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."
Thankfully his father owned a ranch in the state, or this would have been all that more difficult. That’s where he was headed now.
His fingers clasped and repeatedly rubbed the pendant, hoping against all hope that he could ‘get’ something, some kind of clue as to where to begin the search. This still felt so surreal, but he could no longer pass it off as a weird dream. And he didn’t want to focus too much on the connotations this situation held for him and his history; that was a can of worms that would have to be dealt with the minute it was pried open.
He had to concentrate; the only thing that mattered now was finding her.
He looked at the picture printed from a still of the video, where the horse was shown clearly in all its … glory.
It was funny how it was all coming back to him despite all these years, rather like riding a bike. By the looks of her, she’d been turned into a dappled roan, so at least he knew what to look for.
JARVIS had come up with a list of county fairs and the like where he could begin searching, should the pendant pointing device fail. After all, just because the goddess had given him a few pointers, it didn’t mean that he should not look into alternate routes.
Tony summoned Brady to his office.
He didn’t waste time with chitchat or exchanging pleasantries, and Brady clearly understood that whatever the reason Tony was back, it was very important. He took the photo of the mare and set to work searching, delegating to the other guys on the ranch and a few contacts he had outside.
Day One –
…and Tony had not slept in – well, a while. Reports on the search had been sporadic and naturally unsuccessful. He had not truly expected to find her so quickly. But the prospect looming before him – that this could take weeks – was not something he could bear to think about too much.
And also, thinking about – imagining – the state Pepper must be in, where she could be, whether she was alright – it about killed him.
JARVIS kept him updated on the home front, and he too was running a virtual search in fairs and auction websites, looking for a match.
Tony wandered around the grounds, feeling things he didn’t even know how to describe. There were so many emotions. But whatever one did in such a situation – if, indeed this kind of thing had happened before, and he strongly doubted it had – he seemed to be handling this fairly well, in a … reasonably adult, responsible manner.
Never, not in ten years except for his captivity, had he been forced to be so long without her by his side. If it was painful and unsettling before they began dating, now it was sheer torture. The daytime was dedicated to searching, searching, searching, keeping busy every second to avoid going crazy. The night was an achingly empty void that he could not tolerate. He knew drinking himself into a stupor would not be of help, but really, it made the nights just this side of bearable. He didn’t know what he’d end up doing otherwise.
Sharing a bed with Pepper was one of the things he most looked forward to everyday. Apart from the love-making, which was the most intense and mind-blowing he had ever experienced, her presence, her smell, the sound of her breathing … they were all triggers to something that expanded tenderly within his chest and made him … happy. He was happy.
He was happy, and he hadn’t been happy in a long, long time.
Tony had worked out this routine for himself over the years of relentless short-skirt pursuit; charming and banging them was okay, but sleeping with them? Never.
Not a chance, even if they happened to be smarter than the average IQ his playmates possessed.
That was good. It was safe. It protected him. And it saved him a hell of a lot of unwanted hassle – turning them out of his bed and his life for good, never to return – and saved him time he could be spending doing the next most exciting thing.
So when he found what he now had with Pepper, it was like coming up for air again. She had shown him a whole other side to what life could, and should be like.
Considering his habits, logic dictated that sharing a bed with Pepper post-coital would not be a comfortable experience for him. By all accounts, he should be restless and his sleep should be fitful trying to reclaim complete possession of a night space that someone else had encroached on.
But it wasn’t like that, and none had been more surprised than himself; although JARVIS had expressed his utter astonishment at the unexpected development (however much astonishment an AI as developed as even JARVIS was could be capable of).
Instead, she was the one who had to rapidly adapt to this new situation. Because even in sleep, his body had an uncanny homing-in, heat-seeking system built in that always allowed him to find her. And despite the fact that he loved having lots and lots of space around him as he slept, his body wrapped itself unerringly around her own every night. He didn’t mind. Not one bit.
It had taken a few nights of trial and error for them to find comfortable sleeping arrangements. Tony obviously didn’t mind wrapping himself around her like an octopus from hell, but he was sensitive to even the smallest movements, so if she stretched a leg, he’d tighten his hold on her reflexively, which would cause her to wake up.
The bed he (crashed on, he could not sleep for long) occupied now was large, and cool, and so, so empty. His nights were lonelier now than they had ever been. And it cut him up inside. The very fibres of his body couldn’t seem to find a single comfortable position for long. And a primitive part of him kept angrily demanding for his mate to return, it clamoured for her to be lying next to him again. This was one of the hardest things for Tony to try to live with. He had always been selfishly possessive of Pepper’s attention and her time, but when she became his girlfriend this side of him seemed to have made the proverbial transition from the pan into the fire. He couldn’t help it, though goodness knew he tried. With Pepper it was always want, want, want – and mine, mine, mine.
So scotch? A sure-fire way of dulling the ache somehow, even if only for a little while.
Word had spread in the small town not far away from his ranch. Everyone was dying to find out more, but the security guys handled it fine. The reporters had taken up to haunting the ranch’s main gates, but the ranch hands were expert in this field too, and the estate was kept intruder-free.
The pendant did not seem to do anything more than mock him with its mere existence.
And if he cursed at all, Tony did it silently.
The housekeeper must have slipped some kind of relaxant into his dinner, which she’d forced him to eat anyway, because he slept all night and woke up when the sun was already high in the sky.
Though he was furious, he could not deny that he had truly benefited from the rest, even if it was forced upon him.
He sent the housekeeper and her kind, hauntingly blue eyes packing for the rest of the day. Shutting himself up in his office, mostly brooding and cursing it all, only Brady had the courage to approach him – and that was something, considering that he was still not a bearer of good news.
He drank first thing in the morning.
He drank as he scoured the fields like a caged tiger.
He guzzled alcohol at lunch when one of the hands’ horse got too close to him, and he shouted so bad that the guy immediately pulled the horse further away in case it became jittery.
He swallowed mouthful after mouthful during the rest of the day and at dinner as the sounds of the
When he overturned a coffee table in the main parlour, it felt good.
His fingers cradled the neck of the bottle as he lay sprawled on his back, one arm held over his eyes, which were scrunched up tightly to stop the tears.
Rhodey had called Pepper’s phone that afternoon, because Tony wasn’t talking to him.
That’s when the unfortunate table got damaged.
And he fell asleep, hazed in his drunken stupor, to the repeated sound of her voicemail, the phone pressed tightly to his ear. Her voice in his ear gave him the sharpest kind of pain he had felt in a while. That night, Tony realised how much of a wreck he’d become in the short span of a few days, and that he was irreparably lost without her.
Want, want, want.
He sobbed in the darkness and felt utterly wretched for it. Men don’t cry son, not ever, remember that…
Pepper, her name became his personal prayer, where are you, Pepper?
… and by now her voicemail was the only thing that kept him somewhat grounded. He was terrified.
He was terrified … because he’d woken up that morning and had realised he couldn’t remember the lilting nuances of the sound of her voice so clearly.
The outside world was doing its best to get a piece of him. Tony the leading industrialist. Tony, the crazy rag-selling celebrity. Tony, the superhero.
But leaving that house was unthinkable. His only thought was-
He was heading out to a close small town in the pickup with Brady and another ranch hand to a horse fair. It seemed that a young mare fitting the description had been sighted.
The sudden spark of life that ignited was invigorating.
But it didn’t last long.
The mare fitted the description … but she came with a few months-old foal.
After he returned to the ranch, Tony dismissed all the household staff again, and scoured the fields with a classic Harley that lived in the garage.
And at the end of the day, he couldn’t seem to get the stink of horse out of his nostrils, nor wipe out the goose bumps raised on his skin.
In which Rhodey flew out to
And the second he was let inside the house, he yelled at Tony so badly, worse than he usually did … and Tony hit him.
In the face.
He honestly had no recollection of it whatsoever.
But he could no longer keep it all bottled up, couldn’t keep the crazy secret anymore. Tony knew Rhodey smelled the stench of alcohol permeating his person. Rhodey was so disappointed that sparing him a lecture was unthinkable.
As soon as her name cropped up – and honestly, Tony couldn’t remember how it happened – he broke down and burst into tears like a lost little boy.
Rhodey looked truly mad when Tony told him what happened.
And then he got up and started towards the door, disgusted beyond belief at the ridiculous story Tony had concocted.
But on his way to the door he happened to see Pepper’s –cracked– Blackberry, and the fury that mounted inside him was enough to bring Tony out of his moping. And there was real hurt in Tony’s eyes as he looked at his best friend, and asked him how he could think him capable of ever laying a violent hand on Pepper.
That’s when her laptop was pulled out, and the video was played.
After a while, Rhodey could do nothing more but to concede to the unbelievable. JARVIS too had confirmed the story.
When Tony crouched onto his knees, gasping and shaking as he emptied his stomach into the wastepaper basket, Rhodey’s hard squeeze to the shoulder fortified him.
They went over the search details in the late night, a large map of the territory spread on the desk before them, scribbled with red marker. Tony refused to discuss the horse issue with Rhodey, who conceded defeat for now.
They both retired, but despite Rhodey’s vehement exclamations, he couldn’t keep Tony away from the bottle.
And when the next morning he saw Tony’s face, he did not comment, merely pressed his lips in disapproval and sent him quelling looks.
…was much like its predecessors. JARVIS had signalled that there would be a fair the next day in a neighbouring county, but the chances of her being there appeared slim. Brady spoke to Tony halfway through the day, and reported that his cousin worked for a farm that dealt with purebred mustangs, captured fresh off the plains, and they’d get some news that very same day.
Tony thanked him, and pulled out the pendant.
Useless piece of-
He stopped himself, not sure whether the goddess could hear his thoughts even if she wasn’t there; he probably shouldn’t risk it. She’d made it clear that if he pulled any tricks, it would be Pepper who’d suffer the consequences. The risk was too high. He might not ever see her again.
A whimper escaped his lips at the thought, and he bowed under the tremendous weight of his grief, hands trembling as they covered his face. But the tears still ran. Pepper was the only woman who could do that to him: she was the only one who could make him cry.
The urge to bawl his eyes out like a hurt little boy was strong, but he didn’t give into it. He needed to be strong, for her sake. He had to focus and remain alert, because he’d be damned if he allowed her to live her life as a—
He sniffled and blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to dispel the sting out of them. His breath hitched in his chest, painfully. Only one other time in his whole life had he been so dejected, and that was when his parents had died.
Fingering the pendant again, Tony got a sudden urge.
He didn’t know what made him to it, really. It just felt right. He had never invoked her since her death, had found it unbearable for many years to so much as think of her name. But he was desperate, and so very abject with misery. He needed her.
He whispered as he looked down at the pendant, and put all of his feelings behind his supplication. “Mamma … I need your help. So badly. Please, help me find her. That’s all I ask, is to find her.”
Up until a month ago, he had not believed in anything to do with the things he was facing now. He could not have believed there was a goddess patroness of horses, who could hear and see anyone who had this pendant. He did not truly think that his dead parents were watching over him, that they could hear him, that they were still with him.
He hadn’t believed in any of that.
But now he was forced to admit that there were realities he’d taken for granted as nothing but fantasies, that had turned out to be actually real.
And if it was all true … his mother could maybe hear her son’s plea – the only one he had made of her since her death – and hopefully grant his wish.