A/N: Lots of thanks to Marissa who beta-ed this for me. I love snow days.
The apartment was different. The cabinets were half full; the bookcase was half empty. It seemed everything was halfway now; pieces missing, huge gaps appearing where there used to be fluid motion. Jess had never realized how much room Rory had taken up, the space she filled with her books, clothes, and presence. He missed that now, the overwhelming feeling of being near her; the way she was always there when he came home from work with a smile and something new to tell him. Now he was stuck with a lonely silence, interrupted only by the sound of his breathing.
Dinner was prepared for one. He sat at the couch to eat, watching the news out of habit, while the kitchen table became a forgotten shelf, holding bills and books he no longer read. He worked more, as much as he could, coming home only to eat and sleep. The apartment was unbearable but he stayed, wandering around it like a ghost, once again without meaning. It was pathetic the way he lived.
It was as if the fabric of time had fucked up, and he was back in his old apartment, sans his two roommates. Back then he couldn't find any reason or meaning in his days, other than just living because there was no other choice. But over the summer, he had discovered what it was like to exist for another person. To try; have reasons again.
He needed to leave. This apartment. This city. Start over somewhere else and find a new odd job and a new crap place to live and new expendable friends and new worries and new bills.
Yet he was still there, still hanging on, clawing at logic. Eventually his fingers would slip.
He was running out of reasons to stay. Memories weren't enough.
A month after she left – three weeks into her new year at Yale – he woke up in the middle of the night to find Rory perched on the bed, her hand on his arm, trying to rouse him.
He sat up and rubbed his eyes in an effort to rid himself of dreams that had carried over into waking. She was still there after he blinked, the soft features of her face muted in the dark.
His surroundings fell back to him in pieces. The sheets were a loose layer around his legs, damp with sweat; the door was open, letting in air and light from the kitchen. He took a breath.
"Hi," he parroted.
She stared at him, assessing the situation. She was waiting for him to frown or scowl, send her away. How much damage had already been done?
She told him in a hushed voice, "I forgot to give you back your key."
Rory's hand was cool against his arm; she felt very real. He nodded dumbly. "I'm sorry," she said. She kissed him softly, barely brushing her lips against his. She pulled away as if finally realizing her mistake, but then his hand was on the back of her head, and he was kissing her; hopelessly, stupidly.
"I love you." Her voice cracked. She kissed him again as she spoke, lying across him. "I'm sorry if I ever made you think I didn't."
She was pulling away from him, slipping between his fingers. But then she was static, staring at him nervously.
"You're here," he said slowly.
She had her hand on his thigh; a tight, nervous grip. Her eyes were shining. "I missed you." She stared down at her lap, fumbling with words. "Do you remember when you first met me? I mean – not that first night but back then? Do you remember how badly I wanted to go to Harvard?"
"Yeah," he answered, disbelieving. She was here, trying to explain. Moments ago, he was asleep and she was still a dream.
"That was my goal. I was set on Harvard. And then suddenly, I get accepted to Yale and within a week, everything changes." He nodded again, but she was looking down. "I changed my mind. I made the decision to go to Yale." She paused, finally meeting his eyes. "I made another decision."
He shook his head. "Rory…"
"I was wrong before, going back. I want to stay here. With you."
"You don't mean that."
She stood up, walked away from him. He thought: this was it; he had lost her. Urgency took over, and he wanted to beat her to the door, escort her back to bed.
"How would you know how I feel?" she asked, spinning around. "You don't know me as well as you think you do. If you did, you never would have asked me to come with you in the first place." Her tone was quiet but fierce. She rubbed her forehead, eyes shut, as she tried to regroup.
"We've been over that," she said.
He was on his feet, but unable to move closer. "Yeah."
"I don't know how we worked this long. With last year as it is, and this summer the way it is and…" She trailed off. "But I came here to start over," she told him. "I came here to fix things."
"Tell me you want to stay."
"I want to stay."
"Tell me you'll give up Yale," he challenged.
"I'll give up Yale."
He watched her closely, peering at her the dark. "Say it again."
She sighed and looked away. "I'll give up Yale," she told the wall.
He saw it: the doubt. She was nervous, but she was trying, grasping at empty air. He knew if he kept her, she would never be entirely his. She would always be thinking back on what could have been. "You're already regretting it."
"I am not!" she insisted. "I want this."
"In a month will you want this? Next week? How long before your mind wanders back to school and everything else?"
"You don't believe that I'm willing to give that up? I can go to school here. I can work and save up for graduate school. I can – "
"Save up? There are bills and rent that need to be paid. This is hard, Rory."
"I know it is! I was here all summer too."
"You don't get it." He shook his head, making her feel small. "I spent all summer working and paying the bills and trying to keep everything good. All you needed to do was stay."
She bit her lip. Coming up here seemed stupid now, completely futile. What had she been thinking? "I… I don't know what to do here."
"You go home."
There were cracks in the sky as dawn approached and light began to seep through. Rory had her head on his shoulder, a leg casually thrown over his. He liked this – it was easy and familiar, something he was used to.
"I think this was something my mom wanted to do," she said.
He touched her hand, entwined their fingers. Her presence gave him a sense of anxiety, like the world was ending fast and he could do nothing to stop it. She would be gone soon.
"Run away with my dad. Just the two of them in some small apartment." She smiled wistfully, thinking back on her own experience. "She didn't have big dreams, my mom. She just wanted something different from what she had."
The air was cool outside as they sat on the fire escape, facing the adjacent apartment building. The city was alive around them, bright lights and flowing traffic. It didn't seem as loud this morning. There was a quiet quality to it, rather solemn as men and women hit their alarms, turned over in bed, showered and dressed for work. It was a Wednesday morning and obligations needed to be met.
Rory scooted closer to Jess as goosebumps appeared on her skin, brought on by the cold wind. Yesterday had been the last day of summer. Autumn was officially here, and time had run out.
"You have class today?"
"Yeah," Rory replied. "At ten." She offered nothing more and he didn't ask. "You have work?"
"Bookstore or restaurant?" she asked, hating how sore her throat had become. The pain was interfering with her words.
He grazed her chin and she looked up at him in question. He kissed the tip of her nose and she laughed, the sound small and strained. With a hand on his cheek, she tilted her head up until her mouth found his. The kiss was sweet and soft and so heartbreakingly final that she had tears in her eyes when she pulled away.
"Dean and Lindsay split up," she said abruptly.
"What?" He couldn't have heard her right.
"When I got back, they weren't living together anymore. I knew they were too young. It wouldn't work, not yet." She sighed, refusing to look up at him. "If they had waited a few years though, who knows?"
He ran a hand through her hair. "Yeah," he agreed. "In a few years, they could have been ready."
She closed her eyes and tried to picture the future. She saw her graduation from Yale, a bright, hopeful smile as she entered the next phase of her life. More studying, more classes at graduate school. There would be more plans, schedules; less time for something else. Would it ever be right? Would either ever be ready?
"This hurts," she said absently. "I never thought it would hurt this much."
He kissed her again, unable to put it into words.
She had parked along the street right outside the apartment building. He didn't know how much change she had put in, how long she had been planning to wait inside with him, but the parking meter had time left.
He squeezed her arm as she opened the door, the keys in her hand. She was resistant to go and end this for real. She didn't know how to say goodbye; she doubted he did either.
"You're not going to call, are you?" she asked, bringing up their agreement to keep in contact. With some things, she couldn't trust him.
He laid a hand on the small of her back, pulled her toward him. "I promise."
"Good." She swallowed uneasily. "I'll call too."
"Good," he repeated.
Her knuckles were white against the car door; she kept shuffling her feet, unable to make herself move away from him.
"I love you." She shrugged as if this was unneeded common knowledge. He already knew it. She was just saying it to fill the minutes that were no longer hers. "I'm glad I came."
She kissed his cheek and sat down and shut her door and shoved the key in the ignition. Outside the window, she felt him standing there, looking down at her. He took a step back. She turned the key.
He watched her car grow smaller and smaller until she was no longer there, just a pinprick of memory on the horizon. In his pocket, he had her new cell phone number, written out in her delicate script. He held it in his hand as he stood on the sidewalk, staring down the road. He couldn't move, didn't know how to. There was only one thought in his head, uneasy and desperate:
He calls, just as he said he would.
They talk as often as they can, in-between his jobs, after her classes, before she has to run to the paper. She calls him too, leaves him messages at work, always happy to hear his voice flood over the line.
One day, real life gets in the way again, and the calls come less. Once every two weeks. Once a month.
Eventually they stop as he becomes buried under worry for bills and finding another job, and she begins to stress over tests she has to take and articles she needs to write.
He runs out of time. He forgets to call.
She doesn't notice how time slips away. She forgets it's supposed to hurt.
A/N: Thanks for reading and reviewing. Thanks in particular to the girls who complimented me and made me pretty things to encourage me to finish this. I'm only sorry I took so long.