fandom: primeval, fic fandom: primeval, fic genre: het, fic pairing: abby/connor, ficathon: primeval
Disclaimer: I do not own Primeval. Impossible Pictures do.
Lester's office is large and airy but it's still too small to contain the man, especially not when Lester is in full flow. Connor can't quite make out the words but he doesn't need to. The cadences of Lester's voice are familiar: the pauses and the breaths; the beats and the rhythms; the sarcastic twist and bite underneath. What Lester's actually saying doesn't matter.
What matters is the way that the glass walls seem to be closing in on him.
Connor concentrates on breathing, just breathing. It's not as easy as it sounds; it's not just Lester's voice that's burying him, piling the words on, one by one, until they weigh him down. There's a gap to his right, where Danny should be sitting. Where Jenny should be sitting, or Nick, or Stephen.
Instead, there's just an empty space. Just him, and he's not enough for this.
Not for anything.
Abby's on the far side of the room, a world and more away. She's staring down at the floor and her arms are folded across her chest, shutting everything out, shutting Connor out, too.
Connor doesn't look at her. He doesn't need to. He can close his eyes at any time and see her clearly: the way her hair has grown out a little now so that it once again falls into her face; the way she bites her lip when she's thinking. The way she glares at him when he doesn't.
He's stopped looking. It's easier that way. Everything is easier when you stop paying attention.
Maybe that's why it takes a second for the silence to register.
Lester's paused, mid-diatribe, and is looking at him in way that makes everything in Connor's chest just twist and tighten further. He can't breathe. He really can't breathe.
Lester's eyes are sharp and shrewd and they look right through him. Lester huffs and he puffs...
And all of Connor's walls come tumbling down.
There's a sharp screeching sound and, again, it takes a second for his brain to catch up and realise that it's the chair moving across the floor, shoved back as he stumbles to his feet.
"I'm sorry," he says and his hands are shaking. "I'm sorry," and Lester's eyes are narrowed, still looking right through him but at what when there's nothing to see, Connor doesn't know. The only thing he does know is: "I can't do this any more."
Out in the main body of the ARC it's too bright, and Connor stops, shaking. Everything swirls and shivers around him. When he leans on the railing, all he can see are the workstations down below that Cutter wanted put in, the ones that Connor saw rebuilt after...
The detector's there, too. Cutter's concept, Connor's execution and...
He can't do this any more. Not on his own.
It's dark when he comes back to himself, blinking and disorientated, still trying to breathe and sucking in air. It tastes of diesel in the back of his throat and his hands hurt. Long moments pass as he stares at them numbly, wondering why. There's no blood, not this time. Not yet.
He's still shaking.
There's a vague memory tugging at him, sliding in through the gaps, and he rubs his hands together, feeling the palms prickle where he struck the doors open, door after door after door. It's a blur of white walls and blank faces that watched him and then turned away. There was no reason for anyone at the ARC to be concerned. Nothing was chasing him, after all.
Nothing but the past, and the future.
And the future...
He can't breathe. He can't...
He jumps. He can't help it, and the feeling of his heart pounding in his chest isn't a pleasant one, all stutter, stutter, stutter, mixed up in trying to breathe. Abby moves into the flickering light, and it glints on her hair, turning it white.
"Are you okay?"
He's got no answer to that, and it's such a stupid question anyway when Abby doesn't normally ask stupid questions, just like Abby doesn't ask questions she doesn't want to hear the answer to. He can only look at her and Abby nods to herself, like he had said something but it was something only she could hear.
"Do you want me to drive you home?"
Her voice is calm and she takes a step closer. Connor takes a step back. He doesn't even think about it - it just happens like things always happen. She just stops and looks at him, and that thing inside him twists and tightens and his breath catches, and...
Her eyes widen but that's all, and the hand she's stretched out towards him drops and hangs at her side, useless and empty.
"Okay," she says and her voice wavers slightly. "Okay," and she nods, quick and jerky movements that he watches numbly. Her eyes shine in the dark and it's easier to look away. It's always easier to look away. "Do you know where you want to go?"
He's god knows how many feet underneath the earth, in a place that smells like diesel and death and he's cold, so cold he's shivering, tremors running through his body.
His voice wavers when he finally answers her, dredging the word up from somewhere deep inside.
It comes out sounding like a question.
Abby always drives when it's just the two of them. There's a twisted kind of logic in that, but thinking about it hurts.
It's already dark when she pulls up outside their - her - flat. A whole day's gone by while he's been buried underground, time slipping away through his fingers like everything else. He stares down at his hands, like they'll tell him why, but there's no answer there.
They're still clean. They're still shaking.
"Connor...?" Abby twists in her seat to look at him, car keys dangling from her fingers.
His voice has slipped away, too.
"Are you okay?"
Stupid questions, stupid questions, stupid questions. Even Abby seems to realise it; she doesn't wait long for an answer.
"Are you coming in?"
It's another question and it stretches out between them, the silence shivering in the air as loud as any sound. Abby huffs slightly; when he hears it he closes his eyes, shutting everything out.
He's so cold, and he curls up, the side of his head pressed against the car window and that's cold, too, a sharp pain against his skin.
"Okay." And Abby's voice shakes like she's cold, too. "Connor... I need to know... I need to know what you want to do."
He gropes for it, but everything's sunk down to the bottom where it's still and quiet and the currents drag him down.
Abby's voice cracks and he stares out of the window to where the street lamps glimmer, pools of light in the darkness.
"I want..." He closes his eyes but the lights still glow, ghost images on his retinas. "I want to go home."
There's a soft sigh this time, and cool fingers brush over the back of his hand. "Okay," she whispers, as though it's an answer. The word is as soft as a breath, and as meaningless. "Okay. I'll..." Her fingers pause then pull away. "I'll be right back, okay? I won't be long.
When he opens his eyes again, she's gone.
Abby keeps her word. It's one of the things he...
He leans against the window again, feeling her small car shake around him as the boot slams shut. It settles again when she climbs back into the driver's seat.
He doesn't look at her.
"So..." Her voice is high, brittle. "Where are heading?"
He doesn't have an answer for her and eventually she pulls away from the kerb anyway.
They hit the motorway; the lights from the other cars heading towards London stream past them, flashing in the night, shining into his eyes. Abby's clutching the steering wheel, her fingers tight and pale, and she stares ahead, focused on the road.
He stares out the side window, out to where it's dark and the only things flashing past are the road signs. The signs all read "The North" as though it's a concrete destination, somewhere to aim for.
Maybe it is.
He closes his eyes, feeling the humming of the engine vibrate through the car, the pitch of it rising when Abby accelerates to overtake, falling again when she slows and pulls in.
After a while, he falls sleeps.
He doesn't wake until they stop.
Over the years, Connor has realised that service stations are pretty much identikit, like they have three or four templates that more or less work, and they stick to them.
This one has a bridge, crossing over the motorway, and the caf is on the other side from the car park. Cars stream past underneath them, nothing put rippling ribbons of light.
They could be anywhere: north, south, the surface of the moon.
They grab a seat by the window. The tea tastes the same as it does anywhere like this - vaguely like dishwater, weak and colourless, no matter how long they leave it to brew in the metal pots.
The pot leaks when he pours it out. They always do, but even though it's his tea it's Abby who mops it up, her face creased with irritation and tiredness.
He's not sure which he's the cause of. Maybe neither, maybe both.
Abby wipes her hands over her face, dragging her cheeks down until, for a second, she looks old underneath the harsh, fluorescent lights. "Where are we heading?" she asks him finally, and her voice is as drawn as her face. "You said home, Connor, and I don't..." She trails off, the irritation clear in her voice, and rubs at her eyes again. This time when she starts, the irritation is better hidden.
Connor hears it anyway.
"I guessed you meant your parents house, right?" It's gentle now, her tone, and he wonders how he looks, what she sees in his face to get her talking like that to him. She's always been more patient with animals when they're lost, when they're scared, or when they're hurting. "So where exactly do they live?"
He thinks of his mother, how she always looks as tired as Abby does now, how much him coming home like this will disappoint her, and something inside clenches again, so tightly that his stomach hurts. He pushes the tea away and stares back out the window, but there's nothing out there for him.
"Where are we?" he asks finally, and if his voice doesn't shake it's only because it comes out thready and quiet instead.
She looks at him for a long, still moment. "Somewhere near Liverpool, I think," she says. "Where do they live, Connor?"
"Lancashire," he says, and her expression droops as she works out the miles to go in her head. "I don't... We don't have to..."
He trails off as she looks at him, her gaze another weight he can't bear. He can't look back - it only hurts more. It's easier to stare out of the window instead, watching her pale reflection wavering out there in the darkness. When he doesn't say anything else she starts drawing aimless lines in the wetness on the table.
His tea goes cold.
Abby has always been the practical one and she's practical now. She books them a room at the Travel Inn, one with twin beds. She doesn't ask his opinion about it, but he doesn't really have one; just like the service station, all of these rooms look the same to him. Same style of quilt, same pictures on the wall, same hairdryer and broken TV.
Abby dumps her bag on one bed, the one closest to the door, leaving him with the one by the window. Maybe it's a pointed little comment about how he's spent the journey looking anywhere but at her. Maybe it's because she thinks he'll run.
It's a small room. Abby's small, too - sometimes he forgets that - but she fills the space. She moves around him, almost on autopilot except for the sudden starts and stops when she realises how close they are.
They've been sharing a space, on and off, for almost three years but it's never been this space, and Abby's always been good at keeping distance between them. Those flustered jerks of hers tell him that the rhythm's off between them, as out of sync as the rest of his life. He's just getting in her way.
In the end, he lets her get on with it. He sits on the bed and waits for the world to stop ending.
He thinks he may have to wait a while.
It's not weird sleeping in the same space as Abby. It should be, but they have the Cretaceous to thank for that. He's used to the sound of her breathing, soft and deep when she's asleep, like she managed in those few stolen moments when she managed to damp down the fear long enough.
He's more used to the sound of her not sleeping and she's not sleeping now. But then, neither is he.
Her voice comes out of the darkness, quiet and afraid, and he's used to that, too. They've spent so long being afraid recently that he's forgotten how to be anything else. But even now, even with his heart a heavy rock in his chest and exhaustion dragging him down, he can't shut out her fear any more than he can shut out his own.
He closes his eyes, but it doesn't help; all it does is make that band of pain around his forehead tighten further until bright lights flash across the inside of his closed lids, like cars streaming past. In the end, he does what he always does when Abby wants something from him. He gives in.
The room is dark but there's a strip of light coming through a gap in the curtain from the lights outside. It's enough to see her when he rolls over, to see her face, which is pale and set. Maybe it's the way that the light falls on her that highlights the shadows under her eyes, in the hollow of her delicate temple, but she looks washed out, ethereal, like she's not really there, like neither of them are.
"Are you okay?" she whispers in the dark. She looks old but she sounds young, like she sounded the first time he ever met her, back when all of this seemed like a great adventure.
He was so fucking stupid then, and he's too slow and stupid to find an answer for her now. Instead he says what he's been thinking, that constant refrain that's been running through his head for days, for weeks: "There's just the two of us now."
She doesn't say anything, but she dips her head and a shadow passes over her face. He waits but she's still silent so he closes his eyes again and rolls away from her to face the window, pulling the covers over his shoulder and up to his chin.
It's not just the cold he's keeping out.
He doesn't sleep well; he doesn't think either of them does. The shadows under Abby's eyes are even more marked in daylight, and he looks away guiltily, fiddling with the strings of his duffle rather than see them. "Thank you," he says and it comes out stilted. When she just looks at him he adds, flustered, "For packing my bag."
Something shifts in her face, under the surface, settling her expression into sparse lines. Something hard and brittle, like grief.
"It didn't take long," she says, her eyes dark and deep. She shrugs her shoulders but she doesn't look away. Not this time. "You didn't unpack after you moved back in."
His tea's gone cold again. He stares down into his cup, dreading what's coming next.
Abby stops pretending to eat her breakfast by pushing the scrambled eggs around her plate. She sighs and puts her fork down, pushing her hair back from her face. It needs a wash. He probably needs a shave, but this whole... thing is far from domestic.
"Are you ready to go?" she asks, and her eyes are still shadowed. He curls his fingers around the handle of his mug and watches her expression tighten, just a little. Just enough to let him know she realises he's stalling.
He can't think of anything to say. In the end, he nods, but Abby's not stupid and if she usually ignores the things she doesn't want to see, well, she's not ignoring this.
"Where are we going?" she pushes, and the irritation is creeping back into her voice. "Come on, Connor. I need an address."
He freezes but she's still there, across the table from him, watching. "I... I can't..."
He can't go home. He's not even sure where 'home' is any more. "Abby, I just can't. I'm sorry..." She's just staring at him blankly, like he's speaking in tongues and maybe he is. "Maybe we should just go back..." He stutters the words out, tumbling one after another, and he's so bloody pathetic he wouldn't blame her if she stranded him right here, left him in the middle of the motorway, miles from anywhere.
For a second - a split second - he thinks she might. Her face freezes. "Connor..." she says and he flinches. She sighs again as he looks anywhere but at her, his face burning with embarrassment and shame.
"Okay," she says and then she repeats it, more firmly this time. "Okay," and her chair scrapes against the floor as she gets to her feet, the sound making him flinch again. She hesitates for a moment, her lips parted as though she's about to say something, but then they clench tightly shut again, giving her a pinched look. The look in her eyes is shuttered, unreadable, but then he's no good at reading Abby's expression at the best of times.
Then she turns and walks away.
He watches her go, everything twisted up and tight inside him. He can't think, can't make any plans, can't do anything but think, beyond even misery, now there's just one.
He watches her go, turn the corner, disappear.
Five seconds, ten, fifteen while he's frozen, and then, then she comes back. He's too numb to even feel relieved.
She's clutching something, several somethings, and she lets go. They flutter to the table, a flurry of different colours, shining in the dim autumn light. He stares down at them, uncomprehending, as Abby sits across from him again.
"Where do you want to go?" she asks, and her voice is unusually gentle for her. "Connor?" He's still staring at the litter of leaflets spread across the table. She stirs them with her hand, bold and bright headlines yelling up at him, fun this and entertaining that and educational the other.
He finally looks up at her. He has no idea what he looks like but she gives him a smile like a wince, her eyes darting away from him before her gaze comes back.
She's scared and he doesn't understand why, not here. It's not the fear of things in the dark.
His voice is still thin and thready and he winces to hear it, catching the tell tale end of a flinch of her own when he looks back at her. But her voice is calm when she answers him, as though it's the most normal thing in the world.
"I told Lester we were taking some time off." She shrugs but it doesn't sit on her easily. Her face is still drawn, creased with lines and underneath everything else her eyes are still scared. "So officially, we're on holiday.
"Where do you want to go?"
He just looks at her, his mind blank and his fingers still cemented to the handle of his mug. In the end, she picks one seemingly at random.
That's how they end up in Wales.
They don't make plans, not really, even though Abby's the kind of person who always makes a shopping list and tends to stick to it, not throw whatever she likes into the trolley. That's Connor, but Connor isn't doing much of anything.
The world's even more twisted up than he thought, if Abby's becoming him, someone with no common sense, all stupid impulse. Each day, wherever they're staying, she finds one of those stands with 'local information' in them and presents them to him, fanned out like a bouquet. It becomes a constant refrain: "Where do you want to go today?" He never has an answer for her - the choice dazzles him and the need to make a decision freezes him, both at the same time. So it falls to Abby - it always falls to Abby - to make the decisions for the both of them.
He knows it's not fair of him but it's not because he doesn't care. It's just that he can't care. There's nothing left of him to care. So Abby borrows his iPhone and googles Travel Inns, tracks down Tourist Information websites, asks him where they're going next.
Looks haunted when he doesn't say anything. But she keeps going, and she keeps him going as well.
"Why?" he asks her, and he can see the moment when she decides not to pretend she doesn't understand.
She looks at him for a long, steady moment and then she says, simply, "Because now there's just the two of us."
"Can I ask you something?" she asks on their way to somewhere. Her knuckles are white on the steering wheel and he waits, saying nothing until she glances at him sideways, her expression anxious. It takes a second for him to realise she's waiting for something, some acknowledgement from him that he'd heard, and then he nods.
She still hesitates, her fingers clutching at the wheel convulsively, a rhythm of flex and release that he watches silently.
"Why... why didn't you unpack?" she asks, and he should have seen this one coming but he never does, not with Abby. "I mean..." She trails off and the meaning is lost to him.
He stares out of the windscreen, watching the motorway roll back before them.
"Is it... I know I haven't been fair, Connor. I mean... I know that sometimes I... maybe I blow hot and cold, a little, and I know..."
She knows more than he does, but she trails off and her knuckles are still white on the wheel. Her voice is shivering, like she's cold and lost and alone, even with him sitting there. It should hurt more than it does.
"Is it because...?"
The miles stretch out before them, roll out behind, and he doesn't look at her, not even when he says, "Not everything is about you, Abby."
She doesn't call him on his lie, but that night, for the first time, she books them two separate rooms.
They drift back into England, heading South. He thinks of rivers, and the way they meander, taking the path of least resistance. Maybe that's what they're doing, cutting through the softest rocks and avoiding those that are too big to be moved, too hard to be worn away by their efforts.
But even with the way that they're wandering, there's a theme to the places they wash up. He's not sure whether Abby's spotted it or not, but the places they visit are old, historical. From Bronze Age copper mines to Viking settlements and everything in between. Markers of a past that he now knows is fluid and ever changing. Like the future. Like their lives.
It's like after three years of dealing with anomalies, they can't let go of visiting the past, not entirely. He's just not sure what they're looking for.
Today is Bath and the Roman Baths, and it's quiet. They aren't the only visitors but it feels like it as they wander through the rooms, both the remnants left behind and those built since.
The water is deep and green; the light bounces back from it to ripple along the terrace. Cool waves wash along the vaulted ceiling, like they're underwater, fathoms down.
Abby is silent, her expression blank, just as cool, just as mysterious as the ancient spring, and he is so far out of his depth. It's been two days and he finally says, "Sorry," the word sliding out and taking him by surprise. Maybe it's the silence that finally gets to him, or Abby's distant face.
She looks at him, her bag slung over one shoulder, and her face tilts up into the sun. Then she nods, once, like it's forgotten.
He can't forget. Not everything is that easy.
He sleeps a lot, long patches in the car where the miles rolling past lull him down into unconsciousness, or in the hotels each night, with Abby snoring softly in the other bed. Even when he's not asleep he doesn't feel awake. It's like everything is fuzzy, the world out of focus, and thinking, planning, feeling is more effort than his body is capable of.
He doesn't mind the not feeling part. It's so much better to be numb.
Even without fighting with Abby, the silences stretch between them. They're empty now, not filled with everything neither of them has ever had the nerve to say, or the things that have been said and not heard or ignored.
Everything's empty and that's better.
At least until the dreams start again.
The nightmares aren't new, and it's not like he's the only one to have them. More than once, in the Cretaceous, he'd woken to Abby twitching and whimpering softly beside him in her sleep. He'd probably woken her up more than once the same way.
This time he wakes up screaming, tangled up in his sheets, twisting and turning to get free with his heart pounding in his chest and he can't breathe, he can't breathe.
He pushes the sheets off, his hands and body slippery with fear sweat and Abby is there, holding onto him tightly even though he fights her off, panic stricken. It's no use; she's always been stronger than he is in all of the ways that matter. He gives in, shaking so hard that his teeth chatter but she still doesn't let go. Instead her fingers dig into the side of his neck, her palm resting warmly against the nape of his neck where the hairs are still prickling. She's whispering to him, a constant litany of reassurance that he doesn't hear. The sound of her voice simply washes over him and if it can't wash everything else away that's not her fault.
Not this time.
The panic finally ebbs away but it leaves all the flotsam and jetsam of his dreams behind. He's cold and Abby's warmth is the only thing anchoring him; he can't help but lean into it. Her fingers loosen, just slightly, so that they curl around his neck rather than dig into it. It's only an illusion of safety but he's reached the point where he'll take whatever he can get and he breathes her in.
There's a banging on the door, sudden and sharp in the silence, and he jerks. Abby's fingernails scratch his skin and the pain is sudden and sharp, too.
It startles the both of them; Abby's breathing fast, her face turned towards the door. It's Abby who gets up and answers it, Abby who deals with the night manager, explaining that nothing's wrong. Nothing at all is wrong.
Nothing except him.
They stop staying in Travel Inns and the like after that, where the rooms are packed in tightly and the walls are thin. Abby takes to visiting Tourist Information offices each time they stop, poring through their books, looking for bed and breakfasts or small, family run hotels off the beaten track, the ones that won't be busy at this time of year. He has no idea if she talks to the owners or not when they check in, and if she does what she says, but the next time he wakes up screaming, nobody comes.
As the days pass and he sleeps less, he no longer feels quite real. He's restless, unable to settle, and everything around him starts to feel worn, like the real world is underneath and coming through the thinner patches.
Telling himself he's being stupid doesn't help - he knows too damned well what can come through when reality cracks.
He doesn't share any of this with Abby but she can't miss his distraction, not when she has to say things three times or he wanders through places without looking at anything.
If she does notice, she doesn't say anything, but the scenery begins to change.
They hit the coast and the seagulls call overhead in the blustery autumn wind. He watches them rise and fall on the currents, always searching for something.
He doesn't feel kinship, not this time. He knows what they evolved from.
The sand crunches beneath his feet as he walks, listening to the sound of the surf as it swishes up the shore. The whole beach smells faintly of rotting seaweed, washed up by the storms, and the sky is steel grey and threatening, promising more of the same.
He stares out over the sea, close enough to the water's edge to feel the spray on his face, whipped up by the gusts that swirl over the shoreline, picking up flurries of sand and making them dance.
He's alone but for a couple walking their dogs at the other end of the beach, the two dogs - one dark and one light - chasing each other in and out of the waves. Their barks carry on the wind towards him but he doesn't smile.
He watches them for a while and then turns and heads back the way he came, superstitiously walking over the tracks he made on the way down and obliterating them.
Abby is sitting in the dunes by the car park, waiting for him, her arms folded around her knees. She waits until he reaches her and then holds out her hand for him to pull her to her feet.
Her fingers are cold and they curl around his for a moment. He lets them go and shoves his hands back into his pockets.
"Okay?" she asks and he shrugs. Maybe that's progress of sorts, that he doesn't lie to her any more, not about that.
She gives him a long, steady look, her gaze a cool weight, as cool as her fingers. "Where do you want to go today?" she asks and he shrugs again, staring out over the beach. He hears her sigh and ignores it.
"Okay," she says again but it's carried away by the wind.
The restlessness grows, day by day, but Abby tunes it out. It's weird how that acts like a sore tooth, something he has to keep poking at just to see if it still hurts, her ignoring him. Worse, her tolerating him and his moods.
But he wouldn't be him if there wasn't a point where he stopped, some line he won't cross with her. He's always been too eager to keep her happy and keep things peaceful, and it's a hard habit to break.
So they drift, each day, and if she's watching him, judging his moods, then he's watching her back.
The dreams are getting worse and with each day that his sleep slips away, so does his temper. There's no one to take it out on but Abby and Abby takes it.
That's so unlike Abby that he starts to wonder whether or not the world has changed again and he's the only one who's noticed. Abby can be kind and Abby can be patient and Abby can be calm but with him there's always been a kind of brisk and brusque almost affection, like he's a puppy and if she isn't stern enough he'll climb up onto the couch or piss on the floor.
Now she treats him like he's made of glass and he'll shatter. There's fear in her eyes sometimes when she looks at him, and it's not fear of him.
He's afraid that the world has changed and he's the only one who's noticed.
He's afraid of going to sleep.
This time when he dreams and wakes, screaming, and Abby is there, telling him it's okay, something inside him is wound so tightly that it snaps.
"It's not fucking okay," he snarls and pushes her off. This time she lets him, sitting back on her heels on the bed, her hair tousled and her eyes wide. The strap of her top has slipped from her shoulder down her arm and he stares at the bare patch of skin. She's switched the table lamp on and her freckles are smudges in the dim light, washed out.
"Okay," she says and then she flinches, a little grimace of nervousness as she pushes her hair out of her eyes. "Do you want to talk about it?" and her voice is as colourless as everything else in the room.
"Do I want to talk about it?" he mocks and her eyes narrow, the first sign of temper she's shown in days. But it doesn't take long for her expression to smooth out again, go back to that pale, faintly worried mask she wears day in and day out now. "What do you want to hear, Abby? Do you want to know what I dream about night after night? Being chased, being eaten?"
His voice rises with each word but her expression doesn't change. Instead she shifts position, now sitting with her legs crossed, settling in for the long haul.
He hates her a little for that.
"Okay," she says again and he's starting to hate that word, too. "Go on."
Her voice is too gentle and he looks away, down at his hands which are clean, not covered in blood and gore, not like he'd dreamed. In his dreams everything is crystal clear, vivid and real, more real than this. The sights, the sounds, the smells even, down to the way that steam rises from fresh, hot blood and the scent of it hits the back of his throat, metallic and awful.
"Something ate my heart," he whispers and his voice shakes.
"Something...?" She moves, leaning closer to him, and he has to fight the impulse not to move back and put some space between them. "Connor?"
He looks at her then, just looks at her and sees it dawning in her eyes.
It's a soft breath but it rips apart everything, all of the flimsy barricades he's put up. The laugh that comes out is ugly, hurtful. "Very Freudian, right?"
She flinches and now the shame hits but worse than that is the small, vicious part of him that likes hurting her, the little voice that says how do you like it?
He looks away. This is Abby, and he's never wanted to hurt her, except for those times when he did. But this is Abby, and she's always been stronger than him. She rallies while he's still reeling. Her eyes are shocked, wide with pain, pain he's inflicted, but:
"I thought this wasn't about me."
It goes on the list of things they don't talk about. Ever.
If he was stronger, he'd be less relieved.
"I spoke to Lester."
He waits for the punchline, watching as Abby indicates and waits for the traffic to let her through.
In the end, in the face of her silence, he says, "Oh?" She darts a quick look in his direction, like that's what she's been waiting for, just a simple acknowledgement, some interest maybe.
He thinks he's hiding how he feels until she looks back again, for longer this time.
"That was the deal," she says quietly, conversationally. "We check in every day so he knows we haven't been kidnapped by foreign superpowers."
It's the first he's heard of it and he wonders how she's been making the calls. Waiting until he's asleep? Until he's in the bathroom?
He shifts in his seat and she darts him another quick look, one that comes along with a nervous little twitch of a smile.
It doesn't reach her eyes. It never does these days.
He shifts again. "And?" he asks and it's as neutral as he can get. Maybe it's not neutral enough; she sends him another look but there's no smile this time.
"He wanted to know how you were doing."
He winds the window down an inch and the air that blows into the car is damp, smelling of diesel and autumn leaves.
"And?" he asks again.
She doesn't answer for a moment, concentrating on the road as an excuse to pause, to think. Or maybe she just is that conscientious a driver and he hasn't noticed until now.
"I told him we probably wouldn't be back for a while."
He shifts again, something burning in the back of his throat, behind his eyes.
The look she gives him this time is opaque, unreadable. "That was the deal, Connor," she says gently. "Both of us go back or neither of us do."
He winds the window up again; the fumes from the road are choking him.
"Just the two of us left, right?" The sound of the road rolling under the wheels almost drowns him out but Abby hears him, maybe because she's started listening.
She hums a little in agreement, her eyes focused on the road ahead. "More like a package deal," she says.
His eyes burn but he doesn't cry, not this time.
They keep heading south, like birds heading to warmer climes for the winter. It's further into autumn now, and the starlings are flocking, gathering on pylons and overhead cables, then wheeling into the air like dark clouds that wax and wane.
He watches them and thinks about what they once were.
Stonehenge is smaller than he thought it would be, less impressive somehow. But he walks around it anyway, along the well trodden gravelled path. Visitors are no longer allowed to touch the stones and there's no sense of history for him, no connection to the past, not even when he reads all of the information boards that tell him how it was built or when.
The stones came from Wales originally. Perhaps they were washed up here as well, even if they didn't follow the same paths that Abby and he have travelled along.
Avebury is slightly better, maybe because the stones have merged into the landscape. There are gaps where the menhirs have been removed over the years, used to build or maybe just because of superstition, and he wanders around the circle, staring down into the village.
History seems like it's been tamed here, like people have managed to stamp themselves permanently over the landscape and the past is staying where it belongs, part of a progression, past to future, no messing about. He doesn't say any of this to Abby, and Abby doesn't say anything at all.
But he likes Woodhenge best. There's nothing much to see. The wooden posts have long since rotted away, leaving just imprints like fossil footprints in the earth. It seems right, somehow, and it weirdly it makes it easier to sit on the grass, close his eyes and visualise what it once must have been like.
Abby sits beside him, her arms wrapped around her knees again. She's shivering slightly and he moves over, closer to her, an instinctive sharing of warmth that isn't all about the Cretaceous.
She gives him a strange look but doesn't move away.
He makes a sound, some kind of affirmative that he's heard her, but his eyes are fixed on the landscape. Now that the signs aren't obvious - no huge, non-native rocks thrusting up to show that man was once here - he perversely wants to see some sign, a hillock or outline of a ditch that shows him the past.
"I'm sorry," she says and that gets his attention. He looks at her, frowning. Things are still weird between them, a little off, a little stretched and strained, but he should be the one apologising, again, not her.
She shrugs, the skin of her neck flushing slightly, but she doesn't look at him, not this time. "I... I get scared sometimes," and this is not a conversation he wants to have.
There's no escape though, and he can't help but wonder if Abby planned it that way. He may never understand her, not entirely, but she's always seen right through him. He's been running and she's been letting him, only now she's closing the door.
He swallows. "If this is about... what I said the other night... I'm sorry."
"No," she says, then, "Yes. Well, not exactly." She takes a deep breath, and her shoulder brushes against his arm. "I... I mess you about sometimes." She looks at him now, and adds, "Most of the time."
"It's not -"
"Connor." The word comes out sharp and silences him. "I'm sorry... it's... Look." Another deep breath and he still can't see. "I... I get scared." She gives him another one of those smiles like a grimace, all nerves. tight around the eyes and mouth. "Ugly divorce, bitter mother, absent father. Take your pick. I didn't ever want that. To be that. That... vulnerable, I suppose." She picks at the picnic blanket they'd bought at a service station somewhere and doesn't look at him.
"Jack..." She trails off and then begins again. "There was only Jack and me, and I was his big sister, supposed to keep him from going off the rails." She sighs. "But he did anyway, didn't he?"
He takes the question as rhetorical and doesn't answer, shifting a little uncomfortably. Maybe he could treat all of the questions as rhetorical. It would make life easier if he didn't have to commit.
"I'm sorry," she says again and her voice is sad, quiet, and he twitches again. "I didn't mean to hurt you, it was..."
"It was just you and Jack, and Jack comes first," he says and finds a smile of his own, one she'll hopefully buy. "I understand."
"No," she says, still quiet, still sad. "I don't think you do. But then, neither did I."
"Are you still scared?" he asks her as they trudge up the hill towards another barrow. He tries not to think of death, of bones turning to dust in chambers under the ground, but it's hard sometimes.
She pauses and looks at him, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the low, autumn sun.
"I guess," she says. "I probably always will be, I suppose." She seems okay with it and he can't imagine why.
"So... So how do you cope with it?"
This time she tilts her head and the look she gives him is quizzical. Then she shrugs. "Try not to be," she says, as though it's ever that simple, and then she smiles, quick and fierce. "Race you to the top."
They end up in Glastonbury and it's full of little curio shops, catering to the tourists, all new age hippy and crystals. He wanders through them and Abby trails in his wake, rolling her eyes every now and then. She still pauses by the CD racks, though, touching the ones about whale song.
Once he'd have teased her about that. Maybe he'll store it up and they'll come back at some point, a point where he doesn't feel like he's just barely anchored to the surface of the world instead of actually being part of it.
Then he finds something in one shop and he knows he's never, ever coming back here.
It's a key chain, so innocuous, like something they've seen in all of these shops, kitschy and ugly. Only, this one's in the shape of an alien's head.
He holds it in his hand for long moments, his fingers so tight around it that they hurt. His knuckles are white and when Abby finds him eventually, hidden behind the rack, and uncurls his fingers, the palm is red, creased and marked with its imprint. She reaches up and her voice is soft, distressed, as she touches his face. It's only when her thumb smooths across his cheek that he realises he's crying.
Thankfully she doesn't buy it for him; it's weird how it's the stupid little things that stick, that mean so much. Instead, she leads him out of the door, her fingers wrapped tightly around his, and they walk, hand in hand, up the Tor.
He sits on the grass next to her, staring out over the town, as the breeze slowly dries the tears on his cheek.
Lester's talking about counselling. When Abby passes the message on, her voice is diffident, uninvolved, like she's just talking about the weather but her eyes are anxious. Stress. Depression. They're strange words. They make him think of geological pressures, of the way the tectonic plates shift, mountains forced up, magma forced through. Of cracks and crevasses forming in something as supposedly as solid as the earth, of water washing everything away and leaving nothing but hollows behind.
Maybe they're the right words after all.
It's not that the nightmares are better; it's that by now he's exhausted and sleep drags him so far under that not even the dreams can push him back to the surface again.
He thinks he still dreams but he can't remember them when he wakes up, and it's the small things you appreciate. Like the fact that sometimes when he wakes, his eyes gritty and his head fuzzy and with vague thoughts lurking on the edges of his consciousness, Abby is curled up in his bed behind him, her arm thrown over his waist.
Sometimes she gets up as soon as he stirs and heads into the bathroom, burying herself - and him - in the flurry of getting ready for the day, her face flushed as she avoids his eyes. Sometimes she doesn't, and they lie in the warm nest they've made as the pale autumn light creeps across the room and the day grows older.
It's another thing they don't talk about.
Plates shift and things crack and the pressure has to be released somehow.
Abby wakes him, calling his name and shaking his shoulder until he's dragged back into the real world, spluttering and gasping, dumped unceremoniously on the shore.
The nightmare is still lapping at him, twisting around his consciousness and trying to suck him back down.
"Connor?" Abby's face is pale in the moonlight, furrowed with concern. "Connor?"
He pushes her off, stumbling out of bed and almost tripping over the covers that have pooled on the floor in his hurry. She follows him, hovering in the background while he throws up his supper, maybe even his lunch and breakfast from the way he can't stop. He's shaking, the sweat of fear evaporating from his skin and taking all of his warmth with him, and the rim of the toilet bowl is ice cold under his grip.
She waits and he wants her to leave, doesn't want her to see him like this but he's not the kind of person who gets what they want. At least she hands him a glass of water when he's finished, his stomach aching and his knees sore. He swirls and spits and then flushes the toilet.
She's too close and he can smell the scent of her shower gel rising from her body because while she always washes her hair in the morning she also still showers again in the evening and how weird is it that he knows that?
"Okay?" she asks him, her face drawn. He nods; he's not sure what 'okay' is any more but he's on his feet and that's got to be an improvement. He moves back into the bedroom, clutching at the glass like a lifeline, and she follows him there as well.
"Are you ever going to tell me what's going on?" she asks. There's sadness in her voice and other things as well, strange harmonics that he's never been able to read because 'female' is an alien language and 'Abby' is even more so.
His pillow smells like her and he closes his eyes.
"I built the anomaly detector," he says. "Me."
"Okay," and he doesn't have to open his eyes to picture her nod, her small, serious face.
"I know Cutter figured out the interference angle but the rest, that was me."
He opens his eyes again and stares at the ceiling. "And the hand-held detectors, and the anomaly locking mechanism."
"You forgot the robot," she says quietly, but she isn't joking. When he looks across at her she's watching him, her chin on her knees and her arms wrapped around them. Her feet are tucked away out of sight and she looks so young it doesn't make it any easier to keep going.
"Yes," he says and goes back to staring at the ceiling.
"My hair dryer has never been the same," she says and this time it's the humour but it falls flat.
"I built it all," he says and his voice comes from a long way away, drifting back from where things are real, normal, before he learnt how to put things together.
"Are you... feeling unappreciated?"
He can hear the frown in her voice, but her tone is curious, not condemning. Not yet.
"We've seen the future," he says, "and it's fucked." She shifts position; he can hear the sheets rustle and knows she'll be leaning closer, studying his face for clues.
He keeps his eyes closed.
"Helen... Helen used that machine, the one in the future. Used it to hop around time and mess everything up, and even now she might be out there somewhere, trying to wipe us off the face of the earth. No. Off the face of time."
"And that's what you're worried about?" she asks. "Connor, we did everything we could. And we're still here. If Helen had succeeded..."
"No," he says. "You don't understand. Helen said that the ARC brought about the end of the world -"
"Helen lies. You should know that, Connor. She lies and..."
"And that machine, the one the ARC were using, will be using. The one Helen was using." He opens his eyes and looks at her, reading the confusion in her face. "The one that's messed everything up so badly." She's still not getting it.
"Who do you think is going to build it?"
Her eyes widen. She's not stupid - she's never been that - but he has to spell it out anyway, the words bubbling over even if he'd wanted to stop them, his heart breaking, shattering inside his chest and he can feel the shards digging into his skin.
"Abby... I think I'm going to destroy the world."
He doesn't want to talk about it now that it's out there, said and made real. If they don't talk about it he doesn't have to think about it but for once Abby isn't being patient with him and she isn't being kind. She keeps trying, as though that's going to help.
He's started to run out of excuses and, since she holds the car keys, he's also running out of places to run.
In the end, tired of waiting, she simply outmanoeuvres him, pulling the car into a lay-by where she climbs out. It's picturesque here, with a view and a picnic table; Abby ignores the former and sits on the latter, facing the car and waiting.
He holds out for as long as he can but it's Abby and in the end he always gives Abby what she wants. He doesn't make it easy for her, though.
"I think I should leave the project," he says, no preamble, not giving her time to launch on whatever well rehearsed arguments she'll have prepared.
She doesn't look surprised. Instead, she nods, seriously, watching him with that same unreadable look in her eye and that throws him off. "I thought you might say that," she says. "Can I ask you something?" As though him saying 'no' will stop her.
She crosses her legs and rests her hands on them, once again looking like she's settling in for the long haul, and he sighs.
"What happens... you think it's because you stay on the project, right?"
He nods, quickly and jerkily, just wanting the conversation to be over.
"What if you're wrong? What if it happens because you leave?"
Words have weight and these hit him hard, right in the chest, his breath catching in his throat.
It's instinctive to protest, "That's not fair." It comes out weak and breathy.
"No," she says, and again something like grief shifts underneath the planes of her face, barely hidden below the surface. "It's not."
She lets him run after that, along beaches, up hills, through forests.
But she's always waiting when he gets back, sometimes calm, sometimes not, but always present. Somehow that makes the whole running thing kind of pointless.
He stops after a while.
"Whatever you decide," she says, poking at her ice cream tub with her small, plastic spoon, "it's for both of us."
He tries to pretend like it doesn't matter.
They're still drifting, washed around by whim and the tide, when she makes an "Oh!" sound. It's genuine, not careful, and he wanders over towards her, around the carousels of tourist tat - spoons and bookmarks and Celtic decorated quaich, even this far south.
"What is it?"
"Oh." She looks flustered, her finger resting on the open, plastic covered book in front of her. It's another thing that's the same wherever they go - the local list of hotels, B&Bs and hostels that each Tourist Information branch seems to hold. "Just... can we stay here? If there's room?"
He blinks; it's not the first time she's asked that question but it's the first time she actually sounds like the answer matters.
"If you want," he offers and she smiles, a flash of brightness in what has so far been a dull and never-ending day.
It's a castle. A castle on the edge of a village, built by a Victorian with too much money and too little sense. A Folly, Abby announces, rolling the word around her mouth with obvious enjoyment. There's a small smile playing around her lips but it's genuine, unaffected.
He can't remember the last time he saw it.
'Folly' might be the right description. It's a strange, surreal place and the man who owns it - Geoffrey, with his balding pate and dandelion hair and definitely non-Somerset accent - is best described as 'eccentric'. The plumbing rattles and clanks, letting out deep groans when the shower finally splutters temperamentally into life. The windows are the original wooden sashes and stick when it's damp, and in October it's always damp. They end up leaving the one in their room wedged open an inch when refuses to shut and it lets in the cool night air.
But it sits in an acre of overgrown grounds, wild and untamed. The weather's been mild and the smell of late blooming honeysuckle drifts up to their window, carried on the breeze. Geoffrey keeps chickens and peacocks, who alternately strut and preen, and at night the peacocks scream, blending into the dreams they both have still.
They share a bed. It's not the first time they have but it should be weirder than it is. When Connor wakes - whether from the pipes or the peacocks or his own dreams - it feels normal, and he rolls into Abby's warmth and goes back to sleep.
Geoffrey's an awesome cook; it doesn't take long to get used to his hangdog face and flowery apron as he dishes up bacon that's just crispy enough and scrambled eggs that are perfect. In the afternoon, there are scones or freshly baked teacakes, eaten on the terrace with a pot of piping hot tea. He wouldn't be surprised if Geoffrey churned his own butter, because the pats he places on small saucers, alongside the thick cream, are oddly shaped but delicious.
For that, Connor can forgive the plumbing.
They don't talk about it, but they stay. Abby fans the leaflets out in front of him again and asks the question she's asked him every day since the first: "Where do you want to go today?"
For once he pays attention, sipping at his tea as he pushes them around on the table top.
"That one," he says eventually, drawn by the bright colours and the picture on the front, and she blinks at him, surprised.
"Okay," she says, and then she smiles.
Everywhere is quiet - half term isn't until the following week and the main tourist season is over. Connor likes feeling as if it's just the two of them, no one jostling or running or screaming. No crowds, no noise, no pressure.
He's not sure why he picked the caves. Maybe it was the cheesy animatronic dragon on the front of the leaflet, or maybe it's just that there's something about caves, something primal and safe. People have been hiding in them for as long as there have been people, and how can he argue with that?
Or maybe it really is the cheesy dragon. He could do with more cheese in his life, and Cheddar seems perfect for that.
Abby stays close as they walk down from the car park, and her hand brushes against his every now and then. The sky is pale, watery blue, not grey; the rains have come and gone, and small puddles have collected in the dips in the path. He breathes in deeply and this time when Abby's hand brushes against his, he catches hold of her little finger with his.
He was right about the tableaux - they are more than simply cheesy and kind of awesome because of it - but once they're away from the flashing lights and piped in roars, the caves themselves are more impressive. He wanders deeper and deeper, to where it's still and quiet and all he can hear is the soft 'plink plink' as water drips from the ceiling. All around them are the beautiful twisted shapes of stalactites and stalagmites, formed over aeons.
There are lights down here as well but they're not the flashy reds and yellows of fake fantastical beasts. They're green and blue, shining steadily in the darkness as they play across the rocks, picking out shadows and catching in Abby's pale hair so that it glimmers like the ocean.
Abby's still and quiet, too, staring out over the underground lake. The look on her face is calm, thoughtful, and when she feels the weight of his gaze on her, she turns to look at him.
She doesn't smile. She doesn't need to.
He closes his eyes and tilts his head back, feeling the breeze from the hidden pumps brushing over his skin. There are tonnes of rock above him, maybe half a mile or more, but for the first time in a long time he doesn't feel that weight.
For the first time in a long time he can breathe.
At the end of each day, he walks in the woods that wrap around the edges of the guest house - guest castle - kicking up the leaves that have fallen into piles of red and gold. Sometimes Abby comes with him and sometimes she waits on the terrace, held there, he thinks, as much by the prospect of Geoffrey's cooking as a concern that she's intruding.
He doesn't mind. If he gets tired of being on his own, he can head back, knowing that she'll be there waiting.
He sleeps better, which means so does she. But even better isn't perfect; sometimes the peacocks wake him or Abby shifting in her sleep. Sometimes it's the warmth of her body as she moves closer to him in the night, a heat he's just not used to, not yet.
Sometimes, yes, it's his dreams that snatch him out of slumber, but if Abby is still asleep he can lie there in the dark and listen to her breathe. And if it's late enough, or still early enough, he'll get up and wander again, listening to the castle settle around him, the timbers and the plumbing and the floors, the groans and ticks that tell him time is passing and that everything finds its place eventually.
Sometimes he makes it as far as the parlour where he sits and listens to the wind, or to the owls or the peacocks when they're in full flow. Geoffrey has a bookshelf that's as esoteric as the man himself, graphic novels wrestling for space with battered early editions of Biggles and essays in Latin. The first time he plucks a book off the shelf and loses himself in it, Geoffrey finds him there, not long after the clock has struck five.
It startles him and he stares at Geoffrey for a long moment, at the hair that's even more tousled this early in the morning and at the awful, bright purple cords that Geoffrey is wearing, ones that not even Connor would be seen dead in. And then he offers, lamely, "I'm sorry. I couldn't sleep."
Geoffrey nods, like it's the most natural thing in the world to find him here at five in the a.m. "It happens," he says briefly. "It's kind of a bitch when it does though." He doesn't seem at all put out; he seems distracted, or maybe still half asleep. "What are you reading?"
"Oh." He wonders if it's a faux pas to have made himself that much at home, especially as he's not so much reading as staring blankly at the pages. He tilts the book to read the spine and Geoffrey doesn't seem to find anything odd in that. "John Donne."
Geoffrey nods again. "No man is an island," he offers prosaically and when the words are intoned by Geoffrey, in his slow, mournful drawl, it actually sounds like it means something. "I thought I'd make pancakes for breakfast, for a change."
Connor blinks. "Oh," he says, completely thrown. "That sounds... good."
Geoffrey nods again. "I'll make bacon and eggs as well," he decides, and Connor only seems to be incidental to that decision.
"Geoffrey," Connor calls after him, as he turns and heads back into the kitchen and when he pauses it occurs to Connor that he's not quite sure what he intended to say. "Can I... is it too early for me to go out for a walk? In the grounds, I mean?"
Geoffrey doesn't seem to find anything odd about that, either. "Key's on the hook by the door," he says. "Watch out for the hens. I haven't fed them yet and they'll be right buggers until I do."
"Thanks." And then, because it seems the right thing to say, Connor adds, "They're descended from dinosaurs, you know. The hens I mean. Well... all birds, really."
"Huh." Geoffrey pauses to consider this. "That makes perfect sense."
Yes. Connor supposes that it does.
When he gets back, it's still early and Geoffrey is still busy in the kitchen, whistling off key. The other rooms are all silent, their inhabitants still lost to sleep, and he creeps along the corridor so he doesn't wake them, wincing at each creaking floorboard.
Abby is still asleep but she soon wakes up when he warms his feet up on her calves. She swats at him, grumbling sleepily, but when he wraps himself around her, stealing her warmth, she doesn't push him away. Instead, she tumbles back down into sleep with a soft sigh.
He follows her.
The days pass but they still don't move on. Instead they pore over the leaflets that Geoffrey has shoved haphazardly into the stand he has in the hall. They don't come right out and say it, but he knows that both of them are looking for places close by, ones they can drive to there and back in a day rather than find another hotel, some place else. England is a small country, and an old and deep one; they find places and excuses, and they stay.
They visit Wookey Hole and if anything it's even cheesier than the Gorge, with its own set of animatronic models and an alleged witch to boot. There isn't that sense of peace as they move further underground this time, but maybe that's because of the children who now seem to have miraculously appeared. They're everywhere he looks, loud and excited and having fun.
It might be contagious. He drags Abby into the Handmade Paper Mill as well, where the tour is dull but the activities are fun. She sighs and rolls her eyes but makes paper with him anyway, squeezing the water out of old, torn paper with a frown of concentration between her brows and her tongue stuck between her teeth.
He waits until she's not looking and scatters petals into her small frame. She waits until he turns away and scatters small paper hearts into his.
He thought he'd forgotten how to hope but maybe, just maybe, she's not as scared now.
He asks Abby how long they've got and, for once, she doesn't say anything about however long he needs. Instead, she scrunches up her face in thought, working it out.
"We've been at the ARC for almost three years," she says. "How many days annual leave have you actually taken in that time?"
He has no idea, but he breathes more easily. "I bet that went down well with Lester," he says and she gives him a searching look. It's the first time in a long time that he's actually said the man's name; he assumes Abby's still checking in each day, but he's never asked.
There's a soft sound of agreement as Abby beats him to the last scone. "I think he's just pleased he doesn't have to pay us for it instead," she says as she butters it then spreads jam neatly, al the way to the edges. "Or have us take all that unpaid overtime off as lieu leave as well." She puts half the scone on his plate. She doesn't ask him if he wants it; perhaps she doesn't need to.
"I suppose," he says, and beats her to the cream.
"Maybe," he says and then hesitates, biting at his lip. "Maybe you should ask Lester if he has anyone in mind. For the... counselling, I mean."
He doesn't look at her but he can feel the weight of her gaze on him anyway. It's more bearable than he thought it would be.
"Okay," she says mildly.
"I mean, it's not like I can just pick one of out the Yellow Pages - are they even in the Yellow Pages? Psychiatrists, I mean?" He stumbles over the word. It's something he never thought he'd use, not in connection with himself. 'Therapy' is an alien concept for someone who feels as British as he does, where stiff upper lip and simply coping go with the territory, at least until they aren't possible any more. "Because if I did, then it's not like I could talk about state secrets or anything."
"You could tell them but then you'd have to kill them."
It's actually funny, for a second.
Her fingers reach out and brush over the back of his hand and then come back, more firmly this time, wrapping around his.
She's had them in her pockets up to now, and they're warm and steady.
"I'll talk to Lester," she says.
That night it rains. He lies in the warm, soft glow of his bedside lamp, listening to it pattering against the window panes and drip down onto the sill. The scent of it is strong in the air, the smell of early autumn, leaves and smoke and damp. That open inch at the bottom of the window is enough to let in the smell of it but it keeps out most of the cold and the thick quilts keep out the rest.
Abby is an oasis of warmth curled up next to him, something concrete and real, even in the dim light that blurs all of the room's lines. She's wide awake, her pale hair spread across the pillow and her blue eyes fixed on the ceiling, listening to the sounds of the world. He can smell her shower gel again; the heat of her body scents the sheets and the air with it. When he shifts position, rising up to rest his head on his elbow and stare out into the darkness, tracking the drops that roll down the window pane, she turns her head to look at him.
Her eyes are warm and so are the fingers she traces gently over his face, across the curve of his cheek, brushing over the delicate skin in the dip beneath his eye. He switches his attention from the night to her and she stares back quietly, almost solemn. Her thumb is resting by his mouth and he turns his head, just a fraction, so that it brushes against his lips.
She closes her eyes. When she opens them again they're still warm, still deep. He doesn't think she's scared any more.
He isn't. Not of her.
This time he's the one who leans in and presses his mouth against hers, breathing in her breath. They fit together, like this. More than he's come to expect.
Her hands sink into his hair, fingers tracing over the curves of his skull, gentle and sure. She pulls him closer and he goes where she leads, cradled by the contours of her body. He thinks for a moment that he's too heavy, that his weight will crush her, but she makes this soft, disappointed sound when he begins to pull away. He kisses her again and her hands are warm when they skim over his body, sliding under the t-shirt he wears to bed and across the bare skin of his back. He kisses her again and she kisses him back, first warm and then heated.
When he first - finally - slides into her, his fingers curled nervously into the pillow and her breath hot against his face, it feels like coming home.
Abby's not there when he wakes, but he doesn't worry about it. It's late and the watery sun is already high in the sky and Abby hates lying in bed in the morning, when there are things to be done. She won't have gone far and she won't have gone without a reason, even if the reason is to clear her head.
It's strange not to have that fear hanging over his head, the idea that he's going to mess up with Abby and that will be it, no future for them, nothing to hope for, to live for. It's strange but he thinks he'll learn to live with it.
Instead he showers and then he heads down to breakfast; he's ravenous and if he waits any longer, Geoffrey will have stopped serving it, although with Geoffrey that can happen anywhere between nine thirty and twelve. When he notices the car's not there any more he tries not to let that worry him, either. If she's running... well, he'll wait until she comes back. That's all there is to it.
She gets back when he's on his second cup of tea and first round of toast and flops down into the seat beside him. There's rain in her hair and her face is flushed, bright spots of red high on her cheekbones.
Where have you been? he thinks. Why did you leave me? He was more afraid than he realised until he sees her, afraid of being wrong, again.
What he actually says, "Hey, you."
She smiles and steals a slice of toast from his plate.
"You okay?" he asks and she pauses, crumbs on her lower lip.
"I'm fine. Were you worried?"
He shrugs and the lie he tells is only a little one. "Not really. I thought maybe you needed some space or something. Time to clear your head."
She smiles again, her cheeks still flushed from the cool autumn air, and shakes her head, her teeth buried in her lip rather than her toast. "No... it's..." The smile this time is sheepish, and she lowers her eyes, glances around the room at the few other couples.
They're all immersed in their own domestic situations; none of them are interested in Abby and Connor.
Connor and Abby. Abby and Connor. He likes the sound of it whichever way around it is, and takes another bite of his toast with it ringing through his mind.
"No," she says again, "I needed something, that's all. Just..." She shoots him a sidelong glance. "We weren't that careful last night."
It takes a second to sink in and he freezes, guilt and embarrassment surging through him. "I'm sorry," he says. "I'm not used to... I didn't think..."
"It's fine." She reaches out and squeezes his hand, leaving her fingers wrapped around his. "There were two of us there, Connor. Neither of us thought."
He could have ruined their future, in more ways than one. He swallows another bite of toast but it's dry and goes down hard. "I'm sorry," he says and it's nowhere near adequate but the look she gives him now is a mixture of amusement and affection.
"It's fine," she repeats. "I went to the chemist, I took a pill, it's dealt with, okay?" She steals his tea as well as his toast and takes a sip. "I'm... just not ready for anything else, not yet."
He leans over to the next table and pinches an empty cup for himself. It occurs to him, as he pours the tea out again from the small tea pot that might not match the plates, cups or saucers but which doesn't - blessedly - leak, that they're actually having a grown up, adult conversation.
"Not used to?" Abby asks mildly, watching him over the rim of her - his old - cup and he flushes a deep red, adulthood be damned.
"And by that you mean...?" Her eyes are dancing and he has no idea what's going through her mind.
"Yes, Abby, you deflowered me, all right?" and she laughs, bright and loud, drawing attention. He kicks her under the table, just hard enough to register, and she grins back at him, unrepentant.
He smiles back.
"I... might have bought some other things at the chemist as well," she says, and the look in her eyes this time is open and affectionate, only a little scared. Her hair is still damp and tousled, and her hand is wrapped negligently around her cup where it rests on the table.
"Oh." He's blushing again, and she gives him another of those smiles, small and a little twitchy but genuine, before she looks away.
"So," she says, the colour rising to her face again and matching his. "What do you want to do today?"
He reaches out and brushes his thumb over the pulse point on the inside of her wrist, feeling her heart beat, strong and steady, under his touch.
"Go back to bed," he says.
It's better this time, now that he knows what he's doing, and Abby's sharp little cries mingle with the peacocks' outside.
They drive out to the coast and walk along the beach. Abby comes with him, her footprints next to his on the sand. It's blustery and cold, and the wind whips around, blowing icy droplets of rain into their faces, so it's no wonder that they're more or less alone. Everyone else must have more sense.
Abby slips her hand into his as she kicks up some sand, staring out into the horizon. Her fingers are cold and he shoves both - her hand and his - into his pocket.
"I was thinking..." he says. He lets go of her hand, wrapping his arm around her shoulders instead. She keeps her hand in his pocket but her nose is just as cold when she presses it against his neck.
"Dangerous," she murmurs against his skin and he ruffles her hair with his free hand before he wraps that arm around her as well. "What were you thinking about?"
"How good you look naked," and she pushes him, laughter in her eyes, so that he stumbles backwards, almost losing his balance.
She catches him; she's still smiling and he kisses her, swallowing all that joy down.
The sea is stormy, blue and green and white. He stares out over it, Abby's hair brushing against his cheek, his chin, as she snuggles in closer. "Maybe," he says against the burnished brightness of that hair. He can be brave, if Abby can. "Maybe you should call Lester... Ask him to set something up."
She hesitates before she nods, taking it all in. Her arms tighten fractionally around him but it's enough.
"Okay," she says. "Today?"
He closes his eyes and breathes in her scent. "No. Tomorrow. Tomorrow will be soon enough."
The future stretches out ahead of them.
Additional Notes: Connor and Abby visit, among other places, The Great Orme in Wales, Bath, Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole in Somerset and the South East coast. There is actually a Victorian Folly that looks like a castle - or there was about fifteen years ago - but I took some liberties. It's not actually in Somerset but the windows do stick.