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."
Tony had just returned with Rhodey from town, and he had barely shut the engine of the pickup, that Brady bounded out of the house and towards the driver’s side, an excited look on his face.
Before Tony could fully comprehend it, Brady shoved a piece of paper into his hands.
Stunned, Tony looked down at it, a slow, joyous grin breaking over his face. His eyes shined with renewed hope and just a hint of tears.
The paper had directions to the farm Brady’s cousin worked at. And there was a photograph, unlike the one Tony had taken from the video clip, of a horse that was so uncanny to—
“Oh, my God! It’s her! We’ve found her!!”
Rhodey leaned over across the passenger side, and he too grinned down at the obvious resemblance between the horse in Tony’ photo and the one in the new photo. He patted his shoulder, relieved beyond words that they finally seemed to be getting somewhere.
He fervently hoped that this time would be the real thing, that it would really be Pepper. He wasn’t sure Tony could handle any more time madly searching for her.
That night, Tony had been more like his jovial self. Rhodey was glad of this. The dinner table, with Brady and the other ranch hands sharing their meal, had been the setting of a much more relaxed environment.
As he and Tony took their cigar and whisky in the den, they discussed plans and strategies, contingencies. They didn’t know anything about Pepper’s state, which was rapidly becoming the more worrisome thought. They didn’t know if the remembered who she really was, or if she’d recognised them. Indeed, they didn’t know if she even knew that she wasn’t a horse, but a human woman. Rhodey cautioned Tony not to expect too much just yet, and to focus on just finding her.
There was no sense in torturing himself again thinking these things, just after his spirits had lifted.
When they were both lazy with a full stomach, and relaxed in the cigar smoke, lulled by the excellent whisky of a rare vintage, they both sprawled themselves on the comfy leather sofas as much as they could. When Rhodey looked at Tony again, he saw that he was staring at a small photograph. From this distance, he could tell it was a candid shot of Pepper – and when had Tony gotten a hold of something like that? – and his face turned sombre.
The way Tony looked at the photo, and stroked her face gently with one finger, coupled with the vulnerable look of longing and loneliness on his face squeezed Rhodey’s heart in sympathy.
He hadn’t thought of it so explicitly yet, but it was in that moment that Rhodey realised – with startling clarity – that he was looking at a man desperately in love. Tony wasn’t just pining for Pepper because he missed her presence, because she had been his constant in many years; Pepper was Tony’s love. The only one he had ever had. And somehow, Rhodey didn’t see his friend growing out of it, ever. In a way, Rhodey had always suspected that though Tony was the sex’em and leave’em type of guy, the day he’d truly fall for someone, it would be a once in a lifetime, for now and forever kind of deal.
His suspicions had been right.
He prayed his friend would find a way to put things right again, for his sanity. His happiness and his life were at stake here.
Day Twenty-one –
And Tony sat impatiently inside Mr. Gowler’s kitchen. They’d headed over to the farm first thing after daylight, and the emotions stirring inside his chest spoke of anxiety and impatience.
His hands itched to do something, but for the first time in days he was completely stone cold sober. And though he was suffering slightly from the effects this had on him, his mind focused on what was important. Rhodey sat silently next to him, but Brady was chatting with one of the ranch hands.
Steps thundered on the wooden boards of the staircase just off the hall next to the kitchen. A teenage girl wearing jeans and a shirt, her hair wild and tumbling down her shoulders launched herself into the kitchen with a hungry look on her face, then drew up short in surprise when she realised they had guests.
When her mother explained that the gentlemen had come for the mustang mare, the girl’s face drained of all colour. She looked devastated.
Tony was able to garner from the conversation that it was in fact the girl who had first encountered the lone mare out in the plains one day. She’d been so fascinated with her that she couldn’t resist taking her home. Apparently the girl had had a run in with some wild big cat, and the mare, appearing out of nowhere, had spooked it away and saved the girl’s life. For some reason, just looking at the girl’s face, made his palms itch and an uneasy feeling stir inside his stomach. He didn’t like the fervent quality in the girl’s voice as she spoke of Pepper.
When it became clear that Tony had come to take the mare away to his ranch, the girl, who had looked utterly devastated, got a warrior’s glint in her eye. And Tony knew then and there, that he was in for a long fight with this girl. But he did not care about possibly breaking the girl’s heart. That was no ordinary mare, it was Pepper. HIS Pepper, his woman. And it was his own broken heart he cared about, so the girl would just have to accept things and move on.
Finally Mr. Gowler, accompanied by a ranch hand and his teenage son, who looked older than his sister, returned to the kitchen. The boy wouldn’t look his sister in the eye, and there was an angry set to his mouth. His mother too looked a little worried. But Mr. Gowler was the only one Tony cared about, and his face was impassive, his strong features resolute with the decision he’d made.
Tony bolted out of his seat and thankd Mrs. Gowler for the coffee. He didn’t even wait for Rhodey and Brady to follow him out, so impatient was he, his stride offsetting by far that of the other two.
He followed Mr. Gowler outside the house and towards the corral where they had kept the mare for the week – a whole WEEK! – she’d been here.
Time seemed to come to a slow halt. Tony’s heart beat madly in his chest, and his arc reactor seemed to buzz more strongly, too, as though it, too, was affected somehow by this, though Tony knew it was technically impossible.
His eyes helplessly took in the horse that stood not fifty feet away. His stomach just about flew up his gut and into his throat. He could not tell what he was feeling at that moment, there were so many emotions and sensations ravaging him in that moment.
His disgust, his fear, and all the ambivalent feelings he had ever felt towards horses in his life seemed silent, and he didn’t know where they’d gone.
But there, as he looked upon her, a new feeling blossomed into his chest, and this he had never felt before. It was warm and totally awe-struck, thrilling in its potency.
He didn’t know it, but in that moment Tony’s heart rearranged itself to accommodate that bond that men had experienced for centuries with their bonded horse. That special feeling of being complete, of connecting, of sharing one heart, one mind, began its beat deep inside.
Tony did not know it, but he was experiencing the kind of love at first sight that a man sometimes felt when they saw a particular animal.
There were two men near the corral, and one of them looked to be trying to mount the mare, as the other tried to hold her still by tugging on the rope that was connected to her curb strap.
The mare bucked and neighed loudly, thrashing madly, clearly not bowing to this situation.
Mr. Gowler growled at his men to let it go, just as one of them tugged viciously at the rope, and the sheer strength unbalanced the mare for a moment, and then she started thrashing even more wildly, clearly frightened out of her wits.
Rage threatened to consume Tony in a heartbeat.
Before he knew what he was doing, he started running towards the corral, a blazing look on his face. The mare kicked at the men and one of them went down, but she stamped her feet into the ground, hard, when the other tried to approach his fallen friend, thus getting closer to her.
“Jack! Get Grayson outta there!”
Tony entered the corral and immediately approached her. The men, who had taken refuge at the gate, warned him away from her, but he did not listen. His hungry eyes feasted on the horse, and without consciously knowing it, Tony’s heart recognised her for what she was. She was his Pepper. His woman. She’d been lost, and now she was found.
And it was like the years melted away. He recalled what his mother had taught him about expression and body language.
And right now, though he knew it was Pepper, he didn’t know if she recognised him. But he did know that the way the mare regarded him was wary and not all encouraging an approach.
He halted in his progress immediately, and his brain took over from his heart, despite the latter’s demands to run up to her and touch her. He knew he had to tread very carefully now.
His stance was relaxed, and friendly.
Not once did he tear his gaze away from hers.
Katy Gowler watched it all unfold with disbelieving eyes. The mustang mare had never let anyone approach her, and had never maintained eye contact with anyone. Katy had fallen in love with her the moment she saw her sheer grace and breathtaking beauty. And she tried to communicate this with her, but the mare had never allowed her anywhere near her. And now, her mustang was staring at the man – Mr. Stark, the man who had come to take her away! – like she’d never done before in all the time Katy knew her.
Tony’s face held the deep longing of being reunited with her again, but also the worship his own mother’s face had held long ago every time she had looked at her beloved stallion, Redmane.
Tony spoke and he kept his voice low and soothing, trying to get her to calm down enough to begin trusting him.
“Pepper. It’s okay, everything’s gonna be fine. I’m right here, Pepper. Just relax, I’m not going to hurt you. You can trust me, you know you can.” Tony slowly raised his hand and cautiously extended it towards her, seeking contact, a silent plea to form that bridge that would connect them. She tossed her head and backed away slightly, but then remained silent and stoic, standing her ground. Tony did not know how to describe it, but he sensed that if he did not overstep the line, she would let him approach.
Katy raptly watched, breath bated, as the man slowly got closer and closer. A large part of her hoped that he would fail, that her mare would halt him as she had done with everyone else. Anything so that he would decide not to take her away. Katy was sure she would get through to the mare eventually. She didn’t want anyone else to have her.
The mare tossed her head and nickered softly. When Tony, whose heart was fit to burst, was five feet away from her, holding her gaze with his own, letting his body language soothe her and his eyes enthral her, his hand still outstretched in the air between them, he stopped, waiting.
“Pepper. Please, honey. Please give me a sign, tell me you understand, that you know who I am.”
The mare cocked her head to the side slightly. Her fathomless eyes reflected Tony’s face, and she seemed to gaze right through and into him, as though seeing things, secrets, no other could see.
Tony conveyed his longing, relief and desperate hope with his eyes, needing her to show him she was in there.
Katy recognised the signs, and almost giggled in elation. He was going to be tossed just like everyone else, the poor sod – but serve him right, she was her horse, and she would stay with her-
And then her eyes widened and her heart betrayed its hurt by dropping to her stomach.
The mare slowly moved forward until his hand rested on her head, nickering softly, and then she stood still. Katy looked on uncomprehendingly, tears gathering in her eyes. This couldn’t be!
Tony’s smile was slow and joyous, and it lit up his whole face. He gently ran his hand down her muzzle, caressing her head and her ears, as though he’d been around horses all his life. His heart swelled as she maintained the eye contact, and he felt like she was trying to communicate with him what her mouth couldn’t tell him. He brought his other hand up towards her, tangling his fingers into her luxurious red-gold mane. His arms went around her and held her, caressing her reverently, learning the curves and the textures, all alien under his skin. He brought his head to rest on her own, their foreheads touching, and he breathed her in, closing his eyes in utter relief.
“Pepper. Pepper…” He kept murmuring her name, and it was like whispering to a lover, not a horse. He knew her, he knew it was her, he knew she was in there. Somehow, they’d figure this out. He could take it, he was sure of that now. Now that she was with him again, he felt as though he could face anything, so long as she was by his side.
Pepper, GOD, Pepper—
Love you so much, don’t ever leave me again—
And after days of agony without her, for a few moments Tony Stark had his Pepper again, and knew peace once more.