A/N: This story is for IkilledKenny, who has my eternal gratitude for her unparalleled generosity. This is a little something that has been rattling around in my head for a while, so I just need to get it out. Big smooches and my undying devotion to Pink Hammer to being my sounding board and Ninjasquid for the fantastic beta services.

This will be an exploration of friendship versus intimacy, and how one can impact the other for better or worse. It starts around the time of Star Crossed Lovers and Other Strangers and will continue through the end of season one with flashbacks to various points pre-series. Let me know what you think.

Choosing a Participating Provider

March 2001

"Hey," Lorelai said as she walked into the deserted diner, the bells jingling softly as she closed the door behind her.

"Hey."

"You about to close?" she asked.

"Yep," Luke answered with his usual economy of words.

"Want me to empty that pot out for you?" she asked as she nodded to the dark liquid at the bottom of the coffee pot.

"You don't want that," he grumbled.

Lorelai smiled. "You're probably right. I just ate an entire roll of Mentos." She turned back to the door, flipping the sign to 'closed' and twisting the lock before she started toward the curtain. Glancing back, she saw Luke watching her impassively. "Is this okay?" she asked as she paused, holding the curtain back with one hand.

"Sure."

"Okay," she said softly, and then disappeared beyond the swaying fabric.

Luke sighed and hung his head for a moment before reaching for a clean pot. With practiced ease, he started a fresh pot of coffee. He left the carafe with the inky sludge lining the bottom on the counter and headed for the curtain, knowing he'd have plenty of time to clean it out later.

He found Lorelai standing in the dark, gazing out of the window with her arms crossed protectively over her chest. "You okay?"

Lorelai shrugged, turning her head slightly to offer him a small smile. "I ruined Hamburger Helper. I didn't think that was possible, but I did."

He stepped into the apartment, leaving the door open and the light from the hall spilling across the scarred wooden floor. "That takes a certain level of skill," he said as he crossed the room.

"I know. Sometimes I still surprise myself."

Luke stopped just behind her, his eyes skimming over the tense muscles in her shoulders and neck. He reached out, gently resting his hands on her shoulders, and Lorelai tensed further. Luke froze, letting his hands rest lightly on her and waiting for some kind of signal from her to proceed. When she relaxed a little, he began to knead the knotted muscles beneath the soft wool of her sweater. "Where's Rory?"

"Studying for her history exam; I got kicked out," Lorelai answered quietly.

"Disruptive?"

"Aren't I always?"

"Yes," he answered gruffly. Luke gathered her hair in one hand, pulling it over her right shoulder as he bent and pressed a soft kiss just beneath her ear. Lorelai shivered and tipped her head to grant him better access. "Is this okay?" he asked in a low, soft voice.

"It's perfect."

Luke kissed his way along the muscle in her neck; his lips soft and soothing, and his tongue gliding over her skin. Lorelai moaned as he stepped closer to her, pressing up against her back as his arms encircled her waist. "Missed you," he murmured against her ear.

"Please don't," she pled softly.

"Don't what? Don't miss you?"

"Don't talk. Don't say those things."

"Okay," he agreed gruffly, moving back slightly.

"No," Lorelai gasped, capturing his hands as they started to slide from her waist. "Don't stop."

Closing his eyes, Luke nuzzled her hair, reveling in the feel of her silky curls teasing his rough skin. "What do you want?"

"I want you to touch me," she said as she guided his hands up under her sweater, holding them until they closed over her breasts.

Letting her head fall back against his shoulder, she arched into his palms. Tiny, weak mewls of need peppered the air, making her cringe inwardly as he teased her nipples, his fingers circling them until they hardened into points. Lorelai reached one arm up, cradling the back of his head in her palm as his teeth scraped over her ear lobe.

She didn't need to ask for anything more; Luke knew what she wanted. One hand slipped down to the button on her jeans as the other worked her sweater up over her breasts. Lorelai gasped as he abandoned her jeans to open the clasp of her bra. She bit back a whimper when he pulled away for a moment to strip off her sweater and bra. Unable to wait, she gripped the window frame and leaned back as he was still only midway through removing his own shirts.

"Mmm," she hummed as the soft hair on his stomach and chest brushed against her back. "Mm hmm," she expounded as he cupped her breasts again, kneading them roughly. She leaned into his hands, pushing against the wooden trim as he pressed against her, his cock straining against the worn denim of his jeans. She rubbed her bottom against him; letting her head fall forward and pressing her forehead to the cool pane of glass.

"Here?" he rasped as he found the tab of her zipper.

"Right here."

"We're in the window," he reminded her.

"No one will see. No one will look up," she whispered as he opened her jeans and began to push them and her panties down over her hips.

"You don't know that," he said as he held her jeans, waiting for her to step out of them.

"People only see what they want to see," she said softly.

Luke rose up behind her, his hands trailing possessively over the curve of her bare bottom. "Been a long time," he murmured.

"A year," she answered matter-of-factly.

"I see," he answered, his voice dropping a few degrees. Luke's hands slid over her hips, gliding appreciatively along the contours of her slightly rounded belly, and then down to her thighs, his fingers pressing into her delicate skin as she parted her legs. "Do I get to ask what brought this on?"

"I just…" Lorelai stopped, wet her lips and circled her hips as his fingers danced lightly over her folds.

"You just?" he prompted.

"Want you. This. I want this," she whispered.

"Right here," he said, his voice rough and raspy as he parted her with his fingers and found her wet and ready.

"Right now," she whispered, pressing back against the rough fabric of his jeans as she rolled her forehead against the smooth glass.

Luke stepped back and opened his belt and jeans. He pushed them down far enough to free his erection, but didn't bother taking them off, knowing that as soon as they were done, she'd be gone.

Lorelai pressed her palms to the cool glass and rested her head on the back of her fingers, straightening her back and bending at her hips as she stepped back, spreading her legs further. She turned her head and opened her eyes slowly, catching a glimpse of him as he stepped between her legs once more.

Turning back to the window, Lorelai stared down at the empty square below as she pushed against the window. Feeling the tip of his cock nudge her entrance, she wondered for an instant if the thin pane of glass could really keep her from falling. He thrust forward, filling her with one hard stroke, and she cried out in shock, grasping for the window frame, a sudden jolt of fear coursing through her body.

Luke clamped his mouth shut, biting back the urge to ask if she was okay. A small part of him hoped that he had hurt her. He watched as her fingers clawed at the old varnished wood that held the glass in place, and felt an almost unbearable need to keep her off balance. He drew back and thrust into her again, smiling grimly as a strangled gasp escaped her.

Circling her hips, she wordlessly begged for more, accepting the twinges of pain as punishment for the flicker of pain she had seen in his eyes the week before. She felt him brace one hand on her back, the fingers of his other hand dug into her hip. He moved faster, plunging into her over and over again, deep grunts of frustration and desire bouncing off of the clear, smooth glass and rippling over her. Luke reached for her breast, squeezing it roughly as his balls slapped against her. Lost in the feel of his pulsing cock inside of her, his possessive hand closing over her breast convulsively and the aching flesh between her legs; she reached down and began to stroke her clit. Lorelai moaned as his wet shaft brushed against her fingers. She could feel him tensing, growing fuller with each stroke, and began to stroke herself faster, eager to catch up.

Gritting his teeth, Luke continued to push into her hard and hot. Heedless of the frantic movement of her hand, he forced himself to relax his already shaky hold on his control, and moments later flooded into her, holding himself still and letting each pulse of her tight walls milk him dry. His hand flexed, still covering her breast loosely as Lorelai stroked herself furiously, still chasing her release.

Frustrated and impatient with her, he pulled away, ignoring her outcry of displeasure. "Here," he said as he spun her around and pushed her back against the window.

"What?"

Luke dropped to his knees in front of her, parting her folds with his thumbs as he opened his mouth and drew her clit against his tongue.

"Oh." Lorelai moaned, torn between the heat of his mouth and the cold glass against her ass. He circled her clit with his tongue and then began to suck it greedily. Within seconds, she felt the first wave of her climax wrack her body. She spasmed above him, her hands braced on the inside of the window frame to hold herself steady on wobbly legs.

When the convulsions began to subside, Luke rocked back and then stood up, dragging his jeans and boxers up as he straightened.

"Better?" he asked, his voice deep and harsh.

"Yes," she hissed, sagging onto the window sill.

Luke bent down and gathered her clothes from the floor, straightening each piece and handing them to her one by one, watching as she dressed in a daze.

When she stood and wriggled her feet into her shoes, he couldn't resist any longer. "Are you okay?" he asked, genuine concern seeping into his voice.

"I'm fine," she said quickly as she glanced around the room. "Coat? Oh," she said, answering her own question with a nod as she spied it draped over the back of his chair.

As she shrugged into it, she forced a smile and asked, "You going to the Firelight Festival this weekend?"

"Not unless I'm accidentally lobotomized between now and Friday," he answered as he yanked his shirts down over his head.

"Aw, come on, Luke. You don't know what you're missing," she cajoled as she headed for the door.

"I've lived here my whole life, I know exactly what I'm missing," he grumbled as he followed her out into the hall and pulled the door shut behind them.

"The food, the bonfire, the Founders Day Punch," she said enticingly as they walked down the creaking wooden stairs.

"The drunks stumbling into the fire after they puke up a half dozen corn dogs and a lung," he replied.

"You always know how to find the fun, don't you?" she teased as they pushed through the curtain and into the diner.

Without a word, they immediately sought refuge on their customary sides of the counter. Luke plucked a to-go cup from the stack and lifted the coffee pot in one fluid movement. "It's fresh," he said as he poured.

"You didn't have to do that, I would have taken the old stuff," she protested as he pressed a lid onto the cup.

"No problem," he said as he placed the cup on the counter between them.

"Rory and Dean are celebrating their three month anniversary this weekend."

"Wow. Three whole months," Luke said dryly.

"Well, they've got me beat," Lorelai muttered as she rummaged in her pockets for a dollar.

"I just meant that I didn't think the bag boy had what it took to keep up with her for three months," he said, scowling at the crumpled bill she slid across the counter.

Lorelai's smile was warm, but a little sad as she picked up the cup and finally dared to meet his eyes. "Yeah, we Gilmore girls are hard to keep up with. Thanks, Luke," she said softly.

"Goodnight, Lorelai," he answered as she turned toward the door.

Luke stuffed the dollar into the register, having long since given up on that fight, and leaned against the back counter as she flipped the lock and let herself out into the cold night. Crossing his arms over his chest, he remained where he was, his eyes glued to her back, watching until she disappeared from view. Staring out into the dark, he wondered what the bag boy had that he didn't have. His mind flashed back to the night he first saw her, and then he dropped his chin to his chest as the guilt and shame flooded his cheeks, staining them red.

Lorelai pulled her coat tighter, hugging herself fiercely, all the while trying not to spill her coffee. When she reached the opposite side of the square, she glanced back at the glow of lights in the diner and sighed as she tossed the untouched cup into a nearby trash can. Shivering in the brisk early spring wind, her gaze drifted away from the diner to the neon Miller Lite sign that cut the gloom of the night, slicing into her defenses. Resolutely, she squeezed her eyes shut as she turned away, trying beat back the wave of remorse that threatened to break down the dam she had carefully constructed to hold back memories best not relived.

April 1992

Nervousness and excitement roiled in her stomach as she hurried down the sidewalk, her arm linked tightly with Sookie's and her bare legs covered in goosebumps from the cool spring wind. The neon beer signs lit their destination, and Lorelai returned Sookie's giddy grin with a hesitant smile. You're twenty-four years old, she told herself sternly. You can do this, this is what people your age do.

But the fact of the matter was that the whole plan made her nervous. Yes, she was twenty-four now, twenty-four as of Wednesday; but she'd never done this, not really. Her twenty-first birthday was spent with Sookie mixing margaritas in a blender they had appropriated from the inn's kitchen for that express purpose. Sookie drove her to the Liquor Barn, where Lorelai Gilmore herself presented her ID and walked out two minutes later, fifteen precious dollars poorer, but holding a bottle of tequila and a jug of margarita mix. Sookie and Rory had decorated the potting shed with crepe paper streamers and half-inflated balloons, and Sookie had made little mini tacos at Lorelai's request. She considered that an excellent birthday.

But now, things were different. She had bigger goals than spending her hard earned money in bars every weekend. She was this close to having enough to make a modest down payment on a house. And in just another year or two, we'll have one, she promised herself as Sookie pulled open the door to KC's bar.

It's just one night, Sookie had pleaded with her. One night to go out and kick your heels up and celebrate! It's your birthday, you just got a promotion! Mia will stay with Rory for a few hours. You've got to get out and live a little, Lorelai.

Lorelai stopped just inside the door, eying the dark, wood paneled bar skeptically as Sookie tugged on her arm.

"Look, there's Jose and Bob," Sookie said as she pointed to two of the staff from the inn, who were currently not dressed as bus boys and busy shooting pool.

"I'm not sure I should be partying with Jose and Bob," Lorelai said dubiously. "I mean, I'm their boss now."

Sookie rolled her eyes as she pulled Lorelai into the barroom. "You're the Assistant Manager, not the President of the Universe. Come on, let's have some fun."

And they did have fun. Jose and Bob were funny and easy to hang around with. After the first shot of tequila, Lorelai was almost able to squelch the overwhelming desire to find a pay phone to check on Rory and Mia. By the time they chased a kamikaze shot down with a fresh beer, Lorelai felt loose enough to grab the pool cue from Jose's hand and challenge both men to a game, two on one. Sookie pumped the jukebox full of dollar bills, and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch were extolling the virtues of Good Vibrations the first time she looked up and caught the guy sitting at the bar scowling at her.

Lorelai turned back to the game, laughing too loudly at something Bob said, and then glancing up to see if he was still looking. Satisfied that he was, she let her gaze slip casually over his flannel shirt and backwards baseball cap before letting her lips curve into what she hoped was an enigmatic smile and bending over to take her shot. She sank three more balls, playfully razzing the guys as they groaned about being taken by a hustler. While Jose lined up his shot, she glanced over to find that they guy had turned back to the muted television.

Two hours later, Kevin Casey cleared yet another empty beer bottle as he asked, "You done?"

"One more," Luke answered, signaling with his finger.

"Just one. I'm not carrying you home tonight," Kevin added in a low voice.

"Jeez, once. That happened once," Luke grumbled as he took the bottle of beer, lacing his fingers around it and cradling it in his hands.

"You weigh a ton," Kevin complained as he strolled to the other end of the bar.

The girl in the short black skirt laughed again. Luke didn't need to turn around to know it was her. The laugh matched her smile, and her smile, well, it was too dangerous to look at. Like an eclipse. A guy could go blind looking at a smile like that, he told himself sternly. I'm never goin' blind again.

Luke Danes knew he wasn't in a very good place. He'd lost his dad after a long, arduous illness just eight months before. The moment William Danes' estate was settled, Luke's flaky sister took off with his nephew for parts unknown. And then Rachel. There he was, knee-deep in the renovations needed to make his dad's old hardware store into a diner, and Rachel just up and left. Again. This time for Thailand. What was worse, he didn't see it coming.

She had been there, by his side, holding his hand through those last terrible months with his dad, holding him close after they planted his father in the ground, and holding a sketch pad as he moved around the empty storefront, trying to describe his plans in such a way that they could be captured with pen and paper. And then, before the first wall had even been torn down, she was gone.

The girl laughed again, and Luke swiveled on his seat to glare at her. Some idiotic boy band music blared from the jukebox as she circled the table, letting her fingers trail along the green felt as she stalked her next shot. She bent over, her short skirt riding up to the tops of her long, firm thighs as she struck the cue ball and sent three others sailing across the felt. She turned her head before straightening up, catching him staring, and smiling that smile forcing him to quickly look away.

Girls like that, they know what they're doing. Girls like that don't want anything to do with guys like you, he told himself firmly. Girls like that, they only break your heart. She doesn't belong here, look at her. She's out with her friends, slumming for the night with the local yokels. Luke turned back toward the pool tables and squinted through the haze of cigarette smoke. How does Sookie St. James know her? Is Sookie St. James even old enough to be in here? he wondered.

Luke turned back to the bar and twirled his bottle of beer as he tried to force his alcohol soaked brain to do the math. Sookie is younger than Liz. A year? Two? She might be twenty-one. Wait, maybe twenty-three. Liz is twenty-five, no, twenty-six. How old am I? Luke gave his head a quick shake and held up his hand to get Kevin's attention.

"Gimme a shot of Jack," he called.

"No," Kevin answered.

"Come on."

"I told you," Kevin said warningly.

"Fine, forget it," Luke said as he snatched up his bottle of beer. He tipped the bottle up and drained the contents in two large gulps. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the girl heading toward the restrooms off the narrow hall in back. Pulling a crumpled twenty from the pocket of his stained jeans, Luke tossed it onto the bar.

"Heading out?" Kevin asked.

"Yeah, I've still got my legs under me," Luke snarled.

"Come on, Luke," Kevin said quietly. "You know I can't let you just drink yourself blind every night."

Luke slapped one hand on the top of the bar and said, "Not the booze that makes you blind, buddy."

"Don't I know it," Kevin commiserated.

"Gotta pee," Luke mumbled as he shoved away from the bar, moving a little unsteadily toward the restrooms in back.

The hallway was narrow and one of the lights had long since burned out. Luke leaned into the wall as the ladies room door opened, and the girl in the skirt stepped out.

He blinked and reared back. "I forgot you were back here," he blurted.

"What?" she asked with a dazzling smile.

"Do you smile all the time?" he snarled.

Lorelai's smile faded as she blinked at him in surprise. "Do you scowl all the time?" she retorted, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I don't scowl."

"You've been scowling at me all night."

"You were being obnoxious."

"I was having a good time. Isn't that why people go out to bars?"

"Well, as long as you're having a good time," he said snidely.

"What's your problem?" Lorelai demanded, her eyes blazing.

"You. you're my problem," Luke shot back.

"Me? You don't even know me!"

"I know you. I know girls like you," Luke sneered.

"You know nothing about me! Nothing!"

"You just smile and flirt and the whole world is supposed to fall at your feet," he jeered.

"You're cracked."

"Well, I've got news for ya, I'm not falling," he continued, undeterred.

"Gotcha," she answered, smirking at him as she tried to scoot past him. Luke shifted, blocking her path, and Lorelai gaped at him. "What? What do you want?"

"What do I want?" he repeated, staring at her pointedly.

"I thought you weren't falling, big guy," she said archly.

"Shut up."

"What do you want?" she asked again, this time her voice softly mocking as she leaned toward him, ready to plant a knee in his groin.

"You talk too much."

"So I've been told," Lorelai answered without missing a beat. She looked up at him, staring into those dark fringed blue eyes impatiently. "You gonna make your move or are you gonna get out of my way?" she asked, refusing to back down.

Lorelai blinked when she saw the momentary flicker of fear in his eyes. Rocking back on her heels she shook her head in confusion, a tiny crease marring her smooth brow.

Luke reached up and touched the tip of his finger to the furrow, smoothing it away gently as he asked, "Why are you here?"

"My friend…" she started and then stopped, her breath coming in soft puffs as his fingertips traced the curve of her cheek.

"Why did you come here?" he asked miserably. Her eyes widened, growing soft with awareness and a flash of desire that made his body ache.

"I live…"

Luke cut her off, closing his lips over hers before she could shatter the moment and his illusions with harsh reality. He didn't want to hear that she lived somewhere else because in that moment he wanted her here. He didn't want her to talk anymore, so he kissed her. He kissed her with everything he had; every ounce of pain and frustration, every spark of tamped down fire and desire, and every shred of dignity that he had left. He kissed her, because that soft, confused look on her face told him that he could and should.

Lorelai's fingers clutched the sleeve of his shirt, bunching the soft flannel in the palm of her hand as she felt herself falling, falling, falling into that bottomless kiss. Without conscious thought, her body arched against his; reaching for something she wasn't sure she wanted, and definitely knew she didn't need in her life at that moment.

When he lifted his head, she gasped for breath, and then he kissed her again. He wanted to keep her off balance, needing her to feel the burn of the heat that was consuming him from the inside out. Her arms wound around his neck, and her fingers slid up under the bill of his baseball cap to tangle in the dark curls beneath. He stepped into her, and she took a quick step back, bumping up against the door to the ladies room. His thigh pressed between her legs and she moaned into his mouth, pressing herself against the hard muscle instinctively as his tongue circled hers. She tipped her head back, trapping his hand against the door as it fisted in her hair.

He began to kiss his way down the side of her neck, fiery hot kisses, scorching swirls of his tongue, and searing scrapes of his teeth. She pressed against him, rubbing her body against the solid wall of muscle that pinned her to the door, and suddenly she was falling for real.

A startled laugh escaped his lips. He grappled for her waist as the door swung inward and they stumbled into the ladies room.

"Oops," she whispered.

He laughed again, a deep breathy chuckle that vibrated through her as she clutched his arms, trying to steady herself. His smile was heart-stopping, bright white and full, crinkling the corners of his navy blue eyes as she stared at him in shock.

Suddenly self-conscious, Luke tore his gaze from her, glancing around the tiny room as his hands tightened involuntarily on her waist. He could feel the heat of her vivid blue eyes boring into him like a laser. He cleared his throat softly and said, "Wow, no better than the men's room."

"No?"

"A little nicer, maybe," he said as he took a tiny step back and ducked his head. "Listen, I'm sor…"

This time, Lorelai cut him off, kissing him fiercely, desperate to negate whatever lame apology was about to tumble from his lips. The kiss heated instantly, and within seconds the bathroom door slammed shut as he pinned her against it. This time, it was her turn to laugh as he bent to nip at her throat, his big hand closing over her breast, kneading it through her thin blouse.

"God, you feel good," she whispered, another chuckle of disbelief punctuating her statement.

"You're beautiful," he mumbled as his hand slid over her hip to her bare thigh, massaging her silken skin as he lifted her leg, urging her to hook it around his.

She kissed him hungrily, her fingers clawing at the front of his shirt as he ground against her. His fingers pushed higher, inching the skirt up until they brushed against the elastic of her panties.

"Lorelai?" Sookie called from outside the door, and her busy hands stilled.

Luke nipped at her exposed collarbone, his thumb gliding back and forth over her nipple as her head jerked up. "S'hat your name?"

"Yeah," she whispered, blinked to clear the fog from her mind. "Uh, be right out," she called back as he looked up.

"You okay?" Sookie asked.

"I'm fine," Lorelai answered as she pushed at Luke's shoulders, causing him to stumble back.

"Jose and Bob took off. It's late, I should probably get you back," Sookie called to her.

"Yeah, okay," Lorelai said as she quickly straightened her skirt and top. She glanced into the mirror, taking in her mussed hair and swollen lips. "Crap," she whispered as she finger combed her hair. "Crap, crap, crap. What the hell am I doing?" she muttered to herself.

She heard his sharp intake of breath and whirled to face him. "It's not you. Uh, it's me. I don't mean that like that sounds," she rambled in a harsh whisper. "I just, I don't do this," she tried to explain.

"Yeah, uh, I don't either," Luke answered gruffly.

"I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry. You'll never know how sorry I am," she whispered as she reached for the door handle.

"I get the picture."

Lorelai paused for a moment and looked back at him. "Sorry," she said again, and then quickly ducked out of the door.

Luke moved to follow her, but stopped when she heard her say, "No, don't go in there, it's, um, filthy. Let's just go."

"I grabbed your purse," Sookie said as she held it up. "What happened to your lips?"

Lorelai touched her fingertips to her mouth. "Oh, um, allergic reaction, I think."

"Really? What are you allergic to?" Sookie asked as Lorelai hustled her toward the door.

"Uh, I don't know. What was in that kamikaze thing?"

In the ladies room at KC's bar, Luke Danes pressed one hand to the wall and the other to his stomach, trying to steady himself as the room began to reel. He dropped to his knees and promptly heaved into the toilet bowl, retching and coughing loudly.

A minute later, the ladies room door opened a crack, and Kevin peered into the tiny room. He sighed heavily as he pushed the door open wider. "Come on, big guy, let's get you home," he murmured as he hooked his hands under Luke's arms.

"Didju see that?" Luke mumbled as Kevin helped him to his feet.

"The freight train that hit you? Yeah, I saw it comin' a couple of hours ago, buddy," Kevin answered as he draped Luke's arm over his shoulders and tried to get under the bigger man's weight. "You can't keep doing this, man. No girl is worth this."

"She's worth it."

"Dude, she's gonna keep doing it to you over and over again. When are you ever gonna learn?" Kevin asked quietly.

"Prob'ly never," Luke slurred.

"Yeah, probably not. One foot in front of the other," Kevin reminded Luke as he all but dragged him out of the tiny room.

tbc