“I hate this, Methos!” Charlotte looked through the window of Tony’s hospital room at the Avengers facility in Upstate New York. Her best friend looked beaten, both mentally and physically, and so very mortal. It reminded her all too much of how he looked after Afghanistan.
“I know you do.” Methos brushed his thumb across her cheek. “All we can do now is pick up the pieces.”
“Honestly, I’m not sure anymore that we should. Maybe some things are better left as they are.” Shaking her head, she asked, “How is he?”
“He has a concussion, a cracked collarbone, contusions, lacerations; pretty much what you’d expect from a man who went several rounds with Captain America. But with rest, he’ll be fine.”
“Colonel Rhodes is lucky to be alive. He has a lot of rehab in his future, but he will walk again, one day.”
“That, at least, is good news.”
“Are you going in?” Methos asked, jutting his chin towards Tony’s room.
“Yes, after I try and reach Pepper again. I know she and Tony are taking some time apart, but after everything that’s happened, she should be here.” She had called Pepper a half dozen times since Tony had been brought in, but never got an answer, only voicemail.
Nodding, Methos leaned down, kissing her lightly on the lips. “I’ll see you later,” he said, before walking away.
Charlotte walked over to the hall window that looked out over the woods, pulling her cell phone out, and hitting the speed dial. This time, she was rewarded with something other than voicemail.
“Charlotte, how’s Tony?” Pepper’s voice shook.
“Physically, he’ll be fine Virginia, but mentally? That’s going to take longer. How long till you can get here?”
“I can’t, I mean, I’m not, not coming, Charlotte.”
The thought that Pepper wouldn’t come to be with Tony was one that had never occurred to her. “You can’t be serious; he needs you, more than ever.”
“I’m sorry, I know it’s not what you want to hear, but I just can’t be with Tony, not now. It needs to be a clean break.”
“Clean break?” Charlotte sank onto the bench under the window, shocked at Pepper’s words. “But Tony said you two were just taking some time.”
“I know that’s what he wants to believe, Charlotte, but I can’t do this anymore.”
“Virginia, please—Tony saw his parents' murder, surely you don’t want him to go through this alone! He….”
Pepper cut her off. “No, I can’t do what you want. You’ve always been a friend to me, and I’m sorry I’m disappointing you, and I hope that one day, you can forgive me. Take care of Tony.” The phone disconnected.
Charlotte stared at the phone in her hand, trying to come to grips with what she’d just heard. Taking a deep breath, she stood, putting the cellphone in her jacket pocket. She wasn’t ready to accept that Tony and Pepper were over, but for now, it was the reality of the situation and she had to move on. Tony was her priority.
Tony grimaced. “About how I look, I’d guess.”
Charlotte kissed him on the cheek. “Your good looks still shine through,” she said with a wink.
“It’s a gift.” There was a ghost of his usual cocky grin, which lightened her mood considerably. Then it was gone. “Does Pepper know?”
“She’s not coming, is she?” When she didn’t immediately answer, he repeated, “Is she? Birdie, come on.”
Sighing, she shook her head. “No Tony, I’m sorry, she isn’t. I tried, but….”
“I know you did, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you we were taking more than just time. But I wasn’t ready to accept, to say the words. You and I both know I’m not a happily ever after kind of guy.” The last was said bitterly.
“No, Tony, that’s not true. I refuse to believe that, and I won’t let you either!” She slapped her hand down on his bed. “I told you that you were a man who can have everything, and that is all I’ll accept, got it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“No, you don’t.” He smiled, but didn’t say anything. “Tony, you should get some rest. Methos says he’ll let you out of here tomorrow if you take it easy.”
He shook his head, staring out at something only he could see.
“What is it?” The silence stretched. “Tony, please.”
Still, he didn't look at her. “Did you know, Birdie, about my parents?”
Tasha had briefed Charlotte after she’d brought Tony in, about what she’d found at the abandoned HYDRA base, and the video of Tony’s parents being murdered. She felt helpless against the reality of what Tony had suffered, seeing the ruthless execution of his mother and father at the hands of the Winter Soldier. At a loss, she didn't immediately respond.
“Did you know?” he repeated fiercely.
Swallowing hard, she said, “No, Tony love, I didn't. I do remember when I first heard the news of your parents’ death, knowing the life Howard led, I wondered if it truly had been an accident. But that’s all.”
Now he was looking at her, and he searched her eyes. “And if you had known, would you have told me?”
“Yes—“ she took his hand in hers “—because I would have wanted you to have learned such a thing from a friend.”
He took a shaky breath. “I thought Rogers was my friend.”
She leaned in. “He is, Tony, he is.”
“How can you say that?” he demanded angrily.
“Oh, Tony love—while I think this would be better discussed once you’re well, I know you’ll have no peace till we deal with it.” Pausing, she considered her next words carefully. “I told Steve, not so many days ago, that you were my Bucky, and that I would go to hell and back for you. He understood exactly what I meant. Do you, Tony?”
“He murdered my mom, Birdie!” His voice cracked with grief, tears running down his face. He squeezed her hand in a painful grip.
“I know he did. But Tony, I also know something of what Sergeant Barnes suffered at the hands of the enemy, what other than the grace of God, could have happened to me. I was only a prisoner of HYDRA for a little while, but if my team hadn’t rescued me? Dear God, Tony, I don’t know what my fate would have been.” She shivered; the memories of her torment as a prisoner during World War Two making her feel ill.
“You can’t believe that you would have ever become what he was?” Tony was incredulous.
“I can believe nothing else. And knowing that, in my heart, I understand why Steve acted as he did. I’d do the same for you, as you would for me.”
“I can’t forgive Barnes, don’t ask me to!”
“I would never ask that of you, but I would ask, that one day, you might consider Steve’s actions in a more sympathetic light. It is a hard thing, Tony, choosing the right path. No one knows that more than Captain Rogers.”
Tony let go of her hand, looking away. Charlotte wiped the tears from her eyes, feeling as if the world would never be right again. “You should get some rest. Methos will be cross with me if you don’t.” She tried to force a lightness into her voice that she didn’t feel. Tony didn’t respond. “I’ll check in on you later.”
With one last look at her devastated friend, she left the room.
“How’s Tony,” Tasha asked, as she came around to lean against the counter.
“Broken—he’s going to need time.” She took a swallow of her tea. “Tasha, who did you say called you in? Told you where you could find Tony?”
Charlotte just drank some more tea.
Tasha grinned wryly. “Waiting me out?”
“Something like that.”
“Actually, he didn’t identify himself, but I’m pretty sure it was T'Challa.”
“Isn’t it though?” Tasha straightened. “When I got there, there was no sign of Steve, Barnes, only Tony, wrapped in blankets.”
“What’s your impression of T’Challa?” Charlotte asked curiously.
“Actually? He reminds me a lot of you.”
Charlotte’s eyes widened in surprise. “And is that a good or a bad thing?”
“For our purposes? A very good thing.”
“Just checking.” Charlotte put down her cup, thinking. “I hear Africa is very nice this time of year.”
“I’ve heard the same.” Tasha took Charlotte’s hands, kissing her on each cheek. “I’ll send you a post card.”
“I don’t want to be alone, Birdie.”
“Are you sure my company is what you want?”
“What do you think?”
Her heart rose at the familiar smart aleck tone. “I’ll stay, as long as you promise to sleep.” Walking over the bed, she kissed his forehead. “I need you well, Tony. All the pieces need picking up and put back together and I need you to do that with me.”
“Deal.” A genuine smile appeared on his face. “With the Accords, a lot of people will be showing up here, a lot of Enhanced kids who won’t want to be here. I could use some help. What do you say? Feel like being a mom again? Granted, a mom who can teach them to kill with their little finger.”
She chuckled at the last. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been a mother to anyone, Tony,” she said a little sadly.
“I know, but I think it’s time. You’re needed, Birdie. I need you. They need you.”
Flashing him a crooked grin, she said, “I’ll do my best.”
Muffling a yawn, Tony took her hand. “You’ll be here when I wake up?”
“I will.” She smoothed his hair back as he closed his eyes. “Sweet dreams, dearest Tony.”
It wouldn't be easy, but she knew Tony was right. She well remembered her first death, and the discovery she was Immortal. The one blessing had been the acceptance and love of her husband, despite her unnatural nature. But for many of the newly Enhanced, acceptance, let alone love, was not in the cards. If she could help, even a little, she would.
Sinking into the chair next to the bed, she looked up at Methos as he joined her. “I guess we'll be picking up the pieces after all.”
His hands came to rest on her shoulders. “This does not surprise me.”
“I know, I'm predictable. Sue me.”
Laughing softly, Methos kissed the top of her head. “One of your more endearing qualities.”
“I hope the others are well, wherever they are.”
Silently, she said a prayer for Steve, and those under his care. One day, she was certain, the Avengers would be made whole, and they'd be a family again.