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Overcoming Solitude

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As silently as she could, Shuri slipped away when T’Challa spoke to their father about the upcoming assembly. She was almost out when…

“Shuri.”

“Yes, Baba?” she replied, hoping that her smile was sufficiently innocent.

“Where are you going?”

“Out?”

Shuri.”

Automatically, Shuri ducked her head upon hearing her father’s strict tone.

“Please, Baba, please, all I need is a couple of minutes! There’s so much to do and if I stay inside of this … cage for another second, I swear I’ll lose my mind. And it’s a large mind to lose, mind you, might even cause a mess if we’re not careful.” She took a deep breath, “Look, I can’t think and all you’ve talked about is politics and missives and diplomacy and meetings and I will be a good princess and do my best to follow all that, but I need to finish that one little glitch that’s been teasing me and then T’Challa’s new Black Pa…you-know-what is practically finished.” Give or take about three months of work, but hey, who’s counting? She wanted some alone-time with only her tech for company.

The smile Baba gave her indicated that he knew exactlywhat she was thinking.

“Forty minutes.”

“You can’t rush science, Baba.”

“Forty minutes.”

“Yes, Baba.”

With a happy sigh, she sat down in a quiet hallway of the conference hotel’s top floor, her mental calculations faster than she was able to type. The Dora Milaje were within calling distance, but they remained with her brother and her father in the hotel room, trusting the security systems she had personally installed prior to taking up temporary residence in the penthouse floor.

That made her wonder why anybody believed that Wakanda was a poor developing country. But then, the world was generally stupid that way. Perhaps, they just thought the royal family extorted their people and used that money to seal off an entire floor of a five-star hotel.

A quiet whistle from the direction of the staircase had her whirl around, but she did not call out.

She immediately recognized the man standing there (who didn’t, really?). His phone sat in his open palm, and he looked around curiously.

“What are you doing here, Mr. Stark?” she asked, keeping her voice quiet enough so that the Dora were not alerted.

He twisted around on his heels, a deceptively innocent move of a more than dubious man.

“Sorry,” was the reply, somehow managing to keep the exact same volume, even taking different cadences into consideration. That was self-control she would not have given him. Everybody knew of Tony Stark’s impulsive nature.

He lifted his hands in a placating gesture. “FRIDAY told me that she detected noticable EM fields on the top floor that basically blocked any kind of scanner. This hotel does not provide that level of security, so I decided to investigate. Never thought of using vibranium as a superior replacement for glass fibers, but then it’s impossible to get your hands on it, and running simulations on unobtainable material is a waste of time.”

“Your father certainly obtained it,” Shuri replied, knowing her history well enough to remember that Captain Rogers had received a Stark Industries shield made of vibranium. Stark exhaled and his shoulders sagged.

“Yeah, he did. Now that Wakanda is reversing their isolation policy, I’m expecting a lawsuit any day now. I can’t undo my father’s sins, but I can pay for them, so… just send me the bill.”

“What makes you think I have any influence regarding that matter?”

The reply was a low chuckle.

“I doubt the king of Wakanda brings along children for the sake of it, which makes you either a princess or, given that nifty Vibranium suit you’re working on the floor of a really pricy hotel, you are the head scientist of Wakanda, and in view of what I know of the place, that makes you one of the smartest people on this planet. Or you’re both.”

For a moment, Shuri just stared. She could not remember the last time anyone was able to surprise her in this manner. She stared at the holographic code before her and it was still only that: code.

“How do you know what this is?”

“Dr. Princess, you’re using A4T-based programming as a modeling system. I invented that. I can read this like Dr. Dayhoff was able to read a protein sequence.” He did not sound condescending at all; on the contrary, the title and tone implied respect. He seemed curious, his brown eyes warm and slightly amused. “You’re the first person I’ve met who’s able to use the coding system without the hologram option, though.”

“Why? It’s easy enough. The hologram option is too slow anyway. A4T is great for travel-sized equipment. Back home, I developed a B5U system and it’s glorious, but it creates so much metadata it tends to fry regular servers, not to mention a tablet. I will have my first doctorate in computational engineering next year.” She continued, referring to his formal address of her. “The Wakandan university unfortunately has an age limit, which is why it too so long.”

A wide, almost boyish smile appeared on Stark’s face; his eyes crinkled and he looked about ten years younger all of a sudden.

“B5U, hm? Your servers must be… Right, vibranium! Based on what FRIDAY picked up here, it can store up to 6.437ish times the data volume of a high-power server, give or take, but still, how did you make the T to U shift? The initial programming must have taken you at least two years. You can’t have been more than a toddler at the time!”

“Hey!” Shuri could not help but smile at the good-natured jab. “First, I’m sixteen and second, it took me fifteen months.”

And it was one of her greatest accomplishments. Most of her current progress was based on this amazing modeling system. Without modeling, you could not do proper science. She was also aware that without the pioneering work done by Mr. Stark and others, it would have taken her ten years at the least to get where she was now. A4T had been groundbreaking. So was B5U. So would the next generation be. Mother always liked to drive home the importance of respecting the past.

‘If we do not acknowledge what was, we will always start from the beginning and never move forward, never make true progress. This is why Wakanda must open its borders. The world will continue to evolve, whether we participate or not, and one day, we won’t be able to keep up.’

Stark’s head tilted to one side, “Wow. That’s…” He whistled. “Well, I bow to your superior intellect, your Highness. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you did not denounce my claim of your royalty. That being said, we have about thirty minutes until I need to go be an adult. Wanna do some science?”

It was magnificent. Neither of them showed their actual pet projects to the other person, but they talked shop about combining a memory device he had just presented at MIT (thank Youtube for putting that presentation online) with her bio-scanners.

She then had the idea to further develop the device by creating an algorithm that would allow the patient to dissociate the trauma altogether, but then Tony… Yes, roughly twenty-five minutes of science talk was more than enough to be on a first-name basis, thank you for your concern… brought forth a great point.

“First, this needs to be shielded from abuse. Yes, this can potentially change the world and yes, we absolutely should try, because this could help thousands of traumatized people all across the world, but we cannot just go into people’s minds and remove quirks that we don’t like, or go into their heads and…” Tony’s eyes were wide, his breathing shallow. “We can’t or we might cause unbelievable damage.” His hands were shaking slightly, but after a few moments, he was back in control and he continued as if nothing happened. “This also needs to be evaluated and improved by psychiatrists, MDs, neuroscienctists and other experts that do nothing but treat and investigate the brain… Never stop learning from other people, Baby Genius,” It was funny how his nicknames always sounded like an honorific. She called him ‘Old Titanium Alloy Man’ in return. “Other fields can be fascinating and a great diversion for a far too active mind. Also, don’t forget that there is no such thing as a miracle cure for pain and trauma. You might think that, and who knows, you might even pull it off. You certainly have the smarts for it, but there is one thing you should never forget: no matter how kind you would be, you cannot make choices for other people, you cannot change them just because you think you’re helping. Trust me on that.” All of a sudden, this haunted look was back in his eyes. With impressive force of will, he turned the conversation to more pleasant topics by picking up on his previously raised points of listening to experts in their respective fields. Geniuses like her and Tony tended to be allrounders, but there were always geniuses that only ever worked in one field, and they were always worth listening to even if they were technically less smart than you (‘And let’s be honest, in your case, almost everyone is including yours truly.’).

“What do you think you’re doing on a private floor, Mr. Stark?”

Her brother was not happy and Shuri looked up only to see him, their father and the Dora Milaje standing in the hallway; their faces stony and cold. She had not heard them approach, too engrossed in their conversation. Neither had Tony obviously.

He flinched slighty then stiffened visibly, but Shuri was the only one to witness it, because his expression changed to something she did not recognize: gone was the excitable and kind man she had talked to seconds ago replaced by a total stranger with a wide media smile that did not reach his eyes.

“Science?” was Tony’s innocent reply causing Shuri to snicker, but her brother’s less than amused, foreboding expression made her quiet down. For a moment, she could not hold her brother’s gaze and he looked even more furious as a result.

With one smooth move, the American businessman rose from the floor, but a slight groan betrayed his true age.

He took a step forward, but the Dora Milaje silently moved between the royal family and the former Avenger.

Just like before, Tony surrendered by lifting his hands.

“King… T’Chaka, correct?” he addressed her father, lowering his hands slowly. “It’s an honor to meet you. I was checking out the security of the building only to realize that I could not scan the top floor for weapons, so I checked it out, came across River Tam over here and the rest was one of the most fascinating science talks I’ve ever had the opportunity to participate in.”

T’Challa was not impressed. Worldessly ordering Ayo to step aside, who complied instantly, he rose to his full height only a few inches apart from Tony dwarfing the man by approximately nine centimeters.

“And what possessed you to talk to talk to a teenager without permission of her parents or guardian? You are not her teacher; you have no right to be here. If I find any indication that you used my sister’s ideas to improve your notable but inferior technology, I will make sure that Stark Industries never recovers from the avalanche of lawsuits that follow. If you did anything else, if you made a move unbecoming of the age gap between you, there is no need for lawyers for I will end you right here, right now.”

Eyes wide, Tony took an instinctive step back obviously intimidated by her brother’s growled threat, but he recovered quickly and he reversed his retreat so that he was almost toe-to-toe with the Black Panther. It was a foolish move.

“Okay first, hi, my name is Tony Stark. What’s yours? Second, I noticed the age, yes, but I saw the brain first. I was a childhood prodigy myself, and I remember how much I hated it when people treated me like a child as if I could not think for myself. I don’t know what a normal teenager does and neither, I think, does she. Third, I have never stolen anyone’s ideas in my entire life and I’m not starting now. Fourth, even if, in order for me to be able to use her technology, I would need approximately 15 kilogram of pure vibranium to establish even half of the instruments she’s using. Fifth, I’m not interested in children. Sixth, I think you should give her more credit. Why would she fall for an old man three times her age? Finally, threatening my life has never ended well for the people who issued it, Prince of Wakanda.” As he spoke, he stood ramrod straight, his eyes blazed angrily. T’Challa made a noise that almost resembled a growl and Shuri stared. She had never seen her brother this irrationally protective. He did tend to react harshly when somebody questioned her competence, but Tony had not said anything disrespectful. He had not done anything either.

Baba stepped in and put a hand on T’Challa’s shoulder.

“Forgive a brother’s protective streak, Mr. Stark,” said he. “T’Challa, why don’t you ask your sister about her encounter with Mr. Stark?”

“Thank you, Baba,” said Shuri, side-eyeing her brother with a frown. “We just talked about science. Other than that, he only warned me about the pitfalls of being both young and one of the if not the smartest person in a room. Project-wise, I helped him fix a code that’s been bugging him about the Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing algorithm for the past year. In turn, I learned more about alloys in the last twenty minutes than I learned from all of my lectures at Wakandan university combined.”

“It was a fruitful, respectful meeting then,” concluded T’Chaka, eyes warm and amused.

“Yes!” answered Shuri, hands on her hips, frustrated by her brother’s irrational behavior.

“Then perhaps you should introduce yourself, son,” he began in English before switching to their native tongue, “and apologize for attacking a man’s honor without any grounds to stand on. A wise king admits to the mistakes he makes.”

“My name is T’Challa,” said her brother, but the smile was as artificial as Tony’s. “Crown prince of Wakanda and Bearer of the Black Panther habit.” The last title made her newfound friend look at her, obviously remembering the suit he had seen.

“Tony Stark, Heir and owner of Stark Industries, Iron Man, it’s a pleasure.” Again, Tony’s smile did not seem quite right. It could not be compared to his expression when she had let him model a conductor with her tablet, so that he could experience the improvements she had implemented in the A4T system.

“I am glad to hear that you support the Accords, Mr. Stark,” began T’Chaka at an obvious attempt of diplomacy. Tony took the olive branch with remarkable grace.

“My deep condolensces for the Wakandan delegation that lost their lives in Lagos, your Highness,” was his sincere reply.

T’Chaka nodded, “Thank you. Don’t think we are blind to your relief efforts both in Sokovia and Lagos. They are appreciated. Do you know whether Captain Rogers will be here today?”

That tight expression was back for only a moment before Tony replied, “Unfortunately not, your Highness, there was… a loss in his family,” his voice broke slightly and Shuri had the feeling that this loss affected Tony as well. “He needs time to mourn. I was wondering if, perhaps, you would help me advocate for a grace period.”

“The Accords have been a writing on the wall for months,” replied T’Chaka disbelievingly. Baba may seem like a kind, wise old man – and he was – but he was shrewd and strong; there was a reason he was King of Wakanda and the former Black Panther.

“I know,” sighed Tony. He looked down, “I know. I dropped the ball on this, and somehow Thaddeus Ross was chosen as the right person for the job even though his treatment of enhanced people is more than shady.” Shuri had not realized just how tired the man looked until now. “I thought the others followed this whole discussion, but apparently they didn’t, and now we’re here. King T’Chaka, I support the Accords, I want the Accords, but the way things are now, I don’t see how they could end up as anything other than a disaster.”

“And would you not call Sokovia a disaster? Or Lagos? I am not foolish enough to blame you and your teammates for what happened in London or New York for these were forces outside of your control, but the Avengers and single members of the Avengers have been able to operate without supervision for far too long.”

Tony could not hold the king’s gaze. “No, I agree, but if you want compliance, you cannot force your will onto the Avengers, not like that. I am not asking for much. Let’s advocate for a council that does not only consist of Ross and let’s actually meet with the Avengers, let’s talk, because when push comes to shove, I guarantee that the Avengers are well-practiced in the exercise.”

“Is that a threat, Mr. Stark?” asked T’Chaka. The other man’s shoulder sagged in defeat, “No, just a prediction.”

“Your highness,” said Nareema. “It is time.”

“I don’t want to delay you, King T’Chaka. I hope you’ll consider my advice. It was an honor, your Highness. Prince T’Challa, a pleasure. Princess,” he nodded respectfully and smiled genially. “Scary ladies.” He addressed the Dora Milaje. “To a fruitful meeting about the Accords.” Just like that, he turned and left the same way he had arrived.

Immediately, T’Challa reprimanded Shuri, “You should have called us when he arrived.”

“What reason would he have had to harm me? He’s hardly a nameless assassin.”

“Men like him, they look out only for themselves,” was T’Challa’s harsh reply and Shuri bristled. “They use people, and will do anything to look good, rather than do what is right.”

“T’Challa,” Baba intervened, “What on Earth are you talking about? Are you conflating the sins of the father with the fractured image of him that is spread across the internet? I am surprised that you would judge a man before meeting them. Truly meeting them. Not growling needless threats.”

“When we checked the security of the meeting hall, we came across Ms Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow. We talked about her support of the Accords and her remorse over the deaths in Lagos when we witnessed the arrival of Tony Stark at the hotel. She looked surprised and unhappy. Naturally, I asked. She told me that his motivation to support the Accords were more to alleviate his own crippling guilt caused by first his negligence regarding his company’s shady dealings and later his actions that ultimately led to the creation of Ultron. He does not truly believe in accountability.”

“Oh, and she does?” it burst out of Shuri. “So, you’re basically forbidding me to talk about science with a fellow scientist who refused to mention any politics throughout the entire encounter, but you put faith into an actual spy you just met who did not hesitate to badmouth her own teammate to a virtual stranger? All she proves is her own disloyalty.”

Her father’s right hand was lifted and they both fell silent.

“Ayo? What was your impression of Ms. Romanova?”

She lowered her head in respect, “I have not reason to doubt my prince, your Highness.”

Shuri sighed inwardly. In this moment, she missed Okoye fiercely who had stayed behind with their mother, as was tradition when the king left the country. She was the only, one apart from the royal family, other tribe leaders and Nakia, who stood up to her brother when he was being foolish.

“We will talk later and given the discord that I now see within my own family, perhaps we should heed Tony Stark’s pleed for an extension,” suggested T’Chaka.

“Which could as well have been his goal,” said T’Challa.

“Riiight,” countered Shuri incredulously. “Ayo, just how pretty is Ms. Romanova?”

“Very.” Oh, so Ayo was not impressed with the Black Widow.

Widow and T’Challa sitting in the tree,” she sing-songed in English. “K-I-S-S…”

“Shuri!” hissed T’Challa, his lips twitching and Shuri giggled.

“At least I can claim to be impartial to dusty, old guys.” She paused. “Though his brown eyes are very… soulful.” With a loud cackle, she walked away.

They were almost ready to enter the conference hall when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned and looked into his brother’s concerned eyes.

“Will you forgive me, Shuri? I was just worried.”

Instead of answering, she leaned into him so he could hug her.

Chapter Text

Shame coursed through T’Challa like poison. He could feel the heat pumping through his blood; it spread like wildfire and his skin prickled. His heart pounded against his chest.

That had not gone the way he wanted.

Baba was disappointed; he could feel it, even though he had not said anything in addition to his mild reprimand. They had a duty to perform, and the King of Wakanda would not abandon his in order to chastise T’Challa where others could hear it. Shuri may have forgiven him, but she was not happy.

She had every right to be angry; it was remarkable how that walk to the conference hall managed to clear his head from conflicted thoughts.

He had no excuse.

Except for being temporarily distracted.

Except that he had been warned about the nature of a man by someone who knew him well, perhaps intimately (though now he doubted even that; he could not imagine Stark to be foolish enough to bed a viper regardless of what she had alluded), and hours or even minutes later he saw said man crouched on the ground next to his sister, their heads focused on whatever was on his sister’s tablet, looking about twenty years younger than the press photos T’Challa had last seen. His protective instincts had surged forth foolishly, irrationally and all he had been able to think was the Widow’s expression when she had haltingly told him why she could not fully trust her own teammate.

That was not an acceptable excuse.

He had jumped to conclusions and now he had to pay for it. Dreading the Accords meeting more than he had minutes ago, he followed his sister and was immediately met by one of the two people that currently occupied his thoughts.

 “Prince T’Challa, it is good to see you again,” purred the Widow, her cadence low and seductive. On the opposite side of the room, near the windows, was Stark who was animatedly talking to a representative of the Japanese delegation. T’Challa nodded politely, but otherwise avoided the redhaired lady. How could he have trusted someone whose alias indicated duplicity? Nakia and Okoye would laugh their heads off once they heard about this. And they would. Shuri was certainly angry enough.

“And you must be King T’Chaka and Princess Shuri,” smiled the Widow softly.

Shuri huffed and walked away wordlessly. King T’Chaka barely acknowledged her with more than a nod and a comment on Captain Rogers’ absense.

T’Challa used the moments to follow his sister who sat down at her designated seat, winking at Tony whose attention never wavered from the Japanese diplomate, but he did wave at her.

Too agitated to sit down, feeling as restless as one of the great cats on the prowl, T’Challa stood next to his sister, careful not to block her view of Stark. The man in question bowed to the Japanese delegate and casually wandered over to Shuri, not acknowledging T’Challa with more than a polite nod, which was almost identical to the gesture T’Challa had bestowed on the Widow.

“Learning languages is a great way of keeping your mind occupied,” said Stark to his sister. Just like that, he handed over a phone or very small tablet. “Finnish is nice, but you will barely use it. You’re way ahead of me what with knowing all the languages spoken in Wakanda, I would assume. I suggest that you focus on Asian languages.”

Without hesitation, his sister took the phone/tablet and studied it.

“Access to my personal library,” said Stark, “It’s yours.”

Minutes ago, T’Challa would have questioned his motives, but now, observing his sister’s delight and Stark’s expression that was both amused and a bit tense as if unsure with how much suspicion his present would be received, all he felt was more shame.

“No holograms?” asked Shuri, either unaware of or consciously ignoring her brother’s struggles. He would bet it was the latter and even if not, he would deserve it.

“Some things need to be imagined; they should not be handed to you,” was Stark’s smiling response. “That comes from someone who’s both a bibliophile and a lover of the motion picture. Feel free to tweak it,” the man continued gesturing at the device. “I’m aware that this reader is basically Stone Age in terms of programming. I demand a replica of whatever you make, though.”

“Thank you,” said his sister, looking like a ten-year-old all of a sudden. Her delight lightened up her features.

Stark tilted his head to the side giving the distinct impression that he was surprised. He downplayed his reaction quickly by making a dismissive gesture, “Forget about it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some place where I can unobtrusively play with my phone.”

“Mr. Stark,” began T’Challa. “If you would give me a word, I would be grateful.”

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the businessman fired back, turned and walked in the opposite direction. Shuri laughed out loud.

“He one-upped you there, Brother,” she giggled in their native tongue.

T’Challa lowered his head, “Well, nothing I did not deserve.”

St… Mr. Stark – given his irrational misbehavior regarding the man, the least he could do, was refer to him more politely, both in person and in his inner thoughts – stopped and turned on his heels.

“Change of tune, Simba? Mufasa’s grabbed you by the scruff?” he asked.

Shuri frowned, continued in their native tongue, “You understand Xhosa?”

The man denied it with a dismissive hand-gesture, “Nah, but FRIDAY does.” He tipped his left ear and T’Challa could see the hint of a tiny device that probably connected him to this FRIDAY. “Give me a couple of weeks, I’m still learning.”

Before they could continue their conversation, their father returned.

“Apparently, we are still waiting for the delegation from England; there was a delay of their flight. The meeting will start in an hour,” said King T’Chaka in English, his hand on T’Challa’s shoulders; a welcome weight promising security and support. Out of the corners of his eyes, he could see how the other delegates were leaving the room, probably to reconvene after said hour. The Widow watched them, but Ayo stepped in between, nonverbally ushering her to leave as per his father’s orders, most likely. “Mr. Stark, I’ve been thinking about your suggestion, and I will support your endeavor.”

Mr. Stark acknowledged his father with a nod, and thanked him with a handshake. Surprised, Wakanda’s king observed the hand that was in his, “I see that you are not adverse to manual labor, Mr. Stark. I would have thought your suit protected you.”

“It does, but someone needs to build the suit in the first place and metal work has never been easy on the hands.”

“May I?” asked Baba, indicating that he wanted to examine the hands further. He looked curious.

“Go ahead,” laughed the billionaire. “Just don’t read from my palms.” Despite the levity of his tone, his expression could not entirely hide his tension.

Gently, King T’Chaka turned the man’s hands. There were visible callouses, but the fingers were undamaged: the hands of a worker who cared for his hands, not out of vanity but because they were needed for delicate work. Not the hands of a warrior, but the hands of a master builder.

If T’Challa had the ability to turn back the clock, he would.

“Very well,” said Baba. “Now, Mr. Stark… or is it Dr. Stark? A man with your accomplishements will have acquired a doctoral title at some point in his career.” The man in question confirmed that he indeed has three doctorates, but that nobody referred to him as such. ‘Besides, I never did a PostDoc, so my academic achievements are negligible.’ Apparently, that comment was hilarious because Shuri grinned wildly. Wakanda’s king nodded, his eyes warm. “Would you mind joining us for dinner after this is over?”

If he was surprised, the man was very good at conceiling it.

“Certainly. May I ask what you want me to do in return?” there was no hostility in his eyes, but something akin to wariness as if trying to gauge his father’s motives.

“Not much goes past you, does it, Mr. Stark?” smiled T’Chaka.

“Always more than it ought, your Highness.” For just a moment, the man looked haunted, and deeply weary as if running on fumes.

“I ask nothing of you.”

“Except?”

“Except a chance for my son to apologize to you.”

“He should’ve taken it when you ordered him the first time,” was the cold reply. His father, who had not been present for their earlier conversation on Mr. Stark’s language skills, did not even blink at the revelation.

“Ah, but then he would not have meant it.”

“Oh, don’t give me the ‘he’s just my little boy and he made a mistake’ speech; granted I had to grow up much faster than I should what with both of my parents dying when I was seventeen and taking over my father’s empire when I turned twenty-one, but he’s probably around forty now, which makes him a grown-ass man. Without having talked to me once, he insulted my company, questioned my motives, my scientific integrity as well as my integrity as a businessman before he accused me of seducing someone that could be my daughter. Am I just to overlook all of that because he figured he was too harsh in his, and I repeat, initial assessment of me?”

Shuri whistled, “Brother, you better explain now. Not in half-sentences, but fully.”

“He doesn’t have to, Lyra Belacqua. I can already tell you what happened. You see, a redhead approached him, confident but with just a hint of hesitation as if waiting for an invitation she was sure of getting.” Dark-brown eyes turned to T’Challa, looking much less warm than they had a second ago. “She would look at you with wide eyes, softly stating her regret about the losses in Lagos. She would proceed to tell you how important today’s meeting was and that she was looking forward to your father’s speech. She would stand slightly apart from you, but just close enough that she was within reach. Then together you observed my arrival – Oh, don’t look at me like that; I had FRIDAY check the cameras, because while I’ve had some pretty dreadful first meetings, this one takes the cake. Anyway, so the two of you see me enter the hotel. When she recognized me, her expression changed. Just a bit, though, a slight tightening of her lips, a barely noticable frown, and you think you’re the only one who caught it. So, you ask her in a general manner, hoping that she would devulge the necessary information. A slight hint of fear is visible in her eyes and she first denies, but you are oh-so-irresistible that she would tell you and only you everything you need to know. Obviously, she hates talking badly about a teammate, but it was clear that she really needed to let you know that Tony Stark could not be trusted. How am I doing so far?”

T’Challa stared at him in disbelief in the face of the sheer accuracy of his assessment, before he looked away, unable to hold his gaze. He felt like the biggest fool on the planet.

“Don’t sweat it, Puss in Boots. By far more shrewd and jaded souls fell to the siren call of the Black Widow. It’s what she was trained for.”

“You are her friend,” protested Shuri, her eyes wide.

“Correction: I’m her teammate. I amuse her, and sometimes, I even manage to make her smile, and it’s glorious, but she does not have friends. Love is for children, loyalty for fools. Without either, you can’t have friendship. She allowed herself to have a family by proxy, her only friend’s family to be precise, and one person whom she accepts as her moral compass. And neither of them is me. I’m a wildcard and her training does not deal well with those. And yet, I trust her to have my back in the field if only because the cause of the Avengers has given her purpose. Don’t judge her too harshly, Hermione Granger,” interjected Mr. Stark, looking at the teenager with serious eyes. “It’s easy to judge the actions of others. She does what she was trained to do; she wishes to redeem herself and by being an Avenger, she does. Who am I to tell her she shouldn’t?”

“She manipulated my brother to harm you,” Shuri hissed angrily.

“Again, correction: She is placing herself in the best possible position to cushion the outcome of the Accords. I’m just an unavoidable casualty. A wise move, really. I should probably copy it: hang up the suit, go home, take care of my company, but I can’t, because we’re not safe, because I know what’s out there. The Avengers are needed for those threats, but we need accountability for our actions on Earth and this is why I am here today.”

“I am sorry.” It burst out of T’Challa. “I am sorry for hurting you. I am sorry for judging you before I even knew you.”

“We all judge people before we know them. Before we even talk to them. It’s ingrained in us; it’s probably even encoded in our DNA. But that’s not how our first meeting came about: your assessment of me was not this negative because you couldn’t ‘smell me’. It was because you figuratively ‘watched the footage.’ And I have too many friendships built on that premise to add another. I’ve done that trip down the rabbit hole. No matter what you do, you can’t fit into the door they want you to step through: you’re either too big or too small. And there’s no mushroom left for me to adjust my size.” Mr. Stark looked tired when he said that, the edges of his lips forming the ghost of a smile that looked neither happy nor amused. The thought that he had added to the man’s exhaustion, had taken away some of his energy, made T’Challa’s insides twist uncomfortably as another wave of shame coursed through him. He lowered his gaze.

“I apologize. My actions are inexcusable and unforgivable.”

For some reason, that caused Mr. Stark’s eyes to lighten up, “Jesus, Simba, you really need lessons on groveling. Nothing is unforgivable. At least not a shitty first impression. This comes from the absolute master of awful first impressions. Really, if there were a kingdom called Awful-First-Impressionda, I would be its uncontested leader. Though, I must admit, I don’t remember ever accusing anyone of pedophilia.” T’Challa could feel his face heat up. “You know what? As long-standing monarch of Awful-First-Impressionda I name you Knight T’Challa, the Spider’s Thrall, and as king,” his expression softened, “as king, I pardon you. Don’t make me regret it.”

“Is there anything I can do?” asked T’Challa. He was not playful or exuberant by nature, and to be honest, he sort of envied and admired Mr. Stark’s ability to speak almost exclusively in metaphors. However, if a man like that gave you a second chance, not for friendship perhaps but for friendly acquaintances, you took it and you did your best to meet him halfway. “Any way I can show my fealty to the Awful-Frist-Impressionda’s king?” He stumbled over the words, unused to this particular brand of silliness.

“Next time someone leaves a shitty first impression on you, bring them to Awful-First-Impressionda. I’m always looking for subjects,” the other man replied without missing beat, chuckling at their childish jokes, and the crown prince of Wakanda felt his lips twitch. “Now, Princess Mononoke, I can see you fiddling. What are you doing to that poor old reader?” He leaned across the desk, so he could watch what she was doing.

“It only gives, but doesn’t accept any external code?” asked Shuri, eyes focused on the screen, tapping around with playful precision.

“The reader, yes, but it’s connected to a library, which must accept input, doesn’t it?”

“Sure, but this is a one-way street. I cannot reverse the flow of information.” Shuri’s eyes were still focused on the device.

“Yes, but who’s in charge of that?”

For the first time in T’Challa’s memory of his sister except perhaps from when she was an infant, she looked up in confusion, “I don’t understand.”

“A librarian,” answered T’Challa automatically.

With a smile, Mr. Stark took the reader and typed gently before an orange-green code appeared on the screen. T’Challa was by no means a coding expert, but it looked beautiful.

“Everyone, meet Rupert.”

“Are you looking for any book in particular, Miss?” asked a distinctly soft, British voice.

“Shuri, her name is Princess Shuri, Rupert,” corrected the man fondly. “She has access to everything that is appropriate for a baby genius.”

“Idiot Teenager Protection Protocol activated.”

“Hey!” laughed Shuri. “That is amazing. How does he properly interpret idiomatic speech patterns?”

“By being created by me?” was the reply. “All my AIs pick up on it fast. And my older ones have helped me teach the younger ones how it works.” The haunted, heartbroken look was back, and T’Challa wondered whether he thought of Ultron, or something else entirely. “Rupert here’s an old soul and very appreciated.”

Thank you, Mr. Stark.”

Shuri was speechless and it was not a common thing to witness.

If Mr. Stark picked up on it, he did not realize it, his focus was on Rupert. “Creating AIs. It’s not just about kickass algorithms, you know. It’s a process, and it takes years. They must be able to learn and you must teach them. In many ways it’s like raising a child, or rather, a child prodigy that has full access to the internet. They are so, so smart and they learn so very quickly and it’s your duty to teach them morals, to show them what they should and shouldn’t do. They pick up on your bad habits, and they may rebel, but they still love you. Even if you create a limited AI, as their creator, always treat them as if they were people, because they are. Don’t cripple them. If you decide that they should be learning algorithms; don’t downgrade them; don’t corrupt their code. If there is a flaw, explain it to them and tell them why you need to fix it. Ask for permission, otherwise you are practicing a virtual form of eugenics very quickly. Once you create an AI, there’s no going back. You can’t reverse it, or you will do more harm than good.”

Solemnly, Shuri nodded.

Both T’Chaka and T’Challa were not only impressed with how well their new acquaintance dealt with Shuri, but were also grateful that the single-most expert of AI today, cautioned the brilliant princess about the do’s and do not’s of their mutual profession.

“Rupert here is a particular sweetheart,” Mr. Stark continued fondly.

“Thank you again, Mr. Stark. I enjoy my profession.”

“King T’Chaka?” a voice sounded from the entrance door. “Mr. Stark?”

“Yes, Tobin?” said the businessman, encouraging a middled-aged man in a suit to continue.

“All the delegations have arrived. It will be possible to start in five minutes.”

Their father thanked the man, and proceeded to walk toward the podium, but not before thanking Mr. Stark for his time and telling him that he was looking forward to their dinner.

The call for the beginning of the session rang as people were filling the room. With ease, his father demanded everyone’s attention when he began his speech.

“When a stolen Wakandan vibranium was used to make a terrible weapon, we, in Wakanda, were force to question our legacy. Those men and women killed in Nigeria, were part of a good will mission from a country too long in the shuttles.”

T’Challa was close to the window, a silent shadow to protect Wakanda’s king.

“We will not, however, let misfortune drive us back. We will fight to improve the world we wish to join. I am grateful to the Avengers for supporting this initiative.”

Something out of the corner of his eyes called his attention. He frowned as he peaked out of the window.

“Wakanda is proud to extend its hand in peace.”

His heart stopped. He remembered screaming and taking one desperate leap to protect his father, but he already knew that he was too late. He turned his head away from the window, both to make sure Shuri was safe and to protect his face.

The window shattered, but there was no impact. T’Challa looked toward the source of the sound.

What looked like a flattened and scattered Iron Man suit covered the portion of the window destroyed by the impact; through the roar of the explosion, he could hear the metallic sound of an armor snapping in place. He grabbed his father and pulled him to the ground.

T’Challa looked up to see Ayo and Nareema standing in front of Mr. Stark who was covering Shuri. Teela was by T’Challa’s and Baba’s side in seconds.

People were screaming, the panic spread across the room.

“Please, everyone, settle down,” said Wakanda’s king calmly, brushing off this moment of mortal danger as if it was nothing. “Mr. Stark, I believe everyone would agree that Iron Man’s presence would be very helpful, right now.”

“Of course,” said Mr. Stark. “Widow, help with the evacuation. Ladies, please help us protect the civilians in addition to the royal family of Wakanda. Black Panther, your assistance would be very appreciated.” With that he walked to the window where his disassembled suit was still hovering in the air. He seemed to double-check something before he put his phone to his ear somehow establishing a direct line to the police where he placed what seemed like an impossibly accurate description of the power of the explosive with suggestions on how such a device might have been built. Then, he snapped his fingers and the suit wrapped around him.

“Are you looking for the attacker?” asked T’Chaka.

“No, I first need to make sure this building won’t collapse.” With that he stepped out and flew away. “We’ll find out who did this, I promise.”


And they did: James “Bucky” Barnes, the Winter Soldier, and Captain Rogers’ closest friend.

T’Challa was next to Mr. Stark – ‘Tony, please, your Simbaness’– when they found out. All the man had to say to that was, “Shit.”

For safety reasons, both T’Chaka and Shuri were brought to a secure location, courtesy by Stark Industries. Since T’Chaka was the obvious target, Tony did not want to take any chances. T’Challa offered his assistance, but the creator of the Iron Man suit refused, “Sorry about that, Bagheera, but I don’t know you. I don’t know how you fight; I don’t know how you think. You’re a prince, which means you’ll do what you think is right regardless of what I might say. And you’re a trained warrior; I can’t trust you not to kill when it comes to protecting your family. I don’t want risk any casualties. They’re my friends. We can talk about this.”

Next thing he knew, Wakanda’s king and his only son sat in front of a television watching the alignment of Iron Man, War Machine, Vision, the Black Widow and what seemed like the ‘Spiderman’ vigilante from New York on one side, and Barnes, Rogers, Hawkeye, Falcon and the Scarlet Witch on the other. To T’Challa, according to the limited footage at his disposal, it seemed like Iron Man only wished to talk.

Inevitably, it came to a fight. It was scary and exemplified why they needed the rules that Rogers’ team seemed to scorn so much.

“Where is Shuri?” asked T’Chaka all of a sudden when they heard something shatter close by. Worried, they looked at each other before they simultaneously ran towards the source of the sound. What they found was Shuri sitting in front of a toaster, a lamp, and what was once were the weapons of the Dora as well as several other metal pieces that were slowly taking the form of a protective suit.

“Shuri?”

With a loud clatter, she threw the initial makings of a mask to the ground. Her left hand was bleeding.

“I don’t know how he does it!” She shouted, a hint of hysteria clouding her tone of voice. “How the hell does he make it fly?”

“Shuri, please, little one…” began T’Chaka.

Furious, the sixteen-year-old looked up, staring right at T’Challa, “This is all your fault! He would have accepted your help if you hadn’t behaved like a complete jackass!” She was up and pounded angrily against his chest, “I want to help him, but I don’t know how.”

T’Challa ignored her fists and pulled her into a hug, trying to soothe her, “He would not want you to be in danger.”

“He could die,” she sobbed, utterly distressed. It was still difficult to grasp just how fast that bond had formed.

“Nobody will die. They are friends,” he countered softly.

“Friends?!” She asked doubtfully and gestured at the only electronic device in the room she had not taken apart: a television screen. With horror, T’Challa watched as Iron Man was buried in cars controlled by the Scarlet Witch. “Does this look like a friendly fight to you?”

Chapter Text

Shuri was both right and wrong, a state of being she was unfamiliar with. Nobody was killed, but the fight had not been friendly. War Machine – Colonel James Rhodes, she remembered – was badly hurt. The Widow had turned on Tony mid-way, dangerously destabilizing Iron Man’s defense strategy. Rogers and Barnes got away, but the rest was captured. She was not sure about the Widow.

Thankfully, both her father and brother wished to go to the hospital where they had brought Rhodes (thank Bast for her father’s influence). She did not even have to beg them for it.

The royal family of Wakanda arrived just in time to witness a conversation between Tony and the Widow. It was impossible to guess what it was about, but when they were done, the engineer looked devastated and tired. For some reason, he let the turncoat walk away.

Baba announced their presence by calling her new friend’s name. Very briefly, he smiled, but it disappeared quickly.

They inquired after his friend’s health and the news was quite alarming. Tony looked about two seconds away from crying: his eyes were glassy and his face haggard.

“Actually, I have recently dabbled into the peripheral and central nervous system because I wanted to know how the brain works,” said the teenager, hoping to offer some sort of support; she was better at technial than emotional support after all, so this was the strategy she chose. “There’s still work to be done, but I think – if you give me some time and access to the right neurologists and neurosurgeons – I might be able to help him recov-“ before she could finish her sentence, she was enveloped by a pair of remarkably strong arms. Tony let go as quickly as he had hugged her.

“Sorry, Baby Genius, I didn’t… Thank you,” there were definite tears in his eyes now, his lips forming a touched smile. “The nervous system is hard,” he began, “I’ve got some ideas for braces to help with the initial recovery, but if you were willing to help… Any expenses I’ll gladly pay for.” Shuri closed the uncomfortable distance and she hugged him as tightly as she could before letting go and stepping back.

“You have saved my life. This is the least that we could do in return,” countered Baba solemnly.

“Thank you, your Highness.”

“What is your plan now?” asked her brother.

“Talk to the others, find out where Steve and Barnes escaped to. Something he said keeps bugging me. I’ve got to talk to him.” The last sentence was muttered under his breath.

“Will you accept my assistance this time?” ask T’Challa.

“No can do, Pussycat,” replied Tony, his smile apologetic. “You are unauthorized. I’m lucky if they let me see the team. Besides, they might not talk to me, but they definitly won’t talk to you, a virtual stranger.”

“After you met with them, perhaps, and you know where Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes are?”

“No, because… if you insist on paying debts for a saved life, your Highness, pretend you’re not hearing what I have to say next… Steve might need my help; if there is a real threat, I want to help and I hope the Accords will allow that much freedom. This whole thing, I did not handle it well. I failed to defuse the situation; Steve does not respond well to antagonism and I should’ve never mentioned Maximoff… my fault. If I had listened to him when he said there was a threat, perhaps Rhodey w-,” he took a shuddering breath. “I want to make sure I’m not missing anything. I don’t think there is much that two supersoldiers can’t handle, but they might require backup nevertheless.”

What on Earth had that duplicitous bitch said to Tony? Had she blamed the whole thing on him? Why would he accept such blatant lies?

If T’Challa’s thoughts were similar, he did not show it; he merely asked whether Tony might need backup for meeting Rogers and Barnes.

“Awww, you do care, Bagheera, that’s too kind,” Tony teased him before continuing in a more solemn tone, “Look, I’m not facing some enemy that has a grudge on me. Rhodey’s injury was friendly fire, and sure, they used more force than we did, but that’s because War Machine and Iron Man could be deadly in a serious clash, and we did not want to hurt them. The others had much more leeway. They know how hard we are to be harmed in a serious manner. None of that changes one fact for which I would put my hand into a fire: Steve Rogers is an honorable man.”

“Tell that to the people that were thrown around and badly hurt on the streets of Bucharest,” countered Shuri, not feeling very generous.

“He’s acting on impulse when it comes to Barnes, true, but I have no intention of hurting Barnes. Besides, Steve is my friend. We’ve worked together for years. I trust him. I’m safe. You wouldn’t be.”

That made sense… In a way. Although Shuri could not help but feel that Tony put a lot of faith in a man whom she had not heard utter one kind word to Tony ever since she was involved in this whole mess.

“What do you want us to do?”

“Could you stay here? Just in case Rhodey wakes up. I won’t be gone for long. I know you are probably heading home soon, but… Vision’s here, but I’d feel better if I knew you stayed until I return. The hospital is not an optimal place for dinner, but before you go back to Wakanda, I’d like to have that promised meal.”

They agreed readily, though both Shuri and T’Challa were reluctant to let him go alone. Their father was the one to remind them that ‘Mr. Stark knows Captain Rogers better than we do. Even if you don’t trust the captain, you should trust Mr. Stark’s intuition.’

The hours crawled by after Tony’s departure. After twenty-five novels, two Black Panther habit improvements, the latest editions of “The Principles of Neural Science” by Kandel et al., “Neuroscience – Exploring the Brain” by Bear, Connor and Paradiso, “Ion Channels of Excitable Membranes” by Kalat, several publications on the regeneration of neurons and after a fascinating talk with Dr. Helen Cho – Tony really wasthe world’s greatest multitasker if he could bring Shuri in contact with Dr. Cho while meeting with his (former? He did not talk about them as if he resented their actions against him, which confused Shuri to no end and she found that she did not like being confused) teammates – she decided to go to sleep, though her brain was playing all kinds of tricks on her as she imagined all the horrible ways how this could go wrong. Unable to sleep on her own (too many thoughts, possibilities, too many little things she wanted to do and improve), she went to Colonel Rhodes’ room where her father was playing chess with and losing to Vision (checkmate in three moves). T’Challa, sitting on a comfy couch next to the colonel (the perks of being rich, one could say, was that you could acquire comfortable furniture wherever you wanted or needed it), was finishing up some work on the tablet she had given him a few months ago. The Dora Milaje were taking turns; right now, Ayo was on watch (which reminded her that she needed to write to Okoye). Wordlessly, Shuri went to her brother and curled up next to him, so that she could lean on his strong chest. His slow heartbeat (22.3% lower than your average human due to the effects of the Heart-Shaped Herb) effectively soothed her as always and she was almost asleep when she heard Rupert’s voice.

“Princess Shuri, Mr. Stark has uploaded a book into the library and gave me the order to read it to you.”

“Rupert?” muttered an unfamiliar voice from the bed and they all turned to see the colonel looking at them in confusion.

In the tone of a monarch soothing their subjects, Baba gently introduced themselves, their association with Tony and why they were here.

Something about the calm way that Colonel Rhodes took the whole news was deeply impressive. He looked exhausted but more concerned with his friend’s absence than his own pain. A doctor was called to examine the US Air Force officer who took it with stoicism and unwavering politeness. He was as steady as a rock even upon hearing devastating news and Shuri was officially impressed. He had even addressed her directly, which was something few people did when she was in a room with both her father and brother.

‘Princess Shuri, Tony’s mentioned you with giddy delight. He always believed that the next generation would be better than ours and that they would bring the world further than we ever could. He always thought that, even when he was technically considered to be the next generation. It’s one of those beliefs that never changed. Just like his insufferable smugness when one of these beliefs turn out to be true.’

“Sorry, Rupert,” said the colonel all of a sudden, and Shuri startled, having completely forgotten that Tony’s librarian had mentioned a book. “You were saying something?”

“Thank you, Colonel Rhodes, for hearing me. Mr. Stark has uploaded a book with the following story:

 

You Can’t Take the Sky From Me

A Firefly fanfiction, by the Mechanic

A/N: This story is dedicated to River Tam, the most gifted of them all. She was a gift after all. Only this River never had to go to the Academy and was able to spread her wings and fly.

Tags: This did not go the way I thought it would; Simon Tam to the Rescue

 

River opened her eyes, stood up and went to her brother’s room.

“Simon, wake up, you’ve got to go to 61° 0' 49.356'' N / 99° 11' 47.958'' E. There you’ll find a hidden house. You need to go and pick up Scotty because he’s unable to beam up to the Enterprise. Instead, he asked me if you could bring the Serenity.”

“What did he say?” asked Simon, rubbing his eyes.

“He said that ‘Scotty from the USS Enterprise hails Simon Tam for a temporary ride with the Serenity. He’s waiting at the coordinates 61° 0' 49.356'' N / 99° 11' 47.958'' E. He also said that it is safe. There are no Reavers here.”

 

TBC? Let me know what you think

 

That is all, Colonel Rhodes,” the virtual librarian finished.

“Thank you, Rupert” said the colonel. He did his best to appear calm (probably in order not to alarm Shuri), but he looked pale and it had little to do with pain. “Prince T’Challa, I can’t come with you, but I hope you’re ready to take the Serenity and go pick up Scotty.”

“I want to go with you,” protested Shuri, barely suppressing a whine. “He’s my friend! He’s rejected your help twice because you were being an idiot.”

“And now he’s asking for help,” countered the colonel gently, his eyes as warm as Tony’s. “Through you. I have not seen Tony this excited about anyone since he met Dr. Banner. Don’t doubt that and listen to him. There’s usually a reason why he does the things he does. I don’t always understand, condone or know said reason, and I have reacted less than ideally to some of his choices in the past, but you should listen to him.”

Pressing her lips together tightly (either to suppress her frustration or to keep them from trembling, she was not sure with), she nodded reluctantly.

“Now, I went to college with Tony, so I know quite a bit about mechanical engineering myself. I’m not so familiar with the computational field, though. Would you mind explaining the A4T system to me again? If the future is B5U, I need to keep up.”

The obvious attempt at a distraction should not work, but she did not hear her father and brother leave the room.


Nareema and T’Yana accompanied T’Challa. They would take the royal jet with stealth capabilities and, just for a moment, T’Challa felt a bit hypocritical: here they were, father and son, demanding accountability from the Avengers while being in possession of defensive weapons and technology that surpassed most countries’ entire arsenal by far. He would mention this to Baba once they retrieved ‘Scotty’.

“Open all frequencies, but exclude all airports and official radio chatter,” he ordered T’Yana as they began their journey. “Do not hail anyone, but listen in. Perhaps Mr. Stark has created some sort of radio frequency.”

For a few minutes, nothing happened, but then music started to play.

“Could that be him?“ asked T’Challa, frowning because the melody sounded familiar.

“We could just be picking random noise,“ suggested Nareema, serious as ever.

“Ever since when does Shuri’s tech do that?“ countered T’Challa, more than a little doubtful.

“We are too far away. How could he hail us on this frequency?“ interjected T’Yana, but her fingers flew across the pannels.

“How did he build his first Iron Man armor while in captivity and trapped in a cave?”

...Please don't break my heart in two
That's not hard to do
'Cause I don't have a wooden heart 

“Wooden heart!” he exclaimed. “Isn’t the power source of the armor an arc reactor in his chest?”

And if you say goodbye
Then I know that I would cry
Maybe I would die
'Cause I don't have a wooden heart

“Hail back,” T’Challa ordered, his heart pounding in his chest. “Play the Ballad of Serenity as an answer call.“

Thank Bast, the Dora did not question his orders.

Take my love, take my land,
Take me where I cannot stand.
I don't care, I'm still free,
You can't take the sky from me. 

Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain't comin back. 
Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can't take the sky from me.

“Hey there, Simon,” 
Mr. Stark’s voice sounded through the speakers. He sounded exhausted despite doing his best to sound cheerful. “How’s River?“

“Worried, mostly, but safe with your friend. Colonel Rhodes woke up and is remarkably well, all things considered,” replied T’Challa. All he heard as a reply was a relieved sigh. The crown prince then told him that they were on their way and asked him what happened.

He did not expect the choked sound of a suppressed sob.

“He killed her,” was the reply. “The Winter Soldier killed my mom. Steve knew, he’s known for a long time and he didn’t tell me.”

He did not even know Mr. Stark well, but the desperate grief in his voice was terrible to hear.

Bit by bit, the man told them everything. About arriving at the bunker, expecting to fight HYDRA supersoldiers, only to become an unwitting part of Zemo’s revenge plan and then ending up actually fighting supersoldiers; only this time they were supersoldiers he had viewed as allies. He told them how they incapacitated his suit and left him behind in the crushing weight of a dead armor.

He also told them that he had had time to think in the hours and minutes since; he knew that Barnes had been brainwashed and was ultimately just a murder weapon in HYDRA’s hands, but that he had not been able not think things through rationally.

“I just lost it. First time in my life I ever completely blacked out. All I saw was my parents’ killer. That and… Steve knew and he didn’t tell me. What did he think I would do if he told me right after he found out? Kill Barnes? Barnes was MIA at the time, even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have. I did not even want to kill him after I watched the video, though I will admit that I wanted to beat the crap out of that face and destroy the fucking arm that murdered my mom.”

Mr. Stark started to breathe heavily, his physical and mental pain obvious. Hearing those weak, broken sobs over the slight crackling of a bad radio connection was one of the most awful sounds T’Challa had ever been forced to bear witness to.

“Barnes must be in terrible pain now and there is this awful part of me that is happy about it and that wants him to suffer, but then I realize that it was not his fault that HYDRA used him, that he did not choose to live through seventy years of hell. And then I think about how he broke his conditioning for Steve Rogers but not my mom who was the sweetest soul on the planet… or children. The Winter Soldier killed all witnesses, right? He must’ve killed children. But then he had probably reached the end of his latest brainwashing cycle and was due for another session, which was the only reason why he spared Steve, and I feel awful for hating him. It’s been hours and I keep thinking, ‘They might come back. They might realize that all I needed was some time to process this. They’ll know I wouldn’t attack Barnes a second time. Couldn’t even if I wanted to. They must know that.’” Again, there was that awful sound between a sob and a pained outcry. “Then I have to accept that they won’t. They’re soldiers and I was their teammate. I’ve worked with the military for the majority of my adult life. Isn’t ‘No man left behind’ part of their philosophy or were things different during World War II? Did they just let people with a temporary mental breakdown freeze to death?”

Just as he said that, distinct clatter that sounded like teeth chattering from the cold, echoed through the radio.

“Never thought I’d miss the desert,” muttered Mr. Stark, his speech patterns starting to slur slowly as if these past few minutes drained him to the brink of unconsciousness. “It wasn’t so damned cold and things were pretty black and white. Now? Things are not nearly as clear.” T’Challa wanted to contradict; things were extremely clear on his end. But the broken man continued before he could say that, “Sometimes I wish I could turn back time and die in that cave or in that wormhole. So many bad things would not have happened if I had.”

“I have not seen my sister this happy and childlike since she was a toddler and unaware of the burden that her gifts would bring.”

“Oh, I know, poor kid.” True sympathy was woven in these few words and the fact the man could even feel empathy for his sister who, thankfully, did not have to live through a fraction of Mr. Stark’s hardships, told him everything he ever needed to know about the man’s character. He wondered if the pang of guilt would ever lessen. “Not sure if having an amazing science converation with one of the smartest souls I ever met is worth the hundreds or even thousands of people I hurt through negligence. No matter how much of a treasure she is.”

“Mr. Stark…”

“Tony, please, Simba…” a low chuckle that told T’Challa they needed to hurry up because they were the first indicators of delirium. “It’s perfect, Simon…Simba, should I call you Simbon?”

“Tony, I don’t know you, and I’m in no position to contradict whatever you’re thinking of, but perhaps you should think about what your friend James Rhodes or what Vision would say to that.”

“Right,” he sounded doubtful. “All I can do is do the right thing now and continue to do so until I die. Perhaps, one day, I will be forgiven. And, if I’m lucky, I might be able to forgive myself.” There was a moment of silence before… “Simbon, I’m closing my eyes, okay? Just for a sec. I’m tired.”

“No, you will not,” T’Challa responded firmly.

“I don’t respond well to authority figures, Bagheera.”

“How about I tell you about Wakanda and the Black Panther, while you… tell me something about the latest science publications you’ve read.” He was reaching, but the man had just poured his heart out to him while suffering from heartbreak and hypothermia. He would not dive deeper before Tony was of sound mind.

“Quid pro quo, Clarice.”

Around one hour and a remarkably fascinating recap of this year’s scientific breakthroughs in biomechanical engineering later (“Cancer Nanotherapy, it’s amazing. I’ve helped some of the experts as a consultant, very promising.” and “Of course, SI will dabble in prosthetics next. Some outstanding progress has been done in recent years, and I will definitely consult with these experts. I know we can improve the brain-prosthetic interface. There’s always something to improve. River Tam would be a great asset in this project.”), they finally arrived at the bunker.

Thanks to Nareema’s gentle interrogation technique, they knew exactly where to go. The armor was in pieces and cannibalized into a fully functional long-distance radio as well as an interface to contact Shuri via Rupert. Stark sat next to these devices, curled together with his hands wrapped around his stomach, covered by the material of his flight-suit (‘Protection to avoid frostbite, Prince Obvious,’ his mind supplied, which sounded suspiciously like a mix of his sister and her– and hopefully his – newfound friend). Leaning against a wall he had isolated with scavenged material for temperature preservation, Tony looked ancient and very small.

With slightly feverish eyes, he looked at them, “Is that you, Simba? You brought the lionesses of Pride Rock, I see. If you don’t mind, I’ll go to sleep now.” Just like that, he closed his eyes and slipped away.

Alarmed, T’Challa stepped forward, and was relieved to feel a steady albeit slightly weak pulse. Carefully, they wrapped him in blankets that Nareema had been wise enough to borrow from the hospital. T’Challa effortlessly picked up the unconscious man and they returned to the jet, careful to take anything with them that could be of use as either evidence or any Stark technology that needed to be protected from unfriendly hands (which was pretty much everything that was not covered in rust). They also found the frozen body of what had to be Zemo, who appeared to have committed suicide, and the tapes, as well as the dead HYDRA operatives.

The cleanup took a while, and they never left Tony alone. He was badly hurt, hypothermic and exhausted ('You’ll never be able to convince me that you did not want to kill him, Rogers. You were just too much of a coward to do it yourself and wanted to let the cold do it for you,’ T’Challa thought viciously), but despite his injuries he had obviously taken all necessary precautions that no injury would have long-lasting effects.

On their silent flight back, Nareema asked T’Challa, “What will happen now?”

“Now we take him to the hospital and let him recover. Then Wakanda will join the world. Hiding away is no longer an option. Not with ‘heroes’ like Rogers.”

“Our neighbors will be angry,” she voiced a concern T’Challa had mentioned to his father many times. “We prospered while they suffered. They will not forgive or forget our absence.”

“Then Wakanda will follow the path of a wise man and seek redemption for the rest of its days. Hopefully, the world will be more gracious with us than it is with Tony Stark.”