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The Hunters and the Prey

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Pepper had had a productive day so far.  

She’d managed to get through lesson plans for the two student courses she was responsible for; while she much preferred teaching Novices, Pepper did take quite a bit of pride in passing on her knowledge to the younger Wizards.   She mostly taught various sorts of Cardinal charms, beginner’s level, and Tony sometimes made jokes about the types of charms he thought she should teach.

Sometimes her husband was incorrigible.

She’d also gone over the next steps in Daisy’s lessons.  Her Novice was an extremely powerful Cardinal, and was advanced enough from her father’s teachings that she’d been able to skip almost the entire first-year Novice schedule; just Daisy’s wards alone were impressive.  Thanks to Phil, of course, which was why she’d been too eager to push him into getting a Novice of his own.  He was an excellent teacher, the way he’d been able to show Daisy how to adapt his spells to her own magic, despite the fact that he was Void, and that it shouldn’t have worked as well as it had.  She really did hope he’d accept Wanda, because that young woman really did deserve the best.  And Phil Coulson was the best, in Pepper’s informed opinion.

So, Pepper had mostly worked on control, because Daisy would eventually need to rely less on the gauntlets Phil had made for her, after she’d nearly taken down the side of a mountain.

Those gauntlets were a work of art.  Pepper had been able to adapt Phil’s original spell work in them to help other students with control issues. None of them were as strong as Daisy, but then not a lot of young Wizards were.

Now that Daisy was better controlled, her magic had blossomed.  Pepper figured that she would be a year early in taking her Master’s exams, which was a testament to Daisy’s work ethic and her father’s steadfast support and encouragement.

Yet more reason for Phil to become a teaching Master.  Pepper just knew any Novice under his guidance would thrive and be amazing.

With everything that had been going on lately, Pepper could admit that she’d let her lessons slide a little.  She really needed to get things back on track, and to do that she needed to start running her own lessons again instead of relying on her teaching assistant.  Joey was quite good at teaching, and hoped to go into it himself after his own Mastery exams were done.  But it was still Pepper’s responsibility to give her students the best education possible.  She needed to get back to that.

She flexed her wrist, to relieve a little of the tiredness.  She’d been writing for the last several hours, and her hand was beginning to ache a bit.  Pepper wondered what Ana would have prepared for lunch.  She was quite hungry…making up lesson plans apparently gave her an appetite.

Happy, who’d been sleeping on the chair nearest the window while she worked, awakened and chirped at her inquisitively.  “Yes,” she laughed, “I’m going to go and get something to eat.”

The dragon, eagerness flooding their link, launched himself from the chair and took his usual place on her shoulders.   Pepper gave him a quick scratch on the chin, and he playfully nipped at her finger in an effort to encourage her to get a move on with the feeding.

Setting her work aside, Pepper left the study and headed toward the kitchens.  Pepper would have to roust Tony and Dr. Banner out of the workshop at some point, since they’d most likely forget to eat if she didn’t.  It seemed as if Tony had sucked poor Bruce right into his orbit of scientific discovery; it wasn’t a bad thing that he now had someone who could understand a lot of what her husband did when he was being creative.  Yes, Bruce had a different background when he came to such things, but there were still basic foundations that the two men could share.  Besides, Tony needed more friends.  He had a tendency to shut himself off from others, and didn’t have a lot of people he could name really close friends, and not just the friendly acquaintances he excelled at gaining.  Hells, Pepper thought there was only the one person that close, Rhodey, and that was it.  And Rhodey wasn’t around as often as he used to ne, now that he was the Barony’s Knights’ Commander.

Well, of course she was close to him as well, but that was understood since she’d married him.  However, there were certain things she just didn’t understand about him, but she did try even if her success rate was as close to nil as it could get, and she did encourage his inventions.  Pepper knew that he loved her even more for that, although it was easy because she was just so proud of him.

Something was smelling divine when she entered the castle’s enormous kitchens.  They’d been constructed with large Baronial banquets in mind, but Pepper and Tony really didn’t throw those sorts of things, except on Baronial anniversaries and other very special occasions.  About the only times more than the family was there for any length of time, was when Pepper would have various students in for various reasons.  Daisy spent a bit of time there as well, as Pepper’s Novice; to be honest, Pepper thought she might consider taking another one, now that Daisy was as far along as she was.  There were many teaching Masters with several Novices; Master Alphonso Mackenzie had two, Daisy’s friends Jemma Simmons and Leo Fitz.  However, those two youngsters were a package deal, so to speak. Still, she might think about that with the next crop of advanced students. 

She could have taken on Pietro Maximoff, but Ianto deserved to have his own Novice, and she wasn’t about to let him get away with not teaching.  Ianto Jones was just as competent as Phil Coulson was, and Pietro would do amazing work under his tutelage. Just as Wanda would with Phil as her teaching Master.   

Ana was at the stove, her slight form stirring something in a large pot.  Jarvis was tending to something in the large smoker cabinet; Pepper wondered just what sort of smoked meat they would be having for dinner tonight.

“That smells wonderful,” she commented, Happy agreeing with glad chatter.  He loved both Jarvis and Ana, but was particularly fond of Ana, mostly because she fed him whenever he wanted.

“Mistress Pepper.” Ana greeted her, her voice slightly accented.  She turned around with a bright smile, continuing to stir.  “This is a sauce for the side of beef Edwin is fetching from the smoker.”

Pepper could smell the various spices in the sauce, and she inhaled deeply.  Her stomach reacted to the olfactory stimuli by growling really loudly, completely destroying any sort of dignity she might have had.

Ana laughed.  “There’s a plate for you in the cold box, and one for Happy as well.  I thought you may want something after you completed your lesson work.”

“Thank you.”  Ana was good at that sort of anticipation.

The cold box took up one entire corner.  Pepper had been a little shocked when Tony had asked her to create one that large, but she’d done it on the condition that he never put any of his inventions inside it.  Tony had scoffed at that, and it hadn’t been until later that she’d realized that he’d intended on creating a version of it that didn’t run on Chilling enchantments.  He hadn’t had a lot of success as yet – something about finding a stable cooling material – but he hadn’t given up.  He’d wanted one as large as possible in order to observe how it worked.

After that, she’d been fine with doing as he’d asked, since Pepper thought his inventions would make life so much easier for the majority of people who couldn’t afford expensive magical devices.

And it didn’t hurt that Ana had practically fallen in love with the oversized storage unit the moment she’d seen it.  She’d actually hugged Tony for asking Pepper to do it.  Then, she’d hugged Pepper for putting in all the hard work.

Inside the cold box was the plate, sitting alone on one of the upper shelves.  On it was meat and cheese, and two slices of bread.  Next to it was another plate, this one with a half a chicken on it.

Pepper took both plates out and made her way to the table where Jarvis and Ana usually ate their own meals, and tucked into the food, setting the one meant for Happy on the table, since he was such a small dragon and would only get underfoot if he ate on the floor like others of his kind did.

She was most of the way through when Jarvis sat another plate down next to the one she was almost finished with, this one holding a cranberry orange scone with a small jar of clotted cream.  Pepper grinned up at the Steward.  “And what did I do to deserve this?”

Jarvis gave her one of his patented tiny grins.  “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Mistress Pepper.”

She shook her head in amusement, because this was Jarvis’ way of saying she wasn’t eating enough.  And she wasn’t about to turn down one of Ana’s homemade scones.

Pepper was just licking the remains of cranberry and orange from her fingers when someone pinged one of her wards on the castle.  Happy felt it as well, because he roused from the sleep he’d fallen into once he’d finished eating, his head cocked curiously.

They had visitors.

Not unfriendly visitors, so Pepper figured she’d probably need to go and greet them.

“Someone’s here,” she told Jarvis and Ana.

“Should I go and answer it?” Jarvis inquired.

“No, I’ll do it.  Whoever it is, they feel familiar to me.”  It wasn’t a magical presence, but there was a faint tang of old Void…oh, of course.

Steve must be back.

But he wasn’t alone.

Together, she and Happy headed up toward the main hall.  She’d told Steve to come right in when he got back from the Enclave; to be honest, she hadn’t expected him back until much later.  Pepper hoped everything was alright, that he hadn’t been stressed by whatever he’d seen.

Steve was pacing in the hallway.  And yes, he wasn’t alone; Sam Wilson was with him, as was an older Elf with skin as dark as Sam’s, wearing more traditional green robes and breeches, his boots worn deer hide.  His dark eyes rested on her as she approached, and they didn’t look happy at all.

Steve must have noticed her as well, because he stopped pacing to turn and face her.  “Did you know?” he demanded, obviously upset about something.

Pepper frowned.  “Know what?”  She hated being confronted in her own home, but something was wrong so she held her own temper until she had more information.

“About Bucky,” Steve snarled, his fists clenched at his sides.

Pepper wasn’t afraid to admit she was confused now.  “I have no idea what you mean.  If you’d like to explain – “

“Bucky is Sir James Barnes,” the Elven man answered.  “Perhaps you know him by that name.”

How had they found out about Sir James?

The last she’d spoken with Phil, they’d decided to keep this from Steve for now, until they could figure out a way to remove all those curses that had been put on the poor man while he’d been the puppet of Hydra.  His condition was so very bad, they hadn’t wanted to get Steve’s hopes up about any sort of recovery, until they were certain they could actually do anything to help.

Besides, Steve had only been awake for a couple of days.  He was still acclimating.  None of them wanted his recovery set back in any way.  Giving him bad news about his best friend…that could tip him over the edge of despair.

Still, they’d somehow found out about it.

It looked as if this was one more thing Pepper would need to explain.

Why did this happen to her?

She sighed.  “Alright, yes.  I know about Sir James.”

Suddenly, every single bit of belligerence was gone from Steve’s body.  His shoulders slumped in what looked like sheer relief.  “And you didn’t think I should know he’s still alive?”  The question sounded unbelievably pitiful, and it took every bit of strength Pepper had not to go over and hug him.  She didn’t think it would be welcomed at the moment.

“I don’t know how you found out…”

“Through my many-times great-grandson,” the Elven gentleman said.  He stepped forward, offering Pepper his hand.  “Lord Gabe Jones.  I was one of the – “

“Howling Commandos,” she finished for him.  Pepper had even been aware that one of the historical Commandos had been an Elf, but not that he’d been a member of the Falcon Enclave.  “But how did your grandson know?”

“Because he’s a friend of Miss Daisy’s…Antoine Triplet.”

Pepper found her eyebrows rising to her hairline.  Trip was related to one of the Howling Commandos?  Had Daisy ever told her that?  Pepper couldn’t recall ever hearing it before.

Trip must have had a majority of human blood, because there wasn’t anything even vaguely Elvish about him.

“Please,” she urged, “let’s have a seat and I’ll explain.”

Pepper led them to the library, mainly for the presence of her mirror, because she suspected she’d be calling Ianto before this conversation was done.  She offered drinks; Lord Gabe and Dr. Wilson both accepted, while Steve refrained, content to keep right on pacing while everyone else sat.  Pepper served them wine and then took a chair herself, wanting to be comfortable for what she was about to share.

“How much did Trip tell you?”  She was going to have to have a talk with Daisy’s friends about keeping secrets, although she couldn’t find it within herself to necessarily blame Trip for letting his grandfather know.  After all, Lord Gabe had been a friend to both Steve and Sir James.  It was only fair to inform him that they’d both been found, and alive. 

“He said there was something about a cursed arm,” the Elf answered. 

“I don’t know how much Daisy told any of her friends about what was actually going on.”  The entire group had been sent to look for information on that arm, after all.  They’d had to know what to search for.

“Only that Bucky and Steve were both still alive, and that Bucky was in bad shape.  Trip was trying to be cagey over the speaking stone he was using.”

And so, Pepper told them everything, silently despairing at always being the bearer of bad news when it came to Sir Steven Rogers.

About how they’d first discovered the Winter Knight, when Daisy had been kidnapped by Hydra.  It hadn’t been until after the man had escaped his captors and been found in that warehouse in Golden Gate that they’d been able to discern his real name, because of Jack having met the man before.

“Wait,” Lord Gabe interrupted, “but how is that possible?”

“Jack Harkness is the Deathless,” Steve answered him tiredly.  “He fought with us during the war, only he wasn’t a member of the Commandos.  I’d…thought about bringing him in, but that was before my involuntary vacation in the Void.”

That announcement got a single bark of laughter from the Elf.  “I’d never put the stories of the Deathless together with the man who’d been in the infantry with us.”

Pepper went on with her account.  About all the curses that had been placed on Sir James and his arm, about how he’d been afraid of hurting anyone by accident.

About the Zero Cabinet. 

She’d had to explain what a Zero Cabinet was, and it wasn’t a pleasant one.  Personally, she was with Ianto in his hatred of the thing, but she’d also been proud of Daisy for standing up for Sir James’ decision to be put back into it for the time being.  Steve was nodding along as she finished that part, having stopped pacing the moment she mentioned about Sir James wanting to be put back in, until the curses could be lifted.

“That sounds like him,” he snorted fondly.  “Self-sacrificing jerk.”

“Is there a chance for the curses to be fully removed?” Dr. Wilson asked.

“The children found the original magical plans for the arm,” Pepper answered. “I haven’t talked to Ianto yet, but I know he was studying them to see what he could come up with.  He’s the best curse breaker in the world, and he has Phil and Stephen working with him.  If anyone can do it, it would be those three.”  She let every single bit of confidence she had leak into her voice.  Because she was confident.  Three of the most powerful Wizards in the world were on the case.  They’d do everything in their power to heal Sir James as much as they possibly could.

“And you say he doesn’t remember anything?” Steve sounded wrecked.  Happy, sensing his distress, was off Pepper’s shoulder and alighting on his, cooing at him sadly.  Steve rubbed his cheek against the dragon’s tiny head in thanks.

“He gets flashes, but nothing certain.  Ianto is hoping that, once they get rid of the curses, his memory will come back.”

“But that adds an entirely new set of problems,” Dr. Wilson announced.  “Because that will mean he’ll remember everything…including what he did on Hydra’s orders.”

Pepper was shocked.  Oh, of course he would, and the Winter Knight had been an assassin with a kill record going back centuries.  Poor Sir James, would he be able to come back from having those memories returned?

“I’m sorry we hid this from you,” Pepper said, “but none of us wanted to tell you, out of fear that Sir James couldn’t be healed.  We didn’t want to break your heart any more than it already was.”

“And if…when…the curses are removed?”

“Then we would have brought you to him immediately.”  Of that, Pepper was certain.  There would have been no way any of them would have kept the two men apart, especially since they’d been such good friends back then.

Unless Sir James had decided he didn’t want to see Steve again. 

Pepper didn’t say that out loud. 

“I want to see him.”

Of course, he’d want to do that.  Pepper would have wanted the same thing.  “Let me contact Ianto and let him know we’ll be in Gateway shortly.”  It wasn’t what she’d had planned for the rest of the day, but that was fine.  She’d have to also tell Tony she was leaving, but since she was prone to teleport off to Gateway, he wouldn’t have been too worried if she didn’t.  She was just conscientious that way.

“And I’d also like to meet Daisy Coulson.  She stood up for Buck, and she didn’t have to.  I want to thank her for that.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged.”  Daisy would be pleased to meet Steve, while Phil would most likely go a little hero worshipping once more.

Pepper wanted to see that.  It was going to be hilarious.