AU where Austin and Ally didn't start dating again in Season 3 but just stayed friends with feelings they never dealt with. Sorry for all the exposition in the beginning, but I was envisioning what Ally's transformative experiences in college would be like. Let me know what you think!

Ally sat, lost in thought in the practice room. A mug of tea in her hand and her usual songbook/journal next to her. She was home for a few weeks between semesters after her third year of college.

She was always shocked when she came home to find that so little could change while she was away, changing so much. Her friends were all still in Miami, successful in their own rights. Austin had wound up taking college classes in between records and tours, and she was proud of him. She still wrote songs for him and they called regularly, but she could tell that their friendship was being shaped by the distance.

For her part, she had maybe been trying harder than she should have been to encourage that distance. Austin had always been her backup plan, her fallback crush, and she knew she couldn't find somebody else while she still felt that way. And she had found other people, although, in classic college fashion she still couldn't say she had ever exactly had a boyfriend.

There had been the boy who valued her innocence so much he was afraid to kiss her… but apparently wasn't afraid to kiss his ex-girlfriend. Then there were the guys trying to change who she was, under the guise of "expanding her life experiences." She had started college afraid of partying and every attempt at forcing her into that college lifestyle, by friends and boys, had only made her resist more. Those boys disappeared, deciding she wasn't "cool" enough, ignoring or never understanding all the depths to her.

She had finally felt ready to drink and socialize more the previous summer during her internship at a theater. Nobody knew her hangups so she was free to pretend she had none, finally getting the fresh start from everybody's expectations that she should have at the beginning of college. She finally had people who took the time to get to know her, and liked her, which in turn gave her the confidence boost to actually become the person with fewer hangups that she had been pretending to be. Even Trish had commented on her change since that summer.

Her confidence was not unshakable, though, as she had firmly realized in the last few months. She had met a boy and immediately been attracted to him. Tall and lanky, with a mop of hair and eyes that lit up when he smiled, he talked a mile a minute about anything and everything. His brain alone amazed her, and he wasn't bad to look at either. Their intellectual discussion left her brain spinning and giddy. She thought, for the first time, maybe this is my type, a guy who I could never be bored by and who challenges me.

And yet the old hangups were still there. She was afraid he was too cool for her, too interesting, too adventurous. And those fears reflected in her behavior around him, even while she flirted with him. Their tension had finally escalated to a night in her dorm room after a party.

She had been feeling bolder and more flirtatious, leaning against him and touching him more. She could sense some hesitance on his part, but his arms went around her and they wound up cuddling on her bed. She fell asleep curled against him.

In the morning, instead of being affectionate, his hesitancy had returned.

"Ally, I don't know. I mean, I'm in bed with a girl and normally I would jump on that, but… I'm just not that attracted to you..." he trailed off.

His statement felt like a gut punch, especially because she knew, or thought she knew, that his statement was more about her personality than her body. But she brushed it aside, determined to prove she could be sexually open and liberated, and too invested to just let it go. She decided to change his mind. It went so poorly that, after getting an awkward breakfast in the dining hall together, they hadn't spoken since.

That experience had led her on a path of self-reflection. Her own insecurity had undermined her first shot at a real relationship and she felt that perhaps this was an insurmountable problem. That she had to change and become a more open person before she could find somebody to love her.

She was going over these thoughts for the umpteenth time when Austin walked in.

"Ready to go get some dinner Ally?" he grinned and held his arms open wide.

She couldn't resist that smile and ran to him, giving him one of their quintessential Austin and Ally hugs. Walking to dinner they chatted about the one new business in the mall and how Dez and Kerry had accidentally broken up for the fourth time, only to figure it out again. Ally felt her head clear of all the worries that had been on her mind.

After they had sat down at the small Mexican place and ordered their food, Ally opened with, "Soooo, I see you're getting yet another teen choice award from your fangirls, congrats!"

Austin shrugged, and replied "Yeah, yeah. Not nearly as impressive as your fourth semester in a row of straight A's. Now that I'm taking college classes I gotta say, you make it look way easier than it is."

"Are you working on another album yet? I know you don't like to talk about it until things are more set in stone, but it's meeee," she whined.

"Yeah Jimmy and I have been doing some initial concept planning, and don't worry, your name will be all over it since the songs we've been working on are definitely going to be on it."

Ally clapped her hands and giggled happily. Austin just shook his head and dug into his burrito. The goofy expression on his face when he tasted food he loved made Ally flash back to so many food-based moments in their friendship back in high school. He still didn't hold back his dorky self around her, and she knew she was one of the few people who got the privilege of seeing Austin Moon in his natural state.

"Ok, and, have your parents finally given up on you taking over the mattress store? I can't believe they've clung to that dream for this long as it is."

Austin grimaced around his burrito, swallowed his bite and said, "I wish. I don't know how many albums or how many tours it's going to take to convince them that my music career is for real, not just a teenaged fantasy anymore. I know I'm just writing pop songs, not saving the world, but I still feel like it makes more people happy than running a mattress store. It's so frustrating, but they at least bring it up less often, even though I can see they're still constantly thinking about it."

Ally reached over and gave his hand a sympathetic squeeze, not even noticing she was crossing into physical contact.

They talked about lighter subjects for the rest of dinner, like comparing the dining hall food at their schools and Austin's songwriting class that he had been enjoying. When they had paid the bill, Austin looked at her hopefully and suggested, "Do you want to come see my place?"

Ally looked at him wide-eyed. "WHAT? You got your own apartment and didn't tell me? Austin! That's incredible! Of course I want to see it!" she gushed. He smiled happily and gestured for her to follow him.

They walked in the door of his one-bedroom apartment and Ally's jaw dropped. "Austin, it's so… clean!"

He rolled his eyes. "Only you would notice that first Ally Dawson." But she knew he was amused, not judging. She wandered around, noticing his desk with a couple of textbooks on it, his couch with a comfy pile of blankets, and the gorgeous view out over Miami. "I only got it two weeks ago," he explained sheepishly, "and I wanted to keep it a surprise! I wasn't hiding it from you."

She looked at him with awe, shocked to realize that while she had been growing up away at college, Austin had been growing up right here. Apparently not everything stayed the same in Miami while she was gone.

He gestured to the small balcony that had a couple of chairs on it and asked, "Do you want to hang out out there? It's a nice night. I could get you a drink if you want, but also we can not drink if you'd rather not."

Ally appreciated him not pressuring her. He never had and she'd taken that for granted perhaps. What else about Austin had she taken for granted?

"Yeah I'd like that Austin, what do you have?"

"You told me you like cider so I grabbed a six-pack of that," he replied, pulling one out for her.

They settled in on the chairs outside, comfortably side by side, and leaned back with their feet up on the railing. It was a gorgeous, cloudless night, and they looked up at the stars. Austin noticed she was chilly and grabbed a sweater for her, which she snuggled into gratefully.

"Do you have a time you think you've been happiest, Austin? Like a period of time where you were genuinely happier than any other time?"

He looked at her, thinking, and eventually replied, "I think that time during senior year. The four of us together, you and I both pursuing our careers, everything just felt right. But I was mature enough to actually appreciate it, you know? There's something extra satisfying in being happy when you recognize that you actually are happy. What about you?"

She nodded, taking a sip of her cider. "It's interesting, that might have been my first answer, too. Which is odd, since neither of us were dating anybody and normally I think of that as being an important factor in life being happy for me."

"Well, sure, we weren't dating anybody else, but I feel like we can be candid at this point right? We were totally into each other and we were trying to be all emotionally mature by not spoiling our careers and dating. But basically we were getting all of those feelings from each other, we didn't need to be dating anybody because we had each other, right?"

Ally looked at him out of the side of her eye. "Was it that obvious? I guess in retrospect it was."

She finished the last of her cider and took the opportunity to go in and grab them another pair of drinks. She stared at the back of his head through the sliding glass door for a moment, thinking about what he had said. She had felt like just being friends with Austin was enough, what with all their romantic tension. But she hadn't felt ready for him, or to jump in like that. It was hard to emotionally process what had happened so many years ago and what she had been repressing.

But then she thought of her recent heartbreak. That relationship had failed because she couldn't be herself around him, got too self-conscious to be the actual best version of herself. Around Austin she had never had that problem, not even for a minute. He had certainly laughed at her cloud-watching and her intense love of books, but not because he thought they were annoying traits but rather because he had known they were the most Ally things and she was a funny human being with endearing quirks. She had never questioned that he saw her that way, instead of as an uncool nerd. It's why he had been able to get her over her stage fright, because with him she never needed to be afraid.

He turned around to figure out why she was being so slow and she snapped out of her thoughts and headed back outside. Settling back in, she took a deep breath and asked, "Why… if we were both having those feelings senior year, why didn't we ever actually start dating again. For real."

Austin raised his eyebrows at her question, but quickly said, "Because Ally, we weren't ready. I mean, we hid behind our careers as an excuse, but ultimately I think we were both afraid. I mean, I can't speak for you but for me… at the time I thought if I started dating you that would be it, I'd never kiss another girl in my life. It would have been the relationship, for forever."

Ally blushed at his honesty, glad the darkness was covering her reddening face. Her heart raced a little, knowing what she wanted to ask next but afraid of the answer. "And do you… still feel that way?"

This was it. They had never talked about it out loud before, and she had thought she was over it. The way his smile made her heart beat faster and the way his hugs calmed her down and soothed her totally and completely. The way he could look at her and she felt actually seen, not as a performer or as a nerdy academic, but as Ally with all of her component pieces.

Austin had always been the confident one but his nerve was failing him. It was easy to be cavalier with admitting his feelings from years ago, but to admit to still having feelings for her now, deep and unforgettable feelings, without knowing how she felt first would take a lot of courage. He found he couldn't look at her, and turned his face away. Looking out over Miami he said, very quietly but still audibly, "Yes."

Ally drew in a deep breath, and that admission broke down the wall that had been holding her feelings back all this time. She realized the feelings had in fact grown, because she had grown. She had been with boys that made her feel uncomfortable because she was uncomfortable with herself and now she knew that what she really wanted, what would make her really happy, was to be with somebody who made her feel comfortable as herself, not as somebody who needed to change. And Austin had always done that, from day one. It was only now that she realized just how important that was to her, and how that realization magnified her feelings from high school crush to her first serious love.

She carefully set her cider down on the ground and reached out for his hand. Austin felt her fingers lace through his and turned to look at her. "I feel the same way," she replied, and a grin, her favorite Austin grin, broke out on his face.

He leaned closer, hesitantly closing the gap between them, until their foreheads rested against each other's. "So does that mean..." he whispered, and she just looked into his eyes with a smile before pressing her lips to his. They kissed gently and tentatively at first, and she remembered how soft his lips were and how silky his hair was as her hand threaded up into it, pulling him closer. As the years of unsaid feelings poured out of them physically, he pulled closer and closer to her, until he pulled her out of her seat and onto his lap, wrapping his arms fully around her. They stayed like that, kissing and tangled together, for a long time. Finally, Ally pulled back, beaming.

"You were right. I wasn't ready for you. Not because I was afraid of commitment, but because high school me couldn't see how perfect you were for me. I liked the boy with the swagger and the beautiful voice. I liked my friend who was always there. But it took me this long to figure out just how special our connection is and how utterly unique that is in my life. But you were also right, this isn't a thing I could take lightly. Are you ready now, like I am?"

Austin pulled her impossibly closer, and said, "Yes. I am so ready for you Ally Dawson. For once our timing is actually right."

And they stayed like that for hours, talking and cuddling on the balcony, thinking about their future. Together.