Title: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas in Stars Hollow

Pairing: Java Junkie

Rating: PG-13, for language

Time Period: Past, Present, and Future

Ickle Word: Chillax (Verb) – To chill out and relax.
Random Objects: Snowmen, Silver Bells

Marathon Event: forty-eight hour town marathon—Christmas Caroling for Charity

AN: This was written for Build-A-Fic GG writing challenge, the winter holiday round, and therefore a one-shot. Thanks for Katherine for betaing for me and loving the idea of Luke as a cog. Hehe.


He had not left that damn window open.

Luke Danes couldn't even remember the last time he opened that window. It'd been too cold since fall to let a breeze in, and no one in their right mind would open their home to the elements and waste money on heating when leaving it open so effectively cooled it at the same time.

Scratch that. He knew one person that did this, every single time it snowed.

Groaning, he swung his legs out from under the warm covers of his double bed and his formerly warm feet hit the very cold hardwood floor. He'd seen no point in carpeting the old office, as the wood gave it a masculine flavor, even though the curtains he'd hung had swung too far into the compensation area. They screamed that a woman had been in the apartment, though possibly not a woman with very good taste. He hadn't even gotten throw rugs after Lorelai complained about the temperature of the floor the last time the heat went out. He bought her slippers, and she had beamed at him and kissed him in the appreciative way she had. No one was there now to be appreciative of anything, and he growled all the way over to the fully open window and the ugly curtains that were blowing wildly, flapping in and out in the gusty breeze.

It had started snowing while he was asleep. It was the first snow of the year, and the first snow he'd slept through the start of in two years. He resisted the urge to look out in the freshly frosted streets and search out the lone woman that loved the smell in the air so much she didn't even feel the chill. He heard the sound of Taylor's carolers, singing under the guise of raising money for the Children's Hospital—officially participating in the first ever Annual Holiday Charity Caroling Marathon. They'd started the morning before, at six in the morning on Christmas Eve; the decision to freeze to death for the sake of others made by a two-thirds majority vote at the last town meeting. Luke hadn't voted, saying that all the vote proved was that two-thirds of the town had been in favor of drinking spiked eggnog.

Of course, Luke hadn't participated in anything this holiday season, not even putting up any decorations at all, Christmas or otherwise. He'd entertained the thought, back when he thought there would be a chance that he'd get to have April over. The newfound fatherly side of him wanted to hang a stocking with her name on it and put presents for her under a decorated tree. He imagined seeing her face light up when she saw she'd received the science dictionary she'd been dropping so many hints about. Of course, when he'd envisioned it, he was giving her a puppy or a Barbie doll. The science dictionary failed to be linked with little girls in his mind. It was a good thing that the women in his life had never been anything but overt and opinionated.

He was the most haunted that it was Lorelai's mantle from which he'd seen April's stocking hanging. And he'd only had himself to blame for that never happening.

Now he really needed socks. He blamed all these thoughts of stockings, but it turned out that Lorelai had been right and the floor was too damn cold, with heat or without. He had shut out the mingled voices of too many people that couldn't carry a tune on their own accord, but now they seemed amplified as they mingled together, increasing his general annoyance level as his feet felt like blocks of ice. Muttering about needing to move to a carpeted apartment in a town far, far away from Taylor and his desire for uniform togetherness, he walked over to his dresser and attempted to pull out the thickest pair of socks he owned. He slid his hand around, rooting for the pair of hiking socks he knew were hiding somewhere in the back, forgotten mainly from disuse during a period in his life where he'd spent time with the women in his life, not filling up his days off with manly distractions but with truly getting to know his daughter. There was a nagging feeling that he should have found more time to continue getting to know Lorelai as well.

He reminded himself that it had been her that handed out the ultimatums, her that slept with her ex before he'd figured out a way to rationalize her demands and come back to her ready to run off and get married, no matter what that meant for the rest of his life. What that meant to their future. Her that had ended it.

It was just hard to stay mad at her, hard to stay so justified and righteous, when he found a pair of her socks she kept stashed in his sock drawer, for cold nights like these. He took out the soft, lilac socks that she'd discovered at Izod, during one of her shopping sprees, or episodes as he referred to them as, where she bought every single color in pairs—one full set for her and one for Rory. She'd even offered to get some for April, but he had declined, saying it probably wasn't appropriate. Again, his conscience nagged at him, wanting to know what had been so inappropriate about socks. He wondered if that had been the last straw. He knew there were many possibilities, so many chances he'd had to let her get close when all he'd accomplished was pushing her away.

He pulled her socks out and set them on top of his dresser, along with a few other items he'd began to find that he meant to return to her at a later date. Some time when he knew no one was home, some time when he wouldn't run into her or him—or worse—the two of them together. Them at home, being married. Her playing mother to the child whose birth had broken her heart so many years ago. She got someone who wanted her now, who was willing not to wait despite having a daughter.

It was only eleven-thirty, he noted as he trudged his now covered feet back to his bed. The sheets on the far side were still tucked in and smooth, making it look much too large for him. Wasteful. He hated to be wasteful. Plenty of people, particularly Ms. Patty, had told him not to worry. Someone else would come along to fill the spots that seemed so empty in his life right now. That just wasn't what he wanted. He didn't care for someone else. He'd been perfectly content to be alone before Lorelai came into his life, and he was content to picture a life alone after her. He'd just keep to himself, flipping his burgers and otherwise being a hermit.

The only problem with that was that even being a hermit in this town meant seeing her. She was everywhere. She ate almost exclusively in town, unless the rich, pretty boy cooked; she participated in every single town event—if not as a participant then as an onlooker. He couldn't imagine she'd be singing out in the cold without a reasonable end in sight, but surely she'd gone down and bought coffee and listened to them sing as the Christmas tree was lit up in the square and Santa came out for all the children. She'd think it was beautiful.

He began to think Thoreau had it right. He'd probably retreated into the woods after the break up of a bad relationship. Luke couldn't blame the guy.

He'd just sat back down on the bed when a knock came to his door. She was weighing heavily on his mind, but it would have taken fate and luck to conspire together for it to be her on the hallway side of his front door. And he didn't believe much in either.

Nevertheless he moved to the door and opened it. He blinked a few times, not quite believing the sight before what he'd thought were good eyes.

"Well, it's about time. Do you realize how difficult this is to arrange? As it is, with the detour I had to take thanks to your stubbornness, we're going to be behind schedule."

"Taylor?"

"I had it all ready to go, getting the window open, but you had to shut it, didn't you? I know you like to be a shut-in, but honestly, Luke," Taylor stepped to the window and opened it. He peered out over the town, a very pleased look on his face. "What a wonderful sound," he nodded happily.

"Of course you think that, you organized the caroling," Luke rolled his eyes.

"I did? How wonderful. How about the uniform grass height? Did I do that too? Because I always have thought it would bring such a nice look to the town from above. See the way the snowfall is even, like a blanket with the grass all the same height?"

Taylor was definitely himself, except years had been shaved from him. Instead of his trusty cardigan, he wore a sweater vest over a long-sleeve button down shirt, pressed chinos, and he sported a goatee. His brown hair was just beginning to be peppered with grey.

"Shouldn't you be down there, making sure everyone is singing in rounds or something?"

"That's work for that fine-looking man in the cardigan," he smiled and patted Luke on the shoulder. "Is that me? I have aged well."

"Who are you, Taylor's nephew, from Woodbridge? He put you up to this, didn't he?"

"No, Luke, I've lived in Stars Hollow my entire life, just as you have. It's a much a part of who I am as it is who you are. Without this town, there would be a hole in our lives. We'd feel somehow incomplete. Each person is a unique cog in the machine, without whom life just wouldn't be the same."

"Whoever you are, it's clear you've been into Patty's eggnog. I have a couch, if you want to sleep it off," he pointed across the room.

"I don't have time to sleep, Luke, and neither do you. Now, get some shoes on and perhaps a coat. It's going to be very similar weather where we're going."

"Where we're going? We're not going anywhere."

"Luke, if we don't leave now, then you'll be late for your next appointment. And if you think I like being on time, wait until you meet the next guy. Oh, he's quite a stickler for punctuality. I aspire to that level of timeliness."

"I'm not going anywhere. I'm going back to bed and shutting my window, again," he gruffed.

"Fine. Do as you please. But know that by shutting yourself up and off, might I add, like this, you're not just harming yourself."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're a cog, Luke."

"Are you just gonna keep yapping until I come with you?"

"As a matter of fact, I am. How did you know?"

"Just a feeling," Luke gruffed. "Look, I'm NOT one of your cogs! I don't know if you have noticed or not, but there is none of this holiday paraphernalia in my diner or in my house! I'm not participating in the Carol-o-thon, and I'm not going anywhere with you!"

"But you ARE a part of this town, Luke. You do participate, maybe not in such an obvious way for others to appreciate," he shook his head disapprovingly, "but you're there behind the scenes, as it were. Many people depend on you."

"For food."

"Yes, for food, but for your generosity of spirit as well."

"Is this some ploy to get me to put up a cardboard snowman in my window?"

Taylor shook his head. "If you weren't a part of this town, it would suffer. The people in it would suffer."

He felt guilty for the thoughts he'd been having about how much easier it might be to start over somewhere new. He'd lived in this town all his life, and he was used to the tight weave of this town's knit. He'd accepted it as part of his life until everything had happened with him and Lorelai. He looked up at Taylor as he adjusted his sweater vest over the top of his pressed pants.

"What's that supposed to mean? Who would suffer?"

"Come with me and find out."

Luke gave a belabored sigh and moved to pull on a coat. "I can't believe I'm doing this."

Young Taylor stepped to the open window and caught his own reflection in the glass. "How do you think I'd look with a beard?"

Luke rolled his eyes. "Can we just get this over with, please?"

Taylor sighed and held out his hand as he climbed onto the windowsill like a practiced cat burglar. Luke couldn't help the pained expression that swept his face as he did as instructed and grabbed hold of his hand. Taylor waited expectantly, until Luke gave only a disgruntled noise before they took off into the night.

XXXX

"Where in the hell are we?"

Luke looked around in general confusion right after they landed a bit roughly in the middle of a street.

"Must you use such crass language all the time? You'd be shocked at how far a smile and a wave can get you."

Luke let go of Taylor's hand as soon as he was sure his feet were solidly on the ground. Flying was never one of his favorite activities, but going without the aid of a plane was proving a bit too terrifying. He continued to look around at out-of-date cars and lawn furniture, but was starting to instinctively recognize most of the houses around him.

"Are we on Peach Street?"

"Plum, actually. Shh, you'll miss it!"

"Miss what?" he asked, irked that he'd been holding so tightly to Taylor's hand in order to travel a grand total of two blocks.

"Did he scare you?" came a feminine and familiar voice.

"I'm not a baby," came the reply from another female, obviously the younger of the two.

"You're my baby," she corrected. "Is that it, you're too old to talk to Santa?"

"Evidently, you're never too old," the younger girl's sardonic response verbally jabbed as they got close enough to identify. Luke hadn't needed a visual indicator, however, to know that Lorelai and Rory Gilmore were walking right toward him.

"Hey, I have plenty of stuff on my wish list. That house isn't going to fix itself."

The eleven-year-old shrugged. "The last repair guy was nice, the one that fixed my shower? He gave me a used copy of Ulysses."

"Oh good, a nice small book," Lorelai quipped. "Seriously, I might as well have the house converted into a library for your books."

"I don't have that many books. Now that we have an address, I have a library card."

"Which sees more use than my mother's credit card. Hey, that's an idea!"

"Using Grandma's credit card?"

"God, no," Lorelai shuddered and clearly not due to the cold. "You need a bookcase."

"I do not," she crossed her arms, defiantly in the same manner as her mother did when challenged. "Lane showed me how to use my dresser drawers and floorboards instead of a bookcase."

Lorelai winced. "Tell me you didn't pry up that beautiful hardwood!"

"We didn't. I had enough room in my dresser and under my bed. But Lane uses her floor for her CDs."

"She is such an interesting kid."

They walked in silence for a moment, right past Luke and Taylor, not noticing them at all.

"I don't really need anything. I know we just bought the house, and you can't afford anything."

"That's not the point, kid," she sighed. "You should still hope for stuff and want things. That's half the fun of Christmas, to hope that Santa or God, or whoever, will come through and leave your heart's desire at your doorstep."

Rory seemed to consider this. "What are you hoping for?"

Lorelai wrapped her arm around her daughter. "For my daughter to believe in miracles."

They turned the corner, toward their newly purchased and in need or repair home, and out of earshot from the two men.

"See?" Taylor asked smugly.

"See what?" Luke asked, trying not to subtract years in his head to realize what he'd been up to that very same year.

"You're saying you don't remember that year?"

"I didn't do anything special. This whole town helped out with that."

"Yes, but you did the most."

"Patty came to me and asked me to do some work on the house. I was doing woodwork anyway, it wasn't a big deal to make a bookcase while I was at it."

"You've taken care of those women since they set foot in this town."

"I didn't even like her back then. She called me Duke and harassed me for free coffee."

"But you took an instant liking to that little girl. You helped give her a safer house, and a home for her books. You were her Santa Claus. If you hadn't taken a role, their lives would have been very different."

"How different?"

"Lorelai would have had no other choice but to turn to other methods to provide for her daughter."

"What kind of methods?"

"You know the rules," Taylor held out his hand, and Luke sighed.

"Yeah, fine, let's go."

XXXX

Back on solid ground again, they were in front of the Gilmore house. Instead of her old beat-up Jeep in the driveway, there was a BMW parked in the garage. The porch had been refinished, and he continued to gape as they walked in, through the front door. Not through an open door, but rather directly through the closed door.

"What is with this place? Has she suffered a blow to the head?"

"Lorelai is in fine physical shape," Taylor retorted from over his shoulder.

There was a huge Christmas tree in the corner, filled not with her usual eclectic mix of collected ornaments, but looking almost like it'd been ripped from a department store. Presents spilled out from under the limbs, and the house was immaculately clean.

"Mom, you're not listening to me," Lorelai shouted into the phone. "No. It's enough, we don't need anything else," she began. "Don't you dare! I'm warning you… You are aware this is my house, not yours, right? I'm not ungrateful, I just think you could take our taste into consideration before you go and do these things. No. I understand. I'll see you Friday."

She hung up and looked completely crestfallen for a moment before Rory came out of her room. Immediately she pasted on a smile and spoke.

"Any thoughts on dinner?"

"I dunno, pizza maybe?"

"Sure, babe."

"Was that Grandma again?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah. She wanted to remind you that you had a dress fitting this weekend."

Rory wrinkled her nose. "Do I really have to go to that stupid ball alone?"

"Not alone, Hon. She said you could bring a friend, maybe Lane would like to go."

"Mrs. Kim can't afford a dress like that. How come you can't go?"

"And be set up on yet another date with a yuppie? Not thank you. I have a date with Sookie and the collected works of River Phoenix."

Rory sighed. "I hate these things. Grandma never lets me sit down or eat enough. She keeps telling me I'll wrinkle my dress or spill on it."

"Well, after you get back, I'll take you out, and we'll order a feast of Chinese and use our pants instead of napkins."

Rory smiled. "Deal. See you in the morning."

"Yeah, I'll be here," Lorelai promised as she watched her daughter retreat off to her room. She sat on the couch and looked at her possessions disdainfully before retiring up to her bedroom alone.

"What just happened here?" Luke asked.

"Well, Luke, when the Christmas passed without them even having enough for presents and her house continued to need work, she had little choice but to give in and ask her parents to help her out. They came in and took over much of her life. All the things she'd strived to do on her own were replaced with things they furnished for her. It's quite a different life—one you had the power to change."

"How did I really change it by building a bookcase and repairing a staircase?"

"You gave her hope that she could get the things done on her own. You gave her an option that she needed to be independent."

Luke continued to look at the museum-like home, not dissimilar to the elder Gilmore home he'd been in far too many times for his tastes. "Can we get out of here? It's giving me the creeps."

Taylor checked his watch. "Oh, my, yes. If I don't get home right away, you might miss you next appointment."

"What is this next appointment you keep talking about?"

"Oh, you'll see. Come on, we must leave now!"

"Fine, geez, keep your pants on," Luke walked back through the door and allowed Taylor to take him home.

XXXX

Luke woke up in a fine layer of sweat, sitting up ramrod straight in bed. "Damn Taylor," he mumbled as he heard the faint beginning of Silent Night coming from the town square. He checked his clock, which read half past midnight. He couldn't believe those idiots were still out there, singing and sounding like they were having a good time instead of freezing their well-intentioned, charitable asses off.

He couldn't shake the intense dream he'd just had; it felt so real he looked to his window, which was securely shut and locked. He got up and decided he must just be dehydrated, and therefore hallucinating. The flying had felt so real, and the pain on her face had seemed beyond real. As he drank, he was glad he'd done all those past good deeds, no matter how much he'd berated himself at for being a lovesick fool in the past. A knock came to his door, and he wondered if she'd had trouble sleeping tonight, as well. He knew she was living a different life now, of her own creation, but he hoped deep down it wasn't the one she wanted.

Taylor Doose, fresh with a fine layer of snow on his shoulders and hat, stood in his hallway. He looked just as he had this evening at dinner—full beard, cardigan, and impossibly chipper smile on his face.

"Not getting much sleep these days? Is that why you were so cranky earlier when I asked you to join the caroling?"

"I was cranky because you asked me to give away free food to carolers," he grunted. "And if you think coming up here to wake me up in the middle of the night is a way to get me to do it now, you're crazier than I thought you were."

"I'm not here about the caroling, Luke."

"Then what are you doing up here? It's the middle of the night."

"I'm very aware of the time. Are you ready to go?"

"Go? I just told you, I'm not taking part in this insanity plea!"

"Don't want to run into a certain lady, I assume?"

"Stay out if it, Taylor. I've never taken part of the town things."

"That's not true, and you know it."

"I've been to a few things, in passing. I've never organized anything."

"Well, I'm not going to take you caroling. Not that she's there anyhow," Taylor shrugged, baiting him.

"I don't care that she's not there. I care about going back to bed, because some of us have to be up in a few hours to work."

"Tomorrow is Christmas Day, Luke."

"People still have to eat on Christmas Day, Taylor."

"Well, I suppose standing here talking until I'm blue in the face isn't going to change your mind. Come on, we should go now."

"Go where?"

"Why are you giving me such a hard time? You went last time!"

"Last—what are you talking about?"

"I have more to show you, Luke. You've very stubborn, do you realize that?"

"Are you going to start in about how I'm a part of the town? I swear, if you call me a cog, I'm gonna hit you."

"You're more than a part of this town, Luke. And you've let certain relationships fall into disrepair. Relationships that have altered, and if not tended to will be broken forever."

"I told you to stay out of it, Taylor."

"Aren't you curious as to what has become of her? Can you really just walk away after all those years of friendship?"

"She doesn't want me anymore. She made that painstakingly clear."

"Your pain has blinded you. You need to see what her life is like now. You're both so pig-headed and bound to doing things you own way."

Luke sighed. He wondered if Kirk was waking her up in the middle of the night and bugging her. He was sure Chris would love that. From what he'd seen and heard, he wasn't blending into small town life. Taylor wasn't going anywhere, and the sooner he went, he knew the sooner he could get back to bed.

"Fine. But if you try to get me to sing or give anyone free coffee, I'm not responsible for my actions."

XXXX

There was snow on the ground, but that was the only indicator of winter in sight. He hadn't known what to expect as he left with Taylor from his apartment window for the second time that evening, but the lack of normal comforts shocked him more than the overly expensive spread that had accosted his eyes during the last trip to the Gilmore property.

There were still empty spots from where he'd moved out—his moving in not having been as permanent in his mind as it had been in hers. After the remodel, she'd planned for space to fit him in—not only to her house, but into her life. The holes he'd created in her house were as stark as the ones that he was still feeling in his heart.

Silently, she caught his attention out of his peripheral sight. She was padding down the hallway with the cordless phone and a scrap of paper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. She settled on the couch, oblivious to the fact that she wasn't alone and took a long sip out of her mug. He knew it to be coffee that she was drinking—it was the one vice she'd never relinquish, even though she'd given up his coffee cold turkey the day she'd asked him to elope with her.

Now she dialed an extraordinary string of digits into the phone, no doubt for an international call. He waited for the relief to wash over her features as it always did when she heard the voice of one person in particular.

"Hey, kid, how's Rome?"

He'd forgotten that Rory was going abroad for the holidays with that preppy, smug, rich boyfriend of hers. Just one in a string of things he'd been too busy to hear about in those last few months as her fiancé. He wondered how Rory was taking the new development that her mother's life had taken—he knew Christopher had his own brand of fathering that often left his daughter in the dust. Rory was frequently not on speaking terms with her dad, and every single time he knew in his heart that it wouldn't be like that if he was her dad.

He would be a good dad. If only someone would give him the opportunity.

"That sounds amazing, I'm so jealous… Oh, you know, same old, same old. … No, not exactly. … Your dad is up in Hartford visiting his mother. … If I can barely make it through dinner with my mother, no way am I going to make it through one with his. … No. … Just sipping an eggnog latte and talking to you. … I made it myself," she got quiet for a moment, as no doubt Rory was asking her something she didn't want to answer. Rory was fearless when it came to questioning her mother. Lorelai was generally fearless until someone forced her to face her fears.

"I'm not ready for that. I mean, we talked," she bit her lip and set her latte down on the coffee table. "But it wasn't like I was talking to Luke. It was like I was talking to a pod person that had stolen his body. He was looking at me like he hadn't eaten whipped cream off my body, let alone like he'd been engaged to me," she sniffed.

He hoped Rory's reaction was as horrified as his own that she was sharing these intimate details. But nowhere near as mortifying as it was for Taylor to be standing next to him as he witnessed her sharing this particular gem.

"That's very unsanitary, you know," Taylor piped in.

"Shove it, Taylor."

Saying that always felt good, dream or hallucination or whatever this was, or not.

"I mean, eating whipped cream that has been sitting out is a danger in and of itself," he began with a look of disgust.

Luke put up a hand to silence him as Lorelai began to continue.

"But you know what I mean. And you don't have to give very specific details about your relationship with Logan here, unless you're planning on getting coal in your stocking when you get back. … Of course you'll have a stocking. … We'll go all out when you get back. … It's not the same this year; you're gone, and the town, well … They aren't really warming up to the idea of your dad and me. … I know, time to adjust and all that, but I just wonder if it would be easier to move to Hartford, you know? I know your dad really wants it, and everyone here, they're just… They wanted to see me with Luke, and now I'm not with him, and it might be easier."

His heart dropped out from his chest and his mouth hung slightly open. She had a way of shocking him, rendering him speechless on a weekly basis in fact, but this was too much. She was seriously considering giving up her whole life to move to Hartford to be with this jerk? She hated Hartford; the people, the big city life, the fact that no one there knows their neighbors.

"What would you think," she sighed heavily, as if something was weighing heavily on her and it was hard to even think of it. "Of having another brother or sister? … No! I'm not pregnant, I swear," she winced as Rory had clearly been surprised to hear the question, and not in a good way. "It's just something we're discussing. I told him I needed to think about it, and he got all moody and came home late, and we've kind of barely spoken since then. It's not that I don't want another kid, but if our welcome wagon wedding gift was any sign, we'll be getting a realtor as a baby shower gift," she rubbed her face with one hand.

"I don't know what I want right now. Mom gave me this speech about marriage and sacrifice and partnerships," she paused. "I know I don't want to screw this up. She was right, God, I hate to say it, but it's not all about what I want. I got married, and it's not like he wants me to shave my head or pimp me out for money. He wants the same things I want, just on a slightly larger scale."

Rory spoke for a while, and he could tell Lorelai was doing a lot of thinking in the interim. He could feel his heart was breaking all the while, as he silently pleaded for this all to be a very intense dream. Maybe this was his way of dealing with the loss—God knows he hadn't until now.

"I just know that I have to deal with how things are now. I can't stay here and expect that what I did doesn't affect anyone else. If I'm going to move on with my life with your dad, I probably can't stay here. … I just never thought it would turn out like this, you know? I really thought that I had it right before."

He did too. He was him, and she was her, and they were so different, yet they fit together so perfectly. He believed that, he always had, but if that were true, how had they managed to walk away from each other so easily?

"I want to go now," he turned to Taylor as she grew quieter on the phone with her daughter, asking her about her trip and how Rome was decorated for Christmas. Listening to stories about trinkets Logan had bought her and all the fancy places he was no doubt taking her. Avoiding her own life.

"It's not time," Taylor shook his head. "We can't go until you've heard all you're supposed to hear. Do you think I do this for fun, Luke? I take my role very seriously, and we're not leaving until it's the proper time."

"I can't stand here and listen to this anymore! None of this is my business. She married someone else, and it's his job to take care of her. And I, for one, don't want to be here when he returns with an armload of expensive presents that I could never afford her and they decide to expand their family in the New Year," he spat out.

"Patience is a virtue, Luke, and it doesn't come to those who leave the party early, and it certainly doesn't come to those that don't attend at all."

"I think you're mixing your metaphors again, Taylor."

"Are you really so proud that you can't just be quiet and learn something?"

Luke stared at Taylor in disbelief. "I know she's married and moving on."

Taylor held up a finger. "Ah, is she?"

Luke rolled his eyes and tuned back in on Lorelai, who was still talking to Rory, racking up what had to be an astronomical phone bill.

"I'm glad you're having such a good time. And I know you're staying in fancy hotels, but make sure to drag him off the beaten path. … And he answers to me if you're not instantly transported to this house as soon as you're back on American soil. He's had you for two weeks straight. And I know he's smart enough to fear me."

Rory had some witty comeback, he was sure, that didn't completely squash her boyfriend's ego but at the same time assured her mother that nothing would ever come between the mother-daughter pair.

"Good to hear," she paused, chewing on her bottom lip for a moment before continuing. "Do you still think he's the one?"

Luke assumed she was asking about Logan, but a small part of him hoped beyond reasonability that she was questioning her own decisions. If Lorelai wasn't the one for him, then perhaps he didn't have a 'one.' Or maybe she was, and it was possible to ruin the best thing that ever happened to him by letting other things get in the way. Not unimportant things, but things that he didn't have to exclude her from. Things he could have benefited from by letting her help him deal with.

He really wanted to get out of there, but he felt glued to the hardwood floors, even though he was little more than a ghost in this world.

"Okay, let's go," Taylor snagged his elbow, despite the fact that the conversation on the phone continued.

"Go? Now you want to go? We can't leave yet," Luke protested. She was thinking about him, he could see it on her face. There was a look she got in her eyes, one that she reserved for him. It was how he knew that they'd make up from any fight and that she'd rather stay in bed for an extra hour with him than have her first cup of coffee; with one look she conveyed simply that she wanted to be with him.

"If we don't leave now, then you will miss your last appointment, and I refuse to be the cause of future tardiness. I have a reputation to maintain in this community."

"I get the funny feeling you're not referring to Stars Hollow."

"Oh, but I am. The SHCER board counts me as one of their better escorts."

"The SHCER?

"Stars Hollow Christmas Eve Revelations. I'm the chairman. You think people come to their senses around this time of year because of nostalgia and good will? Everyone needs help now and then, Luke, and I am in favor of helping along that which is good for our town. And you, might I add, take a lot of prodding."

"My head hurts. I'm probably not even awake, and you're making my head hurt."

"All the more reason to get going now. You need to recharge a little before your next excursion."

Luke looked at Lorelai one last time before they walked through the door. "There isn't a point to all this, Taylor. She didn't want me anymore, and she moved on. Even if I wanted to, there's nothing I can do."

"You say that now, but tomorrow, you'll want to thank me."

Luke stopped on the front lawn, wondering what on earth could be keeping Christopher from this house on Christmas Eve. He wondered what had kept him from that house so many nights before the end of their relationship; all those nights when he should have been holding her in his arms, not making her look for other forms of comfort, ever.

Taylor put a hand on his shoulder. "You know, there are things we can't change, Luke. Things that appear to be less than our best decisions in hindsight. But that doesn't mean that there is nothing we can do to make amends."

Luke's jaw dropped open in response, unsure if the man who was yanking hold of his hand to whisk him off into the night sky was able to read his mind, or if he really was just on a mission to help him right past wrongs.

XXXX

They were still singing. He was sure that was what woke him up this time, the group that had broken out of their choral stands borrowed from the high school and were now strolling around town with arms entwined as they sung traditional songs about kings and snowmen and wassailing. They must have been getting caffeine from some source, as new snowmen had sprung up in the town square, and apparently not only were they not freezing, but they were strong enough to go on tour and were currently underneath his bedroom window.

His open bedroom window.

He was starting to think he was having a series of bizarre dreams, but the snow that had built up on the inside of his window sill was begging to differ. He was completely exhausted, which was explained only by the fact that he hadn't really so much been asleep the past five hours as he had been traveling through space and time to see nuggets of Lorelai's life.

He scanned the knit cap and scarf wearing crowd, seeing all familiar faces but none that gave him any sense of peace. He shut his window, not wanting to be Wished A Merry Christmas, and laid back down on his bed on top of the covers. Even though it was freezing in his apartment, he was on the verge of breaking into a sweat.

He didn't see the point into going back to sleep, but his eyelids were heavy and he was starting to see the up side to not opening quite so early on Christmas morning. Surely no one was going to bust down his door just to get a cup of coffee on Christmas. At least, the only person he'd attribute that kind of behavior to wouldn't show up at his door, and therefore there wasn't much reason to test that theory.

Just as his eyes closed and he successfully drifted off into the grey area that acted as the gateway to a restful sleep, a strong pounding sounded against his door.

"Dammit, Taylor," he groaned. "Go away."

The knocking only grew louder and more insistent. His eyes blinked open, and he checked his bedroom window. It was shut, just as he'd left it. Curious, he wrapped the top blanket around his otherwise bare shoulders and paused on the other side of his front door.

The loud knocking almost made him jump, and his curiosity got the better of him. He opened the door to reveal what appeared to be a grim reaper—a dark faceless figure, with a hood covering a tall, lanky figure. Bony, even through all the fabric.

"I'm going to go out on a limb and say you're not Taylor."

The head shook no, and he swallowed hard. "Are you here to take my soul?"

Another shake of the head and a bony hand reached out for his.

Luke was too freaked out to do otherwise, the ominous aura around this figure too consuming to care about missing sleep or if this experience was real. "Do I get to know where we're going?"

One bony finger rose up in front of where a mouth should be, and Luke just took hold of the cold, thin hand and wondered silently what lay in store for him before he returned to his apartment—or if he'd return.

XXXX

Luke had no idea where he was. He was almost starting to get used to the feeling of disorientation, but he wasn't used to the looming figure over his shoulder. He felt as if with one false move, he could be whisked off to a netherworld from the likes of which he couldn't return. A cold hand was on his back and another pointed an index finger to the hallway in a small, familiar apartment, though he couldn't place who it should belong to in his mind.

It had too many windows for his taste, though its inhabitant had covered them in tasteful drapes and there was new carpet underfoot. A small tree sat in the corner, not requiring more than one strand of lights to illuminate it. The space was minimally decorated, almost like a cross between a bachelor apartment, but with a feminine taste. There were no photos on any walls or flat surfaces, just a chenille throw over the back of the sofa and a mug on the small coffee table.

He wanted to ask what he was supposed to be seeing, but he knew there would be no answer, save for more pointing from what seemed to be the grip of death. He heard a phone ringing, and a woman came scurrying down the small hall from the second door on the right—what he seemed to think was the master bedroom. He got the overwhelming feeling he'd been in this apartment before, that he could navigate around as if he knew where things might be. Like a friend's home that he felt so at home in that he could get a glass of water or find a spatula without instruction.

It was Lorelai—that he would bet his life on. Her hair was slightly shorter than he'd ever seen it, just brushing the tops of her shoulders, but little else had changed. She wore jeans and a tee shirt, and her movements were unique to her. A scrambled yet graceful jumble of energy focused on the retrieval of something she used so much but could never quite find—the phone.

"Yeah, I'm here, I'm here," she managed into the phone. "I was in the bedroom, just resting. I had a long week, a long, boring week. Tell me what's going on there."

He'd never heard Lorelai describe anything that ever happened to her as boring. Even dull dinners at her parents' house came with a colorful commentary. Her daughter may have always been the writer, but she got her storytelling ability from none other than her mother.

He and his creepy escort watched—at least he assumed the faceless figure was watching—as she listened with a wistful smile to that which her daughter filled her ear. After a long pause, during which she covered herself up with the throw and took a long sip from the mug, she cleared her throat.

"I'm fine. I took the spruce—I'm just glad anything was available right now. … Yeah, I went into it. The jewelry is beautiful, and they did a whole remodel, but all I see is the diner, you know? I wonder if that's how Luke always felt in the diner, always seeing his dad's shop. But Weston's coffee is fine, and I'm settling back in. Sookie is thrilled I'm back in town, mainly because I'm at the Inn all the time and she's been able to take some more time off."

Luke turned to the figure. "The remodel? Jewelry? Is she talking about the diner? And why is she here, in this place? This is a place you rent for a year or two, max, not a home. What is going on?"

A hand was held up in response, but the fear of the cloaked figure was overridden by his mind that was racing too fast, spiraling out of control without proper answers. He was losing what Taylor had none-too-gently implied he never had in the first place—his patience.

"No! Tell me right now, of if you can't talk because you really are a grim reaper, draw me a picture or use sign language, but I have to know right now what is going on!"

"Chillax!"

The bony fingers rose up to drop the hood, revealing none other than Kirk, looking bewildered and stressed out.

"Chill-what? Kirk? Is that you?" he peered at him.

"Oh, crap! They're gonna make me turn in my cloak for this."

"For what?"

"For talking! I'm the one that's supposed to put the fear of the future into you, and they told me I'm not as terrifying when I talk."

"I would have to agree with that, yes, but this is pretty damn terrifying. What the hell is going on?"

"You left, Luke."

"I left?"

"You had little left here. You couldn't stand seeing Lorelai with Christopher, so you gave your building to your sister for her business and took off. Lorelai didn't know this, as the town wasn't accepting of her new beau, and she felt pressure to leave town, to start fresh. Or, she thought it was starting fresh. They moved in not far from her parents, he thought to start a family. She went on the Pill without telling him, and they soon grew apart. She left, fleeing from that life once again. Now she's here."

"That's insane. We both left?"

Kirk shrugged. "It wasn't supposed to be pretty."

"So, she's alone?"

Kirk nodded.

"What about me?"

Kirk looked down. "I don't think you want to see that."

Luke swallowed. "Tell me."

"But… this was supposed to be enough," Kirk stammered.

"Kirk! Tell me or I will kick your bony ass back into the present!"

"You're a hermit, Luke!" he gave in quickly. "You moved to Woodbridge, to stay close enough to your sister but far enough that you knew Lorelai would never stop through. You'd never have to see her, and that was one thing, but you stopped going out. You all but sealed up your apartment with wax. Small children are afraid to pass by your building. They throw rocks and hold their breath as they run past."

It hit him. All the things he didn't want to become, she could have saved him from. She kept him in social circles, but more than that, she'd kept him alive. She'd kept him wanting more than he had and wanting to give her everything she needed.

"Do I have to see more?"

Kirk nodded. "Just a little. You don't mind, do you?"

"Does it get a lot worse?"

Kirk shrugged. "They don't give me all the information. Something about not keeping my mouth shut. I don't know why they don't trust me. I'm beginning to think I only got this gig because I fit the costume best."

Luke sighed. "Fine. Let's get this over with."

Lorelai was speaking again. "I can't, Hon, it's too late. No one will tell me where he is, I've skirted the issue with Patty and Babette. I get the feeling they're happy I'm home, but no one can really forget what happened. This place isn't the same. I can't expect him to forget, or forgive either. It's just time to move on, from all of it."

He knew she wasn't talking about Christopher. She knew where Chris was, probably in the place where she left him. She was talking about him, and she was feeling guilty for the way things ended with them. Things that weren't her fault. He'd backed her into a corner, leaving her alone and in the dark as he tried to deal with his daughter and a woman from his past. She turned to her own past for comfort and found nothing to hold on to.

This was all his fault.

"I'm ready now."

Kirk nodded. "Okay. We can go back early. I should get back to the caroling anyhow. I don't want to miss the singing in rounds."

"Tell me you're kidding," he said as he took one last look at vision he prayed would never come to be.

"It's the highlight of the evening. I've been training by playing five different radios on different stations at once and keeping my own song in key and on time. I can tune out anything."

"Huh."

"Really. Try me. Sing anything you want."

"I think I'll pass."

"You don't want to come join the fun?"

"I'm good."

"Have you learned nothing from all of this?"

Luke hung his head in exhaustion. "I can't sing."

Kirk shuffled in his robe and came out with a card. "I do vocal lessons. Give me a call."

XXXX

His head felt heavy. It wasn't an instant awakening, more like he was coming through a long, dark tunnel. There was a dim light at the end of it, and when his eyelids finally dragged open, he saw that dawn was just starting to break over the town. He went to his window and noticed that the carolers were back in their stands, using hand warmers and swaying in the light flurries. A swell of warmth flooded through him as he turned back into his apartment to pull clothes on and left without locking his door.

He flipped the switch for his coffee maker on first, letting the first couple of pots brew while he gathered a few necessary items. But the time he left the diner, his arms were full of to-go bags, and his stride was purposeful.

"Taylor!" he called out from across the gazebo. "Hey, Taylor!" he called out as he jogged across the lawn, trying to be heard above the sounds of sweet silver bells.

"DING, DONG, DING, DONG, DING, DONG, DING, DONG!" they chorused into his ear as he wound around the crowd.

"Taylor!" he stopped short of the man who was conducting, telling certain sections of the stands to grow quieter or louder. "You hungry?"

Taylor turned, in a surprised fashion, to look at Luke. "Is this a joke?"

Luke held out bags. "I wasn't sure what all to bring, but I have donuts and bagels here, and I can't stay and make hot food, but there's plenty more inside. I have coffee brewing, and you're all welcome to that."

"It's not nice to get people's hopes up like this, Luke, it's Christmas. Are you aware it's Christmas?"

Luke smiled. "I got the memo."

"That memo was sent to all business owners, in case generosity would make them want them to help those charitable folks in town that are actively supporting a good cause."

"Here are the keys. I can't stay, but you can lock up when you're done. Sing inside if you have to keep going, or however it works."

Taylor blinked as he encased the keys in his palm. "Thank you, Luke. Are you sure you don't want to stay and sing?"

"Don't push it, Taylor," he smacked him good naturedly on his back and returned to the diner to get one more thing before taking care of what seemed to be the only line of action for him if he wanted to avoid the future he'd seen the night before.

XXXX

He had to knock with his foot. Most would call it kicking, but with full arms, he had little other choice. He kicked the door harder the second time, desperate to garner attention, and started to fear kicking the damn thing in.

"Ohmigod, if this is Santa, you could have the decency to come down the chimney, but if you're a really polite thief, there's nothing to steal, but you can help yourself to rock hard fruitcake that Mrs. Griswald leaves every year and some expired milk," she yelled through the door before she got it unlatched. "Oh, hi."

Lorelai crossed her arms over her chest, still in the same outfit that she was wearing the night before on the couch talking to Rory. He realized it was much earlier than she ever woke up, and he was reminded of another time he'd woken her up at sunrise to work on her porch. He got a tingle over his body, realizing that last night wasn't just a foreboding dream.

"Hi. I uh, brought coffee," he held out the carrying container filled with cups.

"You going door to door?" she half laughed.

"No, just to yours," he held her gaze once she awarded him with it. "I have donuts, too, and Danish. I skipped the bagels, because they were mainly whole wheat, and I know you hate it when I try to unclog your arteries."

"Luke," she shook her head, speechless other than uttering his name apparently.

"The coffee's getting cold."

"What are you doing here?"

"Rory's gone, right?" he asked.

"Yeah," she nodded.

"Yeah, I remember you telling me she was going to be with Logan, and I figured you might like familiar things around."

"Like coffee and donuts?" she tried to bite her lip to hide a smile.

"My coffee," he corrected.

"I've been meaning to stop in. Things have been," she shook her head.

"I know. It's okay."

"No, it's not. It's all messed up," she held tight to the front door. "Not that it's your fault, I just don't know how I got here, you know?"

He nodded. "I know. Lorelai," he took a deep breath for courage. If he chickened out, he knew what he could look forward to. "Can I come in?"

"I'm married, Luke."

"So was I, once."

Her eyes welled up. "Yeah, that didn't work out."

"I rushed in to it. I thought I could be happy with someone that wasn't you."

"Oh, Luke," she shook her head. "Don't. Please, don't."

"I still love you. I don't know why I couldn't share April with you. I was afraid it would come between us, and I wanted to sort it out for myself so that wouldn't happen, but all I did was shut you out."

"I know," she sniffed.

"Are you happy with him?"

She looked down for a moment, in thought. "He makes me feel sixteen again."

His heart dropped for a moment. He'd seen enough of her movies and television shows to know that he could find no hope in those words. He held out the bag of baked goods and waited for her to take hold of it. He could lie, for her, and tell her he wished her the best. The words would come any minute now.

"Sixteen wasn't a great year for me, Luke."

He looked up, seeing hope reflected back in her eyes. "Lorelai, what…?"

"It's Christmas, no one should be alone on Christmas. You want a donut?"

Her hand was on his, over the fold of the bag he'd brought along. "I have a better idea."

Her head cocked to one side and smiled at him. "What's that?"

The flurries around them, barely more than the wind dusting off the tops of the trees, turned heavier into a constant whirling stream of millions of individual snowflakes. Only one person made him warm enough to enjoy walking through the snow. .

"You feel like taking a walk?"

"Let me grab my coat," she smiled so widely he was afraid his heart might burst from joy at the sight. She disappeared from his view for only a moment as she stuffed her feet into shoes and wrapped a coat and scarf around her body. He handed her a cup of coffee and took one for himself. They stepped off of the front porch of her home and back toward the merriment of the carolers and did their part in bringing the town together for a greater good.