Lightning was in the sky and thunder followed after, crashing into the empty burnt spaces with a roar like an ancient god, a slashing, sky-cracking cry. Thunder so loud the panes of the windows rattled, the ones that hadn't been broken or bashed in, shaking in their window-frames, afraid. Shadow-puppets threw themselves on the floor, sawed out rough by the lightning and projected in silhouettes of nearby buildings and far-away skyscrapers. The famous New York City skyline sketched out by the flashes of light on their floor. Things were distorted. The thunder was trying to scare them to death.
Hiro and Audrey were on the floor with the shadows, his arms wrapped around her too tightly, as if he could protect her from the elements. He couldn't. Their power had shorted out with a fireworks shower of sparks an hour ago, so here they were, propped up against a wall with only fickle lightning-light and emergency candles to see by. Audrey had made them an emergency peanut-butter-sandwich dinner--she was pretty sure a thunderstorm didn't qualify as an emergency, but the oven was dead so what could she do?--and they sat wondering whether anyone would remember to turn the electricity back on in a condemned apartment complex on the edge of the city. There was a good possibility they'd be eating peanut butter sandwiches for the rest of their lives.
Thunder bashed its sound against their ears, sound swooping in from nowhere, and Audrey jumped. She regretted it as soon as she did, scolding herself about being a cop and a bona-fide Tough Chick and not showing weakness, but it was too late to pretend it wasn't all making her a little nervous. Hiro pulled her in a little tighter against his chest, which was nice, but it meant he'd noticed her reaction. She hated that. She loved Hiro, and she loved the fact that he was here to have his arms around her in the first place, but that didn't mean she was willing to be the weaker half of this relationship. She wasn't going to be the damsel in distress; she'd sooner jump off a bridge. She didn't want him to think she needed to be protected against thunder.
She sat still and noticed how he felt against her--taut, almost shaking. Not afraid--very tense, tight nearly to snapping. Overstrung. If it was because of the thunder, she could sympathize, but she knew it wasn't. No telepathy needed here--she knew exactly what was pulling him this tight. "Hiro," she said, her words falling out into the darkness, instantly swallowed whole.
The sound of her voice seemed to snap something into him, a vicious sudden backlash--his arms puling away before she knew it, and he was standing up against the wall, hand rubbing down the side of his face. Like he was trying to massage his thoughts, rub a couple of them out, maybe. The ones that were making him feel guilty, angry, unsettled. He couldn't sit still.
"Hiro," she repeated firmly, determined to break into his tailspin, be a conscience in case he was ignoring his. "Why don't you just go after him?"
"Go after who?" Automatic, defensive. Ultimately unnecessary--no telepathy needed. They both knew who they were talking about.
She was willing to state the obvious anyway--it was a good skill for relationships. "Go after Peter. He's not back and it's been almost eight hours. I know you're worried about him. You're going to pull all your hair out if you don't do something with yourself."
"I am not going after him," Hiro said, and there was still enough anger in his voice to make it true. A little more regret was sneaking in, and a lot of worry. Enough to let Audrey know that if something had happened to Peter, Hiro would break like a clock wound backwards. Mechanical innards spilling out like guts, all springs and coggy mechanisms. Peter and Hiro fit together, moved each other along; two interlocking cogs. Now they were trying to turn in ways they weren't supposed to, to turn against each other. Audrey could see so clearly that it wasn't going to work, and judging from the guilt on Hiro's face, they saw it too. There was just a small matter of injured pride. Stubbornness. Male dominance sub-issues.
"This is stupid!" she told him, too sick of watching him tear himself to useless, unlovable shreds. "This is just some stupid fight, you've had worse and you'll have as bad again. What was the issue--you didn't want to play the universe game anymore? Fine. Easily fixed. Go back. Keep doing it." He turned to her in surprise, trying to fathom her sudden one-eighty on the issue, not quite following the twists and turns of her feminine logic. To her mind, there wasn't much to it--Hiro was unhappy and it was like it was her own injury, and it hurt. If they weren't going to back down, she would do some backing down of her own. "I know I was the one who was so opposed to it in the first place. I know I told you that it was dangerous and that it was a waste of time. I take it back. You and Peter want to go save the world? Fine. Good. I think it's a worthy pursuit. Go save the world."
"You don't understand," he said. And she didn't. There were pieces in this game that he couldn't show her--necessary and even kind, to keep her in the dark, but it also meant that she couldn't see what was so hard about it. She thought she had the solution--of course she did. She had the blinders he'd put in place, trying to protect her from knowing everything. He had his arms around her, trying to protect her from the thunder. "It's not that easy, Audrey! You have no idea what you're asking me to do!"
"Oh, I'm so sorry that I'm trying to help!" she said, stung at the yelling, the tone of voice. "I'm sorry I'm trying to fix this, because God knows you never will! What's your big reason, Hiro? Why can't you just say sorry and keep world-hunting with him? What is so damn hard about that? It's not like you have to make a choice--"
"I do have to make a choice!" Words were clawing their way up his throat and he knew he should stop them, but they were secrets and they didn't want to be contained. They wanted out. "I made my choice, Audrey, don't you understand? I chose you. I was given the choice between having a perfect, wonderful world and having this Godforsaken hellhole and keeping you, and I picked you. I picked you! I threw everything else out the window and I chose her to stay here with you, to stay here and never get to the world we were trying to make. I did it because I love you, you idiot--so don't ask me to choose again!"
Shellshocked silence. Hiro's mind catching up to his mouth as he realized the secrets he'd just broken; Audrey starting to catch the horror as she realized exactly what he meant. The thunder cracked behind them, rolling through their bones, bouncing through their empty, stone ribcages. Love trying to survive the things that had just been said.
Neither of them heard the footsteps down the hallway, but when the door opened they couldn't ignore it. They turned to see Zane Taylor in the doorway, soaking wet and dripping, a flash of lightning illuminating the edges of him. He paused as he walked in, nearly tripping--Zane wasn't Harvard material but even he could feel the thickness of the air, like a ring before a boxing match.
"Taylor," Hiro said instantly, sharply, before Zane could regret coming. "What is it?"
"Well," Zane said uncomfortably. "I just wanted your help on something. If this is a bad time, I could--"
"It's a perfect time," Hiro said brusquely. Get me out of here. "Anything."
"All right, then." Now that his concerns had been superficially dismissed, the discomfort was sliding away from Zane, replaced by the unsteady passion that had been there before. Anger and worry and outrage. Anger, mostly. "I'm going out on a jailbreak. It's could use a wingman."
"Just let me get my coat," Hiro said grimly, brushing past Audrey, avoiding her gaze like he was picking through a minefield--careful not to set off any explosions.
"Wait," she said sharply. She might be dizzy with the blow Hiro had just dealt her, but somehow her common sense was still intact. Everything else, she'd think about later. For now, she needed details. "What jailbreak? For who?"
"A girl named Michelle Valcek," Zane told her, anger bright in his voice. One hand twitching and the other laying still at his side. "Just got picked up by the Homeland Security. She needs help, and fast. Want to come?"
"No, I do not want to come!" She swatted the question away like an insect, still trying to drive to the heart of this. Something was wrong, she could feel it on the back of her neck. Something was bad about this. "And what do you mean, Homeland Security? Where did they take her?"
"Where do you think they took her? To their headquarters."
And there it was: the reason for the bad feeling. "Hiro," she said, grabbing onto his coat as he passed, swinging him around to face her. "Hiro, you can't go out on this. This is stupid. This is really, really dangerous."
"Let go," he said, trying to move away. He felt horrible and he felt hunted, his desire to get out of the apartment now, as fast as possible, overriding everything. "It's fine. I'll be fine."
"You will not be fine, you're trying to break into Homeland Security headquarters!" She dropped her voice a few decibels, whispering straight to him. "You cannot go out there with Zane Taylor. He has not planned this out. He's crazy, you know that and I know that. He's not stable. He's going to get you killed."
Probably some part of Hiro's mind knew she was right, but not the part that had control. All he could think was that he'd told her, that he'd somehow let himself put the future of twenty-six universes on her shoulders. He'd told her that she was the reason he wasn't going to fix it. He didn't know how she was dealing with it, but he couldn't deal at all. "I'll be back," he half-promised, pulling out of her grip, nodding to Zane as he passed by him at the door. Closed the door and was gone.
She thought that might be a lie--she thought he might not be coming back. It was a terrible thought but she couldn't seem to shake it--it played on a loop as she stood looking towards the door he'd just gone through, thinking about all the ways he could die. She didn't move; her bones were stone and she was stone, systems broken down with weariness and ill-use. Mental and emotional trauma: treat for shock. She didn't know how long she stood there--it could have been hours but more likely it was fifteen minutes. She stood there until Peter showed up, suddenly appearing behind her like an omen as the thunder struck behind them.
He started when he saw her, barely a darker shadow in the unelectric blackness--just standing there even as he walked up next to her, with an expression that told him at once everything he needed to know. Something had gone very badly here. When his wound had finally healed all the way, he'd hesitated before teleporting home, not sure what kind of reception he'd get considering the drama of his last exit. Now he was glad he'd hurried.
"Audrey," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "What happened? Tell me what happened."
She seemed to collapse in on herself at his touch, her shoulders accordioning in and her arms falling to her sides, and she grabbed hold of him mostly to keep herself standing. "Peter, thank God. We thought you were--but you're just--Hiro left and--Zane." Well, that's frustrating. She really did mean to be speaking in complete sentences, but things seemed to be getting a little complicated on the way to her mouth.
Peter wasn't patient enough to wait for it to get fixed--he'd knew it was about Hiro and he knew it was bad. He needed the rest. "Do you mind if I--?" he asked, touching his own head.
"No--go 'head." Not under normal circumstances, not in a million years, but just now it was an easier way to get it out.
He stepped closer to her and focused on her thoughts, pulling out the things that he needed--careful not to touch anything he didn't need to. Mind-reading was one of Peter's least favorite abilities, and he tried to keep it shut down when he wasn't using it. The last thing he needed was everyone else's thoughts, when half the time he couldn't even make sense of his own. Times like these, though--"Got it," he said, and suddenly he understood Audrey's panic. "Oh my--you're kidding--he didn't--Hiro!" Suddenly the sentence-fragment thing was understandable as well. "I'll get him."
No time for any more explanation than that, no matter what state Audrey's blood pressure was in. Hiro was running very good odds for getting himself killed. If Peter had been entirely human, he would have sprinted for the door. Instead, he shut his eyes hard and tried to imagine where they might go--what they might falsely think was a weak spot in the cinderblock fortress that was Homeland Security. Gates, he decided, if it was me I'd try gates. A sickening lurch and he was there, rain pelting diagonally against his face--fifteen feet of wrought metal skyscraping up in front of him.
He'd teleported to the side of the main gate, having no desire to get caught and shot in the head the instant he showed up. He knew guards patrolled the perimeter of the place, but last he'd heard, none of the patrols ventured outside the metal fencing. He thought he would probably be safe enough to see them coming.
He had sudden second thoughts about this theory as he heard a burst of quiet noises behind him, the shuffle of careful footfalls. Damn it all, he swore silently. Hiro, you'd better stay alive for just a couple more minutes while I take care of this. He slid carefully back from the fence, hiding himself in the long shadows of nearby buildings, and watched until the noise became a person.
The guard came from the direction of the main gate, walking carefully along the fencing--Peter waited for the man's head and shoulders to come into view, and then he moved. He came in from behind and tackled the man, getting one hand over his mouth as he pinned him against the fence, scrabbling for the guard's gun.
Only it wasn't a guard. It was Hiro--black eyes going wide at the attack, pushing automatically away before he had the same revelation as Peter. This wasn't an enemy--at least, probably not. Comparatively not. Peter let go instantly, jumping away from Hiro as if he expected violence. Remember two days ago when you oh-so-briefly tried to kill me? We're not going to forget that. "What are you doing here?"
"What am I doing here?" Hiro whispered furiously, throwing the question back. "What are you doing here?"
"You're supposed to be in there," Peter said, jerking an angry finger at the Homeland Security building eighty feet away. "On some jailbreak mission!"
"Yeah, well, I realized it was a stupid idea," Hiro said blankly. "I was going home."
"You were--" Peter gaped lamely. Every bit of the wind stolen from his sails.
"Why?" Hiro said suspiciously. "What the hell are you doing here anyway?" A pause as a thought occurred to him--a sudden and correct hypothesis. "You weren't--rescuing me, were you?"
"Yes, if you absolutely must know," Peter snapped, in a sudden roaring bad temper. The rain was driving painfully hard, and he was getting water down the back of his collar, and he was less than a hundred feet from the most dangerous building in New York City, and now on top of it all, his rescue mission was a failure. "I was. I was coming to save you. There, are you happy?"
He couldn't tell in the dark with everything blurred by rain, but he thought Hiro might be smiling. No, he was definitely smiling. "Happy? Not generally speaking. You?"
"No, I'm pretty unhappy," Peter agreed, feeling inexplicably mollified. "Sort of unhappier the last two days, though." He said it quietly and casually, but he knew Hiro picked up on it--he was smiling again. Peter pretended to ignore the smile, squinting crankily up at the rain-choked sky. "It's very wet out here. We should probably go home."
"Yeah," Hiro said, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Let's go home."