a/n: this is basically a collection of "behind the scenes" moments between Matt and Julie throughout the series. It's nothing too terribly exciting, but it was a lot of fun to write, and I hope it's not too boring. title and lyrics are from Owl City's "If My Heart Was a House." :)

You're the sky that I fell through,

And I remember the view,

Whenever I'm holding you.

The sun hung from a string,

Looking down on the world,

As it warmed over everything.

Chills run down my spine,

As our fingers entwine,

And your sighs harmonize with mine.

Unmistakably I can still feel your heart,

Beat fast when you dance with me.

This town isn't that big. She sees him at school, and at church, and at stupid football events. He seems pretty quiet, and he is pretty cute, but he plays football, and that makes him a boy she doesn't want to touch with ten foot pole, thank you very much. The entire state of Texas treats football players like gods, even if the boys couldn't tell Hemingway from Faulkner, or, you know, couldn't tie their own shoes.

He tries to talk to her in English a few days after the first game, and she mainly blows him off, because his new position as QB1 has probably totally inflated his ego. She does not want to be subject to that. He acts like he did at the Alamo Freeze, though, acts so painfully shy.

As Mrs. Lewinski asks the class to quiet down, he whispers the words. "I'm Matt, by the way."

"I'm Julie," she replies.

"I know," he says, and then he winces, and she bites back a laugh. "I mean, that's, um, that's cool."

And she knows how boys act when they like a girl, how they stare, how they come onto her. It isn't like she doesn't notice the way Scott Brickendale stares at her chest in algebra, or the way that Bobby Evans calls her sweetheart and acts like his dimples make him in any way attractive.

Matt doesn't act like that. But he still makes a fool of himself in front of her, always trying to talk to her, always so adorably nervous, and she kind of likes that. He can be kind of loveable, okay? But he plays football, and he worships her dad, and he isn't the the kind of boy she wants to date.

The very idea makes her laugh to herself.

(Matt Saracen, the QB?

Never. Gonna. Happen.)

She wants somebody who knows music, and art, and literature. She wants a boy who can actually understand what she says, who likes movies with real cinematic value, who understands a world outside of football, outside of Dillon, outside of Texas.

Still, he makes her smile.

He looks down, and she bites her lip, curious.

"You like art?" she asks.

"Oh, um, yeah," he says, nodding. "I really like, um, Abstract stuff. Like the Action painting — like — like Jackson Pollock, or, um, have you ever heard of Willem de Kooning? His stuff is really cool. I mean, I think so. I like it. My Grandma says it looks like he just dropped his paint on the canvas, but I think it — it like — I mean, it makes you feel stuff, or whatever. I don't know."

He's flustered now, and she presses her lips together, impressed and amused.

"That's cool," she tells him. "I'll have to — to look it up." She nods, and he nods, too, and he looks down again. His face really does look bad. "Are you sure you're okay?"

He half shrugs. "I will be."

"Really? 'Cause it looks like someone made your face a canvas."

He laughs. "Oh, that's nice."

"It's just my interpretation," she says, ginning.

"Nice," he tells her. "Real nice."

"Yeah, well, um, I should go," she says, "you know, like, talk to my parents and stuff, but it was . . . it was cool to talk to you. I'll — I'll see you around, okay?" He nods, and she offers him a final smile before she turns, excitement bubbling up when she sees her parents.

But at home, tucked into bed, her laptop in front of her, she does a little research. It makes her want to take an art history class — but of course they don't offer classes that sophisticated in Dillon. She likes Kooning, though, maybe even better than Pollock.

She'll have to tell Matt that.

"I thought it was amazing," Julie declares, turning her desk to face the boys.

"Yeah, I guess," Matt agrees, nodding.

"What?" she asks. "What's with that look? You didn't like it?"

"No," Matt protests, "no, I liked it, I just — Holden seemed kinda annoying to me. Like, he, um, whined a lot." He shrugs and absently taps his pencil against his copy of The Catcher in the Rye.

"You just don't understand his depth, Matt," Landry says matter-of-factly. "He has depth. You don't see that. I see it." He looks at Julie. "I see his depth. I, actually — I, personally, think we can learn a lot from Holden Caulfield."

Biting the inside her cheek, Julie nods at him. "Sure."

Mrs. Bojarski wrote a list of discussion questions on the board, but Julie isn't really interested in that. She knows how to discuss a book, and she fires her own question at the boys. It's nice to have friends in this class, to have people to talk to who actually read the book, not the Sparknotes.

"If you don't like Holden, Matt, what literary characters do you like?"

He shrugs. "I don't know."

"Matt just doesn't like Holden because he can't understand someone of that delicate nature the way that we can," Landry tells her. "He isn't like Holden, see."

"Oh, no?" she asks. "What character are you like, Matt?"

"I'm not —"

"I'd say, like, Pip from Great Expectations, 'cept his innocence hasn't been taken yet," Landry says.

"I'm not — would you just shut up?" Matt tells Landry, annoyed, and Landry only sighs dramatically. Julie looks back and forth between them, laughing a little to herself, because those two are like a married couple, and they're kind of hilarious.

"Come on, Matt," she pushes playfully. "What famous literary character are you most like?"

"I don't know."

"Okay, what character am I most like?" This is fun, teasing him like this.

"You're, um, you know, actually," he starts, and he sits up a little, eyes bright. "You — you're — you're like Elizabeth Bennet," he tells her.

She snorts. "From Pride and Prejudice?" She raises her eyebrows at him. He's ridiculous.

"Yeah! We had to read it last month, remember? And she's all, like, spunky and stuff."

She laughs outright, then. "Okay," she says. "That's fine. I'll be Elizabeth Bennet. So then I'd say you're like . . . " She thinks about it, watches him as he waits, and finally settles on an old favourite. "Joachim Ziemssen."


"He's from The Magic Mountain. You haven't read it? You totally should. Joachim is a soldier, and he's all about duty and loyalty. Trust me. You're totally the modern day, American Joachim Ziemessn. All shy and quiet, but totally honest and virtuous and stuff. Trust me."

"Okay," Matt says. "I'll read it." And he smiles this soft, sweet smile, looking down. He really is cute, especially when he smiles like that. That smile makes her stomach tighten a little, just a little, just enough not to ignore. And the way he looks at her sometimes —

"You know, I think I'm like Jack Aubrey," Laundry announces.

"Okay, no," Julie says, laughing, "you are not the Master and the Commander."

"You're an idiot," Matt tells him.

"But I am, now, wait, now just wait — let me explain!"

It shouldn't surprise him when he asks her out.

But this is the first time a boy has actually asked her on a date, and somehow maybe she never really thought he would manage to gather the guts. And, okay, total honesty? More than anything, it surprises her how much she wants to say yes. She swore she would never date a football player, but Matt is different. And he kind of grows on a person.

He isn't full of himself, and he jokes around with her in that sweet, bashful way of his that is so obviously genuine, and — and why does she need to justify the way she feels to herself?

She doesn't. And when her dad talks about how boys really are, she can't help but think how her dad just doesn't understand. Her mom doesn't either, just like she herself didn't understand at first. Matt is different. Matt is better than stupid football players who only ever care about sex and food.

She wants to go out with him. She can go out with him. She will go out with him.

(Besides, she sort of completely loves how happy he sounds on the phone when she calls to tell him that, yeah,sure,she'll go out with him.)

It's not like a date is a huge deal, anyway.

But on the date, he doesn't act like Matt. Or at least he doesn't act like the Matt she knows.

She starts to think the entire date is a disaster, mainly because it is, and she can't believe that she ever said yes, that she ever decided her first date should be with a football player.

Lois was right about everything, about how quickly people can change, about Matt the QB1.

And then she isn't, because Matt isn't a jock, isn't some stupid football player, and for whatever dumbass reason he thought that she wanted him to be. He is so insanely clueless. He probably asked somebody like Smash for advice, which is just, like, no.

(And, yeah, Landry fessed up in the car, said the jacket was his idea. Idiots, the both of them.)

The real Matt is so much better than a football player, better even than who she thought he was.

She makes Lois drop her off at the Alamo Freeze, a book and some homework in hand as an excuse, and she tries not to laugh when Matt spots her and raises his hand in an awkward wave.

"Hi-hi Julie," he greets, looking a little sad and pathetic and painfully nervous.

"Hi Matt," she replies brightly, feeling strangely confident around him at that moment, knowing how he so obviously likes her, wants to impress her, hates that the date was a disaster.

She orders a sundae, and as she hands him two dollars she asks about his grandma.

He hesitates, and her confidence wavers. But he shouldn't hesitate, not about that, not with her. That's the whole problem, isn't it? "That was really sweet," she says, "the way you sang to her."

"No, it was — it was embarrassing." He won't look at her.

And, okay, she does sort of love how adorably clueless he is, but he has to know that she doesn't like him because he's QB1. He has to. And she does like him. She likes Matt Saracen, the boy next door, shy and sweet and so good that you can't quite believe it — and then you see him smile, and you refuse to believe anything else.

"It was sweet," she insists, and he nods and meets her gaze and his lip quirks up hopefully. She thinks of a puppy, and she bites her lip so as not to laugh as he hands her the sundae. She heads back to her table, his gaze following her.

She tries to read a little. She mainly spies on him, and she lasts half an hour before she goes to talk to him again. She props her elbows on the counter, tilts her head, and levels him with a small, playful smirk. "You like me, right?" she asks.

"Um, yeah," he says, nodding nervously. "I really like you." He smiles, and his hands move awkwardly, as if he doesn't know where to put them, but they're on the counter soon, and he bravely keeps his eyes on hers, so she carries on, amused.

"Can I ask why you like me?"

"I — I don't know," he says, surprised, licking his lips before he rushes on. "'Cause you're pretty, and you're smart, and you, like, you — read actual books and know culture and music, and I — I like talking to you, and I just like you." He shrugs a little, eyes darting down and then shyly back at her, and she presses her lips together to keep in a smile.

"That's good," she says. "That was good."

He lets out a breath and smiles, encouraged. "Yeah?"

"Yeah, that was good." She laughs a little and turns away towards her table. She doesn't talk to him again, not before Lois picks her up, but she thinks maybe she can forgive him for that awful date. Or she can at least admit that she already did forgive him.

"Bye — bye, Julie!" he calls, even as the Alamo Freeze door starts to shut behind her.

She only raises her hand in an awkward wave, grinning to herself as she tunes out Lois.

It's her first kiss.

And his breath is hot and sudden on her face, and his lips are wet and soft, his sweaty nose brushing hers, such excitement and adoration shining in his eyes, and she can't really breathe. It doesn't seem real. The moment she escapes the crowd, she presses her hands over her blazing cheeks, and before she knows her own feelings, her smile slips out to touch her palms.

The reality settles in on the car ride home, the shock gives way entirely to happiness, because Matt kissed her — Matt, that sweet, gorgeous boy who knows about art and music and literature, who sings to his grandma, who likes her so much that he can't not kiss her. At the house, her mom says something about it, thankfully when her dad is down the hall. "That was some kiss, huh?"

"Yeah," Julie says, smiling at the television. That's all she'll give her mother. For now, that kiss belongs to her alone, or to her and Matt alone, at least. Her mother simply presses a kiss to her forehead.

She can't fall asleep that night. She lies in bed and stares at the ceiling, her smile unfailing now, impossible to put to bed, and she turns over and smashes her face into her pillow, but she still smiles, because a boy kissed her, Matt kissed her, sweet, dorky Matt, her Matt.

Next time, she'll take him by surprise.

Her dad thinks he can stop her.

She wants to be with Matt, and the more he tries to stop her, the more she realises that. If she wants to have Matt over to watch television, or she wants Matt to give her a ride to school, or she wants to go out with home on the weekend, then her dad does not have the right to say no.

And she'll prove that to him.

Besides, what more does he want? For her to join a nunnery? The thought makes her roll her eyes.

After the Cheerleading Classic, her parents corner her in the parking lot.

She knows she should ride home with them, but when Matt tries to leave without so much as a kiss on the cheek, she holds him in place, her hands on his shoulders, and kisses him. He looks panicked, eyes snapping to her dad, but she only smiles brightly at her parents.

"You have a good weekend, Matt," her dad says. That's it.

"You — you, too, Coach," Matt stutters.

She talks a little football in the car, and after that her dad pretty much abandons his stupid campaign to try to keep her from Matt. It's not like she could've picked someone better than Matt, and her dad must acknowledge that. Besides, who she decides to date is her business. And that Monday her mother introduces herself to Landry when he and Matt come to pick Julie up.

It's almost like her parents make it too easy.

Matt doesn't really talk about what's on his mind.

It's like she has to work to understand what he actually thinks about something big. He's so happy that his dad is in town, and his smile when he introduces her to his father melts her heart a little, but then suddenly everything is messed up, and he's screaming at his dad in the parking lot and —

And then he might leave, and that makes her so upset, but she still doesn't know what to do —

It's all just so messy and so frustrating and she just wants to help him, but —

But she realises eventually that Matt doesn't know how to talk about this. He has to handle so much, and he always has, and nobody is around to help him. He doesn't know how to talk about his problems, because nobody has ever been around to listen. But she's around now, isn't she?

She can listen, even if she doesn't ever know what to say either. He talks to her about his dad finally, and she can't think of how to make everything better, but she kisses him, and she hugs him, because he isn't alone if he has her. She'll listen, and she'll sit with him, and she'll lie to Waverly on some stupid double date just to make Matt happy.

That's something, isn't it?

It's not like she'd ever admit it, but she is kind of so stupidly happy that her boyfriend isn't like Smash, is the model boyfriend, the kind that other football players want girls to think they're like.

She forgets that Matt isn't her boyfriend.

He's an ass, that's what he is.

He calls her his girlfriend, slips it in to butter her up after he cancels their date — or maybe he just wants to be like all those other football players, the way Lois and Tyra says football players are, with a girlfriend and a couple girls on the side, a girlfriend to take out and a few girls to keep him company in a hot tub.

It makes her sick.

Fine. If he wants to be a stupid, stereotypical jock? If he wants to mess around with rally girls? If he wants to let this town turn him into another egotistical football player? Fine.

The problem is that she kind of, well, misses him. She hangs out with Tyra a lot more, and Tyra is totally cool, but a new friend and her own column on the school paper aren't really the same as Matt, who now apparently doesn't even like her enough to make her first pick for that stupid Powderpuff game. And, seriously, she hates how much she cares.

But, okay, Matt is as sweet as always, and she catches him looking at her all the time.

He looks at her — not some stupid rally girls.

(Before the Powderpuff game, Landry brings out the jerseys, and all the girls scramble to grab the jersey of their boy; Julie literally takes number seven out from under the nose of some rally girl.)

He is such a moron sometimes, so easily swayed and misled and kidnapped, but she misses him.

She'll take him back. And he does want her back, doesn't he? He does.

She really starts to adore him after the night he hits the brakes on sex.

He tells her he loves her, and she realises in that very moment that she loves him, too.

She must. What else would this feeling be? How else can she explain the way she falls asleep to the thought of him and wakes up with his face in her mind? She loves him, despite how much she never wanted to be an idiotic girl who fell in love with the first boy to kiss her. It's not like that.

She isn't some rally girl infatuated with a football player.

She isn't Lydia Bennet — she's Elizabeth Bennet, and she loves her Mr. Darcy.

That makes her laugh to think of Matt like that.

She'll need to tell him she pictured him that way for a moment; he'll probably call her crazy. She kind of likes when he does that, when he says that with this kind of soft affection, like he just loves her so much, like — like Mr. Darcy fawning over her handsome eyes.

Julie giggles to herself, turning over in bed. She might not have had sex tonight, but that's fine.

She'll wait a little longer. She and Matt should probably try to work their way up to that.

Her mother said sex should be special. Julie will believe that, because if sex were nothing but sex, then she could have sex would anyone, right? But something about the idea of sex with Matt makes her heart swell, makes her clutch her stuffed panda to her chest, because it's Matt.

He's her best friend.

All her life she's moved from place to place with her parents, and she's never managed to find a best friend. But now she has Matt, somebody to whom she can tell all her stupid thoughts. That's what a best friend is, right? She can tell him all her thoughts, the stupid and the not-so-stupid.

He loves her.

(He loves her.)

She tells him the next day at school that she's grounded. As she heads to class, she turns back and calls out to him. "It won't last long, Fitzwilliam, don't worry!" and she grins to herself as she leaves him with that. He sticks a note in her locker, written in his chicken scrawl, asking about the name.

Fiddling with her necklace, she reads the note over and over again in math just because she can.

Before the semis game of playoffs, the rally girls all decorate the lockers of their football players.

Julie isn't a fan of that idea. She asks Tyra to drive her to the craft store, and Tyra chuckles and tells Julie not to think like that. "Listen," she says, "rally girls are like fleas on a dog. You can't get rid of them. But Matt is so head over ass for you, he won't care if some rally girl decorates his locker."

"It's not that," Julie protests. "It's just that — he's my boyfriend. I should be the person to decorate his locker." She shrugs, and Tyra agrees to drive her. She even helps Julie put something together using glitter glue pens and streamers and felt cut outs.

"I totally missed my calling," Tyra declares.

And she drives Julie to school ridiculously early, early enough for Julie to beat Drew to the punch.

It probably shouldn't make her as happy as it does, but when Drew approaches Matt to let him know that she isn't sure who decorated his locker, but she made him cookies —

"Oh, it's not problem — Julie did it," Matt says, smiling and glancing at Julie for a moment. "It's awesome, right? Those are — see that — those are lyrics from Bob Dylan — that's cool, right?"

"Um, sure," Drew says, nodding. It's quiet.

"But, yeah," Matt continues, "thanks for the cookies, but I guess you can — you can get another football player, maybe? Can you do that? 'Cause I don't need one. A rally girl, I mean. You're really cool and everything, but . . . yeah, so. . . ." He smiles apologetically, ever the awkward boy.

"Oh, sure," Drew says, smile stilted. "Well, good luck tonight!"


Julie tries not to smile too widely as Matt munches on cookies and says he likes his locker for the billizionath time. That was an unexpected development, but she'll take it. And Matt looks adorable with cookie crumbs on his lips.

Landry lends Matt his car for the silent movie festival an hour North of Dillon.

They stop for gas before Matt returns the car. As he fills the tank, Julie buys Snickers ice cream bars for them, and Matt moves the car to the small lot beside the pumping stations, where they can sit on the hood to eat the ice cream, the key turned far enough in the ignition to play the radio.

"Ice cream in the winter?" he says.

"Live a little," she replies.

It is cold out, but she doesn't really mind.

(Matt gave her his sweatshirt earlier, because Landry still hasn't fixed the heat in his car yet.)

His lips are cold and sticky when she kisses him. He leans into her, trapping her against the hood, and she runs a hand up over his back, slipping her cold fingers under his shirt to hide against the warm skin of his back. He doesn't seem to care, his own hand running up and down her side.

It doesn't take long for her to feel drunk on his kisses — it never does.

Her whole body strums with them, the only kisses she knows but surely the best in the world, and she feels them from her lips straight through her heart and right down to her toes.

But they break apart eventually, both flushed, and he smiles at her, smoothing a hand over her hair.

And she considers him, his face lit by buzzing gas station lights, his lips swollen from her kisses, and she can't help herself. She always likes a candid approach. "Matt," she starts, thoughts of Tyra and all her talk of horny football players buzzing in her mind. "Are you afraid to feel me up?"

Eyes wide, he gapes at her. "Wh — I'm not — I —?"

"I mean, you don't even try," she carries on casually.

"I'm not — do you want me —"

And deciding to be proactive, she reaches forward, takes his hand, and rests it on her breast. His stuttered speech halts. It's awkward, but she looks over at him expectantly. His startled gaze flickers between his hand on her breast and her face, and she tries to bite back her smile.

She can't, and she breaks into laughter. He offers an embarrassed half-grin, hand dropping away.

"I'm trying to be a gentleman," he tells her, a teasing tint to his voice.

She shakes her head, smiling down at her lap, and when she looks back at him, his eyes are on her.

"Come here," she says softly, and she pulls him into another kiss, hand on his shoulder. His own hand finds her hip, and it's as he shifts closer to her, his grip on her hip tightening ever so slightly, his mouth opening under hers, that she whispers the words.

"Maybe I don't want you to be a gentleman."

"Yeah?" he murmurs, his Snickers breath fanning across her cheeks, his eyes so close to hers that she can't really see them, can't see more that the burn of his gaze.

"Yeah," she whispers, eyes falling closed again as he kisses her.

His hand smooths up her side, and this time his thumb brushes the side of her breast, and her breath inadvertently catches. His lips pause a little in his kiss, and his knuckles run gently under her breast. "Is this okay?" She nods against him, and she slides her own hands over his back, feeling the muscles contract, before suddenly his hand cups her breast.

It's much different this time.

His kisses turn sloppier as he palms her breast, thumb running back and forth, tentative, and she arches a little into his touch. This is new, all of this, this spiralling sensation inside her; it's so much more than she's ever felt before, even with him — she feels as if she can't breathe, as if he's taken the breath from her lungs and let something sweet and warm and exhilarating fill her up instead.

She breaks away from him finally to take a deep breath, and his hand slips from her breast.

He catches her gaze, and he nuzzles her nose a little with his, an Eskimo kiss. She looks away shyly, the world turned soft now, and she brushes a little of her hair away from her face. He leans forward impulsively, kissing her cold fingers.

It occurs to her that they're sitting in a gas station parking lot, and she feels sudden laughter bubble up. He starts to chuckle too, and she presses her flushed face against his shoulder for a moment. She slides off the hood of the car, then, and she holds her hand out to him.

He intertwines their fingers, hopping off the car, and she kisses him again quickly.

But he doesn't let her move away to climb back in the car. "I like this song," he tells her, nodding at the car, at the radio that still plays softly through the open windows.

"Me, too," she says, smiling.

He rests his hands on her waist, thumbs dipping under the edge of her shirt, and she rock up on her feet to kiss him again. And then she takes his hand and starts towards the car, and she spins herself with his hand, making him laugh a little. And, a moment later, a car abruptly speeds up to the pumps, and a pack of football players pile out of a car and start to hoot.

"What are you doing, Seven?" Tim calls, and Julie resists the urge to roll her eyes.

"Those are some smooth moves, Matty," Bradley shouts, laughing.

"I'm — it's just — we're —" Matt stutters, "just — we're on a date!"

Julie only smiles against his shoulder as Bradley and the others laugh, mockingly dancing their way into the gas station. "You're whipped, Seven," Tim says, "you're whipped." Matt ignores him, simply looking down at Julie, a sheepish smile on his face. "They're stupid," he says.

"I know," she replies, and she stares up at him for a moment before she leaning up on her tiptoes and kissing him quickly. "I am so in love with you," she whispers, hugging him. He has no idea.

But she can feel his smile against her cheek.

It seems strange to think that she ever wanted nothing to do with Matt.

She thought she knew everything about boys like him, about football players with giant egos who worshiped her dad almost as much as they worshiped themselves. And then he proved her wrong, proved an exception to the rule, and it's just — it's just laughable how she used to think.

This whole town isn't the same to her anymore. Sure, she still isn't the biggest fan of Dillon, but this is her home now, her first real home, because for the first time she has something to tie her to a place, a person to tie her here. Matt is Dillon personified, really, so easy to overlook, so easy to underestimate, so little thought of elsewhere, but full of so much heart and so much goodness.

And he has football etched into his soul, just like Dillon, but something more exists, too, something that wraps a hand around her heart and holds tightly — just like Dillon does. She can't leave this town, because she can't leave Matt.

(If she leaves, she'll leave with Matt — they'll go somewhere new and exciting, full of art and literature and culture, they'll go with each other, bringing Dillon to the world together.)

She isn't supposed to leave him behind. She won't. He isn't a passing friend, or a first boyfriend.

He's simply hers, and she won't leave him. She won't leave. She finally found what she wanted.

She finally found her dream — found something from her that books that she reads so voraciously, found something that makes her feel alive and real and —

And if her dad wants to move, too bad. She. Won't. Budge.

She greets Matt with hugs and kisses, more in love with him every day that the future hangs in the balance, but that doesn't matter, what happens doesn't matter, not really, because no matter what happens, no matter what her dad decides to do —

No matter what happens, she'll always love him.

It actually happens. Her dad actually takes the job. She should have known he would.

She can't not tell Matt, even if that defies her parents, and he hugs her, seeming shell-shocked, until she can manage to swallow back more tears. Finally, he pulls back, runs a hand over his hair, and sinks down onto the porch steps. She wipes her tears, surely smearing her make-up.

She really doesn't want to cry any more, but she can't stop her tears, and she certainly can't think of anything else to do. She sinks down beside him. "Coach wants to leave," he says, like he can't quite grasp that. "He wants to leave the Panthers, to leave. . . ." He trails off, voice thick.

"It's college football," Julie says, sniffing. "It's what he's always wanted."

He's quiet again. She doesn't know what he's thinking. She can't read his expression.

"I wasn't supposed to tell you. But I . . ." She ducks her head, biting her lip to bite back more tears.

"Are we gonna break up?" he asks quietly.

Her head snaps up. "What? No. No, of course not!" She wills him to look at her, and he does, and these last few months together aren't for nothing: she can read the sad, strange mix of disbelief and resignation half-hidden in his eye and in the subtle lock of his jaw.

"I can't stop my dad from moving," she says, "but I don't want to break up, Matt. I love you."

Slowly, he nods, gaze back on his shoes. She reaches forward, touches a hand to his arm.

"I love you, too," he says. "And I don't wanna break up either."

She watches him for a moment.

And she leans forward and kisses his cheek, and then the corner of his lips, and then his chin. He looks at her. She presses another kiss to the bridge of his nose. Her own tears slip onto his cheeks, even as she showers him with butterfly kisses, across his forehead, on on the hard edge of his jaw, on his lips, on his cheek, on his temple. His body finally shifts towards hers.

He wraps his arms around her, face hiding in her hair.

"I'm not going to lose you," she tells him, and she turns her own head to lie on his shoulder, forehead pressed to his neck, his arms sure around her, hands that were once so hesitant to brush her waist as he kissed her now cradling her with a kind of blind certainty.

A clang from the kitchen breaks the moment, and she wipes at the start of a fresh wave of tears.

"Grandma," Matt says. She nods. "C'mon."

She extracts herself from him, and he leads her back into the house. She helps make Mrs. Saracen tea, and then they watch an infomercial on television with her. There's nothing else on, Mrs. Saracen will watch anything, and so will Julie, at least tonight, at least if she can lean back against Matt and have him idly play with a wisp of her hair, his heartbeat firm against her cheek.

She realises what she should say only when they've just reached her house, after a few hours of mindless television, after he quietly walked her home. "You won't lose me either," she murmurs.

His lip quirks up just a little, and he squeezes her hand softly.

Landry brings Dance, Dance Revolution over to Matt's, and after they've sufficiently made fun of him for even owning Dance, Dance Revolution, they all start to play. Tyra and Julie totally dominate, and Julie laughs so hard she can't breathe when Matt tries to play.

"Pick up those feet!" Mrs. Saracen hollers at him.

Tyra then convinces her to play, and Mrs. Saracen is even worse than Matt, but she laughs happily, turning to grin at Matt on the couch, who smiles softly at her and then presses a kiss to Julie's temple, his arm around her shoulders.

It's strange around home without her dad, with her mom pregnant and hormonal, but this is still normal. Her relationship with Matt, her friendship with Landry and Tyra, playing Dance, Dance Revolution on a Wednesday afternoon because Matt doesn't have football — it's all good.

They make brownies, or they make brownie batter anyway, and they eat that as they watch Sleepy Hollow, because Landry picked the movie and of course he picked that. Mrs. Saracen snores when she falls asleep in her chair, and Tyra and Landry snipe at each other in whispers throughout the entire movie, but Julie loves them all anyway.

And she loves Matt, who lies with his head in her lap and smiles teasingly up at her every time she jumps at a scary scene in the movie. Jerk. She might miss her dad, but it's not that bad without him.

Or it wasn't at first, anyway.

As winter melts into spring, everything begins to fall to pieces. It's just all so insanely frustrating.

Her mom starts to drive her insane, literally, asking her twenty questions every time she walks out of her room, always telling her to invite Matt or Tyra over rather than go to their houses because I'd just like some company, hon, and acting like Julie exists to serve her and her unborn baby.

She does miss her dad, but she also kind of starts to hate him a little, because why did he just leave like that? He always talks about family, about trust, about never turning your back on the people you love, yet he ran off to Austin? He should have stayed — with her mom, with her.

On second thought, maybe she should have gone with him.

This town is insufferable. Everyone stares at her wherever she goes, makes snide comments about how her dad walked out on the team, and she can't believe that football still defines her life when her dad isn't the coach anymore. She should have known. God, why did she ever want to stay?


But he acts like nothing is wrong, like nothing has changed, and the only time he ever seems upset is when he worries about whether or not the new coach will like him. She wants him just to shut up about football and coaches and how the only coach that every really liked him was her dad.

There are bigger problems than that in the world, Matt.

She finally blows up in front of him, calls her dad an ass, and he looks so comically startled that she kind of wants to smack him. "He just left," she exclaims, "like it was nothing." She throws down her fork, staring murder at her cafeteria lunch.

"He probably just wanted to do what was best for — for your family and stuff. Like my dad."

His voice is soft, and that only infuriates her more. She glares. "He wanted to do what was best for him.Just like your dad. God, why do you always have to defend people? Why do you always have to be so good, and just, like, take everything lying down? Don't you ever get sick of that?"

She pushes herself to her feet. He doesn't say anything. "I'm gonna go study for math," she tells him, swinging her bag over her shoulder. He's just so annoying sometimes. She can't stand it.

Anton is basically everything Matt isn't.

He's more relaxed, more confident, more adventurous. He couldn't care less bout football, actually shows the world his art, his music, instead of hiding away his talent in his desk. He's pretty much the most sophisticated person to wander into Dillon, Texas.

He makes her forget about her parents and football and all the miserable people in this miserable little town, and she likes the game they play, the flirting, the subtle touches and the way his eyes so blatantly follow her. And maybe she misinterprets the signs at first, and she kind of completely humiliates herself, but when she takes charge, when she kisses him, it all works out.

It's not that she wants to hurt Matt. She doesn't. It isn't about Matt.

(If she makes it about Matt, then she has to feel guilty about the way she starts to ignore his calls and to turn her face from his kiss and to treat him like a kid with a crush rather than her boyfriend.)

Her dad tells her she can break up with Matt. But she doesn't know how to do that.

He does it for her, really. She feels bad, but it was inevitable. It wasn't like they would stay together forever. It was stupid of her ever to imagine that they would, to think that Matt would ever want to leave with her, to think that something existed in Dillon beneath all the football mania.

Matt is this town, and that isn't a good thing. He'll grow old here, maybe even become a football coach, and she cannot stand by him through that. She will not be her mother. She will not be trapped. She needs out of this town, away from her mother, out, and Matt isn't enough for that.

Anton is.

And then, suddenly, he isn't. (He never was.)

Her dad comes home, and her mom tells her about her first time, and she looks around that messy apartment and then at Anton. Her mind turns to the night before, when they made out, when he felt her up under her shirt, when she felt so exhilarated and actually wanted to have sex with him.

And now she feels sick.

He never really cared about her at all, and she did misinterpret all the signs. The only reason he's even spent time with her is because why wouldn'ta guy want to make-out with a girl who throws herself at him and asks nothing of him? She's exactly like those sycophantic girls she never wanted to be, except she went for a pothead musician instead of an egotistical football player.

She sobs to her mom, and her mother spends the night in her bed with her as her dad takes care of Gracie, and Julie missed her mom so bad, her mom, and now, now she plans to forget that Anton ever came into her life. How could she have ever thought he was cool? How could she have ever been flattered by the way he looked at her, the way his gaze flickered over her chest?

Matt used to stare at her, too, at her face, this dopey look in his eyes.

She misses him. For the hot, gross, awful months of the summer, every word out of his mouth annoyed her, and then she decided to break up with him, but she couldn't, and every word out of his mouth made her just want him to disappear so she wouldn't have to think about him.

But now that she can look back on that time and realise how wrong she was, she just misses him.

She bumps into him, and he talks about his grandma, so sweet and so adorable, so Matt, and how could this have ever been a bother? Matt loved her. He probably still does, because even up to the end, to the moment he forced her to come clean, he still wanted her to stay with him, despite Anton.

She wants to erase the last few months. Her dad is back. That part of her life is righted.

She has to right the rest. She wants the boy who loved her back, too.

He turns her down. His face contorts slightly when he tells her that he's pissed at her. She rarely sees that much emotion on his face, and she used to take pride in those moments when he would reveal his feelings to her, as if he trusted her, as if he loved her.

But he walks away now, and it takes all her willpower not to cry.

She finds her way into her mother's bed this time, and her mom rubs her back, listening quietly.

Gracie cries over the baby monitor, and Julie starts to pull away, but her mother shakes her head.

"Your father can get her," she says, and she even turns down the volume on the baby monitor. Sure enough, down the hall Julie can hear her father push back his chair and head to the nursery.

She looks at her mother, who touches a gentle hand to her face.

"I took him for granted, Mom," she whispers. "How could I have done that?"

"You were a little lost, sweetheart. That happens to all of us. I was a little lost too."

"But he doesn't want me back anymore. He hates me." Her lip trembles.

"Oh, I don't think he hates you," her mom replies. "I don't believe that. It's not so easy to throw somebody away, Jules. He loved you, and I'll bet he loves you still. But he's hurt. And he needs time to heal."

"I threw him away," Julie says, and now, more than she hated her father, hated her mother, hated anybody ever in her life, she hates herself. "I just threw him away for . . . for nothing."

How could she have been so stupid?

"You didn't mean to hurt him, hon," her mother murmurs. She pauses, sighing a little. "We all make mistakes. We all take the people we love for granted. But that's what teaches us to appreciate the good in our lives. And I know it doesn't seem like it now, but you will be okay, Jules. If Matt forgives you, if he doesn't — no matter what, you are my daughter, my smart, sweet, strong daughter, and you will be okay."

Julie nods, and she lies back on the bed. She can't talk about it anymore.

And her mother lies beside her, and she strokes her hair, and she asks Julie about her classes, about Tyra and Lois, about the latest episode of TheOffice. The next thing Julie knows, her dad presses a light kiss to her forehead and whispers to her mother that he'll sleep on the couch.

She sees Landry in the library, chewing on the end of his pencil as he concentrates on his homework, and her resolve strengthens. Landry is the least intimidating person in the world.

And now, after all those months he perfected the art of the third wheel, he'll help her. He has to.

"Hey," she greets, slipping into the seat across from him.

He doesn't respond.

"Landry? Hello?" She waves her hand.

"I'm kinda busy here, Ms. Taylor, so, you know, I can't really entertain you."

For a moment, she's startled, but then her shoulders slump and she nods a little to herself. If somebody else had done to Matt what she did, she probably would have been angry too.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I. . . ." She looks down at the table.

"You're sorry," he repeats, finally looking at her.


"You're sorry — for what? For ripping my best friend's heart out? For acting like you loved him and then cheating on him with some — some random, creepy old guy?" He stares at her like he's so insanely disappointed in her, and she can only gape at him as continues harshly. "For walking out of his life just like everybody walks out of his life?"

"Yes," she says, already on the brink of tears, like she always seems to be these days.

He scoffs in disbelief, shaking his head.

"I am," she insists. "You have no idea. But I did love him, and I still do —"

"No," he cuts her off. "No, you can't do that. If you loved him, if you —" He shakes his head again, as if he can't control his temper. "If you loved him half — a quarter — if you loved him a quarteras much as he loved you, then you wouldn't have treated him like that."

"I made a mistake," she says. "I . . ."

"You what?" he insists, so mean, and it stops the words in her throat. "You grew bored with your little — your little play thing, Matty, so you — you upgraded and then when that guy turned out to be a big — a big douche, you just thought you'd take back the guy who actually cared about you?"

No. It's not like that. How can he think that?

Maybe when she first asked Matt to a concert, what she wanted most of all was to win back his love and have a sweet, caring boyfriend again. But now that she's finally put most of her life right, now that's she been without him for a few weeks, she simply misses Matt, misses his shy smile, how easy it was to make him blush, how his hug felt, how much he cared about everything.

(She thought Anton was cool when he didn't care about a single thing, but she was wrong. It's not cool or sophisticated or special not to care; because it's when you care about something that you actually take a risk. It's when you care about something that you're human. It's when you care about something that you actually make a mark in this world. And Matt?

If he were a character in her books, his tragic flaw would be just how much he cared.)

"I made a mistake," she repeats, "because I was so messed up about my dad and . . . and I felt like this town was suffocating me. And I couldn't, like, disassociate Matt from that, and I — but now that my life isn't such a mess anymore, now . . . I miss him, I love him, and I want —"

Landry slams his book shut. "You know, you — you are a real piece of work."

He shoots to his feet, not allowing her a word in edgewise.

"You just — your life got a little hard, so that makes it okay that you treated my best friend like he's nothing? That's — that's something else, Julie. You're supposed to lean on the people you love when stuff is messed up. If you loved him, you wouldn't have done what you did. No. No way."

"Landry," she says, desperate to make him understand.

"No. And it's not okay that you've realised your mistake. You can't just fix it like that. I won't let you mess with him anymore. So — so why don't you just — why don't you just disassociate yourself from Matt now, so that he can find somebody who'll actually treat him right?"

He starts to stalk off, and she can't really breathe properly. She still manages to shout the words.

"You were my friend too!" she says.

"Yeah, well, I'm not anymore," he replies, and he's gone, out of the library.

A few other students in the surrounding tables look at her, curious, judgmental, and she quickly stands and follows his path out of the library. She makes it to the bathroom before she starts to cry.

He actually starts to date a cheerleader, a mindless, bubbly, gorgeous cheerleader.

And it seems like everywhere she goes, Julie sees them together. She even overhears girls talking about how lucky Lauren is to date QB1, and Julie hates that, hates everything about it. She hates that some other girl has her hands all over Julie's Matt, that some other girl is making out with him, running a hand over his hair, befriending his grandma, bringing out that shy little smile.

She hates that some other girl has all his affection now, and she hates that the girl probably doesn't deserve it. She hates that after the way she treated him, he's resorted to dating someone who probably sees him as a trophy, as QB1. And this cheerleader is bad for him.

Julie can see it.

Matt might not talk to her any more, but she watches him, keeps track of him, and she sees how bitter he seems to grow, how angry, or maybe he's been that way for a while, because of what she did, but that still doesn't make Lauren good enough for him, no, no way —

She tries to pour herself into her own life, like her mom suggests. Her parents are both so stressed out right now, so tense even with each other, and she and Tyra aren't as close as they used to be, but she still has a life. She quit dance last Spring, but she still has the paper.

Noah is totally awesome. He's someone to talk to, someone who actually listens to her, like Matt used to, like her parents used to, like she needs. Of course, her mom ruins that.

This year is just a really, really hard year.

And then Matt breaks up with Lauren, and the whole school knows, just like everybody knew when Julie broke up with him, and the whispers are that he broke up with her for another girl.

"You think he wants to get back together with Julie Taylor?" a girl in gym asks her friend.

Julie doesn't know what to think about that, but Matt certainly doesn't want her back. She sees him with Mrs. Saracen's live-in nurse only days after she hears another rumour, after she hears in chemistry that Smash told Bradley who told Jimmy that Saracen is fucking his grandma's nurse.

Julie refuses to believe that, but she still doesn't want to see the two together.

As she climbs in his truck, she can feel Tim watching her.

"You know," he says, finally breaking the silence of the drive, "Seven has a lot of pressure on him right now. It's a lot for the kid to handle." He talks like he isn't a kid too, but that's just Tim.

"I don't care," Julie says.

"Yeah," Tim says, "'cept you do." It's quiet again.

"The other day," he finally continues, "walking out onto the field at practice, this sophomore backup linebacker said that he saw the coach's daughter bend over in class, and he'd like to bend her over again."

Julie looks at him incredulously.

"Now, regularly I wouldn't tell you that, but I thought you might like to know that Seven, he turned around, came face to face with that kid, and said how about you shut up? Really freaked the kid out. Seven isn't usually the confrontational type, but he can hold his own, turns out."

She doesn't really know how to respond.

"We're guys, Jules. We mess up. Doesn't mean we don't care. Trust me." He pulls the truck into her driveway, shifting into park, and he offers her a small smile. She manages to return the gesture.

They don't talk about Matt again, and Tim never mentions what she knows he must know — how she was the person who broke up with Matt. Most everyone likes to throw that in her face. She's grateful that he doesn't. (And she has a lot of reasons to be grateful to Tim Riggins, actually.)

And if Matt does still care about her, then maybe — maybe she'll have a second chance.

The final weeks of football season start to fly by, and she falls back into a kind of routine.

She isn't wont to burst into tears at every moment, isn't full of this ache for Matt, isn't insecure and unhappy and fragile anymore. She starts to spend more time with Gracie, just the two of them, a big sister like her mother wanted her to be.

This year has been really hard on her mom, too.

It's a completely random night when, to put her to bed now that he's arrived home from dinner with the boosters, her dad takes Gracie from Julie's arms, and Gracie starts to cry. Her little chubby hands even reach for Julie. She's like a real person now, and she wants her big sister.

That's what brings Julie herself to tears for the first time in a while, but they're good tears.

Tim didn't really have a home, not for the longest time, even after Julie came clean to her dad.

Landry killed a man. It was a man who tried to rape Tyra. It's all over town now. And Smash was arrested, because of racism, because his girlfriend is white, and ignorant, uneducated assholes harassed his little sister. And then he messes up his knee, another stupid, awful football injury.

The more Julie adjusts to this new family dynamic with her baby sister, the more she realises that nothing in her life has been nearly as hard as some people in Dillon have it. Her own friends, people she knows and cares about — they're facing, and have faced, so much worse.

(And Matt, how could she have ever forgotten all that he's been put through? How could she have ever acted like her problems were worse than his, like he was anything but insanely brave for the way he so stoically handled it all?)

She's been so oblivious, so immature, so — selfish. That's it. That's the truth.

She rocks Gracie in her lap and hears her parents talk in the kitchen about how Smash has to spend the night in the hospital, and his injury has ended his season as well as his scholarship, and, "I can't take these injuries, Tami, I swear — Corrina? She wouldn't stop crying, and, hell, I just. . . ."

She kisses Gracie's fuzzy head. "We have it good, you and I," she murmurs.

Two days after the Panthers lose their run at state, Julie walks out of her bedroom to see Matt sitting uncomfortably on the couch, hands on his knees, his shoulders tight. He looks so strangely out of place, yet her insides warm a little as she remembers that posture from when he first came over to watch TheOffice at her house.

He relaxed eventually that night. It was a good night, even if her dad was an overprotective jerk.

"Matt's here for dinner, sweetheart," her mom says, and when Matt glances over at the sound of his name, her mom smiles brightly at him, and Matt manages a polite half smile before he looks back at his lap.

Julie raises an eyebrow at her mother, and her mother tugs her down the hall. "Your father invited him," she explains quietly. "He's had a really tough year, hon. A really tough year. Your dad tried to invite him over a while back, after they had a talk at his house, but Matt begged off. Your dad really had to twist his arm to convince him to come over tonight."

She pauses. "Is this okay? Is it okay that he's here?"

"Yeah," Julie says. "Yeah, it's okay."

"Good. 'Cause, and God bless that boy's grandma, but I — I really don't think he has much of a support system, and he could use one. He could use a little family."

Julie nods. "It's really okay, Mom."

"Okay. Just checking."

They both head back into the kitchen, and her dad is with Matt now, talking about Smash, about his recovery and how Matt hung out with him the other night. "He's still pretty messed up," Matt says. "I think he feels like it's his fault that we lost."

Her dad nods. "It isn't. He's a good kid. Wasn't his fault at all."

Matt nods, too.

"Alright, y'all, I think we're just about ready for a little spaghetti. What do you want to drink, Matt? We have some sprite, and some coke, and, hey, some milk, too, if you want to be healthy."

"Um, coke — coke's fine, ma'am."

She smiles. "Coke it is. Have a seat at the table."

It's pretty much completely and totally the most awkward dinner of Julie's life.

Her mom runs the conversation, asking Matt about his classes and his work, and her dad talks a little pro-football with him. He answers politely and is the perfect guest, but he can't seem to relax.

Julie isn't too relaxed herself. "So, um, what'd you think of Their Eyes Were Watching God?" she finally manages to ask. They're not in the same English class this year, but they still have the same teacher, the same assignments.

"It was okay," Matt answers, eyes on his plate.

"I can't believe he actually had rabies. Like, seriously?"

Matt half smiles. "Yeah. That was kinda crazy. It was a good twist, though. I liked it."

"Me, too," she says, smiling.

Across the table from her, he takes a bite of meatball, and his shoulders loosen a little.

Her dad takes Matt out onto the back patio to talk for a little while. Julie watches them, wondering what it is that happened that suddenly made her dad so invested in Matt. He always liked Matt, sure, but her parents obviously feel he needs special attention now.

Before long, her dad returns to the house and heads for the fridge, probably for a beer.

Julie looks back out the window at Matt, swallows thickly, and clicks off the television.

She goes out to the patio to where he sits with a soda can in his hand, and she sits hesitantly in the seat beside him, a palpable foot of space between them, the seat of the plastic chair surprisingly cold against her thighs, even through her jeans. He doesn't say anything.

They sit like that for a while.

But she needs to do this.

"I'm kind of a brat," she says, throwing the words out, beginning as fearlessly as she wants to be.

He looks at her, surprised — but waiting. That's something she likes about Matt: he knows how to listen, how to wait patiently for someone to find the right words, to find what they mean to say.

"I mean, I . . . I'm selfish. This past year, after everything — with my parents, and Gracie Belle, and — and with us —" She falters for a moment, but only for a moment — "it's just made me realise that I'm . . . pretty selfish."

He still doesn't say anything.

She picks at a loose thread on the edge of her shirt.

"It was hard to have my dad away, to believe that he cared about something more than me, and it seemed like my mom cared more about the new baby, and it wasn't like that — I know now, I know that people can care about more than me and still care about me, but at the time —"

She isn't sure any of this even makes sense. She sighs, finally looking at him. His own gaze is on the lawn now, but his posture isn't tense, his face isn't hard. He's open, listening.

"I never meant to hurt you, Matt. I didn't even think about you, really. And that — I know that sounds awful, that sounds so awful, but it's the truth." The words start to pour out of her. "I was so wrapped up in me and in my problems that I didn't think about you at all, and that was so wrong, and I hurt you so bad, but I didn't mean to, I swear I didn't, Matt, I swear."

Slowly, he nods. "I know," he says quietly. He glances at her. "I'm not mad anymore."

"You can be," she says. "You can be mad." It reminds her of a past conversation, and it must remind him, too, because he smiles a little.

"No," he says, "I can't. And I don't wanna be."

She smiles down at her lap. "I really did love you," she says. That's not too much to admit, is it?

She doesn't realise she's holding her breath until he starts to talk.

"You know, it was sorta — I guess I wasn't really the best boyfriend when —"

"No, Matt, don't," she interrupts, almost laughing and almost crying, because oh,Matt, her sweet, sweet Matty. "Let me take this one, okay? I did this. I hurt you, and I abandoned you, and I'm the one who messed up. And you were right not to take me back when I tried to pretend I hadn't done anything wrong. It took me a while to see that, to admit that . . . to admit everything. But I have now, and I'm —" She shrugs. "Just let this be on me, okay?"

"Okay," he agrees. He takes a sip of his soda. It's quiet. "Well, um, I should probably go in and thank your parents for dinner," he murmurs, "and then I gotta go."

"Yeah," she says. "It's pretty late, and —"

"And Grandma —"

"Yeah." She nods. He stands, and his hand reaches out as if to touch her, and her breath catches a little. She doesn't know what he means to do, but his hand brushes her arm, just barely, his fingers skimming over the smallest stretch of skin. He looks back at her from the doorway of the house.

"For the record," he says, "I really loved you, too."

"Thanks," she whispers. He disappears into her house.

She hugs herself, and, for the first time in ages, she feels good. She feels completely, utterly good, in a soft, quiet, grown-up kind of way, and she likes that feeling. She likes herself.

She and Matt don't really start to hang out after that, or to talk at all, at least not alone.

But that doesn't really surprise her. He was her first love, but people move on, right?

Of course, she does see him plenty. It isn't like Dillon is big enough to avoid a person, and now that they aren't even trying, she runs into him at the grocery stole, in the hall between classes, at football events. And she hangs out with Tyra, who wants to hang out with Landry, who of course always hangs out with Matt. It's not too weird to go out to the movies as a group, because Tyra and Landry already own the monopoly on awkward couple dynamics.

He's sweet to her, just like he always was, but he's cautious, too. He treats her the way he treats everybody — quietly, kindly, politely. That he always acts like that is the reason he's so easily overlooked, honestly. He's never really treated her like that before, but it is what it is.

She does have her own life, her articles in the paper, her own friends, and her own problems.

(Her mom seriously thinks that the teacher makes that much of a difference? It's only an English class; no matter who she has, Julie will ace the class, and chances are she'll have already read half the books anyway, with her own analysis — she doesn't need a good or a bad teacher to tell her what to think, thank you very much. And she does need a job.)

It sort of shocks her to see him explode behind the Applebee's.

But Matt always lets things build up like that, always hides his feelings away until he bursts.

She just hasn't been privy to it in a while. She makes a stupid joke to lighten the tension, because she has no fix for his problems, and she can't hug him and kiss him like she used to. She really just wants him to smile.

It was a bad joke.

He does smile, though.

He's told her about his mom before.

She can't really remember how the conversation started. But she remembers that he talked about waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of his parents fighting, and the next morning his dad told him his mom had to leave. "And then when I was eight," he told her, "my dad went overseas for the first time, and he left me with my grandparents."

And when she'd asked him if he knew here his mom was now, he had only shrugged. "Oklahoma. She sends me birthday cards sometimes." Julie had let the subject drop.

He so causally brings it up again on the car ride.

It's nice to be a part of his life again, to be someone he talks to, and when he smiles at her, teasing her about her car, he looks so . . . fond of her again. That sounds totally lame, but it's the truth. That's the look on his face as his eyes crinkle, and his smile is wide and unhindered: fondness.


She thinks maybe they can be friends again, real friends.

A year ago, she would have torn into her dad for replacing Matt with Joe Doyle.

Now, however, she can see how upset her father is over the decision. And she knows her dad loves Matt, loves him so much, just like Landry always said — Matt is her dad's Little Engine That Could, his Seabiscuit, and her dad doesn't want to do this, doesn't want to take QB1 from Matt.

But in this town, her dad is a master and a slave. (This town really is like Moby Dick.)

He's expected to lead them to State, but he can't even make his own decisions. From the moment that McCoy asshole rolled into town with his freshman phenom son, Matt was bound for second string. And he takes it all in stride, really. It still breaks Julie's heart a little to see him drop to his knees on the football field, the inevitably of what's to come bearing down on his shoulders.

As far as Julie is concerned, Matt will always be the best QB1, because he was more than a quarterback. And that is truly lame. She rolls her eyes at her own thoughts, and she keeps that gem to herself, as well as the undeniable truth that she is still so madly in love with him.

She is.

She can't really say she ever fell out of love with him. She just simply adjusted to life without him.

But now, as she jokes with him at that stupid football party, as they go for ice cream at the Sonic on the edge of town after the game so that they won't run into any football fans, as they talk about something other than football — she can't do any of that and not fall for him all over again.

It feels good, feels familiar and comfortable, yet still kind of exhilarating. It's like home.

She talks about the Newseum, doors just opened, and how much she wants to visit. He nods, sipping his milkshake. "It sounds cool," he says. "We should go. Like, next summer maybe."

The way her heart jumps? The way her cheeks pink a little and she has to hide her smile in her own milkshake? The way she wants so much to lean across the table and kiss him full out on the mouth because a trip to D.C. in the summer, visiting the Newseum, out in the world with him —?

She's so, so in love with him. He probably has no idea.

She's pretty sure he doesn't think of her that way anymore. But she can't help the way she feels.

He chews his mom out and sends her away right in front of Julie.

She doesn't really know what to do, but he goes to talk to his grandma, and she does the only thing she can think to do: she sits back down, pulls the book forward, and starts in on the next problem. She glances at Matt's notes. He needs a lot of help, as far as she can tell.

His mom is pretty. She's young. Julie wonders how old she was when she had Matt.

"Hey," Matt murmurs, back in the room. "Grandma wants to take a nap."

Julie nods. "We can study at my house, if she. . . ."

"No," Matt says, clearing his throat a little. "No, it's, um, it's cool." He sits down again, pulls his own textbook into his lap, and she tries to focus on the questions again. She glances at him. His eyes aren't moving as he stares at the text. She watches him for a moment.

And she reaches forward, touches a hand to his shoulder, brushing the back of her hand against his cheek, and she smiles softly when he looks at her. "I think I could use some chocolate milk," she tells him. "You want me to make you some, too?"

"Yeah," he says. "Yeah. That'd be — yeah." He nods, looks back at his notes, and — "Okay, I don't think Mrs.Hadley even knows what the answer to this problem is. I think it's — I think it's about the dumbest problem I've ever seen."

Julie chuckles as she stands. "You should just write that on your exam."

"Yeah, maybe I will."

"That'd win you lots of points."

"Oh, shut up," he says, tossing his pencil aside, and she laughs as she heads into the kitchen.

The lake is still pretty warm, even this far into fall, and at least Texas weather has some advantages.

She tells Matt about her tattoo, and he actually dives underwater to grab her foot and drag her ankle up for inspection. She laughs, splashing her arms wildly to stay afloat. "I like it," he declares, adding teasingly, "I always wanted a tattoo just like this."

"On your arm?" Julie says. "A nice heart, maybe with a little cupid's arrow?"

"Oh, no, just like this one here." He taps her tattoo. "This is a nice tattoo." He grins.

And she kicks him in the stomach, freeing her leg so she can swim him away and splash him several times as she goes for good measure. He chases after her, picking her up out of the water like she weighs nothing and then dropping her back down again.

She insists he let her show him her handstand, and when he tries to do handstand too, he falls flat on his back with a smack against the water, and she laughs at him so hard she can't breathe. He dunks her under, before challenging her to a race out to the docks.

She's totally about to win when he grabs her feet and tugs her back, and she splashes him as hard as she can in revenge. They never do settle that, though. They simply end up floating on their backs, the sun baking their faces, lazy and contended. She wishes they had done this last summer.

Maybe if she'd had moments like this to hold dear, she wouldn't have been so stupid.

But she was probably bound to screw up like she did no matter what. She didn't know any better.

"I used to play little league," Matt says randomly. "Maybe I should play baseball."

"Matt, nobody in Texas cares about baseball."

"I'll have you know that my grandpa used to love baseball."

"Yeah, and he was really old."

He half-heartedly splashes her for that, too lazy to do much damage.

"I think you should focus on your art," she says. "You're amazing. You should see if you can take classes at Dillon Tech. I'd help you put together a portfolio, if you want." She turns her head a little so that she can look at him, and the water laps against her chapped lips.

He looks at her, too. "Yeah, maybe. It'd have to be after football season, though. Can't quit the team." He gazes back up at the sky. "I tried."

She doesn't have a witty retort. "Can't quiet the team," she repeats. "That's Texas."

He nods his head a little. "That's Texas."

His sweatshirt smells like him, the fire keeps her face flushed despite how much cooler the shore is now that the sun has set, and this is a perfect moment. He smiles at her, and her heart beats a little faster every time, because this can't all be in her head, it can't.

She needs to kiss him. It's like a tug deep down inside her, a warm pull around her naval that makes her desperate to reach out to him, to feel his lips against his, to touch him; she aches with it.

And she tries to brush it off, she does, but then her eyes meet with his, and she's kissing him.

Her hands flutter all over him, his back, his shoulders, his neck, and she can't believe this, feels dizzy with his kisses. She draws back, and she can see every feeling pent up inside her mirrored in his eyes, how much he wants this, how much he wants her. She wants to drown in that feeling.

She kisses him again, or he kisses her, she doesn't know, but they fall and she half laughs into his open-mouthed kisses, so happy, the feeling rising up in her like a balloon expanding in her chest.

And she kisses him — kiss him eagerly, wetly, unable to kiss him enough.

But he rolls them over, cradles her from the ground with his arm, and he looks down at her, panting, his eyes roving over he face like he can't believe what he sees lying beneath him. His smile overwhelms her, makes her beam back up at him, and he kisses quickly, softly, before his eyes find hers once more, and he bops her nose with his. She giggles.

She wants to kiss him again. She can. She does.

"You taste like hot dogs," she murmurs, as his lips move along her jaw.

He laughs, and she swallows the sound in still another kiss, her hands moving under his shirt to pull him closer, to feel him closer — and she can feel him hard against her stomach now. She shifts, cradling him between her thighs, and she pulls back once more, lets the words out in a rush.

"I love you."

His smile turns softer, and his eyes echo his response. "I love you too." The world tilts under her with that admission from him. And then he kisses her, another soft, quick, familiar kiss. "I never really stopped," he breathes, hand cupping her face, thumb stroking her cheek. "No matter what happens, remember?"

She surges forward to kiss him again, so happy.

And then for ages, they kiss; she loses track of time, lost in his mouth and his hands.

It might have been hours, might have been a whole lifetime, even, before she realises what it is she really wants more than anything, what she wants in this moment and forever.

She takes charge, breaking from the kiss to flip them once more, and she tugs his shirt up, knocking his limbs about, and then she has him on his back, and she presses a line of kisses up from his trembling tummy, across those pretty abs of his, up his smooth chest, and to his bobbing adam's apple and finally home to his lips. She smiles, full of warmth and love and confidence.

"Jules —"

"I think we should have sex," she announces. His eyes widen, and she laughs. "And this time it isn't because I don't get the big deal. It's because I do." She kisses him again, soft, quick, familiar.

"I think — I think I have a — condom —" he stutters.

"Perfect," she says, and there's more in those words than the fact. For another long, sweet moment, they stare at each other, so many silent thoughts passed between them, before they rush headlong into another kiss. His hands find her hips, then slide up under his sweatshirt, under her shirt, to touch the skin of her back and then sweep around to her stomach and up to her breasts.

She shudders a little against him, and he rolls them over, kissing her neck and her collarbone, his face almost buried between his sweatshirt and her shoulder. She runs a hand over his hair, still as soft as ever under her palm, and she coaxes his lips to hers once more. Moments later, she pulls the sweatshirt off. He takes it from her, shapes it into a pillow, and lies her back gently

It's hard to peal off their wet bathing suits, and their limbs tangle and they laugh and they blush and she feels her skin blaze under his gaze. But she can feel the adoration in the way he kisses her, in the way his hand cradles her hip, in the way he smiles against her cheek when he slips a finger inside her and she moans because oh, God, that feeling

He kisses her all over her face, smooths his hands across her skin, and she arches into him.

"Are you sure?" he asks, and she realises his arms are shaking against hers as he braces himself over her. She presses her knees against his thighs, nods, whispers "yes" into his mouth.

She feels him so close, and she pushes up even as he sinks down. The world spins as he seems to tear through her, up into her, and his breath catches in time with her own, his mouth parted slightly against hers. She doesn't really know what to do, and it hurts, just like she knew it would, but he kisses her trembling mouth, and he grips her hips tightly, slipping out and then plunging back in, breathing her name against her lips —

"Matty," she gasps, and she bites down so hard on his lip as he sinks into her again that she tastes blood. He only continues to kiss her, his eyes falling into hers, and the pain starts to recede, starts to give way to something else entirely, something that makes her shift beneath him and a sudden wave of something hot and new and blinding crashes through her —

He moves sloppily in and out her as she breathes sharply against his skin, and then suddenly his hand is between them, sliding against the sweaty skin of her stomach, and she can't stand it all, his mouth against hers, the air thick and heavy with them, his dick and his hand and him

And she lets go, eyes closed, world a blur, heart hammering.

He follows quickly after, and he collapses against her. She can feel his heart race against her own.

The house is quiet, and she falls back on her bed, her smile irrepressible.

She knows she'll catch flack from her parents for a night out, but she doesn't care. She takes a shower, pulls Matt's sweatshirt back on, and walks out to the kitchen, where her parents sit with Gracie, arguing over something or other that's in the paper.

"Morning, hon," her mom greets. "You came in pretty late last night, didn't you?"

"I actually, um, I went camping," she says. "With Matt. It was just out at the lake."

"Camping?" her dad asks. "With Matt Saracen? Are you two friends now?"

She slips into a seat at the table, stealing a piece of toast from his plate. "We're actually — we decided to try again. We're back together." She tries to speak casually, to act like this is no big deal, rather than news she wants to shout at the top of her lungs to all of Dillon.

"You and Matt Saracen are back together?" her dad repeats.

She nods. "Yeah." And she waits for the onslaught — and you spent a night in a tent with him?

"The Saracen is back?" her dad asks.

She rolls her eyes. "Yes, Dad. The Saracen is back."

"Well, I think that's nice." He takes a sip of coffee.

"Seriously?" she asks, surprised.

"Yeah, I think that's real nice. What? I can't think that's nice?"

"No, you can. . . ." She glances at her mom.

"Hey, hon, if you're happy, I'm happy," her mother says, smiling.

Julie bites her lip, looking down at the table. "I'm happy," she says.

It's easy to fall back into synch with him.

They've missed a beat in time, but they find ways to catch up, simple moments to fill each other in on the lost months apart. They never really have to talk about the reason they missed that beat, have to hash out the hard parts, because what's the past is the past. This is the present.

And in the present, they're together and in love and she has her best friend back.

Of course, as cool as she wants to be, her heart still seizes in her chest when she sees the drawings.

She doesn't even try to pretend she doesn't care. She leaves, ignores his protests, and tries not to be sick on the walk home. All those rumours must have been true. He slept with that nurse, with Carlotta, and Julie may have known that deep down, but to see it thrust in her face by his art

He won't apologise, and he says he won't break up with her either, because this is all in the past, and he's with her now, but she can only slam the door in his face. How can he act like this is nothing? She made out with Anton, yes, and she broke up with Matt, but it's not the same.

Tyra, of course, does not side with Julie. And maybe she shouldn't.

But Matt is supposed to belong to Julie. She doesn't need him; he isn't all she has in the world, the way her mother says her father was to her when they were young. She fancies herself stronger than that, and the last year almost proves as much. But she wants him. He's supposed to be hers.

That this other woman touched him, took his heart, inspired his drawing — it just makes her hurt.

She can't really hold him accountable for that, and she only just won him back — she refuses to push him away again. She loves him. She wants to be with him. And that the past is the past isn't simply a stupid mantra to cover her own mistakes; it's the truth.

They make up, and on the walk from Applebee's he invites her over to his house to say hello to his grandma and watch some television. He finds an episode of 30Rock, and she relaxes against him, trying to let herself believe what she told him. She does. She just can't help but —

A commercial break comes on, and she tries. "I — I don't want to be, like — I don't be that girl, but I just . . . " She forces herself to look at him, and she forces herself to ask. "Did you love her?"

He stares at her, as if considering, and she just needs him to answer her, okay? "No," he finally says. "I don't think so. She just — she cared about me." He shrugs. "And not a lot of people did, not then." He meets her gaze, and it's all laid out for her; he's telling her the plain, simple truth.

"I care about you," she says softly.

"And I love you," he replies. She smiles, kisses him, and holds his hand in her lap, and she falls asleep against him to the buzz of Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin.

They find stolen moments to be together.

Matt invites her over when he knows his grandma will be out, or he comes over when her parents are at a booster meeting, and after they put Gracie to bed, they head to her bed, too. Or they go to the movies with Landry and his band, claim they want to see another movie at the theatre, and then while he watches Transformers, they drive his car out to the abandoned warehouse parking lot.

Julie already knows so much about Matt, knows his habits and his pet peeves, knows that he only likes orange juice with the pulp, knows that he reads Sports Illustrated from cover to cover, knows that if she kisses the spot behind his ear, it makes him tighten his hold on her. She knows his temper, knows how he can take hit after hit after hit until finally, suddenly, he hits back furiously.

She knows Matt.

But now it's like a whole new world is open to her now, a whole new side of him. She learns to recognise the happy confidence in his eyes as they lie facing each other, learns that when he blushes at her compliments, the blush spreads all along his chest, learns that his breath catches when she tails kisses along his spine. She memorises every stretch of his skin, learns the sound of his breath when he's close, knows what it's like to feel his lips tremble against hers.

It's easy to be with him, yet every time with him still leaves her exhilarated. It's perfect.

Matt asks her if it annoys her dad to push the envelope.

That's the point — you have to wear him down. Matt can be too sweet for his own good.

What would he do without her, honestly?

And her persistence works, cracks her dad, puts Matt back on that field. She screams so loudly she nearly loses her voice when he runs out onto the field at half time during the Arnett Mead game, and her breath catches when he stretches for the first down that can win them the game.

It does win them the game. Matt wins them the game.

She jumps him from behind as soon as she can, and he laughs, turning to her with this huge, proud grin on his face, so sweaty and so happy,and she loves that he has this back for a little while longer. "That was some first down, Mr. Saracen," she tells him.

He grins and kisses her and tries to pull her closer, but she protests. "You're too sweaty," she says.

His eyes bright, he wraps his arms around her before she can escape, and he rubs his face against her, mussing her hair and leaving sweat across her neck and collarbone and cheek. She squeals and tries to wiggle away, his grandmother laughing, his own chest shaking against hers.

And finally she kisses him again, nuzzles his sweaty nose with hers, and Matt's mom takes them all out for ice cream.

She's honestly never been more horrified in her entire life than when her dad catches them in bed.

It's not like she wants them to treat her like a child, but despite everything she sometimes hates the idea that she isn't their little girl anymore, that they have another little girl. And that's so bad, she knows. It's not like Gracie is her replacement, now that she's all grown up. That's not it at all.

It's just hard to disappoint them. She used to be a pretty perfect kid. That was a long time ago.

But lately, just these past few months, she's been that amazing, trusted kid that makes them proud.

A part of her never wants to lose that again, even if she has to lose that so she can be, well, not a kid anymore. As she hugs her mother on the couch, clutching tightly, she thinks that maybe no matter how much changes and how old she grows, she'll always feel like a little kid with her parents, a little girl who needs her mother's approval almost as much as she needs her mother's reassurances.

She doesn't regret anything with Matt, though.

She loves him. It's special to be with him, just like her mom told her it should be two years ago. And when she comes into the living room to see Matt out in the backyard with her dad, both clearly uncomfortable, and her mom sipping tea and peaking out at them, she wants to say something. She needs to say something. She need to make sure her mom understands.

"Hey," she murmurs.

Her mom glances at her. "Oh, Matt's just waiting out with your dad," she says.

"I know," Julie says. "But I just wanted to . . . do you remember when Matt and I first dated, and we thought about having sex, and you — you told me all that stuff about how it's special, and it means something, and it should only be done with somebody you love when you're truly ready?"

Her mom nods. "I remember."

Julie tugs at her sleeve a little. No matter what her mother says, no matter how great her mom is to talk to about this sort of stuff, it'll always be awkward to have these conversations with her.

"I didn't understand any of that until you told me," she says, and she looks at her mom, "and then I didn't know how to tell Matt that I'd changed my mind. I mean, here's this amazing boy, who reads all these books and knows all about art and music and likes me so much, and he hasn't let any of the fame this stupid town assigns football players go to his head, and — I wanted to be cool, and mature, and I didn't know how to say — I didn't know how to say how I changed my mind."

"Honey," her mom murmurs, starting to frown.

"But — but Matt knew. He stopped us, and he said that we didn't have to — we didn't have to do anything. He said that he knew I didn't want to, and we just — we just ended up leg wresting, and raiding the kitchen, and talking about how he and Landry met, which is actually a really funny story, but . . ." Her smile is inadvertent, but it's just such a good memory.

"I'm really happy to hear that," her mom says.

Julie nods. "I just . . . he's my best friend, Mom. And I know that I'm still really young, and that you wanted me to wait, and I — I love your for that, but he's the person you told me to wait for."

"Oh, baby girl," her mother says, eyes watery.

The sliding door opens. "Hey," Matt says. "Hey Julie." He looks tense, and he looks at her imploringly, as if so glad to see her and can she please rescue him now? Julie can only imagine what kind of talk her dad just gave him. She makes an apologetic face, resisting the urge to add a mockingly sympathetic pout for him.

"Y'all need anything before you head out?" her mom asks, looking at Matt.

"No — No, ma'am, we're fine. I mean, I'm — I'm fine, but Julie —" He looks at her. He can't seem to look her mother in the eye. Despite everything, Julie's amused at that.

"I'm fine, too," Julie says. "Come on."

They're almost at the door when Julie's mom calls out. "I'm glad, hon," she says. Julie glances back at her, Matt already half out the door. "I'm glad," her mom repeats.

Julie smiles.

"And, like, she was really upset," Julie says, twirling her straw in her soda as the sit in Fran's.

"I mean, Landry kind was just telling it like it is," Matt says.

"Oh, I know," she agrees. "That's what I told Tyra. It's just . . . I think she actually does really care about him, he's just not the right person for her, and that makes it hard. Like, I'm not saying there's such a thing as soulmates, but I think sometimes you can love someone and not have them be right for you, or, you know compatible."

Matt nods. "Yeah. She's totally out of his league." He grins.

Julie half laughs. "That's not what I mean!" she protests. "I just —"

"I know what you mean," Matt says. "I get it. Besides, I think sometimes the right person is out of your league, and you just gotta be really, really lucky." He pauses. "Like you and me."

She purses her lips, leaning back in her seat and crossing her arms over her chest as he takes a huge bite of his burger, laughter lining his eyes. "Are you saying that I'm out of your league, or that you're out of mine?" she asks. He only grins at her as he chews.

She shoves his shoulder lightly, laughing. "Matt!"

"Come on," he says, smiling, "you know you're out of my league."

She shakes her head at him, leans across the table to kiss him quickly, and steals a fry.

"And don't you forget it, Saracen."

She looks up from her physics homework to see his face blank as he stares at his copy of The Sound and The Fury. She nudges his thigh with her foot. "What's up with you?" she asks.

He glances at her and shrugs. "Nothing." He shifts, sinking further into his seat, and he lets her rest her feet in his lap as he focuses back on the book. She knows how this works, though, how Matt works. She goes back to her homework, and she waits.

A few minutes later, he looks over at her. "It's weird having Shelby around," he says. "And, like, she's. . . ." He doesn't finish.

"I thought things were good," Julie says. "With her, I mean."

"Yeah," Matt says, "but now she's talking about how, like, Grandma needs help, like, to go to a nursing home or something, and I just . . . and I told her it wasn't her problem, and she could just leave, but I think maybe — I think maybe she was right." He sighs.

"Maybe she's just worried about you," Julie says quietly. "It's kind of what moms do."

He nods. "I wouldn't know," he says. She watches him for a moment, and finally he looks at her again, shrugs a little, half a smile on his face. And she closes her physics book, her problem set half finished, and grabs the remote. "Just in time for Jeopardy," she tells him.

She shifts to lean against him as she turns the television on.

She watches Matt as her dad tells the team that they're champions, and she knows the words mean nothing to him right now. They might eventually, because he played his heart out, and as QB1, too, but for now he probably wants to be anywhere else, wants to think about anything else.

Afterward, as the players emerge from the locker room, Mrs. Saracen hugs him, and his mom tells him how proud she is of him, and Julie approaches him with a small, sympathetic smile. He pulls her into his side, kisses her, and then presses his forehead to hers for a moment.

"It was a good game," she tells him softly.

"Yeah." He kisses her again, and she hugs him properly, wrapping her arms his neck, and over his shoulder she can see her dad, his eyes on them. But her dad only smiles a little at her, nods, and turns to an assistant coach. Julie hates that they lost, but they'll be okay.

It was a good game.

It's kind of ironic. It's entirely ironic, actually.

She wouldn't give Matt the time of day because he played football, and she wanted more than that from a boy, wanted art and music and literature, just like she wanted more culture from the world than Dillon, Texas had to offer. And now Matt is about to leave Dillon, Texas behind to pursue culture, and he'll leave her behind.

She's so proud of him, she really is. He's accepted in the Art Institute of Chicago — it's more than he ever imagined for himself, and she's so happy from him. And she knows he'll take Chicago by storm. But she has another year in Dillon.

(How is she supposed to survive a year in this town without him?)

It is only a year apart, really, and she can follow him to Chicago.

She's never really considered any colleges in Chicago, of course, but as long as she can leave Dillon and experience all that art and music and literature that the world has to offer, it doesn't exactly matter what fun, different city she starts out in, does it?

And to start out with Matt sounds good.

But a year apart is still ayearapart. And what if she doesn't want to go to school in Chicago? She doesn't know what she wants. She does know she doesn't want to be the girl that plans her life around her boyfriend. It's all too much to think about, really. It's too many possibilities.

She loves him. She knows that, and she won't think about anything else, not for a while.

A while has to end eventually, though.

Her mom tells her there will be other boys, but that's not enough. It's not. Julie doesn't want other boys. And she knows that hardly anyone ends up with her first love, that the real world breaks your heart, that people grow and change, and she should actually experience life before she commits herself to the first boy who ever kissed her.

But it's Matt.

She never meant for this to happen; she never meant to fall so in love with him. It's not her fault that she did.

It'll be easier to end it now, so that nothing holds him back, so that her future can stay wide open.

The thought occurs to her slowly in the weeks surrounding his graduation.

This way they'll take a measurable amount of pain, and it'll hurt, so bad, but she needs to do this. If they stayed together, then their whole relationship would become strained. She'd be the girlfriend that he came to hate because he wanted to be out in the world rather than on the phone with his old high school sweetheart, and he'd be the boyfriend that she stupidly planned her future around.

It wouldn't work. But if they end everything now, she'll always know that they had this imperfectly perfect romance, a first love for the ages, and someday when she's older, when she's moved on, when she's lived a little and then settled down, she'll look back on their relationship fondly.

She still puts it off.

It's not so easy to end the biggest part of her life for the last three years. She'll say something after the wedding. She'll say something after a last, good, perfect night with him, after she can watch him dance like a dork and fumble over some sort of congratulations to the newly weds and introduce her to somebody he knows but she doesn't as his girlfriend — just one last time.

It isn't the perfect night she thought it would be, though, not when his smiles are a little forced.

She knows he's upset about his grandma. She can't even really imagine how hard that must have been for him to take her there, to move her in, and to leave her where he swore he never would.

And it won't ever be easy to do this, but she can't put it off forever. They need to break up.

But then he says no, as if it's the simplest thing in the world.

He won't break up with her. He loves her. They'll be fine. He kisses her, a reassurance.

If he believes in them that much, so much that it's ridiculous to think they should break up, then she can believe in them too, can't she? She wants to believe in them; God, she wants to. And if anyone can make it long distance, then they can, because look — just look at all they've already overcome.

He brings his grandma, and he dances like a dork with her, and Julie realises as she watches him.

They really aren't about to break up, because he really isn't about to leave.

He doesn't tell her until a few days later. "I've thought maybe I could defer school for a year," he murmurs. "Grandma needs me. I can't just leave her." He pauses, sips his soda, and shifts in his seat. "I was gonna just go ahead and tell them I didn't want to go, but Shelby told me not to."

"She's right," Julie says. "You should keep the possibility open."

He finally looks at her, and he takes her hand across the table. "Yeah. I mean, I thought I'd just stay for good, 'cause it's not like I ever really thought about college before the last few months, but then Shelby said . . . I mean, maybe next year, Shelby will have a better job down here, and she can live with Grandma, or . . . I just need to stay here for now. You think — you think that's okay?"

A part of her knows she should say no. That he's admirable to stay for his grandma, but —

"Yeah," she says quietly, clearing her throat, nodding, repeating herself. "Yes. I think that's okay."

He starts to deliver pizza. He's so much better than that. It's something for now, though.

But Dillon Tech isn't good enough for him, either, even just for now.

(She can't honestly deny how worried she is that when he says for now, that's just something to appease Shelby, and to appease Julie, and maybe even to lie to himself, because for now really means that he passed up on his chance for a future away from here, and that's it for him.)

She wants him to be happy if he's stuck here, and he likes parties, right? Of course, he's late to the party, and she's suddenly affronted by J.D. McCoy and some lackey of his, and the way he actually flirts with her — it disgusts her a little, and it kind of completely pisses her off.

He wouldn't have had the guts last year, even when he'd taken the QB1 spot from Matt, because nobody tried to flirt with Julie. Even demoted, Matt was a senior football player, friends with Tim Riggins, friends with all of the senior football players, and a definite favourite of the coach.

And not a single stupid high school moron would have dared to flirt with his girlfriend.

She doesn't exactly approve of the Stone Age attitude inherent in that, but it makes her so mad that to the rest of the town Matt has now become just another of an immeasurable number of Panthers who's greatest moment came and went with high school, that he isn't worth respect anymore.

J.D. McCoy is as much an asshole as his father, and she wouldn't have anything to do with him regardless of her relationships status. But then that little jerk actually picks her up and —

Matt tries to fight him. That's not like him, not at all, but he's too pissed to remember that, and he storms off before she can stop him — he completely ignores her. She wants to scream for all her frustration, because he can't do that, and this can't be his life, and this has to be just for now.

He has to know he's better than this place, than delivering pizza and Dillon Tech and J.D. McCoy.

"Hey," he greets, hands in his back pockets.


"Look," he starts quietly, sheepishly, "about the party — I'm sorry I was such a jerk. J.D. just kinda pisses me off. But I — I shouldn't have, like, tried to beat him up. That was stupid. I know I should've turned the other cheek, or whatever. Taken the high road."

"Taken the high road?" She bites back a smirk. He's adorable.

"It's what Landry said," he tells her, shrugging, face down.

She smiles a little. "It is kind of your M.O., though," she says, "and I —" She hesitates, but he looks at her, waiting, here to apologise,and she owes him this much. " — I just hate to see you so unhappy here." She doesn't want to start something, but it's the truth.

"I'm not — I'm not that unhappy," he protests.

"Matt. Come on." She raises her eyebrows at him.

He looks at her sheepishly. "As long as we're okay, Jules, I'm happy." And of course the unspoken fornow is there, if not in his mind then at least in hers. But she can't let him stand there like a kicked puppy, and she smiles again until he smile too, and she kisses him. He hugs her, then, and she presses her face into his neck for a moment, breathing him in.

He's always had so much faith in them — and in her. She needs to have faith, too, in them and in herself and in him most of all. (Because that's what he really lacks — faith in himself.)

She doesn't really love East Dillon, but it's not like she hasn't started at a new school before.

It isn't that hard to adjust, really, with her only handful of friends already there, and she still sees plenty of Matt, and it all works out really. He starts that internship, though, and Richard Sherman turns out to be a jerk. Julie is kind of amused by all of it, really, as much as she tries not to be.

She can tell a part of Matt really needs to find a mentor in this man, and she feels bad that he hasn't. She lets Matt rant about him, and she steals his hat off his head and puts it on hers, delivering pizza with him just to keep him company, and she laughs when he informs that he, apparently, has pluck.

Maybe if Richard Sherman really does has the ability to make ethereal art, then Matt will find a way to talk to him, to find the artist under the alcohol, and it'll be exactly what he needs.

It honesty takes her by surprise when he so casually grunts about how she's holding Matt back.

Matt reassures that Sherman is just a drunk, that he doesn't know anything about their relationship, but she can't shake what Sherman told her. She can't.

It's not like it's hard to tell that Matt hates it here. He shouldn't have stayed. And, yes, he says he stayed for his grandma, and it really would have broken his heart a little to leave his grandma in that nursing home, but it would have had to happen eventually, and he would have managed, even if it took a long time for him to let himself off the hook for it.

She, Julie, his ball and chain, is what gave him an excuse not to leave his grandma.

As much as he wouldn't admit it, at least a small part of Matt stayed for her.

She loves him for that, and she hates him for it.

And what about when she leaves next year? If he takes up on his deference, if he does go to Chicago next year, she might still end up in Boston or New York or Seattle, and they'll ultimately be apart. They'll simply have put it off for a year — a year of him trapped and miserable.

"It's still bugging you, isn't it?" Matt asks.

She glances at him from the passenger seat, and she shrugs. "I've always been worried about what might hold me back, like this stupid town. But I never thought that I might hold somebody else back — that I might hold you back."

He doesn't say anything for the longest time.

But, finally, as he pulls his car up in front of her house, he looks at her. "You're the person that encouraged me to pursue my art. I get that — that there's beauty in the pain, and that Richard Sherman is some kind of twisted genius, but I would never wanna be him. I mean, the only way you can see the beauty in the pain is if you know what to look for."

She bites her lip, heart warming. "Mr. Matthew," she teases, "did you just call me beautiful?"

He looks down at his lap for a moment, half a smile on his face, and then he leans over to kiss her.

"Yeah," he says, "I guess I did."

She really does love him so much.

But that's not always everything, is it? (It's not always even enough.)

She starts to plan for her own future.

It's a long list of schools that she wants to go to, and they're scattered all around the country. She doesn't pick any in Chicago. A part of her hopes maybe Matt will ask about that, but, honestly, he hasn't said a word about Chicago in months. She's pretty sure he doesn't plan to go back at all.

And maybe he could find a way to be happy here, and maybe she would love UT at Austin, and they could make it work. But she can't exactly kick off her future on a precarious maybe, can she?

She finally yanks something out of him, though, and it only takes talk of a trip hunting with Tim Riggins to make him spit it out. But he backtracks quickly, snaps at her, tells her it has nothing to do with her, and she's pretty sure they take the cake for the most awkward game of Scrabble ever.

He leaves as soon as he can.

But what does he want from her? When he chose to stay in Dillon, did he expect her to do the same? She won't. She can't. Where does that leave them, then? Are they back where she thought they were last Spring, when a pre-emptive break-up was the best option?

If she went off to college and he stayed here, and they somehow managed to make long distance work for four years, what then? She didn't plan to come back to Dillon. Ever. Did he plan to leave? And the more she thinks about it, the stupider it all seems, because the can't even make their relationship in the here and now work. All they do anymore is bicker. It shouldn't be like that.

She just wants to fix everything, to make everything feel simple and right and good again.

And then his mom calls her mom, and the moment her mother looks across the kitchen at her, the phone still at her ear, Julie knows something is wrong, is very, very wrong.

He shuts down. She's seen it before, but never this bad. And it — and it kind of breaks her heart.

She wants to help him, and she doesn't even know where to start. He should feel something, but if pain is all he has to feel, how can she encourage that? How can she want him to open up and let himself feel something, if all that he'll find to feel is so much hurt. It just really breaks her heart.

She can see glimpses of his own heart break, of his anger.

He slams the door on the McCoys. And then he takes back his same seat, and everyone turns back to their conversations and quietly lets it go. But when Julie sits down beside him, reaching out a hand on his leg, his hand claps over hers, his fingers curling so tightly around her hand. She only swallows thickly, and she lets him grasp her hand tightly, because he needs something to grasp.

Landry is as lost as her, she knows, but they both try. They're here for him. That's all either of them, with their happy families, have ever really been able to do with Matt — just be there.

Her mom helps, too. He needs all the help he's willing to accept, but that's honestly not very much.

She can't even imagine what he must feel like, and when she tries, it hurts. The very idea hurts, because she needs her dad, needs him in her life, needs the constant and the comfort. She can't breathe when she thinks about his death; she literally can't make herself breathe, because tears choke her, and she has to make herself not even think about it. She needs her dad.

And he even knows that, because he's her dad. Matt has never really had that, but that only makes it all worse for him. And she can't stand to know that. He deserves so much better, so much more.

He looks bad when he shows up for dinner hours late. He looks like he might be sick, and she can smell alcohol on his breath, and she feels so useless, doesn't know what to do, what to say, how to stand, how to look at him or treat him or help him. And he needs her help.

He needs her so much, needs something, but she can't find it for him, can't make it better, can't —

At the funeral, she sees his blood on the shovel, and it takes all of her willpower not to cry, because he doesn't need her to cry, doesn't need her to hurt — he already has too much to feel, and finally he stumbles backwards, finishes, blood smeared on his shirt now, his hands clamped around the shovel like he doesn't know how to let go.

She starts forward, and she means to take the shovel away, but somehow she ends up with her arms around him from behind, and he starts to shake. They sink down to the ground together as he takes a shuddering, shallow breath. She presses her face into his back, and the shovel slides out of his grasp and down into the grass as his raw hands grasp at her arms. He curls around himself.

He starts to sob. "I can't —" he gasps, "I can't — breathe."

She holds a little tighter.

And her tears seep into his shirt, even as warm blood seeps into her coat sleeves, and she doesn't know how long they sit like that, but before long he turns to face her, his eyes bloodshot, and he rests his forehead against her cheek, his breath hot against her skin. "I'm sorry," he whispers.

She doesn't know for what. "I love you," she replies. It's the best thing she can think to say.

He nods, and then he's on his feet, helping her up, and they're both bloody now, but she hooks her hand around his elbow, and she offers to drive, because he can't. She can drive. That's something she can do. That's how she can help him. She'll drive.

After the funeral, things start to be okay again.

Matt is restless, though. He seems better, seems ready to hang out, to make out, to be Matt again, but when anyone tries to talk about his dad, tries to act cautiously with him, he freaks out a little, insisting that he's okay. He's restless. That's what he is. That's the best way to describe it.

The music festival in Austin will be perfect for that. He needs out for a while. Her mom doesn't understand; her logic against it doesn't even make sense. But Julie doesn't need their permission.

And Matt does need this. (They both do.)

But it all goes wrong so quickly, too quickly.

She dances with him, and she's so happy, feels exhilarated and loved and good, and then suddenly his face is tight as he asks her, accusation straining his voice, and it's all gone so wrong.

When he actually suggests that he should leave, when he asks if that's what she wants as if it's an actual possibility, she panics. He can't leave. She can't lose him. For all her talk about what they're doing and what the future holds, she can't let him take all that restlessness and leave. Not yet.

She loves him. She needs him. She doesn't know how to let go of him.

A shit storm awaits her in her house, she knows that. Her mom is ready to kill her, but she can't think about that when — when it's finally going to happen, and it can't. He's her forever boyfriend, and if he just leaves, what happens? If she goes to college, then he can follow her, but —

But he can't wait that long, can he? He's going to leave, and she doesn't have any right to stop him.

She doesn't expect that way that he leaves, though. She doesn't expect him simply to go, and not to say a word to her, not even call her after, just leave, without any warning, without any word to her.

How can he have done that? It's not like him. He's not selfish. He's not cruel. And he calls his grandma, reassures her and his mother, but he doesn't call his girlfriend of years, the girl he claims to love, the girl he claims is the most important thing in his life?

She thinks of what her mom told her so long. He just threw her away, threw them away.

As selfish as she's been before, as she still sometimes is, she'd never do that. She'd never leave without a word, never truly throw him away. This isn't the same as when she so carelessly, stupidly walked away from him for the Swede, because she didn't even understand —

If Matt had only explained, had only said goodbye, had only acted like she actually mattered

She did to him. She used to. He loved her. He did. She was his girl. He always said so, with that sweet little smile, with those adoring eyes, with three years together even when they weren't.

He was her forever boyfriend, like Devon said. And despite all her worries and all her doubts about what would happen, somehow a part of her, some little, quiet voice in the back of her head, believed so firmly that they would end up together, that they would find a way to make it work.

Shelby says he's simply going through a lot, but Julie knows that Matt isn't that person. He would never just walk away, never throw her and them and their relationship away. But somehow he has.

And he's broken her.

Her plan to drown in every club she can find doesn't last for long, but that's okay.

She has to live her life. She can't drown in anything, losing Matt or hiding from the loss. She's a strong, independent woman, and if he can't be bothered to call her, then she doesn't need a call from him. He had to take his future into his own hands, and apparently that couldn't include her.

Her future won't include him, then. Her future is her own. Isn't that what she'd tried to tell herself when Matt was still around? And now she can actually act on it. She had dreams before Matt came along, dreams other than love, and she'll have a chance to return to that dream someday.

It's not as easy to act on it as it is to say it, though. Her mother tries to make her excited. She wants to be, but she can't just moveon. But it turns out that she can actually rock an interview. She does.

And all of this, her future, realising that Dillon is a part of her — it's not about Matt.

This time, it doesn't mean she's selfish. This time, that's good. This time, forgetting about Matt to think of herself instead isn't a sign of how selfish and unhappy she is. It's the opposite, actually.

It's strange to kiss Ryan.

She likes him, likes to talk to him, likes his passion and his smile and his hair, but he kisses her differently than Matt did; his lips feel strange against hers. She doesn't want to think about that, though — she wants to think about the boy who is here, who hasn't run away, who's kissing her

And it leaves her a little breathless. It's new and different, and that isn't really bad.

For the first time in weeks, she feels like the world might not have ended. It feels good.

It isn't so hard to see Ryan go, really, and he's done more for her than she could have imagined.

She wants to be like him, to have that attitude towards the world. And, honestly, why does she need to go to college right now? But all her grand plans fade into the background when Matt calls.

It stops her heart.

And then all he asks is how she's been. How does he think she's been? She can't really breathe, and she hangs up the phone before he can hear her cry. All her hurt rushes back, and she takes a deep breath, curling her fingers around her phone, trying to focus back on Gracie Belle.

But as she lies in bed that night, unable to fall asleep, she feels it — the fury. How can he do this?

How can he treat her like this?

For so long she wanted him to call, would have done anything for him to call, but she's too hurt for that now. And maybe she's started to move on, but she hasn't moved on enough not to hate him for what he's done for her. She isn't ready to talk to him, to deal with him, to face that maybe she hasn't really moved on at all, because the very sight of his name on her phone makes her dreams of an adventurous life with Habit for Humanity and her happy new attitude all seem so fake and stupid.

The scars he gave her are still fresh, the bruises still sore, and she just can't.

He calls her again, and he doesn't even apologise, not really; he just talks about his awesome life, and she can barely speak for all her anger. She has so much to say to him, but somehow in her fury the words that mean the most pour out.

She tells him the truth. He was her other half. And she hates that she didn't mean as much to him.

She tries to ignore thoughts of him, tries to take strength in finally having talked to him. But if it was hard to have him suddenly call, to see him suddenly is an entirely different kind of difficult. He looks good, looks familiar, and she can't even understand the emotions that choke her when he smiles at her, as if nothing is wrong, as if this isn't the first time she's seen him in months.

She clamps up, and she goes to the grocery store with him, but all he does is talk about Chicago, and she wants to punch him. She will. If he doesn't shut-up and acknowledge that she's pissed

But he doesn't really have a mean bone in his body, does he? And he says he misses her, and he looks her in the eye with all this sincerity, telling her that he has a plane ticket for her, and how is she supposed to hold it together when he acts like that? How is she supposed to hate him?

He makes it impossible. It's impossible to hate him, impossible to stay mad at him. He's too sweet, and the more time she spends with him, the more he worms his way back into her good graces. And she can understand why he left, why he needed out, because she felt that way once, too. He forgave her for that, and she can forgive him for this. Besides, he does finally apologise.

Chicago sounds amazing. He loves it, and she knows she would, too. It's Chicago.

They've done this before, though, and they can't continue any longer. It's time to end it. It's time to go their separate ways, to go after their own dreams, their relationship ended the right way.

He doesn't try to argue otherwise. They're still kids, really, but they're not naive anymore.

When he pulls the car up outside her house to drop her off, she realises she doesn't really know how to say goodbye, doesn't know how to end their relationship the right way. But he leans forward, hand on her arm, and she can see the question in his gaze. The last time he kissed her, she didn't know it would be the last. She could see the end in sight, but —

She bridges the gap between them, and she kisses him.

It's soft and sweet and simple, and it's goodbye.

His eyes are wet when he pulls back, and she thinks that's the best thing he could possibly have given her. She smiles sadly, and he does, too. And then she's in her house, and he drives away.

And it's over.

She cries that night. She finds the necklace he gave her years ago, and she clutches it tightly in her palm and cries until she feels like she can't cry anymore. She loves that boy so much, and he finally came back and made things right and proved that he really has loved her all along.

And she turned him away.

It's for the best, though. As more time passes, she can acknowledge that. She still misses him, and she knows a part of her will always love him, but she's mature enough to know that's okay. Right?

She doesn't really love Burlington.

Her attempt to see the world with Habit for Humanity didn't work at all; it was hard to be away from home, she didn't really love the work as much as she thought, and she liked the other volunteers, sure, but she didn't really make any friends. That's her problem at Burlington, too.

It's harder to make friends than she imagined, and Kim really isn't the best roommate in the world. She has a different boy in her bed every day, and at random times of day, too. Of course, as far as Julie can tell, it's probably better to be constantly sexiled during the day than the night.

She's never been bad at making friends, but she's just not that person who wants to spend her time with a whole group of people all the time. She prefers a few, good friends, and they just haven't been that easy to find here. It kind of sucks, actually. Whenever her family moved and she had to make new friends, she always had her parents to talk to, and she needs someone to talk to.

She has a lot to say.

(She misses her parents more than she wants to admit, and she misses Devon and Landry, and she really misses Matt, but she doesn't want to miss him, and she won't let herself. Every time she talks to her mom, though, it makes her a little homesick, and she can't ignore that she misses home.

She kind of hates that. She's not supposed to miss home.)

Derek is the first real friend she makes. He's somebody to talk to. He's smart, and he's funny, and he's her friend — her really, really hot friend. And it's not like she pursues him or anything.

He's just her friend.

But it does sort of upset her that he's married. She doesn't want to admit why. And, at it turns out, it isn't exactly the perfect marriage, and she likes that he opened up to her. She always likes when people share their lives with her. And she just can't help but kiss him. She wants to.

She doesn't expect it to become sex. She doesn't even know how it does.

She's not that person who just sleeps with guys. The only other person she's been with is Matt, her first love, her best friend, and this is so different from that in so many ways. She doesn't know what to do, what even to think or to feel. But she does like Derek. And he likes her, too.

This is college. She's supposed to be adventurous and go for what she wants. It sucks when he tries to put a stop to everything, because she basically loses her only friend, but his resolve doesn't even last a week. And then suddenly he treats her like a girlfriend, and she spends all her time with him.

It's fun. She's happy, and she's actually enjoying college the way she imagined she would.

His life is kind of poetic, or maybe his life philosophy is poetic — that's it. He treats life in this beautiful way that appeals to her so much, and she starts to fall for him. She's not in love with him, and she knows a lot of her heart is still with Matt, but with Derek she can pretend that it's not.

Matt can just be a guy in Chicago.

She doesn't feel dirty about any of it until his wife screams the words aloud, and then she feels sick.

And more than anything she just really wants to go home.

But only days after her parents happily welcome her home, they expect her to go back.

She doesn't know why she does it, why she crashes the car. It just happens.

She starts to panic, and she can't handle any of this. College was supposed to be the start of everything, but instead her whole life has spiralled out of control. She isn't at a school she loves, she hasn't made any amazing friends, hasn't done or seen any amazing things; all she's done is had an affair with a married man, and now she's crashed her car. How did this happen? How?

And it's not like her crashed car even fixes anything. Her mom still plans to drive her back.

She tells her mom. She needs to tell someone. Her mom does always say that Julie can talk to her about anything. She needs advice. She needs her mom. Maybe it's a bad idea. But who else does she have to talk to? It's stupid,though. To tell her parents was stupid, and what she did —

That was so stupid, too. On top of everything else, she's been such an idiot.

(She finally understands the appeal of throwing herself in the path of an oncoming train.)

Her mother asks her about her choices, and — and she doesn't know about her choices. She doesn't fit in at college. She doesn't fit in anywhere. Her house isn't even really like home anymore, and she can't really blame her parents for that, but still she can't go back, not until she has a plan.

Her dad tries to her force her into the car, and she holes up in her room, and —

And she really, really misses Matt. She wants so much to see him, to talk to him, to have him make her feel good again, but that's the past, and she's supposed to be focused on the future, on what she has to do next. He's her best friend, or he was, and she just really needs her best friend.

It honestly takes her by complete surprise when Derek has the guts to come to Dillon, and then when she finally agrees to talk to him, he patronises her, telling her that the older she gets, the more she'll realise how rare a real connection with a person is. She wants to put all of this on him.

But it's her own stupid mistakes that messed everything up.

And, really, Derek actually helps her realise something. He talks about how he needs to do what his heart really wants, even if it's not the expected way, even if it means he quits his job and divorces his wife, and that makes her think about how she needs to do what her heart really wants.

He admits that he came to Dillon for her. He's a smart, talented guy, but he isn't afraid to go after what he wants, and why should she be? Of course, he isn't what she wants. She isn't in love with him. Maybe she could have been, but it didn't happen, and she knows it never will.

She already loves somebody else.

(She knows how rare a connection is, and she knows what it feels like. It feels like Matt Saracen.)

The stairwell smells like coffee, and she wants to cry. But she takes a deep breath, and she climbs the stairs, and she knocks nervously on his door, having found the address via an awkward phone call with Landry. Matt opens the door, and his surprised smile is everything she's needed for weeks.

He invites her in, and their conversation is awkward at first, and so is his hesitant hug.

But he's still Matt, and she doesn't feel out of place here with him.

She tries to play it cool around him, tries to act like her whole life isn't a mess, especially as he shows her his amazing life. He takes her to the studio where he works, and he takes her to breakfast with one of his favourite professors, and he shows her some of his latest art work.

He's done a lot with paint lately, and it's really, really good. This city has been so good for him.

But what about her? She loves this city, loves the places she takes him, how he even knows a vegan place where she can eat while he enjoys an authentic Chicago hot dog, and she wants so much to kiss him as he teases her, to kiss him and taste hot dog and feel his smile against her lips.

He makes her sleep in his bed while he takes the couch, and it smells like him. She pulls the sheets up over her head and tries to drown in the smell of him, even as she tries not to hate how perfect it would have been if only she hadn't turned him down last year, if only she had taken the ticket he offered and started out her own life here. Is it too late for that? It is. She's his friend now; that's it.

He's moved on from his first love and started to follow his dreams and experienced life.

She's the one who couldn't actually handle it all.

She finally comes clean to him, pours out her feelings, unable to help herself. He tries to understand, and she has to say something, has to tell how much it sucks that all her big plans for college and life out in the world came to nothing, how much it sucks that, as happy as she is for him, he's moved on from her.

And then he admits he hasn't.

His kiss makes her feel dizzy, but he only smiles a little, eyes shining. She kisses him again. She could kiss him for years, could stand forever in this very spot if it meant she never had to stop.

Before long, though, she takes his hand.

She doesn't know what happens tomorrow, but she knows what happens tonight.

His apartment is only two blocks a way, and she nearly takes off at a run. He laughs, warming the moment before bring their intertwined hands up so he can kiss her fingers. Her heart turns over, and she rocks up to kiss him again softly. Moments later, she starts to tug him along down the street again.

As he unlocks the door, hands fumbling with the keys, she runs her own hands up and down his arms, because she has to touch him, has to be as close to him as she can at every moment, and he turns a little to look at her as the door swings open. She kisses him again, her tongue delving into his mouth, because she can, because he's always been hers, and she's so happy that hasn't changed.

The kiss takes her breath away, makes her heady with the need of him. But he draws back, breathing hard. "I'm still in love with you," he says, like he needs her to know just how much.

She kisses him. "I'm still in love with you, too," she echoes, voice thicker than she'd intended.

He takes her face in his hands, and she clutches his wrists with her own hands as he tilts her chin up a little and he kisses her, slow and sweet. She moves her hands down his arms and down his torso and finally under his jacket to slide around his back and hold him securely against her. "You know," she murmurs into his lips, "your bed is actually inside the apartment."

He laughs, breaking the kiss and ducking his head down.

"But, I mean, here's good too."

He looks back at her, amused, and she tilts her head playfully. He grins as he kisses her again.

She leads him into the apartment, holding his gaze with her own, not letting him look away even as he shuts the door. She kisses him again, because she can, because she needs to, and it takes him too long to lock the door, so she covers his hand with her own and bolts the door herself.

And then they walk backwards towards the bed, discarding their coats as they go, and when her calves hit the bed, she sinks down. He presses kisses along her jaw and down her throat, and she curls her hands around his shoulders as heat and love spiral inside her so that she needs him.

His kisses reach the top of her cleavage, and she tries to unzip her dress, reaching around to her back, but he only nuzzles her breasts and then moves down further. He runs his hands down her legs and then takes off her heels, and he kisses her ankle before he starts to kiss his way up her calf, and soon enough his hands slip up under her dress to pull down her underwear.

His mouth on her in the first time in almost a year makes the whole world tilt.

"Matty," she breathes, somehow on her back, hands clutching the sheets of his bed.

He murmurs something, his breath hot, the vibrations of his voice too much for her.

She melts when the world finally turns all the way upside down, and she smiles lazily up at him when he stands, a proud smile on his face. She giggles. "You've missed me, haven't you?" she asks.

"I've missed you," he confirms, voice raw and honest. "There's nobody like you, Jules."

She crooks her finger at him. He tears off his shirt, so eager that she laughs again. She feels giddy, because she does fit into his life, and this — this urgency to be with him that still feels so easy and so natural and so loving, this is how it should be, how sex should be, how love should be.

She finally manages to discard her dress, and he shucks his pants and his boxers, and she laughs at him when he scrambles on top of her with his socks still on. He muffles the sound with his mouth, his hands greedy on her. She feels the muscles of his back under her own hands, and the playfulness that emerged somewhere between that desperate kiss out in the street and here fades again, because oh,God, has she missed him, missed everything about him, everything that he is.

He panics for a moment when he thinks he doesn't have any condoms, and she likes what that means but starts to panic with him when she realises what that means at this moment, because if he isn't inside of her soon, now that he's worked her up to a frenzy once more, she might not live

But he finds a condom, and she rolls it on for him.

Her eyes are open and on his when he thrusts into her, and she can see his breath catch, his mouth open slightly, and they fall into a rhythm easily, because they've done this before; they know each other too well to need more than a moment to relearn each other. It'll never be like it is with Matt.

(She really can say that with certainty now. And she wouldn't have it any other way, not really.)

After, their legs tangled, his face so close to his she can see the tiny lines and marks and freckles on his face that she knows so well, she wonders to herself what this means for the future.

She knows what it means in away, know it means that no matter how hard they try, they'll always end up back with each other, because they work, and they love each other, and he really is her best friend. She whispers that to him, and he smiles, moves just enough to kiss her lightly.

"You're mine, too," he says. "But don't tell Landry."

She giggles and lazily rubs her thumb against the bare skin of his hip.

Can she stay in Chicago? How hard would it be to transfer to a school out here? Maybe she can just start her freshmen year all over. She can quit this semester, she can work in Chicago next semester, and she can apply for the fall to a Chicago school. If her parents don't want to pay, that's fine — that's why God invented loans, isn't it?

"I wish you could stay here," he murmurs, as if he knows her thoughts.

It makes her breath catch a little, because the way he says it — as if there's no possibility she can.

She kisses him and saves an answer for tomorrow.

He takes her confession so lightly.

But later that night, when they tumble into bed again, he isn't as gentle, or as playful, or as needy — isn't like last night, isn't like he was in their stolen moments back in Dillon when they were kids.

He kisses her a little more insistently, more possessively, and he never says it, but she understands. She knows how boys work, knows how Matt works. He might not judge her for what she did, might not lose it like her parents did, but as much as she hates the idea that any girl would ever touch Matt, he must feel the same way about her, must hate that any other man touched her.

And when she stands in front of the mirror and looks at the trail of teeth marks, of shining hickeys sloping along her shoulder and her neck and the top of her breast, she really doesn't mind.

She's always been his, really, from the moment he happily, impulsively kissed her at fifteen.

It makes her heart recoil away from him when he so abruptly says that he can't be her safety net.

Is that really what he thinks? And then he tells her that she can't stay here. Why not? Isn't that what he wanted? And if he still loves her, then why wouldn't he want her to stay? She feels like he slapped her, and she can't even really look at him.

(But maybe he's right. She has to go back to school, has to deal with everything, has at least to finish the semester. And she really can't disappoint her parents anymore. They deserve better than that. Still. . . .)

She leaves as soon as she can, because if he doesn't want her to be here, she won't be here. It's stilted and wrong the way they say goodbye, but there's so much between them that neither of them know or understand or have the courage to say, so stilted and wrong is the best they can do.

Their parting hug is as awkward as their greeting hug, nothing changed, nothing resolved.

But then he doesn't let it end like that, and he finally says what no one has. It's all gonna be okay.

Their last kiss is more desperate than any they've shared before.

He chases the car and pulls her out, and when they kiss, it's like it's the last chance he'll ever have to kiss her, like he needs to prove in this single kiss how much he loves her and how hard this is for him and how much he honestly, really, truly wishes she could stay.

It's all in that kiss, so bittersweet when it ends.

Her roommate is shocked when Julie walks in. "I'm back," Julie announces.

Kim grins. "Hell yeah, you are," she replies, and because Julie knows it's what her roommate wants, she tells her about Derek and their relationship as best she can. Kim doesn't look down on her at all, and some people do, some people stare and point, but most people don't seem to care.

A few girls even talk about how they'd do the same — just look at him, they say.

They're all crazy, but it's not as bad as Julie thought it would be. It only takes a couple of weeks for the scandal to die down completely, and when Kim is out on a date, Julie finally calls her mom.

She hasn't talked to her since she left, and she knows it must have taken her mother a lot of self-control not to call before now. (It's certainly taken Julie a lot of self-control not to call Matt, but she needs to figure out her own life before they can figure out theirs, and then she'll call him.)

"Hey, hon," her mom greets, cautiously happy. "How are you?"

"I'm okay," Julie says. "I only have two weeks of classes left until finals."

"Are you ready for them?"

"I will be." It's quiet for a moment before Julie continues as casually as she can. "I kind of have to confess something," she says. Her mother doesn't reply, waiting. "I'm back at school now, but when I left I didn't —I didn't go straight back to school." Still, her mother says nothing. "I went to Chicago for a few days.''

"Chicago," her mother repeats. Julie waits. "Matt Saracen is in Chicago, isn't he?"

"Yeah," Julie says. "And it was really, really good to see him. Even after everything that's happened, he's still my best friend. And I really needed my best friend." She pauses, trying to work out the right way to explain everything. "I'm sorry I lied to you. I just was too scared to come back here, but Matt — he made me finally see what you and Dad tried to make me see — that I couldn't keep running, and that I just . . . I had to deal with everything."

"That's good, sweetheart," her mother says softly. "I'm glad." It's quiet. "Is he well?"

"Yeah, he's really well. He loves it there, and, seriously, Mom, Chicago is amazing."

"It is a pretty cool city," her mom agrees.

Julie turns over in bed, cradling the phone to her ear. "I really am sorry," she murmurs. "I know I've been really stupid and — and immature and — selfish, and I hate that I put you and Dad through that."

"It's okay, Jules," her mother assures softly. "You've already started to make it right."

"I just —" She sighs. "I'm just so frustrated, Mom. I always had all these big plans for when I left Texas and went to college and experienced the world, but — but it's not happening the way I thought it would, and I miss Dillon more than I thought I would, and I don't really love my classes, and I don't know what I want to do or to —"

"Honey, plans change," her mother says.

"I know, but it's just. . . ."

"It's hard."

"It is." She swallows thickly. "It's really hard."

"You know, I've always loved that you have such big dreams," her mom says. "You love books and art and want to travel, and I've always admired that. I've always been proud of that. But, hon, life isn't something you can really plan. All you can do is try your best to find what makes you happy, even if it isn't what people expected, or what you expected."

"Yeah, except I though that and I then I ended up sleeping with a married T.A." The words come out bitter and sharp, and she doesn't really mean to say them.

"We all make mistakes," her mother replies. "It's how we learn maturity. That's not something that just comes part and parcel with age, honey. It's something we have to experience. You made a mistake, but you've realised that, and you're trying to rectify it. That's what matters."

Julie presses her lips together, wiping at a stray tear.

"And, you know," her mother continues, voice a little lighter, "I seem to remember a fourteen-year-old girl that told me it was stupid when girls in high school claimed to fall in love, because that's not how the real world worked, and your dad and I were just an exception to the rule."

"And then I met Matt," Julie says.

"And then you met Matt," her mother repeats, and Julie smiles. "He wasn't in the plans either."

It's quiet again, a better, softer quiet.

"What do I do now?" Julie finally asks.

"Now? You do what you've been doing, girl! You don't worry about what you're supposed to do according to some plan. You do what's good, and mature, and what makes you happy. You finish out the semester, and you live your life. And any time you feel overwhelmed, or like you don't know what to do, you give your mother a call, okay?"

"Okay," Julie says. "I think I can do that."

"Yeah," her mom says, and Julie can imagine her smile at that moment, "I think you can too."

The rest of her semester actually goes pretty well.

She and Kim hang out a little, but she makes other friends, too, from a project group, and they're all the kind of cool people she thought she would meet in college. She goes to a few parties, and they're all super lame, but she and some girls go to an art show one weekend, and that's awesome.

She has a lot of work to catch up on, but she's pretty sure she passed all her finals, so she can't have come out of the semester too terribly. She can make up for it if she does. Who does well first semester, anyway?

And then she comes home on the right terms, her parents so happy to see her.

She texts Matt to tell him that she's down in Dillon.

They haven't really talked since she visited him, but they've exchanged a few e-mails and a few texts, making stupid jokes or updating each other on random parts of their lives, like when she aces a paper or when he meets an artist he loves. It's not nothing, at least.

It really just makes her miss him more, but she'll take whatever piece of him she can have right now.

It's not in the plan, and it's not what someone her age is supposed to do, but she doesn't care.

The whole car ride back to her house, she can't take her eyes off the ring, and when he pulls up into her drive way, she playfully holds her hand out. He raises an eyebrow at her, but he takes her hand.

"Oh, hello," she says, shaking his hand, "what a pleasure to meet you. I'm Julie Saracen."

He smiles so proudly that she has to kiss him.

It's hard to see her parents go through something so hard, but that's the thing, see — they've faced hard situations before, but they're still together, because they love each other, and they're good for each other, and at the end of the day they're still each other's best friends.

And she knows that she and Matt can have that, too.

She needs her parents to see that. Yes, they're young. Yes, they'll probably still make some stupid mistakes. Yes, they have a lot more to figure out. But they can do handle everything together.

Her parents finally listen to her, and she knows they aren't really that supportive yet, but they'll come around. She's made some stupid mistakes in her life, but Matt's never been one of them. And the moment she starts to doubt any of it, he reassures her, makes her even more sure of them both.

On Christmas Eve, she sleepily smiles at a text from Matt and then suddenly catches sight of her father standing in her bedroom doorway. He offers her a small smile, and she sits up in bed, pulling her knees up to her chest, and moments later he sinks down on the edge of the bed.

"It'll be Christmas in twenty-two minutes," she murmurs.

"Yeah," he says. He sighs, running a hand over his hair. "It's really hard to see you grow up."

"I know," she whispers.

"I just want you to be a little girl forever, and . . . if I have to give you away to somebody, Matt Saracen isn't a bad choice. I just thought you'd stay a little girl for longer."

He's going to make her cry. "I'll always be your little girl," she says.

He wraps her up in a hug, and she presses her eyes closed against tears as she buries her face in his chest. "Yeah," he murmurs, "you will be. You'll always be my baby girl."

She finishes out the year at Burlington.

It isn't a terrible school, and it gives her a chance to apply for transfer to some schools in Chicago. She misses Matt a lot, but she has a ring on her finger, and she can text him and Skype with him and see him on breaks, and this way they can prove to everyone that they're not rushing into anything. And, finally, when summer dawns, her dad helps her move to Chicago.

The air conditioning in their apartment breaks after only two weeks, so they spend an entire Sunday afternoon lazily sprawled out on the floor in their underwear, trying to let the heat rise above them as they talk about what happens next.

They both have school to finish. "But I always thought it'd be cool to marry in the wintertime," she tells him.


"Sure," she says. "It's my favourite season."

"This winter?" he asks.

She tilts her head to look at him. "Yeah. We have the summer to plan."

He nods. "Let's do it."

She wants to kiss him, but she's too lazy. She blows him a kiss from a foot away, and he chuckles, eye dropping closed. She lets her eyes flicker closed too, sighing and whining about the heat again, just because.

This city is huge, and it's the first real city she's ever lived in. It takes a little while to become accustomed to how different it is, to how quickly it turns cold, to the bustle, to the style, to the unfamiliarity of it all. Her school is completely different, too, and it's a whole new start.

But she comes home every day to Matt, to somebody who knows music, and art, and literature. And he listens to her talk about her day, and sometimes they go to the movies or to a museum or to a show, and sometimes they simply sit on the steps outside his apartment, eat sandwiches and smell coffee, and listen to a football game on the radio.

And they argue now and then, too, about whether he should quit school to focus on art, or whether or not they serve meat at the wedding, and why he can't just invite Smash to stay at the apartment for two weeks and not tell her until Smash shows up.

Still, he's the love of her life. And that's more than enough.


It makes me smile because you said it best,

I would clearly feel blessed,

If the sun rose up from the west.

Flower balm perfume,

All my clothes smell like you,

'Cause your favorite shade is navy blue.

Circle me and the needle moves gracefully,

Back and forth.

If my heart was a compass, you'd be North.

Risk it all, 'cause I'll catch you if you fall,

Wherever you go,

If my heart was a house, you'd be home.