The cave they'd taken shelter in was too small; Abby felt claustrophobic in there even without Connor's constant presence, hovering just out of reach. He was quiet most of the time, a silent reminder not only of how much she'd messed up but of everything else as well. All the other myriad ways she'd messed up, or was still messing up, and didn't know how to fix. All the other terrors hemming her in until she thought she'd scream.
But screaming wouldn't make the fear go away. Nothing would make the fear go away; it was a constant companion, one that dogged her every step. If she paused, even for a second, the fear tripped her up, stealing away what was left of her strength. It woke up with her every day and lay down with her every night, pressing even closer to her than Connor did, until the weight of it smothered her and all she could do was lie still in the dark, Connor's body warm and twitching behind her. Each night she stared out of the too small cave to where the embers of their small fire still glowed softly and her imagination turned each shadow the fire cast into something with teeth and claws, ready to pounce and tear.
Each night, when exhaustion finally dragged her under, there were things waiting for her in the darkness, things that lurked and leapt and tore. And, worst of all, even her imagination, even her nightmares, fell far short of what could be really out there in the dark; they'd only just started to scratch the surface of the terrors this world held and each day held the promise of more.
No, that wasn't the worst thing of all. The worst thing was what almost broke her every day, when the sun finally rose and the pair of them crawled out of their rudimentary shelter, her eyes gritty and mouth sticky and stale, every muscle aching.
That was when Connor moved away from her. It might have only been a few steps but it always felt like more, no matter how many times she tried to convince herself that she was overreacting.
She'd take the claustrophobia over that any day, even if she wouldn't take the fear. And it was the fear that kept her from saying anything about it. Instead she kept silent, knowing that her expression was as pale and grim as Connor's.
Instead she gritted her teeth and dealt with the fear and the hunger and the ever-present sand, which blew into their shallow shelter and left a coarse coating over everything; the place where they slept, the food that they ate, and into their clothes where it rubbed the skin raw. Her scalp itched constantly and each time she gave in to the impulse and scratched, her fingers digging deep into her skin, she came away with gritty, dark grains under her ragged nails. If she scratched hard enough, for long enough, she came away with red under there as well.
She was beyond exhausted by now. They both were: tired of being dirty, itchy, hungry. Like the fear, it weighed her down, each and every day, until everything was gritty; another itch, another irritation. Another reflexive twitch to add to the rest. She couldn't even snap at Connor to relieve it, not any more. Not when he spent the entire time looking like he was treading on eggshells, edging around her like she was the most dangerous thing in this new world, like nothing else could have teeth as sharp or as painful. Even now he was avoiding her, or as close as he could when he was only a few steps distant.
Connor looked up from where he was faffing about with his flint nodule again, trying to shape another knife for her. She hadn't nagged, even with the fear lurking just under her skin, tormenting her. And not just the fear of things with teeth, but the fear that at some point Connor would walk away again. That was another thought that rolled around her head in the quiet of the night and, sometimes, in the quiet of the day.
Connor was still watching her, his expression growing more and more worried, but, like her, he seemed frozen, unable to talk about it or anything else. She cleared her throat and gave him a smile that felt as gritty as the rest of her.
"I'm going to go exploring, okay?"
He opened his mouth like he was going to argue and then shut it again, his expression flitting from just mildly worried to anxious and too eager to please, both at once. Then he nodded, trying on a smile that looked as worn around the edges as her own had felt, and stared back down at his hands, now lying still on the sand that had settled everywhere.
The sand seemed to coat her tongue as well, and she swallowed heavily, feeling the weight of it settle in her stomach. "I won't go far," she reassured him. The words came out tentatively - half a promise and half a plea.
"Okay." He cleared his throat, still staring down at the flint shard in his hand. Then he thrust it out at her, his smile twitchy, still too eager to please but raw in spite of that. "Here."
She hesitated before moving towards him, searching for an answering smile, something reassuring. Their fingers touched for a second as she took it from him and he pulled back abruptly, wiping his palm nervously on his trousers.
"It's not perfect," he said, eyes darting towards her and then away. He licked at the corner of his mouth where the skin was already red and sore, rubbed raw like everything was. "But, you know..." He shrugged and gave a little laugh that trailed off, shooting her another of those twitchy, reflexive smiles. "I'll have another go later."
"It's fine, Connor," she said, her fingers twisting on the shard in her hand. It was smooth and cool under her touch, the blade glinting wicked and sharp in the sunlight, and she tucked it into her pocket, adding a belated, "Thank you."
That got her another smile, Connor's eyes holding something like hope above his beard. "Do you want..." He trailed off again, picking up the flint nodule and turning it over in his hands.
She bit at her lip, her teeth worrying at the scarred tissue that was rapidly forming there. She didn't want to put him off, not with everything so weird between them, but she desperately, desperately needed to get away to somewhere where she could breathe, just for a second. Just a moment's respite from everything, including Connor, however selfish that made her.
In the end, she didn't need to say anything. He must have read it all in her face and his eyes dropped back down to the flint nodule in his hands as he gave a half shrug, his tongue licking nervously at the sore by the side of his mouth again. "Just don't go far, okay?"
He didn't wait for her answer, focusing his attention back on making more tools for them rather than looking at her and she had no words for him, not now. After another moment's hesitation, she moved off, her hands shoved deeply into her pockets, her fingers wrapped tightly around the weapon he had made.
When she glanced back, he was watching her; this time he didn't look away.
She didn't go far and not just because Connor's eyes were still on her. She had her own reasons for wanting to stay close to him even while she needed to get away, reasons she didn't want to think about. It wasn't about fear, not entirely. Or maybe it was but just a different kind of fear. She no longer knew which, and the exhaustion that dragged her down every day fogged her mind, too, leaving everything dull and heavy until her head ached as much as her body. She needed fresh air, a change of scene. All the things she'd needed so often when she was safely back home, when this was neither safe nor home.
She headed instead along the beach, staying superstitiously away from the water's edge; the Mers were still a vivid memory and God only knew what else was lurking in that water. The sand was coarser the closer she got to the river, more like pebbles than the grit that coated everything. They shifted underneath her feet, making the going hard, and her thighs ached with the constant need to maintain her balance. The ache was echoed below her belly, and that was another thing she didn't want to think about. They'd been here weeks now; the cramping shouldn't have been unexpected but that didn't mean she wanted to deal with it, couldn't even begin to imagine how she could.
The going grew a little easier as she got closer to the edge of the escarpment. The ground here was more like mud than sand, and grasses grew, thickening the further away from the shore they got. She glanced back again and Connor was a vague shape, although his head to seemed to be turned towards her.
She was still in his line of sight and that was all the encouragement she needed to turn back towards the escarpment, eyeing it curiously, raising her hand to shield her face from the sun that flared off the pale rocks.
Now that she had the time to look closely at it instead of trudging along, eyes on the ground so that she didn't trip up, it wasn't as smooth as she'd thought, less sheer cliff and more like something weathered. Towards the delta there were tumbled rocks that they must have scrambled over a dozen or more times by now, but they'd never ventured past them inland, not yet. But where the rocks met the edge of the cliff, there might be a path up, at least if she was a mountain goat or whatever the equivalent was on this future world. Maybe it was the stress of the last few days but before she could think better of it, she moved towards it and started upwards, her hands and feet automatically seeking and finding hand holds and foot holds in the rock.
It was easier than it looked from a distance. Much easier. The rock was even paler close up and the sunlight bouncing off it made it gleam so brightly that looking at it made her eyes burn, leaving her blinking and half-blind. But even so she was several feet off the ground, and several feet along the cliff, before she paused for breath and wiped the sweat out of her eyes with a sleeve that was white with dust.
The rock was firm beneath her feet and she let go with one hand, twisting slightly so that she could stare out over the beach and down towards the ocean. It glittered, too, the light bouncing off the swell. And it stretched for miles, beyond even the bay. Her eyes tracked around the coastline, to the headland on the opposite side.
Connor was right. The bay was wider, much wider than she'd thought, and she wasn't even sure now whether where they'd come through the anomaly was on the far side of the bay or further, around the headland and out of sight.
She shivered, leaning back against the rock as though the warmth it had absorbed from the sun would warm her, too.
Connor was right. If the anomaly opened again, they'd never see it.
She took a deep, shuddering breath, tasting salt and chalk from the dust kicked up by her feet and fingers. And then she turned back towards the cliff face, fingers digging deeper into the rock.
There was no going back, not now. Only moving forwards.
The going stayed easy; there were a hundred little pockets washed out by the rain where the softer rock had dissolved and it gave her the grip she needed as long as she moved sideways rather than up. Up had been her first intention. Now she wasn't quite sure where she was headed, except that she needed to keep moving, taking the path of least resistance. It came very close to actually being a path, angled up along a fault line in the rock where the sediment changed, lighter above and slightly darker, and harder, below, another marker of aeons passing, separating both of them from home.
She paused again where the natural ledge widened, leaning against the rock as she flexed her fingers and looking around. There was an outcropping ahead, even darker against the cliff face, and she didn't remember seeing that when she'd been standing on the beach. She frowned, leaning out a little to try and get a good look at it. It was automatic to slide her eyes past that and along the beach, looking for Connor.
He wasn't there.
She froze, her heart beating rabbit fast in her chest, hard and fierce and terrified. He wouldn't leave her. He couldn't...
She leant out further, her heart still hammering and her eyes darting down towards the shore, mapping out the expanse of the beach in case he'd moved. He had to have moved because if not...
Mers might not be the only thing lurking in the water.
There was no sign of him near their camp, or down near the water's edge. Her fingers tightened on the rock, barely registering the pain as she leant out further and her weight made it cut into her fingertips. Everything - every part of her - was focused on finding Connor.
Oh God. Connor...
She stumbled, not quite falling even though the sudden surge of relief came close to overwhelming her, leaving her knees shaky and her head reeling with it. When she looked down, still a little dizzy with it, Connor was standing below her on the beach, balancing himself on the scree at the base of the cliffs. His face was tilted towards her, only fifteen or twenty feet below where she stood - it was close enough for her to see the tightness in the lines around his eyes, in the clench of his jaw.
"What the hell are you doing?" His voice came out high pitched, shaking a little, just like her knees, and she bit back on her first, instinctive response of defensiveness. "What if you... Christ, Abby. What if you fall?"
"I'm not going to fall." That was unthinking reflex and she watched him swallow, look away.
"If you fall..." The words were low and she had to strain to hear them over the sound of the waves. "If you break something..."
Don't come crying to me. Only Connor would never say that to her, or do that to her.
It was still instinct to stay defensive.
"I'm fine," she insisted even as she leant back against the rock behind her, edging a little further from the edge. If he noticed, he didn't comment, not about that. "It's safe enough and..."
And. All those little arguments she didn't want to have with him, not now. I'm a big girl or I know what I'm doing when she didn't know or didn't feel like it.
"There's something up here," she said instead, turning away from him to look back up the cliff face at that tantalising glimpse of darkness. "Just... Gimme a sec."
There was something broken in his voice, enough to make her hesitate but not enough to make her stop, not this time. Not even when she could picture his face, the fear that would be in it, seeing it in the folds and cracks of the white rock in front of her. If anything, it drove her onwards, away from it.
The sun was hot overhead and the sweat dripped into her eyes as the cliff face burned and blurred in front of her. But her feet were steady, as steady as her breathing; in and out, perfectly controlled. It was the only thing that she could control.
Connor had stopped talking, perhaps recognising that there was no reasoning with her. If she kept moving, maybe...
Maybe what, she didn't know. Just that she had to keep moving. The path in the rock face widened the further up she got, until she could walk rather than climb, her fingers staying on the rock face more to steady herself than for any real support. She just kept moving, onwards and upwards, until she reached that patch of darkness, where the rock opened up before her.
It was cool and quiet as she moved into the shade, the air still and the sound of the ocean muted the further she moved in. She blinked several times rapidly, but her eyes were used to the light; each time she closed them, the whiteness of the rock flared in front of her, the after image burned into her retinas by the brightness of the sun.
She took several steps deeper, stumbling in, her feet unsteady as her vision blurred. All of her surety was gone now, swallowed in the dimness. She gave up, closing her eyes and letting it take her, just for a moment, tasting the salt on the air, the disorientation dizzying her for a breath, for two.
When she was little, when her father always came back after he'd left, he'd bring her back the largest seashells he could find for her and hold them up to her ear so she could hear the oceans he'd travelled. She'd giggle and listen to the roar of the waves. It sounded like that now - not real, nothing but the sound of her heartbeat thrumming in her ears, everything distant and washed out. She kept her eyes closed and stretched out her hands, wider and wider with her fingertips spreading, and still didn't touch rock.
The bright afterimages had faded and she opened her eyes again, finally able to see. It wasn't as dim as she'd thought; the sun was still bright outside and there was enough of it reflected back into the cave for her to make out the walls, the width of it, so much wider than the small hollow in the rocks below they'd been sheltering in.
And the entrance wasn't the only source of light. Some spilled down from the back of the cave from a crack in the rocks above; faint as it was it pulled her in, tantalising her as she ventured deeper. The floor wasn't even, sloping up towards the back, but the incline was gentle enough for her to walk on it, at least until it narrowed right at the back, up towards where the light crept in. There was a trickle of water running down the back wall, either condensation or the last of the rain soaking through the top soil and the soft plink, plink, plink as it fell tinkled hollowly.
She stretched out her fingers, letting the droplets run over them and drip to the floor.
There was a soft scraping sound from behind her and she spun on her heels, fast enough to be dizzy-making, her heart back to thrumming furiously in her chest as the ever-present fear surged again. The light outside was still too bright for her to make much out but the shadow that blocked the entrance for a moment before moving inside was Connor-shaped.
He'd followed her up like he'd followed her here, to this world. Leapt straight in after her without looking; a cliff face couldn't have been anywhere near as terrifying after the first fall, not even for Connor.
He stopped at the entrance, maybe as blinded by the switch from light to dark as she had been. He didn't say anything, though, and maybe that's what drove her to finally speak.
"It's a cave," she said, her voice still breathless with the remnants of fear. As things to say went, it was rather pointless because Connor had eyes and a brain to go with them, but she needed to say something, anything. He was just a blur of shadow against the wall now; dark hair, dark eyes, dark clothes. What was left of them.
"I thought..." She hadn't, that was the problem, driven by instinct as much as anything else. But even so... "I think it might be safer here," she said, and that was it, the big thing, an almost superstitious fear that now she'd said it - now the words hung in the air between them - she'd tempted fate. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
"Yeah," said Connor and leant back against the wall, just watching her. She could see him clearly now in the light that spilled in from outside; the stubble on his chin and the exhaustion in his eyes. "Maybe."
"It's got to be worth a try, right?"
He snorted, running his hand over his face, brow to chin. "I don't fancy climbing up here in the dark."
It wasn't meant as a rebuke; at least, she didn't think so. It felt like one anyway and that was enough silence her.
"Maybe..." Connor trailed off, simply looking at her form a moment, as though her silence had taken away his words, too. "Maybe I could widen the way up. Just a bit. I mean, it's not like it would hurt to try, right?"
His voice ended on a hopeful note, and the hope in it kept her silent, too. He wilted a little in the face of it, looking away from her and instead staring back out of the entrance of the cave. He was chewing on his lip again, where the skin was cracked and sore.
She shifted position, not missing the way his attention darted back to her and then away again. "No," she said quietly. "It probably wouldn't hurt to try, if you thought you could... Can you? I mean, it's rock. Would it even be possible?"
He shrugged, a slow roll of the shoulders that didn't tell her much of anything. His eyes stayed fixed on whatever had caught his attention outside the entrance - or, more likely, what hadn't. "I think it's limestone," he said, "or something like it. This..." He stamped on the floor, the sound of his boot ringing hollowly. "I think it must be older. Like this whole thing," he waved one hand vaguely to take in the cave, the cliffs, maybe the world, "is sedimentary, maybe."
Geography and geology had never interested her much, not like biology had captured her attention. Maybe if she'd stayed at Uni, like her mother had wanted, she'd have broadened her interests, but somehow she didn't think that studying rock would ever have been satisfying. But she'd take Connor's word for it; he sucked up knowledge like a sponge, spurting it back out again at the oddest moments. "Okay," she said, content to let him run with it, if only because it was the first interest in anything beyond simply living that he'd shown since they'd got here.
He looked back at her, still chewing his lip, and the look in his eyes was almost wary. Or maybe she was projecting her own wariness, her own fear, onto him. She was no longer sure when it came to Connor. When it came to anything, really.
"Limestone will dissolve more easily in water than some other types of rock," he said. "Parts of it anyway, all of that calcium carbonate that makes up the original shells." She'd take his word for that as well, even though he was lecturing; lizards didn't have shells and it was lizards she loved and knew inside out. It wasn't like she could do her normal trick of reading up on any creatures she'd been assigned before she went near them, ferociously devouring book after book after essay and thesis until she felt she knew them in and out and letting her instincts tell her the rest. But she wasn't stupid - she might not have had Connor's innate thirst for knowledge and capacity for remembering complete trivia, but she could follow the argument well enough.
"So this is here because the rain's washed out the limestone? Left the cave behind?"
"Yeah, probably. The rain or the sea."
That gave her pause, another worry to add to the pile; it wasn't as though anything that happened to them now could ever go smoothly.
"But the tide can't get up this high, can it?" She didn't want to face that disappointment, the idea that this - this place she'd started to let herself believe might be somewhere they could stay out of the reach of things with teeth and claws - could be subject to other dangers.
"Not now, no," he said, and then corrected himself. "Well, probably not. I can't think of any times where high tide and low tide were this far apart. Not off the top of my head. So I'd guess we're safe."
The smile he gave her was tentative; all it did was make her feel transparent, like even Connor could see right through her to the hollow fear underneath, and it soon slipped from his face, killed again by her silence. He moved towards her instead, and then past her, deeper into the cave, looking up towards the light at the back.
"It's a natural chimney," she said, even though he'd probably have worked that out himself - although with Connor who could tell? He could be intensely practical when it came to gadgets and intensely not when it came to anything else. She watched as he reached out and touched the wall, not where she'd touched it, where the water still dripped, but to the side, where the floor sloped up and the ceiling curved down to meet it. He pulled his fingers back and eyed them curiously.
"It's dry," he said, glancing over at her. She simply looked back, no longer following his train of thought. "I mean, it doesn't even look like floods when it rains."
"It hasn't rained today," she said quietly. "And it soon evaporates when it does."
"No, it hasn't, but it's cooler in here, no sun. I wouldn't have expected it to, you know, dry that quickly. If it was going to flood, I mean," he added, the words coming out in a flurry. "There's this..." He gestured towards a small rivulet she'd stepped over without really taking any notice, one that ran in a groove towards the entrance and then seemed to get soaked back into the rock rather than running out of the entrance. "But the rest of it seems dry."
There was something like hope flickering in her chest now, but she didn't want to move too soon and extinguish it.
"So you think it's got possibilities?" she asked not realising until Connor's lips quirked that that was the kind of thing she'd said - that they'd both said - while looking for their most recent flat. Then it had been something jokey and semi-serious, like they were just playing at being adults who had adult concerns like mortgages and DIY; now it seemed all too serious.
"Maybe," said Connor, walking back towards the entrance, looking like he was lost in thought. He must have been; he was absent-mindedly touching the ring he wore around his neck, and he only did that when he was stressed, working something out in his head, right down where all those gears did their shifting in places she couldn't reach and didn't have a clue about. "Maybe. If..."
She followed him, skirting around the edges of the rivulet, now that she knew it was there. There was nothing new to see out of the entrance, nothing out of the ordinary - sun, sand and beach, and a sky too wide to contain it all. If she shifted, moved past Connor and leant against the right hand side of the entrance, she could make out the darker smudge between the gap in the rocks that marked the edge of the escarpment, back where future forests grew, dark and deep.
He shrugged, still staring down at the path they'd climbed up. The sun was higher in the sky now, almost directly above them. She could barely make out the path now that there were no shadows to mark it.
"If I can do something to make that easier, so we don't have to worry about climbing up in the dark and breaking something."
"You said it was limestone," she reminded him and he sighed, huffing out the breath like it was the last one he had in him.
"It's still rock, Abby," he said, and the attempt at patience was clear in his voice, the kind of thing she'd have smacked him for before. Before. "It's still rock and... well, it might take a while."
Maybe it was the cool of the cave, or a gust of wind coming off the ocean, threatening another storm, but she shivered, the words seeming to sink down into her and suck all of the warmth out of her. A while. It sounded permanent.
It sounded terrifying.
"It's got to be done, though," Connor continued, seemingly oblivious of her momentary chill. "I wasn't joking about not breaking something."
She summoned up a smile from somewhere, something as washed out and pale as the rocks around them, but when Connor turned to look at her he wasn't smiling. His eyes were dark and serious above his beard, tight stress lines clear at the corners. "If we... Abby, we can't get hurt. There's nothing..." His voice broke for a second, just a second, but it chilled her further, all the way down into her bones. "If we break something or get hurt or get sick..."
"There's no one..." she whispered, completing the thought when he couldn't. She wrapped her arms around herself, staring out over the white vista that stretched before her, the rocks that went on and on and were made of things that weren't even supposed to exist yet. It didn't help the cold she felt. It didn't help when the arms she really wanted around her were Connor's.
"We're the last people on earth," she said, the words slipping out of her. It was too big an idea, sticking in her throat, settling in the depths of her belly where it ached and hurt. No one else out there. Not just somewhere else on this world, not seen and not heard and unreachable. Just not there.
"Yes," said Connor, and his voice was made small by it. "We are."