Chapter 25 Edits

Pepper couldn't think of a thing to say to her. He had about a thousand new questions to ask now, but he didn't want to. He realized that maybe the reason she didn't want to talk about her life is because it made her so sad. And now, on top of everything, he was filled with all of these weird feelings. He looked at Pinkie, with her tear-stained cheeks and her blond pigtails, which now seemed to be sagging as if deflated of the lively bounce they usually had.

She seemed so happy when they had first met. He never would have guessed that she held all of this pain inside. Of course, he only met her three days ago, and he knew there was loads about her he still didn't know, but he already felt as though he was involved, now. There was no turning back. He'd pushed and pushed and pushed to know what was going on, and now that he knew part of the story, he had become part of it. Without even realizing that would be a consequence. You don't just watch someone expend that amount of emotion and then say, "Okay, well, I've got to go prune my garden, but it was nice talking to you!" There is a very strict protocol for this type of thing, Pepper knew, and it involved sticking around.

Pulling himself out of his thoughts for a moment, Pepper realized they were standing in front of the door to the vet.

"Whoa, how did we get here?" He asked.

"We walked," Pinkie said. She pushed the button, the door whooshed open, and they were on another elevator going up. When the doors opened a second time, they were staring into the empty waiting room. The two kids entered the room and sat down, figuring Vanessa was probably inside with Smithhugh. Neither of them were entirely sure how long they'd been gone.

"Thank you, by the way," Pinkie said out of nowhere.

"For what?" Pepper asked, even though he had a vague idea.

"For listening to me," she said. "I've never actually told anyone the story before. Everyone here already knew without having to be told, and no one else has ever asked. So I never had to go through it all and say it out loud." She was sitting with her knees together and her hands resting in her lap. Her fingers were twirling around each other, as if fidgeting with them was just as good as looking Pepper in the eye.

"You're welcome," Pepper said uncertainly.

"No, really, I mean it...I think I needed to say it aloud. To really realize that it happened. That it's happening. To help me regain my focus."

"Is that what you asked Mr. Morggison, then? To help you find your mother?"

"No."

"Oh." He had been so sure he had figured it out. It seemed so obvious, and that would have been another part of the mystery solved. But perhaps it was too much to hope for more than one piece of the puzzle to come together so quickly.

A door opened, and Pinkie and Pepper looked up to see Vanessa emerge, holding a bundled up Smithhugh in her arms. Pepper couldn't know for sure, but it looked as if she had been crying as well.

"Hey, guys," she said quietly, walking up to join them. "Did you have fun painting the town red?"

Pepper glanced at Pinkie, and they exchanged a look. "Yeah," Pinkie said, and revealed nothing else.

"Well," Vanessa said, "Let's get the hell out of here."

Pinkie and Pepper stood up and followed her out the door and onto the elevator again.

On the way down, Pinkie asked, "Did they figure out what's wrong with Smithhugh?"

Vanessa nodded.

"Is...is he going to be okay?" Pinkie asked, reaching her crooked fingers up to Smithhugh's blanket, and pulling it aside slightly so she could peer in at him.

Biting her lip, Vanessa shook her head. "No."

Pinkie dropped her hand, and Pepper could see her lower lip quiver. He'd just about had enough of seeing sadness on that face.

"What's wrong with him?" Pinkie asked.

"It's incurable," Vanessa said. "He's got a lesion that's killing him, long story short." She was stroking the mullow lovingly as she spoke. "We'll have to...we'll have to keep him away from the other mullows. It's transferable, and could wipe them all out if I'm not careful."

Pepper thought he heard a slight quaver in her voice. "Is there anything at all to be done?" he asked.

"The vet gave me some medication to help with the pain. That's about it."

They fell silent. The rest of the ride and walk home, nobody said another word.

Chapter 24 Edits

Pepper opened The book right in the middle this time, not even bothering to flip pages. It just felt right, where his fingers landed on the pages, to open it there.

Nothing.

"It's not working!" he shouted at Pinkie.

"Well, don't look at me! It's your book."

"Can YOU see anything?" He asked, holding the open book up to her.

She looked at it, and he thought he saw something flash in her eyes, but then it was gone almost as soon as he'd spied it. "No," she said.

"Well, maybe if I turn some pages-" but he stopped. Words were forming on the page. He'd never seen The book print anything actually readable before! He watched with intense curiosity as they swirled slowly across the page. When they had finished, Pepper read aloud, "The Will of the Princess."

He looked up at Pinkie. "Any idea what THAT means?"

"Not really," she said. "Sounds like the name of a story or something, but I've never heard of it."

Pepper shoved The book in her hands. "Here, you find your part," he said.

"It doesn't work that way," Pinkie protested. "Every time you've read the book with someone, you've been holding it when they read their part."

"Okay," Pepper said reluctantly, taking The book back from her. "Tell me when you see something." He propped The book up on his knee so she could see it, and began turning pages.

Flip. Flip. Flip.

"Anything?"

"Nope."

More flipping. Ten or so more pages.

"Now?"

"Still nothing."

He sighed and continued turning pages, occasionally stopping to ask if she saw anything. When they'd made it through the entire book and failed to find anything Pinkie could read from it, Pepper closed it and set it on the floor next to him. He couldn't think of a time he'd been more disappointed.

"What a waste of time," he sighed.

"I'm telling you," Pinkie said in her favorite bossy tone of voice, "You probably can't read anything new when you're still working on the last thing you read."

"Then how come I could see my part?" Pepper asked.

"Maybe you're not supposed to read it with me," said Pinkie.

"Tell me how your mother got lost," Pepper said.

"What?" Pinkie said, alarmed.

He hadn't meant to just blurt it out like that, but he'd finally figured out what he'd most like to know about Pinkie, and if The book wasn't going to tell him, he thought he'd at least try getting some information out of her.

"I want to know. What happened to your mother?"

Pinkie sat silently. It was a silence Pepper had grown accustomed to. As the minutes ticked by, he figured he would yet again learn nothing from Pinkie whatsoever. He began to get up, intending to go back to the elevator. But then, without warning, Pinkie opened her mouth and began to speak.

"She was very sick," she said.

Pepper slowly sat back down, listening intently, fascinated.

"My father and I...we did everything we could. But it was one of those classic cases of 'I'm sorry, Mr. so and so, there's nothing we can do.' We were supposed to just watch her die." Her face was completely blank. She was telling the story with absolutely no emotion. Pepper wondered if she had to drain herself of emotion to be able to tell it at all.

"So I brought her here...it was a last ditch effort. There are...there's a group of healers, they don't come cheap. But it was my last hope. Medicine had failed her, therapy had failed her, even my father failed her. I didn't want to.

"I left her over night with the healers, of course I didn't get a wink of sleep. When I came back...she was gone. Missing. They didn't know what happened to her. I couldn't get a straight answer out of any of them. They said that the healing process had gone smoothly, as far as they could tell, they just had no idea where she was.

"Everyone helped me look for her. Huge search parties scoured every square inch of the Dune, but it was no good. She had completely disappeared. That was a little over a year ago, and I still haven't found her. I come back here as much as I can, looking, hoping to find one place we forgot to check, some nook or cranny we missed. But in the end, I just end up disappointed, and broken-hearted."

Pepper sat silently, not daring to move, or even breathe. He'd never heard Pinkie say so much about herself before.

"So now you know," she finished. Not a moment later, her face crumpled and she let out a horrible sob, collapsing into tears. It was as if all of her emotions came flooding back at the same time and hit her all at once.

Being in the same room with such misery, it almost made Pepper cry himself. He wanted to do something for her, offer to help, even though he had no idea where to look. He just hated this useless feeling that had suddenly overtaken him. Without thinking, without analyzing whether Pinkie was a girl or whether she was a murffle, he reached out and wrapped his arms around her. He felt her hands clutch at him, pulling him closer to her, and she buried her head into his shoulder and wept.

He couldn't have said later how long they stayed like that. After a time, he felt her calm down. Her shaking slowed to practically nothing, her sobbing quieted to slow breathing. And now, he started feeling a bit awkward about the position they were in, this hugging and all, and he wasn't quite sure how to proceed. What should he say? How should he act?

Luckily, he didn't have to say anything. Pinkie let him go and said, "We should probably go back and meet up with Vanessa."

That seemed to settle things. Pepper nodded, and without another word exchanged between them, they boarded the elevator to the undergrounds.

Chapter 23 Edits

The vet's office was brightly lit as well. It didn't look that dissimilar from any vet's office Pepper had been in outside of the Dune. To be honest, he had quite been looking forward to seeing what kind of waiting room a place like the Dune would have in its veterinarian office, but he was disappointed to find waiting around here was just as boring as waiting around at home.

The room they were in was bare, save for a few paintings of landscapes hanging on the wall. The landscapes were, like the Dune, barren and flat.

"Why would anyone paint landscapes around here?" Pepper asked Pinkie as they sat down to wait for Vanessa to check Smithhugh in. "They will all end up looking the same."

"Some people paint just for the joy of painting, Pepper," Pinkie said.

They sat some more. Vanessa was having quite a chat with the receptionist. Eventually, she came back to where they were sitting. "It looks like it's going to take longer than I expected, you guys," she said. "The doctor's pretty busy today."

Pepper looked around the empty waiting room, and wondered what the vet could possibly be busy with. They were the only people in the place.

"Hey, why don't you guys go explore?" Vanessa suggested. "There's some pretty cool shops you can discover through the undergrounds, and Pepper, I know Pinkie could show you some of the best places to eat here."

"I'm fine where I am," Pinkie said.

"Well, I want to go!" said Pepper, standing up. "When should I be back here?"

"You may want to give us a couple hours," Vanessa said, and Pepper nodded. He turned to go, when Pinkie leapt up.

"Okay, fine, I'll go," she said. "Don't want you wandering around by yourself, you could get lost." She stood up, grabbed Pepper's arm, and they headed towards the door.

"Have fun, you guys!" Vanessa called after them. "Don't get into any trouble!"

Something clicked in Pepper's brain. The way Vanessa said, "Don't get into any trouble," reminded him of his parents. He felt, all of a sudden, as if he were not free anymore. As if, somehow, in trying to find his freedom, he'd let himself become locked into a new form of servitude he didn't even understand. He and Pinkie boarded the elevator, and as the doors closed, he grabbed her.

She gasped, startled.

"Pinkie," he said, "Let's go on an adventure."

She looked into his eyes, and they were open wide, full of excitement like she had not yet seen.

"What do you mean?"

"You were telling me to enjoy the adventure I was on before, were you not?" he asked her.

"Well, yes, I was, but-"

"Then let's go on an adventure!" he cried.

Pinkie did not seem as enthralled by the idea. "Pepper, you can't just go on an adventure. Adventures more commonly will find you."

"What about The book? Where is it?"

"It's still at Vanessa's, I'm pretty sure," Pinkie said.

"We've never read it together," Pepper said. "Why don't we give it a shot?"

Pinkie seemed frightened somehow. "I don't know if that's a good idea, Pepper. You do have the Ball tonight, after all, shouldn't you see what that's all about before opening The book again?"

"I don't want to wait," Pepper said, wild now. He wanted to make a foolish decision. He wanted to do something ill-advised. Sitting around in a veterinarian's office didn't seem like the way to spend an afternoon. He wanted to learn more about Pinkie, about this place, about himself, and reading The book with her seemed like the best way to do that.

But Pinkie was much less than keen on the idea. "I'd really rather not, Pepper."

"Are you afraid of what it will say?" he asked.

She looked at him, her eyes revealing nothing. "No."

"Then you've got nothing to lose," he said. "Come on."

Except he didn't know the way, so instead, he pushed her in front and said, "Actually, you have to lead."

He worried, momentarily, that she would stand perfectly still as if Och had returned, but she moved forward. She was muttering something he couldn't make out, so he leaned forward and said, "What was that?"

She clammed up, though, and would not repeat herself.

They continued through the undergrounds, Pepper watching the people walking by, still fascinated by the amount of people that actually lived and carried out there lives in this place.

His mind began to wander. He wondered why nobody ever went above ground to get from place to place. There were obvious reasons, like the fact that you can't really see where it is your going since everything looks the same, and if the weather is bad, it would be best to use the undergrounds and stay dry/warm/cool/whatever. But Pepper thought maybe the occasional person would wander around above ground anyway. He hadn't seen a single other soul up there, except for the kids playing Pound.

They arrived back at Vanessa's in what felt like a shorter amount of time than it had taken them to get to the vet from there. Pinkie prodded the button and they got in the elevator. They rose slowly, Pepper nearly bouncing with anticipation. He wondered what he would see, what Pinkie would see. He didn't bother thinking about the fact that so far, everything he had read had been vague and told him nothing. He instead hoped that reading it with her would answer at least some of his endless questions. Thinking about it, he tried to determine which question he'd most like to know the answer to. At the beginning of their journey, it would have been what Pinkie had asked Mr. Morggison, but now, he had no idea, since the past few days had flooded his head with new inquiries. Whatever they saw, he hoped it told him something.

The door opened, and they were back in Vanessa's living room. Through the now familiar clutter, Pepper spied The book, and ran over to grab it.

He held it in his hands, anxious and excited. His cheeks were flushed with anticipation, and he could almost feel The book humming in his hands.

He looked up at Pinkie and smiled. "Ready?"

Chapter 22 Edits

Pinkie and Vanessa did their best to calm Pepper down. For someone who prided himself on being a well-adjusted man, Pepper was shedding an awful lot of tears over the loss of his Lucky Thing.

"It will be okay, Pepper!" Pinkie said.

"Yeah, kid, we can get you another one!" Vanessa added.

"I don't WANT another one!" Pepper yelled. "You can't just GET a Lucky Thing. You have to discover it. Otherwise, it isn't special at all."

"Well, we'll DISCOVER you another one," Vanessa said firmly.

Pepper sniffed and wiped his nose. "It's no use," he said. "I couldn't take care of the one that I had, why would I even deserve another one?"

He didn't notice Pinkie and Vanessa exchange glances over his head.

"I've had that Lucky Thing for three whole months," he sighed. "I've never been able to hold onto anything else for so long."

He heard a shuffling noise and looked up. Pinkie was digging around in her bag.

"What are you doing?" he asked, but she didn't answer. He didn't expect her to, honestly, he'd gotten used to her not answering questions.

But after a few minutes of digging, she pulled something out. It was a bracelet, silver and shiny and decidedly girly.

"Here," Pinkie said, holding it out. "It was my mother's. I know it's not your Lucky Thing, but she wore this every day and she always said she was the luckiest woman in the world, to...to have...me and my father..."

Pepper could think of little he wanted to wear less than the silver bracelet. But he looked at Pinkie's face, Pinkie's sincere, pleading face. It seemed to say that if Pepper wore the bracelet, it would somehow make Pinkie feel better, too. And not only that, he was flattered that she was thinking of him so kindly. So he took it, girly as it was, and with Pinkie's help, put it around his wrist.

He looked into Pinkie's eyes, which had filled with tears at the thought of her mother. She smiled briefly and tried to wipe them away, as if Pepper had not noticed yet.

"Thank you, Pinkie," he said, honestly. "I really appreciate it."

Their eyes locked for a moment longer, then they heard Vanessa clear her throat, and they both snapped back to the present moment and turned their attention to the Pound player.

"Well," she said, smiling, "If you kids don't have any more gifts to exchange, we should get my Smithhugh to the vet. He's not doing so great this morning."

Vanessa had already taken the electric lime green mullow out of its room and put it in a small carrying cage. Pepper hadn't seen one awake yet; it had four little webbed feet that skittered around frantically, and big, wide eyes that made it seem to be in a constant state of panic. Or maybe it only looked like that since it was in a cage about to go to the vet.

"What's wrong with him?" Pepper asked.

Vanessa waved for Pepper to approach the cage. "Come over here, I'll show you,"

Pepper obliged, walking over and leaning so that he could better examine the creature inside the cage.

"See that there?" Vanessa asked, pointing. "That little lump on his neck?"

Pepper saw nothing, but he nodded anyway.

"Well, it's been swelling. I'm not sure what it is, but hopefully the vet will be able to help and make it go away. Me and the boys have been commissioned to do a job later this week, and I'll need all five of them at full health in order to pull it off!"

"Well, we better get a move on, then," Pinkie said.

"Right you are, my dear. Come on, guys, let's get going." Vanessa stood up, but she didn't head to the front door. Instead, she was walking towards the back of the room.

"Where are you going?" Pepper asked.

"We're going to take the undergrounds," Vanessa said. "You don't want to walk around in all that hot sun and no shade, do you, kid?"

Pepper tried to shoot Pinkie a look, as if to say, "Why couldn't we have been using the undergrounds this whole time?" But she didn't appear to notice.

Vanessa tapped a button on the wall, and a door whooshed open to reveal an elevator.

"Cool," Pepper said, as they all piled on. The mullow in the cage had started making short squeaking noises.

"Oh, shh, baby, hush," Vanessa cooed, holding the cage up to her face. "You'll feel better soon."

The door shut, and they were headed down. For some reason, Pepper felt like their should have been more flash and showiness to the ride down, but it was fairly simple and short. The elevator itself was quite simple, no fancy lights or decorations. There wasn't even any cheesy elevator music, which Pepper had to admit he was grateful for. It was, unfortunately, awkwardly silent as they descended, as no one could think of anything to say.

Finally, the doors whooshed open again, and Pepper could hardly believe his eyes. Clearly, this was where everyone in this place commuted, as the undergrounds were positively bustling with activity. People were surging around, chatting, eating, resting, and doing the things people do when in transit.

The undergrounds were very well-lit, and looked, to Pepper, somewhat like a shopping mall. Except instead of stores, there were doors to places presumably hidden between here and the surface of the Dune.

"I had no idea this was here," Pepper said to Pinkie.

"It's the common way to get around in the Dune," Pinkie said, "But it's tough to keep a low cover here. That's why we've been walking up top."

"Why do you need to keep a low cover?" Pepper asked. Pinkie remained silent, but he remembered the incident with Och.

After a bit of walking, which Pepper was almost sad to see end as he was enjoying watching all of the people that lived in the Dune, Vanessa said, "Ah, here we are."

They had stopped at a door, exactly the same as all the other doors, except that this one had the number "739" in raised gold on it.

Vanessa prodded a button nearby, and this door whooshed open as well, revealing another elevator.

"All aboard, everyone!" Vanessa said. "Next stop, the vet!"

Chapter 21 Edits

Morning came streaking in like a baseball bat to the head. Or maybe it was Vanessa yelling, "Wake up, sleepy heads, I've got bacon and eggs!"

Either way, Pepper woke up with a startled gasp, having never entirely calmed down from the night's events. Pinkie, once again, was already awake.

Pepper wondered how she could do that, consistently wake up early. Left to his own devices, Pepper could sleep entire days away without a thought.

He could not, however, resist the plate of delicious smelling breakfast currently held under his nose by an absolutely gorgeous woman. "Thank you," he mumbled best he could having just woken up, and took the plate from her.

Pinkie was sitting in a chair, her plate near empty.

"You sleep well, kid?" Vanessa asked, sitting herself at the foot of his bed. She leaned over and rumpled his hair.

Pepper, through a mouthful of eggs and a stomach full of butterflies, could only nod.

"Listen, you guys, I hate to ask you this, but would you mind helping me out with some stuff I have to do today? You help me, and I'll help you get ready for the Throwbanger's Ball!" She winked at Pepper. He surmised that, were he made of something less substantial than flesh, he would have melted then and there.

"Of course," he said, but it came out more like, "'Fmmmrse", through his chewing mandibles.

He did not catch the glare Pinkie was sending him.

"Great!" Vanessa said. "I've got to take Smithhugh, one of my mullows, to the vet. Pinkie tells me she showed you the mullows already, eh, kid?"

Pepper nodded.

"Yeah, I'm the only breeder in the area, not too many people are willing to give them a shot. Don't like the mess. My opinion? They're throwing away a shot at some really good friends and helpful companions. I've never had to hire a mover because of those guys." She chuckled to herself.

"You've never moved, Vanessa," Pinkie said.

"That's beside the point!"

Pepper couldn't help grinning. For some reason, Vanessa made him feel more at ease than he had the entire time he'd been in the Dune. Despite, of course, the fact that her beauty made him nervous. He felt like she thought of he and Pinkie as equals, and she didn't put off that weird, creepy vibe everyone else so far had.

"Well, eat up, kid, and meet me in the living room when you're decent. You too, Pinkie," she said, standing up and patting Pinkie on the head. Vanessa left the room.

"You certainly are drooling all over yourself to help her," Pinkie said, once Vanessa was out of earshot.

Pepper swallowed his bite of bacon. "What?"

"How do you know I didn't have any plans today?"

"What are you talking about?"

Pinkie stood up, flipped her hair and imitated Vanessa's voice: "Oh, Pepper, will you help me out with some errands today?" Then, in a high-pitched, mocking voice, "Oh, Vanessa, but of course! Anything for yooooooooou!"

With a sly grin, Pepper said, "Jealous?"

Pinkie dropped her hands to her hips and glared at him. "Are you crazy? No." But she seemed flustered, as if she suddenly didn't know what to do with herself. "Anyway, that's not the point. The point is, we have things to do before the ball, we can't spend all day helping Vanessa."

"I thought she was your friend?"

"She is!"

"Then what's the problem?"

Pinkie let out an exasperated sigh.

Having finished his dinner, Pepper set his plate on the night stand and climbed out of bed. "Come on, Pinkie, what did you need to do today that was so important, anyway? Or, wait, is that something else you can't tell me?"

Pinkie was fuming. She didn't answer him, but her rage was clear as the daylight streaming through the window. She huffed, picked up her own empty plate, and stalked out the door. Pepper practically had to run to keep up with her.

When they got to the living room, Pepper realized that he had never gotten to use the bathroom last night, and as such, was pretty well bursting by now. "Um, Vanessa? Where is your rest room?" he asked.

"Oh, hey, sorry, kid! I didn't tell you that before, did I? It's right down that hallway, to your left." She pointed to the opposite wall of the room, where there were even more hallways. Pepper was almost afraid to go alone, but he figured if he got lost, he could yell for help.

He headed off down the hallway, and sure enough, on the left, he found a door that was wide open, leading to a small bathroom. He went in, relieved himself, and was washing his hands when he noticed it. His reflection in the mirror was missing something.

Pepper gasped, and lifted his hand to his neck just to be absolutely sure, but there was no mistaking it.

His Lucky Thing was missing.

Pepper let out a shriek, his heart racing. What was he going to do without his Lucky Thing? Especially in this place? Nothing had happened to him so far, wearing it, but who knew what kind of scary dangerous things would be out to get him now?

He ran back into the living room. "Pinkie!" He shouted. "Can you take me back to the bedroom?"

"What? Why?" (Pinkie could see the fear in Pepper's eyes, and he could tell she was concerned.)

"My Lucky Thing! It's missing!"

Pinkie gasped, too. "Maybe you lost it in your sleep?"

"That's why I want to check the bedroom!"

"Okay, follow me, it's this way." She set off down the maze of hallways again. Vanessa, offering to help look as well, followed after them.

Pinkie had barely opened the door to the room they had slept in when Pepper burst through and began frantically searching. The murffle and the woman helped as well.

They scoured the room from ceiling to floor, but it was no use. They found lots of dust bunnies and bottle caps that had fallen behind the beds and furniture, but absolutely no Lucky Thing.

It was gone.

Chapter 20 Edits

(After another trek down another series of hallways, they came to a small, cozy looking room, very similar to the one they had slept in at Mr. Morggison's. Except there was no table of food here.

Pepper noticed his stomach grumbling in protest at him.

"Hey, we haven't eaten since this morning," he said, "Do you think we can have something to eat before we go to sleep?"

Pinkie rolled her eyes at him. "Aw, is the bitty baby boy hungry?"

"What?"

"Is the poor, little baby boy hungry?"

"Why are you calling me a baby? We've barely eaten all day!"

"I've gone entire weeks without eating a thing," Pinkie said proudly, lifting her nose high in the air.

Pepper snorted. "You can't do that without dying."

"You can so," Pinkie said sternly. "You'll get very sick, but you won't die. And you won't die, either, if we don't eat tonight."

"You know, since this journey was supposed to help us get food, I wasn't expecting to go to bed hungry. Normally, that only happens if mom sends me to bed without my supper."

"Oh, quit whining, here," Pinkie huffed, and threw some thin strips of dried meat onto Pepper's bed.

"Where did you get these?" he asked.

"Ferret's. I brought some with me."

Pepper took a bite of one. It was quite delicious, actually! Like the beef jerky that his dad used to let him share when they were watching the football game together. Pepper was never very interested in the football game, he just liked hanging out with his dad and getting to share his food. He wondered if he would ever see his father again, now that he seemed to be on an adventure in a mysterious place. His mind was wandering, now, with thoughts of his mother and father. They were almost distant memories, now... he cursed himself silently for ever thinking becoming a hermit would be a good idea. He wondered if his mother missed him. He imagined himself, back at home, wrapped up in her arms in a big, soft, warm hug...)

** ** **

Pepper's eyes blinked open. Had he fallen asleep? Where was he? How long had he slept for?

He sat up and looked around. His eyes were adjusting, slowly but surely, with the help of a thin strip of moonlight casting its glow on the floor.

"Oh," he said out loud, as he recalled Vanessa, Pinkie, and the beef jerky.

He laid back down, but realized in doing so that nature was calling him. He sat back up. "Pinkie," he said, his voice still filled with night time gunk. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Pinkie," he said a little louder this time, and glanced over to the bed across the room.

She didn't answer. He remembered what a heavy sleeper she was, and felt a little bad waking her up, but there was no way he'd be able to find the bathroom in Vanessa's maze of hallways. Pepper slung his feet over the edge of his bed and hopped off. He crossed the room and leaned over Pinkie's bed.

"Pinkie?" he said, his voice loud now.

Still no answer.

He reached down to shake her, and his hand hit only blanket. "Pinkie!" He felt around the entire bed, but she wasn't in it.

Pepper tried not to panic. She was probably going to the bathroom herself, he thought. How late is it? He looked around for the light switch but he couldn't find one. Feeling around in the dark, his hands finally fell on a doorknob. He turned it and found himself in a hallway. Maybe, he thought, I can find the bathroom on my own. He did his best not to think about the previous night, the monster, the blood, that Pinkie might be somewhere with that thing, that...that It, right now, in trouble. No, no, he thought, she is fine. She can handle herself. She is a murffle, after all.

He walked down the hallway, doing his best to keep an eye out for a door that might lead to a bathroom. But he didn't want to open any, for fear that he might walk into Vanessa's room and wake her up.

The hallway, like his bedroom, was lit only by the moonlight streaming through the windows. He held out his hands to guide him along the wall, but he could see a little bit better now that his eyes had had time to adjust.

He had wandered down several hallways with little success when he heard voices coming from the end of one hall. He paused, listening, but he couldn't make them out. Peering down the hallway, he could see a door with light leaking out from under it.

Someone was awake, Pepper thought to himself.

Very quietly, as slowly as he dared, he snuck down the hallway, ears straining to hear what the voices were saying. In the back of his mind, he could hear his mother chastising him for eavesdropping, but he didn't care. He was curious, and he was alone with no one to stop him, so he would eavesdrop if he wanted to.

It wasn't until he had made it practically the entire way to the door that he could make out what the voices were saying. He held his breath, held as still as he could, and listened.

"No, don't worry about it, Pinkie, you know you're always welcome," came Vanessa's voice. "I shouldn't have to tell you this every time."

"I know. I feel like I never see you anymore, though," came the second voice, Pinkie's.

"Don't even mention it, love, I know you've got more than enough to occupy you right now. Plus, you think I want you running around here with It on the loose?"

Pepper heard Pinkie sniff.

"Never mind that," Vanessa said. "How are things, you know, at home?"

"He's getting worse," Pinkie said. It sounded as if she was crying, or had been recently.

"Aw, sweetie, I'm sorry. What did Morggison say?"

Pepper perked up his ears. Would he find out what Pinkie had asked Mr. Morggison?

"He said I should stop trying to do everything myself."

"Wise man," Vanessa said. "You pull yourself in too many directions."

Pinkie was silent.

"You think it's the kid?" Vanessa continued.

Pepper's heart sped up a bit. Was she talking about him? Was there another "kid" she might have been referring to?

"I don't know," Pinkie said.

"Well, did you see his..." Vanessa's voice trailed off. Pepper leaned in closer, straining.

"Yeah, I did. He calls it his Lucky Thing," Pinkie said. "I asked him about it, he said he found it in a...in a sandbox."

"A sandbox?" Vanessa snorted.

Why were they talking about his Lucky Thing?

"Well, you'll know when you take him to the Plantation tomorrow for the ball."

"Me?" Pinkie asked, startled.

"Of course, you'll be his plus one!" Vanessa said.

"I thought that...you know, that you would go."

"No, sweetie, I've got things to do tomorrow. I need to take Smithhugh to the vet, he'd developed a nasty cough. Then I have to train."

"So I'm going to the ball with him? As his...date?"

Vanessa laughed. "Oh, Pinkie, love, I never said that!"

Pinkie laughed, too, but it seemed to be forced.

"Unless," said Vanessa, her voice quieter now, so that Pepper had to lean in even further to hear, "you WANT him to be your date."

Pepper strained as hard as he could to hear Pinkie's answer, but before she could get her words out, his foot slipped and he stumbled forward, stubbing his toe on the wall.

"OUCH!" he cried. Then he stood straight up, freezing in place, hoping beyond hope they hadn't heard him. His toe was throbbing, but it was too late, he heard Vanessa say, "What the?" and could make out the shuffling of feet. Without thinking, he turned and ran, despite the pain in his foot.

He wasn't really sure where he was going. He did his best to remember the pathways the hallway had made, but it was pure luck when he found the open door of the bedroom. He flew in, shut the door, and jumped back into his bed, heart pounding and head racing.

Why had they been talking about him? Who was it that was getting worse? Did Pinkie want to be his date or not?

He tried not to think too hard about that last one. Pepper wasn't exactly sure about the protocol for dating murffles, and he was way to panicked and tired to even try to think about it.

A few minutes later, he heard the door open and shut again.

"Pepper?" came Pinkie's voice. "Are you awake?"

He didn't dare reply, for fear that she would realize he'd been listening in on her conversation with Vanessa, so he remained as silent and as still as possible. This was especially difficult when Pinkie walked right over to his bed and leaned over him, as if looking to see if he was really asleep. He kept his eyes shut, hoping they looked natural and not squeezed too tightly or anything. After a few moments that crept by like hours, Pinkie finally made her way to her bed, climbed in, as before long, both she and Pepper were fast asleep.

(no subject)

"So, Vanessa sure seems nice," Pepper said.

"She is nice. Very blunt, but nice," said Pinkie.

Pepper felt now was a good time to bring up something that had been on his mind for a while now. "It seems as though you know almost everyone around here, or they know you."

Pinkie nodded. "Yeah."

"Why is that?"

"You spend a lot of time in a place, you get to know the locals."

Pepper took a deep breath. "I know, historically, that you aren't inclined to answer questions, but may I ask why exactly you spend a lot of time in this place?"

"I like it here," Pinkie said. Her voice had acquired a somewhat monotone attribute.

"I can see why you would, what with the super creepy smoke creature that clearly wants you gone, not to mention the creature that rips people's insides out and drains their blood. I don't know how you ever stay away."

"Hey, what do you know?" Pinkie said defensively. "There are a lot of wonderful people here, too."

"I see that, I do, but..." And suddenly, he didn't feel like bothering anymore. "Never mind," Pepper said.

Pinkie moved a pile of magazines and pay stubs off of a chair and sat down. "Vanessa's really special to me, actually," she said.

Pepper remained silent. He hadn't heard Pinkie voluntarily offer information before, and he was afraid of ruining it.

"She helped me through a really difficult time."

Was she going to reveal what the difficult time was? Maybe it had to do with losing her mother.

"I helped her, too. She was...well, she thought she was..." She trailed off.

"Thought she was what?" Pepper asked, urging Pinkie to continue.

"Pregnant."

"I'm sorry?"

"She thought she was...she LOOKED like she was...but she wasn't. It was...she never wanted anything more than that baby."

Pepper couldn't help but wonder why Pinkie, who was so secretive about her own past and problems, was more than willing to share the secrets of others so freely. He dared not ask, however, in case it upset her. He was quite keen to get back into her good graces, as it would be very helpful in having someone to talk to on a regular basis.

Pinkie sighed deeply. "It hurt us all, actually. Vanessa was the talk of the town, a celebrity mother. Everyone pitched in to help get the house ready, she had several baby sitting volunteers, people were donating blankets, diapers, the works. She even had a name for it. She was going to name it..." she trailed off.

"What?"

"Well, it doesn't matter now, does it?" she said, but she didn't sound angry. She sounded sad.

"So, what happened? Did she lose the baby?" Pepper hoped he wasn't asking too much here.

"No. She never had the baby to begin with."

"Well, then, how...?"

"She was bewitched." Pinkie's head was drooping, as if dredging these memories back up was tiring for her.

"Who bewitched her?" Pepper asked, losing his abandon for asking questions.

Pinkie lifted her head up and looked at him, as if realizing for the first time since Vanessa left that he was in the room with her. "No one. It doesn't matter." She shook her head and stood up. "You know, why don't we go find our room? I've stayed with Vanessa before, I know where we're going to be sleeping."

Pepper stood up to go with her, when all of a sudden she shouted, "Wait! I should show you the mullows first!"

"The what?"

"Her pets. Nobody else has mullows like Vanessa, she breeds them. Luckily, they're the type of creature that thrives in a cluttered environment, so it's not by chance that she's so good at raising them. Lots of people are unwilling to keep them because they don't want to keep their houses messy just to accommodate a pet, but Vanessa's mullows practically raise themselves in this mess." As she spoke, she was guiding Pepper through a series of winding hallways. He would have never guessed from the outside of the house that there was so much space inside. He made a mental note to himself that he should stop taking spatial dimension for granted if he was going to hang out with Pinkie in this place.

Finally, after what seemed like a good ten minutes of trekking through hallways, they got to a small room filled with what appeared to be a good decade's worth of clutter.

"How can anyone live like this?" Pepper wondered aloud.

"Vanessa's a pack rat," Pinkie explained. "She doesn't throw anything away. Sometimes, I'll come over and help her move her junk in here, so that the mullows are more comfortable."

He followed Pinkie as she climbed over the piles of junk, almost expertly making her way across the room. Pepper didn't quite have her finesse, in fact, he fell at least twice before they finally got to a small clearing in the clutter.

"Here," Pinkie whispered, "They're sleeping."

Lying in the middle of the clearing were five round, fluffy creatures. They looked about the size of basketballs, and were brightly colored. One was hot pink, another, neon purple. There was also an electric lime green one, and the last two were the same shade of highlighter yellow.

"What ARE they?" Pepper asked. "They look like Tribbles."

"They're not Tribbles, they're mullows. When they're not asleep, they're really quite useful. They can speak any language, for one thing. They are also a lot stronger than they look, and can help you move heavy objects around if they're trained. You wouldn't want to get into it with an un- trained mullow, or you might end up good and squashed." She nodded firmly, her pigtails bobbing up and down.

"Well, I've never seen one before," Pepper said, doing his best to maintain his own need to know things, as a boy. It had been quickly slipping away from him ever since they entered the Dune, he felt it was high time he got it back.

Pinkie rolled her eyes. "I don't think there's a number high enough for the amount of things you haven't seen before, Pepper," she said bossily. "That doesn't mean they don't exist."

The murffle made her way back through the piles of clutter to the door. Pepper followed her, only falling once this time.

"Come on," Pinkie said, "Let's go to our room."

Chapter 18 Edits

"Who would be looking for me?" Pepper asked.

Vanessa picked her apple back up and continued eating. "Why don't you pick up that book and try to find out?"

Pinkie hadn't touched her apple yet. She picked it up, eying it uncertainly. "You haven't pumped this up with any sort of performance spells, have you, Vanessa?"

"Oh, no ma'am, it's clean. I haven't messed with that stuff in years."

Pinkie took a bite, cautiously, but seemed to calm down after the first few chews.

Vanessa handed The book back to Pepper. "You're obviously the one leading this party," she said, "Why don't you see what the next stop is?"

Pepper took the book. He didn't really want to see what happened next in a book that seemed to tell a story in the vaguest way possible. He was the type of person that preferred to be told things directly. This ambiguity was driving him bonkers.

"Go on, Pepper, she's probably right, we won't learn any more unless you open that book," said Pinkie.

Hesitantly, Pepper opened the cover. Like last time, the first page remained blank. "Nothing."

"Keep reading, kid," Vanessa said.

He flipped to the sixth page, where he'd seen the green dot the first time, but now that page was blank, too. Then, he had a really stupid idea: He turned all the way to the last page.

"Oh, no, you don't want to do that," Vanessa warned, "You'll ruin the ending."

But an image had already begun to form. It was a blue heart, with a swirly, white design in the middle.

"So, what's this supposed to mean?" Pepper held up the book so the murffle and Vanessa could see it, too.

"Huh," Vanessa grunted. "Guess that's conjunction number two."

"What do you mean?" asked Pinkie.

But Vanessa was already digging through piles of junk and paper lying around her living room. "Gimmie just a sec," she said, buried under one such pile. After a time, she pulled out a small rectangle and handed it to Pepper. "There."

"What is it?" Pinkie asked.

Pepper read from the paper: "'You are hereby invited to attend the annual Throwbanger's Ball, a festive celebration of merriment and splendor. To be held at the Plantation.'"

Pinkie cocked her head to the side. "What's that got to do with what Pepper read?"

He flipped the invitation around so Pinkie could see. The heart symbol was at the top of the invitation.

"Guess it means you're supposed to make an appearance," Vanessa said.

"But this invitation says the party isn't until tomorrow night," Pepper said, reading off of the paper. "And anyway, this invitation has your name on it."

"Aw, don't worry about me, kid. I go every year. It's just a bunch of muckity-mucks living it up and telling each other how great they are." Vanessa waved in the air with her hand as if indicating the air-headedness of the event. "And of course," she put her arm around Pinkie, "you two are welcome to stay the night here if you want. I'll even teach you a thing or two about Pound!" She knocked Pepper's arm in much the same way she had previously tackled Pinkie. Pepper found that Vanessa hit a smidgen harder than she probably intended to.

Pepper smiled at her. "Is that okay with you, Pinkie? Do you have anywhere else you need to visit today?"

He could tell that she was chewing over the incident with Och. "No," she said, "I think we're fine to stay here until tomorrow."

"That's great, guys!" Vanessa yelled, grabbing them up in an awkward, squeezing hug. "Hey, listen, I've gotta run a few quick errands, but I'll be back in less than an hour, okay? Pinkie, you'll be fine here alone with the kid, right?"

"Sure thing," Pinkie squeaked through her squashed lungs.

"Okay, great!" Vanessa let them go, grabbed a coat and opened the door. "See you guys later!" As she left, Pepper couldn't help but notice her well-formed backside.

Chapter 17 Edits

They managed to find Vanessa's location rather quickly, actually. Pinkie seemed in a fairly great haste to get there, and she managed to hunt it down with little trouble. This time, when she stomped on the ground three times, no hole emerged. Instead, a small building rose up, as if this was nothing out of the ordinary and buildings emerged out of the earth every day.

Maybe, here, they did.

The house was smaller than Mr. Morggison's, and not at all similar. His house had looked like something out of a story book fairy tale, quaint and inviting. This one appeared to have been built by someone who had no real concept of what a house should look like. For one thing, it had only three walls and was in the shape of a triangle. The roof was flat, except for a bit at the corner that shifted sharply upwards. The windows were at random slants, creating an effect something like swiss cheese. The entire building appeared to be see-through, as if made of frosted glass. However, it looked to be empty.

Pinkie approached it and knocked on the door. There was no answer.

"Maybe she's not home," Pepper said.

"No, if she wasn't home, I wouldn't have been able to pull up the house." She knocked again. Still no answer.

"Do you think she'd be avoiding you?" Pepper asked.

"I don't think so," she said. "HEY VANESSA!" She yelled, cupping her hands to the wall and yelling through them. "OPEN UP, IT'S PINKIE!"

The door opened wide. "Pinkie! Why didn't you say so in the first place?" The woman who emerged, presumably Vanessa, gave Pinkie a giant hug.

Vanessa was...well, she was perfectly built. There wasn't much other way of saying it. Pepper was doing his best not to stare, especially keeping in mind what Ferret had to say about her. She had impossibly long black hair that miraculously seemed to stay out of her way without pulling it back. She was shooting Pinkie the widest, most brilliant smile he had ever seen.

"So, who's the kid?" Vanessa asked, gesturing with her thumb to Pepper.

Normally, Pepper would have countered with something along the lines of "I'm not a kid," but when Vanessa said it, he didn't seem to mind as much.

"That's Pepper," Pinkie said.

"Hmmm, not too bad for a first boyfriend, sweet cheeks!" Vanessa laughed and waved them in.

Pinkie followed her, sputtering protests. "He's not - I mean, we're not - he's just -"

"It's okay, it's okay, I'm only teasing you," Vanessa said, giving Pinkie a good-natured punch on the arm.

Pinkie rubbed her arm where she had been punched, even though it couldn't have hurt that much.

"Actually, it's his fault we're here," she told Vanessa. "He had a curious run in with a Pound ball today."

"Really?" Vanessa said, grabbing an apple off an oddly shaped table and taking a bite. "You play?"

"Um... no, I don't know how," Pepper said, looking around the inside of the house. You would have never known it from the outside, but it was packed with junk from wall to wall. Vanessa was clearly not much of a housekeeper. The rooms didn't seem to have any specific structure, and weaved in and out of each other. The walls sort of gave up where normal walls would have kept going.

"How'd you come across a Pound ball, then?" She threw apples to Pinkie and Pepper. Pepper just barely noticed the one flying at him, and caught it just before it knocked him square in the head.

"It got thrown through Ferret's window," Pinkie said.

"Oh, hey, how is ol' Ferret? I haven't seen him in a while, know what I mean?"

"He's doing well."

"Say, could the kid here see him?" Vanessa asked with a sly grin.

"No," Pepper admitted. "I couldn't."

"Hmm," Vanessa said, but didn't follow it up with anything.

"Anyway, basically what happened was Pepper picked up the ball, and it glowed."

Vanessa snorted. "Glowed? Like, mysterious, ebbing and throbbing alien sort of glow, or bright, intense rave party sort of glowing?"

"More like, delicate fairy flickering sort of glowing," Pepper said.

"Ah," Vanessa took another bite of apple. "What brand of ball was it?"

"Brand?" Pepper asked.

"Yeah. Who made it? Lewis? Woon? Spag?"

"Morggison," Pinkie interjected.

Vanessa set her apple down and crossed her arms skeptically. "Morggison? His Pound balls aren't very good. Flashy-looking, sure enough. Collectors can't get enough of them. But us players don't much care for them. The weights are all off, they veer improperly and irregularly...just no good for play."

"Know anything about ones that glow?" Pinkie prodded.

"Well, if it's a Morggison, that means it's automatically imbued with certain properties. Glowing usually indicates a locator device, like it was tryin' to find something? But I couldn't think of why you'd want to use a Pound ball as a locator."

Pinkie pulled The book out of Pepper's pocket.

"He saw it in this first, before it actually got thrown through the window." She handed The book to Vanessa.

"Oh, wow, how did you get this?" Vanessa asked excitedly, taking the book from Pinkie and flipping through it. "I can't read anything in it, of course..."

"Mr. Morggison gave it to us," Pinkie explained.

"For the kid?"

"Yeah, for the, uh..." Pinkie gave Pepper a funny look. "The kid."

"Well, what has he read in it?"

"So far, just the thing about the ball. And Ferret saw a window, and next thing we knew, the Pound ball was flying through Ferret's window."

Vanessa's eyes widened, then went back to normal. "Ohhhhhhh, that's a first!"

"What?" Pepper asked, intrigued.

"You read The book in conjunction with someone else," Vanessa explained.

Pepper was confused. "What do you mean? What does The book do?"

Vanessa shrugged. "It depends on what you need it to do."

"Did I need it to throw a ball through a window?"

"That's not the point," Vanessa said. "You learned something from that ball flying through the window."

"I did?" Pepper asked, bewildered.

"Yep," Vanessa nodded. "You learned that someone was looking for you."

Chapter 16 Edits

Pinkie was shaking.

"What WAS that?" Pepper screamed. "Why does it want you to leave?"

"Never mind," Pinkie said. Let's keep going."

"What did you do? Everyone else here seems to like you."

"Och has just always been difficult," Pinkie said, as if ending it there.

"But...that was really scary!" Pepper said.

Pinkie hadn't moved since Och had disappeared. "It wasn't that scary," she said, but she remained immobile.

Pepper shoved her a little. "Then why are you standing still?"

Pinkie shook her head. "I'm not standing still."

"Yes you are."

"No, I'm not." She paused, looked down at her feet, and sighed. "It appears you're right. I'm NOT moving."

"I told you so," Pepper said.

"Well, here, take my hand." She held out her hand. Pepper didn't quite know what to do. He had a strict policy of not touching girls, even if they were only murffles. But then again, he had already touched this one, so in an effort to keep up the good relations he seemed to have right now with her, he took her hand.

"Now pull me," Pinkie said, so Pepper did. He pulled as hard as he could, but she wouldn't move.

"It's not working," Pepper said.

"I see that. Maybe if I pick up my feet."

"That might help."

She remained motionless.

"Okay, now I'm getting nervous. I really can't move."

"You know, for someone who wanted you to get out, it wasn't very smart of them to freeze you in place," Pepper noted.

"It does seem rather illogical," Pinkie agreed.

Pepper paused. "Are we having a conversation without you being terribly angry at me?"

"I think we might be," Pinkie said.

"Well. Maybe we should just leave you here, then."

"No, no, I'd rather not be here when it gets dark, I'd much prefer to be at Vanessa's. She'll let us stay with her for the night." Pinkie did her best to move, she managed to get her arms up and out, but her feet were still stuck solid.

Pepper found himself instinctively reaching for his Lucky Thing, as he usually did when in a sticky situation. So to speak.

"What is that thing you wear around your neck?" Pinkie asked.

"This?" Pepper replied. "It's my Lucky Thing. It keeps me out of trouble."

"Does it work?"

"Most of the time." He tucked it safely under his shirt, where it usually stayed.

"Where did you get it?" Pinkie asked. She seemed truly interested.

Pepper was sorely tempted to say that he couldn't tell her, but he chose to be honest. "I found it in a sandbox."

"A sandbox? That's not terribly sweeping or momentous."

"It was a really big sandbox," he clarified.

"Oh."

He watched her struggle for a bit. "Is there any way I could go look for help?" he asked.

"You could, but I worry that you'll get lost on the way," she said.

"There aren't too many twists and turns out here to get lost in," he pointed out.

"That doesn't matter sometimes."

"Well, tell me where Vanessa lives and I'll go find her," Pepper said, doing his best to be helpful and not admit that he was somewhat terrified at the idea of going off on his own.

"I can't exactly do that," Pinkie said.

Pepper sighed heavily. "Not this again."

"Well, I can't! That's the thing, Vanessa moves a lot, she doesn't like to stay in one place for too long because then her fans will find her and she'll get mobbed. So you have to kind of already know what you're looking for, and-"

She didn't get to finish, because she was interrupted by a loud, whooshing noise. Och was back. The gaseous creature flew through Pinkie again, and she screamed.

"I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE!!" Och shouted.

"THEN DON'T FREEZE ME INTO PLACE, YOU BIG BULLY!" Pinkie shouted back.

"YOU DARE TO YELL AT ME??" The creature howled.

"YES. I DO. LEAVE ME ALONE, I'VE DONE NOTHING TO YOU."

Och hovered ominously in front of them. "Nothing? You've done NOTHING. You presumptuous little brat. I should snatch your soul away just for thinking that. If it weren't for the boy, I'd do just that."

Pepper raised his eyebrows. If it weren't for the boy?

"Listen, Och, do you really have nothing better to do than fly around picking on me?" Pinkie said boldly. "That's really sad."

Och hissed at her. "Listen, girl, you know what I could do to you. But I'm not like It. You better get rid of It, and then do us all a favor and stay away."

"I'm not afraid of you."

More hissing. "You don't know what fear is," Och said, and disappeared.

Pinkie fell forward. Pepper lunged after her to make sure she was okay.

"Well, I can move again," Pinkie said.

"Are you okay?" Pepper asked. He didn't bother trying to figure out what Och was talking about.

"Yes, I'm fine. I can move." She lifted her hand to her nose, it was bleeding. "I've got a bit of a nose bleed, it seems."

They sat for a moment, then Pinkie stood up, saying, "Well, we shouldn't waste any more time. It will be dark soon, and we don't want to have another run-in with It."

Pepper nodded, then stopped himself. "Wait a minute," he said. "ANOTHER run-in? I thought you said that never happened."

Pinkie paused. "No," she said, "When we saw the body that It had gotten before we got to Mr. Morggison's. That's what I meant."

Pepper regarded her skeptically. "Ah," he said, indicating that he was not completely convinced.

"Anyway. This way." She continued on.

Pepper followed after her. He was pretty sure he didn't want to encounter anything like Och again before they got to Vanessa's. He hoped the wispy creature would take Pinkie's advice and find something better to do.