This Could Have Been Mine

Rory sat at one of the long folding tables festooned with posters and streamers located across from Luke's on the Stars Hollow Square. The fall sun was bright, but not hot, and it felt good on her bare shoulders. Perfect festival weather. A light breeze ruffled her hair and sent some red and rust-colored leaves skittering along the ground.

She couldn't actually remember which particular festival this was, or if she'd ever known in the first place. Close to Halloween, but not that – possibly some other fall event that Taylor had dreamed up at the last minute to take advantage of the tourist trade that seemed to swell during fall foliage weekends.

Not that it mattered; Stars Hollow residents went a little overboard at festival time, whichever festival it was. It seemed a great opportunity to catch up with friends and neighbors. Most places had block parties; Stars Hollow celebrations were just one great big block party.

Rory was actually babysitting the booth for Sookie, who had to run back to the Inn for some delicious treat she'd forgotten to bring. Sookie had been gone about a half hour, but Rory wasn't concerned. These things were usually low-key anyway. The whole point was about the fellowship, not how much money one could make, and the cashbox sat within easy reach.

Uncertain festivals, leisurely booths, and inherent camaraderie all aside, Rory was content to just sit and take in the square. It had simply been too long since she'd done this. It was her first weekend home in over seven years; in fact, she'd surprised Lorelai and Luke by showing up on her old home's doorstep last evening, just a casual duffle and laptop in hand. She hadn't meant to stay away from home for so long; funny how time slipped by when you were focused on work. It was fun to see her Mom at a loss for words for once – a loss which lasted about 20 seconds, and then Lorelai was wrapping her daughter in her arms and acting as if she'd just dropped in after a weekend break from Yale.

"At last, the prodigal daughter returns! I'd almost forgotten what you looked like. Luke, does she look different to you? Are you on special assignment to cover the seedy underbelly of Stars Hollow – I think we actually might have an illicit bingo game going on at the VFW – you know those vets – or is this actually a little vacation?"

Rory grinned, hugging her Mom back tightly. Life might change, civilizations could rise and fall, mountains could crumble, but Lorelai was a constant; and for that, Rory was glad. She needed some constants in her life right now, a feeling that there were people out there who cared about her no matter what.

Luke stood back behind Lorelai, patiently waiting his turn. He gave her a bracing hug, then held her at arms length and peered into her face.

"Nope. I think I remember this face. She looks fine, Lorelai. A little tired, perhaps. They been workin' you too hard at that newspaper?"

Rory shook her head, smiling back at Luke. "No, things are fine at the New York Times; I just thought they could do without me for a few days."

Lorelai immediately got serious. "Are you okay, kiddo? Nothing wrong?"

"Fine, Mom, I'm fine, really, just a little tired. Looking forward to sleeping in and seeing some familiar faces and places – if that's okay, that is?" She looked from Lorelai to Luke for reassurance. She hadn't called or anything; maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

"Okay? More than okay. I do have a thing I've got to do tomorrow morning at the festival, but after that we can do whatever you'd like."

"Festival? There's a festival?" Rory brightened. "That means almost everyone I want to see will be at the square tomorrow – perfect!"

So that was how Rory ended up sitting at the Dragonfly Inn booth on the Stars Hollow square at 10 a.m. Saturday morning, after a quick stop at Luke's for coffee.

She'd seen Taylor, Kirk and Lulu, and Al from Al's Pancake World, who had set up a funnel cake stand close by. Her mom had told her Miss Patty would be having one of her dance classes perform at the gazebo later that morning, and she was sure Babette and Morey would show up before too long. Sookie might actually round up Jackson and their brood before returning. She'd called Lane after she'd gotten settled in the previous evening and Lane promised to meet her around 11 on the square, plus or minus the twins and Zack.

All in all, it was shaping up just like she'd hoped – and then some. Her perfect weekend, a grounding time away from the nonstop nature of big city life.

Right now, she was enjoying the bustle, the whole familiarity of festival time in Stars Hollow. There was a new little shop down from Luke's and Doose's Market; but, other than that, the place hadn't changed much. She could almost – almost – believe she'd never been away.

But she couldn't fool herself. Things were different. The people she knew, the people she loved, were different. Her mom, for example. Although she and Luke hadn't married, they were a definite couple. Luke was a permanent fixture at their home. And Lane. Lane's life now revolved around Zack and the boys.

Several children were playing around the gazebo; Rory didn't recognize them or the moms and dads who called out to them periodically, but she didn't know if that was because they were just visiting or had actually moved to town since she'd been away. After all, seven years had passed. Some of these folks might have gone to Stars Hollow High while she was at Chilton. In fact, she really hadn't had that much interaction with the kids from her town. First Chilton, then Yale – aside from Lane, she'd not made many friends locally.

Her life had been so busy then. Her future so bright – and full of purpose. After all, she was Stars Hollow's golden girl. The one who was going places. The one who was going to amount to something. The one who was going to put Stars Hollow on the map.

For a time, it had seemed that all her lists and planning and perseverance had paid off. She'd landed a place on the press bus following then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama, followed by her acceptance to the staff of the New York Times, one of the world's most prestigious and influential newspapers. Life was good, right?

Right. Except when she came home to an empty apartment every night. She worked hard, wrote insightful articles and received accolades from her colleagues. But she had no one to share them with.

Rory hadn't minded being single at first. But the last couple of years had emphasized her lack of a significant other. And, to top it off, earlier this year she'd gotten a letter from Paris. Paris, her one-time arch nemesis from Chilton and Yale, a brilliant, argumentative, rude pain-in-the-ass ex-roommate, who had become more of a friend at times than her best friend Lane.

Paris, who'd left a prestigious internship at Johns Hopkins to marry Doyle. Rory should know, she'd been Maid of Honor at the ceremony. Doyle, former editor of the Yale newspaper and Paris' steady for these past eight or nine years. Doyle and Paris, who fought constantly, but who were soul mates in the truest sense of the word. And Paris had never looked or sounded happier.

Paris wasn't the only one. Even her own Mom had made a life, if a rather unconventional one, with Luke Danes, her off-again, on-again Shrek (not to say that Luke was an ogre, but Lorelai said she never claimed to be a princess and that no one in his or her right mind would ever confuse Luke with Prince Charming.)

Rory guessed she'd had a couple of possibilities when she'd been younger. She and Jess had certainly hit it off intellectually, but Jess had a real independent streak, along with being reckless, undependable and not willing to make her the entire focus of his world. Luke's' nephew had been a real Peck's Bad Boy, and when he'd driven off in that old car of his, she'd never expected to see him again. Since taking the job with The Times, she'd run into him once or twice, but whatever spark that had once been there was extinguished. Jess had his own New York circle of friends, and he and Rory rarely crossed paths.

Logan had certainly had all the right qualities – as a Huntzberger, he had family connections up the wazoo, connections that had her grandparents salivating at his breeding – visions of little mini-Huntzbergers, all with silver spoons in their well-cultivated palates flew around in her grandmother's mind like demented canaries.

But Logan was a player. He had his own set of rules and wanted Rory to play by them. When she'd refused his proposal of marriage at her graduation from Yale, he'd turned on his heel and never looked back. She assumed Logan was still making a name for himself on the West Coast.

That left Dean. Her first boyfriend, her first kiss – Dean was the first in so many ways, not to mention her "first", even though he'd been married at the time. Seemed all Rory had to do was crook her finger and Dean came running. He'd been that in love with her.

She'd abandoned Dean not too long after she'd met Logan. She remembered the evening distinctly; her grandparents had thrown her a party ostensibly to introduce her to other Yale students. Funny how that party consisted only of eligible Yale men of good breeding. She hadn't wanted to go to the party; she'd told Dean she was going to stay only a few minutes. She'd seen the hurt look on his face when she'd emerged 45 minutes late for their date, still in her party dress and tiara, surrounded by Logan and several other young men. Dean had just gotten into his truck and had driven away.

She'd never known what happened to Dean. If her mother knew, she never spoke of it. In a town as small as Stars Hollow, where everyone knew everyone else's business, Dean was as good as invisible. And, she'd never really thought about it until lately. Her life had been so full then. It didn't seem so full now.

Childish giggling caught her attention, and Rory's gaze was drawn to a group of five children playing near the gazebo. Dressed in colorful play clothes, they scampered up and down the steps.

Two of the children caught her attention. A little boy and girl. The boy seemed to be around five or six; the little girl about a year younger.

Rory really wasn't a "kid" person. She'd never babysat; schoolwork and extra curricular activities had pretty much occupied all of her time. She didn't know how to talk to them.

And, as much as she loved Lane, Rory never found babies – or children – that cute.

The twins weren't anything to write home about. And Sookie and Jackson's kids were just rambunctious and loud.

These two children were jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

The little boy had shaggy dark brown hair that fell into his eyes. He seemed tall for his age, and slender, with fair skin and hazel eyes. He was dressed in stone-washed denim jeans and a plaid long-sleeved shirt over a light blue T-shirt. A brown backpack was slung over one shoulder.

The little girl was like a porcelain doll. Petite and blue-eyed, she had masses of brown hair pulled back from her face and tied in the back with a green grosgrain ribbon. She wore a pleated skirt with a green sweater and white leggings.

"Careful, Sarah," the little boy cautioned, holding the little girl's hand tightly. "Careful on the steps. They're high."

"Okay, Sammy," the little girl said, gazing up at the boy. "I will. Don't let go my hand, okay?"

Helping her to the bottom of the steps, they sat shoulder to shoulder on the bottom stoop. The boy rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a well-used children's book.

"Want me to read to you?" he asked. She nodded. He flipped to the first page and, in a soft voice, began:

"One fish. Two fish. Red fish. Blue fish. Black fish. Blue fish. Old fish. New fish…."

Something inside of Rory gave way as she watched them. They were perfect. They must have been brother and sister; he doted on her and she obviously adored him. She'd never seen them before – were their parents among those who sat on the nearby benches?

Just then, from behind her, Rory heard a familiar voice. One that took her back to her last year at Stars Hollow High and beyond.

"Sarah, Sam. You two ready for some ice cream?"

The children looked up immediately. Sarah flew from the steps screaming "Daddy!" and Sam hastily stuffed the book back into his backpack, shouldered it, and ran after her, shouting, "Yeah, Dad, me 'n Sarah are starving."

There, not ten feet from her table, stood Dean Forester, now holding an armful of little girl and hugging her tightly. He shifted her to one side and easily picked up Sam, who threw his arms around his Dad's neck.

Dean Forester. With his arms full of kids, smiling like Rory hadn't seen him smile in years. Smiling like – well, like he'd smiled when she first said she liked him.

Still tall. In fact, a little taller than when she'd last seen him. And filled out – impressively so. Dean hadn't had arms like that when she'd known him. Or a chest like that. The promise of the man Dean would become was now evident in his face, his body. He moved with a grace, a confidence that was irresistible. The man was as gorgeous as his children.

He was dressed in jeans; jeans that hugged his butt and clung to his long, oh-so-long legs. He was swearing a grey T-shirt with some type of logo on it, and a long sleeved forest green shirt, open and with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

Sarah whispered something in his ear, and he threw back his head and laughed, dimples deep in his cheeks and his white teeth flashing. Just then, he caught sight of Rory.

It should have been very awkward. And, for Rory, it was. But Dean just strode over to the table like he was greeting a long-lost friend.

"Rory! I didn't see you there. How long have you been back in Stars Hollow?" His tall frame cast a shadow over the table.

Before she could speak, a beautiful, petite dark-haired woman moved to Dean's side. Plucking Sarah from his arm, she gathered the little girl to her chest.

"Dean! There you are, sweetheart! I lost sight of you for a moment – although at that height, I should have spotted you easily." She smiled up at him and he wrapped his free arm around her, pulling her tightly against his side. Leaning down, he dropped a kiss on the top of her head.

"Hey, babe, sorry I wandered away. I promised Sarah and Sam some of Taylor's famous ice cream." He nodded his head to include Rory. "Jess, this is Rory Gilmore. Rory, I'd like you to meet Jessica, my wife. And these two heathens are Sarah and Sam."

"The Rory Gilmore?" Jessica raised one eyebrow quizzically. "Dean has told me so much about you and your Mother. It's a pleasure to finally meet you." With that, she extended a well-manicured hand. An impressive diamond sparkled on her ring finger.

Rory shook the extended hand apprehensively. Dean had talked about her? What in heaven's name could he have said about her that was positive?

Before she could offer a greeting, Dean said, "Hey, hon, if Rory doesn't mind, you could sit here with her while I take the Munchkins for ice cream. Okay with you, Rory?"

Rory nodded dumbly, at a loss for words. Striding off hand-in-hand with the kids (and having to stoop), he tossed back the words, "And one single dip Rocky Road for you, coming up."

Jessica laughed prettily (Rory had heard that phrase before, but had never really seen it demonstrated). "Thanks, hon, you know my weaknesses!"

So. There they sat. Jessica smiled at her and Rory gave her a hesitant smile back. Jessica leaned in on her elbows and said, "You really are very pretty. I can see why Dean was smitten with you."

"S – smitten?" Rory stuttered, not sure if she liked the way this conversation was starting.

Jessica leaned back and laughed. "Oh, don't worry. That was a long time ago, I know. But I've heard the most wonderful stories about you and Lorelai Gilmore and Stars Hollow. Tell me, do you still keep a book in your purse?"

With that statement, Jessica succeeded in breaking the ice, and soon she and Rory were chatting away like old friends.

And, while they were talking, Rory studied the woman who was Dean's wife. She had to admit, they could pass for sisters – in height, build, coloring. Jessica wasn't all snappy comebacks and rapid speech, though. A lifetime of living with Lorelai Gilmore gave Rory that edge.

Jessica was smart. A Vassar graduate, she'd met Dean at a college mixer. So, Dean had finally gone to college?

"My family's from Worcester, and I was home one weekend. My best friend Kelly went to Worcester State, and she invited me to a party one of the fraternities was throwing." Jessica had a sparkle in her eyes as she talked to Rory. "The party was so loud. And Kelly abandoned me fifteen minutes after we got there. So I found a little corner, settled in a chair, pulled out a book and started reading. I guess that's one thing you and I have in common.

"I'd probably been there about ten minutes, and then this giant shadow falls over my book. I look up and here's the tallest guy I've ever seen smiling down at me. I know I blushed – I mean, there's a lot of cute there, y'know? Anyway, he sees what I'm reading and starts to quote one of the poems to me. Well, that was all it took. I mean, what guy knows Dorothy Parker?"

Rory knew what guy. That was the book she and Dean had been reading that fateful night at Miss Patty's, when they'd fallen asleep in that bean bag chair and all hell broke loose the next morning.

"So, Dean was a student at Worcester State?" Rory asked.

"Yes. He wasn't a member of the fraternity; he'd had a friend invite him to the mixer, just like Kelly invited me. And he'd been abandoned, too. Sometimes life is really ironic, don't you think?

"Dean was majoring in business, working like a dog when he wasn't studying – he'd gotten some grants and a small scholarship, but none of that paid for food or housing, so he was working at the campus bookstore and the cafeteria. We still managed to see one another on and off that first year – holidays, mainly. He actually came up to Vassar once or twice in his old pickup, and, of course, since I live in Worcester I was there more often. I knew he wanted to finish his degree before things got more serious, but I'd known right from that first meeting that I'd met the man I was going to marry."

Jessica's whole face lit up when she talked about Dean, and Rory realized, for perhaps the first time in her life, just how Dean had felt about her. And she'd let it all slip through her fingers.

Jessica's family was rich. Like her grandparent's type of rich. And they'd loved Dean the first time they met him. Her father was the President of Lauring Construction, one of the state's largest building firms, and Dean worked for them now, as a Project Manager. Jessica said her father had great plans for Dean, seeing as how he'd married the Lauring's only daughter.

"So, you live in Worcester?" Rory's mind was whirling from all she'd learned. It was difficult to keep up polite conversation.

"Oh, yes. Of course, we're not in Mom and Dad's neighborhood, but we've got a great little starter home in a really nice subdivision. Good schools, too. In fact, I teach at Sammy's school."

"You have lovely children." Rory's voice shook a little when she said that, but, fortunately, Jessica didn't seem to notice.

"Thank you. We're crazy about our kids. And they adore their Dad. As busy as Dean's life is, he always makes time for us. Mom tells Dad he could take some lessons from Dean. In fact," Jessica leaned in conspiratorially and lowered her voice, as if worried someone would overhear, "the only two people I have trouble with are Dean's folks. You've met May and Randy? Of course you have; you two dated. Oh, they're okay, I guess. They're just so negative when it comes to Dean. I don't understand why. It's a wonder he made anything of himself at all, as little support as he got from them. Now, his sister Clara is a real sweetheart. But May and Randy? Not so much."

Rory remembered that about May and Randy. But, she added mentally, Dean's non-supporters really reached to the whole of Stars Hollow. Dean had done the unforgivable. He'd dared to love Stars Hollow's Golden Girl. And he'd paid for it every single day.

Rory choked down the lump that was forming in her throat.

She was spared any further conversation by Dean and the children's return. Sarah had managed to get a little ice cream on her green sweater. Dean passed off a Rocky Road ice cream cone to Jessica and sat down next to Rory in one of the folding chairs. He pulled a packet of wet wipes out of Sam's backpack and wiped the spill off her sweater, then began gently scrubbing Sarah's face and hands. She squirmed and giggled, but pretty much stayed put.

"Oh, Sarah, we're going to have to work on your ice cream skills," he teased as he wiped her little hands clean, and then hauled her up on his lap. "Sam, my man, grab one of those wipes and clean your fingers, okay?"

"Okay, Daddy," Sam nodded, rubbing his hands vigorously with the wet cloth.

Sarah leaned back against Dean's chest, moving around a bit trying to get comfortable. Next thing that greeted them was her face-splitting yawn.

Jessica eyed Sarah and then met Dean's gaze. "Oh, I think that's our cue to get on the road. Someone's ready for a nap."

She stood up, gathering Sam's backpack and a few other odds and ends. Dean stood up, too, carrying Sarah, whose head had begun to nod on his shoulder.

"It was lovely to meet you, Rory," Jessica said. "I hope I get to see you again soon."

Dean turned to face Rory. "Good to see you again, Rory. Tell Lorelai I said hello."

"Nice to meet you, too, Jessica. Bye, Dean."

Rory watched them walk away. From her conversation with Jessica, it was obvious Dean hadn't told his wife everything. He hadn't told her how Rory had dumped him, time and again. How she had pitted him against Jess, then abandoned him for Logan. She hadn't mentioned Lindsay, but she was sure Dean told her about that doomed first marriage. Dean was that kind of man.

Jessica had moved closer to Dean as they walked across the square. He'd wrapped his free arm around her shoulders, and she had a firm grip on Sam's hand as they crossed the street to their SUV. She watched as Dean secured Sarah in her car seat and Jessica got Sam settled in his. Dean walked his wife around to the passenger side, opened her door, and kissed her gently on the lips before she slid in to the vehicle. He moved back to the driver's side and caught Rory looking their way. He waved his hand in farewell, and then climbed behind the wheel.

Rory felt tears welling, and quickly dashed them away. She was happy for Dean. Really she was. Dean deserved happiness. Dean deserved a beautiful wife and gorgeous children and a family who truly saw his worth.

A movement behind her caught her attention, and Rory looked up to see her Mom standing behind her chair.

"Got to see Dean, I see," Lorelai said. "I'd heard he was going to be in town today."

"And you didn't think to tell me?" Rory questioned.

Lorelai shook her head. "Oh, sweetie. What would have been the point? He's obviously moved on to bigger and better things. Like you have."

Somehow, Rory doubted that her job at The Times was bigger or better than Dean's life now. And, she thought ruefully, that could have been me. Those children could have been mine. All that could have been mine.

A tear formed in the corner of her eye and threatened to spill down her cheek. Brushing it away, she looked up at her mom. Managing a weak smile, she said, "Who's for coffee?"