The very last thing Alina wanted to see after coming home from a very, very, very long trip back from her three months stay in McMurdo Station -- there had been some sort of bullshit in the southern Indian Ocean and they'd had to stop in the fucking Kerguelen Islands, that was how bad that had been -- was her entire apartment building completely trashed.
The building front door was bashed in. The railing in the staircase was missing several parts. Her apartment front door was badly hit, but not as badly as Ioan's, across the hall. Her hinges still worked, if creakily. The landlord, of course, had done nothing; it was like Ioan said, they paid their rent to an empty bank account.
She tossed her bag and coat in her bedroom, closed her front door and crossed the hall. She knocked on the doorjamb. No answer.
"Hey, Ioan, you okay? What the fuck happened, dude?" Her voice echoed, but there was no answer. "I'm coming in."
The place was an utter disaster. Clearly whatever had happened to the rest of the building had happened here most of all. Had a bomb gone off or something? His kitchen windows had no glass! And something smelled awful.
The source of the smell was obvious once she actually got into the kitchen; there were a bunch of groceries rotting on the floor. They hadn't been there too long -- not like the time she'd forgotten an apple in the fridge before a rotation down South. It was still pretty mild out, cold for the season even, but there were no flies.
Part of the kitchen floorboards were missing. She thought she might not want to know why they were missing, but she went to look anyway. She felt responsible; her and Ioan were the only ones living in the building -- "Thought it was abandoned," he'd said the first time they'd met, to which she'd replied "Might as well be" -- if something happened to him while she was gone, who would tell the cops? It might be too late already.
The floorboards looked like they'd been punched through. What on Earth. Next to the punch hole -- seriously, what the fuck -- was Ioan's notebook.
Alina didn't know much about Ioan's notebook, but she knew he'd never leave it behind willingly. She picked it up carefully. She opened it, hoping to find a clue, a name or an address or something. The first page was blank. She closed the notebook. Whatever else was in there was Ioan's secret to keep.
She had to give the notebook back.
"What's his name?"
"I don't know, he's never said."
The cop sighed. "When did he go missing?"
"Sometime in the past three months."
"That's a very large window."
"He was there when I left for Antarctica, he wasn't when I came back." She'd foisted all her food on him the evening before she left, including Bunica's rasol; Bunica always made too much food, but it had gotten worse lately. She was convinced Ioan didn't get enough to eat, which was ridiculous, especially since Bunica had actually met Ioan.
The cop's sigh this time was the kind that created a typhoon on the other side of the world. "What does he look like?"
Alina described him as best as she could, but Romania was full of dark-haired men, even ones twice as large as she was. Ioan looked utterly unremarkable.
"There's not much we can do with that, especially not with the paperwork the Germans saddled us with --" the cop kept talking but Alina tuned out.
Going to the cops had been a long shot, but Ioan's notebook was burning a hole in the drawer of her bedside table. If she wanted to return it, she'd have to track Ioan down herself. She'd spent the last two weeks in Antarctica tracking down two specific penguins among thousands of other penguins among millions of miles of ice and snow. How hard could one dude be to find?
It wasn't like he was going to end up in Wakanda.
Well. It was probably bullet holes? She'd never seen any in real life before.
Alina wasn't entirely sure how she'd missed them the first time she'd been in the kitchen, but she hadn't really been looking at the ceiling. Anyway, there wasn't any blood anywhere so Ioan probably hadn't been shot at. Maybe he'd been the one doing the shooting?
Unlikely. He wasn't active military and definitely wasn't a Member of Parliament. Even if he had been, she doubted he'd be able to pass the psych exam.
"Okay," she said. "I'm Ioan. I'm a crazy motherfucker on steroids and people are shooting at me, what do I do?"
She looked around.
"I jump out a window."
She went to the window and leaned over the balcony. It did indeed look like some sort of something had happened to the next roof. She closed the window as best she could, so what if the window had no glass, closing windows when you left the house was what you did.
She crossed the street, talked to the owner of the roof of the other building about how she'd "accidentally" "thrown" "a prized possession -- sentimental value only" through a window and thought it might be on his roof and eventually he let her on the roof.
There were also bullet holes on the roof. This time she could tell for sure, because the bullets were still in the hole.
Still, no blood, which she chose to take as good news. Also good news: Ioan hadn't been doing the shooting, because the angle was all wrong, unless he'd fired practically point-blank. Corollary bad news: people had been shooting at Ioan. What the fuck had Ioan gotten into, seriously?
She followed the line of bullet holes until it stopped, then kept exploring the roof. There were several weird scratch marks; if they hadn't been on metal, Alina would have thought a very big, very angry cat had made them.
"You find it yet?" the roof owner called from the stairwell.
She threw a glance over the other side of the building. Here too Angry Cat had left scratch marks, but of Ioan there was no trace. Had he jumped again?
It had to be hell on his joints, all that jumping.
"He's just my neighbour." She took a deep breath. She'd done this a dozen times or more -- sometimes Bunica just forgot things --, but it didn't get any easier. At least she knew how Bunica would react to her coming out. "I'm not going to have a young man."
There was silence. Then Bunica said, "Eat your soup."
"Yes, Bunica." Alina ate the soup. It was, as always, excellent soup. How come it was good when Bunica made it but not Alina? It wasn't fair.
"He can marry me if he needs better papers," Bunica said.
"Ioan's papers are fine."
"How is he?"
Alina finished her soup, considering her response. "I don't know. I haven't seen him since I came back. I don't think he's been home."
She'd left him a note on the kitchen that said "Ioan, I was worried. Hope you're okay. Call me, I have your notebook. Alina"; she'd even written her number on the other side of the paper, in case he'd lost his phone or forgot she lived across the hall -- a few times Ioan had forgotten things, the same way Bunica forgot things. He was doing a lot better now.
But he hadn't called.
"Ioan's papers are fine," Bunica repeated. She served Alina more soup.
Well. Maybe Bunica did have a point.
Either way, she was going out.
The thing she missed most about Bucharest when she was in Antarctica was the bars. She had a particular soft spot for the ones that played ridiculous, frilly music while they served you even more ridiculous, frillier cocktails.
She ordered the most ridiculous, frilliest cocktail on the menu to sip at. It was really good. She'd look it up online and bring the recipe along next time she went down -- maybe Sam would finally give her the "PhD in cocktail making" that had been threatened for years.
There was a woman with really eye-catching red hair looking at Alina across the bar. Alina smiled and raised her glass at her.
Another thing Antarctica didn't have: other single lesbians.
The woman came over. "Hi. I'm Nat."
"Hi, Nat. I'm Alina." There was something familiar about Nat's face. "Do I know you from somewhere?"
"That's a really bad pick-up line," Nat said, but she was smiling.
"It's not a pick-up line -- unless you want to be picked up? -- I think I saw you somewhere before." Alina finished her drink to stop from digging herself into a deeper hole. Whoa. Nice kick to the teeth when drunk like that.
"Have you heard of the Winter Soldier?" Nat asked.
Whatever Nat was drinking -- the same cocktail as Alina, cool -- was clearly the good stuff, because that was a total non-sequitur. "Is it a penguin?"
"Then I'm not interested in it. Oh! Is it a show? I don't have a TV." It did sound like it could be one of those historical drama Demetra loved so much, so probably Alina had caught some of it while over. It was probably set in the Soviet era and was as morally grey as its colour palette.
From there on one thing lead to another and Alina brought Nat home. As she remembered it, she'd then fallen asleep -- literally fallen asleep, face first into the couch.
No wonder Nat was gone when she woke up the next morning with the worst hangover of her entire life.
The first thing Alina did, after that, was call someone to change the lock on her door. It was what you did when someone had searched your place; you changed the locks. Even if nothing was missing.
Besides the lock had been hard and noisy to operate since she'd come back, so she needed to change it. She just hoped it was just the lock that was warped, not the entire door.
The second thing she did was google 'winter soldier'.
It was not a historical drama. It was historical and it was dramatic, but it was not a TV show.
At one point the locksmith arrived and reassured her it was only the lock. He changed it. She paid, he left and she went back to reading.
Around midnight she closed her laptop. She sighed and put her head in her hands. Okay. That was 100% not what she'd expected to find out about Ioan -- Bucky? Barnes? what was she even supposed to call him? He'd introduced himself as Ioan, so she was going to call him that until and unless he asked her not to.
Still. He was apparently a few years older than Bunica, which was a head-trip and a half, even if it explained the memory issues. Nobody, except conspiracy theories crackpots on the internet, seemed to know what, if anything, he remembered about anything, including and especially the years he'd been on ice.
He remembered enough, she thought. It had been one of the first things he'd asked after she'd told him her job was "Penguins" -- how to fight hypothermia and get free from ice.
He'd said he'd gotten the idea from a movie. Even at the time she hadn't believed him. But she'd figured he had a phobia or was a survivalism hobbyist. And then she'd introduced him to the internet when she'd had no idea what to do if "an entire shoulder gets exposed to cold metal at the same time".
Definitely not from a movie -- and she really hoped he had found something to help with that whole metal arm issue, because ouch. Probably did have a phobia, even. She knew she did.
But none of that actually helped with giving him his notebook back.
She'd come far enough to have an international, superpowered spy search her home for said notebook -- hahaha, fooled you, Natalya -- so going through with it seemed like the only option.
Besides, she had to make sure he was okay.
Then, in while she was back at the bar with the fancy cocktails and the lurking world-famous spies, she was watching the news over the barkeep's head -- there was a problem at her metro station, she'd need to take a bus home instead -- and the news ribbon at the bottom of the screen announced that Wakanda was dropping all charges against J. Barnes and prosecuting H. Zemo for the UN bombing. Which was odd, because last she'd known, the king of Wakanda had trashed her neighbourhood in pursuit of "J. Barnes".
On the bus ride home, she looked up the details of the Zemo case. Then she looked up King T'Challa. Then she looked up and nearly missed her stop.
After some further research and some cake, she felt fairly confident that Ioan was hiding out in Wakanda. King T'Challa seemed to feel guilty about the whole chase through Bucharest issue -- he was certainly funding the renovations -- and he had admitted his pursuit of the Winter Soldier had been "a misguided attempt at revenge on an innocent man". It was a reasonable bet that he'd feel guilty enough to shield Ioan from repercussions, if only for a while.
That, or he was keeping Ioan in his deepest, darkest dungeons and making grand statements to obscure this.
Either way, Ioan was in Wakanda. He'd better be at least, because otherwise she had no fucking clue where he could be.
She finished the rest of cake and jotted down 'eggs' and 'chocolate' on her shopping list. She rebaked the cake with the chocolate and eggs she already had. She added more chocolate this time around though, because it hadn't been that chocolatey this time.
While the cake cooked in the oven, she looked up travel options to Wakanda. As it turned out, there were no commercial flights into Wakanda. There were flights from Wakanda, but not into.
That kind of told you everything you needed to know about Wakandan immigration policies.
It had not been a plan that included being stopped just after her plane landed. She'd thrown her backpack over one shoulder, put on the hat and been asked if she was Dr Florescu by one of the hottest, tallest, buffest women she'd ever seen.
Alina nodded and the woman said, "I'm Teela, of the Dora Milaje."
Oh fucking hell.
"Okay?" Alina pulled on the other strap of her backpack.
"His Majesty has invited you to Wakanda."
A childish part of her wanted to go 'I don't wanna and you can't make me', but (a) she did indeed want to go to Wakanda and (b) Teela could make her, not contest.
Teela drove them to Wakanda in utter silence. Alina hugged her backpack to her chest and ate all the snacks in the glove compartment as petty revenge.
Some crackpots on the internet had said the king of Wakanda got his powers from an actual Black Panther GoddessTM. Alina had dismissed them as, well, crackpots on the internet.
Faced with the man himself, it was a lot harder to do. He had a presence that filled the whole room. Granted, the room was only an elevator, but if anything the small space just made her feel like she was trapped in a crowded spot with a storm.
"Your paper on homosexuality among chinstrap penguins in the wild is very interesting," he said.
"That paper hasn't even been sent out to peer review yet," Alina said. How did he --? Oh. "The Black Widow put a gizmo in my computer, didn't she?"
She nodded. "A gizmo. Maybe even a doohickey, or worse, a thingamajig."
He had nothing to say to that. In the corner by the door, Teela held her hand over her mouth.
"Nice of you to say you read the paper," Alina said. If it could be called a 'paper' when it consisted of nineteen different photos of penguins, three pages of notes, a handful of GPS coordinates, five pages of bibliography, a note to talk to Ioan about a thing and a recipe for chocolate cake. She'd expected to have time to work on it before getting to Wakanda, but alas here she was. "You like penguins?"
He was saved from having to answer -- probably best not to engage the woman with a PhD in Penguins and a job in Penguins who lived half the year on the continent of Penguins on the subject of Penguins, your Majesty -- when the elevator door opened.
They'd been going down the entire time, so point the first to the dungeon theory. At least it was a brightly lit dungeon.
He lead her down the corridor. Alina followed, Teela right behind her. She'd briefly felt in more familiar territory when it'd looked like she might get to talk about penguins, but she was rapidly feeling her insides turn to dread as her backpack hit her back with each step.
Eventually, they reached a room.
The room was not as brightly lit as the hallway, but Alina could still make out a humanoid shape in a glass cylinder in the centre of the room. She stepped forward and wiped away the steam. It was Ioan.
She took a step back. Teela stopped her before she could get any further back. Alina shrugged her off. She felt like she was the one encased in ice. Points two to nine thousand for the dungeon theory.
"You see," said the king, "he is perfectly safe."
And just like that, all her horror and terror turned to anger. "Yeah? Because last I saw him he had two arms."
"What's it to you?" On a buffness scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Alina and 10 being Ioan, the dude who had just spoken was a solid 9.
"He's my friend," she said.
"He's never mentioned you." Dude was angry. Not at her, but in general and she just happened to be convenient.
He was also convenient and she was also angry. "Who the fuck are you?"
"He's never mentioned you."
"I'm his friend!"
She punched him. It wasn't really a conscious action. Just, one moment, her hand was at her side, the next, her fist was in his face.
If she'd thought about it, she wouldn't have done it. She'd broken her hand falling down an ice crevasse once. This didn't hurt as much, but, motherfucker, it did hurt and Steve looked more surprised than anything, adding insult to injury.
She shook her hand. "Fuck! Ow."
The only person who reacted to her swearing in Romanian -- as opposed to punching random people -- was the woman with long black hair who was standing next to Steve.
In English, Alina continued, "I haven't slept in --" she looked at her watch "-- twenty-eight hours, my friend got turned into an ice cube and I'm stuck below ground with the people who did it. I'm not sorry I punched you."
"We did not do this to him," the woman said.
"You broke my neighbourhood. Why should I believe you?" Alina asked.
As her only reply the woman threw red light at the machinery surrounding Ioan's container. It started rumbling and whirring and doing lots of machine things.
"Wanda!" Steve shouted.
"Ms Maximoff," said the king.
Yeah, Alina had been right not to believe her.
"She would not have believed us otherwise."
Alina was still standing right in front of the container when it opened and Ioan fell out, still with tubes stuck into his bare torso.
She stumbled back under the weight of him, then crashed to her knees.
Alina tried to rise to her feet to very minimal success. Ioan was far heavier than her. If anything, she was moments away from falling completely backwards under his weight.
A tube came loose from his torso with a hiss.
Steve rushed over and picked up Ioan like he was an oddly shaped sack of potatoes. Alina caught the crackling tube and stood up.
"What do I do with this?" She held up the tube.
A small army of Wakandan doctors had invaded the room while she hadn't been paying attention. One of them took the tube from her hand, two others were helping Steve set Ioan down on a gurney and another three were setting up some medicine machines.
"This will take a while," King T'Challa said. "Have a seat."
Alina sat. It was an awkward wait, Teela and the king on one side of her, Steve and Maximoff on the other. The doctors did their thing -- Alina closed her eyes. It involved blood and ice and brought back bad memories.
Alina opened her eyes. Ioan was sitting up and blinking slowly at them. Suddenly Alina felt too awkward to look at him and she bent forward to drag her backpack to herself.
"Steve." Huh, so Ioan did know the guy. "What's going on?"
Alina sat back up, pressing her backpack to her chest. She gave Ioan a little wave.
"Hey," Alina said.
"What are you doing here?" Ioan asked. He'd sat up straighter on the gurney, but he still looked vaguely ridiculous without his shirt on and with his feet above the ground.
"Well, I came home and your place was completely trashed --" Alina was far from a little pettiness and lobbed the comment pointedly at Ioan's superpowered so-called-friends "-- so I was worried?"
"You care." He really shouldn't have sounded that surprised. She felt almost offended.
"You can tell because I named a penguin after you. Which is really insensitive, now that I know about --" She gestured at the ice and everything.
"You named a penguin after him?" said Steve.
Alina shrugged. She'd named a lot of penguins. She pulled her backpack over one shoulder and stepped closer. "Hug?"
So Alina had never actually hugged Ioan before, because she wasn't a hugger and neither was Ioan, but she made a valiant effort. In Romanian, she whispered, "You take the ones on the left, I take the ones on the right."
"You have the upper body strength of an uncooked noodle," Ioan replied. He hugged her back, one-handed and yet managing to be less awkward about it than her. He smelled terrible.
"You're welcome," Alina said. "But for real. You take everyone, I drive the get-away car."
"You do not have a car," said Maximoff.
"Nobody asked you," Alina snapped. She let go of him. "Ioan?"
"It's fine, Alina. I swear," he added, seeing the disbelieving look on her face. He punched her in the shoulder lightly. "See? Fine. How did you even get here?"
Alina wanted to say something profound or mysterious or that showed off her investigation skills or at least not put her foot in her mouth. What she said was, "I picked up the Black Widow in a bar."
In an attempt to salvage the situation, Alina continued, "She drugged me and searched my place while I was unconscious. It's been a very weird week."
She stopped there, because she wasn't doing herself any favours. Besides, Ioan's week had been weirder than hers. Then again, she was starting from a baseline of "studies penguins in Antarctica half the year" and he was starting from a baseline of "is secretly a brainwashed assassin who spend half a century frozen in a tank", so weird was relative.
"Is Nat okay?" Steve asked.
Alina blinked. "Probably. It's not like she left me a calling card."
Steve looked put out. Alina decided not to care, as it was neither her fault nor her business.
"Why did she search your place?" Ioan asked. "The only people you spy on are penguins."
Alina wasn't sure, but why else would a world-class spy go through her things? "I think she was looking for your notebook."
A hush fell on the room, which was pretty impressive, since no one else had been speaking in the first place. Steve, in particular, felt like he was going to burst out of his skin he was listening so hard.
"Did you read it?" Ioan's voice had gone deeper and -- darker, somehow. She felt a chill running down her spine.
"Dude, no! That's creepy and invasive. Who the fuck does that?"
"Why did she think you had it, then?" His voice sound closer to Ioan's voice, but not quite there yet.
"Because I do. I also closed your windows and threw away your rotting groceries, by the way, so you owe me." Alina took a deep breath. "I've got it with me if you want it back, by the way."
"She does not," the king said. "I am reliably informed that her bag contains nothing but cake."
Wow, if this was the kind of company Ioan kept these days no wonder he thought she'd read the notebook. She turned to the king and asked, "Are you reliably informed of what's in the cake?"
"Chocolate," the king replied, not missing a beat.
"Okay," Alina said. "I'm going to assume you know that because the security guy when I boarded worked for you." She'd had to offer him a piece of said cake before he'd been convinced it wasn't a bomb.
The king didn't answer, but she hadn't expected him to.
"So. You want your notebook or not?" she asked Ioan.
Ioan nodded slowly. She felt a spike of pride at him trusting her word over the king's.
She set the backpack on the ground, pulled out the cake and set it next to Ioan on the gurney. It was in pretty bad shape. "Anyway. It's my special chocolate-and-notebook recipe. Anyone got a knife?"
Teela handed Alina a knife. It was a blunt knife, which Alina definitely felt offended by. She wasn't going to stab anybody!
Alina cut the cake. Inside the cake was a Ziploc bag. Inside the Ziploc bag was another Ziploc bag and inside that was Ioan's notebook. Alina held it out to him. He didn't take it.
"I'm not going to make you eat the cake," Alina said.
"That's a relief," Ioan said, but he still didn't take the notebook.
"Dude, come on, I look ridiculous. Take the notebook."
Ioan took the notebook. Alina deflated. Well, that was her done. She'd found Ioan and given him the notebook. She'd only had to have her home be searched by a paradoxically world-famous spy and be forcibly driven into one of the world's most secure countries along the way.
"I need to sit down," she said.
Ioan scooted over and she sat next to him. She could have used a pat on the back right about then, but she was on the side where Ioan didn't have an arm anymore -- Jesus fuck, the poor dude -- so that was a no-go.
Ioan flipped open the notebook. "That's new."
Alina made 'gimme' motions with her hand and Ioan handed her the offending piece of paper. She opened it. She handed it back. "Bunica said you'd asked her for the recipe. She says you can marry her if you need better papers, by the way."
"I'm not going to marry your grandma, Alina, that'd be weird."
"Why not? She's younger than you, you know."
"Not helping," Ioan said, but he was smiling. "Nice of her to offer, though."
"She does that." She decided not to tell him that 'you can marry me if you need better papers' was the story of how Bunica had married her second husband, Vasile, during the war.
Ioan paged carefully through the notebook, balancing it on one knee.
Alina got to her feet. "Come visit if you're ever in Romania again. Or Antarctica, I'm not picky. Which reminds me. Can I call the penguin Ioan? I need to name him for the paper."
"He's the baby penguin Heather and Sarah adopted -- I can make a better emotional case for them being a homoparental family if I name the baby. Hang on, I got pictures." Alina took her phone out of her pocket. It was still shut off from the plane. She turned it on, found the pictures and shoved the phone in Ioan's face. "See? He has the same grumpy face as you."
"He really does," Steve said from over her shoulder, causing Alina yelp in surprise.
"I hate you," Ioan said, which really could be addressed to either of them. "Fine. Name the penguin after me."
Alina elbowed Steve and took a step back. There really wasn't a reason for her to stay anymore and she didn't want to overstay her welcome.
Ioan reached out to catch her sleeve, notebook balanced on the side of his leg. "Wait."
Alina waited. She tugged at her sleeve, but it remained caught in his grasp. "Okay, I'm waiting."
"Don't you want to know what's up with...?" He let go of her to gesture at, in order: his missing arm, the human-sized freezer and the king of Wakanda.
"Of course I do," she said. "But it's not my place to ask."
Ioan looked like it hadn't occurred to him that could be her answer. In fairness, he now hung out with spies and kings and country breakers. Maybe it really hadn't; none of them seemed the type to be asked this sort of question in the first place. Ioan's hand returned to rest on his notebook. The tips of his fingers tucked the corner of Bunica's recipe that was poking out back in.
"Pretty sure she knows already, Buck. It was all over TV a month ago," Steve said.
"Alina, tell Steve what you do for a living."
"I study penguins," Alina said. Steve was possibly a little slow, given that he had literally not even five minutes ago been looking at pictures of her penguins over her shoulder -- which, no. Just no to the looking at stuff over her shoulder. Pointedly, she added, "In Antarctica. Where they don't have TV."
Steve looked bashful for a second, before his expression returned to his angrier, 'fucking fight me' face. Had he gotten stuck like that as a kid?
"I may not have TV, but I do have the internet," Alina said. She gestured at Ioan. "I can make a pretty good guess."
"Oh, can you?" Steve got all up in her face. It wasn't that Alina couldn't appreciate that he was trying to protect Ioan, but damn the man could loom.
Alina took a step back to raise her head to look him in the eyes. "It was HYDRA. They're very good at turning people into weapons." She tossed her head towards Maximoff -- who might not entirely have meant to break a country and maybe Alina could cut her some slack about that -- and jabbed a finger at the middle of Steve's chest. "You should know, you worked for them, Captain."
Which, in retrospect, might not have been the right thing to say. The temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees. The air turned heavy and there was the faintest smell of ozone and the barest hint of a red glow coming from Maximoff's general direction.
"She's got you there, Steve," Ioan said. He was even smiling. Ioan was a crazy motherfucker.
"An accurate guess," the king said. "Mister Barnes' captivity has indeed had unfortunate consequences."
It took Alina a moment to remember who the fuck 'Mister Barnes' was. It was really weird to think that her neighbour -- that her friend -- was a completely different person, a runaway not only from a different country, but a different century altogether. On the other hand, he was still Ioan, who she'd once seen stab himself in the hand when trying to get ice-cream out of the tub, so it was hard to think of him as the armoured fist of HYDRA too. Although it did explain why the spoon had bent in half.
"As opposed to the fortunate consequences of being frozen for the better part of a century?" Ioan asked.
The king bent his head. Point to Ioan.
"Can I help?" Alina asked, which caused everyone to look at her like she'd grown a third head.
"Unlikely. The best scientists have not found how to remove the triggers," the king said. With a sideways glance at Steve, he added, "Yet."
Alina would have been offended by not being included in 'the best scientists', but then Ioan said, "Also, it doesn't involve penguins."
Which was a fair point, but did leave Alina feeling utterly helpless. He was her friend and there was nothing she could do to help. This sucked. She understood Steve's barely restrained rage better now. This was the kind of situation that would drive anyone bonkers.
There was a moment of awkward silence. Alina picked at the cuff of her jacket sleeve. A thread had come loose and she started pulling at it, hoping it would get long enough for her to cut with her teeth.
"You gonna stick around?" Ioan asked.
Alina was going to tell him she hadn't even brought a change of clothes, but Steve reacted faster than her. "You're not going back in cryo, Buck."
"Old enough to make his own decisions," Alina said, still pulling on the thread. "By about a century."
Ioan jostled her arm. "Also old enough to fight my own battles." Over her mumbled 'sorry', he continued, "I can't go back in cryo with the two of you here."
"Why not?" Steve's face had gone back to a frown. He definitely had gotten stuck like that as a kid.
Ioan raised an eyebrow at him. He looked pointedly at Alina, then pointedly back at Steve. He did that a few times until Alina began wondering if he'd gotten stuck too. She took a step to the side. Ioan's glance followed her. She frowned at him. So did Steve, when she looked at him. Their gazes crossed. She looked away.
"I give it five minutes before one of you bites the other's head off," Ioan said. "And I'm putting my money on Alina."
"Alina, you once got into a fight with a polar bear."
"Did not. Those live in the Arctic, not Antarctica." She'd never even met a polar bear, nor did she want to. But maybe she shouldn't have told Ioan about the time she'd gotten into a fight with a penguin -- the bloody bird had stolen her fucking lunch; she was allowed to be pissed some bird had stolen her lunch!
Steve turned to Alina. "If you being here means Bucky's not going back in cryo, feel free to stay as long as you like."
Alina thought about Ioan, who'd asked her almost first thing how be free of ice. Then she thought about the Winder Soldier, kept in a freezer for decades like some sort of murder popsicle.
"Yeah," she said. "Okay."
The king coughed.
Alina turned to look at him. Everyone else in the room did the same, like compasses to magnetic north.
"I believe that should be for me to decide," the king said, calm like the eye of a storm.
Steve did a thing where he didn't move a muscle and yet Alina was viciously reminded of a porcupine raising its quills in defence -- or offense. On the one hand, Alina would have paid good popcorn money to see him try to fight the king. On the other hand, Ioan's continued survival possibly depended on nobody giving the king a reason to drag him to the torture dungeon Alina was pretty sure he had -- people who had their own countries had torture dungeons, that was A Rule.
"Okay," Alina said. "Can I stick around and paint Ioan's nails?"
"Please don't paint my nails," Ioan said. "I wouldn't be able to paint yours back and then I'd owe you."
Alina boggled at him. She'd only said what she'd said because she was an idiot with authority issues -- one good thing about penguins: none of them had ever tried to tell her what to do -- and also, "You owe me already."
"Yes," the king said. "You can stay. But there will be absolutely no nail painting."
Maximoff raised a hand -- with painted nails. "I was not aware this was a rule."
"Joke, Wanda," Steve said.
Maximoff looked away, at that, and now Alina felt bad for her. She'd broken a country and Alina felt bad for her. What was the world coming to? But at least if she was going to be in the same country as someone who broke countries -- which was exactly as unreassuring as it sounded -- it'd be a country-breaker she felt bad for. Yay?
Sometimes you had to do terrible things for your friends. Sometimes you made them cake. Sometimes, as was the case with her baking, you could even do both.