Title: The Presence of Absence
Author: Holy Lulalicious!
Rating: PG
Pairing: Luke and Lorelai
Email:chiaroscuroharmony(at)hotmail(dot)com
Disclaimer: We're just borrowing. We promise to put them back where we found them.
Summary: "I love you," she says simply. She doesn't know if it'll matter, doubts that it will fix anything, but she's learned tonight that she can have the strength she's always thought she had if she's willing to be weak for just a moment.
Spoilers: General through Season Five
A/N: This was written as a collaboration between authors all things holy and Lula Bo and is a first attempt at joint fiction. Please forgive us any rough patches; we're new to the compromising thing and tried our best to get this right. With help from Ruby Garnet and Arianna, it went through many, many revisions. Then it went through many, many more. Over the course of the summer, it grew larger and larger until finally it took on a life of its own. We apologize for the size; we too marvel at our own verbosity. We hope you enjoy it. Hopefully, it'll be the first of many joint attempts.

"I used to think my life was often empty, a lonely space to fill....More than words I tried to tell you; the more I tried I failed."
- Sarah McLachlan, "Plenty"


Lorelai whistles in the kitchen, and he knows he'll never understand how anyone can whistle disco. (He'll also never understand how she's got him listening to disco.) She's cleaning out the fridge while he watches the Yankees slaughter the Braves, his feet up on the coffee table. His hat is on the armrest and his toothbrush is in a cup in the bathroom; this is something that delights her more than him, though he doesn't really know that. He knows that in a minute she'll yell something completely profane, followed closely by his name in what he's sure she thinks is a coy voice, calling him to fix something or lift something or simply keep her company. He knows that he'll go, even though it means leaving behind the Yankees and being assaulted by the Bee Gees. He admits it reluctantly, but she definitely wears the pants in this relationship. Stylish and elegant, yet marvelously inexpensive pants, she adds in his head. This is evidenced by the fact that the Friday night dinner rush is about to start and he's left his diner in the questionably capable hands of Caesar and Lane for the second time this month.

"Fuck a monkey!" Luke hears and laughs to himself. Rodriguez hits into a double play, and he shakes his head. He holds his breath just a moment to see if he knows her as well as he thinks he does.

He does: Lorelai calls his name, drawing out the vowel in an attempt to sound like some kind of damsel in distress. He sighs, lifts himself from the couch, and walks into the kitchen.

She's sitting on the floor, surrounded by produce and bottles of soda. The Diet Coke is in there on her insistence, the lettuce on his. Her hair frames her face in a way that reminds him of midnight and rustling sheets. Their first time together, he'd been mesmerized by her hair and the way it was almost silver in the moonlight. Since then, he's been attentive to much more specific things. He's come to know her favorite spots for everything: a kiss, a touch, a breath. He's started mapping her body, the curves and crests, memorizing the movements she makes when she's above him. He's fairly certain that there's nothing more beautiful than the sight of her, barely visible in the darkness and haloed by the light from the window, face cast upward and arms at her sides, eyes closed and breath baited. He'll readily tell her that she's the most beautiful woman he's ever known, though he doesn't say it half as often as the thought crosses his mind.

She's juicy and she's in trouble, and he regards her a moment, sitting there looking so thoroughly pathetic. She swipes at the hair in her eyes and looks up at him, lip jutting out noticeably. "I think that since you're in charge of almost every perishable item in this house, you should clean the fridge," she says. She picks up a bag of broccoli from the floor. "This green, only slightly edible vegetable? Yours." She throws the bag at him and he catches it with ease. Next, she picks up a package of mushrooms. "These incredibly gross fungal specimens that we both know I'd never be caught dead eating? Most definitely yours." She throws the carton too low and he has to stoop to catch it.

He loves her like this, playful and easy. They both know she's not really complaining, just baiting him into conversation: she's become the master at getting more words out of him than anyone he's ever known. It's almost like a routine, and if it is then it's the more definite one they've got: she patronizes, he complains, she pouts, he gives in. It's something steady, like daytime or fishing season or the clearance at Bloomingdale's. It'd been awkward at first, the transition from friend to whatever they've become. Neither one is exactly sure where they stand, but they know it's better this way, that it's the thing that was always missing before.

Luke walks over to her, bypassing where she sits to open the freezer door. "One carton of Ben and Jerry's. Since I'm cleaning out the fridge, I've decided that this is the first thing to go." She's on her feet like she's defending her virtue rather than a half-eaten tub of Chubby Hubby.

"Close the freezer door and back away slowly. I don't want to have to get violent on your flannel-clad ass." She's staring him down like he's trying to steal the crown jewels, and he closes the door halfway. Raising a finger in warning, she narrows her eyes and motions for him to shut the door the rest of the way. He teases it, closing it inch by inch until the suction sound of plastic on metal is heard.

"Such a smart man, you are. You realize I'd leave you in a minute if Ben and Jerry came knocking on my door. My love for them is pure and unadulterated, it's not merely an infatuation," she says.

Luke lets rest the fact that she's called this thing mere infatuation as she steps towards him, hooks one finger in his belt loop and pulls him closer.

"Technically, my ass isn't flannel-clad. My boxers are cotton," he says, stooping slightly to kiss her. If he'd known that this was why she'd called him from the Yankee game, he wouldn't have complained half as much.

He wonders, as his hands go to her lower back, whether he's got any clean jeans upstairs, but quickly focuses on more important things. This is another of their routines, though one could only loosely call it that. He spends most nights at her house and has more than a casual few outfits in her closet. Though it's only been four months, they've gotten startlingly comfortable in the new boundaries of their relationship. There are some things that haven't changed: he still pours her coffee every morning, though the length of her visits at the diner is new; he still does all the household repairs, though he now helps himself to a beer and sprawls out on the couch after each fix-it session; she still nags him about his outfits, though now she's decided she likes his flannel better on her than on him.

Luke had worried, at first, how she'd react to having someone like him in her life; Lorelai never said, but she'd worried more than he had. In the beginning, it had been hard, the deciding of which imperfections to let show. She'd kept her habit of taking abnormally long showers a secret for weeks, though she'd let him know right away that she dog-ears her favorite pages of her favorite books and leaves her dishes in the sink. But it was easier in a lot of ways, she thought, having him know her so well already. He wasn't shocked by her caffeine intake or eating habits or the fact that she's never, if ever, on time. Likewise, she knew to expect rants on inane topics and the slight smell of grease and the beardburn. She thought for a moment that it was almost cheating, knowing so much about each other, but now she considers it reflective of the fact that this is really the best idea she's had in quite some time.

She's started to change little things about herself to make room for Luke in her life. The bathroom is perpetually cleaner and the bedroom floor at least visible in the most used paths. Most noticeably, she's started waking with him in the mornings though she's never been affected by an alarm clock in her life up to now. Every morning, he slides out of bed at 4:45 and tries not to wake her; every morning, she lets him believe he's succeeded. She waits until she hears the run of the shower before she opens her eyes and slides her hand to his rapidly cooling side of the bed. She's not quite sure why, but the indentation on his pillow stings her eyes every time. She's proud of herself, that she's come this far and not yet run away. Still, Lorelai knows there are things she needs to work on. She's never told him that she loves him, though she's fairly confident she does. She's never told him that she needs him, though she's fairly confident that she has for far longer than she'd ever admit.

It amazes her, the things she thought she knew about him that she's had to re-teach herself. She's learned to read between the lines of what he says, but she's still at a loss as to what his silences speak; she knows now what every line on his face indicates, but she still can't decipher what the touch of his hands seems to say. For being the least verbal person she knows—though she'll tell you proudly that he's on occasion started talking to her at such length that she's tuned him out—he communicates more than anyone she's ever been with.

Though she can't always read him, she knows what he's thinking when he starts kissing her like this, and she starts to drag him out of the kitchen and towards the stairs. They make it halfway up the staircase before the phone rings.

Lorelai drops her face and rests her forehead against Luke's chin. Closing her eyes and gripping his arms, she sighs. "Fuck a giant purple monkey, this time," she says, as she pushes off him and heads for the phone. Three rings down, he grabs her by the waist.

"You do have an answering machine, highly neglected and under-used," he tells her, his voice throaty.

He's pushed the hair away from her neck and is working at the tender skin behind her ear. This is her favorite side of him, she thinks, the part of his image that gets broken down only for her; when he's like this, she doesn't have to make any kinds of guesses at what he's thinking.

She turns to face him with every intention of giving in when she hears the machine click. "Gilmore residence: we're avoiding your call, so either take the hint or bother us further by not hanging up." She'd toyed with the idea of putting his name on the outgoing message but didn't want to have that conversation because of what it implied; she'd never made that much space in her life for someone else, he'd never liked to push his boundaries with her. It's not simple, this new melding of their separate lives, but it's easier than she'd expected it to be in most respects. She starts to draw his lips down to hers when she hears Rory's tinny machine voice echo around the living room.

"Mom, I don't know if you're there or not, but I wanted to let you know that—"

She's out of his arms faster than he can try to hold her, which is maybe Luke's biggest fear of all. He'd never exactly been there through the other men, the Maxes, the Christophers, the Jasons, but he'd watched from close enough to sense a definite pattern. She doesn't like to be held too tightly, he's learned, and she doesn't give anything up that she's not decided she can spare. He doesn't even admit to himself that he's disappointed that it's really been no different with him. He's tracked her relationships, has the advantage of knowing when she usually runs and the speed at which she's capable of leaving.

On the surface, these past months have been smooth sailing, but there's a current beneath, a riptide just dangerous enough to drag them both under. He loves her, though he's never actually been able to say it with words, but he's having a hard time working his way into the important parts of her life. He's almost sure that she doesn't do it on purpose and he's positive she feels for him deeply, but she still hasn't stopped moving, hasn't stopped staying just out of reach. He's tried to work away the distance, tried to stop her from compartmentalizing all the different aspects of her life, but hasn't much succeeded; try as he might, he's still on the edges of her life in many ways and he's not sure how much longer he can stand it.

She tucks the phone under her chin as she greets her daughter, throws him an apologetic glance over her shoulder on the way to the kitchen. Luke lowers himself down and sits on a stair, straining to hear the lilt of her voice, listening for sympathy or delight or collusion or motherliness. He's heard or overheard more conversations between the Lorelais than he can count, both on purpose and accidentally; he's always felt like a fly on the wall of the inner sanctum, but since his food and his clothes and his person have become fixtures in this house, he's been shooed out. He rests his elbows on his knees and waits.

Lorelai paces in the kitchen, chewing her lower lip. She knows he's waiting for her, knows he thinks he's been slighted and he's on the brink of severe frustration. Rory's already given her the everything's-fine-at-Yale-and-I'm-great-stop-worrying update and has moved on to the something's-come-up-and-I-can't-get-out-of-it phase of the conversation. Lorelai protests and Rory apologizes, and they go back and forth this way a few moments, mother wheedling, daughter resisting. Lorelai knows she won't get what she wants but she holds out as long as possible before Rory's voice takes on a stern edge and tells her to be a grown up and get over it. She sighs and there are I love yous and parting shots before the disconnection—no goodbyes, they don't do goodbyes in the Gilmore house.

Lorelai groans and slumps into a chair, already hearing the disappointment in her mother's voice that she's sure to find when she shows up alone, in the wrong outfit, saying the wrong things. She can already taste the disapproval that will ruin her dinner, sharp and metallic on the back of her tongue. And she'll do what she always does (and this is something she knows she won't ever tell him) when she finds herself in an emotional ditch: she'll think of Luke and then she'll claw her way back out.

She shakes her hair and makes her way down the hall, around the corner, stalks up the stairs till she's standing below him. She tilts her face up to him, bracing her hands on his knees. Luke keeps his head lowered as he looks up at her, and she knows this look by heart, this peeved and patient look. She gives him a smile for an apology that won't quite do. He lowers his eyes and draws a breath. Lorelai takes the opportunity for a sneak attack and kneels on the same stair where he rests his feet, placing herself squarely between his thighs. He lets her snake her arms around his neck, whisper kisses against his cheekbone.

"So," she says, "how does this one go again?"

"What's up with Rory?" he asks.

Lorelai tips her head back. "You really want to talk about Rory right now?"

When he only shrugs in response, she knows she's got something to make up for but damned if she knows exactly what it is. She won't brook resistance, this time, as she searches out his lips with her own. Her kiss is teasing, telling him to forget, and he's irritated that he'll give in, wants to swat his own hands away as they make for that favored spot on the small of her back. She leans into him and the kiss becomes something more than teasing: heady and sweet, needful. And he's not thinking of it as giving in as he hauls them both to their feet and they stumble up the last few stairs and down the hall, not giving in but taking what's being offered, holding onto it with both hands in a grip so fierce it bruises.

What Lorelai loves best—though what she loves best is something she can only think of later, when she's capable of articulate thought and the heat singing beneath her skin has abated a little—about being with Luke like this is the way he still surprises her. It never ceases to amaze her that she can know him backwards and forwards a hundred different ways, yet each time they come together is different. Every touch of his hands is new, even as he traverses familiar and well-explored territory. She wouldn't go so far as to say that every time they make love it's like the first time, because such sentiment is best reserved for really bad pop music, and besides that it really doesn't do the situation any justice. It's not like the first time, never like the first time. It's simply different: the single constant is change. She thinks this is something she can't get enough of—it's nothing she's ever had before, one more thing she won't think to tell him.

There are times when she lies in the curve of his arm, embarrassing him with pillow talk either too cutesy or too dirty for his liking, and she worries that the next time will be like this time, or last time, or any other time before; she worries that some day this will be like any other part of their routine, that they know each other all too well in too many ways for it to keep on like this. She thinks maybe this thing between them is like something old, refurbished and restored to new glory, but eventually the shine will wear away and they'll be left with the same thing they had before. Only it won't be the same as before because for a while, it was something bright and better and changed.

She shuts her eyes so as not to think of it today, presses her cheek into the hollow of his shoulder. Luke plays his fingers through her hair, winding and weaving it over his hand. She could begin her usual assault of verbal play, but he likes it best when it's quiet like this, when he can listen to the silence they so rarely share, and so Lorelai lets the impulse pass. She doesn't know how long they've stayed this way, a tangle of limbs and sheets, when she realizes he's fallen asleep. She raises her head, squints to read the hands on the fuzzy bedside clock. There's time for a shower and a cup of coffee before she has to leave to meet Emily if she hurries (which she won't, and so she'll be late like always). In his light sleep, he won't let her pull away; he wraps his arms about her tightly as she tries to disengage herself without waking him. She rests her chin on his chest.

"Luke," she whispers. He drowsily hushes her. "I have to go."

He opens one eye. "Go where?"

Luke hates the duh face, but she only ever remembers after she makes it. "Dinner with Emily," she says. "Much as I'd like to spend my evening listening to the symphonic overtures of your snore—and believe me, it's preferable to the alternative—I have to make an appearance at dinner. Clothed," she adds.

"Pity," he says. "And I don't snore."

Lorelai smiles and kisses him. "Yes, you do," she says.

He returns the kiss, speaks with his mouth against hers. "No, I don't."

She crawls over him towards the closet side of her bedroom. "I really do have to get ready. In more ways than one," she says. She wraps herself in a bathrobe and begins rooting through the contents of her closet.

"What's that mean?"

"Oh, Rory's not coming, so I'm entering the lion's den all by my lonesome. Lucky for me I have an arsenal of witty repartee with which to defend myself, and I have been known to avoid complete and total annihilation simply by confusing my opponents beyond their capability for rational thought. Still," she sighs, "I hate having to face my mother alone lately. I never know if I'm going to get Joan Crawford or Ivana Trump."

Luke swings his legs over the side of the bed. "I could go with you," he says.

She laughs. "Luke, that's like offering to be eviscerated for fun," she tells him. She looks over her shoulder. "You're very sweet, but I wouldn't ask you to put yourself through that on my account."

"You didn't ask," he replies, an almost undetectable sharpness to his voice. "I offered."

"And I am turning you down out of the goodness of my heart," Lorelai says lightly. "Trust me, Luke. This isn't something you want to do."

"Sure it is."

There's something in his tone she doesn't recognize, something close to dangerous. She knows they're on the edge of something but doesn't know how they got there or where they'll fall if they step too far. She has no idea why the air is suddenly thicker and her stomach's started to tie itself in knots. She wants to inch them back from where they stand, pretend she doesn't see something so close to anger in his eyes, the stiffness in his shoulders.

"Why would you? It's like the Russian roulette scene in The Deerhunter. And scary as Christopher Walken generally is, my mother is that much scarier, believe you me."

He's pulling on his jeans, his color rising slightly. "I'm not afraid of your mother."

He stares at his feet, seemingly gathering the strength for this all the way from his toes. He could let it rest, he knows that, but there are limits to the things a person can take before he starts to lose pieces of himself. He's not sure the exact distance, but he knows he doesn't have much further to go before he starts resenting her for the imposed barriers between the things she chooses to care about.

She's still faking ignorance, but he can see in the way she shifts on her feet that she's well aware of the line they're walking. Her tone is forced, all hollow sassiness as she speaks. "Well, that brings the global tally to three, then: Michel, my Gran, and you. Michel has only ever spoken to her in French—not Emily's native language—so clearly there was something lost in the translation, which means he doesn't count. Gran has gone on to greener pastures to further sow the seeds of discontent, so really, that leaves just you," she says. "And Emily would quickly show you the error of your ways."

"Would you give me a little credit, Lorelai?" he says. He stands beside the bed, his hands on his hips, his chest and feet bare. Despite the weight of the air in the room, he can see she's trying not to smile, can practically hear her thinking that it's impossible to take him seriously when he's half-naked like that, vulnerable and exposed and the opposite of fierce and offended. She's not helping the situation, smiling tolerantly like that. He hates that she thinks he's cute, that she's steering the conversation away from the serious. "I think I can handle her just fine."

"But you shouldn't have to," she says. "And you don't have to. It's fine—I'll go, she'll be passive aggressive, I'll say something inappropriate, she'll move past the passive part and just let loose with the aggressive, I'll roll my eyes, we'll leave a big tip, and we'll go our separate ways. It's an Oscar Wilde play without the droll civility or the pat ending."

She watches him walk around the room, picking through her dirty laundry for any and all articles that might belong to him. "Fine," he says curtly. "Do whatever you want."

Lorelai inhales sharply: the conversation's turned, taken on more than she intended. It's gotten bigger faster than she'd expected. "Luke, what is this? Why are you mad?"

"I'm not mad."

"Yes, you are. You're doing that thing with your eyes that you do when you're mad."

"I'm not mad!" he barks.

"Yes, you are!" she cries. "What? What's going on?"

Luke throws the small bundle of clothes he's collected as hard as he can against the wall and they fall with a soft, unsatisfying thud. He stares at the floor. "You don't want me to come with you," he says, his voice flat. "You'd rather suffer it alone than let me come with you."

"Well, yeah," she says. "What's wrong with that? I don't want to put you through the Chinese water torture that is dinner with Emily Gilmore."

"I want you to put me through that!" he bellows.

Lorelai is more used to being the one confusing than the one confused. Her forehead puckers and she works her lower lip between her teeth. She's seen him angry before, at varying intensities and volume levels; the dark flush under the stubble is something she knows she won't be able to laugh her way out of.

"Luke?"

He paces, his fingers laced behind his head. She wants him to wave a hand, tell her it's nothing, but she can tell by the erratic rhythm of his breathing she's about to be disappointed. He stops.

"Why don't you want me there?" he asks.

She's heard this tone before, pissed off and hurt and something else she's never been able to find the word for, something akin to hope, maybe—if the fluttering tightness she feels at her center whenever he pulls her close sounded like anything at all, she thinks it would be in the tremor of Luke's voice when he asks her this.

"It's not that I don't want you there," she says, "I'm just trying to protect you from a potentially scarring experience. Namely, any sort of interaction with my mother. What? What's wrong with that? I don't—"

"No, you don't, do you, Lorelai?" Luke asks wearily.

He's not entirely sure that the problem is that she just doesn't see the walls she's put up between the separate sections of her life. He has to give her more credit than being that oblivious or unaware. The thought makes him shudder, but he finds himself staring straight at the fact that there's a part of her that doesn't want him in her life. He blames it on shame, embarrassment, lasting emotional issues; whatever the fault, he's sick of ignoring it, of piecing together the parts of her life that she's willing to give up to him. He's not one for clichés, but as far as he's concerned this can only be all or nothing. He doesn't half-ass much and he isn't about to start with this relationship he's waited for so long.

"I want you to let me be there."

She tucks her hair behind her ears, passes her hand over her eyes. "Luke, we're talking about my mother, here." But they aren't, she knows, not really, and she has no idea how this managed to spin so far out of her control. "Things with us right now are—to say things between my mother and me are tense right now is a gross understatement. It's like saying the Empire State Building is sorta tall. Having you there, while it would be potentially entertaining and extremely comforting, is not going to make things easier for either one of us, and I don't want you in the middle of that."

"Why not? Why shouldn't I be in the middle of that? If I'm—and we're—what we are," he stutters, "then I want to be in the middle of that. I don't care if your mother threatens to take my tongue out of my mouth and serve it to me on a platter, I just want to be there."

"If she took your tongue out of your mouth, Luke, serving it to you on a platter would be sort of redundant, wouldn't it?" she says. She doesn't know where they are anymore and at least the sarcasm is familiar, as is the way he says her name in response. "Why, Luke? Why would you want to do that to yourself? I'm related to the woman and I don't want to do that to myself," she tells him. "You're not making any kind of sense, and traditionally, that's my strong suit, so I'm a little bit turned around here."

Luke sits on the bed, his head in his hands. "Am I in your life?" he asks. The sound of his own voice falls on his ears and he hates the way he sounds: desperate, hopeful, and more than a little bit broken.

"What? How can—you're in my life, of course you're in my life, I cannot believe that you even just asked me that," she says, and she knows as she says it he'll think it's come out too quickly. She's almost figured out what the problem is here, she's catching up to his rapidly moving train of thought; she knows it's not exactly fair, the games she plays, intentionally or not, but she doesn't know how to stop playing long enough to stand still. There are still too many parts of herself she can't look at closely enough to fix.

"Am I really in your life, Lorelai?" He raises his head, looks her full in the eye.

This is the denouement, she knows, the summit of where he's been headed all along. She knows she's one toe over the edge but doesn't know how to pull back and answer the look he's giving her. He's radiating so much and it's all seeping into her, searing her skin and her eyes and the back of her throat, and if she could go to him she would, but they're on opposite sides now and if she takes a step towards him she'll fall.

"Luke—I—"

"Because if I were really in your life, I'd be going to this dinner with you. I'd be involved. I'd be there. For all of it. You just—you won't let me in. You've been keeping me at arm's length since we started this thing and I just can't keep doing this to myself," he says.

Her eyes are bright; she looks as though at any moment she'll sink where she stands, dissolve. He doesn't want to think about how he's the one causing her eyes to fill, her cheeks to blossom with hurt and confusion. He knows he could rise and go to her, he could take her in his arms and tell her he's being stupid and they'd both try and forget the whole conversation happened. But he knows it would only worry at them, stay between them and grow until they couldn't see around it anymore. And he's tired, exhausted in his bones, so he stays where he is.

"What I want is to be with you. That's all I want. You just won't let me do it."

Lorelai crosses her arms, hugs herself. "You are with me. I don't know what you want me to say, Luke. I don't even know why we're fighting about this. Yet another thing to thank my mother for. See? This is what I'm trying to avoid—I don't want her stirring things up. I don't want her—"

"This isn't about your mom and you know it," Luke says. "Don't change the subject. I'm trying to talk to you."

There's a bite in his voice, an audible sign that his patience with her is past thin. He's not a cruel man, he never has been, and he's not one for causing pain. But the things that are important to him—his family, his work, and now her—these things are what he'll fight for, what he saves his words for. He's not sure why he's pushing this now, tonight, why he's put so much distance between them when just moments ago she was in his arms; he does know that sometime between the feel of her palm pressed against his chest and the lightness in her voice as she turned down his offer, she changed the rules, changed the game they were playing. He has a hard time keeping up with the separate sections of her mind, and tonight he's finished being two steps behind.

The naked emotion in his eyes startles her and she's suddenly frightened by the feeling of him slipping away. She knows she should apologize, let him come to the dinner, make him realize that she'd been right all along as he walked away from Emily with his tail between his legs, but something in her stops the words before she says them and she's pushing him further away before she knows how to stop herself. She's all defiance and hard edges when she's backed up against a wall and the look that he's giving her leaves her no room to move.

"I can't do this with you now, Luke. I have to get to Hartford."

It's the absolute wrong thing to say and she knows it, knows he's right and she should shove herself out of her own way and make it up to him, but she's more her mother's daughter than she likes to admit. She turns her back to him, rummages through the closet without seeing a single article of clothing.

"Damn it, Lorelai!"

Even he's surprised by the strength of his voice and the frustration and pain echoing around the room. She freezes up, almost flinches from the sound. For a moment, she considers telling him to keep it down, that Babette and Morey are just next door, but thinks better of it this time as she hears him stand and cross the room.

Luke pulls the first shirt he can find over his head. "You can put your life in boxes all you want with other people, Lorelai. You can keep your parents out of the Stars Hollow box and you can keep the Inn and Rory there, but that's not something you can do with me. I won't go in the Stars Hollow box, and I won't go in the boyfriend box, either, outside family and work and everything else. I can't do it, Lorelai. I don't do boxes."

She knows he's not wrong, that this is what she does, how she sees the different parts of her life, but her throat's too tight and her mind's too full for her to say anything, let alone to ask for forgiveness.

He's just behind her now and battling the urge to physically turn her to face him. His teeth are clenched and his voice low; she'd be afraid of him if she didn't know that she deserves every harsh word he can throw her way, if she didn't know hurting her even this much is hard enough for him.

"This can't be halfway. This can't be what it is only when it's convenient for you. I can't do that. I can't. I want you to let me be there, wherever, whenever, for whatever—that's what I want. That's all I've ever wanted from this."

She thinks that if she were a different person, she'd look him in the eye, she'd apologize and mean it as she told him she'd be better, but she's too unfamiliar with admitting she's wrong to even turn around. If she does, she knows he'll see her almost broken and that's not fair to either of them. So she stays where she is, silent, one hand on her stomach and the other clutching her favorite black skirt. She thinks that if he were a different person, he would have stopped talking long ago and walked out of the house, but she knows that he's started and won't finish until he's said all the things he's wanted to say for weeks now.

He stares at her back, focuses on the slight rise and fall of her shoulders. He's far enough gone now to put the last of it on the line and he dives in before he really has a chance to think of the downside.

"I love you, Lorelai, and that isn't something I can only do part of the time. That's not the kind of man I am, and you should know that by now."

He's lost some of his edge; the bite in his voice is gone. She knows this side of him, recognizes the part almost pleading with her to turn around and tell him he's not wrong, that she loves him, too, that there's room enough for him in her life and she's more than willing to accommodate. She clutches the skirt tighter and digs her fingers into her abdomen. For reasons she doesn't even fully understand, she can't find it in herself to tell him that she does know him, does want to be with him, and that she's more in love with him than she really thinks is safe.

"Lorelai, please, I—"

His voice cracks and he grips her elbow. She feels the finality in his fingertips, senses that this is the end of something that's gotten too big to control. He slides his hand down her arm, lets her go, and she only knows she's crying when she tastes the salt on her lips, only hears his retreating footsteps just as she turns to face him.

She watches him leave, sees his blurred shape pass through the door. When he's gone, she crosses the room and lowers herself to the bed. She sits, silent and stunned. It seems sudden, his leaving; she's dizzy with the speed of it and can hardly catch her breath. She closes her eyes, tries to still herself, knowing it wasn't sudden at all.

She had better reasons for leaving in the past, she thinks. She ran from Max because she couldn't give up the space that belonged to her—her home, her town, her head, her heart. Independence is a tricky thing: she's discovered you can want it all your life, and when you get it, spend the rest of your life trying to give it up again. She's still trying. There were times when she could have, she thinks; she could have done it for Christopher, once—the things she'd need to give away were things he'd already had, maybe even things he'd given her. But the stars didn't align properly and in the end she thinks it was better that way. There would always be doubt, always be an edge of caution with him. She even thinks it would almost be like playing house, trying to go back and do it right when it's already all been done. But she's too old to play games and she knows it and what's more is now she knows that Luke is exactly what she's always needed because he doesn't know how to play games.

She tries to process the fight as she forces herself to stand and mechanically get dressed. She thinks she could have handled it better, said the things she wanted to, and maybe he'd still be here and they'd be laughing and kissing and everything would be fine.

But it wouldn't be, she knows. This sudden battle started because he doesn't let her play games: he'd make her be honest. She wouldn't be able to hide anything from him. She knows she's transparent as far as he's concerned. If he can see through her, he'd see the doubt and the guilt and the shame, see it coming long before she would, because she's certain it'll come. Lorelai knows that as well as Luke knows her, she knows herself, too. She loves him—loves him more than she'd thought she would, than she thought she could—and it's because she loves him that she keeps herself dancing just out of his reach. She loves him enough to want to protect him. The deeper she gets in with him, the more afraid she is of what she'll do to him. She knows she's hurt him today—and when she thinks of it, walking down the stairs, her breath stops in her chest and she has to sit until she can remember how to draw air into her lungs—but it's a smaller hurt, it's an easier hurt than what will come.

As she drives to Hartford, she can see it all happening: she'd stay with him, keep falling for him, and eventually she'd hit the bottom, look around and find herself flat on her back, loving him, needing him. But she'd turn her head to find him and he'd still be falling—he'll love her more than she's capable of loving him. It's a narcissistic, terrible thought and for a moment she hates herself more for her own arrogance than anything else, but she knows it's true. It's the one thing that keeps her distant, more than wanting to compartmentalize, more than wanting to keep herself to herself and have the things that are hers belong to her and her alone: she doesn't know how to love that way.

One of the reasons she loves movies is the knowledge that life can't be like that, and it's nice to have the illusion, even if it's only for ninety minutes. She won't be swept off her feet, she won't love herself sick, she won't run through airports or kiss in the falling rain or any of the things she's seen. Lorelai knows you can love someone too much, you can love him until he's the sun and he lights the world around you, makes it possible for you to live and thrive and be. But loving someone that way gives him too much power—one of these days, he'll look over and see what he's got and it won't be enough, she won't be enough, or he'll suddenly see all the small, mean parts of herself she keeps tucked in her pocket and he'll walk away. When he does, she'll be left in the dark alone. Maybe that's the thing that's kept her so independent so long, not wanting to let someone have that sort of sway over her life—she boxes people up so she's always in control, always sure that there's enough light to get by.

So she loves just enough. Loving Luke is easy, all too easy, and that way it's dangerous. She knows how to love just enough, how to love without being consumed. It's a careful orchestration, a balancing act, and Luke has already called her on it. She knows loving him just enough, loving him the way she knows how, isn't going to be enough to hang on to him. Loving just enough is what will make him leave. She's stopped at a red light and stares at her steering wheel a long moment. He's put her some place she's never been before, walking a rope between loving enough and loving too much.

It isn't fair to him. Luke deserves to be loved the way she wants to love him; he deserves to be the sun because he really is good enough for it. It's the way he loves, she knows. He won't be happy being the one loving more, the one loving better, and it'll make him go. It'll make him go and it will break him, and she can't have that. She loves him enough not to want him to hurt on her account, because she's not worth it. She loves him enough that the idea of pushing him away just by loving him makes her itch beneath her skin, makes the back of her throat burn, makes her stomach acidic and angry. But if she loves him more than just enough, if she's the one loving more, loving better, she'll still lose him because she's not bright enough to be the sun and when he realizes the world around him has dimmed, he'll leave her and she'll be in the same place, but alone and broken and full to the brim with feeling meant to be given away and with no one left to take it.

It's the little things, she thinks, that got to him. She's never been able to match his stride, run forward at the breakneck pace at which he wants this to work. The happy medium between his eagerness and her reluctance to upset the balance has eluded them. They've tried to ignore the distance, the disparity between his momentum and hers, but she can't catch up and they both know it.

She hasn't told Luke about the urge she's had to grab him in the mornings as he slides out of bed, the intense fear of his not coming back. She's gotten in this deeper than she'd expected to and now she's worried that when he leaves, when he decides she's really not worth it after all, he'll take so much of her with him that she'll never be the same person. He has no idea of the ferocity of her affection, of the need with which she holds him, and the lengths she knows she'd go to keep him scare her more that most things. She knew he'd reach his limit eventually, but she thought she'd had a while left to salvage a few pieces of herself, to try and pull the important things back out. But she didn't have enough warning this time, so now he's gone and taken her whole heart with him.

She pulls up to the house, an extra half hour added on to the usual drive time, and sits in the Jeep for awhile to fix her makeup and compose herself. She's pretty sure she's unsuccessful. As she walks up the drive, she tries to come up with excuses for her appearance and her tardiness, but all she can think of is the hurt in Luke's eyes and the slump of his shoulders as he sat with his head in his hands. She's never enjoyed causing anyone pain, but the fact that she's hurt Luke, this man who's done anything and everything for her, this man that she loves, eats at her insides until she's all twisted up and ringing the doorbell in tears.

"Lorelai?" Emily answers the door, is taken aback by the sight of her daughter biting back the anguish she's emanating. Lorelai raises her head and wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand.

"Mom, hi," she sniffs, fingers mascara out of the corner of her eye. "Where's the maid?" Her voice is unbalanced, void of the usual life and wit, full of grief and heartache.

"Lorelai, what's the matter with you? What happened?" Emily's hand is at her daughter's elbow, pulling her into the foyer. Lorelai doesn't resist, doesn't put up her usual fight at being lead somewhere, and Emily knows that something's really wrong. She tightens her fingers around Lorelai's wrist and stares up into her face. She sees red-rimmed and puffy eyes and her heart breaks a little for the pain that's so evident.

Lorelai's head is down, avoiding her mother's gaze. She doesn't want to be here, doesn't want to talk about it, not with anyone and least of all with Emily. Her mother hasn't ever disapproved of her relationship with Luke, which, shockingly enough, has caused more of a rift than either had expected. When Emily found out that she and Luke were dating, the sly smile and 'I told you so' that settled into her mother's eyes had driven Lorelai over the edge. Emily had listened with an almost condescending satisfaction and Lorelai had resisted the urge to walk right out of the room.

Emily didn't do it on purpose, has never intentionally done anything to try and push her daughter from her life, but Lorelai knows she couldn't resist rubbing in just a little that she knew Lorelai better than her daughter would admit. Unfortunately, what Emily had thought would be evidence of the fact that she's paid more attention over the years than she's ever gotten credit for turned into yet another thing Lorelai thought was judging. They've never shared a common language and they both know that—Lorelai doesn't expect Emily to say the right thing any more than Emily herself feels prepared to do, and she's too surprised to pull away when her mother takes her chin in hand and forces her eyes, rapidly refilling with tears, to meet her own.

"Lorelai?" Emily's voice is gentle, not questioning or probing or anything that Lorelai has reason to take offense over. Still, she can't help the sharp edges she takes on when she's this hurt and she pulls away from her mother's hand.

"I don't want to talk about it, Mom." She shrugs out of her coat and heads into the parlor, her gait leaving no room for sympathy.

Emily follows, slower, not wanting to push her daughter any farther away. Lorelai's sitting on the sedan with her coat in her lap brushing tears off of her cheeks. Emily's eyes sting seeing her daughter, always so strong, look so fragile. She crosses the room and sits next to Lorelai tentatively, braced against the fight she's sure will come.

Lorelai doesn't move, doesn't lash out. She sits, still as stone, and lets tears run from her eyes. She hurts inside, has never hurt like this before, and thinks that bottling it up and keeping it inside is maybe why there's so much pain. Letting it out, releasing a little into the world, maybe that will make the tightness in her chest fade slightly, will give her back the ability to breathe.

Emily puts her hand on Lorelai's knee and immediately Lorelai dissolves. Her shoulders slump forward and her arms go limp—she can't keep herself from breaking down, from responding to the slight touch of her mother's hand, though she knows at any other moment she would do her damnedest and succeed. Silently, she shakes with sobs and Emily sits with her daughter's head on her shoulder, one arm wrapped around her and a palm pressed to her back.

After several minutes of sniffling and tissues, Lorelai is still. "He left."

The admission stings her throat, leaves an evil taste in her mouth that's usually reserved for migraines and horrible Friday night dinners. She knows this Friday is one of her worst but she also knows that it's entirely her doing.

Emily is silent as she sits and waits for the rest of whatever Lorelai needs to say. "We fought and he yelled and then he left." Lorelai chokes on a bitter laugh, the irony of it. "Luke left."

This is unfamiliar territory for these women who've never shared their feelings with each other; Emily knows it should be easier, isn't sure exactly who's at fault for it being this difficult. She doesn't know exactly what to say, isn't sure what's safe and what's too much, so she keeps her questions simple, her statements basic.

"Why did you fight?" Emily heads forward with caution.

Lorelai fidgets in her lap, works hand over hand as she tries to figure out what to say. She doesn't know what happened exactly, though she knows what it all comes down to. She's sidestepped him too many times, avoided owning up to anything she knows she's guilty of. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and says, "He wanted to come to dinner with me tonight and I wouldn't let him. He thinks that's important, that it means that I don't want him in my life." She pauses, eyes down, wavers between the truth and the thing that's easier to say. "He told me that he loves me." Lorelai shuts her eyes, fights the tears, wills the lump in her throat to lessen just a little; she doesn't succeed.

She can't see the confusion on her mother's face, that Emily doesn't see what the problem is. She recognizes the familiar trick Emily uses as she sticks to what's safe: repetition. "He told you he loves you."

Lorelai's shoulders shake and she presses a hand to her chest; she doesn't know if it's entirely possible, but she's almost sure that she can feel her heart breaking. It's a pain behind her ribs like shards of glass, like splinters and ragged edges. Even she can hear it in her voice as she speaks, knows her mother will, too, but the pain overwhelms any resolve she might have and she doesn't really care. "He told me that I don't let him into my life, that he loves me... And I couldn't say anything." She covers her mouth with her hand, tries to force what she's said to be untrue.

Lorelai's never really given it much thought because it would mean admitting she's been as much in the wrong as those she thinks are wronging her, but she knows somewhere beyond words that Emily understands the frustration that drove Luke out better than anyone. They both know the reasons Lorelai wouldn't bring Luke here, didn't want him here; it's another thing that Lorelai would never admit, never verbalize, but she knows how it's hurt Emily to be shut out just as much as she knows Luke's reasons for leaving aren't bare figments of his imagination. She's grateful Emily doesn't say all the things she has a right to—just as much as Luke—all the things that she's been saving up so long. She's grateful that Emily is willing to withstand the wounds sharp edges can inflict and hold her close, that they've come far enough together for Emily to hold her tongue, not to tell her the things about herself she'll never understand. She lets Emily stroke her hair and keep those things to herself, things like the knowledge that Lorelai is someone who can't quite help how it's so easy and so hard to love her. Rather than say anything so hollow as false comfort, Emily clasps Lorelai's hands in her own, wipes a tear away, struggles to look her daughter in the eye. This is the part that's always been hardest, walking the line between honesty and what will offend Lorelai and make her walk away.

Emily takes a small breath, steels herself against the storm she knows she's tempting. "Do you love him?"

Lorelai turns to face her, a spark of something in her eyes. Lorelai can see Emily preparing herself for the hurtful words that will be flung her way, for the tone of her daughter's voice that cuts so deep. Emily's fortified herself so strongly she almost misses Lorelai's exhaled "yes," her nearly inaudible breath of an answer.

Lorelai's voice, barely more than a whisper, is thin and frayed. She sits, suddenly still, hands in her lap and looking straight ahead. The way she says it implies that it's not some great revelation, not some conclusion she's drawn in the heat of the moment, but a rational and real decision. Emily is taken aback by how old, suddenly, her daughter looks; the wrinkles around her eyes are more pronounced, the press of her lips is mature in its thoughtfulness. She's older, this woman who's just admitted to loving a man she may have pushed too far, than she's ever been before; she lowers her head, then looks into her mother's face.

Emily's looking at her with something like shock in her eyes, and something like respect, and something that's definitely compassion. Lorelai's eyes are dry now, finally, and she puts her hand over her mother's. "I love him."

Emily is speechless a moment: this statement of her daughter's has erased any tried and true ready response. The only thing she knows to do is gather Lorelai into her arms and hold her close, and tightly, and stroke the back of her head. Against her mother's shoulder, Lorelai's tears start fresh and she clutches at Emily's back. She can't remember the last time she did this, if she's ever done this before, cried so openly with her mother. But she's worn out now, worn out by this unfamiliar outburst of emotion, worn out teetering on the edge of losing what she values most. Emily hushes her and takes Lorelai's face in both of her hands.

"Lorelai, since you were a little girl, you've always fought for the things you wanted, for the things that were important to you. This isn't any different. You'll do what you have to, if you love him, to make this work." Emily thumbs a tear away from her daughter's face; Lorelai leans into her hand just slightly and Emily's eyes threaten to fill. "I think you need to tell him." She drops her hands, studies Lorelai's face.

"I know, Mom. I should've said it before, but...I don't know why I didn't, why I couldn't just tell him."

"Because you're a Gilmore, Lorelai. Sometimes it takes us losing someone to realize how much we love them." Emily looks into her daughter's eyes, and in that moment, Lorelai regrets fully everything that's ever come between her mother and her, regrets the things she's done to keep her at such a distance.

"Mom?" Lorelai lifts her chin, looks her mother fully in the eyes. "I love you."

Emily's face softens and the tears that threatened to spill over before now track silently down her cheeks. She clasps her hands tightly in her lap and looks down a long moment, collecting herself. When she looks back up, she's rubbing tears from her eyes. "I love you, too, Lorelai."

It's a moment that neither will forget, though both will never speak of it again. It's something private, something fragile, something that will break if they disturb it. Lorelai realizes that this is what she should've done earlier with Luke, let her guard down and been forward with him. She knows the situation wouldn't have been resolved, but maybe the ache in her heart wouldn't be quite so strong.

"Mom, I need you to tell me this'll work out." There's a pleading urgency in her voice, a willing blindness and hope for an answer that will magically make the situation better. But neither one believes in magic, and neither one makes false promises, so Emily does the best she can.

"Well," she sighs, "I can tell you that dinner's ready."

Lorelai lets out a small laugh; she wipes her face with her hands and takes a deep breath, turning to face her mother. "Dinner would be great."

They eat in relative silence, looking up frequently to watch the other for a moment. Lorelai knows she's bridged some great chasm tonight, that something about the events of the day are monumental. The situation with her mother, with Luke, they're the end of something old and the beginning of something better, she thinks. She doesn't know what to say to him to make him understand how she feels, but she knows now, looking up at Emily smiling slightly at her, that there are things in her life she's capable of overcoming.

After dinner, Lorelai gets her coat and heads to the door. Emily stands in the foyer, unsure of herself, watching Lorelai get ready to leave. Finally, she closes the gap between them and wraps her arms around her daughter.

"Good luck," she says over Lorelai's shoulder. Pulling away, Emily smoothes her daughter's hair. "It'll all work out."

Lorelai smiles faintly and squeezes her mother's hand. She glances over her shoulder before shutting the door, sees Emily alone in this giant house and is suddenly sad, suddenly determined.

In front of the diner, she pauses on the sidewalk and stares intently at the door handle, and for an instant her resolve falters and she's ready to turn on her heel and run for home and the warm solitude of bed. But the bed's still unmade, the sheets thrown back and the comforter on the floor; the pillow beside hers still bears his impressions and the sheets still smell like him, like the both of them together. So she takes a breath and strides up the stairs and inside.

Luke is right where she knew he'd be, standing at the far end of the counter, shuffling through the day's end paperwork. The diner is deserted save the old man seated at the counter, closer to the door, who plods mechanically through a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. He doesn't turn to Lorelai as she walks past him and sits several stools over, doesn't smile in greeting the way she's used to the patrons here doing. He merely chugs from the large glass of milk beside his plate and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

Lorelai places her purse on the countertop and leans forward on her elbows. Luke doesn't lift his head, only looks at her sidelong. He looks the same as always, and she finds herself slightly disappointed—she doesn't know what she expected, whether she'd hoped to see some visible trace of forgiveness or hurt on his face. She hopes that when he looks at her he'll see her composed as well, that he won't see the fine red lines crisscrossing her eyes or the translucent pallor of her skin. She offers him a conciliatory smile and taps her fingers on the counter lightly.

"Hey," she says. It's a pale greeting and she tries not to wince. She can't start with "I'm sorry"—it's not something she's ever been able to blurt out, not something she ever tries to get over with quickly; she's always had to work up to apologies because she's always had to work up to seeing herself as the offending party.

Wordlessly, he reaches back for the coffee pot and pulls a mug from beneath the counter as he crosses the short distance between them. This is familiar, far from extraordinary: he pours the coffee and pushes the mug towards her; she cradles it in her hands before taking a sip; she peers into the brew, knowing he's watching her; after a moment, she lowers the cup and they regard each other silently over the counter. The next part is the variable: this is when she unloads her problems and he tells her what she needs to hear and they smile at each other and talk about nothing until the coffee in her cup is gone and dusk has fallen into night.

The difference tonight is the problem—she's it, and she knows it, and she can't quite work the words out the way she wants to. She drops her eyes and finds herself blushing as she drinks her coffee. She thinks of what Emily said, and she wants to do it, knows she could do it now, say it, put it out there on the counter alongside the napkins and silverware and pepper shakers.

She opens her mouth to say the words. "I love you." It's easy. She can hear it in her head, hear the words she'll say. She's almost there.

"I—I—"

She falters. She's not as strong, maybe, as she always gives herself credit for.

"Can I have some pie, please?"

She wants to drop her head to the counter and bang her forehead against it as hard as she can. She's almost said "I love you" but asked for pie instead. She's embarrassed for herself and more than that she's angry. She loves him; she loves him enough to tell him she does, but the words are stuck somewhere between the part of her brain that knows that and the part that's too scared to admit it to even herself. He sets a plate of pie in front of her, and for the first time in her life, the prospect of eating it seems a chore rather than anything else.

She cuts into the pie and lifts her fork, studies the pastry a moment. "You know," she says, "the blueberry is a highly underrated pie filling." She puts the piece she's cut in her mouth and speaks around it as she chews. "Cherry and apple get all the glory, but blueberry is not in any way substandard." She pauses, puts her fork beside the plate, brushes her hands against her skirt. "Maybe it's just the whole berry family altogether—blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, all excellent for pie. I can't say I've ever been a fan of the strawberry rhubarb, really, because what the hell is rhubarb and what's it doing in the pie in the first place, right?" She sighs. "Pie is so versatile. You've got the whole lattice work variety, you've got the traditional full cover topped one, you've got pies with crumbles on the top—and then there's the whole other subcategory of meat pies, which, don't get me started, because really? The concept is vaguely disgusting. Titus Andronicus sorta ruined the whole meat pie thing for me, and besides that—"

Luke places his hands flat on the countertop and leans towards her. "I can't do this, Lorelai," he tells her.

Her eyes widen, and even though she knows what he means, she asks him anyway.

"I can't stand here and listen to you and pretend that everything's normal with us, because it's not." His voice is thready, strained, with more than a hint of harshness beneath. He doesn't want to be saying this any more that she wants to be hearing this, but they're here now, at this place where the things that were always easy are harder and rougher.

Lorelai ducks her head and looks into her coffee. "I know," she says. "I do. I just... I don't know—"

Luke sighs. "Lorelai—"

The old man rises from his seat and asks for his bill. Luke hesitates a moment before stepping away from Lorelai and moving to the end of the counter. She waits, pushes her pie around the plate with her fork, chews on her lower lip. Luke rings the man's cash into the register and gives him change. The drawer shuts with a clang as the man opens the door and leaves. Luke braces himself against the register, breathing slow, even breaths, his head down. Lorelai stares blankly at the space before her, holds her coffee cup loosely in both hands just above the counter.

They speak in unison.

"Lorelai, I—"

"Luke, I—"

He steps away from the counter, she lowers her cup. The silence has a heaviness, a weight that sits on both their chests, pressing the air out of their lungs and bringing tears to their eyes.

"What were you going to say?" she asks.

Luke swallows hard, touches his hat with one hand. He looks at Lorelai. She's leaning forward against the counter, her hair falling around her face, brushing the backs of her hands. She looks fragile to him, brittle, breakable, and he wants to round the counter and hold her, wants not to say the things he thinks he has to say, things that will sting, that will bruise. He wants to lift the hair away from her neck and kiss her in that sweet smelling spot behind her ear, that place that makes her close her eyes and shiver, reach for him. He wants her to have something to hold onto while he speaks, something solid in her grip, and so he pours her more coffee before he clears his throat and begins.

"I thought this time would be different," he says. "I thought it would be different for us, that we'd already come so far that all those things you do to protect yourself wouldn't matter anymore. I thought you'd trust me enough to leave that stuff behind. I thought you were ready to be with someone—to be with me, specifically, to be with me completely, to let me into all the parts of your life and yourself that all those other guys before were never allowed to. I thought you wouldn't shut me out. But I was wrong," he tells her, and there's a sadness in his voice that deepens it, changes the quality of his tone, makes it a voice that's not entirely his. "I'm not different. We're not different. You shut me out. That's not what I wanted for us."

She purses her lips a moment, tasting the bitterness of his words more than the coffee. Her eyes are full when she raises them to meet his. "I just—Luke, I just need time."

"Time?" he says. He balls his hands into fists, begins to pace. "Time?" he says again, his voice raised. "You want time? Four years, Lorelai, four years." He can't keep himself from shouting as he speaks, the sound of his voice almost foreign to his own ears, but he knows it's his, knows he's yelling at her, knows that she's right to flinch; he's throwing words, not punches, dealing accusations, not blows, but they'll leave their mark just the same. "Four years is a whole lot of goddamned time! And that's how long I've been waiting, Lorelai: four years. Four fucking long years!"

She's sitting back now, her hands in her lap, her eyes wide and startled. Even with the distance between them, he can see her shaking, see her pulse beating too rapidly in her throat.

"Lorelai, I'm sorry. I just—I can't be in that kind of relationship. I can't do it."

Lorelai wets her lower lip, smoothes the fabric of her skirt. The silence rings in her ears as she looks up at him.

"I love you," she says simply. She knows she doesn't need to emphasize it, that just these words from her, after all this time, are enough. She doesn't know if it'll matter, doubts that it will fix anything, but she's learned tonight that she can have the strength she's always thought she had if she's willing to be weak for just a moment.

It hits him in the gut. He stares at her, slack jawed, his arms hanging by his sides. He wants to think he didn't hear her correctly, she spoke so softly he might not have, but he knows he has. She's said the thing he's been waiting on for so long, said it at the exact wrong time, and the elation he should feel doesn't come. All he gets is a swell of anger in his chest and the taste of bile at the back of his throat.

"I... Lorelai, I—" But he's too turned around for words, too uncertain of what he should say, all too certain he has to be careful or he'll say something he can't take back. She watches him with baited breath and just knowing that makes his chest warm slightly, makes his insides shake a little, the way they've always done when he knows her eyes are on him. It's not what he needs now. He slams his hands on the counter so hard she jumps, nearly falls off her stool. "Damn it!" He turns away. He can hear the rhythm of her breathing—her eyes have spilled over, she's crying now, as much as she'll let herself do, biting the insides of her cheeks and wiping away the tell-tale salty tracks on her skin. He gives her the moment she needs, gathers back the pieces of himself he's let fly before he turns to her.

"I'm sorry, Lorelai," he says, "but that's—it's not enough. Right now, it's not enough." He spits out the words, quickly, like saying them is the last thing in the world he wants to be doing.

She nods slightly, scarcely breathing, averts her eyes. She reaches for her purse and backs away from the counter, clutching the leather handles in both hands. She can't think, can't tell herself to turn around, and so she inches away, trying to remember just how to stand, how to keep herself from sinking to the floor. He walks to the end of the counter, leans one hand against it, the other on his hip, and stares at the floor. His shoulders shake slightly. The sight restores some sense of movement and she begins to go to him, takes a great stride, reaching out.

"Luke, I can—"

He doesn't look up. "Please go," he says.

She's just beside him, waits a beat, and he repeats himself. She lays a hand on his chest, not so dramatically as to be above his heart, and lets it rest just a moment. She brushes her thumb against his shirt, fingertips against flannel, and then drops her arm. She stands before him, head down, eyes squeezed shut but unable to stop her tears. He resists the almost violent urge to grab and hold her, to soothe her until she's not broken, but he can't and he knows it and so does she. She takes an audible breath, nods, and turns away.

He can hear her crying more than the door closing behind her.

For several long moments, he stays where he his, trying not still to feel the pressure of her hand on his chest. He hadn't bargained for this battle, not exactly, but he knows that there is something here that he can't give into, that despite the look in her eyes, the broken, pleading look, her slights and rejections can't be forgiven so quickly. He's not sure why he doesn't follow her out the door, track her down and kiss her until they both forget why they were fighting; he's not sure why he doesn't run out of the diner right now except for the fact that he's got to be stronger this time, in this moment, than he's ever had to be before.

He finishes closing up, does it automatically. He trudges up the stairs to his apartment and it takes more effort than it should to put one foot in front of the other; he feels like his blood isn't flowing, like the entirety of his body is static and unmoving, like he could stop right now where he stands and never move another muscle for as long as he lived. He refuses to believe that the reason that he feels this way is because his heart is broken; if he admits that than he has to admit that it's really all his fault, it's something that he brought on himself, and he's never been the masochist some might think him to be.

He walks into his apartment and shuts the door behind him, leans his weight against the wooden frame. Rubbing a hand over his eyes, he's hardly surprised to feel them wet with moisture, fresh with tears he wasn't entirely sure he was shedding. He walks across the room, changes his clothes, goes into the bathroom. While he's brushing his teeth, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and it takes him a moment to recognize his own reflection. He doesn't know this man, this empty looking man that he sees who looks so resigned and defeated. While he's rinsing his mouth, he does his best to avoid the empty blue eyes in the glass above the sink; he's fairly sure he'd rip the mirror from the wall and he doesn't need more bad luck than he's got with him right now.

He crosses the room to his bed and the tiny mattress has never seemed so big or so empty. He dreads lying down, dreads waiting for the sleep that he knows won't come despite the heaviness of his eyelids. He knows he's never been this tired, and he won't let it be because tonight he's sleeping without her. If he closes his eyes, he can see her face when she's dreaming, can't see the dream.

But she doesn't remember her dreams anymore. She's not sleeping well. She lies down in bed at the same time every night and waits. Sleep comes in short, violent bursts—she finds herself suddenly awake, her eyes open when she can't remember closing them in the first place. It isn't restful sleep, either, not sleep she can feel in any part of her body. Whenever she starts awake she's more tired than the last time.

She hasn't stopped waking just before five. It's the one she waits for all night, the four forty-five awakening. Her eyes fly open and she knows she's holding her breath. Her chest is tight and the tips of her fingers are cold as she reaches out, touches the place he should be. She likes to think she doesn't let herself cry, but she knows that's not it—it's not about self-control, it's just that there aren't any tears left. Her eyes ache with dryness.

She goes through the motions. She gets out of bed, she makes herself coffee, puts a Pop-Tart in the toaster. She takes a shower, dresses herself, puts her things in her purse. She works. She has conversations she doesn't quite remember. She drinks coffee and forgets to eat.

She wakes up just a little earlier every night—four thirty one morning, four the next. The night she wakes at one and knows she won't be sleeping again, she drags herself out of bed and begins to clean. She starts in the bathroom, cleans the grout between the tiles, scrubs the toilet and the bathtub and rubs the hardware on the sink till it shines. The next night she tackles her closet. She organizes her dresser the night after that.

She thinks she's used up all the sleep she'll ever get. She still lies down, waits for it, but she's stopped thinking it's actually going to come. She can't quite remember what it feels like to wake rested, whole. She's starting to think her bones are hollow. She feels vacant, stiff.

Keeping up a good front is the hard part. She speaks lightly on the phone with Rory, pitches her voice higher as she makes excuses not to see her. She's perfected the broad, fake smile she wears at work as a guard against questions after her health, after her heart. She knows her friends think she's not quite herself, but she's oddly proud they haven't figured out why her eyes are so glassy and her movements so forced. It's her own fault: she pushed away the one thing she could hold onto and without him, she's drifting.

She thinks she's never been this tired, but then she stops herself; tired isn't the right word. Exhausted isn't either. She can't quite connect all the dots, can't make the picture whole and see what she's supposed to: the right answer eludes her. She's taken to arranging herself when she lies down at night, folding her hands on her stomach, placing her head squarely in the middle of the pillow, fanning her hair out around her, pointing her toes towards the ceiling. Weary—she thinks that's what it is, who she's become. She doesn't know how long she can hold herself up. Lately it seems that even breathing takes more energy than she can summon. She's lost track of the days, doesn't know how long it's been since she walked into the diner and told him she loves him only to have him ask her to leave. She doesn't really remember the leaving part, but she knows she ended up here in her bed, alone, and she stayed here, curled into herself for as long as she dared.

The bed's too big for her. The sheets make her skin burn. The darkness is starting to feel painful as it presses against her eyes. She rolls over onto her side and stares at the place he's not, and she thinks she knows something now, but it's nothing like a thought, nothing she could put to words—this thing that's with her now is a knowledge that sits inside her, a stone over her heart. As she lays there, not sleeping, she forces thoughts and images of him away, pushes the questions from her mind; she doesn't let herself wonder how he's doing, if he's like her, not really waking in the morning, or if he's rested and bright-eyed and already moving on. Deep down she knows he's not, that he couldn't possibly be, but even the thought makes her almost physically ill. She shuts her eyes and doesn't dream.

Luke doesn't have that problem, doesn't bear the weight of dreamless sleep. He's able to fall into bed, a bed that seems to grow larger and larger with each passing night, and be asleep within minutes. And he doesn't wake through the night, doesn't piece together hours of the rest that he gets; he doesn't get rest at all. Even though he manages to stay asleep for those few hours, he's plagued with dreams, with visions that dance in his head: images of Lorelai's retreating form, of her face streaked with tears, and always, every night, of the blue of her eyes. He dreams of soft moments from their history that are darker now, more shaded by the things he knows will happen, have just happened. Sometimes, the dreams go farther back; he even dreams of Rachel, of his parents, of being left behind and giving in to the hurt and confusion because giving in was the only way to go on. It's the thing he can't do now or he'll be leaving himself behind this time.

Luke wakes in the morning as weary as when he lay down, dresses himself, and opens his diner. He's been doing it every day since she left him, every day since he pushed her away. He takes down the chairs, turns on the coffee machines, waits for the customers that he knows will come; and they do, to eat or to drink or to check up on him. This last would normally irritate him but he's too focused on doing what he has to now. He notices every customer, passes his eyes over every face that's not hers. He's almost stopped waiting for Lorelai to show up; this saddens him more than almost anything else he can remember.

He's going through the motions, serving food, refilling mugs, wiping down tables. Still, what occupies most of his time and mind is restraining himself from going to her, from running all the way to her house or the Inn and pressing her to him and begging forgiveness. He sees it in his mind, sees the sweep of her hair as he lifts her in his arms, sees the hint of her smile as he begins to apologize. But then the scene stops, turns to black, when he remembers that he's not supposed to be the one with anything to apologize for. Then he lets the constriction in his chest, the constant, dull burning behind his ribs, bring him back to the painful present as he does all the things that he does that aren't being with her. He takes inventory and restocks the supply room, he balances his books and cleans out the kitchen; anything that fills his time, takes up the space in his mind where she usually resides, serves as a welcome distraction.

But the pain has become something he's used to, something that underscores everything else he does. It's a film over his movements, in the mechanical sweep of his arm as he wipes down the counter, as he lifts boxes, as he fixes the toaster he's not yet ready to trash. He's somehow started to think of it as something separate from himself, something that lives inside him, feeds off him, but nothing that comes from him, a parasitic infliction slowly eating at his organs. He wonders if the humming he's begun to feel under his skin in indicative of change coming or if it's just this pervasive heartache that shakes his limbs so that the plates in his hands rattle.

She'd know about the hum under Luke's skin, the tremor in his hands, if they were speaking, but since they're not she thinks that the buzzing under her fingernails is unique to her. She doesn't know exactly what's changed, what makes this day different from all the others that have come before it, she isn't sure. She hasn't gone to bed, didn't even try; instead she's sitting on the floor of the kitchen, staring up at the empty shelves. She sees the same things she's always seen, a box of baking soda, bottled water, coffee, not much else and that's nothing new. But there's something missing, something that should be there that isn't. She gets to her feet and slams the door shut. She doesn't want to waste the time it would take to think about it and come up with an answer. She's weary beyond words, too wrecked for language. She can't go on like this, feeling nothing like feeling at all, obliterated by pain so great it's blinded her.

She stands, draws herself to her full height, and waits for a moment, figuring out what to do next. And because even without him, she's still Lorelai, she reaches for the tin of coffee beans. It's empty.

For reasons passing understanding, this knocks the wind out of Lorelai, brings tears of frustration to her eyes. She tries to stop herself from thinking that Luke would've told her days ago that she was low had he been in the house at all in the last week. She tries to stop herself from thinking about the disapproving but resigned look on his face as he pours her a steaming mugful in the morning, either here or in the diner. She tries to push the thoughts out of her mind, the recollections of the fight and the night in the diner when her heart was broken. More than upsetting her, it unnerves her, this realization that she depends on him so thoroughly, spreads heat under her skin like a rash. She's found she can't function without him in her life and it tears at her a little.

She wonders if she can wash away the pain, the need, as though these things were residue, a fine silt that's settled on top of her. She tosses the empty coffee can into the sink and hears the sharp clatter as she leaves the kitchen, pulls herself up the stairs and into the bathroom. She turns on the taps and fills the tub, pours in every bath oil she can find, empties every bottle of bubble bath that's sitting underneath her sink, until she can't see the water anymore for the foam. She strips and leaves her clothes where she stood as she steps into the bath, avoiding looking at her own nakedness—she doesn't think she'd recognize the body as hers.

She soaks herself until her fingers are shriveled and puckered, until the water is tepid and turning cool. She closes her eyes, holds her breath, sinks herself under a moment, wanting to feel the water close in above her, to deprive herself of senses even for only the space of time she has before her lungs feel they'll burst if she doesn't surface. But it isn't enough, she thinks, sitting in the tub, her knees drawn to her chest, as the water circles the drain. The need's still flush against her skin, still pushing at her insides, still causing pressure in her ears. So she stands and turns on the taps again—she tries hot water first, scrubs herself with a bar of soap that smells like rain, and when she's red with heat and exertion and the weight's still inside her, she tries cold water, stands there until she's shivering and she can hear her teeth chatter.

When she's given up and wrapped herself in the thickest robe she owns, she sits in the corner of her bedroom, resting her forehead against her knees, trying to breathe. She knows there's nothing she can do, nothing short of drinking herself into oblivion, to short-circuit this overwhelming sensation of being without. The need isn't something she can give up, get rid of—its very presence is absence, and that's what she's tried to clean away.

She realizes she's cold and she dresses quickly, doesn't even see the clothes that she's throwing on. Before she knows exactly what she's doing, she's out the door and on her way to the diner.

She's there at last and still it's too soon. She's shaking. She hasn't collected the words she needs, doesn't have them cupped in the palm of her hand. She opens the door because it's what she's come to do and no amount of preparation will make her any readier than she is now. She hears the bell ring over the door as she steps inside and the hiss of air as the door swings shut behind her. The clatter of silverware against plates, the clink of glasses abruptly ceases; the hum of conversation stops dead. Lorelai looks immediately to the place she should find him—he isn't there.

The sudden silence draws him from the kitchen. Luke sees Lorelai before she sees him. She's so pale she's translucent, though the deep shadows under her eyes stand out like bruises. Her hair is dull and lusterless, no trace of the moonlit sheen that's held him captive left; her clothes are too loose, don't hug her the way they should. He can tell by the way she wraps her arms around her body that she's holding herself together, that she thinks any part of her could suddenly fall away and break before it hits the floor. He sees her slowly scan across the counter, searching him out. He steps forward and within the instant, she's fixed her eyes on his. The color hasn't changed: it's a blue so bright it burns.

It's the dullness that's different, the light that belongs to her now lacking. She's not the woman who possesses every room she enters, who changes the center of gravity and makes the world spin around her. She's about to unravel: pull a single string and she'll fall apart, come undone. If he took her in his arms the way he's been wanting to, even when he hasn't let himself, she's so paper thin now she'd tear.

Lorelai hears herself clear her throat and the sound is raw and rough on her ears. She blinks, breathes in a ragged and frustrated breath. She's chilled through as she stands in the middle of the diner, at the end of her rapidly fraying rope. She feels the stares of the diners, registers the sound of collective held breath, of shuffling feet as they shift in their seats. She sees Luke, taking her in with a practiced, involuntary sweep of his eyes, waiting on her. When she opens her mouth to speak, he leans forward slightly, inclining his head. It makes her smile, however ruefully, however sadly. That slight cock of his head knocks her words loose.

"I can't sleep," she tells him in a tone whose sharpness is not at all reflective of her true feelings. "I can't do it. It's like I don't know how." He's silent. She's sure he knows it wasn't what she came to say. Those words are the beginning of a story she would have told him a hundred years ago before he kissed her, before he stopped being her friend and became what he is now, before she pushed him away one too many times. She shakes her head, closes her eyes. He's still waiting when she opens them again.

"There's no food in my house, which isn't a shocker at all, I know, but I'm not eating. Not at the inn, not at home, and now my jeans don't fit. And I bought these jeans because they fit beautifully, tight in all the right places but now they're loose and I hate it." She pauses just a moment, gives him a chance to respond. When he doesn't, she charges forward again, blindly, unwilling to leave her point unmade.

"I don't have any coffee. I...I was sitting on the floor in my kitchen, and I was cleaning the fridge because it was 4 am and obviously there was no sleeping to be done because, like I said, I don't do that anymore. And by the way, I didn't know that my bed was enormous. I've slept in that bed for years. By myself, for years. But now, I'm in this enormous bed that is, I swear to God, the size of Rhode Island, and I can't sleep without you next to me and now—"The words lodge in her throat. She doesn't know why she can't say it, why she can't do the things she needs to when she should, why she always has to prolong the experience. She looks at Luke, hands on the counter, leaning forward to catch everything she says, and decides that she's done with her bad timing.

"The thing is," she says, "I need you." She shrugs, spread her hands. "I do. I just—I need you." Her voice has a tremble in it like tears, like falling water. "That's all."

The words are thick. She holds his gaze as long as she can, her eyes still achingly dry. His mouth is slightly open as though he's readying himself to speak, but he doesn't. He stands were he is, his arms hanging by his side, his thumbs brushing the seams of his jeans. She knows she can't cross the distance between them, can't fit herself along his side and work her arms around him, can't lay her head on his chest and let the rhythm of his heart lull her into something like rest.

"I love you, and I need you," she says. "And I wanted you to know that."

It's now she lets her eyes falter and her gaze drop. She turns around, pulls the door open, steps out into the morning. The sun's fully up now, bright and unforgiving. She walks away, her steps plodding and slow.

Luke watches her go, incapable of movement. She's left him speechless before, stunned and incredulous. She's never immobilized him this way. He doesn't doubt her; the pain of loss, of separation, has altered the pitch of her voice and gives the ring of truth a fullness he's only heard from her once before. He knows now how necessary he is, how intrinsic to a life that she can live. He knows it the same way he knows he loves her: he sees now how he's written in her skin the same as she's etched in his.

He doesn't know how long he's been standing there but he's aware of the return of noise, of chairs scraping across tile and the purposeful clearing of throats. He walks through his diner, unseeing, nearly yanks the door off its very hinges as he opens it and steps outside. He jogs down the street until he sees her retreating back, just at the edge of town. The heartbreak in her shoulders, the sense of loss that's visible in the way she carries herself, perfectly matches the images that have haunted his dreams these last few nights. But the picture in front of him is sharper, more clearly focused; she's close enough to him that he can stop her from walking away, can change the outcome of the dreams he hasn't been able to escape. He slows, calls her name.

She stops, turns halfway around. She's still holding herself as she looks to him. There's no expectation on her face: she's too tired for it. She stands still as he walks towards her. Lorelai watches him search her face, his eyes too full for words. He cups her cheek in his hand. The touch loosens something inside her and the lump that's taken permanent residence in her throat dissolves. She turns her face into his palm; the tears come fast and sudden, hot against her cheek, his hand.

Luke wraps his arm around her shoulders and draws her to fall against him. She doesn't have to hold herself anymore and so she lets him do it, his both arms tight around her as she presses her hands against his back, buries her face in his neck. She breathes him in and the silent flood continues.

When she feels his hand smoothing her hair, Lorelai lifts her head and tips her face to look at him. He doesn't look different, he's the same man that she's known for years, that she's loved for what seems like an eternity now that she's able to admit it; but there's something about the feel of his eyes on her, about the way the look he's giving her presses onto her mind, her heart. She can feel the strength now, the strength she'd doubted. It's Luke and his eyes and the feel of his hands against her that make her feel whole, feel like the person she's always wanted to be, always thought she was. She digs her fingers into him slightly as she closes her eyes. She sighs, and something like a laugh escapes her. Luke leans into her and just presses his lips to hers; what passes between them then they'll never be able to articulate—it tastes of forgiveness, acceptance.

Lorelai opens her eyes, shining still with tears. "Take me home?"

He nods. He keeps one arm tight about her as they walk: she lets him carry her weight.

The walk isn't far and it passes in silence. There are things to say, they both know, but there's time enough now to do the talking later. They climb the steps of the porch, palms pressed together, fingers intertwined. She opens the door and leads the way up the stairs and through her bedroom door. Once inside, she pauses with her back to him, surveys the room as he does the same. Both recall the heated words and hurtful actions that passed between them when they were last in this space together. She thinks of her weakness and his pained voice; he thinks of her resistance and his desperation. Placing his arms gently on her shoulders, Luke pulls her body into his, fits the slope of her back against his chest. His hands lightly on her forearms, he presses a kiss to her temple.

She slowly turns in his arms and pulls him to her; his hands go once again to the small of her back, fitting in that space as though they were made for that purpose only, time passed now irrelevant. He holds her close, her cheek pressed against his shoulder as she clings to him, her arms wrapped so tightly around him it nearly hurts. She's not afraid of breaking now, not struggling to hold herself together so she won't fall apart. She leans her body into his, nuzzles against his neck, then closes her eyes and breathes deep before opening her mouth to speak.

"I am so fucking tired."

He lets out a small laugh, massages the base of her neck. "Well, I heard that you haven't been sleeping lately." Luke pulls away, looks down at her. Her eyes are heavy-lidded, threaten to close of their own accord at any second.

She shakes her head mutely, gripping his arms to steady herself as she does. She blinks slowly and lifts her chin, fixing her eyes on his. "Mr. Danes, take me to bed or lose me forever." She pauses, tilts her head to the side. Somewhere behind the exhaustion, he can see the familiar, laughing spark that's always made her eyes so much more than blue. "Though, I say that in the Meg Ryan way, not the breathy, 'I'm too sexy for my bomber jacket' Kelly McGillis way."

He looks down at her, takes in the weary slump of her shoulders against her face, alight with happiness that she's in his arms, that he's in hers. Even worn beyond comprehension, she's still beautiful. "Come on." He maneuvers her to the bed, toes off his shoes while she does the same.

She pauses, turns to him. "In my current vulnerable state, I trust that you won't have your wicked way with me. Normally, I'm all about the naughtiness, but this is one of the rare moments when I'm just barely able to resist your hot bod." The lightness of her tone is betrayed by the heaviness of her eyes, by the swell of emotion written on her face.

"I'm nothing if not a gentleman," Luke says, reaching for an oversized tee shirt hanging from the bedpost.

Lorelai raises her arms up, mumbling, "it's good!" and watches him as he slides her sweater easily up her torso and over her head. She lets her arms drop with a sigh. Before he eases the tee shirt over her head, he circles her waist with his hands, stroking her sides with his thumbs. She catches her lower lip between her teeth, her eyes again filling when she sees the sadness with which he regards her. Luke runs his hands to her hips, undoing the button and zip on her jeans before he pushes them down and helps her step out of them. When he gets her into the tee shirt, she tucks her chin to her chest and smiles sleepily at him.

Luke returns the smile as he pulls her to him, wrapping her in arms that ached too long from her absence. When she raises her head, he kisses her a moment, then lowers the both of them to the bed, pulls the comforter around them. In the crook of his arm, she settles in deep, fits herself fully against him, holds him both too tightly and not tightly enough. Even without seeing her face, he knows that she's waiting to say something.

Sure enough, she draws in a breath and holds it just a moment before she says "Luke?"

"Hm?" His eyes are closed, his fingers gently rubbing her arm.

"I'm sorry." She burrows closer, holds him even more fiercely as if she's afraid that he'll change his mind and leave her again.

"I know." He squeezes her shoulder, presses his lips to the top of her head. "Go to sleep."

"But Luke, I—"

"Later." He cuts her off, captures her hand in his own. "There's time for that later."

An hour passes before Luke wakes. She's still pressed to his side though her grip has lessened considerably and she's sleeping more soundly than he's ever seen her do. With some effort, he manages to extract himself from her arms without waking her. He turns, pulls the comforter to her shoulder, sweeps the hair from her face. He considers a moment staying with her, of dropping back beside her and holding her until she's herself again. But he knows that right now she's healing, she's securing the pieces of herself inside her body, fitting herself back together, and there are things she'll need once she's done.

The trip to Doose's doesn't take long; he picks up her necessities, the Pop Tarts and Diet Coke, and then his, the milk and whole wheat bread. After getting food for dinner, he buys, without any reluctance, the one thing he knows she needs most.

When Lorelai finally wakes, the sun is long past setting. She extends her hand, expects to find him, barely stops herself from panicking when all she encounters is empty space. Sitting up, she gets her bearings before heading out of her bedroom and down the hall. Halfway down the stairs, the smell of food hits her and she pauses, breaks into a smile, finds her eyes filling with tears. Heading into the kitchen, she finds Luke at the stove stirring red sauce. A pot of noodles bubbles on the backburner and a loaf of garlic bread sits on a sheet waiting to go into the heating oven. When he notices her, he turns his head, sees her wiping tears from her face.

"Hey," he says, crossing the kitchen to where she stands. He stops in front of her, confusion playing in his eyes. "What's wrong?"

Sniffing, she rubs another tear away and clears her throat. "Nothing." She ducks her head, embarrassed at her own display. "Just...you're still here."

His expression softens and his hands move to close around her upper arms. "Of course I'm here. You're Meg Ryan. Who leaves Meg Ryan?"

"The entire film-going public, once she starts making crappy art films?" she says.

His only response is a look and a shake of the head. He draws her against him and she doesn't resist, just wraps her arms around his waist and lays her head against his chest. Breathing in, smelling his scent that she missed so much, she resists the urge to break down again and instead swallows the lump in her throat, shakes the sadness away and concentrates on the feeling of his hands in her hair, at her neck.

"You need to stir your sauce," she says into flannel.

"Yes, I do." He squeezes her tightly, reluctantly pulls away. Looking into her eyes, he sees things that there aren't quite words for. "Come on, let's stir." Taking her hand, he leads her across the kitchen, leans her against the counter while he finishes with the sauce.

Mid-stir, she stops his hand. Her lips are pressed together, her eyes fixed on his. "I love you." Her voice is steady, the courage coming from a place she isn't quite sure of.

His eyes soften, his breath catches. He looks down a moment, contemplates their hands, lightly touching. He slowly raises his head, meets her widened, expectant eyes. "I know," he says, and she hears the certainty, the safety in it. "I love you too."

They stand a moment, listening to the sudden quiet, to the simmer of sauce and water and feeling the weight of the words. They've said it before and they'll say it again, but this time, this moment, is important and they know it. It's something they're savoring, reveling in. He's memorizing the fall of her hair on her shoulders; she's committing to memory the bend of his neck as he leans in, kisses her, runs his hand along her hip. They mark the moment, fix it in place, and then move on, helped along by the buzzing of the oven.

"I'll get it," Lorelai says, thumbing a button on his shirt. She runs her fingers along the flannel, pauses a moment directly over where she imagines his heart to be. "I'll even attempt to not burn it," she says, stepping away.

He lets out a laugh. "Attempt, yes. Succeed, probably not."

"You mock me," she says, sliding the pan into the oven.

"Yes, I do." He smiles at her then, a smile of forgiveness; she feels whole.

She walks to the fridge; she knows she's got at least a can of off-brand soda in the back. She's parched, both from her nap and her tears. Opening the refrigerator door, she sees a bag of coffee beans, her favorite kind, sitting on the middle shelf. Her hand goes to her stomach, presses in the surge of feeling. Out of the corner of her eye, she Luke trying to watch her without being obvious, sees him blatantly focus on the noodles. Reaching past the bag to the can of soda, she smiles, a contented, genuine smile. Can in hand, she goes to him, eyes fixed on the movement of his still-stirring hands, round and round.

It gets easier, as time passes, for them to watch each other and not see the mistakes they've made. For a while, Luke can see her trying; she questions herself, if she's showing enough, if she's saying the right things, and the questions are written on her face. He can see the calculations she performs, the arithmetic of what's enough, the careful attention to the greater thans, less thans, equal tos. It saddens him, when he thinks about it too much, that she has to think about it, but he also knows now how telling the effort is. He's certain she loves him in ways he's never been loved before. When she twines her arms about his neck and presses her cheek to his, he can close his eyes and breathe, not worry about how tightly he can hold her.

Luke fits into her life better than anyone else could, Lorelai knows, and needing him the way she does, if anything, makes her feel a little more human, a little more womanly. It doesn't mean there's a piece of herself missing, that there's a hole she can't fill on her own—having this man in her life doesn't mean she was incomplete before: he's her something extra. She can't quite find the words for it, but she thinks maybe they're each an extension of the other, that being together isn't about filling gaps but growing, being more. She's not afraid of losing him, not afraid they're walking uneven ground and one of them is bound to fall; but there are days she looks at him, sees the lines on his face, feels the warmth he exudes just for her, and she regrets that she couldn't have discovered these things sooner, that she didn't understand herself or him the way she should have, the way she does. And so she works at it, shows more than she has to—she can't make it up, can't replace the time she thinks they lost—knowing that she might not have anything to prove anymore makes it all the more important.

Neither of them notices when the effort ceases to be something put on, dressed up and acted out for the sake of performance. The gestures she makes, the way she holds his hand in the streets and kisses him over the diner counter every morning, the way she leaves early to meet him when he comes home, the way she brings her mother to the diner and takes him to the mansion, no longer require any thought. She simply does these things, takes for granted that they're part of her days. She feels lighter, open. He stops thinking of them as favors, forgets to see them as gestures, comes to expect family functions and public displays of affection he'd always avoided with others. When she reaches for him in the mornings before dawn, drapes her arm across his middle and tucks herself more solidly under his arm, holds him to her, he has to think twice before he kisses her forehead and makes himself get out of bed. There comes a morning when he doesn't, when he sighs and settles deeper into the pillow and tightens his hold on her, too, when he's finally hired more help just to have the extra hours with her, so they can wake together, share their mornings, kiss each other goodbye at the door knowing they have the evening, too, and the day after that as long as they want it.

Certain things will always be the same—habits, routines, squabbles. Certain things are more, now—her kisses seem more sure, steal his breath with their intensity; he closes his eyes when he returns them. They make love and forget where each leaves off and the other begins. They know that's how it is for them now, how it's supposed to be, without effort or thought, but with something more than words, something more solid than trust. Something rooted.