(tra la la)

kind of a big dumb douchebag since 2006

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Sawdust and Ashes, Chapter 6a
Third Man - the end
finnigan_geist wrote in fcgeist
notes: Just... for clarification, I'm writing Season 2 Ceasar. You know. Tall Ceasar. He's got a small scene here, and, I don't know, the tall, serious Ceasar seemed like a better fit for this story than his shorter, zany replacement in later seasons. Also, and again - and I can't say it enough - thank you for the support and feedback. Thank you. Thanks especially to my beta, Jessica, and to Prisc.
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By the time Jess came back, they were both too tired to do anything. Luke was sitting on his bed; his elbows resting on his knees, head resting in his hands. He heard the door creak and slide open but he was too heavy to move. He looked at Jess out of the corner of his eye. Jess kicked off his shoes and pushed the door shut with one finger, watching it close until the latch clicked in place.

Jess took off his coat and tossed it on top of his duffel, sitting on the edge of his bed with a harsh sigh. Luke lifted his head, feeling a little dizzy from moving too quickly after staying in one position for a long time.

“Jess.”

Jess shook his head. “Nope.” Well, fine. Luke was too tired to talk anyway. He was just glad that Jess had returned. Logically, he had to come back, but it was still a relief, and Luke was glad to feel something like a positive emotion. He stood slowly, achingly, and locked the door. When he turned back, Jess was getting under the covers, fully clothed. He tucked the sheets around his neck and pressed his face into the pillow, his back to Luke. Luke sighed.

“I’m changing your bandages in the morning.”

“Whee,” Jess grunted.

“And this isn’t done.” That got no reaction. “Don’t think I’m going to stop bringing it up.” Jess shifted, pulling the sheets higher and settling deeper into his pillow.

Luke felt a vague desire to stomp over to Jess’ bed, take him by the shoulders and shake him until he understood. Instead, he shuffled to his own bed and got under the covers. He was glad that he had changed into his pajamas while Jess was gone, or he would have been tempted to fall asleep fully clothed like Jess had. Luke turned his head to look at Jess’ back. “Get some sleep,” he said softly. Jess’ shoulder rolled in its socket, but he made no other acknowledgement that Luke had spoken.

Luke let him sleep late – or pretend to sleep late – but he was ready for Jess when he tried to roll out of bed. Luke was perched on his own bed, supplies in hand. Jess sat up, rubbing his eyes, and stopped when he saw the gauze Luke had prepared. He gave Luke a look of tired exasperation.

“Park it,” Luke commanded, even though Jess hadn’t made a move to leave. Jess sighed and swung his feet to the floor. He hiked his sleeves up to his elbows and held his wrists out under Luke’s nose, already impatient.

Luke unwrapped the bandage slowly, his lungs hot and tight. His heart beat heavily as he pulled it away from Jess’ skin, convinced that when he revealed the wounds they would be deep, painful gashes spanning the length of Jess’ veins. He envisioned the gauze peeling scabs off with it, reopening the cuts so they spilled down Jess’ wrists, over Luke’s fingers to his hands and onto the carpet.

All that was there, though, was raw, red skin, and cuts that were already healing. Luke let out a sharp sigh of relief, but the sight of the actual damage called up an onslaught of images from the night of the attack. The panic he’d felt as he fumbled at the belt around Jess’ wrists poured down his spine and he shivered. As he applied salve to Jess’ wrists with shaking fingers, he could feel the leather of the belt beneath his hands again, could see the smears of blood peeking out from under its edges. He wrapped Jess’ wrists again quickly, breathing raggedly and worrying that he might be on the brink of hyperventilating.

After he taped the last bandage, he looped his fingers around Jess’ wrists. He held them as loosely as possible, unsure how sore his skin was. Jess pulled against Luke’s hold, but Luke didn’t register the resistance right away and didn’t let go, not until Jess yanked down, breaking Luke’s grip. He looked up at Jess, but Jess was staring down at his hands, now resting in his lap.

Luke raised his hand, unthinking, and rested it on Jess’ shoulder. Jess met his gaze, but his eyes were hard and closed off and Luke couldn’t read anything in them. He felt impossibly heavy for being so empty. His thoughts all slurred together in a mess of confusion and anger and hurt, and he didn’t care anymore what Jess did if Luke tried to hold him, because he felt like he should have done it already – at the hospital, when Jess sent him out of the room, he should have stayed and held him. Back at the apartment, even, when he first saw Jess on the floor, he should have taken him in his arms. He should still be holding him now because he hadn’t let go from that time to this.

Luke squeezed Jess’ shoulder and lifted his hand to Jess’ face, cupping his jaw. He wanted to talk, but even blinking was difficult at the moment, and Luke’s thoughts were worn down into vague impressions of emotion. Luke hated that he knew there were so many important things to say but he couldn’t even form them coherently in his mind, let alone speak them out loud. All he could do was tap Jess’ cheek lightly with his thumb.

Jess’ expression didn’t change, but he shook his head. Luke didn’t know what he was saying “no” to – Luke’s attempts to help or just Luke himself, but it made his heart splinter. Slowly, achingly slowly, he raised his free hand and used it to hold the other side of Jess’ head, whether to stop him from shaking it in denial or to get closer to actually embracing him, Luke wasn’t sure. Jess shook his head again, harder, and reached up to move Luke’s hands away.

Just as Luke was opening his mouth to say something, anything, there was a knock on the door. Luke dropped his arms and sat up straight, and he could see Jess tug on the sleeves of his shirt out of the corner of his eye.

Luke stood stiffly, already irritated with whoever it was, although he could only guess it was Lorelai. As far as he knew, no one else was even aware where exactly he and Jess were – he figured it was inevitable that word had gotten out that they were at the inn, but not which room. He sort of hoped it was a member of the inn staff so he could send them away without feeling guilty. He didn’t want to see anyone just now, not even Lorelai.

He opened the door, however, to Rory. He was so surprised he took a step back to steady himself. “Oh,” he said. “Hey.”

She was wearing jeans and a sweater, and she was clutching the handle of a shopping bag filled with something heavy, from the way she was carrying it. “Hey, Luke,” she replied, smiling nervously. Luke heard Jess shift behind him at the sound of her voice, and Luke turned to look at him. Jess was staring at Luke, eyes wide and mouth grim, and Luke felt like Jess was trying to tell him something but he couldn’t figure out what. He remembered the hospital room, and Jess’ expression as he asked Lorelai not to tell, and his stomach dropped.

Flustered, he turned back to Rory. “Hey, so. Rory!” He held his arms out and dropped them, whacking his thighs. “What are you doing here?”

She shot him a distressed look and dropped her gaze to the floor, releasing her hold on the bag with one hand briefly to tuck hair behind her ear. “Oh, I, sorry, I -”

“No,” Luke cut in quickly. While he honestly didn’t want Rory there, he also didn’t want her to get that impression. “I mean, uh, shouldn’t you be in school?”

“Oh.” Rory’s brow furrowed minutely and she shifted her weight. “It’s Saturday.”

Luke blinked at her. “Right. Yes, yes it is.” He flattened his palms against the small of his back and nodded. Saturday.

“So.” Rory swung the bag gently, banging it off her knees. “Are you all right?” She leaned a little to look around Luke at Jess, and Luke’s insides clenched. He wanted to sidestep in front of her to shield Jess from her view. “Both of you?” She straightened, nervous, and her eyes darted between Luke and Jess.

“I’m fine,” Luke said, his voice far too loud. “He -” he pointed over his shoulder in Jess’ general direction, “he’s got a head thing.” He made a so-so gesture with his hand.

“Concussion. I heard,” Rory said, biting her lip. “Are – is it – bad?”

“Nope.” Luke was surprised to hear Jess’ voice, and he turned to see that Jess was standing by the foot of his bed, his hands stuffed deeply into his pockets. He was looking at Rory, his expression blank.

“Oh,” she breathed. Luke looked back and forth between them, each focused on the other. Rory was shifting nervously from foot to foot and Jess was totally still, save his jaw muscles clenching.

“Hey!” Rory startled at Luke’s interjection. “What’s in the bag?”

“Huh?” Luke pointed to the bag she was holding and she glanced down, blushing. “Oh, right!” she said, opening the handles and peering inside. “Books! It’s why I came here, really, um. Mom said – a couple days ago – that you might want some books? Jess, I mean. Although, Luke, if you wanted, you could read some, too?”

Luke shook his head. “That doesn’t sound appealing.” God, he meant for that to come out better.

Rory reached into the bag. “Oh, well, there are a lot here, though. I pretty much cleared off my shelves because I didn’t know what you’ve already read. I should have asked, I guess.” She looked up at Jess, who hadn’t moved, and lowered her head again, stammering. “And – um – so I’m sorry if there’s nothing new here, but you can write in them, if you really want to. I didn’t bring a pen – do you have a pen?” She pulled out a worn-looking hardback novel and paused to roll her eyes at herself. “Well, of course there’s a pen in here; it’s an inn, there are always pens. By the note pads by the phones, for taking notes. I knew that.”

Rory stopped and pressed her lips together, holding the book up. “But you can’t write in this one,” she said, her words tripping over each other. “I’ll actually have to kill you.”

Jess snorted softly, but Luke couldn’t tell if it was derisive or amused. His expression hadn’t changed at all. “OK,” he said coolly. “Thanks.”

He made no move to take his hands out of his pockets or reach for the bag and Rory looked increasingly embarrassed. Luke felt horribly awkward, and felt a crazy urge to lift his arms over his head and yell just to break the tension. What had Lorelai been thinking, telling Rory to bring Jess books? Rory dropped the novel back into the bag and bent her head.

“Thanks, Rory,” Luke said, putting out his hand to take the bag from her.

“Oh.” She passed it to him, and when she let go he could see the impressions the pressure from the handles had left on her palms. The bag was pretty heavy. With nothing to hold, Rory pulled her hands into her sleeves and crossed her arms over her chest, tucking her hands practically into her armpits.

“I’m sorry if I bothered you,” she said quietly. She directed it at Luke, but her eyes kept flicking over to Jess.

“No bother,” Luke lied.

Rory stubbed her toe against the floor. “Jess,” she said, sounding like she was being very brave, “are you really all right?” He pulled back a little, his expression faltering for the first time that Luke had seen. He blinked, confused, and dropped his head. Luke saw his arm move like he was going to take his hand out of his pocket and he felt a moment of panic that Jess’ bandages would be exposed, but Jess seemed to recall it on his own and stuffed his hand in deeper.

Rory moved a step closer and opened her mouth to speak again, but her face fell. “Oh,” she whispered, and Luke realized she had just seen the bruises on his face. She touched her hand to her mouth and Jess was already recoiling, casting a dark look at Luke as he headed for the door. He kept his head turned away from Rory, turning almost completely sideways to avoid bumping into her, and Luke wanted to yell in frustration. He couldn’t believe Jess was storming out again. They had just been getting somewhere – or, well, Luke felt like they had, and this was not a step in the right direction.

Luke’s mouth was hanging open a little as Rory turned back to him, looking so hurt he couldn’t bring himself to feel anything but sympathy for her. She didn’t know – which was the whole point – but it didn’t change the fact that Jess was running away, and it was because of her.

“I’m sorry,” Rory said, biting her lip. “I don’t know -” she cut herself off and ran fingers through her hair distractedly. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I have to go.” She met his eyes briefly before turning on her heel and leaving.

He shut the door behind her slowly, feeling numb. He set the bag of books at the foot of Jess’ bed and ran his hands through his hair. He could go after Jess, he supposed, but he couldn’t see any good coming from that. Besides, he was still in his pajamas. It occurred to him vaguely that Jess hadn’t changed at all – not last night before bed and not this morning.

Luke showered, trying to clear his thoughts, but there was so much crashing around in his mind that even attempting to put it all in order made him ache. In his head, in his chest, in his calves and the palms of his hands, he ached. He wiped steam from the mirror and looked at himself, really looked, for the first time since everything went to shit.

He looked like hell. He expected that, but, all things considered, Luke actually thought his appearance was a pretty average amount of terrible. Not as bad as he’d been thinking. His eyes were red and framed with dark, sleepless circles, the lines on his face were deep and craggy, he looked pallid, and he hadn’t shaved once in the last week. The general impression he got was of a psychotic mountain man who may or may not be ready to murder you in your sleep. But from the way he felt, he had almost expected his face to be peeling away from his skull, skin raw as sandpaper.

He shaved with great deliberation, staring at his reflection as he drew the razor down his neck. For no reason at all, he remembered his dad teaching him how to shave. His hands tingled as that thought was quickly followed by the question of who, if anyone, taught Jess. Luke tried to mentally run through the men who had been in Liz’s life for the past decade, focusing on keeping his temper steady. He couldn’t even remember them all, or what order they came in. And that didn’t include the ones that had been such scum Liz hadn’t bothered to let him know. In the mirror, Luke could see his fingers shaking. He washed off his face with water as hot as the tap could produce, and had his face buried in a towel when there was a knock on the door. Luke pulled a shirt on, wondering blearily if he had accidentally locked Jess out.

Lorelai stood in the door, tired but smiling. She held out a little paper bag. “I brought muffins.”

Very strange morning, Luke thought. Every time he opened the door, it was some Gilmore woman offering a consolation prize. Rory with books, Lorelai with food. Maybe if he shut the door on Lorelai and reopened it, he would find the grandmother, bringing them crystal napkin holders. He sighed and crossed his arms, not moving out of the doorway.

Lorelai pulled her arm back a little and her smile faltered. “Um,” she said, hesitating, and shook the bag. “I mean, I just got them from Bob - in the kitchen - so it’s not like a huge accomplishment or anything. He’s no Sookie, but she’s trained him and traumatized him enough that he’s about the closest thing you’ll get in Connecticut. They have some of that really tasty crumble topping.” She mimed crumbling with her free hand. “And I did walk them all the way from the kitchen. They’re blueberry.”

Luke didn’t move, didn’t speak. Lorelai dropped her hand to her side. “But I can always go see if Sookie has some whole grain … pastries of some kind stashed in the kitchen,” she offered, studying his face. He looked away. “Luke?” Her voice was very soft. “What’s wrong? What happened?” She leaned around him to look into the room. “Where’s Jess?”

He arched his eyebrow. “Rory was here,” he said flatly.

Lorelai’s mouth dropped open. “Oh – she – what? She was? Oh.” She nodded slowly, still intent on his face. “So Jess didn’t take that well.”

“No.”

She shook her head. “Oh my God,” she said softly. “I’m sorry.”

The last of Luke’s restraint snapped. “You told her to come here!” he whispered harshly, leaning in to Lorelai.

She blinked, surprised, and rocked backward. “No, I didn’t tell her to. I didn’t even know she was coming today! She just told me she was going out.”

“Oh, really,” Luke said scathingly. “That’s very convenient that the one time you don’t know what she’s up to, she’s on her way over here.”

Lorelai was clearly trying to get her bearings. “I’m not even sure what you’re trying to accuse me of. I swear I didn’t tell her to visit. I wouldn’t have done that!”

“But you said he wanted books!” Luke’s voice was increasing in volume and Lorelai glanced around, smiling tightly at an elderly couple that was walking by, watching them. She took hold of Luke’s shoulder and guided him into the room, closing the door behind her.

“I can’t believe you let this happen!” he snapped as soon as the door was shut.

“Let it happen? She didn’t tell me she was going to see you!” She dropped her head and shuffled. “Uh, not today, at least. I even told her to wait, which is probably why she picked this morning to do it.” Lorelai shook her head. Luke couldn’t follow what she was saying. Half the time she talked, he didn’t know what she was going on about, and he thought angrily that it was selfish of her to expect people to follow along. “I thought she would tell me or ask me or come with me, and then I would have called you, at the very least.”

“How would that have been any better? She shouldn’t have come. You should have told her not to.”

Her fingers twitched around the bag she was gripping so tightly she was probably crushing the muffins’ stupid crumble topping. “She’s been worried and she cares about the both of you! How am I supposed to tell her she’s not allowed to be here?”

Luke snorted. “Oh, heaven forbid that you might once in your life say ‘no’ to Rory. I forgot that it might ruin the magical, perfect mother-daughter duo thing you have going. I’m sorry for suggesting it!”

Lorelai pulled back, her lips drawing up over her teeth. She exhaled harshly and paused a moment before saying, “That’s not what I meant, Luke! I’m not trying to be lazy or score points with my daughter!”

Luke rolled his eyes and Lorelai threw the little paper bag of muffins on the dresser angrily. “She is a smart girl, and she already knows that something’s not right, that there’s more to the story than some crazy stranger breaking into the diner and conking Jess on the head. It’s all I can do to keep her from trying to figure it out! If I could come up with a convincing story about why everything’s OK and the worst that happened was Jess’ concussion, but she’s not allowed to see you, even though I am, believe me, I’d tell her.” Lorelai spread her empty hands wide. “But I’ve got nothing!”

He was hardly listening to what she was saying. He was just angry – livid – and he wasn’t even sure why, except that Jess was hurt and someone had to be to blame for it. He paced, agitated, between the nightstand and the foot of their beds. “You had to know that would upset him! You remember what he said!”

“Yes, I remember!” Her hands balled into fists at her side, and she looked like she was so frustrated she was ready to cry. Luke latched on to that, his anger fueled by hers. It almost felt good, pouring all of his bile onto her, like lancing poison from a wound. Lorelai gestured sharply as she continued, “I understand that Jess doesn’t want to see her and that this is hard on him, and I am sorry for that, but I didn’t tell Rory to come and I didn’t drive her here! You have to believe me that I don’t want to cause that kid any more pain than he’s already been through.”

Luke couldn’t help it. He scoffed. Lorelai took a step away from him, her face falling into an expression so hurt he couldn’t hold her eye. He didn’t quite regret it – his mind was still burning and buzzing too hot and too loud for him to register much of anything beyond his own blind rage – but when she passed a hand over her eyes, he felt shame puddling at the pit of his stomach. But it didn’t douse his temper.

Lorelai breathed shallowly for a moment, watching him. “Luke,” she said at last, her voice thick. He stopped pacing, standing at the corner of his bed, glaring at her. She shook her head. “Don’t do that. Don’t pretend like I don’t care.”

He turned away again, pressing his palms to his forehead. His head hurt. Everywhere hurt, and he was sick of it. He just wanted to go to sleep and wake up somewhere else, as someone else. He sighed and slowly faced Lorelai, dropping his arms heavily at his sides.

They stared at each other, Luke scowling and Lorelai imploring. He put his hands on his hips and bowed his head, shaking it almost absently from side to side. When he looked back up at her, she had moved closer.

“Luke, I’m sorry.” He didn’t know if she was apologizing for this or just expressing sympathy for the whole situation, but he didn’t care.

“You shouldn’t have let her come,” he said, his voice low and tired. Lorelai hugged her arms tightly to herself and exhaled harshly. He gnawed on his lip, and when she took another step toward him, he said, “You should probably go.”

Lorelai nodded, her head bowed. She turned quickly and walked out of the room. Almost as soon as the door was shut behind her, Luke felt the petty urge to hit something. Punch a pillow, kick the wall, yank the comforter and sheets off the bed and throw them around the room. He noticed the bag of muffins on top of the dresser where Lorelai left them and grabbed it, feeling a surge of satisfying spite as he smashed the bag against the surface of the dresser. He picked it up again and held it between his hands, contemplating ripping it in half, when he looked down at it, mashed and mangled in his shaking fingers. He deflated, feeling suddenly silly. His anger dropped away so quickly it left him momentarily disoriented, leaving him with just a lingering frustration and a familiar bone-deep weariness.

He held the bag in one hand, studying it wryly as his breathing returned to normal. He tossed it on his bed and pushed his hands through his hair, sighing heavily. He was sick of feeling like this, he was sick of the routine of sitting around worrying and feeling useless. He had to get out, go somewhere, because even stomping through Stars Hollow aimlessly would be better than sitting on his bed, staring at the wall and not thinking about the pamphlet in the drawer or the gauze sitting on top of the nightstand or the fact that Jess was gone again. Still. He grabbed his coat and headed out the door.

His search around the grounds was perfunctory. They were too expansive and unfamiliar to him to easily track Jess down, especially since Jess had the advantage of spending the last few days, Luke assumed, finding places to disappear. Luke looked anyway, although he was sure he wouldn’t find Jess and largely didn’t want to. He didn’t trust himself at the moment to handle the situation calmly or well, and he would probably wind up driving Jess farther away, if that was even possible.

After he looped around the grounds once without finding anything, he set off through the parking lot, past his truck, back to town. Luke walked for a long time, not really looking for anything or headed anywhere, not that he was aware, until he realized he was automatically guiding himself to the diner. His home, the place he spent practically all day every day for years, a tiny, spare bachelor pad, but his home. He liked it, he liked that it was just big enough for him, and he liked that he knew exactly where everything was and that no one else did. That the desk was just where his father used to have it, and that when Luke first converted the office into his apartment, he worked on the layout for weeks to make sure he could keep the desk where it was supposed to go.

He still couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact of having to move. He got it, logically, especially since the need for a new place was one aspect of what had happened that he could focus on without feeling like he had to throw up. He mulled over the logistics and the packing and ideal location for a new apartment and rent range and square footage, but it was still unreal. He couldn’t really imagine living somewhere else, some place that had no memories or particular meaning. And then the apartment above the diner would be – what? An office again? All that empty space and a file cabinet and a desk and the memory of the worst night of Luke’s life, although not necessarily Jess’. His stomach rolled as he thought of it.

He kept his head down as he walked through the square, which was busy even for a Saturday, and Luke thought he remembered there being some town something or other scheduled for today. Though he could feel people’s attention on him like a film of dirt on his skin, no one stopped him. He was a little surprised that he hadn’t been accosted with sympathy or people asking questions, but he supposed it was possible – however unlikely – that people were trying to give him and Jess some space.

The diner looked the way it always did, which Luke found both reassuring and a little frustrating. It was bizarre that nothing around him was changing while he was falling to pieces. He noticed the coat hanging on the hook by the door belatedly, just as he heard footsteps from the back room, and Luke didn’t even have time to panic or scramble for something to defend himself when Ceasar emerged.

“Oh, hey, Luke,” he said lightly. “I thought I heard the door.”

“Oh my God, Ceasar, you scared the shit out of me,” Luke said, pressing his hand to his chest. Ceasar’s eyebrows lifted fractionally and Luke guessed that might have been the first time he’d sworn casually in front of him.

“Sorry, Luke. We’ve been getting deliveries still – small ones, but since I had a key, I thought I’d let myself in and help out.”

“No, don’t apologize. Thanks. That’s – that’s very – thanks. I forgot about the delivery schedule.” He paused to force himself to relax. “Wait, have you been logging these hours?” Ceasar gave Luke a sideways look that answered the question for him and shook his head. “I can’t let you do that. You haven’t had your normal hours to begin with this week. Make sure you write those down before you go.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, so easily that Luke knew he wasn’t going to. He considered arguing about it, but he figured it probably wasn’t worth it. He’d just throw extra hours into Ceasar’s next paycheck.

“So, do you want me to stay and finish?” Ceasar asked.

“You know, I think – I think I’ll do it on my own. Thank you, though. I really appreciate it.”

Ceasar waved it off, grabbing his coat. He was almost at the door when Luke stopped him. “What do you think about opening the diner up tomorrow?” He said the words almost as the idea formed in his mind, feeling stupidly bold.

Ceasar looked surprised. “That’s your call, Luke, not mine.”

“Yeah, well, I was thinking, if you’re OK with it, you could open. Mostly run the place. I’ll be in and out.” Luke wasn’t even sure if that would be true. He didn’t make plans from one day to the next, but he could probably take time to come to the diner and, he thought guiltily, it would be nice to have a place to get away to. “You can call that what’s his name who helped out a few times if you think you’ll need an extra person. Sundays can get crazy.” Luke was distantly proud of himself for remembering what day of the week it was.

Ceasar considered for a moment, giving Luke an appraising look, and Luke had to restrain himself from falling into a defensive posture. “All right,” Ceasar said with a tone too casual to be completely natural. There was no way Ceasar didn’t notice how haggard Luke looked, but he appreciated that he trusted him enough not to question the decision. Although, while that was flattering, now that Luke was thinking about it, he doubted it was the most prudent choice on Ceasar’s part to have that much faith in him.

“Great,” Luke said. “See you tomorrow, then. And make sure you actually log your hours.”

Ceasar smiled. “All right, Luke. But, you know, if you’re going to be mad at me for working off the clock, you’ve got to yell at Lorelai, too.”

“What?” Luke froze, so confused that for a moment he wondered if Ceasar was referring to the argument he just had with her.

“She saw me come in the other morning and knocked on the door really hard until I let her in. She wanted to help.”

“Oh.”

“Kirk offered to help, too. And Gypsy, and Jackson. I’ve been turning down a lot of people who want to lend a hand. Babette. Morey.” Luke wasn’t feeling quite clever enough to understand what Ceasar was saying. He’d felt so isolated in his reeling horror the last few days that he’d almost forgotten about these people, and they were, in some cases, literally beating down the door to help him. Luke felt tight in his lungs and chest, but he couldn’t get his mind entirely around what he was feeling. “But,” Ceasar continued, “for some reason, it’s really hard to say no to Lorelai.” Luke nodded. “That woman is dangerous with a box cutter.”

“Yeah,” he said, forcing a laugh that felt to him more like a dry cough.

Ceasar’s hand lingered on the door. “Well. OK then. See you in the morning.”

Luke lifted a hand in goodbye, swallowing roughly. He tried to process his thoughts, he really did, but it just made his head swim. He fell to work easily, finishing up the few tasks Ceasar hadn’t gotten to. Mostly just unloading some boxes and confirming shipments, but Luke was glad for it. He knew how to do this. It required no thought, no emotion, and his body could perform the actions without the help of his higher mental faculties. The only problem was it didn’t take nearly long enough, and just as Luke was feeling comfortable, he ran out of work. It gave him time to think again, and he didn’t appreciate it.

Maybe he was doing the wrong thing, opening up the diner so soon. And without so much as giving it even passing consideration. If Luke was here, working, what would Jess do? But it wasn’t as though Luke was making any progress with Jess while they were at the inn. If keeping himself partially occupied with running his business kept Luke from going completely insane, then that could only help. And he had to overcome the profound sense of unease just being in the diner gave him. It occurred to Luke that it might be strange that shutting it down or relocating hadn’t even entered his mind. It was just almost as much associated with what happened as the apartment, and he couldn’t imagine Jess wanting to step foot in it again.

He walked out of the back room, not even needing to look down at the order written on the wall to remember what it said. 3 hammers. Phillips head screwdriver. 3 boxes nails. Assorted sizes. It just wasn’t an option. He would move from the apartment with relatively few regrets, but he wasn’t going to give up his diner.

It was probably just paranoia, but Luke suddenly got the feeling he was being watched. He looked up, scanning the view from the windows. While there were still a lot of people milling around, no one had their face pressed up against the glass, staring at him. For Stars Hollow, that was a major feat in respecting his privacy. With a surge of embarrassment, Luke remembered what Ceasar said about people offering help. He was a little surprised that just about everyone had seen him enter the diner and no one was lining up at the door to get a look at him or speak to him. Or try to help him stock shelves. That restraint probably wasn’t going to last long, and Luke was in absolutely no mood to face down even the kindest well-wishers. He grabbed some empty boxes from the back, thinking about starting work on packing up the apartment, and headed for the stairs.

Luke paused when he got to the curtain, stopped short even in his determination to avoid people by the burning fear in his lungs. He reached a hand to it tentatively. Right before his fingers would have touched, he curled them into a fist and tapped the curtain with his knuckles, watching the fabric ripple. Damn everything, this shouldn’t be so hard. He shouldn’t need to take a moment to walk up a flight of stairs. He shouldn’t need Lorelai to hold his hand to be brave enough to do it. He snorted out a burst of frustration and pushed the curtain aside, keeping his head down and taking the stairs quickly.

He went through the door with so much force he staggered, dropping the boxes and feeling idiotic. He kept his eyes on the ground for a moment, breathing evenly, gathering his bearings. Cautiously, he walked in, lifting his gaze to look around. When he was here with Lorelai a few days ago, he’d mostly been too distracted to think about how much his skin was crawling. As he took in the apartment, his heart sank, but not as much for Ted’s lingering presence as what wasn’t there.

Since Lorelai packed up Jess’ things, there was almost no evidence of his presence in the apartment. The only real indication that someone lived there apart from Luke was the air mattress, which was starting to look sad and under-inflated. Luke had gotten used to Jess’ mess with relative ease, and he was surprised now, looking back, on how quickly he had adjusted to having the kid live with him. He hardly noticed the few extra things around that were Jess’ when they were there, but their absence unsettled him. It gave the impression that Jess was already gone. It made him think of Jess’ angry threat to leave, because his bag was already packed. He felt a flutter of panic remembering that and shied from it, unprepared to deal with it just yet. Luke turned away, leaning heavily on the back of a kitchen chair.

He looked at the fridge, wondering when he had last eaten, and remembered the muffins he crushed and left in their room at the inn. He felt like such a jackass. Looking back, even he had no idea what he’d been accusing Lorelai of. Gross negligence of his nephew’s feelings or the simple inability to control Rory’s every action, who knew. It was so stupid and she didn’t deserve it. He knew that. She’d done nothing but be there for them, and, although it hadn’t made an impression on him at the time, Luke noticed how exhausted she looked that morning. He knew she cared, that she’d been giving more of herself than she could spare for them. He was a jackass. He’d have to make it up to her. He had no idea how, but he would. He’d make her a bouquet made of nachos if he had to, but he would apologize.

Luke was considering making himself lunch, even though he wasn’t hungry and didn’t think he ever would be again, when his eyes passed over the phone and where his answering machine should be. Who knew how many people had been trying to call him while he was out of contact – it could be any number of actually important matters, but Luke had completely forgotten about it. It was surprising how much slipped his mind. What if a doctor had called, what if the police had? Luke thought of his argument with Jess and felt sick again, rubbing his eyes wearily. And if Liz had been trying to call, screw her. It was childish and petty, but at the moment, he hoped she was worrying herself out of sleep, into waves of bone-shaking nausea. If she really wanted to know how he and Jess were, she would be in Stars Hollow already.

Like a slap to the face, Luke remembered something he thought of back at the hospital: the photograph of Liz and Ted’s wedding. He had it in the apartment still, and the thought sent a cold wave of anger through him. He strode to the desk purposefully, putting more confidence in his steps than he felt, and yanked open a low drawer. He didn’t know what he was going to do with the picture when he found it – incinerate it, tear it into pieces, but he wanted it destroyed.

He flipped open the lid of the box that had all his important photographs and paused. Rachel used to tease him about how disorganized it was, imploring him to find some sort of system, but he had seen it as a waste of space and energy. He knew where they were: in the box. So what if they were in a huge pile, not all facing the same direction, and he didn’t remember what some of the pictures were from anymore? It really did look like a mess, though, and as Luke picked up the stack of photographs, he felt a moment of grim amusement that Rachel had been right about that, too.

The top picture he recognized immediately. It was his father on the first day the hardware store opened. He was standing behind the register, looking into the camera, not quite smiling. Luke knew the expression, though, the small quirk at the corner of his mouth he got when he was amused or excited or proud and trying to hold it in. Luke had a framed copy of it on a high shelf in the diner, but this was the original. It felt different from most pictures – more substantial, the paper coarser.

Next was Liz, maybe eight years old, dressed in overalls and sitting on the floor of what was then their father’s office. She was steadying a bit of two-by-four with one hand and a hammer in the other, poised to strike at the nails she’d haphazardly driven into the wood. Her legs were curled under her in a position only a child could find comfortable.

After that were more of Liz, and very few of Luke. He hadn’t cared to hold on to most of the pictures of himself, and Liz had practically begged him for them. He wondered if she still had them. He chuckled softly as he flipped passed one of his high school graduation. He was in his big stupid gown, but Liz had stolen the ugly hat and was trying to put him in a headlock.

And then Rachel. His heart sped up for a brief, painful moment as he looked at her face from so long ago, when he was in love with her and they could do anything. Luke had forgotten that he kept the pictures he had of her, but now he remembered the day he’d gathered them all up, determined to trash them. He hadn’t been able to do it, and had shoved them in this box, halfway down the stack, as though hiding them from himself. He flipped through them quickly, familiar with most of them, and feeling only distant pangs of loss, more out of nostalgia than lingering hurt. He paused at one, unable to remember who had taken the picture. It had been some silly town event that Rachel was photographing and he had begrudgingly attended. In the picture, she was leaning close to him, her camera held to her eye, grinning, and he was reaching a hand to her lens. He couldn’t recall what the event had been, but he knew that after he pulled the camera away, he had kissed her.

He flipped to the next picture and his heart stopped. He hadn’t realized he had this picture, but now that he saw it, the day was clear in his mind. It wasn’t long after Jimmy left. Luke had taken time off to help Liz out, pretending he thought Jimmy might come back. Liz didn’t seem to buy into the idea and was surprisingly unemotional about it. She didn’t cry much, at least not around him, and she seemed wholly absorbed in her baby boy.

Liz was relaxing in a recliner that used to belong to their father, and Jess was limply asleep on her shoulder. With one hand she supported his butt, and the other tracked thoughtless patterns over his head, his cheek, his back. She hummed tunelessly, watching the ceiling. “I wish Dad could have seen you,” she whispered against Jess’ head.

Luke rubbed his back, stretching. “He did see him. Took off not long after, but he saw Jess.”

Liz turned a confused look on him, running her fingers across the little indentations on Jess’ hand that were his knuckles. “Huh? Oh. Oh, not Jimmy. I meant our dad.” Luke paused, feeling guilty for bringing up Jimmy when Liz’s mind wasn’t already on the issue of her absent husband. She didn’t seem bothered, though, just rolled her head back so her chin was nestled up against her son’s forehead. “He would have adored you.”

Luke nodded. “Yeah, he would have.” It wasn’t that long ago William Danes had died, and sometimes Luke had to remind himself he was gone.

“Who needs Jimmy anyway?” Liz continued. “I’ve got you and your Uncle Luke. Fuck Jimmy.”

“Liz, don’t… swear in front of the baby.” Luke shared her sentiments, but it still seemed inappropriate.

She grinned at him. “Luke, he can’t understand me! I could say anything and he wouldn’t be bothered. He’s asleep, anyway.”

“Still,” Luke said, waving his hand in the air uncomfortably, “you probably shouldn’t expose him to that sort of – negative -”

“Jess,” Liz cut in, as though Luke weren’t talking, “your dad is a cocksucking son of a bitch.”

“Liz!”

“Shh!” she admonished. “You’ll wake him up!” Luke glared at her and she smiled, then went back to addressing the baby on her shoulder. “Don’t you grow up to be like him, OK? Just one Jimmy Mariano in the world is enough. In fact, don’t grow up to be like me, either. Just bypass both of us and take after your uncle.” Luke sighed, sitting on the chair beside her. Liz loved to flatter him out of a bad mood, and, what possibly annoyed Luke more than anything, it tended to work.

“Your uncle,” she continued, so softly Luke could hardly hear her, “is the greatest man in the whooooole world.” She spread her fingers wide when she said “whole world,” then dropped them to Jess’ head, brushing lightly at fine, dark strands of hair. “God, his skin is perfect.”

Luke watched her quietly for a while. He didn’t really want to discuss serious issues with her now, when she seemed more at peace than he’d seen her for a long time. “I’m going to have to go back soon.”

“I know,” she said calmly. “I’m not asking you to stay.”

“But, Liz. What are you going to do?”

She shrugged her free shoulder. “I’ll get by. I have a lot of friends in the city. You remember Anna?” Luke shook his head. “Come on. Anna. You remember. Anna.”

“You can keep saying her name, but I don’t know who you mean.”

“Well, you met her. I think. Anyway, she’s going to let me crash with her at the end of the month. This place is paid up until then.” She kissed Jess’ forehead and dragged her thumb over the back of his head.

“And then what?” She shrugged again and Luke pressed the heel of his hand to his temple. “That’s your plan? You have a kid now, and -”

“I know that, Luke,” she interrupted, her voice quiet but firm. She looked at him with a serious expression that he read as a warning not to continue down this path.

“You could always move back home,” he offered, undeterred. She sighed and shook her head. “This isn’t a time to be stubborn. It’d be a lot easier. You’d be close to family and the diner and it’s sure as hell cheaper than living here.”

She shook her head again. “Stars Hollow isn’t for me. It never was.”

“But this isn’t just you we’re talking about.”

“Luke!” she whispered harshly. “I understand! I really do get it, OK? This is not the way I had things planned, and now I … honestly don’t have any. But I’m going to take care of him.” Liz looked away, resting her cheek on the top of Jess’ head. She was still retaining a lot of the baby weight in her face, and Luke thought she looked painfully young. She was young, but the roundness of her cheeks gave him sharp reminders of what she looked like in middle school. They had already argued about that, though, so much that Liz was immediately defensive if Luke mentioned age or experience at all. It was beside the point now, anyway. Even though Liz was too young and stupid to have run off to start a family, she’d done it, and now the important thing was taking care of Jess.

Liz rubbed small circles high on Jess’ back. “If there’s anything I do for the rest of my life, it’s going to be making sure that nothing bad happens to him. Whatever decisions I make from now on will be based on that. You have to trust me.”

Luke pressed his lips together to keep from mentioning that, while the sentiment was nice, it probably wasn’t going to work out that easily. Fighting with Liz hardly ever helped, though, and she was contrary enough to do the opposite of whatever he suggested if he pushed. He’d just keep checking in with her. It was inevitable that her flighty friends would let her down and she’d need help again. Luke figured, Liz would have to realize that the way she heedlessly tackled life wasn’t going to cut it when she had a child. Jess would need stability. So would she.

He scratched the back of his head and nodded. “OK.”

She glanced at him, evidently surprised that he gave in so easily, and she smiled. “Thanks. You really are the greatest.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Liz grimaced. “Ugh, Luke, help me out. I have to piss.” She shifted, sitting up in the chair, watching Jess for any signs that she was disturbing his sleep. Luke stood, swinging his arms awkwardly.

“You want me to take him?”

“Please,” she said, standing slowly. She stepped away from the chair and looked at Luke’s upturned hands. She looked down at the chair and then back at him. “Sit down,” she commanded.

“You want me to – like you were?”

“He sleeps better that way.”

Luke dropped his hands to his hips. “Are you going to be in the bathroom that long? You said it was a piss.”

“Don’t swear in front of the baby!” Luke scowled at her again. “Come on. He doesn’t sleep as well if I put him in the crib and I need to stretch.”

He sighed and conceded, sitting back tentatively, and Liz transferred Jess to him gently, settling him into the hollow of Luke’s shoulder. “How do I -” he started, but Liz was already guiding his hands to support Jess the way she had. Luke had to arch his neck awkwardly and stare down his own nose to look at Jess’ face, so close and small and fragile. To his surprise, Jess didn’t seem bothered by the movement. He took in a small, sharp breath and Luke froze, but he let it out as a tiny sigh and his eyes remained closed.

Liz touched a hand to her face and smiled at them. “Luke,” she murmured. He looked up at her and noticed her eyes were a little wet.

“Liz, are you -”

She waved a hand. “No, it’s fine. I just – I really am so lucky to have you. Thank you.” She bend down and pecked his cheek. “You know Mom used to do this with us when we were first born. In this chair. I’ve seen pictures.”

Luke shifted as carefully as he could. He couldn’t put his head back with his baseball cap on. The bill kept hitting the headrest and digging into the back of his neck. “Yeah, I remember. I’ve seen them, too.” He tried to tilt his neck so he could recline, but he wasn’t having a lot of success, and he didn’t want to move his hands away from Jess to take his hat off. He never wanted to admit it to Liz, but every time he held Jess, he envisioned dropping him. Luke squirmed, scrunching up his face.

“Oh, Luke, for the love of God,” Liz sighed, finally snatching his hat off his head and tossing it on the floor.

“Thanks,” he muttered.

“You look adorable, by the way,” she called quietly over her shoulder as she left the room.

Luke snorted and craned his neck again to watch Jess. He looked impossibly small, all scrunched and wrinkled with his legs tucked up under his belly and his hands in tiny tight fists. Luke’s hands looked enormous by comparison, and he felt like an oafish, clumsy giant. He relaxed as much as he could, settling into the chair. Slowly, carefully, he used his thumb to stroke Jess’ back. Luke wasn’t sure about what Liz said about Jess taking after him, but he thought if maybe inheritance could skip an entire generation and Jess took after their father, that would be ideal.

“Maybe you’ll take over the diner someday,” Luke mused softly. “Convert it back into a hardware store. Or sporting goods. Sports would work.” It was possible, Luke thought, especially if he never had children of his own. He had honestly never considered it a possibility, but mostly he just didn’t think about it at all. He tried to picture it – if the baby on his shoulder were his – and a hot jolt of panic went through him. He swallowed hard. “Just as long as you keep up the sign. I want that sign to stay up forever.”

It really was sort of nice to have a kid sleeping on his chest. Luke felt lost almost all of the time when Liz asked him to help out with Jess. He could do things like clean up, run errands, cook dinners, but actually interacting with the baby made him nervous. Jess was so small, and Luke had zero experience dealing with children. This, though, he could do. Jess’ breathing was a soft, soothing rhythm and the warmth of his body went all the way through Luke’s shoulders and ribs. Luke touched a tentative hand to the side of Jess’ head, just barely touching his skin, and traced his fingers over the curve of his nephew’s ear.

He could be a good uncle. He could imagine that easily – especially if Liz moved back. She had the house. Luke inherited the store and Liz got the house, which their father had owned in full. Jimmy, in his almost constant panic over the approaching birth of his child, had suggested she sell it so get them enough money to get by. Liz had been reluctant, and, as far as he knew, it was still in her name. It really only made sense that she move back. She and Jess would be within walking distance, and maybe he could get her a job at the diner if she’d let him. Luke always figured her stubborn independence was something she put on to be different, to get attention, because he simply didn’t understand half the decisions she made if they weren’t at least partially motivated by a desire to drive him crazy. As he closed his eyes and rubbed circles on Jess’ back, he hoped it wouldn’t take long to convince her to come home.

The click and whir of the camera woke him up, and Luke raised his head sharply to see Liz sitting across from him, grinning. She wound the camera and held it to her eye again. Luke put up his hand. “Stop that.”

“But it’s so precious.” She dropped her hands anyway, leaning her elbows on her knees. “It’ll match the ones of us and Mom.” Luke sighed and leaned his head back. “Isn’t he the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen?” Her voice was quiet, full of awe. He didn’t think he was the best judge since he didn’t know many babies to compare Jess to, but he didn’t mention that. It was a smartass thing to say, and he didn’t want to poke at Liz at the moment. And anyway, he felt an echo of her sentiment deep in his chest.

“He really is,” Luke murmured, touching the back of his hand to Jess’ cheek.

Liz had sold the house not long after that. Luke had been furious. He hadn’t even found out it was on the market from her – someone had stopped in the diner to ask about it, and after a long, heated, yes-it-is-for-sale, no-it-isn’t debate with the man, Luke had stormed upstairs in the middle of a lunch rush to call her. Liz hadn’t answered – he wouldn’t be able to get a hold of her for weeks – and he had been so hurt and angry he cried. And punched the counter hard enough to split the skin on two knuckles. He had let himself sink to the floor, cradling his head in his hands, feeling the slow crawl of blood down his arm.

The incident caused a rift between them big enough that Luke actually missed most of Jess’ first year. Liz was difficult to track down, and Luke had been bitter enough not to try too hard to find her. When she eventually had come to him to reconcile, Luke relented because of Jess. He would have for her, too, but it would have taken much longer. He always gave in for Jess. He would do almost anything for Liz because she was his sister and he loved her, but it was usually Jess he was thinking of right before he sighed and said “Sure, Liz, fine. I’ll help.” To him, that had seemed like more than enough in fulfilling his duties as a brother and uncle.

Looking at the picture now, tracking his thumb over the lines of Jess’ face, his reasoning seemed inexcusably shallow. Even though it wouldn’t do him any good to think of hypotheticals, Luke couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if he’d been more involved, if he hadn’t mostly waited for Liz to come to him, trusting that she would ask him for help before anything went irreparably wrong. She hadn’t asked him to be involved more than that, but he hadn’t offered, and what if? What if.

Luke sat back, covering his eyes with a hand. And I’m all he has now, he thought, his heart falling.


part b

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