He sees her, though. Even with his eyes shut, he sees her.
He sees her in that un-fucking-believable dress, with ropes of pearls in her hair.
Sees her gulping down her drink in a fit of nerves, so charmingly out of her element at that gala even though she'd put every other woman there to shame.
He sees her punching Algernon square in the face, breaking his nose and laying him out flat with a single, effortless-looking blow.
Sees her beneath him on his bed that first night, gown ripped asunder in a shower of scales; her hair haloed out around her, eyes so dark with desire they'd been nearly black. Face flushed and filmed with perspiration, their hands entwined as they'd moved together, seeking their mutual release.
He sees her hiding from him the next morning, face buried his old, soft shirt, the same one that's cushioning his head now, and he'd been so afraid – terrified, in fact – that she would bolt, but she hadn't. She hadn't, and he's thanked God every day since.
She's so brave. Braver than him by half, the bravest person he knows.
He sees her in her fencing gear, pulling off the face mask and shaking out her hair, smug after defeating him; hears a snatch of banter echoing in the dark, empty space.
Well don't you look just SO proud of yourself? What do you say we make the next match more interesting?
Oho, a wager? What did you have in mind, Gunther Breech?
If I win, you have to spend another night in my dork hole.
And if I win?
If you win – he'd flashed her a positively wicked little grin – I get to spend another night in yours.
Her eyes had widened in mock outrage. Those seem like heavily weighted odds, sir. And here I took you for a gentleman. She'd saluted him sharply with her foil, then yanked her mask back on and dropped into dueling stance. En garde!
He sees her on Dragon, the first time he'd ridden with her. She must have read the trepidation in his eyes because as she'd passed him her spare helmet, she'd caught his face in her other hand and pulled him down to press a lingering kiss on his lips. Gunther, she'd murmured, I've got you.
Sees her banging around in his kitchen, preparing a meal for the two of them, and she's a good cook – surprisingly so, given the long hours she spends at work, and her many recreational pursuits. She's at home so relatively little, when the hell had she found the time to hone her culinary skills!? It's slightly unfair how amazing she is. She does have difficulty with proportions, though – half the time she cooks for him there are leftovers, and the other half he has to throw together a quick salad to augment the meal because there isn't quite enough to go around… but he can't complain because shit, he can't cook at all.
He sees her in her office at DraCo the first time he'd visited her there, looking every inch the high-power executive. With her neat, conservative pencil skirt, her hair pinned up and demure little pearl studs in her ears, she'd driven him instantly wild with lust. He'd locked the door behind himself and backed her up against her desk, lifting her onto it and taking her then and there - until she'd reversed their positions and taken him right back. It had been well worth the expression on Pepper's face – smugness edging toward bonafide gloating – when they'd emerged, rather tousled, a full hour later.
He sees her sweat-slick and grinning after a particularly demanding jog they'd taken together, face flushed and eyes alight and damp tendrils of flame-colored hair sticking to her temples and her neck – remembers thinking beautiful… beautiful.
Sees her sitting across the table from him in the intimate little restaurant he'd taken her to on their one-month anniversary, clad in that spellbinding midnight-blue cocktail dress, her freckled nose crinkling in distaste when he'd suggested cheesecake for dessert. He'd laughed out loud at her expression – how on earth could something be so endearing and so arousing all at once!? It had made him want to kiss her wrinkled-up nose... and then the corner of her mouth... and then the little hollow at the base of her throat... and then... but criminy, at the same time – what kind of freak dislikes cheesecake!?
He sees her – hell, he can almost feel her – nestled up against him on the sofa in an old tee-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms, that time they'd both been nursing colds at the same time and had spent an entire day binge-watching the second season of Stranger Things. Eight consecutive hours of guzzling tea and holding onto each other and shouting "don't go IN there!" at the screen with their hoarse, scratchy head-cold voices.
He sees her opening her birthday present, the way she'd gotten it halfway unwrapped and then gone suddenly stock still, eyes widening in shocked incredulity. Jane is neither stupid nor naive, and she is very well-versed in the world of motorcycle gear. She'd known what she was looking at, had known its worth. She'd tried to refuse the gift, calling it too much, too extravagant, but he'd insisted.
He thinks… no, he knows... that talking her into accepting that armor is the single most important, the most pivotal and crucial, thing he's ever done in his life.
He sees her impacting the side of that building and then crumpling to the sidewalk. Trying to push herself back up – dear fucking God, where does she get such reserves of strength and will? – only to collapse again.
Sees the paramedics working on her, the horrifyingly grim expressions on their faces; sees her being maneuvered onto a stretcher and bundled into the ambulance, and he hadn't been able to go with her because the police had needed to talk to him and he has never – he has never – been so bereft as he was in that moment.
He sees her lying pale and broken in the hospital bed. Sees the tubes and the monitors and the bandages and the wires and… holy hell, there's more medical equipment than there is Jane.
He curls up tighter, cradling her running shoe to his chest, and finally manages to fall into a fitful sort of half-sleep. He startles back to full consciousness a couple of times when his phone goes off, but it isn't Pepper so he doesn't answer.
Eventually his breathing evens out and he manages to sink into a state at least approximating true rest.
Jane is laughing, head thrown back, delighted.
There's an oversized swing in the park, just off a jogging trail they frequent, that can easily seat two adults, and they've swung on it before – most memorably the time they'd arranged themselves face to face, with Jane straddling his lap.
This time is different though; they're sitting in the more common configuration, side-by-side, but this time they're going… really high. REALLY high.
Higher than they've ever gone before, so high he can barely see the ground.
Gunther finds this distinctly unsettling, but Jane is in her element, loving it.
So he tries to relax and just… enjoy the ride.
It isn't happening, though.
Especially when she gives him that sideways look of hers, grins from ear to ear, and says, "Ready?"
"Ready for what?" he asks, although he has a sinking feeling that he already knows the answer -
And he's right.
She rolls her eyes as if he's being deliberately obtuse – and, he supposes, he is.
Sunlight and shade dapple her face, creating constantly changing patterns of light across her skin as they swing back and forth, back and forth. It's almost hypnotic.
It's almost dizzying. His stomach turns over.
"Ready to jump," she says emphatically. "Together on three."
"It'll be just like flying. One."
"Jane, NO! We're too high!"
"Don't be a ninny, Gunther." She grabs his hand, twines her fingers through his. "I've got you. Two."
"Are you insane?! For God's sake, stop!"
She locks gazes with him again, and all of the good humor is gone from her face. There's such a deep and desperate sadness in her eyes now, it takes his breath away. "I don't have a choice," she says. "It's time. I'm doing this with or without you." She leans in, presses a chaste kiss to his cheek, and simultaneously pulls her hand free of his. "I love you, Gunther. THREE!"
They've just reached the apex of the swing's upward arc, and she launches herself into the air.
"Jane, no! NO! JANE!"
The swing carries him backward and down, and he's lost her, he's lost her, God, what was he thinking, letting go of her, letting her make that leap alone? Fucking Christ –
And he's standing in her hospital room. Jane looks the same, looks the way she's looked since it happened, pale and still, hooked up to more machines and monitors than he can count, and yet something is different, something has changed, he can sense it.
He knows it.
He sinks down on the edge of her bed and takes her nearer hand in his, careful not to disturb the IV line. He hates it, he hates it, all the tubes and wires snaking from her body, it's so invasive. It's such a violation.
He wants to rip them all away from her, to free her from them, but he knows he can't. They are what's sustaining her. She'd die without them.
But she's dying anyway.
That's what is different, that is the change he can feel in the air.
"Jane," he croaks, "don't go."
They haven't had long enough. Not even close. They're just getting started, for fuck's sake. They were supposed to have… forever. And that, Gunther senses, is at the core of why Algernon had done this to her. To them. Because they're the real deal, he and Jane, and that sick bastard hadn't been able to stand it.
She doesn't move, doesn't respond at all in any discernible way, but one of the monitors starts beeping alarmingly. Gunther jerks his head toward it, then back to her still face.
"Don't do this, Jane."
A second alarm joins the first.
Then a third.
They're creating an ear-splitting cacophony.
"Jane, you can't." He tightens his grip on her, IV line be damned. "You can't go. I've got you. I've got you." He raises her hand to his lips, repeating those three words over and over again, but before he can kiss it as he'd intended, the doctors rush into the room and they're surrounding her, pulling him away.
Because he doesn't have her, he doesn't, they're just empty, meaningless words. And as this knowledge crashes over him the heart monitor flatlines, and Jane, Jane, Jane, JANE –
He's struggling to reach her again, and FUCK the doctors, they're not helping anyhow, in fact they're shaking their heads and turning away, they're giving up on her and he wants to rip them to pieces for that, but he wants to reach Jane more, and the alarms are ringing in his ears, ringing, they're ringing, they're –
Vibrating in his hand and ringing, ringing, ringing.
He pries his eyes open, sees that the fencing room is awash in daylight again. Blearily, achingly, he pushes himself into a sitting position, confused by the blanket that slides from his shoulders to pool around his waist.
Where did… wait… he hadn't gotten a… what?
Before he can puzzle any further at the mystery of the blanket, though, his mind is returned to his incessantly ringing phone. Because…
He's been anticipating a phone call… hasn't he? Well, that's not exactly right; it's more like he's been steeling himself for one. He's been… uh…
His thought process is so terribly, grindingly slow.
That's it. If anything changed… with Jane… then Pepper, Pepper had promised to…
He brings the phone up, squints at the screen.
Gunther fumbles to accept the call but his fingers are clumsy, half with sleep and half with sudden panic, and Christ, oh Christ, he just – can't –
By the time he manages to hit accept the call has been terminated. Shaking now, practically growling with frustration, he starts to call her back – but before he can, a text comes through instead.
It's five words, all caps, his misspelled name a testament to Pepper's haste.
GUNHTER GET BACK HERE NOW
After that, he's just… moving.
He scrambles to his feet, nearly over-balances, manages to catch himself in the bare nick of time. Takes a step, tangles his feet in the blanket, almost goes sprawling again. Cursing, he kicks his way free; spies a full water bottle a couple of feet away from where he'd been lying, snatches it up – he's ragingly thirsty – and runs for the elevator.
Scrawled on the side of the bottle in Sharpie is a succinct message:
Take a shower. You stink. Love you, cuz. –L
Lavinia. She'd flown over from the continent the moment word had reached her, and has been staying, of course, in one of the guest suites. Mystery solved; she's the one who'd covered him.
He gulps down the water, emptying the bottle in four swallows as he waits for the elevator. He spends the ride down to ground level cursing the slow pace of nearly-hundred-year-old machinery, and shouting into his phone for a car. Gunther never takes this tone with his staff, but the woman on front desk duty takes it in stride. They all know what he's going through, and they all love Jane. A casual visitor wouldn't notice it (or at least, recent guest reviews haven't reflected it) but a definite pall has settled over the Kippernium Hotel.
Then he's sprinting across the lobby and to hell with the shocked stares he elicits (on the off-chance that this qualifies as an actual disturbance, his PR people will handle it masterfully, he has no doubt) – he's skidding to the curb, virtually throwing himself into the waiting car and shouting at the driver to GO, GO! in a voice that's frayed almost to the breaking point.
The driver, being an employee of the hotel, doesn't need to ask where.
He's panting when he careens through the door to her room, hair hanging in his wild eyes.
Pepper had been sitting in a chair pulled up to Jane's bedside, holding her hand, but when she sees Gunther she rockets to her feet and throws herself into his arms, face crumpling, breath hitching, dissolving completely into nearly hysterical tears.
Gunther actually staggers back a step, unprepared for her full weight to be hurled against him like that. His eyes are everywhere, frantic, scanning the monitors one after another, noting the distinct lack of any medical professionals in the room, taking in Jane herself, but nothing looks different from when he'd left.
Yet Pepper is sobbing almost convulsively onto his shoulder and what – the actual – fuck is going on here?!
He isn't even aware at first that he's started repeating her name in a steadily rising voice.
"Pepper! Pepper!" He grips her gently but firmly by the shoulders and pushes her away to arm's length, holding her there and then actually giving her a little shake. He's beside himself, goddamnit, he needs information.
"PEPPER! WHAT!? What's happening!?"
"Gunth – Gunther –" she can barely compose herself enough to answer. "She opened her eyes!"
His knees nearly buckle. "When?" He croaks.
Pepper swipes a shaking hand across her tear-soaked, splotchy face. Her nose is running. "Right before I tried to reach you, of course. What was that… twenty minutes ago?"
"How long? How long was she –?"
"Not even a minute." Pepper takes a deep, shuddery breath. "She didn't talk. But she saw me. She squeezed my hand. And then she was looking around, I – I think she was looking for you. Then she…" Pepper waves a hand vaguely. "It was over. Fast. But… the doctors said –" she breaks down sobbing again. "The doc… doctors said… she's just suh-suh-sleeping now. Just sleeping, Gunther! She's out… out of…"
He pulls her back in against him, folding her into a brief, hard embrace… then disengages, crossing the room to where Jane lies, still so motionless, so deathly white, that he'd never guess anything had changed if Pepper hadn't told him so.
He drops into the chair that Pepper so recently vacated and leans close over Jane, slipping one hand into hers and bringing the other up to smooth her hair back from her face, toying with her curls.
God above, he loves those curls.
And then she's looking at him. Her eyes are open and she's looking at him, her gaze steady and calm, and oh so beautifully lucid, and the floor lurches beneath him and he feels like he's falling, but he knows that isn't right. The truth is, he's been in freefall for days and he's only now coming out of it, downward momentum finally arrested, because –
Jane is here.
Not just her battered body, but Jane, Jane herself, is finally back with him.
She's got him.
The relief is… profound.
Her voice is nothing but a hoarse, cracked whisper, but he still thinks it's the most beautiful sound he's ever heard when she breathes, "hey… dork."
He tries to answer her, but he can't. There is, quite suddenly, an iron band around his chest and he can barely breathe, let alone speak. She frowns slightly.
"Gunther… don't cry."
Cry? Is he? Actually, finally crying? Distantly, he realizes that maybe he is. He's not going to let go of her to wipe at the sudden wetness on his cheeks, though. He's not going to let go of her for anything, ever again.
Instead he slides out of the chair, never releasing her hand as he lands hard on his knees beside the bed.
"Marry me," he gasps.
And his Just Jane smiles.