Notes: The sequel to Practical Applications, a story in the Echoes the Sea series.
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.
Tony shoved the meter into his pants pocket, staring out of his office window. There was no getting around the fact that the palladium poisoning was progressing. At this rate, he'd be lucky to see another Christmas. There was something outrageously ironic about the fact that he'd survived his captivity, only to be slowly murdered by what had kept him alive. Usually, that sort of thing was something he appreciated, but this wasn't one of those times. And as much as he planned to go down fighting this until his dying breath, he also knew he had to plan for the future. Snorting, he shook his head. My legacy.
He only felt a little guilty about manipulating Charlotte into taking on the new charitable division of SI. He needed to have people he trusted in positions of power if, when, he was gone. As things proceeded, he had other plans ready to put into motion; this was just the beginning. His death would not mean the end of the company his father had started. While he didn't have any children - well, that he was aware of at least - he did have people in his life who were as close as any blood relations, and those were the people to whom he would entrust Stark Industries, and more importantly, the Iron Man technology, if the worst happened. His brooding thoughts were interrupted by a voice from behind him.
"If you're busy, I can come back," Charlotte said quietly.
Tony realized it wasn't the first time she'd tried to get his attention upon entering the room. "No, it's fine." He turned towards her.
She smiled. "Lost in your genius thinky thoughts?"
"Yeah, something like that." He really looked at her this time. There was a tightness around her eyes that was at odds with her light tone. Walking towards her, he asked, "Everything okay?"
For a moment, she seemed startled, then it was gone. "Yeah, I'm fine." She dropped her eyes.
Tony moved closer, standing right in front of her, knowing something wasn't quite right. Putting his hands on her shoulders, she stiffened, and he thought she'd pull away, but instead, she seemed to lean into his hold as she took a shuddering breath. "I don't believe you," he said softly, pulling her closer.
"It's been a long day," was all she said by way of explanation." She rested her forehead on his chest.
He breathed in her scent; it was like standing in a meadow after a thunderstorm, all vibrant green and dark moist earth with a hint of ozone. He could almost feel the tickle of the electricity. Without thinking, he wrapped his arms around her, drawing her against him. There was something different about this, though God only knew what it was. It wasn't as if he hadn't held her as close many times before. For two people who had never had sex, they had always had a tactile aspect to their relationship.
Now she was looking up at him, her ice blue eyes drawing him down, and he took a sharp breath. "Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do I do this?" she whispered. Her hands slipped up, palms flat against his chest.
'Birdie," his voice caught. He was, for once, at a loss. The edge of her knuckles skimmed across the line of his jaw and he tried to find his voice. "What are you doing?" He had a pretty good idea, but this was Charlotte, his best friend - his best friend who had very carefully kept them 'just friends' for the last seven years.
Her laugh sounded like it belonged to someone else. "Always so many questions." Her lips hovered over his, the taste of her breath like a promise. And then, between one breath and the next, the promise was made real as she kissed him.
This could be the palladium poisoning, he thought, as the sensation of her lips against his seemed more of a fever dream than anything else. He tossed away that idea, grasping on to the here and now as her fingers dug into his upper arms with a steel-like grip. That'll leave bruises. Okay, granted, this was like one of his many fantasies, but this really was real.
"Men feel so much different than women," Tony thought her heard her say. Whoa, okay, that was another fantasy entirely, and he wasn't going there...not this time, at least.
There was a brief moment when he considered pulling away, but her lips trailing a path down his neck quickly drove away whatever chivalrous inclinations he might have had. He didn't have a 'bucket list', but if he was going to die, then didn't they deserve one shot at being more than just friends? It all spun away from him once he'd decided, his only thoughts now, if they even qualified as such, were what she felt like, what she would feel like, the anticipation of that moment gnawing at his gut. Her breath was hot against the hollow of his throat, his tie already gone, and his shirt mostly unbuttoned. He took her face in his hands, pulling her away from where her tongue was teasing along his collarbone, taking her lips with his. He wanted to taste her, melt into her till he knew every secret and every desire.
Both of them were breathing hard and she laughed that stranger's laugh again. "I'm tired of waiting," she told him.
So was he, but even if he hadn't been more than ready, the sensation of her fingertips brushing against the sensitized skin around the RT in his chest would have been his undoing. Swinging her into his arms, he carried her to the couch at the far end of his office, dropping her onto the smooth leather surface, quickly joining her. She gasped as his hands traveled along her thighs, pushing up the constraining fabric of her dress as he went. Arms snaking around his neck, she pulled him to her, her kiss almost painful in its aggressiveness. Her dress now up over her hips, he began his own exploration, the low sound she made against his mouth telling him that he was right on target.
Neither of them heard the door open, or anyone enter the office. But they did hear Pepper's sharp intake of breath and her rushed apology as she hastily exited, the door closing sharply behind her. He groaned, berating himself for not taking Charlotte to his place, or for at least not locking the damned door! He knew why he hadn't taken her home; afraid she'd change her mind if given the time to think about it. But how hard was locking a door? And now.... Damn it! Charlotte was as white a sheet, her hands across her mouth, looking as if she wasn't even sure where she was.
"Birdie," he reached for her, "I'm sorry. Come home with me, we can talk." Talk, yeah sure, Stark, you wanna talk. "This... it's going to be fine."
But she was already pushing herself off the couch, straightening her clothes and her hair with an almost manic intensity. "I'm sorry, Tony, so sorry." She sounded as if she were going to cry and there was something desperate in her eyes. "I don't know if you can ever forgive me for what I've done." Before he could even form a response, she'd fled, running across the office and out the door.
Tony poured more scotch into his glass, slamming back the contents, frustration and anger twisting at him as he worked on getting drunk. In the past, he'd have gone looking for alternative female companionship, but that wasn't something he could do this time. The old Tony wouldn't have given it a second thought, but he wasn't that man anymore. Sometimes he wondered if that was a good thing.
"I hope you're happy with yourself," Pepper's voice said coolly from the doorway.
He grimaced; more fallout. "She started it." He didn't turn to look at her. Yeah, you're a real prince, Stark.
Snorting, she asked, "And you think that makes a difference?" She walked around to stand in front of him so he had no choice but to look at her. "You don't like sharing your toys, so you blew up her life, and then took advantage at her most vulnerable! That's low, even for you, Tony." She sounded more disappointed than angry, and that made it somehow worse.
"That isn't fair," he protested. "She's a big girl and can take care of herself." Okay, agreed, that was lame. Even if it were true. Pepper's charge hit a little too close to home, however much he didn't want to admit it. And while this certainly wasn't the first time he'd been caught in flagrante delicto, by Pepper even, it was the first time he could recall giving a damn. He was missing old Tony more and more by the minute.
"Is that why you sent Happy to pay off Matthew?" She shook her head. "It doesn't seem like you really believe she can take care of herself, does it?"
Startled, he tried to formulate some sort of defense to the accusation in her eyes. But all he came up with was, "Hogan has a big mouth."
"No, what he has is a conscience," she shot back. "After Charlotte showed up yesterday, he felt guilty and had to confess."
"I'm not going to apologize; the guy was bad news and he proved it."
"Proved it?" she said incredulously. "He turned your money down!"
He pointed a finger at her. "Only because he was holding out for a bigger payday," he said angrily, "but Birdie kicked him to the curb before he had a chance."
"You are unbelievable!"
He had to know. While he'd almost got himself to believe that his actions had been for the best, he was pretty sure Birdie's reaction, if she ever found out, would not be a good one. "What about you, Pepper? Are you going to tell her?"
"I thought about it," she admitted, "but in the end, I decided she didn't deserve anymore heartbreak."
Charlotte held it together all the way back to the hotel, handing her keys and a ten dollar bill to the valet at the Montage Laguna Beach. "Park the car please, I'll send down for my packages later."
The valet nodded his understanding. "Thank you, ma'am."
All she wanted to do was reach the sanctuary of her suite, a hot bath, and a bottle of scotch. If this had been ninety odd years ago, she'd be looking for the nearest opium den. But she wasn't that Charlotte anymore; not that she was sure it was much of an improvement some days. Reaching her door, she pulled out the card key, but in an instant, her sanctuary became a trap. Before she could even begin to process that an Immortal lay in wait, the door was flung open.... by Methos.
It wasn't fair! Hadn't she been punished enough? Did he really need to follow her here so he could berate and belittle her one more time? She couldn't do this, not now, not for a very long time. "Methos, I can't...," she began.
What happened next seemed like a dream. "Thank God," he said, said as if he really meant it. Then he drew her into his arms, holding on to her as if she might disappear. "I am so sorry," he whispered at her ear.
She couldn't comprehend what was happening. Pulling away, she pushed past him, hurling her purse onto a nearby chair. "I don't understand," she said, holding onto control with a steel grip.
From behind her, he said, "If you'd checked your cell phone even once in the last few hours, you might." His voice held a hint of its usual teasing.
Whirling, she looked at him suspiciously, but he just shot her a smile and shrugged. But while his lips were smiling, his eyes weren't, and she wondered all over again why he was here. She shook her head. "What do you want, Methos?"
He stepped closer. "What do I want, Charlotte?" He reached out, gently brushing a strand of hair off her cheek. "I want you to know how sorry I am, I want to never go through another day like this again, I want you to forgive me, and," he paused, taking another step towards her, "I want you."
She blinked, trying to comprehend what he was saying, guilt warring with joy as she realized he actually meant what he said. Her heart sank, and a feeling of loss pulled her down into dark depths. "Methos, there's something I have to tell you...."
He shook his head. "I already know; Ingo Mannus." At her look of confusion, he said, "The how doesn't matter now. I thought I'd lost you, and all I could think about was all the time we could have had together if I hadn't been such a fool."
"Not your fault, Methos, not all of it," she whispered. "I'm sorry." Her legs couldn't hold her up anymore and she sank into the chair she'd thrown her purse onto earlier. Wrapping her arms around herself tightly, she tried to stop the trembling that threatened to overwhelm her. "I'm scared. Scared I'm losing myself."
Methos sank to his knees, looking up at her. He took her face in his hands, searching her eyes. "You're there, love, I see no one else."
"I feel as if he's looking out of my eyes." Her voice cracked. "I've never felt this way after a Quickening."
"He was old, Charlotte, but not strong enough to overwhelm who you are."
"How can you be sure?" She was desperate for his reassurance.
He stroked her hair. "Because I know you, and I knew him, and it would take far more than the Quickening of Istvaeone for you to lose yourself. Do not doubt yourself, Charlotte. And always know that I never shall."