The granite of the stairs was cool against Charlotte's bare feet as she headed down to the living room from the guest wing. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt that read 'Friends Don't Let Friends Drink White Zinfandel', she was desperate for a cup of tea after last night's tequila blowout with Tony. The housekeeper would have brought her one of course, but she'd decided that the fewer people who knew about Tony sleeping in her bed – no matter how innocent it had been – the better. He'd been sound asleep when she went to take a shower, but was gone by the time she'd finished. Knowing him, he was probably already back in his workshop tinkering.
Okay, not in his workshop, hearing his voice as it drifted up the stairs from below. Probably talking to Jarvis. Reaching the massive room, with its floor to ceiling windows and sweeping view of the Malibu coast, Charlotte discovered he wasn't actually alone. Still in the sweats and sleeveless t-shirt from the night before, hair standing on end, he was leaning against the side of the large sectional looking down at Pepper Potts who was seated on the sofa, his attention on her notebook computer screen.
"Ms. Sparrow," Pepper said, standing up, immaculate in a charcoal gray pantsuit and high-heeled platinum patent pumps. She realized she'd never seen Tony's personal assistant in anything more casual than a suit without a jacket. Idly she wondered if Pepper spent her time off in torn jeans and t-shirts as a change from her workweek attire.
She waved her back down. "Good morning, Virginia. And it's Charlotte," she reminded the younger woman gently.
"Yes ma'a— Charlotte," she amended with a small smile, sinking back down to the sofa.
"Birdie!" Tony greeted her cheerfully as she walked over to where he was leaning. She resisted the urge to smooth down his hair. "You were very quiet this morning! I didn't even hear you get up," he said with a wicked gleam in his eye.
Pepper dropped her eyes, suddenly very interested in her computer. Charlotte glared at him. Maybe Tony was too dense to notice, but it was obvious that Pepper cared about Tony a great deal and more than just professionally. On the other hand… was he trying to make Pepper jealous? Typical that he would act like a twelve-year-old. All that was missing was dipping her braid into the inkwell.
"Considering how much you had to drink, I'm surprised that anything less than the Big One would wake you up," she replied coolly, kicking him in the ankle for good measure.
He pushed away from his perch against the sofa. "I'd forgotten how mean a tequila hangover makes you," he remarked, not at all perturbed.
Rolling her eyes, she kicked him again. "Shut up, Tony, and go take a shower. As you are now, you'll scare small children and household pets."
During their exchange, Pepper had returned her attention to the two of them. It wasn't often she got to hear someone tell the great Tony Stark to shut up. She waited for her boss's response with obvious anticipation.
"See what I'm saying? Mean!" This time he jumped sideways to avoid another kick. "Now, Birdie, you know it's true," he told her with a tsk.
"Do you actually want me to make those chocolate chip waffles? Because I'm perfectly happy with toast and tea," Charlotte warned him with mock menace.
"Going now!" he said with alacrity.
"Uh huh." She tried not to laugh at his sudden capitulation.
He placed a quick kiss on the top of her head before making his retreat. Backing out, he caught Pepper's eye and motioned to Charlotte, mouthing 'mean'. Her giggle alerted Charlotte, who whirled, only to find Tony with a totally fake innocent expression on his face.
"You're pushing your luck," she warned.
"Oh, I'm not worried, Birdie," he said confidently as he sauntered away.
She watched him leave with a fond smile and an exasperated shake of the head before turning her attention to Pepper, who was once again staring fixedly at her notebook screen. "Come with me to the kitchen? I really need a cup of tea."
"Oh, I don't know, I have this…" Pepper waved at her notebook.
"Please, Virginia? I think it's time for a little girl talk."
Bobbing her head, she put the computer aside. "Okay."
"Miss Charlotte!" Tony's housekeeper greeted her happily as she and Pepper entered the sprawling kitchen. "Jarvis told me you'd arrived last night."
In her early sixties, Olga had originally worked for Tony's parents. When they'd died, she had followed Tony to his own household. She could have retired by now, well provided for. But she refused to leave; certain Tony would starve to death in a pile of dirty linen without her to keep an eye on him.
"Olga!" Charlotte kissed her on both cheeks. "How are you? The grandchildren?"
"I have no complaints, and my family is well, thank you." Turning to the counter, she poured tea from a pot into a mug. "The tea you like," she said with a smile, handing the mug to Charlotte.
"You are a goddess, Olga!" She sipped the tea appreciatively. Even after more than two hundred years in this country, she'd never developed a taste for coffee. The American Revolution had been hell in more ways than one. "May I please borrow the kitchen this morning?"
"Ah, Mr. Tony wants his waffles," Olga said with a sage nod.
Charlotte squeezed her shoulder affectionately. "You know him so well."
She sniffed. "I make him dinner, come back in the morning and he hasn't touched it!" She handed a cup of coffee to Pepper. "I worry about him." Her eyes were suspiciously bright.
Charlotte hugged her. "Between the three of us, we'll make sure he's okay."
Nodding, Olga wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. "You're good girls, both of you." Then she turned an eagle eye on Pepper, who looked nervous at being the object of the housekeeper's attention. "And you'll make sure she eats too?"
Laughing, Charlotte assured her that she would.
Satisfied, she took off her apron. "Then I will go to the beach and work on my painting. It was so good to see you again!"
"And you, Olga."
Tony's housekeeper left the kitchen humming a tune.
Pepper turned to Charlotte. "She scares me!"
"Olga? Why on earth does she scare you?"
"I don't know. I guess I wasn't sure she actually approved of me. And Tony thinks the world of her, so I mostly avoid her."
"Then she probably thinks you don't approve of her," Charlotte pointed out.
Pepper looked startled. "I never thought of it like that." She sipped her coffee. "I guess it's pretty stupid, the things we assume. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, I guess."
Charlotte laughed. It was such a perfect opening. "Speaking of assuming," she said, pulling out a stool at the breakfast bar and sitting down. Pepper followed suit, burying her face in the large mug of coffee she held in her hands. "I don't think I need to tell you that Tony is an attention slut. And this morning, he had the both of us as his captivated audience, loving every moment of it."
Looking at her sidelong, Pepper murmured, "It really isn't any of my business."
"Then whose business is it exactly?" she asked tartly. Before Pepper could reply, she continued, "You, me, Rhodey, we're Tony's family. If we don't look out for him, god knows who will."
"He makes it really hard to do that a lot of the time."
"I know he does." She sighed. "I found Tony outside in the wee hours of this morning. He was drunk and he hadn't had any sleep. I'm not sure he's slept much at all since he came back." Charlotte's voice was tight with concern. She wished now that she'd come sooner, or better yet, and gone to Germany when Tony had been taken there after his rescue. But it was too late to change any of that. All she could do was to try and make sure that she was here for him now and in the future, whatever he needed.
"I don't think he has," Pepper admitted with matching worry.
"I brought him inside, got him into bed, and held him while he slept." She poured more tea into her mug. "You can be as starved for touch, for affection, as you can for food, Virginia."
The room was quiet, only the muffled sound of surf crashing against the cliffs of Point Dume far below to be heard. "You love him," Pepper finally said.
"I do." Charlotte looked at her kindly. "And so do you; but I think in somewhat of a different way." She held up her hand, forestalling her reply. "Don't deny it." The other woman stared fixedly at her coffee cup. "Love takes many forms, Pepper. In time, you'll decide where that love will lead you. But for now, it's enough that you're here for him, and that he can trust you. Never underestimate what a gift that is to a man like Tony Stark."
Pepper finally looked at her. "Is it really enough?"
"It is—" she took Pepper's hand in hers "–trust me on that."
"You've known him a long time." She sounded hesitant. "You're close. I could tell that the first time Tony introduced us."
"We've never slept together, Virginia."
"I wasn't—" Then she shook her head. "Okay, maybe I was asking. I'm sorry, It really isn't any of my business."
"When a woman associates with Tony Stark, it's rare that it doesn't become everyone's business," she replied wryly.
"You can say that again!" Pepper said, exasperation colouring her voice. "Okay, since I'm being nosey this morning – why?"
"Why haven't I ever had sex with your boss?" she asked baldly. Pepper, her cheeks just the teeniest bit pink, nodded. "It's not like I wasn't tempted that first night we met. Very tempted," she amended with a grin. "It was Monte Carlo, it was warm and wonderful, and the champagne… the champagne! It was quite a night." She shrugged. "I guess I didn't want to be one of those women who are fodder for the gossip rags." There were other reasons, reasons she couldn't explain. That was part of the price immortality exacted; not ever being able to truly confide in anyone who didn't know your secret.
"But you ended up being friends. Good friends," she pointed out, seemingly not entirely satisfied with Charlotte's explanation.
"We did." Laughing, she continued, "Tony showed up at my hotel suite the next morning with several room service waiters in tow. He said he thought it was time to have breakfast with a woman he'd met the night before."
Eyes wide with surprise, she snorted in amusement. "God, that so sounds like something Tony would do!"
"Looking back, I agree. But at the time, I thought he was insane!"
"Can't imagine why," Pepper said facetiously.
"As the years have passed, I've realized that what makes us such good friends would make for lousy lovers." Shaking her head, she ran a hand through her hair. "Not that there haven't been attempts from time to time to convince me of just how wrong I am, but that's more because Tony thinks he has a reputation to maintain – or he's bored. And a bored Tony is a terrible thing indeed." There was a perfect blend of affection and aggravation in her explanation.
"He is the most vexing man," Pepper confessed, laughing.
Charlotte joined in the laughter. "You don't need to tell me that! The stories I could tell."
"Seriously! I tell you what, when things settle down around here, come visit me. I'll give you enough blackmail material for the next several decades," she told her with a conspiratorial smile. "And we'll make a holiday of it; a week-long slumber party."
"It's a deal!" Pepper stuck out her hand, which Charlotte shook firmly, both women giggling.
"You're talking about me, right?" a male voice said from the door. Tony's hair was still damp from his shower and he'd changed into a black t-shirt and black jeans.
The two women looked at each other, lips twitching. "Now why would you think that, Tony?" Charlotte asked as he walked over to where they sat, her eyes twinkling.
"Because, I'm me!" Elbows on the counter, leaning in, he gave them his best meltingly sexy smile. "What else would the two hottest women in Malibu be talking about anyway?"
"Only in Malibu?" Charlotte just about choked on her tea at Pepper's question.
It certainly got Tony's attention. "My mistake, Miss Potts." His eyes were as warm and dark as espresso. "Southern California, definitely."
"Better." Pepper had a mischievous smile on her face. "Coffee, Mr. Stark?" she asked, pouring him a mug.
"Coffee, and…. Where are my waffles anyway?" He looked around the kitchen, seeing no evidence of his promised breakfast.
Walking around the counter, Charlotte said, "Patience! Soon!" She kissed him on the cheek. "Pepper will help, and you go make mimosas – if you think you can handle it?"
"Oh, I think I can manage."
"I knew we could count on you!"
"You can always count on Tony for the important stuff," Pepper assured Charlotte cheekily.
Tony looked back and forth between Pepper and Charlotte. "I don't think I like this female bonding thing."
"Tough!" was Charlotte's succinct reply. She pointed a finger at him. "Now go fetch me Chef's Juice if you want to eat." Pepper burst into giggles all over again. "Well? What are you waiting for? Christmas?"
"I'm never letting you near tequila again!"
"So you say," Charlotte told him with a sniff.
"Maybe if you're very nice to me." Arms akimbo, he waited expectantly for her response, eyes gleaming in amusement.
Charlotte looked at him standing there, the Arc Reactor in his chest glowing through the fabric of his shirt. More than three months of worry and fear coalesced, and overwhelmed with emotion, she threw her arms around him, holding him tight. "Don't scare me like that ever again, Tony Stark," she whispered, voice catching.
Returning her embrace, he kissed her forehead. "It's okay, Birdie. I'm home and I'm safe." Nodding against his chest, she just held him tighter. "Hey, you aren't crying are you?"
"No," she lied.
"Good, because I frown on women crying over me. Okay, that's not entirely true. If they have big…."
Charlotte punched him on the arm, laughing through tears. "Don't even go there!" she warned him, stepping back.
"That's better! I know you're feeling more like yourself when you start hitting me," he said with a grin. Reaching into his jeans pocket, he pulled out a handkerchief, handing it to her. At her look of bemusement, he asked, "What?"
She waved the hankie at him. "I wasn't expecting you to have one of these, is all."
"A gentleman always has a handkerchief," he stated loftily.
A wicked gleam filled her eyes. "Like I said…," she began, darting away before he could grab her, Pepper's laughter ringing across the room.
"You just wait!" he warned, making another grab for her. This time, she let him catch her, and he held her close. "Yeah, maybe I'll let it go this once."