Author's note: This story is an AU take on the latter part of "Lorelai's Graduation Day," which I haven't seen too many "what if" takes on that story. So this takes a look at one road possibly taken.
He nearly forgot about Lorelai's graduation.
It horrified Luke on one level that he nearly did forget it. The only reason he hadn't was because he flipped the calendar page as he was opening the diner that day, and the event was scrawled out in his slightly messy handwriting. A ticket was attached to the page with a paper clip, firmly secured so nothing would happen to it.
The part of his emotions that were still curled into a ball like an abandoned child immediately lashed out, and he slammed other calendar pages on top of it. Early May suddenly turned into August, and couldn't it be that easy? Just skip ahead through time, and maybe he would stop hurting so much. That lovely ball of anger, guilt, frustration, and God help him, love churned in his gut the way it had for every single day in the weeks since the accident, since Jess returned to New York City, since Rory tearfully apologized, and the standoff between him and Lorelai had become something of legend.
Once the initial rage burned away, Luke had seen her side of things. Lorelai's first priority was Rory. Always had been, always would be, and it was one of the reasons he admired her so much. Liz had screwed away so much of her life with Jess, but Lorelai moved the world every single day for Rory. He just wished she had seen his side of the entire mess as well, how he had been forced to choose between his family by birth and his family by choice and not given any time or space to think of another way. It wouldn't change the outcome in the end. No matter how much he cared for Rory, Jess came first. He had to come first.
Luke had forgiven Lorelai. Mostly. She didn't seem to realize just how much she hurt him when she lashed out at him, and the vindictive side of him urged him to prolong their rift and give her a good taste of what she'd heaped on top of him. She was the only person in the entire damn town who had encouraged him in any way, shape, or form with Jess. The same town had closed ranks around her, and a part of him that he refused to acknowledge ached for just a fraction of the support that she had received.
He failed Jess the same way he failed Liz, and Luke would live with that failure for the rest of his life.
He occasionally heard murmurs, mainly from Taylor, that he didn't have any feelings.
Sometimes, Luke wished he didn't feel quite so much.
Perhaps Lorelai had suffered long enough. He was only making himself suffer alongside her.
Mid-morning, he found himself flipping back to the correct date and studying the line of text written next to 7 p.m. "Lorelai's graduation. Requires ticket." The address of the community college was beneath it. He fingered the corner of the ticket.
When Luke covered the page again, this time it was to keep Kirk from checking it out since he chose that very moment to lean over the counter and make an asinine demand. The town had wisely avoided the subject of Lorelai in the diner, but it wouldn't take much to set them off.
By 5 p.m., the calendar was turned back to the correct date, the internal debate still raging.
At 5:13, he almost made a decision.
At 5:27, Sookie and Jackson passed outside the diner, dressed to the nines, clearly about to drive to Hartford.
At 5:41, Luke detached the ticket from the calendar page, called himself at least six different kinds of fool, and headed in the kitchen to speak with Caesar.
"Welcome to Hartford's Capital Community College commencement for the Class of 2002."
What the hell? Luke nearly tripped on camera cables that were strung along the back of the small hall. He glared at the setup, tracking the cables across the room. There was some sort of professional photographer and was that … yeah, some guy was shooting video of the thing. Unbelievable.
He absently wondered if copies would be available for sale.
Luke scanned the room and spotted the graduates arranged on stage. He picked Lorelai out immediately, having some sort of whispered debate with a guy nearby. For a moment, he wondered if it was another romantic prospect, and his heart gave a painful lurch. But the way she coldly glared at the guy clearly says no, and the fist around his chest loosened just a fraction.
He looked for an empty place to sit, but the room was mostly full. One of the few chairs available was next to Sookie and Jackson. He saw an empty spot near Lorelai's parents as well, but he wasn't exactly eager to subject himself to that experience. He had only talked to them a few times before, but he has heard enough over the past 21 months of Friday night dinners.
He frowned, realizing who was missing. Where was Rory?
He inched over to the empty chair next to Sookie, taking the seat quietly. Sookie shifted, her face apologetic. "Sorry, I'm saving that for … Luke!"
"Sookie," Jackson hissed, then his eyes went wide. "Hey! You made it!" he said, stretching across Sookie to shake his hand.
"Rory said you had a ticket, but we didn't think you were coming." Sookie's mouth formed an O when she saw what Luke held. "Are those …?"
"Don't," he whispered, a bit guilty that he had apparently taken Rory's seat. "Where's Rory?"
Sookie's brow furrowed. "I don't know. She paged Lorelai and said she would be here by the start of the ceremony, and she would sit in the back. That's why we're here. You didn't see her?"
"No." Uneasiness crawled into his gut to nestle alongside the nerves and the guilt. He tried not to imagine every horrible thing that could happen to a teenage girl traveling across Hartford but failed miserably. Nothing short of a devastating accident or emergency would keep Rory from her mother's graduation. He hadn't heard of anything involving buses on the radio, but she could had caught a ride with a friend, she could … There wasn't much he could do about it. He didn't even have a damn cell phone.
Luke's gaze swung back up to the stage and to Lorelai. Every emotion was clearly writ across her face: nerves from the ceremony, a sense of pride that was being drowned out by said nerves, and worry. For Rory, he knew, as she anxiously scanned the back of the room. Then her gaze flitted across the audience. He saw exasperation warring with amusement as she picked out her parents, then a giddy grin when she waved to Sookie and Jackson. Sookie bounced in her seat as she waved back.
Then her gaze swung to Sookie's right, and her jaw dropped. Lorelai mouthed his name, and Luke felt the flush crawl across his face. Well, if his being there was enough of a shock that to keep her from worrying about Rory, then he could distract her. He arched an eyebrow in response. Yeah, I'm here. You didn't think I would be?
She mouthed back. NO.
He rolled his eyes. What do you take me for?
She nearly rolled hers back, but he saw the moment she remembered as her face fell. Someone who wasn't even speaking to me this morning. Her gaze dropped to his lap, and her eyes went wide. Are those …
Don't even, he mouthed, jabbing a finger subtly at her. He wondered if she knew how his heart was racing. His hands hadn't been this clammy since he first asked Rachel on a date all those years ago. But then Lorelai beamed at him, and he thought he saw the glisten of tears.
The pile of stuff heaped between his chair and Sookie's began to vibrate, and Sookie glanced down. "Lorelai's cell," she whispered as she pulled it out of her purse. "It's Rory." She started to stand, but Luke held out his hand.
"Here, I'm closer to the aisle." He took the phone from Sookie and eased out of the seat, walking outside of the room before answering. "Rory? Where are you? Are you hurt?"
"Luke?" He heard the shock in Rory's voice, and he could imagine the look on her face – a mirror to the one her mother gave just a few minutes earlier. "Why do you have Mom's cell?"
"I'm at the college. I was closest to the aisle. Where are you?"
"You came!" Rory's delight was quickly replaced by a gasp and a sob. "I missed it. I missed it, didn't I?"
"Rory," he repeated, "Where. Are. You?" He started jogging outside, the fancy shoes and suit keeping him from going into a full-on sprint.
His words finally reached her. "Almost to the Greyhound station in Hartford. You know, Union Station. But I was thinking maybe I should go straight home and …"
He was already pulling open the door to the truck. "Stay there. I'm coming to get you."
"Rory," Luke repeated firmly, and her protests died away.
"OK," she said and hung up.
He shoved Lorelai's phone in his pocket and hoped that the East Coast Marketing Director of Pup 'n' Taco was long-winded.
It was a five-minute drive to Union Station — long enough for Luke to start puzzling out the back story behind Rory's strange disappearance. She couldn't be coming from Stars Hollow, as that was a CT Transit bus and there was a stop right in front of the community college. Greyhound meant that Rory had traveled somewhere outside of the immediate metro area.
It didn't take long for him to connect the dots.
He pulled up to Union Station just as Rory came rushing out the front, dodging commuters and other travelers as she raced to the truck. She yanked the door open, all but leaping into the cab. She messed with her seat belt as he quickly pulled around to go back to the college.
The lights favored them as they sped back to the college in silence, Rory anxiously worrying the strap on her book bag as he cut through yellow lights. When they reached the college, he pulled up to the door.
"Go. Run," he told her, and Rory scrambled out of the truck. For once, luck was on his side, and his original parking space was free. He'd been gone 10 minutes, 15 at the most.
When Luke reached the front door of the auditorium building, Rory was waiting for him. "What're you standing there for?" he asked, reaching for the handle.
"Waiting for you!" Rory pulled him inside after her. The hall was empty as they ran to the auditorium, yanking the doors open as the names in the Cs started to be called.
It was a small graduation class, maybe 50 at the most, so they were catching their breath in the back of the room as Lorelai's row got up. He would never forget the moment she saw them, the way her face lit up at the sight of them together. Next to him, Rory bounced on her toes and waved.
A cameraman rushed down the aisle, all but pushing into Lorelai's face, and Luke suddenly knew who hired him. He smirked when Lorelai shot the poor kid a horrified look.
"What's with the camera?" Rory asked.
"I think maybe your grandparents hired him." Luke nodded to where Emily and Richard were sitting, and Rory's smile blossomed.
"Grandma and Grandpa are here!" Rory said, delighted. "I asked them to come, but I wasn't sure they would." She gave him a thoughtful look. "You either."
Lorelai's name was called before he could think of an answer, and they heard Sookie's breath catch in a happy sob as Lorelai accepted her degree. Her eyes met Rory's as she flipped her tassel, and she stuck her tongue out at her. Rory laughed, sticking hers out right back and making a funny face. Then Lorelai's focus shifted to him, and he was afraid to guess the emotion shining in her eyes.
I did it, she mouthed, pointing to the diploma.
His face hurt, and that's when Luke realized that he hadn't stopped grinning from the moment she was handed her degree. Yeah, you did.
Rory was looking at him again, and he really, really hoped she wasn't reading him like her favorite novel. "Oh," Rory gasped. "Mom's gift! I left it on the bus!"
It was enough to pull him back to reality. "What was it?"
"It was a vinyl copy of The Go-Gos original album and it was signed by Belinda. Where are you going?" Rory asked as he patted her shoulder and headed back to the truck.
By the time Luke got back to the college for the third time, the ceremony had finished and he was able to park closer to the hall. Lorelai was at the center of a tangle of people that included her parents, Rory, Jackson, and Sookie. Her arms were filled with her purse, her coat, and his gift. A bit self-conscious, he hung back, not quite sure what to actually say. Lorelai's brow puckered a bit as she talked with Rory, who looked around for a moment and pointed straight at him.
He almost ducked right back out the door.
Lorelai cut through the crowd, and he wasn't quite sure what to expect. Luke was prepared for pretty much any reaction, from polite indifference to a full-on slap. It made her throwing her arms around his neck a complete shock. He nearly dropped the bag he held before remembering that hugs usually involved hugging the person back, and so he did.
They didn't hug often. Physical intimacy was something they never skirted near, and this was why. A hundred fantasies blossomed into life all at once, and Luke was afraid that he would be unable to let her go. Part of him just wanted to hold her even closer, to bury his nose in her hair and apologize for everything. But she eased back, her mascara running because of her tears.
"I can't believe you came." Lorelai dashed a hand across her eyes, leaving a streak of mascara across her cheek. "You're angry with me. You hate me, and you still came. And you got Rory, and she made it here in time. Thank you."
Oh no. He had to correct that misperception right now. "I don't hate you," he said, then he was the one initiating the hug. The second one was much quicker, and he was already mourning the loss of contact when they pulled apart.
He was in serious, serious trouble.
Lorelai scrubbed away at the mascara mark and didn't quite get it off. "You came, and you brought …"
"Don't …," Luke tried to stop her, but she continued.
"Flowers. You brought flowers. Sookie says she's never heard of you giving anyone flowers."
That's because I haven't before, he didn't say, and he was still amazed at himself for doing so now. It was a bout of temporary insanity, something that the woman standing in front of him frequently caused.
"What's that?" Lorelai asked, nodding to the crumpled bag in his hands.
"Oh. Rory." Luke held it out, and Rory came rushing over.
"You found it!" She clutched the bag to her chest as she beamed at him.
"Yeah, they were cleaning and let me go check the seats. Found it under the one you sat in from what it looks like."
Lorelai slung an arm around her daughter's shoulder and nodded at him. "Look at that, Rory. Definition of a superhero right there."
Rory noded sagely. "Puts Clark Kent to shame. Does he have a kryptonite?"
"Yes, it's called junk food."
"That explains it!"
He was more relieved that he ever thought he would be to be the butt of their jokes, and it made the entire crazy night worth it. Because they were back to normal, Luke knew his part. "I'm going home. Good night."
He was nearly back to the truck before Lorelai caught up. "Hey, wait!"
His hand was on the door as she reached him, hunching over slightly to catch her breath. The tassel dangled in her face. "You have long legs, and I have cheap heels. The combination really doesn't mix well." Lorelai straightened, sweeping the tassel back. "I'm sorry," she said, and Luke knew it wasn't for teasing him about junk food.
"I know. I got your letter. The Garfield stationary was a nice touch." He stared down at his hand, which was gripping the door handle so tightly that his knuckles had turned white. He slowly released the handle before turning fully to her. "I'm sorry, too."
"It wasn't your fault. It could have happened with Dean. We were all worried when Rory got that car. I'm the proud mother of the one kid in Connecticut that had a deer plow into her car, not the other way around. I know how much you care for Rory, but you were right to put Jess first. He's your family, and you sent him home because of me."
Luke looked over her shoulder at the setting sun. "I sent him home because of me," he softly admitted. "I'm heading home. Drive safe."
Lorelai stayed him with a hand on his arm. "We're OK. We're really OK?" Her voice was uncertain, as if she couldn't believe this had come so easily. There was no argument, no exhaustive discussion. He wasn't one for the latter anyhow. There was just acceptance. She made the choices she did for her family, he made the choices he did for his. They were both right. They were both wrong. They had to move forward, and he simply couldn't be without her in his life any longer.
He nodded and started to open the truc doork once more.
"No," she said, and her hold on him tightened. "No, you're not getting off that easy. Bring him back. Bring Jess back. Don't let it end like this for him. For either of you. Bring him home." Lorelai looked back at the school, where Rory was standing just outside the front doors talking to her grandparents. "I think Rory's in love with him. That's where she was today. She went to New York. She ditched school."
It was the same conclusion Luke had reached during the ride to get Rory, but the words coming out of Lorelai's mouth were still so foreign that he hardly believed them. "Rory? Ditched school?"
"Yeah. My kid." She laughed, the sound short and somewhat bitter. "Either she's caught some horrible disease, or she's in love."
"She's with Dean," he pointed out, though he still didn't like the putz. But it probably wasn't the best idea to encourage Jess and Rory to get romantically involved either.
"Yeah, and she's got to figure out what she wants. But you can't exactly dictate who you fall for." She punctuated this with a squeeze of his arm. "So, bring him back?"
He didn't answer for a moment, but he already knew what he was going to do, with her blessing the push he needed. "I'll go tomorrow."
"Good. Let me know what time you're coming by."
Luke just stared at her for a moment. "Sorry?"
Lorelai gave a pretty little shrug and a half smile. "Have to eat crow now and again. So, I'm going with you."
Despite the inherent joy to surround her graduation, Lorelai's mask had slipped during their talk and now she just looked worn and tired, like the last few weeks had grated upon her as much as it had him. Her eyes said everything that was trapped in his throat.
I don't want to hurt like this anymore.
He would later think this was one of the more reckless things he'd ever done. OK, it was the most reckless thing he'd ever done. But his body seemed to move on its own as he reached for her, skimming a hand down her arm before leaning in and pressing his lips to hers.
He felt the shock jolt through her, or maybe it was through him. Maybe it was something shared, like electricity leaping from one pole to another. His heart gave two hard thumps, and then she was kissing him back. He stepped in closer, wrapping an arm around her waist as she grabbed his bicep. They kissed and didn't think about their fight, about the teenagers in their care, or about their family and friends now frozen a few yards away as they gawked.
It was the most intense kiss he ever had, which was to be expected when you've waited six years to kiss someone. He instinctively wanted to turn her just far enough to press her into the solid truck door, to feel the heat of her body against his. But before he could follow through with his reckless thoughts, Luke heard a soft cough and looked over her shoulder to see them all: Rory, Sookie and Jackson, the elder Gilmores, even the putz Lorelai was arguing with on stage. The guy just shook his head and went off to his car.
Luke let the kiss end and braced for recrimination. Sookie's eyes glistened with tears, and Jackson just nodded with approval. Richard and Emily eyed him as if he was some sort of foreign species, and it kicked up the nerves in his stomach more than the kiss did.
Then his gaze dropped to Lorelai's and Luke saw the heat and promise in her eyes, along with the same look she gave him during the graduation ceremony. The look that maybe he wouldn't be afraid to name in the near future, because he didn't think she could ever feel that way for him. But now he knew, he knew, it won't be their last kiss. It was just a fact.
Rory skipped over to them and held her hand out. "Give me your keys, Mom. I'll drive the Jeep home. I'm sure the two of you want to talk."
Lorelai shuffled her things to one arm and dug through her purse for her keys. "As will you and I," she promised, handing them over.
"I'm already planning my own punishment." Rory kissed her cheek, then gave Luke a thoughtful look before kissing his as well. "Don't stay out too late. It's a school night." She winked at them and all but skipped as she headed for the Jeep. Then she stopped a few feet away and turned back to them. "Where's the Jeep anyhow?"
"That is, uh …" Lorelai looked around, baffled herself. "I forgot."
They laughed and help Rory look for the car.