"I'm really glad you're here." Strain and worry were evident in Pepper's eyes.
Charlotte Sparrow hugged the young woman. "I would have come sooner, but I figured he had enough on his plate as it was and didn't need anyone else hovering over him."
"He's my boss, so I can only hover so much, you know? He's just been…. I'm worried about him," she finally admitted. The other woman nodded sympathetically. "But you're his friend, and so far, the only one who hasn't ticked him off."
"Just give me time, Virginia," she said with a smile. "Is he in the workshop?" Charlotte glanced at the stairs.
"Yeah, I'll take you down."
"No need, I have a code. You go home and get an early night for once, okay?"
Pepper looked worried. "Are you sure?"
"Perfectly. It's all right. I can handle Tony, trust me." She took Pepper by the shoulders, turning her around. "Go home, get some rest. Tomorrow is another day."
Charlotte paused at the bottom of the stairs, looking through the glass doors. Tony hadn't even noticed her, so involved in whatever it was he was working on – some sort of robot leg, it looked like. He was far too pale, and had an air of fragility that frightened her. This wasn't the Tony, self-confident and cocky, that she'd known the last six years. Never had he seemed so…mortal. From the first night they'd met, he'd always been larger than life, instantly seizing a place in her heart that would be his till the day he died. Now all she wanted to do was protect him from the world.
Taking a deep breath, she tapped her security code into the touch panel embedded in the glass, the door whooshing open. Even that didn't attract his attention. Stepping farther into the workshop, the heels of her boots tapping against the concrete floor, Charlotte approached his workstation.
His attention still totally on whatever it was he was working on, he said, "Took you long enough to show up, Birdie. I was beginning to think you didn't care." Tony shot her a look before once again concentrating on the task at hand.
Jarvis; of course he would have informed his creator of her arrival. That, or Tony had developed psychic powers. She preferred the former. "Don't be stupid, Tony. You don't like it when I fuss, so I didn't. Otherwise I would have been at your side when you landed in Germany. I figured after a week had passed, you would forgive me for a little concern." It took a Herculean effort for her to keep her tone light and nonchalant when what she wanted to do was throw her arms around him.
He turned, and when he looked at her this time, he didn't look away. His eyes were dark wells of suppressed emotion. "I haven't lost it, Charlotte! I'm not crazy, and I'm not suffering from PTSD!"
"Did I say that?" she asked softly, laying a hand on his forearm, doing her best to mask shock at the sight of the glowing Arc Reactor imbedded in his chest. Pepper had briefed her, but still, it was hard to take in.
"You didn't have to." He pulled his arm away. "Everyone else seems to think so."
She fought back tears at the hurt in his voice. "Since when am I 'everyone', Tony? And it isn't true anyways. Pepper doesn't think that. Her only sin is to care about you more than she should, more than is good for her."
Tony slammed a fist into a pile of electrical components, sending them scattering in all directions. "They don't understand," he told her, his voice little more than a cracked whisper.
"They might not, but I'd like to. Talk to me, Tony. Please?" Some of her frantic worry for him leaked into her voice despite her best efforts. This time, when she grasped his arm, he didn't pull away.
"There are things I need to do, that I have to do. I can't stop till it's done. There is nothing that matters more to me now than seeing through what I know I have to do." As he spoke, he took her hand in his in an almost painful grip. "I owe it to those Airmen who died protecting me, to all of the men and women who have died protecting us."
This time, Charlotte didn't try and fight the tears. Drawing Tony into her arms, she whispered, "Why did you think I wouldn't understand that?"
"I don't know. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have doubted you." He returned her embrace, laying his head on her shoulder. "There's so much I want to say, but can't. It's like the words are trapped, trying to get out."
She smoothed back his hair like he was a child, trying to comfort him with her touch. "You just need time, Tony love. Just time. Those of us who love you will be here when you need us; when you're ready."
He nodded, drawing away. "I have a new appreciation for those people, Birdie. I had three months to contemplate my life, and there was a lot of it that I was ashamed of."
"We learn, we grow stronger. No regrets, Tony; life is far too short."
"No more regrets," he agreed, placing a hand against the side of her head, his fingers twining into her hair.
"You have no idea how delightful it is that you finally agree with me," she told him with a wide grin, kissing him on the cheek.
"Gotta throw you the occasional bone," he replied with a matching smile.
"Uh huh. So, how about I make you some dinner, which I have on good authority you've missed yet again, and then you get some sleep. In the morning, you can show me what exactly it is you're working on."
"Are you sure you want to know?" He searched her eyes.
"Absolutely positive. I will always want to know what's important to you, Tony. What you care about. I will always be here for you, whenever you need me."
His hands clenched a little. "Even at 3 AM when I wake up screaming from a nightmare?" His eyes darted away then back again.
"Especially then," she said firmly.
He nodded, squeezing her hand. Then he took a sharp breath. His next words were more like the old Tony. "I was thinking hamburgers would be good."
"Yeah? I was planning on steak."
"Steak? Do you think I'm made of money?"
"I know it's hard for you to keep track of these things," Charlotte said, laughing.
"Okay, a compromise. We take the Audi and get In-N-Out. How's that for a plan?"
"As long as I can get mine Animal Style!"
"Sweetheart, I am all about Animal Style," he half growled, leering down at her.
Giggling, Charlotte took both Tony's hands in hers. "Then what are we waiting for?"
"You're paying, right? Oww!!"
* Note: In-N-Out has a 'secret menu', which is passed down verbally from one generation to the next.
'Animal Style' is the most popular one: pickles, extra spread, extra grilled onions, & mustard fried onto each meat patty.
The sequel is titled Tequila Lullaby