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Fireblade

Chapter Text

The next words out of my mouth after telling Pepper that the Extremis virus I thought had never even taken in my body had seemingly roared to full fiery life were, “Please don’t tell Bucky.”

“Chrissy, you can’t just not tell—”

“I’m not going to not tell him. For heaven’s sake, Pep, I am not going to pull some soap opera bullshit and manufacture an excuse to break up with him and then crawl off and die, in some—misguided attempt to spare his feelings. But I want to have something I can tell him, other than ‘hi hon, I glow now’. I need to know what the hell happened here, and what can be done about it, if anything.”

Pepper stood up from her desk chair, her face set. “Oh, something can be done, all right. We’ll find it, and we’ll take care of this. Tony can do that. I’m a bit surprised you didn’t go to him first—” Then she stopped, and her face changed. I didn’t even have to ask what she had just realized. “Oh,” she said again, in a smaller voice.

“Yeah. That’s why I didn’t go to him first. That’s why I came to you.” While she processed the enormity of this unwelcome arrival, I went on, “Have you noticed anything weird about yourself lately, Pep, anything that might tie in with—this?”

She shook her head, and propped her backside against the edge of her desk as though unsure her knees would continue to hold her. “How can you be sure whatever happened to you is Extremis?”

I told her what had transpired the night before. “It’s been building for a while though, I think; a couple of years, maybe. There’ve been things I ignored or explained away, but obviously, looking back, they were red flags. I’ve been getting hot and sweaty, usually when I’m upset or mad. Or my hands would get prickly, and tingly, and at times I—I remember thinking I felt like I could explode from the inside.”

“That day I came home from Asia,” Pepper said suddenly, “the day the boys brought Bucky back. You were freaking out, because Ross was downstairs, and you thought you were having an anxiety attack—but you felt hot when I touched your forehead. I thought you had a fever!” She slapped the desk top angrily. “If we’d checked you then, maybe…maybe.” With a sharp sigh she stood and straightened her skirt. “No use wishing for do-overs now. Come on, let’s get to Tony, and get you, and me, checked over.”

With a quick word to her assistant, Pepper led the way to the secure Avengers’ elevator. “I don’t understand how this could be,” I griped. “Extremis never even showed up in my system in an active form.”

Pepper shook her head, then took my hand in both of hers and held my eyes. “Don’t be afraid, Chrissy. We’re here for you. You know that. Granted, that first sentence I just said is pure bullshit and I know it, but I had to say something.” We exchanged grins as the elevator door opened into Tony’s dungeon, to the teeth-rattling decibels of his chosen headbangers for the day. With a silent prayer for strength and calm, I followed Pep out. “Tony!” she called.

“Back here, Pep.” His voice barely carried over the rock, but I followed it to a corner where Tony was tossing holoscreens from side to side like a cat batting at a hanging toy. “Oh. Hey, cornbread. I thought I heard Potts.”

“You did, she’s…” I glanced around and realized Pepper wasn’t beside me as I had thought; instead she was some feet behind, with an odd look on her face. “Didn’t you hear him?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “How long has this been going on, Chrissy? According to my physician, my hearing is perfectly normal, but there’s no way I could have heard him and localized the sound with—"

“JARVIS, cut the music,” Tony ordered halfway through, and I winced at Pepper’s near-yell. “Now, say again, Pep?”

Pepper just gave me a look and a vexed little nod, as if her case was made, and really, yeah, it was. She was standing only feet away and hollering, and Tony, whose hearing was likely as normal as hers, couldn’t make out what she was saying; yet I had heard him call, from a distance, despite the loud music. “Damn,” I said slowly, as shocked realization struck me again. “You’re right. Bucky and Peter have both commented on my endurance, too, and sometimes I can almost keep up with Pietro. I could've heard stuff I shouldn’t have been able to hear before, and just not realized it.”

“You have.” Tony’s face, when I turned on my heel from Pep toward him again, looked as shaken as hers. “I thought I was missing something, you were somewhere other than where I thought, but—what the hell’s this all about?”

“Extremis,” I said quietly. “It’s back, Tony, I’m so sorry, dammit, I don’t know how…”

He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t have to. The carefully reined-in alarm in his eyes said it all.

I spent every waking moment for the next several days tackling the madness that my life had become, head on. Finding myself the unwelcome host to a newly roused supervirus that could flambe me at any time did not change the fact that my job still had to be done. The Avengers needed what I could do, for as long as I could do it; but I put extra effort into making sure every note was backed up and every task thoroughly documented, in case something happened and someone had to step in with no notice to take my place.

I could never guess when the smolder in my body might bust loose again, and I took steps accordingly. While I tried to carry on my daily tasks as usual, I was careful not to touch people as much as I previously had. I asked Tony to keep the number of people in the know as small as possible for as long as possible. I swore JARVIS to secrecy and moved into the Hulk room at night. There was less stuff to catch fire, there in the most secure and solid part of the tower, so less risk of me inadvertently causing a conflagration.

When I wasn’t doing PR, dealing with marketing, and monitoring social media, Tony was putting both Pepper and me through every physical test he could imagine, consulting long-distance with Helen, and sending her an assortment of tissue and fluid samples from us both, taken deftly by May once she was pulled into this particularly strange loop. Pepper set about tracking Maya Hansen down; they had stayed in touch more consistently than Maya and I had, but Pep had lost contact after Maya was paroled last year. Bruce wasn’t there for us to pick his brain, but Tony unearthed the notes they had made years ago.

The test results were unsettled, to put it mildly. One positive note was Pepper’s totally normal scores on every measure, and I clung to that hopeful facet of the whole mess. I, on the other hand, tested out as decidedly not normal. My strength, speed, stamina, and senses were clearly enhanced, though not insanely so, as in super-soldier level. At rest, my body temperature was slightly elevated, but under thermal imaging, I didn’t appear much different from anyone else. Tony said this was very strange, because the Extremis-infected minions of Aldrich Killian had glowed like a barbecue grill under similar scrutiny, and so had Pepper.

Helen’s analysis of the samples May had taken from me was contradictory. My platelets, the cells that aid blood clotting, responded oddly to some of her tests, and she asked May to check my clotting time. That proved difficult, since when she poked me with a needle, the stick healed with a tiny spark of light that nearly sent May through the ceiling tiles in surprise the first time it happened. “You told me about this,” she puffed, “but there’s a hell of a lot of difference between being told something and seeing it for yourself.”

With that little embarrassment out of the way, and my blood appearing to clot normally, she and I embarked on our own set of small experiments to determine how long it took my newfound healing factor to close incisions of varying degrees. It was a little bit gross, I admit, but we were doing science, even if we were doing it on me. Tony did not see it that way, and pretty much lost his shit altogether when he walked into the Avengers sick bay and found May and me staring in mingled fascination and disquiet as a cut several inches long on my leg sealed itself shut after a little bleeding. “What the fuck, Chrissy?” he yelled. “What was next, cut your goddamn leg off and see if it grows back?”

“Maybe I ought to!” I snapped back. “Better to know right now what this shit in me is gonna do or not do. If nothing else—if this can’t be fixed, and I’m a threat to myself, or to y’all, at least we’d know how hard you’d have to repulsor me to kill me!” I could have bitten my tongue off the next instant, at the way Tony’s face just went slack with horror. Then again, now, the damn thing probably would have grown right back, just for spite. “Fuck. Tony, I didn’t mean—I would never ask that of you, I swear to God I wouldn’t, but I’ve got to be real about this.”

“We’re being real,” he said finally, his voice low and harsh and every word distinct. “We are being fucking real, and that is not going to happen. Whatever I have to do to fix this, to protect you, I’m doing it, baby sis.”

He shook his head a fraction, and looked down and started to turn away. I reached for him and couldn’t catch myself until my hand was already on his shoulder. “Shit,” I said and pulled back. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to keep my hands to myself, I never know when I might hurt somebody—"

He caught my wrist, spun on his heel and bodily hauled me into an embrace. “I’ve hurt enough,” he said fiercely. “I don’t care. You don’t want to hurt me, cornbread? Then don’t do this. Don’t give up, don’t run out on me—on us—please don’t. What we did worked for Pepper, we just have to figure out what to tweak to make it work for you, and we’re going to.”

After a moment, May said, “You’re both right, you know. It’s important to be realistic, but it’s just as important to keep hope up. Optimism is a big curative factor.”

That was true enough. I’d have to go the Hulk route on this; Bruce’s ability to control his big green roommate had always hinged, he said, on his ability to maintain emotional equilibrium. I’d already made a list of every incident I could think of in the recent past where Extremis might have influenced events, dating back as far as the small fire in Simon’s apartment after he attempted to kidnap me for HYDRA. Assuming it was caused by an incendiary device was logical, but it could just as easily have been triggered by my terror. That didn’t explain what had revived the damn virus, but the list did give me one hint: nearly every occurrence was tied to a negative emotional state. So it followed that if I stayed positive, there was less chance of all hell breaking loose.

In turn, that gave me another idea, for an experiment I could conduct on my own. That night, I sat down on the floor in the barren Hulk room, asked JARVIS to record, and set an unlighted candle down in front of me. Next to it, I laid the necklace my granny had given me before I left Carroll County to go north to college, its little silver bean inscribed with the word believe. You believe in God and your own self, and you can master anything, she had told me that day, and I had held fast to that wisdom ever since. Now it was going to face its greatest challenge. I had to believe I was up for the test. “God, give me strength to stay on the trail. Death may lie at its end, and I’m not scared to meet you, but by cracky I sure am not gonna let this harm the people I love. I need you to back me up.”

With that call for help, I turned my focus inward. “Okay, now as for you, Extremis,” I murmured. “You didn’t ask to end up in me, and I didn’t ask for you, but if we’re stuck like this, we’re going to have to make the best of it for however long.” I was in a spot rather like Bucky and Zima, now that I thought about it; obliged by outside forces to share a body, they had worked it out and now were one, with the help of—Has Tony asked Wakanda? I thought. Maybe Princess Shuri would have some suggestions. I filed the idea away for later, and returned my attention to its previous point. “You’re going to have to let me take the lead, since I have a brain and…I don’t think you do. Do you? Oh listen to me, talking to you like you’re going to answer. Doesn’t matter, if it gets me in the right frame of mind. Anyway, I’m going to do my best to stay calm, so you don’t feel like you have to protect me from stuff that isn’t of any consequences, and in return I need you to let me cue you when to act.”

I rubbed my hands briskly together and filled my mind with thoughts of cooperation, pushing down the fear coiling around my heart and through my belly, then reached toward the candle. One more quick prayer raced through my head, and I brushed my thumb and middle finger together, as though snapping my fingers but softer, holding them at the wick and thinking now.

A tiny hiss sounded loud as a bomb in the deadened silence of the shielded chamber. A spark flicked to life at my fingertips, from seemingly nowhere. It was gone the next second, but I was positive it wasn’t my imagination. “JARVIS? Did you see that?”

“If you are referring to a brief occurrence of flame, yes, Miss Everhart, I did indeed detect that.”

Excitement lifted my heart and opposed the fear. Maybe it was possible. Maybe, until a way to neutralize Extremis was found, I could manage to control it.

Chapter Text

I worked with Extremis until I was too drained to keep my eyes open, and fell asleep in a heap on the floor. The start of my morning wasn’t nearly as affirmative as the end of my night had been, since it began with waking to Pepper leaning over me and scolding me fiercely. “Chill out, sis,” I mumbled, stretching out achy muscles. “You’re more likely to start a fire right now than I am.”

She was unconvinced, until I cleaned up and let her march me to Tony’s lab. Then, sleep-deprived and entirely too puffed up with pride, I proceeded to set a countertop on fire. I could have collapsed on the floor in tears, if I hadn’t been bound and determined to spare my friends all the stress I could. So instead, I said weakly, “At least DUM-E’s happy,” while the bot wielded his fire extinguisher.

“I can stop him long enough for us to make s’mores,” Tony offered. For all that the remark reeked of his usual snark, the furrows on his brow said he was worried about me, and dammit, I did not wish that on him.

“You didn’t say anything, or we would’ve brought extra marshmallows.” The voice behind me froze me in the middle of parsing a suitably pseudo-sassy reply. Slowly, I turned to find Steve standing in the lab doorway. The shuffling motion behind him meant he had brought company; I spied the twins, and the pressure in my head that told me Vision was nearby was more powerful than it ever had been before. “Tony, if you ever tell me anything again and I accuse you of exaggerating, I mean ever, you have my permission to blast me into next week.”

“Tony,” I sighed.

“Not Tony,” Pepper interrupted me. “He didn’t tell Steve first. I did.”

Wanda slipped under Steve’s arm and stormed up to me. “Don’t say you did not wish to worry us!” With a tsk, she threw her arms around me. “We are your friends, Christine. That gives us permission to worry about you.”

“I would go so far as to say we have an obligation to do so,” Vision remarked in his normal wry tone as he phased through the wall and into the room. The pressure felt rather like a sinus headache, palpable but not unbearable.

Right now I was more occupied with the welcome but worrisome embrace. “Wanda, I don’t have much control over—this. I haven’t been touching people, I’m scared I may slip and hurt somebody.”

This time Wanda frankly scoffed in my face. “Uh, Scarlet Witch here, remember me? I think it rather unlikely you can muster anything I can’t counter.”

The utter weirdness of an Avengers powwow centered on my issues had to be one of the weirdest things I had experienced in my very weird career with them. I’d never told them the whole yarn regarding Extremis; why bother, when Pepper was clear and I had never been in jeopardy. Now, it felt only fair that they be aware, but I couldn’t think of how to explain my situation without dragging Pepper’s privacy into it. Naturally, she had thought all of that out beforehand, and had already explained her end of the ordeal, so all I had to do was share mine—well, what I could, which was precious little at this point.

Nearly every one of them had something to contribute, though, some time in the recent past when something I had said or done had given them pause. Wanda even speculated that my ability to sense the Mind Stone and associated powers might have some connection with Extremis; we couldn’t think of a logical way how, but I scribbled that on my notes along with all the other comments, often things, as I had earlier suspected, that had completely gotten past me. Tony’s recount of my hearing him and Bucky talking from outside the lab when nobody (other than maybe Steve) should have been able to was a case in point.

About the time an assemble call came through (to investigate a pterodactyl sighting downtown, no less), Pepper finally connected with Maya. The conditions of her parole forbade her working on anything related to biochemistry, which slowed Tony down for about two seconds before he said, “Bet Fury can call her parole officer and tell them her expertise is desperately needed on a classified government operation. They don’t have to know what. Hell, Fury doesn’t have to know what.”

“Actually, um, Fury may know,” I admitted. “He made a comment back when I interviewed with him that I never followed up on, but he kind of implied he knew about Extremis, and both Pepper and me.”

“Fine,” Tony growled. “All the more reason for him to give us some cover on this.”

I never knew what Tony did, but sure enough, by the following afternoon, Maya appeared at the tower, escorted by a wary Sam and a tense-looking Nat (and when Nat is visibly tense, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might be riding behind). The terms of release may have limited the sciencing Maya could do without authorization, but she told us she was working as a lab assistant/tutor at a middle school and loving it. “I’d forgotten how—how pure science is, but seeing these kids get excited about it, it reminds me of what it was like, before I started compromising myself,” she said. Threads of silver laced through her dark hair, but she looked content, at least as much as anybody could considering the predicament I was presenting her with. I apologized and got a totally baffled look in return. “Christine, if this is anybody’s fault, it’s mine! Tony almost resolved Extremis once, and did solve it for Pepper; between the two of us, plus the backup he mentioned, surely we can tease out what made it break down for you, and correct it.”

“I hope so. I can’t stay up many more nights.”

More nights fighting sleep had been tempered by the excitement of working to control the fire in my body. By then, I could on occasion produce a spark upon demand, but I was also stumbling over words in press briefings. It got bad enough that members of the press corps who regularly covered the Avengers beat were discreetly messaging me to ask if the team was all right. They assumed if I was so bent out of shape, it had to indicate something awry with my workday. I asked Tony and Maya, joined at the hip in the lab most days now, if taking something to make me sleep would be safe, be it a prescription medication, a stiff shot of Jack, or some herb from that mythical giant bag of weed Tony used to accuse Bruce of hiding.

“Nope,” Tony declared. “Maya can back me up on this, but pretty sure altering your state would make it even tougher to keep those zombie bastards in your bloodstream in line. You’re better off relaxing—yeah, I know, I know. Fuck, I wish Brucie-bear was here, he could meditate you into a blob of chill. Do the best you can, cornbread.”

“Tony’s right,” Maya concurred. “In an artificially induced stupor, you’d have even less chance of catching a flareup before it, well, flared up, literally. When you sleep, and that needs to be when, miss, not if, it should be natural, restful sleep. Granted, famous last words, but you’re more on edge every day. Even I can see it. That’s going to create an exponentially more challenging physioenvironment in which to maintain homeostasis.”

“Yeah, that,” Tony nodded. “See, this is one reason I always liked you, Maya, except when you were trying to kill people I liked more.”

“Well, she ain’t trying to kill me now,” I said. “She’s trying to save my ass, so be nice to her.” I gave Tony a finger, countered by a quick kiss on the cheek. “Gonna say my prayers and try to actually doze. I suggest y’all do the same at some halfway reasonable hour.”

After following my own advice, I was shocked shitless when my next moment of awareness was the following morning, with the alarm clock on my phone ting-a-ling’ing pleasantly and the Hulk room around me unsinged. It was a hopeful sign, and hope and positive attitude fed off each other. The next night, less afraid, I slept better and was even more refreshed. Within a few more days, I felt almost my old self, sharp enough to cook a group breakfast (including Maya, who was staying in a guest suite under JARVIS’ watchful eye), confer with Marcus Tate about a follow-up interview on 60 Minutes featuring the newer Avengers, and give a relatively candid explanation at a presser for my recent behavior. “It has nothing to do with the Avengers; everything is going great for and with them. It’s me. I haven’t been feeling well, haven’t been sleeping well, and trying to work myself into bed—that approach can get you darn close to working yourself into the grave, so, consider this my public service announcement for the week, okay? I appreciate the concern several of you have raised, but I’m seeing a terrific physician and all will be well.”

Helen was the best physician I knew of, true, but even she, Maya and Tony, with the science babies’ aid, hadn’t made much headway. With the most experience in dealing with Extremis, Maya teased out more details of the anomalies in my blood. “Your platelets look somewhat like examples I’ve seen in persons after radiation exposure,” she told me.

That seemed weird, since I had had no such exposure: that is, unless the Mind Stone counted, and we hadn’t told her about that. It wasn’t as much distrust of her as protection; a few of Aldrich Killian’s minions from his AIM company were still on the loose. The less she knew about something as powerful and dangerous as the Infinity Stones, the less she could be made to tell someone else.

Maya did, however, also note that the new samples from me didn’t look like the samples Tony had liberated from the AIM labs either. Those had been taken from her and Killian’s subjects in whom Extremis had gone rogue, and were the controls Tony and Bruce had used in deactivating the virus in Pepper’s body. Pepper, thank heavens, was indeed fine; the virus in her system still appeared dead as a doornail, but without knowing what had caused it to reawaken in me, we couldn’t be sure it would stay that way. In me, the virus almost seemed to have bonded to my cells, rather than flowing free in my bloodstream.

“We’re at a standstill,” Helen fretted late one night in the sitting area on the lab floor, with Pepper, Tony and me.

Pep looked outwardly as cool as ever, but she was on her third martini. “There has to be something we haven’t explored, some road we haven’t gone down,” she insisted.

Tony was pacing, tugging at his hair, and looking like he wanted to hurl his beer bottle across the room. Honestly, if anyone had peeked in at that moment and been asked to pick the person most likely to literally explode, it would’ve been him, not me. “Maya is the world’s leading expert on this thing. If she can’t piece together what the fuck happened here, it—it can’t be pieced. The only thing we haven’t shared with her is the Mind Stone factor. We’re gonna have to do that.”

“Or, we could try asking somebody else,” I offered after a swig of bottled water. (I’d sworn off alcohol, caffeine, and even sugar, for fear of stimulating Extremis’ activity. It was pissing me off.) “I thought about another resource, but when Pepper got in touch with Maya I figured she was the best option. And she’s found a lot, don’t get me wrong, but if we can’t tell her everything, maybe we need to go to somebody we can.”

“Such as?” Tony demanded.

“Wakanda,” I said. “Surely it’d be safe for Princess Shuri and her team to know about the Stones, and they have tech even better than ours—no offense, Tony. Do you think she might have some ideas?”

Chapter Text

When Pep and I told Maya that Tony was calling the king of Wakanda for help, I was a little worried she might take it the wrong way and be upset or offended. Fortunately, her reaction was anything but. “I’ve only heard a bit about their scientific advances, but if there’s a chance they can make headway and find you a cure, my ego is the last thing that should get in the way. Mine or Tony’s.”

“Oh, Tony’s ego is the last thing we need to worry about on this account,” Pepper said serenely.

I agreed, though not happily. Something of Tony’s was going to be a problem, all right, but it was not going to be ego. “Pep,” I said after we left Maya packing her small bag to head home and get back to her students, “please don’t let Tony blame himself for whatever happens to me, okay?”

“’Whatever happens to you’?” she snapped. “You sound like a twisted Hallmark movie, Chrissy. You never gave up on Tony, no matter what kind of crazy mess he got himself into, and we aren’t giving up on you now, so you can’t give up on you.”

She was right. I was reminded of another thing Tony had said, after he came out as Iron Man: I shouldn’t be alive, unless it was for a reason. The question then became, was that the case with me, and what was the reason?

I thought about it that night; I asked God, asked Extremis, and didn’t get a real answer from either. It didn’t matter though, not really. I wasn’t afraid to die, but I was afraid of hurting the people I loved. Hope was important, but so was realism; so I made a list of things that needed doing, to leave my families, both of blood and of heart, in the best possible place.

My work was in order already. I called Tennessee and talked with cousins. Avonelle was resting, and I promised to call back. I hadn’t felt safe leaving the tower, but as long as I was awake and lucid I shouldn’t be as much at risk to lose my grip on the virus. Requests for references from my pals down in SI Legal led me to a law firm in Hell’s Kitchen. The office manager, a sharp-featured blonde woman, looked askance at me when I explained my needs. “I know who you are. You could get the highest-priced lawyer in this city to do this kind of thing for you—it’s simple. Why us?”

“Your bosses came highly recommended, and I want to keep this part of my private life private.” I looked around at the scruffy but tidy office space. “Just because I live among the wealthy doesn’t mean I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth. This is more the kind of place I’m used to. What’s inside the box is more important than the box. Unless you’re a cat, in which case, it’s all about the box.”

The woman chuckled and began to set up a file for me as I sat in front of her desk. Behind me the office suite’s door opened and two men entered speaking Spanish. One was thin, in longshoreman’s clothes; the other wore a sharp suit and dark glasses, and carried a white cane. “Hey, Karen,” he said.

“Hey, Matt,” the manager responded absently, her focus on her computer screen.

He cocked his head. “We have a new client!” he said with obvious satisfaction. “Female, professional, enjoys cooking, spends a lot of time in a STEM environment…” His mouth opened slightly and he took a small inhalation. Damn, I thought in admiration, is he profiling me by the air? “And around smoke,” he said finally with a quizzical frown. “Not tobacco, though, or marijuana. Is your significant other a firefighter, by chance?”

“No, but you got the rest of it right on,” I smiled and stood. “You must be the Murdock of Nelson and Murdock. It’s nice to meet you.”

Without a breath of hesitation, his hand went for mine as Karen the manager introduced me. The frown deepened when his fingers closed. “Interesting. A pleasure, Miss Everhart. I would be…intrigued, to assist you, but alas, as you see, I already have an appointment. My partner will be happy to serve you though, and please, keep us in mind for all of your legal needs.” Another door opened behind the manager’s desk. “Hola, guapo abogado,” Murdock said. “I’m schmoozing a paying client. Aren’t you proud of me?”

“Always, my brother avocado!” said the chunky, cheery-looking man who emerged into the reception area. He was the Nelson of Nelson and Murdock, and his lighthearted demeanor turned serious and thoughtful once he saw me into his small office and reviewed Karen’s notes. “I’m glad to see you thinking ahead,” he said. “Most people our age don’t make end-of-life plans when they should, as in, before the end of life.”

“Well, working with the Avengers has made me more aware of such things. I’ve put this off for too long.” By the time I left the office, Franklin Nelson had set me up with a living will and power of attorney, and promised to email me a draft will in a few days. I was not giving up, but having the assurance my professional and personal matters were sorted out put my mind more at ease, and made the whole shebang feel a little less unreal.

That lasted until I got back to the tower and found Tony in a tizzy. “T’Challa says his sis is ecstatic at the prospect of getting her hands on your case,” he fairly fumed.

“And that’s a bad thing how?” I inquired. “We gather up the test results, summarize what went on including the Mind Stone, and send it to her.” He still looked distressed. “What’s wrong, hot rod?”

“It’s just—I hate this! I fucking hate what’s happening to you, I hate that I can’t fix it when I was the cause. You never asked for this kind of bullshit in your life. If I’d known this was going to be the result, I’d rather never have met you, as much as I—I love you, as much as knowing you has made my shitty life slightly less shitty.” I growled and started to argue. “This is serious, cornbread! You could die. You. Could. Die. Because you knew me—”

“Stop it, Tony. I could die because I know you. So? Hell, that’s been the case for years, and not because of the superhero gig. I could get hit by a big ol’ bus walking out the front door of the tower, and that would be because I knew you, if you really want to go there.” I grabbed his hand. “I also don’t believe in coincidence, never have. Meeting you and Pepper got me off the road I was on, working my ass off to be what the world expected me to be. You let me be what I wanted to be, let me be honest and real, and truthful, and helpful. And if I burn like a phoenix on her pyre, I will do it and go to my maker with joy and thankfulness in my heart, for the gift of having had you in my life.” To banish the stricken look from his face, I added, “I have no intention of doing that though. I choose to hope. Besides, I’m not altogether sure Pepper can ride herd on you by herself. I’ve gotta be around for backup, when I’m not reining Bucky in…oh shit. Tony, you—did you think to ask T’Challa not to tell Bucky about this?”

“Yes, yes,” he groaned. “You said you wanted to tell him yourself, and I feel you on that, so I swore the big cat to secrecy.” He looked up, down, off to one side, then suddenly up again and tugged at my hand holding his. “Hey, as long as you’re here, help me with some data? The science babies are both in class and I need steady hands and a cool head.”

“At least you didn’t say cool hands,” I tried to joke, until he gave me his best version of The Look. “Oops. Too soon, right? Sorry. Show me what you need.”

What he needed took much of my vacant time over the next couple of days after he sent the Extremis data to Wakanda. Mostly, the tasks he asked me to do were things JARVIS or one of the bots could have done easily, even without Pietro or Peter there. I wasn’t about to complain; having more than enough to do did help keep me from dwelling on negative possibilities, and there was little I would rather do than spend time with Tony sciencing stuff up. Sometimes, I’m a little bit slow, though, and it took most of those two days to figure out that Tony was manufacturing things for me to do, and that he, too, didn’t particularly need my assistance as much as he wanted my presence.

His main focus at the moment was perfecting the budding nanotech Deuce had left him, and developing it to create what he considered the ultimate Iron Man suit, one that didn’t have to be carried, stashed or transported. Watching the microscopic robots flow around his arm or leg like water and solidify into a gauntlet or boot was mind-blowing. After a number of trials, he settled on housing them in a small triangular unit about the size of his old arc reactor and placed in about the same location. “I think I’m gonna start wearing it, just to get used to it,” he confided. “It has—really, almost infinite potential configurations, anything from a sweatsuit to a swimsuit. Might be able to rehome half my closet, once it’s finished off. Give me ample opportunities to tweak it. Daily shakedown cruise. And if…if something hits us without any warning, I’ll have it at my fingertips.”

Our grace period was all too brief. The third morning after shipping the files to T’Challa’s sister found me feeling even more buoyant. The previous evening spent working with Extremis had ended with me being able to summon the fire power, hold it poised for a full minute, then release it in a gradual controlled spark. it was starting to look like I could indeed keep it in check until we found a way to quash it, and I decided to pull up my big-girl panties and venture out of the tower for some fresh air and maybe a donut at the team’s favorite shop.

A donut. Yeah, right. I ended up with a dozen assorted, though I had to make a swift departure when my mind went too far back, to all the times Bucky and I had walked around the block to the place. They had the Nutella-filled ones that were his favorites, and just the scent took me back and made my heart ache and the nape of my neck tingle where he would play with my ponytail, then flip it up and start to kiss there.

It didn’t feel like that, though; the prickles spread around my neck, down my cleavage and up to my ears and cheeks, and I suddenly realized what it was. Stop that! I mentally ordered Extremis while taking deep breaths outside the food hall. You’ve been doing this for months now, haven’t you? This is what I was feeling when I got upset, or scared, or sad or angry. It was you acting a fool. Well, knock it off. You have to listen to me. My brain is much bigger than yours.

Admittedly, I supposed it was ridiculous to attempt to reason with a colony of viruses, but going through the motions helped me to get my feelings back in hand before I started to walk back to the tower. I’d picked up one of the matcha-sugar donuts Pepper was fond of, and when I swung by her office to deliver it, May was visiting. They were sitting drinking coffee, Happy was hovering with a look of carefully concealed pining, and Pepper was regaling May with a tale of Tony’s development of his first Iron Man suit. “So, he said ‘it’s just a flight stabilizer, totally harmless’…”

“Oh shit, it’s pretty clear where this is going,” May snorted.

“You think?” Pep giggled. “Hey Chrissy! Come in. How are you?”

“I’m—good? Not okay, obviously, but…better, yeah. I went for a combination of retail and sugar therapy. Y’all help me eat these. You too, Happy, your blood pressure will forgive you.”

It was the best and most relaxing hour I’d had in days, until Tony walked in, red-faced and a little dazed. My first thought was he had been on another all-night tech binge, until Pepper looked up and then jumped to her feet. “Tony, what’s happened?”

Tony didn’t look at her, but at me, and I felt a shiver go down my back like a goose walked over my grave. “I, ah, just heard from Shuri. She’s gone over the data we sent, but she wants to take her own samples. She wants you to come to Wakanda, as soon as possible. As in, now."

Chapter Text

My brain went bluescreen for a couple of seconds, and I slowly chewed the bite of chocolate salted caramel donut in my mouth. “Oh,” I said after I swallowed. “Huh. Cool. Okay. Good thing I’ve been getting my affairs in order. Not like that,” I groaned at Pepper’s horrified glare. “Just, I guess I knew sooner or later I’d have to take a semi-leave of absence to deal with this. I can do a lot of my work from there, though, if I’m stuck more than a few days.” I scrambled to my feet and thrust the remaining donuts into Happy’s startled hands. “If we’re leaving the same time as before--this evening, like when we took Bucky, so we land there in the morning their time--I’ve got to get a move on. I’ve got phone calls to make and packing to do. Pep, if a presser is needed while I’m gone do you think Leticia would do it? Crap, I’ve got to call Marcus about the interview with Sam and the twins, I promised I’d be there, what’m I gonna tell everybody…” I glanced down and snagged the Nutella donut. “Wonder if this’ll stay fresh till tomorrow. I can wrap it up and take it to Bucky…oh shit. Shit. I can’t dance around this anymore, I’m gonna have to tell him…” I gulped, flushed, and felt like the donut I just ate was coming back up.

“Chrissy.” Pepper’s calm voice and her hands on my shoulders helped me steady myself. “Breathe. Don’t panic. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”

I breathed and closed my eyes briefly to push back the rising heat. “Okay, you little heathens, calm your viral asses down in there.” After a couple more breaths I opened my eyes and almost managed a laugh at the even more worried look now on Pepper’s face. “No, I don’t expect a reply from the virus, but it’s a useful way to focus myself.” The tension between her eyebrows relaxed, and she returned my smile and let me go. Tony and Happy promptly started a faux-scuffle over the donuts. We exchanged looks, both of us (and May, from her expression) knowing full well the boys were trying to relieve the strain in the room. Damn, I loved them.

The day passed with the speed and unpredictable path of a tornado. By late afternoon I had pulled together a couple weeks’ worth of clothes, grabbed my go-bag of toiletries, and constructed a careful press release. The press and public would be told that due to health concerns, my physician had referred me to a specialist outside New York, and I appreciated their recognition of my medical privacy. I was going to be out of Avengers Tower for an undetermined but hopefully short period of time, planned to continue my responsibilities as much as I was able, and was leaving on-site duties in capable hands. It would probably slide right by. I harbored no illusions about my personal importance in the grand scheme of things. I hit Send, packed up my laptop and some accessories, and sat back for a moment.

The hustle had mercifully kept me from thinking too much about what lay before me, but I had to make a plan. That plan included going to Wakanda, obviously; reuniting with Bucky, who with any luck would not blow his stack that I hadn’t immediately told him when Extremis turned up; keeping the virus on a very tight rein until (and unless—no, until) Princess Shuri worked out a way to clear it from my body for good, and then clearing it from Pepper’s for good measure.

I shook myself, then called, “JARVIS? I should have plenty of time to throw together supper for Tony and Pepper and me, depending on what we’ve got. Please check the pantry and—”

“Sorry, Miss Everhart. Sir has asked that I instruct you you are not to, quote, ‘worry about slaving in the kitchen’. He has summoned all the Avengers and ordered copious quantities of paella from the Spanish restaurant nearby that he and Miss Potts favor.”

“Of course he did,” I sighed and smiled, loving him and all of them till my heart ached with it. I sat another minute, needing to get up and go again but oddly reluctant to do so.

JARVIS’s voice caught my attention again. “Miss Everhart, Colonel Rhodes is at the door.”

“Eek! Really? Um, okay, thanks dear.” I hauled myself to my feet and went to open it. “Hey, Rhodey. What a nice surprise!”

Rhodey greeted my attempt at cheerful bullshit with a serious face. “Hey, baby girl. I was on my way back from the West Coast when Tony called me in.” He looked me up and down. “Extremis, huh?”

“Yeah.” I drew the scattered threads of my thoughts together, focused, and felt the heat move through my body. In a few seconds, tiny flickers of fire manifested at my fingertips. Shuri would definitely need for me to demonstrate whatever degree of control I had. In my peripheral vision, I saw Rhodey start, but I was fixed on the marvel, simultaneously daunted and enthralled. I held it for as long as I could, until I felt something shift in me. “Ohhh, here it goes. I can’t put it into words, but I can tell when my control’s about to slide. This is gonna look really stupid, but I found it kind of cues my subconscious.” I blew lightly on my fingers while thinking okay, out now, and the flames died.

“Whoa,” Rhodey said quietly after a second. “So, you can do that.”

“Not much more, but yeah. Hopefully I can hold it to that until we figure out how to get rid of it, and make sure this doesn’t pop up in Pepper again too.”

He nodded slowly. “You okay?”

I laughed shakily. “Wish I could say I was. I’m trying really hard to be, but…I am scared, Rhodey.” He pulled me into a strong hug and kissed my temple. “You gonna stay and eat?” I asked. At his eager assent, I went on, “Rhodey, I—I don’t think I’ve really apologized to you for, well, a lot of stuff, for being a shit when you were just trying to be—”

“Hush. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for. I ain’t hearing this. Now come stuff your face so we can send you off to the motherland to get yourself straight.”

The team shared a gloriously raucous meal, featuring Clint beaming in to introduce the dog he and Cooper rescued after it was hit on the side of the road. Losing one leg didn’t seem to be slowing the good boy down much; he was romping around the house with Lila and Nathaniel and begging Laura for pizza bones. The Barton clan, understandably, had dubbed him Lucky. “I can neither confirm nor deny having anything to do with the fact that the bastard who hit him and drove off found all four tires with arrow piercings a coupla days later,” Clint admitted to universal cheers.

Happy joined us, as did May and Peter. After we filled up, I got a mass escort to the roof where Steve was firing the quinjet up. Tony revealed the real reason he had been so upset with the rush request for my presence; a major closing meeting on the Accords had been rescheduled for the next morning. “I want to tell them to shove their precious rule book up their collective asses. Sending you off alone feels all wrong, cornbread.”

“Tony! Steve'll be with me, and while he's no you, I'll be okay. As hard and as long as we’ve been working on this, don’t you even think about shitcanning it now. Too many people are counting on us to whip these things into the form they need to be. You focus on that, you go in there and Tony-Fucking-Stark them into submission, for yourself, and all the Avengers and all the enhanced people we don’t know and all the ones who aren’t even enhanced yet. You hear?”

When we hugged, the edges of the nanite housing pressed into my chest the way the arc reactor had on the rare occasions I had slipped and reached out to him head-on. I knew what the something Tony feared was, and it hurt to think Thanos might descend, and I wouldn’t be there to do whatever bit I could to support my beloved friends. “If shit comes up Leticia can’t handle, classified, Avenger-y stuff, I’ll treat the press corps to my divine presence,” he said, knowing it’d make me laugh. "They've been deprived too long."

“Excellent,” I said before Pepper hugged me one more time. “Pep, I’m going to make damn sure whatever Shuri comes up with is going to work for you too. I don’t aim for you to have to go through this shit again.”

“I have every confidence in you,” she smiled as I got passed around from one embrace to another. The science babies sent their love to Bucky. Nat made me promise to text her pictures (if I could—having only been there once for a few hours, I didn’t know what Wakanda’s cell phone reception was like, or their security net) and May ordered me not to let anybody cut off a limb for science.

Even Vision gave me a hug, albeit an awkward one. “Wanda has been educating me on the physical elements of affection,” he told me soberly, accompanied by the aforementioned witch squeaking and turning as red as her power display.

Steve sprinted from the jet to the group, while we shared one last chuckle. “So I'm no Tony, I'll have to do," he joked. "Got your bags. You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” I told him. “I wish Thor and Bruce were here! if either of them get back while I’m gone, y’all fill them in, and let me know, okay?”

With their pledges and goodbyes and see-you-soon’s following me, I started for the jet. Behind me, my now-sharpened ears caught Tony’s voice, dropping. “Take care of her, spangles, or I will feed you your fuckin’ shield.”

“Love you too, shellhead.” Steve’s retort held no trace of irritation. “And I love her, y’know. Not the way you do, I know, but I’ll be there for her, swear to God. Hang in there. She’s tough, she’s gonna be fine.”

For a moment, I despised what Aldrich Killian had done to my body. it was both comforting and agonizing to hear the worry in my friends’ voices, and to know I wouldn’t be able to hear it if not for the virus infesting me, any more than I could now see my way across the night-dark roof to the quinjet’s hatch as clearly as if it were daylight or smell the rich odor of Pepper’s little compost experiment on the other side of the space as though I was standing right beside the bucket. The anger was only food for the infection, I warned myself, and forced it away to coerce my face into a smile when I paused and looked back. Sam and Rhodey leaned on each other, and Wanda was flanked by her brother and sweetheart. Peter had one hand on Pietro’s shoulder and clasped May’s with the other; of the group, he understood the least about my situation, and seemed to think it was just a great adventure. Maybe I should adopt his attitude. Whether I survived it or not, it was definitely that!

Pepper was holding onto Tony tightly, as if she thought his lack of impulse control might push him to run and try to jump onto the jet. When I waved, he lifted a hand in reply, then tapped the housing on his chest, and it lit with a blue-white glow. As the quinjet lifted off and Steve turned it into its course, I moved from one side window to another. Even my enhanced—dammit, yeah, I was now one of those ‘enhanced’ people, if temporarily—eyesight lost the shapes of the figures standing on the tower’s roof within seconds, and all I could see was the speck of light from Tony’s heart, rapidly fading into the distance. With everything in me, I prayed it wouldn’t be long before I saw them together like this again.

Chapter Text

I seemed to have developed a habit of dozing off while flying to Wakanda. Or, no, they say twice is coincidence; it has to happen three times before it’s a habit, right? Either way, I was determined to stay awake, but by the time the quinjet was over the ocean, surrounded by nothing but dark sky around us and black ocean far below, I had almost run out of light topics of conversation, and my eyelids began to droop.

Steve grinned across the cockpit at me sitting in the entirely too comfortable co-pilot’s chair. “Catch a few winks, Chris. I’ve learned the hard way it’s best to sleep when you can.”

“Steve, what if Extremis gets away from me? That’s how I found out about it, remember. Setting my own bed on fire is one thing, but here—a fire in the air would be a calamity with anybody at the controls, but Lordy, I wouldn’t ever want to put you in the position of having to ditch a plane for a second time.”

The answering smile didn’t waver. “Wanna know what I think? I think you’re underestimating yourself. I figured I’d never meet a woman as strong as Peg, until I woke up in this time. Still, there are only a few who really measure up in my head. Natasha, Pepper, and you are at the top of that list. Don’t be scared. You got this. Now, grab some shuteye, so you’re sharp when we land. I’ll poke you when we get close to Wakandan airspace.”

Despite Steve’s vote of confidence and the soothing hum of the engines, my nap was fitful. I was awake, gritty-eyed and rather cranky, as we began our approach to the cloaking shield that enveloped Wakanda. Far below, tiny figures splashed with childlike abandon in the dazzling blue waters of a small lake. Absently, I wondered whether that would help the sweat prickling along my hairline, or whether an outburst of Extremis would turn the fresh water to steam. With any luck, I’d never have to find out.

Even knowing what lay beyond, I tensed and heat flashed through me as we barreled toward the illusion that marked the shield’s gap. The next instant, we burst out over the glorious city, and I felt as much awe as on my first visit. Steve skillfully piloted us to a landing in the same courtyard as before. “Ayo!” I exclaimed as we disembarked. “It’s good to see a familiar face.”

The Dora Milaje warrior who had previously served as our guide and escort smiled. “Welcome back. I understand you will be staying with us for a while, Miss Everhart?”

“Yes. I don’t know how long a ‘while’ is, yet. I brought some clothes and essentials.”

“We will have them taken to the quarters you are assigned. For now, the king awaits you.”

Sure enough, in the landing bay where flyers were parked, T’Challa stood at ease. Instead of the ornate tunic of our first meeting, he wore black jeans, t-shirt and boots, accented with a silver claw-like necklet. With his own greeting, he ushered us onto the nearest flyer and we took off. “I will give you a little tour of our capital first: Birnin Zana, the Golden City.” He circled a couple of times, pointing out various areas of town and local landmarks, then aimed for the mountain we had visited before. “Mount Bashenga is named for my ancestor, the first Black Panther. He united the tribes who settled this land, and founded our nation.”

The little flyer swept past a huge statue of a panther, seemingly carved out of the mountain’s own stone, and dove into the tunnels I recalled. T’Challa laughed when he saw me squint and tilt my head trying to figure out how the trains rushed along on their raised tracks. “They operate by magnetic levitation. In the city, they need only the tracks and drivers, but here…the Great Mound is here, where we mine vibranium. The trains transport it, but in its raw form it is too unstable to be moved at that speed. My sister developed those,” he pointed to huge light panels mounted on the rock walls of the tunnels as we passed. “They are sonic stabilizers, designed to neutralize the vibranium’s volatility.”

“Wow,” Steve said. “I don’t know what most of that meant, but it sounded plenty brainy. If Shuri can do that, Chris, she can probably fix you up in no time.”

“Here’s hoping,” I agreed, the distraction factor broken. I felt myself tensing up again as we landed. T’Challa walked us through the hallways I remembered from before, a mix of rough stone and sleek high-tech. We passed the entrance to the cryo suite, though, and moved deeper into the mountain. A faint rhythmic thump caught my ear, increasing in intensity as we went until I was almost tapping my toes unconsciously.

“Shuri enjoys her music at very high level.” T’Challa sounded apologetic. “I hope it will not trouble you.”

I laughed aloud. “It’s obvious from that statement that you’ve never visited Tony Stark’s workshop, your majesty.”

We were passing a pair of Dora Milaje guards just then; they saluted their king with heads inclined and wrists crossed over their chests, hands in fists. One lifted her head just enough to shoot me the evil eye, for daring to laugh at her ruler I guessed, but it turned into a wider eye when T’Challa returned my laugh and her salute at the same time.

“Perhaps geniuses, however different they are, have some things in common?” he said.

“Probably.”

We walked a little farther. Steve asked a couple of questions, though T’Challa admitted this was his sister’s domain and she could answer much more completely. Finally we emerged into a massive chamber, carrying on the blend of technology and nature. Shiny workstations sat beneath the lofty dark stone walls, and workers in immaculate white uniforms bustled around or sat or stood busy with projects.

A slim young woman in a simple shift and sneakers, her dark hair pinned up, appeared to be presiding over the whole business. “Brother!” she called and waved her hand. The music volume dropped as she hurried over to us. She saluted T’Challa with the same gesture as the guards, though more relaxed. “You look very casual, my king. Are you dressed for slumming?”

“I?” he scoffed, but with a twinkle in his eye. “I am dressed for honest labor, not for presiding over stuffy council meetings. I wanted to give our guests a proper welcome and convey them safely to you before I got back to running our country.”

“Ah! Of course. I thought that had better not be what you chose to wear on a date.” The king ducked his head and looked almost embarrassed. “Well, you have completed your assigned task, so—” she made a shooing motion with her hand— “get back to running the country then.” Their snarky exchange contrasted with the obvious love in their smiles, and made me miss Tony terribly. T’Challa bade Steve and me farewell and departed. “Well? Come on, come on,” Shuri said, her tone impatient now. “Let me see what I can do here. I really should not let my brother get into the habit of bringing me broken white children to fix.”

I halted mid-step. With somebody I knew well, I would return verbal fire (and again I missed Tony so badly it was nearly a physical thing). I was already on edge, though, acutely conscious I needed to be on my best behavior and not create a scene or an international incident. I was not just here as a supplicant asking for Wakanda’s help, after all, but as a representative of the Avengers. Despite having Captain America by my side, I felt adrift, lonely, tired and scared, and hearing the person I had hoped could help me dismiss me as a nuisance was the last straw. Put all of that together, and, yeah, I pretty much snapped.

I wished I had worn a professional suit, my own metaphorical armor, but words would have to serve. I straightened my spine and dropped into the overly formal means of address that I used with high-ranking strangers. “I apologize, your highness. I was given to understand your brother the king had consulted with you before offering me your assistance. Brothers do sometimes commit us to things without asking us first though, don’t they?” Heat swept over my skin, mostly embarrassment and dread, or so I hoped. In the next moment, though, I could not deny the truth: Extremis was rising with my anxiety. I clenched my fists and tried to force it back. Where the hell can I go, if it slips loose? I thought frantically; not just concerned about wrecking this facility and hurting folks, but in an existential way. I could not, would not, go back to the tower like this, and risk the people I loved. “If you will excuse me, I won’t take up any more of your time, or risk this affliction getting out of my control here and injuring someone. I’ll do my best to not put anyone other than myself in harm’s way until my brother can work something out that will help my sister and me.” T’Challa had said that Wakanda did not stand on ceremony, but Simon had taught me a flawless curtsy once, years ago when I was on assignment in the UK for Vanity Fair and scheduled to interview a duchess, and I dropped one now. “C’mon, Steve, we’d better get out of the princess’ hair. Maybe his majesty can delegate somebody to give us a ride back to the jet.”

I started to turn around, and got just far enough to see Steve standing just behind me with his mouth open in shock, before Shuri said, “Wait.” Her tone was confused, and when I looked back, her expression matched it. “I am not turning you away. That was never my intent. I make jokes sometimes, which my brother says are not always appreciated. From the files that Stark sent, I can see the gravity of your situation, and I could not in good conscience leave you in such a predicament. I confess, I am also about to die of curiosity, especially considering how your eyes came near to flame just now." Despite the foreboding nature of that statement, her open excitement brought a smile to my face and reminded me of our science brood. “Besides that, I fear your White Wolf would lead the children of Wakanda in open rebellion if he learned that you came to me in need and I refused.”

“That’s Bucky she means,” Steve said, apparently having gotten his jaw back into working order. “Not only is he tendin’ goats, it sounds like he’s adopted every kid within shouting distance. They call him the White Wolf.”

“He speaks often of you, Miss Everhart,” Shuri continued, “and with great fondness. You would never be unwelcome here, for the affection we have come to bear for Sergeant Barnes, if for no other reason.” I smiled, unsurprised Bucky had managed to charm an entire country from all indications. “I thought he said you had no siblings, however.”

“Well, not blood kin. I meant Tony and Pepper.” As I spoke, she touched a bright blue bead among the strand of dark ones she wore around her wrist, and a holoscreen popped up in the air. I had to rein in the urge to squeal in science-geek glee.

“I see,” she nodded when I finished explaining. “Stark did send information on Miss Potts. What we learn from examining your circumstance will be readily applicable to hers.” She added with an arch tone, “He also sent some thoughts concerning a new arm prosthesis for Sergeant Barnes. Not nearly as advanced as our work, naturally, but still, it was a thoughtful gesture even if inadequate.”

The hair on the back of my neck sat up. “Just one look around us, your highness, makes it clear how advanced your science is. When I called Tony my brother, though, I meant it. It makes me very uncomfortable to hear him spoken of with disdain, even if you don’t mean it so. We’ve spent years persuading him he’s a person of worth. I don’t mean to offend you, but I really would appreciate it if you didn’t disrespect him in my hearing.” Damn, woman, stop talking. She obviously doesn’t have much patience for the proletariat, and scientific curiosity is only gonna get you so far.

This time, she actually laughed. “Here I thought Captain Rogers had accompanied you for security. Certainly, you have no need for someone to guard or speak for you.” Steve snorted. “But surely you cannot mean to attribute a low opinion of self to the great Tony Stark.”

“Tony Stark, who had precious few people in his life who valued him for who he is rather than his family name and all that entailed, who in spite of my best efforts is probably still blaming himself for my having to beg your help? That Tony Stark? Yes, your highness, surely I do.”

“Chris is right, your highness,” Steve put in. “For somebody as terrific as Tony is, he doesn’t think very highly of himself, no matter what people may think. We’ve put a lot of time into convincing him otherwise, and it’s still kind of a work in progress.”

Shuri tilted her head, her gaze at me measuring and absorbing. “I tease my brother mercilessly, but I suffer no other to speak ill of him, even in jest. It seems we are of the same mind in this, you and I.” The smile that came to her face now was more genuine. “And I do not take honesty as an affront, Miss Everhart. I believe we can work together quite well, and I want to start as soon as possible. You probably are eager to see your sergeant first, though. Come!”

I gulped. Steve’s hand found mine and squeezed and we followed Shuri out of the lab.

Chapter Text

Shuri piloted us in a small flyer out into the countryside. Steve pointed out a couple of sights from his earlier visits. I tried to let my anxiety settle and soaked in the beauty, from the lush green of the river valley where the Golden City nestled, to the foreboding splendor of a mountain range in the distance, and the gentle land of small farms directly beneath us.

On the banks of a gorgeous small lake, near a neat village of little huts, we landed and stepped out. A gaggle of youngsters rushed us, their shouts to Shuri turning into giggles and calls of “Captain, Captain!” when they spied Steve, and then falling silent altogether when they registered a new face. I squatted to say hello on their level; we began to get acquainted, and they to practice their English on me. “Even if I’m only here a few weeks,” I told Steve as Shuri walked off toward a hut on the outskirts of the village, near the water’s edge, “I want to learn to speak at least a little survival Wakandan. Hello, nice to meet you, what’s your name, where’s the bathroom, that kind of thing.”

“That’s about what I learned of several languages during the war,” Steve agreed. “Helps more than you think it will. Hey, watch it Chamwake! Lookit you, tryin’ to climb me like a tree!” He scooped the squealing child he had addressed up and swung them around happily, while several more touched my hands in greeting and inspected my ponytail. Actually meeting somebody with long blonde hair had to be a novelty, and they were so cute, tugging cautiously to be sure it was attached. “No surprise Buck adopted half the kids in town,” he went on, “since he pretty much adopted me when we were kids.”

Shuri called out and waved, and we moved to join her, our tiny escorts dashing ahead. I fell back a few steps and let Steve take the lead, nervous again; but my heart jumped when I saw a familiar figure emerge and halt beside Shuri. Bucky’s hair was still long, and hung loose, and he wore a sarong-like wrap dyed in warm rustic shades, with a second smaller green one covering his left shoulder. He looked our way and grinned when he saw Steve’s approach. “Hey, punk, fancy seein’ you here,” he said.

Steve pulled him into a big hug, awkward from Bucky’s side but only for a second before they adjusted. I didn’t know whether to cheer or cry; it felt so strange to see Bucky without the Winter Soldier’s metal arm, but between Shuri’s brilliance and Tony’s flights of creativity, I knew he would get a much better replacement soon.

I was clean out of distractions now, though, and it was time to face the music. Bucky hadn’t looked my way—why should he, when he wasn’t expecting any visitors—but Steve said, “I gotta stowaway here demanding to see you, buddy,” and jerked his head my way.

For all of my mixed-up emotions, when those storm-colored eyes found mine, I felt only one thing. “Hi, hon,” I said with a little smile.

His mouth opened, but for a moment nothing came out. “Ah—I—Chris? What’re you doin’ here?"

“That’s a hell of a welcome,” I kidded, my feet carrying me forward till we were face to face. Steve backed up like he was backing away from an unexploded grenade. “Not even a ‘hey doll, it’s nice to see you’? Cause, got to say, it is very nice to see you.”

He made a little noise, not quite a gasp, and his one strong arm went around my waist and hauled me to him. I threw my arms around his neck and held on, and dear God, did it feel good to be held by him again. I didn’t register that I was shaking until his grip eased and he looked down at me; his eyes narrowed and he said, “What’s wrong, doll?”

“Why does something have to be wrong?” I protested. “I can’t just come surprise my favorite popsicle?” I licked my lips lasciviously, but the attempt at misdirection didn’t work this time.

“Nope. I’m no idiot, this ain’t just a social call.”

“Never said you were an idiot, idiot.” I smacked his shoulder lightly and tried to put on my media-ready face, but even Shuri didn't look like she was buying what I was selling. “Okay,” I sighed, and we settled around the hearth in Bucky’s small hut.

Bucky knew the basics of my exposure to Extremis (I promised Shuri all the details later) so I only had to describe, to them both, the circumstances of its resurgence. Steve listened quietly to the repeat, and occasionally added a little of the team’s perspective. Shuri’s face was overtaken with a look I knew from Tony’s and Bruce’s faces; it was slightly scary to see her eagerness to get hold of me for science. For Bucky’s part, he held on to me like he never wanted to let go. “You can fix this, right princess?”

“I am certain I can. And please, my name is Shuri, remember, Sergeant Barnes?”

“And mine’s Bucky, remember, princess?” Her lips twitched at his teasing, and I realized with a touch of delight that they had become friends.

“Just from a gander at her lab,” I told him, “pretty sure if anybody can whip my bod back into shape, it’ll be her highness here.”

“Ahem, must I repeat, my name is Shuri,” she told me with another amused look. “If you insist on calling me by my title, I fear our interactions will become tiresome very quickly.”

“Call me Christine, then. Oh, I promised I would let my friends back home know we arrived safely. Is it all right if I take some photos? I don’t want to intrude on your country’s privacy.”

“If your telephone will function here.” Shuri looked a tad skeptical. “Our network is quite different from the more primitive ones outside Wakanda. I will ask my brother’s permission to fit you with a set of kimoyo beads while you are here.”

“StarkPhones are pretty adaptable,” I grinned. It took a few seconds longer than usual, but the connection was made. Several shots of the hut, the lake, and Bucky and his goat friends went to the Avengers group chat. The response was a flurry of snarky comments from Sam, squeals from Pepper, and goat memes from Peter. Shuri especially appreciated the latter, and I resolved to introduce her and our spiderling as soon as possible. Moments later my phone rang. Shuri’s eyebrows shot back up. “StarkPhone,” I repeated, suppressing a smirk, and glanced at the screen. “And what a coincidence, it’s Stark. Hey Tony!”

“Do I need to start singing the theme from Green Acres?”

“No, no you do not.”

“Fine, be that way. Nobody acknowledges my golden tones. You arrive intact? Cap didn’t incite any international incidents?”

“Nope, all well.”

“Hmph, good. Kinda wish some low-pay-grade aliens would attack, though. Or some mad scientist’s giant mole rats would escape, or something. You aren’t here and I’m bored.”

“Um, I haven’t even been gone a full day, hot rod, and I'm sure you've got plenty t—”

“You keep things interesting, cornbread! I’ve gotten entirely too dependent on your imput. You’re falling down on the job. I’m gonna dock your pay.”

“No, you’re not.”

“No, I’m not,” he agreed breezily. “Remind me again why I’m not?”

“Should I list the reasons chronologically or alphabetically? Either way, the first one on the list is that you love me.”

“Ah! Of course, how the fuck did I forget that? Put the bumble on, would ya? I need to school him about taking proper care of my baby sis.”

“Whoa whoa, wait a cotton-pickin’ minute there. Baby sis? You’re not that much older than me.’‘

“Pffft. Technicalities. I already gave him the shovel speech once, just want to make sure his reconstituted super-soldier brain retained it.”

I facepalmed, but I couldn’t stop laughing. “Another one giving him a shovel speech. I am a grown-ass woman, as I keep reminding you all.”

“Another?” Tony said, plainly confused. “Who…Pepper or Rhodey. Had to be Pepper or Rhodey.”

“Rhodey,” I confirmed. “Hang on.”

I passed my phone to Bucky, then deliberately pulled my focus away so my newly enhanced hearing didn’t intrude on their conversation. Fortunately, Shuri helped. “My mother has ordered accommodations for you in the royal compound, so we can work together and monitor your status. I think you will be comfortable there; since you worked for the Avengers, and lived in Stark’s tower, I am certain you are accustomed to the finer things.”

“I grew up on a farm, Shuri,” I said with a grin. “It was nicer than Bucky’s little crib here, but only in the sense of having indoor plumbing and electricity. Believe me, I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I’d be fine crashing here with Bucky, but it wouldn’t be nearly as convenient.”

“Perhaps more pleasurable, though." At least this time when I felt my face heat, I knew it was actual blushing. Bucky saved me by returning, but when he went to return my phone, Shuri held out her hand. “I should like to speak with Mr. Stark for a moment, if I might.”

“Sure. Hold on shellhead, the princess wants ya.”

He handed the phone over then pulled me close again. “You stayin’ here? it ain’t much but I kinda like it. it’s quiet. Peaceful. Be better with you, course.”

“Likewise. Shuri wants me there at the palace though, and for now I think that’s safest.”

“Safest? I’m not scared of ya, doll.”

“But I’m scared of me.”

His stormy eyes did not relent. “You weren’t scared of me, when I was scared of me, or well, of Zima. That’s what helped me get through this.”

“This is different, Bucky. I’m different. Extremis could hurt a lot of people.”

“I did hurt a lot of people, doll, remember? Not ‘cause I wanted to, but still, they were hurt. They were killed. Didn’t stop you from—from lovin’ me.”

“It most certainly did not.” For a moment we just looked at each other. The only sounds around were the bleating of the goats in their paddock, the laughter of some kids trying to teach Steve a game that looked like hacky sack, and Shuri praising Tony’s diagrams for a prototype arm for Bucky. Apparently she really had taken my cautions about Tony to heart.

“So whatever happens with this, it won’t be because you want it to, and it’s not about to stop me from lovin’ you.” The certainty in Bucky’s voice made me want to curl up in his embrace and never leave. But then, of course, the thing that was stopping me would never get fixed. “And Tony made me swear on seventeen editions of the Good Book I’d keep ya outta trouble, and I gotta be with ya to do that, so looks like you’re stuck with me.”

It had taken me years to unlearn the knee-jerk reaction to a protective tone, to let it mean what it meant when somebody who cared about me said it. “Looks like it.”

Chapter Text

Shuri did need her new guinea pig close at hand, though, so I settled into a comfortable suite in the royal compound and commuted, in effect, back and forth to her lab with her daily. She took samples of every bodily fluid I had (well, almost) and checked them for everything imaginable, plus some factors I never would have thought of, to try to pinpoint what had roused Extremis from its induced torpor and how to reverse the action. Along the way, she ran me through a battery of assessments of every dimension, physical, mental, emotional, to quantify what the virus had done to me.

We talked a lot, in those first days, getting acquainted. Shuri introduced me to Wakanda, telling the stories and legends their culture was founded upon, sharing their religions and music and (after some coaxing) finally recipes. Her stories of more recent events were both moving and unnerving, as she told about growing up watching American movies with her baba, and some trouble they had when her and T’Challa’s cousin appeared and challenged him for the throne. In turn, I told her tales of growing up on the farm, culture shock when I went from rural Tennessee to a refined Ivy League college, and wrangling has-beens and wannabes while fighting my way up the narrow ladder to journalistic success, until I faced the fact that the top of that ladder wasn’t even where I wanted to be. Of course, I told her inside stories about the Avengers, and she demonstrated her amazing inventions built of the countless uses of vibranium.

There were a few trials that required a small cut or incision, since she needed to see precisely what happened when Extremis healed an injury, and I became downright adept at turning the small flames at my fingertips on and off. Shuri charted down to the decibel how much more acute my hearing was; we found my vision was too, and while I was no super-soldier, my endurance, strength and speed were appreciably better than the baseline for my size.

Bucky lasted two days before he asked neighbors to tend his goats and moved back to the city with me. He accompanied me to the lab daily, though Shuri often ended up shooing him out, or into an adjoining office where she put him to work helping her with measurements and calculations—he was as handy with them here as he had been beside Tony back home. When she didn’t run him off, or try to, she pitted us against each other in an assortment of skill trials, from foot races to chess games. We were fairly evenly matched at mental contests, and where once I would have been almost helpless against his muscle, now the difference between us was just about typical for a male and female of our respective sizes. Certain types of physical challenges, though, Shuri flatly refused to conduct. “I will not allow wrestling matches in my lab. You two may assess those variables elsewhere. I do not have the time nor inclination to clean up after public displays of affection that go too far for public consumption.” It would have sounded incredibly brusque and snappish, if the words had not come accompanied with the world’s worst attempt to disguise a mischievous grin.

The thought spawned fantasies I really did not need to be entertaining in public, or frankly in private. Not that propriety or safety ever stopped Bucky when it should have. “So, doll,” he drawled as we finished supper that night, “when’re we runnin’ that wrestlin’ test Shuri talked about?” I probably looked like a catfish on somebody’s hook, despite standing across the room. “If you wanted to, I mean. I’m still not the greatest catch, so you might—”

“Are you shitting me?” I demanded. “Of course I want to. But Bucky, you wouldn’t make love to me before because you were scared of hurting me. Now—I’m scared of hurting you. Not physically, obviously, but--what if me losing control, even in passion, triggers Extremis? I could burn you!”

“And it’d smart for a few minutes an’ then heal up! If there’s anybody on this planet you could singe and get away with it, it’d be me! Or Stevie, but you don’t like him like that,” he added with an ill-concealed smirk. “We’ve been waitin’ way too long, for one reason or another. Life’s too short. We got this chance, to do this, before we have to—adjust, when you get back to normal. Let’s take advantage of it. There’s an awful lot I’ve wanted to do with you, for an awful long time, sweet thing. Don’t make me start beggin’.”

Barely believing my daring, I slowly moved toward him. “Mmm, I dunno,” I breathed. “I bet making you beg would be an awful lot of fun. Not gonna do that to you right now, though.”

His fingers were so warm as they raked along my scalp and through my hair, dislodging my ponytail and then cupping the back of my head. “Good thing,” he murmured just before our lips met.

The next moments were a flurry of kisses and a blizzard of clothes flying. Most of the latter was my doing, shedding my light pants and top and then helping Bucky with his Wakandan wraps (underwear was nowhere to be seen), since he didn’t seem to want to let go of me. “You’ll have to ride up on top,” he rasped, “me bein’ down one mitt an’ all.” He cocked his head toward his left shoulder with a discomfited look.

“Never been something I minded,” I grinned. The shoulder looked great, the old angry scars faded by Wakandan medical wizardry. “How close is Shuri to getting your new arm ready? If this little experiment goes well, maybe she can get you fitted before she puts me right, and we can—ah, oh damn, that feels good babe—we can give it a road test. Well, a bed test.”

“A bed test, ha! I like that. C’mon, let’s test this bed out right now.” We tumbled onto the broad platform and kicked sheets aside to hold each other. Bucky plucked at my bra strap. “You’re still wearin’ too much.” I agreed, and lost the last bits of fabric, the better to get every inch of my skin on his. Considering the circumstances, I expected to have to slow Bucky down, but he seemed perfectly fine with spending plenty of time on foreplay, our hands and mouths all over each other. For once, the sweat and flush I felt didn’t frighten me.

Abruptly, the languid teasing of my breasts that was making me squirm with arousal stopped altogether. When I looked up from my sprawl on my back, Bucky’s eyes were wide with alarm. “Chris. We can’t—I don’t have—what if I knock you up? I never asked Shuri if, y’know, my sperm, uh, works, if HYDRA fucked it up, or—”

“Cool your jets, sweetheart. Birth control implant.” I tapped my arm. “And before you ask, Tony and Bruce found Extremis wasn’t communicable. Now stop stalling. I want you.”

A gloriously evil smile broke across his face. “You got me, doll,” he growled and resumed licking and teasing until I was writhing and moist and barely able to form words, then pulled me on top of him. Easing down onto him, watching his eyes fixed on me as he filled me, made me gasp.

“Yes,” I sighed. “This is it, yeah…” I braced my hands on his chest, my fingers playing a little with his light fuzz of hair and tickling his nipples just to make him take a sharp breath. The ride was slow at first, before I began to grind and pick up some speed. Bucky thrust upward, awkward the first couple of goes, but we swiftly fell into a rhythm of move and countermove, punctuated by unashamed sounds of pleasure from both of us. My eyes half-closed, overwhelmed by the sensation coursing through me, but I forced them open again to take in the sight of Bucky with his head thrown back. His mouth opened on a low moan that shivered through me where we were joined and nearly sent me over the edge all by itself. “Oh…Bucky, I’m close, baby.”

His grip closed around my hip and he almost snarled as his hips snapped up. I shifted just a hair, and his next drive wound me up, higher and higher until my whole body was ready to explode in release. Extremis flew through my mind, but it was too late to panic, not when every fiber of me lit up with my climax. “Yeah, yeah, fuck yeah, ride me—” Bucky ground out before he arched back. I let go a cry and pounded until I couldn’t go; then I slowed, gasping, and our eyes met again. He panted, clutched at me, and suddenly started to chuckle deep in his chest. I caught it and began to giggle too while folding onto him, not moving otherwise. Dammit, it had taken me long enough to get him in me, I really didn’t want to relinquish that sweet feeling of fullness until I was obliged to.

We rolled onto our sides, still laughing, and though he softened and slipped from between my legs, we pressed as close together as two bodies could be. He grumbled something in Russian and the syllables woke something in me, the place in my heart that Zima had claimed. It felt like he really was still there, like he had found his place within Bucky. I nuzzled his neck with one pause to spit out a few stray strands of his now sweaty hair. “Shower,” he grunted.

“Shower,” I agreed.

Neither of us moved. “We’re gonna be stuck together if we don’t get a wiggle on,” he said after a few more minutes.

“Mmm-hmm.”

“You don’t sound too haired up about it.”

“My heart says I’d happily be stuck to you for the foreseeable future. My brain, however, points out that if we don’t go clean up, we will both regret it in the morning, especially trying to get that fuzz on your belly UNstuck.” That made him snort and playfully smack at me, and we finally rolled out and went to wash, which was almost as enjoyable as the initial act of getting messy.

I started to enlist his help to change the sheets, but stopped mid-voice when I spotted something I did not want him to see. Where my knees had rested astraddle him, the fabric was…not burnt, or even scorched really, but…lightly toasted, maybe? Two faint singe marks showed my position at the moment of my climax, and I wondered crazily if any clothing i might have been wearing would have flat-out caught fire.

“Hey doll, you sackin’ out standin’ up over there?”

I summoned a smile, rolled the dirty linens carefully to hide the incriminating evidence, and bundled them away to the bathroom to hide among the wet towels. We put out the lights and snuggled up, which gave me a good excuse to casually check Bucky’s chest for any signs I had burned him. Nothing was obvious, and I didn’t recall seeing anything when we were showering, though his swift healing might have wiped anything less than blisters in minutes if not seconds. I snuggled into his embrace, thankful nothing worse had erupted, grateful for this one night if I got no more, and hopeful that Extremis would not be an issue for much longer.

Famous last words. The next morning, everything went to hell in a saddlebag.

“Shuri…what do you mean, it can’t be reversed?” I asked, my lips numb.

“I mean exactly that,” Shuri responded from her seat at a workstation. “From the information Stark sent, Extremis rewrites the carrier’s DNA. It harnesses the body’s bioelectrical field and uses that to activate the parts of the brain that govern repair. Essentially, the virus recodes them chemically—it hacks into the basic operating system of the organism. He outlined the procedures he and his Dr. Banner developed to mutate it into a nonviable form, in your and Miss Potts’ bodies. They worked, for a while; but for some reason, at some point in the recent past, the virus revived in your body, mutated again, and fully bonded with your genetic material. Even the neural rewiring I used to clear Sergeant Barnes won’t impact that. It’s a part of you now, Christine, and I think nothing can remove it.”

Chapter Text

For a long few breaths, the only sound in Shuri’s lab was the hum of equipment and the quiet chat of her assistants busy with their own projects. “No,” Bucky whispered harshly at last from where he stood behind me, and wound his arm around my waist, holding on like he could protect me from an enemy inside my own traitorous body.

I took those few breaths, the only prayer in my heart one for the safety of the people I loved. “So,” I said, proud of myself for the relative steadiness of my voice. “Do…you have any idea how much longer I might live?”

Bucky made a noise like a sob. I put my hand over his in a feeble attempt to reassure him, and myself. Shuri blinked. “Oh!” she said. “How foolish of me, I was not sufficiently clear, was I? Your life doesn’t appear to be at risk. Stark sent tissue samples taken from the experimental subjects who did not survive—they arrived yesterday.” I nodded. I remember Tony sneaking those out of Killian’s lab, before law enforcement showed up, and using them as references in working on Pepper and me. “Your tissue samples are different from baseline humans, but I compared them to the failed subjects, and you look totally different from them as well. Extremis is not running wild in your body as it did in theirs. It is stable. It seems almost to have formed a mutualistic symbiotic relationship. Some viruses do benefit their hosts, even humans, and Extremis appears to have—this sounds mad, I know, viruses are not sentient; but it behaves almost as if it has learned if it runs rampant and kills you, it dies as well.”

“That doesn’t sound as mad to me as you might think,” I admitted. “I’ve, ah, talked to it, sometimes. Just as a way of cueing myself to self-control.”

“Your Shakespeare said that the heavens and earth contain far more than we can even dream of,” Shuri returned. “Perhaps when you talked to Extremis, it listened, after a fashion.”

“Wait,” Bucky said, his tone urgent now. “So, you’re sayin’ she’s gonna be okay?”

“I am saying she will need to learn to maintain dominance over the virus’ powers at all times, but once that is in place, it should not burst forth spontaneously and harm her or those around her.”

Bucky actually laughed, a little bit, at that. “If all it’s gonna take is her putting her foot down, we’re set! Hear that, sweet thing? You just boss those lil’ vermin around, like you do the press.”

“Practices to address calm and balance and presence of mind in all circumstances will be of the greatest benefit, I would say,” Shuri offered. “I may have some ideas on that front. We can attend to those if you still plan to stay a while longer, as well as our pinpointing what triggered your relapse.”

“Absolutely. Tony needs to know what caused this so he can keep Pepper safe.”

“There is good news regarding that topic,” Shuri tapped her bracelet and pulled up a holoscreen of data. “The levels of Extremis in Miss Potts’ system are low, and all of the samples show them to remain inert. It appears they never fully bonded with her DNA, which is fortuitous.”

“That’s weird. She did manifest the Extremis powers for a while, until Tony and Bruce treated her. I never—well, I did once, but nothing dramatic.”

“I want to create a timeline, from the time of your exposure through the present,” Shuri said. “We need to determine, if we can, when the precipitating event occurred, what it was, and any other relevant factors. As for your sister, I have formulated an approach which should remove the threat entirely. It is an adaptation of dialysis, that Stark can set up in his lab and run periodically, removing a little more of the still virus each time, until her system is clear.”

“I didn’t know viruses could be filtered out of blood. Tony would have done that if he could have.”

“Precisely.” Shuri’s teeth flashed in a grin. “The filtration system I have developed relies on nanobeads. It’s quite effective and pleasing, if I do say so myself. Stark…won’t be angered, I hope, if I have bested him.”

“Angry? Tony loves brains that are better than his, and he loves Pepper more than anything or anyone else in the universe. The only yelling you’re liable to hear from him is screams of joy. He might high-tail it over here to hug you.” Bucky chuckled and nodded vigorously in agreement. “He’s been working on nanite tech for his suits, following some joint research he did with a—a colleague from overseas. It’s close to being operational, but not on this level. He’ll be thrilled, mark my words.”

He was. The phone function on Shuri’s beads was directional, so she could have a private conversation without having to lock herself in a room alone, but I could still hear him practically squealing. The squeals ended when Shuri held her hand out for me to talk. “Hey, Tony, um, I’m gonna have to stay a little longer. The…the virus has already attached itself to me, and it can’t be removed, so I have to learn to master it. I can still do most of my work from here. I hate to leave you all without boots on the ground to manage PR, especially with the Accords still up in the air, but I kind of don’t have a choice right now…Tony? You there, hot rod?”

“Yeah. I, ah, yeah. We’re fine! We’re good. The Accords meeting went great, as great as any international dustup over restrictions and accountability could go. I’ve got more get-togethers upcoming, to whip them into final shape, dot the I’s and cross the t’s. Team’s getting ready to split up and go on the road, pressing flesh, talking them up, trying to let enhanced people around the world know these rules are going into place and they can be trusted whether or not the bureaucrats that come and go can be.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“I…fuck, I’m sorry, cornbread, I don’t know what we didn’t do. The princess is sending her magic nanobeads for Pep but she said something about your platelets? Helen and Maya noticed the same thing but they couldn’t drill down far enough to get specific. What the fuck is up with that?”

“You didn’t ‘not do’ anything. I don’t know about platelets; we haven’t had a chance to get down to brass tacks yet. All I know is, thank God, apparently I’m not about to die anytime soon, I can still lead a normal life, I just have to get used to being a little stronger and faster and maybe getting—” I bit my tongue. Behind me Bucky huffed an amused breath on my neck; before me, Shuri’s eyes glinted and she tilted her head as if to say Getting what? “Listen,” I said hastily, “I’m only gonna say this one more time. Not your fault, Tony. More than likely, it’s just that age-old scientific principle, ‘shit happens’.” Tony’s laugh was shaky but there. “If you hear from Bruce, you could point him my way though. Some meditation training could definitely help, I’m thinking. Oh! Or, do you think Stephen might have any suggestions? This isn’t magic, but he did help Wanda get a grip on her powers. Maybe some of the same principles would apply. I can ask him, when I get a minute, since I know you would rather gnaw a hole in your phone than deal with the Sorcerer Supreme.”

“For you, I will restrain myself, and give David Copperfield a call.” The brightness was back in Tony’s voice, as much as I suspected it was forced.

Bucky peeked over my shoulder. “Hey Tony! Good news here, huh? You got your pepper pot, now I got me a lil’ flamethrower.” Tony did not sound amused, but between the two of us, we managed to persuade him all would be well. At least, he tried to make us believe he believed it.

Shuri shooed Bucky off to check on his herd, and she and I worked out a timeline. I recounted every incident I could think of since my exposure that could conceivably have been connected with Extremis. We quickly saw the same pattern I had suspected earlier, that stress or upset triggered the virus to start building heat in my body. Shuri was right, it was almost like it was trying in an ill-informed way to defend me from any perceived threat. That made me think about something else as yet unexplained, and I told her about my sudden acquisition of the ability to sense the Mind Stone and its affiliated powers. She agreed Extremis might have reacted to that as a menace too, which confirmed my inner perception of something pushing back from within me, but that left a lot of questions still unanswered. “In any case, your condition is stable,” she affirmed. “The change in your platelets does not appear in any of the failed subjects, and it seems to have rendered you resistant to Extremis’ effects.”

“I had an acute reaction to the Mind Stone the first time I was around it,” I said, “but some of the incidents that might have been related to Extremis reviving happened before that, like the fire at my ex’s apartment. We assumed that was a boobytrap to hide his link to HYDRA, though. There’s no proof it was related to me, so, still a mystery.”

Shuri did not like mysteries. She was determined to chase down the initial cause. Meanwhile, she tasked me with gaining as complete a control over Extremis as possible. To me, that meant learning to keep a lid on it, permanently. Over the next few days, I racked my brain for every quieting trick I could recall from the few times I’d done yoga with Bruce, and called Stephen Strange for counsel, only to learn Tony had indeed called him first. He wanted me to come back to New York and stay at the Sanctum, but I couldn’t. “I don’t feel safe being there, with such a high concentration of people, Stephen, not yet! Here, I can quickly get to either an isolated place, or a shielded one, if I’m about to lose my grip. I know, it’s a vicious circle, but I—I just can’t.”

“Hmph. Fine, I’ll come there. Yet another house call for you lot…” His voice trailed off, and I waited for him to ask for any assistance I might need to give for him to pinpoint Wakanda and portal in. The request never came; a few moments later, he said, in a hesitant voice I had never heard from the confident sorcerer, “Are...you sure you’re on earth, Christine? I can’t find you.”

“I’m sure. I bet the Wakandan cloaking tech is blocking you.”

He grumbled and swore a while before he gave up. “From the sound of it, you’re already using many of the exercises I would suggest. I have my own work to do, and I can’t very well go haring all over the globe to provide one-on-one tutoring. Can you teleconference? I can consult with you periodically. Better that than allow you to incinerate several city blocks.”

Thanks a lot for your optimism, I thought. I put on a good face, though, and thanked him for real; he didn’t even have to take my call or make any offer of assistance after all.

Ayo was my most frequent escort when I went places, sometimes accompanied by another of the Dora Milaje, her girlfriend Aneka. We became friends, and I went to them with most questions I had about their homeland. I didn’t share the true reason for my extended visit, but I asked if they had been taught meditation, and they looked a bit baffled.

Shuri’s brother got me an audience with Utu, the royal shaman, but Wakandan methods of contemplation were radically different from anything I’d expected. “It’s a totally different approach,” I told Bucky as we sat in his hut (with Shuri’s assurance I wasn’t going to catch fire in my sleep, I was dividing my time now between city and countryside). “He suggested that I stop sitting and trying to empty my mind and all. Instead he said try doing some activity and completely focusing on it.”

“Could work, though,” he mused. “I got an idea.” He caught my hand and pulled me outside and around to the paddock. While I greeted the goats (the one with the most striking beard liked me best; Bucky had, naturally, named him Tony. The most stubborn one was named Steve.), Bucky broke two straight branches from a tree that shaded their pen. “Grab that hand saw and let’s smooth the ends on these,” he said. “You were a natural with a sword. How ‘bout we try a few passes with these? Don’t think about anything except the movements. May not be properly meditatin’, but it’ll get your mind offa things for a spell. And it’ll getcha sweaty. Then we can maybe go skinny dippin’.”

“Ulterior motives,” I accused as I whacked the broken ends off. “You just want me to wash your hair.”

“Ain’t denyin’ it,” he grinned and scooped up one makeshift weapon. “Now, quit jawin’ an’ see if you can beat the fella with one arm.”

That was doubtful. Even pumped up by Extremis, I wasn’t likely to be able to take a super-soldier. I focused, though, and let my awareness narrow to the sway and snap of Bucky’s body across from me, and the footwork and angles of attack he and Clint had taught me. It felt really good to move: the shifts and shoves, the push and pull and turn, thrust and parry and step and feint. Time packed its bag and left for town, while we danced on the dirt. The breeze from over the lake stroked my neck and I realized I was indeed sweating, but not flushed in the way I had learned warned of an Extremis spell. I stepped back and held up my hand, and Bucky halted. “Didn’t beat you,” I said, pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t panting for breath.

“Didn’t get beat either.” He poked his stick into the ground and leaned on it.

”I wonder how you might fare against an opponent with two hands.” The unfamiliar voice brought me around in a reflexive spin bringing my branch up into ready position. It was stupid, I thought even as I did it; there were no foes inside Wakanda, and if there were I couldn’t very well fend them off with a tree limb. The three Dora I saw weren’t laughing at me, though, thank heavens. Ayo and Aneka sat on the ground, and looked startled and implausibly impressed. The third woman was the one who had spoken; she was in the process of standing and brushing herself off. She was tall, her uniform was a bit different from theirs, and she carried herself with the poise of a leader. “I am Okoye, general of the Dora Milaje. Princess Shuri summoned Ayo to accompany you back to her lab, and I thought I would come along to meet our foreign lodger. I did not expect to sit for an hour and watch you spar so capably with the White Wolf.”

My mouth fell open. “I’m so sorry! You should have stopped me, I was just, well, trying out something that Shaman Utu suggested. Wait, an hour?” I put my stick down and fired a death glare at Bucky. “No damn way.”

“Yeah, damn way, apparently. I ain’t got a watch but it’s not a shocker. You were in the zone, wasn’t about to make ya stop. Besides, they were havin’ a great ol’ time watchin’.” He flashed his usual charming smile, and Okoye responded with her own excellent version of Pepper’s Look.

“It was remarkable!” Ayo piped up. “We had no idea you were so accomplished in warplay. You should come and spar with us sometime!”

Okoye nodded, slowly. “Perhaps you should,” she agreed. “For now, come. The princess says she has news for you.”

Chapter Text

Shuri’s news was surprising and intriguing. “Your brother contacted me with some information he had gathered from the organization SHIELD. He said you and he suspected they were aware you and Miss Potts had been exposed to the Extremis virus, and that he had gone to some lengths to conceal the extent, lest they attempt to exploit your status. It was a moot point, I suppose, once Stark believed he had cleared you both, but with your relapse, he felt an effort to acquire any intelligence that they had was worth the risk.”

Long story short, Phil had called Tony to ask after me, and Tony had tried to casually lead the conversation around to Extremis, to find out if SHIELD had any additional info about it. The casual part didn’t work out; Tony really does not do subtle. Fortunately, this was Phil, and bless him, it sounded like he was actually concerned about my health; so once he found out what had happened with me, he was forthcoming with some amazing data. “A cabal called Centipede,” Shuri told me, “obtained samples of Extremis and experimented with subjecting it to gamma radiation, from another of these Infinity Stones, called the Tesseract. It conferred fire resistance in the platelets, and consequent stability of the virus and immunity of the host.”

The princess gave a significant look and nod when my mouth dropped open. “That—sure," I said. "If all the stones have similar radiation signatures, the Mind Stone could have caused those same changes in me. But things were happening before I got around it, like the fire at Simon’s--this still wouldn’t explain that.”

“I suppose,” she grumbled, “that much as I would wish it otherwise, all elements need not be explained in this case. It is altogether possible Extremis was beginning to mutate and revert to its normally aggressive state spontaneously. You said the primitive intelligence in the Mind Stone appeared to attack you when you would have thwarted its scheme to make itself a body, and we have speculated that Extremis has a rough form of sentience itself. It may well be that, perceiving that attack, the virus fought back and internalized a newly imprinted prime directive to protect its host—you. Whenever the stone or activity associated with it was near you thereafter, Extremis reacted in the way you described, trying to repel the threat; hence, your sensitivity to them.”

“Makes sense,” I nodded. “It really does. I know it sounds dumb, but just knowing what happened, how I ended up like this…it helps, a little.”

From his perch on the edge of one of Shuri’s worktables, Bucky listened and nodded agreement. “Doesn’t sound dumb to me, doll.”

His support was a comfort, but now a new wrinkle emerged. “Shuri, since you came up with a way to clear Pepper permanently, and we have an idea now of what caused my condition, and we know it’s irreversible, I…guess I’ll have to head back home.”

Shuri made a contemplative face. “Your work calls you, I am sure, but do you feel you have the Extremis power fully under control?” I shrugged. She waited. I shook my head finally. “Then for the safety of the world, and for the sake of my data and experiments, I think you should stay a while and continue whatever exercises you are doing to train yourself. if you can spare some blood and your opinions periodically, I have so many ideas! The cure for many viral diseases could lie within you—we do not know how other viruses might react to gamma radiation, or at what levels, but experimentation is definitely called for—” Suddenly excited, she scanned the desk she stood near and came up with an item she held out to me. “These are set up for you. I can monitor Extremis in your body through them, and you can use them instead of that primitive cell phone your brother cobbled together.” By now I knew her snark was like Tony’s, a sign of respect and affection, like the funny grimace I gave her in reply.

She laughed and slipped the bracelet of kimoyo beads around my wrist. Okoye, who Shuri had asked to stay and convey us back to the farm should we wish, did not look amused at all, though. “Highness, I agreed with your brother the king that Wakanda should reveal ourselves to the rest of the world—but must we really open our innermost secrets to every stray child of colonizers who wanders along?”

Shuri glared. “There is much you do not know, general, so perhaps you should not presume to speak.”

“Oh, wait, please, don’t argue on my account!” I turned to Okoye. “It’s true, I threw myself on your country’s mercy, and I wouldn’t have if I had had any other choice. It wasn’t about me, really, but I put many, many other people in harm’s way simply by what was done to me. I had to do whatever was possible to reverse it.” With a quick silent prayer for safety, I held up my hand and called Extremis’ flames. The general, obviously no shrinking violet, still gasped and took a step back. “Yeah. You can see how something like this, out of control, would be a problem.” I doused the fire at my fingertips, and tried not to sound bitter.

“That is an understatement.” Okoye’s dark eyes regarded me with more sympathy and less suspicion now. “How did such a thing come to you? Not of your own will, judging from your words.” We settled around the nearby worktable (well, except Bucky, who remained seated on the table, to Shuri’s gentle ribbing) and I filled Okoye in. “So," she nodded in comprehension, "this is how one who clearly has no schooling in combat was able to keep pace and hold off the Winter Soldier for an hour.”

“It wasn’t really combat,” Bucky put in. “I mean, not like we were really fightin’. Shaman Utu told Chris she might try focusin’ during an activity, and I’d taught her some sword tricks, so we thought we'd give that a whirl. It seemed to be workin’, too.”

“Ayo suggested Christine spar with us,” Okoye told Shuri. “I think that might be a wise idea. The Dora would benefit from a change of opponent as well; when they only have each other to face off against, it becomes easy to grow stale and complacent.”

“That’d be great,” I said, “but if I lost control and the fire comes up…Bucky’s healing factor means if I burn him it’s only going to last a few minutes, but I could really hurt you or one of the others.”

“Who says you must always keep the fire from coming up?” Shuri challenged. “I think it unsafe to try to deny it any outlet at all, for the rest of your life. You have this power, you should learn to use it to protect yourself and those around you.”

“The structured setting of combat training would be a helpful place to start,” Okoye added, her face thoughtful. “If you could focus and channel the fire through a weapon, it might make it easier to summon and dismiss it, and direct it effectively.”

“I’ve seen your weapons, though,” I argued. “The spear shafts are wooden; they’d be gone in no time. Extremis unchecked can burn most any substance, and melt most metals too. Tony told me when he went after the man who infected me and Pepper, he…he tortured Tony by heating his Iron Man suit.” Bucky practically snarled under his breath, and even Okoye glowered.

Shuri winced, but only for a moment. “We have a substance here that Extremis likely cannot damage, or even affect to any degree. Help me do some tests, and we will find out. General, have you knowledge regarding swords?”

“I have some ideas, and someone to ask for further advice,” Okoye replied, with the expression of a woman with a plan. “Sergeant Barnes, may I ask your assistance as well?”

“Pleasure’s all mine, ma’am.”

In the days that followed, I felt like I had fallen into a river that was sweeping me along, not that I was going to argue, since it seemed to be carrying me someplace of value. Shuri put me through my paces again, to get exact measurements of my enhanced physical attributes; that way I would know how to temper them when sparring with trained but unenhanced fighters. Bucky was able to give me some feedback about being in a similar situation; though he had never had his own super-soldier abilities specifically quantified, he had been forced by his captors to rein them in except when pressed into service against their adversaries, so he knew a lot about throttling his strength back.

Somebody else would know even more, though. I called Steve for counsel. Tony had told the team my predicament, and Steve confided that it was taking all he had to keep them all from piling into a quinjet and descending en masse on Wakanda. I promised half a dozen times I would be back and on the job full-time as soon as I felt at ease with my situation, but I confided just how terribly unsure and awkward and apprehensive I felt. “Main thing, Chris,” he said, “is don’t be so scared. I know that’s easier said than done, but I’ve been there, and I’ve found it just makes things worse.”

I consulted with Strange as well, and he was fascinated by Utu’s suggestions. “Martial arts do function similarly, working on the mindfulness of the warrior,” he noted. “Shim gum do, for one.”

“I am not a warrior!” I protested. “And I don’t want to be. I never have. Hell, when I first met Tony, I was as big a pacifist as you could find.”

His ironic laugh didn’t help, but the circle of support gathering around me helped enough. Ayo and Aneka welcomed me into their troop’s training sessions, and once I explained why I was there and we got acquainted, it was like inheriting several dozen more fierce and funny cousins.

For the first time, Shuri had me raise Extremis in her lab, so we could test what it could do. And what it could do was pretty staggering. As advertised, it could consume most flammable materials, and melt even steel after long enough. Vibranium, though—vibranium was a whole ‘nother cat. (Shuri cackled when I said that, and promptly added it to her list of things to say to torment T’Challa.) Reams of research conducted by generations of Wakandan scientists had revealed that its reaction to heat was unique; it conducted, but did not warm up itself. If it did, many of Shuri’s own inventions, like her ass-kicking hand cannons, wouldn’t be usable. “With a weapon made with a sufficient percentage of vibranium in the alloy, you should, in theory, be able to direct Extremis along its surface and manipulate the fire as part of the defensive or offensive attack,” Shuri opined.

“I know you have said you have no desire to walk the path of a warrior,” Okoye added, “but using this and learning to wield it will teach you control in the best possible way, I think. If you can discipline yourself in a stressful situation like being under assault, you can do so in any normal setting.”

The next time Okoye appeared was while I was in the lab with Shuri. She bore a long cloth-swaddled package, and was accompanied by a burly man wearing a blue blanket-like wrap. The bundle, when unwound, revealed a shining sword with a curved blade, a little shorter than the bamboo practice blunt stuck in the umbrella stand at my apartment door, back in the Tower. “This is a style of blade traditional to us, called a mambele. Ayo and Aneka tell me you learn quickly, and the mambele is not so different from the weapons you have known. I also,” she added with a nod toward the man, “have brought a master of the form, to help you make the blade’s acquaintance.”

The man scowled. “You neglected to mention you were dragging me into the city to try to teach a soft foreigner, wife.”

“W’Kabi—” Okoye started, sounding thoroughly done.

I interrupted with a chuckle. “Ohhh, it’s like that, huh?” I turned to him and put out my hand. “Please forgive my presumption. Okoye knows I’m over a barrel, as we say back home. It’s not that I need somebody to train me to fight, really. Well, not to fight other people. It’s more, I hope I can use this pretty thing to help me fight an enemy in myself.” His scowl shifted; now he was at least listening, and looked curious. I allowed myself a moment’s self-satisfaction; there was no way an actual jerk of a guy, however gruff he appeared, could win the formidable general’s heart. “May I?” I asked Okoye, and she handed me the sword, pommel first.

The leather-bound grip fit perfectly into my hand, and I suspected Bucky had had a part in its design. For all my disdain for aggression, I had to admit I couldn’t wait to see how it was balanced and learn what it could do. First off, though, was to conduct the little experiment we had discussed earlier. I took a few steps back into a clear space of floor, held the sword in front of me with its point upward, and focused. Okay, you little rascals, I thought at Extremis, let’s see if this will work. My attention narrowed to my index finger, and I drew it slowly up the flat of the blade. A line of fire followed it and rippled up until the span from the short half-guard to the hilt crackled with flame.

I spared one quick glance at those around me. Shuri looked ridiculously pleased. Okoye’s eyes widened, and her husband took a shocked step back. “Bast’s eyes,” he breathed.

My attention had to remain fixed on the thing I held. I could imagine an angel wielding it. “Okay, out now,” I said under my breath. Nothing happened. I tried again, and then tried not to panic; that would really put a bow on W’Kabi’s image of me as an incompetent, and I was just vain enough (and desperate enough) to not want that. With a touch of irritation, I thought Scat! and blew a puff of air toward the fire, no more than blowing out a birthday candle would take.

It went out. I blinked, and debated the wisdom of giving the impression I had planned this exactly that way. Fibbing wasn’t going to do me a bit of good, I reasoned, so I just turned to the flabbergasted warrior with a shrug. “I think you can see why I need some help managing this mess,” I said mildly.

Chapter Text

Once W’Kabi picked his jaw up off the lab floor, I explained what he had just seen. As I had surmised, under his gruff exterior was a good heart. He was infuriated at hearing I had been subjected to experiments that left me an inadvertent host to Extremis, and he readily grasped how I hoped to use swordplay to oblige myself to control. “My wife gives wise counsel, always,” he said with a fond look her way. “I will assist you as I can, considering my other obligations”—which, as I learned, included his heading up the border guard and working closely with T’Challa. As a result, he was only able to visit with me and my sharp-bladed new friend periodically, so it was a good thing that my learning curve seemed to have been pumped up a bit alongside my other enhancements. I practiced with Bucky, but held off on rejoining the Dora until I felt I had a handle on this new wrinkle.

T’Challa came along a few times, and tested the mind-blowing skills of the Black Panther against me, usually coming out on top since I was both new to combat and fearful of hurting him. “You should strike me once with your sword, then,” he told me, “and get the fear of it out of your mind.”

“You sound so serious,” I replied. “I’d almost believe you, if I didn’t recognize that evil glint in your eye. It’s the same one that Shuri gets when she’s bullshitting me.”

W’Kabi threw his head back in a guffaw and slapped T’Challa on the shoulder. “She has you there, my king. How is it that women always seem able to place you at a disadvantage?” To me, he added, “I see more every time we interact why the general took you under her wing. You proclaim you are no warrior, but you are. You only use different weapons most naturally. Okoye knows skill when she sees it.”

“I’m learning the skill I really want,” I answered him with gratitude. “I’m learning how to keep Extremis in check, and that’s all I care about, not being able to beat anybody in battle.”

We were jousting outside Bucky’s hut, where we had gathered a small audience—small in both number and size, since it was mostly the neighbor kids Bucky had adopted. The sun was starting to set behind the hut, though, and parents were yelling for their young to come home. They rushed off, their voices cutting clearly through the calm evening air. “What’s that one word they’re saying?” I asked T’Challa while Bucky saw our little guests off. “They repeat it a lot when y’all visit and we spar, and I mean to ask but I get fixed on working with you, and I forget. It sounds like lomlilo.”

T’Challa cocked his head to listen to the children, then smiled. “Ha, yes. They are talking about you, or at least your weapon.” He tapped the flat of my mambele. “Lomlilo roughly translates into English as ‘fireblade’.”

“That…makes sense.” I watched Bucky wrestle and laugh with the kids. Having children had never been a goal for me as it was for most of my friends, but now that I was pretty sure I could never, my perverse brain was constantly noticing how good my lover was with them.

“Okoye tells me you have not yet returned to training with the Dora Milaje,” W’Kabi said, his voice unwontedly subdued.

“I will soon. I need that teaching. It’s just that, having this—” I gestured toward the sword that had flowed with flames minutes before. “It adds another level of difficulty, and I have to be sure of myself. I feel safer squaring off against you. You are a master, and T’Challa and Bucky are enhanced. The Dora aren’t. I swear, in some ways, if I were in a spot where I had to fight strangers for my life, it’d be easier. I could just let go.” I laughed, half to myself. “I better not say things like that. For years I’ve been bitching to myself, wishing I had more to give to the world than words. Now I’ve got something, and it terrifies me. The Dora are my friends, and it scares me that I might hurt them without meaning to.”

“Never let the general hear you say that.” W’Kabi sounded more amused than offended.

“I understand that feeling, though, Christine,” T’Challa added. “There were many times, in recent years, that I chafed and wished I were king, to make the changes I wanted to see. Then, suddenly, I was; and I would have given it all back, the throne, the powers of the Black Panther, if Bast would restore my father to me.” Before I bothered to consider whether hugging the ruler was appropriate, I put an arm around his shoulders and squeezed. Fortunately, W’Kabi made no move to tackle me, and T’Challa just smiled. “We must play the game of life with the tiles that the goddess deals to us. This I know from experience: fear is useful in its place, as is any other emotion, but you must not allow it to consume you.”

I had to admit, he was right. Being afraid was eating up entirely too much of my energy, so I decided to get rid of all the fears I could. “You are so great with the village kids,” I said to Bucky over supper (spicy fish stew, cooked fresh from the lake’s catch). “You’ve never said anything about wanting a family, though.”

“Yeah, well, I never thought about it, obviously,” he grinned. “Like I said before, I dunno what HYDRA’s fuckery did to me. Need to get Shuri to check into that. But I figure, there’s bunches of kids in the world that don’t have somebody. Maybe one of these days I—we?—could be that somebody for some of ‘em.”

I let out a breath of relief. “Given how Extremis has borked up my DNA, I’d have a lot of second thoughts about getting pregnant, assuming I even could; but, yeah, maybe one day, those kids that need somebody…yeah.” I got up from my seat on the hut floor, just long enough to take his bowl, set it down, and sit myself down in his lap. “You’re the best.”

“So’re you, doll,” he murmured in between kisses.

The next day, I pulled my big-girl panties up and went back to the Dora training grounds. The troop welcomed me back with open arms, though I was a bit concerned how they would react to the latest wrinkle in my saga. When I haltingly explained, their response was, shall we say, underwhelming. “We serve a king who drank a mutant herb that granted him the powers of a big cat,” Aneka said dryly. “Why do you think we would reject you?”

In spite of that, I was still unsure when I produced the mambele and called Extremis. I really shouldn’t have been, and I kicked myself after the fact for ever having doubted this ferocious brigade. A few of the Dora were openly envious, in a sisterly way, that I had gotten some tutoring from W’Kabi (the slightest of frowns from Okoye quieted that, though I made clear how thankful I was and how desperately I needed it). Every one of the women, though, was amazed and impressed, jostling to see and ready to throw hands over who got to spar with me first. That brought a hint of a smile to Okoye’s often stern face—she loved to throw new challenges at them, so much so that they had apparently come to relish it themselves.

My adoption by the warriors carried over past the practice-battlefield. I had known all along there wasn’t going to be a way I could keep the Wakandan populace from knowing there was something odd about me and my sudden appearance in their land. At first, I resolved to lay as low as possible, barely ever leaving the loop of the royal compound, Shuri’s lab, and Bucky’s hut. That dog wasn’t going to hunt, though; Bucky was too friendly with the villagers, and of course the kids there, like kids everywhere, knew stuff before anybody else.

Once the Dora befriended me, the life of a hermit was not an option. Ayo and Aneka and their friends insisted, wisely I had to admit, that learning to control Extremis in groups of people was a non-negotiable. To that end, they regularly dragged me out to tour the land, to shop, eat, sightsee, hear music, or whatever was going on. Okay, admittedly, it wasn’t ‘dragging’ for very long. Steptown, the lively hip area of Birnin Zana full of shops and clubs, grew accustomed to seeing me. Usually I went with my newfound crew, supplemented by a rotation of their non-Dora friends. One woman who frequently joined us was Nakia, whose cheerful demeanor concealed, I soon learned, the wit of the sharpest spy in Wakanda’s service; I resolved to introduce her and Natasha someday. Much impudent harassment from the other women quickly led me to understand Nakia was also T’Challa’s once and possibly future girlfriend. Shuri’s consistent pestering of her brother about his serious lack of romantic game made even more sense now; to hear Nakia tell it, he was terribly prone to freezing up at inopportune moments.

The locals had given me an uncertain eye at first, understandably enough, but seeing me in the company of known quantities like the Dora Milaje gave me some cred. The occasions when Shuri and even T’Challa joined us helped them accept me even more. I flattered myself, though, that my own behavior helped too. The whole of Wakanda was a constant source of wonder. I made no attempts to hide my curiosity about and appreciation of the people and their culture, and expressed my gratitude for every kindness I was shown, no matter how small. I collected cooking tips and recipes from everybody I met, and before long my apartment in the compound was bumping with gqom, the dance music Shuri favored in her lab.

When I learned my way around town, I started coaxing Bucky out of his shell too. It was sadly amusing that I could locate more places of interest, no longer than I had been in the country, than he could. We tried every food and drink type we could find. Shopkeepers offered us so many tantalizing things! I was raised not to turn down hospitality, and with Shuri’s assurance that my condition was stable, I sampled banana mead, sorghum beer, and one memorable beverage I dubbed Wakandan moonshine. (What? I’m from Tennessee; we know our corn likker.) Bucky’s enhanced metabolism kept him sober no matter how much he drank. I was not so lucky, or unlucky, depending on one’s perspective. I could drink more before I started to feel a buzz than I used to, but Bucky was not about to let me go any farther than said buzz. “We’re gonna get Shuri to run the numbers on this,” he declared while he steered me out of a brewer’s tent and back onto the busy street. “Right now, I’m takin’ you home an’ put you to bed an’ not take advantage of you.”

I snorted out loud. “I am not intoxicated, mister, and it’s not taking advantage of me when I am enthusiastically consenting. But going home sounds good to me.” My casual calm was shaken just a bit when Bucky directed me up and down several streets. “Wait up, where are we going?”

“See,” Bucky chided, “you are loopy. Don’t even know where we’re goin’.” He pointed ahead and slightly up, and I saw the soaring structures of the royal compound.

I pouted. “You said we were going home.”

“Did not. I said I was takin’ you home.”

“Well, you're staying, then, else we go back to the farm.” His mouth opened, though nothing came out. I didn’t know whether to say what I was thinking, but my lowered inhibitions decided for me. “Whichever one is fine, sweetie, but home's wherever you are.”

The stormy eyes widened a fraction, before a half-smile tugged his cheek. “Guess they’ll let me in here, huh? Least I don’t smell like goats.”

I hadn’t expected my sojourn in Wakanda to be such a blessing.

Chapter Text

Once Bucky got over the hump of getting out in public, he began to sometimes accompany me to the Dora Milaje’s training grounds. Initially, he was dead set on just watching, mostly watching me. “It’s hot,” he admitted. “And kinda unsettling. Unsettlingly hot.”

That did not last long; Okoye needled him until one day he finally borrowed a spear and went at her. The troop gathered around, cheering both on until they called a mutual halt. “You honor me by not holding back, Sergeant,” Okoye said once she caught her breath.

“Hell, general, I did that, you’d make me into an hors d’oeurve. One of those lil’ wienies on a toothpick,” Bucky laughed, then went on more seriously, “Chris can take ya on without bein’ afraid of her own strength, so I figured I could too.” Hearing that warmed me, and not in the Extremis way. Having wrestled with the fear of causing somebody accidental harm, I was coming to relish the realization that I never had to be distressed again about somebody wanting to protect me, because I could protect myself in most any circumstance now!

I had more to do than just train and learn to leash Extremis, though, but at times it took a great effort to remind myself of that. Every few weeks, I collected updates from the Avengers on what they were all up to, called a virtual press conference, and reported to the media. Unfortunately, I also ended up having to deflect questions about my own health status. “HIPAA, people, for crying out loud. Privacy. I can tell you that I am receiving terrific care. I’m on a treatment regimen that is stabilizing my condition, and hopefully sometime this spring I’ll be right back in the Avengers main meeting room seeing all of your bright shiny faces in person regularly again.”

The team all still wanted to swarm me in Wakanda, but their work was keeping them busy. Thank heavens, there weren’t any world-threatening, Avengers-assemble-alarm level catastrophes, despite Tony’s tongue-in-cheek wishes. Putting the Accords in place, finalizing their fine-tuning, and traveling around the world to meet enhanced people face to face and make sure the new rules would help and not harm them, was a full-time gig for them as it was.

Pepper and I talked nearly every week; I didn’t tell even her exactly what my ‘treatment regimen’ was. She would tell Tony, and Tony would have a hissy fit at the thought that I, Formerly-Anti-Military-Industrial-Complex Borderline-Pacifist, was taking up arms because of something that she confirmed he was still occasionally obsessing over being his fault. When I was fully comfortable in my newly remodeled skin, I’d go back to New York and tell them. Bucky might be ready to go back to the States by then, and I would just have to grin and bear it while he bragged on me, so, might as well beat him to it.

Another suspicion of mine that Pep confirmed was that with all the other Avengers spread out across the globe, basically doing PR, and Tony as the point man for the Accords stuck in New York until the last I’s were dotted and t’s were crossed, he was lonely. She was addressing the issue by heaving all the R&D she could scrape up at him, which was as good an approach as any. The real saving grace right now, she said, was Peter, who was spending a lot of his free time with Tony. “Tony denies it, but I see him being more—more dad-like with the boy, all the time,” she said. I could almost hear her smiling through the phone connection (the audio output of my kimoyo beads was eye-popping). “I mentioned it the other day, and he was just frantic, worried May would be mad and think he was, I don’t know, trying to steal her nephew?”

I covered my mouth to keep from snorting into the pickup. “She’s not, right? Because he’s not.”

“Of course she’s not. Actually, she says she’s thrilled he’s got some solid male role models. I’m not sure who exactly she means—can’t be Tony, must be Happy and Rhodey.”

Usisi!” I cackled before I caught myself. “Sorry. Bucky and the neighbor children are teaching me some basic Wakandan. That’s their word for ‘sister’. T’Challa called Shuri by it the other day and I asked him. Guess I should ask and make sure they don’t mind me saying things in their language; I don’t want to be accused of appropriating inappropriately, if you follow me.”

“I do,” Pep said, “and I love it. Love you too, sis.”

The next day, some villagers asked Bucky if he could come help them with fence-mending. Even with one arm, he was stronger than most of them, and every hand helped in farming, I knew. As he left, escorted by the usual pack of children calling “Sala kakuhle, lomlilo!” to me, Ayo and Aneka arrived in a speeder to give me a lift to training.

Aneka brought me a gift; her sister Cebise, who worked in the royal air traffic control, did leatherwork on the side and had made me a sturdy scabbard for my mambele. “It’s lined with vibranium-infused fiber,” Aneka said while I squealed and Ayo laughed at me. “If any sparks have not yet extinguished when you sheath your blade, they will be when you do.”

“Better than what you keep doing to your clothing!” Ayo kidded as we flew to the training grounds. “I see you beating out embers sometimes.”

“Perhaps the princess would order you a new wardrobe in this fiber, so you do not light yourself on fire!” Aneka added.

Playing fashion designer for a foreign visitor was probably fairly low on Shuri’s list of priorities, but I wasn’t going to go there. “I’ll try not to scandalize you all by burning my britches off,” I sniped back and set them both to laughing.

It was the best day ever for my Extremis control. I was getting more consistent with turning it on and off. Cebise’s leather work was meticulous and solid, and once I slung the sheath on its harness across my back, I started to practice drawing and replacing my blade. On the other hand, Ayo had heard the village kids saying goodbye to me, and by late in the day she had most of the Dora calling me lomlilo. As nicknames went, though, it wasn’t a bad one at all. Out of the mouths of babes, and all that; they would never know I would never again touch the mambele outside the Avengers gyms when I left Wakanda. I’d carry the name proudly, as the gift of acceptance it was meant to be.

A speeder appeared and landed as we were taking a water break (I couldn’t help but think how in New York, winter was melting into spring, while here the weather stayed pretty stable and mild year-round). T’Challa emerged to salute his forces, accompanied by a mountain of a man in fur-trimmed wraps and boots. A murmur, quickly quieted, passed through the Dora’s ranks as they drew up for inspection. “Who’s that?” I asked Aneka under my breath, trotting alongside her to the lineup.

“M’Baku, lord of the Jabari,” she whispered back. “They live in the mountains yonder, and had snubbed our ways for many years; but when N’Jadaka sought to strike at the foundations of Wakanda, M’Baku brought his warriors to our aid. In thanks, T’Challa awarded him a place on the tribal council.” She broke off at the men’s approach. I started to step away, but she caught my hand. “Stay, lomlilo. You are our own.”

T’Challa walked along the lines with his usual cat-light step, speaking to one fighter and then to another, smiling and at ease. By contrast, the mountain man’s face wore a set glare, as though of disapproval. It got on my nerves, but I wasn’t about to let anybody know that. I stood as straight and still as I could, determined not to disgrace my friends.

T’Challa greeted me when he reached the end of the row, and his companion finally showed an expression other than barely reined-in scorn. Regrettably, it was open scorn. “King! This one does not appear quite done! Not long enough in your warm sun, perhaps,” the Jabari lord scoffed.

As insults went, I’d heard a lot worse. T’Challa didn’t look impressed or concerned either. “This is the visitor I spoke of, brother. Christine Everhart, I have the honor of introducing Lord M’Baku.”

I inclined my head, in regard for his status if not his attitude. “Ah, your White Wolf’s woman,” he fairly sneered, not much different from any number of men I had had to deal with in my work life. “Too bad she is undercooked. I could feed her to my children.”

“With all due respect, sir,” I returned, “that’d be extremely unwise. I’m far spicier than i appear. I'd more than likely blister their mouths.”

Aneka strangled a snort of amusement. M’Baku scowled again, then glared at Okoye. “I think poorly of your troop management, general, if you suffer a stranger to stand with the fearsome ranks of the Dora Milaje.”

I swallowed an angry retort. The man's opinion wasn’t worth a hill of beans to me, but I wasn’t about to let him use me to shame Okoye. It wasn’t my place to take him on, though; she was the commander, not me. When I dared look her way, she didn’t look piqued. In fact, that little almost-smirk of hers was threatening to break loose. “She has earned her place beside us.”

He humphed, then whipped around the stick he carried. I had thought it was a staff, but now I could see it was pinpoint-sharp on one end and rounded and heavy like a club on the other. With a loud cry, he rushed me. Thankful for Extremis’ speed, I sidestepped him and reached over my shoulder, hoping the practice had paid off. The mambele felt like it practically jumped from the scabbard into my hand, and I swept it around and down to block the charge. The man halted, then recovered and swept the blunt end of his weapon around. It was a hard dark wood, whittled and carved beautifully into shape, and I hated to damage it, but choices had to be made and quickly. I called Extremis and gave a quick tap to the base of my blade, and it burst into flame. I blocked the next blow, and the club caught fire. Its wielder dropped it and jumped back.

I held my position and met his eyes, the curved sword crackling before me and his stick lying smoldering in the dirt. After a second, I eased my stance and put a foot out to step on the flames. “I’m sorry. I know you weren’t trying to hurt me on purpose, and I didn’t want to harm your club; but, better it than my fool head, as my daddy would have said.”

The women surrounding me broke into a little chant and dance. Lomlilo, lomlilo! they went. T’Challa grinned from ear to ear. And M’Baku—well, he burst into a booming laugh. “You hide such ferocity in the strangest places, panther-lord!” he said to T’Challa. “And you, Fireblade. I see!” Still chuckling, he put out his hand and clasped my forearm when I switched hands to hold my blade and told the fire to go out. It did, but not until, once again, a few sparks flew into the air and singed a couple of tiny holes in the t-shirt I was wearing.

T’Challa’s eyes narrowed a touch. “Distraction is useful in the heat of battle,” he said mildly to me, “but burning your clothes off seems excessive.”

I laughed. “Not my intention either, your majesty,” I replied. “I only packed a few weeks’ worth of clothes, not knowing I’d have to stay longer. I’ve been mending them, but I may have to buy a few outfits in town. I hope folks won’t think badly of me. I don’t mean to imitate them or seem mean.”

“No, no.” He waved my concerns off. “No one would name you an appropriator. The White Wolf dresses as we do, after all. What is your saying, when in Rome, do as Romans do? When in Wakanda, do as Wakandans do.” He frowned as though in thought. “I have an idea that might help, though.”

Chapter Text

As it turned out, T’Challa’s idea was the same as Aneka’s. The next day, Shuri called me to a workspace in the royal complex. “My brother tells me you have need of a wardrobe more amenable to your new abilities. He and I think along the same lines sometimes, frightening though that is. I have been toying with ideas for attire for you, appropriate for sparring and swordplay but resistant to your fire, using the template of the Dora Milaje’s uniforms.”

“Wow. That would be amazing. They’re easy to move in, and they look striking. I wouldn’t want them to feel I was trying to—to play at being one of them, though.”

Shuri made a little scoffing noise, before she flicked her fingers and pulled up a body schematic to show me what she had in mind. “The Dora use their spears, fighting with thrust and throw, and their uniforms are designed for that purpose; but you have your blade, and your fire, so the pattern will need some modification. It will not look like theirs at all, so put your mind at ease. Much of the decoration and beadwork carries significance related to each warrior’s rank and experience.” As she spoke, she moved parts of the outfit around on the virtual model. Making the waist cape and tabard shorter and simpler was a main focus, not because the vibranium-fortified fabric would catch fire, but to prevent me flicking sparks onto anybody around me by accident. The base of the uniform, like the Dora’s, was to be a fitted body suit; Shuri had me step into a scanner to take my measurements and fabricate that foundation garment. “It will protect you and support your control, but it should also make you feel—strong. The colors and ornamentation should be your own, and speak of what inspires you. So, tell me, what colors you want, first.”

I didn’t have to think long on that. “Red and gold.”

Her face fell a bit. “Red is fine, but gold is reserved for senior officers. You may notice Okoye’s uniform is different from the troops she commands, in that way. Their fittings are silver.”

“Oh. I hadn’t noticed. That’s fine. I just—they’re Iron Man colors, Tony’s colors, so it was kind of automatic. I’d never step on Okoye’s rank and privilege, especially since she’s taken me under her wing, so to speak.”

“You do not need my wings to protect you,” Okoye said, walking into the room. “You have wings of fire, that you will spread soon enough. Now what is it you would not ask for fear of giving affront?”

I flushed, and before I could get myself together Shuri was explaining the situation and my request. “I rather think no one would confuse us on the field of battle,” Okoye chuckled and tugged at my ponytail.

“I didn’t know the protocol about the gold trim. I’m sorry, I meant no offense.”

“And I take none. I earned my rank, and that is my honor. But our culture prizes family, both of blood and of heart--part of Wakanda’s name comes from an old word for family--and I would not dream of preventing you from honoring your heart-brother.”

“I have ideas,” Shuri said, and graphics began to fly through the air faster than I could keep up with them. “Something with a hint of Wakandan influence—I could not help but include that, it is in my blood and brain—but something that is all yours, Christine.”

Bucky was feeding his goats when I got home, patting and talking to them and occasionally swearing at goat-Steve when he headbutted him. “Loving the country life?” I asked.

“I do,” he said. “I like the simple life, a lot, but… part of me’s startin’ to get a little antsy, wantin’ to do more. I’m wonderin’ if I might be of more use workin’ with the Dora more often than every now and again.”

“You need to do what you need to do, sweetie,” I said as we walked down to the lake to watch the sunset. “If you’re wanting my opinion, though, I’d say to take as much advantage of this peaceful time as possible. Things can change in an instant, in the snap of a finger, and you never know when it’ll happen.”

“Like that guy from space that Tony an’ Steve talked about, the one that Thor warned ‘em was comin’. Thanos.” Bucky’s eyes bored into me. “You know, doll, if and when that clown turns up, you’re probably not gonna be an innocent bystander.” He took my hand in his. “You’re not just a talker anymore. You got power, power that can be used, and you’re like as not gonna end up right in the middle of what the hell ever happens.”

“No. Bucky, I won’t. Not unless there’s no other choice. If I had to fight to protect myself, or other people, I’d do whatever I could. But otherwise—no!” He looked unconvinced, but let it drop, and we ate, and made love, and washed up and went to bed, with his words hanging there. Because deep down, I was afraid he was right.

I got together with Shuri for a couple of fittings—her body suits were slim but not constricting, and I could move with ease in them. Once they met with her approval, she examined the weapon harness Cebise had made for me, muttered to herself, and ran her kimoyo beads over it, scrutinizing the dimensions that popped up. “If you can leave this for me, I will have something ready for you by tomorrow.”

Boy, did she ever. The next day, I slipped into a body suit and picked up the harness to put it on over. I saw Shuri had transformed the simple worked leather. Studs in both silver and gold color reinforced the joins now, and the same dual-shaded metal made up caps that shielded my shoulders. Putting both types of metal together gave it a really pleasing look, and would never be confused with Okoye’s armor.

The decorative beading was warm reds and yellows, except for the motif on the harness’ chestpiece. It was rounded, unlike the sharply defined corners and lines of the tribal designs I saw throughout Wakanda. Around it, though, rays of beading spread into an angular shape reminiscent of a stylized heart, all done in tones of blue and white beads…oh. OH.

I fumbled for a stunned instant, then pulled the harness on. When the belts at my hips and below my breasts were fastened in place, the design sat squarely on my chest, and I almost burst into tears.

“Do you like it?” Shuri walked in, looking ready to pop from smugness.

“Shuri, it’s…” I was speechless. She nodded.

“The internet is a wonderful thing. I found many clear photographs of the Iron Man suit, and it seemed to me that the central reactor made an excellent focal point for a design to make this uniform truly yours, and as a mark of respect to your brother.” She drew closer and dropped her voice. “It also covers extra protective armoring over your heart.”

“Tony would appreciate that. Thank you.” I sat down and exchanged my worn high-top Vans for knee boots with split toes, made of supple strong leather. When I slowly stood, Shuri summoned a projection like a true mirror, and there before me stood—somebody. I didn’t know her. Did I? I stared, and tried to reconcile my normal image of myself, in my business suit, at a podium, wrangling reporters, with the person I was seeing now, kitted out for combat. I’m not a warrior, I insisted in my head, but then I thought, well, yeah, I guess I am, just not in the same field of contest, right now. I’m fighting something else at the moment. But I’ll go back to my real place—no, that’s not true. It’s my usual place, but this is as real as that. I stood up straight and gave the reflection the stink-eye. “I need to work on that,” I told Shuri. “The intimidation factor sucks eggs.”

“You underestimate yourself.” T’Challa strode in. “You can be quite intimidating. Of course, the flaming sword helps.”

Ubhuti,” Shuri groaned. “Give her a chance. Can’t you see she’s having an existential moment?”

I giggled, and suddenly, there was the Chrissy I thought myself to be. “Well, that helped as much as anything. Thanks again, Shuri. You are amazing. What kind of insult did you just hurl at him on my behalf?”

T’Challa laughed. “I could play a prank and tell you something horrid, but in truth, she only named me brother.”

“I’m trying to learn some Wakandan,” I replied, “but as I said about your modes of clothing, I don’t want folks to think I’m taking what isn’t mine to use.”

“I think no one would call that ill done. If English speakers didn’t borrow words from other tongues, they would barely have a language at all,” Shuri joked.

“True that,” I agreed without hesitation, then returned my thought to the issue at hand. “Guess I better find out how your gorgeous handiwork will handle a little heat.”

The answer was a foregone conclusion, really; everything Shuri touched worked as if charmed. Once the uniform was proven to work, she knocked out a couple of backups, then some everyday outfits, until I had a whole wardrobe in the vibranium-infused fabric. Whatever setting I might be in, even if behind that podium, I could now wield Extremis with one less worry.

Bucky’s mind was a bit blown by my new look, and he didn’t grasp at first how I accepted it so readily. I tried to explain the realization I had come to. “I called myself a pacifist, but I’ve never been that, not really. When I was a kid I fought my own family who didn’t understand me. I fought to be who I felt I was, somebody meant for something bigger than a small conservative Southern town. I fought the image of my origins when I went off to school, and ended up burying it for years. Then I fought my way up the ladder in my field, even though it wasn’t truly the field I wanted—the night Tony and I met, I told him I’d rather be writing science pieces than doing celebrity interviews. And since I’ve worked with the Avengers I’ve been right up front fighting for them. So it’s never been that I wouldn’t or couldn’t fight, it’s that I’ve always fought for what seemed fair, against what was wrong or corrupt or destructive. I haven’t changed, Bucky, I’ve just expanded my tool kit.” He nodded, but still looked unsure. “I hope you aren’t scared of me again.”

“Hell no, doll! I’m not scared, never was. I’m proud of ya.” He stepped back and gave me a thorough once-over. “You’re gonna have to tell the folks back home what’s gone on, though, sooner or later. Better sooner than later, I’d say.”

He was right, I knew he was, though that didn’t stop me from grumping and worrying about it. After some thought, I decided easing them into the news might be easier on all concerned than dumping everything on them at once. The bulk of my news was good, after all—I felt close to having full control over Extremis and was learning to manipulate it safely—so how I got there should be secondary. It wasn’t like I was planning a career change from media wrangler to superhero, anyhow.

Chapter Text

The next time I talked with Tony before a press briefing, I braced to tell him what I’d been doing. When he asked the inevitable question, I shared the good advice I’d received, praised Shuri’s expertise to the heavens, and enthused about ‘exercising’ with the Dora Milaje. “I’m getting a grip on Extremis. I’ll be home soon, ubhuti, and y’all can see everything I’ve done.”

“Wait, what’s my booty got to do with anything? I didn’t think you liked my ass like that, cornbread. Am I gonna have to suit up when you come back, so Barnes doesn’t snap me like a Slim Jim?”

“No such thing, hot rod. I’m learning a little of the language while I'm here. Ubhuti is just Wakandan for brother.”

“Oh. Uh...Okay. Cool, cool. I, ah, better make tracks, I’m mixing epoxy and if it sits too long and overheats, DUM-E’ll whip out the fire extinguisher and have the whole damn workshop looking like the set of Home for the Holidays. Good talk, hope the presser goes well, keep me posted.”

Click. I stared at my kimoyo beads, which was dumb, but no dumber than if I had been holding a dead phone receiver and staring at it. “What the fuck?” I said aloud. Fortunately, I was alone in a vacant workspace in the royal complex, one T’Challa had kindly designated for my use, so I didn’t sound any crazier than usual. I couldn’t help but be baffled though. Every time Tony and I talked, it went on and on, him passing along all the gossip, from the new bodega up the block to Clint falling out of his barn and breaking both damn arms, and me sharing the wonders of Wakanda…Oh dear. I had raved about Shuri’s tech, her whipping up my new clothing, monitoring my status with the kimoyo, and so forth. Maybe I had left him feeling guilty again, or useless.

The briefing was an hour away, so I had time to call him back and get to the bottom of things. Mentally cussing myself, I started to address the beads, when they buzzed against my wrist and the prime bead flashed to signal an incoming transmission. It was Pepper, and she did not sound happy. “Chrissy, what’s wrong?”

“Come again?”

“Is something wrong, with you, or Bucky, and you haven’t told us? Tony’s usually in a great mood after you talk, but he just practically ran to the workshop, and he won’t let me in. JARVIS says Tony ordered him to lock down, and he says Tony’s very emotional. Tony doesn’t get emotional, you know that! What the hell is going on?”

“I…have no idea, Pep! I told him things are going well, before he hung up. He said he had a time-sensitive task, but that may have been an excuse. I told him all that Princess Shuri had done, and now I’m afraid maybe I upset him. Can you get him back on the phone for me?”

“I doubt it. I really don’t want him to know I called you behind his back.”

“Oh, fuck that noise. JARVIS, call the workshop, please. Tell Tony I am on the line and I will be on the line until he talks to me, dammit.”

“I cannot predict his response, Miss Everhart,” JARVIS replied, “but I will pass your message along immediately.” Pepper’s number disconnected, and I waited on the direct link to the dungeon. “Miss Everhart, sir regrets he cannot—”

JARVIS’ voice cut off, the override followed by a long few seconds of ambient silence—no voices, but the familiar background noise of Tony’s happy place, with machinery humming and an occasional bot bleep. “Everhart!” Tony sounded strained. “What’s up? I forgot to send your allowance? Oh wait, T’Challa’s a king, he’s got a whole damn country, he’s one of the few people on the planet who probably is richer than me, never mind—”

“I’m sorry!” I burst out. “Tony, I didn’t mean to sound like they’re more important than you, or that they’re fixing something you messed up. Hellfire, Shuri made me an outfit to work out in and she asked me what colors I wanted, and red and gold came out my face before I even had to spare a brain cell to think about it, because you mean the world to me—”

“Hey, hold up. None of the above, okay?” I heard him catch his breath. “I’m a jerk, I got issues the width of a football field, but yeah, you beat it into my head that everything is not my fault. So has Dr. Rausch, for that matter. This isn’t that. I—I hate that I couldn’t make this right, but that’s not my thing, right now…it’s dumb, I guess, but hearing you calling me your brother, in another language, it—hit me differently, and, you know the little octopuses that crawl into shells and hide when things get to be too much? That’s me sometimes, you know that; and you still, when I don’t feel like I deserve it, you treat me like family.”

“You,” I sighed, “are more family to me than most of my blood kinfolks. You know that. Now please don’t run away and scare me like that again, okay?”

“I, yeah, okay, I won’t. Just don’t tell Mister Mistoffelees I dissed his bank balance. He’ll send his lord high executioner after me. Or worse yet, come himself and use my Fendi sofa as a scratching post.”

I reminded myself to never, ever, educate Shuri about Cats. Her brother would never hear the end of it. If that was the worst I had to deal with, I would be better than I expected.

Between old job and new challenges, Wakandan friendships and Bucky’s steadfast love, the next days flew by. I realized I’d been stressing far more than anyone who professed any confidence in a god ought to. After a swift kick to my own ass, I carved out time in my day for prayer. Okoye directed me to a little open-air worship space on the Dora’s training grounds, where I occasionally crossed paths with Shaman Utu. We talked, and compared faith notes, and I found that making that a priority was as vital to putting the new elements of my life in order as learning to wield and control a fiery weapon was. I began to actually believe my own words, that soon I would return to my old world and fully merge it with this new one.

Late one afternoon, I had just finished answering emails from reporters, reviewing documents, and skimming media coverage on the Accords. I was mulling a nice grilled veggie sandwich, a quick run back to Bucky’s cottage (and maybe a quick tumble in the cottage, if he wasn’t busy) before I changed and met the Dora for a little more training, when my kimoyo beadss vibrated. Shuri had modified them so incoming calls from programmed numbers caused specific symbols to flash in sequence, sort of a pictographic caller ID. “Hey, Tony!” I said with pleasure.

“Fawkes! Pep’s dragging me out to go jogging, for fuck’s sake. She insists I’ve been holed up in the tower too much, pining for my companions. They’ve all been coming back whenever they can, between assignments and meetings and gladhanding and all, and I’ve even got the mate to the flip phone I gave Cap—try not to use it except in the event of emergency, which, thank fuck, hasn’t happened—but, yeah, I’ve gotten entirely too accustomed to them. Happy’s taking us up to Central Park where I will attempt to keep up with Pep on the Middle Loop, but I thought about how you and the Bumble used to go walkabout in the Ramble, so figured I’d call and touch base, since you aren’t here to rescue me.”

“So regrettable,” I teased. “I’ve been looking over the status of the Accords. It’s good to know they’re finally almost done. The rest of the team can get back into pocket, and Pepper can quit fretting about you.”

“Yeah, I can’t lie, I’m kind of looking forward to having superheroes underfoot again. Parker’s getting pretty sick of me riding herd on him.”

“Bullpuckey.”

“No, not ‘bullpuckey’, hayseed. I know teenagers, he’d rather web me up and dangle me off the landing deck.” I scoffed, loudly and at length. “It’s been nice being able to hang with him though, pun not intended. He…sometimes, I look at him, in the lab with me, and I think, maybe, someday, I could do the dad thing, you know? I even had the craziest dream last night, that Pep and I had a baby, and we named it after this eccentric uncle of hers.”

“That’d be awesome,” I said. “I’d get to be an aunt, sort of.”

“Sort-of nothing. Aunt Chrissy, the token good influence.”

“Me, the good influence?”

“Yes!” he declared. “So get your incandescent tailfeathers back stateside soon, hear me? Pep’s running out of make-work, and you know how I am when I get bored. I’m about to assign intern Parker to help me go through those boxes of Dad’s old journals, and just thinking about that almost sends me into a panic attack. Dad used to say he hid his bad boys in the basement, so who knows what the fuck’s in there. I’m not that desperate for projects yet though—the Mark 50’s fully operational, and I’ve been taking it on test drives, so next week when I get a free day, I may nanotech over to the Continent and visit you and Olaf, assuming he hasn’t melted in the African sun.”

I gulped. “Ah, great! That’d be great, yes. Bucky’ll be tickled, and Shuri can’t wait to meet you. Just give me a little heads up, so I’m not right in the middle of working out or something.”

“But that’s the point.” I could almost see his mischievous face and imagine him wagging a finger at me. “I want to see you working out. I want to see what you’re able to do with Extremis. It...it’ll help me, okay? When I see you, with that thermogenesis on a string, I’ll be able to, y’know, let some of this shit go.”

Dumbass! I thought, angry with myself. You should have told him weeks ago. Of course seeing you safe and in control will help him. “I—I hadn’t thought about that, Tony. I was scared it’d just freak you out more. I didn’t think about how it might make you feel better.”

“Well, it will, so tell Wakanda to brace itself for a Stark invasion. Their Klingon force field can keep my holoconferencing tech out, but it can’t keep Iron Man out!” His mock declamation lifted my mood from self-blame; but then, he sobered. “Listen, cornbread, I’ve been going over the guidelines for new enhanced, and you’re probably going to have to sign up under the Accords. Coulson knows, and we’ve suspected Fury knew since almost the beginning. You don’t intend to use Extremis, I know, but the powers that be are gonna want you on their naughty list.”

“I know. Bucky and I have talked about it, and it’s okay. You better brace yourself though. I’ve been using some vibranium implements to help me learn to contain the flares, and it’s a different look for me, in a uniform waving tools on fire around.”

“Sounds like it could be more practical in your regular gig than you might think—hold the paparazzi at bay, singe unauthorized recording devices, that sort of thing.”

I giggled, and we chatted idly for a few minutes, just catching up on the team's work with the Accords. Sam and Rhodey were teamed up working the western US, and Steve and Natasha were hopping across Europe. Everywhere the Avengers went, they met with groups of enhanced starting to emerge from the shadows, working to win their trust and assure them the first and still primary superhero team in the world was behind them. “It’s working out,” Tony said with a note of satisfaction. “We encourage them to stand up and be counted and fight for their rights, prove a few bad apples don’t characterize them all.”

Vision and the Maximoffs had taken a few days off for a mini-vacation somewhere in the UK, Tony said. “Barton volunteered to go with them, now that both his arms are working again, but Vis and Wanda wanted a little time to themselves. Vision even asked if he could turn his transponder off. He wants to learn more about the world, though I’m not so sure Pietro was the one to have closest to him on that score.”

“Wanda’ll keep them both straight,” I assured him.

“That, or get fed up and zap them both. Still feels weird though, like a dad watching his kid grow up and start dating.”

Suddenly I noticed the time. “Oh crap. Tony, I’m late for practice. I told titshala I’d be there—now, almost. Eek.”

“Told who?”

“Okoye. I call her ‘teacher’.” I scrambled around my makeshift office collecting my stuff. “I’ve got to run, I’m sorry, let’s see, I’ll figure the time differential and call you back in the morning—this evening your time—and we can talk some more. Give Pepper my love, and tell Peter and everybody I miss them and I’ll see them soon.” Breathless, I started to disconnect, then caught myself. "Love you, ubhuti.”

“Same to you, cornbread.”

I wasn’t very late; my increased foot speed let me race from the complex to the cottage and then the training ground just as Okoye was starting to look around for me. Still, she was my teacher, I deferred to her commands, and I was late. To make it up, she wanted me to stay and spar with her as evening crept over the land. “You cannot decree the time you may need to use your power, and you will need to have it under control at all times,” she pointed out, and I certainly couldn’t argue her point.

The world around us darkened, and the blaze of Extremis on my sword drew my eye and became a distraction. It was harder to keep my focus, both on controlling it and fending off Okoye. She pressed me back step by step, in a whirling melee, until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I turned sideways, let a thrust pass me by, and took a long step backward, downing my blade. In response, Okoye grounded the butt of her spear, and her look in the light of the flames was concerned. “This may be more than I’m capable of, titshala,” I managed. “I feel like my head’s going to explode. I don’t mean literally, don’t worry. It’s just too much for me to handle. I wasn’t meant to hold such power in my hand.”

“And yet you do,” she said simply. “In fact, I think you should consider beginning to work more with the power in your hand, without the sword. It is good to have a tool, but not always essential. You are strong, Christine, stronger than you think.”

“Yep.” Bucky strode out of the shadows with a grin. “Listen to the general, doll.”

“How long’ve you been lurking over there?” I demanded, amused in spite of myself.

“Long enough to know you’re comin’ down too hard on yourself. And Okoye’s right, you’re not gonna need a prop forever. You’re doin’ great, you got time to get a handle on this. It’s not like you’re an active duty Avenger y’know, the world ain’t hangin’ on your—”

The kimoyo beads around my wrist vibrated and the prime bead flashed, blue like Tony’s old arc reactor. I frowned down at the pattern of symbols that flickered across their surfaces, and activated them to answer the call. “Pepper?”

The voice that responded quivered audibly. “Chrissy? Chrissy, he’s coming.”

“Who, Pep?”

“Thanos. He’s coming. And Tony’s gone after him.”

Chapter Text

We listened in numb silence as Pepper steadied herself and filled us in. While she and Tony were at the park, Strange had appeared via portal—with Bruce! All she had been able to gather before they whisked Tony away was that Bruce had somehow been offplanet with Thor, that Asgard had been destroyed—destroyed??—and that while escorting the survivors here, their ship had been boarded by what could only be described as a monster: the monster Tony had dreaded for a half dozen years—Thanos.

“Happy took me back to the tower," she said, "and about the time we got there, a huge, donut-shaped ship appeared over downtown. The news stations broke in; there was a fight going on, Tony was there, and some horrible-looking alien things…When the TV cameras lost sight of him, I called his cell number. He—he was on the ship. They had taken Stephen, trying to get that stone of his, and Tony went after him. Tony said he…didn’t know when he’d be home. He kept saying how sorry he was, until the signal faded out.” Her voice faltered for a moment. “Bruce called me a few minutes later. He said Tony called Steve right away, on his secure flip phone, but the wizards didn’t have time to bring the other Avengers back with them scattered all over the world. Then with Stephen gone, Wong had to go back and guard their Sanctum. Steve and Natasha are heading to Scotland to find Vision and the twins—Bruce says the Mind Stone that Vision has may be the only one Thanos doesn’t have, so they’ve got to bring him in and protect it.”

“Pep,” I gulped. “Do I need to come back, right now? I’m sure T’Challa would loan me a flyer and a pilot--or, wait, Bucky, can you run their crafts? We can both come if you need us.”

“No, I’ve—” A faint beep sounded. “Hang on, this is Steve on my other line.”

Okoye’s mouth was slightly open in shock, and Bucky looked downright pale. “Doll, they’re gonna need anybody they can get to keep that stone outta this bastard’s thievin’ hands,” he said.

“I know, sweetie, but we don’t know yet what they’re planning to do. Let’s find that out first before we go off half-cocked.” I sheathed my sword and wrapped one arm around him, holding the wrist that carried my kimoyo beads out so they could hear clearly whenever Pepper came back on the line.

While we waited, I explained it all as quickly as I could to Okoye: Tony’s worries over returning aliens, Wong’s information about the Infinity Stones, and Thor’s warning about the maniacal warlord searching for them. She let out a long breath when I finished, and said dryly, “When T’Challa chose to open Wakanda to the wider world, this is not exactly what I had in mind.”

I nodded, but before I could commiserate further, Pepper’s voice returned. “Steve says he just talked to Wanda—she saw the reports on the news, and knew they had to get Vision to safety as soon as possible. She’s trying to contact Pietro; he left to give them some time alone, and Steve will rendezvous with them as soon as all three of them are together.

“I talked to Rhodey just before I called you. He and Sam are on their way back from California,” she went on. “They called Clint, and they’re stopping to pick him up. Bruce is on his way upstate, everyone’s going to meet at the compound, so if Thanos locates the Stone it’ll at least draw him away from a population center. Then—they’ll decide what to do, I guess?”

“Right,” I said. “We knew this would happen sooner or later, but…And Asgard isn’t going to be any help? That was our ace in the hole, once Ultron didn’t work out. Dammit! What happened to them? How did Bruce get away?”

“I don’t know.” I could see in my mind’s eye Pepper pacing with her phone to her ear. “He didn’t have time to tell me everything. Anyway, to answer your earlier question, stay put for now, I think. You can take calls and answer reporters’ questions as easily from there as here, and save the time a flight would take. I’ve got Happy here to help me. May too— we just talked, in fact. Peter’s friend Ned called her and said he took off when he spotted the ship coming in. We’re wondering if he and Tony are together. Tony didn’t say, but I—I only had him on the line for a few seconds.”

“Could be,” I nodded. Bucky’s eyes widened even more. “That might be the best outcome, because Tony’ll do whatever it takes to protect Peter.”

“Yeah, yeah. If Tony could hack into the controls of that ship, he’d turn it around and come straight back.”

I wasn’t as sure of that as Pep sounded, remembering how Tony had sworn after Malibu he would never again let an adversary bring the battle to him. Then again, he would do anything and everything in his power to keep Peter out of a fight far above his pay grade. “Okay, keep me up to date on any new intel you get, and when you talk to the team again have them contact me too—I won’t call them, they don’t need their media flack interrupting. I’m probably already getting calls, but I’ve been training all evening.”

“Training?”

“Long story, usisi. Just try not to worry, okay? I know, easier said than done, but Tony’s tougher than boiled owl. Fall seven times, get up eight. He’ll make it home all right.”

After signing off with Pepper, I took in my sweaty state. “I better go back to town. I can wash up in my suite, and start putting together a statement and setting up a briefing.”

“I will take you,” Okoye said firmly, already tapping her beads to summon her personal groundcraft. “If the king has not yet been informed, I can share with him what your Miss Potts detailed to us. That will save your time for your job.”

“Thank you, titshala. Bucky, you—”

“I’m comin’ with you.” His tone said he wasn’t taking no for an answer, either. “Somebody’ll have to drag you off to get some sleep eventually.”

I didn’t want to say it, but I knew he was right. With a sigh and a kiss we boarded the speeder with Okoye. On the way into town, I started checking my messages. After the first two hundred versions of who’s invading us, where are the Avengers, and what’s happened to Tony Stark, I gave up. “What do you 'spect the Avengers’ll do?” Bucky asked, his gaze fixed on the lights of Birmin Zana ahead.

“Your guess is as good as mine, hon. Better, maybe, since with Tony—gone, Steve’ll be the prime mover in making a plan, and you know his mind better than anybody else. They could use Vision as a lure to tempt Thanos into an ambush, or they could try to hide him, although where, Lord only knows.”

“If Steve’s makin’ the plan, more than likely it’ll be somethin’ stupid. Or it would, anyway, if the whole world—universe, now, sounds like—wasn’t at stake. He’s so damn stubborn, though, that he might dig in his heels and dare Thanos to come at him, if he thought that was the best way to go.”

In the city, I hurried to my suite long enough to peel off my uniform and toss it in to be cleaned, jumped in the ultrasonic shower, threw on a clean dress blouse and the nearest pair of pants and ran for my office. The following hours were a blur, as I crafted answers to the most frequent queries, compiled a reply list, and sent a blast email including notice of a virtual press briefing, late afternoon New York time, the middle of the night Wakandan time. Next came prioritizing and replying to voicemails by the dozen. At some point, a flatbread wrapped around some vegetables and cold spiced meat was thrust into my hands; I laid it aside and took a bite absently between calls, until I found it being poked at my face. Puzzled, I looked up and found Bucky looming over me. “Eat, doll. You don’t do anybody any kind of good if you fall out.”

“I’m not gonna fall out,” I argued reflexively, but he stood his ground until the sandwich was gone. “Thanks, sweetheart. I could use some coffee now.”

“You could use some sleep. Finish callin’ those folks, and we’re gonna lie down till time for your meeting. Sergeant’s orders.”

I tried to glare, but the effect was ruined when my eyes kept trying to shut. “I’d argue, but I really am pooped, and this briefing is going to be so hard to get through as it is. Knowing the extent of what’s going down, and having to put as good a face on it as possible for public consumption, while being as real as possible, without sending them all into a frenzy—it’s a tightrope, and it’s hard enough to walk that line with all one’s faculties on point.”

“See, I’m right. And no matter what Steve says, I did not keep all the stupid here.” His attempt to joke clashed with the worry I saw pinching his eyes, but he steadfastly took my hand and urged me out of the office and into our suite. Before I lay down, I set a timer to wake me in advance of the presser, and rolled all calls back to voicemail except for a few numbers: Pepper’s, the Avengers’ lines…and Tony’s, just in case. Dear Lord in heaven, watch over him, and Stephen too, and Peter if he’s with them.

I shuddered a little, and Bucky rubbed my shoulder. “I know what you’re thinkin’. Quit worryin’ about Tony. Hey, the way he an’ Strange snipe at each other every breath, if they decide to take their irritation with each other out on this Thanos cat, I’m almost feelin’ sorry for the bastard.”

With a forced smile, I dozed off lying on his chest, only to be awakened far too early by a buzz around my wrist, and a signal that a call from the compound in New York was coming in. I sat bolt upright and mentally translated the symbols lighting across the beads. “Steve! That you? Is everybody okay?”

“Hey, Chris. Yeah, we’re all good. The Black Order—that’s Thanos’ inner circle—tracked Vision to Edinburgh where he and Wanda were. She called Pietro and he hustled over, but still, me and Nat got there barely in time to drive the sons of bitches off. How about you?”

“As good as can be expected, considering we’re all bracing for another alien invasion and I’m trying to piece together how not to start a worldwide panic. What’s the play?”

Voices in the background rose in debate. I caught Vision’s calm tones, then Wanda's more anxious ones. “Bruce says when he got away, Thanos had two of the Stones for sure: Power and Space," Steve explained. "They got Strange, so that’s Time. If he’s found Soul and Reality, then Vision’s is the last one. We’ve got to get it loose and destroy it. Vision’s all for throwing himself on the grenade.” Cap's tense voice softened a fraction. “If there’s another way, we will take it. We won’t let circumstances force us into that corner. Vision would lay down on the wire, we know that; Tony made him, so of course he would, but we’d rather cut the wire.

“Bruce is thinking—what is it, Bruce?—he thinks maybe the Stone can be—here, lemme put you on speaker Chris, so you can hear—”

After a couple of clicks, the sound changed, so clear over the kimoyo pickup I felt like I was sitting in the compound’s main conference room where I had sat so many times. Bruce’s voice was sharp and definite. “Here’s what I’m thinking. Vision’s mind is made up of a complex construct of overlays: HOMER mostly, but Tony, me, the Stone, even Ultron. All of them mixed together, all of them learning from one another.”

“You're saying Vision isn't just the stone,” Wanda’s voice replied.

“I'm saying,” Bruce went on, “that if we take out the stone, there's still a whole lot of Vision left. Probably the best parts.”

Nat spoke up. “Can we do that?”

“Not me." I could almost see Bruce shaking his curly head. “Not here. If—if Tony was here, maybe, but probably not even then, the way Vision’s body is constructed, with the vibranium incorporation, and the delicacy that’s needed to handle the Stone properly—”

“Here,” Bucky said from beside me. “Only place in the world that really knows how to work with vibranium, and with Tony off chasin’ our war criminal, best brain in the world. No offense, Dr. Banner.”

“No, you’re right,” Bruce managed a half chuckle. “You and Chris are where we need to be. To have any chance of getting the Stone out and keeping Vision alive, we need to get him to Wakanda, as fast as possible.”

Chapter Text

From there, the plan was completed quickly. I gave Bruce the direct line to contact Shuri and get the needed setup started, while the Avengers dispersed to ready a quinjet and break pretty much every air speed record. With Tony out of pocket, Nat volunteered to call the UN Accords liaison and brief them, and I took furious notes and decided what to tell the media.

While I wrapped up, T’Challa came to the suite door, and Bucky slipped over to him. They talked briefly in low tones before they both left. I missed the warmth of his body against mine more than I should have, considering the madness that was about to erupt. With a little shake-off, I got myself together and went to my office. Messages had multiplied like bunnies fucking, and now included requests, more like demands, from virtually every major news outlet on planet earth, for the virtual briefing to be streamed live for them to pick up and carry. That probably was a good idea, but Shuri wasn’t going to be available to help me with it, so I was going to have to wing it. if anybody bitched about the audio or video quality, I’d have a reply on hand, something something top secret undisclosed location. Fury would be proud of my obfuscation. Fuck.

A few minutes before the briefing was to go live, Bucky stepped through the door. Something about him looked off. I frowned, trying to quantify it, then realized he was balanced—two arms. “Bucky, what—”

He held his left one up, and the sleeve of his old red sweatshirt fell back to reveal an amazing-looking arm, not silver, but sleek, shiny black, laced with gold joints and veins. Every turn of his hand and twist of his wrist looked organic, for all the world as though he was wearing a fancy robotic cosplay glove. “If Thanos and his goons show up lookin’ for trouble, we’re gonna need every hand we got.” The smile he tried didn’t reach much past his mouth.

“We don’t know they’ll find us here,” I argued. “If Tony can misdirect them, especially if he has Stephen and Peter with him, he may send them on a wild-goose chase. Hell, you know him, he’s as likely to figure out a way to blow ‘em all the fuck up again. We don’t know a fight is coming, sweetie.”

The resignation did not leave his face. “We don’t know it’s not. I’m so damn tired of fightin’, doll, but this, this is different, with the whole world an’ more at stake.”

I nodded and hugged him tight. “We all have to do whatever we’re able to,” I said, then added with my best come-hither look, “So tell me, did Shuri put a vibration mode in that bad boy?”

It startled a little bark of laughter out of Bucky. “When we get these mooks outta the way, you can find out.”

He went back to his cottage to unearth his tac gear and suit up, while I turned back to my job. The Avengers were racing across the Atlantic at the same moment that I went before the world’s cameras and gave them the best weapon I could—forewarning. I reminded them of our earlier press releases about the alien war criminal Thanos (silently thanking Bucky for the prompt) and explained he was responsible for the repeat assault on New York. “This time it was a surgical strike. In, grab specific hostages, and out. Unfortunately for him, members of earth’s hero community are ready to roll twenty-four seven. As I speak, Iron Man is leading a team of heroes in hot pursuit of the hostage-takers.” What? If Peter was with him, that made two, and if they could free Strange, that was three. Three constituted a team, especially those three. “We have reason to believe we know where he might strike next—if you have not been already notified, it’s not where you are, so don’t worry. The rest of the Avengers are making preparations to meet any further incursions with maximum force. The best thing the rest of the citizens of earth can do is remain calm. I know, easier said than done, especially when we can only provide limited information right now, but please, do the best you can. The Avengers and others who stand in defense of earth are standing by.”

Inevitably, somebody asked about Asgard and the mutual defense treaty. “Asgard is only able to provide limited help at the moment. I don’t have all the details right now, but I suspect they may have fallen under attack from Thanos and his army, so quickly they could not get word to us to ask for assistance. These aliens hit fast and hard, and the defenders of earth have to be ready. The UN has been briefed, and the Accords committee is aware of the circumstances. If you are an enhanced person in your community, we would ask that you be prepared to help out in any way necessary.”

It wasn’t nearly enough, and I knew it, but it was the best I could do. From there I spent the next hours fielding more contacts from all over the world, basically repeating what I’d said in the briefing. The waiting, I suspected, was going to be the hardest part.

An eternity later, Bucky appeared in full Winter Soldier array and dragged me from my office when the quinjet landed. I stood beside him as the team disembarked, watching his posture and demeanor change. Just before the hatch opened, a smile flickered to life on his face like a fizzy old neon sign coming to life near sundown; it reminded me of the smile I slapped on my own face when I had to face the media and was nowhere near being in the mood, or the one Tony still hid behind in public. I sent up another prayer for his safety, as I stepped forward to greet my friends.

Steve strode out—sporting a full beard—and pulled Bucky into a big bro-hug before backing up and examining the new arm with exclamations of approval. Wanda reached me first, grabbing me like she never wanted to let go. A moment later, Pietro caught me from my other side, and Vision hovered over us all. The presence of the Mind Stone pressed against me, but instead of fighting it, Extremis only warmed a touch; I wondered why fleetingly, then decided it wasn’t worth worrying about. I was thrilled to see Bruce approaching, but tempted to smack Rhodey into next week when I saw that of all things, he was messing with Bruce, clearly pranking him to bow and scrape to a horrified T’Challa.

“Bruce, thank the Lord you’re home!” I hugged him tightly, then breathed in his ear, “Is it true? About Tony?” He stepped back, his pleasant face grave, and just nodded. “Damn his hide,” I sighed. “He may have a little help,” I added as Rhodey scooped me up. “He’s sort of adopted another young superhero, who may have followed him.”

“What the fuck?” Rhodey yelped in disbelief. “Parker?” Nat was coming toward me, with Clint and Sam in tow, but she froze, her eyes on me. I nodded wordlessly.

While several of T’Challa’s personal guard escorted Wanda, Pietro and Vision to Shuri’s lab, I led the rest of the team to a meeting space and shared Pepper and May’s theory. Like them, the Avengers collectively figured Peter would likely get into trouble anyway, so the safest place for him to be was with Tony, who would move a planet to keep the boy safe.

I explained Peter’s past and present position to Bruce, and introduced him to Bucky, before he caught us both up on his own adventures since he’d left the tower. “I got sucked through a rogue portal and ended up on another planet, Sakaar. I, kind of panicked, I guess? Anyway, Hulk came out, and stayed. We’ve gotten better at communicating, even more than we were when I left. He knew I’d be killed there, it was—a pretty sketchy place, to put it mildly, so he figured he had to protect ‘puny Banner’.

“We met up with Thor there, and got offworld with him, Loki, and some of our friends. Went back to Asgard, but their sister was trying to take over? Apparently, their parents both died, Loki ran things for a while, then there was this prophecy—anyway, everybody else has heard this, so, long story short, Asgard blew up. We got the survivors off and were headed here when—” He gave a visible shudder. “Thanos and his gang boarded. He, he killed Loki, with his bare hands.” I tried not to cry at the thought of Thor’s snarky, smart sibling dead. Bruce had only escaped when Heimdall, keeper of the dimensional bridge I had crossed with Tony and the diplomatic party on my visit to Asgard, had summoned the last of his magic to throw him clear, to bring word to earth and the Avengers of the approaching threat. Thor was missing with the rest of his people. Bruce tried to put a good face on it, but we all knew it was likely he was dead too.

For the first time, I really grasped the power of the entity earth was facing. The Chitauri had been only one tool in Thanos’ box. The Avengers had thrown them back, but now he was coming in person, with his elite fighting force, to take the last piece he needed to wreck the universe and remake it to his liking. Most of me wanted to crawl under the nearest bed and hide, but a part of me rose up in howling rage. If earth went down, it was going to be fighting.

Okoye took charge and began to deploy Avengers alongside the Dora Milaje. Steve and Nat accompanied Bruce to the lab, and Bucky headed out with the others to keep an eye on things on the ground and in the air. I went back to my office and batted down several dozen more messages of varying degrees of intensity, until a faint boom reached my ears. Over the team comms, Sam called, “Cap! Got a situation here!”

Moments later, several more booms sounded, louder and seemingly closer, near enough that despite the energy dome that shielded Birmin Zana, my enhanced senses picked up the vibrations of impact. They’re coming, I thought, sick at heart.

I stared at the holoscreens that danced in the air in front of my face, for a moment that seemed to stretch for an hour or so. Then I turned them off and went to my suite. The combat uniform my mind insisted on calling my workout suit was clean and hanging up. As T’Challa’s voice resounded through the royal complex and out into the streets of the Golden City, amplified by every set of kimoyo beads worn by every Wakandan, I slipped out of my business suit, the armor of my old life, and into the body suit and boots. I settled the harness around my hips, looked down at the breastplate, and did not weep. If there was any way in creation Tony could have stopped this from happening, stopped these invaders from reaching earth, he would have. I didn’t know if their arrival was over his dead body or not, and I refused to dwell too long on the supposition. For now, the only thing I could think about was doing what I could to stop them here. I put my hair up in a ponytail and reached behind my shoulder to make sure the hilt of my mambele was within easy reach. Extremis tingled in my palms like it was itching for a fight. I went to find the battleground.

Chapter Text

The late afternoon sun gave the fields outside town a heartbreakingly beautiful glow. At a distance, I spotted smoke rising, likely from attacking ships that had hit the barrier and crashed. Troop carriers and smaller speeders skimmed over the grasslands toward the treeline beyond the energy wall. I broke into a trot; it felt easy to me, but I was able to catch up with the defenders on the move within a few minutes.

A burst of speed brought me even with the troop carriers as they swerved into U-turns, causing their craft to tilt and allowing the practiced soldiers to slide over one side into a run, never coming to a complete halt. Ayo’s voice shouted commands for them to form up. I scanned the ranks and spotted my friend, just as Aneka, by her side as ever, spied me and leaned in to say a word and point. Ayo’s eyes met mine and she brightened, thrusting her spear into the air. “Lomlilo!” she yelled, making some of the Dora turn and look.

“Of course!” I called as I approached. “Would I let my sisters go into battle alone?” A roar of laughter and even a few cheers rose to greet me, and I found myself smiling despite the gravity of the moment.

A big hand clapped on my shoulder and spun me around. “Nuh-uh,” Bucky growled, a big machine gun hanging from his other hand. “No way you are stayin’ out here, gal.”

“Like you said,” I retorted, “we need every hand we can get. And like I said, and you agreed with me, we all have to do everything we are capable of.”

He glared but I had him cornered. “Fine,” he finally snapped, “you feel like you gotta do somethin’, go back to Shuri’s lab, stay with Wanda an’ watch over Vision.”

I shook my head, including Steve, Nat and Clint, coming up behind Bucky, and Rhodey, who was suited up and landing, in the expression. My words were all for Bucky, though. “Pietro’s already there, and Shuri can kick ass all by her lonesome. If Thanos’ force gets past the border, it really won’t matter who’s in the lab. Wanda loves Vis, she is where she needs to be; I’m here, where I need to be. All things considered, I’d rather die on my feet, beside my lover, looking my killer in the eye, than get blown up cowering in my office or under my bed.”

“We don’t need amateurs out here, Chris.” Steve was clearly trying to be patient, as pressed as they were.

The blade was licked with flame almost the instant I drew it. Bucky and the Dora didn’t bat an eye, but Steve’s eyes widened; Nat halted, and Clint gave a low whistle, sounding both shocked and a little impressed. “We know Thanos needs all six stones,” I said flatly. “If we can hold his crew off long enough to destroy Vision’s, it’ll save uncounted numbers of people on other worlds. But let’s be real, it’ll like as not send him into a rage, and if we’re the planet that thwarted his plan? We’re gonna bear the brunt of that rage.”

“She’s right, Steve,” Nat’s voice was steady. “You know she is. No matter what, looking at things with a realistic eye, we’re fucked.”

Bucky’s head dropped for an instant, but when he looked up again his eyes were icy fire. “All right,” he ground out. “You wanna fight, you gotta know how to take orders. Steve and T’Challa are in command. If one of them tells you you gotta go, you go!”

As if hearing his name invoked, T’Challa appeared at my side. “The Dora Milaje claim Christine as their own, and have helped her to train her powers to a fine edge. She is no amateur, I assure you. We are proud to have her stand with us.”

Bucky glared at the king, looking so betrayed I couldn’t help but stifle a snort. Steve was eyeing my blade while fire danced along its length, with the look of a commander thinking he could use me. “If you stay,” he said warningly, “if you fight beside us, you are an Avenger.”

“Same procedure as Wanda and Pietro,” Clint said. “I told ‘em that in Sokovia.”

I looked from one friend’s face to another. “Y’all have called me an Avenger for years now, when the only thing I had to contribute was my words. I’ve got something else now, and if I didn’t use it, I couldn’t live with myself, for however much longer I and earth lived.”

“Tony called you an Avenger first,” Steve shot back. “And I promised him I’d keep you safe. Don’t make me break my word, Chris.”

“Same,” Bucky added, his voice roughening. “I wouldn’t…wouldn’t wanna face him comin’ home, an’ have to explain how I let you get all busted up.”

Damn, that was a low blow. I faltered for a moment, then regained myself. “Steve, I told Bucky, when I accepted what Extremis had done with me, that I wasn’t a soldier, but I’ve always been a fighter. I’ve never believed in coincidence, and I have to think this power has come upon me now, to be used. I love all y’all, and I know you love me. Bucky, Tony love-loves me too, and from the night we first met, he has always honored my agency. I’m a grown-ass woman, and this is my choice. I want to go down fighting, not hiding.”

Steve exchanged a look with T’Challa, then gave a curt nod and handed me a comm to fit into my ear. “We aren’t covering your ass any more than we would each other’s. If it gets to be too much, fall back. Nobody’ll shame you.”

I would shame me, but I didn’t say that. “Listen to him, doll,” Bucky took my hand. “And trust me on this. Your first battle, the first time you see blood and death, the first time you kill—it ain’t easy. But I…well, you know that I know what it’s like to have your choice taken away from ya. I don’t want you hurt, but I don’t wanna be the guy who wouldn’t let ya make up your own mind, either.”

“You aren’t,” I said softly. “You never have been. That’s why I love you.”

The Hulklbuster armor galumphed up, the faceplate popped open and Bruce peered out in disbelief at me suited up with flaming sword in hand. “What the fuck, Chrissy?” he hollered.

I returned the open-mouthed stare. “I ought to be asking you the same thing! Where’s our big green boy?”

“He’s, um, on vacation, apparently?” Bruce shrugged as well as he could in a suit eleven feet tall. “Now what the hell is that? I didn’t know we were having a barbecue!”

“Short version, Extremis. Long version, I’ll happily bore you with later, after we kick all the alien ass.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Rhodey said, a brave smile on his dear face as he came over and looked me up and down. One armored finger touched the breastplate, with its arc reactor design. “Fashion statement?”

His tone was light, but his gaze said he was thinking of Tony, same as I was. “Giving props where they’re deserved,” I replied, and made an attempt at summoning my best media smile.

He kissed my cheek and lifted off. Okoye turned to give last orders, and sent Ayo to back Wanda and Pietro up in the lab. T’Challa moved away to greet the last of the Wakandan forces. I spied W’Kabi leading the battle rhinos I’d heard so much about, and lifted my sword his way. He saluted me in return. Behind him came ranks of mountaineers with M’Baku at their head. When I raised my blade to wave at him, his laugh and shout reverberated across the field in response. Yeah, if I had to die, I would much rather go to my Maker surrounded by such courageous friends. Lord, let Bucky be a prophet. I’ll be fine with getting ‘busted up’, I’ll be fine with Tony yelling at me till he's red in the face, just as long as he makes it home to yell at me, and we're all safe.

Steve conferred briefly with Bucky, then he and Nat, joined by T’Challa, started toward the faint waver in the air, like the shimmer off asphalt in a Tennessee summer, that marked the edge of the energy shield protecting the Golden City. On the other side, a pair of humanoids stood, garbed in black armor and armed to the teeth. Bucky’s arm slid around my waist and tightened. He didn’t say anything, nor did I; but my mind was racing with images, memories, sound bites and video clips of all the things I might never get to see or do again after this day. God, all things are possible for you, I prayed silently. Show us a way to turn back this evil and save all the innocent souls on this world and the others under threat.

We couldn’t hear the words exchanged, but after a few moments, one of the leaders of the invading force lifted her own sword, a long thin blade that glimmered with menace like an icicle in the sun. Behind her, as if waiting for her signal, a rank of ships that had evidently landed safely and nestled amid the trees began to open up. I dreaded seeing who, or what, emerged.

Our commanders returned to our side. T’Challa peeled off to consult with Okoye. “Did they surrender?” Bucky asked Steve, a touch sardonically.

Steve’s reply was a dry “Not…exactly.”

From the ships, a horde of creatures burst; they were huge, and looked half-human, half-insect, with six or eight arms each and wicked fangs like a mouthful of redneck hunting knives. “What the hell,” Clint said flatly, and nocked an arrow.

“Looks like we pissed her off,” Nat said, an understatement if ever I’d heard one.

They bounded toward the barrier, until their commander dropped her sword in a slashing motion that was clearly a signal to attack. With that, they began to throw themselves at the forcefield, squeezing partway through it sometimes, only to be snapped in pieces. “They’re killing themselves!” Okoye said in frank horror.

“Not all of them,” I replied grimly when a few managed to penetrate mostly-intact and began to race toward us. I slipped from Bucky’s hold, braced my feet and took my sword in both hands, willing myself to stay calm and not flame-broil myself on top of all the other issues happening at once.

T’Challa raised a war cry, echoed by his troops. “Hold fast!” he ordered. At the front of the ranks of warriors, W’Kabi’s borderers knelt and raised their shields. Behind them, others leveled sonic spears. Bruce seemed to finally have gotten the hang of running the suit, and Bucky raised his gun. The whole force seemed to hold their collective breath, for one beat, two beats—then the approaching monsters were in range, and they opened fire, cutting them down.

“Cap!” Bruce called over comms. “There’s a pack of them circling to our right. If these things get in behind us, there's nothing between them and Vision.”

“Then we better keep 'em in front of us,” Steve returned.

Okoye turned to T'Challa. “How do we do that?”

T'Challa’s face was grim. “We open the barrier here,” he said, and gave the order.

M'Baku shook his head. ”This will be the end of Wakanda,” he said.

Okoye glanced over at him, then toward her husband and his troop, before she squared her shoulders. “Then it will be the noblest ending in history.”

She looked over at me, and I tried not to shiver. There wouldn’t be any history books to tell of our stand, I feared, but if nothing else we would go to our ends knowing we did all in our power. I determined to be as brave as my teacher, and returned her gaze as steadily as I could. After a moment, she nodded just a hair, as if she had assessed me and found me adequate.

As we waited, poised, I had to suppress a halfway hysterical laugh; me, hater of all things military, standing here about to take part in, and hopefully not get in the way of, what might be the last stand of humanity. If I could do it over again, knowing what I knew, would I walk away from Tony Stark, that night in Vegas, and carry on chasing down gossipy pseudo-news stories?

Beside me, Steve readied his shield. At the head of the troops, T’Challa called out commands. Rhodey buzzed us with Sam flying flank. Around me, my friends made ready to throw themselves into harm’s way on the slim hope of saving others. I thought about my kinfolk in Tennessee, about Pepper back in New York, about Tony God-knew-where in space. On the whole, I decided, I would rather be here than in some office staring at cable news rerunning some PR person for the Avengers, and going what the fuck is going on. I lifted my eyes to T’Challa, walking out in front of the massed troops, never taking his eyes off the enemy. The Border Tribe’s fighters disengaged their shields and stood at attention.

The Black Panther crossed his arms over his chest in salute. “Wakanda forever!!” he roared, closed his helmet, and charged toward the barrier. His forces—our forces, earth’s forces—followed him with their own shout. Halfway there, the shimmer of the forcefield flickered, and then vanished. The creatures poured through, distracted from trying to find any other access. T’Challa and Steve sprinted ahead of the charge, and literally leaped into battle.

“Punk, the fight’s comin’ to you, why you gotta run to meet it?” Bucky groaned. He shook his head fondly, and hefted his machine gun. “Hell of a date, huh doll? Guess we better go kill some shit.”