London, December 1945
"You're welcome." He handed her the gin and tonic, putting his whisky down on the dark wood table. Sitting across from her, Nick leaned back in his chair. "So this is what victory feels like."
"Apparently, though all I feel is tired."
Raising his glass in a toast, Nick said, "To us."
Charlotte smiled, mirroring his gesture. "To peace."
"Yeah, sure, that." He flashed a grin at her look of disapproval. "Fine; to peace."
Clinking her glass against his, she said, "Better."
A song, playing on the radio in the corner, fought to be heard over the din of the crowded pub.
Kiss me once, then kiss me twice
Then kiss me once again
It's been a long, long time
Haven't felt like this, my dear
Since I can't remember when
It's been a long, long time
"Too long," he agreed. "A part of me doesn’t really believe it's over."
"But you're going home tomorrow."
"Home." Nick paused, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. "Not sure I remember what that is."
Laying her hand on his, she smiled. "It'll come back to you."
"Charlotte," Nick Fury repeated. "Where'd you go?"
She shook off the memories that had momentarily overwhelmed her. "I like the original version best," she said, waving a hand at the speaker above them, Louis Armstrong's cover of 'It's Been A Long, Long Time' issuing from it.
Their eyes locked, remembering a time when the song had been new, and they'd been to hell and back.
She laid her hand over his. "I'm glad you're still here, Nicholas, to remember with me."
During World War Two, Charlotte had been recruited into the SSR, one of several Immortals called upon to counter the Immortals that served the Reich…and HYDRA. Back then, the current director of SHIELD had been Sergeant Nick Fury, and he had led their team. Not long after the war ended, he had been injected with the Infinity Formula, which had nearly halted aging and had made him more resistant to injury and disease.
"I am too; especially right now."
Taking a sip of her wine, she looked at her old compatriot thoughtfully. "What's wrong?" After having not seen Nick for over ten years, they now saw one another frequently, although usually in her capacity as a consultant to SHIELD. When he'd called, asking her to meet him at Grape + Bean in Old Town, there had been an underlying note of strain in his voice that hadn't been there the last time they'd met.
"I don't know," he said simply. "I'm looking into some things. We'll see where it goes." He squeezed her hand. "I just wanted to see you face to face, to—"
When he didn't continue, she prompted, "To what, Nicholas?"
"Maybe to say I'm sorry. Sorry for pressuring you to come back, sorry for drawing you back into a world you left behind seventy years ago."
"Nicholas, you didn't force me to do anything, it was my choice."
"You keep telling yourself that." He waved away her objections. "Charlotte, I know you better than almost anyone. I played on our past, on your sense of loyalty and patriotism. I needed you, and I did what I had to to get you."
"Well, when you put it like that," she said dryly. "Though playing on the patriotism of a woman who fought in the Revolutionary War is a bit of a cheat, don't you think?"
"You were probably here when Alexandria was new."
"I am not that old," she protested. "Though I do recall visiting in 1793, or maybe it was 95." Returning to the topic at hand, she smiled, saying, "If you want me to be angry about you manipulating me, Nicholas, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. I know you pretty well too, you know."
"Are you trying to tell me you knew I was playing you?"
"What do you think?"
"Now? Hell if I know." He picked up his wine glass, taking a drink. "Not bad."
"I think it could use another year, but no, it's not bad."
"Wine snob," he accused good-naturedly.
"Occupational hazard." She winked.
"I suppose it would be." He took another swallow of his wine. "How long are you in town for this time?"
Charlotte lived part time in Virginia with Methos, who was working as a physician for SHIELD at their headquarters, the Triskelion. She split her time between here, and her winery in San Luis Obispo, along with a great deal of travel for Stark Industries, where she headed up the company's charitable division.
"Just a few more days; shopping with Natasha tomorrow, and then I'm going to visit Peggy Carter on Wednesday." Tasha was taking her shoe and weapon shopping. The SHIELD agent had decreed that it was time Charlotte's favoured arsenal be upgraded to the 21st century, and had been immune to any arguments Charlotte had to the contrary. And while they were out and about, new shoes were never a bad idea.
"How is Peggy?"
"Some days are better than others. But I can be whatever Charlotte she needs me to be: the old friend she's known for 75 years, or the comrade and fellow agent from the war."
"I know it must be hard on you, seeing her like that."
Her eyes were sad. "It's harder on Steve. Sometimes, we visit her together. After we leave…well, he needs a friend too; someone who understands, who remembers."
He nodded, sympathizing. "Then where are you off to? Back to California?"
She shook her head. "I'm headed to Manhattan on Stark Industries business."
"Is that what you call it? Business?"
"The charitable division keeps me very busy," she stated.
"Sure it does." The skepticism in his voice was palpable.
"I don't think I like what you're implying," she said sharply. "Whatever—"
He cut her off. "Forget I said anything."
She eyed him suspiciously. Did he somehow know about the tests that Tony and Bruce had been running on her and a few select Immortals from her and Methos' circle, to try to build on Loki's experiments when Methos and Duncan had been his prisoners? "Nicholas, I don't know what you think you know—"
"Charlotte—" he sighed, like the weight of the world was on his shoulders "—Charlotte, I'm sorry. I don't want to know, and I shouldn't have said anything. Just keep Stark, the people you trust, close. Let them watch your back, okay?"
"And who's going to watch yours, Nicholas?"
"I've got it covered."
"Uh huh." Now it was her turn to sound doubtful.
"Have a little faith, okay?" He smiled crookedly.
"I have more than a little." She reached out, grasping his wrist. "If you ever need me—"
"Just make sure you do."
R & D Labs, Stark Tower, Manhattan,
"I don't like it, Birdie." Tony Stark slapped the counter with his hand to emphasize his unhappiness with Charlotte's plan.
"I know you don't," Charlotte said soothingly, squeezing her friend's shoulder. "But this gem changes things." She held out a pale lavender faceted stone in her palm, about the size of a tennis ball. "Thor said it can help me to focus my power, to control it. I can't do that if I'm out cold." Thor had visited her after his return to Earth to inform her of Loki's death, and the death of his mother, Frigga. He had given her the Asgardian gem, explaining that it had been Frigga's, and that it was a tool used to help Asgardian children as they began to learn the various 'magical' arts.
"Tell her, Bruce. Tell her that wasn't what we agreed to!" Tony waved a hand at Bruce Banner, who stood on the other side of the counter.
"Tony—" Charlotte began.
"No!" Tony cut her off.
"Enough!" Bruce held his hands up, silencing the two friends. "Both of you, to your corners!"
Charlotte scowled and Tony muttered, but both of them did as they were told.
"That's better." Bruce pushed his glasses up higher on the bridge of his nose. "Now, Charlotte, I think you understand that Tony can't bring himself to hurt you, no matter how valid your arguments are, right?" She nodded warily. "And Tony, you know how important this is to Charlotte, to all the Immortals in the study. It could mean the difference between them being used as weapons in the hands of others, or being able to defend themselves."
"Fine!" Tony crossed his arms, looking truculent.
"I suggest a compromise."
"And that would be?" Charlotte asked.
"You need to be awake when your body heals a wound, but Tony can't do that, knowing the pain it would cause you."
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Tony said under his breath.
"For God's sake, Tony, let the man say his piece!"
"Thank you, Charlotte." Bruce smiled. "I may be Captain Obvious, but what the genius over there seems to be missing, is that there's a third option—a local anesthetic to the areas affected—you both get what you want."
"Works for me," Charlotte said. She truly appreciated the concern Tony and Bruce had for her well-being, but at the same time, it frustrated her. What was a little pain compared to the knowledge she might gain? In the centuries she had lived, pain had been no stranger, not least, what she had suffered at the hands of HYDRA as a POW during World War Two. However, her friends would protect her no matter her objections, so acceptance was the only path left to her. She raised an eyebrow, looking up at Tony. "How about you?"
"Does it matter?"
"Tony," she said warningly, not in the mood for pouty genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
He threw his hands up in the air. "Fine! We'll do it your way." The 'just like always' that followed was barely vocalized, but Charlotte glared, and Tony shrugged, looking unrepentant.
"Why do I feel like I'm running a daycare?" Bruce asked no one in particular.
Charlotte began to laugh, Tony joining in. Then she sighed. "Sorry I'm on edge lately. I just—" she stopped. "I guess I just want to get on with it. Ever since Loki held me prisoner, I've felt vulnerable; even though he's dead, he still haunts me. And we all know he wasn't the only threat out there."
"We'll figure this out," Bruce promised.
Tony frowned, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "I'm sorry, Birdie, sorry we aren't farther along on Project Tortuga. That's my fault."
"Tony, no! No, it's not. Pepper needed to be your priority, and then you had open heart surgery." She brushed a fingertip across his chest where the Arc Reactor had been. "Don't mind me. I think my meeting with Nicholas a few weeks back spooked me."
"Well, he is a spooky kinda guy," Tony snarked. He grasped her shoulders. "It's going to be fine."
"Yeah, it'll be fine." Even as the words passed her lips, she knew that was a lie.