Author's Note: It's SEAL Team Week. This story is for the Sunday prompt "Childhood." It takes place as a part of the More Than Friends universe, and happens sometime during that first summer Clay & Emma begin dating, towards the end of summer.
Virginia Beach sweltered in the grip of a week-long heatwave. Vacationers reveled in the extreme temperatures on the beaches, in hotel pools, and at the water parks. The locals did their best to avoid the sultriness as they hurried from air-conditioned homes, to cars, to jobs.
The cooling system in Clay's apartment was having a hard time keeping the place comfortable. His building manager promised to service the unit, but until then Clay and Emma spent their time elsewhere to stay cool. This evening they had taken a walk along the beach away from the popular tourist spots, strolling in the shallow waves breaking on the shore.
Now at their favorite ice cream shop they waited in line outside to order, while discussing their choices. At least Emma debated the different options. Clay planned on sticking with his favorite, vanilla, most likely in a milkshake.
Emma swung Clay's hand in hers. "There are so many yummy flavors. I don't understand why you always pick vanilla."
Clay shrugged. "I know what I like."
"But you could get vanilla with peanut butter cups crushed in it or salted caramel chocolate truffle. Those have vanilla ice cream too." She pointed to the various options on the big menu board.
"What can I say? I'm a man of simple tastes."
Wrinkling her nose at Clay, Emma stepped forward to give her order to the waiting teenager in the window. Clay asked for his milkshake, and they waited while their order was prepared. Once their treats were ready and paid for, they searched for a place to sit. Pointing to a picnic table overlooking the ocean, Emma led the way through the seating area.
Settling down on a bench, Emma licked at the drips coming from the melting frozen chocolate pudding ice cream on her cone, while Clay took sips from his drink. Having caught up with the melting, Emma started to tease Clay by taking long, slow licks of her cone and sucking on the top of the ice cream. She glanced at him from under her eyelashes to see if she had caught his attention.
He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. "What are you up to Emma Hayes?"
She widened her eyes and gave him an innocent look. "I don't know what you're talking about."
He shook his head at her. "Troublemaker."
They were quiet as they both enjoyed their desserts and the cool breeze off the water. Emma gazed at Clay with a curious expression. "Okay, there's more to this vanilla ice cream thing than you 'just knowing what you like.'" She deepened her voice to imitate Clay's when she quoted his reason for liking vanilla. "There's a story here. Tell me, please."
Clay looked out at the ocean and sighed. Turning back to Emma, he gave her a wistful smile. "Growing up with my grandparents there weren't a lot of things like ice cream, candy or cookies. Mostly because it was Liberia and they weren't really available, but also because my grandparents were missionaries, and any extra money was spent on necessities for the mission."
Pausing, he took a long draw from the straw in his milkshake. "Every so often they would get some cream. Maybe someone would trade it for some other foodstuff. My grandmother would let my grandfather take a little sugar from her stores, and he would break out this old, and I mean old, not like the ones you can buy at Williams Sonoma, ice cream maker. We would spend practically all day turning the crank on that thing. My arm would kill that night."
"Developing your muscles young," Emma interjected, giving his bicep a soft punch.
Clay smiled at her, then stared pensively off into the distance. "My grandmother kept a small bottle of vanilla extract hidden away. She would get someone from the mission's parent organization to send one out once in a while with the other supplies. There weren't a lot of things around, like chocolate or fruit, to flavor the ice cream with, so she would let us use a few drops of her vanilla."
Emma listened intently to Clay as he shared this glimpse into his time with his grandparents. Rarely did he speak about his years with them, and she appreciated his willingness to offer her this little peek into what made him into the man he was.
"Late in the day my grandfather would finally declare the ice cream ready and open the container." A longing expression drifted across Clay's face as he recalled those times. "I still remember the first time I tried some. Nothing ever tasted so good before, and I don't think anything else ever will again."
Shrugging a shoulder, Clay glanced at Emma, who was absorbed in his tale. "My grandfather would take the first serving to my grandmother and say, 'Sweets for my sweet,' and she would take the bowl and give him a kiss. Cheesy, I know, but it always made me feel happy and safe to see them like that."
Reaching out to rest her hand on Clay's arm, Emma gave it a gentle squeeze. "I don't think that's cheesy at all. I think it's wonderful that they still loved each other like that."
"Yeah, I miss them." He took a last sip from his milkshake. "I guess the vanilla ice cream reminds me of them and the times we had together. That's all."
"I like that. Strawberry was originally my favorite as a kid because it's pink. Your reason is much better."
"I suppose. We should probably let someone else take this table. Should we walk back up the beach to the truck?" With that question, Clay's shields were up again, and there would be no more childhood reminisces. But Emma treasured the small window he had given her on his early life.
As they walked down to the beach again, Clay took Emma's hand into his. "Back to my place?"
She frowned. "How about going to my room at the hotel?"
"But the bed is so small." He grimaced.
"Yeah, but my AC works," she replied with a triumphant grin.