Claire was reclining lazily in the rec room of the Petrelli mansion the first weekend after Nathan was finally discharged from hospital. Her lithe frame was spread haphazardly over the length of the plush couch, the feel of soft leather soothing against her tired muscles. She had been making full use of the gym that the Petrellis had installed specifically for Heidi's rehabilitation, a gym that Heidi had made a point to Claire that she was more than welcome to use to her heart's content.
She figured now that she was indestructible, a lot could be gained if she could train herself to do something more useful with it. The encounter with Sylar had taught her that it wasn't enough to be a passive bystander in ultimate battles to save the world; she had to be proactive and throw herself in the fray to be of real help to anyone.
Who was she lying to – she was, of course, talking about helping Peter.
As if her thoughts had conjured him up from thin air, she heard soft footsteps behind her as Peter padded quietly into the room. She was feeling too relaxed at the moment to peer over the top of the couch to confirm her suspicions, but she knew it was him even without looking. Talking about developing freaky abilities.
"Where is everyone?" Peter asked quietly as he rounded into view, looking curiously at her lounging on the couch. "You look comfortable." He added dryly, nodding pointedly at the bag of potato chips balanced precariously on her stomach.
She offered him some, which he accepted. She scooted over to make room for him next to her. "Your mom's walking with Nathan in the garden, and Heidi and the boys are upstairs doing something." Claire snatched the chips away from him, feigning a haughty expression. "And yes, I am comfortable thank you very much."
Since Peter had returned from his extended sojourn with Claude in the Nevada desert, she had seen him most days during the week. Claude had snuck into Peter's room one day not long after he had awoken and had promptly convinced him to take a month long "retreat" in order to mentally recover and fully harness and control his abilities. Ever the charmer, Peter had made hurried calls to both Claire and his mother letting them know of his intentions and that he would be uncontactable in the next month or so.
Predictably, both Claire and his mother had been absolutely furious at Peter's audacity and abject stupidity. His mother had declared she was going to disown and then kill Peter with her bare hands; Claire had even sworn to never speak to Peter Petrelli again even if he came back to her crawling on his hands and knees.
It turned out it hadn't needed to come to that. Instead, it had taken an entire week of Peter bringing Claire peace offerings in order to coax her to even be in the same vicinity as him, let alone deign to speak to him again. But after several litres of cookies and cream ice cream, a bracelet and unsurprisingly, a choice sample of cute teddy bears from around the world, she had relented and they were back on the comfortable speaking terms they were on before.
Due to Nathan's incapacity from his near brush with death – a near brush that Peter felt he was in some way responsible for – he had announced to his brother that he was going to help his office out for as long as he was needed. His natural empathy for other people's thoughts and feelings, as well as his actual other abilities – made him a valuable asset to his brother's political dealings while Nathan regained full health. Nathan had been grateful and Peter's mother had been pleased. They were all now, if not one big happy family, close enough for Peter's satisfaction.
Claire at first had been unused to seeing Peter dressed up in a suit, his shirt pristinely pressed, his ties always teamed with matching cufflinks. When he was dressed up like that, he looked much more like his brother and a Petrelli. His mother had joked that her little boy had finally grown up. "Sure Mom. I'm 26 years old and I've finally grown up."
Privately, Claire thought the change wasn't for the better. She liked Peter better when he had been a caring and natural spirit, but since he was only doing it to help out his family, she decided to keep her opinion to herself.
She had since gotten used to seeing Peter in a suit, and when he yanked his tie off after breathing a long sigh of relief, he seemed much more like the person she knew. "Long day?" She asked sympathetically.
He winced. "Something like that." Looking down at his outfit, he gave an exaggerated groan. "I hate these things. Makes me feel like a penguin."
Claire giggled, looking down at the finely tailored pants and the way the jacket had been contoured to match Peter's body. Even though he didn't really look like Peter as she had first known him, she had to admit that he looked, well, good. "You're a very well dressed penguin then."
He smiled at her light teasing. "I'm going to go up and change."
After he had changed into a comfortable jeans and t-shirt ensemble, Peter found Claire in her room at the Petrelli house, which was situated in a bright, sunlight corner of the upper floor overlooking the rose garden. Claire was still getting used to the fact that Peter's family home was big enough to have different sorts of gardens scattered across its luscious grounds and for those gardens to actually have names.
She was staring intently at her cheerleading uniform, no longer pristine with the repeated rinsing and washing out of dried blood. Her blood. Sensing Peter come into the room, she said quietly without turning. "It's silly. I'm not sure why I even brought it. I should've just thrown it out."
He walked up slowly to stand beside her. "Same reason why you brought Mr Teddy here." Peter gestured towards her most trusting companion, a brown teddy bear with a pink bow looking desperately forlorn and worst for wear after 14 years spent by Claire's side. For a second she thought he might have been teasing her, but when she looked up at him she was satisfied to note there was no trace of a smile on his handsome face. Good, she had not made herself look too ridiculous in Peter's eyes.
"I know." She sighed, packing the uniform away in the chest of drawers by her bed. "I'm having a hard time putting it away." She confessed. "But I guess it's time to move on. Can't be a cheerleader for ever." She smiled tightly.
Peter looked down at her with piercing, serious eyes. "No, you can't. And you shouldn't want you. You're not just the cheerleader, you're Claire. You're a hero."
"Are you going to be calling me that from now on?" Claire retorted cheekily. "Cause I kind of like it."
Peter flicked her hair playfully, grinning at her annoyed expression. "If you save the world again, maybe I'll think about it."
Peter suggested a stroll through the gardens while they waited for dinner to be served. Although it was now early winter, the late evening was unseasonably mild enough for a walk outside to be refreshing. Claire agreed, knowing how much Peter hated being stuck inside a stuffy office for most of the day.
"Are you liking it here?" Peter asked her with a serious expression as he guided her to a bench situated in the middle of the garden. The roses were mostly dormant, but enough remained to surround them with their sweet, pungent aroma. "I mean, with my family? I know my mom can come off a little strong. And she's got a temper."
Claire shook her head, looking out into the distance. "Yeah , I am. Your mom's been really nice actually. Heidi too. And the boys are really cute, I play with them sometimes." Her eyes became wistful. "They make me miss my mom and brother a little less. Makes me feel less alone in the world."
Peter looked down at her solemnly, his emotions spilling from his gaze plain for her to see. Spinning her gently to face him, he looked deeply into her eyes. "You're not alone Claire. You'll never be alone again while I'm alive."
Claire looked back at him, gratitude flowing from her brilliant blue eyes.
It was now dusk, the sun drifting inexorably down the Manhattan skyline. They walked to the edge of the garden and looked over the edge of the balcony, staring out into the impressive vista in comfortable silence. After the close brush with death with his mortality, Peter would no doubt still be revelling in his survival.
"Peter, why did you kiss me?" Claire asked suddenly, trying to keep her voice sedate. It was something that had been plaguing her ever since Peter's recovery, but she never seemed to have found the right time to bring it up with him. The last weeks while she had settled into her new home had been happy ones, and Peter had obviously made a great deal of effort to visit her while she was staying at his family home. They had fallen into a comfortable pattern with Peter dropping by on his way home after work to have dinner with his family and on weekends even staying the night in his old room, but to Claire, the biggest question of all hung suspended precariously between them.
That brought his contentment of the moment up short. He was clearly taken by surprise by her directness, looking up at him with uncertainty in her crystal clear eyes. But instead of feigning incomprehension at her loaded question, he opted for honesty. "It felt right." He stated simply. Peter tore his eyes from the blissful scenery to gaze down at her.
The eyes that met hers were a mixture of confusion, delight and restraint. It was obvious that he knew he was in ambiguous territory and he was making an effort to choose his next words carefully. "Claire, we can't be doing this. Not now." Off her crushed look of protest, he continued gently. "We both know … how we feel. But it wouldn't be fair for you. You have to be free to discover new things, do the rest of your growing up."
"I think I've been through enough to have earned the right to choose how to express my feelings." Clare retorted a little resentfully. "I'm old enough to make my own decisions Peter. That's why my Dad finally let me stay in New York. If he could accept it, why can't you?"
"It'd be different between us, you know it'd be." She hated that he sounded so rational. She knew that he only had her welfare in mind, but she hated that it made so much sense to her. "I'm 26 Claire, you're 17. There's nothing wrong with the way we feel. But … you still need to finish high school. I graduated from nursing school six months ago. We're worlds apart at the moment and if we started anything right now – if I allowed something to happen – it wouldn't end well."
"How could you know that?" Claire was desperately hanging onto every shred of logic she could conjure up. At the back of her mind she had always known this had been a possibility, but she just couldn't believe he could be so rational, so detached from all of this – especially with everything they had been through.
"Claire." He closed the distance between them then, leaning down to press his forehead against hers. "You have to know how I feel. But I don't want to take the chance and start something that wouldn't end well. If –", Here he corrected himself. "When we start something, I want it to last. I want you to feel safe and certain about everything. Right now – don't you see, things are still so confused for you, I don't need to add to that." Off her slight whimper, he whispered softly. "Good things come to those who wait. We should wait."
"Peter, I –" Claire understood everything he was saying and he was right – it did make perfect sense. She was aware that he must have been making a tremendous sacrifice restraining himself about this, but she couldn't hide the streak of pain that now coursed through every sinew of her body. This was real torture – knowing how he felt about her, feeling their closeness, and yet they couldn't be together, not yet.
But at least they were alive to look forward to a new future.
Peter gave her a chaste kiss, gently taking her hand in his. They stood quietly in companionable silence as dusky sunlight melted into night, until Peter's mom impatiently called them to dinner.
Author's Note: Okay, that's it for now. I know I've said this before but I totally need to say it again. Thanks to all the lovely, kind, thoughtful and wonderful feedback I've gotten for this story. Seriously, if you guys weren't so encouraging I would never have gotten this finished.
As it is, you guys have inspired me. To those that asked whether I was planning a sequel, the answer is a resounding Yes. I've mapped out the basic plot and started writing the first chapters, so hopefully fingers crossed I'll be able to post it in about 2 weeks time.