April's birthday party brings an unexpected twist that changes Luke's and Lorelai's lives forever. Late sixth season.

Disclaimer: Amy and Dan own it all. I'm just playing with their toys.

Chapter One: The Compliment That Wasn't

The shopping trip had been fun; in some ways, Lorelai thought, the most fun they'd had in a while. She had expected that Luke would be impatient watching her try on clothes but he had remained surprisingly calm. After they left the store, they were walking down a Hartford street back to where their cars were parked, as they had met after driving in separately. Luke was teasing her about the fact that she took his advice on what clothes to buy, and she vehemently refuted him, claiming she only occasionally bought something that he liked just to please him. Until she realized that clothes he had picked out had become her favorites and she slapped his arm as he laughed triumphantly.

The pleasant mood was spoiled when he stopped by a store window and pointed at a toiletry set with a pattern of cats on it, saying he wanted to get it. "For a birthday present. For April."

"April who?" Lorelai asked disbelievingly.

"Come on, its cute."

Lorelai looked at it again. "Yeah. . . But I don't think it's quite right."

"It's girly," Luke insisted, "it's got cats on it. . ."

"Oh! Well, if it's got CATS on it. . ."

"April likes cats," he said, trying to hold on to his patience.

"Yeah, but it's a toiletry kit," Lorelai said, trying to get her point across. "It's so. . . Hygienic."

"I saw her use soap on the trip," Luke defended, even as he realized how ridiculous he sounded.

"Didja see her tie her shoelaces? 'Cause you could get her some shoelaces." Lorelai's tone was getting snider by the minute.

They continued to argue, as Luke held his ground and Lorelai begged him to let her show him a store with some better gifts. He refused her help. "I need to do this," he told her firmly.

"Then—do it," Lorelai said, realizing he wasn't going to change his mind.

She had known that April's birthday was coming up and suspected he would probably have some difficulty choosing a present, considering some of the things he had gotten for Rory when she was the same age. She had been hoping that he would turn to her for assistance and that it might break down a little bit of the barrier he had built between her and his daughter. Now she saw her chance to help him slipping away and added, a bit desperately, "I'm just saying, let me be a part of it."

Luke glanced at her sideways. "No," he said firmly.

She looked at him in bewilderment. "Why?"

"Because it's too soon."

Her mouth dropped open. "Why is it too soon?"

He took a deep breath. "Because the minute you get involved in her life, it's gonna be all over for me."

"What?" his fiancée scoffed. "That's ridiculous."

"It's not ridiculous," Luke continued stubbornly. His tone became a bit snide. "You're colorful and funny. You're practically a cartoon character."

He did not notice her staring at him, a hurt expression on her face. "Kids love you. I wouldn't want to hang around with me either, after meeting you."

"Luke!" she cried.

"She'll like you better. That's just a fact."

Her head starting to spin, she tried to reason with him. "You're her dad. . ." she began.

"Yes. I'm her dad. And this is the way I want it to be."

He stared into the window for a moment and turned to tell her he was going into the store to make the purchase, but was stopped by the shocked look on her face. "What?" he asked, his eyes widening in surprise.

"Did you just say what I thought you said?" Lorelai asked him incredulously. "Did you really call me a cartoon character?"

"Well—yeah. You're all bright and noisy and fun when you're around kids. They like that. Anybody quiet like me just fades into the background."

When she didn't respond, he glanced at her again, now a little defensively. "You're not upset at me for saying that, are you?"

"Oh, hell, no!" Lorelai cried angrily. "Why should I be upset? I've just been told by my fiancée that I'm a comical, ridiculous, two-dimensional figment of somebody's imagination! Why, I've never been so flattered in my life!"

She turned and strode away while Luke watched her in dismay. "Lorelai!" he called. When she kept walking, he became confused and tongue-tied and said the first thing that came into his head. "Ummm—aren't you going to help me pick out a present?"

She stopped and turned. "I gave you my opinion. You didn't want to hear it," she said frostily. She turned again and continued down the street.

Luke stared at her, not knowing what to do, as he watched her hop into her jeep and drive away. He really hadn't meant to insult her and realized that he had spoken too shortly when she asked about helping with April's gift. He wasn't sure himself why he didn't want them to meet, except for a vague sense of wanting to keep one situation in his rapidly changing life under his total control. While he knew she wasn't happy about it, until today he had felt that she had been generally supportive of his wish.

"What's up with her, anyway," he grumbled to himself, and turned back to the store window to look at the bathroom set. Truth be told, now that Lorelai wasn't present, his certainty about the gift evaporated, leaving him feeling very unsure and indecisive about it. But after a few minutes he sighed and entered the store, thinking that he really didn't have any other ideas anyway.

Lorelai drove away, his words buzzing in her ears and anger and hurt coursing through her body. Where had that insulting characterization come from? She never would have expected Luke, of all people, to make a remark about her that was so—belittling, when his opinion of her had always seemed to be so high. She knew that he was sometimes annoyed with her chatter and that her leaps of logic often left him flailing, but she had come to believe that these characteristics also amused him and were part of why he loved her. Besides, she wasn't being annoying or ridiculous about this issue around April—it seemed a straightforward matter and she had followed his wishes exactly to this point, even though she was unhappier by the day about it.

She was a little shocked to hear that he was worried that April would like her better than him. That type of jealousy had never been a factor in their relationship, as Luke seemed to prefer to stay in the background. But maybe, Lorelai reasoned, that was because he had never wanted to impress anyone as much as he did April. But how much of her pride should Lorelai sacrifice to meet his needs?

Because of his wish to keep them apart, she thought, she had been reduced to sneaking and skulking around Stars Hollow on the days when April was in town. The diner, which had been her second home since before she and Luke had started to date, now felt like forbidden territory—she was sometimes hesitant to go in even on the days when April wasn't scheduled, just in case she had the dates mixed up. Worst of all, she just felt Luke pulling farther and farther away from her, tucking himself into a private world with his daughter from which his future wife was being excluded. And his future wife didn't like it one little bit.

Lorelai sighed as she pulled into the parking lot of the Dragonfly. She realized by then that she had overreacted to Luke's "cartoon character" remark and was actually more upset about other aspects of the April situation. She decided that she needed to let him know that as soon as possible—because he was sure acting as if he was pretty clueless about it. If she didn't speak up, she felt very uncertain about the direction in which their relationship was heading.

All throughout a busy dinner shift, Luke's eyes kept drifting to the door, hoping that Lorelai would come in. As the evening waned and she hadn't appeared, his mixed feelings of worry and annoyance grew. Obviously she was angry with him over his "cartoon character" remark, and for that he was genuinely regretful; but he was also annoyed and a little defensive about the fact that she didn't seem to be accepting his decisions about April any more.

When closing was completed, he went up to his apartment and called her.

Her answering machine picked up and he began to talk. "Hi, Lorelai, it's me. Ummm—look, I'm really sorry about what I said today. I really didn't mean it as an insult—believe it or not, I meant it as a compliment. I never thought it would have bothered you so much, or I wouldn't have said it. You know I think the world of you. . ."

He heard a click. "Hey."

"Hey," he responded. Lorelai said nothing so he started again. "I hope you heard the beginning of my message. I'm so, so sorry that I insulted you today. I really didn't mean it. I just meant that you're so vivacious and full of life, that you're bright and fun like a cartoon character. I didn't mean it as anything bad."

She sighed into the phone and Luke hesitated. "So—are we okay?"

A long pause. "Yeah, we're okay about that. I realize that you didn't mean it as an insult."

"I thought you liked cartoons," he said, trying to inject some lightness into the conversation.

"I do like them. I just never thought I'd be compared to one."

"Well, again, I'm really sorry."

She paused again. "Luke, I'm okay about that remark—but I have to tell you, I'm really getting less and less okay about the way you're keeping me away from April."

Luke stiffened. "Well, maybe you are, but I'm her father and that's the way I want it."

"But why? That's what I don't understand. When you first met her, when you said you wanted time to get to know her by yourself, I understood that. But it makes less and less sense now, since it seems like everybody in town is getting to know her except me. And then today you made that remark about 'not having a chance with her' if I'm around. I don't get what that means."

"Look, " Luke interrupted. "I really don't want to get into it now. I'm tired and I have an early delivery tomorrow, and then April's birthday party. It seems like this would be long conversation and I'm just not up for it now.'

"All right," she said sadly. "But I'd really like to discuss it soon, because I'm feeling more and more hurt and left out, Luke."

He had the grace to feel a little ashamed. "I'm sorry about that. And yes, we'll talk about it soon." But his tone was cold.

Lorelai hesitated but decided to push a little bit more. "I would just really like it if you would take some time and think about why you're doing this," she said, trying to sound gentle. "I—I just really think it's important to talk about things like this if we want our marriage to work."

"I said I would," Luke replied, a little annoyed again.

She was silent and again he felt a prick of shame. "Okay, I'm going to go. Ummm—could I call you after the party tomorrow and tell you how it went?"

She was silent so long that he wondered if she'd hung up. "Lorelai?" he prompted.

Her response was cool in return. "I'm kinda torn here. I really want to be supportive to you—and I think I have been, all this time—but sometimes I have to take care of myself. And, to be frank, right now I'd be happy if I never heard another word about that party."

Luke felt a shock, followed by anger. "Fine," he said shortly. "I'll talk to you in a couple of days."

"Okay. Goodni—" But before she could get it out, he had hung up.

Lorelai sighed and put the phone back in the charger. This is going to be rough going, she thought to herself.