disclaimer in part 1

by Rebecca Carefoot
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Part 11

Tristan raised his hand, as if to stop her protest, even though she had yet to get a grasp on any words. She raised her gaze from shocked contemplation of the triangle of skin the first three unbuttoned buttons of his Chilton shirt exposed and met his eyes. He rocked back on his heels, as if she'd struck him with a look, and she saw his hands were shaking before he jammed them in his pockets.

"I wanted," he swallowed. "I should have said something to you at school, but I couldn't figure out how or what. I wasn't even sure whether I wanted to fix the mess I made." He stared at her, looking for a flicker of understanding in the bright blue of her eyes. "I froze," he admitted. "But I couldn't just let you go."

He dropped his head, avoiding her eyes, his concentration on the wooden slats of the porch. "You were right," he muttered. "I was scared." He looked up again. "And it's easier to lie, to hide, than it is to tell the truth." He took a deep breath. "I'm going to tell you the truth now. All of it."

He stared at her like the rest of the world had suddenly disappeared, leaving only her behind. "I said I like you. I more than like you," he shrugged helplessly. "I've never felt for anyone the way I feel for you. Every minute I'm at Chilton I'm looking for you. And every time you're not in the room, everything seems flat and dull, and I hurt with missing you. And every time you *are* in the room, it hurts to be so near you and see what isn't mine."

He continued, his breath slightly shallow, the words too fast as he struggled to get everything out. "Every minute I spend with you makes me want more. The more I know about you, the more I know you're unlike anyone I've ever met. And it drives me crazy, and I don't know how to act, and part of me just wants to stop hurting."

He gritted his teeth, and she took a step closer to him, her hand half-extended. "And I'm sorry that I couldn't handle being your friend. And I'm sorry I ruined things with wanting more. And I'm sorry that I treated you so badly, in the beginning, and then the other day when you tried to talk to me." He shook his head. "I won't make excuses, and I don't expect you to forgive me.

"But I needed you to know that I didn't mean it when I was acting like a jerk," he said. "If you want me to leave you alone, I will. And next year I won't hang around you or bother you anymore." He looked down again, and scuffed his foot against the porch.

Rory reached out tentatively. She touched his wrist, then wrapped her fingers around it and pulled his hand from his pocket. She threaded her fingers through his, and squeezed. Her slim fingers pressed to his, a dizzying touch, a comforting pressure, a sudden electricity. He looked down at her hand in surprise, then at her with a question on her face.

"I don't want you to go away," she said softly, shaking her head to emphasize the statement. "I like being with you. I like talking to you about stupid, silly things, and joking around with you. I like discussing history and books and music with you, and driving around with you, and teaching you to make coffee." She smiled, and he couldn't help but smile in return. "And I like you. When you're not being a jerk, of course," she grinned to take the sting from the words.

"But-" Tristan started, certain there was a but.

"I can't give you," she hesitated, and tried not to see the disappointment hovering in his eyes. "All the stuff you want. Not right now. Not yet." She reached up and touched his cheek, tracing his skin with a gentle finger. He shivered, and his eyes were dark, lonely, lost.

"You don't feel the same way," he said, nodding absently. "I get it. It's okay." He tried to take a step back, and she let her fingers fall from his cheek, but she kept a firm grasp on his hand, and he stopped.

"I just broke up with my boyfriend for the second time," Rory said. "I'm not ready to start anything new. Not with anyone." She looked down at their joined hands, and let him go, swallowing a little sigh as the warm, rough comfort of his palm slipped away. "I'm not going to lead you on, or promise you something I can't give you." She met his eyes again. "But I'm not scared anymore." She took a step closer. "Do you understand?" she asked.

He shook his head, and felt his guts twist, warring between hope and confusion. She was so close. His lips parted slightly, his heart beating too fast as she took another step, putting herself flush against his chest. Her hand rose, and settled on his chest, covering his heartbeat. She could feel his heart in her hand, the warmth of his skin beneath his shirt, and she felt her body burn with sudden heat. "You said," she started, her voice trembling slightly. She tried again, "You said I was scared of having feelings for you," she whispered. "And I was. I was so confused, and there was Dean, and it was too much." She smiled up at him, a small, secret smile that promised things. He caught his breath, and had to remind himself to exhale. "But I'm not afraid anymore. If something *does* happen, someday, I'm not going to fight it."

She felt his heart pound harder against her fingertips, his eyes light. "I told you when you stole my books that I was never, ever going to go out with you." Her eyes were serious as she said, "I take that back." Then she looked up at him and smiled again, waiting for understanding to spark in his eyes, and a smile to break across his lips as well. He lowered his head, and his lips brushed against hers, soft, sudden. She clutched at his chest, a handful of his shirt in her hand, her eyes closed.

But she responded only for a moment, before she pulled away gently. She lowered her hand, and stepped back. "No," she said. "I meant it when I said I can't give you what you want. I need time."

He shook his head, pulling his lower lip into his mouth. "I want to be friends," he said. "I want all the things you said, the talking and having fun hanging out together. But I don't know how to stop wanting more."

"I know," she said, and nervous fear bit the back of her throat. "I don't want to hurt you. And if friends hurts too much, I'd rather you back away now. Because that's all I can promise you." She waited, tense and fearful, for him to speak, to make a decision. Maybe to tell her it was too hard, or their timing was off, or she was going to lose him.

He smiled suddenly, the old Tristan grin, confident and cocky, but tempered with something deeper. Her knees went weak with relief. "I'm not backing away from anything," he said. "I'd fall off the porch."

Rory laughed, the pleased sound of her relief bubbling from her throat. They were going to make this work. "Maybe a little fall would knock some sense into you," she joked.

"Maybe I'd fall into a coma," he said. "And you could nurse me back to health."

"Maybe you'll also win the lottery," Rory said. "And get struck by lightening twice."

"Are you trying to tell me that's a no on the cute little white uniform?"

She grinned. "I wouldn't say no to the uniform, if you were the one wearing it."

"Look at you, trying to get me into a short skirt." He snorted. "What kind of tramp do you think I am?"

"I don't know, a cheap one?" His mouth fell open in mock anger, and he gasped loudly.

"Oh no, you didn't just say that!"

"Oh, I think I did."

He had a wide grin on his face, and she grinned back, happy beyond words to be on familiar ground, hearing that familiar teasing tone. She knew it wasn't going to be easy, not knowing the way he felt about her. Not knowing the way she felt about him. She could feel the nearness of his body prickling up and down her spine. Part of her wanted to throw reason to the wind and just kiss him, see what happened next. But a larger part of her wanted this thing with Tristan to be more than a fling. She wanted to know who he was, really know him. And when, if, she was sure she could feel for him the way he did for her, she knew it would be worth the wait.

"What are you staring at?" Tristan asked. Rory blushed.

"I just really love to look at Chilton shirts," she said. "They're so blue."

He raised a skeptical eyebrow, and plucked at her sleeve. "Not color blind after all."

She made a face at him. "Come on, tramp," she said. "I'll make you some coffee." She held open the door, and he entered the house with a bob of his head.

"I can't believe you think I'm cheap," Tristan said. "I'm definitely an upscale tramp."

"Isn't that an oxymoron?"

"I think it's more of a descriptive phrase," he corrected.

"Exactly," she said. "A descriptive phrase that juxtaposes two incongruous-" He started to laugh, and she poked him in the stomach before entering the house.

She tossed a "Philistine," over her shoulder as she started down the hall.

"Oooh, Biblical insults," he said. "I'm impressed."

"Well, I learned from the best," she said.

"At least you admit that I am the best at something," he said.

"Oh yeah, master of Biblical insults, that's something to be proud of."

He followed her into the kitchen, listening to the playful lilt of her voice, watching the swish of her hair, the sway of her hips. Friends. It was less than he wanted. But it was more than he'd expected her to give. And he was determined not to screw it up or waste this chance to be a part of her life. He was willing to wait. He was willing to hope. And he was certain that life with her was better than life without her, whatever form it took.