Hello smiles and goodbye smiles.
He never had been able to tell the difference.
Taylor had smiled so brightly at the wedding. They'd locked eyes and she'd just looked happy. They'd danced and laughed at the reception and she'd been sweet, open and honest. Late at night, exhausted from the long day of preparations and festivities, he'd found them a quiet corner to sit and talk. They caught up on each other's lives and the little things that only best friends understand. The entire house was silent when he cupped her chin and pressed his lips to hers.
There were no prying eyes to see her push him off and hurriedly explain how she'd changed while she was away. No feet rushing away to provide privacy while she muttered that she thought he understood. No sympathetic smiles to comfort him as she rushed out of the house, telling him to say her goodbyes to the rest of the family. No awkward banter to make him forget that he'd once again mistaken endings for beginnings.
Seth and Summer had already left for their honeymoon. As much as he'd fallen into Seth's habit of talking to them and telling them nearly everything, this wasn't something he was willing to share with Kirsten and Sandy.
So on he faked a smile on Sunday (goodbye or hello, he couldn't tell) and packed up the car on Monday. Road trip, he told Sandy. Mental health break, he told Kirsten. Adventure, he told Sophie. They took the change in plans well. Like back in the old days, taking off to be there for Theresa, Seth sailing off into the sunset, they smiled and understood. Seth had moved on without him, they thought. He was finding himself, or acting out, or searching for treasure. No one knew he was fleeing another goodbye smile.
She'd always been good at hiding.
Pretty pink clothes and a sweet smile hid a grown up body and a quick mind. Fabulous friends hid a streak of shyness and a normal childhood. Wicked wit hid deep grief and an all-encompassing mission. Her new style displayed the grown up body but hid the residual shame and anger from her rape.
Catching adulterers just let her hide behind the camera in the dark.
She'd wanted to get the hell out of town since Lilly died and so many times after that. There were so many reasons to go but too many reasons to stay: school, her dad, her few remaining friends… It always came back to hiding. In Neptune, she knew where to hide.
In the end, it was just easier to stay. Even as her reasons evaporated, she stayed. But now her time was running out. School was over, everyone was going their separate ways. She had her own job offers, opportunities that would take her out of town, hell, out of the state if she wanted. She knew she'd make a decision soon. She'd pack up all her baggage (Lilly, Mom, Cassidy, Duncan, Logan, Logan, Logan) and find new places to hide it.
But not tonight.
"Uh, can you help me? I'm looking for a hotel." He'd been driving all day, meandering his way south by following every sign that seemed interesting. He'd avoided Newport, but found himself reliving those days again anyway, watching the sun sink into the Pacific and the sky burn. In the moments between daylight and darkness, he'd felt exhausted, and approached the only other person on the deserted beach to ask directions.
"Any particular hotel, or just a place to crash?" She'd spent the day with Mac and Wallace before excusing herself to say some private goodbyes. She'd gone to Lilly's grave, but it only made her feel lonely and bereft. Instead, she found her way to the beach, where, dry-eyed, she sat and watched the sunset. She'd never done that with Lilly; for all the hours they'd spent on this beach over the years, they always had better things to do than sit quietly and contemplate the sky.
"Don't say crash – I'm on a road trip and don't want to tempt fate. Any place will do. Cheap is good, but clean is better." She was blonde and cute, so he smiled. He wanted to see an answering smile.
"The Camelot's your best bet. Take a right, go past two lights, then make a left at the next lights. It's right at the corner." He was good looking in a tired sort of way. His smile was friendly though, so she smiled back.
"Thanks." He couldn't think of any way not to seem creepy, so he headed back to the car.
"Welcome." She couldn't think of any way not to seem desperate, so she stared at the ocean a while.
He walked to a coffee shop the next morning. He was a Cohen now; it didn't seem right trying to drive before coffee.
"We meet again, young Jedi."
"Hey. Thanks for the recommendation. I slept well."
"You don't look it."
"I haven't had my coffee yet, don't expect miracles."
"By the way, I'm Ryan."
"Veronica." They shook hands.
"Can I buy you a coffee in thanks?" Ryan asked.
"I thought you were on a road trip; shouldn't you be saving your pennies for gas?"
"Road trip may have just been an excuse to not stay at home with my family. I'm not sure how far I'll actually drive."
"In that case, I have no guilt about accepting your coffee."
They sat at a small, wobbly table sipping coffee silently.
Finally, he broke the tension. "So, uh… where am I?"
She laughed. "Sounds like a road trip to me."
"Hey, I figured as long as I kept the ocean on my right going there and on my left going home I'd be okay."
"Unless you were aiming for Rhode Island." His vigorous head shakes make her laugh, again. "Neptune, California."
Long silence. "Never heard of it."
"That's strange. It seems like we make the news every four months or so. Major drama."
"Having lived through major drama, that doesn't sound fun."
They kept talking through two refills.
He invited her out to dinner; she directed him to a great Italian place.
She took him to an amusement park; he made her ride the rollercoaster over and over.
They met on the beach each night to just sit and talk. They both found it easier to talk in the dark, easier to talk to a stranger. She told him about Lilly, he told her about Marissa. He told her about Chino, she told him about Shelly Pomeroy's party. She told him about Wallace and Mac, he told her about Seth and Summer. He told her about hello smiles and goodbye smiles.
She just smiled.