Written for a ficathon on the primevalathon lj-community
Every blip of Connor's hand-held anomaly detector stabs at Abby like a knife. Too soon, her brain pulses in time with the high-pitched signal. Too soon.
Too soon after their last near-death experience. Too soon after their first genuine death experience. Too soon after the funeral, after watching what remained of the body of their friend lowered into the ground and covered with dirt. Too soon after Stephen, after he left them forever.
They're still in their funeral clothes, though Abby has slipped on more practical shoes and Connor has grabbed his hat. It seems beyond profane to be trekking through a forest searching for something so closely related to Stephen's death half an hour after burying him. Abby wants to pretend with all her heart he isn't dead but at the same time is utterly repulsed by the thought of doing so. Cutter, Jenny, and Connor seem to be similarly struggling and they all walk along in silence, shuffling and careful like the forest floor is nearly-thawed ice stretched thin over a fathomless lake.
Stomping on his grave would have been easier, Abby thinks detachedly, vaguely hearing her dress tear as it catches on a thorny branch. Just as disrespectful but not so far away. And not so dangerous.
The first time they see the creature it's just a flash of dark fur and snarling jaws tearing through the underbrush. Cutter lets loose a noise that doesn't quite make it out of his throat, jerking his gun up like a broken marionette. Connor and Abby are slower to react, their grips slack and their aim unfocussed. Jenny doesn't move or take her eyes from Cutter's face.
"It's big," she murmurs at last, as though someone told her she was supposed to.
"And fast," Cutter forces out in the same tone. The knuckles on his hand holding the gun are white. Abby and Connor stay silent, their eyes on the ground.
The second time they see it Cutter fires twice, the bullets thudding dully into trees far to the left of the brief glimpse of hunching limbs and bone-white claws. The noise of the gun is like a scream in church, appallingly out of place. It's enough to make Abby and Connor draw closer together, and Jenny hiss through her teeth, all of them staring at Cutter with wide, fractured eyes.
He's trembling all over with fire in his gaze and rage gripping his posture. He looks on the verge of vomiting or even passing out almost more than he looks on the verge of homicide, and Abby can't decide if she's more sorry for him or afraid of him.
After they see the creature for a third time, they decide to split up. Jenny puts on her game face and takes a firm step toward Cutter, blazing with determination like body armor. In a mix of chivalry and apathy, Connor hands over his gun. There is no doubt now in anyone's mind that she can handle herself; with creatures or Cutter or both combined. Abby herself is left with only a small mass of metal, cold in her hand, to protect her from the whispering, growling dark.
Well that, and Connor.
He walks silently but steadily at her side, the sound of his footsteps on the forest floor replacing the sound of the anomaly detector after he shuts it off ten minutes into their walk.
"It's in the opposite direction," he says in a quiet, rough voice very unlike his own. "The anomaly, that is. We— Cutter and Jenny will find it."
Abby nods, not really in agreement but at least in some attempt at acknowledgment. Neither of them stop walking, or even turn around. Abby's heartbeat, for more rapid than her slow steps should warrant, now keeps time with her brain repeating too much, too much, too much. The day, the night, the funeral, the anomaly, Cutter's manic glare and Connor's wounded, defensive posture; she losing sense of it all.
They keep walking though her feet hurt like she's been on them for days and Connor is having trouble staying in a straight line. The night keeps getting colder and darker around them and they both forgot to bring a flashlight.
She feels Stephen next to her, striding along with a sure step and a ready weapon and a cocky grin. But she knows if she turns and looks she'll see him bloody and in shambles, mangled pieces already beginning to decay. She hears Connor make a noise next to her and can't resist a quick glance, steeling herself as she turns her head to the right.
Her eyes meet with ones red and ferocious and for a second she's paralyzed. Then an enormous claw rips through her sleeve and some of her skin and knocks her to the ground. It's not Stephen, her exhausted brain buzzes dully with relief. Just the creature intent on tearing her apart.
She only manages to get to her feet before it rushes her again, throwing her against a tree. She hears something crack and hopes it isn't her ribs— a second later she realizes it was her gun going off as she dropped it to the ground. The creature bellows and spins around, paws scrabbling on leafy forest floor as it prepares to make another pass it her. Frozen and hollow, Abby wants to laugh almost as much as she wants to scream, because another death-by-prehistoric-mauling is the last thing on earth they all need right now. She feels hot breath on her face and a brief thought pierces through her mind like a javelin:
This will kill Connor.
Then distinctly human hands grab her and jerk her to side; the hulking body of the creatures trundles past with a vicious snarl, snapping jaws missing her by inches.
"Climb the tree!" Connor gasps in her ear, his grip sliding down her body from her arms to her waist to her knees. "Quickly, Abby!" He heaves upward and for a moment she's flailing in the air, her unsteady weight threatening to overbalance them both. Then her hands connect with a branch and some inborn instinct has her scrambling up into the tree, swinging both legs over then turning back to reach for Connor even though he's shouting at her to go higher—
The creature is coming back again, now heading straight for Connor. Abby can see it in the feeble light of a half-visible moon, and it looks like a bear and like a wolf and like the wild face of a violent, terrible death. She doesn't want to laugh at all now but she does scream, raw and desperate, and for a second the creature seems to lift its head towards the sound. Connor seizes the moment to throw the anomaly detector as hard as he can; it hits the creature's snout and it rears back with another stone splitting bellow. By the time it regains its forward charge Connor has pulled himself up into the tree, Abby has led the way to higher branches and they're both well out of the range of its claws. It begins to circle, staring up at them with vicious eyes and growling low in its throat.
"Can it climb?" Abby asks in a rough voice, throat wounded from her scream.
"I don't think so," Connor answers after several deep breaths. "See the legs? I think… I think they're too short."
"Right." Abby grips the branch beneath her legs, feeling the bark bite into her skin and letting the spike of pain force her brain to focus. "What is it?"
"Um." Connor tucks his legs up and peers carefully down at the creature still stalking around the tree. After a pause so long Abby starts to worry, he tilts his head towards her, the look on his face panicked and bleak. "I don't know," he whispers with the air of having made a horrifying discovery. "I don't— I can't remember."
The despair in his voice is so great Abby starts to talk before she even knows what she's going to say. The first thing that comes out is his name.
"Connor…" She wants to touch him but he's too far away. "It's…" She can't bring herself to say 'okay' and they both know it. The painful silence presses on them until Connor looks away from her and back towards the creature on the ground.
"I'll cut Cutter," he says, his voice now alarming empty. The night is so quiet Abby can hear the ringing of Cutter's mobile through Connor's. She leans her head back against the trunk behind her as it rings, and rings, and rings…
Abby snaps her gaze back to Connor as his trembling fingers hang up and begin dialing a new number.
"Jenny always has her phone with her," he says, his voice now a lot less steady.
The rings sound even louder this time; Abby's hands clench the branch beneath her tighter with each one. By the time Connor leaves a tense, hurried message and closes his phone, her hands are stinging wildly and she feels like she's turning to ice from the inside out.
She starts to say, "I'm sure they're—" Just as Connor begins "It's probably—" Just like before, neither can finish; Connor cuts himself off with a noise that seems to come from his insides as though something has stomped on them. His eyes find their way to Abby's and she is surprised to realize their darkness doesn't reflect the moon.
"What do we do now?" he asks, and while two thirds of Connor's daily speech seems to be questions, this is different. It isn't asked with the annoying curiosity of someone desperate to be included, or the cheerful eagerness of someone willing to please, or the grim determination of someone ready to be prepared. It's asked with the utter hopelessness of someone who knows there is no answer, someone who isn't even looking for one.
It infuriates Abby. Why, she thinks, why must Connor choose this of all moments to become totally useless? Sure, there were plenty of ordinary things he was hopeless at, like remembering to put the toilet seat down or operating a washing machine, but when it came to the emotional stuff, the stuff that really mattered, Connor always came through for her. When she was fuming because her mom had called with another one of her 'when-are-you-going-to-settle-down-and-by-the-way-it's-not-possible-in-that-big-scary-city-where-you-don't-even-have-a-normal-job' speeches, Connor was there to sympathize. When she was upset because one of her favorite animals at the zoo had died, Connor was there to reminisce and soothe. When she's happy, sad, angry, scared, hurt, Connor is there. And now when she is facing one of the hardest nights of her life and it is slowly splintering her into a thousand pieces he has never seemed so far away.
"Sitting here isn't going to get us anywhere," she snaps, and is almost surprised by the amount of venom in her tone. She swings one leg down, hands shifting to give her a better grip for climbing, some half-formed plan running through her head that involves getting to the ground, grabbing her dropped gun and shooting the still-pacing creature full in the face, and perhaps shooting Connor too though somewhere less deadly, if only to see him look less empty, less distant. If he bleeds she'll know he's alive, and she won't have lost two friends today.
She's hardly moved more than a few inches when Connor seizes her ankle in a clammy but tight grip.
"You can't go down there, Abby," he says, harshly flat.
"Well I'm not just going to wait up here," she retorts, hotly sharp. A small part of her brain recognizes she's being irrational, but it's being swallowed by too many other parts, all of which have started to panic.
"We have to," Connor continues with a hint of desperation, and doesn't release his hold on her ankle, "Cutter and Jenny both have guns and they'll get here soon—"
"Really, Connor?" Her voice drips disdain. She can't stand that he gets to have some measure of calm when she is rapidly losing all of hers, and she lashes out, wanting to see him suffer like she is suffering. "That's your brave master plan? Just wait to be rescued? What if Cutter and Jenny are fighting a creature of their own? What if they're hurt? What if they're d—"
Connor's scream is so loud the creature below them jumps and begins to growl anew, large paws scratching at the tree trunk. Connor releases Abby's leg but stares up at her with eyes so wide and wrecked she feels just as held.
"Don't," Connor repeats, now somehow mixing a whisper and a shout. "Don't even— you— I can't…"
All of Abby's anger evaporates as he looks at her and stammers his plea and his confession. His broken words open the door for her to see his broken insides, insides just as ravaged and torn up as her own. She can see her own feelings of loss and helplessness reflected in him, feelings of aching disbelief over Stephen's death, of inadequacy and pain at watching Cutter walk around like something that only vaguely knows how to imitate a human being, of fear and doubt concerning the future of everything they know.
But there is more. In Connor Abby can suddenly there is more. There is guilt and regret so tangible Abby imagines she can feel a residual hint of their throbbing hurt. The name is there on both their lips, and though neither says it Abby knows just how Connor has played connect-the-dots. Caroline, who leads to Leek. Who leads to Helen, who led Stephen into the explosive web he decided to detonate rather than attempt to leave and now the rest of them are left with the burns and shrapnel, trying to deal.
Abby sees it all in Connor and feels it all in herself and all the barriers seem to have disappeared; their pain is a single entity now, rolling seamlessly between them. She keeps moving down the tree, but this time it's only to settle herself next to Connor on his branch, to press against his side and put her hand on his skin, wanting physical contact to match and confirm their sudden emotional connection.
"I don't know what we do now," she leans in to whisper, close enough for the trembling in his body to move through hers. She says the answer with almost the same amount of despair as Connor asked the question, but that somehow makes it a little better. "I don't know what to do."
Connor half turns and haltingly puts his arms around Abby, pulling her closer. Their limbs tangle and they end up half-spidering on the branch, like uncoordinated young children on a playground swing who haven't quite figured out how to do it like the big kids. Her chin rests on his shoulder; his hip brushes her thigh.
Abby can feel his heat and his heartbeat and finds herself pushing even closer. Connor murmurs half-formed words into her hair and trails fingers light as ghosts down her back. Under different circumstances, Abby knows they would be kissing by now— hot and needy with open mouths and tangling tongues— but while her lips touch Connor's chin and cheek and she repeatedly tastes the cool skin of his neck it doesn't go further. She is big on firsts and can tell Connor, whose lips graze her temple, her bangs, even once the small bit of exposed collar bone next to the opening of her jacket, feels the same way. It's too much, too soon, and the moment is too sharp and raw for memory.
The real pain will come later, Abby realizes as Connor adjusts his position against the trunk to better absorb her weight. What they're feeling now is fresh and jarring but it isn't pure. Numbed by shock and lacking the time to expand, what they're feeling now isn't as bad as it will get. It isn't grief. When that comes, Abby knows it will be devastation far beyond the healing capabilities of half-snogging in a tree.
But tonight, fortunately, almost cosmically, that is enough. The emotions and worries and strains both Abby and Connor are feeling haven't gone away, but just for a little while they've found a way to push them aside, to focus on staying above the creature on the ground and keeping each other warm. And with those two things, just for one night, they manage to keep all monsters at bay.
Cutter and Jenny find them by what is technically morning, though it's only a few hours later and the sun is just barely visible as a pale yellow glow in the sky. The creature vanished and reappeared various times throughout those hours, never staying away long enough for Connor or Abby to make the decision to climb down from the tree. The last time it leaves, slavering rabidly after a deer, it's thundering footfalls abruptly cease and are replaced by the crunch of human feet.
Connor and Abby bump chin to forehead and knock still-entwined limbs as they awkwardly twist to watch Cutter and Jenny emerge between the trees.
"Abby? Connor?" Cutter's voice is dry and rough but not overly strained. His clothes are rumpled but not torn, his walk is steady and his eyes, while bloodshot, have lost a little of their wild look. He and Jenny stick close to each other, arms brushing occasionally. Abby croaks a greeting as she and Connor slowly pull apart with all the exquisite aching of moving long-stilled limbs. Cutter and Jenny pause and look up as they start down the tree, Connor leading the way and supporting Abby, both weak and wobbling from the long night.
The four of them unconsciously form a circle as they gather on the ground, consciously ignoring the open space they leave on one side. The night has left all four of them are pale and stiff and cracked but also a little harder. Few words are exchanged— Cutter and Jenny had a creature of their own, and like Connor and Abby's they managed to get it back to through the inconstant, location-changing anomaly. They lapse into silence heavy with listless indecision. Cutter glances down at Abby's hand, given to Connor as they descended from the tree and never reclaimed. Something like a smile touches the corners of his mouth.
"Connor and Abby," he says in what might be an attempt at a sing-song tone were his voice not dragging with exhaustion. "Sitting in a tree…"
Connor and Abby throw him almost identical looks, relishing the simple emotion of embarrassment, but neither makes the effort to cut him off. Abby does murmur, "Did you learn that one from Connor?" and reach forward to half-heartedly poke at his arm, the movement more habit than decision.
Cutter catches her hand and tucks it into the crook of his arm, tugging her next to him in the process. He repeats the gesture with Jenny on his other side, and with Connor's fingers still interlacing Abby's, the four of them start to walk back to the car in a line. They're bruised and damaged in more ways than one, and they have a lot more healing and even more pain ahead of them, but they're together, linked as they support one another in their shambling progression towards the cold, cloudless sunrise.