A/N: Written in 2nd-person perspective, Nathaniel's father being the narrator. I'm loath to do author's notes before the story itself, but I felt the clarification was necessary. That said, enjoy!
This is your son, six-and-a-half minutes old and making the fresh discovery that there's no better place to fall asleep than the mantle of a woman's arms. The attentions of the doctor and nursing staff are directed at Natalie and the baby with an unfailing sort of intensity, and perhaps this will sour your tongue a bit in the coming days of garden parties and company dinner parties; for now, however, you're perfectly content to hover at her bedside, wondering in your daze if you've gone as grey as the faded wallpaper smattered over the wall behind you.
By now you know you must look even less presentable than you did at three o'clock this morning, when Natalie's contractions started and you promptly lost half your IQ points. (Perhaps you'll write to your old professors at uni, because not once in that never-ending list of classes did they detail how to keep your head when your wife goes into labor.) In that instant, you were frantic; in this instant, you feel like little more than a hastily dashed-off conglomerate of knocking knees and caffeine, all clumsily strung together with elfknots of live wire. You busy your fingers with keeping rhythm on your trouser pockets. This is your son.
The first person to pay you any mind is, of course, Natalie. You aren't a literary man, but when she hands the little bundle of blankets off to you, you feel as though the weight of all the suns and stars and oceans out there are beating down on your forehead. You were six years old when you held a baby for the first time – your little brother Jack, who never outgrew infancy in terms of boorishness – and you've been expecting this for months, but all of a sudden your arms are stiff to the bone, your hands trembling like a pianist's before a recital. He looks up at you with blue eyes – poppy-blue, eyes that will make a girl fall in love with him some day.
(Nathaniel: Male. Hebrew. Gift of God.)
And finally the singular thought that's been spinning through your head all morning actually clicks: this is your son, your little boy to teach and hold and catch and love. This is the final piece of the family you've been dreaming of, of the life you've ached for since you fumbled for a kiss on Natalie's front porch the night of your first date. This is your son, and all you know in this instant is that you want nothing more than to be his hero.
This is your son, attending his first social event, and really it's a pity it had to be this one.
You've never had much love for Natalie's sister Portia – perhaps you're biased, as you seem to remember one of her three tiny terrors dyeing all of your clothes pink on a family retreat. All the same, you find yourself decked out in your Sunday best for one of said tiny terrors' birthday parties, sweating through your hair gel and fiddling uncomfortably with your shirt collar.
"A garden party," you mutter dryly, sure to keep your voice low enough that only Natalie can hear you. "For a seven-year-old. Then again, I suppose no one ever accused Mason of marrying Portia for her sense of practicality."
"Richard." She sends you a warning look over the sleeping body of Nathaniel, who's still light enough at four to get away with falling asleep whilst fairly dangling from her neck. "Please at least attempt to behave." You send her your most winning smile, and the irritation in her expression dissolves, like the final frays of a storm cloud beneath a ray of emerging sun. When she speaks again, her scolding is little more than an affectionate tease. "And stop fussing with your hair. Portia always tries for wit when you do that, and it isn't polite to bait her."
The afternoon drags on in a watercolor blur of contrived formalities and gaudy vinyl tablecloths, and Nathaniel eventually wanders off, only to become the only person at the party more bored than you are. You find him sitting alone at a table toward the edges of the party, folding mountains of rockstar napkins into planes and testing their aerodynamics by launching them into the nearby hydrangeas. While the rest of the kids run and jump and trample and climb, he seems almost afraid of the action, for which you're guiltily grateful; for all the brightness in his mind, he's been a frail little thing since birth.
You ease yourself into a green iron-wrought chair beside him and fiddle with your hair as the wind blows it wayward. "Having fun there, mate?" you ask. He sends another plane into the air, and it rides the wind for a moment before sailing sharply to the ground.
"Yes," he says simply, nimble fingers searching out another napkin. "I wanted to find the best way to make a paper aeroplane because we're making them in class tomorrow, and-"
He's cut off by a sudden uproar a few metres away. Startled, your head snaps in the noise's general direction faster than your mind can do the same; you see the little boy a way's ahead of you tackle one of his playmates to the ground in a fit of childish anger, see the congregation of slick-haired adults watching with mild interest from across the garden, but you freeze as though you're a helpless bystander, a walled-off patron at the cinema. By the time you realize that the other preordained "authority figures" likely can't see the way the situation is escalating, thus diffusing the responsibility to you, Nathaniel's already closing the distance between himself and the outburst.
"Stop," you hear him command sharply. Your gut clenches the way only a parent's truly can. Nathaniel's a small boy – sickly since the sixth day of his life – and the other boy could easily tear him to pieces."You're being an idiot. Go back to the party, or I'll tell my daddy and you'll get in more trouble than you ever have in your life."
This, you feel, is your moment, your chance to redeem yourself from your former waver of cowardice. You think you should be leaping up to save him like some knight of lore, but your legs freeze beneath you as though tempered by indecision. You have a degree in business, a beautiful wife, a modest collection of wines tucked away in the cellar, but somehow the universe expects you to know instinctively how to best care for and interact with your child.
By some miracle, the larger boy seems dumbstruck by Nathaniel's command and stumbles away.
It isn't until moments later, watching Nathaniel explain the mechanics of paper aeroplanes with gentle enthusiasm to the almost-victim, that you realize the true weight of a silver tongue. In this primary-school world of half-chewed sweets stuck to the underside of desks and casual insolence in the face of authority, your son is a marker of courtesy and compassion, a hero adept in dispelling the dragons of an ugly world. Perhaps he lacks the strength to take up sword and shield, but guile and intellect rarely falter in the face of brute strength. To see such presence in a mere wisp of a boy is an undiluted sort of magic.
The deluge of ideas and metaphors spark like stars on candlewicks, tangling and intertwining until they tumble into a singular, very confused thought:
He could be the one to lead the rebellion.
You swallow, bowing your head to ward off further embellishment on the (thoroughly ridiculous) notion. For all your star-charted hopes for your son, you're quietly aware that you are easily satisfied. If he accomplishes nothing more than helping that boy – Rosanna's son, you see now, little Edward Lutyens – up from the grass, you'll die a proud father.
This is your son, whose eyes are still as blue and bright as ever even behind the glaze of what you suspect is an early stage of influenza. "Dad, where are we going?"
To which you dutifully reply, "The doctor's office, to get you fixed up and feeling better."
"No, that isn't what I mean." You see his reflection in the rearview mirror shake its head. "The doctor's office is on Barker Street. That map on your wall says it should have only taken us ten minutes to get there, but we've been in the car for at least twenty. Why is it taking so long? Are we going the long way?"
You feel yourself crystallize, then, your entire body going glacier-still from your fingers curled around the steering wheel to your jaw barring back an honest answer; because you haven't the faintest inkling how you're expected to explain to a five-year-old the unspoken rules of a social empire, that there are certain parts of town that your kind simply shouldn't venture into if you wish to keep life simple, that the fault line separating your kind and their kind even exists at all. You shift slightly in your seat, and you imagine you can hear the cracking of ice and snow as you attempt to break away from the awkwardly-stretching silence. When you answer, your normal jovial tones are strained by barred teeth. "Traffic."
You steal another faux-casual glance at him by way of the rearview. In honesty the flutter in your gut tells you he's going to insist on the explanation's falsehood – he's too clever by half, in the end, and the smattering of milling cars is a far cry from detrimental to speed. But he doesn't; instead, he simply stares at you, something vaguely reminiscent of wounded pride (and perhaps just a little bit of betrayal) in his eyes.
It is in this moment, you'll realize in retrospect, that you understand your son, moreso than you have or will in any other. By lying to him – and perhaps by not putting enough effort into making said lie convincing – you've forfeited your place as a spotless (if somewhat inactive) hero, trading in your armour for a place in the crowds of other adults who see children as dolls rather than people. He doesn't trust you enough to ask you for an honest answer because he no longer thinks he'll receive one. He'll find one on his own.
You don't think you've ever hated the magicians more than you do in this moment.
You remain quiet for the rest of the drive, quiet in the doctor's office and in the waiting room while you watch Nathaniel play with a toy abacus. You take care to remain courteous – nod graciously to the nurses, offer assistance when possible, speak softly and politely – but the air about you is noticeably less sharp than usual. A gentleman must remain contained in his mourning, after all.
And so it is that you are still wrapped up in your thoughts when the doctor returns from his post-examination review; he steps in with practiced efficiency, his smile sharp and his eyes bitter. "I believe congratulations are in order," he says, but his tone suggests apology rather than envy. "Your son has been born with the privilege."
You still in your seat, your hands poised in your lap and your face entirely expressionless. Your son has been born with the privilege.
You've always known this was a possibility, just as you've always known that being shot by a stray bullet on your way to work one morning is a possibility. It's simply something that's never been real, the frantic cries of a religious man urging you toward salvation that you brush off because oh, that could never possibly happen to you or there'll be plenty time to worry about that sort of thing later. This – this is real. This is your son, perusing the shelves of a stranger's house rather than yours, and for a spellbook rather than a dictionary; this is your son celebrating his eighteenth birthday without you and Natalie there to snap pictures or scrawl out invitations; this is your son, all of your plans for his future, your hopes and anticipations, pieces of advice to give you'd mapped out in your mind and stories of your own father that you'd planned to tell – all going up in smoke.
This is your son thrown into a cutthroat world without anyone to care for or protect him.
You listen politely to the doctor's instructions, write down names and dates and locations in neat, industrial penmanship, but you are not there. You're in a future that's never going to happen, in a watercolor fantasy that was so concrete mere moments ago.
You wonder if you're ever going to be able to forget that future, forget the way Nathaniel's eyes light up when he asks a question or the furrow in his brow when he's considering something.
You wonder if you're ever going to want to.
This is your son, and he will be so for perhaps another five minutes.
The time has come for final goodbyes, and the cheque you never wanted in the first place is a hollow weight in your pocket. From the walls and floors to the tinge of the fluorescent lights dotting the ceiling like the failed echoes of stars, everything about the transferal center is grey. Grey, like the suits of the magicians at parliament with their slicked-back hair and their iron wallets; grey, like the wallpaper of the hospital room Nathaniel was born in.
Natalie's cried all her tears over the course of the past week, but the same cannot be said for Nathaniel. That said, he's holding up far better than you'd expected him to, given his meager understanding of the situation as a whole; his eyes are wide and watery, a flush is spreading over his nose and cheekbones, his fingers – a child's fingers, the fingers of an innocent – are shaking at his sides, but there's a steel determination to keep his composure that keeps his back straight and his head high. A renegade hope that maybe he'll be all right without you sparks in your stomach, only to wither and wilt when you remember that you'll never know his fate, regardless.
Natalie draws him into a swift, tight hug before sweeping back as though she's touched something poisonous, and her eyes seem dangerously close to flooding with the tears she swore she'd hold back (but no, you can't blame her – everything's being taken from her, too). It's your turn to step forward and embrace him, maybe give him some parting words of encouragement, take that last stab at being a hero, even if only in legacy – but when it comes to that last second you find you can't move forward. So you simply stand there, five paces away from rescuing your son – if only for a moment – and give him one curt, stiff nod.
His lip quivers for a moment, then tightens; he blinks once and nods back at you, but rather than your dazed, terrified attempt at stiff sentiment, his is a promise of his own self-sufficiency. A soldier's nod. It's taken five years, but you've finally ceased to be surprised, by him or yourself.
After all, you're not your son. You were never ready for war.
A slim, self-satisfied-looking woman emerges from the back room and politely informs you that it's time for you to leave; you feel like slapping the look of disdain from her face, because she doesn't understand, could never understand– but you don't, instead, taking Natalie's arm and leaving the room and its grey-washed dispassion far behind you. Once the door swings shut, you can't leave the office fast enough. Everything seems cloaked in poison gas, every step leaving you more and more lightheaded, more off-balanced, and in this moment you've never felt more disgusting.
It isn't until you reemerge onto the sun-washed London sidewalk that you're wholly your own again, fresh air breaking through your facilities and washing out the grey ocean water clogging up your head. Reeling, you debate the validity of "wholly your own" given the circumstances; you wonder if you can really get into a cab and go back to your little flat, can read the newspaper and cook dinner and live just as you had six years ago. In a leftover remnant of the previous moment's mindlessness, you're struck by the urge to turn around, to scoop Nathaniel up in your arms and shield him from the wickedness of the world and burn Parliament down to the ground–
You bow your head and take another step forward, another step away from every fitful knight-in-shining-armour fantasy you've ever had. In the end, it's best for you to leave it all behind, to return to the quiet world of desk jobs and fluorescent lights and silent subservience. To leave Nathaniel as nothing more than a phantom memory scrawled over Christmas cards and scrapbooks, a rain-soaked ache in your chest whenever you overhear the name as you walk to work in the morning.
He isn't your son anymore.
Mr. Underwood flourished the pen. "His parents—they've left, I take it?"
"Yes, sir. They couldn't get away fast enough. The usual sort: take the money and run, if you get my meaning, sir. Barely stopped to say good-bye to him.