Title: Dazed and Confused
Spoilers: Episode 5
Disclaimer: Not mine, ITV and Impossible Pictures own them
Word count: approx 3000
Summary: Nick and Claudia talk in the aftermath of episode 5
“Claudia. Wait.” Nick Cutter headed across the golf club car park, trying to attract her attention before she got into her car. Twilight was starting to set in, but there was a lingering smell of smoke from the hotel, and people were still finding bits of charred pterosaur in unexpected places. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Home?” she said with a slightly amused smile. “Ryan’s taking care of the cleanup operation, and after the day I’ve had I can’t face Lester today.”
“You shouldn’t drive yourself.”
“I’m fine, Nick. My sight’s back to normal now.”
“I know,” he said, trying his best reasonable voice. “But you had a hell of a concussion. You were out for nearly half an hour. Let me drive you back.”
Again, she gave him that curious smile. “I thought you were going back to the university with Stephen?”
Stephen. Damn. “He’s getting a lift with Abby and Connor,” Nick said, thinking desperately how he could talk Stephen into that one even as he said it.
“What about my car?”
“Come back for it tomorrow. Ryan’ll probably have the place cordoned off for a day or two yet, and who in their right mind’s going to steal a car guarded by twenty armed marines?”
He hadn’t thought it was going to be this difficult to persuade her. To be honest, it had been a sudden instinct when he saw her going for her car. He didn’t want to let her go, and not just because of the concussion, that was just a convenient excuse. He just hoped she couldn’t see it was an excuse.
“Okay then,” Claudia said, picking her bag up from the car seat and locking the car up.
“Right,” Nick said, trying not to sound surprised. “Just give me a minute.”
He intercepted Stephen, still trying to think of decent excuse. In the end he decided that he had to go with the truth. The younger man knew him too well to accept anything else.
“I need you to do me favour, Stephen. Can you go with Abby and Connor? Please?”
Stephen glanced across at Claudia and his eyebrows rose a little.
“Three’s a crowd, eh?”
“It’s not like that. I just don’t think she’s in a fit state to drive after everything she’s been through.” Nick could hear the exasperation in his voice, but Stephen’s smirk was getting harder to ignore.
“All right, all right,” Stephen tried and failed to keep a straight face as he added, “Keep your shirt on.”
Nick almost rose to the bait, but then got the joke. “I just need to talk to her,” said by way of explanation.
“Anything serious?” Stephen looked concerned for a moment.
Nick briefly considered whether to tell him about Helen’s reappearance. Stephen would no doubt be pissed off when he found out that he’d been kept in the dark again, but Nick didn’t want to fend off all the questions that he didn’t even know the answers to himself yet.
His hesitation must have said enough, because Stephen patted his shoulder. “Go on, I’ll make sure Rex doesn’t get them into any more trouble.” His expression said they were going to have to talk about this later, though.
He had a feeling that Stephen was not going to like it, but that was another argument for another day. Nick nodded his thanks, and left.
Claudia glanced sideways, trying to read his expression, but he was concentrating on the road and not giving anything away. After his insistence that he drive her home, she was expecting more in the way of conversation, but other than asking for directions to her house he had been silent since they had left the golf club, and it was starting to get a little strange.
Maybe she had read him wrong again. Maybe he really had just been concerned to see she got home without incident. Maybe there was no ulterior motive after all. It wouldn’t be the first time she had been wrong about the man, and no matter how well she thought she knew him he still kept surprising her.
Like with that kiss.
Damn. Claudia forced herself to look out of the window. Anywhere but at him. This was just stupid. She was a smart, professional woman, not some silly girl with a crush.
“I wonder how she knew,” Nick suddenly said, startling her. Claudia didn’t need to ask who ‘she’ was. When she didn’t reply he carried on the one sided conversation.
“She couldn’t have come through the anomaly on the golf course, it was thirty foot up the in air and guarded by Ryan’s men. But she was there when you needed saving. How? Why?”
The frustrated pain in his voice was unmistakeable, and Claudia had to look at him, but he kept his eyes firmly on the road.
“Maybe she’s watching us. She told you there were more anomalies than you can imagine. If she knows of ways to get between any time periods she can come and go as she likes.” Claudia was surprised when her voice sounded as calm as it did.
“You mean why did she choose to save me? Why didn’t she let me die in there?”
Nick finally met her look at that.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“You think I haven’t been wondering about that myself? I could understand it if it was you or Stephen in danger, but me?” Claudia was surprised by the bitter note to her voice.
“She’s not an entirely heartless bitch you know,” Nick snapped.
“So where was she when the army medic got killed? Or the golfer?” she snapped back.
Nick glared at the road ahead and said nothing.
After a moment Claudia went back to staring out of the window. Bloody Helen Cutter. Every time it felt like she was starting to get close to Nick, Helen always managed to come between them somehow. Even when she wasn’t physically there in person, it was like an unseen presence that hung around Nick just waiting to manifest at the mere mention of her name.
“I don’t know her any more,” Nick said in a voice so quiet Claudia barely heard him. With no idea what to say, she waited for him to continue.
“I know I keep telling you that she’s a good person, she wouldn’t do the things that you and Lester seem to think she’s capable of. And that’s true about the Helen I married. But now?”
“People change, Nick. Considering where she’s been it would be impossible to believe she wouldn’t be different.”
“I’m not ready to believe she’s turned into some kind of monster.”
Barely contained anger was still edging his voice, and Claudia wondered how far she could go without releasing the fury that she sensed he was capable of. This was the last thing she even wanted to be talking to him about, and she had no idea why it was happening here, now, or why he had chosen her instead of Stephen. But at the same time she was intrigued. This was the first time he had really seemed willing to discuss any of this with her. He was still guarded, defensive, yes, but usually whenever she pushed too far about Helen he just clammed up. However uncomfortable the conversation was becoming, she couldn’t help but wonder after the events of the day if this represented a shift in the nature of their relationship.
“Nobody said she was a monster. But if what you say is true, then whatever you believe she’s not the same person now as the woman you married.” Claudia hoped it wasn’t too apparent how carefully she was choosing her words.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know her any more.”
They lapsed back into a silence that Claudia had no idea how to break, or even if she wanted to break it. Instead she watched the outside world go past the window. It had become properly night while they were driving, and houses flashed past, lighting up the darkness. So many homes, people living the daily dramas of their own lives, completely unaware that the fabric of the reality they all clung to was so very fragile, and so easily broken. Every now and then the enormity of what they were dealing with crept up on her, threatening to overwhelm her, to destroy the careful control that she exerted over every aspect of her life. If there was one thing that Claudia Brown did not like, it was the thought that she wasn’t in control, and though she hated to admit it that was a large part of the reason why she had so utterly fallen apart that afternoon. While Nick’s presence had undoubtedly been a comfort, his stubborn insistence that everything was okay when it quite clearly wasn’t had not helped her mental state.
Actually, now she thought about it, that rather summed up their relationship in general. She liked being around him, he somehow seemed to impose calm onto the crazy situations they found themselves in, and sometimes his charm and infectious enthusiasm managed to affect her, even against her better judgement. But at the same time he could be so infuriating, particularly with his stubborn disregard for protocol and official procedure. Why did he have to make things so confusing?
Nick glanced at Claudia when he realised she hadn’t spoken for a while. She seemed distracted, lost in her own thoughts. Or maybe, he reflected, she was just hoping to god that he was going to stop talking about the other woman in his life.
This wasn’t quite the conversation he had intended to have with her. In fact, he wasn’t even certain why he’d started talking about Helen at all. It clearly made Claudia uncomfortable to talk about her, and it wasn’t exactly giving him fluffy bunny feelings either. But lately, when he talked to Stephen about Helen, more often than not they would end up arguing. Considering everything, Claudia seemed to be managing a relatively objective opinion. But still.
“I’m sorry,” he said. That seemed to break into her thoughts and bring her back to the present. “That wasn’t what I wanted to talk about, it just,” he waved a hand, distracted, unable to find the word, and hoped that the gesture managed to say what he meant.
“So what did you want to talk about?”
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine.” The question had obviously surprised her, but the answer sounded more like an automatic response than anything else.
“You had a hell of a day.”
“I said I’m fine,” she snapped. Nick wondered if she said it often enough she might even believe it herself.
“Okay.” His tone of voice had just the right level of sarcasm to let her know exactly how ‘fine’ he thought she was.
“What do you want me to say Nick? I got knocked out by a pteranodon, nearly eaten by a flock of killer reptiles, and then almost got blown up. As if that wasn’t bad enough, half of Ryan’s squad were staring at me in my underwear.”
“So considering all the near death experiences, getting looked at by a few squaddies was the worst part of the day?” He was having a hard time keeping a straight face.
Claudia turned to look out of the window again, but he caught enough of her expression to realise that she was on the verge of either laughing, or possibly crying. She was probably only just coming down from the adrenaline of the day, even after the couple of extra hours it had taken to return the pteranodon through the anomaly, and all that pent up emotion was searching for a release, one way or another. He suspected it was only a matter of time before that cool, calm, professional demeanour gave way.
“Do you know how difficult it is to get people’s respect on this project?” her voice was suddenly louder than necessary in the enclosed space. “You and your team ignore me half the time and do your own thing. Ryan only follows my orders because he has to, and I’m quite certain that his men only follow my orders because he tells them to. Lester makes life difficult at every available opportunity, and I’m caught in the middle between you and him. So ending up as the half naked damsel in distress hasn’t exactly helped my cause today, Nick.”
Okay. That was how long the professional demeanour had held out.
“Nobody thinks that about you.” He wasn’t smiling any more after her outburst. “Liar.”
“All right, I don’t think that about you. And who gives a damn what a bunch of soldiers think?”
“Easy for you to say. Besides, you love all this stuff. I’ve seen the look on your face when you see these creatures. You’re too fascinated to be scared by any of it.” She almost sounded envious.
“Is that what you think?”
“That’s certainly the impression you give.”
Nick shook his head. “Of course I was bloody scared,” he muttered.
That got her attention, but he didn’t want to elaborate. He wasn’t quite ready to admit how much the thought of Claudia trapped and alone with those creatures had terrified him. That he’d gone so far as the insanely stupid plan with the gas bottle and lighter just to get back to her. Like that was going to have protected him if the pterosaurs had attacked en-masse.
No, he wasn’t ready to admit any of that to her yet. Things were complicated enough without that as well. Her look told him he had said just enough to get her intrigued, though, so he tried to deflect her attention elsewhere.
“You’re right,” he said. “I am fascinated by them, they’re incredible, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about the risks. You and Lester and Ryan, you look at them and see threats. I look at them and see animals that should be respected, whether they’re giant predators or cute little herbivores. The real trick is finding the balance between respect and fear.” He glanced across at her. “I know you didn’t agree with me over the pteranodon today, and I’m sorry you got hurt because of the way we handled it. But they need to be protected from us just as much as we need to be protected from them.
He realised her anger had subsided, and she was watching him with an oddly indulgent smile.
“I wouldn’t try that line on Lester,” she said.
He chuckled. “You don’t think he’ll go for it?”
“I think there’s more chance of him keeping a pet gorgonopsid.”
“What about you? Are you convinced?” Even as he said it, Nick wondered when her opinion had become so important to him.
“I let you get your own way today, didn’t I?”
“That’s not the same thing.”
He had known for a while now that he could usually talk her round to get what he wanted, and at first he had used that as a means to an end. But that wasn’t enough any more. Now he wanted her to understand his point of view, to share his enjoyment and enthusiasm for the creatures and the sheer incredible situation that the anomalies presented.
But that was probably asking just a little too much.
“Public safety and secrecy has to be the priority at all times.”
Nick wondered if that was really Claudia speaking for herself, or if she was trying to maintain the official Home Office line.
“Besides,” she added, “I think I’d appreciate these creatures more if we actually got some of those ‘cute little herbivores’ occasionally. It’s hard to like them when they just want to eat you.”
“We’ll have to see if we can find you a nice trilobite or something next time,” he commented.
“Anything with ‘bite’ in its name is far from encouraging, Nick,” she said, but she was smiling as she spoke. “Oh, just turn left here, please.”
Nick had barely registered where they were, and felt a touch disappointed when he pulled up outside her house.
“Well, thanks for the lift.” She seemed hesitant to actually get out of the car.
Unless he was suddenly imagining things, that looked like a faintly hopeful expression on her face. Nick wondered whether it would be wildly inappropriate to kiss her again. Once, in an emergency ‘we might be dead within the next five minutes’ situation was one thing. Here, now, was something else entirely.
He hesitated a moment too long, because abruptly she was getting out of the car and not making eye contact any more.
“See you soon then?” he asked.
He was certain she would be in his office sometime in the next day or two to discuss final reports, official cover stories or any other aftermath issues. Their ‘post anomaly situation’ discussions were something he looked forward to these days.
“Depends on how much paperwork I have to do after this one,” she said in her most businesslike voice. “I’ll give you a call or something.” Claudia finally looked at him again, and gave him a tired smile. “Goodbye, Nick.”
She shut the car door before he could respond and he watched her walk to the front door and fumble with the key for a moment before letting herself in. Claudia looked back at him once, but she was silhouetted against the light in the hall and he couldn’t see her expression.
“Goodnight, Claudia,” he said in a soft voice. Then he started the engine and drove away, wondering why he suddenly felt so confused.