Part 5: "This Is Not Goodbye"
Her bags were packed. She couldn't believe this day had finally come, and more incredible still, she couldn't believe that her time in New York had exceeded even her wildest dreams.
Nathan and Peter had offered to take her out for one last breakfast before she flew back to Texas. She had been expecting some sort of goodbye gesture from Peter, but Nathan offering to come along had touched her deeply and was the icing on an already delicious cake. Claire still didn't know very much about her bio-dad, but she could see that he was trying to show that he did – or could care about her – given enough time. That was enough for now.
Heidi sat serenely in her wheelchair, hands folded primly in her lap. She watched with careful eyes as the others readied to leave. "You sure you don't want to come?" Nathan asked his wife quietly, bending down to give her a kiss.
She shook her head, gently straightening the collar of his shirt. "No, I think I'll leave you guys to bond." She wheeled herself to Claire, leaning up to give her a small kiss. "I probably won't be around this afternoon when you leave Claire. It's been good having you around."
"Thank you." Claire wasn't sure that enough of her gratitude shone through because she found Heidi's acceptance of her presence incredible. "Thank you, for everything." Heidi just shook her head, waving a cheery goodbye as they headed out.
Claire's interaction with Peter had been subdued all morning, which was unusual for them. Normally they were the chatty ones with Nathan looking dourly on, but in the car ride to the café where Nathan usually liked to have breakfast, Nathan was doing all the talking. It was awkward and stilted and filled with things that Claire didn't have the foggiest idea about – including a bewildering array of references to various bills, meetings and lunches – but at least it filled the silence hanging heavily in the car.
Claire couldn't stop thinking about her Valentines non-date with Peter. She kept telling herself – it really was more of a mission statement or mantra by now – that it hadn't meant anything like that. Peter was her biological uncle, that fact couldn't be ignored. So their awkwardness after the incredible night couldn't have had anything to do with that.
She shook her head inwardly. No, as if. She knew why she didn't feel like talking to Peter this morning. Speaking to him meant acknowledging in some way that they were soon to part ways, and to accept that she was going to part ways with Peter made her ache for his companionship even before he disappeared from her life.
Claire wanted to live in an alternate universe, a dream world where she didn't have to go home and face the music. She was only 16 years old; why couldn't she have the life that other kids had?
But she had to go home. Her father – lying, filthy human being that he was – had finally issued the command to come back. They had tentatively called a truce after having realised she had sought her biological mother out, with her dad realising that the Haitian had not done a good enough job the first time. He had believed that her healing ability had allowed her brain to regain her lost memories; she hadn't bothered to correct him. If keeping her father in the dark about what her ally's true agenda was, she welcomed this misinterpretation.
The only reason why her father had let her go – first to see Meredith and then to Nathan – had been her promise to go back to Texas. She had pleaded and cajoled, all the while being sick to her stomach at having to plead with this man for something she wanted so badly. But she had swallowed her pride and loathing; she had to think of Lyle's welfare too. They weren't related by blood like she was to Nathan, but Lyle was more family to her than Nathan was at the moment. In return, her father gave his word – if that meant anything to anyone anymore – that he wouldn't try to have her memories erased again. It was a fair deal, or so he had said.
She had wanted to rant and rave at him. Fair deal? Her skin crawled every time she thought about how close she had come to losing all of this. If the Haitian hadn't defied orders, she would have been oblivious to everything that was happening to her now. Oblivious to Meredith and Nathan and worst of all, Peter and Zach. Forgetting them was all the stuff that her nightmares were made out of these days; worse was thinking that she could lose it all in the blink of an eye.
Her maudlin daydreaming sure sped up the time because before she knew it they had arrived. When they were finally seated at a table, Nathan glared at the two of them and impatiently burst out. "Okay, I've had enough of this. What the hell's going on with you two this morning? You haven't had two words to say to each other."
"Nothing." Peter mumbled, astutely avoiding Claire's eyes by using the menu as a screen.
Nathan looked to her for an explanation. She shrugged, looking away with almost as much skill as Peter. How could she have explained it? That she was already missing Peter so much it hurt to even look at him because then she'd be reminded of how she was going to miss him when she was due to fly away in a few hours?
She nervously fingered the necklace that Peter had given her last night. It had become one of her most treasured possessions, right up there with her diary and her special, tattered first teddy bear sitting on her bed at home. It was something hard and tangible that would remind her of Peter and Nathan and everything that had happened in New York; she really didn't ever want to risk not remembering that.
Nathan drummed his fingers on the table, his irritation at having his question dodged not helping his mood. The thick silence hung around them until after they had ordered when Nathan efficiently snapped them out of their misery. "Oh I see what's happening."
His knowing tone peaked her curiosity as Peter looked on. "What?"
"Something happen last night? Uncle Peter make little Claire mad?"
"Stop calling me that." Peter gritted, his eyes shooting daggers at his brother. "And she's not little."
Claire didn't appreciate being called 'little' either. She really wanted to wipe that smirk of her bio-dad's face. "Nothing happened Nathan." She grinded the words out pointedly. "I'm just …" Her mask broke then, and everything that she had been trying to hold in place snapped out of control. "I don't want to go. I'll miss you – " She looked directly at Peter before flicking her gaze to Nathan, "I'll miss you guys so much. I don't want to go back to Texas. I don't want to go back and face him." She mumbled miserably.
Her emotion must have prompted Peter out of his lethargy. Before she knew it, he had reached across the table and placed his hand over hers, a gesture that prompted Nathan's eyebrows to shoot skywards. "Hey … we'll keep in touch. We'll remember you, you won't ever lose that." The emphasis he put on that word reminded her of their conversation a few days ago when she had confessed her fear to him. "And I'll –" he corrected himself. "We'll always be here for you if you need it."
That seemed to have broken down the great wall of awkwardness that had briefly sprung between them. They were able to resume conversation, hesitantly at first, with their natural ease and comfort returning swiftly in full force. Nathan looked at the two of them, clearly confused at what had just transpired.
Before he could ask them though, their food arrived. Claire took one look at Nathan's plate and giggled. "I never would've picked you as a waffle person."
Nathan raised a single eyebrow, trying to show disdain at her amusement. But despite himself, the glint in his eye was more merry than dangerous. "Hiro got me into them. That guy just wouldn't stop until I tried them. He's a crazy, crazy little man."
Peter grinned at his brother's unusual admission, his mouthful of bacon preventing him from coming up with a witty retort. He did snort however, making Claire giggle even more. "Oh shut up you two."
Claire had pancakes with chocolate sauce. She tried to put everything else out of her mind besides enjoying these last moments with her new found biological family. Peter was obviously trying to do the same thing, because she found herself chatting about inane things like where they liked to shop, the kinds of clothes they liked to wear, what music they listened to, what exactly were on their ipods at the moment – anything that wasn't the slightest bit personal or that would make her cry. Some things Nathan just stared blankly at, which reminded Claire of how different her interaction with him would be given the time, but others he even joined in.
Claire wished that breakfast could last forever, but as it usually was with these sorts of things, the time spent with Nathan and Peter actually seemed to go faster, not slower. They soon left, with Nathan already late for a meeting and lunch with a visiting Senator.
"Ready to go?" Peter came up behind her, innocently placing a hand at the small of her back. At his touch she jolted out of her melancholy; his presence seemed to have that effect on her.
She nodded, turning around to get a last glimpse of the house. Nathan gazed down at her grimly, and if he looked a little misty eyed at her parting, she judiciously chose to ignore it for the sake of his pride. "Well, I guess this is goodbye." She said sedately, looking straight at her biological father.
Nathan eyes fixed on hers for a while, then closing the gap between them, gave her a somewhat less than awkward hug. "Bye Claire." There was a pause, during which he appeared to be chewing his lip. "Look, I know Peter's already said … well, just. You're more than welcome to stay. Come back and stay." He eyes were distant, as he gazed out onto the lawn. He was either deep in thought or unnaturally interested in the state of the shrubs in his immaculate garden. "You're welcome to."
Claire hugged him back, more tightly this time. Despite his gruff, brittle exterior, she finally got the sense that he was really fond of her. Claire didn't know whether they would ever get along like a normal father and daughter would or even beyond the awkward hugs and touches he randomly bestowed – but it was enough for now.
She had to make herself go. If she stayed another second, she would lose the courage to leave.
Peter ushered her out, his hand still resting on her back. "Are you okay?" Claire nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
She remained silent as Nathan's driver drove them to the airport. Claire occupied her mind by gazing blankly at the scenery as it whizzed by, every second bringing her closer to the time when she would have to say goodbye to Peter. She knew it was irrational to think of him so intensely, but if she could be honest with herself – and with this she really had to be – saying goodbye to him was the moment she dreaded the most.
They reached the terminal way too quickly. Claire looked around the milling crowd forlornly, trying to delay the inevitable. Even the check-in conspired against her, with almost no queue and a smiling attendant eagerly sweeping her away from New York.
"Claire, look at me." Peter whispered. She steadfastly refused to meet his gaze until his hand crept into hers. It was an unusual gesture even for them, and it was just intimate enough to capture her attention. "It's not the end of the world." He smiled, the expression brightening his features. "You can come visit."
"You don't understand." Claire looked up at him desperately. "My dad – I can't trust him. I just don't know whether I can stand up to him."
"If you ever need me – just call. I'll be there quicker than you think."
"But you'll be all the way in New York. What if –"
He placed a finger over her mouth. Glancing around furtively, he leaned in, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "You forget I absorb people's powers. I think I've been around Hiro enough to … put his ability to a really worthwhile use."
The effect his words on her could not have been exaggerated. Her entire being seemed lighter all of sudden and her eyes sparkled in the afternoon light that was streaming through the floor to ceiling windows. "Can you … really? You can teleport?"
He chuckled, embarrassed all of a sudden. "I ah, haven't tried yet. But now I have a reason – I mean, I'd be a lousy hero if I couldn't come to your rescue, wouldn't I?" His grin was so infectious and he trusted his ability so much, it made her believe him.
"You better come through." Claire was only half-joking, looking fearfully up into his deep, dark orbs. "I'm counting on you."
"I'll be here." He wrapped her in a big bear hug, bemused at how much their parting affected both of them. "You won't make your flight if you don't go." He said softly.
Claire smiled through suspiciously wet eyes. This was stupid, she was going back to Texas, not to the other side of the world. She was allowing her fears to control her, just as they had threatened to do when she had first come to New York, unsure of what she was going to find. If she had swallowed her fear then, she could certainly do it now.
Peter followed her with his eyes, rubbing her arms tenderly before stepping back to allow her to depart. She waved, smiling stupidly at him before she walked toward the departure gate.
She hadn't made it more than a few steps before she gave in to her last desire. "Peter!" He whipped around at Claire's shout, just in time to receive an armful of her as she threw herself into him in an unguarded moment. She clung to him desperately, softly, not caring how young and brittle she must have seemed. "I'll miss New York." She waited for a beat, before daring to say what she had really wanted to say. "I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too." He whispered back. His voice was deeper and throatier than she remembered it being. He laughed as if realising something for the first time. "I really will miss you Claire."
They clung to each other in the bright sunshine, heedless of the milling traffic around them. Claire knew she was young and sadly lacking in experience, but that didn't mean she couldn't recognise a true bond when she saw it. And her bond with Peter, this half-man, half-boy that held onto her just as blindly as she was hanging onto him, epitomised that true bond.
She and Peter were family, but they were more than that. They were true friends, destined to be together, and destined never to really be apart.
She returned home later that night to a largely quiet house. She dumped her bags onto the polished floors, the heavy thump as they hit the ground echoing in the emptiness.
Funny, how large she used to think her house was. But after spending two weeks in Nathan's palatial mansion, she noticed for the first time how cosy and intimate the Bennet house in Texas was. Still, she couldn't help but feel that coming back to Texas – it felt like home. New York had been a wonderful holiday from the realities of her life and now she was back to live her life.
Her father walked slowly out of the kitchen, tea towel in hand. He didn't seem at all surprised to find Claire standing in the middle of foyer despite her not having bothered to tell him she was coming back that day. She figured he had issued the order for her to come home; it didn't mean that she had to prepare him for her arrival and make his life easier.
"Claire-bear." She couldn't believe how fake that sounded. What was worse, she couldn't believe that after all that had happened, including her mom's illness, he still clung to the desperate charade that everything was normal. Peachy keen in the Bennet family.
But there was no Bennet family now, not really. Claire's life had fractured in the moment of discovering her father's betrayal of her friends and her memories. Her happy childhood was no more than a distant dream, as irretrievable as scattered dust in the wind.
"Don't call me that." She didn't even bother to dignify his charade with an act of her own. Why pretend that she hadn't been compelled to return home by a desperate promise she'd made? "You don't have to pretend like you care about me. I came home like you wanted." She peered around the kitchen. "Where's Lyle and mom? Are they okay?"
"Lyle's fine, he's at soccer practice. Mom's … resting upstairs. Claire." Her father stepped forward, the foreboding expression on his face oddly juxtaposed with the 'Greatest Cook in the World' apron he was wearing over his dress pants and neatly pressed work shirt. "I'm not pretending. You have to believe me, I care about you and Lyle and mom. If nothing else, believe that."
"How can I?" Claire's resolve to not let him get to her was already being broken. She felt sick every time she looked at him. She couldn't stomach the thought of having to live under the same roof as the man standing in front of her. "How can I believe anything you say when all you've ever done is lie to me?"
"That's not true and you know it." His soft tone belied the rigidity of his features. "Everything I've done has been for my family. Now you may not agree with my methods, but believe that everything – and I mean everything – I've done has been for you and your mom and Lyle."
"That's right, I don't agree with your methods." She wiped the tears that were now streaming down her face, her voice hysterical. She couldn't believe that five minutes after she got home, her father had already gotten to her. Her yearning for Peter's guidance and friendship had never been greater. "You tried to erase my memories! How can you expect me to trust you after that? I can't even look at you without it making me sick."
She was mildly surprised to find that her last comment really knocked the wind out of him. He slumped against the counter, dumbly placing the tasting spoon he had been holding down. "Claire, is that how you really feel?"
Claire was shaking and crying and her whole body vibrated from the depth of her anger. She had no idea just how much she had been repressing until now. "Yes." She gritted out, looking at him squarely in the eye. "I would never have come back if you hadn't made me promise to. I had to come back because of mom and Lyle."
"You don't think I'd try to hurt my own family?"
"What do you call erasing mom's memories? You're killing her with all the memories you've already erased, you're killing her mind! You're killing her slowly and painfully and I hate you for that!" Her breath came in short, sharp bursts.
The sauce in the pot that he had been stirring now reached full boil, the bubbling incongruous against the power of their outbursts. Claire stared at it mutely, not knowing what else she could say to lay her feelings more emphatically out onto the table. "I never wanted to hurt you. Or your mom." Claire's eyes flickered up to her father's face but his eyes were dark, unreadable. "All I've ever wanted was to protect you – all of you – from everything I knew was out there."
"Well you did a bang up job."
"All I ever wanted … was to protect you. Keep you safe and happy." Try as she might, Claire couldn't help but feel slightly sorry at the anger that she had unleashed onto him. She was convinced that she was right not to trust him, but he was the one she had always run to before everything went to hell and he had always come through for her. She couldn't forget that even if she wanted to. And – incredible as it seemed – she actually believed even now that that all he really wanted was to protect his family.
Her life was so screwed up, she didn't know which way to turn. "But I'm not safe or happy." She said softly, all the emotion of the day draining out of her to leave her tired and weary. "You can't protect me anymore Dad. You have to let me go."
"Will you go to him?" He asked after a while, quietly, penetratingly.
"Who, Peter?" Off his confusion, she corrected herself. "Oh, you mean … Nathan. Probably. He said I could, if I wanted to. What about mom and Lyle?"
"You let me worry about your mother and brother. They're … all I'll have left."
"I …" Claire felt bad, in the way that she used to feel when she had thrown a tantrum and had finally gotten her own way about something.
"Don't say anything. Just … go." She allowed him to envelope her in a bear hug and for a brief moment she was transported back to her childhood, where her dad was just her dad and everything was safe and normal. "I'm always going to love you Claire-bear. And I'll always be there, watching out for you."
Claire wasn't sure whether hearing that from him made her feel better, or worse.
If Peter was surprised to receive a call from her this quickly after she had just left, he had a funny way of showing it. Instead of being stunned, he quipped upon hearing her voice. "You know, it's funny. As soon as you left I felt I was going to see you again really soon."
Claire quickly relayed her conversation with her father to him. Predictably, Peter was kind and sympathetic, and even from this great a distance she could feel his calmness infusing her being. "So … if Nathan's offer still stands –"
"I'm sure it still stands." Peter quickly cut her off. "I mean, it was only a few hours ago. I'm sure not even politicians change their minds that quickly. How fast can you get here?"
She laughed at his earnestness. It was a refreshing change to the drama she had just faced with her father. "How quickly can you get me there?" She retorted.
Claire was only joking of course, but she swore audibly when Peter and Hiro appeared in the next instant in front of her. Hiro had a delighted grin on his face while Peter looked sheepish but pleased. "Pretty quickly." He snapped his cell phone closed. "I was meeting up with Hiro when you called."
Claire's eyes were wide with shock and she was sure that she must have resembled a stunned fish. "I'll never get used to seeing that." She gasped and nodded silently at Hiro, shooting him a grateful smile. He stepped aside to let Peter greet her warmly.
Seeing his excitement and eagerness exude made her remember why they were so close. Heedless of their audience, she flung herself into his arms. It was lucky that she was as small as she was, otherwise the force with which she launched herself at him would have landed them both on the ground. She giggled and gasped aloud when he spun her around a few times, laughing at her excited, relentlessly girlish squeals.
Hiro soon took Peter and Claire back on their return trip back to New York. The journey – for lack of a better word – wasn't at all like what she had thought it was going to be. Instead of feeling spaced out or jet lagged (in retrospect she didn't know why she would, but go figure), everything seemed normal. Safe.
They were soon back where they had started from – at Nathan's front door. Peter swiftly let them into the house just as a startled Nathan walked up to greet them. "What are you doing –"
"Claire's back. To stay." Peter looked at her for confirmation, subtly squeezing her arm. Claire was only just realising that she still clung to him like he was a figment of her imagination, afraid he'd disappear in a puff of smoke if she didn't concentrate hard enough to keep him around. A part of her still couldn't believe it – that her dad had actually let her come here, allowed her to come and get to know her other family for real.
She nodded firmly, looking up at Peter. "I am. If you'll have me."
Claire decided that smirking was the only way that Nathan could show any sort of real emotion about her, but she didn't mind. He opened the door wider to allow them to pass through. "Where are your bags?" His eyes searched theirs curiously. "You didn't bring … your bags?"
"We kind of left in a hurry." Peter pointed out, the sheepish grin appearing back on is features. Practical matters such as overnight bags and toiletries really weren't his strong suit. "I guess we'll just have to buy Claire some new things."
"You mean I'll have to get her some new things." Nathan grumbled, quite good naturedly Claire thought given the circumstances. He handed her a gold card. "You can take this card tomorrow. It's got a credit limit set on it, and I'll know when you two have reached it." He pointed a stern finger at his brother. "And don't think I didn't notice a few things you snuck in for yourself on my card, Peter. What, you think I wouldn't notice an extra pair of jeans from Marc Jacobs? Who the hell is Marc Jacobs anyway and since when do I even own a pair of jeans?"
Claire couldn't resist a tiny giggle at the last time she and Peter and talked about Nathan's credit card bill. He must have seen the size of his latest statement if he was implementing these new measures. "Thanks Nathan."
"Just don't lose it." Afraid of showing any more emotion, he left them to stare nervously at each other in the cavernous foyer.
She gazed up at Peter, her hero, her knight in shining – whatever. The significant of her being here, in New York, wasn't lost on her.
It evidently wasn't lost on him either. Peter leaned down, so close that she could smell the unique scent that was purely composed of him. "Welcome home." He whispered softly into her ear as they embraced tightly, clinging to each other as if never wanting to let go.