Title: Learning Curve - 7 of 9
Characters: Claudia, Abby, Nick, Stephen, Connor, Ryan, Lester
Pairings/Ships: Nick/Claudia, Abby/Stephen and Abby/Connor.
Spoilers: Some from 1x01-1x05. Set in an imaginary larger gap between 1x05 and 1x06.
Disclaimer: I don’t own them....Bugger... (although if anyone at Impossible Pictures wants to offer me a job that’d be great...)
Summary: Abby is feeling increasingly frustrated with Stephen’s behaviour towards her, wondering if he cares for her as much as she hopes. Claudia is feeling increasingly frustrated by her lack of field experience, wondering if the others see her as a hindrance. Both problems pale into insignificance however when a large predator is on the loose and they find themselves lost and running for their lives.
Author's Note: Reposted due to changes to the first parts and now complete. A million thanks and many gold stars to fredbassett for being the most fabulous beta reader.
As they walked it became clear to Abby that, even though Claudia was trying to hide it, the other woman had become ultra observant and more than a little paranoid. And to honest, Abby couldn’t blame her. She could still feel the adrenaline pumping through her own veins from the attack, nerves still distinctly on edge. She kept an good look out, not only for signs of the creature itself, but also for potential hiding places should it ambush them again, her heart beating faster any time she realised that they were particularly vulnerable and away from safety. She said nothing though, not wanting to worry Claudia. Although, for someone so completely out of their comfort zone, the other woman was doing really well.
Looked like she was freezing though without her jacket now and hugging her arms around her to keep her warm. Wasn’t much she could do about that though and to be honest it was the least of their worries.
She was aware that Claudia was keeping a much sharper pace than she had before and she didn’t really mind. Abby didn’t want to be out here any longer than necessary either. They hadn’t made all that much progress so far, what with her limp and the attack and she surmised that they were still much closer to the car than they were to the camp. They needed to get a move on. Her body however wasn’t quite up to the task and although she tried to push herself into ignoring the pain her sore ankle began to protest a little too much and her ribs were burning from breathing more heavily. She had to stop.
“I’m sorry,” she said, utterly apologetic as she sat herself down on a fallen tree, “I just need a moment.”
“It’s fine,” Claudia said reassuringly, sitting next to her, “Take as long as you need. You look dreadful.”
She paused, realising how that had sounded. “Well, you know what I mean,” she qualified.
Abby smiled slightly. After a few long moments of silence she spoke again. “We should talk,” she stated, trying to ignore her throbbing ankle and hoping the pain would subside.
Claudia frowned, wondering what she meant by that. “Why?”
“Take our mind off things,” Abby suggested, “Besides, it seems weird not to. And it’s not like we get much chance normally.”
In truth, despite not knowing her wonderfully well, Abby actually rather liked the other woman, which was a surprise considering that on first sight she had been prepared to hate her. She was a government official in charge of keeping things under wraps. There was almost some unwritten law that she should be the enemy. Yet Abby had found her reasonable, practical and willing to help. She still remembered how the pair of them had chased Rex around the Home Office building when he’d escaped from the researchers, surprised at the time that the woman would bother to look out for the wellbeing of the lizard. Since then she’d come to see that, whilst she didn’t always agree with her stance, Claudia was only trying to take the best and least risky course of action for all involved. She doubted they’d ever be the best of friends or anything, they were two very different women with different lives after all, but in the very least they shouldn’t act like strangers around each other.
From the way Claudia nodded at the suggestion Abby got the impression that she felt the same way.
“Very well,” she agreed, “What do you want to talk about?”
“Anything. Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up, what school did you go to, any brothers and sisters....?”
What she heard was rather what she had expected. Claudia was an only child from a very good family, her father a lawyer and her mother the chairwoman of some committee or another. She’d been to a good school, got good results and had studied law at university before joining the civil service. She wasn’t surprised to hear that the other woman had once been in a relationship with a successful businessman although she was a little shocked to find out that it had almost got as far as marriage.
“What happened?” she asked, intrigued but not wanting to seem like she was being too nosy.
Claudia shrugged slightly, “I just started to realise that my family were more in love with him than I was. I think I was pretty much going along with it because it was what was expected. Mark was very successful and nice. What any woman would want really. But he wasn’t for me.”
Abby was unrelenting in her bluntness.
“And what about Cutter?”
She didn’t really know what was going on between the two of them and Cutter was too much like her boss for her to feel comfortable asking. However, she’d seen enough of their interaction to spot that there was definitely something there on both sides.
“Excuse me,” Claudia replied, seemingly startled by the question, acting as though she was a bit embarrassed about it, like a teenager caught out in a crush.
“I’ve just seen the way he looks at you, that’s all,” Abby said with a blasé shrug, not wanting to make it sound like an interrogation but interested all the same.
Claudia fell for her bait too easily.
“How’s that then?” she asked after a hesitant moment, trying to make the enquiry sound nonchalant and not succeeding.
Abby grinned broadly.
“Like he’s smitten.”
She didn’t profess to know Cutter very well but she knew enough about blokes to tell when one was interested. Nick Cutter was more than a bit interested in Claudia Brown, that was for certain. It was very sweet in a way, a chink in his usually gruff exterior.
“Please...” Claudia said, definitely embarrassed now, even blushing slightly, “We barely know each other.”
Abby however got the distinct feeling that the idea he might be smitten with her wasn’t an entirely unwelcome one.
“Well,” she teased, “If you will both insist on flirting all the time...”
Claudia smiled at her then, seeing her game, knowing Abby was winding her up very slightly.
“We just work together, that’s all. And he does have a wife you know.”
“Yeah and she left him to go and wander around the past with dinosaurs,” Abby pointed out bluntly, “If anything’s a relationship breaker, that is...Look he’s a nice guy. I say go for it.”
“And I say it’s not quite that simple,” Claudia reasoned, before changing subject, clearly not entirely at ease with the topic of conversation, “Although I can’t see any such hurdles with you and Connor. You two seem very close.”
She was teasing the other woman in return although Abby didn’t quite take it the way it was intended.
She gave Claudia an odd look, not exactly happy with the suggestion, “He’s really nice but he’s a friend, that’s all. Besides, I’ve got my eye on someone else.”
“Anyone I’d know?”
That threw Abby for a moment. Why exactly did everyone think there was something between her and Connor? What were they seeing that she wasn’t? And if Claudia, the independent observer amongst them so to speak, could apparently see nothing between her and Stephen, was the chemistry she thought was there actually not as obvious as she believed?
“No,” Abby said quietly, after a moment, “It’s not that serious anyway.”
Nick experienced an interesting mixture of relief and apprehension when Sergeant Reynolds found a telltale scratch on one of the trees not too far down the road. Covered in silver paint he said, like a car had scraped alongside it hard.
Claudia’s car was silver, an SUV of some sort. It had to be them.
As soon as he realised that the nerves and clutch of apprehension had kicked in again. Of course he wanted to find them but part of him was scared of what they might discover when they got there. They hadn’t heard from the girls in a good hour. A lot could happen in that time.
A few yards down the road, sitting in the grass to one side, Ryan discovered a wing mirror, again silver, cracked and obviously having been knocked off. Stephen said the tracks seemed to show someone had done a hand brake turn and not quite controlled the exit.
For some reason the thought of Claudia being able to do a hand brake turn made Nick smile. She did keep surprising him. She always had, right from the very first moment they’d met when she’d so brazenly kissed him, apologising with a cheeky smile and saying that it was a ruse to put off an unwelcome suitor. He suspected that, in truth, it was also part of her tactic to disarm him, to make it easier for her to get him on her side. He hadn’t really concentrated on that however, something else holding his attention. It had been the first time he’d been kissed in eight years. The first time he’d felt even a brief closeness with someone for longer than that. The fact he’d found it more a little pleasant had been rather a surprise.
He grinned at the warmth of the memory for a moment before shaking himself out of the reverie and continuing on.
Stephen’s tracking skills were almost second to none but hardly pushed by the situation – the tire marks were clear as were the hoofed footprints overlying them. The car had driven along here and the Andrewsarchus had been behind it. Running behind it, Stephen clarified, taking into account its stride pattern and length.
Further down the road, the men moving at a more hurried pace now they had something concrete to follow, the tyre tracks weaved more violently, heading towards the edge twice before they seemed to disappear. Nick had a feeling about what had happened but he allowed Stephen a moment to investigate the area to be sure.
Stephen carefully took a few steps down the embankment, checking the vegetation around him for telltale signs before nodding and confirming Nick’s suspicions.
“It looks like they got pushed down here.”
The four men walked carefully down the steep and uneven slope, torches searching the area whilst watching their footholds. They didn’t need someone with a broken leg on top of all their other problems.
Reynolds shook his head in disbelief as, on Ryan’s order, they spread out slightly to search better.
“How the bloody hell did it push the car down here?” he wondered aloud, “It wasn’t like she was driving some little city run around or anything.”
“Andrewsarchus hunted five ton herbivores,” Nick pointed out, almost automatically being the teacher for once, “Cars are small in comparison.”
There was silence then as they carefully worked their way onwards.
“Sir!” came Reynolds voice, about half way down, demanding their attention.
As they joined him, the soldier shone his torch onto his discovery; a tree stump that had clearly taken quite a hit from one side.
Stephen crouched down, getting a better look, running his thumb along the damaged edge before noticing something in the thick grass at its base. He wasn’t entirely sure but he suspected that the bent and twisted piece of metal may have come from the car’s axel.
“They hit this,” he said with a grim nod, “It probably flipped the car.”
Ryan shone his own torch further on, sure enough illuminating broken bushes and flattened grass where something heavy had rolled over them. A few feet on the torch light caught pieces of metal and a twinkle of reflection that was probably glass. Parts that had fallen off as they’d rolled down the embankment, obviously at speed.
Nick reacted first, half sliding his way down the rest of the incline in his urge to get there fast. In spite of their efforts to catch up he was several feet ahead of the others and so it was he who first caught sight of the car, battered and crumpled and lying on its roof.
Claudia felt that they had stayed still far too long but she bit her lip, not saying a word until Abby was ready to get going again. She forced herself to set a slower pace this time, slow and steady she decided being the order of the day. There was no point in rushing and then having to stop every quarter of a mile or so. As it was they hadn’t exactly made great progress back towards the camp.
She kept a hopeful eye out ahead and up the embankment, checking for signs of movement on the road. Nick and the others were looking for them. Surely sooner or later they’d meet them coming the other way?
She was starting to wonder if they should have stayed with the car after all.
“What do you think of Stephen?” Abby asked, having been quiet for several minutes.
Something was clearly bothering her but Claudia was either too tired or too oblivious to know what it was. Did Abby have a bit of a thing for Stephen then? It certainly wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility – he was a bit pretty for her tastes but not exactly uneasy on the eye. He had a slight action man thing going on too and she could understand the attraction that might hold. She’d never got the impression the two of them were that close though, having seen Abby interact with Connor far more than anyone else.
She decided to stick to a professional point of view, hoping she wouldn’t tread on any toes that way. The last thing she needed now was a tired Abby in a grump with her because she’d said the wrong thing.
“He means well but he’s reckless,” she stated simply, her voice as professional as she could muster, “And I wish he would leave some of the things he insists on doing to Ryan’s team instead. I don’t doubt his experience but...well, you are all sort of my responsibility out here and I’d hate for anything to happen to one of you.”
Abby smiled slightly, “If it makes you feel any better, we do try not to get ourselves killed.”
“Try harder,” she ordered, only half joking.
She paused, realising her assessment had come across as unnecessarily negative.
“Cutter seems to trust him though,” she added, trying to make it clear that she didn’t dislike the man or think him incompetent, “And he certainly seems nice enough. I don’t know him very well to be honest.”
Abby grinned wryly at that, “Don’t think any of us do apart from Cutter. He seems to prefer it that way. Man of mystery.”
Claudia nodded but she was only half listening, suddenly curious as to why she insisted upon calling him ‘Cutter’ when talking to other people about him. The psychology class she’d once taken would have insisted that it was a defence mechanism, that by keeping her references to him so formal she stopped anyone from wondering about how she truly felt about the professor.
Except, she realised, remembering her early conversation with Abby, it obviously hadn’t worked.
And she couldn’t help but noticed how, in her own head he was no longer ‘Cutter’ but ‘Nick’. That that was how she addressed him to his face too, mostly when the others weren’t around and she felt more comfortable with him. It was subtle shift but one of definite note.
She knew that her feelings were becoming an issue that she couldn’t ignore, the professional in her slightly annoyed by the fact but being rapidly silenced. Almost more worryingly it was becoming one that she was choosing not to ignore, encouraging it in fact, teasing him about how he kissed her and enjoying their own brand of flirting. She even found herself surreptitiously looking at his lips and remembering what they had felt like or sometimes thinking so much about how lovely his accent was that she didn’t listen to a word he said. It was utterly childish, she scolded herself, and it probably did affect how she did her job, something she really shouldn’t allow.
She couldn’t help herself, however, and was becoming more and more convinced that she should just throw professionalism to the wind and go for it. He obviously liked her and it wasn’t as though she met men she felt this strongly for every day. She’d be a fool not to try.
And what better time than a life or death situation to make herself a promise?
So, she decided, if she got out of this alive then she would ask him to have a drink with her. Life, she had rapidly come to realise, was too precarious to not take a chance every now and again.
She smiled, pleased with her own decision.
“What’s that for?” Abby asked with a frown of curiosity.
“Just...feeling positive,” Claudia said to which Abby gave her an odd look but said nothing more.
Some things she preferred to keep private even from new found friends.
“Claudia!” Nick cried out, shining his torch around the immediate area, trying to keep his voice loud enough to be heard but not so loud as to attract any wandering predators in the vicinity, “Abby!”
The car, he realised as he knelt down and took a good look inside, careful not to put his palms in the shattered glass littering the floor, was empty and there was no sign of the occupants anywhere nearby. The important question pressing on his mind was had this happened before or after he had spoken to her on the phone?
“What time did you call her?” Stephen asked, kneeling down on the other side of the car and checking things out for himself, obviously having similar concerns.
Nick quickly checked his phone.
“Well, this was a while before that,” Stephen said, barely hiding his relief. He tapped the clock with his finger to prove it. The LCD clock was shattered, distorted and impossible to read. The hands on the other clock however were visible even through the cracked glass. They’d stopped at least three quarters of an hour before Nick had spoken to her and he could only assume that that was when the crash had taken place.
Stephen took another look round before standing and walking to the driver’s side where Nick was, checking that too.
Nick moved out of his way and let him work.
“The seatbelts are intact,” Stephen eventually stated, as much to himself as to the others, “The doors haven’t been too badly damaged and the keys are in the driver’s side – the occupants were definitely alive and got themselves out.”
Nick could see Ryan nodding in agreement.
“The fact that the passenger side door is open too clearly suggests two people were in the car,” Stephen added.
He didn’t say ‘and the other was probably Abby’, perhaps not wanting to jinx it. After all, two of Ryan’s men were still missing and there was a small possibility it was one of them who had been with Claudia.
Nick didn’t think it likely though. She’d spoken of Abby on the phone and now it looked very much like she’d had a passenger with her. No, the likelihood was that the two of them were together somewhere. ‘Where’ being the operative word.
“I told her to stay put,” he said, a little angry, knowing that this could be all over by now if she had only done as he had asked.
“Maybe she didn’t hear you,” Stephen soothed, “You said the phone sounded broken.”
“Maybe the creature turned up and they had to leg it,” Reynolds added, trying to be helpful.
Ryan glared him into shutting up.
Nick didn’t want to hear it but he knew that was a distinct possibility. They’d obviously felt that they couldn’t stay here. The idea of Claudia being out there, in the middle of the night with a dangerous creature nearby worried him immensely. If it had only been Abby then he probably would have been more at ease with her ability to cope. She had experience of animals and he’d seen she could handle herself in dangerous circumstances. But Claudia was a girl from the leafy suburbs who up until a few months ago had solely worked in offices. She’d never been in a situation like this before and he had no idea if how she would cope, if she’d panic or keep her head. Sure she was clever and often resourceful but this was a whole new ball game. She only had to make one mistake...
The notion of what could have already happened made him feel sick. It was the same feeling he’d had at country club when he’d seen the explosion and had thought that Claudia might have been caught in it. It was a hollow, empty feeling and he almost couldn’t bear it.
For one wild moment he contemplated phoning her again, asking her where she was and if she was okay, but he suppressed the notion with commonsense. That could be dangerous for them – the Andrewsarchus could be near and the phone may catch its attention.
“Well there’s no sign of blood in the car,” Stephen reasoned, “And they clearly got out so hopefully they’re not badly hurt. Maybe they decided to head back towards the camp.”
Nick said nothing whilst Stephen searched the ground again, looking for more clues. He was getting more than a little fed up of ‘hopefullys’ and ‘maybes’. He’d rather like to get some solid answers now.
Fortunately Stephen was able to supply him with at least one.
“Here,” he said, pointing at what, to Nick, appeared to be an indistinct section of the ground, “There’s a trail here. They must have gone this way.”
Hurriedly they followed Stephen’s lead, Nick trying to decide which feeling was stronger; the urge to hug her the moment she was in sight or the urge to start shouting at her for not staying with the car and causing him even more worry.