Author's note: Rory's first night on her own at college is based off my own first night in the dorms. Right down to the incident at the very end.


Chapter 3: A Town Called Mercy

The next day, Rory went to college.

It was a day of hauling the same mattress back and forth across Connecticut, of discovering that neither of them were prepared at all, and then Rory having a last-second panic attack and summoning Lorelai back to her side. After a night of virtually every takeout option available in New Haven, Lorelai drove back to Stars Hollow early on Sunday morning. She sat in the Jeep, staring at the house for a long time before willing herself to get out.

Everything in her said to run away - flee to the diner, go all the way back to New Haven, to not stop driving until she reached the Pacific Coast. It was so easy that she forced herself to unlock the door and walk into the living room.

It was quiet. When had the house ever been this quiet? Certainly not in the past week, caught in that limbo between Europe and reality, when Rory's things had exploded all over the place and every day had been filled with a plethora of errands that had to get done before she left. Lorelai dropped her keys and purse next to the phone and studied the blinking answering machine. Her finger hovered over it, then dropped away.

Was this a wallowing moment? It didn't feel quite like a wallowing moment. She'd known this moment was coming for 18 years. But now that it was here and Rory was gone … Lorelai walked to Rory's room and leaned against the doorjam, studying the neatly made bed and the clutter Rory left behind. It wasn't like she had gone to school in Alaska. She was a half hour's drive away.

It felt like she was halfway across the country.

Lorelai marched into the kitchen and yanked open the refrigerator. Mixed among their normal takeout containers were vegetables, a half-used jar of spaghetti sauce, and stuff for making sandwiches. All things that said someone else was spending time here other than Lorelai and Rory. Strange how things could change in a week. She pulled out the container of fennel, still untouched. She wasn't alone, she reminded herself. She had a boyfriend. She had friends and good neighbors. Her breath hitched, and she could feel control skittering away from her.

"Honey, are you there?"

Lorelai sniffed and dashed a hand across her eyes as Babette opened the back door. "Hey, Babette."

"I saw the Jeep in the drive and wanted to see how you were doing." Babette's gaze fell to the fennel in Lorelai's hands. "Oh, that stuff's good grilled. You should have Luke fix it up for you sometime."

"I think that was the plan." Lorelai set the fennel on the table. "Coffee?"

"Sure. Did Rory get settled in OK?"

Babette stayed an hour, which was long enough for her to rave over the coffee that Lorelai had purchased during the Trader Joe's boycott trip. When she left, Miss Patty landed on her doorstep. While they chatted about Europe, Lorelai sneaked in a couple questions about the town meeting.

"I don't know what's on the agenda," Patty admitted. "Taylor's being close-mouthed about it, but he wasn't very happy to find out that Luke joined you on your trip."

"It's not Taylor's business," Lorelai told her.

"Honey, everyone in the town square has been wondering about the two of you for years." Patty leaned in close. "So, how is it?" Her gaze flicked toward the stairs.

Lorelai merely took a sip from her coffee mug. There was no need to tell Patty that Lorelai had yet to spend a night by herself since returning from Europe. But the twinkle in her eyes told Patty everything she needed to know.

"I wouldn't brag either," Patty said with a contented sigh. "Just tell me … better than his coffee?"

"Equal," Lorelai conceded, and they laughed together.

As Patty made her way back toward town, Sookie arrived with an array of food that Lorelai helped haul into the house.

"So, we've got your chicken salad with grapes to give it that extra kick. Pecans instead of walnuts, I know how much you hate those. Oh, and you have got to try these deviled eggs mixed with avocado. And look!" Sookie whipped off a lid from a Tupperware container. "Cinnamon-hazelnut pavlova with a coconut cream. I'm trying different recipes, seeing what will be good for the Dragonfly. Anyhow, we knew that it would be hard on you today, with Rory being gone."

Sookie snagged the container of fennel off the table, turning it over in her hands. "I could turn this into a lovely salad," she said. "Blood orange, a little shaved fennel. Oh, that would go well with sandwiches. Do you have any blood oranges?"

"I forgot to get some at the store." As Sookie put the fennel back in the refrigerator, Lorelai leaned against the counter. First Babette, then Patty, now Sookie. Oh so conveniently timed for when she got back from Yale. "So, who organized the baby-sitting group?"

"Well, Luke certainly did not ask me to drop by and make sure you were doing OK," Sookie said. She suddenly closed the refrigerator, her pinks tinged pink. "Oops."

Of course. Why wasn't she surprised? Lorelai poured herself another mug of coffee and sat back at the table as Sookie dished up some of the pavlova. "I'm fine! Why does nobody believe me when I say I'm fine?"

"Because it's Rory," Sookie replied, sitting across from her. "Honey, the day you left her at Stars Hollow Elementary for her first day of kindergarten, you didn't stop crying for two hours. Mia was beside herself."

"That was because Rory had me up at 5 am convinced we had to go right then so she could get a good seat and the best box of crayons, and I was crying from lack of sleep." Lorelai fiddled with the mug. "Would you think any less of me if I said I wasn't OK?"

"Not one bit. Here, have some pavlova."

Lorelai took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. "Could use some chocolate."

"You think?" Sookie took her own bite. "Definitely needs chocolate," she agreed. "I'm not entirely sold on the coconut."

"Neither am I." But it didn't stop them from devouring their desserts.

"You don't really think Taylor's gonna stop development on the inn, do you?" Sookie asked as they ate and Lorelai told her about the conversation she and Luke had with her father in the diner.

"Not without hurting the town's economy, and I'm not sure he wants to go there. Miss Patty thinks it has something to do with the fact that Luke and I are together now."

"He wasn't very thrilled when he found out you and Luke kissed."

Lorelai narrowed her eyes at Sookie. "And just how did he, and the rest of the town find out?"

Sookie sighed. "Sorry. Jackson can't keep his mouth shut to save his life."

"Well, it made this week easier. Less Bennifer and more normal. Say, by the way, I was thinking we could go with my dad for the insurance on the Dragonfly."

"We could," Sookie said thoughtfully. "I thought we were going to go with Larry for the liability?"

"Dad offered us a good rate."

"How did it go by the way, Friday night?"

Lorelai scraped the last of the pavlova off her plate. "Surprisingly not World War III. We got there, Mom had cornered Rory and was showing her ballroom dancing. It was very … pleasant."

"Pleasant good, pleasant bad?"

"Polite."

"Huh."

Huh, Lorelai agreed as she walked with Sookie out to the car and waved her off. She shouldered her purse and decided to walk into the center of town, using that time to mull over Friday night dinner. She thought it would be a repeat of the last frigid lunch they all had in Rome, but instead it had turned into an argument between Lorelai and Emily over how Rory was spending her final evening before college. It had led to all five of them spending most of the night watching ballroom dancing. Well, her father and Luke had been the first to nod off, then her mother had curled up against her father and slept. Lorelai and Rory talked late into the night, sharing biscotti Rory still had in her purse from the trip.

She longed for a piece of that broken biscotti. Lorelai chewed on her bottom lip, glancing down the sidewalk toward Weston's. Would Weston's even have biscotti? Maybe Sookie could make some. She could settle for a donut for now. Satisfied, Lorelai pushed open the diner door, her gaze immediately drawn toward the window. Curtains would do for now, she thought. The rolls of window film had been set aside until after the town meeting.

"There he is, Lou Grant, making sure that Mary Richards didn't have to spend her first day off the sleeping pills alone," Lorelai said as Luke walked out of the kitchen.

"I was just worried about you." He pulled down a mug for her and filled it with coffee.

"And I appreciate that. But eventually, I am going to have to be at the house by myself longer than it takes to run to the bathroom." Lorelai pulled the mug close, cupping it with both hands. She eyed the stand where the donuts were and inched toward it. "I'm very proud of myself. I've only thought about going to Yale six times."

"Considering that was four hours ago …" Luke batted Lorelai's hands away and got the donut himself.

She took it from him. "I have gone a whole five and a half hours without visiting Rory."

"And that explains the twitchiness."

Lorelai munched on the donut, switching her attention back to the window. "I wonder why Taylor insisted we go to this town meeting?"

"Probably to rub that damn window in our faces." Luke reached for a rag to wipe away the crumbs from Lorelai's donut as she twirled around in her seat to watch the activity in the soda shoppe.

"It's kind of like watching a very absurd episode of Leave it to Beaver," she commented, licking powdered sugar from her fingers.

Luke grunted, which could mean a number of things. Lorelai took this one as agreeing with her. "Do you want to stay here tonight?" he asked after a couple of minutes.

She gave him a half smile. "As much as I want to put that new mattress of yours to a very throughout testing, I have to stay by myself at the house at some point. It's something I need to do."

She thought she saw a hint of disappointment in his eyes, but it had disappeared almost as fast as her brain had registered it. "OK," he said easily, and it felt like her heart was glowing. Absently, she found herself thinking back to Max and how he pressured her time after time again to do what he wanted. She told Rory repeatedly not to live with regrets, that mistakes were just part of figuring out how things worked. But she found herself regretting Max just a bit, especially how she had practically thrown herself at him not long before Rory's graduation. The sex had been pretty good. OK, it had been great. But it didn't compare with the sex she was having now, that was for sure. The difference that comes with absolutely being in love with the person you're sleeping with.

Max had cajoled until Lorelai gave in, and while she had been the one to call off their marriage, he twisted it into it being her fault that he couldn't move on. Lorelai nursed her coffee and absently wondered what things would have been like had Luke not suddenly reversed course and gone to Europe. Would he have proposed to Nicole? Would he be trying to make it work? Would her own eyes have ever been opened about him?

Lorelai finished her coffee and put her purse on the counter. It was the outrageously pink bag that Luke had brought along with him on the trip to replace her stolen purse, and it had been her faithful companion ever since. It was, she discovered, extremely roomy and even had anti-theft deterrents built into it. It somehow fit the both of them, and he hadn't even realized it until they were reading the tags as she had cut them off in Paris.

"There's extra clothes and makeup in there," she sighed.

Luke reached over and patted her hand. "You tried."

That night, she lay next to him, watching the light from the street lamp crawl across the ceiling as he snored softly. She tried to imagine it was Amsterdam, and Rory was asleep just across the room. Or maybe it was Vienna and it was the night Rory crashed in the dorms so they could have the small double bed to themselves. If she closed her eyes, she could almost hear Rory's soft breathing.

I'm not going to cry, she told herself, tears streaming down her cheeks. I'm not going to cry. She turned onto her side, closed her eyes and hugged herself, willing herself to calm down.

Lorelai didn't register that the snoring had stopped until she felt Luke's hand rubbing her back in gentle circles. Hiccuping, she turned into him and shook and shook and shook until his shirt was wet and she was utterly exhausted.

"I'm sorry," she managed.

"Don't have anything to be sorry about."

"I thought I was stronger than this."

He dropped a kiss to the top of her head. "You're one of the strongest people I know. You're allowed to grieve, Lorelai."

"I thought I was ready."

"I don't think you're ever fully ready."

She pressed her ear to his chest, grateful that she wasn't alone. She let the steady beat of his heart lull her to sleep.


The first night she was in the dorms without her mother on a stolen mattress next to her, Rory took Colonel Clucker and sneaked outside.

She sat on a bench in a small plaza not far from her dorm, some pretty fountain gurgling away. She clutched her stuffed rooster to her chest and cried until there were no tears left.

She thought she was ready for this. She had spent her entire life preparing for college, and the time she sneaked into a Harvard classroom had been one of the best moments of her life so far. She didn't live that far from Stars Hollow. Maybe it wasn't too late to become a commuter student. It'd be like attending Chilton. She could sleep in her own bed at night, have breakfast at the diner before going to class. Lane would be there, and they could mock the horrible classes she was being forced to attend. She'd even relish being Ice Cream Queen.

But she couldn't do that. Her grandparents were paying for Yale, and Rory knew it was better to stay in the dorms where she was closer to her classes. She had to leave home at some point. Besides … she had Paris.

Yippee.

Rory creeped back into the dorm and into her bed, knowing she wouldn't disturb Paris. Hardly anything bothered her in her sleep, that much she learned when they spent the previous summer together. Rory tucked Colonel Clucker against the headboard and gave him one last pat. Once again, he came through. She snuggled into her new bedding and was nearly asleep when she heard the noise.

"What the," she murmured, turning onto her back as the ceiling creaked.

Why would the ceiling creak?

No. There was another dorm above hers. So something in that dorm was creaking.

It creaked once. Then again. Then came a steady series of creaks, increasing in tempo and noise.

Was it … Rory's jaw dropped. Ohmigod.

She pulled the pillow over her head and tried in vain to ignore the very loud, enthusiastic round of sex going on above her head.

Two days later, Rory almost had her classes narrowed. She still had three more days of shopping week to do, but she was getting a handle on what she wanted to learn. Pretty much … everything. Frustrated, she tossed the course catalog and her messenger bag in the Prius and headed toward Stars Hollow. She mulled schedules as she drove down the Interstate and had just resigned herself to getting core requirements out of the way when she pulled in the driveway of the house, parking next to the Jeep.

Lorelai was out of the house before Rory turned the car off, and she just grinned at her mother. "Were you sitting at the window waiting on me?"

"No, my one and only offspring. I was sitting on the stairs."

Rory wasn't sure which one of them was hugging first, but she was reluctant to let go. Her mother was warm, comforting, and home. "Well, it's only the second day of shopping week, and I have a pretty light load all things considered. It was either do pasta sculptures with Paris or come to this mysterious town meeting."

"And I thought I was bad." Keeping an arm slung around Rory's shoulder, they started toward Miss Patty's together.

"I figured I would wean my way into staying at Yale more. You know gradually lengthen the leash."

Lorelai let her arm drop at the end of the block, and watched Rory out of the corner of her eye as they walked. "We're not doing too good, huh?"

Rory shrugged. "Not really. Managed to sleep at the house since I left?"

"I put considerable thought into it."

Rory smirked. "That's my mommy. How many times did you attempt to come to Yale since Sunday?"

"Only 11 times!" Lorelai protested.

Rory's eyebrow winged up. "Eleven?"

"Luke hid my keys after that." Lorelai sighed and shot a dirty look in the direction of the diner, which made Rory snicker. "And he hasn't given them back yet. What about you?"

"Seven. This was the time when I actually pulled off the exit."

"It'll get better," Lorelai reassured her.

Rory nodded in agreement. "Yes. It'll get much better."

"Starting tomorrow."

"Absolutely tomorrow."

It shouldn't feel different, Rory thought as they walked into Miss Patty's and selected seats, but it was. At Yale for three days, and already she felt like an outsider in the town she grew up in. No, it was before that. She had spent the entire summer away. They missed at least three festivals, or did they ever get that Apple Blossom Festival off the ground? OK, maybe four. Still. She caught Lane's eye and waved, making a note to check in with her before driving back to New Haven. They talked on the phone every day, but it wasn't the same. It never was.

Beside her, her mother chatted easily with the people around her before diving into her purse with one hand and pulling out a bag of Red Vines. She offered it to Rory, who took two pieces. Despite the ease which her mother carried herself, Rory recognized the stress in her eyes. Shortly before the meeting began, Luke slipped into the dance studio and took the seat Lorelai saved for him. Rory saw the same stress in his eyes, the stiff posture and his silence speaking volumes as he ignored everyone around him. When he spotted her, he relaxed slightly and gave her a half smile.

The meeting wound its way through an agenda that was absurd, even for a Stars Hollow town meeting. Rory was too nervous to enjoy it, worried for her mother and Luke. She nearly took Lorelai's hand at one point, just to have a steady anchor, only to find her mother was already tightly holding Luke's hand.

Instead, her gaze drifted around the room, landing on Dean and Lindsay cuddled together a few rows behind them. Rory immediately snapped her head around, but the image of those two snuggled together was seared into her brain. Was her mom right? Did they want sex so badly that they were rushing into marriage for it? She and Dean had made out, sure, but he never pressured her in that area. Jess had made it absolutely clear he eventually wanted sex, and Rory had found herself actually craving it with him. But not Dean. She had loved Dean, loved his kisses, loved it when they tentatively experimented with more. But she hadn't seriously considered sex with him. It just seemed part of the distant future, like college once was. With Jess, it was like her hormones were furiously tap dancing across the room, and they had come so close at Kyle's party …

"A very serious matter has been brought to our attention, and I would like to bring to the floor for discussion the possible negative ramifications of the owner of Stars Hollow's future inn owner and the owner of the town diner dating."

Rory's attention returned to the front of the room, where Taylor stood talking. Next to her, her mother stiffened with shock.

"Oh my God, he actually went there," Lorelai whispered.

Rory's jaw dropped as Taylor went into a litany of reasons why her mother and Luke dating would set the grounds for disaster.

"Think of the consequences. What will happen when the relationship goes sour, as, let's face it, most of Lorelai's relationships do?" Taylor asked.

"Hey!" hey mother shouted, incensed.

"That's not true!" Rory called out. "Is he wanting you to break up?"

"You can't be serious!" Lane called out.

"I think you're over-reacting, Taylor," Babette added.

"For God's sake, Taylor," Gypsy snarled. "This town has too much going on the be obsessed over the lives of two people."

Rory decided it was time to deploy the weapon in their arsenal. "Let him off the leash, Mom," Rory whispered. Her mother looked down at her, understanding her perfectly. She slowly slid her hand from Luke's, giving his knee a squeeze. His head whipped around, fury radiating from him in a way that Rory had hardly ever seen from him. He was holding back for their sake. Her mother gave him a small nod. Then he lunged to his feet.

Rory dearly wished for a video camera for the epic yelling match that followed. There was a lot having to do with the owners of a flower shop and a candy store and a subsequent breakup. There were echoes of Rome when Luke informed them all that the only people whose business was to butt into their relationship was her and her mother, and her chest tightened just a bit. It felt like they were a family.

Then it veered into the whole mess about the window between the diner and the soda shoppe, which Lorelai had brought her up to speed on.

"The window in the diner is an entirely different issue," Taylor was telling Luke. "We will add it to the agenda for the next meeting. This particular issue we have tabled since July."

"Is it? Tell me, Taylor, were you planning to unbrick that window before word got back here that Lorelai and I were together?"

"I don't see how that possibly plays into …"

"And if I brick up the window again," Luke spoke over him, "are you gonna deny Lorelai the permits needed for the Dragonfly to break ground?"

"Dear," Miss Patty cut in gently, "that's not going to happen."

"I have to think of the economy of this town!" Taylor insisted. "We can't risk people avoiding town businesses if you and Lorelai break up!"

"We are two people in a town of thousands! Believe me, not everyone here is as obsessed over me and Lorelai as you are." Luke strode up to Taylor, jabbing a finger at him. "If we break up, will you grant Lorelai the permits and leave her alone?"

"No!" Lorelai surged to her feet, Rory scrambling up after her. "That's not an option!"

"I'm not gonna to be the one to end your dream!" He wasn't looking back at them, and Rory thought for a moment that maybe he couldn't.

"It'll happen." Her mother's voice was calm and authoritative in a way that reminded Rory of her grandfather. "We'll find a way. I'll talk to my dad. We'll get a lawyer."

"Luke, that is enough," Miss Patty said quietly. "The plan Lorelai and Sookie submitted to the Stars Hollow Historical Preservation Society was already approved."

Silence reverberated through the dance studio as Luke just stared at Miss Patty.

"So, Mom has the permits," Rory managed after a few seconds.

Miss Patty folded her hands over her stomach. "Oh yes, we did it during the meeting we held while you were in Europe."

"Permits can be revoked," Taylor tried to bluff, but Miss Patty shot him a cutting look that made Rory wonder if that had caused at least one husband to flee.

"Not without the approval of two-thirds of the board, and only before the permit is filed with the state. I happen to be very efficient with our paperwork. Taylor, you're being insufferable, letting Luke and Lorelai even think for a minute that the inn was in danger."

Rory almost felt sorry for Taylor. It had been her grandfather who suggested that Taylor could possibly hold up the permits, but him pulling such a thing wasn't outside the realm of possibility. This whole thing was one bizarre mess anyhow, quite possibly one of the strangest things to happen in Stars Hollow. And Rory had seen some very strange things in her town.

"The window stays," Taylor sputtered.

"Like hell it is!" With that, Luke pivoted and stormed out of the dance studio.

"Take notes," Lorelai told Rory, then fled after him.

Rory caught Lane's eye, and after an acknowledging nod from her, she grabbed the purse Lorelai left behind and hurried out of the studio.

She reached the diner in time to hear her mother's raised voice come through the still-opened door.

"No, no, put the sledgehammer down, Luke, it's not going to solve anything!"

Rory eased the door open in time to see him do as she asked, almost hurling the heavy tool aside. "I can't stand it! He is not going to dictate our lives anymore! We'll move to Juno if we have to!"

Her mother slipped her arms around his waist. "As adorable as I'd look in a pink puffy snowsuit, you're only giving him cause to come after you."

He held himself stiff for a few seconds longer, then relaxed into her embrace as she soothed him by rubbing his back in long, slow strokes. "Why the hell is he so hung up over our relationship?"

"Question for the ages, babe."

Rory hung back, watching them comfort each other. She had weeks in Europe to get used to them being together, but it always felt like she was an outsider clumsily barging into a scene where she knew she wasn't needed. What worries that remained about her mother being alone dissipated, and she knew Lorelai would be all right. Softly, she set Lorelai's purse on one of the tables. The clank of the fake gemstones against the surface caused them to look over, and Rory gave a small wave before slipping back out the door. She pulled it completely closed behind her, shut her eyes, and took a deep breath.

"Rory, dear?"

Rory opened her eyes to see Miss Patty at the foot of the steps leading up to the diner. "Hey, Miss Patty."

"I was just coming over to see if everything was all right."

Rory managed a smile. "Yeah, Mom calmed Luke down. Window's still intact."

"That's good." Relieved, Miss Patty fumbled for a cigarette. "I'm really very sorry about tonight. I suspected something was going to happen, but nothing like this."

"It's not your fault, Miss Patty," Rory reassured her.

Miss Patty nodded and started back toward the dance studio. Rory followed, falling into step with her.

"Why is Taylor so upset about Mom and Luke?" she asked.

Patty leaned in toward Rory, and her nose wrinkled when she caught a whiff of cigarette smoke. "I suspect, and this is only my personal thoughts on the matter, is that your mother and Luke are an extremely formidable unit. I don't think either of them realize how much power they wield within the town. I think Taylor sees them as a threat. Should either one of them ever develop an interest in politics, well …"

The thought of her mother or Luke running for political office was so absurd that Rory nearly laughed. "They'd hate it for vastly different reasons."

The twinkle in Miss Patty's eye told Rory that she agreed with her. "Yes. I know that, and you know that, and those who know them best know that. But Taylor is right on one thing. If they break up, the town will be divided."

Rory huffed a bit. "Why is everyone so convinced this isn't going to work out? Just give them a chance."

"If anyone is going to work it out, it's them. Words I wish my second husband had lived by."

For a fleeting moment, Rory thought of Dean, Lindsay, and their upcoming wedding and absently wondered what they would do if faced with a problem like this. She bid Miss Patty good night, then caught up with Lane. They quickly exchanged notes, with Lane telling her Taylor looked almost defeated and Rory telling her about the sledgehammer.

Rory reached the diner just as her mother and Luke came out the front, and he secured the door behind them.

"Headed back?" Lorelai asked.

"Yeah. Going home?" Rory nodded toward the Crap Shack and took several steps down the sidewalk, hopefully encouraging her mother to follow.

Her mother worried the strap of her purse, then gave a long, slow sigh. "I'm going to try. I think it's time I did."

"OK." Rory hugged her tightly, and when she pulled back, she noticed her mother giving her a knowing look. "Good luck."

"You too, kid."

Rory's attention turned to Luke. "You're going with her, right?"

He arched an eyebrow. "What do you take me for?"

"Just making sure. Good night!" Rory sang and all but skipped down the sidewalk, feeling a lot lighter.