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"Oh, honey, you won't be sorry," is what Rory's mom said to her last Friday in regards to going to Chilton.

Rory is actually starting to feel quite sorry.

'Overwhelmed' has been the overarching theme of the day, from first pulling up to the school, to walking through the hallways, which are bursting with students who somehow make her feel like she's wearing dirty clothes, even though they were pressed the night before. The teachers speak quickly and the two peers she's had direct interactions with were people she wished she never had to see again and yet she has multiple classes with them. Oh, and one of them is apparently her new enemy.

She's beyond grateful for her lunch period, even though she's far from hungry and should really use her time to catch up on the subjects she's already had. She's switched out her books in her locker, which keeps getting stuck, and that reminds her of Paris and how infuriating she is –

She forces herself to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth. Maybe she'll read her book for fifteen minutes to unwind and then spend the rest of the time studying. Satisfied, she gathers what belongings she needs from her locker and takes out her beaten up copy of Jude the Obscure, immediately opening it and beginning to read as she walks, looking for an alcove or maybe an empty classroom.

"Well, aren't we hooked on phonics…"

Rory lifts her head, immediately grateful for the interruption since she almost would've hit the wooden base of the staircase in front of her. Her eyes glance over to the source of the voice. She thinks she recognizes him – he sat in the back of her English and History classes and doesn't seem to have the most respect for the dress code with how loose his tie is, the first button undone and his shirt wrinkled. She thinks his last name is something Italian…

"I like to read," she states flatly. It's not even noon and she's rather tired of meeting this new cast of characters to contend with and doesn't need another Tristan or one of his stupid friends who have decided her name is Mary.

"I'd suggest maybe reading something to put you in a better mood – some would think you don't really like it here," he says, with a mock concerned expression.

She blinks in surprise, closing her book a little. "You've read this?"

"Unfortunately. Wish I could take back that time just for reading 'a woman in a crowd will abuse the man who crushes against her, when he is only the helpless transmitter of the pressure put upon him' with my own two eyes."

She smiles a little. "I'm Rory."

"I figured. I'm Jess."

"Jess Mariano," she says suddenly, remembering his surname.

"That's me. Although you may not want to be seen consorting with me. You see, I was the original new kid a month ago and let's just say I didn't make a good first impression."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing much."

She narrows her eyes in suspicion at the way his own eyes flash with barely contained amusement. "Right."

"So thanks for taking the heat off me, new kid."

"So you're not going to be calling me Mary?"

He snorts. "Please."

She smiles properly.

"By the way…" He points down the corridor. "Make a left and you'll see some benches. There's a computer lab around there so it's quiet."

"Thanks."

He gives her a small smile and heads down a different corridor.

He's right though – she needs to find a different book. Tom Hardy's hatred of women is really gross and this is trying too hard to be so miserable on all fronts; she still has to believe she can find some joy in Chilton.

**

Her mom is unsurprised when Rory rants about Chilton on the car ride home, nodding in familiarity at the attitudes of Rory's classmates.

"I don't know what I was thinking – how did I think it was going to be some utopia of learning?" Rory groans.

Her mom rubs her back as they arrive into Stars Hollow. "You just have to get used to it. Things will get better."

Looking back, that could've been her window to mention Jess, but she's feeling sorry for herself and is still pissed off in general and it remains forgotten.

**

It's not that Chilton really gets better, it just becomes more…expected. She prepares for Paris' glowering in the hallways, and she braces herself for when Tristan sneaks up on her. She's resigned to the fact that she sits alone in the cafeteria for lunch, which she's quickly becomes grateful for because it does become her time to do past assignments and read books that have already been tested.

The only thing she's really been finding enjoyable, which is really a stretch of the word, is Jess, who seems to be the only student here who isn't super obnoxious in that entitled manner that seems to only come with super privileged people.

She doesn't know what he does in all his classes since they only share Lit, History, and Environmental Science together, but in those, he tends to read whatever book he carries around at the time and yet, will somehow answer whatever question is asked of him without even lifting his head to think about it.

Nobody seems to like him, including the teachers, who all seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that if they let him be, he will be an ignorable nuisance, which is better than being an actively annoying nuisance. What interests Rory is that Tristan really doesn't like him, but seems to stay clear of him, obviously so.

"Question," Rory says as she and Jess walk out of class and pass through the doorway together. "How did you get Tristan off your back."

Jess smirks. "My way's not gonna help you."

"Why not?"

"Not unless you feel comfortable threatening people, but something tells me you trying to be intimidating would be hilarious."

She can't find it within her to be insulted.

"He'll get bored eventually," he offers.

"I hope so. See you."

"Later."

She wonders how exactly he threatened Tristan, who is probably six feet tall while Jess is a few inches shorter, but she doubts she'd get an honest or direct answer out of him.

The closest she gets to ever finding out about Jess' story is when she finishes talking with her guidance counselor, grimacing at the list of potential sports she's to pick from.

She drops the list and has to bite back a groan as she leaves, surprised to find Jess sitting outside with a book in his hand, of course.

"What sport are you doing?" she asks him.

For a brief moment, he grins. "Not part of a team."

"How?" she asks, incredibly jealous. Despite her efforts to reassure her guidance counselor that she is not meant to be physically active, he was insistent on it being a requirement.

"Well, you've seen Grease, right?"

She furrows her brow. "Yes…"

"Let's just say Danny Zuko took a page from me and he was tame."

She suddenly laughs.

"Plus, you know, step-daddy's –" he wordlessly rubs his fingers of his right hand together to signify money, " – shut them up."

It's easy for her to deduce that there's no love lost between Jess and his stepfather, but it's a common enough tale heard within Chilton.

But Jess is far from her top concern even though he's one of the more interesting-in-a-good-way parts of Chilton – it's becoming very clear to her that she's not catching up to this ridiculous workload and she's struggling in a way she's never struggled in school before.

She feels incredibly bitter that everyone seems to be keeping up – except her. She can't even think about Jess and how he hasn't been kicked out. She's exhausted and her nights go by too quickly, staying up later and later to finish her work, but the quality leaves much to be desired, as evident by her first D on an English paper.

Her face flushes as Paris and Louise trail behind her, trying her best to force her eyes to stop stinging and to push down the absolute panic that's threatening to shred her insides apart.

"Hey, you know, not everybody can be smart. As my mother always says, somebody has to answer the phones."

"Okay, I have no idea what you two are talking about."

"No, but Rory does – ugh, what!"

Rory turns her head to find Jess has apparently barreled through between Madeline and Paris, his book open in his hand.

"Oh, man, I'm so sorry Paris," Jess gasps, bringing his book to his heart. "Didn't see you there."

"Get out of my way, trailer trash," Paris snipes, leading the way down the hallway with Louise – who gives Jess a sultry smile – and Madeline in tow.

Jess snorts and pockets his book. "Asshole," he mutters, going in the opposite way.

Rory's mouth twitches and finds herself able to breathe easier, at least until she makes it to Algebra.

**

Rory will never think of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 without feeling pure fury and subtle nausea. She doesn't need Paris breathing down the back of her neck on top of all the demanding teachers requiring papers and extensive packets and everything else. She feels like she can't properly expand her lungs and it shouldn't be a surprise when she absolutely loses it.

**

It's chilly, but Rory sits outside during lunch to get away from everyone. Everyone can't seem to stop talking about her meltdown yesterday morning. It's embarrassing, looking back, but it was still so satisfying to yell in Paris' and Tristan's faces.

"That was a nice outburst."

"Gee, thanks." Rory shuts her eyes briefly and sighs. "I don't want to talk about it."

Jess sits down next to her with an exhale, his fingers tapping outside of his pocket. "Relax. I don't think they'll be talking about it for very long."

"Why?"

He looks at her and shrugs. "Just a guess."

She narrows her eyes. He pulls out his book from his back pocket and opens it somewhere in the middle.

"Jess," she says.

"You should probably head inside – you wouldn't want to catch a cold."

"What did you mean?"

He glances up from his book. "And ruin the surprise?"

She pouts, which amuses him. "Please?"

"Let's just say I've been paying attention during Chem class and Mr. Franklin will be very upset that I did."

He's right – Mr. Franklin is very upset about it, especially when half of Chilton was filled with a horrible smelling fog that causes the school to be closed. One of Tristan's friends claims responsibility and gets a short suspension, but Rory knows better.

**

"I cannot believe that happened," her mom says with a laugh, picking up a fry and dipping it in her ketchup.

"I'm grateful – I could use the time," Rory admits.

"So who was it?"

Rory rolls her eyes. "Well, this guy named…Jack or Jake is taking wrongful claim. He's one of Tristan's friends."

"Wrongful claim? Why, you don't believe it?"

Rory brings her coffee to her mouth, taking a long sip. "I…have my suspicions."

"Oh, who? Who, who?"

"Okay, you're no longer allowed to watch that CSI show again if you're going to keep doing that," Rory mutters. "There's a guy in a few of my classes who kinda hinted that he was going to do something?"

"A guy? Who? Who, who?"

Rory groans. "His name's Jess. We don't really talk a lot – he was the new kid before me. He's probably the only person I don't totally hate there."

"So, he's not a friend," her mom surmises, her brow furrowed in confusion.

"No, I wouldn't say so," Rory says slowly. Honestly, she's never had many friends, at least those who are her age – there's just Lane. She's friendly with people, but even with Jess, she doesn't think that even counts.

Her mom shrugs her shoulders. "Well, whatever he is, he seems like a weirdo genius rebel."

Rory smiles, picking up a few fries. "I think that describes him pretty perfectly."

**

Things settle. She finds ways of managing her time, getting assignments done quickly and efficiently. She gains back her typical six to eight hours of sleep and Paris seems to have backed off, in that she only sends death glares across the classroom and in the halls. Tristan is still annoying, but even he seems to be busy with preparing for upcoming midterms.

With her life leveling out, she also seems to have the time and energy to consider Dean, who makes her heart jump in her chest and her mouth ramble in a way that would make her mom proud, save for the fact that she utters nonsense and nothing remotely witty.

Before she knows it, her birthday is coming up. Despite having to push her town party to the day after her real birthday, she's looking forward to it…at least until –

"Ugh, I can't believe I'm being forced to go to this random person's birthday –"

It isn't the first comment of the day and it certainly won't be the last.

She finally gets a moment of peace during lunch when she sits in the alcove by the computer labs during the lunch period. She wishes she brought snacks today because she's hungry, but there's no way she's going in the cafeteria where everyone is.

She looks across the hall and sees Jess walking by, who stops short when he spots her.

"Did you get invited?" she asks, almost desperate.

He turns into the corridor and says, "Yep," popping his 'p.'

"Are you going?"

"Depends if I'm wanted."

She gives him a quizzical look.

"Something tells me you didn't have a hand in these invitations."

She sighs as he sits down next to her. "No. My grandma."

"Figured."

"Well, I mean. You can, if you want. Out of everyone in the school, I don't mind you," she rambles and almost immediately regrets it, embarrassment rushing through her system, her cheeks burning hot.

"Well, I'm flattered," he says sarcastically. He nudges her arm. "Don't worry," he continues. "I made plans already."

"Oh yeah? Doing what?"

"Going to the city, but mum's the word."

"Huh?"

"I'm sneaking off."

"Oh. Got it. Well, good luck with that. You'll definitely have more fun there than at my party."

"Just close your eyes and think of England."

She groans and he laughs under his breath. He reaches into his backpack and pulls out an apple, handing it over. She smiles and takes it. "Thanks."

"Happy birthday, Rory."

She shakes her head as he gets up and walks away.

(She did mean it, though, she wouldn't mind having him at her party.)

**

"How was it?" Jess asks as they pass in the hallway.

She shoots him a glare and he laughs out loud.

**

She's on cloud nine – she's untouchable – she can't stop smiling – she had her first kiss and it's Dean, the boy she likes – she's –

"Whatever you're on, can I have some? I have U.S. History with Morrell next period," Jess says by her ear, snapping her out of her daydream.

"I'm not on anything," she says defensively, which makes him smile.

"Then what's got you channeling Pollyanna on crack?"

"Wow, decent reference."

"I try."

She can't stop smiling. "Just – nothing. Had a good weekend."

"Huh."

"How was your weekend?" she asks to deflect.

"Not as good as yours."

She laughs a little.

"Although I did find a first edition copy of Days of Future Passed."

She grimaces a little. "You listen to anything other than 'Nights in White Satin'? And even that gets obnoxious fast."

He brings a hand to his heart. "Yikes, I'm sorry for your poor taste."

She scrunches her nose. "I think my taste is just fine without having the palate for songs that take over three minutes to actually start."

"Progressive rock, Gilmore – respect it. See you later."

"Bye."

She goes back to smiling.

**

Her mom is always right about snow – Rory doesn't know why she even questions it anymore as she watches the snow fall heavily during the end of her class with Mr. Medina, who is currently on the phone with the main office, most likely.

He hangs up with a sigh. "Alright, we're having an early dismissal." Everyone starts to pack their bags excitedly. "Please be careful driving," he says over the murmur.

Rory looks out the window again and winces. Waiting outside for the bus is going to be awful and then ride is going to take forever

"Need a ride?"

Rory looks up to Jess in surprise. He pulls out car keys from his pocket, jingling them. "To your grandparents' – I'm assuming," he adds.

"You're from New York – are you sure you can drive?"

"Sure – I can do it with one hand and flipping people off with my other one while screaming out the window."

She smiles. "Okay."

**

Jess is gripping her arm tightly, keeping her steady after she fell the first time.

"These saddle shoes suck," she complains, her feet freezing over already.

"Should've fucked the dress code."

"Like you do on a daily basis?"

"It was just the shoes today – you have to compromise," he says, taking out his keys from his pocket and unlocking it from afar.

She blinks in surprise at the very slick BMW. "I don't know why I expected you to have a different car."

He snorts. "Not my taste. But it's useful." He stops her before she enters the passenger seat. "Don't you dare get dirt in my car."

She grins. "You're full of it."

He smirks. "You've just figured that out now?"

**

He is a surprisingly careful driver – goes a little below the speed limit, both hands actually on the wheel while the windshield wipers work on overtime.

"Thanks for the ride."

"No problem."

"It'll be the third house on the right when you make it to the intersection."

"Got it."

Jess has a Pearl Jam bootleg playing in the stereo and Eddie Vedder is singing 'Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,' which always depressed her. "I still can't believe they're going to release over seventy bootlegs from their last tour. Is it necessary? Self indulgent?" she questions out loud.

"Both – totally. Although I definitely want to snag their last Seattle show bootleg – they performed 'The Kids Are Alright' and 'Baba O'Riley.'"

"Oh man, I bet that was amazing."

"March release date."

"Will definitely have to borrow that from you – Lane, my best friend – would love that, even though she'll deny it and say she's a staunch Nirvana supporter."

"Can't you love both?"

"Dave Grohl is her future husband – she can't just betray him like that."

"Fair enough."

He makes the turn and pulls through the driveway, stopping the car right by the front door.

"Thanks, Jess. I really appreciate it. I'll buy you a soda on Monday," she says, getting out of the car and shivering when a blast of wind hits her.

"Definitely will look forward to that."

"Get home safe," she adds, hoping the fact that it's freezing outside is masking her flush of embarrassment.

"I always do."

She smiles and shuts the door, watching him carefully circle out of the driveway and turn onto the road.

Rory rings the doorbell and her grandma answers it in surprise. "Rory! How did you get here? I just sent Lance to come get you –"

"Oh, a friend from school drove me. Thanks, though, I didn't know –"

"It's fine, come in, come in –" Rory exhales in relief – she doubts Emily Gilmore would approve of Jess Mariano. "I'm on the phone with your mother –"

Rory takes the phone and can only imagine her mom's gleeful expression she's sporting right now.

**

"I see you've survived the storm," Rory says on Monday as she passes by the parking lot, Jess getting out of his car.

"I survived unscathed, but the car didn't," he says, walking around to lightly tap the back with his foot. She notices a sizable dent.

"What happened?" she asks.

"Backed into a pile of snow on Sunday and it was solid ice."

"Ah, sorry."

"Whatever. Adds some character."

"You're not going to get it fixed?"

"I'm curious to see how long it'll take for anyone to notice."

"Well, as long as it doesn't impede on the car's main function."

"My thoughts exactly."

They start making their way slowly to the front gate. Despite the salt dusting the ground, they see a few of their classmates slipping and nearly falling.

"So, will you be attending Chilton's formal next weekend?" Jess asks. "I'm sure Tristan would love to take you."

"Shut up," she groans. "I didn't plan on it, no." They walk for a few seconds before asking a cursory, "Are you going?" even though she can't imagine his taking anyone from Chilton.

"I think I'll catch the next one at the end of never."

She smiles. "I have a hard time imagining you willingly going to a dance that requires you to wear a suit and tie outside of the school week."

"I feel so understood right now."

"Yeah, it seems lame," she adds dismissively.

(Even though she does technically have someone to bring to a dance, but, no way. Not happening.)

He hums in what she thinks is agreement, but she can't be sure. He can be so hard to read sometimes, unlike Dean. She can read everything on Dean's face – what he's feeling, what he's possibly thinking, and she likes that, likes how easy it is so nothing takes her by surprise.

"Well, I better go and skip European History because I didn't read that book for Medina's class."

She rolls her eyes. "That's crap, you've definitely read that at least twice."

He raises his eyebrows. "Did I?" He smirks. "See you."

She shakes her head in exasperation and amusement.

**

She doesn't know if Jess has some sort of direct contact with the universe because Tristan does, in fact, ask her to the formal. She whacks Jess with her Environmental Science textbook.

"Excuse you, Ms. Gilmore, what is this out of control behavior that is so unfit of a Chilton lady?"

"Tristan asked me to the formal," she hisses.

He throws his head back and laughs. She's always thrown off when he gives such a genuine reaction to things. "When did this happen?"

"During lunch." She flushes a little as she unnecessarily adds, "I was in line buying tickets for the formal."

"Ah, so you are going."

"Yeah, I mean. For a little."

"Nobody from this hell hole I'm guessing?"

"Someone from home, yeah."

"Boyfriend?"

"Uh…" Why is this becoming an issue all of a sudden?

He smiles a little in amusement. "Unsure?"

"…I guess."

"I'm not big on them, but conversations are a good idea of getting a grasp of what other people are feeling."

"Oh, really?" she retorts sarcastically.

He holds up his hands as a surrendering gesture and says no more.

(But he's right – he always seems to be right.)

**

Okay, so maybe Rory was placing judgment on something she really had no place judging at all – dances can be nice: getting dressed up, looking pretty, dancing with the boy she likes that's not her boyfriend, even though she keeps getting tongue-tied when trying to label his importance. It's all wonderful. Sure, she could've gone without Tristan trying to start a fight with Dean, but it seems so far away when they're reading Dorothy Parker in Miss Patty's dance studio and her body is warm from the hot chocolate and his shoulder is strong under her cheek as his voice soothes her.

It's funny – she never really looks forward to school, but come Monday morning, she's yearning to spend a few hours at Chilton just to be away from her mom.

Even though she immediately figures out that she's getting no reprieve at school because everyone is talking about the almost fight that happened at the formal thanks to Tristan Dugray and Rory's date.

She's sitting in her alcove, almost half-waiting, half-dreading for Jess to find her.

"I've heard rumors," Jess says lightly.

"Only just now? Great album," she retorts flatly.

He snorts, taking a seat next to her. They sit in silence for a while, Jess tapping his foot on occasion, his brown eyes flickering up to the ceiling. He has rather nice eyes, she considers for a moment before immediately thinking of something else.

She sighs.

"Dean – my boyfriend – said Tristan has a 'thing' for me," Rory admits, looking down at her feet.

After a moment of silence, she looks up at him. He's staring with a blank expression. "Yes. Obviously," he responds with proper enunciation.

She groans and throws her head back against the wall with a satisfying thunk. "No."

"Wonderful, isn't it?"

"Shut up."

"Sorry," he says, not sounding or looking sorry at all.

She sighs again. "I totally didn't expect for that to happen."

"That naïveté is going to get you into trouble."

She can't even argue that.

"Did Paris really go to the dance with her cousin?" Jess asks, with enough amusement that it makes her finally smile.

"She admitted herself, loud and proud."

"Wow, I'm almost upset that I didn't go."

"Almost?"

"I had a better time seeing Mourning Widows."

She furrows her brow.

"Ask your friend Lane."

"Got it." She swallows. "I, um, had that conversation that you – and my best friend – suggested I have. So. Labels have been established."

"Congratulations."

"Thanks."

"You seem absolutely thrilled."

Rory bites her bottom lip. "I didn't come home after the dance. I fell asleep with Dean and my mom is so mad. For a lot of reasons, but that's the big one. So."

Jess hums. "Something tells me that's not remotely typical behavior and that was, in fact, the truth and not a flimsy lie."

Rory snorts and scowls a little. "You get that and it seems like nobody in my family does."

"Well, to be fair, my understanding of a quasi-decent parent is that there's some concern when their underage child doesn't come home without notice."

She looks over at him, but there's nothing in his face that gives away his thoughts.

He suddenly meets her gaze. "Hey, now," he admonishes her. "No room for pity here."

She flushes. "I wasn't –"

"You're nice, Gilmore, you would've gotten there eventually." He gets to his feet. "And that would be my cue to leave. Besides, I need time to execute something."

Rory so doesn't want to know – plausible deniability, maybe. "Don't get caught."

"Who do you think I am? Duncan and Bowman? Amateurs."

Rory smiles. "Of course. You're a professional."

Jess tips an imaginary hat at her before leaving her alone in the corridor.

Rory is looking forward to Christmas break, but she thinks she might miss Jess a little bit.

**

Jess is sitting in the cafeteria alone reading Mansfield Park, which makes her think that maybe they are, in fact, friends.

"Question," Rory asks, plopping herself across from him, dropping her tray on the table.

"Yes, Edmund is a moron and Fanny needs to get over him."

Rory gasps. "He's the only one that cares about her!"

"Whoopee," he retorts with a roll of his eyes. "So what, we're going to stick her with the one person who occasionally considers her feelings while at the same time lacks any sort of self-awareness to see how much he hurts her? Pass."

Rory opens her mouth to argue further, but suddenly remembers that she came to see him with a specific purpose in mind. "We'll definitely get back to that, but I have a question that doesn't have to do with Mansfield Park."

He puts his book down and focuses his attention on her. "What?"

"What do you think about giving a significant other a book for Christmas?"

"Decent."

"Thank you."

"What book?"

"Metamorphosis."

He raises his eyebrows at her. "You trying to break up with him?"

"No – it's a great book!"

"Sounds to me like you secretly hate him."

Rory pouts and drops her head in defeat. She hears him chuckle before she lifts his head. "Bad idea, then?" she sighs.

"Well, this is a fairly new relationship, so I think you can be excused for not immediately coming up with the perfect gift."

"I've never done this before," she admits.

"Well, maybe he'll appreciate it anyway since it's from you."

She flushes, which makes him smile in a teasing manner. "I thought it was romantic," she mutters under her breath.

"If you're looking for a romantic book, just give him Austen. Cliché, but you know, she's famous for a reason."

"I think getting him to read Pride and Prejudice was enough – he still won't admit he liked it."

He snorts and shakes his head. "Not much of a reader, then?"

"Well, I mean – yeah, he's read books –"

"I hope so."

"He likes reading," she continues defensively. "I'm just expanding his palette."

"Hm, so you got a teacher-student thing going?"

"Stop."

He backs off.

She sighs after a few moments of silence. "Which Austen book?"

"Persuasion."

She grins, picking up her sandwich. "I'll mull it over. Thanks."

"You're welcome, Virginia."

She furrows her brow in confusion.

"'Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends,'' he quotes.

"Thank you, friend," she responds, serious.

The corner of his mouth twitches. They spend the rest of the lunch period eating and reading in silence.

**

The thing is, Rory did plan on thinking more about changing her gift for Dean, but then her grandpa got sick and it was…scary. Terrifying. She's never experienced a death of someone close to her, let alone family, and it was heart stopping in a way that wasn't remotely pleasant.

So she gives Dean her wrapped copy of Metamorphosis and she babbles through an explanation of whys and how it isn't her secretly saying she hates him and he laughs and smiles in a way that makes her feel special. So it's a success.

Which she promptly tells Jess on their first day back at school.

"He must really like you," he answers with an incredulous shake of his head as he stuffs textbooks into his locker.

"Well," she starts, running her teeth over her bottom lip. "I was, admittedly, considering the idea of maybe changing my gift, but, uh, my grandpa got sick suddenly and I didn't have time, so."

He shuts his locker and stares at her. "Is he okay?"

"Oh, yeah, he's fine. He had angina, which is when you don't get enough blood to the heart, which causes chest pain, and all that is a symptom of coronary artery disease, so he has to change his diet and stuff, but he's good."

She doesn't know why the way he's looking at her makes her emotional, but she looks away for a moment to compose herself. She's shocked when she feels his hand briefly touch her arm – she doesn't know if she would've noticed if she wasn't already looking down.

"I'm glad he's okay," he says quietly, maybe a little awkwardly.

She smiles a little. "Thanks."

He picks up his bag and shoulders it. "Well, 2001 is already starting on a better note," he starts. "Paris is burning."

She tilts her head to the side, so many questions on the tip her tongue, like has Jess actually seen the documentary and what does that mean, but she catches Paris walking very quickly down the hallway and disappearing into their Lit classroom.

"What's going on?"

The bell rings. "Don't worry, you'll hear eventually," he drawls with a roll of his eyes as they walk over to class together.

**

It doesn't take her long to find out. But what Rory finds surprising beyond the fact that Madeline and Louise said hi to her in a perfectly friendly way, is that Rory is actually beginning to feel sorry for Paris.

"I thought everyone would let up after the weekend," Rory says during lunch.

"Not when we found out exactly how the funds were spent," Jess says, breaking a cookie in half.

"Geez."

"I know, like, who cares?" He drops half the cookie onto her tray. "Although it's giving me a well-earned break."

"Well earned break from what?" she asks.

"Oh, you know, this and that."

She narrows her eyes.

"Things that would possibly be considered misdemeanors outside of school."

Rory never thought that Jess was being a nuisance in school so people could shut up about who he is and his mom, who is apparently a gold-digger and street trash and other horrible things that Rory tries to ignore. She just assumed it was all just some form of rebellion, which makes her feel guilty because even though she doesn't know Jess very well, she at least has gathered that he's a good person and does care a little.

She picks up the cookie and takes a bite. "You're planning on something."

He takes a large breath.

"You're nice."

"Stop."

"The nicest."

"Say another word and that cookie goes in the trash."

"Not if I finish it first!"

"I don't need to bear witness to your unhinging your jaw and vacuuming your tray."

"That was one time – I forgot that I had a meeting with Ms. Caldecott!"

"Sickening."

She pouts as the corner of his mouth twitches. "Noted." She grumbles. "So, is your mom coming to Parents' Day?"

He snorts. "Nope."

"Is she busy?"

"Nope."

"Okay, new topic again, got it."

"I'll save you from the effort. I gotta go." He tosses the other half of his cookie onto her tray.

"To commit a misdemeanor?"

"Finish that Whitman paper."

"Alright, you overachiever, good luck."

"'Some people say I'm an overachiever, but I think they're just jealous,'" he says as he gets up with his tray.

She laughs in surprise. He smiles at her before leaving the cafeteria. She's still smiling as she opens her book to read.

**

It's fitting that not even a couple of days later she not only experiences the same kind of acting out to divert attention from one's self – she just didn't think she'd end up being the victim of Paris doing the same in regards to the rampant rumors regarding her broken family.

Her hatred for Paris distracts her from the cold as she waits on the bench for the bus, having blown off her mom for the rest of the day. Her arms and her crossed and her book that she attempted to read is resting on her lap.

She watches at Jess' car – dent still not fixed – pull up in front of her. He rolls down the window.

"It's a good thing I didn't implement my plan. Would've been wasted on the unworthy," he says.

Tears prickle in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," he adds.

She swallows over the lump in her throat.

"You wanna ride? You'll have to direct me to whatever hick town you're from."

She shakes her head.

"Hang in there," he says a little awkwardly, eyes shifting. "I'll do it Monday."

She gives him a weak smile. "You don't care?" she asks even though she already knows the answer.

"You should definitely sing 'Hot For Teacher' to get even."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"I could slash Paris' tires."

"Don't do that," Rory says, unsure if he's being serious or not.

"Up to you."

"No, that's a real crime."

He smiles in amusement. "Okay."

"Thanks, Jess."

He nods and drives away. She follows his car until he disappears onto the street.

**

Between Rory and Paris finally coming to a cease fire and over an hour delay in school the following day due to all the chalk in the school mysteriously vanishing overnight, Rory thinks she'll surviving the crushing humiliation of the entire school knowing that Max – Mr. Medina – and her mom are dating. Or were dating, now.

She rests her forehead against her mom's head, feeling her mom's body shaking with restrained sobs.

Oh, the irony – trying so hard to protect your heart that you end up crushing it.

The phone rings twice and she knows it's Dean, but she ignores it in favor of combing her fingers through her mom's hair and hugging her as her mom eventually falls asleep. She promises to herself that she'll call Dean in the morning as she goes into her room, too depressed to even find comfort in Sylvia Plath's darkness.

It's difficult falling asleep – thinking about the pain of a broken heart. She hasn't experienced it yet, not really, not like her mom or maybe even Paris and certainly Jess. Has Dean?

She tosses and turns tries to push back her own feelings of hurt and disappointment.

**

(She sees Jess' mom in passing during parent-teacher conferences – she's dressed in garishly expensive clothes and is extremely emotive and Rory doesn't like how she immediately comes to the thought, the recognition, that she's not sober. But there's no way – right?)

She's preoccupied with kissing Dean and feeling his arm around her waist. She wants Todd to be Lane's soulmate, wants and maybe believes it fiercely enough to lie to her mom to make it happen.

She wants her best friend to be happy; to have what Rory has with Dean. She just wants everyone to happy, especially if that means Paris is finally off her back.

She hands in her creative writing assignment to Mr. Medina, not quite able to meet his gaze, but she can see him smile in acknowledgment, a sweetness that she always appreciated, but now it makes her throat close.

"Oh, Mr. Mariano, glad to see there's no teeth pulling this week," Mr. Medina jokes as he accepts Jess' paper.

"Got to keep you on your toes," Jess quips.

And during lunch he somehow sneaks into her backpack and takes out her copy of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath without her realizing, until she looks up from her book for Lit and sees him unashamedly engrossed. She sighs, which catches his attention. He smiles briefly and goes back to reading. She'll let him borrow it – she'll probably get it back tomorrow or the day after at the latest.

(A few days later, Mr. Medina holds Jess back after class. She can't hear much, but she does catch Mr. Medina praising Jess on his short story portion of the paper – you have some real talent. She smiles to herself, her heart fluttering in her chest. She's so curious about what he wrote – she struggled immensely and hates the idea of anyone reading what she handed in – mostly because she knows it must be really good; beyond Mr. Medina probably being the best English teacher she ever had, she knows Jess has such a great brain.)

**

Rory is very, very grateful about the lack of malice between her and Paris, but she didn't expect their relationship to be put to the test by being assigned to the same debate group.

The only consolation prize to this situation is that Jess and Tristan are in the same debate group and their facial expressions put her in a good mood.

**

Rory always scoffed and rolled her eyes at groups of girls talking and laughing together when they should be working.

But it's actually…kind of nice. Getting a taste of having a group of friends to have fun with. And while she feels guilty taking her mom's amazing tickets and not spending the concert with her and Sookie, whom she loves dearly, she's thrilled with the idea of going to a concert with people who are her actual age. It's a new, exciting experience that she really enjoys, at least until Madeline and Louise talk about leaving the venue with two strangers in the scary city that is New York.

Rory is still fuming after searching the around the ground level of the theater for her mom and Sookie, unable to find them.

"So what do we do now?"

"I guess we just wait here for them to find us."

"Okay."

Rory clenches her jaw. "I can't believe Louise and Madeline would just leave like that."

"They've done it before."

"Nice," Rory snarks.

"Yeah, well," Paris says with a simple shrug.

Rory sighs, looking around at the crowd of people, with no luck. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Maybe."

She pushes on. "What could you possibly see in Tristan?"

Paris eyes her sharply. "Shouldn't you understand?"

Rory furrows her brow in confusion. "Excuse me?"

"What do you see in Mariano?"

"That's completely different."

"How so?"

"Well, Jess isn't an entitled brat who flirts at me."

Paris throws her head back and laughs. "Really? God, you really are as naïve as you look."

Rory hates that she blushes. Jess doesn't flirt – at least, not in any obvious way that Tristan does. But Rory doesn't want to think about that – how it's potentially different – because that's not the point she's trying to make. "Tristan's a jerk," she says.

"He's not always a jerk."

"No?" Rory asks, disbelieving.

"No. Just like I'm assuming Mariano isn't." Paris sighs. "I've known Tristan a really long time, okay? We've been in the same class since kindergarten."

Rory blinks in surprise. "Really?"

"Yes…and he has things in his life that are hard. His parents – not so great. We have that in common."

Rory thinks about Jess' mom stumbling in the Chilton hallways and frowns. "Okay."

"He kissed me once."

"He did?"

"In the sixth grade – on a dare," Paris clarifies.

"How romantic," Rory says sarcastically.

"You just don't know him like I do, okay?"

"Okay, I believe you. I just – I think maybe you could do better."

Paris gives her a small, bitter smile. "I know he's flirting with me to get to you, but at least he's flirting with me." She looks away and her body language immediately changes – her posture straightens, her shoulders upright and Rory jumps in skin when she shouts. "Mariano!"

"What –" Rory starts, but a guy in baggy jeans on the sidewalk has stopped and winced judging by the quick hunch of his shoulders and wow, that's actually Jess Mariano. It's weird seeing him out of the uniform, but the leather jacket definitely seems more him.

Jess slowly turns around and blinks in surprise. Rory waves.

Jess' eyes flicker to the venue – the sign, to Paris, to Rory – as he walks over to them and says, "I have a lot of questions."

"I can't believe you spotted him," Rory says to Paris.

"You just made me feel very unsafe in my home," Jess adds.

"Of course you dress like a hoodlum," Paris says, gesturing to his clothes.

"So!" Rory half-exclaims to prevent an argument. "What are you doing here, Jess?"

"I did live here all my life – I make frequent excursions. How were the Bangles?"

"They were great," Rory gushes. "We had amazing seats."

"Did you know who the Bangles were before tonight?" Jess questions Paris.

"I recognized a song or two. I liked them."

Jess smirks. "What are you standing around for? If you wanted to get signatures, the band usually comes out down there." He points a little further down a block.

"Well –"

"Hey!"

Rory whips her head to find her mom and Sookie. "There you are," she says in relief.

"Think fast," her mom says, tossing a t-shirt to Rory and Paris, nearly throwing one to Jess before realizing that he wasn't one of the teenagers that came along for the concert. "Uh –"

"Mom, this is Jess – he goes to Chilton with us," Rory quickly introduces. "He was just walking by – Paris actually spotted him."

"My doctor says I have twenty-ten vision," Paris supplies, which makes Jess roll his eyes.

"Oh, uh, nice to meet you, Jess, I'm Lorelai, this is Sookie."

Jess nods and doesn't say anything.

Her mom looks around and says, "Hey, where –?"

"They left," Rory says flatly.

"Excuse me?"

"Madeline and Louise met these guys sitting behind us and they –"

"What guys?"

"I should've known that Geller would've brought her lackeys – I saw 'em," Jess says with a sigh.

"You what?" her mom says, rounding on him.

"Corner of Waverly and First –"

"What's going on?" Sookie asks.

"They left."

"What?"

"Let's go, come on, move. That includes you, James Dean."

Jess grimaces a little.

"The faster you help us find Madeline and Louise, the faster you can get away," Rory says quietly to him.

Jess sighs. "Got nothing better to do, I guess."

"Book that bad?"

"Pretty sure Death of a Salesman will counteract any antidepressant."

"That's the point, genius, the American Dream is a sham," Paris interjects.

"You were born into the American Dream – you don't know the extent of what a sham it is," Jess argues.

"How far away is this place?" Rory asks.

"Right there, red building," Jess points down the block to the right.

"What floor?" her mom calls out from the front.

"Fourth – Four-F."

"I leave the house with four girls, I'm coming home with four girls," her mom grumbles after entering the building, jabbing her finger on the elevator button.

"At least we don't have to go knocking on every door in the building," Rory says.

"Would she really do that?" Paris asks.

"Yep."

"Wow."

"I wonder if I was missing if my mom would come looking for me like that."

Rory's eyes flicker to Jess, but she can't read his expression. "Paris, you know she would," she says, hoping to sound comforting.

"Yeah, or at least she'd send somebody."

The elevator arrives. Her mom turns to Jess and says, "Thanks for pointing us in the right direction. I really appreciate it."

Jess shrugs. "Not a problem."

Paris and Sookie enter the elevator and since Rory is peeved at Madeline and Louise, she asks, "You want further entertainment and watch my mom get them?"

The corner of his mouth twitches. "Willy just got fired, so why not."

Rory looks at her mom as they enter the elevator and head up to the fourth floor, but she doesn't know what her mom thinks of Jess. It's a good thing that the ride is short because the silence is uncomfortable.

"Right," Jess says, prompting everyone to turn to the corridor on the right. "Fifth door on the left."

The closer they are, the louder the music is.

"Why did you leave?" Rory asks.

"Friend of a friend. Got boring. Then I thought I saw Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb and figured I'd disappear."

Her mom knocks on the door until one of the guys from earlier – which Rory points out to Jess' apparent enjoyment – answers the door.

"Yeah?"

"Thanks. Hi, could you move please?" her mom says as she makes her way in.

"This is way better than whatever's on TV right now," Jess mutters under his breath.

"Hey, did you miss me?" her mom asks with false cheer when they spot Madeline and Louise with drinks in hands.

Rory can only imagine the embarrassment they're feeling, but at the same time, Jess' entertained expression and finger-wiggling wave have her insides quaking with suppressed laughter.

"Narc," Madeline hisses under her breath to Jess as they make their way back outside.

"How dumb do you have to be to pull that shit?" he counters. "Enjoy the long ride back to Connecticut."

Madeline and Louise scowl at him. Rory tries to avoid exchanging eye contact with them.

"I don't suppose you need a ride?" Rory's mom asks Jess.

"Nope."

"Bye, Jess," Rory says.

"Get ready for Lit on Monday because I'm going to rip you apart with my analysis on Death of a Salesman," Paris adds.

"Don't get your hopes up, kid."

He leaves them, pulling what Rory assumes is a pack of cigarettes from his coat.

Her mom only gives her a look before ushering everyone to the parking garage where they parked the car.

**

At the very end of the night, after everyone has gone home and her mom has ranted sufficiently about the dangers of leaving with strange men to the appropriate parents, her mom and Rory sit down on the couch and exhale.

"So. That was Jess."

"Yep."

"Interesting guy."

"I'd say so."

"Okay, I need to go to sleep. 'Night. Love you."

"Love you."

**

"I can't believe I missed it," Lane sighs.

"The concert was amazing."

"Forget about the concert. I wanted to see Lorelai pull those idiots out of that guy's apartment."

"It definitely was a Kodak moment."

"And how random that another guy from Chilton ended up helping you guys out. Which, by the way, why haven't you mentioned him?"

"Who, Jess?"

"Yeah, I mean, you've talked about how much Paris sucks – or used to suck – and about Tristan that jerk and all the other cast of weirdos at Chilton, but not about the hot native New Yorker."

"How do you know he's hot?"

"I didn't, you just confirmed it," Lane says gleefully.

Rory blushes fiercely. "He's just a friend – barely a friend," she stutters.

"Since when do you have a friend at Chilton – a guy friend, no less? Spill – now!"

Rory struggles to find the words. "There's not really much. We have some classes together, we sometimes have lunch, he…" she trails off.

Maybe they actually are pretty decent friends, considering.

"Hey," her mom interrupts them.

"Hey," Rory says, grateful for the temporary reprieve.

Except by the time her mom has left to talk to Luke and Lane has returned with gum, Rory is still at a loss.

"I'm sorry for not telling you about Jess," she says, unwrapping a stick of gum. "I don't know why – it's just. It's been really gradual, you know? A conversation here, saying hi in the hallway…you know all those times I had to deal with the school being awful he's just – he found a way to make it bearable. You know he essentially made a stink bomb after my blow up about the test last semester? Got everyone to stop talking about it."

"Wow, that's…actually really impressive."

"Right? He does stuff like that. And we talk about books – I swear, Lane, he's read more than I have," Rory continues, getting excited.

"Not possible."

Rory nods.

"And he…knows about me? Dean?"

"Yeah. He actually mentioned a record store he found in Hartford that I thought you would like – your tastes in music are pretty similar."

"And Dean?" Lane prompts.

"Yeah, he knows about Dean. He attempted to help me with the Christmas gift situation, but you know how that went. He thought I should've went with Persuasion."

Lane looks at Rory with a funny expression.

"What?" Rory asks, suddenly nervous.

"It's just…" Lane starts slowly. "You sit with him during lunch, you talk about books and music, he makes Chilton bearable, he helps you with Dean…there's obviously a level of trust there that would constitute a pretty strong base of a friendship."

Rory sticks the piece of gum in her mouth and chews on it. "Yeah," she admits.

"Does Dean know about Jess?"

The way Rory says 'no' even takes her by surprise.

"Because of Tristan," Lane assumes.

Rory opens her mouth to disagree, but Lane actuality has a point. She's noticed over the last few weeks that Dean is a pretty jealous person – protective, concerned. Besides, there's not really a point to telling Dean about Jess yet – he's not totally involved in Rory's daily life at Chilton and it's easy at the end of the day to separate her Chilton life from her home life.

Rory sighs. "I'd much rather have the freedom to complain about Tristan than mention something that Jess did that Dean will misunderstand."

Lane stares at her for a few moments before nodding. "Fair enough. I'd be careful, though. Because the longer you keep him a secret, the worst it'll be if he does find out."

Sometimes Rory thinks that Lane is the wisest person she knows. "I'll keep that in mind."

Lane sticks out her hand. Rory pulls out another stick of gums and gives it to her.

Rory really doesn't have any intention of bringing up Jess unless absolutely necessary.

**

The bad news is, Rory has zero desire to take care of a baby chick for a month; she and her mom do not have the best history when it comes to owning living animals. The good news is, she's partnered with Jess on the assignment and his facial expression when they receive Case Study Number Twelve makes her laugh.

"This is the worst thing this hell hole has done to me," Jess mutters, peering into the cage.

"I'll take it for the first week," Rory offers.

"Godsend."

She grins.

"You're okay taking this on the bus?"

"Yeah, I'll be okay. Thanks, though."

"No problem." His gaze is still focused on the bird, which is chirping and hopping toward their faces.

"Not an animal lover?" she asks.

He snorts. "Hardly. Here's my number in case you accidentally feed it M&Ms or something."

"I would never."

He gives her a look and writes down his number on the corner of her notebook.

"Thanks. Here's mine in case you miss her terribly and want her to chirp on the phone," she says with a grin, ripping a piece of notebook paper out because of course Jess didn't bother with bringing anything to class.

He nods in thanks and folds the paper into his pocket.

The bell rings and their teacher yells over them to pick up their chicks before they leave for school and to not carry them around to different classrooms.

(She considers for a moment asking for his opinion on The Donna Reed Show, but she banishes the thought and heads to Algebra.)

**

After hanging up with Dean's mom, Rory sighs and looks down at her notes again, finding Jess' number on one of her open notebooks. It's been established – at least in her mind – that they're friends, and they did exchange numbers, so that means he eventually should expect a call, right? And they are working together on the baby chick project…

She dials his number before she can think much more about it.

"Richards' Residence," a falsely cheery voice answers.

"Uh…may I speak to Jess, please? My name is Rory, a friend from Chilton," Rory responds awkwardly.

"Oh, hey," the voice responds at a normal tone – a familiar one.

"Jess?"

"I was told I answered the phone rudely."

Rory exhales a laugh. "I don't think the way you answered it was the way to go. Was your old way that much worse?"

She can hear him faintly snort. "Why'd you call?"

"Uh – well –"

"I'm glad you called," he adds.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah – I really do miss the chick so much. I miss its…high pitched chirps."

She smiles. "Sorry – I'm not at home. I'm kitty-sitting."

"What a bummer."

"Try again tomorrow. By the way, the chick's name is Stella."

"We'll see. And noted. So, what's up?"

"It's…uh…" she stutters, not knowing how to explain it, if she should explain it. She trails off, the silence not as uncomfortable as it should be.

"Talk."

She sighs. So she tells him – the night before with her mom and Dean, The Donna Reed Show, the comments – and she doesn't know what she expects for him to do or say, but she admittedly feels a little better unloading everything.

"Wow," he says.

"Yeah. So…what do you think?"

She can just picture him shrugging. "I think I'm a guy and don't really…have an opinion on it."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, not for nothing, but I don't have society's expectations weighing down on my gender to remain at home all day and cook enough food to feed a third world country all before the spouse gets home from work."

"True…" she says slowly.

"If a woman wants to be a homemaker, fine, if she doesn't, fine. I think choice is the key thing."

"Right, but millions of women didn't have that choice back when The Donna Reed Show was going on, which was definitely concocted by a man."

"Actually, not completely true. She was an uncredited producer and director."

"Really?"

"Yup."

"Do I want to know why you know this information?"

"In Search of Donna Reed wasn't a bad biography. A little too biased, but what do you expect from family writing it."

"Did you lose all your books in a devastating fire and had nothing else to choose from?"

"I didn't have much else to choose from at the time, but not because of a fire. So, what are you gonna do?"

She bites her bottom lip. "Can't knock it 'til I try it," she murmurs, ideas slowly starting to form.

"What?"

"I gotta go – thanks, Jess! See you tomorrow!" She hangs up the phone and runs out of the house to find Lane.

**

(All she can think about when she finally goes to sleep, the soles of her feet throbbing with her heartbeat, is that while her mom will never live it down, she's sure Jess' reaction will rival her mom's.)

**

"Okay, why did you hang up last night?" Jess asks as soon as they leave History.

Rory blushes and tries to look anywhere but at him.

"You have to tell me."

"No."

"I need my mood boosted."

"Your mood seems boosted enough."

"Please."

"Wow, did you hurt yourself with that one?"

"I'm going to keep pestering you so you better just share it."

She throws her head back and groans. "I…decided to be Donna Reed for the night," she mumbles.

He furrows his brow. "What does that mean…"

"I mean I cooked dinner – not from scratch – I wore heels, I wore pearls – not real ones, I don't have those – I wore a hoop skirt –" she begrudgingly admits.

Jess slaps a hand to his mouth and stops walking, eyes shutting, shoulders shaking with silent laughter. She crosses her arms and waits for him to pull himself together.

Eventually, he lowers his hand and schools his face, which is pink from exertion, but the corner of his mouth twitches. "Are there pictures – please tell me there's photographic evidence," he asks seriously.

"No."

"I'm surprised your nose didn't grow two feet from that lie."

"Jess," she whines.

He grins briefly and she blushes again but for a different reason.

"Did you like it?" he asks when they stop by her locker.

She cocks her head to the side as she spins the dial. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, did you like the Donna Reed lifestyle?"

She waits until she opens her locker and switches out her books to answer. "Yeah, it was fun, I guess. Felt like acting. I wouldn't wear the shoes again, my feet still hurt from that, but, I don't know. Maybe it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to do once in a while."

He nods. "Can't knock it till you try it," he repeats.

She smiles a little. "What about you?"

"What? Do I have an inner Donna Reed?" he questions with an amused smile. "I can cook for survival – never thought about it beyond that."

Rory doesn't like when he makes comments like that – loaded ones that hint toward something ugly and terrible. Paris called him 'trailer trash,' but Rory thinks of the Artful Dodger, although she supposes he's really more like Oliver Twist in the sense that he's been adopted by wealth. A happier ending.

(Except Jess isn't exactly happy – that's evident.)

"Rory! There you are – we need to talk about the grading of our debate!" Paris calls from down the hallway, marching over to them.

"Bye," Jess says, swiftly leaving.

She smiles in amusement after him until she's face to face with Paris.

**

Rory loves her dad. How can she not? He's the only other person who can keep up with the Gilmore girls without a struggle, he's funny, he loves her, loves her mom – who wouldn't dream about their separated parents getting back together?

She can't get over the fact that he's in Stars Hollow – and when she's done with school for the day, he'll be home. The day before, her dad and Dean excitedly talked about motorcycles while her mom occasionally listened in and Rory had all but mentally drafted her introduction and first paragraphs of her upcoming Lit paper.

Okay, not the most riveting time she's had, but it was just nice.

She hands Jess the baby chick at school in the middle of the week and he grimaces, but reluctantly promises to do the wrong properly. She believes him – he doesn't seem to be in the practice of screwing people over without a particular reason.

"It's good timing – my dad's in town and unfortunately Stella seems to chirp if he snores too much."

"Your dad?"

"Yeah!" she responds brightly. "He's staying over for the week – he's always been…he's always traveled and wasn't ready to settle, but I think now he may be ready."

"Your parents never married?" he questions.

"No way, my grandparents really wanted them to, but my mom refused. But my mom and my dad are friendly. They knew each other forever, so. Did your parents?"

"Liz loves getting married," he answers with a roll of his eyes.

"Is he in New York?"

He gives her a wry smile. "No idea."

She quirks her head to the side, not understanding.

"He walked out when I was a day old."

Her mouth parts in shock.

"Can't miss what I never had," he adds with a shrug.

"I'm sorry," she exhales, feeling stupid.

"Whatever."

She runs her hand through her hair, curling a piece behind her ear. "I'm also going to be meeting my dad's parents for the first time. Which is crazy, I mean, they're my grandparents, but I guess they left Connecticut years ago and haven't had a reason to come back…"

"Should be an interesting Friday Night Dinner," he says.

Sometimes it throws her a little on just how much he remembers what she tells him, even if it's only in passing.

"I hope it's good. It would be nice if we could all be together and just be a family." She shakes her head and blushes a little. "Such a cliché, right? A kid wanting their parents and family to get back together."

He shrugs. "Yeah. Probably depends."

"On what?"

"A lot of things."

She's about to question him more, but the bell rings and she has to make her way to Algebra.

**

Rory is far from stupid. Obviously, she wasn't planned, but she knows her mom and Richard and Emily Gilmore love her dearly.

But she also knows her existence caused rifts that are too deep for her to even comprehend or begin to understand. Maybe that's how she tricked herself into thinking that it was going to be okay, that just seeing her dad in a suit and tie, talking about his successful new business, her mom running an amazing inn by herself, and herself – Rory Gilmore – the center of it all, is doing well in private school and has big dreams for herself – will make everyone want to look ahead from the past and accept this great new future.

Instead, she trips over her tongue addressing her paternal grandparents, she's uncomfortable with the way they look at her, like they've already judged her to be substandard, and even from the kitchen, she can hear phrases like 'mutual mistake' and 'damage' and 'humiliation' and how she ruined lives.

Her eyes sting as she grabs a soda from the fridge.

"Rory, I know you heard a lot of talk about various disappointments this evening and I know you've heard a lot of talk about it in the past. But I want to make this very clear – you, you lady, your person and your existence have never ever been – not even for a second – included in that list. Do you understand me?"

"Yeah, I do," she says.

But in all honesty, it's all just too late; she's had too many years to mull it over and while it's kind of her to say, it doesn't erase all that's felt either.

Sometimes Rory thinks she's far from intelligent.

**

"So, how was last night with all four of your grandparents?" Dean asks on the phone.

"Ah, not that good, not something I really want to talk about."

"Okay, well, I'm sorry."

"It's okay," she lies. "So what did you do last night?"

Easily forgotten.

**

"You sure you're okay, sweetie? You know your dad will come by again. I'd make a joke about the first time being the most difficult, but that seems a little inappropriate on a Sunday."

Rory cracks a smile at her mom. "I'm okay," she lies again.

She excuses herself to study for a test she has at the end of the week.

**

"How did your dinner with the entire family tree go?" Jess asks after History, standing by her locker. Even is on their way to the cafeteria, so she takes her time switching out her books.

It gets easier and easier to simply be honest with Jess as opposed to struggling to put up a front and water down her feelings like she's been doing over the last few days. "Not very good."

He looks at her and frowns.

She smiles a little with a shrug. "I don't know why I thought sixteen years was enough time for everyone to get over what happened, but how can you get over it when the error is a walking, talking, living being?"

"If you're an error, then I'm a fucking catastrophe," Jess says, leaning against the lockers. "They're assholes."

She looks down at her nails. "It's just…I was the cause of so much grief and pain and I wish I could make it go away."

"No one chooses how they come into this fucked up world, Rory. If we did, everyone would want to come into it like them." He gestures to their fellow classmates walking up and down the hallway. "Rich and without a care."

"I can't imagine your wanting to come into this world as one of them."

"Maybe not," he admits. "But I wouldn't mind a little of the financial security."

She hums in agreement. Once she's done, she shuts her locker and they walk to the cafeteria together.

"Thanks for listening – you're the only other person I know who was…a surprise," she says.

He suddenly grins. "That's a very kind way of putting it."

"You're not a catastrophe," she says gently.

"Ah, and that's very kind of you to say."

"I mean it. I don't know how I'd be in Chilton –"

"You would've been fine without me –"

"But I know I'm definitely happier than I would've been, so," she continues over him. "I know I'm just one person, but…still," she finishes lamely.

To her immense surprise, he brings a hand to the back of her head, bringing her close so their temples are touching as he leans in and says, "Stop worrying about me." He lets her go.

She swallows thickly, but looks him directly in the eyes when she says, "You're welcome."

His eyebrows rise briefly in surprise and doesn't say a word the rest of the way to the cafeteria, but he buys her a cookie for lunch and that night when she unloads her backpack, she finds another one hidden between her notebooks.

She smiles and eats her cookie in secrecy.

**

It's her last week with Stella and when Jess hands Rory the cage, he gives her an old copy of the fiction issue of The New Yorker.

"God, what year is this from?" Rory asks, letting him tuck it under her arm.

"Nineteen-sixty-three."

She stares at him. "You're joking."

"Nope. My step-grandparents – if that's even a thing – have collected The New Yorker for decades. Entire shelves in the basement categorized – it's nuts. Don't know if you've read The Banality of Evil, but this is the issue where Hannah Arendt first published her report on Eichmann's trial."

"That book has been on my list for an embarrassingly long time – are you sure I can borrow this?" She sighs. "Please tell me you asked very nicely to borrow their magazines."

"They willingly offered – they seem to enjoy me more than their son does."

The reveal is so casual and so sudden she's taken aback.

He smiles knowingly. "Just take it."

She wants to press, but simply says, "Thanks. I'll give it back in pristine condition."

"I have no doubt."

**

(She doesn't tell him that her three-month anniversary with Dean is coming up.)

**

I just…I'm surprised, I didn't expect…I don't…

No, I just have to think about it for a minute.

…saying I love you is a really difficult thing. (And you did it really well.)

I'm sorry.

Please.

Please, don't be mad.

Please, it's just not that easy for me.

Think about it from my point of view. I mean, my mom and our life.

I'm just confused.

It's a really big deal.

Dean, please don't be mad.

Please, I swear, I just need a minute to…

(You don't love me.)

(This is not something that you think about, Rory. This is either something that you feel or you don't.)

(I say I love you and you wanna think about it? I mean, go home and discuss it with your mother? Make one of your pro/con lists?)

(I'm an idiot. I don't even know what I was thinking.)

(You don't get pregnant saying I love you.)

(Whatever, it doesn't matter, all right?)

**

Rory Gilmore sits alone in her bedroom and attempts to imagine loving a sixteen-year-old boy.

She simply can't do it.

**

So she puts it away – stuffs it away in a mental box in the corner of her mind. If she can do that with the things that remind her of him, then she can do the same with her thoughts and memories. She will be productive, she will not pine, she will just…be.

She will not wallow.

So she'll just have to make a few adjustments in terms of her routine – avoiding the high school, Peach Street, Doose's Market – but she can do it. She has more important things to focus on, as she told her mom: school, Harvard – she doesn't need a boyfriend right now when there is so much she could be doing to better her future aspects.

Sure, there is a distraction or two with seeing Luke and Dean outside the diner, which was weird, but it was worse being blown off by Dean. But her mom gets her right back on track, and before she can linger too much on the bracelet he made her, she finds the invitation for Louise's party and soon enough, she's on her way with Lane in tow.

**

Rory actually feels sort of sorry for Tristan as she watches him following Summer around the party, how she treats him like garbage. Crazy.

**

Rory doesn't know which one she's more surprised to see at the party – Paris, whose arm is going be like Pop-Eye with the number of time she keeps lifting her wrist to check the time, or Jess, who is tucked away in a small study behind an ornate desk.

"Hey," she greets.

He lifts his head from his book and blinks in surprise. "First Paris, now you?"

"I thought the same exact thing."

His brow furrows. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, why?"

He shrugs a little. "Just seem…down, I guess."

She can only shrug back and sits down on the loveseat perpendicular to him.

"Did you come here alone?" he asks.

"No, my friend Lane is here. She's dancing with Henry Cho."

"Huh. Doesn't seem her type."

"He's her parents' type, but she seems to like him a lot, so I'm sure that'll spring on an existential crisis."

"No boyfriend? Not that I blame him for wanting to bail on this marvelous evening."

"Why are you here?" she counters.

"Needed to get out," he answers, face serious.

She exhales. "He's…not my boyfriend anymore."

"Since when?"

"Last night. It was our three-month anniversary."

"Jesus."

She nods, folding her hands into her lap. He pushes out from his chair and goes over to the loveseat, sitting next to her, leaving some space between them.

"Why did you break up?"

She looks down at her hands. "He didn't want to be my boyfriend anymore." The answer she's been given to everyone before adding that she 'doesn't want to talk about it anymore,' but this time she doesn't say that.

He purses his mouth a little and exhales through his nose, rubbing the back of his neck.

She swallows and feels the bass of the music thrum through the couch. "Have you ever told a girl you loved her?"

He snorts. "Definitely not."

She nods.

He looks at her, searching. She can only take him in through short glances.

"Do you want me to guess why he broke up with you, or do you want to tell me? He didn't…try anything, right? 'Cuz I'll deck him, I don't care if he's supposedly twelve-feet tall."

She holds his gaze properly, trying not to find his comment funny, even though the thought of Jess and Dean being in the same space is sort of amusing. "No, he didn't do anything like that." She pauses. "I haven't told anyone," she admits.

"So why tell me," he assumes.

"You know me, but you don't…" she trails off. Does he really not know her? Sure, she hasn't really talked a lot about Stars Hollow with him, which is a huge part of her and they only met in September, but…

"I probably know you better than anyone," he answers, wiggling his eyebrows.

She tucks her bottom lip into her mouth, her eyes stinging for a moment. "Can't say the same for you."

"Sure you could."

"So if I were to tell you that my wonderful, amazing boyfriend told me he loved me and I couldn't say it back, you wouldn't call me an idiot?"

"Correct," he responds right away, easily.

She swallows thickly.

"Rory, if you weren't…ready to say it back, then that's fine."

"I'm horrible."

"I wouldn't go that far."

"And it's not fine. It really hurt him."

"I just see you being hurt."

Her face crumbles. "I don't know what's wrong with me – why – I must be broken if I couldn't say it back," Rory chokes, bringing a hand to her mouth.

"Rory, you're not broken," Jess says, his hand reaching out to gently pry hers from her face. "If he didn't want to understand or wait, then he's a fucking moron."

"He's not a moron – he was right. It's hard for everyone and I just –"

He squeezes her hand – it should be weird that he's still holding it, right? But she squeezes back.

She sniffles and tries to dry her eyes with her free hand. "Sorry, I'm just, blubbering about this –"

"It's fine."

"Thanks, Jess."

He pats their laced hands together with his other one, but still keeps holding on.

"You can divulge something to me too, you know. I won't tell anyone."

The corner of his mouth quirks up. "There isn't much you don't already know."

"Like?"

"Welfare child of New York, alcoholic mom, step-daddy who is beginning to really not like the troubled step-son," he lists, like reciting the items he needs to buy from the grocery store.

These are scary things – she doesn't hear about them outside of the media she voraciously consumes. She thought maybe she'd be prepared – he's already hinted at these things before – but she's not. She's really not.

She leans to the side and rests her temple against his.

"There's another one, but you're not ready for that one yet."

"Is it sad?"

"I don't think so. You might figure it out on your own eventually."

She's confused, but she just says, "Okay."

They sit like that for a while. It's nice, feeling his arm pressed against hers, still holding hands. Her mind is blissfully blank, so it's a surprise when he says, "I'm assuming you need to be home before midnight, Cinderella?"

She nods.

"You should probably go, then. Do you need a ride?"

"No, I'll be okay."

She reluctantly lets go and before she can think too much about it, she kisses his temple. A brief peck, but she's not embarrassed like she thinks she would be. He gives her a soft smile.

"I'll see you Monday," she says.

He nods.

She grabs her coat and her bag, leaves Jess alone and weaves through the crowd to find Lane, who takes one look at her and turns to Henry, saying they have to go.

After they pull out of the massive driveway, Lane asks, "What happened?"

"I don't want to talk about it still," Rory says, wiping away a stray tear.

"I'm sorry I was with Henry the whole night – I should've been there –" Lane starts.

"No, no – Lane, it's okay. I'm glad you met Henry and had fun. I was okay – I was with Jess for a bit."

"He was there? Crap – I wish I met him," Lane bemoans. "His taste in music is pretty exceptional."

"I'm sure there will be another opportunity."

"So…did you tell him about you and Dean?" Lane inquires.

Rory swallows. "Just that we broke up," she lies.

"What did he say?"

"That Dean was an 'effing moron.'"

Lane laughs. "I'm sure he did not say 'effing.'"

"Not at all."

Rory drives in silence for a minute.

"For what it's worth – Dean is an 'effing moron' for breaking up with you, whatever the reason is," Lane adds.

Rory tries to smile, but it just makes her teary.

So after Rory drops Lane off at her house, she changes into her pajamas and pulls out the Ben and Jerrys and properly wallows. She's never done it before, but she thinks she does a pretty good job for the next twenty-four hours.

**

On Monday, Jess is standing by her locker, focused on a book, and her heart thumps a little quicker. He looks up and quirks a smile.

"Hey," she says.

"Hey."

"Did you need something from me?" she asks, confused, spinning her locker combination. "You've never waited by my locker for me unless it was to immediately get rid of Stella."

"Would you believe me if I said I missed her?"

"No way."

He nods with a smirk. "Just wanted to see if you're okay," he answers with a shrug.

Rory smiles. "I'm okay. Wallowed a lot yesterday, but. I'll be good."

He nods. "Okay."

From the corner of her eye, she sees Tristan walking past, head down, shoulders a little hunched. She bites her bottom lip and looks back at Jess. "I'll be right back – watch my bag?"

"Sure," he says, brow furrowed.

She speed-walks until she catches up to Tristan.

"Hi," she says.

He looks to her in surprise.

"I just wanted to say I'm sorry about what happened at Madeline's party – I was just broken up with too, so. I get it. Summer's an idiot. And I hope you feel better."

Eventually, he smiles a little. "You're very odd, you know that?"

"Thank you."

"But…thanks. And, for what it's worth, I'm sorry I gave you such a hard time for a while."

Rory smiles. "I accept your apology."

She goes back to her locker, where Jess is still standing with a blank expression.

"I just saw how miserable he was on Saturday, so…" Rory explains.

Jess nods, still looking past Rory. "Ever heard the expression 'no good deed goes unpunished'?"

"Yeah, why?"

He exhales through his nose. "Nothing. I got P.E., I better go."

"Okay – I'll see you in Lit."

He nods and leaves her alone.

**

Eventually she realizes that Jess must've been talking about her interaction with Tristan, but he doesn't seem bad, especially when after History she suggests that maybe he should focus on a different kind of girl, like Paris, who already likes Tristan and maybe they can be sweet together.

"Trying to channel Emma?" Jess asks from out of nowhere.

"God," Rory exhales. "You need a bell. And what's wrong with that? Paris and Tristan have known each other for years, she likes him, she seems to see something decent in him and I don't know, maybe that'll make him into a nicer person."

"Sure thing, Gilmore. Hey, wanna go to Record Breaker Incorporated after your little group meeting on Sunday? They just got a new shipment in."

"Oh, yes, totally. But I need to be home by five," Rory says excitedly. "Maybe you can help me pick out a gift for Lane – her birthday is at the end of the month."

"Cool. Later."

**

…Why does Jess always have to be right?

**

Rory stomps out of the school and when she catches sight of Jess, she points at him and demands, "Do you have a crystal ball?"

"It's more like Johnny Smith."

"What?"

"Stephen King – The Dead Zone."

"Never read that one. He's psychic?"

"Was in a coma for a few years, wakes up and when he touches people, he can see their past, present, or future."

"So you got hit in the head."

Jess grins. "Your plan failed – I saw Paris storm out."

Rory shoves him in the direction of his car. "Shut up, let's go."

"Despot."

**

"It was perfect," Rory complains as she's combing through the D's. "She came to my house – I gave her an outfit, which, she should give back, it was my mom's, and I reassured her and talked her out of discussing the Spanish Inquisition –"

"Wow, she really is something."

"And now it's all messed up because Tristan had to open his big, stupid mouth. But I guess if he still likes Summer –"

Jess laughs out loud. "Come on, Rory, it's not Summer, it's you."

"No, it's not."

"Yes, it is. Who gave him a little hope at the beginning of the week?"

She's been denying this for the past few hours, but damn it. "I'm so screwed."

"You betcha, kid. How about this for Lane? Not something she'd pick herself, but may end up liking it."

She takes the CD offered and inspects it, occasionally glancing up at him, but he's already back to searching. She likes how he can be so focused – it's a little entrancing to watch him in his element. And she likes his clothes – he looks good in a jean jacket –

She shakes her head and runs a hand through her hair, forcing herself to mentally list all the CDs she scans to clear her head.

**

Rory's History teacher assigns her class a visual family history project.

She does not need to look at Jess to know that he is far from thrilled with this.

**

"I hate this project," Rory says flatly in lieu of a greeting the next day.

"Finally, you gained sense. Why?" Jess asks, biting into his sandwich.

"Because my mom is a big fat liar. She claims there are no baby pictures of her in existence. That cannot be true."

"Why not?"

"Why not? Because Emily Gilmore would've photographed everything – there's a giant painting of them above the mantel in the living room. She actually commissioned someone to paint a family photo. There has to be pictures."

"Well, there doesn't have to be," he simply answers.

"Why – do you have no photographic evidence of your childhood?"

He shrugs.

She swallows. "She's lying," she insists. "But whatever, I'll ask tomorrow at Friday Night Dinner for the pictures and that will be that."

Except there are actually no baby pictures and when she calls Jess to clarify the history homework they have, he asks, "So, did you get that photographic evidence?"

"There aren't any – she burned them all when she was seven," Rory admits. "I'm still in shock."

"Wow, fire, that's dramatic. Liz just flushed half of them down the toilet."

Rory didn't expect Jess to bring it up again, let alone be more direct. "Oh."

"She thinks my uncle may have some, but I'm not holding my breath."

She picks at her comforter, not knowing what to say. "Hopefully your mom wasn't embarrassed by your big head," she mutters before she can think about it.

"What?"

"Apparently, my mom had a big head as a baby and my grandma would always point it out."

"You're kidding."

"I'm disappointed by the lack of photographic evidence beyond the fact that it's making this project a lot more difficult."

She hears him snort. "Maybe something will turn up one day."

"I really hope so. Hey, do you think technology could retroactively age you so we could get an idea?"

"What would be the point of that?"

"Uh, hello, Lorelai Gilmore the Second's massive baby head?"

He laughs and she considers it a win. "Fair enough."

She smiles for a little too long.

**

She still misses Dean – it was so abrupt the way things ended that she feels like she has so much to say, so much to process, but she's just left alone, avoiding the market at all costs and hoping she doesn't bump into him (but at the same time wishing she would).

But as painful as those moments are, Rory doesn't really feel them at school; it's only when she's in Stars Hollow on a Saturday night, glancing down at the space where she and Dean first watching Willy Wonka together.

She used to not know why she wouldn't feel it at school, but she can't ignore that she looks forward to certain classes and her lunch period because of Jess. She can admit he's attractive, but…there are plenty of reasons why she can't like him beyond friendship.

Besides, she likes Dean still. That's pretty obvious by the burn of betrayal she feels in her throat when she catches Dean and Lane at Lane's house.

**

"You're in a crabby mood," Jess points out lightly.

"Didn't sleep well."

"Huh."

"I don't have to tell you," she snips.

"Nope."

"I can just sit here in silence and ignore you."

"Yep."

"You're trying to pull some reverse psychology nonsense aren't you?"

He shrugs, but smirks. "You can be doom and gloom all you want. I just made an observation. You're the one that jumped about seven steps ahead of the conversation."

Rory loses the fight she has in her. She opens her can of soda and drums her fingernails against it. "Lane didn't tell me that she was working on a science project with Dean. I caught them studying at her house."

"Ah."

"I don't need to be protected. I can handle it."

"You're handling it beautifully."

"Stop making fun of me."

He throws his hands up.

"Everyone treats me like I'm a porcelain doll that will crack at any sort of pressure or hurt feelings or just…whatever. I don't need anyone trying to protect me from all the bad, scary things in the world," Rory gripes, ripping the plastic off her utensils.

He continues eating his chips.

"What," she says flatly.

He quirks an eyebrow.

"You have a look on your face."

His eyebrows furrow. "I'm eating my lunch."

"Yeah, and you're thinking about something to say to me. So, say it, doesn't spare me."

He looks at her and drops the bag of chips onto the table. "Look, as much as you don't like associating with the crazy people that go here, you have more in common with them than you think."

"Excuse me?"

"You're blue blood, Ror. Your mom was born into it, she lived it for sixteen years –"

"She gave it up –"

"You don't just give that up. She grew up with it, in it; it's part of her. You can take the girl out of high society, but can't take the high society out of the girl, or however that saying goes," he continues calmly.

"Let me guess, like you?" she retorts.

"I grew up on welfare and had metal detectors in my school. That doesn't go away just because I wear the stupid uniform and drive a Beamer."

"Well, it's not like I grew up in a mansion and had designer clothes," she argues.

She loses her words when he narrows his eyes at her. "No, but it's a given that Rory Gilmore goes to Harvard, right? The big dream? Expectation?"

"It's not an expectation – I've wanted it since I was four."

"What four-year-old even thinks like that? You know where you got it from, Rory. And isn't it a little funny how your grandpa is a big Yale man – shouldn't you go with the family legacy? Seems like another way for your mom to rebel."

"Stop it," she says, her voice wavering.

"I thought you told me not to spare your feelings? Be critical and self-aware. Your mom may have built her life away from her parents from nothing, but she already had all the tools to do it. You may not have grown up in a mansion or wore the best and finest, but you grew up in a strong enough bubble to get this pitying look in your eyes whenever I share something unpleasant about my life."

Rory gets up from the table and lugs her backpack onto her shoulder, leaving him without a word. She's proud of keeping her tears at bay, but she can't do anything about her red face.

**

She's distracted throughout Lit, considering Jess' words. He's a jerk – he doesn't have a right or a place or anything to say all those things to her. She's always wanted to go to Harvard – her mom just presented the opportunity, but Rory has done her own research and developed her own sense of purpose.

Sure, her mom likes to rally against her grandparents at any given opportunity, but that doesn't mean

And so what if Rory wasn't exposed to the worst of humanity growing up? She's not ignorant – she reads the paper, she watches the news. And besides, she's experienced struggles – she was aware when they were tight for money and they had to cut the cable and buy clothes from GoodWill…

She's shocked out of her reverie toward the end of class, but these thoughts are still swirling in her head when Mr. Medina holds her back.

But she's thrown right back to reality when he mentions he and her mom have been talking for weeks and maybe having dinner and something in her snaps.

**

Jess is sitting at the bus stop.

She doesn't say anything as she sit down at the end of the bench, dropping her backpack onto the ground.

"I'm sorry for what I said. It was uncalled for," he says a moment later.

"You were right."

"I didn't mean to imply there was a moral value in your privilege. It's not good or bad, it just is," he continues, sneaking a glance at her.

"I'm sheltered and not used to knowing anyone who's had…" she trails off.

"A shit childhood?" he offers.

She shrugs. "I don't mean to…pity you," she struggles to find the words. "It just makes me…sad, I guess. You're a good person and you didn't – don't deserve it and it's not fair."

She looks at him properly and he's smiling. "People just want to protect you because they care about you. It's nice."

She tucks her bottom lip into her mouth for a moment, catching the bus coming around the corner. Except the last thing she wants to do is go back to Stars Hollow. Obviously her mom and Lane care about her and don't want to intentionally upset her, but they have to trust her.

Which, now that she things about it, is pretty ironic; they still don't know the ugly truth about her and Dean.

"What are you doing right now?"

He blinks at her. "Nothing much. Bookstore, maybe."

She stands up and puts her backpack on her shoulders. "Let's go."

His eyes flicker to the bus that's slowing to a stop and then back to her. "Okay."

He leads her to his car, dent of course still there. Once she's inside, she sighs in relief.

He's already taking off his blazer and thrown off his tie and unbuttoning his shirt halfway, a white t-shirt peeking through. Once he's sufficiently undressed, he starts the car.

"My mom didn't tell me that she and Mr. Medina were talking again," she says without prompting.

"Maybe she wanted to make sure it was something worth mentioning to you," he offers. "Or…" he trails off. "For how long has this been going on?"

"Weeks."

"Like…around the time you and Dean broke up?"

"So?"

"Maybe your mom didn't want to be an asshole and rub her rekindling relationship in your face."

She doesn't say anything.

He takes her to a bookstore that's in a questionable part of Hartford, but the collection is extensive and wonderful and the coffee is surprisingly really good. Even though after an hour she feels herself calmer than before, she realizes with an annoyed pang that she has to call her mom and let her know she's not coming back yet.

"I need to find a phone," Rory sighs.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cell phone, much to her shock.

"You have a phone?" she questions in disbelief.

"I usually just keep it in the car – you're lucky it's still charged."

She shakes her head and takes his phone, dialing her mom's cell phone.

"Hello?"

"It's Rory. I'm still in Hartford," she says flatly.

"Oh, did you get held up with a group project or something?"

"Nope."

"Okay…what's with the mood?"

"I don't know – maybe you can call Mr. Medina and dissect it together!" Rory answers with sarcasm as she steps outside the bookstore.

"What are you talking about?"

"I've heard you've gotten back together again."

"Did you talk to Max?"

"He had me stay after class today to talk about my difficult breakup situation."

"We are not dating. We had been talking and we just now decided to start dating."

"Why didn't you tell me you'd been talking?"

"Because it was too much like the whole Todd and Nevina Cutler thing."

"The what?" Rory questions, but she's tired and only half-listens to her mom's long-winded story that could've been easily shortened to a sentence or two.

"Look, I didn't want to be Nevina Cutler, okay? I just wanted to give you some space and a chance to come up for air. I was trying to protect you, that's all."

Poisonous words are on the tip of her tongue, something about how they won't last anyway, that she'll break up with Max and it'll never been a happily ever after, but instead, she says she's not coming home, not right now, and hangs up.

Jess' phone immediately rings again, but she ignores it, staring at oncoming traffic until Jess joins her.

"You were right, of course. She thought I'd be upset because of Dean, because everyone assumes I can't function now that I don't have Dean," she rants. "They act like one mention of his name and I go to pieces."

"Do you?"

"Excuse me?"

He shrugs. "You haven't talked about him since you guys ended. Common sense dictates that given the newness of the breakup, I not bring up the ex in the case that it bothers you."

She shoots him a look. "You rarely asked about Dean even when I was dating him."

"More important things to discuss."

"Right, like how on earth Coldplay could be considered an alternative band," she says sarcastically.

"Exactly." He briefly grins. "You still miss him?"

She looks down at her feet, scuffing the tip of her shoe against the sidewalk. "Yeah, I do. But he doesn't want me, so…"

"He told you he loves you – I think that means the exact opposite."

"Maybe he did, but now he doesn't because I couldn't say it back. It's just..." she trails off, not knowing exactly what she wants to say, but ideas half-formed stuck in her mind.

"...Yes?"

"It just feels like unfinished business," she starts again. "I have so much to say and I want to talk to him, but that's not possible and I'm upset and I'm angry that his words are apparently more important than mine."

No one is supposed to know about these nagging thoughts in the back of her mind that don't see the light of day. She doesn't fully understand where the anger is coming from when she was a jerk and essentially stomped all over Dean's confession of love. She was obviously in the wrong - there was something fundamentally disturbed about her for not accepting this amazing guy's feelings with gusto. But...

But.

The sun is starting to set and she has no desire to go home at all. She wants to disappear into a city and not be known by anyone as a sheltered baby. She's sure Jess would accompany her - maybe show her Hartford beyond her grandparents' house and Chilton, or maybe he'd be her guide in New York. He'd know the coolest places to go that are far away from Times Square. The impulse is burning under her skin, but when she looks at him to ask, he has a weird look in his eye - sad, almost.

"I take it you don't want to go home," he states rather than asks.

She shakes her head.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. "I'll drop you off at your grandparents'."

She swallows thickly and slightly nods.

They begin walking back to where he parked. He's considerate in the direction he exhales. 

"When you used to do this, where did you go?" she asks.

A ghost of a smile passes on his face. "Walk around, public transportation, crashed on a couch. It's a little harder to do in Hartford, but it's easier having a car."

Stupid. Of course he still does it.

"If you did want a couch to crash on, there's always mine. It's a bit lumpy, but it's comfortable with enough blankets."

He looks to her, his eyes so light with the sun brightening his face. A little bit of green – it's…

"I'll keep that in mind."

She can feel his hand lightly against her back as they cross the street and she tries to hide her smile.

**

Jess obviously doesn't stay – he drops her off at her grandparents' house, he waits until the front door opens, and he is zooming out.

"Who was that?" her grandma asks.

"My friend Jess from school."

"He has a dent in his car!"

"I wasn't in the car," she says truthfully. "He just got it today," she lies. "Can I –"

Her grandma relaxes a little but still ushers her inside. "Oh yes, come inside. So tell me, what is going on?"

**

After eating a few bites of her breakfast, the doorbell rings.

Rory pulls back her sleeve to check the time and is extremely surprised. "Wow," she says out loud.

"Rosa! The door!" her grandma calls out.

Rory begins to stand up. "I got it – I know –"

"Rory, you are not answering the door half dressed," her grandma continues calmly, picking up her coffee as the maid quickly makes her way to the door. "Sit down. Finish your breakfast."

Rory strains her ears as she shovels her eggs in her mouth, but she can't hear anything. Eventually, Jess comes into sight and she almost chokes on her food: she's never seen him so put together…ever.

Her grandpa looks over his paper, glances at Jess once, then focuses his attention back to the paper.

"Mrs. Gilmore, Mr. Jess Mariano is here to drive Ms. Rory Gilmore to school," Rosa says.

Rory smiles at him apologetically and he shoots her a subtle wink.

"Well, come in, sit down. Rory's skirt is just being pressed, so excuse her pajamas," Emily greets coolly, gesturing to the seat across from Rory. "We can have Rosa whip you up something if you'd like."

"I'm alright, thanks," Jess says, walking over to the chair and sitting down.

"You should have a scone," Rory offers, pointing to the basket of pastries in the middle of the table.

"The scones are good," her grandpa says absent-mindedly.

Jess reaches for the top scone. Rory quickly hands Jess her small plate that really has no use and he nods his head.

"So…Jess Mariano? I don't recognize that last name," her grandma says, lifting her cup.

"He's new to Hartford, Grandma. He was new to Chilton like I was," Rory explains quickly.

"Oh, really? Where are you from?"

"He's from New York."

"Really, Rory, I think the boy can answer for himself."

Jess faintly smiles.

"Rory told us that you got an awful dent in your car yesterday," her grandma says.

Jess sighs, purses his mouth, and shakes his head. "It happened in the Chilton parking lot," he says with a hint of sadness. "I came out of the school late, meeting with a teacher, and there was my car. I was told that Tristan DuGray had backed into it and left without a word, but I can't say for sure," he continues, a small frown on his face.

Rory picks up her cup to mask her amusement.

"Well that's terrible!" her grandma exclaims as her grandpa lowers his paper.

"I'm shocked! He seems like such a nice, polite young man," her grandpa adds.

"You think you know people," Jess sighs. "But I'll be driving my step-father's car until mine is fixed. I figured there's no need to involves insurance – Tristan must be going through some serious emotional difficulties."

"That's very kind of you," her grandma says.

Rory clears her throat. "Very nice," she adds with a pointed look.

"Ms. Gilmore, your skirt is ready, it's on your bed," Rosa says while entering the dining room.

Rory shovels the rest of her breakfast into her mouth and gets up. "I'll be really quick," she promises, rushing up the stairs.

She's out of breath when she makes it to her bed, rushing to put on tights and her skirt, beads of sweat on her forehead by the time she makes it back downstairs. Thankfully, the dining room is the way it is, but her grandpa's paper is fully resting on the table with his full attention on Jess.

"Hey, we should get going," she says, trying to be casual, but her voice is too high and she's still trying to catch her breath.

"You have that Spanish test first period, right?" Jess questions.

No, it's actually after lunch, but he knows that. "Yeah, I want to review a little before."

Jess stands up, taking the untouched scone with him. "Thank you very much for the scone, Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore. Have a great day."

"You too, Jess. Thank you for driving our granddaughter to school, it's very kind of you."

"Oh, it's my pleasure."

She grabs his sleeve and says her goodbyes to her grandparents, promising she'll be back after school as she nearly drags him outside.

He laughs as soon as the door closes behind them.

"You're crazy," she hisses, but she's grinning.

"Good, right?"

"I'll love you forever for knocking Tristan right off his unearned pedestal," she says before getting distracted by the black car in the driveway. "Okay, I don't know a lot about cars, but even I know what this is. How?"

He smiles and it's what she imagines a writer would say as utterly sinful. "The step-dad is in California until Friday. Shouldn't have explained to me how to drive it as a failed attempt at bonding."

He opens the door for her, which is good because she's afraid to even touch it. He gets behind the wheel and his fingers flex around the steering wheel and her cheeks blush.

"Wait 'til you hear it," he says, putting the key in the ignition and the car roars.

"I didn't know Ferraris were this loud!"

"Me neither. Let's piss off some peers and staff."

**

People are pissed off, but it's mostly the teachers. Their peers are more impressed than anything else.

"No way! I'm not allowed to touch my dad's Ferrari or Aston!"

"Fucking brats," Jess mutters, pocketing the keys.

"Says the kid who stole his step-dad's car."

"Simply borrowing it. Besides, it's just sitting there, collecting dust. I'm doing that fine piece of machinery a service."

She narrows her eyes at him. "You don't actually care about that."

He shrugs.

She wants to ask what's going on at home, but she doesn't want to potentially revisit yesterday's conversation, his comment about her reaction to his life still fresh.

"If it feels like unfinished business, then finish it," he says suddenly.

She has no idea what he's talking about until they part ways and she's at her locker. She's slow to close it, lost in thought.

**

"I would hate to think that I raised a kid who couldn't say I love you."

Rory knows she didn't mean Dean, but after her mom makes her point about wanting Rory to be ready and open to saying the words, she wonders if that truly was a missed opportunity, or maybe, just maybe it wasn't right. At least, not at that time.

But in order to figure all this out, she needs to finish her unfinished business.

Which involves…a lot of admitted weirdness over the next two weeks. Lying to his sister and then having an inappropriately emotional outburst in sort of defense for the town troubadour are not her finest moments, but maybe she has a little more time to find the right way to begin a conversation with him.

**

Rory wishes she had Jess' ability to fade into the background whenever Tristan comes along. And he wishes he would actually fade away because his facial expression when Tristan admits that he doesn't know who PJ Harvey really is isn't helpful at all.

Tristan grabs her books from under her arm.

"What are you doing?"

"You'll get them back when you agree to go with me," he says, taking a step back, lifting them above her head.

"You're pathetic, Tristan. Keep the books, I'm –"

"Enough already, she said no," Jess gripes from behind Tristan (how did he get over there?), snatching the books away from Tristan. "Prick."

She can see Jess try to hand them over in the corner of her eye, but she's distracted by seeing Dean by his truck in the parking lot. "Dean?" she questions out loud, walking toward him. "Dean – what are you doing here?"

"I'm leaving."

Her face falls when she realizes his stormy expression. "What –"

"I shouldn't have come."

"No, wait –" Rory says, shutting the door closed.

"I feel like an idiot."

"Why?"

"'Cause I come all the way out here and I see you with him, that's just great."

"No, Tristan was just –"

"I don't care."

"No, listen –"

"And who the hell is that other guy who's got your books?"

"Tristan took them and wouldn't give them back. Jess…" she trails off, looking over at Jess, who's looking at her with an unreadable expression for a few moments, but then he raises his eyebrows.

She faces Dean. "You know what, no. This isn't about me. I'm asking what you're doing here. Last time I checked, you broke up with me," she says boldly, proud of herself for not having her voice crack.

"I just…I thought you were trying to talk to me. With coming to my house and the town meeting…"

She bites her bottom lip, thinking about lying, saying it was a clone who came to his house and that she was not in her right mind at the town meeting, but.

It's been weeks since that happened. It's been months since they broke up and she can't understand

No. She does understand.

"You're mad I didn't say it back. And I get it – that must've made you feel really badly, and I'm sorry, I really, really am, but…I told you. You know about my life, my mom – I've told you and you know and how does that not matter? I'm trying, I have been trying – is that not enough?" She takes a breath and curls her hands into fists, nails digging into her palms, the pain helping to stave off her tears. "Why wasn't it enough?" she asks.

Dean's brow is furrowed and she doesn't know if he's trying to search for something to say, but she's not waiting anymore.

"I could've, you know. With time. I really like you, but…you come here and you immediately want to run and you get angry with me about something that you should know – but you don't. You assume the worst of me, which is fair, I guess, but I'm done being on the receiving end of it. I hope you find someone that will say it back to you when you do because, obviously, you're not getting that from me."

Dean nods towards the area where Tristan and Jess are standing. "Your boyfriend's waiting. Whichever one."

Rory tucks her bottom lip into her mouth and fierce tears spring in her eyes as he brushes past her, gets in his truck, and leaves.

He's barely off school property when Jess comes up to her and offers her books. "I'll take you home."

She nods and follows him to the parking lot.

When they get to his car, she laughs. "I thought you said you were getting the dent fixed!"

He shrugs. "Gonna wait it out a little longer."

**

She doesn't say anything during the first half of the ride – she only starts talking because she has to direct him to Stars Hollow. A few tears fall down her face, but she wipes them away and Jess doesn't comment beyond saying, "He's a jerk."

She's unsure if Dean's the jerk or if she is.

Once they arrive, he says, "You've got to be kidding me."

She tries to look at it from his perspective – the stores all pastel and even, the empty roads, the gazebo…

"Yeah, it's…home…"

He shakes his head and continues forward past the welcome sign.

"Are you hungry? I can buy you a burger," she says, gesturing forward to Luke's. "Or a coffee. Luke makes the best coffee."

Jess slows to a stop, but instead of getting of the car, he stares at Luke's – not at his diner sign, but the Williams Hardware one.

"Uh, are you –"

"What's Luke's last name?" Jess asks, eyes still ahead.

"Danes, why?"

He shuts his eyes briefly and shakes his head before opening them. "Son of a bitch. This state is way too fucking small." He unbuckles his seatbelt and steps out of the car.

Rory gets out and rushes to his side. "What's going on?"

He smiles, but she doesn't know if he's actually finding whatever this situation is funny or not. "Liz used to tell me that her dad ran a hardware store but her brother turned it into a diner."

Her eyes flicker from the diner to Jess and back again. Luke is Jess' uncle? Forget the state – it truly is a small world after all.

"I don't know how we missed this. I guess I didn't…get specific when talking about Stars Hollow," Rory says, stunned. Except when she starts comparing Jess and Luke in her head, she almost wants to laugh.

Jess shrugs. "We know each other out of context. So, shall we?"

We know each other out of context – does Jess even realize what his words are capable of? Her head is still buzzing when he opens the door for her and they take a seat at the counter.

Luke comes out of the storage room and immediately spots Rory. "Hey, Rory – coffee?"

"Thanks, Luke."

His eyes drift to Jess. She watches with fascination as he pauses, his face immediately putting the pieces together. "Jess?"

"Luke," Jess greets.

Luke shuts his eyes in frustration in a way that's eerily similar to Jess. "Your mom could never remember the name of your school. I stopped asking what it was."

Jess nods.

"Well, uh, do you want anything?" Luke asks awkwardly after a few moments of awkward silence.

"He'll have a coffee too," Rory answers for him. "And wait, I kind of want cheese fries."

"Cholesterol. Rotting of your insides," Luke intones flatly, but puts in the order anyway.

"Yeah, yeah."

"So, you literally come here everyday?"

"Sometimes multiple times a day," Rory says.

"Geez."

Luke pours them coffee and goes around the counter to check up on the other customers, avoiding eye contact.

"So, my uncle whom I haven't seen in a good ten or so years has been fueling your caffeine addiction for almost the same amount of time," Jess says, picking up the mug.

"I guess so. He's…well. Awkward, but he means well."

He clenches his jaw for a moment before taking a sip. He blinks in surprise, face on the verge of grimacing, but then it smooths out when he swallows. He takes a longer sip and nods. "Strong, but not bad."

"The best," she corrects him, taking a sip of her own.

The bell above the diner door chimes and Rory looks behind her, smiling when she recognizes Lane. "Hey," she says.

"Rory!" Lane exclaims, rushing over to her. "Did –" she starts, but she notices Jess and stops.

"Lane, this is Jess. Jess, Lane," Rory introduces.

"Oh my God – finally. Nice to meet you!" Lane says.

Jess nods. "Likewise."

"What were you going to ask?" Rory asks.

"Oh, well, I mean…" Lane lowers her voice. "Did…you see Dean? He asked me if you still had classes."

Rory inhales, looking over at Jess, but he's already pulled out a book. She leans a little to the side, bumping into his arm for a moment. "Yeah, I saw him, but…I think it's really over."

Lane's face falls. "Oh, no. What happened?"

Rory gets off the stool. "I'll be back," she tells Jess. He nods, his eyes moving like rapid fire across the page.

She takes Lane's arm and they go outside the diner. "Sorry, he doesn't need to hear about it when he was a witness."

"Okay, I'm busting – what happened?"

"Well, I should probably tell you the reason we broke up in the first place…" Rory starts, crossing her arms.

"What?"

"He told me he loved me," Rory half-whispers.

Lane blinks. "He told you he loved you and you…"

"I didn't know what to say! I got scared, I was overwhelmed, I don't know. And he just got so upset and I was upset and we just ended it."

"Oh my God!"

"I know."

"That's huge, Rory. I can't believe you didn't tell me," Lane says sadly.

"I couldn't even process it. Nobody knew – I didn't even tell my mom. She found out after she confronted Dean at Doose's."

"Okay, we need to table that for later, but I can't believe you were holding that in for so long!"

Rory winces and looks down at her feet before looking through the glass window at Jess' figure.

Lane follow's Rory's gaze. "You told Jess?"

"I'm a bad friend," Rory bemoans.

"I mean…I know you guys are friends, but…why him?" Lane asks.

Rory sighs and looks back at Lane. She shrugs. "He knows me out of context."

"Wow…that's beautiful."

"I can't even take credit for that."

Lane narrows her eyes. "What's going on?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean…you're pretty mopey about Dean, but now that Dean seems ready to get back together, you don't…do you not love him? Do you like Jess?"

"No, I don't like Jess, not like that," Rory insists. The lady doth protest too much, methinks flashes through her mind, an unfortunate side effect of cramming for her Lit final, she hopes. "I didn't know how I felt about Dean! I knew I liked him a lot, but love? I mean…you know my mom and me. We don't let guys in at all."

"I know."

"I thought I was so messed up for it – Dean was an amazing boyfriend. So nice and he cared about me and I must have something wrong me if I didn't love him back, but…I don't know. And now after all this time and I feel like…he didn't actually care. And maybe what I could give him wasn't enough, but if that's the case, then…fine."

Lane gestures for them to sit on the bus stop bench a few feet away. Once they sit, Lane sighs and says, "I get it."

"You do?" Rory asks hopefully.

Lane shrugs. "I get that I probably would've been more excited about Dean telling you he loves you."

"Well, that's a normal reaction," Rory laments.

"But maybe you wanted someone to tell you something else. Someone who maybe hasn't met Dean and seen you with him and just knows you."

Rory inhales deeply, checking behind her at the diner, surprised but happy to see Jess and Luke talking. "Yeah, that was part of it."

"So, what did he say?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, he must've said something other than Dean's a moron."

"An effing moron."

Lane grins. "Yeah. What did he say?"

"Just that if I wasn't ready then I wasn't ready. My feelings were still worth something too."

"Wise."

"You and he are my wisest friends who should probably be in relationships, more so than the rest of us who barely know what they're doing," Rory jokes.

Lane looks thoughtful for a moment. "Well, I mean, you can rectify his single status if you want," she says slyly.

Rory flushes. "Lane…"

"All I'm saying is that he's cute, his taste in music is acceptable, he's read more than you have – your words – and he obviously likes you."

"He does not," Rory dismisses.

"Listen to your wise friend," Lane says, pointing her finger.

Rory exhales a laugh, looking back at the diner again.

"I'll let you go – breakfast on Saturday?"

"Perfect. Thanks, Lane. And I am sorry for not telling you. It was stupid of me. You're my best friend."

Lane smiles. "It's okay. I get it. Sometimes you want a different perspective." She waves and then walks home.

Rory stands up and heads back into the diner. Jess has already made headway into her cheese fries.

"Hey, sorry," she says, sitting down.

"Could've stayed out a little longer."

"And deprive me of the glorious cheese fries? You're whack."

Jess grins a little. "They are good," he allows.

Rory beams before taking a fry.

**

Rory's shocked to say the least when she sees the daisies, hears her mom. It's funny how her relationship with Dean is finally put to rest while her mom's relationship with Max is finally coming together, turning into something full of possibilities.

"Not to bring down the night, but you should probably know that Dean came to Chilton to talk and…we're really done," Rory says during a lull in their movie marathon.

Her mom turns to her and gapes. "Way to bury the lead! The whole night, here I am –"

"No, it was good! We should be celebrating Max and you with him! I'm fine, or I will be fine."

"What happened?"

"I've been wanting to talk to him about everything, but…" she shrugs. "It wasn't right. He doesn't…want to hear me out. Or wait for me, I guess, really, since I could've at one point. So, maybe that means he doesn't actually love me, or maybe I don't really love him."

Her mom frowns and reaches over to cup her face. "I'm so sorry, honey."

Rory tries to smile. "Yeah, me too. But, if it's not meant to be, it's not, right?"

"Right." Her mom smiles and drops her hand. "You'll find the right person to say it to."

"Yeah."

"So, does this mean we should break out the cookie dough that we were supposed to save for tomorrow?"

"You were going to get that out regardless."

"True, but now it feels like there's a really good reason for it."

"I'm glad my sad story makes you feel better about eating food we promised we'd save for tomorrow," Rory says flatly.

Her mom grins and quickly jumps off the couch to run to the fridge. Rory smiles and shakes her head, reaching for the bowl of kettle corn on the table.

**

"We have to celebrate. Next week we will have a special dinner."

"Grandma, all of your dinners are special."

"Well, this one will be extra special. We'll make all your favorite foods, and you can invite some of your friends."

Rory picks up the phone on Saturday morning and calls Jess.

"Mariano."

"Hey, it's Rory."

"Hey, what's up?"

"I…wanted to ask you something," she starts slowly.

"Okay."

"My grandparents found out that I'm in the top three percent of our class and they want to have a celebration dinner next Friday and they told me I could invite friends, so…I was wondering if maybe if you were around you'd like to go?"

"Wow, a Friday night with your grandparents."

"I know, but I told them I wanted Twinkies and it may be interesting to find out how they're going to serve that as a dessert since I can't imagine that being on one of their China sets."

He laughs a little. "Well, when you mention that…"

"Are you saying yes?" she asks, a smile growing on her face.

He sighs. "I'm very curious about the Twinkies."

She grins. "Okay, great! We can pick you up if you want."

"Ah, it's good you offered since they can't see that the dent is still very much there."

"Wow, it's been months and nobody has said anything?"

"Nope. It really went beyond my wildest expectations. I'm not far from them – I'm 4 Senate Lane."

"Fancy."

"We're within a cluster of government related street names. I'm right off Congress Street and many streets named after Presidents."

"It's like you were dumped into a Connecticut cliché."

"I expect to pay my respects to one of the many Nathan Hale statues soon enough."

"So…it's next Friday at seven. We'll pick you up a little before then."

"Okay."

"Okay, great. Thanks. Uh, so…are you doing summer classes?"

"Unfortunately."

"Really? I am too!" she says happily. "Which ones?"

"Physics, Russian Poetry, and Trig."

"Trig? Seriously?"

"Didn't pay attention."

She sighs. "Well, we'll be in Physics and Russian Poetry together."

"Very nice, you can pay attention for me."

She laughs. "Shut up."

She hears her mom yelling from the other side of her bedroom door. "Rory! Come out here and look at these dress silhouettes!"

"Coming!" Rory yells back.

"Gotta go?"

"Yeah, uh, actually – my mom and Max – I mean, Mr. Medina are getting married," Rory says with a huge smile, even though he can't see her.

"Really? Wow. Well, congratulations. You'll have a step-dad too."

"I know, it's crazy, I never…thought that would happen."

"Weird, right?"

"Yeah, a little. But it's good. I mean, Ma-uh, Mr. Medina is really nice and great, so."

"Well, you better make sure your mom picks the right silhouette for the wedding gown."

"Hah, yeah. I'll see you next week."

"See you."

"Do I need to remind you to dress somewhat respectably?"

"I think the most respectable thing I own is the Chilton uniform."

"Oh, boy."

"I'm kidding. I'm sure I have something."

"Thank you."

"No problem. See you Friday."

"See you. Bye." Rory hangs up and nearly skips into the kitchen.

"Who were you on the phone with?" her mom asks.

"Jess – I invited him to the dinner and Grandma and Grandpa's."

"Jess, huh…"

"Grandma did say I could invite friends."

"So you invite Jess."

"Why do you keep stressing his name like that?"

"No reason. Just thought maybe you'd invite someone like Lane."

"Well, I would, but she's pretty much on lockdown until her flight to Korea. Besides, they like Jess, remember? I told you how he came the morning after that fight we had."

Her mom stares at her for a few moments. "Hun, do you…like Jess?"

"What?"

"Well, you guys have gotten close over the year and he is admittedly very cute when he's not scowling. I don't know, maybe you're falling for him."

Rory swallows. "No, we're just friends."

"Okay…"

"I mean it."

"Sure."

"Honest."

"Got it."

Rory exhales. "So, silhouettes?"

**

The dinner is pretty great. Jess plays nice, is dressed in a collared button-up shirt that actually suits him. Jess and her grandpa have a fifteen-minute discussion on the book her grandpa gifted her and her grandma actually smiles at him a few times, mentions how she knows Jess is supposedly a most gifted student, having scored the highest in their grade in the first round of Pre-SAT tests. Her mom even finds what he has to say interesting.

They're served homemade Twinkies, which are actually amazing. At the end of the night, her grandpa shakes Jess' hand and her grandma says, "I hope to see you again soon."

Rory and her mom drop Jess off at his house – his mansion. His property almost rivals Louise's. She says she'll see him on Monday for their first day of summer school.

The ride is pretty quiet until they enter Stars Hollow. They park in front of the diner for a late night cup of coffee and sit there after the engine is turned off.

"I think you're right," Rory says faintly.

Her mom opens and closes her mouth, rubs her arm once, and gets out.

Rory sighs and follows suit.

**

Two weeks off from school really isn't enough time before she's back to taking the bus in her Chilton uniform. Well, her modified Chilton uniform – she's allowed to wear short-sleeved collared shirts.

She doesn't know what surprises her more: the fact that Jess is actually doing summer classes, or the fact that the short sleeves are super distracting.

She tries not to look too much or think about it, but it's hard when their Russian Poetry teacher can drone on and on and he was placed in front of her to her right.

(But then again, sometimes she thinks she catches him staring at her bare legs, but he seems to be a lot better about stealth than she is. All the same, she makes sure to shave her legs regularly.)

Sometimes he drives her back to Stars Hollow. Sometimes he sticks around at Luke's, sometimes he just leaves. He goes to the Rebuilding Together project with her (but actually seems to know what he's doing – he argues with Paris about nails for a solid ten minutes) and talks her off a ledge regarding extracurriculars.

He's…

She's starting to come to terms with the possibility that she really does like him. Like, she wants find out if he's a good kisser or not.

He probably is.

She blushes and focuses back on her Physics work.

**

Everything is going so well – she's enjoying her summer classes, she likes spending time with Jess, which is helping her ease the pain of Lane being gone, she likes planning her mom's wedding and she likes the person she's going to marry.

Everything is going so well.

Until it isn't.

Until her dad calls her about her mom calling him during her bachelorette party, and even though her mom says nothing is wrong and she's happy and all is well, she can't help but have this nagging suspicion that something is happening.

But for all her concerns, it doesn't prepare for when her mom comes into her room and tells her to pack.

**

(At midnight after she's cried silently in her room, Rory sneaks the house phone into her room and calls Jess' cell phone. She's unsurprised when it goes straight to voicemail, but she hopes he'll check it when she leaves him a message.)

**

Rory loves her mom, loves the kind of relationship they have, but Rory hates with a burning passion when her mom turns around and spits out 'my sixteen year-old daughter' as a means of getting Rory to do something, or as a means of getting out of something, and in this case, it's getting out of a conversation about the sudden ending of the engagement with Max.

Rory needs to talk about this, needs to figure out why this has happened, why her mom doesn't love Max, why she let it get this far, why, why, why.

At two in the morning, she wakes up and takes her mom's cell phone, sneaking down the stairs. Luckily, the entrance seems to be open, so she double-checks that she won't be locked outside before calling Jess.

She's surprised he picks up on the second ring.

"Mariano."

"I can't believe you picked up," she says.

"Funny, I can't believe you're calling me at two in the morning on a school night."

"It's not a school night, we don't have school for another week and a half."

"Regardless, I don't get the impression that you're up at two in the morning on a Wednesday night regularly."

"You got me there," she says with a slightly laugh. "What are you doing right now?"

"Walking past Tompkins Square Park."

"You're in New York again?" she asks, surprised.

"I never left."

"You've been there for over a week? How?"

"Couches. Subways. All nighters."

She sighs. "Is Hartford that bad?"

Silence on the other line. "I'm going back tomorrow. What about you? What are you doing?"

"I'm standing outside the Cheshire Cat in New Hampshire."

"The what?"

"A bed and breakfast."

"Dare I ask why?"

She swallows thickly and takes a seat on the front steps. "The wedding is off."

She presses the phone tighter to her ear, but he doesn't say anything for a while.

"Sorry," he finally says.

"I was counting on this," she repeats.

"I know."

"Max is such a nice, good person."

"He's decent."

"And I just…if my mom didn't really love him, then I guess it's better this way, but…"

"You can be selfish about your feelings, Rory."

She laughs, tears leaking from her eyes. She doesn't know how to respond to that. "God, and I'm starving. I haven't eaten in over ten hours."

"Days for the average man."

"Exactly."

"So, go find food. You're in a B&B, right? They have a kitchen."

"I can't do that!"

"Why not?"

"Because!" she exclaims, but she can't think of a reason beyond the fact that she is so hungry and her stomach has been growling for the last twenty minutes. "Okay, fine. I'm going on a hunt."

"There has to be at least bread hanging around."

She gets up and walks back inside, tip toeing through the ground floor until she finds a set of doors that lead to the kitchen. "Okay, I'm in."

"Alright, Bond, check some cabinets."

She doesn't even have to because there's a basket of bread that's a little stale, but she stuffs her face. "I never thought stale bread could taste so good."

She hears him exhale a laugh. "Getting The Grapes of Wrath experience."

"You're telling me. All I need is to be transplanted into the Dust Bowl and I might as well be a Joad reincarnate."

"Do you have any plans before we begin another painful year at Chilton?"

"Not really. School supply shopping, which is my absolute favorite."

He pretends to heave.

"You're a loser."

"Right, I'm the loser for not fawning over color coordinated notepads and pens."

"Yes, you are." She smiles. "If you want, you can come with me and be properly exposed to my magical world."

"Does this involve a trip to Stars Hollow?"

"Of course, but sometimes I'll venture out to Staples."

"Maybe."

"Keep me posted. I'll probably go Monday."

"Oky doky."

She misses him. A lot. She wants to say so, but her mouth is full of stale bread, which is starting to lose its appeal now that the sharp pain of hunger has dulled. "I should probably go to sleep."

"Okay."

"Thanks for picking up and listening."

"Not a problem."

"I hope you know you can do the same."

"G'night, Rory."

"Night, Jess."

She doesn't know if that was a rejection or not.

**

The tide eventually turns – they acquire real food once they're on a highway and once they start passing signs mentioning Harvard University, her grin almost hurts her face.

Harvard is even better in reality. It somehow feels comfortable despite how scarily intimidating it is. She hugs her mom when they leave the campus and despite having to go to the horrible bed and breakfast again, she's still in a good mood.

**

 
"Okay, so I told you all about my Korean adventures – what's up with you?"

Rory's smile slips from her face. "Oh, uh, well…the wedding isn't happening anymore."

Lane gapes. "What?"

"Yeah, my mom just…it wasn't right," Rory answers with a shrug.

"Oh, I'm so sorry. He seems like a really nice guy. Are you disappointed?"

"Yeah, a little, but. I want my mom to be happy, so. We'll be okay."

"Your mom will find the perfect guy, I know it."

"Thanks, Lane."

"Well, did anything good happen? What about Jess?"

"What about him?"

"I mean…what's going on with that?"

"Nothing, I mean, we're friends. We talk on the phone. We're…" she trails off and sighs. "I like him," she states.

Lane grins. "I knew it."

"I don't know if he likes me –"

"Of course he does," Lane interrupts her. "He helped you with Dean – he probably wants to make sure you're totally over him. Which…I'm assuming you are?"

"Yeah, I think so. I mean, I still feel sad about it sometimes, but it comes and goes," Rory says. She thinks at this point, she misses the taste of intimacy she experience when she was with Dean, not necessarily Dean himself.

"Maybe something will happen," Lane says.

**

Something does happen, but probably not what Lane had in mind.

The house phone rings at eleven at night. Rory looks at her mom's sleeping form on the couch and then back at the phone, getting up and rushing to answer it before it rings again.

"Hello?" Rory greets.

"Hey."

"Jess?"

"Yeah, uh, sorry to call so late."

"Is everything okay?"

"Ah, well…I was wondering if you could pick me up," he says casually.

"From where?"

"Chilton."

"…Okay, I thought I was crazy about getting there early for the first day, but you're really taking the cake," she jokes.

"I got thrown out and there is no public transportation until six in the morning."

Rory's face falls. "What about your car?"

"No longer in my possession. They were pissed about the dent."

"Jess…did you walk to Chilton?" she gapes.

"Closest payphone."

"Oh my God, okay, I'll be right there. Hang tight. I'll bring my mom's phone – I'll give you her number – do you have a pen –"

"I don't need a pen just share it."

Rory recites it and promises to be there soon. After hanging up, she goes to her mom and shakes her awake. "Mom, Mom – I need to go to Chilton –"

"Wha – you're crazy if you think this is an acceptable response to the early bird gets the worm."

"I need to get Jess – he got kicked out and he's stranded at Chilton."

"Stranded – he doesn't have a car?"

"I don't know – he said he doesn't have it anymore, I don't know what that means, but, I need to go right now –"

"Alright, okay, do you want me to come with –"

"No! That'll – it'll –"

"Okay, you have to breathe," her mom says firmly, putting her hands on Rory's arms. "Keys are in my bag. Take my cell phone. Call me when you get him."

"I will."

She does her best to get there as quickly as possible, but she's always been a cautious driver, so she arrives in twenty-five minutes.

Rory slows to a stop where her bus picks her up and Jess is sitting there, smoking a cigarette with a duffel bag by his feet. Once she parks, he flicks the half-finished cigarette to the ground, stomping it with his foot on the way to the car.

He opens the back door and tosses his bag inside before getting in. He smells faintly of cigarettes, but she's too focused on the cut on his jaw.

"What happened?" she gasps, reaching out without thinking to touch his face.

He pulls back as soon as her fingers brush against his skin with a flinch. She flinches back too. "Nothing."

"That's not nothing, Jess."

"Let's just go."

She puts the car out of park and drives, but she keeps glancing back at him. "Did someone hit you?" she asks, proud that she keeps her voice even.

He doesn't answer for a few moments. She thinks he'll ignore her until he says, "Usually Liz's hits don't land, but I wasn't expecting it and she never had a multi-carat diamond on her finger before."

She bites her inner cheek hard.

"I've been through worse."

"I don't like to think about that."

"I know you don't."

"I feel like I want to puke."

"Don't do that."

Tears prickle in the corners of her eyes. "Are you okay?"

"If I say no are you going to actually puke?"

"Maybe. Most likely cry," she admits.

He sighs. "I'm better now," he allows.

"Good. Okay. Um, do you want to stay in my house – the couch offer still stands – or do you…maybe want to go to Luke's?"

She lets him think about it as they pull onto the mostly deserted highway. It's unbearably humid tonight, but Jess is wearing heavy jeans and a leather jacket. She's sweating in pajama shorts and a t-shirt.

"Luke's," he says.

She feels disgusted with herself that she's disappointed. Of course he'd rather stay with family – she's an idiot.

He turns on the radio and leaves it at the first station playing Train's "Drops of Jupiter." Rory doesn't know if this can be considered a guilty pleasure or not, but it certainly can get stuck in her head. He only changes the station when a boy band song comes on, which makes her smile. He stares out the window, she looks ahead, and she is so out of her element.

Dean pursued her; he realized his own feelings before she could and he was capable enough to take the lead. What is she supposed to do here? Is she supposed to do anything?

She pulls off the highway and drives familiar winding roads to Stars Hollow, which is as empty as it gets. Even though nobody is on the road, she drives carefully to Luke's, stopping directly in front of the door.

"He keeps his spare key above the doorway," she tells him.

He snorts. "Of course he does."

She bites her bottom lip and before she can think about it further, she's unbuckling her seatbelt and getting out of the car. She walks around the front and Jess is slowly following suit, stepping out when she reaches him.

There's a moment where they stare at each other and then she follows her impulse to hug him. The leather of his jacket is hot and sticks to her skin and he smells faintly of cigarettes, but it feels like fireworks are exploding from the point of contact – her cheek against his face – spreading through her nerves.

He's stiff for a second until he slowly encloses his arms around her. She can feel a tremor in his chest, like he's bracing himself for impact…or maybe holding himself back.

"I'm fine, Ror," he says quietly.

"I'm not, so you have to wait, mister."

She can feel him smile against her neck and she inhales shakily. Dangerous – definitely so.

After a minute, she pulls back slowly, but she keeps her head close and it's too much how their foreheads are close to touching. Distantly, she thinks about kissing him, how it would feel, what it would mean, but –

He lifts a hand off her and curls and loose strand of hair behind her ear. "Maybe when I haven't smoked three cigarettes and don't have a cut made from a diamond on my face?"

She flushes and swallows, barely nodding.

He sighs and drops his arms and she steps back. "I'll see you tomorrow," she says.

He nods. "Okay."

She walks back to the driver's side of the car and she makes sure he gets inside the diner before she heads home.

Her mom is half-dozing on the couch, waiting up for her.

"He's okay?"

Rory thinks for a moment about lying, but she's probably going to Jess tomorrow and there's no masking what happened. "His mom hit him. Her ring cut his face."

Her mom blanches. "Oh my God."

"He's staying at Luke's – I offered him to come stay here, but, um, yeah," Rory finishes with a shaky voice.

"Okay, well, Luke will take of it. Jess is safe."

Rory nods, teary-eyed.

Her mom is slow to get up from the couch, groaning as she does so. She puts an arm around Rory's shoulders and kisses the top of her head, but freezes against her.

"Why do you reek of cigarette smoke?"

"Jess was smoking before I picked him up."

"This doesn't happen by just sharing space," her mom says, concerned.

"I hugged him, okay, was that wrong?"

"No, babe, but...do I need to prepare your having another boyfriend?"

"I don't know. We'll see. You'll be the first to know, promise."

"Okay. I need my bed right now. Night, sweets."

"Night. I love you."

Her mom turns to look at her and smiles. "I know. I love you too. Take a shower, though. You really smell - you absorb that like nobody's business."

Rory laughs a little. "I will."

She does shower and if it's a convenient place to cry, then that's just a bonus.

**

 
She wakes up at six in the morning and leaves a note for her mom at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in shorts and one of Lane's Velvet Underground shirts that she left behind. It's still humid, so she's wiping off beads of sweat by the time she makes it to the diner. Luke is putting down chairs so she has to knock to be let in.

He jumps at the noise, but heads over to the door and unlocks it.

"Hey, Luke."

"Hey, Rory," he says in a whisper. "I can't thank you enough for bringing Jess here."

"Please don't thank me – it's okay."

He looks back at the curtain behind the counter. She knows that Luke's apartment is behind there, or at least above the diner, so she's not surprised when he gestures for them to go outside.

"I know Liz - his mom - can be flaky, but I had no idea she'd hit him," he says in a low voice.

He looks devastated.

"I saw her once at school during parent-teacher conferences and she looked...like she had been drinking, so." She shrugs.

Luke exhales, his shoulders dropping. "I tried to get her help, she just doesn't want it."

"I know. I'm sure Jess knows that too."

"I think I might have him stay here. At least for a while."

Rory smiles. "I can have a buddy to ride the bus to school."

Luke smiles a little. "So you've really been friends with Jess this past year?"

She shrugs. "Yeah. He actually made Chilton bearable at times."

"Wow."

"Small world, huh?"

"I think small doesn't even cover it," he says dryly. "You want some coffee on the house?"

"Do you even have to ask?"

"Coming right up."

She takes a seat on a stool and watches Luke prep behind the counter. Stars Hollow is slow to get up in the morning sometimes and she's grateful from the reprieve of the usual shenanigans.

Once the coffee is percolating and the aroma fills the diner, she smiles. She wonders when she'll see Jess today – if she even will – when she hears someone coming down the stairs from behind the counter. Luke straightens himself out and is waiting awkwardly when Jess comes into view. The cut is more obvious in the daylight and the skin around it is a little bruised.

"Hey, Jess," Luke greets, stilted.

Jess looks at Luke, and then at Rory, who smiles. The corner of his mouth twitches.

"I'm, uh, making coffee. Want some?"

"Sure."

Jess walks around the counter and takes a seat next to Rory.

"How'd you sleep?" she asks.

"The raft was very comfortable," Jess says, now smirking.

"I swear I'll get a proper bed," Luke sighs for what must be the fifth time. "You're lucky I had spare sheets."

"I developed a dust allergy," Jess says with faux-sadness.

"You're full of it," Luke states.

Rory covers her mouth with her hand to mask her grin. Luke pours them coffee.

"I guess I shouldn't ask you if you want breakfast?" he says to Rory.

"What are your baked goods today?" Rory questions.

"Muffins. I have blueberry crumble."

"Say no more. I'll also have scrambled eggs, bacon, and homefries."

"Anything else?"

"I'll let you know."

Luke turns to Jess. "What do you like?"

"I'm good."

"You sure?"

Jess sighs. "Yes."

"You should get a blueberry crumble muffin while you still can. Those babies sell like hotcakes," Rory suggests.

"Okay, a muffin, then."

Luke gives Rory a grateful look before disappearing into the kitchen. Rory picks up her mug and takes a long sip, humming in pleasure.

"So, a raft?" Rory asks Jess in a low voice so Luke doesn't hear.

"It was the only thing that somewhat resembled a mattress. Didn't have the energy to fight him on it – I would've slept on the couch or his armchair, but he insisted."

"He's like that."

Jess looks at her from the corner of his eye. "You really think he's that great?" he asks in a surprisingly honest way.
 
"Yeah, I do," she answers simply.

He picks up his coffee and takes a tentative sip. "I will give him credit for making a damn good cup of coffee."

She clinks her mug with his.

Luke brings out the muffins and waits until Jess takes a piece from the top and eats it before going back into the kitchen.

"He's about as subtle as a bat to the head," Jess says.

"He cares about you," she says. "And so do I," she adds.

"You don't have to worry about me," he insists.

"Sorry, comes with the territory." She pops some muffin into her mouth. "Does your face hurt?"

"Not really." He rubs his jaw with his hand. This close, she can see a little stubble growing in. He shuts his eyes briefly.

"What are you going to do?"

He opens his eyes and drops his hand onto the counter. He stares blankly ahead for a moment until he looks to her. "How early in the morning is your bus?"

She beams.

**

Her mom comes into the diner while Rory's halfway through her eggs. Jess has started eating a bacon egg and cheese sandwich and is in the midst of explaining why New York bagels are superior.

"He's totally right," her mom says, placing herself on the other side of Rory. "Although my explanation involves magic and fairies."

"Easier for me to grasp," Rory says.

"How are you doing, Jess?" her mom asks with the perfect amount of concern, Rory thinks. Almost casual.

Jess' face is a blank mask. "Fine."

"Good." Her mom turns and calls, "Luke! Your favorite customer has arrived! Where's my service?"

"If you think you're my favorite customer, you're even more delusional than I thought," Luke grumbles.

"Who's your favorite, then?" Rory asks.

"Reverend Nichols and Rabbi Barans."

"The only religious building in our town is shared," Rory explains to Jess.

"You're kidding."

"All of Paris' rude jokes about my town aren't coming from nowhere. Hey, want a tour of the town?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"Not really. It'll only take twenty minutes anyway."

"You should go. We'll go to Hartford during the lull between lunch and dinner," Luke says as he's passing by with three full plates. He places them in front of the closest table to the counter.

"You don't need to go –" Jess starts.

"Yes I do. And since you're missing wheels, you…" Luke trails off when Jess reaches into his pocket and pulls out the keys to Luke's truck. "Give me those!" Luke takes them from Jess' loose hold. "How?"

"I'm full of party tricks."

"Get out of here."

Rory turns to her mom. "I'll see you later."

"Al's Pancake World for dinner? He's safe again with Chinese."

"Finally – yes, sounds good. Love you."

"Love you."

As Rory and Jess are walking outside, Jess asks, "Al's Pancake World…serves Chinese?"

"Don't worry, I'm a good and thorough tour guide."

**

She takes him around the town square and Jess seems to be in a state of shock at the sheer number of cutesy stores; she wants to keep the rest a surprise so she doesn't warn him.

"This is Kim's Antiques - Lane's family, really her mom, runs it," Rory explains.

"Lane is certainly an interesting person," Jess says.

Lane's bedroom window opens on the second floor and Lane's head pops out. "Hey!"

"Hey," Rory says with a wave.

"My mom's out in Massachusetts at some convention this weekend and my grandma is like a sloth and sleeps twenty hours a day - want to do something? Also hi, Jess!"

"Hey."

"Sure, I'm just showing Jess around Stars Hollow," Rory says.

"Well that should take fifteen minutes and you'd have time to go to Weston's and get an iced hot chocolate."

"It will not take fifteen minutes," Rory argues.

"I think that might be an accurate estimate."

"Shut up, Jess."

"I'll be around - I just have to double check inventory so just grab me."

"Will do. Bye!"

"Bye!"

Lane shuts her window.

"You're lucky her mom isn't here because I would've had you run at least a hundred yards out of sight."

"Why?"

"Strict is too lax of a term for Mrs. Kim."

"Noted."

She takes him down the fruit-named streets and after the fifth store that happens to sell unicorn related things he hisses, "Oh, fuck off," and storms away, making her laugh.

Except when she takes him by the Inn, she's nervous. She shows him the shed that she was raised in and he's focused as he takes in the fading wall paper and walks around the space.

"I know Stars Hollow isn't New York or even Hartford, but...it can be a home."

He doesn't say anything when he looks at her or when she leads him outside, where the Inn hosts weddings in spring, summer, and fall. Her mom always wanted to run a winter wedding, but not everyone appreciates the snow like she does.

The wishful daydream of kissing him is there again as she can see the green in his eyes. She swallows and looks around the property again. A thought suddenly comes to mind.

"Remember at Louise's party you mentioned you had a secret I wasn't ready to hear yet…" Rory starts slowly, finally looking at him.

He raises his eyebrows, eyes surprisingly warm. "Ah, you must know it by now."

Hope is sudden and heady and she exhales whatever nerves she has. She smiles, feeling her cheeks flush and he, wonderfully, smiles back.

**

She takes him back to the diner, their hands occasionally brushing, but figures she at least can wait a little longer. Like he said, without the visual reminder of why he's moving to Stars Hollow in the first place.

It makes her a little impatient as she explains to Lane later, who is squealing and asking a million questions, but there's something nice about the anticipation of it, the safety that when she does leap - when they both do, really - it won't be into an unknown abyss.

**

Rory doesn't expect Jess to join her on the first day of school since he plans on getting there at least a half hour early, but he's already awake, half dressed in his uniform as he serves to customers.

"You're a pro," she points out.

"It ain't rocket science. What are you doing up?"

"I like to be early on the first day," she says with a pout.

"Find your new locker which is probably a few feet away from your old one and map out your route from class to class?" he guesses.

She blushes and her mom laughs.

"What do you want?" he asks them.

"Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, and about five cups of coffee," her mom orders at once.

"Omelet with American cheese, please," Rory says.

"Got it."

He comes by with coffee right away, which her mom is very appreciative for. But then he starts bringing more cups to fill and then Rory realizes that he's fulfilling her mother's order literally, which has her mom gaping in pure delight.

"Jess! What are you doing?"

"I'm just fulfilling the customer's order, Uncle Luke," he answers innocently as he's in the middle of pouring his third cup of coffee.

"Would you knock it off?" Luke grumbles, immediately taking a full mug and offering it to the nearest customer.

"Luke, you've hired excellent service, I don't know why you're treating him like this," her mom sighs, picking up a mug.

"You're going to get him an aneurysm," Rory tells Jess after he's done pouring her coffee.

"It's too late, I've already had three," Luke says. "Get on the bus with Rory, will you? Driving me crazy this morning."

Jess salutes and leaves Rory and her mom alone.

"I think we're going to have great morning entertainment," her mom says with a grin. "I wonder if we'll actually see Luke's cap blow off from sheer annoyance."

"I think Jess will certainly gun for it," Rory says wryly.

"Shouldn't you find it oh so amusing because everything your crush does is absolutely wonderful and hilarious."

Rory's proud of herself for not looking away, but she doesn't have any control over her face turning red. "Hey, Jess," she says, smiling brightly. "My mom was planning on driving me to school, so you're spared the bus."

"I feel so blessed," Jess responds with a hand to his heart.

"I don't know whether to like him or find him annoying," her mom says thoughtfully.

"Probably because you two can be weirdly similar. Now hurry up and finish your meal!"

**

Rory's new locker isn't far from her old and one and, as a nice bonus, it's two lockers away from Jess'. Her first day is great despite her playing a hiding game in Mr. Medina's class with the very tall lacrosse player sitting in front of her. She shares Mr. Medina's class with Jess along with Physics and World History, all of which Jess seems more interested in reading Ham on Rye for probably the fifth time than paying attention.

Of course the day has to end on a horrible note with Paris tricking her into coming late to the first Franklin meeting and getting assigned the driest possible storyline.

"Oh my God, I hate her," Rory exclaims as she enters the diner and sits at the counter next to her mom.

"Ah, me too," her mom responds at once.

"You have no idea who I'm talking about."

"Solidarity, sister."

"Paris."

"Ugh. Well, that I should've guessed."

"She thinks she can torture me off the paper and she can't," Rory says angrily.

Jess comes from the kitchen with a plate of food. He's wearing jeans and a dark red t-shirt. "You're back late," he notes.

She freezes. "What do you mean?"

"Don't those Franklin meetings start at 3:15?"

"How do you know that?" Rory demands.

"I have plans," he answers vaguely. "Why, what did you think it was?"

"Four - Paris said," Rory grumbles.

He blinks at her. "And you believed her?" he shakes his head. "Question anyone claiming to be helpful."

"So she can be as cynical as you?" her mom quips.

"At least she wouldn't be stuck writing some crap article."

Rory sighs. "I have to cover the paving of the parking lot."

Jess grins briefly. "You enjoy looking up the origins of concrete."

"Thanks a lot."

Jess leaves to attend to customers.

Rory turns to her mom and continues to rant about Paris, but she occasionally glances over to watch Jess until her mom brings up Max. She knows her mom didn't intend for things to fall apart the way they did, but the fact of the matter is Rory is going to be very uncomfortable for the year. And a little hurt; she hasn't exactly vocalized the meaning of her disappointment, the pain she feels when she watches Mr. Medina in the front of the classroom, knowing how he looks lounging on her couch watching terrible movies and how much he added another layer of home that she's never experienced before.

But there's no way she's explaining it to her mom, so the conversation changes as they leave Luke's to her mom informing her that they're hosting a dinner on Tuesday night to officially welcome Jess Mariano to the neighborhood.

"You just want Sookie to cook us a five course meal," Rory says with a scoff.

"We can kill two birds with one stone, right?" her mom says with a sly grin.

Rory rolls her eyes as they head home.

**

Of course, writing an excellent article on paving wouldn't be enough to win this stupid war Rory wants no part of with Paris, but even so, she didn't expect for round two to immediately begin with Paris assigning her to write a profile on the teacher voted most popular. Of course Paris suspects something happened with Mr. Medina. Of course.

So by the time she gets home and sits in front of her computer, she's in an admittedly crabby mood, despite the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen and the slightly terrifying thought that Jess is coming to her house for the first time.

She hears the front door open and she sighs, leaning back against her chair. The blank Word document, where she is supposed to write an inspiring and thoughtful and amazing piece about Mr. Medina, mocks her.

"Oh my God, this is the greatest lemon I have ever grown. I mean, this is a great lemon. Sookie, you gotta try this lemon. Isn't it a great lemon?"

"That is a great lemon!"

"Try it, it's a Meyer!"

Oh no. Poor Jess. He'll be on the next bus to anywhere in the world.

"Jackson grows fruit and then scares people with it. Rory, they're here," her mom says, most likely picking up whatever panic is flashing through Jess' eyes.

"Coming," Rory calls. She minimizes her window and turns to look at her doorway, Jess stepping through with his hands stuffed inside his sweater. "Hey," she greets.

"Hey," he responds, obviously distracted. "Casa Rory…"

She smiles.

"How did they like your article?"

"Loved it."

"Rory, one, Paris, zilch."

"Paris might get the KO this round - I'm assigned to write an article on the teacher voted most popular last year," she sighs, getting up from her chair to sit down on her bed.

Jess is scanning through her bookshelf. She watches how he stills, his shoulders tensing. "Medina," he states rather than asks.

"Yeah."

He turns to look at her, a dark look in his eyes. "I can implement my plan," he offers.

She grins. "I'll keep that in mind."

He smiles a little before turning back to the bookshelf. She watches his fingers skim the spins of the books and she inhales sharply, looking quickly away to her hands on her lap.

Eventually, he sits down next to her. She glances at him, her hand moving to lightly touch his jawline. The cut and bruise are nothing more than a faint pink line that she's sure will be gone by the end of the week. She drops her hand.

"Risky with your bedroom door open," he points out.

Her eyes flicker to the door. She can hear Sookie and Jackson arguing about the vegetables and her mom seems to be pointing out things that need fixing in the kitchen.

"What if I just want to?" she says.

He blinks once and she leans in, briefly pecking her lips against his. She plans on pulling back, but his hands are on her face and he opens his mouth and oh, wow, her chest quakes as their lips move against one another with surprising ease that she had never really been able to master before -

She gasps a little to catch her breath, hoping to continue, but he pulls away, grabs a pillow, and hits her in the face. "Jess!" she exclaims at the same time her mom comes by the door and says, "Okay, we really need to get Jackson away from the lemons now, so we're moving the feast in the living room."

"...Be right there," she responds weakly, grateful to hide her red face behind her pillow.

Jess is grinning.

"You think you're so smooth."

"You could say you've been struck by a smooth criminal."

"Did you just make a Michael Jackson -"

"I'd say we should open your windows and make a break for it, but I'm actually hungry," he continues, standing up. "Do you want a soda?"

"Thanks…"

He leaves her alone and she takes a few moments to breathe, makes sure her hair is smooth and she doesn't look too flushed before going into the living room.

**

Jess doesn't say much during the dinner, but he does compliment Sookie, who is over the moon. Luke seems to be in a good mood, given that he's smiling more often than not. Rory looks around the table and smiles brightly, content.

She feels Jess' hand lightly tapping the back of her free hand, resting on her thigh and she takes it. From the corner of her eye, she sees him hide a smile by taking a huge bite of mashed potatoes.

Overall, it's a rousing success.

**

There's a moment when Rory is eating her second danish at the bus stop, waiting for Jess to change into the proper uniform, when Dean comes out of Doose's, taking off his apron and stuffing it into his backpack. He freezes when he spots her. She waves a little.

He looks around, not knowing what to do for a moment, but he lifts his hand and gives her a wave back.

"Hi," she says.

"Hey. Third danish?" he guesses.

"Second. I considered a third, but I'm still full from dinner last night. Sookie made a feast."

He smiles a little. "Yeah, I bet."

"How are you doing?" she asks.

"Good, I guess. Teachers are talking about the SATs and it's kind of freaking me out."

"Yeah, me too. The math section will probably be the death of me."

"Ah, I doubt it. You're so smart, you'll do fine."

She smiles and looks down at her feet.

"So, uh, I heard. About Luke's nephew going to Chilton. Living here," Dean says after a moment.

"Yeah, he, uh - had family...difficulties," she stutters.

He frowns. "Oh, well. That sucks."

She bites her bottom lip and checks back at the diner. Jess seems to have put on his uniform and Luke is talking to him, probably telling him when to get back to Stars Hollow.

"Are you seeing him?" Dean asks.

She turns back to look at Dean. "No, but, um. Maybe, in the future. I hope you know that I would've told you."

Dean nods, shrugging his shoulders. "I should probably let you know then that I'm dating someone."

"You are? Who?"

"Her name's Lindsay."

"Lindsay Lister?" Rory guesses. "She's really nice."

"Yeah, she is," Dean says, with a smile that used to be reserved for Rory, but it doesn't hurt. Not at all.

Rory smiles. "I'm happy for you. And if I get anything useful for the SATs from Chilton, I'll give you a copy."

"Thanks, Ror."

The door of the diner opens and Jess joins them, his face unreadable.

"Hey, Jess, this is Dean. Dean, this is Jess," Rory says quickly.

Dean purses his mouth, but says, "Hey."

"Hey," Jess says back.

"I better get to school. Nice speaking with you, Rory," Dean says.

"Bye, Dean."

Rory and Jess watch Dean walk away. Once he's a safe distance, Jess says, "Fuck, he is really tall."

She slaps a hand to her mouth and laughs.

**

Rory almost wants to thank Paris for forcing her to confront Mr. Medina and acknowledge the losses they both experienced with her mom not following through; the interview ends up being great.

(However, this happens at the end of the day, after Jess had already superglued Paris' locker shut. How he managed to do that without anyone seeing is beyond her understanding.)

**

She bumps into him while she's on her way home from buying a folder for school.

"Hey," he says, falling into step with her.

"Hey yourself."

"What are you doing?"

"I needed some things for the Franklin. What about you?"

"Oh yeah, same thing."

She rolls her eyes. "Uh huh. So, that was quite a disappearing act you pulled in History – you know Paris is going to attack you tomorrow. She totally knows you glued her locker shut. You know they had to break it open? She has to use a locker by the bio lab with the weird smell."

"Even I couldn't have predicted such a turn a events."

"Well don't you seem to be a master of karma?"

"Yes, that is me."

He begins fiddling with something in his hands.

"What are you doing?"

"Oh this?" He rubs his fingers together for a few moments before opening his palm, revealing it to be empty. "Nothing. Just another little disappearing act."

"Little tip?"

"Yeah?"

"If you ever want to speak to me again, don't pull that out of my ear."

"So I assume the nose is off limits too?"

"Any place you wouldn't naturally find a coin, let's leave it that way."

He nods and they continue walking towards her house.

"Let me guess, you have homework to finish?"

She nods.

"Okay, then I'll leave you this last little trick." He reaches into his back pocket and hands her Howl.

She narrows her eyes at once. "You stole my book."

"Nope, borrowed it."

"Okay, that's not called a trick, that's called a felony. Besides, you've definitely read this at least forty times and have most likely gone through at least five different copies."

"All true, but I just wanted to put some notes in the margins for you."

She stops walking and opens up her copy. There's a lot to take in – he's really read this so many times that he probably has most of it memorized. She skims through "Howl" and looks for her favorite poem "Sunflower Sutra." At the end of the poem, she finds one of her favorite lines: We're not our skin of grime, we're not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we're golden sunflowers inside – and he had written in the margin: Rory's favorite line, definitely.

She looks up and smiles, steps closer. "Am I that obvious?"

"A perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence – a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze."

"I prefer to be romanced by other poets," she says boldly.

He raises an eyebrow. "Whitman?"

"Of course."

"Neruda?"

She blushes. "Maybe wait on that one."

"I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair…" he starts, taking a step toward her. There are barely a few inches between them.

"Well, you definitely have my voice – almost nonstop access," she jokes weakly.

He reaches to curls her hair behind her ear, fingers sliding through the strands. He doesn't say anything.

"And, um…" she trails off, eyes flickering to his mouth.

His other hand reaches for her sweater, pulling her in and their lips meet, slow and warm. Her surroundings fall away and it should be dangerous, risky, but his arm is strong around her and she trusts him.

She pulls back a little to catch her breath, resting her forehead against his. "You know this means you have to quit smoking, right?"

He laughs a little, dropping his hand that was on her face to reach into his pocket, taking out his cigarette pack. He offers it to her. She wordlessly takes it and sticks it in her own pocket as he kisses her again.

There is absolutely no way she'll be able to concentrate on her work and she'll therefore have to potentially use her lunch period to catch up, but the thought come and goes as her hand cards through his hair and their bodies are flushed together.

But they have to get off the street – even though there is absolutely no traffic – and he walks her home and kisses her again outside the range of the porch lights. Her body is hot and her stomach flips and she knows she'll have to mentally review everything because as silly as it is, she figured she would be graduated from high school and well into college before she's confronted with the possibility of sex. But she's sure Jess understands on some level, or at least he will when that conversation inevitably happens.

"I'll see you tomorrow," she says.

He nods and smiles, leaving to head back to the diner.

She runs her tongue over her bottom lip and takes a breath before heading inside. She wonders if girlfriend status will allow for unlimited coffee refills, but she's sure that even if they weren't officially together, he would be giving free refills anyway. Maybe he'll risk getting her doughnuts.

"What, was there a buy one get one free sale at the store?" her mom jokes. "What's with that grin?"

Rory purses her mouth, but she can't stop herself from smiling. "Um, I guess I'm letting you know..."

"Letting me know what?"

Rory raises her eyebrows. "Letting you know."

Her mom blinks a few times before the metaphoric light bulb goes off above her head. "Oh."

"Yeah."

Her mom nods, her expression serious. "Okay."

"Yes."

"So," her mom starts slowly, exhaling. "His super-gluing Paris' locker shut really did it for you?"

"Mom," Rory laughs.

Her mom still looks solemn. "This is what you want?"

Rory nods. "Yeah. I'm happy."

"Okay, good. We're going to have the talk first thing in the morning."

"Oh, come on."

Her mom gives her a look that signifies the end of the discussion. That will potentially be embarrassing and awkward since they've only kissed and it's barely been an hour, but she'll get through it.

She gets ready for sleep and takes Howl with her, settling in to read his margin notes so they can have a proper discussion on the bus ride to school before facing whatever Chilton throws at them.

(She's definitely going to have to rein him in on whatever ‘plan' he has with the Franklin because she thinks Paris will murder her, and now Rory supposes she'll have more of an influence, so maybe some of it would be her responsibility...or maybe she's acquired a taste for a little mischief and wouldn't mind articles being sprinkled with expletives and names being misspelled. She and Jess will just have to see.)