It is Billy’s idea.
“It’ll be fun”, he announces one day at dinner, between bites of burgers and fries from a diner two blocks away. It is near sundown and Teddy does not know if he wants to hear the rest of it, but Billy continues: “We never get enough of that, what with school and saving the world, do we? No magic, no superpowers; just one mountain, two guys, and a whole lot of trees. Au naturale.”
Teddy is unsure. The concrete is his home. He belongs with skyscrapers and busy streets; with its days bursting, the hectic city-folks rushing off to work and the nights illuminated by a thousand neon signs, sure to outshine any star; in corner shops where he can watch the city come and go, listening to a cascade of tongues pouring from foreign mouths. Not in mountains with open skies and soil beneath his feet. Nature walks are not his thing, especially not ones that require driving away from the comforts of the city.
He opens his mouth to protest, but Billy looks up at him with those pleading eyes and bats his lashes in the way that makes Teddy’s cheeks flush all red and he can’t help but agree.
On a Thursday morning they head out in an old, beat up Jeep. The blue paint’s chipping off, the engines are a little rusty and the seats smell of grease and rancid fast food that makes the hair on the back of Teddy’s neck stand straight, but it is the best they can get out of a last minute rental.
Billy is thrilled. Teddy hardly shares his sentiment.
It occurs to him too late that neither of them has a license, let alone knows how to drive, though that fact does not seem to stop Billy from eagerly hopping behind the wheel. Teddy buckles his seatbelt and fears for his life.
They listen to an old radio station, with the volume amped far too loudly, far too early in the day. Billy sings along from time to time, a low murmur under his breath gradually rising into a crescendo as he bellows out to a Bon Jovi ballad with fervor, belting everything from the first verse to the very last key. Even the guitar solo.Especially the guitar solo.
By the end of the hour, Teddy concludes that if there is anything Billy Kaplan cannot do, it is to drive and hold a goddamned note.
At ten past noon, Teddy finds himself off the road and onto an obscure path in an even more obscure part of an unfamiliar mountain. It is quiet, save for the sound of leaves crunching under their footsteps and the occasional birdsong, ringing from somewhere high above.
“We have the world all to ourselves”, Billy remarks softly, not daring to break the silence.
Teddy says nothing and keeps walking.
There is something about the woods in the afternoon light, Teddy thinks, something vast and impalpable.
Maybe it is the air, fresh and crisp, tinted with the scent of greenwood and petrichor. Or the trees, solemn in their solidarity. Teddy has seen trees in the city; scraggly, leafy things where birds sing from hidden nests, but not these, the mighty birches and green-grey pines and ancient evergreens in their immense sorrow and grandeur. Or perhaps it is the sun that manages still to pierce through the thick canopies, casting dappling shadows across trickling creeks and leaf-laden soil.
Whatever it is, Teddy feels strangely at ease in such a place of deep silence.
Halfway up the mountain they come across a lone oak tree.
The tree is magnificent, its bark black as obsidian and leaves a brilliant green in the light, like a thousand shining emeralds. Massive, misshapen roots wrestle beneath the soil. Teddy is no expert on trees, but he is sure this one is as ancient as the land itself, weathered by centuries of storm and rain and stories untold.
They stumble closer to the base to find the tree covered with countless names carved roughly into the trunk by lovers past. Billy does not hesitate to add their own.
“It is forever”, he declares.
Teddy is not sure what he means, them or the tree, but agrees anyway.
They find a river, hidden deep in the corners of the forest.
Billy pushes Teddy into the stream, and falls in himself right after. Teddy nearly crushes Billy’s arm as he tries to balance, but when he looks up, a million “sorry”s already forming on the tip of his tongue, Billy is laughing and the laugh is gentle and he can’t help but melt.
They stay for a while, soaked to the brim with dirt and water. Billy sits on the riverbank with his legs dangling in the current, feet bare and wading. Teddy sprawls himself on the grass and rests his head on Billy’s lap.
It is a different part of the woods there, where all things come alive dancing. Sunlight struts across sparkling waves, caught in a tango as they crash against rocks smoothed by millennia of roaring water. Dragonflies glide in the open air, occasionally dipping their tails en pointe into the river. Salmon waltzes to and fro between Billy’s feet. He giggles, and Teddy glows at the sound.
Billy is truly king in these places; the sun his crown, the forest his castle, and all of its inhabitants that lives and breathes subject to his courts. Woodland creatures flock to him from time to time, and he greets them like old friends. Billy speaks not with lips but with his eyes instead, and the animals seem to understand. In these mountains where words are lost in the silence of trees, Billy works his own sort of magic.
It is near twilight when they finally reach the peak, feet sore and shirts soaked with sweat and stale water. Teddy has to admit that it is beautiful up here; an endless field of lush green grass as far as the eye can see, speckled with blossoms of morning glory and miles away from any sign of civilization. It is so high up in the clouds where no birds dare sing, but the wind does; wispy tendrils twirling between Teddy’s fingers and weaving through the strands of his hair. It whispers its melody in his ear and sends shivers down his spine.
They lie together, slumping across the grass, watching the sun set through half lidded eyes. The sky is stained with brilliant threads of oranges and pinks and reds folding into clouds of amethyst; surrounded by the final golden rays of the waning star. It lasts for a few seconds, colours deepening as the sun plunges below the horizon, and then just like that it is gone, and the world covered with a veil of black and blue.
Teddy does not know why, but he pulls Billy in a little closer.
The two of them have dinner in a makeshift tent. It is cramped and old. The walls are thin and slowly peeling off. It is everything that comes between them and the blanket of stars. Teddy has never seen so many stars in his life, not on top of skyscrapers or even in empty campsites miles away from home. The immensity of it all takes his breath away. Perhaps it is true the city lights shine brighter, but these stars twinkle with life. And somehow, Teddy doesn’t even feel weird about tearing up in the middle of nowhere.
Out through the corner of his eye he catches Billy looking, mouth agape with bites of baked beans, and chuckles. Billy does not ask, nor does he need to. He just crawls a bit closer, until their noses almost rub against each other and gentle hands cup his cheeks. A thumb strokes across his skin, and Teddy closes his eyes as Billy wipes the tears away.
When he opens them again the touch is gone, and Billy is grinning, sitting cross-legged with a water bottle in his hand.
“To us,” he says, raising the bottle like a champagne glass in a mock toast.
Teddy returns the gesture.
Teddy prepares for the night when Billy reaches into his backpack and returns with a radio. Their radio. It is a small, unremarkable thing from an equally remarkable secondhand store, but it is the first thing they had bought together and Billy insists in taking it anywhere they went. Teddy had complained at first, but now, stroking along the bumps and scratches, images race like tracks on a record; of days of suns and seas and stars.
Of those rare summer afternoons wasting away on the beach, feeling the sand squishing between their toes as the tides come and go, and the nights of nothing but Zeppelin over and over again, of the impromptu air guitar solos and singing at the top of their lungs, loud enough to wake the whole world.
Of Billy, sitting alone by the windowsill at the break of day, humming the lyrics to ‘Hey Jude’ under his breath, soft and low and quiet, when he thought no one else was there to listen. Of them, bodies entwined in a dance that they both really don’t know on New Year’s Eve, of Billy’s lips brushing against his ear, whispering the three words that mattered most.
Of now, of Billy’s smile as he mouths the words to the song. Of Billy’s lips crushing against his, heads pressing together, skin to skin, swaying slightly to the music. Of Billy’s eyes as they twinkle with laughter, of the way he rests Teddy’s name perfectly on his tongue; two syllables forming like a sigh.
The guitar is soft. The voice is soothing. The song is slow and inexplicably intimate in a way he can’t quite place; each note ringing like it is written just for them.
Teddy falls asleep with stars in his eyes and a tune that keeps on playing.
They will see us waving from such great heights
Come down now, they’ll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
Come down now, but we’ll stay