Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by NBC.
Thanks to: Wychwood, for beta-reading.
Spoilers: For the entire first season.
Through a glass darkly
Hiro Nakamura would have been able to understand what was happening; would have been able to explain about the possibility of different timelines touching each other, rifts opening at sensitive points, and the likelihood of Peter Petrelli, exploding with all his different powers, making a last-second effort to get his brother to safety. But all Nathan knew was this: one moment, he was up in the air, feeling something like a massive shockwave coming from Peter; the next, he was… elsewhere. He couldn't narrow it down further when he opened his eyes.
He was standing in the ruins of a building that must have been destroyed very recently; the dust was still in the air. Two men were standing confronting each other, fire and ice surrounding them in eerie halos. One was a stranger with short dark hair, someone Nathan had never seen before. The other was Peter.
Not the Peter he had just held, every bit of skin radiating lethal heat and desperation, but complete trust returned to his eyes. Not the Peter who had been dead just a week earlier, features frozen, eyes blind, still and utterly out of reach. In a way, this one was even less familiar. Not because he looked older, or because of the scar across his face; but because in twenty six years, Nathan had never seen Peter exhibiting the kind of lethal rage this man was currently showing.
He had never seen Peter hate.
The stranger spotted Nathan first, blinked in stunned disbelief and nearly got blasted away by Peter before he levitated himself upwards. There wasn't time to process that there was another person who could fly as Peter turned towards him. Nathan experienced another moment of complete disorientation. He opened his mouth to ask what the hell was going on, and found himself sitting in a darkened room before he could draw his next breath. Sitting across from him was Peter, still with that same aged and scarred face, staring at him, the hatred replaced by something as intense but harder to classify.
"It's really you," Peter said. "I had to be sure, that's why I froze time and teleported us out of there. It's really you."
Nathan wondered whether he was dying, dying from the radiation somewhere in the air, and experiencing a series of increasingly bizarre hallucinations. So much for the idea of seeing one's life pass by in a couple of seconds. Not that he had been particularly keen on a Nathan Petrelli retrospective; remaining in the present during those moments of death would have been preferable. He had known that this, at last, was the right thing, the right decision. Closing his eyes, he tried to get back to it: nothing but air around them and the certainty there would be no more deaths to carry. The future not written in stone.
"That never happened," Peter said, and Nathan opened his eyes again.
"It did," he said, concluding without surprise that Peter must be able to read thoughts now. It explained what had happened in the garage earlier in the evening.
It didn't explain anything else. Peter was still sitting across from him, and was looking at him with the same kind of focus.
"You're not dead," Peter said, and reached out with his right hand, then pulled it back. Which was so utterly unlike his brother that Nathan gave up on his last-seconds-of-life-hallucination theory. He'd have imagined it differently.
"Apparently not," he said wryly, and for the first time looked down. He was still wearing the same suit, somehow not burned as if protected by whatever kept his flesh from being stripped of his bones each time he flew at supersonic speed. It was covered with dust that had still been settling among the ruins earlier, though. He raised his hands. No radiation burns, and they should be visible by now.
For a heartbeat, he wasn't relieved as much as disappointed, which was absurd. He might have been ready to die, but that was because all the alternatives had been worse, even if it had taken Claire spelling it out to him to get him admit it to himself. There had been no other choice; it had not been any form of a death wish, Nathan thought, and pushed the memory of his father and his heart attacks away.
"You're definitely still you," Peter commented, and that sounded so much more like the Peter of yesterday that Nathan felt an annoyed kind of relief.
"I thought we'd settled that," he said crisply. "What happened, Peter? And who the hell was that you were fighting with?"
"You really don't remember," Peter said, and Nathan started to feel impatient, which was far better than feeling disturbed. "Or maybe you can't. Maybe…"
When Peter reached out this time, he did put his hands on Nathan's shoulders. His grasp was as strong as it had been on Kirby Plaza.
"But you weren't there at Kirby Plaza," Peter said, apparently continuing to read Nathan's thoughts. "You didn't – I didn't see you again until after. When you got me out of the city and told everyone it had been Sylar. That was still you, wasn't it?"
The suspicion that started to rise in Nathan was as ugly as it was inevitable.
"That didn't happen," he whispered. "You exploded in the sky. Not in the city. I didn't let it happen, Peter, I didn't let you kill…"
So he lives ... and kills millions of people. How can you let him be responsible for something like that? Claire asked in his memory. And how can you live with yourself if he is?
I didn't, he protested, but suddenly he couldn't be sure anymore. Maybe that had been the hallucination. Saying goodbye to his mother, flying after Claire, finding Peter and rising to the sky. Wish fulfilment, nothing more, and this the reality, a world where one thing was glaringly obvious: those .07 Linderman had regarded as expendable for the greater good had, indeed, been sacrificed. And Peter, this Peter, scarred and alien, had been made the instrument of their deaths.
"No," Peter said, and his grasp grew even stronger, hard enough to hurt. Nathan didn't move. "No, that doesn't explain – he killed you. He couldn't have stolen your power if he hadn't killed you. He can't do it any other way. Ando, Ando was dead and Ando still showed up here because Hiro brought him. Did Hiro come back and bring you?"
"You become a ... bad person, Nathan," Hiro told him, eyes full of sadness and hope, and when Peter caught this memory, he drew back.
"He changed the past," he said, with an echo of the excitement he used to show when insisting on talking about their powers with Nathan, no matter how much Nathan tried not to. Peter got up and started to pace. "After coming here. He talked to you. And you were there, at Kirby Plaza. Different timelines, it has to be. But that means we were screwed no matter how often he went back. We remain in this one. But you. You are here. Nathan, if you are here, then maybe everything can be different again."
Looking at his brother and trying to imagine the kind of world Peter had lived in for who knew how much time, Nathan doubted that. But whatever kind of world it was, he had in some way contributed to creating it.
Peter filled him in on the most important events, which took a while.
"And nobody noticed I had been replaced by a psychopathic serial killer?" Nathan asked in disbelief, unable to hide a note of wounded vanity beneath the horror, as absurd as it was to feel insulted by such a thing. Peter looked away.
"We didn't talk," he said. "After. I couldn't. I remained as far away from you as possible. I should have known it wasn't you anymore when the laws started changing. I'm sorry, Nathan."
Actually, that part definitely sounded less like being replaced by a psychopathic serial killer and more like what Nathan had always feared would be inevitable if knowledge of their existence ever became public. He hadn't been kidding when he had told Peter's girlfriend Simone that if it were up to him, he would put all of them on an island, as far away from the rest of the country as possible. Peter shook his head, stubborn as ever, and achingly familiar again with that motion.
"No, that wasn't you."
"It could have been," Nathan said. "If you don't want to see that, you should stop reading my thoughts."
"But it wasn't. You died to prevent it – you would have, in your timeline."
No, I would have died to save you from this, Nathan thought, well aware of the difference and the inherent selfishness, but if Peter was still listening, he chose not to acknowledge the thought this time.
Given that Sylar, no matter when, had replaced Nathan and managed to become President of the United States, there was one obvious way to rectify the situation. Which was what Nathan believed until Peter switched on the tv that was in the room he had teleported them to. Breaking news was the image of President Petrelli flying, in public. Complete with the information that this wasn't actually President Petrelli, but the infamous cause of millions of New York deaths, Gabriel Gray, aka Sylar. Sylar, previously believed to have died in the explosion, the news people informed them in excited voices, had succeeded in capturing and replacing the President thanks to his infamous powers for a short time. Thankfully, the President had been freed from captivity by chief of Homeland Security Matthew Parkman and would address the nation from a safe and secret location quite soon. Sylar, however, was at large and presumably still trying to impersonate the President. Security forces had been ordered to shoot on sight. Measures against superpowered people still at large were expected to be increased, considering the most dangerous of them all had just proven that even the United States Government was not safe from their attacks.
"Son of a bitch," Peter said.
"Well, that explains it," Nathan commented. He felt oddly detached; it was safer to see all of this as a puzzle he needed to find a solution for. If he saw it as a reality, if he started to wonder what the man wearing his face had done to his wife and children, who, Peter told him, had been killed in a supposed terrorist attack two years ago, he would have to start his own killing career, right now.
"Why he got away with it all this time. He might be insane, but he's far from stupid."
"Sure, nothing would be worse than being replaced by a stupid psychopath," Peter said with a grimace and, switching from sarcasm to something that carried the brokenness and longing of a child with it, added: "God, I missed you, Nathan. I missed you so much."
There wasn't anything Nathan could say in reply. If those years hadn't existed for him, they had for Peter. Besides, he wasn't sure he believed in Peter's theory of parallel timelines. Maybe this was still his own future, somehow; a demonstration of ultimate failure. But pondering this was futile right now. What was needed was a plan to survive the immediate future, and then a way to remove that usurper from office. So he silently put his hand on Peter's shoulder. After waiting for some moments, he said:
"Listen, if you aren't already on the Most Wanted list, he'll put you on it now, naming you as Sylar's associate. He'll definitely send people after you and any known friends you have, so we should…"
"They're all dead now," Peter interrupted. "Except for – oh god. He'll go after Niki."
"That's something else I have to tell you," Peter said, and transported them to a strip club in Vegas. Given the shoot-on-sight order they had just heard on tv and the fact that someone looking like him was the President, Nathan gave it only a few moments before someone recognized him. To his surprise, they were completely ignored.
"We're invisible," Peter whispered, clasping his left wrist. "I can transfer as long as we remain in touch."
Maybe that was why he was still alive, Nathan thought. Maybe that was what Peter, the Peter he had been able to fly away from Kirby Plaza, had done during those last moments; transferred and shared some of those powers whose mere existence still disturbed Nathan's sense of reality on an ongoing basis.
The music was loud enough to cover for any sounds and movements they made as Peter explained to him about Niki while looking for her. Compared with all the other news Nathan had received today, learning that his brother had ended up with the woman he had shared a memorable night with in Las Vegas was actually mildly amusing, until Peter mentioned that her son had died during the explosion. Nathan didn't have time to consider the implications of Peter living with a woman who had lost her child because of him as Peter finally spotted Niki entering the bar. He pulled Nathan towards her. She looked thinner and had lost both the aura of vulnerability and the playful predatory menace she had switched between during the brief time Nathan had spent with her. When Peter touched her shoulder with his free hand, whispering her name, she said harshly: "I told you not to come back."
"They'll be after you, too, Niki," Peter said urgently. "It's Sylar. It never was Nathan. You saw the news, right? It's just the other way around. It's Sylar who is President, and you know he'll never stop until every single one of us is dead. We have to stop him, and we finally can, now."
He let go of Nathan's wrist, just for a second, long enough for Niki to see him before turning Nathan invisible again. She drew in a breath, but her face remained expressionless.
"If we manage to take out Sylar, Nathan can put an end to all the persecution," Peter continued. "But Sylar knows that. He'll bring you in, and if you can't tell him anything, he'll just kill you for your strength. You have to come with us, Niki."
"Sylar didn't kill my son," Niki said. "You did. Both of you. That's what you told me today, wasn't it? You killed him, and he covered for you and made a career out of it. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't report you to Homeland Security right now. Sure, Sylar will kill me. Maybe that's overdue anyway."
"Sylar killed your husband," Nathan interrupted, having remembered the way she and the man who had accompanied her had come to his office and combining it with something Peter had said about Sylar. "He has his power now; he walks through walls. And he'll kill a lot of other people's children before he's done." He thought of what she had told him in Vegas and put all the persuasion a career in law and politics had given him into his voice. "You're still the person your son saw, Niki. Strong and good."
"I'm not two people anymore, Nathan," she returned. "I stopped a long time ago." She turned to Peter. "Is it true what he said about DL?"
She hesitated a moment longer. Then her features hardened. "Fine. I'm coming with you. Maybe you deserve to die, and so do I, but not before that son of a bitch is put in the ground for good."
Hiro had once told Nathan that he could teleport across continents, but Peter admitted that the battle with Sylar and another fight that had happened earlier had exhausted him; at any rate, he didn't want to risk it with two people. Taking a car would have been the easiest thing to do, except for the part where one of them would need to remain visible in order not to attract attention, and even if it was Niki, it could still get them arrested, at least in Nevada, if Sylar had put Peter and his known associates on the Most Wanted list.
It still wasn't an easy suggestion for him to make, but it was the most sensible solution. "Flight," Nathan said. "Both of us, with Niki in between. You won't even have to keep us invisible, not if we fly fast enough."
It said something about how much everyone in this new world took their powers for granted that the only thing Peter asked was: "Where to?"
Considering they were in Las Vegas, Nathan thought Mexico was the most obvious option, which meant Homeland Security would think so, too. "Canada," he said. "Just across the border, for tonight. Then we'll see."
It was the longest distance he had ever crossed, even counting that desperate attempt to get as high in the atmosphere as possible before Peter exploded. This time, they remained low, under radar level, just in case. There was an odd beauty to it; the horror of thousands of deaths in New York, prison camps for powered people and legislation that created them, all left behind for as long as the flight took, with only the present to focus on; Peter's arms across his shoulders, Niki's firm, athletic body, nothing but air and speed around them.
They landed at a small holiday resort in the Canadian woods where Niki rented a cabin for them. She used the bathroom first, and Nathan watched Peter slump into the closest chair. So different, and yet not; the way he sprawled could have been Peter in the Gramercy house, only yesterday, but the body was that of a man over thirty, more muscular than Peter's had been. Nobody would mistake him for a teenager anymore, not even at a quick glance. His face looked like the years had carved their mark in with a blunt tool, and not just because of the scar. There was a constant tension mixed with weariness there which had not belonged to Peter before, and his eyes were those of a man who had seen the worst and considered himself to be part of it.
"I never asked you," Peter said, watching Nathan watching him. "Well, I didn't in my timeline. What you said about not knowing who you are without me. Did you mean that, or was it just because of the recent resurrection thing?"
So that had happened, too. Again, Nathan wondered whether there really were two different time lines, or whether Sylar had managed to steal the gift of flight from someone else, and this was all the future there ever would be, and all the past; whether Kirby Plaza was nothing but a faked memory. You didn't even need superpowers for that; he knew false memories could be created today… yesterday… if you had the necessary drugs and technique.
"I meant it," he said, voice going monotone. He couldn't afford to think about this. He had to believe that Peter was right, that there was an alternate timeline in which all of this had been prevented.
Monty and Simon were alive in that time. So was Heidi. And…
"What happened to Claire?" Nathan asked abruptly. "Is she…"
"Sylar can heal now," Peter said, his own voice as flat as Nathan's. "Which means she's dead, too."
She wasn't. She had been alive just hours ago, crying, and yet for the first time looking at him with something like belief. She was alive now somewhere, with her family, the one which had taken care of her all those years. But not here. Here she was dead, and somehow, that idea destroyed what detachment Nathan had left concerning the reality of this world. He went to the window and opened it, breathing in the cool night air, not noticing that there were tears in his eyes until he felt Peter's hand on his face.
"We'll kill him," Peter said, with the same self-evident matter-of-factness he used to say "political science sucks, and I'm not taking these classes anymore". "And then you'll make it okay again, Nathan. I know you will."
If Nathan needed more evidence to just how bad things were with Peter, those two sentences would have been more than enough. Niki came out of the bathroom at that moment, and he seized the excuse to avoid a direct reply. After briefly returning Peter's gesture, he went in and stared into the mirror; the hot, damp air made his face barely visible.
He had to fix this somehow. Not the world; not even the country. You couldn't undo years of paranoia and increasingly restrictive legislation with one or two presidential decrees, and that was assuming that they actually managed to somehow get Sylar alone so they could make the switch and that afterwards nobody would have the sense to demand Nathan be checked for the superpowers gene as soon as he changed his policy. Right now, he doubted that the country could be fixed, though clearly something had to be done.
But he had to fix Peter.
And while he was at it, he really had to kill Sylar.
He heard Niki and Peter talking outside, but he couldn't understand more the occasional fragment, and he didn't really try to. After taking a shower, he used one of the bathrobes that had come with the cabin and went back to the living room. While Peter took his turn in the bathroom, Nathan found Niki leaning against the fridge in the small kitchen, watching him.
"Five years," she said. "We spent five years watching you sell us out, and he still thinks you can make it right somehow. And don't say it was Sylar. That's not the point."
"No, it's not," Nathan said, and she sighed. Then she said with a surprising lack of hostility:
"You know, it doesn't really matter whether you actually want to save the world or not. Because even if you fuck it up all over again, he's not going to let you go. You're clear on that, right? If you think that once you've had enough of saving this world, he's going to use that time travel thing he has from Hiro Nakamura to bring you back to the past where you came from, back to that time where everyone is still alive – he's not going to do that. He'll never let you go."