"It's crunch time, Heidi."
"I know. It's just that you've worked so hard. What more can you do?"
"And I can't stop until the election is over. This is the most crucial time. If I want those undecideds to move to my side I can't slack off or drop off the radar."
He heard her exasperation in the following silence. She didn't realize his mother hadn't given him a choice. She was like that and maybe he was foolish for placating her, but with his dad gone, he saw it as his duty.
"I'll see you when you get home."
"Don't wait up. I have no idea who my mother has lined up for me to schmooze with tonight."
"That would be a lot more effective if I knew you didn't enjoy it so much."
They'd said cordial good byes after that and he'd hung up with a smile. She was right. Not only was he a good schmoozer, he enjoyed it. It was one of the reasons he was a good politician. If there was ever someone born for politics he was. He had a pretty face, a pretty family, and knew pretty words. He tried not to think how ugly he'd look if people found out what he could do. Found out what Peter could do. Found out just how he'd escaped the wreck that had left his wife confined to a wheelchair unscathed.
He rested the side of his head against the window, bringing his cell phone to his mouth. He raised and lowered the antenna with his teeth. What would people think if they discovered he had a daughter? It wasn't an adulterous affair, but the fact he hadn't been married to Meredith. It was enough to ruin a potentially huge political career.
"I was young," he murmured. "I made a mistake." He could spin it to his favor if push came to shove. He could play the uninformed boyfriend who had no idea until Meredith's recent call he'd even fathered a child. Weirder things had happened. Fortunately, he didn't think he had anything to worry about. Meredith wasn't going to do anything. He'd be sure of that. This election was the first of many in Nathan Petrelli's future.
The car pulled up in front of his childhood home. It still seemed odd to come here and not be greeted by his father. Yet another thing he tried not to dwell on. Missing having a patriarch. That title had fallen on his shoulders now. As if he didn't have enough weight on them already.
He handed his coat to the servant that answered the door. Her name was Janet. Or was it Jenna? He couldn't remember, but it was something like that. She was new, someone his mother had hired just recently. He wasn't sure who she'd replaced or why. For all he knew, the last one had stolen something. That would certainly be fitting, given his mother's current penchant for petty shoplifting.
"They're in the parlor, Mr. Petrelli."
"Thank you," he said politely, offering her one of his most charming smiles. She was, after all, a potential voter. "You look nice today. Did you do something different with your hair?"
"Me?" She was clearly not expecting the question. Servants were accustomed to being little more than wall fixtures in homes like the Petrelli's. Not that his mother was rude, but servants were just that. Not friends. He'd befriended the child of a servant a time or two when he was a boy. There were times looking back on it that he thought they were the only true friends he'd had. "No. In fact, I was running short of time and didn't do what I normally do."
"Well, it looks nice, you should run late more often."
She blushed as he'd expected she would. "Thank you, Mr. Petrelli."
"There's no need to thank me for speaking the truth."
"I was just about to tell Mrs. Petrelli that dinner should be ready in a few minutes."
"I'll let her know. Thanks," he said as he walked toward the parlor. As the eldest Petrelli he'd greeted many a guest in this room in his father's place. Both since his death and before that when his father was away on business. The room smelled different now that his father was gone. It smelled feminine for lack of putting a better word on it. His mother entertained in here, he supposed, and the scents of various perfumes, hair sprays, and lotions hung in the air.
"There he is. We thought you were never going to make it."
"I told you I'd come, Mother. I'm nothing if not a man of my word."
"Yes," she said, turning up her head ever so slightly to accept his offered kiss to the cheek. "Get yourself a drink, won't you."
"All right," he said, walking to the wet bar. He made a martini for himself and one for her as well. He knew how she took them. The room was empty at the moment, but he swore Janet-Jenna had said they were in here. They implied more than one. "So, are you going to tell me what this is about, Mother?"
"Can't a mother just want to see her son?"
"You can see me anytime you want to, you know that. You're always welcome at our house. The boys love seeing their grandma."
"Yes, well, sometimes it's nice to see just my son."
"Mm," he said, handing her the drink before sitting on the loveseat opposite her. "Are you feeling nostalgic today?"
"No, I have a bit of an unexpected," he watched as she pursed her lips. She prolonged the suspense by sipping her drink. "You always made a perfect martini."
"I know how you like them, Mother. I watched you make them enough."
"Touché," she quipped, taking a bite of one of the olives.
"Well, I'd say surprise, but it wasn't that surprising to me."
"Okay," he said, wondering why she was being so cryptic.
"I'll be right back," she said, setting her drink on the side table next to her. She didn't even need to look to find the coaster he noticed.
"I need to check on dinner. Jeanette should have come to tell me by now it was ready."
Jeanette! "Oh, I forgot to tell you when I came in, she said dinner would be ready in a few minutes."
"I still need to check. It's an important meal."
"I said just a minute, Nathan. This is still my house, you're still my son."
He rolled his eyes and sat back on the loveseat, contenting himself with his mother revealing the purpose behind this visit in her own time. She always did. He wasn't sure why he thought tonight would be any different. He let his head fall back against the back of the loveseat. No one realized how exhausted he was at the end of a day. He hid it well. He didn't even think Heidi suspected.
The next thing he knew the door opened. He must have dozed off because when he glanced at the clock over ten minutes had passed since his mother had left the room. He stood then, prepared to confront his mother. If nothing else, he wanted whatever her secret was out in the open so he didn't have to endure dinner with the unknown hanging over his head.
It wasn't his mother who was in the doorway. It was a blonde girl. His blonde girl. She was cute, pretty even - Meredith's cell phone hadn't done her justice. She was regarding him with expectation in her big blue eyes. He knew what expectation looked like. He saw it in so many people's eyes, especially now that he was running for Congress. But what could she expect from him? And how had she gotten to his mother's house? His house? How had she found her? He'd paid Meredith more than enough. She wasn't stupid, so he didn't think she was responsible for this unexpected visit.
"Hi," he said, fiddling with the cufflink in his shirtsleeve. Did she know he had seen her picture?
"Hi, I'm sorry. I thought Angela was in here."
She looked nice. His mother had apparently taken her shopping, because he knew none of the money he'd given Meredith would have gone toward the expensive dress his daughter was wearing today. He had no idea who her adoptive parents were or how well they did. So, perhaps it was an unfair assumption that her dress and hair were his mother's doing. It was just a feeling he had. She'd want her granddaughter to present an impeccable picture for her unveiling. Hit Nathan in the gut good and hard when he faced the realization of what he'd missed.
He'd missed so much. He saw that, realized it, now that she was standing here in front of him. In his parents parlor. In the house he'd grown up in. The house she very likely would have grown up in had things turned out differently.
"It wasn't my fault. I went to your funeral," he blurted out. He dropped his head then, looking at his feet. Where was that Nathan Petrelli calm and control when he needed it most?
"I know," she said simply. "I didn't know you'd be here. Really. She didn't tell me."
"It seems we've been conspired against together."
"I think you're right."
She smiled then and it knocked him on his ass. Metaphorically speaking. It took him back seventeen years. It was Meredith's smile. Well, sort of. It was probably a combination of Meredith's and his, but more hers. It reminded him of how attractive she'd been seventeen years ago, which of course had led to Claire's being here. Meredith's smile didn't have the same effect on him, though. Actually, he couldn't recall anyone's smile affecting him this much.
He'd thought he'd gotten over it. He'd pushed his past out of his mind and even when Meredith had called he hadn't thought much about it. Her. She wasn't an it. It had been easy to think of her that way until he'd seen her picture. Hearing she was alive after all these years was surreal. Even when he'd given Meredith the money he hadn't really believed it. He wouldn't put it past her that the picture on the cell phone wasn't even their daughter. Meredith was an opportunist, Nathan knew that. It was one of the reasons he agreed with her assessment that it wouldn't have worked between them.
"I don't know your name."
"Claire. Claire Bennet."
"How did you find my mother?"
There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," Nathan said.
He was glad for the diversion and the opportunity to get some of his control back. It was Jeanette with a cart, much like you'd see from a fine hotel's room service offerings.
"I was told to bring your food in here, Mr. Petrelli. Miss Bennet."
"That will be fine, Jeanette, thank you."
He needed to top off his martini if he was expected to sit and eat alone with the child he'd buried fifteen years ago.
"Would you like something to drink?"
"I don't drink."
"No, I guess you don't. Go ahead and start. I'm sure it's hot, no sense letting it get cold."
She sat on a chair by the table and looked oddly comfortable there. At home. She shouldn't. She had no place in his life. The life he'd struggled so hard to create. The perfect life. Perfect lives did not involve illegitimate daughters that could expose him for the freak of nature he was. He wondered if his sons would inherit it, too. Whatever it was.
He joined her then. The food smelled delicious. Of course, it always did and he was sure his mother had taken great pains in choosing a meal that was conducive to a conversation between a father and daughter who had never met and had sixteen years to catch up on.
"How did you get here? How did you find my mother?"
"Well, I wasn't looking for your mother. I was looking for Peter."
"Peter? Why would you want Peter?" And then it dawned on him. The cell phone picture hadn't been clear enough, and he had been a little shell shocked to find out his dead daughter was alive and well. Now that she was here, though, and she mentioned Peter, he recognized her.
"You're the cheerleader."
"Yes. How did you?"
"I didn't want him to go. I didn't want him to risk his life for you. I did everything I could to stop him."
"Well, it didn't work."
"No, Peter can be resourceful when he wants to be. His girlfriend helped."
"He has a girlfriend?"
"He did. She died."
"Oh," Claire said. She didn't sound like she knew what to say to that anymore than he did. He knew Simone but not well. He hadn't gotten the impression she and Peter were going to get married anytime soon or were even very serious, so he hadn't really bothered.
"So, you came looking for Peter and found my mother? Your grandmother?"
"She doesn't want me to call her that."
He smiled at that. "I'm sure she doesn't."
She laughed. "I get the feeling it makes her feel," she leaned toward him across the table, "old."
"Yes, yes, my mother is conscientious about such things. But I think it's more."
"I know. You're running for Congress. The Petrelli name is untarnished. I would be a blemish."
She quirked her eyebrows at that. Clearly, she didn't believe him.
"All right, perhaps. We just."
"Weren't expecting me. I know, but I didn't have a choice."
She told him her story then. The recent unfolding of events that had led her to Peter's door. He listened attentively, probably more so than he had to anyone ever before. She was so matter of fact about it. Here he was struggling with his power and she seemed to not just accept hers but embrace it. She traveled from one end of the country to the other to find haven with the only person who had unselfishly done something for her. Peter.
For the first time in a very long time, Nathan Petrelli felt incredibly humbled. She was no saint. He knew that. But she was incredibly accepting of all of this and together for her age. For any age. She was brave and wise beyond her years. She seemed to accept what she'd been dealt, even if it meant leaving the only family she'd ever known behind. He noticed she hadn't seemed to consider running off to find Meredith. He took comfort in that, though he probably shouldn't. It would be far less complex if she had chosen Meredith.
He liked Meredith once upon a time, maybe even loved her. She could be conniving, twist things to suit her needs. He hadn't believed she was pregnant at first, thinking it was a ploy to get him to marry her. What a feather in her cap the eldest Petrelli boy would have been. Even then his future was bright. The world was his for the taking. It certainly wasn't unheard of. He didn't see this girl, his daughter - he was still coming to grips with the fact she was really here - sinking to that level, though.
"I'm sorry," he said simply. And he meant it. She seemed to get that, because her eyes got teary then. "I don't even know what to say beyond that. I lost my father, but he's dead. It's different. I know I will never see him again. In your circumstances."
"I can't ever see him again."
"That'd be tough for anyone, let alone."
"Donít say for a girl. I think after everything I've gone through."
"I was going to say for someone your age. You're still young, in high school. That's young to have to deal with loss."
"Well, I don't feel so young anymore."
He took a sip of his martini, regarding her. She seemed collected, calm, confident. He was sure underneath that appearance she was a little scared and probably a lot angry. He would be if it was him. And he was scared, though he'd never admit that to anyone.
"No, I suppose not. So, what is my mother planning on doing with you?"
"Doing with me? You make it sound like I'm the funny uncle with a hunchback no one wants at parties."
"That's not true at all. It's just, this is a bad time."
"I didn't have much of a choice. It's not like I came here looking for you or Angela. I came looking for Peter. I had no idea he was connected to you."
"It would seem we're all connected."
"Yeah, it would seem so. As far as what your mother is going to do with me. I don't know. She took me shopping yesterday. I had my hair done today."
"It looks nice."
"Thanks. For the price she paid it should look more than nice, though."
He chuckled at that. "My mother doesn't do anything halfway."
"Anyway, she plans on saying for the time being that I'm the daughter of a family friend who passed away and who she and your father had agreed to be guardians for."
"Plausible," he said, wrapping his mind around the idea that he might have frequent contact with his daughter. That Heidi would meet her. That she would meet his boys. They had a sister. Wouldn't they love that? "Do you like children?" He asked the question before he could censure his thoughts. She seemed to bring that out in him. This was the first situation he'd been nervous in that he could recall.
She paused, fork in midair, looking at him as if he'd sprouted a second head. "Excuse me?"
"I asked if you like children."
"I," she shrugged, looking puzzled. He supposed it was an odd question, especially since she wasn't privy to his thoughts. "Sure. I have a little brother, Lyle."
"You have two more, Simon and Monty."
"Really?" Her eyes lit up then. That was good, that meant she wasn't upset he'd moved on from Meredith and had a family.
"Will I? I mean."
"I don't know," he said, finishing her thought. "If you're staying here with my mother, it's inevitable you'll meet my wife, Heidi, and my boys."
"Well, if it means anything, I'm used to hiding who I am. I mean, I didn't tell anyone what I could do. You know, the healing thing, for six months. So, I can keep secrets."
"Good," he blotted his mouth with his napkin, observing her. She wasn't refined. No doubt his mother would work with her so that she committed no faux pas. No friend of theirs would have a child without the same high standards as the Petrelli boys. But she wasn't trailer trash either. She knew which fork to use for what and she had put her napkin in her lap before she'd even picked up a piece of silverware.
"I won't stand in the way of your election, Nathan."
"I appreciate that."
"I would still like to see Peter."
"You haven't seen him yet?"
"No! Your mother whisked me away from his apartment and she's kept me busy for the last four days. Shopping, talking. Well, she did the talking, a lot of it I didn't understand. She seemed pleased I was a cheerleader."
He coughed as he took a sip of water. That statement couldn't have surprised Nathan more. "Why is that?"
"She seems to think I'll be able to learn how to dance. It feels all very My Fair Lady like. I take it you're going to have parties and things I'll need to know how to do these things for."
He smiled at that. "Yes. Any friend of my parents would have children trained and taught in all of the finer things."
"I won't embarrass you."
"I have no doubt that's true, Claire. You are, after all, a Petrelli."
She smiled at that with a nod. In fact, if Nathan didn't know better, she seemed happy about it.
"Yeah, yeah, I am, aren't I?"
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com