Doe said, "Do it!"; torch helped with the title; and Oasis sang She Is Love.
Incidentally, Sparks is also a Coldplay song. You can pretend this story has something to do with it.
* * *
* * *
Pepper's all grown up now.
That's the first thing everybody says, and Pepper really hates it.
It's not that adulthood doesn't have its advantages. She likes driving her own car and having her own little flat and not having to hang up her clothes anymore. Not that she ever did hang up her clothes, but it's nice not to have an adult hovering at her shoulder saying she should, even if she never paid attention when there was. Pepper's always made her own rules, but now she's all grown up, there's nobody to say she can't follow them.
That's what irks her. Nobody sets any rules she can break or evade. Nobody tells her off. Nobody gives a damn what she does, honestly. Even her mother is indulgently pleased with everything she does, it seems. The first thing she says to anyone who asks after her:
"Oh, our Pepper's all grown up now" -- Pepper, not Pippin Galadriel; her mother even stopped calling her by her proper names when she turned sixteen, giving in abruptly after a lifetime of battle. A hollow victory for Pepper. It was a peculiarly fitting birthday present, because it marked the beginning of a new era -- adulthood, in which Pepper has nothing to fight.
It makes Pepper feel so futile.
She didn't like being told off when she was little, any more than she liked being called Pippin Galadriel or being treated like a girl just because she was, well, a girl. But these things, as much as she disliked them, gave her something to struggle against. They made life interesting, and the one thing Pepper's ever asked from life is interest. That was why she hung out with the Them. What's the point of life if it isn't interesting?
Pepper's a fighter, always has been. She's needed to be -- born small, red-headed and female, with a name like Pippin Galadriel, with a mother who gave tarot readings at night and was known to be an ex-hippie in a village where hippies were next-door neighbours to the devil. Being a fighter has always been an advantage.
Until now. Now she's all grown up.
She didn't realise what it meant, at first. At first her new freedom exhilarated her. Pepper had been fighting the world since she was born, and at some point in her youth, unnoticed, the world gave in, waved the white flag and stepped back from the skirmish. Even Greasy Johnson stopped fighting and started just looking, in a way that really should have made her nervous, but because she was Pepper, only gave her peculiar pleasure in slagging him off with more than her ordinary viciousness.
It went to her head. She bought fancy clothes, and her mother applauded her forays into fashion. She admitted to reading Seventeen, her eyes glinting at the rest of the Them, and the boys just looked at each other and said, "So?" She started taking an interest in herself, in the way she looked and thought and acted, and the world said, with mawkish pride,
"Our Pepper's all grown up now."
It had seemed good, at first.
And then it all became . . . boring.
Pepper has a degree in mechanical engineering and a good job with fair prospects and a rather nice car, and nobody cares. Nobody objects. Anyone who notices smiles and waves her on encouragingly. She doesn't have to wrest anything from the world; it's given to her on a silver platter.
When she first realised what was wrong, she tried recreating the interest. She tried a rebellion: wore grungy clothes, listened to the sort of music that sounded like the singer was dying in horrible pain and intended to drag the rest of the world to the afterlife with him, swore at her mother, smoked. She should have known it wouldn't work. Her mother was eager as always for her to "explore her potential." She co-operated -- bought tickets to concerts of the most disreputable rock stars, dug up clothes a dustman wouldn't wear to work, anxiously ignored every profanity that left Pepper's lips.
Pepper gave it up. It just wasn't worth the effort.
The rest of the Them hadn't even noticed. Pepper loves the boys more than she loves her own self, even if she'd die rather than admit it, but there are times when she could kill them just for being such -- such boys. That time was just such a one.
But the last straw, the very proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, comes one peaceful Sunday when she's having dinner at Adam's. Brian and Wensleydale are there, and Adam and his sister Sarah, Mrs. Young running around and giving the back of Sarah's head pointed looks and Mr. Young at the head of the table, obviously wishing he were elsewhere, smoking his pipe. It's normal, like every other Sunday as far back as Pepper can remember, and then she catches a look between Brian and Wensley that changes the world.
Adam Young is special. Pepper knows this, as do all of the Them, though they would never say it. It's their secret, a secret that lies tucked away under layers of awareness in the back of their minds, a shared secret they'll keep until the end of the world, and perhaps beyond. It's the kind of secret that would govern their lives, if they weren't the Them and Adam weren't himself. But because they are who they are, it's just a secret because nobody else knows, and things are safer that way.
Anyway, it wouldn't do for Adam to get too swollen-headed. The Them are Adam's friends, not his minions, and they don't let anyone forget it, especially Adam himself.
But Adam is special. He can change the world without even thinking. And Pepper's got used to this; they all have, because Adam's being special is one of the things that make them Them, just as Brian's eternal, slightly mussed good cheer and Wensleydale's embarrassing habit of being intellectual at parties make them Them. Pepper can deal with Adam's being special. She can accept that he'll always be embroiled in a fight with the world, that he'll always have to struggle to stop the world from revolving around himself.
What she can't handle is Brian and Wensley. Like that -- Brian and Wensley, because that Sunday they look at each other and Pepper sees. She knows, and she knows that these two boys -- men now, men she's known all their lives and hers, are now all grown up and in a fight against the world that she can't share. And she resents that, furiously, unreasonably, with an intensity that startles even herself.
Later she explains her reaction to an embarrassed Wensley as feeling left out.
"It was always me and Brian and you, and Adam," she tells him. "You know. But it's not anymore. Now that you're--"
"Right," says Wensleydale. He's pinker than she's ever seen him since that sad incident at that Connie Ridley's fourteenth birthday party. "I -- I'm sorry, Pep --" But Pepper waves his apologies away. He should know better.
"So you and Adam -- you're not?" he says.
"No," Pepper says, even though Wensleydale already knows. She and Adam aren't. They never will be. Pepper loves Adam, and she knows him. He's not evil, but he's not perfect, either, and Pepper won't let herself fall in love with a man who could make the world into nothing with a thought.
Besides, Adam's like a brother to her. Pepper isn't that open-minded.
She gives Wensley an awkward hug, because he and Brian are both the brothers she never had, and she lets him go off thinking the problem is just a stupid girly feeling, an adolescent fear of change. Some things you don't let even your dearest friends know.
Pepper isn't afraid of change. She isn't afraid of anything. That's the problem.
Pepper has too much dauntlessness, and nothing to do with it.
Maybe this is why it happens. Why one day, when a woman with glorious red hair and a walk that says sexdangersex looks her over in a diner and smiles, showing all her teeth, Pepper neither glares nor rolls her eyes as she always does. She looks at the woman, taking in the eyes and the clothes and the fancy schmancy, too-bad-for-this-world air that Pepper would have crushed to dust if she had seen it in school. She thinks about Brian and Wensleydale, and Adam, and her mother, and what it's like living in a world where the name Pippin Galadriel is no longer a hindrance. She feels a memory stir in the darkest place in the back of her mind, the place where she never goes even in her dreams, and thinks maybe it was too late to glare before the woman even looked at her.
And Pepper smiles back anyway.
* * *
That is Pepper's version of the beginning.
War's version is longer, bloodier, and infinitely more complex, although not necessarily more interesting. War certainly wouldn't think so, because she's finding to her surprise and annoyance that she still has a thing or two to learn about humans even after millennia of working among them.
She was sent back to Earth after the botched-up Apocalypse -- she would have returned anyway, because you can't kill War off permanently, any more than you can kill Pollution or Famine or cockroaches off for the long run. As long as there are two humans alive, War will survive.
At first she goes back to doing her job, much as she always has done. The Middle East is always ripe for conflict, and she never tires of her little one-offs around the world: acts of violence small and almost negligible in this age of nuclear warheads and rampaging teenagers with machine guns, but poetic in their simple brutality. She's quite proud of those, nearly as proud as she is of her epics. She'll still defend World War I and II as masterpieces, however flawed, and despite what happened to her third world war, she goes on with her work with her enthusiasm undimmed. There's always another day.
But things have changed. There's an emptiness in the back of what for the sake of argument War will have to call her head. War barely notices it at first, but sometimes when she turns her head too fast it expands and knocks against the sides of her skull, and eventually she realises there's a bubble of something she can't quite understand or explain, hiding inside her like a tumour.
She starts off a little chain of conflicts across the Far East. The silence inside her resounds. She gets a job as the personal assistant of the governor of a developing country, and develops some rather deliciously cunning little guerilla wars on the side. The bubble yawns.
War feels another something grow inside her as time goes by and the bubble doesn't go away, and first she's irked, then horrified when she realises the new something is called desperation.
And the others aren't any help at all.
"Have you . . . sensed anything odd lately?" she asks Famine, on one of their occasional meetings.
Famine looks at her, quizzical and slightly worried. The worry reassures War. She likes people to look worried when they speak to her.
"How do you mean?" asks Famine.
War has no idea.
"Just -- in general," she says vaguely.
"Can't say I have," Famine says carefully after a pause, and his doubt reassures War too. Then she realises she's being reassured by the tone of someone's voice, and the bubble inside her positively rings.
She makes her escape soon after that, leaving Famine looking bewildered, suspicious, and utterly unhelpful. Famine and Pollution and -- the other one are good workers and her colleagues, but sometimes War could happily put a few bullets through their heads. They are such men.
And where did that thought come from? War likes being female, but gender is a human thing and human is the one thing she and her colleagues definitely are not.
It takes some time for War to realise that she may not be entirely right there.
The realisation lies dormant in the back of her consciousness for a long time, but it grows like a revolution, with conspiracies whispered in the night and little subconscious nudges from War herself. And one day in a diner War sees a girl with short red hair and a surprisingly attractive freckled face, and the realisation bursts in her head like a million humans with red sashes and a list of very urgent grievances.
There is a strange something growing inside of War, and it is called humanity.
At least, that is the explanation she gives herself for looking the girl over and giving her a smile like the ground opening beneath them. She doesn't let herself think that the girl has a peculiar pull, a pull that could be in her smile, shining despite her bad teeth, or in her practical hairstyle, but which more likely is in the set of her shoulders and the way she walks, a cocky stalk that dares the ground to fight back. She doesn't let herself think that a lot of the bubble is loneliness, and maybe a little boredom after such a long time, doing the same thing over and over again.
She blames it on the humanity. She's caught it, like a disease. Being put down, however momentarily, left her open and vulnerable when she came back, and this is the result.
This is the excuse she would give her colleagues, if War ever gave excuses. But she doesn't. War takes prisoners and lives and, sometimes, red-headed girls with freckles and a fighting glint in their eyes.
It's not so bad. The girl can't cook, but she can box and dance and she has a surprising hidden talent for macrame. The girl likes Famine's atrocious excuses for nutrition, but she also eats real food -- she eats everything, actually. The girl takes her to watch movies with guns and lasers and it would all be rather laughable if it weren't for the girl's pure delight in them. The girl's name is Pepper. She tells War her real names, but War hardly ever remembers them.
The girl always remembers War's real name.
All of which really shouldn't interest War as much as it does, but it does. That damnable humanity again.
It's really not so bad.
* * *
Of course, it's not all good either.
War visits Pepper, never the other way around, and one day Pepper meets her with a crumpled newspaper in her hand.
"Seven dead in Kosovo today," she says without preliminaries, "you bitch --" and she closes the door with a bang that means it isn't supposed to stay closed. It's a bang that says, Knock on the door and yell back, but War is new at this whole humanity gig and she makes possibly the worst mistake in her life, even counting Switzerland. She leaves.
When she next returns, cursing her own self -- well, the Geneva convention doesn't even compare. Pepper makes it abundantly clear that she isn't going to stand for any mistakes, whether or not War is a millennia-old anthropomorphic personification who's in her first serious relationship with a human since, well, ever. War stands her shouting until she remembers fuck it, she's War, never mind this bizarre human aberration, and she starts fighting back.
By the time it ends, Pepper's going to have to work at least a month to cover the damages, and her landlady is never going to forgive either of them.
The sex is fantastic.
And that's the way it goes. There are many reasons why War is with Pepper, here and now, but she's usually too interested in what is going on between them to care why. Pepper is bewildering and new and War wonders how she missed this in the thousands of years she's spent on Earth.
Human. What a thought.
It turns out that Pepper thinks, confusingly, that War does her job because she's evil and it delights her dark heart to see humans suffer and die in agony. War doesn't object to suffering and dying in agony -- it's all part of the job. But that's the point. War does her job because it's her job. Pepper doesn't understand.
"You have a job," said War (marvelling that even this she knew, she remembered, she cared). "Something to do with mechanics?"
It wouldn't do to let Pepper know she knows everything about her, every little detail -- not memorised, just there inside her, inescapably a part of herself. War knows this much; she's learning. She tries not to think about what it means, that she leaves England free of her terror, that she hasn't visited Majorca in ages because she knows Pepper's great-aunt lives there. No-one's noticed so far, and the great thing about War's job is nobody cares where she does it as long as it happens. Dead people are dead people, no matter where they turn up.
"But it's not the same, is it?" Pepper says reasonably. She's always reasonable when they talk about War's function and self; she seems to pride herself on the fact that she accepts War for what she is, even if her acceptance is tinged with reservation. "I go to a building every day and look at bits of cars to make sure they're safe for people to drive. I get a paycheck, and then I come home. You go to a country, kill off about sixty people with a suicide bomber, and then you go to another country and you do the same thing, and then you go to another country and you do the same thing, and then --"
"I get your meaning," says War testily. She can't think of anything to say to Pepper, except: "I don't always use suicide bombers."
And Pepper gives a long drawn-out sigh, a sigh that's ten years old and a thousand at the same time, and War knows to hell with human frailty, she's going to scratch in bed tonight.
But that's another thing that's good -- Pepper fights in bed, like she fights everywhere else, and she doesn't care if War's perfect fingernails leave half-moon-shaped scratches red on her freckled skin. They battle with a kind of silent ferocity, and it's not always play, but War does hold back. Pepper wakes up in the mornings.
"I couldn't afford to spend days at the hospital every time you visited, anyway," Pepper says, in that disarmingly matter-of-fact tone of hers, and War finds herself nodding along before she even realises what has been said.
This happens all the time. War suspects it's the company Pepper kept when she was a child, but she doesn't dare ask.
It's unnerving as nothing else has been for a long time, but War couldn't do this with anyone else in the world.
* * *
The fact is the bubble of silence is gone and there's something odd and fragile and human breathing inside her now, and War thinks it's called happiness, or Pepper. Possibly both.
"I don't think Brian and Wensleydale approve of this," Pepper says abruptly one day, when they're both in bed and the sun is getting low in the sky. "Well. Us."
War knows Brian and Wensleydale, and -- the other. She and Pepper do not talk about the other. War doesn't let herself think about him. Of the million things that she has stopped thinking about now that humanity has crept up on her like a sickness, the other is the one subject she avoids because she knows, without a doubt, that it is the most dangerous. More than this bizarre, nameless thing between her and Pepper, more than her new slackness in her job, more than Heaven and Hell combined, probably.
Pepper just says it's boring to talk about the other all the time.
"His head's big enough already," she says firmly.
Pepper sees the world in a way that allows her best friend to be a nameless omnipotence and her lover to be a curse of humanity and for all this to somehow still be, in some mysterious way, all right. This is more enchanting than anything else, more enchanting even than the way Pepper almost strikes sparks from the pavement when she puts one foot in front of the other, or the way she wrinkles her nose more emphatically than anyone else in the world, or the way she uses War both as an excuse and a reason to go on living.
Now War, thinking of all these things, hitches herself up above Pepper and says lazily, in that deliberately sultry way she knows irritates Pepper more than it arouses her,
"They'll just have to get over it." She kisses Pepper. Her lips are just like her -- soft and chapped and tasting a little of the sensibly flavourless lip balm she uses.
"You're all grown-up now," says War, and she's only a little startled when Pepper lunges, grabbing her and pinning her down.
"Don't say that," says Pepper, exasperated. As always, she speaks as if the very concept that War might not know the reason for her exasperation were utterly ridiculous. "Everyone always says that. You'd think--" a petulant, injured whine in her voice now, and War can't quite decide if it's attractive or not -- "you'd think they'd think of something new. They always go on about it. I thought you were different."
War decides that it's not attractive at all, but just then Pepper kisses her firmly.
"I am different," says War when she remembers how to breathe. "I'm more different from everyone else than you'll ever understand."
She just stops herself from saying little mortal, because while Pepper likes friction, there are some things you just don't say, even to your combative lover. And War wants to get laid some time this night, thank you very much.
Pepper hears it anyway, but for whatever mysterious reason of her own, she doesn't attack.
"I know," she says comfortably. That's another talent of hers, to give the whole mad world sense just by telling it off in a firm tone of voice. "That's the best thing about you."
She kisses War again, and this time it's not a fight. It's still good.
It's not so bad, War thinks. If she's got to be human, this is definitely the way she'd choose to go.
That's the excuse she'd give, if War gave excuses. Which she doesn't.
This doesn't need any, anyway.