Title: Happily Ever After
Summary: His life was just his, and it was time to start living it because, really, it was the happily ever after that mattered and that was the only part that wasn't written yet.
A/N: I wrote this a long time ago but finally polished it. For those following along, it can be viewed as the first fic chronologically of the Redemptive!Dean verse, though I will admit it wasn't necessarily written with that in mind (but it fits). I have always been fascinated by how Dean might recover after he drove away from Rory's grandparents that last time. Beta'ed by geminigrl11 and sendintheclowns. I'm posting this one somewhat in anticipation for my next Redemptive!Dean fic, which is really quite massive and will take me forever to post. So I figured I'd do this one first, since it's much shorter and captures a very important period of Dean's life. That said, this picks up right after "The Party's Over" (I think that's the title) and includes mentions of events that occurred later in S5.
Disclaimer: Poor Dean Forester and others are not mine.
People have a thing for cliches, especially grandiose ones that talk about the meaning of life and love and all such things. Things like life is like a box of chocolates or love conquers all. Meaningless phrases, beautiful ones, ones that the Lindsays of the world dreamed about. The ones that the Rorys of the world read about.
It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved to at all.
The ones that Dean Forester wished he could believe.
Driving away wasn't easy.
Driving away meant that he'd lost Rory. That he'd lost the only girl he'd ever loved. That he'd lost that one hope for happiness that he'd been clinging to. That he'd lost the desperate idea that maybe a relationship with Rory could make all of this worthwhile. Worth his marriage, worth the look on Lindsay's face, worth the whispers around town, worth everything.
The road was hard to see through his blurry vision. He gripped the wheel so tight he could barely feel his hands and he could only hope that his foot wasn't pushing all the way through the floor like he wanted it to. It was autopilot, instinct, a drive he'd driven a thousand times before, but would never drive again.
Maybe autopilot was the way to go. That way he could turn the wheel ever so slightly and slam his truck at full speed into a tree or off a bridge.
Not that anyone would really care. They'd notice, sure--he'd make the talk of the town yet again. All the gossip--did you hear about that Forester boy? That's what he gets, cheating on his wife. Even that didn't make him happy.
Which really, he probably deserved.
Blinking furiously, he swallowed, hoping to stop the swell of tears. Of all the girls that could make him cry, Rory Gilmore had it down to a science, damn near an art.
She'd come to him this time. She'd called him to pick her up. She'd called him to meet her at Miss Patty's. She sought him out after she returned from Europe. She wanted to try this relationship again, even when he had thought he could do it on his own, she chose him.
That was why it was different. That was why he'd believed that it was different this time around.
He should have known. Should have known. But instead, he was the same old boy he'd always been, sitting there in his truck, waiting for her.
And he'd just felt so stupid. So absolutely stupid. Waiting for her, on that property, when she was with her family and her friends. That was her world. It was her future.
All he was was a two-timing asshole who lived with his parents and worked a dead end job in a nowhere town. Guys like him didn't win girls like Rory. Never could, never would, and he'd been so stupid to let himself get this far into it.
He'd spent so much time waiting for her. Waiting for her to come back from Europe, waiting for her to love him, waiting for her to pick him, waiting for her to open up her life and her plans and make room for him.
He'd been a fool.
Rory Gilmore would never love him. She could never settle for him, not in the long run. Which left him with a failed marriage, no prospects, and a broken heart. Not to mention that nagging truth that most of it had always been his fault.
Outside, the night was clear and bright and nearly perfect, and Dean thought about Rory's blue eyes and her pretty hair and her fancy dress and that smile on her face and the way she couldn't deny what they both already knew. He was still a stepping stone, still just a stopover into something better. He was a chance to make the biggest mistake of her life a little less awful.
He didn't want to be that anymore.
This wasn't about a breakup. It wasn't even about Rory. It was about Dean Forester, adulterer and not quite good enough, trying to figure out just what the hell he was trying to do and when it all went so very, very wrong.
He always supposed it was love at first sight.
Yeah, that was overly romantic drivel, and Dean was macho enough to call it that, but too weak to really mean it. Because the first time he saw Rory Gilmore, he was pretty sure it was love.
Maybe not true love, not that kind that developed after talking to her, touching her, knowing her. But love. A sense that this was meant to be. That she was the one, the only one; all he'd ever want. Destiny.
Holy Romeo and Juliet.
But there he was, ready to cast aside everything, all inhibitions and just go for it, because he loved her. He'd scale walls, fight Tristan and even Luke if he had to; do anything for her.
That was what love was. All it was. And it all worked out in the end.
But Romeo and Juliet were never meant to be together. Love wasn't enough. Not when their stars were crossed. They denied their fathers and doffed their names and still didn't get the happy ending they'd been striving for in vain.
Dean Forester was no scholar, no literati, but he understood that much.
That night, his mother didn't talk to him when he came home. His father wasn't even around. Clara looked at him, at least, but there wasn't anything to say. He'd dropped the keys on the kitchen table and walked straight past them to his bedroom.
They didn't know what happened. But they didn't need to. They knew enough.
Hunkered down in the remnants of his childhood and the debris of his parents' life since then, he felt a little numb. A little surreal. Like this was a bad movie and he was at the center of it and that someone should just yell cut and put everyone out of their misery.
It wasn't going to happen. Just like he wasn't going to be with Rory anymore, just like he couldn't take back asking Lindsay to marry him, just like he couldn't suddenly make the last five years of his life suddenly have meaning beyond having loved and lost.
He heard voices in the kitchen, the soft scuff of chairs on the hardwood floor, and he remembered a time when he hadn't dreaded coming home, when his mother had been proud of him, when Clara had looked up to him. When his father hadn't avoided him altogether. A time when he felt life was worth something, when he'd been worth something. But those days seemed so long, so impossibly long ago.
He had tried living with Kyle, but the couch didn't fit him and he was tired of taking charity from friends. He didn't have anything left to lose with his family, so he had moved back home knowing that this wasn't just some temporary thing. This was the long haul. For better or for worse, Dean was alone.
He remembered the first time he'd seen Rory smile, the rush of excitement when she'd first kissed him, and the look of love on Lindsay's face when she'd been standing at the altar saying I do.
He remembered them, the acts and looks and essences of other people, but he couldn't remember himself.
Sinking to the floor, he curled in on himself and buried his head in his knees and cried.
He dreamed of his teenage years, when he'd first moved to Stars Hollow and wondered if he'd ever fit in. He dreamed about that feeling of anticipation, that sense of fear, the weird beauty of starting over.
A second chance to define himself, to become someone different, someone new.
He hadn't liked it then. He'd been so angry for a while—at his parents for dragging him here, halfway across the country to this weird little town filled with strange customs and even stranger people, for making him leave behind the past, at Clara for making friends so quickly.
But he survived. He did okay in school, he made some friends, even got the girl of his dreams to take a second look at him.
He'd thought that would make the difference, like it was some kind of path less traveled or something grand like that. That making friends, fitting in, dating Rory would make him worthwhile.
But in the dream she smiled so pretty and danced away from him, always away. Her hair was up and down and her Chilton skirt tickled her thighs. No matter how hard he tried, how fast he ran, she was beyond him, just right beyond him, and he was left with empty hands and tingling on his lips. People applauded and cheered until the sky darkened. Their eyes narrowed and they jeered at him, poked at him until he couldn't see Rory at all.
When he woke in his parents' house the next morning, all he could remember was how lucky he'd been back then. Not that he was likable, not that school wasn't too hard, not even that Rory dated him. But because he'd gotten a second chance at all.
He wondered, he just had to wonder, if he had another chance after everything that had happened since.
Life in Stars Hollow never changed.
Married, divorced, affair-ridden, single. He was still Dean Forester, working at Doose's, hoping to catch some extra shifts to make ends meet. He got some looks now, sure, and little whispers from the little old ladies who came to the market. But life was life was life, and Dean had his insubstantial role to play.
He used to look forward to meeting Rory after work, or in the stock room for lunch. For a time, he'd even looked forward to Lindsay, her smiling face waiting for him at the end of a long day.
Now, all he had to go home to was his parents and his little sister. Which might have been okay when he was seventeen, but he wasn't seventeen anymore.
That didn't seem to bother anyone else, though. Like no one else thought about it. Like they didn't think about the fact that he should have gone to college, should be working a career, should be doing something that didn't involve an hourly wage and no benefits.
But that didn't matter. Not to them. To them, he was a gossip point, a moral lesson, someone's ex-boyfriend and someone's ex-husband.
Man without a future. Man with a speckled past. Man who didn't know what the hell he was going to do.
He was up before dawn and already running late. He promised Tom he'd be on site early to get a jump on things, which was all well and good, but he could have gone for a cup of coffee to really jump start the whole process.
By the time he made it downtown, his eyes ached and he'd yawned three times. He needed more than a jump start. He needed something to make it through the next hour.
He thought about going to Doose's but he knew the minute he walked in, he would get harangued into pulling something off the top shelf in the back, the one that Taylor can never reach. It would take Taylor five minutes to ring up his coffee and bagel and the man would fret over how much of a discount to afford a loyal employee who wasn't on duty at the time.
That was time he didn't have. But coffee he needed.
The sign at Luke's said open.
He hadn't been into Luke's since he broke up with Rory. He hadn't talked to Luke since their crazed Bop-It match.
The man didn't like him. Maybe he never had, but that never made it easier to accept. Just another person who didn't think he was good enough, another person who looked at Dean and saw nothing.
It was hard not to be bitter. It was hard not to feel resentment at people who wanted him to fail, who wanted him to lose. He'd failed enough and lost more than he could keep track of and yeah, it was his fault, but what was with people in this town who never made mistakes? Never mind Luke's own failed marriage. Never mind Luke's failed attempts to reform Jess.
Never mind any of it. Dean wasn't mad at Luke. Dean couldn't even blame Luke. It didn't make it hurt any less.
Ducking his head, he kept on walking. He could do it without coffee.
Lindsay liked fairy tales. That's how she liked to look at life. She used to tell him about happily ever after and how she wanted everything to be just perfect, just so perfect.
She believed in Cinderella, that pure and virtuous were rewarded in the end. She believed in Sleeping Beauty and wanted to feel love's one true kiss upon her lips.
She liked frills and fantasies, big gestures and romantic notions.
Rory liked literature. She liked drama and tension and the value of conflicted love prevailing in the end. She was so literary, so damn esoteric about it all, analyzing and picking apart, until every aspect of love was understood, at least to her. She was a walking commentary, a living critique of love.
She wanted a tragic romance. Star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
Fairy tales and literature and Dean tried to give them what they wanted, tried so hard, when all he wanted was reality.
Mrs. Carrington was a little old lady who lived a block from downtown. She came into Doose's once a week like clockwork on Thursday afternoons, a shift Dean had been working since before he got married.
She filled up two bags with food, the basics and a nice array of vegetables and Dean had started carrying her bags for her for as long as he could remember. It always made Taylor sort of grumble, bemoan how he wasn't paying Dean to do favors to little old ladies, no matter how old or fragile they may be. But not even Taylor could say no to Mrs. Carrington.
So when he finished packing her bags this week, he bent down to scoop them up when her small hand flit through the air and landed on his arm. "No, no," she said. "Don't you touch those, young man!"
Dean just cocked his head, confused. "I was just going to carry them home for you," he said. "Just like usual."
Just like last week and the week before when Mrs. Carrington had told him about her great-grandson and his soccer game or last month when she had told him about her late husband's time in the army.
"I think not!" she chirped.
"But I do it every week," Dean ventured uncertainly.
Her eyes went hard and narrowed at him, the wrinkles on her face looking mean and set. "I don't need the help of adulterers like you," she seethed. "To think, I let you in my house after what you've done."
He always knew that word had gotten out. He'd gotten stares and cold shoulders and whispers behind his back. But nothing like this.
It took all his resolve to swallow evenly. "Oh," he said. "Then let me go ask Grant to help you out today."
"He a good boy?"
Dean smiled. "I'm sure you'll like him very much."
That night, Dean locked his bedroom door and laid down on his bed with all his clothes on. He stared at the ceiling until he fell asleep.
Days passed. Weeks.
He didn't hear anything about Rory. He didn't hear about Lindsay either. But he kind of thought people weren't talking to him, just about him, which was kind of the way things went these days.
It seemed like something should happen, something should change, something should be different. But it wasn't. He felt as lonely and as empty as he had since the first time he'd really lost Rory, since the first time he'd been told that he wasn't good enough for Rory, since the first time he'd told Lindsay he loved her, since the first time he'd given up college, since the first time he'd broken all the promises that mattered.
Days passed. Weeks. And he wasn't any closer to making sense of things since the night he walked out of Rory's life, since the night she stopped pretending to care.
His father was rehabbing an Impala in the garage. The hulk of it looked like a '67 but it didn't take Dean long to see that some of the parts were from a '65 and that his father was taking it slow.
"You can touch her, you know," his father said one day, when he caught Dean standing in the doorway.
It hadn't occurred to Dean that he had been looking for permission, but it felt good to hear that something was okay for him. "I would hate to mess her up," Dean said. "Looks like you're already into it."
His father leaned back, wiping his hands on his pants and eyed the long, sleek body. "Yeah, that is a fear," his father agreed. There was a pause before his father looked at him. "Never stopped you before."
Dean blushed a little. "You were always yelling at me."
"You were always getting into things," his father said. "But you were a damn smart kid. Still are. Most grown men I know can change the oil or fix a belt in the engine, but if they tried to build a car from scratch, they'd be walking for the rest of their lives."
"I had a lot of help."
"Most people do, Dean."
Dean felt his throat tighten inexplicably and he swallowed hard against it, looking down. "I missed it," he said. "You know. When I was with Lindsay."
His father looked down at the tool in his hand. "I missed you, too."
He took a breath and steadied himself. "I've got to head to work soon."
His father nodded. "You're working hard."
"Seems like the thing to do."
"You know, you don't have to ask, Dean," his father said. "To help with the car. No matter how much you mess it up, I'd always love to have you around."
And his dad wasn't just talking about the car.
Dean went to work in a good mood for the first time in months.
The weather turned cold early that year, deep and pervasive, and Dean felt it down in his bones. It made him feel old and tired, worn and weary, and sometimes he forgot that he wasn't even twenty yet.
He had memories, though. The dark and expansive kind that old men talked about over coffee, the regrets and lessons learned over years of time. He had those regrets and lessons that men twice his age couldn't imagine because they had never been quite so stupid.
Doose's was especially cold, especially when Taylor had him do the window displays and the frigid glass rubbed painfully against his clothing. He worked with numb fingers, almost glad for the distraction, but it was never enough to make him forget.
He couldn't help himself. In the mindless hours of his job, he couldn't help but remember the summer. It was only months ago, but already it seemed like another life.
It had been a period of stasis. Of limbo. Of cruel uncertainty. He lived somewhere between regret and relief, wondering if he had lost Rory, not sure if he could still consider himself a husband at all.
Sometimes he could pretend it hadn't happened. That his tryst with Rory had been a wild fantasy, a fleeting whim of fancy in his attention-starved brain. Sometimes he thought if he could just learn to look at Lindsay again, if he could just remember how she had made him feel when they first met, how she had made him forget, made him smile, made him feel valuable, that he could make it work. That he could forget Rory and everything they'd done together and be the man he promised Lindsay he'd be.
So he bought Lindsay flowers, let her spend money on frivolous things, and encouraged his wife in everything he could.
But it was guilt.
And it wasn't working.
It didn't make him love her. It didn't make him love the townhouse or the two jobs or the constant meddling from his in-laws. It didn't make him forget college or engineering or the things he had wanted for himself.
It didn't make him forget the smoothness of Rory's skin, the smell of her hair, the soft touch of her lips against his. It didn't make him forget how alive he'd felt in that moment, how complete, how damn happy.
But Rory had been in Europe and Lindsay had been right there. One devoted to him, one completely an enigma, and Dean knew that a real man would make a choice, would decide for himself with or without Rory, but Dean was nineteen and not all that much of a man after all.
Sometimes he had wanted that summer to last forever. To pretend that Rory would never come back and that no one would have to know. To think that he could give the rest of his life to Lindsay to atone for that mistake he'd made.
Other times, all he wanted was for summer to end and bring Rory back to him in the desperate hope that she could make him happy again, once and for all.
He thought about all these things and more as he stacked cans of chili in the store front. Taylor wanted a pyramid of sorts, something catchy, something creative to draw customers in. Dean didn't care much about that, and sort of thought that no matter how you stacked things, no matter how you decorated them or justified them in your mind, it didn't change the basic fact of what they were. Cans of chili were still cans of chili. And Dean Forester had still been an adulterer whether Lindsay had read the letter not.
The house was full for Christmas. With his older sister home, there were four extra people and Dean was bumped to the hide-a-bed in the basement. The room was dark and the floors were old and he could hear every movement on the main floor, which was a lot. His nephews were at that age, rambunctious and wild, running in every which direction and nearly toppling the Christmas tree his mother decked out.
His family seemed happy, maybe for the first time in a long time. His mother was beaming and his father looked content, leaned back in his arm chair, the boys running back and forth. The teenaged chip was even off Clara's shoulder because their mother let her wear makeup with no fuss and Audrey had given her a new shade of eye shadow that she simply adored.
Dean tried to fit in, tried to enjoy the eggnog and watching football with his dad and his brother-in-law. But something seemed off, something seemed empty, and for a second he remembered Lindsay trimming the townhouse with garland and squealing when she opened the bracelet he had gotten her. It had taken him two weeks of extra work to afford it, but he'd dropped out of college by then, so he'd had the time.
This Christmas he was with his family and they were all so happy and there was so much cheer that it made Dean want to run away and hide.
He told his mother he felt sick and only Clara really looked concerned when he disappeared into the basement. He could hear them walking and talking a floor above but Dean curled onto his side and closed his eyes and tried to sleep the memories away.
There were things that people didn't remember about stories. Things like the prince in Rapunzel had his eyes pecked out by birds. Things like Romeo fell in love with every pretty girl he saw.
Things like that didn't fit, not in the beautiful picture people liked to believe in. People didn't want to believe in reality. They wanted fantasy. They wanted adventure that didn't leave them scarred. Luxury that came without sacrifice.
People always wanted what they didn't have.
It was the reason he'd never be enough for Rory. The reason he'd never be enough for Lindsay. The reason he might never be happy again.
"I put you down for the opening shift tomorrow," Taylor told him, barely looking up from his paperwork behind the counter.
Dean cocked his head, his broom still poised in his hand. "But I'm not scheduled for that shift."
Surprised a little, Taylor looked up, eyebrows raised. "You usually like extra hours."
That was true, it was all true, so Dean wasn't sure why he bristled. "But what if I have plans?"
Taylor's brow creased and his eyes narrowed. "Are you trying to quit?"
That question was unexpected and Dean gaped a little. "No," he said simply.
"Why else wouldn't you want hours?" Taylor asked, incredulous. "I mean, what else would you have going on?"
Taylor's tone was nonchalant, oblivious. Not harsh. Not intentionally mean.
It still hurt. Dean stared at him a moment longer, his mind blank, his body numb. What else would he have going on?
He closed his mouth. "I can work the opening shift," he said finally, meekly.
Taylor smiled and went back to his work, and Dean continued pushing the broom across the floor.
Sometimes he felt so guilty.
About Lindsay. About Rory. About doing this to his parents. About everything.
He should have been smarter than this. He should have been stronger. He never should have crumbled after losing his first love. He never should have betrayed his wedding vows. He never should have let himself go back to a girl who didn't love him.
He shouldn't be working at a grocery store. He shouldn't be working construction. He should have gone to college, he should have made something of himself. Something besides a bad reputation.
His should haves filled his mind, filled his soul until he felt like he was drowning. Until he wished he really could.
He couldn't--he wouldn't--go to Rory's, but when he ended up on Lindsay's front step, he was more than a little surprised. His throat was tight, his hands were sweaty and he felt more nervous than the first time he'd told Rory that he loved her.
He rang the bell, and was lucky that Lindsay answered. Her face was dark and cross and her jaw was clenched and Dean knew that she was trying not to cry.
"Hi," he said lamely, shuffling his feet.
"What do you want, Dean?" she asked, her voice taut.
"I...," he tried. "I...."
"I don't have time for this," she huffed and moved to close the door.
He put his hand out to stop her, and was surprised when she did. And in that moment, he looked at her--really looked at her, and was surprised by what he saw.
She'd always been pretty to him, attractive, but he'd never noticed that she was beautiful. Her hair was unstyled, her clothes well worn, but she was so very beautiful. And there was a softness in her eyes, a patience, a willingness to give him a chance when he didn't deserve it.
He'd never deserve it. He hadn't deserved her.
"I'm sorry," he said finally, his voice low. He swallowed hard. "I know it's too late for that, but I just wanted to tell you."
Her face flickered, wavering a little. "You're not getting anything else in the settlement," she said, uncertain, skeptical.
"I don't want anything," he said. "You can have it all."
She looked hesitant, her head cocked.
Dean held out his keys. "You can have the truck," he said. "God, Lindsay, you can have it all. I was such an idiot. I can't even believe--I mean, I can't even begin to explain. I always thought I'd be better than that, but I wasn't. I never should have hurt you. If I could take it back, I would. You deserved someone who was worth loving. I don't know why you got me."
Her brow furrowed, and there was a sudden trace of sympathy in her eyes. "Keep the truck," she said, pushing his hand down. She lingered in the doorway, and her hand felt soft on his. A smile almost ghosted over her face. "It wasn't okay, you know. It would never have been okay. I tried so hard to make you love me. It was all I wanted. But I should have known it would never work."
She shook her head, her smile turning sad. "You never loved me, Dean," she said. "You never loved me. And you should never stay with someone who doesn't love you."
He swallowed hard, surprised by her compassion, wondering how he'd ever neglected to see how smart she could be.
"I just hope you learn that, too," she said. "Because it's not worth it in the end, you know? All the effort, all the time--it just leaves you broken. Pathetic."
"You're not pathetic," he said quickly. "Lindsay, you've never been pathetic."
She actually laughed at that, slight and hurting. "I think maybe we both are."
He looked down at that, and knew she was right. His shoulders sagged and he looked back up and realized that she could give him the one thing that no one else could: absolution. "Will you ever forgive me?"
"You were an ass," she told him.
She sighed finally. "We'll never be friends, Dean. I don't know what you want."
He wanted someone to love, someone to love him, someone to tell him that he wasn't a bad person.
"I just want to make this right."
She licked her lips, slow and steady, and she just looked at him for a long moment. "Sometimes we can't."
As she closed the door, he knew just how right she was.
Maybe in the end, life was nothing more than moments. Snatches of time strung together, for better or for worse. Some good, some bad. But moments.
Dean couldn't remember his first day of school. He couldn't remember the song his mother used to sing to him to help him sleep when he was little. He couldn't remember the name of Clara's imaginary friend. And he really couldn't remember what his dad tried to tell him about the birds and the bees.
But he remembered his first bike and how one day he took apart the gears just to see how they worked. His mother had yelled, until she saw that he put it all back together.
He remembered the first day he saw Rory, an oversized sweater and long brown hair and eyes like he couldn't believe. And that book in her hand, an extra appendage that made her stand out. He looked at her and thought, if only.
Their first kiss, their first fight, the first time she said I love you. He had those memories stored away, filed in his brain to pull out when he was sad, when he was lonely, when he needed. The look in her eyes, written all over her face, that said she trusted him, wanted him, needed him.
He couldn't remember when that look had dwindled. He couldn't remember when it was gone for good. He couldn't remember when he'd stopped looking for it.
He remembered the fading twilight and the cool grass when he'd asked Lindsay to marry him. He remembered how her eyes sparkled when she said yes. He remembered feeling guilty for asking her at all, but also too guilty to pull back, too guilty to even ask himself why.
He didn't remember his bachelor's party, but he remembered what it felt like walking down that aisle and wondering if he was making the biggest mistake of his life.
Worse, he could remember, would always remember the look on Lindsay's face when it was over. The pain in her eyes, the blush of fury in her cheeks, the letter crumpled in her hands. It was clearer than the rest, clearer than any other moment, because it was the worst thing he'd ever done. He would remember it as the time Dean Forester truly became the screw-up and now there was a girl with a broken heart and a piece of paper saying it never should have happened to begin with.
Memory could be cruel, could be kind. Life's moments didn't discriminate, didn't rely on happiness or growth or anything. They just were. Simple truths that couldn't be denied, that were the unwitting testimony of just who a person was.
Looking back, Dean wasn't sure he liked what he saw. It didn't make sense, most of it, and what sense it did make only made Dean feel weak and foolish.
But there was something else he saw, some other theme he could almost make out. The world was full of people looking for love. Dean loved Rory. Lindsay loved Dean. And none of them were happy in the end.
He would remember that. Remember this moment, forever and ever, because this was the first time that Dean Forester realized what it meant to let go.
His mother wanted her sewing room back. "I just have no space anymore," she said, running a hand through her hair as Dean scooted by her in the kitchen. "And I was going to make a little dress for your niece. It'll be my first granddaughter."
Dean smiled wanly. "I know, Mom."
"So I need space for that," his mother prattled on. "I had thought I would have space."
Dean pretended like he didn't know what she was implying. He didn't want to know.
"Clara will only be at home for a few more years, honey," his mother hedged. "That was going to be your father's space. And this was going to be mine."
And he was in it. Dean was there. Dean had screwed it up. "Do you want me to leave?"
She sighed a little, pursing her lips. "It's not that I don't love you, sweetheart," she continued. "But I need the space. And I thought this was, well. Temporary."
There were a million things to ask. A million things to say. A million thoughts to give voice to, a million pains to let her in on, a million embarrassments to consider. "I'm sorry," he said finally.
She dropped a hand on his arm. "I just thought by now you'd be giving me grandkids," she said. "Not just taking up the space."
Her voice was kind but she didn't even seem aware how cruel it all was. How much he couldn't take it. Not here. Not from her. It was hard enough, all the memories, all that failure. The town was full of reminders, full of judgment, and he still could sometimes think of home as safe. As his mother as understanding.
Maybe life was always one step forward, two steps back.
"Fine," he said. "I'll figure something else out."
"Dean--" Her voice was softer, surprised, like she didn't see this coming.
Her sympathy was too late. He pulled away, pushing past her. "Just give me until the summer, okay?"
She said something else he didn't hear and he went straight to work without eating anything, without even changing his clothes. Tom had some work for him, something stupid, something mundane, and now he really needed the money, to save up for rent, for a new life, for something different, something not at home with family, something not with Lindsay, something not with Rory, just something.
He let it hurt until it turned to bitterness and when Luke Danes picked that day to try to make peace, Dean wanted nothing to do with it because if Dean couldn't even have a mother's love, then why the hell should he care about anyone else.
Lindsay had let him keep the truck, but Dean hardly drove it anymore. He had no reason to go out of town, after all. No friends he wanted to visit, no business he had to attend to. And somehow it had lost its appeal to him. For most of his life, cars had fascinated him. He'd studied them, ogled them, coveted them, just to get under the hood and take them apart, piece by piece, to see how they worked. He always put them back together again, just like that, like it was second nature, as natural as breathing, and he'd always known it was his calling.
But it seemed less important now, less interesting, and so he walked. The round trip to and from the downtown wasn't ridiculous, but it wasn't short either. Dean didn't care.
When he walked, time seemed to stand still. Life seemed to halt. He paced off the cracked sidewalks squares one by one and let himself drift away. He wasn't at home, where his parents didn't like to look at him. He wasn't at work, where no one cared enough to notice him. He wasn't here or there or anywhere but someplace in between, someplace transient, someplace undecided.
It was those times he could think, he could really let his mind do its job without lectures and condescending glances or awkward questions. It was his time to pop his own hood and look into his brain and take apart the pieces, bit by bit, trying to figure out how he worked.
His failed marriage. His failed career. His failed romance. His failed everything.
The pieces were all there, strewn out, easy enough to see, but whenever he tried to put them all back again, try to put the parts back to form the whole, he never could figure it out.
His life was a monotonous repetition. Work, come home, work again, sleep. Nothing changed. Nothing would ever change. He was stuck. Stuck saving money for an apartment he didn't want to get, to start a life that had nothing to it except work and loneliness.
It was his own fault, and he knew that, and that just made it worse.
He spent his nights packing, going through the boxes of his stuff still stacked in the room. When he found the box of his meager collection of college stuff, it made him stop. There were some notebooks and notes, a few textbooks.
College. The thing he'd given up for Lindsay. A sacrifice he'd really made. If he'd done it for love, it might have been okay. But he wasn't sure why he did it. Guilt, fear...
It was easy to blame Lindsay for that. It was even easy enough to blame his parents for letting it happen like that. But it was his fault. It was his decision and he never went.
He picked up a textbook and fingered the title: Mechanical Engineering.
The smile crept across his face without even realizing it.
He stayed for Lindsay. He would have stayed for Rory. This time, there was no one left to stay for. No one tying him down. Not a girl, not his parents, not his string of meaningless jobs and a town that didn't look at him like he was a person anymore.
Maybe this was his turn.
And for the first time, it didn't matter what anyone thought.
Taylor was surprised.
That blank look of shock, of almost indignation wasn't uncommon, but that didn't make it any less amusing.
"You...what?" he asked, demanded really.
Dean couldn't help but grin. "I quit."
"You quit?" he spluttered. "But...but...you're my most reliable stock boy!"
That was true. Dean knew every in and out of that store. He knew the inventory, he knew the delivery schedules. He could predict a customer's purchase before they had walked through the aisles. He'd worked there since he was 17 and he didn't like to think about how long that was.
"I need to move on," Dean told him.
Hands out, imploring, Taylor's eyebrows rose. "To what? You want a pay raise? I can bump you up five cents an hour. Okay, ten cents, but not a penny more!"
"It's not about the money," Dean assured him. "It's been great. It's been good. But I'm ready to move on."
Taylor didn't get it. Wouldn't get it. But that was okay with Dean. Because this wasn't about Taylor. This wasn't even about the market. It wasn't what he was leaving behind that mattered.
It was where he was heading to.
Dean never thought he believed in fairy tales, but when he thought about it, he guessed he did. He really wanted to, anyway. He wanted to think that he could be a knight in shining armor, that there could be a sunset and a maiden, and all he had to do was show up and save her and they'd live happily ever after.
Dean never thought he bought into the classic romances of literature, either, but he supposed he kind of always did. That maybe there was something insatiably appealing about the stoic man, the strong man, the brooding Heathcliff that would always woo the woman, even without trying. That getting the girl was a matter of suave and ease and just part of who he was, what he was meant to be.
In the end, Dean just wanted to believe in love, that he could be loved--loved and respected and needed. That was what everyone wanted, whether they admitted it or not. Some people got lucky.
Some people didn't.
Because life was messy and hard and scary and real and sometimes good people ended up alone, whether they deserved it or not.
Dean was pretty sure he deserved it.
That didn't mean it couldn't change. That didn't mean it wouldn't. Because unlike fairy tales and novels, there was no written ending to life. There was no predestined course, no scripted finale. Just life as he knew it, life as he lived it. His life--only his.
There was no Rory, there was no Lindsay, there wasn't even a family, but he had an acceptance letter and a handful of college loans.
More than that, more than any of that, he had his future. And it wasn't dependent on love or relationships or what anyone thought. Stars Hollow was a good place to live, a good place for a family, but no place for him. Not anymore.
He didn't need to be a genius, he didn't need to force literary chatter. He didn't need to pay for a condo or play the breadwinner. He didn't need to bag groceries and work construction.
He could just be.
Maybe that was the lesson that he was supposed to learn here. Not just that it was better to have loved and lost because he wasn't sure he bought that, not yet. But maybe that happy endings weren't the things of literature, they weren't the things of fairy tales. Because happily ever after never told the whole story. Because Romeo and Juliet died in the end, killed themselves. In fact, no one got their happily ever after in that one at all, and it didn't take a Yale student to figure out that maybe, possibly, everyone had a part in that screw up.
His life wasn't a literary tragedy. His life wasn't a fanciful fairy tale. His life was just his, and it was time to start living it because, really, it was the happily ever after that mattered and that was the only part that wasn't written yet. He was standing at the cusp of something, a new chapter, and, for the first time in a long time, he was ready for whatever came next.