A.N: Yes, it's been way too long; even I can't believe that it's taken this long. Oh well. To make up for it, this chapter is a little longer than usual (this is quite easily the longest one so far). Hope y'all enjoy it! (I'm not entirely sure about the Stars Hollow layout, so don't mind any errors in that. Ditto about the banking sector.)
Dedicated to the FF Trories, because y'all rock. Hee!
It Had To Be You
15: Nothing More
"Ex nihilo, nihil fit."
Lat., "From nothing, nothing comes."
The years seem to have melted away; she found that conversing with him was as easy as it had been when they were teenagers. She had been very surprised to see him, but it was a good kind of surprise, akin to her father's appearance at the party earlier. She hadn't seen Dean in years; the last time they met was over three years, coincidentally also during Christmas. They had bumped into each other at Doose's, both of them reaching for the last box of cocoa. They had laughed, did the obligatory small talk and then he let her have the box.
Rory thought that talking to him again after all these years, after all the history between them, would be difficult or at the very least, strained. But it was nothing like that. She found that they had the camaraderie that exists between two people who know each other well. And they did know each other well… once upon a time.
"Why are you out so late anyway?"
Dean frowned. "I needed to get away from my parents, actually." At her questioning look, he explained, "They've been hounding me all night about finding the right girl, settling down and having a family. I just couldn't take any more."
Rory winced, knowing precisely how that felt.
He saw her expression and nodded. "Exactly."
"I thought only women were subjected to that kind of pressure from their well-meaning families."
"Well, times have changed," was his dry comment. "That, and the fact that Clara was recently engaged… and now the limelight is on me."
"Her high school sweetheart finally proposed and they're having a spring wedding."
"Wow, Clara's getting married."
"I still can't believe it."
"So, I take it that there's no one special in your life, right now?" she asked.
"No, no one," he replied. "I guess you could say that I'm married to my job."
"I'm sure investment banking can wait while you're out searching for the love of your life," she teased. "I know that Credit Suisse isn't open 24 hours a day. Or are you somehow opposed to the women in Chicago?"
Dean laughed. "Not at all. I just haven't been… looking."
"I don't think anyone's really looking." The corners of her lips lifted in a smile as her thoughts wandered back to earlier that evening. "They just stumble upon it and hold on to it with all their might." Her eyes flickered to his face and caught him staring at her. "What?"
"So I take it that you've stumbled upon it?"
Her eyes widened in surprise.
Laughing lightly, he said, "I know you, Rory Gilmore."
She returned his smile and answered his question. "I don't know, I'm not sure yet."
He kept his probing gaze on her. "How can you not be sure? You either feel it, or you don't."
"You know how I like to complicate things."
"Who's the lucky guy?"
"Actually, you know him." When his jaw dropped, she hurriedly said, "And no, it's not Jess. Jess is engaged to Lane."
Dean's jaw dropped further "Lane? Lane Kim? And Jess?"
Rory laughed. "That seems to be the general reaction. And yes, it's true. They're crazy in love with each other."
"Some things certainly do change," he commented.
"They certainly do," Rory agreed. "I'm kind of dating Tristan DuGrey."
"Tristan DuGrey," he sounded the name out, trying to place it. "Tristan Du- you mean the Tristan from Chilton?"
"The very same one," she confirmed.
"Okay, am I in some weird alternate universe?"
"No, you're not," Rory laughed. "It's just that… things change, people change."
"And feelings change."
"Yes, they do."
"And I always did tell you that he had a thing for you."
Rory rolled her eyes, making him laugh. "Oh, please."
There was a short bout of comfortable silence as both of them looked out at the blanket of snow covering the ground and the small snow flakes that slowly drifted down.
"Rory… do you ever-" He broke off mid-sentence. "Never mind."
"Do I ever what?"
"Wonder. Do you ever wonder?"
He heaved a sigh. "About us. Do you ever wonder about us, about what could have happened if things were different?"
She turned her body to face him fully, and examined him in the dim light, not really knowing how to answer the question.
"I'm sorry," he said, running a hand through his hair. "I shouldn't have asked."
"I used to," she answered. "But then I realized that there was nothing to regret about our relationship. We had some really wonderful memories, Dean, and those I treasure. There's no use wondering what could have been."
That night, she did wonder.
But the object of her musings was Tristan, and what could have been with him had things been different. What if she hadn't met Dean? What if she had somehow accepted Tristan's invitation to the dance? What if she hadn't run away from their kiss? What if they had gone to the PJ Harvey concert together?
It was scary to her how different everything would have been had she just made one different decision. Choices, she told her herself, can change everything. And her choice about Tristan, now, could very well alter the course of her life.
Rory was nothing else if not rational; so she did what she always did whenever she needed to make an important decision. Switching on her bedside table, she reached for her ever-present notebook and pen, sat up in bed and mulled.
She made a pro-and-con list about her so-called relationship with Tristan, but matters of the heart couldn't be easily sorted into two distinct categories and so that list was of no help to her.
The most pertinent question was- and she wrote this in large block letters on the page- 'How do I feel about Tristan?'
And that, she realized, was a most difficult question to answer.
"What are you smiling about?"
Natalie tried, unsuccessfully, to affect a suitably stoic expression. "Smiling? Me?"
Tristan put down the paper he was reading to glare at her from across the table. "No, my imaginary friend, Bob."
"Oooh, is he hot?"
Rolling his eyes, he picked up the paper again, determined to ignore his eccentric sister. He was busy reading about how some company was merging with this other company (he really wasn't paying that much attention) when a drumming sound filled the air. "Stop that."
The drumming went on, the staccato beats slowly driving him insane. "Stop what?"
He was not fooled by the innocent tone of her voice. Sighing, he put down the paper (again) and reached out to pull the fork out of Natalie's hand. "If I answer whatever inane question you're dying to ask me, will you then leave me alone, in peace?"
Her smile was bright, and unabashedly victorious. "Of course."
He sat back and waited expectantly.
"Are you going to ask Rory to marry you?"
His jaw fell. He should have anticipated such an outrageous question from her. "What?"
She relished the shock quotient of her query and was happy to repeat it, "I said, are you-"
He held up his hand to stop her. "I heard what you said."
The guileless smile was back. "Good."
"Where the hell did you get such an idea?"
She wiggled her brows, smiling smugly. "I'm a smart girl, I can see the signs."
"Well, your signs are pointing to the wrong direction," he answered. "And you, are poking your nose where it doesn't belong."
"All right then, I'll rephrase my question: are you thinking of marrying her?"
"I swear, this whole damn family is obsessed with Rory!" he groaned. "And why, may I ask, are you so eager to see me ensconced in wedded bliss?"
She shot him a measured look. "Oh, so now it's 'wedded bliss'? I remember you using the words 'trap' and 'eternal misery' used in conjunction with the word 'marriage' in the past."
"I'm sorry, I guess I should have laid the sarcasm on thicker."
Picking up the spoon lying nearby, she resumed her drumming and smiled brightly. "I'm still waiting for an answer," she sing-songed.
"Natalie dear," he began, in a saccharine tone, "you'll be the first to know if I ever decide on entering into sacred matrimony."
"See," she said, getting up from her seat. "That's all you had to say." She grinned cheekily. "Well, I'm off to harass other unsuspecting members of this household. See you later!"
Trying to suppress an amused smile, Tristan reached for a butter roll and aimed it at Natalie's head. His laughter burst through his stoic façade when she failed to react in time and got bonked on her forehead.
"I guess I deserved that," was her semi-rueful comment.
"Yes," he agreed. "You damn well did."
Peace and quiet reigned again once Natalie left the kitchen. Instead of going back to reading the paper as he had planned, he found that his attention had been duly diverted by Natalie's audacious line of questioning.
Marriage. He had never really thought of it- then again, which sane, freedom-loving male did?
In reality, he was terrified of it. Watching his parents making a mockery of their vows made him determined to have a real marriage. Divorce may well be acceptable, but Tristan knew that if and when he devoted his life to someone, it would be for eternity.
And while the notion of spending forever with one other person was terrifying, now that he thought about it, forever with Rory would be bearable. Oh all right, it would be more than just bearable; it would be pretty darn good. He had never before been able to visualize his future with the other women he had dated… but with Rory, his future was all he could see.
Oh, he was in quite a hopeless state, he knew. And if he wasn't careful, he'd be in far too deep, too fast… free-falling into a love that he could never recover from if he crashed and burned.
"Do you want me to just leave the pot here?" Luke asked, raising his brow as Rory asked for her fifth refill.
"Yes, please," she answered, stifling another yawn.
Hiding his concern behind a frown, he asked, "What are you doing up so early anyway? You do realize that it's only 8.30am, right?"
She merely gave him a bleary look, putting her elbow on the table and supporting her head with an open palm. "Hmmm… I couldn't sleep, and I'm supposed to meet someone here for breakfast."
The corners of her lips lifted in a wry smile. "The reason why I couldn't sleep, but not the person I'm meeting." Before Luke could pounce on the first-half of her answer, she went on. "I'm meeting Dean."
If she were more awake, she would have relished the shocked expression on Luke's face. "Yes, Dean Forester. We went out during high school, remember him?"
"Of course, I remember that dolt. But aren't you with Tristan?"
A heavy groan left Rory's lips and she let her head fall until it hit the table, emitting a thud. Then she hit it again for good measure. "That's the million dollar question."
"So, you're not with Tristan?"
She threw her hands up in frustration and when she spoke, her voice was sharp, "I don't know what's going on with Tristan."
Luke winced. "I'm sorry I asked."
"It's complicated," she said to his retreating back.
"It always is." Luke's smile was wry.
She gave a small smile in return. "Any advice?"
He almost laughed. "From me, the love guru?" Then his eyes turned serious. "Think of what he means to you… and how you'd feel if he wasn't there anymore."
"What if I don't want to think about him not being there?" was Rory's softly-spoken question.
"Then I'd say that you already know what he means to you."
"So, maybe breakfast wasn't that great of an idea," said the voice, tinged with amusement.
Rory slowly opened her eyes, rubbing them to clear her vision. Giving Dean a sheepish grin, she gestured to the empty seat across from her. "I didn't get much sleep last night."
He chucked. "It looks like you didn't get any sleep."
"Thanks, you sure know how to make a girl feel good."
"What happened? Did thoughts of me keep you awake all night?" he teased.
"I may only be half-awake, but," she said warningly and picked up a fork lying on the table, "I'm armed and willing to inflict hurt."
Still grinning, he held his hands up in mock-surrender. "Would you accept a cup of coffee as a peace offering?"
She raised a brow.
"You've got a deal."
"Nothing's changed at all," Dean remarked. "It's weird, but reassuring somehow."
Rory took a long sip of her second cup of coffee and kept her hands around the warm cup, letting its heat seep into her cold fingers. "Yeah, it is reassuring."
She let her eyes scan the town from their vantage point at the town square. The town still hadn't quite recovered from the Christmas festivities: twinkling lights were still strung around numerous trees, shorts lengths of tinsel in a variety of colors still happily fluttered in the wind and the giant pine tree was still holding court in the middle of the square. "It's nice to know that how matter how long I've been away, Stars Hollow will always be the same. It's my security blanket."
"The funny thing is kids from small towns usually walk away at the first chance they get and never look back."
"I could never do that," she answered, shaking her head. "This town is as much a part of me as I am a part of it." She looked up at him and froze when she saw the way he was looking at her.
"I thought I would walk away and never look back."
She forced her discomfort away and smiled. "Well, you haven't. Looked back, that is. You're doing pretty well for yourself."
"I guess so," he shrugged negligently. "But, as cliché, as it sounds, I feel like something's missing."
She had a fair idea of what he was referring to, but playing dumb was a much more appealing option. "Hmm… something's missing?"
His voice was low when he admitted, "Sometimes, I wonder, Rory."
She continued her oblivious act. "Wonder what?"
"We were good together, weren't we?"
A non-committal sound escaped his lips as she rested his gaze on anything and anyone rather than him. Her fingers convulsively clutched the paper cup in her hands.
"And so, I wonder… where we would be right now had we not broken up."
She finally turned her gaze to him. "I think we'll still be exactly where we are right now," she said, bluntly. Before Dean could open his mouth to speak, she had plowed on. "I think time has left a rosy tint on your memories, Dean. We had our good times but we also had our fights." She crushed the cup in her grasp, and she scarcely noticed that she let it slowly flutter to the ground. "Whatever we had then, Dean, it definitely wouldn't have lasted forever."
Neither of them said anything for a long moment. Rory kept her eyes on her lap, relieved that she had spoken her mind but a little worried about her lack of tact.
It was Dean who broke the stalemate. "I wanted it to." At her questioning look, he clarified, "To last forever. I did." His smile was rueful and slightly sheepish. "I knew that it wouldn't and I knew that I was lucky that we had lasted that long at all."
"Remember that day, at Babette's, when you told me that you were interested in me?"
Her cheeks flushed at the memory and she laughed. "Oh gosh, yes."
He matched her smile. "You have no idea how ecstatic I was that night."
She grinned, he grinned… and the equilibrium between them was restored, all earlier awkwardness gone.
"Do you know what I think?"
His expression was half-teasing and half-serious so she didn't quite know what to expect from him.
"It really was a stroke of pure luck that I met you first."
"Because I think, with the wonderful perspective that hindsight offers, that I wouldn't have had a chance with you otherwise. Not with Tristan or Jess around."
She didn't know what to say to that.
"It's true; they're both better suited with you than I ever was."
"Don't say that!" she protested.
He just gave a wry smile. "So, you and Tristan are now-"
Her eyes widened. "Please don't say that it's fated, destined… that we're meant to be, after all… or some other crap like that."
"You said it, not me."
Rory groaned, burying her face with her hands. "No such thing, no such thing." Looking up, she swatted his shoulder playfully as she demanded, "Take it back, take it back now."
He dodged her flaying hands, laughing gleefully. "I didn't say anything!"
"It's not anything like that," she objected.
Dean crossed his arms and leaned back against the back of the bench. He didn't say anything but he clearly looked unconvinced by her weak, and insubstantial, protest.
"It's…" she searched for the right words, "a delicate situation."
"What could possibly be so delicate about it?" he asked. "You obviously like him, or you wouldn't have agreed to go out with him. And he's always had a thing for you. Always." A corner of his mouth quirked into a small smile. "I worried all the time that he would somehow be able to steal you away from me."
"That's ridiculous; back then, he was such a-"
"Jerk," he completed her sentence, grinning. "Yes, you've said so, many times. But, as they say, there's a thin line."
She leveled a challenging look at him, crossing her arms defiantly. "What exactly are you saying here, Mr. Forester?"
"I'm saying," he answered, a cheeky smile on his face, "that there possibly, might have been something there all along… and that finally, it has had the chance to bloom."
"You are sorely mistaken," Rory said huffily.
His teasing smile never abated. "Just remember to invite me to the wedding. I'd want to congratulate that bastard for finally snaring you."
A handful of snow hitting his shoulder was all the answer Rory gave.
He pulled up his car in front of Doose's, ignoring the fact that Taylor had yelled at him just the other day for his illegal parking. He had no time to spare; he knew how fast the Stars Hollow grapevine could work and he wanted to surprise Rory before any word of his presence reached her ears.
Quickly, he walked down the street until he got to the florist. For a few minutes, he stood in front of the colourful display of flowers before grabbing a handful of lilies. Moments later, he exited the florist with a large bouquet in his hand, and a large smile on his handsome face.
He made an equally fast trek back to his car, hoping that Taylor wasn't there waiting to give him a lecture. Just as he opened his car door, a voice stopped him.
"You're Tristan, right?"
The question made him turn and he frantically tried to match a name to the face. "Yes, I am. And you're…"
"Kirk. I'm Kirk."
Ah yes, Kirk. Quirky Kirk was the nickname he had coined for the man after all the amusing Stars Hollow stories Rory had related to him.
"If you're looking for Rory," Kirk went on, "she's right over there."
Tristan's eyes followed the direction that Kirk pointed to and it took him a full three seconds to register what he was seeing. His grip on the flower stems tightened for a moment before he consciously forced himself to relax.
Striving to sound insouciant, he sought confirmation of what he already knew was true. "Who's that with her?"
"Oh, that's just Dean," was the offhand answer. "They used to go out during high school. They were a lovely couple."
His smile was tight. "I'm sure." Oh, he knew damn well what a lovely couple they made. "Thanks, Kirk."
"Always glad to help."
His jaw clenched, Tristan slowly got into his car and haphazardly threw the bouquet into the backseat. He kept his attention on the couple seated just across the road and with every smile, every touch and every word that passed between them, he felt the hollow ache in his chest spread.
When he finally couldn't take any more, he tore his eyes away. Taking a deep breath, he loosened his death grip on the steering wheel and swallowed the lump of pain that had lodged itself in his throat. He leaned back to grab the flowers and without hesitation, threw it out his window and into a rubbish bin nearby.
He drove away without looking back.
"So, it seems like things are going well with Tristan and you," Chris remarked, as they walked down the snowy streets back to the Gilmore house after having lunch together at Al's.
"Don't jinx it, Dad."
Chris laughed, swinging his arm over Rory's shoulders and hugging her to his side. "I wouldn't dream of it."
She returned the embrace, twining an arm around his waist. "I'm glad you're here."
"And I'm glad that you're glad."
"You're getting awfully cheesy in your old age," Rory teased.
"Old age?" Chris scoffed. "I, and your mother too I'm sure, resent that remark. We're hardly senior citizens."
"Well, at least you're the most fashion-savvy parents around." She rolled her eyes. "Although, I'm half-tempted to throw out her sparkly t-shirts."
"I'll like to see you try," came the challenging voice from behind of them.
Rory jumped in surprise and affected an innocent look. "Mom!" She wasn't sure who exactly threw the first snowball but it took only seconds for flying snowballs, laugher and happy squealing to fill the air.
She felt like a trespasser. But she had been here before, and besides, when she had called Tristan and asked to meet him, he told her to wait for him at the gazebo.
It was getting colder as twilight descended, but Rory was too nervous to notice. She had agonized all afternoon, thinking about Tristan… and she finally came to a conclusion that scared her a little bit. It was a somewhat frightening thought for someone like her who had avoided any kind of intimate relationship with a man for a long while. But with the maturity that had come as she grew older, self-awareness had followed. Rory wasn't in the habit of lying to herself- at least, not anymore, not recently. And for once, she wanted to grasp her fate in her hands and follow her heart's desire.
As the hours passed and there was still no sign of Tristan, she decided that maybe he had changed his mind about coming to Stars Hollow. Or maybe, something important had cropped up. She was tempted to leave matters be until the next day, when she was due to have dinner with the DuGreys. But she didn't want to wait; she wanted to tell him as soon as she could.
And so, she came to be at the gazebo, waiting for Tristan to appear. Her heart was pounding and her leg was bouncing up and down, trying to divest of her restless energy. Mentally, she was running through her little speech she had planned during the drive to Hartford. She knew she often had the annoying problem of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or blundering so badly that whatever she wanted to say would be misunderstood. She was determined to get things right this time; it mattered too much for her to screw up.
She perked up when she saw an approaching figure. But the figure was too short to be Tristan, and Tristan certainly didn't gleam from the shine of diamond jewelry. She forced an amicable smile on her face when the woman was close enough to recognize.
"Hello, Mrs. DuGrey," she called out.
The elegantly-dressed woman didn't break her stride as a pleased smile curved her lips. "Rory, darling, how wonderful to see you." When she reached the gazebo, she leaned forward to place light, airy kisses Rory's cheeks. "What are you doing out here?"
Her cheeks, which were already rosy from the chill, flushed further. "I'm meeting Tristan here."
Lauren DuGrey gave a light gasp, followed by a wink. "Oh, dear. What awful timing, I have. I should leave then."
Inbred courtesy, and the desire to know more about the woman who had mothered Tristan, caused Rory to place a hand on her arm, stopping her retreat. "No, it's all right. You can keep me company."
She smiled in return and sat down beside Rory. "I'll have a word with Tristan about keeping a lady waiting. It is most impolite of him."
"No," Rory shook her head. "Actually, I'm early."
Lauren's smile broadened. "I'm so glad the two of you are dating. You've been a wonderful influence on him." She looked away, and when she spoke again, her voice had a hushed quality to it. "I've never seen him as happy as he is when he's with you."
Rory felt inordinately pleased with that piece of information. And it bolstered her courage, convincing her that she was taking the right step with Tristan.
The older woman turned back to her, her eyes searching Rory's. When she spoke, her tone was grave, "You do care about him, don't you?"
A smile flitted about her lips as she confessed, "Against my wishes, I find that I do."
"Tristan can be difficult to love." Lauren gave a commiserating smile.
Rory tilted her head sideways, a mildly surprised look on her face.
"I know my son well, even though it may not appear so." A far-away look came into her eyes, and Rory could easily sense the melancholia in her. "I fell in love with a man who was just like him."
"Some men fall in love quickly, and fall out of love just as easily. But others, like the DuGrey men, fall in love only once, and when they do, it lasts a lifetime. But the moment you let them down, or give them the slightest reason, they'll retreat, they'll draw back and you'll have to fight for them before they completely shut you out. And I…" she drew a deep, shaky breath, "I don't think I fought hard enough."
"I'm sorry," Rory said, softly, understanding dawning in her eyes.
There was a moment of shared silence. Then the perfectly put-together Mrs. DuGrey was back, making it almost seem like the past few minutes hadn't occurred. She waved her hand dismissively, a short laugh forced through her lips in an attempt to dispel the cheerless mood. "What's past is past."
Her eyes traveled to the large expanse of garden in front of them, and she stood up as she saw Tristan approaching. "Well then, Tristan is finally here." She patted Rory's arm. "I shall leave the two of you alone."
Rory watched her walk away, calling out only after she had descended the gazebo steps. "It was nice talking to you, Mrs. DuGrey."
"Yes, it was," she smiled.
Rory couldn't hear the words that were exchanged between Tristan and his mother, but the creases on his forehead and the tense set of his shoulders told her all she needed to know. She let out a quiet sigh.
Tristan's vexed expression was still evident as he stomped up the steps. Rory didn't let herself be deterred by it.
"Hi," she said simply. She leaned forward to give him a hug, hoping to chase away the gloom surrounding him.
His body was stiff, not responding to her save for an arm that had quickly squeezed her to him before falling back to his side. He caught sight of the bewilderment in her eyes and steeled himself against reacting to it. "Hi."
She was perplexed by his detachment from her but chalked it up to him having a bad day. "I thought that you were coming to Stars Hollow; I was waiting for you to show up."
Waiting for him to show up? The sight of her cozily sidling up to Dan flashed through his mind. The tight line around his mouth deepened. Pocketing his hands, he gave a negligent shrug. "Sorry."
"You missed out on a killer snowball fight," she said, trying to tease a smile out of him.
He ignored her words and went straight to the reason for their meeting; he didn't want this to be any longer than it had to be. "So, what did you want to speak to me about?" he asked, although he had his own suspicions.
Clasping her hands together, she looked at anywhere but him. The moment of truth had arrived and all the nervousness she had been trying to suppress flooded her senses. "Well," she began, still unable to look him in the eye, "I've been thinking. About us. And I realized-"
He saw her fidgeting, saw how uncomfortable she was… so, from the kindness of his heart, he put her out of her misery. What a noble soul you are, his conscience sarcastically commented. "I think we should end this charade."
Rory's eyes swung to him, wide with surprise and a touch of gladness and relief. "I think so too, Tristan. We've-"
Even though he had prepared himself for this eventuality, it still hurt. It hurt so damn much- too damn much. The vice around his heart grew taut at her words, but his voice was deliberately casual. "Yes, we'll end it. Tomorrow."
A look of utter confusion filled her eyes. "Tomorrow? Why tomorrow? I need to tell you, now. I-"
"And it has to be big. Irreconcilable," he went on as though Rory hadn't spoken, knowing he wouldn't be able to bear any platitudes coming from her. "A fight; we'll stage a terrible fight. You caught me cheating on you; that's unforgivable."
Confusion turned into panic. Oh God, this was going so completely wrong! An uneasy feeling settled in her stomach. "What? Tristan, what are you-"
"I made you do this, so it's only fitting that I get dumped." He nodded decisively, mentally patting himself on the back for keeping his composure when all he wanted was scream out his frustration and lick his wounds. "We'll do it tomorrow, just before dinner. All you have to do is play along. Just play along, Rory. I'll do all the talking."
Rory was so dazed and frozen with pain that all she could do was watch him walk away.
Luke lugged the two bagfuls of trash out of the diner, sighing with relief that the day had ended. All he wanted to do now but finish cleaning up and then seek oblivion in his comfortable, warm bed.
As he trudged back to the door, he saw the huddled figure on the bench just across the road. Something about that blue jacket was familiar… Squinting into the dark, he stood there for a few seconds, trying to figure out who it was.
Quickly crossing the now-empty street, he made his way to her. "Hey kid, what are you doing out here?"
A sniffle was all he got. "I didn't feel like going home," was her soft answer.
When Rory raised her face and revealed her red-rimmed, puffy eyes and tear-stained cheeks, Luke was immediately concerned. Catching her right arm, he gently hauled her to her feet and shepherded her in the direction of the diner. "You look like you can use some coffee and food."
Minutes later, a cup of steaming coffee and a plate of burger and fries in front of her, Rory offered Luke a weak smile of thanks. "Thank you."
Seating himself across from her, he examined her face as though looking for some sign of what had happened. "Do you want me to call your mother?"
She shook her head vigorously. "No, no, it's okay. I'll be fine."
"You don't look fine," he said, accusingly.
"It's been a wretched day, to say the least," she sighed.
A pause, then came his cautious offer, "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not right now." She didn't think she could, not when the wounds were still so raw.
So they just sat there; Luke, a little uncomfortable but wanting to be there, and Rory, seeking refuge from the cold and the pieces of her heart that lay broken at her feet.
The door swung open and the greeting that reached her was a terse "Are you all right?"
Rory thought that she was all cried out; when she finally got home after reassuring Luke that she would be fine, she burst out crying in the face of her parents' worry. She had thrown herself into Chris' arms, while Lorelai looked on helplessly and vowed to break all the bones in Tristan's body for making her baby cry. Sleep only came in the early hours of the morning, as exhaustion took its toll.
But now, she felt tears welling up in her eyes. As Paris ushered her into her spacious apartment in the heart of Hartford, Rory angrily swiped at her cheeks. Damnit, she was feeling anything but all right.
Paris sat her down on the couch, went into her kitchen and appeared a few minutes later with some coffee, liberally laced with brandy.
"I don't think getting me sloshed is a good idea," Rory joked, trying to smile.
Paris arched her brow. "I think you're underestimating the healing effects of alcohol."
Rory slouched against the soft cushions. "Oblivion sounds good right about now, actually."
Paris took in her friend's unkempt appearance; the fisherman hat that covered half her face, hiding her splotchy complexion; her messy ponytail; the well-worn jeans and oversized sweater.
"Please tell me that you brought a change of clothes," she pleaded. Her years living with a socially-conscious mother had drilled into her the importance of looking put together all the time. "Lauren DuGrey will have a fit if you go to dinner wearing that."
"They're in the car." Rory said dully, "I might as well look smashing while we're breaking up, right?"
Paris sipped her coffee. "Well, technically, you two weren't really together… so, you can't really be breaking up."
"Thanks for your wonderful support."
Paris sighed heavily. "What do you want me to say, Rory?"
"Well, at least you haven't said 'I told you so'." At Paris' questioning look, Rory clarified, "Lane predicted that it would end badly."
"You and Tristan have been embroiled in this little dance since high school," she remarked. "I honestly thought that was it, the end of it all."
"I can't let him do this!"
"Tristan can be very stubborn when he wants to be; I think you know that too."
"So, I should just let him 'break up' with me?"
Paris lifted her shoulder in a half-shrug. "You know what they say: if you love someone, set them free."
Rory waved her hand about. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. And if they come back, it's meant to be." She frowned. "A whole lot of bullshit that is."
"Look, you want my advice?" At Rory's weary nod, she continued, "Tristan can be stupid, but he isn't that stupid. Sooner or later, he'll come to his senses and he'll realize what he had with you."
"What if he doesn't?"
"That's a chance you have to take."
"I should tell him," she sighed.
"That you care for him? Not the best time, Rory."
"When is it ever the best time? There never is such a thing as the best time!"
"For whatever reason only he knows, Tristan is determined to do this," Paris said. "Telling him now won't help; he won't believe you."
Rory's smile was watery. "I don't want to lose him, Paris."
"I know." Paris jumped up from her seat, smiling brightly in hopes to injecting some cheer. "Why do you say to An Affair To Remember and a pint of Ben & Jerry's?"
"I'd say that I'm surprised since you have a hearty dislike for sappy movies and that I hope you have Chunky Monkey."
"I can sit through a romantic move if I want to," Paris protested. "And yes, I do have Chunky Monkey."
Rory smiled- her first genuine smile since last evening. "And I'd say thanks for being such a great friend."
His eyes never left the grandfather clock standing at the far end of the living room, although he wished that he could just go back in time and had never gone to Stars Hollow. Or at least, that he could freeze time so that he wouldn't have to go through with this self-inflicted torture. Leaning back in the armchair in an indolent matter, he took a sip of wine, giving away none of the turmoil that had been brewing inside of him.
"Sit up straight, Tristan," his mother admonished lightly.
He spared her a glance but didn't respond in any way.
"Is something amiss?"
Of all the times she had to be perceptive, she had to choose this exact moment. "No mother," he said, as politely as he could, "everything is just wonderful."
Lauren DuGrey gave her son a long look but didn't say anything; instead she lifted her glass of white wine to her lips.
At 6.31, the doorbell chimed. Instinctively, he knew it was her. The slight stiffening of his body was the only outward sign of his strain. Inwardly, he readied himself, letting a shield of indifference pass over his emotions.
His armor suffered a chink when she walked into the room and he noticed her wan expression and the sadness lurking in her gaze. In greeting, he walked towards her, catching her hand in his and lightly kissing her soft lips. The jolt of awareness that came with that small contact left another crack in his shield.
He hardly registered the small talk between his parents and Rory; his attention was solely on the lovely woman who was sitting close to him. Not for the first time, he wished that she felt even a shred of what he felt for her. But no, she would never love him… not when she could have Dean, or any other man who would be much better for her than he ever would be.
He wasn't worthy of her; he hadn't been when they were teenagers, and that still hadn't changed 10 years down the road. He just wasn't the one for her, however convinced he was that she was the one for him.
Finally, after what seemed like an agonizing half hour, dinner was served. As the elder DuGreys made their way to the dining room, he laid a restraining hand on her arm.
Rory swallowed hard, feeling her hands get clammy. "So, I don't even get to eat before I run out of here, crying?" she kidded, once the room had emptied. Her tone at odds with the despairing look in her eyes. Before he could reply, she spoke again. "Curtain's up. Act I."
Rory took a few steps away from him, not able to withstand being so near him while they carried out this farce. Raising her voice and injecting a note of pain and outrage that wasn't quite feigned, she exclaimed, "How can you do this, Tristan?"
"What did I do wrong?" he demanded, in an equally loud and angry voice, knowing that their voices would carry to the other room and-more importantly- to his parents.
"What did you do wrong?" she repeated in an incredulous manner. Sticking to the 'plan' he had concocted, she accused, "I saw you with that- that woman."
"I've told you countless times- she's just a friend."
"Oh, and you go around kissing and groping your female friends in public?" Rory retorted. She should get an Oscar for this performance, she thought dimly.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't play the fool, Tristan. You know perfectly well what I'm talking about."
Tristan didn't answer but he gave a small smile and a thumbs up.
"I gave you my heart, Tristan… and you just trampled on it."
He faltered, forgetting his part in the script. The broken sound of her voice was almost his undoing.
"How could you, Tristan?"
He couldn't take it anymore. Making a shooing motion, he signaled that it was time for her to leave.
Rory stood still for a moment, unable to believe that this was really happening. Gathering her courage to leave, she said, "Goodbye, Tristan." Speaking in a louder voice for the benefit of his parents, she spat out bitterly, "Good riddance, Tristan DuGrey."
Tristan clenched his fists, forcing himself to stand there and not go after her. A few seconds later, the front door slammed… and then his parents came back into the living room, disapproving looks on their faces.
He walked past them, head held high, face devoid of expression, pretending that the last five minutes or so hadn't affected him at all.
Ignoring his mother's beseeching call, he kept on walking, almost bumping into Natalie who had been watching the proceedings from her perch at the top of the stairs.
When he was safe in the sanctuary of his room, he bolted the door, leaned heavily against it and let out a deep, tormented breath. He slowly slid down until he was sitting on the carpeted floor. Burying his head in his arms, he just let the silence and darkness wash over him. The numb feeling he had first gotten when he saw Rory and Dean together returned, this time ten times stronger.
He sat there, unmoving, for the rest of the night.