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A Special Brand of Crazy

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When 5 a.m. rolled around, Luke was already outside bringing in the bread delivery. It was part of his normal routine: up at 4:45, bring in the bread after 5, then fire up the grill and the fryer and get everything set to open at the diner at 6. He'd also find time for a quick shower and breakfast for himself.

But this time, Luke was up earlier than normal and already had the diner set for the day. To be perfectly honest, he hadn't slept all that much. He tried. God knows, he tried. He'd done nearly everything he could think of to try to get his brain to shut off, to not think about Lorelai Gilmore marrying that schoolteacher of hers in just a few days. But something about their conversation when he delivered the chuppah stuck with him, and he worried.

There had been many times in the week where Lorelai wrestled with her decision about whether or not to get engaged at all that he wanted to tell her not to get married just because someone was pressuring her into it. It had to be her decision. All of it. He didn't want to be the one to bring that wobbling stack of cards crashing down. So he did what he always did around her: be there, be her friend, and try to let her go.

Granted, Luke's advice would had been very good friend advice. Still.

He wasn't sure what took him to the front windows of the diner. The town square looked like a living fruitcake – covered in tulle and bells and all sorts of wedding finery that made his heart ache. He had well and truly made his bed, and he was going to be a man and deal with it. It was his own fault for never making a move, for being just a hair in taking Rachel's advice.

Luke flipped the blinds open and saw the Jeep sitting outside, idling at the stoplight. He frowned, glanced at the clock on the wall. Just after 5 a.m. Other than when Rory had temporarily broken up with Dean, he had never seen either Gilmore up and about at this time of the morning. Lorelai was allergic to mornings, she always insisted. He thought of Lorelai's father and was out the door before he realized it.

Rory saw him and waved, causing Lorelai to look out the window herself. Her eyes lit up, and instead of pulling away when the light turned green, she swung to the curb and rolled down her window. "Hey there, Luke!"

"Is everything all right?"

"Oh! Yeah!" Lorelai said cheerfully as beside her, Rory subtly shook her head. "We're going on a road trip! Me and Rory! Hitting the open road and taking us wherever it may."

"Aren't you getting married this weekend?" Luke asked as Rory frantically increased the shaking of her head.

Lorelai's smile never dimmed, but the light in her eyes did. "No."

Luke hoped, he really hoped that his true reaction wasn't showing on his face. That of complete and utter weak-kneed relief. Of dodging the proverbial bullet. He wanted to pump his fist in the air and celebrate, Taylor's noise ordinances be damned. But that wasn't what Lorelai needed. So he gave her a sober look and said, "I'm sorry."

"So am I," Lorelai replied quietly.

Concerned, Luke frowned at the Jeep. When was the last time it had been serviced? He ought to know, he was the one who usually made sure Lorelai took it to Gypsy's for servicing. He sincerely hoped Lorelai hadn't pulled the spare tire to make room for shopping bags again. "Are you OK to drive?"

"Yeah! Hey, since you're here, we can get some coffee for the road!"

"Sure, come on in and I'll make you some." Luke stood aside so Lorelai could climb out of the car and made her way into the diner. He stopped Rory before she could follow, flicking a quick glance at the door. He didn't have long before Lorelai realized they had hung behind. "How is she really?"

"I don't know." Rory's brow furrowed in that look of intense concentration that she gave to solving particularly intricate puzzles. "Mom just burst into my room after you left last night saying to pack, that she was calling off the wedding. She started crying about not wanting to try on her dress every night, and I knew she was serious. So here we are."

Shit. Luke's stomach sank to his knees, and he stared through the window at Lorelai. She was standing at the counter, bouncing on her toes, probably seconds away from going behind the counter and starting the coffee herself. Something he said caused this, and now everything was going to be a giant dramafest. There was no way Lorelai could be in any shape to drive.

He knew what he had to do almost before he fully acknowledged it.

"C'mon," Luke told Rory and held open the door for her. He immediately went behind the counter and started the coffeemaker.

"What were the two of you doing out there, counting cracks in the sidewalk?" Lorelai's voice had that false cheerfulness infused into it, trying to pretend that nothing was wrong when in fact, everything was.

"Something like that." He didn't even wait for the pot to fill. He stuck one mug under the spout, replacing it with another when it was full. He set the pot underneath when the second mug was filled and handed the mugs to Lorelai and Rory.

"Hey, go cup needed, mister! Road trip, remember!"

"We both know you'll down that first one in five seconds and want another," Luke informed Lorelai. He flicked a glance in Rory's direction, hoping she would understand. "Are you sure you're in any shape to drive?"

"Tip top shape!"

"How much sleep did you get?"

When Lorelai caught her bottom lip between her teeth, Luke knew it wasn't enough. That combined with the smudges under her eyes just solidified his decision. Granted, he hadn't slept much either, but better him than her. "You're bound and determined to do this, aren't you?"

"I have to, Luke," Lorelai said in that same soft voice she used when she said her engagement was off. "I just …" Her attention shifted to the window, to the ridiculous tableau that was to have been her wedding party. "I can't stay here."

He knew the feeling. He knew it all too well. Still, he couldn't let her just leave either, not in the emotional state she was in. He couldn't wave her off, because he would spend the entire time climbing the walls with worry about her and Rory. Rory would keep her sane, but the images of those two winding up in some ditch haunted him.

"All right," Luke said. "Give me 20 minutes, and I'll be ready."

Lorelai's brow wrinkled. "For?"

"I'm going with you."

"You don't need to do that! We're fine, aren't we, Rory?"

Rory hesitated just a bit. "Actually, Mom," she said, "it might be good to have another driver along."

"You two think I'm crazy." Lorelai pushed off her stool, and he was relieved to see the anger flashing in her eyes. At least it was something. It was better than the deadened look he'd seen the previous evening. "I'm not. I just need to get away. Out of this town. Out of this state."

"We're not disputing that, Mom," Rory said gently. "Luke's right. We shouldn't go alone. It'll be fun!"

"You," Lorelai said, turning on him, "never go anywhere."

"Maybe I should start." Turning on his heel, Luke ordered himself to stand his ground as he went into the kitchen and shut off the grill and fryers. He checked the refrigerator and groaned. There was a good bit of perishables in there. Cesar could take them home to his sister and her kids. He went back into the dining area, where Lorelai and Rory were having a hushed conversation.

"Help yourselves to the donuts and muffins," he said with a wave at the glass dome he had filled just a few minutes earlier. "Just fill a couple bags with what you want, and I'll be right back." He fled before either could respond, but the satisfied squeals told him that the food distraction ploy had worked.

Luke found his old duffel bag, frowning at the holes. It would have to do. He packed so fast he nearly forgot underwear and toothpaste. He was heading down the stairs before remembering both and had to go back for them. That would had been embarrassing. The toothpaste he could cover, but the other …

Eighteen minutes after he made his declaration, he was back in the diner with the Gone Fishing sign in hand. He had called Cesar, gave him the next few days off with pay, and asked him to come clear the refrigerator of the perishables, along with the bread. Whatever he didn't want, he could take to the food pantry.

Luke propped the sign in the door and motioned to Lorelai and Rory, who had taken it upon themselves to fill large go-cups with coffee and relieve him of all the muffins and donuts. At least, he thought a bit ruefully, they wouldn't go to waste. He locked the door behind them and found his gaze going to the sign with his name on it. Lorelai was right. He couldn't remember the last time he had taken any sort of vacation, and now he was going on a blind road trip with the Gilmores. They finally did it. They finally infected him with their special brand of crazy.

He tossed his bag in the back of the Jeep and just stared at all the luggage. "What the hell is all this?"

"Only girls pack light!" Lorelai called from the driver's seat. "Get a move on, I want to put this town behind us!"

Climbing into the front passenger seat, Luke hoped they weren't all making a huge mistake.

"Did you get it?" Rory hissed outside the gas station somewhere on I-90 in Massachusetts.

Luke looked over his shoulder and hastily showed his contraband to his partner in crime. The past few hours had been filled with a lack of music, his and Rory's increasing worry that Lorelai was going to drive them straight into the Atlantic Ocean, and Lorelai's too-cheerful phone call to Sookie. He noticed that Lorelai had used the very vague "we" when talking about the road trip and was thankful for her discretion. The town would probably put two-and-two together soon enough, especially once Miss Patty managed to track down Cesar. He respected the hell out of his cook, but he had a mouth that could rival Eastside Tilly's.

Rory nodded with approval at the thick Rand McNally atlas he purchased while Lorelai was using the bathroom. She hastily opened it, tracing her finger down one page of Massachusetts. "Here we are. I think we're heading for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Oh God, we have been driving in circles for the past few hours."

Rory was right. Portsmouth was three hours from Stars Hollow, and they'd been gone nearly half a day. Luke looked at the map over Rory's shoulder, his gaze sliding up I-95 until he was studying the Maine coast.

"I have an idea," he murmured, almost to himself, but Rory heard him and latched on.

"I love ideas," she said fervently. "Please tell me you have a plan. A detailed, organized plan. With an itinerary. I need an itinerary, Luke!"

"I said I had an idea," he stressed, a bit concerned about Rory. Granted, they were both worried about Lorelai's sudden flip out, but he didn't need two hysterical Gilmores on his hands. "Look, instead of driving around in circles, let's just pick a place and not tell your mom. That way she still gets her spontaneity and we actually know we're not going to land without gas in the middle of moose country."

"I like this. Keep talking. Talk fast. She probably got distracted in the store, but we don't have long."

Luke tapped the map along the coast of Maine. "Bar Harbor. My dad took us there once when I was a kid, before my mom died. I mean, it's something, right? I kinda remember it. Seems like the type of place your mom would like." Actually, it reminded him a lot of Stars Hollow, except with a beach. Still, it was better than driving aimlessly around Massachusetts. "From where we're at, it'll take us about five hours to get there."

"Perfect. I love it. She's coming." Rory snapped the map shut and shoved it in her book bag.

Lorelai narrowed suspicious eyes at Luke as he navigated up US Highway 1. "Spontaneous," she reminded him.

"Absolutely spontaneous," he replied, eyes focused on the darkening road ahead of them.

Bullshit. Lorelai grunted and turned her head to look out the window. The ride, at least, was gorgeous. She hadn't counted on Maine when she got into the car hours earlier. She also hadn't counted on the extra passenger, whom she suspected was heading to a planned destination. Now, as the exhaustion she fought all day set in, she didn't mind either. She saw Luke and Rory huddled over something that suspiciously looked like a map when they stopped outside of Boston.

Oh, who was she kidding? They had literally driven in circles for hours because she was merely reflecting the trajectory of her brain. An endless spiral of guilt and relief, which seemed at odds with each other. It was Friday night. Her wedding ceremony was originally scheduled for Saturday morning. Before last night, the thought of her wedding made her stomach churn with nausea. Now, it was replaced by her old best friend, guilt. A tear slid down her cheek, and she swiped a hand over it.

"You OK?"

Luke's voice was pitched low, and she found a partial smile. Rory shifted in the backseat, where she had curled up to sleep. "Yeah."

"No, you're not."

"No," she acknowledged. "I'm not."

"But," he said with confidence, "you will be."

Her smile turned genuine. "Yeah. I will be."

Luke blinked his eyes open, the ceiling fan above him twirling in a slow, lazy circle. Moonlight streamed through the windows. He rolled over to stare at the small alarm clock on one of the bedside tables.

4:45 a.m.

Old habits die hard.

He sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the TV sitting on the mini fridge across the room. There was no reason for him to get up, but he was done sleeping. He actually got a solid seven hours of sleep. There was crap all on TV at this time of morning, and he hadn't thought to toss a book in his duffel bag. Rory probably had an entire library packed away, but she was in the other room with Lorelai asleep.

They had seriously lucked out. The inn Luke remembered from his childhood had long closed, but Lorelai insisted on pulling over at every B&B until they found one that had two available rooms. A minor miracle given the time of year, but the owner explained that a family reunion had been canceled at the last minute. The rooms were available for four days, so they took them.

He debated showering and taking a walk outside when he heard the soft knock on the door. Frowning, he opened it a crack to see Lorelai standing outside. She was dressed in a thin, long-sleeved shirt with matching pants and clutched her cell phone to her chest. Summer pajamas, he realized, averting his gaze when he realized the shirt left little to the imagination when it came to her breasts.

He stared at the floor and swallowed hard. "Are you OK?"

She pushed her hair behind her ear, worrying her lip. "Did I wake you?"

"No, this is when I normally get up." Dirty, Luke realized after a second, lifting his gaze in time to see her smirk. He rolled his eyes and held the door open. Do not look at her breasts, he instructed himself as she strode in and sat on the edge of the bed.

"Do you always dress like that?" Lorelai asked, setting the phone on the mattress.

"Like what?"

She gestured to the T-shirt and sweatpants that he wore. "It's August, Luke."

"Yeah, so?"

"It's hot."

"Not in here. Ceiling fan. Air conditioning." He dug clean clothes out of his duffel bag.

"Do you have a thing against exposing your legs?"


"What do you wear to bed in the winter? Skiing gear?"

"I'm ignoring you now," he informed her and went into the bathroom with his clothes. He firmly shut the door on her laughter.

Luke came back out a few minutes later to see her laying on the bed, and his heart leaped. It was shortly followed by a dose of reality that reminded him that he had no right to be thinking of her in any sort of manner other than friendship. It wasn't why he was on this stupid trip. He was her friend. Nothing more. That was it.

He almost believed it.

He took the chair next to the bed, resting his elbows on his legs as he watched her. Her eyes were closed, and she breathed softly. Sleeping. Of course. Lorelai needed it just as much as he had, more than him really. He considered that walk again and had just pushed to his feet when her eyes blinked open.

"I wasn't sleeping. I was thinking."

Luke sat again. "About?"

"Rory wanted to talk about Max."

"Ah." He stared at his hands, not quite sure what to say. Way out of his league. This entire thing was out of his league.

"She insisted that I loved him, that I was just running scared. And she unloaded on me. I mean, she has every right to unload on me and be angry. I imagine everyone's angry with me right now."

"I'm not."

Lorelai gave him a small smile. "No. You're not."

Luke held her gaze, hoping that she believed him. "Betcha Sookie's not angry,

"She's disappointed. I could hear it when I called her earlier." She sighed. "That's the universe vs. Lorelai Gilmore. I'm either pissing people off or disappointing them or doing both at the same time." She wrapped her arms protectively around herself.

"Hey, stop that." He moved to the bed, ignoring the warning signs going off in his brain like fireworks. He found himself patting her leg, filing away the warmth of her thigh in some deep recess of his memory.

"But it's my fault! All of this! I never should had accepted his proposal. I never should had let it get this far, but I kept telling myself this was the best thing for me and Rory. Especially Rory. Max is a good guy. Just not for me." Tears slid down Lorelai's cheeks. "You have no idea how much I wish I loved him. But I didn't. Instead, I'm just failing at everything."

Luke couldn't just leave her like that. So he pulled her into his arms, and she nestled her head beneath his chin. He rubbed her arms and her back. "You're not failing. Look, what if you realized this after you married, huh? Then all of you would be miserable."

She sniffed into his chest. "What if Rory's right?"

"Rory's sixteen. Sixteen-year-olds sure as hell don't know what love is."

Luke thought he knew what love was. He really had with Rachel. And god, he had loved her and held out hope for so long. But now he was stroking Lorelai Gilmore's back in a strange B&B in Maine because she had run away from her wedding, and the feelings he had shoved into a corner of his heart were fluttering about like a fly that refused to be swatted. They were far, far different than the ones he had for Rachel. They felt more intense. More real. Just more.

He slowly became aware that he was actually holding her, so focused on trying to help her that he didn't realize the danger that having her in his arms would prove. She felt good. No, she felt amazing.

She felt right.

He felt the low rumble of her words against her chest. "I did. Well, I learned when I was 16. I didn't have a clue until I held Rory for the first time. That's what I want, you know? To love someone just as much as I love her. I tried with Max, but I felt like I was just disappointing him the whole time."

Lorelai sniffed again and pulled away, not recognizing that she practically imprinted herself on him. Luke would drift to sleep every night for weeks on the memory of the smell of her shampoo and the feel of her hair beneath his fingers. "Just … what you said," she admitted. "Being with someone who gets you and all your crap, who doesn't try to change you. And I realized then that Max was doing that. And he was pushing and pushing, and I didn't like the person I was changing into. It was married or nothing with him, but I thought 'what if this was my only chance?'"

"It's not going to be your only chance. You'll get it. I know it." He knew of that as sure as the sun rising that morning.

She smiled, and he ached to reach for her hands or touch her in some way again. But he couldn't. He was her friend, and he wasn't going to be one of those putzes that pushed her to feel a certain way.

"Rory insists I'm going to regret this."

"Will you?"

Lorelai shook her head.

"Then, you won't." Just like he really hadn't regretted Rachel leaving when she did, recognizing that he had finally moved on with his life.

She smiled down at Luke, and those aching, fluttering feelings simply intensified to the point where he just couldn't find words. "I'm glad you came with us," she said.

"Me too." Oh good, his vocal cords still worked.

"And don't think I didn't notice the map, Rand McNally."

Luke laughed. And laughed. And laughed until Lorelai joined in and his stomach hurt and he hadn't felt that free in a very long time.

So going on a road trip with her daughter and her coffee provider had proven to be what she needed to start to get over Max. It wasn't so much getting over him, but wading through the guilt of letting everything proceed for so long before putting a stop to it. Lorelai didn't want to think of the money lost from the failed endeavor, so she didn't put up that much of a fight when Luke pulled out his wallet to pay for the room. He pointed out that he didn't pay for gas, and she gave up the fight despite the fact that four nights at a B&B in Maine were far pricier than a few tanks of gas.

They spent the four days crawling all over Maine, including visiting the flagship L.L Bean store in Freeport at 2 a.m. just to say they did so. Lorelai never imagined a trip spent with Luke, or any guy really. The closest she'd come were the few trips out to California she had taken with Rory to see Chris. As close as she'd been to marrying Max, Lorelai couldn't imagine trying lobster with him on the Maine coast or listening to him grumble about the retail outlets in Freeport. They went up into the nearby mountains to take in the breathtaking views, and Luke taught her and Rory how to fish. They managed to catch one, which they immediately set free after Luke told them they couldn't take it home for a pet, despite them naming it Winston. Winston sailed back into the Atlantic a free fish that day.

On the way home, Lorelai recognized the exit signs and took them on yet another detour - this one semi-planned. A couple hours later, she was peeking through a classroom door, watching Rory sit in on a Harvard lecture like she belonged.

She beckoned to Luke, and with a resigned sigh, he peeked over her head. His voice of reason had been ignored as the girls had first talked their way into a dorm room, then the lecture hall as they had explored Harvard like that personal playground.

"Look at her. She really belongs." Lorelai's voice was reverent, filled with every hope and dream she ever had for Rory.

"Yeah, she does." Luke's voice sounded as awestruck as she felt, and his hand landed on her shoulder. They remained, riveted as Rory leaped into the discussion. She was not even 17, but she looked and acted mature enough to easily pass for a college freshman. Lorelai's heart ached just a bit. Despite everything with Chilton, it had been the right move.

She felt movement behind her and looked over her shoulder to see Luke pulling her camera out of his coat pocket. "Where'd you get that?"

"When you shoved it in my hands and asked me to change the roll of film." He hushed her and carefully aimed the camera over her head. He brought Rory into focus and hastily snapped a couple pictures before shoving it back in his pocket.

Lorelai was going to make 17,000 copies of that photo and paste it all over Stars Hollow.

Rory's excited chatter filled the car on the way back to Stars Hollow, and it allowed Lorelai to remain comfortably ensconced in her thoughts. She ceded control of the driver's seat to Luke and spent the drive sorting her feelings into neat little boxes. Or as neat as they could be given they were her emotions. Rory would be in that lecture hall in less than two years. She would be alone. She needed to start sorting out the rest of her life. She needed to do something for herself, to build her own life. Around the Connecticut state line, she made her decision and held her tongue.

She dozed off near the Willington Rest Area, and her thoughts drifted to warm skin, heated kisses, and lingering touches. In her dreams, she saw blue eyes darkened with passion and smelled coffee and the slightly woodsy cologne that was as familiar as danishes on a Wednesday. His hands on her waist were firm, guiding her as she rode him. She looked down into face she knew so well and whispered his name.


She started awake, recognizing the Hartford skyline zooming past. Oh God. Oh my God.

"You OK, Mom?"

Lorelai whipped her head around to stare at her daughter in the backseat, absolutely refusing to admit that her engagement was barely a week broken and she was having sex dreams about the guy who prevented them from driving in circles until the Jeep plunged into the ocean or a ditch or was beset upon by moose. And she just apparently moaned his name in front of him and Rory. Well crap.

"Sorry, kid, just dreaming."


"Coffee," Lorelai lied, and they both bought it. She hastily looked at Luke out the corner of her eye, then quickly glanced away, willing her heart to settle. It had to be because of this weird family-like road trip. And how he held her as she cried all over him, because she couldn't with anyone else. And how they had stood like two proud parents, beaming at Rory as she sat in on a Harvard lecture. Her life was a mess, so her subconscious latched onto the safest, most steady thing in her universe outside of Rory, and that was the man sitting next to her.

She was still internally panicking when they pulled up in front of the Crap Shack and saw the chuppah sitting on the front lawn.

"Aw geez, I forgot about it." Luke sprang from the car so fast, he probably broke a few Guinness records in the process. "I can't believe I left the stupid chuppah on your lawn, just sitting here, mocking you. I'll take it down now."

"No!" The word burst out as she scrambled out of the Jeep after him. "It's OK, Luke, really!" She looked at the elaborate arch and didn't see Max at all. "I'm going to keep it."

He had the poles in his hands, prepared to lift it. "What?"

"Yeah. It's beautiful, and you made it for me, and it doesn't have to be a wedding chuppah. It can just be a beautiful archway in our yard. I'll grow stuff on it."

Luke peered at Lorelai around the side of the chuppah, brow furrowed for a moment before he nodded. "I'll move it wherever you want."


Rory emerged from the back seat. "Hey, I know we just got back, but can I go see Lane?"

"Sure, kid, go ahead. I'll get Mr. Brawny to take the bags in the house."

As Rory headed down the sidewalk, Lorelai watched her daughter walk away from her and knew that one day all too soon that it would be permanent. "I think it's time to make a move," she said, not sure if it was to Luke or to herself.

He had the back of the Jeep open, muttering under his breath about how they managed to acquire even more junk during their days away. "Meaning?"

She faced him. For a split second, her mind dove back into that dangerous place - one of heated skin and shared touches. "I'm diving in. Sookie and I are finally going to open that inn."

Chapter Text

The apartment was too quiet after spending the better part of the week around the Gilmores. It felt surreal to stand in the middle of the empty space, a newly acquired duffel bag from L.L. Bean at his feet - sans initials, thank you. He had his pride to think of at the very least.

Luke scrubbed his hands over his face, exhaustion from the long day settling in. Perfect timing, because he needed to open the diner in the morning, so getting his sleep schedule back on track was a good thing. Cesar had been by to restock the perishables, and the bread delivery would be in at its usual time. He set the alarm, pulled clean clothes out of his dresser, and went through the normal motions of getting ready for bed.

The old mattress creaked as Luke settled his weight on it, and he allowed himself to want.

He wondered if she knew how close he'd been to driving off the highway when she moaned his name in a voice that was pure sex. It was a voice he had only heard in his fantasies and when he managed that alternating towering stack of French toast and pancakes she wheedled out of him for her 30th birthday.

Just coffee she had lied, and he knew her tells very well. Plus, there was no mistaking the high color in her cheeks or the way she had restlessly moved around in the minutes before waking up. She had been dreaming about him. About sex. About sex and him, and he would gladly allow Kirk employment in the diner if he was wrong. He'd been witnessed to Lorelai's excitement over coffee, and no coffee ever caused her breasts to strain against the thin cotton T-shirt she wore or for her to cross her legs tightly. He knew what a woman looked like aroused, and had they been alone …

Oh, who was he kidding? She was barely a week broken up from that English teacher putz from Rory's school. It was wrong on every level.

Too bad his body refused to get the message.

The fingers of one hand dug into the sheets as his mind wandered into a place he hadn't allowed it since before Rachel returned, before Lorelai had turned back to that teacher. OK, if he was really being honest with himself, his mind had wandered there when he had been with Rachel. With as in they were naked, his brain was superimposing a certain someone over Rachel's face during the most heated moments of the act, and he came perilously close to calling out the person's name that wasn't Rachel and wasn't available, and that would had been mortifying. The next day, he began his avoidance campaign of breaking stuff at Lorelai's house just to have an excuse to fix it.

His brain drifted into those dangerous recesses, fantasies he had built over the years spilling out like a film reel going too fast. His breath hitched, hard, then let out in a low sigh. He sleepily turned onto his side and saw the light blinking on his answering machine. He closed his eyes again. He would deal with it in the morning.

A lot of people in Stars Hollow tended to forget one simple fact of biology: Luke had been born a year after his sister. It was easy to forget, and he was exasperated at Mother Nature's strange sense of humor. Even Liz called him "big brother" well into adulthood as a joke.

He had always been quiet, acted far older than his age, and channeled his energy into sports and helping his dad out with the hardware store. Liz was loud and drew her energy from being around people, the more the better, and make sure there was a lot of alcohol. She finished high school pregnant and promptly ran off with that putz Jimmy Mariano, leaving Luke at home with their father. Within a year, their father had started to grow tired and was coughing excessively.

Whatever future Luke had been imagining for himself died the day the doctor called with the test results.

That first morning back after the road trip was filled with a plethora of annoyances and a lot of evasion. Patty and Babette were relentless in their pursuit of his whereabouts - which happened to oh-so-handily coincide with Lorelai and Rory's road trip. The only thing that kept him from snapping at them was the fact that the town square had returned to normal from its temporary incarnation as a fruit cake, and they were most likely the ones behind the rapid transformation. Kirk had been beside himself and was reading out loud from a detailed journal he kept over the past five days, just so Luke would be fully up to date on town events. Or at least he had been until Luke snatched it from him and tossed it on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen.

Then Taylor decided he just had to escort every Boy Scout within a tri-county area to the diner for donuts. Then Lorelai decided that she needed donuts and enacted a showdown with 7-year-olds. Didn't the kids realize they weren't a match for her?

So of course, on top of all of this, the phone just had to ring.

"I'm sending him to you." Liz's voice, husky from years of smoking and alcohol abuse, came down the line without a greeting - the first time Luke had heard from her in a couple of years. "I can't handle Jess anymore. He'll be on the bus to Stars Hollow in two days."

"Excuse me, are you serious?" Luke yelped, then suddenly remembered the answering machine he had avoided.

The whole story burst out of Liz in dialogue so rapid-fire that it would put Lorelai to shame. The noise level in the diner was such that Luke could barely pick out the basics: arrests, community service, skipping school, experimenting with drugs and alcohol. For a moment, he wasn't sure if he was in 2001 or in 1984. Within five minutes, the dial tone was ringing in his ear and Lorelai had sneaked behind the counter for her own donuts and was begging for coffee, grabbing his sleeve and giving him her most winsome smile.

Luke slammed the phone on the receiver and whirled on her. "Would you just shut the hell up?" he roared.

The entire diner fell silent.

Luke would never forget her eyes at that moment. Lorelai looked like he had just slapped her, and metaphorically he had. His body propelled into autopilot, pushing past her toward the stairs, heedless that it was morning rush. The next thing he knew, he was in his apartment, the silence nearly as loud as the noise behind the counter. His stomach pitched, and the oatmeal he had for breakfast came perilously close to making a reappearance. He sank onto the couch and buried his head in his hands, a litany of fuck, fuck, fuck going through his head.

He wasn't surprised when, after a few minutes, he felt the weight of someone settling next to him. Of course she would follow him.

"Society didn't deserve Glitter inflicted on it, and I didn't deserve you yelling at me like that," Lorelai said lightly, but he could still hear the hurt in her voice.

Words were lodged in Luke's throat. Oh sure, they were easy to come by when he ranted, but when he wanted to actually say something meaningful, they never came out right. He came close, so very close, to telling Lorelai to mind her own business. This was his family, his mess, and he was going to deal with it, and he didn't need her. He could do this alone. He could always do it alone.

He let his hands drop. "That was my sister."

"On the phone."


"Is everything OK?"

"Be lucky you never had a sister."

Lorelai shrugged. "I always wanted one. I figured if I had a sister, my mom would have a target other than me."

"Well, when you get sisters, you get their boyfriends. And you get your sister running off with her boyfriend." Luke gestured to the answering machine. "Go on, willing to bet you that's her."

Lorelai studied him for a long moment before heading to the answering machine and pressing play. Liz's shrill voice filled the room, a longer version of the phone call he had taken downstairs. Halfway through the third message, she hit the pause button. "How many did she leave?"

"How much tape's left on the answering machine?"

"Never mind." She sat next to him again. "What're you going to do."

"What do you think I'm going to do? He's family." Luke cast an eye around the small office, trying to ignore the twist of panic in his stomach. Where the hell was he going to put a 17-year-old? The office was a perfectly fine studio apartment for him. He moved into it after selling the large, rambling house he'd grown up in. It was originally meant to be temporary while the diner got on solid footing, but after Rachel left, he just stayed.

He mentally ran through the layout of the upper floor. There were a couple more empty rooms that he had various crap stored in - a mixture of old diner supplies and whatever didn't fit in the garage he rented for his dad's boat. One of those could be fixed up for Jess, but neither room linked into the main apartment since they were across the hall. He could knock out a wall, construct a doorway and a connecting hallway, but that would require building permits and more time than he had before Jess arrived.

Christ, the kid was going to need everything. Clothes he presumably had, but who knew with Liz? Jess needed a bed, some furniture. Food. Luke needed more groceries. What did teenagers eat? He should ask Rory.

"Not the stuff you do."

Luke drew to a halt, realizing that not only was he pacing the floor without realizing he'd gotten to his feet, but he had started verbalizing his thoughts to his captive audience of one, who looked pretty damn amused at his expense. "I'll get him some Frosted Flakes."

"Because they're grrrrrreat!" Lorelai waggled her eyebrows. "Why don't I get some extra food for you?"

Oh great, and give his nephew clogged arteries before the kid was old enough to vote. "I've seen what you've eat. I've got it."

Lorelai gave a dismissive wave of the hand, used to his commentary on her diet. "We've got some old cots, things like that, in storage at the inn. I can grab one for you. Mia won't mind."

"It's OK."

She continued on, ignoring his protests. "You have extra sheets, right? I can go shopping for you while you take care of other stuff."

Sheets. Crap, crap, sheets and more towels. Would Jess bring his own shampoo? Razor? Christ, Jess was old enough to shave. Luke dragged his hands down his face. He had two days to figure out how to shove a teenager into his nomadic life.

"I can handle it." He hoped he sounded confident. One look at Lorelai told him he failed miserably on that front.

"No, you can't. Look I had a rough time of it, and I was there from the moment the stick turned pink. You're being shoved into the deep end of the pool without floaties or even a life jacket. Let me throw you the life jacket."

"Can I just give you my credit card again?" he begged.

"I am the queen of buying things at 15,000% off." Lorelai acknowledged. She got to her feet and clapped his arm. "Take the life jacket."

Luke had no choice but to take the life jacket. Lorelai was the only person in his minuscule inner circle who was a decent parent. So he let her poke into his things and make a list of what he needed. He tried not to sweat until they reached the third page of the notepad he dug out of his nightstand.

The folded pieces of paper burned in his wallet as they walked back downstairs to find Taylor and the Boy Scouts efficiently running the diner. Taylor stood at the register ringing up orders while the boys carefully carried loaded plates to the tables and bussed the empty ones.

"Oh god," Luke groaned, drawing Taylor's attention. "Taylor, what the hell are you doing?"

"Since you decided to abruptly leave your place of business during the busiest time of day, I have taken it upon myself to use this as a teaching opportunity." With a congenial smile, Taylor handed change to a woman Luke didn't recognize. "Thank you for your patronage, and I hope your check out the retail opportunities that Stars Hollow offers its tourists. If you will take this pamphlet, you will find a color-coded map with a detailed description of each store. I highly recommend the sixth porcelain unicorn store under the pink heading."

It took a moment for Luke to find language that wouldn't involve the mothers of all the Boy Scouts coming down on his head enmass. "Taylor, do I want to know how many child labor laws you've just violated?"

"It's not child labor. They're all getting at least three merit badges out of this." Taylor grabbed the full tip jar. "I'm keeping this."

"Fine." Luke didn't feel like arguing. He motioned to the kids. "All of you are fired. Free donuts for all of you."

"What, don't I get a free donut?" Lorelai pouted as the boys abandoned their work and clustered around Luke as if he was Santa.

Luke shook his head, popped the top off the dome, took two donuts and put them in a bag for her. He handed it over the heads of the protesting kids, then made a go-cup of coffee and pressed it into her hands as well. "Here. For earlier."

He hoped she knew what he was trying to do, because the apology he needed to give her was still lodged in his throat. Lorelai's bright smile told him that she understood every word that he wanted to say.

Lorelai sat in the driver's seat of the Jeep, munching on a donut and staring at the back entrance of the Independence Inn. Any moment, she'd get out of the car and start her work day. Yup, any moment now. It was coming. Motivation was right within her reach.

She took another sip of coffee.

Any second now.

Most days, she didn't have a problem going to work. She truly loved her job, even in the days when her back and knees ached from her work as a maid. But most days wasn't the first day back in Stars Hollow after her aborted wedding. She spent far too much time at the diner and was running late as is, but Luke's panic had been great for getting her mind off her own issues.

The town had been wiped clean of the preparations for the wedding, as if it never happened. But it had, and as Lorelai inched her Jeep from the center of town toward the Independence Inn, she caught Miss Patty dabbing away tears. Kirk chased the Jeep for a block, arms outstretched as he yelled to Lorelai that if she needed a hug, he was there for her. A brief stop at Doose's the previous night had Taylor kindly inquiring if she needed frozen meals for a single person. Everywhere she turned was just another reminder of her own failure.

Now she was going to have to face Michel and Sookie, the latter of whom would want exhaustive details about what she did when she was away from Stars Hollow. But that would involve her and Rory's unintentional road trip buddy, and Lorelai felt like keeping that bit of knowledge to herself. She loved Sookie, but she didn't want the insinuation that she was starting something with Luke or that she left Max because of Luke or anything that involved romance and Luke, her dreams be damned.

She let her thoughts drift to Luke's new situation. Other than when he confided in her about his father and the hardware store during the winter, he'd been close-mouthed about his family in all the years that she'd known him. Lorelai honestly thought from the way he talked that he was an only child. Just from listening to the answering machine, she could see why he remained mum about his sister. Ho boy, was he getting in over his head.

She should leave well enough alone, but he was her friend, and he had been there for her as her engagement had fallen apart. He made sure she and Rory hadn't wound up in a ditch or in Canada. He was the one who found the town where they stayed in Maine, and he held her while she cried. It was a no-brainer she would return the favor. Besides, she was the one with the actual parental experience while he literally had the proverbial deer-in-headlights look on his face the entire time they were in his apartment.

First rule of teenagers: never let them sense your fear.

Lorelai watched one of the bellhops emerge from the inn and cross the parking lot to her car. She opened the door just before he knocked on it.

"Michel wanted to know if you were going to sit in there all day and quote, 'decorate the parking lot or will you grace us with your presence.'" The bellhop winced. "Sorry, Ms. Gilmore."

"No, no, not your fault." She suspected the statement was censored. It was also so much like something her mother would say that it reminded her that Friday night dinner was two days away. Oh, great, now she was sick to her stomach. Maybe she could plead the bubonic plague or something to that nature. Or … she sat up straighter. Jess was also due to arrive Friday. It would be the perfect excuse to get out of dinner. Much cheered, Lorelai followed the bellhop into the inn to rejoin her everyday life.

"I don't need this much stuff."

Lorelai stared into the large red cart. It was of Target's finest, overflowing with sheets, towels, an extra lamp, an assortment of non-Doose food, and toiletries. She frowned at the large box in Luke's hands.

"Yes, you do, and put the air mattress back."


Lorelai rolled her eyes and took the box from him. She shoved it back onto the shelf. "Jess can't sleep on an air mattress, Luke! Just come take one of the old inn rollaways. You'll be doing me a favor." She placed a hand on her hip and pulled out the big guns. "I'll tell Mia."

Luke scowled. Bull's-eye. "That's a low blow."

"Is it now?" Throughly pleased, Lorelai took control of the cart and led them out of the camping gear aisle before Luke got any further ideas on where a teenage boy should sleep. There was a reason she had been bound and determined to get Rory out of the potter's shed before puberty hit.

"Fine," he muttered, and she chalked another point in the victory corner.

"So, do you have everything straightened out with the school?" Lorelai asked after she gave him a few solid minutes to stew.

"Yeah, he starts Monday. It's a good thing Jess was born in Hartford, because I had a copy of his birth certificate from when Liz lived here." Luke shrugged. "When Dad did his will, he convinced Liz to name me as Jess' legal guardian if anything happens to her. There's paperwork and all."

Huh, that was interesting. It made Lorelai forget that Rory was also going back to school on Monday, ergo encountering Max. "So you have custody of Jess?"

"I guess. I can make decisions regarding him." Luke winced as Lorelai lightly punched his arm. "Ow, what?"

"What aren't you telling me?"

"Nothing important." He stared blankly at a Yahtzee game. They somehow had gotten onto the board game aisle. Since Lorelai was a fan, she simply took the game off the shelf and added it to the cart. "So, my sister's been busted a few times. DUI, smoking pot, things like that. There was a time when Jess was a baby that my dad tried to get custody of him."

"Really?" A game of Life in hand, Lorelai froze.

"Yeah." Luke took the game from her and put it back, then the Yahtzee as well. "Then he got sick, and I thought that was that. But he urged me to take care of Jess. After he died, I tried. Courts don't really look highly upon single 25-year-olds with their only assets being a failing hardware store and an assortment of part-time jobs. I got laughed out of the lawyer's office. Liz disappeared and, well …"

"Well, you'll do fine now. You've got me and Rory." Lorelai grabbed the Yahtzee box once more and shoved it under the towels, beaming at Luke when he scowled at her.

Right, right. he had Lorelai and Rory.

The Gilmores, with Lane in tow, had landed on his doorstep en masse hours after the Target shopping trip and had taken over Luke's apartment with the vengeance of a cable home improvement show. His protests were cheerfully ignored by the three girls, and he was reduced to hauling the cot from the Independence upstairs and finally closing the diner.

But the end result hadn't been horrible. The cot from the Independence had space underneath, where they had shoved several a couple of plastic Rubbermaid containers with drawers where Jess could keep his stuff. An overturned milk crate nabbed from the storeroom created a small nightstand. A small lamp, the Yahtzee game that Lorelai wouldn't let him go home without, and a few books curated from Rory's library sat on it.

Rory shyly apologized as she showed off how she reorganized the closet, double-hanging his shirts in such a way so there was enough space for Jess to hang up any clothes that needed it.

"You probably didn't want Mom doing that," she explained.

"I've seen her closet," Luke agreed, having been in Lorelai's room several times to do repairs.

"I resemble that remark!" Lorelai gaped at them and tossed a rag at Rory.

The apartment didn't look that much different after they were done, but somehow it had grown to accommodate another person.

"It's about the size of the potter's shed," Lorelai confessed as they went downstairs so the girls could polish off a pie he held back for them as thanks. "I got used to thinking of ways of making that space much bigger than it actually was. When we got the house, it was almost too big, you know? You're still going to need a bigger space, because believe me, you are not going to want to share close quarters with a teenager for long."

Right, bigger space. Luke's mind kept running through the diner's floor plans as he walked the three blocks to the bus station the next day, assuming that whatever Jess had that they could carry between them. Too bad he couldn't tap into the space that ran over the flower shop next door that had just gone up for sale. That was only connected to his apartment by a sheetrock wall, and he could knock that in and create an actual room. For now, he was still stuck figuring out the logistics of connecting the apartment with one of the empty store rooms.

He was so lost in mental schematics that it took him a moment to realize the bus from New York had come and gone. He frowned and squinted at the time table posted next to the ticket window. He swore he had the right time, but maybe not. There was another bus coming in a couple of hours. He shrugged and walked back to the diner.

Luke barely made it back two hours later no thanks to Kirk's sudden desire to adopt a miniature pony. Kirk was determined to test drive it by taking it into the diner, and oh hell no. Headache now firmly lodged behind his temples, he got to the bus station just in time to see the last of the people disembark from the bus. No Jess still. It was the last bus that day, and he knew he had the right day.

More than a little concerned now, Luke made his way back to the diner, leaving everything in Cesar's hands a bit longer as he ran upstairs to call his sister.

"Hey, Liz. The last bus from New York came in, and Jess isn't on it. Are you sure it's today? Yeah. Did you actually take him to the bus station?" As Liz's voice rasped in his ear about how Jess was old enough to do these things for himself, and she had waved him off that morning, his stomach dropped. "Liz. No, no, I'll deal with it."

Friday Night Dinner was going to be hell.

A box of slides sat next to Lorelai's purse, carefully curated so only photos of scenery and Rory were in there. A print of her favorite, the one Luke took of Rory in the Harvard classroom, was tucked into her purse. She might have one of two more hidden in various places as well. She needed a work copy, she had a home copy, and there was the grandparents' copy. There was a spare in case anything ever happened to one of the other copies, and there was a final one she intended to give Luke at some point. After all, he took the photo.

She stared at herself stubbornly in the mirror, then down at her ringless left hand. It didn't feel weird not to wear the ring that Max picked out. It had always been a strangely heavy weight, and she hadn't been a huge fan of the design. She sighed. Another sign she had overlooked until a metaphoric chuppah to the head made her reconsider everything.

"You ready for the Spanish Inquisition?" she called to Rory as she walked down the stairs, fixing an earring.

"Almost," Rory replied from the bathroom as the doorbell rang. "You getting that?"

"Maybe it's Publishers Clearing House with my millions," Lorelai said as she pulled the door open to reveal a disheveled Luke. "Hey!"

He didn't say anything for a moment, looking both lost and terrified. Concerned, she stepped aside so he could walk in. He paced into the living room before whirling to face her. "Jess is missing."

Her jaw dropped. "What?"

Luke waved his hands about, nearly hitting Rory, who had come out of the bathroom. "I was at the bus station. 3:45, that's what Liz said. I only know because she left 16 messages. I counted. I was there, the bus was there, but Jess wasn't. All right, I went back to the diner for a bit because the next bus arrived at 5:30. Figured he was late or something. Went back, still no Jess. I called Liz, she said he left the apartment."

"Did she actually walk him to the bus?" Lorelai asked.

"Of course she didn't! She said he was old enough to do it on his own. He's done it hundreds of times." He paced the room. "This is bad. This is really bad. He's supposed to be under my care now, and he's missing!"

Lorelai exchanged a knowing look with Rory. "Let me take a wild guess. He probably wasn't too excited about coming here."

"I guess? I dunno! I need to call the police, right?" Luke grabbed the portable phone off the charger. "Right. New York or Coop? State police? Why did I do this? Why did I agree to this in the first place?"

"Hey, hey, I heard the messages! Your sister really didn't give you the chance to turn down the job. Besides, you saw a kid in desperate need of some help and feel like you failed him all those years ago. Of course you're going to throw him a line." Lorelai intercepted him before he could do another lap around the room, grabbing his arms. She gently pried the phone from his hands and put it back on the charger. "Luke, slow down. Breathe. Pretend you're in one of Patty's yoga classes."

He paled. "Now I'm just terrified."

"Got a point. Anyhow, I'm willing to bet Jess is still in New York. If you were a teenage boy, and I bet you were at some point even with the flannel, where would you go if you didn't want to go home?"

"I'd hang with friends. I bet he's with his friends." Luke snarled. "I swear, I'm gonna kill Liz."

She shook him a little, just enough to pull his attention back to her. "Hey, Liz is not the point anymore. Jess is. Focus on him. What are you going to do?"

The answer was immediate. "Go into the city and finding him."

Lorelai nodded. "Good. Give me 10 minutes to change and tell my parents they're getting a party of one tonight." She caught Rory's eye, and she nodded. Rory made a phone motion with her hand and picked up the portable, carrying it into her bedroom. Lorelai was halfway up the stairs before she looked back down at a shocked Luke. "You really didn't think I was going to let you go alone?"

Chapter Text

Unlike the drive to and from Maine, the trip from Stars Hollow to New York City was quiet. Lorelai checked her pager every so often when it buzzed, taking a call from Rory at one point. Luke gave her a quick sideways glance when she hung up the phone. She didn't think her wince had been that obvious.

"The mistress of the manor was not pleased I didn't heed her beck and call," she said as she tucked her phone back in her purse.

"You didn't have to come."

"Yes, I did, now there's a semi."

Luke was at least three car lengths behind the semi, so he rolled his eyes.

Lorelai waited for them to actually pass the semi before deflecting the conversation fully away from her parents. "Because I'm a huge fan of wading into family drama without knowing the facts, what happened with Liz? I mean, I know the part where she's been busted, things like that. What led from point A to point us sitting on I-95 while the traffic craws at 20 miles per hour?"

She expected him to clam up, but he huffed out a breath. "My mom died when we were kids."

"That had to have been rough on her."

"It was rough on all of us."

Lorelai shook her head. "Yeah, but trust me, it's worse when your plumbing's on the inside, especially as you're hitting puberty. Not that I am any sort of expert at good relationships with mothers, but still. You had your dad, right?"

"Yeah, he raised us. I spent my spare time working in the hardware store, but Liz, she took off the moment she graduated high school. And she was already pregnant. She didn't care that our dad was sick, that the hardware store was failing. She just took off and did whatever the hell she wanted."

Ho boy. Too bad she didn't have Bob Hartley on speed dial. Lorelai wondered if Luke realized he had revealed more about the life events that shaped him in 10 seconds than in the previous five years she'd known him.

"And instead of putting in any work to actually straighten the kid out," he continued, "she's expecting me to sweep in and fix everything like I always do. The kid hasn't had an ounce of stability in his life. He just needs to not be jerked around."

"Here you are then, Mr. Stability. You've lived in the same town all your life, the same tiny apartment for what … 10 years?" When he grumbled under his breath, Lorelai pressed on. "Luke, things aren't magically going to be fixed the second you push Jess through the doors of Stars Hollow High. There's a reason that he ran away rather than getting on that bus."

"Because he doesn't know any better."

"Exactly. What, I agree with you!" she protested when he shot her a glare. "You have to imagine the culture shock from his perspective. I was barely older than him when I came here with Rory, and it was entirely different from everything I'd ever known. And I loved it, because to me, it represented freedom. But maybe, he thinks he's being pushed all over the place again, and he's now pushing back."

"You don't have any idea what he's like."

"Do you?" Lorelai glanced out the window at the signs marking their passage through Stanford. "When's the last time you saw him?"

Luke shrugged. "I dunno. When he was 10? Eleven?"

"He's an entirely different person now. You need to remember that."

"And this is why we packed the bags." Lorelai tossed her overnight bag onto one of the beds in the small hotel room they had paid far too much money for, like everything else in New York.

Packing a bag had nearly been an afterthought, and it had taken precious time to talk Luke into stopping by the diner to do the same for himself. But now she was grateful for it, because it meant they didn't have to go back to Stars Hollow and start all over again in the morning.

Liz lived on the east side of Manhattan, down in the lower part of the city where the uniform block buildings made Lorelai think section 8 housing. She'd have filed for that had it not been for Mia, and not for the first time, she was grateful of all the opportunities given her.

Like with the hotel, they paid far too much for parking and wandered into one of the buildings, carrying an old address book Luke had brought with them.

On the fifth floor, Luke consulted the book, then pounded on one of the doors. "Liz!" he yelled. "Liz, open up."

Before Lorelai could remind him that it was well after 10 p.m., the door opposite Liz's popped open to reveal a short man with pudgy fingers and a breath so foul that Lorelai was sure it could be sensed in Stars Hollow.

"She's not here. Works the late shift at Hal's up on Avenue C. Now, shut up." The door slammed in their faces, leaving them no choice but to find some place to stay for the night.

Lorelai thought she would feel weirder about sharing a hotel room with Luke than she actually did. She waited for the stomach-twisting nervousness to take over like it had when Max stayed the night at the Crap Shack. But it all seemed so normal that it was surreal. Maybe it was because of the trip to Maine and Lorelai had creeped into Luke's room to cry all over him that kept her from feeling strange about it all. More likely, it had to do with his missing nephew. They were certainly not in New York for a romantic interlude.

Luke was already in bed by the time she emerged in one of her cute, yet practical PJ sets. She crawled into her bed, knowing already that whatever sleep she would get would be horrible. She was spoiled by the comfort of the Independence Inn's mattresses and had used the inn's supplier for the beds in her own home. This mattress could give a brick a run for its money and probably win.

She turned her head to see if Luke was asleep, and she found him with his hands clasped behind his head, staring at the ceiling.

"You're scared," she observed.

"I'm not scared." The answer was immediate and it was a complete lie.

"Of course you're scared." Lorelai contemplated the ceiling herself. "I'm scared all the time."

Luke snorted. "No, you're not. I've never seen a parent more capable than you."

The compliment swept through her, shocking her when tears sprang into her eyes. She furiously blinked them away. "Oh, really? Have you magically blocked out the time a few months ago when I caused Rory to run away from home and I couldn't find her?" She took a deep breath and remembered Emily scolding her over the phone just a few hours earlier. "I'm scared all the time, because I'm worried that I'll turn into my mother."

Luke turned onto his side, raising himself on one elbow. "You are not your mother. I've met her, remember?"

"You don't know my mother the way I do." Lorelai flipped over to face him. "When you're a parent, you worry that the decisions you make could land your kid in harm's way. As they get older, you know you need to let them make their own choices, but then you worry they'll do stuff like have a kid at 16. You worry that the next thing to come out of your mouth will be the one thing that finally drives your kid into therapy for years."

The street lights shining through the window cut a thin stripe across his face, making the blue of his eyes appear strangely intense. "Rory is a good kid. And you're a good mother. Nothing you say will change my mind on that."

Goddamn it, the tears were back. It wasn't the first time the people around Lorelai insisted that she was a good parent, that she was making all the right choices to give Rory the best chance to succeed in life. Mia, Sookie, even Chris all praised her parenting abilities. It provided a counterbalance to the constant disapproval from her own parents. But it meant something more coming from Luke. She wasn't sure why his opinion mattered more than all the others, but for some reason, it just did.

"Thank you," she said softly, and it was one the most heartfelt thanks she'd ever given.

Luke settled back in bed, and Lorelai remained curled on her side watching him. She wondered how he would react if she crawled into his bed to comfort and reassure him, like he had for her in Maine. The desire to do just that was so strong that it took all of her self-control to remain exactly where she was. But she couldn't help the images spilling through her mind, of holding him in her arms, pressing her lips to his temple. Perhaps she would kiss his cheek but accidentally find his lips. Maybe they would discover the mattresses in the room were good for something after all.

Furious at herself, she violently turned onto her other side so she stared at the wall. It was just like the damn dream she had on the way back from Maine. She couldn't afford to think this way, not about him. What did it say that she wanted sex with someone else barely two weeks after breaking her engagement to Max? Hell, she'd been sleeping with Max not even a month ago. She had a magnificent way of shattering everything good in her life, with the exception of Rory and her job. She wasn't going to put her friendship with Luke at risk just because her body missed sex.

Except it wouldn't be sex, Lorelai's subconscious told her as she finally drifted to sleep. And it was right.

The prospect of what intimacy could be with Luke terrified her far more than any future with Max ever did.

Lorelai woke up to the fragrant scent of fresh coffee, the siren's song of a true New York bagel sandwich, and information from Liz.

"I went back over there while you were sleeping and caught her when she came home from work," Luke said without a hint of apology for not taking her. The lines bracketing his mouth suggested that there had been a loud argument between the siblings, and her annoyance at being left behind dissipated as she sipped at his apology.

"Decent," she said, "but not yours."

He winged an eyebrow, knowing he'd been let off the hook. "Thanks."

She split the bagel open, nearly salivating at the smoked salmon piled atop mounds of fluffy cream cheese. She bit down, pleased that he remembered that she favored everything bagels. She gestured to the other half. "Want some?"

To Lorelai's great shock, Luke picked it up and bit into it. "What?" he asked after he swallowed.

"You ate it! I always offer you my food, and you never take it!"

"This?" He pointed to the bagel in his hand. "This isn't junk food. Fish is good for you, especially the Omega 3s in salmon."

"I'm just going to pretend you didn't say that." Lorelai took another bite, and beneath the duvet, her toes curled. The bagel was just too good to be healthy.

"So, what did Liz tell you?" she asked after a couple more blissful bites.

"She gave me a list of where he hangs out. I got a map on the way back." Luke frowned at his bagel half. "She thinks I need to leave him alone, that he'll go to Stars Hollow when he's ready."

"That's very free range of her."


"Free-range parenting. Where you let your kid explore with as little parental supervision as possible. My mother accused me of doing that with Rory, but I really didn't."

"You two are like pieces of paper stuck together like glue." He picked off a sesame seed from the bagel before abandoning it altogether to grab the paper sack with the map. "But, I do remember Rory going places by herself when I first met her."

"Yeah, in Stars Hollow. Luke, everyone was her parent in some form or another. Rory always went around with Lane, and where there's Lane, there's Mrs. Kim. You couldn't pay for a security guard that protect better than she does."

"That's the truth."

"Besides, you can't tell me you didn't do the same thing at her age."

Luke opened his mouth. Closed it. Conceded. "You're right. Because it's Stars Hollow."

Lorelai popped the last bite of bagel in her mouth and pointed at him. "Exactly! So, you got two maps, right? It'll be faster to split up."

He pulled a second map out of the bag, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I figured you'd say that." He also handed her a fuzzy photograph of a tall young man with dark curls that reminded her quite a bit of Luke. "And that's his photo. You get dressed, and I'll split the list in half."

Lorelai had to remind herself not to give into the urge to do window shopping or buy an assortment of random things for Rory. Her list included places like Union Square Park, the Strand, and a few record shops that ringed the area. The record shops tugged at her for some reason, so she started for those first. And, she admit, she might have lingered in one and bought a Bangles album that had disappeared somewhere between her Hartford life and her Rory life. She also found a Stevie Nicks album featuring the song "Edge of Seventeen" and bought it for Rory as a pre-birthday birthday gift.

The plastic bag bounced against her legs as she surveyed the sidewalk, then joined the crowd crossing the street into the park. A farmer's market ringed the square, and clusters of teens were gathered around the other end, braving the open air before police officers came chasing them back to school.

She nearly missed him. Lorelai wasn't sure how she expected to find Jess, but it certainly wasn't nursing a beer at 11 a.m. while reading Faust. She did a double-take, then subtly checked the photo that she tucked into her purse. Perfect match.

She dropped onto the long bench next to him, waited a moment to see if he was bothered. Jess merely flipped a page in the book and didn't look up. Clearly, he was used to strangers sharing a bench with him. So she grabbed the bottle of beer sitting next to him.

"Thanks," she said as his head snapped up.

"Hey, that's mine," he protested.

"Maybe in a few years." Lorelai took a long pull of the beer and winced. "Man, if you're going to sneak beer, don't go for Bud."

Jess just stared at her with an look that was so like his uncle's that she nearly burst out laughing. "You're insane, don't you know that?"

She saluted him with the beer. "Sound like your uncle there."

Shock and disbelief flashed in his eyes before he tampered the emotions down. "I don't know who you're talking about."

"C'mon, you're telegraphing his moves all over the place. No one does grumpy sulking avoidance better than Luke Danes."

Jess carefully closed the book, setting it next to him. He eyed her as if she was about to snatch him away. "How do you know him?"

Lorelai shrugged. "Sat next to him in the truck on the way here. He's tearing this city apart looking for you, you know."

Jess snorted and shook his head. "Unbelievable." He jumped to his feet, grabbing the book but didn't bother to try and get the beer back.

"Telling you the truth, kid."

Jess scowled at her. "What, are you fucking him?"

Now she rolled her eyes. In a way, it was like looking in a mirror, diving deep into the past before Rory was born. "Newsflash, men and women can be friends without sex involved." She got to her feet and jerked her head toward the sidewalk. "C'mon."

"I'm not going with you, weirdo."

Lorelai shrugged, already focused on her growling stomach. "If you don't go with me, you can't score a free meal. Your choice. You pick the place and make sure it has decent coffee."

She hoped Jess would be just curious enough, or jonesing enough for a free meal, that he would follow. When he muttered something about her being crazy and pushed past her to lead them the way, she grinned.

The bodega Jess took them to had amazing food, almost-but-not-quite Luke's coffee, and was cheap. A tubby cat with a calico coat twined itself around Jess' legs, and he absently scratched its head while he gave the order and curtly gave Lorelai some suggestions on what to eat.

There were a few tables pushed into the back alongside overstuffed shelves of store-brand groceries, and they grabbed one. A few nearly orgasmic bites into her sandwich, Lorelai weighed how to approach things. The sting of failure regarding Rory and Dean still dogged her. It felt like she had done everything wrong then, and now she needed to talk this runaway into going to Stars Hollow.

"You know, you can't do the James Dean thing on the streets forever," she told him.

Jess snorted. "Who'd want to be him? He kicked it at 22."

"See, you have a brain in there. Still, I know you're on probation. You can't stay on the streets.

He shrugged. "I check in with my officer."

"Who will be a bit surprised to find out you're not in Connecticut."

"I'm not going there."


"I went to the library the other day and looked up the school." Jess leaned forward, gesticulating slightly. "That place is weird! I mean, they speak the pledge of allegiance there in six languages."

"Huh, they added one." Lorelai didn't mean to say that aloud, but it seemed to confirm Jess' point.

"Look, I appreciate Mary Tyler Moore pep talk, and thanks for the meal, but I'm not going somewhere else where I'm not wanted." He started to push away from the table, but she grabbed his hand before he could get fully away.

"You're wrong." Please, please believe me, she thought fervently. "Luke wants you, Jess. If he didn't, he wouldn't be here."

"Why wasn't he here last year? Or the year before that? Or all the other years?" Jess snatched his hand back, but he stayed, throughly now into his rant. "Everyone thinks I stole that stuff because I'm a kid getting in trouble. If I didn't, Liz and I were going to starve, because she drinks away everything. Where was he then, huh? Look at you. You've never been hungry a day in your life. You look rich, you sound rich. You have no idea what I've been through."

"I got pregnant at 16. I left home with her at 17. We spent the next 10 years living in an unheated potting shed." Lorelai toyed with her coffee mug, and the words she normally kept closest to her heart simply tumbled out without permission. "Rory never went hungry. But I did. Those first few years, I barely had enough money to keep her fed and clothed. I got one meal a day at work, but the chef there at the time locked away all the leftovers. He hated me and Rory and hated that Mia, my boss, was helping us out the way she was.

"There were weeks that the only money we had was the change in my pocket, and it was all for my kid. I could have asked for help, but I didn't want to be a charity case anymore than I already was. You don't understand, unless you've been there, how it feels to lay in bed and listen to your stomach twist with hunger again and again, like it's trying to wrap itself around your spine." She gave Jess a half-smile. "Your uncle doesn't know that, by the way, so I'd appreciate it if you kept that between us."

Jess stared at her for five loaded seconds, then dropped back into his seat.

"Look, Luke told me he tried to get custody of you after your grandfather died. You'd been what… 5? 6? No lawyer would even begin to take him on. He was a single guy in his 20s, and you know how courts view single men versus mothers. He tried, and you two disappeared, and there was nothing he could do until your mother gave up control. Now he has options and so do you."

Finishing her coffee, Lorelai balled her trash together and set it next to the mug. "You can stay here. I'll go back to Luke, tell him I never saw you. You do that, and I bet you'll wind up in juvie before the year's out. You come with me, and you'll have a roof over your head, food in your belly, and someone who actually gives a damn about you. Entirely your choice. What do you have to lose?"

Luke hated the city. Hated, hated it with every fiber of his being, deep into his soul. Lorelai once teased him that it was filled with grumpy people just like him, but it wasn't that. For all his grumbling about Stars Hollow, he was a small-town guy. Yeah, Taylor was a major pain in the ass, and three-quarters of the things the town did was ridiculous, but it was home.

His part of the list took him around Washington Square Park, and he wagered he spent his day walking most of Lower Manhattan with his heart in his throat. He scrutinized every group of teens and fought the urge to whip out Jess' photo and show it around like he was a lost kid on the side of a milk carton. Enough teenagers came through the diner that despite being two decades removed from being a teen himself, he was well-versed in how they acted.

Or so he thought. As he stood on a street corner ignoring his stomach's demand for food, he came to the realization that he didn't know teens at all.

He managed to find relatively healthy food, or at least something disguised as a chicken salad sandwich, and ate as he walked. If he nor Lorelai couldn't find Jess, they would need to call the police, which meant Jess would get in serious trouble with his probation officer, probably landing in juvie. The kid was being stupid, but he didn't deserve to go to jail for rebelling against Liz's decisions. He didn't exactly blame Jess for that.

When the sun hung low in the horizon, Luke walked to Union Square Park, eschewing the subway. He needed to clear his head, to think of what to do next. He didn't want to give up yet, but it wasn't fair to ask Lorelai to stay in New York City on his whim. He could pay for a bus ticket for her to go back so she could get home to Rory.

He spotted them outside the Strand, clustered around a book cart. He had been so absorbed in his own thoughts that he very nearly missed them. The sight shocked him to the point where he merely stopped and took them in. Luke almost scrubbed his hands over his face, just to make sure he wasn't dreaming.

Jess was showing Lorelai a volume of something he'd taken off the cart, and she nodded and added it to a small stack in her arms. For Rory, he knew. She'd done it. She'd not only found Jess, but he seemed to be with her willingly. Luke's heart pounded as furiously as if he'd sprinted across half of Manhattan. He wanted to rush up to Lorelai, catching her in her arms and spinning her around in gratitude. He was so overwhelmed that he stomped across the street.

"Where the hell have you been?" he barked as he reached them, when they finally looked up from their books.

"Hey, Uncle Luke. Long time, no see. I'm doing well, thanks for asking," Jess said with a good deal of sarcasm.

"Jess," Luke bit out.

"Relax. I was just with friends."

"With friends? What kind of friends? They're the reason you've got this rap sheet to begin with!" Luke dragged in a breath and ordered himself to calm down. Jess was fine. He was holding books. How had he forgotten that Jess liked to read as much as Rory? OK, OK, he now had to convince the kid to go with him. "Look, I know the last thing you want to do is move to Stars Hollow …"

Jess shrugged. "I figured I'd give it a shot. It's boring as hell, isn't it?"

Whatever argument Luke tried to formulate died a quick and sudden death. He caught Lorelai's eye and she gave him a subtle nod and a smile.

Luke's life changed in that instant. It was like having a pinball drop into the right hole after bouncing about the game on an endless loop. At the very end of his life, he would look back at this moment with absolute clarity and know that this was the exact second he knew he was in love with Lorelai Gilmore. It was wrong, so wrong, because of that damn broken engagement. The possibility had hovered about them for five years, but now it was just a fact. The sun would rise the next morning. He would have to pay taxes in April. He loved Lorelai, and she had managed to talk Jess into going to Stars Hollow.

"Yeah, well. There was a reason your mom left," Luke finally managed, hoping neither would notice that his voice was a little strangled. It was hard to talk and hide your emotions at the same time. There was a reason he kept his own counsel.

"Here." Lorelai handed the books and a wad of cash to Jess. "Go pay for those while I talk to this guy here."

When Jess had disappeared inside, he rounded on her."What did you do?"

"Oh, not much. Gave him a free meal, couple beers, a few roofies." Lorelai laughed at the expression on his face. "I just reminded him that he wasn't the only one to have it rough as a teen, and it could be worse. It has been worse. But with you, it'll get better."

Chapter Text

Lorelai spent the entire first day of school trying her very best not to pace the halls of the Independence Inn restlessly. She had taken Rory out for breakfast that morning, because first-day-of-school pancakes at the diner had been a thing for them and Lane since the girls entered 5th grade. As Rory and Lane plotted how to further Lane's musical empire, Lorelai worried over her daughter.

They had barely spoken of Max since that night in Maine when Rory had pushed and pushed, revealing her own hurt about being stuck in the middle of Lorelai's spectacularly exploding love life. But she had seen Rory's schedule and knew that Max once again would be teaching her daughter literature. She hoped and fretted that Max would be professional enough not to take out his wounded feelings on Rory. He didn't seem like the type of guy, but still.

She finally gave up on work around mid-afternoon and chose to wear grooves into the linoleum floor of the diner instead.

"Don't you have a home you can do that in?" Luke groused as he weaved around her to serve customers.

"I do, but the coffee's better here." She fought the urge to chew on her nails, then settled on her thumb. "Could I have-"

"No, you've had six already."

"Please, Luke? I'm desperate."

"As much as the farmers in Guatemala appreciate you single-handedly keeping them in business, I'm cutting you off."

"That's what you do with booze, not with coffee." Undeterred, she simply went behind the counter to fetch her own coffee.

"Hey," he shouted from across the room, "get out from behind there."

Lorelai merely sent him a sunny smile and took a sip of coffee as Rory rushed in the door. She spotted her mother behind the counter and gave a sympathetic shake of the head at Luke.

"I told you she needs to be kept on a leash," she said, throwing her book bag down at the table Lorelai had taken over.

"Something tells me that a steel chain wouldn't keep her in place," Luke muttered.

Lorelai merely poured out a second mug for Rory and carried both over to the table. "How was your day?" she started to ask as the door slammed open. The bells went off in a flurry as Jess stomped in and over to their table. He threw himself in the empty chair.

"There's a seventh one now," he groaned.

"Seventh?" Rory asked.

"Pledge of allegiance," Lorelai assumed.

"Only seven? Lane told me they were going for an even 10 this year."

Lorelai shook her head and made absent gestures of introduction with her hand. "Jess, my daughter Rory. Rory, this is Luke's nephew, Jess."

"Hi," Rory said, giving him a small wave.

Jess eyed her with speculation. "You're the one who managed to escape."

Rory nodded. "Yeah, and I don't even regret the decision 85% of the time."

"Got room in that fancy school of yours for one more?"

"I can't afford that fancy school," Luke called out from behind the counter, where he was ringing up tickets at the cash register.

"It can't be that much," Jess replied.

"$20,000 a year," Lorelai interjected, causing both Luke and Jess to snap their attention to her.


"Geez, Lorelai."

She frowned at them. "What?"

"You sure you don't have an extra $20,000?" Jess asked Luke. "There has to be something valuable upstairs."

"Fine, you go take that box of baby teeth of yours that your mother left here and let me know how much they go for." Luke headed back into the kitchen.

Jess shrugged and jerked his head toward the counter. "Want some pie?"

"Only 85%?" Lorelai asked Rory as Jess got up and headed for the glass dome that housed the pie of the day. She fiddled with her coffee mug, the worry dogging her the entire day nearly becoming a living thing of its own. She decided to name it Wart.

"I consider Paris a good, healthy 15% of regret."

Wart the Worry Monster eased a little. "OK then. Bad first day?"

Rory shook her head as Luke emerged from the kitchen to glare at Jess stealing the pie. The two quickly got into a quiet verbal argument. "Good first day, bad paper meeting."

"Paris was the only thing bad about it, right?"

"Yes," Rory said slowly in that way of hers that told Lorelai everything she needed to know.

"No issues with Max?"

"I saw him, he saw me, we bolted in different directions. It was all very dignified and adult."

"Oh, kid."

Jess approached them with the pie plates, having won the argument. "Who's Max?" he asked as he set a plate before Rory, then Lorelai, then took a seat with his own.

"Mom's ex-fiancé … and my lit teacher."

Jess dug into his pie. "Wow, awkward."

"That's putting it mildly," Lorelai replied.

"So, what ended it?" He flinched as Luke passed behind him, lightly rapping him on the head as he did so. "Ow!"

"Go put your stuff upstairs, change, and come back down here to help," Luke said and turned his back to them to set down another order.

"I was just getting to the good part," Jess protested.

"I'll go with you," Rory offered.

The classic "escape the parental unit" move. Lorelai watched the two disappear up the stairs as Luke carried the coffee pot back to the table. Something in her face must have shown, because he gave her the eighth cup of coffee with nary a scold.

"You all right?" he asked as he poured it out.

"Yeah, I'm fine." She picked up the mug the second it was full. "Is it weird for me not to miss Max? I came within 48 hours of marrying him, yet I don't miss him at all."

"If he's not the right one, then you're not gonna miss him."

"Do you miss Rachel?"

Luke spun on his heel and went to put the coffee pot back under the machine. Lorelai was sifting through various methods of needling him when he passed behind her chair. "No," he replied as he began stacking empty dishes at the table next to hers.

She turned around in her chair to watch. "Really?"

He shrugged. "I miss her as my friend. I don't miss her as anything else."

"Oh. OK then." Lorelai worried her lip. "That's funny. Max wasn't even my friend. He was just there."

He was there, and her long-neglected hormones had sniffed the air and come roaring to life. It was uncomfortable to realize he was just an infatuation, and one that she was easily forgetting about in the grand scheme of things. She tried to think of one thing about Max she missed other than sex, but she couldn't. Oh, he was kind to Rory, but he didn't seem to get how much of a unit she and Rory were. It shamed her a bit that she even missed Christopher far more than she missed Max. How the hell did she let the entire mess get so far before putting a stop to it?

"Hey." Lorelai looked up at Luke, who stood beside the table with the empty dishes. "Stop beating yourself up about it."

She opened her mouth. Closed it. Didn't bother to try and question it. He just knew. He always knew. "Kind of hard not to. I was an idiot, now Rory's in an awkward situation, and I promised myself I would never do that to her."

"Life happens. You can't control how you feel for someone." With that, Luke disappeared into the kitchen with the dishes, and Lorelai wondered if he had been talking about her or himself.

Rory sat on the couch, watching as Jess tossed his book bag on the bed. He knelt to rummage through the plastic drawers beneath for old clothes to wear for working in the diner. She narrated the entire story to him as he disappeared into the bathroom to change.

"Wow," Jess said through the closed door.

"Yeah, so after Luke and Mom talked for awhile, she suddenly came in my room and said we were leaving and that she called the wedding off. I don't know what they talked about, but Mom had been acting strange for a few days and that just seemed to solidify things for her."

"Huh." He emerged from the bathroom. "Why aren't they dating?"

"Who? Mom and Luke?" Rory frowned. "I'm not sure I want them to."

Jess winged an eyebrow. "Aren't you supposed to be the smart one?"

"I'm not blind," Rory huffed. "It's just Luke's always been there for us, and what if they date and mess it up? Mom's track record isn't exactly the best. And by not the best, it's a running joke. Then he won't be there anymore, and everything will be weird."

"I don't think that's gonna happen."

"You've been here what, three days?"

"Yeah. I'm what they call an 'outsider.' That means I have a fresh perspective on things. Your mom? She'll stick."

Luke considered it a minor victory when a week passed and Jess had started no fights, no riots. His nephew had remained closed-mouthed about the school other than to shrug and go, "It's stupid easy. I could pass these classes in my sleep." He didn't question Jess' assessment, because he was right. It was the whole reason Rory Gilmore had gone to Chilton. Her academic needs far exceeded what Stars Hollow High could offer her, and he suspected the same was true for Jess.

He slipped out to the library one afternoon to use the internet there, to look up information on Chilton. Lorelai's commentary on tuition had been on the nose, but he wanted to see what else would be required to send Jess to the school.

Despite what he initially told Jess, the tuition actually wouldn't be that big of a deal. He had enough in investments and savings. He lived frugally and all the profit he made from the diner was squirreled away. His dad had been on the edge of bankruptcy when he died, and Luke had vowed he wouldn't be the same burden to whoever inherited his estate. Even if he pulled $50,000 out of savings to cover two years of Chilton and associated expenses, he would be OK as long as the economy didn't suddenly go into the toilet.

No, the bigger issue was Jess' criminal record. Somehow, he didn't see a snooty school like Chilton, which took every opportunity to peer down its lofty nose at Lorelai and Rory, accepting a kid from New York City who was on probation.

The only other observation Jess had made about attending Stars Hollow High had to do with Dean. Three days earlier, he and Luke had been standing at the counter when Dean and Rory passed by the diner.

Jess had flicked a glance at the window and snorted. "She could do better."

"Not disagreeing with you," Luke had replied, and they gave each other a nod of solidarity.

The end of breakfast rush gave Luke the chance the mull over the prospect of Chilton a bit more. He nearly decided to head back to the library to print off an application, but Jess walking in the door quickly derailed that thought.

"You know, when one skips school, they don't advertise it by walking into their uncle's diner," he said mildly.

Jess straddled the stool next to the register. "Had the meeting with my new probation officer this morning. You know that."

"Yeah, and you were to go directly to school after that."

Jess shrugged and helped himself to a donut. "I've got until 10."

"It go OK?"

Another shrug. "It is what it is." Jess fished a book out of his back pocket and opened it as he took a bite of donut.

Luke sighed and glanced at the clock. Jess did have permission not to be at school until 10, and if he was eating donuts in the diner, then he wasn't out there doing something else. So he shrugged and cleared off the rest of the dishes from the end of the counter.

He had just walked back out from the kitchen when Patty rushed in the door, chest heaving and her face pale. He had never seen her like this, about five seconds away from panic. Jess, who had absently glanced up when the door open, even slowly lowered his book.

"Patty?" Luke asked as she grabbed his arm.

"A plane crashed into the World Trade Center," she gasped. "I heard it on the radio, and my TV's broken. Slight incident with an errant apple in the harvest festival. Is it possible I can borrow yours?"

"Yeah, yeah." Dropping the rag, Luke led the way upstairs and into his apartment. He found the remote on the kitchen counter, turned and nearly bowled over Jess, who had followed them up. A click later, and the three were staring at CBS News as it cut into its regular programming.

"It's 8:52 here in New York, I'm Bryant Gumbel. We understand that there has been a plane crash in the southern tip of Manhattan. You're looking at the World Trade Center. We understand that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. We don't know anything other than that …"

"Oh god," Patty gasped at the images of the tower, where a gaping hole was in the side and smoke billowed from structure.

At one point, before his father's illness, Luke had vague plans to go to school to study architecture, to channel his love of building things into something else. That dream had never materialized, but he knew enough about construction to know that there was no way the tower was going to remain standing. It was going to collapse sooner than later. He had no clue how many people were in there, but there was no way that they were getting out before the whole thing went down.

"Unplug it," he ordered Jess, who immediately ran to snatch the plug out of the wall while Luke unscrewed the coaxial cable. He grabbed the set, along with a pair of rabbit ears he kept stashed next to the TV. He hauled both downstairs, dumping it on the table closest to the outlet on the shared wall between the diner and the empty flower shop. It took precious minutes to set the TV back up and hook in the antenna.

The CBS signal wasn't as strong over the antenna, so Luke changed the channel to NBC, where it was still showing a view of the Twin Towers, smoke billowing from one of them.

"That plane's not supposed to be there," Jess said over his shoulder, and Luke saw the white shape of the commercial airliner heading straight toward the other tower before the scene cut away.

His stomach pitched seconds before the reporter on scene screamed, "Ah! Another one just hit!"

"Oh good Lord," Patty murmured as the fireball bloomed over the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Luke slowly turned around. Everyone who remained in the diner had stopped eating, their gazes riveted to the TV. Reverend Skinner, who had taken the seat next to the window, rose slowly.

"I think we need to pray," he said.

"Liz," Jess breathed and ran for the stairs. Luke followed, nodding curtly to Cesar as he rushed out of the kitchen. He made it back into the apartment just as Jess was lunging for the phone, dialing the long distance number with shaking fingers.

Jess scowled and threw the receiver down with such force that it bounced off the phone base and dangled by the table. "Busy. Fucking busy."

Luke silently picked up the receiver and placed it back on the phone, not bothering to chastise Jess for the language. "She's close, but not that close," he murmured. At least, he didn't think Liz's place was close to the World Trade Center. Had he really been there just a week and a half ago? It felt like much longer. Did he still have the maps or did Lorelai take them? Jess would know. He knew the city like the back of his hand.

"But what if the explosions keep coming?" Jess demanded.

Luke didn't have an answer for that.

They went back downstairs to find that half the town had clustered into the diner, everyone around the TV as the broadcasters kept droning on, their shock and horror mirroring the town's own.

The rest of the day passed by in a blur. Weeks later, Rory would do a project for the Franklin, interviewing different people in town about their memory of September 11. Luke merely steered her in Jess' direction, but wasn't surprised that his nephew remained close-lipped either. Part of it was that he didn't want to talk about it. But the rest passed in a haze of panic and a knot of fear that sat in the pit of his stomach and refused to go away. New York City was barely two hours to the south. The Coast Guard Academy was down in New London.

Luke remembered when he was 7 and his dad very matter-of-factly described how the Russians would take out American targets, throughly terrorizing him and Liz. The siblings insisted on sleeping with their parents for the next week, with the lights on. His mother had yelled at his dad for what he did, and it took a good deal of comfort and a decent amount of bribery before he and Liz returned to their own beds.

All of that raced through his mind, along with a scoff. Whoever was attacking wouldn't want a place like Stars Hollow.

Unable to take anymore of it, Luke disappeared into the kitchen and started cooking whatever came to mind for the next several hours. He dropped plate after plate of food on the counter for people to grab, refusing to take money for any of it. Every so often, he saw Jess dart up the stairs in another attempt to reach Liz, and the knot of fear in his stomach grew.

As the sun set, he walked out to find an old pickle jar stuffed full of tips. Shaking his head, Luke pressed it into Reverend Skinner's hands as he headed to the church, muttering something about finding people who could use it in the aftermath of the attacks, which had grown to include the Pentagon and a remote field in Pennsylvania.

Then it was him and Jess and the TV that droned on and on until Luke turned it off, locked the doors, and headed upstairs.

He made a dinner that they barely touched, picking at it until they gave up. In silent agreement, they washed dishes together and cleaned the apartment, refusing to turn the TV back on. Not that it really mattered, considering it was still downstairs to begin with. When they were finished, Luke grabbed two bottle of beers and handed one to Jess.

"This isn't a regular thing," he told him. It was the same words his dad had told him when he handed him a beer the day the Challenger exploded, and Luke had been just a few months past 18. "Just …"

"Yeah." Jess turned the bottle over in his hand, but didn't bother to crack it open.

Luke nearly jumped when the phone rang. Jess was already across the room, snatching up the receiver before he could move. "Liz?" he asked, then sank onto the couch. "Mom. Hey, Mom."

Luke closed his eyes, and the fear dissolved, replaced by something that felt perilously close to tears. Not quite sure he trusted the lump in his throat, he took his beer and went downstairs.

He sat at one of the tables, staring at the TV blankly, not touching the brew. He picked at the label and wondered if he had given Jess enough time with Liz. He needed to talk to her himself, but he had zero clue what to say. Their last conversation at her apartment in New York had ended with him yelling at her about how inept she was at parenting, that she had managed to lose Jess. He needed to apologize, but … yeah, there was a reason he didn't tell Lorelai about his fight with Liz.

Almost as if his thoughts had conjured her, he saw the familiar shape outside the diner. He was out of his chair, door unlocked before she had the chance to knock.

"Hey. Long day." Lorelai managed a version of her normal smile, but she looked as haunted and tired as he felt.

"Yeah." Luke flipped the locks after her, tempted to shove his hands into his pockets.

"Sorry I couldn't get here before now. The inn guests all panicked, then my mother was panicking, and Chilton was panicking, and everyone was panicking, and here we are." With a shrug, she set her purse on the counter.

Luke realized, with some shock, that he hadn't thought about her and Rory all day. But now she was here, and the want he had spent the past week battling became a living thing, rearing its head and making his blood pound. "Is Rory OK?"

"Shaken, but OK. She spent the afternoon with my parents, and I just got back from there." Lorelai rolled her eyes in a gesture that reminded him of her reaction to Friday Night Dinners. "Actually, the Reverend opened up the church for a big prayer meeting thing and she wanted to go. Not that we're regular church-goers or anything, but it was better than sitting at home. Anyhow, I thought we'd invite you and Jess. Have you heard from your sister?"

"Yeah. She finally called. Jess is upstairs talking to her."

She tilted her head, frowning at him. "Are you OK?"

"Yeah. Fine. I'll make you some coffee." Luke whipped around, not quite sure he could face her at the moment. He grabbed coffee grinds, turned on the machine, and started shaking the grinds into a filter.

"You look as far from fine as can be, pal."

Too much coffee. He poured some of it back in the can and put the filter in the holder. He shoved it in the machine and just stared at the on button, glowing red at him. With a sigh, he punched it and turned back to the counter, back to where she now perched on the stool next to the register.

"All day long, I was two seconds away from getting in the truck and driving down there, to tear that city apart until I found Liz. But I couldn't, because of Jess, because he was already freaked out enough. He was acting like he wasn't, but he was."

Lorelai's gaze was understanding. "It's part of the deal with being a parent. You can be scared shitless, but you don't show it in front of the kids. They need you to be brave when the world's a scary place. C'mere," she said, sliding off the stool to come around the counter.

Luke's brain leaped into self-defense mode, and he backed up, nearly running into the coffeemaker. "What're you doing?"

Baffled, slightly hurt, she lingered by the register and simply stared at him. "You need a hug."

He backed away a few more paces, tempted to run around the counter and put it between them. "No. No, I can't touch you right now."

"Why not?"

Because he didn't trust himself not to haul her into his arms and kiss her until both of them had lost their senses. Because he knew if they started kissing, he would push her onto one of the tables, strip her bare, worship every inch of her body, then drive himself into her again and again until she came screaming, and to hell with the open blinds and Jess upstairs. The events of the day manifested in sheer, physical need, and he refused to force his own desires on her. Just because he loved her didn't mean she loved him back, and he wouldn't ask that of her when her own called-off wedding was barely a month ago.

But as quickly as the caveman tendencies sang through his blood, they dissolved, leaving behind an ache that throbbed like a damaged tooth. Calling himself at least a dozen different kinds of idiot, Luke moved from behind the counter and pulled Lorelai into his arms. God, it felt good just to simply hug someone. He didn't do it a lot, and it felt a lot more natural with her than it had when he attempted to hug others in the past. Her head lay against his heart, his hand was tangled in her curls. For a moment, for just a rare moment, he simply let go.

When she sniffled against his chest, he eased her back. "I'm sorry, I just …"

"No." She brushed a tear away. "I just didn't realize how much I needed that." She quirked a grin at him. "Your hugging skills have improved, pal."

Before Luke could respond, he heard footsteps on the stairs as Jess came down from the apartment. Lorelai moved out of his arms to greet him. "Hey, you! How's your mom?"

"Shaken but OK." Jess shook his head with a bit of disbelief. "She slept through it. I always knew she could sleep through anything, but … She's OK. She tried to call earlier, but the lines were jammed and she wasn't able to get through before now."

"Good." Lorelai extended the same offer regarding the prayer meeting she had to Luke, and Jess shook his head.

"I think they'd burn me at the stake the moment I walk in the door. I don't think I've ever been in a church."

Lorelai nodded in solidarity. "Well, it's true that there's little difference between a teenager and a vampire, but I figure since Reverend Skinner lets me inside, you shouldn't be a problem."

"How preachy is it?" Jess asked.

"On a scale of one to Mrs. Kim, about a five."

"Eh, I'll take a book."

They left the diner, cutting through the town square. Luke lingered, not exactly eager to join the crowd. As much as he wanted to be with Lorelai, he needed a moment to himself. Other than in the shower and earlier when he took his beer into the diner, he had barely been alone with his thoughts since Jess arrived.

Lorelai turned back. "Hurry up, slowpoke! You coming?"

Luke motioned them ahead. "No. I think I just need the silence for awhile." Turning on his heel, he made his way over to one of the benches near the gazebo and dropped down on it. His gaze lifted to the sky as he tried to sort through everything that had happened that day in places that weren't Stars Hollow.

He knew nothing would be the same again.

His view was blocked by Lorelai as she stood over him. "Aren't you going? Isn't Rory waiting?" he asked.

"Nah. Rory's with Dean and Lane." She dropped down on the bench next to him. "I think it's a really nice night to look at the stars."

"Yeah, it is."

They sat shoulder to shoulder, and Luke found himself staring down at her when he felt a slight pressure against his arm from where she rested her head against him. As nervous as the first time he attempted such a move as a teenager, he carefully eased his arm around her. She simply burrowed into his side as if she belonged there, and together they stared at the stars.

Chapter Text

Lorelai knew things had gone all too smoothly with telling her parents about Max.

There had been the usual asides and cutting remarks, but nothing that firmly put her in her place for not only calling off the wedding at the last second, but going out of town with a male friend. Not that her parents knew that Lorelai gone with New York with Luke to begin with. Lorelai and Rory had taken a solemn vow of silence, telling the elder Gilmores that there had been an emergency at the Independence. Emily had focused more on the fact that Rory had wound up being the one to inform her grandparents of the aborted wedding the day before said wedding was to take place.

Lorelai was braced for her mother to make another round of accusations regarding Luke. She was quite certain the entire town, plus Rory, placed the blame on the end of her engagement squarely on him and it wasn't fair. It wasn't like he had brought the chuppah to her then screwed her against one of the columns of the front porch. Just that one time in that one dream that she wasn't even going to think about. So there.

Something had shifted between herself and Luke, and she couldn't quite put her finger on it. It happened around the time that Jess moved to Stars Hollow and the attacks that happened a week later. Her thoughts kept drifting back to that night, to when she had snuggled into him on the bench and they sat in silence star-gazing. She didn't remember doing anything like that with any guy, not even during her engagement with Max. She was a big fan of personal space and didn't like sharing it, but simply felt right with Luke.

She couldn't dwell on it though, because Emily's revenge had come, and it was in the form of the DAR. Now Rory was making her society debut, and every horrible memory Lorelai suppressed about the whole thing came roaring back. Yeah, the only good thing about those balls was the cake. Not that she ever got to eat that much of it thanks to her her mother watching her like a hawk.

Lorelai sat on the sofa, absently making little tears in the envelope of the invitation that Rory had left behind with her after disappearing into her room following her announcement. She couldn't actually tear the invitation itself - it was made of that good, thick paper that resisted tearing. She would take scissors to it later. Or she would put it in Rory's baby book. "Baby's First Debutante Ball After Grandmother Coerced Her Into It." It had a solid ring to it.

She pulled the invitation out of the envelope and stared at the one line that troubled her more than anything. Fathers must present their daughters at the ceremony.

Rory was right. Richard would do it without a second thought, and the cable guy was appealing. For about five seconds, her brain flashed to Luke. He would do it. He'd mock it just as much as she did, but he wouldn't think twice about helping Rory either. It would be easy, too easy, to steer Rory in his direction. As quickly as she considered it, Lorelai dismissed it. No, it was time for Christopher to step up to the plate. So she hunted down the last-known number she had and started playing the annual game of "Where In the World is Christopher Hayden?"

It was a nice enough evening that Luke decided to walk the deposit over to the bank and get some fresh air for the first time that day. It gave him time to clear his head and start whatever to-do lists he needed for the morning. Plus, there had been that whole incident regarding Kirk and a hot dog that he wanted to purge from his memory.

He dropped off the pouch and was passing by Patty's dance studio when he saw the bushes move across the street. Inwardly groaning, he picked up his feet to speed by when he realized the one hiding in the bushes wasn't Kirk.

Doubling back, he crossed the street and walked around the bushes to give Jess a poke in the back. "Don't do that. It's bad enough when Kirk does it."

"I'm just watching." Jess motioned to the dance studio, where the doors were thrown open and five people were inside: Patty, Lorelai, Rory, Dean … and Christopher Hayden. Luke's gut clenched, and he ignored it.

"Rory's got that debutante ball coming up," he told Jess. "They're practicing for it. C'mon, let's go close down the diner."

"No, no, this is getting good." Jess tugged at his arm. "Dean's terrible."

Actually, Rory was the terrible dancer, but they knew better than to say anything. Jess snickered a bit as Rory and Dean took another turn around the dance floor, then suddenly the dancers switched and Lorelai and Christopher took the stage.

"Whoa," Jess murmured as the two expertly twirled around Patty's studio.

The gut clench turned into a painful knot, and Luke forced himself to turn away. "Diner, now," he barked and stomped away.

Jess didn't bother to follow. He merely reached into the bushes and stopped the camcorder he had nestled in there. He dropped to the ground and pulled his book out of his pocket. He was halfway through a chapter when he heard soft footsteps and looked up to see Rory rounding the bushes. "Hey."

"Hey. You got it?" Rory dropped to her knees as Jess grabbed the camcorder and took the tape out.

"Yeah, here you go." He handed the tape over, and Rory held it with both hands. "Video only, no audio."

"I just want to see how we look. You know, go over the moves in my room, practice a bit on my own. I just didn't want Dean to know, because he'd just be extra nervous. Thanks for doing this." Rory turned the tape over and over in her hands. "I don't want to mess up."

"You're not going to mess up. Want me to get the camera back to Lane?"

"I'll take care of it. Thank goodness for Mrs. Kim and her need to get super zoom for church programs." Rory watched as Jess broke the equipment down. "Sorry you were stuck babysitting it. Lane wasn't expecting being hauled down to a revival in New Haven."

"Nah, it's good. I had nothing better to do." Jess pushed the tripod and camera bag over to her. "Besides, it was worth it to get Luke's reaction."

"Luke saw us?"

"The doors were open. The entire town saw you at some point."

"Oh god," Rory moaned.

"His reaction wasn't about you."

"Oh?" Embarrassment passed, Rory quirked her head. "Did he see my mom and dad dancing?"

"Knew you were going to Chilton for a reason."

They emerged from behind the bushes, heading toward the diner. Jess gave Rory a side-eyed look. "Do you want your parents to get back together?"

She bit her lip. "I did at one point. I think it died earlier this year when my dad finally visited here for the first time. I mean, today's been nice. Mom and Dad have always gotten along, but I just can't see them together, you know?"

"You did at one point."

"I did," Rory conceded. "Didn't you with your parents?"

Jess shrugged. "My dad's somewhere in California. I don't remember him anyhow."

Rory snorted. "Seems to be where dads run away to hide from their kids."

"Yours is back now though, right?"

"Yeah, in Boston. He's got a job and seems to be serious about it. It's wigging Mom out a lot, actually. I don't think she ever expected Dad to do this."

Jess jerked his head in the direction of the dance studio. "Maybe they'll get back together then."

"Maybe …" Rory lingered by the diner door as Jess hopped up the stairs. "Do you think they should?"

Jess shrugged again. "He wasn't there for 17 years, what makes you think he'll start now?"

"You hadn't seen Luke in a long time before you came here," Rory reminded him.

"Yeah, but a lot of that was on my mom. So maybe, you should be asking yours."

"My mom never kept me from my dad," Rory insisted. "The door was always open, that's what she said."

"Then if your dad wanted to be in your lives, he had plenty of chances before now. Something to think about. Night." Jess pushed into the diner, grabbing the nearest chair and turning it upside down on the table closest to him.

And the chair seat just happened to land in Taylor Doose's dinner.

"I was still eating that!" Taylor protested.

"We're closed," Jess said mildly, pointing to the clock.

"Look, young man, proper digestion is important. You have to take exactly 20 minutes to eat your food, and now I'll be thrown off my schedule."

Jess shrugged. "You could stand to lose a few pounds … er minutes off your schedule anyhow." He sauntered to the stairs as Taylor bellowed for his uncle.

Luke emerged from the kitchen, took one look at Taylor and the chair, another at Jess. "Jess, get that chair off that table!" he barked. But in the split second before he yelled, Jess saw Luke fighting back a grin and considered having to scrub down the chair worth it.

The call came just as Rory entered the preparation room.

She had been braced for it ever since her mother made the initial call to her dad a week earlier. When Christopher had shown up, when he actually helped her get ready for her debut and gave advice to Dean, she actually started to believe this would happen. She hadn't really wanted to make her society debut. It was all for Grandma's sake. But the thought of all her family being there made her actually a bit excited for it. Even her Hayden grandparents would be there, for somehow Emily had managed to talk Straub and Francine into attending. She couldn't help but imagine floating down the stairs on her father's arm, Dean waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, her grandparents beaming at her with pride. Maybe her Hayden grandparents would actually acknowledge her for a change. Her mom would smirk and joke, but she would still be proud. So proud.

"No, you don't have to explain," Rory said softly into her cell phone. "Thanks. Be safe." She closed the phone and stared at the small LCD readout on the device. She blinked back tears and took a deep breath. She was a Gilmore. She couldn't fall apart.

As regally as she could, she found an empty room and considered her options for a last-minute father replacement. The obvious was Grandpa, of course. He was there, and he would be willing. But a discreet inquiry revealed that while her Grandma was already at the country club, her Grandpa was not and no one knew when he would arrive. Rory had to mark him off her list.

There was her mother. That was the obvious option, but it would lead to nothing but problems with Grandma, and Rory didn't feel like playing referee between them. Dean was out of the question. There was no way to pass him off as her father. She could walk by herself. Emancipation, independence, a fine specimen of feminism. Rory considered it for all of five seconds. No, it would lead right back to problems with Grandma. And it would be a cold day in hell before Straub Hayden would agree to introduce his granddaughter to society.

Maybe we should have asked the cable guy after all, Rory thought bitterly.

Or …

She glanced at the clock and hastily did calculations. An hour and a half before the entire farce began. It took 30 minutes to get to the country club from Stars Hollow, so maybe … maybe …

With shaking fingers, Rory flipped her phone open and scrolled through her contacts. She hit one button and waited. She walked over to the window, bottom lip caught between her teeth as she looked out over the expansive grounds.

"Hi! It's Rory. Rory Gilmore," she said when the call was picked up. "I'm … I'm really sorry to ask, but I don't know who else to go to." She managed a shaky smile and forced her voice to even out, but she couldn't quite stop the tears. "No, no, Mom's fine. She's probably knocking back a martini as we speak. No, it's just … you know this debutante ball I'm in tonight? Yeah. My dad … he backed out at the last second. Said he was stuck in Boston, and he can't get back. So I was wondering … do you have a tux? No? How about a really nice suit?"

Please, just shoot me. Put me out of my misery, throw me in a hole, and pour cement on me.

Lorelai stared into her martini and tried to pretend to be interested in a conversation about Rainbow Hills, which apparently was some sort of fat farm. This was the sort of thing she had escaped a lifetime ago with no regrets. She wanted a third drink, but she was going to wait for the happy drunk part of the night until after Christopher and her father finally showed up, until after Rory made her debut.

Where the hell was Chris anyhow? Lorelai had left him working on his laptop, and he had headed back to Boston early that morning for some important meeting. She nearly died laughing when suddenly Mr. Responsible had torn off in his Volvo. But the drive was only 90 minutes. Closer to 60 the way Chris drove. Even if he had a Volvo, surely he still knew how to drive like he was on the motorcycle.

"God," one of the women said. "Take a look at that fine specimen of manhood."

And there he was now. Lorelai started to push away from the bar.

"He's not even wearing a tux," the second woman said.

"Guy like him doesn't need one," the first one replied.

Not Chris then. Lorelai knew for damn sure he had his tux. It was battle armor for the male Hartford elite — a rite of passage upon attaining adulthood, or at least old enough to be coerced into participating in these stupid things. She settled in at the bar once more. More than anything, she wanted to be in Stars Hollow at that moment. She craved the safety and security of her slightly nutty small town. She wanted to be in the diner with Rory, having coffee and needling Luke about the accidental guardianship he'd fallen into with his nephew. She closed her eyes, imagining the scene in her head. She could feel the warmth of the coffee in her hands, Rory's laughter, and the sound of Luke's disgruntled voice.

"Lorelai," she heard at her ear.

Funny. This was a very realistic daydream.

The women were shooting Lorelai dark looks of envy. "Of course he's yours," one said. "I can't possibly think why you wouldn't marry Christopher Hayden, but if I went home to that every night?"

Lorelai gaped at her as she heard her name again, and then the jaw fell the rest of the way open. No, it wasn't just open. It was probably somewhere beneath the earth's crust, among the mole men and Smaug the Dragon. She pivoted.

Her hallucination stood before her in the suit she bought him months earlier, looking incredibly gorgeous, extremely out of place, and very uneasy. Anger snapped in his eyes. And she knew. She knew.

"I'm going to kill Chris," Lorelai snarled, slamming her martini glass on the bar.

"Get in line," Luke snarled back.

"I'm first." Lorelai grabbed his arm and hauled him toward the stairs. "Walk fast, I don't want my mother to see you yet."

When they hit the top of the stairs, Lorelai pushed Luke into the first room she saw that appeared unoccupied. She slammed the door shut and pressed her back to it, her brain quickly putting the pieces together.

"OK. Since Rory's dad isn't here and you are, I can only surmise we will not have a special guest appearance by Christopher Hayden this evening."

Luke started pacing, entering what she termed his classic rant mode. He shoved a hand through his hair, and it always gave her a jolt to see him without his hat. "Rory called the diner an hour ago. God damn it, she was crying, Lorelai. She was trying to pretend she wasn't, but I could hear it. She said her dad had backed out and asked me if I had a tux. Who the hell owns a tux?"

She gave him a wry grin. "Not you. I've seen your closet."

He whirled around to face her. "So she asked me to come. What was I gonna tell her? What kind of man is her dad to begin with? How could he do this to her?"

"All questions I struggle with on a daily basis." Lorelai glanced at the door, hearing the soft knock at her back. She stepped aside and pulled it open.

"Luke!" Rory flew into the room, her ballgown fluttering around her. She threw her arms around him in an enthusiastic, yet awkward hug. "You came! You actually came!"

"I told you I would," he managed as he patted her back.

Lorelai closed the door again, flipping the lock on it. "Hey, kid? When were you going to inform Mommy that you wanted to put a creative spin on Parent Trap at your debut ball?"

"Right now?" Rory gave Lorelai a half-embarrassed smile. "Dad called right after we got here, and he said he couldn't make it, and … I just panicked. I heard Grandpa wasn't here yet, and I didn't want Grandma to be angry with you, and I can't ask … you know."

"Yeah, your other grandfather makes Hitler look like a warm, cuddly kitten." If there was anyone Lorelai wanted to skip the ball at the last second, it was Straub Hayden. She surveyed her small army. Her nervous 16-year-old kid and a furious diner owner. Yup, she was going to take on the world tonight. Or at least elite Hartford. She clapped her hands. "All right. Game plan. I have approximately 30 minutes to cram Luke's head with the contents of Society for Dummies. You, kid, finish getting ready."

"Done." Rory waved a book she had brought into the room with her. "Please let me stay, I think I'm getting drunk off the alcohol fumes in the other room."


"What fresh hell did I just agree to?" Luke muttered as Rory crossed the room to curl into an armchair with her book.

"The type of hell that makes Rory very, very happy. Or at least satisfied with the status quo considering that she's doing this for my mother more than herself." Lorelai pulled Luke around until his back was to Rory and she could whisper without her daughter overhearing. "You don't have to do this."

"I'm here, I'm in the suit, and I'm thanking everything out there that I don't look like a penguin." Luke sighed and pulled at the suit jacket. "It's for Rory."

"Glad some member of the male gender other than Dean got the message." She gazed absently over his shoulder at Rory, looking so out of place in her ball gown and a copy of a Dickens novel in her hands.

"You OK?" Lorelai dragged her attention back to Luke. The anger in his eyes had dimmed a bit, replaced with concern, and she simply shrugged. He nodded in response. "Look, let's just get through this. Now, what do I do?"

"The easy part. Just walk Rory down the stairs we came up. Rory will do her thing, you join me at the bar, and we get really drunk. Oh, and you have to dance with her."

His brow furrowed. "That's it?"

"And put up with my mother having a fit the size of Jupiter when she figures out the great Daddy switch of 2001. With any luck, she'll be even more mad at my dad, because I have no idea where the hell he's at."

"Circling back to the getting really drunk part."


Among the many things he learned that night, Luke discovered that rich society matrons with nothing better to do were punctual as hell.

Lorelai's crash course in Hartford nonsense had been interrupted by several sharp raps at the door and a frosty request for Lorelai Gilmore the younger to rejoin the other girls now. He and Lorelai had followed Rory out of the room, where she was promptly whisked away by an older woman wearing so much perfume that Luke's eyes watered.

Then he found himself pushed into a line with other men wearing tuxedos, and it was obvious as hell that he stood out. He ignored the stares and looked out the window at the sweeping lawn and the golf course. Way out of his league. This was so very out of his league. If he had been asked two hours ago if he would ever be doing this sort of thing, he would have laughed his ass off. But it was for Rory. For Lorelai too, but especially for Rory.

His hand curled into a fist, and he ached to plant it in Christopher Hayden's smug face.

Luke whipped back around to find a good place to pace and saw the girls emerge from another room and approach their fathers. Dean had sneaked up the stairs as well and Rory was furiously whispering to him. When she pointed in his direction, Dean glanced over with shock. Without a hint of his usual rancor, Dean and Rory approached him, and Dean shoved his hands in his pockets.

"Hey, um … Thanks for doing this for Rory," he muttered.

"No problem."

They watched as Dean escaped down the stairs. Rory gave Luke a small smile. "Still don't like him, do you?"

Luke shrugged, and Rory's smile grew. "Thanks. I'm sorry I freaked out. I just didn't want Mom and Grandma to fight."

"I would want to face them alone either," he admitted.

Rory stared at the line of girls and fathers ahead of them and stepped a bit closer to his side. "It's a little silly, isn't it?"

"Just a little?"

Rory frowned. "Mom never did hers because well … surprise." She gestured to herself.

"I think your mom would have shimmied down the drainpipes even if you weren't a factor."

"You're probably right."

They shared a grin, and Rory took his arm. "Hey, do me a favor? Don't let me fall."

Words failed him at that moment, and he remembered a 10-year-old girl shyly walking into the diner wearing fairy wings with a hand-written invitation to come to her caterpillar's funeral. He looked down into those blue eyes, into the face of that young girl that was nearly a woman, and vowed, "I won't."

Her headache was the size of a small country. Lorelai barely managed to wrestle her feuding parents into the ballroom in time for act three of the dinner theatre drama to go into effect. Her only saving grace was that her parents were so furious with each other that they were barely paying attention as Rory's name was called.

Her breath caught as Rory came down the stairs on Luke's arm, and something in her heart twisted. Someone other than her had finally put Rory's needs above their own. She thought of the brief fantasy she had a week earlier about seeing this exact scene play out. Maybe it had been more of a premonition. Why couldn't she foresee things like winning Powerball?

Emily's focus was on Rory as she curtsied to Dean and he took her hand. "That should've been you up there. Nothing's turning out the way it was supposed to." She started off toward the dining room and Lorelai's breath whooshed out.

Wait for it …

She heard the rapid click of her mother's heels approaching and already had her drink in hand.

"Lorelai, that wasn't Christopher!"

Lorelai drank.

"So, did you know you're considered a hot Dad? Rebellious too, since you weren't wearing a tux."

"Aw, jeez."

Emily had insisted on a car picking them up for the ball, and Lorelai had accepted thinking that Chris would drive them home. Instead, she and Rory and all their ball gear had crammed themselves into Luke's truck for the drive back from Hartford. The cab was so full and they were so exhausted that they didn't bother talking about the experience until Luke had parked the truck behind the diner and they were cutting through the alley to the front.

"Libby says because you're just a friend of the family that I could steal you away from Mom," Rory informed Luke as they reached the sidewalk.

"Libby has seven divorces in her future," Lorelai muttered. She darted forward, grabbing both their arms as they reached the door. "Well, I'm very proud of both of you. You made it through the entire ceremony with a completely straight face. Mostly."

Luke rolled his eyes. "Look, you coulda warned me about the damn fan dance."

Rory grinned. "Hey, can we get a burger?"

"I could use a burger," Lorelai agreed as they walked into the diner.

"Jess and Cesar can help you out." Luke said as he headed toward the stairs. He was halfway up before realizing Lorelai was at his heels. "What? I'm not cooking in this!"

"No, I just wanted to talk to you."

He jerked his head toward the door to his apartment. "Walk and talk, because I'm not keeping this stuff on a minute longer than I have to."

She followed him into the apartment. "I just wanted to thank you again for that last-minute save. You didn't have to. You could have said no and no one would have blamed you, not even for a hot second."

"Of course I had to do it. It's Rory. I just want her to be happy." Luke jerked the tie open, and warning signs flashed in Lorelai's brain as she absently noted that wow, that was hot.

"So do I," she murmured, and it was enough for him to turn and face her.

She found herself riveted by the look in his eyes, as if he was trying to tell her something without actually saying it. Heat kindled low in her gut, throwing her equilibrium completely out the window. It cheerfully bounced down the street and was headed for Hartford. Or the Atlantic Ocean.

The vision that followed flashed with such clarity that Lorelai wasn't quite sure if it was real or her sex-deprived hormones making themselves known in an extremely vivid daydream. Maybe it was the logical conclusion after the dream in the car on the way back from Maine or them seeking simple comfort in one another after 9/11.

She could see herself grasping the lapels of Luke's suit jacket, pulling him into her as she initiated the kiss. But then he would take it over, backing her into the wall, devouring her as she pushed the jacket off his shoulders. His hands would slide down her legs, up her skirt until they reached her ass, cupping bare skin because she subjected herself to a thong to go with her evening dress. She could feel him through the dress pants, hard and eager, and all she wanted to do was …


She blinked once. Twice. The vision faded, and what she thought she saw in Luke's eyes had been replaced by familiar exasperation. How long had he been trying to get her attention? Long enough, apparently, for that look in his eyes to go away.

"Um. Well. Thanks again. I just …," she backed toward the door, tripping and landing against it. Before he could help, she had it open and was out of the apartment, down the stairs, and in the brightly lit diner before she realized what was happening.

Oh god. Oh god. Ohgodohgodohgodohmygod.

Rory sat at a table near the window, giggling at Lane and Jess, who had joined her. She held her hamburger in the air, then extended her pinkie finger like a proper lady before laughing again. In some recess of her mind, Lorelai marveled at the fact that Lane was out of the house at that time of night, but Mrs. Kim had deemed the diner acceptable, and this was distracting her from her ohgodohgodohmygod revelation.

"Hey, kid, I'm heading home. Remember to have a gentleman escort you like a real lady," she said breezily, pulling cash out of her purse to cover Rory's dinner.

"You're not eating, Mom?"

Crap, she'd forgotten about food. She flicked a glance toward the stairs and realized she had maybe a minute to make a graceful exit. "I'll eat later," she hastily replied, dropped the cash on the table, and rushed out of the diner. OK, so graceful wasn't exactly on the menu tonight.

Lorelai made it safely home before she started to tremble. She kicked off her heels and stumbled to the couch. She wished she could blame the martinis, but dealing with her parents, the drive home, and everything that happened after had burned the alcohol out of her system. She buried her head in her hands and spent a good 10 minutes distracting herself by playing the Banana Splits theme song on a loop in her head. That's what she felt like. Tra-la-la-la-lala-la. When she had driven herself insane, her thoughts drifted back to that evening and how right it had felt to have Luke, not Chris, at her side while dealing with this whole debutante ball mess.

Maybe, just maybe she might be …

Her thoughts scattered as she heard the front door open. She fixed a smile on her face as Rory walked in the living room, heels in her hands. "Hey, you! You ran off pretty quickly," Rory said.

"Did a gentleman escort you home?" Lorelai evaded.

Rory pinned her with her patented "I know you" look. "As it so happened, Lane escorted me home. Because I am a modern, free-thinking woman."

"Who needs no man."

"Exactly." Rory plopped on the sofa next to her. "What's really going on?"

Lorelai opened her mouth, but it was one of the very rare times in her life that no words came spilling out. She swallowed, stunned, then knew she couldn't speak of this to Rory. Guilt twisted, because she told her daughter everything. Well, almost everything. She had kept her innermost thoughts about Max and the end of the engagement to herself. Now this.

Yet, a small voice in the back of her mind said, you confided in Luke about Max.

Except she couldn't confide in Luke now either. And why did the voice in the back of her head always sound like her mother?

"Mommy's just sorting through a few things," she told Rory. "Everything's fine."

Rory narrowed her eyes. "Sure."

Lorelai traced an X over her heart. "Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye."

"Ew." Getting back up, Rory winced. "Being a lady involves destroying your feet, doesn't it?"

"The more pain you inflict on yourself, the more of a lady you are."

Rory snickered and dipped a curtsey. "Good night then, my lady." She made it as far as the hall before turning back. "What are you going to do about Dad?"

Crap. Christopher. She had forgotten about him. Lorelai sighed and pressed a hand to her forehead, feeling the headache threatening to make a reappearance. "I'll take care of him. Don't worry about it, kid. I'm sorry he did that to you." Again. The unspoken word hung in the air between them.

Rory shrugged. "I wasn't surprised."


"Besides, Luke helped us out, so it turned out OK in the end."

The story of their lives, it seemed.

"And," Rory added, "even Grandma seemed to accept it. Mostly."

"That's only because she was too angry at your grandfather to unleash the full Emily Gilmore." Lorelai was sure once her mother had time to deal with her father and process what happened that her ears would be blistering. She made a mental note to avoid the phone at all costs for the next 24 hours.

Rory disappeared into her room, and Lorelai shoved the thing she refused to acknowledge regarding Luke into a mental box. Then she put that mental box into another mental box, then that mental box into a third one. Then she promptly shoved the nestled boxes into the corner of her mind and locked it down tight. Pleased with herself, she went to bed to contemplate how she was going to deal with the entire mess regarding Christopher.

The next morning, she very nearly didn't go to the diner before informing herself that it was silly. She certainly didn't have any excuse to not go to the diner, and she wanted pancakes. There was no reason at all to avoid seeing Luke.

If she took extra care with her clothes and makeup, it was only because she wanted to look cute. Yes, it was a Saturday morning, but there was no crime in looking nice. Lorelai accepted Rory's compliments and evaded her pointed remarks as they headed out into the fall sunshine. She spent the entire walk ignoring the skeptical looks from her daughter.

Rory entered the diner first, eyes lighting up when she saw that Dean had grabbed a table for them. Lorelai said her hellos to Dean, then to Jess, who was bussing a table across the room. She focused her attention on the counter just as Luke turned from the coffee maker, her favorite mug already filled with coffee.

And her heart did a slow roll in her chest as the ohgodohgodohmygod feelings spilled out of the corner of her mind she had sequestered them to just hours earlier.

Chapter Text


It took Lorelai several days, but she came up with a plan. It was a good plan. She had drafted out talking points on the back of a receipt that she found in her purse, she practiced in front of a mirror, and she even went over some of the finer points with Rory.

"You don't have to do this," Rory insisted as they walked to the Jeep three days after the ball and two days after Lorelai nearly swallowed her tongue in the diner. She had spent the rest of the weekend promptly compartmentalizing her feelings for Luke once more. "It's nothing new when it comes to Dad. I'm not disappointed. I'm fine."

"No, it's the point of the matter, kid," Lorelai replied as they climbed into the car. "Your dad promised to do this for you, and he needs to realize that what happened is not OK."

"He said there was this big accident that prevented him from getting out of town."

"But there was nothing that could have stopped him from spending the day in Stars Hollow."

Rory hefted her backpack onto her lap after doing up her seatbelt. "Dad had a very important meeting."

"Teleconferencing is a thing," Lorelai told her, buckled her own seatbelt, and turned the key.

The engine clicked, then whined.

"What the hell?" Lorelai turned the key again, getting the same whine. "What's wrong with the car?"

"I think it might be the battery," Rory said.

"It can't be the battery! We just got the battery back in August, remember? We got it when we were in Maine, because Luke kept scolding us about the car falling apart and moose parts, and getting eaten by Canadians."

"I don't remember it quite like that," Rory said as Lorelai turned the key once more, then gave up.

"Is Babette home? Morey can jump the car off."

"No, they're in Philadelphia for the week."

"Oh, shoot." Lorelai unbuckled her seatbelt. "I'll just call AAA and have someone jump the car."

"I'll go catch the bus." Rory got out of the car and slung her backpack over her shoulder, staggering a bit under the weight.

"Kid, you're going to need a new back by the time you're 20."

"I'm fine!" Rory stumbled toward the sidewalk as Lorelai sighed and pulled out her cell phone to call the inn.

An hour later, Lorelai sat on the front steps of the Crap Shack, watching as Kirk poked around under the hood. He pulled out a long stretch of cables from a bag next to him. "Do you know what this is for?" he asked.

"Those are jumper cables, Kirk," she replied. Which was all the car needed, but Kirk kept insisting otherwise.

"Ah." He tossed them over his shoulder and went back into the car.

Visions of skyrocketing repair bills danced in her head, and Lorelai plastered a smile on her face. "Kirk, it's OK. I don't need the car that badly."

"You called AAA, and we deliver unparalleled service," he protested, then banged his head against one of the car parts. "Ow!"

"I can't object to the service, but I would like to be able to drive the Jeep after you're finished."

Kirk did something, god knows what, then straightened. "It was a loose connector. Want to give it a try?"

Lorelai held up her hands. Not a chance. "No. No, I trust you."

"AAA is guaranteed," he reminded her.

"Thank you, Kirk."

Lorelai waited until the battered van Kirk had driven up in disappeared down the street and turned the corner before eying the Jeep speculatively. She climbed back into it, stared at the ignition. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, then sighed and pulled her cell phone out once more.

Twenty minutes later, she was back on her front steps, watching as Luke fiddled under the hood of the car.

"You could've called me to begin with," he said as he did something to the engine. Probably fixing whatever Kirk had tweaked.

"Yes, but it was morning rush, and you told me never to call you during morning rush unless it was a life-or-death emergency. A dead battery isn't an emergency."

"It's a more legitimate reason that calling me because a tennis ball on top of your refrigerator scared you."

"I thought it was a mouse!"

"The big mystery is how did any sporting equipment get in your house to begin with considering that Taylor passed had the town council pass a bylaw forbidding you and Rory from participating in any town sports."

"I use it on my back! You know, lay on a tennis ball, roll around, work out the knots. It's a great substitute for when Sven the Masseuse isn't available."

Luke emerged, closing the Jeep's hood. "Toss me the keys."

Lorelai lobbed the keys, and he neatly caught them before sliding behind the wheel. Lorelai bounced to her feet as the Jeep cranked, motor purring. "Did you ever know that you're my hero?" she sang as she approached the driver's side door, ignoring her pounding heart.

"That battery is new," he scolded her.

"Yes, I know."

"I installed it myself."

"I know that too."

"The messed up contacts? That's Kirk. Leaving the battery running all night because you left the door open? All you." Luke glanced down as his foot skidded on something, then picked up an item that had slid out from under the front seat. He flicked the CD at Lorelai. "Yours?"

"So not mine!" Lorelai snatched the Barry Manilow album from him.

"Rory listens to Barry Manilow?"

"She has a life-sized poster on the wall." She clutched it to her chest. "Don't mock her for her love of Barry Manilow."

Luke merely arched an eyebrow as he got out of the car.

"You are so judging me!" Lorelai hopped into the driver's seat and pulled the door closed. She tossed the CD on the passenger's seat and rolled down the window. "You listen to music, right?"

"Of course I do," he scoffed.

"Then surely you have a guilty pleasure." She leaned out the window. "Don't forget, I've counted how many Hawaiian shirts you've kept secretly stashed in the back of your closet. You have a thing for Jimmy Buffet, don't you?"

Luke just glared at her, and Lorelai laughed. She laid her hand on his, marveling at the contrast. She was tall, and her hands were long and slim. His were also long, but the skin was darkened and calloused from time spent in the sun and working in the diner. She really should snatch it back, but she rather liked admiring the differences between them.

"I'm going to Boston," she admitted. "To see Chris."

The hand that was under hers stiffened. "Oh?"

"To talk to him about what happened Friday. What he did wasn't right."

"Not disagreeing."

"I don't know, I just feel like if I actually confronted him face to face, maybe it might get through. He's got a wonderful daughter in Rory, and he's just wasting all this. She's not going to remember he finally got her a dictionary for her birthday nearly a year late. She's going to remember things like his credit card maxing out and him failing to show up for her debutante ball." Lorelai stared at her lap and absently wondered if she should had gone for a business suit rather than a casual jeans and shirt for the trip. "Every time Chris has done something like this in the past, I make it a point to list all the good things he's done for Rory. But that list gets shorter and shorter by the year, and I don't want all her memories of her father to be bad."

"Rory's old enough to realize that now."

"I know. But still."

"Hey." Luke waited until she dragged her gaze up to his. "You're a good mom. Don't beat yourself up if it doesn't work."

"I'll try not to."

His hand turned up to lace her fingers, and he gave her hand a squeeze. "Drive safe."

"I will."

"Call actual AAA and not Kirk AAA if you break down again."

"I'll just skip straight to calling you."

Luke's gaze focused on their linked hands, and with his free one, he leaned in toward her. For a moment, she wondered if he was going to kiss her, but he merely tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. The strangely intense look in his eyes from Friday night was back, and her fingers itched to pull him close and see what it would be like to give him a good-bye kiss.

Then the moment passed as his hand slid from hers, and he stepped away from the car. Lorelai was very proud of herself for her hands not shaking as she reached for the gearshift and put the car into reverse.

She noticed Luke waited to leave until after she had driven down the street and turned the corner, pointing the car toward I-90 and a reckoning.

Lorelai waited to call Chris until she was in Boston itself, strolling through Boston Public Market and stress shopping from the local vendors. She started to call at least three times and finally succeeded in dialing the number on the fourth.

Should had stayed home, her gut told her as the phone rang. She nearly snapped her cell shut, but then Chris picked up.

The call went the way she expected. Breezy exchanges, poking a bit of fun at Rory, wheedling a restaurant recommendation out of him.

Stick to the plan, she told herself as she greeted Chris outside of the seafood place he recommended and followed him to a table. If need be, she could escape to the bathroom and go over the finer points, just to remind herself.

But certain civilities had to come first. The usual banter, the reminders that they had a shared history beyond a daughter. For the first time, Lorelai found herself examining Christopher's compliments. His words were directly aimed at a Lorelai who no longer existed, one she had given up 17 years earlier. It was like she had been shoved onto a pedestal and frozen in time.

And, she realized with a sudden shock, she had pushed Chris onto the same one. One he had been hanging onto by his fingernails.

"So, is Rory now a fairy princess?" Chris was asking, and Lorelai pulled herself back into the present.

"She is a well-seasoned embittered Hartford debutante."

"She can't be. She doesn't have a flask sewn into her hoop skirt yet."

Lorelai smirked as the waiter poured out wine and served appetizers. "I've already planned to sew one into her next gown."

"I'm sorry, Lore. Really," Chris said, effectively derailing the first part of her planned speech.

"Traffic's traffic." Stay strong, she whispered to herself.

"You wouldn't be here if it was OK."

Lorelai shrugged. "Maybe I just had a hankering to visit Cheers after all these years."

"Lore, I wanted to be there, I swear."

"Really? What meeting was so important that you had to drive back to Boston from Stars Hollow?" When Chris' gaze cut away, she knew. "What's her name?"

He had the nerve to look somewhat ashamed. "Sherry."

Lorelai scooped up the fried clams she ordered. "Is it serious? It must be if you missed the one thing I have asked you to be at for your daughter in 17 years."

"It's getting there." At her raised eyebrow, Chris stammered, "I swear, I really had a meeting here I couldn't miss. I don't want to screw this up."

"Are you living together?"

"Yeah. We are."

Shock jolted through her. "Wow."

"Sherry made it pretty clear that I was gonna lose her if I didn't start getting it together, so …"

"Yeah, well if you find a girl who's good with dating a square in a Volvo, you do what it takes to keep her."

They turned to their respective meals, and Lorelai found herself actually hungry. Had this happened months, even weeks ago, it would had devastated her. Instead, small tendrils of relief shot through her. It was probably linked to the ohgodohgodohmygod feeling that she was refusing to acknowledge regarding Luke. Not that ignoring or compartmentalizing it had done any good. She had daydreamed during the entire drive into Boston about the intense moment the night of Rory's debut, of divesting Luke of that suit and seeing exactly what lay beneath the layers of clothing he insisted on wearing.

"Who escorted Rory in?"

In her mind, she had Luke's undershirt halfway off before Chris' voice registered. She swallowed hastily. "Sorry?"

Chris shook his head and gave her a fond smile. "The dance. Who stepped up and played dad?"

"Not yours."

"He didn't even show, did he?"

Straub Hayden had definitely been a no show. Not that Lorelai was surprised. It had been the second thing to go right during that disaster of an evening. "I take it you called him after Rory."

"Yeah, I did. I wasn't worried. I'm sure Richard did a good job with it."

"It wasn't my dad." Lorelai didn't feel like elaborating on the strange showdown between her parents. "It was my friend from Stars Hollow."

Chris shot her a confused glance. "The diner owner?"

He has a name, Lorelai thought snidely. "Yeah. Luke. Rory asked him."

"Does he even own a tux?" Chris held up his hands as Lorelai all but growled at him. "Hey, don't glare at me like that, it's a serious question!"

"Luke did an amazing job," she shot back, refusing to elaborate any further.

Begrudgingly, Lorelai gave Chris the bare minimum regarding Rory and Dean at the dance. Her planned lecture was well and truly ruined. Now all she wanted to do was get back to Stars Hollow. She mulled the idea of Chris and Sherry over as dessert was served. He was more settled and seemed pretty satisfied. Maybe this would work well in the long run after all. If Chris was more stable, maybe he could be around for Rory more. Maybe.

Her thoughts drifted back around to the pedestals she and Chris had shoved each other onto. No wonder her engagement to Max had been doomed to fail. Hell, she reached out to Chris during her bachelorette party.

Her entire life, her parents had made it absolutely clear that she should had chosen Christopher. And she had spent her entire adulthood waiting for it to happen, for him to get his life together. The fantasy was perfect, one that carried her through her 20s. Chris would show up at the potter's shed one day, ready to have a family, then sweep them away. And he was ready, finally, to be serious with someone. But not with her … and she didn't mind.

Because while she waited for Chris, someone else had shown up on her doorstep. That someone had come to her daughter's caterpillar funeral. He made mashed potatoes when Rory had the chicken pox and provided every meal when she was laid up with her broken leg. He fixed everything in the Crap Shack that could be fixed. He drove them to Maine and stepped in to prevent Rory from being embarrassed when her father had been a no-show.

God, why had it taken her five years to see what was in front of her face?

"Lore?" Chris took a sip of wine. "You've been daydreaming for over half this meal."

Only because she was being clobbered over the head with universal truths, thank you very much.

Lorelai toyed with the stem of her glass and let her thoughts flow. "You know, I was just thinking, you know, all these years, no matter what my relationship status has been, whether I've been dating or hibernating or whatever, I think I've always had you in the back of my mind - you know, the prospect of us being together. But this prospect was sort of indefinitely on hold while you, you know, found yourself and, uh, got your personal life together so that you could really be there for me and especially for Rory. But you and I have been so linked in my mind that I think I have unconsciously sabotaged every decent relationship I've had, including the one with Max, because I was waiting for you, and I shouldn't have been. And now that I see that, and I see you settling down with Sherry, I think I can move beyond it."

"Good. I'm really glad this is good for you Lorelai."

"It is." And the last slot slid into place, and the ohgodohgodohmygod feeling she had for Luke suddenly had a name. Whatever lingering feelings she had for Chris as a romantic partner had well and truly gone the way of the dodo.

Chris had moved on, and finally, finally, so could she.

She had never felt this free.

Euphoric, Lorelai picked up her wine glass and stilled when she saw the thunderclouds gathering on Chris' face. "Chris?"

"How dare you put that on me?"

Slowly, she set the wine back down. "But, I was just thanking you."

"Well, don't," Chris snapped.

Lorelai froze. "What's wrong?"

Chris yanked the napkin from his lap and tossed it on the table with such force that she was surprised it didn't bounce and go flying. "What's wrong? Dammit Lorelai, you're dumping fifteen years of unhappiness on me? Fifteen years of not having healthy, lasting relationships on me? You're blaming me for breaking up with Max and not marrying him? That's all my fault?"

What the ever loving hell? Stunned, she reared back. "No, I just-"

"I did nothing to deserve that."

"I'm not saying that you did." Lorelai hastily replayed their conversation in her mind. What the hell, what the hell?

"You're as good as saying it."

"No, I'm not," she insisted.

"Then what did you expect to come from this divine revelation that you've been so kind to share with me? Did you want me to apologize to you for ruining your life or comfort you and say 'there, there, everything's gonna be all right' so you can feel okay? Forget it!" Chris shoved away from the table, not minding that everyone was staring at them now.

"What, no, that wasn't my intention at all!" Lorelai leaped to her feet as well.

"Look, if there's anything else you feel bad about in your life that you wanna dump on my doorstep, just leave a note!"

I don't feel bad. The thought echoed through her brain as Chris stopped long enough by the maitre'd to throw a couple bills at him, then stormed out of the restaurant. She didn't feel bad. Until now. Lorelai squeezed her eyes shut, willing away the tears. She had just had one of the most liberating experiences of her life and had wanted to be honest with Chris. He always insisted on honesty between them.

Apparently, he hadn't wanted that at all.

Of course the day had to go from bad to worse.

As Rory told Lorelai how she had been put on the spot regarding her social life at Chilton, anger and indignation rolled through her. Yes, Rory was quiet and tended to be reticent, but she was warm and kind-hearted. She had a small circle of friends she enjoyed right here in Stars Hollow. The town adored her. Her relationship with Dean was stable.

Clearly, none of those things counted in the Chilton world.

This was every nightmare she had imagined for Rory come to life. Schools like Chilton wanted to snuff out the individuality in kids, and she hadn't worked this hard, fought for this long, for Headmaster Charleston and his ilk to do that to Rory. Oh, Rory would play by their rules, but Lorelai was going to give her headmaster a piece or two of her mind.

When Rory went in the house after their talk, Lorelai pushed to her feet. She needed to move. She needed to think. Rory's woes had the lucky side effect of making her forget to ask how the trip to Boston went, and Lorelai really didn't want to talk about it just yet. The entire drive home had been filled with guilt and recrimination. She picked apart every single line of what she told Chris and put it back together again, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.

She wandered toward the town square, where Kirk was busy hanging up a sign advertising Halloween festivities. Crap, she needed to organize Rory's birthday party. Probably a 2-night affair like last year. It seemed to work well. Though things with the grandparents were better, so maybe they could just keep it to Stars Hollow this year.

Lorelai mounted the steps of the gazebo and sank onto one of the benches, enjoying the twilight as the final rays of sunlight danced across the green. This was her life, and she was happy. She had an amazing daughter, the bestest friend ever, her own home, and work that she loved. She tried to imagine having this same life as Max's wife, and all she could envision was a big blank.

She saw Luke emerge from the diner with something in his hand. She waved, and he quickly crossed the street. As he grew closer, she recognized one of the paper go-cups in his hand.

"Hey," she said as he climbed the steps.

"Hey." He held out the cup, and frowning, she took it.

"What's this?"

"You looked like you needed it."

She wrapped both hands around the cup, letting the heat settle into her hands. She didn't need to pop the lid to recognize the siren's song of fresh-brewed coffee. Her toes curled. "You're an angel."

"So someone's told me." Luke leaned against a post. "How'd it go?" At her sigh, he winged an eyebrow. "That good?"

Lorelai found herself riveted by the cup's lid. "Am I a horrible person?"

"What? Did he say that?"

She looked up. She had seen the same sort of thundercloud on Chris' face hours earlier, but on Luke, it was even more fierce. Warmth spread through her, knowing that his anger wasn't directed at her. It was rather nice to have someone on her side. She deeply suspected that her mother would take Chris' had she known. "Not in so many words, but he implied that."

"He was the one who left Rory, who walked out on her! He's the one who hasn't been there for Rory as she was growing up, not you."

"But it's my fault he wasn't there."

Luke shoved off the post. "Bullshit."

"Excuse me?"

"That's a bunch of bullshit, Lorelai, and you know it." He paced the short space of the gazebo, working his way into a classic rant mode that had the corners of her mouth tugging. "Yeah, so you didn't marry the putz. You were still a kid yourself when you had Rory."

"If it had been Rachel, would you have proposed?"

He froze, considered, gave her a short nod. "Of course. And she'd have said no, like you. But I would still be there for my kid, Lorelai. You gave him every chance to be there for Rory. Yeah, you moved here, but you never kept Rory from him. Being in a kid's life requires both people, not just one. You gave him a road, and he never took it."

Lorelai pulled back the tab on the cup and took a long sip of coffee. "I never realize you knew so much about this."

"Where do you think Rory and Lane hang out when Rory talks about this? Or when he finally showed up after all these years, then goes into the diner and asks for a chai latte." Luke made air quotes with the last remark, which made her laugh.

"I think you just made him a cup of tea and stuck a cinnamon stick in it."

"An old cinnamon stick," he clarified, and she fought back a snicker.

Her fingers traced over the logo on the cup, and the rest of the words seemed to spill out without her permission. "I realized, sitting there with Chris, that somewhere in the back of my mind that I had been waiting for him all this time, and that maybe if I waited long enough, he would finally be ready for me and Rory."

She sighed. "But when Chris didn't come to the ball, I realized he was never going to change, at least when it came to me and Rory. But he is changing for Sherry."


Lorelai absently waved her hand. "His girlfriend. Live-in girlfriend. I need to tell Rory about that one. Anyhow, I was waiting and waiting and it's not happening. So I let him go. Finally. That felt really good."

"I get it."

Her head snapped up, and she studied Luke's face closely. Satisfied by what she saw, she swallowed. "Yeah?"

He wasn't looking at her, and that unnerved her for some reason. He was staring at his fingernails, and she found herself studying his hands again. She seemed to be doing that a lot lately. He dropped next to her on the bench, hunching forward to rest his weight on his arms.

"For a long time, I kept holding out for Rachel. Even when I was seeing other people, I knew in the back of my mind that if she came back, I would drop whoever I was with and go back to her. It actually happened."


He shrugged. "I'd been seeing someone for about a year or so, right around when the diner opened. Rachel came back, and we broke up. We were on our way there anyhow. I found out after she had been sleeping with two other guys at the same time."

Lorelai flinched. "Ouch."

Luke gave her a rueful smile. "To be honest, I kind of deserved it."

No, he didn't, she silently insisted. "What happened?"

He shrugged. "I finally met someone who didn't make me want Rachel anymore."

"But she was just here." Her heart leaped into her throat, and she stifled the sudden urge to cry.

"I met that other person before Rachel came back, but that person was seeing someone else, so I decided to give it one more shot with Rachel." He sighed. "It wasn't much of a shot, and she could see it right away. She even told me to go after that girl."

"Oh." That had been a far nicer sentiment than the one Chris sent her off with. Lorelai turned Luke's words over and over in her mind. She wasn't an idiot. She could feel her heart slamming against her ribcage, and abruptly she realized it was the same feeling she had when Luke had brought her the chuppah months earlier.

Lorelai felt her life teetering on a precipit. This time, she wasn't staring at a pregnancy test turned pink or sitting among a thousand yellow daisies. But she knew her next words had the potential to upend her world completely. She wanted to run, to cocoon herself in her house with her daughter, and keep everything the same.

If she learned anything in Boston, it was that people changed around her, no matter how long she stuck her fingers in her ears.

She dragged in a breath and leaped. "Is she nice? The girl you like?"

"I think she is." He now glanced at her, gave her a short shrug. "Anyhow, it's just something to think about."

Don't panic, she told herself, and was amazed that her next words were given in a relatively calm manner. "That girl. Are you still interested in her?"

Luke just stared at her, those blue eyes boring into hers, saying everything and nothing all at once. Then, without a word, he pushed off the bench and walked away from the gazebo.

"Oh," Lorelai whispered. "OK then."

Chapter Text

"Coffee, pancakes and a side of cyanide, please," Lorelai greeted the month of November as she laid her head on the counter.

"It depends, who's the cyanide for?" Luke set the mug of coffee next to her, a dark part of his heart not-so-secretly hoping it was for Rory's father.

It had been three and a half weeks since Lorelai's return from Boston. Three weeks since he all but admitted his feelings for her without uttering a single word. His palms itched every time she walked in the diner, and he longed to press the issue. But Lorelai had instead been thrown into a crazy Chilton fundraiser because the school insisted she wasn't helping enough. Then she was celebrating Rory's 17th birthday, then helping the festivals that surrounded Halloween, and he refused to be one of those putzes that forced her to feel one way or another toward him.

Besides, she was processing. They both knew it. Lorelai didn't come into the diner for two days after their talk at the gazebo, and Luke had been torn between letting her deal with it or storming over to the Crap Shack so they could have it out. He nearly decided on option 2 before Lorelai swanned back into the diner, all smiles and not mentioning their talk at all.

There had been moments. During the fundraiser, one of those Chilton moms had tried to flirt her way into a date with him. Luke instead gave her a route back to Hartford that had a slight detour through California. The woman barely blinked when he suggested taking I-5 instead of I-95 - even though 95 went through New Haven, not Hartford. He pulled the same trick on Lorelai, but she had been so lost in her jealously that it hadn't registered.

His heart had soared then.

But now things seemed to be back to the way they always were. She bantered, chattered about Rory and life in general. He served her coffee and apparently was now her poison provider in ways that didn't involve fried food.

"I figured I'd equally split it between my mother and whoever sent me this." Lorelai wearily pushed herself up and reached over to the stool next to her. She grabbed the box she had lugged into the diner with her and hefted it onto the counter.

Luke whistled under his breath. "So that's the Musso Lussino 480."

"Since when were you in the know about fancy Italian ice cream makers?"

"Since Sookie was in her last night with Jackson, moaning about ungrateful people giving up things she would cheerfully murder for."

"I can't keep this! It was a wedding present!"


"Yeah, ah. Now I'm having to haul it around because Sookie and Rory are threatening to steal it and open it so I can't return it."

"What if I hold onto it for you and you come get it when you figure out who sent it?"

"You are the perfect man!" She leaned over the counter as he made the box disappear behind it. "I know it wasn't my Aunt Bobbie. I called her already. Did you know I was going to hell for having a child out of wedlock?"

"Who uses the word wedlock these days?"

"Exactly what I was thinking!"

Luke went into the kitchen and started her pancakes, sans cyanide. And if his mind drifted toward an intriguing picture of her naked in his bed with a vial of poison hanging between her breasts, well there was no harm in it. As long as he didn't hurt himself or ruin the … too late. Luke sighed at the burned pancakes, scraped the whole mess into the scraps bucket, and started over.

He dropped off Lorelai's breakfast and didn't bother to linger to see her stuff herself with enough carbs and cholesterol to give an 80-year-old a heart attack. He was by himself this morning other than the part-time cook that helped with the breakfast shift before his college classes in Hartford. The work distracted him until Lorelai headed to the register to pay.

"How soon is too soon to date after breaking up an engagement?" she asked as she handed over a $10.

Luke busied himself with remembering how the old cash register worked. He'd been around it since he could walk, yet suddenly he couldn't remember how the damn thing operated. "I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask," he said.

"Because, you see," Lorelai spoke over him, "there's this guy in my business class that asked me out, and Sookie thinks I need a transition guy. Or a pre-transition guy. But I have a feeling this other guy is interested in me, but I'm not quite sure, so I want to make sure first before I go out on the date with the pre-transition guy."

He was afraid to look at her. No, not afraid. Terrified. His heartbeat filled his ears. Was this her way of telling him …

They both jumped when the diner's phone rang. Not-so-secretly grateful, Luke grabbed the receiver. He listened, brow furrowed. "I'm sorry, what? Yeah, yeah, sure I can come in. Two? Sure, that's fine. Thanks."

Slowly, he hung up the phone and scowled at the it.

"What's with the face?"

Shaking his head, Luke turned back to Lorelai. "That was the high school. They want me to come in for a parent-teacher conference."

Her brow furrowed. "Is everything all right?"

"They wouldn't say." He shrugged. "I guess I better call Cesar and see if he can start an hour early."

He had turned to the phone again when Lorelai spoke up. "Hey, you didn't answer my question. Should I date the pre-transition guy or wait on the other one?"

Hand on the receiver, Luke closed his eyes. "Date the pre-transition guy. The last thing the other guy wants to be is a rebound." He dialed Cesar's number and took the phone into the kitchen, missing the disappointment that flashed across Lorelai's face.

Every so often, Luke got a glimpse into an alternate universe where Jess had been forced to live in Stars Hollow, and the teen considered him no more than a place to hang his hat. He was treated to monosyllabic answers, all but bribing the kid to do any sort of chores and homework, grunts when asked about his school day, and the longest showers ever. The only reason Luke ever got a turn in the bathroom at all was his own schedule forcing him up at 4:45 a.m. Even on his rare days off, he adhered to his work schedule only because if he didn't, he'd risk not getting a shower at all.

The only thing Jess didn't protest about was working in the diner. Luke filed for the needed age certificate from the high school and added him to the payroll, quickly finding that Jess was prompt, worked hard, and had the right amount of sass to deal with the crazies in Stars Hollow. Better to keep him within sight rather than have him run off to some place like the Wal-Mart in Litchfield. His father had been a firm believer in kids having their own money that they worked for, and he believed the same.

He had to fight down the swell of pride when Jess came to him, that first paycheck in hand, for help in opening his own bank account.

But Jess stood out in Stars Hollow much the same way kids like Rory and Lane did: those with their hearts set for more than a small town life. And he seemed to be doing something with his spare time that made him worry. He could find no evidence of drugs or alcohol in the apartment, and he had looked, fearful of Jess' probation. He did catch Jess smoking once and quickly put a stop to it.

"What the hell?" Jess had asked as he reached for the refrigerator door one morning, his way blocked by a very large X-ray.

From the couch, Luke had shrugged and kept pretending to read the newspaper. "Oh, those are the X-rays from right before your grandpa died from lung cancer. Doctor said his lungs were eaten up. Wasn't anything left. I was thinking of framing that one and hanging it over your bed. What do you think?"

"You think you're so smart," Jess had muttered and yanked the X-rays down. "Is this some sort of parenting trick Lorelai taught you?"

No, he had come up with that one on his own. But damn if it didn't work, because Luke never smelled cigarette smoke on Jess again after that.

Otherwise, Jess wasn't that much trouble. Luke had read the police reports when he took custody of him, but he hadn't pried that much into the troubles his nephew had gotten into. Overall, he seemed to have a pretty level head. Lorelai had made some murmured asides the weekend they went to New York that made him realize that the thefts were a survival tactic more so than just getting into trouble.

At least worrying about Jess kept his mind mostly off Lorelai and the pre-transition guy. Luke rummaged through his closet until he reached the small stash of shirts dedicated to things that required a bit more formalwear - going to the bank and dates. Rachel included, there had been a lot more of the former than the latter these days.

He pulled out a shirt and frowned. Collar or no collar?

Collar, the Lorelai in the back of his mind said.


A quick shower later, and he was back in the diner, giving Cesar instructions for while he was gone. Luke turned toward the door as he adjusted his cuffs, nearly plowing over Lorelai.

"Whoa!" She backed up, dancing a bit. She gave him a cheerful grin that made him wonder if she hadn't picked up on his rebound statement. She gave him the once-over, straightened his collar, and gave him a firm nod. "Bank shirt. Good choice."

"Thanks." Luke bid Cesar farewell and headed out of the diner. He was halfway to the high school before realizing that he had acquired a Gilmore-shaped shadow. Resigned, he winged an eyebrow at Lorelai as she trotted to match his stride.

"And why are you with me?" he groused.

"Entertainment," Lorelai replied with an almost grating cheerfulness. She patted his arm. "And because you're nervous."

"Me? No, no, not nervous." He groaned as they reached the front steps of the high school. "I hate these things. Why can't they just come right out and tell you what's going on? Instead, they have you dress up and wait outside the principal's office like you're the one who's about to get in trouble. I bet you never had these with Rory."

"Excuse me? Headmaster Charleston?" Lorelai went up the stairs and grabbed one of the doors.

"Yeah. Sorry." Luke pulled open the other door and sighed at the long corridor stretching before them. "God, I hate this place."

"I couldn't tell. There had to be one thing you liked about it."

He shrugged. "The final bell."

Lorelai started to roll her eyes, then reconsidered. "I'll give you that. It was always my favorite part too."

The front office was just inside the door, and Luke stepped in long enough to sign in and subject to the new 9/11 security requirements. Well, stopgap security requirements. Taylor wanted the schools submit to something even more rigorous than being handed a name tag, but there was pushback on all levels. Luke couldn't blame them. Name tags wouldn't stop determined idiots with guns.

He walked back out, begrudging affixing the visitor's badge to his shirt, and saw Lorelai at the trophy case by the door. Her hands were clasped behind her back as she squinted, and he wondered if Rory had some trophies in there. He bet that she did. He wandered toward her, wondering just how many she managed to accumulate before transferring to Chilton.

"Oh my god." Lorelai jabbed at one of the photos inside the case, one showing a young man at the finishing line of a track race

"What?" Luke peered over her shoulder, then groaned as he recognized the photo. "Oh no."

Everything in Luke's mind shut down in complete horror. He stared at the trophy case and wondered what the cost would be to smash through the glass, steal the trophy and the photo that went with it, and hurl both into the lake. OK, there would be thousands of dollars in damage, possibly jail time, and Taylor to deal with. It would be worth it.

Lorelai's eyes lit with unholy glee as she read the words beneath the photo. "Butch Danes!" she squealed, and it was officially too late. Nothing he could do would eradicate this from her mind. Until the day he died, it was going to haunt him. If he died before her, she would have it engraved on his tombstone.

He hated this damn school.

"Look at you with the short shorts!" Lorelai cooed. "Nice gams! You still got them?"

"No," Luke lied, inwardly cussing his tendency not to throw out the junk from his childhood. At least that stuff was in the garage he rented to store his dad's boat.

Before Lorelai could press further, the principal stepped out of the front office. "Mr. Danes?"

"Ah, yeah." Luke spun, quickly putting his back to the trophy case. He really didn't want anyone else bringing up his high school track days.

"I'm ready for you now." The principal nodded to Lorelai. "Good to see you again, Ms. Gilmore."

Lorelai waved. "It's been awhile!"

"What brings you back into our hallowed halls?"

Luke glanced down at her, not quite sure how to describe her. "She's ah …"

Lorelai looped her arm through his. "His executive consultant."

Luke nodded. "Yeah, that."

The principal smiled. "While I agree that it does take a village, these specific meetings are between the guardian and me. I know you understand."

"Indeed I do." Lorelai smiled up at Luke, and the comforting pat on the arm she gave him made him realize his panic must had been writ across his face. "You'll be fine. I'm going to be here admiring the track team star of '85. "

Fighting the urge to shove his hands in his pockets, Luke shot Lorelai a single dark glare before following the principal. He wasn't so sure about the whole 'being fine' bit.

Lorelai took several minutes to admire teenage Luke in his track uniform, revealing all the muscles he kept hidden under layers of flannel. No wonder the girls had made it a personal mission to trap him when he cut under the bleachers. Oh yes, Miss Patty had been full of stories. She wondered how much wheedling it would take to get a copy of the photo for blackmail reasons. Oh! Or even better! It would be in the yearbook! Surely it wouldn't be that hard to get her hands on a copy.

She re-read the words printed under the photo. Funny, she didn't realize how close she and Luke were in age. Had she graduated, she would have just been a year behind him in high school. She wondered how differently things would have gone had he been a presence in her life back then and not Christopher.

The bell rang to signal the change in classes, and kids spilled out into the hall. Behind Lorelai, the band and choir room doors sprang open, and students lugging instrument cases and sheet music strode by.

"Hey, Lorelai!" Lane waved at her with her clarinet case. "What brings you here?"

"Hey, Lane!" Lorelai nodded toward the office. "I tagged along with Luke. He has a meeting with the principal about Jess."

"Really?" Lane's brow furrowed from confusion, then her eyes widened. She glanced around her quickly in the way she normally did before hiding contraband music from her mother. Lane dug around in her purse before extracting a CD. "Here, this would probably explain why Luke's here."

Lorelai took it and frowned. "The school has a thing against Modest Mouse?"

"Just don't look at it while you're here, OK?"

"OK." Lorelai dropped the CD in her purse and waved good-bye to the girl she considered her other daughter. Curiosity ate at her, but she respected the code. She would take a look whatever was hidden inside the CD case once she got back to the inn.

The second bell rang for the start of the next period of class, and Lorelai found herself drifting toward the more recent academic awards, liberally sprinkled with the name "Rory Gilmore" from Rory's freshman year of high school. But her thoughts drifted back to Butch Danes and their conversation in the diner.

He had told her to go out with her classmate. Her eye twitched just a bit as she stared hard at a list of honor roll names. What the hell was with him? Luke had all but admitted that he liked her and had turned to Rachel because of Max. She hadn't even been dating Max when Rachel came back! Then he didn't say anything for three weeks. No, not three weeks, exactly 24 days. Not that she was keeping count or anything. 24 days of nothing but their normal banter, which was code name for flirting.

Lorelai picked apart Luke's words from that morning. She thought he was finally going to get off that exquisite flannel-covered ass of his and ask her out on a date. She had spent copious amounts of time processing, and there had been a near dash for the hills a time or two. More than one sleepless night had been spent picking apart the idea of Luke: what a relationship with him would mean for her, Rory, and Jess. Her dreams had been far more erotic than the one she had during the drive back from Maine, and Lorelai had taken to locking her door so Rory wouldn't walk in on her utilizing the contents of her nightstand after these dreams.

But she was done processing, and now Sookie and the rest of Stars Hollow was after her to start dating again. OK, fine, she was ready, and she thought he had been ready for her to be read. Except now he was spouting off some stupid nonsense about him being a rebound.

Excuse me?

Lorelai's hands curled into fists, and she glared daggers at the picture of Butch as she heard the office door open. Seconds later, she felt him at her shoulder.

"That was weird," Luke started to say. "So, apparently, this was all about-"

"What do you mean rebound?" Lorelai snapped, cutting him off.


She spun to him, all gorgeous and rumpled in that collared shirt of his and slacks. Damn it, he had no idea how good he looked. The confusion in his eyes simply ratcheted up her annoyance, and she gave him a light shove. He didn't budge, because of course not, but he gave her that patented look that said she had clearly gone off her rocker. He only delivered it at least twice a day.

"Lorelai. We're in the middle of the damn school," Luke hissed in a whisper.

"I don't care if we're naked and in the middle of Miss Patty's Dance Studio!" Lorelai retorted, her voice carrying down the hall. "That other guy won't be a rebound!"

She saw the moment recognition hit, and he grabbed her hand. She tried her best but couldn't ignore the heat from their linked hands, awareness spiking through her. "C'mon, we're going outside."

"No, we are going to talk about this like adults," she protested as he towed her toward the double doors leading out to the street.

"By yelling at each other in front of a bunch of high school kids? Real mature."

Lorelai waited until they were on the sidewalk before yanking her hand from his, too angry now to think straight. Exasperated, Luke spun around. "What the hell was that?"

"Why are you asking me that! You're the one who claimed the guy would be a rebound! Not pre-transition guy," she clarified. "Other guy." You, she didn't say.

He gave a weary sigh and stared at his shoes. "Look," he told her in an almost gentle voice, "it's not even been three months. That's not a long time to come back from a relationship like that. You need more time."

"It wasn't that much of a relationship!" As the words spilled out of Lorelai's mouth, it shocked her to realize it was true. She and Max had spent more time apart than together, especially during the summer. "And who gives you the right the determine if I'm ready to date or not?"

Lorelai jabbed a finger in his chest, nearly breaking a nail in the process. "You know that girl you like? Maybe she just happens to like you back. But then someone's ex-girlfriend came waltzing back into town, and she saw her wearing your shirt. Maybe the girl thought you were still in love with your ex. So she decided to give it one more try with the only other guy out there that seemed to want her and her kid."

Tears threatened, and she battled them back, hated that her voice was wavering. To hell with the pretense. "You're not the rebound. Max was."

Right. OK. She had well and truly humiliated herself. A normal day in the life of Lorelai Gilmore. She started to turn away, but was stayed by a hand on her arm. Then everything happened so fast that it felt like a series of notecards being read out loud for Rory's drama class.

Lorelai found herself being pulled back, her body acting on its own accord as between one heart beat and the next, Luke kissed her. He kissed her, and oh god, it was glorious.

She was suddenly aware of herself in a way she hadn't realized before, not since the day as a teenager when accidental exploration had led to the discovery that she could give herself an orgasm. She could feel the kiss in every nerve ending, every cell in her body. She felt him pour five years of frustration and longing into the kiss, of missed chances, wrongly interpreted moves, and things never said.

They broke apart as the world began to spin crazily, mostly because they remembered at the very last second that oxygen was required for remaining upright. Thank goodness for those muscles, she thought dimly, because the only reason she was remaining upright was because Luke was holding her.

She swallowed once. Then twice. "Oh. Wow," she whispered. "Can we do that again?"

"Lorelai, I-"

"Ssh. Just stand still." She framed Luke's face with her hands, and his eyes fluttered shut a mere second before she laid her lips on his.

This embrace was far gentler. She coaxed his mouth open as she twined her arms around his neck. Instead of passion being an angry thing, it simmered just under a full boil as she explored him for herself. His fingers flexed, digging into her waist, tugging her into him once more. She gave a mental victory dance when she felt stirring below his waist, the slacks not hiding anything.

Then all too soon, they were two people again, staring at each other as if they had found something they had lost.

Life, she once told Rory, was full of miracles.

This moment was absolute proof of it.

Like he had weeks earlier, Luke gently tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. "You realize half the town is staring at us."

Lorelai looked over his shoulder and nearly groaned. "I see Kirk with a video camera." She wondered how much it would take to bribe him for a copy?

"Don't date the pre-transition guy." Luke pressed his forehead to hers.

Lorelai grinned. "Who?" She didn't bother to add that she had thrown out her classmate's business card earlier that day. Her fingers lightly combed through the curls at the base of his neck. She really needed to let go of him. Any time now. Well, maybe just another 10 seconds. Fifteen at the most. Twenty, tops. "I have to tell Rory. You need to tell Jess."

"I think he knows. We're still in front of the high school." He nodded over her shoulder, and she whirled around to see kids plastered to the windows. Lane stood at one, giving her a thumbs up. Jess was at her side, shaking his head.

"Maybe I should page Rory," she said faintly.

"Good idea."

Instead, Lorelai found herself calling Michel to tell him she was taking the rest of the afternoon off and made the drive into Hartford. She timed her arrival just as Rory was walking out of the building, fresh from her after-school meeting about the Franklin. She waved her kid down, who merely winged an eyebrow and slid into the passenger seat.

"So, what merits the royal treatment?" Rory asked as she buckled her seatbelt.

"What, Mommy can't play hooky every so often, kidnap her favorite daughter, and take her over to Sephora?"

Rory gave her mother a knowing look. "That usually only happens when Mommy has done something wrong and needs to bribe said favorite daughter into complicity."

Lorelai gave a mock gasp, pressing a hand to her chest. "Since when I have ever done that?"

"Shall I give you an annotated list of 17 years of grievances?"

"Sweet Jesus," Lorelai muttered under her breath. "Rory?"


Lorelai stared at the red light, suddenly embarrassed. It had felt the same, but different when she broached the subject months earlier when it had centered around Max. What would it be weirder to Rory, having her teacher sleep in the house or Luke? "You know the no boys allowed rule? You know, you, me, no guys sleeping here?"

"You mean the one you tried to eradicate a few months ago and failed spectacularly?"

"That would be the one. What if … say at some point in the future or whatever … I brought another guy home? Hypothetically speaking." The light turned green, and Lorelai focused on the busy traffic.

"Hypothetically speaking … I'd be cool with it."

Lorelai risked giving Rory a quick side-eyed glance. Her daughter appeared cool and unruffled. "Really?"


"Really, really?"

"Mom," Rory sighed.

"I'm just making sure. For posterity's sake." Lorelai stopped at another light.

"I'm 17. I think I'm OK with Mommy bringing home a date from time to time. Just don't do anything that would scar me for life anymore than you already have."

"Good to know." This light was quicker, and the mall wasn't that far away. Retail therapy was exactly what she needed.

"And if the date happens to make pancakes and coffee before he leaves in the morning to open his diner, I wouldn't object either."

And that's the part where she nearly drove off the road. Muttering to herself, Lorelai corrected course and flipped on her turn signal for the exit. "Jess told you."

"Jess paged me. Lane paged me." Rory ticked it off on her fingers. "Five other people I used to go to school with paged me. Apparently you two had this loud fight and started making out in front of the high school."

Lorelai flinched. So much for getting to her kid before the rest of Stars Hollow. "I'm sorry, kid. I was going to say something, but …"

"You were processing."

"Yes. Mommy was processing." Finding a decent spot, Lorelai parked the Jeep and unhooked the seat belt. "What did Jess say when you called?"

"Something along the lines of that he can't believe his uncle finally found a certain part of his anatomy. It was fairly crude."

Lorelai didn't bother to open the door. This was big. Really big. Granted, she and Luke hadn't actually talked about things like dating yet, but the big damn public kiss probably implied a lot. Still, she would stay far away with him if Rory didn't want it, and a year earlier, Rory hadn't. "What do you think about it?"

Rory shrugged and dug out her purse. "Well, Lane and I always figured you two would finally go at it in the diner."

"I mean, are you OK with this? You didn't want me to date him before."

Rory stared down at her purse, fiddling with the strap. "I don't want to lose him."

"I don't want to lose him either," Lorelai's voice was soft and serious, and it was true in a way it had never been true with Max. Losing Max barely fazed her, which seemed strange considering how close they had been to marriage. But if this went sour with Luke? She didn't want to consider the nuclear blast that would follow.

"You and Max only broke up not even three months ago," Rory pointed out.

Lorelai sighed. "Rory."

"I don't want Luke to be your rebound!" For the first time, Rory let emotion leak through.

"Neither does he." Lorelai shot her a wry grin. "It's a good thing that Max was the rebound then."

Rory gaped at her. "What?"

"Hey, kid. We're not going to rush into things. All we did was kiss. Eventually, we may even go out on a date." Giddy, Lorelai opened the car door. Right, Sephora. And then maybe a little detour into Victoria's Secret.

Chapter Text

Lorelai was nearly asleep before she remembered the CD case that Lane had given her. In all fairness, it had been a busy afternoon and evening. She and Rory had shopped until the mall closed, then splurged on a meal at a Chinese buffet. Happily stuffed, they drove home where Rory proceeded to panic over not doing her homework and immediately sequestered herself in her room.

Upstairs, Lorelai had dumped her new makeup in the bathroom then admired the lingerie she bought while Rory was distracted at the bookstore. She still had the fancy things she bought for the wedding, most of them still tagged. She abandoned the pink bag on her bed and immediately started purging her lingerie drawer. It just wouldn't do to keep things originally bought for another man, no matter how nice they were. The tagged items she stuffed into a trash bag to drop off at the donation box, the used items went in the trash. Satisfied, she shoved her new items in the drawer and went to bed to relive the kiss over and over.

Kisses, she reminded herself. Plural. Her toes curled.

But now she needed to know what was in the case. Lorelai found her slippers and crept downstairs to find her purse. She dug through until she found the case, sitting on the couch as she opened it. A piece of paper folded into quarters lay where the CD normally would go.

The Underground, she read. The Independent Voices of Stars Hollow High School. Vol. I, Issue IV. It was a one-sheet newsletter, type almost too small to read, words covering the front and back. An essay provided scathing commentary on the rigidness of the literature being taught to AP English students. Someone had made a passable stab at poetry. There was two short stories and brief sentences of a gossip column written in a Regency-era style … and that was it.

She scanned the bottom. Editor: J. Mariano

Two and two suddenly made sense, and she ran for her coat. "I'm going out!" she yelled down the hall to Rory's room as she exchanged her slippers for flip-flops. The answer was a resounding grunt, which meant that Rory was so deep into her homework that she was unlike to emerge before 2 a.m.

She all but ran the few blocks to the diner. She ignored the fact that it was well past 11 as she rooted for the spare key above the door. Seconds later, she was inside, flipping the locks once more, dashing behind the curtain and up the stairs. When she saw the light underneath the door, she hastily knocked.

Jess pulled it open, still dressed. "Prince Charming went to bed," he commented, then saw what she held. "Shit."


"Where'd you get that?" he hissed.

"I have sources."

"I told Lane not to tell anyone," Jess sighed and held the door open.

"I think you were been busted before then," Lorelai replied as she followed Jess into the apartment, keeping her voice pitched low. Her traitorous eyes sought out the bed that lay on the other side of the shelving partition, that side of the room dark.

"Is that why you two were at the school today?" Jess gestured to it. "Luke didn't say anything." He smirked at Lorelai. "Seems like his head was elsewhere for some reason."

Lorelai ignored the blush crawling over her cheeks. "Yeah, he never told me why he was summoned to the principal's office."

"So," Luke said from behind her, "you can enlighten the class now."

Lorelai whipped her head around to see him dressed in a T-shirt and jogging pants, hair rumpled, leaning against the shelving units. But despite what Jess had said, it was clear he hadn't been asleep. She wondered if the same thoughts keeping him up were the ones that plagued her.

"It's no big deal," Jess protested.

"Big enough of one that the principal wanted to have a meeting." Luke took the newsletter from Lorelai and gave it a quick read through. Jess opened his mouth to protest, but a single look from his uncle had his mouth snapping shut again.

"You, sit," Luke ordered, pointing to the chair before dropping on the sofa himself. Lorelai took the seat next to him.

Jess dropped down. "We're not hurting anyone."

"No, you're not." Luke acknowledged, then turned his attention to Lorelai. "They thought he was dealing drugs."

"What?" Lorelai yelped as Jess groaned.

"It doesn't help that's why you were on probation to begin with," Luke pointed out.

"They don't get it," Jess protested. "We needed the money. I never did any of that shit."

"I know," Luke said, and Jess's next protests died. "I know, and she knows," he said, pointing to Lorelai, "but the rest of them don't. And, quite frankly, it's none of their business. You're doing your probation, your record will be wiped next year. But because of it, they think you're doing it. You've heard the stuff Taylor said about you."

"I wasn't even behind that prank in front of his store," Jess countered. A corner of his mouth tugged up. "I did, however, report on it. Issue one. That's how it got started."

"So the school thinks you're dealing weed, and instead you're becoming the Walter Bowart of Stars Hollow High." Lorelai sat back with a grin. "Your Allen Ginsberg needs work."

"I keep telling her that, but you know, art." Jess rolled his eyes.

"So you're the editor of this?" Luke asked.

Jess drew himself up with pride. "Yeah. There's six of us working on it. I'm the editor. Lane's our music critic. We've got a few other beats. We're trying to get to where we're putting out an issue a week, but we're mostly averaging every 10 days to two weeks so far."

"The high school has a newspaper," Lorelai pointed out.

"Have you seen that tripe they put out?" Jess leaned forward. "The lead story in the last issue was a feature on the color of paint they picked out for the flag pole. 16 inches dedicated to which shade of grey would be acceptable. There's students on the staff, but the teachers tell them what to do and rewrite it if they're not happy. It's not like the Franklin. Rory gave me copies, told me about the paper. There's no staff interference, not like this."

Jess leaned forward, excitement lit in his eyes in a way Lorelai had never seen it. "The kids don't want this. So, I've gotta do it."

Lorelai thought of how stifled Rory had been at Stars Hollow High and what little Luke had confided in her about the school not being enough for Jess. He was right. Furthermore, had such a thing existed at her high school, she would had been a part of it from day one. Sticking it to the man.

Luke got up and went behind the partition, grabbing clothes before disappearing into the bathroom. He emerged a couple minutes later having exchanged the jogging pants for jeans, but didn't bother with his flannel or hat. It was a look that made whatever brain function Lorelai had left after that day completely short out. She really hoped Jess wouldn't think any less of her if she started drooling after his uncle in front of him.

"I'm walking Lorelai home," he told Jess as he jammed his feet into tennis shoes. "Just go to bed."

Lorelai barely had a chance to bid Jess a good night before she was out of the apartment. Luke followed her through the diner, and her gaze moved longingly to the coffee maker.

"It's nearly midnight."

"Yes, and?"

"Some people might say drinking coffee in the middle of the night could hinder your sleep."

"Some people are dumb," Lorelai retorted, and Luke steered her out the front door before she could make a lunge for the coffee maker.

They made the walk back to her house largely in silence, because all of her brain cells were split between the school's unusual behavior regarding Jess and the close proximity of his uncle. Even though the diner had been closed for hours, he still smelled of it. It was the scent of coffee. It always seemed to linger, which she supposed was better than fry grease. Coffee and that hint of cologne that plagued her dreams for months. Like a well-trained bloodhound, she could scent it a mile off. Well, practically.

"You realize that this wasn't an emergency," Luke pointed out as they walked side-by-side down the sidewalk.

Lorelai shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe you were going to ship Jess off to Siberia or something for getting in trouble with the school."

He raised an eyebrow. "Siberia?"

"Cold, no libraries."

Luke snorted. "I'm sure there's at least one library in Siberia."

"Yeah, well. I just wanted to make sure everything's OK."

"It's fine." They had reached her driveway, and he cocked his head toward the house. "Is everything OK?"

"Rory? Oh." Lorelai shrugged again, tucking her hair behind her ear. "Yeah. She's fine. She doesn't want you to get hurt."

"Not you?"

She grinned at him. "You know. Me. Men. Running joke."

"I don't know. You could do worse than me." His voice was light, but she almost swore she detected a hint of nerves there. He followed her up the stairs to the porch. "I could set you up with Kirk instead."

Lorelai gaped at him. "You wouldn't dare."

"He does want to ask you out."

"Has he actually told you this?"

Luke shrugged. "A time or two. He's sought out my advice. He knows I've worked on the house a lot, so he wanted to know if you had stain-resistant rugs."

"You didn't."

He smirked. A wide, shit-eating smirk that made her want to push him off the stairs. With enough force, maybe he'd land ass-first in Babette's garden gnomes. "I told him you like movies and junk food, and of course, talking incessantly, but we both agreed that there's nothing like some good lovin' to shut a person up, if you know what I mean."

"Stay right here so I can go get a fork and stab you with it," Lorelai threatened, then reached for the door.

"Love is in the air," Luke sang, turning on his heel.

Damn it, he had an amazing baritone. "Is this revenge for me storming the castle at midnight?"

"You'll never know."

The wave of indignation gave way to sharp realization. He was flirting with her. It was their normal banter but not their normal banter, and it was throwing her world right off its axis. In the dim light, she could see the mischief in his eyes and still had the urge to pummel him with a rusty fork. Or kiss him into the next county. One of them had a lower likelihood of Sookie needing to bail her out of jail.

Lorelai decided to dish it back as good as he gave it. "So, Kirk, huh? Maybe I should ask him on a date. If you turn me down."

Luke stepped back onto the porch, cocked his head. "It depends. What's the date?"

"Movie night." She poked him in the chest, and it was almost satisfying as going at him with a sharp utensil. "You and Jess. Gilmore Movie Night. It's a sacred tradition. I don't let just anyone attend them."

He pretended to mull it over. "Maybe I've got to wash my hat that night."

She rolled her eyes. "You in?"

"I'm in. I'll provide the food." He twined an errant curl around his finger, throughly distracting her from the sudden joy of him providing the food. Dating Luke was definitely going to have some benefits. And Lorelai would remember them all if her lungs remembered how to function. "Let Kirk down easily," he murmured as he leaned into her.

"I will," she breathed as he kissed her.

Lorelai wasn't sure how round two of kissing would turn out. Their encounter in front of the school had been the pinnacle of five years of tension that had simply snapped among an abundance of allegories. This time, they reached for each other at the same time. He tasted of the tea he had before bed, and it was the first time chamomile was actually appealing. His hand snaked into her hair, threading through the locks until the pads of his fingers were caressing her scalp.

She wondered if they could stay like this forever, kissing beneath her porch light that sang with a constant, annoying hum, enjoying the newness of it all. When a hand brushed against the side of her breast, she remembered suddenly that she had forgotten to throw on a bra before dashing out the door. Best decision of the day, she decided as he realized it at the same time.

The light flicking on in the living room caused them to spring apart, and she felt like that time she had been forced to scale a rope in gym class her freshman year of high school. Her breath came in ragged pants, but she was pleased to see that Luke was struggling just as she was to breathe normally.

The front door opened, and Rory stepped out, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes. "I can't read another word," she moaned, then looked up. She arched an eyebrow. "Am I interrupting something?"

"No, no!" They said in tandem.

Lorelai whipped around to face Luke, not sure how to end this. Handshake? Hug? Having Rory yank her indoors with a giant hook? "Um … Good night," she managed with barely a stammer.

"Good night." Luke bade good night to Rory as well.

"I didn't mean to bother you," Rory said as Lorelai most certainly did not watch Luke walk down the sidewalk.

"No bothering done, kid." As he turned the corner, Lorelai finally followed Rory into the house.

Rory studied her for a few seconds, and it felt like her daughter was staring straight into her soul. After a moment, she shot her a mischievous little grin. "And how was the kissing?"

"Practically perfect in every way," Lorelai replied in her best Mary Poppins voice.

When 5 a.m. rolled around, Luke was already outside bringing in the bread delivery. It was part of his new normal: bring in the bread around 5, grab a quick shower and breakfast before Jess rolled out of bed to take up permanent occupancy in the bathroom. Then he would fire up the grill and the fryer and get everything set to open at the diner at 6.

Once again, Luke was up earlier than normal and already had the diner set for the day. To be perfectly honest, he hadn't slept all that much. He tried. God knows, he tried. He'd done nearly everything he could think of to try to get his brain to shut off, to not think about Lorelai Gilmore.

Though it was for vastly different reasons than his insomnia three months earlier.

He hadn't felt this sort of edgy anticipation for a new relationship in years, not since Rachel. He'd dated off and on in-between Rachel eras, but it didn't feel like the way he had around her. And this? It made the nervousness he experienced around Rachel as a teenager look like smooth sailing all the way.

Lorelai had a singular talent of poking her fingers in all the parts of his life that he kept firmly locked away, ranging from incessant chatter and questions to innocent appropriation of Rachel's old clothes. Those parts included emotions he was reluctant to feel again, because it seemed like an open invitation to getting stomped on. Again. Even though he loved her, and he would love her for the rest of his life, being in a relationship with her was treading entirely new territory. And this time it wasn't just Lorelai, but there were kids involved. Their actions would affect Rory and Jess.

Luke really, really hoped he wouldn't screw this one up.

Her suggested date was a good one. A kind of easing into it thing, but Luke knew how sacred movie nights were to Lorelai and Rory. Lorelai had let it slip once that it was something she had done since Rory was a toddler, dragging an old black and white TV and a VCR into the potter's shed to watch movies with her daughter. She was willing to share this ritual with him and Jess, and that said something. It said a lot.

Luke got through the day without his mind wandering too much. When it threatened to veer into dangerous territory involving Lorelai, he thought about Jess instead. The school had made some vague threats about bringing in the police, since there was no concrete evidence he was dealing. They were leaving it in his hands for now. He snorted. Right. The kid was dealing in words, not drugs or booze. There was nothing wrong with what he was doing, and it kept him out of trouble.

Hell, he wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing at all, but his gut was telling him that Jess was causing no harm. He'd shown no inclination that he wanted to go back to the life he had in New York, which told him everything - that he had only gotten in trouble as a means of survival. Guilt tugged once again, for not intervening earlier, for not being more persistent when he was denied even the chance to fight for custody all those years ago.

So, Luke looked at the Lorelai gauge of parenting. She had no issue with what Jess was doing, seemed to even admire him for it. It was no different than Rory putting out the Franklin, from what he could tell. Except more covert. But, hey, the kid had First Amendment rights, same as everyone else. If this motivated Jess into doing more with his life, who was he to stop it?

Despite specific orders not to act any different, Luke couldn't stop a grin from flashing when Lorelai, Rory, and Sookie tromped inside the diner close to sunset. But the grin quickly dropped when he realized the three looked like they had been at a funeral, not at a high school performance of Romeo and Juliet. One he had been invited to, but it was Cesar's day off, and he was slated to work a 14-hour shift.

Rory looked like she was in deep shock, while Lorelai was pensive. Sookie kept shooting Rory odd looks before hastily making her excuses and leaving for a date with Jackson. Dean was not with them.

Lorelai steered Rory toward a table before walking up to the counter. For a heart-stopping moment, Luke wondered if he had taken the teasing too far last night. But when she laid her hand atop his, he remembered how to breathe again.

"I knew Rory's class was re-enacting one of Shakespeare's tragedies, but did no one ever clue you into how Romeo and Juliet ended?"

"Yeah, tragedy ranks right up there." Lorelai took a deep breath. "Depressing, but the clothes were cute."

"You made them."

"Of course." Lorelai's grin lasted all a couple seconds before she dragged in a breath. "You know the whole thing with Rory and Dean and the kid who was going to play Romeo?"


"Well, Romeo's off to military school, and Paris stepped in."

Luke winged an eyebrow, knowing what was involved in that final act of one of the most asinine plays the Bard could come up with. It was the whole reason behind Rory's round of teenage angst with Dean and some kid from her school. "You mean …?"

"Uh huh."

"How'd it go?"

"Interesting." Lorelai smiled. "Paris never gives less than 100 percent."

Ah. "Where's Dean?"

"Like I said, it was interesting." Lorelai squeezed his hand and turned away to join Rory at their table without ordering. Luke turned to put on a fresh pot of coffee for the girls, then went to bus a few tables.

Rory had picked up a fork from the fresh place-setting at their table and was fiddling with it. "Mom?"


"You know the kiss at the end of the performance? You know, with Paris?"


"I think …" Her voice fell to nearly a whisper, but loud enough for Luke and Lorelai to hear. "I liked it better than Dean's."

Luke nearly dropped the plates he carried as he realized exactly what Rory was saying, what she was starting to question. Oh, anyone was better for Dean than Rory. The paper sack that Kirk was crooning to in the corner like a lost lover? Definitely better for Rory than Dean was. Especially since he suspected that the sack contained a puppy, and damn it, he had told Kirk six times that day alone that animals other than service ones weren't allowed in the diner.

His gaze met Lorelai's, and while her eyes had gone wide, her voice was calm. It never ceased to amaze him how she flipped between various modes when the situation called for it. She could be the cool businesswoman one minute and the ditzy best friend the next. But now she was all mom and supportive, and she scooted around the table to put her arm around Rory's shoulders.

After dumping the dishes in the kitchen, Luke walked back out and cut two giant slices of the cake he had under the dome that day. Balancing those and two fresh mugs of coffee, he carried them over to the girls and silently slid them in front of them.

By now, Rory had laid her head on her mom's shoulder. She managed a watery smile and a softly murmured thanks. "What do I do?" she asked Lorelai.

"We'll figure it out together." Lorelai's gaze met his, and Luke realized that with a shock that we included him and Jess, and it said more to him than any romantic proclamation shouted from the rooftops. He squeezed Rory's shoulder as he headed behind the counter once more, amazed and grateful at just how crazy his life had become.