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Little Red Balloon

By Lilliana_Greenleaf

Other / Action

Colour in the Grey

The word that most accurately described that cold January morning was grey. It was cold, of course, and a thick blanket of grey rainclouds covered the sky, even hiding the sun behind their gloom. It was drizzling, that kind of rain that doesn’t seem so bad at first, but before you know it, you’re drenched and shivering in your boots. That unforgiving sky made the skyscrapers of the city seem small and insignificant, and the rain threatened to wash away even the heaviest smog, though of course that wasn’t going to happen. Filthy snow piled up in the gutters from where it had been pushed aside by the giant foul-smelling snow plows, where it would spend weeks melting and re-freezing until the thaw of spring sent it into the drains for good.

Among the throng of New Yorkers going about their business in long scarves peering out from under heavy trenchcoats kept dry by a sea of coloured umbrellas, Tony Stark, scientist, billionaire, Avenger, and famed hero, had gone completely unnoticed. It was a first for him, but he didn’t mind so much. The change of pace was pleasant. He wore a black trenchcoat, no scarf, and carried a black umbrella. He wore a black hat and kept his collar up to keep his identity a secret, though he doubted any of these people would look up to notice him anyway. They were all too busy focusing on where they were going.

Mr. Stark let out a long sigh, watching as his breath floated away in a little cloud, not quite so grey as the rest of the world, only to be dissolved before it got very far. Everything was like that these days. Everything that was different than the dreary grey always dissolved away. Even the heroic deeds of the Avengers faded away into the white noise of the world, and Mr. Stark was left alone with himself once again. To be alone with oneself was dangerous, especially if one wasn’t friends with oneself. Mr. Stark was exactly this type of person, who absolutely loathed himself, so being alone was always a nightmare.

Mr. Stark walked through the crowds, just like everyone else. He didn’t know exactly why he was doing something so dreadfully common, but the urge had struck him when he finished his coffee earlier that morning, so he had gone for a walk. He had no notion of where he was going, but his feet carried him there, regardless of his wishes. He stared at his feet as he walked, just like everyone around him, and kept moving forward. Each step was a metaphor, just one more step, one more day, in a seemingly endless, grey life, devoid of colour. Mr. Stark shivered as a sudden gust of wind pushed him forward, then grunted when a stranger bumped into him. He huffed, extremely annoyed. However, that wind and the little bump was about to change his life.

Mr. Stark was facing an alley when he recovered himself, in a poorer part of the city. He cursed under his breath, especially when anther gust of wind carried his umbrella out of his hand and down the alley. He walked briskly, over to the corner, and bent down to pick up his umbrella, which lay open on the ground. However, a seemingly impossible gust carried it down the back alley. When he turned the corner, he stopped dead in his tracks. There, just beyond his umbrella, was a young child, probably eight or so. Mr. Stark couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. It had short hair that looked like it had been hacked off with a weed whacker, sticking up in every direction, and the kid was too dirty to tell if it was blonde or brown, or if the skin was tan or pale, even as rain made it’s hair cling to it’s face and dirt run down in streaks. The child was dressed, quite literally, in a long shirt made of a potato sack, with blue lips from the cold, slightly parted with tiny clouds of breath emerging every few seconds or so. The child was so thin that the outlines of its bones could be seen, and it’s cheeks were sunken in, just skin stretched over a skeleton. One arm hugged its knees to its chest, while the other rested on top of its knees. It its little hand, the child clutched a string that led up to a bright red balloon. The child stared at the balloon as if it were the most fascinating thing on earth.

Mr. Stark paused, watching the child for a moment, entranced. That balloon brought a little colour to the grey world, and was probably the most precious thing in the child’s possession. Perhaps it was the only thing in the child’s possession. The child had no blanket to sit on, only cold concrete that sucked any remaining heat away. It wore no shoes, no scarf, no nothing. The alley was strangely empty, without even a scrap of paper floating around, with the exception of Mr. Stark’s umbrella, of course. For an alley, it could be described as clean, with a disturbing lack of snow that plagued the streets.

Mr. Stark took a step forward, going to retrieve his umbrella. His footstep seemed to echo throughout the concrete walls of the alley, and the child’s gaze snapped from the balloon to Mr. Stark. It’s eyes were a striking bright blue, and Stark was briefly reminded of the tesseract. Those eyes were so clear, so wise, so ancient, that they seemed to look right into Tony Stark’s soul. He was frozen for a moment, captured in those wide eyes, until the child looked away, back at the red balloon.

Tony Stark had a realization at that moment. This child was dying. This child was starving, and freezing to the point where it wasn’t even shivering; it was 34 degrees Fahrenheit at the time. Perhaps, if nothing was done, that red balloon would be the last thing that the child ever saw, and the child seemed to be perfectly content with that.

Mr. Stark picked up his umbrella, and did something that surprised himself. He sat down next to the child and held it over the both of them, preventing the rain from draining any more heat from the child. “What is your name?” He asked, his voice suddenly sounding loud and harsh in the silence of the alley. It felt as if some sort of spell had been broken. Mr. Stark almost wished he hadn’t spoken. The child didn’t answer his question at first. There was a period of crushing silence. After a moment, the child, revealing herself to be a young girl, said in a very soft and weak voice, “I can’t see my balloon.” Mr. Stark looked up and sure enough, the umbrella blocked the view of the balloon. He reached up, pulling on the string, until the balloon was also under the umbrella. “There. Now you can.” A ghost of a smile tugged at the girl’s purple lips. It tugged at what Mr. Stark believed was called his heartstrings, and he knew then that he was going to do something good without destroying something. It was a big, changing moment for him. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it felt... right.

“Are you hungry?” The girl’s attention turned from the balloon to him, and once again, Tony felt as if she could see through to his soul. “Yes.” Her answer was simple, not expectant, not even hopeful, just another answer to another question. She, too, was taking one step after another, going through the motions, only her motions were a little different than his. She turned her attention back to the balloon. Tony found himself watching the balloon too. There was nothing special about it. It was just a red balloon, perhaps a little dirty, and seemingly new, for it wasn’t deflated in the slightest. He wondered where she got it. A chilly blast of wind swept through the alley, causing Tony to pull his coat closer to him. The girl didn’t move, seemingly oblivious to the piercing gale.

“What is your name?” Tony repeated his earlier question. The girl looked at him, with those piercing blue eyes, long enough to answer, “I don’t have one,” before turning back to her balloon. Tony looked back at the balloon as well. They sat in silence until Tony noticed that the girl was having trouble breathing. Her breath rattled in her lungs, loud enough to be heard over the whistle of the wind and the bustle of the city outside of the alley. Each breath sounded painful, as if ripping open her throat, and Tony realized it probably was.

“Will you come with me? I’ll warm you up and give you something to eat.” The offer was out of his mouth before Tony realized what he was saying, but he was glad he had said it. The child focused on him for a long moment, with a gaze clear and neutral. Tony felt like he was being examined for the tiniest flaw. Then the child answered, “yes.”

Tony stood, shivering against the wind, holding the umbrella over the girl as she stood, clutching the string of her balloon tightly. Tony removed his coat and draped it over the girl’s shoulders. He was surprised when she collapsed with the weight. He caught her balloon before it could fly away and knelt down, helping her to her feet. “Here, put your arms around my neck.” The girl did as she was told, and Tony carried her at his side, his arm tucked securely under her legs. He began the long and cold walk back to the Stark Industries tower, balloon and umbrella in one hand and dying child in the other. He got a few strange looks as he walked by, but nothing more.

Pepper Potts was not pleased. She began fussing as soon as Tony emerged from the elevator, berating him from his absence at an important meeting and for disappearing without notifying anyone, but all that came to a grinding halt when she saw the child in his arms. “Goodness, Tony, what is this?” Tony set his umbrella in the stand and said, “run a warm bath, and get someone to make some hot soup. Quickly please, and see if you cant find a t-shirt or something,” with all of his usual business-like airs. Pepper quickly went to do as she was told.

“It’s warm here,” the little girl murmured, her lips a little less blue. Tony nodded and tied her balloon to a chair arm so it wouldn’t float away. “Yes, it is.” He stood by the fire in the fireplace, watching as the girl tentatively held her hand out to it. “It’s hot.” She commented plainly. Tony nodded, unsure of what to say or do. “Yes, don’t touch it.” The girl seemed almost as fascinated with the flame as she did with the little red balloon. The flame, like the balloon, was a splash of colour in the grey world.

Pepper’s curiosity nearly overflowed as she gently took the girl from Tony’s arms, taking her to the bathroom where a steaming tub of water waited. She held her tongue, however, not asking any questions until the girl was in the bath with Pepper’s hands in her hair, trying to get the worst of the filth out of the tangled locks. “What is your name?” Pepper noticed that the blue colour of the girl’s lips had faded to a normal pleasant pink. The girl answered, “I don’t have one.” Pepper cleared her throat, squirting more shampoo into her hand and getting back to work. After a few minutes and fresh water, she asked, “where are you from?” The child answered confidently, “the sky.” Pepper laughed a bit, “the sky? That must have been quite a fall. Did you skin your knees landing?” The child, unamused, answered, “no. I landed on my back.” Pepper dismissed the idea, assuming that the girl was delirious after her ordeal, until she began washing the dirt off the girl’s skin with a cloth. When she got around to the back, she found a good number of half-healed scrapes on her back under all of the dirt. “How did you get these?” Pepper asked softly, not wanting to startle the girl or bring up bad memories. It almost looked like the girl had fallen and landed on gravel.

“I fell from the sky.” The girl said simply. Pepper began to wonder if it was true after all. After all, Thor had done something similar when he first came to Earth, or Midgard, as he called it. Pepper wondered if the girl was from Asgard as well. “Where are you from?” She asked, scrubbing the girl’s leg. The child answered, “the sky.” Pepper resisted the urge to roll her eyes, “where in the sky? Is there a name for it?” The girl looked up at her, and Pepper got the sense of being picked apart by those blue eyes. The way the girl’s cheeks were sunken in gave her a haunted look. The girl said quietly, “I don’t know the name. It is a land of flames of many colours. Everyone had a different colour, but mine was like no one else’s, so they sent me away.” Pepper tilted her head, what do you mean?” She paused in her scrubbing to hear the answer. “Everyone else had flames the colours of a rainbow. The priest had a white flame, the flame of all colours. He said I was cursed, because my flame is black.”

Pepper told Tony what the girl had told her while the girl sat at the end of a table in one of Tony’s old t-shirts with the red balloon tied to the chair next to her, eating some hot soup. She ate slowly, seemingly in a perfect rhythm. Tony was curious about the news, but he didn’t know what to make of it. “We can ask Thor. He’ll be here this evening with the others for drinks. I can ask him to come a bit early.” Pepper nodded; she wanted to solve this as soon as possible.

Pepper turned to watch the girl. Her hair had turned out to be the colour of honey, warm and inviting, and her skin was pale and smooth as porcelain. Now that she was clean, she was quite pretty, or she would have been, if she had some meat on her bones. She was exceptionally thin, dangerously so, but once she filled out she would be a delightful young lady.

A few hours later, Thor arrived, curious as to why Tony had called him early. The girl was laying on a couch with a fluffy red blanket, staring up at her balloon. Tony stood behind the couch, arms crossed over his chest, staring at the balloon in the same manner. Pepper cleared her throat, “Mr. Stark, Thor is here.” Tony looked over, his eyes blank at first. Then recognition flashed in his eyes and he smiled a bit. Thor greeted him heartily, shaking his hand, clapping his back, and nearly knocking him over. “Tell me, Tony, why have you called me early? Drinks are not for another hour!”

Tony glanced to the side, at the couch. “I’ve got a mystery for you, Thor.” Thor raised an eyebrow, sensing the seriousness in his tone. “Ms. Potts told me you found something peculiar.” Tony nodded, “I did.” He walked around the couch and knelt beside the girl, who was still unblinkingly focused on her balloon. He rested a hand on her frail arm, and her haunting gaze snapped to him so quickly he almost jumped back. “This is Thor,” he told her, motioning to the god peering over the couch. Her gaze turned slowly to Thor, holding his gaze for a long moment. Tony could see that Thor had a similar reaction: he seemed entranced and slightly uncomfortable.

Then her gaze travelled down to his hammer. She whispered meekly, “it sings,” before looking back at the balloon floating over her head and bobbing with the gentle currents moving through the room from the heat of the fire. Thor seemed startled, and glanced at Tony questioningly. Tony shrugged and sat down on the other couch, propping his feet on the table.

Thor sat down beside him and immediately asked, “where did you find her?” Tony replied, “I found her in an alley. She was staring up at the balloon, just like she is now. The strange thing was, the alley was spotless. Not even a flake of snow.” Thor rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Has she revealed where she hails from?”

“The sky,” Pepper answered for Tony. “She says she fell from the sky. She’s got scrapes all over her back; I thought she might be like you were when you were cast out from Asgard.” Thor shook his head, “no. She is no Asgardian, though I suspect she is not of this realm either.” After a moment of silence, Thor asked, “did she say anything else?” Pepper told him all she knew. When he was finished, Thor got to his feet and paced. “A land of flames of many colours?” He watched the girl on the couch. “Black flame?” Something tugged at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t quite place his finger on it.

“You come from the land of the golden tree,” the girl spoke quietly, hardly audible over the soft roar of the fireplace. Thor stepped closer to her. She continued, “the tree that brings life. I can’t go near it, or it will die. That’s what they told me. They cast me here.” She turned her head, and her gaze landed on Tony. “They sent me here, where the world is already dead.”

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