"Tony," a hitch of fear caught at her voice. "Has something happened? Pepper—"
Coming home to find Tony sitting in her kitchen, drinking her whisky, was not what she'd expected when she walked in to preheat the oven for supper. What was wrong?
He shook his head. "No, she's fine." He didn't look at her, gulping what was left of the whisky in his glass, before saying, "Everything is fine."
"Everything is fine," Charlotte repeated her best friend's words. "No, it's not."
He laughed, but it was a dark sound. "At least as far as no one's dead, there's no crazy gods running around, or aliens attacking, so yeah, fine."
She came around to sit on the chair next to him at the long kitchen table, and he pushed a glass, already full, towards her, before refilling his own. At her questioning look, he said, "I knew you'd be back eventually."
"I was out riding." She pulled off her leather riding gloves, tossing them on the table. "I didn't see a car."
He glanced down at the oversized briefcase by his foot. "Traveling fast and light."
"You came here using the suit?" As if she hadn't been concerned before; Tony never used the Iron Man armour for casual travel. She took a sip of her drink, contemplating her friend. It had only been a little over a month since they'd last seen one another, but it appeared the intervening days had taken their toll. He'd lost weight, looking almost gaunt, and the dark circles under his eyes stood out like bruises on his face. "Burning desire to visit New Mexico again?"
"Something like that, yeah." He looked around the kitchen. "Where's the boyfriend?"
"Restoring the old ranch foreman's cabin down by the stream; he'll be there till the cows come home."
"Why's he doing that?"
"I actually have no idea." 'This Old House' Methos was something outside her experience, but he seemed to be enjoying it.
The two of them were taking a leave of absence from SHIELD; they'd had very little time together since Thor had taken Loki and the Tesseract back to Asgard. Though technically still a consultant, Charlotte had fallen back into the rhythm of her old life far too easily for her peace of mind, and needed some distance from the organization and from its director. Nick had seemed to realize that too, immediately granting her request for leave for her and Methos.
"I'm sorry to interrupt your time off together."
She leaned in, placing her hand on his forearm. "Tony Stark, you are never an interruption."
There was the flash of a smile, and then it was gone. "How do you go back, Birdie?" he asked suddenly. "How do you pick up the pieces of the life you had before?"
"Nothing's the same anymore, since New York, the invasion. I need something to be the same." The last was said with a quiet fierceness.
"Oh, Tony love." She gripped his hand, sadness in her gaze. "We can't go back. You never get to have the life you had before back, only pieces of it, to build a new life on, a foundation for the life you will have."
"When I went through that portal, with the nuke, I got it then, why people sacrifice their lives for the ones they love, for an ideal, for their country, their fellow man—all of it, all of the above. I knew I was going to die, Birdie. There were so many things I wished I'd said, wished I'd done. I imagined Pepper's face, when they told her I was dead, and I hoped she wouldn't hate me for it. All the time we'd wasted, that I'd wasted.
Charlotte reached over, brushing away the wet streaks on Tony's cheeks. "But you did die, Tony." She swallowed, remembering how close she'd come, once again, to losing her dearest friend. "You cheated death in Afghanistan, and you did it again in New York. Tony, that experience, those memories, they will remake you."
"You were right, what you told me that night after the battle. You said that time spins away, and not to waste it. But that night, I was on a high, we'd won, we were alive! That euphoria, I never wanted to lose that feeling."
"But it doesn't last, and coming down from that high—" She sighed.
"It leaves you empty, Birdie, with nothing but questions for God, the universe. But they aren't answering."
"Have you talked to Pepper about any of this? Told her what you're feeling?"
He shook his head. "I don't want to worry her any more than she is already. The invasion, what happened, it scared her. The reality of just what being Iron Man means, it hit her hard, and I know she's still processing it. How can I tell her I died that day? Burden her with my nightmares?"
She put her arms around him, hugging him tightly, before letting go. "Tony, Pepper already knows. Maybe not the details, but that doesn't matter. She's waiting for you to trust her enough to lean on, to confide in."
"I do trust her! How could she think that I don't?"
"Tony, you may be a genius, but you can be so incredibly dense sometimes," she told him fondly. "Believe me when I tell you, as a woman, what you see as shielding Pepper is not at all how she sees it. Let her love you, Tony, and let that love hold back the dark, if even for a little while. In the end, the love we leave behind is all that matters."
He nodded, squeezing her hand. "I'll think about it."
Falling silent, they clinked their glasses together, sharing the quiet. In the distance, she could hear the sound of a table saw through the open window, and thoughts of Methos filled her mind. Maybe she should take her own advice; she hadn't fully confided in Methos, or shared her fears after everything that had happened any more than Tony had with Pepper. She knew a part of her didn't believe Methos would be around for long, that just as she trusted him to stay, he'd be gone. She was afraid of letting him get too close, and it wasn't fair; not to him, and not to her.
"Why do you do it, Birdie?" he asked, shattering their silence, looking at her intently.
"Do what?" she asked, confused, startled from her pensive introspection.
"Go back to places haunted with the grief of the past? This house—" he waved a hand "—how does being here not break you? The memories of your murdered husband, the children you raised that grew old and died before your eyes. But you come back here, make a home here again. I don’t understand."
Charlotte shied back, at first hurt by what seemed like an accusation, an attack. Then she looked into Tony's eyes, and saw nothing there but the desperation of a man seeking solace, needing her to tell him that it would get better.
Taking a shaky breath, she stood, walking to the window, looking out at the twilight. Tony was right; this house was drenched with a past that permeated the very foundations. A chill settled around her, before becoming a caress that filled her with warmth. 'There'll never be a place I'd rather be, than holding you here in this kitchen, looking out the window, watching the day give in to night.' She could hear Chris's voice so clearly, that for just a moment, she could believe she'd gone back a hundred and fifty years, to be held by her husband once more, on a night so very much like this. "We can never have that life back," she whispered, reminding herself.
Tony had come to stand behind her. "I'm sorry, Birdie—" he began.
She stopped him. "No, it's okay, Tony. Really, I understand, I do."
"I know how much you loved him, loved them. I shouldn't have said what I did." He put his arms around her, pulling her against him. "I'm a crappy friend."
"No, Tony, you're not." Putting her hands over his, she pressed her cheek into his chest. "They have become pearls," she said softly. "I won't deny that many of my memories hold loss and grief. But like an oyster, we slowly transform that which gives us pain into something precious. Memories that bring us comfort, with only a vestige of the darkness with which they began. We can treasure them, Tony; holding them close to our hearts, letting them give us the strength to go on."