Tony blinked hard. His eyelids were so swollen and so much blood and sweat dripped into his sockets, he could hardly see. He’d lost count of the blows after ten. His face throbbed with pain and still Hammer’s brute kept hitting him.
Pepper had begged and pleaded on his behalf, but they knew she didn’t have what they wanted, so they ignored her. He was actually fine with that. Better they ignore her than hurt her. At least her back was turned and she could only hear the blows, not see the damage it was causing. Back-to-back, but with enough room between them that someone could walk between, they couldn’t even touch fingers.
Tony could withstand the beating, but at some point, when they thought he was ‘softened up’, they would turn on her in order to get to him. Delaying that moment was his sole motivation for opening his eyes. As long as it looked like he wasn’t broken yet, they wouldn’t hurt her.
“I have to use the toilet!” Pepper screamed. “Go tell Hammer now or it’s gonna get rank in here.”
The punching machine paused.
Really? Maybe I should have tried that.
The tormentor stomped out of the room. Wow. Reprieve. Tony licked the blood on his lips, finding them cut and swollen as well.
“Tony? Are you okay?”
“Um, yeah. Great.” He didn’t try to pull his voice together and fake it. She’d been here the whole time.
No kidding. “Do you really have to go? I mean, you can’t pull that potty break thing more than once every six hours or so.”
“Yes, I really have to go,” she whimpered. It sounded like her nerves were shot. “Tony, just let them have the stupid suit. You can always get it back later.”
“No, I can’t.” Because the second I give it to them, I’m dead.
“They’re going to kill us both anyway.”
“No, they’re not.” Well, maybe. It was one thing to put together a crude suit of armor in a cave while telling idiots he was building something else. But it was damned hard to even think while tied up and getting his face beat to a bloody pulp.
“Well, I think they will.” She paused, maybe catching her breath. “I have to know something first.”
There was urgency in her voice. He knew time was short, if not before death, at least before they separated them. Separation might not be so bad. She didn’t need to hear him getting punched. Didn’t she say Hammer let her stay untied when she wasn’t with him? Much as he really didn’t feel like chatting right now, he might not get another chance. “What?”
“Did you want the baby?”
“I asked first.”
“I’m not really father material.”
“You could be, if you wanted.”
“Pep, I barely have a handle on us.”
“You’re doing better.”
“Better doesn’t cut it with a kid. I know. I was that kid once.”
“I’m not sure I want to be a mother, either, Tony. I thought I didn’t want a baby. But then why do I feel so devastated about losing it?”
“It wasn’t Hammer’s decision to make. It was yours.”
“No. It was ours. I’d be willing to try again if you wanted to, only I just don’t want it to be an accident. Let’s talk about it. I want us both to be sure before I have to do another test.”
“Accidents happen. It’s okay.”
He had taken responsibility for birth control, but had it really been an accident? He would have said definitely yes a day ago, but with a good possibility of imminent death, he wasn’t so sure he could be that glib right now. “If I wasn’t as careful as I should have been, it was subconscious.”
“Wow, that’s a pretty big admission.”
“Pepper, you’re the only one I’d ever want to be the mother of my child. You should know that before these guys kill me.”
“If you want a child, Tony, then don’t die. Live to make another one with me.”
“What? Was that a come-on?”
“We’re both tied up and you’re talking sex?”
“I’m talking about wanting to live. Do you want to live?”
“Good, then don’t give up on me. I need you.”
“I’m not giving up, but these guys seriously hate my guts.”
“Then let me take some heat for a while.”
“I quit, remember? You can’t tell me what to do.”
“It wasn’t in writing.”
“I’m defying you anyway. Stay alive and tell the board to fire me.”
“God, you’re beautiful.”
The door squeaked open. Tony banished all playfulness and braced for more torture. He couldn’t let Pepper succeed at taking the heat for him. He’d made a few allowances to the Mark V security measures to produce partial function, in case he needed to buy time while getting in place for the rescue. Now that he’d gone and trapped himself as well, he was trying to hold out as long as possible before playing those cards. They were only stall tactics, nothing else.
After several footsteps sounded, Pepper spoke. “Untie me and I’ll be company for your lonely men.”
“Don’t, Pepper,” Tony hissed between his teeth. Hammer hadn’t been out of jail for more than three or four days. That ‘men alone at sea’ line had been bull crap from the get-go.
Hammer came into view and produced a condescending cringe when he saw the face. “I’d hate to be your plastic surgeon, Anthony. Yowzer.”
Tony heard the zip-tie from Pepper’s wrists snap at being cut. Hammer had brought another thug to do it, but not the same one who had been punching a minute ago. If they weren’t trapped in a sardine can in the middle of nowhere, Tony would wish she would knee the thug in the groin and run. But she had already lost a baby just for a little nip on the finger and her chances of escaping retaliation were nil here. She needed to be careful, to not give them any excuses to hurt her.
“Hammer,” Tony said, trying to pretend the guy wasn’t an idiot, “let her have her bathroom break and let her stay untied, but don’t hand her over to your henchmen. Please. I’ll tell you how to get into the suit.”
“Right, so you can get it on. No way.”
“Leave me tied to the chair.”
“You can probably call it like a lost puppy.”
If he lived to upgrade, he’d work on that. However, it wasn’t looking like he’d get the chance. “No. I have to touch it. So leave me tied up in here. I’ll tell you what to do.”
“No he won’t,” Pepper said forcefully, although it sounded more like she was directing it at Tony than at Hammer. “He’s just trying to protect me.”
“Shut up, Potts,” Tony growled. But he knew a bluff was never going to work now. What had possessed him to tell Hammer she had been carrying his baby? Surely his mouth would one day be his undoing. He just hoped it didn’t get anyone else killed too.
While the thug cut the bindings around her ankles, Hammer chuckled darkly. “I think we’d all like some female company. You can come with me, honey.”
Tony infused his voice with as much menace as he could muster. “Don’t you honey her, Hammer. I mean it. You still need me, not her.”
“You look like you’ve been through a meat grinder, Stark. Pull yourself together and we’ll talk after lunch.”
Lunch?! He was hanging out with badass terrorists, committing prison breaks, kidnapping, illegal weapons trades, and torture, and all he could think about was lunch?
Pepper now stood where he could see her, the muscle-bound thug holding her with his thick meat hooks. Her hair and clothes were mussed, but she didn’t look as bad as he’d expected. Her eyes, however, betrayed how horrible he must look. Pity for him would make her do anything and nothing he could say would stop it. She was one stubborn little minx when it came to protecting someone she cared about.
But so was he. He turned back to Hammer and lowered his tone to deadly serious. Pepper might not even make it out from where she stood, but she didn’t need to hear. This was between Hammer and him. “If a single one of your lackeys touches her, you’re a dead man.” There was no begging or boasting. Tony would use his dying breath to carry out the threat if he had to.
Amusement played across Hammer’s smug face. “And if I just feed her and come back to beat you senseless, I get to live?” There was even a hint of laughter in his tone. This was all a game to him.
Hate and rage surged through Tony’s veins. Hammer had already earned a death sentence for the kick that caused a miscarriage. Still, Pepper would get over one kick a lot sooner than she’d get over gang-rape. Would his promise even mean anything when the scumbag had no fear? Tony couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t try. Every fiber of muscle tensed, but he raised his eyes to stare Hammer down. With barely restrained rage, he spat out, “Yes.”
Hammer burst out laughing. Pepper made a whimpering noise, struggling against the hold of the man restraining her, but she couldn’t break free. He shoved her out the hatchway.
His ex-business rival reined in his laughter enough for a parting shot: “Get a grip on yourself, Stark. Come on. Bring your ‘A’ game to the table, man.”
Tony just glared at him. He wouldn’t repeat his threat. It would just sound pathetic and desperate. It was too bad looks couldn’t kill, or Justin Hammer would miss lunch.
Time stood still while Pepper was gone. Tony vacillated between hope she was getting a decent meal and some circulation back in her hands and feet, and despair that she was being raped and beaten. His face throbbed like a bitch, but there was nothing he could do about it.
He hadn’t given up on trying to break free of his bonds, but he had so little energy left that his struggles were on the pitiful side. He could saw his whole hand off with the zip-tie, but then what? He was still trapped in this metal room, and beyond that, he was outnumbered and his foes held the only person on the planet he loved more than life itself. How long could he really hold out before he had to betray his country in order to save her? Would giving in be enough, or was this whole charade doomed to end in death no matter what he did?
Guilt and regret would not leave him alone any more than the pain would. When he finally heard the hatch opening again, he honestly couldn’t have said whether it had been 30 minutes or 30 hours since she’d left. He strained to turn his head.
“I’m all right, Tony,” she said soothingly. “Really.”
“Is Hammer with you?”
“No, just Khamed.”
Why in hell was she on a first-name basis with any of these lowlifes? At least there was no shoving and struggling this time. Pepper appeared in his sight without any restraints at all. She crouched down and brushed the blood-caked hair from his forehead, her eyes radiating sympathy and her warm fingers gentle on his bruised skin.
“Khamed promised me I could give you one last gift before he ties me up, since we’re both going to die.” But this time when she said it, it didn’t sound as resolved as before. Maybe she knew something new.
“Mmm hmm,” she purred, caressing his jowl and neck. He wasn’t sure if she was really trying to set him on fire or if this was an act for Khamed.
She laid her hands over his ears, where he wasn’t hurt or bleeding yet. Then she pulled his face in to hers and laid on one of the wettest, hottest, most gasp-worthy kisses she’d ever planted on him. Passion completely overrode any pain in his swollen lips. Tony felt his eyes rolling back in his head. Not that he really had any choice, tied up and his head held firmly in her hands, but he soaked in the pleasure of the kiss like it was his last, which it very well might be. He was still in the throes of ecstasy when he felt one small finger enter his right ear. Neither her lips nor her tongue paused in what they were doing.
At first, he thought she was getting kinky, but then he felt a familiar shape as it nestled into his ear canal. She’d just passed him an electronic earpiece!
Pepper ended the kiss. Her dreamy smile betrayed she’d enjoyed it despite it being a complete ruse. “Was it good for you?” she asked seductively.
“Best ever,” he replied.
Khamed grabbed her and pulled her away. He wasn’t especially rough, but he did look like he was uncomfortable with what he’d allowed, or perhaps he was just jealous, as well he should have been.
Tony found himself breathing hard, not only recovering from passion, but the excitement of the other gift passed in secret. He would be able to hear everyone’s conversations with this. But even better, if they hadn’t yet reduced the Mark V to a pile of bolts, he should be able to make contact with JARVIS, right under their flipping noses.
Pepper made no protest as she was re-tied to the chair. Khamed didn’t talk to her, but finished his task and hurried out, the metal hatch ringing shut as he exited.
“Tony?” she breathed with a hint of satisfied sigh.
“You complete me, too.”