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Blow the Man Down

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Tony had lost count of how many days it had been since he was snatched and imprisoned. It wouldn't have meant anything if he knew, because he had no idea where the hell they were bound for. He didn't speak whatever fucking language they were yelling at him in, so it wasn't like he could have found out, either. He was starving and generally horrified by, well, everything down in this dank hold. He'd long since lost all hope for rescue, but that didn't bother him as much as everything else. He wasn't generally a wait-for-help kind of a guy to start with, so the idea of having to wait on anyone at all to get their shit together grated on him.

Suddenly, it was becoming very loud. He imagined things a lot, but he couldn't be hallucinating all that screaming and shouting.

It had terrified him when he realized that they had no idea who he was. It was only by sheer luck that he continued to be able to conceal the clockwork in his chest; everyone in the known world must have been aware of it, and if they tried to steal it or hold him for ransom, he could end up very dead either way. On the other hand, it wasn't like his odds were much better as it stood.

Was that cannon fire?

It hadn't been as bad until he'd started trying to escape, whereupon they'd chained him up. He could feel himself wasting away, little by little; he had no idea what torment they intended for him at his destination, but he honestly didn't think he was going to make it there to see what it was.

Perhaps they were being attacked; any ship was prey in these waters. Probably someone worse was coming along to capture him. Then again, how would they know he was down here? He only seemed to be among water barrels. It was likely that the ship would burn and sink without anyone even discovering him.

Great. That was just what he fucking needed today.

The door to his prison was suddenly flung open, and he blinked at the light, brighter than it had been; he smelled smoke, confirming his worst suspicions. But someone was coming towards him, someone in a naval uniform, not one of the wretches in rags who manned the ship. Was this his rescue, or was this a pirate who'd killed an officer and stolen his clothing?

He couldn't see the person's face until they were right in front of him, breaking his manacles free of the bulkhead with a few well-placed blows from the back of a musket. This was no pirate; no pirate was this clean, this efficient, this radiant.

"Pepper?" he said in disbelief. "Jesus Christ."

And then he passed out.

--

He seemed to be slipping in and out, perhaps delirious, perhaps not, perhaps it didn't make a difference. Time might have been passing, it might not have been, anything could have been happening. He came back to consciousness in fits and false starts; it was somewhere in the daytime when he finally opened his eyes and saw anything that made sense to him.

He carefully catalogued himself, trying to figure out how he'd come out. He felt weak, his body sore, his wrists most of all. No manacles though; so his rescue really hadn't been a dream. He felt considerably better than he'd felt chained up in the hold of a ship bound for the other side of the world, but that wasn't hard, really. Someone had washed him, though he still felt grimy in that way that one always did when spending long periods of time on ships. He had on fresh clothes, though he was about seventy-five percent sure they were women's clothes - still a step up.

He reached up, rapping the casing of his generator; still in one piece, then.

There was a woman standing across the room, clearly waiting on him. "Hey," he said, when he figured out how to talk again.

"I'm Hill, the bosun," she said. "You're aboard the-"

"Yeah, yeah, I know where I am," he said hoarsely. The HMS Peggy Carter was perhaps the most famous ship in His Majesty's fleet. Under the hand of Captain Virginia Potts, it was the only one that had ever had an all-female crew; it began as a curiosity, a frivolous exercise held in no better esteem than a dancing bear. Then the reports flooded in of her victories over pirates, the way she turned back attacks like swatting flies, her track record with protecting His Majesty's shipping interests. That was when people began crying for the captain's blood, as she must certainly be unnatural and quite possibly a witch; unfortunately for them, His Majesty had grown quite fond of his little experiment, and so she sailed on.

Apparently it had pretty nice appointments, too; the cabin he was in was as posh as could be expected on a ship of this quality, and the bed he lay on was surprisingly soft. Then again, he'd been chained to a wall for the last however long it had been, so it could have been made of twigs for all the hell he knew.

Hill raised an eyebrow at him, but continued. "This is your rescue. We're bound for England to return you to your father." The tone of her voice suggested that she had better things to do with her time.

"Can't you drop me off somewhere else?" he asked, sighing. "I hear Portugal is really nice this time of year."

She ignored him. "The voyage is projected to take about six weeks, if the wind is favorable."

He sat up. "Six weeks?"

"You went missing over a month ago," she said. "I suppose that's what you get when your plan backfires. Someone will bring you your supper."

"What plan?" he called after her, but she shut the door.

What the hell was that all about?

'Someone' turned out to be a young, dark-haired woman who didn't even give him her name; she just laid out some soup and bread for him and left. At least they did him the courtesy of yelling at him on the other ship; this totally unwarranted cold shoulder was bullshit. He didn't have much time to be upset, though; no sooner than he'd eaten, he fell asleep again, hard-hit by what had happened and needing the rest desperately.

It was another day before he saw Captain Potts herself; she stepped into his room without knocking, taking off her hat and setting it on her desk as she shook out her hair. "Hello," Tony said, pretending to be indignant when he was really just distracted, caught by the sight of her. "This is my room. I could have been naked in here."

"This is my room," Pepper replied, picking up some charts and rolling them up, readying to take them with her.

"Does that mean you want your bed back?" Tony asked. "Because there's more than enough to share."

"Shut up, Stark," she snapped.

"Touchy," Tony said, pouting. "Is there a reason everyone here hates me? Because it's kind of fascinating, but it's definitely insulting."

"It could be the fact that we got pulled from our duties to escort a wayward boy home," Pepper said. "Or the fact that the person we're escorting caused his own trouble and only got bailed out because of who his father is."

"Okay, someone really has to explain to me how this was my fault," Tony said, annoyed.

"You intended to go to India to get away from your father," Pepper told him. "You ended up stowing away on the wrong boat."

"What?" he said in disbelief. "I know you don't like me, but Pepper, come on, you can't possibly believe I'd do that."

"That's what the crew believes," she said.

"That's not an answer," Tony said. "I have made a lot of stupid decisions in my life, but that is the stupidest fucking thing I have ever heard. I do own a ship. If I wanted to go to India, I'd just go to India."

"Captain Rogers would never defy your father like that," Pepper said; that was completely true, but admitting it would totally not help his case at all.

"Look, all I was doing was walking down to check on my ship," Tony said. He didn't note that he was mostly going to check on the rum that was stored there, because that wouldn't really help either. "It was dark, someone grabbed me, and the next thing I knew, I was right where you found me."

"Do you really expect me to believe that?" she said, crossing her arms.

"For fuck's sake, someone has to believe it," Tony moaned. "Look, I know you don't like me-"

"Why wouldn't I like you?" Pepper said tightly. "You only tried to embarrass me in front of the entire court."

So maybe Tony had said some unfavorable things about Pepper in front of the royal family, in the process of trying to pick her up. He'd been eighteen at the time; surely that was a better excuse than he usually had for doing stupid shit. "Can't we let bygones be bygones?" he pleaded.

"No," she said flatly.

"I promise to you that I had nothing to do with this," Tony said seriously. "I'm not stupid enough to do it. More importantly, I don't have the balls for it. I'm too fragile to run off to the end of the Earth."

Pepper pursed her lips; Tony had been hoping for a smile, a laugh maybe, but it wasn't going to be that easy. She was definitely going to be a hard sell. "Except for meals, you're going to stay here," she told him. "I don't want you interfering with my crew at all. I need their attention. You don't."

"Come on, Pepper, I need plenty of attention," he said.

"Deal with it," she said, twisting her hair up again and putting her hat back on. She walked out on him, leaving him sitting there, still bewildered and a little hurt.

Well, wasn't this going to be a fun little trip?

--

Tony was still weak and recovering for the next few days, his meals being brought to him by the same young woman, whose name, he'd worked out, was probably Darcy. He was getting stronger, though, and with strength came boredom.

It was in his best interests to stay out of sight; unfortunately, as self-interested as Tony was, he rarely gave much thought to his best interests. Plus, it was getting infuriatingly awful to sit in his quarters all day long, rereading the grand total of five books that Pepper seemed to have. On the bright side, he now knew much more about navigation than he ever would have bothered to learn otherwise.

He waited longer than he thought he would before he wandered out of his cabin, looking for anything to do, anyone to talk to. There was a young woman doing something complicated with the rigging, and Tony sidled up to her, watching her as she pulled on things and moved stuff that looked important around. "That looks incredibly tiring."

"Yep," she said.

"Do you do this all day?" he asked.

"Sometimes I sit in the crow's nest," she said. "It's a lot more fun." She wiped the sweat off her brow with her forearm. "I'm Kate."

"Tony," he replied. He peered at her. "You look so familiar."

"I probably do," she said. "But you wouldn't have seen me since I was thirteen."

His brow furrowed. "Katherine? Katherine Bishop?"

"That's me," she said.

"They said you died," he told her.

"Aw, really?" she said, looking disappointed. "I really hoped they had told people what I actually ran off for."

"I don't think that'd play well with the court," he said. "They frown on that kind of thing."

"Guess so," she said, pulling hard on a rope. "For the record, I don't think you ran away on purpose."

Tony sighed heavily. "Finally, someone who believes me."

"You'd never have risked it," she said, "no matter how naive you are about what happens out here."

"I'm not naive," he said, indignant.

She raised an eyebrow at him, but kept on. "I don't know why they took you, but that kind of thing happens all the time." She looked down. "Happened to a good friend of mine."

"I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "Nobody deserves that." He coughed. "So am I supposed to be swabbing things or something like that?"

"What do you do when you're on your own ship?" she asked.

"Drink," he admitted.

She pushed past him, hoisting some kind of pulley thing; she was doing an awful lot of hoisting, and Tony didn't understand any of it, not yet. "Then stay out of the way."

"I'm not very good at that," he said, studying the sails, wondering how long it was going to take him to figure out how to improve them.

"So I hear," she said. "Do what everyone else does. Fix it if it breaks, clean it if it's dirty, and pray to Ororo everything comes out right."

"Ororo?"

"Goddess of the winds."

He frowned, puzzled. "What happened to Aeolus?"

"Do you think Aeolus would really help us?" she asked.

"Guess a female god's a better bet for a boat full of women who fucked off for a life at sea," he mused.

"Exactly," Kate said, tying off a rope with an air of finality.

"Is he bothering you?" a voice said, out of absolutely nowhere, and Tony must have jumped a foot in the air.

"We're fine, Nat," Kate assured the woman who had materialized behind him. "He's just bored."

"Yeah, Nat, we're fine," Tony said.

She pursed her lips, giving him a dangerous look. "Call me that again and see what happens."

"Sorry," he said. "Natalie? No. Nathanna? Natavia? Natoya? Natividad? Natasha?" She made a slight gesture. "Natasha. This really would be easier if I could get a roster or something." Tony eyed her. "So, your job is to jump out and scare people? Kind of a specialized skill."

"As first mate, my job right now is to make sure you're not pestering my sailors," Natasha said, clearly unamused, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I thought you were supposed to be steering," Tony said.

Natasha sighed. "Go back to your room, Stark."

"But-"

"Before I put you there," she said.

"Fine, Jesus," Tony replied. He may or may not have sulked all the way back, but that was between him and God.

--

He did have at least one thing to entertain him; that night, Hill came and collected him, leading down to dinner, which Tony guessed meant he was officially well enough that everyone was going to start ignoring him properly.

He'd never actually seen the crew, not all in one place. This wasn't the complete set - someone had to be steering - but he figured it was as close as he was going to get for now.

He looked around, feeling sort of lost. They were talking amongst each other, going about their business, completely ignoring him. Natasha had a hand on Hill's arm, leaning in close to tell her something that made Hill smile; Darcy was dishing out food, more of the soup that Tony was pretty sure he was going to get sick of. Other than that, he didn't even know the others' names, much less how to strike up a conversation.

The youngest one, a brown-skinned girl with long, dark hair, noticed, sighing like Tony was her cross to bear. "Natasha," she said, pointing out each of them. "Hill. Jane." A woman with light brown hair, who looked up at him briefly before going back to the book in her hand. "Sif." She gave him a pleasant smile before going back to eating neatly but voraciously. "Darcy. Kate and the Captain are on the bridge. I'm Ava. Are we done here?"

"Sounds good to me," Tony said. "Tony Stark, at your service." He looked at her appraisingly. "Not your service. You're too young for me." Ava looked like she wanted to smile but was firmly pushing down the urge. "When I pictured a boat full of attractive women, it seemed more fun than this."

Now Ava definitely didn't want to smile.

Sif clapped him on the back, hard enough that it knocked him forward. "We have good fun, Stark," she said, in a slightly stilted voice that suggested that English wasn't her first language. "It is a rough life, but a pleasing one."

Tony was on the point of making a remark about how rough could be very pleasing, but before he could, Natasha leaned forward and said, "Sif's specialty is in weaponry."

Tony very wisely bit his tongue, but Sif seemed not to notice the exchange. "You are welcome to come and see our stores," Sif told him. "Some of it bears your father's mark."

"Thanks," Tony said, not sure what else to say about that; thinking of his father didn't exactly put him in a good humor. He ate his soup, staying mostly quiet for the rest of the meal as he assessed the situation, taking in each of his newfound shipmates.

It didn't take him long to realize that he'd been presented with a rare, wonderful opportunity. His father had been trying to marry him off since he was about sixteen; ten years later, it still hadn't taken, but his machinations were getting more and more successful. Tony was really in for it this time, the incredibly boring daughter of an incredibly wealthy business partner all lined up and ready to go. Time was running out if Tony's father wanted to make a good match and get Tony out of his hair, because very soon Tony would be too old to be worth it, no matter how wealthy he was.

It wasn't just a matter of running out the clock, though. Tony's marriageability would go down considerably if it was known he'd been sailing for six weeks having copious amounts of unmarried sex with women who were already somewhat suspect; he could have potentially fathered a literal boatload of illegitimate children. All he really needed to do was lose his virginity at all, because every bit of tarnish counted.

Side benefit of this idea: he could finally have some sex, something he'd never actually been able to do, not while he was being watched like a hawk at every single moment. He'd gotten close on several, several occasions, and had always, always been interrupted just before the good part. To make matters worse, he'd been interrupted by his father, who had a vested interest in keeping him pure, and Captain Rogers, who still held out hope that he was redeemable. Neither of them had any problem letting it be well known that Tony's virtue was intact.

But sex. Actual sex. With another person. No interruptions. Sex. He just had to wrangle a willing partner, and this party could get started.

But who? It became obvious very quickly that both Natasha and Hill were off the table; even seeing them together for one meal made it plain that they were too wrapped up in each other. Kate and Ava were far too young for him - that hadn't stopped him before in certain cases, but with Ava it would be all but criminal. Listening to Sif, he figured out that Jane had some man on another boat, a friend of Sif's, and all Tony knew about him was that he sounded large. He wasn't sure what Darcy, who ran the galley, qualified as; she just seemed to have a blithe, almost friendly dislike for him, so it didn't matter much.

Sif, he was too afraid to ask after.

Pepper chose that moment to walk in, just in time for Tony's scheming to reach its most logical conclusion. She was the most suitable target, the loveliest and the most appealingly out-of-reach, and he was going to get laid in the next month if it fucking killed him.

Before Tony could so much as say hello, Hill stood up. "Back to your room, Stark," she said.

"But what if I wanted seconds?" he protested.

"You don't get seconds," she said. "Get up."

"Captain," he said as Hill frogmarched him past Pepper, trying to encode as much of 'Come back to my room and let's have a no-pants party' as he possibly could in one word. It seemed to work, but the result was a raised eyebrow and an unamused look.

Okay, so it was going to take a little bit of legwork. Tony still had over a month to do it in. No sweat.

--

Unfortunately, Tony had to do something to entertain himself other than lusting after the captain, despite the fact that it was a truly entertaining pastime. He was still in the planning stages, trying to decide how best to strike, how he could truly win her in the least amount of time. It involved a lot of recon, and to that end he was standing on the bridge, being quiet enough that he hadn't been thrown out yet. It was truly an immense strain to keep from fidgeting and running off at the mouth, but the alternative was being stuck in his room again. Tony didn't know if he could take that for one more minute.

"Permission to enter, Captain?" Jane said from the doorway.

"Permission granted," Pepper told her, and Jane nodded to her and Hill as she entered the bridge, walking over to take a look at her charts. She stared down at them, looking as focused as ever, but she frowned, picking up her instruments and examining them closely for several minutes.

When she was done, she looked up, giving Tony the worst death glare he'd ever received- and that was saying something around here. She stalked over, getting up in his face. "Get out," she said flatly. "Get out of my sight, and don't come back."

"What's this about?" Hill said, looking between the two of them. Tony was well aware that the bosun still hated him, but he still had to admire her ability to look past that to keep the ship running smoothly.

"He's been at my station," Jane said, and both Hill's eyebrows went up. "I don't know what he did to my instruments, but-"

"But what?" Hill asked.

"Actually, I've been trying to adjust them like this for months and haven't quite been able to make it work," Jane admitted.

"See?" Tony said, crossing his arms. "You should be thanking me."

"If you want to collaborate, you come to me," she said fiercely. "You don't steal my sextant while I'm asleep and mess with it. You could have broken it entirely, and we can't exactly get a new one."

Tony gave her an alarmed look. "You have one sextant?"

"I have three, but that's not the point," Jane said. "This is my work, and it's critical to the ship. You don't interrupt it."

"Stark," Hill said. "Stop being helpful. Foster, you can beat him if anything is broken. If it's not, I don't want to hear about it anymore."

"I didn't break anything," Tony said. "And whenever you need help, I'm very happy to oblige."

"Oh, go and polish your heart or something," Jane said irritably.

"Stark, can you please find something to do that isn't antagonizing my crew?" Pepper said, exasperated.

"I'm bored, Pep," he moaned; he'd blown this particular attempt at seduction reconnaissance, and whining might possibly have been his backup. "There's nothing at all to do."

She gave him an appraising look, her lips curling into a smile. "Go and find Natasha," she said. "Tell her you need entertainment." Tony looked at her suspiciously, but he left, curious to see what Natasha's idea of entertainment might be.

Natasha's idea of entertainment, as it turned out, was to take him down to the hold and beat the shit out of him. It wasn't as simple as that, no, not an attack. They were supposedly sparring, which was supposed to be good-natured and sportsmanlike. Maybe it would have been sportsmanlike if Tony was about twice as agile and able to do things that weren't humanly possible. As it stood, Natasha trounced him, and Tony couldn't do much without admitting that he'd just gotten his ass handed to him by a woman who was three inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter than him.

Natasha's idea of entertainment sucked. Admittedly though, it wasn't boring.

Despite how Natasha had worn him out, he just couldn't seem to get to sleep that night, tossing and turning and trying to find any position that wouldn't end up with him lying on a bruise. He gave up eventually, stepping out into the warm air to look at the stars.

The deck wasn't empty, not even in the middle of the night. Kate and Ava were sitting on the upper decks, doing a somewhat poor job of hiding the way they were making out; then again, he couldn't really think of a reason for them to be worried about getting caught. He guessed it was courtesy more than anything not to make out while they were on the job or in front of everyone else.

The lights were on in the wheelhouse, but Tony didn't investigate. Instead, he walked over to where a figure was standing, looking out over the ocean.

"Fancy meeting you here," Tony said, standing next to Pepper and putting his elbows on the railing, looking down into the water.

"It's my boat," Pepper pointed out. "I should be surprised to see you."

"True enough," Tony said. "Can't sleep?"

"Up early," she said.

"Same thing," Tony replied.

"Did you need something?" Pepper asked.

"Do I need to need something to talk to you?" he countered.

"Yes," she said, smiling, and wasn't that interesting?

"Then I need something," he said.

She sighed. "What do you need?"

"I need to talk to you," he said.

"Very clever," she said, pushing away from the railing.

"Hey, don't be like that," he told her. "We can have a conversation, can't we? We're conversing." She gave him a look, but she didn't leave. He turned, leaning back against the railing. "So, me and you," he said. "How about it?"

"Two answers," she said. "One, there is no me and you, and two, how about what?"

"How about it," he said, ignoring that first part. "How about everything. How about us."

Pepper shut her eyes. "I swear to god, Stark-"

"Come on," he said. "Captaining is stressful. I'm very good at stress relief. You have no idea how good."

"Stop it," she snapped. She didn't seem properly angry with him, just frustrated and tired. "You are on my ship as a personal favor. I don't have to do this. I can drop you off in any port I want, and you can try your luck there. If you try that again, I'm going to."

"But Pep-"

"You heard me," she said firmly. "Go to bed."

"Fine," Tony huffed. "I'll see you in the morning."

Pepper didn't reply, walking away towards the wheelhouse. Tony didn't leave for a while, just turned back to look at the ocean. He couldn't shake the sense he'd heard something else in her tone, something that didn't match the words, as if she hadn't wanted to say them. She was going to be tough to crack, that was certain, but maybe there was a fissure waiting to be pried open.

It was just that it was really goddamned hard to find it.

--

Over the next few days, matters didn't improve much. The crew continued to mostly ignore him; he could call on Kate for a conversation or two, but that was about it. Unfortunately, it wasn't really Kate he was interested in; not that Kate wasn't a lovely girl and everything, but Tony had his sights set somewhere completely different.

The only time he could count on seeing Pepper was at meals; even then, she came in after the crew had eaten, choosing to stay on watch while the others dined. It was very noble and everything, but mostly Tony wished she'd cut it out, so that he could have more of a chance to talk to her- or at her. She was at least giving him that much. Some nights he could coax a civil conversation out of her; sometimes she even laughed, which surprised the hell out of him every time.

"Captain," Tony said as she walked in, standing up and giving her his most charming smile. Hopefully luck was with him tonight, because it was getting time to bring out the big guns. "Can I get you anything? Something to drink? Supper? Back massage? I give a great back massage. Here, just sit down-"

"Are you trying to woo me?" Pepper asked, sounding faintly amused.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Tony assured her. Driven on by her slight smile, he added, "Okay, I might dream of it, but I wouldn't do it. I respect your commitment to-" He waved a hand. "Captaincy and everything. Captainship? Whatever."

"Thanks for that," Pepper said dryly.

"I'm just trying to be friendly," Tony protested. "Friends help each other out. I could give you a back massage now, and then later you could return the favor."

Pepper raised an eyebrow. "I know exactly what you mean by 'massage,' Stark, and you're not doing it to my back, much less any other part of me."

"I feel betrayed," Tony told her, despite the fact that he could see her getting more unamused. "You've betrayed me with these allegations."

Pepper looked at him, and he saw very clearly that she'd reached her limit; Tony really had to step up his game if he was going to do this thing. "I'll be dining in my quarters," she told Darcy. "Alone."

She walked out on him, and he was left alone with Sif, who was finishing the last of her meal and looking unconcerned.

"I can't take it with you fucking people," Tony said, throwing himself onto the bench and putting his head in his hands. "I've been trying my hardest-" He stopped. "I've been trying somewhat hard not to be a jackass, and nothing seems to work."

"I do not speak for the rest of the crew," Sif said, pushing her plate away, "But if you want to earn my respect and friendship, Stark, there is an easy way to do it."

He looked up at her, surprised. "Lay it on me," he told her.

"Wait here," she said, walking out; she returned quickly, putting two bottles and two glasses down on the table.

"You want to get drunk?" he said. "That is easy."

"No," she said, smiling, lots of teeth. "I want you to outdrink me."

Tony knew immediately that this was going to be a competition; Sif wasn't a joker by nature, and no one ever suggested a drinking contest without being confident they could win. "Sure you know what you're getting into?" Tony asked, cracking his knuckles.

"I am quite sure," Sif said. "Do you know what you are getting into?"

"I'm about to find out," he said. "You pour."

It wasn't particularly hard for the first few rounds. They downed four shots each in quick succession, and Tony was barely even feeling it. "I'm not sure how this is supposed to prove anything," Tony said, knocking back another.

"It is merely a friendly challenge," she said innocently.

"A game of darts is a friendly challenge," Tony replied. "A drinking contest is something you do to someone you don't like."

"Drink," she said, putting down the next shot, and Tony followed. "And yet you said yes, when you could have just as easily walked out," Sif told him. "Does that not show a willingness to prove one's self?"

"I still don't get it," Tony said.

"Drink," Sif told him. "You will understand in time."

The next thing Tony knew, Sif had thrown him over her shoulder and was carrying him back to his room. "My Captain," she said, as Pepper passed them.

"Mmblfrmph," Tony said solicitously, looking at her upside-down.

Pepper sighed. "Sif, getting someone drunk does not constitute a test of character."

"He went all the way to sixteen!" Sif said happily. "Truly, he is worthy."

"You're cleaning up after him," Pepper told her.

"Of course, Captain," Sif said. She patted him on the back. "Come, Stark. Let us put you to bed."

Tony had a truly monumental hangover in the morning, but he also seemed to have earned Sif's trust; would that it were so easy just to get drunk with everyone else and call it a day. When he stopped feeling sorry for himself, he had to admit that it seemed he was making progress. Jane was still on the point of throwing him overboard, but Kate had his back. Natasha seemed to find him sort of entertaining, and Hill didn't give a shit as long as he didn't cause a fuss. Even Darcy and Ava's low-level distaste for him was workable.

It was only the Captain who was truly driving him crazy. She seemed like she couldn't ever decide if she liked him or not, and her mercurial moods were starting to grate on him. Tony admittedly had plenty of unlikeable things about him, but he had a ton of good qualities too, and on a given day Tony had no idea which set of characteristics she was going to focus on.

A few more days of this stalemate, and Tony finally cracked. When he got up the nerve to confront her, it turned out he didn't have to go looking for her; she walked into his room, again unannounced. "You have to quit doing that," Tony insisted.

"My cabin," she reminded him, not closing the door behind her as she walked to the desk and selected a few items. "When I need my things, I'm coming in."

"Anyway, it's lucky you're here," Tony said, standing and walking over. "I need to talk to you."

She pursed her lips, putting her stuff down again. "That's cute, but-"

"No, I mean that now I actually have matters that I want to discuss with you," Tony said.

She crossed her arms. "Go on."

"Why don't you like me?" he demanded.

Pepper frowned. "I don't dislike you-"

"That's not an answer," he insisted. "Not disliking somebody isn't the same thing as liking them. So why don't you like me?"

"Stark, we're not twelve-year-olds, this is a stupid conversation," Pepper told him.

"It's a stupid situation," he said. "If we're two rational, reasonable adults, there's no reason you shouldn't like me."

"I don't need a good reason not to like you," she told him.

"But you need a reason," he argued.

"Tony, for the love of God, will you stop badgering me?" she snapped, exasperated. "I neither like you nor dislike you. There are a lot of reasons I should dislike you, but you should feel honored that I'm ignoring them and remaining neutral where you're concerned."

"It is extremely hard to remain neutral when we're talking about me," Tony said. "Most people have very strong reactions."

"Even if I had a strong reaction, what could I do?" she said. "My focus needs to be on my crew."

"Whether or not you want to divide your focus is entirely up to you," he told her. "That's not what I'm concerned about. I mean, I am concerned in that it's in my best interests for you to divide it as quickly as possible and put all the remainder on my side."

"You're assuming I have a strong reaction to you," she said. "I never said that."

"I think it's obvious that you do, or we wouldn't be fighting," he countered. "You don't have to say anything for me to know. This is a whole conversation about things you don't say. This is a nonversation."

Despite herself, Pepper laughed. "That's not funny," she said quickly.

"No, see, you laughed," he said, grinning. "That's a point for Tony."

"I didn't know we were keeping score," Pepper said, trying to compose herself but still smiling.

"Of course we're keeping score," Tony said dismissively. "And I intend to win." He realized they were quite close together, that he'd only have to lean forward a few inches to kiss her gorgeous lips.

So he did.

She didn't push him away, much to Tony's shock; instead she definitely reacted strongly, kissing him hard, backing them up until they were at the bench by the window. It may have been Tony's point to start with, but Pepper was very quickly racking them up. She put her hands on his ass, dragging him forward until he was in her lap, and Tony went very gladly. For now, Tony didn't mind losing in the least, confident he'd get his own back, maybe not worried right at the moment whether he did or not.

As they kissed, Tony lost track of time, interested only in the heat of her body, the way she felt against him. It was like all the tension between them had broken over them like a wave, and Tony was content to drown in it, tangled up in her.

And then someone cleared their throat from across the room.

Pepper pushed him away sharply; Tony rolled his eyes upward, hoping for help from on high, but it wasn't forthcoming. "You're needed on the bridge, Captain," Ava said, giving Tony a look that clearly said that he wasn't needed anywhere.

As she left, Pepper stood up quickly, walking away; Tony knew better than to let her go. "Hey-"

"You're not going to interfere with the operation of my boat, Tony," she said, sounding upset.

"I'm sorry if I-"

"I have to go," she said flatly, leaving him, shutting the door firmly behind her.

"Well, shit," Tony said to the empty room.

--

A few days later, they arrived in port, a last stop for supplies before England. Pepper had been avoiding him ever since that afternoon, the one where things got out of control in exactly the way that Tony had been wanting them to get out of control for weeks. It was no mean feat to avoid someone on a ship the size of Pepper's, but by God she'd managed. She didn't seem angry when he did manage to see her, though, just a little out of sorts, almost flustered.

They arrived just after supper, and the only crew members who left the ship were Pepper, who returned quickly with a small package, and Kate, who was tasked with doing whatever you did in port that was important to running a ship, taxes or papers or shipments or whatever. He'd had the idea that this was when the drinking and whoring started, that everyone was going to jump off the boat immediately. That was before he realized that, one, fully half of the crew was involved with someone else actually in the crew, so they could presumably drink and whore without ever leaving, and two, nobody else really seemed like the drinking and whoring type, with the possible exception of Sif, who would probably just be going to drink unsuspecting men under the table.

After dinner, Tony managed to finally get Pepper alone for a moment; well, alone-ish, given that Darcy was clearing the table and not really pretending she wasn't listening in. Pepper was looking him over in a way that made Tony vaguely uncomfortable, like she was contemplating him, but he could see her come to some kind of a decision.

"Hey, Pepper, I just wanted to say that-" he started.

"I'm going to bed," she said, cutting him off.

"Oh," he said, disappointed. "Well-"

"Tony," she said, giving him a look. "I'm going to my bed. Do you understand me?"

"Crystal clear," Tony said quickly, even though he really didn't.

"Be there in ten minutes," she told him.

"Yes, Captain," he said, giving her a little salute, and she shook her head. Tony was there on the dot, ready for whatever she was about to throw at him.

"Come in," Pepper called, after he knocked. Tony opened the door, and he was unprepared for the sight that met him. He thought maybe they'd talk, work out what they wanted and whether it- whatever it was- was the right thing to do. He didn't want to do any of that, mind, but he figured it had to happen.

Instead, Pepper was waiting for him underneath the covers; all he could see of her was her bare shoulders, but bare shoulders were a really, really good start. Tony just stood there for a moment, trying to find something to say, but absolutely nothing came out.

"Get over here," Pepper said, and before she could even finish, Tony was pulling off his clothes, tossing them wildly away, hopping his way out of his trousers before throwing them carelessly out of sight. He slid under the covers as quick as he could, and then they were kissing, hands roaming, touching everywhere. She was gloriously, wonderfully naked, her skin warm and soft under Tony's hands, and Tony would have very much liked it if she never put on clothes again.

Make captaining a lot harder, but oh well. Sacrifices had to be made.

He worked his hand in between the two of them, slipping it in between her legs, and she groaned as he rubbed her, right in that perfect spot to make her go crazy. He kept it up, pushing his fingers inside of her as he stroked her with his thumb, wanting to drive her mad, wanting to make her want it as much as he wanted it, if such a thing were actually possible.

"I want to," he said, moving his fingers faster, deeper. "Ninety-nine percent sure you want to. Please let me-"

She put a finger to his lips. "Wait while I-"

Whatever she was going to say next was interrupted by a loud knock at the door, and Pepper let out the most creative string of obscenities Tony had ever heard from anyone. Tony just moaned in frustration, cursing every bit of his bad luck. Pepper got up, taking the sheet with her, ignoring the fact that this left Tony laying there naked, a sight that the crew would probably find much more objectionable than their naked captain.

Pepper opened the door slightly. "Maria," Pepper said, tight and clipped. "If this ship is not actively under attack, I want you gone in the next fifteen seconds." She listened briefly to whatever was said in response, then shut the door. "Put some clothes on," she told him, pulling on her trousers on quickly and tying up her hair. "The ship is under attack."

"Oh for fuck's sake," Tony whined, rolling out of bed.

"There's an extra gun and ammunition in the desk," she said, already dressed and strapping on her sabre. "If you know how to use it, use it. If not, stay here and don't move."

"Pepper, wait," he said, following her to the door. "I don't think-"

She cut him off, kissing him hard. "See you on the other side," she told him, and then she was gone.

"Son of a bitch," Tony said to himself, looking around; that was when he realized he had no idea where any of his clothing was.

Pepper's nightgown was strangely comfortable for fighting; the sleeves didn't bind as much as he expected, and while it was deeply, deeply disorienting to have his dick swinging free while he was trying to fend off attacks, the flowing material left plenty of room to run. And run he definitely did, because there was not nearly enough ammunition.

He made his way out to the deck, where the action really was. There weren't many fighters, but the guys who were there were big, scary ones. Tony wasn't given to fear, but he was small and attractive, not huge and bruising, and he was possibly a little intimidated. He couldn't seem to load his gun fast enough or aim well enough with his shaky hands- not that the damn thing was easy to aim in the first place. He didn't last long before the goddamn piece of shit jammed; he gave up on it, tossing it into a half-broken barrel and picking up a loose stave; maybe he couldn't shoot anybody, but by God he had a board with a nail in it, and if he was going out he was going out raising hell.

He looked out over the deck, trying to see what was happening through the frenzy of battle. Natasha and Hill were back to back, fending off attackers, until Natasha yelled something he couldn't make out and went after one of them who was trying to make his way below decks. Ava was going crazy, lashing out like a tiger; it would have gotten a lesser woman killed, but she brought at least one of the invaders down that way, clawing at his eyes until he dropped to the deck.

But Pepper, Pepper was the one who looked like something out of legend, out of a painting, striking men down with her sabre left and right. She lured one until she had the higher ground, then kicked him right in the face, knocking him back into his friend and sending both of them tumbling down, right into the waiting arms of her crew.

He was going to marry that woman or die trying. Unfortunately, he was probably going to know if that last part was literal within about fifteen minutes.

In the midst of the turmoil, there was a tall, raven-haired man, dressed all in black and green, coat billowing out behind him. He wasn't attacking, just standing and watching as his forces overran the ship, looking darkly pleased. Tony didn't have to be told who he was. Everyone knew of the pirate they called Loki, one of the most dangerous men on the high seas; they said he was magic, they said he was evil, even the most hardened said both those things were probably true. Tony also didn't have to be told to be terrified of him, because he was doing that very well on his own.

Loki turned, surveying the scene; without warning, he suddenly surveyed Tony, looking him over and smiling.

Shit.

Loki strode over, heedless of the battle going on around him, parting the chaos easily, moving through it like it wasn't there at all. He was like a lion stalking his prey, and his prey chose that very moment to make a very stupid mistake: of all the open space on the deck, he managed to get himself right up next to the wheelhouse, just about the only place he could end up boxed in with his back to the wall.

"Mister Stark," Loki said as he approached, smiling unpleasantly. "How very nice to meet you. You'll be coming with me."

"The hell I will," he said, swinging his stave. He didn't connect, Loki batting the board easily away; Loki's other hand shot out, his fingers around Tony's throat. Loki lifted him off the deck by it and shoved him back against the wall, grinning, a deeply frightening look in his eyes. Great. He'd escaped captivity, conditionally won over at least part of the crew, quite possibly fallen in love, and very nearly gotten laid, but now he was about to be abducted by a terrifying madman with bad hair while wearing a nightgown.

"Don't make this harder than it has-" Loki said, but before he finished his sentence, he let out a howl of pain, dropping Tony so suddenly that Tony fell to the deck. Loki twisted, clutching his shoulder, and Sif was on him before he could recover, throwing him down and straddling him. They struggled for dominance, grabbing at each other's clothing, scratching at exposed skin, Loki moaning in pain but continuing to fight on; Tony had truly never seen a fight that looked more like sex in his entire life. Sif finally managed to pull back and get a clean shot, punching him in the shoulder. As he yowled, she took the opportunity to hit him in the face until she knocked him out.

She stood up, slinging him over her shoulders and screaming a battle cry in a language that Tony didn't understand. He didn't need to comprehend it to know that it meant 'Which one of you motherfuckers is next?'. He could see the panic strike Loki's men as they heard it, and all but one of them fled; that guy made the wrong choice, because Hill kicked him in the chest, sending him overboard.

Sif turned back to Tony, giving him a hand up easily despite the fact that she still had Loki over her shoulders. "What if you'd shot him through?" Tony said, bewildered.

"Then I would have shot you," Sif said, sounding completely unconcerned.

"Sif," Pepper snapped, "stay here and guard Loki. If anyone else moves, throw him overboard. Ava, get the authorities. If you can't find them, get anyone who's willing to take bodies off my ship. Hill, with me. We're clearing the lower decks. Tony, get to my quarters and stay there until you're sent for."

"I love you," Tony said.

"Love me later," she told him, with a hint of a smile. "Now go."

Despite his normal tendencies, Tony actually obeyed, going back to his adopted quarters. He realized this was absolutely the perfect opportunity not to be wearing a nightgown anymore; it wasn't exactly looking its best, a little ripped and dirty from how he'd been running all over the ship in it. He finally managed to locate his trousers and shirt, pulling them on just in time for Pepper to knock in the door. "It's safe," she said. "You can come out now."

The crew had regrouped on the deck, a pile of Loki's troops laid out, in various states of consciousness and/or blood loss. "This is the only other one that made it below decks," Hill said, coming up onto the deck, helping Darcy carry the bleeding man; they dropped him unceremoniously next to his brethren.

"I hit him with a skillet," Darcy said proudly.

"What is 'other' supposed to mean?" Tony asked, puzzled, but no one gave him a response.

Suddenly the port officials were coming up onto the ship, and everyone had to answer a lot of questions too many times, and they carted a moaning and bruised Loki away, though not before Sif had time to spit on him.

There was definitely backstory there.

When they had finally gone, the crew and Tony retired to the galley, sitting around the table and generally being exhausted. Ava was gone, sent back to shore again to fetch Kate; Natasha was missing as well, and Tony got the sense that he wasn't supposed to ask why.

"No jail will hold him," Sif said. "We will see him again. And next time, I will slay him."

"We don't usually like to slay people if we can avoid it," Pepper said.

"I don't see why we can't make an exception," Hill said.

"His plan was to board the ship quietly and quickly abduct Stark, or else lie in wait for him," Sif said. "I know not why, whether for ransom or as a simple trophy, but surely he cared little if there was harm to the ship or the crew."

"Everybody knows that you don't fuck with this boat," Tony said. "How is any of that supposed to be a good idea?"

"Loki's plans are never as cunning as they are in his own mind," Sif said. "And truly, is it not better to lose in glorious battle than win a petty victory?"

There was a pause. "No," Tony said.

Sif merely shrugged.

"What are we going to do about Barton?" Hill asked, sitting back and crossing her arms over her chest.

"Unless he has business here, we're taking him back to England," Pepper said firmly. "He's dangerous and will be watched carefully. But he has the trust of my crew, and that's what matters to me."

Tony gave her an unamused look; he had plenty to say on the subject of this crew and trust, and this guy, whoever he was, was totally skipping a long and arduous process. "Who's Barton?"

Pepper sighed. "It's a long story."

"A friend and a warrior," Sif said.

"A spy," Hill said, "but a trustworthy one."

"I wouldn't hit him with a skillet," Darcy said, "if you know what I mean."

Pepper stood up. "I'm going to talk with him now. Rest up. After the supplies are loaded in the morning, we're leaving as soon as possible."

"You pick up a lot of stragglers," Tony said.

"We're kind of a bunch of misfits," Darcy pointed out. "If you weren't men, you'd fit right in."

"What's with not letting men on the ship?" he asked.

"What's with not letting women on other ones?" she countered.

"Point taken," Tony said. Pepper was already on her way out, and Tony stood up quickly, following her.

There was a man waiting in Hill and Natasha's quarters, which had apparently been commandeered for a makeshift brig. He was compact, well muscled; one of his sleeves had been torn off, showcasing strong arms. He was definitely handsome, but the swelling that was rising on his face suggested he'd have an almighty black eye soon to mar his good looks.

Natasha sat beside him, holding his hand, rubbing her thumb back and forth across his knuckles. They were talking softly, but as soon as he saw Pepper, she had his full attention. "Captain Potts," he said. "I can't apologize enough."

"You're safe here," she told him. "Loki's gone, at least for the time being."

"I'm not sure what all happened," he said. His face turned grave. "Did I hurt anybody?"

Pepper smiled. "We don't go down that easily." Her statement was slightly hard to take seriously given how banged up Natasha looked, but it was still very clear that Natasha had won. "You can make yourself at home. I think you know most of my crew already."

"And I'm Tony, the coxswain," Tony said, unable to resist. Pepper elbowed him hard in the side. "Ow! Jesus, woman."

"If you'd like to get out of here, we're happy to have you onboard," Pepper said. "We should be in England inside of two weeks."

Barton sighed. "I've never heard anything better in my whole goddamn life."

The door swung open, and Kate came rushing in, flinging herself at Barton. She was too overwhelmed to even speak, just clinging to him, heedless of the others.

"Hey there, Hawkeye," he said, stroking her hair.

Kate didn't respond, other than to burst out crying. Tony got the very sudden sense that he was intruding. He looked at Pepper, cocking his head towards the door; she nodded at Natasha, who nodded back, and then she took Tony by the arm, leading him out of the room and shutting the door behind them.

"Come with me," Pepper said, pulling him away; he wasn't particularly surprised when she dragged him to her quarters, pushing him inside and closing the door forcefully. Pepper picked up the heavy chair at her desk, lugging it to the door and placing it firmly underneath the handle. She pulled out the ribbon holding back her hair, letting it fall about her shoulders- was that ever going to stop being so sexy?

"I think I ruined your nightgown," Tony said, feeling inexplicably nervous. "I'll buy you another one. I'll buy you ten nightgowns."

"Not interested in my nightgown," Pepper said, walking over and putting her hands on his hips.

"I'm very interested in your nightgown, as long as I don't have to wear it anymore," he told her. "Actually, more in favor of you not wearing it either."

"Well, you ruined it, so I guess I have to find something else to sleep in," she said.

"Haven't you heard?" Tony said. "Clothes are out this season."

"Then I better get you out of these," she said, kissing him. "Wouldn't want to be behind the times."

Her deft fingers made quick work of his shirt buttons, and she moved down to suck on his neck, biting gently. His trousers were next; she wrapped her hand around his cock, stroking him slow and steady, and dear God at this rate he was going to come before she even took her top off. "You should really be a lot more naked right now," he said, pushing her back a little so he could get her shirt undone.

Soon enough they were both undressed, and Pepper was leading him to the bed. Tony really didn't know why he was so much more unsteady this time than he had been the last. Last time it had been spontaneous, a little unbelievable; right now, he was definitely about to have sex, premeditated, doubtlessly mindblowing sex.

She pushed him down and crawled on top of him, kissing him, her hands on his shoulders to keep him in place. He reached down, feeling for where she was soft and wet, his fingers circling her clit slowly, making her gasp. Not to be outdone, she rocked against him, the heat of her against his cock, and Tony was going to die, he was absolutely sure of it.

"Just wait," she said, breaking away from his lips, leaning back and reaching for the box next to the bed.

"What's that for?" he asked, as she took something out of it.

"It's a condom, Tony," Pepper said patiently.

"I know what it is," Tony snapped, embarrassed. "I just thought, you know, I just wasn't going to-" he made a hand gesture that was hopefully illustrative- "inside of you."

Pepper gave him a look.

"Let me just put this on you," she said, stroking his cock before she slid the condom on. It felt sort of strange, but then she was rubbing herself against him again, and it was considerably less interesting than thrusting up against her. She bent down to kiss him, long and wet. "Hold still for a second," she said, sitting back; she took hold of his cock, kneeling up and getting in position.

She slowly took him inside of her, sinking down around him until every inch of him was in her tight, hot cunt. It was possible that Tony made a totally undignified whimpering noise, because he very, very quickly learned exactly what all the fuss was about. Even through the condom, it was amazing, even better when she started moving, fucking herself on his cock. She looked so good, breasts bouncing as she rode him, and Tony started wondering how many condoms were in that box, because it wasn't going to be nearly enough.

"God," Tony said, his hands sliding onto her hips, urging her on. "You have no idea how long I waited for this."

Pepper laughed breathlessly. "Well, you're getting it," she said, grinding down against him, and he swore he saw stars. "You're gonna get everything."

--

Pepper was, as always, a woman of her word. They'd easily used up all the supplies by the time they reached England, and then Pepper got creative, and he wished more than ever that he never had to leave.

And yet, there they were, sailing into harbor, just as they'd always been bound to do. Almost as soon as they'd docked, a pair of men in crisp black clothing boarded. One of them was quite striking, dark-skinned and tall, with a patch covering one eye; the other one had the certain type of calculated blandness that made Tony want to memorize him immediately. Those types were never up to anything good.

"Phil," Pepper said, giving the bland one a hug.

"It's been too long," he said. "Good to see you safe."

"Likewise," Pepper said. "Sir Fury," she said to the other one, holding out her hand.

"Captain Potts," he said, giving it a firm shake. "Glad you're in one piece. Word about Loki outran you." He turned, looking Tony over.

"May I present Mister Anthony Stark," she said. "Tony, Sir Nicholas Fury and Mister Coulson."

"Charmed," Tony replied, and Fury raised his eyebrow at him.

"We need to speak with you regarding the incident with Loki," Coulson told them. "Preferably all of your crew. If we can get you to just-"

Coulson turned at the noise behind them, the sounds of someone boarding the ship; Tony's arrival had not, apparently, gone unnoticed by Tony's father.

"Every time," Coulson said.

"Maybe you'd be better off going and collecting Barton," Fury told him. "We'll see you soon, Mister Stark," he said to Tony, walking past Tony's father and Captain Rogers, and for the life of him Tony couldn't decide if it was a threat or not.

"Well, you're back," Tony's father said, looking grumpy.

"We were so afraid," Captain Rogers said sincerely, taking Tony's hand and squeezing it briefly. "We feared the worst for so long."

Tony gave Pepper a look. "Except for the kidnapping, not a bad trip, overall."

Pepper put a possessive arm around his waist, drawing a shocked look from Captain Rogers and a scowl from Tony's father, and Tony was pretty sure she was the most perfect woman who had ever lived. "It's been a pleasure having him on my boat," she said, just the slightest emphasis on the word 'pleasure.'

His father didn't dignify that with a remark. "I hope you're happy having ruined things for yourself."

"Howard," Captain Rogers softly chided.

"Couldn't be happier," Tony said, smiling cheerily. "Little unfinished business here," he said, leaning into Pepper's side. "See you back at home."

The elder Stark was so apoplectic that he just stormed off. "Maybe you shouldn't come home right away," Captain Rogers advised.

"Good plan," Tony said. "See you in a while."

"He really is glad to have you back," Rogers promised. "He's just-" He looked at Pepper. "Concerned."

"Go on," Tony told him. "We'll fight it out later."

"Good luck," he said. He tipped his hat. "Captain."

"I know what this looks like," Tony said as Rogers left, holding up his hands.

Pepper shook her head. "I know exactly what it looks like. I also know what actually happened."

He looked at her in confusion. "What actually happened?"

"I don't think anybody in the world could miss what you were trying to do," Pepper said. "You just wanted to piss off your father and get laid. Only you screwed up and fell in love with me."

There was a long pause. "You can read minds, can't you?"

"It's what happens every time," Pepper said.

"Look, I'm sorry that I tried to use you-" Tony started.

"I'm a privateer, Tony," she said. "I have no problem at all with positive results from impure motivations."

"I actually do love you," Tony said.

"I know," she said, kissing him. She looked away from him; her crew was working around her, needing her direction. "I have to go," she said reluctantly.

"When can I see you again?" Tony asked.

She looked a little sad. "I don't know," she said.

"We'll figure it out," Tony said, lacing his fingers into hers.

"I hope we can," she told him, kissing him one more time.

 

Epilogue

"I keep telling you not to move around so much," Tony said, taking her book from her and guiding her back to the nest of pillows he'd made for her on the couch.

"I'm fine," she said, though she was breathing heavily. "I made it six months at sea with this baby inside of me, I think I can make it to the library."

"That was about four months too long," Tony grumbled, sitting down on the floor in front of her and taking one of her swollen feet into his hands.

"Other women do worse all the time," Pepper told him, settling back against the pillows as Tony massaged her foot. "Their babies turn out just fine."

"You're not other women," he insisted. "That's not just another baby. That's my baby." Pepper raised an eyebrow at him. "Of course it's your baby too, I didn't think I needed to say that. I think it's probably hard for you to forget right now."

"You have no idea," Pepper sighed.

"Mama?" a small voice called from the doorway. "Are you in here?"

"You found her," Tony replied. "Come on in, baby."

"It's not nice to run away from Jarvis," Pepper chided, as their daughter walked in. "He worries."

"Jarvis is boring," she whined. "Can I stay with you? You're not boring."

"See?" Tony said. "This one is also my baby."

"You can stay," Pepper told her, ignoring him.

"Be careful with Mama," Tony said firmly, as she ran over to join Pepper. "If you disturb your baby brother or sister, they'll bother you for the rest of your life."

"Come here, Rosie," she said, picking her daughter up and setting her down next to her. "Ignore Papa. He's being silly."

"She needs to know," Tony said. "Siblings are stuck to you for life."

"Tony, you're an only child," Pepper told him.

"Dodged that bullet," Tony replied.

Rosemary curled up against her mother's side. "Can I have a story?"

"Sure," Pepper said, putting an arm around her. "What do you want to hear?"

"No more ocean stories," she said, snuggling closer. "You always tell ocean stories."

Tony laughed, and Pepper glared at him. "Maybe Papa has a story for you."

"Yeah, Papa," Rosemary urged. "Tell us a story."

"Once there was a prince," he started, looking at Pepper. "The prince was handsome and very rich, and everyone wanted a piece of him." Pepper gave him a warning look, but he continued. "But one day, the prince was captured and dragged away by very bad men."

"Did they have guns and swords?" Rosemary asked excitedly.

"Lots," he told her. "But just as the prince had lost all hope, the queen of a faraway land came and rescued him, in a really great battle that your Mama doesn't want me to talk about. I'll tell you when you're older. Anyway, the prince adored the queen- they weren't related, by the way, different lineages and everything- more than any woman he'd ever met before. No matter what he did, he couldn't get her out of his mind, because she was just that great."

"Was she pretty?" his daughter asked.

"Gorgeous," Tony assured her. "But the queen wouldn't have him, because the prince was an- uh, he was a big jerk. But he did everything he could, and by some weird miracle that no one ever had a good explanation for, she came to like him anyway."

"Love," Pepper corrected, giving Tony a soft smile. "The queen loved him, even though he was an idiot. She didn't have a good reason."

"So they fell in love and got married and had babies," Tony concluded. "The end."

"That story's too short," Rosemary said, yawning.

"Believe me, it felt a whole lot longer at the time," he grumbled. "Now it's bedtime for you, missy."

"But Papa-"

"C'mon, kid, you can barely keep your eyes open," he said, standing up and reaching for her hand. Rosemary reluctantly let him take it; before they went, he leaned down to kiss Pepper. "Love you," he said softly.

"You, too," she told him, smiling. "Don't be long."

"Papa," Rosemary protested, tugging at his hand.

"The princess calls," Tony said, scooping her up. "Say goodnight to Mama and let's get you to bed."

"Night, Mama," she said dutifully, as Tony carried her off. "Can I have another story, Papa?"

"What kind of story do you want?" he asked.

"A longer one," she replied. "With the iron man."

"Excellent choice," Tony said. "Once upon a time, there lived this inventor..."