Author's note: This pre-series AU came about thanks to "Lorelai's Independence Day" by junienmomo, written for Meags09's Lorelai birthday ficathon. I blame both of them for this. In other words, if you want to read about a Stars Hollow grad turned baseball star and a plucky inn manager, you have come to the right fic.

April 1988

Lorelai found the baseball card on the sidewalk while juggling Rory, a stroller, groceries and a thousand other items that would be far easier with a car. The closest thing she had to her own car was an abandoned Hot Wheels toy that a guest at the Independence Inn left behind and had made its way into her 3-year-old daughter's possession.

She wasn't sure what drove her to pick the card up. Clearly it had just been dropped, because it looked brand new. The edges were straight, and the face of the card was shiny. The man pictured on it was young, just a few years older than herself. He gazed at the camera solemnly, and she absently wondered what it would take to tease a smile out of him. Now there was a ridiculous thought, considering this was a baseball card and and she had no clue who Butch Danes was.

Lorelai found herself looking at the hardware store, wondering if it belonged to someone in there. It made sense since it was practically at the bottom of the little stairs that led up to the glass-fronted door. So she pushed the it open and managed to get toddler, stroller, and all her bags into the comfortably crowded space.

She was quite sure this was the first time she'd ever been inside a hardware store, and the smell fresh-cut wood and metal were a lot different from the chemical cleaners and vanilla-scented candles that made up the bulk of her life for the past couple of years. Rory's nose wrinkled, and Lorelai figured it was safe to say that the hardware store wouldn't be a place the Gilmore girls would be hanging out in anytime soon.

The man behind the counter was thin and pale, but with laser bright blue eyes that reminded Lorelai of someone she'd seen before. He had a box on the counter that was filled with cards, and she could see the face on them as she got closer. It was a match. She looked down at the card she held, at the blue eyes of the man on the card, then back at the older man. "Is this you?" she blurted, flashing it at him.

"Oh, musta dropped that one," he said, then broke into a wide smile. "No, not me. That's my son, Luke. They like using that nickname of his they slapped on him in high school. He got called up from Pawtucket last year, and he's been with the Sox since." He gestured to the box. "I ordered quite a few extra, you know, just to have. I'm pretty proud of my boy."

"Huh. I know absolutely nothing about baseball," Lorelai admitted.

The man opened his mouth to speak, then he started coughing.

"Is he hurt, Mama?" Rory asked from her stroller. She started wiggling around.

"Just a sec, Rory." Lorelai rushed around the counter and found a glass of water set just out of reach. She nudged it into the man's hand, and he took a sip. "Are you OK?"

He gave her a rueful grin. "Cancer does that to you."

Lorelai wasn't familiar with baseball, and she was less familiar with cancer. Even being on her own for two years, there was still a lot about life that had eluded her while in her upper class bubble in Hartford. She patted the man's shoulder and waited until his coughing fit had passed until she circled around the counter to rejoin Rory, who was trying to undo the straps on her stroller.

"Heya, kid, you know our agreement about you staying in the stroller." She threaded a hand through Rory's fine hair.

"But he's sick, Mama!" Rory protested.

"Your mama gave me some water, so I'm feeling much better," the man told Rory, his smile returning.

"Mama said hugs cure anything," Rory told the man as gravely as a toddler could.

"Well, your mama is right."

"Of course she is," Rory said with absolute certainty. "Would you like a hug?"

The man walked around the counter and crouched down to Rory's height. "I would love a hug." He gestured to Lorelai. "If that's OK with your mama."

The kindly hardware store owner with cancer didn't exactly scream "stranger danger" to Lorelai, so she undid the stroller straps while she puzzled over her daughter's behavior. Rory tended to be reticent around people she didn't know.

Rory launched out of the seat and into the man's arms, and he lifted her up. Rory squealed, dangling her legs. "Mama, I'm high!"

"Yeah, you are, punkin," Lorelai said a bit sadly. There weren't a lot of men in Rory's life, and part of her wished that it was Christopher showing fatherly pride in his daughter instead of a complete stranger.

The man stretched his free hand out to Lorelai. "Bill Danes."

She took it. Despite his frail appearance, his grip was still warm and strong. "Lorelai Gilmore. This is Rory."

"Ah, Mia's girls." His smile grew wider as he patted Rory's back. "We don't see you two in the town enough."

"You know of us?"

"Paper had that article on you a couple years back."

"With my name spelled wrong," Lorelai muttered. It still amazed her that she lived in a place small enough that the appearance of a teenage girl with her baby daughter would make the front page of the newspaper.

"Did it help?" Rory asked Bill.

"Yes, your hug helped immensely. I feel much better." Bill patted Rory's back one more time and handed her back over to Lorelai. "I miss my girl," he said a bit wistfully. "She left town with her son awhile back, and I don't hear much from them."

"Sorry to hear that," Lorelai said, propping Rory on her own hip and trying to ignore the slight stab of guilt his comment brought on.

She glanced down at her watch and flinched. She told Mia she would be back by 5, and it was after 4 now. It would take a good 20 minutes to walk back to the Independence Inn. "We've gotta get going. It's good to meet you, Bill." Lorelai put Rory back in her stroller, then realized she still held the baseball card. She held it out to him. "Oh, here."

Bill waved her off. "No, keep it." His eyes twinkled. "Maybe it'll bring you luck."