A/N- My muse is dead or dying (I promise I'll bring her back to life like Tinkerbell eventually, but right now I just don't have it in me). Plus, y'know... trainee opera singer and all that (music is what I was made for, but damn is it draining). Thank god for month-long holidays!
And oh my god, Jess would not shut up in this chapter! It's amazing how much that boy talks when he actually has something to say... and how much of a potty mouth he has when he's not in the best of moods.
2. Flashing Neon Signs
It took twenty minutes to go through every hotel in the Philadelphia directory until he finally tracked down the one hosting the New England Middle School Mathletes regional finals. It took half an hour to drive across the city to said hotel. It took fifteen minutes of badgering the blonde behind the reception desk to ferret out the information that the team from Martin Van Buren Middle School (God only knew how he'd managed to remember that name) was occupying the sixth floor. No matter what he said, the girl flat-out refused to give him Luke's exact room number, but she was very free with a warning that if he caused any trouble, she wouldn't hesitate to call the police. It took him five minutes of climbing the stairs (he was too wound up for the elevator) to reach the sixth floor.
One hour and ten minutes total it took to get from that one moment of terrifying clarity to standing on the sixth floor trying to guess which door his uncle was hiding behind (he was more than a little pissed that Luke had turned off his cell phone, because that time could have been cut in half). One hour and ten minutes, and the whole time, Jess's mind was whirring.
His head was full of the briefest of moments in the conversation between Rory and himself from earlier in the day. At the time, he had been too busy enjoying her company to really pay it much heed, but now the words they had exchanged were playing over and over in his head, driving this panicky flight to find Luke...
"So what's the deal with that?" Jess asked, nodding in the direction of the door, where Luke and April had just disappeared.
Rory looked that way as well, her expression faraway and a her brow furrowed with concern. "I really don't know," she said musingly. "I guess I'm just trying to stay out of it, you know? If Mom's not gonna really be involved, I shouldn't be."
Her tone caught his attention. "Is everything okay there?" he asked pointedly.
She shrugged. "I guess. I mean, like I said, it's not really my place."
"Yeah, maybe," he said, not really believing it for a minute, not when she still had that look of worry and hurt in her eyes. "Your mom's not really okay with this, is she? What, does she hate the kid or something?"
He kind of doubted that. He'd only spoken to April for about five minutes total, but he could tell that she was a likeable kid. Not annoying or loud or anything. And while he and Lorelai had their differences- oh boy was that an understatement- she never struck him as the type to carry a grudge against a kid just because her existence was a little inconvenient.
Rory confirmed this with a shake of her head. "No," she said firmly. "It's hard to dislike someone you haven't really met."
That put his ears up in a big way, but before he could ask anything else, Rory was shrugging away her discomfort with a breezy, "So, what's the deal with the crazy sculpture display?"
He wanted very much to pry a little more into the current Gilmore/Danes drama, but he knew Rory well enough to know that she didn't want to talk about it any more. And frankly, he was more than happy to avoid the awkward topics if there wasn't any important reason to focus on them. Luke's weirdness about his kid wasn't exactly Yale-dropout-level seriousness, after all.
Unfortunately, Jess was beginning to think that maybe it was, after all. He, of all people, should have seen the warning signs early. True, he wasn't exactly hanging out in Stars Hollow any more, but he had been talking to Luke more often since the release of The Subsect, and now that he was really thinking about it, some things his uncle had said during those conversations- not big things, not important, mostly just little throwaway comments- that in hindsight were incredibly telling.
He strode down the sixth-floor hallway and, acting on a combination of serendipity and instinct, banged his fist heavily on a door selected at random.
After a few moments he heard a girl's voice ask, "Who is it?"
"My name's Jess; I'm looking for someone," he said.
There was a brief hesitation and he heard the muffled but unmistakeable sounds of a whispered conference of two thirteen-year-old minds, then the door opened, stopped firmly a few inches into its swing by the security chain. A young girl peeked through the gap at him.
"Do you know where I can find Luke Danes?" Jess asked her shortly.
She shrugged. "Most of the chaperones are down at the far end of the hall," she said, her open mouth revealing bands on her braces that were as brightly colored as the ones securing the ends of her cornrows. "I don't know which room Hagrid's in, though." The door slammed shut in his face and from the other side could be heard badly-stifled giggles.
"Aaaaand that's why I hated middle school," Jess muttered under his breath. He headed in the direction the girl had indicated. His strides were long, his pace hurried. His bones were humming with pent-up urgency and determination. He felt jittery and displaced and he was pretty sure that if he hadn't had a few beers earlier, if it weren't quite so late, if he hadn't been quite so convinced that Rory really was there for him tonight, he wouldn't even be here. At the same time, he knew he had to be here.
He knocked on two more doors before he was finally confronted with the sight of Luke in his pajamas, looking at him in bleary confusion.
"Jess, what-?" he began, but Jess had already pushed past him.
Jess looked around the generic hotel room but he didn't really see anything. He rounded on his uncle and fixed him with a fierce stare. "You're screwing it up," he said bluntly.
"What are you talking about?" Luke asked, closing the door. "What are you doing here?"
Jess shook his head and began pacing the small room in agitation. "Dammit, Luke!" he said. "Between the two of us, you're supposed to be the one who gets it figured out and gets the girl and all that fairytale crap, you know? I'm the fuckup, okay? You're not supposed to make the same damn mistakes!"
Luke stared at him warily. "What the hell are you talking about?" Suddenly, a look of awareness crossed his face. "Is this... about Rory?"
"No!" Jess snapped, reverting for just a moment to the temperament he had possessed at seventeen, angry at the world and taking it out on Luke. Then he sighed, and said more calmly, "No, not really. Not directly. Kind of? Dammit, I..." He shook his head again, to clear it. He pointed at the bed. "Sit down. We need to talk."
Luke raised his eyebrows. "Now there's something I never thought I'd hear you say," he teased.
"Not really in a joking mood, Luke," Jess responded tersely. He pulled out the hard-backed chair that had been pushed under the desk in the corner of the room and sat down, once again indicating to the bed opposite him. Luke complied.
"Okay, let's back up a minute here," Luke said. "What are you doing here?"
Jess brought his hands up to his head, massaging his temples tiredly. He had been carried here in a fit of desperation, but now that he was here and starting to think rationally, he wasn't quite sure how to proceed. Finding the right words had never been more important, because this wasn't his own fucked up life he was playing with, it was Luke's as well, but Jess had never been good at finding the right words. When he was locked away with a pen and a notebook or his piece of shit typewriter it was easy, but on the spot, in the moment? Not so much.
"I realized something tonight," he began. "I realized that once you break a Gilmore girl's heart, she's not ever gonna forgive you."
"Jess-" Luke interrupted, a concerned look on his face.
But he wasn't going to let himself be stopped. "And you know what? That's fine. You know? I made my bed, now I guess I'll just have to lie in it. It sucks, and it hurts like hell, and I'm probably gonna be drunk for the next two weeks straight. I guess I earned that. But I will be damned if I'm gonna stand by and watch the same thing happen to you."
"What are you talking about?"
Jess raised a sarcastic eyebrow. "'The woman I'm with, my fiancee, Lorelai, you met her that one time?'" he quoted back to Luke the conversation he had overheard earlier. "Come on, Luke. I talked to Rory, and I know Lorelai enough to know she can't possibly be happy with how... whatever is."
At these words, Luke's shoulders sagged. "Rory said that?" he asked quietly.
"Not in so many words, but it was heavily implied," Jess confirmed. "I'm not an idiot. I put the pieces together. A few things Liz has said, what Rory said earlier, that little display of supreme awkwardness earlier with her and April... something's wrong."
Luke shook his head. "No! I mean, things have been weird, yeah, but it's not really..."
Jess chuckled quietly, and with absolutely no real humor behind it, staring at his clenched hands. "Yeah, that's what I thought, too," he said softly.
"What do you-?"
"Everything was fine," Jess said, eyes stormy and still fixed intently on his whitening knuckles. "That's what I kept telling myself, back then. Rory and I were fine. Dean wasn't a problem, even if he wanted to think he was. I was going to school enough. Bullshit. All of it was nothing but bullshit I kept telling myself so I wouldn't have to risk letting her see I was scared shitless."
He glanced up at his uncle. Luke was looking at him with eyes full of confusion and pity. "Jess, it's been years since-"
"I know it's been years, dammit! Don't you think I'm perfectly aware of that? That's my point!"
"What is this all about? Jess, what happened tonight?"
Jess shook his head. "What happened tonight doesn't matter. It doesn't. What does matter is, you're doing the same thing I did and you can't even see it. You know I'm right."
"Jess..." Luke said weakly.
"What the hell is going on?" Jess asked. "I mean really, not this "April likes me, Lorelai's... fine..." crap you were spinning earlier."
The older man sighed. "I... things have been weird."
"Does Lorelai hate the kid or something?"
Luke snorted. "No. I mean, I don't think so. They haven't seen each other much, so she hasn't really had a chance to form much of an opinion."
Jess bit back a sharp comment about Lorelai's ability to form opinions pretty fucking fast and instead opted for asking, "Then what is it?"
His uncle looked sheepish, staring down at his shoes, resting his elbows on his knees. "I didn't... uh, I didn't tell Lorelai about April for a few months."
"It's just, we'd been waiting to set a wedding date because she and Rory were fighting and we didn't want to make plans while that was still going on but then Rory was back and going back to school and things were just finally getting back on track and I just... didn't want to derail things. I mean, God, we'd talked about having kids together. And suddenly I have this daughter that I didn't know about for years."
"And you think that would impact Lorelai wanting to have kids with you?" Jess asked, not getting it.
Luke shrugged. "What kind of a man doesn't know he has a kid for twelve years? Hell, what kind of man am I if Anna knew me as well as she used to and decided "this is a guy who shouldn't even have the option of being a dad?" Jesus, I'm amazed Lorelai didn't run screaming for the hills right then!"
The penny dropped. "Wait, are you...?" He let out a chuckle of disbelief. "Are you worried about being a bad father?"
"All evidence seems to be pointing that direction, yes."
Jess snorted. "Christ, Luke! I know about deadbeat dads. Rory knows about deadbeat dads. But you know what? We both had a pretty damn good surrogate. There are a lot of shitty fathers out there, but you're not one of them."
Luke looked at him with a complex expression on his face, caught somewhere between confusion and awe. Despite the intensity of this conversation, Jess found that he wasn't willing to discuss the true depths of his regard and affection for his uncle at this particular junction. It was one of the unspokens between them. The two of them were so alike, able to communicate perfectly clearly in few words. They had always done best by skirting around the edges of things, hinting at them and letting the other infer the truth from that, at least when it came to sensitive subjects. The problem for both of them, Jess now knew, was that Gilmore girls were not like that. They needed the words, and more than that, they needed the words and the actions to match.
He pressed on, "But Lorelai knows about April now, and we've established that you're a moron if you think any kid isn't damn lucky to have you as a dad, so what's the problem?"
Luke sighed. "I don't know. Everything's just so weird and forced and-"
"And you just have all this crap on your mind and you feel like if you have to think about one more thing your head's gonna explode and you know there's something wrong between you and Lorelai but you don't think it's too big a deal, except sometimes it feels like you're kissing her just to prove your relationship isn't completely going to shit?"
His uncles eyes widened noticeably, and Jess knew he'd hit it on the head. "How did you-?"
"You and I... we're cut from the same cloth. We're a lot more alike than either of us would like to admit out loud. We react the same way to stuff," Jess explained wryly. "And let me tell you from experience that shutting her out is not gonna fix a damn thing. It's too easy to just stick our heads in the sand and pretend there isn't a problem. Trouble with that is that eventually it blows up in your face. And I don't know what your version of splitting for California will be, but trust me, in the long run it's not worth it."
And just like that, Jess could see he'd touched just the right nerve that Luke wouldn't be able to just push this away and pretend their conversation hadn't happened. If Jess were the kind of person to make to-do lists, he would have been able to put a check mark next to "Knock Sense Into Moron Uncle." He'd fixed it. Well, no, he hadn't fixed a damn thing, but maybe he'd given Luke the wake-up call he needed to do the fixing. After all, it was Luke who was the fixer, not him. He could take it from here.
"I'm... gonna go," he said, standing up abruptly. "I've gotta go... I dunno, drink my weight in whiskey or something."
"Jess..." Luke said quietly, getting to his feet, looking deeply worried.
Jess offered him what even he knew was a pathetic estimation of a reassuring smile. "No, I'll be fine. Just... confronting reality sucks. But it's something we've all got to do sooner or later." He frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe there's a book in that." He filed away the idea, the budding plot that had suddenly taken root, and shook his head. "Just think about what I said, Luke. Hindsight is 20/20, ya know?"
Luke nodded solemnly, and Jess took a minute to fix that image of his uncle in his mind, a perfect picture of a man who still had a chance to save himself if he would only take the time. Then he turned and all but fled from the hotel room.
A/N part deux- I would just like to say that everyone needs to leave this page RIGHT NOW and go listen to Vienna Teng's "Unwritten Letter No. 1" because this is precisely how I have always envisioned Lorelai's pre-LWFTWT feelings for Luke (particularly the lines "bent so close we nearly kiss/although we never will" and "you gave me truth/I chose illusion"). Just... go listen to it. Then come back and review. It'll still be here, I promise.