Title: Losing Ground - Part 2
Characters: Nick, Claudia, Helen, Connor, Abby, Stephen, Ryan
Pairings/Ships: Nick/Claudia, one sided Helen/Nick
Length/Word Count: 6175
Disclaimer: I don’t own them....Bugger...
Short Summary: One of Connor’s genius plans goes a little awry. Meanwhile Helen begins to realise that perhaps she is finally losing Nick.
The summer’s day was hot and Nick had taken shelter inside the disused ‘Arctic Adventure’ building, once a thriving educational exhibit for the kids but now nothing more than a large room with peeling yellow walls, lined by dust ridden and empty glass display cases. Usually Connor would be the one quite happily writing down the relevant notes about their encounter that they may find useful should they meet such a creature again but he was too busy chasing Abby around, trying to apologise profusely for the hundredth time. Nick suspected he’d be giving Claudia the same treatment too if it wasn’t for the fact that he seemed to be a little intimidated by her.
So, whilst the young man continued on his fruitless quest that seemed destined to end in a black eye if he wasn’t careful, Nick sat on one of the old wooden benches and, by the shadowy light filtering through grimy windows, made hurried, scribbled notes in his book.
He had no idea how long he was there but it couldn’t have been too long considering that when Claudia found him she was still rather damp and any reasonable length of time in the increasing heat would have undoubtedly dried her out.
He nodded in greeting as she entered and she went straight to business, surprisingly able to keep her air of authority despite looking rather bedraggled still.
“Well, the anomaly has closed so that was blissfully short,” she said with clear relief, “I’ve got Ryan and his men doing a quick search of the immediate area but it seems unlikely that anything else came through.”
He nodded, pleased with that but also a little distracted. He didn’t know if it was light in here or if he simply hadn’t noticed outside but the water had clearly played havoc with the opacity of the material that her dress was made of. Matters were only made more obvious by the fact that it was damp and still clinging firmly to her skin.
Try as he could to keep them on her face, he couldn’t help his eyes flickering down for a second and third opinion. He was only human after all.
“Do me a favour okay?” she asked, oblivious to his discovery.
“Next time you have a particularly odious task you need doing, give it to Connor, would you?” she said, the suggestion only really half serious but with mild annoyance still in her voice.
“Such as?” he queried although even he could hear that he sounded distracted.
“Something long winded and painful preferably,” she replied, “Cataloguing, filing...”
Catching sight of the notebook in his hands she walked over to stand right in front of him, taking it out of his unprotesting fingers and glancing at it for a few moments, her midriff at his face height.
He had to tell her, he couldn’t let her walk around in front of the SAS guys like that, but how exactly did you broach the subject that you could see someone’s underwear without there being an issue of why on earth you were looking in the first place?
“How about writing up scrawling hand written notes that are so barely legible they make your eyes bleed?” she proposed with a slight smile as she handed him back the book.
“No point. He likes doing that kind of stuff.”
Claudia was about to say more when she frowned curiously, obviously catching on to something in his tone or manner.
“Is anything wrong?” she asked taking a couple of paces back, both confused and concerned, “You look...distracted.”
He didn’t think his gaze had wandered again but by the sudden realisation that dawned on her face, he concluded that it had indeed given him away.
She closed her eyes and sighed, praying momentarily for strength, as though this was just another in a long line of things sent t test her.
“This dress has gone see through, hasn’t it?” she stated with a cringe of embarrassment.
“Just a little,” he admitted.
“You could have said something rather than just sitting there gawping,” she pointed out, her discomfort making her a little snappy.
“Well, it’s not like I could bloody help it,” he protested with a slightly cheeky smile as he stood, “Have you seen you?”
The hidden compliment seemed to throw her for a moment. She apparently couldn’t really be angry with him for suggesting that she was alluring enough that any man in his right mind would have done the same in his shoes.
“That’s not the point,” she muttered, tucking her hair behind her ears in a way that he noticed she did when she was unsure, part way between pleased and embarrassed.
He just grinned back at her in an ever so slightly smug manner, unable really to be anything but amused by the situation.
Annoyed by her inability to be annoyed with him she huffed, turned around and walked off.
“And stop looking!” she called back just before she reached the door, somehow knowing without turning around that he still was.
He chuckled slightly.
“Not a chance,” he muttered under his breath with a continued grin, watching her until she was out of sight through the door.
“Well, I can certainly see what you see in her.”
A heaviness seemed to descend upon the air, drowning the lightness of the previous moment in its wake. He sighed a little wearily, his face falling as he did. Did she purposely turn up at times like this just to put a downer on otherwise rather pleasant days?
As Helen walked up to stand beside him he glanced at her, her expression, as it seemed was the norm these days, unreadable to him. He wondered briefly how she really felt about the idea that he might be looking at another woman in that way. Was she jealous? Did it spark in her any old memories or feelings of what they used to have? Did she even care at all or was she only mentioning it to wind him up, knowing that he was slightly uncomfortable about the matter?
Did he even really care what she thought anymore? He wasn’t so sure that she did.
“I’m not surprised though,” she continued when he didn’t bother to greet her, “You always do fall for the wrong women.”
He frowned at her, not really understanding what she was getting at.
“Come on,” she said with a smile, not believing that he had never thought of the matter, “You know she’ll betray you in the end. She’s Government Girl. It’s her job.”
The truth was that he had never thought that about Claudia at all. In fact it was quite the opposite. There was something about her which, despite his better judgement really, inspired trust in him and she had never given him reason to think otherwise. He was actually often more concerned about her going too much out on the limb for them and getting herself into trouble. She’d already started taking sides a little too clearly and he hoped that it never got to the stage where that jeopardised her future with the project. Not only did she do her job very well, but he really didn’t like the idea of not seeing her every day.
“Betrayal, eh?” he muttered, a little annoyed that she’d suggest that of someone she barely knew especially considering it was hardly an area she held the moral high ground over, “That’s something you’d know all about, isn’t it?”
She rolled her eyes, as usual more irritated by his reminders of how she had treated him rather than remorseful.
“Oh stop it, Nick,” she said scornfully, “Stop playing the victim. You’ve moved on, so have I. Let’s be friends at least.”
She might have moved on and apparently had found it easy to do so, but he had gone from thinking she was dead to finding out that she had been alive all this time but hadn’t cared enough to save him a lot of pain by telling him she was safe at least. The vision he had of his wife had become so distorted from what he used to believe that it took more than a bit of getting used to. And there was some definite adjustment needed as he began to realise that there was so much about her that he’d gotten wrong; that he hadn’t really known the real her at all. What he did know with more clarity every day was that from his point of view whatever they once had had was long over. It was hardly unsurprising however that it was all taking a bit of time to sink in and he decided that he could forgive himself that.
As for being friends...well that all depended on her he supposed and whether she decided to continue to skulk around in the shadows not telling them anything or actually really wanted to help for once. You couldn’t exactly be friends with someone you didn’t trust after all. Nor could you be friends with someone who you had the sneaking suspicion was trying to manipulate you at every turn.
Still he held his tongue, knowing it was pointless to get into arguments with her and that apology he wanted was never going to come.
“Do you know what the really annoying thing is?” she said with a small, amused laugh that was in stark contrast to his own stony silence, “I actually quite like her. And I do find it hard not to have a bit of respect for a woman with a battalion of SAS soldiers at her disposal.”
He couldn’t help but smile at that.
“Hmm,” she said, noting his reaction, “You did always have a thing for strong women.”
He knew she was referring to herself and somehow that wiped the smile from his face once more.
“She’s right for you, you know,” Helen continued, managing to seem more and more like a toying predator, playing with and prodding his emotions just to see the reaction she got, “She fits in with your ever so white sensibilities. She’s all honest and humanitarian.”
She didn’t sound particularly impressed by either quality.
He had a sneaking suspicion that her words were more leading than she made out though. That, in a roundabout way, she was trying to get him to deny them and denounce any unexpected concerns she may have that he was forming a serious attachment to Claudia beyond a simple attraction.
He however didn’t feel the need to give Helen such reassurances, not to mention that it would be a lie if he did. In fact, the more she tried to twist around him, the more she tried to hook him on to her side and win him back without a hint of remorse for her actions, the more attractive the alternative began to look.
And the more he realised what a breath of fresh air Claudia was in his life.
“Actually,” she said, trying to sound utterly blasé but really looking mildly irritated now that he hadn’t taken her bait, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up marrying her. Despite the fact you already have a wife.”
“Well,” he said simply, making it sound like he’d already considered the matter, “Legally you’re dead so there’s nothing to stop me.”
Helen glanced at him sharply and he felt a small sense of satisfaction at that. He was getting increasingly fed up with the way she seemed to think she could toy with him, the way she acted like she was totally in charge of him and held his feelings in her power and on her terms. It was about time she started to realise that any feelings he once had for her were fast fading and she couldn’t have everything her way – she couldn’t treat him the way she had and still expect to hold his affection. She had to know that she’d killed off anything he felt for her beyond an obligation to ensure that she was okay.
He did wonder if things may have been different between them if Claudia wasn’t a consideration. If he didn’t have such a growing fondness and attraction for her would things have gone differently with Helen? He suspected that they wouldn’t except that he probably would have felt sadder about letting her and having to resign himself to the prospect of being on his own once more. As it was he was almost beginning to feel relief – the burden of responsibility he held for eight years was finally being lifted.
“That’s cold, Nick,” Helen said quietly, her tone challenging, “And that’s not like you. Do you think that girl could ever make you feel anything so strong?”
He looked at her steadily. To be honest he didn’t know. The reality was that he barely knew Claudia and circumstances hadn’t exactly allowed for him to start anything like a relationship with her. But he knew how he felt. He knew he was falling for her.
“She makes me smile,” he said simply, for once being the one to walk away from his wife. He didn’t turn back to see Helen’s reaction as he headed out of the building. It wasn’t about that. It was a simple realisation – Claudia made him happy, Helen no longer did.
For her part, she stood there, hands on hips, watching him go, knowing that she was fast losing ground and unable to think how she would get it back. She had always believed that whatever he felt for the other woman was nothing more than attraction and that it couldn’t compare to the deeper feelings between them. Now she wasn’t so confident. She had a horrible suspicion that he was starting to love the girl and Helen wasn’t a woman who liked to lose.
Outside, Nick found Claudia sitting in the sunshine, looking a little drier than before and on the phone to Lester again. He waited patiently whilst she continued her call, listening to her telling him that the anomaly was closed and that there was no threat to public safety. And she insisted with a slight sigh after he clearly brought the matter up, she was certain that the zoo staff were trustworthy and had believed the cover story so project security remained intact too.
“No, I don’t think that that will be necessary,” she said firmly and a little outraged, before holding her hand over the mouthpiece and whispering to Nick, “He’s considering approving the use of an experimental drug that’ll affect subject’s memory. He thinks this would be a good test case.”
Nick raised an eyebrow at that.
“Because,” she said sharply, talking back into the phone once more, “Giving people drugs which haven’t been tested for long term side effects is hardly the solution. We have plausible deniability on our side, we don’t need to risk more drastic measures.”
There was a longer pause and Nick could hear an irritable, tinny voice at the end of the phone.
“Fine,” she said with a roll of her eyes and a sigh, snapping the phone shut and ending the call.
“Well, he’s not convinced but he’s going to hold off on approving the drug for usage for now,” she explained in response to Nick’s curious look. She smiled a little wryly.
“Although apparently it’s on my head if they all go running to the papers.”
Again his concern arose concerning the security of her place on this project. Lester was the one in charge and if he didn’t like having a junior officer disagreeing with him at every turn Nick had a horrible feeling that it would be all too easy for her to be transferred to another department.
He didn’t get a chance to voice those concerns however before she spoke once more.
“So come for another look?” she asked bluntly although there was hint of a smile on her face.
He smiled too, “And if I had?”
“Then you’d be sorely disappointed. I’m drying out.”
“And if I hadn’t?”
“Well then I’d be sorely disappointed.”
He laughed a little, knowing that she hadn’t been really angry with him, just a bit embarrassed.
He was about to say more when, to his utter surprise he got hit in the chest by a sharp jet of water. Reacting a damn site quicker than either Claudia or Abby had earlier, he jumped out of the way but not before his t-shirt was soaked through.
He glared accusingly at the offending sprinkler head which he hadn’t noticed buried in the grass next to him and then turned his attention to the laughing Claudia.
“You knew they were on,” he accused.
“Maybe,” she said playfully, “But I do believe some cultures would call that ‘karma’.”
He smiled too, despite his dripping shirt. It was nice to see her more relaxed.
“Go, Claudia Brown,” he ordered gently, shaking his head fondly at her, “Go home, enjoy your weekend off and come back on Monday.”
“You know what,” she said, standing decisively, “I think I will.”
She walked past him, pausing right next to him and very deliberately looking him up and down, taking in the tightness of his wet t-shirt.
“Mmm,” she said, giving a nod of approval and a grin before walking away.
He watched her go, shaking his head in disbelief. Who would’ve thought that the thing that brought Helen back to him so unexpectedly would also bring someone else into his life? It’d been so long since he’d even considered dating, never having really got over Helen’s abrupt disappearance, that he’d almost forgotten what these first moments were like. Despite Stephen’s attempts to get him out there again, he had always resisted, never really feeling comfortable with the idea. And now, when the mystery of his wife’s disappearance had finally been solved in a most unforeseen manner, it had actually led him to find someone else entirely. Someone he was beginning to believe there may be the possibility of a future with. That was why, despite his initial reservations, he was increasingly listening to his gut’s instructions to just go for it and see what happened.
Perhaps Connor was right. Life was ironic. But when it did things like this he didn’t mind so much.