Chapter Twenty-Three: Norfolk

Three weeks later

I used one of my kitchen knives to slash the boxes that littered my apartment. The clutter was annoying, but that's pretty typical of moving.

Yes, moving. I left San Diego, flew back to Ohio, and packed up my things there. Stupid? Rash? Maybe. But it felt right—I was in Norfolk now. I got an apartment pretty near the base, but not far from other things too. For example, I had a job with a Red Cross branch. After my, uh, experience in San Diego, the organization thought it best to transfer me. Of course, there was all this press about a Red Cross worker who saved a boy from the fires. I managed to stay out of photos, etc., but the Red Cross was spreading the story around to any print or broadcast source. They figured it promoted donations and volunteers.

Far be it for me to complain. I still had a job.

I set the broken-down boxes against the door in a neat stack. Two days I'd been at this already. My eye caught a vase on my coffee table. I had some fruit in the kitchen, and I thought I'd put it in the vase. Kind of a natural decoration.

I got back to the boxes. I had a pile of old newspaper too—handy packing paper. My eyes went to one of the smeared headlines. It was about Africa. More unrest in Nigeria. It was often buried in the paper, never front-page news, but there was a story every few days about it.

A knock on my door made me abandon both box and paper.

"Come in!"

The door opened. I forgot about the boxes leaning against it, so when the door opened, they fell over, and then essentially blocked the door from opening any wider.

"Uh, little help?" I heard. I grinned. I kicked the boxes back and in stepped Lake. He glanced at the boxes on the floor and then at me. "Great organizational skills."

I couldn't help but smile. "It was organized. You messed it up." My, he looked good. I could tell he'd cleaned up after a day at work. He tended to train with the others when they had an easy day. His hair was still wet now, and I could smell the fresh scent of his cologne. I loved that he wore cologne; not sure why. Maybe it was that it seemed kind of anti-SEAL, but that gentlemanly habit in a man so rugged just got my heart racing.

"Love what you've done with the place," he said, looking at my unpacked belongings. They were strewn everywhere and in no particular arrangement that made any sense. I knew he was teasing me. I had barstools stacked on the couch.

"Nice, huh?"

He grinned. His eyes were light; he was enjoying this, this normalcy, as much as I was. I turned to put the kitchen knife away. I let it slip into its slot on the knife block when I felt Lake's arms around my waist. He turned me so we faced each other.

"I'm really glad you're here."

I stood up on my toes and kissed him chastely on his lips. "Me too."

"You ready?" he asked. I glanced down at what I was wearing. Jeans, t-shirt, my hair back in a ponytail. Glamorous.

"Five minutes?"

Ten minutes later, we headed to Red's place. Like Lake's, it screamed bachelor who's hardly around much. But there were food, drinks, and places for people to sit. The team was hanging out for a football game on TV.

Now, I thought I knew enough about football, but Lake, Red, LT, Zee and Doc were throwing out strategy and terms that I'd never heard of. I found myself slinking back into the cushions of Red's couch.

Lena plopped down next to me—yeah, she was still around. I guess she and LT were a couple now.

"What is a down?" she asked. I blinked; somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the answer . . .

On my other side, Lake snickered. I elbowed him in the ribs. Beside him, Red chuckled.

"Serves you right," he said to Lake. He glanced past him and looked to me. "Jane, if you ever change your mind about him, I'm still here."

Lake glared at him. I saw LT and Zee exchanging looks, amused. "Stop propositioning my girlfriend," Lake said.

"Big word," Doc muttered. "Didn't know you knew anything over three syllables."

I couldn't help but laugh. I had a feeling this was how things went when the team got together to relax. Lake put his arm around me, still scowling but not really in a bad mood.

"I still don't know what a down is," Lena piped up.

"A down is—" Zee began.

"Wait, wait!" Lake stopped him. "I want to see if Jane knows." Everyone turned their eyes on me. I cleared my throat.

"Well, there are four of them," I started. I snuck a glance at the TV. I knew this! Or so I thought—maybe I just didn't have the big picture about football and how it all worked.

"'Them' meaning what?" Red prompted. I glared at him. As much as he and Lake teased each other, they were merciless when they teamed up against me.

"A play?" I said. My voice wavered. "Like, four chances to . . ."

"To?" Lake urged. I held my breath.

"To score a touchdown?"

A collective groan went through the men.

"So close," LT said. Lena shot him a look. Red patted me on the back on his way to restock barbeque chips from the kitchen.

"Nice try, Jane."

I looked to Lake. "What is it then?"

"It's four chances to move your team's position ten yards ahead. Each time you make it those ten yards or more, you reset the downs, and have four more tries. If you don't make it in four tries, you have to punt the ball, so possession goes to the other team."

I blinked. I glanced at Lena. She looked as lost as me.

"Thanks."

Red laughed in the background.

I got up later as the boys (yes, might as well call them what they were) were arguing over a bad call by the referees. I searched Red's fridge for a soda. Amazingly enough, the fridge was stocked with fruits, veggies, some meat and bread. I didn't expect that. Towards the back I spotted a lone Sprite. I grabbed it.

As I shut the fridge, Lake was suddenly next to me.

"Geez," I gasped. "Warn me next time." He grinned and took the Sprite from me. He opened the can and poured it in a glass with ice. It was kind of cute, him doing that. He held up the glass for me, and I took it and sipped a little.

"Having fun?" he asked. I gave him a glare.

"I was, until I figured out I don't understand football," I said. He smiled and put his arms around me, facing me.

"I was just teasing."

We both knew it. I opened my mouth to say—

Lake's mouth descended on mine. He gently kissed me, and then nipped at my bottom lip. I smiled and kissed him back. My eyes closed automatically as he kissed me thoroughly.

The noise from the guys and the game was even, but I opened my eyes. Red saw us. He looked away casually, but I saw something in his expression. I pulled back from Lake.

Lake shot me a questioning look. I looked to Red again. Though he joked about it, I knew Red was somewhat serious about, well, me. It wasn't a challenge to Lake; it was honestly how he felt. He really did like me. Lake followed my gaze. His jaw hardened.

"Is he bothering you?" he asked defensively. I blinked and leaned back at his tone.

"No," I said, hopefully not too quickly, "and don't act so hostile to him."

"I'm not—"

"You guys are friends and team members, not competitors," I pointed out.

"Until he makes a play for you," Lake grumbled. I sighed.

"Lake, he hasn't done a thing," I said. Lake thought about that. Slowly, he nodded in agreement. He leaned down to kiss me, but I moved back. "And don't do that."

"What?"

I smirked at him. "You're rubbing it in his face, and you know it." Lake sighed. He settled on giving me a peck on my forehead.

"How's that?" He smiled tightly, kind of his own defensive smirk. It made his dimples show. Actually, I think that's the first time I really noticed he had dimples. When he was being playful or teasing, they really showed. I couldn't help myself; I kissed him back, quick but not the most chaste kiss. It was delightful.

He grinned happily. Dang, I knew I liked him, but I think I was falling in love with him, hard.

From the couch, an electronic beep started. LT groaned. He pulled out a beeper from his pocket. I'm surprised he had a beeper—I figured a cell phone would be just as effective.

He examined the message or number on it. He frowned, and all the guys watched him carefully.

"You're all about to get paged," he said. Only two seconds passed before each of the guys' beepers went off. Lake pulled his from his pocket. One glance, and he turned it off and shoved it back in his jeans.

I waited for him to tell me what was going on—this was new to me. But he glanced at the others, all of whom were on their feet and packing up. Doc was already out the door.

Lake grabbed my hand. He offered a quick, tight smile. "We gotta go."

I knew 'we' didn't include me. He meant him and the team. I glanced at Lena, who was trailing after LT. She looked confused, but I think we both knew this was a mission. I didn't like it.

Red disappeared into his room, and came back with a ready duffle bag. He glanced at Lake.

"You have to run home," he said. Lake nodded.

"Yeah."

"Want me to drop her off?" Red offered, referring to me. Lake glanced at his watch. He frowned again.

"Yeah." I blinked. He couldn't drop me off? Lake grabbed my hands and gave them a reassuring squeeze. "Sorry. Short on time." I stared at him.

"What's going on?" I asked. He just smiled. He couldn't tell me. "When will you be back?"

Lake shook his head. "Not sure." He was tense, on high-alert. I could feel the excitement in him, the anticipation, but it was controlled. He was a SEAL, after all. He didn't kiss me, maybe because Red was waiting behind us. But he hugged me tight.

"See you soon," he whispered in my ear, and with that, he left. I watched him go, out Red's front door, and into his jeep, speeding off into the dark.

I turned to Red. He smiled sadly, understandingly.

"Come on," he said. "I'll drop you off on my way in."

I had a dozen questions about all this, but I kept them inside. This was a side I hadn't really considered. I'd seen Lake and the rest of the team on a mission. But I didn't think about them returning to obscure areas for more action. I didn't think that I wouldn't go with them.

Of course I wouldn't go with them. But knowing I would be far away and out of the loop about what was happening made me feel ill. If anything happened, how long would it take for someone to tell me?

Red kept looking at me. I think he could tell I was upset by this—not angry, but upset still. The guys all knew this was coming, or at least they weren't fazed by it at all. Maybe this was all normal to them. They were ready for it, excited for it. I couldn't understand how or why.

Red stopped outside my apartment. He waited for me to get out.

"Jane?" Even Red was eager to go. I just nodded and got out. As I went to shut the door, I stopped.

"Red," I started. He was about to shift into reverse, but stopped. "Be careful. And watch out for Lake."

I wondered if that request would hurt him. I wasn't trying to rub in my concern for Lake. He smiled though, and in his eyes I saw he wasn't offended. Genuine care shined back in his eyes.

"I will." He shifted the gear in reverse. "We'll be back, Jane."

I tried to smile as he pulled out and left. I gave a wave in his direction in case he looked in the rear-view mirror. Then I went inside my apartment. I sat on my couch, my hands resting on my kneecaps. After ten minutes of trying not to think about where Lake was going or when he'd be back or what could happen, I started putting away more of my things, unpacking.

It helped.

-0-0-0-

Work at the Red Cross branch was more administrative than I wanted. Desk work, paper-pushing, phone calls—all important, I guess, but I think I got used to my limited time in San Diego with being more hands-on. Even in Nigeria, I physically helped, or tried with those few skills I had. I just didn't feel like I was making a difference in an office setting.

My interest was piqued by the operations that worked in conjunction with the military. That was actually kind of neat. Part of me wondered if I could ever go with the military, part of the Red Cross team to provide relief in war-torn areas, or wherever. It made me think of the team. I'd never really be able to work alongside them. They were the first ones in—or last ones out.

Four days passed quickly enough when I was at work, but the nights were brutal. I cleaned up my apartment and finished setting up everything as I liked it. I told myself to go out, meet new people. Coworkers at the office were actually pretty nice, but I wasn't interested in getting to know them more yet.

I liked Lake a lot. I was starting to love him, I think. But this was torture, waiting for him to come back. I didn't want that. I didn't want anyone else either. Every other guy I'd dated was nothing compared to Lake. His strength and intensity were incredibly sexy; his fierceness in wanting to protect me made my heart race. His calmness and ability to react in danger made me admire him. And, I had to admit, his desire to serve and fight made me respect him too. There was courage in Lake that I'd only ever seen in movies.

I swallowed, my throat swelling up with my emotions. I missed him. My hands swiped at my eyes. I changed into my PJs and went to bed.

-0-0-0-

The weekend was worse; no work. I went shopping. My eyes felt dry from the dust at the stores and all the clothes lint. The patterns of the clothes blended together dizzily. My feet felt heavier as I trudged through the local mall.

I tried to cheer myself up and calm my concerns by picking out a shirt for Lake. Funny enough, everything I saw at American Eagle, Eddie Bauer, Aeropostale, Express, and so on just looked too ridiculously preppy for him. The eternal surfer look from some of those stores didn't work either. I just couldn't see him in any of the things.

I smirked at the Hot Topic store. Maybe that would work. Lake wasn't a goth or grunge guy, but I didn't worry about the preppy look here. Of course, nothing caught my fancy here either. I nodded at the cashier who had a nose ring the size of a quarter at the septum. Lovely.

Of all places, I stopped at GAP, and found a light, light blue button-down shirt. It was kind of a rugged, explorer style. I glanced up at a poster of Wentworth Miller in the same shirt. Hmm. Slowly, I smiled. Lake would look better.

Dinner was a solitary affair, made up of a pita pizza I made. Yum. Not really—it tasted like cardboard. I chucked the pita out, and splurged with a call to Papa John's.

Forty minutes later, I stared at the TV with a slice in hand. The news came on—it was 11 pm already. The local stories weren't any different than I was used to in Ohio or San Diego. I flipped the TV to some movie on cable. Another hour, and I'd get ready for bed.

But my phone rang. I frowned. My parents usually called on Sundays. It was still Saturday, for another half hour.

"Hello?"

There was a long pause before I heard a response. "Hey."

My heart fluttered, and I nearly gasped. "Lake!"

I was on my feet, pacing. I heard him chuckle.

"Miss me?"

"Where are you?" I asked. "Are you all right? Is everyone okay?" I heard more laughter.

"Jane, chill," he said. I rolled my eyes. Easy for him to say. "We're all fine. Just got in."

I grinned. "You're back?" I started looking around for my shoes.

"Yeah."

"Can I come see you?" I asked. Frankly, I don't know if I'd take no for an answer.

"It's late," Lake said. I rolled my eyes again.

"I don't care if it's late!" I found my shoes and threw them on. My keys were on the table. I grabbed them and went to the door.

Standing right outside was Lake, on his cell phone. He smiled teasingly, his dimples showing. I chucked my phone over my shoulder and hugged him tight against me. He chuckled as I held him. His breath was warm and comforting against my neck.

"I missed you too," he said.

Once inside, I took a second to look him over. He looked so tired. His eyes were heavy, and dark circles gave away the fact he probably hadn't slept in awhile. He was clean, but his clothes looked wrinkled—probably pulled straight from his own duffle bag.

I moved around to get him a drink. "You hungry?" I had leftover pizza. Lake shook his head. I handed him the glass. He took it with his left hand. It seemed odd. He was right-handed.

That's when I noticed he was resting his right arm against his body, a little more tender with it than normal. He saw my eyes surveying him.

"It's nothing," he said. "Just a scratch." He smiled proudly. I wondered what happened. He sat down on the couch and shut his eyes briefly with a sigh.

"When did you sleep last?" I asked. He cracked his eyes open and just smiled. "That's what I thought."

"It's worth it," he mumbled. I sat on the edge of the couch, watching him.

"I can't ask you about anything, can I?"

He didn't answer. I settled by him and put my arm around him. I traced his face with my fingertips, just lightly brushing them over his skin. I felt him relax against me. After a few minutes, I heard his breathing deepen.

I watched him as he slept, wondering where he'd gone, what he'd done. I imagined him running through a jungle, leading the others to their mission, whatever it was. Given his 'scratch,' I saw him in combat with men whose faces I couldn't imagine. Obviously, Lake and the team were victorious. I wonder if he really was mildly injured or if he was just humoring me.

Lightly, I ran my hand over his right arm. He didn't stir. I felt bunched-up fabric beneath the shirt. Gauze. I moved my hand away. Was it a bullet? A knife? Shrapnel from a bomb?

I closed my eyes, musing at how ridiculous such a thought was. Four months ago, I'd never think about that.

As the clock in my kitchen ticked through the night, I watched Lake sleep against me. The last few days were awful for me, but I was so glad to have Lake back. I figured going forward, as long as he came back, I couldn't be mad at him. I smiled at my flawed logic, but didn't think beyond the possibilities. I rested my head against the couch, nearly touching Lake's head with my own, and slowly, I succumb to the peace and relief I felt.

-0-0-0-

Bacon. I definitely smelled bacon. I opened my eyes, and felt that I was alone on the couch. Lake was in the kitchen, over a pan of said bacon.

"Morning," he said, glancing my way. I smiled.

"I thought you'd sleep longer." I sat up and straightened out my hair, which who knows how that looked. "You were pretty worn out."

He shrugged. "I slept well." He flashed me a smile. Could the man be any more attractive? Remembering my shopping excursion yesterday, I pictured him in the blue shirt I bought. Today, I felt he could wear anything and look sexy.

I got up and grabbed the shirt from the bag in my room.

"What's that?" Lake asked. I smiled like a Cheshire cat.

"Something I thought you might like." I went over to him and held it up beneath his chin. He stood like a mannequin for me to judge properly. I looked to his eyes.

"It brings out your eyes," I said aloud, more to myself than anything.

"My eyes are green."

"Still makes them stand out," I said. I set the shirt on the counter, and turning back, Lake wrapped me in his arms, hugging me. I love that strength there. There's something about Lake that made me feel so safe, so . . . like a woman? I nearly laughed at myself. But everything about him was Man, and I was his.

Maybe I needed more sleep.

"Breakfast's almost ready," he said, kissing me.

"Thanks." I got some juice from the fridge. I turned on the TV, figuring a little background noise never hurt. I flipped around till I found some news, and then turned back to get out some plates.

I didn't really pay attention until I heard "Arthur Azuka."

The news anchor's image cut to footage in Nigeria, and sure enough, Arthur Azuka was standing there.

"Azuka is taking what many call his rightful place as the leader of Nigeria, after a coup by General Yakubu. Yakubu's assassination less than 48 hours ago sent the country into frenzied disarray, but Azuka and troops loyal to him have already established peaceful control."

Lake's movement over the stove stilled. I watched him carefully as the anchor continued.

"Yakubu's assassination is blamed on an internal dispute orchestrated by Colonel Idris Sadick, who in the course of the chaos, also died. While unexpected, UN leaders are expressing new hope for stability in the war-torn region—"

I think the news moved onto something else, but I tuned it out. There was more to what had happened. I knew first-hand that was always the case. If not, it certainly was convenient that Sadick assassinated Yakubu, and then died afterwards. I looked down at the counter top, smiling to myself. When I looked back up, Lake met my gaze.

I raised the pitcher of juice. "Want some?"

It took him a second to figure out I wasn't going to say anymore. He chuckled to himself, and then nodded.

"Thanks."

Nothing else had to be said. Besides, there were more important things ahead for us.

The End

-0-0-0-

a/n: And finally, after taking entirely too long to post this, there it is! Thanks so much to everyone for reading, reviewing, and enduring my often flawed efforts throughout this story. Hopefully it was enjoyable, and hopefully it didn't seem too much like everything else I've written. I re-read something I wrote recently and realized the similarities in my various stories—unintentional, but I guess I have a certain genre I prefer. :o) Anyway, thanks again!