Disclaimer: All owned by NBC.
Spoilers: Until Run, I suppose.
Thanks to: Cadesama for yet another inspiring discussion, and Wychwood for beta-reading.
Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree
"I hear your aviation training is proceeding very well, Nathan," Mr. Linderman said with his transatlantic accent that never could be pinned down to a precise origin, just like the man himself. "Your father is quite eloquent on the subject, in fact."
There were, of course, any number of better things one could do with one's free Friday evening than have dinner with an old family friend. Especially when that old family friend was Mr. Linderman. Nathan had stopped believing in the war buddies reunion story about his father's involvement with Linderman when he was twelve. He didn't like to think about his father's biggest client being a man whose reputation was starting to equal Meyer Lansky's, but facts were facts. Being dragged to a diner for some unwanted avuncular advice was still galling. Nathan didn't plan on continuing the family association with Linderman, which was presumably what this meeting was going to be about. At least he couldn't imagine another reason why Linderman should show up in Kingsville, Texas.
"I do my best, sir," he said due to the manners his mother had drilled into him.
"But you're not planning to stay in the navy for good, are you?"
Nathan shook his head and wondered whether it was too early to make a pointed remark about intending to work for the state, in the prosecution of criminals, when a waitress showed up. Suddenly, the evening didn't seem such a chore anymore. She had blond, curly hair, hair that looked real and very touchable, great legs and an interesting, teasing smile when she asked whether she could take their orders. The name tag on her uniform said "Meredith", so he used it when asking her whether she could recommend anything.
"Go for the chili," she said. "If you think you can face the heat, New York."
"What gave it away?" Nathan asked with an exaggerated version of his New York accent, and she laughed. Linderman watched them with an amused and slightly wistful expression on his face.
At any other time of his life, Nathan would have wondered. About a lot of things, starting with the very perfunctory questions Linderman asked during their brief meal, about the ease and speed with which Linderman withdrew later, giving Nathan the opportunity to ask Meredith out. But not here, not now.
Texas was Oz, he thought later; Never-never land. And the moment you question the whys and wherefores, you know you have to leave.
Meredith once said they were from different worlds, and it certainly felt like it. He had picked up other girls during his time in Corpus Christi and Kingsville, of course, but that had been diversionary sex between hours of training; he hadn't dated them, and so most of the time hadn't even learned their addresses.
Meredith lived in a trailer, and wore handcrafted jewelry. Her place always looked a bit disorderly; comfortable in a way the exquisitely furnished rooms at the Petrelli home never were, full of bright colors which should have clashed but didn't, and couldn't have been further away from the black and white elegance he was familiar with. She seemed to have no further plan for her existence than making it through the next year; Nathan, who had mapped out his career with precise dates for every public office he wanted to hold, couldn't quite believe it. There were a lot of dog-eared paperbacks in her trailer, but when he asked her about college, she shook her head.
"Couldn't afford it," she said, without much regret in her voice. "But I bet I know something about literature they didn't teach you in any of your classes, Nathan."
He took her bet, and she curled up on the couch next to him and whispered in his ear:
"There isn't an Emily Dickinson poem in the world you can't sing to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas. Or the Gilligan's Island theme song."
He had to try it out, which was how she found out he had never watched Gilligan's Island. "You're such a terrible snob, Nathan Petrelli," she said and tickled him until he gave up and did sing for her, somewhat out of tune, but he did know the melody of Yellow Rose of Texas.
"A snob and a Yankee," Meredith said and made love to him while the helpless laughter was still humming in him.
Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.
Meredith's parents were dead. He met some of her friends, and a cousin. It didn't occur to Nathan to try and introduce her to his family, though all his friends at the base came to know her as his girl. New York City was a world away, though.
"Do you feel homesick?" Meredith asked in early December, and after some banter about Texas food and decent baseball games, he said, surprising himself with honesty:
"I miss the snow. The seasons, you know. And my little brother."
"Not your parents?"
His feelings about his parents were too complicated to qualify in terms like "homesickness" or "missing them". Or even the opposite. He wondered how Pop would be at Christmas; in one of his high-spirited moods, beaming with pride and warmth, withdrawn into the silence that felt like his father locking himself into his own body like a prisoner behind a wall of flesh, or in a rage that needed to lash out at something. Which was still better than the fourth possibility, the one they never, ever talked about, the one Nathan had first discovered after finding his father in the bathroom, blood pumping into the warm water.
There was no question about how his mother would be. Utterly in control, eyes searching, finding and judging every bit of his achievements during the last few months. He looked at Meredith and gave her his best rueful smile.
"Sure," he said. "Sure."
She looked sceptical, but she didn't voice it. "So how little is the little brother? 15? 16?"
"Eleven, actually," Nathan said, and told her a bit about Peter. Peter was the main reason why he knew he had to go home for Christmas. But to explain why would mean having to touch on the whole mess with his father and his moods, and he couldn't do that, so he polished up his usual range of cute kid anecdotes, some true, some not, and showed her a photo, taken during his spring leave.
"It's good to know," Meredith said. "That you like children. Most guys your age don't."
Most guys his age would have taken this remark as the early warning sign it was. Nathan, with his mind still in New York, trying to come up with damage control scenarios if Pop wasn't well during the holidays, just took it as a sign she believed him, and was relieved.
He didn't want Meredith to understand about his family. He wanted her whole and happy and content in her own world; everything a Petrelli wasn't.
She told him she was pregnant the day he after came back from his Christmas leave. He had bought tickets for a concert by the Kingsville Symphony Orchestra, which was staffed by students and faculty from Texas A&M University and thus not exactly the New York Philharmonic, but still the best thing around. It was supposed to be their New Year's Eve celebration, and when he saw her in her yellow dress, eyes sparkling, he fell in love with her all over again.
During the break, he went outside with Meredith to catch some fresh air and put his uniform jacket around her shoulders. Strictly speaking, it wasn't necessary. Even winter nights were warm in Texas. But he wanted to.
"Nathan," she started, stopped and then impulsively took his left hand and pressed it against her belly. "I – we – we're going to have a baby."
You left me, sweet, two legacies.
"Well," his mother said, "and what do you intend to do about it?"
"Marriage is out of the question," his father growled. "Not some white trash gold-digger from Texas."
"She's not – "
"Nathan, we're not living in a soap opera, so please spare us the passionate declaration about Ms. Gordon's virtues. You're old enough to listen to your mind instead of your hormones, so do. Of course your father and I have no means of stopping you from marrying whoever you want to marry, and with your pay from the navy you'll probably be able to live an idyllic life a deux in some base housing. But eventually, your time with the navy will end. You're not naïve enough to believe a waitress from Texas will fit in here without some major effort. She'll have to change virtually everything about her. Do you think she is capable of that?"
"Maybe," Nathan said, "I don't want her to."
For the first time, something like alarm showed in his mother's dark eyes.
"As the wife of a –" she began, and he interrupted her.
"Maybe I don't want to be, Ma. Did you ever wonder about that? I didn't. But maybe I do now."
His father's face had gone darker by the second. Nathan waited for the outburst, and waited in vain. Instead, Mr. Petrelli rose and left the room, every step stiff and heavy, as if forcing himself to the movement. They heard the clicking noise the key of his study made when he locked himself in.
"Now look what you've done," said his mother.
"You know what I did today?" Meredith asked. "I bought a map of Manhattan. I won't get lost there, don't worry. I'll know every short cut and I'll drive every taxi driver crazy by explaining which way to take. I'll be the most annoying new New Yorker ever."
"I don't think we'll go to New York," Nathan said, and she looked at him. You could tell she was pregnant now; more dimples in her face, a roundness of her figure, her breasts starting to swell.
"But I thought…" she began, and fell silent.
He had made no promises, Nathan thought with an unexpected anger. He had not proposed to her; and he certainly had never as much as hinted anything about New York. Of course he wasn't going to desert her. But this was the late 20th century, for God's sake. A man and a woman could live together without marriage.
Unless, of course, the man was planning on a career in politics at some point, and definitely on a career as an attorney; an attorney for the state, not the kind of lawyer who represented mobsters, no, a public servant. But that type of attorney usually had only legitimate children and a proper marriage. In both New York and Texas.
"Come on," he said, pushing the thoughts away. "You're such a Texas girl. You'd hate it in New York. It would be much too cold for you. And I'm stationed here anyway."
"You mean you don't want me there," Meredith said flatly. "You mean I'm not good enough for your precious family."
"I want you with me," he said, and her eyes softened again. She believed him. He mostly believed himself.
The baby was a girl, and she was born at 4.02 am. It was the most frightening, wonderful thing, looking at her. Holding her the way his hands remembered. She was lighter than Peter had been. Nathan returned the baby to Meredith, who smiled at him. She was waiting for something, and as the quality of the silence between them changed, her smile faded.
Such simple sentences that can change a life. Spoken and unspoken. I love you. Or: I am pregnant.
Or: Will you marry me?
He couldn't say it. He opened his mouth, but he couldn't. Instead, he said: "I'm going to visit my f – my parents and my brother this weekend. But I promise I'll be back on Sunday night. The hospital allows visits until 10 pm; I asked."
"Nathan," Meredith said, "do you have any idea what it means to be poor? No, you don't. Of course you don't."
"You won't be –"
"No," she said, "and my baby won't, either. She'll be able to go to college."
At first he assumed these were hormones speaking, some kind of reaction to having given birth. She wanted more reassurance. Then something in him that was utterly Petrelli clicked into place and noticed that the flowers he had come with weren't the only ones in the room. There were orchids here, far too expensive for any of her friends to afford. The scent was intrusive and everywhere; he should have realized before.
"You talked to my parents," he said, watching her.
"Sort of," Meredith replied. "A friend of theirs. Guess they didn't want to lower themselves to buying me off personally. You know, I wanted to laugh in his face. I wanted to tell him that I don't need their money, and neither does Claire, because you'll be always there for us. But I couldn't." There was anger in her voice, and disappointment; impossible to tell whether it was directed against him or herself, or both of them. "Could I, Nathan?"
"I guess we'll never know now," he said, and the harshness in his words tasted of the same anger.
He was stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, about to be transferred to Bosnia when he got the phone call. His request for a leave of absence was granted once he explained. It would be the last time he visited Texas for fourteen years.
There was just a single coffin; not enough left of mother and child for two, he was told. Some of Meredith's friends were there, and some people Nathan didn't know.
Of all the ways to die, burning alive had to be the worst.
He was not a particularly good Catholic. Meredith cheerfully called herself a New Age pagan, but as it turned out, she was actually a Baptist. One more thing he didn't know about her, and never had the chance to find out. At least that was what it said in her last will, and thus her funeral service was conducted by a Baptist minister. The man talked and talked, and Nathan found himself mentally reciting the Hail Marys of his childhood in defense.
…pray for us, now and in the hour of our death.
One of the wreaths on Meredith's coffin was made of exotic hothouse flowers, and it wasn't his. He didn't ask. He didn't want to. On his next visit to New York, almost a year later, neither of his parents mentioned Meredith and her child, either, and Peter never knew about them to begin with. Instead, they talked about Bosnia, and his exemplary service record.
"I'm more than proud of you," his father said. His father was in one of his calmer moods, and quite content; he had won an important case against the state recently. Pop's biggest client should be happy, too. "You know that, right?"
"I know," Nathan replied, and his mother began to tell him about various friends of hers with charming young daughters. It was impossible to remain in the same room any longer, and he excused himself.
On his way out, he came across Peter who simply tagged along, unasked, and didn't say anything at all until they were on the street and the noises of the New York traffic surrounded them.
"Did they ask you to talk to me about my grades yet?" Peter said. Nathan shook his head.
"Typical," Peter said. "I could have a D in English and all Dad would say was that this is just what he expected. I won't," he added hastily. "I'm good in English, Nathan. I am."
"Did you know there isn't an Emily Dickinson poem in the world you can't sing to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas?" Nathan asked. His voice remained even, calm, but Peter stared at him anyway.
As it turned out, Nathan had gotten even worse at carrying a tune. He could not even get to the second verse of Because I would not stop for Death.
Peter didn't seem to expect a convincing demonstration anyway. He did, however, put his arms around Nathan. Peter was growing quickly these days; at nearly fourteen, he was tall enough to look Nathan in the eyes when he did that.
"It's okay," he said, sounding too old for his age. "You're home."