String of Pearls
"Need a hand?" a male voice asked from behind her.
The firewood she was carrying crashed to the floor as she whirled to face the intruder before recognition kicked in. "It's called knocking; you may have heard of it," she snapped at Nick Fury.
He just gave her an unapologetic smile as he slid further into the armchair, his long legs stretched out in front of him. "They're called security systems, Charlotte, you may have heard of them," he chided.
"Now you sound like Tony," she told him, exasperated.
"For once, I agree with Stark."
"No security system is going to stop someone intent on doing me harm."
"True, but it would give you a warning, time to mount a defense," he pointed out reasonably.
Charlotte didn't reply, bending down to pick up the strewn firewood. She'd gone round and round on the subject with Tony more times than she cared to count, and she wasn't doing it with Nicholas.
Nick sighed, getting up and gently pushing her away. "I'll get it," he said, picking up logs.
"Be my guest." She took a seat on the chesterfield in front of the fire, watching silently as he neatly stacked the wood next to the great room fireplace, picking up one piece and adding it to the already burning fire in the hearth. Before her best friend had announced to the world he was Iron Man, Charlotte hadn't seen Nicholas for more than ten years. These days, their mutual acquaintance with Tony Stark brought increasingly frequent appearances by the SHIELD director into her life. She wondered what this visit was about. When he sat down next to her, she asked, "So what brings you to my door this time, Nicholas?"
He didn't immediately answer, looking around the festively decorated room before focusing on the eight foot tall Noble fir that was the centerpiece, decorated with blown glass ornaments, the majority which were antiques. Leaning back, he looked at Charlotte. "I was listening to music, and String of Pearls came on. Do you remember that Christmas?"
Nodding, she said, "London, 1943." They had completed their mission in France and had been ordered back to London for a new assignment. But first, they'd had two weeks of R&R. Time they'd made the most of.
"That was our song."
Silence fell as both of them traveled back to a Christmas in a world torn by war, remembering both the joys and the sorrows. Sighing, Charlotte shifted so she was looking right at her old compatriot. "It was a long time ago."
"I suppose it was."
"And I'm glad you're still around to remember it with me." That was something she would have never anticipated back then; that some secret government agency would create a serum that had virtually stopped the aging process, or that Nick would take it.
"Amazing things are happening, Charlotte," he said suddenly. "This time we're living in now, we'll look back at it the way we look back at World War Two, sixty years from now. It's been like living in the middle of a maelstrom. Just like then. And back then, with you, I could be quiet, no matter what was happening around us. I wanted some quiet," he said, finally answering her question as to why he was here.
Laughing, she took his hand. "Quiet, I can give you; well, I can after the party for my staff's children this afternoon." She looked at him appraisingly. "How do you feel about red suits?"
"Oh no!" He raised his hands. "Absolutely not!"
"Where's your Christmas spirit?" she demanded. "You, Nicholas, will make a perfect representation of your namesake."
"What about this?" He pointed to his eye patch.
Without missing a beat, she grinned, telling him, "Even pirates have Santa."
"You would know," he grumbled, sounding out of sorts, but resigned to his fate.
"Come on," she wheedled, "what's a few dozen children compared with having to deal with Tony?"
"When you put it that way...fine! I'll be Santa, but if you ever tell a soul," he warned.
"My lips are sealed," she promised. "And you'll stay through Christmas." It wasn't so much a question as a directive, and he laughed.
At her enquiring look, he said, "I'd forgotten how bossy you are."
"You know what they say about people in glass houses."
Snorting, he shrugged. "Guilty as charged. I accept your gracious invitation," he said with a flourish of his hand. "Probably a good thing Stark's in the Alps this Christmas instead of spending it with you as usual."
"Aren't you remarkably well informed? she said coolly.
"Part of the gig." There was no apology in his voice. "How come? How come the Alps," he clarified at her look of confusion.
"Oh. Since this is Tony and Pepper's first Christmas together together, I strongly advised Tony make it a special one, along with a private one. It'll be just you and me."
"Ezra's grounded by bad weather in Iceland. An exotic locale for a swimsuit shoot," she explained.
"And the boyfriend?"
She looked down at her hands. "Methos is in Stockholm, last I heard. He got a call a few days ago about some ancient manuscript turning up there."
"He left you alone at Christmas for that?" he asked in disbelief.
She shook her head. "It's important to him - it's like Christmas, New Years, and the Fourth of July all in one."
"Man has a strange set of priorities, is all I'm going to say."
"Never mind; look at the bright side, you have me all to yourself," she informed him smugly.
"But I'm warning you, Nicholas, if I hear one word about joining your 'top secret boy band', you'll be getting coal in your stocking! Is that clear?"
"As crystal," he assured her. Then came a dramatic pause, before adding, "I'll wait and do the recruitment pitch after Christmas." He neatly caught the pillow Charlotte hurled at him as they began to laugh.
The party had been a huge success, and Nick had been a hit as Santa Claus, just as Charlotte knew he would be. Though he'd deny it, Nick Fury had always had a soft spot for children. They'd spent the remainder of the day reminiscing over memories they shared and she found herself enjoying the experience. She and Nick held common remembrances of friends now dead, like Rebecca and Sean, and it brought a strange sense of peace. This, after all, was what Christmas was supposed to be; friends and family, love and the bonds of friendship.
Now it was Christmas Eve, and Charlotte watched as Nick walked towards the house in the gathering dusk. He'd spent a great deal of the day walking the beach and the vineyards. When she opened the back door for him, he had a self-satisfied look on his face and a smile that clearly said, 'I have a secret'. Suspicious, she asked, "What have you been up to?"
He gave her a look of pure innocence. "Absolutely nothing."
She made a disbelieving noise, but decided to let the subject drop. "Did you have a good walk?"
"I did. And that...." he took an appreciative sniff, "smells delicious!"
"Chicken and dumplings. I seem to recall that was a favourite of yours."
Pleased, he nodded vigorously. "You remember correctly."
"It'll be ready in about an hour." She handed him a glass of wine.
"That should be perfect," came his reply, which brought the secretive smile back to his lips.
They had just seated themselves at the dining room table when she felt it, the unmistakable presence of another Immortal. A presence that soon appeared in the flesh at the doorway. "Chicken and dumplings! Why, cousin, you shouldn't have."
"Ezra?" she said disbelievingly. The smile on his face was very similar to the one that had been on Nick's. "But...how?"
Walking over to where she sat, Ezra leaned down to kiss her on the cheek. Straightening, he looked at Nick, who was obviously very pleased with himself. "It would seem that our old friend has methods of transportation that are not bound by the same constraints as those of commercial air travel."
"Merry Christmas, Charlotte," Nick said warmly. "I didn't want to get you just any old thing."
Now on her feet, Charlotte walked around the table to give Nick a fierce hug, before turning to Ezra, reaching up to stroke his cheek. "He's the perfect gift."
Dinner over, they were now gathered in the great room, where Nick and Ezra were engaged in a game of cards, and Charlotte was knitting, contentedly rocking in front of the fire. When the doorbell rang, she shot a look at Nick.
"Don't look at me."
"I'll be right back," she said.
Walking towards the front door, she wondered who it could be calling at this hour on Christmas Eve. For the second time of the night, she was left speechless as she pulled open the door.
"Merry Christmas, Birdie!" Tony Stark exclaimed, his arm around Pepper, both them looking extremely happy.
"Tony, Virginia, what are you doing here? I mean, the Alps, romantic holiday alone...." she trailed off as she ushered them into the foyer.
"We had a great week," Pepper said.
"A really good week," Tony waggled is eyebrows, "if you know what I mean."
Both women ignored him.
"The setting was beautiful," Pepper continued. "The peace and quiet was wonderful, but..."
"We were bored," Tony picked up, and Pepper nodded. "And we missed home, because that's where you're supposed to be at Christmas." He put his free arm around Charlotte's shoulders. "And I never even liked Christmas before I met you; well, other than all those drunk supermodels at holiday parties."
"Yes, other than those," Pepper said, rolling her eyes.
Tony flashed Pepper an unrepentant grin. "And so Pepper and I decided that Christmas should be spent with family. Guess you're stuck with us, Birdie."
"I wouldn't have it any other way." Charlotte leaned up to kiss Tony on the cheek and he squeezed her shoulders. "Come on in - you're just in time for pie."
Charlotte stood on the cliff edge, looking up at the moon. It was late, a few hours after midnight. Tony, Ezra, and Nick were playing poker and Pepper had gone to bed. She'd come outside to call Methos, but he hadn't answered his cell. A little sad, she'd decided to take a walk and had ended up here, above the ocean, like she always did. Shivering, she looked at the lit face of her cell phone, surprised at how long she'd been out here; she'd totally lost track of the time. Holding the phone in her hand, she debated calling Methos again, but shook her head, dropping it back in her pocket. He'd call her back when he was able.
As she headed back to the house, another Immortal presence intruded upon her solitude. Probably Ezra, but Charlotte had learned from bitter experience never to assume. She held her ground, waiting for her visitor to make an appearance.
It seemed as if Christmas had one more surprise in store for her as a figure approached, a figure that wasn't Ezra. It was a shape she'd recognize anywhere. She started to walk towards him, her walk turning into a run. She didn't say anything as Methos took her in his arms, holding her close.
"Thought I'd return your call in person," he said at her ear.
"I appreciate the personal touch," she replied, kissing him. "You were supposed to be in Stockholm."
"Yeah, about that, Charlotte, I'm sorry. I can get a little carried away sometimes."
"It doesn't matter, you're here now."
"And I come bearing gifts." He pulled something from his coat pocket, holding it front of her. "The pearls are new, but the clasp is considerably older than you are," he said, grinning, placing the strand of pearls over her head. "I saw them, and it reminded me of the first Christmas present I ever gave you."
"A single black pearl on a gold chain." She smiled softly. "Jack was incredibly annoyed he hadn't thought of it first."
"It reminded me about where I should be, and it wasn't Sweden." He stroked her hair. "Merry Christmas, Charlotte."
"Merry Christmas, Methos."