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It's Been a Long, Long Time

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"What do you mean, HYDRA?" Tony demanded. "You're beginning to sound like Dad did in his journal."

"I know how it sounds, Tony, but I'm right." She looked at Jacob expectantly. "Aren't I?"

Shrugging, he replied, "You always have been quick to figure things out, ma'am."

"But not quick enough to realize you were a wolf in sheep's clothing."

"No, but that was the plan." He waved at his companions. "What better way to gain access to a secure building than to have passed the security check?"

"We're so adding polygraphs to the interview process," Tony muttered.

"Unfortunately for you, Mr. Stark, that's too little, too late."

"So all if it was a lie? Just to get Birdie to accept you as a student? End up on the SI payroll?"

"Not all of it. I didn't know I'd been killed by the IED, that I was Immortal; that part was true. So was my meeting with Istvaeone. Except it wasn't chance—he was my contact within Ten Rings." Behind him, event coordinator Michael said something unheard into his Bluetooth. "They've been useful for sowing chaos," he added. "I tried to recruit him into HYDRA, but he was old fashioned, didn't see the potential of what we were trying to accomplish."

"I don't understand, Jacob. You were a Marine, a patriot. How does a man like that betray everything he should hold dear?" she asked, trying to fathom how she could have been so thoroughly fooled.

"The time I spent in Afghanistan, seeing good men die because the United States wouldn't commit fully to winning when we had the capacity to crush the enemy. That was the turning point. I knew nothing was ever going to change so long as the status quo was maintained. A SHIELD agent who'd been assigned to my squad approached me. He understood, been where I was and had seen the future."

Responding with a bark of laughter, she asked, "So you thought the best way for you to protest American foreign policy was to become a Nazi?"

"We are not Nazis!" he protested.

"Did they skip that part during junior baddie orientation?" Tony queried, rolling his eyes.

"I had a front row seat seventy-five years ago, Jacob; HYDRA, Nazis, all cut from the same cloth." She chopped her hand in the air for emphasis.

"The Nazis were to be swept aside once they'd served their purpose," Jacob insisted.

"Their purpose? Like the Holocaust? That sort of purpose?" She made a noise of disbelief. "You are a delusional fool, Jacob."

"I'm not the one who's a prisoner," he retorted.

"He kinda has a point there, Birdie. I'm just saying." Tony shrugged when she shot him a look.

"A whole lot can happen between being held at gunpoint and you delivering us to your evil overlords," she pointed out with an unfriendly smile. "You didn't plan for this little kidnapping plot to take place just now, did you? Plenty of opportunity for some of that chaos you seem so fond of."

"Your decision to ditch your minders to investigate Fury's death did accelerate our plan," he conceded. "But the outcome, if not the means, will be the same."

Jacob had said a SHIELD agent in Afghanistan had recruited him. Just how deep did HYDRA's infiltration go? The possibilities made her feel ill. "The agents Sitwell is sending, they're HYDRA, just like you, aren't they?" Which meant Sitwell was. How many others? This was why Nicholas had been murdered, of that she had no doubt, not anymore. He'd got too close, he may have even realized before they gunned him down.

He nodded. "I think you're beginning to appreciate the scope of our objectives. This is bigger than you or me; this is about changing the destiny of the human race. You'll see."

"I've heard it all before." She dismissed his plans for world domination with a flick of her fingers. "I think you'll find that trying to bend humanity to your will won't work out the way you planned."

Madsen from accounting said, "She's stalling."

"Yes, she is," Jacob agreed.

"Me? I'm who's stalling? It isn't me who's boring us to tears with the obligatory villain soliloquy now is it?"

"Score one for Birdie," Tony said glibly.

"That is enough! You are coming with us," he said to Charlotte. "The Baron is impatiently awaiting your arrival." He waved his gun at them. "Now, both of you move."

Charlotte held her ground. If she could delay long enough, maybe someone would notice something was wrong. They had to have taken out Jarvis, or security would have been here by now—unless they were HYDRA too. "I'm not going to make it easy for you, Jacob. You're going to have to shoot me to get me out of the building." Let them carry her dead body out, but she wouldn't willingly put herself back into the clutches of HYDRA.

"No, I'm going to have to shoot him," Jacob said calmly, pulling the trigger, the bullet ripping through Tony's shoulder.

"No!" she screamed, clutching Tony as he collapsed against her, gasping in shock and pain.

"That was just a warning, Charlotte, so you realize what's at stake," he said as Charlotte lowered Tony to the floor, pressing her palm against the wound, trying to stem the bleeding. "The next bullet will do a lot more damage, and the one after that. While Mr. Stark would be a nice bonus, you're the one we want, so don't think I won't kill him if necessary."

She grabbed a lab coat that was draped over the chair next to her, folding it several times before pressing it against the bullet hole in his shoulder. "Tony, I'm so sorry."

"Don't do it, Birdie—" Tony groaned "—don't let them use me to control you. I know what they did to you the last time. Can't let them do it again."

She lowered her head, brushing her lips against his. "I can't risk you, Tony."

"Birdie—"

She looked up at Jacob. "I'll do whatever you want, just don't hurt him anymore."

It turned out someone had noticed. "Is Jarvis down?" Bruce Banner called out as he entered the lab. "I've been trying to get a hold of both you. I have. an. idea…." He trailed off, taking in the scene before him.

"Over there with the others, Dr. Banner." Erica motioned the unexpected arrival with her free hand.

"And let's keep calm, shall we?" Jacob said. "Your friend's life depends upon it."

"Tony's been shot, Bruce." Charlotte looked at him entreatingly. "He needs your help," she said, emphasizing the 'your'. She grasped his forearm as he knelt beside her and Tony, and felt a wave of energy wash over her. She knew the other guy, the Hulk, was just under the surface. She squeezed Bruce's arm, holding his gaze. Please let Bruce handle this, please. They'll kill Tony if you appear, she thought, willing the words to be heard. She and Methos had realized some time ago that they could sense Hulk, almost like another Immortal, when they were with Bruce. What Charlotte didn't know was if he could sense them. She prayed to God he could.

Bruce took a shuddering breath, blinking rapidly, the sheen of sweat on his brow. "Hold it together," Tony said in a cracked whisper. "Think about the big bag of weed."

Nodding, Bruce took Charlotte's place, pressing down on the makeshift pressure bandage. "I need to stop the bleeding," he said in a strangled voice.

Charlotte reflexively shoved her bloody hand into her sweater pocket, grasping the Asgardian focus gem. She almost let go as she felt a pulse of heat shoot up her arm and into her heart. Still with her other hand on Bruce's arm, she locked eyes with him, knowing that somehow, he had felt it too.

"Time to go." Jacob leaned down, seizing Charlotte's arm, dragging her away from Bruce.

The heat from the stone became more like lightning, and the sensation coursed through her body, igniting every nerve and every sense. It was something she'd felt before, but only at the death of another Immortal. Without conscious thought, she pulled her hand from her pocket, holding the gem, its lavender depths now the deepest purple. As Jacob hauled her to her feet, she pushed back, both mentally and physically, the sensation of lightning becoming quite real as she slammed Jacob into the wall behind. He crumpled lifeless to the floor, the shockwave driving the other HYDRA operatives to their knees.

A roar shook the room with a terrible ferocity, as Bruce was no longer able to resist the coming of the Hulk. Jacob's accomplices struggled to their feet, only to be smashed like bowling pins, the Hulk tossing them against the same wall as Jacob, like so many broken dolls.

The electrostatic discharge coiled around her and through her, as if a Quickening after a duel, except it was her Quickening, not that of a slain opponent's. The air crackled with ozone, and Charlotte looked down at her hands, then over at Jacob. What had she done? The enormity of it frightened her. Loki had been right. A part of her almost wished he still lived so he could tell her what it meant; tell her what she was.

There was another roar, but not as before, this time it seemed almost a question. She looked up, the Hulk towering over her. She remembered Methos giving him a name: Kermit. How appalled Bruce had been. She reached up, touching his hand, her Quickening in harmony with the energy that flowed through him, that caused him to be. She wondered if this was what Methos had felt when Loki had used his staff to channel Methos' Quickening when he was Loki's captive.

The Hulk's huge hands came around her waist, lifting her up to meet his gaze, searching her eyes. Reaching out, she touched his cheek with her fingertips. "You aren’t alone," she said softly. "But Tony needs Bruce right now. Only Bruce can help him. I know you understand, don't you?"

He made a noise, as if he was humming. Then he set her down gently, one massive hand stroking her head like she were a kitten. Reaching up, she twined her hand around one of his fingers. "I'll take care of Bruce, I promise." There was more humming before he turned away. Charlotte spared one last look before running to Tony's side.

"Are you okay?" she asked, worried that some of the energy discharged had hit him.

"Yeah, sure." He attempted to wave his hand, but only managed to wiggle a few fingers. "That Emperor Palpatine thing you did? Really awesome, Birdie. Remind me not to tick you off ever again."

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