Disclaimer: These are Amy Sherman-Palladino's to use and abuse as she chooses. I just borrowed them for a minute.
Snow was falling in thick, heavy flakes, carpeting the ground in a soothing bed of white. The world around was hushed and silent; through breaks in the clouds, the stars shone so brightly one could almost believe somewhere angels really were singing, "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men."
It was the kind of night Lorelai Gilmore lived for. She would take a walk in the snow, smiling as though she had deciphered some hidden message revealed in the drifting snowflakes. She would laugh and sparkle and make the world seem alive and real and wonderful, instead of the dismal, disappointing mess her daughter knew it to be.
When she was with her mother, Rory found herself believing in magic. In snow. In happily ever after. Her mother had never lost that faith; not once, in a lifetime of waiting, had she given up her sense of enchantment.
That thought made Rory press down harder on the gas pedal. She longed for her mother's faith tonight. Christmas Eve. Of all the nights in the year, the one most designed to inspire hope and anticipation.
After five years covering stories about famine-stricken lands, countries divided by war, babies dying of AIDS, dictators massacring their own people, politicians full of corruption and vice, Rory Gilmore didn't have an ounce of hope left in her. She was tired, defeated. She wanted to go home. She needed her mother.
Lorelai didn't know she was coming. There hadn't been a chance to call her before the flight, and once Rory was back in the States, she'd decided to surprise her mom. It was Christmas, after all. She rented a car in Hartford and was halfway home now, Christmas music blaring on the radio. Her stress slowly dissipated as the miles between her and cozy little Stars Hollow disappeared one by one.
Stars Hollow at Christmastime. There was no more beautiful sight in all the world, Rory could now say with authority. Twinkle lights on all the houses, a huge tree in the middle of the town square. Windows decorated for the season, carolers roaming the streets. It was a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
Rory had grown to appreciate that innocence as she never thought she would.
Her thoughts were so full of home she forgot to watch the road as carefully as she should. Rounding a bend, the car slipped on the black ice and plunged into a snow bank.
It all happened in moments. Rory barely had time to panic before it was over, and she was sitting in her seat, perfectly safe and sound – thank God for seatbelts, she mentally sighed – but with a car that absolutely refused to start.
"This is not happening," she groaned, leaning her head against the steering wheel. Only ten miles from home and no way to get there. She couldn't walk; even if the distance had been manageable, the snowstorm was fast becoming a blizzard, and she was still dressed for warm weather. Thin khakis and a short-sleeved shirt were no match for twenty degree weather.
She flicked on the hazard lights and then pulled out her cell phone. "So much for the surprise," she muttered, punching in her home number.
The phone rang a couple times before Lorelai's voice came on the line. "Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?"
"It's me, Mom. I'm—"
"Oh, wait! I'm the one who's not here. Sorry. Life happens."
Rory hung up without leaving a message. Somehow, hearing the recorded message on the answering machine only made her long more for her real, live, flesh and blood mother. She tried her mother's cell next, but it was out of service. Damn cell phones, anyway.
Luke's Diner was next on her list of possibilities, but there she encountered only a gruff message from Luke telling customers they were closed early for Christmas.
She was struggling to remember Sookie and Jackson's number when headlights pulled to a stop behind her. A car door slammed, and footsteps crunched along the snow toward her. Rory rolled down her window, trying to ignore the blast of freezing air which sent a chill straight to her bones.
And just as suddenly, she was flushed as if with fever. This is seriously not happening. Had all the Fates aligned against her on this one, never-ending day?
"Do you need any help?" he called.
He still hadn't recognized her. Granted, she was concealed in the darkness of the car, while there was no mistaking his six feet, four inch frame in the glare of his headlights.
"No, I'm all right, thanks," she yelled back in a high soprano. She wished she had her mother's talent for voices.
There was a sharp, indrawn breath, and he leaned down to peer in the driver's side window. "Rory?"
She offered him a nervous smile he couldn't possibly see in the dark. "Hi, Dean."
"Of all the—" He stopped himself short, pulling back and running a hand through his hair. She watched his face for a second; she saw the confusion and the pain, and then it was all buried behind an expressionless mask, as he asked blandly, "What happened?"
"I ran into a snow bank. What's it look like?" she snapped, inexplicably angry. Why did she always have to turn into the damsel in distress around him? It was pathetic. Even he must think so by now.
"Car won't start?" It was barely a question. He was already headed toward the hood of the circa 1980 vehicle.
"I'll be fine, Dean. Help's already on the way," she lied.
He wasn't listening. The hood popped open, and Dean's head vanished behind it.
"Ugh!" Rory fumed, hastily unbuckling her seatbelt. "Stupid men, acting all…manlike." She stepped into the street, soaking her lightly clad feet in ankle-deep snow, and trudged over to yell at the back of her ex-boyfriend's head. "I can take care of myself, you know. I'm not completely helpless. Maybe I can't tell a bolt from a socka-thingamajig, but I know how to call a tow-truck as well as the next girl."
Dean didn't even look at her as he responded coolly, "Get back in the car, Rory. You'll freeze out here."
"Further argument is fruitless, I suppose."
"You are aware of the full range of my whining, pestering, tormenting and pleading abilities, aren't you?"
"Quite." She could almost hear a smile in his voice.
"And that I have nothing better to do at this moment than to turn them all upon you?"
"Until your mouth freezes, yeah."
"And yet you still feel confident enough to bark orders at me."
"It wasn't an order. It was a suggestion. You're more than welcome to stand over my shoulder, soaking up the little light I can get and continuing your one-sided conversation, making this whole process take about ten times longer than it should, and getting nothing for your pains but hypothermia. Your choice, Rory."
Rory thought for a long moment, but still the best retort she could come up with was, "You suck." She didn't wait for an answer before turning back to the car.
"Hey, Rory!" he called, finally looking up at her.
"What?" she snapped.
Dean sighed, the same deep, calming sigh she'd memorized years ago. Then he shrugged off his overcoat and handed it to her. "Here. Wrap yourself up tight."
The concern in his voice, the caring look in his eyes…it was unexpected, to say the least, and Rory mutely reached for the proffered jacket. She slipped it around her slim shoulders and held onto it with both arms to keep it from sinking to the ground. As it was, the hem dragged along behind her, creating a gentle raking sound over the smooth snow.
She returned to the relative warmth of the car, shutting the door and rolling up the window, partly to shut out the cold – partly to shut out him.
Rory frowned. Her thoughts had been so centered on returning to her mother; she hadn't even considered the possibility of encountering anyone else from her past. Especially not him.
Things had been left unsettled between them, to say the least. After their final breakup at her grandmother's party, Rory had seen Dean only once – when he came to tell her goodbye for good. He was leaving town, he'd said; he had to get away from the memories and the guilt. He hadn't told her where he was going; she hadn't asked.
She had wanted to ask. How well she remembered wanting to stop him, to beg him to stay, to tell him she loved him, and they needed to find a way to finally make this work. But she couldn't. Like so many times before, the words stuck in her throat, and all she could do was kiss him with the last bit of passion in her breaking heart and let him walk away.
That had been seven years ago. She'd still been in college then, with plenty of willing distractions to drown out the pain. She'd dated Logan, and he'd treated her like shit and finally left her, just as Jess had done. She'd dated Marty and broken his heart when he discovered she couldn't love him the way he needed.
And that was only the beginning. Rory Gilmore's love life was a broken record of repeating cadences and had been since she was seventeen and proved it was actually possible to regress mentally and emotionally enough to give up the perfect guy for one with whom she had known it couldn't last.
She had been paying for that mistake ever since.
And yet, somehow, he was always back when she needed him most.
Rory covered her eyes with her fists and moaned. This was the absolute last thing she needed right now. It was so like her when life was falling apart to latch onto the nearest available support. She had meant to hold onto her mother now, and all it took was a serendipitous coincidence to have her turning back down well-trodden paths.
"I'm not doing this again," she swore in a whisper. It wasn't fair to Dean. He deserved better than that. Better than her.
She watched him as he stepped around to the side of the car. He had aged well, grown into himself, she thought. He was wearing a suit and tie – an expensive one, if she was any judge – and yet there he was working away at her car as if he was still playing with old parts in the junkyard.
She wondered what he had been doing with himself all these years. Where he had lived. What he had done. Who he had met. Is he married again?
The thought popped into her head unbidden and was followed by an even nastier, accusing one: Would it stop you if he was?
She banged her hands against the steering wheel, inadvertently hitting the horn. Dean's head popped up, and he let out a curse.
To cover for her embarrassment, Rory opened the door and yelled out, "What's taking so long?" as though her action had been purposeful.
Dean walked to her side. "It's too hard to see in this damn blizzard. I think the best bet is for me to give you a ride into town. I can come back tomorrow and fix it."
"You don't need to do that," Rory argued. "I can give Gypsy a call. I'm sure she—"
"Tomorrow's Christmas, Rory, in case you're forgetting. Gypsy won't be working, and if she does do you a favor, it'll cost you an arm and a leg."
"Yes, but I have a couple extra to spare, so I don't mind."
"And I don't mind helping. Please, Rory, let me help you for once, all right?" There was a note of weariness in Dean's voice which stopped all further protests before they even reached her lips.
She nodded slowly. "A ride would be nice, thanks."
"Get your stuff, and we'll go. I can't feel my toes anymore."
"I don't have any stuff," Rory admitted, as she grabbed her purse. She hadn't even gone back to her hotel room before heading home.
Dean looked surprised but didn't comment. Perhaps he saw the haunted, guarded expression descend on her face, or perhaps he really was as cold as he said. In any case, he led her back to his car in silence.
"So this is new," she murmured as the BMW sprang to life.
"It's not mine; it's a rental," Dean responded flippantly. His eyes were only on the road. Part of that whole responsible thing he had always mastered so well, that thing it seemed Rory would never learn.
"You're just back for Christmas then, too."
"The holidays, yeah. I didn't think you would be, though." His voice trailed off for a moment, before continuing, "I saw you on CNN yesterday; I thought there wasn't much chance you would catch a flight between then and now. Guess I was wrong."
Rory understood what he was saying and what he left unsaid. He only came home when he thought she wouldn't be there; after seven years, he was still avoiding her. The thought stung, and she responded in the first phase of anger. "I'm sorry; I didn't realize I was obligated to inform you of all my travel plans. Next time, I'll make sure you have at least two weeks advance notice of my itinerary. Will that give you enough time to prepare?"
She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. There was nothing but bitterness in them. Apparently, seven years hadn't eased the hurt for her, either.
Dean winced. "I don't want to fight, Rory."
"You started it," she retorted childishly.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean…what you think I meant."
"What did you mean?"
Dean sighed again. She loved that sigh; it was hard to stay angry when she heard his every thought and emotion expressed in that one sound.
"You and I…it's a small town, Rory…people are always going to talk…always going to remember…" She heard the self-condemnation in his words, the guilt which would never go away. Perhaps, more even than her own inconstancy and fear, it was the guilt that had driven them apart.
She fidgeted uncomfortably in her seat. She didn't want to be reminded of that either. "Okay. Topic change."
A smile played around the corners of his full lips. "Stars Hollow." He nodded in the direction of the approaching streetlamps.
Rory released a sigh of her own. A satisfied breath of homecoming as she looked around and saw the lights on the gazebo, Miss Patty's Studio, the window display in Doose's Market.
"Nothing's changed." Dean echoed her sentiments, and somehow she knew he viewed the sight with the same relief mingled with poignant nostalgia she was feeling.
"Nope, nothing's changed," she agreed happily.
And it was only natural that her hand would come to rest close to his on the car seat. And it was only right that his would cover and squeeze hers, engulfing her in a flood of reassurance and safety.
Indeed, nothing had changed at all.
Dean had said an awkward goodbye and left her at the doorstep of her house, taking her keys with the promise to have the car returned to her before the next day's end. Lorelai still wasn't home, so Rory let herself in with the spare key in the turtle, thankful her mother never thought of changing her hiding place.
Once inside, she was greeted by everything homey and wonderful and familiar. The tree was in the exact same spot in the living room, with the same decorations they'd used every year since Rory was born. There was still something comforting in the sight of them, old, battered, and junkie as they were.
The differences were so small it took time to notice them. An extra stocking hung from the mantel on the other side of Lorelai's. Flannel shirts were added to the haphazard heaps of clothing littering the floor. (Lorelai must be putting off laundry day again, Rory thought with a smile.) An old, blue baseball cap hung on the banister.
But even this wasn't a change, not really. Luke had always been part of her life, her dad in all but biology. She was glad he and her mother had finally got the fairy tale ending Lorelai had dreamed of for so long. Dirty clothes on the floor and all.
Rory made her way to the kitchen. More than twelve hours with nothing to eat but airplane food had left her ravenous, and another benefit to Luke being a permanent fixture in this house was discovered in the presence of real, edible, non-expired food in the refrigerator.
She slowly went about the process of making herself a sandwich, her thoughts on anything but the mundane task before her. War. Death. Freezing. Failure. Lorelai. Luke. Lorelai and Luke. Stars Hollow at Christmastime. Dean. Dean's hands. Dean's guilt. Her own.
She was so engrossed in melancholy musings she wasn't aware of her mother's return until her ears were assaulted by the squealing at the same time she was bowled over by the moving mass of energy and caffeine which represented the physical essence of Lorelai Gilmore.
"RORY!!! You're home! Why didn't you tell me!? I just spent an entire evening with my parents and Mr. and Mrs. Boring Borington, while they discussed the relative merits of blue and white chip stocks, white wine and red, and other things of the primary color variety, when I could have been home with my little droopy drawers!"
Rory couldn't think up a clever response. She held onto her mother, resting her head against her shoulder, and soaked in the healing presence. She smiled slightly. The world was beautiful again.