A/N: Get comfortable, it's a long one. It's also the last one. The point of this story was to show them trying to navigate through uncharted territory. I have wrestled with it, because I have a tendency to want to wrap everything up with a nice, neat bow. I have not done that here, but I think we have gotten them all to a point where they can find their way on their own.

My thanks to IKilledKenny, for purchasing this story in the April Support Stacie auction. I know that it may not have turned out to be what you had in mind, but I hope that you enjoyed it anyway. Special thanks to all of you who read and reviewed. I appreciate your support and encouragement more than you will ever know.

Into the Brave New World

There's a moment when everything is still. There's a moment when the air around you feels so calm, so peaceful, and so serene, that you almost feel safe. What you don't realize is that the minute you give into it, the moment you wrap yourself in that false sense of security, the second you let yourself believe that the cease-fire is for real; that's when you're most vulnerable.

**

You step out into the open, hopeful that you can reclaim what was once yours. You leave your back exposed, a textbook tactical error, but how would you know any better? This is the place where you have always felt safe. These are the people who have always backed you up. In every childhood game you were coerced into playing, 'home base' was the place that you most wanted to get to. You screwed up. You screwed up big. And then you screwed up again. You ran for home, but forgot to look both ways. You forgot to check behind the trees. You stepped out into the open and ran for home, but you forgot to look over your shoulder. You didn't even see it coming until it all caught up to you.

**

You've made a terrible mistake. Know your enemy. It's the most basic of concepts. You thought you knew. You thought you had it all figured out. You thought that it was a simple matter of reassurance. You thought that a strong offense would beat down her defenses. You were absolutely positive that if you could simply make her listen, if you put it simply and concisely, she would have to understand that there's never been anyone else for you. There will never be anyone else but her. But out of the blue, without any warning, she let you have it between the eyes. You thought that she thought that you didn't want her. You never dreamed that she wouldn't want you.

**

You look around and find that the walls you have built up around you all have tumbled to the ground. You stand up straight, pulling your shoulders back and breathing in deeply as you take a quick inventory. Everything seems to be intact. She was home. You have him. At last, all of the pieces are falling into place. After all these years, it looks like you're finally going to get everything that you secretly dreamed of as you sat hunkered down in your bunker, fighting your way toward something that you would never, ever admit to needing. At least, not out loud. But now, it's right there.

Now, you step over the rubble that was once your fortress, and smile as you tip your face up to the sunshine, confident that it's all within reach, never suspecting that you could be brought down by friendly fire. Friendly fire. Suddenly, you hear Carol Burnett's voice in your head, but she not doing the Tarzan call. This is not a TV movie, this is not the least bit mockable. You hear your inner voice trembling, just like Carol's did when she said those two words, and you learn that sometimes the enemy isn't out there; sometimes the attack comes from your own quarters. You look around, and realize you're standing there, all alone, out in the open, without a wall to duck behind.

**

You don't care if it's smart. You don't care if she stomps all over your heart. It doesn't matter anymore, it's out there. You said it, she said it, and now they know. Okay, she didn't really say it. At least, not the words, but you tell yourself that it's all right, you got the gist of it, loud and clear. Words couldn't always be trusted anyway. Words can indeed become weapons, but not in this case, you've already handed your arsenal over to her. You didn't anticipate needing anything else. You thought that what you had given her and what she had implied could make you both impenetrable. But then, you realize that you could have been terribly wrong.

You stand by helplessly, defenseless and unarmed as other words riddle her body like a hail of bullets. And you realize that your words can do nothing to shield her. You watch her reel and jerk, twisting away from the impact; and that's when you know that the words, those words you had guarded so jealously for so long, were absolutely powerless. You force your feet to move. Mindless of the bullets whizzing past your ears, you sprint into the open; desperate to get to her, even though you know that it may be too late. You throw your body over hers, hoping that you aren't too late, praying that she heard you, really heard you when you said those words, and worrying that even if she did, they may not be enough to save her.

**

Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Joseph Goebbels, and Richard Gilmore. Masters of psychological warfare. You tell yourself that that as long as you are aware of what he is doing, you can withstand the assault. You tell yourself that you're stronger than whatever mind game he thinks he is playing; and that you are right, and with right comes might. You stay on your guard, falling back to safer territory, and gather your wits about you. You know that it can be a potent weapon, one still employed in modern day warfare, with perhaps, a touch more subtlety. And subtlety is your strong suit. You decide that two can play this game. You envision pamphlets floating down onto the desert of your marriage, as you plot your campaign. You know that no matter how badly you may want to believe his words, you can't allow yourself to buy into the propaganda.

********************************************************************************************

No one knows better than Emily Gilmore that the best thing to do for a sleepless night is to engage in a little retail retaliation. She wasn't exactly sure what kind of mind game Richard was trying to play with her, but he had chosen the wrong opponent. She put his words from her mind, knowing that he had thousands at his disposal if he chose to employ them to get what he wants. What he didn't know was that she had no patience for the hollow tipped words of a man who refused to acknowledge his own culpability.

Carefully, she pulled a tissue wrapped bundle from its snug box. Deftly she peeled back the tissue to reveal a sparking crystal bowl, similar, but much smaller than the one that sat on the sideboard. She didn't spare the original bowl a glance as she unwrapped two more bowls, exact duplicates of the first, and placed the three of them side by side on the dining room table.

She moved purposefully to the sideboard and opened a cabinet. There, she retrieved a small wooden crate, and carried it back to the table. She reached into the crate and pulled out a small tightly wrapped object. Gingerly, she began to unwrap it, marveling as each millimeter of shining red perfection was unveiled. She held the apple in the palm of her hand, lifting it to the light as she smiled her pleasure. She placed the apple in one of the small bowls, and then reached for the next. With each successive piece of delicate, priceless fruit she unwrapped, her smile changed from simple pleasure to one of grim determination.

Emily stepped back from the table, surveying the three bowls, each holding three precious, hand-blown crimson apples. Without allowing herself to think too hard about whether these gorgeous works of art should be seen as a hint or a taunt, she picked up one of the bowls, cradling it in both hands as she walked toward the stairs. Moments later, she placed the bowl with the gleaming red apples on the nightstand on Richard's side of their bed. Her smile warmed with satisfaction as she gave a slight nod, and then turned to leave the room.

Another bowl was placed on the low coffee table in the living room, displacing a shining silver bowl filled with flawless sterling roses. Without sparing the silvery-lavender blooms a second glance, she moved them to a side table, and then hurried back to the dining room.

She paused just inside the door, her attention caught by the tall vase at the center of the sideboard which held striking cymbidium and phalaenopsis orchids. Her brow wrinkled as she tried to place where she had seen a similar arrangement, and then wondered how she could not have noticed them before. She reached out, tracing the edge of one of the delicate blooms with the pad of her finger, and then shook her head to dismiss them as she turned back to the table.

Emily picked up the bowl holding the last three of Georgio Baldi's stunning Venetian glass apples and marched straight to Richard's study. There, she placed it on his desk between his telephone and his date book. That should give him a little food for thought for the next time he and Pennilyn Lott scheduled a little rendezvous, she thought with a satisfied smirk. Emily turned to leave, but out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Victor Hugo's humidor on the credenza. She craned her neck to peer at the corner of his desk, and saw the humidor that she had given him for his sixtieth birthday.

With an indelicate sniff, Emily turned away from the desk and hurried from the room, pulling the door closed behind her with a tad too much force. She hurried to the foyer and gathered her purse and keys just as Robert appeared in the doorway.

"Is everything all right, madam?" he asked solicitously.

"Everything is fine," Emily answered brusquely. "I'm going out again. The agency will be sending over the new maid I requested. Please show her around and for god's sake, tell her I want a decent meal on the table no earlier and no later than seven o'clock."

"Yes, madam," Robert replied with a nod.

Emily glanced into the dining room as she passed, and spotted the discarded tissue and the packing crate that the remainder of her stunning Venetian glass apples had arrived in. "And clean up that mess," she snapped as she lifted her chin and walked quickly toward the door.

She reached for the door handle, her steps only faltering for a moment when she noticed the stunning array of red, gold and orange blazing away on the hall table, their vibrant colors reflected in the same mirror that showed the stunned recognition on her face.

****

Lorelai set her coffee cup aside and dug her cell phone from her pocket. "Hello?"

"Hey," Luke answered gruffly.

"Well, hello." Lorelai ducked into the pantry to be heard over the hustle and bustle of the Dragonfly's kitchen.

"Hey. You free tonight?" he asked abruptly.

Lorelai smiled. "Aw, did you miss me?" When she heard only his sigh, her smile widened. "Poor widdle Wuke, were you wonely without your cuddly-wuddly Worelai last night?" she teased.

"Stop that. And, yes."

An almost giddy laugh escaped her lips as she leaned back against the pantry door. "I knew it," she said smugly.

"So, are you free?"

"For dinner?"

"After the dinner rush. A movie? A late dinner, if you want," he offered.

"How about I come by your place after dinner and we snuggle up on your couch, pretending to watch TV while we make out," she suggested.

"Perfect."

"About eight?"

"Great."

"And Luke? I missed you too," she said in a low, soft voice.

Luke's smile practically hummed through the phone line as he said, "I knew it," and then hung up.

****

"Is she leaving me?" Richard demanded without preamble.

There was a pause, and then a tinkling laugh echoed in his ear. "Well, hello Richard. How are you?" Hope said knowingly.

Richard's fingers tightened on the receiver as he ducked his head. "Hello, Hope."

"She doesn't want to leave you, but she thinks she has to," Hope told him, answering his first question without needing to be prompted again.

"Why?"

"Why? Because of her pride, naturally," she answered with a hollow laugh.

"I don't understand. What has happened to her? What happened to my Emily?" he asked in a genuinely bewildered tone. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "I suppose she told you everything."

"You mean about your torrid lunch affair with Lynnie Lott?"

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Richard boomed.

"Calm down," Hope said placidly. "Emily knows that Pennilyn Lott is no threat to her."

"Then what? Why is she leaving me?"

"Why, because of you, Richard," she said bluntly.

"Me? What did I do?"

"It isn't what you've done, but rather, what you haven't done?"

"Our anniversary isn't until February. I remembered her birthday, I always do," he murmured as he ran through a mental list of the things that husbands commonly fail to remember.

"It's nothing like that," Hope assured him.

"Then what? What?" he asked, desperation edging out the impatience in his tone.

Hope sighed, filling the silence that practically crackled over the phone line. "She thinks that you don't see her anymore. She thinks that you don't need her."

"That's ridiculous! Of course I need her!"

"Well, she doesn't see it that way, and from what she tells me, you haven't been seeing it either."

"Seeing what?"

"Your wife, broken hearted and alone as they buried her oldest friend. Your lifelong partner, brushed aside because cocktails and canapés are passé. Her future jeopardized by your vanity and thirst for revenge. Her tenuous relationship with Lorelai the possible victim of your quest for survival. Is that enough for you, or shall I go on?" she inquired stiffly.

"No," Richard breathed into the phone. "No need to go on. I understand," he said in a defeated tone.

"Good."

Richard looked up at his blank, sterile office; blinking rapidly as he realized the price he may have paid to sit in this uncomfortable chair, behind a mass-manufactured desk, and stare out onto the stunning array of white stripes that marked the parking spaces below.

"Will she forgive me?" he croaked.

Hope sighed again, her voice softening as she said, "I don't know, Richard. I really don't know. But, I hope so. For her sake, not yours, because you really do not deserve her."

"I know."

"But she loves you. I do know that," she said quietly.

"Thank you, Hopie," he said with a soft sigh of relief.

"Anytime, Dick, Anytime," she answered, using the nickname she knew drove him crazy; her devilish grin evident in her voice as she cheerfully hung up on him.

****

"Rory! Come in, come in," Emily said brightly as she ushered her granddaughter inside. "I'm so happy that you called. I was out running errands, but I have to tell you, I missed shopping with my favorite partner in crime," she said as she laced her arm through Rory's and led her into the living room.

"I was running errands too," Rory told her.

"Tedious, isn't it?" Emily said with a conspiratorial smile. "Yes, uh, Robert, please bring some iced tea for us," she called to the man hovering in the doorway.

Rory jumped, startled by his unseen presence, and then turned to Emily wide eyed the moment he disappeared. "A butler?"

Emily rolled her eyes. "Your grandfather calls him a 'valet,' whatever that is supposed to mean. He hired the man the moment I was gone! But it doesn't matter. I have a new maid coming in today. Hopefully she'll be from one of those former Soviet countries and will frighten Jeeves away," she added with a dismissive wave of her hand.

"Grandma!" Rory laughed.

"Ah, thank you, Robert," Emily said as the man in question appeared with two tall glasses of iced tea on a small silver tray.

"Thank you," Rory murmured as she took hers, wrapping her fingers tightly around the cool glass.

Emily took a tiny sip of her tea, and then smiled brightly for Rory. "So, you wanted to talk to me?" she prompted. "Not that you need an excuse to visit, you're always welcome here, you know that," she rambled.

"Yeah, um, thank you, Grandma," Rory said, cutting her off. She shifted to the edge of the couch, clutching her untouched tea in both hands as she took a deep breath and then plunged right in. "I was wondering if I could move into your pool house for the rest of the summer."

"The pool house?" Emily inquired, stunned by the request.

"Just until classes start again." Rory set her glass down on the coffee table and smoothed her palms over her jeans as she lowered her gaze. "Something happened. I did something that wasn't right. It was very, very wrong, and I hurt a lot of people," she said quietly. "That's why I went to Europe with you. I used you to get away from it all," she admitted as she looked up timidly.

"What could you have possibly done that could be so bad?" Emily asked, trying to fathom what a sweet young woman like Rory could do to harm as many people as she claimed.

"Please don't ask me that," Rory implored. "I know it was bad, I know it was wrong, but please, I don't want to tell you what I did."

"What does your mother say about all of this?" Emily asked, unable to suppress the hint of injury in her tone.

"She thinks that I need to face it. I thought I was ready to, but I'm not. I just can't face it yet," Rory said desperately. "Please, Grandma, you'll hardly know that I'm here. I promise I won't impose on you or on Grandpa, I just need a little more time to think, and I can't think there," she said, her voice clogging with tears.

"Of course you can come here," Emily answered, powerless against Rory's obvious misery. "But wouldn't you be more comfortable here? We still have your room upstairs."

Rory shook her head as she wiped her eyes. "I think I would prefer to have a little more space, if you don't mind."

"Of course," Emily said with an empathetic nod.

"Thank you," Rory whispered, relieved. "I, uh, I need to go home, get some clothes, and let Mom know…" she said as she stood up.

"Certainly," Emily said as she stood too, her glass of tea forgotten in her hand as Rory leaned over the coffee table and hugged her gratefully.

Rory pulled away, with a sheepish smile, and tucked her hair behind her ears as she glanced down. "Those are pretty," she commented as she gestured to the crystal bowl that held three gleaming red apples.

"Thank you. They're just something I picked up somewhere," she said dismissively.

"Aren't those the ones you ordered that day we saw you in the mall?" Rory asked with a puzzled frown.

"Yes. Yes, they are," Emily confirmed.

"I thought I remembered them. They are pretty," Rory said again as Emily ushered her to the door.

"When you come back, I'll have to pool house unlocked. Let us know you're here, and I'll have Robert carry your bags in for you."

Rory paused at the door and turned to face her. "Will Grandpa be okay with this? I mean, I know that you two haven't been getting along very well…"

"You leave your grandfather to me," Emily said firmly. "I'm sure he'll be delighted to have you nearby," she added as she opened the front door.

"Thank you," Rory said again, and then slipped through the door, hurrying to her car.

Once she pulled away, Emily closed the door quietly and leaned back against it, her eyes wandering to the blazing roses in the vase on the table. She exhaled slowly, and then drew another deep breath, mentally preparing herself for the explosion she was sure to come. She jumped when her heard another car door slam, and then scurried away from the door before Richard caught her lingering there.

****

He sat in his chair, the glove leather molding to him, cradling him in its buttery softness as he laced his fingers together; lost in thought as he stared at the beautifully ornate antique desk she had chosen for him long ago. There was no doubt in his mind that this was where he belonged. He wondered why he ever would think a corner office was so important. None of that was important. This is what's important, he told reprimanded himself.

Richard leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk as he ran both hands over his face; trying to scrub away the echoing memory of Hope's words, but knowing the veracity of her statements would render them indelible. He knew now that it wasn't a matter of a secret kept, or an imagined infidelity. He knew now that it was much worse than that.

Benign neglect, he thought to himself sourly.

He certainly never meant to brush Emily aside. Never in a million years would he have wanted to make her think that he did not know and appreciate every little thing she had every done for him. He had made the mistake of assuming that after nearly forty years of marriage, she would know how deeply he loved her, how desperately he needed her, and how wholly he depended on her. Had had been wrong. Horribly, tragically and possibly fatally wrong.

He lowered his hands with a sigh, his fingertips trailing over the date planner that lay open near his phone and then brushing against the cool facets of a crystal bowl he had never seen before. Richard cocked his head as he stared at the flawless glass apples in the bowl, admiring the way they glowed in the dim afternoon light filtering through the heavy drapes.

Reaching for one of the gossamer thin apples, he held it up, admiring the way it sat perfectly balanced in the palm of his hand. His office door opened without a knock, and his fingers closed over the apple convulsively, squeezing the delicate glass until it shattered in his hand.

He looked up, his mouth agape with shock, and he saw Emily hovering in the doorway. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to break it," he apologized like a schoolboy caught in the act.

"Are you all right?" Emily inquired politely, nodding to his hand.

Richard opened his hand over his desk blotter, letting the shards of crimson glass fall onto the snowy white surface, unaccompanied by so much as a drop of blood. "I'm fine. Thank you, Emily," he said slowly, his eyes fixed on the blood red slivers of glass that now littered his desktop.

"I just wanted to let you know that Rory will be staying with us for a few weeks. Just until school starts again," she told him.

"Staying with us?"

"Yes, in the pool house. Apparently, Rory appreciates having some privacy," she said pointedly, and then pulled the door closed behind her.

Richard looked down, flexing his fingers until he felt the bite of a tiny, unseen shard of glass, and watched as small bead of blood formed in the crease of his hand, knowing it was not nearly what he deserved.

****

"Hellooooooo!" Lorelai called as she let the front door slam behind her. "Hello, daughter of mine? Are you home?" She dropped her purse and keys onto the desk and then shouted toward the kitchen, "You'd better be home! I'm starving! We need to eat something quick because I have a hot date tonight."

Lorelai cocked her head as she listened for a response, and then sighed, "Fine, ditch me," she mumbled as she kicked off her high heels and shuffled toward the kitchen to find something to tide her over.

She poked her head into Rory's room and smiled when she saw the neatly made single bed and the books on the nightstand stacked perfectly by size. She turned toward the kitchen, and then stopped as she saw the closet doors standing open.

A mixture of curiosity and trepidation dripped down into her stomach as she approached the closet and spotted the empty hangers standing bereft on the rod that had just been crammed full of freshly laundered clothing just the night before. She whirled to look at the desk and saw that the cord for Rory's laptop, as well as the computer itself, was missing.

"No," she whispered as she all but ran from the room. She stopped at the kitchen table, pressing her hand to her pounding heart as she spied a folded note standing stark white against the scarred wood grain.

Slowly, she reached for it, and opened the page to reveal her baby's painstakingly practiced cursive writing.

'Mom, I'm sorry, but I can't stay here, it's too much. I've gone to Grandma and Grandpa's…'

Lorelai crumpled the page in her hand as a sob wrenched from her throat. "God, no, not again," she said angrily as she spun and headed for the foyer.

She grabbed her purse and keys from the desk, and jammed her swollen feet back into the pumps that had tormented her all afternoon. Clutching the note in her hand she barreled through the front door, and down the porch steps, not even bothering to wince as the glass rattled ominously behind her.

****

"Where is she?" Lorelai demanded as the front door began to swing open. She stared in confusion at the strange man in the dark suit regarding her impassively.

"May I help you?" Robert asked.

"I'm Lorelai Gilmore. I'm looking for my daughter, Rory."

"I believe that Miss Rory is in…" Robert began, only to be cut off by Emily.

"Lorelai?"

"Where is she, Mom?" Lorelai demanded as she brushed past the strange man holding her parents' front door.

"She's safe, she's fine," Emily assured her in a calm tone.

"Where is she?" Lorelai asked again, grinding each word out from between clenched teeth.

"She's in the pool house," Emily said with a resigned sigh.

"Thank you," Lorelai answered in a snippy tone as she blew past her mother, heading for the veranda doors.

"She came to me, Lorelai," Emily called after her.

Lorelai pushed through the double doors onto the veranda without an acknowledgement. She skirted the edge of the pool shimmering in the fading daylight and marched for the french doors that led into the pool house.

She pulled herself up short as her hand reached for the doorknob, and stared through the paned glass, watching as Rory carefully shelved a stack of books; clearly intending to stay for a while. Her hand fell from the knob, as Rory sensed her gaze and turned toward the doors. Their eyes met for a moment, and then Rory looked down, breaking the contact as her jaw tightened and a flush colored her cheeks.

Lorelai sucked in a breath, the pain of it all slicing through her as her daughter turned resolutely away from the doors. She reached for the doorknob once more and threw the door open. Rory jumped as the wood frame of the door crashed into the edge of an end table, and turned to her mother with an incredulous glare.

"Don't worry, I'm sure they can take that out of your security deposit," Lorelai snarled as she stepped into the room.

"Mom," Rory began tiredly.

"Running away again, huh?" she asked snidely.

Rory lifted her chin and leveled an unblinking stare at her mother. "You should know what it looks like, shouldn't you?"

"I don't run away from my problems!"

"No? You ran away from Grandma and Grandpa. You ran away from Max," Rory accused.

"That was different!"

"Not all that different. It's a good thing Luke knows what he's getting into," Rory remarked as she turned away and began shelving her books again.

"That was totally uncalled for," Lorelai protested.

"I learned everything I know from you."

"That's not true!"

Rory turned back to her and said, "Maybe not in the strictest of senses, but in general, yes. You are my guidepost for everything, even how to fight dirty," she added softly.

"This is not my fault," Lorelai whispered in a wounded tone.

"No, it isn't," Rory conceded.

"Why are you making this about me?"

"You're making this about you! But not everything is about you, Mom! You come barging in here like I've done something to you, but I haven't. I'm trying to do something for myself. I'm trying to figure out who I even am, and how can I do that when you want me to be you?" Rory asked heatedly.

"I don't want you to be me! I want you to be better than me!"

"Maybe I can't be! Maybe I can't even be as good as you, have you ever thought of that?"

"Well, that would makes us both pretty damn pathetic, because according to you, I suck!"

"I never said that!" Rory shouted.

"I was stupid enough to believe your father when he said that he was done with Sherry, I ran away from a house where I wasn't wanted, where I couldn't breathe, where I didn't dare be myself. I refused to marry a man that I didn't love the way he deserved to be loved. Yes! I did all of that!" Lorelai shouted back. "There? Are you happy now? I admitted it! I never lied about it. I never tried to hide it from you."

"And I'm not trying to hide anything from you," Rory said quietly. "I'm not like you that way. I can't pretend that I don't care what people think about me, and just go on with my life. I can't brush off the stares and the whispers and the catty comments with a joke and a fresh swipe of lip gloss. I'm not as strong as you are," she said stubbornly.

Lorelai swallowed hard as she crossed her arms over her chest and looked away. "This is what you want?" she asked in a hoarse voice.

"This is what I need," Rory answered without hesitation.

Lorelai nodded as she bit her lip and blinked back her tears. "Okay," she whispered as she back toward the door. "Tell them the maid did that when she came in to clean. Doesn't matter, won't be the same one next week anyway," she said as she reached for the handle and swung the glass paned door toward her.

"There's a butler now," Rory told her.

"Yeah, I saw that, uh, him," Lorelai answered as she hesitated in the doorway.

"You see, the thing is, Rory, that's what everyone gets wrong about me," she said softly. "The attitude, the jokes, the lip gloss… It doesn't make me strong, it makes me weak. I guess I thought that you, of all people, would get that."

With that, she pulled the door closed behind her, squared her shoulders, and lifted her chin as she walked slowly around the end of the pool, and followed the garden path around the side of the house to the driveway.

Rory opened the french doors, and stepped out onto the pool deck, still clutching both handles tightly in her hands as she listened for the familiar sound of the Jeep's engine. There was a peal of tires against pavement, and then a dull roar as the car sped into the waning evening light, heading for the one place where Lorelai always felt safe, no matter what she did, or who she wanted to be. Rory sighed as she stepped back into the pool house, pulling the doors closed firmly behind her as she wondered if she'd ever feel truly at home anywhere again.

****

Emily stood just inside the living room, staring at the doorway that had swallowed her daughter as she watched her walk away from her once more. She bit her lip to ward of the hot rush of tears that ached in her throat, and fidgeted with the top button on her jacket as she silently willed her daughter or granddaughter to come back. She ached for their confidence, she knew with absolute certainty that, if they would only give her a chance, she might be able to be helpful to one or both of them with whatever it was that was troubling them. But she also knew that the possibility of that happening was very slim indeed.

"Is everything okay?" Richard asked quietly as he stepped from his study. When Emily looked up at him blankly, he shrugged and said simply, "I heard a commotion."

"Lorelai," Emily answered succinctly as she walked slowly to her usual chair and sank down into it.

"Ahh," Richard said with a sage nod. He moved to the drink cart and began to prepare a pitcher of very dry vodka martinis. "Why has Rory moved into our pool house?" he asked without turning around.

"I don't know," Emily answered softly.

"I'm assuming that she is having some sort of difficulty with Lorelai," he mused as he shook the tumbler filled with ice, vodka and vermouth to mix it.

Emily's brows drew together. "I don't know. I don't believe so," she murmured. "She said that she had done something, had hurt someone."

Richard's eyebrows shot up as he poured the concoction into two martini glasses and added a twist to Emily's. "I find that hard to believe," he scoffed as he picked up the glasses and carried Emily's cocktail over to her.

"Thank you," she said distractedly as she took the proffered glass.

"Perhaps Rory is upset with the choices that Lorelai seems to be making in her personal life," he commented as he hiked the legs of his suit pants up and settled in the chair near hers.

"You mean Jason? I thought that was finished," Emily asked, surprised.

"I mean Luke."

"Luke?"

"Luke Danes, the man who runs that diner," Richard elaborated.

"Yes, I know who he is, but what makes you think that Lorelai is involved with him?" Emily asked, leaning toward him with interest.

"He came to the inn one night while I was having dinner with Lorelai. Neither of them said anything, but I sensed that there was something more going on between them. Perhaps there is. That could explain why Rory is so upset," he concluded.

Emily stared down at the lemon rind floating in her cocktail deep in thought. She shook her head slightly and said, "I'm not sure that Rory would be upset by that. She seems very fond of Luke. As a matter of fact, I doubt we were served a cup of coffee anywhere in Europe that wasn't compared to his and found sorely lacking," she added with a wry twist of her lips.

"Yes, well, he apparently runs a successful business. For a small town, I mean."

"Yes."

"He seems to be a nice enough fellow. Rough, uneducated, his personality is a tad prickly," Richard observed.

Emily smirked and said, "So is Lorelai's," as she raised her glass and took a dainty sip of her drink.

"True," Richard conceded with a chuckle.

Emily shook her head dismissively and said, "They've been friends for years from what I gather, never anything more."

"I hope not. He seems to be a genuine sort of man, but he certainly would not be a suitable match for Lorelai."

"Certainly not," Emily agreed. Glancing over at Richard, they shared a small smile of complete accord.

"It's pure speculation on my part," Richard admitted.

"Well, you never have been very astute with picking up on these things," Emily said with a small smug smile.

Richard had the grace to chuckle quietly. "No, I suppose not." He pondered the evening he had spent at the Dragonfly for a moment and then shrugged it off. "Anyhow, if they are involved, it can't be anything too terribly serious. You know how flighty Lorelai is."

"Yes," Emily murmured thoughtfully. "Perhaps that is what is upsetting Rory. She is fond of Luke, maybe she disapproved of this dalliance and let Lorelai know it. Or Luke, for that matter," she guessed.

"Perhaps that is it," Richard agreed.

They heard a car door slam, and turned toward the windows as the Jeep roared to life. Emily winced as she heard the rubber of Lorelai's tires squeal against the driveway.

"I'll have someone come out tomorrow to pressure wash the drive," Richard said quietly.

****

Lorelai pressed the accelerator harder, edging the needle up over eighty and pushing it toward ninety in her haste. Hartford no longer loomed in her rearview mirror, but Stars Hollow had yet to appear on the horizon. She wiped a stray tear from her eye, blinking furiously as she forced herself to let up on the gas.

Soon, soon, I'll be there soon, she repeated over and over again. But the miles that seemed to whiz by when she was running toward her daughter, now stretched never-ending in front of her as she sped through the waning hazy evening light.

Soon, soon, I'll get home soon, she assured herself as she flew past the exit just before the one she needed.

Soon, soon, I'll see him soon, she told herself as she blew past the sign that welcomed everyone who passed to their crazy corner of Connecticut.

Soon, soon, he'll wrap his arms around me, and everything will be all right, she consoled herself as she jerked to a stop in front of the diner.

Soon, soon, we'll figure this all out soon, the bells chimed in greeting as she rushed through the door.

Soon, soon, we'll all know what to do, and who to be, and how to go on, she promised herself as her feet beat a steady tattoo up the worn wooden steps.

When she reached the landing, the apartment door opened, and Luke stood blocking her path. "You're late," he growled. "That means we're watching a western."

"I'm just in time," she answered as she stepped into him, winding her arms around his neck as she propelled him back into the apartment.

Luke slammed the door with a flick of his wrist, and then lowered his lips to hers. "I've been waiting all day to do that," he said with a deep, throaty chuckle.

"I've been waiting my whole life for it," Lorelai answered as she buried her hands in his hair and kissed him hungrily.

Luke's smile creased his face, etching deep grooves around his mouth, and shooting a spray of fine lines from the corners of his eyes. He ran his hand over her hair and said softly, "I missed you."

"I'm home now," she told him solemnly.

****

"Dinner is served," Robert announced gravely, and then faded back into the woodwork in that disturbing way of his.

Emily looked up from her nearly empty martini glass, her eyes widening in surprise. "Oh."

"Dinner?" Richard asked as he turned in his seat to peer into the dining room that had not seen a full meal served since before Emily's trip to Europe.

Emily followed his gaze and then closed her eyes as she saw the table set for two. Her mouth thinned into a line as she set her glass aside. "I must not have made it clear to the staff that we would be dining separately," she said as she stood up.

"I see," Richard murmured, slumping back into his chair as the hope that had lit his blue eyes fading once more as the companionable moments they had just shared slipped through his fingers.

Emily cast him an exasperated look and then rolled her eyes. "Well, you may as well join me," she said impatiently as she stalked off toward the dining room.

Richard's lips quirked into a small smile as he set his glass aside and murmured, "A gracious invitation. Thank you."

"Do not get used to this," she warned as he hurried into the dining room to hold her chair for her.

"I wouldn't dream of it," he answered innocently.

Richard took his customary place as Emily glared at the bowl of shining red apples that had found its way back to the center of the table. "Who put these here?" she demanded when her new maid appeared with their salads.

"I did, madam," Robert answered from behind her. When she turned to glare at him, he simply said, "I believed the orchids to be too tall and that they would have interfered with conversation. I can move them back, if you prefer," he offered passively.

"They're fine, leave them where they are," she snapped as she picked up her salad fork, and began to seek revenge against her endive.

The dining room was silent, but for the gentle scrape of cutlery on china. Emily could feel Richard watching her covertly, and studiously avoided lifting her head.

"We didn't put any music on," Richard commented. When Emily didn't respond, he tried again. "I'm sorry that I broke one of your apples. I've always liked those," Richard said conversationally.

Emily dropped her fork to her plate with a clatter as she pulled her napkin from her lap and slammed it to the table. She stood up, bracing both hands on the table as the daggers flew from her eyes. "You have not always liked those! You can't possibly have formed such a longstanding and fond attachment to them. They're new!" she shouted the length of the damask clothed table.

Richard scowled as he studied the Waterford crystal bowl in the center of the table. "They are not, they've been here for months," he insisted.

"Yes, now they have, but the very day that I brought them home, I placed them in that bowl, and set them right where they are sitting now. I asked you what you thought of them and you told me that you have 'always liked those', well you couldn't have always liked them, you'd never seen them!" she cried, her voice carrying through the empty house.

"I do like them," he said angrily.

"You had never laid eyes on them. You didn't even see them did you? Just like you never really saw me!"

"That's not true!" Richard boomed as he shot out of his chair.

"Tell me something, Richard. Tell me one thing that you know about me that your valet wouldn't know," she sneered, sending the man hovering in the hallway scurrying for cover.

"I know everything about you."

"One thing, Richard. You said that there was no music on. What would I be listening to?" she demanded.

"We always listen to classical music when we have dinner. For god's sake, why didn't we put any music on!" he cried in frustration.

"I hate listening to classical music every night," she spat as she turned and stormed toward the stairs.

"Then fine, we won't listen to that! Pick whatever you like," he said as he took off after her.

"You have no idea what I like."

"Put in Tony Bennett, or that Blossom Dearie CD that you like so much," he cried desperately as he long legs ate up the distance between them. He reached for her arm as she climbed to the third step.

"Please, Emily, please come back to the table. Don't leave. I'll beg if I have to," he said in a low urgent voice. Emily turned slowly back to him, at last, looking him straight in the eye. "I love you, Emily. I always have," he said as he reached up with his free hand and brushed back a lock of her thick auburn hair.

"Do not do this to me," she hissed through clenched teeth.

"I know I haven't been a very good husband to you lately," he continued, undeterred. "I know I've disappointed you over and over again."

"Yes, you have."

"I'm sorry, Emily," he said as he moved to take both of her hands in his. "I am truly and deeply sorry. You are everything to me, please, I can't lose you," he pled as he saw her resolve faltering.

"I don't know," she said softly.

"Just give me the chance, that's all I ask," Richard implored. "All I need is the chance to make it up to you. You'll see. No one could ever love you as much as I do, no one will ever need you more than I need you."

****

His lips never fully leaving hers, Luke guided Lorelai blindly toward his bed, a trail of discarded clothing marking their path. Soon, she lay beneath him, her lips red and swollen from his kisses, her cheeks flushed pink with arousal, her blue eyes hazy with desire. And something else. Something that he hadn't seen in weeks, something he had hoped he would never see again.

He touched her. Stroking every millimeter of silken skin that he could reach, marveling at how incredible she felt in his hands, trying to soothe the ache he heard in her soft moans. She touched him. Her fingers gliding over his skull as if memorizing the very shape of it, her palms smoothing over the slope of his shoulders before conquering the hard planes of his back.

He kissed her. Her lips, her cheeks, her eyelids, her hair. He tasted the sweet curve of her jaw, and feasted on the creamy skin of her throat. His tongue danced teasingly over her freckles, his mouth suckled greedily at her breast. He stroked her, lips, teeth and tongue joining forces with his hands to reclaim what was rightfully his.

And when she pulled him to her, he held himself above her, his forearms cradling her head as he kissed her over and over again, whispering gruff words of awe at how perfectly they fit one another.

He moved inside of her, watching her eyes, catching her sighs, gauging his every move by her response. And when she peaked, her body closing tightly around him, pulling him deeper into her as her arms and legs bound him to her like steel; he watched in rapt amazement, knowing that he was the one to bring her there.

Her arms and legs grew slack, but she never released him, looking up at him with those incredible blue eyes as she urged him to move faster, confident that she could be the one to give him as much as he gave to her. Luke felt his climax building, surging through his body, giving him what surely had to be super-human strength. He kept his eyes locked on hers, wanting her to see, needing her to know how much she meant to him.

And as he filled her, her hands flew to his face, cupping his rough cheeks between her hands as she gazed up at him, enraptured by the absolute vulnerability she saw in the deep blue depths.

"Luke," she breathed reverently.

He smiled weakly as he slowed, his long lashes sweeping down to provide too flimsy a defense employed far too late. He buried his face in her hair, resting his weight fully on her as he covered her body with his, shielding her from whatever had driven her to his door.

Their breathing slowed and he shifted slightly, easing his weight from her without lifting his head. "Tell me what happened."

Lorelai sighed and blinked up at the darkening ceiling. "Rory moved into my parents' pool house."

Luke pushed up on his arms as he peered down at her with a confused frown. "What? Why?"

"I came home from work, and found a note. She said it's only until she goes back to Yale. She said she couldn't handle being here, the stares, the whispers," she said quietly.

Luke's jaw tightened and the tiny vein in his forehead made its presence known. "I'll kill them. I'll kill them all," he growled as he began to push himself up off of her.

Lorelai grasped his arms tightly and pulled him back to her. "As much as I appreciate the thought, I'm not sure that a massive killing spree is the answer."

"Think of it. I can get rid of them all," he insisted. "No Taylor, not cardigans and gavels and moronic salute to the whositnots festivals," he said as he nodded enthusiastically, warming to the idea even more. "No gossiping old biddies with nothing better to do with their time, no stupid kids getting married before they can legally order a beer."

"It does sound like Utopia, but I'm afraid that if we were the only ones left after the slaughter, one or both of us would end up in the slammer. I don't look good in bright orange jumpsuits and I'm not sure that the conjugal visits thing works if you're both inmates," she told him soberly.

Luke stared down at her, his eyes boring into hers as he searched for the solution to their problem. "You look great in orange, but you might have a point."

"She says this is what she needs," Lorelai told him sadly.

"She already ran away to Europe, that was much farther," he pointed out.

"I know."

Luke pressed his lips together tightly, only relaxing them when she lifted her head off of the pillow to kiss them gently. "I hate this," he said raggedly.

"I know you do. I do too."

"Have you talked to her?"

"I just came from there," she answered with a nod.

"I see." Luke brushed a wayward curl from her cheek and exhaled tiredly. "How'd it go?"

"Not great."

"I'd give anything to fix this," he said hoarsely.

"I know you would," she whispered and then kissed him again. "Promise me something?" she asked, her breath tickling his lips.

"Anything," he answered without hesitation.

Lorelai smiled, basking in his steadfast belief in her and in them. "If I get scared, if I try to push you away…" she began haltingly. "I need you to stop me."

"What?"

"You know me, right? You know me and I know you. If I freak out and try to run away from you, I need you to promise that you'll come after me," she said implored. "You wouldn't on your own, but if you promise you will, you will."

"That's not gonna happen."

"It might. You know that it might. I'm asking you, please, as my friend. That is, unless you change your mind about me later. I want you to promise me that you won't let me go," she said urgently.

"Don't worry, I won't," he assured her.

"Good."

Luke pushed himself up off of her, closing his eyes as he slipped from her heat and then rolled over onto his back, flinging his arms out to his sides. "Not gonna happen, though," he said stubbornly.

Lorelai smiled as she curled into his side, running the arch of her foot along his shin. "You just keep on believing that," she said softly. "I plan to."

****

Emily turned out the light as she stepped out of the bathroom off of the blue guest room. She reached for the knot on her robe as she lifted her book from the nightstand, but her hands froze as she saw a small bouquet of snow white lilies and orange blossoms arranged in a plain glass bowl next to the bed.

She sat on the very edge of the mattress, barely feeling it dip under her weight as she reached for the bouquet with both hands. Heedless of the water that dripped onto the nightstand and then soaked into her robe, she brought the flowers to her nose and inhaled deeply.

A rush of memories flooded through her as she drank in the heady scent. A white gown, a tiara, snow white gloves, and a bouquet, just like this one, clutched in her hand.

Blinking back tears, she wrapped her fingers tightly around the bundled stems and reached for her book as she rose. Her slippered footsteps were muffled by the thick carpet along the hallway. She hesitated for a moment in the doorway, peering into the darkened room.

"They are beautiful, thank you," she said softly.

She heard the rustle of crisp bed linens as Richard rolled over in their bed, and then his deep, melodious voice as he said simply, "They aren't as beautiful as you are."

Emily stepped into the room and placed her book on the nightstand on her side of the bed. Gently, she laid the bouquet of lilies and orange blossoms atop the book, and then scowled as she wiped the moisture from her hand on her robe. She felt around in the dark, trying to locate the box of tissues she knew should be there, and heard Richard chuckle softly as he switched on the lamp on his side of the bed.

Emily looked over at him, the lines and furrows that marked his age softened in the golden glow, making him look almost like the young man she had fallen in love with four decades before.

"I borrowed them," he said as he offered her the box of tissues that had been sitting on his nightstand all along.

"Thank you," she said as she plucked two from the box, and then wrapped them around the damp stems. "You can turn the light out now," she said, keeping her eyes carefully averted from his.

"Very well," Richard answered as he reached for the switch.

Once the room was cloaked in darkness, Emily untied her robe and stepped out of her slippers. She reached for the covers and found that Richard had already folded them back for her. Climbing carefully into the large bed, she settled back on her pillows, taking great care to keep from touching him.

Richard shifted on his pillow, moving slightly closer to her, but not daring to reach for her. He inhaled deeply, drawing in the lingering scent of the magical creams that she massaged into her skin each night, as it mingled with hairspray, Chanel No. 5, and Emily.

His Emily.

Richard closed his eyes, and within a matter of moments, his breathing began to grow deep and even. Emily turned to look at him, squinting into the inky darkness to make out the silhouette she knew better than anything else in this world. "I love you, too," she said in the barest of whispers, and then closed her eyes, smiling in the darkness as his hand found hers.

****

Rory lay awake deep into the night. The lights from the swimming pool cast eerie pale blue waves across the ceiling, and she let her mind drift along on them. The bed was strange; the mattress too firm to get comfortable, the feather pillows too soft to sleep on. There was an annoying hum coming from just outside the window, which she could only assume was the function of some sort of pool-related equipment. Turning onto her side once more, Rory stared at her cell phone perched on the nightstand.

She reached for it, pressing a key and holding it down until the number she needed showed on the screen.

**

Lorelai stirred as her phone vibrated across the ancient table next to Luke's bed. Luke grunted his displeasure and rolled onto his back, flinging his arms wide and smacking her in the arm as she rolled away to locate it.

"Hey, no need to get violent," she admonished, knowing that he was out for the next several hours, and a marching band could play in the tiny apartment without him noticing.

She grabbed the dancing phone and squinted bleary-eyed at the display. Once the number registered, she flipped the phone open and asked in a harsh whisper, "Hey, are you okay?"

"This bed sucks," Rory complained.

Lorelai smiled as she slipped out from under the tangled covers and reached for Luke's long discarded shirt. "Yeah, well, you didn't check the website for bad reviews before you booked that hotel," she whispered as she slipped her arms into the shirt.

"I didn't do a lot of things," Rory said with a heavy sigh. "I should have waited until you got home. I should have talked to you about this."

Lorelai tiptoed over to the couch and curled one leg under her as she sat down. "Wouldn't have made any difference, I still would have told you not to go."

"I ran into Lindsay and Dean."

"I see," Lorelai replied softly.

"It was," Rory paused as she took a deep shuddering breath. "It was horrible."

"I'm sure," she answered sympathetically.

"And I realized that I did all of this for nothing. Well, not nothing, like it didn't mean anything, but nothing like there was nothing good that could happen from it," she tried to explain. "I had no intention of staying with Dean. I hardly even know what to say to him anymore."

"It's hard to let go, even after you grow apart. You don't have to tell me about that, kid."

"No," Rory agreed.

"But with Dad, it was different."

"The only difference is that we had you," Lorelai said firmly. "We were never meant to be together, me and Chris, no matter how much we both may have liked the idea of it." Lorelai sighed as she plucked at a button on Luke's shirt. "We wanted it for you, so we thought we wanted it for ourselves."

"You think?"

"Oh, Sweets, I know," Lorelai said softly. "I love your dad. I'll always love him because he gave me you. But love him the way you want to love someone you want to spend your life with? I don't think so." She turned to look at the bed, the streetlights below bathing Luke's bare chest in warm gold light. "That's why I couldn't marry Max, no matter how much I may have wanted to."

"Do you ever see that happening?" Rory asked worriedly.

"What? Loving someone enough to say, 'this is forever'?"

"Yeah."

"Yeah. Yeah, I do," Lorelai whispered, her eyes lighting with the hope of it all.

"Wow," Rory breathed into the phone.

Lorelai giggled and then turned away from the bed. "I know, crazy, huh?"

Rory's smile was genuine as she shook her head and said, "No, not so crazy."

"I want this for you, one day. But, you're still so young. There's still so much for you to see and do and be. Christiane Amanpour still has her job. You're still going after it, aren't you?"

"Yeah. Well, not her job. That would be a little All About Eve. I want a job like hers," Rory corrected.

"You're gonna screw up a lot, hon. We all do. You never outgrow it, I think that your grandparents are proof of that," she said with a sad smile. "And sometimes you screw up because you're trying too hard not to screw up, that's life. But the screwing up isn't what matters. It's how you deal with it, how you fix it, how you try to live your life better so that you never screw up like that again."

"I don't want to run away. Not from you."

"I just want you to be happy, and if being away from here is what you really think will make you feel better about things, then I think that it what you have to do. Crappy mattress or not," she added with a soft laugh.

"I love you, Mom."

"I love you too, kid. More than you can even imagine."

They each clung to their phones, unwilling to break the tenuous connection. Finally, Rory asked, "Where are you?"

Lorelai smiled and asked, "Do you really want to know?"

"Oh God, you're at Luke's."

"And I'm not here gettin' coffee," Lorelai said in a suggestive tone.

"Mom," Rory whined.

"Well, you asked. Don't ask, don't tell. It's a winner for a reason."

"It is Luke, right? The one you see yourself, you know," Rory asked quietly.

"Yeah, it's Luke," Lorelai answered without hesitation.

"Is he asleep?"

"Oh yeah, for hours. He gets up at a quarter to five every day. Can you imagine?"

"That's nuts. You know, I always forget that there's one of those in the mornings too."

"I know."

"And you want to spend the rest of your life with a guy that gets up when it's still dark out?"

"Um, yep."

"Crazy."

"I know."

Seconds ticked by as they fell silent once more. "I should let you go," Rory said reluctantly.

"It's very late," Lorelai agreed. "Or, very early, depending on how you look at it."

"I'm sorry, Mom."

"Nothing to be sorry about," Lorelai said quickly.

"Yes, there is. I keep saying things I shouldn't say, things that I know are not true."

"You're hurting. I wish I could spray you with Bactine, slap a Band-Aid on you and kiss you until it didn't hurt anymore. I would if I could," Lorelai whispered.

"I know you would."

"Try to get some sleep. One word about the mattress to your grandmother tomorrow morning, and I'm sure you'll have a selection waiting for you to play Princess and the Pea by noon."

"Probably," Rory said with a laugh.

"Goodnight, Sweets."

"Night, Mom."

Lorelai closed her phone and sat still as she possibly could on the creaky old leather couch. The streetlamps shone into apartment, bathing the worn wood floors in pools of orange-gold light.

She blinked as she peered through the dim light, focusing intently on the bed. Luke lay on his back, his head turned away from her, flat on the mattress. Her lips curved into a smile as she noted the pile of pillows stacked where she had curled up next to him. Strips of pale light pinstriped his chest, setting the soft curls that covered the muscled planes aflame.

She stood up, padding softly across the floor, smiling slightly as her toes curled into the ancient rag rug next to the bed, and let his shirt slide from her shoulders to the floor once more. She lowered her weight onto the mattress, shifting carefully as she lifted her legs slowly into the bed. Glancing over at him as she sank back into the mountain of pillows. Lorelai rolled her eyes up and peered back at the pillows, before she sat up a bit to pull two of them free.

Biting her bottom lip, Lorelai carefully maneuvered the pillows behind Luke's head, making sure that they were nearby if he stirred, searching out a little comfort in the middle of the night. Satisfied that he would have what he needed if he chose to reach for them, Lorelai turned onto her side and blinked slowly, letting her eyes glaze and become unfocused, sinking into the pools of the orange-gold that danced across the floor.

Wordlessly, Luke rolled onto his side and curled his body around hers. He opened his eyes as he pressed one hand to her sternum, pulling her close as he felt her heart beating too quickly beneath his fingertips.

Lorelai closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the scent of him. She breathed out, leaning back into him and letting him take her weight.

"I love you, Luke."

The quiet surety in her voice warmed him through to the core. Luke closed his eyes and pressed his lips to her hair. Lorelai smiled as she covered his hand with hers; knowing that they both knew that he didn't need to say anything at all.

She had seen everything she needed to see in his eyes; and he had let her.

**

Rory placed the phone on her nightstand and stared unblinkingly up at the wavy ceiling. As the sky began to lighten, she tossed back the covers, quickly shed her pajamas and pulled on the jeans and t-shirt she had worn the day before. Grabbing her phone, she hurried into the main room and dropped it into her open purse. She located her flip-flops, slid her bare feet into them, and then liberated her keys from her purse as she ducked out of the door.

She made it two steps, before pausing to look back at the pool house indecisively. Rory walked back into the room and rushed for the pad and pen next to the phone. She dashed off a quick note and then left it in plain view on the counter. Sending up a prayer of thanks for the engineers at Toyota, she backed her car silently out of the garage and then down the drive. Running away to the place she should have run to in the first place.

****

Luke was gave up on fighting with the buttons on his cuffs as he rumbled down the steps the next morning quickly rolling his sleeves up as he pushed through the curtain, twenty minutes behind schedule. He flipped on the lights, and switched on the coffee maker, setting the day's first pot to brew without so much as a second glance. He fired up the grill and turned on the deep fryers as he moved through the kitchen to the walk in, and pulled all of the supplies that he would need for the day.

Once everything was arranged to his liking, he walked out into the dining room and reached for the first overturned chair he could reach. His movements slowed as he glimpsed someone sitting down on the diner steps. Squinting into the grey pre-dawn light, and hurried for the door, and flipped the locks. The bells jingled loudly shattering the early morning hush that blanketed the town.

"What are you doing here?" he asked in a bewildered tone.

Rory turned to peer up at him. "I can't sleep and we're out of coffee."

"Coffee isn't going to help you sleep," he grumbled as he stepped back and waved her into the diner.

"Sometimes it does," Rory answered with a ghost of her mother's smile as she followed him inside.

Luke poured her a mug while she pulled a stool from the countertop and then climbed up onto it. Luke slid the mug across the counter and then tugged nervously on his ear, unable to look at her as he said, "Your mom's still asleep. Do you want me to go and get her?"

Rory shook her head as she lifted the mug with both hands and took a tentative sip. "Not yet," she said as she set the mug down and tucked her hair back behind her ears. She looked up at him and smiled as she noted his pink tinged cheeks. "I'm really happy about you and Mom. She seems really happy."

Luke's smile was a little slow, and almost painfully shy as he nodded and said, "Yeah, me too."

"I don't want to get in your way. You go on and do what you need to do. I just wanted some coffee before I head back to Hartford," she told him.

A worried frown creased his brow, and his voice dropped almost a full octave as he looked at her suspiciously. "You're gonna leave without talking to her?"

Rory shook her head adamantly. "No, I just meant, I don't want to be in your way," she said uncertainly.

Luke nodded and reached for another coffee mug. He filled it with the aromatic brew and then started for the curtain. "Take some of those chairs down for me, will ya?" he called over his shoulder.

"Brave man. It's not even six o'clock," Rory pointed out with raised eyebrows.

Luke paused, holding the curtain back with his shoulder. He nodded to the cup of coffee and said, "I have this, and you. I feel pretty safe. But, if you leave before I get back down here, I will hunt you down," he told her with a fierce scowl.

Rory nodded as she slipped from her stool and reached for the next one. "I have been warned," she said with a solemn nod.

*******************************************************************************************************

Nothing looks the same as it once did.

The fires have burned down, their smoldering embers dying out as they find that there is nothing left to consume. Piles of rubble left behind by topping walls are cleared, their stones used to build something stronger, sturdier, and more durable than what stood before. Shards of shattered glass are swept up; in some cases discarded without a thought, in others, painstakingly pieced back together with steady hands and the help of a little Super Glue.

But the landscape has changed, and everyone who knew how it looked before, treads lightly into this new world. Danger lies around every corner, the possibility of heartbreak has become a constant companion, but the thought of living without the high that great danger brings seems almost unbearably desolate. So, step after cautious step, you move forward because you know that from here, there is no going back.

You've made it through to the other side, and you've come out stronger for it. You cling to the hand that pulled you out of it, knowing that your bonds are battle tested and proven strong. You survived the suffocating heat, the pummeling shockwaves, and the cloying odor that embedded itself in your hair, your skin and your nostrils, and now you must live to tell the tale.

Because in the absence of your own life story, there is only the sound of silence.