Missions like this made Claude wish he'd never quit smoking.
He'd kicked the habit years ago, before he'd even heard of the Company, after it finally sunk in that lighting up while trying to sneak around invisible was, to put it mildly, incredibly stupid. He hadn't even had much trouble quitting, no real cravings, none of that nonsense he always heard people whinging about. Hardly ever thought about it anymore.
And then came days like this one, stuck in a broken down car on a one lane road in the middle of the desert. Claude liked Bennet and all, but he thought he shoot him right now for a pack of smokes.
At least it was a convertible. Claude perched up on the back and sighed. "Noah, it's been two hours. I won't think less of you if you can't fix it, I promise."
His partner slid out from under the car, and Claude knew it had to be killing him that he had grease all over his suit. "Fine. What do you think is wrong with it?"
"Offhand? I'd say the big plume of smoke comin' from the engine." Bennet glared at him, and Claude shook his head. "C'mon, come out from there. They'll send someone after us soon enough once we don't check in. Assuming they aren't trackin' us already. Well, trackin' me, at any rate."
Bennet's expression shifted, and Claude got to play his favorite game, "What's Noah Bennet thinking?" He thought he was finally getting the hang of it.
Which proved how much he knew. "Do they hurt?" Bennet asked, completely catching Claude off guard.
Bennet nodded to him. "The trackers. You're rubbing your neck."
So he was. Claude wondered how often he did that without realizing it. "Not really. They itch sometimes, but that could just be me imaginin' things."
Bennet gave up on trying to will the car to work and slid into the passenger seat. "Do you really think they're tracking us already?"
"'Course. They have to make sure I didn't shoot you and make a run for it."
Bennet looked over his shoulder at Claude. "Would you do that?"
Claude grinned. "Nah. Don't think Sandra would invite me over for dinner anymore if I did."
Bennet's shoulders slumped. "I was supposed to call her an hour ago."
Claude smiled. He could set his watch by Bennet's calls home as of late. "How far along is she, now?"
"Almost five months." There was pride in the words, but Claude could also hear the barely disguised terror and had to work very hard not to laugh at Bennet's distress. "The Company car had a phone in it," Bennet grumbled.
"The Company car also had bullets shot through its tires," Claude reminded him.
Bennet conceded the point. "Things didn't exactly go according to plan."
"You, my friend, have a gift for understatement." He slid down into the back seat and closed his eyes, trying not to think about just how off-plan the mission had gone. "Simple bag and tag, they said."
Bennet sighed. Claude could hear his partner's fingers drumming against the door handle and wondered what it would take for Bennet shut that tactical mind of his off for five seconds. "Okay," Bennet said. "Let's break it down from the beginning and see what went wrong."
Claude groaned. "We are not doin' a debrief now."
"'Cause once we get back we'll just have to do it again anyway?"
"That's all the more reason to go over it now, so we don't lose any details for the official report. Besides, you know I like to go through the debriefing as soon after the mission as possible."
Bennet did seem to take particular joy in discussing each mission in excruciating detail. It was normally a quality Claude encouraged, because the more he let Bennet talk in meetings the less the higher-ups asked him what he thought. He was starting to discover that the more Company orders he carried out, the less he wanted to think about them.
He wanted to think about the implications of that even less.
Bennet was staring at him. He was going to have to say something. "Fine," he sighed. "I 'spose it started to go bad when we knocked on the door and the kid's dad pointed a shotgun at you." He shook his head. "I fucking hate precogs."
"The son had magnetic-based abilities," Bennet said. "There was no reason to think the father would have precognitive powers."
"And yet there he was." Claude knew the old man's voice would haunt him for a while: So, you're the man who's here to kill my boy, he'd said to Bennet. Claude had been standing next to Bennet, invisible, just as he probably had been in whatever vision the man had experienced, and that right there was Claude's main problem with precogs: they always trusted so literally in what they saw (or dreamed, or whatever other pretentious flavor the precognition came in).
The possibility that he'd been pointing the gun at the wrong man had never occurred to him.
Claude let himself hide in the rhythm of recitation; describing the events like they were the plot of a laughably convoluted drama helped created distance. It was one of the first coping mechanisms he'd picked up working for the Company.
Sometimes it even worked.
Bennet picked up the thread and Claude checked out of the conversation, nodding when it seemed appropriate. After a while, he noticed that Bennet had stopped speaking and realized he should really start paying attention. "You're not listening," Bennet said.
"Of course I am."
"You just agreed it was a good thing that Bigfoot showed up when he did."
"What can I say? You don't expect that kind of timing out of a great hairy beast." Claude suspected that he enjoyed Bennet's looks of stern disapproval more than he should. "Sorry. Just don't think I have the energy to dredge through this again."
Bennet twisted around in the seat to look at him. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"You know he didn't give you any choice---"
"The kid was in the middle of killin' you, of course I didn't have any choice." In fact, he and Bennet had gotten separated and by pure chance Claude had walked in on the target manipulating the iron in Bennet's blood to try to induce a stroke. "Had a bit more control over his ability than expected."
"The intelligence could have been more thorough."
Claude suspected the mental loop of the target toppling over like a stack of cordwood after the gunshot wasn't going away any time soon. It helped to think of him as "the target," or "the kid," rather than Dennis Reilly, which was the name on his reference file. "The Target" was someone with a dangerous ability who had almost killed his partner. Dennis Reilly was a scared seventeen-year-old who took nine minutes to die.
He realized his hands were shaking. Probably the overwhelming desire for a cigarette didn't have very much to do with being stranded in the desert after all.
Bennet was looking at him with concern, mixed with some other emotion Claude couldn't read. "I'll be fine," he said, closing his eyes. "It's not the first time, y'know."
"Three. This one made three." There was a long silence, and Claude could almost hear Bennet considering what to say.
"Ivan said three was when it would start getting easier," Bennet said, and bless his heart, Claude could tell he actually thought that would help.
"Ivan," Claude snorted. The evil old Communist had hated Claude from the moment they'd met and he'd returned the sentiment. He'd never felt more like one of them than when the Russian looked at him; he could still feel the disgust in the man's voice whenever Ivan said his name coat him like slime. "It's not supposed to be easy, Noah."
Claude sighed and rested his head back against the seat. Now that Bennet had put the thought into his head, Claude couldn't hide from the realization that this time had been easier. The gun had been in his hand without him thinking about it, the trigger pulled almost before he'd known it. No judgment call, no hesitation, just bang, dying kid on the floor. The two previous times it had been his life or theirs', and this had still been the easiest by far.
It wasn't supposed to be easy.
Claude heard the unmistakable sounds of rummaging coming from the front. "What're you doin' up there?" he asked, opening one eye to see.
Bennet looked around the seat at him as if Claude had asked, "Why are you breathing?" or "Why is the sky blue?" "I'm trying to find the registration and insurance, so that if highway patrol finds us we can come up with a convincing lie why we have this car."
Claude shook his head. "You were a boy scout, weren't you."
"Most merit badges in my troop," Bennet said, peering into the glove compartment.
"Why am I not surprised?" Claude watched him leaf through some papers, then suddenly lean forward in surprise. "Find somethin' interesting?"
Bennet answered by pulling an unopened bottle of single-malt scotch, and Claude let out an appreciative whistle. "That'll definitely get the attention of Highway Patrol." Bennet shot him a dirty look, and Claude laughed. "You were the one concerned about them. And hand it over."
"Don't care." In fact, the bottle was hot to the touch, which didn't dissuade Claude from opening it for a second. He downed a quarter of the bottle in one long, burning swallow; in the back of his mind he heard an admonishing voice say that was no way to treat a two hundred dollar bottle of scotch, but fuck it. He felt his jangled nerves immediately begin to settle; he hadn't eaten since early that morning, and truth be told he was already feeling a bit lightheaded.
It was obvious, too. "You're a cheap date," Bennet said, shaking his head.
"Those are usually the best kind," Claude replied, putting a leer into his voice. Someday he was going to make Bennet roll his eyes so hard they were going to come right out of his head. That was his new goal in life. He took another hit of the scotch, a slower one this time, and caught Bennet staring. "Somethin' I can do for you?"
"You could share."
Claude raised an eyebrow. He couldn't remember Bennet drinking anything stronger than a single beer while "on duty," which was what he knew his partner considered himself now. "Come back here and I'll think about it."
Another roll of the eyes, but to Claude's surprise he slid in next to him without any further argument. As Bennet took the bottle Claude saw his eye twitch, and while with most people Claude might have brushed it off as a meaningless nervous tic, "nervous tic" and "Noah Bennet" were not generally words found in the same sentence. Bennet took a swig from the bottle and grimaced. "I think this passed 'rancid' a long time ago."
"And I think there's an expression about beggars and choosers." Claude took back the bottle and took another swallow, then handed it back. It was like he was fifteen again, sneaking beers in the back of his mate's car. "Guess it's too late to point out that it's a bad plan to get piss-drunk stranded in the desert?"
Bennet laughed, a real, doubled-over laugh that carried Claude along with it. It was good to hear his partner laugh like a human being, even if it had less to do with his amazing wit than with the near-empty scotch bottle and the near-miss behind them. Everything tended to be hilarious when you knew by all rights you should be dead.
Bennet leaned back against the seat and glanced at Claude; flushed from the alcohol he looked younger, Claude's fresh-faced rookie all over again. He remembered seeing Bennet on the floor with that kid standing over him, remembered the flash of panic and rage flashing through him as he'd pulled the trigger. When Bennet handed the bottle back to Claude for him to finish off, Claude instead leaned forward and kissed him.
A second later Claude realized what he was doing and sprang back; he hadn't realized the scotch had gone to his head quite that badly. "Sorry," he said. "Forget I did that. I'm drunk."
"I didn't know you..."
"Never asked." He couldn't gather his wits enough to figure out a way to salvage the situation; he felt his heart pounding as he waited to see if Bennet would let him off the hook. Coming on to your partner wasn't a hanging offense --- Thompson certainly seemed to choose his by the length of their skirts --- but being one of them tended to change the rules. "I said forget it."
It was clear from the look on Bennet's face that forgetting things wasn't an option, and Claude braced himself
The last thing he expected was for Bennet to grab him by his suit jacket and kiss him back. After a few moments he pushed Bennet off, asking, "What are you doin'?"
"I think that's obvious," Bennet answered. He was still only inches away, making it very hard for Claude to concentrate. Bennet moved forward again, and Claude put one hand against his chest to stop him.
"Right, wrong question. Why, then? This isn't you, Noah."
Bennet's lips curled up into a smirk; it was like looking down into something dark and deep. "I'm not sure who that is," he said, an admission Claude knew he never would have voiced sober. "I didn't realize it at first. This job, what it does. It changes you."
"Yeah. It does." Bennet's hand had moved to his waist, an uncharacteristically hesitant touch. "You sure about this?" Bennet nodded, but Claude wasn't sure. Not yet. "What about...?"
Bennet's eyes hardened as he caught Claude's meaning. "When we said our vows we swore we'd never lie to each other. Now all I do is lie." He let out a long breath. "I just...I want to stop thinking for a while."
Claude nodded. That he could do. "Fair enough." He pulled Bennet closer and kissed him again; this time he was able to properly enjoy it. Sloppy, drunken kissing had always one of his favorites. He slid one hand underneath Bennet's shirt and Bennet helped things along by starting in on the buttons. Claude kissed along his collarbone and felt Bennet's breath quicken. "Ooh," Bennet breathed, one hand trailing down Claude's ribs, and Claude smiled.
He hoped it wasn't obvious how long he'd wanted to do this. It had been one more addition to the long list of things he tried not to think about --- just like he didn't want to think about whether the reason it had been so much easier to pull the trigger this time was because the previous times it was only his life at stake. He was in over his head enough. "You ever done this before?"
"Sort of." Claude cocked an eyebrow, and Bennet clarified, "A little bit. In college."
"Rookies." Claude shook his head. "Do I have to teach you everything?" he said, unbuckling Bennet's belt. He hoped whoever was in charge of tracking them down back at the base decided to take their sweet time.
Although Highway Patrol could happen by if they wanted. He never had told Bennet he could make the both of him invisible, and Claude couldn't think of any better time for him to find out.