A/N: Well, here it is. The chapter we've all been waiting for... It was a long time in coming, I know, but I just had to go back and work through some timelines and plotholes. There will be more explanation in the next chapter, along with some more action.
Chapter Twelve: The Truth
Jonathan hefted Valeria's limp body into his arms. Nathaniel, a bag of something slung over one shoulder, jerked his head at the door. Jonathan ran. Nathaniel lingered behind, cocked his head to the side as he examined the rig before him. He'd designed it himself. It certainly wasn't in working condition now, having been blasted away from its power source by Jonathan's rather volatile temper, but it could be repaired.
And that just wouldn't do.
Nathaniel turned and walked from the room at a much more sedate pace than Jonathan. Behind him, the rig he had spent seven years of his life designing exploded. Flames blew from the spot, but they didn't dare lick his back as he exited the room and closed the door behind him, making sure to seal the cracks around the edges with a thought. He didn't want the fire to have enough oxygen to survive destroying the rig. He wanted it gone, but he didn't want the entire Roth building destroyed. It didn't suit his purposes. Not yet.
He strolled through the hallways, untouched by the chaos around him. His employees hardly even noticed as their boss, who should have been dead, walked by. They were too busy scurrying in all directions, trying to figure out where the god was, how he had infiltrated the building, and how to stop him before he escaped. They would be too late, of course. They lacked the direction they'd had when he had been overseeing their activities. What had been a holy war for them had simply become a job.
Not that there was anything wrong with that at the moment.
Nathaniel Roth walked right out the front doors of the former Salk Institute, drawing in a deep breath he didn't really need and looking up at the flawless blue sky. It was another beautiful day in La Jolla. A perfect day for breaking and entering and kidnapping and all sorts of other crimes he no longer had to worry about, because it was hard to punish a person who was already dead.
He couldn't see Jonathan, but he could feel him. He followed the cord of power connecting them, a niggling thought in the back of his mind. He was going to have to give all of this up soon. He was going to have to give back the massive stores of power Jonathan had bestowed upon him in order to bring him back from the dead. But that was soon, not now, and that meant that Nathaniel still had time to put his final machinations in place. He hadn't died with quite the bang he had anticipated, and that was imply inexcusable. He still had business with the living, and he was going to take this chance to do it.
All the power of the world ran through him as he walked across the grounds belonging to Roth, through the gate—which had been left ajar as everyone scrambled to attend the chaos within the building—and out into the street. He ghosted across roads, through all obstacles including cars, walls, and even people, who shivered as he went.
What would it feel like to give this power up again, to relinquish it? Perhaps there was a way to hang on, to keep it—
Burning pain lanced through his chest, and he yanked down the collar of his shirt. An infinity symbol burned a brilliant red there above his heart—a reminder of the bargain he and Jonathan had struck. He was bound by his word, just as the god was. But there was a loophole in every bargain, and Jonathan was in such a rush these days that even his potential for knowing everything there was to know wasn't what it should have been.
It was strange to think that he, Nathaniel, was the indirect cause of all that rushing. That all of the fuss was over his daughter. Why, if he hadn't had her, if he hadn't wanted to protect her like any father would want to protect his daughter—
Well. All of this would have gone very differently, starting with the fact that they would all be dead by now.
Somewhere, Nathaniel was sure, the universe was laughing, and he was the butt of the joke.
He found Jonathan and Valeria exactly where he had expected to find them: in his house. Or, more, his former house. It was really Valeria's now that Nathaniel was, legally, dead. The Roth home was a sprawling manor taking up almost a city block, though most of the rooms had never been used. A small army of servants had been employed to keep it sparkling in days gone by, but in the more recent past the few rooms that were regularly used had been cleaned a few times a week by a single housekeeper. There were, of course, Nathaniel's labs in addition to the living quarters—his personal labs, where all of his most important work had been achieved—but he was the only one allowed there.
He passed effortlessly through the wrought-iron gate surrounding the house, crossed the yard, and went through the front doors without opening them, savoring each needless use of power as he went. It had been hard to use at first—and sometimes, when he had to do something far away or that would take a great deal of energy, it still was. But every time he used his borrowed abilities, it got easier. And through their bond, he could feel Jonathan growing weaker and weaker.
Maybe that was the solution, then. Maybe he could just suck away Jonathan's powers until he was mortal, or dead, and then Nathaniel could go on living like a god for…well, forever. He'd have to do something about the war, of course, but one thing at a time, one thing at a time…
And at the moment, that thing had to be his daughter, because no matter what happened next, she was bound to be an important part of it.
Nathaniel was surprised to not find Jonathan and Valeria in the parlor, just inside the main doors. There were several couches there, granted very uncomfortable ones that had never actually been used and were only there because a pushy interior designer had insisted upon it, but they were there nonetheless. He had expected to find the two passed out on them. Instead, he wandered through the hallways of his own home, not bothering to use any godly powers to look for them, until he found himself standing in front of a large pair of doors that closed the west wing off from the rest of the house.
"Of course," he muttered, and pushed the doors open. A trail of footprints in the dust led him to the long-abandoned bedroom where Jonathan had set up camp. Valeria was sprawled on the bed, probably in the exact same position in which Jonathan had dropped her, and the natural-born god was slumped in a chair in the corner, his chin nearly touching his chest. Nathaniel raised an eyebrow at the arrangement, and then kicked Jonathan's foot to wake him.
Jonathan sat bolt upright, looking around like he was ready to fight for his life—which he probably was.
"You do know that there are rooms that are not covered in an inch of dust that you could have used," Nathaniel said, looking around at the abandoned chamber in disdain. He hadn't actually had the place built—he'd bought it from some former millionaire fallen upon hard times, who had apparently entertained more than Nathaniel ever wanted to.
"I didn't want anyone to find us," Jonathan muttered, sinking back into the chair. There were bags under his eyes, and his hands were trembling. He looked terribly, deliciously mortal. Nathaniel's fingers itched to end it right there.
"How is she?" he asked instead, gesturing to Valeria.
Jonathan shrugged. "She's your daughter. See for yourself."
Nathaniel raised an eyebrow. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Why not?" And then he winced. "Oh. I forgot." He was quiet a minute, looking at her. "Well, I guess since you have most of it…" He reached out to shake Valeria's shoulder, but Nathaniel caught his hand before it could make contact.
"Jonathan," he said, his voice a low warning. "You told me that a god's touch can be addictive to mortals, not the other way around. Have you been trying to get my daughter addicted to you?"
"Of course not!"
"Have you told her what could happen because of exposure to you?"
Nathaniel pushed Jonathan back into his chair, wrapped his hand in a fistful of dusty comforter, and shook Valeria. She shifted, and then slowly opened her eyes, turning to look at her. "Dad?" she whispered.
"It's nice to see you, too, sweetie. But I think you should sit up…we need to talk."
Valeria hugged her knees to her chest, staring at her father and Jonathan. "You came for me," she finally said.
"Of course," Jonathan said before Nathaniel could reply. "Valeria, we wouldn't just leave you with them. How could we? We…owe you more than that."
"It seems, darling, that Jonathan here has neglected to tell you exactly how important you are to him."
Val frowned. "He has told me," she said.
"Yeah. Multiple times. In fact, it's getting kind of old." She rolled her eyes. "If I die, he dies. I live, he lives. So, yeah, I know. I just don't know why." She settled back onto the bed, nose twitching as a cloud of dust rose up. "God, Jonathan—"
"Shut up, I don't need your smart-ass comments here. You couldn't have picked a less dusty room to set us up in?"
"I didn't want anyone to find us."
She shot a sideways look at her father. "Yes, that seems to have worked so well."
"He would have found us no matter where we went."
She raised a hand, waved all that off. "I think there's a more pressing matter here, anyway," she said. "And that is why you, Daddy Dearest, aren't dead. Because, in case you missed the memo, you should be."
"I think an even more pressing matter is where the hell my car is," Nathaniel shot back.
"I don't know. Some Roth employees supposedly brought it back here to Cali, but the last I saw it was on the Arizona border. You can thank Jonathan that it's not just a piece of melted metal, by the way. It almost got hit by a lightning bolt that was stalking us." She shifted closer to Jonathan, seeking comfort from his presence and that electric tingle that came when he had power to spare, the power that had kept them both alive. That tingle was a sign that everything was going to be all right.
Her father's hand shot out and caught her before she could touch Jonathan. The feeling of power raced through her, but with Nathaniel it was less like a delightful tingle and more like red-hot pins and needles shoved an inch deep into her flesh. She shrieked and pulled away. "What are you?" she demanded, looking down at her arm. There was a red print where his hand had touched her. Jonathan hissed at the sight of it and reached out, his fingers cool against the hot pain, and the mark shrank and then vanished entirely. And then Jonathan's hand, devoid of that power, slipped up to cup her chin, gently turning her to look at him. He looked tired, so tired, with dark bags under eyes that were a muted human blue once more. "Val," he said. "He's me. He's a god."
"He—what? No. No, he's not. My dad's not a god. I'd know if he was, wouldn't I? I mean, I've known him my entire life, and he started this whole bloody war, and if he didn't actually start it, well, he's certainly spurred it on, and if he was a god why would he do that?"
"He wasn't always a god," Jonathan said, averting his eyes. "Actually, that change only came about in the last week." He was quiet for a long moment. "See, your father…he's dead."
"Yeah, I noticed, which is why he's sitting right there."
"Val, be quiet, all right?" Jonathan snapped. "Just let me explain, okay?" When she nodded, he sat back and continued. "Your father died, all right? He died in that explosion, just like you were told. But here's the thing. He had power, god power. My power. He has a good deal of it." This wasn't exactly said with a great deal of goodwill. "And before you ask why, it's because I gave it to him. It was part of a deal. I gave him power, a second shot at life, and he gave me…" He trailed off, unable to say it.
Val didn't have any such reservations. She could feel the unspoken word hanging in the air, but she needed him to say it. Needed to hear it. "What did he give you?" she whispered.
And Jonathan looked her directly in the eye and said, "You."
This time, it was she who reached out and grabbed his chin, forcing him to look her in the eye and not look away. "Jonathan," she said. "Tell me why I'm important."
Nathaniel shot to his feet. "No," he said. "Don't you dare."
Jonathan ignored him. "You won't believe me," he said to Valeria. "You won't…you won't remember."
"Jonathan, if one word passes your lips to my daughter, I'll—"
Jonathan's head snapped around, and he looked at Nathaniel with a gaze that could have frozen flames. "You'll what?" he demanded. "You'll tell her? Because one way or another, Nathaniel, she's going to know. And quite frankly, I think I care a little more than you do these days."
"I'm stronger than you are now," Nathaniel seethed. "I can—"
"No. No, you can't. Your power is my power, remember? I gave it to you, and if I so desire—" He reached out and pressed his hand to Nathaniel's chest, on his shirt above where the infinity symbol was tattooed on his kin. "—I can take it back."
Nathaniel recoiled. "You wouldn't," he said. "You can't. If you take it back, you lose Valeria."
"I won't be just a bargaining chip in this!" Val threw herself between her father and Jonathan, glaring Nathaniel down. "I'll make my own decisions, thank you very much. And I would like to point out that if Jonathan takes back his power, it means that you, Dad, are dead. And if he doesn't, well…" She shook her head, but she backed up as she did so until her back bumped against Jonathan's chest. He put a hand on her shoulder.
"What?" Nathaniel demanded. "You'd choose him over your own father?"
She considered it. She weighed the pros and the cons. Her own father had just burned her, and her father had fixed it. Jonathan had acted, first and foremost, to protect her, while it seemed that her father had worked to advance his own interests. Jonathan had, however, once held a knife to her throat. He had also stopped her from getting struck by lightning. But her dad was her dad…
And he's dead, said a little voice inside of her. There's no loving father-daughter relationship in the future there.
All in all, it wasn't a hard decision.
"Yes," she said, raising a hand to cover Jonathan's in what ended up being a weirdly proprietary gesture. "Yes, I would."
That wasn't what Nathaniel had been expecting. He opened and closed his mouth several times, as if looking for words but not finding them, and then turned on his heel and walked out of the room. He even opened and closed the door behind him, like a normal person.
Valeria stepped away from Jonathan, turning to face him. "You look so tired," she said, reaching out to touch his face. He backed away, holding up his hands in a "stop" gesture.
"You shouldn't touch me," he said. "And I shouldn't touch you. It's for your own good, really."
Val rolled her eyes. "You sound like my father," she said. "Which, by the way, was not the point of that whole spectacle." She climbed back up onto the dusty bed and sat directly in the center of it, folding her legs up under her and clasping her hands in her lap. "Now," she said. "I think that there're some things you need to tell me."
And so he did.
He started at the beginning, for lack of a better place—or at least, at the beginning of Val being important. "It's your father's fault," he said. "Though I'm fairly certain he only did it because he wanted to keep you safe." And with that prelude, he dove into the explanation. And the more he talked, the more it began coming back to her, in bits and pieces, a rush of sensations that she had worked hard to block out.
She'd been fourteen, then. The war was just really getting kicked into gear, and there were still gods aplenty, all ripe for the killing. She hadn't liked it, even back then, though actual killings had been few and far between. Roth hadn't yet perfected the technology that would devastate the deities of the world. But Val had known, even then, that it was just a matter of time.
She'd been in middle school, the best private academy money could buy. She shouldn't have had to worry about anything. She had everything a girl could ever dream of, and more, because she knew she had a future. She was going to have a spot in Roth when she grew up. She knew that, and she spent a lot of time trailing her father around, sitting in on meetings, sometimes listening and sometimes just reading a book in the corner.
When the lab made the first breakthrough on the god-killing technology, her father had told her he wanted to take some precautions. For her own good, he'd said. "This tech," he'd said, shortening it as everyone who worked at Roth did. "It's dangerous."
"For gods, yeah," she'd said, flipping through a magazine. "Isn't that the point?" There was a hint of bitterness about it in her voice. If you killed the gods, you took the mysticism right out of the world. You took the wonder out of it. That didn't appeal to her fourteen-year-old sense of whimsy.
"Not just for gods, Valeria. It's dangerous for people, too. So I want to protect you."
She'd looked up at him, raised a single eyebrow in a manner she'd worked hours to perfect, and had said, "And how do you propose to do that?"
She'd found out soon enough. It had involved a room she hadn't even known existed, and a chair that she had been strapped into. There had been a rig above her—one that she realized was now exactly the same was the one she'd been strapped into a scant hour ago. She squeezed her eyes shut against the memory.
They'd put her under for the procedure. There'd been general anesthesia, just like Nigel had said there'd been, but there was always those moments when they'd woken her up in the middle of it to get a reaction, and then she remembered how she'd screamed and screamed and screamed. She'd gone back under, of course, and when she'd woken up, she hadn't remembered it. She'd been sore, but that was typical for any medical procedure. She hadn't thought anything of it.
But now she remembered glowing vials and needles sunk into her chest, pouring in something that was hot and cold all at once, and the weird floating feeling she'd had after leaving that room. It was just a side effect, her father had told her. It would go away. And eventually, it did. She'd assumed that he was telling the truth.
Maybe he had been. It could have been a perfectly legitimate side effect, after all—she just didn't know to what.
"Essence," Jonathan said. "That's the best word I have for it. The best single word, that is. I mean, it's the stuff that makes gods, gods. It's the stuff that keeps us in business." He looked at her. "It's why it's easier for me to recuperate around you. You're just more than other humans are, and it's because of what your father did to you. It means that you've got…well, I guess he sort of…how do I phrase it…" He made a face, looking for human words for something that was only supposed to be expressed in light and feelings. "He reinforced your soul," he finally said.
"He made you immune to Roth technology," Jonathan said. "Just like he said he was going to. If Kate had shot you in Las Vegas? It wouldn't have done anything. Well, it probably would have hurt, and you might have been vulnerable for a time, but this stuff he put in you, it's not like it's limited in amounts. It replenishes itself. And now that you have more of it, you'll always have more, unless someone takes it out of you."
"Like Nigel was trying to do."
Val swallowed and put her head in her hands, trying to straighten it all out in her mind. "Okay," she said. "So I'm immune to Roth weaponry for a shot or two. Is that it? Why does that make me so important?"
"Well, that's not all that that extra essence does. You've got all this extra soul-belief-essence stuff in you, right? And you kind of give it off, just like all people who believe in something do, but to a greater degree because you have more. And you give it off faster. So, anything—anyone—that you believe in is stronger. And if you believe enough, any god you believe in might just become immune, too."
Her head shot up, and she locked eyes with Jonathan, her breath caught in her throat. "No," she whispered. "No. It's not possible."
"I assure you, it is." He reached out as if to touch her, but drew back at the last moment. "Val, you're the last hope I have. Because sooner or later, they're going to get me. And when that happens…all I have is you."
She drew a deep, shuddering breath. "All right," she said. "All right." But it wasn't. She still couldn't comprehend it, that the key to Jonathan's immortality not longer existed within the universe at large. It existed within her. "So what happens when I die?"
"I don't know. I prefer to think that you don't, at least not before your time."
"So…how much of this did Nigel know?" She thought back to the thick folder in his hands. "All of it. He knew all of it, didn't he? And he probably wasn't going to do anything about it, because no one else knew, but when he ran into us and realized what you were, that we were together, he thought—he knew—that—I don't even know."
"That there was a chance for us," Jonathan said. And against his better judgment, he reached out and took Valeria's hand, rubbing his thumb in slow circles across the back of it. "Val. Listen to me, okay? Listen to me. I'm not going to let them hurt you. I promise. It's you and me, and we're not going to let them stop us."
"From doing what?"
"From stopping the war."
Val groaned and pulled her hand away. "You said we shouldn't touch," she pointed out. "Why? What's up with that?"
He winced. "Well," he said slowly, "you know how you feel a tingle whenever I have power and I touch you?"
"Yeah. It's coming back, by the way. You used up most of it healing me, but it's coming back already."
"Yeah…it wouldn't run out so fast, except your father has most of my power as part of our bargain. Anyway, that tingle. You like it, don't you?"
Val blushed. "Well, yeah, I guess," she mumbled.
"That's the problem. It's addictive," he said. "For you. It's like a drug. And the more you get, the more you won't want to leave."
"Well, I shouldn't leave, if being together is all that's keeping us alive."
"But what about when it's over? What about then? You'll want to go your own way, don't you think?"
Val didn't think. And that, she realized, might be just the problem.