Stepford Friends

Chapter 1 - Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

To my lovely Beta, Jewels: Thank you so much for all the hard work and talent you put into this story. You really make my day with your wit and charm. It's so much fun working with you. Thank you.

~*~*~

This takes place in Season Four, early in the "Luke Can See Her Face" episode. In the last hectic weeks of the Dragonfly Inn's Grand Opening, the staff are scrambling to complete all the details to make the business a success.

Lorelai had been whirring around the inn, making decisions and checking final details. She was in an especially jovial mood today. Luke was coming by to see the progression of the inn that he invested in. She had to admit it was really the inn that he had saved. He had been unwavering in his support and she was excited for him to see all of her hopes and dreams of owning an inn finally reaching fruition. They had been growing closer these past few months. Their glances became more frequent and lasted just a heartbeat longer than necessary. They had been finding reasons to touch each other. Small reasons, like removing a stray eyelash from her cheek, or fixing his collar when it wasn't lying straight. She was becoming more aware of their relationship, allowing herself to begin thinking of Luke as not just her friend, the diner owner, but of Luke as a man, and potential suitor.

While she was deciding on the placement of some office equipment, she heard him call a familiar greeting to some of the workers in the entry hall. The timber of his voice echoed off the still bare walls of the inn causing her heart to vault as she turned to smile at the town's alpha male.

"Hey."

"Hey," he echoed. Their eyes locked, sending a spark of energy between them as they paused in greeting.

"So, you ready for the tour?"

"You don't have to give me the whole tour."

"Oh, you're getting the tour. You, my friend, are getting the whole shebang! We'll start right here. Notice the high ceilings and low floors." She gestured.

"Uh, yep, the floors are certainly low."

"Wait 'til you feel the water, it's really wet," she teased.

"I can only imagine," he deadpanned.

They toured the downstairs area, talking about the architecture and the finishing touches yet to be added. Lorelai checked things off on her clipboard and Luke inspected the handiwork of the contractors. Entering the kitchen, Luke continued to the sink area to check out the tiles.

As soon as they entered the kitchen Lorelai was ambushed by Sookie and an anxious looking man who was holding a catalog. "Lorelai, I would like to introduce you to Shel Sausman. Shel, this is Lorelai Gilmore," Sookie said, smiling. She was so pleased with herself that she was bouncing on the balls of her feet.

"It is really nice to meet you," Shel said, stifling a nervous giggle.

"Well, it's nice to meet you, too." Lorelai panned the room, looking for an escape. Not seeing one, she remained politely in place.

"Shel is going to be our poultry supplier," Sookie announced with so much enthusiasm, that even Shel was slightly embarrassed.

"Oh, that's great," Lorelai replied through a distracted smile.

"He sells only free-range, hormone-free, and he's recently divorced," Sookie added.

"Oh, well, I assume that one doesn't have anything to do with the other." Lorelai tried to make light of the non-sequetur.

"You're funny," Shel chuckled. "She's funny," he repeated, this time to Sookie. "You know, they say pretty women usually aren't funny because they never had to be. Were you a fat child?"

"Um...I'm gonna go out and check with Michel on something, and you guys just talk 'til I get back." Sookie stepped away conspicuously.

Shel took advantage of his opening, "Listen, Lorelaiā€¦"

"Shel, have you met Luke?" Lorelai said, cutting him off. "Hey, Luke...Get up!" she whispered urgently as she pulled him up from under the sink by the elbow. She wriggled in front of him and cradled into the crook of his arm. "Uh, Shel, this is Luke." Lorelai gazed up over her shoulder into Luke's eyes, and flashed him a dynamic smile.

Shel blinked twice and said, "Nice to meet you."

"Yeah, you too." Luke responded, furrowing his brow, looking first at Shel, then at Lorelai, then at Shel again.

"Luke is my...special friend." She began caressing his arm. She rested her cheek against his biceps now, holding his hand in front of her as well. Luke tried to step away, but she held on steadily.

"Oh?" Shel seemed slightly taken aback.

"I have to tell you, renovating this place has been a real nightmare." She cooed sweetly at Luke. "I just don't know how I would have gotten through it without him. Lorelai leaned back against Luke, pressing him into the sink, and pulling his arm around her waist. She turned her head and looked into his eyes longingly, saying, "Have I said thank you to you recently?"

"Uh...no," he said, standing behind her, too aware of the smell of her hair, only inches from his face.

"Oh. Well, thank you," she said, stroking the side of his rough, whiskery face.

"You're welcome," was all he was able to croak out.

An uncomfortable Shel retreated while saying, "Well, it was nice meeting you both. I'm just gonna go say goodbye to Sookie."

"Oh. Bye, Shel." Lorelai's voice, dripping with honey, followed him out the door.

"Bye, Shel," Luke echoed, barely above a whisper. He was still holding her in his arms, his hand splayed across her flat stomach. He inhaled deeply while being drawn in by an invisible force. His body responded instinctively to her feminine curves. They molded into each other, warming on contact. The heat from her was burning right through the palm that he had resting on her abdomen. The mystery of what holding her felt like was solved for him as he reveled in the spell of Lorelai Gilmore.

Lorelai, oblivious to Luke's reaction, felt relieved that she had escaped having to turn down yet another unwanted invitation. She had way too many things to worry about without adding a poorly matched man to her schedule. Noticing Luke's hand on her belly, impeding her from moving on to another urgent task, she shoved his arm away roughly. "Don't touch my stomach!" Her irritated words snapped at him as she stepped away and immediately focused her attention on a new matter to be attended to on the other side of the kitchen.

Luke stood dazed, suddenly feeling cold and bare where she had been pressed against him only moments ago. In a confused protest, he followed her and said, "You put my hand there."

He felt like a fool. She lured him into her little game, and he fell or it.

Ignoring his hurt reaction, she complained, "She's trying to set me up with Shel, the poultry guy? Why would she do that? I just broke up with someone."

"Yeah, of course you did," he said, scarcely able to control his ire.

"That was close though, huh?" Lorelai laughed, touching his arm playfully.

He recoiled from her touch, and shrugged her away, as if her hand were a glowing branding iron. "Stop it Lorelai," he said sternly, holding her gaze.

"Luke, I was just playing around," she said, surprised by his reaction.

"I've had enough playing around. I'm done here," he said, then turned and walked out the back exit. Humiliated and hurt, he allowed the door to slam behind him firmly.

Sookie appeared next to Lorelai and said, "That was pretty harsh."

"I know. Who peed in his Cheerios?"

"I didn't say he was harsh."

"What? You mean me?" Lorelai questioned.

"Ding, ding, ding! Give the lady a prize!"

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that you know he's got it bad for you, yet you keep toying with him."

"But, he's Luke. I have to toy with him. That's our thing."

"Well, maybe it was your thing, but now it's just mean. You lead him on, you reel him in, and you let him go, over and over again. Poor guy is confused. No wonder he's so darn grouchy all the time."

Lorelai pondered Sookie's words for a moment. "You really think I'm mean?"

"Oh, Hon, I don't think you mean to be mean. You know what I mean?" She tried to lighten the mood. "You just can't help it. Like so many other men, he's fallen under the Lorelai Gilmore spell."

~*~*~

For the rest of the afternoon, Lorelai's thoughts kept flashing back to Sookie's words. She decided that the only way to make it right again between Luke and her was to face him head on. She would go to the diner tonight and they would smooth things over, just like they always did. She'd drink an ungodly amount of coffee; he'd tell her that caffeine was going to ruin her metabolism. She'd eat an enormous amount of food; he'd tell her that she was going to need angioplasty before she was fifty. She'd follow it by eating two desserts; he'd tell her that she was going to lapse into a diabetic coma. She'd giggle and flirt; he'd argue and scoff. Before the meal was over, they'd strike the balance that had worked for them for so many years, and all would be right in their world.

Having made the decision to go see him, she felt relieved and was able to lumber through her day until well past dinnertime.

When she finally left the inn and climbed into her jeep, his voice crept back into her head. I've had enough playing around. Just stop it Lorelai. I'm done here. Rehashing the scene in her mind, seeing the anger and hurt in his eyes, and the certainty in his voice, she started feeling less secure about her decision to visit him.

He can't really be that mad. Can he? she thought. An involuntary shudder ran through her. She steered her jeep toward the near empty diner, determined to make things right.

Luke perfunctorily performed his duties all day, serving customers and ringing up checks. But his mind kept slithering back to Lorelai. Just the thought of her touch on his cheek sent a shiver down his spine. The lingering caress of her hand on his forearm, twirling and pulling his arm hair absentmindedly, made his heart jump. He remembered her sweet whispers of, 'thank you,' as she smiled lovingly up at him. They held hands, and her hands were so delicate, and soft. He could still smell her floral perfume, and feel her hair tickling his nose. Just the memory of the warmth of her body, pressed against his, made his body respond in a completely inappropriate way for the diner. He reveled in these thoughts all day, but invariably they'd be interrupted by the same gesture of rejection or by words that echoed harshly in his mind. Don't touch my stomach!

He was taking out his frustrations on every tabletop in the diner, buffing and polishing each, wearing out his towel. Even before he heard the bells, the hairs on the back of his neck were already letting him know that she was in the vicinity. Every time she entered his place, the atmosphere changed. The energy that she added was tangible. Damn her, he thought. She thinks she can just come in here and I'm going to get all tingly? Well, not any more. He continued to scrub the tabletop several seconds longer than was necessary.

She waited by "her" stool as patiently as a Gilmore could. Noticing that he wasn't acknowledging her caused the butterflies in her stomach to take flight. She took a deep breath, and bellowed with all the cheer she could muster, "Hello, Luke!"

"Be right there," he said, wiping the table a few more times before finally standing upright.

"How's the coffee tonight?"

"Fine," he said as he walked behind counter, pulled a mug from below and filled it. "What else can I get you?"

"What's good?" she cooed, using the toothiest grin in her arsenal.

"Please, just order. I don't have time for this," he sighed, looking right past her to the window over her shoulder.

"Luke, come on, I was just kidding around," she said, laying her hand on his. He jerked his arm away involuntarily as she touched it.

"I know, Lorelai. Everything is a joke with you."

"Whoa, when did you suddenly become my mother?" she asked sarcastically.

"Maybe your mother has a point."

"What's going on? Why are you so angry?" she asked. "This is us; this is what we do."

"Not any more we don't," he said.

"What?" She wasn't sure how to proceed. Flashbacks of the last time he was angry with her shot through her mind. She was miserable; he froze her out and wouldn't talk to her for weeks. That was her fault; she could see that in hindsight. She truly regretted that she blamed him for Rory and Jess's accident. But this time, she wasn't really sure what she did that was so wrong. "At least tell me why you're so mad at me."

"I'm not mad," he said as he slid the coffeepot roughly onto the burner, causing coffee to splash onto the machine.

"I bet Mr. Coffee over there begs to differ."

"Lorelai, I need to say something. Please don't interrupt me, and please let me finish." He finally looked her in the eye, causing an electric current to shoot up her spine.

"I'm all yours," she said, elbows on the counter with her chin propped up on her interlocked fingers, her eyes batting at him flirtatiously.

"See, that's exactly what I mean. We can't keep doing this shtick."

"What shtick?"

"You come in here and flirt, and giggle. You can't do that." He started speaking calmly, then his voice picked up steam. "You can't tease me. I don't want you flipping your hair at me, batting your eyes at me, or making pouty lips at me. And you can't touch me."

Lorelai watched him rant as he continued to list all of the things that were no longer acceptable for her to do.

"You can't call me in the middle of the night to find your lost baby chick. I don't want you crying to me when someone else breaks your heart."

She was dumbfounded. He was on a roll. "And, I don't want you using me as a pretend lover just so you can let some stranger down easily."

"Are you kidding me?"

"Do I look like I'm kidding?"

He didn't. Fear of losing him as a friend gave way to anger. She couldn't keep it from rising in her voice. "So, I'm supposed to just check my entire personality at the door when I come here? I can't be your Stepford friend."

"That's not what I'm saying."

"Then please, clarify, because that's what I'm hearing."

"I'm saying that I don't want to do this any more." He moved his hands back and forth between them. "I'm always one step behind you. You're dragging me around by a ring in my nose. And I can't keep up any more. I end up feeling stupid and used."

"When did I ever make you feel stupid? Or used?" she asked.

"Today, Lorelai. Today."

"You mean with Sookie's chicken boy? You can't be jealous of him."

"It has nothing to do with him. It's just, why would she try to set you up? You said yourself you just broke up with someone five minutes ago. Why can't you just be single, even for a little while? Why can't you just act like a normal person, instead of making up some crazy scene? If he wanted to take you out, and you didn't want to go, why didn't you just say no? Why did you have to drag me into it?"

Lorelai sat, staring at Luke. She wasn't sure what she was allowed to say or do anymore.

"And in your twisted little charade, you didn't even give me the consideration of being your boyfriend. I was your, how did you put it, special friend. What the hell was that all about anyway?" He finally stopped, and looked her dead in the eye, waiting for a reply.

"I don't know, Luke. I'm sorry. I was just playing around."

"Lorelai, I don't want to play any more. I deserve better than this."

"So, you don't want to be friends with me?" she asked, fear and hurt causing her voice to become small and weak.

"We don't even fall into the 'friends' category any more. We're so beyond that."

Her breath caught in her throat in response to his harsh words. She stared at him incredulously. He uttered words so hurtful that her heart pounded furiously in an attempt to block out the sound.

He shook his head. "You don't yank friends around, playing with their feelings."

"What feelings?" she asked pleading for an explanation.

"See, you don't even have a clue as to what's going on outside of your little Lorelai world. Take a peek out here for a minute. You might see that other people actually care about you. Other people worry about you. They think about you, all the time. And they just want to be with you, next to you, not running after you, hoping to keep up, maybe get invited along for the ride."

He stopped talking, and they both sat in silence for several seconds.

Lorelai tried to process his rant. She was confused and hurt. All this time they had been friends, she grew to depend on him in so many ways. He was her rock, the one stable person in her life that she could always rely on to have faith in her. Now he was lost to her. He didn't want her around. It was almost too much to comprehend. She could see that she wasn't wanted here. Her only option, much as she hated to go like this, was to retreat.

"So, is that how it is then?" she asked.

"Yeah, that's how it is."

She lowered her face so he wouldn't see her blinking away the tears. "I, um, I guess I'll leave you alone." She got up, and collected her purse. "And Luke, for what it's worth, I'm sorry."

"Yeah, Lorelai, I'm sorry, too." He wanted so much to stop her and tell her that he needed her, and wanted her in his life. But he didn't move. Like so many times in the past eight years, when he should have acted, he remained immobile. He ached for her as she walked out of his door, out of his life.

She hurried to her jeep, trying to get there before the tears arrived. But, by the time she unlocked the door and climbed in, they were streaming down her face. She pulled on her seatbelt and drove away mechanically, with no recollection of the trip.

When she arrived in her driveway, she remained seated for a while. With her head resting on her arms, slumped over the steering wheel, she allowed the tension to flow away with her tears as she thought about what the hell just happened.

~*~*~

To be continued...