Notes: The sequel to Practical Applications, a story in the Echoes the Sea series. Thanks to strangevisitor7 and ninjababe for the beta!
Character(s): Methos, Tony Stark, Ezra Standish, Duncan MacLeod, Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, Nick Fury, Charlotte Sparrow, Natalie Rushman, Other Original Characters.
Summary: Friendship takes work; being friends with Tony Stark requires danger pay. When Tony said ‘I am Iron Man’, he affected the lives of those closest to him – they just never dreamed how much. Like a pebble tossed in a pond, the ripples eventually touch all in their path.
The Future Begins With Mac & Cheese
Pepper and Charlotte piled bags into the trunk of the Aston Martin, both women satisfied with the results of their morning’s shopping. Charlotte had insisted Pepper let her buy a few outfits for her as thanks for all Pepper’s help, both now and in the past. It hadn’t taken a whole lot of convincing, as Pepper was as much of a clothes horse as Charlotte was.
“I can’t believe we bought all that in two hours,” Pepper said as she and Charlotte slid into the car. While both women loved to shop, they also led very busy lives, with no time for lingering. They’d made their choices with an almost brutal efficiency.
“It helped that you called ahead and had them open early for us. A very handy fringe benefit of working for Tony.” Charlotte giggled. “And the breakfast they provided was delicious!”
“It really was good,” Pepper agreed as Charlotte pulled into traffic. “The dress you bought for the press conference this afternoon is perfect, the pumps are show stoppers.”
“Not to mention all the other clothes you seem to think I’ll be needing.” Pepper had insisted Charlotte get enough outfits to wear for upcoming interviews and photo ops.
“You will need them, I promise you; not to mention Ez is doing that photo spread tomorrow, so you need enough for him to pick and choose from. You know what he’s like,” she pointed out.
If you only knew. What she said was, “I suppose you’re right.” His photo shoots were anything but a democracy – more like a benevolent dictatorship, where Ezra was absolute ruler. If the renowned Edward Zachary Sanbourne agreed to photograph you, it was on his terms, and he expected absolute acquiescence to his wishes. In fact, Charlotte wouldn’t be at all surprised if he showed up tomorrow with his own collection of outfits for her to wear.
It didn’t take long for them to reach Stark Industries, where Charlotte was boggled to discover she had her own parking space. “This is overkill,” she muttered.
Pepper laughed. “All part of the package. Speaking of, you’re going to need a staff. Are you going to want Lily to act as your P.A. while you’re here?” Lily was Charlotte’s assistant at the winery.
Shaking her head, Charlotte turned off the ignition. “No, I need her to keep things running smoothly at the winery. It’s almost harvest and I need her there.”
“No problem, I’ll find you someone then, if that’s okay?”
“I would be so grateful, Virginia! But I hate to impose on you more than I have. I know how busy you are already.” Charlotte felt more than a little guilty of all the time Pepper had had to spend on her.
“It isn’t an imposition,” Pepper replied firmly. “Part of my job is to make what’s important to Tony a reality. And this is important.”
“Can I tell you something?” Pepper nodded. “I’m terrified; of taking on this position, of failing, and the press conference…. I feel like someone’s taken my stomach and tied it into knots. I don’t know if I can do this, Virginia.” How stupid was it that a woman who faced down others of her kind with a sword, battling to the death, could be so afraid of a press conference?
“You can, I know you can; and so does Tony. And you’ve been in front of the press before. Every time you attend an event with Tony, you’re mobbed by them,” she pointed out.
Charlotte smiled crookedly. “That’s different. I’m not getting up on a stage and talking to potentially millions of people.”
“You’ll be fine,” Pepper insisted. “Now come on, we have a lot to get done today.”
“It’s going to be a good harvest,” Duncan told Methos as he fingered a bunch of grapes on the vine in front of him.
Methos only grunted in reply, his thoughts obviously elsewhere.
“You could call her,” Duncan said.
“It’s better this way.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Yes, it is, so butt out.”
“Just tell me one thing; why did you think you loved her?”
Methos looked at him sharply. “I didn’t think – I did love her.”
Nodding, Duncan said, “But you don’t now. Just like that, it’s over, not worth trying to salvage. I get it.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” Methos replied with a low laugh.
“Then why don’t you explain it to me, Methos? What was it that drew you to her in the first place?”
Tilting his head back, looking up at the sky, Methos sighed. “She wanted to live, Mac, she fought death with everything she had. If you could have seen her then…. When Jack brought me to the Pearl, and I saw her lying there, wracked with fever and infection. The absolute agony that I caused her when I had to clean out the wound on her back, digging out pieces of wood from the shattered mast she’d been thrown onto; again and again, till she passed out from the pain. And the days passed, but she kept fighting. I was tempted, Mac, more than once, to end it, plunge my dagger into her heart and release her. But I could fight for her no less then she fought for herself. She deserved a real life, a mortal life, before the Game claimed her.”
Methos began to walk, Duncan following in silence.
“You could call him,” Pepper said, looking at the cell phone Charlotte was staring at in her hand.
They were sitting at a table in the SI employee dining room, waiting for Tony to join them for an early lunch. There were no executive dining rooms at Stark Industries; everyone from the CEO to the gardeners ate in the same vast dining complex.
Startled, Charlotte dropped the phone into her purse, looking embarrassed. “No, I can’t.”
“I’m sorry,” Pepper said. It seemed like she was going to say more, but she changed her mind.
“Me too. But the reality was that our lives didn’t fit together and we wanted things from each other that we couldn’t give. It’s better this way.” Charlotte wondered how many times she’d have to tell herself that to believe it. Anger and heartbreak warred for the upper hand, her inner turmoil as complicated as the man who had caused it.
Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Tony, who dropped into an empty chair between the two women. “When’s the fashion show, Birdie?” He leaned back in his chair, winking at Charlotte.
“In your dreams.”
“I have great dreams,” he said suggestively. “I should tell you about them some time.”
“Please, don’t.” Charlotte tried to sound disapproving, but she couldn’t quite keep the smile off her lips. Tony had an uncanny ability to get past her best intentions and always had. “About time you got here; I’m starving.”
He gave her a look. “When aren’t you?”
Pepper choked back laughter as Charlotte smacked Tony on the leg. “Consider your next words very carefully, Mr. Stark,” she warned her friend.
Deciding discretion was indeed the better part of valour, Tony slapped his hands together. “So who’s up for mac and cheese? I’m telling you, Birdie, people want to work here because SI mac and cheese is legendary.”
“Is that a fact?” Charlotte asked dryly.
“Absolutely! Right, Pepper?”
Pepper shook her head. “Whatever you say, Mr. Stark.”
“If you’ll sign here, ma’am.”
Charlotte nodded, signing the document where Natalie indicated. After lunch, Pepper had delivered her to legal, leaving her in the seemingly very capable hands of Natalie Rushman. Glancing over at the stunning redhead, Charlotte felt just a tweak of envy. She was gorgeous, and by comparison, Charlotte felt like a pumpkin in a rose garden. The woman radiated a heady mix of mystery, sensuality, and utter competence.
“And here.” As Charlotte’s pen scraped over the document, she said, “I’ll make sure these are messengered to Mr. Tanner’s office this afternoon.”
“Thank you, Ms. Rushman.” Between one breath and the next, the presence of another Immortal made itself known, and her pen froze in mid-signature for just a moment before she continued on.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” Natalie asked.
She was the sharp one, wasn’t’ she? Charlotte thought sourly. Resisting the urge to scan the area for whomever it might be she was sensing, she kept her gaze on the paper in front of her. “Fine, fine, Ms. Rushman. Just forgot how to sign my own name,” she said with forced humour. “You know how it is. There, all done.” She pushed the document to the other woman. “Is that it?”
“You’re all set. Let me walk you back up to Mr. Stark’s office.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I know the way.” Charlotte waved her back to her seat. “Thank you for all your help, Ms. Rushman, I appreciate it.”
“My pleasure, Ms. Sparrow,” Natalie murmured as Charlotte moved swiftly from her office.
He was the one, of that, Charlotte had no doubt. Warily, she approached her quarry, to where he waited for her in the hall. Not tall, he was broad shouldered, with a barrel-like chest that wasn’t hidden by the pale blue jumpsuit he was wearing. His lightly waved chestnut hair was pulled back into a small, tight ponytail at the base of his neck, and his skin was tanned to nearly bronze, a stark contrast to his pale gray eyes. Eyes that measured her as she stopped in front of him.
She took a steadying breath, hoping against hope that the man before her wasn’t looking for a challenge. Glancing at the security badge he had clipped to his pocket, she saw that he was an electrical engineer. Ingo Mannus, the name on the badge read. “Mr. Mannus.”
“Miss Sparrow.” The man made a slight bow. “I hardly expected Mr. Stark’s lady friend to be so special." He had a slight accent, one that Charlotte was unable to place.
“We do show up in all sorts of places,” she said lightly, still having no inkling of the other Immortal’s intentions.
“Indeed we do. And to think that my only plans up till now had been a beer with my coworkers after my shift ended. Who knew that the reality would be so much more stimulating?” His smile was cold, though his eyes were even colder.
Adrenaline hit her bloodstream as his intentions were made clear. “Is that how it’s to be then?” She cocked her head. “I would be missed if we do this now.”
“There’s no hurry. In fact, I prefer the anticipation.”
“Where?” she asked sharply.
“There’s an abandoned hanger at the far edge of the facility.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “Here? But the security….”
“No need to concern yourself; my position has certain advantages when it comes to making sure some things go unseen.” He gave her directions and a time for their duel. “Be there, at the appointed time. I will take care of our…privacy.” He laughed, low in his throat. “And don’t even think of running. As the say, I know where you live. It would be a shame if those close to you died in your place.”
“I am no coward,” she hissed. “I have never run from a fight, and I have no intention of starting now!”
He bowed again. “I am pleased to hear it. My apologies if I offended your honour, it was not my intention.” Before she could respond, he strode away.
Natasha watched Charlotte and Mannus unseen from her vantage point. She wished she could hear what they were saying, but all she could go by was body language. Whatever it was that was going on, it wasn’t good – that was obvious. She quickly slid around the corner as Mannus walked past her, and she leaned against the wall, trying to decide exactly what it was she should tell her boss.
Shaking her head, she went back into her office and flipped open her cellphone; it was time to report in.