Fire and Ice: Chapter 27

Standard disclaimer applies. The end is finally nigh!

In the late morning sun, the imposing gates glinted and the white pillars by the front door stood gleaming. The house, if such a thing were possible, seemed at peace with itself and its occupants. The air was calm but a sense of foreboding rippled beneath the surface.

Alex's patrol car had been granted access without any preamble and he and his deputy approached the Mariano mansion without any apparent urgency. Conibear wanted the old man to see his approach. He wanted him to wonder. Hell, he wanted him to suffer but that was part of the reason for bringing along his deputy. Brad Wilkins was effectively holding his self-imposed leash, should common sense fail him and his impulsive temper rear its ugly head. Young Jess Mariano had passed a relatively peaceful night, according to his uncle but the image of the bruised, bloodied and broken boy in the hospital bed last night sent another wave of anger through him.

The metallic slam of the car doors reverberated across the stone courtyard as the two men started towards the stone steps of the front door, Conibear in the lead and Wilkins flanking him. He rapped firmly on the front door and it swung open almost immediately. Like them it seemed, Franklin appeared unflustered.

The cagy old man stood, leaning against the banister of his grand staircase. His suit was sharp and neatly pressed, a silver clip glinting around his neck-tie. His weathered face appeared void of its usual deep lines and his keen eyes twinkled mockingly. He had an air about him of absolute ease as he held out a hand, waving the sheriff and his deputy inside. The smugness was overbearing – it permeated through the air like a fog and mingled with the scent of fresh-cut flowers.

When the door had closed behind them, Franklin spoke, his voice smooth and low. "Sheriff. Good of you to come by. I can only assume you're here to clear up this ridiculous misunderstanding between the hospital staff and myself. I spoke to the hospital administrator this morning who had the impertinence to inform me that I was still unable to see my own grandson. Though I'm very relieved to hear that young Jess is out of danger and recovering so well." He sighed and shook his head, sadly. "If I had only known how unreliable the boy's driver was, I never would have allowed him to go."

Conibear glanced down to see a subtle hand on his arm. Wilkins had placed it there when he had started forward at the conniving man's words. Alex checked himself with great effort: he hadn't even realised he had moved until his deputy called him back.

Franklin's smile showed he had noted the silent exchange between the two lawmen. "Of course, hindsight is twenty-twenty." Conibear gave a curt nod, forcing himself to remain polite for the time being.

"So you had no reason to doubt your man?" He exchanged a brief look with Wilkins and the man quickly brought out a notepad and flipped it open, pen in hand. Franklin paused fractionally when he saw this but quickly recovered.

"None whatsoever. He had served me well for over ten years. But, as I understand it, that tragic fire was an accident? Unless you have information that you're withholding?" His innocent smile reminded Conibear of a crocodile but he resisted the impulse to smack it off his face. Instead, he kept his tone calm, polite and measured.

"That's what the fire chief is saying," he confirmed. "Though Jess describes a different turn of events." Franklin nodded.

"I'm sure he does. Can't quite work out why he disappeared in the first place but it sure does seem as though something spooked the kid. Creepy old barn in the middle of the night – I guess it can happen." The man gave a one-shouldered shrug and straightened himself from the railing. "Now, to the business at hand." He fixed a steely glare on Conibear. "I expect access to my grandson restored to me by the end of the day or you'll be hearing from my lawyers. I trust this won't be a problem?"

It was Alex's turn to smile. "We have a few issues to clear up before that happens. I'm sure you won't mind helping with our enquiries." Franklin hardened his gaze while Alex carried on. "The accident in the barn not withstanding, Jess has some previous injuries that I need an explanation for." Franklin waved away his question with one hand.

"I assure you, I haven't laid a finger on the boy. It was an honest mistake on behalf of one of my security staff who thought he was breaking in. The man has been reprimanded for this mistake and it won't happen again. Now was there anything else because I'm getting a little tired of getting the third degree from you people without anything that I like to call proof." He stopped and gave a near snarl. "You people do remember what proof and evidence are, don't you? Because as far as I can see, you have nothing concrete to lay on me at all. Just a lot of mindless, baseless accusations."

The small smile Conibear was giving him and the lack of a verbal response from the sheriff was unnerving Franklin just a little but he still continued. "I realise, Sheriff, that if you sling enough mud at me then eventually, some of it's bound to stick but that's also going to take a very long time to take. And in the meantime, until you have something solid to hang on me, I'd like you to leave my property, sort out this mess with my custody access that your people have caused and then leave me in peace."

He folded his arms and waited, poised like a fox by the chicken coop. He watched as Alex turned to his deputy and flipped to an earlier page in the notebook, running his finger down a list on the page. Presently, the sheriff looked up.

"That's very true Franklin and I'm curious what a look round this house of yours would tell us on that score."

Franklin snorted away his comment. "I'll not be extending you that invitation and you need a hell of a lot more than rumours and wild conjecture to get a warrant for that." He watched as Conibear turned to his deputy and exchanged a regretful look with the man.

"You're right," Alex said, mildly.

"He's right, Sir." Wilkins agreed, nodding. Franklin grinned, his white teeth showing in neat rows.

"Yes sir, I would need to have evidence of an actual crime," Conibear continued. "And, as you've pointed out, there is nothing so far that links what happened to your grandson to you or indeed to anything other than a freak accident at this point in time." Franklin nodded his agreement but something about the way Conibear was still hovering was making him nervous and annoying the hell out of him at the same time.

Innocently, Conibear turned to Wilkins and asked. "I can't look round without that, can I?"

"No Sheriff," Wilkins replied. "You can't."

"Right!" Franklin agreed anger finally breaking through his calm façade. "So if you gentlemen are done stating the obvious then I'll thank you to get the hell out of here!" He stalked over the front door and swung it open, stepping aside to give them room to pass through. These games were tiresome and he was done being hospitable.

Conibear raised an eyebrow at the loss of control which served to make Franklin glower even more, then smiled at his deputy. "I guess we'd better go then, Wilkins." But as he turned to go, he suddenly stopped and a thoughtful expression came over his face.

"Unless, of course…" He trailed off and reached a hand in to the inside pocket of his jacket. Franklin froze by the door, hand still resting on the handle.

"Unless what?" he demanded, sharply. "I'm done playing your stupid games."

"Now this is interesting," Conibear continued, a glint in his eyes as he tapped the paper in his hand. "I had a very interesting talk with a man called…" he glanced over at the notepad, "Clarence Bigwell. Seems you met him with your nephew a while back in a place called Stars Hollow."

Franklin's jaw tightened as his stomach began to knot itself in two. His knuckles turned white as they gripped the door handle tightly.

Seemingly oblivious to this, Conibear continued, reading off his notes as he did so. "It seems he's less than happy with a purchase he made from you and you know what else? I managed to track down an associate of yours who was more than happy to talk to me when I explained a few things to him."

"I'll bet," Franklin growled, his eyes dark and dangerous.

"In any event," Conibear continued, "I have enough to arrest you on suspicion of fraud." He nodded to Wilkins. "If you'll do the honours, deputy? And don't forget to read him his rights clearly – I don't want any misunderstandings." Franklin sputtered in outrage as Wilkins moved towards him. Instantly, he backed up, pressed hard against the doorframe and his wild eyes darted fractionally to the courtyard. However, Conibear's voice stopped him in his tracks. "You wouldn't be thinking of adding resisting arrest to the charges, would you? Because I have a sneaky suspicion I could take you down and you know what? I reckon I would still be able to sleep at night, too." Conibear's eyes were no longer glinting. They were cool and hard.

Franklin stayed where he was, a snake desperate to strike, as the handcuffs snapped around his bony wrists. He tuned out the sound of his Miranda rights being read in the low, monotonous tone of the law and instead focused his seething on the sheriff, standing smugly before him. As the deputy finished his spiel, Conibear nodded towards him.

"Get him the car," he almost spat. Franklin was turned around, choosing to remain as silent as possible until he had a lawyer present. However, as Wilkins moved them to the steps, Conibear called out. "Oh, and just one more thing." Franklin turned back to him, warily. "Since getting a warrant for your arrest, I spoke to Judge Barrell, who happens to be a good friend of mine, and secured a warrant to search your property and computers too. We'll be looking for any more evidence related to the interesting things Mr. Bigwell, Mr Danes and your associate told me about."

With great satisfaction, he watched the old man's withered upper lip draw up into a snarl. "I'm sure, like me, you're very curious to see what we'll find." He opened the paper up and held it out for Franklin to inspect. The old man's eyes barely flitted down to the paper however as he was more intent with holding Conibear's gaze in pure contempt. Conibear stood in the threshold of Mariano's doorway, watching, as did the stunned household staff, as the old man was led away and guided into the waiting car.

Luke could hardly contain his excitement when he got off the phone with Conibear. The old man was in custody, arrangements had been made for a court hearing to have his physical custody revoked and until that time, Luke had been granted permission to take the boy home. He could scarcely believe it but, for all intents and purposes, it was over! He finally had Jess back and this time he would never allow anything other than a good college to send the boy away from him again.

As he replaced the receiver of the reception's phone back in its cradle, Luke allowed himself to flop down onto one of the nearby chairs in the waiting room. It was over. He tried hard to let the realisation sink in and as it did so, trickling through his mind and body, he began to shake with relief and exhaustion. Removing his cap with one hand, he ran the other hand through his hair and then over his face, wincing as he realised how badly needed to shave. Nothing however, could stop the huge grin that plastered itself over his face. He felt quite maniacal, grinning like a Cheshire cat but Luke didn't care.

Jess had been asleep all morning but the doctors assured him it was to be expected and that, considering what the kid had gone through, he was doing well. Luke had been given so much medical information to care for him once he was released that he felt he could almost walk away from this experience with a medical degree of his own.

After returning to his motel for a quick shower, shave and change Luke was back at the hospital sitting by Jess' bed. Jess had awoken just shortly before Luke had returned to the hospital but he didn't appear to have been too concerned when his uncle wasn't there. With any luck, Luke hoped, the kid's abandonment issues were on the way out. Jess had been groggy and slow to wake at first so when Luke breezed into the room, feeling so much lighter and happier than he had in weeks, he had been forced to wait a good thirty minutes until Jess had been conscious enough to have the conversation he'd been longing to have since talking to the sheriff.

Finally, however, after waiting while nurses took Jess' vitals and hooked him up with a new IV, Luke was left alone with his nephew and was able to give him the news. At first, he wasn't sure if Jess had heard him correctly because the boy made no immediate response. Instead he sat, propped up against pillows, staring silently at his blankets.

"Jess?" Luke began, uncertainly, "did you hear what I said?" Jess glanced up and nodded, his expression still too guarded for Luke's liking.

"Yeah," he said softly. "It's over." He repeated the words silently in his head and Luke watched the different expressions fleet across his face: disbelief, confusion, anger, hope. He watched the boy's jaw tighten, his expression cloud over into something altogether unreadable. Jess' eyes met his. "You're sure?" You're not lying, was the underlying message which Luke read clearly. He nodded, firmly. "I spoke to Alex Conibear earlier. I'm sure you'll like him when you meet him."

"I have met him," Jess interrupted. "Outside Franklin's on the first day I moved in." Luke nodded, lightly.

"That's right." He paused. "He came by last night while you were sleeping to check up on you." Jess simply shrugged, unsure of how to feel about that, if he should feel anything at all. Luke had told him about his dealings with the man and everything that had transpired up to that point and Jess had filled him in with his own stories but still, lawmen and Jess would never be forming any kind of bond as far as he was concerned. That the sheriff had been to see him while he slept only felt…creepy. But he didn't want to start an argument with Luke so Jess kept quiet on the issue.

"Can they prove anything?" Jess asked and watched, knowingly, as Luke hesitated.

"They will," his uncle assured him. "They're searching his whole house, looking in to his financial records, his computer. Conibear reckons once they get one client, others will come forward. That's usually how it works. Don't worry," he insisted. "Franklin's not going anywhere any time soon."

Jess thought about this for a moment, his eyes still downcast. Then he looked up at Luke. "And I can come home with you?" Luke nodded.

"Nothing's going to stop that," he said, resolutely and for once Jess believed him without question.

"And this was all for money?" He shook his head. "It's all a little clichéd isn't it?" Luke just shrugged. "Can't argue with the classics." He watched as Jess chuckled. "But assuming the lawyers get everything straightened out," Luke continued, "it means you have to start thinking ahead, making some plans for what you're going to do with it all when you eventually come in to it. Jess immediately rolled his eyes but Luke cut him off, firmly. "Jess, this could be a big deal for you later on. Don't dismiss it too soon, okay? Promise me you'll at least give it some thought."

"Fine!" the boy agreed with a huff. "But can we talk about something else now?"

Acquiescing easily, Luke nodded, folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. "Sure. What do you want to talk about?"

"Why is it you never have a clue what to say to me when I actually half-way want to have a conversation?" Luke just shrugged.

"I could yell at you if you want? It might make things easier." But Jess shook his head.

"Without a convincing preamble, it just wouldn't be the same. What's happening back home?"

Luke raised an incredulous eyebrow. "Saints preserve us! You want to hear about life in Stars Hollow?" He grinned as Jess' look became immediately defensive.

"Only so I can mock and come for-armed with things to annoy Taylor."

"Ah, well in that case," his uncle grinned, "let me fill you in on all the dramas that make up the days of our sordid little lives."

One week passed by and in that week, Jess had healed, his doctors reluctantly agreed, just enough to allow him to travel back home. It was the best news Jess had been greeted with all week and on the day before he was due to leave it was all Luke could do to stop him wheeling himself out on his own.

Instead, he tried his best to keep his nephew distracted.

"So have you decided what you want to do with that money yet?"

Jess shrugged and didn't look up from the notepad he was scribbling in. "Give it away."

But just as Luke opened his mouth to object, Jess quickly cut in. "I've made a list," he said, tearing off the top sheet of paper and holding it out to Luke. With a frown, the older man took the list from his nephew. He held it a little further from his face until his focus began to sharpen, hoping his nephew wouldn't notice. Of course Jess did and treated him to a raised eyebrow but mercifully, no comment.

"It's the smoke," Luke insisted, sharply. "It's still bothering my eyes." Then he looked at the paper again. Jess' normally neat handwriting was somewhat scrawled but he could still read it. When he looked back up again, the frown had returned. "I do not need a new wardrobe, Jess!"

The teenager shrugged, his dark hair framing his neutral, innocent expression. "What can I say? I'm a humanitarian Luke. Wealth has changed me." Luke rolled his eyes as he readjusted his position slightly on the mattress.

"The state of my shirts has no bearing on world hunger. I suggest you aim a little bigger if you're looking to go down in history." He watched as Jess smiled – an honest smile that lifted his face beautifully. "And this one," Luke continued, pointing to an item further down the list. "Believe me, I appreciate the sentiment…"

"Thought you might," his nephew agreed with a smirk.

"But," Luke continued, "I don't think a militia and Stars Hollow…go together. Even if it is to run Taylor out of town."

"I didn't say run him out," Jess cut in.

Luke chuckled. "Yeah, I know what you said. It's still not happening Junior so make a start on the re-think." At that Jess threw his hands up in the air and the notepad went tumbling to the floor. "What's the point, Luke?" he demanded. "It's not like I can even touch the money for years and even if I could, why do I need a single thing from that bastard!"

He was getting tired and Luke could see it now – the dark shadows under his eyes contrasting his pale features. Luke knew he could expect the boy to tire much more quickly now but it still unnerved him a little. "It's not from Franklin," Luke reminded him gently leaning down to retrieve the notepad from the floor. He didn't hand it back to Jess. Instead, Luke tucked it away securely in the small bedside table as he discreetly began preparing to settle his nephew down to sleep. "It's from his brother, Nathanial."

"I don't care who he is!" Jess snapped. "I don't want anything to do with any of them." Luke sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He understood how Jess felt. Jimmy's side of the family was, in Luke's eyes, nothing but trouble but he felt an alien need to calm the raging waters of his nephew's hatred for them.

"You feel that way now, Jess."

"And why shouldn't I?" the boy shot back, his eyes dark and dulled. His left hand had begun playing with the edges of his sling, a silent reminder of the Mariano legacy. And this second legacy? This inheritance? Who's to say it didn't come loaded with the same problems? It wasn't so much an inheritance as it was a damned curse! His leg began to twitch as a sharp pain stabbed its way through it. Jess bit his lip, hard and closed his eyes.

"Jess?" Luke asked, gently, leaning forwards slightly and resting a warm hand on his nephew's arm. "Do you want something for the pain?" What little colour had tinted Jess' face was quickly draining away leaven his features pinched and drawn. He watched as Jess gave another quick gasp and then clamped his mouth shut tightly and shook his head.

"Jess," Luke pressed on, a little more firmly. "You're not doing yourself any favours and staying this way is pointless. You need to sleep and you can't sleep when you're in pain." He watched Jess scowl though he couldn't be sure whether that was from the mention of sleep or the need for drugs. Jess had been doggedly against them since his admittance and it was a small battle to use the self-administering button the doctors had set up to allow Jess to control his own pain-relief.

Finally, Jess seemed to gain enough control to be able to speak. "I don't need to sleep." But his body was already sagging against the pillows that propped him up against the bed-head. The energy that had animated him earlier was seeping away again. Luke didn't bother to argue with him. Jess would prove his point for him in a matter of moments.

Carefully, Luke started to ease his nephew down flat on the bed and, as he had suspected, Jess didn't put up much of a resistance. Luke then pressed the button by Jess' bed, allowing the pain-relieving medication to flow through the IV. It wasn't long before the tension in Jess' muscles began to relax and Luke let out a tense breath of his own. It pained him to watch the teenager suffer and, deep down, he knew he could consider his actions as selfish. Luke slid off the mattress and pulled up the small chair from the side of the room. As he sat, he carefully ran his fingers through Jess' dark curls, watching in relief as the boy's eyes slid shut and his breathing began to even out.

"Just sleep, Jess," Luke assured him. "We can talk about the money later." He continued to stroke Jess' head as the young man drifted off into a much-needed sleep and as Jess slept, Luke withdrew the plane tickets from inside his jacket pocket and held them tightly in his hand. The next morning, God-willing, he would finally be taking his nephew home.

Luke had foolishly thought the plane-ride was the hardest part of keeping his nephew's impatience at bay. He was wrong. The drive to Stars Hollow had been torturous and when he finally pulled up in front of the diner, Luke was uncertain how he and the truck had escaped unscathed. However, as he walked round the front of the truck and pulled Jess' door open he was surprised to see the boy hesitate. It was late afternoon and the return of his truck to the town had caused several heads to turn and whisper as he parked out front.

"Jess?" he prompted. The teenager suddenly appeared unsure of himself, his hands playing with his crutches. Despite the injury to his shoulder, it was healing well and Jess had persuaded those who probably should have known better that he was more than capable of using crutches as opposed to being forced into a wheelchair.

But now he seemed to be almost hiding behind them. "What's the matter? Do you need a hand getting out of the truck?" He'd been planning on helping the boy down anyway but perhaps Jess was too embarrassed to ask? But Jess answered his question unwittingly.

His words faltered for just a fraction of a second. "Nothing." He barked out a short, hard laugh. "Well this will piss the people off who thought they'd seen the end of me." And though Jess tried to play it nonchalant, Luke could still read the insecurities.

"They've missed you Jess." Jess snorted in disbelief but at least his apprehension seemed to be lessening. "Well," Luke amended, "according to Lorelai, who only showed up for your benefit, no-one raised any official protests about your return at the latest town meeting." Jess pursed his lips at the news, secretly impressed. He'd expected, maybe even hoped, for at least a petition.

"I'm touched." Jess deadpanned. "And slightly insulted. I'll need to rectify that in the near future." Luke laughed and reached up to help Jess down from the cab.

"I'm sure you'll terrify them, Peg-leg."

"I don't need full mobility to wreak havoc, you know." Jess grunted with pain as his uncle gently lowered him down to the ground before reaching back to retrieve his crutches.

"Patty and Babette could out-run you and bring you down with a little finger."

Jess inhaled sharply. "You wound me, Luke. Now are you going to help me up to the apartment or am I supposed to crawl up the stairs like a chick from a Japanese horror film?"

So, shaking his head, Luke slung one of Jess' bags over his shoulder while Jess tucked the crutches under one arm. Then, ever so carefully, he helped his nephew into the diner and up to their apartment.

It didn't surprise Luke that, once he had settled his nephew on to the couch and brought up the rest of their bags from the truck, Jess fell asleep almost immediately. He still tired so easily and the drugs he was on, coupled with the flight home had thoroughly wiped him out. While Luke had toyed with the idea of asking Caesar to bring something up from the diner's kitchen for them, Jess' eyes had gradually sealed themselves shut and his head flopped forwards until his chin rested snugly on his chest. His dark hair fanned across his eyes as his head fell to one side and the boy slid a little further down against the couch cushions.

Luke smiled as he watched him sleep. Jess' belongings were once again strewn across the apartment floor, this time because he had been trying to find his i-pod, buried under a mound of clothes in one of his bags. Luke felt a fond warmth spread through him even as he shook his head in mild disbelief. Some things, it seemed, would never change.

And so, with an almost reverent tenderness, Luke scooped his nephew into his arms and laid him on his bed, smoothing the hair away from his face and tucking the blankets securely around him. It was as though the kid had never left, he mused. The room was once again complete – it was whole. Luke sat back on his haunches for a moment and smiled. Now, whatever chaos Jess hurled his way, Luke knew he was ready and willing to face it head on.

Generally speaking, Jess was not a morning person. In fact, it was fair to say that he wasn't a getting up person. The day ahead of him never usually held enough appeal to propel him out of bed. But on this occasion, though the morning had just crept by into the midday mark, nothing could have kept Jess in bed even if it had tried.

"He isn't even a little awake? I mean, he isn't mumbling incoherently in his sleep or turning fitfully or anything like that?" The earnest voice, so long forgotten, brought a smile to Jess' lips. God, how he'd missed it though Jess was loathe to admit that to anyone.

"I'm sorry, Rory," Luke said from where he and Rory stood by the apartment door. "But he hasn't stirred in hours. But I'll let you know the moment he's conscious and is doing more than grunting incoherently."

"I do not grunt incoherently," Jess protested, awkwardly sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. Both Luke and Rory turned in surprise at the sound of his voice, a delighted yet suddenly bashful smile spreading over Rory's face. Luke just rolled his eyes. It was typical: his cooking, his cajoling, even a rather loud visit from Taylor hadn't stirred his nephew but a thirty second visit from this girl was all it took to wake the living dead.

Jess, for his part, had suddenly been overcome with his own bashfulness when he glanced down at himself and realised his helpful uncle had apparently put him to bed in nothing but a t-shirt and his boxers. Hastily he draped the blankets across his legs, the heavy cast preventing him from moving away.

The doctors in Stars Hollow were going to replace his cast with a load-bearing yet lighter version, as soon as his leg was ready. That day couldn't come fast enough in Jess' opinion. There was a damned itch half-way down his leg and it had been driving him crazy. He watched, willing his brain not to do something stupid and blurt out something he would soon regret, as Rory slowly made her way in to the room, encouraged by a nod and a smile from Luke.

"Well, he seems to be back in the land of the living," he told the girl, kindly. "Do you want any lunch while you're here?" Rory smiled but shook her head, her blue eyes brighter than Jess remembered.

"No thanks Luke. My mom's picking me up to go to my grandparents in about half an hour." She paused a second. "I just stopped by on the off-chance."

"Jess?" Luke called over to him. "What do you want for breakfast?"

Jess was about to reply with his automatic response of not being hungry before he thought better of it. Luke would never let him get away with not eating a meal, especially so soon out of the hospital. So he simply shrugged noncommittally causing Luke to resist a smirk. "I'll surprise you," the older man said before retreating to the kitchen and allowing the two teenagers some semblance of privacy.

Rory carefully settled herself an appropriate distance from Jess on his bed and smoothed an errant strand of hair behind her ear. Jess found his breath was catching at just the familiar scent of her. "I'm glad you're home," she started, quietly. "It wasn't the same without you."

All Jess could do was nod though he realised that the gesture appeared quite conceited. He tried to respond with words. "I guess it's good to be back." He inwardly winced as he knew that hadn't sounded much better.

But Rory was trying hard not to stare at his mangled leg or the healing cuts on his face and arms and her own reply was quiet and sincere. "I know what you mean." She reached down into her bag and brought out a small leather book which took Jess a few moments to place. "I kept it safe for you," she said. "Thanks for lending it to me." She held it out to him and he hesitated a moment before taking the first edition Nicholas Nickleby in his hands. God, how long ago and under what different circumstances had he last received this book, he wondered.

The book felt strangely treacherous in his hands again and Jess almost threw it back at her like it had bitten him. He wasn't sure he ever wanted her to show him this damned thing again but, knowing Rory's inert need to do the right thing, keeping the precious book that did not belong to her would have gone against every fibre in her being. Jess appreciated and respected that about her – it was just one of the many things that made Rory Gilmore an appealing, attractive and utterly unattainable girl in the murky world of Jess Mariano. But at the same time, Jess ached to have her understand how damaged people worked, without the need to explain and cause himself further embarrassment.

Instead, however, he accepted the book with a quiet, mumbled thanks and slipped it under the mattress, safely out of sight.

"There's that new film from Del Toro out," Rory continued. "When you're better, we should go see it."

Jess grinned slyly. "Don't need my legs to watch a movie." Rory's eager response brought an instant pang to his chest.

"Great! Are you free tomorrow?"

She's not yours, a voice whispered to him. You know you could never keep her.

"I'll check my calendar but I may be able to squeeze you in." She laughed, lightly and Jess felt his chest constrict some more. In the kitchen he could hear Luke banging frying pans around and wondered how much the man could hear. Quietly he asked, "So how's Dean doing?" She was pulled up so short, Jess almost heard her gasp.

After a second she replied. "He's doing fine." Rory glanced down at her skirt. It was new. She hadn't even realised she was wearing a new outfit until that moment.

Jess, mere inches away from her, looked to the other side of the room and nodded. Rory could feel his withdrawal from the room though she wasn't sure why. Jess glanced over to the girl, ever so quickly. "I talked to him a little before I left." Then there was the briefest of hesitations. "He's still not the sharpest tool in the box but…he's alright. For a geek. I suppose." The silence hung heavy between them for a moment. Rory swung her feet from the bed and Jess' heart melted a little bit more. Damn her but she didn't even know what she did to him, what she represented in his life – the prize he could never aspire to. She was a drug that was slowly killing him, if he'd let her. Sometimes Jess thought it would be far easier in his life if Luke would just outright ban him from seeing her and be done with it. Luke may think he was doing it for Rory's protection but Jess couldn't help but feel it would be for his as well. In the end.

But no such proclamation came. Instead, Rory leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Then assuming you're not wheel-chair bound, I will pick you up tomorrow."

Jess smiled. "And even if I am, we can do a pretty good reenactment of Rear Window." He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. "You bring the binoculars and we'll see what Taylor really gets up to in his spare time." She chuckled.

"You're on." At that moment, a knock sounded at the door. "That'll be my mom," Rory said and, sure enough, when Luke came from the kitchen to answer the door, Lorelai was waiting expectantly. "I'll see you tomorrow," Rory said and gave Jess a short wave as she turned to leave. "Bye Luke," she called as she passed him.

Luke smiled at her from over the kitchen counter. "Bye Rory. Have fun at your grandparents." The girl nodded and, as she walked past her mother, Lorelai quietly told her, "I'll see you in the car, Sweetie. I just need a minute." Looking mildly puzzled, Rory agreed and left them alone.

Once her daughter had left, Lorelai waited for no-one as she enveloped Luke in a crushing hug. He had half been expecting the physical contact but the force behind her hug surprised even him. However, having already put down the spatula and turned off the stove, Luke accepted her hug gladly. It felt so good to be able to draw from her strength again. Though he had spoken to his friend many times since Jess had been in hospital, there was something irreplaceable about being able to connect with her in this way.

"Hey," she whispered in his ear as she held him close. "You did it." And just before he released her, Luke whispered back, "Thanks to you." Then, before she could argue, he let her go and gave her his trademark awkward smile, signaling an end to their conversation for the time being.

Instead she grinned at him then patted him on the back. When she looked over to Jess, Lorelai's heart caught in her throat. Most of what Franklin Mariano had done was covered with bandages and plaster and bravado but Lorelai knew that the brunt of it was borne in the parts that no-one saw: in the heart and in the soul of a young man who just yearned to find someone to attach himself to without fear of repercussions.

Without waiting for an invitation, she walked over to Jess and sat down beside him. Jess had seen her coming, couldn't miss her and the hope that she would side-step him and head for the bathroom instead had only been fleeting. As the mattress shifted beneath him, Jess felt his body fall sideways against her but he surprised the pair of them by his lack of reaction. He rolled his eyes and readjusted his balance. Lorelai Gilmore was like a force of nature that you had to learn to weather.

Then, just like that, the woman's arms were around him and were pulling him towards her. Jess groaned in protest but made no move to get away. Instead, he let her in. He gave himself over to the feeling of warmth and protection that her hold afforded him. He drank the affection her simple gesture offered and for once, Jess never thought about the cost.

She offered; he accepted. Lorelai gently rubbed light circles on the teenager's back. "It's good to have you home, kiddo," she said softly so that only Jess could hear. "Don't you ever scare us like that again."

And as she released him and Luke came over to set a plate of eggs and bacon in front of him, Jess fought his eyes not to water as he looked into the faces of two people who had managed to bore a hole into his tightly woven defenses.

Jess gave them his best, crooked trade-mark smile. "Well," he conceded after a moment's deliberation. "I reckon I can give you till next Tuesday."

The End.

Phew! It's been a looong time coming and feels good to be able to write. I know I've not lived up to some expectations but I'm very grateful to everyone who has been kind enough to maintain interest to the end or even if you've only just discovered it. It's never easy to give everyone the ending they wanted. There was possibly too much Rory for some and not enough for others and I know I didn't go in to any of the rest of the town. I also know that my knowledge of legal proceedings is limited and there are probably grammatical and/or typos in here that I didn't catch. I apologise for all of above but I have really tried my best for this story.

If anyone feels that I have outrageously missed something out like a loose-end I have failed to tie-up then please let me know and I will see about rectifying it. Otherwise, I am done!

Thanks again to everyone who has or may still respond to this story. I know this is the end and most people don't review at the end but I would still appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Best wishes,