AUTHOR'S NOTE: Here's what's going on with this: I'm not completely satisfied with the way my ending turned out. A few of you made comments to the effect that the last chapter seemed rushed, and I suppose that's true—I had imposed this April 23rd deadline on myself, but when it started to get down to the wire I wasn't quite ready to finish, so it got a little…squashed.
This is the result of my dissatisfied brooding: an alternate ending I naturally deviate toward tragedy, but I'm pretty sure that's not a common sentiment, so here's a slightly different direction. It's somewhat similar, and you might recognize a few of of the runs, but the outcome is way different. Hope it helps!
Run where you'll be safe/
Through the garden gates/
To the shelter of/
There's not much time/
The blush in the sky began to fade/
"I'm getting the feeling that this is a really stupid idea," Claude said, looking down on Sylar where he was curled at the foot of the bed, asleep but not looking peaceful, only still and predatory.
"That's probably just a side effect of this being a really stupid idea," Mr. Bennet said calmly, sliding cartridges into his sleek steel tranquilizer gun. "The feeling goes away after awhile."
"What if Jonathan was lying?" Claude said, vocalizing the fears that were hanging over both their heads. "What if we take the collar off and there is no Gabriel personality? What if there is a Gabriel personality but it doesn't show up, and he takes our heads straight off like a bad barber?"
"Pick your excuse," Mr. Bennet said. "If you want to back out, there are certainly plenty to choose from. I, however, am going through with this."
"Well, when you put it that way," Claude said, nettled, "obviously I have no choice."
"Which is exactly why I put it that way," Mr. Bennet said with a small smile that disappeared when it got to his eyes, shielded away by half an inch of glass. "So—do you want to do it, or shall I?"
Claude glared him with tunnel-vision eyes. "You must be joking."
"Right," Mr. Bennet said sardonically. "Keep me covered, then."
Claude hefted his own tranquilizer gun as Mr. Bennet bent over Sylar's still form, feelings of foreboding fluttering like stage-fright butterflies in his stomach. "You're sure he's asleep?" he said compulsively.
Mr. Bennet sighed. "I'm sure," he confirmed, pointing to Sylar's eyelids, blue-veined and pulsing. "See the way his eyes are flickering under his lids? That means he's in REM sleep. It's hard to fake."
"I know that," Claude snapped. "Don't forget who it was that taught you all your clever tricks, Bennet."
"Oh, I couldn't possibly," Mr. Bennet said, voice shaded with nuance.
He slid his fingers under Sylar's collar with light precision, careful not to touch the man's skin. Then, barely breathing, meticulous, he pushed the nose of the pliers under the thin metal band and applied careful pressure. The collar snapped apart with a whiplash snap like a released spring, and Mr. Bennet leapt back as he saw Sylar's eyes come open, coppery brown like dried blood, alert. Claude had a lock on him already, gun aimed steadily at his head, and Mr. Bennet swiftly brought up his own threatening laser sight as emphasis. Sylar, for once, didn't seem likely to charge them like hapless matadors—he brought a hand to his temple, looking pained, and Claude and Mr. Bennet exchanged triumphant looks.
Sure enough, within seconds there was a new dominance in the sharp-jawed face, a taut horror and innocence. "I'm sorry," was the first thing out of his mouth, miserable and small. "Whatever I did, I'm sorry."
"It's all right, Gabriel," Mr. Bennet said in his snakecharm trust-me voice. "You're in a safe place now. We're going to help you."
"Dr. Suresh," Gabriel said, half-coherent, connecting severed strands of memory. "I was going to see him—"
"Mohinder Suresh is dead," Claude said with characteristic bluntness, earning a frown from Mr. Bennet.
"No," Gabriel said, hysteria mounting. "No, that can't be true. I—did I…I mean, was it me?"
"In the purest sense of the world, yes," Claude said. "You killed him a few weeks ago, during some kind of run-in with Peter Petrelli. We're still not sure exactly what you were doing in his apartment, but perhaps you can help us with that, yeah?"
Gabriel's hands twitched in his lap, his eyes shining briefly with vicious rising violence. "Sorry," he said again, sounding so strained that Mr. Bennet brought his gun up again, alarmed. "It's that name, I think—Peter Petrelli. He really, really wants something connected to that name, wants it so badly it's like swallowing fire."
"Then we won't say it," Mr. Bennet promised smoothly. "We certainly don't want to bring Sylar to the forefront, here."
"It's only a matter of time," Gabriel said, hopeless, reasonable. "I'm two souls in one body—I can't ask the other soul not to break loose, and I can't stop him from trying. He's stronger than me."
"There's a defeatist attitude if I've ever heard one," Claude said irritably. "Get a backbone, man! I think I understand where this Sylar personality came from in the first place—you're practically begging for domination."
"I am not," Gabriel snapped. "I just wanted to be noticed."
"Well, now you have been," Claude said. "Good job. You got what you wanted, and he got it for you."
"All right," Mr. Bennet said, calmly mediating. "There's no point arguing the psychology of this. What we need to find out is if it's possible to permanently subdue Sylar. If not—"
"Then what?" Gabriel said, head snapping up. "You'll kill me, right? Can't have Sylar running around."
Mr. Bennet winced, blindsided by his unexpected perception. "Well," he started.
"It's all right," Gabriel broke in, eerily calm and determined. "I thought about killing myself weeks ago, but I couldn't figure out how to do it."
Claude snorted. "That's exactly what I'm talking about," he said. "Don't you have any will to live at all? If you had an ounce of fight in you, this wouldn't be a problem."
"Claude," Mr. Bennet said warningly.
"Even Peter was better than this, and that's saying something."
As the words came out of his mouth he instantly realized the name he shouldn't have said, but there was only had a split-second of forewarning, a familiar fanatic eye-glint before the storm broke, broke out, broke through. Sylar came bursting through the tissue-paper willpower of Gabriel Gray, ravenous and lucidly feral with his control collar on the ground. Mr. Bennet and Claude responded with mach-five reaction time, snapping their guns up and shooting with professional aim, but it was far too late.
Sylar swept them along with their bullets, pushed them before a wave of pent-up telekinesis into the wall, slamming them unconscious with their guns clattering down at their sides. He smiled, gritty and tenuously sane, almost glowing with freedom, weighing the lives of his former captors against the voices that were coming up the stairs, confused and worried at the noise of his homecoming. With a small sigh to himself he bowed to common sense and slid into the hallway, glancing back at the unmoving forms with a silent promise, an addition to his checklist coming just overruled by the importance of staying alive. He would be back for them, and then they would be dead.
Candice felt the buzzing of her cell phone against her leg like an angry insect, trapped, actively irritating. She swore quietly and fished it out of her pocket, changing her angry tone only just in time when she saw who it was. "Linderman," she said, smiling hard. "I appreciate the checkup, but this is really not a good time."
"That's not my concern," he told her disapprovingly. "I need an update from you, and I need it now—'I'm working on it' is no longer an acceptable answer. I need to know if you're going to get me Peter before we all die of old age."
"Depends," she said sarcastically. "You'll die sooner than me, you're really old already."
"If you don't start doing what I ask, that may not be true," he said, threat couched in a comfortable easy manner.
"Look, I'm outside the house right now, okay?" she said. "It's not like I'm sitting around in Starbucks drinking frappucinos all day, I am trying. I don't even have a partner anymore, remember?"
"Yes, that was unfortunate," Linderman said, and she was surprised to hear a note of real concern in his voice. "I don't suppose you've managed to learn anything more about Jonathan's fate?"
"That sounds like a huge waste of time," Candice said coldly. "Bennet would have no reason to keep him alive. Weren't you just yelling at me about how we're on a schedule?"
"I never yell," Linderman said with admirable self-possession.
"Right," Candice said darkly, pushed to the brink of her patience by endless surveillance and construction workers and mental snapshots of Peter with his hair all over his face and his smile like white Christmas lights. "Well, I'll have you know that things are getting pretty desperate here—I'm bored to death and frustrated, and I'm probably going to end up doing something that you won't approve of."
"At this point, I'd welcome anything," Linderman said tiredly.
"I guess we'll see, won't we?" Candice said, voice glittering with last-shot purpose. "Well, I'm going to go—I've got some Petrellis to terrorize."
"Call me when you make progress," Linderman commanded, "and Candice?"
"It had better be soon."
She made a face into the receiver and snapped the phone shut with more force than necessary, pushing her shifted-disguise-blond hair out of her eyes and glaring at the Petrelli house as if she could make it crumble with sheer force of will. She wished she could; she wanted to kill him. She wanted to kill him and didn't want to kill him, wanted to tear and burn him out of her thoughts, wanted to stroke the side of his face like a lover and to shoot him in the head.
She was unceremoniously snapped out of her love/hating by the sight of movement in the house, a flurry of shadows that meant action like she hadn't seen for days. Her blood pumped up to quicktime and she settled into a ready stance, bracing her feet against the wet grimy pavement. She watched a figure drop from the second-story window, so reminiscent of her own Alcatraz escape, and she quickly positioned herself to meet the escapee just as he was coming onto the street. As the face began to come out of shadow, sharpening into familiarity, she was struck by a sudden bolt of certainty that this was a bad idea. His head swung around to her, characteristic narrow-eyed Sylar, like a jackal smelling blood. Panic crackled up her spine—he can't possibly recognize me, she told herself. I'm shifted, I'm disguised, I look like freaking Marilyn Monroe, there's no way he knows who I am.
He didn't seem to care about impossibilities—before she knew, he was grabbing her arm and dragging her into deep shadow, looking at her like he wanted to eat her, like she was one of his victims. Then it hit her—he can sense my power. He doesn't know me but he'll kill me anyway. She had no intention of being a checkmark on his list—she shoved him away hard, and pulled her gun on him, startling him enough to buy a few sentences.
"You want to kill me?" she snapped. "Go ahead, slice my skull off right on the Petrelli's doorstep, that's really smart. How long do you think it will take them to get here? How long do you think it will take for me to put a bullet in your head?"
"Do I know you?" he said, angling for a hole in her defenses, a weakness with which to reduce her to a red splash on the wall.
Linderman is not going to be happy with this one, she thought grimly as she made her choice, knowing that there were no choices left for her, no roads without roadblocks. She gave an internal sigh and took the leap, shifting down into her normal body, seeing his eyes catch fire with recognition. "I work for Linderman," she said. "I'm after Peter Petrelli, and I think we might be able to help each other." It was the right tactic—she saw his shoulders thrust forward at the name, barely-contained motion.
"What if I said I don't need your help?" he said warily.
"Then I'd say you're a fool," she said bluntly. "Of course you need my help, what are you going to do, just walk out there into a street full of people who watched America's Most Wanted on TV last night?" She concentrated for a moment and blurred the air around him, changing him into a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair, unrecognizable. There was a noise behind them, the sound of a window sliding open, a yell. "You'd better choose fast," she warned. "They're coming."
She shifted him back, and now he was looking at her with a different sort of predatory stare, the kind she got in bars and clubs—she could feel his eyes over every inch of her skin, raising goosebumps. She noticed for the first time how very attractive he was, for a serial killer, and she smiled to herself. This looked to be a more foolish situation than even she had anticipated, but on the other hand, there was nothing like a possibly-fatal rebound to take her mind off Peter.
There was another noise above them, and she turned to go but he caught her by the shoulder, leaving his hand on her skin for much longer than he should have. "Wait," he said. "I'm coming with you."
Katie pulled a slim volume from the library shelf, gold letters pressed into the leather in the sprawling script that had caught her eye, a familiar name connected to familiar memories. William Ernest Henley the spine read, and the words sparked chain reactions in her mind—her fingers knew exactly what she was looking for, and she found it within minutes. "Out of the night that covers me/" she read aloud, her words absorbed by the soft wood and paper. "Black as the Pit from pole to pole/ I thank whatever gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul/." She barely needed to read the words, so burned were they into her, branded, black scar tissue inches deep. And there they were, the last lines that was more battle cry than poem, a defiant scream into a hurricane, striking sparks against anything strong that had ever been in her. "I am the master of my fate/" she read. "I am the captain of my soul/."
She sat down on the couch with the book still in her hand, remembering the way she'd clung to those words with fierce bitter irony in the years where she'd been alone with nothing but white walls and helplessness. For a person with no freedom, they were nearly alcoholic, intoxicating in their headlong rebellion. She'd read them and told herself that she was the captain of her soul, like a psychiatrist soothing a patient, telling herself that there were things that she could control no matter what else happened. Of course, she realized now that there wasn't much that they couldn't take from her, the mobsters and the guards and the doctors with their tests, but the poem had seemed to help, then—she'd lived vicariously through it long enough to get out, mostly unscathed. She had never been as strong as William Ernest Henley, or even Peter Petrelli, but it was a comfort to know that there was strength in the world, that there were screams against the hurricane even if she wasn't the one screaming.
As if summoned by her thoughts, a genie from a bottle, Peter appeared through the double doors. "Hey there," he said, smiling like a sunrise. "I've been looking for you."
"How's it going upstairs?" she asked. "Are Mr. Bennet and Claude okay?"
"I don't know," he told her simply.
"I thought you were patching them up, Nurse Boy," she said, brow puckered with worry.
"I was," he said. "They're not going to die anytime soon, but they've got some lovely bruises."
"Good to know," she said, placated. "Now, why were you looking for me?"
"I want to show you something," he said with blunt mysterious charm. "Follow me."
She swiftly overcame her natural distrust in favor of his eyes and smile, following him through the hall with his hand a gentle pressure on her wrist. "Peter, what is this?" she laughed as they came to the back door. "We're not allowed outside, remember?"
"Come on," he urged, his smile burning brighter as he pulled her out the door.
Defenseless against him as always, she was about to step out after him when she heard a puzzling noise—Peter's voice. Slicing down from the top floor was the unmistakable light tenor, an inexplicable phenomenon that made her instantly backpedal from the hand around her wrist. It was too late—the grip tightened and she felt a sharp prick on her arm, chemicals pumping into her before she could tear away or open her mouth. Candice, her mind said with crystal lucidity, her last waking thought before the world all slid together, collided, and turned to black.
"You really think this is going to work?" Sylar said, gazing at Katie where she lay like a corpse on the carpet, dubious and not a little hungry, like a starving man surrounded by a banquet that he couldn't eat. He was feeling the pulse of Candice and Katie against his consciousness, already imagining what he could do with their abilities, what it would be like to take the rush of power into himself and be more important, better and stronger. He hadn't known that he had this much discipline, but after all it was only for now, delaying instant gratification in search of a larger goal, the goal, the obsession.
"It'll work," Candice said confidently, sidling up beside him so that their arms were brushing, sending two kinds of lust through his skin. "He's absolutely crazy about this girl, and he's got such a hero complex anyway that he'd do anything we ask."
"Why don't I just kill her instead?" Sylar said, thinking out loud. "She's meant to have the same ability as him, right?"
"You don't mean that," Candice said silkily. "I know how much you want him, it's not just a power thing anymore. And even if it was, she's not nearly as powerful as him." She watched him against the lights, killer-in-profile, and she wondered just exactly how long she would be able to keep him in check. She was slam-dancing on thin ice, juggling chainsaws, standing in a house on fire with the roof about to come down. In spare moments she let herself wonder why she was doing this—how, with all her training and cynicism, she had managed to get into this situation. She could only ever come up with one answer: Peter. He was in her head, three kisses that burned under her subconscious and left her thirsty, powerless, and she would get him out of her if she had to cut him out herself.
"So what do we do?" Sylar asked, voice thick with curbed impatience. "Send a ransom note? That's kind of tasteless, and predictable."
Candice marveled again at his sharpness, the cut-glass edges of his unexpected intelligence. She'd always been amused at his various breakouts and escapes, interpreting him as nothing more than an animal, wild and inexplicable. That was a part of him, it was true, but the surprise came from other places—his calmness, his confidence, his cold Faustian humanity. He had a charisma and a dark healthy glow, disarming, dangerous. He was an animal and he was so much more, layers collapsing in on layers like a well-constructed house of cards.
"I told you," she said to him, "it doesn't matter if we're predictable, because Peter reads like a book. We tell him where to meet us and he'll be there, wide-eyed and heroic."
"All right, then," he said. "Let's give him a call."
They had somehow turned toward each other in the course of their conversation, coming to stand face-to-face, nose-to-nose with the buzz of sexual tension charging the air between them. Neither of them were known for their self-control—they lasted only a few seconds.
"Oh, come here," Candice said, and kissed him.
Claire stuck her head into the bedroom, brown hair sweeping over her face. "Peter," she called. "There's someone on the phone for you."
Peter wiped his bloody hands on the bedsheets—an action that he knew he'd regret when his mother saw it but couldn't be bothered to think about now—and headed toward the door. "Claude, keep that ice on your leg," he instructed. "Bennet, you're good to go, just no fast movements for awhile."
Claire passed him on his way out, hugging her father with tears in her eyes that she made sure he couldn't see, worry piled on love piled on what-would-I-do-if-I-lost-you. Peter smiled wryly as he glanced back at her, frankly jealous of the parent-child relationship he saw in Mr. Bennet and Claire, in Nathan and his own father. He was glad that Claire had the bond that she did, but that didn't stop their inside jokes and affectionate touches from grating on old skeletons, eight months buried. He crossed the hallway and picked up the phone, tone more brusque than he'd intended. "Hello?"
"Hi, honey." The voice on the other end immediately tipped his teetering mood, plunging him sideways into heart-in-mouth alarm.
"Candice? How did you get this number? What do you want?" He wished he sounded less frantic, more threatening, but that was Nathan's specialty and not his.
"Aren't you missing something?" Her tone was light, mocking, a cat not yet ready to kill.
"I said, what do you want?" There, that was a bit more Nathan, a bit more steel in his voice.
"Take a head count, sweetheart, you're down a player. Or didn't you notice she was gone?"
It took him a moment to understand, but then the phone was dropping from his nerveless fingers, hitting the floor with a sound like thunder to his shellshocked ears. He stared at it, unblinking, as his mind processed this new disaster. Katie. She's got Katie.
There was noise coming out of the phone still, and he forced himself to pick it up and hold it to his ear, make motions of normalcy. "Now that I've got your attention," she purred, "let me tell you how this is going to work. Tomorrow at noon, you'll come to Kirby Park. If you're there, you can trade yourself for her like it's an auto dealership, and she'll walk."
"What happens to me?"
"Now, you don't expect me to spoil the surprise, do you? Don't worry, it'll be fun—I've missed you." Her voice was full of wicked, razored amusement. "I'm sure you've seen enough movies to know the drill here: come alone, don't try anything funny or you'll never see darling Katie again, blah blah blah."
"I'll kill you," he said, his voice dead. "I'll kill you."
"I'll kill your girlfriend," she said sweetly. "New rule: no stupid threats. I'll see you tomorrow, Peter—don't even think about standing me up."
"She said to come alone," Peter said dully, staring at his hands so that they couldn't see how worried he was, how weak. I'm such an idiot. I can't believe I was stupid enough to fall in love again. Apparently I'm a slow learner.
"Well, screw that," Claude said blankly. "What, are you stupid?"
"Yes," he said firmly, "and I really don't want to get her killed, okay?"
"That's fine," Mr. Bennet said calmly, "but there are better ways to do this. You need to let us help you."
"Right," Peter said unconvincingly
"I should call Angela—" Claude started.
"Don't," Peter cut in immediately. "Don't call her, don't call Nathan. They've got more important things to worry about right now."
"More important than you playing sacrificial lamb?" Mr. Bennet said sharply. "Let's be honest, Peter, you might as well shoot yourself in the head than hand yourself over to that woman."
"It is my fault they've got her, and I am not going to just leave her there!" Peter came violently to his feet, knocking his chair over backwards.
"Peter," Claire pleaded, grabbing his sleeve. "Let us help. We can get you both out of this, it doesn't have to be one or the other. Please let us try to fix this." She pulled him back down, setting his chair upright and soothing him with her aloe-vera voice. He felt his nerves fizzle against her gentleness and die a little—he was so raw, bruised all over with emotion and high-strung threat, but it helped to have her understand.
"Okay," he said. "What did you have in mind?"
Sometimes Nathan felt like he'd never get a chance to step into a Congressional office at all, would simply keel over with exhaustion like an overworked dray horse before he was ever inaugurated. He'd thought campaigning had been hard, but it turned out that campaign hours were nothing compared to the life of a Congressman—he was yanked to and fro by an overflowing agenda, inflexible and enforced by a legion of uncompromising aides. Dinners, conventions, interviews all flew by with dizzying rapidity, and he felt like he hadn't caught his breath in years. Through all of it he had to stay upright and conscious, to keep smiling and addressing Issues for the upturned faces of the public, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could keep the smile from cracking.
His mother had told him that it was only like this in the beginning, that it would calm down once he was inaugurated and he would have plenty of time for breathing and golf. All he could think was that he now understood why politicians always seemed crazy, corrupt and abnormal—nobody could go through all of this and come out sane, not Mother Theresa or Superman and certainly not Nathan Petrelli.
He'd been up since four o'clock that morning, rewriting a speech that hadn't turned out like he'd wanted, getting dressed in his limo and gulping down a breakfast shake on the way to a rally in Manhattan. During the drive, he'd managed to shore up his willpower behind his three hours of sleep, but when he'd stepped out of the limo he was instantly pulled aside, whisked from his path like he weighed nothing by his considerably larger bodyguards.
"What is this?" he demanded irritably, decidedly not in the mood for irregularity.
"Sorry, Mr. Petrelli," his head of security, Perez, said deferentially. "We need to leave."
"Leave? What? I have a rally to go to!" He pulled his arm out of the man's grip, now seriously annoyed.
"I'm sorry, sir," Perez said implacably, "we have to go, there's a serious terrorist threat and the city is going to be evacuated within the hour. There's a helicopter waiting outside for you."
"Terrorist threat," Nathan said quietly. "Ted Sprague."
Nathan snapped back into the moment, grabbing his guard by the lapel. "Ted Sprague, is his name Ted Sprague?"
"Yes, I think so," Perez confirmed, carefully detaching the hand from his jacket. "Now if you'll follow me—"
"Dammit, I will not follow you," Nathan snapped. "Somebody get me a phone!"
"Mr. Petrelli," Perez said, losing his politeness in favor of doing his job, "don't make me do something we'll both regret."
"If I do not talk to my brother right now," Nathan said, shoving a finger into his bodyguard's face, "he will die. Thousands of people will die, do you understand?"
Perez grabbed his arm and steered him forcefully away. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that, sir—if you'll recall, your brother is also a wanted terrorist. You're a Congressman of the United States of America and it is your duty to get in that helicopter and get to safety."
Nathan pulled away, bridling like a colt with his first saddle, furious. "Get me," he said, voice low and smoldering danger, a physical force, "a phone."
"I'm sorry, sir."
"For this," Perez said, and he punched Nathan.
"You're lying," Claire accused.
Peter widened his eyes over his cards. "Claire! Would I do such a thing?"
"Yes," she said firmly. "There are only two cards left in the pile, Peter—the probability of you having that queen is pretty unbelievably high."
"Well, I was never much good at math," he said implacably. "Go fish."
She grinned at him, and for a moment he even smiled back, which meant that her card-game distraction ploy was working. She wasn't nearly as good at pity-distraction as he was, but she was doing her best to keep him from self-flagellation and despair. She sighed dramatically and plucked a card from the thin pile. "Fine. Your turn."
Their game was interrupted suddenly as Mr. Bennet came into the room, uncharacteristically disheveled with his tie cutting crookedly across his chest. "You two," he said, "go pack, now!"
"Pack?" Peter said blankly. "What for?"
"Are you deaf?" Mr. Bennet asked, sharper than Claire had ever heard him speak. He crossed the room in a few strides and threw the bay windows open, letting in a blast of noise like a stereo with the bass too loud, blurred loudspeaker words. "…nuclear terrorist threat," they heard. "All citizens must evacuate the city at once. Repeat: evacuate the city at once."
Claire surged to her feet, scattering cards over the carpet. "Ted," she gasped. "How did he get out? What are we going to do?"
"We're going to leave," Mr. Bennet said, taking her by the arm. "Five minutes to pack, Claire bear, hop to it."
"What, we're just going to leave?" Peter said, appalled. "It's eleven o'clock—I'm supposed to go after Katie in less than an hour, they still have her! Not to mention the whole damn city is going to go up in flames, and we're the only people who can stop it."
"Not sure what you had in mind, there, Jack Bauer," Bennet said impatiently, "but I am just a paper salesman. I'm a little more interested in saving my daughter than saving the world."
"Fine," Peter seethed. "Go! Run away! I have an appointment in Kirby Plaza and I am not going to miss it!"
"I wish I could let you make that choice," Mr. Bennet said coolly. "You're a danger to yourself and to your city, and you simply cannot go out there without a plan."
"We had a plan," Peter said. "You're the one who doesn't seem to want to follow
it anymore. You want to stop me?" He took a step back, planting his feet against the carpet and throwing his hands out to either side, defiant come-get-me with a dangerous spark in his eye. "Try."
"What do you want me to do?" Mr. Bennet said icily. "Tackle you? I'm starting to understand why your brother has so many gray hairs."
"If you want to stop me leaving, it's going to have to be something pretty damn drastic, and it's going to have to be in the next ten seconds." Peter said, crossing his arms. As they watched, he began to disappear in on himself, dissolving into invisible air. Mr. Bennet instinctively started forward, but it was too late—they heard footsteps on the windowsill and then the window was swinging open, the only signs of his unstoppable departure.
Mr. Bennet put a hand on his head, bottling his obscenities for the benefit of Claire, who was standing next to him, staring at the window like she thought it might explain to her what had just happened. They both stared for a moment in mutual silence and consternation, trying to resolve the issues of trust and sacrifice. Then, Claire turned and looked him in the eyes, and he knew with a sudden sharp surety that the daughter he had raised was gone for good. The woman standing before him had no room in her head for indulgence or smallminded suburban life—she was cosmopolitan and hard, beautiful and hard, self-reliant and reliable and diamond-rock-hard. She was a cockroach; she was a survivor, and she knew what she loved. She knew who she was and she wouldn't be detracted, would not be beaten. There would be no lying to his daughter anymore—she was all grown up now, and ready to face her own lies.
"Right," she said. "Let's go after him."
"Well, this is nice," Candice said briskly, propping her stillettoed feet on an empty park bench. "I suppose this is what it must feel like to be in Disney World after hours." Sylar gave her a tense smile, but Katie ignored her, staring out at the endless stretch of empty cars on the street beside them, a skeleton graveyard of humanity. They'd watched citizens-turned-refugees pour out of the city, running as New Yorkers never did away from a problem that they couldn't yell down. Now they were alone—three small nobodies in a city of nothing, consumed by vast empty spaces and the echoes of tiny sounds. It made Candice uncomfortable. "Don't worry, sweetie," she said to Katie. "I'm sure your knight in shining armor will be here any minute. Of course, he might have decided to get the hell out and save his life, but no one ever accused him of being smart."
"Please shut up," Katie said calmly, staring a straight line down the street.
"Or what?" Candice said, snarky bad temper out in full strength, charged by her uneasiness.
"Or I'll give you a really mean glare," Katie said sarcastically. "Why? Obviously you have the upper hand in this situation, but you just can't seem to be quiet, can you? You kidnapped me, slapped a collar on me like I'm some kind of domesticated animal, dragged me here, and now you want what from me?"
"I just want to make sure you know what you've got here," Candice bit back. "Frankly, I don't know what Peter sees in you, your eyes are too close together and you're so boring, but there's no accounting for taste. I'm not sure how you scored Mr. Right, but you had damn well better be grateful for it, and you'd better know that whatever happens to him today, it will be your fault."
Katie laughed with a sharp bitterness that sounded strange coming out of her natural sweetness. "You're jealous," she said, smiling so that her teeth just barely showed. "That is so romance novel of you! And here I thought you had a boyfriend."
Candice flicked her eyes to Sylar's coiled still form at the end of the bench—he hadn't spoken for hours, going deeper and deeper into himself until he was nothing but intensity and dilated black eyes. He was still nice to look at, the sharp jaw and the sweep of his cheekbone, but he scared her a little. "Don't you just love it how, when you kiss Peter, he gets his hands all tangled up in your hair? I mean right at the back of your neck, practically feels like a massage—"
"Did I tell you shut up already?" Katie said, but her skin was flushing under its golden tone, turning to a heated, angry russet. "Or was that just wishful thinking?"
In that moment, there was a sudden prick on the horizon, an approaching blot of shadow that made them both instantly silent, argument forgotten. Sylar leaned forward on the bench, thrumming with contained energy that threatened to burst out like a tidal wave, all-consuming and vicious with undertow. "Speak of the devil," she said lightly, voice grating over last-minute guilt. You're doing your job, she told herself sharply. This is a good thing. He's a problem for The Company and he's a problem for you—if he's in this world one more instant you will be at his feet begging to move into a house with a white picket fence. You're in love with him, and it needs to stop. She felt slightly bad about consigning him to a bloody, severed-skull death, but at least it would be quick. See, you're doing him a favor, she tried to convince herself. If you let him live and dragged him back to Vegas, he would be begging for death within hours. At least this will only hurt for a minute.
Her rationalizations were getting more and more ridiculous, sounding hysterical even to her own denial-blocked ears. You don't have to do anything, she told herself firmly. You couldn't stop it now if you tried. Peter was only blocks away now and coming far too fast, not anything like dramatic movie entrances and not seeming to care. She saw Katie sit up straight beside her, torn with relief and worry, dragged into two pieces by her sense of self-preservation.
She could tell the moment Peter caught sight of Sylar, his steps halting for a second and his eyes going wide with surprise and dismay. To his credit, he kept coming, walking through his fear until he stepped onto the grass of the park, ten feet away from them. Sylar rose from the park bench and they stood facing each other, parallel, like two gunfighters in a western waiting for the first draw.
"What is he doing here?" Peter said, but he barely got it out of his mouth before the question was answered spectacularly, violently. Sylar lunged toward him, lashing out with his power and throwing Peter back into the street, slamming him into a taxi with enough force to break the frame into twisted bent pieces that punched through Peter's chest like cardboard. Katie's heart skipped a breathcaught beat to see the blood pumping out over the ugly warped metal even as she knew it was fixable, prayed that he would be able to pull himself back from death quick enough to stop Sylar, who was advancing on him with a hungry eager step that said he had only seconds left.
Just as Sylar reached the destroyed taxi (second time he's been killed by a taxi, she thought hysterically, he should stay away from them, one of these days it's going to stick) Peter began moving again, pulling himself off the pieces that had impaled him with a tearing throated cry, pain that usually meant death. Sylar leapt back in surprise, apparently new to this particular ability of Peter's, snarling with the frustration of not winning as easily as he'd thought. "Of course," he said, biting off each word. "The cheerleader, how silly of me. Well, that just makes it a little harder."
"Try a lot harder," Peter said breathlessly, bloody as a victim in a horror movie. His shoulders came straighter as the last of his fatal wounds healed, and Sylar instinctively braced himself at the expression on his face, cornered and dangerous. Katie saw Peter's eyes flick to her, could almost read his mind even with the control collar on—she could tell he wanted to let loose, go full throttle as he'd never had the chance to, but he was too worried about her to try it. Sylar would be one hundred percent concentrated on him, but Peter would have Katie hindering him, splitting his attention. This was not good.
Sylar came at him like a cat pouncing, purely physical attack from inches away. Peter made his move just before Sylar hit, turning himself invisible, fading into nothing but the backdrop of the empty city. Sylar snatched at the blank space and touched nothing, whirling with a snarl on his surroundings that were so deceitfully cloaking his prey. He cocked his head to the side and stood still, shaking with toxic tension—his eyes snapped right, and he threw his hand out like he was casting a spell, violent and sure. Katie and Candice's bench shuddered under sudden impact, and Peter came visible again, pinned motionless against the wood.
Candice leapt to her feet, annoyed at this unwarned disruption, but Katie stayed sitting, grabbing onto the bench to keep herself from running like a startled deer. She tried to figure out what help she could possibly be to Peter, trapped like a bug under glass with Sylar coming closer, and her with nothing but her nerves and bare fists. But he didn't need her help—he pushed back with his own telekinesis, sending Sylar skidding away with enough pressure to release the hold and let him up.
Before Sylar could recover, Peter's attention was on Katie, hands at her neck scrabbling with the control collar. She felt the heat of the metal melting, dripping onto her skin but she didn't cry out, couldn't distract him and only tightened her grip on the bench. Just as he'd managed to get it off there was no more time, Sylar was back and Katie was no longer in the picture, only two titans clashing with the force of a breaking thunderstorm, elemental and impossible and bright with power.
Katie felt the energy rush back into her as she scrambled to get out from between them, the abilities that had been locked away and were now coming back to make her whole. Through the charge she felt something else, more subtle and frightening, the prickle of sixth-sense warning at the back of her neck. She turned just in time to see Candice bring a gun up behind her, and she swept her hand out against the attack, sending Candice into a tree several feet away. The woman screamed but didn't let go of the gun, tenaciously keeping her hold and swinging it back to point at Katie, sending a line of fire that she just managed to duck. The bullets were coming at her fast and too close, and twisted exploded debris was slicing in from Peter and Sylar, and it was too much, too much—
She stumbled behind the bench and fell to her knees, her thoughts all swimming to chaos and her body shuddering like an earthquake. The world kept churning around her, tearing itself to pieces but she couldn't move, couldn't move couldn't see couldn't breathe and she was so useless and broken, alive with nothing to live for. Her brain ground to a halt and everything was frozen and she was frozen, an empty statue with only the sound of her grating breath in her ears.
Two sounds registered with her frayed consciousness: the sharp metallic click of a gun being cocked, Candice with her gun inches away from her head and seconds from pulling the trigger—and Peter. Behind her, she heard him scream like his soul was being torn out from his chest, a sound that punched through the chaos and seared against her awareness, shattering her to pieces. Peter, her brain said, lucid at last and building momentum, snapped into reality by the sound of his voice.
She heard the gun fire and before she knew it her arm was lashing out, snatching the bullet out of the air with a speed that she'd forgotten she had, buried for years under trauma. She dropped the bullet onto the ground and swept her foot at Candice, kicking her feet out from under her and sending her tumbling to the grass. Katie immediately went for the gun, wrestling it out of her grip as Candice scrambled back, giving Katie a thirty-second window to shoot her to death.
The gun felt strange and cold in her hand, and the idea of murder felt equally as alien as it tried to force itself through to her hands, tried to make her pull the trigger. Candice saw the freeze in her eyes, the panic coming on, and she took advantage of it as she'd been taught to do. She leapt forward under Katie's gunsight, reaching to grab it from her hands—and then the sound of a shot bit into the air, breaking the emptiness of the city into separate shards. Katie looked down on Candice where she collapsed, blood running out onto the green of the grass, and tried to understand what had happened. Did I do that? Did I shoot her? What just happened?
Behind her she heard sounds, footsteps, and then Mr. Bennet was standing beside her with his gun spitting smoke. He watched Candice dispassionately as she struggled to draw breath past the metal lodged in her chest and failed, dying. "Well, that was close, wasn't it?" he said.
Katie didn't reply, not sure whether to thank him for saving her or yell at him for murder. Three more figures appeared beside Mr. Bennet, Claire, Claude, and Jonathan, she was surprised to see Jonathan but she supposed they couldn't have just left him. They were the good guys.
No one was looking at Candice anymore, attention caught by the harsh sound of explosion—something big going down in Kirby Park, something epic like a legendary battle of the gods. Claire saw Peter and started reflexively forward, but Jonathan caught her arm and dragged her back. "You can't," he told her. "This is way out of our league."
Katie, watching the yin-yang magnates of power toss impossibilities at each other like they were snowballs, was inclined to agree. As they looked on, tense and helpless sideline spectators, Peter sent electric bolts at Sylar that were thick as his wrist, wielding lightning without a thought but to stay alive. Sylar caught the bolts with a wall of freezing cold, turning them deadly jagged ice spears that he slung back at Peter with blinding speed, a rain of icicles like teeth gaping to chew him apart. Peter batted them away with a sweep of his hand and they shattered on rocks, impaled trees but didn't impale him.
They were feet away and neither could move closer, polar magnets with an invisible buffer of power between them. Peter had blood on his shoulder and legs but no wounds, aftereffects of healed injury—Sylar was not so injured but not so lucky, a shallow gash showing through the arm of his jacket. They circled each other like swordfighters, looking for holes, looking for weaknesses and finding none. Sylar's hand shot out behind him and a car rose from the street, suspended as if on wires and hurtling toward Peter like a comet. He threw his arms up instinctively over his face, and the car came to a shuddering halt but Katie could see it quivering, barely stopped. Peter lost the hold and the car slipped a few more inches, jolting down to crush him but then caught again, and Claire gave a small scream through the hand over her mouth.
Peter looked over at the sound of her voice, startled, and Sylar grabbed the opening, slamming in with his stronger telekinesis to bring the car down on Peter, pinning him to the ground with a sickening crunch. Looking horrified, Claire immediately started forward and this time Katie was with her, drawn out by peril and pain—Jonathan and Mr. Bennet stopped them before they got a few steps, shouldering in front of them while Claude grabbed their arms and jerked them back.
"Stop it!" Mr. Bennet said sharply. "He's fine, but he won't be if you get in the way!"
Sure enough, Peter was already pushing the car off like a vintage Superman comic, healing breaks and cuts with a quickness that was almost quick enough, almost enough to beat Sylar. As Peter pulled his legs out from under the car, Sylar was already on top of him, putting his hands on the metal frame and melting it, turning it liquid and bringing it down on Peter's legs, blistering liquid hot metal. His head snapped back and he screamed, sending Sylar flying back with the force of his sudden, searing pain.
Immediate threat dealt with, he put his own hands on the metal encasing his legs, forcing it to melt away and free him. Katie gagged at the sight of his calves, blistered and charred, black and red and raw and healing far more slowly than she would have liked. He struggled to his feet and stumbled, unable to hold himself up on his still-mending legs, grabbing the park bench for support.
Sylar was already up and shaking off the blow, levitating pieces of shrapnel to his shoulders, building momentum to send them bulleting at his foe. Peter heard the whir of the metal just in time and threw up a hasty shield, causing the shards to bounce harmlessly feet away. He called up the electricity again, sucking power from streetlights to throw them into eerie half-shadow that was lit only by the crackling volts in his hands. He threw a tangled clot of electricity at Sylar and the man barely dodged it, diving to the side and showing worry for the first time in the drawn lines of his brow.
Peter pulled in more electricity, charging the air around him to a surreal supernaturality that even Jonathan had never achieved, like a lightning storm with him at the center feeding fueling creating the storm. Sylar took a three-second look at him, strong and wild and crackling power, and swiftly backpedaled, retreating behind a row of cars.
Claire watched his silhouette against the snapping voltage and wanted to go to him, but didn't dare, breath caught in her throat at the sight of him so fiercely powerful like nothing she'd ever seen. She understood now how a man could destroy a city, how a human being could be so all-consumingly intensely strong that nothing could stop him or stand against him. She understood what they were afraid of.
Sylar, too, was starting to see how very much he'd bitten off. This was not like he'd expected, ever expected to see. He'd wanted power but he'd never known how much power there was, contained in one person like a fragile clay shell. It filled him with uncontrollable lust, and it made him afraid. He hadn't planned on ever finding something he couldn't handle.
Something moved in the corner of his sightline, and he jerked his head around instantly to see a man, walking down the street with exultant vicious steps, taking in the empty city like it was his own personal validation. The recognition was there instantly, the knowledge that this man was not ordinary but special, prey for taking even if he wasn't Peter. A deeper realization picked up on the man's face, his beard and sunken eyes and told him that this was the cause of the empty city, the man who had Hiroshima in him.
He watched surges of radiation ripple out from the man like probing feelers, small but toxic, scorching everything around him. He watched the way his bones lit up and the easy brutal confidence and he thought, Such power, a marveling and a desire. The power to level a city. The power to destroy a world. In that instant his decision was made for him—with this kind of power at his hands he would easily be able to kill Peter Petrelli, to match him impossibility for impossibility and take him down like a falcon stooping from the perfect blue sky.
He stood up and began moving forward.
Peter wasn't going to let Sylar get away, not this time, but he was willing to wait for the killer to come to him. The man was somewhere out in those cars, skulking retreat and regrouping, and Peter was fine with that. As he'd fought he'd drawn deeper and deeper in himself, and had found with each stretch that there was more depth than he'd thought, more power and more strength. His confidence had built and he knew now what he was, in ways that he never suspected from his former tentative dips into his ability. He could win this fight. He could do anything.
He let the electric firestorm subside a bit once Sylar was out of sight, but still kept his defenses up and his eyes sharp for the kind of ambush-attacks that the man had been consistently pulling. He turned sideways to look at his audience, the people that he'd seen in snatches and flashed but had never had the time to stop for. Mr. Bennet, Claude, Katie, Jonathan, and Claire stood in a tense, bitten-fingernails straightness, looking as white as ghosts and looking at him like he was one. He gave them a tight smile and waved. Claire immediately starting coming forward but he motioned her back, worried.
"Cut it out, Claire," he said, affectionate but firm. "He's going to pop back up any minute, and you are going to get fried."
But Claire was no longer looking at him, eyes focusing over his shoulder just as a noise hit his ears, a scream followed by a sonic-boom explosion, and the sky was lit with a straight pillar of white red orange flame. "What the hell?" Claude shouted, and before he could stop them they were by his side, coming forward to see this new crisis.
They could see him between the cars, Sylar bursting radiation with his hands on his head like it was going to split, the body of Ted Sprague bloody at his feet. Peter understood the situation immediately, with the sharp desperation of disaster—Sylar had taken Ted's power and now he couldn't handle it, was losing it and was going to kill New York.
He felt Katie's hand on his wrist and she was yelling, "Shield, Peter! We have to shield!"
"Shield where?" he yelled back, and she knew immediately what he meant, hadn't taken this eventuality into account when they'd created their master plan. If they were to throw the two-hundred-foot shield that they'd intended it would encompass everyone, all the people that they'd loved going up in ash with no chance of reaching safety in time. But if they threw a smaller shield it would only protect them and not the glorious brash city full of loudness and life and people, the ones they'd seen who hadn't evacuated because they were New Yorkers, dammit, and they didn't run away and now would die for it.
There was only a split second for him to make the hardest decision of his life, tearing him in two halves like medieval torture. The city or them—humanity or them. Either one would leave him dead himself, lifeless, destroyer of life, and there was no good option or anything approaching a good option. Point zero seven percent. Eight thousand people. Or them. Block in or block out.
He should have known the decision he would make, had to make, and he made it with the knowledge that it would never be a regret, or rather regret he could deal with opposed to regret that would eat him alive. "Shield around them!" he yelled to Katie over the growing roar of radiation, the destruction sweeping closer. "Around us and them, nothing else, do you understand me?"
She responded by grabbing onto him and lacing her fingers through his, blue shields going up from their intertwined hands, around the people they loved who were falling back, clinging to each other with the knowledge of how close death was beating down on them and how hungrily it wanted to tear into them. Peter tried not to listen to their cries, had to concentrate on saving their lives, holding the shields that couldn't possibly hold, not against the terrible storm of nuclear chaos that was battering against them. He clung to Katie and in some part of his mind he knew they were screaming, could feel his nose bleeding and his ears, torn apart by millimeters as the forces of a nuclear missile pressed against their shields, and his vision went black, white, red with pain as he bit straight through his lip, and it couldn't hold, they couldn't hold—
And then there was silence.
For a long time, Peter didn't dare look up, knew that he couldn't stand the sight of charred skeletons that meant friends and failure. He simply sat with his forehead resting on Katie's, refusing to move forward in time until he was sure that he could take it. Finally he began to move, pulling his fingers out from hers with some difficulty, feeling like they'd been cemented into this position and never meant to change. He turned his head with fated foreboding and saw the one sight that could keep him sane—Mr. Bennet and Claude, Jonathan and Claire safe and alive, huddled in broken heaps like refugees but alive, saved.
He tried not to look past them but couldn't help it, couldn't stop himself from seeing the rest, the consequences like a bullet to the head. Beyond their small circle of undestroyed green was gray and black as far as he could see, city burned back to shining obsidian scabland. Piles of ash swirled and sifted in the wind where there used to be buildings and streets and people and life, scorched sterilized earth that was still hot to the touch. He saw the frames of buildings far away like skeletons, looming hostile broken things like gravestones telling of what used to be, and the smell—acrid, acid, burning inside his mouth with the tang of charred flesh.
Before he knew it he was on his hands and knees, retching, and Katie's hands were on his head and someone else's arms were slipping around him, holding him still. He looked up into blue eyes—it was Claire, the only part of this he knew he would never regret, possibly worth a whole city and then some.
"It's all right," Katie said soothingly. "We did it."
Did whathe wanted to say. Destroyed the whole city? We sure did, that was a responsible choice. "They're dead," he said. "Don't you understand? They're all dead."
"I'm not dead," Claire told him firmly, "and let me tell you, I appreciate it."
He mumbled something confused and pulled away from them, getting to his feet. As soon as he stood he knew it was a mistake, suddenly hit all at once by the energy he'd spent that he didn't have to spend, the gaping black-hole extent of his exhaustion. The world folded in on him and went abruptly, completely black.
Peter opened his eyes to a slightly less devastating view, a ceiling and walls that were anchors to normality that he hadn't expected to see again so soon. He propped himself carefully up on his arms and looked around, taking in the gutted room that surrounded him, blackened and crumbling like the building had been on fire. Scattered around the space were the five survivors, bright spots against the wreckage. They were engaged in various self-sufficient busy activities, shifting bedding, trying to start a fire, but when he started moving their eyes all came to him. They were conscious of his motions but less twitchy than before, less paranoid with quite simply nothing to be afraid of anymore.
He stood and turned to the window, looking out on the vast expanse of wasted metropolis, coughing already from inhaled ash. I did this, he thought numbly, and it made him think the end of the world even if it was only the end of a city, the end of his world and its foundations. It looked like a burned forest, all black vertical skeletons reaching to the sky to get away from the earth, stretching for anywhere that wasn't here, and he sympathized. I don't want to be here, he thought. I don't want to be in this place that I killed. I am so selfish it makes me want to die.
He felt Claire come up behind him, the specialized glow of her sweet charisma and her hand on his arm. "Hi," she said simply.
"Where are we?" he asked, because it was the easiest of all the thousand questions he had, the least painful.
"Somewhere in east Manhattan," she told him. "This was the first building we found that didn't seem likely to collapse. We found some food in a store with concrete walls, and Claude had a lighter in his pocket, but there's not much that hasn't been destroyed. Our phones are all out because of the electromagnetic pulse, my dad said, so we can't contact anyone, but I'm sure someone will come soon. We can survive until they do. We're okay"
"I'm finding it difficult to see what's 'okay' about this situation," Peter said, his voice crushed with guilt and heavy mortality.
Claire took his shoulders and turned him around so that he faced the room, forcing him to look on the people he'd saved. Claude was in the corner, trying to light a fire like he was the first man, like he was Prometheus with a driving desire for the flames. Mr. Bennet, hard-lined and unbreakable and seeming barely affected by the worst disaster in history. Jonathan laying out blankets like he did it every day, having lived through so much and used to the dark by now, willing to keep living even through this. Katie, more beautiful than ever with the edge of grit in her sharp-set jaw and the ash streaked over her face. And Claire beside him, somehow so special and important, so bright and he loved her so much, would sacrifice ten more cities for her and know that he made the right decision.
"We're still alive," she told him.
"That's not much."
She looked at him and she was hope, youth and stubbornness with an eye to the future even though the present was gone.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Well, there we have it—a sad ending and a happy ending (as far as 'happy' goes in "Heroes" :) it's happier, at least), pick your preference. Thanks for the integrity of your feedback and the push to do better. I love every one of you!