"By the time you get back, I'm going to be on a payroll--a permanent payroll. With benefits." Matt had on his bravest face. He was being an annoyingly good sport about all of this. It made the depression Tessa could feel festering in him that much more worrisome. "And with job security, you'll have one less reason not to risk picking this back up with me."
"Take care of yourself first, Matt. Job or not, I want you to be healthy when I get back. Don't give me the opportunity to really give you a run with the guilt thing, okay?" Tessa squeezed him again and kissed him right under his ear before stepping away.
Jess immediately elbowed her way in between them. "My life will most likely not have changed at all when you get back."
"I would not expect anything else, Jess," Tessa chuckled and patted her on the arm. "Thanks for being my dysfunctional slob of a rock."
"Of course. I'll also make sure Murdock here doesn't go tumbling into the debilitating depression he's teetering on the precipice of right now." She smacked Matt on the back hard enough to knock his glasses askew. "Because I'm rooting for you crazy kids. And, I'm pretty sure Hogarth won't defend me again in any kind of legal situation, so… free legal counsel, right, Matt?"
"Uh… sure, Jessica. You know I'm not depressed, right? I'm okay."
"Sure you are, lover boy. Your life's in shambles and you're fine. I totally believe that. But, because I know you're incredibly important to Tess, relationship or not, I'm gonna keep an eye out for you. Plus, you'll be an excellent fake date for this case I have on, now that Luke wants his space or whatever."
Tessa summoned up a grin for Jess when she nodded her way. Matt looked mostly exasperated, but he'd live and this was actually going to work out in his favor--or Tessa's favor. He couldn't risk doing anything too drastic if he knew Jess was keeping tabs on him. As for the fake date thing, Tessa could only breathe an apology his way before Dr. Strange abandoned his place on the sidelines with a heavy sigh.
"And I, Theresa, will be in talks with Anthony to devise a magic-resistant regulating device, per your request." Every word he spoke was dripping with begrudging compliance. "By the time you return, we should have something fabricated that will be immune to magical effects but not oppressively inhibitive of your mneumomancy. Do enjoy your trip, I hope it is restorative."
"Thank you, uh, Stephen…" she called to his back. "I'll owe you one… or one million. You were totally right, by the way!"
"I know." He held up a hand in farewell and then disappeared into the back of his house.
Tessa was left on the verge of tears for the twenty-zillionth time that week. She pulled Matt and Jess back into a hug. "I'm going to miss you both so much. I'm terrified and basically second-guessing this whole thing, but I… I…"
"You need to do this," Matt finished for her. "Because… someone, whoever it is, needs your help. But, also for yourself."
"Yeah. This is a good thing, chica. You're going to go get some space, rediscover yourself and, when you get back, we'll put humpty dumpty back together again… all the king's men be fucked."
Tessa nodded, stepping away from them and pawing at tears. She still hadn't recovered her former level of eloquence. She might never. She wouldn't have been able to tell them what was on her mind in that moment anyway. It would have been too hard to say, all her words at hand or not. Instead she forced a teary grin and began picturing Natasha in her mind. "I love you," she said right as the world began pixelating and rippling into different colors around her.
She was still smiling as she appeared inside what looked to be dark metal box. But only for a split second. "Oh shit, did I get phase-shifted again?"
"Huh? What? Who's'ere?"
"Relax, Clint. It's Tessa." A soft blue light began reflecting on the wall in front of Tessa. "I guess we better move our schedule forward."
She turned to find Natasha, her Widow's Bites electrified, standing up from a small cot. Clint was on another cot, his jammed among ductwork and miscellaneous metal tubing. He sat up, eyes squinting, hair a riot.
"What? I can't-- Oh… Tess!" He patted around at his pillow and came back with a small bud, his hearing aid. "Nat, Tess is here."
"So I saw. Welcome to the Pride of the Nation, Tessa. We're currently in the South China Sea."
"You stowed away on a Chinese naval vessel? What the fuck did I just get myself into?" Tessa sunk onto her heels, groaning at the emotional exhaustion already taking effect. "This was a mistake. I should just go back and lock myself in Strange's panic room--"
"Who said you got yourself into anything? That is, besides the bowels of an aircraft carrier. Stop fretting, Tessa, you don't have to have a single thing to do with the classified mission we're undertaking here." Natasha's eyes almost looked to be smiling. She was definitely in her element here, spy craft. As she tied her hair up, Clint broke down their cots and stashed them in a small pack. Small arms stowed in various places, Natasha held out a hand to Tessa. "We have a few things to take care of here still, which thankfully can be done under starlight-- always my favorite time to work, to be honest --but you need not be here for that. Phase to this location and wait for us. If you don't hear from one of us in under nine hours, do us a favor and come to save us."
Tessa almost laughed, "you don't need--oh, you're serious. Yeah, okay. I'll come in… uh, guns a-blazing, metaphorically. Uh… good luck?"
"Bye, Tess!" Clint waved at her, one arm in an armored vest as she phased away and into a mostly sand covered beach palapa.
In front of her there was moonlight on soft waves and behind her was a dense jungle, complete with mysterious animal noises. She turned in one full circle and then collapsed onto the sand. This was precisely the sort of thing she had wanted to get away from when she left Avenger's Tower. That and the bad sexual decisions she had been making. Good news, she couldn't really make any sort of bad decisions here. She was completely alone on a jungle island of some sort, probably uninhabited. She couldn't find a name for it anywhere in any memory. Natasha only catalogued it as tropical island M2.
And, tropical island M2 was serene and pristine and utterly idyllic. It was also painfully boring. Watching the sun rise over endless miles of turquoise ocean was picturesque, sure, but Tessa would have much preferred watching it while having a conversation that was slightly more stimulating that the one that she'd had with a hermit crab. And then, once the sun was up, it was hot. Oppressively hot. Tessa walked the circumference of the incredibly small island exactly sixteen times before a wind picked up. Then, she laid flat on her back under the palapa and considered stripping off all of her clothes and walking into the ocean, like the end of The Awakening. Except she couldn't drown, probably, and that was rather over dramatic for her situation. It was much more reasonable for her to just phase back to NYC, accept her new home in a lead-lined basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse, and christen it by ravishing Matt over every one of its small, sterile surfaces. Screw all the consequences.
Right around the time she'd made a fan with her shoe and was imagining just what she'd be doing to Matt in three and a half hours-- immediately after she had rescued Natasha and Clint and rescinded all connections to the Avengers-- the buzz of a small outboard motor caught her attention. Tessa sat up and, shoe held over her eyes, peered out onto the shimmery, white mirage of salt water in front of her. Sure enough, growing on the horizon like a blot of ink in water, was the warped silhouette of a boat. And, unless she was hallucinating with the boredom, there was a moron with a purple arrow on his chest waving wildly from the front of it. At first, Tessa thought he was waving hello, but then she remembered that Clint, sarcastic sack of shit that he was, was not Deadpool. He did not wave like that out of excitement. He was flailing to catch her attention. It was right around then that she heard the shouts. Something about taking cover.
Tessa still had no idea what these two had been up to on that aircraft carrier, but at that moment she was pretty sure it was not something that the owners of said aircraft carrier would be happy about. And that explained the missile that had just barely missed their boat and was now screaming towards Tessa's island hell. As it turned out, two weeks of a coma and then mildly sedated bedrest had done nothing to improve Tessa's reaction time. She just barely dove aside to avoid the direct impact, and then, she had the pleasure of feeling her clothing being seared from her body by a close range napalm blast. It was not pleasurable.
"Señor Cancer!" Tessa shouted, staggering out of the smoldering remains of the palapa, stark naked. Also, entirely hairless for the first time since her birth. She picked up the meteorite of a shell that had just seconds before housed her crab conversation partner. It smelled sickeningly delicious. "Oh, poor Señor Cancer. ... What the fuck, guys? You got Señor Cancer cooked in his shell!"
By this point, their little motor boat was cresting over the waves that were being turned up against the shore. Tessa could just make out the horrified looks on their faces. Clint had stopped waving, hands holding onto the top of his head like he was keeping it from floating away from his body. Natasha was steering the boat, mouth open. Registering the weird, prickly sensation of hair re-growing at hyper speed and dog-earing it for later consideration, Tessa pointed over their shoulders and shouted.
"Shoot that next one down with an explosive arrow or something, Arrow Guy!"
"Outta arrows!" Clint bellowed back, nearly keeling out of the boat as Natasha swerved them out of the flight path of the second missile. "Phase your seared tuchus onto this boat and then we won't have to worry about it anymore!"
"Why are they trying to blow you out of the water?" She asked, a second later, grabbing onto the edge of the actually leaking boat.
"Reasons," Natasha explained ever so helpfully.
"Tess… I'm seriously freaked out by the freakishly fast hair growth." Clint pushed a life vest into her hands, staring pointedly only at the top of her head. "Put this on and then cover your… downstairs. Nat, destination?"
Natasha clapped a hand on Tessa's shoulder, soon joined by Clint's. Tessa received a bright, vibrant memory that she then manifested them into, just seconds before a third missile utterly obliterated their little motorboat. That wasn't even the biggest relief, though. This place had air conditioning. Tessa spun on her heel, marveling at the architecture of the room, the ultra-high tech equipment and computers lining the walls, the stunning view.
"Uh, can we get the charred naked lady a towel or something?" Clint was already gone from her side. "We made a pact a long time ago never to see each other naked again, for good reason, and this is breaking it in a number of ways. Hey, Wazini, how's it going?"
Tessa turned in time to see a woman in a lab coat brush past Clint, another coat in hand. She wrapped it around Tessa's shoulders and cinched it shut. "Any specific damage we should scan for, Ms. Romanova?"
"Well, she did take a napalm practically in her face, so I'm'a suggest high temp incendiary."
Natasha just shook her head and the woman rolled her eyes. "Mr. Barton, we anticipated your arrival. There is a coffee tray prepared for you in the refreshment room. Proceed ahead then to your right, please."
"Gotta love the hospitality here!" As Clint walked off, Tessa noticed she wasn't the only one sporting fire damage. It looked like his quiver had been melted in a microwave. "Almost feels like I'm not actually being swept outta the way of the big kids…"
Tessa watched him go, unease needling her stomach. "He's not inept, you know. He designs his own arrows, for the most part."
"Oh, it is not that. Do not worry, Mr. Barton has full access to the facilities for manufacture and design. We quite enjoyed his schematics for a projectile that could deploy an electrostatic containment unit upon a programmable proximity to its target. It is, rather, a personal matter." Settling Tessa into what looked to be a standing MRI machine on steroids, the woman smiled and extended her hand. "But, we have not been introduced. I am Wazini, I oversee the enhanced division of His Majesty's R&D department."
Tessa shook her hand, trying not to fret over what she was being strapped into. "Tessa Bisho. Good to meet you, Wazini. This is… an intense diagnostic doodad."
"Doodad," Wazini chuckled and continued attaching straps and monitors. "That is a word I've not heard before. I like it. Doodad. This doodad is an augmented bioscanner, it should allow us to image some of the biochemistry behind your enhanced capabilities, along with standard biometry. Are you comfortable?"
"Not really… but I doubt that's uncommon for a person in this space tube."
"You are not wrong, Dr. Bisho," she said and slowly closed the unit, sealing the tube. Over a surprisingly clear speaker behind Tessa's head, her voice floated out a moment later. "This will only take a few minutes. Please alert me if you feel any discomfort. We will hear you over the speaker."
Despite being some futuristic descendent of an MRI, Tessa hardly heard a thing from the tube around her. It even had a refreshing scent pumped into its recirculated air. This was the most pleasant medical examination Tessa had ever experienced. When the door opened again, Wazini disconnected Tessa with some light conversation, and then led her to a dressing room where a small collection of dresses and underclothes were waiting. Tessa was beginning to wonder if she'd died in that explosion and this was heaven.
"Ms. Romanova alerted us to your wardrobe preferences. We hope the fabrics and cuts are to your liking."
Tessa stepped back into the lab and handed Wazini back the lab coat. "No, thank you--I mean, yes, these are perfect. This is… really too kind. I'm… really appreciative."
"Excellent. Happily, I may now tell you all of your diagnostics read cleanly. As far as our technology can detect, you are quite well. I believe, unless you have any questions or needs for me, Ms. Romanova may now escort you to the royal hall. His Majesty would welcome you before you consume yourself with the treatment of Sgt. Barnes." She waved behind her to where Natasha was waiting, looking out the full wall windows. "It has been a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Bisho. I would be delighted to see you again during your stay. Perhaps I might even monitor your brain while you work?"
Tessa returned Wazini's frankly stunning and enthusiastic smile and nodded. "Sure. I'd… I'd like that. Never hurts to know how my powers work, right?" And really, how could she turn a request like that down?
"I will begin my request for access to the cryochambers! I will need mobile equipment and a feedback dampener… this is very exciting. Thank you, Dr. Bisho! I look forward to it!" She excused herself with a formal nod and then hurried off, muttering happily to herself.
Tessa watched her go and couldn't help but smile. It had been a really, really long time since she'd made someone's day like that, and with such ease. "I think… I really like this place. It's like heaven," she said as Natasha stopped by her side.
"Wakanda is very nearly a utopic nation. Certainly the most perfect I've witnessed, and I've seen almost all of them in action. Come on, you'll get a pretty comprehensive tour on the way to the palace proper."
They stepped away from the overlook onto the absolute lush greenery of the jungle below the window, and Natasha led Tessa toward a pair of glass doors and the hermetic decontamination chamber beyond it. Tessa cast a glance over her shoulder, at the opposite exit.
"What about Clint?"
"He'll be fine. Drew is around here somewhere, I think, working on her chemical manip. He'll find her and they'll get into some trouble, piss Wazini off again."
"Oh, don't let him do that. She was just… wonderful."
"Charismatic, isn't she? 'Piss off' is a very loose approximation. They make a mess trying things out, she's a tidy person. In the end, though, she always enjoys the experiments, even if her professionalism demands that she act irritated. It's fine. The lake's just over here."
Tessa had to pause when they turned onto the sky bridge. The lake was breathtaking, just like everything else she'd seen since arriving there. "Natasha? What if I just never leave here?"
"I'm sure King T'Challa would be delighted and the rest of the world would be immensely relieved. Until they realized the nation that guards the planet's single most valuable mineral resource then also guarded an invaluable cosmic resource. It's worth considering, though…" She leaned onto the bannister beside Tessa and pointed towards the opposite bank of the lake. "There is one of the royal libraries, my favorite, dedicated to the former Queen Regent. We have to make sure you see it before you leave, yes?"
"Good. This way, you're due for an audience in ten minutes."
The royal hall of Wakanda was somehow simultaneously ornate and space-age sleek. Modernism's flat plains and clean lines transitioned organically into vividly intricate detail in statuary, artwork, and furniture. Tessa had never seen anything quite like it and she couldn't get enough of it, stopping on multiple occasions to inspect pieces and architectural details as Natasha led her through the many galleries and corridors. Once they reached indisputably the most impressive hall yet, filled with murals and a full floor mosaic, they were accompanied by two guardswomen. Tessa introduced herself and asked their names, but they would only inform her that they were Dora Milaje after one cautiously shook her hand.
"Are they like the Secret Service?" Tessa quietly asked Natasha after their escorts stopped to flank instead the doorway they had all just entered.
"They are very much like the Secret Service, Dr. Bisho, but with slightly more symbolic significance." Tessa hadn't noticed T'Challa, tucked away in front of an enormous window. He turned and smiled warmly as she and Natasha approached. "It is good to see you again, doctor, and to find you well. Last I heard you were in need of a doctor yourself."
"And you as well, your majesty… I was… unwell, yes. Thankfully, I had a very capable doctor there to help me… recover." It had been over a year since she had last seen the Wakandan king and certainly not in so kingly a circumstance as this, but, either Tessa was hallucinating, or he had acquired a new kind of aura since they'd last met. Something old and powerful that Tessa couldn't tug her mind from without decent effort. "But, thank you for welcoming me… so graciously despite this. That was very… magnanimous of you."
He nodded heavily. "We do not have the same fear of your power here, in Wakanda, as your culture does. Those in power will learn from their mistakes, or the power will abandon them. More importantly, I do not believe you are a threat, Dr. Bisho, even if you and your country do. I doubt my opinion will sway you, but a kind word here or there never hurts, as my father used to say."
"I--I'm so sorry for your loss," Tessa stuttered out at the saddening of his expression. "You should not have lost him."
"That may be true. Thank you, doctor, but what's done is done. I hear that you attempted to aid in the search for the bomber, but were not allowed. That, too, should not have happened. I would not have dishonored my father's memory for so long, if you had been allowed to clear Sgt. Barnes from that accusation. But again, what's done is done. We have an opportunity to heal the loss of one here and I am glad that you have answered the captain's call."
"I'm glad I did as well, Your Majesty. Your palace campus has made the trip more than rewarding already. It is… well, beautiful doesn't capture it, but… it's so beautiful."
"We are proud of it, doctor. Your admiration is appreciated. Now…" T'Challa tapped a panel in the wall and opened the door to a small wardrobe-like cabinet. From inside it, he handed Tessa a small bracelet of a bright grey metal. It was perfectly smooth, except for the clasp in the shape of a letter Tessa didn't recognize. "You are a royal guest for the duration of your stay. While the security in the palace and the grounds is high, you will be allowed with this pass into the science wing and all our libraries. It is also the key to your apartments. Ms. Romanova knows the guest wing, I'm sure she will show you the way. And, should you require my attention, a member of my Dora Milaje will acknowledge your request and have your needs seen to. I know you are here heal Sgt. Barnes, but I hope, during your stay, to bend your ear a few times. There is a matter I believe will be greatly clarified with your consultation."
"Of--Of course, Your Majesty. I would love to help. Es--Especially with all this…this far too kind hospitality. I'm at your disposal. This is… so… so… generous…" Tessa trailed off when Natasha gently bumped into her elbow.
T'Challa was grinning, obviously having noticed Tessa's nervousness. "All this decorum, doctor. Relax. Enjoy yourself. I am the king, but I am also one of you, or I hope to be. I want my involvement with the enhanced community to lay the groundwork for my nation peacefully rejoining the international community. We cannot truly do that when we are hampered by the obeisance of hierarchy and strict manners." He held out his hand and helped to secure the bracelet on Tessa's wrist. "There. Welcome to my house. Make yourself comfortable. And, call me T'Challa."
"So, T'Challa, will we see you at dinner then?" Natasha asked, making Tessa jump a little.
"Oh, of course. I would not miss the chance to get to know you as you are, instead of as your professional reputations."
"Excellent. You're in for a treat, because I'm fairly certain Barton is absolutely determined to find a way to make pizza here."
T'Challa looked thoroughly confused. "But, we do serve pizza at several commissaries. It is a frequent request from the children of Western guests."
"Yes," Natasha snickered. "I know this, but Barton doesn't. I'm waiting to see what he does."
"Camaraderie and pranks," T'Challa also chuckled. "I look forward to seeing this less serious side of your team. Well. Tessa, I should not take for myself any more of your time. I am sure you are eager to meet Sgt. Barnes. Natasha, a pleasure as always. I will see you both this evening."
With a deep nod, he clasped both their hands and then turned away, the Dora Milaje appearing at their sides immediately and escorting them back out to the public sectors of the royal hall. As soon as they were alone again, Tessa sighed heavily and began subconsciously tugging at her hair.
"Goodness. Was he that attractive last I met him? I don't remember him being that attractive. And his bodyguards! Good god, it's like they're all supermodels here. Is it hot in here? It's hot in here, isn't it?"
Natasha exhaled sharply and quickened their pace. "Come on. I'll get you to your quarters. You need a cold shower and a dose of cool down pheromones from Drew."
"I know I'm about to have an event, but have I ever told you your hair is just… gorgeous?" Tessa twirled one curl around a finger as they almost jogged across another sky bridge.
"No. No, you haven't actually. Thank you."
"You're--ouch!" The electric shock to her shoulder left Tessa tasting pennies.
"Keep it together, Bisho." As they rounded a corner into a long, expansive hallway, it almost looked like Natasha was smirking. "What did Murdock do when you went disinhibited?"
"Mmm, Matt… He has red hair, like you."
"Wrong question," she sighed, shoving Tessa's arm towards a door and then pushing her inside. "At least this one's drunk college student level instead of wolf in heat… for now. Can you get into the shower, please?"
"Come with me?"
"Yeah, sure." Natasha turned on the water to cold and moved to step inside the shower, dancing Tessa into the stream fully clothed instead, and then locking her in the bathroom. As Tessa howled her displeasure, Natasha leaned against the door and pulled out her phone. "You'll thank me for this later! Barton? Bring Drew to the east guest hall. Tessa's having a moment and needs some soothing."
"Oh, no. Our king is most attractive, there is no arguing that. It is a fact."
"Thank you, Wazini. I didn't think I was being that unreasonable." Tessa smiled appreciatively as another glob of conductivity gel was smoothed over her forehead.
"Not at all. Wouldn't you agree, Sisipho?"
"Undoubtedly. Though His Royal Majesty is most handsome, I admittedly prefer his sister, Princess Shuri."
"He has a sister?" Beside Tessa, the young cryo technician nodded her head. Tessa sighed, "I'm in trouble…"
"Perhaps, Dr. Bisho, we can attempt some palliative treatments for this subthalmic nucleus disturbance you're experiencing?" Wazini bobbed into her field of vision, smile bright and eyes wide with excitement. "Next time you feel such inhibitive passivity, come to my work station! I'll record it and run simulations!"
"Yes, but then I'd have to make a fool of myself in front of someone in your lab…"
"Oh, of course, you require some sort of stimuli. Let us ask the director of combined development, Andile. Everyone agrees he is very attractive."
Sisipho stopped notating biostats long enough to look up and nod again. "Indeed. It is generally accepted."
"I'm sorry, I think I was unclear. This is something that I'd like to avoid. The last thing I want to do is get a reputation around here for being the sex-crazed Westerner."
"We cannot help seeing you as a Westerner, Dr. Bisho. Your accent, you see, is unmistakable." Sisipho, while not the enthusiastic wellspring of pure joy Wazini was proving to be, had her own kind of humor even now, just ten minutes into meeting Tessa. She winked and turned back to the stasis monitor.
"Sisipho is only joking. I understand, but do not worry, Dr. Bisho. We have not this stigma over sexual expression. It is a healthy exhibition of natural impulses that should be acted upon when one wishes if it is appropriate to the circumstances. Situational restrictions apply, obviously, but we do not subscribe to the belief that sexuality is inherently shameful in any regard. Only the abuse of it, as with most things."
"Oh…" Tessa stared at the numbers and symbols filing past on Sisipho's screen.
In her extended silence, Wazini left off braiding away a section of Tessa's hair and applied more gel to the exposed scalp. "We might bring in Fezile. He is an Olympic champion."
"Or Cikizwa. She is… she's lovely." Sisipho stopped typing and gazed off and out the window. Tessa followed her eyes and found nothing except a response, finally.
"Well… if that's the case, I don't think it would need to be someone in particular. Not here. Here everyone's so… healthy. It's like walking into a health spa the size of a country. Catch me at the right moment and I'd probably go head over heels for anyone."
Another slather of gel applied, Wazini set aside the jar and carefully slipped a band onto Tessa's head over the conduction points. "Nonsense. Certain persons are objectively finer specimens than others. And therefore more likely to elicit a reaction. What about the king's cousin, Luzuko?"
"I heard moments before you came here that Nceba has mentioned you. She is the obvious choice."
Sisipho spun around in her chair at Tessa's question. She looked absolutely incredulous. "A left shield of the king? Of the Dora Milaje, His honor guard, elite of elite? You apparently made an impression with your boldness. Did you really touch her?"
"Oh… I shook her hand. Only now do I realize that was presumptuous…"
"Incredible. And she let you. Khunjulwa, a right shield, was entirely affronted, but she is a proud woman and her sacred duty means more to her than to most. It is to be expected. But, Nceba… You must have impressed her. Yes, she is the obvious choice. And there is a high probability she would honor you with an evening, or several. Outside of duty she is said to be most affectionate. From what I've heard, she sings, too."
"Mzukisi's daughter gives massages. They are lovely," Wazini added quietly, attaching sticky nodes behind Tessa's ears.
"You've been with Qaqamba?"
"We spent several weeks together. She helped me work through the development of the antimatter containers. Her endurance, both mental and physical, is outstanding."
"Ooh, what are we doing? Gossiping?" Out of nowhere, the sing-song cadence of Drew's voice bounced off the cryotubes around them. Before they could look around for her, she'd rolled up in another technician's chair. "Have you seen Bathandwa today? Did us all the extreme favor of running around the lake in basically nothing. Yum."
"Ms. Jessica. You cannot be here, I fear. Your pheromone emissions will disrupt the process, and my readings." Wazini had immediately held up a surgical mask to Tessa's face. From where, Tessa couldn't have said. As Drew skidded to a stop beside them, Wazini began spraying some kind of odorless aerosol all over her instruments.
"Poo." Drew waved the aerosol out of her face, a full on mope churning up. "I just wanted to talk about hot people. Though, seriously, Bathandwa. Amiright?"
Tessa looked away from Sisipho's silent and slightly star-eyed expression, turning to its recipient instead. "You exploring an open relationship with Clint?"
"No, just gossiping. Cool it, T. Like I said before, I'm glad you're back to normal now. It's a huge, enormous relief that I didn't know I needed. You're a cool lady and I… enjoyed what we did before, but--"
"That's… not what I meant." Pushing Drew's hand off her shoulder, Tessa carefully inspected her own lap. "Just having a… a normal conversation… or trying to."
"And I pissed on it. Got it." With a click of her tongue, Jessica began rolling herself backwards. "Alright, ladies, I'll just being going then. I need to surgically remove the foot from my mouth. I swear, it's like Clint's thing is contagious…"
"Come to the cryolabs whenever you want, Ms. Jessica!" Sisipho cried out after her, finally having found her voice again apparently.
"It's her pheromones, Sisi."
"No, it's her sumptuous hair and unrelenting energy." She kept watching Drew until both her and her hair were out of sight. "So, have we decided on someone? I must admit, I think Nceba is the clear frontrunner, especially if you've already caught her eye."
Tessa had watched Drew leave as well, though her attention was on something else, on what she'd said. Suddenly, this whole conversation made her feel sick, like it was gnawing at her insides. "I… ffff-- I can't. Thank you both for this. I almost felt normal again, but I came here to… not to-- I can't. It wouldn't be right. I'm not ready. There are… so many reasons. Um… how are we looking with Barnes? T-minus how many?"
Sisipho brought up a countdown, her expression verging on a frown. "The defrosting sequence has five more minutes left. We would understand if you excused yourself until then. We made you uncomfortable."
"No, no. My life makes me uncomfortable. You were just being friendly and wonderful. I'll… I'll be back in four."
Clint was in the refreshment room when Tessa skittered inside. He turned and looked at her and then frowned at the other door. "Did you put Jess's foot in her mouth?"
"She… did that herself."
"That's what I thought, but she tried to blame both you and me for something just now and I didn't follow. Hey, you look slimy and unhappy. What's going on?"
Tessa helped herself to a cup of water, which she proceeded not to drink but rather swish around and stare at. "Would you…would you say that I run away from my problems, Clint?"
"Uh… no? I mean… you run away from some, but don't we all? At least you pick and choose the right ones."
"What do you mean?" She asked, sinking into a chair.
"Oh, you know the saying, choose your battles. Not to get all intellectual on you, but… battles… problems… same thing, right? You run away from the ones you can't solve. Strategic retreat. That makes good sense to me. You think you're running away right now?"
"I literally left my home with every aspect of my life there riddled with problems. And I came here, where I don't have those problems. That's running away, like when I left Avenger's Tower and went to live with Jess. The problems I left there with you guys didn't go away, they just waited for me. I… I came onto Natasha earlier."
"Oh, I know. But that's… that's small time. She's used to it, she isn't bothered by it. You're important enough to her that it doesn't matter. And uh… not to just, you know, school you while you're slimy and unhappy, but I'm pretty sure we're still friendly now because you left. Hot heads cooled down and I can hug you without it being weird. See?"
Tessa harumphed into his chest. "You're getting conduction gel on your shirt."
"It's seen worse. You feel better?" Clint held her out at arm's length and squinted at her face. "You look better. Well, what'd'ya know? Maybe I can do something right. Watch out world, this perennial fuck up just did something right. Wh--Ugh. Now that I think about it, watch your back, Tess. This may come back to bite us both in the asses."
"Change your shirt, Clint. I don't want your skin getting electrocuted off or something." She rubbed at the gel on his arrow and turned for the door. "And thanks… that was… helpful. The others don't appreciate enough how smart and insightful you are. That's their loss… And… uh, Clint? You know that they make pizza here in a few places, right?"
"What? Oh, yeah. I know that. I'm just playing along with Nat's prank. The joke'll be on her in the end. I'm just ordering a bunch from the dining hall and doing zero work. It'll be great."
"King T'Challa will being coming."
Clint's eyes flew wide open. He dropped the small pastry he'd just bitten into. "He's coming to dinner?"
"Yeah. Natasha mentioned it to him. He's excited."
"Shit. She…She out-pranked me. Again! Shit. You know how to make gourmet pizza?"
Tessa scoffed, stepping back into the lab. "Try the internet. You've got about five hours…" There was definitely scrambling behind her as she walked back to Barnes' cryosuite. She was just in time, too. Sisipho was engaging the decanting sequence when Tessa sat back down.
"He will be disorientated and groggy for a few minutes. We must keep him partially sedate until it is certain he is of sound mind. Captain Rogers made it clear this kind of cryostasis was used on him before during his cerebral recalibration stage. There may be lingering triggering effects to the resuscitation."
"Okay." Tessa took a deep breath, trying to clear her mind while Wazini took a few base line readings. "Whatever keeps everyone safe."
"You do not know him." Sisipho considered her for a beat and then smiled sadly. "It is easier for you, then. Good."
"What?" Tessa looked up as the chamber decompressed in front of them, cold air briefly surrounding them. Steve Rogers' face blipped in front of her vision and a crippling jolt of anguish took her breath away. "Oh… my god. He was here for this? Of course he was here. Of course… Oh my god…"
"But you are here to make this obsolete." Wazini's hand clasped Tessa's shoulder warmly for a moment. It was a kind gesture, but Tessa's head was spinning.
This was Rogers' anguish. Barnes was the reason she'd picked up so much pain and guilt from him all those months ago. He'd been pining to save him, determined to save him at any cost, and he had. Barnes was alive but he was broken. Broken beyond knowable repair and safety. And so, Rogers had had to say goodbye to him again because he couldn't help him anymore. This was a tragedy. Tessa couldn't fathom putting someone she loved on ice and waiting for a cure. She couldn't begin to understand it. She could only compare it to her own experiences, but those wounds were still fresh and even the comparison felt reductive and selfish. This had to exist alone and Tessa needed to face it independent of herself, do it and Barnes and Rogers justice for exactly what it was.
She stood and slowly stepped onto the chamber's platform with Sisipho, and finally wasn't feeling bad for herself. All her attention was on the man in front of her and how to help him. She couldn't get a clear read on him yet. He was clearly still coming out of stasis, not to mention the sedatives in his system. Tessa stood back as Sisipho checked his vitals, palpating his stomach, dilating his eyes. After a moment, when his chest was rising and falling regularly and his head stopped lolling, she stepped away and waved Tessa towards the chamber.
"Involuntary systems are stabilized. He will be conscious in a moment, I believe."
Tessa nodded and edged closer, to his left side. She wondered how he lost the arm, figured that would become clear soon enough. Another thought occurred to her soon after, vexed her. Shouldn't Rogers be here? Shouldn't he be the one waking him? It was too late for Tessa to act on these concerns, though. Barnes sighed a few times, the deep breaths just before waking. She steeled herself as the memories began stirring, as his eyes opened and blinked in confusion. There was surprise in his expression, then alarm, but he didn't struggle. He hardly moved, certainly didn't test his restraints. He simply turned his head, assessing his surroundings and then looked Tessa dead in the eye.
"Not here, Sgt. Barnes. I'm sorry."
Now the cuffs and bands strained slightly. "Is he alive?"
Tessa nodded her head quickly, resisting the urge to back away. "Yes. Yes, he's fine. He just couldn't be here right now. I don't think. I haven't seen him since I arrived, but he did ask me to come here to help you. And you've only been stasis for a few weeks. He… couldn't have gotten into much trouble in that time, right?"
At the change of her tone, Barnes looked away, laying his head back again and dropping his shoulders. "I shouldn't be out yet. You've made a mistake."
"No… No, we haven't. See… I'm something of a memory specialist. I misspoke before, Captain Rogers didn't send me here just to help you. He asked me to cure you. And cure you I will." Tessa glanced back at Sisipho, who nodded gently and then began typing furiously. "How do you feel? Would you be comfortable if I released you from your restraints?"
"It's probably safer for you if you don't." He was sullen and soft spoken, and determined not to make eye contact again. Tessa felt like she understood him immediately. It helped that she'd been scanning his memories this whole time. As much as he was scared of himself, it seemed to her he wasn't currently a danger.
"I don't plan on triggering your sleeper programming, so I think we're safe. Besides, I'm invulnerable."
That actually got him to look at her again. "You're--You've been… enhanced?"
Tessa nodded, beginning to unfasten the straps Sisipho had disengaged. "You could say that. That's how I'm a memory specialist… You know, maybe I should stop telling you only half the story and go ahead and introduce myself. My name's Tessa Bisho. I house a cosmic entity called Mnemosyne, who is… memory."
"That's a little more than enhanced," he replied quietly, stretching his arm, now free. "I can see why Steve sent you… Were you busy before, or are you new? I've never heard of you."
"Heh. Um… I'm newer on the scene, but not new. I was busy when you two came here and I didn't get a call. For good reason. To be honest, everyone's scared shitless of me almost everywhere. I think everyone was pretending I didn't exist for so long they almost forgot."
Barnes leaned forward, good arm on a knee and looked her over. "Should they be scared?"
Tessa shrugged. "Probably. Just as scared as they should be of the rest of us. I didn't choose this life, didn't volunteer for the power, if that helps your opinion of me at all. But… now that I have it, I'm trying to do what the others are doing, like Captain Rogers. Like I bet you want to do. Like right now. I'm going to strip that HYDRA nonsense from your memory, so you can be comfortable in your own skin again."
"It's gonna take more than that to be comfortable in my own skin again, Ms. Bisho." He cut an eye to his left and then slid onto the floor, standing. "I'm Bucky, by the way. Please don't bother with 'James' or 'Sgt. Barnes' or any of that shit--uh, sorry… Formalities make me twitchy."
"I understand. Is this because those were the names HYDRA addressed you by, before giving you a new one?" When he seemed to seize up and his face locked back down, she quickly continued, "I only ask because I'm checking to make sure the memories I'm reading off of you match what you yourself remember. My process is going to be invasive, though. I should apologize about this beforehand."
"That… makes sense. Half of me thought you were full of shit. Guess you still could be… those were pretty obvious." Barnes stepped down from the platform and followed Tessa over to the small sitting area they'd set up beside a window. He was cautious the entire time though, moving like he was walking through a minefield.
Tessa nodded and sat down. He was back to avoiding eye contact. "I wouldn't trust me either, I guess. Would it help if I had… Barton come in, or Romanoff--"
"No. Is Wilson here?"
"I… have not seen Sam Wilson, either. I'm sorry, Bucky. Would it help if I demonstrated my abilities? Not like fortune-telling, spouting random moments from your past. When I was assessing you before, I notices some jumbled memories from around the time of your initial injury and capture. I could put those back in order very easily. It would take… not even a second."
Barnes' brow unknitted and he sat back in his chair with a sigh. "I couldn't really stop you, could I?"
"I'm not going to perform any kind of therapy on you, Bucky, that you do not agree to beforehand. That's not how I work. Captain Rogers wants you better, but that's not enough. You also have to want to be better. It's your mind."
"Are you a medical doctor, Ms. Bisho? You talk like one of those head shrinks."
"I have a doctorate… not in psychology, but I am certified as a counselor in the state of New York. I have a memory practice, this is the conversational approach I have developed. I've found it to be successful with most patients. I'm a little rusty, though, so feel free to suggest changes."
"Rusty? You stopped while you were busy?"
Tessa had worked with patients like this before, the deflectors. They usually led back around to their own problems organically in the end, so she decided to roll with it. "I stopped for about a month, while I was busy. Yes."
"Busy, like… moving house or busy, like on assignment?"
"Are those my only options?" Tessa chuckled lightly, but Barnes didn't share her light mood. He continued staring at her, expressionless. There were two ways she could go with this. She could lie, or rather, continue lying and say she was on assignment, high security, and leave it at that. Or, she could just tell him the truth. The choice was obvious, so Tessa drew a deep breath and continued. "I was hunting down a victimizer from earlier in my life and along the way I became consumed by a dark magical object. I was not myself when Captain Rogers first intended to ask for my help."
For five beats, his eyes rested on hers, unblinking. Then, he nodded. "That I believe. He experiment on you, kill your family? The man you were hunting."
"He… did experiment on me."
"Give you those purple eyes?"
"No, that would be Tony Stark."
His brow dropped. "'d Stark experiment on you?"
"I would expect so. I was dead before he put Mnemosyne in me."
"You're like Maximoff… Scarlet Witch."
"Well… not quite. I was made into this, but it's not magic that I do. I don't control minds or fire energy bursts from my fingers. It's more subtle, it aligns to how minds work and happens like breathing. Not manipulation so much. It's more… like harnessing the flow of a force of nature."
"Still sounds like magic to me," he said and shifted in his chair. "l guess you can go ahead and do your thing. I don't have any more questions. For now. Kind of just want to know if you can do what you say you can."
Tessa nodded and Barnes shut his eyes. She took a moment and cleared her mind again, focused entirely on Barnes. As she was doing so, he opened his eyes and shifted again, clearly uncomfortable.
"Aren't you going to… do something to me?"
"I will. From over here. Don't worry, until we move on to the more intensive work, I won't need contact with you. And I don't use any tools or machines. Just my brain."
"Oh…" he exhaled with unshielded relief.
Barnes nodded and, with just a thought, Tessa nudged the memories back into order. While he was still nodding, in fact, his mouth dropped open. His eyes found hers, wide and glassy. "That's it?"
She nodded, fighting the urge to reach out and pat his arm.
"Can you do that with the others?"
"I would love to, Bucky."
"That is entirely up to you Barnes," Natasha announced, standing beside their chairs a little under four hours later.
Tessa was dabbing at the sweat on her forehead and upper lip, still unused to her powers without magical aid. Barnes, though, looked almost more energized. He glanced at Clint standing a few steps behind and then at the rest of the lab, now bathed in the rich warm tones of an early sunset.
"Will it be safe for everyone else?" He eventually asked.
Natasha nodded towards Tessa. "Well, she can temporarily neutralize you with a thought, so--"
"Maybe, but she won't. Too much guilt. Who else?"
"I'll be here for tonight, then back in the wind. Barton will assist Bisho as long as she's here. Jessica Drew is staying for another day. Oh, and, of course, T'Challa and his royal guard."
Barnes was shaking his head, eyes still wandering over the room. "And all these civilians?"
"Are around, yes."
"It's not worth it. Put me back under."
Tessa sat forward quickly. "Bucky, I'm worried about any degenerative effects the cryostasis may have on the work we've done today. You've made a lot of progress and we're in a secure facility. It's nigh on impossible you will be triggered here. I need three, maybe four more days with you off the ice and then it won't even be something that'll be eventually necessary. Don't risk backtracking, please."
"We'll call Rogers."
His eye flitted immediately off of Tessa and onto Natasha, then back again. "Fine. But, the moment you sense something is off, you tell the others," he almost pleaded towards Tessa.
"Of course, Bu--"
"Come on, Barnes. What are you even going to do without the arm? No offense."
"You don't want to know." Barnes didn't even look at Clint as he responded. He stood and held out his hand to Tessa. "You're not as invincible as you claimed to be. You're exhausted."
Tessa let him help her to her feet. "I never said I was invincible. I said I was invulnerable. I literally can't be wounded. But… I can be worn out when I use the same cosmic power that maintains my biostasis in energy-expensive ways, like unscrambling your eggs. Also… I'm pretty out of shape. I did just rely exclusively on an immensely powerful magical item as fuel for the past month or so."
"We telling everyone that you let a rock eat your soul?"
"I felt an open and honest policy was best with someone entrusting their mind to me," Tessa shot back at Clint. "And it wasn't my soul… What now, Natasha?"
"I need to call Rogers. Then, I'll approach T'Challa, ask his opinion on Barnes's situation. He might have a preference for certain things, but we prepared in case it became unsound to put you back in stasis, Barnes, once Tessa was here. There will be no resistance from him, perhaps just some extra security--"
"--and as for you two, Barton will host you for now, I think. I'm sure he could use some help prepping for all those delicious gourmet pizzas he's making for dinner." She grinned wickedly in Clint's direction and then slipped off into the bustle of the lab.
"You know how to make pizza, Barnes?"
"My family was Irish," he answered flatly and then stared at Clint like he was obviously stupid.
"You're both useless."
Tessa gave a weak shrug and then followed Clint as he slouched off, Barnes keeping to pace right behind her. About a hallway and a quarter out of the lab, she looked over her shoulder and whispered, "this isn't a combat situation, Bucky. You don't have bring up the rear or escort me. Come on, walk with me and Clint."
"Habit," he grumbled and moved into step with her. "You shouldn't have let me walk behind you at all. You were exposed."
"I'm not afraid of you, Bucky. That's the thing." She gave him a small smile and then tilted her head, noticing his slightly halting gate. "Can we get you something to weight your left shoulder? Balance out your carriage?"
"T'Challa had an arm in the works," Clint interrupted. "Maybe he'll have that for you soon."
Barnes cleared his throat, shaking his head. "It's a relief not having it for now. That much less of a liability."
"Tess is gonna keep helping you, Barnes, and eventually you'll have to accept that you're not a liability at all. Then, you'll have to enjoy yourself and accept it when people are being nice to you."
"I'll accept it then, once I've earned it."
Clint sighed. "I don't have the energy for this. Between the two of you… it's just-- I have to hate myself, too, you know? You're not really giving me a chance."
"I'll be the optimistic one for now, Clint," Tessa chirped, patting his arm. "Now that I'm not so drained, I'm feeling pretty proud of what we did today."
"Good. You're in charge of making sure I don't fuck up the pizzas in some depressive fit of self-loathing."
"You got it."
Despite all inclination and evidence to the contrary, the pizza dinner was not a disaster of comedic proportions. All pranking set aside, Natasha had arrived in time to offer her help only to find that it was not needed. Clint was actually, after all his years of subsisting solely off of it, pretty good at putting together the basics of a pie. Drew had really come in clutch, though, sauntering into the pre-Natasha madness of the kitchen and suggesting that they make it a 'choose your own toppings' deal. It was genius, really, taking away the pressure of making a topping combo worthy of a king, which had been making Clint sweat and lose the ability to speak in complete sentences. Bucky had worked as a kid in a bake shop, pizza dough or not, so he took care of the dough proofing. Sauces already simmering, Clint had focused a significantly calmer energy on chopping and shredding, while Tessa floated between the two of them to lend a hand where it was needed--sometimes literally. Natasha's arrival found them bickering over dough rolling, but otherwise ready to start topping pizzas. Beyond that, Clint knew how to work a grill and how to read internet instructions. The personalized pizzas had turned out delicious.
The food had been great, the company light-hearted and enjoyable and yet, Tessa had found herself standing alone out on the balcony as soon as she could excuse herself. It wasn't that the apartment provided to Clint had been too small and crowded and noisy. The rooms were spacious, the kitchen shared between his and Natasha's lodgings large and airy. Things hadn't been too warm, Tessa hadn't been menaced by disinhibition, but still she sought the solace of the early night air. Around her, the grounds of the palace complex still breathed with life. Trees in front of her seemed to whistle and chirp, many feet below her water rushed and laughter floated up. The balcony stretched along this wing on either side of her, unimpeded, only disappearing as it rounded corners. Along its stone expanse, squares of light shone, chairs creaked, other guests spoke quietly. Tessa wasn't any more alone out here than she had been inside.
Still, here she had retreated and now leaned against the railing, chewing her lip and glancing at the phone in her hands every few moments. Its screen never lit up, no tone chimed from it. Tessa would simply look at it, compulsively, without opening the dial pad or her messages, and then return to staring into the trees. The decision was eating at her.
"I prefer the crisp light of day…" Tessa hadn't heard him slip out onto the balcony, unsurprisingly. T'Challa sighed gently as he leaned against the railing beside her. "The colors, the bustle and music of progress, activity, it's invigorating… but, the smell of nighttime is far more refreshing and, I find, the cool and quiet are better for contemplation."
Tessa turned her phone over, setting it face down on the bannister and closing her hand over it. "I agree… Maybe that's why I'm more of a night person… I like the lull."
"You are made of starlight now. It makes sense. … Did I interrupt your mulling?" He tipped his brow toward the phone.
She shook her head. "Just me not making a decision."
"Come. Tell me--if you'd like. I may be able to help."
"It's…" Tessa chuckled weakly, "it's really not a decision worthy of your time or counsel, Your Majesty."
"Nonsense. And, I am here as a peer this evening, not a king. My ear is yours."
Tessa dipped her head and, turning her back to the night, stared at her phone again. "Alright… so, it's late afternoon at home right now. My… my friends are all probably winding down their work days right about now. This would be the right time to call them, but… my… personal reason for coming here--obviously aside from helping--was to leave them--my friends--alone, in peace, long enough to let them heal from what I did to them… and to help me… learn to live without them, which I will have to do sooner or later. Several personal… interrelated reasons--But… but, I'm struggling. I miss them…"
T'Challa was quiet for a moment, eyes on her face, then on the sky. Then, he held out his hand. "May I have your phone, please?"
Tessa's eyes flitted between the phone and T'Challa. He smiled at her hesitation and then she handed it over, almost embarrassed. He pocketed it immediately.
"There. Now, it is not your choice anymore. I have made it for you, you may not call. What do you feel? Disappointment or relief?"
"Uh… I…" Tessa stuttered over a few responses before sagging onto the railing. "Relief…"
"Then, this is your answer." T'Challa took her hand and set the phone back in it. "You do not think you should call them, regardless of the desire. My father used this trick on me many times. He told me that sometimes we do not know what we want until the choice is taken from us."
"I… am going to have to try that again sometime, thank you." She set the phone onto a nearby table and turned back to the trees.
"My pleasure… May I ask, who were you going to call first? Lover? Confidante? Mentor?"
"I, uh… strangely do have friends that I would consider each of those things--I guess, if you count Strange--but I wasn't going to call any of them. I was going to call a, uh… fourth party, who could tell me about the others--not Strange, but… the other two… I was…cheating my own system, " she sighed and T'Challa chuckled quietly.
"It seems to me that you are already playing quite fairly by not simply checking their memories for yourself, Tessa. Give yourself some credit for accomplishments, large and small. I do wonder, though… would not this secondary friend also have been among those whom you were allowing space?"
Tessa's eyes drifted away from him and instead followed the flight of a small owl as she struggled to answer. "Well… um, yes… but, you see… uh, Rand--he's… he's basically made of sunshine. He… he would have been fine."
"Mm. And this you know for certain?"
"I… have come to assume it, because of his demeanor…" Her words trailed off when the owl darted to the ground and flapped up into the air again, something small and furry in its talons. She couldn't stare at it anymore, couldn't watch it eat this little creature's insides. As soon as she turned back to T'Challa though, Tessa sighed. It had been a weak lie, she didn't believe it either. "No. The answer is no. I just barely know the man, even less so while I've been in my right mind, and for as long as I've known him I've paid exactly two percent attention to how he feels and what he wants. No, I was rationalizing… God, he probably needs more space than the others after what I--you know what? This is not an appropriate topic for conversation for us that I'm veering off into right now. I'm sorry."
As Tessa wilted onto the balcony railing again, T'Challa pulled out a flask and offered it to her before taking a small sip. "Do not apologize. It was I who goaded you into explaining your thought process. You see, I was curious as to how someone with your power set and responsibilities went about coming to such conclusions. From your own experience or those of others?"
"Oh… I--I… mostly keep to myself, or I try to, and keep the memories of other people on mute until they're absolutely needed."
"Hmm," he hummed with a nod and leaned onto the railing, gazing out and taking another sip from his flask.
Tessa looked at him out of the corner of her eye. That aura she'd sensed there before was still around him, now it seemed to be in flux, shifting, almost whispering. "May I ask you something, T'Challa?"
"Of course." He offered her the flask once more and then slipped it back into a pocket. "Ask what you please."
"Are you curious… because of the… memory cluster you're carrying around with you now?"
"I carry memories with me? To your eye?"
She nodded and held out her hand. "I can show you, if you'd like to see them from my perspective." At his nod, Tessa pushed the memory to T'Challa and, once his eyes widened, continued explaining. "I noticed it when I got here. See the aura? Is it, perhaps, something to do with your power set? That's changed, hasn't it, since last I saw you?"
T'Challa shook his head. "I've been the Black Panther for some time now, since before we met, but other things have changed… Yes, actually, since my father's death, I am now the King of the Dead, as he was before me. The Necropolis is open to me… for solace and counsel, but I admit to you that I have yet to enter it, though it has… called to me." He looked suddenly to their left, his brow furrowed. "So, you can see my connection to it, to them?"
Tessa followed his gaze and squinted, almost seeing a trail of that same aura leading off from T'Challa directly west. "Yes… I can see it, if I focus. But… even more, I can feel it here, just around all the time, like it's… a… another generator nearby and I'm all charged up and the electricity is zapping back and forth, feeding off both. When you're nearby it's more frenzied, like you're a conductive metal and it wants to jump to you as well."
"Hmm… Another strike against my doubt," he seemed to mumble to no one in particular, then turned to Tessa again. "A very fascinating insight, Tessa, I thank you for sharing it. I must consider what you've told me further. In fact, this may be the best moment for me to say my goodbyes, go contemplate this revelation. But… if it would be amenable to you, I would like to take more of your time on another occasion to pursue this topic further. You could very well provide the answers to the questions I've been asking lately."
"Oh, of course. I mean, you did as much for me tonight, I'd be happy to repay the favor."
T'Challa smiled warmly at her and, nodding deeply, turned back to the apartments. "Goodnight, Tessa."
"Goodnight… Your Majesty…" She watched him through the wall of glass panes as he made his way through the rest of the dinner party, smiling and exchanging a few words. It was with Barnes that he spent the most time, seemed the warmest and most supportive. It had been the same during dinner, the two had spoken most with one another quietly and somberly. Tessa didn't know the story there yet, but she would in the next few days. Once T'Challa disappeared from view, Tessa turned back to the deepening night. She had exactly a minute and a half of quiet before Clint slouched against the railing beside her.
He pushed a beer into her hand and then cracked it open for her. "You stewing in your shit out here?"
"Trying to… some people keep interrupting me, though. Are you going to be as insightful and persistently helpful as the king?"
"Oh, hell no. I burnt that skill point earlier today… on you, as I'm sure you remember."
Tessa scoffed, pushing around perspiration from the can on the rail. "You can be insightful and helpful more than once a day, Clint."
"It's gotta recharge, and getting that energy is really hit or miss. I certainly don't hold my breath waiting for it. So… what is it you're stewing in this time? Guilt? Regret? Heartache? D, all of the above?"
"D…" she grumbled.
"Mmph. Too bad you can't get drunk," Clint said into his beer, finishing it off and then hoisting himself onto the railing. "I could do something really stupid, hurt myself, take your mind off of it…"
Tessa grabbed his belt, when he tried to stand up on top of the railing, and yanked him back down onto the balcony. "No! No, you're doing plenty right now, as it is. You don't need to accidentally commit suicide by acting like an idiot."
"Who said it would be an accident?" He mumbled and took the untouched beer can from Tessa.
"Clint… That shit's not funny. And what about Drew?" Tessa tipped her chin at her, inside, making bedroom eyes at Clint from over Natasha's shoulder. "As it is, she may strangle me with her hair for keeping you from her. What would she do if you were incapacitated on my account? Uh… on that topic, she's, uh… especially feeling the amore with all the pizza pies, right? Or am I misreading something?"
Glancing over his shoulder, he sighed and somehow sunk lower onto the balcony railing than Tessa. "Honestly? She's bored stiff here. The naked wrestling's all that's keeping her from going insane until she's deployed again. And just barely."
"Oh, such a burden, keeping a lover busy," Tessa scoffed.
"Seriously, Tess… it's not just Wakanda she's bored of either…" He shrugged when Tessa looked at him incredulously. "I mean, seriously, did you think a guy like me could keep a lady like that interested for very long? It was just the novelty of it for her after you amscrayed, and then it was the intrigue during all the in-fighting, but now that that's settled down she's… just not… into it anymore. She's trying to keep it together with the way she knows still works between us, you know, to be polite, but I can see it when we actually try to hold a conversation, or do anything fully clothed. I'm boring her."
Clint looked even more deflated than normal. Without even prying, Tessa could feel that his sense of self-worth was about as prodigious as an old raisin. Among his all-time lows that she'd witnessed. Tessa patted him on the back and put on her warmest voice. "I've seen you come back from worse. Your life shits on your head on the regular and you crawl back to your feet every time. You're basically a professional comeback kid by this point, right? You'll be okay, eventually. And, hey, at least you had a good run for a while there. It wasn't a total bust. I mean, I know that you had some serious fun while it lasted."
As she bumped his elbow, he met her eye and nodded. "True… All very true. And now, I'm not having any fun--or I won't be very soon and everything will just be shit and a long climb back up."
"Yeah, yeah," Tessa sighed, the optimism fading from her voice and giving way to the sullenness that had been slowly but persistently impinging upon her mind that evening. "Join my pity party. We'll rent an old community center to throw it in, or some other place that smells like must and corn chips inexplicably. I'll try my best, but all the snacks will be stale and the beer flat. Geez…"
Clint groaned into his hands and then dropped his face onto his arms. The air was still and quiet between them for several beats. The owl had finished its meal by this point and Tessa followed its flight over the treetops again. Beside her, Clint eventually stood back up, and turning around, leaned back against the railing on his elbows. With a nod towards the brightly lit interior behind her, he did his best not to sound paralyzingly depressed by changing the subject.
"So, you're not going to put the moves on Barnes, are you?"
Not the best change of subject.
It caught Tessa entirely off-guard. "That… came outta nowhere. What? Um, no? No. No, I'm not… Why?"
"Okay, good… It's just--He just seems like your type, you know?"
"Really?" Tessa furrowed her brow, turning around to also look inside at this person who was apparently, but unbeknownst to her, her type. "Do you think I have a type? From observable data, you've discerned a pattern in my attractions that can constitute a type?"
"I don't know 'bout all that fancy jargon, but… I do see a pattern, Tess." When she just stared back at him Clint continued, "you have a definite type. You'll see it if you look at your sexy decisions collectively."
"Well, he doesn't have red hair, so… no. He doesn't fit, sorry."
A small bark of a scoff escaped his mouth so hard it almost whistled. "No… no… You're too close to see it. Here, I'll help. Your type--I mean, sure, you have a soft spot for red heads, but no… your type is broken and brooding."
"I am no--"
"Listen." A finger stopped Tessa's reflexive denial and then was held between them. "First, Tasha. She uses it like armor, but she's definitely broken emotionally. Also, not exactly what you'd call… chatty. Then, there's… uh, me. Obvious train wreck--and the non-functional ears. That covers the broken. Oh, and I cover up the pain with broody sarcasm. Classic psych thing. And Murdock… do I even need to go through it? The man's blind and hardly says more than three words when he's not in court. So far as I've noticed, and I notice a lot. Add that to your traumatized and surly best friend--who I have a feeling you haven't hit on but thought about it--and you've got yourself a pattern." He ticked off four of his fingers and then waggled them in Tessa's face.
"Drew and Wade don't--"
"Both broken, no contest. I could make a case for special kinds of brooding, but I won't because you're grasping for straws. It's a type. You fall for it hard every time. And, Blue Eyes inside checks all the 'must-have' boxes with some to spare. He's doubly broken and doubly brooding. Seems like a no-brainer that you'd make a few passes at least."
Clint may have made a pretty solid, evidential argument, but the thought had actually never occurred to Tessa. Not even a little bit. And that was saying something. As she looked inside, Tessa had to concede that Barnes was beautiful and definitely stirred that urge she had to help, with the doleful eyes and haunted expression. All the same, though, he felt unapproachable in that regard, like he had all signs turned to 'closed for business'. He just didn't read as available, maybe he was too broken. Regardless, Tessa--not even in her most uninhibited state--didn't think she would attempt to engage him as anything other than a platonic friend, and even that would be after some work. He was bristling with emotional armors of all kinds.
Tessa shook her head. "No… Sorry, Clint, but I think you misread this one. Not that I think your type theory is unfounded--which we'll have to discuss some other time, but Barnes isn't on my radar, if you will. First, he's a patient, so no. And also, no because of my own reasons. And then, no because--not that it matters since it's a null point, but it does occur to me as a relevant factor otherwise-- I'm almost one hundred percent certain I'm not his type."
"Mm. Yeah… He is pretty stuck on Cap, huh?"
"I'm not gossiping about a broken man's memories, Clint," Tessa sighed and cut an eye his way. When he shrugged sheepishly, she kicked away from the railing and shuffled away from the night. "Actually, I'm done gossiping, period. Let's go back inside. I imagine we've got some serious kitchen clean-up ahead of us…"