Author's Note: Here it is, the final chapter of More Than Friends. This one took me a while. At times writing it was like pulling teeth, but here we are. When I first published Chapter 1, I figured this story would be a one shot that I needed to get out of my head and that would be it. But so many supportive people told me how much they liked it and wanted more, so I ended up adding more chapters and writing other stories. Thanks to everyone for that support, particularly some people who really helped me out, you know who you are. Although this is the end of MTF, I do have other Emma/Clay story ideas rolling around in my head, so I'm sure I'll write some of those down too.
A gentle breeze from the open window glided across Emma's skin and brought the scent of rain into Clay's bedroom. Tomorrow the weather would be hot and sunny again, but this evening the passing rainstorms carried a hint of fall and a sad reminder of her rapidly ending summer break.
Emma lay with her head resting on Clay's chest while he was engrossed in his latest book. Between each turn of a page, his hand softly stroked her hair. She had been listening to one of her favorite singing podcasts, but found her attention wandering. Thoughts of the myriad things she needed to take care of before her return to New York kept distracting her.
Giving up on the recording, she had settled against Clay's side to enjoy being close to him while she still could. Two weeks from now she wouldn't be lying with him on this bed. Instead, she would fall asleep in the bed in her dorm room in New York, alone.
Clay's body shifted as he closed his book and reached over to place it on his bedside table. "Okay, what's going on in that head of yours? Those big sighs mean something."
She rolled on her side facing him. "Sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you. I didn't even realize I was doing it."
Pulling her close, Clay began rubbing her back. "Em, I don't care about you distracting me. I care about what's bothering you."
Her face tucked under Clay's chin Emma swallowed hard as she felt tears rising in her eyes.
Blinking the wayward moisture back, she took a deep breath and tried to put into words all the feelings tumbling around inside her. "The summer's over. We only have two weeks left before I'm back at school."
His hand paused in its movements. "I know."
Emma felt Clay's response rumbling in his chest more than she heard it. She lifted her head to look at him. "I'm not ready. I don't want to leave you." Settling her head back under his chin, she listened to the steady beat of his heart and let it comfort her.
His arms tightened around her. "I don't want you to go either." He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "But I know how much you enjoy your classes at Tisch."
Rolling away from Clay and onto her back, she stared up at the ceiling. "I do." She huffed out a small breath and turned to face him. "But I want to be here too. I want school, and I want us at the same time."
A smile slipped across Clay's face as he reached out and pushed some strands of hair off her cheek. "You'll always have us no matter where we are."
Leaning forward, she kissed him. "I know, but I want to have NYU and still be here living our lives together."
"I'd like that too. But even if you were here, I'm deploying in mid-September, so we'd still be apart."
"Ugh, I know. I'm trying not to think about that." Emma flopped back against the pillows.
Rolling on his side, Clay propped his head up on his hand. "I feel better thinking about you being busy in New York while I'm gone."
"If I'm too busy, we'll have a hard time connecting to talk."
"I'd rather that than you sitting around worrying about me."
Meeting his gaze, she raised her eyebrows. "Clay, no matter how much I'm doing at school, I'm going to worry about you while you're deployed."
"But I don't want you brooding about it and waiting around in case I call."
"Brooding!" Emma wrinkled her nose. "Seriously? I do not brood."
The corners of his mouth turned up in a brief smile. "You know what I mean. I like that you have your own interests, and I'll worry less about you knowing you're out pursuing them."
"You don't need to worry about me. I'm not the one going to a warzone."
"I always worry about you when you're not with me."
"You know it's not the same."
"I do, but I don't want me being a SEAL stopping you from living your life."
Chewing on her lip, Emma became thoughtful. "But you can't deny it would be easier if I didn't go to school in New York."
"Sure, but easier isn't always better. Are you telling me you want to give up your spot at Tisch? That's there somewhere around here where you can study music at that level?"
Emma wilted under Clay's pointed questioning. "You know there isn't."
He reached over and caught her hand in his. "Em, I know dating long distance is going to be hard, but we'll get through it. You'll be busy with classes while I'm away, and the three months will go by faster than you think."
"And then we'll be together for Christmas."
"Right. The Team will have block leave then, and you'll be on winter break from school. Maybe we can take a trip."
Emma's face lit up. "Someplace warm?"
Relaxing back into the pillows, Emma considered where they might go. Someplace in the Caribbean would be nice, or maybe Puerto Rico. They could probably find a not too expensive package deal.
"Earth to Emma. You in there?" He tugged on her hand resting in his.
Shooting him an enthusiastic grin, she nodded. "Yeah, just thinking about places we could go."
Clay grinned for a moment at her excitement, but then his amusement faded while he continued to scrutinize her. She squirmed under his stare, but realized he wasn't truly seeing her at all. Studying him, she wondered what caused his change of mood. "Earth to Clay. Are you in there?"
"Yeah, I just—" He stopped speaking and pressed his lips together.
She waited, thinking he might say more. When his silence continued, she tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. "You just what?"
Exhaling a deep breath, Clay released her hand. "I plan on being with you for Christmas, but if anything happens to me and—"
"Don't say that! Nothing is going to happen."
"It could, and I—"
"No!" She twisted away, not wanting to hear what he was trying to say.
Catching her shoulders, Clay gently turned her back to face him. "Em, I know this isn't anything either of us wants to think about, but something could happen, and I might not come home."
Biting her lip, Emma felt her eyes fill with tears again.
He kept his gaze steady on hers. "If that happens, I need to know you'll be okay, that you'll move on and eventually find someone else."
"You… what?" Her brow wrinkled as she tried to understand what he meant, and she dashed her hand under her eyes to catch any escaping moisture. "You want me to be with someone else? To find some other guy? That's what you want?"
Lifting a hand from her shoulder, he smoothed her hair back from her face. "Of course not, but if I'm gone, then I want to know you won't be alone. Emma, you're young. You have your whole life ahead of you. I'm not the only person you could love."
Eyes widening, she tried to imagine doing what he asked. A strangled sound escaped her throat. "Sure, I'll just drop by the Bulkhead and pick up someone else. No problem."
He released a dry laugh and shook his head. "You know that's not what I meant. Of course, I don't want to think about you with anybody else. I need to know your life won't be over if I don't come back, that in the future you'll be okay."
"Oh." She didn't know what to say at this point. He wanted reassurances she didn't think she could give. The idea of being with anyone other than Clay was abhorrent to her and telling him she'd be devastated if anything happened to him probably wasn't the best thing to share before he deployed.
Pulling her close, he stroked his hand up and down her back. "Can you promise me that if the worst happens, you'll build a new life for yourself?"
Tilting her head back, Emma met his gaze. "On one condition."
"You have a condition?" His eyebrows rose at her response.
"Yes." Willing herself not to cry again, she held his stare. "You need to promise me you'll do your best to come home."
"Oh, Em, I promise I'll always do my best to come home to you." His arms tightened around her, and he pressed his cheek to the top of her head.
"Then I promise that if you don't come home, I'll move on." She hid her face against his chest, but he could still hear her added mutter. "Eventually."
Leaning back against the pillows, Clay cradled her in his arms. Emma's hand rose to grip his shirt as she stayed curled in his arms. Gently, he rubbed her back, while they both listened to the comforting sound of the rain coming down outside.
The next two weeks flew by for Emma. The days were filled with working her last shifts at the hotel, saying goodbye to the friends she made there, and organizing everything she needed to take back to New York. Clay went on a mission, and she crossed her fingers he would be back in time to drive her to school as planned.
She and Hannah spent a last evening together, facetiming in Cathy, who had already arrived on campus at James Madison University. The three laughed a bit while Cathy and Emma reassured Hannah about how much better this year at UVA would be.
Another night Emma enjoyed dinner at the Perry home. With Bravo Team still spun up, she and Naima were able to settle in for an evening of girl talk once Jameelah and RJ went to bed.
"Okay, that's those two taken care of. I didn't think Jameelah was ever going to get under those covers. She was still crowing about her victory as I tucked her in." Naima shook her head as she came down the stairs.
Emma laughed. "I think that was the most cutthroat game of Candyland I've ever played."
"I'm sure." Naima picked up a plate of chocolate cookies from the counter and brought them into the living room with her. "Take another cookie. You don't need to go yet, do you?"
"No, there's no rush." Emma leaned forward and snagged one of the treats. "I worked my last shift at the hotel yesterday."
"Do you still have your room there?" Setting the plate on the coffee table, Naima settled back into the opposite corner of the couch.
"No, I moved out this morning. I'm staying at Clay's until I go back to school at the end of the week."
"He's driving you back to New York, isn't he?"
Her forehead wrinkling, Emma shrugged. "He's supposed to, but not if the team is still spun up."
Naima frowned. "Do you have a back-up plan in case he doesn't come home in time? I'd take you, but I'm scheduled at the hospital this weekend."
"Don't worry, Trish said she'd drive me in Derek's truck, and Bethany will come along for company."
"Bethany, she's engaged to one of the guys on Romeo Team, right?"
"Yeah, her fiancé, Greg, was on Green Team with Clay."
"I'm glad you have another option."
"Yeah, but I'd rather Clay made it back in time. Not just because I want him to drive me, but also because I don't think I'll be home again before they deploy, so I need to see him before they go."
"Of course you do." Naima pursed her lips for a moment. "It's hard to say if they'll be back in time. We haven't heard anything from them, which can be a good sign they're getting the job done and will be home soon. Or they could be running around following leads that aren't panning out."
Emma wrapped her arms around one of Naima's large throw pillows and rested her chin on it. "I'm not sure I can do this, Aunt Naima. I thought because I went through it with my Dad, I could handle this whole deployment thing with Clay, but I'm not sure I can."
"Oh, sweetie." Moving down the couch, Naima wrapped an arm around Emma. "Do you want to break up with him?"
Emma's head snapped up from the pillow. "What? No! I love Clay. Besides even if I wanted to, I couldn't break up with him right before he deploys. That would be cruel."
Quirking an eyebrow, Naima gave Emma a gentle smile. "Just checking." Her tone became more serious as she continued to speak. "Because, Emma, if you love him, and you don't want to break up with him, then you don't have any choice. You'll have to 'handle this whole deployment thing.'"
"I know." Leaning her head on Naima's shoulder, Emma let out a shuddering breath. "But I'm not sure I know how. You make it look so easy. How do you do it?"
"If you think it looks easy, I must be doing something right, because easy is the last thing I'd call it." Naima tightened her arm around Emma's shoulders and gave her squeeze. "It's hard work, and I think a big part of it is making sure you keep building a life of your own. In any relationship you can't expect your partner to be responsible for your happiness, and that's doubly true when you're in a relationship with a SEAL."
Lifting her head, Emma met Naima's gaze. "I feel like maybe my Mom didn't do that, and that's why she and my Dad were splitting up."
"First of all, Emma, you can't compare your relationship with Clay to your parents'. You are not your mother, and while Clay may share some similarities with your Dad, he is definitely more emotionally aware than your father ever was."
Emma sniggered, pressing her face into the pillow.
"Also, your parents were at a different stage in their lives and their careers from where you and Clay are now. It's not a fair comparison for them or you."
Becoming more solemn, Emma looked at Naima again. "I guess, but I don't want us to grow apart like that."
"Then you have to work at it. Both of you." Naima's focus drifted from Emma as she considered the hard-won knowledge she was trying to convey. "Relationships are work. They don't just happen. It's a team effort, and it's not always a fifty-fifty division. Sometimes you might be giving more and sometimes the other person is, and with a SEAL a lot of the time, you'll be the one doing more. But it doesn't mean he can get away without doing his share."
"But there's so much he can't tell me."
Her attention returning, Naima nodded in agreement. "Yes, but there are things he can tell you, like how he feels. The two of you are starting out in building your relationship. You'll have to figure out together what works for you, and sometimes you might have to push a little, but if both of you keep talking, you'll get there."
Emma nodded and sat quietly, reflecting on Naima's advice and how to make it work. Naima stayed silent, not wanting to interrupt her honorary niece's musings.
"Okay, that makes sense, but how do you handle the not knowing? The thought that something will happen, and you won't see him again?" A sigh escaped from Emma as she twirled and untwirled a loose thread hanging from the pillow seam around her finger. "I thought I was used to it because of my Dad, but it's so much harder with Clay."
"Oh, sweetie, that's the hardest thing about loving a SEAL." Naima hugged Emma close. "But he wouldn't be the man you love if he wasn't a SEAL. And as scary as it can be, would your life be better without him at all?"
Emma shook her head. "No, I know it wouldn't"
"Then you need to hold on to that, and when that doesn't help and it gets too hard, then you call me, or Trish, or Bethany, or any one of the other SEAL wives or partners. We'll always be there to help you through."
Leaning her head against Naima's shoulder again, Emma let out a deep sigh.
Quietly, Clay unlocked his apartment and stepped inside. Leaving his bag by the door, he picked his way through the dim light to the bedroom, ready to get some sleep after a tiring spin up. On the bed, only the top of Emma's head was visible from her cocoon of bedding. He smiled as he noticed she was using his pillow to rest on.
As silently as he could, he pulled some clean boxers out from his dresser and headed into the bathroom to shower. Once clean of the lingering grit from the mission, he moved to his side of the bed, hoping to pry some covers from Emma without waking her up.
Gently, he tugged at the blankets and slowly freed enough of them to slide under and settle on the mattress.
"Mmm, Clay?" Emma's groggy voice broke the quiet.
"Yeah, it's me." He slipped an arm around her as she rolled closer to him. "Go back to sleep, baby. It's the middle of the night."
"Mm-kay." Curling into his side, she laid her head on his chest, and he felt her body relax back into a deep sleep.
Lying in the comfort of his bed with Emma snuggled close, he could feel sleep hovering at the edge of his consciousness, but he wasn't ready to give in and let himself drift off yet. In a few short days he would drive Emma back to NYU; right now, he wanted to enjoy having her nestled in his arms.
The t-shirt she wore, which he suspected was one of his, had ridden up, giving his hand access to the soft skin of her back. He rubbed his thumb along the track of her spine, causing her back to arch. Worried he had disturbed her rest, he stopped the movement and waited for any other reaction. Emma relaxed again and nuzzled into his neck, murmuring a few unintelligible words.
Sometimes she talked in her sleep, usually making random comments with no relation to anything happening in her life. His favorite was the time she told him she didn't want the chocolate ice cream. When he asked her about it in the morning, Emma had no recollection of speaking, and she insisted he made it up.
Smiling at the memory of Emma's outrage, he hoped she might say something more, but she made no other sound after her indecipherable mutterings. His smile faded as he realized her roommate Anna would be the one to hear Emma's middle of the night discourse soon, and he would be on the other side of the world.
For most of the summer, he had pushed away any thoughts of Emma returning to school and their being apart, but the conversation last week before his most recent spin up made ignoring their imminent parting impossible. The discussion they had after their fight a few weeks ago reassured him Emma wanted to be with him and not some guy at NYU, but this deployment still concerned him.
Emma being his team leader's daughter had made the start of their relationship tricky, but her understanding of what being a SEAL meant eased the way in other parts of it. She never glamorized his job, and she knew spin ups and deployments were a part of the deal. But even though she understood the difficulties of having someone close to you deploy, he worried this separation would open her eyes to how challenging having a romantic relationship with a SEAL could be.
Mumbling again, Emma wriggled against his side, and he became aware of how tight his arm had grown around her. He forced his muscles to loosen, annoyed with himself for interrupting her sleep a second time. Her body stilled once more, and he placed a soft kiss on the top of her head.
Sighing, he admitted to himself he wasn't just worried about how Emma would handle their separation. He knew he would find it difficult as well. He liked coming home to her, knowing she was waiting for him. Emma's arrival in his life felt like he had finally found the missing piece of the puzzle.
Emma living in Virginia Beach would make their relationship easier, but he didn't like the idea of her sitting around waiting for him to return home. He wanted her to go out and chase her dreams. Remembering the joyous smile on her face in the café in New York as she described her experiences at Tisch told him how passionate she felt about music. Her passion was one of the things he loved about her, and he could never ask her to give that up. Just as she would never ask him to give up being a SEAL.
Clay's eyes drifted shut as he pictured Emma that day last March, her laughter as she told him about Jason thinking the city might ruin her, her grin as she teased him about not being that hip, and how beautiful she looked as she shared the details of her life there. He wondered if that was the moment he fell in love with her. Before he could come to any conclusion, he slipped off to sleep.
The shifting of the mattress as Emma crawled back into bed after a trip to the bathroom woke Clay the next morning. Seeing his eyes open, she settled along his side and crossed her arms on his chest, resting her chin on her hands.
"You're home." A pleased smile spread across her face.
Returning her grin, he began playing with the hem of her t-shirt, which had ridden up to the top of her thighs under the covers. "I am."
"I was worried you wouldn't be back before I need to leave for school." Slipping one hand from under her chin, she slowly traced a finger up the length of his neck.
Clay swallowed and took a deep breath. "I was starting to think that might be a possibility too."
Moving her other hand out from under her chin, Emma pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the hollow of his throat. "Do you have to go to the base?"
Sucking in another breath, Clay let his eyes close. "I do, but not too early. I have some time."
Emma lifted her head. "Oh, you probably want to get some more sleep then." With a teasing smile, she started to lift herself up from his chest. "I'll leave you to it."
"Hey!" Before she could pull away, he wrapped his arms around her and rolled them over, pinning her to the mattress. "Where do you think you're going?"
Giggling, she pressed her hips to his growing erection. "Well, I wouldn't want to keep you up."
He groaned, returning the pressure. "Oh, and I'm the one with the bad puns."
Pressing her lips together to keep more giggles from escaping, Emma hooked a leg over his hip and pulled their lower bodies in tighter. "I guess you've rubbed off on me."
Clay rested his forehead against hers, his chest vibrating with suppressed amusement. "I've definitely got something to rub off on you right now."
She let out a snort of laughter. "Way to make it sound romantic."
Snickering, he started to pull up the hem of her top. "You're the one who uh, brought it up."
Swallowing another giggle, Emma lifted her arms to help him remove the shirt. "I guess I did." Her face appeared from under the material, as he dragged it over her head. "I should probably do something about that."
"You definitely should."
During the next few days, Clay and Emma spent as much time as possible together. Working around Clay's schedule at the base, they enjoyed as many of their favorite activities as they could.
They planned on driving most of the way to New York City on Saturday, stopping in northern New Jersey to stay the night. On Sunday morning they'd finish the journey and move Emma into her dorm. By breaking the drive up this way, Clay wouldn't make the trip twice in one day.
On Friday night, the pair met Jason for dinner. After eating at Jason's favorite taco place, they all drove back to his apartment in their separate vehicles, as Emma needed to leave her car with her father before heading back to school.
Clay and Jason loitered on the sidewalk, waiting for Emma to exit the car now parked in the garage. Frowning, Jason turned from watching his daughter gather up her belongs in the vehicle to address Clay. "You're all set for the drive tomorrow? Truck's in good shape? Been serviced recently?"
Subduing an urge to laugh at Jason's fatherly questions, Clay kept his expression neutral. "All set. Had it in for an oil change before our last spin up."
"Good." Jason nodded and glanced back to Emma still in the car. "Good." He rubbed the stubble on his chin. "Why didn't she take all her stuff out earlier?"
"I think she meant to." Clay didn't add he may have distracted Emma when he returned from the base earlier this evening, not leaving her enough time to take care of the chore before they needed to leave to meet her father.
"Okay, okay, I've got everything." Emma came out carrying a tote bag. "Sorry about that. I didn't realize how much stuff I had in there." She handed the bag to Clay and turned to her father. "Here are the keys."
Jason shoved them in his pocket. "You're all set then? You have everything you need?"
"Don't worry, Dad. I'm good."
"Do you have enough money for the trip? Don't make Clay pay for all the gas."
"I won't. I have money."
"Okay, text me when you get there safe."
"I will." Emma stepped forward and hugged her father, resting her cheek against his chest. "You be careful in Afghanistan."
"Don't worry about me, kiddo. I'll be fine." Jason kissed the top of her head.
Watching Emma and Jason say goodbye, Clay felt a pang of an emotion he couldn't quite label. Part of the feeling, he knew, was his own desire for a more traditional father-son relationship with Ash, but the rest he was unsure of. Maybe he was feeling an echo of the ache he expected to feel on Sunday when he would part from Emma.
Stepping back from her father, Emma straightened her back and forced a smile. "Anna is going to let me use the kitchen in her father's apartment to bake, so I'll be able to send you cookies still."
"That's good. It's not a deployment if I don't get some of your cookies." Jason patted his stomach. "Have a good school year. I want to hear about you singing and dancing in more of those shows."
"I will." She turned to Clay standing by his truck. He opened the passenger-side door and held out his hand to help her in. Instead of taking it, she whirled around and threw herself at her father again.
Jason caught her and held her close. "Hey, hey, it's okay."
Emma spoke in response, but her words were muffled against his chest. Smoothing his hand over her hair, Jason tilted his head down and spoke in her ear. She nodded but still clung to him, and he hugged her tight for a moment. Then clasping her shoulders, he held her away from him. "Everything's going to be fine."
She chewed on her lip. "I know. I love you, Dad."
"I love you too, kiddo." He gave her a gentle shake and dropped his hands to his sides. "Go have a great time in New York and stay out of trouble."
With a watery chuckle, Emma headed back to the truck. Her gaze met Clay's as she reached for his hand this time to accept help getting in. She tried to smile at him, but her effort was poor, doing little to convince him she was okay. Once she was seated, he squeezed her hand before releasing it and shutting the door.
Jason stepped forward and patted Clay on the shoulder. "Drive safe. I'll see you on base Monday."
"I will. Don't worry." Giving Jason a nod, Clay walked around the truck and got in. He started the engine and put it in drive.
"Bye, Dad!" As they pulled away, Emma waved, leaning out the window. Jason raised his hand in response. Turning to face forward, she sighed, then slid her hand over and grasped Clay's where it rested between them. He gave her a quick look and squeezed her hand again before focusing on the road once more.
As they reached the end of the street, Clay glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Jason still standing on the sidewalk watching them drive away.
The next morning was a blur of moving suitcases and boxes to the truck and Emma rushing back up to the apartment for forgotten items. Clay organized everything in the vehicle bed and secured it all to keep it safe and dry during the trip.
Emma returned with another box of shoes, and Clay shook his head. "How are you going to fit all this in your dorm room?"
"Don't worry. Anna and I will make it fit."
"If you say so."
"Emma! Clay!" Trish calling them from across the parking lot interrupted their discussion. She rushed over with Derek following in her wake. "I'm so glad we saw you before you left. I was worried we wouldn't get the chance to say goodbye."
Clay turned to Derek as he caught up with his wife. "You wouldn't have missed us. There was no way we were leaving early with the amount of stuff Emma needed to load up."
Derek started to laugh but swallowed it when Emma turned their way. "I heard that, Spenser. Watch out or there won't be any snacks for you on the drive."
"Ignore them." Trish waved a hand at her husband and Clay. "They think all you need is a TV, a recliner, and bottle opener."
"Hey!" Both Clay and Derek pretended to be insulted by Trish's words.
Laughing, Emma hugged Trish. "I wouldn't have left without saying goodbye."
Returning the hug, Trish patted Emma's back. "We'll miss you, especially at book club. Make sure you keep in touch. We can convince Bethany she needs to come with me to New York to visit you."
Emma stepped back and smiled at Trish. "That would be fun."
Derek moved forward and hugged Emma as well. "Stay out of trouble in the big city."
"You sound like my Dad."
"I can live with that."
While Emma and Derek were saying goodbye, Trish turned to Clay. "Come by for dinner on Sunday when you get home, okay? Don't sit around in your empty apartment."
"Yes, ma'am." Clay appreciated Trish's desire to keep him from being lonely after he came home, but he suspected he might not be in the mood to socialize on Sunday night. He'd worry about getting out of the meal once he returned.
"We should let you two finish up and hit the road." Derek draped an arm over his wife's shoulders. "You need help carrying anything else down?"
"I believe that's everything." Clay glanced at Emma for confirmation.
"That's it. We just need to lock up the apartment and bring down the snacks and drinks." Emma gave a nod of satisfaction.
"Okay, then. Drive safe. We'll see you soon, Emma." Derek gave Emma's shoulder a final squeeze.
Trish pulled Emma in for another hug. "Good luck at school."
"Thank you." After returning Trish's hug, Emma smiled at the couple. "I'll see you guys at Christmas for sure, or sooner if I come down to visit Naima and the kids."
Trish and Derek began walking towards the entrance to the apartment building. Trish gave one last wave as they disappeared inside the door.
Emma waved in return but was silent as she watched the couple go. Sliding an arm around her waist, Clay glanced down at Emma. "All set?"
Leaning into Clay's side, Emma nodded. "Yeah, I'll go grab the snacks." Ducking out from under his arm, she headed back to the apartment.
For the most part, the drive was easy. They hit traffic outside Philadelphia and stopped for lunch once they were north of the city. Emma acted as DJ, keeping the music upbeat and occasionally singing along. Sometimes they enjoyed talking, about topics ranging from serious to silly, and at other times they were quiet, appreciating the passing scenery and being together.
In the early evening, they arrived at the Courtyard Marriott in northern Jersey. Once they checked into their room, they took their overnight bags out of the truck and went up to relax after the drive.
Groaning from his stiff muscles, Clay collapsed on the bed while Emma pulled out her clothes for the next day and hung them in the closet to stop them from wrinkling too much. Then she grabbed the hotel binder listing the local restaurants and sat against the headboard of the bed.
"What're you looking at?"
Emma flipped a page. "Checking out what's around for a meal."
Rolling over, Clay tried to peek around the edge of the book. "Anything good?"
"Bunch of chains, like TGI Friday's." She turned another page. "Oh wait, there's a place across the street that's a pub with burgers, steaks, and salads. They have a huge beer list too."
Giving up on seeing in binder from his angle, Clay flopped on his back again. "Sounds good. Also, across the street means no driving."
Tossing the binder on the bedside table, Emma stretched out alongside Clay, propping her head up on her hand. His curls tumbled down on his forehead, and she pushed them back with her free hand. "Your hair is getting long."
"I know. I need to get it cut short before we deploy." His eyes opened, and he smiled up at her.
She continued to stroke his hair. "I like it longer. It's curlier."
"It's easier to deal with when it's short though."
"I still like it longer." She leaned in and gave him a smacking kiss. "We should probably go get dinner." Sitting up, she slid off the bed and stood.
"Okay, but only if you help me up." He held out a hand for her to pull.
Laughing, she caught it and tugged him up. "Some SEAL stamina you have there."
He gave her a mock wounded look. "Somebody kept me up most of last night."
"Oh well, I'll be sure to let you sleep tonight." Throwing a mischievous grin his way, she picked up her purse and walked towards the door.
"Wait, wait, I didn't mean it was a bad thing." He caught her hand and followed her out of the room.
She laughed again. "Come on, we'll get you a beer to fortify you for tonight then."
"That's what I'm talking about," Clay said, as he checked to make sure the door locked behind them.
The restaurant was exactly the right place for them that evening. The casual atmosphere was relaxing while they enjoyed their meal. A small acoustic band played in the corner, not loud enough to stop conversation. They stayed longer to listen to the music, and Clay tried a few different beers from the extensive menu.
Finally, they returned to their room at the hotel. Each of them took a turn washing up, and they settled into bed. Clay found a movie on the TV, but they gave it half their attention. Their long day traveling had worn them both out, and whatever intentions they might have had to the contrary, they both fell asleep soon after crawling into bed.
Waking early, Emma lay still. She glanced at the clock on the bedside table and was relieved to see they had plenty of time before they needed to get up. She and Clay were spooned together, his arm curled around her. Burrowing in closer to him, she savored the closeness, knowing it would be the last time they would lie like this for some time.
She must have dozed off as the next thing she felt was Clay giving her a light shake.
"Wake up, sleepyhead. We should get up soon if we want to make it to the city this morning."
"Don' wanna." She rolled over and buried her face in his chest.
He stroked her hair back from the side of her cheek. "I'll let you have the shower first."
"Uh uh." She pressed in closer under his chin.
"There's an International House of Pancakes nearby where we can stop for blueberry pancakes before we hit the highway."
"Mmm." She lifted her head to peek up at him. "Pancakes?"
He grinned down at her. "Yup, we'll get you a big stack with lots of maple syrup."
"Still rather stay here." Resting her head back on his arm, she nuzzled into his neck.
"Me too, baby." Clay held her close and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. After a moment enjoying having her in his arms, he tugged away the covers, letting in the cooler air of the room.
Emma immediately sat up. "Ah, cold. You crazy man."
"Hop in a warm shower. You'll feel better." He smiled at her grumpy expression.
"Okay, okay." Climbing off the bed, she disappeared into the shower.
When Emma was finished in the bathroom, Clay went in. He had made coffee in the pot included with their room, leaving enough for her to have a cup. She drank it while getting dressed and packing up her things.
Clay's clothes from the day before were draped over a chair. Picking them up, she began folding them for Clay. She placed his shorts by his bag but continued to hold the t-shirt in her hands. Glancing at the bathroom, where she could still hear the shower running, she tucked his shirt into her bag to take back to school.
Soon Clay came out of the bathroom, and they both packed up the rest of their things. Hunger for the previously discussed pancakes spurred them both on.
"All set?" He zipped his duffel closed.
"Yeah, that's it." Emma swung her bag over her shoulder.
"Let's hit the IHOP." Opening the door, he waited for her to go into the hall and then followed her out.
As he drove his truck into the Holland Tunnel to cross over into Manhattan, Clay felt his remaining time with Emma slipping away. She had been quiet on the drive from the restaurant into the city, and he wondered what she was thinking.
Traffic picked up as he exited the tunnel, taking all his attention. He didn't want to miss any of the turns he needed to approach Emma's dorm from the correct direction. The school had been very specific about how to arrive for move in at Grammercy Green, where Emma was living this year. There was a procedure the school implemented to try to keep the disruption to the neighborhood traffic as minimal as possible.
Up ahead he could see people waving cars to one side. As they approached there was a sign with Grammercy Green and an arrow pointing to a lane of vehicles on the far right of the street. He pulled the truck into the lane behind an SUV, and they waited for the line to move forward.
Eventually they made it to the front, and a young woman with a clip board stepped up to the passenger side window. "Hi, welcome to Grammercy Green move in. Do you have your school ID?"
Emma handed it over. "Here you go."
The woman glanced at the ID and handed it back, then began flipping through the pages of the list on her clipboard. "Emma Hayes, Emma Hayes… Here you are." She crossed Emma's name off the list. "Okay, Emma, you're going to the table over there to get your key." After pointing to the correct table, the woman leaned forward and caught Clay's eye. "And you'll pull up to where they're giving out the canvas moving carts. They'll tell you where you should park and for how long."
"Thank you." Emma tucked her wallet back into her bag and started to open the truck door.
"You're welcome. Have a good school year." The woman moved on to greet the next car.
Hopping out of the truck, Emma closed the door and leaned in the window. "I'll meet you at the carts once I have my key."
"Okay, see you over there." Clay slowly drove towards the people giving out carts as Emma walked away.
A man with a gray NYU t-shirt waved Clay to a stop. "Hi, hold on here a second. We should have a spot for you opening up."
After a minute or so, the man turned back to Clay. "Do you see the blue SUV pulling out?"
Squinting at the line of vehicles, Clay picked out what he thought was the correct one. "Yes, by the taxi stand sign?"
"That's the one. Do you think you can fit in the same spot?"
Clay looked again. "I should be able to."
"Great. Park there. You'll have about 90 minutes. Your student will be given a sign with their room number to leave on the dash. That's so we can find you if we need you to move for any reason, or if you're taking too long. There's a pay lot down the street if you need to stay longer. Once you park, someone will give you a moving cart." The information was rattled off, having been repeated multiple times so far this morning.
Pulling up to the space, Clay saw Emma waiting on the sidewalk. He parallel parked the truck and walked around to meet her as a young man pushing one of the canvas carts arrived.
The kid smiled at Emma. "Hi, here's a cart. Will one be enough?"
"Maybe." She turned to Clay. "Will one work?"
"I think so." He caught one of the handles. "Thanks."
Visibly deflating upon seeing Clay with Emma, the young man released his hold on the other end. "You're welcome. Drop it off by the doors when you're done."
While Clay rolled the cart to the back of the truck, Emma put the card with her last name and a room number on the dash. "Do you really think we'll fit it all in the one cart?"
Lowering the tailgate, he started unfastening the cover he had put on over Emma's things. "Yeah, you may have to roll your suitcase, but we should be good."
"Emma!" A loud shriek cut off their conversation.
Clay looked over to see a pretty girl with chestnut colored hair flying behind her making a dash towards Emma. Recognizing Anna, Emma's roommate, he smiled as the two greeted each other. They hugged and stepped apart laughing.
"Finally! I practically ran down the stairs once I got your text." Anna flipped her hair over her shoulder.
Emma grinned. "Is all your stuff moved in?
"Yeah, I brought everything over yesterday, but don't worry, I didn't sleep here last night, so no mess yet. I decided to wait for you, so we could pick beds and maybe rearrange things before we unpack. Since your big, strong man is here to help us." Anna waved at Clay. "Hi, Clay."
"Hey, Anna. How's it going?" Clay returned her wave.
"Good. I'm here to help you guys."
"That's great." Clay had started unloading Emma's things and putting them into the cart. "One of you will need to take this suitcase, and possibly this bag. Everything else seems to be fitting."
Anna wheeled the suitcase towards the entrance with Emma carrying the bag and Clay pushing the cart behind her. Inside chaos reigned as squealing students greeted each other, and people tried to get moving carts on and off the elevators. They waited their turn, finally getting to the head of the line. Crowding in, the three of them with the cart and all of Emma's things filled the car. When they arrived on the correct floor, they were met by a thrilled set of parents who had been waiting quite some time for an elevator down. Clay sighed to himself as he realized they would be in the same position soon.
Anna led the way down the hall to their suite. They were lucky enough to get a corner one, which was larger and had more windows. Arriving at the door, Anna stopped. "Emma's here!" Announcement made, she continued in, taking the suitcase into her and Emma's room.
"Emma!" A young woman with brown hair in a ponytail dropped the roll of paper towels she was holding and went to hug Emma. "It's good to see you."
Clay rolled the cart in behind Emma and waited while she greeted her suite mate.
"Chloe, I'm glad to see you too."
As Emma stepped back, Chloe spied Clay waiting with the cart, and waggled her eyebrows at her friend.
"Oh, this is my boyfriend, Clay. Clay, this Chloe." Emma grinned at Chloe's reaction.
Stepping around the cart, Clay held his hand out to Chloe. "Hi Chloe. Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you too." She shook his hand.
A woman, who bore a striking resemblance to Chloe, stepped out of the other room. "Chloe, where are those paper towels?"
"Sorry, Mom, Emma and her boyfriend arrived, and I got distracted." Chloe went to grab the dropped roll. "Emma, Clay, this is my Mom. Mom this Emma and her boyfriend Clay."
"Nice to meet you, Emma, Clay. Emma, I know Chloe's been looking forward to living with you this year." Chloe's mother smiled at them both.
"I've been looking forward to it too, Mrs. Adams." Emma set the bag she was carrying down on the floor.
"I'm sure you'll have a good year here. These apartment style suites are so much nicer than the dorm I lived in during college." Mrs. Adams gestured around the common room.
Emma nodded in agreement. "They are much better than regular dorms."
"I'll let you get back to your moving in. Nice meeting you both."
"You too." Emma swung her bag back on her shoulder and entered her room with Clay following behind pushing the cart.
Mrs. Adams shook her head as she watched them go. "That is one good-looking young man."
"Mooom! I can't believe you said that!"
"What? Because I'm your mother I don't have eyes in my head?"
"Oh my God. So embarrassing." Snatching the roll of paper towels off the floor, Chloe went into her room.
Arriving in the room Emma would spend the next school year living in, they found Anna digging through one of her bags.
"Hey, so I was thinking the set-up with the beds isn't bad. What do you think?" Anna pulled out a folded piece of blue material.
Emma walked farther into the room and examined the furniture arrangement. "I didn't realize how much more space there is in the corner rooms. This is great." She spun around, debating the bed locations. She preferred the bed closer to the windows but didn't know what Anna would choose. "I like where the beds are. Do you have a preference on which one you want? I'd like the one nearer to the windows."
"Perfect, because I want to be away from the windows." Anna held up the blue material. "I brought this big panel curtain to replace the ugly one that comes with the room."
"That'll be an improvement." Dropping her bag on her new bed, Emma turned to Clay. "We should get everything unloaded. We can stack it here by my bed."
The three of them made quick work of unloading the moving cart. Once they finished, Emma recognized there was nothing else keeping Clay from returning to Virginia Beach. Since their arrival at the dorm, she had been growing excited about the upcoming semester. But now she deflated at the realization he would be leaving her. She wasn't ready to say goodbye yet.
Anna picked up on the change in mood in the room. Clearing her throat, she pulled a tablet out of one of her bags. "So, um, I told Chloe I'd help her figure out decorating her and Abbie's room. I'll just…" She gestured to the door.
"Oh, okay, we'll hang the curtain later," Emma replied.
"Great." Quietly, Anna left.
Clay walked to the window and looked out at their view of the neighborhood. "This is nicer than I expected. I guess I thought all dorm rooms were tiny and being in New York you'd look out on an alley."
Joining him at the window, Emma slipped her hand into his. "This is definitely one of the nicer ones."
He turned to face her. "I can move the truck into the pay parking and stay longer."
She wrapped her arms around his waist. "I want you to, but I know it's delaying the inevitable. And it's not fair to you. You have a long drive home on your own, and I don't want you to be tired when you report for duty tomorrow."
"Yeah." He sighed. "Sometimes it's easier to just do it, like this morning in bed. I could have stayed there with you forever, but we couldn't, so I threw the covers off." He brought his hand up to stroke her cheek.
"I could have stayed there forever too."
Bringing up his other hand, he framed her face. "I love you, Emma Hayes. That night when you yelled at me that you loved me, was the best night of my life."
A radiant smile spread across her face. "I love you too. I'm so glad you bumped into me at the coffee shop, even if I did spill my mocha."
He laughed, then leaned in and kissed her. His arms slid down, wrapping around her back and pulling her closer. They had kissed many times and in many ways since the beginning of their relationship, but in this kiss, Emma could feel the longing and the heartache their impending separation brought.
Bringing her arms up, she threaded them around his neck. She tried to show with her response all the things she couldn't say about his essential role in her life. And how she would be here waiting when he came home.
He lifted his head, and she slowly opened her eyes, dazed from the emotions in their kiss. With his thumb, Clay wiped away a tear that had slipped from her eye. "It's going to be okay. When I come home, we'll have a wonderful reunion. Until then what's going to get me through is thinking of you, here, having a fantastic time, okay?"
Emma nodded, mesmerized by the confidence in his gaze. He hugged her close, and she pressed her face into the place where his neck and shoulder met, doing her best to imprint this feeling on her body to remember later when she was alone.
Then, before she had enough, he stepped back and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "We should probably go down."
Together, they maneuvered the moving cart through the door into the common area of the suite. Stopping for Clay to say goodbye to Anna and Chloe, and Chloe's mom, they headed down the hall to the elevators. As they walked, a few people called out greetings to Emma, and she responded in turn, as if she wasn't falling apart inside. They waited for an elevator going down, and although she was sure the wait was longer than normal, she found it was still too brief.
When they reached the lobby, they made their way through the move in crowds to the street exit. Once outside, they returned the cart and walked to Clay's truck.
Stopping by the passenger door, Clay took Emma's hands in his. "Make sure you're careful here in the big city. I'll worry about you."
"I will. You drive safe, and stop if you need to, okay? I left the snack bag on my seat. There are some of those cookies you like left."
He smiled. "I will. I'll call you when I'm back in VA Beach."
They stood staring at each other quietly for a moment, then he squeezed her hands and released them before giving her a light kiss. Digging in his pocket for his keys, he walked around and opened the truck door. He climbed in, started the engine, and opened the windows.
Emma leaned in. "Be careful," she said and stepped back.
He gave her a brief smile. "I will."
She stood watching as he pulled out on 3rd Avenue and drove away. She was still there long after his truck disappeared into the Manhattan traffic.