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The Cat-King's Guest

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"Mister Barnes?"

He wakes slowly, as if he's washed ashore on a distant beach somewhere. Waves of cool sleep roll over the top of him, offering to drag him back under for a while. He licks his cracked lips with a thickly coated tongue. He's vaguely aware of being thirsty.

"Mister Barnes."

No, no. Nobody home. Gave at the office. He lets his head loll to one side, away from the voice (deep, resonant, with an unfamiliar accent), doesn't bother to open his eyes. Go back to sleep.

"Sergeant."

That's dirty pool. He's not a sergeant anymore, hasn't been a sergeant since oh God don't think about it don't go there it's nothing but pain, but something in the word sergeant bypasses his bruised and scorched brain and goes right to his spine. It stiffens, involuntarily, like he's trying to come to attention.

He doesn't want to wake up, doesn't want to stand or salute or fight for anything ... anybody ... why won't they just let him sleep ...?

He's so tired. He's just so tired.

"Sergeant. I know you can hear me. You are being quite rude."

Rude. That's a laugh. The voice is calling him rude, when all he is is drugged and sleepy and helpless and exhausted and probably tied to a table, he's always tied down ...

He moves slightly, twists his human wrist.

No pressure. No friction.

No cuffs.

He's not tied down. He tries to remember the last time he woke up somewhere strange and he wasn't tied down. He can't. He has to be tied down. He needs to be restrained, are these people crazy, don't they know what he does, what he is ...

He loses the thread for a while and drifts, half-slipping back into the warm ocean of slumber. Vaguely, he's aware of people moving around him, touching him. As always, he lets himself stay still and pliant. Play along. Be whatever they want him to be—a machine, a specimen, a soulless little doll. It hurts less when he lets them have their way. And he's too sleepy to do much besides lie there, passive, and feel.

They lift his right hand, press his pulse point. Shift his legs—and yes, that's a catheter; well, at least he's used to those. They open his mouth, check his teeth and lift his tongue. There are cold, sticky sensors on his chest, on his forehead. The hospital gown is soft, at least, almost silky. Not scratchy cotton, so he's not in an American or European hospital. There's a warm, fluffy blanket covering him most of the time, from feet to collarbones. It disappears occasionally, and things happen with the sensors, but ... nothing hurts. No scalpels or saws. No crackle of electricity.

Aside from the awkwardness of the cath and the slightly uncomfortable pinch of an IV needle whenever somebody moves his right arm, absolutely nothing is hurting him.

Weird.

He wonders, vaguely, who has him now. Even in a drugged haze, he's pretty sure it's not Hydra. There would be pain with them. And the gown and blanket are too nice for a government facility—any government. But who's stupid enough to leave him unrestrained, even doped to the gills as he is?

Maybe it's Steve, the wildly unrealistic part of him whispers excitedly. Maybe he found me. And yeah, Steve would be dumb enough not to lock him down, to think the drugs—which feel pretty damn nice, by the way, hell of a vacation—are enough to hold him. But there are too many people around him for this to be all Steve. These are doctors, nurses, people who smell like antiseptic and latex gloves. They don't take chances with people like him. He's woken up in a couple of local psych wards since the Potomac. He knows.

Then who?

He drifts again, sinks, and spirals slowly into the depths for a while. Then, gradually, he starts rising, meanders into a current, and finally washes up to the soft beep of a cardiac monitor.

The voice is back.

"Sergeant Barnes."

He twitches. Zola called him that. He remembers that now. No no no no no ...

"Time to wake up, Sergeant. Open your eyes."

Won't. No. You can't make me.

"You are safe. You have my word."

Yeah? I don't listen to guys with needles, asshole. Nothin' doin'. No no no ...

"Captain Rogers needs you."

Dammit all to hell.

Some things are instinctive. He cracks an eye open.

The room is full of light and ... green? No. He blinks both eyes, shakes his head muzzily. Windows. He's looking at windows. And outside the windows is ...

A jungle. A very lush, very green jungle.

Definitely not an American hospital.

Bucky Barnes mumbles something that might be, "The hell?"

"Good afternoon," the voice says in his right ear.

Bucky stiffens, tries to twist and scramble away from the speaker, and manages only to pinch himself on his IV needle and, it feels like, jostle the catheter very unpleasantly. Oh, and make every muscle group in his body scream at him in protest.

He groans. It sounds like a door in an old haunted house.

There is a man sitting in the chair beside Bucky's hospital bed. Bucky can't help doing a snap assessment of him at first glance. Six foot two or three, maybe two hundred and fifteen pounds, age twenty-eight to thirty-two, excellent childhood nutrition, expensive manicure, charcoal silk suit you could buy a car with, features and skin tone suggest sub-Saharan Africa, accent—

Accent—

Godammit, what the hell is that accent?

Oh, and he's carrying at least three concealed weapons. And he doesn't need 'em.

Please, God, I know you hate me, but please ...

Don't let him be after Steve.

I don't think I can take him without moving.

The man smiles pleasantly. "It would appear the morphine is wearing off."

Bucky snorts. As if morphine still worked on him, between decades building up a tolerance and whatever Zola had shot him up with in Austria. The movement makes him wince.

"You will experience some discomfort, but it should let up once the real pain sets in."

Oh. It's going to be one of those conversations. Bucky lets his face go slack. Best to give this sonofabitch nothing to work with.

The man chuckles. "Don't worry, Sergeant. As long as you are my guest, I will personally see to your comfort and wellbeing."

Oh, yeah, that doesn't sound threatening at all ...

"However," the man continues, "I must ask a question as a matter of protocol. Do you believe yourself to be an immediate threat to the safety of those around you?"

Bucky screws up his face in an are-you-shitting-me expression.

The man in the suit gives him a perfect I-shit-you-not look right back.

"Right now?" Bucky croaks, lifts his right arm a couple of inches, and lets it drop like a lead weight. "No?"

The man gives him a small, diplomatic smile. "Very good. Please inform one of the attendants if you feel the urge to do violence. The royal medical corps are the most highly trained and skilled physicians in the world, and I would hate for them to come to harm as a result of your illness."

Illness. That's one way to describe being a brain-damaged homicidal maniac slash murder machine.

"Why?" Bucky mumbles. "What'll they do?"

"Evacuate the building," the man says calmly, "and allow the Dora Milaje to take charge."

"The what now?"

"My personal guard," the man explains, leaning back in his chair and smiling very slightly wider. "Also, I suppose you might describe them as queens in waiting."

Bucky blinks at him, shakes his head, and, finding the situation no clearer than when he woke up, flops down in the bed with a grunt of total surrender.

"Yes," the man says dryly. "That's probably your wisest course of action."

"Who the hell are you?" Bucky mutters.

"You may call me T'Challa," the man tells him. "In full, my title is T'Challa, son of T'Chaka, chief of the Panther Clan, King of Wakanda." He inclines his head slightly. "I also have a half-dozen other titles that would probably bore you. Oh, and a PhD from Oxford." There's a wry smile in the last sentence.

Bucky wheezes in fright.

He's pretty sure he's allergic to heads of state. Especially royalty. Even before he killed so many of them, he was lousy at anything as formal as court protocol. He has fuzzy memories of meeting the King of England once, standing a couple of steps behind Steve and itching like crazy in his dress uniform. He might or might not have thrown up on a duke's shoes afterward.

He doesn't know whether the rule in his head is from Hydra or, well, him, but it's clear: Royalty: Do Not Touch.

T'Challa arches an eyebrow at him as he fights to get his breathing under control. Bucky has no idea what his face looks like, but he's screaming on the inside.

Strangely enough, though, thinking about all the terrible things he might have done to King T'Challa or his country helps to calm Bucky down. Being the twentieth century's bloody-handed ghost is awful on a lot of levels, but it is, for him, pretty normal. He's been getting used to seeing faces on TV and in history books and having sudden, violent flashbacks. Almost everywhere he goes, there's a piece of a mission, some unresolved bit of murderous business. He hates being a monster, but at least he knows where he stands with corpses and festering grudges.

A wave of serenity washes over Bucky. He's been caught at last. He's going to be killed, obviously, but it will probably be quick and then it'll be over. No more running, no more nightmares, no more agonizing choices.

Nothing left to be afraid of.

"C'n I ask a favor?" he whispers.

"Of course," T'Challa replies. "You are, as I have said, my guest."

"When I'm dead." Bucky swallows. "After, y'know ... could you call Steve Rogers and tell him? You don't have to give him the details or why or anything, just—just so he knows he doesn't have to look for me anymore."

There is a long, oddly poignant silence.

Then T'Challa says, "I beg your pardon?"

"You're gonna kill me, right?" Bucky's voice is calm and flat. "It's okay. I won't fight you. Just—he's my family, so he deserves to know."

After a pause, T'Challa asks:

"By any chance, has anyone ever told you you have a morbid imagination?"

Bucky just looks at him.

T'Challa's smile widens into something almost sad. "I have no intention of harming you, Sergeant. When my men picked you up in Karachi, you were unconscious and deathly ill. They had their chance to put a bullet in your head then, for the Winter Soldier's crimes against Wakanda. I ordered them to bring you here instead."

"Why?" Bucky whispers, not liking the sound of crimes against Wakanda at all.

"Do you want the pleasant answer, or the honest one?"

"Honest," Bucky says immediately.

T'Challa nods. "You're more valuable to Wakanda alive than dead."

A dozen horrible futures flip through Bucky's mind. Interrogation. Torture. Mind wipes. Of course they've taken care of him, of course they haven't hurt him, they want him in prime condition when they put him back into harness ...

"You're doing it again," T'Challa observes. "You do like to panic, don't you?"

Bucky is suddenly aware that his heart monitor is beeping wildly.

"Let me explain your situation, fully and in detail," T'Challa says kindly. "There will be no need to panic or jump to conclusions until I have finished, at which point I will take questions, provided they're not too ridiculous. Do you understand?" He sounds like he's addressing a press conference, or perhaps a kindergarten classroom.

Bucky nods.

"Very well." T'Challa nods at the greenery outside the windows. "Today is Saturday, 26 July, 2014. You are in the secure ward of the Queen N'Yami Memorial Hospital in our capital city. It is the finest medical facility on earth, with the arguable exception of a few specialized clinics in Europe and North America. You have been unconscious for six days while the royal medical corps worked to stabilize your condition. Do you remember falling ill?"

Bucky shakes his head.

"That is hardly surprising. You were found on the floor of a warehouse in Karachi, unconscious and running a fever that would have resulted in brain damage to anyone not blessed with the super-soldier serum. Yes. We've read your file."

Bucky's face twists in disgust.

"I quite agree," T'Challa says blandly. "In any case, it appears you were suffering violent withdrawal from the drugs Hydra used to render you tractable. It seems you had been robbing pharmacies to obtain irregular doses. Is this correct?"

Bucky shrugs and nods grudgingly. He didn't want to dope himself up, but it was just so deeply ingrained in him to take your medicine, be a good boy, we give you what you need, what would you do without us that he couldn't just quit cold turkey. He tried that in San Francisco for a day or two, and got so sick that he knocked over a CVS while hallucinating he was back in Austria. He took half the drugs in the place before he found his Hydra file online and laboriously worked out his dosages.

Guess I couldn't find a CVS in Karachi.

"Quite so. In any case, the window for physical danger has now passed, although you will presumably suffer the psychological aftereffects of chemical addiction."

"In other words," Bucky mutters, "Hydra made me a junkie."

"A treatable condition in Wakanda," T'Challa assures him. "Which brings me to the conditions of your stay here. You are, as I have said, my guest. This is not a personal matter—you are an official, if secret, guest of the royal house. It is my obligation to see that your needs are met and your health and security are never compromised while it is within my power to prevent it. And it is your obligation to behave with dignity and respect for your host."

Bucky frowns and raises his shaky right hand.

T'Challa cocks an eyebrow at him. "This isn't a school, Sergeant. Do you need to visit the washroom?"

"No," Bucky mumbles, blushing. "I just—I've never been here before that I know of, and I—what happens when I screw up?"

"'Screw up'?" T'Challa repeats the words as if they leave a bad taste in his mouth.

"I, uh, mighta thrown up on a duke once," Bucky says into the blanket covering his chest.

T'Challa chuckles. It's a sound Bucky would expect to hear from a big cat, halfway between a coughing leopard and a purring cheetah. He wonders how he knows either of those noises.

"Allowances will be made for your illness and for the culture gap," T'Challa tells him. "There are only a few hard and fast rules, the most important of which is that you will be quartered in the palace and you may not leave the city without my express permission. Beyond that, stay out of any restricted areas, do no violence to anyone who does not offer it to you first, and obey any orders given to you from me or the Dora Milaje."

Bucky nods slowly. House arrest, effectively. Not as bad as it could be. If the hospital is anything to go by, the rest of the city is probably a pretty comfortable place to be locked up.

"What do you want me to do?" he asks quietly. "In exchange, I mean."

"For now, your orders are to recover. You will have regular meetings with your doctors, including a qualified therapist specializing in severe trauma. We have a few engineers who will want to examine your prosthetic with an eye to adapting it—"

Bucky wheezes again.

"Calm down," T'Challa orders. "I can see that therapist will have her work cut out for her. No one is planning to duplicate you, Sergeant. Quite honestly, our prosthetic technology surpasses Hydra's in most areas, but there may be something to learn from your neural interfaces. The King T'Chaka Foundation is funding research into experimental prosthetics for land-mine survivors. A few non-invasive tests, and you might be able to help a lot of children walk again."

Bucky sucks in a deep, shaky breath and nods his understanding. Land mines. Helping kids. Okay. Doesn't sound so bad.

"What about," he wheezes, "after?"

"After what?"

"After I'm," he shrugs, "not as bad." He doesn't want to say better. He's pretty sure that's off the table for him now. "Then what?"

"Then you wait," T'Challa says simply. "You will remain as my guest until I see fit to send you home."

"You're just gonna ... keep me?" Bucky tries to keep the fear off his face. It's a lot better than what he deserves, he knows that, but the idea of months or years in a place like this, not knowing what's going to happen to him ...

"Yes," T'Challa tells him. "And there is one other restriction. Under no circumstances are you to make contact with Steve Rogers."

"Why?" Bucky winces as soon as the question's out of his mouth. It's the kind of response that would get him a blow to the head with Hydra, but Steve's always made him stupid.

"On a philosophical level, because I command it," T'Challa replies. "On a more practical level, because if he discovers you are here, he will tear my country apart to recover you. He's already making a name for himself in certain circles with his ... enthusiasm."

Bucky cringes.

"Yes," T'Challa agrees. "Consider, Sergeant, that you are in the best of all possible situations. You are safe and being looked after, under the protection of an absolute ruler. You are being granted greater privileges and more freedom than any other government on this planet would accord you. And all you are being asked to do is allow your wounds to heal, and help to heal the victims of war."

"For now," Bucky points out.

"For now," T'Challa admits. "If your Captain Rogers were to come here, however, he would insist on taking you with him when he goes. When I refused, a great number of my people would die, most likely followed by you and your companion. I might be a gracious host, but I am also a king. Is it not better to let him search a while, and save all those lives?"

"He's ..." Bucky looks down. He doesn't want to say it. It's only going to get him in trouble.

Say it anyway. Say it and be damned.

"He's all the family I got."

Bucky wonders what that sounds like to a king.

T'Challa studies him for a moment. Bucky clenches his right hand into a fist, carefully not thinking about his bionic left arm. He doesn't want to find out what T'Challa and his people have done to render it safe enough to be in a hospital like this. Bucky can feel the sedatives still drifting through his veins, making him soft and sleepy. Malleable. He's at T'Challa's mercy, and he knows it.

"Don't worry," T'Challa says at last. "When the time is right, he will hear from me."

Bucky knows the end of a conversation when he hears one. He nods.

"Any more questions?"

Headshake.

"Very well. If you think of anything, ask your caregivers. I'll be in touch."

Bucky stares down at the blanket in silence as T'Challa rises noiselessly from his chair and walks out.

It's going to be a long rest of his life.