Stark Expo ~ Flushing, New Jersey
"Well that was an entrance," Charlotte Sparrow observed wryly as she walked towards her friend backstage. Tony Stark had just opened the Stark Expo, and a Disneyesque video of his late father, Howard, had just finished. There were people scurrying to and fro, the area a hive of activity. "Phoenix metaphor? Really?"
He gave her a crooked smile. "Could have used more dancing girls."
"You can never have enough of those, it's true," she agreed, coming to a halt in front of him and kissing him on the cheek.
"You really can't." Tony wrapped an arm around her waist. "You look very Marlene Dietrich tonight," he said appreciatively. Charlotte was wearing a long sleeved form fitting slate grey dress that flared out below the knee with a kick pleat lined in coral red, the collar and cuffs trimmed in the same colour.
"Maybe that's why I'm craving a cigarette."
"You smoked?" He seemed surprised, stepping away from her.
"Darling, everyone smoked in the thirties." Putting a hand on her hip, she looked him up and down. "You look rather nice yourself. A little tired though." Putting a hand against his cheek, she asked, "Are you feeling okay?"
"Nice?" He took the hand in his. "Nice?" he repeated, punching up the indignation.
"Stunningly handsome, how's that?" She rolled her eyes.
"Better." Before she could ask him again how he was feeling, he waved over a Stark staffer. "Benny, go find Ez Sanbourne. I want some photos of us."
"He was down on the floor in front of the stage, last I saw him," Charlotte called out to the young man as he hurried away.
"How goes your presentation, Birdie?" Charlotte was scheduled on the main stage a week hence to present the new water purification system that her division of SI was rolling out, and the vision she and Tony had for the charitable division overall.
Grimacing, she shook her head. "Definitely needs more dancing girls."
Laughing, he cupped her face with his hands, kissing her on the forehead, before saying, "No one would notice them with you on stage, Birdie." The sincerity of his words made her blush a little.
The click of a camera shutter made her giggle. "You print that photo, Ezra, there'll be gossip again," she said as Ezra joined them, already snapping photos of her and Tony.
"Who am I to ignore Mr. Stark's wishes?" he responded with a drawl.
Tony pulled her closer. "You say that like it's a bad thing." Then he dipped her, her shriek of surprise mixing with laughter as he kissed her.
"Tony! Ezra, don't encourage him." The younger Immortal ignored her of course, still taking photos. "You're a very bad man, Tony!" she accused as he set her back on her feet.
"And you love it, don't try and deny it."
"Wouldn't matter if I did!"
"There, you see?"
Ezra had put down his camera. "Always easier to just agree with whatever he says," he told Charlotte with a wink.
"True—less pouting that way." She punched Tony lightly on the shoulder.
"Hey! I can always get new friends, you know!"
"No you can't," Charlotte and Ezra said in unison.
Ezra put an arm over Tony's shoulder. "I am afraid we're stuck with each other, my friend. After all, who would put up with any of us?"
Charlotte tucked her legs underneath her, leaning against Methos on the large sectional sofa. "Tony can always be counted on for an entrance," she agreed. "Thanks." She took the glass of champagne Ezra handed her.
"I'd never seen the armour up close and personal before. It was impressive." Methos took a sip of his drink. "But I'm assuming I'm the only one in this group that hasn't."
Ezra and Charlotte shook their heads. "I've seen it in Tony's workshop, but nothing more.
"Same here," Charlotte said. "Although, Tony did fit one of the arms on me when he was first creating the Mark II. I only let him after Jarvis assured me it was safe, though. I'd learned my lesson when it came to letting Tony try his experiments out on me!"
Ezra chuckled. "Took you long enough."
Sticking her tongue out at him, she pointed. "It's not nice to rub it in."
"Sorry." But he didn't seem like he meant it.
"It seems like so long ago." She looked up at Methos. "And only a few weeks later that I walked into Duncan's winery, finding you again after so many years.
He kissed the top of her head. "I remember seeing the press conference at Joe's in Paris. If I'd only known you were there in the room when Stark declared to the world he was Iron Man." She just nodded in response, looking pensive. "What is it, love?"
"I don't know. A lot of things, I guess. I just feel like something's going to happen, for the other shoe to drop." She twisted the bottom edge of her top distractedly. "I'm worried, Methos, about Tony, about how things will play out. He didn't think it through that day—I wish he'd never revealed the truth publically. I'm afraid the fallout from that morning is far from over."
"I like to pleasure myself? Are you kidding me?" Charlotte demanded, striding into Tony's workshop. "You testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee and decide to go for the teenage boy demographic? What the hell were you thinking?"
Rolling his chair away from the workstation, Tony leaned back, fixing his best friend with a look. "I was thinking I'm an American, and my government has no right sticking its nose into my business. I don't know, Birdie, but I seem to remember you helped fight a revolution about that!"
"I can guarantee that the Founding Fathers didn't have self-pleasuring in mind when they wrote the bloody Declaration!" Charlotte practically shouted back.
"Come on, Thomas Jefferson? I rest my case." He smirked, and Charlotte had the urge to strangle him.
"Tony," she took a deep breath, fighting for calm. "Tony, you aren't omnipotent, or so rich you can ward off the entire Unites States Government if they come for you."
"No, I don't! And neither does Pepper, or Jim! Tony, you need to take a step back and think about where all this might lead, please."
Standing, he shook his head. "You worry too much, Birdie, so does Pepper. It's handled, trust me." When she didn't reply, he walked over to her, poking her shoulder with a finger. "You do still trust me, don't you?"
Closing her eyes, she sighed tiredly, not knowing how to respond.
"Birdie?" He sounded concerned, and it pulled at her heart.
"Oh, Tony love, you know I will always trust you. But maybe it's your judgment I'm not too sure about right now." She said the last gently, as angry as she'd been with her best friend, she didn't want to hurt him.
He took a sharp breath. "Then maybe this conversation isn't going to go as planned."
"What are you talking about?"
"Let's sit down."
"This can't be good."
"Shut up, Birdie, and let me say what I need to, then you can rake me over the coals."
"Fine." She sat on the leather sofa, Tony sitting next to her. "Well?"
He wasn't looking at her anymore. "SI is a distraction, Birdie, a distraction to everything I want…need to do. And the company is suffering because of it. I know that, even if Pepper thinks I'm clueless." When Charlotte tried to respond, he waved her to silence. "So I'm going to make Pepper CEO, and I'm hoping that I'll have the support of you and Ez on the board."
Charlotte blinked as she processed what Tony had just said. Tony stepping down as CEO? She wasn't sure she could quite accept that. "Are you sure, Tony? Running Stark Industries is what's defined your entire adult life."
"I know, and I know dad must be rolling in his grave that I'm even contemplating this, but, Birdie, I know this is the right thing to do; for me and for the company. I'm just hoping I can get you to see I'm right."
She shrugged. "The company's still strong, on paper at least. But you're right, there's an uncertainty about the future. Things have been a little…erratic, lately."
"Things? You mean me, come on, Birdie, truth."
"Tony." She sighed. "Yeah, okay, you have been all over the map, and I've been worried. We all have."
"No need, it's going to be fine, trust me."
"Pinky swear, even."
She laughed despite herself. This all seemed almost normal. "With Pepper as CEO, the focus can be about the company, not about what latest thing Iron Man is up to."
"Yes, exactly. I knew you'd see it." He put his hands on her shoulders. "And with you there to back her up, both as her friend, and as a major stockholder, I know Pepper will be just what SI needs right now."
"Ezra and I both have allies on the board; we'll make it work, Tony," she assured him. "And for what it's worth, I think your father would understand."
Tony snorted. "You didn't know him, Birdie."
Charlotte winced inwardly at the casual statement, angry all over again with Nick Fury for not allowing her to divulge her past in the SSR, a past that included knowing Howard Stark.
"He'd just tell me I'd disappointed him one more time, and that he shouldn't be surprised at what a screw up I am," he finished bitterly.
Shaking her head, she took his hand, squeezing it hard. "What's done is done, Tony. This is about the future, yours and SI's. We'll get through this transition, and a few years from now, wonder what all the fuss was about."
They were in what was now Pepper's office at SI, having just gotten out of her very first board meeting as the boss. Almost every surface was covered with congratulatory flower arrangements; the scent of the massed blossoms was almost overpowering.
"I'm thinking this might have been a mistake. At first, the idea of actually running the company, for real, seemed awesome, but not so much now."
"That's just the nerves talking, Virginia," Charlotte replied firmly. "This is going to work, trust me."
"Are you sure?"
"You're my friend, and you know I'd do anything for Tony, but if I didn't think this was a good idea, that you'd cost me money, lower the value of my portfolio? I would have said so. I didn't get to where I am in business by being sentimental, Virginia."
Oddly that seemed to reassure her. "Really, Charlotte? That actually makes me feel better!"
Smiling, Charlotte poured out two glasses of wine. "To new beginnings," she said, handing a glass to Pepper.
She looked at the glass doubtfully. "Isn't it kind of early?"
Laughing, Charlotte shook her head. 'This is my very special 'first day as CEO breakfast in a glass' vintage." Then she pointed. "You'll find the rest of your breakfast in that tin."
"Tin?" Pepper walked over to the direction indicated.
"Under the lisianthus."
A smile broke out on Pepper's face as she finally found it under a riot of flowers. "Is this…?" she asked hopefully.
"Double chocolate chip cookies," Charlotte confirmed with a grin. "Your favourite. I baked them this morning."
Pepper nodded, setting her glass on the table. "Thank you, for being my friend; not just because of Tony."
"This is going to be fine, all of it, isn’t it?"
"I have no doubt, Virginia, none at all."