A/N: I'm glad some people have enjoyed part one :) I forgot to mention that this fic is set post-series, though if you read the first fic, you'd know that. This chapter ends this fic, and if you want the next fic, you must bug sendintheclowns, since that's her baby.


Part Two

The medics, she suspected, were better trained than the 9-1-1 operator, but they didn't seem much friendlier. After a few cursory questions, to which she received quizzical looks (what? Dean had been run over by a motorized bike--it wasn't her fault that this was Stars Hollow and sheer ridiculous was common place), they had started their assessment of Dean, at which point Lorelai was little more than furniture to them.

Watching them work, however, did afford her the chance to get a good look at Dean. She'd been looking at him most of the time anyway, but it was a little weird, she had to admit, watching them poke and prod the kid. Even weirder how totally unaware he seemed.

The medics were a man and a woman, both in their thirties. The guy might have been cute, but he needed to shave more often and try plucking his eyebrows, but those were forgivable sins were he even remotely talkative. He wasn't.

The girl was blonde, but a dishwater blonde, a shade which Lorelai had always found rather unfortunate. She looked a little friendlier at least, with a simple face and a smile that looked more sincere than the guy's did.

They didn't move Dean, which was perhaps Lorelai's first surprise. She supposed that made sense, the whole not-moving-someone deal, which she wished she'd thought of before dragging Dean inside and plunking him on the couch. Not that she could have left him on the hot concrete--heat stroke was probably not something he needed in addition to the head injury.

They picked up Dean's wrist, felt up and down the length of his body (and she thought she was a dirty old woman), even lifted his eyelids one by one and shining a penlight in (she knew that was the right thing to do). They murmured to each other, back and forth, not purposefully quiet, but it wouldn't have made any difference. Lorelai didn't have a clue about what was going on.

"So, uh, is he okay?" she asked, arms crossed across her chest as she bounced nervously on her heals to see Dean.

The girl was going through the kit she'd brought in, pulling out various pieces. "His pupils are reactive to light," she said. "A little sluggish, though."

"That's...bad, right?" Lorelai asked. "I mean, you make it sound bad."

The girl smiled up at her, a little blandly. "It's not great, but it could be worse," she confirmed. "It's concurrent with the description of the accident."

Of course. Since sluggish pupils went hand in hand with getting run over by a motorized bike any day.

The girl was already back to work, though, playing with some tubing as she extended Dean's left arm. Her partner was digging around now, but Lorelai watched in morbid fascination as the girl hovered with a syringe above the crook in Dean's arm (and damn, he had nice forearms...and those biceps...) before plunging it in. Lorelai winced despite herself, and felt a little sick when Dean didn't even twitch.

In fact, Dean hadn't done much of anything since passing out on her couch. His head was still lolled to his side and his limbs were positioned as the medics had placed them, the one with the IV outstretched and the other cradled in his lap. They manipulated him like he was nothing more than a doll--a life-sized, rather attractive, very heavy doll, but a doll nonetheless.

Which, oddly, wasn't that unusual. Not that she'd seen Dean's body parts as pliable as Play-Doh, but the kid had always been rather easy to manipulate. Or to sway. Manipulate was rather a harsh word, and she had certainly never tried to purposefully do that to the kid. But there was no doubt that he was open to suggestion, something she'd found out from his years of dating Rory. He'd do any chore asked of him, he'd help out with a smile. And that was just her. For Rory...

Well, Rory had no reason to be in want while dating Dean. Any place she wanted to go, Dean took her. Anything she wanted to do, Dean did. Anything she seemed to like, Dean liked, too. It had always been his downfall, Lorelai supposed, the first and the second time. Dean had been so quick to please Rory that she'd grown tired of him, taken him for granted. Jess had been far more exciting; Dean had just been predictable. Rory had been young enough (and women were always this way, it seemed) to think that exciting was better than predictable.

Lorelai had her doubts.

And it had been Dean's readiness to please that led him to delay school to begin with. To work all those hours. To respond to Rory's slightest interest.

Dean was perhaps the epitome of ragdoll-ism. If such a thing existed.

Or at least he had been...

He was different now. He seemed different. Which was maybe why it seemed to wrong to see him lying there so prone.

The male paramedic had carefully slipped Dean into a neck collar, and, between the two of them, they were working Dean onto a backboard and then onto a waiting gurney. Dean's body flopped a little, but they were careful, expertly supporting Dean's body effectively enough to get him situated with minimal movement.

The girl was packing up their things, and the guy was back to checking Dean, talking to him, poking at him again. With his knuckles, he dug deep into Dean's breastbone, an action that made Lorelai wince watching and that elicited a faint groan from Dean. Encouraged, the guy called Dean's name again, but no further progress was made.

With the girl packed and ready to go, they started toward the door, Lorelai hot on their heels. "He's...okay?" she asked. It wasn't an original question, but it was a necessary question, one that despite all the answers they gave here was never really told.

It was the guy this time who spoke, "We're taking him to the hospital."

"And they'll make him better," Lorelai said. "I mean, it's all precautionary."

They were all outside now, easing the gurney down the steps. "Lady, you have to let them do their job," the guy snapped. "You called us, remember?"

Yes, that was true. Because she'd wanted to make sure he was okay. They were supposed to tell her that. Weren't they?

"Relax," the girl said, flashing another generic grin at her. "Would you like to come along? Your story is...different, and I'm sure the ER staff will have questions about how this came to pass."

The guy glared at the girl, then looked begrudgingly at Lorelai.

Even if Lorelai hadn't wanted to go, she would have gone, just to spite him. But she needed to see this through. Needed to see Dean through. Only twenty minutes ago, they'd been talking, catching up, and she wasn't one to leave conversations unfinished. "Yeah," she said. "I'll come along."

"Great," the girl said, opening the rear door. "You get to ride in the back with James."

James jumped inside, helping the girl hoist the gurney up. Once Dean was settled, Lorelai pulled herself up, finding a place to sit on the bench seat opposite from where James had stationed Dean's gurney. James was busy with some wires and machines and Dean was still.

"And you're sure he's okay?" Lorelai asked as the door closed.

James just looked at her.

This was probably going to be a long ride.

-o-

The ambulance ride wasn't what she expected.

Of course, she wasn't sure what she had expected. It wasn't like she often sat around and thought about what it'd be like to ride in an ambulance. And she'd never even been sure that the whole ride-along thing really happened. Especially when she wasn't even related to the kid. But apparently, they thought she might be useful, at least that was what she figured as they plied her with questions every ten seconds.

Maybe it was the questioning then, that made it seem less than intense. Because just as she was taking in the equipment, the road rushing by them, the sound of the sirens, and Dean's pale face, she was hit with another question from an endless barrage.

"Do you know if he has any allergies? Takes any medications?"

Did she look like his mother? Oh, wait. She probably did. "I really...I mean, I don't think so, but I don't know. He's never said anything about them, but we don't exactly talk a lot so it's entirely possible--"

The medic grimaced a little, leaning over to check Dean's monitors again. "Nothing unusual in his history?"

"You mean like how he fell asleep with my daughter in a dance studio all night when they were seventeen?"

The medic's brow crinkled. "Medically speaking, ma'am."

Ouch. Ma'am. She knew she was getting old, but this guy only looked five years younger than she did. Maybe six. "Oh!" Lorelai exclaimed. "A year ago he was electrocuted."

At this, the guy looked up, eyebrows high. "He suffered from an electrical shock?"

"Yes!" she said, a bit thrilled she actually had said something worth saying for once. It was bound to happen with the amount she talked. "Some sort of freak...electrical error."

"No lingering side effects, though?"

"Well, uh, I don't think so," she said. "I mean, we probably would have heard about that, right? Like if he could turn on lights by just pointing a finger at them, I'm sure it would have gotten around town. Though he has been away at college, which is perhaps to hide his new secret identity."

She'd lost the guy again, looking back down at Dean, not that there was any change there. Dean was still unconscious--the whole eyes-closed and way-too-still thing. He had never had the hyperactivity of a Gilmore, but he'd always had a nice activity level that could keep up with Rory, which was on reason Lorelai'd figured they'd worked so well together.

Still and pale, too. He'd been pale since the initial accident, and she couldn't say that it made her feel any better about how he was doing. She almost missed his incoherent rambling--at least with that, she'd known he was alive. Sure, she knew he was alive now, too, with the heart monitor beeping and all that. But it was still so...uncertain. The paleness seemed stark and his long, slack limbs seemed just wrong like that. Like they should be moving. Instead, he was strapped to a backboard with a neck brace stabilizing him.

She had the overwhelming urge to apologize. For talking too much, for knocking him in Kirk's path, for not getting him help right away. For helping him believe that Rory still loved him, for never telling him that it wasn't all his fault.

Too bad her conscience seemed to only kick in when he was pale and unconscious and in the back of some ambulance with the world's hardest-to-amuse medic.

The ambulance turned, a bit sharply, and Lorelai had to brace herself against the wall. The medic barely flinched, still leaning over Dean, fiddling now with the IV line that he had running from Dean's outstretched arm.

"Is he...is he going to wake up?" she asked finally, nodding toward Dean's prone figure.

The medic looked up at her, a bit surprised, almost like he'd forgotten she was there (as if anyone could forget she was there). "That's for the doctors to figure out."

A noncommittal answer. Wuss. Too afraid to take a stand. "I know, but in you experience, does he look okay? I mean, what's wrong with him?"

The medic sighed. "Look, lady, he hit his head, just like you said. They'll have to do some x-rays to see if there's any kind of skull fracture. The fact that it's not bleeding a lot could be indicative of that. But head injuries are funny sometimes. Sometimes, they can just sneak up and take you under for a bit. It's been about ten minutes since he passed out, which isn't great, but it isn't terrible. He did show some response to deep pain stimuli, which the doctors will assess more when we get there. There's nothing more we can do. Scans will show if there's anything wrong going on in his brain, but other than that....it's a waiting game."

Well that was more information than she'd expected from her tight-lipped friend. And certainly more than she knew what to do with. She liked knowing things and all, and given her own propensity for long-winded answers, she really should be able to take them in just as easily, but this one--all the medical facts, the details--was not nearly reassuring enough.

Fortunately, the ambulance slowed and came to a halt. Lorelai rocked forward as it did; the medic, again unfazed by the change in speed, waited until they were stopped completely before springing to action once more. He unlocked wheels, checking gauges and monitors and when the back door cracked open, daylight streaming in, he was already moving, pushing Dean's gurney toward the edge and his partner. They moved seamlessly, rather remarkably, and a lot like the doctors did on TV, now that she thought about it. It just wasn't nearly as exciting to watch without the background music. Attractive actors were certainly helpful as well, and any character on TV had a more engaging personality than Mr. Bland, medic extraordinaire.

Good thing she wasn't in this thing for a date. Or even just thrills. Because she would have been sorely disappointed. But at this point, her interest wasn't in finding some guy to flirt with (though she doubted she'd turn down such a chance--she was nearly an old lady by now, she had to take it when she could get it). No, she was here for one reason. For Dean. And she'd take all of it just to see the kid wake up.

So far, he seemed about as cooperative as the medic. Which was just about Lorelai's luck these days.

-o-

ER had never been a show she commonly watched, but she'd seen it enough to get some ideas. The whole fast-paced camera work, doctors and nurses working seamlessly in a wave of hurry as the latest trauma was wheeled in the door. The faint look of concern that the good Dr. Carter or the good Dr. Greene showed for their patients as they placed a stethoscope on the various parts of the patient's exposed body.

Okay, so she watched more than she liked to let on. It's not like she expected the theme song to play as they wheeled through the doors, but there was an atmosphere of urgency, of barely controlled chaos that she assumed came with the territory.

But if operators could be easily annoyed, if medics could lack all personality, she probably should have suspected that the medical staff would never live up to expectation.

It was just weird though, how anticlimactic it seemed. There was hardly any rushing, no quick streams of dialogue. It was just...simple.

Which was probably okay, except Dean was unconscious. The kid hadn't so much as twitched the whole ride over, and Lorelai couldn't deny that that was freaking her out, but that it was easier to feel weirded out by the lack of urgency from the hospital staff than it was to acknowledge that she was beginning to get pretty damn scared about how the kid was doing.

Because it didn't matter what the paramedics said. Dean still wasn't moving. He was still breathing, which was something, but movement seemed rather important to her as well. Though, honestly, she really would have preferred awareness. Awareness was a sign that one's brain was still fully functional. And she really didn't like to think about the poor kid's brain being impaired and knowing that it was all for such a stupid, stupid reason like her animated way of speaking and Kirk's ridiculous inventions. This was the kid who was talking about school and internship opportunities and Newsmobiles and...

Holy crap. Lorelai followed the paramedics where they were going, right through the hall, right past the admitting desk, and a plain-faced doctor was taking the charge now. She wasn't nearly as encouraging as Dr. Greene would have been, nor was she as plainly skilled as one Dr. Benton, nor was she as drop-dead gorgeous as one Dr. Ross, though her being a woman probably didn't help her in that regard. Lorelai could appreciate beauty in many forms, but she just couldn't bring herself to swing that way. Except maybe for Meredith Viera. She wasn't sure why, though.

Still, it was a doctor and she was instantly more likeable than the medic devoid of personality and Lorelai was inside the exam room before she realized just where she was and just what was going on.

The doctor was talking calmly, and Dean was lifted from one gurney to another, almost effortlessly, like the kid wasn't freakin' ginormous, with muscles so nicely chiseled that the statue David would be envious. And still, nothing. Dean was as lifeless on the new gurney as he was on the old, his arms long by his sides, his legs straight and still, and his head held steady the incumbent neck brace.

"Okay," the doctor was saying as she pulled a stethoscope off her neck. "I want to get a new set of vitals here."

So that part was going to come true, Lorelai thought, pleased that at least something seemed to be going right.

But then the nurse cut away at Dean's shirt, which was rather a pity, because it had been a nice-looking shirt, a newer one. Red and blue, stripes, and she figured the kid had to buy at the long and tall stores to fit those shoulders--

And that chest. She had seen his arms and she had been impressed. Without his shirt, he was damn near criminally perfect.

It was a credit to the nurse's professionalism that she didn't stop to gawk a moment. Heavens knew that Lorelai did. What had Rory been thinking?

But once she managed to close her mouth and remember that Dean was unconscious, Lorelai became aware of the electrodes on the kid's chest and the sudden beeping of the heart monitor.

Someone had produced a wallet, which meant there had been some groping going on, and if Lorelai hadn't been so wide-eyed about the entire process, she might have found the need to comment. The doctor was saying, however, "Are you his mother?"

She was waiting to hear the answer when Lorelai became vaguely aware the doctor was talking to her. "What?"

The doctor looked a little perturbed but he repeated nonetheless. "You. Are you his mother?"

"Me?" Lorelai asked. "No, I mean. No."

The doctor seemed again perturbed by her answer and instead turned to the nurse next to him. "Kathy, find this kid's parents or next of kin or someone. I'm sure they'll want to know we've got him here."

Kathy, who was apparently the tall, skinny nurse, took the wallet and nodded. Lorelai didn't watch her go. While calling Dean's parents was undoubtedly crucial to the process, it was far less interesting than watching what was up with Dean. Because she needed to know if Dean was okay or not. It may not have been her business necessarily, but it would be difficult to go on her daily routine knowing she'd seen a kid get mowed over and didn't know how it turned out.

"Ma'am, you were with him?" the doctor asked, and it took a full five seconds for Lorelai to remember she was actually there. She'd been so intent on blending into the background that she had neglected to account for her own presence there. Which was kind of a surreal feeling, if she thought about it, but there wasn't really time to think about it since this was a hospital and Dean Forester was out cold on a gurney, and the doctor was speaking to her.

"Oh, yes," she said, not moving from her spot near the door. She wasn't usually prone to shyness, but this situation was so far out of her control that it wasn't even funny. "I was there. Saw it all."

"He hit his head on the pavement?"

"Sidewalk," Lorelai clarified.

"And he was hit...?"

Lorelai was pretty sure they'd covered this already, that despite the paramedic's lack of a personality he'd actually been fairly detailed with his account of what happened. Still, this was a doctor and she was treating Dean, so Lorelai could be bothered to repeat herself. "Yeah, with a motorized bike," she said. It didn't sound any less ridiculous this time.

"How fast?"

"I didn't really have a stopwatch--"

The doctor seemed distracted and a bit tired by her answers. "But I can assume that he was hit with some force."

"Of course," Lorelai said. "I mean, it's not like he just fell over. I mean, look at him. The kid looks like he keeps in shape, athletic. Somehow I doubt his balance is that precarious--"

"And he lost consciousness?"

"Uh, does he look awake?"

"I mean, initially. You said he lost consciousness, but then came to."

"Oh, yeah," Lorelai said, a little chagrined. She was being talked to at least, unlike with a medic who would remain anonymous, but she was being talked to like she was five. Or maybe ten.

The doctor was leaning over Dean, peeling back an eyelid. "And how was he acting?"

"Confused. Dazed. A little dizzy. I got him inside and he started acting really weird."

"Weird?" the doctor asked, looking up from her work peeling back Dean's other eyelid. It was a little fascinating to watch, with Dean's eye open but no response from the kid.

So what if weird wasn't a medical term. Sue her. She wasn't a doctor. "You know, talking to me like I was someone else, not really knowing what year it was, that kind of thing. All the kind of stuff that makes one think, Gee, I should call 9-1-1, which is what I did. Hence the reason we're here."

The doctor seemed fairly indifferent to her story, and Lorelai was fairly indifferent to her indifference. She was too intent on watching Dean, on watching him being played with again and his utter lack of response. Which, it'd been, what? Twenty-five minutes? Shouldn't he be awake?

The nurse was conversing with the doctor, making notes on a chart. And then the doctor pulled the medic's friendly little trick, using her knuckles on Dean's sternum. The second time watching it was no less fascinating than the first, but it occurred to Lorelai this time that it would be immensely uncomfortable. For Dean, that is. Well, maybe the doctor, too. And certainly for Lorelai who just had to watch the entire thing unfold with only a vague clue of what on earth was going on.

This time, just like before, there was a response. Dean flinched, deeper this time, his arms twitching in protest and a muffled mewl escaping his lips (which was practically the sound of a four year old, as if it could get any worse).

"Dean?" the doctor asked, leaning close. "Dean, can you heard me?"

Maybe Dean could hear her, but really, who would want to answer a question like that? Much less to a person who had just kneaded his chest for the heck of it?

But Dean moved a little more, his head tossing slightly in its brace. He mumbled.

The doctor nodded, telling something to the nurse.

Lorelai waited to be included in the news. "What is it?" she asked.

"We're just assessing his level of consciousness," the doctor explained.

"Which is?"

The doctor looked up at her again, this time really looking at her with a critical air. "You're a friend of Dean's?"

"More like a casual acquaintance, really," Lorelai attempted to clarify. "My daughter used to date him for awhile, on and off, until they broke up for good, but then it wasn't really for good even though Dean got married but it didn't work out but it didn't work out with my daughter either and it was really kind of complicated and I hadn't really talked to him since. Until today when he was walking by my house and we started talking and then he got hit with the bike and he was passing out and--"

"Ma'am," the doctor interrupted with a placating smile on her face. "We appreciate your help, but we're going to have to ask you to leave now."

"But, how is he?"

"We're going to take him for more tests, but I can't release any more information to you since you're not family."

Not family? So she wasn't family? Didn't daughter's ex-boyfriend's mother count for anything? Possibly? And isn't a town like Stars Hollow supposed to be one big happy family?

But there was no use arguing. She could see it on the doctor's face. Apparently policies were policies and she could try to stay, but getting forcibly removed by security probably wouldn't improve her chances of checking up on Dean's progress.

Instead, she offered a meager smile. "Okay. Well, if you need to know any more details, you know, like the color of the bike that hit him, just let me know. I'll be in the waiting room."

The doctor looked at her funny and the nurse positively stared at her like she'd sprouted a horn in her forehead (which would be rather remarkable) and Lorelai smiled again, giving Dean one more look over. He had returned to stillness, long and limp, and Lorelai could only hope that she'd be able to finish her conversation with him. Because suddenly, it seemed like there was a lot left to say to him. About college, about what he'd been up to, about Rory, about the dangerous quality of motorized bikes and starting a petition against them.

It would have to wait, though, and Lorelai ducked out of the room.

-o-

If Lorelai had ever felt flustered, now was a prime example of it. Seeing Dean like that--so vulnerable--it had been hard--really hard, even harder than seeing him passed out on her couch. It was supposed to be easier here, in the hospital, with all the trained staff milling about, but all it did was make him look smaller, weaker, even more like a helpless five year old than before.

Which only ramped up Lorelai guilt, because this was still kind of her fault. Not purposefully and she wasn't the idiot who had run him over, but it was still hard to watch. To see Dean stripped down to nothing and treated so indifferently. Like an object, not a person. A patient, not a human being.

Funny, that was pretty much how he was treated in Stars Hollow anyway. Ever since losing Rory, he'd been the object of gossip and derision. She'd never thought about it before, how impersonal all that was, and how empty that must make the kid feel.

She sort of hoped that she never had to tell him that'd she'd been there to see it. Or anyone for that matter.

In fact, she just wanted to go home.

But she couldn't just go home. Not with Dean as he was and not knowing for sure what was going on. The doctor's hadn't been worried, hadn't sounded frantic--it hadn't even been fast-paced like she'd expected. But she still needed to talk to Dean, to apologize, to--

Crap, parents at six o'clock. Not hers, not that that would have been a good thing either, but Dean's. They were nothing more than casual acquaintances. When two high school kids dated, it was sort of necessary to at least know who the parents were. They'd had no other cause to socialize, not even when Rory still attended the public school. Lorelai was many things, but a good room mother? Not so much. Plus, the Foresters had moved to town just as Rory left for Chilton, which had minimized their chance meetings even more.

She did know that they'd been friendly, at first, but that by the end, they hadn't been a huge fan of Rory.

Well, she hadn't been a huge fan of Dean at that point either, so she couldn't really blame them there. And so that had pretty much ended any friendliness between them, reducing them to mere civility when they were forced to interact. Which was rare. If ever.

The couple now looked distracted. Which made sense, as they were in a hospital looking to see what had happened to their son. Lorelai had been there, done that--well, not exactly that, but close enough--either way, she knew that looking for an update on a loved one was never fun, and she did not envy them.

Nor did she envy herself. What was she supposed to say to the parents of her daughter's ex-boyfriend? Much less the parents of her daughter's ex-boyfriend who had had his heart broken by said daughter at least three times? And did Lorelai need to mention the fact that they were the parents of her daughter's ex-boyfriend whose marriage had fallen apart thanks partly to her daughter's presence?

For a second, she thought maybe she could get away without talking to them. She could sneak by and have them all assume that they had no business together. But they looked all tense and nervous, hands wrapped together and she was a witness...she couldn't just leave them like that.

"Randy, May," she said as she approached. "Hi."

They blinked once, twice. "Lorelai," May said finally, distractedly. "Hello."

"You're here for Dean, right?" she asked.

That definitely piqued their interest, and suddenly she wasn't the mother of their son's ex-girlfriend, but rather the person who could tell them about their kid. "You know about Dean?" Randy asked, his hand going protectively around May's shoulders.

Lorelai tried to smile. "Yeah, I'm afraid so," she said. "I mean, not that I'm afraid about Dean, but just that I was there when it happened."

"He's okay?" May asked.

"Well, he's kind of unconscious, but the medics told me that he'd probably be okay," Lorelai said. "They needed to run some tests or something before they asked me to leave."

"Tests? What tests?" May asked, nearly wailed, and Lorelai could not help but wonder if she spent her free time watching General Hospital or something, because she had the melodramatic response to medical emergencies down pat. Lorelai would have to pay attention if she wanted to ramp up her own responses in the future.

"Just...tests," Lorelai said. "I really don't know for sure. They didn't want to tell me much since, you know, I'm not family."

May looked distraught. Randy looked distrustful. "Why were you with him to begin with?"

"He was walking by my place," she said. "I never really figure out why. He said he was just taking a walk and I was trying to do some gardening and we started talking and really, you'd be surprised how much he knows about gardening."

May now looked bewildered. Randy looked impatient. "So how did he get hurt?"

"Oh! Right," Lorelai said. "He was hit by a bike."

May's face contorted. "A bike?"

"Yeah," Lorelai said. "A motorized bike. Knocked him over pretty good and he was out for a minute. He came to and I was making sure he was okay when he went out again, which is when I called for help and then the ambulance came and Dean didn't wake up which is how I ended up here."

They were both staring at her now, a bit incredulously.

"Oh," May said. "Well."

Randy's brow darkened. "I suppose we owe you thanks then," Randy said. "For making sure he got here."

"Ah, hey, you'd do the same. I mean for me. Or my kid. Or whatever," she said with a smile. No need mentioning the role her hands had played in the ordeal. It wasn't like that was really her fault, anyway. Those things had minds of their own sometimes. She was pretty sure.

Randy frowned a little, and May seemed to be deflating. "We need to see the doctor," she said.

"Right," Lorelai said. "Last I saw him, he was just down that way." She pointed back to the exam room.

"Thank you," May said absently.

"Our younger daughter--she's in the waiting room. We didn't want her around, in case...," Randy said, his voice trailing off. "But do you think that you could sit with her? Just until we get back. Explain to her a little what happened. I think she's pretty nervous."

"Oh, well--"

"We'd really appreciate it," May chimed in. "Just until we can get back."

"Sure," Lorelai said finally with a fake smile. It was not a responsibility she wanted to undertake, but their kid was in an exam room and Lorelai knew damn well that he was still pretty out of it and she would not want to be them. At all. So she could babysit a teenage girl, right? She did raise one, though she was pretty sure Rory was not the run-of-the-mill teenage girl.

"Thank you," May said, so sincerely, that for a second Lorelai forgot her own guilt, forgot how much she didn't want to talk to Dean's sister, how much she didn't want to sit here and play the hero to these people.

But what was she going to do? Tell them no? Tell them to forget it and walk out?

She wasn't heartless. Sentimentality wasn't her thing, but a bitch, she was not. Besides, if she wanted to know about Dean, sticking close to the family was the way to go. "Please," she said. "Don't mention it."

-o-

Finding the waiting room was the easy part. Remembering that she had gallantly promised to babysit was not. Lorelai had been all intent on walking out, feeling like she'd done something great, when she remembered that she actually had to do that something.

Damn, little sister. She remembered her. Vaguely. She'd seen her a few times, knew what she looked like. It wasn't like they'd met often, but Rory had talked about her. Dean had, too. It was Tara or Clarice or...

"Clara!" she exclaimed, approaching the girl sitting by herself in the corner of the room. "Hi."

The girl looked up at her, a little uncertain. Though she was blonde, she had the same well-defined features Dean had. Though she was tall and skinny like Dean had been when Lorelai'd first met him, it was more becoming on her, making her look older than she probably was. Which was painfully apparent when the girl opened her mouth to speak--though Clara could look the part of a teenager, she still had the vocal intonation of a pre-teen girl.

As if the facial similarities weren't enough to equate Clara with Dean, she had that same wrinkle between her eyebrows when she looked concerned. "Hi," she replied, a little coldly, a little uncertainly, almost haughty.

Which maybe was understandable. Lorelai was a relative stranger, after all, and anything Clara did know about her was that she was Rory's mother, the same Rory that had stolen Dean's heart and trampled on it time and again before letting it go its depressed way. "Your parents asked me to sit with you," Lorelai explained.

The response Clara offered her was full of disdain. Of the pre-teen variety. Lorelai did not miss those days—her own or Rory's. "I know," Clara said. "I don't know why. I'm not a baby."

"Nope," Lorelai agreed, noting the fashionable clothes that probably cost her way too much and the smattering of makeup. "But you know how parents are--over-protective. I'm sure they mean well and they're worried enough about Dean--"

The girl's face darkened and her posture stiffened. "Is Dean okay?"

Lorelai's guilt bubbled up. "Oh, yeah," she said. "He just hit his head a little bit."

Clara looked down, her attitude melting away a little. "Last time we were here, Dean was hurt really bad."

The kid cared about her brother. That much was plainly obvious. And her parents didn't even have the decency to take her with them to see what was up. She supposed they wanted to shield her--just in case--but keeping kids in the dark was not a policy Lorelai had ever abided by. It only caused more grief in the end. At least, that's how she'd dealt with Rory, and it seemed to have worked. Rory was, after all, a college graduate, started in a career, and, in general, well-adjusted despite her obsessive tendency to enjoy CSPAN. "Well this is different," Lorelai assured her. "Last time was a fluke."

"He shocked himself," Clara said, looking up at Lorelai, almost tentatively.

"And this time he hit his head," Lorelai concluded. "See, very different."

"So he's okay?"

Lorelai hesitated, shrugging a little. "They've got to check his head out," she said. "You know, make sure he still has a brain."

The joke was lost on her. But Lorelai figured her timing wasn't ideal. Clara still looked at her, quite serious. "But he's not dead?"

"Dead?" Lorelai asked, lifting her brows quizzically. "No, not dead."

"How do you know?"

"Well, I was there," she explained. "I saw it happen and I was with Dean when he came to the hospital. He was pretty out of it and it may take him a bit to wake up, but he's definitely not dead."

"Is he hooked up to machines? Like before?"

Lorelai hadn't seen Dean before, though she'd heard all about it. From what she gathered, Dean had hovered near death, dependent on machines as he body found the will to live in the wake of the horrific accident.

Which probably meant it'd been touch and go for a while, but that as soon as the kid's brain reset itself, all was well. "A few," she relented. "You can't be in one of these places without being on something. I swear, those nurses have needle fetishes--they just like poking people and they use the IVs to make us think it's important."

Clara smiled a little. "Dean has to be okay," she said, settling back in her chair.

"Of course he does," Lorelai agreed, more relieved that Clara's tension had abated than anything else. She'd dealt with enough drama from the Forester clan today--she didn't need it from Dean's little sister. "He's a strong kid."

"He works out," Clara informed her helpfully. "At least once a day. He says he does cardio and weights. That's the key, he says. To staying healthy."

Well, that explained the body, then. Perhaps Lorelai should be taking notes. Getting in stellar shape might be a good hobby.

"He's teaching me how," she went on. "Starting me out light."

"Always a good plan," Lorelai said with a nod. "Don't want to overtax yourself."

"He's also studying all the time."

That piqued Lorelai's interest. "I thought he wasn't taking classes this summer."

"He's not," Clara said brightly. "But he wants to get ahead. He's always like that anymore. He spends half the day with his head in a book--technical books, novels, anything. He says he just wants to know more. That he can't know enough. Mom thinks he's just wasting his time, that he could be making money or something useful but Dean said he doesn't need the money."

Didn't need the money? What was the kid doing--selling drugs on the side? Because last time Lorelai checked, college was expensive. Room and board was expensive. The free time of a college student was expensive. And last she checked, Dean Forester did not come from money. In fact, Lorelai would guess that Clara's designer clothes were bought second-hand. It didn't make them less trendy, but a little less pricey.

"He got a scholarship," Clara announced proudly. "Covers everything."

"A full ride?" Lorelai asked, looking at her, surprised. She usually kept up with the town's gossip, and things like full rides usually got touted pretty heavily. "Really?"

Clara nodded decidedly. "And he has a really good job on campus during the year. Works for a professor as a research assistant. Most undergraduates don't get that kind of opportunity."

Well, go figure. Dean Forester was a hotshot student. Rory wasn't the only Stars Hollow graduate destined for bigger and better things.

Which begged the question--why didn't anyone know about this? Lorelai had her fingers on the pulse of the town, and--

Clara was looking at her now, eyes wide with concern. "But don't tell anyone," she said. "Dean says I shouldn't talk about it. He says it's bragging. And Mom would be so mad at me if she knew. She's really weird about it."

"Weird? Like weird she buys all the newspapers with news of his achievements and makes shrines in the back of her closet?"

Shaking her head, Clara folded in a little on herself. "No, weird like, weird. Like she doesn't think it's real or something. Dad doesn't even talk about it, but Mom talks like it's going to change at any second. But it won't," Clara said confidently. "I mean, you should just see Dean."

Oh, Lorelai had seen Dean alright. And it was a sight to behold.

"He's so dedicated. It's just, like, everything I want to be." Clara looked around, almost conspiratorially. Then she leaned in closer to Lorelai. "But don't tell my mom that either. She'd like totally flip."

"Like, totally," Lorelai agreed with a solemn nod.

Clara smiled a little before settled back into her seat. "And you're sure Dean's okay?"

There was such hero worship in the kid's voice that it made Lorelai ache a little bit. For Clara, for Dean, for the siblings Rory never had. For the sibling's she'd never had.

Dean would be okay. For Clara, he'd be okay. Lorelai didn't know why she was so sure of that, but, if anything, Dean was dependable, always had been. So she couldn't imagine that Dean would let Clara down.

"Your parents will be here soon," she assured her.

The kid smiled a little before looking away again, her eyes wandering to the stack of out of date magazines on the nearby table.

And Lorelai slouched in her chair, hoping that Dean didn't make her a liar. And thinking, just thinking, about what Rory would say if she were here. If she'd be worried, if her emotions would show. If she'd care at all.

-o-

Time passed slowly, probably for a lot of reason. First of all, she was sitting in a waiting room. It was pretty hard to distract oneself in a waiting room because, well, they were waiting rooms. It was pretty obvious why she was there and the whole concept of a room for waiting made the waiting all the more interminable.

Not to mention the fact that she was babysitting someone else's teenager. Teenagers shouldn't need to be babysat and she certainly had no overwhelming desire to babysit someone else's. She'd waited with her own through various and sundry activities and Clara wasn't a bad kid by any stretch of the imagination, but it was awkward. As they didn't know each other at all. And as Clara was clearly a little nervous, a little restless, and a little snotty, all while being scared out of her mind about her brother.

Which was really the part that made it the worst. Not knowing what the heck was going on with Dean.

How had she ended up here anyway? From Dean's first attempts to date Rory, to his frustrations about Rory's commitment to him, to him falling off the marriage bandwagon, to...this? From his first I love you to Rory to his last I don't belong here, do I, what had happened to him? From the kid destined to community college to a delayed college to a full-ride student? That mixture of pure manliness and uncertain childishness.

And all she'd done was talk with a little too much zeal and now she was trying to psychoanalyze her daughter's very hot, though perhaps damned with low self-esteem, ex-boyfriend.

So involved were her thoughts that she hardly realized that Dean's parents were there until Clara was up and out of her chair. "How's Dean? Can I see him? Is he okay?"

Randy put a hand on his daughter's shoulder. "Dean's going to be fine," he said. "He's got a bump on his head, but all the scans came back clear. He's got a concussion and they want to keep him overnight for observation, but he's going to be fine."

Clara's face lighted. "So can I see him?"

"Well, he's pretty groggy," her mother said.

"A few minutes would be good for both of them," Randy said.

"Well," May said, sounding reluctant.

"Come on," Randy said, rubbing Clara's arm. "You can help Dean stay awake for a little bit."

Clara smiled, bright and relieved.

"Let's go," Randy said. He looked at his wife. "Just for a few minutes. It can't hurt."

May didn't look so certain, but she didn't protest as her husband led Clara away. The woman looked tired, a little old with it.

"Well," Lorelai said, standing awkwardly. "Glad to hear he's okay."

Looking distractedly down the hallway, May finally turned to her. "Thank you," she said. "For watching Clara. We worry about her immensely these days. Especially with Dean being back."

"Oh," Lorelai said, looking for something to say to that. "Kids her age--they're very impressionable."

"Exactly," she replied. She leaned in a bit. "Dean's my son, and I love him, I do, but I can't figure out sometimes where I went wrong with him. I just want to make sure that Clara ends up on the straight and narrow. Explaining why Dean didn't go to college--"

"He's going now," Lorelai interjected.

"Finally," his mother amended. "And he does seem to be working hard. Pulling off the grades, but there's the rest of it. Trying to make Clara understand why what Dean did was wrong. I'm just so afraid of her getting attached to him again only to see him screw up. I keep waiting for the other shoe to fall. Things have been going so well."

"Well, that's good, right?" Lorelai tried. She wasn't sure what this conversation was about. How she'd ended up defending Dean, defending him to his own mother, the one person who should stand by her son through thick and thin. Rory had disappointed her, that was true, but that had never changed her faith in Rory. Her love of her. The one thing Rory needed above all else was the love and approval of her mother, and Lorelai had made plenty of mistakes in her life, but that had never been one of them. Rory had always known she was loved.

"It is," May conceded. She sighed a little. "I've just watched him screw his life up so often. It's so hard to hold my head up in town, sometimes. They all remember what he did to Lindsay. What he did to himself. Not to mention that stupidity at the diner. And now this."

"This wasn't his fault," Lorelai assured her quickly. Not unless being polite and the victim of surreal circumstance could be blamed on him. Which, at this point, she wasn't so sure.

The other woman smiled benignly. "He said the last time wasn't his fault either," she said.

There was nothing to say to this, nothing Lorelai could say. She hadn't witnessed the last time, and all she knew were the rumors around town. She had to admit, even she hadn't been surprised. A little concerned, of course, because she had liked the kid overall, but given everything...well, it just wasn't surprising. He had made a rather large mess of his life, and she wasn't naive enough to think it was all his fault, but a large part of it was.

But him going to school--that was a good sign, she'd thought. Out of left field, but a good sign. And if things were going as well as Clara said they were...well, then it certainly was unnerving to sit here and listen to his mother pretty much predict doom and gloom for her not-so-little boy.

Kids were kids. They made mistakes. Even Rory--her perfect, precious Rory--had succumbed to more than one youthful indiscretion (as in, stealing a boat). And if what Lorelai had learned about Dean today was any indication, Dean was making every effort to conquer his.

And that, no matter how she looked at it, was noble. It was good. It said something about his character. And why wasn't his mother saying these things to her?

"Well," Lorelai said. "Kids."

May gave a little laugh. "Yeah," she agreed. "Kids. How much easier my life would have been..."

She didn't finish the sentence. Lorelai was glad. Because she was pretty sure that if May had finished the sentence, she would have been forced to bitch-slap the woman. Because no one deserved to have that said about them. Not that most parents didn't think it from time to time, like Lorelai herself hadn't thought it from time to time. But the tone of May's voice, the look on her face, like Dean was some degenerate beyond all hope, like he'd committed rape and murder and a whole host of other horrific, unforgivable crimes.

And she meant it. She meant it. Like if she could trade Dean in, she would in a heartbeat.

No wonder Dean had self-esteem issues. At this point, the kid was lucky if he wasn't suffering irreparable damage.

"Yeah," Lorelai said. "Damn them for being born. Who'd a thought, right?"

Before May could process what she was saying, Lorelai smiled blandly. "I think I'll just run by and see Dean before I head on out. If you know, you need something, just let me know."

And she walked away, hoping that the woman got the message, but somehow doubting that she would.

-o-

Finding Dean's room wasn't as easy as she thought it should be. Sure room numbers were in, well, numerical order, but it took her about two minutes to realize that she had no idea what room Dean was in. She figured that he was in a regular room by now, but she couldn't be sure. And if he were awake, he wouldn't be in any special kind of ward, would he? And Randy and May, despite their apparent lack of pride in their son, weren't especially concerned, so she hedged her bets and wandered the floor, hoping that no one would stop her and ask her what on earth she was doing. Because she could give them an answer, a long one in fact, but it wasn't one she was sure would get her very far.

But, luck was with her. Finally. After knocking Dean into the path of Kirk's bike and having him pass out cold on her couch, she was finally get the stroke of luck she'd been sorely lacking all day.

The door was ajar and she could sight of his floppy brown hair.

And double her luck. He was alone. Apparently a short visit for Clara was quite short indeed. She could imagine the girl was sulking all the way home. Not that Lorelai could blame her. Her parents treated her like she was five and Clara didn't even have the pathetic look of a five year old going for her like Dean did. Not to mention her parents appeared to be utter asses.

Still, Clara's misfortune would work to her favor. Lorelai really wanted to check in with Dean by herself. Lingering by the door, she hesitated, feeling suddenly out of place, watching him. More luck going her way--she saw him long before he noticed her. Head injuries perhaps made people vaguely oblivious to their surroundings. But at least he was awake this time. Floppy Dean was not really something she wanted to repeat.

He was propped up in the bed, which was positioned so he was mostly upright. He still sported the IV and there was a nice array of monitors by his side, but they all seemed to be silent. He was in the far bed, but the one closest to the door was vacant, and the curtain between them was mostly open. Sunlight was filtering through the window, falling on Dean, and the kid, for his part, was staring wistfully toward it.

Not really wistful. More sad. Depressed maybe. Trapped.

Okay, he looked downright miserable.

Before, he'd looked pale. He'd looked sick and weak and everything that stirred her maternal instincts full force. But this? This was making Lorelai's heart break in a whole new way.

Because he looked withdrawn and desolate, a look she recognized all too well—from herself, when she had first moved to Stars Hollow, alone and jobless and pregnant. "Hey," she said, gently, her smile tentative, as if she was afraid of appearing too happy.

His eyes lifted and she saw him visible resolve himself, straightening in the bed and a smile crossing his face. "Hey."

"You're looking better," she offered, moving slowly inside. She'd been in hospital rooms before, but they weren't her favorite places. They ranked up there with cemeteries and Friday nights at her parents' house. "Less, you know, limp and unconscious, which is a hard look for anyone to pull off."

"Yeah, sorry for giving you the scare," he said. "I didn't realize how bad off I was."

She raised her eyebrows. She hadn't been looking for an apology and it really did seem rather ridiculous. Him apologizing for a concussion that he was in no way responsible for. "Oh yeah, since you should feel terrible about sustaining significant head trauma. That was simply terrible of you. I'm not sure I can forgive you. You know, not until you change my water jug fifteen times."

"It's a small price to pay," he said. "And really--I am sorry. They say I sort of passed out on your couch."

"You don't remember?" she inquired.

A hint of blush colored his cheeks and he looked at his hands. "Things are a little fuzzy."

"So you don't remember breaking into song and performing the whole first act of Guys and Dolls?"

His eyes widened slightly. "I'm pretty sure I'd remember that," he said.

"Don't be so sure," she said. "If this whole engineering thing doesn't work out, I think you may have a very good shot a Broadway. Or at least community theater. In an off year."

His lips quirked into a smile. "I'll keep that in mind," he said. "And I hope...I mean, I hope I wasn't too much of an imposition."

"Dean!" she said. "Really! Enough with the apologies. You got run over by the only motorized bike in Stars Hollow. Probably in all of Connecticut, for all we know. It's not your fault. It was an accident and you hit your head. You are not responsible for that or for whatever random and crazy things that may have ensued afterwards. If I hadn't tried to play the good nurse to you, then we could have avoided all this entirely."

"You tried to play the good nurse?" Dean asked, surprised. "Really?"

"Hey, I have my moments," she protested.

"You can't even kill a spider."

"First aid skills are not related to arachnids," she pointed out. "Surely a kid with a full ride to U Conn would know that."

He paled at that, his jaw clenching. "How did you know about that?"

She smiled awkwardly. Her cover was blown. She'd held it up for all of thirty seconds. To her credit, Clara hadn't said it was a secret, so therefore there was no breech of trust. She could hope. "Your sister is rather proud of you," she explained. "Your parents had me do a little babysitting while they checked on you and Clara started spilling all your accomplishments."

This time he blushed again, a deep red burning up his neck.

"You know, most people are proud of that kind of thing," she noted pointedly. "And yet you act like it's some awful secret that must be kept under wraps."

He shrugged one shoulder half-heartedly. "It just doesn't seem like that big of deal."

"That big of deal?" she asked, incredulous. "That big of deal? Dean, what do you think is a big deal. I mean, what, you're waiting to win a Nobel before you let people in town know about what you're doing?"

"Well, it's not like it's their business," Dean said. "And I've made the town gossip in enough ways; no sense in keep trying to make it."

Ah. There it was. The hurt behind it all. She should have guessed, because it was pretty obvious in retrospect. The kid had always been sensitive in that way, not that he liked to show it, but he cared about doing the right thing. He'd always tried to do right by Rory--tried, anyway. And all of that respectability, all that dependability--well, it kind of went by the wayside when he got married far, far too young and then abandoned those vows before they even had a chance to mean something.

She'd always suspected that his own guilt was part of the reason he'd never made it work with Rory. Rory's Ivy League ways were certainly part of the problem, even if Rory hadn't been ready to see that, but the kid had been too weighed down with his own failures to be able to make it work. He didn't believe he deserved Rory or happiness or anything--no more than Luke had, no more than her own parents had. Dean was his own worst enemy, and Lorelai hadn't realized just how pervasive it'd been until now.

Because it was years later. Rory had grown and changed. Dean had grown and changed. Yet, when he was confronted with his past, when he was in this town, his self-esteem plummeted to near non-existent levels. That accounted for the kicked puppy look. It accounted for his sudden desire to keep all his success a secret. The kid still didn't believe he deserved anything.

"Aw, come on, Dean," she said, keeping her voice light. "You know people like good news as much as they do bad news. In Stars Hollow, anyway. I mean, why else would people still be talking about Miss Patty's award winning pie venture?"

"Because she won't let anyone forget about it."

"True," Lorelai said. "But you don't think it's worth a try?"

He sighed a little. "I keep thinking it'll get better," he admitted finally. "Like this will all get easier. Because when I'm at school, it's different. I'm different. I get to be someone else. I get a fresh start. But every time I come back home, every time I even talk to my parents, it's like I go back to being that same screw up I was back then. It's been nearly four years, and I still feel like I can feel Lindsay's ring around my finger and Rory's hands in my hair. I can't escape it, no matter what I do."

She sank down to the chair beside his bed. There was truth to that. About how people didn't forget and even more rarely forgave. Stars Hollow was many things, but a great place to fall from grace wasn't among them. Because everyone knew about everything--and no one wanted to let it go. Apparently not even parents. "Hey, that's just Stars Hollow. It doesn't mean anything. We exist in a microcosm here, you know? And they don't know the real you. They don't know about what you've managed to do."

He glanced up at her, just for a moment, and his eyes were sad. "I don't deserve it," he said. "Their forgiveness. A second chance. Coming back here, suffering the stares, the gossip. It's like a penance, you know? I keep thinking that if I live it long enough then maybe that'll make it right."

"Dean, you're clinging to your scarlet A like it's going to make things better," she said. "It didn't work for Hester. It's not going to work for you."

"Living without it didn't work for Dimmesdale either," Dean said with a strangled laugh.

"Yeah, well, your mistakes didn't spawn a demon child either," she countered. "You've paid your dues, Dean. It's time to forgive yourself. If you want to let the whole town believe you're a screw up, that's one thing. But it's about time you started believing something better for yourself. You've got a good thing going for you, and it's not just Stars Hollow that's the problem. It's the fact that you can't let it go."

He was looking at her through half-veiled eyes, his head turned a little away defensively, but his eyes drawn to her in hope. The five year old was back--in full force. But this time it was just hurt and dejection of a child swatted on the butt and told to learn their merry business. This time it was almost hopeful, but almost afraid to be. "Lorelai," he said finally. "You're not...mad at me?"

It was a question she'd clearly thought about for herself ever since the whole marriage debacle. She'd put it well enough aside while he and Rory had given it another go, but she couldn't deny the lingering feelings of distrust she'd felt for the kid. Even now, all these years later, she could still see him, out of breath in her kitchen, looking guilty as hell. She could see Rory's bed, hear Rory's excuses, and yeah, that made it hard to take. She wasn't a conventional mother in many senses, but ever the most lenient mothers would have issues with Dean Forester.

But...it'd been Rory's excuses as much as his. It'd been her choice as much as his. Lorelai didn't know the details, but she didn't have to. She knew that Dean had been unhappy and that Rory had been lonely. Rory's slightest inclination, and Dean had always, always loved her. Didn't make it right. Didn't make Lorelai feel better about it. But it was human.

And really, looking at Dean now, he wasn't that kid. Wasn't even the kid who'd watched videos with them. He wasn't the kid who went with Rory to bookstores for hours on end. Wasn't the kid who would rearrange his entire schedule to see Rory. Wasn't the kid who got married too young and divorced too soon. It wasn't him. This was...different. He was different.

"Dean," she began. "I've probably been mad at you a few times over the years. What happened with you and Rory...I don't even know anymore. But it doesn't matter. Rory moved on. She grew up. She learned. And even with all of it and how much of it I wish hadn't happened, you knowing her gave her more good than bad. More than she'll ever know. And I'll always be grateful of that."

"But I--"

She sighed. "Dean, really. You were just a kid. No matter what happened then, no matter how anyone feels about it, it's not unforgivable, you know? I don't think people lord it over you as much as you think they do. They just see you, sad and withdrawn, and figure that's why. That you haven't gotten over it. You remind people of it because you think you deserve it. No one deserves that. Well, maybe some people, but not most people. Especially not you."

He was looking down again, his shoulders almost painfully hunched. It was remarkable how a guy so ridiculous big as he was could make himself look so small. Could revert to that five year old at a moment's notice. He was hearing her, listening to her, but she could see that he wasn't quite willing to believe it yet.

"You know," she continued, a little tentative. "I understand this better than you think."

Dean snorted a little at that. "You lost your first love and then cheated on your spouse and didn't get the one thing you wanted anyway?"

"Well, obviously not exactly that," she conceded. "But I don't know if you've done the math recently, but just how do you think Rory came into this world?"

He finally looked up, a little startled. "Well I assumed, you know, a man and a woman..."

"Ah, indeed," Lorelai said. "But consider the ages. I mean, I know at this point you probably still see people over 30 as all the same age--old, but I'm not nearly as old as I should be."

"I always figured you had a really good skin care secrets," Dean said.

"Ha! I wish!" Lorelai said. "It's all headed downhill pretty fast, but the fact that I'm about eight years younger than all of Rory's classmates also kind of gives me an edge."

Dean sighed. "You told me once you were sixteen."

"Yep," Lorelai said. "I was barely able to drive legally when I had Rory."

He'd already known it of course, but it seemed like he thought about it for the first time. What it meant. And not even the inherent gentleman in him could hide it. "Sixteen years old. Still in high school. You can imagine just how thrilled my parents were with that one."

The kid looked a little awed at that. "They didn't even like me for not having concrete college plans."

"I know," Lorelai said emphatically. "I tried living with them for awhile. You know, being a kid and all, it's not like I had a lot of other recourses. But it was impossible. The way they looked at me. The comments. It was like every time I turned around, there they were, just looking at me. Judging me. Sometimes I still feel that way. Like I'll never live up to anything in their eyes."

His face softened. "You get along with them now."

"Now, sort of. Sometimes, anyway. I mean, it's never going to be perfect, and I ran to Stars Hollow to get away from them. Because it seemed like, if I stayed there, I would be nothing but their problem child. But here, in Stars Hollow, I didn't have to be. I could be someone else and people wouldn't just see the screwed up Gilmore girl. They'd see me, which in some ways isn't always much better, as you can imagine."

Dean smiled at that, shyly, ducking his head back down. "I can't imagine anyone truly thinking poorly of you. Maybe exasperated with you from time to time, but never poorly."

Very diplomatic of him, she had to hand him that. Not that it surprised it. It was so typically Dean. "And that's what makes you a gentleman," she said. "And the point of this story, believe it or not, isn't about me, no matter how self-centered it may have seemed. It's about the fact that I get what it's like to try to get over something. I get what it's like to feel the stares. And I also get what it's like to let go and start over. I'm able to walk into my parents' house now and I don't like it always, but I'm able to look them squarely in the face and feel like I have a place there. Because one mistake didn't ruin me for life. And it doesn't ruin you, either. Hold your head up high and face the world. Or, rather, Stars Hollow. They'll all come around and forget it when you do."

His smile faded, a little sad. He had that look, that look that he knew she was right, but that it was just so hard to accept. Which was, she remembered, part of the process. The self-doubt, trying to pull yourself inward to insulate yourself. Becoming an emotional Eskimo because that was the only way to protect yourself. It was also the only way to keep yourself from living. And it wasn't like she had it all figured out. Because she may be alone and she may not really be sure how her story was going to end up, but she knew that she'd be okay. And she didn't owe anything to anybody and if she wanted to be a dirty old woman, then the critics be damned.

But she was older, maybe not an old woman quite yet, but experienced. She'd had time to grow and learn and put her past behind her where it belonged.

Dean was only 25 and he hadn't had a chance to get away, not long enough to make it last, anyway. He was still controlled by expectation. Loyal and dependable to the end, this kid was, even when the people around him used that dependability to make him the town screw-up for the rest of his life.

He lifted his eyes again. "Thanks," he said. "I mean, for everything."

She had to smile. His thanks was genuine, even if he wasn't ready to accept everything she said. But she couldn't change that, no more than she could change Rory's decisions or the town's perceptions. "No problem," she said. "I'm always looking for a little excitement in my life, and you passing out certainly qualifies for that. Plus, I'm sure I'll have spectacular stories to tell. I'll be the star at the diner all week. Don't worry, though, I'll leave out your Broadway tryout. I'd hate to ruin your macho image that you're so clearly working these days."

A flush once again raced up his cheeks. "I can't believe you had to see me like that."

"Oh, I've seen much worse," Lorelai promised him. "Though, seriously, what workout are you doing to get your chest like that?"

This made the flush overtake his entire face, which she took real pleasure in.

"Aw, don't worry, Dean," she said. "I was just appreciating the scenery. There's a silver lining in every situation."

"And what is it for me?"

She smiled brightly, cocking her head. "Getting to reconnect with me, of course," she said. "Which, I mean, by the way. I know things are, well, weird between us with what happened. But there's no reason to be a stranger, okay? I mean, I don't want you to pass out on my couch every day, but if you walk by again, you don't need to linger on the sidewalk. The house is much safer."

"True," Dean said. "And I've had quite enough of hospitals for the time being."

"But it's like your summer vacation thing," Lorelai cajoled. "The weather gets warm, Dean Forester needs a trip to the hospital to keep him sane. Or insane. Whichever you prefer."

This brought out a real smile, dimpled and all, which was what she'd been going for. "Yeah," he said. "Let's just hope it's at least a year before I end up back here."

"You think maybe they'll give you a frequent user card? You know, like so many visits and you get stitches for free? Or maybe a free surgery of your choice. And if I were you, I'd pick the appendix. Those damn little organs, no good for anything."

"I'm rather anti-gall bladder," Dean said. "From what I've heard, you can live quite well without one of those."

"Good choice," Lorelai said. She rubbed her hands on her thigh and stood up. "And I think I'll go before the nurses come to offer you a sponge bath. I mean, I'm sure that'd be a very fun thing and all, but I already feel dirty enough as it is, so I'll spare us both that immodesty."

It was just too easy to make him blush; if anything, he'd become more respectful and dutiful since his teenaged years. "Thanks, Lorelai."

It wasn't just a thanks for stopping by or a thanks for bothering with me or even thanks for picking me up off the ground. But it was a thanks for caring, for seeing something else. "Hey, anytime," she said lightly. "I'll see you?"

"Yeah," he said, stronger now, and she believed him. "We'll see each other."

She gave him one more smile, one more once over, taking in the long hair, the bulky build of his body in the bed, the weariness on his face that made him look far, far too old. And all she could think was how much he'd grown up, how well he'd grown up, and if other people couldn't see it, that was their fault.

Then she turned on her heel and made her way out into the hallway, and couldn't help but wonder why it'd taken her so long to see it.

No, what it'd taken her so long to care.

Well, maybe Dean wasn't the only one taking the scenic route in Stars Hollow. Lorelai was just glad that he was getting there in the end and that maybe she was, too.