Disclaimer: Owned by Impossible Pictures. No financial infringement intended.
Author's Note: Happy Valentine's Day, everyone, though this isn't really a Valentine's story… In fact it's possibly quite odd and silly.
It was one Sunday afternoon, in the post-prandial haze of a good roast lunch, that Jenny found herself thinking about Nick Cutter for the third time that day.
Mark was upstairs (he had a deadline for the paper on Monday morning, which was not unusual) and she'd curled up on the sofa with the latest issue of Cosmo and another glass of red wine. But after a while she'd found her attention wandering, eyes staring unfocused out into their neat, bordered garden. The first two times she shook herself and carried on reading. The third, she realised there was something in it.
Jenny wasn't one to ignore a problem. The earlier one tackled anything that was a potential issue, the better, as far as she concerned.
Not that Cutter had the potential to become an issue. Why would he?
And yet, he troubled her. True, they hadn't got off to a great start. He'd insisted she was someone else, and Jenny hadn't appreciated what she saw as his arrogance. But the thing about a good PR person – and Jenny was a damn good PR person – is that being able to read people is a key skill. Jenny read Cutter as, above all, a good person. Annoying, headstrong, not great at dealing with authority and supremely disapproving of her… but a good person nonetheless. She could acknowledge that, even though in the normal course of events he wasn't the usual type of person she'd find herself in contact with.
At first she'd found him unsettling. She'd turn around and catch him staring at her, as if he expected to see someone else. And he kept calling her Claudia, which, was God! an awful name. It sounded like something an old woman would call her cat.
But he'd stopped that now, even though every now and then she thought he had to catch himself to stop it slipping out. He'd called her it once too often and she'd snapped at him – 'Don't call me that!' He hadn't done it since, and she appreciated his efforts.
Jenny didn't know what to make of the whole 'Claudia Brown' thing. Was she a figment of his imagination? It was a fine line between genius and insanity, after all. Maybe the unknown stresses of crossing into different time periods and discovering that his dead wife was alive had sent him over the edge? People went mad for less. But he seemed to be holding it together well enough in all other respects.
Jenny let the magazine slide on to the floor and curled her legs beneath her, taking another mouthful of wine. Once he'd stopped calling her Claudia, things had become a little easier between them. She'd still catch him watching her every now and then, usually with a surprised look on his face. Which was odd, since they didn't know each other. How could a stranger surprise you? But in any case, he seemed to have softened toward her recently, though she still knew next to nothing about him, personally at any rate.
Not that she needed to. Why would she?
But the fact that she was sitting here on a pleasant Sunday afternoon thinking about a man that she worked with meant that something was amiss. It wasn't attraction, though she was aware he was attractive. She loved Mark, she loved her life the way it was. But if he was occupying her thoughts like this, outside of work hours, then something, somewhere, was wrong.
She knew what it was. Unfinished business. Cutter had shown up on her doorstep unexpectedly, and before she'd even had a chance, out of pure politeness, to ask him in – he'd started talking. His eyes had skewered her, willing her to listen, and she'd been so surprised that she had, without a word. She'd gripped the half-open door and listened to him silently until Mark had interrupted. And Cutter had apologised, turned and walked away, without finishing what it was he'd wanted to tell her so urgently.
He'd never tried to finish what he'd been saying. He'd never asked for her attention at work or called her to one side in the field. And now she found herself thinking back to that night, wondering what it was he was trying to tell her. Or what he was trying to tell himself. Perhaps he'd found his answer, and that's why he'd never brought it up again.
But unfinished business, especially between work colleagues, was unhealthy. Something had to be done, she decided. Putting down her glass, she went upstairs to tell Mark she was popping out.
Nick was pottering around in his kitchen, eating a ham and cheese toastie, when the doorbell rang. He frowned, not expecting visitors, and stuffed the last bite of his lunch into his mouth, flicking the kettle on to boil before heading to the door. It was probably a Jehovah's Witness. The things he could set them straight about…
He was still chewing as he opened the door, and stopped dead.
Claudia Brown was standing on his step, long hair loose and glinting in the afternoon sunshine.
For a second he couldn't move. His brain did a back flip, trying to work it out. Had it all been a weird dream? Was the world back to his version of normal? Had he just drunk a bit too much last night?
She lifted a hand to push her hair behind her ear, and that's when he saw the engagement ring. He swallowed, with difficulty. Not Claudia, he told his hammering heart. Not Claudia. Jenny. Claudia doesn't exist.
But without make-up, without her hair tied back in the convoluted patterns she chose for work, it was hard to tell this woman apart from the one in his memory.
He realised he'd been staring, and silent, and should say something.
"Nick – hi." Jenny smiled, "Look, I'm sorry to bother you at home, and on a Sunday. If you're busy…" She half-turned, as if to leave.
"No. No, it's fine," he told her. "Sorry, I was just a bit surprised to see you. Come in."
Nick led her into the kitchen, which suddenly seemed less tidy than when he'd left it a few moments ago. Somehow he imagined Jenny's house to be as pristine and manicured as she herself was.
Not that he thought about her house. Why would he?
"I've just put the kettle on," he said, indicating a chair at the cluttered table. "Can I get you something?"
"Coffee would be lovely, thanks."
He watched her out of the corner of his eye as he made the drinks. She didn't sit, but wandered around the room instead, picking up books, artefacts, fingering the various and odd objects he had strewn around.
"Sorry about the mess," he muttered, and was rewarded by an unsettling smile that was so much more Claudia than Jenny. He was suddenly relieved that she looked so different at work.
"It's homely. I like it. This is a beautiful house."
He put the coffee on the table, and they sat opposite each other.
"So what's the problem?" he asked, "Has another anomaly appeared?"
She shook her head, and Nick forced himself to keep his eyes on his coffee to avoid noticing the ripple of her hair.
"Oh no, nothing like that. As far as I know everything's quiet at the Arc."
"So this isn't a work call?"
"No…" Jenny looked up at him over the rim of her mug, and grimaced. "This is… sorting out some unfinished business."
Nick raised an eyebrow. "Unfinished business?"
Jenny sighed, leaning back in her chair and fixing him with an assessing look.
"You came to my house one night, a few weeks ago. But you left before you had finished what you were saying."
Nick stood again, uncomfortable. "Oh, that. That was – nothing."
"I don't think it was nothing," Jenny insisted. "It was something. You found out where I lived, you'd rehearsed what you were going to say…"
"It doesn't matter," he interrupted, beginning to prowl the room. "Really. I'm sorry that I bothered you. I shouldn't have. And it's not something I'll bring up again. Things have just been… a bit odd for me recently."
Nick turned his back on her for a moment, her image too painful to countenance. He tapped something on the dresser, a tuneless beat, trying to get this under control. He'd thought he had it beat. And now she had to turn up here, looking so much like that other self she'd never know, and undo it all.
"Well, I want you to, Nick. I want you to carry on explaining what it was you were telling me. Something about… a change in the time line, and people turning out differently. It was about Claudia Brown, wasn't it?"
"Look," he said, "this is better left-"
"It's not better left unsaid," she said firmly. "We work together. And at the moment we're not working together as well as we could be, because there's something hanging between us and I don't even know what it is. This woman whom you seem to think has some connection to me. So let's sort it out. Here and now, so I can go home and spend the evening in peace."
He had to smile at her directness, which was purely Jenny. But he shook his head.
"Cutter," she warned. "I'm not leaving until I get the answers I came for. I'm not spending another moment wondering about it, I just want you to explain it."
He turned and raised an eyebrow, and she at least had the good grace to flush slightly.
"Not that I spend a lot of time wondering," she added lamely.
"I thought you didn't want to know about Claudia Brown," he said, returning to the table.
"I've changed my mind."
"It's difficult. It's not – you might not like it."
"That didn't stop you trying to tell me about it before. What changed?
Nick shook his head. He knew what had changed, but how could he tell her? Her fiancé had suddenly appeared at her side, and that had changed everything. What could he say? What was the point? He'd gone to her house that night, wanting to rekindle what he'd so nearly had, and lost. Wanting to find it in her, this new Claudia.
But it wasn't there, he understood that now. He'd understood it from the moment he'd realised she was taken. So best to let it go. Why embarrass himself further?
"Claudia was just someone I used to know," he said softly. "And she looked a lot – a lot – like you. That's all."
"But that's not all, is it?" She pressed. "There's all the time stuff. You were talking about people changing. About time changing. That's what you think has happened to Claudia. Isn't it?"
Nick looked down at his hands, gripping the coffee mug tightly and shaking his head.
"I remember what you said to me once," Jenny said, slowly and deliberately. "You said, 'I used to think you were quite something.' But we don't know each other. So how could you have once thought that about me?"
"It was her, wasn't it? You were talking about Claudia Brown. And you think that I was her in – I don't know – a parallel timeline, or something."
"No!" Nick said, slamming his hand down on the table and making her jump. "Not a parallel timeline. THIS timeline. THIS world. And what's the point? Huh? It's changed, it's different, and I can't change it back. Claudia's gone, she isn't here. I've accepted that. Just let me move on, okay?"
Jenny was silent for a moment, before she said. "If I could just find a way of believing you…"
Nick snorted. "Why? Why does that matter?"
"Because I don't like not understanding this!" she exclaimed hotly. This isn't just about you, Cutter. You've made it about me, too. And I want to understand. I don't like… I don't like not being in control."
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
Silence drifted between them. Nick watched as Jenny frowned into her mug. Maybe he'd been unfair. It must have been weird to have a guy insisting you were someone else as soon as you'd met. Calling you by a different name, babbling about changes in time. Jenny had had a lot to deal with in a short period of time.
"I can show you something," he said quietly. "But you might not want to see it."
"Does it involve me?" she asked immediately.
"It involves Claudia," he said carefully.
"Then I want to see."
"Are you sure? It might not-"
"Cutter! Just show me."
He nodded, standing up and leaving the room to get his wallet.
Jenny sighed, relieved to have a second to herself as Cutter left the room. The conversation had become a little intense. She drummed her fingers against her half-empty coffee mug, and wondered what he was going to bring her.
This encounter hadn't quite gone as planned. When she'd told Mark she had some work of her own to do, she'd not really actually considered the fact that she was going to turn up on Nick Cutter's doorstep unannounced. He'd stared at her as if transfixed, stock still, with a look of utter concentration on his face. She felt as if she'd been turned inside out and examined under a microscope. Yet another thing she didn't understand about this whole thing.
Trying not to speculate, she looked around the room again. Jenny had never been to this house before, but it seemed completely him. Oddly, she felt entirely comfortable in this space, surrounded by the collected and untidy ephemera of his life. She didn't know what half the things around her were, and couldn't in a million years imagine being able to live like this herself. But in his space, it seemed completely normal. Fitting, even. She couldn't imagine him anywhere else.
He was an odd man, with an odd house…
Suddenly she was impatient to be gone. She wanted to be back in her comfortable life, where she knew what was what. She wanted her glass of wine and Cosmopolitan, and Mark upstairs, typing.
There was a slight creak as his feet hit a loose floorboard. Cutter stood hesitantly in the doorway, holding his wallet in one hand and fingering something – a piece of paper – in the other.
"I'm still not sure this is a good idea," he muttered.
"Come on, Cutter," she said, some of her impatience colouring her tone. "Get on with it."
He blinked once, and then held out the object.
Jenny took it, and looked. Time seemed to stand still.
It was a photograph. It was a photograph of her – and of Cutter. They were standing next to each other. He was looking back over his shoulder, towards the camera, caught in a moment as he reached for her clasped hands.
"What is this?" Jenny whispered hoarsely. "Where did you get this? I don't remember…"
"It's not you," he said, so softly she almost missed it as he dropped back into his chair.
"But – it is me. Look at the picture. It's me. But I don't remember-"
"It's not you, Jenny. Or rather, it is you, but it's not… this you. It's Claudia. It's Claudia Brown."
Jenny couldn't take her eyes off the woman in the photograph who looked so much like her. The hair, the eyes.
"I don't understand," Jenny said, looking up at him for the first time, and she knew the fear must show on her face. "I don't understand any of it."
"I know. It's hard. I don't really understand it myself. But that's Claudia. She existed. She was – you."
Jenny glanced up. Cutter's hand still clutched his wallet on the table.
"This was in your wallet," she whispered. "Were you and she…? Were you…"
Cutter pinched his thumb and forefinger at the bridge of his nose.
"No. Not really. We weren't."
"Is that why you stare at me when you think I'm not looking? Because – what? You're looking for her. The woman you were-"
Cutter stood up again, abruptly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. But sometimes – just sometimes, it's so difficult. Like today. You are here. You're sitting there, and you're her."
"That's why you left," Jenny said, realisation dawning. "When Mark came to the door. You were hoping that-"
"No," he said again. "No, I wasn't hoping for anything. Claudia and I weren't together. I was just trying to work out-"
"But you keep a photograph of her in your wallet," she said again. "What was she to you?"
Nick looked away. "She was something," he muttered at last, "that's all. We were…. At the beginning of something. Maybe. I don't know."
"I'm sorry," she said, trying to keep her tone as even as possible. "I really am. But I'm not her. You know that, right?"
She pushed the photograph back across the table. His fingers caught the edge.
"I'm not her," Jenny repeated.
He nodded, staring between the photograph and her face. "I know that. You're poles apart. But still… You are her. In some ways, you are her."
"I am Jennifer Lewis," she said, standing up. "I am NOT Claudia Brown." It was time to go. She had her answers, and it would take a while to digest them. She wanted to be at home, where she belonged. Where she was comfortable. Not in this house, with this man who saw her as someone else, who wanted her to be someone else.
"I know," Cutter said softly, standing up. "I know. I just – I just need to find a way to let go. I need… what's that crass term the American's use? Closure." He laughed slightly, grimly. "Trust me, that's pretty hard to find when you're around. Every time I see you, I see her. And I see you every day."
Jenny nodded, heart softening. "I'm sorry, I really am."
He smiled. "I know. You're not so bad, underneath it all, Jenny Lewis."
She smiled back. "I wish I could help you find your closure," she said, as they moved towards the front door.
"I think you're the last person who can help with that."
Jenny stopped, an idea occurring to her. It was a crazy idea, and yet – she was curious. She couldn't imagine herself with this Indiana-Jones type. She couldn't imagine a reality where she would find him attractive, with his untidy house and his perpetual stubble. And she knew she was safe - she had Mark waiting for her at home, Mark, whom she loved dearly despite his mother.
Maybe she could break her spell over Nick Cutter. Maybe she could show him once and for all that she wasn't Claudia Brown.
"Jenny?" he frowned, "What's the matter?"
"Maybe I can help you," she told him. "Did you kiss her?"
"Claudia. You and Claudia. Did you kiss?"
"Um…" he looked uncomfortable, and moved to the door.
She crossed her arms and stayed where she was.
"Yes," he admitted, "We did. But don't worry," he added hurriedly, "I don't stand around thinking about kissing you…"
"Right. Because we're different people."
"I don't…" he began, obviously confused.
"It's always in the kiss, Nick. For example, I'd know Mark's kiss even if I were blindfolded."
"Well, he is your fiancé," Cutter muttered, staring at his feet.
"So kiss me."
His eyes flew up to meet hers, wide with shock.
"Kiss me. It'll be closure. I guarantee you'll know I'm not Claudia Brown if you do."
"I really don't think that's a good idea."
"Why? You don't think I can stop at a kiss?" She raised an eyebrow. "Trust me, Nick, you're completely safe on that score. You're really not my type."
He stayed by the door, wary.
"Last chance, Nick. I'm not going through this again. So if you want to know – if you really want to be sure that I'm not her, you'd better make up your mind. Right now."
"This is ridiculous," he argued.
"Yes. Yes, it is. But this whole thing is ridiculous. And I want out of it. This is as much for me as it is for you, Nick. I want you to know I'm not her."
He met her eyes, and nodded slowly. "Fair enough," he said at last.
"Right. Come on then."
"You're not exactly setting the mood, here."
"This isn't a romantic thing, Nick. It's… unfinished business."
His eyes crinkled at that, as he moved towards her. "Okay. Here goes. Ready?"
Jenny shut her eyes and waited. Okay, so this really wasn't what she'd expected to be doing this quiet Sunday afternoon – leaning against a wall in a strange hallway, waiting for someone other than Mark to lay one on her. But needs must. It'd be over in a flash, and then life could get on as normal.
She felt his hands first, brushing away the hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. They moved to cup her face, gently, slowly, thumbs brushing her cheek bones. Despite herself, Jenny felt her pulse quicken. She could feel the warmth of his body just inches from her own, could feel his breath on her face as he leaned in to brush his lips against hers.
It was when their lips met that Jenny first knew that this was a really, really bad idea, and by then it was too late. Her heart burst its banks with beating as he moved his lips slowly, gently over hers – hesitant, cautious, and she realised with a shock that that wasn't what she wanted. An explosion reverberated in the pit of her stomach, and she felt her body turn to jelly. She wanted to feel him, to really feel him. But what – what –
Involuntarily, caught up in this disastrous second, she parted her lips, catching his between her own. He made a sound in his throat, surprised, but he didn't break the kiss, and for the life of her she couldn't. The contact deepened as the moment washed over them like a tide breaking on the shore. His hands still held her face, and she clutched his top, pulling him closer, winding her hand behind his back, pulling at his t-shirt to slide her hand across his skin…
He wrenched himself away, abruptly, letting go of her and stumbling backwards to lean against the opposite wall. She stood, trembling, trying to catch her breath. He gaze roved from his feet, to the carpet, to the front door – to anywhere but her face.
Jenny swallowed. What the hell was that? What had just happened?
"Um…" she said, finally, when she felt able to speak. "Okay, perhaps that wasn't such a good idea."
He nodded dumbly.
"I should –" she indicated the door. "I should go…"
"Yeah," he whispered hoarsely. "You should. Please."
She ran to the door and through it, pulling it shut behind her without looking back. Then she started walking, and didn't stop until the late evening sunshine began to disappear behind the houses. Her cell phone jangled in her pocket, and Jenny knew it was Mark, worried that she'd been gone so long. She didn't answer it.
The light began to leech from the sky, and with it was bleeding all her certainties. Nick Cutter thought she was someone else. Was it Claudia he'd been thinking of as he kissed her? Would it be Claudia he saw tomorrow morning when they both arrived at work?
She wasn't Claudia Brown. She was Jenny Lewis, and she was engaged to be married to a decent, successful man.
She did not want to be Claudia Brown…
… she didn't.