Pepper drifted vaguely toward consciousness. Part of her didn't want to wake up—a large part, in fact. Her muscles felt intensely stiff and achey and she didn't have the strength to move them. Or maybe she had slept on everything wrong and lost circulation in her entire body. Was that possible? Some part of her mind seemed to think it was. Fuzzy logic also suggested it was best to remain in that state of paralysis because moving would be worse. Another part of her brain could not figure out how she could be paralyzed and yet hurt so much.
And what the hell had she done to her body anyway? This was at least ten times worse than the first time she joined the gym and tried to do too much, too fast. She tried to make her mind shut off again and go back to sleep, but something wasn't letting her.
It was cold.
God, I hate New York. I want to go home. When do I get to go home again? Was she going home next weekend or was Tony coming here? How many more days was it until the weekend anyway?
When she attempted to pull her covers up, her fuzzy brain finally registered something seriously wrong. She couldn't reach out. That spurred her to slightly more lucidity and she realized it wasn't just stiffness stopping her. Another second of trying and alarm closed in. Her hands were bound behind her back. Something sharp was digging into her wrists. Panic pulled her, finally, from slumber, but it was tempered with fear and the accompanying idea she might be better off playing unconscious.
Slowly, in case she was being watched, Pepper tried to open her eyes. At first, she thought she was too groggy to send the right message to her eyelids, but then she realized she was blindfolded. About then, she also felt the tape covering her lips and half of both cheeks. He ankles were bound together, but the binding wasn't cutting like whatever was on her wrists. Maybe it was soft cloth or wide tape? Her heartbeat quickened as she became more aware of her circumstances.
What happened? Where am I and how did I get here?
Her memories returned slowly and incomplete, as if they were snowy images playing on an old-fashioned television with a makeshift antenna made of aluminum foil. The shower. The pregnancy test. Looking for something to eat. Did I ever find anything? She had phoned Happy, but she wasn't sure if that had been before she left her apartment or after. Happy said he had the car running and the heater on. She had a vague feeling she made it to the hallway, but she couldn't remember if she locked her door or if she made it to the elevator.
The large hand with the drug-soaked cloth was vivid in her mind, giving her palpitations now just recalling it. Pepper remembered hearing the male voice of her attacker, but not seeing him. She couldn't remember what he said, but something had struck her as even more out-of-place than being assaulted. The words didn't make sense or he spoke in riddles or something. She remembered the abject fear, the utter helplessness, and the impending doom just before everything went black.
Now she was lying on something cold and hard—concrete or possibly metal. It was difficult to be sure in her stiff and bound state, but despite how cold she was, she was pretty sure she still had all her clothes on. It was really only her calves below her skirt and the very tiny bit of exposed cheek between the blindfold and the tape that was in contact with the surface, but that surface was numbingly cold and sucking the heat from her entire body, even through all the layers of her business suit, sweater, and overcoat.
As she analyzed this, she became aware the surface was also vibrating, but not bumpy enough to be a truck or van. The pitch of the vibrations seemed more like an airplane. But where was it going, Antarctica? Calm down, she scolded herself. It's probably only 40 degrees and not minus 70, like it feels. If she had been raised in New York, it wouldn't even be cold. Stupid weather wimp.
It was the cold, however, that convinced her to stop feigning unconsciousness. She couldn't warm up on her own and she had to risk that whoever kidnapped her would not want her dying of hypothermia, so she started shifting around, moving the coldest body parts away from the floor.
If her attackers had wanted to sexually assault her, they could have done it before now. She wouldn't still have all her clothes if that had been the case. Odds were, this was someone who'd made the connection between her and Tony Stark and they were going to use her to make him pay ransom.
Pepper knew Tony would pay it. People thought he was heartless, but she knew better. No one but she and Rhodey knew about his trip to Gulmira, so people didn't know he'd rescued all those poor villagers, not to save the American military from bad press or whatever stupid story the media put out. Yes, it probably had something to do with the fact the doctor who'd saved his life had called Gulmira home once, but from what Pepper had been able to gather, Yinson and his entire family were dead, and Tony knew it.
No, Tony Stark rescued the helpless and the innocent because he cared. He tried to pretend otherwise, tried to portray himself to the masses as part angel of death and part party animal, but it was all an elaborate hoax to hide the truly noble human being he'd become since Afghanistan.
And now Pepper understood why. Because this is what happened when people found out he cared. They exploited him. Yes, she was the one freezing her booty off right now. She was the one bound and aching all over, but it hurt just as much, if not more, to know that someone did all this just to stab him where he was most vulnerable. It pissed her off to the core that all this was all about something as stupid and petty as money. Even as crappy as she felt right now, she wished there was some way she could fight, something she could do to oppose the scum who were doing this.
Grunting with effort, she managed to turn from her side to her back, so her head now rested on her hair, which provided more insulation against the freezing floor than her bare cheek. However, lying on her bound arms became immediately too uncomfortable, so she had to return her body to the side position. She settled on the left side this time, so her right leg might get a chance to thaw out a little. For about the twentieth time, she cursed her choice of wearing a skirt that morning.
She heard and felt footsteps, which confirmed the floor was metal and not concrete. Tension filled her, but she tried to swallow it down. They wouldn't want her dead until after they had Tony's money. She hoped whoever was approaching would be taking off the tape gag, at least. They'd want her to talk to Tony and tell him she was all right. Like hell she would. She would bite the hand that freed her lips and tell Tony she quit. Again. He would know that only meant she was feeling frustrated and fed up, but she wasn't hurt or broken. She hoped that would scare her attackers into worrying that she might not be as valuable a hostage as they thought.
Yes, that was dangerous, but chances were, they were going to kill her anyway and she'd be damned if she let them manipulate Tony just to gain a few days tied up and freezing. If she was going to die, then it may as well be sooner than later.
A door creaked. In the darkness, she imagined an airplane hatch opening, but it could have just been rusty hinges coupled with her previous assumption. She didn't hear any switch, but even through the blindfold, bright light flooded her eyes.
“Well, well, well. How does it feel to have the tables turned, missy?”
Justin Hammer. That was the voice she couldn't place before. He was supposed to be in prison for twelve years. How in the world did he get out? Worse, why hadn't she known about it? As much as the media had played up the trial, surely, news of early parole or a pardon would have been all over the airwaves, wouldn't it?
Realization was both relieving and terrifying. A relief because the man was chronically incompetent at everything but stealing other people's ideas. If he was the mastermind behind this kidnapping, she had nothing to worry about. But it was also terrifying because he was obsessed to the point of absurdity and he had no moral compass—at all.
He broke that crazy Russian out of a prison in Monaco and didn't care how many people died in the riots that followed. He gave a maniac access to all his weapons development with no thought to what Vanko's obvious bent toward vengeance might cause. Even after the fact, when it was apparent this psychopath was out to destroy the Expo and hurt innocent people, Hammer was only concerned about himself and his stupid presentation.
Pepper didn't even try to grunt an answer at him. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction.
“How does it feel to be all locked up, to be a prisoner?” Hammer taunted. “That's what you did to me.”
Riiight. All my fault. It was a wonder his lawyers hadn't tried the 'mentally incompetent to stand trial' defense.
His last step was close; he had to be standing right over her now. “Be a good girl this time, and I might let you live.”
Pepper wished she had asked Natalie—er—Agent Romanoff to show her how to do that tackle move she did on Happy, because Pepper really would have loved to pull it on Hammer right now. Insane and incompetent, but also a class A, condescending creep. Alas, it didn't matter, since she was tied up anyway.
“Listen, we're going to make a little recording for your boyfriend. You tell Anthony to give me what I want and I'll let you go. Don't mess with me, sweetheart. I'm not fooling around anymore.”
So that's what the Expo was—fooling around. Were all his DoD contracts 'fooling around' too? She could hardly wait for him to take the tape off her mouth so she could spit in his face.
“Are you rolling?” Hammer asked. It sounded like his head was turned in the direction from which he entered.
“Yeah,” some other male voice said.
Hammer's voice got all theatrical and sappy. “Aww, I see you're awake. Here, honey, let me take that nasty tape off your mouth.” He stepped on her hair, effectively preventing any possibility of lunging or even directing her face so she could aim her spittle properly. Still, when the sting of a hundred band-aids spread over her entire lips and jaw area, she spit blindly, hoping to catch his hand or anything she could. She couldn't see if she hit anything, but Hammer said, “Hey!” in that whiny tone of his, right before a loud slap and her cheek erupted in burning that eclipsed the tape-rip. She suspected both pains would have been worse if her face wasn't so numb from cold.
“Listen, you feisty little bitch,” Hammer said in a tone that was clearly meant to rile Tony, “don't give us any trouble, or you may get hurt.”
Yeah, like drugging her, tying her up with zip-ties, freezing her to death, and smacking her around when she was utterly defenseless was not in the category of 'hurt'. If ever there was a scorching glare capable of melting a blindfold, she was directing it now toward where his voice came from.
She opened her mouth to call him a name she'd once heard in a rather sleazy bar where she'd found Tony on one of his binges six years ago. Hammer precluded speech by squeezing her face with his fingers and thumb, hurting her already-stinging cheeks and making her pucker. It was an act designed to humiliate her and demonstrate his power. Pepper somehow managed to break free of his wrenching grasp and chomp blindly at the air. To her great satisfaction, her teeth connected with some part of his hand. However, he pulled away quickly and she couldn't cause as much damage as she would have liked.
“Ow! Damn it!”
Pepper braced for the backlash, but it didn't happen. While Hammer was busy ow-ow-owing and swearing under his breath, she blurted out her message to the unseen videographer: “I quit, Mr. Stark. Do you hear me? I'm not your CEO anymore. You're not responsible for me. Don't give this slimy little creep anything!”
A kick landed forcefully in her gut. Pain—sharp, deep, and excruciating—radiated through her whole torso. Frankly, had she known he would kick her and not just slap her numbed face again, she wouldn't have said it. She drew her knees up toward her chest and yanked again on her bound wrists and ankles. She tried to hold back tears, but the dam was busted and there was nothing for it. Whimpering sobs escaped her lips despite all attempts to stifle them.
“Cut it, Mac,” Hammer ordered someone who stood behind him. “We'll just edit that out.” Then his voice got close again. “You think you hurt me, missy? You think I won't hurt you back because you're a woman? You'd better hope Stark does take responsibility for you, or you're dead. I've got nothing to lose and I am sick of you and your crap.”
Pepper couldn't reply if she wanted to. She couldn't stop her sobbing enough to form words.
Hammer and “Mac” walked away and the freezing room plunged back into darkness just before the metallic slam of the door resounded through her bones, ringing out in its harsh finality.