Author's Note: So I've written a little Christmas story. This takes place in the More Than Friends universe in the future, a couple years after Emma graduates from NYU.
This is a little less realistic than my usual stories, and possibly more melodramatic and sappy, but if you can't be melodramatic and sappy at Christmas, when can you?
I'd like to thank Lauren 2381 and that bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for helping me get going on this. I wanted to write a Christmas fic, but I was coming up empty on the ideas until Lauren threw a suggestion my way. The wine just helped me flesh it out.
It's just over a year since I wrote my first (supposedly a one shot) fic for SEAL Team, and the great response and the support from all of you has been terrific and very supportive. I really appreciate all your kind words. And for those of you who have been lurking, thank you as well for reading, but I'll add that nothing says Merry Christmas like a review. Just sayin.
I wish all who celebrate a very Merry Christmas and all of us a much happier and healthier New Year!
Emma sang along with the Christmas carols from her holiday play list. The living room was awash in wrapping paper, ribbon, and bows as she worked to wrap all her gifts. Settled on the couch with Cerb lying by her side, she used the coffee table as her workspace. Giving a ribbon on her current present one last curl with the scissors, she nodded in approval at the mound of spirals on the box and thought how much Jameelah would like them.
She placed the box on the floor by her side and gave Cerb a scratch behind the ears. The dog gave her a baleful stare from under the big red bow she had stuck to his head earlier.
"One more present, boy, and then we can go out in the yard." She smiled as Cerb's tail thumped on the couch cushions at the word yard. Reaching into a shopping bag, Emma pulled out her last present to wrap. It was for Clay. Giggling, she selected a gift bag to tuck it into. She was sure Clay would enjoy this present. She knew she would. It was a game called Kinky Truth or Dare.
While googling ideas to help Hannah come up with a possible 'not too serious' gift for the guy she was casually seeing, Emma had found this game. Once she read the description, she had to buy it. She had purchased other more serious gifts for Clay, but she thought this one would be a fun and sexy way for them to celebrate their first Christmas together as husband and wife. However, she would need to remember to have Clay open this gift when they were alone.
Emma's excitement for the holiday this year grew with every day bringing them closer to Christmas. Currently, Clay and Bravo Team were away on winter survival training, but they would come back on the twenty-third. She hoped the team's return so close to Christmas Day increased the odds they wouldn't be spun up for it.
If Clay was in town, they would celebrate Christmas Eve on their own. Then her father and Mikey would visit her and Clay's house for Christmas Day. She was planning on baking a bunch of treats for them in the next couple days, including Clay's favorite chocolate cookies with marshmallow frosting.
Writing Clay's name on the gift tag, Emma finished up the last of her wrapping. She placed the bag on the floor next to Jameelah's present and surveyed the disaster zone of paper scraps, ribbon snippets, and crumpled tissue paper. "Cerb, we'll go out now and clean this up after, okay?"
Cerb barked in agreement.
"Let me get my coat." She stood and turned off the music.
The sudden silence in the living room was broken by loud knocking on the side door off the kitchen. Emma detoured from walking to the mud room and headed to answer the door instead. Through the glass panes, she saw her father waiting to come in.
Opening the door, she smiled in welcome. "Dad, look at you all fancy in a suit. I wasn't expecting you today, was I?"
"I had a meeting earlier with some new potential clients." Jason's expression was grave as he stepped into the kitchen. "Emma, let's sit." He pulled out two stools from under the island counter.
"What's wrong? Something's wrong." Emma gripped her father's hand with both of hers. "Tell me."
Jason rested his other hand on top of Emma's. "Ray called me a little while ago. Clay is missing from the training op."
"Missing? What do you mean missing?" Her father's words didn't make sense to her. "They're here in the U.S., right? How could he be missing?"
"They're doing winter survival training."
Emma nodded at her father's words. She knew what they were doing.
"They've been camped out in the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia. For part of the training the guys are on their own and expected to make their own shelter. Clay missed check in, and when they went to his camp he wasn't there."
"So, he wasn't there. He could have been somewhere else. Don't they have to do other survival things while they're out there? He could have been off doing some of those." Needing to believe Clay was fine, she came up with explanations for his absence.
"Emma, baby, the initial check was early this morning. He hasn't returned to the shelter, and they've started a search for him."
Emma pulled her hands from her father's and pressed a fist to her mouth. She wasn't going to cry. Clay would be fine. They were going to celebrate Christmas together. A little whimper escaped from behind her hand.
Leaning forward, Jason pulled her into his arms her for a hug. "They will find him. Like you said, he's in the U.S., not enemy territory. We don't have to worry about him coming into contact with any hostiles."
She sat stiffly in her father's arms, trying not to fall apart. "But the mountains, it's cold there. There must be snow."
"There is, but he's prepared for that. And this isn't the first winter survival he's done." Jason sat back and looked into his daughter's eyes. "They will find him."
The cold seeping into his bones roused him from his stupor. He was lying in the snow, and although he couldn't be sure, he thought he had been there for a while. Sitting up, he tried to figure out where he was, but the throbbing in his head made it impossible. For a moment, the most he could do was sit and wait for the pain to recede.
Once the pounding lessened, he cautiously moved his head to survey the area. He was at the bottom of a sharp, rocky incline. From the way the snow was disturbed, he guessed he had fallen from the top. That would explain the aching.
Raising a hand, he felt his head, trying to find the source of the pain. In his hair, above his temple, he located a lump. He hissed as his fingers moved across it.
He decided to stand, as he couldn't stay seated in the snow any longer. The longer he sat, the colder he would become. He needed to get moving and get his circulation going. Slowly, he bent his knees, bringing his feet into a position to stand. Reaching out, he grabbed a nearby tree and hauled himself up. A groan of pain escaped him as his head protested the change in location.
Resting against the tree trunk, he worked out a plan. The landscape continued to descend to a stream in the gully below him. He would walk downstream in the hopes it would eventually lead him to a more populated area.
He knew there would be a search for him, although he had no idea how he knew this, or who would be searching. Maybe he should wait here for them to find him, but darkness was falling, and he had nothing to help him stay warm. Walking was his best option for survival.
He pushed away from the tree and staggered in the direction of the stream.
Walking down the stairs, Emma admired how beautiful the Christmas tree looked all lit up with the room lights off. Someone had cleaned up her mess from wrapping gifts this afternoon and put all the presents under the tree.
Her father sat on the couch seemingly deep in thought. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, he turned to see her approaching. "Couldn't sleep, baby?"
"No, I keep thinking of Clay somewhere out there in the cold." Emma wrapped her arms around herself, a chill running across her skin.
Jason patted a spot beside him on the couch. "Come sit. Where's Hannah?"
"She fell asleep. Right in the middle of telling me some story about work, she just stopped talking and was out." A small, fleeting smile crossed Emma's face as she thought of her friend. "Where's Naima?"
Slipping an arm around Emma, Jason tucked her into his side. "She had to take the kids home. Jameelah wanted to stay, but RJ's coming down with a cold, so they all left."
Emma nodded and rested her head against her father's side. Studying the Christmas tree, she took comfort from her father's presence. She and Clay decorated the tree on a free day he had between a spin up and leaving for this training mission. They needed more ornaments to fill the branches of a tree this size, but they were slowly collecting them each year. Hanging right up front was the glass angel ornament Clay had given her on the first Christmas they celebrated together. It was her favorite.
"He's going to be okay. The boys will find him and bring him home." Jason's voice broke the silence that had been growing between them.
"I know." Emma turned her face into her father's side to hide her tears.
He had been walking for hours. A few times, he stopped to rest, but not for long. The cold grew stronger as the night passed, and he worried he wouldn't be able to move again if he paused too long.
Suddenly, the stream dropped down and under a bridge supporting a paved road. This was the first sign of civilization he had found. A feeling of hope rose in his chest. He picked his way down the slope, planning on heading downhill on the road. As morning approached vehicles would begin to pass, and he could catch a ride.
As he walked, he realized he would need a destination to give anyone who stopped for him. Where was he going? He supposed he could say the nearest town, except he didn't know the name of it. His intuition told him to keep as much information as possible to himself. Not that he had a lot of facts to share. He didn't know why he had been in the woods or what happened, but every instinct screamed at him to say nothing. Maybe he was in trouble? He didn't know.
He continued his trek, brooding over where he was going. Was there someone waiting for him? The throbbing in his head, which had lessened as he hiked through the woods, came back stronger than before. Seeing a small boulder on the shoulder of the road, he stopped and sat for a moment. He rested his head in his hands, closing his eyes and concentrating on any possible destination.
As he rested, his breathing slowed, and he relaxed. His thoughts began to drift with no particular direction. In his mind he saw a beautiful blond. She was laughing with a teasing expression on her face. Then in the vision, he heard his own voice. "Emma what are you up to?"
Emma, was that her name? She laughed again, perhaps at him. "You'll have to wait and see, Clay." Her voice seemed so familiar. He must know her. Was he Clay? It felt right.
With that revelation, he realized where he was going. To Emma. He didn't know where she was, but he would figure it out. He just…understood he needed to go to her, so that was what he would do.
Standing with a groan, he continued his journey.
Emma awoke with a start. She had fallen asleep curled into her father's side, but something had disturbed her. Gazing around the living room, she tried to discern what had intruded on her sleep.
"Everything okay?" Jason ran a hand along the length of her hair.
"Yeah, I was dreaming, and then something made me wake up." She studied the room again, feeling like someone had been watching her.
Her lips quirked up in a facsimile of a smile as she remembered it. "It was when we first bought the house, when Clay and I were fixing things before we moved in. We were being silly, that's all."
"Sounds nice. Why don't you lie down and try to sleep some more? Maybe you'll dream it again." Jason plumped the pillows and helped her stretch out. "I'll wake you as soon as we hear something."
Nodding, Emma closed her eyes once more. She didn't expect to sleep, but she'd try to get some rest.
As he walked, light filtered through the trees from the rising sun. Morning was finally arriving. The coming daylight bolstered his spirits. The possibility of a car traveling along the road increased with the brightening skies.
As if in response to his thoughts, a truck came around the bend behind him. He stepped to the side and waved to the driver. The trucked pulled onto the shoulder, and the window opened.
"You need a ride, son?" The driver smiled out from under a bushy moustache that made up for the sparse gray hair on his head.
Relief washed over him at the driver's question. "Yeah. That would be great."
"Come on around."
He walked to the passenger side and climbed up into the cab. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
The driver shifted the truck back into drive and pulled away. "Not a problem. It's too cold out there to be walking. You spend all night out here?"
"Uh, something like that."
The older man nodded and concentrated on his driving. "Where you headed?"
"Um, home, been away for a bit." He decided a vague response was best.
"I can take you as far as the outskirts of Richmond, if that works."
"You got a name I can call you, son? You can call me Hank." The driver glanced over and then back to the road.
"Yeah, I'm Clay. Nice to meet you, Hank." Relaxing against the seat, Clay enjoyed the heat pumping from the vents by his feet.
"Good to meet you, Clay. Don't feel you need to keep me company. It's okay to catch some shut-eye. You look like you need it." Hank's gaze saw more than Clay wanted it to. "If you're hungry, I've got some oatmeal cookies. Probably not the healthiest breakfast, but tasty all the same. My wife bakes a first-rate oatmeal cookie."
The need to survive the cold had overridden Clay's desire for food, but now in the warmth of the truck the thought of food made his stomach growl. "Oatmeal cookies sound delicious. My wife makes the best chocolate chip cookies."
Hank pushed a plastic container of cookies across the dashboard towards Clay. Taking it, Clay mechanically pulled off the cover while he wondered where his comment about his wife baking chocolate chip cookies came from. Was Emma his wife? Did she bake?
His thoughts caused his head to pound again. Selecting a few cookies, he closed the container and munched thoughtfully. When he finished, he rested his head against the high seat back and closed his eyes.
The early morning light barely reached the area below the sheer drop off Sonny and Brock stood above. Pepper led them this far tracking Clay's scent, but to go any farther they would need to rappel down. After the first fifteen feet or so, the terrain became more of a steep hill, challenging to hike but not impossible.
They moved quickly to set up their equipment. The team had lost hours of search time while they waited for the sun to rise. Brock went over the side first with Pepper tethered to him. Sonny followed.
At the bottom, they searched the area for any trace of their teammate. As the sunlight finally reached the low-lying areas of the gully, Sonny saw a disturbed area of snow. "Brock! Over here."
Brock and Pepper joined Sonny in examining the vicinity. "I think we've found his trail again, Sonny. Looks like he fell from the ridge and rolled down to here by this tree. Then maybe he stood holding on to it and headed that way."
Picking up Clay's scent, Pepper barked in excitement. She pulled on her leash, ready to follow the trail.
"Let's call it in and get goin'." Sonny grinned at Brock. "We're goin' to find our boy."
Clay dozed lightly in the warmth of the truck cab, occasionally falling into a deeper sleep. His mind was active, entertaining him with dreams that might be memories.
Lying on his stomach, he arranged rocks in a small hole around a wooden post. Above him Emma held the mailbox on the post steady. "Clay, this thing is heavy. Are you done?"
"Almost, keep it level. I need to add one more stone to hold the other side." He wedged another rock in and rolled out from under the mailbox. "Okay let go, and we'll see if that did it."
The mailbox held steady. He grabbed the bucket of concrete he prepared and poured it into the hole, over the stones.
When he finished, Emma clapped and threw her arms around him. "It looks perfect."
He admired his handy work. Gray and painted with blue flowers and their address, 145 Union Street, he found the mailbox a little girly, but Emma liked it, and that's what mattered.
The truck hit a pothole, startling Clay out his nap. The address 145 Union Street floated in his head. Was that where Emma lived? And if so, was it his address too?
"Sorry 'bout that. The roads in this area need a lot of work." Hank's voice broke into Clay's musings.
"That's alright. Not your fault," Clay replied.
"We're coming up here on a truck stop diner outside Richmond. I'll have to drop you off there. I head to the warehouse next then turn around and head back to West Virginia." Switching on his blinker, Hank changed lanes to take the exit. "This is probably the best place for you to hitch another ride."
"Thanks, Hank. I really appreciate you picking me up. I don't know what I would have done if you didn't come by."
Hank waved a hand in dismissal of Clay's thanks. "Not a problem, son. I'll always help out a fellow soldier when I can."
"I'm… how…" Clay stumbled over a reply. Was he a soldier? He didn't know, but it didn't seem quite right.
"I served in the first Gulf War. I recognize a military man when I see one." Hank reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. "And I always want to help one out when I can. Now, don't take any offense to this, but you look like maybe you've hit some hard times. So I want you to take this." Taking out a couple twenties, he pushed them into Clay's hand.
"I couldn't." Clay tried to give the bills back.
"No, you keep it. Someday you do the same for someone else." Hank pulled the truck into a parking spot in the rest stop.
Clay opened the door. "Thank you, Hank."
"You're welcome. You get home to your wife, and Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas." Climbing down, Clay closed the door, shutting away his view of Hank's kind face.
The smell of coffee brewing permeated the whole lower level of the house. Emma's nose twitched as her eyes opened in the morning light. She heard her father talking on the phone in the kitchen. He made an effort to speak in a quiet voice, but as he became more involved in the exchange his tone increased in volume.
Emma sat up and listened to her father's side of the conversation. She thought he was speaking with Uncle Ray. Throwing back the blanket from her legs, she stood and headed into the kitchen. When she entered the room, her father reached out and pulled her under his arm.
"Ray, Emma just woke up. I want to let her in on what's happening. Call me when you know more." Jason gave her a squeeze as he listened again. "Okay, talk to you later."
Ending the call, he put his phone on the counter and looked down at Emma. "Sonny and Brock, along with Pepper, found Clay's trail. They're following it now."
"That's good, right? They'll find him soon, won't they?" Emma wrapped her arms around her father in a hug.
He kissed the top of her head. "I'm sure they will, baby."
The waitress placed a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on the table in front of Clay. His stomach rumbled at the delicious smells coming from the food.
"You eat that up. When you're done, I recommend a piece of pie." Smiling, the waitress took away his glass for a refill.
Picking up a half of the sandwich, Clay dipped it into the soup and took a bite. He nearly moaned at the taste. When he saw the soup and sandwich combo on the menu, he had to have it. He couldn't say why, but he knew it was what he ate when he didn't feel well.
While he enjoyed his meal, he considered the address he remembered. Union was a pretty common street name. How could he find his Union Street? If he had internet, he could google it. He would have to check every image to see if he recognized the house, assuming he could, and it would be time-consuming.
Where could he access the internet though? He had no phone. But libraries had computers with internet access for public use. If he found a library, he could do the search.
Returning with his refilled glass of Sprite, the waitress placed it in front of him. "You need anything else?"
Clay started to say he was fine, but then realized she might have the information he needed. "Is there a library near here?"
"A library? Sure, there's the county library over on Starling Drive."
"Is it far?"
"It's a little far to walk."
Clay frowned. There had to be a way to get there. He would walk the distance if he had to.
Pursing her lips, the waitress studied him. "Something important you need at the library?"
"You could say that."
She nodded. "Ronnie!" She shouted back to the kitchen.
"What Viv?" An annoyed voice answered. "If you got customers complaining about the food, tell 'em I don't care."
"No, I have a fellow out here, he needs to go to the county library. You pass there on your way home, so you can give him a ride." She rested her hand on her waist as she waited for a response.
"I can what?" A short-dark haired man stepped out of the kitchen.
"Give him a ride. You're going that way anyway."
"I don't want to put anyone out." Clay appreciated the waitress' offer, but he didn't know if she had any right to make it.
Hearing Clay, Ronnie came further out of the kitchen to inspect the person Viv was offering his services to. "You need the ride?"
"Yeah." Clay returned Ronnie's scrutiny with a steady gaze.
Ronnie gave a sharp nod. "Okay. I finish in forty-five minutes. Be ready to go then."
Sonny, Brock, and Pepper had been hiking through the woods, following Clay's trail for a couple hours. They stopped for a break and to give Pepper some water.
"How did Blondie walk this far after that fall?" Sonny shook his head as he thought about it.
"I don't know, but I'm guessing he was following this stream." Pouring more water into Pepper's collapsible dish, Brock let the dog drink her fill.
The sound of an engine distracted them from their conversation. Sonny started walking in the direction the noise came from. "I think there's a road down here."
Brock packed Pepper's supplies up and set her back on Clay's trail. She headed in the same direction as Sonny, barking as she went. They approached the drop off to the road and carefully made their way down.
Now they were on a paved surface, Pepper moved quickly, still on their teammate's scent. She stopped to give her attention to a boulder, then kept going. Her quick pace gave Sonny and Brock confidence they were close to finding Clay. And then she stopped. Turning in circles, she sniffed the ground, but the trail had gone cold. Whimpering, she looked up at Brock.
"That's it? She can't smell him anymore?" Sonny spun around, as if Clay would step out from behind a tree at any moment. "Where could he have gone?"
Brock scratched Pepper's head and gave her a treat. "I don't know. Maybe he got in a car?"
Sonny's eyes met Brock's as they considered the implications of their most likely injured and concussed brother getting in a car with a stranger.
Mounting the steps of the county library, Clay hoped this plan of his would pan out. If it didn't, he had no idea what else to do. He had no other place to go and little money. Shaking off his doubts, he opened the door and entered.
He found a group of computers in a sunny corner. If his situation wasn't so grave, he thought he would enjoy perusing the shelves here. Settling down at a computer away from anyone else, he opened a browser and started his search.
Some of his results were repetitive, but he clicked on each new one and then selected maps to view the google earth image. He worked steadily down the list. Each result represented a 145 Union Street farther and farther away from his current location. The passage of time went unnoticed as he worked diligently to find the house from his memory.
He clicked on the link to 145 Union Street in Virginia Beach, and there it was, the house from the background of his dream. The mailbox with the blue flowers perched at the end of the driveway. He found it.
Chocolate cookies filled the cooling racks in Emma's kitchen. She baked most of the afternoon as she waited to hear the team found Clay. When he arrived home, she wanted to have one of his favorite Christmas treats ready.
"Emma, I think you made enough cookies." Hannah did her best to convince her friend to stop baking. "If Clay eats all these, he'll get sick, or fat."
"Enough of this kind anyway. Once they cool, we can frost them." Emma started washing the bowl from the stand mixer.
"This kind? You aren't planning to—"
Jason walked into the kitchen, stopping any further conversation about baking cookies. Emma turned to her father with a happy smile, but upon seeing his serious expression all the joy on her face drained away. "They didn't find him?"
"They came to a paved road, and Clay's trail ended. Pepper couldn't pick up his scent anymore. The boys think maybe he got a ride from there." Taking a deep breath and releasing it, Jason decided not to tell his daughter about the fall they suspected Clay took.
"A ride? Who would he get a ride from?"
"I don't know, but I'm sure he'll contact us as soon as he can." Unfortunately, Jason could think of several reasons why Clay wouldn't be able to contact them, and none of them were good.
Clay left the library and started walking determinedly back to the truck stop. Thinking he might have to go on foot for his return trip, he paid close attention to the route on his ride over.
While still in the library, he looked up how to get to 145 Union Street in Virginia Beach. It was approximately one hundred ten miles away, and without transportation of his own, he would be dependent on the generosity of strangers like Hank, Viv, and Ronnie to get there. The amount of time the trip would take was going to be determined by how lucky he was in catching rides.
As he walked, he admired the Christmas lights turning on as dusk fell. Not sure of the date, he didn't know if he would make it to Emma in time for Christmas. He knew he needed to. An image, or a memory, flashed in his head of her lifting a glass angel ornament and hanging it on a Christmas tree. Her smile lit up her whole face.
The recollection spurred him on as his walk took him away from the suburban neighborhood and closer to the highway. He saw the lights from the parking area in the distance. Increasing his pace to a jog, he pushed himself to return to the diner.
When he arrived, he would use the men's room to make himself as presentable as possible. The huge winter parka he wore had some dried mud streaks, he assumed from his fall back in the forest. If he brushed the worst of those off and flattened his hair down a bit, he thought people would be willing to stop and give him a ride.
Emma wandered aimlessly through the kitchen and living room. She was finally alone. Last night, she convinced Hannah to go home and sleep in her own bed. Naima, the kids, and a few of the other SEAL wives, spent the evening with her as well, and as much as she appreciated their support, she needed to be away from everyone.
Her father refused to leave, but he gave her the space she desired. She thought he was still asleep in the spare room. If he wasn't truly asleep, he was faking it well for her sake.
Cerberus paced along beside her as she walked the length of the living room. The lights from the tree gave the room a warm glow in the early morning, but they did nothing to warm up Emma's heart. Two days had passed and there was still no word about Clay. Where was he? Was he alone in the cold? Was he hurt?
Today was Christmas Eve, and although there were many reasons they could be apart, this was not the one she expected. Clay survived Afghanistan, being blown up in the Philippines, and other dangerous operations. How could he die on a training mission in West Virginia?
As her thoughts became angrier, her pace increased to match them. She swung around to march back down the room again.
Cerb barked in the silence, and Emma paused, not knowing what the dog sensed. Then loud knocking on the front door broke the quiet. She froze. Who could it be? Was it the official notification of Clay's death? But that couldn't be it. Her father would have known before the officers ever arrived.
Fearfully, she approached the door. The knocking sounded again. Hesitating, Emma let her hand hover over the doorknob. Cerb barked once more. She grasped the knob and wrenched it open.
There on the doorstep stood Clay. Visible bags hung under his eyes, and his hair curled wildly around his head. Reaching out a hand to her, he stepped into the house.
"You're real," he whispered, then collapsed on the living room floor.
Late that afternoon, Emma tucked Clay into their bed, with Cerberus lying across his feet. They had spent a large part of the day at the base medical center, and Clay just wanted to be alone with Emma. While they were waiting for his test results, the entire team showed up at the hospital to see him. He appreciated they had been worried, but as far as he could tell the only positive thing about them all hanging around was the doctor letting him leave the med center because Trent would be around to watch him.
Emma plumped his pillows for him and pushed the damp curls off his forehead. "Comfortable?"
Clay caught her hand in his and pulled her down to sit by him. "Yeah, stay here with me."
Trent stuck his head around the door. "Doing okay after your shower?"
"I'm fine." Clay's eyes narrowed as his gaze moved from Emma to Trent.
Ignoring his teammate's displeasure, Trent entered the room. "Good. You need to eat something."
Clay frowned. "I'm not really very hungry."
"I wasn't making a suggestion."
In an attempt to keep the peace, Emma spoke. "How about I make you a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup?"
A little smile flickered across Clay's face as he realized why those items on the menu at the diner had appealed so much to him. "That would be great."
Standing at the end of the bed, Trent rolled his eyes. "Make sure you eat it. And keep drinking liquids."
"I'll make sure he does, don't worry." Emma patted Trent's arm as she went to prepare Clay's food.
Trent gave Clay a hard glare and pointed a finger at the younger man. Then, shaking his head, he turned and walked out of the room.
Alone except for Cerb, Clay listened to the sounds from downstairs drifting up to him. While they were at the medical center, Naima and Hannah made the decision everyone would be celebrating Christmas at Clay and Emma's this year. By the time Jason helped Clay walk into the house, everyone was bringing in their presents and food supplies to organize the celebration.
Relaxing into his pillows, he enjoyed the laughter and chatter. While the joyful clamor of his friends and family comforted him, Clay wanted Emma the most. He tried to discern her voice among the various ones floating up to him.
The racket of Pepper barking as RJ shouted attracted Cerb's attention. Lifting his head to look in the direction of the bedroom door, the dog let a low rumble.
"You can go join them, Cerb." Clay gave the Malinois permission to leave.
The dog stood and walked up the length of the bed to Clay. Giving his owner a lick on the cheek, Cerb jumped down and headed out to supervise the goings-on in his house.
"Going to play with your friends, Cerb?" Clay heard Emma's voice in the hall.
"I told him he could."
Emma entered the bedroom with a tray holding his soup and sandwich. "I'm impressed he stayed with you so long, with all the noise they're making." Placing the tray across his lap, she settled down on the bed beside him. "You better eat that, or we'll both be in trouble with Trent."
Clay chuckled. As he began to eat, he told Emma about his tomato soup and grilled cheese at the diner. From that topic he segued easily into sharing the details of his journey from West Virginia. He spoke about Hank and his kindness, and Viv and Ronnie at the diner, and about some of the people who picked him up on his way to Virginia Beach.
When Clay ate his fill, Emma took the tray and placed it on the floor. Reaching out, Clay pulled her closer to cuddle. She pressed a kiss to his temple. He wanted to tell her how she helped him make it through the entire trip home, but before he spoke, Naima knocked lightly on the door frame.
"Hey you two, is it okay if everyone comes up to visit in small groups? I think we all want to make sure you're good, Clay." She came in and picked up the tray with the empty dishes.
Emma looked to see Clay's reaction. "Up to you, babe."
"Sure, Naima. Not too long though. I'm kind of beat."
"Don't worry. Trent has already threatened everyone not to tire you out, or they don't eat any Christmas Eve dinner."
Clay nodded at Naima's response, then he rubbed his chin as he thought about what she said. "Wait, Christmas Eve dinner?"
Emma laughed. "We have a LOT of food downstairs, so half of it is for tonight and the other half tomorrow. Tonight is ham and tomorrow a roast and Cornish Game Hens."
His brow wrinkled. "Cornish Game Hens?"
Naima shrugged. "You'll have to ask Brock about that. Okay, I'll take this down and start sending people up."
Not long after Naima left, Hannah and Victoria joined them. Hannah told them about her new man dilemma. With Emma's help Hannah had bought what she thought was a suitably casual gift for the guy she had been dating not too formally. They had exchanged gifts last night, and her not serious date gave her an expensive bracelet. She was afraid he was more into her than she thought.
Hannah and Victoria were followed by Ray, Naima, Jameelah, and RJ, who talked about expected presents and the possibility of snow for Christmas, which wasn't likely at all. Then came Brock, who was teased about Cornish Game Hens. Trent and his girlfriend came in, but most of their visit was spent with Trent checking Clay's vitals and pupil response. Lisa and Sonny stopped in to tease Clay about getting lost in West Virginia. Full Metal stuck his head in to tell them he wouldn't be around for Christmas Day as he was driving to his parents' house. Blackburn and his wife stopped in and chatted for a bit, with Eric pointing out which gray hair Clay had caused this time.
Then Jason and Mikey came in, carrying plates of Christmas Eve Dinner for Emma and Clay. Clay picked at his, but Emma was finally hungry, so she ate her entire plate and most of Clay's. While they ate, Jason and Mikey chatted with them about Mikey's life and what was going on with Jason's business.
Finally, everyone went downstairs to enjoy dinner, and Clay and Emma were left alone. Clay sighed and sank back into the bed, content to be on his own with Emma again. "That was nice, but I'm glad it's just us now."
Emma smiled and snuggled into his side. "Me too."
They cuddled together on the bed and enjoyed being alone. Emma laced her fingers into Clay's and rested their joined hands on his chest. "It makes me feel good to know all those people were so helpful."
"Yeah, it really was great of all of them. But you know who helped me the most?" Clay gazed down at her. "You. Even when I didn't remember anything else, I remembered you. And getting back to you was the most important thing."
Tears glistened in Emma's eyes as she smiled at Clay. "Being with you is my most important thing too." She stretched up, and they kissed.
Ending their kiss, Emma rested her head on Clay's shoulder, and they lay quietly.
"Do you remember my first deployment after we started dating, and you sent me those videos of you singing?" Clay's voice broke the quiet moment.
"Sure." Emma sat up at his question.
"The last one you did, right before we came home, it was a Christmas song about being with your love. I heard it in one of the cars I rode in. Your version was much better." Clay leaned into her side as he spoke.
Emma grinned. "I know the song you mean, but I think you might be biased."
Shaking his head, Clay pulled her closer. "Nope. Yours definitely better." He tilted his head to gaze up at her. "You could sing it now though, so I can compare."
"I guess I could." She straightened up a little for her breathing and began to sing.
Clay settled happily into her side as he listened. There was no question in his mind that Emma's version was best. He didn't need to hear her sing it to know.
I'll find my way back home
And light up every tree
We will hang our stockings for you and one for me
'Cause Santa called to make sure I'm prepared
He said, "Pack your bags and tell them you'll be late"
I'll be home with my love
I promise, I promise
Coming down the hall to check on Emma and Clay, Naima heard the song coming from their room. She paused before reaching the door and listened. Smiling, she decided the pair in the bedroom didn't need any more visitors tonight. Tiptoeing carefully to the door, she grasped the doorknob and quietly pulled it shut. Before the door closed, she caught a glimpse of them curled together on the bed, Emma singing and stroking Clay's hair.
The next morning the living room was packed with people and torn wrapping paper. After a delicious breakfast cooked by Jason and Mikey, the entire group sat down to open their presents together. Most of the gifts were unwrapped, but Sonny played elf, giving out the remaining ones.
"Here's one for RJ. I wonder what it is?" Sonny raised a quizzical eyebrow as he handed the boy what was obviously a wrapped-up basketball. They watched RJ open his gift. He thanked his parents, and Sonny handed out a few more packages.
Clay was tucked up on the couch with a blanket covering his legs. Trent only allowed Clay to come downstairs after Emma asked. The medic had been insistent to Clay that he had to stay in bed. Clay thought he was home free once Emma got him permission to be out of bed, but she was almost as strict as Trent. He doubted he would be allowed to play in the touch football game planned for this afternoon in the yard.
"Oh look, we have one more for Poster Boy." Sonny held up a red gift bag with Santa on it. "From Emma."
Clay reached out to take it when Emma dove forward and snatched the gift from Sonny's hand. "Not that one!"
Everyone in the room stared at Emma in surprise. Blushing a deep red, she tucked the bag by her feet. "Just something I didn't mean to wrap, and you know, it just…." Her voice turned to a mumble and faded away. She looked to Hannah for a lifeline.
Understanding her friend's cue, Hannah glanced under the tree and grabbed the last gift. "Here's one for Jameelah."
Attention diverted from her Emma turned her red face into Clay's neck.
"So, what is it, I wonder?" Clay was very curious about the gift now. "Seems like something interesting."
Emma lifter her head from his shoulder. "You can't see until everyone's gone."
He grinned and gave her a kiss. "I can't wait." He hoped it was something good.
2nd Author's Note: The song Emma sings is "I'll Be Home" by Meghan Trainor.