Characters: Tony Stark, Methos, Charlotte Sparrow
Notes: PG15, Iron Man/Highlander, implied Tony/Pepper.
Summary: Tony looks up an old friend, sure that he has an offer she couldn't possibly refuse.
'Echoes the Sea' series summary can be found here.
Practical Applications ~ Part Two
'You're coming with me to Afghanistan'. That's sure what it had sounded like. Charlotte's brain did a double take, then followed up with dozens of possible replies to his outrageous statement. She picked the most direct one. "No, I'm not."
"That's it? Just 'no, I'm not'. No curiosity, no questions, nothing?" He obviously had not been expecting that response.
"That about covers it." Nope, not falling into that trap. Questions and curiosity would only give Tony an opening to try and lure her into whatever mad scheme he had percolating in his brain. Been, there done that, wasn't doing it again. She'd learned her lesson in Bali.
Not giving him time to launch a new strategy, she picked up her wineglass and headed outside to the covered porch overlooking the kitchen garden. She heard his footsteps following behind, but decided that ignoring him was her best recourse. Taking a seat, she waited silently as he sat down across from her. Not surprisingly, he'd brought his glass and the bottle with him.
He didn't say anything either, just watched her. So that's how he wanted to play it. He thought he could wait her out. "You'll leave once the wine runs out," she assured him.
Tony just smiled, and it wasn't really fair. It was one of many weapons in his arsenal and probably the most effective one where she was concerned. It was that smile that had gotten her on to the beach that night in Monte Carlo -- well that, and a lot of champagne. And he knew it too. Bastard.
"It's not going to work this time, Tony. You may as well accept it."
"What? Did I say anything? I'm just sitting here, drinking this very lovely wine, minding my own business." He leaned toward her. "Admiring the view," he added with an appreciative look that ran down her body and back. "Did you know your eyes get these dark blue flecks in them when you're ticked off?"
He was going to drive her crazy! That was his plan. He was by far the most aggravating man she'd ever met. And considering the men she’d known over the centuries, that was saying something. Lips firmly pressed together, she held out her wineglass, which he obligingly refilled for her. He was still smiling that smile, and she was reminded all over again what a dammed attractive man Tony Stark was. She would be strong. For goodness sake, you're over two hundred years old! Don't be a such a pushover!
"So what's for dinner?"
Dinner? "Who said anything about dinner?" she asked, nonplussed at the unexpected question. At least it distracted her from thinking about how pretty his eyes were.
"I'm your guest, and you're always the soul of hospitality, so of course, you're going to make me dinner." He made it sound so logical.
Charlotte tried to figure out just what this new tactic was. "I have plans. A date," she added, in case he didn't get it.
"With... what's his name? Right, Matthew. I don't mind going out. I'd like to meet Matthew, so dinner would be perfect."
"A date implies two people, Tony, not three."
"Come on, Birdie, you know your new boyfriend would want to meet your ex."
"You are not my ex!" It was all she could do not to stamp her foot. She settled for pounding the throw pillow next to her with a fist.
"Hey, I almost was! Okay fine, I'm not technically your ex, but I am the other man in your life."
"Other man?" she sputtered, leaping to her feet. "My god, Tony, you are the most egotistical man I know!"
He obviously seemed to take that as a compliment. “Come on, you know it’s true. We’ve been friends for over six years, you stay at my house, I stay at yours. I remember your birthday—“
“Pepper remembers my birthday,” she corrected, dropping back into the rocker.
Tony continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “We’ve traveled all over the world together. Remember that trip to Bali?”
“I do, but I’m pretty sure you don't.” Considering how much he’d had to drink during that trip, he probably didn’t.
Ignoring her chilly tone, he exclaimed, “That was a great time!”
“You have got to be kidding.” Her voice was a study in disbelief.
“You had fun!”
“I was almost killed!”
“Yeah, but you weren’t, and now we can look back at it and laugh.”
“Yes that’s exactly what I do: think back and laugh,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“And we’re business partners!”
“We’ve been partners for all of fifteen minutes!”
“What am I always telling you, Birdie? It’s quality, not quantity.”
“You are unbelievable,” she muttered.
“So you see, no matter how much you deny it, I am a part of your life. Which means, I should get to meet this Matthew loser.”
“He is not a loser!” As if she didn’t have enough qualms about Methos and Tony meeting, now her friend seemed to have formed a less than flattering impression sight unseen.
“That remains to be seen.” But from his expression, it appeared a decision had already been made.
“Are you done?” she asked impatiently.
Tony paused to consider. “I think so.”
“Good.” Unfortunately, he was right. Eventually, the two men would have to meet. But she wasn’t at all ready for that, especially now. And Tony knew it. Therefore… she’d been had. He’d outflanked her, and quite expertly too; she hadn’t even seen it coming. He wouldn’t leave until he got what he wanted – one way or the other. Sighing, she bowed to the inevitable. “Why do you want me to go to Afghanistan with you, Tony?”
“I’m very glad you asked, Charlotte.” He was all business, secure in his victory. “I need your expertise.”
“I don’t think Afghanistan is conducive to winemaking,” she opined dryly.
“Oh, you funny girl. Your expertise in children’s charities: orphanages, schools for the underprivileged. Like those orphanages in Southeast Asia you’re always raising money for. I want to set up a similar network, starting in Afghanistan.”
“Writing checks and hosting a few fundraisers does not make me an expert on the subject.” She was truly baffled by Tony’s request.
His expression was serious now. This was an aspect of the new Tony Stark, the one who had almost died in the same place he now wanted to seed with schools and orphanages. “No, it doesn’t. But administering the foundation that funds the trust that runs them does.”
Charlotte went very still, a cold anger suffusing her; anger that was intertwined with a feeling of utter betrayal. “You had me investigated?” Though her voice was low and measured, it was one that no few men over the last two centuries had disregarded to their regret.
Something of that feeling of betrayal and anger must have reached Tony. His eyes widened as he shook his head sharply. “No! That isn't what happened. I swear to you, Charlotte. It’s standard procedure for Stark Industries to investigate charities we donate to. And since it was an organization you were so involved in, I had them do an extra thorough one. I wanted to make sure they were on the up and up. I was just looking out for you.”
Looking at her hands, she took a deep breath. “And that’s how you found out?” Rarely had Charlotte felt as vulnerable to exposure as she did in this moment. She thought she’d been careful, covering her tracks, concealing her assets -- her past. But not careful enough, it would seem.
“At the end of the paper trail was The Black Foundation, and the Black Foundation is you.” She nodded. “You’re a very wealthy woman.” His casual comment was anything but.
She took a mental sigh of relief; it seemed that her secret was safe. The foundation was as far as he’d gone. “Would you like your car back now?” she asked with a crooked smile.
Tony laughed, relieved. “The majority of your fortune goes into your charitable trusts. You live off of your earnings from the winery exclusively.” There was admiration in his voice that made her uncomfortable. True charity does not seek acknowledgment or praise, she heard her father's voice say from her childhood.
Shrugging, she looked down at her hands again. “You know how it is, charitable contributions help with taxes.”
“Only if you actually claim them, Birdie”
“Oh, yeah, I seem to recall something about that.”
“Maybe I should have got you an accountant instead of a car,” he teased.
She laughed softly. “More like I need a Jarvis of my own to remind me of such things.” Then her head shot up after she realized what she’d said. “I was joking! You know that, right? Tony? Tell me you know that.” She had a vision of waking up one morning, asking herself what the time was, only to be answered by a disembodied voice. “Tony?” she prompted.
“Yeah, sure thing.” He waved a hand at her negligently. “Joking. Got it.”
Peering at him suspiciously, she tried to decide if he was telling the truth. He just grinned, giving her absolutely no inkling.
“Would it be rude to ask just how you amassed such a fortune?”
“It would, but you’ll ask anyway.”
“Well? he prompted.
“Some inheritances, the rest I earned, plus a little good luck.” And some of my late husband’s pirate treasure. Amused, she wondered just what Tony’s reaction to that would be if she’d said it out loud.
“Between your personal assets and the foundation’s, you hold a sizeable chunk of Stark Industries stock.” Again there was the casual tone that wasn’t. “A large portion of which was purchased when everyone else was bailing.” It sounded more like a question than a statement.
Shrugging, she answered quietly, “It was a tangible way for me to demonstrate I believed in you.”
“That means a lot to me. I hope you know that.” There was no way she could doubt the gratitude in his voice.
She swallowed, blinking back threatening tears, remembering when she'd got the call from Pepper telling her that Tony had been found alive. And then the first time she had seen him, a week after he'd returned home. He'd looked so fragile and vulnerable and what she'd most wanted to do was take him home with her and shield him from the pain. But of course, she couldn't do any of those things. So she'd bought stock in his company instead.
“So, Afghanistan,” she said briskly, trying to dispel the heavy cloud of emotion laying over them.
His face brightened eager to explain his vision. “I want to set up a division within SI itself, with its own operating staff and budget. Just like any other division in the company. But instead of weapons, or aeronautics, or biotech, it will produce schools, orphanages, infrastructure in the developing world.” He’d warmed to his subject and was talking animatedly, waving his hands, sitting on the edge of his chair. “And I want you to head it up.”
She thought she was past being surprised by anything that happened today. She was wrong. “Me? Tony, I’m incredibly flattered, but you have hundreds of people who already work for you that would be much better suited than I would.”
“That’s not true. You are the perfect person for the job. And as for the people I already employ, yeah, but let’s just say I have trust issues these days.” She winced a little at the harshness in his voice. “I want someone who wants to be there because it means something to them, not because they’re climbing the corporate ladder.”
“You would have total autonomy. And I won’t even make you call me ‘sir’," he added mischievously.
“Oh, gee, now there’s a perk.”
“Though it would be incredibly hot.” He was giving her that smile again.
She laughed despite her best intentions. "I think we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. I haven't even agreed to the trip."
"But you will." He just wasn't used to people telling him no. Charlotte was certain that the thought she might turn him down wasn't even a possibility in his mind. "Next week, we'll take the jet; it'll be just like old times."
"Tony—" she tried to protest. 'Tried' being the operative word.
"And I promise, no pole and no strippers." His eyes were glinting wickedly. "Unless you want to keep the strippers. Because I can roll with that. I am totally open to the free expression of your sexuality. I'm that kind of guy," he assured her with a grin that practically split his face.
This time, she threw the pillow at him. "Anthony Edward Stark, you are a very bad man!" she scolded.
But that only seemed to encourage him. "I swear you must have been a schoolmarm in a past life. That is very sexy, that voice. I recommend you use it at board meetings." He leaned back in his chair, chin in hand, his eyes taking on a rather unfocused quality as if he were imagining something.
God, he really was incorrigible. "Stop it," she demanded.
"But you're very fetching in a corset and garters," he explained delightedly.
Okay, time to redirect his energies into something other than teasing her till the cows came home. He wanted bossy schoolmarm, then that's what he'd get. Since she actually had been a schoolmarm -- more than once -- she was quite good at it. "I am going for a walk." She pointed to the garden. "You are going to get another bottle of wine and bring it to the overlook," she informed him firmly. "The fresh air will be good for your overheated brain." She didn’t bother to wait for a reply.
One of the first things Charlotte had done on buying this land back in the 1870s was put a bench on this spot. The small rise that sat a few hundred yards from the house had a panoramic view of the ocean below and every sunset had the potential to leave her in awe of its beauty. From the moment she’d first stood here, Charlotte had known that this would be home. Though she’d sold parts of the land she’d originally purchased, this place she’d kept, and always would. This was where she came home to, at the end of every decades’ long cycle between lives.
That original bench was long gone, and in its place was a bench swing made of redwood. Though it was weathered with age, she looked forward to sitting here and swinging for many years to come. Sighing, she savoured the peace, knowing it would be short lived. Gazing out at the water, she wished she knew what to do. She knew what Tony wanted her to do, expected her to do, but didn’t know if she could give it to him.
“I love this spot,” Tony said from behind her.
She shook her head in resignation and smiled as he came around to sit next to her, seeing that he’d brought champagne instead of wine. “You have stunning views from your home.”
“Yeah, but I don’t have a swing,” he pointed out.
“This is true.”
Pouring champagne into one of the glasses he’d brought and handing it to her, he then did the same for himself. “To what’s important in life,” he toasted, clinking his glass against hers.
Tony stowed the bottle in one of the baskets hanging off the arm of the swing before turning his attention to his companion. “So we’re going to do this, right?” She didn’t immediately answer, paying an inordinate amount of attention to her glass instead. “Birdie?”
Sighing with frustration, she finally said, “I don’t know, Tony. I’m sorry, I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth.”
“Talk to me, Birdie. This isn’t like you.” His disappointment was palpable.
“My life has changed too, Tony! It’s not like before when it was only me I had to think about. I’m in a relationship now. I can’t make a decision like this without discussing it with Matthew first.” Discussing. What a nice word for something that was going to be anything but! Charlotte already knew what Methos’ reaction was going to be.
“That’s what this is about?” he asked in disbelief. “You need to get some man’s permission?”
“That’s not what I said!” she said angrily. “Don’t twist my words around, Tony! It’s not like I’m going to San Francisco for a business trip. You’re asking me to go to a damned war zone! And you think that doesn’t deserve consultation with the man I love?”
“I do not believe I’m hearing this! Some guy you’ve barely known a few months, and you’re letting him dictate what you can and can’t do!”
“I’m not!” she protested.
“No? And what are you going to do if he tells you he doesn’t want you to go? What then?”
What then indeed. Charlotte had no idea. She knew without a doubt Methos would not want her to go, but she didn’t know what to do about it. “What do you want me to say? That I’m choosing my relationship instead of jumping when you snap your fingers? Then fine, that’s what I’m doing! You are just going to have to accept Matthew’s presence in my life!”
Tony had gotten up and was pacing back and forth, hands shoved in his pants pockets. Then he stopped in front of her. “I always knew you’d meet someone one day, fall in love, get married, have a bunch of kids. I was fine with that. I liked the idea of being ‘Uncle Tony’ and teaching them how to fix an engine or help them with their math homework. I get I’m not the guy who’s going to make you happy. I knew that six years ago.”
“Then why are you so angry with me?” she demanded.
“Because the guy I was stepping aside for was supposed to be somebody worthy of you, Charlotte! I figured you’d end up with another vintner, or maybe a doctor, or an engineer. But not this guy, this loser!”
“But you’ve never even met him! I love him, he makes me happy. Why the hell are you being such a jerk about this?”
“He’s using you! He’s a deadbeat, sponging off your money, taking advantage of your soft heart and kind nature. For god’s sake, he doesn’t even have a job! And it sure doesn’t seem like working’s something he’s ever been inclined towards as far as I can tell,” he finished, disgusted.
Her heart skipped a beat as she put it altogether. Then her eyes met his and she knew what he’d done. But he didn’t give her a chance to respond.
“Him I had investigated!” he told her without a trace of apology.
All the colour drained from her face as he confirmed what she’d already guessed. “You had no right,” she choked out.
“What did you expect me to do when you act so totally out of character? You meet this guy, and within weeks, he’s moved in with you! Did you think that the people who care about you wouldn’t worry?”
Actually, she hadn’t thought about it at all. Now, in retrospect, she realized what she’d done. How it must have looked. She’d forgotten to act like she was mortal, Charlotte Sparrow, age thirty-three, with no immediate family, not inclined to form romantic attachments, few close friends, driven, successful businesswoman. That was the dossier. A dossier she’d tossed to the wayside the day Methos reappeared in her life after nearly a century and a half. Of course Tony had been worried, been suspicious. He had reacted exactly like she would have expected him to -- if only she’d stopped long enough to even consider that. With grim humour, she wondered why Methos couldn’t have shown up as a doctor instead of a man with no visible means of support.
She brushed the tears from her face as Tony sat down next to her. Removing the glass from her hand he set it down before taking her hands in his. “I’m sorry I lost my temper. I didn’t want to make you cry. It’s just… there aren’t many people in my life that I give a damn about, and I haven’t done a very good job in the past of looking out for those people. But I’m trying to make up for it.”
She just nodded, not trusting herself enough to speak yet. This was all her fault, her carelessness, forgetting who and what she was. And now she would pay the price for that.
“I know you love this guy, and I’m sorry. I can’t change the way you feel, but I can look out for your best interests, even if that means you’re angry with me. I just want you to be happy, Birdie.”
“I’m not angry with you, Tony.” He’d pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and was wiping away the tears that were now falling freely. She took the hankie from him, twisting it in her hands. How bitterly ironic that his concern for her would be the thing that would most likely destroy the very happiness he wanted for her. “I understand now.”
It was bad enough that she'd never told Methos about her friendship with Tony, but this would compound the situation. Once Methos knew that Tony had been looking into his background, and would continue to keep a suspicious eye on him, she knew that he would disappear just like he had a hundred and fifty years before. With their time together no more than it had been then, torn apart just when she was the most hopeful for the future.
Straightening her shoulders, she took a shaky breath before saying, “I’ll go with you, Tony. As for the rest, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Because once all was said and done, there was no longer any reason for her to not go to Afghanistan. After all, Methos wouldn’t be waiting for her when she got home.
PART ONE ][ PART TWO
The Sequel: Transformative Variations