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Stark Vacation Home, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Handing Tony a cup of espresso that he drained in two swallows, she looked down at the 3D display being projected from his worktable. "How goes it?"

"Good, it's going good." He leaned back in his chair, stretching till the bones popped. Then he yawned.

"Any chance of getting you to take a nap?"

"I'm fine, mom." He reached out, grabbing her hand. "Honest, Birdie, I'm good. I'm this close to stabilizing the Extremis formula and that much closer to fixing Pepper. I want to take away the worry I see in her eyes."

"The worry she thinks she's hiding from you? That worry?" Charlotte shook her head.

"She sucks at lying."

"Yes, well, Methos got her to go get some rest. Told her that her not taking care of herself just added to your worry." Perching on the edge of the table, she laughed. "Worked like a charm."

"So what? No reverse reverse psychology from you, Birdie? I'm hurt." He smiled up at her fondly.

"Nope." She brushed his cheek with her fingertips. "You just need to promise to eat when I bring you dinner."

"I never have trouble eating anything you cook, Birdie. So cross my heart—as long as there's pie for dessert."

"Of course there'll be pie. As if." Running her hand over the projection, she rotated the molecules. "Think you'll bring in the New Year with this solved?"

"That's the plan." He looked out the large window with its panoramic view of the Grand Tetons. "There was another New Year, the one where this all started. Time to finish it, Birdie."

"I'll do whatever you need me to; we all will."

Shoving the chair he was sitting in back with a screech of wheels against the cement floor, he stood up. "You can keep me company for a while. The sound of your voice is very soothing." Taking her hands, he walked her to the sofa at the far end of the room, gently pushing her down. "Fill me in on the happenings of the world."

"You mean other than the Vice President of the United States being arrested for treason, and the crisis currently occupying SHIELD?" she asked dryly.

"Yes, definitely other than that." He sat down next to her. "I want fluff, or salacious gossip, or both."

Tilting her head back, she pondered. "Oh, they're making another Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It'll mean a nice check for my foundation."

Lifting her legs, he put them across his lap as she settled against the armrest. "How does that work, anyway? The book you wrote with Jack is long out of copyright."

"Haven't I ever told you the story?"

"No, but you're going to now."

"Fine. Let's see. It must have been, 1950, I think. Yes, it was. Just before Christmas. It was one of the last times I saw your father, actually. He was establishing what would become SHIELD, and was making his pitch to convince me to sign on. He'd invited me to a Christmas party….

 

Stark Mansion, Pacific Palisades, California

The servant who led Charlotte into the study told her that Mr. Stark would join her shortly, and to please make herself at home. She didn't have time to do much more than walk across the room to look out at the private garden from the large windows, before she heard the sound of a door opening. Turning towards the sound, she noted that it was a different door than the one the she'd entered the room from. Then Howard was coming through the open door, saying something over his shoulder to someone unseen.

"Charlotte," he greeted her, coming towards her and taking her hand as he kissed her on the cheek. "It's been a long time. Glad you could make it." He ushered her over to a sitting area in front of a large marble clad fireplace. "Please, have a seat." He waved her to the brocade upholstered settee that faced the hearth.

"You said it was important." Normally, an invitation to a party all the way out in Southern California would not have compelled her to leave the comforts of her Carolina home at Christmas time, even if Howard Stark was the one doing the inviting. But a handwritten note on the corner of the invitation from Howard, telling her he needed to discuss something of importance with her, along with the inclusion of an airplane ticket to Los Angeles, was more than her curiosity could withstand.

"I think so, and I hope you will too. But I'm a lousy host—you don't even have a drink yet," he said as he walked over to the sideboard, picking up a cut crystal decanter. "Scotch, neat, right?"

"Please." Accepting the glass he held out to her, she said, "I'm surprised you remembered."

He flashed a smile. "Dad always said that it was important to remember what someone drinks; especially if it's a pretty lady." Sitting in the chair next to her, he held out his glass. "Cheers."

"Cheers," she murmured in response before taking a sip. Not surprisingly, it was excellent.

"Peggy Carter tells me you live in the middle of nowhere, out in South Carolina now."

"It suits me."

"Recharge the batteries, I get it. Saw Ez Standish a few weeks ago in San Francisco—never thought of him as the married and settled down kind of guy."

Charlotte shrugged. "He and Molly are very happy."

"Sure, sure," he said, nodding, but it didn't seem like he was paying attention. Then he leaned forward, hands between his knees, cradling his drink. "Look, Charlotte, you have to be wondering why I asked you here."

She raised a brow, waving a hand at him to continue. But before he could begin, a knock sounded at the door he'd entered a few minutes before, this time, Peggy Carter came through the doorway.

"Peggy! I had no idea you were here," Charlotte said, delighted to see her friend once more. "Why, it's only been a few months since you visited me." She reached out, taking Peggy's hand and drawing her down to sit next to her. "Let me guess—you're part of whatever big secret Howard's keeping."

Peggy laughed. "Guilty as charged. When I saw you last, plans were still in flux, but now, well now, we wanted to share those plans."

"I'm listening."

"The war may be over, the official war," Howard began.

"But the world faces uncounted threats," Peggy finished.

"It always has," Charlotte pointed out.

"And we know that," Howard replied. "But the destabilization from this last world war, coming on the heels of the last, along with the technological advances we're seeing, has created a threat that we think is far and above anything we've faced in the past."

Sighing, Charlotte said, "Every generation believes that, Howard."

Obviously frustrated, Howard sat back, hands on the arms of his chair. "The Nazis may have lost, but HYDRA is still out there; they haven't surrendered. Do you think they're just a run of the mill generational threat?" he demanded.

Drawing herself up, Charlotte snapped, "Don't you dare lecture me on HYDRA, Howard Stark! I know better than anyone just what they're capable of!"

Peggy put a placating hand on her arm. "We're sorry, Charlotte." She shot a look at Howard, silencing him. "We know what you suffered when you were captured, no one will deny that. But that's why you're so needed—you know the evil that's out there, evil that the average person has no idea exists."

"Needed? Needed for what?" she asked impatiently.

Howard was the one who answered, though in a less confrontational manner than before. "The SSR was disbanded at the end of the war. I never agreed with that decision, and the years that've followed have only reinforced that opinion. I'm trying to put the organization back together, with people like Peggy, Nick Fury…like you."

"Back together?"

"It would be a new agency, with a new name, a new mission, but based on the ideals and goals of the SSR," Peggy explained. "We've been reaching out to those we served with first."

Charlotte shook her head sharply, putting down her glass and standing up. "I am not secret organization material, believe me."

"How can you say that?" Peggy asked, standing next to her friend. "You were one of the best agents we had."

Beginning to pace, Charlotte wrapped her arms around herself. "That was different. There was a war on, there were Immortals aiding the enemy. I was needed; I did what I had to do. It wasn't a career choice!"

"Look, just think about it, okay? No one was expecting you to make a decision today. There's a party going on out there." Howard waved his hand at the house beyond the study. "I throw a great party, ask anyone." He smiled, a flash of white teeth. "Stay in town till after the New Year, on SI's dime, relax, do a little sightseeing, think about what we've talked about." Laying a hand on her shoulder, he said, "That's all we're asking—think about it, okay?"

She took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. "Okay, I'll think about it; but no promises."

@@@@+++++++@@@@

After the quiet of the study, the sound of the party hit her full force as she entered the large great room with its vaulted ceiling supported by Grecian pillars. Dozens of partygoers filled the room, spilling out through the French doors poolside. The guest list was a veritable who's who of Hollywood glitterati, Charlotte recognizing a great many of the faces as she worked her way towards the bar. Over by the twelve foot Douglas Fir, decorated with as much ostentation as was possible, stood Marlene Dietrich, who had a sly smile on her face as she said something softly to Errol Flynn, and out by the pool was Billy Wilder, deep in conversation with Lana Turner.

Charlotte was now very glad she'd done some shopping in Beverly Hills before attending Howard's 'little Christmas party', the Dior burnt-orange watercolor floral print silk-faille cocktail dress the perfect thing for this star studded gathering. She knew she'd as much as promised to enjoy the party, but she was already regretting it. She'd have a drink, do a circuit of the pool, and then make her escape to the relative peace of the beachside hotel that she'd been booked into. Yes, that was a good plan. Decision made, she continued her way to the bar. Drink first; maybe a double.

A hand on her shoulder, and a voice at her ear, a familiar voice, though one she couldn't quite place, halted her determined plan. "Agent Black, can it be?"

Looking over her shoulder, recognition dawned. "Captain Gable?"

Clark Gable smiled down at her, a smile that had made him a silver screen icon. "Plain old mister now."

Turning to face him, laughing, she pointed to herself. 'Plain old miss."

"Not a thing plain about you, Miss Black."

"That's very kind, Mr. Gable," she said, accepting the compliment gracefully.

"Clark," he corrected.

"Charlotte," she reciprocated. "I can't believe you remember me, with all the people you meet."

Laughing softly, he replied, "I make it a habit of remembering lovely secret agents I drop behind enemy lines." Taking her hand, he drew her away from the crush of people surrounding the bar. "Can I get you a drink?"

"Please. I haven’t managed to get close enough to the bar to get one myself."

He raised a hand in the air, signaling the bartender, holding up two fingers. With seeming impossible speed, a waiter appeared at their side with two whiskies. "Ma'am." Gable handed Charlotte one of the tumblers.

"Thank you." She took a sip, before saying, "It's good to be a star."

"It does have its perks," he agreed. "And how fared the rest of your team through the war?"

"We all made it. Nick Fury is still working for the government in some capacity, Molly Tanner is now married to Ez Standish, and they're living in domestic bliss in San Francisco."

"Is that right? Glad to hear it." He steadied Charlotte as she was jostled by a group of very happy party guests.

"I'm all out of practice," she confessed. "I've spent the time since the war living a peaceful country life. This… well this…."

"This is a bit much," he finished. "Howard's parties usually are," he said, grinning. "Look, why don't I show you my secret escape. Even an old hand needs a respite now and again."

Nodding her assent, Gable took her elbow, expertly leading her through the throng, exiting the room, and leading her up a hall, down some stairs, and around several corners, before halting at a heavy oak door. "Now, remember, this is a secret. Let it get around, and everyone will want to come." Charlotte drew a finger across her lips, her eyes twinkling. "Good enough." Opening the door, he led her in.

Charlotte's eyes widened. "This is magnificent!" she said, standing in place and turning, taking in the vast library.

"Nifty, isn't it?"

"Indeed it is!" She walked over to one of the glass display cases that marched down the center of the vast room, this one holding a torn sheet of parchment written in Norse runes. Next to it was a card, in English, translating the text. "Fascinating; it speaks of the Norse god Loki and Yggdrasill. I wonder what the missing portion said?" She looked at her companion. "I had no idea that Howard collected such things."

"This is just a portion of his collection," Gable said. "The rest is stored at USC."

"You should get Howard to take you there sometime," a voice said from behind the tall back of a leather armchair. Then the owner of the voice stood, coming around to face the new arrivals, a book in his hand.

"Walt," Gable greeted the man, walking up to him and shaking his hand. "I see you decided to escape too."

"Stark's lovely houseguest, Miss Carter, loaned me a book to read." He jutted his chin toward the volume he held. "Real page turner; just had to finish it."

Gable waved Charlotte over. "Charlotte Black, this is Walt Disney. Walt, Miss Black and I met over in Europe during the war."

"Did you?" He took the hand Charlotte proffered, shaking it firmly. "I'm sure it's quite the tale."

Gable laughed. "Watch out, Charlotte, Walt will keep you a prisoner if you have a story to tell."

"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Disney; I'm a great admirer of your films," she said sincerely.

"I'm delighted to hear it, Miss Black."

"I should get back," Gable said. "Charlotte, will you be in town long?"

"Through the New Year, at least."

He reached into his inner suit jacket pocket, pulling out a card and handing it to her. "Give me a call; come out to the ranch for a few days. We can talk about the good old days."

She tucked the card into her handbag. "I'd like that very much, Clark."

"Merry Christmas, Agent Black."

"Merry Christmas, Captain Gable."

With a tip of an imaginary hat, he smiled, nodding at Disney, before leaving the room.

"I do hope I'm not intruding, Mr. Disney," she said apologetically, feeling as if she'd encroached on his privacy.

"Not at all. You really should get Miss Carter to loan you this book. What a tale!"

Charlotte reached down, taking the book he held in his hand by the spine, and tilting it so she could read the title, confirming her suspicions that the book he was so enthused over was A Pirate's Life For Me, Tales of the Seven Seas. "I must confess, Mr. Disney, that I was the one who gave this volume to Miss Carter only a few weeks ago."

"And how did you come by it? It's a very old book."

"It was written by my great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Sparrow," she lied glibly. "Dictated by Captain Sparrow himself, in the final years of his life."

"Come, sit with me, Charlotte. May I call you Charlotte?" Not waiting for an answer, he led her over to a window seat, sitting down. "Walt, please."

Sitting next to him, Charlotte smiled to herself, charmed by the man's enthusiasm for the book she and Jack had written. "Of course, Walt."

He chuckled ruefully. "I have to admit that Clark was right, I do love a good story, and really, I won't rest till you tell me everything you know about the good Captain Sparrow and his exploits. I'm sure there are family stories not included in this volume."

Before she knew it, hours had passed as Walt Disney expertly drew out every detail she recalled of her 'great-great-grandfather', Captain Jack Sparrow. In reality, it had been a joy to speak of her late husband to such a keen audience.

Disney sat back, a satisfied look on his face. "Magnificent! Do you know what you have here, Charlotte? A gold mine, that's what! Write this as a treatment for a film, resecure the copyright, and share your great-great-grandfather's stories with the world!"

Charlotte demurred. "I'm not a screenwriter, Walt. I could never do his story justice."

"Fair enough. Then how about you let me do it? I'll pay you a very fair sum to secure exclusive rights to your family stories of Captain Jack. You may not know this, but I have a dream, Charlotte, a dream to create an amusement park, a place that will be like nowhere else." He leaned in, warming to his subject. "A place that will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world. I want it to be the happiest place on Earth."

"How do the stories of Jack Sparrow fit into that?"

"I plan remarkable things with the technology that's available to us, that will be available to us. Can't you see it? A ride, on water, a boat that will take you through the world of a pirate; through the world of Jack Sparrow. Heck. Maybe one day, a film. What do you say to that, Charlotte?"

Despite herself, Charlotte found herself pulled in by Disney's boyish joy. So very different from the dark years of war, from the world that Howard and Peggy wanted her to come back to. "It sounds amazing, truly, Walt."

"I'm glad to hear you say that. I'd like to show you the plans, show you my dream."

"I'd love to…."

 

Stark Vacation Home, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

"And that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted till Walt died in 1966," Charlotte said to Tony, her eyes a little sad.

"I already know that you turned Dad down. How'd that go anyway?"

Shrugging a shoulder, she said, "Like you, Howard was a man used to getting what he wanted. He wasn't accustomed to hearing the word 'no'."

"And was Walt Disney the reason for that? For your decision not to sign on?" Tony asked curiously.

She was startled by his question. "I'd never really thought of it in those terms before. Maybe, in a way, it was. I took Walt up on his offer, looked over the plans for what would become Disneyland, and by the time it was all over, I'd become an investor. It was the total opposite of the years of the war, and it made me happy. I became more involved with the day to day running of my foundation, funding other children's charities around the world. They were good years, Tony."

"And Jack Sparrow became famous."

Laughing, she nodded. "Jack would have loved the attention. In a great many respects, his portrayal in the movies is spot on, except with slightly less—" she waved her hands around and swayed "—and not as much eyeliner."

Tony joined her laughter. "I've seen the portrait you have of him; the physical resemblance is there."

"Jack would think himself much handsomer than Mr. Depp, but all in all, the similarity is remarkable."

Looking at some unfixed point, Tony seemed thoughtful. "Such a small thing to change a person's future: a chance meeting at a party, one man's dream versus another's. Makes you think."

"They usually are the small things, the ones that set us on a path other than we'd intended."

"If you'd done as Dad wanted, joined up with SHIELD at the beginning, I would've probably known you my entire life."

She shook her head. "Probably not, Tony. In reality, we most likely wouldn't have met till after you became Iron Man, in some official capacity probably."

"You know that means that in some alternate universe, there's a you that did join SHIELD—you probably run it."

"Now that's a frightening thought."

"Oh, I don't know. If it had been you that showed up in my living room after the press conference, instead of Fury, I would have been a lot more motivated to play well with others." He winked broadly, and she laughed. "I guess there's no way to really know. But what I do know? That I'm glad things turned out the way they did." Smiling, he squeezed her arm.

"Me too."

End