RP Mandatory Vacation Day

DATE: 8/04/2023
LOCATION: L-14, San Fransisco, Santa Monica
ASSETS: ACF-7823-A, “Peppers”; Dr. Cody Redd
PURPOSE: Enjoyment of a vacation day

Never in all her years at the Foundation had Pepper felt more like she needed a break. Things with the Ira and Dark Dimension situation had left her incredibly tense. Luckily, she had three mandatory vacation days that she was meant to take off still. She had finally filed for the four-day weekend of Thursday through Sunday. The current day was Friday, the first day of her vacation. Starting Saturday morning, she would be at a music festival in Blue Ridge with Dr. Charlie Fredricks from Fifteen. He was trying to introduce her to rock music, despite her best protests.

But Friday? Friday was the day that Pepper was most excited about. Today was the day that she had convinced Cody to take off with her. It wasn’t a date. At least, Pepper didn’t think it was a date. Cody didn’t seem to like her like that. Or did he? He seemed to like holding your hand. Although what had been said in Ira’s room still bit into her heart like frostbite, she tried to convince herself that she was okay with it. She and Cody had been friends for years, and this wouldn't change that. She didn’t think that anything could really change that. Well, she hoped.

She paused her Spotify. Then she thought of what Isaac had said to her and hesitated in applying her eyeshadow. Maybe there was actually a chance? If Cody knew how she felt, would there be a chance? Isaac seemed to have thought so. Now that she was going to be a D-Class, she was on better footing with Cody. Maybe that had been a factor in the whole thing? She shook her head. Or maybe he just didn’t like her. Was she willing to chance their friendship? She remembered her conversation with Cait and tried to psyche herself up.

Would it even be fair to him to tell him now that they both knew she would outlive him by so much? She could never grow old with him. What if that scared him as much as it scared her? Would it be worth it to destroy what they had for a crazy chance at it working?

Even if it didn’t go well, at least she knew she’d be welcome at L9 after she finished with Ira. She’d have to arrange visitations though, because she had made a commitment to the girl, and she planned to keep it.

She took one last look in the mirror, checking that her pastel multicolored cardigan and lacey top were both fully buttoned. She had on some of her more delicate gold jewelry, including a matching flower pendant and bracelet. Over her embroidered jeans, the outfit was fairly casual despite how feminine it was. She had paired it with her usual heeled white boots, meaning she would at least reach his shoulder in height. The perfect height for him to– She stomped on the thought and crushed it beneath her mental heel. She didn’t need that possibility in her head quite yet.

She left her room to find Dr. Kallie eating her breakfast in the dining nook. The older woman looked up at her as she sipped her coffee and looked her up and down, like a mother assessing her daughter’s outfit before school. “You look nice. Is today your day out with Cody?”

“It is. I’m taking him to that creamery in San Fransisco. Then I think to the roller skate rink in Santa Monica.”

“You’re wearing makeup.” A statement, not a question.

Pepper blushed. She hadn’t done her makeup in a long time, but some part of her wanted to see if Cody would get the hint if she dressed like it was a date. “I am.”

There was a moment of silence as Kallie drank her coffee and Pepper pulled a bottle of Bolthouse juice from the fridge. Then, as Pepper was drinking it, Kallie pipped back up. “Just remember your keys, because I’m not letting you in at three am if things go well.”

Pepper almost choked on her juice. She looked at Kallie, who made no attempt to make eye contact. Instead, the woman smiled to herself as she stood and left to her room. The younger woman stood there for a moment, amazed Kallie had it in her to say something like that. Then, she noticed the time. If she left now, she’d have just enough time to make it to Cody’s apartment before they were supposed to meet up.

Finishing her juice, she picked up her keys and wallet and headed out the door. The walk to Cody’s apartment was surprisingly short, even given how close the apartments in the Foundation’s complex were. She arrived two minutes early and took a few deep breaths, pacing outside his door. Then, at the designated time, she knocked on the door. Her hands began to tremble just the slightest, so she clasped them behind her back as she took a step back from the door.

God, she hoped this wasn’t a mistake.

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"Go, don't you go, won't you stay with me one more day? If we get through one more night – If we get through one more night."

Cody had been ready for an hour. He could tell, because the album had looped since he’d actually finished getting ready. And then gone halfway back through. He may have had it turned up a little louder than necessary, like he was trying to drown out the last of his doubts, which he was, but he really shouldn’t be thinking that. Confidence, Cody. It was almost as bad as going to talk to a Council member – and like he’d told Pepper all those years ago, the secret to that was just being yourself.

It wasn’t like Cody to be jumpy, or nervous. He’d alternated between sitting down with one leg bouncing and finding menial last minute things to take care of. He’d downed a RedBull, which was probably where the energy was coming from. He’d shaved off the shadow that came with a few days of research, combed his hair twice, checked his email just to be absolutely certain there was nothing to stress about on his day off – Isaac was handling communication with Jupiter, so that was off his plate, at least. Then tightening the wheels on the roller blades and checking the laces and maybe doing a quick lap around the hardwood parts of the apartment, just to make sure inexperience didn’t embarrass him in front of Pepper. He would’ve been fine without it, but he kept giving himself tasks anyway. He double checked he had a lace tightener and then put the skates in his bag so he’d stop fiddling with them.

Then it was adjusting his shirt, making sure he didn’t rumple his clothes, checking his hair, fixing his glasses. He almost decided not to bring 255, but on second thought, he did not want to incur Murphy’s Law that the one time he didn’t bring it, something would go horrifically wrong. Might as well have it, tucked into his shirt, rather than regret not bringing it.

The knock came. The music was loud enough that he might’ve missed it if he hadn’t been obsessively listening for the last ten minutes. He immediately paused the CD player, picked up his backpack, and turned off all but the main lights. It took an extra second, but he wanted to be ready when she was when he finally unlocked and opened up. That, and it would be weird for him to be on top of the door as soon as the knock came. Maybe make it sound like he’d been across the house finishing getting ready like a normal person who hadn’t been focused on this one appointment since he woke up this morning.

Without knowing a lot of what was in store for today, Cody had chosen tastefully faded denim jeans and a vintage red t-shirt with the cover of Dead Man’s Party printed on it, a collectible from one of the band’s last tours and a gift from Isaac. His shoes were ruby red converse, worn but not battered, and over the collectible shirt, he had a vintage aviator’s jacket, real leather with real fur around the collar. That had been Grandpa Redd’s, and Cody only wore it either when he planned for a special occasion, or for it being too cold for his Arizona-raised internal temperature. To hide the chain for 255, he had a black bandanna tied around his neck, and he’d managed to dig up an old black cowboy hat he’d had for the sun, to keep his hair off his face – a little faded, but he’d dusted it off twice since he’d found it, and it had a feather on the side, which gave it an air of half-formality beyond ‘yeehaw’. The combination would also help hide his face once they were in the Dark Dimension.

He’d gone for ‘casual, with a vintage flavor, but comfortable enough for any activity’. And powers that be, did he suddenly feel underdressed when he opened the door.

He was smiling with the old backpack over one shoulder. The lace shirt and embroidered jeans, the gold jewelry, and – had he ever seen Pepper wearing makeup? His eyes lingered on her face from behind his glasses, before he realized he was staring. He forced his smile to relax into something halfway lopsided, more himself, and he pushed his hair back off his face. Normal, Cody. You can be normal.

"Hey, Pepper," he said, without the nerves he suddenly felt in his chest reaching his throat, "you look really good. I like your blouse."

He did at least know the correct word for a woman’s shirt, at least a formal one. He should’ve worn a polo or something, at least gone collared, but he didn’t even know if he had a collared shirt that’d still be comfortable to skate in.

Oh, right, staring. No staring. Eye contact.

"You ready to go?" Wait – no, shit, she was picking him up. Obviously she was ready to go. Damn it. He laughed that off. "I mean, I’m ready to go."
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She knew the moment he opened the door that today was going to be hard. Cody wasn’t dressed in his usual ensemble. Rather, he was dressed in a way that Pepper had definitely never seen him dress before, and her brain did a short reboot. Was he wearing a cowboy hat? He was. He was wearing a fucking cowboy hat. Her country-loving self giggled a little internally at how it fit him. Everything he was wearing, in fact, looked like it was made for him. He was devastating.

Then she caught him staring at her face, and a flood of self-consciousness flowed through her. Was the makeup a mistake? Did he not like it? Oh god, was she too dressed up? She had tried to go for casual, but maybe she hadn’t been as casual as she had initially thought.

“Hi, Cody. Thank you, I haven’t had a chance to really wear it before.” That was good. Really normal and casual, Now just leave it at that and– “You look really good. I love your hat. Is that a… Oingo Boingo shirt, was it?”

Well, of all the things she could have said, that was probably the least obvious. Good job, Pepper, for not sticking your foot in your mouth. She adjusted her floral bag and pulled out an object from the top of it. She pulled out a set of nighttime goggles. “I figured you might like to see things, as this is your first time coming through with me. I borrowed these from the lab. Don’t worry, I submitted all the proper documents for it. Ice cream or skating first?”

She blushed a little when he held her eyes. Once again, she was struck by how pretty his eyes were. They had such distinct rings of colors in them, meanwhile her own were just glassy green all the way through. She looked down as her blush grew and offered the goggles to him before turning and taking in a shaky breath. She opened her doorway and looked back at him. “I should warn you now– we’re definitely going to be greeted.”

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He touched the brim of his hat in a joking ‘howdy’ gesture when she mentioned it, then looked down at his shirt. "It is! Dead Man’s Party. I don’t know how Isaac found it."

His eyes did light up when he saw the goggles, and he took them with a nod of thanks. He even laughed when she mentioned paperwork. Powers, he didn’t want to think about paperwork. He didn’t want to schedule, either. Of course the manager part of his brain rationalized that ice cream would be best after skating, because unless they were skating in the Southern Hemisphere this time of year it was going to be hotter than ACF-8192. But he also knew that this was the kind of situation where Pepper was probably asking to be polite, and he didn’t want to push her, because he had a feeling she already had a plan.

"You’re the boss!" His eyes remained on hers. They were such a different green from Isaac’s – bigger, rounder, more vibrant. They really suited her, and for someone who didn’t have much excuse for makeup, she really had managed to bring them out. Still, no need to make it awkward. "I am leaving my manager pass at home. You lead, I’ll follow wherever."

He held his hat under one arm as he slid the goggles onto his forehead. He was smart enough to wait until they were out of the Foundation fluorescents before trying to see through them. While he spoke, he pulled his bandanna up to the bridge of his nose, and tucked the bottom into his shirt. It was good enough for Arizona dust and dry heat, it was good enough to hide his face from the Denizens. Then, with a small adjustment to the goggles so they were out of the way, he put the hat back on.

He looked out into the dark as the portal opened. He felt like he should’ve been nervous, but – no. He’d spent too much time being nervous. Now he needed to relax, and do as he’d promised: follow her. Trust her. His smile brightened, as he actually lowered the goggles, then blindly offered her an arm.

"I think I can handle a little greeting, as long as you’re there with me."

The words slipped out, and he was really glad the bandanna-goggles combo was there to hide the blush. He couldn’t even see her reaction properly. Good job, Cody, very normal comment. Normal date comment!

But she didn’t know he knew it was a date! She hadn’t even told him yet! He was going to try to leave it to her to announce when it was a date! Now he was just being weird!

Powers. He was glad she couldn’t see the confusion and humiliation on his face.

“Well, wherever he found it, it looks good on you.” She blushed a little darker and kept her face pointed ahead at the doorway. She felt some of her tension ease when Cody made a joke in response to her question about what he wanted first. She waited for him to get the goggles in place, then turned to say something that was quickly forgotten when she saw his outstretched arm. She tried to suppress any nervous shaking as she slid her arm into his, wrapping her hand around his forearm. “Roller skating first then. I know this place in Venice Beach, it’s really fun.

God, it was hot for August, wasn’t it?

For the first time in a long time, Pepper felt a little unsure about leading someone into the Dark Dimension. It had been years since anything bad had happened– back when she had taken Laine through, to be precise– but she still felt unsure. They had nothing if one of the more hostile denizens rolled up on them. But that hadn’t happened since Dr. Hillary. It was unlikely to happen now. They just had to stick to the Path and it would be fine, like it always was.

He said something in response to her saying they would likely be greeted that made her cheeks burn. Surely, he hadn’t meant it the way it had sounded, but that didn’t stop Pepper’s heart from doing a little flutter. With that, she chose to not respond and just start walking. As usual, the portal had opened to about a foot higher than Pepper’s head naturally landed, meaning Cody would likely have to duck his head as they went through. Once inside, she swallowed down her flustered nerves and started talking. “I’ve uh, never really listened to Oingo Boingo much. I really like new wave, so they end up on playlists I listen to. I think the first song I ever heard by them was Weird Science. I used to watch the movie when I was a kid. I really like movies.”

Pepper bit her tongue to stop herself. She hadn’t rambled in years, she wasn’t going to start now. It was clearly a sign of nerves. Thankfully, she didn’t have to worry about it for too long, as the sound of wings filled the air. Mikulass was early.

“Here they come. Don’t worry, I promise no one will hurt you. I won’t let them.” The words came out a little fiercer than she had meant for them to. She almost winced as she realized how that could come off, but chose to just blink away her embarrassment. “Uh, Mikulass has been working on his English, so he’ll probably speak that when he stops.”

Ahead of them on the Path, she saw Mikulass and his sons touch down. His boys were almost two feet tall now, nearly big enough to be on their own, as their father had explained. She wondered if they would leave entirely, or if that just meant they would leave the next of Mikulass and his wife. Mikulass himself was nearly six feet in height, which meant the boys had a lot of growing to do. Pepper frowned and looked around. It was only Mikulass and the twins.

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Cody tried to remember where Venice Beach was, but knowing the areas Pepper frequented help. California, huh? Good. If it was hot, at least it wouldn’t be humid.

"I have also been known to enjoy a movie now and again," he teased, as she caught herself rambling. It was a reminder, without him having to be more than just Cody, that she could be herself around him. Nerves or not, he really did want to know what other movies she liked.

But this probably wasn’t the time or place for it. Cody blinked into the dark of the dimension as he ducked through with her, and peered out at the landscape. It matched most descriptions in the green-tinted light of the night vision goggles. The research questions he’d normally have faded away, however. He remembered in the reports from Dr. Neves he’d reviewed yesterday that the world hated. Nobody knew why. Maybe Ira would know. He’d have to remember to ask.

He also remembered what the reports had said about singing, and he started to softly hum the upbeat tune of Weird Science, because Pepper might recognize that.

For some reason, Cody wasn’t afraid to walk in the Dark Dimension. Maybe it was his natural, boyish optimism, or maybe it was the knowledge that he knew both Ira and Pepper, and through them, its two primary deities. Maybe he took comfort in both of them that he probably didn’t deserve. Or maybe he was just too happy right now to be afraid.

He heard the wings, too, and his eyes turned skyward to the descending darknesses that made up Mikulass and what Cody had to assume were his children – Sofwyn and Tarwyn, he was pretty sure, twin males of the species. He stopped where he was, not because he didn’t trust Pepper, but because he recognized that there were protocols and traditions in worlds like this, and he didn’t know any of them. Mikulass was also Pepper’s high priest, which made him an important figure in her life.

With that in mind, Cody squeezed her arm, as a reassurance, and let go. It wouldn’t be right for the Heraldess to come holding the arm of some commoner from the dreaming world.

Was it really that easy to associate the two dimensions?

He decided not to mention it. Mikulass would definitely dislike it if he knew Cody consorted readily with the Goddess who hated them, and –

Only now did it cross his mind that Ira might be able to get these memories from him, down the line. Damn it. He should’ve mentioned it to Pepper, but he also didn’t want to do that now, because it seemed like a bad time with the six foot tall shadow bird in the middle of what Cody had to assume was the right path.

Pepper did, in fact, recognize that song. She had to suppress her smile, but she couldn’t suppress the sound of happiness in her voice as she called out to the cultist’s priest. “Hello, Mikulass! Sofwyn, Tarwyn!”

There was a soft choir of singing and chirping from the two boys. Then their father spoke up. "A thousand greetings Heraldess of the Dead God, we are blessed by the presence of your steps. We have come to congratulate you on your, ah, do not know the word in the language of the Goddess.”

Mikulass did announce this in English. He spread his wings wide as he did so, and both of his boys did the same. Pepper had come to understand the motion as their equivalent of bowing, as their legs didn’t bend in the direction necessary for that action. She felt her face light up a bit more as she realized with dread where this might be headed. Mikulass could feel everything she felt, after all.

“Mikulass, I’ve brought a very close friend of mine this time. This is Cody.”

The shadow bird’s head tilted to the side as he took in this information. Then it tilted the other way. He tittered a bit before responding. “Friend? Friend. If that is the word of the Goddess, then we congratulate you on it. You have found a suitable egg host, and this is pleasing to us.”

The amount of warmth pouring off Pepper’s face would be noticeable even on the night goggles, she thought. Egg host? Hopefully, that did not mean what she thought it meant, but judging by what she knew of their culture, she was afraid it meant exactly what it sounded like. God, it had taken Mikulass all of two seconds to pin her down and figure it out. But of course, it did, he could feel everything they felt. She quickly covered her face was a soft gasp, trying to hide the way her face was so bright. Humiliation? That wasn’t nearly a strong enough word to describe what she felt as he continued.

“Tell us, friend, will you sit on the eggs for three weeks or five? This is a debate we are currently having.”

Pepper looked up at Cody with eyes that screamed I’m sorry for this. Maybe he would just laugh it off. God she hoped he would laugh it off. Maybe he hadn’t read the reports about how they communicate with emotions on the air.

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Point one to Cody for remembering the names of the Priest and his sons. Cody decided he enjoyed the sound of their voices as they sang their greeting, and then Mikulass spoke up.

And really, in a world where emotions carried like gasses, there was only one thing that he’d congratulate Pepper on, and Cody did laugh despite himself. It was his favorite way to handle stress, after all. There were much worse ways.

At Pepper’s introduction, he stepped forward. Under the makeshift disguise getup, he was beaming, and also as red as Pepper was. But just as Mikulass and the boys had spread their wings, Cody stretched out his arms and offered an exaggerated bow in return. At least Mikulass thought he was a suitable egg host, unlike Ira, who had her doubts about how suitable Pepper was for him.

Knowing that English was the language of the Goddess, and Ira was the Goddess, he didn’t have much trouble putting the linguistic pattern together. He may or may not have rehearsed for something like this as soon as it crossed his mind that Pepper was going to – well, maybe literally run-him-by Mikulass.

"A thousand greetings, Mikulass, high priest of the Dead God, and to Sofwyn and Tarwyn, sons of Mikulass. I am overjoyed that the Heraldess would bring my steps to you."

And he was happy. Maybe just a little embarrassed to be called out publicly by one of Pepper’s oldest friends, and to be called her ‘close friend,’ but then again he had told Ira that she wasn’t his girlfriend, so that just made them even. There was still a touch of anxiety that wasn’t just relationship issues, but it was overwritten by the happiness of the moment, as well as his amusement at the situation overall. It took just a little bit more than asking how long Cody planned to brood for Pepper to make him embarrassed, especially when it came to anomalous – well, extradimensional – entities. After all, an intelligent bird in the Foundation’s world would likely have the same questions, if he came to the same conclusion.

He wouldn’t be surprised, either. Everybody except Cody seemed to be able to make that conclusion without help.

"As the Heraldess and I are made, there is no brooding for our families," Cody explained, already aware that this would probably embarrass Pepper but not nearly as much as addressing Mikulass’s equivalent of Ira’s not-wife comment. This had not been something he could rehearse, but it was science, which was a little easier. "Children of our kind are born naked, without eggs, but like eggs they do require constant care. Both parents are expected to help guide our children as they grow – and I couldn’t think of a better mother than the Heraldess would be. I only hope I am a more suitable father than mine was."

The last part was a slip, and he stopped himself before he could let that get away with him. The facial getup still hid the heat of his face, which was good, even if he could tell Pepper was humiliated. He managed to keep his tone professional, despite the subject; it was just science, after all, even if theoretically it was social science and also not his department. He looked at Pepper, face unreadable, but hoping she would give some kind of support or maybe even excuse them. He was glad she couldn’t see the soft look on his face.

He was trying desperately to move at her pace, after all. He couldn’t help how fast he was falling now that he knew.
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Pepper still had her hands to her cheeks, as though she couldn’t bear to have Cody see how embarrassed they were. And then he had to go and describe how children were born, and then he had to say he couldn’t think of a better mother than her. Was that a normal thing you said about your friend? At least he had laughed at the whole situation. She tilted her head slightly at his comment about his father. As far as Pepper could remember… he had never spoken about his family before.

“Fascinating. Your people are very strange! Could not imagine, no eggs! Then I wish you the best of luck with your future progeny.”

“That’s enough of that.” Her voice cracked ever so slightly as she said that word “enough”. She cleared her throat and grabbed Cody’s jacket sleeve, leading him around Mikulass. “Mikulass, it was as lovely to see you and your sons as ever. Say hi to your family. We have places to be today. We’ll likely be through a few more times. Please convey that we don’t wish to be disturbed, if possible”

“As you wish, Heraldess. Blessed may your steps be, and that of your consort.”

A small squeaky gasp escaped her lips and she pulled even harder on Cody’s sleeve as she determinedly walked forward. Behind them, the sound of wings flapping took to the air, and soon, silence had fallen over them again. Pepper allowed herself to slow down, and then she turned to Cody. “I am… so sorry. I don’t know why Mikulass said all of that. He’s never done anything like that before.”

Although still fairly pink, her face had cooled off enough to look up at his face, hidden as it was by the goggles and the bandana. She could just imagine the humor that must be hiding behind them or maybe equal embarrassment? She wished she could see his eyes to tell, but she had given him the goggles for a reason. The wasteland that was the “sphere that hates” was an important intersecting point of Ira and Pepper’s lives. She almost brought it up but then frowned slightly. Maybe saying Ira’s name in a world where she was only called “the Goddess” wasn’t a smart idea. That conversation could wait until they were outside, she thought as she walked.

“You think I’d be a good mother?” The words slipped out before she could even process she was asking them. Her shoulders went a little stiff at the words, and she looked down at the glowing ground beneath their feet. God, why did she have to ask these questions without thinking? What was it about Cody that made her just talk?

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Mikulass had diverted his attention to the topic of eggless families, which had been exactly what Cody had hoped for in his conversation. It was nice to let Pepper take the lead again, though, and as the priest and his sons flew off, Cody gave them a big wave over his shoulder.


He laughed a little bit, because that was the reasonable Cody response and also because, wow, that was actually the word Ira would’ve used if she’d known it, and he wasn’t even a herald or anything. Interesting as it was that Mikulass’s English really was the language of the Goddess, more important was Pepper’s response. Even without the ability to hear her emotions on the airwaves, her embarrassment was palpable.

Ok, Cody, play it cool. Maybe even play it off. Ira’s world wasn’t exactly the best place to start an emotional confession.

"I mean, why would godbait say it, right?" He decided on the fly to use the nickname the Locusts had given her – something about Strings’s lessons about Names had actually stuck, although he wasn’t about to tell Pepper all that. There was still amusement in his voice, or happiness that could be interpreted as amusement. Without even thinking, he reached out to the side and put an arm around her shoulder. "And, hey, I’ve seen the way you handle her. You’re kind and patient. You try to understand her, and you actually managed to show her the right end of a needle. If you can convince that kid to like you, how much more – your own, right?"

He stumbled there, a little audible twitch as he was about to say the wrong thing and that would’ve been disastrous if taken the wrong way. He let go of her shoulder before she got the idea he was trying to push things too far too fast, and casually slid his hands into his pockets, although his elbow was still available for her to take, if she decided she wanted that. Baby steps.
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Cody’s arm settled over her shoulder, and Pepper’s blush became less embarrassed and more warm and fuzzy. He really thought she’d be a good mother. That meant so much more to her than she could ever hope to convey. Pepper had always wanted to have kids, but she had no idea how she would be as a parent. The only things she really knew were science and experiments and a lab. Dr. Kallie had always tried hard to be a maternal force in her life after her parents had died, but there was only so much the ACF allowed her to do when Pepper was particularly young. They had gotten more freedom the older she had gotten, and that was when Dr. Kallie had confessed how much she thought of Pepper as her own. But a child? And raising them? Pepper wasn’t so sure.

So it meant everything to her that Cody was sure. Cody was sure of her being a good mother.

Too soon, he withdrew his arm. He left his elbow out for her, though, so she slipped her arm in and reclaimed his. That fuzzy feeling in her chest didn’t fade. As they walked, it grew a bit quiet, and she looked up at him. Maybe now was the time to tell him? Or at least confess it was a date, in her mind. Either one of the options could work. But then, the thought of her never aging circled back through her mind. Was it fair to him? To saddle him with the love of someone who wouldn’t die? Maybe what could be was enough to offset the inevitable heartbreak they would both experience.

“Cody. I want to tell you, uhm.” She stopped. She couldn’t do it yet. Now wasn’t the right time, obviously, and that was the reason why. It wasn’t because her throat had suddenly seized. It wasn’t because of the tight squeeze around her heart. No, none of those things would have affected her telling him, surely. She scrambled to come up with something to cover it up. She looked ahead of them and saw the gateway. “Oh, look! We’re here!”

A very collected save. Surely he wouldn’t have noticed how she was about to confess to him. After all, he hadn’t noticed her adoration for him in the last four years. There was nothing to indicate he knew it now.

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Her relaxation under his arm was a relief. He hadn’t made it weird – that was what she’d wanted, but he still needed the confirmation as she pulled herself back in close next to him. As she came a breath away from saying what he’d hoped she’d say, so he could stop pretending to ignore it. He didn’t know why he needed the confirmation, but he needed her to tell him. He had a feeling he knew why he needed her to say the words – but that wasn’t her problem. And he wanted that as far from his mind as possible today.

She looked up at him, and he felt it on the tip of her tongue. He stayed quiet as she came close, but she didn’t yet, and he let her be. The doorway was right ahead. He could see it ahead, bright and clear and open, although with the goggles on seeing through it was hard. He felt her, though, felt the pull of her arm and the closeness of her body. She was keeping him grounded, in multiple senses. He liked that feeling.

"I’m not sure if I can see it all that well," he said, with a smile in his voice. "The light’s causing a glare thing with these goggles. I think you’ll have to pull me through to make sure I don’t bonk my head on nonreality or something."

Sure, he could take the goggles off, but firstly the whole “don’t show your face” thing was still in place until they were through, and second, this was… better. It felt right, and Cody trusted his instincts. Who knew? Maybe she’d be better at taking a hint than he was.
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Pepper bit her lower lip and nodded. “Yeah, I uhm, I can do that. Just, uhm, yeah.” Only a few more steps and they reached the portal. She stopped him and took the last step through. She cleared her throat and looked up at him on the other side of the opening. She lifted her hands, shaking slightly, as she tried to decide how best to go about this. The easiest way that she could think would be to reach up and give him a hug, pulling him down and through. Unfortunately, she would not be doing that. That would require them being chest to chest, and she didn’t think she could bear that kind of closeness right then.

Instead, she opted to get on her tiptoes in her platform heels and wrap her fingers behind his neck, lacing them together as she very gently pulled his head down and through. “Okay, duck your head through here…”

It brought them face to face, and she felt her face flush as she realized how close their faces actually were. Her fingers shook a little more as she dropped one hand to his, gently taking it in hers and pulling it toward her. “Now just step through right here- lift your feet up a few inches.”

Oh, this was much worse. Not only were they face to face like this, but now she had pulled him almost flush against her. At least if she had hugged him, he wouldn't potentially be able to see her face with all its redness. Pepper couldn’t remember another time when she had blushed so much.

Then a thought occurred to her– he could have just pushed the goggles up. Having his eyes exposed would have been fine as long as his mouth had stayed covered. Was this… intentional? But that would imply he knew. That would imply Cody knew how she felt and had just orchestrated a moment where they had a physical closeness in a way that left her feeling weak in the knees. Was that what was happening? She had no idea. So she let go of his neck and his hand and backed up a foot as soon as he was out of the doorway.

“Th-there we go. All good now. Uhm. Right.” She turned away and stared out of the back alley she had brought them to. The direction she was looking had loud music playing– new wave, maybe? It sounded like Duran Duran to Pepper. An entirely different song was playing in her head at that moment, however, and she found herself looking over her shoulder at Cody, a slightly confused look on her face.

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It took her a second to figure out what exactly she was going to do, but Pepper didn’t disappoint the way Cody probably had for actual years. He didn’t meditate on his own stupidity now, though. He was a breath away – an actual breath. She was a shadow across the hazy glow of the goggles, and he blindly let him guide her.

There was a second. A second that could’ve been the perfect moment, if he let it be. He might have leaned just a little closer than he needed to, almost carried away by the moment –

The bandanna was in the way. The mother[EXPLETIVE]ing bandanna was in the way of – what? Making a fool of himself? Probably, but he’d never had a problem playing the fool before. He hid his huff of frustration behind a chuckle, blending the two smoothly as her shadow stepped away from him.

"Thanks." He picked up his cowboy hat to pull the goggles free, then put his glasses back on while squinting in the sunlight. The weather was fantastic – just cool enough that his coat wasn’t too much. He took a deep breath of dry California air. When was the last time he’d been outside this far from 14?

Too long, he decided, without focusing on that. One hand ran through auburn hair, followed by the other returning the cowboy hat to the right position. He pulled the bandanna down once he felt like the red in his own face had faded, although his smile stayed. It’d be weirder if he’d gotten rid of it, and he’d been weird enough as it was.

Rio by Duran Duran blared from the main street, which really fit. He didn’t let himself get caught staring, though. He dusted off the jacket, fixed the fold of the bandanna, and then slipped the goggles into his backpack. Skating first. He pulled the blades out, hung them over his shoulder, and then offered his arm again.

"I’m following your lead, remember? Lead the way, boss."
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Pepper was staring. She knew she was, but she really couldn’t help it. She found Cody to be so damn beautiful. The way he moved was fluid and clean, the way he smiled and it always reached his eyes, and the way he chuckled under his breath. He was chuckling. Was he laughing at her? Or was he laughing for some other reason? She waited until he was ready, skated out and dangled over his shoulder before she took his arm and led them onward.

Santas Monica was a beautiful place. It was one of Pepper’s three favorite cities in the entire world, in fact. The other two were Tokyo and Paris, both of which she hoped to bring Cody to in the future. Venice Beach, in particular, was a blinding and dazzling place full of color and laughter, and music. Specifically, 80’s New Wave music. There was a skating team that always practiced there and they always had a stereo, and they always played New Wave. They passed by the class for newbies that Michelle hosted– who saw them and waved at her– and eventually ended up in a long row of old red lockers. They had a variety of locks on them, and Pepper produced a key from her purse, attached to a pastel purple leather strap, and opened one of the lockers.

“This is my locker. I come here so often that I rent it. I really love roller skating.” She sat down on the bench across from the lockers and started taking her boots off. When she had those off, she stood and put them in the locker upright, leaving enough room for Cody’s to go next to hers.

At that moment, she shrank a total of five inches. She was suddenly barely up to Cody’s shoulder as she stood and passed him. She tried not to be quite so embarrassed by their sudden height difference, but she still flushed. Pepper had been thrown around by smaller people than Cody before. She remembered the time with Charlie when he had saved her from being hit by a car by picking her up around her waist and throwing her onto the sidewalk And Charlie was only five foot six and looked like he pushed pencils into a sharpener for a living. .

She reached into her bag and she pulled out her skates. They had been a pretty penny to buy from the Etsy dealer who made them, but that was worth it in Pepper’s mind. They were an investment item, a pair she’d have forever. Well, maybe not forever now that she was going to live forever, but a very long time. A lifetime, she decided on. A lifetime. Could Cody be a lifetime? She got them on her feet and tightened the laces until they were snug enough that she thought her circulation might cut off, then took her bag and put it in the locker, taking the key out.

“Ready to show me what you got, you big nerd?” She gave him a sideways smile that spoke of levels of mischief.

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As promised, Cody followed Pepper’s lead across the skate park. While he’d already decided he liked this place because Pepper had brought him along to enjoy it, one look around told him it was the kind of place he’d enjoy for his own sake, too. Vastly different from the downtown parks he’d grown up with: open, free of graffiti, and full of loosely organized life. Plus, great taste in music. He felt just a little bit out of place with his beat up black inlines and mix-colored wheels.

Then she mentioned how much she loved this place, and he was reminded that she wouldn’t have brought him if she didn’t think he’d like it, too. And he did like it. He waved back to the gal who waved at them. He forced himself to stop overthinking and focus on– well, no. Just stop thinking. No need to focus on anything. Let Pepper grab his attention now and again, especially when she spoke. Even more when she lost the boots. He’d never quite realized just how small Pepper was without them. It didn’t change anything, although he realized in retrospect that he half felt like it should’ve. If anything, that made this feel a little bit less like a date, more like – well, just being themselves.

He plopped down next to her and unlaced his Converse while visibly admiring hers, but maintaining the comfortable silence of focus. He put the roller blades on and used the tightener he’d brought to bring them to a comfortable constriction. He stood carefully, taking a knee first and then finding his way to his feet, and then his own streak of mischief cropped up. He wobbled a little, being just off enough on his balance, as he set his shoes next to hers. After a moment’s consideration, he also shed Grandpa Redd’s jacket, folded it in half, and put it in over the Chucks.

He backed up and used the next row of lockers for balance while Pepper re-locked it. The moment he let go, he started to roll backwards, posture just off enough to be noticeable. His smile might’ve betrayed his intentions, as well as the slight laugh under his voice.

"Sure, if you think you can keep up."

He made an exaggerated ‘ladies first’ gesture.

"I’ll even give you a head start."
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Oh, you want to race me? You sure about that?” Her eyes lit up as she balanced in her skates, clearly at ease in them. She watched Cody wobble and smiled big and bright, with just a faint trace of a blush on her face. The blush was back to the normal one she had around Cody, the one from how joyous being around him made her. That, she could handle. She could handle them being dorks together, being themselves. She tilted her head a little further up than usual to give him a look.

The look said catch me if you can.

She took off, quick and efficient working herself up to speed and weaving between the crowd as a new song began by the skate class. She knew this one too, and as she weaved through the street and into the open plaza, she began to twirl and spin, her arms moving as she danced. She turned back to look at Cody, assuming he caught up to her and made a face at him as she danced, daring him to dance along with her.

This, this was what she wanted. She wanted this, all the time. She just wanted it to be a little… more. Not a lot more, because it was already almost so perfect. She just wanted his hand in hers while they danced in their skates, his arm around her while they walked, to be able to give him a long hug and show him how much he meant to her. Surely, there couldn't be anything wrong with that. It was while she was thinking that her expression grew tender and she mouthed a few words. Her eyes widened slightly as she did, and she hoped desperately that reading lips wasn’t one of his hidden talents, before turning away and racing away in a perfect arc.

“God, I love you.”

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She took his challenge with the gusto he’d anticipated. He’d make himself ten times more the fool just to see her smile like that again.

When he was younger, Cody had exclusively skated for speed. After the first few attempts at trick skating he’d stuck to what he was good at. Aside from the occasional sharp pivot that would put most people on the ground, which could be (and had often been) adapted into a jack-knife spin, he didn’t do that well when it came to anything but straight lines and weaves. But those lines and weaves were hockey-worthy. And, he could do them backwards.

He didn’t stop rolling back after she took off. Once he was sure of her direction, he slid into the first push, and then he was off, too, and picking up speed fast. Despite his incorrect directionals, he caught people in his periphery just in time to avoid them with a little space to spare. It did take longer than he’d originally expected to catch up, given their height difference, but he wasn’t putting his all into it just yet. Once he rolled up beside her, she made a face, and he did a Michael Jackson spin, complete with hat hold, and a few more long skates back to imitate a moonwalk. It was only because of that that he saw the word form on her lips.


He nearly skated off the path, but turned it into another less graceful spin with a quick apology to the couple he’d almost hit. That definitely gave her the lead, and he struggled a little bit to pick back up as he caught his emotions. If she looked back, she’d see how red he’d turned, but she’d also see the flash of a white grin. His feet caught the rhythm again by force of will, and he kicked it into second gear.

Cody would be at her side in a second along the arc, only once letting another skater come between them before he reached out to take her hand. If she let him, he’d pull her into a guided twirl. He’d have to use his whole body to do it, for leverage. Trick skating wasn’t really his thing. But he would manage, if she let him, and then as he began to pick up speed – backwards, sideways, however she had it – she’d be pulled along with him as he mouthed the words of the song back to her, practically glowing with happiness.
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He caught up to her. Boy, he was fast. He might not have the grace she did, but they could work on that. She figured he must have done some kind of sport, maybe even ice hockey, before. She already knew he was sporty, had seen him play basketball after all, which was why she had been fine with this as their main activity. She knew he would be able to handle it. What she wasn’t ready for was him taking her hand and spinning her around, which she allowed happily. She laughed and smiled as he started to mouth the words of the David Bowie song to her.

He kept her hand in his and pulled her along behind him. That, she loved. It made her heart flutter to see the incredibly bright smile on his face. Then, her smile faltered for a second. She had never seen him smile like that. Why was he smiling like that? Like he– like he liked her? Her pulse was thundering in her ears, and she couldn’t help the suddenly different look on her face. It was full of hope and adoration. She looked like she had seen the stars for the first time, or maybe like she had met a god who had been benevolent for once. She looked so awestruck that words couldn’t quite describe it.

She had to tell him.

After they stopped, she had to tell him.

Even the thought of that made her hands begin to shake in his again, and she felt weak at the knees. But she could be brave. She had to be brave. Because if she wasn’t, then this could pass her by. And looking at that smile, she knew nothing would break her heart more. But it wasn’t time yet. Not yet. For now, she could enjoy dancing in her skates with one of the most amazing men she had ever met. She could think about all the things this meant they could do together in the future.

They could have a future. It seemed like he wanted that. She knew she did. And those two facts alone made her face light up in a new kind of way. She sped up and grabbed his other hand, pulling them in circles through the middle of the plaza, if he let her.

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Cody didn’t know how to the feeling in his chest when she let him take her hand, when her eyes met his and they were so full of ecstasy. He felt light, but not hollow, happy in a way so unrefined that it would never be suffocating. Even the exertion of skating seemed to fade away, leaving only the smooth feeling of movement and the softness of her hand in his.

The softness, and the shaking.

His smile faltered. Had he done something wrong? Was he skating too fast? Was he going too fast? Had he misread her, somehow?

No. There was no way, looking into her eyes, that he’d made her anything but happy. He let himself breathe again, let himself smile. Whatever it was, it wasn’t him. Or if it was him, it wasn’t a bad thing.

He let her have the lead. It took a second to relax again, but that was easier if he left it in her hands. She was a way better dancer anyway – it was easier to match her by following, rather than trying to lead. Of course, he was doing less matching her moves, more “slowing down to her speed with longing stares”, but it was close enough, right?

Everything became a blur except for her. Even the music faded into the background, the other skaters just people who existed on the edges of his vision. Once she’d said it, he couldn’t stop thinking it. He loved her. He loved her, and he’d fall apart if she hadn’t meant it when she’d said it first. He’d take on anything for her, anything in this world or any other, and he’d do so with the same idiot smile he felt himself wearing now.

Eventually, time started to happen again. The world spun them toward the edge of the plaza, and they drifted to a rest. The moment he had a breath in his lungs, he wanted to tell her everything he’d felt. Only one thing came out, though. The most understated summary in history.

"That was incredible."

There were stars in his eyes, and his jaw hurt from smiling, but he spoke anyway. His breath was still shallow now that they’d stopped, and he’d broken out into a light sweat from the exertion, but he needed to get that out before Reason came back and chided him for being a moron.
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