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Lost & Found

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INNOCENCE LOST

Oakland, California, 1989

He had come home saddened by a neighborhood boy making fun of his mother’s death. When he had told his dad about it Dad had looked at him with a sad look in his eyes, but immediately grabbed both of his hands. He used his thumbs to rub soothing circles while he talked. “Son there are people who hate and they teach their own to hate. To hate people who aren’t like them, who don’t look like them, talk like them or act like them. They’ll try to break you, never let them. Your mom didn’t either.”

“He said she wouldn’t have died if she stayed in the kitchen where she belonged,” he whispered. His father pulled him closer.

“He’s wrong. Your mother wanted to be in the world and help our people, but there are people who disagree with that. Do you agree?”

“No Baba. Was Mama happy?” he asked. His father smiled. “Yes. More than she would ever have been in the kitchen. That woman was a terrible cook. One time she made meat pie and me and your uncle got food poisoning.”

“Your food is delicious, Baba,” the boy said reassuringly.

“Thank you son.” He let go and stroked his cheek. The boy leaned into it.

“Do you want to help me make some jollof?”

“Yes,” the boy said happily.

That’s how James had found them in the kitchen singing “Love Me in A Special Way”.

 

 

Oakland, California, 1992

The boy had often heard this before, but it wasn’t until he really felt it that he understood.

It was a warm night. Cloudy and just slightly sticky, but maybe that was just due to the basketball they were playing.

The boy was distracted, but that was ordinary. He was rather silent and awkward even one might say. He didn’t have a way with words even though he knew many for his age, but he wasn’t one to brag about that. So the children around him alternated between making jokes at his expense, including him in their games and sometimes just letting him be.

It didn’t bother him too much. His father reminded him that people were different, but where there was love, they were all welcomed. And in his home there was love. Plenty of love and affection. His father was so patient with him and answered every question with mirth and pride. He hugged him when he did well in school and stroked his cheek when he didn’t. Erik loved his home. Between his father and his uncle James he’d always end up feeling okay.

The ball hit him and brought him back to the present. He tried to concentrate on the game when a strange blue light drew his eye. His heart started beating faster. Maybe today was the day, he thought as he recognized the engine as Wakandan. It looked exactly like the designs his father had showed him many times before. Then he noticed that it wasn’t coming closer but disappearing; as quickly as it had appeared it was gone.

He was moving and before he really knew what he was doing he was on the stair case. He was breathless. The steps felt endless.

His father wouldn’t leave. He couldn’t leave. Why would he leave? Without him? No. He refused to believe that his father would return to Wakanda without him. His father loved him. He wasn’t a burden to his father. He remembered the promise. He promised to show him the stars in Wakanda, the forest the jungle and most of all the sunset.

He looked around and realized he had come up to the sixth floor already. Behind him he could hear some of the boys from the playground running after him and shouting his name. He hadn’t heard them before with the sound of blood rushing through his veins.

Calming down he turned right. He could see his apartment door now. A shimmer of light was peeking through the slightly opened door. He frowned, because the door was never open. His father had always been very disappointed when he accidentally forgot to close it.

He walked in and his knees gave out. He was screaming his father’s name, but he remained lying there unmoving.

“Baba wake up. Dad please…BABA PLEASE,” he begged. He crawled until he reached his father’s body and cradled his head in his lap. He was crying and rocking, back and forth; rocking his father in his arms like Baba used to do for him when he got upset.

 

He wasn’t alone in the room now but it felt like he was. He was choking on the despair and pain he felt. Someone tried to tear him away from the body, but he wrenched himself free.

“I want…,” his voice broke and came out small so he tried again “I wan’t my uncle James.” He started sobbing again and didn’t wait for an answer. He’d stay with his father and wait for his uncle. So he waited.

Everyone dies. That’s just how it is around here.”

 

 

Oakland Police Department, 1992

Must be comfortable sitting up here.

The boy hadn’t ever really felt envy in this way. He envied certain traits he had seen in other people, but he never envied the lives they lead. He never had any reason to. Sure he didn’t have many friends or talked much, but his father and uncle were more than enough.

Truly if there was anything better than his uncle James’ Sunday Evening Brownies with cookie dough ice cream he hadn’t found it yet. If there was anything as good as singing “Ain’t No Mountain” with his father, while standing in the kitchen making hot stew on a cold Thursday afternoon, well he hadn’t felt it yet. Sure his life hadn’t been easy, but it had still been good.

These however are not his thoughts at the moment.

He’s sitting at the police station a couple of blocks away from the apartment building they lived in. It’s late and nearly empty and he’s been sitting there for hours. His uncle seems to be nowhere to be found. His world is breaking apart all around him while the few workers left get ready for a shift change.

He’s trying to calm down; has been for hours. He’s trying to be strong; to be a good boy, while slowly going through a small pack of Kleenex, given to him by one of the officers. He wrings his hands trying to hold them as his father would have as some memories come back to him. He sobbed as they kept fading away. He desperately tried to hold on to them, but reality was setting back in so hard.

His father was dead and Uncle James hadn’t been found yet. 

A woman appeared in front of him. She was wearing a grey suit and a yellow blouse. Her hair was big and poufy though she was rather short. She had pale skin that almost glimmered blue under the harsh lights. Thin lips stretched into a smile that instinctively made the boy want to take a step back. He leaned away.

“Erik Stevens?” she asked; her voice high and invasive.

“Yes Ma’am,” he whispered.

“I’m Cindy Baker with Child Protective Services and I’m here to take you in for the night. Please come with me.”

His eyes grew wide. He’d heard the horror stories about what happens to kids taken by Child Protective Services. “No I’m waiting for my uncle,” he said and he grabbed the chair he was sitting on as hard as he could.

“You lot are all the same. Listen boy even if your uncle ever comes back to get you I will have to sign off on that. If you want me to sign anything you’ll behave and come with me now,” she said while slowly stepping closer in a threatening manner.

He let go of the chair reluctantly but eventually nodded.

“See wasn’t so hard. Even you can do it,” she said and walked towards the front desk. The boy got up and followed her.

Erik doesn’t know how he got here or how it was even possible that he is here; watching his younger self walk away behind that cracker bitch.

The image freezes suddenly and a woman appears.

She is tall and wearing a leopard suit not unlike the one he had briefly worn, but the leopard pattern is more visible and there is gold glimmering underneath. He admires her for a moment. The swell of her breast the curve of her stomach and the way her hips move when she walks. Her dreads are longer than his and golden towards the tips. She’s decorated them with different colored stones. He digs her style.

“If I had known death looked this good I wouldn’t have fought it this hard,” Erik says.

The woman rolls her eyes. “I am not death N’Jadaka.”

Erik looks her in the eyes. “No? Then who are you and what d’you want?”

“The Black Panther opened the door to this plane, to the ones who have studied it and know the walls have become thin,” she explains. He makes a gesture for her to continue. “If you wish, you’d be able to return.”

“And why would you wanna help me with that?” he asks.

“As a war dog I saw many crimes. I reported them to my King, but he never intervened. Wakanda isolated itself to protect itself, but protection became inaction. Wakanda’s privilege affords us neither the sight nor knowledge needed to properly help the way we should. You do not possess the same shortcomings.  The Black Panther now thinks a scientific outreach would help, but we both know better.”

“A scientific outreach? Nigga what?” Erik asks incredulous. The woman throws him a sharp look.

“Agreed. Wakanda has been isolated too long. Then again so have you N’Jadaka. Too long have you been away from Wakanda,” she says and changes to Xhosa, “You’ve lost the way of N’Jobu.”

“They took him from me!” Erik yells as anger flares up in him again. The woman doesn’t flinch.

“There’s a part of him in you, but you gave it away,” she says. “Face yourself and you may return… if you wish,” she says pointing at the boy.  Erik looks at his younger self. He had buried most of these memories of his childhood and of the past. Some of them so deep, not even the nightmares could reach him in life.

“Ain’t got any other plans. Let’s do this shit,” he says turning back to the woman. “Scientific outreach? He got jokes.”

She draws up her left brow and conjures a staff which she hits against the ground. A light explodes that erases the image before them. Then everything turns black.

Chapter Text

Erik opened his eyes; he was leaning against a tree. His body buried in soil up to his hips. He recognized the red color of the ceremonial soil he had been buried in after taking the Heart Shaped herb. All of that simultaneously felt like a distant and recent memory. He shook his head to clear it and noticed that the woman was standing next to him; she made no move to help him up. He moved to get himself out of the soil only to realize he was naked. When he stood up the soil slid off of him completely.

He squared his shoulders and crossed his hands in front of his crotch. “You bring clothes? Or are you paying me for the show?” Erik asked as she turned to him. She looked him straight in the eye, her smile sharp and cunning in a manner that rivaled even his. “There are things you aren’t ready for N’Jadaka.”

“Yeah? Ain’t seen ‘em yet,” Erik replied.

“Big words for a dead man,” she retorted.

“Not for long,” he said. She touched her staff to his shoulder. “We shall see.”

Colors started pouring out of the staff onto his body, twirling and wrapping around him until they had covered him fully. They took form and gently slid over him before transforming into a dark green Henely and green and blue camo pants.

He took that moment to finally take in his surroundings and noticed that he was in a jungle. Part of it seemed familiar, yet somehow he couldn’t really place it. She pointed her staff in the direction behind him so he followed it with his eyes. In the distance he could make out a temple with a giant panther statue in front of it.

Wakanda, he thought.

“Find the panther and it will guide you,” she said.

Erik frowned. “That’s all you’re gon say?”

“That is all you need,” she said and raised a brow, “unless you wish to return?”

He chuckled to himself. “Find the panther? Shit. I can do that.”

She smiled and with another hit of her staff on the ground she was gone. He kissed his teeth and looked around nearby. He surprisingly found a pack filled with tools and necessities. It reminded him of basic training. The thought almost brought a smile to his lips. Instead he slung the pack over his right shoulder and started towards the temple.

 

The jungle was thicker and more unruly than it looked from where he had started out. He had to use the machete in the pack to cut through the tall grass and bushes, multiple swings, over and over. He was sweating and coming to the realization that it was not going to be as straight forward as it seemed. The brush was unruly and he had lost his path multiple times. The temple was getting closer but he wasn’t even halfway there. Suddenly he started hearing a knocking sound. He looked around and tried to find the source. It didn’t sound like any wild animal he knew to look out for. He was sure there were panthers in the Wakandan jungle, but they we’re not going to knock before they attacked. As suddenly as the sound came it stopped.

He waited for a moment making sure it didn’t start again before continuing his trek. It started with his feet. He felt his socks rub under the soles of his feet with every step. It irritated him and he gritted his teeth, but it didn’t deter him. Then every movement felt like a hurricane with the way the air currents where hitting his skin. He also started to feel his pants rubbing between his thighs while the sweat that formed at his back felt like a waterfall cascading down his spine. He stopped again to breathe through it. Well, at least he tried to before his sense of smell kicked in. The sickly sweet smell of wild flowers, the deep earthy tang of soil and the sharp woody scent of the trees were the pleasant ones. They were so intense he could almost taste them. He tried covering his nose with his hand, but he only succeeded in smelling himself and what must have been the ritual soil he had been partially covered in.

There was a loud crack and a caw that caught his attention, but no bird was flying anywhere close to him or overhead. Instead there was a bird flying far ahead disappearing into the horizon.

The sensations were keeping his body alert and he felt signs of distress, but those just added new sensations that where overwhelming his brain. He could see the edges of his sight turning dark and he was feeling lightheaded. He refused to faint, but he couldn’t fight it for long and the darkness overtook him.

 

When he came to he was annoyed and quickly venturing on toward pissed. Shit what was he even really doing? A chick with a stick appears and shows him his old apartment and he’s just gonna trek through the jungle to “find the panther”?

“YO! Leopard print girl! Where you at?” he shouted. Nothing, no answer. “You owe me a damn explanation. Find the panther my ass! What did you do to me?” He seethed. “Aye bitch who the fuck do you think you are? You better pray you don’t see me again, bitch! I’m outta here! Fuck you and that panther!”

He didn’t know exactly how he’d get out, but he would find a way, just as he always did.

He was moving on, but he was tired now. Whatever had happened to make him faint had drained him, but he’d be damned if he was going to top now. The sun was still up and he had a clear enough view of the area. Suddenly he heard a splash. The further he walked the louder it became so he stopped to make sure he wasn’t just hearing things again as the splashing continued. This invigorated him and his steps became firm and strong. He followed the sound and came to a ravine. Just a couple of feet below him water rushed along. He smiled to himself remembering his father telling him about the holy rivers of the Wakandan jungle. They all eventually led to the big river of the Water Tribe. He had found his way out of here!

He looked around and dug his machete out, because building a simple raft and letting the river get him to his destination was easier than walking there. The river stretched ahead and he couldn’t make out any city lights, which told him that he had to be deep in the jungle. So drifting was his best option for now.

It took him a while, but he managed to build a functioning raft. He had to use some spare rope to tie the raft to a tree while he climbed on it. When he had made sure he was securely standing on the raft he cut the rope and the current carried him onward. Sure he was tired and the thought of sitting was tempting but he decided to remain standing to stay alert.

The river curved left and increased in width after what must have been a mile or two. He was too tired to really pay attention; though maybe he should have been because he got caught in a whirlpool. The raft started accelerated toward the spinning vortex and he leaned forward to regain balance, but then the back tipped and he stepped back a little too hard. He was caught in the moment bracing himself for impact. Luckily it didn’t come. The raft shook and he had to quickly push it to the right while the water splashed around him. That untangled it from the currents and it slowly evened again and drifted in the right direction again. He sighed as he watched the river lose its width again.

For quite some time nothing happened he just drifted along with the sun in his face, but then something drew his eye to the right. It took him a moment to recognize exactly what it was. He was slowly drifting towards what he recognized as the same tree and the rope he had used to tie up the raft. He somehow ended up back where he started.

Shit, he wasn’t in Wakanda! He was still in the Land of The Dead, he thought. The Lady was a bitch, but a clever one he had to admit. He felt suddenly lightheaded at the realization. Maybe it was time to find a place to rest.

He steered the raft towards the edge and got off. There wasn’t much on the ground to work with, so he decides that sleeping in a tree might be safest once he found a sturdy one. The one he selects, its branches were thick and interwoven with another tree. He climbed up after setting small traps that would alert him if anything got too close. He secured himself with some rope after getting comfortable and closed his eyes to let sleep wash over him.

Chapter Text

When he woke up it was dark for a moment. A sudden heavy weight on his chest had roused him. The darkness roared at him and he was startled awake. It was a panther! He pulled the slip on the rope around his waist and jumped, but couldn’t get a proper grip and it slipped through his palms, burning his hands. He grunted in pain, but held on until he arrested his momentum enough to jump to the ground safely. When he turned around the panther was behind him, he pulled out a knife and fell into a defensive stance. The panther grew, its fur faded away until a woman stood in front of him. She was old and her hair grey. She had it tied into multiple knots and her green robes with their tree prints had been tied in an old fashioned way.

“I could have killed you,” he said but didn’t change his posture. She laughed and replied in Xhosa: “But I am already dead, N’Jadaka.”

“How do you know my name? Are you working with that bitch with the staff?” he asked.

“The Madame has her own plans. I came, because you called me,” she said patiently.

“I didn’t ask for you granny,” Erik replied. She drew her brow up in a way that was strangely familiar. “I am not that young my boy. If you know the way then I will leave you to it.”

He looked around. He couldn’t see the temple anymore. “So you’re gonna tell me just like that?”

“The one who is in the way is you. Why do you fight the Panther?” she asked.

“What Panther?” he asked.

“Yours. You are the Black Panther, why do you fight it?”

Erik’s eyes widened. He assumed that death was the end to his powers, but if his powers had never been stripped away then that was what was happening to him before. When the overstimulation happened in Wakanda he found out that the suit suppressed the overwhelming effects of the herb at will, but he didn’t have the suit or kimoyo beads anymore.

“The powers. How do I control them?” He wanted to know.

She shrugged. “You don’t.”

He rolled his eyes. That was the last damn straw. These Wakandan bitches were getting on his last nerve. “One of y’all is gonna have to give me an answer.”

He took his knife and went to grab her, but she ducked out of the way and tripped him. She quickly stepped on his hand and kicked his shoulder.

“N’Jadaka,” she said with a soft chiding tone one would give a child. “This is the land of your ancestors. We all carry the Panther in us. You are at least a hundred years too young to think you can surprise me with a knife.”

She stepped back and let him get up. Everything about her was so strangely familiar and it created an emotion in him that he hadn’t let himself feel in a long time.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Akiko warrior of the Boarder Tribe,” she crossed her arms in typical Wakandan fashion.

“Why are you here?”

“When your cousin arrived here and accused us of wrong doings it split us. There were ones that agreed, that closing the boarders for so long was wrong and there were ones who didn’t. I was reminded of one of my biggest regrets as the King’s daughter and Black Panther,” she said.

Erik sighed. “And that is?”

“For some time Wakanda did harbored refugees,” she said.

“They did?” Erik asked mostly out of surprise.

“Both my sister and I carried the moniker of the Panther. We would find refugees at the border of the jungle and safely escort them to the camp in the border tribe. That night I was taking care of the newcomers inside of Wakanda, when we got a distress call. We didn’t have those handy beads at the time so by the time we got there the whole team had been poisoned and killed. My father closed the borders off completely and when I was to become queen, Etika of the water tribe beat me knowing I’d planned to open the borders again. I should have challenged my father, but at the time the thought of losing him as well was unbearable to me.”

“So that’s it? You just watched?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said shamefully.

“So every one of you clowns watched thousands of people die, watched them get carried away in SHACKLES! Y’all just sat there and did NOTHING!” Erik yelled.

“It is my biggest regret for a reason, but what about you? I did not do enough, but did you, N’Jadaka? Those scars on your body tell their own story. The most loyal of the Dora Milaje turned against you. We did not help out people as we should have, but we are not the cause of their suffering either. So what will you do? Who do you even really care for? I watched you kill your lover. I watched as you slaughtered people you claim to be your brothers and sisters. You showed no mercy. You were not ready to plant new seeds, but were so insistent to burn the world down. But tell me, what will the “tomorrow” you are trying to bring them look like now that you are a dead man?” she asked her chest heaving.

Erik blinked as the words registered. For the first time since he had died he became aware that he was dead. He was dead. All his efforts, everything he had built and worked toward had died with him. The person who rose from the ashes, the one that had burned down the life of the little boy he used to be was gone. The training, the killing, the pain, he had bet it all on one card and lost.

Were they not still being oppressed? Was their self-esteem and self-worth not torn from them? Their culture consumed excessively and appropriated, yet belittled? Where black children not still going missing under the cops’ noses? Weren’t the pigs still shooting them in the streets?

He had been so focused on changing everything and now he had nothing to show for it. 

“Will you return and repeat the same path?” she asked calmly now. Erik couldn’t form words. It was like she hit all his pain points and reduced him to nothing but the little boy rocking the body of his father back and forth. He managed to avenge his father, but he wasn’t even sure now if that is what his father would have wanted. He couldn’t continue down the same path. The answer was no. He shook his head.

“Do you still wish to return?” she asked. He took a deep, shaky breath. “Yes.”

“Then let the Panther in,” she said and touched his cheek tenderly. His body felt like it was going to explode and he felt everything at once. It was so intense he had to close his eyes.

“Breathe through it,” she said. She was next to him and her voice sounded so loud. He was breathing, but it felt like his lungs weren’t filling up.

“Give up control. Trust your body to know what to do.”

He noticed that all of his muscles were clenched and he slowly tried to unclench them. The sounds of the jungle started receding, then his skin stopped tingling and the smells faded away. When he finally opened his eyes they were more focused, but not overwhelmingly so. He sighed in relief.

“The Panther is not to be controlled. Allow the powers to guide you. Trust your body and where it takes you,” she said then moved to punch him, before he knew it he dodged her hit. “Just like that.”

She put some weight into her next punches and kicks and Erik managed to dodge them all. This reminded him of a dance. She didn’t want to hurt him, but seemed to be playing with him. He hadn’t had a fight this inconsequential yet challenging in a long time. She was blocking his attempts with ease. Her small body moving fast and fluently; she was slightly tapping the parts of his body that he left open when she broke through his defenses. Erik then adjusted his posture accordingly. This, he realized, was the most fun he had had in a long time. She grabbed both his hands and bowed to him to signify the end of their little game.

“Thank you for entertaining an old lady, but it is time for you to move on.”

This saddened him though he couldn’t explain why. He didn’t want to leave her. “How will I get to the temple?” He didn’t know how to put what he was feeling into words.

“Why walk on the ground when you can walk above it?” she offers pointing to the tree tops. Then she turned back into a panther and started climbing up. Erik climbed after her. She was fast and quickly running over barks moving between treetops, climbing higher and then lower again. Erik ran after her, his body stretching and curving in ways he hadn’t thought it could before; feet and hands always securely landing on branches. In no time the tree gave way to ruins. The temple was broken down and only the Panther statue remained. It was atop a rock and broken stairs lead up to them. Luckily they weren’t too broken. Akiko turned back to her human form.

“This is where our paths part again, N’Jadaka,” she said as his name rolled out of her mouth with affection and warmth. “I will be watching you and I will be here when you return. Maybe in a hundred years you will learn to beat me.”

Erik allowed a small genuine smile to grace his face as he watched her disappear into the jungle.

He started his climb of the stairs and got to the statue. It was a panther with its mouth open; frozen in an eternal roar. Slowly Erik got closer and carefully touched it. It started shaking and the stone crumbled to reveal an actual panther.

Close your eyes N’Jadaka,” it said. Its voice so deep it shook him to his core. He just obeyed. The panther approached him slowly and took him into its mouth. It was a careful hold, but Erik still had to do his best not to react.

Keep your eyes closed no matter what. The consequences are far worse than death.” This time the voice was in his head. It felt like his brain was getting crushed so he just stayed where he was. The panther jumped and stated running at an almost unbearable speed. Erik was curious, but he kept his eyes closed as lights rushed behind his eyelids, until they came to a stop. The panther put him down.

You may now open your eyes.” As he peeked his eyes open, he realized he was now laying on something like glass and far beneath them was a city. He recognized the city’s layout and the giant patch of vegetation and trees as Central Park. It was New York City.

 When he turned around the panther was gone instead the bitch with the staff was standing there. He wanted to pull his knife out but it was gone.

“Such an ungrateful man,” she uttered holding his knife. “Did I not offer you to walk amongst the living? Did I not bring you to your ancestor? And now you are going to New York City, but you want to kill me?”

“You didn’t make your intentions clear,” Erik grunted.

“Oh, like you did with Evelyn? Did she know you were going to Wakanda alone?” she asked and a memory flashed in front of his eyes.

They were laying naked in the bath tub. This was back in Busan, before they were going to break out Klaue.

“Babe you good?” she asked. Erik frowned. “Yeah we’re close.”

“Don’t worry I got you. We’re a team. We stand together we fall together,” she said and looked at him with determined and earnest eyes.

He kissed her cheek. “Thanks babe.”

The next day he shot her in the face and left her in that air field.

“Five years of loyalty and you shot her without hesitation. Which bump is she? The one on her lower back?” the woman asked.

Erik gritted his teeth, but he had nothing to say for himself. There was no excuse. He didn’t hesitate killing Evelyn because he had figured her sacrifice was going to be worth it. He had been so sure that he was going to reign in a new era. A small price to pay is what he thought at the time. Standing here now, looking back on his decision and its consequence sat heavy on him.

“If you wish to return you have to face these truths and you will have to find a way to move forward. Finding a new path.”

“How do I know your intentions?” he asked.

“I believe there are people who could need you. I believe there are people you could need. Whether or not you believe me is up to you. I just need to know if you wish to continue,” she said.

Erik took a moment to think about it. What did “find a new path mean”? He didn’t know, but he couldn’t return to the Land of The Death with the knowledge that his life had amounted to nothing. He wanted to at least do something. Yeah, he had to do this. He wanted and needed too. For a moment he almost felt like he could see his father and Akiko smile at that.

“Yes,” he said firmly.

“Then welcome to New York. No worries I made sure you’ll blend in with the locals,” she said and winked.

Erik experienced a quick falling sensation. When he felt the ground under his feet he looked around and saw that he was at the corner of 42nd Street and Park Avenue. She really dumped him at Grand Central Station. He looked down and saw that he was wearing Timberlands.

Erik rolled his eyes. She really thought she was funny didn’t she? He thought to himself as he started walking. Not too far from here was a safe house they’d work out of for Black Ops missions in the area. From there he could think of what to do next.

 

Chapter Text

Harlem, New York 1992

Gunshots weren’t necessarily commonplace, but they weren’t a rarity. So when the siblings heard them they already knew what to do. They were inside the church and unless the gunshots came closer they knew they’d have to stay where they are. They waited for more shots but they never came.

After a while they decided to go back to playing Uno. Their dad had told them to wait while he attended to some business. Paul Wilson often had some business to take care of.

His church was a loving and giving one. Even when the youth began to turn away from the church, they were still invited to the Saturday and Sunday breakfast. People of all faiths were. Someone had to keep the children fed on the weekends. During the holidays they opened daily and during the cold, winter nights it was warmer than the streets.

Paul Wilson could not save everybody, but he’d die trying.

 

Inside the church the light was fading as the summer sun finally set. Sam’s brother, Gideon, excused himself for a moment. The look on his face was one of bewilderment. Sam would definitely peek at his cards while he was gone and Sarah would make sure Gideon wouldn’t surprise him while he did. They got away with it even though they started giggling guiltily when Gideon returned.

Gideon however ignored them and went to the phone at the back of the office. He dialed their land line at home. It took a while until someone picked up. Gideon talked to their mother in hushed tones and then ended the call.

“Where is Dad Gideon?” Sarah asked.

“Mom is looking for him. You know him, sometimes he just forgets what time it is. Let’s just get back to the game,” Gideon said, but the mood of the night had changed. Gideon was distracted and kept looking at the phone. Sam was happy, he finally won, but the nervousness of Gideon’s actions infected him.

“Where’s Dad? I wanna go home,” Sam said. Gideon looked at him. “I don’t know.”

In that moment the door opened and Aunt Benita, one of the church elders, came in.

“Hey children. I’m supposed to drive you home. Your mom will explain everything,” she said. They packed their game up and followed her.

Sometimes thinking back Sam felt like that car existed in another plane, because the minutes had felt impossibly long, while they waited to find out what was going on. Sarah held his hand as he tried to shake his nerves. He gave her a thankful smile. That’s how he held it together until they got to the front porch.

The door opened and Sam’s world fell apart. His mother’s eyes were red and tears were streaming down her face. His father wasn’t there and he understood. He wasn’t the first one in the neighborhood to lose his father.

They immediately fell into each other; crying and trying to console each other at the same time.

“It will…it will be alright,” his mother said while crying hysterically the words loud and yet drowned by their crying.

The Wilson’s slowly broke apart in each other’s arms.

 

                                                                *                            *                            *

Harlem, New York, Present Day

Sam’s alarm clock went off at 6:45 in the morning. His eyes opened and he felt around for the mute button. He gave himself just a few breaths before getting up to turn on the light by his bed. He reached in to the drawer of his nightstand and dug out his dream diary. He found the current week and looked at his entries. It had been a good week only two nightmares and today he had woken from a dreamless sleep. Content, he made the entry and put the diary back. He got up off the bed and got ready for his daily training. Sam mixed himself one of those Wakandan health shakes Shuri had him on and got on the treadmill. Back in DC he had loved running and watching the sunrise, but his life wasn’t as anonymous anymore. In general he wasn’t the person he had been in DC. The last few years and everything that had happened since he met Steve while running had changed him.

He really had tried to get back out there and try a couple of routes, but at home was where he was most comfortable now. He ran for an hour and then he was off to properly eat breakfast. It was a little after 8 A.M. by now and he dug out his phone to call his mother.

“Sammy?” she asked.

“Yes Ma, how are you today?” he asked her.

“Oh Sammy I’m good. I have a feeling things are about to change for the better.” He could hear her smile in her words. She sounded a little bit sleepy.

“Really Ma? That would be nice,” Sam replied. “Did you sleep enough?”

“Yeah don’t worry I just woke up,” she answered.

“Okay get some food in you alright? I’m meeting the team in an hour, but I’ll swing by afterwards and we can have dinner. I bet Sarah and the kids would be happy to visit too,” Sam suggested.

“You know I’m always happy to see you,” she said with a warm tone. It brought a smile to Sam’s face. “And we love coming to see you. I gotta go, but I promise to call you later. Love you Ma, bye.”

“Love you too, baby,” she said and hung up.

Sam got into the bathroom to take a shower. He examined the mirror and found a face staring back that he hadn’t seen in a long time. He looked good. He looked awake and refreshed. Some would say extremely good. The thought brought a small smile to his face. There was a bounce in his steps now and a swing in his hips. He was feeling himself so why not. He put on some tighter fitting clothes than he would usually go for and left the house.

Today he decided to use his car. Sometimes he walked, because it wasn’t too far, but this was an early meeting so he decided to be timely.

The Harlem First Response Center was a small facility built where Pop’s Barbershop had been. Claire had come up with the idea when Sam had first approached them about the project. The global First Response program had only been up for a couple of months when aliens landed in New York. The First Response Centers of New York were in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The aliens had started on the Upper West side then moved on to Harlem. They destroyed livelihoods. The government rebuilt the Upper West side, before they even set foot in Harlem.

There had been protests and marches, by then Sam could not sit back and watch. He gathered all the black heroes he knew of and started crowd funding the campaign to get the project started.

A month in, the government finally decided to “pitch in”. Or that was how the new gentrified newspapers liked to report it happened once they got around to actually doing their jobs properly. Sam had refused to give interviews. There honestly wasn’t anything new to say. The world hadn’t changed he knew that. It had just started to show its true colors again, but he’d be damned if he took it lying down, he decided.

So he had asked Claire and Luke to help him come to a resolution. They had introduced him to Misty and Monica. Together they had trained a team of responders and formed the “Black Ops” since the Media had tried to dub them The Black Avengers. They all decided to respond to that lazy nickname with their own.

Fury oversaw the political side of both the Avengers and Black Ops. The Avengers where currently being led by Hope van Dyne, while Sam led Black Ops for now. Between them, the X-Men, The Defenders, the Wakandans and S.H.I.E.L.D.; they were covering more bases than they had before. Even though the onslaught of political and social pushback became overwhelming from time to time, there was barely anything that felt as good as stepping into the office.

The first floor, which was also the top floor, was the reception. The entire décor was a pale blue and white. It looked modern and sleek, but in a welcoming way. Terrance and Layla were sitting at the front desk. They smiled when they saw him.

“Hello Mr. Wilson. You look good today,” Terrance said. Sam preened, but drew up a brow playfully. "Only today?”

“Of course not. Tony Stark is in the building,” Terrance said. Sam’s playful demeanor fell off and he sighed.

“Thanks for the warning,” he said.

“Mr. Rhodes and he are talking in the conference room,” Layla added.

“Okay,” he said and nodded them a small goodbye before he got on the elevator. He took a deep breath before pressing the button to take him down to the conference room on level four. When he arrived, he stepped off. There was a long hall where personal offices branched off and at the very end of the hall was their official conference room.

When he got to it he put his hand on the scanner and the doors slid open.

“Hey Rhodey, Mr. Stark,” Sam said when he spotted them talking intimately. Well as intimately as you could with two guards constantly at your side.

“Hey Sam,” Rhodey smiled when he saw him.

“Hello Mr. Wilson,” Tony replied in the careful way he spoke to him nowadays. He turned back to Rhodey and whispered something.

“Call me if you want to talk about this,” Tony said. Rhodey nodded. Tony turned around and walked out of the door his guards following him. The sliding door shut and they both released a sigh.

“So he’s really pushing that house arrest huh?” Sam asked.

“Apparently. Are you okay?” Rhodey asked.

“It’s hard seeing him, not gonna lie about that, but I’m not gonna let that ruin my day,” Sam answered. Things with Tony where tense to say the least.

It had started two years ago when they had been officially welcomed back. Sam had been staying with his mother, whom he had been longing to see for a year at that point. He had sat down with his family. They all had been shells of themselves back then. Teary and dead eyed he sat in his mother’s kitchen with Sarah, Thomas and his mother. He kept apologizing while his family held him and they consoled each other.

T’Challa had approached him a couple of days later and presented him with the case. T’Challa had gathered evidence of wrongdoing and had offered to pay for a lawyer if Sam wanted to sue. Sam hadn’t really trusted his intentions. After hearing that Wakanda was interested in a different approach than the Accords suggested he changed his mind. Wanda and Scott joined the lawsuit. Clint asked to be left out and not to be contacted in the future for any Avengers related business.

The trial had been long and ugly. His family had to watch him get tortured, verbally and emotionally. During the trial, the footage of Tony shooting Sam, visiting him on The Raft and fighting Bucky was revealed. Maybe for the first time Sam saw the role that Tony played in all of this. He had known about this and had shown no initiative to help. When Sam’s lawyer interrogated Tony about this, the silence was telling. Tony ended up with negligence charges and was put under house arrest. He was to be monitored constantly and was only allowed to move within a certain radius. Thaddeus Ross got a long list of charges and went to prison for life.

The Accords where worked over and the First Response systems where implemented. The Avengers and any other super powered being was to work under and in cooperation with local oversight.

It was not a perfect system especially in countries with political instability. There was also word of corruption festering in some places but this way the local government could direct in which way powered beings navigated through their country or city.

That was the good thing to come out of it, but Sam had become neglectful of himself in the months of his trial. When it was over he was thin and his eyes hollow. He’d spent weeks in bed. When he woke up from a nightmare he would find his mother either asleep kneeling at the foot of his bed or crying. They were falling into an endless spiral. His mother started forgetting what she was doing in the middle of doing it. It was when Sam caught her with a faraway look standing next to the stove while the food burnt that he decided this couldn’t continue.

“We need to talk to someone and I need to move out,” Sam said.

“Sammy please don’t go. I can’t sleep not knowing where you are,” she said.

“That’s the problem Ma. Seeing me like this is hurting you. Me being here ain’t good for us. We need to work on that,” he said slowly.

“Sammy don’t tell me I can’t be around my own son,” his mother said. She was angry and he knew it was partly because he had struck a nerve.

“It’s complicated. I’m not saying it’s forever, but we gotta make sure it isn’t. I found a therapist for you and for myself. If you want to go. Tomorrow I’m gonna start staying with Luke and Claire till I find my own place. I won’t move far Ma,” Sam promised.

That’s how they developed the routine of calling each other every morning. When Sam started working for the Avengers again half a year later, he made sure to text his mother every time, before he went into the field and when he came back.

During all of this Steve and Bucky visited him regularly. Sam would try to talk about his experiences, as you would with any of your friends, but their understanding only went so far. It wasn’t for their lack of trying either, they both tried but they weren’t black. So when he started Black Ops he finally felt truly at home. He was better than he had been. When he gained his strength back, Sam bounced back and even seeing Tony Stark wouldn’t take that away from him.

Even if followed by a boring, long winded and yet weirdly insulting FBI meeting after Stark’s departure from the conference room.  

When the agents left Monica, Rhodey and Misty remained.

“They are so damned annoying,” Misty sighed. “Do they think we don’t know they’re trying to punish us for using Wakandan technology?”

“They really sent a brotha to bro it up too. Talking about how cooperative the FBI has been. That’s news,” Rhodey said.

“They can cry all they want. They would have never funded this and accepting T’Challa’s personal money wasn’t illegal either,” Monica said.

“Let’s just put Fury on the stand to remind them of 2012 and the bomb,” Sam suggested.

“Shit. They were itching to do that. Didn’t your little friend fly that nuke into space or something?” Misty asked Rhodey.

“We ain’t cool like that anymore,” Rhodey answered.

“Oh yeah? You better tell him that I saw his ass in here this morning,” Misty said.

“He was here to offer Stark Industries’ Annual Charity Fund to us. If we wanted to expand this project into a different part of town,” Rhodey explained.

“I’m not above taking his money,” Misty said getting up. “But we gotta postpone this discussion. I gotta meet my fiancé.”

“Say hi to Colleen for us,” Monica said. Misty waved and walked out of the door.

“Yeah and I gotta go to the VA and before that I’m getting Starbucks, ‘cause I deserve it,” Sam said smiling.

“Okay go ahead. Leave me with this idiot,” Monica said.

“That’s your boyfriend.” Sam rolled his eyes.

“Oh no she is so smart this isn’t even offensive. Next to her I do seem like an idiot,” Rhodey said as they shared a sappy, snarky look at their little inside joke.

“I’m disgusted and I need a Caramel Shortcake more than ever to make me forget,” Sam said and shook himself.  He waved them goodbye and walked out of the door. A look at his watch told him he’d have more than enough time to swing by Starbucks before he had to go to the VA. So he waved at Terrance and Layla on his way out and got in his car.

Chapter Text

Of course Starbucks was full. While waiting in line Sam distracted himself by looking around. There was a woman in the back of the store,who had her hair in two big puffs and even though she was sitting you could tell she was tall. She caught his eye for a moment, but he wasn’t about to disturb her while she was hanging out in the back of a Starbucks with her headphones on. He moved on and caught sight of a man who sat with his back to him. All Sam could really see were his broad shoulders and a crown of dreadlocks on top of an undercut. Something about the way he slumped in his chair caught Sam’s attention, though he couldn’t exactly say what it was.

He was next in line and stepped up to place his order. When he looked back the man had gotten up to leave the store. Sam had noticed a nice backside accentuated by the snug jeans the guy was wearing before the man disappeared, but that was it.

Sam waited for his name to be called. When something like his name was shouted with his order he found his cup read “Cam” instead. He just rolled his eyes, took his cup and walked the remaining block to the VA. These meetings were specifically for black vets who were part of the LGBT community. They didn’t meet often. Once every couple of months but Sam looked forward to them.

All meetings he attended were helpful, but Sam had come to find out things had changed for him since he left the military. There were other things he had faced since then. Sam had a new set of nightmares and triggers to deal with now. Some days, it was just unbearable to be around others and he’d stay home on those days; sometimes staring into space, sometimes crying the whole day or just sleeping. This was understandable. Every vet here empathized and shared their stories when they were ready. Sam was slowly finding his way back to being okay with not being okay, but trying to feel better. But it really had not been easy.

Especially when he saw Rhodey again, Sam had been distant and quiet. He could now admit to actively avoiding Rhodey. It had taken a joint or two to get all the feelings out. Rhodey had found out what Sam had been through. What they all had been through and he felt terrible. In turn Sam felt terrible about what had happened to him. “I’m not Riley. I’m still here. So you better act like it,” Rhodey had said. Sam hugged him tight like he hadn’t done since before The Accords. The only thing they could do was move on and let the past be a lesson. This was the origin of the Black Ops’ honesty clause. They were not going to let themselves be torn apart.

Another thing he enjoyed about being around this specific group of Black veterans was that they took on topics that he had never discussed in a general VA meeting before. They asked questions he had not dared to ask but in this setting were now begging to be asked louder than before.

What country had they been trying to protect? It was a question that had been hanging over them all even heavier now. As they watched people publicly speak about and for them, as even the most silent spoke up against injustice. As hashtag after hashtag was created and reused, as people took to the streets. As the youth marched, rioted, walked out and kneeled.

This question had become what they, as black veterans, had to ask themselves every day. His feelings towards his service had changed. His loyalties had changed. Sam decided to belong to the people. The people begging for a helping hand. The people who were being overlooked. The most vulnerable.

When Sam was younger he didn’t understand what drove his father’s motivations. What made him so prone to taking big risks; the same risks that had ultimately killed him. Now he understood that there were causes worth dying for.

While he knew that his recent growth wouldn’t erase what he had done in the name of America’s imperialist agenda, it was better than silently watching from the sidelines.

Most of these vets felt the same and while they didn’t join the “superhero” fray, they did volunteer at the Black Ops center.

They helped with the social aspects of the organization. They handed out food and other necessities to homeless people and helped them find stable, safe shelters and enroll in programs to help better their situations. They cooked for them and other people in need. Some drove the food to those who couldn’t leave the house. A lot of the people they were assisting were also veterans or low income families with parents who were starving themselves to keep their children fed.

It had been important to all of them to not just offer their tactical knowledge and combat skills, but also offer direct tangible help to the community.

“So when are you picking up the shield?” Tyra asked when the session had ended. She was taller than him and half a decade younger. When she came in she had been quiet and restrained. No one in her family had been military or seen any kind of excessive violence up close. Her girlfriend had broken up with her a couple of months after her return. She’d had a rough time adjusting back to civilian life with that on her shoulders too, but here she was now smiling from time to time sharing stories and asking questions.

“Not anytime soon,” Sam answered amused. The room admonished him.

“Sam that humble shit won’t fly here. We see what you’ve been doing all around the country,” Cece said.

Sam laughed. “And the policies around the mantle of Captain America are complicated. I would not be able to continue what I’ve been doing.”

They nodded.

“It ain’t easy,” Collins said. “But it would be really cool.”

“Not as cool as those pictures of you and the little one I bet,” Sam said and they let him change the topic.

“It might be a close tie,” they answered and pulled out their phone to show everyone pictures of their daughter. She was three and a creative ball of energy. She had dressed herself and Collins up in matching princess dresses. That led to the group showing each other pictures and videos of what they had been up to. They ended up sending each other mood boards with terrible pictures of Sam suited up.

-

That evening it was dinner at his mom’s and as always spending time with his family had been cathartic. Sarah didn’t like to get sentimental with him without a careful build up to it, but they both knew what it meant to him to share his good days with them.

Afterward when the sun sank and Sarah and the twins said they goodbyes plates in hand. He kissed his sister on the cheek. “Bye sis. Tell Henry I said hi.”

“Will do. Take care. You too Ma,” she said while herding the kids into her car.

Sam turned to his mother as they drove away. She yawned and in turn made Sam yawn.

“I’ll leave as well Ma.”

“Okay Sammy. Here is a plate for you and one for your friends,” Darlene said pointing at the carefully packed food.

“Thanks, Ma,” Sam said with a soft smile.

“It ain’t a thing Sammy. Get home safely,” she said.

“Yes Ma,” he answered and took the plates to his car. As he walked around the car to get to his driver’s seat he bumped into a man. The man muttered a quick apology and walked on. Sam hadn’t seen much of his face just a flash of gold when he spoke. Sam felt around to see if anything was missing, but everything was where and it should be. It might have been an accident he reminded himself.

Just to be safe he’d sweep his house later and have someone keep an eye on his mother’s house. Better safe than sorry.

Chapter Text

New York had changed and somehow it hadn’t. Erik found the key he had hidden for a small apartment in the Bronx, one he had used as a base for some of his operations in the area. He had multiple across New York, different locations for different kinds of missions.

It looked exactly as he had left it except for the layer of dust that tickled his nose as he walked through.

Damn, he still wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing exactly. It wasn’t like ole girl with the staff was exactly forthcoming. He wasn’t even sure yet if he was actually in New York.

But he was going to make sure.

So Erik checked places he was familiar with and found corresponding news to corroborate the changes. It all checked out. Then he remembered the loop he had been in back in the jungle. It had been two days and everything seemed ordinary so he tried to leave New York. He got in his car that he had bought under one of his aliases and drove to New Jersey. He crossed the George Washington Bridge and didn’t end up back at Jones Beach State park. So it wasn’t a loop.

Damn he could go anywhere. He could get on a plane and fly right back to Wakanda if he wanted. His head was exploding with ideas. He didn’t even notice he had picked up speed.

He could go back to Oakland and….suddenly it felt like his head was splitting open. A sudden ache tore through his forehead and drove tears from his eyes. His breath was coming in short, shallow gasps. He quickly pulled to the side of the road and stopped the car. He caught his face in the rear view mirror and saw blood leaking out of his nose. This wasn’t a natural headache. He got on the road again and headed straight back to New York while he still has consciousness. When he got off the bridge the ache slowly faded away. He was sweating and breathing heavily. His body felt oddly heavy and he was slightly disoriented by the time he entered his base again.

Erik inspected himself in the bathroom. There was dried blood on his face and he looked sick. He felt too drained to be angry. This shit was crazy, but when he looked at himself in the mirror he reminded himself that he’d been through worse. He had endured worse; so fuck it. Erik could figure out what he was supposed to do. He could solve this puzzle, but for now he decided it would be best to listen to his body. He needed to rest before he came up with a new plan.

-

-

-

When he woke up it was dark. Erik looked around. He needed a shower right quick. So he got out of bed and headed to the bathroom.

The spray felt soothing on his skin as he closed his eyes. He felt hands on his body, oddly familiar and inviting, he leaned into them. Her body pressed up against him from behind.  He turned around wanting to see her. She immediately kissed him. He pulled her closer. The water running down their faces slowly turned thick and he opened his eyes at the weird sensation.

Evelyn stood in front of him bleeding from a gunshot wound to the head.

“What is it babe?” she asked concerned as if she couldn’t feel the wound and the blood gushing down her face.

Erik stepped back from her.

“Guess I can’t get you off looking like this,” she said stepping closer to him.

Erik doesn’t say anything.

“You could just get rid of me if I’m bothering you,” she said putting a gun in his hand. She then led his hand to her head. “Shouldn’t be too hard the second time, not that it seemed too difficult the first time you pulled the trigger,” she said easily. Erik tried putting his hand down. He couldn’t.

“This is ridiculous. Why are you doing this?” Erik asked.

“I could ask you the same thing nigga. Why are you here!? You fucking shot me and left me in that abandoned airfield. You’re supposed to be just as dead. I’m never coming back! Why should you?” she asked pressing her forehead against the barrel of the gun.

She slid her hand on top of his. Erik still didn’t have an answer.

“You’re a joke,” she said and made him pull the trigger.

Erik woke up with a start. He swore he could still hear the echo of the gun ringing in his head and around the room. He hadn’t had a nightmare since he was a boy. He was breathing heavily and tried to calm himself down.

What was he doing here? What exactly was he being resurrected for? Damn he’d been wasting time trying to figure out if this was actually New York instead of focusing on the task at hand.

He was wide awake now and it was time to start thinking of this like a mission. It was time to put his training and access to use. He got up, started his computer and pulled up his backdoor into the C.I.A. database.

For the last two days he had been so focused on figuring out his surroundings he didn’t even bother to look at what was going on in the world. With every piece of news he read he got angrier and more frustrated. It wasn’t surprising to him, yet he couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if he had succeeded in his plans. The thing was he hadn’t. He had failed and that was why he was here now. Stuck in New York.

He specified his search to New York. Then kept an eye out for things only someone with his knowledge and skillset would be able to notice.

A couple of names kept popping up again and again. They were black supers; all of them. While the C.I.A. was a correspondent for the Avengers, it turned out, not every member was an Avenger. 

Apparently there was a Harlem based group of political activists with superpowers and skills working with the community. They were also the first responders for the Avengers in Harlem and investigated major crimes with black targets.

The file on them however was a little too detailed and extensive to be standard. There were listings and recordings of meetings and detailed descriptions of everyone who had entered the building in the last couple of months.

This was more than anyone would know by just keeping an eye out from the outside. Someone from the inside had to be reporting.

He found no official relationship between the two organizations so this wasn’t a mutual agreement.

Erik started checking the backgrounds of the main six members. They each had increasingly incredible backgrounds. Especially the bulletproof one, but only two raised red flags.

James Rhodes received irregular payments to his account that he immediately donated to charity, but when he dug deeper it turned out that money came from Tony Stark.

The other was Samuel Wilson. Erik remembered him from his military days. They weren’t close, they had just seen each other around. It felt like a lifetime ago. Erik laughed; in a way it truly was.

His gut told him it wasn’t Wilson, but he did remember the guy had a way of making people trust him as a finishing tactic during missions. He would have to be thorough with his search this time.

-

-

-

Tailing Wilson however confirmed what he had thought.

Someone was setting the guy up. The book keepings were changed in such a way that suggested Sam had adjusted the numbers himself at times when it was impossible for him to do so. They were just sloppy enough to leave a trail for someone who looked hard enough, but well enough to seem like he made an effort to cover it up.

None of the six main members seemed likely to be the mole and their other employees didn’t have any files as detailed as theirs. He would have to get in, good thing he had a key.

-

-

-

Erik was waiting for Wilson to arrive inside of an empty warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. He knew he’d come. The file he had left on the man’s kitchen table was ominous enough that he would have to investigate it. There was a sudden woosh and Erik looked up.

With his wing pack and stealth suit on, Wilson had come in through the roof’s open skylight with a gun trained on him. Erik raised his hands as Wilson landed in front of him.

“Erik Stevens?” he said recognizing him.

“Yeah. Glad you remember,” Erik said smiling easily even though Wilson didn’t lower his weapon.

“What fucking game are you playing?” Wilson asked.

“Relax, bro. Remember I owe you. There is a mole in your ranks and I’m offering help to find it,” Erik replied. Wilson hesitated for a moment and then lowered his gun.

“Talk.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Erik Stevens had met Sam Wilson exactly twice before.

The first time was when he was relatively new to the military. There hadn’t been many people he felt competitive with, mostly because no one could not keep up with him. Erik had been training and studying for a long time. He had learned to read people and their mannerisms. He learned how to make himself likable to the right people. Gone was the awkward boy from Oakland, in his place stood an accomplished young man with a shining record of achievements.

He was damn good at what he did so he didn’t have to keep an eye out for rivals, but there had been a handful of them. Sam Wilson had been one of them. He was a little older than Erik, which was either good or bad for him depending on what people were looking at in each of them. The first time they met face to face was at a trade fair set up specifically for the military. Big Name companies like Hammer and Stark Industries were presenting their newest inventions. They had both been tasked with accompanying their Commanding Officers.

During the event some of the soldiers took breaks in the provided break room. When Erik entered others were engaged in a heated exchange of outrageous brags. They were trying to one up each other with their accomplishments. Wilson had been watching from the sidelines. Erik recognized the calm, casual air of an individual who had nothing to prove. He realized that even if every rumor about Wilson wasn’t true the ones about his skills where at least close.

 

It would take two years for their paths to cross again.

-

-

-

Erik handed Wilson the file and he listened to Erik’s explanations while reading it. He asked for some clarifications once in a while, but aside from that he was concentrating on the information in front of him.

Erik watched Wilson after he was done explaining and his thoughts started drifting. Now that Wilson was here Erik knew there was another reason he had wanted to keep his distance. It had been some time but Wilson had not lost his almost infuriating ability to draw in the people around him. Erik had to fight the urge in his presence.

When he had seen Wilson swoop in from the skylight, Erik swore he could feel the ghost of the desert sun on his skin.

Damn this nigga could still surprise him after all this time. He should have known better.

“What are you thinking about?” Wilson asked. His face was severe not that Erik could fault him for that, especially after reading the file. Intelligence services fucking with him didn’t seem new to Wilson. He didn’t even look surprised. Just as Erik suspected, Wilson didn’t seem too unaware about what was going on.

“Nothing. Got anymore questions about the file?” Erik asked.

“I have a dozen actually but I don’t think you have any answers yet. So instead, I’m gonna ask you how you got them,” Sam Wilson asked.

Erik hesitated. “I can’t answer that.”

“You can drop a C.I.A. file on my kitchen table, but you can’t tell me how you got it? You know that’s suspicious right?” Sam said incredulously.

Erik frowned. “Seems to me like you had a suspicion that something was going on, but you still came here and listened to my offer. So you can either continue on your own and see how that goes or I could help you continue this cute project you got going on.”

Erik couldn’t help his condescending tone. Wilson’s presence was distracting and Wilson not displaying the same level of trust towards Erik that he was showing Wilson was rubbing him the wrong way.

“Cute little project?” Sam repeated.

This wasn’t going as planed and Erik knew his current tone wasn’t going to work with Wilson. He took a deep breath. “I checked the main roster and none of them are in any way suspicious so most likely one of the other workers is responsible. If you don’t want me in the building, I could direct from here while you take time looking into it. It’s the better option; it would be bad for me if I were made while you were looking into this.”

“You’re C.I.A…..,” Sam said.

Erik didn’t know how to explain the situation he was in exactly. Fuck! He didn’t even know if the rules allowed for it. He really didn’t want to feel like his brain was pouring out through his nostrils again. That aside Erik was dead. It felt like twice the lie, but he didn’t have a choice. Erik didn’t want Wilson to be framed for something he didn’t do, especially if Black Ops was legit.

Sam Wilson sighed.”Aren’t you gonna get in trouble for this?”

Erik grinned now. “Don’t worry about it. Like I said I owe you one and I meant that.”

“You know I was just doing my job back then right?” Wilson said. “Last time I saw someone do this for someone they got married.”

“Don’t get your hopes up, Wilson,” Erik scoffed.

Wilson gave him a sharp look. “I’m not hoping for anything. I just think that you getting involved in this is a lot.”

“You’re giving me whiplash. You don’t trust me and suddenly you’re worried for me,” Erik said teasingly.

“And you’re not giving me answers.”

“I made you a promise back then. Let me keep it,” Erik said. Sam looked at him for a moment; his expression intense and searching.

“Okay,” Sam said.

-

-

-

Getting behind enemy lines had become a normal part of Erik’s life. He didn’t have his markings for nothing. This however hadn’t been an execution it had been an extraction.

Their target was an ordinary man and therefore a little slow on his feet.

Apparently their timetable hadn’t accounted for that, which meant they got stuck behind enemy lines.

Normally that would have meant they were on their own. This time however right when they heard the sound of a projectile coming towards them, there was a swooping sound and got down. There was an explosion, but they were still alive.

In front of him stood a man with big metal wings that had extended to cover them, shielding them. He wore red goggles and beside him two other men landed.

“You alright Falcon?” one of them asked.

“Sure thing Redwing,” the man answered.

“Okay let’s extract and split up. Meet back at base,” Redwing said. Each of the guy’s grabbed one of them and Falcon grabbed Erik.

They got in the air and had flown maybe five minutes when they took as small dive. Falcon corrected his wings, but that didn’t stop the second swoop that held on. The Falcon opened his parachute but they took a hard landing anyways.

 

When Erik woke up again he was in pain leaning up against the wall of some kind of rock structure. The sun was setting and clearly they hadn’t made it back to the base yet. Least they had a covering high overhead. When Falcon realized he had woken up he came closer. Up close Erik could see his face now. It was Sam Wilson.

“Hey, remember what happened?” he asked.

“We were trying to get back to base but something happened,” Erik said.

“Yeah my wing pack took more damage from the missile than it seemed. I’m grounded for now. I will have to get back to where we picked you up to get some supplies and the thrusters will need time to load. Could be a day or two,” Wilson explained.

Erik realized that nobody was coming to pick them up. The extraction, the main mission had been completed without them. They were not a priority. Maybe the tech, but neither of them had to be alive for it to be recovered.

He didn’t trust Wilson. Erik would prefer to do this on his own, but he wouldn’t be as capable in his current condition.

“I am leaving the wings with you. They are bulletproof,” Wilson said and handed Erik a gun. Wilson armed himself with a gun and a knife.

“I’ll be back,” Wilson promised and Erik had no choice but to trust that he would.

The sun kept sinking and the desert was getting colder. Erik felt hungry and parched. He was losing hope with every moment that passed.

What seemed like a lifetime, but was probably just a few hours later Wilson returned. His shirt was torn. He was bleeding from the cheek and looked dirty and sweaty in general.

Erik couldn’t remember being so relieved to see someone. Wilson was carrying blankets, food and water. Erik drank one the bottles in a gulp then fell asleep.

When he woke up Wilson was working on his wings. Erik was hungry but he tried to eat slowly. They only had a limited amount of food.

They hadn’t talked since yesterday. Erik didn’t know what to say. He kept looking at Wilson working on his wings.

“Where you from?” Erik asked. He didn’t have anything better to do.

“New York. Harlem,” Wilson answered. “You?”

“Oakland,” Erik answered.

They continued asking each other trivial questions. When the sun set and Sam couldn’t see his eyes anymore Erik asked: “Don’t you wanna burn it all down sometimes?”

“Sometimes. Used to be all the time after my dad died,” Wilson said and Erik wanted to reach out and tell him he felt the same, but he didn’t know how. Instead he asked something else. Something less personal.

The second day when their rations were getting dangerously low Wilson’s wings finally lit up. He did one last check up and then they set off. Wilson tried to fly low where he could to keep them safe in case of a malfunction but it hadn’t been necessary. He had fixed his wings completely.

They arrived at the base and Wilson quickly found Erik a nurse.

“Get well soon, Stevens,” Wilson said handing off his care to the medical team on site.

Erik realized then that without Wilson he might have died and he wanted to reach out. He honestly did, but this wasn’t the time or the place. “Thanks Wilson. I owe you one,” Erik replied not knowing that he’d take that promise to the grave.

Chapter Text

The meeting with Sam had been a couple of days ago. They had used burner phones to communicate since then but so far there hadn’t been any updates. That’s how Erik ended up going to the Thai place a couple of blocks away when he noticed that he had forgotten to buy groceries.

He couldn’t help but think about that meeting with Wilson in that warehouse a couple of days ago. He kept thinking about the feeling it gave him, like he was closer to what he was supposed to be doing; closer to finding out what he was supposed to be looking for.

But now? He felt unsure and suspended in doubt; something he was used to and did not like.

Erik looked around the shop absentmindedly, checking for anything suspicious out of reflex and saw a familiar face. When the person caught him looking though it turned out that the person just looked like someone he knew. Erik looked away again and waited to pick up his food. Then he walked back to his apartment. When he opened the door something felt off. He couldn’t put his finger on it but he used his right hand to pull out his gun. It might be the mole, though he expected none of the agents to be stupid enough to out themselves to him.

Softly he put the food on the shelf in the hallway. He swept the bathroom then the bedroom. Just when he thought his senses were tricking him, he heard a noise come from the kitchen. He followed the noise slowly and carefully. When he checked however he couldn’t find any evidence of an intruder in the room. After he made sure the kitchen was secure he went back to get his food in the hallway which had probably cooled down by now.

He opened the box with the fried noodles on his way into the kitchen and started eating in the hallway. Only when a shadow caught his eye did he look up. There was a male, humanoid figure standing in front of him. What or who exactly it was didn’t matter to Erik, he dropped the food and grabbed his gun. The figure looked down at the food on the ground as if that was more bothersome than having a gun pointed at them. That gave Erik time to take the safety off and get a better look. It was a man but his body was see-through and standing inside of him was a young boy whose head looked as though it could pass through the man’s chest. They moved independently of each other but never completely separated.

“That looked good. Five second rule,” they said seemingly switching from sounding boyish to a grown adult.

“What are you doing here? Shit, nigga what are you?” Erik asked. The man looked at him and both bodies stopped in their movements. They started screaming and after a moment the man’s body shrunk into the boy’s form.

“Shit what is this!?” Erik asked backing up. The scream abruptly ended and they boy’s face cleared. Erik almost dropped his gun.

“Fífi?” he whispered in disbelief.

“N’Jadaka,” the boy said.

“This shit better be a joke! What is this? Why are you here?” Erik asked overwhelmed. He willed back tears. He wasn’t going to break down just because this thing had called him by his Wakandan name in that voice. He took a deep and wet sounding breath.

“Talk! Shit, say something! Come on,” Erik said.

“And what should I say exactly?” Fífi asked him. The boy’s irises were completely and unnaturally black. Not the soft dark brown Erik had found himself getting lost in a long time ago.

“Just tell me you’re not really dead,” Erik said in a soft whisper feeling the words almost catch in his chest.

“I am and I’m not,” he answered.

Erik closed his eyes and let out a disbelieving chuckle. Then he raised his gun. “Give me a straight answer.” He was tired of the double speak.

“Or you’ll shoot me? Kill me? To know if I’m dead?” Fífi said unbothered. “You’ve always been a funny nigga.”

Erik dropped his gun. “Please.”

“You thought you were the only one who suffered? The only one who had to fight?” the boy asked rapidly growing back into a man. “They sent me back home. They tried to beat it, pray it and exorcise it out of me! You never even looked for me.”

“I didn’t know,” Erik said feeling the heaviness in his chest grow more pressing.

“You didn’t care! You didn’t think,” Fífi exclaimed. “You never cared about anyone but yourself! Mark my words N’Jadaka you won’t bury me this time.” With that his form suddenly faded away.

Erik was still breathing heavily; the emptiness of the room felt heavier now. He looked to his feet where his food had spilled all over the floor. Not that it mattered anymore. Erik had lost his appetite.

Out of all the memories and the people in them he hadn’t expected this one to manifest itself. He couldn’t get a handle on his feelings regarding and attached to Fífi. He felt the internal struggle of fighting the memories back. These were deeply buried things that he hadn’t touched and didn’t plan to. He needed to get out of here.

Erik grabbed his gym bag and left the apartment. He hadn’t thought even for a moment that his day would go like this. At most he was planning to get some new info to share with Wilson. Not to be reminded of him. Erik could admit to himself that he had thought Evelyn appearing in his dreams had been an incentive that shoved him into finding Black Ops. It made sense to him, he had rapport with one of them and Erik could help.

So why was Erik seeing him now? He couldn’t find an answer and his anger was growing inside of him. He’d have to punch something soon. Erik could feel his hands tingling. He turned left and saw the gym. It was one specialized on boxing and they had multiple rings.

When he entered there were a couple of people in there, but it wasn’t too crowded. Erik got changed and put his headphones on. He started with rope skipping to get warm and properly stretch. Then he found a punching bag and went to work. His punches were quick but not calculated. He wasn’t fighting, he was channeling his anger.

So when he felt someone tap his shoulder he swung around fast. The person behind him reacted fast enough to avoid the collision though. It was Sam Wilson.

“I think you can stop now,” he said.

“Stop what?” Erik asked irritated.

“Keeping an eye on me,” Sam answered.

“Nigga, not everything I do is about you,” Erik said. “Though I understand how you wish it were.”

He didn’t know why he added that last part. The words hung between them. Erik waited for Wilson to berate him or make a remark on how Erik wished that were true but Wilson just paused and looked at him. Erik couldn’t tell what he saw, wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“That bag can’t even defend itself. Wanna try that with someone your size?” Wilson asked instead. Erik bit his tongue on mentioning how Wilson wasn’t exactly his size.

He could feel how wrong this was going to go. This situation wasn’t ideal and he wasn’t in a good head space but he was done with the bad and there was an empty ring. So he nodded and they got in the ring.

“No punches to the face, no serious injuries. The round ends when one of us taps out,” Sam explained. Erik nodded.

He remembered a time when he would have loved a chance to test his abilities against Wilson, but now he wasn’t expecting much. Erik had the power of the Black Panther and Wilson was just a human man, especially without his suit.

Wilson was waiting for him to punch first and to Erik’s surprise Wilson dodged his strike easily. Erik frowned as he dodged a surprisingly fast swing from Wilson in turn. Then all of a sudden he felt his feet swept out from under him. Erik twirled midair and landed on his hands from where he pushed himself up again. Sam Wilson was really not to be underestimated. His smirk told the same story.

Erik was faster and stronger but Wilson’s defense was so impressive that it took him longer than he expected to pin Wilson, who didn’t hesitate tapping out. Erik helped him up.

“Feeling better?” he asked. Erik was surprised to say that he did feel better. He gave Wilson a curt nod and Wilson smiled.

“Good. Wanna grab something to eat?” Wilson asked slightly out of breath. Erik wasn’t exactly starving. He could and would eat a lot but simultaneously he could survive without food for some time. He still felt reluctant to go back to the apartment just yet. He wanted to do nothing less than clean up the spilled food and be forced to remember why he had spilled it in the first place. Suddenly eating out with Wilson didn’t sound half bad.

“Aight. What we eating?” Erik asked.

“I know a place,” Wilson replied.

_

_

The place turned out to be a hole in the wall Nigerian restaurant. Erik had gotten pepper soup with tilapia and Sam was eating Jollof rice and plantain.

“You ever think about quitting?” Wilson asked him.

Erik felt the weight of the question. He had seen Sam Wilson’s file. “Didn’t you? But we here either way ain’t we?” Erik asked.

“I went back because I had the choice. I’d been out. I had seen what that was like,” he answered patiently. “You’ve never been out.”

“Nigga I thought we were eating. I didn’t sign up for counseling,” Erik said.

“I’m not saying this as a counselor. I’m saying this as someone who is grateful for what you’re doing. I’m saying this as someone who also sees you’re about to snap. You should think about what makes you happy. What makes you feel good,” Wilson said carefully looking into him.

Erik had something sharp and cutting at the tip of his tongue, but Wilson was actually being genuine.

“We don’t even know each other,” Erik said staring back.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought in the warehouse and yet there you were,” Wilson said looking at him calmly. “So I’m going to return that gesture. We don’t have to stay strangers.”

The last part was said carefully and with no pressure. This was it. This was what had loosened Erik’s tongue back in the desert; this was what had driven him to make that promise to Wilson and to keep it.

Suddenly a cold shiver ran over his shoulders. This wasn’t some dream Erik was living, if one could call what he was currently doing living. No, this was something closer to a nightmare right now.

Then the moment was gone.

“You okay?” Sam asked concerned.

“We ain’t friends and we ain’t about to be friends,” Erik pulled a couple of bills out of his pocket and put them on the table. Then he got up and left. Wilson didn’t try to stop him. As he reached the sidewalk outside he felt one of those headaches coming on.

This was the easiest way. With everything he was going through he couldn’t form attachments; especially not with Samuel Wilson.

Chapter Text

The planes of the Land of the Dead were caught in eternal dawn. For a moment he feared he had been sent back, but the almost empty feeling of the place just didn’t set in. It was an empty calm that Erik would have welcomed after the events of the last few days though he refused to give up on his chance to live again.

So here he was looking at green fields waiting to find out why exactly he was here.

“You don’t look to good, N’Jadaka,” a familiar voice said from behind him. He turned around and saw Akiko.

“You can tell all that from my back?” he asked with a scoff.

“Boy I can tell from a lot less, but you called me here. So it must be something,” she smiled with a humorous twinkle in her eyes. “Why did you make an old lady come all the way here?”

“You fought me without breaking a sweat. Shit you wiped the floor with my ass. Stop playing granny,” Erik said and rolled his eyes. Akiko laughed heartily and stood straight. “Talk to me.”

“This shit….these tasks? I’m having nightmares. Some of the shit that I’ve tried to forget is coming back. I don’t know how to deal with it or if I even can.”

Akiko held out her hands inviting him to take them. He did and she started rubbing them with both her thumbs. Erik took a deep breath.

“When I decided not to fight my father for the throne, I put my life, his life, the time we had together and any loss on Wakanda’s part above any other life that could have been saved. It was something I had to face when I became one of the seeing. Actions have consequences, that is the price you pay but you have the opportunity to make new decisions. People who die the way you did cannot return without a purpose. You have to understand the person you were in order to find who you’ll be. Resisting that will hurt.”

“I need more time,” Erik said.

“You can have it but you will suffer,” Akiko said. Erik sighed.

“N’Jadaka. I know you can easily forget this at times, but you are dead. This is an opportunity unlike any other. But your past will trap you here if you don’t face it. It’ll break you and then you will be right back here. N’Jobu filled your heart with strength. Find it. Use it,” she said.

“Use my heart?” Erik asked incredulous.

“If not your heart then what else is stopping you?” she asked with one eyebrow raised. Erik didn’t answer. “Boy I wasn’t born yesterday. Now go back. I don't want to see you again until you die of old age.”

 

=

 

Erik woke up to an insistent beeping. It wasn’t an alarm but his burner phone. The one only Wilson had the number to.

“Hello?” Erik answered.

“Meet me at our place in an hour,” he said curtly and then the call disconnected. It took a moment for Erik to figure out what had just happened and while he got ready he wondered what was going on. Was it about the way Erik had acted towards him yesterday? And if so what did Wilson care?

They weren’t even close. The phone was strictly for business so if he was misusing it Erik was going to fucking throw that shit away.

He held on to the mood he was in even as he stepped into the warehouse. His shoulders were squared. This time Wilson was already inside. He turned to him and there was a friendly smile on his face that fell when he actually saw Erik.

“What you call me for?” Erik grunted. Wilson looked flustered now.

“There’s been a development in another case. So I’m leaving the city.”

“You leaving gives the mole an opening,” Erik said.

“That’s why I came here first. I think we should involve the rest of the team,” Sam said.

“And what would they do exactly?” Erik asked.

Sam sighed. “It’s a big one Stevens. If I didn’t go I couldn’t forgive myself. If I stay it will be suspicious. I would never stay back on a mission like this.”

“Will you forgive yourself if the C.I.A. blows your shit up?” Erik asked.

“No that’s why I think our best bet is the team. They deserve to know. They can give you access even when I’m not there,” Sam argued.

“My offer didn’t include them,” Erik countered. Sam nodded and let his head hang down.

“I know and I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t that serious.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re annoying nigga?” Erik asked after thinking it over for a moment. If this was as big as Sam said he would need other people to stay back and help keep an eye on things.

“Not as many times people must have told you I’m sure,” Wilson answered with an easy and teasing smile. Erik rolled his eyes. “For what it’s worth I’m sorry.”

“For being annoying?” Erik asked. Sam smiled.

“As well as getting too familiar yesterday. I guess I was acting a little too much like a counselor. I overstepped and I had no right,” Wilson said.

Erik hadn’t seen this coming. He had come in expecting a fight since Wilson had called him, instead he was being apologized to. He nodded.

“You didn’t tell me what that big mission was about,” Erik said instead. Wilson wrung his hands. Something Erik had never seen him do, even when he had to walk back into enemy territory armed with one gun.

“Black kids have been disappearing for small amounts of time. They always come back but can’t remember what happened. They all had worrying potassium levels,” Sam said.

“Potassium?” Erik repeated.

“We’re not sure what it means yet,” Sam said.

“Send me what you’ve got and send the ones staying behind my way. If you’re doing all this you better find out what the fuck is going on,” Erik demanded. He was pumped up.

“You know we could use someone with your access and the skills you’ve likely got,” Sam said. His posture was relaxed. He wasn’t lying but he wasn’t forcing Erik either.

“Is that why you’re introducing me to the team?” Erik asked.

“Yeah I made all of this up to trap you Stevens,” Sam said and rolled his eyes.

“You forget who I work for?” Erik said. It wasn’t the truth but damn he was dead. He wanted to go with Wilson, wanted to find who was responsible and give them what they deserved, but he couldn’t get involved like that. Also no telling what would happen to him if he tried to leave the city again.

“Had to ask,” Sam said.

“Bet you did. That hero shit? Ain’t my style,” Erik said.

“Says the dude that came out of nowhere to save my ass,” Sam said amused. “But I won’t force you. Oh and I brought you something.”

Erik watched Wilson dig a paper bag out of his back pack. “I got you pepper soup and tilapia. I swear it’s not to get familiar. I want to apologize.”

That stunned Erik. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had made such a sincere gesture towards him that was just pure and wholesome. This honestly wasn’t what he had expected of Wilson. Erik thought, that maybe like him, the circumstances of those two days in the desert had brought something out in Wilson that the other man normally buried, but no; this appears to be just how Wilson is.

Erik caught himself wishing he had kept in touch with the other before he died, then again Erik knew there had been no space for someone like Sam Wilson in his old life. Did this ring true for his current state of being? For where he was going?

“Thanks,” Erik said. It was genuine. It couldn’t be anything but. Erik felt reminded of his childhood when food didn’t just mean survival but warmth and love. Wilson must have caught his tone and gave him a smile. Those smiles of his meant trouble. Erik had to pull himself out of it. This felt too familiar. This wasn’t one of those things he could sneak out on in the middle of the night. He couldn’t ghost on Samuel Wilson. He couldn’t be pulled into this. He worked best from a distance and in the shadows.

“If I find anything. I’ll let you know. Go prep for your mission Big Bird,” Erik said.

Sam drew his brows up. “Big Bird? You really said that when you look like A$AP Rocky and Whoppie Goldberg’s hipster son nigga?”

“That’s what I was going for. Glad you caught that,” Erik answered. Sam stopped and looked at him then he started laughing. Erik joined him.

“Have a good one Stevens,” Sam said and packed up to leave.

“You too Wilson,” Erik replied.

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

“Erik tell her!” a voice said. There was panic and distress in it.

“Is it true Erik? Is what he is saying true?” another asked angry and impatient.

“I wish you died along with your father.”

Erik woke up in tears. Shit this had to stop. He sat up. He was trying to breathe through it, but it wouldn’t recede.

 Akiko’s words were still ringing in his head but it also felt like he had a terrible hangover.

It could be so easy. Just let me out, a voice said.

“Shut up,” Erik grunted to no one in the room.

Like you? Never!

Erik’s headache swelled and he started screaming in pain. His eyes rolled back and then everything faded away.

 

Oakland, California, 1997

Erik Stevens was not the boy he used to be. He had been through hell. The system hadn’t taken mercy on him but Ms. Miles had. Three years after his father’s death. She had adopted him. Made sure he went to school, learned and said his payers. Erik had received his father’s belongings. Mr. James had kept them for him.

His father had taught him how to read the language of his ancestors. Erik studied his father’s writings religiously. In general Erik studied a lot. He hung out with friends sure, but he would end his day with his nose in a book.

He had always been interested in learning but he felt the disconnection between himself and the writing of his father. He did not understand yet. So he felt the need to learn until he understood what was in front of him. This led to him reading about East African history, mechanical and environmental engineering. He slowly gained a better idea of what Wakanda was with his studies and his father’s writings.

He also found out what his father had been planning. His father had tried to make things better. The older he got the more he grew certain that that was the reason his father had died.

-

-

His name was Edward Anan. Erik wasn’t close to him in the beginning but they lived in the same building. So they’d sometimes see each other and they had mutual friends.

It wasn’t until the summer of ‘97 when Ms. Miles had to leave Erik with a neighbor to visit her sister in Philly that they got close. Erik was staying with Edward and his mother. The first conversations had been strained but when Edward started telling him stories about his home Erik found himself enraptured. Edward was nice and honest. So Erik didn’t stop hanging out with him after Ms. Miles returned.

He liked the Anan’s apartment. There were Ghanaian things everywhere and Edward’s mother had hip life playing when he came in. It wasn’t like when his father was alive, but it was the closest he had to something like it in a long time.

What also pulled him in was Edward. Erik was just as caught up in him as Edward was in Erik.

-

-

-

“Why does your mother call you Fífi?” Erik asked.

“It’s my Ghanaian name,” Edward replied.

“I also have a name only my dad would call me,” Erik said. He hadn’t wanted to share his name with anyone else. It was too important. But he wanted to share it with Edward.

“What is it?”

“N’Jadaka,” Erik whispered. They were sitting close by each other.

“N’Jadaka?” Edward was sitting close. So close. Erik could feel his breath ghost over his face when he said it.

Edward smiled. “I like it. N’Jadaka. That’s a good name.”

Erik leaned forward and let his lips slide over Edward’s. His heart was beating in his ears. Edward applied a little pressure and pulled Erik closer. When they let go it was with a smile. Edward became Fífi and Erik became N’Jadaka.

And they were happy.

Chapter Text

It was 7:45 pm, Erik was waiting at the warehouse. He had spent all day making updates to his system that would allow him to keep an eye on the mission. He had been pacing earlier he realized, and decided to have a seat but he kept himself busy at the laptop he brought along for any work they may need to get done.

The silence brought up memories. He had fought himself out of that last fit but he felt unsure. He couldn’t bear to go further down that road. He continued entering keystrokes into the laptop hoping the tedious process would keep him occupied enough.

Wilson arrived just then.

“Hey how was the pepper soup?” he asked, but Erik wasn’t in the mood.

“Fine,” he replied.

“I know you didn’t want to expand the circle but this is serious,” Sam said noticing his foul mood.

“If I had changed my mind I wouldn’t be here, Wilson,” Erik said irritated.

“Sorry,” Sam replied. He seemed to want to add something but he let it go and instead sat on one of the chairs Erik had provided close by where he was sitting.

Rhodey, Claire and Monica came in together.

“Looks like everyone is here,” Erik said eyeing the new arrivals as he sat back in his chair.

“Stevens?” Rhodey asked. “We’re working with Erik Stevens?”

“Got a problem with that?” Erik asked eyeing Rhodey.

“A problem? Nah. Shit I’m excited. Some of your designs ended up on my table. They were excellent,” Rhodey answered. “If I had ever started my own company I would have probably tried to headhunt you.”

Erik looked at Wilson. “You tell him to say all that?”

Wilson raised both hands. “This is not my doing.”

“Are we gonna listen to Rhodey continue to suck your intellectual dick or are we actually going to find out what is going on and why we’re here?” Monica asked.

“No worries babe. You’re still my favorite.” Rhodey smiled and sat down next to her. She rolled her eyes but still smiled.

“The C.I.A. is gathering intel on you. You knew that ‘cause you provided them with your books. But their intel reaches beyond your legal agreement with them, which means they probably have eyes on the inside. Also some numbers suddenly don’t add up and they all lead to Wilson. If he goes down this whole thing will go down with him. You included,” Erik explained outright.

“And you trust him Sam?” Claire asked.

“With my life,” Sam replied without hesitation. Erik glanced at him but Sam was looking at Claire. The tension in the room broke then.

“Okay. I believe you,” Claire said.

“What can we do?” Monica asked.

“Sam will have to go otherwise the mole might think they were made and that could complicate things. So I’m going to need you to continue looking into the data. We haven’t found the pattern yet but we will,” Erik said.

“I’m down,” Claire said and the other two agreed. Erik explained the procedure and gave them phones to communicate.

When they all left, Sam stayed behind.

“Did you bring your goggles?” Erik asked turning his way.

“Yeah.” Sam handed over his goggles and watched Erik work at his laptop with them.

“Shit that’s slow. I’m gonna have to rework all of this. Are your wings this slow too?” Erik asked.

“Slow?” Sam repeated rather close by. Erik looked at him. Sam had bent over to watch him work and now they were close. Either Sam hadn’t noticed or he didn’t care.

“Bruh, give me some space, damn,” Erik said and Sam moved.

“How exactly is my gear slow?” Sam asked.

“The response could be faster. I’d have to coordinate with your wings. Bring the entire setup after the mission,” Erik said.

“You’re gonna update my gear?” Sam asked.

“You don’t want me to?” Erik asked.

“Of course. It’s just you’re doing a lot,” Sam said. Erik knew he was.

“Get me more of that pepper soup then.”

Sam laughed. “So you did like it, huh?”

“Ain’t like you made it yourself. Stop being so smug,” Erik scoffed.

“I did though,” Sam smiled. “My ex showed me how to make it.”

“You didn’t say that,” Erik said.

Sam smiled. “Didn’t think it made a difference. I just wanted to put in effort to apologize.”

“It wasn’t bad. Could have been hotter though,” Erik said. “Make it hotter next time.” Then he handed Sam his goggles back.

“Or you could come over and try for yourself until it’s hot enough for you,” Sam said.

His face was unreadable. Erik could feel the tension between them as the suggestion hung there in the silence. Sam had moved closer to take his goggles.

“If I’m not sweating it’s not hot enough,” he said.

“You know where I live, come over when this mission is done,” Sam said as he packed up his things and left. The tension slowly disappeared with him.

Erik was left alone to think about what had just happened. He felt something he hadn’t felt in a long time. He felt anxious. He breathed through it. Nothing was going to happen. This was nothing. He wasn’t young and powerless anymore. There was nothing to fear he was going to be okay.

-

-

-

Oakland, California, 1998

Erik and Edward had been sneaking around for six months. Not much had changed. They just stuck close now. Even in school. Everyone thought they were best friends but they held hands and kissed in secret. Spring had begun and change was in the air.

“Erik I’m going to miss you and I bet Edward will too,” Mrs. Anan said one day at dinner.

“Why?” Erik asked confused.

“When we move to New Orleans,” Mrs. Anan said.

“New Orleans,” Erik repeated. He looked over to Edward whose expression was pleading. Erik felt tears prickling his eyes and he stood up.

“Thank you for the food Mrs. Anan,” he said and ran out of the room. He ran to his apartment, into his bedroom and threw himself on his bed. He clutched his father’s chain. That’s how Edward found him.

“N’Jadaka,” he said.

“You kept that from me. Could have, should have told me,” Erik felt the tears well up again.

“I didn’t know how. I didn’t wanna make you sad. I don’t wanna go, but my uncle is taking us in. We need that,” Edward said. Erik couldn’t argue. He understood their reasons. It just felt so unfair. Edward lay next to him and talked to him until he calmed down.

After that everything went by so fast. Two months later the trucks came to pick up their stuff and the Anan’s were gone. The boys had promised to keep in touch. They sent each other letters with invisible ink. Hidden messages about their love, their loneliness and their desire.

So when in the middle of summer there was suddenly a knock at the door and Mrs. Anan and Edward stood there he thought his prayers had been heard.

He doesn’t remember how it started but it became a shouting match. Hurtful things were being said.

“Njame oh. Ebey. What have I done to you oh Lord to deserve this,” Mrs. Anan was crying and Erik had a hard time understanding. Wasn’t a home supposed to be full of love? This was her son.

“It’s not true. Please Ma. Stop,” Edward was screaming, snot running from his nose. He was crying his heart out; they all were.

“Then why are you writing these disgusting things. A boy and a boy talking about being in love? I did not raise you like that,” she screamed. Then she looked at the sky shaking and screaming praying in tongues.

“Erik tell her,” Edward was pleading. Erik’s anxiety was choking him and he was taking big gasps of air.

“Erik say something,” Mrs. Anan had turned to him as well.

“I’m sorry,” Erik said and ran out. The last thing he saw was Edward’s hurt face.

He heard Mrs. Anan shout after him, “You’re sorry? You will be sorry in hell! Never talk to this boy again. Edward I have already called my sister. When we get back to New Orleans pack your bags.”

“I wish you had died with your father,” Edward shouted after him. It was the last thing Edward said to him. The words echoed as Erik ran down the stairs to find his hiding spot. He hid there until the sun came down. By the time he returned the Anan’s were gone and he’d never see either of them again.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 11

The mission started a couple of days later. Wilson, Cage and Knight had found a victim whose phone had been working for some time during the abduction. It was destroyed eventually but the area where the signal ended deserved to at least be searched.

Even though Rhodey was the official correspondent, Erik was keeping an eye on it through Sam’s googles. He had installed a speaker in the strap just under his ear to communicate with him. Meanwhile he was also communicating with Claire to check on their progress regarding the mole.

This wasn’t the first time he had kept his eyes on more than one mission. Somewhere deep down he was hoping it wasn’t the last.  Going from being involved with, no, supporting Wilson, to becoming involved with the whole team was a revelation. They we’re more efficient than their file let on and most importantly adaptable. They worked with his suggestions but had little problems also spinning them into something that worked with their own style. He could see up close how they could be seen as a threat.

Even with all this extra work; they were still keeping up with their community services.

This was different from any operation that Erik had been involved in so far, but he found it interesting. He didn’t want to analyze any deeper at the moment though. These people were committed to their work in a way that Erik couldn’t be. So he stayed where he was.

A loud sound from the right screen drew his eye from Wilson’s feed. He could see that a fight had broken out. There were people dressed in tactical gear storming in. Knight and Wilson had drawn their guns. Cage was using his body as a shield and punching his way through the crowd.

“It was a trap,” Wilson said as he flew overhead to gain some speed coming down to sweep some opponents off their feet while shooting his way through them. He was using his wings as a shield and weapon.

“Rhodey find them a way out. I’m going to see if I can find out where they’re getting their commands from,” Erik said and got to work. It wasn’t easy because Wilson was constantly moving. They had apparently gotten through some opponents but there were plenty of them and they were only three. The fight wasn’t ending soon enough. They had to get out.

“Wilson I need you to plant the device I gave you on one of them,” Erik said. Sam flew forward right into one the fighters and slapped the bug on his ear.

“Ich will nur den Vogel.”

Shit.

“Y’all need to get Wilson out of there now,” Erik said.

“Sam get out of reach for now,” Rhodes repeated. Sam flew high but all of a sudden he was falling. He hit the ground hard and wasn’t making any moves to get up.

“Wilson,” Erik screamed. That fool wasn’t wearing a helmet. “WILSON!”

“Rhodes,” Erik said.

“Luke and Misty are on the other side of the site,” Rhodey said sadly. They had no other option but to watch as Wilson’s cam indicated that he was being dragged away. Then suddenly there was a quick motion across the cam and Sam was being dropped. When that motion appeared again Erik got a better look and it looked like a pointy star.

“What’s happening Rhodes?” Erik asked. “Is that your back up?”

“Monica is on her way, but she’s minutes out,” Rhodes said confused himself.

Then suddenly they saw a man bending over Sam. It wasn’t actually a man. Even with that Zorro style mask his features looked young. He checked for Wilson’s pulse and then gave a thumbs up to the camera. Erik took a deep breath. Why wasn’t he getting up then? He hadn’t even fallen that far. The boy stood up and that’s when he revealed that he was holding a shield. Cap’s old shield.

“Shit Cap’s black now?” Erik asked.

“Last time I checked he wasn’t,” Rhodes said as stunned as Erik felt.

“Then who the hell is that?” Erik asked.

“Shit, I don’t know,” Rhodes answered. Erik was vibrating out of his skin. He should have gone with Wilson. He was almost ready to laugh. Who cared about being framed? If Wilson died, he couldn’t do shit. If Wilson died….

“Monica has arrived. That boy is apparently fighting those soldiers. So I guess he’s on our side,” Rhodes mentioned.

Erik went back to the footage and tried to run facial recognition but it would take time. Wilson still wasn’t moving and that wasn’t a good sign.

“Dr. Crane is on her way out to you right now,” Rhodes said. The fight was over. “Meet her halfway.”

He saw Cage, Rambeau, Black Cap and Knight bend over Wilson. They looked concerned. Cage picked him up and they carried him to a car.

“Any info on who that kid is Rhodes?” Erik asked. He didn’t answer. “Rhodes?”

“Stevens how did you know they were trying to get to Sam?” Rhodes asked.

“When he planted the bug I heard a voice in German say ‘I only want the bird.”

“This is just a theory, but have you heard of Project Schwarzebitte?” Rhodes asked.

“Rhodes that was a long time ago,” Erik replied.

“Okay you see a nigga with what looks to be Cap’s old shield and you don’t ask yourself even for a moment if there isn’t some truth?” Rhodes asked.

“That dude has to be older than this kid,” Erik said, but even he had to admit that he was curious now. “Wait Rhodes. You might be onto something. It’s the serum. ”

It suddenly all connected in his head. Damn he should have known when he heard about the potassium levels. Doctors theorized that potassium was one of the main ingredients to the super soldier serum. “You might just be right about that kid Rhodes.”

“We’ll bring him in after we get Sam to Dr. Crane,” Rhodes said.

“How is he?” Erik asked. Rhodes seemed to hesitate. “He’ll be fine. I gotta go but I’ll keep you in the loop.”

Erik pulled at his hair. If he was there now he’d at least be busy. Shit just got really complicated and he didn’t know where to begin. Actually he did, he just didn’t want to do it. He wanted to go see Wilson. He wanted to check with his own eyes that Wilson was okay and that he’d be okay, but Erik knew better. Where there had been no space in his former life for Wilson there was no space for a dead man in Wilson’s.

So instead he started his research on Project Schwarzebitte. The answer to it all had to lie there.