He tossed his keys and subway pass into the bowl by the door reserved for anything he needed to take with him when he left or brought home from being out. He'd love to just crawl into bed and sleep for days. That wasn't an option. Not until he figured out how to stop himself from exploding.
He'd needed a night off, though. Claude had seemed to understand. He was looking forward to a night in, watching the Knicks or maybe the Yankees. He'd order a pizza, have a beer or two, and kick back, relax, forget for a few hours that he was, literally, a ticking time bomb. Was each beat of his heart bringing him closer to his fate? He wasn't sure how it worked.
It was said so softly he thought for sure he was hallucinating. That he'd left the TV or radio on, or that someone was leaving a message for him on his answering machine. There was a hint of a southern accent, but nothing overpowering. That was odd. He scratched his ear as he made his way toward his room, wanting to change. He knew just what he was going to wear, too. His sweats and his battered Knicks shirt that should probably be in the rag bin by now. He couldn't bear to do that to the shirt, though. He'd had it for years.
There it was again. Only louder, and there was a question behind it this time. He walked to the living room instead of his bedroom and there she was, sitting on his couch. He closed his eyes, opening them again to be sure she was there.
"Claire. How?" He frowned, tilting his head slightly as he regarded her. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you."
"How did you find me?"
"It wasn't that hard."
"Wow, I'm flattered. I mean, I haven't been able to."
Something about the look she gave him made him stop talking. She flicked her gaze around him, but avoided looking directly at him. She seemed relieved he'd stopped talking.
"There's something you should know. When I got here, your mother was here."
"So that's how you got in."
"Okay. Well, I'm glad. This is New York, it's not Odessa. It's not safe for a girl to be randomly walking around."
"Yes, because I might get killed?"
"Okay, I guess that was overprotective of me. Sorry. I just don't want to see you get hurt. What kind of hero would I be then?"
She smiled at that, but she looked a little sad. "How do I tell him his brother's my dad?"
"My brother's your dad?"
"How did you know? How did you?" She frowned. "I didn't say it out loud."
"I heard it. Sorry, I didn't do it intentionally, you must have been projecting it pretty loudly, though, because it came through loud and clear."
"Okay, well, that saves me the trouble I guess. I just needed to get it out in the open. I felt something in Odessa."
"I felt it, too."
"It must have been blood recognizing blood."
"I don't understand. Nathan doesn't have a daughter."
She shrugged her shoulders, holding her hands up. "Surprise?"
"I would have known!"
"Evidently not. Your mother strikes me as being a very capable woman. And if she wanted something like an unplanned, unwed pregnancy hidden she could do it."
"You're right." She had his mother down to a T. "So, you're my niece then?"
"I have a niece!" He rubbed his chin, regarding her in a different light and smiled then. "How cool is that?"
"You think it's cool?"
"Well, sure. I mean. Nathan's boys are cool and all, but they're still kids. You're like an adult."
"Well, we can do fun things together."
It didn't sound like she believed him. He wasn't sure he believed it either truthfully. He'd thought of her a lot since Texas. He knew she'd been young, too young, jail bait young. So, he hadn't let his thoughts stray beyond concern, but there was no denying she was pretty. And there had been some sort of connection between them. Maybe she was right.
"Blood recognizing blood."
"Maybe whatever makes us special, you know." She shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just a cheerleader. I came here to find you and I find my grandmother instead. And find out that my father is a politician and that I have to stay pretty much hidden from view until after the election."
"She told you that?"
"Not in so many words, but yes."
"Well, I'm not Nathan. You won't ruin my career."
"So, you can hang here. And we can forget the uncle/niece angle. Just be my friend."
"Are you sure?"
"I think your mother was planning on coming back to get me and take me home with her."
"If that's what you want to do."
"Your apartment is small."
"I'll take the couch."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. Between my mother and me, I'm the easier of the two I think. I wouldn't want to stay in her house after just meeting her."
She laughed. "Yeah, I felt a little strange about it. But, I'm glad I saw her before I saw you."
Their eyes met, recognition and understanding was in hers. He was pretty sure both emotions were reflected back to her in his.
"I'm going to change. This is your lucky night. I'm off. I was going to order pizza and watch a game. We can watch a movie instead."
"No, a game would be fine."
"Positive. As long it's not golf."
He chuckled. "No, no golf. All right. Phone's over there, the number for the nearest delivery place is on the fridge. Order whatever you want. You haven't had pizza until you've had New York pizza."
He walked to his room, feeling as if he was in a daze. He still couldn't believe she was here. In his apartment. She was prettier than he remembered. Not being covered in blood probably helped. He smiled at the memory of her. It was a good thing he hadn't invested more thought into her. A niece. Nathan had a daughter. Did he know she was here? And just what was their mother up to?
They passed the night rather comfortably, considering they were virtual strangers. Having shared a near death experience gave them a connection others might not understand. He'd been her hero. He'd never forget the way she'd looked at him that night.
She told him her story, how she'd arrived in New York and why she'd had to leave Texas. He'd been sympathetic, but to have a father give up his memory for her. Wow. That was powerful stuff. A true bond. He'd hated thinking it, but he doubted Nathan would have done it.
His couch wasn't too comfortable, but he was true to his word. His mother had not been at all pleased with the change in plan. Neither had the man with her. Peter recognized him vaguely, but he wasn't sure where from. His mother had so many people in various circles he couldn't keep track of them all.
He woke the next morning to the smell of bacon, eggs, and coffee. It smelled delicious and his stomach obviously agreed the way it was growling. It beckoned him.
"Wow. I didn't know all of this stuff was in my kitchen."
"It wasn't. I went shopping."
"Your mother gave me some money. Getting around money she called it."
"Ah, yes, that would be Mother."
"I noticed a store on the corner."
"It's not even nine in the morning." He hadn't slept this late in a long time. They'd been up late talking, ending up watching one of the late night talk shows and then a bad movie on one of the premium channels.
"I woke up, I couldn't sleep, I was hungry, you had nothing for breakfast."
"I'm impressed. It smells delicious." He poured himself a cup of coffee and leaned against the counter. "How did you sleep?"
"All right. A new bed, a different place, sleeping in a virtual stranger's apartment."
"You can trust me, Claire."
"No, that's not it." She shrugged and went back to stirring the scrambled eggs she was making with the spatula. "I just want my bed and I know I'll never have that again."
"I know, thanks. It's all so complicated. And then to come here, looking for you. I never thought. I never dreamed. I saw him once. He visited my real mother. She's a liar!" He watched her straighten her back and realized she was just now coming around to that bit of truth. It was tempting to invade her thoughts, find out what she was thinking but he stopped himself. It wasn't his place. His right to do that. "She told me he wouldn't want to see me, but he asked for me."
"Why didn't you say something?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I just, I was eavesdropping. I guess I was hoping for something. I wanted him to take me with him. I was so mad at my dad at the time."
Peter placed a hand on her shoulder. "It's all right, Claire. My brother isn't going to bite you."
"I know. I just don't want him to think I came here to get something from him. He gave my real mother money. I don't want his money. That's not why I was coming here."
"He won't think that. How could he? He'll take one look at you and know you're sincere."
"I hope so." He let go of her shoulder and proceeded to get plates and stuff for breakfast. He put bread in the toaster, amazed that she'd even thought to buy bread! He couldn't remember the last time he'd actually sat at the small table in his kitchen to eat. He knew for a fact it had never been set like it was now. A table for two. It was kind of nice.
"How old are you?"
"And you can cook breakfast? Grocery shop?"
"Sure. Didn't you?"
"Not really. We had people to do that for us."
"Oh." Her eyes widened, and he realized she didn't know who or what the Petrelli's were. She hadn't come to New York hoping for anything from him. That made him breathe easier.
"So, I was thinking," he said, buttering the toast once it popped up while she scooped the eggs onto each plate.
"It's not every day my niece comes into town."
"Especially since you didn't know you had a niece until yesterday."
"And you've never been to New York, right?"
"Nope, just on TV and movies."
"Well, a trip to New York wouldn't be complete without a visit to Coney Island."
"Really?" She looked her age in that moment. It was easy to forget talking to her about what she'd been going through that she was still just a girl.
"Really. I haven't had a Coney Island hot dog in years, it'd be kind of fun."
"You're just trying to keep me busy so I won't think about the fact your brother hasn't come to see me."
"Well, that, too," he said.
"Do you think he will?"
"After the election. I won't let him be a jerk about it. I mean, I'm not a politician and I've kind of removed myself from my family in a lot of ways. But I can understand why he wouldn't want this to throw a monkey into things at the last minute. He's run a good campaign and worked hard for this. From what you said, he thought you were dead."
"I know. It's just. I have nobody. I was kind of hoping."
"You have me. Maybe that's all you'll have for a while, but they'll come around. And, hey, stick with me and you get to ride the subway!"
She laughed at that. "My dreams come true."
"I figured as much. What girl doesn't dream of being whisked away by her knight in shining armor on a subway car?"
"Exactly! Who needs horses?"
"I knew you'd agree with me."
They laughed and grew quiet, neither seemed to know what else to say. They knew one another, had things in common - a lot more things than he'd realized until yesterday - but they were still virtually strangers.
The phone rang, breaking the silence and Peter got up to answer it.
"It's my mom," he said, glancing at the caller-ID before picking up the phone. "Hi Mom."
"Good morning, Peter. I called to see if Claire has changed her mind about her sleeping arrangements."
"I don't know. I'll ask her." He covered the mouthpiece with his hand. "My mother wants to know if you've changed your mind about sleeping arrangements."
"No," she said simply, clearing their plates to the sink.
"No," he reiterated into the phone.
"I don't know why she'd want to stay there. My house is perfectly good enough and certainly more spacious."
"Maybe she doesn't want space right now, Ma." He used the name he knew would drive her craziest.
"I can't imagine anyone being comfortable in thatů"
"Listen, Ma, we're about to go to Coney Island. Claire just got done cooking breakfast so we have to get ready."
"She made you breakfast?"
"You never have food in your apartment."
"She went to the store. You gave her money she said."
"Not to spend on you!"
"Well, she had to eat, too, right?"
"I guess. What are you taking her to Coney Island for?"
"Because I thought it would be fun?"
"Be careful, Peter. A week, that's all we have left."
"I know, Ma, I'm not going to paint a bull's eye on her shirt with the words 'I'm Nathan Petrelli's illegitimate daughter. Please be sure to vote for him'."
"That's not funny. Your brother has worked very hard."
"I know that. I'm not saying he hasn't." He could picture her. She was frustrated. She'd be sitting there, tense. No one contradicted his mother, certainly not a sixteen-year-old girl who had the potential to tip the apple cart that was the Petrelli's neat lives.
"Well, I suppose I have to trust you. Bring her by here when you're done."
"You want me to bring her there?"
"Yes, Nathan needs to meet her."
"But the election."
"He can meet her before the election. She just can't be seen before the election."
"All right. I'll talk to her about it."
"She's a child, Peter. Don't talk to her about it, that'd be giving her a choice. Just bring her here when you're done with your field trip."
He rolled his eyes, Claire was watching him now and laughed.
"All right, Ma. I'll see what I can do."
He heard her heavy sigh and had to stifle a laugh. "Good bye, Peter."
"Bye," he said, disconnecting. "I'll be ready in about ten minutes then we can get out of here before she calls back or brings the car around for us."
"She wants you to bring me there?"
"Yeah, she wants you to meet Nathan. Are you okay with that?"
"Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I should meet him. And, he may not want me around after next week. I'd rather find that out now then wait a week."
"I won't kick you out, Claire, neither would our mother."
"I believe that about you, not so much about her. Go, shower, I'll do the dishes."
"You don't have to do that."
"I'm already dressed, so I may as well."
He leaned toward her, their eyes met. Hers widened briefly, as if she was the one with the ability to read minds. He placed a chaste kiss against her cheek.
"You're a doll. Nathan doesn't know what he's missed."
"Thanks," she said.
He drew away. "All right, Coney Island, here we come!"
"I can't wait!"
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com