It was only when they were packing up Sam's place - finishing off perishables, locking everything up, turning off the water, that kind of stuff - that Steve thought to ask.
"So, I know we didn't ever talk about it, but..."
Sam glanced up from the small pile of mission-durable clothes he was debating taking along. On one hand: probably best to travel light. On the other: might not have a lot of time for laundry. He didn't know if smell was one of those things the serum enhanced, but he didn't not know, either. "There's a lot of things we haven't talked about, Steve. You're gonna have to get more specific."
"It's just..." Steve rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, awkward as anything. "Bucky kind of broke your wings."
Sam's hand went to his shoulder. If he closed his eyes and squeezed, he could imagine that he still felt the twinge from being wrenched out of the sky and down to earth. "No 'kind of' about it."
Steve smiled, an involuntary, slightly pained thing. "Yeah. I was just... do you want a new set? Because I - well, not me, but Tony - Stark, I mean - I'm pretty sure he could put something together for you. If you wanted."
Sam had to bite back a smile at the thought. Tony Stark, building him a set of wings, as a favor to Captain America. Who was a friend of Sam's. (What was happening to his life?) "Nah, man," he said with a shake of his head. "Not that I'm not grateful for the offer," Sam added before Steve could say anything; he obviously hadn't expected that reaction. "And not that I don't want to fly anymore - I don't think that's ever gonna happen, not to me."
Sam wiggled his phone at Steve. "I've already got new wings in the works." Steve looked doubtful. "What, you think you're the only one who knows people?" Sam asked, a little defensively. "I know people."
"People?" Steve asked, still doubtful.
"Yeah, people." Sam sorted through his clothes for a minute, deciding that a few skivvy rolls would give him enough room for the extra cargo pants, and maybe his goggles if he squeezed them in. He packed everything up, put the rest of his clothes away, and looked up to see Steve watching him. He sighed, and elaborated, "Family, okay? Haven't heard from them in a long, long while, but they saw the footage of the Triskelion. Recognized me, wanted to get back in contact, decided a good olive branch would be a new set of wings."
Steve nodded, going back to box labeling and stacking. "Alright. Any idea when they'll be ready?"
Sam shrugged. "Couple weeks, last I heard. And I figure it'll probably take a month or so for the package to catch up with us."
"Why mail it? We can pick the wings up ourselves," Steve said, no hesitation. "The lead in Kiev will keep." The lead in Kiev about his best friend, about the things that had been done to his best friend. The lead that Steve thought would take them to his best friend, or to a way to help him, or avenge him. That could keep.
There wasn't a word big enough to express the amount of goodness there was in Steve Rogers. Instead of trying to find one, Sam asked, "You sure? It's a little out of the way."
Steve frowned. "We're going to Ukraine. That's almost five thousand miles from here. How far out of the way could it be?"
A few weeks later, and five thousand miles from Kiev, the two of them entered Wakanda on foot. They'd gotten a ride to the border, but no one was willing to drive into the country, no matter how many times Sam promised that he'd been invited. People apparently didn't get invited to visit Wakanda all that often. Sam guessed that between that and the white dude traveling with him, his story was a little hard to believe.
"So, uh, not to sound... but, how distantly are you related to this part of the family, exactly?" Steve wondered, ducking low under some vines.
Sam gave him the side eye that question deserved. "My mom's from Wakanda," he said coolly. Steve winced. "Yeah. She was only supposed to leave the country for college, but she liked the US a little too much. Liked my dad a little too much, too. They basically disowned her after that."
"People still do that?"
"When there's some kind of inheritance involved, yeah." Sam shrugged. "I don't know what it is - when I turned twenty-one, somebody called up about it, but I was already in the Air Force by then. They weren't too interested in giving Wakandan stuff to a guy in the US military, I guess."
"Go figure," Steve said dryly. "How much further did the guide say it was to a city, five miles?"
"Five miles, and no road." Sam groaned.
"I get the feeling Wakanda isn't too fond of outsiders."
"Indeed," said a deep voice two feet behind them. They spun around, instantly on guard. The voice belonged to a black man about Sam's height, wearing red, flowing robes that wrapped around his waist and looped over one shoulder. "But that is something I am attempting to change," the stranger said with a small smile. He held out his hand to Sam. "Sam Wilson, I presume."
"You presume correctly," Sam said with a grin, shaking his hand. "And I'm guessing you're Tchalla?"
"T'Challa," the man said, the pronunciation slightly different.
"T'Challa, right." Gesturing to Steve, Sam said, "This is Steve Rogers. I'm helping him out, need the wings to do that."
T'Challa nodded. "Captain." At Steve's surprised look, he laughed. "My cousin was not the only one of us to leave the country to be educated. I know your history, Captain Rogers, both recent and less so."
"Hope you won't hold it against me," Steve said wryly, and offered his hand to T'Challa.
"Indeed not," T'Challa said, shaking it. "How could I, when you wield vibranium so skillfully?"
Steve's hand went to his shield automatically. "You know about - ? Guess that's part of my history, too."
"Yes... and at the same time, not exactly," T'Challa said cryptically. "But come. I have much to show you, Sam."
That sounded like new wings-talk. Sam grinned. All of the jungle walking didn't seem so bad, if new wings were close at hand. But it was more than just that; the hours that had passed since he last flew seemed to weigh a little less heavily on him, the closer he got to flying again. "Great!" Half a step behind T'Challa, with Steve at his six, they walked further into the jungle. "So, if my mom's your cousin, what's that make us?"
"I believe the term in English is 'first cousins once removed'."
Sam glanced back at Steve, who shrugged in a sounds right to me kind of way.
"Okay, cousin. What changed your mind?"
T'Challa frowned at Sam. "About what?"
Sam looked away. "Last I heard, mom's family wanted nothing to do with me."
"Ah, yes." T'Challa sighed. "That was a decision made by the council of elders. One I personally disagreed with, but at the time had no power to counteract."
Sam's eyebrows went up. "What, and now you do?"
T'Challa smiled secretively, pulling back one last clump of vines and branches to reveal a distant valley. "You could say that."
"Damn," Sam breathed. The valley was full of buildings, skyscraper height but curved, round-topped and clay-brown. In the right light they gleamed silvery, a metallic sheen to them that Sam half-recognized, though he couldn't say how. Between and around the buildings flew - were those flying motorcycles? Damn. And at one end of the city, towering over everything else, were two enormous pitch-black statues of cats. Well, not cat cats - big cats, like leopards minus the spots, or jaguars or something.
"Are those black panthers?" Steve asked, from somewhere behind them.
"They are, Captain," T'Challa said, leading them down into the valley. "Black panthers represent great power in Wakanda - so much so that the name 'Black Panther' is given to the leader of the country."
"What, instead of a president you've got a panther?"
T'Challa hummed thoughtfully. "More like, instead of a king."
"Oh." Steve looked between Sam and T'Challa thoughtfully. "And the current Black Panther is..."
T'Challa smiled at him benevolently.
It took Sam a minute to put it together. The Black Panther was the king. T'Challa was the Black Panther? T'Challa was Sam's cousin. Which made Sam - he stopped in his tracks, pointing at T'Challa. "You're - " T'Challa nodded. Sam pointed at himself. "So I'm - " T'Challa nodded again. Sam turned on Steve, eyes wide. "My cousin is the king of Wakanda. I'm the cousin of a king."
"Guess we know what that inheritance was gonna be," Steve said, nudging him in the side with an elbow.
"A king's cousin," Sam said dumbly, still taking it in.
"If you don't mind," T'Challa said gently, "there are things waiting for us, down in the city."
Steve nudged Sam in the side again. Sam blinked a few times, shaking his head to clear it. "Right," he said. "Right, sorry. Just... not even remotely what I was expecting."
T'Challa smiled. "I can only imagine what your reaction to the wings will be."
Wings. Right, that's what Sam was here for. Not a paradigm shift on his family history. Wings. He perked up again. "Lead the way, man!" He froze. "Er. I mean. Your... Pantherness?"
T'Challa laughed, nearly bending in half from the force of it. "I have never heard that one before," he said at last, grinning. He gave Sam a pat on the shoulder. "We are family. T'Challa is fine."
Sam sighed, relieved; next to him, Steve's shoulders were shaking suspiciously. Sam elbowed him in the side, even though Steve would hardly feel it and Sam would have to deal with a sore elbow for an hour. There were wings waiting for him at the bottom of this valley, he reminded himself. No matter what dumb shit he said, no matter how clearly terrible his friend was, there were wings waiting for him.
Well, there certainly were wings waiting for him.
"Holy crap," Sam breathed, staring at them. They were like nothing he'd ever seen before - sleek and silvery in that half-familiar way, elegant in a way his old wings had tried for and not quite reached. The jet pack was tiny, but given the tech he'd seen just walking through the city, Sam was sure it could carry him.
In a word, the wings were incredible.
Steve, who'd been admiring the wings from the other side, suddenly reached out a hand and flicked one. Sam wanted to snatch the wings away, clutch them to his chest and promise to protect them forever, but there was no need. A quiet ting of metal vibrating filled the room, but the wings didn't so much as twitch. Steve nodded knowingly, and Sam suddenly realized why that color was so familiar.
"Oh my god, these wings are made of vibranium, aren't they?" T'Challa nodded, pleased. Sam ran his hands through his hair, wide-eyed. "T'Challa, man, there's no way I can accept this. I want to," Sam said fervently, "don't get me wrong, I really, really want to, but vibranium is - that's the rarest element on the planet. It was cheaper for Tony Stark to synthesize half an ounce of the stuff than to find vibranium ore; there's no way I can afford it. There's no way you can afford to give this much away."
"Anywhere else, perhaps," T'Challa said, conceding the point. "But not in Wakanda. We have more than enough vibranium to suit our needs - which, actually, brings me to the other gift."
"There's more?" Sam winced. He'd meant for that to sound horrified, aghast, outraged, something - anything - that didn't sound like complete and total excitement. Reigning himself in, he frowned. "T'Challa..."
T'Challa waved a hand, cutting him off. "We abandoned your mother, turned our backs on you. Wakanda should be better. Wakanda will be better," T'Challa said firmly. "We begin by apologizing to our brothers and sisters forgotten in the outside world. Then... there are increasing threats to humanity, from within and without. Wakanda should take its place in the fight against them."
"That's... really admirable, T'Challa," Sam said. "And as far as I'm concerned, apology accepted. But this is too much."
T'Challa led Sam to another covered display, which he revealed to be a mannequin dressed in a tight black material. "My people do not see my second point yet. They have barely accepted my first. So while I work to convince them of the truth, I thought that I could at least equip you for your fight." He pulled the cloth taut - not that there was a lot of give in it. "Vibranium weave. While you wear this, bullets cannot hurt you."
It sounded awfully useful - and awfully valuable. "I really can't - "
"Sam." Steve put a hand on Sam's shoulder and shook his head, one corner of his mouth twitching up. "I don't think he's going to take no for an answer."
"The Captain sees things clearly," T'Challa said, warmth in his voice. Placing a hand on Sam's arm, he said, "Please, cousin. I have lost enough family already. I would not see another die after refusing what little protection I can offer."
Sam snorted. "This is little?" He shook his head, stepping back. "I still think it's too much. But if you're gonna insist on it, I guess the only thing I can say is: does it come in red?"
T'Challa smiled. "If you like." Unhooking the wings from their display, he held them out to Sam. "Do you want to take them on a test flight?"
Sam grinned, already pulling on his flight goggles. "Do I?"