notes: To everyone still reading, thank you - for sticking with this and for the wonderful feedback. There aren't thanks enough.
acknowledgments: Cadence and Prisc for reading and encouraging, not to mention all the advice and support. This probably wouldn't still be a story if not for you.


(nine)

"Mom?"

Lorelai blinked. "Hmm?"

"You were just about to finish your story."

Lorelai gave herself a mental shake, drawing her attention back to her daughter. She should have taken the seat facing the diner entrance so she wouldn't keep getting distracted watching for a moment to talk to Luke. With him darting between the back room and the front to deliver food and Lorelai trying to pretend that she was focused on her conversation with Rory, the effort was completely wasted.

She couldn't remember what story she'd been telling.

"No, you ruined it. You ruined my punchline."

The tiniest crease of a frown formed between Rory's eyebrows. "I didn't realize there was going to be one."

"Well, there never will be now, because it's ruined." She thought about lobbing a fry at her daughter. That was playful and natural, right?

Rory considered for a second, and Lorelai could pinpoint the moment when she decided it wasn't worth pursuing. "I apologize," she said soberly. "I'll think about what I've done for the rest of the day."

"Not all day. You have homework, and I don't think your teachers will appreciate the genius of fifty lines of I must not ruin mother's stories."

"Speaking of," Rory said, brushing off her fingers and standing, "I should get going. I also have Dean tonight."

"Dean? Aren't you guys going out over the weekend? Saturday night? The night for dating?"

Rory shouldered her backpack, pulling her ponytail out of the way with a sigh. She gave her mom a rueful look.

"He's not still mad about the bracelet."

"He's not mad," Rory agreed. "He's hurt."

Lorelai dropped her hands on the table. "Come on. That was ages ago, and you didn't lose it on purpose."

"No," Rory said, folding her arms over her chest. "It was three weeks ago that he noticed it was missing, and I still haven't found it. And anyway, he hasn't brought it up for like… a week. I just don't want to disappoint him if he asks to do something."

"Rory. Honey. It's very sweet that you care so much, but you can't let guilt dictate your life like that. You can't let Dean call all the shots."

She shrugged defensively. "I'm not letting him dictate anything. He asked to hang out and I said yes. I'm fine." Her eyebrows drew together in a sudden fit of irritation. "And you've been really overprotective lately. You could have gone on that spa thing with grandma. She just wanted to spend time with you, and I'd be OK in the house alone."

Lorelai pursed her lips. She didn't want to have another conversation about that, ever again, with anyone. And she wasn't going to let Rory divert her from the issue that easily. She let out a slow, controlled breath.

"Just make sure you get all your homework done and don't stress yourself out doing it before he comes over."

"Fine," Rory said, voice too casual, her eyes on the ground.

"And hey," Lorelai said, gently jostling Rory's elbow. "Really, don't feel bad about the bracelet. It wasn't your fault. It's not like you dropped it in a toilet and flushed. Just tell him to weld you a new one during shop class. I'm sure he'd be happy to do it. And tell him to go crazy, spend the extra fifty cents, and buy one of those little claspy things so it doesn't fall off this time."

Rory's mouth went tight and crooked the way it did when she was holding back a smile. "He didn't weld it."

"Fine. Tell him to lovingly craft you a new one. In shop class. Anyway, I still think Kirk took it. Everything would make so much more sense if it turned out that he was a magpie brain inside a human body. Your bracelet is probably buried deep inside his nest somewhere. You'll never see it again."

Rory grinned. "Bye, Mom. See you when you get home from class?"

"Yep. Bye, sweets."

Rory bent in to give her a quick kiss on the cheek and walked out. Lorelai sighed, switching her attention to Luke. As far as she could tell, he seemed all right today. He was tired, distracted and gruff, but that was practically chipper for Luke, especially of late.

The flow of new customers had ebbed, and he was fiddling with the coffee maker in a way that made her think he was just doing it to look busy and avoid unnecessary disruptions. He used to be able to run upstairs for that. Her eyes darted over to the curtain that no one ever went behind anymore and back to Luke.

I am always a necessary disruption, she thought, brushing aside an unpleasant wave of emotion and standing from the table.

She leaned on the counter, cupping her elbows in her hands. "Hey, stranger," she said to Luke's back.

He looked at her briefly. "Oh, hey. I was just. New coffee," he said, waving at the machine with an empty brew basket.

"Bad time?"

Luke tossed the brew basket on the counter and turned to Lorelai. "No, it's fine."

"So how's everything? How's Jess' detention going? One week out of two down, right?"

"I dunno," Luke sighed. "He's supposed to be using the time to catch up with all that school work he missed and then never did, so if he continues to not do it, he gets more detention. Nobody's contacted me about that, so I assume there aren't any problems. But, then again, the school didn't tell me about Jess missing classes until they called me in to talk about the fight, so who knows what the hell kind of system they're running. And any time I ask Jess about it, well. You can guess about how well that goes."

Lorelai wrinkled her nose. "Yeah. You could call the school administration," she offered. "They'd know and they probably wouldn't be sarcastic and evasive."

Luke leaned a hand on the counter, looking out the window toward the school. "I don't like them."

"They're assholes," she agreed, watching Luke closely for a reaction. He was lost in thought, mouth set in a grim line.

"Yeah," he said, distracted. He looked between her and the school, leaning in close. "Hey, Lorelai. You're up on the gossip, right? Have you heard anything?"

Lorelai straightened, angling her body to close off their conversation from the rest of the diner. "About Jess?" Luke nodded. "Not really," she said, dropping her eyes to the counter and then meeting Luke's gaze again. "I heard about it a lot when he had that fight and when he got all the detention. People seem to think it was a direct punishment for the fight, so it balances out. Nothing about court dates or anything else."

That wasn't completely true. As far as Lorelai could tell, nobody did know about the court mandated therapy or, what was more important, and what had been most on Luke's mind, anything about Ted. She didn't think it would do any good to relay some of the things she'd heard people saying about Jess. Most seemed to have forgotten completely that he'd been attacked, and now he had surpassed his initial bad boy status to a rude little shit of a delinquent. Lorelai had been pretty surprised to hear those words come from Babette.

Luke held her eyes for a long moment, and eventually let out a small sigh, standing up straight.

"Believe me, Luke, if that stuff got out, even you would hear about it."

"Yeah, yeah," he said, rubbing his neck. "Anyway, how about you? How're things with your mom?"

Lorelai's shoulders slumped. So much for not talking about it, ever again, with anyone. It wasn't as though she would have been able to avoid it for long. The next night was Friday, and while her mother had dropped the actual fight, that didn't mean there was any lack of cold silence or snide references to spas and massages and how incredibly busy Lorelai was.

"Ehn." Lorelai flicked her fingers dismissively. "We'll get through it."

He gave her a half-amused, knowing look. "Yeah, it's funny how things that used to seem like a big deal just… aren't anymore."

She smiled. "Yes, the former Chernobyl of Emily Gilmore's temper now seems more on par with leaving a fork in your take out when you put it in the microwave to reheat it. Upsetting initially because, you know, fire, but ultimately not that bad. You don't need to get a new microwave and even the chicken survived."

Luke's brow furrowed as he tried to parse the metaphor. "Did you do that recently?"

"Yesterday."

"Sorry to break things up," Gypsy said from behind Lorelai's shoulder. She turned her startle into a casual turn to face Gypsy, offering a wide smile. Gypsy indicated the register. "I should pay for my dinner."

Luke nodded and slid over to ring her up. Gypsy gave Lorelai a quick once-over. "Are you a bit overdressed?"

Lorelai glanced down at her work clothes, briefly reconsidering just how good of an idea it was not to at least grab a different pair of shoes to change into between work and class. It had all been part of a plan to cut down on the amount of laundry she did in a week. There seemed to be so much less time than there used to be.

"No. Luke's going upscale. All of you are underdressed."

Gypsy gave Lorelai a wry look as she handed money over to Luke. "No kidding. I'll have to pull out my dress overalls."

"On the upside, I bet you never thought you'd find an occasion to wear your dress overalls."

Gypsy didn't respond, turning her attention to Luke. "Hey, I hear you're looking for more help around here," she said as she tucked her wallet into her back pocket. "Did Jess quit? For good? I know his brain was scrambled for a while there or something, but he could take orders now, couldn't he? Pour coffee, be ready with a sarcastic comeback."

Luke's mouth was a thin line. "Oh. Yeah, I am. And he did. Quit. It doesn't have to do with the head thing, it just – " He cleared his throat. "We thought he could find a better paying job somewhere else."

Her eyebrows lifted. "Tell him I pay for crap."

Luke laughed dryly.

"So has he found a new job?"

He shook his head. "Ah, not yet. It's kind of hard right now, with all the… detention." He looked like he wanted to come up with a less incriminating excuse.

"That kid's really something," Gypsy said sarcastically. "He just seems to draw problems to him – always fighting and skipping school and now he's not working for you anymore. Even the thing with the break in. Who else would that happen to? Only Jess. Luke, you are some kind of saint for dealing with it. And let me tell you – you aren't looking too good. You have to be counting down the days until he moves out."

She shook her head and gave Luke a sympathetic look. "Good luck."

Lorelai blankly watched Gypsy walk away for a moment, and then turned to Luke. His head was bowed, his expression tight but unreadable.

"Luke," she began, trying to come up with a consolation or at least some way to laugh about it, but he waved it off.

"No big deal. I got some work to do, though," he said, not looking at her. He was already halfway to the back room. "I'll see you later."

She watched Luke disappear into the kitchen and stayed there long after she couldn't see him anymore. She thought about following him, but a string of rational, very sound arguments against it crowded her. There wasn't time between now and class, and she wasn't allowed back there and this was Luke's job, and people would see her go after him and talk, and Luke wouldn't appreciate being made the center of gossip like that and he really wouldn't appreciate being pitied just because Gypsy said something insensitive. People probably said insensitive things to Luke on a daily basis when she wasn't around, and he survived just fine without her.

It was with enormous reluctance that she turned and left the diner.

Lorelai hardly paid attention on the road and even less in class, shifting restlessly and rapping her pen unconsciously against her notepad until the girl who sat beside her touched her shoulder and looked pointedly at Lorelai's hand.

"Sorry," she whispered, and went back to trying to keep focus on the powerpoint slide on the projector screen. Instead, she thought of court dates and how feet were not meant to be in heels for twelve hours at a time and how she barely saw Jess anymore and she had no idea how people were behaving with him, or if they were bothering to interact with him at all. She chewed on her pen for the rest of the class.

She called Rory on the way home to say she was making a detour to pick up "a surprise" and would be a little late. She figured she'd come up with what the hell the surprise was later as she stepped out of the Jeep and jogged up the stairs into the diner. Only Kirk was left – his back to the door, seemingly absorbed in a game of solitaire spread out across his table, a half-drunk milkshake perched at its edge.

Ceasar was counting receipts beside the register. He did the smallest double take at Lorelai's entrance. She walked up to him briskly.

"Is he still here?"

He glanced at her, considering for a second before turning his attention back to the receipts. "He's in the back." He tilted his head to the closed door. "Go ahead. It's unlocked."

Lorelai briefly wondered just how much Ceasar knew – or at least guessed – before deciding it didn't matter. She thanked him as she slid quietly behind the door.

Luke looked up from where he was seated on a wooden crate, his half-eaten dinner on a plate at his feet. He didn't look all that surprised to see her.

"Hey."

She watched him from where she was, just inside the room. Luke seemed at ease, an open ledger on his knee and a pen in his hand, and she was suddenly unsure whether she should have come. Maybe Luke was just doing inventory and she was the only one dwelling on this.

She pulled off her heels and let them dangle from her fingers, taking a moment to enjoy the cool tile under her sore feet.

Well, even if he wasn't as upset as she was about that afternoon, she'd been wanting to find time to talk to him alone, and now they were alone. Carpe diem. Or carpe noctem, maybe, in this case.

"Hey," she said at last and padded over to him silently.

He said nothing, but he stood to grab a box and set it up beside his crate and tossed the ledger on the floor next to his abandoned dinner. She set her heels on the ground and smoothed her skirt under her legs to sit beside him. She leaned her elbows on her thighs, clasping her hands together loosely.

Lorelai let him be quiet and watched her feet as she curled and uncurled her toes.

"They don't give a shit about him," Luke said.

She felt a pang of wry amusement that she hadn't been wrong about Luke dwelling. It wasn't exactly a comfort to know she wasn't alone in that.

"That's just Gypsy," she replied. "She's direct and a little rude, but that's why we love her, right?"

Luke shook his head. "It's not just Gypsy. She means it. And it's the whole town."

Lorelai pressed her lips together, trying desperately to come up with something helpful to say. The trouble was, he wasn't wrong – and wasn't this, the two of them commiserating in Luke's store room while no one else even knew there was something to commiserate about, proof of that?

"I don't mean that the whole town hates him," Luke continued, waving a hand vaguely. "They just don't… care."

He took in a long breath and let it out again slowly. "I suppose it doesn't matter that much. They don't have to care. I mean, what would they do for him even if they did? Hold a … fundraiser? Carefest 2002: We loudly, publicly care about Jess Mariano. Everyone come celebrate."

Lorelai could imagine him saying the same thing with more animation and angry hand gestures, but Luke's tone was bland – not defeated, just accepting.

"Do you ever think it would help if they knew what happened?" she asked, worrying a loose thread on her skirt.

Luke snorted. "No. I mean. Yes, I have thought about it, but more in the sense of… vindication. You assholes would feel so bad if you knew." He shook his head. "It wouldn't work."

Lorelai watched him closely, studying the deep lines around his mouth and eyes.

"How is Jess?" she asked, her voice low.

Luke sighed and shrugged. "He hardly talks at all. When the petition to declare him a Youth In Crisis went through, he didn't say a word. He hasn't said anything about the mandated therapy. His mom sent boxes of his stuff, and he hasn't touched them. He doesn't argue with me anymore – he just leaves or he gives in. It's like he's…." Luke cut himself off, shaking his head.

He gave her an uncertain look. "Is it crazy that I miss the fights?"

"Not crazy," she said quickly, anxious about what she thought Luke had been about to say. "I think it's probably just a … low point. You know, he starts up the therapy – when?"

"Tuesday."

"That'll be good. He'll get help from a trained professional." She half believed it, but she felt like she was lying desperately, badly.

"Yeah," Luke said, his voice unnaturally light. "I'm sure that Jess will open up to a complete stranger and everything will be fixed."

"Don't get like that." Lorelai was a little surprised by the firmness of her voice, almost scolding. Luke looked at her askance, eyebrows raised questioningly. "You told me before that you weren't going to give up."

Luke sat back. "I'm not giving up."

"OK then," Lorelai said a little lamely, raising a fist in a halfhearted cheer. Luke let out a soft laugh.

"It feels kind of… stupid, sometimes, to think things will get better. There haven't been any indications of that so far." Lorelai's heart spiked in sympathy and – what was worse – understanding, and she opened her mouth to offer some stupid reassurance, but Luke continued quickly.

"Of course, it's only been, what, a month? Little more? And I'm sure this Dr. Bhatt he's supposed to see knows more than I do. She better, since it's her job," Luke said dryly. "But the advocate guy at juvenile court says they work with her a lot, mostly with kids who run away from abusive homes. So who knows, maybe Jess will be a cakewalk for her."

"Maybe." Lorelai scrunched up her face in thought. "He didn't wind up picking her, did he?"

"No," Luke said flatly.

Lorelai grimaced. "Because of the court or because of Jess?"

Luke gave her a sideways look, eyebrows raised, that told her she should know the answer to that. "I have no idea what the court's take on that would have been," he said.

Lorelai looked away, scratching her cheek. "So did you ever find out anything about the fight? What started it, or…" she trailed off uncomfortably, not sure if she was pressing.

Luke scoffed. "The last time I asked him about it, he told me it was over a girl. I'm pretty sure I'm never going to get a straight answer to that."

Lorelai clamped her mouth shut, a wave of unease coming over her.

"Over a girl?" she asked slowly. "Or… because of a girl? The girl was involved? Did he specify?"

Luke looked at her like she was crazy. "No. And I don't know, the principal told me he didn't know what started the fight. I think the only other person involved was that Gabriel kid. Why would Jess be fighting over a girl? It's ridiculous." He shook his head, dismissing the thought. "He was just being Jess, trying to get me to leave it alone."

Lorelai worked her jaw thoughtfully. It probably was just that, but it made her worry. Right after the fight, she'd heard some nastier strains of rumor about Jess harassing a girl, but she'd just chalked that up to unsubstantiated gossip from people willing to believe the worst about Jess. It was a bit too much of a coincidence to hear a similar explanation from Jess to sit well with her.

It was possible, maybe, that Jess had heard the same gossip, and that was why he'd said it. But if that were the case, why would he want anyone to believe it? That wasn't reassuring.

"Why, do you think it's true?"

"Hmm?" Lorelai snapped her attention to Luke, lips pressed together tightly.

Luke's expression was somewhere between disgust and incredulity. "You think it's possible Jess like… got in a rumble with some kid over a girl?"

She snorted out a laugh at the mental image. "No, Luke. I don't think Jess lives in a 50s musical."

It wouldn't help to tell Luke what she was thinking. She gave him a tight smile. "You're right, it's nothing," she said. "I'm just tired and I was in class for hours and I'm overthinking everything."

He kept watching her, skeptical but wary, and she focused on keeping her expression neutral. Eventually, he turned his head to look straight ahead and sighed. "Jess doesn't strike me as the most romantic kid on the best of days," he said, curling his lip on the word romantic.

"Not that fistfights are romantic," he added as an afterthought.

Lorelai tapped her feet restlessly on the floor with soft little fwap fwap fwap sounds, losing herself in unsettling strains of thought.

Luke straightened and let out a heavy breath, puffing out his cheeks, startling Lorelai out of her thoughts. She wondered how long they'd been sitting in silence.

He slapped his knees. "Well, thanks for coming back here."

"Yeah, sure," she said, giving him a friendly pat on the leg, all at once anxious to be at her own home and out of her work clothes.

On the drive home, guilt curdled in her stomach as she thought of Rory. She'd been glad – she couldn't help being glad – weeks ago, when she'd casually asked if Rory had talked to Jess lately and her expression had gone cold. Rory had been noncommittal, changing the subject and ultimately falling into a silence Lorelai hadn't been able to break. When Rory had excused herself and closed herself in her bedroom, Lorelai mentally congratulated Jess on whatever he'd done to kill Rory's sympathy.

She was not proud of the feeling. She couldn't entirely blame herself for it, either. Yes, she was worried for Jess, and she thought he needed a friend, any friend, and it did hurt her to see Rory now in the ranks of everyone else in Stars Hollow regarding Jess, although Rory's attitude toward him seemed to have mellowed into a chilly indifference. And yes, she saw the irony in her being the one trying to defend Jess while Rory was resentful.

But as much as all that was true, she couldn't bring herself to wish that Rory would be the one to be Jess' friend, even if it weren't an obvious impossibility. Being mired in this wasn't a burden she would want for anyone, and especially not for her naïve seventeen-year-old daughter, who could barely handle the emotional stress of accidentally losing the bracelet her boyfriend had given her.

She tried to let it go, because it was impossible. Even if Jess seemed capable of being friends with anyone at all, he'd had a crush on Rory, and now…. Well, now he was an unhappy, abused kid who was so desperate to keep people away that he didn't care if they thought he was violent with girls.

The only thing thinking about it accomplished was to make her so anxious and ashamed she couldn't fall asleep some nights.

Lorelai pushed open the front door of her house wearily, shoes in hand. She dropped them and her purse on the floor in a careless move as soon as she was inside. She could hear the soft sound of the television and was surprised by how glad she was that Rory was still up, and that she couldn't hear Dean.

"Hello," she called, walking into the living room with dragging footsteps.

Rory was alone, reclining on the couch, ready for bed, open textbook in her lap. She twisted and craned her neck awkwardly to look over her shoulder.

"Hi," she said casually, and an ache rose up in Lorelai's chest. With her hair pulled back in a ponytail, her wide, clear eyes brighter than normal catching the light of television and little ice cream cones on her pajamas, Rory looked so young, too young.

"Scootch over," Lorelai commanded, waving her hand. Rory did, sitting up and pulling her book into her lap, leaving open space in the corner of the couch, which Lorelai plopped into with a sigh. She stared blankly at the television.

"Where's the surprise?" Rory asked.

Shit.

Lorelai gave her a cryptic look. "Oh, you'll see." She waggled her eyebrows for extra effect.

Rory's forehead creased. "OK," she said slowly, obviously not buying it.

"So when did Dean go home?" Lorelai asked, tone light. Diversionary tactics: always good.

Rory immediately turned her attention to the television, shrugging a shoulder. "About an hour ago."

Lorelai nudged the textbook. "Is this for tomorrow?"

"No, I'm reading ahead."

Lorelai looked at the television again. It was… PBS? Something naturey. She felt another strange surge of an emotion she couldn't describe thinking of how her daughter would rather watch public broadcasting and read ahead for school than do alone-in-the-house things with her boyfriend. There was something painfully innocent about Rory that overwhelmed her at times, and she didn't know if it was a good or a terrible thing that she wouldn't be like this forever.

She put an arm around Rory's shoulders, giving her a little squeeze.

"Mom? Are you OK?"

"Oh, honey, I'm fine," she said easily.

Rory frowned at her for a long moment and finally shut her textbook with a sullen "Fine."

This was stupid, Lorelai told herself. She hated that there was so much she couldn't talk to Rory about anymore – she hated feeling like she was sneaking around and lying with her own daughter.

"No, sorry, Rory," she said, drawing her arm back and twisting to face Rory. She took in a small breath, putting her thoughts into order, before she continued.

"The guy who broke into the diner? His pretrial hearing's a week from tomorrow. I have to go to that."

Rory set her textbook on the coffee table and turned to sit sideways, facing Lorelai, tucking her feet into a cross-legged position.

"Oh? Why do you have to go?"

"Well, I was sort of there. I'm a witness."

Rory nodded, brow furrowing. "OK. How long will that be?"

Lorelai shrugged. "Not very. This is – I don't know, presenting enough evidence to ensure that the prosecution is charging him with appropriate offenses. He won't get sentencing or even testify, I think.

"I just – I've been stressed and Luke is stressed and I've probably been trying to juggle too much and I haven't been telling you about it because I don't want you to stress, too. The whole thing's really… awful, and it's been on my mind a lot.

"So. I know it seems like I've been overprotective lately, but that's because I am. You'll have to cut me some slack on that, because I don't see it ending anytime soon, and I'm not even really going to try to stop. When I do things like refuse to leave for a weekend, it's not because I don't trust you or think you can't handle it. I can't handle it. That's all there is to it, and I'm sorry I didn't tell you before."

"Oh." Rory gripped her feet, interlacing fingers and toes. "Is… Luke all right?"

"He's coping," she said. "This has been kinda huge. The most change the guy's used to is buying a new set of flannel once every decade, so all this upheaval…." Lorelai trailed off, waving her hand in the air.

Rory dropped her gaze. "Is it why Jess quit the diner?" she asked after a long pause. "The break in?"

Lorelai sighed, mentally weighing the benefits of lying. It seemed strange to her that more people hadn't made that connection. "Yeah, partially," she hedged. "I haven't actually talked to Jess much, but this has been kind of a big thing for him, too."

"Oh," Rory said again, voice dropping low.

It would be pretty easy to smooth things over, help clear up whatever had happened between Jess and her daughter. It was an opportunity Lorelai wasn't going to take.

"Hey, Luke and Jess will be fine. Jess'll be fine." It was disconcerting how easy it was getting to say that to people, and Lorelai briefly considered that she was, technically, still lying to Rory. At least part of the truth was better than none of it, she supposed. She tapped Rory's knee. "And I think Jess is going to find a better-paying job in Hartford anyway."

Lorelai congratulated herself on that one, reminding herself to tell Luke about it. Easy way to excuse where Jess would be on Tuesday nights for the next couple of months, if people were willing to believe that he got a job in Hartford just to work one night a week for an hour or two.

Some of the concern cleared from Rory's features. "Oh, good for him," she said airily.

"So…" Rory's eyebrow twitched upward. "You're going to give testimony for a criminal trial?" She looked a little amused, a little impressed.

"Oh, mmhmm." Lorelai twirled a strand of hair casually. "I talked to the state's attorney and everything. He said I was the most important person in the trial." Actually, it was extremely unlikely, according to the man, that she would end up on the stand.

Rory widened her eyes in exaggerated wonder. "Wow. Well, give 'em hell."

Lorelai smiled, but it lacked conviction. "Yeah. So, everything's OK? You're fine if mommy's a little crazy?"

Rory bobbed her head, seeming to debate, a smile toying at the edges of her mouth. "You've always been some sort of crazy, so, yeah. I'm fine."

"Good."

"All right, well, I should get to bed," Rory said, gathering up her school supplies. "Night, Mom."

"Night, sweets."

Lorelai watched Rory until her bedroom door was closed and let her attention wander, eventually ending up on the television again. Her eyesight was bleary, and she couldn't tell if it was because she couldn't focus or because she was tired, but it didn't really matter. It was only PBS, after all.

She sighed and shifted against the cushions, unable to either find a position that was quite comfortable or gather the energy to get up to go to bed. She frowned and grabbed the remote, turning up the volume a little, but not enough to disturb Rory.

Lorelai settled back, figuring she might as well pretend to watch whatever program was on. She knew she wasn't going to be getting any sleep that night.

Luke insisted on driving Jess to his first therapy session, claiming that he wanted to see the place for himself. And, he admitted, he didn't fully believe Jess would go if Luke let him take the bus. Jess was annoyed, but he had to concede to some appreciation for Luke's honesty. The trick was going to be convincing him to let Jess handle it himself in the future. It was infuriating enough that Luke walked with Jess from the apartment to the diner every morning and then watched as Jess walked into the school – and even that much was a near thing. Luke declared, his jaw set stubbornly, that if he heard anything about Jess missing any of his classes from then on, he would walk Jess into the school until the end of the year.

They drove now in tense quiet, Luke commenting occasionally that the traffic wasn't as bad as he'd been expecting, and maybe commuting to Hartford once a week wouldn't be all that awful. Jess offered no replies, his focus fixed on a point just outside the windshield.

"So, ah," Luke mumbled as he exited off the highway, "have you opened those boxes your mom sent yet?"

Jess sighed. Luke saw inside Jess' room every day and knew that he hadn't. "Nope."

"They got here like a week and a half ago."

Jess swung a brief look at his uncle and then turned his head away again.

"You're not curious to know what's in them?""

"Not especially."

"There's just an awful lot of boxes. I was surprised."

There were a lot of boxes – too many, more than he had packed. Liz must have added some items. What, he couldn't guess, but it hardly mattered. Probably second hand knickknacky shit she bought last minute by way of apology for forgetting to mail his stuff for so long. Who knew what made her remember to mail it now. Jess frowned and looked down at his empty hands.

"That is all yours, right?" Luke pressed.

Jess glanced over. "I have to assume so."

"And you don't want to unpack any of that, settle in?"

"I've been doing just fine without it up until now."

"I think you should look in them."

"Jesus Christ, Luke. What is the deal with this? If you have a point, please get to it. It's not as though my disagreement is going to have a lot of weight in the matter, so, you know what, you have my permission to stop talking and do whatever it is you're planning on doing. I don't give a shit."

Luke was quiet, his grip on the steering wheel tightening and shifting. Jess leaned his head back, taking a deep breath through his nose.

"I wasn't planning on anything," Luke said, voice soft.

Jess said nothing, returning his attention to the window, watching as the streets got narrower and shadier, and wondered idly if Luke wasn't completely lost.

The address turned out to be a large old house, bearing only a sign on the porch railing to indicate that the building was a business rather than someone's home. It accounted for how residential the area was, and Jess wondered wearily if there was anywhere in the state of Connecticut that wasn't so gosh-darn homey. There wasn't a parking lot, just a long driveway lined with well-trimmed bushes. Luke pulled up to the curb and put the truck in park, leaning over into Jess' space a little to look through his window at it.

"That doesn't look really professional," he mused. "Are we sure that's the right address?"

That was quite an accusation coming from a man who lived in a town that didn't have a single office building. The thought made Jess briefly grateful that he wasn't getting therapy above a porcelain unicorn shop.

"Looks about as legitimate as a hardware store outfitted as a diner," Jess replied dully. Luke made a small affronted noise.

"Well, we're only twenty minutes early. I guess it's OK to wait inside that long." Luke shifted and Jess turned to see him unbuckling.

"You are not coming in with me."

Luke looked up at him, hands frozen on the latch of his seatbelt. He seemed to consider for a long moment, eventually relaxing back into his seat and drawing his hands into his lap with a deliberation that reminded Jess of a person trying not to startle an animal. Jess pressed his mouth shut in irritation.

"Jess," he started, and then trailed off. He rubbed his face with one hand, pulling at the skin under his eyes. "I'm trying."

"Trying to what? There's no requirement for you to come. Do you even want to go in?"

"No," Luke said quickly. "But I should meet your therapist, at least, and, you know…"

"I'll go inside, Luke. I'll sit in the fucking office and go to all the sessions. I don't want to spend any more time in court, either. And I'm not a child. This isn't my first day of school, and you're not gonna hold my hand." There was no heat in his argument. He didn't even really feel angry about it, and, if Luke pressed, Jess didn't think he'd keep fighting.

Luke watched him closely, his expression, for once, unreadable. "OK, Jess. Whatever you want."

Jess didn't even have the energy to laugh at that. He sighed and climbed out of the truck, and Luke called after him, "I'll just drive around the area for a while. I'll be back here at 6:00."

"Great," Jess said, waving over his shoulder.

He didn't look behind him as he walked to the building, but he could hear the soft rumble of the truck's idling engine. He could imagine Luke hunkering down in his seat - as though that made him less conspicuous - watching Jess until he went inside.

In spite of what he said, Jess did want to skip this session. He had no interest in therapy, in making up for the schoolwork he'd missed or finishing out his courses through summer school. He wanted to crawl out a back window and hop on the bus and get the fuck out of the state.

It was easy to imagine, standing there with his hand on the doorknob to this strange old house-cum-mental health ward and Stars Hollow miles behind him. His heart beat hard as he pulled the door open, picturing it, picturing himself with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, sitting on a bus full of strangers, taking him anywhere. He had no money, but what did that matter? He had enough for a ticket, and then he could do it, he could be gone to places where no one knew him.

As he stepped inside, he envisioned his hand on a railing, pulling himself up bus stairs, breathing in lungfuls of recycled air. The mental picture dissipated as wood creaked under his feet. He blinked and he was back to himself, in an old house.

It was decently well maintained – the floors were dark and lusterless and there were fine cracks in the walls near the ceiling, but there were no discolorations or holes or saggy ceilings. There was a staircase directly in front of him – to his right, a wall with arched doorways, leading to rooms he couldn't quite see – to his left, an open office that looked largely administrative in nature. A wan middle-aged man with fine blond hair stood by the desk, a stack of papers in his hand. He smiled.

"Can I direct you somewhere?"

Jess had pushed the door shut behind him, but his hand was still on the knob. His fingers tightened around it reflexively. "I have a five o'clock with Dr. Bhatt."

"Great," he said, with what seemed like genuine enthusiasm. Good god. "She's upstairs and to the right. Her door's marked. It's probably also shut at the moment, but if not, go right on in. Otherwise, you can wait in one of the chairs in the hall."

Jess nodded, letting go of the doorknob with some effort.

The stairs curved and emptied into a small, open landing area, lit by a multi-story window at Jess' back. Another staircase led to a third floor, and in the immediate area were four doors, each marked with a name plate, and a narrow hallway off to the left. One door was open, and what he could see of the office was unoccupied. He could hear low voices behind a closed door beside him and he took an unconscious step away.

He read "Dr. A. Bhatt" on a closed door diagonal from him and shifted his weight restlessly. He didn't want to knock – he had, at the least, fifteen minutes to wait until the appointment was scheduled to begin. There was one chair flush against the wall between two doors, neither of which belonged to his therapist.

Jess sat, chewing on his lip and clasping his hands loosely between his knees. The murmurs coming from the office behind his shoulder were louder, but still indistinct. Fairly easy to ignore.

He let his head hang to look at his fingers, at the sleeves that fell past his wrists. Slowly, he pushed the edge of a sleeve back a little with a thumb. The skin seemed normal unless you were looking closely. The places that had been cut more deeply were still marked with dark, thin stripes, hypersensitive to his own hesitant touch. He was sure it was phantom sensation – there was no reason for his wrists to hurt anymore, but sometimes they pulsed with pain.

He raised his eyes, leaving his neck bent, looking through his bangs. He tried to clear his vision with a small shake of his head, but his hair was so long now that it hung in his eyes all the time. He flicked his attention back down to his hands.

Jess startled when a door opened and a short, straight-spined woman, looking to be somewhere in her forties, emerged. Her hair and her eyes were dark, her cheekbones broad, face plain.

"You're Jess Mariano," she said, not really a question, and he nodded. "Right this way, please."

Her office was small and simple. There was a desk tucked in the corner – tidy and decorated only one picture frame, facing away from Jess – two large chairs toward the center of the room, facing each other, and a couch pushed against the wall, under the window. There was a mini-fridge by the desk and a small coffee maker perched on top of it. Behind the desk were floor-to-ceiling inlaid bookshelves full of textbooks. Scanning the titles, Jess caught sight of The Family: Roles, Responsibilities and Rights, Generational Transmission of Violence in Child Abuse, and the DSM-IV-TR.

"I'm Dr. Asha Bhatt," she said, closing the door behind her. She indicated that Jess should take a seat in one of the chairs in the middle of the room as she walked briskly by him to her desk, where she grabbed a notepad and a file. He noticed that her hands were thin and worn in a way that made him wonder if she wasn't older than he had initially guessed. "You can call me whatever you like."

Jess shifted awkwardly for a moment before taking his seat.

She sat across from him, folding her hands over the paper in her lap. "Is there a particular way you'd like to be addressed?"

Jess shook his head.

"So Jess is fine?"

He nodded, curling his fingers around the edges of his shirtsleeves.

"Great. Well, Jess, just to get formalities out of the way, everything you say to me is confidential. It doesn't matter that you're a minor or here under court order. Nothing you tell me will leave this office. The only exception to that is if you tell me you plan to hurt yourself or another person. That, I have to report to the proper authorities. Do you have any questions?" He gave the barest shake of his head.

"Your records here say that you've been mandated to attend therapy once a week for 60-minute sessions for a total of 12 sessions or until you turn 18, whichever comes first. Since your birthday is in August, you get the benefit of all 12 sessions."

She paused, and Jess assumed she was expecting some kind of reply, but he kept his focus on the floor.

"That's not a lot of time. Have you considered pursuing therapy after the mandate expires?"

Jess sighed, rubbing his chin, where there was a thin layer of patchy stubble. "I can't say it's crossed my mind."

"There are a lot of options if you want them. Some free, some at a reduced price. We make it a point at this office to ensure that anyone who wants therapy can get it. If you're interested, you could start attending one of the men's groups. And you could do that any time. They're free."

He looked up then, confused. "Men's groups?"

"Male survivors of assault," she explained easily.

He had no immediate reply to that. For a moment, surprise flattened his emotions, blanked out his thoughts.

"Naturally we wouldn't mix them with the women's groups," she continued, bringing Jess partially back to the conversation. "There are three in total that meet at various times during the week. One on Thursday evening, one on Tuesday evening, and one on Saturday morning. You could go to any one or multiple sessions if you're interested. I lead the Thursday session – they all meet downstairs."

Jess blinked stupidly for a moment. He couldn't imagine how awful a group therapy session would be. He couldn't even picture what the people in attendance would be like. He had no frame of reference for other "male survivors of assault." The thought made him uneasy.

"No," he said, a blanket refusal of all offers.

"All right," she said, unaffected. "Let me know if you change your mind."

"You bet," he replied, dry-throated and snide.

"The court has laid out some guidelines – measurable success. They want you to stay in school and pass your junior year, and to attend summer school if that's necessary. No more altercations with other students. I'd say that's all easily attainable, wouldn't you?"

Jess sighed, sinking into his chair.

"These are fine, but I think shouldn't be the focus of our sessions. What I'm more interested in is what your personal goals are."

He watched her, disbelieving. "Personal goals?"

"Yes. What would you like to get out of this? It could be as simple or as ambitious as you like, but something you think you can attain. We can discuss it more now or you can think about it for a week, but it should be something meaningful to you, and something you decide."

He couldn't think of anything to say to that. He held up an empty hand, shrugging. "I'd like to not ever have to talk to a therapist again."

She hardly missed a beat in her reply. "This is a lot more difficult because you didn't choose to be here. I understand that, Jess, and I'm sorry that these are the circumstances under which we have to have sessions. I would really like you to try to take advantage of the situation. A lot of good can come from this."

Jess' skin prickled. "You think I need to be here," he said, sounding much more defensive than he meant to.

"You don't think there's any benefit you can gain from therapy?"

If she was going to answer his questions with questions as a regular thing, Jess really was going to climb out a window.

"No, I don't."

He was preparing to answer the question he expected – "why?" – when she asked, "How are you sleeping?"

He paused with his jaw half-open, retort caught in his throat. His eyebrows pulled together. "Fine."

She didn't react as far as he could tell, holding his gaze impassively. "Any changes in your eating habits?"

"No."

"How about your friends?"

"What about them?" A familiar, burning anger he hadn't felt for weeks started to rise in his chest.

"How are your relationships with them? Have there been any significant changes?"

I don't have any friends wasn't exactly the stinging reply Jess was hoping to lob at her. He thought, briefly, of Rory, her hair streaming out behind her as she walked away from him.

"Nothing significant."

"And your family – you live with your uncle, is that correct?" Jess nodded. "How's your relationship with him?"

"Better than ever," Jess said, but he was running out of steam. His head hurt.

"All right," she said. "Why haven't you been attending classes?"

"I wasn't going before, either. This isn't new."

Dr. Bhatt ran her fingers over the edge of her notepad, tapping it gently. "Your principal and teachers claim a dramatic increase in your truancy since the attack. How many full days of school did you attend between returning and the fight with Gabriel?"

Jess bit the inside of his cheek. He could see the file that doubtless bore his name sticking out from under her notepad. It looked thin and he couldn't tell what kind of documents were in it, but she had read them and was asking him shit she already knew.

She was watching him patiently, waiting for an answer. He had no idea how much school he'd gone to, but he had the feeling that saying he'd fully attended any of his classes might be a stretch. He simply hadn't made it to the entrance most of the time.

"I don't know," he replied with a sarcastic twist of his mouth. "All of them?"

She made no reply, holding Jess' gaze for a moment before looking back down at her papers. "What were you doing instead of going to school?"

"Hooking, mostly."

Her eyes came up to meet his with a cool, unamused expression. Yeah, Luke hadn't thought that was funny, either.

"Jess," she started, but he spoke over her.

"What does the file say?" he snapped.

She lifted her eyebrows a little and pulled out the folder from under her notepad. She held it out to him. "Do you want to read it?"

Jess' heart gave a small lurch. Was everything in that file? School transcripts, police report, medical information, hospital records? When he blinked it was a flash of light, and behind his eyelids was a nurse gently rotating his arm to take pictures of his lacerated wrists. A cramp rippled through his stomach and he sucked in air between his teeth.

"No," he said, hardly more than breathing. He pressed his lips together against the panicky swell of emotion in his throat.

When he lifted his eyes to meet hers, she was watching him with a focus that unsettled him. Her expression wasn't pitying or judgmental or anything else he was used to seeing from the people in town, but her attention was fixed on him in a way he was completely unused to. He felt suddenly exposed, and angry with her for no reason he could voice.

She tucked the file beneath her notepad again and rotated her pen a full circle between two thin fingers. "You can always see that if you want to, Jess. My notes as well. I don't wish to keep anything from you."

He breathed in deeply, trying to come up with a reply that would make her stop talking, but his throat felt weak and he didn't trust himself to speak without his sentences breaking.

"I aim to be completely honest with you, Jess," she continued. "So I will warn you that some of the things I write and say won't be what you want to hear. Of course, I get the impression that you aren't interested in anything I have to say, honest or otherwise." Her eyebrows rose minutely, but she didn't seem perturbed by his attitude.

"I'm not going to say or do anything just to provoke reactions from you, and I'm not going to talk just for the sake of being honest. That doesn't mean that I consider myself an authority on your situation, and the more I know about you the more I can help you. I need you to be honest with me in return. Tell me if you think I'm wrong, or if you think what I'm saying is bullshit, or if I'm upsetting you."

She shifted her shoulders back and let out a small sigh, expression hovering close to wryness. "Until you feel comfortable with that, I'll settle for you not being deliberately evasive. That doesn't help either one of us."

Jess couldn't think of any response.

"All right," she said, as blithely as if he had agreed with her. "Let's start with something simple – part of what brought you here. What started the fight?"

His jaw clenched, the skin on his arms and shoulders prickling.

"Were fights a problem before?"

His body went cold. "Before what?" he snapped.

There was one moment of quiet before Dr. Bhatt responded, "Before moving to Stars Hollow."

His lip curled. "At which school?"

Her eyebrows twitched up. "How many were there?"

"Come on, that has to be in the file."

"I'd like you to tell me, Jess."

He sighed, casting his mind back. "For high school… three."

"Between your freshman and sophomore years?" He didn't say anything. She knew the answer. "That's a lot. And that makes Stars Hollow your fourth school in the last three years."

"Yep."

"Were physical altercations common occurrences at your other schools?"

"Common enough."

"Can you tell me –"

He had no idea what she was going to ask, but he cut her off before she could finish. "I hit a girl. That was what started the fight."

Dr. Bhatt paused, fixing her dark eyes on his. She flattened her fingers against her notepad but said nothing. Good. He'd meant for that to shut her up.

Neither of them spoke for a long moment, and Jess wished she'd show any fucking sort of discernible reaction.

"What provoked it?" Dr. Bhatt asked, her tone infuriatingly neutral. He sighed. "Were you arguing?"

"No. I don't even know her."

Her brow furrowed minutely and she propped her elbow on the arm of her chair, resting her jaw in her open palm. "What happened?"

"I was out behind the school smoking. She grabbed my arm and I pushed her. Her boyfriend took exception."

"She just grabbed your arm?"

He could almost feel it again, the soft tickling sensation of fingers on his bicep.

"Yeah, to get my attention or something," he said after a long pause, his voice raw.

He remembered the girl's expression clearly, her eyes enormous, hands raised defensively. Jess had been about as surprised as she had at his reaction – a sharp, split-second movement of his forearm against her collarbone, shoving her backwards.

There had been only one more second where they'd held each other's gaze, Jess shocked, his heart pulsing a rapid staccato beat that he could feel in his jaw, in his feet. And then a hand was on his shoulder, pushing him into the wall, the kid's other hand making clumsy but solid impact with Jess' cheek.

"You weren't expecting the touch," Dr. Bhatt said, drawing Jess back to the conversation.

He held her calm gaze briefly before the swelling anger that had been pushing at his ribs finally snapped free.

"It doesn't mean a fucking thing, all right?" he bit out. Dr. Bhatt sat up straight in her chair again, watching him closely.

"This shit's always been on my record. This is exactly what every person who's ever met me would tell you I'm like. This is what I'm like. It's not the fucking school I go to or surviving an assault," he said, lacing the words with as much disdain as he could muster. "All right?"

"All right, Jess," she said.

After that, Dr. Bhatt told him she'd let him decide what topic he was comfortable discussing, and so the rest of the session dragged out mostly in silence. She still didn't seem bothered, and reminded him again before he left that she wanted him to have ideas for personal goals for next Tuesday. He grunted out an indiscernible reply and left as quickly as he could without seeming too anxious.

By the time he reached the front door and blew past the same vacantly pleasant man at reception without acknowledgment, the tension was draining out of him again, leaving exhaustion in its wake. The only thing he felt when he saw Luke's truck in what may have been the same spot, still idling, was muted relief.

He climbed in with the barest acknowledgement for his uncle, and he ignored the close way Luke was watching his face. There was an expectant quiet while Luke put the truck in gear, and Jess propped his head in his palm, elbow against the window. He closed his eyes, hoping Luke would go with his better judgment and not ask about it.

"So," Luke said as he pulled away from the curb. "How did that go?"

Jess cracked one eye open to watch the trees speed by. "Great," he said dully. "I'm all better."

to be continued