Rory sat next to the pond, the flat sunbathing rock beneath her as she stared resolutely at the rippling water. Lane stood next to the rock, her hands resting unconsciously on her swollen belly. They sat in silence, Lane watching her friend with concern. "Rory, please say something." she whispered.
Her shoulders rose and fell slowly, defeated, "I don't have anything to say."
Lane bit her lip nervously, uncertain of what to do. Rory had been different since her return home. Initially she'd been overjoyed but after a few weeks that had worn off and she'd become gradually quieter and darker, she was flatter than she used to be, as if some internal light had been snuffed out. "What happened to you while you were gone?" she asked quietly.
A short burst of air came from the back of Rory's throat, halfway between a sigh and a whimper. "You know everything that happened."
"Then what is it? Why did you want to come here?"
Rory still stared at the water, her eyes narrowed in concentration. When she thought of this place she was showered with memories of her childhood…a happy childhood, overall, despite her unique circumstances. This was the pond they'd been swimming in as children when the king's personal guard had come looking for her. Jess, Dave, and Lane had saved her life. But there were other memories…summers as they got older. They would spend days on end here, camping in the fields and swimming in the pond, running through the forest around them. It had been a happy time. She'd always felt safe here.
But now that she was older it wasn't the same. It had been a year since Lane had run here from the village, interrupting Rory's sword fight with Jess, screaming about how Dave had asked her to marry him…had it really only been a year? It felt like so much longer. This pond with its small waterfall wasn't the safe haven she recalled from before she'd gone to the castle. The grass was scratchy, not soft and springy like she'd remembered. The water was dull, not crystalline and pure. The sun beat down on you and the wind, when it condescended to blow, was only hot air expelled from heavenly lungs. The trees weren't as tall or as green. The birds didn't sing like she remembered. Being here didn't make her warm and calm like it used to. This wasn't her safe place anymore.
Rory bit her lip, exhaling shakily as she looked over at her friend. She smiled weakly, resting a hand on Lane's pregnant stomach, "Have you and Dave agreed on a name yet?"
"Don't you mean me, Dave, and my mother?" she asked lightly, sitting on the rock next to Rory, "And no, Dave is freaking out enough about being a father that I'm not going to let the baby be named something he can never pronounce…" she smiled lightly, laying her hand over Rory's on her stomach, "but Lord knows he tries."
Rory nodded thoughtfully, her eyes on their hands, "He's a good one, Lane. You did good."
"Yeah, I know." she said softly, tilting her head towards her friend, "Is that what this is about?"
Rory looked up at her, pulling her hand back, "What?"
She motioned to the trees around them, "Coming out here…this mood…is that what it's about? Me and Dave…the baby?" her voice softened, "Or should I say you and Tristan?"
Rory stared at Lane for a moment, not speaking. She blinked rapidly, though, pushing back emotion before turning away from Lane to look at the small waterfall. She pressed her lips together, pulling her knees to her chest, "I just…I miss him, Lane. I miss him so much." she whispered, her voice barely audible. She shook her head, "I know it's been six months and I know by now…" she shrugged one shoulder, hugging her knees tighter to her body, "I know by now he's probably promised to some princess or the daughter of a Duke."
Lane nudged her shoulder gently with her own, "You're the daughter of a Duke. Well, granddaughter, really, I suppose, since it never passed to your father. Now the sister of one, since Richard is alive."
"No." Rory whispered, shaking her head, her gaze far off, "I'm sure Tristan stripped the Hayden family of our title after what happened with my father. We aren't noble anymore, Lane."
"Rory, you can't just take away nobility. It's something you're born with. It's in your blood."
She shrugged once, "Alright, I have noble blood, but no title to go with it, so it means nothing in the scheme of things." Rory broke off, her shoulders falling, "Besides, he didn't ask me. Tristan may care about me, but that doesn't change the fact that my family's name is tarnished."
Lane sighed, "Rory-"
"But that wasn't even my point." She cut her off, "I don't care about him being king, Lane, that means nothing to me. I just…I miss him. And I don't know how I'm supposed to go back to my life before him. He's changed me so much. Nothing is the same. Nothing."
Lane, unable to say anything to make it better, just rubbed Rory's back comfortingly. Rory wasn't crying…her tears had run dry months ago. She wasn't capable of crying over Tristan anymore. Lane remembered long nights, Rory curled into a ball on the floor, crying until she didn't have enough water in her body to shed tears and she simply shook with sobs, her body trembling from the loss of the first person she'd really ever needed. The nights of crying were enough that, in front of everyone else, Rory was able to smile and laugh and act like she did before. Luke and Rachel were so ecstatic to have her back that they'd learned to overlook it; Richard, who'd entered their lives seamlessly and was the dream given life to nearly every girl in the village of Stars Hollow, didn't know any better than to think that Rory was always like this. She and Jess saw the change but said nothing. That had been before, though, when she was able to cry out some of her pain. Now she wasn't even given that release. She couldn't cry over him anymore. She couldn't cry over him and so she was forced to live with the pain of losing him over and over. It made her withdraw deeper into herself, still wearing the mask around her parents, still playing the part. But her heart wasn't in it. Her eyes were always dead. The tears were gone. Now Lane saw only a bitter, wracking pain that couldn't be relieved by tears. Rory had passed the sadness and moved to desolation.
"What am I supposed to do, Lane?" she whispered, her voice breaking, "How am I supposed to go back?"
Lane rubbed her back soothingly, "You don't have to go back to the way you were before him, Rory. You can just move on from here."
She shook her head, pressing her forehead to her knees, "I've tried. I've tried so hard. But I see him everywhere. Every time I close my eyes. Every time my mind wonders; he's there. How can I move on when he won't let me go?"
"Rory." she whispered sadly, combing her finger through her friend's long hair, "I wish there was something I could-" Lane broke off midsentence, the sharp bark of a dog making her look around, "Did you hear that?" she asked.
Rory lifted her head, looking around the clearing as well, "Yes." The dog barked again, louder this time. She nodded towards one of the small hills that lay in the direction of Stars Hollow, "It's coming from over there." She was about to slide off of the rock when the dog, its barking now a constant cry, crested the hill. Rory froze.
A mastiff, nearly full grown but still with the loping run of a puppy, bounded down the hill towards them. It barked manically, speeding up as it saw them. Rory felt her heart stop.
Lane was tense beside her, pushing herself back slowly, "Rory…" she said uncertainly, worry bleeding into her voice.
Rory put her hand on Lane's arm, holding her still, "Wait."
The dog crossed the field that separated them in a matter of moments. It didn't even slow down as it came to the rock they sat on. Without breaking its stride or ceasing its bark, it jumped up onto the flat rock, its nails clicking as it slid into Rory, its tail wagging so hard it risked throwing itself off the rock. It jumped into her lap, big enough to crush her, and licked at her face manically, whining like nothing she'd ever heard.
Rory ran her hands down the back of its head, her voice laced with disbelief, "Duke?" she breathed, her eyes wide.
He barked in recognition, his name from her lips fueling his excitement. Lane slid off of the rock, one hand over her stomach to protect it as she inched away from the wildly shivering dog.
Rory laughed out loud, hugging the dog to her chest. He was bigger than her now. "You're huge!" she yelled, pulling back to look at him. He half barked, half whined in response, jumping back into her arms, "But how did you get here?" she asked, still laughing, "Who brought…you…" she trailed off, something magnetic drawing her gaze to the hill her dog had just come over. Three men appeared at the top, moving towards the pond. Jess and Richard walked down the hill, her brother conversing with the third.
Rory felt the ground fall out from under her.
Lane looked up the hill, her eyes trained on the third man. "Rory," she spoke slowly, uncertainly, "is that…"
"Tristan." she breathed, raising her head to stare at him.
Duke jumped off of the rock and bounded across the field to jump around Tristan, barking and whining at him as if to tell him that he'd found her. As they came closer Rory could hear Richard's voice but had no chance of understanding what he was saying; her head was filled with static, everything around her dimming as Tristan came into sharper focus. He looked the same: smooth sun-darkened skin, unruly wheat-toned hair, broad shoulders and a long stride. He still moved the same, his muscled body flowing as he walked with a grace one wouldn't expect in someone of his build. He moved with the same confidence and purpose that spoke of a royal upbringing. And his gaze, when it fell on her, was still enough to make the world around her fall away until all she was aware of was him moving steadily towards her.
She couldn't breathe.
The men approached them, Duke breaking away to rejoin her. He didn't jump on her this time, but laid down next to her with his head in her lap, his eyes on her while his tail went mad with wagging. She barely even noticed. As the three of them came within speaking distance of the girls Jess called a greeting to them. Lane returned it, but all Rory could do was stare. Tristan didn't stare quite so conspicuously as she did, but his eyes constantly cut over to her as he and Lane were introduced and had a polite, albeit short, conversation.
While they were talking Jess broke away from the small group and came over to her, laying a light kiss on her cheek in greeting. He spoke quietly into her ear, "He came with his cousin, who stayed back in town. I wish there had been a way to warn you." He pulled back to look her in the eye, cupping her cheek affectionately, "I've never seen you so low, Rory. There's something about him that we can't give you." he whispered, running his thumb along her cheekbone gently, "I like him, for what it's worth."
She let out a forced, shaky laugh, "You like the king?"
Jess smiled so warmly at her laugh, forced as it was, one would have thought he'd never seen her smile. "That never leaves the two of us, you understand? I have a reputation to uphold."
Rory made a motion of tying her lips.
Her cousin nodded lightly, his voice still low enough that only she could hear, "I like him. Richard near loves him, I think. He's already won over Rachel, but we both know that isn't hard." He fell silent, hesitant, "Luke complained about him. But I think that was just for good measure. I think he actually likes him." Jess cast a glance over at the other three, "And he seems to be working Lane over as well." He looked back at her, "I wouldn't tell you all of this if I didn't think you needed to hear it. I know he hurt you, Rory, but from what you and Richard have said I think he hurt himself even worse. And while normally I would take a plow handle to any man who hurt you…" he trailed off, shaking his head lightly, "It's a long trek from Hartford for the king to make just to bring you a dog." He kissed her forehead encouragingly, "Think on it." he muttered, pulling back to give her a nod before turning back to the others. "Dave informed me that he wants his unborn child and its mother back…so…" he swept Lane into his arms and she squealed, surprised, before hitting him on the shoulder for not warning her. He just laughed, "Come on. No more walking for the pregnant woman."
"I swear, between the three of you and him I'm going to be off my feet for the next four months." she complained half-heartedly. Jess, Rory, Dave, and, surprisingly, Richard had taken it upon themselves to coddle Lane and keep her comfortable throughout her pregnancy. She always complained for good measure but never told them to stop. As it was, she wrapped her arms around Jess's shoulders to steady herself as he set off towards Stars Hollow. "I'll see you later today, Rory!" she called waving as Jess carried her away, Richard in tow. She motioned at Tristan wildly once they'd passed him and he could no longer see them, mouthing something to Rory that she couldn't make out. What she did understand were the two very conspicuous thumbs-up Lane gave her, nodding vigorously and fanning herself for effect while pointing to the king. At least she seemed to approve.
Rory watched them walk away, unable to look at Tristan; her gaze didn't break from them until they'd crested the hill and disappeared from sight, leaving the two of them completely alone.
Silence crept around them; the only sounds were the soft splash of the waterfall and the chatter of birds in the trees. Rory bit her lip, looking down at the ground. Tristan hadn't moved any closer to her, standing his ground several feet away. She sighed quietly, her breath becoming uneven. Her vision clouded with tears. Having him this close…this close after so long…but still too far away to touch…it made her body scream and her mind race. But she couldn't make herself move closer to him. They sat in that silence for several minutes, Rory refusing to look at him though she was sure he stared at her. The sun beat down on her back, scorching through her dress. How she must look, her hair down in messy waves and her face pale from emotion despite the fact she couldn't cry anymore, her dress a plain, simple green shift less elegant than even the slips and nightgowns he'd seen her wear. She was no longer as fair as she'd been at the castle, her skin slightly darkened from all the time she'd spent outside in the spring and early summer so far…not like a proper lady at all. It probably contrasted sharply with what he'd expected.
"How have you been?" he asked quietly, his voice rough.
She nodded once, blinking the tears out of her eyes. They didn't fall, but seemed to recede back from whence they'd come, "I've been alright." she swallowed hard, still unable to make herself look at him, "How are you?"
A derisive chuckle floated to her ears, bitter and devoid of humor, "I'm breathing."
At that she did look up, her lips parting as if she would speak, but as she caught sight of him the words died in her chest. Oh, but it hurt to look at him. To see him so close; he'd obviously closed a bit of the space between them while her eyes were downcast; to breathe the same air again…it wasn't exhilarating like she'd expected. It was like a knife to her chest each time she inhaled. He did still look the same, as good as a young god from the Roman mythology given life. But he looked ragged. There were dark circles under his eyes and his cheeks had a hollowed look to them. He was cracking his knuckles absentmindedly and he looked as if he might have lost weight. His skin was almost sallow. She knew this look on him. "You haven't been sleeping." She whispered.
Again a quiet laugh, though this one wasn't as bitter as the first, "No." he acknowledged, shaking his head lightly.
He looked at her, his expression unreadable as his gaze scanned every inch of her face. He didn't answer her question, but he didn't say anything else, either. He didn't move closer. He just stood, his clouded eyes taking in every inch of her. It wasn't sexual. It didn't make anything inside of her heat up or tingle. It wasn't the way she was used to him looking at her. It was the way one might look over their bedroom after being gone for a while…seeing if it was how you left it and looking around to reacquaint yourself with it.
Rory shifted, able to physically feel his eyes on her, "What?"
His gaze swept up to lock with hers and she had to bite back a gasp at the intensity of his stare. "My memory didn't do you justice."
Her heart fluttered, her body begging to fall back into its old routine of allowing Tristan to work her over with words that worked as well as hands. But she refrained, breaking her gaze from his instead. She looked down, biting her lip.
She heard him step closer, "Rory, please." He said quietly, his voice hoarse.
Her head shot up and he froze a few feet from her, his hand outstretched as if he'd meant to touch her. They stared at each other for a heartbeat and he slowly brought it back, flexing his fingers and curling them into his palm as if he'd been burned. She looked up at him warily, her body nearly shaking in response to having him so close. But she had to know. She couldn't do this to herself if he just meant this as a drop-in to see how she was doing. If that was all he'd planned then she couldn't touch him. She wouldn't survive losing him again. "Why did you come?" she whispered finally, her voice weak.
He said nothing, staring at her through a mask of calm and control. There was nothing alive in that face.
She inhaled shakily, pressing her lips together, "Was it to bring Duke? That's what you told my family, isn't it? Is that why you're here?"
Again he said nothing, just stared at her.
Rory shook her head slowly, feeling tears push at the back of her eyes, "Don't do this, Tristan. Don't. You don't have the right to come to my home after sending me away and then just stand there like you're stone when I ask you for answers." She bit her lip to hold back the tears, clenching her back teeth stubbornly. She hadn't been able to cry over him in months. She wasn't going to start now. She slid off of the rock, standing several feet from him. "Why are you here?"
Something she'd said must have struck a nerve because she saw his jaw flex, his eyes spark, "You really want to know?"
Tristan rubbed his hand hard over his mouth and chin, preparing himself to speak. He swallowed hard, laboriously peeling away the mask so that she could see him. After a moment he spoke quietly but with certainty, "I can't do it anymore."
"Can't do what?"
His gaze snapped up to hers and she felt herself falling again. "I'm going mad." his voice was quiet, pained, as he stepped closer to her. "You're everywhere, Rory, in everything. I can't lay in my bed or look at my family and friends, or even close my eyes but that I see your face. But that I feel you around me and next to me and within me." he clutched a hand to his chest, over his heart. She stared at him, unable to speak, but he didn't wait for a response as he went on, "I tried. I tried to stay away from you. I never meant for this." he shook his head, "I meant to let you go and come back here and get married without robbing you of your virtue, but I've found, painfully, that I can't. I can't let you go. I meant to find someone, to marry soon after you left, but the thought of anyone else in my bed sickens me. I meant for you to marry, but once you left the image of you with someone else was seared into my mind and nothing I did could get it out. The thought makes me wretch, the image of it makes me wish I were blind so I wouldn't have to see it night after night." he spoke brokenly, his face more earnest than she had ever seen it as he stepped closer, holding a hand out to her hesitantly, "I don't know what to do but I can't be away from you any longer, Leigh." Rory started and he stopped, catching himself on the name. He stared at her for a moment. She felt her stomach clench as she pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, her fingers wringing together. Tristan stared at her, locked gazes with her until she didn't have the power, let alone the will, to turn away. "Leigh." he breathed, touching her face, "Lorelai. Rory. Whatever your name is. Whatever you are called. Whoever you wish to be, I can't be away from you anymore. The months since you left have felt like death to me. No one has ever had the effect on me that you do; no one has ever come close.
"And so I find myself here because I see that..." he trailed off, running his fingers lightly up and down her jaw line, "...I see that foolishly and impossibly..." he whispered, his face inches from hers, his breath dancing across her face, "...though irrevocably and fervently…" he trailed off, waiting with bated breath. Rory's eyelids fluttered, and though she knew what he was about to say, finally, after all this time, she couldn't bring herself to stop him. Tristan felt his chest swell and pound, almost as if he were about to jump from a cliff. He went on, his voice soft, "I love you." he traced his thumb lightly across her lower lip. She'd lost all ability to speak or form a coherent thought, and so she just listened to his quiet, pained voice as he whispered against her skin, "You've ruined me for anyone else. I'm hopeless, Rory, beyond the ability to ever even wish to recover." He finally fell silent, his forehead resting against hers as his eyes closed. "Tell me what to do." he begged.
Rory's fingers rose to brush lightly against his stomach through his shirt. Her stomach clenched, her arms shaking weakly in response to the ripple she felt rock through the muscles of his torso when her fingers skimmed across it. She traced her fingers farther up until her hands trailed across his shoulders to sweep down his arms. She curled her fingers around his wrists, her eyelids fluttering. "Say it again." she breathed finally.
His eyes snapped open, "What?"
He didn't answer at first and her eyes opened slowly to stare up at him. Tristan's face slowly transformed as a smile crept onto his lips. "Rory." he whispered. She exhaled slowly, closing her eyes again. He leaned down, one arm winding around her waist to pull her close against him as his lips brushed the shell of her ear, "Rory." He kissed her temple, slowly winding his arm tighter around her, "Rory." he breathed, tracing his lips across her cheek. He came to her lips and stopped, trailing his fingers up from her jaw to tangle slowly in her hair. He tilted her face up so that she was looking at him, her gaze locked with his, "Lorelai. Leigh. Hayden." His eyes darted from her gaze to her lips and back before leaning down; Rory's eyes fluttered as she felt her stomach flip.
And then his lips were against hers.
Rory felt the world explode. Before she knew what had happened her arms were around him, pulling her body against his. The kiss that started out as his lips pressed softly and affectionately against hers quickly spiraled into something else as she clenched the back of his shirt in her hands, a muffled moan blossoming from the back of her throat. She felt his lips, his teeth, his tongue, all pleading and warm and real, desperate against her own. His fingers tangled in her hair, pulling her face closer to his as his other arm slid around her to pull her body flush against his. His body was hard and solid and comforting against hers but there was too much in the way…too many layers of clothes and air and skin and bone separating them. Being pressed against him wasn't what she wanted. It wasn't even the closeness of sex with him, which now didn't even seem like the right word for it, that her body was screaming for. It was more than that. To be closer than that. She needed to be closer to him than that allowed for. She hugged him tighter, willing herself to sink into him.
She was ripped from her train of thought when Tristan's lips broke from hers. He mumbled something against her skin but she didn't understand it, her mind reeling to catch up with her body. He repeated it but his voice still sounded muffled because of the roaring in her ears. Now he was looking at her, his body pulled away enough that she didn't feel him pressed against her. Her skin protested.
She looked up at him, "What?"
Tristan twirled a lock of her hair around his finger, repeating quietly, "Come back with me."
And that was all it took to bring her crashing back to reality. She was suddenly cold, her body drenched in painful realization. Rory shook her head, pulling away from him, "I can't."
"Yes you can." he reached out for her hand, turning her back towards him, "Rory, I know I wasn't there for you before. I know that I didn't treat you like I should have and I know that I've messed this all up. I know that I have no right to ask this of you and that you have every right to walk away from me and never look at me again." he tilted his head towards her, his hand warm on her wrist. His voice was hard, not soft and pleading like it had been earlier, but solid and intense, asking her for something he felt he didn't deserve, telling her. "I know that I wasn't what you needed before but I'm different now. I've changed since you left, Rory and I can be what you need now, I can."
She sighed, looking away from him. It was too hard while she could see his face, "Tristan, honestly-"
He cut her off, "I mean it, Rory. I was selfish before and I didn't talk to you when I should have and I kept things from you." He crooked his fingers under her chin, raising her gaze to his face, "But that's done; I swear, Rory, I can be what you need now."
Again she felt tears pushing at the back of her eyes; she lowered her gaze, "Tristan, please." She whispered, his hand on her face and wrist scorching her skin. She couldn't bear to look at him, not when he believed what he was saying so fervently; not when he told her he loved her and begged her to come back. Tristan had never been realistic about them. That had always fallen to her. She didn't blame him; she never had. Tristan, hard as he was, had allowed himself to be broken down by her…protected, in a way, from himself if nothing else. She'd practically asked for it. She could never hold it against him.
She felt him shake his head and she could see his disbelieving expression in her mind.
His hand slid from her chin to trace across her jawline, refusing to let her look away or shut him out. They were doing this now. After months of dancing around it and then half a year of separation that he thought would kill him, they were doing it. And she was going to look him in the eye. He coaxed her gaze up to his and felt his own face soften at the tears that swam in her eyes. His thumb brushed across her cheekbone comfortingly. Rory closed her eyes and a tear slid down her right cheek as her left relaxed into his hand, her face turning into his palm. Tristan slid his other hand into her hair, leaning down to lay a warm kiss down her cheek where the tear made a single shimmering track. When he pulled back he could taste salt on his lips. "What is it?" he asked quietly.
Rory didn't respond at first. She squeezed her eyes shut tight for a moment, inhaling deeply. She breathed out slowly, steeling herself, and then pulled her face from his touch, her expression guarded. She stepped back from him, her voice pained, "There isn't a place for me in the castle Tristan, whether you love me or not."
"That isn't true."
"I belong here." she said quietly, dropping her gaze to avoid being burned by the heat in his.
"You belong with me." he said earnestly, touching her chin.
She turned away from him, shaking her head lightly, "As what? Your live-in mistress?"
Tristan's eyes widened slightly, "No–"
She cut him off, "A paramour? So you can come to me when you tire of your wife?"
"No." He was obviously trying to cover the disgusted look on his face but was failing. "No, not as a mistress."
"Then as what? A trainer for your guard? A maid? There isn't a place. What do you want from me Tristan?" she cried, exasperated as she twirled around to face him. But when her gaze met his her breath caught and she had to take a step back.
He was staring at her, his eyes brighter than she'd ever seen them. "I want you to be my wife." he whispered.
Rory felt the world stop. The only sound was her heart beating, as loud as thunder, in her ears. There was stillness; an impossible silence hung between them. She could have sworn the ground beneath her dissolved away. She stared up at him through swimming eyes, her body clenching painfully. "What?" she choked out finally.
"I want you to marry me." he whispered, his eyes burning, "I meant it. Every night that I told you, I meant it."
She shook her head, unable to speak. What was this feeling in her chest? This impossible ripping and spasming behind her ribs? It took her a moment to realize it was her heart, perhaps not actually tearing in two, but that was what it felt like. How? How could he do this to her? How could he hold everything she wanted so close, when they both knew it wasn't possible? "I can't." she whimpered finally, turning away from him.
He lunged forward, grabbing her before she could move away from him, "Why not?"
Her face twisted towards him and she stared open-mouthed, not bothering to hide her tears or the obvious pain behind them, "Why? Why? Tristan, how can you do this?" she tried to pull away from him but he wouldn't let her. "Let me go." she whispered.
But he just held on tighter. "No."
"Stop." she pulled feebly at her arm, knowing he wouldn't release her, "Tristan, it hurts." she whispered. He lightened his grip, not wanting to cause her pain. She almost laughed, "Not that kind of hurt."
"You don't want to marry me?"
"I can't." she cried painfully, turning her body away.
He grabbed her with his free hand, spinning her back around to face him, "Why not!?"
"Because I'm common!" she hissed, jerking her arm away, "I am common, Tristan, and you may have decided that you don't care, but no one else will agree."
He stared at her, open-mouthed, his expression disbelieving. It took him a moment to speak. "Common?"
"Yes, common." her voice broke.
"You're not common." he said as if it were obvious.
"Tristan." she shook her head, "My father owns an inn and my mother is a painter. I grew up in a three room cabin in a minuscule village. I'm common."
He stepped closer to her, touching the side of her face and tilting her face towards him. "No, Lorelai, your father was one of the foremost knights of Hartford. On your father's side you're the granddaughter of a Duke and on your mother's the grandchild of a Marquis." His gaze was soft as he stared into her, a gentle smile curving the edges of his lips, "You are as noble as any woman in my court."
She shook her head, "No. That's what I used to be. It's not what I am anymore."
His eyebrow arched, "Oh? So you have the ability to change your blood?"
"No, that's not it–"
"Yes." he cut her off, "That is it. That's all it is. Blood. And you have it. Nearly as noble as it comes, Rory."
She shook her head, unable to believe, after everything, that they could be together. It was too much to accept. "But my family's title…"
Tristan nodded lightly, "Yes, what about it?"
She shook her head, "It's gone."
Tristan's eyebrows drew together, "What makes you say that?"
"Well…" she faltered, blinking rapidly, "Treason. I just thought…" she trailed off.
He shook his head, "I never revoked the Hayden family's title. You are a noble."
Rory bit her lip, staring up at him. It didn't feel as if, after everything she'd gone through, that she would ever be allowed to have him. That she would ever be able to just get something. To have someone. She and Tristan? Married? A Dugrey and a Hayden? That thought made her chest constrict again. Maybe Tristan wanted them together…but it wasn't completely his decision. "How?" she whispered finally.
She exhaled shakily, "How could you and I ever work? The people, Tristan, you're the king. To marry a Hayden? They would never allow it."
His face darkened as his hands clenched, pulling away from her, "You think I care what the people have to say about this? It doesn't matter what they say. You're a noble. They can't say anything about it."
Rory felt hope blossom in her chest. But she couldn't give into it…not yet…not until she knew for certain this was possible. "But the people who do have to approve? Max Medina? The other advisors? Your mother? The priest, even?" they would need the blessing and approval of all of them.
Tristan shook his head as if tiring of this fight, "What about them?"
"I may have blood as pure as anyone's, Tristan, but that doesn't change the fact that I grew up in an inn in a tiny village. A queen, that does not make." She swallowed hard, pressing her lips together, "My past…the things that happened between our families…it doesn't matter how noble I am, in everyone's minds I'll always be either the girl from a nameless village who is no better than a common woman or else the daughter of a traitor. Max and the others will never allow it. When you go to them about it they'll deny you and make you take another wife-"
He cut her off, finally reaching his breaking point, "Another wife?! You think it would matter if I took another wife? You think I would touch anyone else after you? You think I could stand to have someone else bear my children?" she flinched but he went on, his anger showing through, "I would always come back to you. Just like this. And you would always come back to me." he spoke with conviction. It wasn't a question. It wasn't a guess. Rory shook her head, biting her lip as she turned away. But before she could completely turn from him he raised his hands to cup either side of her face and turn her fully towards him. "You think I don't see it, Rory? You think I don't see the effect these past six months have had on you? You think I don't see the pain?" She closed her eyes, pressing her lips together as he continued, "I can't bear it, Rory. I can't be without you. Even if I took another wife I could never look at her. I don't want anyone else. You've ruined me for anyone else.
"I want you with me every day. I want you in my home. In my bed. But it isn't just that. I want you to be mine in every way, Rory. I want you to have my children." he breathed the last part and her gaze snapped up to meet his. He stared at her calmly before continuing. "I've never had this, Rory. I always knew that I wanted children, but it was never because of my wife. I wanted them for my own sake, because I had to have an heir; it was what I was supposed to do. Because I wanted to be a father like mine was. But now, with you, I want children because of you. I want them because the thought of having them with you..." he trailed off, unable to find the words, "I want to be with you forever, Rory, I want a family with you. I'm not asking you to marry me as the king. I'm not asking you to marry me because we need a queen. I am asking you because the thought of having children with anyone else makes me sick. The thought of touching anyone else makes me want to cut my hand off and the thought of you with someone else makes me want to die, Rory." he shook his head, touching her face lightly, "I am asking you because you have consumed me. You saved me, Rory. Don't you see that?" he whispered, his voice breaking, "I didn't know what I needed before you came into my life. But now I do. I know that I needed absolution. But not from the church. Don't you see? God can't absolve me." He swallowed hard, his hands warm on her face, "You did. You saved me when I didn't even know that I was lost. But I was, Rory, I was. I was so lost in the dark that I didn't even know what light was. And now I'm here, giving supplication to the only religion I have ever known." His voice was practically a whisper, but solid and sure, "I want to do that for you too, Rory. I want to bring you out of it. I want to be for you what you are for me, and so I'm asking you, will you marry me?"
She stared up at him, tears pushing at the back of her eyes, "Yes." she whispered, her voice thick.
He blinked, taken aback, "What?"
"Yes." she said again, this time clearer, "Yes. Yes. Yes." she repeated, bringing her hands up to clutch his wrists. A look she'd never seen before flashed across his face and in the next moment his arms were around her and she was crushed against him, the air expelling from her lungs. She had barely pulled back enough to breathe before his mouth was on hers, his tongue forcing her lips open. She gasped, nearly losing her footing as the intensity of his embrace burned her. But her arms flew around his neck, clutching the back of his shirt and pulling him hard against her as she pulled his bottom lip between her teeth.
After a stretch that could have been five minutes or an hour he pulled away, raising his hand to cup her cheek and push her gently back, just far enough to speak, "Rory..." he said quietly, unable to form another word, resting his forehead against hers.
Rory bit her lip, clenching his shirt in her fingers. "I love you too." she whispered, opening her eyes.
He stared at her from an inch away, his gaze heated, "Do you?"
She nodded, closing her eyes for a moment as she clutched him tighter, "I do, I do." she whispered, feeling a lump rise in her chest, "And Tristan you don't know how I've missed you."
He ran his fingers lightly down her jaw, "Have you?" She saw now that he knew she had, but wanted to hear it from her.
"Yes. Every day I look for you, it's like I'd left a part of me with you. And every night–" she broke off, but from the shuddering of his back beneath her hands she knew that he understood. "Every night I yearned for you, I'd wake up in the night and feel for you but you weren't there. I'd toss and turn when I was trying to sleep because I'd gotten so used to falling asleep while you held me." She locked gazed with him, trailing one hand up to run through his hair, "And this need, Tristan, this need that I've had." she breathed, pushing her body against his, "Every night it gets worse. Every night when I remember your hands and your body and your mouth and I can't–" she was cut off abruptly as his lips crashed roughly against hers; his hands grasped at her back, pulling her impossibly close.
"Rory." he whispered against her mouth, his voice pained, "Rory, I love you. I love you."
She kissed him deeper, cutting off his words as her arms tightened around him. Her entire body shook, trembling from the months of pain and loneliness and longing for him, combined with the shock and the warmth and the joy of having him here. She started to shiver harder until she didn't think she could stand and longer and so she collapsed to the ground, pulling him with her without breaking her lips from his.
Tristan grunted in surprised but caught his weight on his hands on either side of her body before slipping his arms around her waist and pulling her to him. She wound up in his lap, her fingers clenching his shirt as though it kept her attached to the earth. He gripped her trembling arm comfortingly, his mouth warm on hers as he slowly broke the kiss, "You're shaking." he whispered, looking over her in concern.
Rory nodded, swallowing hard against the uncontrollable jumping of her muscles, "I know." she replied quietly, closing her eyes, her forehead pressed against his. Her voice came out hoarse, "I've missed you. Tristan, but it hurts. I've missed you."
Tristan shook his head gently, touching her face, "I'm here. You don't have to anymore."
"I know, but I do." she breathed, holding on to him tighter. "You told me once that you would do anything for me."
She felt him nod, "I would."
Rory picked her head up to look him in the eye, "Just one."
Tristan ran the backs of his fingers down the side of her face lightly, his voice deep, "Whatever you want."
She raised a shaking hand to wrap around his wrist, stilling his hand on her face, her voice wavered, "Never leave me again."
Tristan's face crumbled. She read the heartbreak at her words on his face. "No." he croaked quickly, holding her face in his hand, "No, Rory, I swear, never again." She buried her face in his neck, clutching him tighter to herself as her body continued to tremble. He slid his fingers through her hair, murmuring to her in a language she didn't know. His breath was warm on her ear, his lips brushing her skin as he spoke. Rory felt her shoulders shake. Having him so close, holding her and breathing soft words into her ear after months of pain and anger and simply not knowing, at first overwhelmed her, but slowly she felt herself relax, her body melting into his as her trembling subsided.
Rory pulled back slowly, her hands still unsteady as she raised them to hold either side of his face. He looked back at her levelly. Her voice was affected when she spoke, "One more. No mistresses. Ever." she traced her fingertips down his cheeks lightly, "I'll leave."
Tristan shook his head, "Rory, I don't want anyone else. Can't you see that?"
She trailed her thumb across his bottom lip, her eyes following the motion, "But you will. Once you have me for good. Once loving me isn't off-limits or forbidden or dangerous…once we're married and you don't have to fight for it anymore…you will want to sleep with other women." Tristan said nothing, not because he agreed with her, but because he didn't want to argue. She went on, "But if you do. If you ever do, I won't stay. I don't care that you're the king." she finished in a rush, uncertain of how he would react. What he did was the last thing she expected.
He kept his gaze on her, unwavering, until a slow smile began to work its way across his mouth. It became a full-fledged grin, his face warm. "You don't care that I'm the king?" he asked, his voice amused but husky.
Rory blinked rapidly, surprised by his reply, "No."
Tristan's eyes cut down to her mouth before rising back to hers. His smile widened and became one of the most genuine looks of happiness she'd ever seen on his face, "Good."
And with that his lips took possession of hers, kissing her deeply as his arms slid warmly around her body.
This is the correlation between salvation and love
Don't drop your arms
I'll guard your heart
With quiet words I'll lead you in and out of the dark.
-"The Unwinding Cable Car" Anberlin
A/N: You see, my sad reviewers? Of course there is happy trory love, o ye of little faith. But I guess…given the circumstances…it's not so unthinkable to have not so much faith considering the whole massive-time-periods-with-no-updates thing I seem to get cases of. So, faithful readers, this is the last chapter-chapter (and it only took three and a half years! Ha.) And I can't thank you guys enough for reading and letting me know what you think. Really, if it weren't for you guys I don't think I ever would have been able to finish it. So…this is it, epilogue to follow soon :)