Chapter Five – Tress Tenet Ducks

-

To say that the summer was uneventful would be a lie because, in the town of Stars Hollow, there was always a celebration. However, this summer was dotted with spontaneity and curious happenings outside of the town's usual traditions. During the first month, Rachel left even more unpredictably than her previous departures. Luke seemed indifferent to her desertion, and no one could pity him because of it; Jess, who neglected to communicate with Rachel anything more than a three word, work-related sentence, took her desertion impassively.

Jess failed to resume his original hours at the diner. In fact, he shirked his duties more often and vanished from the town two days a week for almost two months. They saw him disappear late in the morning and reappear late in the afternoon. During those months, citizens of the community reported that he took a bus to Hartford. They were both relieved and jealous to think that he was being a hoodlum in someone else's town.

Rory completed her summer school sessions. She acquired forty hours of community service plus extra hours to begin making up for lost years. Two of her mandatory goodwill undertakings she did with Jess; one was a book club that they organized – she forcefully and he grudgingly – for anyone who wanted to sign up. It lasted an hour; it failed. The other was another building project, a playground for an orphanage, which they contributed to for five hours. The rest of her hours she obtained from Taylor Doose by planning, decorating and participating in the June/July/August festivals and events. He refused to let partake in them and Jess ardently opposed involvement in them.

The new school season approached. Rory worried that Jess wouldn't get enough hours. Subtly she tried to mention opportunities when she was in his vicinity, but he ignored them.

-

"Mom!" Rory called, walking so fast that she was in the kitchen before the door closed, so fast that her thoughts couldn't catch up. "I'm coming out."

"Out of the closet? Honey," she warned, tilted her head.

"Out into society," Rory said.

"I'd hoped for grandchildren, but if you're ready to announce to the world that you're attracted to members of the same sex…"

"No. I went over to grandma's house today. She had her DAR friends over and, um, they were talking about this debutante ball that's being thrown."

"Oh boy," Lorelai exhaled. "I think I would have preferred you coming out of the closet."

"And before I knew it grandma was telling me about how important it is for a person to be properly presented to society. She even gave me pamphlets." Rory held up two booklets.

"'Pamphlets' plural?"

"One for you."

"And she just had these on hand?" Lorelai asked. "Nevermind." She stood up. "I'm getting you out of this. I'll call her."

"No. No, mom, it's okay," Rory said. "It didn't sound that bad. Dresses, flowers, music, cake."

"And the only good thing off that list is the cake," she grumbled.

"C'mon. It's a big deal to her; it's not that important to me. So can we just look at the pamphlets?"

"Oh all right." She reluctantly took one and opened to the first page. "'The Daughters of the Daughters of the American Revolution Debutante Ball – where young girls of good breeding and marriageable age are paraded around in front of young men of similar good breeding so that they might marry one of them and have babies of good breeding.'"

"It says I need a dress," Rory said.

"A psychiatrist."

"Gloves, shoes."

"Straightjacket, padded walls."

"Uh," Rory stumbled over the text. "It, uh, says that your father is supposed to present you at the ceremony."

"Oh. Okay. We can do that."

"No. No big deal. I could get grandpa to do it. Or Taylor. Or maybe the cable guy that was here last week. He looked friendly."

Lorelai got up, wandered to the living room, looked for the phone. "No. You shouldn't feel weird or uncomfortable inviting your father. I will call, I will ask. I'm sure he'll come."

Rory followed her to the couch, still reading. She frowned. "Um, it also says I need an escort."

"I'll be your escort," Lorelai said flippantly as she dialed Chris's number.

"I don't think that's the kind of escort they're talking about."

"Oh. Well, maybe – Ah! Pen! I need a pen."

There were no pens in the living room. Lorelai ran back into the kitchen, found a pen, redialed, and wrote down the new number from the automated voice.

In the living room, Rory stared at the booklet. She focused on the gutter created by the first and second pages, mentally running down a list of people who she could ask to be her "escort" or – translated into its socially offensive synonym – her date. The list was short. The person who would have been at the top had broken up with her. She couldn't ask him, but her other alternative wasn't approachable on this subject either. She didn't have to ask him to hear the sarcastic "no" he would give her or see the sneer that would accompany that answer.

"Okay, missy," Lorelei said cheerily as she flopped down next to Rory, "your father's coming."

"He is?"

"Definitely. Which gives us a fifty-fifty chance. Maybe sixty-forty, since he sounded pretty serious."

"Wow. That must've been some serious seriousness."

"Yes. Now, onto the escort."

Rory looked down at the pamphlet. She began to pick at the edge of the stiff paper.

"Options?"

She had no one else to ask. She had to ask him.

Determined, Rory stood. "I don't know. Ask me later."

She strode into her room, closing the door behind her.

She had a plan.

-

Someone knocked. Not on the apartment door, but on his bedroom door. He continued writing in the composition notebook on his lap, glancing at the book at his side every few words.

The knocker persisted. "Jess?"

Jess flipped the notebook closed and pushed it off his lap, rolled off his bed, stuck the pencil behind his ear, and opened the door. Rory stood with a piece of paper pulled taut between her hands. She looked serious, mature. A detached amusement stirred within him, but his face remained inexpressive.

"I have a proposition for you," she said properly, as a businesswoman, in a tone that lacked all intimacy of friendship and emotion, in a way that he immediately didn't want her to talk to him in.

"Usually the guy is the one to proposition the girl," he said, countering her formal tone with casual crudeness.

"My grandmother invited me to a debutante ball this Saturday. It's important to her and I've agreed to go. However, I need an escort," she said. Jess folded his arms, leaned against the doorframe. "I realize that this isn't your usual thing," she continued impersonally, "but I don't expect you to agree to this for nothing. I've drawn up a contract, and I think you'll find that the terms are fair. If not, you are free to add in your own demands."

She handed him the paper that she held so tightly. It was typed, titled, aligned, indented; if there had been a company seal in the corner, it would have looked like an authentic business document. Jess snatched it from her, leaned against the doorframe, and pretended to read it. He glanced at the numbered list, a list of all she offered him.

"No," he said and held the paper out to her.

"You didn't even read it," she said, still correct, but disappointment floated along the undercurrent.

"Nope, but I'm sure this type of thing is right up bag boy's alley."

He regretted saying it before the sentence was even all the way out of his mouth. He was handing Rory right back to Dean, pushing his chance away, pushing away what he wanted. He couldn't do this, though. He wanted to, but he shouldn't want to. His participation would be more than anyone expected. People would then expect more from him, something he didn't want to feel obligated to offer them.

The altered opinions of him, although undesirable, he could scowl and bear. The humiliation that would come from this ordeal, however, he couldn't.

"I can't ask him. I mean, even if he did agree to go, it'd be… weird. He's–" Her honesty ended with a sudden fall; she continued punctiliously, "He is not an option."

Jess looked back down at the document. As he read the terms he consciously forgot the town, forgot to care what they thought, now and after. It was a complete psychological shutdown. He pulled the pencil out from behind his ear, moved around Rory, brushed arms with her, set the paper down on the kitchen table. He bent over it, crossed out a couple lines. On one number of the list, he paused.

"You can do laundry?"

"Cooking, no. But laundry we are definitely professionals with."

He nodded. At the bottom of the list, he added his own stipulations, standing over the paper in a position that wouldn't allow Rory to read over his shoulder. He felt relief when she didn't try to. He stood and handed the paper back to her, indifferent, blank, because if he wasn't then he wouldn't be able to do this. She read them, and, without hesitation, without worry, without questioning, politely took his pencil and signed her name to the bottom. With a sneer, he also signed the paper. When she saw that he had written "Sucker", she scratched it out and watched him slowly, precisely, sign his actual name.

On the date of August 4, 2001, I, Jess Mariano, agree to attend the Daughters of the Daughters of the American Revolution Debutante Ball with Lorelai Leigh Gilmore as her escort. I will appear dressed in the attire expected of me, worn the way expected of the attire. I agree to remain from 5 p.m. until the time of Rory Gilmore's departure; I will not leave before this time. I will arrive two hours prior to 5 p.m. on the aforementioned date at the house of Lorelai Gilmore.

In return for my services, I will receive:

1. One new book or c.d. every two weeks until graduation from Chilton (If no preference is made the decision will be left to fancy.)

2. One hour of study time on days before a test

3. Unlimited access to Rory Gilmore's library of books

4. Freshly laundered and ironed uniforms on Monday (to be dropped off at the Gilmore household by 5 p.m. Friday)

5. (crossed out) Chilton sweaters, sweatshirts, t-shirts and caps

6. A bottle of hair gel every (crossed out) week (written in by Jess) month

7. (crossed out) A timetable to balance school and work

8. Bus fare until graduation from Chilton

9. Lunch money until graduation from Chilton

10. (written in by Jess) School supplies – I'll give you the money for them

11. (written in by Jess) Computer access

12. (written in by Jess) One favor, whenever, wherever

"Thank you," she said brightly, professional demeanor melting away. "Um, come over tomorrow. We'll go to the mall, get you fitted for a tux because my grandma would probably combust if we rented one. She's paying for it, so don't worry. And shoes, and socks. And a tie."

"Oh jeez. Give it back," he said, holding his hand out for the contract, looking agitated, completely unhappy, but he didn't consider whether or not he really felt either of those feelings, only that he should – that he had to.

"No."

"Hey, if I don't show up tomorrow, just go without me. I'll meet you there. And if for some reason you didn't see me, it was because I didn't find you, not because I didn't show up."

Rory looked at him sternly. "We're leaving at eleven. If you're not there, me and my mom will hunt you down, tie you up and throw you into the back of the Jeep."

He raised an eyebrow, saying seriously, "Kinky."

Her cheeks turned pink and she looked down.

"Um, thanks again, Jess. I, uh, see ya."

She half-waved at him, with the hand that held the document, and left the apartment. Jess returned to his room, kicked the door closed, dropped back onto his bed, resumed his paused task, yet all he could think was that he was an idiot. He felt like an idiot, but at the same time, he felt almost, maybe, eager.

-

In front of Men's Formalwear, he stopped behind Rory. He saw suit jackets tailed and untailed – mostly black, some gray – all hung precisely on racks. He saw dress shirts – white, subtle blue, black, modest green – folded fashionably with stiff plastic tucked into them to keep them unwrinkled. He saw dress pants, both hanging and folded, black, some striped, some gray. Mannequins dressed up in black tuxedos frowned at him behind the glass, greeting him out of forced politeness but not inviting him in.

Black dominated the interior, yet it wasn't depressing. It seemed stoic, as if presenting him with one of the symbols his mind immediately connected to money, proudly flaunting it.

Already Jess felt people staring. They knew he shouldn't even be peering inside, but Rory didn't notice.

He stepped back. "Changed my mind."

"Too late," Rory said. When he continued to back away Rory grabbed the excess fabric at his shoulder and pulled.

"Hey, watch the shirt," he said, shuffling his feet carefully, entering defiantly.

As she marched to the counter, he slipped out of her grasp. He slowly rotated his head around the store and shoved his hands into his pockets. There were a few people in the store, older men, dressed casually. Jess detected a difference between them and him. They belonged and he didn't. Out of place and obstinately quashing the desire to walk out, Jess languidly reached out and ran his hand over a low rack of coats, pretended to look while he made it obvious that he wasn't.

It would have been easier to leave than to stay. He preferred easier.

Rory returned with an employee, suited for business. The man had a clipboard and a flimsy, yellow measuring tape. Jess tried to shut out all feelings of discomfiture and agitation, embarrassment and nervousness. He sifted through them so quickly that they swirled into anger, like a pot on the stove set to high and left to boil over.

"Measure away," Rory commanded, bemused, with a gesture of her hand.

"Step up onto the platform here, please." With a deep glare and two heavy stomps, he did so. As the man measured his legs, his waist, his torso, his shoulders, his arms, Jess scowled down at Rory, whose lips lifted slightly as if she enjoyed watching this. It was an honest enjoyment, void of the cynicism and malicious ill will that he usually suspected of others.

"All right. All done."

Jess stepped down, finding that someone had turned the dial on the stove down – off – and that his anger had cooled. He no longer felt judgmental eyes watching him, waiting for him to leave. He still didn't like being in the store, though.

"You can pick it up Thursday," the man told them.

"Thank you," Rory said, and the employee left.

"Thursday, huh? That cost extra?" Jess tried to tease, but it sounded flat, cold, instead.

"Stop it," she said lightly, but solemnly, as she delved deeper into the store.

"What are we still doing here?"

"Bow tie and gloves. The sooner we find them the sooner we can go."

"Tell you what. You find them, I'm going."

He pointed to the exit, lifted his leg as if he was going to move, but he didn't; he waited for her to protest, and she did. "No, we have to make sure they fit. You kind of have to be here for that," she said. Jess took a calculated step back. "C'mon, five more minutes of this, ten more minutes in a shoe store, and we can skip the sock shopping and go straight to the bookstore." Jess shook his head, inwardly entertained by this, wondering if she would stop him if he tried to leave, wanting her to stop him if he tried. "I saved you from my mom," Rory said. "She tried to come. She had a camera. She was going to take pictures and put them in a scrapbook and blackmail you with them."

"I would have burned them," Jess said, turning his head toward the blue-gray he saw at the frays of his peripheral vision. He headed toward it.

"She would have had doubles," Rory said, following.

Jess picked up a box from a round table stacked with more of the same boxes, a couple of them open and displaying the contents.

"Black bow tie." He tossed her the box, which she caught awkwardly against her chest with both arms. "And there are," he paused, curled his lip, "gloves over there."

"Great!" She bounced over, picked up a pair of gloves linked together by a metal clip, with a piece of plastic and a price tag hanging off it. She held them out to him. Jess stared blankly at her. "Oh boy. You are really making this difficult," Rory said, grabbed his hand, tried to fit a glove onto it only using her left hand.

"It's not going on," he stated.

"And you're not helping."

For a few more moments he let her hold his wrist, his pleasure concealed, and then he snatched the gloves from her and tugged on the one she had been trying to get on his hand.

"Nope, don't fit," he said.

Jess dropped them onto the rectangular table made of a rich-colored wood, glossed with protective laminate: another pointless decoration in a world he couldn't comprehend, wasn't part of, was willingly stepping into for a night. He picked up a medium-sized pair of gloves, slipped one onto his left hand. It stretched over his hand until the tips hit his fingertips and could go no further down his wrist. Quickly he tugged it off and handed them to Rory, saying "here" softly, almost guiltily.

She took the items to the register, handed a credit card to the cashier. Jess waited behind her, hands shoved in his pockets, suddenly placid. They moved on to the shoe store. The mood passed; his sarcasm returned along with his defiant participation. By the time they reached Waldenbooks (the only bookstore in the mall), his calm had plummeted to melancholy and then soared to a forced enjoyment that became truer the longer he browsed with Rory, tossed titles back and forth, read back-cover summaries, collected novels from the shelves to purchase with her grandmother's credit card.

-

"Short end, long end," Christopher said, lifting each respectively under Jess' chin. "Cross, long end behind and up. Make a loop with the short end, long end down. Loop with the long end, bring it through the short loop and then adjust. Got it?"

"Yep," Jess nodded, immediately untying it and yanking it off.

"No one gets it on their first try."

Challenged, Jess tossed it back over his neck, crossed, looped and adjusted the bow tie. From her position on the couch – seated on the middle cushion, her foot against the edge of the coffee table while she painted her toenails – Rory shifted her eyes to the side, smiling, a sense of pride dimly passing through her.

Chris deflated. "Okay, now I'm jealous."

"Ah, but you're the one who gets to dance with Rory," Lorelai said, a book poised on her head, chopsticks between her fingers and a box of Chinese food in her hand. Rory's smile faded slightly, but she refused delivery on the disappointment that unexpectedly knocked. "Unless they think to specify which escort is to dance with the debutante, in which case someone will 'bump' in to Rory, she'll fall, claim injury and be unable to dance. This way, Rory will not be forever shamed. Jess will get to keep what's left of his pride, you'll get to lose what's left of yours…"

"No, I think I lost the rest of my pride doing that stint at the Children of the American Revolution ball."

"Where you wore nothing but a bow tie," Lorelai nodded, smiling fondly.

"A good idea on conception, but the sudden snowstorm instantly dampened the effect."

"Huh. Bow tie would have been the first thing I lost," Jess said, tugging it off again.

"Oh, Jess, planning on providing the entertainment?" Lorelai asked, face deadpan, tone barely holding on to seriousness.

"Oh yeah. Just give me a top hat and a cane and I'll be the Planters Peanut Guy."

"You know, Jess, once you brush your hair you just might be able to pass as a gentleman," Lorelai said thoughtfully. "A gentleman with a very accurate reproduction of the Tommy Lee Jones scowl."

"It's either that or he's going to be mistaken for a waiter," Chris tossed in.

"Maybe Luke'll pay me extra for it," Jess mumbled dryly.

"Oh, now there's the attitude we all love." Lorelai dipped her head and caught the book in her hand.

Rory noted the sarcasm, the way her mom forced it to sound good-natured. Her dislike knitted itself so skillfully into the words that to undo it would mean following every stitch backward until it all unraveled. To undo the blanket of loathing would require concentration, patience and determination on Rory's part. Just seeing Jess involved in this function, learning to tie a bow tie, learning the codes of high society introductions, all willingly and with minimal complaining, had to unweave some part of Lorelai's needlework.

"Whatever. I'm gone. By the way, I'm changing here tomorrow. See ya at three." And he left.

"Maybe if we duct tape his mouth we can pass him off as a gentleman," Lorelai considered.

"Nah," Rory said. "Duct tape is too gaudy. We want subtle-yet-refined."

"Super glue?"

"Now you're talkin'."

-

The next day Jess trudged down the stairs, a gray plastic bag slung over his shoulder, the hanger hooked carelessly by his index finger. He dreaded the stares from the prying town gossips – most of the town being the gossips – but he didn't halt. He threw the curtain out of his way with an unnecessary amount of force, embracing anger over fear, anger that would give him the excuse to snap or rudely ignore as he chose. None of the customers looked up, or looked at him strangely, or looked at him as a prospect for the Stars Hollow Gazette's lead story tomorrow. Some of his tenseness slipped away, taking with it some of his angry visage as he relaxed in the safety of going un-judged.

"Hey, what time are you gonna get back?" Luke called.

Instantly the anger rebuilt itself into a protective shield. "When I get back." He slammed the diner door.

On the street, he couldn't completely loosen up again. He walked quickly, his forehead scrunched, his eyes hunting for judgmental passerby. No one stared too long. No one cared. He felt a modicum of relief.

As he knocked on the door to Lorelai's house he transferred most of his body weight onto one leg and put on a face to greet whoever opened the door with the displeasure they expected to see from him. Rory dressed in everyday clothes, let him into the house.

"My parents are in the bedrooms. You have ten minutes in the bathroom before they invade."

"Hitler and Mussolini?"

"Like you were France."

Jess nodded.

"Upstairs. The door on the right," Rory told his back.

Jess headed up the stairs and locked the bathroom door behind him. He quickly shed his outer garments, pulled out the tuxedo, stepped into the pants, buttoned the shirt. The jacket he set on the counter to put on as late as possible; the bow tie he hung around his neck under the collar. He would wait to tie it too. He kicked off his shoes, dug to the bottom of the bag for his new ones and jerkily knotted them. Lorelai pounded on the door, demanding that he open it. Jess leisurely secured the black cummerbund around his waist, packed his clothes into the bag and rezipped it. He snagged the coat, casually draped it over his arm with the clothes bag, and opened the door. Lorelai clicked the button on her camera before Jess could turn away, flashing him with a bright light.

"Hey, you're not fully dressed yet," she pouted.

"Huzzah," Jess snapped, moving around her.

"Are you seriously leaving your hair like that?"

He whirled around. "What's wrong with it?"

"It sticks up."

"And?"

"That's just it. It defies gravity. Anything that defies gravity is frowned upon in the world you are daring to tread into," she explained as she reached for his wrist. "C'mon. Back into the bathroom."

Jess jerked his hand away, stomped into the bathroom, exasperatedly turned on the faucet, wet his hands, wet his hair. He pushed it all back, flattened, tamed. Lorelai gawked, her mouth open with a grin that escalated Jess's projection of hostility. He went downstairs and dropped onto the couch. He wondered why he had agreed to this ridiculous excursion. The contract seemed like a weak excuse now, but greed was a plausible motive, an acceptable reason. Still, he made himself feel miserable because that was what he should have been, not realizing that his misery required conscious effort because, really, he wanted to do this.

Rory came up next to the arm of the couch. "I can fit a book into my purse, but it has to be small."

"Okay," he said, hitting a note of confusion on the tone scale.

"For you to sneak off and read. Suggestions?"

Jess smiled. "Old Man and the Sea."

"Oh, no, I'm sorry, a book I have," she clarified.

"The Invisible Man."

"Reading the classics?"

"Rereading. I'm suddenly in the mood for violent and angry," he said.

"Cheery," she remarked and went to her bedroom to retrieve it. She knocked on the door first, though, and Christopher came out, adjusting his tie.

"You know, I don't think I can call you Steve Randle anymore," Chris said.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, you look more like a Soc," he shrugged with a silent, open-mouthed laugh.

Jess rolled his eyes, temporarily disinclined to verbal communication. Rory handed him The Invisible Man, saying that he could read it on the way there in the Jeep; he took it then as an excuse to ignore them, flipped to the first page. They waited twenty more minutes for Lorelai, who hopped down the stairs while she put on her heels. Jess followed them to the vehicle, subdued and determined to engross himself in the novel, and climbed into the backseat next to Rory.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rory lean against the armrest, stare out the window. Lorelai chatted, irrelevant palaver that he closed his hearing off to, and he thought he had managed to disappear amongst them until the conversation died and she tried to rejuvenate it with him.

"So, Jess, school starts next week."

Jess continued reading, but the words were no longer coherent sentences.

"Orientation is Thursday morning," she said. As a close-ended statement, Jess decided that it required no acknowledgement from him. Lorelai went on, "Are you and Luke going?"

"Luke is," he admitted reluctantly, with enough bite to temporarily halt the conversation.

After a beat Lorelai asked, "Are you nervous about going to Chilton?"

He rolled his eyes, frustrated. "Nope."

"Excited?"

"Nope."

Lorelai sighed. "Scared? Indifferent? Miserable?"

"I'm going," he said noncommittally, turning the page although he had lost the gist of the paragraph.

"Oh, well, that's good," she said and, a smidgen rankled, added, "Hope you like the uniforms."

Despite the abrupt change in her demeanor that he knew he was responsible for, he pretended he didn't notice, didn't care. As the ride stretched Jess fleetingly considered rectifying the situation, giving her a straight answer, some sort of honest answer, but he couldn't find a reason to do so. So he didn't.

Eventually everyone gave up on trying to coax out some semblance of politeness, humanity, responsibility – whatever it was they expected from him – and left him alone, which was just hunky-dory.

As they turned into the circular entryway, Jess tied his tie quickly and slipped on his dinner jacket. At the entrance of the building, with a banner hung overhead proclaiming the event, a valet greeted them and took the Jeep. Jess scoffed and returned the book to Rory.

An older woman with a clipboard met them at the door, scolding them for arriving late and sending Rory upstairs; Lorelai encouraged her daughter to "sliiide" down the banister. Then the woman turned to Jess and pointed him through a door to the left, underneath the balcony. He jerked the door open and immediately several different, expensive smells attacked his nose, burning all the way through to the back of his tongue. Two wooden benches placed parallel on the carpet held several bags of clothes, shoes and hangers. A couple of the boys were shirtless, one pantless; one tied, untied, then retied his bow tie in front of the only full length mirror in the room, and continued to repeat the process, unsatisfied with the outcome of each. As Jess backpedaled, a balding older man approached him.

"Which debutante are you escorting?" he asked.

He forced his legs still. "Uh, Lorelai Gilmore."

The man scanned the list and checked off something with his pencil.

"You have an hour and a half to get ready. The bathroom is through those doors," he said, carelessly pointing behind him with the eraser end of his pencil. "Don't fight over the sinks."

Jess shot him a half confused, half mortified look as the old man moved on to address the entire room, telling the young men to put their belongings against the wall and not on the benches. Jess moved quickly across the room and into what he expected to be an empty bathroom. Instead, three escorts crowded the small space around the sinks, each in an undershirt, each shaving in front of one of the three mirrors. Jess turned and left the bathroom, left the dressing room, and ended up in the ballroom, wandering uncertainly.

The room was extravagant, decorated with tender flowers and elegant decorations. Jess looked for a corner out of the way where he could vanish until the ceremony began. What he found was the bar, which he cut diagonally across the ballroom to reach.

"Beer," he said naturally, having learned not to look too guilty or too confident when asking.

"ID?" the bartender asked.

"Tequila?"

"ID?" he repeated.

"Vodka?" he asked, as if he would get the alcohol if he picked the right drink.

"Hey, Jess, making friends?" Lorelai smiled and turned her head to the bartender, "Martini."

Jess rolled over to lean back against the counter, elbows supporting him. Lorelai mimicked his pose and took a sip of her drink. He narrowed his eyes, staring ahead.

"Refreshing?"

"Very," she nodded.

He exhaled loudly through his nose.

"So, any particular reason that you were out here trying to sneak booze?"

"Yep."

"Which was?" she drawled patiently.

"Tastes better than all the Polo and Axe I inhaled," he shrugged, stubbornly refusing to look at her.

"Ah," she nodded. "Oh, special delivery from Rory." She opened the handbag she carried and pulled out The Invisible Man, standing shoulder to shoulder with him as she slipped it to him in a conspiring manner. "Slip it into your coat pocket and you just might make it through the night without liquor. Unless you run into my parents."

He took the book, dramatizing his reluctance to take it from her to cover up his want of it. He stuffed it into his inner pocket and pushed off the counter, heading back to the dressing room.

"Hey, Jess, one more thing," Lorelai called.

He turned around. The camera flashed him for the second time that day, leaving a greenish-purple spot in his vision. His scowl deepened and he stormed off, bending an arm behind his back and extending a middle finger for Lorelai to notice or not.

For the next hour he sat on the edge of one of the benches in the dressing room, hunched over the novel, steadily ignoring the idle chat the guys had going behind him. Jess blatantly ignored their pointed comments, aimed at his appearance, his anti-social inclination, his pedantic pastime. At five thirty the old man crowded the escorts together to deliver a speech on the importance of the event, the itinerary of the evening and threatened to personally throw out anyone he caught drinking or smoking. Jess read through the entire speech. At five forty-five, they lined up according to the order in which their corresponding debutantes were to be presented. Jess came last in line; he didn't question it. The old man finally noticed Jess's negligence and specifically told him to put his "damn book away."

They heard a somewhat muffled version of a speech, polite laughter interspersed. Jess's fingers itched for a cigarette to occupy his hands. By six o'clock the line moved, but only one person at a time. When he finally reached the doorway he peeked around the corner, watched a debutante and an escort loop arms and walk down a short aisle together. The old man ushered him out next and he obediently strolled out onto the red carpet, scouring the accumulation of upper class bodies. He stood loosely, opposite the rigidity he had seen from the other escort, and met some of the eyes in the crowd, daring them to question his presence there.

"Lorelai Gilmore, daughter of Christopher Hayden and Lorelai Gilmore."

He watched as her father guided her down the stairs and kissed her hand. Jess imperceptibly shook his head, making mental lists of all the various books, plots and characters Rory reminded him of in the dress, in the setting. He held out his elbow for her.

"You will pay for the rest of your life," he whispered to her.

However, Rory didn't acknowledge him. She concentrated on the few steps she had left to take and then distractedly floated away from him. For a moment, he watched with a removed horror as Rory partook in an embarrassing fan dance, but then he recognized his opportunity to get away. Jess slipped out of the ballroom and into the darker reception room where he stuffed himself into the corner of a cushioned couch.

The disapproving stares people flung at him intermittently throughout the night he secretly relished, for the same reason a rebel deliberately defies the law and enters a No Trespassing zone.

Symphonic music waded out to him as he took out Rory's book, intolerable in its volume and the way the notes reverberated through the hollow of the rooms, but which dulled into the background of his hearing as he read. About forty pages later Rory stuck her head into the room, smiled when she spotted him, and sat down next to him.

"So what part are you at?"

"The brawl. He just stripped."

"Invisible clothes might have been a perk for him."

"Maybe," he agreed.

Lorelai and Christopher entered the reception hall, announced that they had Rory's clothes and that "enough time has passed for us to escape without looking suspicious."

In the Jeep it was too dark to read, so Jess grabbed the handbag Rory had put in the seat between them, stuck the book into it. He looked up; Rory chatted with her parents, her attention on them. He carefully plucked the camera from the purse and slipped it into his pocket. Jess lolled his head back on the seat and pretended to rest.

"So did you know that you're considered a hot dad?" Rory asked Chris.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, Libby says it's too bad you're not my step dad, otherwise I could steal you away from mom."

"That Libby's got a good life ahead of her," Chris said.

Lorelai parked the Jeep outside of Luke's, saying, "I need a burger."

"Me too," Rory said, getting out quickly.

Jess grabbed his bag of clothing from the back, slid out of the car, shedding his coat and bow tie completely. He hurried upstairs, past Luke, and ripped off the tuxedo, replacing it with the most offensive shirt he had in his closet and the jeans and shoes he wore over to the house earlier. He came back downstairs, where Rory and Lorelai had already been served a late dinner.

"You changed fast," Luke noted.

Jess lifted the plastic lid and retrieved a pair of donuts.

"Oh yeah," he said, bit into a donut as he leaned forward on the counter, "I'm a regular Speedy Gonzalez."

"Did you have fun?" Luke asked.

"You know how they say there's no such thing as a stupid question?"

"Shut up."

"Well apparently they do exist," he finished anyway, taking another bite.

"Oh, Luke!" Lorelai said suddenly. "Do you want me to get you copies?"

"Of what?"

"Of the pictures I took of Jess in a tux."

Jess smirked and headed upstairs with his food, glancing over at Rory as he turned. She missed it.

The evening hadn't been the humiliating torment he expected; it hadn't been as big of a deal as he imagined. Except for the live music, it had been almost bearable.

-

Author's Note – It's finally out. Sorry it took so long. This chapter was not easy. But, hopefully, as I no longer have a research paper hovering over me, I should be able to belt out the next chapter soon.

Thank you, my readers and reviewers, for waiting patiently! I absolute adore and love all of you!

Thank you to Arianna555, one of my beta-readers, who catches all my stupid blunders. Like spelling Lorelai's name with an 'e' instead of an 'a.'

And thank you to Cadenza at Midnight, my other beta-reader, who pointed out idiosyncrasies, grammatical errors and who made wonderful suggestions on how to improve sentences and paragraphs.

Next chapter: Finally, Jess goes to Chilton.