“Tony? Tony, can you hear me?” It was the voice of an angel, calling him to Heaven. No, it was his angel, Pepper. He could only remember he had to find her. She was in trouble.
Hearing her voice meant she was close. Excitement jump-started him to consciousness. “Pepper?” He was annoyed his voice sounded so groggy and he couldn’t hold up his head. What the hell was I drinking anyway?
“Tony! Thank God. Are you all right?”
Am I? It took a few seconds to figure out what happened. He’d been drugged in Central Park, just after handing over his suitcase armor to terrorists. He’d tried to drop his phone, but he wasn’t sure if he succeeded and even if he did, his assailant could have picked it up after he was out cold. He was in a half-cylindrical metal room, undoubtedly on The Villa, tied quite tightly to a chair. If he wasn’t mistaken, Pepper was right behind him, probably also tied to a chair facing the other way, or she would be hugging him or at least trying to untie him. “Hi, honey. I’m home,” he quipped.
Pepper tittered nervously, but with obvious relief. “I thought they took your heart thingy. I thought you were dying.”
He looked down at his chest. He was wearing a sweatshirt, which meant he wouldn’t see the blue glow even if it was there. However, he knew what it felt like when the electromagnet stopped, and this wasn’t it. With every passing second, he was feeling more energetic, not less. “Nope. Still here.” For the moment. But what would stop them from taking his arc reactor, just as Obie had done? It was worth a lot more than the suit, especially since the Mark V was booby-trapped to hell. And both the suit and the reactor, together? How could I be so stupid?
“So what’s the plan?”
Rescuing her had definitely been the plan. But his plans had gone haywire and now he was improvising. He hadn’t told Happy where the drop was. He wasn’t even sure how long he’d been knocked out. For all he knew, Happy could still be in California. Rhodey didn’t know where the drop was either, but at least he knew about Hammer’s submarine. Then again, Rhodey was in Afghanistan. Keckle was the only person who should have been expecting him, but he wouldn’t know where to look or who to notify when he didn’t show up. The truth was not good, so he decided to go for the laugh. “Ta-da! I’m here to rescue you!”
“I’m serious, Tony.”
Crap, she pulled the serious card. Time to change the subject. “Speaking of serious, I’ve been in your apartment. I saw what you left in the bathroom.”
“I...” Her voice broke. “I was going to tell you when I saw you.”
He made his voice tender. No more joking. “I know. I also saw how Hammer kicked you. Are you all right?” He should have asked this sooner. Damn, he wanted to hold her so badly right now.
“I think I lost it. There was a lot of bleeding.”
He was ready to hear she lost it, but ‘a lot of bleeding’ alarmed him. “How much ‘a lot’?”
“Totally ruined my new Victoria’s Secret I wanted to show you,” she said, whimpering heavily.
Even tied up and scared to death, she could joke and be sexy at the same time. Why had it taken him so long to see what had been right in front of him all these years? “I’m worried about you. Did the bleeding stop? Are you all right?”
“I was better before you got here.”
She was right, he shouldn’t be here like this. He should have only been here with his armor on and a rescue sub docked and ready to carry her away to safety. For once, the snark didn’t come and he was speechless.
“I—I didn’t mean it like that,” Pepper said, bringing her whimpering under control. “I mean, they only tied me up again because they stuck you in here. They knew I’d untie you if they left me free.”
“You have them all intimidated after you bit Hammer’s finger.”
She sniffled loudly. “He said he was going to edit that out.”
“He did. JARVIS restored it. Actually, he just cut out the part where you quit on me again.”
“It wasn’t in writing,” she said in a small voice. Her crying seemed to have mostly stopped. “I didn’t want Hammer to know you cared. I didn’t want him to think I was good leverage against you.”
Tony hadn’t thought of that angle. He would have paid money for Bambi or Happy without a second thought, but he probably wouldn’t have handed over a suit for anyone else. Evidently, Hammer knew that and used it against him. “Well, you are. I gave him the Mark V.”
“What? How could you?”
“Pep, these are the same goons who kidnapped me in Afghanistan. I couldn’t stand it if they hurt you.”
“What do you mean? Hammer never went to Afghanistan. He was here trying to get your defense contracts while everyone thought you were dead.”
“The guys Obie was selling under the table to—the guys who almost killed me—they broke Hammer out of jail. They killed Yinsen. They would kill you too, if I didn’t give them what they wanted. Well, sort of.”
“Sort of? How do you sort of kill someone?”
“I didn’t mean the killing. I mean, I sort of gave them what they wanted. The suitcase is booby-trapped.”
“Oh, and they’re not going to figure that out?” She had to be over her crying now to make that remark in that biting sarcasm of hers. This was the Pepper he knew and loved.
“Well, yeah, but I didn’t expect to be here when they did.” He was about to mention that he’d sent Happy to fetch the Mark VI, but it occurred to him Hammer and his Ten Rings buds could be listening. What else had he said that he shouldn’t have? He really was losing his genius status today. “Speaking of—do you know where we are?”
“I thought it was an airplane at first, but we’ve never landed. Nothing can fly this long without refueling. Is it a train?”
“Actually, the military has planes that can deliver fuel in mid-air, but Hammer doesn’t have access to them.” How much worse could all this be if Hammer had been a real innovator? Tony shuddered to think. “We’re in a submarine in the Atlantic. I hadn’t figured out where yet. The Mark V was supposed to lead me to you.”
“A submarine?” Something like shock or fear ran through her voice. He didn’t recall her being afraid of the water. She’d been on his yacht before and never faltered. His uncharacteristic hesitation spurred her to fill the gap. “Tony, I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault.”
“No, I mean I’m sorry for giving you a hard time. It—it never occurred to me you couldn’t find me or get to me. You can’t take the suit underwater, can you?”
“Limited depth, I can. But I can’t go punching holes in a submarine unless I want everyone inside to drown. I’d need to get in through a pressurized divelock or docking hatch, get you in another suit, and then punch a hole. But I couldn’t do anything until I found you.”
“Well, you found me. Now what?”
Great, so they were both lost. But that was no need to get all grim. “Can’t tell you.” That much was true, because he had no idea what to do next. “They might be listening,” he added. Also true. Being all secretive made it sound like there was a plan, which he fervently hoped would cause Hammer to be worried if he did hear them.
If Pepper realized he was bluffing through implication, she was smart enough not to mention it. She was incredibly sexy when she was smart, which was actually quite often, but he took her for granted too much. “Oh. Right.”
As if on cue, Tony heard the door open, but he couldn’t turn his head far enough to see it. “Who is it?” he whispered to Pepper.
“Hammer,” she muttered.
Tony rolled his eyes and mentally prepared himself for Mr. Insufferable.
“Well, well, well,” Hammer said in his supremely self-satisfied tone, no doubt leading into his gloat-of-the-century.
“Deep subject,” Tony retorted deadpan.
“Anthony, my friend. My, how the tables have turned.”
“Really? Because I don’t remember ever kidnapping the mother of your child,” Tony heard Pepper gasp at the revelation, but she didn’t interrupt and he didn’t pause to let Hammer do it either, “and then kicking her hard enough to cause a miscarriage, or tying you up beside her while I made you listen to me gloat. I mean, sure, I gloated in Congress, but you were free to go, and perhaps you should have after I showed that footage of you turning your test pilot into a pretzel. That must have been rather embarrassing for you, but maybe no more embarrassing than—”
“Shut up! I don’t have to listen to this. I can put a gag on you, you know.” He had crossed the room and now was in Tony’s face, smugness oozing from every pore of his pasty grin.
Tony, for his part, wanted to shut his eyes because the jerk was so incredibly annoying, but it might look like fear. That was the last thing he would show this puffed-up excuse for a human being. “Yeah, that would shut me up and then you win by default, right?”
Hammer’s hand reared back and smacked his left cheek. It stung, but he’d been hurt worse before.
“So what now, tough guy? You beat me up while I’m all bound and defenseless? That ought to make you feel good. This what you kidnapped me for, so you could feel powerful?”
“Actually, I didn’t think they’d get you.” His body language and his tone was cocky, condescending. “The suit, yes, but not you. I put the odds of that at about four to one. Lost that bet, but look what I got? The great Anthony Stark.”
“I been meaning to ask about that. How did you get the suit anyway?” Tony had a few ideas, but why guess when he could just ask Mr. Self-Important? The more he stroked Hammer’s ego, the more he gave away. And maybe, just maybe, Tony could buy them some time.
“What? We fooled the biggest genius of all time? Looks like your crown is slipping.”
At least my crown is real and not plastic. Tony barely kept himself from saying it out loud. He knew he made mistakes. At least he was man enough to admit it when he was wrong. “Yeah. It does that. So what was it? False bottom with a chute that let you pick it up from behind the next tree?”
Tony wanted nothing more than to kick his laughing butt into next week, but he forced a neutral expression. Play stupid. Let Hammer feel superior. Sooner or later, he’d make a mistake. Tony just hoped he was still alive to see it.
“That trashcan you put it in? We set it on top of a manhole that connects to an old section of the subway. You threw it right into our hands and we walked away before you even knew we had it.”
“Not bad,” Tony said sincerely. He had indeed been fooled and it wasn’t like they didn’t know it already. “So you got the suit. Congratulations. You’ve just given terrorists a big leg up. Hope you’re proud.”
“Actually, they’re not very happy with the condition it’s in.” Hammer almost sounded amused with this, like he’d expected it.
Tony smirked. “Stark Industries gives no warranties on stolen merchandise.”
“They want me to torture you into telling us how to fix it.”
“Take me to it and I’ll have it fixed in no time. Free of charge.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then you’re on your own.”
“Maybe I’ll just give them Miss Potts here.”
Tony adopted a threatening tone. “Leave her out of it, Hammer. She doesn’t know anything about the suit. She just takes care of the business side of Stark Industries. Well, not even that anymore. She quit on me, which I blame you for. She’s an innocent bystander. Let her go, and you and I can settle our differences.”
“How’s it feel to not get your way, eh, Anthony? Consider this: there are a lot of men here at my Villa, and she’s the only woman. We’ve been at sea a long time and the men are lonely. I think you’ll be a lot more helpful after she’s had a few nights of friendly company.”
Tony jerked against his restraints and spoke through gritted teeth. “Leave her alone. You hurt her again in any way and I’ll kill you.”
“Not this time. I’ve got the upper hand here. Besides, who said anything about hurting?” Hammer stepped toward Pepper.
Tony turned his head. Hammer made sure he was still in Tony’s line of sight and stroked Pepper’s hair. It was probably a good thing JARVIS wasn’t here, or that blood pressure alarm of his would be going off again. Once again, Tony strained against the zip-ties, cutting into his wrists so hard that blood started to trickle out.
Pepper whipped her head around and chomped down so her teeth made a loud clack. Hammer jumped about a foot.
Tony bit his lips to keep from laughing. It would make Hammer mad and he didn’t want Pepper to pay for it.
Hammer pretended nothing happened. “Hey, you know, maybe we won’t need any help anyway. We’ll bypass all your puerile little traps and then I’ll just start over with new software. No big deal. I did it on War Machine. I can do it again. But then consider this: what happens to both of you when you’re no longer useful?”
He let his cryptic statement hang in the air. Footsteps retreated and then the hatch banged shut and sealed behind him.