Actions

Work Header

Living With It

Work Text:

The new girl at the office looks really fucking familiar, and Jess can't figure out why. He doesn't say anything, at first because he's afraid that he might have slept with her (he went through a serious one night stand phase after his second book was published), and letting on that he doesn't remember would be an amateur move, but then later on it becomes a sort of contest with himself to figure out where he's met her before. New York? Nah, her accent's not right. One of Matthew's exes? He doesn't even know her name, when Jess asks.

Chris does all the hiring, anyway. "She's amazing," he says. "Her name's Lindsay. I found her on LinkedIn, she's been doing all our Instagram stuff."

"We're paying someone to post on Instagram for us?" Jess asks.

"Yes, among other things," Chris continues, rolling his eyes. "She also books everyone's travel, and does the expense reports, and writes press releases, and yesterday she said she was interested in getting involved in the author tours, and you know how much of a migraine that would give Matthew - "

"Thank God," Jess interrupts. Matthew has been intensely possessive of setting up the book tours for their authors for years, despite the fact that he absolutely sucks at it. There are several large bookstores in the tristate area that won't even take their calls anymore. "Would she be good at it?"

"She's been good at everything else I've given her," Chris says.

"What are we paying her?"

"Uh - "

"Pay her more," Jess interrupts. "Cut my salary if you have to. I'm gonna go talk to her."

"Please don't sleep with her," Chris pleads. "She's competent and she laughs at my jokes. I really don't want her to quit."

"She's not really my type," Jess says honestly, knocking on the wood of the door frame as he leaves. You know - just in case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I haven't really had a chance to introduce myself yet, which I realized this morning is kind of rude," Jess says, holding out his hand. Lindsay shakes it with a surprisingly firm grip, smiling at him widely. She's cute in a Sweet Valley High sort of way - blonde hair with untreated summer highlights, an uneven natural tan, big toothy smile. She wears floral suit jackets to the office a lot, he's noticed - cutesy pastel-colored business wear with little bows and fringes of lace. "I'm Jess."

"Lindsay," she says. "Don't worry - Matt already warned me you were rude. So I didn't take it personally."

Jess laughs despite himself. "Good."

"There's a lot of new people anyway," she continues. "Did you guys have a lot of people quit en masse a few months back or something?"

"Or something," Jess says. "We actually got a grant, believe it or not."

"Ah."

"So we used interns before, but now we can actually pay people, so." Jess waves his hands at the office at large. "It's like we're a real live business now."

"Exciting," Lindsay says, nodding and crossing her arms as she leans her weight against the side of her desk. Jess considers her, and decides that he likes her: she's got a wide open face, one of those faces people trust implicitly. There's dog hair on her jacket, and she's wearing very little makeup. Jess also catches a glimpse of a tattoo on her wrist where her sleeve has ridden up - some kind of flower. Of course. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to stare. It's just - have we met before?"

Relief makes Jess' shoulders loosen. "I've been thinking the same exact thing for weeks - yes, I'm sure we have, I just can't remember."

"Yeah, me neither!" She shakes her head, squinting at him. "I didn't recognize your name, but...shit, this is gonna bug me."

"Sorry," Jess says with a laugh, "but it's been bugging me too. Hey Lindsay - do you drink?"

Lindsay blinks at him. "I'm unsure if I should answer that question."

Jess grins. "We have kind of an office thing most Fridays," he explains, "at the bar down the corner. It's not like a formal party thing, it's just that a few of us - at least - end up there most of the time. Would you like to join us?"

A slow smile spreads across her face. "My mom warned me about this, you know, when I moved to the big city," she says earnestly. "Male bosses inviting me out for 'a friendly office drink,' just wanting to get to know me one on one, in a casual setting..."

"I'm not your boss," Jess says with a snort, "that's Chris, and he's extremely gay. If it makes you feel better, you can bring your boyfriend."

It's her turn to snort. "I don't have a boyfriend."

"Even better," Jess says, still squinting at her. He knows he knows her. He's absolutely positive. He just can't remember how. "They bring down the vibe."

"I bet," Lindsay says dryly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jess wasn't lying about the office bar thing - it's become a tradition by now. Jess makes a point to stop by for at least one drink every week, mostly so the receptionists and interns - well, they used to be interns - don't get a chip on their shoulder about him. He knows how he comes off - holed up in his office (the only one with a door) all day. He doesn't want to turn into J. Jonah Jameson, stomping around the bullpen just to yell at people.

(While he does yell at people, he makes an effort to contain it to Chris and Matt. Because they deserve it.)

"So the three of you started it together?" Lindsay asks. She drinks red wine, Jess has discovered - he decides he likes that too - and has already offered to call an Uber for anyone who needs it at the end of the night. Met with some bemused stares and a few grins, she didn't even blink - a kind woman, who is unashamed of her own earnestness. Yeah, Jess likes her. "Was it one of those basement startup situations? Were you printing books out of someone's garage?"

"We actually did have our own printing equipment, do you remember?" Matthew asks. "In that first bookstore. I mean, it was for like really fancy books, and we broke the thingy after the second time we used it, so - "

"You could only do one at a time, it was like a vanity thing," Chris interrupts, rolling his eyes. "We used it for that chapbook by that horrible poet Jess dated."

"Hey," Jess says, "Carmen wasn't horrible. She just had anger issues - but she was in therapy!"

"A waste of expensive paper, if you ask me," Chris continues, as if Jess hadn't even spoken. "You'll come to learn this about our good friend Jess, Lindsay, if you stick around - he only dates disasters. Or stuck up rich girls."

"That's a fucking lie," Jess says. "Also rich, coming from you."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"He's been having a torrid affair - yes I said torrid, that's what it is - with a man much too young for him," Jess explains to Lindsay, who is watching the three of them over the rim of her wine glass, her lips pursed with amusement. "He's barely even twenty. Hey - hey! Don't get upset, I'm just telling her the truth. She deserves to know."

"You rotten fink," Chris says, gesturing with his martini glass. The last dregs of his drink splash over the side and onto Matthew's arm, who squawks in indignation. "Adrian is twenty-two, thank you very much, and he might be stuck up but he's not rich. So there - ow!"

Matt, who has clearly just kicked him under the table, grins. "His daddy is."

"Adrian Laurent," Jess confides to Lindsay, who is now giggling cutely at them. "Son of the Manhattan Laurents. Cut off by his parents, is the understanding, but he's got a big fat trust fund waiting in the wings - oh hey Christopher, when you said you were working on a retirement plan, that wasn't what you meant, was it?"

"Fuck you," says Chris sulkily.

"So you do date stuck up rich girls," Lindsay says, turning to Jess.

"What? No. What?" Jess rolls his eyes at the other two, making faces at him over her shoulder. "I mean, here and there, I guess. There's plenty of them who turn up at our parties. The author thing is like catnip to the Ivy League set."

"Classy, Jess," Matt chimes in. He taps Lindsay's elbow. "That's his way of trying to impress you by how experienced he is."

"I'm not - fuck you," Jess says, crumbling into a laugh. Lindsay seems brightly amused still, content to lean back and watch the byplay. "If I was trying to impress her I would be showing her all my literary prizes, asshole, not talking about what a huge slut I am."

"He is a slut," Chris says sadly. "We've tried to rehabilitate him, but he doesn't want to be helped."

"That's right, that's right," Lindsay says, narrowing her eyes and wagging her finger at the table, "I remember that from the job interview - the O. Henry Prize, right? And longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner. By the end of it I was definitely impressed, and I don't even read."

"That's why I hired her," Chris says to Jess. "I knew she had a good head on her shoulders."

"You don't read?" Jess asks. Lindsay shakes her head mid-drink, the stem of her glass wagging back in forth. "I don't buy that. I bet you read. I bet you read like - Jodi Picoult novels, and...I don't know. Dorothea Benton Frank."

"Oh God," Lindsay sputters. "My mother reads those."

Jess grins. "James Patterson."

"No! No way." Lindsay's shoulders straighten, in the face of a challenge. "Actually, I like sci-fi. And horror."

"What up!" Matthew shouts. "Called it!" He smacks Chris' shoulder so hard he staggers against the table.

"I met Joe Hill at New York Comicon last year," Lindsay says proudly. "I have a picture with him where he's holding this Spider-Woman plushie that I bought."

"Stephen King!" Jess says triumphantly. "I should've known. Pretty girls always love Stephen King."

Lindsay grins at him, like she knows something he doesn't. "I need another drink. Does anyone want anything?"

"Yes, we do," Matthew answers, "but you better not put it on your tab. Jess - go with her."

"I wasn't going to! Seriously, you don't have to come with me - "

"How are you gonna carry four drinks? Come on." Jess nudges her shoulder with his elbow, draining the last of his bourbon as he rises from the booth. "We're hip to your game, sister. You're way too nice - Chris will drink you out of house and home."

"If Jess is paying, then I want a cocktail," Chris demands, shoving his martini glass aside. "Lindsay, pick out the fruitiest one. No pun intended."

"You betcha," Lindsay replies, with one hundred percent seriousness, and Jess nearly trips over a barstool.

You betcha, Matt mouths silently, as Jess passes his chair. Jess smacks the side of his head, and doesn't feel bad about it.

There are two other tables of their people in various spots around the bar - the distribution people are in a booth by the door, and wave at Jess as they pass, and two of the girls from reception are huddled over somebody's cell phone at a two-topper. Lindsay keeps up with him easily in the semi-drunken crowd, looking completely unbothered, and edges up next to him at the bar like she's at a garden party instead of a fake Irish pub in downtown Philly on what's looking to be a messy Friday night.

"Were you just drinking the house red?" Jess asks, elbowing out a little space for her. "Because they have a wine list here. I think."

"House is fine," Lindsay says. "Are you hitting on me?"

Jess coughs on his own spit, caught off guard.

"I just wanted to be clear about it," she says apologetically. "Sorry, I'm kind of a blunt person. Are you okay? Do you need some water?" She reaches for the free jug, next to her arm, and starts to pour him a glass.

"I'm fine - yes, okay, I'll drink the water," Jess says, taking it obediently. "I'm...not really sure how to answer that question."

"It's okay if you are."

"Would you be...on board, if I was?"

"I would be...open to the idea," Lindsay says, her head tilted askew, like a bird. "We work together."

"Yeah." Jess glances over at the bartender, who is still caught up with the large crowd of college kids to their left, and takes the opportunity to look at her, as she's looking over too. She's beautiful - no denying that. Funny, smart. She's definitely never read his books, which is a plus in the pro column at this point. And she's wearing sneakers underneath her dress pants, which is the most charming thing Jess has seen in months. "Matt and Chris really like you."

"I really like them." She bites her lip. "I kind of really need this job. It's not that I couldn't find another one, I guess, but - every other place that was giving me interviews was in New York, and I really can't afford to commute right now. And God, I can't even imagine what a headache it would be to try to move there."

"It's a lot harder now than it used to be," Jess agrees. "Otherwise I'd still be there myself."

She smiles faintly. "You're from there? Originally, I mean?"

"Yeah - Long Island."

"But you don't have the accent!"

"You should hear me around my mom," Jess says wryly. "I sort of trained myself out of it, but when I'm around her and my stepdad it just comes right back out."

Lindsay grins. "Say 'cawfee.'"

"No," Jess says.

"Please?"

"Fuck no," Jess says, grinning at her. "You gotta buy me dinner first."

"Fair enough." Her grin dims a little, and she peers sideways at him through her eyelashes. "What's your last name again?"

"Mariano," Jess says. He finally catches the bartender's eye, who gives him a 'you're next' nod. "Do you want to Google me really quick? I'll pretend I won't notice."

"I can wait until I go to the bathroom," Lindsay replies. "More time to scroll that way."

"Makes sense," Jess says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jess honestly doesn't make a habit of messing around with coworkers, but this is mostly because the majority of his coworkers are college kids, up until now. The only other people who have stuck around on any kind of long term basis are Marlena - a lesbian who runs their warehouse with an iron fist - and Karla, who is married with two cute little kids.

Lindsay is understandably skeptical, and a few more drinks in, Jess is less interested in talking her out of her hesitance and more interested in making her laugh. Things are simpler when your goals are simple. The complicated shit - sex, work, literary fiction - can be dealt with in the morning.

"Now, watch, he's about to go in for his signature move," Jess says, pointing rather obviously with his glass. Chris has long abandoned them for the comforts of Adrian's two-story apartment in Washington Square, but Matthew is laying the moves on an unimpressed-looking woman in a sundress out on the sidewalk. Through the open balcony windows of the smoking patio, Lindsay and Jess are watching and providing commentary. "He's showing her pictures of his cats, and - bam. In for the kill."

"Brushing the hair away from the eyes, a classic," Lindsay says in approval. "Not too pushy, but not subtle either."

"Hm, yes, I agree," Jess says. "Hold on a minute, you just have a little - "

Lindsay laughs, batting his hand away as he reaches for her bangs, which have been falling into her eyes all night. Jess doesn't know how women put up with that shit. His own relationship with his hair comes down to 'is it clean?' and 'will I get kicked out of restaurants?' "You are absolutely shameless!"

"Yes, I've heard that," Jess says, letting his hand fall back to the table with a shrug. "I mean, you had some lint, but whatever. Don't have to take my word for it."

"Tell me," Lindsay says, angling her shoulders inward as she props her chin on her knuckles. She's taken off her suit jacket, revealing this ghastly pink blouse underneath, which makes her look like some sort of Broadway backup singer. "Do you make passes at every new employee you guys hire? I'm just trying to figure out if this is some sort of hazing ritual or something."

"It's not hazing," Jess says. He swallows, faintly alarmed at the idea. "Wait, do Chris and Matt haze people? Did they tell you had to pick up a package from the warehouse on your first day?"

"Um, yes, but I didn't believe them and then Britney from accounting came by and yelled at them," Lindsay says. "Have you considered an HR department, maybe?"

"Yeah, his name is Walter but he fucking sucks," Jess says glumly. "You'll understand once you meet him."

"Wait - the loud guy with the toupee?"

"We can't fire the HR guy for being mean to people," Jess complains, "I mean - we probably could, but we'd need to cover our ass about it and the only person who's qualified to advise us is the guy we wanna fire, so."

"I can help with that," Lindsay says confidently.

"What - seriously?"

"I worked in HR at my last job," she explains.

"Oh," Jess says, at length. That explains the floral jackets. "Oh, Jesus. Chris was right, I really can't sleep with you."

Lindsay blinks her big eyes at him in confusion. "Um."

"Can you do me a favor and try to look a little uglier?" Jess asks. She's startled into laughter. "No seriously - I wasn't trying to be gross, and I really did just invite you out to get to know you. But then, you know. You're very beautiful."

"Thank you," Lindsay says, grinning widely, her eyes sparkling.

"And very sweet." Jess does a double take at himself. "And I'm drunk. Wow."

"You're sweet too," Lindsay says, tapping the base of her glass against the side of his wrist, "when you drink."

"Thank you." Jess frowns down at his own hands, surprised at himself. He's not usually this pushy, or this impulsive. And he still can't place where he knows her from. "What's your last name?"

"Lister."

He shakes his head. "Doesn't ring a bell. I'm gonna take a wild guess that you haven't spent much time in Long Island."

"Never been there," Lindsay says. "And I just moved to Philly a month ago. Only been here once or twice before I moved."

A stone of dread settles into Jess' gut. "Where are you from?"

"Well, New Hampshire originally, but my folks moved us to Connecticut when I was a junior in high school," Lindsay says, and Jess almost chokes on his bourbon. "This really small town outside Hartford - you probably haven't even heard of it - "

"Stars Hollow," Jess blurts. Lindsay's face pales, and she lifts her head up to look at him. The edges of his vision sharpen all of a sudden, like the transition from a flashback into present day in a movie. "Holy - "

" - shit," Lindsay says, "holy shit, holy shit!" She leaps to her feet, pointing. "You're - you're that guy! Diner guy!"

"Diner guy's nephew, actually," Jess says, still frowning deeply. "Did we - did we have a math class together?"

"Yes! Ohmigod, I remember now - you sat in the back, and you hardly ever showed up. But your locker was across from mine, I used to see you in the cafeteria…" something else must occur to her then, because her face goes even paler, and one palm rises to cover her mouth. "Oh my God."

"What?" Jess asks nervously. He still doesn't really remember her, other than a faded memory of a blonde girl with pink braces - if that was even her. There had been quite a few blonde girls with braces, at Stars Hollow High. "Did I say something mean to you? I was kind of a dick back then. Hazards of being a miserable youth - "

"I have to go," Lindsay interrupts, scrambling for her jacket and her purse. "I'm really sorry, I just - I have to go - "

"Hey, hold on," Jess says, abandoning his drink and pushing back from the table to catch her arm, alarmed by her haste. "Look, I'm really sorry if I did something to you back then, honestly - don't leave, please - "

"I'm sorry," Lindsay says again, her face oddly stricken. Some instinct of Jess' tells him to let go of her, which he does, and her shoulders instantly relax. "You didn't do anything - it's not your fault. I just - I just have to go. Okay? I'm really sorry."

She looks like she might be about to cry. "Okay," Jess says, feeling suddenly very sober.

"I'll see you Monday, okay?" Lindsay says, smiling wanly. She doesn't meet his eyes.

"Please let me call you a car," Jess says. He reaches out to touch her shoulder, but stops himself at the last second. "I'll stay here, you can wait for it outside. But it would make me feel better, because you're upset. Is that okay?"

She bites her lip. "That's really nice of you."

"I moonlight as a decent guy," Jess says, pulling out his phone. "But only on weekends. Here - put in your address."

Lindsay takes his cell with shaky hands, still visibly upset. But when she hands it back, she meets his gaze, and she looks moderately more composed. "Thank you. Honestly."

"You're welcome." They stand there for a second, caught in some awkward tension that Jess doesn't understand, until Lindsay breaks eye contact again, looking down to fiddle with her purse. "Do you want me to leave now?"

"If you do, then the Uber driver will get confused," Lindsay says wryly. She shakes her head, rubbing at one of her eyes with two fingers, taking a deep, bracing breath. "Do you smoke, Jess?"

"I'm a writer from New York, of course I smoke," he tries to joke, and is rewarded with a small smile. "Do you? You don't strike me as the type."

"I'm full of surprises," Lindsay says, sounding dry, almost bitter. "Come on. Share one with me while we wait."

"Alright," Jess says, still confused but willing to go with it. It's a feeling that he's sort of used to, when it comes to women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing Jess does when he gets home is Google her, which gives him nothing. Then he does a search on Facebook, which is moderately more successful, which means that she has one - but it's totally locked down, her profile picture just a bland shot of her arm-in-arm with an older woman who is clearly an elderly relative, and her 'About' section is almost totally empty. Jess clicks on the 'mutual friends' list out of desperation, but most of the people they have in common are people from the office. The only Stars Hollow name they have in common is Morty, which doesn't mean anything since Morty's page is actually Babette, and Babette friends everybody.

Jess wouldn't say he visits Luke often, especially now that Rory is living there again with her daughter, the two of them taking up permanent residence in the diner's corner booth. Lorelai Gilmore the Third is her name, although Luke and Lorelai call her 'Nori' for some reason nobody's explained to Jess, and of course she's Stars Hollow's most adored citizen. Jess feels super awkward about the whole thing in general.

But he's kept in touch - made an effort to, actually, since he's occasionally reminded that Luke is not a young man anymore, and his mom's not getting any healthier either, what with her chain smoking habit and the occasional coke binges she and TJ indulge in now that Doula is old enough to spend the night at Uncle Luke's house. As Jess himself has gotten older, he's started to come to terms with the realities of life, which will probably include a heart attack at some point - Luke or somebody Jess cares about, God knows the Mariano/Danes family isn't known for low blood pressure - and he doesn't want to be the person who finds out last. So - he's tried. He goes down for Thanksgiving, and white knuckles his way through the Gilmore Girl Show. He chats with his sister on the phone, he responds to his mother's emails - even the stupid chain ones, or the fake-science articles she sends him about cannabis pills, or whatever the hell she's into lately. He even went to one of the town festivals, the last time he was there. Willingly. (Mostly.)

He spends most of his Saturday pacing, trying to focus on writing and failing, then trying to read and not getting very far with that either. He can't get the look on her face out of his head - like she was on the verge of tears, just because he used to live in her hometown? Chris is going to fucking kill him, if Jess has managed to scare her away completely. Plus, he feels bad.

So he calls April. "Lindsay Lister?" she says incredulously. "Lindsay Lister works for you. At the publishing house?"

"No, at my other business - yes at the publishing house," Jess says. "She's the new...office person." It occurs to him that they haven't actually given her an official title. "Also maybe the HR person. But she does travel arrangements too. Office manager?"

"Of all the gin joints in all the world," April says, still sounding incredulous. "Wow."

"Who is she?" Jess asks, nearly tearing out his hair in frustration. "We didn't even recognize each other at first, until she mentioned where she was from. I think I remember her from high school? If I even talked to her at all, it must've been, like, nothing - but she looked like she saw a fucking ghost when she remembered me, so there's gotta be something I'm missing - "

"Oh - oh wow," April says, "you don't know the story?"

"Obviously not."

"The Dean and Rory story?" The names hit Jess squarely in the solar plexus. "Not like - when you lived here, but afterwards. When they had that affair."

Jess fumbles for his desk chair and lowers himself into it slowly, his hangover from the morning suddenly returning with a vengeance. "Oh. Yes, I have. I have heard parts of that story."

"I mean, I was only like eleven when this happened, and I hadn't even met Luke yet," April says quickly, "so I only know the facts from Lorelai's friend Sookie, who told me when she was a little tipsy at the Autumn Haybale Race a few years ago, so I don't know all the details, but…" April takes an audible breath. "Anyway, Lindsay was Dean's wife. The person he and Rory were, uh. Cheating on. And I guess the whole thing, when it came out, was pretty ugly."

"Jesus," Jess says, lowering his aching head into his free hand.

"So, yeah, no wonder she looked like she wanted to throw up," April continues, not unsympathetic, but still as blunt as ever. It's one of the reasons she's one of the family members Jess actually likes talking to - how she can be really nice, in a really mean way. "She probably remembered you as...you know. Rory's boyfriend."

Jess remembers very well how the entire fucking town had set their eyes on him, the second he'd set eyes on Rory - if he's being honest, they were never alone in that relationship for that exact reason. If it wasn't Dean, it was Lorelai, if it wasn't Lorelai it was Luke, and if it wasn't any of them then it was some random lady who once babysat her in second grade, and wanted to know all about Jess' intentions. It'd been like going through puberty in a fish bowl - he still doesn't know how Rory survived it. "Yeah. No wonder."

"I can't believe she ended up at your office, of all places! That's so weird," April says. "Small world, huh?"

Jess stares at his black laptop screen morosely. Chris is definitely going to kill him. "No kidding."

 

 

 

 

 

 

You know, if they had a decent HR person, then Jess would have someone to ask for advice, but all they have is Walter, who really is terrible. He eats donuts at his desk but never cleans it, so it's always sticky, and he just fucking yells at everybody, and so Jess walks into work Monday morning with the generally doomed air of someone who is about to be in a real weird situation.

Lindsay's not at her desk, which doesn't necessarily mean anything since Jess is early. So like a big fat coward, Jess retreats into his office to wait for the inevitable, which comes around mid-morning, with a soft knock on the door that he knows has to be Lindsay. Chris and Matt never knock - they just barge in, and sometimes throw things.

"Hey." She looks a little sheepish, but otherwise normal, with absolutely no trace of that stricken realization she'd worn Friday night. "Sorry - do you have a minute?"

"Yeah, sure. Yeah." Jess stands up, so they're on equal footing, but standing behind his desk also feels weird, so he ends up walking around to sit on the edge like some kind of high school principal trying to be cool. Lindsay doesn't even blink. "Are you, uh - feeling better?"

"Much." She clasps her hands, and seems to gather her courage, even nodding a little to herself in the moment before she speaks, which really is incredibly fucking cute. "I just wanted to clear the air a little, if that's okay. I assume you...put the pieces together? About why…?"

"Ah, yes, I was...reminded of the details," Jess says delicately, wincing.

"Well. Yes." She nods again. "First off, I want to apologize, because I'm sure that freaked you out, and I'm sorry about that. Secondly, I want to assure you that I had no idea who you were when I applied for this job - seriously. I know how this looks, but I honestly didn't even recognize your name until you mentioned Stars Hollow the other night - "

"Whoa, no, whoa," Jess says, waving his hands, "that's not even - no, I wasn't even thinking that, it's fine - "

"Please let me finish?" she asks, and Jess obligingly shuts up. "I know you probably weren't thinking that, but let me tell you anyway, okay? I didn't know who you were, and I didn't apply for this job on purpose. And I really hope that...it's not going to affect our working relationship," she finishes, a little hesitantly, like she's unsure if that's the right thing to say.

"I think," Jess says slowly, "that if anything was going to affect our working relationship, it was me making terrible passes at you all night. Which I'm very sorry about, sincerely, and it won't happen again, I promise - "

"Oh," Lindsay says, sounding surprised, "that's not - "

"Now you let me finish," Jess interrupts, and she cuts off her own sentence with a small smile. "I do honestly feel bad about that - I was drunk, and it was inappropriate, and the last thing I want to do is make you uncomfortable, which I obviously did at the end. So. I'm very sorry."

"You didn't make me feel uncomfortable," Lindsay assures him softly. "What made me uncomfortable was...being taken off guard, when I remembered where I knew you from. And since that's not going to happen a second time, I think we're good."

"Good," Jess says, still not a hundred percent reassured, since he remembers very clearly telling her she was beautiful. Which seems like just a terrible cherry on top of an awkward cake.

"So, um, professionally, I don't think we're in any trouble, but," Lindsay fidgets a little with her hands, lacing her fingers together and bouncing them against one of her thighs as she speaks, "personally, I just want you to know - it's not like it bothers me anymore. What happened with uh, you know, I mean - it was a long time ago, and I've moved on, and - "

"Hey, you don't have to explain anything to me," Jess starts, but she waves him off.

"No but I do, because I think we were becoming friends and I'd like to keep going with that if we could," Lindsay explains. She takes a deep breath. "Look. You obviously know what happened, and you know why I freaked out - it was just that it surprised me, that's all. Dean and I...it really was a long time ago. And what happened with Rory..." Here, she looks a little queasy, swallowing a couple times before she continues. "Yes, that part still bothers me, but not so much that it keeps me up at night or anything. Does that make sense?"

"Yeah," Jess says. He sighs. "I know it's a weird thing, a hard thing - that we're sort of associated already through something bad that happened to you, and I definitely don't want to remind you of something that's painful, so I would understand if you wanted to...keep your distance."

"I have a feeling," Lindsay says, with a slow smile, "that that's not going to be possible, in this office."

Jess can't help but smile back. "I swear we're professional. Sometimes."

"I've seen glimpses of it, here and there." She lets her hands fall loosely against her sides, and smiles ruefully. "Look, to be honest I was having a really good time before that happened. And I don't have very many friends here yet, and I've been worrying all weekend that I completely freaked you out, and I just...was hoping we could start over. Is that possible?"

"Yes, duh, of course," Jess says, reaching out to take her offered handshake with a short laugh. "I mean - we don't actually know each other, so. It should be easy."

"Right," Lindsay says, practically beaming as they shake hands for the second time. "We just have...people in common. That's all."

"Very diplomatic," Jess praises. "That's what we should say when Chris and Matt ask us about it."

She nods, looking very serious. "Well we definitely shouldn't tell them the truth."

"Oh, definitely not," Jess agrees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The awkwardness fades quickly, and soon Jess can't remember why he'd been so weirded out: it starts to become the most natural thing in the world to see her ratty old Buick parked behind his in the lot, to wave a 'good morning' at her as she walks past his office with her bulging messenger bag and steaming thermos of coffee, to stop by her desk around midday to make sure she's not working through lunch again. She's always smiling at him - waving back, catching his eye at meetings to roll her eyes at something, forwarding him funny emails from the indie authors who are always sending in their unsolicited manuscripts or weird comments they get on their social media accounts. She's got a very secret, very vindictive sense of humor that Jess finds incredibly charming.

She's friendly and efficient, and a lot smarter and more competent than people give her credit for (on account of her flowery clothes and those sweet, folksy figures of speech she likes to use) which Jess starts to figure out is an impression she gives on purpose. She likes to be underestimated, is his feeling, which is confirmed the first time he sees her rip Matthew to shreds over his expenses - an incredibly entertaining staff meeting that instantly becomes legendary among the staff at large.

"I love her," Chris says ardently, pulling Jess into the breakroom one morning to show him the cookies Lindsay baked for Valentine's Day. There's an assortment of fancy hipster flavors, with little labels written on the back of business cards (the ones with common allergens are in bright red Sharpie): white chocolate with matcha green tea, dark caramel with butterscotch, salted potato chip with dark chocolate, sugared honeycomb with orange zest. Jess picks one up and thinks for the millionth time about what a stupid fucking idiot Dean Forrester is. "Jess, I want her to work for us forever."

"Matt's not such a big fan anymore," Jess says amusedly, trying one of the honeycomb ones. His eyes almost roll back in his head. "Oh my God."

"Right? Oh my God." Chris snags the last matcha one, wrapping it in a napkin and stuffing it in his suit pocket. "If anything, that's a perk. I can't believe he's been expensing his fucking Tinder dates."

"I can," Jess says wryly. He loves Matt, would die on a battlefield for Matt (should the need ever arise), but Matt is an irresponsible trust fund kid who's never had to work an actual job in his life. Even his position here is mostly just a formality, since his parents invested the startup cash they needed to get going twelve years ago. Mostly he schmoozes at the parties, which is very helpful - extremely helpful sometimes - but as far as business acumen goes, the guy is worse than hopeless. "Chris, man, can I ask you something?"

"No, you shouldn't sleep with her," Chris says.

"Give it a rest," Jess replies, rolling his eyes. "I was gonna ask if you think it's a good idea to bring her with us to Portland."

"Sure, why not," Chris says with a shrug. "She can tweet about it. Have you been reading our twitter lately?"

"Uh," Jess says, "no."

"She's really funny, and I think people might actually be reading them now," Chris says. He leans in, his face creased in concern. "Why are you really asking?"

Jess takes another cookie. "No reason."

"Oh my God, do you like her?" Chris hisses, punching him in the arm.

"No! Fuck off," Jess says, grabbing two more - one of each flavor - and sticking them in his pocket like Chris had just done. "I was just checking if another person was in the budget. Jesus."

"Yeah, you're so worried about the budget," Chris says, rolling his eyes. "That's it - I'm setting you up with Dana."

"What! No," Jess sputters. "I'm not gonna blind date your fucking cousin, Christopher."

"She's nice, and she really wants to meet you! If you just gave her a chance, then maybe you'd actually manage to date somebody healthy for a change," Chris insists. "She's got a 401k and she's never been married, and she's not related to anyone in your family, so right away she's got a leg up on the competition."

"Fuck you," Jess says.

Chris narrows his eyes at him. "I'm putting Lindsay in a separate hotel for Portland," he threatens. "In a totally different part of the city. So don't even think about it."

Jess would feel insulted, if he didn't secretly think that was sort of a good idea. "I'm still not dating your cousin," he says.

"Your loss," Chris says, and takes another cookie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AWP is always a long, annoying pain in the ass ever since Jess started to get famous on his own - most of the time he attends on behalf of the publishing house, but since the O. Henry prize his agent has started double-booking him for panels and shit, too. Last year Jess did three different ones in the same day and still had to help Matthew run their booth on the conference floor, which absolutely sucked. He was so burned out by the end, he doesn't even remember half of what he'd said on that last panel, which had been moderated by Karen Joy Fowler. Jess felt extremely cheated; he hadn't even gotten to talk to her, really.

It still feels like a weird dream - his success. His therapist calls it 'imposter syndrome,' which Jess thinks is an overly complicated way of talking about his inferiority complex. He's working on the final drafts of his third novel now, which his agent is determined will win some real prizes - 'Booker' has been thrown around once or twice, which always makes Jess laugh sort of hysterically to himself as he reads the emails - and he has to keep reminding himself that it's real, that it's actually happening.

His sister Lily is his harshest critic - she's still living with Jimmy and Sasha, now well into her twenties, running the hotdog stand practically by herself ever since Sasha's diagnosis. It seems to be a situation that works well for everyone: Jimmy seems much happier being a full-time house husband, and Lily seems content to bum around at home, spending most of her free time reading and making weird/funny YouTube videos with her mom. She's edited everything Jess has ever written, and takes it personally whenever he tries to pay her. She keeps him honest, he's found.

Are you in love? she emails him, replying back with some rambling critique of a piece Jess has been working on for an anthology Matt wants to put together. Because this is way more sentimental than your usual. I mean, I like it! Don't get me wrong. But I kept feeling like you were revealing more than you intended to. Do you wanna call me?

Jess does not really want to call her, since calling Lily inevitably means a conversation with Jimmy and Sasha, and he's not sure he can hold up underneath that sort of peer pressure. I'm not in love, he emails back instead, you always assume I'm in love every time I write anything that's optimistic. Are you in love?

I'm too busy to fall in love, which is what Lily always says, even though Jess knows for a fact that she's head over heels for Maggie, the girl who does face painting a few yards down from the hotdog stand on the boardwalk. Jess has been patiently nudging her for months to make a move. (As subtly as he can, which is: not very subtly at all.) But I'm very good at sensing when other people are in love, and I think you're in love. Did you meet somebody? Tell me, or I'll tell Dad you're dating someone, and then you'll really be in trouble.

Jess groans out loud when he reads that one; Jimmy in his middle-to-late age has developed a passionate wish for grandchildren, which is now solely Jess' responsibility since Lily has declared herself the "gayest kid-hating lesbian ever," direct quote. So he cracks his knuckles, and writes a two-thousand word email about a made up girlfriend, whom he names Evelyn. She's a professional disc golfer, she's allergic to parrots, mostly illiterate (grew up in a cult, very sensitive story, he'll tell her later) and the sex is absolutely amazing.

Lily sends it back to him in a Google Doc with editing notes. His character development could use some work, she says.

"I don't think it's sentimental at all," Lindsay says, over lunch one day. She's been slowly working her way through Jess' body of work; she started with his first novel, which now makes Jess cringe to read (he was way too young to publish; it's embarrassing to even think about it now) and has begun to insist on reading the same drafts that Jess sends to Chris and Matt. She's too nice to be useful - she flatters him too much - but Jess finds himself aching for her opinion anyway. It feels dangerous; like flirting. Which they haven't done, since that first night - but this sort of thing feels more intimate anyway. Jess has a bad feeling about it. "It's more...wistful."

"My sister doesn't really have a good sense of the difference between those two things," Jess explains. "She's too Californian."

Lindsay grins at him. "Is that another way of saying she's not cynical enough? Or is it too cynical?"

"Maybe a little of both," Jess says. "Cynical about relationships, but not cynical enough about love itself."

"Sounds like your typical twentysomething to me," Lindsay says. She wears a pendant every day, that she normally keeps tucked beneath her collars, but leaning over his computer at his desk, it's slipped loose. Jess keeps getting distracted by it, swinging over the keys every time she reaches for the mouse. "Are you saying you don't believe in love as a concept? I wouldn't have thought so, after reading your writing."

"What do you mean?" Jess asks, taken aback.

"I mean you write about love all the time," Lindsay says, with a little laugh. Like it's obvious. "Come on. Everything I've read so far is about love. Different kinds of love, sure - but it's still love."

Jess doesn't know how to feel about that. He writes about families, mostly, which he's sure surprises nobody. His first novel, The Subsect, was about a man who had escaped a cult, but left his son behind; Rory had gone on and on for ages about how heartbreaking it was. Most of his writing tends to focus on some sort of betrayal, or unsolvable conflicts; Jess likes puzzling out situations where everyone's at fault, but also nobody is, all at the same time. "I never really...thought about it like that."

"Really though," Lindsay continues, "all good fiction deals with love, if you really break it down to its most basic parts. That's writing 101, isn't it? A hero's motivation comes from devotion to either himself, his community, or something he believes in. Right?"

"You're getting too collegiate for me now," Jess jokes. "Keep that scriptwriting nonsense to yourself, Double El."

Lindsay shrugs playfully. "Your characters are always outwardly motivated, is my point," she says. "You write about people who want to connect, but can't, for some reason. That's the tragedy at the root of this story: that he wants to forgive her, but because of what happened between them, she can't allow herself to be forgiven. The ending is sort of happy, but the romanticism of it is sad - they'll never be like they were when they were young. They'll always have that betrayal between them, even though they're still together."

Jess is quiet for a moment, staring at the remnants of their sandwiches, pushed aside by his laptop, the draft of the story still up on the screen. He feels sort of exposed, in a way that he rarely does when people read his writing. Even the harshest reviews never make him feel so...seen. "I guess you're right. I was trying to write a happy ending, though. Maybe I'm the one who's too cynical."

"There's a difference between 'realistic' and 'cynical,'" Lindsay chides gently. "That's why you're so good, you know. You can make the really difficult parts of being human - the sad stuff, the painful stuff - seem like a happy ending. Because it is, isn't it? That's just what life is - it's not all one thing. You can hate someone you love and still love them, still be really happy with them even though they hurt you, or maybe they're not totally compatible with you, or whatever - and that's not a bad thing. That's just part of loving people." She smiles at him. "That's why you win awards, Jess. You understand how it works, in a way a lot of people never will."

Jess stares at her, his heart in his throat, and finds that he doesn't have a clue what to say.

"Anyway." She shrugs, hopping off the edge of his desk nonchalantly, like she hasn't just fundamentally shaken something inside of him, something that Jess himself hadn't even been aware of an hour ago. "I did like it. I think Lily's right about the opening, though - you need a little bit more lead up. Starting the story with a fight is off-putting when we don't know the context."

Jess nods, a little dumbly. "Thanks."

"And you're coming to the reading tonight, aren't you?" Lindsay asks, gathering up their trash quickly, putting his desk back to its previous state before Jess can even move to stop her. She's got the mom instincts that a lot of women seem to have: always tidying things up, straightening their surroundings. It always used to annoy him, when he was around girls like that - girlfriends who cooed and doted on him, women who always wanted to know where he was every second, tried to cook him homemade dinners and be touching him constantly - it always made Jess feel boxed in, scrutinized in a way that made him deeply uncomfortable. With Lindsay however, it feels different: to her credit, it seems to come from a less desperate place. She does things for people because she's just…nice. And it never feels like she wants anything out of him in return.

"Yes, I'm coming. And no, I don't want to be in your tweets."

"Oh, come on." She pouts a little. "The videos are getting really popular."

"I'm very aware." Her new Twitter initiative is a series of short, staged videos - almost like skits - involving her dog, a grumpy, extremely lazy bulldog named Peanut. The joke is that Peanut is the publishing house's new CEO, and involves a lot of his giggling coworkers dressing the dog up in a business tie and taking pictures of him propped up at Jess' desk. "I'm not really sure it's doing us any favors in terms of getting people to take us seriously. You know - as a professional business."

"I wanna bring him with us to AWP," Lindsay says blithely. "Would they let him in? And if so, do I need to buy him a badge? Because I wanna do a whole thing with him at the booth - you know, show him networking, attending panels, the whole nine yards."

Jess scowls at her. "These are serious literature people, Lindsay. So no, I don't think they're going to let Peanut in."

She laughs in his face. "You love him. I found those dog treats you hid in the bookshelf in the break room."

Jess had shoved them behind the romance novel galleys that have been sitting there untouched since the day they'd first moved into this office, thinking he was being clever. "Those aren't mine."

"Uh huh," Lindsay says, walking backwards out of his office.

"Seriously, I hate dogs," Jess says. He snaps his laptop shut irritably, seeing an email notification from Lily pop up out of the corner of his eye. "I still can't get the hair out of this desk chair. You owe me for drycleaning."

"Whatever you say," Lindsay says sweetly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Would it be the weirdest thing ever, if it happened? Maybe. Probably as far as visiting Stars Hollow would go. But he's getting ahead of himself: Lindsay's probably not even interested anymore. She might be dating someone else, and even if she weren't it'd be a bad idea anyway, considering they work together. Also Jess has never had a relationship make it to the 'meeting family' stage anyway, unless you count Rory, which Jess doesn't, considering it was over a decade ago. They're just friends, and Jess is being stupid, and letting Chris' teasing get in his head, and also she's not his type! He keeps forgetting.

Type?! WHAT TYPE, Lily emails, after a weak moment in which Jess actually confides in her (he'd been drunk at the time), you don't have a TYPE. You fall for all kinds of women!! Remember Letty?

Letty's off-limits, Jess sends back curtly. The only ex he's still sensitive about, Letty hadn't been his type either. A corporate lawyer, well put together, a little pretentious, expensive tastes - the polar opposite of anyone else he'd ever liked before, and she'd ripped his heart out and stomped on it, which goes to show that Jess should really just stick to the emotionally stunted poets and divorcees on the rebound that he normally dates.

Send me a picture of her, Lily demands. Also, fuck Stars Hollow. Who cares if it's awkward at your mom's house???? It's ALREADY AWKWARD, JESS, YOUR EX-GIRLFRIEND'S MOM MARRIED YOUR UNCLE

Jess huffs and doesn't reply for three days, which prompts Lily to start spamming him with Facebook messages until he gives in and tells her Lindsay's last name. Not even an hour later, Lindsay pops her head into his office, her phone in one hand, and says, "this is your sister, right? Lillian Kayler?"

"You don't have to friend her back," Jess says. "She's got too much time on her hands."

Lindsay smirks, and keeps the screen turned towards him so he can see her hitting the 'accept' button. "You still haven't accepted my friend request, Jess. By the way."

Jess mumbles something and pretends he's distracted by something on his laptop screen. Lindsay smirks at him again, and pops right back out of his office without another word.

She's just always right there, always smiling at him and being cute with her stupid flower jackets and homemade snacks. Jess likes her dog, and yes, okay fine he thinks the videos are funny, and he's dangerously close to letting her read the draft of the new book, which he's never done with a woman before - not even Letty. He wakes up in the morning and thinks about her first thing, some days, wonders what her apartment looks like as he shuffles around his own on the weekends, thinks about texting her all the time, wants to know her opinion about everything. He wants to ask her about her marriage to Dean - desperately wants to know about it, actually, with a burning curiosity that he knows is inappropriate but he can't help himself. He wants to know all these weird things about her - her favorite color, her first concert, her first kiss, what her friends back in Hartford are like, the ones she references all the time casually - Becca and I this, Amanda and I that. He starts biting back the questions, because he knows they're no good. There's no work-related excuse for why he really wants to help her make cookies. It's just way too sappy a desire to mean anything but bad news.

Two weeks before AWP, Lindsay flies to Orlando to visit her parents for a few days, and Jess finds himself depressed, missing her and feeling ridiculous about it. She calls him on the second day to remind him about a meeting he needs to be at and then rants for ten minutes about traffic, and he's in such a good mood afterwards that everyone at the office seems a little freaked out, actually, and Matt keeps asking him if he got laid. This is when Jess knows he has to do something about it.

"You're fucking with me, right," Chris says tiredly. "I'm too busy right now to yell at you. Try again later."

"I'm not fucking with you," Jess says, his fist clenched below the desk. "I really would like to meet your cousin Dana. I think it's a good idea."

Chris just stares at him, his hand halfway suspended in the air, holding a file folder like a wordless threat.

"Does she, uh," Jess says, clearing his throat. "Does she like Italian? I know a good place."

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Chris asks. "Do you have cancer or something?"

"Look," Jess says thinly, leaning forward and grabbing Chris' arm, "we're friends, right? You think of me as a friend?"

"Oh Jesus, you do have cancer," Chris says, stricken.

"No," Jess replies flatly. "No, but we're friends, we trust each other, and this is one of those times when I need to ask you for something and you need to just do it. I promise I will be a gentleman, I'm not going to break your cousin's heart, but I'm gonna be real with you here: I really, really need to get the hell out of my house this weekend. You feel me?"

Chris slowly lowers the file folder, narrowing his eyes the way he does when he's thinking. "Jess," he finally says, "you and Lindsay - "

"Don't, seriously," Jess says.

" - you're adults, that's all I was gonna say," Chris continues on, determinedly. "I'm sorry if I gave you too hard of a time about her. I really was just messing with you."

Jess releases his arm with a deep sigh, rubbing his face with his hand. "It's fine," he mumbles.

"How many people meet people to date at the office?" Chris says, shrugging. "It's not that big a deal. You're not her boss, you don't have the power to fire her or give her raises, so what's the problem? Come on, you've been twisted up about her since the very first day she started."

"It's complicated," Jess says, thinking that he really should tell Chris, at least, the history with Lindsay and Dean and Rory. Matthew might make fun of him, and nobody else they work with needs to know, but Chris would take it seriously. Still, it's not Jess' history to tell. "Can you please just...find me someone to have dinner with? Please? You're always fucking offering, and now that I'm asking you're telling me no, really?"

"Hm, let's see, do I want you to have a one night stand with my cousin because you're too emotionally stunted to date the girl you actually like? Can't imagine why I'm sour about that idea," Chris says. "Go on Tinder if you're that fucked up about it."

"Ugh," Jess says.

"Or, the honest and mature option," Chris says, "you could just, I don't know, ask her out. Like a grown up. The worst thing she could do is say no, man."

The problem is that he's wrong and right at the same time, and this is why Jess is so fucked up about it: she could say no, sure, and it might be awkward for awhile, but Lindsay's an honest person, cool in the way a lot of young professional people are cool. She knows how to ignore awkward things, how to find common ground with everyone in the office, how to smile and nod until the uncomfortable elephant in the room is gone. They could stay friends, and Jess would get over it eventually, and one day she'd find a better job and maybe they'd stay in touch but probably not, and this would be a weird story he could tell one day about this guy from high school he hated so much, he tried to steal his girl twice.

Or she could say yes. And maybe this is the option that would be the worst-case scenario: she says yes, and Jess gets to ask her all the questions he's been saving up, and her answers are just as charming as he's been imagining them to be. They make cookies together, and he finds out how she really feels about Dean and Rory now, and he gets even more invested, falls for her even more like he knows he could if he let himself. They date, and it works, because they work as friends and coworkers, and he knows it could be more, that spark that's been there since the very first night at the bar, and it starts to get serious, and he starts to think about it long term, and then one day he says the wrong thing, tells the wrong story, and it all goes wrong. He finds out that she only likes the idea of him because he's Rory Gilmore's ex-boyfriend, or maybe more likely - because she's too kind to do that, he can't even take the idea seriously - it doesn't work because she can't separate him out from Dean in her head, can't be with someone who reminds her of a girl who slept with her husband.

He's not giving her enough credit, probably, but Jess is too used to the worst case scenarios. His entire life had been a series of worst case scenarios, right up until something clicked, swiveled around on an invisible axis, and suddenly he was getting awards and making money. He still doesn't trust it, which sums up a lot of his emotional problems, really. Therapy doesn't fix that sort of thing overnight.

"Look, Jess," Chris says, "I've known you a long time, and I know that you're lonely. You've been lonely since the day I met you. Back in the day, I thought you were one of those guys that did it to yourself on purpose - you know, when you sabotage all the good stuff in your life, because you just like being miserable?"

"Oh, thanks a lot," Jess says dryly. Chris shrugs unapologetically.

"Maybe that was part of it when we were kids," he continues, "but now, after I know all the dirty laundry with your family, after I've seen you try over and over to make something last with women who are all wrong for you - I get it, man. I get why you're gunshy. But I also know that you'd be so good at it, Jess - and I know that you want it, is the more important thing. You want the partner who's gonna do all the things, support you and appreciate you, back you up no matter what. And I've seen you try to figure it out - in your head, in your books, with your folks. I know you know how to recognize the real thing, because you've spent so much time thinking about what the real thing is. But you have to be brave enough to ask for it, which is the hard part. It's not gonna just fall into your lap."

"You think I don't know that?" Jess asks. "I'm in therapy, I've read all the books. I know it's something you have to build, but Chris - what happens when I ask, and then I find it, and then I fuck it up? What happens then?"

"Is that what you're scared of? Fucking up?"

"Isn't everybody?" Jess runs his hands through his hair, jittery and feeling stretched thin at the edges, like he's gone too long without sleep. "It's been a long time since I tried do something real with someone I really liked. It's just terrifying, that's all - I'd forgotten how terrifying it was. And there's just no getting around that, is there? You just have to feel it."

"Yeah," Chris says quietly, swallowing thickly. "Yeah, pretty much."

Jess tries to shake off the melancholy by jostling Chris' shoulder. "You should take your own advice and dump that trust fund kid. He's just wasting your time, Chris."

"Which is exactly what I want to do, at this stage in my life," Chris replies, with a lifted eyebrow, "waste some time. But I speak for myself, pal, nobody else."

"Uh huh."

"And stay away from my cousin," Chris says. "She's too good for you. I just decided."

"Fine," Jess replies glumly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The AWP organizers unfortunately deny Peanut's attendance, which Lindsay takes in stride. Apparently she hadn't been looking forward to flying him out there anyway, and no way were they going to drive to the opposite corner of the country for a four-day conference.

"I have a solution," she confides, as they sit at a Starbucks at the Chicago airport, an hour into their layover with two more to go. They've been passing the time by hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop, competing to see who can get to the counter first to buy each other the most stuff. Lindsay keeps winning, and she keeps buying Jess little bags of chocolate espresso beans. He's got like three of them, now. "We'll film some stuff at the conference, and then edit Peanut in later. You know like - it'll be me standing in front of the booth, saying something like, 'wow! What a successful conference we had, Mr. Peanut! We made so many useful contacts!' And then it just cuts straight to Peanut, sleeping face down on the carpet at home."

"Or you could print out a picture of him and prop him up at the table with us," Jess suggests.

"I actually had buttons made," Lindsay confesses. "To give away at the booth."

"Good God."

"They only cost me like thirty bucks! And it's a legitimate marketing expense, Jess."

"I'm not wearing one."

"But Peanut will be so disappointed if you don't!"

"I'm not," Jess insists, while mentally preparing himself to wear one. He's definitely going to end up doing it.

Lindsay just shakes her head at him, scribbling a note to herself in her planner. She's got her badge tucked into the inside pocket, and under a tiny picture of her face reads LL, Truncheon Books. Matthew had bought them; Jess is surprised his own badge doesn't say Fuckface Mariano, or something. It probably would, if the AWP people would've let him.

"Does it bother you?"

"Huh? Oh." Lindsay pulls the badge out and loops it around her neck with a grin. "Nah. People used to call me 'Double El' in high school. Better than 'Linds,' which is what Dean used to call me."

She's been referencing Dean more and more often - casually, in the way that you sometimes bring up people you used to know. She'd even spilled the beans to Chris and Matt last week that she'd been married briefly after high school - although she hadn't mentioned the Stars Hollow connection, naturally - and they'd all endured a few days of divorcee-related, oh, no wonder Jess likes you! themed jokes.

"LL's better," Jess agrees. "It's very early 2000s teen movie. Like you're on a spunky volleyball team or something."

"I did play volleyball in high school."

"Of course you did."

"I bet you had me pegged as a cheerleader," Lindsay teases.

"I barely remember you," Jess reminds her, "and I skipped class so much anyway. You could tell me you were class president and I'd probably believe you."

"I remember you," Lindsay says. She's leaning forward on her elbows, her eyes a little dreamy. Maybe it's the airport that makes it easier to talk about openly - that they're in a liminal space, untethered from the normal world. Jess certainly feels much more at ease than he normally does, when they skirt around the issue of their shared relationship with that town. "You were always wearing some sort of jacket, even when it was hot outside, and you had a book with you constantly. You used to really piss off Mr. Baldwin when you would read during his lectures. When you'd talk back to him, and make him look stupid - that was really funny. People liked you because of that, you know."

"Did you like me?" Jess asks, unable to help himself. He doesn't wait for her answer. "It's okay, I already know about the rumor that I dropped out because I got sent to juvie. Also the one about getting arrested for flashing people on the bus. And the one about me and Shane Kiper having sex in the gym teacher's office." Jess pauses. "That one was half true - I only ever made it to second base with her."

Lindsay laughs. "Everyone talked shit about everyone," she says. "It was a small town - nothing ever happened. You were probably the most exciting thing to breeze through that school since our vice principal got fired for keeping booze in his office in ninth grade."

"Wasn't that the guy who went on to open one of the flower stands?"

"Yeah. He moved to Burlington Grove a couple years later, though."

"Do you ever go back?" Jess asks. "Now that your parents live in Florida? I mean, you lived in Hartford for years, you must still have friends around there."

Lindsay shrugs. "You can ask about it, you know," she says. "Dean. I know you're curious."

He winces. "It's none of my business."

"Oh, come on." She waves her hand dismissively. "It was a year and a half of my life, and it ended over a decade ago. I knew I freaked you out, that first night."

"You didn't."

"I did!"

"Okay, you did," Jess admits, "but only a little and I deserved it."

Lindsay just smiles, flipping her planner closed and running her thumbnail around the embossed metal corner of the cover. With her hair falling into her eyes, her face downturned, she looks particularly beautiful but also fairly sad, in a moment that seems designed to take his breath away. "He's married to someone else now, he's got kids. So does Rory. I would be a very foolish person to still be fixated on what happened."

"There's no timeline for getting over things that hurt you," Jess says with a scoff. "And there's no rubric for what's bad enough or hard enough to still affect you years later. You feel how you feel, and that's it."

"That's a very pragmatic way of looking at it," Lindsay says admiringly. "Very...you."

Jess is almost certain that's a compliment. "You know, my dad left us when I was twelve."

Lindsay doesn't reply, raising her eyebrows, her hand stalling on the cover of her planner.

"My mom still isn't over it," Jess continues. "I forgave him a long time ago - Lily and Sasha helped a lot with that. It's much easier to let someone back in when they come as a package deal with a mom and a sister who adore you."

"They sound nice," Lindsay says wistfully.

"They are," Jess says honestly. "They're such good people. Honest people. Even my dad - he's bipolar, you know. He wasn't diagnosed until he was thirty-nine. But that had a lot to do with the problems he and my mom had, and why he left us. It's not an excuse, but it explains a lot. Not everybody like me gets answers to their questions, you know? How many kids get left like I did - thousands, millions? And how many of them get their parents back, with such a good explanation for why? I might be the only one."

"You almost sound like you think you're lucky."

"I am," Jess admits, and realizes for the first time he's right. "It's - you know. I had a rough time growing up. My mom wasn't exactly a responsible parent, and she and Luke kind of played pinball with me for a while, which didn't help. But I got over it - pulled myself together. My mom, on the other hand - she lets things fester, and she holds grudges forever. I still can't even mention my dad around her, let alone Lily and Sasha. And Luke - forget about it. When I left Stars Hollow to go live with Jimmy in Venice Beach, I was sure he would never forgive me."

"But he did," Lindsay says quietly. "For the most part, anyway."

"Yes," Jess says, thinking about April. "Eventually, I think he...readjusted."

"If you're trying to tell me that it's okay for me to still be angry, then I get it," Lindsay says. "It's what my parents tell me, what my friends tell me…"

"I'm not trying to tell you anything," Jess says with a shrug. "I guess I'm just trying to say I would understand. Like I understand my mom - I wish she would forgive him, for her own sake as well as mine - but I get why she hasn't. Why she can't. There are some things that...you can't ever let go."

Lindsay looks thoughtful, pausing significantly before she replies. "It must be difficult for you to be in-between," she says. "To be forced into choosing one or the other when you were younger, and now that you're an adult, to always be negotiating on behalf of hurt feelings and betrayals that you had nothing to do with...that's a lot to put on your kid. More than you deserve."

"It's taught me a lot," Jess says, thinking about April again. She handles it much better than Jess does, some days. "About a lot of different things."

"You are optimistic," Lindsay accuses. "I know you don't think you are, but you are."

"Maybe by comparison," Jess replies with a laugh. "But not compared to you. Next to you, I'm Friedrich Nietzsche."

"I get that from my dad," Lindsay says. "My mom - she's really negative, she always has been. My whole life, she always found something to criticize about me - my hair, my friends, my marriage. She's the reason I jumped into things so quickly with Dean - she always had a way of making me feel like I wasn't doing enough. And after I left him, she made me feel like it was my fault." Her face has soured, her eyebrows pinched together and her eyes locked on something far away. "Like if I'd only been a better wife, somehow, then he wouldn't have cheated on me. She never said that, of course, but that's definitely what she thought. Living with her after the divorce...it was almost worse than anything Dean and Rory ever did to me. It was probably the worst thing that I've ever been through."

"That's...vile," Jess says, frowning.

Lindsay blinks, and shrugs. "That's my mom," she says. "She means well. I think." She laughs a little. "But my dad's different - I've never understood why they get along, because they're so opposite. He always sees the good in people. That's what he was worried about, after Dean. He was always reminding me that there were other good men in the world, that Rory probably didn't mean to hurt me, that I needed to get back out there and find a way to trust people again. At the time, I mean, it drove me crazy, but now that I'm older I can see what he was trying to do."

"What is that quote, about how it's much harder to be kind in an unkind world than it is to let it harden you?" Jess asks. He pauses. "That might be from Star Wars, actually."

"Or Buffy, maybe," Lindsay says with a laugh.

"Whichever. I do admire that about you - that you make the effort to be genuine. So whatever Dean did to hurt you - he didn't ruin that."

"I wasn't going to let him," Lindsay says firmly. She tilts her head at him as she often does when they talk about personal things, blinking slowly, like she's studying him. Jess always feels like he's being swept up by a warm wind - as if her regard is a physical thing he can feel. "Ask what you really want to ask."

Fine. He takes a deep breath. "You know I still talk to Rory - that I'm friendly with her. Her mom's married to Luke, so I see her quite a bit. Does that bother you?"

"I've thought about that a lot, since I met you," Lindsay says. "I do this thing where I imagine the worst case scenario, so I can test myself, you know? What would happen if Rory walked up to us right now, and - I don't know, started saying all these catty mean things to me, and then you agreed with her, and then you dumped my frappucino on my head and walked off together holding hands. You know - realistic stuff."

"So we're like, the high school bullies in this scenario," Jess clarifies.

"It's a thought experiment! Anyway, it doesn't even matter," Lindsay says, waving her hand. "The short answer is 'no,' the medium-length answer is, 'Rory and I will probably never be friends, and I'd be super uncomfortable if I ever had to talk to her in person, but I don't blame her for what Dean did anymore and life is too short to be jealous anyway.'"

"And what's the long answer?" Jess asks, still desperately curious. The implication that she was jealous - that she might be still, that she might have been thinking about him the same way he'd been thinking about her - is quietly thrilling.

"That," Lindsay says with a devastatingly pretty smile, "I'm still working on."

"Fair enough," Jess says. He can't stop himself from smiling back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There's actually six of them there for the conference - Matthew had gone out early to meet up with his brother beforehand, and Chris was flying in last minute so he could finish the payroll before the weekend. Wendy and Niles from marketing are there too, but Jess and Niles don't really get along ever since the thing last year with the birthday cake, so they'd opted to fly out separately.

On the first day, Jess has a panel which is supposed to be about character building but which turns out to be more of a Q&A for the college group crammed into the front rows (which ends up being much more fun anyway) and he's booked to do a reading on the second, but other than that his agent - the most efficient person he's ever met who could also pull off sleeve tattoos - had gone easy on him, possibly because he kept joking about bringing Xanax ever since she started talking about it.

It's always kind of a whirlwind, meetings and panels and workshops all day and then bar crawls all night - it's like Comicon for publishing people. Or maybe a more apt comparison would be Burning Man, considering that pot is legal in Oregon now. They all get invited to a lot of hotel room "afterparties."

Jess doesn't partake. Instead he watches Lindsay, who is absolutely in her element: charming everyone around her, smiling her big toothpaste commercial smile and collecting business cards like they're Halloween candies. Every night they stumble back to the hotel together, dragging a backpack full of swag behind them. Everyone gives out swag at these things - most of it useless crap, of course, ugly beer cozies and cheap pens and shit - but in an attempt to be relevant, a lot of companies have started investing in hipper toys. Jess has been handed miniature video games, fake tattoos, flash drives, a water bottle with a tea infuser in it (very small, but hey - better than just a plain water bottle), a miniature typewriter key chain, and a voice recorder with a modulator on it that he's definitely gonna use to prank call Luke.

The galleys, of course, are his favorite part: advanced copies of books from a dozen different writers he likes, and two dozen more from writers he's never heard of, but who sounded interesting enough on the panels and interviews that he wants to give them a shot. Everything moves so fast, in this line of work, he can never get over it: one day you can be nothing, nobody, just a dumbass kid who thinks he's got something to say - and the next, the entire world is listening. It really is something else.

Is he jealous of the people who can write better than he can, who come right out of the gate swinging, ten years younger and twice as much acclaim? Of course. But Jess likes to take these things as a challenge: he's got a lot of years ahead of him to get better. No writer's body of work should be judged on just one piece, and it's better to be honest than perfect, in his opinion. Like a garden, he thinks sometimes: one season you work on this, one season you work on that. It's a living thing - real time engagement with the world. A conversation, not a speech.

"Anyway that's what I meant to say, but what I actually said ended up sounding much more hippie-ish," Jess explains to a giggling Lindsay, who has been enjoying the hell out of Jess' minibar. (Only after he'd promised her he was paying the bill, though, and not expensing it to the company.)

"I got video," she says. "You sounded very smart and not at all like a hippie. Don't worry."

"Double El," Jess pleads, "please don't put me on Twitter."

"I'm so gonna put you on Twitter."

"Put him on Twitter, LL Cool J," Matt calls drunkenly from the second twin bed. "It's what he deserves. The people know what they want! The people demand Jess Mariano's face on Twitter!"

"I'm gonna dunk both your phones in this vodka," Jess threatens, at which point the evening devolves into a spiral of name calling and shittalking.

Bruised, hungover, and more than a little punch drunk, the who's who of Truncheon fly home about a hundred pounds heavier (books - like they need any more). Jess, however, would never forgive himself if he stepped foot on the West Coast and didn't stop by the homestead in Venice Beach, so he bids them safe travels from behind a pair of Harper Collins sunglasses at the airport.

"Here, this is for your mom," Matthew says, shoving a Toblerone into his hands that he's clearly just bought at the newsagent stand next to security. "Tell her I think about her day and night, and anytime she wants a break from your old man I am ready and waiting in the wings."

"You're disgusting, get away from me," Jess says, shoving the chocolate in his backpack nonetheless. "Christopher, make sure he doesn't sit next to Lindsay. Have the flight attendants intervene if you have to."

Chris barely even looks up from his phone. "Huh? Did someone say my name?"

"No," Lindsay says sternly, elbowing Matt out of the way. Having long gotten over the snafu about his expenses, Matt grins at her like a moron, goofily wagging his eyebrows at Jess over her shoulder. Jess sighs inwardly, and pretends he wasn't looking. "Tell Lily hi for me, why don't you?"

"Tell her yourself, you talk to her more than me," Jess complains, opening his arms reluctantly for the hug she's clearly getting ready to bestow. The first full-body contact he gets with her and of course Chris and Matt are two feet away, making faces at him from a pair of plastic chairs. "Thanks for coming with us. I think you managed to make us look respectable."

Lindsay looks oddly touched when she pulls away, her expression sort of knowing, like she knows what he was actually thinking about saying. The moment feels much heavier than it should - he's only staying in California for two nights, after all - but Jess can't bring himself to feel embarrassed. "It was amazing," she says genuinely.

"I'm glad you liked it." Jess clears his throat, looking over at Chris and Matt, who suddenly find something very interesting to look at on the other side of the terminal. The best he's gonna get: Jess pulls her a few more steps away, loosely holding her wrist. The skin of his palm feels warm long after he's released her. "Look. Uh." She blinks up at him with her big blue eyes, smiling encouragingly, and Jess feels sixteen again, sticking his hands in his pockets so he doesn't fidget, schooling his face so the nervousness doesn't show. "I had fun, too. Usually I don't, at these things."

"You got to meet Karen Joy Fowler again," Lindsay says, nudging him. "She said she liked your second book!"

"Yeah," Jess says, who had barely even thought about that conversation since it'd happened, if he was being honest. It had, quite simply, paled in comparison. "But it was mostly just you being there. That's what I'm trying to say."

"Oh," Lindsay says, her face growing serious. She seems suddenly nervous too, her hands clenching around her purse, which is endearing and comforting, all at once. "Thank you. I really...wanted to be here. With you."

"When I get back," Jess says, a little lightheaded, thinking about what Chris had said: you have to be brave enough to ask. "Would you like to have dinner with me? Somewhere outside of the office, where we won't talk about work. Like at all."

"At night?" Lindsay asks, a growing smile on her face. "After hours? One on one, in a casual setting?"

"Not casual," Jess says. "I was thinking you could wear a dress." He reaches up and touches the sharp angle of her chin, and her eyelashes actually flutter, which is just the most amazing thing. "And I could wear a tie."

"You've never seen me in a dress," Lindsay says, and her voice sounds a little different than normal. Throatier.

"No," Jess says, hearing his own voice drop in register to match hers, "but I've thought about it."

The moment stretches out for ages, the airport sounds swirling together into a meaningless background racket, like a bass line you stop paying attention to in a rock song. Jess slowly lowers his hand, and watches Lindsay watch him, holding his breath at the little twitches in her expression, the natural expressiveness that makes her so engaging.

She's not his type at all. But maybe Jess doesn't know his own type. He's starting to think that he's had it all wrong, all along.

"Okay," Lindsay says, pressing her lips together in-between the words, like she's trying to keep her smile under control. To his amusement, though, she seems to be failing. "Let's have dinner."

"Alright. It's a date."

"Yes," Lindsay says, reaching out to adjust the Peanut button, still pinned to his jacket. "Have fun with your family, okay? Text me when you land."

"Sure," Jess says agreeably, too amused and charmed to care that Chris and Matt are definitely eavesdropping again, having turned back at some point and inched back over. "They're gonna give you shit the whole flight back, by the way. I'm very sorry."

"Better to be honest than perfect," Lindsay chirps, with one last smile and a happy shrug. Jess thinks about that smile for hours, after the fact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sasha has cancer, which is not something Jess likes to think about at all, preferably ever, but it is an inevitable fact: she has cancer, which means she's very sick. She's still young, and very healthy, and the prognosis is optimistic, but she fucking has cancer, and Jess doesn't know what to do with all the things that makes him feel. So it's a work in progress, is what he's saying.

"Look at my new wig!" she says cheerfully, yanking him over the stoop and hugging him right there, in front of the entire street. Jess takes a deep breath, and hugs her back. "Lily picked it out for me, she says I look like Marilyn Monroe. God, it's good to see you, kid."

"I love it, Sash," Jess says, pulling himself free. "What does Dad think?"

"He thinks I'm sexy all the time," Sasha says with a shrug. "His opinion never changes. You must be hungry - you want some spaghetti?"

"I would love some spaghetti," Jess says honestly, and drops his bag right there on the floor.

He could've lived here forever, if he thought it was good for him: their messy, patchwork house, with Sasha's half-finished knitting projects and Lily's books crammed into every available corner. The garage door is always open, and when Jess lived here, Jimmy was always out there banging around on something - a car, or a motorcycle, or a lawn mower - and he'd come stomping in through the kitchen, smelling like motor oil and rambling excitedly with bright eyes about whatever it was he'd been stewing about out there, all on his own. With Jess in the mix to ground them, the three of them seemed to settle into a happy orbit: Sasha the bright center, Jimmy the bouncing asteroid, and beneath them both was Lily - hiding under the table, serenely flipping pages as her parents shot one-liners at each other above her head. It was the kind of house Jess used to dream about when he was little: messy and weird, but full of voices who loved each other. Just full, period: no empty spaces or dark bedrooms. The lights always on and the doors always wide open.

He worries about Lily sometimes, that she might grow stagnant, but he can't blame her for wanting to be around her mom all the time - especially now, when they might lose her. Jess can't imagine any sort of disease strong enough to kill Sasha, but the possibility exists nonetheless, no matter how much energy she has or how hopeful her doctors are, so - well, he gets it.

She tugs him inside, pushing him back and forth, feeding him spaghetti and bombarding him with questions about AWP. Jess happily lets himself be bullied until Jimmy gets home, at which point the process starts all over again - with Lily creeping in behind him, waiting her turn as well.

"Look at him, is he skinnier?" Jimmy asks. "God listen to me, I sound like a grandpa. Sash, he is skinnier though, right? Am I imagining things?"

"I just fed him two pounds of spaghetti, so that won't last long," Sasha says.

"I'm not skinnier, I'm just hungover," Jess says, nudging Jimmy's arms away. He laughs and tugs Jess right back into them, a rough hug that is equal parts fond and chastising - like Jimmy always is, whenever Jess sees him. Like he's scolding Jess for not being there all the time, to be hugged on a regular basis. "And look at you, Rambo, what's with the guns?"

"We're all eating healthy," Jimmy says proudly, flexing a bicep. "No more free hot dogs for lunch. Lily's got us all on weird vegetables."

"Quinoa is a grain, Dad," Lily says. "Jess, they have weights. In the basement. I think it's a sex thing."

"It's not a sex thing!" Sasha says. "I have cervical cancer! Nobody's getting busy down there lately except my doctors."

"Jesus," Jess says, wincing. Lily makes a gagging noise.

"Nah, she's joking," Jimmy assures them, with a shit-eating grin. "I still get busy down there all the time, guys. Don't worry."

"So glad I came to visit," Jess says loudly, over the sound of Sasha's pealing laughter, and Lily's continued gagging, "always a pleasure to visit the local zoo."

"He says that like he's not related to us," Jimmy says. "I got some things to break to you about genetics, son."

"Christ," Jess says, only halfway joking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mood is happy, but in a determined way, because of course they need Sasha to keep her shit together, and thus everyone else is required to keep their shit together. Jess has sat up many nights on the phone with Lily, listening to her cry and hating it, so he knows it's a deliberate thing. If his dad is having similar breakdowns, at least he's doing it with his therapist and not with his kids - an improvement, Jess has to say.

To move back, to take time off and uproot his life, would be admitting something, so Jess hasn't. Plus, the doom and gloom shit feels defeatist - as Sasha keeps saying to them, her cervix is stronger than the average bear. Or some other animal metaphor too crass for the dinner table.

"I met someone," he tells her, the next morning over coffee (herbal tea, for her), before Jimmy and Lily emerge from their caves. Sasha gasps and covers her mouth, and then tears up, because she's quite possibly the only one who gets what a big deal it is that Jess is actually saying that at all. "At work. Her name is Lindsay."

"Oh, kiddo," Sasha says, and leans her forehead against his shoulder. They're leaning against the kitchen counter, watching the sun rise through the bay windows. The only thing Jess really likes about Venice Beach is how beautiful the light is, all the time - so clean, every day, like a knife's edge. "Lily said something, but you know how she gets ahead of herself."

"You would really like her," Jess says. He thinks again about the two airports - the first one, when they'd traded war stories over espresso beans, and the second - the little tremble in her chin as she touched the button on his jacket. "She's...I don't even know how to describe her job. She sort of does everything - PR, marketing, office management, HR." They'd finally managed to fire Walter. "We went to high school together in Stars Hollow." That's all he's gonna say - to anybody, for the time being. He's already decided.

"Oh really?" Sasha squeezes his arm. "What's she like? Tell me the real stuff."

"She's...sharper than she looks," Jess says. "She likes to fool people - make them think she's a pushover, almost, and then she whacks them over the head with their own assumptions. She's beautiful," he sees Sasha tear up again, "blonde hair, legs that go on forever. Big blue eyes. She has a dog. And she's really kind. Considerate." He stops for a second to really think about it, to pare it down in his head to what will really articulate Lindsay out loud, to someone who's never met her. "She's one of the toughest people I've ever met, but she's not hard. Does that make sense?"

"Perfectly," Sasha says, taking a sip of tea. "Will we meet her?"

"Yes," Jess says, thinking about the future - near and far. "Yes, I think you will."

"Good." She sets the mug down on the counter with a firm click. "We'll wait to tell your dad, I think, until after you leave for the airport. Otherwise he'll spend all day badgering you about grandkids."

"I appreciate that," Jess says, laughing through his nose. "I'm glad I came. Sorry I can't stay longer."

"We'll see you for Christmas," Sasha says, waving her hand. They've been doing that lately, and it sort of helps: making promises. "I hope you're ready for the Kayler-Mariano East coast invasion."

"Like the Beatles, but sexier?" Jess asks, nudging her arm. "Can't wait. Get ready to sleep on my terrible futon."

"Can't wait," Sasha repeats, doing a little jig against the counter. Her wig flops around a little dangerously, but she doesn't seem to even notice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jess writes a poem with Lily, later that morning, and they tear it up and toss it into the ocean, as is their ritual. She's got an old copy of one of his books under her arm, and he tries to toss that in too, but she shrieks at him and kicks sand in his face until he stops.

"This is gonna be worth money one day," she promises, flopping down beside him. Her thick black hair barely even moves, stiff with hairspray and sea salt as it always is. "So you told Mom."

"I told your Mom."

"So it's happening," Lily continues.

"It's all happening," Jess agrees, closing his eyes briefly and turning his face into the wind. "Do you like her? Tell me the truth. I know you've been talking for weeks now."

"I do. I think she's sort of wicked, in the perfect way," Lily says. "Like an evil stepsister - that's who she reminds me of. The snooty rival in the movie. I love it."

"She's not snooty," Jess defends.

"No, but she has the attitude. You know what I mean? Sort of devious. She'll be good for you," Lily declares.

"You think so?"

"April thinks so too."

"You told April?"

"She's my evil twin, of course I told her," Lily says with a shrug. Jess snorts. "What are you gonna do about Luke and Lorelai?" And Rory, says the look on her face.

"Nothing," Jess says, which is not actually a cop out. "You know what I figured out recently? This is sort of monumental - sit up and listen to me."

Lily obediently pulls herself into a cross-legged position, shoving his novel beneath her knee for safekeeping.

"I think," Jess says, "that you have to draw a line with people. You take a look at where they're standing, and where you're standing, and you say, 'this is as far as I'll go. You meet me here, or you get nothing.' And that's what I'm gonna do about Luke and Lorelai."

"Draw the line?" Lily asks.

"Draw the line," Jess repeats, reaching out and demonstrating in the dirty sand with one of his boots. "They love me, I love them. We all know that. But I can't live with them every day, the way I do with you guys. You know what I mean?" Lily nods. "I don't know what it means. It's not their fault, it's not mine. Maybe it's because of Rory, or maybe it's my mom - who the fuck knows, I don't. But there's me," Jess digs a little crevice with his heel, "and there's this life I have, that I've fought for, and then there's my family, with their own blood sweat and tears over here." Jess pushes it all together in a big, sandy hump, feeling the grit working its way up beneath the cuffs of his jeans. "And maybe that's just the way it turned out - with this space in-between. Maybe we could make it work if we tried harder, but most days I just don't have time, and I know they don't either. Sometimes that's just the way it is."

Lily reaches out and raps her knuckles against his forearm, like she's knocking on a door. "You're pretty smart, you know that?"

"Nah, I'm a dumbass."

"I'm a dumbass. You're the smart one," Lily says with a laugh. "You know you've always got me. Us, I mean. And you'll always have Doula and Liz, too. And Luke and Lorelai will meet you halfway - you know they will."

"Yeah," Jess says. It goes without saying that Rory probably won't - but that's fine. They don't owe each other anything anymore. She's got her own life - her own daughter, a future that's been separate from Jess for a long time now. Whatever wistful feelings he still had are simply that: wistful feelings, what-ifs that had stopped breaking his heart years ago.

It's not supposed to be easy. Jess has been thinking a lot about what Lindsay said about his writing - that it was about love, that he understood how happy endings can sometimes hurt. Maybe that's the secret of getting by: making peace with the things that can't be perfect.

"You're not a dumbass," he says after a minute.

"Yes I am," Lily says, with a mournful sigh. "Maggie's straight."

"You're fucking kidding me!"

"I saw her making out with the guy who busks down at the northeast bend," Lily continues, turning her sad eyes upon Jess. "It was disgusting. He plays the mandolin, Jess."

"Where is this motherfucker? I'm gonna beat him up," Jess says.

"I appreciate the thought, but no."

"Seriously, I'm gonna hit him."

Lily's laughing, shaking her head back and forth so earnestly her earrings slap against the sides of her face. "If anyone's gonna hit him, it's me, and I'm not gonna hit anybody, so that's the end of this conversation."

"You should hit him," Jess urges. "It would make you feel better."

"Really? Okay," Lily says. "I'll think about it."

 

 

 

 

 

 

A date with a pretty girl, and a new book: Jess is feeling alright about leaving, hopeful even, with how much color there is in Sasha's smiling face. He texts Matt and Chris from the airport: i gave sasha the chocolate like you told me to and now she's talking about taking out a restraining order, but actually calls Lindsay, wanting to hear her voice, feeling sort of stupid and sappy but not caring too much, one way or the other.

"Hi!" Lindsay says, sounding impossibly excited to hear from him, as if it's been weeks instead of forty-eight-ish hours. "Are you at the airport?"

"Yes, I hate it," Jess says, dodging a family with a double-wide stroller, which is so ridiculously huge it can't be legal to fly with. "LAX, I mean, not seeing my family. Who are doing fine, by the way. Lily says hi."

"I can't believe Maggie's straight," Lindsay says, earnestly dismayed. "I really thought she was flirting back!"

"She could've been. Lily was taking ages to make a move - maybe she likes both, and she's trying to make her jealous or something."

"Possible," Lindsay says crisply, "but either way, I don't think Lily's on board anymore."

Jess shakes his head, smiling up at the arrival board. "She was just passing the time, I think."

"Yeah, she'll bounce back," Lindsay agrees. "She was texting me earlier about your novel - she wants me to convince you to put the epilogue back in."

Jess groans out loud.

"I sort of agree with her though! I know, you think epilogues are cheesy, I know."

"You always want too much closure," Jess teases. "It's all that sci-fi you read. Sequels everywhere."

"Yeah, well, you literary types could stand to learn a thing or two," Lindsay replies. "Because you know who likes epilogues, and closure, and actual endings of stories? Readers. And you know who buys your books?"

"My sisters?" Jess guesses.

"Readers," Lindsay says with a laugh. "We can argue about it when you're home though. Are you through security yet?"

"No," Jess says, laughing already at the frustrated noise she makes. "I have plenty of time!"

"No you don't! Hang up and go through security," Lindsay says, but she still sounds too happy to be stern. "Call me back when you're at your gate."

"Alright." Jess hitches his bag a little higher on his shoulder, looking again up at the arrival board. His flight is still there, still on time. The little 'PHL - ON TIME' scroll is oddly reassuring. "This is maybe weird to say, but I've had a lot of really earnest, family conversations the last day and a half, so you'll have to forgive me - "

"Okay, weirdo," Lindsay says, still laughing, "you're forgiven. Go ahead."

"I miss you," Jess says.

"Oh, I miss you too," Lindsay says, like it's easy. Jess shakes his head at himself, because it is. Of course it is. "Do you want me to pick you up at the airport, or is that too much?"

"I would love for you to pick me up at the airport," Jess says. "Like a fucking movie? Jesus. Picking me up at the airport - that's ridiculous."

"I'll bring you some cookies," Lindsay promises. "I'm testing a new recipe."

"Please, Lindsay, I'm in public. No sex talk."

"You're ridiculous," Lindsay says happily, and hangs up on him. She's probably smart to do that - the sort of mood he's in, he would've kept her on the phone forever.

Jess slides his phone into his pocket, grinning about nothing, like some kind of sappy idiot, and thinks about happy endings. One or two are overdue, maybe. Sometimes they just drop right out of the sky, don't they? Like fucking magic.

It's something else, he thinks, and angles himself towards the line. Yeah, he's feeling alright.