T'Challa ran into the Captain and the Soldier first, the former bloodied in the face and weary, the latter slumped and missing his metal arm. He stopped and made no further advances, but it was proven futile when the Captain pushed the Soldier behind himself and raised his fists.
"You're not getting him," the Captain called out. "You'll have to go through me."
T'Challa had no doubt that he could tear the Captain and the Soldier apart in their current condition but this was no longer his objective. Slowly, he raised his hands and removed his Panther helmet to look them both in the eye. Eye to eye, his father had always said. Warriors always meet eye to eye.
"I know the truth about Zemo," he said. "His plans to fracture your Avengers. The framed bombing. The video of the Stark's death. The Winter Soldier program. All of it." He tucked his helmet under an arm and spread his other arm wide, claws retracted in a show of peace. "As of now, I only wish to help you."
The Captain lowered his arms fractionally, but it was the Soldier who pushed forward to stand between them. Even beaten bloody and missing a metal arm, there was a fire in his eyes that T'Challa hadn't seen before. It was the eyes of a man who wanted to make amends and T'Challa knew this feeling intimately.
"I'm very sorry about your father," the Soldier said, voice ringing clear despite the pain and exhaustion evident on his face. "If I had known—"
T'Challa held up his hand. "The blame lies at Zemo's feet. He will be tried by the system and he will be found wanting. I wish to apologize for the trouble I have caused you in my grief. I was mistaken in my chase for vengeance."
"You're forgiven," the Captain said slowly, still uncertain. He walked forward until he was shoulder to shoulder with the Soldier and they shared a look. "How do you think you can help us?"
Peace in sight, T'Challa let himself smile. "I can grant you amnesty in Wakanda. And," he nodded at the Soldier, "Wakanda leads the world in the medical sciences. We can provide care both physical, and psychological."
The Soldier flinched at the last word but he nodded and turned to the Captain. T'Challa stood silent as they made their decisions. The cool air of the Siberian mountains was very different to the warmer climate of Wakanda but it wasn't enough to chill the burning in anger still flowing through his veins. His father had been unfairly caught in the crossfires of an unrelated vendetta but it was done and in the past. The wound would heal and he would keep telling himself that until it truly did.
The two men before him fell silent and T'Challa turned his attention away from his loss. He was greeted with two faces set in determination.
"We need assurances you won't just turn us over," the Captain said. "Wakanda signed the Accords and we need to know you won't just drop us on Ross's doorstep."
That was fair. "I give you my word as the Black Panther, and the to-be King of Wakanda. I will not turn you, either of you, over to the mercy of the Accords."
That seemed enough to alleviate the worry; their shoulders dropped as the two men finally relaxed from their combative state. Still, they'd walked in three men and only two were before him.
"Iron Man?" T'Challa asked.
The Captain looked away, guilt written across every feature not covered by his blue helmet. "He's still—we left him back there."
Something colder than the air around him cut through to T'Challa's stomach. "He is dead?"
"No!" The Captain spoke up loud and quick, and even the Soldier gave him a startled look. "He—he's. He's fine. The suit's disabled. Partially disabled. He's grounded, but he can move. He's fine. He's—"
"I'll go see him," T'Challa said, cutting off the increasingly panicked speech. He frowned as he parsed the Captain's words. "I have my own jet—"
"And we'll need to ride with you," the Captain said, coming to a conclusion just as fast. "Leave the Quinjet for Tony. If he's willing to take Zemo. Taking Zemo in will protect him from whatever punishment they'd have for him. Only if he's willing." And it would spare himself and his friend, he didn't say.
But no one was in the wrong here, and T'Challa had already made his promise to do right by the Soldier. He nodded. "I have restrained Zemo and left him tied to a beam at the entrance. I have also taken the liberty of gagging him. He shouldn't be awake, but if you take him and secure him to the Quinjet, it'll be easier for us all."
The Captain nodded, and then wrapped his arm around the Soldier as they hobbled slowly towards T'Challa.
"I hurt him," the Captain said quietly as he passed. "Check if he's okay. Please." He didn't have to say it for T'Challa to know he meant more than just physically.
T'Challa nodded again, and strode on. The aftermath of a broken friendship was never pleasant to witness but he would do this. He was taking his first steps in correcting his mistakes and making peace with one of the largest hurdles he would be facing during his reign. He only wished he could know if his father would have approved of his actions.
Stark was in a crumpled heap of man and metal inside the compound and T'Challa had never seen a sight so small and lonely. There were scorch marks in the concrete and gouges littered over every surface around and on Stark and the only other spot of color was at T'Challa's feet. Even as T'Challa stepped over the red, white, and blue shield Stark had his eyes on, it didn't seem like Stark was aware he was no longer alone. T'Challa stood a little ways off to the side, giving the man just enough space not to feel closed in, but not enough to attempt an exit without hindrance – he couldn't let Stark continue his chase, but he could understand the man's need to grieve in silence.
"Did you kill him?" Stark's voice was hoarse. He was a smart man, and T'Challa knew he was working it out now that he was given time and distance to reflect. There was no mistaking that Stark was now referring to Zemo.
"Justice will," T'Challa answered evenly. He lowered himself to the ground beside Stark and placed his helmet between them, facing them. Two armored men; two prematurely ascended heirs to vast empires; two people who could have fallen into a downward spiral of revenge because of their vices. In another lifetime, they could have been friends. Perhaps they still could.
Stark didn't move, eyes still fixed on the shield that lay by the entrance - the Captain's abandoned shield. There was a history there, a history which had only fanned the misdirected rage. T'Challa himself knew how he felt about the Captain when his attempt to catch and kill the Soldier had been thwarted again and again, and he hadn't even personally known the man. But he also knew how he would have felt if he had killed the Soldier given what he knew now. He could only imagine what Stark would have felt if Stark had carried through with his violent grief only to find his friend and an innocent man dead at his feet.
T'Challa should return to his jet – return to the captive, his fugitives, and his home to put his father to rest – but though he has nothing owed to Stark, he felt he should give him the benefit of sympathetic ears; he wasn't sure the man had anyone else who would understand him. He wasn't sure the man would ever turn to anyone else for this.
"We are men of passion," T'Challa said into the silence. "We cannot be faulted for our passions reacting to the death of a loved one. We can only learn to recognize this feeling and learn to never let it take hold of us ever again."
Stark was silent, eyes still directed at the shield.
"Killing would have achieved noth—"
"I thought he was drunk, you know," Stark interrupted. There was no change in his sunken expression but his eyes were cast to the ground now. He turned away before he spoke again. "I thought he was drunk, when they died." He shifted on the ground and the groan of scraping metal punctuated the air before he settled again. "I knew there was a cover-up. I thought it was his blood alcohol concentration. It would've taken away from the grand tragedy of the story and they couldn't have that. Obie couldn't—SHIELD couldn't. They couldn't have that."
Stark was silent once again, and T'Challa held his own tongue.
"I always blamed Howard," Stark continued, voice a rasp. "For mom's death. How could he be so irresponsible with her sitting by him, you know? How could he" —his armored arm lifted, but dropped half way— "just be that irresponsible to her?" He finally turned his head to look at T'Challa. There were tear tracks cutting through the congealing blood on his face but his eyes were dry and clear. "I don't know if this is worse. They're still dead. It shouldn't matter, but it does. I can't blame Howard for being with SHIELD and I can't blame mom for supporting that. They made it work. But she didn't have to die. She—They—I memorized the reports."
Stark looked away at that, his hands clearly wanting to gesture but were held in aborted movements by the armor.
"Fractured skull, he had," Stark said in a hollow voice as if reciting a list. "Multiple fractures, large and small all over his face, and splinters of bone in his brain. She had a broken humerus, five broken ribs all along the right side, punctured lung, a broken neck from severe whiplash and a crushed larynx from the seat belt, can you believe that? The woman who always told me to put on a seat belt, killed by one. They told me it was a car accident. I believed it, just like that. I believed it and didn't know better for twenty, twenty-five years. Even Steve knew. They were killed in cold blood, and I just believed dad was dumb enough to drive drunk, get them both killed on a straight road, get mom killed, and it was Barnes and his metal fist all along—"
T'Challa raised a hand and clapped it hard on Stark's metal shoulder. It earned him a hard glare but he saw the spiral of guilt and anger ebb at the contact.
"I am sorry for your loss," T'Challa said. "They raised a good son. But Barnes was the unwilling gun. He did not pull the trigger. You know this."
Stark gave a weak laugh at that and closed his eyes with a nod. "I just wanted Steve to tell me sooner," he said, voice tired. "He's the one always yapping on about not keeping secrets. Guess it doesn't apply to him."
"Some secrets aren't his to tell," T'Challa said, ignoring all the personal landmines.
Stark let out a derisive breath and they returned to sitting in silence side by side.
T'Challa took the opportunity to survey the condition of the armor. There were marks and dents all over but they were the most concentrated at the chest plate where the paint was scratched down to silver. This had been a vicious fight between friends. All three of them could have died. It was a fortunate situation, then, that the greatest physical damage was to the Soldier's prosthetic arm and to the Iron Man suit. As for emotional damages – damages to friendships and loyalties – that was less certain. Maybe they could heal from this. Maybe they couldn't. The drive for vengeance, for empty victories, takes more than life away – it takes the soul with it. T'Challa almost lost his. He would not let it take more.
There was a flicker of static from Stark and T'Challa focused on the large horizontal gash that ran deeply through the power source of the armor. Stark didn't seem like a man to not build a mechanical failsafe into his own armor but his stiff movements were showing otherwise.
"Can you move?" T'Challa asked quietly.
As if to prove a point, Stark leaned forward and began to push himself to his feet. The whir of frozen servos being forced into action was loud and cutting. T'Challa stood and prepared to lend a hand as Stark push and pulled against the ground, fighting the dead weight and frozen joints with every movement until he was standing tall. And even standing a few centimeters taller than T'Challa and encased in bulky armor, the man still managed to look small. T'Challa knew why; it was always in the eyes. T'Challa was just glad that he was mobile.
They stood in the cold silence now, and Stark's gaze returned to the shield on the ground, face now openly dejected. Perhaps it had been much more than a working relationship than T'Challa had realized.
"'Unwilling'," Stark quoted. "Wish I could've been unwilling."
And this was beyond what T'Challa was willing to lend ears to. He gave the metal shoulder of the Iron Man suit a single pat and then stooped to pick up his own helmet. The sky was already beginning to darken and he intended to leave before the night sets. His job here, as they said, was complete.
Just one more matter at hand. "Can I trust you with Zemo?" he asked.
"I'm not gonna kill him if that's what you're asking," Stark replied.
"Can I trust he will be delivered to the right authorities without further injuries?" T'Challa asked as a matter of course.
Stark gave a half-hearted snort but made an affirmative noise. He moved in lurching motions towards his Iron Man helmet which lay in the shadows near the shield. It broke into two pieces as he picked it up and he tucked it under one arm as he bent again, with some difficulty, to pick up the shield. "Guess he made his choice," he muttered. He maneuvered the shield to his back. It clicked with a clang of metal and stuck fast. "All I've got left of his patriotic ass, now. Run off, just like all the other ducklings."
This was well beyond T'Challa's position to deal with. "Zemo is secured in the Quinjet for transport," he said. He didn't wait to see if Stark connected the dots. He donned his black helmet and made to leave. Stark was mobile and not in need of immediate medical assistance. That had to be enough.
An armored hand latched onto his arm and stopped him in his tracks just as he passed Stark.
"You're going against the Accords if you do this," Stark said, voice low. "You don't know Ross like I do. You don't know what he would do to get at Barnes."
T'Challa looked between the man's face and his armored hand. "They won't know. And Wakanda will stop them easily if they come. Will you stop me?" There was a flash of desperation and longing in Stark's eyes but it was wiped away just as quickly.
Stark dropped his hand with a brittle smile. "Take care of Ste—Take care of them for me."
T'Challa gave Stark one long, last look, then nodded in farewell and left for his own jet. They both had too much work to do to dwell on personal loss just yet. He still made sure to see the trackers he placed on Zemo and the Iron Man both fly away together at high speed before he set his full concentration on returning home, two runaways in tow.
The Captain, Steve, looked so much lonelier without his friend Barnes to ground him. It had been a decision Barnes himself had made and T'Challa had been all too glad to provide the facilities – and the security – for the cryosleep.
It had been difficult for T'Challa to watch as another friend left Steve. T'Challa had friends in his court to keep him company but Steve had been truly alone then; he'd left one man behind only to have another leave him just as soon. Perhaps it was wise of Steve to send the package to Stark. Steve needed purpose, needed company, and it was not something T'Challa could easily provide for him.
However, T'Challa would do the single favour of turning a blind eye to the prison break Steve had orchestrated a week prior. That part of the Accords also needed amendment. T'Challa had never thought it would have come into play so soon and he would be meeting with Thaddeus Ross in particular in the coming weeks and months to straighten out the proposed changes.
As it was, he was now standing on the landing pad, ready to bid a final farewell to Steve. The Dora Milaje had wanted to accompany him but he denied them their presence. Steve was a stubborn man, but in the past fortnight, T'Challa had grown to admire the man's integrity. He trusted Steve with his life, if not with his country nor any political landscape.
"You're free to stay for as long as you need," T'Challa said as he reached for Steve's proffered hand for a shake. "My doors remain open to you so long as your friend remains in my care."
"Keeping him safe is all I can ask for," Steve said. He looked back at the Wakandan imitation of a de-powered Quinjet. "And the plane. Very expensive plane. I can't thank you enough for everything. "
T'Challa grinned. "Wakanda can be generous, and we have resources aplenty. I won't ask you again to sign the Accords but I do implore you to not destroy more airports and cities - you will have no ally in me if anything of the sort happens. Otherwise, well met, Steve."
Steve nodded and pushed his hands into the pockets of his jacket. His right fist closed over something and T'Challa knew it was the phone from which Steve had been awaiting a call. As far as T'Challa was aware, the phone had never rung even if the delivery of the package to Stark had been confirmed a week ago. For everyone's sake, he hoped it would ring with the right number shown on it.
"You'll break your phone if you hold it any tighter," T'Challa said, nodding at Steve's right hand.
Steve looked taken aback for a moment, but pulled out the black phone. They both looked at it, as if it would ring under the scrutiny, but it stayed dark and silent.
"I said my piece the best I could," Steve said. "I let him know I'm still here for him. I don't have a reason to believe there would've been an emergency that needed me in these last couple of days so I feel like I'm hoping something bad would happen just so he can call—"
T'Challa laughed aloud at that. There was a history between these men, alright. Steve never lost his ability for proper speech until it came to Stark these days. "If you wish to speak with him, phones work both ways."
There was a flush rising on Steve's face and T'Challa refrained from further comments. This was not strictly his business, but perhaps they would be happier if he could prompt one of them into extending a hand.
"Farewell, then?" T'Challa said.
Steve recovered and offered a small smile in return. "Farewell. Thank you for everything. For me, for Bucky."
They shook hands once again and T'Challa turned to leave. Before he stepped down from the landing pad, he looked back one last time. Steve had the phone held to his ear, a startled but real smile lighting up his face for the first time in days.
T'Challa left with a smile of his own. He had a kingdom to settle, the UN to placate, a heavy mantle to don, and a legacy to maintain.
The Funeral was grand, as befitting the King of Wakanda. T'Challa did his duties as the Royal son and the Black Panther and all too soon, he was alone in his chambers. Sitting by his windows and looking up to the stars twinkling in the cloudless sky, he tried to find the new one among them that would be his father. There was a flash in the sky, quickly dimmed, but it was enough for T'Challa. He hoped he was doing his father proud.