To put it frankly, the next day sucked. I woke up exhausted after only a few hours of sleep since Cam and I had tried to make the night before last as long as possible. Kate, God bless her, had woken up before either of us and had prepared an enormous breakfast that she basically force fed me in the kindest way possible, despite the fact that I just wasn't hungry. Given what today was, I doubted I was going to have much of an appetite at all throughout the day.
Once I'd finally managed to choke down enough to satisfy her, it was time to go take a shower and get my bag packed up. Just as I finished folding my last tank top and was glancing around Cam's room to make sure that I hadn't missed anything, Cam poked his head in the door and announced, "Hey, Jake's here to say goodbye."
I took a deep breath and then turned to face him with a shaky smile, and answered, "Ok, I'll be down in just a second."
Knowing me as he did, Cam could tell instantly that I was upset so instead of heading back downstairs he crossed the room and wrapped his long arms around me, pulling me into his chest. I took another deep breath, inhaling his scent, and calmed myself. It was going to be an unbearably long day if I lost control of my emotions already.
After a moment, he pulled away and held me at arm's length to look me in the eye, "Better?"
I gave him the best smile that I could muster and replied, "As good as I'm going to be, I think."
"Well, I can't ask for anything better than that," he said, grabbing my bag off the bed and taking my hand in his free one. "Come on, we shouldn't keep Jake waiting or God only knows what he'll get up to."
I laughed at that, knowing the truth in the statement. "Touché, my friend."
We found Jake waiting in the kitchen, saying something that was making Kate laugh quite loudly, and finishing what I hadn't eaten at breakfast. Rolling my eyes, I untangled my fingers from Cam's and snuck up behind him before throwing my arms around him and exclaiming, "JAKE!"
He jumped about a foot, having been too absorbed in whatever story he was regaling Kate with to have heard us enter the kitchen. Once he processed what I'd done, he commented, "You know, that's not really the way to treat the guy who comes bearing gifts."
"Gifts? Really? Did your mom pick it out?" I shot back. I knew for a fact that Jake's mother had taken quite a liking to me last Christmas and always had something for Jake to pass along to me when I was in town.
"I'll have you know, missy, that I helped. It's like you think I have no heart or something, kind of makes me wonder why I even bother being friends with you," Jake replied, feigning a hurt look.
I giggled, appreciating Jake's constant joking. If there was one thing that could make me laugh, it was Jake and his shenanigans. "Alright, you win, you know I love you."
Jake grinned widely, and glanced at Cam, "Did you hear that buddy? Looks like you might have a little competition!"
Cam rolled his eyes at Jake and I laughed once more. "In your dreams, man," Cam answered.
"Yeah, well, a man can hope, can't he?" Jake replied with a big wink in my direction. Then he handed me a big package that had been sitting on the floor near his feet, "Anyway, I know that you guys have to get going soon, so here you are, Miss Lochte."
I took it from his and asked, "Should I open it now or later?"
"Now, of course."
Setting the box on the table, I opened it carefully and smiled at what was inside, knowing that this had been mostly Mrs. Newman. Among other things, a large canister of hot cocoa powder, several types of homemade cookies, and a couple of cute head bands showed that Jake had had very little involvement in this package. At the bottom of the box, however, was a large copy of Jake's senior picture with a letter taped to the back of it, which I help up to him with a quizzical look on my face. "Honestly?" I questioned.
"I told you I helped! That's for when you miss me. I think of everything, can't you tell?" he replied, somehow maintaining a straight face. "I'm expecting a copy of yours when they come in, you know. It would be quite rude of you not to send me one!"
Placing the picture and letter back in the box, I lightly punched his arm. Smiling broadly at his successful stunt, Jake decided to forego revenge for the punch and instead wrapped his arms around me, lifting me off the ground and squeezing me tight. I couldn't help but let out a small squeal of surprise but laughed loudly once the shock wore off. "I forgot that you're in the habit of doing that now that you're not in a wheel chair or on crutches!" I exclaimed as set me down.
"Which means I have lots of missed opportunities to make up for, my dear," he answered with a large smirk. Checking his watch, however, his smile drooped a little as he pointed out, "I guess it's about that time, isn't it?"
I sighed, knowing that it was about that time even though I wished it weren't. "Kei, baby, he's right," Cam agreed gently.
Taking a deep breath, I straightened out my posture and responded, "Yeah, you guys are right. If we don't get going, you'll be driving all night Cam."
Jake grabbed the box he had brought off the table while Cam took my bag before the four of us headed to the garage where Cam's car was waiting. Cam and Jake loaded my things into the trunk as I leaned sullenly against the side of the vehicle. Just as Cam was about to close the trunk, Kate pulled a box out of her car, calling, "Hang on, Cam, this one goes in there too."
"Kate, what is this?" I asked, curios as she handed the package over to Cam
"Oh, just a care package for you and James, dear. I don't want you to starve, you know!"
I smiled widely at her thoughtfulness and the way she treated me like her own child. "Kate, you shouldn't have. I promise I can take care of myself and you already do far more than you should for me."
Ignoring my words completely, she swept me up in a motherly embrace. "Nonsense, sweetie, you know you're part of this family now."
Instead of arguing, I just hugged her back, grateful that I at least had her if I couldn't have my own mother. "Thanks, Kate."
"You're welcome. Now, you make sure you take care of yourself, alright? And I want you to keep in touch, I want to hear from you just as much as I hear from these two hooligans, ok? Call if you need anything, anything at all. And sweetie, please make sure you eat enough, I don't want you getting too thin again or I'll move down there and feed you myself, am I understood?" she lectured as she smoothed my hair back from my face.
I nodded, "I will, I promise."
She hugged me tightly one last time and then passed me over to Jake. "Oh, Kei, what will I do without someone to throw in the lake during morning runs?" he asked, trying to keep the mood light, as always.
"Oh, Jakey, I'll miss you too!" I exclaimed as he picked me up and swung me around once more.
Once I was safely back on land, he demanded, "Behave yourself, you hear me?"
Rolling my eyes, I gave him a smirk and jibed, "I think somebody needs to take their own advice."
"Alright, alright, get out of here. I don't think I can handle any more of your cutting words in one day," he answered. I smiled at him before standing on tip toe to kiss his cheek and ruffle his hair before I ducked around him and hopped into the safety of the car while laughing.
Cam and Kate laughed also and Jake exclaimed dramatically, "I'll get you for that! You better sleep with both eyes open, Lochte!"
I shared a quick glance with Cam over the ridiculousness of Jake's words as we buckled our seat belts. Once we were both secure in our seats, he asked, "Ready?"
Knowing it didn't really matter if I was or not, I nodded my head, and with that Cam started the ignition and backed us down the driveway. With one last wave to Kate and Jake who were watching from the yard, we sped off through the now familiar neighborhood, bound for Westlane.
By the time we arrived back in Santa Rose, it was early evening so Cam pulled into Pete's parking lot for a quick dinner before he dropped me off at the dorm. We ordered as soon as we were seated, both of us having been here enough times to make a menu unnecessary. Once the waitress left to place our orders, I turned my attention to him and questioned, "Are you sure you can't stay tonight? It's going to be pretty late by the time you get home again."
By the look on his face, I could tell what the answer was going to be and immediately dropped by gaze to the plastic tabletop so as to avoid his. "Kei, baby, you know I have to. If I stay overnight, we're just going to have to say goodbye in the morning and you have morning practice and classes tomorrow and you'll just be upset all day. At least this way, you'll have some time to readjust and you'll get a fresh start in the morning."
Keeping my gaze fixed on the table as I traced patterns across it with my fingertip, I sighed heavily, but admitted, "You're right, it just sucks."
"It won't be that bad. I'll try and make it down for your first meet, and you can come visit me as soon as I get moved in, it's not too long of a drive."
"I know, but it sucks. I only got to see you for a week, and now we're getting separated again."
"Baby, this is going to be tough, but you know what? What doesn't kill us will only make us stronger, and I know this isn't going to kill us, I won't let it," he answered and he reached across the table and stopped my hand from pattern tracing as wrapped his own around it.
I smiled at his conviction, and I had to agree. I knew we were strong enough to handle this, it just wasn't going to be fun. "You're right, I'm just being dramatic I guess."
"Oh, so you aren't going to miss me then?" he asked jokingly.
With a small, half-hearted smile, I shook my head and answered, "Sorry, sweetheart, not one bit."
"Ouch, way to wound a guy's pride there, baby," he declared just as the waitress brought out our meals.
Of course, dinner seemed like it was over as soon as it started and before I knew it, Cam was parking in front of my dorm building. Trying hard to maintain my composure, I grabbed my duffel bag out of the trunk as he got the two packages for me before we made our way up to my room. James must have heard us in the hallway because he pulled open the door before I could bother fumbling with my keys. I smiled gratefully at my little brother before heading for my bedroom where I set the duffel bag on the floor near the closet. Cam placed the boxes next to the bag and we stood in silence for a moment, before Cam quietly asked, "Do you need anything else before I get going?"
Despite my efforts, I felt my face fall at his words, knowing that the time had finally arrived. "No, not really," I answered as best as I could. "I'll walk you down to the car."
He nodded, knowing better than to argue with me about going down to the parking lot, and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close while dropping a kiss to the top of my head. Reluctantly, I let him pull me out of the room and back down the stairs. Outside, the warm air that I usually loved felt sticky and harsh against my skin and the bright sunshine seemed a bit too cheery in my opinion. Coming to a stop next to his car, we stood silently for a moment.
"Will you call me when you get home?" I asked, breaking the silence.
"Kei, it's going to be late and you have to be up early in the-"
I interrupted, "Cam, please? I just want to know you get there safely."
Letting out a sigh, he nodded, "Ok, I'll call, but only for a few minutes, you need your sleep, you know."
I smiled slightly at his comment, "Yeah, I'm aware of the human need for sleep."
He chuckled lightly, "Okay, smart Alec, sorry for caring about you."
"Sorry, I know you just like to watch out for me," I answered. "And you know what? I appreciate it."
"I'm glad to hear it, because I'm not going to stop any time soon."
"Good, I'm glad," I said, kissing his cheek. "You should probably get going, though. I don't want you to drive off the road because you're too tired."
"Okay, Mom," he replied, taking his turn with the sarcasm. I just smiled as best as I could and wrapped my arms around him, squeezing him tightly. He sighed, but wrapped his arms around me and buried his face in my hair. It was a moment before either of us moved, the hot summer sun beating down on us as we stood there, but after a moment we pulled apart and with one final kiss, I watched as Cam climbed into the driver's seat of his car.
"Drive carefully! Pull over if you need a break, ok?" I called to him through the open window. "Don't forget to call me when you get there, alright?"
He smiled at my worrying, and answered, "I love you."
"I love you, too," I responded with a small wave as I watched him drive slowly out of the parking lot and down the road. Once he was out of sight, I wasn't quite sure what to do. I didn't want to go back to my room, but I was on the verge of breaking down in the middle of the parking lot, which was probably not the best idea. Noticing the lake not that far away, I trudged in that direction, deciding that I may as well sit outside for a little while.
Of course, it's kind of hard to notice anything else when you're focused on trying not to cry, which probably explains why I walked straight into someone without having registered them before. Stumbling backward from the impact, I was on the verge of falling before someone caught my wrist and pulled me upright. "Keira?"
I took a deep breath, wishing there were a way to hide the tears in my eyes and looked up to see who I needed to apologize to for crashing into them. I was surprised for a moment, before remembering that he had told me he was transferring. "Colin? I'm so sorry for running right into you." I mumbled as I dropped my gaze to the sidewalk, trying to discretely wipe at my eyes.
Seemingly ignoring my apology, Colin questioned, "Hey, are you alright? You look like you're going to cry…"
"Oh, Colin, don't pay Keira here any mind, she needs to learn how to deal with her own problems, don't you, Kei?" interrupted a sickly sweet voice that was all too familiar. I hadn't noticed her before, but Christy was standing to one side of Colin, glaring at me angrily.
Not wanting to get into an argument with her in front of Colin, who I barely knew, I hesitated before agreeing, "Uh… yeah, I guess that's something I need to work on."
Colin's eyebrows jumped at that statement but before he could say anything, Christy grabbed Colin's hand and started to pull him away as she replied, "Well, then, Colin, let's keep going, I'm sure Keira just needs a moment to pull herself together."
Simultaneously trying to blink the tears out of my eyes and grinding my teeth to keep from lashing out at her, I was still a little dumbfounded that she had managed to dig her claws into Colin so quickly. Honestly, I'd only been gone a week and my teammates were already falling victim to her trap? Things did not bode well if this was going to continue.
Deciding I just wouldn't reply to that dig, I dropped my eyes to the ground and started to walk off. When I turned to give a little wave to Colin so as not to be rude to him even if Christy had already gotten to him, he seemed to snap out of it judging by the way he yanked his hand out of Christy's grip. "Wait a second, Keira," he called to me before turning back to Christy who had a look of borderline rage marring her features.
Not really wanting to be the source of an argument between Colin and his new girlfriend, even if she was a total waste of his time, I started walking again, this time more quickly, and tried to ignore the harsh tone of Christy's voice and the angry click of her high heels on the sidewalk. Now that I was no longer distracted by Colin or Christy the tears returned to my eyes, threatening to escape at any second.
I was nearly to the lake by the time I felt a hand wrap around my wrist and gently pull me backward, forcing me to meet his hazel eyes. "Keira, what was that about? It doesn't take Dr. Phil to see that you're not alright right now."
I took him in for a moment, analyzing the way his sandy hair fell across his forehead, the strong lines of his cheekbones and jaw, and the smattering of freckles across his nose. He had seemed so kind and genuine in February and there was nothing in his appearance or demeanor now to change my mind, but if it was truly the case, what was he doing with Christy? It wasn't like I was jealous, but I didn't want her messing around with anyone on the swim team, period.
Dropping my gaze to the grass between our feet, I sniffled and swiped away a few traitorous tears as I mumbled, "Really, Colin, it's nothing. Christy's right, I just need to grow up. Honestly, you should probably go back to your… girlfriend."
"Ok, seriously, what is going on here? Even if I were single, which I'm not, I wouldn't touch that girl with a ten foot pole, she's just my roommate. And last time I checked, being upset wasn't a sign of immaturity, so will you please give me straight answer before I'm forced to drop the nice guy tactics and move onto something more effective?"
Startled, my head jerked up to see if he was telling the truth. "Oh, Colin…I'm sorry, I didn't mean to assume, I'm just a bit… biased when it comes to Christy, I guess."
"Well, that I can understand. I'm a bit biased myself, and I've only known her a week. Is she what's got you so upset?" he questioned, genuine concern written across his face.
I sighed, and answered, "No… not right now, at least. It's kind of silly, I guess, and a bit girly, but Cam just dropped me off. It's just hard, I guess. Really, I'll be fine, there's nothing to worry about."
"It's not silly at all. If it makes you feel better, I was so upset after I said goodbye to Marley that I almost drove off the road," Colin divulged with a conspiratorial smile.
Unfortunately, that didn't help me at all. My eyes widened as I exclaimed, "Oh, Colin, don't say that! Cam has a six hour drive to get home! What if he does drive off the road? I'll never forgive myself for letting him talk me out of him staying here tonight!"
"Ok, calm down, I'm sure Cam will be fine."
"You're probably right, he's a really good driver, I just need to relax," I admitted as I forced the tears back and sank down onto the grass.
"That's the spirit," he answered with a grin. "I don't suppose ice cream would make it any better? My treat."
"Oh, Colin, you don't have to do that. Besides, I'm not even hungry, I just ate," I answered, thinking of the plate of half eaten pasta I'd nibbled on at Pete's.
"Well, that's the first time I've ever had a girl turn down ice cream. Are you sure there isn't anything that will help?" he asked, a worried expression still painted across his handsome face.
"I was just going to sit here for a while, but you're welcome to stay if you don't want to go back to the ice queen, a distraction will do me some good," I replied.
"In that case, I will be the best distraction I can be," he said with a grin as he sat down on a nice sunny patch of grass next to me.
"How did practice go without me this week?" I asked, definitely not wanting to talk about Cam anymore. "What do you think of the team?"
"The guys all seem pretty great and Coach is awesome, but it was pretty obvious they missed you," he responded as he stretched his legs out in front of him and leaned back on his elbows.
"I don't believe you! I'm sure they were just fine without me," I exclaimed, flopping back on the grass to stare up at the clouds.
"No, honestly, all they ever talk about is Keira and Cam this or Keira and Jake that or you should have seen what Keira did to Adams this one time! They make you out to be quite a character."
"Well, I'm not sure that's true, but I did miss the team, they're the best. Not many teams would have accepted me as easily as they did."
"I'd rather have you than Adams any day. They told me what he did to you, and that's just plain wrong. I'm sorry that you had to go through that."
"Yeah, well, the past is the past, I guess," I answered with a shrug. "So you're living in Litchfield? My brother and I are in seventy-four and a lot of other guys from the team are in Litchfield too."
"I'm in seventy-five, looks like we're going to be neighbors," he answered with a wide smile.
"I still can't believe they stuck you with Christy, you poor boy. You're welcome to come visit my brother James and me anytime you like," I offered, knowing that rooming with Christy had to be some sort of nightmare.
He laughed and questioned, "How do you know her anyway? I thought this was her first year here."
"Unfortunately, we go way back. We went to school together back home and let's just say that we don't exactly see eye to eye."
"Yeah, she's not really my favorite person either, she's a little high maintenance not to mention clingy."
"Trust me buddy, that's just the tip of the iceberg. You'd better not let her know that we're even remotely friends or you'll be in real trouble."
"I'm not afraid of her. Besides, the way I see it, the sooner she realizes I want nothing to do with her, the better."
I laughed, "Don't say I didn't warn you."
After spending about an hour at the lake with Colin, I was in a sufficiently better mood when I returned to my room. To make things even better, James had scrounged up dinner for both of us so that we didn't have to suffer through cafeteria food. We'd chatted while I washed the dishes and then called Will and Alex to see how they were doing at orientation, and just hearing their voices and being able to have James with me made me realize that this year was going to be bearable, I wasn't going to be cut off from everyone that I loved.
Currently I was organizing my school supplies in my desk just the way I liked them. After getting off the phone with the twins, I'd packed up my gear bag and my backpack for the morning and made sure that I had clean, unwrinkled uniform to wear the next day. Consciously I knew that everything in my room was all set up and in the right place, but Cam should be calling any minute so there was no hope of me sitting still or doing something productive.
I heard James turn off the TV in the living room and then grab a bottle of water from the fridge before he appeared in my doorway. I smiled at him as I tucked a piece of hair behind my ear, "Going to bed?" I asked.
"Yeah, in a minute. Don't you have to get up early?" he asked, raising an eyebrow as I busied my hands by straightening some pencils I had lined up on my desk.
I grinned sheepishly and teased, "I'm just waiting for Cam to call, he said he would when he got home, and then I'll call it a night, alright Dad?"
"Well, don't wait too long for him to call, or you'll fall asleep while you're swimming tomorrow."
"Been there, done that," I answered, recalling several morning practices where I'd essentially had fallen asleep while swimming. "Don't worry, though, he should be calling any-," I was cut off by the sound of my ringtone, "-minute."
James rolled his eyes and said goodnight as I grabbed my phone off my night stand. "Hey, did you make it?"
"Of course I made it," he answered, his voice tired despite his easy reassurance.
"Well, I'm glad. I ran into Colin today after you left and he said that he nearly drove off the road when he said goodbye to his girlfriend, so that didn't really help me any," I babbled slightly.
"No need to worry, I'm still in one piece," he replied with a small chuckle. "Colin's there, though, huh? I take it he did end up transferring, then?"
"Yeah, and get this, he's stuck being Christy's roommate!" I exclaimed.
"That's got to suck," he agreed, yawning loudly.
"Oh, are you really tired? I shouldn't have made you call!"
"Don't worry about it, I'm good for at least a few more minutes. It's nice to hear your voice."
"I was thinking the same thing," I responded quietly, blushing even though he couldn't see me.
He was silent for a moment before asking, "First day tomorrow, big day, right?"
"It shouldn't be too bad, I think my course load is a little easier than last year. I do, however, have to meet with a guidance counselor this week to talk about college, so that'll be a blast."
"Mine wasn't too bad last year, so maybe you'll get lucky."
"Well, there's not much to discuss in my opinion."
"Kei, I don't want you to pick Stanford just because I'm here, alright? This is a really important decision, and you should make your choice based on what's going to be best for you."
"Well, the way I see it, Stanford is a phenomenal school and having you there is just a bonus, so really-,"
"Kei, just promise me you will put some serious thought and consideration into other schools, okay? I don't want you to regret this three years from now."
I groaned. He'd been giving me the same lecture all summer, and while I knew he had a point I couldn't imagine deciding to go somewhere that he wasn't. Since I didn't want to get into this tonight, I changed the subject, and declared, "My first practice is tomorrow, think I'll make a good captain?"
He sighed, knowing I'd changed the subject because I disagreed with him, but didn't bring it back up. Instead, he answered, "You know I do, just make sure you don't let anyone walk all over you and you'll be great. Besides, if anyone gives you any grief you know you just have to let Coach know and he'll take care of it."
"Yeah, I know, I just don't want to have him thinking I'm too weak to handle it or anything."
"Kei, you know he'll never think that. Honestly, I think he likes you better than anyone else, including me. Anyway, you've got most of the guys eating out of your hand, so I doubt you'll have any problems at all."
"If you say so."
"I do," he answered with another yawn. "Now, if I'm not mistaken, you need to get up in about six hours and I'm exhausted, so I think we should call it a night."
"If you say so."
He laughed lightly, "I do. You need your sleep, remember? I'll call you tomorrow afternoon when you get out of practice, I promise."
"Okay," I said, drawing out the word. Quietly, I added, "I love you."
"I love you, too, babe. Goodnight."
I hesitated for a moment before hanging up. Silently, I set the phone back on my nightstand, flicked off the light, and then pulled the covers back on my bed before climbing in. I lay there for a moment, the stillness of the night reinforcing the fact that tonight there would be no warm body sleeping next to me, snoring lightly. With one last sigh, I hugged a pillow to my chest and rolled over so that I was facing the picture of Cam and me on my nightstand. If I couldn't have him next to me, at least I would be able to see him as I fell asleep.