Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting.
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear.
Here comes the sun.
Here comes the sun, and I say,
‘It's all right.’
~Here Comes the Sun, George Harrison
As Robbie pushes himself up the stony slope, steps powered by will more than with strength, a rock not much bigger than a marble rolls under his heel. The weight of the heavy pack on his back tugs at him, and he teeters, weightless sensation fluttering in his gut, as first one foot, then the other slips.
He flails with one arm, gloved fingers of the other hand scrabbling at the rough surface of James’s jacket and finding no purchase. Clumps of earth and rocks clatter away from his feet, breaking the stillness, rattling down and down as if to emphasize just how far he’s going to fall.
And then James grabs him, stopping his downward slide. He slips his arm around Robbie, enclosing waist and pack, and pulls him in tight, steadying him. “You’re okay,” he says calmly, his warm breath washing across Robbie’s face. He smells of dust and tiredness and the greenish water in which they washed this morning. “I’ve got you.”
Robbie stands frozen, breath rasping in his throat, consoling himself with the amazing heat, the comfort, of James’s grip. He takes a huge, deep breath and lets it out. He pats James, finding his arm, then his shoulder by the shape of his bulky coat. He nods. “Ta. Thought I was going roller skating there for a minute.”
“Move over this way.” James taps with his foot to show Robbie which way he wants him to go. “It’s a bit more level with fewer rocks.”
Robbie obeys him, following the sound of James’s boot on rock. Once he’s on solid footing, James turns him carefully so that the ungainly weight of his pack is towards the slope of the mountainside. “Why don’t we rest here for a minute?”
“It’s not that much further, is it?” Robbie shakes his head, taking a tiny, careful step back to keep James from guiding him to sitting. “We’re near the ridge. I felt the change in the air a few minutes ago.”
“Not really. I can see the tree line further along at the top, but it’s still another 30, 45 minutes at least. Maybe longer. And you’re worn out. A few minutes rest isn’t going to change anything.”
But Robbie knows James is only saying that for him. They’ve been searching for so long, walking for so long. The valley beyond this ridge may be like the ones before this one, devoid of life. It may be no more the sanctuary for which they’ve been searching than the last one. But that doesn’t tamper James’s optimism. Or his eagerness to see what’s next.
And so Robbie lies. “No. Let’s keep going. I’m not really that tired.” He knows that James knows he’s lying. But that seems okay, because…if James knows he’s lying then it’s not really lying, is it? It’s just…obfuscated kindness. “I was just dead clumsy.”
“I don’t think so.”
But Robbie insists. “No, let’s move on. I don’t like it here. It feels like…like I can feel the—what’s the word?—vastness.” He gestures, careful to keep the movement small, to the wide open space he can tell is before him.
“How does ‘vast’ feel?”
James isn’t skeptical. Robbie can hear the genuine curiosity in his voice. He stills for a minute and considers how to explain it. “It’s like…there’s nothing there, except what’s under me feet. Like there’s nothing but air. Space. Just open space. Nothing there to catch me.”
“I’m here to catch you,” James says.
Robbie smiles at the sweet severity of his tone and tugs one of his gloves off. He reaches out, finds the long tail of James’s knit scarf, follows it up to his face. He strokes the line of James’s jaw. James’s skin is cold and dry and prickly with new beard growth. It feels red and wind-burned. James should never have shaved a few days back. The next time they stop for any length of time, Robbie will have to see if he can dig out the small bottle of lotion he’s been hoarding.
He straightens his own scarf, tucking it in under the beard he's refused to shave, tugs his cap back down over his ears, slips the glove back on, and turns, careful of the balance of the pack. “Let’s go, then.”
“All right. But only if you’re sure.” As James turns and starts up the steep slope, tapping the next place he wants Robbie to put his foot, he mutters, “Hard-headed bastard,” under his breath.
Robbie smiles. “I heard that.”
James steps up the slope, taps the next spot for Robbie to put his foot, and grumbles, “You hear everything now.”
Robbie nods as he follows James’s lead. Tap. Step. Tap. Step. Steady for a moment as another pebble rolls. Then tap, step.
It’s true. His hearing is much sharper now, with his sight gone. Just like he'd heard, his other senses have picked up the slack. Smell, touch, taste, though he’s not so sure about taste. Everything tastes good, but then, when food is so scarce and meals so few and far between, anything he eats is going to taste as good as cold ale on a hot day, isn’t it? But mostly, it’s his hearing that’s intense. He would swear sometimes, when they’re resting, and all is quiet, that he can hear worms wriggling in the dirt, his own breath swirling in his lungs, James’s blood whispering in his veins like silk on skin.
James says he’s only being fanciful, but…who knows? Though…his sense of touch is right up there, too, as James has demonstrated. His face heats as he thinks of James’s hands, hot as summer sunshine, on his skin. Of James’s warm weight blanketing him. Of the intensity of his response to James’s caresses.
With his focus on the heat of James's body and not where it should be—where to step next—his foot slips, and he stumbles. James grabs at him, fingers sliding on his sleeve then catching. “Robbie,” he chastises. “Concentrate!”
Robbie rights himself. Shifts the balance of the pack just a bit and the focus of his thoughts to where they should be before nodding that he’s ready to go on.
James clasps Robbie’s hand, but Robbie only allows him to hold on for a moment. Even more than Robbie fears flying off into the vastness of the void behind him, he fears taking James with him, the two of them tumbling down the mountainside together.
After a moment, James moves on. Tap. Step. Tap. Step. Tap. Sometimes stepping sideways, but always stepping up. And up. Slower than before as the rock becomes slicker and harder to climb.
Robbie loses track of time as they go up. He wouldn’t ordinarily. The passage of time is another thing that’s come into better focus for him. Seconds and minutes and hours have a crystal clarity they never did before, but he’s not sure if that’s because of his blindness or because life is so much more precious now than it was before. Before nature and man conspired to ruin the world—meteor strikes followed by nuclear strikes. Man compounding the damage done by nature with war and meanness and horror. Nuclear winter. Or rather, for the UK, meteor winter, since the nuclear strikes—those they heard about before everything went quiet—weren’t close enough to affect Europe with poisoned air or water. Hopefully, weather patterns haven't changed that.
In a way, the world is blind now, too. James describes the daylight as a deep, dark, unrelenting grey, like a bad rainy day that never lifts, the starless nighttime as inky darkness so profound that it seems to suck the colour from flames. Robbie’s blindness is even blacker than that. No colourless flame, no pinprick of light. He can’t even call to mind what a grey day looked like. The last thing he remembers seeing is a red so bright and sharp that it burned like ice as something—gas line, bomb, he’ll never know—exploded on the south side of the nick. Then pain. Fear. Screams. Blood on his face. And then he woke, days later, to James’s voice calling him back to consciousness and a deep, velvet night that never lightens.
By the time they reach the crest, stepping up into a brisk, cold breeze, Robbie’s gasping for breath. He stands on trembling legs, letting James support his balance with a strong grip on his bicep.
Robbie lifts his head and sniffs. The air smells cleaner than it does down below, where the scent of dust created by pulverized rock and macerated greenery still lingers. But’s there something, an undertaste on the wind… Something… A scent so long lost that he can’t place it.
Then James’s fingers go tight and his breath catches. “Robbie...”
Robbie turns his head as if he was still sighted. As if he can make whatever lies spread out before them come into focus. “What? What it it?”
“A village, Robbie. A village at the far end of the valley. And I think it’s whole. Not smashed or burned. and there are—”
“Lights! Robbie, there are lights! I can’t see anyone. It’s too dark and we’re too far away. But there are lights!" James is so excited, his rich baritone lifts nearly to soprano on the last word.
If there are lights… There must be people. Civilization. Why would anyone bother with lights if they didn’t have…life? A tremor washes up Robbie’s back and ripples into his legs. He starts to shake. The pack cuts into his shoulders with his movement, and he shifts, but he can’t stop trembling.
James catches his arm, and he’s trembling, too. There’s a thump as James drops his pack on the ground. Then he helps Robbie slide his off. Helps him lower himself to the ground and drops down beside him. He grips Robbie’s hand so hard Robbie can feel his bones shift and protest. And he grips James just as tightly.
Almost two years, moving from place to place, looking for safety. Sanctuary. Civilization. At first hearing rumours. Gossip. Whispers of places where things weren’t so bad. Hidden valleys. Remote villages. And then nothing, as hunger and disease took its toll. Almost a year since they’ve seen anyone, over a year on their own, fighting for survival. Always searching. They’ve been cold and hungry. Wet and miserable. Sometimes dry and as happy. Or at least, not unhappy, considering. Always, even at the worst of it, grateful to be alive. Grateful to be together. And through it all, they’ve clung to the hope that those whispers they first heard in Oxford were true.
But if there is civilization down there, there’s no guarantee that these people will take them in. No guarantee they’ll be welcomed. He can’t fathom it. That in a world where so few are left, they wouldn’t be invited in. But even if they can’t stay…maybe they can stay nearby. Maybe James can stay.
James has given up so much for him. Maybe there’s a chance for James to have a life. He wraps an arm around James’s waist and leans into him.
“You think anyone we know will have made it here?” They can’t be the only ones who heard the rumours, who set out to find something better.
There’s an almost imperceptible stiffening in James’s muscles, and he sits a bit higher. But his voice is as hopeful as Robbie’s was. “Maybe. Hopefully.” He squeezes Robbie’s shoulder briefly. “If anyone could have made it through, I’m sure it would be Laura.”
Robbie suddenly understands that James thinks he’s hoping to find Laura. Does James think that all of this has been to find Laura? Not that he didn’t look, as much as he could, once he was halfway recovered from his injuries. But Laura had been in Italy when the worst of it happened. She’d managed to get a message to him through a friend that she was starting for home. But he's sure she never made it, because if Laura had been able to make it back to Oxford, she’d have found him.
“James… Lad…” Robbie searches for his hand. Finds his elbow and follows it down to twine his fingers through James’s. “You don’t think—? After all we’ve been through… After…us…? You don’t think that I’d…?”
James clings to his hand, but he doesn’t say anything for a long while. “If we did find her, I wouldn’t expect you to—”
“I’m not hoping to find Laura,” Robbie interrupts. “I mean, I am. I hope like hell she’s here, or somewhere, alive and safe. I’ve prayed for it. I hope everybody we know is here. Or somewhere alive and safe. But I’m not… I mean, everything we’ve been— Everything we are, everything you’ve done for me, that’s what’s real now. Laura… I’ll always care for her, but…that’s in the past. That’s another life. I want the life I have now. With you.”
And then a horrifying thought occurs to him. “Unless…you don’t want that. I mean…if you want to move on…I’ll understand. God knows you’ve given up enough for me.”
He yanks at his gloves, throws them aside, and reaches for James’s face. The worst part of being blind is not being able to see James. He can stand all the rest of it—the loss of freedom, being guided like a child, bruised shins and skinned palms from falling over things. Never, ever again knowing just the simplest thing, like what’s right in front of him, what’s on the horizon, or what he’s about to eat. It hasn’t been easy, but he can bear all that. But not being able to look at James, to see the emotions on his expressive face...
Robbie slides his fingertips over James’s forehead and traces James’s lips with his thumb, searching for a frown. Or a crinkle at the corner of his eyes. A smile. Tears. Anger. Anything that will tell him what James is feeling. But his fingertips fail him.
James makes a sound, a deep breath that teeters on a moan. Robbie can feel the tension sigh out of James’s muscles with his breath. James’s death-grip on his fingers loosens. He cups Robbie's face, mirroring the position of Robbie’s hand on his cheek, and says fiercely, “I’m not going anywhere.” He leans in and kisses Robbie.
James tastes salty and metallic, like the out-of-date canned beans they were fortunate to find in the last empty village, minty from the dried leaves he carries in his waist pouch, and intoxicating. Which is just…James. Breathtaking heat and warm delight. Every kiss is like their first. A peculiar combination of thrilling and sweet. Something so improbable and unexpected and astonishing that Robbie can’t believe his luck.
Robbie clings to him, kissing him back, trying to put all his love and his gratitude into just the press of lips on lips. He whispers, “James, love.”
James shudders against him, clutches him tighter. As they part, James’s fingers linger on his face. Stroke his beard. And as he always does before he moves away, he kisses Robbie’s scarred, useless eyes. First one, then the other. “I’m glad that’s all settled,” he whispers.
Emotion’s so thick in his throat that Robbie can barely manage a husky, “Yeah.” For the first time, he admits something that he’s never allowed himself to acknowledge…that deep down, in the darkest place in his soul, he’s been afraid that James would move on once they were safe. Once he'd found Robbie a safe place.
But it’s all right now. Everything’s going to be all right. No matter what lies in the valley.
James tucks Robbie’s head into his shoulder rests his head against it. And they sit in silence so long that’s Robbie’s dozing when James suddenly bolts upright and exclaims, “Oh, my god, Robbie! Oh, my god!”
He draws in a breath so ragged, he sounds as if he can’t breathe.
Robbie reaches for him, fingers cramped with fear. “What? What’s wrong?”
James grabs his hands. “Oh, my god, Robbie, I can see the sun!”
“The sun! The sun!” He grabs Robbie’s chin and turns his face, as if Robbie can see whatever he’s seeing. “That way! Over past the village. Over the edge of the mountains. It’s morning, Robbie, and I can see the sun rising!”
Robbie lifts his face, trying to remember the warmth of a spring sunrise washing over his skin. “Are you sure?”
James takes another jagged breath. “I’m positive. It’s round and mostly grey. There’s just a hint of yellow. Like a—a—faded flower just before the petals fall off. The atmosphere’s still grey and thick, so it’s not bright. It’s not even as bright as a rainy day. But it’s the sun! The air’s clear enough to see the sun!”
He turns and bears Robbie to the ground and crawls up over him and peppers his face with loud kisses in between bursts of laughter. “It’s the sun, Robbie. We haven’t just found a village. We’ve found the sun!”
Robbie catches James’s warm face between his hands and stills him. “I never felt like I lost it,” he murmurs as he kisses him.
Then he allows James to pull him up, wraps his arm around James’s waist as they sit side by side, and James describes the pale lemony-grey sunrise to him.