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holding mid-heaven

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The morning could be a Turner painting. High cumulous clouds are strewn across a pale blue sky while the sun shines down a buttery yellow. Dry clumps of wild grasses crackle and whisper as the wind sifts them, plucking at their seed heads.

Walt leads Horse from his trailer to the ring where Vic stands waiting in air that's already summer-warm. He's been looking forward to this chance for them to spend time together without duty or crisis or danger looming, but since her father's visit last night his eagerness is laced with dread. At any moment the words I'm leaving might be loosed from her throat like arrows to pierce him through.

The thought of Vic walking away has always filled Walt with a twisted-gut sense of panic. Here on the verge of what could be, when the possibility between them feels solid enough to grasp with both hands, he wants to bind her to him with whatever it takes.

And he knows he has to let her go.

"What's his name?" she asks, standing loose-limbed and hipshot, gesturing at Horse.

"He doesn't have one." Walt throws her a brush as he walks past and catches her impudent smile in return. Tying Horse to the rail, he says, "Now you take that brush and you brush him head to tail, okay?"

"I thought I was learning how to ride," she drawls.

He turns, stroking Horse and stretching his arm along the broad back. "That is learning how to ride. You gotta get all the dirt and the burrs off him before you put the saddle on him. He needs to be comfortable or you won't be." Walt motions with his head. "Come on."

Vic clears her throat and slouches over with a smile that says she's humoring him. See? I'm doing it. Against the dirt and the sky and Horse's dark flank she seems to glow.

It's a thought he'd never admit to aloud — Vic would surely laugh at him — but she reminds him of a dawn goddess, all ivory and rose and gold. When did he first notice the way light always seems to gather around her? This morning it gilds the wisps of her hair floating in the breeze; turns her eyes the color of clear, unclouded honey; glints in the sweat gathering at the curve of her throat.

Mother of the stars and the winds. Bringer of light. Eos opening the gates of heaven. The ancient Romans called her Aurora, but Walt has always preferred the Greeks.

He positions himself at Vic's side and places his hand on hers to guide it as she strokes the brush over Horse's coat. "Nice and strong," he tells her. "That's the way."

Years of self-discipline and denial, of suppressing his every impulse to touch her, are wiped away by this small, unthinking indulgence. His mouth goes on trickling words like a fountain but they're camouflage, an obscuring spray. Reaching around her back, Walt gently grasps Vic's forearm to pull her other hand flat against Horse. Now both of his hands cover hers.

For a few charged seconds it's almost an embrace.

When Walt lets go his fingers tingle, want to linger on her skin. His palm briefly cups her shoulder before resting lightly on her back.

"That's good," he murmurs. "Keep brushing. Good job." With a last glance, he forces himself to move away. He starts brushing Horse's right flank to occupy his empty hands. Vic still hasn't said a word and her unnatural silence spurs him to recklessness. "So your dad came by the station last night."

She squints at him against the strong sunlight. "What did he say?"

"Well he was pretty upset about you getting shot."

"That's all you guys talked about?"

Walt hesitates.

A selfish part of him wants nothing to disturb this brief idyll between them. If these few hours are all he has left, he wants to hoard them and preserve their memory for a lonelier future. But his more generous nature knows that the very least he can do is make this easier for Vic. It had stung him, all those months ago, to stand there in the courthouse and hear her hesitation. Sometimes... sometimes it's hard to tell you things. The knowledge of what else she hadn't told him then had weighed on him like grief. How much of a burden had it been for her?

"He also said you wanted to go home," Walt tells her. "To Philadelphia."

"What?" There's an edge to her voice presaging anger.

"He asked me not to stop you."

Her steady gaze is fixed on him across Horse's back. "And what did you say?"

Not enough, Walt thinks. Not what I wanted to say. "There's nothing for me to say, Vic. It's your life, your choice."

She lifts her chin. "So you don't even have an opinion? Whether I stay or go, it's all the same to you?"

"No," he says immediately. He can't feign indifference, not this time. "That's not what I'm saying. But it's not my place to interfere in your life."

She's already lost so much because of him; Walt won't ask her to give up anything else.

Horse's flank is hot under his hands as he concentrates on making smooth, firm motions with the brush. When seconds go by with no response from Vic, he looks up.

"I can't believe you," she says in a low voice. "I seriously cannot fucking believe you, Walt."

She stalks away, throwing her brush to the ground. Horse snorts and shies. "Easy," Walt murmurs, rubbing his shoulder. The last time she walked away from him he did nothing to stop her. He's a wiser man today.

"Vic," he calls, setting down his own brush and skirting Horse to follow her. Flurries of dust explode from under her boots at the force of each impact.

She whirls to face him, her ponytail whipping out behind her. "It's not interfering to have an opinion, Walt! It's not interfering to tell somebody, 'Hey, I'd miss you if you left town'! In fact that's something most people want to hear, believe it or not! People actually like to know if they mean something to you!"

"You know you do."

"Okay, but what, Walt? What do I mean to you? Are we friends? Am I just a really great deputy you don't want to lose because trying to find another one is such a pain in the ass? Is that it? Is there something else? Because I swear to god I just don't know anymore."

Each question seems to lodge itself between his ribs, sharp points pricking the delicate intercostals so that every inhale stings. The sudden fact of her uncertainty shocks him. Has he really been so successful at concealing his feelings from her? His hand twitches uselessly to reach into the space between them. "It's more than that, Vic. You... you're important to me."

She throws her hands up with a strangled noise. "What is it with men? I can't get you to talk to me even when I am standing right in front of you begging, and I can't stop Travis and my dad from telling me exactly how they think I should live my life, without giving a shit what I want. And then they expect me to be fucking grateful for it," she spits.

The strangling knot in Walt's chest unravels in an instant; his heart is so buoyant with hope it seems to leap into his throat to meet his stumbling tongue. "So your dad... when he said that, about you wanting to go..."

"Of course I don't want to go back to Philly!" Her voice cracks in the empty air. "My dad's talking about moving me into some new community relations department. For Christ's sake, can you imagine?"

Relief floods Walt's muscles and makes him weak. He feels himself smiling helplessly. "No."

All of Vic's hostility seems to drain out of her from one moment to the next. With a sigh, she says, "Walt, why do you think I'm still here? Why do you think I stayed after Sean left? Was it all the great possibilities for career advancement? Or maybe I suddenly got really into fishing?"

He shakes his head because he doesn't have words for an answer. The truth is he'd tried very hard to not think about things like why she'd stayed or why he wanted her to. He'd been existing in a state of held-breath suspension for so long it was almost second nature. Better to keep himself at a distance because he couldn't quite conquer the belief that openly loving her was dangerous. Any admission of desire came with the possibility of loss and it was better to have nothing to lose. That was what he'd told himself.

All sophistry, of course.

Vic crosses her arms and looks off to where the flat plain is split by a black ribbon of highway unspooling to the horizon. "You said you wanted me to stay and I thought that meant... but then you shut me out. I didn't know why things had changed and it hurt, Walt. It really hurt."

Despite all her experience on the job and every terrible way her life's been shattered, there's a guilelessness to Vic that's always drawn him in, an openness and honesty to her feelings that she's never learned to disguise. He remembers her confronting him in an alleyway, her heart so exposed that witnessing it had felt like a violation. He'd been resolute then, hardened against her, though right now the why of it escapes him. But the look on her face as she'd walked away is seared in his memory.

"I'm sorry," Walt says hoarsely.

She takes a step toward him, close enough to touch if he had the courage to reach out. But isn't that the problem? He's always been a coward when it comes to her. It's always Vic putting herself out there and him shying away with excuses born of fear. Justifying his indecision and convincing no one. Except her, it seems.

"I just really need you to tell me what's going on," she says. "Because right now I'm pretty confused." She looks down and bites her lip before meeting his eyes again. "It feels like things have been a lot better lately, even before I got shot. And since then you've been... you've been really great and I don't know how to thank you for taking care of me and everything—"

"You don't need to—"

"Right, 'cause saving my life is no big deal." She rolls her eyes. "You're such a dumbass."

The fond little smile accompanying her insult ignites a spark of warmth inside him. For a moment they just look at each other under the bright sun while sweat slips from his hairline into the collar of his shirt. Then Vic clears her throat and he feels a new tension begin to coil in his gut.

"The thing is," she says, sounding tentative and so unlike herself, "for a while there I was basically living with you. And we never really talked about it but when I said I was going back to the trailer park you got all weird. So I thought, maybe... maybe you didn't want me to go."

Walt tries to swallow past the dryness in his throat. "Vic—"

"Wait, just let me get this out, okay?"

He nods. "Okay."

She licks her lips, takes a deep breath. "You keep touching me. Like it... like it's a normal thing that we do. I mean, just now, with the brushing? Or before, in the car, on the stakeout?" She laughs: a breathless, shaky sound. "If you're trying to mess with my head, you're doing a great job."

"I'm not," he says quickly.

"Then what are you doing?" Her hands settle on her hips. "You never just come out and say anything and I've got no idea what the hell I'm supposed to do. I can't keep guessing, Walt. This time I need you to tell me what you want. I need you to say it."

He searches her face—this fierce, bright, beautiful woman before him—and allows himself, really allows himself, to think beyond the idea of her not leaving.

What he wants are the small, ordinary struggles that make up a life. He wants to fight with her when no one's heart is on the line, about toothpaste and refrigerator shelves and wet towels on the floor. He wants lazy Sunday mornings and long winter evenings by the fire. He wants to buy groceries with her and mix their laundry together and discover all the ways he can make her moan.

What he wants is a lifetime with her at its center.

"You, Vic," he says simply and watches her eyes widen. "I want you."

She bites her lip, looking almost shy, and then she's smiling at him, her face alight.

Walt closes the last distance between them and brushes his fingers over the back of her hand. "I don't want you to go back to Philadelphia, or anywhere else. I want you to stay here. With me."

Vic curls her fingers into his and squeezes. "You couldn't just say that before? Ask me on a date?" She tilts her head to the side. "Oh, wait, I forgot who I was talking to."

Happiness makes him feel weightless, in free-fall, and he can't keep the grin off his face. "Well, I did offer to teach you to ride."

"Uh huh. And does that move usually work for you?" she asks, tugging playfully on his hand.

"Never tried it before."

There's a shift in the air around them as Vic makes a contemplative sound and moves even closer. "Guess I'll have to let you know, then."

"Uh huh."

"So," she says, and his eyes are drawn to her mouth, the provocative challenge of her lips as they hold the shape of the vowel.

"So," he echoes.

"Are you gonna kiss me or what?"

God, yes.

It's fairly chaste, as kisses go, but all the same Walt's not entirely steady when they separate. Vic smells like sweat and sunscreen, coconut and citrus. He doesn't remember moving his other hand, but it's curled around her bicep and he feels firm muscle under the soft skin. When he opens his eyes, hers are still closed and for a few heartbeats he admires the crescent moons of her lashes. Then she looks up at him with those golden eyes and all the separate sensations coalesce into open, electric desire.

"Vic," he says, just a puff of air and a click in the back of his throat.

"Yeah," she agrees softly, and then she's kissing him again.

Walt reaches up to cup the nape of her neck, his thumb stroking her jaw; his other hand lets go of hers to find the damp fabric at the small of her back and follow its curve. Vic grips him tightly at his shoulder and waist as if there's some possibility he might try to get away. As if closer isn't the only direction he wants to go.

Heat saturates him as their kisses turn wet and seeking. The world dwindles until there's only the flame of her mouth under his and the burn of the sun at his back. He sucks at the tang of salt on her upper lip to slake his thirst, greedy for her. Vic's exploring tongue flickers in his mouth like lightning and sets him ablaze. He grabs her hips with both hands, yanking her up on her toes and into him. She makes a satisfied noise in her throat and works her fingers into his hair, knocking his hat to the ground. Walt barely notices it fall.

Something swells inside his chest, expanding his lungs. For the first time in a long, long while it feels as though he can really breathe. Vic's hand slips from his hair and trails down, her fingers tracing the edge of his ear, then his jaw. Her palm comes to rest against his cheek, cradling it, while her thumb strokes the tender skin over the bone. Their kisses begin to gentle and slow, spreading warmth instead of fire through his veins. She's sleek and soft against him, pliant and strong. Wonderfully and remarkably alive.

"Holy shit," Vic whispers when they finally pull away.

Walt breathes a laugh, a little stunned himself, and rests his head against hers. The wind has picked up again and strands of her hair flutter about their faces like fine streamers of sun. Vic is quiet in the circle of his arms, seeming content with stillness while he waits for his racing heart and humming body to calm. Even now she feels bold and vivid against him, more real than everything else around them. When he blinks she remains in his vision: a vibrant afterimage streaking across his closed eyelids.

Behind him, Horse whickers softly.

"So, uh, you want to finish the lesson?" Walt asks.

Vic leans back and raises her eyebrows at him. "You're seriously asking me that? Now?"

He grins foolishly and shrugs.

She shoves at his chest and steps away with a laugh. "I should say yes just to make you suffer. Go get your damn horse so we can get out of here."

Walt bends to retrieve his hat and brushes it off before setting it back on his head. Vic is already halfway to her truck. He takes a moment to admire the fit of her jeans and the sway of her hips, remembering how they'd felt under his hands. She looks back over her shoulder and catches him watching. With a cocky grin she turns on her heel, taking a few steps backwards, and motions with her head. "Come on." When she spins around and keeps walking there's an exaggerated swing to her stride that he knows is entirely for his benefit.

He chuckles softly and gladly follows her lead.