Spoilers: Through the end of season 3.
Disclaimer: These characters are not mine, and believe me, I'm not making any money off my fanfic. The title and summary are from a song by Dar Williams, which is also not mine.
Thanks: To the beta horde - Anna S., John H., and the usual suspects (shrift, grit kitty, Athena, Shanola, and Delle.)
He tried to force himself not to look up every time the door opened on the day they were due back. There was no reason to expect them to stop by the diner. Knowing them, they'd be battling jet lag, having chosen to make fun of the airplane movies rather than sleep. They'd probably get into Logan, drive straight home, and crawl right into bed.
But he looked up every time the door opened anyway.
One time it was Taylor, bearing a stack of fliers for one of his pet projects.
"Go away, Taylor," he said, before Taylor could get a word out.
"But..." Taylor spluttered like a record needle skipping across grooves.
"Go away, Taylor."
"Luke, will you just..."
He fixed a glare on Taylor, and Taylor actually flinched and retreated, muttering about how unreasonable Luke was and how his idea of hiring an organ grinder and a monkey would certainly increase summer tourism.
The next time it was Kirk, who sat down at the counter and declared, "I'm going off dairy. What do you have that's non-lactose?"
Luke didn't even bother to reply. Kirk was perfectly capable of carrying on an entire conversation by himself.
"Anything with cheese is out. No pastries, either. And definitely no cheese pastries."
"Kirk, I don't have any cheese pastries. What do you want?"
"Never mind. I'm not hungry." He swung off the stool, then turned back around. "Do you know when Lorelai's getting back?"
"No idea," Luke said.
And then the door opened, and he looked up before he could stop himself, and she was there.
"Coffee!" she cried piteously, dropping into the nearest chair and pillowing her head on the table.
He tried not to smile. He'd spent years not being obvious, and there was no point in starting now. "It's good to see that your trip has changed you. Refined your tastes."
She lifted her head long enough to stick her tongue out at him. "Jet lag sucks," she muttered into her arms. "Someone needs to invent faster planes. Or bullet trains that go under the ocean. I swear to god, I'm just going to go to sleep right here. Wake me up before I grow a beard like Rip Van Winkle."
He grabbed one of the big mugs, filled it with coffee, and walked over to her table. "If that happens, you've got worse problems than jet lag."
She jerked up like a caffeine-deprived jack-in-the-box at the clank of the mug on the table. "Oh, thank god." He watched in disbelief as she gulped half of the mug down at once. "Hot hot hot hot..."
"Coffee isn't really meant to be chugged."
"Shut up. I'm having a religious experience here."
"Burning your tongue is a religious experience?"
"It is in my culture."
Movement caught his attention -- the guy at table six gesturing for his check. By the time he'd rung him up, Lorelai had finished the rest of the mug and was staring disconsolately at it.
He settled into the chair opposite her, figuring he'd earned a couple minutes of rest. "Where's Rory?"
"At home, asleep. She crashed almost before we got in the door. She looked so funny sprawled over the luggage and the huge pile of mail that I just left her there, drooling on my back issues of Glamour."
"But you're here, awake. Sort of awake."
She shoved her hair away from her face, and he noticed that her arms and face were tan. "I'm too wired to sleep, or something. It's weird. I blame the airline food."
"How was the trip?"
She smiled that smile, the one that never failed to grab him. "Oh, Luke, it was so amazing. You might think that this Europe thing is overrated, but it's really not."
"Imagine that." But he smiled too.
"We went to St. Peter's, in Rome, and there are these beautiful, bright paintings on all the walls, but then you get closer, and they're not paintings. They're mosaics, thousands of these little stones. And there's a brass...um...canopy in the middle of the aisle, and at the right time of day, the sunlight shines down on it and it's like it lights up."
"Did you take pictures?"
"Of course. Well, Rory did. After a while, she confiscated the digital camera because I kept taking pictures of my feet and then erasing them."
"I told her it was a mistake to let you be the designated photographer."
"Oh, be quiet," she said. "Bring me more coffee."
"That's not going to help you sleep." He got up anyway and brought the fresh pot back to the table.
She kept her eyes on the mug as he filled it. "You know, it's not the airplane food. I'm just so...excited. I'm so glad I got to do this with Rory."
He set the pot down and didn't say anything. After all these years, he knew what the lead-in to one of her confessional speeches sounded like.
"I was supposed to go on a trip the summer after I graduated. It's what all my parents' friends did -- sent their children off to Europe to do twelve countries in one month, on these little guided tours that made sure you hit all the right places, visited the right museums, and got the perfect dose of culture before you came back and assumed your place as a drone."
He could fill in this part of the story. "But you had Rory."
"Yeah," she said, her eyes softening. "And Europe was just one of those things I had to give up, you know? Except I just got to do it. And I got to do it with her, our way. If we wanted to spend an extra day in Florence so Rory could see the big bridge there, we did. Or if we passed a perfect little store..."
"How many pairs of shoes did you buy?"
"I kept it in the single digits."
"Only because you had to carry them."
She was quiet for a moment, stirring her coffee. "I guess I just don't want it to end."
"You'll see her a lot," he said, trying to reassure her with the obvious. "She's got a car; she'll drive down all the time."
"I know," she said. "But it won't be the same." She sighed a little bit, blinked like she was trying to clear her thoughts, and said, "So, how was your trip?"
"My trip?" he said. "Oh, the cruise thing. Yeah, that didn't really work out."
"What happened? I thought you decided to go."
"I did. But Nicole didn't." He pulled the dishcloth out of his back pocket and rubbed at a spot on the corner of the table.
"Do you want to talk about it?" She sounded sympathetic. Which was exactly how she should sound, he thought. He had to stop expecting things to magically change every time one of them broke up with someone.
"I'm here, if you want to." He looked up, and the expression on her face matched her voice.
"I know," he said, standing as a family of six walked in the door. "But it's over and done with. I'm fine."
By the time he took all the orders, found a phone book for one of the kids to sit on, and mopped up the six-year old's spilled chocolate milk, Lorelai had put her head back down on her arms and fallen asleep.
In his head, he called it D-Day. D for Departure. Or maybe Depression.
Lorelai sat at the counter, putting on a good show. She'd probably practiced it for the past several months. No one would believe her if she said she wasn't upset, so she seemed to be going for brave resolve.
"Oh, honey," Miss Patty said. "Are you okay?" The look of sorrow on her face would have been more appropriate for a wake, or burying a gerbil in someone's backyard.
"Yeah," Lorelai said. "I'm fine. She's close. Much closer than she would have been if she'd gone to Harvard. And we'll talk on the phone all the time."
There'd been a procession of them over the past two hours, ever since Lorelai had gotten back from New Haven, and he was as sick of hearing the same conversation as Lorelai probably was of having it. Why didn't it occur to anyone in the entire goddamn town that maybe she didn't want to talk about it?
After Patty left, he walked over to her. "You could go home."
"Are you chasing me out? Am I disruptive? Is the piano player hiding behind the bar until the shooting stops?" She set an elbow on the counter and rested her head on her hand.
"No, but are you gonna stay here until every person in Stars Hollow has asked how you're doing?"
She shrugged. "It'll happen sooner or later. Might as well get it over with. And it's not that bad."
Sometimes he thought she forgot that he knew her better than just about anyone who wasn't Sookie or Rory. He'd seen the look in her eyes get more and more desperate through Rory's senior year. No way it was 'not that bad.' "If you go home, they'll leave you alone."
He'd picked the wrong thing to say, forgetting that she didn't react to change like he did. The brave resolve slipped, and her eyelashes fluttered down as her eyes closed. She sounded tired. "If I go home, I'll be alone."
He understood loneliness, but he also understood being alone, and he wished he could explain to her that they didn't always go hand-in-hand. "It's not the worst thing in the world, you know."
"I know," she said, and held out her coffee cup for a refill. He rolled his eyes, right on cue, and reached for the pot.
"Heard from Jess?" she asked.
The mention of Jess always made his right temple ache. "Not really. He's still with his dad. Not much I can do about it, even if I wanted to."
"What about Liz?"
He knew she meant well. She always meant well, but she was an only child, and the mother of an only child. She didn't understand what it was like to have Liz for a sister, how he'd spent most of his life torn between wanting to protect her and wanting to sit on her until she smartened up. And always helpless with love. "What about her? It's not like anything's changed just because Jess is with Jimmy instead of me."
She shook her head. "How can she just let Jess go? I know she's your sister, but I just don't get that."
"Not everyone is as lucky as Rory." He pushed ahead before she could find something else to say about the subject. "How is the inn coming?"
For the first time that day, she lost the weary glaze over her eyes and sat up straight. "It's going really well. Between the work they got done while I was in Europe and the stuff that's been done with me standing around holding a whip, we're right on schedule. We ought to be able to open by the beginning of December."
"Is Sookie losing it yet?"
"Totally. The stuff for the kitchen's starting to arrive. The refrigerator's stainless steel, so you can watch her head spin in the reflection. Plus, she's so pregnant at this point that she keeps trying to run around and see everything, but she can only waddle like a duck."
"It's good that you two can make your own fun."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Hey, speaking of the inn, do you mind coming to take a look at some stuff? I just want to make sure that everything's being done right. There were some sections of the floor they ended up replacing, and the shingles on the roof, and the installation of the new heater..."
"Sure," he said. "Tomorrow afternoon?"
"Thanks. We'll take you back to Sookie's and feed you. They're gonna have to pry a spatula out of her hand before they take her into the delivery room."
"A disturbing image." He grabbed his order pad and started toward table twelve, but stopped when she laid a hand on his arm. He could feel each of her fingers and the press of her thumb on the underside of his wrist.
"I really appreciate your being here for me. Not just with the inn. With everything."
"Any time," he said as he caught sight of a familiar and always unwelcome figure outside. "Oh, god, here comes Taylor. You can get out through the back."
She gulped down the rest of her coffee, hopped off the stool, and made a beeline for the kitchen. "My hero."
He'd learned over the years to get by on the bare minimum of sleep. He'd trained his body's internal clock. Bed at the same time every night, barring a disaster. Awake at the same time every morning, even though it was still dark outside.
Insomnia was a bitch.
He flipped over onto his other side for what felt like the hundredth time and looked at the clock. 2:33, it said, with its tauntingly bright numbers that left shadows on his eyelids when he closed them.
He'd fought it for months, on and off, and if he'd been the kind of guy who went to the doctor, he'd have gone around week three, on the day he'd seen trails of light every time he moved his head. If anyone had noticed the way his hands sometimes shook after a bad night, they hadn't mentioned it.
It'd started when Lorelai brought up Jess, who he'd successfully avoided thinking about -- much -- for three months, and the thought of Jess had triggered a cascade of concerns and stresses. Had he failed Jess and somehow ruined his life? Would Jess get Jimmy into trouble, or would it be the other way around? What kind of father would he be if he couldn't help his own nearly-adult nephew? Would it ever even be an issue, or would he be slaving away in the diner and going up to his empty apartment every night until he was eighty?
And eventually, just like everything else in his life, it led back to Lorelai. Because when he did manage to get to close his eyes, he dreamed.
He dreamed of waking up in bed next to her on a Sunday morning and watching her sleep. He dreamed of going with her to pick up Rory at the end of the semester, the three of them packed tight into a car full of books and clothes and girlish giggles. He dreamed dreams full of skin and scent that woke him up and left him uneasy and snappish the next day.
But nothing had gotten rid of either the insomnia or the dreams. Not taking deep breaths and trying to relax his entire body, not doing multiplication tables in his head, not watching TV or reading until he felt like his brain was full. So he did what he always did. He coped. And if he grabbed a nap in the back room during the mid-morning lull, no one had to know.
He might have wondered what his subconscious was trying to tell him, if he'd been the kind of guy who let his subconscious boss him around.
"I'm so excited!" Sookie was practically vibrating. "I can't believe it's actually done."
"Everything went perfectly," said Lorelai. "It's eerie."
Jackson frowned at her and delicately took Sarah out of Sookie's arms. "Are you trying to make something go wrong? Because you will if you keep saying that."
Lorelai shook her head. "Nuh-uh. Not this time. Our ship has come in. The tide has turned. Clear sailing and safe harbors ahead."
"Are you planning on speaking in nautical metaphors all night?" Luke asked, digging his hands deeper into his jacket pockets and trying not to think about how bone-tired he was. His head ached. His eyelids ached. His feet seemed very far away.
"I could do Broadway. Luck is being a lady tonight. June is bustin' out all over. Oh, what a beautiful mornin'."
"It is November and it is nighttime," Michel interjected.
"It is also below freezing, and we are standing around looking at a small wooden sign."
Sookie turned on him with the enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy. "It's not just a sign! It's the official sign for the newly remodeled and reopened Dragonfly Inn. Aren't you excited?"
"I will be excited when I get my first paycheck. Until then, I am going home." He yanked the ends of his scarf tighter and headed for his car.
Sarah chose that moment to start screaming. "Sorry, honey," Sookie said. "So much for a celebration."
"No, it's fine. Take her home and feed her. I'll come by tomorrow so we can work on the final version of the magazine ad. For our inn. We have an inn." Lorelai wrapped Sookie in a hug, and both women squealed. Luke looked over at Jackson and joined him in a moment of non-squealing male solidarity, the masculinity of the moment slightly mitigated by the flowered diaper bag on Jackson's shoulder.
"Night, guys." Lorelai waved as Jackson pulled out of the driveway. As soon as they were out of sight, she bolted for the inn's front door. "Jeez, it's freezing out here! Come on, I'll make you some hot chocolate."
He shut the door as he walked in and noted with satisfaction that the glass inset didn't rattle any more. "Doesn't that involve cooking?"
"Sookie made some earlier. All I have to do is reheat it. I think I can do that without the inn burning down." She paused in mid-step. "Forget I said that. There will be no talk of fire in this inn, unless it's preceded by the word 'cozy'."
Even with the lights off, the kitchen gleamed. Lorelai flicked a switch on the wall as they came in. One of the smaller stoves had a saucepan sitting on it, and she turned on the burner. "God, I can't wait until Rory sees this."
"She's coming home for Thanksgiving?"
"Yeah. Thursday night. She's having turkey with Christopher and Sherry first."
"You okay with that?"
She shrugged and stirred the cocoa. "I kind of have to be. But yeah, it's okay. She loves the baby, and they've been really good to her since she moved there." The spoon clanked as she set it down. "I am. I'm okay with it."
She smiled ruefully and leaned back against the counter next to the stove, spreading her arms along it. "I'm working on it. I figure I'll have it down right around the time she graduates."
By the time she graduated. In three and a half years. Would he spend another three and a half years comforting Lorelai through Rory's absence? Would he spend another three and a half years without sleep, spending all of his energy on maintaining the status quo?
Lorelai would do it. Persist with her willful blindness, keep things safe and same and adjust to the Rory-shaped hole in her life. Date a series of guys who weren't any good for her, have increasingly bitter fights with her parents without Rory there as a buffer.
And maybe she'd have trouble sleeping too. Maybe she'd be able to pretend forever, but he'd suddenly gotten very tired of it.
He turned the off the burner with a vehement twist of the knob and moved to stand in front of her.
And this was exactly the sort of thing he didn't do, the one thing he'd never thought he'd do, but it seemed to make sense through the haze of sleep deprivation. He cupped his hands around her shoulders, then slid them slowly down her arms and curled his fingers around the fine bones of her wrists.
"Uh, Luke?" she said with a nervous laugh, not meeting his eyes. "I can't move."
"You can't run," he said, and leaned in to kiss her neck before he could talk himself out of it. Her skin was so warm underneath his lips, and he could hear her breath catch as he mouthed the hinge of her jaw.
She froze, suddenly and unnaturally still, and it shocked him so much that he froze too.
"Lorelai?" She didn't say anything. Oh, god, he'd always known this would be a mistake, and he'd done it anyway. He let go of her hands and pulled back.
Her eyes were wide and wondering, and at least she didn't run for the door. He took a chance and gently settled his hands on her hips.
"This isn't just because Rory's gone, is it?"
He blinked, startled. "Isn't that the question I'm supposed to ask?"
"I mean, it's not because I'm so pathetic and lonely?"
"Are you kidding me? No, let me rephrase that. Are you completely insane?"
The side of her mouth crooked in a little smile unlike anything he'd seen on her before. "No. Not completely." She reached up, pulled his baseball cap off, and set it on the counter. And she kissed him.
He tried not to rush it, tried to take it as slow as she needed, but she made a soft little sound that went straight to his gut, and he yanked her against him and teased at her lips with his tongue. Her mouth opened, her fingers dug into his shoulders, and he thought he might lose his mind. The kiss went on and on -- somehow she was exactly like he'd imagined. Both eager and tentative, perfectly in sync with him, as if she'd practiced this in her mind as many times as he had. Her tongue pushed urgently against his. He slipped a hand into her hair and found it soft to the touch. The faint floral scent of her perfume drifted up as her skin flushed.
He moved down to kiss her neck again, and when she gasped into his ear, he knew that no matter what the consequences, he was completely gone. He bit at her collarbone, licked the hollow of her throat, and she maneuvered him back up for another deep, endless kiss. By the time the world dragged back into focus, he'd shoved a leg in between hers and untucked her shirt, running his hands up the fine skin of her back, and she'd unbuttoned his flannel.
"Did I ever mention how irritating your habit of wearing layers is?" she asked.
"Seriously." She tugged at his t-shirt. "I know it's cold outside, but you dress like you're in the Donner Party and you're trying to slow down potential cannibals."
"You are completely insane. You do know that."
"That's why you love me." He looked down, and the uncertainty in her face pulled at him like her hand on his shirt. He bent down to kiss her again, just pressing his mouth to hers and holding her close.
"Let's go upstairs," she said. "If you think..."
He grabbed her hand and started leading her to the stairs. "Don't think. Just go."
"I guess we've officially christened the inn."
"Oh, god," he said, "please don't say christened. It sounds wrong."
She snuggled closer and yawned. "Tough, buster. We just got down to some serious christening."
"We could have smashed a bottle of champagne on the porch."
"Mmm. Champagne. We should go out and get champagne." She yawned again, and he chuckled and pulled the comforter tighter around them.
"We're both a little tired for that," he said. "You don't snore, do you?"
"No, but I steal the covers," she mumbled.
"I don't think there are words for how unsurprised I am. You're going to put your feet on me when they get cold, too, aren't you?"
"Only when it's below freezing."
He glanced over to the window. Outside, falling snow made tracks across the moon. "I'll figure out a way to live with that." She shifted and pressed a kiss to his chest, and he stroked her hair. "Go to sleep."
Normally, her petulant child act made him want to take her coffee away, but he was in a forgiving mood. "Why not?"
"Don't want it to end," she whispered. It was ironic, considering how much time and effort both of them had expended on not starting it, but he understood. Alone in an empty inn, her leg thrown over his, the bed a cocoon of warmth insulating them from the cold outside, the situation seemed unreal. But he knew his strengths, and he knew how to build things, to make them strong and sturdy and durable.
"It won't," he said, tightening his hold on her. "It's okay. Go to sleep."
"Rory's gonna have kittens when I tell her about this," she murmured, and then her breathing evened out and her body relaxed.
Through the window, he watched the snow falling and the branches of the bare trees waving slightly with the wind. In the morning, he'd have to double-check the insulation in the attic and the weatherstripping on the doors, but the room was warm, and the bed even warmer. The heavy weight of fatigue pressed down on him, and it was somehow the easiest thing in the world to close his eyes and drift to sleep.
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