandmother was going to murder me in my sleep so she could steal it."
"Well, it is a Birkin bag." Sarcasm still looks good on him. Noticing is an accident.
"It was a very nice gesture," she says defensively, because she was with Logan for a long time and she's just falling out of the habit of missing him, and besides, it was.
Jess just looks at her, all expectant – it's like he's laughing even though his mouth's an unflinching straight line. He hasn't lost the ability to make her feel like all her secrets are pointless; like they'd be much better if he could keep them with her. She doesn't hate that, exactly.
"I wanted to put my computer cords in it," she finally confesses, and pushes a cherry back and forth with her spoon. "Logan had to explain to me that it cost like ten thousand dollars."
His eyebrows shoot up. "You're joking."
"Nope," she says gravely. "Well, he didn't say that, of course, but I looked it up online. And then almost threw up." It's the first time she's said this out loud, and for some reason, she doesn't feel like an idiot for confessing she used to be afraid of a purse. It's liberating, kinda. (Or maybe that's just the maraschino cherries talking.)
"Rory, Rory, Rory." He shakes his head in pretend disgrace. "When are you gonna learn to appreciate the finer things in life?"
"Finer than this?" she challenges, swooping her spoon grandly through the air. A fleck of melted strawberry lands on the counter.
"Good point," he acquiesces with a bow of his head. They clink their spoons together, in unintentional perfect time to This Charming Man. She starts to hum along, bopping her head as the song goes on; he calls her a dork but doesn't bother to hide his smile. She wonders if it's possible to be drunk on ice cream and this whatever-it-is with him, a feeling she'd forgotten about losing.
She comes home a few days later to find a black canvas bag mysteriously waiting for her on her bed, one of those ones they sell for ninety-nine cents at Doose's when you're feeling too environmentally sound for plastic. There's a note resting on top.
I don't think you'll have to worry about your grandma murdering you in your sleep. –J
She reaches inside and feels pages and spines. A familiar little girl giddiness surges through her. She pulls out a copy of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway – secondhand, with yellowed pages and that rich old book smell that she'll always think would be the best perfume ever, no matter how many times Mom makes fun of her for it. The cover's practically falling off. She runs her fingertip gently against the tired binding. When she flips through it, pages fluttering like impatient wings, it's to find his scrawl squeezed into the margins.
Beaming, she pulls the rest of the books out one by one. It's a completely random selection, all in similar states of disrepair – dog-eared and Jess-annotated and wonderful.
She reaches for the Hemingway again, remembering bridges and sun. On the title page, Hemingway's name is circled. One more chance? is scribbled underneath it. She bites her lip, traces the question mark with her finger.
The next morning, Mom goes up to bug Luke at the counter – "Must flirt for food!" – and Jess takes the empty chair, pushing a cup of coffee across the table her way.
"I like Hemingway," Rory says, curling her fingers around the mug.
"You like Hemingway," Jess repeats.
"I do," she says, and takes a breath. "It was just something I needed to grow into is all, I think. But – I have, and I'm grown, and I don't look at things the way I did back then, and Hemingway . . . he's not a bad guy."
He just looks at her. "Really."
"Not that I agree with all of his life choices," she adds hastily. "I'm not going to go get myself a double-barreled shotgun or anything."
"But you like him," Jess tests.
"But I like him," Rory verifies.
He's quiet for a second. There's the clatter of dishes and the chipper neighboring conversation: Lulu giggles delightedly the next table over as Kirk reenacts last night's Meerkat Manor. Rory waits.
"Okay," Jess says at last. He settles back into his chair. Relief floods through her, so warm and heady she thinks she might melt. Still, she tries to stay corporeal, for her coffee's sake.
She takes a sip, then leans forward, elbows on the table. The corners of her mouth curve up, a little. "I got a new bag for my computer cords."
"You don't say," he answers, and smiles.