1963-12-06 - Icebreaker
Summary: Beni takes Pepper into the Dream Dimension to track down her beloved Jack. It's a struggle to rescue a man in pieces.
Related: None
Theme Song: Jocelyn Pook -- Goya's Nightmare
beni pepper bucky 

The faerie sent her car for Pepper, chauffeured by the short, lumpy grey manikin that keeps its long ears tucked up under its shiny black cap, exposing them and its oddly-shaped head only when it whisks the hat off to bow to Pepper before helping her into the car. The Black Cat is closed and dark but the alley door is open, guarded by the two, vast guardians who usually watch over Beni. It's eerie to be in here in the silence. A low light in the back of the kitchen helps guide Pepper's way through to the main bar area.

Beni is seated at her usual booth, draped in a warm black cloak as though she's about to go somewhere. Burning pillar candles and some strange artifacts are arranged on the table in front of her, her hands are full of tarot cards that she sets aside to greet Pepper when she arrives.

"It's a good night for hunting," she says, coming down from her little throne to welcome Pepper. "Not too bright and not too dark."


Late, because Pepper still does have a day job, the redhead accepted the ride from Beni's strange chauffer, trying not to look nearly so nervous as she feels. Trying and failing. She's got a little russuck of Bucky's clothing over her shoulder — every last piece of clothes he owned and left at her place. Well, save one. A single, flannel shirt that she found in the laundry, which still slightly smelled like him and made her cry to pick up. She was wearing that, over a pair of black pants, her outfit scandlous and comfortable at the same moment. She's not bothered to do anything fancy with her hair or even touch up the day's make up. This wasn't about showing off. She smiles to the manikin, "Thank you…" And steps out into the night through tht alleyway.

"…Beni?" She calls, ducking her head in that side door nervously. She looks like a fluttering little bird, heart going a thousand miles an hour in her throat, eyes a bit too wide with the uncertainty and hope of this all. But she was trying. For him, she was trying. Soon, she's stepping through the kitchen and into the front area, seeing sight of her friend and the set up. She blinks just a bit more. "…I…I hope I brought the right things… I got everything I could find. He… he wasn't a *things* kind of guy…" Pepper admits as she comes up to the table, setting down the bag with slightly shaking hands.


"Don't worry, dear." Beni offers Pepper a warm embrace. "As long as they help you think of him, they're all I need."

She regards Pepper for a moment, the candlelight turning her eyes golden. "Everything's going to be all right," she says soothingly. Her voice carries the promise of certainty and calm. Really, everything will be fine. "There's nothing to fear. Beni will take care of you and we'll find him and all will be well. Come sit and let me help you."


Thoughts of Bucky dancing through her head, Pepper tries to follow Beni's words (Beni always was good at coaxing whatever emotion out of Pepper that Beni wanted.) So she manages to take a deeper breath in and out, calming her heart some, as she slips into the booth next to her friend. She nods gently. "…Alright. I… I'm here. Just… tell me what to do. I'm here." Pepper double reasures, reacing a small hand out to wrap around her friend's. She's still nervous, but not ready to fly away.


"You just need to relax as best you can." Beni squeezes Pepper's hand very gently before letting it go. "Let me see if he's managed to find any rest," she muses as she goes through the bag of with what few things Pepper has managed to gather. Humming thoughfully, she dips her fingers in the scrying bowl amidst the candles before handling the bits and pieces. She treats them as though they're artifacts, not remnants of a discarded life.

"It's easier not to frighten him if he's already asleep but, if his mind is broken, part of him may be dreaming whether he's awake or not. Are you coming with me?" She glances over at Pepper from under her lashes. "Into the Dreaming? It's possible he's looking for you."


"…Yes… of course. That's what I'm here for, right? He's…nervous, too. He doesn't like people. He won't come if he doesn't recognize someone, I know him. So… yes. I'm coming." Pepper confirms, a touch more courage in her voice even as she speaks about Bucky. No matter how this turns out, she cares for him, that much is clear. Fighting for him has given her courage that she wouldn't have otherwise. She gives Beni one more, quiet smile, ready for whatever the woman has planned.


"Let's go, then," Beni says, putting the things back in the bag. "We shouldn't keep him waiting." She takes one of Pepper's hands in hers, touches Pepper's cheek with the other. "Sleep," she murmurs, casting her magic over Pepper like a soft veil. It is almost tangible, warm and golden. The veil parts elsewhere, in dreaming, and they step through into that space.

It is not too unlike where they just were but the furniture is gone and everything is silvered. Above, there is no roof, the walls end partway up, and a cold wind howls in through the opening.

"Don't be afraid," Beni says, keeping Pepper's hand in hers. She is different here, her hair is wild and full of light, her black cloak billows as though it's made of shadows. "Just keep him in mind and let your feet lead us. The parts of you that are silent when you are awake know where he is better than you do."

The door to the Black Cat swings open and beyond is nothing but a ghost of New York City. "Distance is nothing," Beni reminds Pepper. "You are where you think you are."


Their flight is a difficult one. Finding Bucky— finding 'Jack'— is a difficult task. The effort required to key in on his identity from Pepper's emotions and memories is a struggle, a prolonged endeavour. The man Pepper knows as Jack is not the man who thinks of himself as Winter Soldier, has not been the man Bucky Barnes for a long time. He's so fragmented and disordered that the miasma of the dreamworld turns what should be a concrete personal identity into broken shards, windows into an ultimately shattered psyche.

Their approach provides more obfuscation, less clarity. Some minds are ordered homes, others are growing gardens— some are bastions of will and others are murky clouds of potential.

'Jack' is all of them, and none. There's nowhere to /land/. No visible points of clear egress into his dreams as the women join that fragmented reality. Two points seem most prominent: a cold, isolated cell, and a long and empty highway.


Sleeping isn't exactly what Pepper expected, but she trusts Beni. She tilts her head as her cheek is touched, about to ask something, but then she's slumping to the side, shoulder resting on Beni, her frame dead asleep in the booth. She didn't even fight it. She trusts the woman.

Then they are in dream time and Pepper is, well…Pepper. Her hair might be a bit more red. She might actually be a little smaller, more petite, more fragile and fast. Pepper never saw herself near so useful or strong as she actually was in reality. Especially now. She was the little girl lost in the woods, looking for her big bad wolf… But it was the big bad wolf she'd fallen in love with. So, maybe, it was more so the beast? But it's not a forest she finds herself in…

It's a highway. The cell was seen, but the man she knew? He ran. He wandered. She cannot imagine him being locked up, so she stumbles into being on the edge of the highway, her mind choosing it out of hope more than anything else. "…Jack…Jack! It's…Pepper. You know me… please… if you can hear me… if you're here… come to me? Can you hear me? Give me… some sort of sign…" She calls hopefully down the empty, gray space.


Beni feels the fragments, the broken dreaming of a broken man. She wonders: does he differentiate, or do his nightmares blend seamlessly into waking. Maybe his time with Pepper was the real dream and the rest a reality from which even sleep offered no escape.

She lets Pepper lead the way, her bare feet following the highway and leaving golden prints behind — a dotted line back to where they entered this place. When the wind blows, and it does blow and it does have icy teeth, it pulls her black cloak aside to reveal the translucent white gown that barely covers her beneath it.

She reaches out with her magic to create a lantern that she raises, making a beacon of sorts. It is risky — other things lurk here and a broken mind draws dark entities to it — but perhaps it will let them see further, and let the man see them.


The light /is/ a mistake. That beacon attracts danger— and that danger comes in the form of artillery fire and machine guns, raking and exploding the ground near their feet. The impact is brain-rattlingly intense and the bullets whip past like hissing rattlesnakes, snapping at the air with chilling reality. This is definitely not an imaginary simulation— the chest-thumping force and the sense of real danger comes from the memories of someone who very, very certainly has been attacked with these implements of war.

The highway resolves into the muddy battlefield of the Sonne, not far from Paris itself, and a blurring green figure slams into Pepper and Beni, trying to wrangle them both to the ground. "Kill that light! The Krauts are everywhere!" he shouts, shielding Pepper from fragmentation shrapnel. He clambers back and pushes back his helmet to reveal Jack's face, though much younger and less careworn. His eyes bug a little at the sight of Pepper, and with a startled noise, he vanishes into a hazy mist.

The battlefield goes, too, leaving only the road again.


Jack, or Bucky at least, has been to war before. Beni has probably been through some things like wars, if not mortal wars. The closest thing Pepper's ever seen to war was that day it all happened in Stark Industries. She yelps in shock, hitting the ground fast, wincing against the sound of machine guns and artillery. Her eyes are suddenly welling with tears as she tries to reach for Beni, "…What?! Oh god…how…we have to get out of here…" She breathes out in shock, everything feeling entirely too real and utterly terrifying. Then she's really hitting the ground, a body on top of her. She breathes out raggedly there, pinned but protected.

"L-listen to him…the light… maybe they'll stop firing…" She then looks up at the man who is speaking, because the voice sounded familiar, and there are his eyes. Jack's eyes. Her own blue gaze goes wide and she tries to reach out, grab his hand, hold on tight… But he's mist even as she's trying to hold on. The gun fire is gone. It's nothing but Pepper sprawled on the road now, looking up towards Beni in confusion. "…Him…that was him… But… where did he go? The other place… there… there was a cell…" Pepper breathes out, so confused and yet truly hopeful.

She stands, shakily, but standing. If she can follow that golden trail, she'll try to go back to the cell, calling all the while, "Jack! I'm here… we're not here to…hurt you. Please, please…come back…"


Beni skirted that war, for the most part, but she's a gun runner and smuggler and there's good money to be made in any conflict. She saw her share, the coin was too good to pass up. The lantern disintegrates into fireflies that race out into the dark like fleeing stars. The Sonne is all around them and then gone again and she's left to chase Pepper back down the road.

"Gently," she warns, reaching for Pepper's hand to steady her. "He will come again. He's close but there is no one place to find him. Only the pieces." A golden shillelagh shimmers in her hand, casting little light but still holding off the worst of the shadows closing in on them. Dark things flicker at the edges of Beni's vision, circling like wolves.

"He is likely worried for you," she reminds Pepper. "Not himself. So let us go carefully."


No going back— the road only goes onwards. It seems the cell or the road were an either/or choice. So onwards the two women must go.

The road is continuous, but the landscape is eerie and prone to changing in time with the static flashes of lightning that crackle through a tumultuous, storm-filled sky. It goes from empty wasteland to dense jungle to urban sprawl to decimated city within eyeblinks, at times.

Abruptly the women find themselves at a high point, with a vast plain spreading out in front of them. Some kind of crossroads, but it's clear that the paths do not connect to one another once embarked upon. One is a swamp of vague memories, spread out over endless acreage and seemingly broken and ill fitting. Another descends into a city that looks suspiciously like Boston, but a heavy fog covers much of it. The only clear memories are those surrounding what's visibly Stark Industries, in the distance, but an all-encroaching darkness is steadily consuming that brilliant beacon, and rendering it into nothingness even as the women watch. Another is a dark and orderly series of short paths and paved roads, with squat, industrial buildings and bland repetition filling in over and over.

And far off, at the very edge of vision, is an icy, wind-swept mountain that carries two endless, agonized screams, over and over, at the very edge of hearing.


The redhead almost gets turned around, as she realizes there is no way back. Just forward. Just that awful, lonely road. Pepper slips her arm through Beni's, if the fae woman permits, trying to gain some courage and steadiness from her friend who understands this all more than she does. "…Is…is it always like this? Or is this…this because he's sick? Because they did something to his head? Heather, she said they…might have done something to his head. Brainwashing, or something…" Pepper whispers softly, as they walk. Her voice is heart sick worried. Scared, yes, but more worried. It's the worry and care for him which carries her on through the fear.

They keep walking forward and Pepper's gaze traces over that blotted landscape. She recognizes Stark Industries, a ghost of a smile touching her lips. But it seems so far. It's disappearing already. "…Jack! No! Come back…please!" She calls into the strange darkness. There were so many paths. So much to go. But then there is a scream. Over and over, a scream. Pepper's eyes shoot wide. "…He's screaming…" And she starts to run. All she knows is Jack is in pain. If she can get there, on the edges of everything, maybe she can stop the pain. She just has to get there.


Of course Beni will take care of Pepper. She wraps Pepper in the edge of her cloak, it's warm and safe there, until Pepper pulls away from her. When Pepper starts to run, Beni doesn't let her get too far ahead.

Instead, the faerie unfurls her wings — of course she has wings, all her people have them — and, with one arm, catches Pepper about the waist. They are airborne even as Pepper is about to run off into the strange and shifting world below them.

"We will get there," she promises, winding her own will with Pepper's and turning them toward the source of all that pain. "Let us not lose ourselves in the details of how but simply go."


Down they go to the city around Stark Industries, and the moment they leave the 'road', the shadows overtake the skies overhead. A great nothingness is consuming these most recent memories. Sharp and bright recollections are dulling and tarnishing, a pervasive decomposition that is making brick crumble, water grow murky, and the air dull and heavy. Those shadows start furthuest from Stark Industries, however, so there seems to be some time for the two women to wander ahead of the imminent destruction of this place.

Someone's voice drones in Russian. The words are indistinct but the shadows overhead pulse in time with each syllable.

It's obviously New York and the memories almost all feature Bucky standing, driving, running— he's running across town, almost across Long Island, in those wee hours. Fast, inhumanly fast, faster than Pepper ever could have suspected. A glance at the running Jack brings the entire hour of running to mind, out to the point of the coast and back again in an eyeblink.

As they close on Stark Industries, ghostly vehicles travel in precise rows, each a testament to how sharp Jack's mind really is, down to weirdly specific details about each drive. It's a bit of a shock, surely, for the two women to realize how many guns Jack noticed in New York that neither of them would have.

Then, however, a detour down a side road abruptly turns the entire city red. The people become mannequins, the cars are all mobile platforms. Everything becomes a Target, Cover, or Diversion, classifications evolving around each moving part. Inside the alleyway Bucky casually murders four men with his bare hands. The date is a week prior, on one of his sleepless nights. The cooling corpses become part of the red backdrop and the Jack echo vanishes around a corner— when the women follow, the lights switch off and the city becomes a gleaming recollection of true colors once again.


New York. Sort of. Dream New York, but through Jack's eyes. And all Pepper sees are guns. So many guns, so many threats. She clutches a bit tighter against Beni as they land in those streets, not too long after taking off. As far as they seemed to fly, the screaming and the mountain got farther. So, this was the next best choice. New York. Home. Pepper gasps at ever gun she sees, in the start at least. Eventually, it becomes routine. "… Is it…really like this, do you think? Or is he seeing things?" Part of her was still so innocent, despite caring for this man. She holds onto Beni tighter as they continue to walk.

Then there is that scene of violence. Four people dead. Pepper stops, not even breathing a few moments, as she stares in stomach churning shock at the vicious scene. Surely he didn't… But it's him. She recognizes the way he fights. Her mind is probably too slow as she tries to snap out of it and calls after the disappearing Jack, "Wait! Please…stop…talk to me… we need to talk… I can help you, Jack…" She is calling at nothingness. Her voice cracks on tears she's trying not to cry. Maybe this was a bad idea.

"…How…how do I get him to stop? To listen to me?" Pepper asks Beni softly. But maybe she has the answer already. Running after him wasn't working. Maybe standing, waiting in the streets of his mind… and letting those tears come, maybe that will be enough. He never liked to see her cry.


"Oh, I think this is the least of it," Beni says calmly. "A mind like this, it calculates endlessly. What is a risk, who can kill, who should be saved — even when everything is still, it contemplates disaster. But that is also what keeps him safe. What keeps you safe."

Beni puts an arm around Pepper's shoulders and gives her a little hug. "Don't chase the ghost. That's the past, Pepper. If he's running, he's running from himself. He needs something to run to."

Beni exhales slowly, then draws up a memory hovering at the edge of Pepper's dreams, on the boundary between here and her nightmares. Yes, that is large enough, terrifying enough. The shadow soars on the verge of things and then Beni raises her staff to draw it in.

A massive black bat blocks out the feeble light of the half-moon, racing over the city, banking so that it comes straight on down the street at both women and then it becomes a man. He lands on a car, denting the roof, and stands silhouetted against the sky. His long white hair flows in the wind, his black cape billows, and his red eyes shine.

"My thanks, faerie," he says, in a voice that fills the street. "For bringing me my beloved. I will take her from you now. I have missed her terribly."


"…I'm not chasing a ghost, Beni, I'm chasing *Jack*! He's here…somewhere…" But Pepper hasn't entirely understood, though she's getting close to it, that Jack is part ghost. He doesn't totally exist, she just knows a sliver of the man. This entire night has shown her the truth of that, if in bits and pieces. She's still trying to find that sliver, though, her watery eyes looking up in confusion to Beni.

And then there is something else. The other one that haunted her dreams, over and over. She thought he was gone, but she thought that before when he could call to her in her head. Maybe the dream magic has awakened him again? Surely, Beni would not do something so cruel? Either way, it's clear that Pepper suddenly, very much thinks this is real. Dracula is here again. She cries out, shaking her head, over and over again, "No…nonono… No… Beni, get him out! Please! OUT! Jack….please…God, please…" Pepper is just backing up, even if she's away from Beni, she can't stop herself. SHe needs to run, to escape that memory again.


A gunshot rings out and transects the bat's skull. It drops in an ugly, sodden mess— no false apprenhensions about what happens to a body, it remains an ugly, cooling lump of flesh and blood on the ground even after being thoroughly killed.

Jack appears on a rooftop, holding an improbably oversized rifle that is rendered in explicit detail. Information floats around the weapon— range, caliber, operation, weight. But he's not Jack. Not Pepper's Jack. He wears a mask over his face, concealing his mouth and eyes. His clothing is heavy, rugged leather over durable military-issue clothing, with sturdy combat boots. A killer. A warrior, an assassin, handling a threat facing Pepper.

The mask wavers as he stares at the women, then he turns away and retreats out of view momentarily, as if unready to meet them face to face on his own.


And, with that, Dracula is gone. Would he have been a threat if Jack hadn't come? Possibly, yes. Beni does not expect the dreaming to be predictable and strange forces often operate through their dreams. She knows the Lord of the Damned, hadn't expected him to be here himself.

Her arm tightens around Pepper's shoulder, then she lets the smaller woman go. She steps back one pace, then another, folding her golden wings away in the folds of her voluminous shadow cloak.

Yes, withdrawing leaves Pepper at risk. Only a little, though, and it may be enough to make the man turn back and come for her himself. She wants to give him room. The longer they stay here, the more of him Pepper will know, and the less reason he'll have to hide. And Beni has all night.


If Pepper hadn't caught sight of Jack, she'd probably be desperately groping for Beni. But she was here for him. He saved her, again, and behind mask or not? Pepper knows Jack. She knows his eyes. She yelps, loudly, as that gunshot rings out, but the bat and the vampire are gone, wilted dead in the street, and now she's standing there alone.

She looks achingly fragile there, scared, delicate. The dreaming enhances the fact of just how *alone* she is without him. This isn't about business, the place where she is queen, where she can rule the world. This is dark, alone on the streets at night where she's still a little girl who needs someone to keep her safe from the awful world.

"…Jack?…don't run…please. I…I don't know how to find you. I…need you.. Please…" She rasps into the air, tears crackling at her voice. A few more break down her face, even if it's not the tears of abject fear. These are simple, earnest tears of desperation. Vunerability. Perhaps even love. She needed him, that might, even if she didn't know the man she needed.


Thought is deed, and Pepper's desire brings her to the rooftop. Jack's standing there— Bucky— Winter— shattered like a kaleidoscope, multiple men all in simultaneous array, all just a few degrees off center from one another. The soldier, the assassin, the war hero, the veteran, the boy, the man, the lover, the killer, each seems to flicker into view as Pepper walks towards Jack, and as he edges away from her, those other realities of his psyche careen around into existence and vanish in an eyeblink.

"Pepper," one of them says. "Pepper, I'm sorry, Pepper. I wanted to—"

"— remove asset from circumstance, she is liability," the Winter Soldier says, taking over the conversation. "Should have eliminated her when had the —"

"— chance to dance with her?" says a handsome young man in a sergeant's wartime attire. "She's somethin' else, ain't she, a real firecracker —"

"— I know, I want to bring her home to meet Mom —" says a younger man,

"— should meet Steve, see what he —" chimes in the soldier and Jack's fragmented psyche explodes in a scream of fury and rage. The sky turns red and the visions of Jack fly apart into soaring fragments, vanishing, and that furious scream echoes off the mountains — followed by one of despair, as the icy monolith in the distance suddenly looms infinitely closer.


Beni follows, the moment Jack — or his pieces — disappear. She doesn't want to lose Pepper entirely. She arrives on that rooftop in the blink of an eye and a swirl of her cloak.

"It seems we and the mountain must meet halfway," she says, extending her hand to Pepper. "If you wish to follow him, let us go. The mountain may hold his answers."


Later on, Pepper will owe Beni a whole bunch. There will be thanks, hugs, so many more words. But right now, Beni has almost entirely gone from her mind as she's swept to the roof in her mind and now studying a man she knows so well and doesn't know at all. Or, perhaps, the proper word is men. Pepper's glassy blue eyes flicker over Jack as his form seems to flicker and transform before her. So many men, so many different sides of ths shattered man. She reaches one hand out, "Jack…"

But it's too late. He's shattering, gone again. Her fingertips reach air. Tears glimmer in her eyes, cutting a line down her pale cheeks as she clutches at the air and then looks back to Beni. She says nothing a heartbeat or two but nods against her tight throat. She looks from Beni, to the mountain, that screaming, then back to Beni. "…L-let's…let's go…" She whispers. Then she slips her hand into Beni's palm. No need to clutch her this time. She knows she can fly, at Beni's side. To the mountain they go.


Pepper would have no way of knowing how difficult the mountain ascension is. Beni's magics— her expertise— fend off a wind that would blow Pepper away, a chill so cold that it could physically hurt her in the real world. This is the heart of the broken man Pepper seeks, and the world itself conspires to force the women away from that endless, shrieking fury.

And then, they are there— atop the mountain. An Alp? Hiamalyas? Tall, jagged, mountains that clearly have existed since the world was young. Snow caps every peak and a train whips around a curve of the track on a narrow jut of the mountainside. There's an explosion. Jack, wearing the uniform of a serviceman, flies out from the train and grabs a rail with his fingertips. Barely holding on. Screaming in fear.

"Steve! Help!" he cries. The man Pepper had seen in the lobby— tall, dashing, built like a mountain— reaches out from the hole in the train's side. He grabs Jack's wrist. And then, he flings Jack into the void.

Jack falls, screaming, dual tones of anguished betrayal and rage filling his voice. It's an eternity to the bottom of the canyon, flying through the air, the wind snapping at his hair and clothing—

and then he splashes into the water with a shocking surge of cold, and it all fades to dim, warm black.

And then it begins again— the train rounds the corner, the explosion, Jack flies clear, Steve throws him into the water, he drowns—

And then it begins again, the train, rounding the tracks, and Jack is flung into the frozen river, screaming all the way—

— and again —

— and again —

and again —


Beni holds Pepper up as the scenario plays out again and again, her shining wings keeping them steady in spite of the raging winds. She evaluates the scene almost dispassionately, then murmurs in Pepper's ear.

"We cannot stop the fall. He must fall, it is who he is. You must take him from the water." She flies them down toward the icy river where black, sleek rocks rise up out of a dense blanket of snow. There, she lands at the water's edge, setting Pepper's feet on solid ground.

Above them, Jack is screaming again, falling again toward the river. Beni lets Pepper go. "This is your part to play," she tells the other woman. "This is dreams, shape it for yourself. When he is drowning in the river and pull him from it. That is where you can save him."


It's cold. It's bitter and brutal, but it's not to the point of breaking her soul and body, probably because Beni is there, keeping her close and steady. Able to get her up the mountain with thoughts, not clawing, bloodied fingertips. She stares at that screaming, the betrayal, the familiar body in an unfamiliar uniform. The War… World War Two. Not Korea. This is what shaped him, even back at the VA. The haunting, tired look in his eyes. The lack of sleep. The War. "Oh…Jack…" She breathes out as she stares at the fall, wanting to reach there.

But Beni is right. She so often was. Is. Pepper nods mutely in agreement, leaning against Beni as they fly down to that unforgiving landscape. "…I still have to save him there. But… it's… the start." Pepper whispers. Beni's fingertips are given one last squeeze and then Pepper is letting go, gently, stepping forward. Her feet threaten to slide on the snowy, rocky ground near the river, but she wills them not to. She needed to be his rock here.

And there she is, as he's falling, a shock of red hair and white skin against the unforgiving ground. She leans down into the water, letting it soak her arms as she reaches for him, searching the depths, trying to give him something to hand onto in the misery of it all. And she's reaching towards where his right side should be. She knows the left arm is probably dead. Gone. She'll grab right with both hands. "…Jack… dear… whoever you are… were…I'm here. Come back to me. I… I'll catch you… I'm here…" And if she can find him in the water, she'll wait until the next time he falls and dive in after. And if that doesn't work? She'll try to grab him as he falls. She will go after him as many times as he falls. Until it's done. Until one or both of them are dead or she has him in her arms. She keeps fighting for him.


Pepper finds limp fingers, clasps, and hauls back. For a moment he is dead weight. Then with a surging gasp, Jack grips Pepper's fingers and is hauled out of the water, blowing frigid river liquid into the air like a surfacing whale. Gasping, choking, he clings to Pepper as she hauls him from the water, his left arm limp and useless but the right clinging to her wrist with all the force he can muster.

"Pp-pp-Pepper?" he groans, shivering violently. In the memory his body floats downriver, to be collected and retrieved by several Germans wearing SS uniforms and HYDRA symbols— and that memory travels all the way to Russia, where he's decanted from a cylinder and his left arm grafted to him in an unimaginably painful symbiosis of flesh and steel.

But here, in the memory, he clings to Pepper, shuddering, unsure of himself and the fractured echoes much less prominent than they were. "Pppeper, how did you get here? You can't be here. This is where the Russians found me," he gravels, cold, soaked, hair matted against his brow and partially obscuring his face.


Beni removes her cloak — the cold doesn't affect her here — to wrap them both in it. The warm, soft black fabric expands to encompass them both, to warm and dry them and to protect them against the snow and wind. She walks a few paces away from them, back to them to give them privacy. The soft light of her wings and hair and staff has a warmth of its own, pushing back against the dark as she stands watch.


The sound of relief that escapes Pepper's lips as she feels his hand is almost animal. "Jack, god…thank god…" Thank Beni, really, but details will be worked out later. Pepper finds every last inch of strength and adrenline she has in her body — she'll be sore in the real world tomorrow morning — but she doesn't care. She pulls him from the water like a woman twice her strength, because she wasn't letting him fall back to that madness. She tugs his broken, injured form against her body, wrapping him up in her heat even as Beni drapes that cloak around them.

Dimly, somewhere, she realizes Beni is doing it, but all of her is for Bucky now. All eyes on that desperate young man in her arms. She holds on so tight, letting him touch every inch of her even as she looks up to his eyes. "…Russians? This… this wasn't Korea, was it? Jack… they did something… Something to you, your mind, I think. But… I know you. It's not you, what they did. This…this is you. And I'm not going to let you go. But you have to come back to me… You have to tell me how to find you, so I can help you. Because… I won't let you go. I won't drop you. But… you have to reach for me too." Pepper explains, her hand coming up to cup his cheek, look up into those eyes.


Jack— Bucky— looks up at Pepper and hugs her tight with his one good arm. "I'm here. I'm here," he says, whispering.

There's a growling from the sky overhead, and the darkness shudders around them. That voice returns, a metronome in Russian that cuts across all parts of his reality. Bucky looks around worriedly as that voice returns, silencing his reality.

"Pepper. I don't have long. They're reinstating the programming," he says, rapidly. "I don't know— I don't know how much I'll remmber. They do this a lot. They make me forget who I am. Where I am from, or who I know. It's all broken, and they're doing it again."

"I'm somewhere in New York. My next target is the Ambassador of Egypt. I'm going to kill him with a trapped explosive gas main on 4th street."

The darkness closes in, the memories disappearing— even Beni is forced into the periphery as rigid lockstep brainwashing takes over again, like jail bars clanking shut around Bucky and Pepper.

"Pepper, you have to /stop me/. I can't— I can't resist them. Please, Pepper, promise me. Get Steve. Make them stop me before—"

the lights start to fade out— "before I kill someone. Promise me, Pepper."

The lights dim more, until Pepper and Bucky themselves start to fade. "I love you, Pepper. I'm sorry I didn't say it more."

Only Jack's face remains. "I'm sorry. Stop me. Promise me you'll stop—"

And then the Russian chanting shuts him out entirely, and the dream vanishes into a murky abyss of impenetrable shadow. There is nowhere for the women to go but home.


"The Ambassador of Egypt, a trapped gas main on 4th Street," Beni says, musing as the dream collapses around them into nothing and nightmares press in like hungry wolves. She returns to kneel and put her arms around Pepper, comforting. "That hasn't happened yet, Pepper. Dreams have nothing more to offer. Are you ready to wake up?"


The woman studies his eyes, drinking in every inch of him she can find, learn, get to know in these stolen moments. She sinks into that tight hug, her lips against his cheek, tears almost freezing in the wind but she doesn't care. He's here and they can learn things now. Pepper holds on for dear life — literally — as he speaks. "…Love you… I love you too…" She breathes out, the first and most important words she has to say. If she says nothing else, she wants him to hear that.

Then she nods, adamantly, as he begs her to stop him, even as the bars come in. Pepper is listening. She's hanging on for every last second. "I…I'll tell Steve. I'll get you help. I promise. They'll help you. I promise. I love you…" She calls those last words a second time, trying to scream them over that Russian chanting. Whether he heard them or not, she doesn't know. but then she's alone and shaking, still under Beni's cloak, but without his body it feels so much colder.

She sinks to the side, suddenly finding Beni's arms there, against the howling wind and nightmares. She's still crying. She can't really stop. But she can listen and respond. She nods weakly, "…please… I need to wake up… tell SHIELD. We need to stop this. I promised him…"


"Time to wake up, then," Beni says, drawing back the veil of sleep. They are side-by-side in the Black Cat, sitting in Beni's booth, with Beni's cloak wrapped around Pepper and Beni's arms around her. "You know what you need to do?" Beni asks. "Can I take you anywhere?"


Slightly shivering, even in reality, though the room isn't that cold, dreams are a strange thing, and Pepper is crying too. The sleeve of Beni's shirt where she'd been slumped against is soaked with her tears. They still glimmer in her eyes, but Pepper is coming back into her self and that self is very much a problem solver. She had to solve problems. She nods faintly to Beni, "I…thank you…Beni, that was… You're amazing. Thank you. I need to call that woman…Heather. Need to find Steve Rogers…" God, how does she find *Captain America* himself?


"Steve Rogers? As in Captain America?" Beni thinks about this for a moment. "I'm certain he has people. An agent, a contact, something. He can be found, you know people in the military, surely. And if you tell him it's about the man who fell from the train…" A shadow falls over Beni's face.

"If you tell him, he will listen. He must remember, too," she says, pulling herself back to the present. She takes a folded handkerchief from the table and offers it to Pepper. "If that's the Steve who was there, no man can forget a thing like that. It must be imprinted on him, too. So he'll listen. And help. Brave heart, Pepper. You can do this."


A quiet nod of affirmation, "I…I think so. He was in the lobby, when Jack went insane. I…I have a phone number. I need to make a call. She'll get help. I don't know how long we have. But…" Pepper smiles faintly to Beni, squeezing her fingertips, "I…I can do this. I have to. I…will. Because of you. Thank you, Beni. God… thank you so much." She leans over to kiss the woman's cheek, lost for words as to just how much this means to her.


"Your man deserves better," Beni says, rising and offering Pepper her hand. "And, I admit, I am a thief at heart. A blackguard and a miscreant by nature. Those who control your man are the type I most like to rob — the cruel and the dangerous. If I can help you steal him from them, it is only being true to my self. My car will take you wherever you need to go, dear one. If you need me, you only have to call. I love a good escapade."


Another hug, almost desperately tight. Pepper half wants to cry into the woman's shoulder, but there is not time. She pulls back and smiles, wiping one hand at the stains of tears on her cheeks. No more time for them. She then shifts out of the booth, coming up to her feet and looking back towards the kitchen where she came in. She nods, "…I'll keep that in mind. We… we might need your help again. But…no matter what, I owe you. And…I'm going to do everything I can to steal him back." She promises softly. With that, she turns on the ball of her foot and half jogs for the kitchen. She had a lot of work ahead of her.


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