There was an oppressive feeling in the air, the weighty pressure of a storm rolling in. Rory shook his head, trying to clear it, and looked out the kitchen window at the sky. Cloudless, and the forecast called for clear weather all week. But the sense of an oncoming rage from the heavens remained, and it was growing stronger. As he started to turn from the window, intending to bring his mother's houseplants in off the walk just in case, a flash of red hair caught his eye. Oh.
No wonder there were no clouds in the sky; they were all displayed across Amy's face as she stormed up the street. Rory's heart should have jumped at the sight of her, but instead it sank like a stone. That look of determined anger was the one she reserved for fights with her boyfriend. So she and Jeff had been at it again, probably loud enough to raise the dead in neighboring towns, and now she was coming to her old friend for comfort and reassurance that she'd been right about whatever it was. It was the third time in less than two weeks.
Rory forced down the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He shouldn't dread the thought of seeing her, even in this state. This was what friends did, stood by each other in times of trouble and supported each other when one of them had problems. And Rory was, as she had told him many times, Amy's best friend.
The thought rang hollow in his head. Best friend. Oh, that was a convenient label for it, the full-time task of being the bloke she hadn't picked, the one she ran to when she needed a shoulder to cry on (or possibly punch) and conveniently forgot about as soon as things were going smoothly again. The one whose arms she curled up in until someone else's were back in her good graces. The one who'd spent the better part of a lifetime being madly, desperately in love with her and watching her pretend not to notice.
The one who couldn't keep doing this. Rory braced himself against the sink, feeling like he might throw up. It was all too much. He never wanted to see Amy hurting, but he couldn't keep breaking his own heart in the quest to soothe hers. He would never stop loving her, he knew that much, but he had to break this pattern before he stopped liking her. A deep, steadying breath as he reached an aching conclusion: He had to do it now, while he had the nerve.
Amy usually started by tackling him the moment he opened the door, burying her face in his neck and just clinging to him until she'd calmed down enough to cry, or swear, or whatever she needed to do to vent her latest frustrations at him. This time, he pulled the door open before she could even knock and stepped back just far enough to put himself out of her range and force her to rework her approach. "No, Amy," he said softly, trying not to shrink back from the shaking in his voice. "I can't do this anymore. I don't want to hear about your fights, or your relationship problems, or— "
"Shut up." Her voice was just as soft, but sharp as a blade, cutting through his argument and sending a new ripple of indignation through him. Of all the unfair, self-centered—
She kissed him, fiercely and desperately, her hands holding either side of his face and her entire body pressed against his. It was the way she'd kissed him in a thousand dreams, only in those dreams he usually responded by being brilliant and romantic, not by taking far too long to kiss her back because he'd suddenly forgotten how, or wrapping his arms tight around her because his knees had turned to water and he didn't think he could stand up on his own. There were warnings going off in his head, the part of him that she had left alone and hurting far too often saying that this was just another way of using him as a convenient substitute when the world didn't go as she'd planned. The rest of him wanted this too much to ask inconvenient questions, was willing to risk one more go on the ride he'd just sworn to step away from, because it was Amy, kissing him, and she'd never actually done that before – well, not since they were kids and that hardly counted – and maybe this time…
She pulled away too soon, although any time between now and the end of the universe would have been too soon as far as Rory was concerned. "It's you." Her voice was rough, as if she'd been crying. "It's always been you. I should have worked it out ages ago."
As sometimes happened with Amy, Rory wasn't entirely sure if she was making sense or not. She wasn't always the clearest communicator when she was upset or nervous, and she was definitely at least one of those now. But she had kissed him (and was she going to do it again, because he'd like that quite a lot but he didn't know if there was a way to ask that didn't sound desperate) and maybe that meant there was a new set of rules and he just hadn't caught up yet. Or maybe she was making perfect sense in every way and he was just missing it because, well, she had kissed him, and right now that was crowding every other thought out of his head. "Amy… what?"
She tucked her hair behind her ear, regaining some of her composure. Her earrings were little gold stars, the ones Rory had given her for her birthday a few years before. She wore them often, he'd noticed, and he'd been trying to tell himself that it didn't mean anything. "It's over with me and Jeff, really and properly over this time." A hollow, hurting laugh. "I'm not sure we're even friends anymore."
Rory felt like his entire body was trying to turn inside out. "Oh, and here we go," he said sharply, trying to sound as angry and insulted as he knew he had a right to be, rather than simply gut-punched and heartbroken. So he was just her substitute again, and now she'd added a new insult on top of it by making him think that maybe she really did want him. He took a step back, one hand on the door, ready to close it on the woman he loved who needed someone to hold her while she cried. And after that, he was ready to curl up on the floor and hate himself for as long as it took.
He almost missed the little hiss as Amy sucked in a pained breath before her hand shot out and caught his forearm. "Rory Elliot Williams, will you just listen to me for five minutes!" Her voice was rising in volume and coming close to breaking; she almost always got shouty before she started to cry, trying to burn the tears away in anger. "I'm not here because I broke it off with Jeff; I broke it off with Jeff because I'd rather be here!"
That brought Rory up short. He'd been about to ask her to let go of his arm – ask rather than demand; even when she was pressing unwelcome into his personal space he knew better than to order Amy to do anything while she was yelling – but now all he could do was stare. Stare, and feel monumentally stupid, because he wasn't quite stupid enough to think she was saying what he'd given up hoping she'd ever say, but he couldn't figure out what else she might mean.
She was still talking, fingers still digging into his sleeve and probably leaving red marks on the skin underneath. "I've screwed things up with you, I know it, and if I've broken us past fixing then send me away and I'll leave you alone, but at least let me try to fix it first!"
Her eyes were pleading, her voice was desperate, and her anger was losing steam. What was underneath it shocked Rory. This wasn't the sharp but relatively simple hurt of a row and a breakup, this was fear. A fear, he realized, that was centered around his hand on the door, and her hand – was her grip shaking? – on him. She was afraid, more afraid than he had seen her in a long while, of that door closing with her on the wrong side of it.
Rory's own aching heart gentled. He might be able to turn Amy away while she was hurting, although it would cost him, but not when there was something so obviously wrong. He owed it to her to at least hear the entire story. He nodded, indicating that she should continue, not trusting his voice.
She let go of his arm, leaving him feeling strangely adrift, and folded her arms around her chest, tilting her head down. "I keep doing this," she said softly. "All I want to do is find a boy who's kind and sweet and understands me, and who comes with me when he knows I'm about to do something a bit mad. And then I go out and find someone totally wrong for me, and when it doesn't work out all I want to do is find my best friend, because he's kind and sweet and he understands me, and he comes with me when he knows I'm about to do something a bit mad." A little sniffle as she risked a look at him. "And I never made the connection."
"The connection," he repeated blankly, unable to manage anything more.
There was trepidation in her voice now. "You're the one that I want, Rory. All this time it's been you, and I ignored everything you did for me, everything you made me feel, because I was too busy looking everywhere else to see it. And now that I know…" Tears were running down her face now; she batted at them impatiently. "I know how I've treated you. I won't blame you if you say it's too late."
Rory was suddenly light-headed. It had seemed so hopeless, the dream of finding his way into Amy's heart. To hear her say that he was already there, and to see the fear in her eyes that there might be no place in his heart for her, made him wonder if he was still dreaming. "It's not too late," he finally choked out, and then he was the one kissing her, pulling her close and tangling his hands in her hair, feeling her entire body go slack with relief for a moment before she drew herself up against him, almost standing on her toes in order to reach him properly. This had to be real; no dream had ever been quite this perfect.
Rory let the moment stretch out for as long as he dared before forcing himself to pull away. If he was going to continue this, he had to be perfectly clear. She had to understand what it meant to him, what she meant to him. "I love you," he said, brushing a few stray tears from her cheeks and cupping her face so he could look her in the eyes. "I always have."
"I know," she murmured. "It's another thing I should have worked out ages ago." Now she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his neck as she usually did. A soft breath against his skin, and an even softer kiss. "I'm sorry for making you wait."
Rory could only hold her more tightly, breathing her in as if he would never let her go. "For you, I can wait as long as it takes."