"Jacob found him under one of the lifeboats," Pepper explained as they raced down the steps to the next deck. "They moved him to the medical bay, and Matthew says he's a doctor." There was a note of question in the last.
"Yes, he is, was, never mind. The bottom line is that he's Happy's best chance right now." Charlotte looked over at Tony, grim and silent next to her. "Tony, this isn't your fault."
Shaking her head, Charlotte didn't have time to respond, entering the medical bay and rushing to Methos' side. "Fill me in."
"He's lost a lot of blood, but fortunately for him, our assassin was extremely inept, managing to shoot everyone but his target, and not very successfully at that." Charlotte winced at his words, sparing a glance for Tony, who looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. "The bullet's still in there; we need to get it out and stabilize him, or he won't make it till the cavalry arrives."
Nodding, Charlotte went to the counter, pouring rubbing alcohol over her lower arms and hands, shaking them dry before ripping open a sterile packet containing latex gloves and pulling them on.
"At least this boat has more than a first aid kit on it," Methos said approvingly. "It's stocked well enough that we might just be able to pull this off." He looked up at Charlotte. "When was the last time you dealt with a gunshot wound?"
Pausing to consider, she said, "World War Two, I suppose."
"It's like riding a bike, you never forget how," Methos said with a grin. Then he seemed to notice his audience for the first time. "Ezra, get them out of here."
"I'm not going anywhere!" Tony said. "Hogan's my responsibility."
Methos gave him a considering look. "Yes, he is, isn't he? Fine, but you stay out of our way."
Surprisingly, Tony didn't dispute Methos' authority. Ezra nodded to Charlotte, and Pepper squeezed Tony's shoulder before they left the room.
"We have no general anesthetic, Tony, so your presence will be very helpful if Happy begins to regain consciousness. Can you please stand here at his head?" Charlotte asked gently, motioning Tony to the top of the table.
"I can do that."
"Let's get started then, shall we?" Methos said.
Out on deck, Pepper stared down at the ocean as it ran by, her hands gripping the railing. Ezra stood next to her, placing a comforting arm across her shoulders. "Happy couldn't be in better hands," he told her.
"But you don't like him, Matthew." It sounded like an accusation. "And yet you're trusting him, putting Happy's life in his hands!" She pulled away. "Is he even really a doctor?"
"I will be the first to admit that Matthew and I have had something of an antagonistic relationship in the past, but that in no way diminishes his skill has a physician. I swear to you, Pepper, Matthew will do everything in his power to save Mr. Hogan." She nodded, looking as if she just might believe him. "And Charlotte is no slouch herself when it comes to dealing with such matters. Between the two of them, they have dealt with literally thousands of battlefield wounds."
She turned, crossing her arms, leaning against the railing. "How old is she, are you? No, wait, that's probably rude, isn't it?"
Ezra laughed. "Charlotte is nearing her three hundredth year, and as for myself, two hundred."
"It seems unbelievable."
"True, and yet, I am surrounded by the creations of the twenty-first century, marvels that would have seemed like magic to me in the century of my birth; unbelievable, but undeniably real."
"I suppose when you put it that way." She smiled. "What about Matthew?"
While Ezra had the almost irresistible urge to tell her the truth, he settled for, "Considerably older than Charlotte and I combined."
"So they've known each other more than a few months."
"Charlotte has known Matthew since she was mortal."
"Can I ask one more question?"
"You may ask as many questions as you like."
"How do you love someone for centuries? I usually can't even make it past a second date. Matthew and Charlotte—" she shrugged, "—it's just hard to wrap my mind around all those years."
"They weren’t always romantically inclined towards one another. Charlotte was married to Matthew's best friend for many years, till his death." Ezra paused. "But your question is better put to Charlotte herself." He understood Pepper's natural curiosity, but it was up to Charlotte what she might wish to share of her past.
She looked uncertain. "Maybe." Turning partly away, she wrapped her arms around herself. "You know, it really isn't any of my business."
Ezra sighed and placed a hand on Pepper's wrist. He needed to make her see that Charlotte, that the Immortals Pepper thought of as friends, were the same people she'd always known. "Let's sit down." He guided her towards two deck chairs, waiting till she'd seated herself before following suit. "When I was a child, my mother and I accompanied Charlotte on a trip to England. In those days, Charlotte owned her family's merchant fleet. She still does actually, through layers of subsidiaries," he added as an aside. "I was beside myself with excitement, not just that we were traveling to a place I'd only read about in books, but the sea voyage itself. The ship was commanded by a Captain Gregg, a favourite of my cousin's, and a man I had quite the case of hero worship over."
"I bet you were a cute little boy."
Ezra flashed a cocky smile. "I was." Pepper giggled. Then he continued his story, "Mother suffered from nearly unending seasickness, and kept herself drugged to insensibility for most of the voyage, much to my delight."
She raised an eyebrow. "Let me guess, Charlotte was an easier touch?"
"Something like that," he replied. He had no intention of delving into his relationship with Maude at this juncture. "I followed the captain around like a puppy, learning all I could about seamanship, determined that when I was grown, I would be a captain too. I would tell Charlotte all of this, of course, and she taught me how to use a sextant, and how to navigate by the stars. In the evenings, before bed, she would embroider, and I would tell her of all the exotic places I would sail to. She, in turn, would tell me tales of the places she'd visited, and I would go to bed dreaming of adventures. Near the end of our journey, Mother once more joined us, except she was not amused by my tales of derring-do and my dream of being a ship's captain. She berated Charlotte for encouraging my 'ridiculous notions' and 'fanciful nonsense'. Charlotte let Mother run on till she was out of steam, then she smiled at me, picked up her embroidery and said, 'Maude, all little boys deserve to have dreams, especially Ezra.'."
"Did you ever run away to sea?"
"Heavens no! By the time I was an adult, I was far too fastidious, with an aversion to manual labour. But those fantasies of my childhood sustained me for a very long time. My point is, Pepper, we all have dreams, whether we're thirty, three hundred, or three thousand. Immortals, like mortals, have hopes and fears, joys and sorrows. Charlotte is still the same friend that you go shoe shopping with in Milan and to Fashion Week in Manhattan, the friend who overnights you freshly baked double chocolate chip cookies when she knows Tony has you tearing your hair out." He touched her cheek with his fingertips. "Your friendship will only change if you change it."
Nodding, she reached out, hugging him. "Thanks, Ez."
He returned her embrace. "You're welcome."
"The crew's preparing the helipad," Amanda's voice called from behind them. "Captain says that the authorities should be here in under an hour." Drawing even with them, she dropped into a chair next to Ezra. "Any news?" She cocked her head back towards the medical bay.
"Not yet," Pepper answered.
"Matthew's a great doctor. He'll be fine," Amanda said in a voice that was utterly confident as Jacob joined them.
"I cleaned up Charlotte's blood from the salon," Jacob told them. "Got rid of her clothes and anything else that might point to her being shot."
"What's our story going to be?" Pepper asked.
"Your Agent Coulson will be far more concerned about the security implications involved than noticing the impossible." Not to mention, Coulson knew about Immortals and would make sure that no one would know anything that Ezra and Charlotte weren't ready for them to know. Nick Fury had reassured him on that point when Ezra had contacted him, reminding him that SHIELD took care of their own, even if they had retired sixty years ago. "Our story is simple: Matthew saw the gun, wrestled the assassin to the ground, and in the struggle, the man was killed."
"Are you sure he's going to buy it?" Amada asked doubtfully.
Ezra captured Amanda's eyes with his. "Absolutely certain," he said, putting as much weight into those two words as possible. He nodded slightly.
Amanda pressed her lips together, searching his face, before nodding in return; her expression making it plain she'd want the entire truth later.
Ezra wasn't looking forward to that conversation any more than he knew Charlotte was. He wasn't relishing the thought of the two older Immortals discovering that a secret government agency knew about their kind, an agency both he and Charlotte had worked for during the last world war. But that was a worry for later; now they had more immediate concerns. As if on cue, in the distance, he heard the sound of an approaching helicopter.
"Ma'am, sir," Agent Phil Coulson said softly to Charlotte and Ezra, who had fallen back as the others watched Happy's stretcher being loaded onto the chopper. "It's an honour to finally meet you both."
The two Immortals looked at each other, discomfited by the admiration evident in Coulson's simple statement. "Thank you, Agent Coulson, but as I think Ezra would agree, we only did what needed to be done, like countless others did, and still do today."
The SHIELD agent grinned. "If you say so ma'am." Then the smile was gone. "I'll interview everyone, of course, but can you fill me in on what the others know?"
"Tony and Pepper now know about Immortals, but they don't know about our past association with SHIELD; and we'd like to keep it that way for now," Ezra said. He and Charlotte had agreed that sharing their activities during the war were best kept for a later date.
Coulson nodded. "And the rest of your party?"
Charlotte seemed uncomfortable at the question, but it had to be answered. "It won't be a problem; they're…." She stopped, waving a finger at herself and Ezra.
Coulson looked surprised, albeit briefly, before composing his expression back to its well-trained blankness. "But they don't know about us knowing about—" he mirrored Charlotte, pointing at the two of them, "—do they?" he guessed, picking up on their increasingly obvious discomfort.
"No, they don't, but they'll have to when all is said and done." Charlotte sighed. "And they're not going to like it one bit."
"For God's sake, Charlotte, did you and Ezra take out bloody billboards?" Methos demanded, pacing around the room where they were being 'interviewed' by Agent Coulson.
"It wasn't like that," she began, only to be stopped by Coulson, who held his hand up.
"If I may, ma'am?" Charlotte nodded. "Mr. Adamson, what I'm about to tell you is classified, but under the circumstances, I've been authorized to share the information with you. Neither Agent Black, sorry, Miss Sparrow—" he corrected, "—or Mr. Sanbourne is responsible for my organization knowing about your kind. There were several highly placed Immortals within the Nazi's scientific research directorate, an organization called HYDRA. Immortals like Miss Sparrow and Mr. Sanbourne were invaluable to the Allied effort in destroying HYDRA."
Methos had sat back down during Coulson's explanation, and was now looking at Charlotte with intense curiosity. "You never cease to surprise me, Charlotte; and just when I think I have you all figured out." His words were warm with affection. "So what exactly did you get up to back then?"
Charlotte smiled, relieved that he was so quickly mollified. She glanced at Coulson before replying, "I'm sorry, darling, but that's still classified."
"She's right, Mr. Adamson."
"You've got to be kidding."
"We never kid about security, sir." Coulson's lips twitched at the dumbfounded look on Methos' face. "But I will tell you that she and the team she served with were heroes."
Cheeks pink with embarrassment, she waved away his praise. "You exaggerate my part, agent; it's those I served with that were the heroes, not me."
"I respectfully disagree, ma'am; I've read your file."
"Be that as it may…." She shook her head. "Let's get back to the matter at hand, shall we?"
Coulson nodded in understanding, letting the subject drop. "We think the assassin was part of the same cell as the Ten Rings agent you killed at Stark Industries."
Sitting up straight, Charlotte blinked in shock. "Mannus was a Ten Rings agent?"
"You didn't know?" He seemed genuinely surprised.
"Of course I didn't! Does he honestly think that I wouldn't have reported it if I'd known?" she demanded.
Now it was Coulson's turn to look uncomfortable. "Director Fury," he paused, clearing his throat. "I wouldn't presume to answer for him, ma'am, but he will be relieved that he…misinterpreted the incident."
"Misinterpreted!" She took a deep breath, pushing down the anger. She and Nicholas were going to have words the next time she saw him. Then she looked at Methos, who was sitting next to her. He'd been uncharacteristically silent during her exchange with Coulson, and a suspicion began to form.
"Agent Coulson, you seemed very certain I knew; why is that?" While her question was directed at the SHIELD agent, she kept her full attention on Methos.
He looked at Methos, then back at Charlotte. "You're aware that we've had avenues into the Watcher organization in the past?"
"Yes, that's how I was recruited into the SSR; a dinner party at my grandson Kevin Tanner's home before the war." She was still watching Methos; pretty sure she already knew what had happened.
Nodding, he continued, "There was an inquiry into Mannus' Watcher file, and it was flagged since he was a person of extreme interest."
"Let me guess, no, wait, why don't you tell me, Matthew?" She stood, crossing her arms, her eyes angry. "Why don't you tell me that the search originated from my own property, from Joe Dawson's computer, and that you knew all along who and what Mannus was!"
"Charlotte, I can explain," Methos began, now standing as well.
"He was trying to protect you," Coulson interjected calmly. "The only way you could warn Stark of the danger was to tell him what you were, and he didn't trust Stark enough to let you do that. That sound about right?" he asked Methos.
Methos looked surprised all over again. Exhaling sharply, he shrugged. "Your insight is remarkable, Agent Coulson."
"You should have told me!" Charlotte said angrily.
"Hey, we've both been keeping secrets, so why don't we just call it even?" Methos snapped back.
Tony handed Ezra a scotch, a thoughtful look on his face. They'd all been interviewed by Coulson and now they waited for him to finish with Charlotte and Adamson. Even though he'd witnessed Birdie coming back to life before his eyes, he was still grappling with the reality of what his two best friends were. He scratched at his eyelid with one finger, trying to decide what to ask first. Ah, screw it. "If Birdie's like a mother to you, why the hell did you try for so long to hook us up? Makes even less sense now."
Ezra choked on his drink, looking sharply at his friend. "That's your first question?"
"Hey, I have a whole list, but this one is as good as any. So?"
Grimacing, he ran his thumb down his jaw. "Charlotte had been alone for a very long time, and I thought you'd be good for her. And you were, just not quite the way I'd anticipated," he admitted ruefully.
"Okay, I guess that's a vote of confidence. I mean, I don't think I'd want my mother involved with me." Ezra began to laugh and couldn't stop. Tony glared at him. "You know what I meant!"
"Dear God, Tony." Ezra gasped for breath. "Don't ever change."
"Whatever. Birdie said you'd been a gambler and a lawman. I don't know, I think I can see it; the whole Wild Wild West thing."
"More like Maverick."
Tony pondered, nodding. "James Garner or Roger Moore?"
"James Garner, of course," Ezra replied with a grin and a wink.
"I gotta tell you, Ez, gambler, lawman, the Old West…I'm just a little envious."
He shrugged, and then looked at his friend sidelong. "I'm assuming that she left conman off my résumé?"
"Conman? Seriously?" Tony reassessed his friend. "I always did say you were the smoothest son of a bitch I've ever met. Guess you come by that honestly, so to speak." He slapped Ezra on the shoulder.
Ezra snorted. "So to speak. You've met Maude, though granted, Maude on her best behavior. Immortals can't have children, Tony; my mother found me in an orphanage when I was two. She knew what I was going to be – we can sense the potential – and adopted me, so she could train the perfect partner, the perfect grifter. Charlotte had been Maude's teacher after she became Immortal, and Mother used her as a convenient place to dump me when she didn't want a little boy interfering in her schemes."
"That's rough, man." Tony was beginning to regret his questions. Immortality had seemed like a shiny amazing thing; he hadn't considered that with more years came more pain. "So when did you stop being a conman – assuming you have stopped," he added with a grin.
"It was—" Ezra considered, "—a process."
"I bet." He looked out at the lightening sky; it was nearly dawn. Taking a drink, he fell silent before asking, "What was Birdie like? Back then?"
A soft smile settled on Ezra's lips. "Honestly? Much as she is today; she is fiercely protective of those she loves, as I think you know. She loved me unconditionally, the good along with the bad, never judging, trusting that, in the end, I would make the right choices. She had more faith in me than I did for a very long time"
"To be loved; that's not a bad thing, is it?"
He didn't realize he'd said the words aloud till Ezra replied, "It is the one thing that truly matters in the end, Tony; the only thing."
Charlotte, her hands tight around the railing, leaned out over the bow of the ship, closing her eyes and breathing in the salt air. Maybe in her next life she would go back to sea. She missed the time spent aboard ship – some days more than others. Opening her eyes, she watched the approaching shoreline. The ocean was a quilt of colors and shapes as the depth changed, with porpoises in the distance, breaking the surface as they raced across the water.
"Couldn't sleep?" After Coulson and his team had left, they'd all decided to grab a catnap before they docked. It had been a very long night.
Looking over her shoulder at Tony, she shook her head. "It reminded me too much of dying." She didn't know if Tony would understand, but didn't know how else to explain it.
"Sometimes, just before I wake up, I think I'm back in that cave," he admitted, not looking at her.
Turning around, she held out her hand, which he took, and she squeezed it hard. "I could lie, tell you that time heals all, but it's not true. There are still moments from my life, even though they happened a century ago, that haunt my dreams."
"Thanks for that cheery thought, Birdie." He shot her a crooked smile, releasing her hand. She shrugged, smiling back, leaning against the railing, looking up at him. "Coulson called; told me Happy's going to be fine. The doctors say he wouldn't have made it without the medical attention he got here. I guess I owe Matthew one."
"Told you he was good."
"Yeah, well, it's going to take some time for me to wrap my mind around it. It's not like I ever thought Matthew and skilled surgeon at the same time."
Laughing, she said, "You've actually seen an example of his work before."
"The scar on my back."
"The one you said was from a car accident? Let me guess – no cars were involved."
"It was how we met. I'd been thrown onto a shattered mast during a storm at sea. Shards of wood were imbedded in the wound, and it became infected." Tony winced. "Matthew not only saved my life, but worked his magic to assure the scar was as minimal as possible."
"Then I owe Matthew two," he said very seriously. She looked at him suspiciously. "It would be a real crime if you couldn't wear a bikini."
"I think the world would survive," she said dryly.
He winked. "But I wouldn't."
"At least you're predictable, if nothing else."
Now he was peering at her, studying her intently. She unconsciously wiped at her face. "What?"
He shook his head. "It's nothing." But he was still staring at her.
"Tony...," she said warningly.
"Fine, okay, I have to tell you; honestly, Birdie, you don't look a day over two-hundred." Now he was grinning broadly. Before she could respond, he continued, "And you've been holding out on me! Pirate, Birdie, seriously? I always said you'd look great in a corset, but I had no idea." He waggled his eyebrows. "Did you keep a dagger in your garter?"
"Ezra has a big mouth," she grumbled. "Technically, I wasn't a pirate; I was married to one."
"A little more than just some pirate, Birdie," he objected. "Captain Jack Sparrow! Come on, he was a legend."
She raised her eyes heavenward. "So I've been told."
"My Aunt Peggy gave me a book about him when I was five. I read it over and over, even planned to run away from boarding school and become a pirate."
"Aunt Peggy? I don't ever remember you mentioning an aunt." She shouldn't ask, because she was pretty sure she knew the answer, but she couldn’t help herself.
Tony came back to the present from whatever mental adventure he was revisiting. "She was a distant relation of Dad's from England. She only visited a few times when I was small." He paused, a wistful smile on his lips. "She was also my first crush." He tilted his head, considering. "Now I think about it, you kind of remind me of her – the accent, the dark hair…the attitude."
Charlotte had never known that Peggy Carter had met Tony. She blinked back threatening tears, remembering her friend and what might have been had the war not been so cruel.
"You okay, Birdie?" He looked concerned.
"Fine, I'm fine; just thinking if I'd known you as a little boy."
Pressing his lips together, he shook his head. "Now you're just weirding me out."
"Sorry," she said unrepentantly.
"So how many times have you been married anyway?"
"More than you, less than Elizabeth Taylor," was her lightening response.
"Funny." He sounded exasperated.
"Fine, three. Happy?"
"Details?" He waved a hand at her.
She scrubbed at her face. "Tony, I promise that I'll tell you all about them one day. But not now, not today, please?" She hoped he would understand. The last twenty-four hours, hell, the last few weeks, had been traumatic enough. It was too much to delve into her past, remembering the men she'd loved, right now.
"I'm sorry." He looked abashed. "I'm a jerk."
"No, you’re not!" She grasped his arm. "Tony, you're curious, that's natural. I just need some time to get my act together."
Nodding, he kissed her forehead. Then he said, "Just one more question.'
"Can you dress like a pirate wench at your next Halloween party?"
Their mingled laughter floated out across the waves.
The black car with tinted windows pulled up next to her as she was leaving Stark Industries Manhattan offices, the door swinging open. Nick Fury's voice emanated from the interior, "Need a lift?"
She looked into the car. "Would it matter if I said 'no'?" She was still angry with her old friend.
"Come on, Charlotte; don't make me make this official."
"Would serve you right if I did," she said as she slid onto the seat next to him, pulling the door shut behind her.
"It would," he agreed, "but you wouldn't put me through that; you like me too much."
"Is that so?" She looked at him balefully, not at all appeased by his smug grin. "We are full of ourselves, aren't we?"
"I did try to apologize," he pointed out. "But you wouldn't accept my calls."
"That's what voicemail is for."
"Charlotte—" he took her hand, "—I'm sorry."
She knew he meant it, but she was still angry. No, that wasn't it, she was hurt, and that made her angry. "You should have told me about Mannus, Nicholas. It was stupid to assume I knew – you should know better! If I'd known, then maybe what happened last week wouldn't have happened. You left me out there without the information I needed to keep my friends safe. As it was, Happy almost died, but what if it hadn't been me who got in the way of that bullet? It could have been Pepper, or Tony!" She'd had all week to reflect on the cycle of events that had begun with Mannus challenging her, and damn it, Nick was going to hear her out. "I've been thinking about it; what if that assassin was in response to Mannus' death? What if this was all my fault? Ten Rings doesn't know what happened, they just know one of their operatives was killed. Or did he just disappear?"
"The latter. Charlotte, none of this was your fault, and you're right, I shouldn't have made the assumptions I did. But I warned you before that Stark had painted a target on the back of everyone close to him; this was the fallout. And it's only the first salvo." He waved her off as she began to protest. "No, Charlotte, you know it's true, you're not stupid. You need to step back and look at the reality of Stark's life as it is now. You can't protect him, he's made his choices, and you need to accept that those choices mean more violence, more attempts on his life, and more threats to the safety of those close to him – including you."
"I can take care of myself!"
"Yes, you can, and you know that's never been in dispute," he said, voice rising. Then, more gently, he continued, "But, Charlotte, you and I both know that being Immortal is no protection against the evil that's out there."
Turning her face away, she shivered, pushing back dark memories. "What is it you want, Nicholas?" she finally asked, finding her voice.
He sighed tiredly, rubbing his temple at the edge of his eye patch. "I'm not asking you to come back, I know how you feel about that, and I accept your decision. But I think the past two weeks have proven that, whether you like it or not, you are involved. I need you to keep me informed, Charlotte. This isn't just about your friendship with Stark anymore; lives are at stake."
She looked at him, nodding. "All right." He was right, as much as she hated it. She was just giving in to the inevitable.
"There's something else." It was plain that whatever it was, she wasn't going to like it any more than he was going to like telling her.
She drew back, crossing her arms. "What?"
"I've already spoken to Ezra. You can't tell Stark about your association with the SSR during the war, or with you connections to present day SHIELD."
"Now wait just a minute!" This was too much to ask. "You can't expect us to keep that from Tony!" While she and Ezra had decided to hold off on telling Tony about that aspect of their past, they'd fully intended on doing so once the idea of their immortality had settled in.
"I'm sorry, Charlotte, but that's the way it has to be, for now, at least. You're both still bound by the oath of secrecy you took," he reminded her.
"Oath? That's the way you're playing this, Nicholas?" She was furious. "After everything we've been through together, you do this? We're done here, Director Fury. Please stop the car."
Nick banged the glass between them and the driver, and the car slowed to a stop. "Charlotte, please—"
"I'll keep your secrets," she said coldly, "but nothing else. Don't ever play on our past again, because you've destroyed whatever was left of what we had then." She didn't even give him a chance to respond, practically throwing herself from the car.
She watched the car pull away, sinking onto a bench, still shaking with anger. Looking around, she realized she was in Central Park. Then her cell phone began to ring, strains of 'Turn On Your Hear Light' coming from her purse. Pulling it out, she debated answering it. With a sigh, she pressed 'accept' on the touchscreen, raising it to her ear. "Tony, I know, I'm late… Yes, I saw the pavilion for the charitable division at the Expo this morning. It's going to be spectacular…. Only another month till it opens…. It will be quite the entrance, but do you ever make any other kind…? Okay, I'll see you at the restaurant in about twenty minutes. Bye."
Ending the call, she felt a sharp sense of loss that was almost physically painful. One day, Tony would find out about her past, that she'd known his father, her association with Nick Fury, and honestly, she didn't know if their friendship could survive any more secrets. Everything had changed the day that Tony told the world he was Iron Man, but she'd never realized that the price for those changes might be more than she could bear to pay.