Notes: PG13, Iron Man with the concept of immortality from Highlander, a story in the ‘Echoes the Sea’ series. Sequel to Tequila Lullaby, set just after Rhodey blows Tony off, and the day before the Board of Directors meeting that Stane attends in New York. Implied Tony/Pepper. Many thanks to ninjababe and strangevisitor7 for the beta -- it's much appreciated!
Summary: The bright light of day can’t quite dispel the darkness that surrounds Tony, so the people closest to him do their best to help with a little love and a few chocolate chip waffles.
The Currency of Trust ~ Part II
“I’m stuffed!” Pepper declared, sighing in contentment.
“And you wonder why I like it when she visits,” Tony told her with an impish grin.
Charlotte, pouring more mimosas into their glasses, just shook her head. “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” she told Pepper.
Waving a hand at her, Tony said, “Hey, I liked it too!”
The three of them were sitting on the deck outside the kitchen, the piles of food that they’d started with now not much more than crumbs. It was a perfect morning, a clear blue sky, the sun warm, with just a bit of a breeze wafting the scent of the ocean around them.
“So I gathered,” Charlotte said, arching a brow. “The six waffles you ate were a hint.” She took a sip of her mimosa, which in actuality was more like orange tinged champagne the way Tony made them. Holding up her glass, she toasted, “To friendship and love.” Pepper and Tony reciprocated the toast, Tony squeezing Charlotte’s hand.
Then Jarvis’s voice was heard. “Mr. Stane has arrived, sir.”
“Excuse me,” Pepper murmured as she got up to go meet him at the door.
“I’ll make myself scarce,” Charlotte said, starting to stand. She’d never been able to warm up to Obadiah, even though she knew how much he meant to Tony, the man being practically a surrogate father to him. If she could avoid having to see him, it was all the better as far as she was concerned. But it was not to be.
“There’s no scarce for you, Birdie. Sit, have more champagne.” He refilled her glass.
“I’m sure he wants to discuss business,” she protested halfheartedly.
“And, well, you know, business. Private stuff!”
“You’re a shareholder, right?”
“So, you stay right where you are.” He patted her arm. “I’d like it if you were around more often, Birdie. You have a good head for business, and more important, you have a heart.”
He was looking at her with those dark intense eyes, and she never really could say no when he looked at her like that. Sighing, she relented. “Sure, I’ll stay.” She was rewarded with a grateful smile.
“Tony!” Obadiah’s voice boomed as Pepper led him out onto the deck. “You should have told me you had such beautiful company, I would have come earlier!”
“You know I don’t like to share, Obie,” Tony replied with an easy smile.
“I’ve noticed.” He turned his attention to her. “Charlotte! It’s wonderful to see you again! You should spend more time here; we don’t see nearly enough of you.”
“Funny, I was just telling her the same thing.” Tony glanced over at her with an ‘I told you so’ look on his face.
“There you go! It’s settled then; you have to be a much more frequent visitor,” he said jovially, like some sort of freakish cigar smoking Santa Claus.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she murmured, inwardly grimacing at Obadiah’s hand on her shoulder. Thankfully, it was only for a moment.
“Good, good!” He perched on the wall along the edge of the deck. “I’m headed to New York, Tony. Are you sure you won’t come with me?”
Tony leaned back in his chair, looking up at the sky. “Yeah, I am, Obie. You can handle the board; that’s your gift.”
He didn’t look happy. “But it isn’t my name on the building, remember?”
“Come on, we talked about this!” Tony’s irritation was apparent.
“Yeah, we did,” he agreed. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t get to try and change your mind!”
“I’m not talking about this anymore, Obie.”
“Charlotte, you’re a shareholder,” Stane unexpectedly stated.
What was it with everyone suddenly remembering she held stock in the company? “Yes,” she answered cautiously.
“And as a shareholder, don’t you think that the CEO should make an appearance at the board meeting called to deal with the unexpected change in direction at Stark Industries?”
If Obadiah was trying to convince him to meet with the board, he was going to get the exact opposite result. He should realize that after all these years – Tony was the immovable object when pressured. And why on earth was Stane trying to get her involved? He couldn’t possibly think she’d take his side over Tony’s. Neither man was looking at her: Tony staring fixedly at the horizon and Obadiah watching Tony. Pepper was the only one who met her eyes; and those eyes were extremely worried. The whole situation left her feeling uneasy.
“What I think is that Tony’s the boss and I trust his judgment as to what’s best for his company,” she said quietly but firmly. Tony didn’t look at her, but she saw him relax somewhat from the rigid posture he’d been holding.
“Fair enough,” Stane said with a shrug.
“Go, deal with the board, Obie. I trust you, you know that.” Tony’s voice was quiet and tired like it had been last night.
“Okay, if you’re sure?” Tony nodded. “In that case, I’ll come by tomorrow night and fill you in.”
“I’ll see you out,” Pepper said.
“No need.” He waved her off. “I know the way. Charlotte, it’s always a pleasure. Next visit, we’ll see more of each other, I promise.”
Charlotte responded with the appropriate social pleasantries and watched as the Stark Industries CFO left. Something about what had just happened niggled at her, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Maybe it was simply that the man creeped her out and always had. She knew she was being unfair; he’d never been anything but the perfect gentleman in her presence. But she couldn’t help how she felt. For Tony’s sake, she played nice; however, something of her inner monologue must have shown on her face.
“Spill, Birdie. What’s with the look?”
She glanced over at Tony with a slightly guilty expression. “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“No, it’s something. You are a lousy liar, Charlotte,” he reproved with a shake of his head.
“Yeah, you are. So you may as well tell me, because you know I’ll get it out of you eventually.”
She looked at him mutinously, crossing her arms. “Fine! I don’t like the way Obadiah looks at me, okay?”
Whatever Tony had been expecting her to say, it was apparent from the look of surprise on his face that wasn’t it. “The way he looks at you?”
“You asked! It’s like he’s leering at me from behind his eyes.” It sounded silly, she knew it did. But it was how she felt.
“Obie? Leering?” Tony threw back his head and laughed. “I leer at you all the time,” he pointed out.
“That’s different,” she insisted.
“For the sake of argument, just how is it different?” He was humouring her now.
“When you do it, it’s not like you’re gauging how much I’d fetch on the open market,” she said quietly.
“You’re serious?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes, I am, and I don’t think it’s particularly funny.” She glanced over at Pepper who was most definitely not laughing, and realized that the other woman understood exactly what she was talking about. “Can we just drop it? Please?”
But he wasn’t ready to drop it. “How long have you felt this way?”
Sighing, she rubbed her eyes. “Since always.”
“I never realized,” he said more to himself than anything.
“No, you didn’t, nor did I want you to. I may be a lousy liar, but I’m an excellent actress.”
“So why didn’t you ever tell me?” There was a note of accusation in his voice.
Lord, he was like a dog with a bone! Irritated, she snapped, “For god’s sake, Tony, what would be the point? I hardly ever see the man! It wasn’t an issue, and it doesn’t need to be now if you’ll just let it go!”
“And what about Rhodey? You don’t have it in for him too, do you?” he demanded.
Pepper cut in, “Tony, I don’t think—“
“No, Pepper, I want to know.” His hands were on the table, palms flat against the glass top. “I don’t like secrets or my friends keeping things from me that are important!”
Charlotte reined in her frustration, being well aware of the psychological effects of captivity and near mortal injury and knowing that Tony wasn’t himself. The grown man he was, powerful, wealthy, a pillar of American military might, did on occasion transform into spoiled boy genius, self-absorbed and possessive; that aspect of Tony’s personality she was used to. But his current behavior was very different. Too much had happened and he hadn’t had nearly enough time to decompress, to cope with his ordeal. Hell, he hadn’t even healed physically, so God only knew the extent of his mental trauma.
Keeping her voice level, she replied, “I don’t have it in for anyone, Tony. As for Rhodey, he’s an officer and a gentleman and I’d trust him with my life.”
Something flashed in his eyes at her answer. “I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to know he’s your hero – assuming he ever gets off that high horse he’s riding,” he told her acidly.
What the hell was that supposed to mean? Had something happened between Tony and his best friend? she wondered. But what she said was, “By all means, feel free to pass my feelings on to him.” She took a calming breath, then another. “He’s a good man, not that I should have to tell you that.”
“Anything else? How about I set you two up since he’s obviously your type; brave, honourable, reliable. All those admirable character traits chicks dig.” He practically spat out the last few words.
Pressing her nails into her palms, she looked away. That was when she realized Pepper had left the two of them alone at some point during their altercation. Smart girl. “Stop it, Tony; this is ridiculous.”
“Why?” he demanded. “It’s the truth, right? I’m sure the two of you must have a lot to talk about.” Again, there was the note of accusation, but she had no idea what he was driving at.
She closed her eyes, saying quietly, “I’m not going to fight with you.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere!” He pushed his chair back; the metal feet making a screeching sound across the tile that made her cringe. “You won’t fight with me because you do think I’m going to snap! Is that what this has all been about? Your visit? To keep an eye on me? Making sure I get my mind right!” he said bitterly, exploding off the chair to his feet, arms at his sides, fists clenched so hard his knuckles were white.
“No!” Now she was on her feet too. “No, Tony!” She stepped right up to him, covering his fists with her hands, hoping she was making the right decision in confronting him instead of pulling back. She looked up into his eyes. “You are so very wrong and you’re an idiot if you think that’s what’s going on!”
“Crazy and an idiot,” he snarled, pulling away from her.
Shivering despite the warmth of the sun, she wrapped her arms around herself. “Damn it, Tony, I almost lost you,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady. “Do you know what it was like for me? For Pepper? Do you?” she demanded, her voice rising. “I lived here in this house for the first month after you were taken! I haunted Rhodey’s office, looking for any scrap of news, of hope, they might have. They gave up, the military, the government, but we didn’t! Me, Pepper, Rhodey, we didn’t. We never believed you were dead! And every day you were gone a little bit of me died inside. So don’t you dare accuse me of betraying you! You have no right!” She suddenly realized that not only was she practically screaming at him, she was also crying.
Turning away, she covered her face, trying to get a hold of herself. She’d never learned how to let the mortals in her life go. The ones she’d loved, the ones she’d cared for, husbands, children, lovers, friends. Every loss tore at her. Their lives were already so very short, and often their actions, the lives they led, hastened their ends.
Then Tony’s hand was on her shoulder, pulling her back against his chest before his arms encircled her. “I’m so sorry, Birdie.” His voice was ragged. “Please tell me you can forgive me. I can’t lose anything else; I can’t lose you.”
She leaned into him, the hard metallic circle of the Arc Reactor pressing into her back and the steady beat of his heart reminding her all too sharply of his mortality. “I can forgive you almost anything, Tony,” she whispered. “But can you tell me that you still trust me? Because in the end, that’s all we have.”
“I do, I never stopped.” Arms tightening around her, his next words were not much more than a strained whisper. “I told you last night that there was so much I wanted to say but couldn’t. But it’s not just words. It’s feelings too, hammering at me till I can’t think straight. I don’t know what happened. All the anger just….” His voice caught. “I took it out on you, and that’s something I should have never done.”
Nodding, she turned in his arms, reaching up to wipe away the damp tracks his tears had streaked across his face. “It’s normal to be angry, to hurt inside, and to feel overwhelmed. That doesn’t make you crazy or weak, just human. If the time comes that you want to talk about what happened, I’m here for you and I will never judge you.”
He took her hands in his, bringing them up to his lips and kissing the tips of her fingers. “I know,” he breathed out. “I’m just not ready yet.”
“There’s no timetable for dealing with trauma and grief, Tony love. Take your own time, and don’t let anyone, including yourself, pressure you.”
Nodding, he took a deep breath. “I’ll try and remember that.”
“You know what I said before: even if it’s three in the morning. I meant that.”
“Are we good?” He looked worried despite her reassurances.
“We’re better than good. You know, I trust you with my life too, Tony. Don’t ever doubt that. You may not be an officer, or a gentleman—“ her lips quirked into a lopsided half smile “—but you’re my best friend in the entire world, and I wouldn’t trade you for anyone.”