Pepper tried to shake the skin-crawling sensation of needing a really long, hot shower. It was true she wasn’t hurt, not physically anyway. But she’d given up more of her dignity than she wanted to admit to herself, much less to Tony.
She hadn’t really been afraid when she made the offer to provide “female company”. Hammer had said he wasn’t out to hurt her when he suggested it. Not that he was trustworthy, just unimaginative and underestimating. The pasty wimp was far too much of a coward to try anything without her tied up. And if he really wanted his men to rape her, he probably would have just said so because he treated women like idiots who couldn’t figure out subtlety for themselves. Thus, Pepper had been reasonably sure her ploy to give Tony some resting time would not cost her much.
But it did cost her. She had to flirt like a floozy and endure suggestive come-ons and unwelcome touches. She had to act completely out of character for her, but not unlike how she’d observed Tony’s conquests act over the years. She would have nightmares about the way these rough, sweaty, slimeballs touched her and talked to her, but she knew every minute of it she endured was a minute Tony wasn’t getting his face bashed in.
The silver lining was they let her use their bathroom. At first, she hadn’t cared where they let her go as long as she didn’t have to soil herself. But there, beside the sink, she’d found that ear thingy. No doubt, one of the thugs had taken it out because it was irritating or annoying. He probably intended to put it back in, but maybe he got distracted and forgot it. She felt sure Tony could use this to their advantage, so she palmed it and started thinking about how to get it to him without being seen.
Appropriately buttered-up with batted lashes and flirtatious sweet-talk, the ruffians gave her more to eat than cornbread and water, and while she wasn’t really hungry, she felt her body needed it. So between the food, the surprise discovery, and the beating-reprieve she bought for Tony, her loss of dignity, while extensive, was worth it.
Still, she would have given a lot to be able to shower at that very minute. She couldn’t see Tony now, but she had seen and felt his reaction to the kiss she’d used as a cover. She hadn’t really meant to set him on fire like that, but she’d been playacting a loose woman for several hours and it kind of spilled over. Plus, she was afraid if she didn’t make it somewhat ostentatious, Khamed wouldn’t be distracted enough to miss her pulling the earplug out of her pocket and planting it in Tony’s ear. It worked; Khamed didn’t notice.
Tony hadn’t responded after she told him he completed her. He was usually fast on comebacks, so if he was being quiet, perhaps it was important. Pepper wasn’t sure what the ear thing actually did, so she kept quiet too, in case it could pick up her voice and transmit it.
“You calculated correctly, JARVIS,” Tony said softly. “I trust you locked down this frequency before you attempted communication.”
Pepper heard the AI’s British voice very faintly, probably only discernible because she knew the expected response “yes sir” and she’d been straining to hear anything in the silence.
Tony’s voice raised to a more normal volume, although he seemed to still be talking to the voice in his ear. “No, no. Miss Potts is the one responsible for enabling communications. I think she’s earned a nice fat bonus if she doesn’t quit on me again.”
Pepper smirked. She couldn’t resist throwing his own words back at him. “That would be tantamount to indentured servitude or prostitution, depending on what state we’re in.”
The fact Tony’s comeback was delayed even a microsecond from his normal lightning-speed meant he wondered if she’d been sleeping with the enemy. Well, if she had, it would have been to save their lives, not for some cheap thrills, which he had done countless times. He’d better not go there or she would so call him out. “Not in a state. Atlantic Ocean. International waters.”
Since he played nice, she would too, and put his mind at ease. “For the record, Mr. Playboy of the Year, no one else got any more than you just did.”
“Khamed was jealous. I could tell.”
He chuckled but restrained it either because his face hurt or he was trying not to let on he’d been amused. “Did you just say that?”
“No. You’ve got something in your ear. What is that thing, anyway?”
“Just a multi-frequency receiver/ transmitter. The goon squad probably used it when they went for the drop-off, to coordinate with each other. Kinda unnecessary on a submarine though. I mean, where can you go, right?”
“Can you get a radio signal out? Send an S.O.S. to the Coast Guard or something?”
“I could, but War Machine might take it as an insult.”
“Yep. JARVIS transmitted the coordinates from the Mark V to my phone, which I left in Central Park for Rhodey to pick up. He flew my new buddy Bob and his four-man sub out here, so they didn’t waste fuel. Then they submerged so they could hide out, just out of sonar range.” Tony switched to his ‘talking on my ear phone’ tone. “About time you got here.”
He must be talking to Rhodey now.
“No, we’re both a bit tied up at the moment.”
Pepper coughed. “Maybe it’s time you had to go to the bathroom.”
“I could try that,” Tony replied, but Pepper couldn’t tell if he was talking to her, Rhodey, or JARVIS. Heck, he could be talking to himself, for all she knew. He was known to do that.
There was a pause during which Pepper heard an indistinct garble of words from the transmitter.
“Shh! Hammer’s coming,” Tony warned. He quieted and so did his ear.
Tony could tell her a giant squid had swallowed the submarine they were in and she wouldn’t argue. The hatch opened and Hammer waltzed in, his swagger so pronounced it was comical. Pepper fought the urge to mock-vomit. She was greatly relieved Rhodey was close, but it wasn’t like he could fly in, take out all the bad guys, untie them, and then they all walk home. They were under the freaking ocean, sealed in a pressurized prison.
“Now, see,” Hammer intoned smoothly while flashing a patronizing smile at her, “lunch wasn’t so bad, was it? You told Anthony nobody hurt you, right?”
“It’s over, Hammer,” Tony interjected. “You can’t win. War Machine is stationed in a submarine about a mile off your starboard bow. He’s got a full tank of diesel and you’ve been running, what, four days now? Five? It’s only a matter of time before you’re out of gas and air. You’ll have to surface and then Rhodes will blow this ship apart.”
Hammer had moved steadily while Tony was talking. He was now out of Pepper’s sight, probably right in Tony’s face. “It’s a boat, Stark, not a ship. And if we ever have to surface, I will make sure you and Potts are moved to the bilge so you’re the first to drown.”
“You’ll drown too.” Flippant as ever. Pepper had to admire how well he could keep his cool.
“What, you think your friend is going to fire on us when I have hostages?”
“You’re the one who lobbied Congress to get my suits into military hands. Guys like your golf buddy, Stern, can barely stand me having them. What do you think their reaction will be if they find out you’re giving one to terrorists?”
Dear God, we’re all dead. Rhodey won’t have a choice. He’ll have to blow the whole submarine out of the water to keep the Mark V out of terrorist hands.
“Terrorists? Come on. Just because these guys don’t speak the best English doesn’t mean they’re terrorists.”
Tony let out an exasperated sigh. “They’re Ten Rings, Hammer. Deshpande has direct ties to Raza, the guy in Afghanistan who was dealing with Stane. Who else did you think would risk felony jailbreak charges to get you out of the slammer when they don’t even know you?”
“They’re not terrorists.”
“Yeah, keep telling yourself that. Doesn’t change the fact I told Rhodes who you were working for. His orders are to keep my suit out of their hands at all costs. That includes our lives.”
Did Tony really know that, or was he blowing smoke? Pepper couldn’t imagine a general giving out an order to disregard civilian lives like that. Then again, Tony hadn’t exactly been on the top brass’s Christmas card lists ever since he dropped his weapons contracts and refused to share any weapons tech outside of War Machine. The military had that thing they called collateral damage. That’s what she and Tony would be. Acceptable losses to achieve a goal.
“How could you possibly know what his orders are or where he is right now?”
Tony hesitated a fraction of a second longer than his norm, but Pepper didn’t think anyone as dull as Hammer would have caught it. “I put a tracking device on the Mark V and I talked to Rhodes before you captured me. He told me his orders. We made a plan. I assume he went ahead with it.”
“And I say you’re bluffing. You didn’t expect to get caught. You planned to ride in on the white horse, rescue the fair damsel, and then call a press conference so your picture would be plastered on the front page.”
Crap. That sounded exactly like what Tony would do. Pepper knew he hadn’t done it that way this time, but Tony only knew where Rhodey was right now because of their recent communication and he couldn’t say that, or he’d lose his handy ear phone.
A couple of seconds ticked away. Tony had to be thinking hard.
“You’ve got active sonar, right? Ping him.”
Didn’t you say Rhodey was staying out of sonar range? Oh wait. JARVIS would relay this whole conversation and Rhodey would move the little sub to back up Tony’s story.
Hammer laughed. “What do I look like, Sean Connery?” He did a bad impression of the actor’s Russian accent from Hunt for Red October: “One ping only, please.”
“Ping as many times as you want,” Tony countered. “I’m telling you, you’re trapped and it’s over. Let us go or we’ll all end up at the bottom of the sea.”
Hammer’s smugness returned with gusto. “I like the bottom of the sea. I plan to stay here quite a while. You need to quit scheming and start telling me how to open that damned suitcase before my friends come in here and start shooting people, starting with your girlfriend.”
“You brought guns on a submarine? Are you out of your mind? One ricochet and the whole thing explodes!”
Really, Tony? Pepper had seen several windows on the upper deck where they’d taken her to eat, but there were none down here. She would be worried about acrylic, but thick metal walls? Why would a ricochet make them explode? She managed not to let Hammer see or hear any evidence of her doubt. It didn’t matter what she thought. She would go along with anything Tony said, whether she understood it or not.
Hammer’s fingers made soft contact with some part of Tony’s body, like he was poking him in the chest to emphasize his points. “It’s only a problem if the bullets don’t hit their target. You want to be a target, keep up your hard ass routine.”
“Okay, okay, you win.”
“Say the password, ‘Larry, Moe, and Curly,’ and you can get into the suit.” Tony spoke like it pained him. Pepper wasn’t sure if it was a bluff or not.
“Just like that? How do I know this isn’t a trap?”
“I’m not going to make it blow up when that would kill the two of us along with you. I still contend it doesn’t matter because there’s nowhere you can go now, but if you don’t believe me, I’m not going to protect the suit because you’re an idiot. Do whatever you want. I warned you.”
“I’ll be back if you’re lying and Potts will pay this time. You still going to stick to that story?”
“Larry, Moe, and Curly. That will get you in. I swear on Pepper’s life.”
“Finally wising up, eh? You might just live through this.” Hammer strode off, touching Pepper’s cheek as he passed. She wasn’t in the mood to try to bite him again. The hatch slammed shut.
“You swear on my life?”
“Nothing more sacred to me. I wasn’t lying. It will get him in. It just won’t do anything else.” His voice was patient with her, but he changed back to his authority tone when he raised his voice. “JARVIS, don’t have too much fun without me.”