"I know I'm kinda strange to you sometimes/don't always say what's on my mind/you know that I've been hurt by some guy/but I don't want to mess up this time/and I really really really care/and I really really really want you/and I think I'm kinda scared/cuz I don't want to lose you/if you really really really care/then maybe you can hang through/I hope you understand/it's nothing to you/my heart's at a low/I'm so much to manage/I think you should know that/I've been damaged/I'm falling in love/there's one disadvantage/I think you should know that I've been damaged. - "Damaged" ~ TLC

~*~

The past. It was several hundred miles away now, even though it had paved the road west. I decided that now I was really going to let it go. I was going to have a great time with Riley. And I was going to start talking to him. I wouldn't hold anything back anymore. I owed him that. I was going to go out of my way to make sure he had an awesome time while we were in California to make up for all the damage I had done. That would take a lot of work on my part, but I was finally up to it.

We were closing in on Los Angeles now. I could tell by the heavy traffic. I was actually excited. This was California and I was starting over.

"Riley?"

"Yeah?"

"I just wanted to say that I am sorry for everything. And I know I haven't been very much fun to be around for the past few days. So I'm going to be better so we can both have a good time here."

Riley didn't say anything for a minute. "I just wanted to do this so you could get away from everything. We always said that we would head out to the west coast someday."

I smiled. "Yeah, we said a lot of crazy things back in those days. I believe that was when you still wanted to grow up to be a penguin."

That elicited a laugh from him. "Everything seemed so much less complicated."

"Too true. Sometimes I wish we could go back to the days when everything still made sense."

"I know," Riley said, "But we have to make the best out of the present."

"I think you are right. That's why I am going to stop living in the past."

We were thrown into silence once more, but this was not the hanging static anger that had been between us since we left. It was a companionable, thoughtful silence, a time when words weren't really necessary to carry on the conversation.

"We have to make a quick stop at the airport," Riley said after a while.

"What? Why?"

"I don't know," Riley said with the mischievous smile of someone who was trying (and failing) to hide a secret. But he wouldn't say anything else, so I was just going to have to wait and find out.

After what seemed like a long time, we finally found a parking space, and went in through the sliding glass doors. Not long after, I picked out a very familiar girl with black hair from the large crowd. She was carrying a few over stuffed bags with her.

"Samara! What are you doing here?" I said in ecstatic disbelief.

She smiled. "Are you surprised?"

"Yes, very!"

She hugged me like it had been months since we had seen each other. In a way, it had because I had been dragging the past around with me, and there was too much of it to fit in my bags.

"I didn't want to make the drive out here. You know how I get carsick sometimes, especially the way Riley drives!"

"Hey, that's not very nice," Riley said, pretending to be hurt. "Are you ready?"

"Yeah, let's go," Samara said. We each took one of her bags and dragged it to the car where we had trouble smashing them into the already packed trunk.

We got back on the expressway, only to be stuck in standstill traffic again. The three of us talked and laughed. It was good to have Samara with us. She told me that we were going to be staying at her aunt's vacation home.

I was relieved when we finally got to the small house that afternoon. I would be thrilled if we didn't drive anywhere for a while. The place was pretty nice, and it wasn't far from the beach. I loved how there was palm trees and flowering shrubs everywhere rather than the monotonous, normal trees of the Illinois suburb where I lived. I was going to like this place. I loved how it was out of the city so the air smelled fresh, like the ocean mingled with tropical flowers.

Samara and I were sharing one of the bedrooms, and Riley had the other one all to himself. We unpacked. Samara took everything out of her suitcases and refolded it or hung it up. I just dumped all of my clothes into my drawers. I wasn't organized enough to fold anything in the first place. I didn't want to waste time worrying about that kind of thing. Samara scowled at me.

"I guess this is why they say you can't share a room with your best friend."

"Yeah, well, we are going to have to adapt," I said as I tossed the last of my clothes into the drawer.

"Just try not to make too much of a mess, all right?" Samara said.

I knew that Samara and I would most likely get into a fight over the state of the room before the day was over, but we would get through it. We had survived everything else that life had thrown at us, and come out of it still as friends. I realized then that Samara and Riley were the two people I would always have with me.

We spent the next few days just relaxing and hanging out around the house. Riley needed to rest after the long cross-country drive. Then we spent a few days driving around and sightseeing. Apparently, that is what you do in LA.

One evening a few weeks after we had arrived, I decided to walk down to the beach. It was close to sunset, and the weather had cooled off a little. Samara was hanging out with some of the new people we had met, so Riley decided to come with me.

The glowing tangerine sun was sinking into the blue ocean, setting the waves on the horizon on fire. The soft wet sand felt good between my toes. The simple beauty of the scene took my breath away. When I was younger, I had always imagined that I would see something this beautiful with the man I loved.

I don't know what it was that night. Maybe it was the warm California air, or maybe it had been culminating between Riley and I throughout the whole drive west. Or maybe even longer than that. I think subconsciously I had known it existed all along, but I had done my best to push it out of my mind.

But I could ignore it no longer when I looked into Riley's blue-green eyes then, and I saw something new. Maybe my own eyes had been clouded for too long, and I had done my best not to meet his eyes over the course of the drive out here. Either way, I was shocked. We just kind of stared at each other for a minute, and it was like the rest of the world didn't exist.

"Riley." I had to say something.

"Shh."

He took a step toward me, and suddenly we were kissing. His lips felt so familiar to me, even though I had only kissed him a few times during our dating experiment, but it had been nothing like this. Back then we had been awkward and unsure of ourselves. A lot had changed in five years. Now it felt perfectly right, as if it was rehearsed. There were chills running up my spine. I had never felt like that from kissing anyone before. Was it because the way we felt about each other had definitely changed?

We broke apart after a while and stared at each other some more.

"I love you," he said so quietly that I almost didn't hear him over the crashing of the waves behind us.

"I think I love you too."

"You think?" he said with a smile, but at the same time, he looked hurt.

"I do," I said, "It was never a question of not loving you one way or the other. But this is so confusing. Whatever happened to us just being friends?"

Riley sighed. "Do you want to walk down the beach?"

"Sure. It's going to be a beautiful night."

I watched as some people rode the waves on surfboards. It was an art I longed to perfect. Our friend Jamie was starting to teach me.

"You know how we tried to go out before we decided that it would be best if we were just friends?" he asked.

"Yeah, of course."

"Well, at first that was what I thought. But I realized that I do have feelings for you, and I can't make them go away," Riley said.

"That was exactly how I felt too. I didn't want to lose you as my best friend. What are we going to do now? I don't want things to get weird."

"I don't know. Do you want to give it another try? Things are definitely different now. It could work out."

"And if it doesn't, we are going to have to go our separate ways at the end of the summer," I said, a bit pessimistically. I always had to point out something like that.

"I want this to work out," he said, "You have had enough bad relationships. I don't want this to be another one."

"I agree. Best friends, best relationship, right?"

"All we can do is try," Riley said.

We kissed again, and somehow I knew things were going to work out between us. It seemed like it was meant to be from the start. I had been through so much in the past year that it was great to finally have the chance to be happy. I was pretty sure I loved Riley in a romantic sense. I had always loved him as a friend. We had all summer to be together. We could figure things out when we had to.

He took my hand and we walked back toward the house, our toes still in the sand. Over the course of my senior year, it seemed like I made all the wrong decisions, and I paid dearly for all of those bad choices, But now all of that was behind me, and nothing in my life had ever felt so right.

I had already known Riley for most of my life, and he was the one who was holding me together like duct tape. I didn't know where I would be without him. I he was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, even if we were just friends. I always wanted to be near him. We would make this work either way.

"I love you," I told him again just so he really knew.

He smiled and we walked toward the street. Everything was going to be all right.

Author's Note~ And that is the end! Finally, after over a year of writing this story, I have finished it. I'm sorry, it just feels good to finish a story that you have been working on for a long time. I would like to thank everyone for reviewing. Your support has been wonderful.