Maybe Peter hadn't dreamed of flying; maybe his dreams were of falling. That's what Claire's power meant to him: constant freefall. He watched as she set off at a run, across the dry, gray earth. He reached out for her, his hand catching her elbow. She shrugged herself free and carried on running. Slow down, you'll hurt yourself. The words stuck in his throat. She was a tumbling mess of limbs; graceless and care-free as she powered on. Bare feet. Hair gone wild. Seventeen and invincible.
He heard a snatch of her laughter and he started to run, too.
New York City after the explosion was beautiful—perversely so. It was a ragged landscape; an abstract rendering of what had been there before. Light pollution banished, the night sky hung above them, black and heavy. There were whispers of smoke tendrils where the fires still burned at the edge of the city. This new, destroyed city was beautiful in the same way that Claire was beautiful. A city in ruins; a cheerleader gone feral.
Claire did not hesitate at the edge of the crater. She careened past the brink fearlessly, taking the hundred-foot drop like a crazed diver from the high board. Peter, on the other hand, teetered at the edge of the cliff—at the edge of this mountain of rubble and man-made desolation. He spread his arms wide, as if poised to soar, and allowed himself to fall.
They lay sprawled together on the ground, spent limbs twisted. Claire grinned and cracked her neck. There was a smudge of dirt beneath her eye; streaks of blood shone bright against her throat.
"Stop playing footsie with me," she murmured.
He looked down. His leg was bent forward at the knee, almost a ninety-degree angle. His toes brushed against her thigh—he wiggled them and she giggled.
They were doing it again. The jumping thing. It was kind of fucked up.
Zach watched as Claire launched herself over the cliff, followed moments later by Peter. For a split-second, as they disappeared from view, he truly believed they were dead. He scrambled to the cliff's edge, losing his footing briefly in the charred earth. A hole ripped open in his jeans and his knee got banged up where he collided with a rock. He steadied himself and looked over the edge.
Logic was trampled once again: a hundred feet below, Peter reached out a hand to help Claire to her feet.
Yeah, it was definitely fucked up.
Zach slipped and slid precariously down a shallower incline of the cliff. He half-fell onto a ledge, lost his footing again. He finally made it to the bottom safely, but his knee got torn up worse. As he hobbled toward Claire, he watched a gash in her leg heal, sewn up neatly from within. With Big Game Night agility, she bounced over to Zach's side. His own leg stayed busted.
Zach's attention turned to Peter. He watched from a short distance as Peter popped a grotesquely angled forearm back into place. Zach felt like he hated Peter Petrelli. That was unfair, obviously. He was a good guy. The fact that he hadn't done such a great job of saving New York aside, he was a good guy.
But there were still lots of reasons to hate him. For one, there were the stars in Claire's eyes when she looked at him; the ripple of connection between them. Lots of reasons to hate Peter, but none that Zach was particularly eager to admit to himself. There was also the way Peter's eyes would narrow occasionally, pooling with unspeakable words; the lock of hair that was always falling in his face, that irritable tic as his fingers swept it behind his ear. Long fingers, dark eyes.
"Too bad I don't have a superpower," Zach said, thinking out loud, "what would he do with that?" He let out a single, frustrated breath. "On second thought, I'm glad," he mumbled, "I'm glad there's nothing he can take from me."
"Aw, I don't know," Claire said in his ear, "maybe Peter could suck up your bad taste in music and mopey brow-furrow." She scrunched up her face, in approximation of his frown, and then laughed.
One fact about Claire Bennet: she still hadn't gotten nicer. But then, apocalypses tended to make people grouchy. He guessed it was a good thing she also hadn't gotten any meaner. She slipped her hand into his. Her fingers were small and insistent as they linked through his; her palm felt hot and dry. She squeezed his hand tightly—an unspoken sorry. Somewhere the scales balanced. Claire Bennet: still a bitch, but not a bad one.
It was day thirty-five when Claire kissed Peter. (A movie-perfect first kiss, only slightly tainted by the way he pulled away after several delicious seconds and muttered, "shit, sorry"—'cause, ohyeah… jailbait.)
Zach was the one who had started counting the days. "AC," he called it.
("After Christ?" she asked, confused, "…creation, whatever."
"Nahh." He smiled slightly, avoiding her gaze. "After Claire. I count from the day we made the tape. The day you… you know."
"The day I got kinda… Teflon?"
Now she had picked up the habit, too. It didn't seem relevant to talk about Christmas or New Years or the end of the football season anymore. But it was weirdly reassuring to think of each day as a number. It made the air around her feel a little less thin; her life a little more finite.
On day thirty-eight, Zach punched Peter in the face. Then he reached over and, with trembling fingers, stroked the skin as it healed. (The punching was a one-time thing. Zach was upset. New York had just been blown to smithereens, and he was allowed to be upset about it. They all were.)
Day forty-one: "No jails left anymore," she mumbled crazily. Peter's eyes were glassy and uncomprehending, but as she pressed herself close to him, his hands unconsciously came to rest on her hips. Dizzy and barely done sniffling, she tried to kiss him, but caught only part of his jaw with her lips. He tightened his grip on her, but he didn't kiss her back. (It turned out she wasn't done crying after all.)
Day forty-seven: They stopped at a deserted motel that lay just short of the bomb's radius of destruction. All the rooms were decorated in pastel shades. She and Zach shared a room and they ended up huddled together for warmth under a thick inch of blankets. She propositioned him and he said yes. The sex was messy and breathless; unsatisfying, but still comforting. "I won't break," she teased as he made his first, hesitant thrust inside her. He looked at her in dazed confusion and she added, "do it harder." (It was okay. Claire read enough magazines to know that your first time always sucked. It was practically expected.)
Day fifty-four: At their makeshift camp, in what might have once been central park, Claire awoke to a slight hitch in Peter's breathing. It was dawn, but just barely. Zach and Peter were half lost in shadow, but it was clear enough what they were doing. Zach's head dipped low between Peter's legs. Claire watched as Peter's fingers coaxed briefly at the nape of Zach's neck. The sight of Zach, lips moist as he took Peter in his mouth, was explicit and immediate; sensory overload. Claire watched, careful to keep her breathing even and her body still. Zach took Peter deeper down his throat. A slight groan escaped Peter's lips. Claire moved her hand, a shallow, unnoticed twist of her wrist, so that her forefinger pressed between her legs. Through her jeans, it was only an echo of sensation as she rubbed against her clit, but as she watched Peter as he came, it felt like a release for her, too.
It was day fifty-six.
"Slow down," Peter called out.
Zach had increased his pace incrementally as he walked, so that he was striding ahead of Peter now. Claire was still holding his hand, although she was beginning to feel jerked along like a rag doll.
"Don't tell me what to do," Zach muttered.
Zach had become sullen and, for the most part, silent. He had withdrawn further into himself in the weeks since they'd left Odessa. He seemed to carry a laboring, guilty weight on hunched shoulders. It didn't make much sense. Of all of them, he was the innocent; he was the helpless, representative of millions that she and Peter were supposed to save—supposed to have already saved (the current state of New York was a craggy example of how much they hadn't done).
Zach stopped abruptly and turned around, yanking Claire's wrist in the process. "Don't tell me what to do!" he yelled.
A shadow passed across Peter's face—something like hurt; something like contempt. He didn't say anything.
Claire felt paralyzed by Zach's sudden anger. She could only pull her hand away, cradling it to her chest. It was a break, maybe, but probably just a sprain. It healed in the time it took for her to shout out his name—imploringly; uselessly.
Zach wheeled around to face her. "You don't need him, Claire! What does he even do? What does he do except—" Zach broke off. He took a moment to recover himself, gulping back more non-specific guilt. "It was better when it was just the two of us. You know it was."
"He's trying to…" she began. Her voice sounded faint, until she remembered that she was Claire Bennet and even before she was invincible, she was never weak. She spoke up. "He's trying to help. He's trying to save the world." It sounded silly and childish, but it was the truth. She stood her ground.
"Yeah, and he's done such a f-fucking great job so far." Zach spat out the words. The stutter was uncharacteristic; it sounded like a shudder, sneaking out from deep within.
For a moment Claire imagined the three of them viewed from a great height. She imagined the surrounding desolation encroaching on them, poised to swallow them up. She felt tiny, yet conspicuous.
Zach didn't say anything more. When she didn't answer him, he seemed to visibly deflate. Abruptly, he sat down on the ground, clumsily balling himself up, with hunched shoulders and knees drawn up to his chest. He wasn't crying—Claire sensed a feeling in him that was beyond tears.
Claire bent down, rubbing tentatively at Zach's shoulders. Her fingers splayed across the nape of his neck. As she toyed with the ends of his hair, she couldn't help but recall Peter's fingers touching Zach in place of her own.
Peter spoke up. "We'll camp here tonight," he said. "We're all tired and…" Kinda screwed up, Claire supplied silently, but Peter just repeated, "we're just tired."
Peter met her eyes, producing a smile for her. The smile was pure kindness, but it bore traces of the last—she calculated quickly—eighteen days.
Claire yawned, a pantomime that became real. "I could sleep," she said, realizing the truth of it, "I could sleep for a long time."
As they camped out, Claire couldn't help but feel like a girl scout. (She'd lasted three months in the scouts and then she'd quit to spend more time practising for cheerleader tryouts. Go figure.) Zach grudgingly agreed to share an energy bar (blueberry, stale) with her. When she complained that her fingers were all sticky and there were no napkins, he tried to lick her fingers clean. She batted him away with laughter, and he watched with a small smile as she delicately licked her fingers herself.
Claire saw Zach exchange glances with Peter, who laughed, unexpectedly.
"You're the prissiest superhero I ever met, Claire," Zach said. His voice still sounded worn-down and unsteady, but Claire could tell it was Zach's version of fighting talk. "The world is doomed." His eyes flickered briefly in the direction of Peter, before he refocused on her. "Or, you know, it would be—if you didn't have me around."