Disclaimer: Really? Yeah. No.
Notes: Takes place in season 2, before A-Tisket, A-Tasket. This is rated M for a lot of reasons, but the important ones are references to child abuse, language, and, in an upcoming chapter, sexual assault. If any of that makes you - understandably - squeamish, I apologize. But here's your chance to get out. This "M" is not sexy.

Sawdust and Ashes (one)

The truth was this: Liz's third husband was named Ted, and he didn't abandon her like she told everyone he did. It seemed melodramatic enough, given the disappearance of her first husband, and just as likely as anything else except for what actually happened. If anyone was skeptical, or pressed for details, all she needed to do was say, "I guess that's just my luck," or get misty eyed, or some delicate combination of the two if the situation seemed dire, and the person questioning would instantly back off.

It was her own fault, she was sure, but she never could figure out how she might have seen it coming. Ted had been so gentle, so charming, so restrained and so different from most of the men she attracted that she had been sure her luck and life had finally, permanently changed. He didn't do drugs, hardly drank, he listened to her, had almost no temper to speak of, and he liked Jess. He actually had liked her boy, then eleven and awkward and increasingly suspicious of his mother's boyfriends. He had charmed Jess, too, who was not so difficult to charm, then. All he really wanted was the effort, for someone to notice him and treat him like a person who mattered, and his heart was won.

Really, it had been Ted's interaction with Jess that pushed Liz's affection for him into something more serious. Ted was not an exciting man, not in temperament or physical appearance, and at first it was only Liz's determination to be with a man who wasn't a fucking loser that kept her taking his phone calls. His sweetness and steadfastness started to chip away at her disinterest, and before she knew it, Jess was voluntarily talking to Ted, was sitting on the couch next to him in companionable silence, was shyly telling him about school, and there were no more doubts. Prince Charming was no longer dark and dashing, he was pale and slightly beady-eyed and he wore sensible polo shirts tucked into khaki pants. One night, in a haze of post-coital happiness, Liz twined their fingers together and said, "Hey, Ted. I wanna marry you. What do you think about that?" And they got married.

When the shit hit the fan nine months into their marriage and Jess was already gone, recessed into a hole she didn't dare follow into, she really couldn't figure how Ted had managed to blindside them both like that. That she had been blindsided, she was sure, and that she could never tell anyone the enormous crime she had committed against her son in bringing Ted into their lives, equally so. She wasn't sober, wasn't clean, and she couldn't bear the thought of cops digging into her life, nor social services questioning Jess, so she put into effect the most complicated plan she'd ever formed in her life. She kicked Ted out, planted some of her shit in his bags, and called in an anonymous tip the moment she was sure he was at a motel. Selling drugs to children out of suitcases, officer, I swear to God.

Of course Liz didn't really think about long-term very well, and the fact that a first time drug charge would hardly incarcerate Ted for the rest of his life never entered her mind once he was gone. Getting him safely away from them in that instant was the only part of the plan; that executed, she had made all the amends to Jess she could think to offer.

So there was no way to describe the magnitude of her surprise when Ted arrived at her door six years later.

Stars Hollow was a little town, rarely disturbed by more than insufficient displays of neighborly affection, and Jess was still getting accustomed to its so-called charm. The inhabitants were positively Stepford in their kindly smiles and bake-offs and "oh, gosh, the cat's gotten stuck up in the old maple again" ways. It made him suspicious.

He liked it best when people just out-and-out didn't like him and made no friendly overtures. That was why, even though it made very little sense, even to Jess, he was more comfortable around Taylor Doose than most of the other residents. Taylor hated him openly, with narrow eyes and a tight mouth that made his beard look bushier in his anger. Plus, he was just so darn easy to irritate.

At the moment, though, Taylor was in his territory, in the diner, irritating him. Inside the diner was the one arena where Taylor had any power to piss Jess off. And it seemed like Taylor was catching on. He stood over Taylor's mug with a pot of steaming coffee, murder in his eyes. He was sure Taylor never actually came to Luke's to eat or drink or enjoy the company of his fellow man. He did it to be an unbearable gargoyle.

"What. Can I get you?" Jess ground out between teeth bared in something that was supposed to be a smile.

"Well," Taylor began, and just from the tone of voice, Jess knew he was in for an exercise in self control, "I was wondering why exactly there are no vegan options on this menu." He raised his eyebrows in a comical "ah-ha!" expression, like he had just caught Jess in a lie.

Jess stared. Blinked. Continued to stare.

"Now, I personally, am not a vegan. I'm not even vegetarian. To be honest, I think it's a perversion of the natural order of the food chain. But there are tourists out there who might be! And what are they going to do when they get here and find out that there are no restaurants in the area that will accommodate their freakish dietary needs?"

"I don't write the menu, Taylor." He just hoped he'd never have to hear the word "perversion" from Taylor Doose again.

"Well, tell Luke, then!"

"No," he said blankly.

"I will never understand why you are so determined to undermine the success of this town. You live here, too, young man."

"I am a mystery." Jess glanced at his watch, absently wondering how long it would be until the bus from Hartford got in. If it was soon, he should start making a fresh pot of coffee. Taylor was saying something again, but Jess was done with it. He sighed and looked out the window, where a small crowd was milling across the street.

The first time his eyes passed over the man, he felt nothing, but as he scanned back across the figure, adrenaline surged throughout him to his fingertips. It had been years, but he knew that face, that hunched, apologetic stance. He was gone in a second, passing behind a building, but Jess' gaze remained fixed on the spot he had been.

Ted. A million memories gurgled up from the back of his mind, dark and fetid and burning like acid. Fear and astonishment crashed through him like a jolt of electricity. For a moment, his vision blanked. Jess didn't notice his fingers go slack on the pot of coffee, not even when it slipped from his grasp and landed on the table with a thud that silenced the diner.

He took an involuntary step back, touching a hand to his face, reeling. There was no way Ted was here. Ted was gone. He couldn't remember exactly how or why, but Ted was gone. Forever gone, because he had already done this, he was done with terror and humiliation and weakness, and he would not do it again. It didn't happen, anyway; this sort of thing was unreal. Ted wouldn't track him down, wouldn't show up in fucking Stars Hollow, not least because people like Ted simply ceased to exist in the town limits.

Not possible, he insisted, and he might have said it out loud, but he wasn't sure, because clearly he was hallucinating or experiencing some sort of mental fugue. If he wasn't, he wouldn't have thought he'd seen Ted. He hadn't thought of Ted in years. He was still insisting not possible not possible not possible in his head when Taylor's indignant squawking tugged his consciousness back to reality.

"Some of that splashed me!" he was yelling, brushing furiously at his sleeve with a napkin. "You're lucky that didn't hit my skin! That is very, very hot coffee!" He emphasized the last words by jabbing a finger at the pot sitting on his table. "Honestly, how can you be so careless? I'm going to charge you for any dry cleaning this cardigan requires!"

Jess looked around the diner quickly, hardly noticing that almost everyone was watching them; watching him, still standing dumbly by Taylor's side. Luke stepped out from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a rag.

"Taylor, what the hell is wrong with you now?"

All Jess heard of the reply was "Your nephew" before tuning out the conversation. He walked straight out the door, grabbing his coat on the way. He heard Luke calling his name as he headed down the steps, but he didn't slow down. It was impossible that he saw Ted, but that didn't stop him from bee-lining to where he thought he saw the man, whipping around the corner and anxiously scanning the crowd.

Ted wasn't there. His heart rate didn't slow down, though, and the hot sting of anxiety burned high in his throat. Jess walked briskly down the street, looking in windows, ducking down side streets. He would walk up and down every quaint fucking nook of the town if that's what it took to prove to himself he was wrong.

He lost track of time as he searched. He was obliquely aware of the people around him eyeing him curiously, especially as the day went on. Jess didn't give a shit, though, couldn't, not when a wiry man with an apologetic slump was constantly in his periphery. Every time he thought he saw Ted, he turned to see nothing. It was like the man's specter was roaming Jess' mind, teasing his eyesight from inside his head.

His mind kept tripping over memories, things he hadn't thought of for years, over touches and murmurs and idiotic things like that time he played Battleship with Ted and Ted let him win. You're a good kid, he heard from nowhere, you're such a good boy.

It was cold and dusky when he found himself back at the bridge, angry and coiled tight. He'd spent the entire time completely scattered, furious with himself for shaking loose so easily. His head hurt, his muscles ached with tension, and he felt like he was going to come apart completely if anyone so much as nudged him. His skin would crumble off and his muscles would fall away from his bones like sand.

Jess smoked without knowing he was doing it, running over everything in his head. He kept thinking about that year. He honestly wasn't sure what had happened to Ted. One day, he was gone, and Liz was a complete wreck. She apologized over and over and clung to his shoulders and cried. She promised him, her words slurred through tears, that Ted would never come near them again. Now he couldn't remember if she had ever been more specific than that; if there had been any sort of indication why he should have trusted that promise.

At the time, he hadn't known what standard procedure was. He hadn't talked to any police, though. Hadn't gone to a doctor. If anyone had prosecuted Ted, they had done so without any sort of evidence from Jess. He flicked the butt of his cigarette into the lake, scowling.

He was deeply uneasy. Two weeks ago, Liz called out of the blue to check on him. Just saying "hello," according to her, just making sure he was healthy and happy. He had stared at the mouthpiece of the phone for a full twenty seconds before thinking of anything to say. He hadn't talked directly to his mother in months, and that included the holidays.

Thinking back, the call was suspicious, too. He didn't seriously think it was possible that Liz knew something about Ted moving to Stars Hollow or something bizarre, but he wanted to kill every doubt. Tomorrow, he'd have to call her and get some definite answers. He couldn't imagine how freaked out she'd be at him bringing up Ted, but she'd probably feel so guilty she'd tell him everything. He just wanted some sort of confirmation that he was wrong, that the panic churning in the pit of his stomach was stupid and unfounded and that he was acting like a child.

The wind tugging through his hair felt like fingers and he fought back an intense feeling of nausea. He couldn't stand still, but there was nowhere to go in this fucking town. He turned on his heel without any plan for where he was heading, just walking, just going anywhere, just not thinking about the phantom hands on his back because Ted wasn't there.

The path led him down more residential streets and he almost tripped over himself when he saw Rory and Dean. Jess ducked behind a cluster of trees, not even sure why he was hiding, and angrily squelched the thought that it was sort of a stalker move. Rory was still in her Chilton uniform, overstuffed backpack dwarfing her small frame. It looked like they were talking.

Jess cursed himself silently. He was not going to be that guy. He was not going to moon around hiding in plants waiting for a girl who claimed to be in love with a sentient oak. He had pride. He would just go, keep down his path, because he was coming this way anyway and he'd be damned if he did anything different because of them. Plus, it would piss Dean off because he'd think Jess was doing it on purpose to bother him.

He was about to do just that when he saw the couple kiss and part ways. Rory turned and started down the street in Jess' direction and Dean watched her go, walking backwards slowly, a sappy smile on his face. Jess thought of big dumb Dean lumbering into a low-hanging tree branch and let himself laugh at the mental image. He felt some of the tension in his shoulders relax and sighed. The hot, angry ball of worry was still pulsing at the base of his skull, but he could ignore that for now.

Jess watched Rory approach, her ridiculous private school skirt lifted by the breeze. He bit back a smile at the lovely thoughts those little pleats inspired and mentally timed when Rory would be in the perfect place to frighten the bejeezus out of her. He stepped out from behind the tree, right at Rory's shoulder, and said, "Hey."

"God!" She leapt in a half-circle to face him, hand on her heart, eyes bright. "Jess! What is the matter with you?"

He shrugged and leaned casually against the tree, tapping out a cigarette. "You should really be careful, little girl. You never know who could be waiting in the bushes." He raised his eyebrows suggestively, but the words tasted like bile on his tongue. Not that Ted was anywhere near here.

Rory regained enough of her composure to focus her energy on glaring him down. He made a curious noise at the back of his throat and lit the cigarette.

"If the worst thing hanging out in the bushes of Stars Hollow is you, Jess, I think we're all right. I've never heard of anyone sustaining fatal wounds from an excess of surliness."

He laughed at that because he was frightened, because he knew full well that worse things hid in the darkness. The back of his head throbbed and he took an extra long pull on his cigarette. He hadn't thought before of what it might mean to the rest of Stars Hollow if Ted actually were in town. What it might mean to someone like Rory, who was so quietly fascinating and so fragile. He tried to reassure himself with the thought that, if he actually had seen Ted, then someone like Rory wasn't exactly his speed. But Ted wasn't there. He simply wasn't.

Rory crossed her arms and frowned at him. "Aren't you supposed to be at Luke's? He was looking for you earlier."

"Nope," he replied, rocking against the tree so his shoulder blades bounced gently back and forth against the trunk.

"Well, yes he was looking for you earlier, and I'm pretty sure you are supposed to be there. He said you just took off in the middle of a shift. Is something wrong?" Her expression was softening into something like concern and he was filled with the urge to irritate her back into anger. He liked getting her riled, and it was easier to handle than pity.

"Guess I just felt the call of the wild all of a sudden." He indicated the surrounding foliage with a dismissive flick of his fingers.

She huffed gently. "I think Luke was worried."

"No reason to be. I'm a big boy, and like you said, I'm the worst thing lurking around this town." You're a good boy, Jess, he heard in the back of his head, echoing from the place that was pounding with tension. He swallowed hard and threw the cigarette away, not even half smoked.

Rory shifted uncomfortably, obviously unsure what to feel. She looked torn between aggravation and concern. "Jess, what's wrong?"


She half-pouted at him and he was surprised at how quickly his temper flashed up, sparking white dots in his vision. He didn't owe her any explanations about his moods, and he was about to say so when she cut off his train of thought.

"So, are you going to walk me home?"


Rory shrugged. "It's getting kind of dark, and even if there's no one worse than you around, there might be… bears."


"Yes, bears." Her chin lifted defiantly. "And when you get done with that, you can come back here and lurk in the bushes again or return to the diner, or whatever."

"OK." His anger was still riding high in his spine, but he pushed that away, tucked it up under the ball of anxiety next to his heart, and saved it for later. He indicated the path with one hand. "After you, Goldilocks."

She smiled at him brightly and they fell into step together. He shoved his hands in his coat pockets, letting his elbows stick out at sharp angles. When his right arm swung, it almost brushed her left.

"Oh!" she said, clapping her hands like a little girl. "I just thought of another good one!"

"Good one what?"

"Insult about how you're not as dangerous as you think you are." She watched him with raised eyebrows like she was waiting for him to be angry.

"Well, don't keep me waiting."

"'What, are you planning on killing people with an overdose of Teen Spirit?'"

Jess snorted. "Yeah, good one."

"Don't be jealous of my wit."

"How can I help it?" They kept stride easily, and Jess was thinking that the day was going a lot better than he had thought possible when he spoke again. "Just out of curiosity, what makes you think I can defend you against bears? I mean, any better than Dean could? He's about the size of one."

Rory's face fell instantly and Jess regretted speaking. For whatever reason, he just couldn't resist poking that wound.

"God, nevermind," she snorted, taking off at a quicker pace. Jess jogged to catch up with her.

"Where are you going? I can't possibly let you walk the twenty feet from here to your house when I know there might be big bears walking around."

She said nothing and didn't slow down.

"What if they're circus bears? Those are the worst. They might be armed with comically tiny hats and unicycles."

They rounded the corner that led to her street and Jess was overwhelmed with the need to not let this end with her mad at him. There wasn't enough time to tease forgiveness from her, so he would have to make do with an actual apology. "Look, Rory, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said anything. I really am happy to walk you home in this psychotically safe town. So happy to do it that I promise I won't compare Dean to a bear ever again."

"Ugh, why do you care?" Rory spun around and glared at him. She was adorable, cheeks flushed lightly from frustration and the gentle sting of cold. "Why do you want to spend any time with me when you clearly don't respect the relationships I have with the most important people in my life?"

Jess sighed and rocked his head back, staring at a slate-grey sky. No clouds anywhere, and yet, dreary as fuck. Early Spring was kind of a hideous time of year. He set his jaw, chewing on the words he wanted to say, and it took all the will in his body to keep from suggesting that he could make things up to Dean by gifting him with a comically tiny hat or a unicycle.

He let his head loll slowly back down until he was looking her in the eye. "Rory, I'm sorry. I can't explain to you all the ways I don't know how to interact with people, and I've been having a seriously weird day." Her stance relaxed and the furrows between her eyebrows disappeared. "We're friends, right?"

She looked almost alarmed at his use of the word. "Yes, yes we are. Friends." She nodded to emphasize the point.

"OK then." He shrugged one shoulder. "I'm really sorry. I don't want to make you angry. I think I read somewhere that bears can smell it like dogs smell fear."

She chuffed out a reluctant laugh and bounced her fists against her thighs.

"So, can I escort you the rest of the way home?"

Rory nodded, smiling shyly. "You better." They walked the rest of the way in silence, comfortable this time, and he stopped at the bottom of the porch stairs. She turned when she reached the front door to wave. Jess sketched a little bow.

Her smiled changed into something private, something secret, and his heart stuttered. She slipped into the door without fully turning away from him or ever quite meeting his eyes but paused halfway inside. She leaned back around the storm door, tucking her chin against its edge.

"Please go back to Luke's," she said. "I'm sorry you're having a bad day, but he's worried about you." He stared at her until her gaze dropped and she shuffled a toe on the ground. "At least let him know you haven't been mauled by ravening circus bears." With that, she went inside, shutting the door firmly behind her.

Jess swallowed roughly and headed back in the direction of the diner. She confused him and left him feeling elated, though he knew he shouldn't get his hopes up. Sometimes he felt certain of her, like he could open up her mind and understand everything inside. The rest of the time, he felt wildly off-kilter. Rory had started out as a distraction, a pretty girl who talked to him and held her own, who was sheltered but would be outraged if you suggested it, who was fun to flirt with and tease. There was no way she would seriously consider him, too high above him on her Harvard dreams and the shoulders of her puppyish boyfriend.

But she was always surprising him, spinning him around when he was least expecting it. She was fascinating and frustrating and standing too close to her made his fingers itch to be in her hair. At the least likely times, he would look at her and feel her in his reach, closer to his plane than the town would ever dare to suspect. And sometimes he looked in her eyes and knew, he knew, her thoughts were miles away from Dean. But just when he would get confident, she would reel away from him, back to comfort zones he didn't understand.

Jess exhaled heavily through his nose and rubbed the back of his head, remembering again. Ted. Ted, who wasn't here, who didn't exist anymore except as a grim memory, who was regardless burrowing out of the darkest places in Jess' mind and making him crazy.

He didn't notice that he was going through the motions of getting out another cigarette until he was smoking it, the familiar sting lacing his lungs. He realized where he was unconsciously heading when he saw the William's Hardware sign down the street and veered left. It wasn't that he wanted Luke to worry, or that he didn't care that Luke was worried. He just couldn't be indoors. The town made him feel claustrophobic on a good day, and being inside the four close walls of the apartment he shared with Luke might just make him crawl out of his own skull.

He had no specific ideas for mischief when he reached the school. Maybe he'd climb up to the roof, just because he could, and do nothing more than smoke the rest of his rapidly diminishing supply of cigarettes and know that he was the one who left the crushed remnants up there. He was in a bad enough mood, however, to entertain thoughts of fiddling with some of the wiring. Smirking privately, he slipped into the shadows.

Luke was still in the diner, distracted, glancing out the window every ten seconds to see if Jess was coming back. The kid's mood was often unpredictable, and his tendency to leave without letting anyone know where he was going was like a "thing" of his now, but he never left in the middle of a shift. If Luke was paying him, Jess was there. And Luke might not have been the most perceptive when it came to reading sullen teenagers, but the way he left – practically dropping coffee on Taylor's head and bolting out the door – was sufficient indication that something was actually wrong.

For the first time in his life, Luke wished for a cell phone, just so he could stick it to his nephew. Even if Jess didn't answer it, he might at least be able to track him down by calling the phone and hunting him down by the ringtone. Luke sighed heavily. Stupid kid. Luke was distracted now, and giving less stellar service to his customers than usual. There weren't a lot of them around, it being relatively late on a Tuesday night, but it was another thing to blame on Jess, and Luke was in the mood to be aggravated.

"This is dumb," he muttered to himself. He'd go track down Jess on his own, just to appease his own worry, and then he'd stick Jess' head down a toilet and flush it eternally. Something about that kid brought out Luke's most juvenile side.

He asked Cesar to lock up for him, or, in the off chance Jess came back, to have him close up. As he stepped outside, he wished for a cell phone of his own, and that was absolutely a first. How was he supposed to know if Jess returned? What if he spent hours trying to hunt the punk down and came home only to find that he'd been back for hours? Luke's hand lingered on the doorknob, mentally weighing the options. Wait and worry or search around town and worry, but at least be distracted.

This was absolutely the last time he'd do something like this, Luke assured himself as he walked down the steps, bumping shoulders with a tall, pale-faced man who was going into the diner. Luke muttered an apology and headed into the square with purpose. Every step brought him greater conviction of the epic talking-to he was going to give Jess when he found him.

Unsurprisingly, he guessed, he didn't find the kid on his first walk-through of the town. Luke shook himself mentally and reconsidered his plan. Just stomping around Stars Hollow wasn't going to get him very far. He should probably check with someone who might have actually seen Jess, and the only name that popped into his head was Rory. Yes, the Gilmore's. No reason not to go.

He rapped tentatively on the back door, telling himself it made perfect sense to check here. The only other person who willingly talked to Jess was in here. If Luke also got to see Lorelai, well. Bonus. He heard Lorelai yelling as she walked through the kitchen, "Rory, do burglars knock now, or is this just your boyfriend being weird and not remembering that we have a front door?"

She opened the door and stopped short. "Oh. Um. I'm sorry, I don't want any encyclopedias."


"Don't need them. I've got this kid that's an encyclopedia. She's actually much lighter than a whole set of books, too. So, no thank you, no encyclopedias here."

Luke blinked at her. "Lorelai, what are you talking about?"

She smiled, cocking a hip and leaning into the door. "Luke, what on earth are you doing here? It's nine o'clock. The only people I could think of showing up – at my back door – at this time of night are encyclopedia salesmen and, I don't know, escorts."

Lorelai swiveled her hips back and forth and leaned forward. "And I didn't order an escort service. Tonight."

"I was hoping to talk to Rory."

She straightened. "Well, I know Rory didn't call for an escort."

"Can I come in?"

"Sure, sure." She gestured for him to step inside and he was inwardly grateful that Lorelai was one of a kind. Even having the most basic interaction with her could be so tiring.

"Rory! Your gigolo is here!"

"What?" Rory stepped out of her room and her face fell when she saw Luke. "Oh, hi."

"Hey, Rory. I'm really sorry to bother you. Are you busy?"

"Um, no, not really. Is it – is everything OK?"

Luke sighed, putting his hands on his hips. "Well, I was just wondering if you've seen Jess."

Rory tucked her hands into the sleeves of her overlong sweater. "Earlier, yeah. Like at five? He walked me home."

Lorelai was suddenly at full attention, her expression hard. "He walked you home?"

"Yeah," Rory muttered, tucking hair behind her ear.

"What, did you forget the way?"

"No," she replied, shooting her mother a timid imitation of a glare. "He just – I knew that Luke was looking for him and something seemed wrong and I thought maybe he'd talk to me about it if we just walked together, but he didn't say."

"I thought you were spending time with Dean earlier," Lorelai said, but, apart from some nervous shuffling on Rory's part, was largely ignored.

"You thought something was wrong, too?" Luke asked.

Rory nodded and Lorelai flipped her attention to Luke. "What's going on?"

"Oh." Luke shuffled his feet. "He sort of ran out of the diner earlier and I haven't seen him since."

Lorelai tapped her fingers restlessly against her hips. "You might want to, I don't know, search the skyline for smoke?"


"No, I'm sure he's fine," Luke cut in. "I was just kind of worried. It's stupid."

Lorelai searched Luke's face, holding her breath. She let out a whoof of air and closed her eyes, seeming to relax. "I'm sorry, Luke. It's not stupid. He's probably back at the diner already or something."

"Yeah, probably. Sorry to bother you."

"It's no bother," Rory said. Luke nodded at her gratefully and headed for the door.

"Luke, really," Lorelai said, stopping him. "It's no trouble. Not knowing where your kid is, well, that's a pretty terrible feeling. Give us a call when you get back to the diner and let us know if you find him."


"And if we hear anything, we'll call you."

"Thanks. I think if he's not back by the time I get there, I'm gonna keep looking. I'm just not going to be able to get any rest waiting around at the apartment."


"I kind of have a bad feeling."

Lorelai nodded.

"Tell me it's stupid." He hated how desperate he sounded.

She sighed, expression solemn. "He's fine."

"Thanks," he replied, but he wasn't comforted. "Goodnight, Lorelai."

Jess was comfortable with sneaking into places. He was good at it, like he was good at sleight-of-hand and infuriating people. He slipped into the dark of the apartment and was surprised to see Luke's bed empty and still made. He glanced around, almost worried Luke might be hiding somewhere, waiting to jump out at him and smack him in the back of the head.

Noting there wasn't enough room in the apartment for anyone to hide, Jess relaxed and unzipped his jacket, kicked his shoes off and walked over to the table, where he spotted a note.


I'm out looking for your stupid ass. If you get home before I do, stay up. We're having a talk, and you're not going to like it if I have to wake you up. It better not be after midnight when you're reading this. I am going to be so angry with you if you're keeping me up that late.

Jess glanced at the clock – 12:25. He grimaced and threw his coat over a chair, balling up the note. This town was weird. Luke was weird. He probably shouldn't have just taken off like that, but it wasn't like Luke was usually that concerned with him being vaguely "out," and before coming here he'd never actually encountered one of those mythical beasts he'd heard rumors about: guardians that cared where you were if you were out late.

He shook his head in silent frustration. What sort of trouble was he going to get into in this town after 11, anyway? Switch all of Babette's gnomes with Mr. Dawkin's ornamental lawn menagerie? And Ted wasn't out there. Jess stilled at the thought and eyed the door nervously, hating himself for every second of fear. He was exhausted from anxiety and his head still throbbed, but he had mostly convinced himself that he had completely imagined things that afternoon in the diner.

Ted wasn't in Stars Hollow. It just wasn't a possibility. Jess closed his eyes and breathed heavily through his nose, fingering the edges of his shirtsleeves. It wasn't even worth thinking about. Luke would be home soon, would bluster and yell and lay down ultimatums Jess would ignore and everything would be normal – or, rather, this new, strange version of normal he was living.

Jess sort of wished Luke was home. It made him feel guilty that he was out searching in the cold, that he had been for some idiotic amount of time. That was weird, too, the guilt. He didn't know what to do with that and had no idea how to make amends. "Sorry" was a concept he just couldn't get his mind around, at least not with authority, and it was more fun anyway to sneak into the diner after hours and clean or fix something and confuse Luke, and sometimes as a bonus, Cesar.

He sighed and ran his hands through his hair, shaking out some of the mousse-crust. It was getting kind of preposterously tall, but he wasn't sure he trusted anyone in this town to cut it. He absolutely refused to go anywhere that had one of those red-and-white-striped barber's poles. He rubbed his face and hated his own brain, too scattered to focus on anything for more than five seconds at a time.

Jess punched the table half-heartedly and stood to change into pajamas. He had the pants on (flannel, plaid, a present from Luke that he actually kind of liked) and was pulling his shirt off over his head when he heard footsteps on the stairs.

He had developed a sense, wherever he was, for identifying footsteps. It was just a survival skill to know when someone was approaching and, whenever possible, who. Luke's diner was creaky in a different way the apartments he'd lived in were, and the first couple of weeks sleeping in his new home had freaked him out until he got accustomed to the sounds. Now he knew the noises as well as if he'd lived there all his life.

They were definitely footsteps. That was odd, since he hadn't heard the chipper ringing of the bell that signaled anyone's entrance downstairs. Maybe Luke had been staking him out after all, waiting for him to come home so he could freak him out. It was exceptionally unlikely – Luke was not the sort of man for making plans like that, especially since he would be too eager to scold Jess for worrying him.

Beyond that, those were not Luke's footsteps. Luke was virtually the only person who came up the stairs besides him, and he was never tentative. These steps were surreptitious, wary. He didn't remember what Ted's footsteps sounded like, but it couldn't be him, anyway. He wasn't in Stars Hollow. The chorus of not possible that had been running in the back of Jess' mind all day was sounding high-pitched and panicky.

He stepped cautiously into the center of the room, slowly drawing a fresh t-shirt over his head. He tried to assure himself that he was hallucinating, that he had just gone completely insane and was suffering auditory hallucinations. Did people have schizophrenic breaks in their late teens?

"Fuck this," he said to no one, to the ghost of Ted, and strode to the door, pulling it open.

Part of him actually wasn't surprised when he saw Ted in the dim light, standing two steps down from the landing.

"Jess," the man breathed. He looked relieved, and Jess frantically thought that yes he must be crazy, or Ted was, because this was too surreal to be happening.

Ted rested a heavy hand on the banister and pulled himself, slouching, onto the landing. His other hand he held up, fingers spread wide. "I know you must be pretty confused right now, but please trust me when I say I don't want to hurt you. I just want to talk."

Jess swallowed and took a step back. Some bizarre noise, like a bird chirping, escaped from his throat. I don't want to hurt you. I didn't mean to hurt you. I would never hurt you, that shouldn't have hurt you.

"I just got out of prison, Jess," he continued, taking Jess' silence as an invitation to speak. "I wanted to see you again. I had to say how sorry –" he stopped and sighed, pale eyes tracking over Jess' face.

Jess couldn't think. Not possible I don't want to hurt you you're such a good boy

In a distant part of his mind, Jess noted that he was seeing everything with a lag of about two seconds. Ted's mouth would move and he would hear the words a moment later. He didn't hear the soft scraping of Ted's feet across wood until the man was three feet away.

Ted's expression was sad, apologetic. His sorry expression, exactly as Jess remembered it, was now deepened with lines of age. "It's been so long," he whispered, "since I've seen you. You really have grown up so much.

"Oh, Jess."

And when Ted leaned in as though to embrace him, Jess' mind finally caught up, but by then it was too late.

to be continued