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What's Rule Number One?

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"Happy is going to hit the roof when he wakes up!" Charlotte said, pointing a finger at Tony. "What's rule number one, Tony?" she demanded.

He crinkled his eyes, as if thinking. "Don't swim for an hour after eating?"

"Try again."

"Don't tick you off when you're holding the bail money?" A smile tugged at his lips.

"That's number three," she said dryly. Opening the first aid kit on the bench next to Tony, she sat down across from him. "No fraternizing with the ex-girlfriends!"

Chopping a finger in the air, he said, "Oh, right. That rule number one."

"Yeah, that one." She sighed. "Oh, Tony love, what am I going to do with you?"

"If you'd asked me that eleven years ago…" He managed a leer that was followed by a tired grin.

"Mmm-hmm. Hold still," Charlotte ordered, grasping Tony's chin as she attempted to clean the wound on his temple. Underneath her feet, the thrum of the chopper's engines vibrated across the deck.

He stilled obediently for a moment, before jerking his head out of her gentle hold, gesturing aft. "You're trying to distract me while Doc over there is examining Pepper."

She looked to where Methos sat with Pepper. "And not doing a very good job of it, apparently." Returning her attention to her friend, she kissed his grimy cheek. "Let Methos do his job, okay?"

"Okay." He winced a little as she wiped antiseptic across the gash. "Where are we going anyway, Birdie?"

"A SHIELD airfield, then the Stark jet to the Jackson Hole house."

"Why Jackson Hole?"

"It's off the beaten track, private, defensible, and has a satellite lab for you to start work on solving the Extremis problem. And no one will think it's odd that Tony Stark wanted to spend Christmas with his friends on a ski trip in the Tetons."

"You're really good at this," he said admiringly. "The cloak and dagger stuff," he elaborated at her questioning look.

"All part of the consultant package," she told him with a grin. "I'm what you get when the first string is otherwise engaged."

"I don't know, maybe Fury's right, maybe you should come back, you know, use your talents for the greater good. You could be my sidekick even." He winked at her, and then gasped as her war on his wounds with antiseptic hit a particularly sore spot. "Not nice!"

"Sorry," she said unrepentantly. "Tony, as tempting as that offer is, especially the absolute joy I'd feel being your sidekick, I have a job, several, in fact. So I'll have to pass, regretfully, of course."

"That was sarcasm, right?"

She just shook her head, beginning an examination of the rest of the damage that had been inflicted upon his body over the last seventy-two hours. Running a hand down his forearm, she asked, "What caused these punctures?"

"Me—subcutaneous micro-sensors for the prehensile suit trials. It's really awesome, Birdie, wait till you see how it works!"

"You? As in you injected yourself? All over your body?"

He didn't miss the icy undercurrent of her question. "Mostly? Umm, except the hard to reach spots; that was Dummy. Though he did inject like a dozen in one place, at the base of my spine, hurt like a son of a bitch, really unsteady pincers for a robot."

She grabbed his hand. "New rule one, Tony—no medical experimentation on yourself! Do you hear me? That path leads to Dr. Jekyll, or Aldrich Killian, if you need the reminder."

"Birdie—" he began.

"No! If you want to inject yourself with crap, you do it under professional medical supervision, or I'll make sure you need professional medical supervision!"

He raised his other hand in surrender. "Fine! If it'll keep you from hurting me, I will capitulate to your threats…errr, request," he hastily added.

"You better!"

"I will!"

She squeezed the hand she still held. "I love you, Tony, so just try and take care of yourself."

"Absolutely. You told me once that I was a man who could have everything. You were right." He looked towards Pepper, who was smiling at something Methos said. "I owe you, for believing in me, believing in the life I could have, even when I didn't."

"Just be happy, Tony. Love Pepper, and let her love you. That's all I need in the way of thanks."

"There's something else."


He stroked her hair. "I have never been more grateful that you're not an ex-girlfriend, Birdie. You were right, all those years I tried to get you to change your mind, all the attempts I made." He laughed softly. "You can say 'I told you so' for the rest of my life, I swear."

She cocked her head, batting her eyelashes. "Oh, Mr. Stark, you do turn a girl's head."

He leaned in. "This doesn’t surprise me. Haven't you heard? I'm Iron Man."