Title: Learning Curve - 8 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.
No one had really taught Stephen how to track. The skill was the product of a mixture of tips and experience he’d picked up during a gap year in the Amazon rain forest. A gap year that had soon become a permanent break from Uni when he’d realised that he loved field work too much and didn’t really want to go back to England after all. He probably would have been quite happy staying and working there for the rest of his life if he hadn’t met Helen Cutter.
Thinking about it in the cold light of hindsight, he’d known right from the start that she wouldn’t be good for him but she’d had a way of drawing him in that he could neither fathom nor avoid. She’d told him straight away that she had a husband and he’d assumed for a long time, even though she continued to encourage his flirtations, that the thing between them was nothing serious, just her enjoying the flattery. After a time she’d told him that her marriage was unhappy. He’d believed her enough to sleep with her without guilt. And then she’d insisted he come back to England with her and he’d followed like an eager puppy, ashamed when he met her husband and found he liked the guy. Feeling even worse when Nick had confided in Stephen that his marriage had its cracks but that he was trying to fix them. Helen had got Nick to offer him a job and Stephen had been sure that was partly because she’d enjoyed seeing him squirm. It had amused her to see him becoming Nick’s friend, at the same time torn between guilt over their affair and yet wanting it all the same.
He couldn’t honestly say he’d ever stopped loving Helen but he’d certainly stopped liking her a long time ago.
He knew very well that he was a fool not to just forget about her and move on but he couldn’t help himself. Abby clearly liked him and she had a nice personality and was great looking. Any sane guy would at least go on a couple of dates with her and see if it led anywhere. But she didn’t press his buttons like Helen did and he wasn’t going to lie to Abby and pretend she was everything. She deserved better than that.
Since returning to England and becoming Nick’s assistant, his work had been a mixture of field and lab and he enjoyed it, the contrast suiting him. When they’d first come across the anomalies, however, he’d come to realise that he was being posed his first challenge in years. Tracking and containing extinct animals was something else entirely and to be honest, despite the obvious dangers, he was enjoying their new line of work.
And so now, even though he was concerned for Abby and Claudia, he did relish the test of tracking them through thick forest in the depths of the night. He enjoyed the challenge of following their trail, picking up hints of their footsteps in patterns that he knew the others couldn’t see.
That was until he found tracks from the Andrewsarchus again and then any enjoyment vanished immediately, replaced by concern.
“It must have been waiting for them here,” he stated, checking out a small copse of trees at the side of the embankment, noticing that they showed signs of having been violently hit by a large force. Ryan and Reynolds had their guns at the ready, scanning the area around them but there was no need. The ground told Stephen that the Andrewsarchus had left and hadn’t been back since.
“They went this way,” he said, easily picking up the harder imprints left by running feet. He ran too, following the trail until it disappeared beside a thicket of bushes. He dropped straight to his belly, looking underneath them, knowing exactly what he’d have done in their situation. The beam of his torch illuminated something and he asked Ryan for his knife.
Moments later he’d freed and retrieved a woman’s jacket. He handed it straight to Nick.
“It’s Claudia’s,” the professor confirmed, after a moment.
In any other circumstances Stephen would have teased him about being able to smell her perfume or knowing her wardrobe too well.
“There’s no blood here,” Stephen said after dropping to the floor again and making doubly sure he hadn’t missed anything, “I don’t think it got at them.”
That revelation did nothing to soften the grim look on Nick’s face and Stephen could understand that. Just because they had got away this time didn’t mean they’d been so lucky a second time and if the creature had found them once...
“Where did they go?” Ryan pressed.
Stephen instantly realised his mistake and berated himself for it. In his eagerness to follow the tracks he’d been careless. He should have made the others stay back whilst he checked the area but now whatever footprints were here had been covered with their own, making his job all the more difficult. He ordered them to all stay still, not wanting them to make a further mess of things. It took him longer than he would have liked but he eventually found the distinctive square heel impression that he was sure was from Claudia’s shoes. They didn’t strike him as something Abby would wear.
“The Andrewsarchus went that way,” he said, indicating the trail he’d found heading away from the road and deeper into the forest, “Abby and Claudia went that way.” This time he pointed in the direction parallel to the embankment. “They must be trying to make their way back to the camp.”
Nick sighed heavily, “And they couldn’t have stayed put and waited for us to come and get them, could they?”
Stephen smiled slightly. “Doesn’t seem their style.”
“Ms Brown’s got her head screwed on right,” Ryan added, “They’ll be okay.”
Stephen glanced across at Ryan, noticing that the Captain was looking fixedly in the direction the creature had headed. He appeared to be wrestling with a decision for a moment before he suddenly made up his mind.
“This way,” he ordered, following the direction Claudia and Abby had taken.
Stephen was grateful to him but said nothing.
A few hundred yards up the road he brought them all to a halt, wanting to check very carefully before he said what he suspected. He looked around, holding his hand up to silence Nick when the professor asked what the problem was.
“Andrewsarchus tracks,” he said after a moment, “They’re pretty fresh. I think it’s following them.”
They all set off at a run.
“You know, next time Cutter wants a volunteer to stay at the anomaly, I’m heading straight home and into the bath,” Abby said with grouchy determination as the incline in the route they were taking got steeper.
Claudia let out a short laugh, “Yes, and next time Lester wants someone to go and check in on the team watching the anomaly he can do it himself.”
Abby grinned a little even through the pain and growing exhaustion. It wasn’t like they’d walked far but her ankle and ribs were making it much harder going than she would have normally found it, the effort of dragging her aching body along tiring her out quickly. Claudia didn’t look like she was doing much better either. She didn’t have so many physical injuries, although the cut on her head was still bloody, but she was undoubtedly sore, battered and bruised. Shivering violently now too, Abby noticed, the other woman’s voice shaking whenever she spoke. Abby had offered Claudia her own jacket but the other woman had declined, probably out of some notion that Abby was the more injured of the two and hence needed it more and no amount of insistence on Abby’s part would make her change her mind.
“Okay,” Abby announced breathlessly, “That’s it. We’re stopping.”
She sat heavily on the floor exactly where they were, not bothering to find a log or something this time. Claudia dropped down next to her, hugging her knees to her chest to keep the cold out.
“Well, you’ve got a genuine excuse for Cutter to give you a big hug when we back now,” Abby teased with a grin.
“Oh you’re very funny,” Claudia replied, dryly, voice still quivering.
Abby scooted closer to Claudia and put an arm around her shoulders, rubbing her hand vigorously up and down Claudia’s arm to try and get the blood flowing again.
“’Fraid I’ll have to do for now though,” she said, causing Claudia to smile a little.
There was a moment’s silence and Abby thought she heard movement. She looked surreptitiously around, not wanting to alarm Claudia, secretly hoping that she’d suddenly see torchlight and their rescuers. No such luck though. And when nothing charged at them she figured it must have been a fox or a badger. Maybe even a deer. The creature from the anomaly wasn’t the only animal in these woods after all.
“I think I might take a day off tomorrow,” she said lightly, speaking just to break a silence that only seemed to be making her more paranoid.
Claudia nodded decisively, “Me too.”
Stephen stopped running so sharply that Nick only just pulled up in time to prevent himself barrelling into the back of other man.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, bending over, hands resting on his thighs as he took the opportunity to catch his breath. He really needed to get to the gym more. Or at all.
“I’ve lost the tracks,” Stephen said almost in disbelief as he frantically looked around, trying to pick up the trail again. But it was no good.
“Ground’s too hard here,” Reynold’s confirmed, looking worryingly grim.
They had been doing so well, Stephen following the trail to a fallen tree where they’d apparently rested. He’d said that the footprints seemed to show that one of them – likely Abby from the shoe imprint - was limping and that was probably why they’d stopped. He was sure that the four them were catching up with their missing colleagues. Unfortunately that probably meant the Andrewsarchus was too.
“Spread out,” Ryan ordered, “Keep heading this way. We’ll cover as much ground as we can.”
He, Reynolds and Stephen dashed off further into the woods, leaving Nick to continue along the base of the embankment. If they were in luck then he would find them a little further on, continuing along this path, safe and well. If the creature had got there first and they’d been forced to flee again, then they could have run off into the woods and the chances of just the four of them coming across the ladies in such a vast area wasn’t great.
That was if they had escaped at all.
Abby knew it was no deer making that noise. The glimpse of an outline moving through the trees a few hundred yards away confirmed it.
Claudia was talking quietly, pondering what car the Home Office would give her as a replacement and wondering how well the suggestion of an Aston Martin might go down.
Abby leant in a little more closely.
“It’s found us,” she whispered although she didn’t know why since the creature wasn’t exactly going to understand what she said.
Claudia didn’t need her to clarify what she meant.
“Where is it?” she murmured, obvious fear in her tight voice, body visibly tensing.
“Trees to our right.”
Claudia whipped her head round and Abby instantly dug her nails hard into her arm to distract her.
“Don’t look!” she whispered harshly, “It doesn’t know we’ve seen it. It’s an ambush predator and there’s way too much open ground between us and it. While it thinks it’s in cover it’s going to try and figure out a way of getting closer. Or it’s going to wait for us to get up and come to it.”
Lions would do that. They’d watch a herd, figuring out the route they were taking and then lay in ambush ahead, waiting to pick out the weaker targets as they passed.
“Oh god...” Claudia whispered, voice shaking even more than it had done with the cold, “What do we do?”
“I’m thinking,” Abby said, trying to sound reassuring but only coming off panicked and lost. There was no obvious cover nearby at all. Climbing a tree was out; she’d never make it up there with her bad ankle.
“Maybe...maybe I should get it to follow me,” Claudia suggested after a tense, silent moment.
Abby’s veins ran cold, a sickness developing in her stomach at what the other woman was saying.
“What?” she asked, struggling to even get the one word out.
“You’re injured, Abby,” Claudia reasoned softly, clearly terrified but determined all the same, “You can’t outrun it.”
Part of Abby was incredibly touched by the offer and part was disgusted. In the end it was anger that won out, appalled with the idea that someone could get killed because of her.
“Neither can, you unless you’re an Olympic athlete now as well,” she snapped firmly, “And I am not going back and telling Cutter I got you killed so you can forget it, okay?”
“Well, what then?” Claudia bit back, sounding almost hurt by Abby’s reaction but the other woman didn’t care as long as it put Claudia off doing anything stupid.
Abby looked around once more. There weren’t any good possibilities but there were possibilities all the same. It seemed most sensible to go for the one closest to them and furthest from the creature waiting in ambush.
“The undergrowth over there,” she said, nodding to an area a good twenty feet from where they were sitting. “It’s quite dense. If we get in and start crawling through before it reaches us we might be able to lose it.”
Claudia’s frowned, “That’s a horrible plan.”
She was right of course but still...
“Are you concealing any weaponry in that shirt?” Abby asked, deliberately flippant to make her point.
“Then we don’t really have any other choice, do we?”
“Okay,” Claudia acknowledged, looking like she was desperately trying not to think about what was going to happen, “When do we move?”
Abby dragged Claudia to her feet by a handful of shirt and the pair of them began to run. Abby heard a crash of breaking vegetation as the creature burst from its hiding place after them, letting out a menacing growl.
They would make it, she told herself. They’d made it this far and she wasn’t about to believe their luck would desert them now.
And then she fell, her foot catching a divot in the ground and her already painful ankle collapsed underneath her.
She tried to clamber back to her feet immediately but burning pain shot through her whole leg and she crumpled again. Claudia obviously realised after only a few feet that Abby wasn’t beside her and she instantly ran back, her frightened face telling Abby how close the creature must be getting even though she didn’t dare look back herself. Claudia grabbed her under the arms and tried desperately to haul Abby back to her feet but it was no good, her ankle was in agony and wouldn’t support her.
“Just go!” Abby insisted, trying to push the other woman away as the creature bore down on them terrifyingly fast.
It was too late. Abby expected to hear a roar of attack any moment. She was surprised when a startled yelp came instead.
She and Claudia both turned to see that the creature had stopped and was facing the other way, resting low on its haunches and growling in warning anger. A dart was hanging limply in one of its flanks and Stephen was its focus as he hurriedly loaded a second one into the gun.
Abby saw the overwhelming danger in the situation. She knew full well that the tranquilizer they carried wasn’t strong enough to take down something of this size in just one shot. With the adrenaline undoubtedly running through the angry creature even a double dose may not have an effect and even if it did it would be several minutes at best before it kicked in. Stephen didn’t have that long.
He fired off another shot just as the creature charged at him and the dart missed, landing uselessly in the ground.
Stephen turned on his heels ran and back through the trees and out of sight, leading the creature away from them which instantly went crashing after him.
Abby saw Claudia look desperately in his direction and then back to Abby, torn.
Abby made the decision for her.
“Go and help him!” she insisted through gritted teeth, her ankle ablaze with pain.
Claudia shook her head. “I can’t leave you here like this.”
“Claudia, it will kill him,” she said desperately, not even trying to hide just how much that thought scared her.
“Okay,” Claudia said, after an uncertain moment, “Er...stay here...”
Abby looked skywards as Claudia ran off, collapsing back into the grass as she tried to take deep breaths to stop herself from passing out or throwing up. ‘Stay here’? Because, yeah, she was really in a position to go anywhere.
No, all she could do was wait and hope that her friends made it.
It was easy for Claudia to follow the trail through the trees. The flattened path the creature had left behind was obviously and she could hear it crashing through the woods ahead as it tried to hunt Stephen down.
She knew she must be completely mental to be actually following it and she didn’t really have the first clue of how she was going to help him, but the idea that she might be able to pushed her on. He’d just saved their lives and it was the least she could do in return.
She ran hard, pausing only momentarily when she spotted something on the floor. A torch, she realised, as she picked it up. A big maglite. Stephen must have dropped it.
Moments later she suddenly found herself beyond the tree line in a small clearing.
Stephen was running towards her, obviously having doubled back. The gun must have been lost somewhere because it was no longer in his hands.
The creature was mere feet behind him and gaining.
She didn’t know what gave her the idea but almost on auto pilot her trembling hands turned the torch on and she held it up, aiming the beam directly at the creature’s eyes.
It took a snap at Stephen but instantly lost its coordination, coming to a halt, momentarily blinded by the bright light. She saw it shake its head in confusion, pawing at its face as though trying to figure out what was stopping it from seeing properly. She doubted it would take too long to recover.
Stephen grabbed her hand as he reached her and then pulled her along behind him as he began to run for the tree line once more.
The torch fell out of her hands and she was too shocked to insist that he wait for her to pick it up.
She soon recovered enough of her wits to at least think objectively about what they were doing. She was about to remind him that they couldn’t possibly keep running around in the woods hoping they’d lost it, when she saw that that wasn’t his plan at all. Instead he stopped at the first good sized tree they came to and quickly began to climb up it, reaching a hand down to help Claudia as soon as he was on the nearest sturdy branch.
She decided now was not the time to mention how rubbish she’d been at tree climbing as a girl.
She didn’t know precisely what happened next. All she knew was that one moment her hand was in Stephen’s as he helped haul her up the tree and the next she felt a massive, solid impact to her side and his fingers were gone and she was flying quickly through the air before landing on the floor with a heavy thump.
Adrenaline got her instantly to her feet again in spite of her spinning head.
The creature stalked towards her, growling low, ready to pounce.
A quick look left and right showed her no obvious salvation.
“Claudia, run!” Stephen shouted, already scrambling down the tree and trying to come to her aid.
But there was nothing he could do and he certainly wouldn’t get to her in time.
She didn’t know what was going to kill her first, the creature’s attack or the anticipation of it. The fact that she seemed to have stopped breathing was bound to become an issue very shortly as well.
The impact didn’t come from the front as she expected, but from the side, knocking her hard to the floor again, her already pounding head bouncing off the solid ground. It took her several moments to realise that the thing pressed so close to her was another person’s body. A body that was trying to protect hers as the clatter of gun fire filled the air followed by series of pained howls. She lay there, panting heavily in shock as there was a thud and she saw the creature fall to the ground just feet away.
Being alive felt utterly strange when she’d been so convinced she was about to die.
She couldn’t move, so she just lay there dazed and shocked, trying anything to stop the violent trembling and to control her quick breathing.
“It’s alright,” a soft voice said close to her ear, “It’s okay. You’re safe.”
It was Nick, his hand now trailing soothingly up and down her back as he continued whispering comforts to her.
In moments she gathered herself together enough to sit up at least, tucking her hair behind her ears as she looked at the scene around her; the creature lying dead as Ryan and one of his men checked to make sure it really wasn’t about to get back up again, Stephen running his fingers through his hair looking relieved, and Nick, sitting on the ground next to her, hand still resting lightly on her back.
“You okay?” he asked, after a moment, his free hand gently tipping her head to look at him rather than staring so fixedly at the thing that had nearly killed her.
She nodded, sharp and uncoordinated, her voice still lost somewhere. The sensible part of her brain told her she was almost certainly in shock.
It felt better when Nick put both arms around her and pulled her into a hug, so she closed her eyes and surrendered.