It was almost eleven her time when she heard the soft ring from her tablet. Veronica sat up on the couch, smoothed her hair, and smiled. She always wanted the first thing he saw to be her smile. She propped the tablet on the coffee table and accepted the call. She'd already chosen which lights to leave on in the living room. Months of these calls taught her how to position herself for the best lighting conditions. The tree cast a warm glow next to her, the white lights playing of the glittering ornaments.
"Ver'n-a?" she watched the pixels on the screen light up with a halting picture of Logan.
"I'm here," she replied, smile still plastered on. These moments of connection were often the most frustrating. As relieved and comforted as she felt upon the sound of his voice, she silently prayed to whoever was listening that the connection stabilized quickly.
When she watched his face smoothly transition from concern to a smile, she sent up a silent thanks. "Hey there, sailor," she said, her smile now genuine. "Mission accomplished?"
The lag between responses still drove her nuts after all this time. "Mission accomplished," he confirmed with a smile. "I followed orders and opened it before I came down here."
"And?" she asked, as she felt her cheeks warm. She hoped he couldn't see her color change.
She watched him lean in toward the screen. "And I am definitely going to need some alone time," he stage whispered. "Damn, those were hot!"
If he were here, his comment would have earned a playful push or nudge to the shoulder. Sometimes, it was these moments that hurt more than the empty bed at night. He seemed so close and real, but she ached with the distance.
His voice jolted her back to the conversation. "Now, I do have a question about this A.J. Nichols- he was nothing but the utmost professional, right?" She could tell he was reading the name off a corner of a picture.
"Logan! There were direct orders that those do not get seen by other eyes! What the hell are you doing with those out there?"
"Relax, bobcat. It's just the wallet shot," he turned the small picture around so she could see the image of herself in a pinup dress perched on the roof of his blue Beemer. "And trust me, I will be carrying this with me everywhere," he said with a smile, sliding it into the pocket on the front of his t-shirt. "This stays with me. Now, back to A.J."
She rolled her eyes. "Alice Jean is a friend of Mac's. She was nothing but professional."
The picture froze momentarily, preventing her from seeing his reaction. When the connection caught up, he was mid-sentence. "- get them done? Obviously a while ago, since I've been staring at that wrapping paper from the day I got here." Veronica couldn't help but glance toward the tree, where another wrapped gift lay, untouched.
"That information is classified," she responded with a grin. While it wasn't hard to get Dick to agree to a boys day out, the simplicity of the distraction was so beautiful that she didn't want to ruin it's usefulness in the future, should she need it again.
"You're killin' me, Mars," he responded, leaning back from the screen again. "Just tell me this, the outfits- you still have them right? Because I haven't had a huge amount of time to study them yet, but by the time I get back, I'm sure I'll have thought of at least a hundred ways to get each one off you. Especially that lacy black one."
Veronica tried to cover a grin. "I suppose that's on a need to know basis, Lieutenant. You'll have to see when you arrive stateside."
"When I arrive stateside, you'd better be wearing one of those outfits. Additional layers optional, but highly discouraged." She responded with an eye roll, but felt her core tingle with anticipation. She watched his gaze shift from just beyond her left ear right into her eyes. It meant he now looked directly into the camera. "God, I miss you. The gift was perfect," he said simply. She tore her eyes from his gaze to her camera lens to return the favor of simulated eye contact.
"You're welcome," she said, her voice more quiet than she'd intended.
"Show me the tree again?"
She picked up the tablet and panned it around so he could see the tree. "It's lost some of the smell," she told the back of the tablet.
"I know I've said this before, but it's been a really long time since I've lived anywhere that had a tree. I love knowing it's sitting in my living room right now." Veronica pivoted the tablet back around so she could see him.
"Our living room," she corrected.
"Our living room," he parroted after a delay. "Though I couldn't help but notice you have an unopened present under there." She knew he meant the one from him. The one that sat away from the others, gingerly placed on the red tree skirt. She found it on her dresser the morning he deployed. He'd managed to sneak it on there just before he left, so she didn't notice it until he was already gone. Since that morning, she'd studied it many times. The box was small, just larger than a ring box. At first she'd panicked. After talking with Mac and Wallace, she came to realize that the panic was not at the thought of him proposing, but the idea that he would do it from so far away. While she'd never considered herself superstitious, she worried that f it was a ring, something would happen and she'd have to open it by herself. Thankfully, her fears were assuaged by her friends. Given their confidence, she assumed that also meant at least one email exchange with Logan. Somehow, that was all the reassurance she needed.
"There are technically three more sleeps 'til Christmas," she said, unsure as to why her stomach started to flutter with anticipation of opening the gift. Of course she had ideas of what it might be, but nothing felt quite right. Her analytical mind worried that an idea she passed off as insufficient would be exactly what lay under the big red bow.
"Only two sleeps here. And you know I'll have only a few minutes at best on Christmas. The time is now."
Veronica reached over to pluck the gift from under the tree. She thought she heard the sound of a keyboard, but by the time she looked at the screen again, his eyes were back to staring just beyond her ear. She held the box in front of the screen. "It looks mighty small for a pony, Echolls," she quipped, eyebrow cocked.
"Just open it," he responded as he leaned back toward the screen. "This is only the first part," he warned as she pulled the ribbon from around the box. Veronica's curiosity was piqued. She slipped a finger along the seam of paper. She could tell he wrapped it himself. Veronica remembered gifts from the past. Logan's wrapping style was the most oddly charming mix of precision creases and extraneous tape she'd ever seen. It was as though he thought the gift might escape if every millimeter of fold wasn't secure. She carefully peeled the paper off the gift, though she could hear Logan sigh with impatience. It only made her move more deliberately.
"When I said two more days 'til Christmas, I meant you didn't have to wait to open it until the day. Speed it up, Mars." Veronica rolled her eyes at him, but lifted the white lid off the box. She was met with red tissue paper. She unfolded it to find a round disc, about the size of a dollar coin. She glanced at the box then the screen, leaving her confusion unchecked. She looked back at the box. Was it a pendant for a necklace? Upon further inspection, she noticed engraving on the disc.
"Remington," she mumbled noting her cell phone number below the word. She felt like she was on the verge of putting something together when she heard a knock at the door. Veronica looked toward the door, then at the clock on the wall.
"What's wrong?" Logan asked.
"I thought I heard someone at the door," she responded, "but it's past eleven, so I'm not answering the door. Even for missionaries. And you know how much I like to hear about my options for redemption." As she finished, the doorbell rang with repeated gusto.
"Eager missionaries," he supplied. "You wanna go check on that? I can wait."
"Not really," she responded, but stood anyway. It was a gated community. She'd never have the pleasure of offering coffee or a glass of wine to the young missionaries again. People had to make the list to get past the guard's office. Not to mention the gate at the bottom of the drive. No, Veronica was almost confident she had to know her late night caller. Even so, she stopped briefly by the gun safe near the door and grabbed her piece, tucking it into the back of her yoga pants.
The doorbell still rang incessantly. Veronica peeked up on tiptoes to look out the small window in the french door. She saw a mop of blonde hair and let out an audible sigh.
"Dick, if you're hiding from some floozy at the company Christmas party-" she said, opening the door.
Dick threw up his hands when she opened the door. "Ronniekins!"
"Not a great time, Dick. You can crash in the guestroom if you need to. Just be quiet, okay?"
"Merry Christmas!" Dick continued, clearly unphased by her attitude. Veronica responded with a scowl. "Aww, Ronnie, don't be like that. I know you're talking to our favorite Lieutenant, so I'll be fast. This," he looked down toward a box Veronica hadn't noticed next to his feet, "is the second part of your gift. For reasons you'll figure out pretty quick, Logan couldn't leave it with the other part." The box was wrapped, though clearly done so the top could be removed separately. Dick hoisted it to the air and Veronica thought she heard a whimper. When she noticed small holes along the top of the box, everything came together. She looked at Dick, speechless as he handed the box to her.
"Go," he said, nodding his head toward the living room. "He's gonna wanna see your reaction." Veronica's eyes teared a bit for reasons she couldn't quite piece together. She stepped back into the house while Dick closed the door for her. Veronica made her way back to the tablet, the creature in the box panting and tumbling into his cardboard constraints.
One glance at the tablet, and she could feel his anxiety. His thumb was to his mouth, teeth on the cuticle. Clearly the delay meant he hadn't seen her return yet. This was the Logan she remembered from childhood. She was sure if he had a long sleeved shirt on, his hands would have been balled up in the sleeves.
Veronica put the box down between the couch and the tablet. She surreptitiously slid her handgun from the back of her shirt to behind the tablet. While Logan obviously knew she owned the weapon, she didn't want him to think her scared of living alone. "What do we have here, she said loudly, pausing until the delay caught up.
"Not missionaries," he asked, his attempt to feign innocence thin at best. Veronica pulled the lid from the box. The first thing she noticed was the puppy's nose. Black, square, and glistening in the light of the Christmas tree.
"You must be Remington," she exclaimed as she scooped the puppy up into her arms. "Hello, how did you come to my house?" She used the same voice she always used when talking to pets, but looked back at the tablet. She laughed as the puppy squirmed to lick her jaw.
"It's a long story, but the highlights are that he's a pit bull lab mix, born at a shelter ten weeks ago. One of four." Veronica smiled. During Logan's most recent leave, they'd tossed around the idea of a dog, but she was adamant they adopt from a shelter.
"Thank you," Veronica said, her eyes tearing up. The black dog nibbled at her ear.
"I love you," Logan responded. "My time's almost up, so I should tell you now to check the cabinet above the fridge for supplies. You should have everything you'll need to get started."
"What?!" Veronica responded. "You mean you hid stuff in there before you left?"
"I figured it was a safe bet. Between the height and the fact that you insisted we keep the flour sifter and cookie cutters in there, I took the gamble that we'd be okay. Plus," he added with a smug grin, "I had the red herring of a gift left out in the open."
It was a moment that would have earned him more than a gentle nudge had he been in the room, but Veronica couldn't be mad. After all, she'd sworn off domesticity for at least six months after the exhaustion of hosting Thanksgiving. "I love you," she responded instead.
"Merry Christmas, Veronica," he said.
"Merry Christmas," she answered.
"Tell the same to your dad and everyone for me, okay?"
"And Remington," Logan's eyes now fell to the left of the dog. "A pleasure to finally meet you in real time, but know that when I get back, we will not be sharing a bed. So don't get used to it, buddy."
"So I should move your pillows to the guest bed," Veronica asked.
"Hardy har har," he responded. "I love you."
"Always," she said. She saw his smile as he reached to disconnect the call. The silence after the calls was always the hardest, but another nip from the puppy at her jawline made it less awful.
"OK, Rem. Let's see what's in the kitchen for you." Veronica put the puppy back in the box while she cleared the cereal boxes off the top of the refrigerator. She reached into the pantry for the step stool. In the cabinet she found food, bowls, treats, a few tennis balls, and some stuffing-free toys. There was a note on the inside of the door. "The boxes of Dick's stuff in the garage? Not really his. More stuff there. Love, L."
"Smartass," Veronica muttered as she remembered the day Logan told her they'd have to house some of Dick's belongings. Something about payback for his housing of Logan's stuff, but he assured her it was temporary.
In the garage, she found a dog bed, crate, puppy corral, puppy pads, leads, harnesses, and more toys. Though he'd insinuated that she'd spoil the dog, it was clear that he'd spared no expense.
Veronica brought the items back into the living room, set up a food and water bowl in the kitchen, and popped up the puppy corral around it. By now, Remington whined from the living room, his front paws rested at the top of the box.
"Okay, buddy," Veronica soothed. "Let's try some dinner, then we'll do a quick walk before bed. Sound good?" She put him down in the corral and watched as he scrambled to the bowls. His tongue, comically long for his size, splashed into the water bowl, sending droplets around the bowl. While he refueled, Veronica assessed the various harnesses. She picked the smallest one and clipped it on as he wriggled around the floor.
An hour later, they were curled on the bed. "I know what he said, but this will be our little secret, okay?" she asked as he settled onto Logan's pillows. For the first time in weeks, Veronica fell asleep with a smile on her face.