Chapter 1: Other people's children
Angela Petrelli decided that the whole thing was solely and exclusively Kaito Nakamura's fault. It was Kaito's whimsical decision to bring his nine-year-old son along that set the entire regrettable series of events in motion. Admittedly, at the time Angela thought this particular whim could be useful. Her own oldest son had turned up in New York against expectations, and she needed something to distract him. Nathan was supposed to be on his way to Bosnia already. But after what he believed to be the death of Meredith Gordon and her child, he had asked for a leave of absence to go to their burial, and now he was in New York, saying he needed to talk to her and his father. Nothing could be more inconvenient, not because Angela knew the truth about the supposed deaths ��" her conviction that a parent who couldn't lie smoothly to their child was a hopeless incompetent was well tested ��" but because the toddler was here as well, waiting to be handed over to her foster family. Of course, the odds of Nathan finding out about this and somehow spotting the girl were slim, but still, they existed while both were in the same city, and Angela didn't like playing the odds. Which was why Kaito's offspring came in so handy.
"Nathan will take care of your boy," she told Kaito. "He's brilliant with children."
This was bending the truth somewhat ��" Angela's true opinion of Nathan's skills in that department was more along the lines of "Nathan tolerates his younger brother who hero worships him" ��" but if Kaito chose to believe her, it was clearly his fault, given their decades of acquaintance. In any event, one glimpse had shown her Kaito's son was bound to be positively exhausting, which was just what was needed.
"Nathan is?" Charles Deveaux asked, sounding interested and somewhat sceptical. Then his eyes crinkled in a smile. "In that case, I shall entrust Simone to his care as well while we talk things over. She has been a bit despondent since her mother's remarriage, and it would be selfish of me not to encourage her social life, such as it is at her age. Besides, my dear, isn't your younger son bound to feel neglected if his brother is focusing on someone else? That way, the focus will spread."
Trust Charles to go for the benevolent angle while foisting his useless daughter on them. The way he was able to make everyone believe he was doing them a favour while exploiting them was something Angela immensely admired. Besides, the girl might not show any signs of having a power, but in this particular case, she would serve well enough as a distraction.
"But of course, Charles, dear," Angela replied, matching his gentle smile with one of her own.
Daniel Linderman coughed. "In that case… you know, I didn't come alone from Vegas."
They all looked at him.
"Dan, you didn't," said Angela, who had her own reasons for taking the prospect of a new Linderman offspring somewhat personally.
"Oh, no," he said hastily. "I simply decided it was time to study one of my projects a little more closely. Hal Sanders' daughter. Sixteen and already in juvenile detention, which admittedly might come in useful in the long term, but I thought I might as well make an entrance as a benefactor. She seems to think I have unsavoury designs on her, so putting her together with a couple of children will hopefully prove I see her in quite a different light."
Under other circumstances, Angela would not have agreed to let a sixteen-year-old fresh from juvenile detention anywhere near her older son who, if Meredith the white trash from Texas was anything to go by, seemed to have a type. On the other hand, if there was any time when Nathan could be guaranteed not to notice this girl as a woman, it would be now. And besides. Distraction was the name of the game.
"Then we're all set," Angela announced brightly, and swept away to tell her son the happy news.
I: Other people's children
Nathan's college education had ensured his familiarity with the Sartre quote about hell being other people. Right now, he felt inclined to modify this to "hell is other people's children". He wondered whether this was some karmic payback for the way he had failed Claire. He should have married Meredith. He should have been there when that fire broke out; he would have been able to save them, both of them.
Instead, they were dead, and his attempt to talk with his parents about the suspiciously convenient timing of those deaths was delayed by having a Japanese boy who didn't speak a word of English foisted on him. And Charles Deveaux's spoilt brat of a daughter, who had instantly demanded access to her own tv, since Peter and the Japanese boy, Hiro, had bridged language difficulties via a video game she wasn't in the least interested in. And a sulky blonde teenager with some connection to Linderman who had started by asking him where the booze in the house was.
"You're not allowed to drink," Nathan said tersely.
"Didn't ask for your permission, dickhead," she shot back.
"Naaaaathan," Peter yelled, "tell him that jets totally don't move that way. My brother's in the Navy," he added proudly.
"I don't understand," Hiro said in Japanese, which was one of the few phrases Nathan actually knew, having read Shogun. Peter made an upward motion with his hand and pointed to Nathan.
"Nathan's a pilot. He flies," he explained. "Like in Top Gun, you know?"
Hiro's eyes lit up. "Top Gun," he repeated. Evidently its fame had made it across the Pacific. "Flying Man," he added, surprisingly in English, pushing his glasses up and looking at Nathan with new interest.
"More like The Great Santini," Simone Deveaux commented, wandering in. "My Dad says you're all Pat Conroy characters. I've read the book, you know. Not just watched the movie like some people. Anyway, my Dad says some of your staff must have talked to Pat Conroy because he's totally describing your family in all of his books."
Presumably, know-it-all thirteen year old girls were supposed to be charming. In some universe.
"Didn't you want to watch tv?" Nathan asked. He had figured she'd be safe to leave unsupervised and had put her in one of the guest rooms.
"It doesn't work, it just shows my Dad's roof for some reason," she replied.
"You people live in a palace and you don't even have a tv that works?" the blonde teenager, whose name was Nicole, said sarcastically. "Figures. Rich people are all cheap."
"Our tvs do work," Nathan said wearily.
"Not that one," Simone insisted. Meanwhile, Hiro pulled at Nathan's sleeve, repeated "Top Gun" and added a lot of incomprehensible Japanese, making the flying motion again. At a guess, Nathan had been asked to whisk the lot of them to the next airport and take them all for a ride. He opened his mouth to say "no," which should be understandable enough, but somehow the expectant eyes behind the glasses were a match to Peter's well-practiced hopeful puppy look. Nathan shut his mouth again, deciding to deal with Simone's tv problem instead. It would be easiest to put her into yet another room with a tv, but he was fairly certain she had lied and just wanted to irritate him, so he said he'd have a look.
"Come along," he told Nicole.
"Going to take me to the booze after all?"
"No, just not leaving you alone," Nathan said tersely, and dragged her with him, followed by Simone and for some reason both Peter and Hiro, who wandered after them.
As it turned out, the tv screen in the guest room Nathan had dumped Simone into did indeed show the rooftop of the Deveaux building with its distinctive architecture, but said rooftop wasn't unoccupied anymore. Instead, Nathan recognized his parents, Charles Deveaux, Mr. Nakamura and Mr. Linderman, who were evidently having some kind of meeting. It wasn't hard to figure out they were watching some kind of security feed, though why on earth a security camera observing the Deveaux building was connected to a tv in the Petrelli residence was anyone's guess. What made Nathan freeze on the spot instead of concluding instantly that watching this in current company was a breach of family discretion, and he should switch it off, was the fact that there was someone else on the rooftop as well. His mother was currently holding a small, very small child, a child that couldn't be more than two years, if that.
It can't be, Nathan thought. But he had a photo, a photo Meredith had sent him, a photo he had stared at just recently during the whole flight from Texas to New York.
"I've gone through the personnel files," Linderman said. "Bennet is the perfect choice, Angela, I assure you."
"He'd better be," Nathan's father commented. "The girl is our granddaughter, after all."
Peter made a surprised noise. Nathan remained frozen. The girls frowned, and Hiro asked something in Japanese which nobody replied to.
"Kaito will handle the transfer, then," Nathan's mother said matter-of-factly. "I'd rather not have your Mr. Bennet meet us."
Mr. Nakamura nodded and asked whether there were any new developments regarding "the prophecy".
"I'm collecting all the precogs I can find," Linderman replied. "There are variables, but they all agree on two things. The explosion will happen, one way or the other. And one of us will rule the country in the aftermath."
There was a short silence; the toddler took this as a signal to start crying, and Angela Petrelli handed her over to Mr. Nakamura. Then she said, voice very serious:
"Then maybe it should happen."
"Angela," Charles Deveaux protested.
"Think about it, Charles," she said. "No more running in circles, working in small steps that get undone just as quickly. We could really change the world."
"The dragon offered Kensai the power to unite the country, and to lead it," Kaito Nakamura muttered, "but there was a price. There is always a price. What will cause the explosion? Is there certainty about this as well?"
"That, too, will be one of us," Linderman said mildly, his eyes not leaving Angela Petrelli's face. "Or rather, one of our children."
She grew pale. Then she pressed her lips together. "Even so."
"This is so like a bad trip. Your parents are all crazy supervillains," Nicole said in disgust. "Let me out of here!"
Only then did Nathan notice he was still holding her elbow, the remote control of the tv in his other hand where Simone had put it earlier. Peter looked at him, wide-eyed, then to the tv screen, then to Nathan again, and said his name. Nathan unfroze and pressed the off switch on the remote. Later, he would regret this, as learning more would certainly have been helpful, but right now, he couldn't bear to listen for another second. His parents and everyone else on that roof certainly did sound like they were insane, or in some Bond movie, or both. Most importantly, though, they had his daughter and intended to hand her over to some employee of Linderman's. Even in his most suspicious moments, he hadn't expected that kind of betrayal.
He was twenty-two years old, but right now, he felt as young as the rest of them. He swallowed, then decided he had to think the full implications through later. Now, he had to act.
"You ��" you all stay here," he said to them. "I'm going there."
"What are you, deaf?" Nicole asked. "No way I'm staying, I told you."
"Then leave. I don't care. I have to go and get my daughter," Nathan said, throwing years of self-censorship and lessons in lies and discretion overboard.
"That baby is your daughter?" Nicole asked, a note of softness creeping into her voice.
"You can't go there," Simone said unexpectedly. "When my dad has these meetings, nobody is let through security who's not invited. But I, um, could go. I mean, I know all of the security guys, plus if I say I need to see him they'll believe me and let me through. And I could get the baby for you, get her outside our penthouse at least."
This sounded actually both practical and sensible, even to Nathan whose inner Petrelli was telling him he was currently lacking both qualities, and would he wait until there was an opportunity to allow his parents to provide some kind of explanation?
But he had stood and watched an empty coffin be lowered into a grave only two days ago, and he wasn't feeling too sensible right now. Still, some parts of him apparently functioned on autopilot.
"Why would you do that?" he asked Simone, halfway between distrust and numbness.
"Parents belong with their children," she said in a small voice. It was probably a good thing that she didn't know he hadn't adhered to that principle during the last two years.
"You're not going to go away with the baby," Peter said.
"Not alone. I'm coming with you. And this explosion thing they talked about, Nathan, they said one of us would…"
"Ex-plo-sion?" Hiro repeated, and Peter gesticulated with both arms, nodded towards the tv screen where the images of their parents had just faded away, then pointed towards them and exhaled air in what was supposed to sound like something blowing up. The alarm on Hiro's face deepened.
"You should go now," Nicole told Simone. "Before the crazies stop talking and get back. And you," she looked at Nathan, "no way you can take care of a baby alone. You're a lousy babysitter, you know that? Who'd you practice on, anyway, him?" she finished jerking her chin in Peter's direction.
"Hey!" said Peter.
"Plus I'm not going back to Vegas with that Linderman guy if he wants to blow up people so he can rule the country, or whatever. I'm coming with you to look after the baby. You have cash, right? I mean, you're rich."
While she was talking, Hiro had taken the remote control from Nathan and switched the tv back on. By now, his father was speaking, but not in English. He had switched to Japanese, and whatever he said was making Hiro look more horrified by the second. In the midst of reeling from the news that his daughter was alive, his parents were involved in some sort of lunatic conspiracy, his brother wanted to run away with him and he himself was about to kidnap Claire back when the only plan for her future he currently had had originated with some booze-addicted teenager from Las Vegas, Nathan felt a pang. He was an adult. He had a job; he could leave and never come back in this house again. This boy, on the other hand, was stuck with a parent who apparently was as mad and bad and dangerous to know as Nathan's, and would be for the next decade at least.
One of our children.
First things first. He had to focus; had to be useful. Maybe then things would start making sense again. Get Claire back, explain things to Peter; anything else would have to wait.
"Okay," he said to Simone. Somehow, the rest of them interpreted this as meaning them as well, starting with Hiro, whose horror started to transform into resolve, as he pointed towards the view screen, then towards himself, saying "stop". Quite how this led to all of them squeezed in the big limousine, with the Petrelli chauffeur having been told Nathan would drive himself, Nathan could not have said. He knew that if he thought this through, he'd stop, he'd regret, he'd remember there was a reason why he didn't marry Meredith despite having been in love with her, that he had wanted a shining future for himself just as much as his parents had. But ever since he got the phone call about that fire in Texas, he had been going through what-ifs and i-should-haves, and now he was offered a second chance. He had to take it. He had to.
Simone had been right about the tightened security in the Deveaux building, but she was also right about being let through. "I want to see my daddy," she cried, tears rolling, and the guards shrugged and conceded; Simone passed the guards while the rest of them had to wait in the limousine parked in the garage.
"Can all girls do that? Cry whenever they want to, I mean?" Peter asked Nathan, as they watched Simone disappear into the elevator leading up to the penthouse. It was something easier to wonder about than how long their parents had been lying to them and what made two rational beings believe in prophecies, or what "us" as in "one of us" meant; Peter might genuinely be interested or he might have made the question up to distract Nathan, because Peter did things like that, even at 12. Nathan shrugged.
"You should know," Nicole said to him, and Peter, getting the implication, looked mildly offended.
Hiro had been busy scribbling something on a piece of paper the entire time, and now evidently had finished; he pressed it in Nathan's hands. Nathan looked down. It was a series of stick figures. Several of them were standing on top of a skyscraper and were obviously meant to represent their parents. Then there was another group, presumably themselves, standing in front of an airplane, with an arrow drawn between the tallest of them and the plane. This seemed to mean Hiro had taken the Peter's Top Gun explanation to mean that Nathan had his own plane and could fly them away. It got worse from there. Next, the groups were duelling each other with swords, and then, confusingly, they were holding hands in front of a fire and a number of dancing teddy bears. Looking expectantly at Nathan, Hiro hummed the main Star Wars theme. Peter looked over Nathan's shoulder, and the scowl on his face turned into a beaming smile.
"Right," he said. "We have to redeem them! Make them return to the light side! After rescuing your baby and getting away, of course."
Hiro nodded eagerly, humming a few notes from the Imperial March and then switching to yet another melody from Star Wars. Nathan, who had watched all three movies when they were originally released, refused to recognize the third. It was already somewhat embarrassing that he knew the second wasn't actually called Darth Vader's theme. Not to mention that Peter and Hiro seemed to have inherited their parents' insanity full force, no pun intended. Unfortunately, this meant Nathan had to be responsible for them. They couldn't take care of themselves, and Peter definitely shouldn't be left alone with their parents. As for Hiro…
Be sensible, his inner Petrelli told him. You're not going to kidnap anyone, least of all strange Japanese children. Forget your career, you're going to end up in prison for that. Your daughter, fine, that's legal, because she is your daughter, and they sure as hell don't have any claim on her, but none of the others.
"Wow," Nicole said, sounding impressed. "That was fast."
There was Simone. With the baby. And some confused security people first calling, then chasing after her. Nathan pushed the passenger-side door open and began to drive towards her.
"Jump in," Peter called excitedly, but the first of the guards had reached her, and held her by her shoulders. Nathan got out, uncertain what he would do; to his surprise, Nicole did as well, with no hesitation at all. She ran towards the guard holding Simone and punched him. The guy went down, and Simone would have as well, if Nathan hadn't stood in front of her to catch her and the child. He had no memory of taking any of the steps between getting out of the car and reaching her; it was as if he was there in a blink, propelled by nothing but overwhelming need. No time to think about that now, or how no sixteen-year-old girl should be able to punch out a trained security guard. Who didn't move as he lay on the floor.
"Back to the car," Nathan yelled, and they did. By now, the other security guards were only at arms' length behind them, and one of them pulled a gun. There was another odd moment of disconnect, because from one second to the next, the man did not have his gun anymore, and nor did his last remaining colleague. Later, Nathan thought, later, and handed over Simone and Claire to Niki as he got into the driver's seat. Ignoring all caution, he did his best imitation of a 70s cop on wheels. The limousine could take it. His heart hammered as they raced out of the garage.
"That was so cool," Peter said. "Nathan, did you see what Hiro did?"
Nathan had no idea what Peter was talking about.
"He made everyone freeze except us, and then we took the guns from the guards," Peter continued happily. "Right after you did that fly jump thing and Nicole punched out the other guy."
Peter has gone insane, Nathan thought. The whole thing with Ma and Pa has been too much for him.
On the other hand, it hadn't been his parents who had just exposed a couple of minors to a kidnapping, assault and car chase. He'd be lucky if he made it ten blocks without getting arrested.
You won't be. You know why? Because your parents do not want any of this go public, and nor, I'd bet, do any of the others. They'll go after you, absolutely, but not through the police.
Thinking like a Petrelli could be helpful now and then. He still didn't slow down the car.
"Are you trying to get us killed, you nut?" Nicole hissed.
"Shut up, Nicole," Nathan said, as trying to drive fast on a New York street tended to make one lose one's hardly won adult maturity.
"Your kid just peed on me," she replied, and then added another non sequitur. "So I guess you can call me Niki."
"So did you see it? " Peter insisted.
"I can't believe I did that," Simone whispered. "It was so easy, too! They had given the baby to one of our servants to feed and were still out on the terrace, talking. I said I just wanted to hold her, and she let me."
"Your old man is going to thrash the life out of you," Nicole said matter-of-factly. Simone looked horrified, either at the assumption about fathers this statement showed or because she believed it was a possibility. Probably not the latter. The few times Nathan had seen Charles Deveaux at his parents' parties, he had appeared to be a gentle, mild person. But then again, so did Mr. Linderman. Both of whom had helped his mother to fake the death of her granddaughter and hand her over to strangers.
"No, he's not," Peter said and then showed this wasn't a statement of faith in Charles Deveaux, by adding: "Because she's staying with us. Right, Nathan? We're like the rebels running away from the Empire now. We just have to find a good hideout."
Hiro, face covered with sweat as after a great physical exortion, nodded, which Nathan could see in the mirror, then he put a hand on Nathan's shoulder and said gravely: "Han Solo. You. Millennium Falcon?"
There was no way in which his life could get any more lunatic, Nathan thought, and then he heard a noise that made his heart stop. Claire giggled. It was more a gurgle, admittedly, but still, a happy sound from his daughter, whom he had only seen five times in her short life, and then she had been silent each time, not even crying, as if she know he was a stranger by choice and didn't deserve to hear anything.
All his actions today had been insane, but right here, right now, he thought that it had been worth it.
Chapter 2: Methods of communication
II. Methods of Communication
"That was James," Angela said, putting the phone down. "Our limousine has been found. Empty, of course. And Nathan has made as many cash withdrawals as he could from his account within an hour of the… incident."
"My son isn't stupid," her husband said in one of his typically inappropriate displays of paternal pride. She gave him a withering look, but when Linderman said, "all current appearances to the contrary, hm?", she decided for a united front.
"Oh, please," Angela said. "There are more important things to be done than baiting each other now."
"What I want to know," Kaito Nakamura said, glowering, "is how this could have happened in the first place. I entrusted my son, who has been taught respect of House Nakamura from the day he was born, to your care, and your idiotic profligate of an offspring kidnaps him!"
Angela's husband put down the glass of whiskey he had been holding with a bang.
"Don't you dare insult my son!"
"Maybe my English vocabulary is failing me," Kaito said sarcastically, "but he did get that girl pregnant. And now he has managed to involve various children, including mine, in a criminally ill-planned enterprise. How would you call such a person in English, then, eh?"
In moments such as these, Angela wondered whether maturity was a superpower given solely to her. She closed her eyes and prayed for patience. When she opened them again, her voice was chilling.
"Let us get to the point, please. Which is that if the security cameras in Charles' garage are anything to go by, several of the children have manifested. Years ahead of plan. And of course they found out things they should not. We have to focus on damage control."
"Not on finding them?" Charles said, raising his eyebrows.
"Please," Angela said again. "I know my son. Give him a day or two with children and teenagers, maximum, without any nanny to take them off his hands, and he'll be returning them to us in pathetic gratitude."
"And here I thought Nathan was brilliant with children," Linderman murmured. She did not dignify this with a response, but continued:
"Unless, of course, all of you make it an issue of male pride and posturing by sending someone after him, which will prolong this unpleasant interlude. No, leave him alone. And give him time to think about what he truly wants. As I said, I know my son. He's probably realizing already that he won't be elected dog catcher in this city with this kind of behaviour, let alone anything else. He'll return, so will the other children, and then we just have to find a way to, well, deal with certain premature revelations."
The maid appeared, and said there was a visitor for Mrs. Petrelli. Angela sighed and followed her. The men traded significant looks.
"She might have a point there," Linderman said.
"Americans," Kaito said scornfully. "I, for one, am not leaving my son in the company of unworthy companions."
"I hate to bring this up," Charles said, "but has anyone considered that if young Nathan was, hm, spontaneous enough for his current actions, and doesn't return to his old ambitions as soon as his mother predicts, he might be capable of talking to…"
"The police?" Mr. Petrelli interrupted him. "Never. He's a Petrelli. The only time we talk to cops is when we cross-examine them and destroy their testimony in court."
"Oh no, not the police," Charles said. "The press. Now, Dan might be able to pass off anything that happens in Las Vegas as the Roswell aliens or sightings of Elvis, but this is New York. Besides, a reporter would love a story about the Petrelli heir going on a rampage without any supernatural tie-ins anyway."
"We have to get them back as quickly as possible," Linderman conceded. "Well, then. I happen to have several teams experienced in discreet, off-the-radar operations. Bennet and his partner aren't suitable since we want him to raise the girl, but Thompson should do nicely."
Nathan had experience with getting fake IDs; it was something he used to do before college in order to visit bars without getting caught, and some of his sources were still around, so that was what he did before leaving New York City, after giving Nicole some money to shop for baby supplies. Then they headed north. She wanted to drive.
"You don't have a driver's license," Nathan said. She rolled her eyes.
"You're such a stick-in-the-mud. Tell you what, you wouldn't last five minutes in a holding cell before someone beat the crap out of you."
"Yes, he would," Peter said loyally. "He learned self defense in the Navy, right, Nathan?"
"I paid for the car," Nathan said, ignoring them both, though it would have been more accurate to say he paid the rental for it under a fake name, "and that means I'm driving. End of debate."
Talk of holding cells and the Navy were equally unwelcome. After learning of fire, he had been given two week's leave before having to report back and complete his transfer to Bosnia. Which left ten days, after which he would be a deserter in addition to everything else if he didn't return to his old life. Now, single fathers within the military were not unheard of. It would be difficult, but not impossible. Chances were he could plead this new situation and get transferred back to somewhere within the United States, and he could then raise Claire in Texas, Florida or wherever he'd be stationed. What he definitely wouldn't be able to do was to go to law school after finishing his service, and all of that was ignoring what he'd just found out about his parents, let alone his current company.
It would simplify things somewhat if he just put Simone and Hiro on the next train back to Manhattan. Not Peter, not after what he had heard his mother say, and not Nicole because at least she was older than the rest, and frankly, being alone with a baby scared him. Nathan was a firm believer in the mystical female knowledge of How To Deal With Babies, though he had to admit that the fact his mother had employed ever-changing nannies with both her sons did at least put a question mark on the universality of his theory.
There were the questionable ethics of sending Simone and Hiro back to parents who were as lunatic as his own, but damn it, they weren't his family. Nathan wasn't responsible for them. Not in the slightest. He couldn't help them, they couldn't help him, the only sensible thing under the circumstances was to send them back. As soon as he spotted a train station, he'd buy them a ticket and do just that.
Hiro tapped his shoulder and whistled something Nathan didn't recognize.
"It's the music from E.T., from when all the kids' bikes go up in the air," Peter translated helpfully. "You know, with the moon behind them."
Shit, Nathan thought. Either Hiro still assumed Nathan had an airplane at his disposal, or he was being metaphorical and wanted to say he saw their escape as a grand Spielbergian adventure, complete with guaranteed happy ending. Someone really should disabuse him of the notion that there were heroes in real life, let alone heroes named Nathan Petrelli. Nothing but John Williams compositions seemed to work as reliable methods communication, so Nathan went through his cinematic memories and then came up with the theme from Jaws, which couldn't be whistled, so he had to sing it. Pointing at himself, he said: "Da.. da.. dadadada…"
"What kind of crack are you on, and how come you didn't share?" asked Nicole. Hiro, however, nodded. Nathan's hope that Hiro had understood he was in the company of a shark, even a young one currently not at the top of his game, was immediately dashed when Hiro put his finger on his lips and dived behind the backseat. Evidently he thought Nathan had meant they had to be stealthy and quiet while escaping, or something like that.
"You shouldn't take drugs," Simone said primly. "Either of you. I don't like people who take drugs. Just say no."
There should be a train station soon. Or maybe he had missed it. Somehow.
"Maybe that's it," Peter said thoughtfully. "Maybe Mom and Dad were on drugs, and Mr. Linderman is an evil overlord making everyone else do his evil bidding through them."
"My Dad doesn't take drugs," Simone said, insulted.
"Did it look like Linderman was in charge, Pete?" Nathan said exasperatedly, and regretted it a moment later. Of course Peter would want to believe there was an excuse for their parents. He was twelve, and he was Peter. Peter threw himself back on the seat, arms crossed, and a moment later the baby began to cry, as if in sympathy.
"You suck as a parent," Nicole informed Nathan. "I told you she needed to change diapers ages ago."
The Fredonia Motel on the highway was a far cry from what Nathan was used to, but that was the point, and besides, he really needed to get out of the car. Nobody would bat an eyelash if he rented three rooms for the night. Well, maybe they would, which was why it was good to have a cover story on hand.
"Wife? What?" Nicole asked, sounding insultingly horrified. "Look, if that was my baby, I'd have gotten pregnant at fourteen or something. What kind of skank do you think I am?"
Nathan considered not replying to that and gave her a look. In truth, he hadn't taken it into account so far, but…
"You look older than sixteen," he said, reassessing her. She did. She also had a nice figure, which her red tank top and tight jeans did nothing to hide. Of course, he was far too mature to be remotely interested in a teenager like her, but those were good breasts and actually great legs.
"Gee, thanks," she said. "Look, can't we go to a good hotel and you say I'm the au pair or something, your lordship? Or are you being cheap again? You got more money out of those ATMs than I ever saw in my life."
"If we go to the kind of hotel that has suites for people with au pairs, Nicole," Nathan said, irritated, "we would be found within a few hours."
"If you say so," she said, sounding unconvinced. "And anyway, I told you to call me Niki. My father and Mr. Linderman call me Nicole, and you aren't either of them. I think I want a name change."
"We should all have new names," Peter said. "Code names, secret identities. Also, next time we rescue someone, we should be in costume."
Before Nathan could say there wasn't going to be a next time, Niki asked, indicating Peter, Hiro and Simone:
"And if that's our daughter, who are they supposed to be, huh? Your other children? The ones you had when you were eleven or something, from three different mothers?"
"Ew," Simone said immediately and wrinkled her nose.
"Guess you were that much of a boy slut," Nicole continued relentlessly.
"Okay, okay, okay," Nathan said, raising his hands. "No one is anyone's ��" we'll just hope they don't ask, and if they do, I'll say I'm your social worker and you are all a bunch of difficult-to-educate children on a probationary trip."
This shut everyone up, except Hiro, who followed Nathan to the reception. "What?" Nathan growled. Hiro handed over the video game he had brought to the Petrelli mansion and rubbed his fingers together in the universal gesture for money counting. Nathan realized the boy had to believe they had stopped at this crappy motel because they couldn't afford anything else, and was offering to sell his treasured possession to help with that.
"Oh, no," he said, feeling oddly constricted in his throat. "It's just, we're undercover, in disguise…"
Think musically, he told himself, as Hiro continued to look earnestly at him, holding out his video game. In a mixture of inspiration and desperation, Nathan came up with the James Bond theme. Hiro's face transformed into a beaming smile, and he responded with the Jaws theme Nathan had tried earlier. Nathan nodded.
"Disguise," Hiro repeated Nathan's earlier word. "Undacova."
"Agent," Hiro said firmly instead, and Nathan found himself smiling as he reached the reception. In the end, the receptionist was sublimely uninterested in anything but the money, and gave Nathan the keys for three rooms.
The disposal of the rooms appeared to Nathan self-evident: he would share one with Claire, Niki would share with Simone, and Peter with Hiro. His would be in the middle, which meant he would be able to keep eyes and ears on all of them. Nobody objected. Unfortunately, as soon as Nathan held Claire, the smell hit him, and reminded him of what Niki had been pointing out for the last two hours. He looked at her pleadingly.
"Oh no," Niki said sharply. "I said she needed to change diapers. I didn't say I'd do it. I've had enough of shit and vomit in juvenile detention. You do it."
At least she carried all the shopping bags with diapers, babyfood and soothing oil into his room as if they didn't weigh more than a feather. Then she left. Nathan found himself trying to wash his baby daughter with a very ratty-looking hotel towel, afraid he'd break her, and felt inadequate on every level, which was an unfamiliar and very unwelcome sensation.
"Why didn't you tell me I was an uncle?" Peter asked, standing in the doorframe. "And what happened to her mother anyway? Why did Mom and Dad ��"" He made a helpless gesture. "I don't get this, Nathan. When did you get married, and why was that such a big secret?"
"Because I didn't marry her, Pete," Nathan said quietly. "I ��" she's dead, now. I thought Claire was, too, before I saw her on that screen."
He realized he had no idea whether this was true. If Claire was alive, then maybe so was Meredith. On the other hand, if Meredith had died in the fire, if it hadn't been all lies, it made his parents' actions somewhat more understandable. They hadn't wanted Claire as part of his life, but they didn't want to leave her to social services, either.
Except that Linderman wasn't an adoption agency, there was still that ominous talk about explosions, prophecies, ruling the country and "one of us", and besides, they had let him believe Claire was dead. That was what it came down to. Dead. They had wanted him to think she didn't exist anymore.
She looked clean now, and he grabbed the oil for her skin. Peter came closer, and crouched beside him, looking at the baby.
"She's so tiny," he said in wonder.
"She's almost two," Nathan said. "Though you were bigger at her age," he admitted. He looked from Claire to his brother, and the hopelessness of the entire situation took his breath away. He couldn't support a baby and a twelve-year-old boy, not on his Navy pay, and anyway, his parents would never permit Peter to live with him. They wouldn't go through official channels, but one day he'd come home and would find them gone, both, because his mother knew how to punish, and there wouldn't be a damn thing he could do to get them back.
Kidnapping only worked once.
There was another possibility. They could disappear. Really, genuinely disappear. Go to Canada, traditional destination of deserters, start a new life where no one knew them. He'd still have to find some job to put them through the next decade, but maybe then he'd be able to go back to law school, after, when Peter was an adult and Claire a bit older. Maybe he wouldn't have to give up on the whole of his future. At least become a lawyer. He'd be good at that, no matter the country; it was the way his mind had been trained to work. Pop had given him affidavits to read before he was ten, and had made him argue cases with him, looking for weaknesses that…
Nathan sat back on his heels. He couldn't believe he hadn't seen this until now.
"What is it, Nathan?" Peter asked with a slight frown.
"Nothing," Nathan said, finished the ointment, and wrapped Claire up again, hoping he got it right. "Peter, you should go back to Hiro. This has to be worst for him. He doesn't even understand half of what's going on. You can't leave him alone now."
As Petrelli manipulations went, this one was a bit blatant, but it worked. Peter probably knew Nathan was hiding something, but he also knew what Nathan had said about Hiro was true, and so he got up and moved to the door.
"He really did freeze everyone except me in the garage, you know," he said before leaving, sounding challenging and sullen at the same time. "If you're so concerned about him, you should say thank you and tell him how cool that was."
Nathan waited a while after Peter had left, passing the time with feeding Claire. This, he actually had some experience with. Meredith had let him do it the last time he had seen her and Claire both, an uneasy, awkward visit, full of unspoken words. Besides, he had done it a couple of times for Peter. He felt on safer ground, and imagined Claire looked somewhat more confidently at him with her eyes that weren't either Meredith's or his but utterly her own. She didn't recognize him yet, of course she didn't, but she would. She would.
Niki was having a smoke outside in the corridor; she must have bought the cigarettes along with the baby stuff from the money he had given her, as he didn't recall her having them when she came to the mansion.
"That little Miss Virtue thought I was doing drugs again," she explained, jerking her chin to her and Simone's room. "She told me it wasn't something she should see, and I should be a better role model. Jeez. I thought rich kids all party non-stop and end up in rehab by the time they're thirteen. Between you and her, you're totally disillusioning me."
Nathan found himself amused against his will.
"If it helps, I did the drunken frat boy thing a couple of times," he said. "Hey, could you look after Claire for a while? She's clean now," he added hastily. Niki threw down her cigarette and crushed it beneath her heel.
"Sure," she said, and took the child from him.
"If you get tired of carrying her, you can put her in the bed in my room," Nathan said.
"I won't get tired," she replied, and he left. It took him an hour with the car to find the next town with a few hotels and motels; he made a phone call from one of the public phones there. Having been given the number of all the parents whose children he had been supposed to supervise in case of an emergency proved to be unexpectedly useful, as the one for Charles Deveaux turned out to be a direct line, not even intercepted by a secretary.
"Well, Nathan," Charles Deveaux said in his good-humoured, rumbling voice, "I must say this is a surprise."
"Is it?" Nathan retorted. "And here I thought you were waiting for my call."
"Now why would I do that?"
Nathan held his hand over the phone so Simone's father wouldn't hear him take a deep breath. If his guess wasn't true, he would be even more screwed by this call. "Because," he replied, "someone has to be responsible for that security feed we saw of your rooftop. Complete with sound. Transmitted to a view screen in our house. I bet it would have ended up on whichever tv we switched on, at a time where my parents were guaranteed not to be there. Now call me crazy, Mr. Deveaux, but I don't think my parents set that up. I think you did. You wanted us to see what we saw."
There was a slight pause. "That's an interesting theory, Nathan," Charles Deveaux said.
"I think so," Nathan responded, refusing to elaborate further. He waited. Sometimes, you have to wait out your opponent, his father used to say to him. Make him talk first. If he does, then you know you have him.
"You realize I'm tracing this phone call," Charles continued.
"I'm sure you are," Nathan said.
"Well, it seems Angela was right after all. You do want to be found, don't you?"
"Actually, no," Nathan said. "Look, I don't care why you did it. Maybe you're playing some kind of power game with my parents, maybe this is some kind of test for me and the others, I don't know. But going by everything I've heard about Mr. Linderman, he doesn't like being bugged without his knowledge. Didn't my father get him out of an accusation of murdering an FBI agent who tried that, just recently?"
"You're definitely your parents' son."
"I guess we all are," Nathan said. "And your daughter is your daughter. She was a bit shocked by what she saw, but she still has a high opinion of you. After all, you didn't say anything too incriminating during that conversation. Now why is that, Mr. Deveaux?"
"Is this going somewhere?"
"To a new life, I hope," Nathan said. "A good one. For me, my brother and my daughter. We children of the idle classes do like our comfort. I have a first class education, Mr. Deveaux, and I want to put it to use, which I can't if I'm reduced to slave labour in order to survive. I also want my brother and my daughter to have the same kind of opportunities. I think you get my meaning."
"I think I do. So you want a new life with new identities and regular financial support. I must say, Nathan, I am appalled. Not at the blackmail. But you didn't even mention the explosion. You really do only care about yourself and your family. For someone who is supposed to be a future leader, that is an appallingly petty vision."
Maybe it was because he wasn't old enough not to react to disapproval from authority figures, and maybe it was because there was truth in those words, but they stung.
"Perhaps," Nathan said tonelessly. "Or perhaps I should take you as my role model. Since you were so onboard with finding a new family for my daughter, maybe I should find one for yours. I'll call you tomorrow, Mr. Deveaux. Maybe we will both have some news for each other by then."
Hanging up, he closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them again, he had restored his best façade, the one Peter didn't like and had once called his Dad-face. Before he drove back to the Fredonia Motel, he remembered something, checked out the local phone registry and found what he was looking for.
Hiro and Peter were busy with the video game again when Nathan came into their room, but they looked up when he entered. Nathan cleared his throat and handed over the three trade paperbacks he had bought to Hiro. Peter looked amazed and just the slightest bit jealous for a moment. He wasn't used to Nathan paying attention to anyone outside the family. Hiro looked at his present: the comics versions of Episodes IV, V and VI of Star Wars.
"I figured you must have read them in Japanese," Nathan said. "You probably know them by heart. Those are the English words. That should help with the vocabulary problem."
Hiro pushed up his glasses, questioningly. What the hell, Nathan thought. At this point, he had no dignity to lose. Besides, it was the only cinematic equivalent of the learning of a foreign language he could be certain Hiro was familiar with. He mimicked a gesture he dimly recalled.
"E.T. phone home," he said, and self consciously hummed a few bars from the melody Hiro had used earlier today. Hiro looked at the Star Wars trade collections, then at Nathan, and eagerly nodded.
"Hai," he said. "E.T. Engrish. Star Wars." He opened one of the volumes, searched for something, and then slowly, carefully said: "I-will-learn-the-ways-of-the-force."
His accent made the words sound less like English than like a strange kind of Latin, but they were understandable. "You do that," Nathan said, and left the two to it. Claire was in his room, in the bed, sleeping. So was Niki, next to her. With her eyes closed, Niki looked younger instead of older, and he felt a bit ashamed for having noticed her figure earlier. In an utterly remote and uninterested way, of course. He considered waking her up, but there was something in the way she lay there with Claire in her arms that reminded him of Meredith, just a little bit, and so he watched the two of them for a while, and then decided to sleep on the floor. It shouldn't be tougher than life in the barracks anyway.
When Nathan woke up, the first thing he noticed was a stiff neck. The next was two unknown men standing in the doorway of his room. One of them had a gun aimed at him.
"That's a tranquilizer gun, Mr. Petrelli," said the other one wryly. "Now I'd rather not tell Aaron here to use it, but that is your choice. Why don't you get up so we can introduce ourselves properly? My name is Thompson."
Chapter 3: The Art of Negotiations
III. The Art of Negotiation
Nathan was usually quite good at instant transitions to being awake, and life with the Navy had pushed "quite good" up to "excellent". Still, basic training and pranks aside, he had never woken up with a gun pointed at him, and two smug bountyhunters, for that was what they looked like, about to abduct him. Somebody above him groaned as if just waking up. A female voice. He had a moment of confusion, as he didn't remember having fallen asleep next to a woman. Let alone sex with her before sleep. And what was he doing on the floor in that case anyway? It couldn't have been that bad.
Then realisation and memory kicked in. That was Niki on the bed, next to Claire. There were two goons with a gun in a room with his baby daughter.
Nathan got up, mind crystal clear now.
"Aaron," he said to the man with the gun, ignoring Thompson, "do you think you're adequately paid in your job?"
"What?" asked Aaron. Thompson's superior smile slipped a little, then returned again, a bit more artificial this time.
"It just so happens," Nathan said, "that I am in need of a bodyguard. I can offer instant payment as a start. There will be further installments, of course. Sadly, it is a one time offer. If I have to leave this room against my will, I won't make it again."
"Very funny," Thompson said. "And half way original. I would love to let this play out a while longer, but unfortunately my employers are in somewhat of a hurry, so I'm afraid I really must insist. Tranquillizer or a dignified exit, Mr. Petrelli, your choice."
Behind Nathan, he heard Niki murmur "shit, shit, shit" all over again. He remembered how she had punched the guard out, and wondered if she could do it again. Perhaps, but probably not before that gun was fired. Of course he didn't believe a word of Peter's insistence that Hiro had frozen time ��" that was Peter's overactive imagination and inherent need for drama ��" but that, too, would have been very handy. Unfortunately, he had to deal with reality here. He raised his voice anyway, remembering how thin the walls were. If the children heard him, they might manage to get away. Peter, Hiro and Simone on their own wasn't the safest thought, but he definitely liked it better than seeing them with this Thompson and his partner. Putting all the conviction he was able to muster in his face, focusing on Aaron, he plugged on, hopefully loud enough:
"I much prefer a dignified exit, but I'm afraid my definition of it is different from your partner's, and completely inflexible. You look like a reasonable man, Aaron. As a captive, I'm worth a one-time bonus to you. As a long-term employer, I'm your meal ticket for the rest of your life. And I even offer tickets for the Yankees," he ended, trying for a rueful smile. His actual expression probably looked more like a terribly fake grin. There was some doubt in Aaron's face, and Nathan felt a twitch of hope. He had not really expected to succeed; if Thompson knew his name, he had to come from either his parents or Charles Deveaux or the lot of them, and had to know Nathan's source of wealth had just stopped flowing, which meant Aaron probably knew, too. But maybe, just maybe, he didn't. And Aaron was the one with the gun.
Thompson sighed. "Shoot him," he ordered.
"Sorry," Aaron said. "I'm a real Yankees fan, but what can you do?" He raised his gun just as someone behind them coughed.
"Um," said Simone Deveaux. "I'm sorry. But I don't think it's a tranquillizer gun. The one I'm holding, not the one you're holding. Dad wouldn't hire security people with fake guns; he explained that to me. There are so many evil people in the world."
Slowly, Thompson turned around and in so doing allowed Nathan to catch a glimpse of the thirteen-year-old girl who was standing there, a real, actual gun in her hand. She looked nervous and embarrassed at the same time, but her hand didn't shake.
"What the hell?" said Niki.
"You better put that down, young lady," Thompson commented, trying for avuncular and failing.
"Guns don't kill people," Simone said, talking faster and faster, the only outward sign of the fear she had to be feeling. "People kill people. And boys are stupid. I couldn't let Peter and Hiro keep those guns they'd taken from the security guards, could I? They might be stupid enough to play with them if they got bored. Boys are like that. I kept them in my room. But I never fired a gun, and I really don't think I'd be good at it. I could hit anything, sir. I wouldn't mean to, but I would. People kill people. With guns."
By now, Aaron had turned halfway towards her as well, and Nathan decided it was now or never. Unfortunately, Niki seemed to have decided the same thing at the same time. In a movie, Nathan thought later, their moves would have been beautifully coordinated, one of them going for Aaron, the other for Thompson. In reality, they both went for Aaron and collided, Nathan getting Niki's ellbow in his face. As a consequence, Aaron had time to fire before he went down, the tranquillizer dart hitting Niki's shoulder. Simultaneously, Thompson tried to take the gun away from Simone, and she pulled the trigger. Thompson cried out, Simone screamed, there was an instant smell of blood in the room, and Nathan wrestled the tranquillizer gun away from Aaron. He looked over to Simone. Thompson was on the floor, bleeding, but what she had hit seemed to be his right kneecap. The girl had backed away, standing in the middle of the floor, and the way she was screaming would bring everyone in the motel here soon.
"I don't believe this," Thompson swore, which was probably the first honest thing he had said today.
"Me neither," Nathan agreed, and fired the tranquillizer gun first at Aaron, then at him. By the time Thompson fell back on the ground unconscious, Hiro and Peter had come running from their room. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Nathan knew that there was no way Simone could have gotten that gun unless she had told the literal truth, which meant that so had Peter, earlier, and the Japanese boy staring wide-eyed at him really could freeze time. Still, he couldn't deal with this right now. He had to get them all out of here as fast as possible.
Claire was still on the bed, by now wide awake and, thanks to all the noise, joining in with her own crying. Niki lay on the floor, completely knocked out by the first tranquilizer dart. Shit, Nathan said with feeling. Simone's screams stopped instantly.
"You shouldn't swear in front of minors, Nathan," she told him disapprovingly. "You are such a bad role model." Then she looked down on the gun she was still holding, and her hands started shaking.
"Give me that," Peter said gently. Peter picked the oddest moments to switch from high emotion to a serenity far too mature for his age, and this was one of them. Nathan's heart stopped when Simone just stared at Peter uncomprehending, her shaking hand pointing the gun in his direction. His mouth felt dry, and he had never felt more helpless, seeing it all too clearly; Simone firing again, the bullet piercing one of Peter's arteries. Of all the times Peter could have played the hero, this was the worst, Nathan thought with a mixture of fear and fury. But Simone actually calmed, stopped shaking and handed the gun over. Nathan dropped the tranquillizer weapon, knelt down and put his arms around Niki so he could carry her. "Hiro," he said, looking at his daughter, "could you take Claire?"
Apparently, that needed no theme music; Hiro understood him anyway, stepped gingerly into the room, went to the bed and picked up the baby. Nathan found that carrying a tall blonde girl was far less easy than the movies made it look like, but those morning push-ups had to be good for something. "Okay," he said, hoping that the adrenaline in him would allow him to keep avoiding the realization of how much worse things had just gotten for a while longer. "Okay, everyone. Let's move."
It wasn't quite the worst morning in his life; there was still some competition from the day he had gotten the phonecall about Claire and Meredith, and then there was the time he had found Pop in the bathroom, after his father's first "heart attack". But it still came pretty close. Well, at least it would remain unique. Nathan fervently hoped so. Neither waking up next to a blonde he barely knew, only to get abducted by thugs presumably working for his parents or their dubious friends, nor watching a teenage girl waving a gun in a mixture of bravery and hysteria at his kid brother was something he ever cared to experience again.
"I don't believe this," Angela said, glaring at the rest of them. For the first time, she wondered whether it would really be such a bad thing if they all went their separate ways. She had felt such a development coming for a while now, and was trying her best to prevent it; if their group broke up, some of her current colleagues would inevitably end up working against her, interfering with her plans, and as oppposed to certain other people, she felt no need to prove herself in idiotic competitions if she could succeed more elegantly making everyone else do her bidding.
But her bidding should at least be done by people with a modicum of common sense.
"Should I have used smaller words to explain why sending someone after them was both superfluous and a bad idea?" she asked witheringly. "And if you absolutely had to, did it have to be someone who could be taken out by a little girl? What on earth are your hiring practices, Dan?"
"Thompson is usually very competent," Linderman said defensively. "Not to mention effective."
"Guess he never went up against little girls before," Angela's husband interjected sarcastically. "Who knew Charles was training her to be a sharp-shooter? He's been holding out on us."
Kaito Nakamura looked at them all contemptously. "This is it. I shall retrieve my son by myself before it is too late."
"Look," Charles, who was oddly calm for someone whose daughter had just revealed unsuspected talents of the non-superpower kind, said soothingly, "now that Dan' team is, well, recovering, there is no actual threat to anyone, is there? Give them time, and all will develop as Angela has predicted."
Daniel Linderman's eyes narrowed. "That's not what you said earlier. As I recall, you were the one pushing for immediate action as soon as Angela was out of the room."
"I simply made an observation about the press. Which doesn't seem to be an issue anymore. I doubt young Nathan will want to incriminate himself by contacting reporters about shooting incidents."
"I do not care," Kaito said darkly. "He shall not remain anywhere near my son and put him into further danger."
"Oh, for God's sake," Nathan's father exploded. "From the way it sounded, the only danger your son was ever in was getting baby poo on his hands. My sons were the ones held at gunpoint, and by the way, Dan, if I were you, I wouldn't let this Thompson do field work again. He sounds like the type who couldn't disarm an exploding bomb without hastening the explosion. Bury him in paperwork, that's my advice."
"For the last time, he's usually…"
"If he allows Charles' daughter to carry guns," Kaito returned, ignoring the aside to Linderman, "who knows what habits he is teaching Hiro at this very moment, eh?"
"The only bad habit your son could pick up from my son is a taste for waitresses in Texas," Angela said cuttingly, "and how likely is that? Now could we please focus? I agree that given your collective idiotic behaviour, someone now needs to go after them and end this quickly and efficiently. But not you, Kaito. Luckily for the lot of you, I already have someone in mind."
There were a few grumblings, but this time, everyone at least seemed to acknowledge that doing what she said was the only way to proceed. She waited a while until what passed for social conversation between them had set in, and then she pulled Charles Deveaux aside in a corner.
"What have you been doing, Charles?" she asked quietly.
At least he didn't insult her by playing the innocent. Whether what he replied with was the truth was another matter altogether.
"Just a little improvisation, my dear," he replied, patting her arm reassuringly. "Now, you can't tell me that as soon as Dan said 'one of us' would rule the country after the…incident…, you didn't immediately define "us" as meaning the family Petrelli. I don't begrudge you your ambitions for your children, Angela. I simply think that anyone entrusted with such an enormous responsibility should be tested first."
As it turned out, the biggest crisis in the aftermath wasn't getting rid of the guns, Simone having to deal with shooting a man in the kneecap, or ditching the car and finding another means of transportation. It wasn't even Nathan deciding that they all needed new outfits, because thinking about how bedraggled they all looked, and the risk of arrest for vagabondage, was infinitely preferable to thinking about a world in which boys would freeze time. No, the biggest crisis was the discovery that a company of children and teenagers who had been on the run for a day and a night had only one thing on their minds, and it wasn't the danger they were in.
"I'm hungry," was the first thing Niki said when she came to, and a moment later, everyone else agreed. Loudly. They ended up in a diner that served pancakes. Thankfully, the only other guests present were a couple with a distinct Queens accent, who were too busy arguing with their son to pay attention to them. Well, the mother was, at any rate.
"Breakfast is the first meal of the day, Gabriel," she said in a tone of exasparation that had to be universal for mothers everywhere. "The most important one. You need to eat yours, or you'll come to a bad end."
They didn't hear the muttered protests of the son, who looked about Peter's age and wore glasses like Hiro, because by then everyone was busy ordering and changing their minds by the second. Nathan started to wonder whether life as a hermit was on offer as an alternative to being court martialed and thrown into prison for a couple of felonies. It didn't look like a career as someone else in Canada was, unless Charles Deveaux hadn't been the one to send Thompson and would actually finance such an enterprise. And the only way to check whether or not Mr. Deveaux had been calling his bluff was to call him again, which meant risking another encounter of the bounty hunter kind.
"You need to shower," Niki said to him. "You didn't at the motel last night, right? You're the only one who didn't. You're totally stinking up the place."
"I should have left you there," Nathan said curtly, and for a moment, she looked hurt, as if she believed he had meant it. He wasn't quite sure whether he did, but decided he didn't as she busied herself giving the orders for Hiro, who looked both curious and helpless when confronted with the menu card. As it turned out, her guess either suited him, or Hiro simply liked any variation of pancake. Either way, he ate up, and so did everyone else, though Simone looked suddenly sick and raced towards the restroom. Peter half rose.
"You're not going into the girls' restroom, Pete," Nathan said, and turned to Niki.
"Great. Now you need me," she muttered. "Listen, nobody wants to be watched when they throw up, Mr. Sensitive. Maybe she just wants a few minutes alone after everything, huh?"
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence in which they could hear the other guests again.
"See, Mom," the boy from Queens said triumphantly, "that girl didn't like the food here, either!"
His mother blanched and pressed her lips together.
"Well," she said. "Well. Let that be a lesson to you. You can't be too careful with what you put in your mouth, Gabriel."
"But you said I should eat the…"
The father, an unassuming, stocky man who had been fiddling with his watch the entire time, caught Nathan's eye, shrugged and gave him a rueful look.
"Family trips, eh?"
Nathan nodded and hastily started to eat himself, which he hadn't done so far, having needed to feed Claire first. They really couldn't afford to get involved with strangers right now. Except that strangers would probably be a far safer choice than friends of the family. Or indeed his family, present company excepted. If Charles Deveaux hadn't sent Thompson, his parents had. They hadn't even bothered to come themselves; they'd just sent some thugs, as if he was a client unwilling to pay.
"Na-than," Hiro said to him, watching him with an expression of concern, the precision in his words making it clear he was quoting directly from one of the Star Wars comics he had been given, "when nine hundred years you reach, look as good, you will not."
Peter turned towards him. "He's right," he said, worried. "I mean, you're not really like Yoda on his death bed, but ��" Nathan, are you okay?"
"I told you you stink up the place," Niki commented.
"I'm fine," Nathan said tersely. "Is everybody else done? I want to pay the bill, and then we need to go."
"We can't go before we brush our teeth," Simone said. She was back from the restroom, looking calm again, if distinctly unhappy. "Otherwise we will get cavities."
They ended up going to Woolworth's to acquire clothing Nathan otherwise would not have touched with his fingertips and some more supplies, including toothpaste and brushes. After all, he owed Simone. By then, Niki had come up with what sounded like a good suggestion, if another humiliating one.
"We shouldn't rent a new car," she said. "We should take a Greyhound bus. Betcha they won't check those, not with how rich the rest of you are. I mean, did you ever take the bus in your life?"
"There was no need to," Nathan said, which was his way of conceding she was right. Queing for the bus tickets with a bunch of down-on-their luck veterans, single mothers and teenagers who were probably runaways as well, he was more and more aware that he was kidding himself with this entire absurdity. The chances of Charles Deveaux coming through with the money were slim to none existent. He could try blackmailing his parents, along the lines of "either cash now or a headline about the Petrelli heir going to prison", but for one thing, this would still mean crossing a line he couldn't bring himself to cross yet, their behaviour regarding Claire notwithstanding, and for another, he suspected his mother would find a way to let such a scenario end with getting Peter back, promoting him to heir and trying to fit him into the mold while cutting off all ties with Nathan.
He might just as well go home now. At the very least, he should really bring Simone and Hiro back and give Niki some money so she could make it back to Las Vegas on her own. Moving yet another tiny step in the queue, he looked back to where they squatted with the others in a corner, happily eating chips and drinking Coke. Hiro waved his arms around enthusiastically and apparently tried to demonstrate something to the others.
You do have another potential source of income, something in Nathan whispered. Like it or not, that boy did something back in the Deveaux garage. Something extraordinary. Something a lot of people, from the government down to your average ambitious lab owner, would give a lot to investigate and explore. To market. And he likes you. He trusts you. He doesn't speak English beyond a few Star Wars phrases. He could be your ticket to a good life.
"Hey, Mister," the boy behind him said. "The queue just moved. Or can I have your place?"
"No," Nathan said, a bit more loudly than necessary. "No."
The boy raised both hands. "Hey, no need to shout."
The wave of self loathing Nathan felt was intense, but the idea, though momentarily repelled, refused to go away entirely. To distract himself, he started a conversation with the boy behind him, who was on his way back to New York. Normally, Nathan didn't bother with small talk if the people weren't potential useful or very attractive; it wasn't the way he had been raised. But now he showed intense interest to the point where the boy, whose name was Isaac Mendez, told him all about his hopes for a life as an artist and pulled out a block of paper to make an impromptu sketch of Nathan to prove his talent. Nathan couldn't hide some scepticism in his expression as he studied his likeness, which made him look at least twenty years older and put far too much weight on his chin.
"…Interesting," he said.
"Hey, that's not how you look now, it's your future face," Isaac said. "Trust me, man. We artists can see these things."
"Are you interested in patronage?" Nathan asked. Isaac couldn't disguise the eagerness in his voice when replying ever so casually that yes, he might be.
"Can I borrow your pen and some of the paper?"
Isaac nodded, and Nathan hastily scribbled a note, folded it, and wrote a name and address on it. After some consideration, he repeated the procedure.
"When you get back to New York," he said, "give one of these to Charles Deveaux secretary, and the other to Dan Linderman's. Don't try to hand them over in person, that would take an eternity. They're both collectors and interested in encouraging young artists; if either of them responds, you might end up as the next Andy Warhol."
"You're kidding me," Isaac said, but he took the notes. Curiously, he asked: "You get that I'll read them, right? I mean, if this is just a joke and you're setting me up."
"Go ahead," Nathan said, and Isaac did. Looking up, he said, awe and gratitude in his face: "Thanks, man."
"You can also have my place in the queue. I'll take yours," Nathan said modestly.
"I'm so voting for you as man of the year," Isaac exclaimed, and moved ahead. The notes really were nothing but recommendations of one Isaac Mendez, praising his talent and know-how, and mentioning that "your esteemed collegue, Mr. Linderman/Deveaux" had received a similar letter as this young man should be heard of by as many people as possible. With any luck, Charles Deveaux would believe Isaac knew all about his little set-up at the Petrelli mansion, and Linderman would assume that something was up with Nathan, Mendez and Deveaux, but neither would know for sure. They'd cultivate Isaac, they'd grill him for revelations about Nathan and the others; if Nathan was lucky, they'd waste time, and if he wasn't, they'd at least have their minds played with for a little while. Feeling bad about himself always put Nathan in a vindictive mood.
He didn't worry about Isaac telling them where they were headed to. That was why he let Isaac have his place; Isaac duly paid for his ticket to New York and after another enthusiastic "thank you" hastened away, and Nathan asked for the tickets to Bangor, Maine in a low pitched voice after the crowds had already swallowed the wannnabe artist.
Once he had the tickets, he returned to the group, and gave everyone theirs. They still had about three-quarters of an hour, but Nathan felt a desperate urge to be alone right now, so he took Claire from Niki and said he'd take her to catch some fresh air, since they'd be locked in the bus for hours, and could she please look after the others a while longer.
"I'm not your babysitter! Fuck it, you're supposed to be mine!" Niki said indignantly, but Nathan had already turned his back and gone outside the station. He walked around, walked away until there really were no other people anywhere near him.
"I'm not a good person, Claire," he whispered to the toddler, supporting her head. Her hands snuck out and fingered what passed for his collar on a horrible Woolsworth aquired shirt. "You were better off without me. I'm just not sure you'll be better off without me with whomever they want to give you to, you know."
Everyone exploited everybody else. That was the way of the world, wasn't it? And you didn't owe any loyalty to strangers. Just your family. Except that his parents had a really weird definition of loyalty, and he knew exactly what Peter would say to the whole Hiro idea, and…..
The image of the boy trying to hand over his video game stuck with him. I can't, Nathan thought. I just -
"I wish I could give you something," he said to Claire. "Something really good. Something nobody has to pay for. Something just for you."
It was a clear night. He could recognize the configurations, as he had been trained to. Nathan imagined himself up there, a night flight. Not that he would ever make it into a cockpit again, not even a training simulation, the way things were going right now, but that would be something truly good. Taking Claire with him, on a flight. Show her the sky.
The longing in him grew and grew, fired by the wish to leave it all behind, all his screw ups, every temptation and mistake, and suddenly it was so intense that it burned away everything else. There was nothing but night and sky around him, and Claire, in his arms, made that giggling, laughing sound again.
That was when Nathan realized he wasn't standing on an empty street anymore. He wasn't standing on anything.
There was a moment of pure joy mixed with complete horror. Then the horror took over, and he could feel his weight pulling him down again. When he fell on the ground, he hit his knees, painfully, but not hard enough to break anything, and he let himself fall backwards so Claire wouldn't get hurt. For a while, he remained on the ground, catching his breath.
It must have been a hallucination. Somehow, someone must have slipped him some LSD. There was no other explanation. None. There couldn't be.
"Nathan?" said a quiet voice. "Flying Man? The force is with you?"
Nathan looked up, and saw Hiro standing on his side, looking concerned and awed.
Of course it was.
He knew, then and there, that he would never be able to do anything that qualified as harm to Hiro Nakamura, and even the slightest form of exploitation would certainly fit the term. The realisation carried with it an amazing amount of relief.
"Yeah," Nathan said. "Yeah, I am. I mean. It is. Always."
With some effort, since it wasn't easy with a child lying on top of you, he got up and walked back to the station with Hiro, who apparently had been sent to fetch him. Hiro hummed something, which wasn't sci fi, and after a while Nathan recognized Ennio Morricone's theme for The Magnificent Seven. As it turned out, the others had made a friend who had asked whether he could come with them.
"This is Jean-Pierre," Peter said, pointing towards a black boy who looked as if he was around fourteen. "He's from Haiti."
Chapter 4: Decisions
Nathan Petrelli loved his brother Peter. This was a fact occasionally under debate, but it happened to be true. Nonetheless, there were moments, such as the current one, when he wished Peter would be a few years older. If Peter were, Nathan would have been able to shove him against the nearest wall and yell "what part of 'we're on the road to nowhere, my cash supply is running out, we already had one close call with a couple of goons and talking to strangers outside of shopping for supplies is just not on' do you not understand?"
Peter's age being what it was, Nathan's reaction took a different form. Some part of him considered this a pity. After going through what was either a hallucination or a revelation and various moral dilemmas, he could have used the opportunity to vent.
"Really," Nathan said, just the one word, in his most tight, clipped voice, while simultaneously putting his hands on Peter's shoulders, which was one way to ensure Peter wouldn't do something dramatic like declaring that if Jean-Pierre didn't come with them, neither would he, and running away. Peter's face fell; being 12 might protect him from more direct manifestations of his older brother's anger, but it was definitely old enough for him to have a lot of practice in interpreting Nathan. The others, who weren't used to the Petrelli form of communication, needed a bit longer to catch on, by which time Peter had already rallied for a counter attack. It started as it usually did; by Peter assuming his kicked puppy look and going for grandiose statements. Nathan had expected this and swore to himself he would not give in this time. This wasn't about taking Peter to the zoo, and he was the adult here.
"He's a refugee, Nathan," Peter said. "We said we'd carry on rescuing people, didn't we?"
They had done no such thing. At least Nathan hadn't. Peter might have. Which was why Peter wasn't in charge here, details like Peter being the second youngest one aside.
"And he doesn't have anyone here," Peter continued, building speed as he went on. "All kind of things could happen! And it would be our fault, because he asked to come with us, and we rejected him!"
"He could be caught and sent back to Haiti," Simone agreed eagerly. Apparently Peter taking the gun from her had made her into some kind of partisan, or maybe she just liked Jean-Pierre. Great. "Or he could get beaten up and lynched by the Ku Klux Klan!" With an accusatory voice, she swung to Nathan. "What are you, a racist? Do you think you only need one black member in the group and that's enough?"
Nathan wondered whether it would be worth pointing out they were not a group, fellowship, club or whatever else these children might imagine, and decided against it. He couldn't lose his focus. Which had to remain on Peter and the issue at hand, not comments from the sidelines."
"This must be how Dad started going evil," Simone said, her tone becoming less angry and more heartbroken. "He hung out with white people who patronized him and didn't even realize it for too long. He had to make them respect him, had to act out, and then…"
"You know," Nathan said before he could stop himself, "that argument would actually sound good in court."
"Do you have to be such a jerk, Petrelli, or is it optional?" Niki asked, while Peter exclaimed: "Nathan!" and Simone's lips trembled. For a moment, Nathan was afraid she might cry, but then she just gave him a look of utter loathing and sat down.
"I'm not moving unless Jean-Pierre comes with us," she said. Peter promptly sat down as well; Nathan could feel him slip away under his fingers. Looking somewhat confused, Hiro followed suit.
"Don't worry," Niki said to the boy from Haiti, who hadn't uttered a single word so far, sitting down herself, "you're coming with us."
"Oh, is he?" Nathan asked acidly. He was probably imagining things, but Claire grew heavier in his arms, as if she wanted to sit down as well.
"Sure," Niki said with a grin. "You can't drag us to the bus by force, especially not with a baby to carry, no way you're leaving your kid brother behind, and you need me for the baby because you still suck at this stuff. This is the safest civil rights protest ever."
"This is not about civil rights," Nathan said, disgusted with her, because she at least was old enough to have something of a clue, then gave up reasoning with the unreasonable and addressed Jean-Pierre directly.
"We're not the safest company," he said in French, as Nathan wanted to be sure the boy understood him. His mother's insistence on him taking not just Latin and Spanish but also French classes came in useful at the oddest moments. At the time, Nathan had assumed she was simply being prejudiced because her maternal grandfather had come from Corsica. "And we'll run out of money soon."
"I am used to travelling in danger," Jean-Pierre replied, with a strong accent, but in English.
"He's from Haiti, Nathan," Peter said from the ground in a tone of tried patience, as if pointing out the painfully obvious.
"Don't you ever watch news about black people?" Simone asked disdainfully. "Typical. My father watches the reports about Haiti all the time."
"And I do not need money," Jean-Pierre continued, and something in Nathan went instantly alert. Maybe it was inbred cynicism, maybe it was even racism, for all he knew, but a refugee from Haiti who was not in need of financial support was either Baby Doc Duvalier, or another war criminal, or, if a genuine refugee, was someone who already had found a good and safe source of income. But no refugee who was lucky enough to find a job and security would make trips on a Greyhound bus and just happened to come across their group.
Peter would probably say Nathan was paranoid. But it wasn't paranoia if they were really after you.
Nathan's father hated The Godfather, declaring it to be responsible for every prejudice against Italian-Americans, and wouldn't allow it to be watched in his house. As a consequence, it had the lure of the forbidden, and moreover, every third guy in high school, at college or in the Navy thought it was funny and original to quote it to Nathan. So he was more than familiar with the saying "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer". If this Jean-Pierre was a plant, it would be better to keep an eye on him, all the time, than to turn their backs for him to stab them. What's more, it would mean Nathan knew who was the enemy ahead of time, whereas the next pursuer might surprise him.
If, on the other hand, Jean-Pierre really was a harmless guy from Haiti who just wanted some company for the road, well. Taking him as far as Maine wouldn't hurt.
That, and Niki unfortunately happened to be right with her assessment. Though there was no way Nathan was going to admit that.
"Then I'm sorry for making such a fuss," Nathan said in his best soothing-the-waves manner. "Really. You can come with us."
"That's great ��" " Peter started, and got up again, but Nathan deliberately cut him off. Ignoring his brother, he continued to talk to the Haitian. "In fact, I want you to sit next to me. Please. Maybe that'll convince the others that I mean it."
Niki mimicked a throwing-up motion, then she grinned again and tried to high-five Simone, whose response to the gesture was the same look of utter disdain she had given Nathan earlier. With a shrug, Niki got up, and so did everyone else, grabbing what passed for their luggage as they made their way to the bus to Bangor. Peter looked dejected as Nathan continued to ignore him when Peter volunteered to take Claire, giving the child to Simone as a peace offering instead. Maybe still being pissed off at Peter when it was really the entire situation that threatened to overwhelm him was childish and immature of Nathan, but the alternative was giving in to that compelling, perverse impulse to just leave everything behind and fly away, and then he might have to accept that he hadn't hallucinated. Besides, it would mean leaving the others to this Jean-Pierre of unknown loyalties and whatever else would happen on the road. So staying pissed-off at Peter it was.
Once everyone had sat down inside the bus, Nathan got rid of his coat. He longed for a shower or a bath, but had to settle for rolling up his sleeves and using the little sanitary tissues they had bought at Woolworth's. His hair, short cut not withstanding, felt as if it had given in to sweat and humidity and started to curl as it did in the days before the Navy. Niki, who was sitting behind him with Simone, watched him with an odd expression. He was expecting another sarcastic comment about his personal hygiene, but instead she said thoughtfully, as the bus started to drive:
"You know, that being a jerk and a stick-in-the-mud thing kinda works for you."
If she had been a girl he met in a bar, or indeed in most other circumstances, he'd have interpreted the remark as a kind of come-on and had a smooth and witty repartee at hand. But the occasional aesthetic appreciation aside, he never forgot her age, and saw her as a part of the group that didn't exist, that rag tag band he somehow ended up being in charge of or being bossed around by, not as a woman. That was what he told himself. So he just muttered wearily: "If you say so."
"Like it would have hurt you to say you think I'm hot as well," Niki said, highly irritated, slumping back on her seat and crossing her arms.
"Are you flirting with him?" Simone asked. "That's disgusting. I thought you said he must have been a boy slut to get lots of illegimate children."
"You have more children?" Jean-Pierre asked, showing the first sign that Nathan had seen of an interest in the conversation. He would have shot down the talk about his personal life at this point, in a mixture of exhaustion, embarrassment and lingering anger, but something nagged at him, and after a few moments, he realized what it was.
"No," he said, and then switched again to French. "And I have not told you that this child is mine."
"Your brother did," Jean-Pierre said, unperturbed, but this time in French as well. He turned and looked at the two seats behind Niki, Claire and Simone, which were occupied by Hiro and Peter. "He is very concerned for you. Maybe this is why he is not looking well?"
As parries went, that one had been downright elegant, Nathan was forced to admit. At least the first part. The attempt at distraction at the end was a bit clumsy. He wasn't going to fall for that and look at Peter as well. A moment later, he heard Simone exclaim:
"He's right. Peter, are you okay?"
Peter muttered that he was, and Nathan involuntarily relaxed a bit. Not that he had been particularly tense. This was just Peter being Peter. Maybe he should stop with the cold shoulder treatment, though. They had all had yet another long day, and most of the things that went wrong in it really weren't Peter's fault. Except nearly getting himself shot by Simone. Yes, that had worked out, but it so easily could have gone wrong, and then Peter would have been dead or crippled. That was the kind of thing that Nathan should have been able to protect Peter from, as was befriending far too stoic strangers from Haiti with unknown intentions, because clearly Peter couldn't look after himself, and why should he? He was twelve.
"Peter?" Hiro's voice asked in alarm. "Peter? " Then he went into Star Wars quotes again. "That is no moon. I have a bad feeling about this."
Nathan was out of his seat in a heartbeat.
As it turned out, Peter was in the process of passing out two rows behind, and would have fallen from his seat to the bus floor if Hiro hadn't held on to his arm. It never occurred to Nathan that Peter was faking it as revenge; Nathan knew his brother. Projecting a cloud of unhappiness, sure, having a fit of temper the next time Nathan did talk to him, those would have been deliberate reactions, but not this. Peter's skin was clammy and paler than usual, and his wide, dark eyes stared sightlessly into Nathan's.
"….too much buzzing in my head," he whispered before shutting down entirely. By now, some of the other passengers were giving them curious looks, but nobody made any effort to help them as Nathan tried to revive Peter. Only when Niki and Jean-Pierre stood up and started join Nathan did the bus driver use his microphone to say: "Back into the seats, you lot."
"You need to take my brother to the next hospital," Nathan said, his own voice sounding alien in his ears. "You need to take him there now."
He put Peter's head into Niki's lap and made his way to the bus driver at the front of the coach.
"Look," the man said, "if the kid is ill, you really shouldn't have booked an interstate trip. I'll let you out at the next stop, but… what's this?"
It was Nathan's entire supply of cash, the money he had gotten from various ATMs in New York when they first started to go on the run.
"Now," Nathan said.
"His father will sue Greyhound so badly if you don't drive to the nearest hospital," Simone said unexpectedly. "His father is a lawyer."
Either the money or the threat worked. Some of the other passengers protested while others agreed the boy obviously needed medical attention, but the bus headed to the next hospital. Since they'd started in a small town somewhere in New York state, this meant another ten minutes, during which Peter didn't regain consciousness. Nathan tried every first aid method he remembered, in vain.
"That wasn't all your money, was it?" Niki said to him in a low voice. "When my sister… when something happened and she needed a doctor really badly, they didn't help us for ages, because we didn't have money."
"I'm a millionaire," Nathan replied automatically, though he didn't really register what she said. Then he did, and he let out a short, barking laugh. "I'm the son of a millionaire."
"You're going to call them," Niki stated. It wasn't a question, but Nathan nodded anyway, and kept trying to revive Peter.
"If you call your parents," Jean-Pierre said in French, "they will never let you go again. And you will lose your daughter forever."
Nathan had no room for either surprise or satisfaction that he had been right. He just looked up at the Haitian and said: "I don't care if they sent you or whether Charles Deveaux did, or any of the others. If you have a way of contacting them right now, do so. I'm not leaving my brother stranded in some waiting room."
"I am not a magician, Nathan Petrelli," Jean-Pierre replied with dignity. "I have to use the phone like everyone else."
Simone, who was still holding Claire and was sitting on the edge of her seat so she could see what was happening with Peter, let out a small wordless noise. Then she said, starting in clumsy, first-year French but switching to English mid-sentence:
"Did my dad send you?"
Jean-Pierre sighed. "No," he said.
"I thought that maybe…" Simone started, and then her voice trailed off, sounding very lost.
"Fathers suck," Niki commented. "Haven't seen mine for ages. He didn't even show up when I got put into juvenile detention. When someone bailed me out, I thought it was him, but no, it was that Linderman guy. So I figured he was either into jailbait or maybe I'm really his secret love child and that's why my dad has always been such a jerk to me and ��" anyway. Fathers suck. Also, could we stick with English? I don't speak foreign."
Because it was better than counting the seconds, Nathan tried to pay some attention to the conversation.
"Your ticket is still paid to Bangor," he said to Niki. "All of yours are."
"If that's your way of saying we can keep running, you won't sell the rest of us out for your kid brother once your super evil parents arrive, don't bother," Niki said. "I mean, sure, I could. And you bet I'd be better looking after Simone and Hiro, 'cause I'm not a patronizing tightass. But you guys ��" " she waved her hand to indicate Nathan, Peter and Claire ��" "no way you don't need someone with some sense around, too. And in case I haven't mentioned it, you suck at being a parent. But you should explain to Hiro what's up, because I'm not into movie tunes, and I never saw Star Wars, either."
Hiro had been alternating between worriedly watching Nathan's efforts with Peter and going through the comics version of the Rosetta Stone for useful phrases to say. At the mention of his name, he looked at Nathan and pointed to Peter.
"Luke on Hoth?" he asked, voice timid.
Because the mind was good at producing useless memories, Nathan did recall that Luke Skywalker had nearly been frozen to death on the ice planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, and had needed first rescuing by Han Solo and then some kind of futuristic medical treatment that seemed to work via gigantic tubes, or something like that. He also remembered other details of the plot, and decided to cut to the chase.
"Lando Calrissian on Bespin," Nathan replied, pointing at himself. Hiro's eyes behind the glasses grew wide, and the look on his face was pure hurt disbelief.
"No, I am Lando," Jean-Pierre said unexpectedly.
"Who the hell is Lando?" Niki asked, but the bus had finally made it to the hospital, and so nobody gave her an explanation about Lando Calrissian and his decision to make a deal with the Empire to save his city by handing everyone over to Vader. Nathan carried Peter into the emergency room and rattled off social security numbers and addresses, trying his best not to shout. Jean-Pierre had disappeared as soon as the bus door had opened, which presumably meant he was on the phone somewhere, but just in case, Nathan asked the nurse who was busy noting down his data where the nearest phone was. Once they were done and Peter had been whisked out of his sight, he headed in that direction and was intercepted by Hiro. Hiro looked determined, and Nathan braced himself for another argument, but all Hiro said was:
"ET phone home?"
Hiro Nakamura, it seemed, was determined to see the best in people to a degree that made presidential spin-doctors look like amateurs. Being cast as a benevolent alien instead of a pragmatic sell-out was probably meant as a comfort. But all Nathan could think of was that if he had only behaved rationally from the moment he saw that security feed of Charles Deveaux' rooftop, if he hadn't continued with this insanity despite knowing how hopeless it was, then Peter wouldn't be stuck in the emergency room of some provincial hospital.
"No," he said tersely.
"Lando Return of the Jedi," Hiro said, unperturbed, which was when Nathan remembered that Lando Calrissian had redeemed himself.
"Look," he said, "Hiro…"
He blinked, and Hiro wasn't standing in front of him anymore. Instead, Nathan held a note in his hand, which in painstakingly written Latin letters copied from the Star Wars trade volumes said: "This boy is our last hope. No, there is another. I wanted to save you. You already have."
It wasn't the moment for it, anything but the moment, but something in Nathan clicked, and the puzzle he had been refusing to look at came together at last. Hiro and his ability. That brief experience of not being bound to the ground anymore. Niki and the way she had punched out a security guard older, heavier and far better muscled and trained. Perhaps even what had caused Peter to collapse like that.
His parents, their friends, and all the talk about "one of us", and changing the world.
"I called your mother," Jean-Pierre said in French, coming from the other side of the hall, and regarded him thoughtfully. "You could still get away," he continued. "But not if you wait here till she arrives. Why don't you go?" he ended with genuine curiosity.
"No," Nathan said. "No, I couldn't. None of us can, can we? Not that it matters. I'm not leaving Peter."
"But your daughter," the boy said, sounding far too old for his years again, and Nathan didn't reply. He thought about asking Niki to leave with Claire, again. He'd lose her either way, but at least that way she would remain free.
Then he considered the chances Niki had of remaining free without money, thought about how easily first Thompson and then Jean-Pierre had found them, and knew he was just fooling himself.
"I still have family on Haiti," Jean-Pierre said, "though my parents are dead. I left the others. I had to. They do not remember me, those who survived the soldiers. They do not remember my parents, or seeing most of our village butchered. You will not remember me, either, Nathan Petrelli. But as long as you do, I want you to know something. Your mother, she gave me a chance. To work for something greater. What we can do has to be used for good, or we spit in the face of God."
"God has nothing to do with it," Nathan said wearily. He looked at Hiro's note, those tidbits of cheesy dialogue from a couple of movies he had not seen since he was a child, and wondered why he held on to it like it was a lifeline. Folding it systematically, he put it in the pocket of his jeans. "Where are the others?"
"In the waiting room," Jean-Pierre said. "Sleeping. Do not wake them up. They will not remember you anymore when you do, and I will have to do it again if you explain anything to them. I am sorry. I like them. I did not think that I would, when your mother sent me. I thought you were just a group of ungrateful rich, spoiled children who lived all their lives in safety and wealth and did not know how lucky they were."
"Whereas we're really a bunch of spoiled brats who are brimming over with depth and likeability, I guess," Nathan said and headed to the waiting room.
"Well, not you," Jean-Pierre replied. Either he had a dead pan sense of humour, or the literal stoic thing came in really handy. Somewhat belatedly, the full implication of what the boy had said registered.
"You've taken away their memories? That's your…"
He stopped, not knowing how to call it, not sure he wanted to verbally acknowledge it existed, in him as well as the others. Talent? Curse?
"My gift, yes," Jean-Pierre said. "That is why your mother sent me. Also, your own gifts are useless against me."
Thanks, Ma , Nathan thought. The idea of that kind of violation, something taking away something as personal and precious as memories, repelled him, but at the same time, he couldn't help but see the potential usefulness, too. Glancing at Jean-Pierre, he wondered whether he should repeat what he had tried with Aaron only this morning. What would it take to make Jean-Pierre use this "gift" against Angela Petrelli instead of her sons and their… friends? Against Charles Deveaux? Against all of them?
Not money; Jean-Pierre was clear on how much Nathan did and didn't have. Something greater, the boy had said, but Nathan was fresh out of causes. That kind of thing was Peter's…
"Is that why Peter collapsed?" Nathan asked, voice very low and devoid of all expression. "Because you did something to his mind?"
"No," Jean-Pierre said quietly. "I have not done so yet; it will happen once your mother arrives. Some of us… they find it difficult to be together with that many others for too long. I know how this feels. All of you make my head buzz, too. I think this is what happened to your brother."
Maybe if there had been more of them, Jean-Pierre would not have been able to neutralize all their abilities at the same time. But such tactical deliberations were beside the point now. If there was a chance that Jean-Pierre was right, then Peter shouldn't be anywhere near people with abilities again. Starting with their group.
Nathan was at the point of telling himself to see the positive sides of having to surrender to their parents when he entered the waiting room and saw, as Jean-Pierre had said they would be, Niki, Simone and Hiro sleeping. Claire was sitting in a children's chair the waiting room must have been equipped with, not sleeping, but not crying, either. Her eyes opened wide when he came in.
Suddenly the last few days with these people, all of them, not only his daughter, for all their nerve-wracking insanity appeared to him as something precious, something he wanted to keep.
Nathan swallowed. "Will you take my memories, too?"
"There is no choice," Jean-Pierre replied. "That is what I promised. I keep my promises."
Hiro was clutching the three Star Wars trade collections in his arms while he slept. Simone had her head on Niki's shoulder, and on her lap was what had to be the only magazine in the room not devoted to gossip; trust Simone to pick up some high-minded art magazine rather than Vanity Fair. Niki wasn't reading anything; her head, leaning back on the wall, was turned into the direction of the entry, as if she had been waiting for him.
He would probably never see her again. Simone, that was likely, unless Charles Deveaux suddenly broke off all social contact with the Petrellis. Hiro, less likely, given that the Nakamuras lived in Japan, and Mr. Nakamura would think twice before taking his son on a business trip again. Still, it wasn't impossible. But Niki? Mr. Linderman would take her back to Las Vegas, and there she'd be entirely at the mercy of whatever he had planned for her. Her father was a guy who never saw her, according to what she had said, so there wouldn't be even that much help.
Nathan didn't have any cash left, and his credit card was useless right now. After some thought, he pulled out his pen, carefully took her left hand which was hanging down the side of the chair, opened it and as gently as he could, without awakening her, wrote inside: NEVER TRUST LINDERMAN.
She wouldn't remember who could have written it. But she already had a couple of suspicions about Mr. Linderman, and maybe this would be enough to make her run again, hopefully with more success. Challenging, he looked back to Jean-Pierre.
"Do your promises extend to wiping her hands as well as her mind?"
The Haitian shook his head.
Nathan took one of the gossip magazines, tore off a corner of a page, and stopped. For the life of him he couldn't remember any useful quotes from Star Wars for Hiro, not regarding what he wanted to say. Hiro would probably be allowed to keep the comics, but Nathan wouldn't put it past Mr. Nakamura to check them first, so the quote had to be inconspicuous in any case. Then something came to him, but from Star Trek, not Star Wars, from the only one of the Trek movies he had actually watched, a decade ago. Well, it was better than nothing. Nathan wrote: KIRK SPOCK END OF WRATH OF KHAN.
If anyone could see those few words in English and translate them correctly into the last words Spock said to Kirk in that movie, it would be Hiro Nakamura. Of course, chances were he'd simply throw away that bit of paper Nathan slipped into Return of the Jedi, figuring he must have used it as a reading mark, and it was that possibility as well as the hope for the opposite which allowed Nathan to go for a quote that was more emotional than anything he would have said otherwise.
I am, Spock had said to Kirk, in the sole scene Nathan still remembered all those years later, and always shall be your friend.
He hadn't explicitly thanked Simone for taking out Thompson this morning; he had just bought breakfast and as much toothpaste she wanted and let her have the choice of lunch, hoping that would do the trick, and now he felt as cheap as Niki had always accused him of being. Next time they saw each other, he wouldn't even remember there was a debt of gratitude, and would probably avoid her. He had never cared for the children of his parents' friends before, after all. So he pulled out the sketch Isaac Something-or-other had made of him earlier and wrote "you're my hero" on the backside, then put it inside the pocket of the jacket she was wearing. Simone and her father would probably assume the message was from Isaac, who had signed the sketch with his name, and so it wouldn't get censored. But someone should say it to her, Nathan thought, recalling that Charles Deveaux hadn't even asked how his daughter was doing during their telephone conversation, either far too confident she was well or not caring at all that she might get injured in whatever little test scenario he had in mind.
Claire was last, because Nathan couldn't think of anything to say, even knowing she couldn't yet understand him, that wasn't an insulting hypocrisy disguising the fact he was giving her up, yet again. To some stranger who worked for Dan Linderman.
"About Claire," Nathan said abruptly. Jean-Pierre just looked at him. "Since you're working for my mother, you'll probably know whom she's given to. I want you to promise me something."
"I am not working for you," Jean-Pierre pointed out. "And you do not serve any cause but your own, I think. You can care for a few people, but not many. Your mother, she might not be a loving woman, but she cares for the world. Why should I promise you anything?"
"Because," Nathan said, and this time, he didn't have to fake the passionate conviction he had reached for in vain earlier today on at least two occasions, "it isn't for me. It's for Claire. You're helping to decide her life by doing what you do to us, and so you owe her at least this. Promise me that you will keep an eye on her, that you'll find out whether the people she's given to are good people. If they're not, then try to make them that way, I don't care how. And promise me you'll never, ever take her memories. No matter what happens."
Jean-Pierre was silent for at least a minute. Then he said: "You ask a lot, Nathan Petrelli."
"Yes," Nathan said, nothing more than that. They looked at each other. Then the Haitian boy, who had made a vow never to tell his name to anyone who would keep remembering it, because he never wanted to be that close to another person again, stepped closer and stretched out his hand.
"You have my promise," he said, and Nathan took his hand to shake it.
"It's a pity you won't remember," Jean-Pierre said sadly as they touched, and darkness took Nathan's mind.
"Well," Kaito Nakamura said, "one thing is certain. This was the last favour I am going to do for you." He had just come from handing over Claire to Noah Bennet, and had kept his recovered son with him all the time. The boy had been busy with his video game non-stop though. The Haitian, thought Angela, really did excellent work. "From now on, our ways shall be separate," Kaito continued.
If Kaito didn't try to pose as something out of a Kurosawa movie all the time, he would be much easier to put up with, Angela concluded with a noticeable lack of charity. But really, it had been her son who had ended up in the hospital, not his, and she had been the one who had to cajole Dan into some of the instant healing he tried not to do anymore because she didn't want their social circle and Peter's teachers to ask more questions than they already did. Given all that, she couldn't understand why Kaito felt entitled to make such a fuss.
"That is of course your decision," she said sweetly, and looked down at Hiro, who was putting his video game into the rucksack he was carrying.
"Did you enjoy your time in America, Hiro?"
The boy looked at her uncomprehendingly.
"He doesn't speak English," Kaito said, glowering at her. Angela could have pointed out that this made the three comic trade volumes, all with English titles, that she could spot in the rucksack something of a strange choice of reading, but she didn't feel like doing Kaito any favours anymore, either.
"Of course," she said. "Of course."
All things considered, her damage control had worked supremely well. Admittedly, Dan didn't think so; he wasn't getting any younger, and healing Peter had made him fall asleep on the flight back to Las Vegas. When he had woken up, his less than grateful protegé, Niki Sanders, had vanished into thin air. Well, he would eventually find her again. And if not, well, it wasn't as though young Niki's talent had been that unusual and worth keeping. Besides, Angela made it a policy never to like trashy blondes.
Charles, too, was in less than high spirits these days. For one thing, Dan wasn't talking to him anymore. The circumstances were somewhat nebulous; neither man would elaborate when questioned. For another, whatever the purpose of his recent behaviour might have been, it didn't look like it had gotten him the definite results he had hoped for. He was carrying himself without that ever present sense of equanimity laced with smugness, which was otherwise so characteristic of him. And then his daughter, previously so obedient girl - except for her thankfully forgotten shooting talents - , had taken it into her head to look for a Hispanic artist living on the streets. Yes, dear Charles was quite the busy man these days. Fond as she was of him, Angela couldn't say she was sorry.
Maybe it had been time for their group to dissolve. Still, it shouldn't have happened in quite that way, and it was all due to the children, which meant, of course, that it was Kaito's fault. He had started everything by insisting on bringing his son along.
As her limousine stopped in front of the Gramercy house and the chauffeur opened the door for her, Angela stepped out and observed her older son in the process of saying goodbye to his brother. Nathan hadn't asked either her or his father anything about Claire; the Haitian had removed all relevant memories, just as requested. He was on his way to the airport now, leaving for Bosnia, and she smiled and opened her arms to bid him farewell. But Nathan, who had hugged Peter tightly only a second ago, just looked at her and in a very serious voice said: "Goodbye, Ma." Quickly, he got into the limousine she had just vacated without having touched her once.
"Nathan's just worried about Bosnia, Mom," Peter said to her comfortingly as the car left. "That's why he didn't hug you. Of course he'd never admit it. He won't be in real danger there, will he?" he finished, sounding very worried now himself.
"Of course not, darling," Angela said absently, thinking: He can't know. He can't remember anything.
- The End -