Chapter 26

Tony rounded up all the muscle and minions and locked them in the fortified compartment he and Pepper had been held in. Mike and the cook, Mel, whom they found in a fetal position in the pantry, got to ride without being locked up, but everyone was going to be detained for questioning when the Villa reached U.S. soil.

Tony heard through the earbud that Virginia was surfacing so Lt. Col. Rhodes could assume custody of Justin Hammer. Tony was a little fuzzy on how they were going to explain it to the powers-that-be, but that admiral friend of Rhodey's promised to handle it. Evidently, the entire United States military considered Justin Hammer guilty of treason. He had used all their logos and played their anthems right before his drones went on a rampage, killing civilians, destroying property, and undermining public trust in the military to something barely short of Vietnam levels. As they were presently outside of American jurisdiction (monumentally stupid move on Hammer's part), the Navy had a little leeway to bend the rules.

Tony triggered the Mark V back into its suitcase and then he paid a quick visit to the docked submarine to get the tools to free Pepper from the Mark VI. Besides the tools, it was high time he met Bob. A short, stocky man offered his hand as Tony cleared the ladder.

"Bob Keckle?" Not that it could be anyone else.

"That's me. An honor to meet you, Mr. Stark."

Tony took his hand and shook. "Call me Tony." A lot of people who had never done anything but mooch at his parties would presume that much familiarity. This guy probably saved his and Pepper's lives.

"Tony. Sure." He smiled amiably, but he still looked rather starstruck.

"And thank you. You did way more than I ever prepared you for. You risked a lot and you hadn't even met us."

"Don't give me too much credit. That CEO of yours wasn't going to take no for an answer."

Tony's head bobbed side to side as he considered. Pepper wasn't physically forceful like Agent Romanoff, but she was a verbal spitfire. If she wasn't even listening to her ex-boss over the JARVIS com-line, there was no way she would have let this unassuming little guy get in her way. "She wouldn't have thrown you out without scuba gear."

Bob laughed. "You're both welcome. I was happy to help." He gestured at the tools on the work bench. "Colonel Rhodes brought those for you. Did he tell you he flew us out here, sub and all?"

Tony tapped his ear. "Yeah, he bragged about it already."

"Hey, bragging rights are mine. I don't know anyone else on the planet who's been in a flying submarine."

"I been meaning to ask, what's her name..." he gestured around at the interior, "your sub, I mean?"

"The Sylvia Earle."

It took Tony a second to place the namesake. He'd never personally met the esteemed ocean scientist, but he'd contributed to her Mission Blue thing. "So Her Deepness is now also Her Highness."

Bob laughed again. It was hard not to like someone who'd saved your life and laughed at your jokes.

"Pepper and I are going to avail ourselves of the amenities on the Villa. The entry corridor is a bit shot up, but there's food and showers if you'd care to join us."

"Oh, thank you, but I'm not going to pass up the chance to explore while I'm out here. This is outside of my normal range."

"You have enough fuel to get back?"

"Oh yeah. Hardly used any at all yet."

"Fuel's on me. That was our agreement."

Bob nodded. "I'll send you the bill."

"Good." Tony waved the tools in his hand. "Can you wait for me to get Pepper out of her armor? I know she'll want to say goodbye." She'd probably want to thank him too.

"Anything for Miss Potts." Bob smiled.

Tony nodded, then he turned and hurried back down to the Villa.

The Mark VI stood motionless in the corridor, looking a lot like those empty suits of medieval armor people sometimes put on display in their houses. Dark eye slits stared across the corridor, fixated on the guns still littering the floor. He knocked on the shoulder. "You awake?"

Pepper startled. "Uh, yeah."

Tony set to work unscrewing the bolts which held the Mark VI together. It was a pain to do it all by hand. That was why he had gantries, so he didn't have to do it himself or rely on anyone else. However, it didn't really take that long; it was just tedious and menial.

Pepper was wearing a badly mangled skirt, presumably torn when the Mark V formed without any regard to anything but the critical imperative he'd programmed into it. In the Mark VI, she had bunched it up to clear the crotch. When it came unbunched, he also noticed the blood stains. At least they were dry and not fresh. He'd been thinking so much about his face that he'd forgotten how she'd been kicked. He took her hand to help her step out of the boots, now studying her face. It was dirty and tear-stained and her hair was a mess, but she looked surprisingly calm.

"You okay?"

"No, but it doesn't hurt as much anymore."

Still holding her hand, he caressed it as he spoke. "Should we shuttle you over to one of the Navy subs? One of them is bound to have a doctor."

She looked down at her skirt, then back up at him, a smirk overtaking her lips. "Will you let them look at your face?"

He shrugged. "Nope. It's not that bad." Well, it was bad, but he didn't need anyone to tell him that.

"Then I'm not going either."

It wasn't worth a fight. She wasn't bleeding. He had to assume she could take care of herself. "Bob's going to uncouple..uh..de-dock and stay out here a while. Explorer stuff, you know."

"I need to go thank him."

Tony reluctantly let go of her hand. She headed toward the docking hatch. He gathered the pieces of the Mark VI together and set the Mark V suitcase next to it. "Security mode, JARVIS. I'm going to keep the earbud in while the armor is vulnerable like this. I think all the threats are locked up, but notify me if anyone gets too close."

"Yes, sir. Should I mention I detected a hairline fracture of your left mandible?"

"Were you performing unauthorized x-rays, JARVIS?"

"Monitoring your physical status is always a primary function, sir. It was magnetic resonance imaging."

"Noted. But they can't shove my jaw in a cast. Let's keep that information between us, hm?"

"Colonel Rhodes is no longer in communication and all other armor is currently deactivated."

"Good. I'll leave you alone then."

Pepper's footfalls on the ladder sent him to stand by the docking hatch. He offered his hand and she accepted it to steady herself on the landing. Bob peered down from the Sylvia Earle.

"I got this one," Tony said. "What do you guys say, 'Smooth sailing'?" That sounded kind of silly for a submarine. No wind for sails.

"Thanks. You too." Bob waved.

Tony pushed the hatch closed and turned the wheel to seal it up. He offered Pepper his elbow and they left the corridor arm-in-arm, stepping over the various weapons in their path.

Pepper took the first shower. Even if it wasn't for 'ladies first', she'd been stuck in the same clothes the longest. He had almost suggested they shower together, but if she was still having pain from being kicked in the gut, this was hardly the time to initiate foreplay. He sat on the bed to wait.

The master bedroom was smaller than the average cruise ship accommodations, but larger than the cabin on his yacht. He looked around, imagining how it all might look without any Hammer influence. It wasn't all that bad, really. Nice thick carpet. A comfortable king-sized bed. With all the terrorists out of the way, he could appreciate this ride a lot better. Smooth. Quiet. Relaxing. Maybe he should sell the yacht and buy a submarine.

Pepper emerged in a white terry robe, looking about a thousand percent better. She patted his knee. "Your turn."

Tony stripped out of the sweats he'd been wearing. He'd been glad he happened to wear them, both for the extra warmth he'd needed in that freezing metal cell, and for the extra thickness of the fleece that hid the glow of the arc reactor. Surely someone would have yanked it if he'd been broadcasting his vulnerability the whole time he'd been tied up. He took a glance in the mirror, but turned away fast. A lot of the blood would come off in the shower and he could get a better idea of the damage when it was clean.

The shower felt good everywhere but his face. Even when he diverted the spray with his hand and let the water drizzle lightly off his fingertips, it still hurt. He cleaned his face as gently as he could and rushed through the rest.

Hammer had a pair of lounging shorts that fit, but his shirts were too small. However, it was warm enough in here to go shirtless. Pepper eyed his bare chest with an approving glint in her eye, that look all women had always had, but never admitted. Of course, "other" women hadn't really been seeing his chest ever since he'd had an arc reactor planted in it. But he no longer cared about all of womankind anymore.

The woman he loved patted the bed beside her in invitation. She was still wrapped up in the robe. He approached from the other side of the bed and crawled over to her before leaning in for a peck on the cheek. She grabbed his shoulders and held his head in front of hers. "How are your lips?" she asked in a sultry tone.

"Hungry," he said matter-of-factly, not going to fall for any teasing right now.

"For food?"

"I don't know. Can I have more of that 'we're both about to die' kiss?" Frankly, it had been difficult to think of anything else since the threat was neutralized and they were alone.

"I don't want to hurt you."

"Teasing is hurtful. Kissing—not."

She smiled and leaned in. "Well, then..." her lips met his and she did a pretty good job of reproducing the kiss she'd given him while planting the earbud. When she was done, she guided his head to rest on her lap and curled her arms around it.

A knock sounded on the door.

"Who is it?" Tony called.

"It's Mel, the cook. I brought some burgers down. You want me to leave them, or you wanna come up to the dining room to eat?"

He glanced at Pepper. "Here," she whispered urgently. Her face confirmed she had no intention of leaving the room.

"Leave it, Mel," Tony called. "Thanks."

It wasn't gourmet, but it was actually pretty darned good. They both had as much as they wanted. Mike informed them via intercom that they'd be surfacing for the trip back to land. Evidently, it saved fuel or time or something. Tony wondered if maybe the Florida or the Virginia had ordered it, but he really didn't care. He didn't have to drive anymore.

After eating, Pepper snuggled into his arms and fell asleep. Knowing she was safe now, finally, he also drifted off into a comfortable slumber.

The end


A/N: I'd like to think Tony would buy Hammer's submarine when it gets auctioned off as an impound. He'd convert the diesel to arc reactor-powered and pimp it up to be his personal vacation hideaway. Mike might be his personal pilot, assuming Bob didn't want the job. A submarine would be one way he could truly get away and not be bothered.

I'd also like to think Tony spends a lot more time in New York after this. They need him to consult on the Clean Energy Project and he says in Avengers that he did a lot of the "heavy lifting", probably both literally and figuratively. When he lights up the Stark Tower for the first time, he and Pepper don't seem like they've been apart all that much, although whether they are actually living together until after Avengers is anyone's guess.

Thank you all for reading my story. I hope you've enjoyed it and even if you've never left a review before, this would be a great time to let me know what you thought, good or bad. I've been a little disappointed with the reception, so if you'd like another Iron Man story from me, please let me know and tell some friends to come read and speak up too.