indyhat (indyhat) wrote,
indyhat
indyhat

Proximity

Rating: soft R, for language and slash.
Pairing: Claude/Bennet
Warnings/Spoilers: Moderate violence; no spoilers past 1.17 ("Company Man").
Recipient/Prompts: Written for trollopfop as part of Morally Grey November. I'm so sorry it's late! Prompts were: Broken bottles, glittering under a streetlight. A memory involving tubes and scalpels (not necessarily used on Claude or Bennet themselves). This line, or a variation on it: "You know what the problem is with love? You give away a piece of yourself. And will you look at that, I'm fresh out."
Word Count: 8,981. Woah.
Summary: He likes his new partner. Likes the way that Bennet, for all his dependence on protocol and the chain of command, isn't quite as impervious to Claude's reckless grin as he'd like to pretend. It's altogether rather promising.
A/N: Eternal morally grey gratitude to fantasticpants, who for the longest time was the only thing standing between me and death by plot bunny. I am not worthy. Really.

Edit: Thanks to runningondreams for my banner!

Son of edit: This story won an award for Best Bennet characterization in a fic :D



"And this is the main laboratory," said Thompson, moving down the corridor and opening a door onto a sterile-looking room with test-tubes and interesting-looking equipment. Thompson gestured to Claude to step inside. "You won't be spending much time in here, but it's useful to know what other members of the company do, don't you agree?"

Claude nodded, but his attention was distracted by a perfectly white bench on which were arranged a test-tube rack containing what look like blood and tissue samples, a microscope, and a handful of carefully-labelled glass slides with stuff pressed between them.

Thompson followed the direction of Claude's gaze. "Curious, Claude?" He smiled. "I can arrange for you to observe one of our vivisectionists at work, if you like."

He stared at the test-tubes, trying not to flinch, because Christ, are you going to do that to me, too? Darting eyes found a tray of scalpels by the sink, containers marked peroxide and formaldehyde.

Thompson's hand on his shoulder took him by surprise, and he had to quash the urge to flinch. "I know what you're thinking. We never take from company employees more than they're willing to give."

Not exactly reassuring. Persuasion wasn't really much of an issue when there was a fat, balding man in a holding cell twenty yards from here who could reach into your mind and make you put a red-hot poker though your own hand, if he felt like it.

But in time, he got to know the Company; learned to interpret the minor seismic shifts that emanated from those in charge. Learned to stay out of their way. Every organisation had a rhythm and a pulse, and if you just adjusted yours to match it, became part of it, then, well, that was as good a way as any of staying out of trouble.

Of course, it helped that trouble was also their business.

*

"So what's the mission?" Bennet's face is, well, not eager, exactly, but there's more than a hint of puppyish enthusiasm.

Well, that's going to have to go, for starters.

"Your mission, rookie, is to make me a cup of tea."

Claude is on the receiving end of that stare he's starting to get used to, starting to anticipate; the one where Bennet does his best impersonation of a very slow puppy trying to figure out who hid the food. "You're joking."

"I never joke about tea, mate. Comes of bein' English." Actually, he prefers coffee, but Bennet doesn't need to know that; not yet, anyway. Tea requires more effort.

Bennet frowns. "You know, technically, you work for me; I don't appreciate being made to run around after you."

Claude runs a hand through his hair and leans back in the chair. "That's funny, 'cause I don't appreciate bein' made to wait for my tea."

Bennet sighs and sits down carefully on his desk, facing Claude. "Don't you think a month's long enough for a hazing, Claude?"

Claude's mouth tilts in a sardonic smirk. "A month? Optimistic of you, rookie. I figure you've got another two or three years of this left before you crack."

His partner considers this carefully for a moment. "Is that meant to be a compliment?"

Claude shrugs and opens a file-drawer, pulling out a packet of cookies. "Suit yourself. You goin' to bring me that tea now, or what?"

Bennet sighs and collects Claude's mug from the desk.

He likes his new partner. Likes the way that Bennet, for all his dependence on protocol and the chain of command, isn't quite as impervious to Claude's reckless grin as he'd like to pretend. It's altogether rather promising.

*

"Shouldn't that be in the kit-bag?"

Claude frowns, looking up from an immensely tedious report that Thompson has made quite clear is already late enough, Claude. "Shouldn't what be in the kit-bag?"

Bennet points. "That." A tiny screw-top container with a small clear stick inside it, sitting on Claude's desk amid the piles of paper, half-drunk mugs of coffee, and pastry crumbs, and all of it illuminated by the yellowish glow of an old, tired desk lamp. "The saliva swab."

It staggers him, how Bennet can be so single-mindedly focused on the job and at the same time so bloody naive. "That's for me, mate." He watches Bennet's face as his partner carefully absorbs this information, expression struggling to remain neutral.

"I see." Bennet's words are precisely enunciated.

"Not gettin' squeamish on me, are you, rookie?"

Bennet huffs out a hasty, dismissive sigh. "What? No. Of course, it's routine."

Yeah, so routine you almost forgot who you were working for. Careful, mate - might actually start believin' there's a human bein' under there.

Claude gives him an ironic grin. " 'S for the greater good."

Bennet nods, slowly and carefully.

It's actually nice, Claude thinks, that, most of the time, Bennet seems to forget he's one of them. After a couple dozen times of fading in and out of invisibility (sometimes on assignment; sometimes purely to make the rookie wear his morning coffee - because otherwise, millions of years of human evolution are just goin' to waste, yeah?), Bennet has forgotten to be jittery about it, and mostly, it's something they just don't really talk about.

So when Bennet walks into the office one morning and is promptly grabbed by an unseen pair of hands and shoved against the wall, something of a scuffle ensues.

"Christ's sake, rookie!" Claude's whisper comes out as a hiss. "It's me, you pillock." He waits for his partner to stop struggling, though he keeps his hand over Bennet's mouth. "Quiet. Thompson's after me for that soddin' report."

Right on cue, leisurely footsteps become audible in the corridor outside.

They exchange glances. Claude is acutely aware of the mental calculations being cranked out by the demons in Bennet's skull, though there's also something rather distracting about being quite this close to another human being - something he hasn't experienced in a while. He raises a finger in warning, but doesn't have time to consolidate the threat, because just then, the office door is pushed open.

Thompson steps in, reaching for the light-switch, and Claude yanks Bennet aside just in time - his partner's face is caught in an entertaining Bermuda triangle of surprise, outrage, and amusement, which Claude contains with the quiet, warm pressure of his hand against Bennet's mouth. Their bodies press together in the silence, and Claude can feel Bennet's pulse, sudden and fierce, through the thin woollen fabric of their suit jackets.

Thompson grunts a quiet "Hmm", and for a moment, Claude is only peripherally aware of Bennet's even breaths against his palm. But still, he risks a glance; their eyes meet, and he'd swear there's something like a challenge in Bennet's steely gaze.

The moment is broken as Thompson shifts; opens his mouth as if to say something, but then apparently decides against. He glances around again, as though expecting Claude to suddenly appear, then turns off the light and leaves.

Claude waits for the footsteps to die away before removing his hand, warm and now faintly damp, from Bennet's mouth. The heat of their mutual space evaporates as he steps back.

Bennet, judging by his face, is still occupied by some internal debate about the appropriateness of hiding from one's superiors, and the necessity of filing an application in triplicate no less than two weeks beforehand, should invisibility be required. He frowns. "I don't appreciate being made complicit in your slacking, Claude."

"Complicit?" Claude grins, noticing the quick dart of Bennet's eyes towards the door. He plants an arm against the wall, blocking the exit, and leans in close again. "I'm not slackin', I'm just employin' a little time management. Got a problem with that, rookie?"

"No problem," says Bennet evenly, and detaches himself from the wall.

He has to hand it to his partner, really; man's more or less unflappable, coffee-related incidents aside.

"Incidentally, Thompson's expecting that report by the end of today."

"And why—" Claude's voice is a study in careful patience, or so he tells himself, "—why might that be, exactly?"

Bennet doesn't so much as blink. "Because I told him you'd nearly finished it."

Unflappable fucking bastard.

*

They're sent on a variety of entertaining and undoubtedly educational missions, rounding up some of the nation's more interesting specimens. Thompson presides sardonically over it all, but when they get away from the office, into the field, it's not so bad, and Claude can almost believe he made the right choice, not just jacking it all in. Bennet turns out to be a decent shot, an endearingly lousy card player, and more than capable of keeping his head under pressure.

Slowly, Claude gets a little more used to the idea of existing in another person's space. Haram had always kept him at a distance with his pills and twitchiness; it had been such an effective buffer that Claude had started to believe that he might, of the two of them, actually be the sane one.

Bennet's nothing like that: he's thoroughly predictable. Solid. Dependable. It quickly becomes one of Claude's few pleasures in life to stir up the rookie's existence, then stand back and watch the fireworks.

Their sixth mission finds them in Idaho in the middle of a howling autumn storm, taking down some guy who, among other things, makes genuine leather cowboy hats - though that quickly becomes pretty fucking incidental in the moments after Bennet's tranquiliser dart bounces harmlessly off the bedsheets.

"Shit!" Claude's through the door fast, but the guy - David Morgan: six foot two and easily the estimated 240 pounds noted in the file - moves fast, and Claude finds himself sprawled on the floor with what he's pretty sure will be a murderous bruise on the side of his head. He'll check that in a moment, just as soon as his ears stop ringing and the floor settles down a bit. Bennet's feet clatter past him and Claude thinks he hears the click of the trigger, but then nothing happens.

He rolls over onto his back, because the silence in the room is, at this point, decidedly disturbing. Outside, he can hear trees thrashing in the storm, and the splatter of rain against the window.

Bennet's just standing there in the blue-grey light, facing down Morgan, gun levelled.

"Put him down, rookie, for Christ's sake!" 'Cause that's all they need, Bennet getting sixth-date nerves—

It takes Claude a moment to realise that Bennet has turned and is staring down at him, blankly, still holding the gun.

"Not me, you wanker—" but understanding catches up with him at that point and he rolls to his right as Bennet slowly, deliberately, presses the trigger and makes a pretty hole in the carpet that smokes just briefly for a moment.

There's what feels like a long and very still moment in the room, during which distant lightning flickers, and Claude isn't entirely sure who to address, Bennet or Morgan. He settles for drawing his own gun and pointing it at their quarry. "Stop it. Now. Or I'll put a bullet through your head."

Morgan grins, and the gesture finds a strange, slack echo in Bennet's face. "Um, I don't think so. 'Cause if you do that, I can do this." And Claude watches, unpleasantly mesmerised, as Bennet's hand carefully lifts the gun and places the barrel in Bennet's mouth.

Fuck, and he could kick himself for being so slow. Nervously, he glances at Bennet. "Hey. Hey! Rookie. Bennet. C'mon, mate."

Bennet shudders faintly, but remains where he is, gun lodged in his mouth beneath an impassive stare.

Morgan grins again, teeth oddly white in the half-dark. "So, uh, how about you put down that gun and we slug this out, old-school?"

Well, sod that.

Claude blinks out of visibility and grabs the gun from out of Bennet's hand, pulling it away from his mouth and sending it skidding across the carpet to rest beside the far wall..

Morgan stares at it, surprised, then back at the space where Claude was. Had been, anyway.

Bastard wasn't expecting that.

Invisibility lends him the advantage; he rushes Morgan, and pins him to the bedroom floor. Pulls the gun and fades back into view. "Now. About that bloody ability of yours—"

Strong hands grip his shoulders and haul him off Morgan. "What the hell—?"

Bennet's fist connects with his jaw in a smooth movement that Claude is sure he'd admire from a slightly less immediate perspective. As it stands, the blow is a shining exemplar of a punch that stings and delivers a bone-deep crunch. Chalk one up to the rookie, then.

He staggers backwards, and Bennet steps forward calmly. Shit. Claude doesn't really want to hurt him, but—

Bennet swings into another punch, and Claude's resolve, like his chin, is just going to have to be put on ice for a while. He blocks the punch and leans in to shove Bennet hard, intending to floor him just long enough to take out Mister Soddin' Puppetmaster over there; but to his surprise, Bennet's body resists.

Interesting. Though he supposes that there might be better occasions on which to be making notes for Morgan's file. Yesterday, for instance. Yesterday would have been fantastic.

Bennet steps forward with that same bloody dead expression on his face and his hands fly to Claude's throat. Claude steps back, but Bennet pushes him against the wall as though he were made of paper, and again, Claude hesitates. Pulling the gun again seems, well, a little drastic. He's pretty sure that going head to head with Morgan to see which of them can shoot Bennet first wasn't on today's agenda, but then things are getting a bit foggy, because Bennet's choking him, thumbs pressing into Claude's windpipe with the strength of two men, so he might be mistaken about that.

It turns out that when you're choking to death, scenes of your life don't flash before your eyes, and it's not like it is in the bloody movies at all. Instead, there's just this burning sensation in your throat and your limbs lose their direction a bit. A lot, if he's honest.

There's a sudden roll of thunder close overhead, and the noise brings Claude back from a strange dry place in which his vision is closing down to a poor red-grey tunnel. He feels the burning lessen as Bennet's fingers relax momentarily. Some smarter, atavistic part of him uses the moment to unleash a punch; only peripherally aware of the ensuing trickle of blood from Bennet's nose, Claude hurls himself across the room towards Morgan.

He's hard pressed to say what happens next, only that there's what looks and feels very much like an explosion.

And then everything goes quiet, and he can't even tell whether the white noise in his ears is just the storm whipping up the trees outside.

Claude levers himself up on his elbows and stares at what he fervently hopes is the steaming corpse of David Morgan, lying beside the old iron bedstead.

He manages to turn his head. Bennet is looking at him like— well, he doesn't even know what the expression on Bennet's face means. Isn't sure he wants to know.

Claude exhales a heartfelt sigh and sinks back down to the floor. "That's some serious bloody mojo."

*

David Morgan turns out to be quite dead, much like his former telephone line.

They don't really talk on the drive back to the motel. Claude's still trying to work out if the ringing in his ears means his hearing's been permanently damaged, and Bennet looks like a ghost.

Back in the room, Bennet carefully lifts the first-aid kit from his bag, and turns, frowning, to Claude. "Your chin is bleeding." He soaks up some of the rubbing alcohol with a square of gauze and, without preamble, presses it against Claude's chin.

"Fuck!" It stings like a bastard, worse than being hit, and Claude eyes Bennet meanly. "Just— gimme that." He grabs the alcohol-soaked gauze and sits down on the bed nearest the window. Dabs his chin experimentally; it feels decidedly tender. "Christ, mate. Did you have to hit me with your bloody wedding ring?"

Bennet peers into the mirror, prodding a rapidly-swelling cut on his upper lip. "Technically, he hit you with my wedding ring." Voice level; a little too even, perhaps.

"Thanks, rookie - that makes all the sodding difference."

He isn't sure about Bennet's expression, reflected in the mirror. Bennet's shirt is untucked, riding up as he swabs at his lip with something antiseptic; Claude can see the angular shape of Bennet's hip jutting out above the waistband of his suit pants.

Bennet looks up, catching his eye in the mirror, and Claude turns away. "Fine pair we are. Think I'm goin' to need stitches."

Bennet says nothing. Claude glances back at him; he'd have expected a jibe about vanity, at the very least; but his partner's face is uncharacteristically sombre.

"What's the matter, mate? Lived through it, didn't we?" Best make light of it, because the alternatives are unsettling; Claude runs a hand through his hair, wishing again that the Company believed in booking motels with minibars.

"It was very ... unpleasant," says Bennet, not looking at him, and taking a ridiculous amount of time to unbutton one shirt cuff.

"That's one word for it." But there's something nagging at him, and it takes Claude a minute to work out what it is. "Wait - d'you mean to tell me you were actually conscious of what was goin' on? I mean— Bloody hell, rookie, you could've pulled your punches a bit."

Bennet's shoulders sag. "I really couldn't," he says quietly.

Well, that's all they need.

"Not much point in feelin' guilty, mate. You got zombified. It happens." And there but for the grace of static electrical discharge ...

Bennet turns to him, face wearing rather more emotion than Claude is used to seeing there. "I nearly killed you," he says, hoarsely, as though confessing a crime. "I would have shot you. Or choked you to death." The words are quietly appalled.

Claude swallows, fingers playing across the skin above the junction of his collarbones. "Yeah, well," he says, which is, he'll admit, probably somewhat inadequate. He gives Bennet what he hopes is a cheeky grin. "Reckon I'd have done the same for you." Moves carefully around the bed until he's on the edge that faces away, towards the window, and unbuttons his shirt.

"Claude," and Bennet's voice cracks a little, "Don't do that."

"Don't do what, mate?" He just needs to sleep. That's what you're supposed to do after something like this, isn't it? Sleep and wake up and go to the office and think about nothing but missions and paper and bein' a good little soldier. And Christ, what's the matter with his bloody shirt buttons?

Bennet's voice is sharp with with annoyance. "Don't ... brush this off. This isn't some game. We nearly died today."

There's a strangled inflection to that last sentence that makes Claude's insides knot. He carefully unties the laces of his shoes and takes off his socks, flinging them across onto one of the room's aging chairs. "You get used to it," he says, without looking at Bennet. It's a lie, of course, but the last thing he needs - the last thing they need - is to get emotional. The kind of emotional Claude wants to be right now isn't exactly safe.

A sigh, and then he hears the swish-swish of trousers walking closer until the mattress sags beside him, and Bennet's shoulder is almost warm against his, their legs almost touching.

For a little while, neither of them says anything.

"Sandra thinks I'm at a conference." Bitter detachment that Claude doesn't remember hearing before.

He blinks, because whatever he was expecting, it wasn't that. Clears his throat. " 'S for her own good, mate. She can't know."

Bennet sighs. "I'm tired of lying, Claude. I just—" he rubs at his face wearily with bruised hands. "I didn't expect it to be this hard."

"Christ's sake, rookie - husbands lie to their wives all the time."

He didn't mean it to come out sounding quite so irritated.

Bennet rounds on him, anger cold and contained. "And you find that acceptable, do you?"

Claude turns his head to regard Bennet, acutely conscious of the warmth radiating from beneath the thin white shirt, and says quietly, "I think the only question that matters is, do you?" Which wasn't at all what he meant to say, but it appears he's not quite done with being emotional tonight, after all.

Bennet says nothing; just looks at him with that same bloody calculating expression. The one that Claude has come to associate with imminent efficiency, or revenge, or one of Bennet's many, many other annoying talents.

Well, damned if he's going to make an idiot of himself.

"Forget it, rookie. I'm sorry, all right? Just— go an' sleep in your bed an' dream about your wife." He shunts away - hell, he'll take Bennet's bed and Bennet can damn well have this one. And then tomorrow they can go home to Odessa and forget about this stupid mission, and Bennet will be back home with Sandra and everything will be just bloody peachy.

But a hand catches him, pulls him back down again to sit on the bed

"I'm not sure we're on the same page here," says Bennet carefully, after a moment, fingers still wrapped lightly around Claude's wrist. "Perhaps I'm not expressing myself very clearly."

Claude snorts. "Think they screened out "self-expression" when they advertised the bloody job." He's careful not to move his hand.

Bennet gives him a strange look. "They didn't advertise the job."

He smirks, even though most of his attention is focused on Bennet's hand as it relinquishes his wrist and brushes up his arm. "I know. Trust me, you don't want to see the look in Thompson's eye when he says 'head-hunt'."

The corner of Bennet's mouth curls up. God, he shouldn't be looking at that mouth. Shouldn't be enjoying the feeling of fingertips against his collarbone, or the slightly glazed expression on Bennet's face.

Oh, fuck it all to hell.

Bennet breathes in, a soft little sound that's swallowed up in the meeting of lips and the faint, sandy rasp of stubble when Claude pulls away.

"Claude." Bennet's voice is perfectly steady, which doesn't seem fair when the blood is pulsing in Claude's fingertips and drumming beneath the surface of his lips. In fact, Bennet is entirely too together about this whole thing, and Claude makes a mental note to rattle the rookie's cage at the first possible opportunity.

"Yeah." His hand doesn't seem to want to move from the back of Bennet's neck, not when he can watch his partner breathing in and out to the movement of Claude's fingers through short, soft brown hair.

Bennet blinks at him. "What?"

Not completely together, then. "Nothin'."

Bennet's wearing that earnest look he gets sometimes, and it makes Claude want to ruin him, turn him from something good into something depraved and filthy and his.

But still, he hesitates. "You're married." He likes Sandra, and Bennet's the eternal fucking boy-scout, for crying out loud - and what business, what right does he have, fucking that up—

"Yes." The word comes quietly from Bennet's lips. "Yes, I'm married. And yes, I love my wife. Very much."

He knows, in some distant, guilt-riddled corner of his mind, that that's true, but he must look unconvinced, because Bennet leans towards him until their faces are just inches apart, and says firmly "It doesn't have to change anything."

But it will - God, it will.

"I would never do anything to hurt Sandra," persists Bennet. "And," he continues, perhaps mistaking Claude's sigh for a lack of conviction, "there are some parts of my life that she wouldn't understand. That I prefer to protect her from."

Claude laughs, a cracked, dry sound. "An' is this all a part of your protection plan, too?"

Bennet's expression chokes off the laugh; squashes it down into something very strange and intense inside Claude's chest. "What do you think?"

He tries to remember to breathe. Licks his lips; swallows. "Think it's time you put your money where your mouth is, mate."

"Hmm," says Bennet, not really listening, fingers tugging Claude's shirt off his shoulders.

It's been a while, but he remembers that there are some things that ought to be taken care of, first. Glances nervously at Bennet. "I didn't exactly ... come prepared, y'know?"

The corner of Bennet's mouth twitches. "Actually, I think there are some handcuffs in my bag."

Claude shakes his head, amused. "I take it all back, mate. You're the wild card, an' I'm the straight man."

Bennet chuckles, fingers ghosting across Claude's hips in a way that's unfairly distracting. "For certain very specific values of straight."

He tells himself this is a one-time thing. That they're both a little rattled by the day's events. Sometimes you just need the warmth of another body—

"By the way," says Bennet seriously, insinuating himself closer to Claude and biting his neck, " I don't think 'zombified' is a word."

*

The next day, driving to the airport, they don't talk about it; but it's a relatively comfortable silence.

Their next proper field trip is to someplace in upstate New York where the weather's just as shitty and their target has talons, for Christ's sake, and they celebrate their relative unscathedness with rather more wild enthusiasm than Claude might have expected. Evidently the rookie has hitherto untapped talents, not all of which, it turns out, are annoying.

Naturally, when they get back to Odessa afterwards, everything is perfectly normal. Bennet drops him at the house and drives off home to Sandra; Claude lets himself in and takes a long hot bath. Afterwards, he examines the scratches, and it's surely wrong that he knows exactly which of them were made by Bennet's fingernails.

After a while, it stops being surprising; becomes another of the many lies that bind them together.

*

"I think Sandra might suspect something." Bennet squints sideways at him in the sun as they walk to the car.

Claude purses his lips. "About the Company?"

"No, you dolt. About us."

Claude spreads his hands a little, in a half-shrug. "What's to suspect?" He opens the passenger door and climbs in. "An' by the way, nobody's used the word 'dolt' since about 1935."

Inside, Bennet closes the driver's door and reaches for his seatbelt. "Don't be flip. We might need to let things cool off for a little."

But Claude doesn't want to let things cool off.

Nor does he want to sound like some petulant girl, so he bites back the retort and shrugs down into the car seat.

Bennet will come around. He always does.

But Bennet surprises him, again.

It's the little things he misses. There's a flavour of eye-contact that Bennet just nails, that's imperceptible to anyone else watching. It's a look that laughs at Claude while telling him exactly what Bennet wants, until he's half hard, sitting there on the other side of the desk and thinking about blowing off that afternoon's work for something every bit as metaphorical but involving less bloody stationery. And all that from a facial expression so far inside the reasonable man in his reasonable suit that you'd really, really have to know Bennet to pin it down.

Claude really, really knows Bennet, and he sure as hell misses pinning him down.

But after a few weeks, he has to stop looking for that expression, because it's just not there. Vanished behind Bennet's infuriatingly implacable facade.

Claude tells himself that this is a decision they both made. That it's probably for the best, just now; and that things will pick up again, because the rookie, for all that he gives the appearance of being in control, can be unreasonably demanding when he wants to be.

None of which helps in the slightest, for Christ's sake.

He sighs and screws up the bit of paper he's been doodling on; a distorted picture of someone who looks suspiciously like Thompson, complete with horns and a tail. Tosses it in the trash-can.

"Claude," Bennet's studiously patient voice insinuates itself from across the office. "Is something wrong?" Evidently, Bennet's having one of his perceptive days. Bloody brilliant.

Claude's not quite sure when this turned into a game of chicken, but damned if he's going to crack before Bennet does. "Why's that?"

Bennet regards him with weary tolerance. "You've been sighing all afternoon. It's actually quite irritating."

He gives Bennet a leer of a grin, and sighs theatrically. Let the son of a bitch think it's on purpose.

Bennet shakes his head and re-immerses himself in his work.

It's a lot less fun, annoying his partner when there's no payoff; Bennet gets pleasingly grabby when he's riled.

He goes outside for a cigarette, to Bennet's silent disapproval. Finds some old filing cabinets out in the lot and spends a very gratifying few minutes beating the shit out of them. It's juvenile and stupid and exactly what he bloody needs; when he's done, skin glowing with a vague sense of righteous anger, he decides to find Bennet and have this out. Fucking ridiculous, is what it is.

But there's just a note on his desk in Bennet's painstakingly neat hand.

Gone home to pack and help Sandra with the kids. See you tomorrow, 7am sharp. - N.

*

They pass the sign welcoming them to Snowflake, Arizona, and Claude snorts. "There's a place in Norway called Hell, you know. They should twin."

Bennet glances across at him with just a hint of reproach. "It does actually snow here in winter, you know,"

Claude sighs.

"What?" Bennet's eyes don't deviate from the road; Main Street is up ahead and they need to find their lodgings.

Claude stares out of the window. "Did they cover that in your Company induction? How to throttle the life out of a joke? I bet Thompson gave that session. I bet it was a fuckin' masterclass." He pauses, attention caught by a passing street. "Ha! Paper Mill Road."

"Home, sweet home," says Bennet, dryly.

Claude snorts.

"You know," Bennet observes as they park the car on the forecourt of the Snowflake Lodge Guest House, "there was a very famous alien abduction case here, twenty years ago."

Claude stares at him for a long moment, enacting his own suspended animation in the passenger seat. "Sorry, mate, I thought you said 'alien abduction'."

"I did," says Bennet, as though that was a perfectly reasonable thing to have said.

"And you just happen to know that."

Bennet shrugs.

"You're a geek, mate. A bona fide geek."

"I'd have thought," says Bennet, carefully locking the car after they've removed their bags from the trunk, "that you might take an interest in that sort of thing."

Claude gives him a pained look. "What, because we're on facing pages of the National bloody Enquirer?"

His partner sighs. "Because of what we do."

"Yeah, but ... " Claude gestures vaguely, " 'S one thing, trackin' down people whose genes make them ... well, interestin' ... but alien abduction? Seriously?"

Bennet purses his lips. "To date, there have been over five thousand reported cases in the United States alone."

Claude turns to stare at him as they climb the wooden steps of the guest house. "I don't believe it. You've turned into one of them." He scrutinises Bennet closely. "Have you got a thing for that ridiculously short redhead, or what?"

Bennet sighs. "Actually, Scully's the sceptic."

"Unbelievable." Claude shakes his head sadly, and holds open the door.

Their accommodation turns out to be spacious and clean, with what look, even in the flat, grey light, to be good views of the mountains.

After a few minutes, which is more than enough time for Claude to determine that there is, again, no minibar, and that public access television speaks volumes about the impoverished state of the human spirit, Bennet knocks on the door of Claude's room and invites himself in. "We should probably take a drive. Check out the location."

Claude, sprawled on a bedspread with a design on it that might pass for tartan if one were old and partially-sighted and had never actually seen tartan before, sighs. "Yeah, all right." After hours and hours of driving, it's restful, staring at the sturdy redwood rafters.

"I meant today," says Bennet mildly, from the doorway, after a minute.

They cruise up the highway a little, then take a small road signed for "Bird Creek". A fine rain starts to fall, drizzle painting the late afternoon a deeper shade of grey. A couple of miles of twisting and turning later, Bennet stops the car. "There."

Claude looks up from studying the map to see a small house silhouetted against the leaden sky, perhaps half a mile away. "Middle of bloody nowhere. Handy." He glances at Bennet. "How d'you want to do it, then?"

Bennet leans back in the seat, considering. "First thing in the morning. The file says she lives alone - should be a fairly straightforward bag-and-tag." He pauses, apparently conscious that Claude is watching him. "What?"

"You never bloody stop, do you?"

"Stop what?" Bennet is already putting the car into gear.

"Bein' a good little boy-scout."

Bennet turns the car, perhaps yanking the steering harder than strictly necessary. "You asked me how I wanted to do it, so I told you."

"That's not what I meant and you know it." Claude's fingers drum against the dash in irritation.

"Actually, I'm not sure what you meant."

The road carries them back down towards the highway.

"Well?" Bennet looks over at him.

"Never mind. Forget it." And Claude slumps down in the seat, trying to ignore Bennet's body-language, which he nonetheless can't help grading as an eight out of ten on the sticks-up-Bennet's-arse scale.

Approaching town, they pass a large building with gold lettering announcing The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints. Claude snorts.

"Hmm?"

"I forgive you, Bennet."

"You ... forgive me?" Bennet's tone is mildly incredulous.

"Big of me, don't you think?"

Bennet blinks at him.

"Big of me, bigamy, Mormons, geddit? Christ."

Bennet sighs. "Mormons don't actually—" but then he catches Claude's expression and, unusually, shuts up.

The guest house doesn't feed people in the evenings, so they take off on foot, armed with the proprietor's directions to more restaurants than should really exist in a town of this size. It's a wet evening; the whole sky is a sickly purple and there's only a thin, lurid stripe of orange near the horizon to remind them that the sun ever existed.

"Pizza," says Claude decisively, dodging puddles.

Bennet is amused. "She was flirting with you, you know."

Claude snorts. "Yeah, an' she was also old enough to be my mother." She had been, too; a slightly doughy woman with flinty eyes that had run up and down him, missing little, and then given Bennet the same treatment before returning, again, to Claude.

"It's the accent," says Bennet, succinctly.

And at that, Claude turns. "Oh really? Well, so much for my soddin' charm and charisma." At Bennet's blank look, he scowls, shoving hands deeper into his pockets. "I want a bloody beer."

They find the pizza place, which is warm and has red-painted walls. A waitress brings them menus while Claude nudges Bennet towards the bar.

"Here." Bennet places two glasses of beer on the table and slides into his seat.

Claude takes a swig and nearly spits it back out again. "Christ! What is this crap?"

"Alcohol-free," Bennet informs him with altogether too much serenity. "And I think the other patrons would be grateful if you didn't take their Lord's name in vain."

"Screw 'em," Claude mutters, but any further theological invective is interrupted by the arrival of their pizza.

They eat in silence; lunch seems like a long time ago, and Claude really isn't in the mood for the Encyclopedia Bennetica. Thankfully, Bennet seems content enough just to eat.

Finishing the meal, Claude shoves his cutlery down onto the plate. "I'm goin' to the bar to get a proper pint." He glares pointedly at Bennet. "With beer in it."

*

Claude isn't quite sure at what point he started to be drunk, but he's pretty sure he's past that point now. It's not bad, in a way. Bennet is discussing an incredibly obscure legal loophole that would technically allow an actual alien to sue the US government for unlawful imprisonment, and it's easy for Claude to just drift along, not really paying attention. Instead, he watches Bennet. Studies his mannerisms: the way he looks across at Claude, just occasionally; the way he tilts his head when explaining how clever a particular detail is. Bennet's hands rest in his lap, but just occasionally he gestures with them, for emphasis. Claude likes Bennet's hands - they're neat, like the rest of him. Neat and capable. He misses those hands.

"You're not listening," says Bennet, during a suitable pause.

Claude grins. "Nah, not really."

"That's a shame - it's really very interesting."

Claude belches. "Well, I'm really very uninterested."

"Fine, then," says Bennet, phlegmatically. "Let's go."

When they emerge from the bar, the cold hits him like a wall. The clouds have shifted, and the sky above them has blackened and filled with stars, far more than Claude can ever see from Odessa. Suddenly lightheaded, he stares up, feeling as though he might fall into the sky with them. His very own alien abduction experience, and let's see what Bennet says about that.

Beside him, Bennet, apparently unaware that he is not witnessing one of the greatest abduction scenarios never to take place in Snowflake, Arizona, cranes his neck. "It's the altitude. And the lack of light pollution."

Well, trust him to suck the romance right out of it. Claude lowers his gaze enough to frown at Bennet, and in doing so, staggers a little. "Cheers." Hopes it's sufficiently sarcastic.

Bennet seems to think so, because he shakes his head. "Come on."

Their breath forms clouds as they walk, steps ringing out in the silent streets. The pavement - Claude still refuses to think of it as the sidewalk, on principle - sparkles a little, frost forming in tiny, jagged crystals, distracting him from Bennet's quick, even steps.

He can't escape the feeling that someone has done something very interesting to the sidewalk. Pavement. Fuck it. Bloody thing is broken, anyway. Uneven as hell, and pointing in the wrong direction half the time.

At the corner, he pauses, leaning against the wall of a store to give the pavement - ha! - time to pull itself together. Tilts his his head back, scraping it down the cold, rough brick, and gives Bennet a baleful look out of the corner of his eye. "Know what I like about you, mate?"

Bennet's hand grips his shoulder gently but firmly, and propels him down the street again, towards the guest house. "No, though I expect you're going to tell me."

"Temperance," says Claude, carefully exaggerating the syllables.

"Not really one of your virtues," says Bennet, mildly.

"It's a much better look on you, rookie."

Bennet sighs. "Do you have to call me that?"

"Yes," says Claude, firmly.

They get a bit further down the street before Claude manages to reach out and grab a passing lamppost. He holds onto it, resisting the weight of Bennet's hand on his shoulder, and leers at his partner. "You know what's wrong with love?"

"No," says Bennet, patiently.

Claude grins and leans towards him conspiratorially. "You have to give a bit of yourself away," he intones.

Bennet absorbs this in silence.

Claude tilts his head and the grin turns into a sad, reproachful smile. "Too bad I'm fresh out. You bastard."

Bennet just looks confused, and Claude's attention is momentarily distracted by broken glass - shards of a bottle - glinting under the streetlight. Like magnified frost, he thinks, although the curves— the curves are wrong. He's pretty sure ice-crystals don't curve.

He becomes aware that Bennet is still standing there in the yellow glow of the streetlight, breathing clouds of steam in the cold air, just staring at him; and he's sure there's something he's supposed to remember, but it's gone. "Yeah, well," he says, shrugging dismissively. "Sod you, anyway."

And that seems to achieve something, at least.

"Okay, I'll bite," Bennet snaps. "What the hell's wrong with you, Claude?"

Claude laughs hollowly, sharing a bitter grin with the sky. "What's wrong, he asks? What's wrong?"

He turns to Bennet. "I'll tell you what's wrong, you po-faced wan—" and then he hiccups, for Christ's sake "—wanker."

Bennet sighs. "You know, you're not a very nice drunk."

"Fuck off." Claude hiccups again. "I'm a bloody charmin' drunk. Ask those arseholes in the bar."

"Well," says Bennet, ignoring this, "are you going to tell me what's wrong, or is this going to be one of those conversations?"

Claude frowns at Bennet intensely for several seconds before poking him in the chest.

Bennet glares at him and pokes back, just as hard.

There is a long pause.

"You're it," says Bennet, dryly.

"Wanker."

Bennet doesn't deign to reply, and they walk the rest of the way in silence.

At the steps leading up to the guest house, Claude sits down. "Hiccups've gone," he says, redundantly.

Bennet's expression is now decidedly lacking in patience. "I'm going upstairs."

"Fine," says Claude, belligerently, and stands up again.

Bennet raises his eyebrows, but doesn't say anything. They ascend the stairs to the second floor, Claude mesmerised by the notion of treading in Bennet's footsteps. Good King fucking Wenceslas. Bloody right.

"This is my room," Bennet tells him, fishing for his key. "Yours is down there."

Claude leans in towards him and gives what he hopes is his most winning smile. "Maybe I like your room better."

"That's too bad," says Bennet, unrelenting.

Bastard doesn't even look apologetic.

He grabs Bennet by the collar, fingers twisting in the stiff woollen fabric, and pulls him in close. "Fuck you!"

Bennet hisses in exasperation and drags Claude out of the corridor and into his room, shutting the door behind them. "Are you completely incapable of being quiet?"

"Deep and crisp and even," mumbles Claude, defiantly.

Bennet raises an eyebrow. "You smell like a brewery."

Well, if he's going to be mean— " 'S the matter, Bennet? Lost your taste for beer?"

"No," says Bennet, carefully.

"Could've fooled me," Claude mutters, but he doesn't step back, doesn't leave Bennet's space.

There is a short, incredulous pause.

"Is that what this is about?" Bennet's voice is utterly exasperated. "For God's sake, Claude."

He says nothing - because really, what can you say? Shrugs, and sits down on the bed, grabbing the TV remote. Sod Bennet, anyway. He turns on, finds some stupid program about cars.

"What are you doing?"

He eyes Bennet suspiciously, "Watchin' telly - what's it look like?"

His partner exhales and sinks down into the room's only chair, which is an unfortunate shade of orange.

It occurs to Claude belatedly that this is an opportunity, of sorts.

Bennet's head is tipped back in the chair until it rests against the wall, and his eyes are closed. Claude kneels down and drags his teeth up the side of Bennet's neck, breathing in the faint scent of cologne and dry-cleaning. How the fuck does Bennet always manage to smell so clean—?

"What are you doing?" Bennet hasn't opened his eyes, but Claude can hear his breathing change.

"Would think that'd be obvious, mate."

Bennet's eyes flicker open, find Claude's. "We talked about this."

And if there's one thing he doesn't need right now, it's Bennet giving him bloody puppy eyes. "Wasn't talkin' I had in mind," he says, shifting his hand.

Bennet doesn't say anything; just closes his eyes again and breathes.

Claude grins.

He shuffles around to the front of the chair; manages to reach the remote and turn off the TV. Slides a slow hand up the inside of Bennet's leg, watching as Bennet tenses, then inhales, long and shakily.

"You want this," he says. Bennet's expression has softened, lost its focus entirely, and god, he's missed this. Didn't realise quite how much until now.

But Bennet hasn't answered him. Claude frowns. "Say it. Say you want it." He punctuates this with a dragging movement of his fingers that makes Bennet's hips roll and his mouth hang open, a quietly lewd temptation.

"You know," says Bennet, from behind still-closed eyes, "Talking dirty isn't really your forte."

And doesn't that just take the piss? "Well, thanks a bunch, mate. Suck yourself off if you're so soddin' talented."

And he fully intends to stand up and take himself off to his own bloody room, but Bennet leans forward suddenly and grabs a fistful of Claude's shirt. Looks him right in the eye.

"Stop being so goddamned tetchy," says Bennet irritably, and kisses him.

God, he's missed all of this. The rookie's hands on his shoulders and the relentless, demanding press of lips; aspects of Bennet that've been all but invisible of late.

Well, invisible he can bloody well do.

He stands, dragging Bennet up out of the chair. Gets a raised eyebrow for his pains; he ignores it, wrestling with the dark grey suit trousers until they pool around Bennet's ankles. Satisfied, Claude shoves his partner unceremoniously onto the bed.

"Romantic," Bennet opines, conversationally.

"Shut up." Claude steps out of his own trousers and sprawls on the bed beside him.

Up close, Bennet's got a look in his eyes that Claude is pretty sure means Please. He unbuttons Bennet's shirt, considers the lean pink chest with eyes, fingertips, tongue. Eventually lets Bennet return the favour.

Their bodies seem to remember what to do with a faithfulness that practically aches.

"I'm sorry," says Bennet quietly, and his voice is almost meek against Claude's throat.

"Fuck you," Claude says, though he's struggling to muster much in the way of venom; Bennet's hands are immensely distracting, and so is the gentle scrape of stubble on skin. "How's your wife, Bennet?"

"Do you think," Bennet says through clenched teeth, "we could do this without that sort of interruption?"

"Suit yourself," Claude says, riding a savage pang of jealousy. "You're the one goin' to hell," he adds, viciously.

"I am not going to hell," Bennet grits, fingers clawing at Claude's hips, "because it doesn't exist."

Claude moves against him, forehead pressing against Bennet's shoulder, breathing increasingly ragged. "Yeah, well maybe I've got a bit of a different perspective on things that don't exist, mate. Invisible men, for instance."

Bennet chuckles; the movement ripples into Claude and possesses him, makes him shove back, harder. Bennet's breath catches in a way that's gratifying, much too gratifying.

They breathe each other's air, fighting to hang on.

"Admit it, you bastard. You missed this."

Bennet shrugs, a nonchalance that's somewhat ruined by the desperate movements of his hips, movements that are threatening to send Claude over the edge. "I suppose."

"You suppose?" Claude elbows himself upright to look Bennet in the eye, which has the added bonus of making Bennet's hands clutch at him. "Don't do me any fuckin' favours!"

Bennet breathes out carefully. "Bit late for that," he says, with almost perfect solemnity.

"Yeah, well—" but Claude has to swallow the rest of the sentence; it's not bloody fair that the rookie is capable of having a conversation at this point in the proceedings. He manages to scratch harsh fingernails across Bennet's chest, taking pleasure in the hissing sound this evokes.

Bennet gets himself together sufficiently to raise an eyebrow and do something unforgivably good with his hands, and the shredded remains of Claude's retort are lost to sudden dissolution, mind unravelling to the sound of his own breath.

It's of marginal consolation, he supposes, that Bennet's right behind him.

"Bastard."

Bennet chuckles, an amused, lazy sound.

Sense begins to return, and Bennet's fingers ghost lightly across the two neat scars. Claude tries to shrug the hand away, but Bennet frowns at him. "It doesn't matter."

Claude looks away. " 'S easy for you to say, mate."

Bennet's mouth forms a thin, dubious line. "You knew what you were getting into."

Claude's gaze alights briefly and resignedly on Bennet's face. "Yeah." He rolls onto his back and stares at the rich wooden ceiling, getting lost for a while in the smooth grain.

"Want to know somethin'?"

Bennet's head lolls sideways towards him. "I'm not sure. Do I?"

"Shut up. I'm goin' to tell you anyway." He keeps his eyes on the ceiling. "I was fifteen, last time anyone treated me like a human bein'."

"Thank you," says Bennet, quietly, after a moment.

They lie there for a while, not really talking, until Claude reaches over and turns out the light.

*

"Get up."

He turns over, and the yellow glare of the bedside lamp sears his eyes. "Christ— what?"

"Get up," says Bennet, slightly less patiently.

He pulls the covers over his head, because the light is doing unreasonable things to his brain. "What time is it?"

"We don't have time, Claude." Bennet strips the covers from him in one quick, brutal movement.

It's cold.

"Bastard."

"Perhaps you'd like a wet flannel, too?" offers Bennet, a sentence which Claude's tired and lamentably hung-over brain feels is decidedly lacking in appropriate sympathy and respect.

He gets up. His head isn't functioning properly and his mouth is in a state best reserved for the bottom of budgie cages, but he gathers from Bennet's expression that that's not going to garner him any slack this morning.

And it's barely even morning; it's still dark outside as they breathe crisp air in the parking lot and their shoes crunch against thin layers of ice, puddles frozen to nothing.

"You're drivin'," he mutters.

Bennet just smirks; Claude makes a mental note that that's worth at least two unfortunate coffee-related incidents. Maybe three.

The sky is lightening to a dull purple as they turn up towards Bird Creek. Two hundred yards from the house, they park the car in the long, bleached grass to the side of the road.

Bennet holsters his gun. "Ready?"

"Not bloody likely," he mutters, but he catches Bennet's eye, and there's a depth there that he's been missing.

Dawn breaks, grey and still, as they walk up the hill together, towards the house.



x-posted to brave_new_slash, morallygrayfic, paper_pwns_all, heroes_fic and rare_heroes
Tags: bennet, brave_new_slash, claude, fic, heroes, heroes_fic, morallygrayfic, one_offs, paper_pwns_all, rare_heroes
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