"Life's messy," he agreed. "But sometimes amazing things can happen, even when it seems its all falling apart."
~ Liza Brown Roberts


"...so your father and I are going to have to miss next week's call from you, but call us during the week after that, okay?" asks Mom. "Oh, before I forget, and I know you said you didn't want to, but I found some more community college classes in restaurant management for you to consider – "

I delete the voicemail. Without, really, a second thought. I sigh and tilt my head back, it hitting the metal dish racks behind me. She knows I don't want to go to college, so I guess it's more irksome that she's choosing to ignore me. "Whatever," I sigh, opening my calendar so I remember to call them after next week. At least she wasn't super preachy about it this time.

"Jackson." Andie comes around the corner holding a cold sandwich and some chips. They tug off their face mask, sneering at me. "I can't do this alone. We have people."

I nod and put the phone away. "I'm done here. Thanks for covering, Andie."

Andie nods, pulls the mask back over their face, and walks off.

I stroll over to Paige with an empty dish bin and plop it down on the table across from her. "You're gonna be late."

"Its not my fault those assholes keep rescheduling the meeting location," she hisses, her fingers pounding on the keyboard. "And it isn't my fault that HR won't let me investigate it myself. I'm good at reading people, Jackson, you know this!"

"I do," I smirk, picking up her empty plate. "Sandwich good?"

She turns to me and beams. "Always."

"Made the bread this morning myself."

"It was a little dense."

I'm about to snap back at her, but she's smiling. "You fart."

"You've gotten better at it," she says, packing away her things. "Less dense than before."

"I'm going to kill you."

She laughs.

I sigh and stack the dishes, one of the cups toppling over and spilling itself out. "We're still on for Owen and Dan's dinner tonight, right?"

Paige nods. "Yep, I'll meet you – " She slams her hands down on the table and saying, "Oh! Tucker, Carly, and Natalie can make it."

"So everyone – "

"Oh yeah," she grins, holding up her hand.

I don't high-five her because I'm still on shift. And there's a whole thing about "bias" and all that shit that comes with it. But God, do I want to. It's like going to a family reunion, except you actually love everyone. "Nice."

She still pats my shoulder and goes back to packing up. "The last time we were all together like this was before Natalie got her tits."

"Shhhhh," I hiss. "You're in public."

"Just because you're embarrassed doesn't mean you can't be proud, you monster." She smirks.

I sigh, and move to another table, nodding my head. "It has been a good while everyone's been together."

Paige throws in some papers and adds, "Remember to ask Mr. Dyson for the first week of September off, and then November 15th off, too. Harrison's already sent out the RSVPs and I can't cover your ass if you get fired."

"And...wait, what's November 15th?" I ask.

"Everett's book launch," she says. "From what I've read, Seduction and Scales is supposed to top Publishers Weekly's bestseller list." She eyes me, kind of the same way a mom tries to entice her kid.

"Oh." There's no part of me that wants to see the book selling. I

Okay, wait, let me rephrase. I don't want the book to not sell. I had to read it four times against my will; Everett's been working on it for the past, like, forever, apparently. It's more like "I want to forget that this erotic mermaid porno exists because it still haunts my dreams in all the wrong ways and while some of the sex scenes between Julio and Ariadna are hot I don't want to think about it anymore". But, it's for Everett, not me.

"I already put in the requests." I move to another table. "I'm approved for September, but not the 15th yet."

She nods. "So...how're you doing?" she asks. Paige swings her bag over her shoulder. "You left early. Didn't get the chance to ask."

"I know, I'm sorry," I say. "You got in late last night, and – "

"Jackson," she starts, but doesn't finish whatever thought she has. "Thank you for not waking me, but still. We have a routine."

I blink, and wipe down the table. "I'm okay," I say, surprised by how "okay"-sounding my voice is. I pick up the dish bin and move to another table. "Actually, though, I am good. I slept well, ate before I left, and I had my break a little while ago. I'm good."

Paige smiles and nods her head. "Let me know if you need anything, okay?"

I nod. "Text me if John tries to talk to you."


"It reminds me of a nature documentary." The way she talks about it, too, makes it sound so enthralling.

Paige rolls her eyes, smirk remaining. "Meet you back at the apartment? We'll go over to Owen's together at 6ish."


Paige leaves.

Life resumes.

The work's consistent, which is nice. I like feeling busy, and I like working in the cafe. It's not super overwhelming like at that restaurant over on State Street. It's more lowkey, and Mr. Dyson likes me. He "sees potential in me", which, just, makes me want to work harder for him. Like, I don't want to let him down, you know?

I think I've only really stopped for a second, mostly to catch my breath, to stare out the window.

"Jackson," Mr. Dyson calls from behind the counter. He's got a spray bottle and rag in his hand. "Can you help me wipe down the rest of the tables, please?"

"Yeah, let me unload this in the back first, okay?"

Mr. Dyson nods and starts wiping down the tables.

I dump the rest of someone's lunch into my dish bin.

Andie takes orders and starts running ready food out to people.

After the last table gets cleared off, I walk back to the kitchen, trying not to look at the side booth in the middle of the wall. I can still hear Harper begging, pleading with me – "Dude, tell me not to do it."

I frowned. "Your wedding's next month, man. Isn't it a little late to be gettin' cold feet?" I stopped and looked around. "Is it too early to get cold feet, or no?"

"Just tell me not to do it."

I still remember taking in a breath. "Why?"

Harper didn't have an answer then.

"Harper, if you didn't wanna get married, whyyy did you ask her?"

He then looked at me with this heartbrokenness that, just, really pissed me off. Pisses me off thinking about it, now.

"Just...just tell me not to go through with it."

I remember my hands shaking. My head spinning, and my stomach twisted in a rage. Teeth pressed together so hard they could've slid back into my gums. I could hear the blood in my ears. This angry, pissed-off feeling, I don't know the word for it, just kept building every time he asked me about what to do with his fiancée.

I shouldn't of said it. I know that.

But it just slipped out. Said in the tone of "I'm-Ending-This-Fucking-Bullshit-Right-Now".

"You're not going to marry her because you're gay."

He stared. For the longest time, Harper just stared.

I sighed, closing my eyes. "I – no, Harper, I'm sorry. That...I-I didn't mean – if you want to marry her, marry her."

He said nothing. Just stared. Then, after another minute of me spluttering more apologies, he broke down crying. Whimpering into his hands.

Which only made me say sorry more. It didn't matter whether I meant it or not (and I did).

He collected himself. Harper smiled, apologized for crying, and left.

Not a day goes by where I wish I hadn't told him. And I make sure I tell him that.

"Jackson," Mr. Dyson calls, "I know I'm askin' a lot of ya, but some new people just came in. Can you wait on them?"

"Sure, one second." I dump my dish bin to the side, somewhere not blocking anything important. And slapping on my best "Customer Service" smile, I go back out into the restaurant.

The door opens.

I turn for the kitchen to put in their orders.

When I finally give the order to Mr. Dyson, I turn back and sigh, smirk creeping onto my face.

Rory watches me come over. He smiles, but it's a soft thing, an almost hesitant one, like he's just come back from traveling, relieved to be home. It's one I don't think I'll ever get used to seeing him wear. It's easily one of the most charming things about him until he opens his mouth.

It just seems strange to me, now, thinking we were jerks to each other for years.

"Hey, Princess."

"Language, Rory," I tease. "We might be friends but you still need to be courteous. Besides," I sigh, shaking my head, "I'm not allowed to sass you back. I'm on the clock."

He snorts. He nods his head at Mr. Dyson and says hi to Andie, too.

"What're you doin' back here?" I ask. "Should've texted me."

"I did," he chuckles. "Doesn't mean you got it."

I grab a menu. "Your usual booth?"


I raise a brow. "Really? Not even fries?"

Rory shakes his head. "Passin' through today. Can't stay long." He digs his hands into his jacket pocket and pulls out a white envelope. "We finally sold the Cottage. That's your share."

I nod. "A worthy reason to come down." I take the envelope. "End of an era, huh?"

"A weird, uneven epoch of forced summer vacations."

I nudge his arm. Screw bias, he's fun. "You should know better than to use your big college words on me."

He snorts again.

I slip it into my pocket. "This probably looks like a, like a drug change or somethin'."

Rory sighs. "You're in rare form today," he says. "You're not usually this on your feet. Bein' funny and stuff."

I shrug. "I'm havin' a good day." I straighten up and put the menu away.

He takes in a slow breath. The hesitant smile's changed to something warmer. Soft, but warm.

I don't know what he wants from me anymore, and it's getting awkward standing by the front door like this.

Rory leans back and glances over my shoulder. "Yo, Mr. D, can I talk to Jack in the back for a couple?"

Mr. Dyson looks at me, then him, then back to Rory. He rolls his eyes. "You got five minutes," he says, checking his watch. "Lunch rush should be comin' soon."

I look at him. "What is it?"

"Somethin' important," he insists.

"You can't tell me here?" I ask.

Rory looks down and shakes his head.

My stomach twists, which tells me it's probably not a good thing to tell me about. "Rory – "

"Gotta use the bathroom first," Rory mutters. "Meet me out back." He slips past me and down the hall.

I eye Andie and Mr. Dyson. "Do you guys have any idea what's going on?"

Andie shakes their head. They tug their mask down to their chin and glare. "If you're getting proposed to, I'll laugh."

Mr. Dyson narrows his eyes. "If he's 'kidnappin'' you again like on Halloween, I'll kill him, I swear on my mother's grave."

"You guys are so nice," I tease, turning on my heels and watching as Rory opens the back door.

No one's sitting on our back patio. The overcast skies smell like rain, and the low pops of thunder reinforce it. The umbrellas are put down,too, and the courtyard's got a chill running through it with every breeze.

"You're the second person I've told, and I wanted you to be the first, and I'm sorry for that," Rory starts, keeping his eyes down.

"I – what does that matter?"

"It just does," he insists. "I'm droppin' out of school."

I blink. "Wait...wait, what?"

"I just got to a point where I didn't know why I was there anymore. Didn't like what I was studying, and changing majors did nothin' for it, too." He rubs his hands together, bluish-green eyes staying down. "My, therap – Joyce, you know Joyce. She told me to take a gap year, but, but I'm droppin' out." He swallows. "Dad did the whole 'You have to go to college', but he isn't fighting me that hard on it." He steps back. "It's...kinda nice." Rory looks at me. There's a sparkle in his eyes. "I'm...headin' off to a writer's retreat out in East Ivanhoe. Dunno what I'm gonna write, but I'm, I'm really excited about it."

I hold my tongue, mostly because I feel like there's more. I'm still able to force in saying, "Congrats, Rory. I'm proud of you." I nod. "I know this year's been tough, but...I'm glad, you're figuring your stuff - "

He steps closer to me. "You..." He sighs. "Yeah...this year was shit."

Now I snap my mouth shut. I can still see the sunken rings under Rory's eyes.

"But I just keep thinkin' about the last couple years and I just..." He sighs, shaking his head. "Look, I'm, I'm so sorry, for everything that went down between us." Rory breathlessly laughs, but doesn't smile. "Kinda glad you dumped me."

"Don't phrase it like that," I tell him. "It just...it wasn't the time – "

"I know," he says, his voice soft, "but that doesn't change the fact that I will always remember it." He swallows. "There's nevera day where I don't remind myself of how stupidI was because I, I couldn't, just, open my dumb mouth and say, 'I love you, Jackson, please stay'. But I..." Rory's arms flop at his sides. "...still. Thanks. I..." he pauses, laughing, "wouldn't be where I am right now without it."

This whole thing's making me nervous. "Rory, what is this about? Specifically?"

He opens his mouth, but stops. He glances away, a slight smirk spreading across his lips. "I...I am so goddamned fortunate to know you, Jackson. Honest. I don't know what I would've done without you." Rory looks at me, made all the more charming by a breathless chuckle. "Even if I was an ass who couldn't talk to you after we broke up."

"I don't think two months counts as not being able to talk to me, Rory."


I take in a slow breath.

"I...but God, I..." He laughs. "You're..." He chuckles again, lacing trembling fingers between mine. "...I, just, it sickens me how much I love you. And I'm real glad you kept in touch. You're like my best friend, and trustme, the strangeness of how it happened is not lost on me. You said you'd text me after we broke up, and you waited for me to text back even though it took so long, and I'm so, sosorry for that."

I sigh. "Stop apologizing," I whisper. "You would've done the same for me, I don't doubt that. We were, we were both hurt."

"I know," he says, "but still, you don't know what that means to me." Rory clears his throat. "Ev-even when we were gettin' back in touch and things were awkward, you, were alwaysjust a call away. When I...when everythin' got to be too much for me last year, you were the firstperson to pick up. You, read over my assignments when you had noclue what I was writing." And then he pauses, gently squeezing my hands, the gesture so small and gentle yet able to turn him into a tomato. "Just, thank you so much for bein'...you. And, just, bein' there, and waiting for me to sort my shit out." His eyes drop, and he takes in a slow breath. "When I get back," he pauses, which I can only describe as "deliberate". Rory swallows and shakes his head. "S-sorry. When, when I get back," he continues, his voice shaking, "I don't know where I'm gonna end up, but I know I...want to, rectify things. Try again. I-I want to do things right." He takes in a breath, and it makes me dizzy somehow. "An-anything you wanted to know, I'll tell you. I...I-I wanna be the person you can lean on, because God, I'm not going to be stupid and let you go again." He squeezes my hands and stares, his gaze uncertain and so close to being hurt, but there's determination in it. "You don't need to say anything now, or...but...yeah. I-I'm just puttin' it out there," Rory splutters. "I-I mean, w-wouldyou? Wanna go out again?"

Thunder rumbles overhead.

And then, pulling my hands from his, I ask, "You're not going to ask me to marry you, too, are you?"

Rory drops his head, sighing. A smile still hangs on his lips. "Way to ruin the moment, Jackson."

I punch him in the arm. "Where was this romantic side when we were together?" I immediately want to retract it because this look crosses Rory's face; I step back. "Sorry."

"That's...I..." He sighs again, massaging his palm with his thumb. "God, I was a shit boyfriend, huh?"

"You said it, not me."


I bite my tongue.

He grins despite himself.

"Y'know, to your credit, I wasn't that great, either."

He shakes his head. "Leagues better than me. But, uh...yeah." His hands flop at his sides. "That's my piece. Just, wanted to put it out there." Rory's arms flap at his side. "You, uh...I know I just asked; ignore that. When I come back, can I get an answer then?"


He looks at me.

"When you get back..." I whisper, grabbing his hands again, "...you'd better romance me good like a shitty Taylor Swift song."

He snorts. His cheeks're already turning red. "Want me standin' outside your window with a boombox?"

"A boombox? What is this, 1989?"

He laughs again. It's sudden and unrestrained and just an amazing sound.


He hums, tipping his forehead against mine. "Yeah?"

"...tell me again."

Rory lets out a breath. I can tell he's smiling; it's just one of those kinds of sounds. "Fuckin' egotist," he smirks. But he swallows and squeezes my hands, like he's trying so hard to revel in this moment. His eyes sparkle a little; he glances down. "I love you. God, fuck, I love you. For so many reasons. And I'll tell you it every fucking day of the rest of my dumb, stupid life if you'd let me." The ease he says it makes me shudder. It's low and soft and perfect. Absolutely perfect. He squeezes my hands and pulls back to look at me. "I love that you fuckin' try. That you're patient with my shit ass. How you, how you smilewhen, jus – when somethin' happens, and you – " He grunts, but this embarrassed smirk spreads across his lips. A moment later, he swallows. "...I...somany reasons, Jack." Rory sighs again. "I know I don't deserve you, and again, thank you so much, for waiting. I'm...I'm gonna try and make this right this time, okay?"

I put my hand on his neck, rubbing his cheek with my thumb. But then I, just, lean in to kiss him, a gentle thing that's mostly just my and his lips brushing together. I sigh, feeling his breath on my cheek. My head dips, and I sigh. Laugh. "God, we're both so fucked, aren't we?" I whisper back.

He snorts again. "...but yeah," he mutters, tipping his forehead against mine. Our noses brush. He sniffs. "Thanks. For...givin' me space, I guess." Then he looks up, and Rory's greenish-blue eyes linger on me just long enough for his phone to start vibrating, interrupting the moment. He pulls it out and turns it off. "Fuck, I gotta go. I was just supposed to be passin' through." He looks at me again and sighs. His warm, soft smile comes back. "Fuck, I don't wanna go."

"Come after me when you get back," I say, beaming. I pat his shoulder before heading back towards the door to the restaurant. When I turn back to him, I nod my head towards the door. "Show me what you wrote, too."

He grins and follows me in, only stopping to say, "I'll, I'll text you, okay?"

I nod, then gesture towards the front door. "Go. I'll talk to you later."

His bluish-green eyes stay on me for longer than before, but they're sparkling. Rory cups my face and kisses me, this long, drawn-out thing that makes us both kind of snort-laugh when we both pull back. Then he does another kiss. And another.

"Weren't you just – " Another kiss. " – supposed to be passing – " Another stops me, and I push him back gently. "Rory."

Rory's hands fall into mine again. He watches his fingers slide into mine, squeezing them. He doesn't say anything. That soft smile stays put. "God, I love you, Jack."

I sigh, shaking one hand from mine. "Go," I whisper. I squeeze his hand. "Text me when you get there, okay?"

He nods, grinning like an idiot. Rory steps away once, lingers, his hand still in mine, then turns, kind of skipping through the restaurant, breaking into a sprint down the street, past the restaurant's windows, and he's gone.

My phone buzzes, and Harper's name flashes across the screen.

It's a picture of him with the Spirit of St. Louis hanging above him, making a stupid cartoon face, the caption reading "High-lo from D.C.!"

I text back my usual – "If you need anything, text me". It's the least I can do for sending him into this cross-country soul-search.

He doesn't text back.

Finally, the first drops of rain begin hitting the back patio, tapping the brick ground.

The restaurant's still mostly quiet. There's a couple tables occupied with people.

Andie leans over the front counter. They wiggle their nose out of their mask, but from the look in their eyes, I can tell they're grinning. "So...?"

I smirk. "He did not get down on one knee, with a long speech where he quoted Shakespeare, and ask me to marry him."

They scoff. "Boo."

"Why would he ask, you fart?"

Andies hakes their head. "That's fair, that's fair." A new couple of guests come in, and Andie swings themselves around the counter. "You get the next ones, and I run food. Cool?" Before I can say anything, they walk off.

Under cover of the counter ledge, I text Rory to drive safe. I don't wait for his response; I slip the phone back into my pocket and welcome guests as they come in.

The rain continues its constant tapping against the sidewalk and the cars outside, the thunder's distant booms staying soft. There's no wind, and the light dims, but it's comfortable. Every time the front door opens, the air that sweeps in is cool, a little wet, and refreshing. The rhythmic beat continues for the rest of the lunch rush, and life resumes.