Julia and Will didn't talk about the kiss after it happened. Julia spent the next few months actually happy at school. She was friends with Megan and Jack and spent most of her time with them. She went to all of Will's soccer games to support him, and they never missed a Friday going to Tina's.

On February 24th, Julia walked down the hall after her last class to meet Will for their weekly trip to Tina's. When she rounded the corner, and saw him waiting for her, the first thing she noticed was the balloon he was holding in his hand. Julia half laughed, half groaned.

"What is that?" she asked, exasperated.

Will stared at her. "Don't tell me I got the date wrong," he said, feigning worry. "I don't know what would be awkward, if I jumped the gun or if I missed it completely."

"You didn't get the date wrong," Julia grumbled. She took the balloon from Will's outstretched hand.

"Good," Will said, smiling. "Happy birthday, Jules."

"Thanks, Will," Julia said. "It means a lot."

"Shall we?" Will asked, gesturing toward the door.

Julia nodded and led the way out to Will's car. Expecting to head straight for Tina's, it took Julia a moment to realize they were headed in a different direction.

"Where are we going?" Julia asked Will.

"Austin," Will replied casually.

Julia stared at him. "Austin?" Julia repeated. "Will, we can't just go to Austin!"

Will laughed. "Why not?" At Julia's look of disbelief, he continued. "Look, it's really not that bad of a drive," he said. "And I know you miss cities. You talk about them all the time. And I know this is still smaller than what you're used to, but I thought it would be good for you to see a building that's taller than three stories."

"But, what about my uncle," Julia protested.

"He is expecting you home around nine," Will answered promptly. At Julia's confused expression, Will said, "I paid him a visit at the store the other day. I cleared it with him. It's all fine."

Julia sat back in her seat. "Alright," she said. "I guess that's that."

"That's that," Will agreed. After a moment, he said, "And of course we can't forget the most important reason to go." Julia waited in silence for him to elaborate. "I can't let you do nothing special for 18th birthday," he said with fake exasperation. "Welcome to the adults' club."

"Will, you are many things," Julia said. "But I wouldn't say 'adult' is one of them."

Will gasped in fake shock. "I'm hurt, Julia," he said.

"Yeah, yeah," Julia replied, laughing.

Will grinned and kept driving.

The topic of conversation on the way to Austin mostly centered around college. Will told Julia about how there had been scouts at the last few soccer games. The season was over except for a few championship games, of which everyone expected Redwater to win. Will had already been approached by several scouts about playing for schools.

"I mean I really don't need a scholarship," Will explained. "My parents have the money, but I keep getting offered them."

"Will, that's the opposite of a problem," Julia reminded him.

"Sorry," Will said, glancing at her. "I didn't think."

"It's fine," Julia said. "There's nothing wrong with not having to worry about money. Anyways, do you have anyone at the top of your list?"

"I mean, my parents want me to go to Georgetown," Will said. "They have good soccer and good business. But I don't find out for another week if I got in or not."

"Yeah, I'm still waiting for my results," Julia said nervously. "Do you want to go east coast?" She tried to keep the conversation off of her.

Will shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "All I know for sure is I want to go to a coast. At this point I'll go to whichever one takes me."

"Do you want to do business?" Julia asked.

Will shrugged again. "I mean, it's useful," he said. "It's all my parents have ever talked about." Will was silent for a minute and said, "But honestly, the thought of being a businessman makes me want to throw up."

"Well I guess that answers that question," Julia said. "Aren't both your parents' businesspeople?"
"More or less," Will said. "They do a lot with real estate, but they don't really talk to me about what their jobs exactly entail. Honestly, I don't even know if I want to play soccer at school."

That made Julia turn to look at him in surprise. "But I thought you love playing," she said.

"Let me rephrase," Will said. "I don't know if I want to play for a school. I mean, yeah, I would definitely want to keep playing. Just I don't know if I want to be some competitive with it. I miss when it used to be just fun. Now it's just a ton of pressure."

Julia nodded. "Yeah, makes sense," she said.

"What about you?" Will asked. "Are you going to go back to California?"

"I kinda wanted to," Julia said. "I miss it. Probably not northern, though. I applied to a lot of SoCal schools. But we'll see."

"Do you know what you want to do?" Will asked.

"I was kinda thinking about biochemistry," Julia said.

"I didn't realize you were such a science person," Will said.

"It's not so much the science as much as what I want to do with the science," Julia explained.

"Which is?" Will prodded.

"I want to go into pediatrics," Julia said, looking down in mild embarrassment.

Will was silent for a moment before saying, "You would be outstanding at that."

Julia looked up at him and smiled.

Julia vaguely remembered what it looked like driving into Austin, but not well enough to be tired of it. And Will was right, she had been missing the city life. Redwater was nice, but it wasn't the same.

Will seemed to know his way around the city fairly well. They didn't go to any special places, it was too late in the day to do that, but Julia enjoyed just walking around and looking at the different shops and sights. While not as big as the cities back home, Julia thought Austin was a very nice a city. She definitely enjoyed herself this time more than the last.

When Julia's feet felt like they were about to fall off, she and Will found his car and headed back. Will suggested going to Tina's for dinner.

"That's fine," Julia said. "But you better drive fast. I'm starving."

Will chuckled and while he didn't do anything stupid, he made sure to hurry.

It was about six when the two arrived at Tina's. Julia headed in first, expecting it to be just like any other time she had been there. Instead, when she stepped in the door, Tina was waiting to take them back to a table, a table where Megan and Jack were already sitting. There were a few balloons, packages, and a cakebox as well.

Julia couldn't help but smile. Will, who had paused to say something to Tina, came up behind her and grinned at the sight of her face.

"Happy birthday!" Megan and Jack both exclaimed as she approached.

"Thanks, guy," Julia said. "This is, wow, this really means a lot."

"And food is on the house," Tina said, coming up to them. As Julia opened her mouth to protest, Tina waved her hand, dismissing what Julia was about to say. "No, no," she said. "You don't turn 18 every day. Think of this as your last free thing before you have to start paying taxes." All four of them laughed at that. "I know what you like," Tina continued. "I'll be back with your food."

Julia and Will sat down across from Megan and Jack as Tina went in the back to get their dinner.

"So how was Austin?" Jack asked.

"It's such a nice city," Julia complemented. "It was nice just to walk around and see the sights."

"You should definitely hit up some of the museums at some point," Megan said. "There are so many cool things to do there if you hit it at the right time."

"I'm sure you'll get to it eventually," Will said. "I mean, you do have all summer."

Julia nodded. "Yeah, it would be really fun," she said.

All three of them took turns telling her what the best place was to visit, only interrupted when Tina brought out the food with a promise of unlimited milkshakes. Despite being absolutely stuffed, Julia and her friends managed to find room to eat a good amount of cake, which was made by Tina herself.

After the cake, Megan and Jack presented Julia with their gifts. Jack had given Julia a set of posters that replicated some of Julia's favorite paintings. Megan had gotten her a new pair of sandals that had very small sea shells attached to the straps. Megan said she had gotten them online from a small business in Santa Cruz. Touched by the thoughtfulness of their gifts, Julia couldn't say anything, only get up and give each girl a hug.

Full and happy, Julia left the restaurant with Will and several servings of extra cake.

"It's only 7:30," Julia said. "Anything else planned?"

Will laughed. "What, a full seven plus hours of birthday celebration isn't enough for you?" he teased.

Julia glared at him, but then laughed. "No, it's not," she replied snottily.

Will laughed, too. "Well, nothing particularly exciting," he said. "But we can just go back and hang at my place if you want. And besides, I do have a gift to give to you."

"Sounds perfect," Julia agreed happily.

Will chuckled and started the drive back to Redwater.

Not that much later, Julia was sitting in Will's room unwrapping a small box. She opened the box and another small, silver charm, this one in the shape of a star, lay inside.

"I know it's not too original," Will said, sounding almost slightly nervous. "And I know you're not a huge fan of Texas. But I figured you can't hate everything here."

"No," Julia said. "Not everything." She picked up the charm and smiled. "Lone Star State, nice," she said. Julia reached down and unclasped her silver anklet. She added the star next to the newer bird charm, the one with Julia's birthstone.

"What are the two birds?" Will asked.

Julia handed it to him. "The one with the diamond in it was my mom's," she explained. "She used to wear it on a necklace. And the other one, it has an aquamarine, my birthstone, that one she left to me in the box with the letter."

"It's beautiful," Will said, gently handing it back to her.
"Thanks," Julia said. She bent back down to return it to her ankle.

Will watched her do it. "Do you think they would have liked me?" he asked when she finished.

"Who?" Julia asked.

"Your parents."

Julia looked at him, confused. "Why does that matter?" she asked.

Will shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "I guess I was just wondering."

Julia thought for a moment. "I think they would like who you've helped me become. So yeah, I think they would have."

"What do you mean by that?" Will asked.

"Basically, less of an emotional wreck," Julia laughed.

Will shook his head. "Nah, I think you would have been just fine on your own with that one. You're one of the strongest people I know."

"Maybe," Julia said. "But you've definitely made it easier, Will." The two sat in silence for a moment. Then, "Why haven't I met your parents?"

Will gave a tight smile. "You wouldn't want to meet them," he said.

"I wouldn't want to meet them, or you don't want me to meet them?"

"It's not like that," Will said. "Well, I mean, no, I don't particularly want you to meet them. But it's not because of you."

"Come on, Will, what's the worst they could do to me?"
"It's not even that, I don't think." Will paused to think. "It's just, I know they're ashamed of me. I'm ashamed of them at times. I guess I don't want you to think differently of me because of them."

Julia was silent. "I'm sure that's not true," she said. "I'm sure they're very proud of you."

"The only pride that they would give me would be if I do what they want me to do," Will said. "But even that's false. They know I have no interest of going into business or property management or whatever; they know I'm just doing it because they want me to. They're ashamed of my intentions."

"Will," Julia said.

"Look, you don't have to console me or anything," Will said. "I can figure it out. It's just that they can see right through me. I'm afraid about what that could do to our friendship."

"How so?" Julia asked, confused.

"My parents have this thing about relationships," Will said uncomfortably. "They don't like me with people who aren't in the same, um, social circles."

Julia sat there, slightly stunned. "Right," she said. "Meaning…?"

"Rich people," Will said bluntly. "Keep money in the family and all that shit."

"But we're just friends," Julia said. "Why would it matter?"

"Because they see right through me," Will said quietly. Julia was confused, but stayed silent as she watched Will get up from where he was sitting and lean against the wall. He turned back around. "They see right through me and they'll know I like you more than a friend." He said that all very quickly.

Julia wasn't sure how to respond but before she could, Will continued on. "And I don't say that because I'm expecting something to happen," he said. "I know you're not looking for that right now. But they'll know. They always know. And they'll treated you differently for it, unfairly for it. And I can't deal with that. I can't do that to you."

Julia was quiet, and then said, "Thanks. But," she continued, "if you ever change your mind, I would be happy to meet them. I think I can handle anything they throw at me."

Will gave her a tight smile. "I know you can, Jules," he said softly. He glanced over at the clock. "Come on," he said. "We should probably go."

Julia looked at the clock, too. It was close to nine. She nodded. "Let's go."

As Will pulled up into her driveway, Julia's mind went back to the night she and Will had made up, the night he had kissed her and she had kissed him back. Stealing a quick glance at Will's face, she could tell he was thinking about the same thing.

"We're okay, right?" Will asked nervously.

Julia smiled at him. "Absolutely," she said, smiling. She opened the door. "I'll see you on Monday."

"Have a good weekend," Will said.

Julia got out of the car and ran into her house, not looking back at the car.

As soon as she got inside, before she could take a breath and process what had just happened, Julia was taken aback by the sight of Rory sitting at the table with a cake in front of him, alight with 18 candles.

"Happy birthday, Julia," Rory said, smiling.

Julia approached the table and blew out the candles. She was staring at the cake.

"I know you always used to have one like this before," Rory said. "I was hoping you wouldn't have had too much to eat before now. Still have a little room."

Rory was right. The cake was funfetti with purple icing and a ton of rainbow sprinkles on top.

"I wish you hadn't," Julia said, quietly.

Rory looked confused. "What?" he asked.

"I said I wish you hadn't," Julia said more loudly. "My mom and dad would always do this together. It was for the three of us."
"I didn't realize it would bring up bad memories," Rory said. "I apologize for that."

"They aren't bad memories," Julia said. "They're happy memories. And they're not just mine, they're mine and my dad's and my mom's. They're not supposed to be anyone else's."

"I thought you would like it," Rory said. "That's my mistake."
"Yeah, it is," Julia said. She felt tears starting to well up in her eyes. "And it's one you wouldn't have made if you would just stop trying to be my dad for one second. You're nothing like him. Or my mom. I'm going to bed." Julia left the kitchen and entered her room, forcefully shutting the door behind her.

The next morning, still angry at Rory, Julia stayed in her room doing homework. Later in the morning, around 10, there was a knock on her door. Julia ignored it.

"I have to go in to the store." Rory's voice came from the other side. "I'll be back around two."

Julia ignored him and didn't respond.

The rest of her day passed fairly normally. She talked to Will and texted Jack, ate lunch and got most of her homework done. She kept checking the clock incessantly—a lot of different college decisions came out today. It was only around four that she realized something was off.

Julia got up from her chair in her room and went out into the living space. It was empty. She checked Rory's room and office. Both empty as well.

Julia got out her phone to call him, but before she could there was a knock on the door. Apprehensive, Julia answered. A police officer was standing there.

"Are you Julia Harper?" the officer asked.

Julia nodded. "Yes," she said slowly.

"Niece of Rory Reynolds?"

Julia nodded again, a feeling of dread starting to grow in her stomach. "Yeah, what's going on."

The officer sighed. "My name is Officer Danvers," he said. "There's been an accident. Your uncle is in the hospital."

Julia grabbed the doorframe to steady herself. She felt like she couldn't breathe.

"He's going to be fine," Officer Danvers said. "But I'm here to take you to the hospital."

Julia nodded and exhaled. "Yeah, just give me one second." She closed the door, put on shoes, grabbed her jacket and purse, and was back out to Officer Danvers in less than a minute.

Julia had never ridden in a patrol car before, and under normal circumstances she would be excited. But not today. Today she was wondering what exactly was waiting for her at the hospital.

During the ride, Officer Danvers explained exactly what had happened. A small fire had started at the store but wasn't caught in time so the whole thing ended up going up in flames. No one had been killed, but some, including Rory, had suffered from smoke inhalation. Nothing threatening, but enough for the hospital to want to keep them under observation.

Julia hated hospitals. After her visit there, she never wanted to step into one again. Her breath was shaky for multiple reasons as she walked down the hall to Rory's room. She paused when she approached the door, gathering her courage before she walked in.

Julia pushed open the door and saw Rory lying on the bed. He was awake and watching television, but he had an oxygen mask on his face. As soon as he saw her, Rory shut off the TV.

Julia slowly approached the bed but didn't get too close.

"I'm not contagious, you know." Rory lifted the mask and spoke, his voice hoarse but steady.

Julia couldn't smile.

Rory gave her a sympathetic look. "I'm okay, really. This is all just a formality."

Julia nodded and before she could stop herself, rushed to the side of his bed and put him in a tight embrace. She felt him pause in surprise for a moment, but then returned it genuinely.

"I'm so sorry," Julia said, her voice muffled. "I am so, so sorry."

Rory gently pushed her away. "Julia," he said seriously. "You have absolutely nothing to be sorry for."

Julia shook her head. "No, I do," she said. "I haven't been fair to you. And I know you know that you aren't my dad, but you've still provided me so much and I'm just so, so, so sorry. I know I've been cruel."

"Oh, Julia," Rory said. "You mean more to me than I think you'll ever know. And we all make mistakes. I certainly don't hold yours against you. Grief, not matter how it's expressed, is always ugly. The only thing we can do is love the people in front of us, even if they don't realize that what they're receiving is love. Even if they don't even realize they're giving love in return."

Julia sank into a chair next to Rory's bed. "When that police officer was standing outside the door, I couldn't even react. All I could think was not again. Not again."

Rory took her hand. "I'm sorry I couldn't call," he said. "But I'm not going anywhere."

Julia squeezed his hand back.

They sat in silence for a peaceful moment. Then Rory said, "Weren't UCLA decisions supposed to come out today?"

Julia thought for a moment. "Yeah, I guess so," she said. "I kinda forgot about that. UCLA and NYU and Cornell, I think."

"Are you going to check?" Rory asked excitedly. He started coughing and put his mask on.

Julia shook her head. "No, not today. Maybe tomorrow." She gave his hand a squeeze. She didn't leave all night.

Rory was released the next morning. The doctors said he should be fine, just that he needed to rest and to call if the coughing got too bad. Julia got the car from the parking lot, one of Rory's coworkers had brought it over sometime the previous evening, and drove the two of them home. Determined to start making up for her poor behavior, Julia made sure Rory was comfortable and didn't need to do anything for himself.

Before she could do anything though, Rory said, "Alright, I know I'm dying to know, which means you must be dying to know. Go look at schools. Now."

Julia smiled nervously and went to get her computer. She went back out and sat on the other end of the couch as Rory as she logged into her portals for each school.

She just stared at the screen.

"Well?" Rory demanded.

"I, uh, well I didn't get into Cornell," Julia said. "But I did get into UCLA and NYU." She kept staring at the screen, her smile growing. "Oh my god," she said.

"That's wonderful, Julia," Rory said. "Is that the last of them?"

"Yeah," Julia said. "So that's UCLA, NYU, George Washington, UCSD, UC Berkeley, and Cal Poly Pomona."

"That's a great choice you have to make," Rory said. "I'm so proud of you."

"Thanks, Rory," Julia said. She closed her computer.

After dinner and after the sixth time Julia asked if he needed anything, Rory put a stop to things. "Julia, you need to go out," he said. "I don't care and I don't care with who, just get out of the house. You're making me anxious."

"Are you sure?" Julia asked. "Because I really am fine with staying."
"I know," Rory said. "And I am fine here. I lived alone for a long time. Just go."

Julia gave a small smile and nodded. "Actually, there is someone I should go talk to. I won't be home too late."

"I'm not going anywhere."

Julia grabbed her things and the car keys. She headed out, started the car, and drove the familiar way to Will's house. She wanted to tell him about college, but she also couldn't get what Rory said about loving people right in front of you out of her head. She knew she loved Will as friend, but with Rory's words she realized that, just like his feelings about her, it had a chance of turning into something more.

Julia parked outside of Will's house and got out of the car. As she approached the house, however, she could hear muffled shouting come from inside. She couldn't make out any particular words, but she could identify three distinct voices. She froze on the walkway, unsure of what to do.

Julia had just taken a step back toward her car when the front door of the house flew open and Will came angrily storming out. Then he saw her. His expression changed from anger to confusion to worry and back to anger that Julia's curiosity about what was going on only heightened.

He hurried toward her. "What are you doing here?" he asked urgently. "You shouldn't be here."

From inside, someone shouted, "Will!"

"Well maybe it's a good thing I am here," Julia said. "Come on."

She and Will quickly got to Julia's car and they drove off before either of Will's parents could come looking for him. As the house faded in the distance, Will breathed a sigh of relief and his entire body relaxed.

"So, uh, how are the parents?" Julia asked.

Will laughed. "Jesus, thank you," he said, turning toward her. "I didn't even realize I needed a getaway driver until you showed up."

"I'm just that good," Julia said.

"Yeah, I know you are," Will said. "Where are we going, exactly?"

"Uh," Julia said. "That's an excellent question." They were headed away from town but in no direction in particular.

"Just keep driving until you hit another town," Will suggested. "We can find an ice cream place or something." After a moment, Will asked, "Wait, why were you at my house, anyway?"

Julia sighed. "It's been a long weekend," she said.

Will looked at her. "You need to stop having exciting things happen to you," he said. "It stresses me out."

"You?" Julia said. "Imagine on what it's like being me."

"I'll pass," Will said, leaning his head back on the seat.

"Jerk," Julia shot back.

Will laughed.

Julia followed Will's advice and pulled off the road at the next town. It was small, but they soon found a nice-looking coffee place. They finally sat down after getting their drinks and a croissant to share.

"So, what happened on this big exciting weekend?" Will asked.

Julia ripped off a piece of the croissant. "There was a fire at the general store," she began.

Will nodded. "Yeah, I heard about that. The whole place was practically destroyed." A look of concern spread across his face. "Wait, your uncle wasn't there, was he?"

Julia nodded.

"Jesus," Will said.

"Yeah," Julia said. "A police officer came and brought me to the hospital. He's fine, he's home now, but I was just so scared."

"You could have called me," Will said.

"I know," Julia said. "It's not that I purposely didn't call you. I just didn't think to. I just wanted to talk to my uncle."

Will nodded. "I understand," he said. "But he's okay?"

Julia nodded. "Yeah, he's fine," she said. "I've been with him all day."

Will shook his head. "Well, that puts my weekend in perspective," he said. "Any other earthshattering things happen since the last time I saw you."

"College," Julia said.

"College," Will repeated solemnly. "You first."

"Cornell is a no go," Julia said, "but honestly I didn't expect to get into that one. But UCLA and NYU, they both accepted me."

Will smiled. "That's incredible," he said.

"Thanks," Julia said. "What about you?"

Will's smile faded. "That's what that was all about," he said.

"Your parents?" Julia asked.

Will nodded. "I got into Georgetown," he said. "But I also got into Cornell."

"Will, that's amazing," Julia said.

"Yeah, except I told them I want to go to Cornell," Will said. "And they want me to go to Georgetown. They both went there," he explained. "And both of my grandfathers' went there. But I just can't get excited about it. And then I told them I didn't want to play soccer for the school, wherever I end up. And that didn't exactly like that; they didn't like it at all. They've always liked having a son who's an academic and sports star." His voice increased with bitterness.

"I'm sure they're doing what they think is best," Julia said. "But I agree, that really sucks. You should go where you want to go."

"I don't even know if they'd pay for it if I did that," Will said.

"I'm sorry," Julia said softly.

Will shook his head. "Not your fault," he said. "And just being able to talk to you about it helps. Really, it does." He drained his coffee. "I should probably get back," he said. "The longer they stew about it the worse it'll be when I do get home. But thanks for the break."

"Anytime," Julia said. She finished off her coffee and the croissant and the pair got up and headed back to the car.

As they approached the car, Julia stopped. Her head was spinning.

Will turned to her. "What's up?" he asked.

Julia leaned against the car. "I was just thinking about something my uncle said in the hospital," she began slowly. "And it's part of the reason why I came to see you." She paused. "See, the thing is, I was terrible to Rory," she explained. "He was always so kind to me and did everything for me, and all I did was push him away and criticize him for what he did. Which, I know, is a bit of a character flaw with me," Julia said with a laugh. "But he told me that with people you love, you love them even if they can't see it. And when the time comes, they'll have the love open to them to return. And I know you don't this emotional bullshit, but I love you as a friend." Julia looked him straight in the eyes. "But I like you as more than that. I'm sorry I couldn't admit that before."

Will was silent, he only stared at her.

"Please say something," Julia said.

The corners of Will's mouth twitched up. He shook his head. "No," he said. He closed the distance between the two of them, tilted her chin up and gently kissed her. Julia couldn't help it, she smiled against his lips. Will responded to that be deepening the kiss and smiling himself. Julia had her hands on his waist when they broke apart, and he leaned his forehead against hers.

"Can we talk about that one?" Will asked.

Julia laughed. "Yeah," she said. "We can talk about all of them." She kissed him again.

Julia backed away from him and headed to the driver's side of the car. Will, with a gleam in his eyes that Julia had never seen before, got in the car as well. He held her hand the entire ride back to Redwater.

As Julia dropped his off at his house, she asked, "Are you going to be okay?"

"You know Jules," Will said, "I don't think there's anything that could bring me down right now." He leaned over and kissed her. "I love being able to do that."

Julia smiled. "Yeah me too."

Will straightened back up. "Do you like M&Ms or Skittles?"

"What?" Julia asked.

"If we're going to the movies, I have to know what kind of candy to get," Will explained.

"Is that your way of asking me out on a real date?" Julia asked.

"Maybe," Will said.

"Right," Julia said. "Well, since you couldn't be bothered to ask the actual preference, I expect to have both there."

"I knew there was a reason I liked you," Will said. He kissed her hand and then got out of the car. "I'll see you tomorrow, Jules."

"See you soon," Julia said and Will slammed the car door.

Driving down back to her house, Julia couldn't keep the smile off of her face.