“Guys, I got a really bad feeling about the people who just walked in,” Hardison said quietly over his comms. “The woman in the green, she moves like Parker. But the one in the red? Like Elliot.”
“Turn so your button cam can get a good look,” Parker instructed. Hardison obeyed and clenched a smile on his face as Elliot hissed.
“She could kill you five ways before I could get there,” he said.
“Play nice, don’t upset them,” Parker instructed. “We need to get to Klaue if we’re going to bring down Roxxon. What IDs do you have on you?”
“I have David Stone of Stone and Sons Mineral Research, obviously, Lester Barrington Jones CEO, fresh from a cleaning, and Agent Ross of the CIA.”
“Switch from Stone to Ross, it’ll buy you a little distance, Elliot’s trying to identify the newcomers.”
Hardison shifted his stance and prayed it would work. He could do this. He smiled his way through introductions, making a joke about a mixtape, and getting the startling gift of a chance to clone a phone in plain sight as he helped a bodyguard transfer a sample track to his phone. Halfway through the deal, though, all hell broke loose and Elliot came busting through a window to snatch Hardison out of the path of a whirling spear, which what the fuck? Spears? No. No way was he drunk enough for that, and he knew he couldn’t be until the job was done.
Sadly, saving Klaue turned up necessary, which meant the badass in the cat costume and the seriously scary ladies he traveled with followed Hardison back to the hastily constructed “interrogation room” and from there, things just got worse. Gunshot worse.
Hardison had been shot.
Shot, in the gut.
While the gunman ran away with their target.
“ELLIOT!” Parker snapped, and Elliot forced the haze away to listen. She’d guide him true, she was good at that. “Go after the attacker. Find the person who did this, Elliot.”
“Yes Ma’am,” he replied and turned to the chase at hand.
Car chases, for the most part, weren’t very interesting in real life. For one, it worked best if they didn’t know you were chasing them, so no professional ever pulled the kind of acrobatic stunts seen in films. For another, they also didn’t usually want the law chasing them, so they never did either. Which meant a lot of Elliot grinding his teeth and changing lanes, getting ahead of them with shortcuts and taking a loop around a single block to drop back to their position.
Gunfights in junkyards, however, tended to be just as interesting in real life, if somewhat shorter.
And just as annoying, since there was an equal likelihood of betrayal and catching people in the crossfire. And Hardison had established several times his opinions of people who let collateral damage be acceptable. Parker would understand if Elliot simply attacked, if he let it be simple and clean and damn the consequences.
Parker wasn’t the one with the mid-mass GSW.
“Damnit Hardison!” He bent and began cleaning the woman’s wound. “Hi darlin’, I’m Elliot, what’s your name?”
“Good to meet you Linda. I’ll just patch you up real quick, get you to a hospital, and then you can go on your way, okay?”
“No hospital,” she grit out as he removed the bullet from the fatty deposit above her liver. She was one lucky gal. “I’m going after Erik and I’m going to see how HE likes a bullet to the ribs.”
“Erik with a K?” Elliot asked, trying to distract her as he sealed the wound with superglue.
“Yes,” she gasped before shrieking in pain. Superglue did that.
“That’s your problem,” Elliot told her. “My girl Parker always says, Eric with a C, nice and friendly, Erik with a K, evil.”
“He’s not evil, just really shortsighted,” Linda said, regaining her cool. “Now help me up, we’ve got a Wakandan to catch.”
Parker looked at the interior of the stealth plane and decided she was going to try to steal the blueprints as a get-well present for Hardison. But first she was going to find him and reassure herself he was alive. Fortunately, the plane was compact, and it wasn’t hard to find the bed he’d been laid on.
“You will die for trespassing, intruder,” said the woman with the spear from earlier. Okoye, Parker’s mind supplied. Not that helpful, Parker thought back at the little gremlin that supplied her information about people.
“I’m just here to fluff his pillows,” she snarked, stepping away from Hardison. She didn’t want him in the crosshairs when the deadly guard went off. She knew what Elliot taught her worked on most opponents, but she’d also seen this woman fight, and it wasn’t hard to tell she’d lose.
“PARKER,” Hardison screamed, and rolled off the bed trying to reach her. Parker dropped her guarded stance, rushing to help him.
“You idiot, you’ve been shot, you can’t go falling out of bed! What have we said about injuries during a job? If I have to be benched with stupid sprained ankles, you get benched when you’ve been fucking shot!”
Okoye blinked and summoned T’Challa.
Shuri liked her patient. He woke up briefly to kiss his partner’s hand and call her lab ‘Geek Heaven’ before cracking a horrible pun that left his lady smiling through tears that sat oddly on her face.
Shuri liked the girl hovering over him less and less as it became clear she wasn’t intending to leave as Shuri prepared a cleanroom for surgery.
“Go elsewhere, colonizer,” she snapped finally. “I need to focus!”
“Going elsewhere is kind of the definition of colonization, isn’t it?” the blonde asked. “And Hardison…”
“Will be fine, if I can focus. Please, you are worse than my brother. What would keep you occupied? I have puzzles, do you like puzzles?”
“I’m not a child,” the woman, Parker, said, and suddenly Shuri saw the core of fire and steel that Okoye had respected. “And I’m a thief. A good one. I know when not to be invisible, because when the thief goes missing, anything bad that happens becomes my fault. I’m not willing to play that game with Hardison injured.”
Shuri nodded. She could understand that feeling. Her own love of pranks and gadgets had gotten her a reputation, and it was horrible to be blamed when you didn’t even do that one. For someone who spoke of theft with such pride, it would be even worse. All the blame would feel natural to the ones giving it, and the true culprit would walk free.
“It takes a thief to catch a thief, yes?” Shuri asked. “Why don’t you ask Okoye to take you to W’Kabi and the Border Tribe. The person who stole away my brother’s target still needs to be caught, and W’Kabi is motivated to find Klaue.”
Erik was ready to take his place. He’d rehearsed the speech he would give a thousand times, the sounds of Xhosa sitting awkwardly on his lips as he perfected them. He hated that even when technically perfect, the language didn’t sound right as he said it, another loss of his culture, stolen by the Black Panther. But he’d show them. He’d show them all.
He tossed down Kaue’s body and was about to make himself a deal when some skinny blonde chick came out of nowhere like a streak of lightning, howling like rage itself.
“YOU SHOT HARDISON!” she shouted and Erik had just enough time to wonder who that was before he was on the ground, spasming as fiery pain shot from his shoulder to the rest of his body. The pain came in waves of numb whiteness covering his sight, between which there were snapshots of the rest of the world, people shouting, arguing, waving hands. It ended with a desicive snap of the wires coming out of his shoulder and got worse as Linda, sweet Linda, so lovely and lively and fun, appeared over him and pointed a gun at his crotch.
“Miss me, boo?” she asked and only Erik’s flinch made the bullet hit thigh.
Ramonda held her tongue until the story was done. The American her son had saved helped present the information, using images to enhance the description of Erik Steven’s life after T’Chaka had left him to the none so tender mercies of the American family services.
“So, he graduated Annapolis aged nineteen,” Hardison said, unaware he’d just blown the mind of the Queen Mother of Wakanda on what it was like to grow up fatherless and black in Oakland. “That’s really good, by the way, they don’t take people until they’ve finished High School. So then, he got into MIT for grad school. Joined the SEALs and went straight to Afghanistan, where he wrapped up confirmed kills like it was a damn video game. Started going around calling himself “Killmonger” which is probably a sign he needed more hugs as a child.”
“Hardison,” Elliot growled.
“What?” Hardison asked. “It is! Nobody who doesn’t need some serious help calls themselves by their strange death-based nicknames. It’s like that dude from the chocolate festival gig, shark dude, you remember.”
“The Mako,” Parker added.
“Yeah, the ‘Mako’ guy,” Hardison agreed. “That guy seriously needed a more loving home environment growing up.
“Can you just get back to the briefing, please?” Eliot asked. Ramonda made a note that he was very polite, and seemed to be the one who actually recalled the station of the people around him. He had the bearing of a soldier, and that fit with her understanding of him.
“Yeah, sure,” Hardison agreed and continued. “He joined a J-SOC ghost unit, now these guys are serious, they would drop off the grid so they could commit assassinations and take down governments. Hinky shit, very dubious legality in international court, probably a war crime, but there’s almost no evidence and there’s plausible deniability out the wazoo for everyone who would have been giving orders. Honestly, these guys are the military’s version of the people we take down.”
“But he is N’Jobu’s son,” Ramonda asked, not sure what she was hoping for.
“He is, as far as we can tell, Ma’am,” Elliot told her. T’challa nodded from beside him.
“Then he is my nephew, and must learn the ways of Wakanda.” She looked at the Americans. Hardison, vibrant and smiling, a good friend to her daughter, still moving slowly as his injury erased itself. Parker, quiet but joyful in the presence of the two men, a leader and a warrior and a genius in her own ways. Elliot, the serious one, holding hurts in his soul that she recognised. Good men could not always be good leaders, and although he was otherwise nothing like T’Chaka, that same pain reminded her of the King she’d loved. “And you, my friends, must have our hospitality for a little longer.”
“I think I saw Bucky Barnes practicing spearwork with the Dora Milage earlier,” Elliot told them after dinner one night. “He’s such a great fighter. Did you see the footage from DC? That was when he was BRAINWASHED and not even properly conditioned. The swing of his metal arm? I think I just solved the 1984 mystery death of…”
“We get it, Elliot, you have a man-crush,” Parker interrupted. Elliot looked at her.
“Obviously,” Hardison added.
“I do not…” Elliot blushed. “Shut up.”
“I think it’s cute,” Parker said firmly. “If you’d like, we can steal you a supersoldier.”
“What?” Hardison yelped. “You told me, very firmly, I might add, that we could, under no circumstances, steal the android avenger Vision for me. Why is your no stealing people rule suddenly changing here?”
“You wanted to meet Vision so you could make sci-fi jokes and ask to study his code. Elliot wants to meet Bucky so he can get his autograph on a copy of MMA monthly and probably swallow his entire foot. One of these things is creepy and invading someone’s space, the other is normal-ish and has a built in time limit when the person who wanted it gets so awkward it ends naturally. Also, if I let you get too close to AI code, you know you’ll go down the rabbit hole and we’ll have to drag you out to a no-tech vacation to detox. Nobody wants that again.”
“That is very fair.”
M’Baku looked at the girl on his throne and frowned. On one hand, she was clearly an outsider, a white woman in Border Tribe colors, napping on his throne. On the other, her face was curled up into a silent whimper, and her hands clutched furiously at each other, her sleep troubled and her spirit restless.
He prodded her side with the butt of a spear, and jumped back as she leapt straight up into the rafters.
“Who are you!” he demanded.
“Parker,” she replied. “Who are you?”
“M’Baku, leader of the Jabari tribe. This is my home, and that was my chair. What were you doing sleeping in it?”
“Well, the city is great and all, but it’s so loud, and busy.” She dropped from the rafters in a fluid movement. “And I like high places, so I decided mountains looked okay, and this room has the best view. But then I was tired, because of climbing the mountain. And I like wood furniture, it feels nice, so I decided to take a nap.”
“A nap,” M’Baku asked, unimpressed. “Because you like high places.”
She fidgeted, then stilled. “Okay, I’ll be honest. I’m a thief, a great thief, and my crew are the best. We’re famous in the right circles for how many horrible people we’ve bankrupted and sent to jail. We pick up where the law leaves off, and we give the people who can’t fight back leverage to do so. I’m proud of that, so are they, but they can turn it off. Elliot can be a soldier, he can talk to his scary friends about fighting and whatever, and he’s fine. Hardison can be a geek, he’s got his friends who play that game with the elves and orcs and stuff, and now he’s going nuts for all Shuri’s fancy toys, which is great. I know he misses getting to talk to other geeks because Elliot and I aren’t the tech types. But I can’t. I can’t just be normal. I can’t stop the mastermind thinking for this long, and it makes me itch and I can’t sleep. So I went to high ground, because I wasn’t lying, I like high places.”
“Was my throne not comfortable enough then?” M’Baku asked. She laughed, and he smiled. Not many appreciated his dry humor. “Seriously, now, what was your, how do the colonizers say, your night horse?”
“No horses, thankfully,” she replied. “It was about the time I tried to pull an impossible job on my own, because my... Archie was in trouble. In real life, the team saved me, and it all worked out. Our old leader, Nate, he figured out how to do it. In the nightmare, I’m in charge and I screw it all up and everyone dies.”
M’Baku nodded. He knew the terrors that came from second guessing your past. He himself was up so late because he’d dreamed T’Challa had killed him in the challenge, and the new Prince N’Jadaka had challenged as he’d planned, and the Jabari tribe had let the Royal Family die, one by one, at the hands of an American usurper in vengeance for M’Baku’s death. It was unsettling, to fear something that could never come to pass. That was gone and as dead as a possibility could be.
“Come, we’ll make you something to eat, and then find you a proper room, with a bed.”
“No, seriously, HOW did you get M’Baku to invite you to stay in the mountains? Was it a Sophie thing?”
“No, I really did tell him I needed a nap and the city was noisy.”
“The city is not noisy! I installed sound protection on every machine we use!”
“Shuri, girl, let it go.”
“Wrong princess, my friend. Now are you coming to Oakland with me or not?”