It was the warm sensation of something wet dripping onto her face that first dragged Pepper from the darkness. It seemed t be water, but it was tinted red with what she could only assume was blood. Disgusted, she pulled away from it, staring up at the haze surrounding her.
The ashen smell of smoke and burning fuel was heavy in the air, but despite it was only a little difficult to breath. She covered her mouth and nose with her shirt and attempted to pull herself up. She couldn't. Something heavy was weighing her down, pinning her legs to the singed carpet. She forced herself to sit and pushed the object off, rubbing her eyes to get a better view.
Staring back at her through the smoke was her mother's lifeless eyes, a smoldering chunk of jagged steel embedded in her neck.
She felt sick, but she quickly forced herself to recover and attempted once more to climb to her feet. A sharp pain shot up her leg. Grimacing, she propped herself up against the dirty window, staring at the flickering fire that had already engulfed the rear of the jet. It seemed contained, and she could see water being poured onto the flames through a hole in the roof, but the area was too hot to approach, and she was too weak to shout for aid.
All around her, corpses lay scattered on the floor, many of them filled with chunks of metal similar to the one that had claimed her mom. She could see no other survivors, but there were fewer bodies than there had been passengers, indicating that at least some people had managed to get off the plane. As for Pepper, she realized that her mother's body had shielded her from the blast, and while her fur was singed and her body sore, she was alive nonetheless.
Lady Luck had not only been at her side, but a chorus of angels as well.
Well, she though, not really. Pepper had never really accepted the idea of the supernatural, a trait she had shared with her mother and aunt. Without the possibility of a miracle, her survival seemed practically unreal. Still, she bent down and closed her mother's eyes with respect, and biting her lip she tore a strip of cloth from her shirt. She wrapped it around her fist and swung as hard as she could at the window before her, but her hand bounced off with a dull thud.
You idiot, they make this things so they don't break. Still, she couldn't help but smirk at the thought. How desperate could she be to try something so stupid?
“Did you hear that?”
Pepper's ears perked up at the sound of the voice. She couldn't tell where it had originated from, but it was clearly there, and sure enough she could soon hear heavy footsteps crunching against the glass and metal. Forcing herself to stand again, she uttered a weak plea for help, but heard nothing.
Did I imagine it--
The rough texture of a gloved hand fell on her shoulder, and instinctively Pepper whipped around ready to swing. Instead of an attacker, she found herself staring face-to-face with a Miami-Dade firefighter. Nice going you idiot. She grinned. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“Are you hurt?” he asked, reaching his arm around her shoulders.
“Ankle's twisted,” Pepper said. She realized her voice sounded rather nasal, and reaching up she pinched the cartilage in her nose. She flinched as a grinding pain seemed to spread across her face. “I think I broke my nose.”
“Kid, you've got some angels lookin' out for you,” the firefighter said, placing an oxygen mask over her face. “If all you've got is a busted nose and a sprained ankle, then someone up above must think very highly of you. You have to be the luckiest person on Earth, you know that?”
Yeah, Pepper thought. Luck.
* * *
If one ever wanted to get a feel for how bad a situation was, all they needed was to watch Carter's response to it. If it was enough to interrupt his afternoon glass of brandy, then it was urgent. If he called you while driving to deal with it, then you could expect that it was serious, and if you ever saw him break the speed limit, then the situation was life-threatening.
That day, Carter did all three.
Devon Carter had barely removed the cork from the bottle when he'd received the news. He did not think there was enough time to inform Fiona, so he called her on the road. As for the speed limit, he barely kept below ninety the entire way. The situation was not only bad, it was critical.
Even with the long crossing over North Bridge, it had taken him only an hour to reach Mercy Hospital. The parking lot was filled to the brim with reporters, all looking to push their way inside. It took a police escort to get Carter past them, and even then one of the local punks broke free from the mob to get a quote. As soon as he shouted, “Dr. Carter!” the blockade no longer mattered. As they swarmed toward then, he pressed his glasses up on his nose and swore, “God damn vultures.”
He still managed to lose the crowd, who could not push past the police at the emergency room door. Afterward, it was only a few minutes before he'd found Pepper's room. She was thankfully alive, seated on the edge of her cot staring at the clock. Her clothes were stuffed in a waste basket, and her nose and ankle were both bandaged. Upon seeing him, she glanced up and in a monotonous voice she said, “Hey.”
“Pepper, I'm sorry.”
“It's okay,” Pepper said. She stood, grabbing an old jacket nurse's jacket and pulling it over her shoulders. “She saved me, you know.”
“Anyway,” she said, tugging at her scrubs, “You're the sentimental one, and she's your daughter. I'll survive. But you... you've had losses before, haven't you?”
“I have,” Carter said. “I'll get through this, and so will you.”
It wasn't strength that made Pepper so resilient. As a child, she was diagnosed with Conduct Disorder, and it had gotten her into a few rough situations. As she grew, her behavior improved considerably, and she seemed to develop something of a sense of empathy. Even then, she was not particularly caring, prone to being blunt and callous in her speech and actions, and while she did form what one might consider meaningful bonds, she did not have much respect for others' well-being. What remorse or guilt she could feel was all that prevented her from being labeled a psychopath, and while such a personality was not rare among individuals of her intellect, it was also common among criminals.
Carter gazed down at Pepper and smiled. “What is it?”
“You wouldn't mind grabbing a chocolate milk for me, would you? My stomach's upset, and I kinda need something to settle it.”
“Why don't we get you something to eat instead?” he asked, wrapping his arm around her. “I imagine you're pretty hungry right now.
“No, not really.”
“I am,” he said as they entered the lobby. He scanned the parking lot for reporters, and was ecstatic to see that they'd been pushed back. “I'll buy you one of everything off the menu, and you can pick what you like.”
“God Grandpa, do you think I'm a pig? Just grab me a thing of fries a shake for a chaser, and I'll be fine.”
She was silent for a moment, but then, “So where's Fiona, anyway?”
“I really didn't have time to go get her,” he said, “and with Roderigo and the others still out, she's probably better off waiting for them. I did call her though, and she says she's sorry she couldn't be here. I don't think I need to tell you how sincere she is.”
“Are you kidding?” Pepper said with a snicker. “Fiona's practically the patron saint of honesty. I doubt she could tell a lie if she tried. It's really the only thing I don't like about her. It makes her too much of a target.” Her ears dropped to their sides. “Grandpa,” she asked, “You wouldn't mind if I slept on the couch for a few days, would you? The houseboat's a little big for one person.”
“Absolutely not,” Carter said. “We still have Fiona's old bedroom. You'll have to share it with a hundred dead sharks, but you will not be sleeping on the couch.”
It was the first time in years he'd seen Pepper smile.