Had quite a few problems posting chapter three of 'The ghost of you' over at LJ, seemed that the entry could not be posted because it was "too big". So basically I had to divide the chapter into two instalments and post it like that, because there just seemed to be no other way - go figure. Anyway here's to hoping the same doesn't happen here, because if it does: major disappointment.
For those of you who are familiar with my writing, or just a tiny bit familiar with me, will know how much I dislike the thought of breaking up story flow because of some stupid website impediment.
And now that I've done my ranting, on to the show; hope it entertains you. Please R&R!
Title: THE GHOST OF YOU
Rating: R (eventually)
Characters: Pepper Potts, Tony Stark, eventually Tony/Pepper
Summary: After Tony is kidnapped in Afghanistan, Pepper has an epic realisation: she is madly and irrevocably in love with her boss. And it will be thanks to that love, with some help from a little bit of magic, that will allow the two to form a bond, despite the thousands of miles that separate them. After all, love and a dash of magic can conquer anything, right?
Disclaimer: Characters do not belong to me, except for all and any OC's. I am not legally authorised to borrow what belongs to the likes of MARVEL and such, I am simply borrowing them out of fun, and am not making a profit from this activity whatsoever. Except for reviews; that's plenty 'profit' for me! ;) Also, songs are duly credited, if somewhat slightly edited to suit my own purposes; I claim no ownership rights over those either, just a lot of inspiration.
* * *
Love of mine, I will be close behind,
I'll follow you into the dark.
No blinding light, or tunnels
to gates of white,
just our hands clasped so tight,
waiting for the hint of a spark
- - - - - From Death cab for cutie
* * *
He watched with the incredulity that comes from being taken by surprise as the world around him tilted crazily on its axis. The strength with which the air was pushed towards him, ramming into him, knocked him several feet backwards, and for a nanosecond, he felt as though he was flying. His body sailed through the air, limbs propelled forwards, as he flew backwards, eyes instinctively shut.
Then he landed on the ground and all the breath, and coherence were knocked violently out of him. It felt like it took forever for his mind to focus again. His eyes opened slightly, and blinked dazedly, earth and dust still settling around him, on him.
A horrible humming buzzed in his ears, and he cast his gaze around him dazedly, still not fully understanding what had just happened.
Then, the strangest sensation tool over all the attention from his brain – which greedily grabbed hold, trying to gather as much data as possible to process what was happening NOW, rather than what had happened; it was easier, and imperative.
His mind told him there was a fierce burning, or perhaps stabbing, or maybe it was –
A warm gush was spreading on his chest. He blinked down at it, his hands coming up to part the folds of his shirt, revealing the dark stain of blood, and the destroyed layer of the Kevlar waistcoat.
The mind had become well trained, over thousands of years' worth of evolution, at recognising it, and at dealing with it.
It was too much, too fast. Too … raw.
He seemingly lost all energy in that moment, and his head fell back down onto the ground. The last thing he saw before his eyes shut was the blue, blue sky, not a cloud in sight. His mind forced his body and itself to shut down, in self preservation.
Tony Stark closed his eyes, and knew no more.
Eight thousand miles west in -12hours time zone, she closed her door, a tired but lively smile on her face. Her birthday had been pretty good this year, and she didn't have to be in to the office later on as it was a Saturday.
She hadn't been able to have a lie-in in goodness knew how long. She looked forward to it with giddiness.
Therefore she was chagrined, but not entirely surprised, when her phone began ringing.
Already, it sounded shrill and insistent.
Feeling somewhat annoyed and resigned, Pepper Potts answered her phone.
The least expected person on the planet spoke, his voice unsteady and fraught with tension. As he spoke, Pepper's smile froze on her face, and her body instantly felt rigid, turned to ice.
Her clutch bag slipped out of her nerveless fingers. When it thudded to the floor, her knees took on a life of their own.
They bent and she sagged downwards, sinking until her kneecaps collided painfully with the hard surface of her living room floor. Her throat felt constricted, scrabbling for breath where little oxygen came.
And quite unexpectedly, with the savage force of a state-of-the-art SI missile, Pepper's world crumbled and
into the dark.
CHAPTER TWO: In absentia
* * *
The stars, the moon …
They have all been blown out,
You've left me in the dark.
No dawn, no day,
I'm always in this twilight,
In the shadow of your heart.
- - - From 'Florence and The Machine'
* * *
Swimming in and out of consciousness left you feeling confused and hazy. You could no longer tell if it was night or day, if you should still be in your clothes, or if should change.
Such trivial matters did not occupy your mind for long. What did it matter if it was dark or light outside? What was the importance of wearing different clothes on your back … when you couldn't even muster enough will, and strength to so much as move? No one is going to see you. No one will come looking for you. So what does it matter?
Nothing, you told yourself, it does not matter, it's not important.
Your eyes are closed, and they are going to stay that way, because if you open them-
I can't face it. I don't want to hear it. I can't bear it.
The surface underneath you is soft, and it cocoons your exanimate body. The last temperature you remember was around seventy-five degrees Farenheit, but you don't know what it is like now. Cold seems to caress your skin, and your extremities feel numb, frozen. You wonder idly if the coldness is seeping into you, or if it is radiating outwards from within.
Your heartbeat is slow and steady, but it seems as though your chest aches with every steady pump and flow of it. The very thing that gives you life, that keeps you alive and breathing is also the very thing that's shredding you apart.
I can't bear it.
The anxiety and sheer terror have abated somewhat. Hours ago – days? – they had fought viciously tooth and nail in a coup to take over your body, unprepared as it was for violent assault. You remember something about a mirror and tiles – the bathroom? – and faucets twisting under your fingers, the water running and racing to waste down the empty drain. Somehow the sensation of your feet hitting cold tiles – the sharpness of it – flashes through your memories, stark and vivid with it.
Your flesh crawled with the impossible strength your soul was being battered with. For some reason, in the hysterical middle of it, you recalled awakening in your small cot when you were a small child living with numerous other small children one night, to feel creeps crawling over your small, terrified body.
The sensation was the one and very same now, years distant into the future.
But you're no longer a child, no longer dependent on their small kindnesses, their rare charities.
And still, you feel just as helpless, just as frightened, just as needy.
Your voice does not cry out in need like it did before. But you desperately want to, wish to, need to.
Despite that state of being, you had enough presence of mind to try to tamp down onto the hysteria which threatened to rise from the recesses of your womb up, up into your gut, past your lungs, into your vocal chords.
You squashed it all down, mercilessly, in a bid to stamp it out of your system.
And for a while, it was enough. It seemed to work.
But now, now …
… now your mind is weary, your chest tight with lacking breath, your body locked in on itself, desperately seeking comfort. It seems that those years of your childhood spent hosted by the State in an institution have yet to teach you that no matter how much you crave it, no matter how much you need it, no comfort will ever come to you.
It. Will. Not. Come.
Exhaustion of the body and soul makes sure you dive under again, if only for a while. It is how your mind has chosen to cope with the emotional trauma, and you have no choice but to let it. You're not even sure if it's something you truly want, this sleeping, or if it even matters whether you actively want it or not.
After all, it is all that remains now.
Your eyes – they have NOT opened, no, nor will they – are shielded from any source of light thanks to the duvet you have hid yourself under. Inside of it everything is—
It isn't harsh. It isn't unbearable. It lets you just be. You need it. You need to just be. You couldn't breathe without it, outside, where everything is hard, and raw. Here, nothing tears you apart with vicious teeth stripping you away of all your strength, of all your defences. He was never yours to hold – ohGOD I can't bear it-ICAN'TBEARIT – but the memories won't stop coming; you remember the way you were so sure, so innocent.
But that was then … can we ever go back again? You think to yourself, can we ever go back?
You don't have to push yourself to – and it is so. Hard. To – speak, to answer back, blank sentences stranded together to hide what's really underneath, reflecting all the emptiness back. I couldn't speak now. The salt from all the tears I had cried had dried all the words in me.
Out there the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach couldn't let you think. Here, now, you feel like a stone going down, down, down, sinking hopelessly into depths hitherto never reached. And it hurts. It hurts so much you're crippled by it.
Here, there is no mockery, no false platitudes, no frenzied questions and flurries of useless activities. You prefer the here to the out there. Because somewhere in all the talking the meaning faded out.
… even if your phone rings – which it DOESN'T/how could it/WHY doesn't it – you are not required to be efficient at all times, even if your body is barely pushing itself onwards. You don't have to pretend and be stoic and be strong, and be it all, everywhere and all the time
… is where you can avoid it all, the sights, the sounds, the (lack of) smells, the thinking – don't think about it, just don't think about it, oh godohgod dontthinkaboutit –
Hours before, when you were still in the grips of the strongest – and that shocks you – fear you have ever known, the ridiculous thought of getting in your car and driving out there, to his house, had for a moment clouded your thoughts. But just imagining how still and empty – he lived alone, but though the house was huge he filled it all with his mere presence and strength of character – and soundless it all would be made her stumble away. And … JARVIS would be there, and you couldn't hear that voice, no, oh no-
The quiet is … so loud – there's no other word for it – and this is the only unbearable thing you find yourself capable of toting. The quiet lets you stay in that limbo, in the in-between, and it is … easier, here. As long as you can surround yourself in darkness with nothing but this quiet, you're relatively okay with not being okay.
As long as you can just.
You are safe here. And so here is where you will stay.
* * *
I join the queue on your answer phone,
And all I am, is holding breath.
Just pick up, I know you're there,
Can't you hear I'm not myself.
Well, go ahead and lie to me,
You could say anything,
Small talk will be just fine.
Your voice is everything
We ought to love…
I don't want to feel anything
But I do,
And it all comes back to you.
-----From 'Hear me out'
* * *
The news reports all flashed the same headlines, all told more or less different versions of the same story, and speculations flew in from every corner of the country, and beyond.
Where was Tony Stark? Who had kidnapped him, and was he still alive?
The official story was that a small contingent of men were still over there, Colonel Rhodes included, scouring every inch of that forsaken land in the hopes of finding, if not the man himself, then at least some clue that would shed light as to where he could be.
The company was running just as smoothly as it ever did – after all, how could it not with Obadiah Stane at its helm? – but already the rippling effects were coming their way. Business partners and potential future dealers were all waiting with bated breath to see if their golden gander would return, safe and sound, so that they could carry on benefiting from his golden eggs. So even if the company itself was kept operational on all fronts, as per usual, as though nothing was wrong … as though nothing was out of the ordinary – they grew wary enough to demand a great deal many things.
Those who had opened contracts demanded that their money's worth be paid immediately, and had filed their wishes that SI deliver on their orders ASAP. And those who had been just about to sign on with Stark Industries suddenly took a careful step back and re-drew their potential contracts from scratch, making some very clear points about protecting themselves in any way from all the possible repercussions Tony Stark's – demise?- could have on the market. His newest inventions alone were estimated to be well into the tune of billions of dollars.
Virginia 'Pepper' Potts poised herself above this current and watched it all with a mixture of feelings that always made her feel like she had heartburn.
The way the vultures – for that is what they were, despite this being the cruel world of business, and the even crueller reality of shark-infested waters that was the weapons manufacturing section of the market – swooped in immediately after the hit in Afghanistan, and the way they began hunting voraciously for a way to still fill their pockets and line their jackets with money, made her feel sick, and ashamed to be a part of this world. No matter how small and unofficial her part may be.
The manner with which most regarded the event as nothing more than a hindrance in what would be their future business goals, instead of thinking it in terms of one of their own, a fellow countryman, out there suffering goodness knew what, made her heart burn with a fierce disgust.
She'd spoken to Rhodey all of a couple of times since it had happened, but things were looking very grim. The Force had no idea who had acted against their convoy, and knew even less about the fate of Tony Stark, or his possible whereabouts. Right where their convoy had been attacked was some of the roughest country, with nothing but treacherous desert stretching for miles and miles, and beyond that miles and miles of more desert and mountains.
Obadiah had held a press conference on the matter the day before, and had spoken for the whole company when he expressed his deepest concerns and wished for it all to end with Tony's safe return home.
She'd stood near by for the first few minutes, then found herself at all incapable of breathing in the same room, and had quietly abandoned her post to retreat into her office. She was only running perfunctory assistant duties now, and most of the bulk of her work now involved the tedious and copious amounts of paperwork needed to keep the company running in a smooth, cohesive manner.
So she didn't have that much to do. For once, even correspondence was taken – literally – out of her hands, since the PR team had taken over answering any 'concerns' about Tony's current situation. And all that because money that was supposed to come in to SI, teetered on the verge of not flowing their direction at all, because, without the company's prime asset, and spokesman, it wasn't good enough for the investors.
And already Obadiah was making sure more and more that everything was taken care of, in just the way he liked it best. Pepper had neither the will, nor the strength to try to counteract anything she knew Tony would have flat out disapproved of. And besides, with him gone, Obadiah was the only occupant sitting on the throne.
She was too tired, mentally, emotionally and physically to do anything but drag herself out of bed in the morning, going through the limited motions her work required these days, and then have enough energy to get home and crawl into bed, only to do it all over again.
I'm a satellite heart, lost in the dark,
I've spun out so far, you stop, I start...
You know I haven't slept in weeks, you're the only thing I see…
I've spun out so far, you stop, I start.
But I'll be true to you.
The din in the cafeteria suddenly reached a painful crescendo. Voices, noises, shouts, and all manner of loud sound just grew and grew and grew, until it became a painful cacophony in her ears.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block it all out.
It only grew until it became unbearable.
Pepper pushed her chair back, rose from the table, and left her mostly untouched food behind. Her legs pushed her quickly out of the large dining hall, and she stole away to her office.
She entered the room, and shut the door with a quick bang, her breathing somewhat hitched. She couldn't stand this place anymore. Pepper made her way to the desk, checked her schedule to see what was left, and breathed a small sigh at the reprieve she could take.
She packed her bag and left the stuff that needed finishing behind, neatly piled on her desk. It was nothing life-changing urgent, it would wait until tomorrow.
She made her way to the car park – too distracted to even wave perfunctorily at the security guys constantly decked at the perimeter – and drove away, heading home.
The radio was blaring out something about markets hitting low again on Wall Street, and other things, but Pepper did not want to hear.
The silence that filled her car as she weaved through LA traffic at 1.30pm was so relieving, she felt her headache immediately receding a little.
She opened and closed her front door, then put her bag and coat away in their usual places. She toed off her court shoes and padded in her stockinged feet to the living area, where her cat awaited her, as she knew he would.
"Hi, baby." She muttered distractedly, and bent down to scratch his fleshy cheek before walking into her small kitchen. Moses the cat trilled with expectation, and quickly jumped off the sofa, small paws barely making a sound as he trotted after her, his tail swishing jauntily. He started sniffing around at the air, and then wove himself in and out between her legs, wrapping himself like a glove around her ankle, arching his back and purring, clearly asking for food to fill his bowl.
Pepper gave him a couple of spoonfuls of crunchies, which he immediately and happily attacked, and then left the kitchen, wanting nothing more than a good hot shower and to take off her office attire.
She made herself some soup and toast later that evening, eating it on her sofa, but didn't stay there, watching tv, for long. Before she knew fully what she was doing, Pepper had dialled his home number, and had reached JARVIS – naturally, who else could answer? – and when she finally focused on the present, she hurriedly cut the call short and hung up, feeling her heart heavy and her chest too tight to draw breath.
Anguish assaulted her senses and her eyes blurred instantaneously with tears.
His voicemail had been on.
She'd heard his voice.
It felt impossible to breathe.
The ache that threatened to consume her the second she heard his recorded voice on playback, was more than she could bear. Bringing a small hand to fist tightly in front of her mouth, trying to lock inside the sounds of misery that threatened to escape, Pepper shut her eyes and felt her tears wet her face, and neck, and collar bone, felt the way they scalded her skin, tasted their saltiness on her lips, breathed through the congestion in her nose, but more and more her heart felt leaden and too tight to hold it all in.
There were a lot of messages on his voicemail by now, undoubtedly. She really should get out there and sort them out – but she already knew she couldn't.
"Hey, this is Tony Stark, the man, the legend, the genius, also the guy who is ultimately too cool to actually wait around at home to take your call, so just leave a message or feel free to come by anytime if you happen to have nicely-sized mammary glands. Don't forget your number!"
She sobbed as she heard his voice down her ear, speaking as though a hair's breath away from her, as though he were still here, safe and roaring through life uncaring of all but his own goals, as usual. The longing in her chest stole what little breath she managed to gulp in between sobs.
Pepper hung up, and clutched the phone in her hand, shoulders shaking, a hand covering her eyes, tears wetting all in their path. In the next instant she dialled again, just to hear his voice. Masochism clearly had the upper hand on her now.
"Hey, this is Tony Stark, the man, the legend, the genius …"
"Hello, Mr. Stark, it's me, Potts. Sorry to disturb you, I know you're always ever so busy, but … I don't kn—I just want you to know that … I hope you're okay, wherever you are, and that we're all waiting for you to come back…I heard the military was very impressed with the Jericho, congratulations, I hope you had a smooth flight…and that your flight back will be sometime very, very soon. I'm … still here, you know, holding the fort, so to speak, so you don't have to worry about a thing, because I'm taking care of your things, as usual. I'm not coming by your house, but will make sure that all remains in order, and that JARVIS and the bots don't get too lonely…anyway, just wanted to tell you that we're looking for you, that we haven't forgotten about you, and that Rhodey and Obie miss you very much, and Rhodey is doing every thing he can to find you. I'm sure it won't be long now…I hope you're well. Good-bye Mr. Stark, I'll talk to you real soon."
What she'd just done made her feel bittersweet, and left her drained. Moses had long curled up on her lap, purring contentedly on the warm, comfy cradle that was his mistress, and Pepper felt it was time she turn in, even if it was barely after nine.
She turned the TV off, picked up the limp form of Moses and rose off the couch. She turned off all lights, checked that she'd locked her front door, then made her way to her bedroom.
After getting into bed, Pepper refused to think about anything any more, but it was nigh on impossible. Calling his house phone, even as a reflex action, had been a terrible move on her part during her very vulnerable state. And hearing his voice ripped through her with the force of a tidal wave, leaving behind an empty chasm in her heart.
She burrowed more into the duvet, closing her eyes and snuggling her face into the pillow. She was always cold these days, it seemed. Moses settled at the foot of her bed contentedly and was immediately asleep again. She envied his ability to sleep at the drop of a hat.
With the aftermath of her crying rattling through her chest, Pepper fell into a deep, uneasy sleep.
The mind is truly a mysterious thing.
It can be a place where you hold your memories, all sorts of information about a large number of subjects.
It is, largely, the only thing you retain from the moment you are born, till the moment you die – no matter the conditions of the brain itself. Even if the synapses are malfunctioning, and the neurons are no loner firing off, it is still there.
A small comfort, perhaps.
And in times of need, it can also be your greatest ally … and your greatest enemy.
For you see, should you need an escape – a reprieve, if you will – from whatever it is that is causing you pain, the mind can give you that. Too much pain? Here, witness your mind making you feel numb, perhaps even bring you out of a state of consciousness. Too tired? Let your body rest, and your mind will do all the work; dreaming, interpreting things, elaborating them, storing them, putting them under the conscious' threshold, even growing.
Needs, whether biological or emotional, or even practical, like remembrance: your mind can do all this.
But sometimes, your mind can turn into your greatest enemy.
Your mind CAN offer you an escape if what you're experiencing is too much.
That doesn't mean that it WILL, though.
And to be trapped within one's own body, chained by the twisting ways of one's mind, the fear rendering one incapacitated … truly is a terrible thing.
Sometimes the fear is so powerful it overwhelms your senses and halts your mind's processes.
Or it can speed them up.
If there is one thing the mind has done, it is to evolve, in order to give us a better chance of survival. We are still very much animal-like, and primitive in some ways, after all.
Don't be still. Do something. Either one or the other. Just. MOVE.
Her clammy skin.
The grief inside.
The tears she'd shed, and still there they were, more numerous, harder to fight, ready to spill at any moment.
Vulnerability. Want. Need. Painful, painful longing. Hope.
The mind is a powerful thing indeed.
But it has nothing on the heart.
And hers was in tatters. How, how could it be, that the very thing she had always sternly instructed herself NOT to do, i.e. , had happened? And it came out of nowhere, hitting her with the force of a battering ram, in the unassuming shape of a phone call. One small occasion of a phone's ringtone, and then … utter heart-stopping shock and fear.
Love was not supposed to have come.
But come it did.
And it was love that gave her enough strength to achieve what her mind alone could not.
The hurtful, lung-filling longing that threatened to engulf her in its sheer doom, and ultimately her truest heart's desire, manifested itself and took form.
And it was a living thing. And it was a breathing thing. And it took root upon the seat of that love, inside her conscious, and it grew, grew until it expanded and stood tall, and strong, its roots now long and reaching ever, ever deep. Entrenched into her. Reaching her viscera.
And then …
The very fabric, the essence that was Pepper, her magic, the very thing that ran in her blood: it seized the combination of all these elements, gave itself the chance she needed, and it acted.
Suddenly she was aware that this was a physical kind of reality; at least not the kind you can touch. You can only see it. Pepper used her eyes in the dream, and the dream told her many, many things. Had she been awake, she would have been extremely alarmed at the sights her eyes were now presented with, but her dream-self accepted all this with utter calm, as though nothing was out of the ordinary. The sky above her whirled with the speed she was travelling, and though it must have been night, since it was dark with fluttering silver-kissed puffs of grey clouds, Pepper felt no biting chill to her skin.
Then she looked down.
The smooth mass of calm blue-black-silver-grey, the sea, stretched and sped past below her, much like the sky did above. Though there was no tangible horizon, Pepper felt weightless and taken by the tranquillity of the moment. She was going somewhere, but did not yet know her destination. Beneath her bottom floated the very thing she sat on, its polished, hard wood gleaming like a winking star as she sped along, soaring through the air.
Though it was extremely narrow, and looked far too uncomfortable to ever seat one's bottom – as any stick of wood might do – she felt completely at ease.
She even knew, instinctively, how to position her limbs and bend her body to adjust to it as it weaved through the open night air.
For a moment her eyes gazed curiously at the open waters spreading serenely beneath her, but despite the altitude her body was at, she was not afraid of this. She found herself wishing to be close enough to touch the water. And in the next instant, though it felt seamless, it was quicker than the blink of an eye: she had descended a great deal of altitude in an unbelievably short amount of time, and was right above the water.
And still she sped along towards lands unknown, undiscovered.
Pepper reached out with one of her hands, the other keeping her aviator-friendly instrument steady and on the same course, and skimmed her fingers through a water that looked as though it should have been very cold to the touch, but instead it suffused her hand with a surprising warmth.
Her reflection rippled and her laughing blue eyes gleamed back at her, as though wanting to share something secret.
The breeze ruffling her long hair felt immensely pleasant. It whooshed past her aviator-friendly and danced on her flesh, tickling here and caressing her nightdress there, making it flutter.
Pepper felt that at a moment such as this she should laugh freely and as though she hadn't a care in the world, tilting her head back gaily, like the heroines of the movies.
Except that Pepper didn't feel much gaiety in her heart.
And she was no heroine.
The dream seemed to both go on endlessly in timeless harmony, and to shift – but not end – at the merest hint of a sigh.
Suddenly the breeze that caressed her, touched her no longer. The sea was gone. The sky above shifted, and the clouds seemed to almost solidify as they swelled and re-aligned themselves. The moon shone much brighter. And now it was a fuller satellite that seemed to smile down upon her. For some reason, as she gazed up at it adoringly – though a small part of her mind questioned why she should be adoring the moon – she felt tears prickle her eyes at the emotion of the sight.
In fealty Tanarra.
What do you hide from me?
Where once lay water, now green earth with its fertile life greeted her eyes. When she touched down, it was the softest of landings. Her aviator-friendly rolled to a smooth stop and she dismounted, feet seeking purchase gracefully on terra firma.
The forest was beautiful at night. And it appeared to be both completely new and yet achingly familiar. She breathed in, smelling it all, and felt as though she were right at home. Then she noticed a little something out of the corner of her eye.
There was a campfire and small trees with bulbous shrubbery for foliage with pretty paper lanterns hanging from their branches. Around the campfire were some recliners that could only be described as eco-friendly, especially in design. They were made out of bark and leaves and moss sat in neat clusters on them, acting as plush cushions. Water trickled from a tall purple plant that looked anything but earth-like in its sheer luminosity and beauty. And a woman was sat in one of the recliners, a patient smile full of quiet wisdom on her face.
Lit by the warm fire, it truly was a lovely face.
Pepper felt herself step naturally closer to the idyllic little spot, as though she were being summoned forth to the woman, who was elderly, and though her beautiful silver hair shined shockingly white, her face was hardly lined by her age. Pepper found herself sat on the other chair across from the other woman, without knowing quite what to expect. She looked at the woman, who smiled warmly at her, but both remained silent. When the woman finally spoke, her voice was clear and it rang a bell inside Pepper's mind.
"So, you finally made it. Took you long enough, Virginia. I've been waiting for you for quite a while."
Pepper stared at her. Her conscious mind told her she had no idea who this was, what she meant, or how she knew her name, but her dream-self was not very surprised by what the woman had said.
The woman took her silence as a sign of something, and whatever it was, she seemed to agree with it, for she nodded.
"But you're here now, that's what matters. How was your journey? Were the skies clear?"
Pepper spoke, and though rationally she should be puzzled, if not outright baffled by it all, she was not, and acted instead as though she were chatting with an old friend she had not spoken to in a long time.
"The journey itself has only just begun. It begins tonight. The skies were not entirely clear, though getting here was no trouble at all."
The woman nodded, satisfied with her answer. "Yes, this is only the very beginning, if you could even call it that; I would call it more a prelude to the journey itself, and what a long journey it is, my dear. I'm not surprised the skies were not entirely clear on your way over, considering the turmoil you are going through. How was the broom?"
Pepper smiled and nodded politely. "The aviator-friendly proved to be quite the ride, it was very enjoyable."
The woman smiled warmly, and settled more deeply into the recliner. "Good, good. I'd hoped you'd follow tradition in the ways of it, and at least for your transport, you have. I'm quite curious to see how you'll do. We all expect great things from you, Virginia. I've never doubted that you'd find your way here one day."
Dream-Pepper seemed to finally catch up somewhat with Rational-Pepper. "I'm sorry, but I seem to not remember your name."
The woman smiled secretly and told her that she had many names, and that Pepper did not need to hear even one right now, because in time she would know what to call her. Dream-Pepper accepted this without qualms.
"The only thing I can advise you to do, once you return from Morpheus' Landing, is to dig out your grandmother's old book of her ways. You should find in there a thing or two to get you started at least, and to point you in the right direction when you'll need it. Quite a useful book, that one. I'm sure you'll do just fine, dear."
Rational-Pepper did not know what to make of this, neither heads nor tails. Dream-Pepper however, seemed to find this advice most sound, and appreciated it.
And then everything changed.
The fire suddenly extinguished, as though a great wind had borne down upon it and snuffed it out. The burning embers and coals lit up the woman's face but barely, her eyes two glittering ovals of mystery.
"I see darkness ahead, my dear. Best not spoil all that light and let it go to waste, for you'll need it very soon. Make sure you don't lock it away, you hear?"
Dream-Pepper seemed just as uncertain as Rational-Pepper about what she'd just heard.
"What do you mean? Am I going somewhere?"
For the first time since their meeting began, the woman's smile vanished, to be replaced with a pitying frown as she looked at Pepper.
"Oh, Virginia, you've a long way to go dearest, and it will not be easy. It never is, for our women, but for you it will be even harder."
Pepper was still puzzled. "But how can I make sure I don't lock it away? And what if I don't have it with me?"
"Virginia, it isn't something you can leave behind as one does with their raincoat as they leave the house. You always carry it with you, and you'll know this. You've already come to face it. I can't give you answers that will be any clearer, because your future is not with you yet. You must experience it yourself and live it, I can't tell you. And besides, nothing is written in stone, my dear. You can always alter your course, remember that."
Finally it seemed that this moment had been a long time coming, for Dream-Pepper suddenly took over again.
Her voice, when she spoke, was desolate. But the woman, if anything, projected even more love towards her for it. And though they did not touch, or even shift from their positions, Pepper felt like she was suddenly engulfed in a warm, understanding embrace of love, like being hugged by family.
"He is gone from me."
"I know dearest. I know what has happened, and feel all the more sorry for what is ahead of you."
Tears prickled Pepper's eyes, and her hands trembled slightly. She suddenly felt cold, as though the night air had finally caught up to her in one fell swoop. "This wasn't meant to happen. I wish it had never happened. It want it all to be like it was before."
The woman sighed. "But how could it ever be like it was before, Virginia? It is something that, once made, cannot be unmade. It is your future now. And it was meant to be, in ways you will later realise. As for it not being meant to happen … I'm afraid he was set onto this course years ago, dearest, and can probably be traced well back into his past, when his world shifted and he found himself suddenly alone in this world."
"He doesn't deserve this! It never should have happened!"
"This isn't about deserving something, Virginia. This is simply a pit stop in his life that he couldn't avoid. He will come out better for it, believe me. Believe in HIM, Virginia."
Pepper almost sobbed. "I do believe in him! With all my heart, I wish nothing but good things for him. I know that he—"
The woman interrupted her, rushing now as though they were out of time. As though one of them was about to leave this place. Pepper felt the anticipation of the departure in her bones.
"You must let your magic carry you now, Virginia. Trust it, trust in it, trust that it will help you, and take you where you wish to go. If you don't let it roam free, you will never go anywhere, do you understand me, dearest? Go now, and trust that it will all be all right. And the Goddess be with you, child."
Pepper was anxious, because the dream was shifting. The entire forest, the lights, the trees, and the woman, were all beginning to fade away into inexistence, as though being gradually smudged out of her consciousness.
"Wait! How will I know what to do? Please, I am so lost!"
The woman's voice sounded as though it were reaching her from far, far away. She was still in front of Pepper, but growing ever fainter.
"May her light shine upon you, and her Spirit guide you and protect you, child. And remember… whatever you do… we are always with you…"
"But I –"
"Go now… this is not where you are needed…go where you must…go before it's too late…come morning, you will wake, and will not be able to come until it's night again … Bless you, dearest…"
The aviator-friendly was hovering at shoulder height. Evidence that a campfire with its mysterious vegetation and the woman had ever been here was non-existent. It was just Pepper again. At least she was still reclined on the comfortable seat with the plush moss.
The aviator-friendly gently nudged her arm, prodding her.
Pepper realised there were tears on her face, and wiped them away, accepting this to be what it must be, and accepting things to be allowed to run their course, to see where they would take her. She nodded to the broom that was still gently nudging her arm, and got up from the recliner. When she stretched out her hand, the broom, as though it were a living thing with a mind of its own, rose until the wood skimmed her hand.
It stopped moving and seemed to wait for Pepper to make the next move. The ball was in her court now, so to speak. She climbed side-saddle onto it, crossed her legs demurely, bent her body in the correct flight position and breathed in.
"Up!" She commanded, and the broom rose steadily, the ground gradually getting smaller and smaller, until she was soaring almost a hand's reach away from the sky again, it seemed.
For a while, the dream resembled its beginning, with Pepper flying through the night air, the broom steady and comforting under her, the scenery, never too detailed, floating lazily past her, as though she had all the time in the world, as though she could, and would, do this forever.
Then out of nowhere, the broom started to vibrate. At first Pepper didn't pay it much mind, but the vibrating carried on, and then it became uncomfortable. The vibrations built up until the broom was almost bucking underneath her, and Pepper feared she might be unseated and plummet through the air.
But that didn't happen.
They just kept drifting – and when had the scenery around her changed? – aimlessly, as though the destination was no longer clear to either her or her transport.
The broom gradually lost its speed, and Pepper tried to guide it back to speed again with her hand, restlessly shifting on the stick, which was ever vibrating. Only now the broom tried to turn in a completely different direction to the one they had been moving in. Pepper resolutely stopped its attempts, guiding it in her desired direction with a firm hand. The broom, it seemed, truly did have a will of its own. Now it kept stalling in mid-air, almost as if it no longer wished to fly, and this aggravated Pepper, because really, the broom was not the one in control here, SHE was, and SHE had places to be.
Pepper bit her lip at that thought, silently urging the broom to pick up speed again. She didn't want to be late! When the broom finally achieved its goal and ground to an utter stand still, Pepper huffed in frustration, her frame no longer relaxed. She ran her hand along the smooth handle, trying to coax the broom to move again, but that didn't work.
Pepper yelled. "What do you want from me?"
The broom seemed capable of responding to anger, for it moved in tiny little swaying see-saw like movements, undulating on the spot. It seemed to plead with her. Pepper sighed and tried to soothe it with her hands, but the broom wouldn't be soothed. It still undulated, and Pepper was truly lost.
"I don't understand! Where do you want me to go? Is this not the right direction?"
The broom seemed to have a response for that as well. It was telling her … something, but Pepper didn't speak Broomish, so she had no idea what it meant. And then the broom gave a definite nudge under her, pointing energetically with the handle, almost turning forty-five degrees to the right, as though …
As though it was trying to tell her … that—that's the direction it wanted to go, Pepper realised.
She stayed still for a moment, looking both forward and back the way the broom seemed to point, pondering on what should be her next move.
I don't know what to do, she cried out silently, her hands gripping the handle none too gently, her body tensed as though ready for the worst. The broom seemed capable of sensing that its mistress was in distress, because it tried to rock her gently on the spot, growing slightly warmer under her hands, warming them. Pepper hadn't even noticed that they'd gotten cold.
'What should I do? I think I'd like to wake up now.'
For no other reason than that her heart felt filled to the brim, if not practically made with grief, her body's natural reaction was to let some of the tension out through her tear ducts.
She started crying, and once begun, she did it in earnest, great gulping sobs, shuddering and rocking upon the broom. She folded in upon herself until her forehead touched the broom's handle, lying horizontal, and still cried.
'What do you WANT?'
Then Pepper suddenly stopped crying and opened her eyes, looking down upon the sea, but not really seeing it.
'What do *I* want?'
And that was exactly what a small part of her had been waiting for. It had lain dormant all this time, all her life, but this: this was the quickening, and it hastened to seize this opportunity.
Something deep inside her awoke. And Pepper knew, she KNEW this was it, this would change everything, and everything was already changed, but now she no longer wondered. Now she knew what she had to do.
She knew what it was that her heart wanted.
And the broom seemed to have known it before she herself knew it.
Feeling new determination flooding into her body, she felt warm again, despite the breeze ruffling her nightdress and wrapping around her naked feet.
She sat up straight again and took up the correct flying posture, tightening her hands on the steady broom. Then out of nowhere came the unbidden thought that, if she straddled the broom, instead of sitting upon it sideways, she could go faster.
So she did just that, swinging one leg over to the other side of the broom, gripping it tightly with her thigh muscles. Then she looked back towards the direction to her right, and the broom seemed to encourage this. For a second, Pepper closed her eyes, steadied her breath and thought about it.
The thing her heart wanted most … its truest desire … and the woman back in the forest: hadn't she said this would happen? Hadn't she said to let it happen, and to concentrate hard on what her heart was trying to tell her and to let the rest take care of itself?
Pepper opened her eyes again, looking towards her new destination. In her heart of hearts, she already knew where the road would take her. And her heart threatened to burst with the sheer weight of emotions the thought alone brought within her.
She pulled the handle up slightly until the broom was no longer perfectly horizontal, but leaning upwards slightly, and after gulping past the lump in her throat, she whispered to it, feeling instinctively that the broom would understand.
"Take me where you will. Take me where the pain lies. Take me … to him."
The broom had been clearly waiting for this all along. It sped madly across the air now, pointing in the one direction, as though it had travelled along this route several times and knew it by heart. To Pepper, it was like she was looking down a spyglass, where she could maybe just make out what lay ahead. And whatever it was, that was her future. And HE would be there.
Her heart's truest desire, the thing she wanted most above all. To see him again.
The dream shifted once more. And it was like what happened back at the forest, with her surroundings fading out of existence, the starry inky blue night sky, now moonless – and that was foreboding for some reason – steadily disappearing behind her.
And then the world about her shifted.
And Pepper realised there was no broom under her bottom anymore, that her hands and legs were holding onto nothing, literally thin air.
She plummeted.The scream trying to work itself out of her throat seemed muted to her ears, as though they'd been muffled, and a strange buzzing sound was loudest.
Warning bells in her subconscious went off, blaring mightily. This was dangerous. This was bad. What she was doing was not right. Where she was going was no place good, only pain, unimaginable pain, could possibly lay there. She had to stop this. She had to get out. She had to get herself free.
'Wake up!' She thought desperately, as she plummeted through the air, heading towards the ground at break-neck speed. It was terrifying. And then she felt like she were being pulled in ten different directions, like she was being opened up from the inside. A stabbing pain in her gut made her gasp desperately to breathe in air into her lungs, but they burned instead, as though on fire. And that couldn't be, because her skin was icy cold, freezing.
And her heart was hammering in her chest at a wild pace, as though it knew it must beat its last before she hit the ground, and seemed determined to beat out the beats of a lifetime into that tiny window of time left before collision.
A small part of her was telling her that she had gotten her wish, and once it was made, it could not, NOT EVER be UNmade. All she had to was to let it happen. There was no going back now. And besides, she was right on track, as though this is where she was supposed to be going, what she supposed to be doing, as though all her life had been lived in preparation leading up to this, the most important moment of all.
An explosion tore the air around her asunder, and the repercussions battered into her, and it felt like all the bones in her body had broken from the impact. But nothing of the sort happened. Having been dreaming of night and flying through pleasant skies and beautiful moons and serene seas, it came as an utter shock to suddenly find herself on the hard ground.
Pepper squinted hard, the sun's rays hitting her full force, blinding her, turning the world red, and then incomprehensible. Dusty air seemed to be the only air available here, and she felt debris and sharp rocks digging into her back and shoulders. Pepper tried to shift away, but was momentarily incapacitated.
She could do nothing but stare around her dazedly.
Apart from the disorienting change of her dreamy landscapes, and the utterly terrifying experience her body had just had, she was fine. Her Rational part was telling her so. But a foreboding ache in her heart told her otherwise. Or, if she was fine, she wouldn't be for much longer. Now the only thing she could hear was her own laboured breathing, loud and troubled in her ears.
And then she heard a moan of pain.
She KNEW, KNEW, that even before she turned her head, she already knew what she was going to see.
But that did not prepare her for the sight itself. Once her brain – Rational-Pepper – figured out what her eyes were relaying, a new sickness took over, far more overpowering in nature than any she had experienced.
A few feet to her right there was someone lying, much like her, disoriented, and clearly in agony, on the dusty hard ground. She recognised him – or rather her HEART did – before her brain did. Her heart TOLD her where she was, what was happening, and that this is where her dream had tried to lead her all along.
Tony. Tony was there. That man was Tony. Her heart turned over and the breath was once more stolen from her.
'I found him!'
But no sooner had she thought to feel any small measure of relief, that he moaned again, and looked about himself, not seeing her, still dazed. And in agony.
That's when she noticed the blood blooming like a flower of darkness onto his chest, near where his heart lay. Utter terror was all that she could comprehend. And it paralysed her. She'd always hated being paralysed in dreams, but this … this was by far the worst of them all.
He raised his head weakly and looked down at his chest. Clearly he felt the pain. His hands barely had the time and strength it took to rip his shirt apart to look underneath, to the bloodied Kevlar on his torso, before his head dropped muzzily to the ground again. Pepper saw him lose consciousness, and it was like she, too, was losing it with him. Along with her sanity.
What a terrible thing to lose, she thought, is one's mind.
Then it felt like aeons had passed, entire eras and ages coming and going. Timeless were her dreamscapes. They always had been. There was darkness now, but she couldn't move like she wanted to. Only she seemed to be floating again, broom-less this time, and looking down at the scene folding underneath.
There were men clustered around what looked like a surgical table, fluorescent but weak, lights shining down onto the body. The utterly still body of Tony Stark.
It was like, along the way, her subconscious had known what she would be facing, and had thought to prepare its defences for it. Though in her heart she felt like she was dying – was Tony dead? – a strange sense of detachment also strong enough to numb her pain somewhat cloaked her in its protective embrace.
Then it was like she couldn't see properly. The operation went on, and on, and on, one of the men, a bald one, moving frantically, snapping orders, his hands slick with the blood of her beloved.
Tony, my Tony, her heart cried out pitifully. If he must leave, let me go, too. I want to be with him. That's all I'll ever want. But if not, oh please, ohpleasepleaseplease Goddess, save him for me, render this happiness unto me, your devout one…
Bursts of white light kept interfering with the images of her dream, as though she was tuning with a radio onto a channel using the wrong frequency. Disturbances kept creeping into her dream, so that she could no longer see what was happening to Tony in streaming, as it were, but could only catch bits and pieces.
He was screaming now, and thrashing about on the table, his head whipping from side to side, the agony so clear, that it made her shudder and feel like she was being broken into pieces. Then the bald man covered his face with a white rag, and Tony's breathing gradually decreased until it became clear that he'd lost consciousness again, his face now devoid of the burning pain, his mouth slack. His face was slick with sweat and dirty with grime, like his chest was still slick, blood-red.
Pepper wanted to MOVE.
And so she did. She floated gracefully from the ceiling and came to land softly on the ground, near the table. The men inside the room did not pay her any mind, as though she did not exist. This suited her just fine, because they did not exist for her either, not really. The only thing that existed was lying unconscious on some table, bloody and battered, looking thoroughly fragile.
She yearned to be closer to him, to stroke his fevered brow, and offer some comfort to him, to TOUCH his skin, to hold his hand …
Her beloved one.
Her dear, dear man.
She glided gracefully in her nightdress over to his side, and did just what she had yearned to do but a minute before. As soon as her skin came into contact with his – and this was most *vivid* in the dream, this physical touch – she burst irrevocably into tears, her sides heaving, sobbing breathlessly, face reddening and shiny with tears that scalded her very skin, as though trying to reach his chilled form and warm him somehow. She gripped his hand so tight it hurt, then bent to kiss it lovingly, staring at his slumbering face. There were still some traces of pain and discomfort on it, and oh, how she longed to have him open his eyes, so she could see them. How she longed to protect him, like she'd always done.
She'd always protected him, most especially from himself.
She couldn't, this time.
Pepper sobbed again, and pressed her lips to his hand repeatedly, laying kisses upon it, trying to ease the unbearable ache behind her ribcage.
And then she quaked.
Or more specifically, the dreamscape she was in quaked. Her mind told her what was happening led to the same outcome as the forest and the sky before changing route mid-flight; though this was far more violent.
She was leaving this place.
I can't go yet!
Don't wake up, Pepper, DON'T, he needs me!
Don't wake up!
DON'T WAKE UP!!
Pepper bolted awake in her bed, sitting up quickly and breathing raggedly.
Tears were streaming non-stop down her face, and her body, despite having been under the snuggly warm duvet, felt chilled to the marrow. Her hair was plastered uncomfortably to her forehead and neck, sticking wet strands across her shoulders in a wet limp mass.
She was sobbing. Her eyes kept flashing with the images of Tony on the ground, Tony bleeding, Tony hurt, Tony thrashing in agony, then utterly deathly still, and her hand holding his, and Tony shouting, TonyTonyTonyTonyTon-
Pepper blinked uncomprehendingly, and stared down into her lap, where her faithful feline companion, Moses, was making his displeasure known at not receiving his morning meal and not being let outside. For a moment longer, the crippling emotions that had been stirred to life by the dream, still broiled within her heavy heart. She didn't want to get out of bed. And yet she had to. Tony HAD to be found. Because even if it was just a nightmarish vision only her personal hell could have spawned, there was no doubt that something horrible had still happened to him, and he'd been taken away, away from safety, away from his luxuriously fun world, away from her.
And thus, she needed to be strong.
Steeling her heart and mind, Pepper found enough resolve and strength of will to get out of bed and commence the day.