A/N: This chapter got looooong! I hope nobody minds that. Reviews are very much welcome, and I do thank those who take the time to leave the feedback - you're the best! :) FYI, I am purely a Literati shipper, so although there's going to be a little bit of Dean/Rory going on for a few chapters, I promise you it will not last, and the main focus will always be the Rory & Jess relationship, which will segue from friendship to romance in due course. Okay? Okay! ;)

(For disclaimer, etc. - see prologue)

Chapter 9 - Sweet Sixteen...

"Welcome, my friends, to the show that never ends!" Lorelai ushered the next batch of party guests in through the front door. "Good to see you Patty, Babette, Maury. Rory will be thrilled you're all here."

"Well, we're thrilled to be here, sugar," her next door neighbour assured her. "Sixteen, Lorelai! Can you believe it? Sixteen!" she gasped.

"I know," Lorelai sighed. "Days like these, even I feel a little old."

"Oh, hush, sweetheart!" Miss Patty told her with a look. "If you're old, what hope is there for the rest of us?"

There was laughter aplenty as the new guests joined all the others. It really was a party, with people sat on every available chair and even some of the floor space. All the friends and neighbours had turned out for the occasion. Mrs Kim had even accompanied her daughter, much to Lane's chagrin, and Lorelai couldn't imagine anyone was missing from the fancy shindig with regards to good friends. The family side, well, on that they were running a little short, but Rory didn't seem at all concerned.

In the end, Lorelai had called Christopher to ask if he would be coming along. He made excuses, much like always, and said he would catch up with his best girls later. Lorelai couldn't help thinking that if they really were his best girls he would be there for them, not just on Rory's sixteenth birthday, but every day, always.

"Hey," said a voice behind her and Lorelai visibly jumped. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to... I was just checking you were okay," Luke said quickly, feeling dumb.

Lorelai smiled.

"I'm fine," she assured him, turning and putting a hand to his arm. "You've been a huge help with all of this, y'know?"

"I didn't do much," he shook his head, shifting awkwardly. "It was just a little food."

"No, it was a lot of food, and it eased a burden," Lorelai told him. "I mean, I love Sookie, I really do, but if she was in charge of all the food, she would just get too many ideas and she'd go over-fancy. It was easier if you took point on the buffet and she mostly just had to handle the cake. Thank you," she smiled some more, leaning in to kiss his cheek.

Luke wasn't exactly the blushing kind but if anyone could reduce him to such idiocy, it was often Lorelai, or occasionally Rory. He was a bachelor, after all, who had learnt to be a father, in a way, but he couldn't ever quite handle the sentimentally of his two favourite girls.

"Like I said, it was no problem," he shrugged, reaching up to adjust his baseball cap in that nervous habit Lorelai found so adorable, even if she never did say so. "Looks like Rory's having a good time," he said then, glancing over into the living room and seeing her laugh and talk with her friends and neighbours.

"That she is," her mother agreed. "Seriously? She's being loved and spoiled with gifts galore. Sweet sixteen and not a worry in the world. What's not to be happy about?" she smiled, though there was a hint of sadness in her eyes, Luke thought.

He knew why, as everybody did. Though Lorelai never once regretted having Rory, the age of sixteen was not an easy ride when you were pregnant and essentially alone. This town had saved Lorelai and Rory, and then it had saved Jess in its way. For all that Luke complained about it, he had to love Stars Hollow for these things.

"Hey, mother of the party girl," he said, shocking them both by throwing an arm around her shoulders and giving her the briefest squeeze of a hug. "Stop looking so sad, you'll ruin the mood."

Lorelai laughed at that, sniffed back any tears that were coming, and stared up at the man who had so easily become her best friend these past few years. She never thought there would be a guy in her life like Luke, and she was grateful every day that she had met him.

"Don't ever make me find out how tough my life would be without you," she said, almost too seriously, and then she was walking away, leaving Luke literally opened mouthed and wide eyed.

Across the room, Rory greeted her Mom with open arms, and showed her some of the gifts she had been given in the past few minutes. Books aplenty, candy too, and some truly odd trinkets that only the people of Stars Hollow could ever come up with. With so many people sitting around in the living room, now seemed like a good time for cake, and yet Lorelai knew there was at least one person missing from the circle.

"Jess is still here, right?" Lorelai asked her daughter.

"He was," Rory frowned when she turned and realised he had disappeared. "Y'know, I think he's feeling a little claustrophobic," she whispered then. "You know he's not big on the mingling."

"I do know," Lorelai nodded once. "You want me to go look for him before we bring out the cake?"

"No, it's okay. I'll go," Rory smiled widely as she got up and picked her way through the gift wrap and ribbon all over the floor.

At the last minute, she came back and hugged her mother so tight, the two of them practically toppled over with the force.

"Did I tell you how awesome you are for buying me that computer?" she checked, even though they both knew she had already said it at least eight times.

"You did, but Mommy doesn't mind hearing it again," she assured her, hugging back for all she was worth.

"Where is she going?" Mrs Kim asked her daughter when Rory walked away then. "It is very rude to leave a gathering of people unattended."

"Oh, I agree, Mama," Lane nodded definitely. "But maybe she just went to the bathroom," she lied, knowing full well Rory was going after Jess.

Now Lane had the much bigger task of distracting her mother so she didn't come to realise that Luke's nephew Jess was the same person she and Rory hung out with all the time. She really hoped her own sixteenth birthday didn't turn out to be this stressful!

Rory walked though to the kitchen and found it empty, save for Sookie, who immediately stood in front of the cake and blocked it from view when she realised she was no longer alone. Apparently it was bad luck to see the cake before the candles were lit, which Rory was pretty sure was a superstition Sookie made-up herself, but she didn't argue. She held up a hand to keep her gaze away and slipped out the back door, wondering if she would find Jess outside. Turned out she really did know him as well as she thought, because there he was on the back porch steps, spinning a cigarette around and around between his fingers.

"Where'd you get that?" she asked with a serious expression, something that had long been known by the two of them as her 'withering stare'. "More to the point, why'd you get that?"

Jess opened his mouth to stay something but stopped short of actually doing so. He shoved the cigarette in the pocket of his jacket and waited until she sat down beside him.


"Not enjoying the party?" he checked, deliberately making a subject change and they both knew it.

"You know I love my party," she grinned then. "You and Mom, and Sookie and Luke, you all did a great job of organising it, and I truly love it all," she assured him, leaning into his side. "Doesn't seem like you're having much fun though."

"I'm not a party person," he reminded her, as if she didn't already know. "I, er... I guess now's a good time for..."

Rory moved when she felt his body shift, wondering what it was he was trying to say. He left his sentence hanging and before she could ask him to pick it up and finish it already, she realised what he had meant when a pretty box appeared from inside his jacket.

"Happy birthday, Rory," he said with a smirk as he pushed it into her hands.

"Thank you," she smiled brightly, taking in the effort he had made with pretty paper and ribbon - it was so not like Jess. "You couldn't give me this inside?" she asked as she began to pull at the wrapping.

"Apparently not," he replied, but gave no real explanation for why they had to be alone.

The truth was, there was no reason, not really. Couples who were dating wanted to be alone because they just did. If you were giving important gifts like engagement rings and such then you wanted to be away from others. These were private important moments that your basic best friends didn't need to have. Jess closed his eyes a second and pushed all the dumb thoughts aside. Damn, he wished he had that cigarette lit before Rory appeared.

"Oh my God!" she gasped when she finally got her gift open. "Jess, this is... It's beautiful!"

He smiled at her enthusiasm and didn't doubt it was genuine. Rory had been known to get very excited over some truly weird stuff. As it was, this at least made some sense. It was only a pen, no fancy jewellery or anything that any 'normal' girl world think was awesome. Truth was, Rory wanted to be a writer, a journalist most likely. Writer's needed decent writing tools, Jess figured, and it suddenly hit him this was just the perfect gift, at least within his price range anyway.

"You're gonna be a writer, you gotta have the good stuff," he shrugged like it was nothing, but the way Rory was beaming from ear to ear did thrill him somehow.

"I never would've thought of that, I never expected, I... and it's so pretty!" she enthused all the more as she pulled the smart silver and gold coloured pen from its velvet lined box. "It's stylish but practical. It's perfect!" she continued on, and Jess rolled his eyes.

"Geez, anybody would think you liked it," he teased her, not quite ready for the way she threw herself into his arms a second later and held on tight.

"Thank you so much," she whispered near his ear as Jess hugged her back.

"You're welcome," he told her, wondering at the way his voice came out so soft and pathetic.

They hugged all the time. He'd bought her a hundred gifts over the years, birthdays, Christmas, and just because. It didn't mean that much and yet here in this moment, something inside of Jess flipped over in a disconcerting, kind of nice way that he didn't want to have to explain, not even inside his own head.

Things were changing, little by little he was noticing, and yet Rory didn't seem to realise it at all. It made Jess wonder if he was just being crazy, imaging things that weren't there. Anything else and he would come right out and ask, but this was maybe the one thing he could never talk to a female best friend about.

Rory pulled back some, still smiling, and met his eyes, but before Jess could even try to figure out what she was thinking the back door opened and Lorelai stepped out under the porch light.

"Hey, you two!" she called to them. "You're holding up the festivities in here. The natives are restless for cake, party girl!" she told her daughter, who scrambled up from the steps and rushed to show off her wonderful gift.

Jess got up to and dutifully followed the Gilmore girls back into the house. He nodded and smiled, taking Lorelai's praise over a perfect gift with as much grace as he could manage. He wondered what she would think if he told her he thought maybe his friendly feelings for Rory were changing in a more adult direction. Right now didn't seem like the time to ask anyhow.

As soon as they entered the living room, the lights went out and Sookie presented an over-sized cake, complete with Rory's picture painted onto the icing. It was a crazy idea, but it kind of worked, and his best friend looked so overwhelmed and happy as she blew out her candles after an overly loud rendition of Happy Birthday To You.

Jess stepped back as so many others piled in to hug the birthday girl and claim their piece of cake. He was somewhere by the door when Luke found him just staring, as if into space.

"Hey, you okay?" his uncle checked.

"Yeah, sure, why wouldn't I be?" he replied, though his eyes and stance never shifted at all.

Luke knew something was wrong, and not just tonight. It was hard to explain, but Jess had been quieter, more thoughtful than ever before these past few weeks. Luke started out thinking it was just Rory's absence from school and such, but they seemed to have patched things up on that score. The best friends were as close as ever, and they were at her party after all, it would make no sense for some rift between Jess and Rory to be the issue, but something was definitely wrong.

"I don't know, I just thought you'd be in the middle of things," he said carefully, watching Rory a moment and then bringing his eyes back to Jess' expressionless face. "You're the best friend after all, and you organised most of this, at least that's what you told the Gilmores, apparently," he added the last part in a low voice.

Finally he seemed to have Jess' attention, but Luke's victory was short lived. He realised his nephew was no longer looking at him, but past him, towards the front door.

"Speaking of," he said, pushing off the wall and heading over the Rory's grandparents. "Mr Gilmore, Mrs Gilmore. So nice to see you," he greeted Rory's grandparents with his best fake smile that Luke knew too well, still it was a pretty impressive show he was putting on, and Rory would certainly appreciate it.

"Well, thank you, Jess," Richard greeted him politely with a gentleman's hand-shake. "Is my grandaughter somewhere in this... crowd," he said as diplomatically as he could - Jess smiled at that.

"Right this way, sir, ma'am," he said, smirking more than he should when he caught Emily's eye.

She only glared, and that made him smile all the more.

Rory was having the best birthday. She had known her sweet sixteen was going to be pretty great given all the fuss that was made, especially with the party and everything. Her friends and family had sure done her proud, and spoilt her rotten. Her Mom got her a computer for school, Jess got her the most beautiful pen, her grandparents gave her money, and there was a pile of other gifts of all kinds that she loved - every single one!

Everyone was so kind and thoughtful, and they were all here to help her celebrate. Sure, grandpa looked awkward, and grandma looked mortified by some of the things Babette and Miss Patty said! Lane was constantly under supervision by Mrs Kim, and Jess just hadn't seemed to be quite the life and soul of the party, but it was okay, because he wasn't that guy, Rory knew. Jess would rather be alone, or at least alone with her, preferably watching a movie or reading a good book. Still, he was here, and he was the reason she was getting her party on the right day in the first place. For that, she loved him.

Of course, there was another guy in Rory's life who she liked in a whole different way. Love was too big a word right now, they weren't even officially dating, but she liked Dean a lot, a very lot. He said he had to work and couldn't attend her party, but he had paged her five minutes ago and asked her to meet him outside. She made a fast excuse and slipped out the back door to see where he was hiding. There beneath the moonlight, she found him waiting, looking as nervous as Rory felt when she approached him.

"Hey, birthday girl," he smiled warmly.

"Hey, yourself," she replied. "I didn't think I'd see you."

"Me either," admitted Dean. "I hoped, but you know Taylor. He must have things just so before I can leave, and it was getting late, but... well, I'm glad I got a chance to see you on your birthday, to get the chance to give you this."

Rory smiled and blushed all the more as she took the haphazardly wrapped package from his hand. Carefully tearing into the brown paper, she felt giddy with the excitement of finding a bracelet inside. It was nothing fancy, and Dean immediately apologised for the fact. It was just a leather strap with a coin threaded on, but he had made it himself, and that meant so much to Rory.

Neither her nor Dean had any idea they were being watched. Jess stood at the kitchen window looking out and grimacing at the sight of his best friend being presented with the home-made trinket that made her smile and fawn like a Disney princess. Jess struggled to swallow the bile that rose in his throat, his fingers just itching to curl into fists. Man, he hated Dean Forester.

"Oh, that's where she went," said Lorelai as she appeared behind Jess and followed his eyeline. "Those two are getting pretty serious about each other, huh?" she asked him, and he fought to make any sound that wouldn't come out like an angry growl.

"I guess," he forced out eventually.

"Hm, I dunno how I feel about it," Lorelai considered. "I mean, he seems like a nice guy and all, but I don't know much about him. Hey, you guys go to school together, what can you tell me?" she asked the teen beside her, but he didn't answer, didn't even seem to hear the question. "Jess!" she prompted, smacking him lightly across the shoulder to get his attention. "This Dean guy, what do we know?"

Jess made a big deal of rubbing the spot she hit as if she just dislocated his shoulder. Like he hadn't had worse years ago, a lot worse.

"He's an idiot," he grumbled, looking back outside at stupid Dean and giggling Rory.

Lorelai wasn't sure to make of that.

"Okay, so, the not good in English type idiot, or the gets into fights idiot, or the shoots up heroine down a back alley idiot?" she asked, all rapid-fire the way Gilmores often spoke. "Give me something here!" she urged Jess.

He sighed like talking to her was just hard work right now.

"Just the doofus kind of idiot," he muttered, before all but exploding into his next comment. "Why does he even need to be that tall? He's like the height of a building or something. It's ridiculous!"

Lorelai bit her lip and tried not to smile. She had suspected before that there was something brewing here. Jess did not like Dean, even before he knew anything at all about him. She didn't wonder at it. Rory and Jess had been the best of friends for more then five years now. He didn't want anyone else muscling in on that. The degree of jealousy Jess was feeling, that was yet to be defined, as were any possible changing feelings he was having in Rory's direction. It made Lorelai wonder...

"Jess, are we a little jealous of Dean and Rory's blossoming relationship?" she asked plainly with just a little sarcasm in play.

"Oh, geez!" Jess reacted with some apparent horror at what she was suggesting, but that was likely all bravado, Lorelai thought.

"What? You're showing me a lot of green-eyed signs here, grasshopper," she said definitely, the both of them now facing each other rather than the window, each holding their ground most definitely.

"He's not good enough for her, okay? That's all it is," he said, waving one arm a little too emphatically. "She doesn't even act like herself around him, she goes all girly and weird!"

"Jess, honey, she is a girl," said Lorelai with a smile she hoped came out as kind as she meant it and not at all as if she were going to laugh at him - she really wasn't.

"You know what I mean," Jess muttered some more, but Lorelai wouldn't stop staring and grinning. "I gotta get out of here," he declared, storming off.

He blew straight by Miss Patty and Babette who were on their way to the kitchen with a pile of empty dishes and glasses for washing.

"Oooh, somebody's on the warpath!" said Miss Patty, watching Jess' butt as it disappeared into the living room.

"Everything okay, sugar?" Babette checked with Lorelai.

The smile was sure gone from Ms Gilmore's face now as she considered the real mess they could all be in for yet. If Jess wasn't just worried about losing his BFF to a boyfriend, if he liked Rory more than they ever realised before... Oh boy, things were going to get bad. Lorelai wasn't sure how she was going to deal, or how Rory would deal, since she was pretty sure her daughter had no clue Jess' feelings for her were changing so dramatically.

Before she had a chance to think any more about it, or even begin to try to find something to say to get the two nicest but biggest gossips in town off her case, Luke saved the day, just like always. He appeared in the kitchen doorway with his hand over the mouthpiece of her phone. Lorelai hadn't even heard it ring in amongst all the Dean/Rory/Jess drama!

"Lorelai, there's some guy named Max on the phone for you?" said Luke, waving the cordless in her general direction.

"Oh, thanks," she smiled genuinely at the sound of that name, grabbing the hand-set from Luke and wandering away. "Hey, Max," she greeted him, almost immediately giggling and fawning like a much younger girl.

Luke seemed to squirm at the sound of her laughter and the way she seemed so happy to hear from this Max guy. He told himself he just didn't like Lorelai dating Rory's teacher because it would be awkward and weird for the girl he loved like family. Of course, that wasn't really true. There was so much more to it than that and even though Luke would never admit it, not even to himself, Patty and Babette sure knew. The look they shared spoke volumes on what they thought about Luke and Lorelai's close friendship, but Luke never noticed for a second, since he was way to busy seething.

To Be Continued...