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Clay remembers being a little boy (probably 6 years old, the last summer before his parents divorced) and spending the 4th of July with his mom. They had rented a little cabin on a lake, splashing in the water and exploring the nearby hiking trails all weekend. They roasted hotdogs and made s’mores one night, snuggled together by the fire. But his most vivid memory is curling up on a blanket with her, the two of them laying on the dock and watching the fireworks set off from the main lodge.

Clay feels like he can still smell the smoke, that distinct scent of burnt fireworks, and sees the bright colors blooming behind his closed eyelids as he thinks back to that night. He recalls brilliant bursts of red, blue, and green, pops of gold, and the loud whistles and booms accompanying each. It was perfect.

He also remembers asking his mom why Ash wasn’t there. He remembers her squeezing his chubby little hand and pulling him close, kissing his blonde curls and telling him that his daddy had to work, but his mommy is right there with him. He knows now that that was probably a lie.

As he’d grown older, the 4th of July became less of a night of celebration and more of a night of terror. He remembers his father’s alcohol-fueled rages, the PTSD flashbacks from the flashes and bangs that took him right back to the combat zone. When Clay was about 13, he woke up on the 5th with a black eye. At age 14 it was a bruised jaw, age 16 a broken rib. He didn’t, couldn’t understand it at the time. Now, he gets it.

Clay sits in the middle of his bed, the blackout curtains pulled tight. Jason holds him, the younger man snug in his lap. Clay has noise-cancelling earmuffs on, making it difficult to nuzzle in, but he’s still cuddled up to Jason’s chest so he can feel the vibrations of his chest. The master chief is talking to him, even though he knows Clay can’t hear him, his lips pressed to the man’s forehead and nose buried in his hair. He rocks Clay, just as he did his children when they were small, big hands rubbing soothing circles over his back.

At the first screech of a bottle rocket and snaps of fire crackers, they’d retreated to the bedroom. Jason made a point of keeping Clay’s attention on him as he closed the drapes and locked the door. He promised his youngest SEAL they were safe as he drew him into his lap and slipped the earmuffs on. Jason doesn’t fear the fireworks, not like Clay, but he understands. Clay has seen things he hasn’t, reacts differently than he does.

This thing between them, it’s gone on for months now. Jason can’t pinpoint when exactly it started, but he knows he doesn’t want it to end. He thought he’d never want to get married again, but he’s already saving up his pay for a ring. He wants and needs Clay, just as Clay wants and needs him. He couldn’t imagine leaving him to face this night on his own.

Around 11:30, things quiet down. Jason slips the earmuffs off, taking Clay’s hand gently in his as he tries to fight him to keep them on. He kisses Clay’s temple as he uncovers his ears, drawing him in to lay down beside him. His back and legs ache after hours of cradling the younger man in his lap and he sighs with relief as he’s able to stretch out. He strokes his fingers through Clay’s soft, blonde hair and over a healing cut on his cheekbone.

“You’re safe, sweet boy,” Jason whispers in his ear. “You’ll always be safe with me.”