Summary: Tony and Pepper find an old pendant that used to belong to his mother ... and neither are prepared for the consequences. And the consequences involve Tony having to face one of his greatest fears, which is tied to the single most painful memory of his life. But it is Pepper who pays the price.
AN: This is an entry for the Valentine's Day Challenge at its_always_been posted for marienomad. She requested:
"...A fic involving Pepper being turned into a horse. She could not talk, but Tony knows about it. She will not be a magical pony but a regular horse. If she's a regular pony, that's okay too."
Pepper sat momentarily stunned at the vicious quality of Tony’s voice. She knew and understood the crippling pain he felt, and tried to just write it off as something one would say when they’re angry. But she couldn’t. She loved him too much to allow him to do that to himself.
She snatched the pendant off the table and cradled it protectively in her hand, the metal warm from being exposed to direct sunlight. It was a surprisingly heavy feel in her small hand, and she caught herself wondering what it would feel like to have this dangling from her neck.
Tony looked at her in astonishment. “What?”
Pepper looked at him in wariness, but her stance held strength. “I know you’re very angry about what happened, and you have every entitlement to your feelings, but if you throw this away, you will never forgive yourself. And I will never forgive myself for letting you.”
Tony regarded her steadily, and she got the distinct impression that he was wondering about her sanity. “What the hell are you talking about? I wasn’t going to throw it away!”
The pinking of her skin was unmistakeable as it heated her face. How embarrassing. Tony looked at her highly amused, but his smile was also tinged with affection. “Did you think I was picking it up to throw it away? Pepper, that is a family heirloom that has been in my mother’s family for god-knows how many generations – and most importantly, it was beloved by my mother. I wouldn’t throw it away!”
She stiffened her shoulders and stuck her righteous nose up in the air, regarding him loftily, a beacon of morality. “Good. Then you won’t mind if I hang onto it, do you? Just for a little while. I think I’m going to wear it, too.”
Tony clearly thought she’d lost her mind, but found it rightly prudent to not laugh at her absurdity.
“Of course. By all means, hang onto it. I think I’d very much like to see it on you, actually. There’s plenty more where that came from, so you can have it, if you want.”
Oh, that was low. After all this time, he still thinks he can challenge her – and win?
Fine. If that’s how he wanted it.
She spoke coolly, her eyes matching her voice, trying to call his bluff. Tony could never gamble very well without his sunglasses hiding his far-too expressive eyes. What, you thought he wore them playing poker and at the casinos because it made him look cool? Snort.
And with that she pivoted on her heel and left the room, her head held high and her spine straight – but not stiff. Tony shook his head wryly, feeling like he’d just been had, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out how.
He wasn’t like his father.
He didn’t pick a fight just for the hell of it.
Tony cleared his throat and immediately busied himself with the rest of the chest’s contents, worriedly wondering that if he denied it so much, was it because he truly was?
That night he tossed and turned, but couldn’t sleep.
A sense of disquiet had taken over him in the afternoon, and he couldn’t shake off the funny feeling that he was on the cusp of something that was about to happen. Hell if he knew why that was. After returning from a gruelling mission, his bruised body had demanded nothing more than to snuggle down into his comfy orthopaedic bed, which is where he was now. So why couldn’t he sleep?
He tried not to glare at the obvious reason for that, refusing to turn his head in that direction.
Pepper wasn’t lying beside him, that’s why. She’d gone home after reassuring herself that he was relatively unhurt. He felt like a little boy again as he watched her leave, feeling sad that he’d done something wrong. Bad boy.
Stop it, Howard, he is not a bad boy – Tony you didn’t do anything wrong, honey.
Of course life would have it that the only woman he had ever fallen in love with, in the most adult and truest sense of the term, would also be the one to reduce him to feeling like a scolded five year old again. She humbled him. There couldn’t possibly be anyone else out there, for him, more right than Pepper. He just wished it wasn’t so painful being so much in love with her, being so much in need of her presence in his life. He’d found the stabilising rock that held him grounded once more, only for the second time in his life. And he was getting paranoid.
Because look what happened the first time.
Grrr. Why couldn’t he stop thinking about something bad happening to Pepper?
She just needed to move him with him, that’s all, he tried to reason. Then he wouldn’t worry about her safety so much, because no house in
Stop it, Stark. She’ll move in when she’s ready.
Tony blinked owlishly. What the wh-
I have come to exact retribution, Anthony, upon your head. You have insulted that which I hold most dear, and you are a deplorable human for ever wishing so badly of them. You have slighted me personally in your slurs against them, and now I am come to extort from you that which I feel could only be justice. I have come to make you feel the very thing you never wanted to feel in your life.
Tony remained silent.
JARVIS too, remained silent. And that was ominous. Either she’d found a way to shut him down, and that’s how she got inside his home undetected in the first place, or…
He was simply dreaming.
Yeah, that had to be it.
Her hair was so white it was the colour of the moonlight, though it fell long on her waist, and her face was that of a young woman in her prime. There was something almost unnatural about her eyes, but from this distance, Tony could only tell that they unsettled him, because he couldn’t make out what was probably a strange hue. They seemed to glow eerily across the bed to him, despite the darkness of the room. The light of his arc reactor barely seemed to touch her, as though it, too, didn’t dare to go near her.
You think this is a dream? Very well, we shall see how you feel when you wake up.
For the first time Tony found his voice. If it was indeed a dream, then he could see no harm in talking to her. He ignored the spooked sensation on the nape of his neck and spoke. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
You owe me a sacrifice. I have come to collect it now.
“What the hell does that mean? I’ve never seen you before in my entire life.” He spoke with much more strong conviction than he felt at that moment. Her looking at him made him want to burrow under the covers and hide from the monsters in the closet. He didn’t like it.
Nor would you have ever laid eyes upon me, if it weren’t for the things you said this morning. Don’t be so arrogant as to assume in your presumption that I walk this earth meeting with creatures of your species!
“I still don’t understa-“
Be quiet human, and listen closely. You insulted the very existence of my beloved creatures, and wished a most heinous end to their existence on this earth. I cannot allow that to go unpunished. And your punishment will begin tomorrow, but who knows how long it will last?
“What do you mean my pu- what are you talking about? What punishment?!”
You insulted that noblest and ancient creature, the equus nobilis, more vulgarly referred to as ‘horse’. And for that, you will be punished.
I said listen, human!
You think I don’t know of the things you said and wished onto them? I have eyes and ears everywhere. You have your dear mother to thank for this, because it is my pendant, which was in her possession, that allowed me this discovery.
What’s done is done. And now you must suffer the consequences.
Tony remained stonily silent, no longer wishing to remain asleep.
One more thing, human.
When was the last time you spoke to your beloved? I would check up on her if I were you. Didn’t you have a bad feeling at the beginning of the night? Believe me, it is justified.
We’ll meet again, soon.
And Tony bolted upright. He felt the mattress under him, and the sheets had twisted around his body, smothering all movement. He was sweating, and felt the chill of the night air. His bedroom looked innocently as it always did, minus absurd to believe intruders. He ordered JARVIS to turn on the lights, and blinked blearily at the change from dark to light.
“JARVIS, has anyone broken inside the house?”
“I cannot imagine that anyone ever would, sir. Your flawless design for security measures along with my impeccable execution is fool-proof against all unauthorised persons entering the grounds.” Tony felt dazed. “Yeah…you’re right. Always the logical one, JARVIS. Thanks.”
Tony breathed shakily. “Perhaps, if you allow me so, sir, you simply had a nightmare? I’m picking up signs of distress in your breathing and heart rate at the moment, and since you were asleep until a minute ago, you have had a nightmare.”
Tony felt dazed. “Yeah…you’re right. Always the logical one, JARVIS. Thanks.”
“I exist to serve and please, sir.”
Ho, no you can’t do that, Stark. She’s asleep. And you’re just being paranoid, she’s perfectly alright, otherwise JARVIS would have alerted you immediately, as per your instructions.
He needed to get some rest, pronto.
But the sense of chilled disquiet would not relent its hold.
Without knowing how it happened, Tony fell asleep.
The next thing he knew was that JARVIS was chiming in his usual waking up morning ritual. Tony looked at the time and felt thankful that he’d managed to get to sleep in the end.
He roused himself and set about dressing.
He didn’t know why he was doing things particularly quickly today, since there were no pressing matters to attend to on his agenda, and Pepper wasn’t there to rush him along.
And that’s when he recalled the weird dream he’d had. Tony frowned. He must have been more tired than he thought because that had been one hell of an imaginative dream. At least he’d dreamed of a beautiful woman, instead of dreaming of a beautiful man, he reasoned with himself.
But now the unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach was back. He went downstairs and for ten minutes he wandered from spot to spot, from room to room, purposelessly. He didn’t know what to do with himself, and the tension inside him demanded that he move continuously.
Tony grabbed his phone and dialled her number.
As the phone rang, and the seconds ticked by, he began to grow more agitated, because it had never happened that she delayed so much in answering that phone of hers, which was practically an extension of her arm and joined at her hip.
All the same, he made sure with JARVIS that his schedule that day did not require him to show up to meetings and briefings over at the company.
He quickly had JARVIS run a search of her phone’s location with GPS, and he confirmed that her phone was in her residence. Grabbing his own phone and the jacket, Tony sped out of the garage, tires squealing. He had a bad feeling about this.
He had the spare key inside his jeans pocket, and he used it to open the door. Inside the hallway, no immediate signs of anything wrong were present. He quickly stepped into the living room, and saw that it was very dark. The curtains she pulled closed every night were still drawn from last night, he assumed. He touched nothing, but noted the flash of her voicemail light blinking.
He walked her rooms calling her, his voice raising gradually, his heart in his throat. She wasn’t in the kitchen, but then he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. If it weren’t for the bright contrast of red on light surface, he probably wouldn’t have noticed immediately. He felt his blood run cold, a difficult feat with the arc reactor running inside his chest. There were broken shards of glass on the floor surrounding what looked to be juice of some kind. And there was a bright red slash on one of the cupboard doors. It was blood. And it was dry.
“PEPPER! Where are you?!”
“Oh god, what-“
What the hell happened?!
Where is she?
Her clothes from yesterday were neatly folded on the armchair next to the dresser, but her shoes were laying one behind the chair, the other under the window. It didn’t make any sense. He couldn’t find her pyjamas anywhere, so she must still have had them on when-
When what, damn it?!
The en-suite bathroom door was slightly open, and he shuddered because he knew that logically there was no other place for her to be. He ate up the steps and slammed that door open as well.
He froze. And his heart seemed to all but sink down to the pit of his stomach.
Her pyjama pants lay discarded on the floor, but they were torn and the bright red on the pale blue was sickening. It, too, was dry here.
He was losing his mind, he knew he was, he knew he’d go crazy if he didn’t know where she was right this second-
Her car had been parked in its usual spot, so what- oh, god he couldn’t think straight. Her phone was still in her house, as were her keys and wallet. Her car was still outside. There was no sign of anyone breaking inside her apartment, but no sign of Pepper either. And there were traces of blood in two of the rooms of her house, even a pair of dismantled pyjama pants. But that was all. There was no sign of her. Like she’d just disappeared.
Tony sought and fought to remain calm. She needed him to remain calm.
He quickly backed out into the corridor, intent on knocking on every door of the building to see if anyone had seen her- but then he noticed her standing next to the windows in her study.
And for a second, his mind could not comprehend what it was he was seeing, because this was a nightmare, this was the nightmare he’d had last night, it wasn’t real, she-
She couldn’t be standing there in her home.
And yet there she stood.
And the smile on her face, all gleaming teeth and mocking triumph screamed to him of danger, and assault, because he would-
Sit down, Anthony.
And no, this isn’t a dream. I told you that last night.