Author's note: This story is intended to answer some of the questions from Craig Johnson's BOOK A Serpent's Tooth. Warning: Loaded with SPOILERS, if you haven't read the book yet, you have been warned :) For those who are wondering why I posted here and not in the FF Book area - I thought it would be seen here and likely missed under Books; I also didn't know which book would be the best choice, as it kind of encompasses A Serpent's Tooth some of Johnson's short stories. Special thanks to ThinkingBeforeTalking
Vic had left three days before Christmas. I had spent the week plus battling blizzard conditions; including overturned big rigs, civilian traffic accidents, and the problems that arose from the various power outages. I spent the earlier part of this evening with Lucian and some of the other residents at The Durant Home for Assisted Living. My focus at this point was on going home and collapsing for the next week. I had stopped in at the office to check my post-its and make sure there was nothing pressing I needed to attend to right away. The messages were all summaries of solved or otherwise cleared calls in to the office. Nothing pending. There were only two other messages for me and to my great dismay neither was from Vic. I hadn't talked with her since early yesterday, all my calls today went straight to voice mail. She wasn't due home until the day after tomorrow. My hand went to the phone and automatically dialed the number related to the first message on the blotter in front of me. As I read the second message telling me Ruby was keeping Dog until January 2, I heard the first ring, the second ring, and then, "It is a festive evening at The Red Pony Bar and Grill and continual soirée."
I was sitting in The Red Pony. Why? I really wasn't sure. In years past it hadn't bothered me to sit in my home away from home on New Year's Eve without a date. Tonight was different. Henry had insisted I come by the bar for a decent meal, he said I owed myself that much after the week I had had. He said it would help clear my head and that it would be easier to sleep on a full stomach. There was a litany of additional reasons he pursued until I finally relented and agreed to stop by on my way home.
Since arriving I had had two beers, several pieces of bite sized Bruschetta, an oversized plate of Chicken Marsala, butternut squash ravioli, grilled vegetables, a bowl of salad topped with dry bleu cheese and Italian vinaigrette, and had just finished a generous serving of Tiramisu. The Italian fair was delicious and I missed Vic even more. Several years ago Henry had decided to spotlight foods from other countries each New Year's Eve; appetizers through to dessert. Henry had made good on the meal but had been so busy serving the assembled crowd any conversation between us was pending. Henry breezed past me, as I sat on the first stool at the end on of the bar, he rounded to the back of the bar to answer the phone. He picked up after the customary second ring and following his signature address his voice lowered as he answered with a few yeses. I heard him say something about his office that I couldn't quite make out as he turned his back to the burgeoning noise of the bar. He wrote something down and passed it to one of his servers as she hustled behind the bar on her way to the kitchen. My hand extracted my pocket watch, I glanced down and noted it was ten minutes to midnight. I was not looking forward to staying and watching all the couples in the bar ringing in the New Year together. I was alone, missing Vic, and generally feeling sorry for myself. All the reasons for my little pity party were not completely clear; but the feeling itself was painfully evident. Henry was still on the phone with his back to the bar when I stood and pulled on my coat, flipping the collar up. Knowing Henry would understand if I left made me inclined to wait at least until he ended his call. I sat back down and turned to look over my shoulder at the patrons; some squeezed around the table, some dancing, and other's watching the large screen television mounted on the far wall. The place had more people in it than I had ever seen, over my other shoulder I heard the door open and a the sounds of few more people coming in. I heard Henry replace the receiver of the phone into the cradle on the wall and glanced in his direction.
He frowned when he saw my coat, "Walt, you are not leaving so soon." The words were not a question but rather a flat statement.
My mouth refused to deliver the full smile I had attempted but I hoped my words would sound more gracious, "Henry, I'm tired and very full. Thank you for dinner, it was delicious. Now, I want to get home before I fall asleep where I sit. I appreciate your invitation and I promise to call you tomorrow."
The corners of his mouth raised almost imperceptivity, "I understand. But will you at least wait long enough for me to get a package ready for you to take with you. You have been at the station or out on calls all week and I doubt you have anything in the cabin fit to eat. You will need breakfast." I stood and started to speak but he narrowed his gaze and spoke softly but firmly, "Sit, it will not take me very long. I promise." He waited patiently until I sat before turning for the kitchen.
A moment later I felt the friendly slap of a strong hand on my shoulder, "Hiya Walt, Happy New Year!"
I turned slightly toward the man, "Hey Omar, you too."
While my mind had thought to wish him a Happy New Year in return, my mouth had vetoed the thought by refusing to voice the word happy. My head dropped and my eyes inspected the grain of the bar top. The noises surrounding me indicated the excitement was building and I knew without checking my watch that the countdown would be starting in a couple of minutes. I sighed, tired of the persistent cycle of unproductive thoughts I knew would consume my mind soon.
The bar stool I sat on was pivoted to the side, my gaze followed as my head rose in response to the movement. An almost feral expression met my questioning one in return. I had barely registered the familiar face before she moved into the opening she had made between me and the bar. Her hands fisted into the fabric of my shirt and pulled. Surprise dominated, the electric current that flashed with the contact of our lips quickly receded, my mind scrabbled to process what was happening. In contrast to the intense expression in her eyes, her kiss was unexpectedly tender almost hesitant. Her arms snaked up my chest and around my neck allowing her to lock them crisscrossed across the back of my head; effectively locking me head to hers. The kiss felt like a tangle of emotion; fear, grief, need, hope, and others I didn't have time to identify. I began to think it was simply my mind replaying my own myriad of emotions from the past two months. But when she broke the kiss and eased the tension of her arms, I looked into her eyes and knew Vic had been feeling all those things. Tears glistened in the corners of her eyes and were just beginning to pool across her lower lids.
A smile twitched at one corner of her mouth as she whispered, "Happy New Year?"
She slipped her arms down my chest, wrapped them around my waist, and buried her face in my shirt front. The uncharacteristic vulnerability I had seen in her eyes caused me to instinctively draw my coat up along either side of her in an attempt to protect her, shield her from prying eyes. I gently rested my chin on her head. There was no telling what kind of fierce retaliation might befall members of the citizenry who later questioned Vic about this moment. I was grateful she was mostly obstructed from any indentifying view by my coat and me. The back of her coat and head were only thing readily seen and that was only to those behind the bar. She took the briefest of moments to compose herself then lifted her head. I felt her stir and pulled my head back just enough to see her face.
"Take me home."
I heard the crowd, "Ten!"
She didn't release my waist but continued to hold my eyes to hers.
I held her firmly as I carefully stepped from the bar stool.
Keeping her cocooned in my jacket I cautiously moved her backward toward the door.
I noticed Henry move along side me, set a suitcase down, and reach for the door handle.
He pulled the door open and stood to the side to let us through.
I could hear Henry's footfalls into the snow as he follow us out into the snow dusted parking lot.
The closed door and distance did little to mute the voices of the crowd.
I felt in my coat pocket and thumbed the unlock button for the Bullet.
Henry again stepped passed me and set the suitcase down.
He pulled the passenger door open and place Vic's suitcase, carry-on bag and two large brown paper to go bags on the back seat.
"HAPPY NEW YEAR!"
I hugged Vic tighter to me and pressed a quick kiss to the top of her head.
Henry stepped back from the doorway of the Bullet, place a hand on Vic's back and one on my shoulder and softly said, "Happy New Year!" Then he quietly and swiftly retreated to the bar.
I pulled back from her a little, used a knuckle under her chin to raise her face to mine, and then lowered my head to hers. It was brief but definitely not a one sided kiss. Moving from her mouth I nuzzled Vic's neck, for just a moment and whispered, "Happy New Year." When I raised my head from her neck I saw a faint smile shimmer across her mouth. Vic still had not let go of my waist, so I backed her to the open doorway of the truck. When she felt the contact of the vehicle behind her, she slid her hands to my sides and looked up at me. Her exhaustion evident in the sigh and a weak attempt to smile. She started to speak but her words stalled as I quickly released her, shifted my position, and swept her into my arms. She ducked her head to my shoulder as I lifted her up into the cab. I set her down on the seat but was slow in releasing my grip on her, easing myself away a little at a time.
She lifted her head from my shoulder and I placed my forehead against hers, "Yours or mi..."
Her voice was firm in its sharp whisper, cutting off my question, "Yours."
I pulled myself away from her and nodded as I handed her the seat belt and closed both doors on the passenger side. My hand went to my coat pocket and extracted the keys as I walked around to the driver's side and climbed in.
The usually short mile seemed to take ten times as long, it wasn't the snow, and it was probably not even twice to time; it just felt that way. We didn't speak. I thought Vic might still be working on reigning in her emotions. Aware that when she got emotional and started to cry she would get frustrated with herself, cry more, and end up angry, I thought she could use the silence. My not talking stemmed from not knowing what to say and fearing I might pick the wrong thing resulting in fast tracking Vic to angry. The Bullet rolled to a stop near the cabin, I put it in park, got out walked around the truck, and opened the door for Vic. She took my proffered hand as she stepped down from the truck as I popped the suicide door to retrieve the luggage and food. We made our way into the cabin; Vic carrying the food bags, me toting her carry-on and suitcase.
"Bedroom?" I was afraid to ask if she was staying the night, afraid she would say no.
She nodded and draped her coat on the back of my recliner, "Yeah." Her tone was firm and carried sardonic hint of 'where the hell else would they go?'.
As I walked to the bedroom I allowed myself to feel some relief in the knowledge that she was indeed planning to stay at least for one night. After depositing her bags on the bed I turned to go back to the front room and found Vic standing in the bedroom door way.
"You bought furniture?"
She stared at me. I have learned I have difficultly waiting longer than her, I shrugged, "I thought if I was getting married it might be a good idea."
She arched an eyebrow at me, "Are you getting married?"
I expelled a deep breath and forced myself to hold her gaze, "I don't know..." The eyebrow rose even higher, distracting me slightly as I marveled at just how high she was able to push the brow up. The distraction was short lived as I returned my eyes to hers, "... Are we still engaged?"
Her mouth twitched into a crooked grin, I noted she was trying not to laugh, "Were we ever actually engaged Walt?"
"What? You asked me..."
With a shake of her head she interrupted, "I tried to get you to ask ..."
My jaw set and I interrupted her with a nod, "That's right." I leaned an arm across the top of the tall dresser, and sought her eyes. An expectant expression stared back at me. "And, I don't think I ever did."
Her expression shifted to a neutral, unreadable one and she shook her head.
"Is it too late?" I drew my arm down from the dresser and turned my open palm to her. Vic held my eyes a few moments longer. So I decided to nudge her attention to my hand, "I didn't just buy furniture." I dropped my own gaze to the small velvet box.