The surf was high but the waves were collapsing instead of breaking, so the surfing wasn't even that great, but Emmy couldn't tear herself away from the water. Oliver's bus was going to get into town in 45 minutes, and she'd wanted to get back to the dorm and change before she saw him, to wash the salt out of her hair and look good. Oliver had seen her looking beachswept (and worse) before, but that was before they'd been separated for two months. She wanted him to see her at her best.
None of that was going to happen if she didn't get out of the water and head back, but she still sat on the board, staring out to sea. Maybe if she sat there long enough, Oliver's trip wouldn't happen.
It wasn't that she didn't want to see Oliver – she did, more than anything. They talked almost every night, usually until two or three in the morning, and the sound of his voice only made her want to see him more. The separation was hard, especially coming only a few months after Oliver had started to really fit in his family, and Emmy had finally had an honest conversation with hers. So much change meant they had a ton to talk about.
San Diego had been a dream of hers for so long that she had actually dreaded driving into the city that first time, afraid that all her hopes would come tumbling down on top of her. Afraid that she had been completely unrealistic about what the city and the college could offer. Afraid that she would fail, that she'd have to slink back home and know her mother was thinking I told you so, even if she didn't say it. That was the worst thing she could think of – that the first act of her independent, adult life would be an expensive mistake. She wasn't sure she would have been able to recover.
Luckily, San Diego was amazing. It was beautiful and lush and Emmy loved it, right from the start. It didn't feel like home yet, and Emmy wasn't sure it ever would – not really – but that was okay. San Diego had everything except for the people she loved, and she'd spent the last two months exploring it by foot, by car, and on her board. She wanted to show Oliver everything, but she was still worried that he might not see it the way she did.
It was stupid, and she knew it was stupid, but: what if things were different between them? What if she was too different now? Oliver had been gone for ten years, but it hadn't changed things, so why was she so worried about two months?
Emmy kicked idly at the water and watched the tiny people on the beach, so far away they were in a different world. She took a deep breath, feeling time ticking past and knowing if she didn't leave, she would miss Oliver's bus altogether. Part of her wanted to, to delay the whole visit, but the solid fact of being late was enough to make her catch the next wave in.
She peeled off her wet suit and stood in the beach's outdoor shower stream. The showers in San Diego were much better than the ones she'd gotten used to at home, but she almost missed the familiar, bone-meltingly hard spray right in the chest. She pulled her jeans on, ignoring the way the denim clung to her damp, sandy legs.
It was too late to take a real shower, too late to change. She hated the feeling of the wet bathing suit top against her skin, but the parking lot was full and there was no place to change.
She checked her phone as she started the car – no missed calls from Oliver asking where she was (good), but no texts, either (bad). Things had gotten quiet between them, and she didn't know if Oliver was as nervous about the trip as she was, or if it was something else. Did he meet someone else? Is San Diego too far away? Are we not seeing each other enough? She couldn't stop considering the possibilities, most of them bad.
The thing was, Oliver was better. Better than he had been the first time they'd hung out and gone surfing, much better than when he'd first arrived back home, even better than the last time they'd seen each other, when he'd slowly receded in the rearview mirror, a tiny Oliver pinpricking her heart every mile of the drive. He was better, and he had new friends, friends she remembered vaguely, but knew better now, after hearing all about them from him, then she'd ever known them when she lived there. He was happy, really happy, and Emmy didn't know if she fit into that anymore.
She didn't know if Oliver wanted her to fit into that anymore.
She wasn't there. Phone calls, even Skype wasn't the same. She swallowed hard, thinking about it. There was a not-zero chance that this visit was Oliver coming to say goodbye, and she knew it was her job to let him go as gracefully as she could, again. At least this time he was able to say goodbye, if that was what he wanted.
When he got off the bus and looked around, holding his bag, and Emmy felt a jolt. He looked so familiar, like home. She'd been looking at pictures and imagining his face for so long that now it felt unreal to see him really there, in the flesh.
His eyes found her in the crowd, and he grinned, and she knew she was grinning too. "Hi," she said.
"Hi," Oliver said back, softly.
They gave each other an awkward hug, his bag getting in the way. There was a moment of silence, both of them just looking at each other, feeding on standing in the same room, breathing the same air. At least, that's what Emmy was doing, and she hoped Oliver was doing the same. Two months was too long.
"I guess we should – my car's this way," she told him, realizing that they had been standing looking at each other for longer than was normal.
When she leaned over to unlock the door for him, Oliver brushed back a piece of her still-damp hair. "How were the waves?" he asked, knowingly. The touch was quick and gentle, something a friend would do, but the warmth of his skin still shot an unexpected shiver down her spine.
"Fine," she answered, a little more gruffly than she meant to. He'd always had that power over her, physically, and sometimes it was damn inconvenient.
Oliver didn't seem to notice. "Good. I borrowed a wet suit from Theo, and I thought maybe we could go while I'm here."
Emmy blinked at him. "You hate surfing."
"You love it, though." He shrugged. "I don't want to put a dent in your practice schedule, and I really want to see the beach, since you spend so much of your time there."
Emmy tried to swallow the lump that was quickly developing in her throat. Oliver was going to do that for her. Kind, thoughtful Oliver. That much hadn't changed, at least. Emmy hoped it never would. "You sure you want to give it a second try?" She raised an eyebrow at him.
Oliver's lips curved into an easy smile. "I'm sure. I promise. When I'm terrible out there, you can just pretend you don't know me." He knocked his elbow lightly against her, and Emmy couldn't help but grin back, again. Oliver was the only person who could do that to her whenever he wanted to.
She shook her head at herself as she went around the van to let herself in.
"Oh," Oliver said, pulling open his bag as they crossed headed to the highway. "I almost forgot." He pulled a small paper bag out and reached in. "Your Dad asked me to bring you some food."
Emmy rolled her eyes. "He sent me a box last week, too. He thinks San Diego doesn't have food, apparently."
"It's sweet," Oliver said, a little wistfully.
"I know," Emmy sighed. For her parents, one box a week was showing restraint, and she knew it. The fact that they hadn't come to visit yet was a miracle, but she knew that was probably all down to her father, trying to prove that they could give her space. She appreciated it, but she missed them so much that she wished they would insist on coming, hard won independence or not. She'd never been the best at maintaining a principled stance when emotions were involved.
"And Caro asked me to give you this." It was a small white box wrapped in ribbons. "She said you should open it after I leave."
Caro hadn't mentioned anything when Emmy had talked to her the night before, but Caro had always loved surprises. It was nice to know that hadn't changed, either.
She pulled into the dorm parking lot. "I was thinking we could drop off your stuff and go grab some lunch."
"Burritos?" Oliver asked, one side of his mouth quirked up.
"We can do burritos," Emmy told him, matching his expression, "but I have to warn you that they're not as good as the ones at home. I don't want your expectations to be too high."
"Good to know." He hoisted his bag over his shoulder and followed her into the building.
She was nervous as she opened the door, trying to see the room as he might. Caro had visited three times since school had started, but it still felt like Oliver was her first real visitor that she wanted to impress. He'd known her room by heart when they had been kids, and he'd been in her room recently, but this felt different. This space was hers. Well, hers and her roommate's, but she had gone home for the weekend, leaving Emmy and Oliver alone.
Oliver dropped his bag on the other bed and wandered over to Emmy's side of the room. He set the box from Caro onto the desk and ran a finger over her books, over the picture frames she'd put up where she could see them from almost anywhere in the room. "It's you," he told her.
"I like to think so," she smiled, looking around.
"It's how I imagined it."
"Is that a compliment?"
Oliver smirked. "Of course."
She carried her clothes to the bathroom to change out of her bathing suit, feeling slightly awkward about it without being able to put her finger on why. Neither of them had really talked about what Oliver's staying in her room might mean, and Emmy had been so worried about the idea of them breaking up that she hadn't really let herself think about any other possibilities. Now she had to, and Emmy wasn't sure she wanted to add any more tension to the trip. So far, things had been almost normal, but a little odd – music played half a beat too slowly. She just hoped it got better as they got more used to being around each other again.
Emmy had found that the best place for burritos in La Jolla Village was a tiny hole in the wall place called Todo el Mundo. It was one of the places the team went when they were famished and exhausted after practice, and she wanted to show it to Oliver as much for that as for the food.
She pointed out the sights, such as they were, from the van – the thrift store where she'd found the worn wooden chair she'd brought back to the dorm, the underwater park, Seal Rock. These were the pieces of her fragile, embryonic new life, and Oliver was the first person she'd really revealed them to – even Caro and Drew hadn't seen the coast.
As anticipated, there was a line in front of Todo del Mundo, winding out the door and around the front of the restaurant to the street. They joined the end of it, brushing against each other lightly. Emmy's hand found Oliver's, and she threaded their fingers together. Oliver squeezed her fingers, and Emmy squeezed back. When she glanced over at him, Oliver was smiling, relaxed, leaning against the sunlit side of the building and watching the street.
"I was looking into the film studies program that UCSD offers," he said casually. "It's really good. Not as highly ranked as USC or anything, but…" he shrugged. "UCSD only offers it as a minor, but that would let me choose a 'real' career path as a major, so my Mom will be happy." He said it with only a touch of bitterness, and Emmy smiled. It looked like Oliver and Maureen were finally starting to fight about more normal things, things parents and high school students all over the country were fighting about. It was definitely progress.
"I didn't know you were considering coming to San Diego," she said lightly, ignoring the way her heart had started thudding in her chest.
"It's a good school, and it's close enough for me to visit a lot, but far enough away for me to be able to start over, at least a little, where no one knows me."
Emmy knew he was thinking of those first hard weeks back at school, with the milk cartons and everyone staring all the time. Even her. Of course he wanted to get away from that.
She cleared her throat. "I hate to tell you this, but if you come to UCSD then at least one person will know you."
Oliver grinner at her, squeezing her hand hard. "I know, but I trust her to keep my secret identity under wraps."
Emmy pretended to think about it. "Maybe," she said, "for a price." She pressed her lips to Oliver's, feeling his warmth, feeling his smile against her, his arms wrapping around her tightly. All her lingering doubts vanished in an instant, the solidness of having Oliver there taking them away.
They went surfing that evening, floating far enough out that the beach noise was muted as the sun fell into the sea behind them.
When a smaller wave started to swell under them, Emmy gave Oliver a playful tap on his shoulder. He gave her a quick grin before starting to paddle furiously.
She leaned back on her board and watched him ride it to the end without falling. He was still receding from her, but Emmy knew now that it didn't have to mean that he was moving away from her. They would survive whatever was thrown at them.
That was all that mattered.