Clarification: Elise IS writing this with me still... because I can't do this without her.

Arianna rules. ::nods::

Smoke and Steel pt 2

He wakes up to sunlight through his frosty window. At first he doesn't really remember where he is, but realizes quickly as he sits up and looks around the quiet apartment.

He picks up his watch and reads eleven o'clock in the morning. He shrugs and swings his legs over the side of the bed, scratching his scalp with his fingers. It's harder to get up than it used to be.

He's had the same messed up dream for the past couple of nights.

It's his and Liz's New York apartment, pre-Stars Hollow, in all its shining chaotic glory. He is in his old bedroom, wedged in between his bookcase and the wall. The claustrophobia sends him darting out the door but he never makes it farther than the hallway. He sees Liz and TJ sitting on the couch, staring at the blank television set. The sight of them together makes his blood heat up; he wants nothing more than to take TJ's head off.

Then, without any kind of warning, it happens. TJ hits his mother. Once. Twice. Again and again. Jess leaps forward, seeing red, but he can't move. It's a full body paralysis, and he can only watch. TJ is huge, strong, and Liz is smaller, always weaker than she let on.

Jess always wakes up swinging.

He hauls himself off the bed and takes a cold shower. He dresses and leaves his hair messy-doesn't care.

When he walks into the diner, Luke is wiping down the counter for what Jess assumes is the umpteenth time.

"Hi."

Luke nods. "Hey."

They stand in silence. It's their way, now. They ate dinner in silence the night before, and watched TV in silence just before going to bed, and now they stand in the diner. In silence.

Jess grabs an order pad and a pencil and goes about taking orders as if nothing has changed.

But everything has. Even if he ignores it, he can see the change reflected in the eyes of the people he serves. These same people who only a few years ago wanted to persecute him are now offering up their condolences. Even worse, their faces hold pity for him - poor boy, they all think; tumultuous relationship with his father - left when he was just a baby, you know - and now his mother has drunk herself to death. Such a shame.

And Luke has been making funeral plans. He makes furtive phone calls after he sends Jess out on his break, but Jess sees him through the window. He knows his uncle has already been up to pick out a casket and has reserved a space in the Stars Hollow cemetery. He's found the lists too: who to invite, what music to play, who will say a few words at the service.

It scared Jess when he saw his own name on there. He couldn't imagine himself speaking to a room full of people about his on-again, off-again mother. What would he say? She could have been better? She did the best she could?

She tried to love him?

And all of a sudden it hits him like a ton of bricks.

Luke should not be doing all of this alone.

She did try to love him. Liz was a screw-up, but... she tried... sometimes... right?

She was his mother.

He thinks maybe he owes her... for at least the roof she put over his head when he was growing up...

He walks back behind the counter, and puts the orders in with Caesar. He turns to Luke and shoves his hands into his pockets. "Hey."

Luke glances at him for a moment. "Hey."

"Uh... do you....?" Jess sighs. Spit it out! "Do you want... help... with the funeral?"

Luke actually freezes for several seconds, halting the cloth in mid-swipe. Beneath the rag, Jess can see how discolored the top of the counter has become.

"You don't have to help," Luke finally says.

"But isn't there a lot to, uh, do? Planning and..." Jess trails off. Before this, he has always had the words, but he chose not to use them. Now, he struggles to make sense of the fractured thoughts that surface in his head. He can barely form full sentences.

"I've got it under control, Jess. You really don't need to do anything. Just being here is... it's enough."

Both men have been speaking without looking at the each other. This new way of communication so far has gone on unquestioned, but now, suddenly, Jess is turning to meet his uncle's eye. He asks, "Are you sure?" and Luke can clearly see he isn't.

"I think I'm behind on a few calls," Luke says, finally having caught on. Jess doesn't want to help; he needs to.

"I'll get on that."

Luke gives a very short nod, and goes back to wiping down the counter, just as the bell on the door rings.

Jess looks up, and barely has time to say hello, before Rory Gilmore is at the counter, leaning over it and wrapping her arms around him.

It's a little strange, but somehow comforting.

"Hi," she says.

"Hi," he replies.

A couple of years ago, this sort of thing would be completely out of the question. One year ago, this sort of thing would be awkward as hell. Now, though, it feels fine... not like it used to... they are friends; just friends, and it has suited their needs adequately.

She takes a small step back so they are both on their respective sides on the counter. She studies him carefully in a short moment of silence, specifically noting the pallor of his skin. It unsettles her.

"Do you have a break soon?" she asks, biting her lip.

"I just started -" Jess begins before Luke cuts in quickly to announce that yes, Jess has a break right now.

"We should go get coffee," Rory suggests tentatively.

"Luke serves coffee."

"I want Al's."

"You hate Al's. Everybody hates his coffee."

"I'll get tea then." Without another word, Rory turns and makes her way out the door, pausing only once to make sure Jess is behind her.

"I don't know how to do this," Rory announces once they're seated.

"Do what?"

"Get you to talk. You never talk about these types of things, but I want you too. You should."

"Rory, you don't have to do this."

"And I know that you and I don't have the best relationship," she continues, as if he hasn't spoken at all, "but you can still talk to me. And I will listen or offer advice or... anything. I'll do anything."

"Anything?"

"Yes," she nods. "I don't want you to be -"

He interrupts, not wanting her to go on. He doesn't want any more pitying looks, any more sad words or heartfelt offers to talk. "Just have coffee with me."

She frowns. "Just... coffee?"

"Yeah. Get coffee or tea or whatever the hell you want. Tell me about work."

"I..." She pauses, watching his face. Their eyes meet, and something passes between the two of them - she seems to understand. With a half smile, she does the best she can. "It's going well."

"Good," he nods. "Good..."

They wind up talking for the better part of...well, they wind up talking all day.

Jess sighs as they make their way to the bridge. "So...how's Logan?"

Rory's expression turns stony. "Fine," she tells him. "He's in France for Christmas."

"What's in France?" Jess asks, as he shoves his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket.

"His grandmother... and pretty French mademoiselles," she says, trying to be light about it.

"You broke up."

She nods and looks down at the icy water. "We broke up."

"Any particular driving force?"

"We both have different ideas of what a monogamous relationship means."

"He cheated on you," Jess states.

"No, but he was... looking." She shrugs. "We'd been together for a while, and he just... he needed someone new."

She takes a seat on the bridge. Jess follows her lead, and she smiles, reminded of previous afternoons spent in this same position. It makes her sad then, remembering moments she'll never have again. Looking over at Jess, she wonders if he's thinking the same thing - if that's what he thought about his mother. Has he been submerged in earlier memories? Is the past tearing into him right now?

The silence has gone on too long, and both know it. She thinks he suspects what she's about to ask, but if he does, he gives no sign.

"Do you miss her?"

He's quiet for a moment as if really pondering the question. He's reviewing what he feels, what he remembers, comparing it to the correct answer.

"I don't know," he says simply. "Hard to miss someone who was never there."

"Jess, do you -"

"Come on," he interrupts. "I'll walk you back to the diner."

She wants to ask more; needs to ask more, but she knows she won't get any answers. He won't open up. Why should he? He doesn't for anyone else.

But she doesn't want to leave. She doesn't know why, but she likes this; this calm and quiet that was unbearable with Dean and nonexistent with Logan is comforting with Jess. It always has been.

"Can we just... stay here?"

"Luke will wonder where I am," he tells her.

"He knows you're with me," Rory offers.

Jess nods, and looks back down at the water.

It's after closing when Jess enters the diner. He is surprisingly calm, carrying leftover cheerfulness lent to him by Rory. She was so careful around him today, treading softly and acting kind. If she had been trying to get him to feel better, even if only for a little while, it had worked.

Luke stands behind the counter, going over the day's receipts. He looks up when Jess comes in, and nods in acknowledgment, mumbling a greeting. Jess saunters over to where his uncle stands, prepared to give an explanation for his whereabouts. Before he can get a word out, however, Luke hands him a list.

"Instructions are under the numbers," Luke explains.

"Oh. Thanks." Jess makes an abrupt about-face and heads for the staircase.

"Jess," Luke calls. His nephew turns with a hand on already on the curtain, ready to disappear.

"Those guys can be a pain in the ass. Give 'em some hell and they'll cave."

Jess gives a curt nod, and ascends the staircase.