Protector- a collection of five short ficlets, all intertwined. "Early," "Higher," "Company," "Strangers," and "Judgement." All about Nathan and Peter, preseries to series. The last ficlet takes place during the series- Peter's twenty-seven and Nathan's thirty-one. (Made-up ages. May be conflicted with canon in the future.) No slash this time—at press time, incest is not one of my perversions. Sorry guys. Spoilers up to One Giant Leap.

For Remy, at long last.

a

Nathan was five when Peter was born.

Petey came early, which Nathan knew even then because they'd told him he'd have a baby brother at Christmastime. They told him Christmastime and here it was, not even Halloween, and Nathan hadn't drafted a wish list, and the baby was coming.

Daddy promised to take Nathan to pick out a costume for trick-or-treating today. He promised and they were about to leave, Daddy had his coat on and everything, and then Mommy called out and everybody was rushing around and Daddy forgot about Nathan. Mickey had warned him months ago that baby brothers were nothing but trouble, but Nathan hadn't believed him until just now.

Nathan tried to remind Daddy about his promise, but Daddy barely looked at him, hushed him and said "not now." Then he was gone.

Daddy was mad at him. All the grown-ups seemed mad at him today. There was something heavy in their eyes that Nathan didn't recognize or understand. All around him was the sound of strangers and strange relatives in his house.

He went looking for Mommy, but Aunt Evie shut the door to Mommy's room very quickly when Nathan came upstairs.

"Where's Mommy?" He asked curiously. He could hear soft noises in the room behind the door.

Aunt Evie's eyes hardened. "She's gone for a little while." But Nathan had heard the word "hospital," heard the word "doctor."

"When will she be back?"

Her lips were drawn tight across her mouth, not like her usual friendly smile. "Soon. She'll be home soon. Don't worry."

He hadn't thought to worry before that.

"Let's go watch a movie, Nattie." Said Aunt Evie, who was old and cheery and his sometimes-babysitter.

He slipped his little hand into her wrinkly one. "Okay."

Later, behind the sounds of Star Wars, Nathan heard footsteps on the stairs. He turned around and looked over Aunt Evie's shoulder just in time to see Aunt Gladys carrying a pail of rags stained red.

"Hey, whatcha looking at, Nattie?" She asked, ruffling his hair with one hand and peering at the empty space where Aunt Gladys had been.

"Nothin'." He said, settling back down on Aunt Evie's lap. "Is Mommy's baby coming?"

Aunt Evie paused. "We'll see." She said, in that way grown-ups have of not telling kids anything.

But Nathan knew better. The hushed voices had said the word "baby." That meant he had a brother. And no Halloween costume. Mickey had been right all along.

He woke up later, no longer cradled against Aunt Evie's warm body, but tucked into his own bed. The voices of Aunt Ida and Aunt Evie were whispering outside in the hallway.

"…baby's fine." Aunt Ida was saying. "Four pounds, eleven ounces. Peter. Just fine."

"And Angela?" Evie's voice. "Angela's all right?"

"They stopped the bleeding. She's going to be right as rain."

Nathan drifted off to sleep again, secure in the thought that Mommy would be "right as rain" and not a little bit excited over the arrival of Peter, the four pound, eleven ounce baby who'd come two months too early.

When Daddy took him to see the baby two days later, some of Nathan's enthusiasm had worn off. Couldn't the doctors put the baby back in there? It wasn't fair, anyway, that they'd told him Christmastime and then ruined it by having the baby before Halloween.

But when he saw the baby, a tiny, mewling thing, soft and pink and helpless in Mommy's arms, he couldn't want that anymore.

"That's Peter." Daddy whispered in Nathan's ear, holding him up to the bed so he could see the little baby. "That's your little brother."

"He's so little." Nathan said, eyes taking in the perfect formation of tiny fingernails and eyelashes.

Daddy smiled. "He is. You'll have to help him, make sure he grows up big and strong like you. Protect him."

In that moment, it was all Nathan had ever wanted to do.

a

"Higher, Nathan, push me higher!"

Nathan was eleven, Peter only seven. They were at the local playground- swing set specifically. It was Petey's favorite, which figured, as far as Nathan was concerned. The wussiest equipment in the entire park and Petey was drawn to it like the forty-five pounds of annoying little brother he was, which meant Nathan had to stay with him.

When Nathan had been seven, Mom had walked with him to the park. But now Mom had Nathan to pawn Petey off on, and so Nathan was stuck doing stupid baby things with Petey while his friends were practicing on their new roller blades.

He didn't mind so much as all that, not really. It was part of being responsible, part of being the older brother. Part of protecting Petey. Petey was so little; he needed protection, and if Nathan didn't do it, who would? Nathan just wished that he could protect Petey and go to the roller rink with the other sixth-graders.

Petey liked swooping through the air, so most Saturdays when they went to the playground, Nathan just pushed him on the swings until his arms ached. Nathan personally preferred the monkey bars. But Petey'd fallen once, broke his collarbone, and now he wasn't allowed back on the monkey bars until he turned eight, and, though it had never been explicitly stated, Nathan understood that he was barred too. For whatever reason, Peter just seemed to follow him wherever he went—if Nathan had understood irony, he would've seen the irony in how his brother trailed him by choice when he was forced to follow his brother.

"He idolizes you," Mom said, in a tone he would later recognize as wheedling and slightly disapproving. "Try to use it for good and not for evil."

That had been after Peter had taken it into his head to kick the dog that always barked threateningly at Nathan—Nathan hated dogs, not Petey, who loved everything small and defenseless—and ended up with a dog bite, twelve stitches and a series of rabies shots. Nathan had had quite a time convincing his parents that he hadn't put Petey up to it.

That had been a Friday, and the next day Nathan had gotten a reprieve from his park duties, since Petey might tear a stitch, and he wasn't feeling that good anyway—which Nathan was of course blamed for. Nathan spent that Saturday alternately sulking in his room and entertaining his brother. (Everything from fetching juice to reading from storybooks fell under the broad category of "entertaining" Petey, who was fickle when he was not at his best.) He did it partly because Mom and Dad wanted him to, and partly because he wanted to, not that he would admit this under pain of death.

It was his brotherly duty, his grudging pride, to comply when Petey cried "Push me higher!" on the swing set, to tickle the little boy until he giggled and cried out in submission.

a

"How're you feeling, kiddo?"

Peter was nine, Nathan fourteen. Peter stirred feebly where he lay on the family couch, looked up from the TV set. "Same." He answered, holding the blanket close around his shoulders.

Peter—he'd recently insisted that Peter was his name; Petey was a name for children and he was grown up now—had come home from the hospital the day before. Complications of the flu in his chest and ears had turned to pneumonia and a double ear infection. All the talk at school and his house for the last two weeks was "how is your brother" and how sick poor Peter was and a "give my best to your brother" from Heidi Williams, the pretty brunette who didn't even ask after Nathan when he was out with the bug three weeks earlier.

Nathan had come home with every intention of being angry at Peter, of ignoring him for the night in what his mother called one of his "moods." He'd already slipped up, asking Peter how he was, but he wanted to be ready with an answer if Heidi asked him again tomorrow. Seeing Peter there, so small and pale and altogether sick-looking, tired and huddled in blanket on the couch, Nathan's resolution wavered. His vulnerable baby brother, who was always so good, needed him. Something around Nathan's teenage heart went squish in a way that was completely unlike the squish it made when Heidi was nearby.

Peter started coughing into his fist. It was a harsh, sticky sound that sounded a phantom pain somewhere in Nathan's own chest. Once he'd started, he seemed to have trouble ending the coughing fit. His bony body pitched forward with the effort of containing the sharp coughs which followed each other, stealing his breath, one after another after another.

When he finally stopped coughing and collapsed against the arm of the sofa, exhausted and wheezing, Nathan was crouched next to him. "You okay? Want me to get Mom? Can you breathe? Need water?"

Peter smiled weakly. He lifted a cup of water with shaking hands. "I've got some." He croaked. "I'm okay." He sipped his water.

"Is it time for your meds?" Nathan asked anxiously, peering into Peter's weary eyes beneath dark bangs matted with sick-sweat.

Peter gave a hoarse cough—thankfully just one this time—and shook his head. "Not for three more hours." He said, setting the cup back down and laying down on the couch again.

"Oh." Nathan was unused to feeling helpless around Peter. When Peter needed help, Nathan was always there to step in and be the hero. When someone was beating Petey up on the playground, it was Nathan who stood up for him. When Peter failed his math test, Nathan was the one who reviewed fractions with him until he understood. There wasn't anything Nathan could do to fix what was wrong this time, and he wanted to so, so much. He was Peter's protector, and it was his job. Without a task, he was fidgety and nervous. He wanted to make Peter better.

"Do you need anything?" He asked instead.

Peter considered it a moment. "Company." He said, curling up in a ball on the couch.

Nathan smiled tenderly at his brother. "I can do that." He settled himself behind Peter on the couch, pulled Peter back so that his head was resting on Nathan's shoulder. He smoothed Peter's hair back from his face as Peter let his eyes close. Nathan pretended to watch the television program—something about cowboys or something—but really he was paying attention to his brother, whose skin was too warm and whose breathing had a little hitch it shouldn't. Peter lay curled around Nathan in a warm, soft ball of flesh.

Considering how sick his little brother was, it was actually a pretty nice time.

a

"I'm trying to protect you from making the biggest mistake of your life."

"I don't need your fucking protection."

Peter was nineteen, and Nathan was twenty-three. Peter had only recently, in his last semester of college, picked up certain words which had been Nathan's favorites ten years earlier. But then, Peter was always a little behind his age group.

"I'm just trying to help you." Nathan protested. "Nursing really isn't the right thing for you. Around all those sick people all the time. Petey, you know you're no good with sick people. You turn green when someone mentions having a cold."

"I'll learn." Peter said boldly. "I don't need you to choose my life for me. I'm not seven anymore. I can push my own goddamned swing and I'll swing as high as I want to!" The words were spat with a certain vehemence that scared Nathan. Where was the shy, pliable young man he'd glimpsed at Thanksgivings and Mother's Days for the last five years? Could Peter have secretly had a passionate streak like Nathan all those years, lying dormant beneath his mild-mannered second son exterior?

"I'm not saying you can't run your own life." Nathan protested. "I just-"

"Aren't you?" The younger man accused. "Just because you have a hero complex, I'm supposed to let you fix my entire life!"

It felt like an arrow in his heart. "Maybe I wouldn't try to fix you if you weren't getting yourself into trouble all the time. Maybe if you could fix your own life I wouldn't have to."

"What do you think I'm trying to do?" Peter asked exasperatedly. "I'm making my own decision. It feels right. I want to help. I want to save the world. One person at a time."

"This is so like you. Your whole life, you've been getting into scrapes you can't get yourself out of. So who has to step in? Big brother Nathan. Don't you think I'd like to let you push your own swing?" Nathan bellowed, on the verge of yelling. He never yelled at Peter. "Every time you have a problem, I have to drop everything and put your miserable little life back together!"

As soon as he'd said the words, he regretted them. No, before. As he said them, the harsh words burned his mouth with their shameful truth. Peter cringed, face screwed up with the effort of not crying. "Fine." He said, voice low and shaky. "You want to stop fixing my life? Then stop. From here on in it's none of your business. I won't come to you with any problems and you won't meddle. We won't talk about my life at all. You won't have to deal with me and I won't have to deal with you. It'll be like we're strangers."

He whirled and walked into his room, slammed the door. Inside Nathan heard the distinctive sounds of Peter crying, softly and bitterly, alone.

They would be strangers. Strangers with shared parents and shared memories. The thought, the alone-ness of it all, overwhelmed Nathan and he slid down the wall, collapsed in shock. He wasn't crying. He wasn't sure he knew how.

Then again, he wasn't sure he'd known Peter could fight, either, and yet he had. Nathan laid his head in his arms and cried for the loss of the little boys they had been.

a

Nathan stood at the podium, before the crowd's judging eyes. Drawing a shaky breath, he began to speak.

"You may have read about my brother's 'accident' in the papers…" He began. The words echoed strangely in his ears, as though someone else had taken over. He wondered briefly if this was a side effect of flight. Then it occurred to him that it was all just a side effect of insanity, which comforted him, in an odd way.

Nathan felt sick thinking about the night he and Peter flew. He'd been trying to tell Peter for weeks that there was no way either of them could fly, at the same time he was denying it all to himself. Now he couldn't deny it to either of them without black spots dancing across his vision.

He'd never intended to fly with Peter, but it was a gut reaction. Seeing his beloved baby brother, precious little Peter, about to hit the pavement at a high speed, his protective big brother impulses kicked in and he was in the air, struggling to get a terrified Peter safely to the ground.

And then Peter fell and he was so, so scared that he'd lost him forever. Nathan didn't think he'd breathed the whole way to the hospital. And when Peter came out of it, he honestly didn't remember that he'd flown… he was so out of it, still heavily medicated, confused and blurry around the edges. Nathan's chest felt tight, seeing Peter like that. Injured. Hurt. Messed up. It only fed his desire to protect his little brother.

So when Peter asked him what happened, he lied. It wasn't hard. He was a politician, after all.

Nathan had begun making a plan the instant he was sure Peter was going to be okay. They couldn't leave this unexplained, for heaven's sake. He was in the middle of a public race. The press would be all over it in an instant. Peter really could pick a time to test his superpowers. It really didn't matter whether he had them or not. It wasn't as though the media would accept that.

Even when the lie fell apart for Peter, Nathan reused it for the press. He had no other choice. And as he finished telling the biggest lie of his life, the one it hurt the most to tell, he knew he'd done the right thing.

He stepped down from the podium, feeling the whole time Peter's judging eyes on him, Peter's hurt and betrayal and the faintest hint of anger. If only you understood the way I understand, Nathan thought, you wouldn't be so upset. Nathan knew it was the only real way to protect Peter. This way Peter's "treatment" could be low-key and under the radar, and the people would be sympathetic. If he told the truth, why Peter had really jumped off that building, he would be forced to lock Peter away.

He couldn't bear to think of Peter in a tiny rathole of a mental hospital, the kind he'd be stuck in if Nathan had explained that his brother believed he could fly. And forget about telling them he could fly—then the city would lock him up, too. That's the best case scenario. That's if they didn't believe him. If they believed him, it would be worse. They'd stick him and Peter—poor Peter—in a tank and hook them up to electrodes and prod them and what kind of big brother would he be if he let that happen?

He saw Peter bolt into the wet night, and Nathan knew he had to follow. He had to be sure Peter would be okay, even if it was his fault if Peter wouldn't be.

I'm sorry. "I had to do it." Nathan told his little brother when he'd caught up. "The press would've gotten a hold of it sooner or later. This way it doesn't destroy me." Doesn't destroy us.

But Peter was too hurt to listen, and Nathan knew he sounded like an ass. Peter swung at him, and in the next instant Peter was bleeding and Nathan was retreating back to his fundraiser.

Looking over his shoulder, he saw the pretty black woman talking to Peter, reaching up to touch the younger man's face, to comfort him the way Nathan wished he could. Going back to his party, he knew he deserved every bit of judgement Peter would pass on him.