I don't own the characters, I just play with them. No copyright infringement intended.

Thank you all for reading, and special thanks to all the reviewers :o)
Also, I'd appreciate it if everyone refrained from objecting to EmmaR2's review, vociferously or otherwise ;o) - I actually enjoyed that one as much as any other.

29. The Last One

Rory leaves work earlier than she's supposed to and blames her premature departure on a weather-induced headache; it's one of those soggy, overcast days that hints at sunshine behind the clouds but it never really appears. She walks down the street and the wind that brushes against her face is unnaturally warm in the humid air; everything about the day desperately calls for rain, yet there is none – there is just the insanely thick, overbearing saturation in the air that makes it difficult to breathe and almost impossible to connect two semi-reasonable thoughts together. She looks up and wishes for rain again, almost willing it to come down with a fury and break this hopeless tension before it drives her flat out of her mind.

The relief she felt when she escaped the office is short-lived; she barely reaches the end of the street before it occurs to her she really has nowhere to go and nothing to do except toss the same desperate thoughts around her head that she's been dissecting and analyzing for a week. No matter where she goes or what she does, the thoughts will follow, hand in hand with the anxiety and the perpetual feeling of restlessness that makes her wander around in aimless circles, as if moving will somehow help her leave it all behind. She looks at the people around her and envies them on their destinations and sense of purpose; somehow, inexplicably, she had completely lost hers within the last seven days.

She turns a few corners and crosses some streets; she walks by a hot-dog vendor and tries to remember if she's eaten anything today, but the answer doesn't come and by the time the traffic lights on the next intersection change, the thought evaporates from her head, giving way to the familiar feeling of gloom and misery. A few steps later, just as she wonders if this is the moment when she'll finally burst at the seams and start crying, fate smiles on her and puts a bookstore in her path, and she rushes towards it as if she'd come across a solitary tree in a desert.

There is peace here, or at least a semblance of it, and for her it comes from the silence, the feel of paper under her fingers, and the elusive smell that rises from the pages – this place, and others like it, are after all her proverbial church. Books are familiar and comforting, and each represents a world that she can escape to and get lost in, and she does this eagerly; she only makes one small concession to her inner turmoil and aims for the children's section where the worlds are mostly bright and cheerful and don't tend to go up in smoke. She finds an empty corner and sits in a brightly colored chair, grateful that she's alone and therefore doesn't have to endure strange looks that an adult sitting in a tiny chair might otherwise draw; absentmindedly, she runs her hand along the shelf and picks a random means of escape.

It catches him by surprise when she emerges from work so much earlier than he expected, and as he watches her walk down the street, he suddenly realizes he's completely unprepared to face her and has no idea how to say what he wants to say. She all but disappears in the crowd before he finds the presence of mind to follow, but from a safe distance, at least until he figures out how to translate this inner chaos into actual words.

She walks slowly and he soon understands she's roaming and there's no real destination in her mind. Random walks are, after all, his specialty; the wandering rhythm is easy enough to recognize and he matches it easily, putting one foot in front of the other automatically as his mind drifts in tune, thoughts and feelings swarming inside as he tries to apply some order to them. He doesn't need much, he just needs enough to piece together a few coherent sentences, but all he draws is a blank. Certain that if he faced her now, he'd just gawk and stutter incoherently, he puts his headphones on and, keeping his distance, shares this aimless stroll of hers.

A few blocks and a Moist album later, there's a subtle change in her pace; a sense of purpose suddenly appears in it and a few moments later, he sees her disappear into a bookstore. A smile escapes him and he knows it may be a while before he sees her again; grateful for the intermission, he looks around for a coffee shop and picks one across the street where he settles at a table partly hidden by a topiary. He waits, his gaze fixed on the bookstore windows and his mind still scrambling for proper words.

Maybe there are no proper words; maybe they're not even important. Maybe they won't need any words at all, he thinks hopefully, but the moment the thought enters his mind, he dismisses it quickly because it's ultimately the lack of communication that landed them in this mess they're in right now. They'd never said the right things at the right time, they'd both either held back feelings when they should have expressed them or blurted them out in twisted ways and impossible situations, and it all just amounted to a sad history of misinterpretation and misunderstanding, a history that has to end if there's to be any future for this thing that had somehow, through all the chaos and the mess, miraculously stayed alive between them.

But the history is important nonetheless; it's important for both of them to understand all the choices and the mistakes they made. She'd laid hers out in letters, and he needs to do the same somehow, but the words just refuse to form and slowly, he's getting scared they never will. Just as his blood begins to chill at the prospect, a voice echoes in his ears with words that are perfect; they're not his, and the voice belongs to a stranger, but all the same, they are everything he's been looking for and he listens intently and with immeasurable relief as they tell a story he's actually lived through. Once it ends, he doesn't give it a second thought; he just quickly pays for his coffee and walks across the street and, taking a breath, steps into the bookstore.

Out of nowhere, she feels it again – that change in atmosphere, a shift of feelings, a subtle variance in her surroundings, and instinctively she somehow sees him long before her eyes drift up from the page. It's been only days, but there's something so remarkably different about him that it seems to her she hasn't seen him in years; it's mostly in his eyes, but she also catches a few creases around his mouth that weren't there before. For a moment, he seems strange and distant as he towers over her, and she suddenly feels ridiculous and small sitting in her tiny yellow chair, but in the next heartbeat he just lowers himself into the adjacent red one unceremoniously, like it's the most natural thing in the world.

She wants to says something, but it's beyond her capabilities for the moment, and she'd gladly trade any fortune for him to speak, but he doesn't; instead, he just reaches for his headphones and moves them around her head - unwillingly, she winces slightly at the touch and immediately regrets it as a hurt looks sneaks into his eyes. He hesitates for a second, but then slowly settles the headphones over her ears and retreats; watching her intently, he props his elbows on his knees and waits.

Today I saw a face I only dream of
I recognized
the feeling that I used to know
from another time and space I thought I left
long ago...

It's another puzzle, this moment and everything in it, from that lingering, unguarded look in his eyes to the lines that echo in her head and unfold into something familiar in the feeling they describe, that vague but persistent desire that always took over whenever she laid eyes on him, regardless of anything or anyone else that may have occupied her thoughts just a moment before. It's a feeling she knows well, but her heart beats faster now that she knows this is something that lives within him too.

We took our separate ways
but in our hearts we'll never change
throw it all away
could we go back once again
I learned to carry on, I learned to face another day
without her, without a trace...
So close we nearly touched
I almost took her hand in mine
time can fall away
but nothing can change the man inside
or bring us back the love once we denied...

The words bring flashbacks of scenes they'd lived through and she listens sadly as she replays them once again in her mind, the fights and the misunderstandings and all the things they were always too proud or too stubborn to say, all the feelings they wouldn't admit or own up to, and all the time they'd thrown away over doubts, out of spite or endless insecurities, and for the first time, she actually wonders if it's all gone past any chance to fix. Maybe it has; maybe this is just an absurd, poetic goodbye ridiculously staged in colorful chairs in the middle of fairy-tales that really only exist in children's books.

He watches her carefully, studiously, like he's examining a masterpiece he stumbled upon by chance and would never have the opportunity to scrutinize again. Every shadow that darts across her face, every frown on her forehead and every twitch of her mouth is noticed and assigned meaning to, yet somehow, there's no definite conclusion he can draw from any of it, so he just holds his breath and braces himself as she slowly pulls the headphones off .

"What is this?" she asks softly, slowly gesturing with the headphones.

The question comes as a surprise and brings a wave of confusion, because there are a million answers to it and he can't think of one in the face of the searching look she gives him. The silence stretches and now is definitely not the time to let it grow. "It's just… me, I guess," he finally blurts out, unable to come up with anything better.

She smiles sadly. "Yes, it's you, it's me, it's this whole mess wonderfully dissected," she sighs, and drops the headphones in her lap, wrapping and unwrapping the wire around her fingers. "But what is it, really? You being here, and this song, and this look you're giving me… How did you even know where to find me?" She shakes her head. "I'm so tired, Jess, I'm tired of these guessing games, I'm tired of justifying myself and explaining myself and apologizing, and I can't understand why it's so hard for you to get it through that thick skull of yours that I –"

"I love you," he cuts her off quickly, suddenly knowing that is the only thing he needs to tell her, and the words are so simple and obvious that he's completely baffled he spent the entire day in search of them, because really, they've been there all along, staring him right in the face, thoroughly natural and reachable.

She stops in mid-sentence and stares at him, eyes wide and lips parted, like she'd been frozen solid or turned to stone, looking dazed and shocked beyond description.

"I love you," he repeats again, enunciating every word slowly and purposefully; she still doesn't move and this stillness is slowly turning his blood to ice. "Come on, Rory, would you just breathe or blink or scream or slap me in the face or do anything that will wipe this stroke-victim look off your face," he says quietly and drops his head in his hands, staring at the floor.

Slowly, she unclenches and a small smile sneaks across her lips. "I was actually waiting to see if you're going to bolt," she says quietly; it sounds like an attempt at a cautious joke and he looks up at her quickly and finds that her lips really are curved upwards, even if it's at the smallest angle.

"I'm not bolting," he declares plainly.

"And I'm not cheating on you," she counters softly.

He drops his head again. "I know," he says quietly. "I was an idiot."

She nods slowly. "You were," she says simply and takes a breath. "But in spite of that, and everything else… or maybe even because of it all, I don't know… I love you too."

His head turns in a flash and he looks at her sideways, unable to hold back a grin. "That's the first time I heard you say that."

A brief smile crosses her face. "I know. Sorry about the setting, I never really pictured myself saying it crouched on a kid chair, but you know, there it is."

"Does the chair make it any less true?" he asks with a smirk.

"No," she concedes gently, and the smirk turns into a smile.

"Then the setting is perfect," he says simply and slowly reaches for her hand. She lets him have it, and watches him untangle her fingers from the wires and lace them with his. A small smile curves her lips again but vanishes just as quickly as it appeared, and she shakes her head. "Just the fact that I love you and you love me - it may not be enough," she says quietly. "I need to trust you, and I need you to trust me. I also need you to forgive me, really forgive me and let go of everything I once did, just like I'm willing to let go of all your mistakes, because otherwise, we'll just be stuck in the same endless miserable loop forever." She holds her breath and looks at him. "Can you do that?"

He smiles and brings her hand up to his lips. "I promise," he says with a smile and plants a small kiss against her knuckles.

She watches him carefully and slowly retreats her hand. "Just like that?" she asks, frowning. "That's a pretty big leap from a few days ago."

"I know," he rubs his hands over his face and sighs. "But I don't know how to explain it to you."

She shrugs. "Then figure it out. I need to know what's going on inside your head. All of it," she says simply.

He looks at her and wonders how to phrase the chaos, but no strategy presents itself, so he gives up any attempts at being methodical about it and slips into imagery. "You grew up surrounded by love– and I don't just mean your mom, you had a whole town of people loving you, and yes, some were total freaks, there were even some potential mental patients, but nonetheless, loving someone and being loved back is something that is second nature to you. It's almost something that's a given. Not so with me. No one ever really cared for me, or took any interest in me until I landed at Luke's. God knows, I never cared for anything or anyone before then, and I never loved anyone before I met you." He shakes his head, frowning. "And loving you, it was the weirdest thing I ever experienced, it somehow brought out the best and the worst in me, and I loved and hated that at the same time. I loved it because it made me happy, but I hated it because I wasn't in control of it, I couldn't just brush it aside and forget about it if I so chose. To love someone is to depend on them, and I never depended on anyone for anything, and to let myself feel that way just went against everything I'd known or believed to be good for me." He looks at her and frowns harder. "All throughout my life, people had been a major disappointment, so I trained myself not to need them. I didn't need anyone, I didn't trust anyone, and I sure as hell didn't care about anyone to the point where I'd have to think twice about never seeing them again. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, there was you."

He falls silent and she looks at him, but senses he's not done, and even though his eyes still rest on her face, the gaze somehow travels past her so she stays quiet and waits for him to continue.

"There was always this amazing thing about you," he smiles absentmindedly after a while, "you somehow managed to crawl under my skin and suddenly you were just there, and I had no idea how it happened, and once I was aware of it, it was already done and over with. You were there and I sure as hell didn't want you to be, but getting rid of you proved an impossible mission. It was just as undo-able back then as it proved to be every time I attempted it since, and it drove me insane because I didn't know how to deal with it."

She nods, smiling a little. "Yeah, it drove me insane too. You were insufferable in every other respect, yet there was something about you that was larger than all of that. And through everything that happened later…"

"…that feeling never changed, I know," he takes over, shaking his head. "But on many other levels, I guess I just felt you always chose so many other people over me, and I felt it happened over and over again, and even after all of that crap, I still couldn't get you out of my system and when you left Truncheon, the glass just… tipped over and the whole self-destruction phase ensued." His brows knit together and he rubs his eyes. "Once I was over here, things picked up, and just as I felt close to normal again… there you were, being everything I loved and then so much more than ever before because you were available and willing and trying so hard, and as always, completely impossible to resist, but all that stuff that happened before still stung, and I couldn't let go of it. I was happy, but everything just seemed too good to be true, and on some level, I was always waiting for something to screw it up. I was so sure something had to, and when I saw you with what's-his-name, I just thought – okay, here we go, this is it."

It's not an easy story to hear, but she listens intently and never looks away, waiting for the moment of truth to come, waiting to find out what it was that made him come here today and finally talk about what he's feeling as opposed to shouting it at her or hiding it in random sarcastic remarks.

"I was an idiot," he repeats, "but trusting people doesn't come easy for me, and sadly, trusting you came even harder."

She scoots closer to him and props her hands on her knees, matching his position and leveling her face with his. "So what made you change your mind?" she asks softly, searching his eyes; the question makes him smile and he reaches for a stray strand of her hair and tucks her behind her ear.

"I finally realized you were just as screwed up as I was," he chuckles gently. "You devil-egged my car. You stole a yacht. You slept with Dean. You wrote letters to me when you never thought you'd see me again. All acts of a truly disturbed, desperate, angry and miserable individual, and that was something I could relate to, something I understood, something you never would have done if you'd been as happy as I always thought you were." He shrugs. "Until I read those letters, I never really believed you loved me like I loved you, in that all-consuming, chaotic, rampant kind of way that renders everything else insignificant and obsolete. You hid it too well."

"It scared me," she says quietly. "There was no order or end in those feelings, and I was scared to act on them, but they were always there."

Silence descends and for a while they just look at each other, somewhat uncertain what to do with all this clear air between them now that the past has been neatly packed into a box and the box placed under a bed, never to be revisited. Right on cue, a kind face appears behind the bookshelf and informs them the store is about to close; they smile apologetically and slowly wander back into the street. It only takes a few steps for his hand to rest on her shoulder and her finger to hook in the back pocket of his jeans and they easily fall into the familiar walking rhythm.

"So what happens now?" Rory asks cautiously when they turn a corner.

Jess smirks. "I'm thinking, we go home and get naked."

"Is that all you think about?" she chuckles.

He laughs. "After a week-long dry-spell? Pretty much, yeah."

"Men," she shakes her head.

He smirks. "Okay, correct me if I'm wrong, but as I see it, we had a huge fight, then a week of frustration and misery, then there was the deep, heart-wrenching, meaningful discussion that cleared the air, during which even declarations of love were exchanged. True?"

"True," she agrees.

"Right, so the best sex ever is the very logical next step," he chuckles.

She laughs but still shakes her head and he throws her a brief sideways glance. "Come on, just admit it – you're thinking the same thing," he whispers into her ear, and tingles quickly dance across her skin.

"I am now," she admits with a smile. "Okay, so then what happens tomorrow?"

He laughs. "Hopefully, more of the same."

She stops under a streetlamp and faces him, trying to suppress a smile. "Do you have any plans that don't involve sex?"

He pulls her closer and kisses her neck. "Not for the next week or so, no," he mutters against her skin.

She pulls on his hair gently and makes him face her. "And what about beyond next week?" she asks gently, hiding her hands in the pockets of his jacket.

He cradles her face in his hands and runs his thumbs down her cheeks. "Beyond next week is the future," he says softly and smiles at the little frown that forms on her forehead before he traces it with his lips.

"So, any plans for the future?" she asks quietly into his jacket.

He tilts her head back gently and his breath brushes against her lips. "Just that," he whispers. "The future."



A few things I wanted to say :o)
First of all, 500+ reviews... I can barely believe it, but the number is up there, so I have no choice. Thank you all so much, the fact that you enjoyed this story means the world to me, especially because writing it came so much harder than it did with Of Books And Music. Go figure...

Secondly, a while ago I developed an obsession with the song quoted in this chapter, and in my mind, it sort of became a soundtrack for this story. The obsession reached such freakish limits I actually made a Rory/Jess video - if you should choose to take a look, the link is posted in my profile, but be warned: 1) It's my first video ever, so don't expect a masterpiece. I did it for fun. 2) The song is called Separate Ways, it's from an english album by Tose Proeski, a young macedonian singer who recently died in a car crash, and the album was released after his death. He wasn't a native speaker, and this is noticeable in his singing. Also, the version I used seems to be a demo of sorts, i.e., it's different from the official version released on the album, there are fewer production finesses etc. You've been warned, but in my opinion, all the mentioned imperfections just make it that much better.

Third, and most important - I wish everyone a wonderful Christmas!

All writers love reviews, good or bad. They are precious insights into our reader's minds. They usually make us try harder. They often make us get better at what we do. They always motivate us to keep going. They show us what we've done well, what we've done badly and what we could have done differently. Ultimately, they make us happy.
Just something to think about :)