Disclaimer: Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Marvel Comics, Fairview Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, NBC, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All others belong to me, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
Yet another cliché; I can't seem to resist 'em. Heaps of abject thanks to Cincoflex for putting up with this thing for over a year now, encouraging, poking, rereading, admonishing, and generally being the wonderful enthusiastic person that she is! Many thanks also to Laura27md for last-minute reassurance and a parallax view. Please note, I did not always take their excellent advice! Also, the rating may change later.
The voice mail icon was blinking at him. Again.
Tony ignored it the same way he had ignored the five previous ones, but it went on flashing with mindless patience, almost as irritating as the man who'd sent it. But Tony was completely uninterested in talking to Agent Phil Coulson, so when he'd finished the latest round of soldering he leaned over to slide a forefinger across the touch screen and drop the icon into the trash.
I told Fury nothing doing until I clean up Stane's mess. SHIELD can go fuck itself.
"Jarvis," he said absently, "shunt all further voice mails from any member of SHIELD straight to the trash. And don't let them get through on Pepper's number at all." If he wasn't careful she'd schedule him for a meeting with that pack of weirdos, and Tony just didn't have the time to spend right now. In the back of his mind he thought it could be kind of a nifty idea, if it were run right, but he had bigger fish to fry at the moment.
He was so busy that it took him another hour to notice that Pepper hadn't yet appeared.
Normally she came down to the workshop and nagged him about something by midmorning if he hadn't gone upstairs already, but when he looked up from the suit schematics it was almost noon and there was no sign of his normally annoyingly punctual personal assistant.
He frowned, puzzled. "Jarvis? What's Pepper up to right now?"
"I do not know," the AI answered. "She is not in the house."
That made Tony sit back. "What do you mean? Is she running an errand?" It wasn't like her to go someplace without at least telling Jarvis first.
"She has not yet arrived at the house today," Jarvis said. "No reason has been given."
No reason? "What exactly did she say when she called?"
Jarvis' tone was patient. "Pepper has not called any of the lines this morning."
Tony frowned, unease stirring. Pepper always calls. What the hell, is she sick?
The thought alarmed him, because a Pepper too sick to call and let them know she wouldn't be in was a Pepper dangerously ill. "Call her."
A moment's pause, and then-- "Her phone is going directly to voice mail."
"Home phone," Tony ordered. "And put it on speaker."
Jarvis complied, and Tony listened to the four rings before the voice mail click. "Hello, you have reached 310-555-4310. I'm not available, so leave a message."
When the beep came, Tony spoke. "Pepper, where the hell are you? Call me." Standing up, he reached for a shirt to cover the arc reactor poking through the hole in his sleeveless tee. "Jarvis, save and close. I'm going over there."
He half-ran up the stairs while Jarvis shut down the holographic display. I don't like this at all. Pepper was important, whether she wanted to acknowledge it or not, and he was suddenly having visions of her fevered or unconscious or both, passed out on her bathroom floor or too sick to move.
He went directly to the little office she'd set up in one of the suites. Tony didn't usually mess with Pepper's desk, but he knew her, and there had to be a set of spare keys in there somewhere--she was just too careful to not have at least one backup.
The first desk drawer he opened held office supplies and letterhead, but the second had more personal items. Tony pulled out a shallow box that held a hairbrush and various elastics, and grinned as he spotted the keys underneath. Grabbing them, he dropped the box back into place and shoved the door shut.
As he left her office, though, Jarvis spoke again. "There is an incoming call from Mr. Hogan."
"Take a message," Tony directed, heading for the stairs. "I'll drive myself."
"I suggest you do otherwise, sir. He says it is an emergency."
"Ngh." Tony stopped, running a hand through his hair. "Okay, patch me in."
"Sir?" Hogan's voice was hoarse and uneven, and Tony's concern suddenly doubled.
"I'm here. What's the matter? You okay, Happy?"
"No...I mean, yeah, I'm all right, but it's not...we got carjacked, sir. This morning."
Tony frowned at nothing. "Carjacked? Where are you calling from? And what--wait a minute, what do you mean we?"
Ice filled his veins as Hogan answered, the chauffeur's voice full of pain. "Ms. Potts and I. Her car wouldn't start so she called me to pick her up. We got jumped on the back route..." His voice faded for a moment. "I woke up but I don't know where she is. She's not here."
He'd been scared before. He'd gotten to know fear very well indeed in Afghanistan, but never had it felt quite like this--like the earth was opening right in front of his feet. The deadly calm of his own voice surprised him. "Where are you now?"
"Queen of the Valley...sir, I'm..."
"I'll be right there." Tony made a cutting motion he knew his computer would pick up, and ran back down the stairs, only hitting every other one. "Jarvis..."
"Sir, I do not think the suit is an appropriate response at this time," Jarvis said uneasily.
Tony didn't slow down. "The hell it's not, but it doesn't do me any good without a fucking target." He skidded to a stop next to the Audi and flung the door open, dropping into the seat and deliberately belting up, because the speed he intended to employ required safety measures. "Get on this. Find out what you can. Hack the police bands if you have to, I want every possible scrap of information available. Relay to me as soon as you have something."
He slammed the door and revved the engine, and left marks on the floor peeling out.
The drive to the hospital was a blur of fast lane changes and angry honks. Tony spared only as much attention as needed to driving, the rest of his mind racing furiously.
Extrapolating from what Hogan had said, the limo had been ambushed and Hogan knocked out. Pepper's location was unknown. It was completely and totally unacceptable, and the screaming fear and rage in his head and chest was only just in check, because until he had more data there was nothing Tony could do.
Fortunately for his fraying temper and the hospital's legal team, Happy was in a regular bed, not the ICU, which meant he could have non-family visitors. The chauffeur was Tony's employee, not Stark Industries', but he had the same health insurance that SI executives got, and that meant a private room.
Happy was sitting on, not in, the bed when Tony blew into the room; his face was greenish pale and he sported a bandage over one ear. His expression was agonized. "Mr. Stark--"
Tony held up a hand. "First things first. How are you?"
Happy shrugged, and winced. "Head hurts. I'll live."
Tony nodded. "Take it from the top."
The chauffeur rubbed the back of his neck. "She called for a pickup when her car wouldn't start. I got there just before seven; the highway was a parking lot so we took the back way."
Tony knew the route Hogan was talking about; it was a coastal road that went through some pretty uninhabited stretches. Hogan lowered his hand and continued. "We were the only car for about a mile, I guess, when we got pulled over by a motorcycle cop. At least that's what they wanted us to think."
He looked up at Tony, eyes full of more pain than that of his injuries. "It was the usual thing, license and registration, and Ms. Potts rolled down the divider to ask what was going on. He tossed something in, some kind of fumer, because it stank like hell and we both started choking."
Tony's hands clenched into fists, but he didn't interrupt. Hogan was the best lead he had.
"I jumped the sonofabitch and we both went down, but he got in a lucky hit with his nightstick. When I opened my eyes the limo was gone and there was a whole van full of migrant workers standing around me." Hogan's mouth twitched slightly. "Two of 'em held me still until the EMTs got there. I wasn't too pleased at the time but I wasn't thinking too straight either."
A small part of Tony's mind made a mental note to find out who the good Samaritans were, because in his book people who helped his people deserved a reward. But most of his attention was elsewhere. "Did they see where the limo went?"
Happy started to shake his head and then clearly thought better of it. "No, it was long gone."
With Pepper inside--and, it seemed, gassed. "All right." He thought rapidly for a moment. "The limo has GPS and a tracker, and Pepper's phone has a locator chip. That's a start; they might toss the GPS but I doubt they'll know to look for the car's tracker." He needed to call Jarvis right now. "If you think of anything else--"
Hogan pushed himself to his feet. "Sir, I'm coming with--"
Tony put a quick hand under Hogan's elbow as the chauffeur swayed dizzily. "You're staying here, at least until you can walk without your eyes crossing." He gave Hogan a stern look.
"You'll need help." Hogan wasn't giving up easily, but he was clearly unwell.
"I've got Jarvis. I'll get Rhodey. You're staying until the doctors say you can leave." It was a measure of Hogan's injuries that Tony was able to push him back down on the bed. Every nerve was screaming at him to go find Pepper now, but he had a responsibility to Happy too.
Hogan swallowed hard and relented, closing his eyes and turning greener still. "They were pros, sir," he said, barely above a whisper. "It was smooth."
Tony nodded tightly, even though Hogan couldn't see him. "Right." He patted the man's shoulder once. "Rest up. We'll keep you posted."
"Thank you." Hogan seemed to melt into the mattress. "You find her."
Tony whirled, and left the room at a pace just short of a run.
If the drug made him sick, what's it doing to Pepper? The thought was another coal in his fear-fueled rage. He fumbled for his phone, cursed when he saw one of the signs that forbade its use, and picked up speed.
As soon as he had the engine running, Tony activated the voice-response system and called Jarvis, telling him to scan for the tracking devices. Then he called Rhodey.
The colonel was not pleased to be interrupted in the middle of a meeting, but he snapped to attention at the news. "Damn, Tony. Pepper, she-- Have you called the cops yet?"
"What are they going to do that Jarvis can't?" Tony snapped. "This has to be a ransom snatch, or they would have just killed her on the spot."
"Yeah." Tony could hear the doubt in Rhodey's voice, but he refused to pay attention. The same doubt was lurking in his own mind, steadfastly ignored--the idea that Pepper might have been taken as part of a revenge scheme. Killing someone immediately didn't offer the same opportunities as dragging hope out. "I'm on my way--where are you now?"
"Headed back home. Jarvis should have something by the time I get there." Tony swerved deftly around a slower car. "Meet me there."
He beat Rhodey to the house, but not by much--the colonel's truck pulled up in the garage just as Tony was climbing out of his own. Tony didn't spare him a glance. "Jarvis, report," he ordered.
"I have located both Pepper's cellphone and the limousine's tracker, though the GPS appears to be off." Jarvis' voice was crisp. "The phone is stationary, approximately thirteen miles north-northeast of here. The tracker is some seventy miles further, and is moving."
"Good. Load both sets of coordinates into the suit and let's get going." Tony yanked open the drawer where he kept the neoprene liners he wore underneath the armor.
"You sure you don't want to call the police?" Rhodey asked uneasily. "They have a lot more experience in this kind of thing."
Tony bared his teeth at his friend. "I've been kidnapped, Rhodey, that's plenty of experience." He started stripping down on the spot. "We don't have any time to waste. You'd better follow me on the ground." Tony could, if necessary, carry a passenger while flying, but only if the passenger were conscious enough to hold on.
"Gotcha." Rhodes headed back to his truck. Tony briefly considered offering him a faster vehicle, then decided against it; the truck could handle going off-road, if it came to that.
The assembly platform was opening as Jarvis prepped the armor. Tony shrugged into the liner, zipped it up, and strode over to put himself in his robots' appendages.
Hang on, Pepper. I'm coming.
Don't, Virginia thought to herself sternly. Don't, don't, don't.
In the uncertainty behind her closed eyes, the admonition could mean many things. Don't panic, don't move, don't vomit. To a degree it meant all of them. Virginia lay very still, trying to cultivate limpness, and clenched her teeth on the nausea that threatened to overwhelm her.
The tape over her mouth could kill her if she lost control over her stomach, and she breathed as deeply and as silently as she could through her stinging nose. Fortunately, the air she sucked in was cool, and her stomach settled a little.
She didn't need to know what was going on; Virginia remembered all too clearly Happy being stopped by a motorcycle cop who wasn't. She even remembered him tackling the fake officer, but that was when the gas had taken her out. I hope he's all right--
Her throat was dry and her mouth tasted terrible; whatever gas they'd used seemed to have burned her nose. But she couldn't detect any other injuries.
Virginia took as much stock of her surroundings as she could without moving. She was lying on something relatively soft, if lumpy, and her hands--bound behind her back--were pressed between herself and something equally soft. A couch?
The air was cool, yes, but had a closed, indoor sort of smell. And there were voices, muffled slightly by distance or a barrier. But before she could concentrate enough to try to make out what was being said, they fell silent.
There was something over her eyes as well, Virginia realized; something light and loose. She opened her eyes cautiously, and saw nothing, her lashes brushing the blindfold. Well, that's reassuring. Sort of.
A blindfold meant that her captors didn't want her to see them, which might mean that they intended to release her eventually. A small hope, but it was something, anyway.
Whatever was binding her wrists was tight and thin--not so much as to cut off her circulation, but enough that she couldn't wriggle free. Her ankles were bound too, she realized, and couldn't suppress a shiver. I'm effectively helpless.
Her shoes were gone, but as far as she could tell she was still wearing the same clothes, which was also reassuring. It's a good thing I chose slacks this morning instead of a skirt...
A voice nearby almost made her flinch. "She awake yet?" Cold, male, brusque.
A younger voice, also male, answered. "She was moving a minute ago, but she stopped."
The first voice grunted. Virginia heard footsteps, and managed to keep from reacting when a hand gripped her shoulder and shook her. Then fingers were fumbling along her cheek, and with a brutal tug the tape was ripped away.
Virginia couldn't help her gasp. It felt like the top layer of her skin had been pulled off with the tape, but it was a relief to take a deep breath. The grunt came again, this time satisfied. The hand on her shoulder tightened--not cruelly, but just short of it. "You awake now?"
There didn't seem any point in denying it, so Virginia licked her dry lips--the adhesive tasted bitter--and spoke. "Yes." Her voice was a croak.
"Good. Listen up. We don't want to hurt you, so as long as you cooperate, you'll be fine. Just do as you're told and don't make trouble, and you could be home in a day or two." The hand squeezed. "Understand me?"
Virginia nodded jerkily.
"Good," he said again, and let go. The footsteps retreated, and a door closed. Virginia lay still, knowing that there was still someone in the room, but her throat was as dry as her lips and eventually she had to ask.
"Can I--can I have something to drink?"
Her voice didn't even sound like her own, and Virginia realized that below her veneer of logic was an absolute cold terror.
"Yeah, I guess so." The younger male sounded more bored than anything else. She heard a few unidentifiable rattles, and then the click of a bottle being twisted open. A moment later an awkward arm slid under her, lifting her upright on the couch.
It was hard to balance with her hands behind her back and her ankles together, but Virginia managed, feeling chilly concrete under her stockinged toes but more focused on the promised drink than anything else. She felt the mouth of the bottle brush her lips, and angled her head as the man tilted it.
Water--warm, but sweet. Virginia wanted to gulp, but her stomach was still uneasy, so she settled for a few swallows. A couple of drops dribbled out of the corner of her mouth, and she licked them away hastily. "That's enough." After a second, she added "Thank you."
Being polite was about the last thing she wanted to do, but it might make a difference.
"Yeah." The man moved away, and judging from the sounds sat down again. A faint rustle of paper hinted at a magazine.
Virginia smothered a belch from her unhappy stomach, and tried to breathe slowly. Hyperventilating is not going to help, Virginia.
Her mind was still spinning, trying to process what had happened. It was pretty clear that she was being held for a reason, and the target was more than obvious. Tony.
Virginia wondered if he even knew she'd been taken. She wondered if Happy was all right, or hurt, or dead--or a captive as well. She wondered what Tony's response would be when he found out she was being used as leverage against him.
She wondered if she was going to get out of this alive. And if she would ever even see anything again.
"The man with me," she ventured a while later. "Can you tell me if he's all right?"
The flip of a page reached her ears. "I'm not s'posed to talk to you," the voice said disinterestedly.
Nice try. It was hard work sitting up with little balance and no sight, and her head hurt. Slowly, guessing, Virginia lay carefully down on her other side, trying to angle herself so that her face was outward. The couch still wasn't very comfortable, but horizontal was better than vertical, and Virginia tried to relax.
If Tony has any sense, he'll tell them to kiss off. That would be the practical, if cold-blooded, thing to do.
But she knew her boss too well. If nothing else, Tony would see her abduction as a blow to his pride, and she very much feared that the kidnappers had just unleashed a mechanized suit of super-armor driven by a very angry man.
They have to know. They have to have prepared for Iron Man. And the thought made her blood run cold, because that either meant lethal force on a scale she didn't want to even consider, or it meant that she was so well concealed that even the combined might of Tony Stark and Stark Industries--and presumably the police--couldn't find her.
Either way, it didn't look good. Not for Tony, not for the kidnappers, and not for her.
Closing her straining eyes, Virginia tried not to shiver.
She was more than half-dozing when the door opened again and someone stomped in. "Get her up," the cold voice ordered, and Virginia mentally dubbed him Number One.
The second man, Number Two, thumped closer. The bonds on her ankles were cut through with a snap, and then she was being hoisted to her feet. A hand wrapped around her bicep in a tight grip, but she was grateful for the support as she stumbled. Then he was propelling her forward, not too fast.
The main floor was dark but for the flicker of the fire in the grate and the arc reactor's glow. She'd gotten caught up in work in her office in the mansion, and only her stomach had reminded her how late it was getting, but she'd thought Tony had gone out for the evening. Virginia hadn't expected to find him sitting slumped on his own couch.
There was enough light for her to make out details. His shirt was unbuttoned. The glass in his hand was mostly ice. His eyes were wide but unfocused.
"Tony? Are you all right?"
"Forty-four steps," he announced, in a voice whose mood she couldn't name but that tightened her throat. "I had it all memorized."
Every so often, Virginia went on instinct. She walked over to the couch and sat down, not too close but not far away either. "What did you memorize?"
And he told her. Not a lot; just a few rambling scraps that she tried to pull together into a whole, caves and tunnels and using his ears and his memory because they never let him see where he was going.
And between one word and the next he fell asleep, snoring softly. Virginia pried the glass from his fingers and eased him down to the cushions, and covered him with the soft blanket that lived on the back of the couch. And she went home.
It was the same thing now. Turn right out of the door. A hallway probably. Fourteen steps--ow--fifteen--turn right again. Another room-- It sounded different, at least.
The hand on her arm led her a few feet further, then abruptly let go. "Don't move until we close the door," Number One warned, and hands fumbled at the binding on her wrists. Then that too was gone.
Virginia stood obediently still until the door clicked shut behind her and the lock scraped. Then she raised shaking hands and tore the blindfold off.
The light made her eyes water, but she rubbed them clear and looked hastily around. There was no one else in the small room. The blindfold in her hands was one of those light sleep masks that came in airplane goody bags; it even had a pair of stylized eyes printed on one side.
Virginia took a deep breath and tried to calm her shaking, then took another, longer look. The room was clearly set up as a cell-slash-bedroom; there was a small folding cot with a pile of blankets, a flimsy chair and a small table, and nothing else. There were no windows, and the only other exit had the door removed and a cheap shower curtain hung in its place. When she pulled it aside Virginia found a small but functional bathroom beyond, sink and toilet--not new but reasonably clean. There were even a couple of towels and some soap.
She looked around for cameras. There was one, quite obvious, mounted in the corner to the left of the hallway door; it would cover most of the room, and while she could pull the door curtain for privacy, whoever was on the other end of the feed would know where she was. The bathroom, she was relieved to see, had no such device.
Well, it could be concealed. But why bother, when the other one's out in the open?
Besides, it didn't make much difference anyway. There was nothing she could do about the surveillance--at least, nothing that her captors couldn't undo.
Virginia made use of the toilet and washed her hands, staring at herself in the spotty mirror. There was no color in her face except for the red rectangle where the tape had been, and her hair was frizzing out from her half-destroyed bun. She looked terrified and sick. That fits. I feel terrified and sick.
But more water, cupped up from the faucet in her hands, made her feel a little better, and a gentle pass with the soap took off some of the remaining adhesive, though it made her skin burn. She dismantled her hairdo, wishing for a comb, and rubbed her scalp to take the ache out.
Her watch was gone, so she had no idea how long she'd been unconscious. Hours, probably, to get me wherever I am. The walls were cinderblock, painted over, and the floor concrete, which felt more industrial than residential. Virginia realized that she couldn't hear anything--no traffic or sirens, no voices.
Maybe it's nighttime. Maybe I'm in an inner room. Maybe--
But it was all speculation. Without more data, she was only guessing.
Her throat swelled. Moving on instinct, Virginia went to the cot, shook out one of the blankets, and lay down, wrapping herself up and covering her head. Cocooning herself.
She didn't cry. But only because she locked every muscle tight until sleep stole in.