It was a Tuesday, but like the previous Tuesday, it wasn’t anything like a normal Tuesday. On normal Tuesdays, Pepper did paperwork. This week, she’d done it all on Monday morning in a rush, as she had very little to report from the previous week, having taken a four-day weekend, and having spent most of Monday visiting with Ira. This Tuesday was unusual in that Pepper was going to see one of the in-house psychiatrists. Specifically, she’d been recommended to Dr. Holt.
Pepper had never met Dr. Holt before. She knew that he was anomalous, like her, but not much else. She wasn’t really thrilled about the idea of someone rummaging through her brain, especially with everything that had just happened with Cody and with Ira and she was going to have to meet Jupiter and she was turning into a demigod– She cut the thoughts off. Okay. Maybe she needed to see the psychiatrist after all.
She walked down the hallways, following the signage. She had never been down this section of the location before. Finally, she found the right door and knocked on it, creaking it open slightly. "Dr. Holt? It's Pepper Krasniqi. I'm here for my appointment."
They never gave him much on these new cases. Sometimes they'd claim it was because of his rank, but then why would they send patients with classified information in their minds all open to be read? Alvis supposed it was because they thought he didn't need it. Why waste time printing out case notes when the doctor can just sift through them in their native habitat?
Still, it wasn't much fun for the patient.
A couch sat at the end of the room, just well-worn enough to be comforting, familiar, as if preserved at the exact point it would be at its most subconsciously appealing. There were paintings on the walls, modestly-mounted certificates, framed photographs littering the desk, and there was a small earthenware mug steaming on the coffee table. It was all rather cosy.
Oblivion itself looked much the same. Dr. Holt looked like he came from a lab whose sole purpose was to create the least intimidating man possible; small and soft-featured, his feeble frame drowning beneath the sea of purple-grey cable-knit he cloaked himself with. One look at the man made you forget his anomalous designation, and another made you realise that was the point. After all, an amoeba was small- but that didn't matter once it got inside your head. If anything, it helps.
"Come in, Pepper."
His voice would echo through her mind- half sound, half thought, an inner monologue blending into a dream. When she opened the door, she would find him at a chair by the coffee table, smiling at her with notebook in hand.
She pushed the door open, shifting a little uncomfortably at how the voice seemed to echo around her head. It was at once both sound and thought and that made Pepper very uneasy. She slid inside and closed the door behind her. “Oh, uh, thank you. I’d actually love that. Do you have any jasmine tea, maybe? If not, I’ll take anything herbal.”
She shuffled over to the couch, her hands tightly clenched together in front of her. There was no denying that she was incredibly nervous about this. As she sat down, she smoothed out the front of her pink sweater vest and matching skirt, then started tugging her collar on her button-down back into place. It was all nervous habits. She straightened her clothes out any time she was nervous around someone new. She knew she did this, but she couldn’t seem to stop.
“I’m sorry, I’m very nervous. I haven’t had to see a psychiatrist since I was like. Fifteen. I don’t remember how this works.”
"Yes, I believe I do. Why don't you make yourself comfortable whilst I make some?"
Saying this, he stood up, leaving his own cup of tea on the coffee table- chamomile, as was his preference. The tea cupboard hung above the desk where his case folders should've been, and was about as well-stocked as you could possibly hope.
"There's no need to be nervous, Pepper, though I understand why you might be."
Alvis continued, glancing over his shoulder at her as he poured a cup of tea,
"We're just going to have a conversation- that's all. You can tell me as much or as little as you want, however much you think would help. Then, we'll see about getting you some strategies for how to manage your situation- does that sound alright?"
He set the mug down on the coffee table- the same imperfect earthenware as his own. Handmade, perhaps?
"Now, I must preface this by saying, ah... my anomalous nature might make you feel a little emotionally dampened at times- at least when you're in my presence. If this makes you uncomfortable at any point, feel free to step outside for a few minutes to- recalibrate, I think was the word."
He took a sip of his tea.
"Your tea's all ready."
"So- I suppose I should cut to the chase. How have you been, Pepper?"
Pepper took the cup and let it warm her hands. She sighed softly and took a sip of the burning hot drink, letting it scald her tongue. The green tea warmed her through and she set the cup back down, clasping her hands together. Dr. Holt was soft and relaxed, and that made Pepper relax ever so slightly.
“Right, a conversation. Well, I. I don’t really know where to begin.” She paused for a moment and then shook her head, her short blonde bob shifting ever so slightly out of place as she did. “No, that’s a lie. I know why I’m here. I’m here because I need to be here because I found out recently that I’m the host of a god. There’s a lot about it that I just. I don’t want to think about it, but I should.”
She looked at the teacup where it sat on the table. She could see her reflection in the liquid. She looked the same as she always had- a rounded delicate face, big green eyes, and short but thick blonde hair. The outside didn’t reflect the turmoil that was brewing inside.
“In the span of about a week, I’ve found out I am fused to a god, that I’m no longer aging, that the man I love also loves me, that my dimension actually belongs to a small anomalous child, and then I had the realization that everyone I love will die long before me. Where do you think we should start?”
Alvis sat himself back down in the armchair; similarly small, so as not to swamp his frame. The last thing he wanted was to look like some scheming villain sitting atop a throne of endless grey, so the little lilac IKEA seat was his best option. The back barely reached up to his neck, but it was comfortable enough to lean against. His patients' seat was a little more spacious- that well-worn grey couch which could seat three but never did. When both he and his patient were seated straight, they were positioned such that their eyelines would match the majority of the time- Alvis's chair raised a little higher to compensate.
Of course, in Pepper's case, this compensation backfired. Alvis leaned down a little, slouching ever so sligtly- if only to make himself more comfortable.
"It sounds like you've had your work cut out for you lately. It's admirable that you were able to make it here- even though it's Foundation-mandated, the first step is always the hardest."
His wording was a little awkward, he had to admit. It usually was, at the start; just warming up, he would say, and sometimes he would pull the 'second language' card if it failed to improve. In truth, he was a lot less articulate than he pretended to be. Alvis worked in thoughts, not words- it just happened that, to an observer, those were one and the same with him.
"Why don't we start at the beginning? It seems that this god-fusion is the source of a lot of your problems right now- would you mind elaborating on it for me so I know what we're working with?"
A question that could've been avoided if they trusted him with her file- a situation that could've been avoided if they trusted him.
Pepper nodded, sighing deeply. She ran a hand through her short blonde hair as she recounted the story, for what felt like the fifth time that week. “Well. The beginning, I guess, was when I was five. I used to travel to a lot more dimensions than just the one. But the first time I ever went through this one, I found a spark of a god. Like the last vestiges of a burnt-out candle. It was all power, nothing else. Over time, it’s become more, but for the most part, what I accepted into me was power. And it built a wall between us, and it gave me just a fraction of its power. It partially bound me to the dimension, and I haven’t been able to order portals to other places since. Not yet, anyway. I’m trying.”
She paused for a moment to take a sip of the tea. She was trying not to overwhelm the man. “Anyway, fast forward to Tuesday the first. Uhm, we were making some revelations about One Zero Zero Three’s dimension, and then, uh, My head really started to hurt. And I kept almost remembering something. I forced myself to remember it, and it was like a wall cracked in my head. It spoke through me for the first time then. Or spoke with me? It's hard to describe. But ever since then, it’s been… hard. The wall completely crumbled, and now I hear its thoughts alongside my own. Sometimes our thoughts are one. Sometimes our voice is one. Sometimes it’s just mine. I feel like… Like it’s melting into me.” She fell quiet at that and sipped her tea, folding her legs up under her hip. That was the basics of it. She wasn’t sure if he wanted more from her or not, but she would wait to find out.
He was looking through her eyes. He didn’t like that this man was talking in Their head. He kept to the back of Her mind, ready to shield them if anything happened. It felt like an intrusion on their sanctum. This was where they were the safest, where the Two who were One could reside in their purest forms. This was where the rivers crossed. Having anyone step foot inside there, even such a small step, was heresy.
So he watched through Her eyes, making sure that She was safe.
Alvis nodded, listening intently as he made a few notes.
"So you're worried about your sense of self? About staying grounded?"
He gave a short sigh.
"Are you in talks with other departments regarding this situation as well?"
God-killing was not typically his job. He was there to manage the symptoms, not be the cure- the staff at L-14 must've known that.
"I can help you with the psychological aspect of this- give you strategies to ground yourself, help you deal with the emotional side-effects, perhaps help during these merges, but I cannot- ah, I cannot fell a god. Not alone."
That was a little above his pay grade.
"Still, that's not to say my help will be useless. Studies have shown that even standard grounding techniques provide an excellent barrirer to possession, and there are some specialised ones as well that have proven even more effective. At the very least, it can make these incidents less frequent- less severe, as well."
There were two types of invasive entities- those he could remove, and those he could not. The word god made him assume it was the latter- although, even if it ended up being the former, he did not want to make any promises he couldn't keep. The last thing he wanted to be was a disapointment.
"How do you know you're 'you' right now, Pepper?"
"That's not a rhetorical question- I want you to give me an answer."
“We know when we are we, and we know when we are I and Me. Don’t be mistaken. We know the distinction. And for the record, good doctor, you will not kill either of us. Not before we could kill you.”
Pepper shut her mouth and rubbed her eyes. That was great, just great. But it had made it very clear what it looked like when she wasn’t just herself. “I’m sorry. I have no trouble telling the difference between myself and myself and it. I know I’m me because, well. I hear my own thoughts. I feel what I’m touching. I see and hear and it's all just me.”
She paused, touching the mug with her tea in it. She took another sip, feeling it warm her through. She felt the tendrils curling across the back of her mind, ready to entwine with the branches of her mind. But how to explain what was actually happening to the doctor?
“I’m not, uhm. I’m not worried about losing myself. It’s made it very clear that its goal is to actually become me. Like, to be merged with me and for there to only be me. It doesn’t want to take over and it doesn’t want to erase me. It wants to just… be part of me permanently. And, to be clear, I’m… I’m surprisingly okay with that. And that’s me, Pepper, talking. I don’t mind that it wants to be absorbed into me. Maybe that’s because its already partially done so.”
She shifted on the couch and sighed. She sounded absolutely crazy. There was a god living in her head, an outer god at that, and she was just. Okay with it. That had to classify her for some kind of Foundation watch list, or maybe something that required a lot of mental stabilizers. But it was the truth. She wasn’t really that bothered by it.
“As for your other question, uhm. I was told that the only thing I’m supposed to say is that Agent Cotta and Cod– Dr. Redd are handling it.”
He addressed the god in a firm, flat tone; a voice almost alien to the one which had been reassuring Pepper up until now. His face and posture, however, remained unchanged.
Pepper brought things back on track, but what she ended up saying herself was even more concerning than the thinly-veiled threats of the all-powerful within her. Alvis listened in silence, not wanting to interrupt when the person he came to talk to was speaking.
It was not uncommon for a cognitive takeover to begin like this- with the original mind believing, wholeheartedly, that this is what they want, that this is their choice. Whether it was the work of the invading force, or simple cognitive dissonance in the face of the incomprehensible- it was something he had personal experience in, and that made him far too uncomfortable to let it slide. Perhaps this was Pepper thinking unaltered, but he wasn't going to discount the risk that it wasn't.
He nodded and took a sip of his tea. Whatever answers he could get, they weren't going to be unbiased- he made a mental note to ask people around Pepper, people who knew her before this all started. Still, it couldn't hurt asking her directly, could it?
"Can I ask you something off-topic, Pepper?"
"Can I ask about your early life? It's a little cliche, I appreciate that, but I'd like to know what you were like- what you felt like, mostly. Can you tell me a little about that?"
The unstable, shaky smile on Pepper’s face proceeded to vanish then. She looked down, breaking the eye contact she had been trying to hold. She looked at her tea cup. Her eyes traced its uneven imperfections, the things that made it what it was, and not what any other mugs were. Maybe, just like this cup, it was her imperfections that made her who she was. She looked back up and this time smiled sadly.
“I was a child who grew up before the change to the ethics code in the ACF. What do you think my childhood was like? No, I’m sorry, you don’t deserve that, Dr. Holt. My childhood was lonely. I always felt like. I don’t know, like I wasn’t, uhm, I don’t know how to phrase this part. I had this deep feeling of being not enough. Not like, for others, because I definitely felt that way too, but like. Like there wasn’t enough of me?”
She looked back at the tea, picked it up, and took a sip as she thought of how to properly convey the feeling. Then, it came to her, and she put the cup back down. “It was like I was a puzzle, but parts were missing. There weren’t enough pieces for the whole picture to exist. That’s the best way I can think to explain it. Of course, I didn’t always feel that way, and I was able to ignore it most of the time when I felt it. Its been a few years since I felt that way as well.”
She was telling him exactly what he'd want to hear to dismiss any threat; feelings of isolation, incompleteness, hinting towards this surfacing god being the missing piece- having always been the missing piece. The information was useful, regardless of bias, and it would at least help Pepper feel as though she was in control. He made another mental note; he'd have to meander a little when talking to those close to her, let them come to this conclusion by themselves, if they agreed. Asking them directly would only skew things further. Alvis knew all about leading questions.
As she spoke, he silently worked his way into her immediate conscious- to see if there was any information to be gained there. Altered thoughts, whilst often hard for the subject to distinguish, could sometimes be told apart from their genuine counterparts with a well-trained eye. Bias or not, knowing whether these thoughts were genuine would help things a great deal.
The comment about growing up in the ACF made him wince a little, though it failed to show on his face.
"You're speaking to an anomaly who has been here since the sixties, Pepper."
He offered a sympathetic smile,
"Trust me, I understand how harsh this place can be. I can imagine; having your formative years shaped by such things must be hard. You're doing very well for it: I'm not just saying that to be nice, I really do mean it."
He sighed lightly.
"This incompleteness of yours... I'm going to put a pin in that- we can come back to it in another session, is that alright? I haven't forgotten about it."
He needed to get more information before he could proceed down that path responsibly. Pepper had other troubles to deal with; ones he didn't have to pick her apart over before he could help.
"Now, the practical aspects of godhood- correct me if I'm wrong, but that's what you're worried about at the moment, isn't it? It's a big life change, certainly."
'Big life change'- like he was talking about starting a new job, or meeting a new partner, or moving to a new town. Not having the fundamental nature of your being change before your eyes.
"What do you think will happen? What do you think this will mean for you?"
He was in Their head. That was unpleasant, to have another sort through Their thoughts. He receded as much as possible, except for where he was tangled within Her. There was clearly something this gray man was looking for, and it wasn’t Him. He didn’t really want to kill this man, not without real threat. But if he pushed any further into Their mind, He would push back, and hard. He could break this man’s mind by using the power She did not know yet that They wielded. He knew the form she would eventually take, and He could project that into the man’s mind if needed. It would be enough for some form of mental backlash, without actually permanently scaring the man.
He really didn’t want to have to do that either.
Pepper nodded in response to Dr. Holt’s first question, and then silently thought about what it might mean for her. In all honesty, she had been avoiding thinking about what it meant after her conversation with Cait. Mostly, it was because she didn’t want to think about her friends and family dying.
But she had never considered, not really, what she was going to become. A god. A real outer god. That would be a momentous change when it happened, and it would happen. That much she could tell. That much, the Dead God had told her during the conversation she was able to force him to have. Not that she had to force him to talk to her– he seemed to really enjoy that now– but she’d had to force him to explain things better to her.
“I don’t know what it means for me. Not really. I’m sure that’s something I’ll be able to figure out since I have… forever. But I know that I’m going to… I’m going to change. I don’t know when or how, because he won’t tell me that, but I know that I’m going to… become something else. Something that breaks people’s minds when they look at me. But I know I am supposed to be able to control it, in the end. So I’ll be able to keep living around, uhm, people. I think. Is that what you meant?”
There was no doubt that the god could see him in there. He had accepted that from the moment he decided to take a look; he always did, with these things. Call it blind arrogance, if you will, but Alvis's mind was infamously difficult to breach; there was little this god could do to harm him without manifesting, and the way Pepper had been speaking seemed to indicate that it wasn't quite ready for that yet. Of course, making an enemy of a soon-to-be-released elder god was hardly the wisest idea, but that ship had already sailed. It knew he didn't want it in there.
"Well, the mind-breaking is what we have this department for."
"Though, I doubt that's much of a reassurance. There are places you can stay whilst you try and control this side of yourself, but- ah..."
He paused for a little longer than he should, and raised a hand to apologise.
"I know how they treat memetic hazards here. Cognitohazards are much the same- anything that affects the mind, they usually only have one solution for."
There was another long pause. Alvis's face was stone-still.
"If that... happens, I can offer myself as a point of contact- so, at the very least, you won't have to worry about being alone. Does that sound alright?"
It was, perhaps, a foolish thing to agree to--especially this early on--but the thought of Pepper being trapped in a box, isolated from everyone at such a young age, of test after test being run on her, grinding her immortal body to dust until they could put something on their pathetic little sheets- something they never should've known in the first place, followed by another, and another, and another- no longer a person, but a checklist with missing vertebrae-
"In the meantime-"
He almost interrupted himself,
"-We can focus on the present. It would help if you're stable and comfortable now, so that, should this fusion eventually occur, you're able to keep yourself grounded. That should make controlling it a little easier."
He stood at attention, waiting. It wasn’t hard for Him to wait. He had been in the back of Her mind, learning and growing, for the last seventeen years. Always waiting. He could be as patient as He needed to be. The gray man didn’t seem to want to hurt Them. Not really, even though he had threatened to get assistance to kill Him. Maybe… he didn’t always need to be patient. He stretched out a single thread, reaching it out to meet the man’s gentle touch in Their mind. He was curious as to what would happen if their minds met.
At first, Pepper wasn’t paying attention to the Dead God’s actions. She was paying attention to Alvis Holt, and his offer to be a go-between for herself and the others should this spiral out of control She nodded in response to his comment about focusing on the present. There was a brief moment where she thought about telling him yes, about accepting his offer. But then she paused. She didn’t really want to acknowledge that possibility. After a long moment, she sighed and looked up toward the ceiling.
“Your offer is really appreciated. And I think you’re right. It’s likely best we focus on the present. I don’t really want to acknowledge– wait, what are you doing?”
The last part, though said out loud, wasn’t meant for Alvis. Because now Pepper was paying attention to the Dead God. She felt his tendril unfurl and slither forward, at a speed that she couldn’t stop. She felt it, as though it were hers, as it reached out and touched the grey presence in her mind.
It reached out, clawing at something that wasn't fully there. Alvis, ever charitable, intepreted the gesture as one of curiosity- safe in the knowledge that it couldn't reach him, since there was nothing there to reach. Like grasping at sound, at vision. His body remained still, but not static- Pepper could still see him, after all, and he didn't want to worry her by appearing frozen in time. She had enough to worry about already, and this gesture of interest by the dead god inside her mind was only adding to that list.
It wouldn't find much. There wasn't much there to find; Alvis made himself as clear as he possibly could, when presenting in someone's mind like this: an echo for the thoughts, and a greyness for the influence. Still, the intent to make contact seemed to bring something forth; its form.
Broken and unstable, its own reality collapsing in on itself, dead not in the way a person was, but a lightbulb- shattered, flickering, light and dark, dark and light. Impossible overlapping impossible. The contradiction alone would be enough to drive a man mad, but the contradiction was just where it started. The form itself; strange geometry, things which couldn't be, sticking out of places that couldn't be. Perhaps, if one looked carefully enough, a head could be distinguished for a second, or an arm, or a torso, but any attempt to compare this to a cognisable form would only drive that madness further and further into the mind; a hammer to drive it deeper like a railroad spike, until the whole thing split in two, screaming, screaming, screaming. Yes, that was what it did; it forced the mind to eat itself trying to comprehend its form. Then, when its observer was battered enough, it would flicker again- split-second after split-second, forever, eyes locked, forever.
The abyss stared back.
"Don't worry, Pepper."
His tone was calm and level; soothing, though it always had been.
"Why don't we focus on that, then? How are your interpersonal relationships at the moment- do you have a good support network here? Friends, family- do they know what's going on?"
The Dead God was disappointed. He hadn’t known what He was expecting, but it wasn’t to find a general lack of anything within that gray patch. Before He could withdraw, He felt– no, felt was the wrong word– sensed as something reached out to Him in return, and then… nothing. There was no sense of touching, no sense of contact, and yet. And yet He felt as though something must have touched Him, in a way that wasn’t really touching, but couldn’t be anything but touching. And yet, as He watched in anticipation, nothing happened. The man continued to smile plainly and speak into Their mind. The Dead God receded, in a way that could only be described as pouting.
Maybe, He just didn’t have it down yet.
Pepper blinked as she recovered from whatever had just happened in her head. “Right, my relationships. Well, as I said before, ah, everything is amazing in that department. I just made a new friend, who is awesome and weird. Cody and I, we finally are a couple after years of me trying to work up the courage to tell him. And Kallie, well, we had a bit of a bump yesterday night. She was upset I didn’t tell her sooner, but understood when I said I wasn’t sure I was allowed to. She’s actually the one who recommended you to me. She said you would treat me well, and then last night she said that you would likely be the best person to see me. I didn’t even know you two know each other!”
Pepper chuckled a little as she spoke, a faint smile returning to her face. There was a little bit of glitter in her gaze then, as though she were sparking to life. Talking about her friends and family did that to her. Pepper was passionate about her people, and so she became passionate when she spoke of them.
Good to see, as well; the difference in her body language was like night and day. That would be the end of the god-talk, he decided. Pepper was stressed enough- it would be cruel to make this moment of levity something temporary, fleeting. They'd have other sessions together, he was certain of that, matters of godhood could be discussed then. Not only that, but they could be discussed with people who had more experience with the specifics of that sort of thing- she had already mentioned several people, and there were whole departments dedicated to the safe containment and management of eldritch deities.
Still, safe containment didn't mean safe hands. Pepper could become as Alex was, given the measures likely to be implemented. He knew what that meant. He knew both sides of the consequences.
"You were sent by Doctor Reed?"
He enquired, bringing a stop to his thoughts before they could colour his vision.
"How interesting. Yes, we did know each other- we've been colleagues for quite some decades, now."
Why did she send her? - was the question he wanted to ask, but couldn't. Pepper couldn't answer that- hell, he didn't know if Kallie herself could.