Chapter 1: Prologue
"The Black Panther? Seriously?" Clint Barton tossed the file in his hand onto the desk. "Who comes up with this shit?"
"Very nervous natives on the edge of the Congo river basin,” Coulson replied in the same unflappable tone that Clint loved and hated by turns. “There have been whispers for years, all the way back to the SSR and before, but they’ve gotten louder recently.”
Clint snorted. “Half man, half animal, protector of a supposed nation of people who don’t exist. Why exactly is Fury sending us to Africa?”
“Because I studied enough anthropology to pass as a professor researching native cultures,” Coulson replied.
Figured. Clint had a fifth-grade education and Coulson had studied anthropology, of all things. “And I fit in how exactly?”
“You’re my research assistant,” Coulson replied.
“Like I know fuck all about being a research assistant.”
“Your job is to keep the absent-minded professor focused on his job and keep him out of trouble,” Coulson elaborated. “Well within your skill set. And if you happen to also be a bit of hired muscle for protection, well, that’s an added bonus in the uncharted wilds of Africa.”
Clint huffed. “Fine. But don’t expect me to know anything about anthropology.”
“You don’t need to know anything about anthropology, Barton. You know people and that’s far more important in this instance.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” Clint replied. “I gotta go see a guy about whatever a fucking research assistant in Africa should be wearing. I’ll catch you later.”
He offered a half-assed salute, more than he’d give anyone else, and strode out without waiting for a more formal dismissal. He headed back to his quarters at SHIELD headquarters D.C. and flopped down on the lumpy single mattress to stare moodily at the ceiling. What the fuck had he done to Fury to draw this particular assignment? Days, weeks, hell, months in the Congo in close proximity to Coulson, watching him be all sophisticated and shit as he studied native interactions, or whatever the hell anthropology was. He’d probably be all casual too, instead of in his usual suits, meaning Clint would have to suffer through glimpses of strong forearms and broad shoulders not hidden beneath tailored suit coats. Oh, and no tie. That was practically naked by Coulson standards. And he’d have to do it all without giving away how hot he thought his boss was because even if they weren’t at SHIELD, it was a SHIELD mission and while Coulson might unbend enough to fit into the cover, he’d never unbend enough to forget who they were or why they were there. And even if he did (he wouldn’t, but even if he did), he’d take their cover too seriously to abuse his power as Clint’s professor, any more than he would abuse his power as Clint’s handler. Never mind that it wouldn’t be an abuse of power at all since Clint had been head over ass for the guy since they started working together. No, Coulson was too goddammed honorable to take what Clint would give him willingly.
Not that Clint blamed him, not when he could do so much better than an ex-carny, ex-mercenary assassin. Clint knew his own worth all too well, and it wasn’t as a research assistant. Coulson was right about him being hired muscle. SHIELD pointed him, and he fired like a good little assassin and left everything else for the analysts and senior agents. At this point he only even asked for details on the mark out of sheer stubborn fuckery. Short of another Nat, he’d take out whoever they told him to, and whether they were recruiting or offing the Black Panther—assuming he even existed, which Clint seriously doubted—he’d do what Coulson told him when the time came.
He grabbed his burner phone, the one he’d managed so far to keep off SHIELD’s radar, and texted Nat.
I’m so fucked.
The phone buzzed back almost immediately.
When aren’t you?
Fuck you too. Open-ended mission, just me and Coulson, in the Congo. Kill me now.
Nat didn’t reply for so long Clint thought she’d just given up on him (or was coming to actually kill him. He never knew with her) when the phone buzzed again.
The Black Panther? Watch your back.
WTF, Nat? Not you too.
Watch Coulson’s back if you won’t watch your own. His back, Barton, not his ass.
Clint flushed at the jab because he’d watch Coulson’s ass all day any day if he could get away with it, but still…. I know my job, Romanov.
Then do it. The rest will take care of itself.
Clint tossed his phone into his bag and stalked out of the room. Damn sneaky Russian assassins, always thinking they knew everything and only sharing it in cryptic little dribbles designed to drive him fucking crazy.
He’d go to Africa, he’d do his job, and he’d prove for once and for fucking all that the Black Panther was a myth. Then maybe he’d get some peace and could go back to fighting real enemies. Like AIM or the Ten Rings or whatever Hydra wannabe popped up this month. You know, everyday normal shit.
As soon as Barton closed the door behind him, Phil slumped down in his chair, all pretense of formality or professionalism gone. Any other time, he wouldn’t dare, but after his outburst Barton wouldn’t be back, so Phil didn’t have to worry about anyone catching him without his bland mask in place. He seriously considered calling Fury and using their long friendship to beg off. They had a deal. He got one free pass a decade, one mission he could refuse, no questions asked, unless the world was ending. Given that it wasn’t, Nick couldn’t refuse if Phil used this decade’s free pass. He’d even have one left over if he did. Except that he’d already briefed Barton, and while Fury might not ask if Phil didn’t take the mission, Barton certainly would, and Phil didn’t have an excuse Barton would accept. Not one he was willing to share, anyway.
He’d just have to grow a pair and deal with it. Yeah, they’d be sharing lodgings while in the Congo, but if while they were in the outlying villages, they could find a house, cabin, hut, something with separate bedrooms, and if they were out in the jungle, they could sleep in separate tents. Even if he had to carry his own damn tent. It wouldn’t be as bad as some of the safehouses they’d shared over the years, even if it would probably be a much longer mission. It would take weeks, if not months, to win enough trust to chase down the rumors, and even if they managed to get out in the bush sooner than that, he had no illusions they’d find what they were looking for the first time out. The Congo basin was immense, and the rumors had their quarry showing up at locations impossible distances apart, even for an enhanced human.
He’d just have to pull his professionalism around himself so tightly that nothing could get through, not even the sight of Barton’s arms in the sleeveless T-shirts he preferred. Or his ass in the form-fitting tac pants that he wore most of the time, even off duty. He might be able to convince him the tac pants weren’t appropriate for a research assistant, but if anything, Barton would replace them with cargo shorts, and then he’d have to deal with Barton’s legs instead.
He banged his forehead lightly against his desk. He was so fucked.
With a deep breath, he sat back up and stuffed the relevant files into his briefcase. He could study them more at home. For now he needed to get out of here before he said or did something rash. Plus he had to go through his wardrobe and see what he had that would be appropriate for an anthropology professor doing onsite research. Probably nothing, but he’d do his own shopping rather than see what Wardrobe could come up with. He didn’t trust them not to kit him out in something completely inappropriate for shits and giggles.
As he drove home through thankfully light traffic, he reviewed what he knew about weather in the Congo in winter. Average temperatures ranged from low 60s to high 80s year-round, so he wouldn’t have to worry about extreme temperatures, although the humidity would be an issue. Arriving in June, they’d only have to worry about an inch or two of rain for the first few months, before the rainy season kicked back in at the beginning of spring in August. Nothing unmanageable as far as weather, which was a nice improvement over some of the missions they’d been on. July in the Sahara had been nearly as unbearable as July in Antarctica, if for different reasons. July in the Congo would be a treat in comparison.
His suits were still out of the question simply because for once, they would make him stand out rather than blend in. No, he needed something different. Light-colored linen or cotton pants, maybe one or two pairs of cargo pants for when they went out into the deep jungle, some loose short-sleeved shirts that he could button up or down as appropriate but leave untucked to catch any breeze there happened to be, and some kind of sturdy sandals for when they were in the local villages. His one pair of combat boots, broken in and unrecognizable now as left over from his stint in the Rangers, would suffice for any rougher terrain.
Of course they were the only part of the planned wardrobe he actually owned. He’d have to see what he could find online because he hated shopping. His tailor had his measurements on file, so he only had to go in once a year or so to make sure nothing had changed. His one vanity was being able to say that turning forty a few years back hadn’t changed his waistline. If only the same could be said for his hairline….
He parked the nondescript car outside the nondescript condo that was his D.C. safehouse and let himself in through the layers of obvious—and not-so-obvious—security. Anyone looking on from the outside would see another government drone coming home after a long day of work. Only another operative would realize the door handle checked fingerprints in addition to the key or that it had a panic button on the underside in case someone ever tried to force him inside under duress.
He set down his briefcase, pulled off his tie, and slipped off his shoes. Only here in the privacy of his own space could he truly let down his guard, which was what worried him most about the upcoming op. He trusted Barton with the mission, the fate of the world, and his life, but not with his sanity, and this particular mission was guaranteed to test that. He sighed deeply, stuck a frozen lasagna in the oven for dinner (God, he missed New York takeout delivery), and fired up his laptop to see what he could find. He’d dealt with his Barton-inspired obsession for years. It hadn’t killed him yet. The next few months wouldn’t be any different.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
I can't believe I forgot to thank Nicki for doing the beta on this! She does an amazing job fixing my errant (or forgotten) commas and pointing out things I've missed. Nothing I write would be as good without her.
After three weeks in the tiny village on the edge of the Congo rainforest, Clint had a solid feel for the rhythm of life. Turns out Phil—he was supposed to call Coulson Phil now, and wasn’t that a mind fuck—was right about one thing. Clint’s eyesight was good for more than lining up perfect shots. The details and patterns he noticed and catalogued out of habit were exactly the kind of thing an anthropologist would look for.
Which made the sudden current of excitement running through the village noteworthy to both his cover and the agent beneath. He kept silent tabs on the pulse of the village as he wandered in search of Coulson. He had no obvious reason to seek him out, so he kept his gait easy and his movements aimless so as not to draw attention to himself, but if anything, the charade only heightened the sharpness of his vision as he absorbed every detail.
Of course that’s when Coulson had to step out of one of the huts, looking as cool and collected in his light trousers and loose shirt as he’d ever looked in any of his suits, except that seeing his now-tanned skin taunted Clint, leaving him perpetually horny. At least this particular village had fairly sex-positive attitudes, which had made jerking off easier when it got to be too much. But even that wasn’t enough to stop his gut from clenching every time he saw his boss. He was mostly used to that, even before this mission. The hardest part wasn’t ignoring how damn sexy he looked just the slightest bit undone. No, the hardest part was seeing a new side of him. Sure, they were undercover, and yeah, Coulson was one of the best, so it wasn’t any surprise that he’d nailed his role, except Clint was pretty sure it wasn’t really a role, that Coulson was finally getting to indulge a side of himself he rarely let out, the curious, interested, fascinated with everything side. And that? That was even more smoking hot than his tanned forearms dusted with dark hair or the tufts of chest hair at the open neck of his shirts or the glimpse of strong ankles between the hem of his pants and his sturdy sandals. Fuck, he was turning into a Victorian romance novel, but he couldn’t seem to stop.
He tucked all that turmoil away and sidled up to Coulson. “Any idea what’s going on, boss?” he said, low enough not to be overheard by those few villagers who spoke bits of English. Neither Clint nor Coulson spoke Kari, the native language of the village, but most of the younger generation spoke Lingala or French, enough that communication wasn’t impossible.
“No,” Coulson replied just as quietly. “Even the ones who usually translate for me are only speaking Kari.”
Clint frowned. The crowd seemed cheerful in their anticipation, but he’d worked enough crowd control to know that moods could change on a dime. Then one of the older children burst out of the jungle, shouting in Lingala, “He’s coming! He’s coming!”
Clint knew a lot more French than Lingala, but he understood enough and tensed, ready for whoever this “he” was, feeling Coulson do the same beside him. They’d agreed early on not to carry weapons in the village, not wanting to scare anyone or run the risk of innocents getting hurt, but his hand itched for his bow. Coulson’s hand twitched too, a more obvious tell than he would normally ever allow. The crowd, though, cheered at the announcement, and seconds later, an unknown man arrived from the same direction the child had come from.
Clint bit back the gasp that wanted to escape his throat as possibly the most beautiful man he had ever seen scanned the gathered villagers with the sharp eyes of a hunter. He was taller than most of the villagers, his back straight and his gait confident. He smiled indulgently at the children who were dancing around his legs, brushing over heads with long fingers that looked like they could kill or caress with equal dexterity. His hair was cropped close to his head, the cut looking recent despite the state of the rest of his clothes. The trousers he wore, covered in dust and stains, had tattered up to midcalf, giving Clint a glimpse of muscular legs to match the muscular arms and smooth chest visible beneath the loose, open vest he wore. His gaze met Clint’s over the head of the villagers, lingered for a moment, and moved on to Coulson. Clint’s hackles rose as the man’s gaze lingered even longer on Coulson. And sure, Coulson was worth looking at, but who did this guy think he was? He strode
into the village like he owned the place, focused in on the newcomers immediately, and acted like Coulson—Clint’s Coulson—was ripe for the picking. Well, fuck that.
“Stand down, Barton,” Coulson ordered before Clint could take a step forward.
He stopped himself out of habit, so used to obeying Coulson’s voice in his ear that he didn’t even process the order before he’d acted, but he didn’t lower his guard. He was here as hired muscle as much as research assistant, and he didn’t care if that motherfucker knew it.
Phil sighed internally at Barton’s belligerence. The man hated anything and anyone who might knock him off his perch as the strongest, fastest, sexiest, any other -est. Most of the time he worried for nothing, his archery and his time in the circus having honed his body to a finely tuned fighting machine that doubled as the epitome of masculine perfection. The man currently conversing—in Kari for all that he didn’t appear to be part of the tribe—with the village elders looked like he might actually give Barton a run for his money. Not for his aim. Nobody beat Barton’s accuracy with any kind of ranged weapon, a fact that had endeared him to the hunters in the village when he went out with them the first time, but the man was certainly a fine specimen in every other regard, just the type to push all of Phil’s buttons, except for one pesky fact. All of his buttons were reserved for the irritating archer currently puffing up like a bird of paradise in a mating dance. Phil didn’t know who he thought he needed to impress, or maybe the display was automatic.
Finished with the elders, the man approached where he and Barton still stood. “I am T’challa,” he said in accented but easily understandable English.
“Dr. Phil Neiman,” Phil replied, offering his hand. “And my research assistant, Clint James.”
“The elders speak highly of you and your interest in them.” T’challa’s grip was firm but not crushing, his hand callused from use but with none to suggest a specific weapon. “They say you wish to explore the jungle.”
“Academic interest,” Phil explained easily. “I’ve discovered in my studies that what locals consider legend or folklore often has a basis in the forgotten past. Places like Machu Picchu, for example, passed out of history into myth before they were rediscovered.”
“And you think to find something like this here?” T’challa asked.
“Probably not on that scale,” Phil admitted, “but any traces of abandoned or forgotten cultures can only lead to a more complete understanding of ones that continue to exist today.”
T’challa’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded sharply. “Today I rest and bathe. Tonight we feast. Tomorrow we discuss the jungle.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Phil said easily.
“Me too,” Barton added, elbowing his way into the conversation with all the grace of a rampaging gorilla.
“Until tomorrow,” T’challa said with a slight bow.
“With me,” Phil growled once T’challa was out of earshot. Barton fell into step beside him as Phil did his best to amble rather than stalk back to the hut the villagers had offered him, more grateful than ever that they’d found a separate hut for Barton. Once they were inside, safe from prying eyes if not ears, he rounded on Barton. “What the hell was that?”
“What was what, sir?”
“Don’t play dumb, Barton. I know you too well. We just found possibly the perfect guide to take us into the jungle and you got into a pissing contest with him. I was waiting for you to whip out your dick so you could see whose was bigger.”
“He was looking at you like you were the entrée for tonight’s feast,” Barton grumbled.
“And that is your concern because?” Phil knew what he wanted the answer to be, but he was also willing to acknowledge his own delusions.
“Because I’m supposed to watch your back, sir,” Barton replied.
Delusions one, Phil nothing.
“I’m nothing more than a curiosity, an unknown face in an unlikely place,” Phil said. “Now that he knows who we are, he won’t give me another glance.”
Barton snorted. “Whatever you say. I’ll keep watching your back anyway. Something about him doesn’t sit right with me, and I’m going to find out what.”
Phil refrained from rolling his eyes. “Just don’t run him off. We need him if we’re going to make any progress on our mission.”
“Yeah, yeah, make nice with the pretty native so he’ll lead us to our deaths in the jungle.”
“Dismissed, Barton,” Phil said, at the end of his legendary patience. Only Barton could even make him break a sweat, and Barton cut through his defenses like a hot knife through butter.
Barton tossed him a half-mocking salute and left the hut whistling like he didn’t have a care in the world. Then the tune to I Want Your Sex penetrated, and Phil gritted his teeth to keep from storming after Barton and kicking his ass. Barton was a sarcastic shit at the best of times, but Phil had never known him to be cruel.
He might have to revise that assessment.
Thank you for the kudos and comments! They keep me writing.
T’challa accepted the mug of linguila Bondeko, the village chief, offered him and reclined easily on one of the woven mats scattered across the open area at the center of the collection of huts. With the sun sinking toward the horizon, the temperatures would drop quickly, and the large fire would be welcome. He had bathed and rested, and now he was looking forward to the feast. From the smells wafting about the village, the women had made moambe, a treat he rarely got unless he was here or went home for a visit.
Movement along the outskirts of the crowd caught his attention, and he looked over, not rising from his supine position, but ready to pounce if necessary. The two foreigners he had met earlier were there, not imposing, but present. He studied them discreetly as they drifted along the edges of the gathered throng. Dr. Neiman and Mr. James. Phil and Clint. Outsiders interested in ancient lore and hidden ruins. That could make them many things. Academics—Nieman mentioned research assistant, although James clearly fulfilled more than one role in the man’s life—or treasure hunters were the two most obvious, but that could be a cover for other things as well, more nefarious things.
Poachers, slave traders, bounty hunters… he’d seen them all and more, although the shady ones usually gave themselves away quickly enough, and he sensed none of that from these two. If only he could put his finger on what he did sense.
“Come, eat, T’challa,” Lisanga, Bondeko’s wife, urged. “You must be tired from your travels.”
“Thank you, honored mother,” T’challa replied with a deep bow of his head. “Your welcome is as generous as ever.”
He rose from his seat and helped himself to the moambe and saki saki before returning to his place. Around him the village children laughed and played tag, tumbling over and around each other like so many leopard cubs while the adults looked on indulgently. No one seemed at all bothered by the outsiders, but T’challa did not drop his guard completely. The village was so remote they still had little contact with anyone outside the neighboring villages, and even then, only rarely.
The two men stood together, clearly comfortable in each other’s space, and a blind man could have seen James’s reaction to T’challa’s presence. A gorilla marking its territory had more subtlety than the blond man with his broad shoulders and thick chest. Neiman had named him research assistant, but T’challa knew a fighter when he saw one. James would make sure Neiman went home safely. T’challa could respect that in a man, especially in the jungle, but it didn’t make him trustworthy, only shockingly attractive. He could hear Shuri laughing at him now. His sister always said his interest in outsiders would be his downfall one day. He had never wanted her to be more wrong than in the moment when she appeared most right.
Transferring his attention away from James—the man had the eyes of a serpent eagle and no doubt claws to match, and T’challa had no desire to be caught staring—he focused on Neiman instead. Where James was all outward brawn despite the keen intelligence in his eyes, Neiman was his foil: smooth, unassuming, with a kind face and kinder eyes, but T’challa recognized the calluses on his hands and the way, even in sandals, he kept his balance on the balls of his feet, ready to move in any direction with no warning at all. He might be an anthropologist now, but that had not always been his calling, not to hold himself as he did. If James was a bird of prey, swift and precise, Neiman was a forest cobra, alert, intelligent, and deadly—and able to pass largely unseen until he struck. T’challa had learned respect for both at an early age, and eagles mated for life.
The children demanded his attention then, bringing a smile to his face as he forced his thoughts away from the outsiders and back to more important matters. Like the peals of laughter when he caught one of the children and swung her over his head.
“My turn, my turn,” they all shouted, clamoring around him. He laughed with them and swung them all in turn.
Phil suppressed the sigh that wanted to escape. He still didn’t know what had possessed Barton earlier, but his assumption had been farther off the mark than Phil had ever know him to be. T’challa might have given Phil a passing once-over when they met, but it was Barton who caught his eye during dinner.
He still didn’t know who T’challa was to merit the celebration currently going on in the village, and all his attempts at asking had resulted in the same incomprehension and a repetition of T’challa’s name, as if not knowing him was impossible.
That alone raised Phil’s suspicions, but he might have let them slide with the understanding that things were different here if it weren’t for the way T’challa kept staring at Cli—at Barton. Phil knew that hungry look all too well. He’d seen it on the faces of men and women all over the world, always directed at Barton right before they made a move on him. He imagined his own face would look much the same if he let his control slip for even an instant.
He could imagine it all too easily. He’d seen Barton shirtless too many times to count, and given the number of missions they’d run, he’d seen him naked a time or two as well. T’challa had traded his torn pants for the loose skirt-like wrap the men wore when in the village, leaving his torso completely bare. His biceps and shoulders couldn’t rival Barton’s—it would take a god to do that—but the firelight reflected off his sheen skin and limned his muscles in gold. Phil wouldn’t blame Barton one bit if he took T’challa up on the offer in his dark eyes, and what a sight it would be! Two alpha men in their prime, vying for the upper hand.
Phil had to avert his eyes and think of the half-eaten water buffalo carcass they had stumbled upon the last time they went out with the hunters to stop his traitorous cock from giving away the direction of his thoughts, but damn, what he would give to be a fly on the wall if they did end up fucking.
Not that he had a snowball’s chance in hell of that. Neither of them had any reason to give him a second glance when they could be wrapped up in each other instead.
“Ebote mingi,” he said automatically when one of the children offered him food. He consoled himself with the thought that the mission would end, and when it did, Barton would report back to SHIELD with him. T’challa might get him for a night or a season, but in the end, his loyalty to SHIELD would win.
Clint finished his saki saki, glad once again that the villagers had so many different ways to prepare cassava, and faded into the shadows cast by the flickering light of the bonfire. Something about T’challa didn’t sit right with him, and not just the way he was still looking at Coulson like he as the best thing he’d ever seen. (Okay, so Clint looked at him the same way. Sue him. Phil was the best thing Clint had ever seen, but T’challa didn’t know Coulson well enough to realize it.)
He couldn’t put his finger on exactly what was bothering him, though, so he settled with his back against one of the huts and simply watched, letting the details filter through his vision until he could find the pattern. The villagers clearly knew T’challa well, given the way the normally shy children clambered all over him, demanding his attention. It had taken days before they would even meet Clint’s eyes, much less approach him. Then Lisanga came to check on him—for the third time, Clint’s memory provided—and that was the clincher. People checked on Lisanga, not the other way around. She was the headman’s wife, the most important woman in the village. The only person she waited on, and then only rarely, was her husband.
Clint’s gaze sharpened and focused in on T’challa’s bearing and mannerisms: the confident way he swung the children around, no hesitation in his gestures, just the complete surety that his body would do what he wanted it to; the way he reclined on the mat when the children left him alone, outwardly as carefree and relaxed as he could be, but with the harnessed power of someone who could spring into action at a moment’s notice; the regal nod of his head when anyone brought him anything, as if he was as used to being served as he was to fending for himself.
He acted like a lion, surrounded by his pride.
Son of a bitch.
He needed to talk to Coulson, and he needed to talk to him now, but he’d been an asshole earlier in the day and Coulson had been avoiding him ever since.
He’d fucked that up and good. But they were supposed to talk to T’challa tomorrow about guiding them into the jungle. Clint would hold his tongue—he could be silent when he had to be—and wait for the outcome of that meeting to corner Coulson. He’d have the excuse then of needing to discuss supplies and who would be packing and carrying what. And in the meantime, he’d show that fucking cat not to mess with a hawk.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
The story begins to earn its rating...
Phil had just shed his shirt and was about to step of his pants when he heard a telltale rustle behind him. He spun around and glared at Barton, who stood there in the inconstant light of the guttering oil lamp.
“Barton. I didn’t expect to see you again tonight.”
“You know me, sir. Always turning up where I’m least expected,” Barton replied jauntily, but the tension in his shoulders belied his jovial tone.
“Did you need something, or were you just testing whether you could sneak up on me?”
“I don’t care what he says, T’challa isn’t just a jungle guide,” Barton said.
“We’ve been over this—”
“No, boss, just listen,” Barton interrupted. That in itself was unusual enough to catch Phil’s attention, but the look on Barton’s face cemented it. Despite Barton’s reputation for insubordination and backtalk, Phil had learned to listen when Clint said it was important.
“Talk to me, Barton.”
“On the surface, it all adds up. He comes into the village wearing beat-up clothes from days or weeks in the bush, but he’s clearly not some random wanderer. I mean, there was the excitement of him being here in the first place, which is odd in a village that doesn’t seem to have much traffic in or out. He’s not from here—not the right tribe—but he speaks their language, which is considered on the verge of extinction. They throw a feast in honor of him showing up, and okay, maybe they just wanted an excuse to have a party, but then, and this is what really got me, Lisanga herself kept checking on him. I don’t know who he is, but he isn’t just some jungle guide.”
“Theories?” Phil asked, because Barton raised some valid points.
“I’d say someone of rank from another tribe, but then why would he pretend to be a jungle guide?” Barton replied. “Why not show up with an entourage and all the pomp of an embassy?”
“Because it’s not an official visit?” Phil suggested, playing devil’s advocate as he always did when they tossed ideas around. The return to something akin to normal soothed the restlessness that had overtaken him at noticing how closely T’challa had been watching Barton and vice versa. At least now he knew Barton’s attention stemmed from suspicion, not interest.
Not the time, he scolded himself.
“Then why come at all?” Barton shot back. “He was too interested in you to have a girlfriend in the village.”
Phil ignored the repeated assertion of T’challa’s interest. He hadn’t won the argument earlier. He wouldn’t win it now either. “Even village elders have to earn their living somehow, and out here, there aren’t a lot of options. Being a guide would be a good way to earn some money and have an excuse to drop in on other villages. He could learn all kinds of things without anyone thinking twice about it.”
“A jungle spy,” Barton said, clearing pondering the idea. “I suppose that’s possible, although he’d have to be damn good not to make anyone here suspicious. They obviously know he’s not one of their own, but they welcome him with open arms. It just doesn’t add up. I mean, if they thought he was a spy or there was any chance of him being one, they wouldn’t be so excited to see him. Bondeko smiled at him. I didn’t think he could smile at anyone except his grandchildren.”
Phil laughed despite himself. “You might be right about that one. He’d give Fury a run for his money in the dour and intimidating department. So not a spy, at least not in any covert fashion, but that doesn’t change the fact that he needs to earn a living, and if he’s guiding people into the area around his tribe, he can control who goes near them. Out this far, there aren’t a lot of tourists. If they’re here, they’re either adventure seekers or they’re bad news.”
“Or they’re SHIELD agents,” Barton added.
“Or that, but he’s definitely not a SHIELD agent.”
“No, but he moves like he’s trained to be one,” Barton said. “Did you see the way he constantly scanned the edges of the village? He looked all relaxed and half drunk on the sugar cane wine, but if you looked close, he was all bunched up, like a cat ready to pounce. All he needed was a reason.”
“Looking closely, were you?” Phil asked archly.
“Looking at things is my job,” Barton retorted. “Well, and shooting things, but you haven’t given me the go-ahead to shoot him yet.”
“And I’m not going to unless he proves to be a threat to one of us,” Phil replied. “So he’s a jungle guide and a warrior. And maybe something more. Does any of that change our decision to ask him to guide us into the jungle?”
“I guess not,” Barton said. “I’d feel better if I thought we could trust him, but I’ll just have to sleep with one eye open.”
“You do that anyway.” In the years they’d worked together, Phil had never known Barton to sleep deeply anywhere outside of his own quarters unless he’d been drugged into it. “All we can do is keep our wits about us and see what comes of it. Unless there’s something else, Agent, I’d like to get some sleep.”
Barton’s gaze raked over him from head to toe, making him feel much more naked than he should while still wearing pants and a T-shirt. “Maybe I should stay here and keep watch.”
“Now you’re being ridiculous. Save the hyperawareness for when we’re in the jungle.”
Barton opened his mouth, probably to protest again, but Phil’d had all he could take. “Dismissed, Barton.”
Phil turned his back. Barton would leave or not, but he was going to sleep. He waited until he heard the slight rustle that presaged his leaving before unbuttoning his pants and climbing into his bedroll in his briefs and T-shirt. He’d deal with everything else tomorrow.
T’challa stood in the door to the hut he used when he came to the village, cloaked in shadow. He had retired early, claiming fatigue from his journey, but sleep eluded him. For as long as he could remember, he had known where his future would take him, but he had never expected that when it brought him here, it would offer him everything he longed for only to show him he could never have it.
Tradition dictated he would find not one, but two people to share his life, to support and balance him, for only once in all their history had a Wakandan leader found everything he needed in only one person. T’challa had accepted that as he had accepted that the mantle of his father’s leadership would one day pass to him. That it would happen so soon, not at his father’s death but at Zuri’s death, had been less expected. He had not imagined that loss would have a double cost: not only the absence of a beloved family member, but also the loss of stability Zuri’s support had given T’chaka all these years.
Today when he shook Neiman’s hand, his whole body had lit up in primal recognition. He had not shaken James’s hand, but he hadn’t needed to. The look of pure challenge in his eyes had been enough to set T’challa alight. He had thought to court them properly, but how to do it now that he had confirmation they were lovers? Bad enough that they were foreigners, unfamiliar with his people’s customs. Bad enough as well that he would take two male lovers with no way to produce an heir. But to approach these two men, already together, on top of everything else—it seemed impossible.
He rolled his neck and stepped deeper into the shadows so James would not see him as he slipped silently into Neiman’s hut. No matter. T’challa had always thrived on challenges. He would find a way to win them over not only to him but to his people and their ways. They wanted a guide into the jungle to see things no outsider had ever seen. T’challa could give them that.
If they proved themselves worthy of his trust.
No sounds filtered through the humid night air to feed his imagination, but he didn’t need them to know exactly what was happening inside the mud brick hut not far away. He could see it as easily as if he were a fly on the wall—James tearing at his clothes in his impatience to get naked, Neiman slowing him down with gentle hands and whispered admonishments not to rip the fabric in his haste. James would slow down, because T’challa had already realized James would listen to Neiman even when he listened to no one else. Their skin would gleam in the moonlight filtering through the trees, splashes of white against the darkness, as they kissed.
T’challa groaned at the image and pulled loose the knot holding the fabric around his waist. Naked now, he stretched out on his sleeping mat and ran his hand over his chest, imagining them touching each other the same way. He had seen a glimpse of hair at the collar of Neiman’s shirt, and he could imagine James carding his fingers through it, smoothing and shaping it like so much wool. Would Neiman’s skin be sensitive beneath the protection of that hair? He liked to think so. James would take advantage of it if it was. Like the eagle, he would exploit any advantage he could find, but Neiman would enjoy being captured. Who wouldn’t enjoy being cradled in James’s strong arms, protected from anything that might try to tear them apart?
T’challa slid his hands lower, circling his erection and moving down to cup his sac. They would be naked by now, wrapped up in each other, rocking together as they sought completion. It would be easy to imagine James on top, but T’challa found even more appeal in the reverse, in James’s strength yielding to Neiman’s, of him offering up his body as the feast it was for Neiman to gorge himself.
He gripped tighter, pushing himself toward completion as the image of Neiman thrusting slowly, leisurely into James’s willing body floated before his eyes. If he were there, he would find the spot where they joined and lavish attention on both of them with all the reverence he could summon. The joining of bodies and of lives was sacred to his people, and he would show it with every touch, every kiss, until nothing remained but the final pinnacle and then bliss.
With a sigh, he climaxed, ropes of white spattering across his belly. He slumped back against the sleep mat and stared blindly toward the ceiling.
Shuri was right. They would be his downfall for sure.
Back in his hut, Clint leaned against the cool brick and tried to calm his body down. Coulson had been down to his T-shirt and about to take off his pants. Damn, why couldn’t he have gotten there fifteen seconds later? Just long enough for Coulson to have stepped out of them so Clint could get a good look at him in his briefs. His hands itched to touch as it was. He wasn’t sure he’d have been able to stop himself from touching if he’d found Coulson undressed that far, but fuck it all, maybe that’s what he needed to do. Maybe he just needed to go for it. Yeah, Coulson could do better, but he hadn’t. It had been a good two years since he’d dated anyone, as far as Clint knew, and that relationship hadn’t lasted more than a couple of months.
He could sympathize. Finding anyone outside of SHIELD for more than a quick fuck was a challenge with their crazy schedules and the necessity of keeping secrets, and Clint’d had enough of sleeping with his coworkers only to have gossip do the rounds again about how someone was tapping Hawkeye’s ass.
He missed sex, but more than that, he missed the closeness that came with it, the companionship of being with someone for more than just the time it took to get off. That had been fine when he was twenty, but he was thirty-five now, well past the stage of wanting nothing but meaningless sex.
Coulson was the kind of man who would give Clint everything he needed if he was interested, but Clint couldn’t figure out how to find out without jeopardizing their friendship and their working relationship. As much as he wanted more, he couldn’t lose what he had with Phil now. He just couldn’t.
He took a deep breath and settled onto his bedroll. God, he’d been in the field so long he even missed the crappy mattress in his bunk. He was getting too old for this shit.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
I just got back major edits for one of my pro stories, so there probably won't be another chapter until next weekend. Sorry, guys, but I've got to make a living.
After breakfast the next morning, when normally Clint would go out with the hunters and Phil would sit with the elders and try once more to ask questions that would net them useful answers in their quest to find more information about the Black Panther, Phil summoned Clint to his side with a sharp nod of his head and approached T’challa.
“Good morning.” Phil offered T’challa a cup of the instant coffee he had hoarded carefully since their arrival, limiting himself to one cup a week.
“Good morning,” T’challa replied. He took the cup and inhaled deeply before taking a sip. “Even instant coffee is a treat in the bush.”
Phil didn’t need to turn his head to feel the satisfaction radiating off Barton. He’d been right. T’challa had traveled far enough afield to have come across instant coffee. Chances were, the rest of Barton’s observations would be just as accurate. “I hope it’s a welcome treat.”
“Most welcome. Bondeko speaks well of you. You ask interesting questions and are respectful of their answers. Tell me what you seek to see, and I will do my best to guide you there.”
Phil shot Barton a quelling look before he could blurt out more than they wanted to reveal. “We have heard tales of an abandoned temple where a lost tribe once worshipped the great cats,” Phil said, keeping a sharp eye on T’challa’s expression. “The tales place it in a dozen or more different places along the Congo river, but most of those locations have either been explored already to no avail or are so remote we couldn’t reach them with our current grant. There’s one location that should be within striking distance from here.”
T’challa’s expression didn’t change, but Phil saw suddenly what Clint had meant when he talked about the readiness that invested T’challa’s body. “The great cats are revered by many tribes.”
“If the stories are to be believed, this went beyond simple reverence to the belief that the cat gods and goddesses had blessed the tribe with a guardian, human in form but imbued with their own strength and speed.”
“Such a belief could offer much comfort to people struggling to eke out a life in the bush,” T’challa replied.
“Indeed, that’s the function of all such beliefs. What do you think? Could such a temple exist?” Phil pressed.
T’challa shrugged. “Many things could exist, Dr. Neiman. Whether they do is another question entirely.”
“Are you going to help us or not?” Barton broke in, clearly losing patience with the delicate diplomatic dance. Phil didn’t roll his eyes. They’d played good cop/bad cop often enough. He’d maintain that role for as long as it was useful.
“As long as you understand any search runs the risk of failure, I will guide you where you wish to go.”
“Good enough for me,” Barton said.
“We’ll need today to prepare supplies, but we could leave as early as tomorrow,” Phil proposed.
“We leave in three days,” T’challa replied. “I have business to attend to before we go.”
“Three days, then.”
He excused himself, expecting Barton to follow him so they could discuss tasks, gear, and more, but he stayed where he was, gaze locked with T’challa’s. Phil turned back to the two men. “Clint, we need to decide what we’re taking with us and what we’re leaving here in the village.”
Barton waited a moment longer before turning on his heel and stalking toward Phil, who continued on to his hut and waited for Clint to join him inside.
“Well?” Phil asked when they were alone.
“He definitely knows more than he’s letting on,” Barton said. “We need to know what ‘business’ he has to take care of.”
“Don’t let him catch you,” Phil cautioned.
Barton scoffed. “Like he could. Even people who are worried about being followed only look to the side and behind them. Nobody ever thinks to look up.”
“We aren’t in New York anymore,” Phil reminded him. “There are plenty of dangers lurking in the trees. People here do look up.”
“Even if he does, he’ll never see me,” Clint repeated.
“Do it. Get your go-bag ready. You know the drill.”
“Got it, boss. I’ll be ready.”
He tossed a sketchy salute and stepped back outside. Within moments he’d faded into the bush and even knowing where he’d gone, Phil couldn’t track him. He shook his head and turned back to his own gear to sort out what he needed from what he could live without.
T’challa stayed where he was until Neiman and James were out of sight. They had played their hand subtly, but they had shown enough. It remained be seen whether they knew more than they had already said and whether they had ulterior motives in seeking the temple to the great cats. They had not called the goddess by name or even given away that they knew it was a goddess who had blessed T’challa’s people, but they had heard enough to ask some of the right questions.
He would watch them as they traveled, and only then would he decide what they might stumble across in the jungle. He could take them to any of a dozen places in varying states of decay, places his people had once inhabited and had abandoned for safer ground. They would see a culture lost to the mists of time, its guardian passed into legend. Or if they proved untrustworthy, they would see nothing at all, returning to the village safe but empty-handed. And if he found they had more nefarious purposes, well, the jungle had ways of protecting itself. T’challa wouldn’t even have to raise a hand to ensure they didn’t return.
But if they proved themselves—oh Bast, let them prove themselves—they might find more than they had ever imagined.
And so might he.
Don’t get ahead of yourself. Time will tell, and rushing now will change nothing in the end.
He had his own preparations to make if he intended to take them home. With a lightness to his step, he returned to his hut to prepare.
When he left the hut an hour later and headed back into the jungle, the usual watchfulness settled around him, a heightened awareness of his surroundings that came from all his years living with the jungle’s vagaries and dangers. He wasn’t surprised to feel the weight of a gaze on him. The jungle was full of watchful creatures, but this one was different.
He smiled softly as he continued toward the spring-fed pool a few miles away from the river. He had succeeded in catching the eagle’s attention, it seemed. Good. Let him follow and watch and learn. It could only aid T’challa’s cause.
Clint cursed silently as he followed T’challa deeper into the jungle, leaping lightly from branch to branch to stay hidden. The man moved too damn fast. As good as Clint was, T’challa could lose him if he tried. Fortunately he didn’t seem to have noticed Clint’s presence, making it easy enough for Clint to follow.
He recognized the first part of T’challa’s path, having gone that way with the hunters more than once, but when he reached the stream that cut through the undergrowth as it gurgled down toward the river, T’challa turned upstream instead of downstream like the hunters always did. Taking extra care to note landmarks as he passed them in case T’challa escaped him and Clint had to make his way back alone, he followed where T’challa led until they reached the source of the stream. Clint found a stable perch at the fork of two branches where the foliage hid him but was sparse enough to give him a decent view of what T’challa was doing.
He nearly fell from his seat when T’challa loosened the rope holding his pants up and dropped them to the ground, giving Clint the perfect view of a fucking perfect ass. Holy shit. He’d known T’challa was attractive—he had eyes, thank you very much—but he hadn’t expected that ass beneath the loose pants or draped wrap T’challa wore in the village. Now he wondered what else the man was hiding.
And thank fucking Jesus, he was going to find out, because T’challa chose that moment to turn sideways just enough to show Clint his profile. His long, naked, perfect profile with his thick, half-erect cock sticking straight out from his body.
Mouth dry, Clint worked his tongue to try to draw up some saliva, wishing as he did that he was sucking something else instead. T’challa stepped forward into the water, and even at a distance, Clint could see the goose bumps puckering his skin, but the cold water didn’t do a thing to his erection.
What must he be thinking of not to soften at all? Clint would put money on him thinking about Phil. That always got Clint hot and bothered, and nothing short of bleeding out could kill his hard-on then. Fucking cat, dragging him all the way out into the fucking jungle to do nothing more than fucking bathe. Clint was totally getting him back for this. He didn’t know how yet, but he’d find a way.
To add insult to injury, T’challa dove gracefully into the water without a care in the world, when Clint had done well to have a sponge bath since arriving because everyone from Phil to the village children warned him not to go in any body of water deeper than a puddle for fear of what might be lurking beneath the surface. It’d serve T’challa right if he got eaten by an anaconda.
Yeah, yeah, wrong continent. Whatever. It’d serve him right if he got eaten by a great big African river snake. Or a hippopotamus. Or something equally big and deadly. Except that would make Phil sad. With a sigh, Clint nocked an arrow, ready to shoot if anything threatened T’challa’s safety.
For the moment, though, the only thing disturbing the pool was T’challa himself, his body cutting cleanly through the water as he surfaced and then dove once more, giving Clint another view of his ass as it cleared the water only to disappear again beneath the surface.
The fucker was taunting him. Never mind that he didn’t know Clint was there. It was the only explanation. He was determined to kill Clint with the world’s worst case of blue balls so he could have Phil all to himself. Well, fuck that. Clint had withstood far worse torture than watching a gorgeous man swim without cracking. He’d survive this too.
After playing in the water a bit longer, T’challa waded to the shallows and sat down on a rock near the edge of the pool. He pulled some sort of plant Clint didn’t recognize from the pocket of his pants and began scrubbing at his skin with it, humming tunelessly as he did.
Clint’s gaze tracked the motion of T’challa’s hands as he paid attention to every inch of his skin, from the tips of his ears down to the tips of his toes. He set the crushed leaves aside and retrieved fresh ones from his pocket. Clint nearly gave himself away when T’challa shredded the leaves between his hands and then carefully rubbed them over his cock and balls. He didn’t seem interested in getting off, though he took his time before he moved on… to roll onto his knees, ass toward Clint, spread his cheeks, and rub over and then into his hole with the stuff. The fucking fucker was fingering himself open right in Clint’s line of sight!
Oh, the bastard was in for it. And he didn’t even stop at one finger. No, he worked all the way up to three. Clint didn’t know what was in that plant, but from the sounds T’challa was making, he was feeling no pain. Finally satisfied—okay, not satisfied, his cock was as hard as ever, but finished—T’challa pulled his fingers free and waded back into the water until he was waist deep. He splashed water over his face and chest, washing away any bits of the plant that remained, then returned to his rock and sat down facing Clint. He shifted a few times to get comfortable, rested his hands on his thighs, and closed his eyes.
He was either the ballsiest fucker on the continent or he was too stupid to live. Or both. No, definitely both. Anything could come out of the jungle. Clint would bet a year’s salary all the local wildlife used this as a watering hole. With his luck, there was a leopard just out of sight, waiting for an easy snack, and there T’challa was, serving himself up on a silver platter. And Clint was going to have to be the one to rush in and save him, blowing his cover. Fuck that. Phil would just have to come up with an explanation. Clint was so over it he couldn’t even see it behind him anymore, whatever it was to begin with.
He was demanding hazard pay for this.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
So, yeah, this happened. It wasn't anywhere on my agenda for at least another 10 chapters, which means we're all flying without a map now. (What's new, right?)
Extra thanks to Nicki this time for not letting me fall into the fandom trap of assuming a reader will know what I'm talking about just because they're a fan like me.
By the time Clint made it back to the village that evening, he was hot, hungry, and horny. And the only thing he could do anything about was to eat. Even if he went back to his hut, he’d run out of lube a week ago and couldn’t justify the trek back to civilization for more. He’d known the op would be long, but he hadn’t expected the constant provocation. Phil cocked an eyebrow at him when he slipped into camp a few minutes behind T’challa, but Clint just shook his head. He’d have to debrief later, but if he had to do it now, he’d come in his pants, and that was more humiliation than he could deal with at the moment.
T’challa had said three days. If this was only day one, he didn’t even want to think about the next two days. If he had to watch a repeat of today two more times, he’d explode for sure.
He made it through dinner and the evening festivities—apparently having T’challa there merited more than one night of dancing and drinking—without cracking, but he couldn’t meet T’challa’s eyes either. Not when all he could see each time he looked at the man was him on his knees with three fingers in his ass.
When the village had quieted for the night, Clint left his hut for Phil’s again, not sure if he hoped Phil would be fully dressed, down to his underwear, or somewhere in between. He didn’t know how much more he could take without losing it and just taking what he’d been longing for almost since they met.
Fortunately for his sanity, Phil was still dressed when Clint slipped beneath the cloth that provided him with some privacy.
“Sit rep?” Phil said.
“He went out to a pond north of here, spent a while swimming, then meditated until it started to get dark.”
“That’s… anticlimactic,” Phil said.
Clint groaned at the unintentional pun.
“Trust me, sir. You don’t want to know.”
“Talk to me, Barton.”
Clint huffed and crossed his arms defensively over his chest. “When he was finished swimming, he used some kind of a plant to… well, if it’d been soap, I’d say he took a bath. A very thorough, personal bath.”
Phil blinked slowly, his face so carefully blank that Clint knew he was trying not to laugh. “Barton.”
“Fine. I sat in that fucking tree and watched him jerk off, then work himself open with three fingers. I gotta say, sir. He’s got a damn fine ass.”
“Your opinion is noted, agent.”
“Don’t give me that, Coulson. You’re the one who pressed for details.”
Phil pursed his lips slightly. “And then he spent the rest of the day meditating, you said?”
“Yeah, the only thing missing was the chanting. Seriously- boss, cross-legged on a rock, hands on his thighs, eyes closed, didn’t move for the rest of the day. And stark naked the whole time. Whatever he was thinking about made him pretty damn happy, too. He stayed at least half hard the entire time. Never known a guy who could have even a partial stiffy for that long without getting off, but when it started to get dark, he just stood up and got dressed like he didn’t even notice, and came back here like he didn’t have a care in the world.”
“Are you suggesting you couldn’t ignore an inconvenient erection in the field?” Coulson asked.
“If I’m focused on a target, I’m not thinking about anything likely to give me an erection,” Clint retorted.
“Not even when your target is a stunningly attractive man pleasuring himself in front of you?” Coulson challenged.
“Fuck you, sir. That was uncalled for.”
“Somehow I don’t think I’m the one you want to be fucking,” Coulson replied.
Clint flushed and looked away, though he hoped Coulson wouldn’t notice the sudden heat on his cheeks in the flickering light of the oil lamp. “Like you’d lower yourself to fuck trailer trash like me anyway.”
Phil froze. Barton—Clint couldn’t have just said what Phil thought he said. “First of all, you aren’t trailer trash. We’ve had this conversation, and you know how I feel about you putting yourself down. Secondly, why would you presume to know the first thing about my taste in bed partners?”
He could feel Clint’s glare like a tangible thing even in the dim light. “Because I know you, Phil. You wear suits that cost more than I make in a month. You’re a classy guy who could have anyone.”
Phil swallowed hard. This was an opening he never thought he’d have. “And if I told you I wanted you?”
“I’d ask who you were and what you’d done with Agent Coulson,” Clint replied immediately. Phil’s heart broke for the abused boy who couldn’t believe anyone would want him. He shouldn’t do this. SHIELD regulations were clear, and while Fury generally ignored it when it happened, if anyone made an issue of it, he’d have no choice but to reprimand them both. Phil would take it and willingly, but he couldn’t put Clint in that position. He’d worked so hard to get where he was, to be taken seriously at SHIELD. He didn’t need people implying he’d gotten where he was by sleeping with Phil. But he could hear the defiant hurt in Clint’s voice, even if he couldn’t see it in his eyes right now. He’d seen it before in other contexts, situations he couldn’t control. This one, he could. Squaring his shoulders, he took a step forward until he was toe to toe with Clint, so close they were breathing the same air.
“Then you don’t know me nearly as well as you think you do.” Before he could second-guess himself more, he leaned forward and brushed his lips over Clint’s. They were rough, chapped from a day in the rainforest with too much sun and not enough water, but nothing had ever felt so good.
Clint gasped against his mouth, the puff of air all the more erotic for being real, not some fevered imagining.
“Phil?” Clint’s voice broke on the word.
“Yes, it’s me,” Phil whispered, not moving back. He’d started this. He wouldn’t push any harder, but he wouldn’t be the one to move away. If Clint wanted this to stop, he could step back, and Phil would respect that, but that would come from him. Phil refused to be yet another man to let him down.
Clint grabbed Phil’s hips and pulled him closer, initiating another kiss, which Phil returned gladly. They might have stood there all night, making out, if it weren’t for the sudden scream of one of the African leopards that hunted in the jungle around the village. They startled apart, staring at each other with wide eyes.
“Don’t say this was a mistake,” Clint begged, the vulnerability on his face and in his voice making Phil want to find his father and brother and everyone else who had ever hurt him and kill them with great prejudice. That most of them were already dead or in prison did nothing to make him feel better.
“It’s not a mistake.” Phil took Clint’s hand and drew him toward the two camp stools on the little table that held the lamp. “But we do need to talk about this.”
“Aw, Phil,” Clint whined. “I suck at talking.”
“I know, but this is important,” Phil insisted. Clint still looked grumpy as a cat in water, but he sat down on one of the camp stools, never letting go of Phil’s hand.
“Have you thought about this?” Phil asked. “I mean, thought about what it will mean. I’m your SO at SHIELD and in the field. If anyone decided to report us, Fury would have no choice but to take action.”
Clint shrugged. “And? My file is so full of disciplinary writeups it’s overflowing. One more won’t change anything.”
“He could separate us in the field,” Phil warned. “Frat regs exist for a reason.”
“He could try,” Clint replied harshly.
“Clint,” Phil chided. “At least pretend you’re taking this seriously.”
“I am,” Clint said. Phil’s face must have betrayed his disbelief because Clint leaned forward and squeezed Phil’s hand more tightly in his. “No, really, boss, I am. Look, we all know Fury isn’t going to split up the best team he has, no matter who complains about what.”
“And if they go over his head?”
“You really think the WSC cares who at SHIELD is fucking who?” Clint asked.
“No, but I think they care quite a bit about controlling SHIELD, and that means controlling the people in it. Right now Fury pretty much does as he pleases because he’s assembled a strong senior staff who support him. If the WSC succeeds in weakening that support, say by discrediting and firing one of those staff members, especially if they can prove that Fury knew about the indiscretions and did nothing, then they’d have an excuse to replace people, possibly even him, with their own lackeys. This is bigger than just you and me,” Phil explained.
“Are you telling me we can’t do this?” Clint asked. “Because if you are, then why’d you kiss me in the first place?”
“I’m telling you we have to be careful,” Phil corrected. “We can’t just rush into this without thinking it through. Not to mention, I didn’t exactly plan this, so I don’t have supplies. And even if I did, you deserve more than a hard bedroll in a hut in the middle of the Congo. You deserve a soft mattress and softer sheets—”
“Yeah, stop right there, boss,” Clint said. “I’ve never had those things in my life. I don’t care if I have them now.”
“All the more reason for you to get them,” Phil insisted. “But even more than that, we’re in the middle of an active mission. We can’t afford to be distracted right now. When we get back from the trip into the jungle with T’challa, we’ll go into town for a few days, check in with Fury, and do this right.”
“I’m not gonna be able to wait that long to kiss you again,” Clint said.
Phil smiled. “I didn’t say anything about kissing. As long as we’re discreet, I don’t see that being a problem.”
“Does that mean I can stay here tonight? Just to sleep,” Clint said. “I can get up early and go back to my own hut so no one suspects anything. Please?”
Clint so rarely asked for anything that Phil couldn’t do anything but nod. “Just to sleep.”
Clint grinned at him brightly, toed off his boots, and flopped down on Phil’s bedroll.
“Are you really going to sleep fully dressed?” Phil asked, looking down at his own T-shirt and briefs. “I’m going to feel underdressed.”
Clint stripped down to his boxer briefs—no T-shirt—so fast Phil almost missed it. They were revisiting that too, when they had time and leisure, because all that golden skin in front of him deserved to be appreciated inch by smooth inch as Phil unveiled it to his sight and touch.
Sleep now, he reminded himself. Sex later.
That was going to be easier said than done, but the moment he lay down, Clint settled in on his shoulder like he’d always slept there, slung one arm around Phil’s middle, and dropped off.
Clint had always dozed off quickly, a soldier’s ability to rest anytime, anywhere, but it had always been dozing, not deep, restful sleep. Even on long missions with the two of them and Natasha taking turns keeping watch, he never seemed to be truly asleep, waking to check his surroundings at the slightest sound. Yet here, in Phil’s arms, he appeared to be soundly asleep. Even when Phil shifted and pressed a kiss to the top of Clint’s head, he did nothing more than mumble a little and pull Phil closer. The trust inherent in that gesture left Phil boggling and swearing to always be worth of it.
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
Still in the middle of huge edits on my next book, but I'll squeeze chapter 7 in as soon as I can. Thank you for your patience!
Clint woke the next morning in charity with the world. He hadn’t slept that deeply since they left the US, which was a nice change of itself, but holy fuck, he’d slept with Phil. Okay, fine, only in the literal sense, but he’d slept with Phil fucking Coulson! Nothing could bring him down this morning, not even if he had to spend another day watching T’challa play with himself in the jungle. He had something so much better than that stupid cat to come home to that he wouldn’t even have to think before saying no if T’challa saw him and invited him to join in. Because no matter how sweet his ass looked, it would never be worth as much as a single smile from Phil.
Phil blinked awake and smiled at Clint.
Nope, not worth more than this.
Then Phil pulled him down into a kiss, and all thoughts of T’challa and his magnificent ass evaporated like mist.
“I wasn’t dreaming,” Clint said when they separated.
“Only if I was too,” Phil replied, still smiling. Clint probably should’ve been freaked out at the smile, but they weren’t at SHIELD, even if they were on a mission, and there was no one around but the two of them to see Phil with his guard down. Clint could get used to that smile. Even better, he could get used to knowing he was the only one who got to see it.
Clint dropped another kiss on Phil’s lips and settled back with his head on Phil’s shoulder. “I suppose we should get up before we get caught,” he said against Phil’s neck.
“Or before T’challa leaves on whatever business he has today,” Phil replied.
Clint groaned. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and his business today will be in the village. I really don’t want to spend another day stuck in a tree while he sits there doing next to nothing.”
Phil chuckled. “It didn’t sound like nothing to me.”
“Yeah, well, the bath/jerking off portion took about an hour. The rest of the time, he sat there doing nothing.” Except being naked and half hard and incredibly distracting, but that was yesterday, when Clint still thought he had a snowball’s chance in hell of catching Phil’s eye. Now that he knew otherwise, he didn’t want to move farther than arm’s length from Phil’s side.
Huh, maybe he could see the logic behind the frat regs, except Clint was a professional, and while he might not want to move, it wouldn’t stop him from doing his job. Phil was perfectly safe in the village. T’challa was the only unknown, and Clint would have him in sight all day.
“It does make me wonder what the point of it was,” Phil said. “If he didn’t know you were there, then he wasn’t trying to seduce or distract you, so why put on a show like that?”
“How the hell should I know? You’re the one with the anthropology background, not me,” Clint replied.
“You’re the one who was there,” Phil countered. “Think about it today if you can. Beyond the obvious, did he do anything that might give you a clue as to his reasoning?”
Clint tried to think back, but all he could see was T’challa working himself open. “I’ll think about it, boss, but nothing’s coming to mind right now.”
“Maybe today will give you some new ideas, especially if you’re watching him with that in mind.”
Clint groaned. “I really hope it’s not a repeat of yesterday. I’ve got better things to do than stare at his ass.”
“Like what?” Phil asked in his “really, Barton?” voice.
Clint couldn’t stop his grin. Phil had walked right into that one. “Like stare at yours.”
Phil swatted him on the hip. “Get moving, Barton. We have a job to do, and it doesn’t involve staring at my ass. You can do that during your off hours.”
Clint groped Phil’s ass in retaliation. “I’m going to hold you to that.”
He pushed up to sitting and turned right, then left, stretching his back. When he rolled onto his knees to stand, Phil groped him back. “I’d rather you hold me to this.”
The image of himself on his knees, much as T’challa had been the day before, with Phil behind him flashed through him, making his elbows tremble. “Fuck. Are you sure we have to wait? I swear all my bloodwork is negative, and you can take me with just spit. I don’t need much prep. Just slick yourself up and go slow.”
“God, you’d tempt a saint,” Phil groaned, slipping his hand between Clint’s legs and fondling his balls, “but we can’t. We don’t know what business T’challa has today, and we can’t let him slip through our fingers. He’s our only lead.”
Clint moaned and sank down to his elbows as he spread his legs wider to leave more space for Phil’s big hand. “Your mouth is saying no, but your hands are saying yes. You aren’t taking advantage when I’m begging. Even if you won’t fuck me, have some mercy and get me off.”
“If we lose track of T’challa today because of this….” Clint nearly broke, ready to hump the bedroll to get some relief when he realized Phil was rolling to his knees as well.
“I’ll track him, I swear,” Clint promised. “Just do it already.”
Phil grabbed Clint’s hips and shoved him over onto his back. “I’m not fucking you with just spit, but neither of us can concentrate like this.” He snugged one thigh between Clint’s, right up against his balls, and lowered his weight so their cocks rubbed together through their clothes.
Phil felt huge and heavy and so fucking good against him. Clint bucked his hips in time with Phil’s movements. He wanted to strip his boxers off and do the same with Phil’s briefs, but he’d already pushed. He didn’t want to push so far that Phil backed off. Instead he worked his hand under the back of Phil’s undershirt. As good as the skin-to-skin contact felt along their legs, he wanted more. He wanted it all, if Phil would give it to him, but for now, he’d take what he could get—Phil’s weight pressing him into the ground, Phil’s thigh giving him something to grind against, Phil’s strong back beneath his hands, and Phil’s mouth sucking on his like he needed it to breathe.
His whole body throbbed with the need to come, but he didn’t want it to be over yet. Even knowing they’d have a next time, that this hardly even counted as a first time, he wanted it to last. His body, primed by weeks of proximity, all of yesterday’s provocation, and a night of sleeping in Phil’s arms, had other ideas, though. His balls drew up hard and he was coming between one breath and the next, his shout lost in Phil’s mouth.
“Oh fuck,” Phil groaned, his breath hot against Clint’s lips. “I knew it’d be good with you, but I never thought—” He broke off as he jerked hard against Clint, his face contorting with passion as he climaxed.
The sight was nearly enough to get Clint hard again.
Phil lay there panting for several minutes before he levered himself up and rolled to the side. He reached for Clint’s hand as he did, keeping it in a tight grip.
“At least we finally convinced Lisanga we didn’t need the village women to do our laundry,” Clint quipped.
“I’m sure they’ve seen semen stains before,” Phil observed dryly.
“I thought you didn’t want anyone knowing about us.” Clint rolled to his side so he could see Phil’s expression. His eyes were closed and his face smooth of any tension.
“Who are they going to tell? And it’s not a question of what I want, Clint.” Phil opened his eyes and turned his head so their gazes met directly. “If I had my way, I would tell anyone and everyone that we’re together. I’m not ashamed of you, so get that thought out of your head right now. The only reason I’m worried about people finding out is because of our jobs, but if it’s a choice between you and SHIELD, you win, hands down. If we can find a way to have both, that would be my preference, because I believe in what we’re doing, and we do things others simply can’t, but I’ve given almost thirty years to the mission, first in the Rangers and now at SHIELD. I’ve earned something for myself too.”
Clint swallowed hard at Phil’s blunt declaration. That sounded like a lot more than just fucking. Sure, Phil had talked about a soft mattress, about Clint having what he deserved, but it had all been about sex, not about more, even with the suggestion of it being ongoing sex. This, though… if he let himself think it, it sounded a lot more like weekends spent together with takeout pizza and bad TV, like comfort after a bad mission instead of just sex after a good one, like a real relationship, not that Clint knew what one of those looked like outside of TV shows and books.
“Would Fury agree?” Clint asked. He knew they were friends and had been for years, and Phil’s concerns the night before had been more for Fury if the WSC found out than for anything else.
“Director Fury might not, but my friend Nick would if he knew,” Phil said.
“Can you tell your friend Nick without telling the director?” Clint couldn’t believe he was even asking the question, because no way he could see Fury as anything other than the director, but that was Phil’s call.
“Maybe. Let’s see how this mission goes first,” Phil replied. “If we can prove to my friend Nick that being together, even getting together, in the field doesn’t affect our performance, the chances of the director turning a blind eye go up quite a bit.”
“You know him best. I’ll leave that up to you,” Clint said. “Just warn me before you say anything to him so I can be prepared for whatever.”
“Of course I will,” Phil exclaimed. “We’re in this together, whatever happens, okay? I’ll do my best not to spring anything on you.”
And that right there was the best thing Clint had ever heard.
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
T’challa woke well before dawn on the second day of his ritual preparations. If he were at home, he would have left as soon as he could, but here in Bondeko’s village, the laws of hospitality overrode the demands of the ritual. The goddess and the ancestors would understand.
Still, he could not sit idly in his hut, waiting for the sun to rise above the horizon and the villagers to stir. Today he would hunt, but his weapons were prepared, the traditional spear sharp, so they needed no attention. Restless, he left his hut to pace along the edge of the village, stretching his senses to full awareness. Perhaps he would catch a trace of likely game. He would settle for a river hog if that was all he could find, but he hoped for a bongo or even an okapi. The larger the game, the greater the proof of his hunting prowess and his worthiness as a mate.
As he patrolled the perimeter, he heard the scurrying of small forest creatures, mice and insects, hedgehogs and hummingbirds, but nothing to lead him toward larger game. He continued his circuit, light enough on his feet not to leave more than the slightest rustle of leaves behind him. He was no longer the guide or the prince; he was a predator, already on the hunt even before he left the confines of the village.
Then a different scent reached his nose, one that drew him even more strongly than the scent of prey. He stalked closer to Neiman’s hut, following the tantalizing musk that emanated from it. On the edge as he was, he forced himself to stop a discreet distance away. Without mates to pull him back, he couldn’t afford to lose the thread of his humanity, but he gorged himself on the mingled scent of the two he desired as mates. James would follow him again today, he was sure of it, and he would prove his abilities. Neiman wouldn’t see it, but James would tell him about it. Whatever their motivation for going into the jungle, they were partners, and T’challa didn’t see them keeping secrets from one another.
He lingered as long and as close as he dared, until he was glutted with their scent and the village had begun to stir. Only then did he slip away to join Bondeko for the morning meal. James wandered up when he was about halfway done, looking in a better mood than T’challa had seen him since he arrived. He would remember that if they agreed to his suit—sex was a good way to soothe his mate. When Neiman joined them, the closeness between them was nearly tangible. They had always stood easily near each other, but something had changed overnight. T’challa would have given much to know what, but he would bide his time. He had to finish his ritual preparation before he could do anything, and then he would have days or even weeks in the jungle with them to discover everything he needed to know.
He took his time finishing his breakfast until he saw that James had finished his as well. James wouldn’t realize it, but T’challa could show himself considerate as well as capable of providing for a family. When he bowed to Bondeko and excused himself for a hunt, he caught the hint of a smile on the old man’s face.
“Shall I send warriors to accompany you?” he asked in Kari.
T’challa glanced toward Neiman and James, but they didn’t appear to be listening. “They don’t understand our language,” Bondeko continued. “They speak languages we know, but not this one.”
“Thank you for your offer, honored father, but this is a hunt I must undertake alone,” T’challa replied in the same language.
“Are you sure?” Bondekoasked. “They are not of our people.”
“And yet they call to me as none of our warriors have ever done,” T’challa said. “I will not rush into anything, but if they show themselves worthy, then they are my choice.”
“They are good men, as far as we have seen,” Bondeko told him. “It is only that they do not know our ways.”
“If they wish, they can learn, and if they do not wish, then all will be as it has always been,” T’challa replied with a shrug. “The ways of the goddess are many and the paths visible to few.”
“May she bless you on your hunt,” Bondeko intoned.
T’challa bowed in thanks before gathering his spear and knife from his hut. He didn’t bother changing into the clothes he usually wore in the jungle. When he was out of sight of the village, he would strip and complete this hunt as the goddess intended.
He took his time as he walked toward the pool where he had completed the ritual cleansing yesterday, senses attuned to the jungle as he listened for any sign of James following him. His eagle was good, he would give him that. If T’challa had been anyone else, he would not have known he was there. When he reached the pool, he stripped and folded his wrap, keeping only a thin leather strap with the sheath for his knife. He would hunt with the spear, but he could not complete the final ritual without the knife.
Stepping into the pool, he poured a handful of water over his head, a quick evocation of the purification ritual he had completed the day before, cleansing himself inside and out, physically and mentally, so that he would come to the rest of the goddess’s rituals pure. He shook the droplets from his hair and eyes, took up his spear, and studied the bank of the stream for signs of prey.
On bare feet he followed the tributary until he found the distinctive hoofprints that marked the presence of okapi. Fading into the underbrush, he crouched down and waited. Time stretched as he held position, and his senses narrowed to the wind in the trees around him, the smell of rain in the air, and the stark awareness of a pair of eagle eyes on his back. He didn’t preen beneath the gaze, though he wanted to. Instead he focused on his appointed task—to prove his prowess as a hunter so that his mates might deem him worthy of their attention.
Eventually his patience was rewarded when a small male came warily to the stream. T’challa readied his spear but waited until the animal relaxed enough to lower its head to drink. He launched the spear with all the force he could muster, grunting with the effort. The okapi started to lift its head, but the spear caught it right in the eye. T’challa leaped forward as it fell to drag the carcass to the bank. Giving silent thanks to the animal for its sacrifice, he pulled the knife from his belt and carved out the heart. He would roast it over the fire tonight, but first he had to complete the ritual. He dipped his fingers into the pool of blood and painted down the bridge of his nose, an acknowledgment of the enhanced sense of smell that aided him in the hunt. He added another line beneath each of his ears, in thanks for the acute hearing of the great jungle cats. A circle around each of his eyes was testament to the sharpness of his vision that allowed him to notice the smallest shift in the leaves that might signify danger. He dipped his hand fully in the pool of blood and placed it over his heart, signifying his desire for a mate. Finally he drew lines down the cut of muscle along his hips, arrowing inward toward his groin, a request for stamina and virility when the time came for him to claim his mates.
He bowed his head once more in gratitude for all the goddess’s blessings. Then he grasped the legs of his kill and heaved it onto his shoulders. His legs trembled beneath the weight until he locked his knees and steadied himself. This was as much of a test as the kill itself. Had he been part of a hunting party, they would have strung the beast from a pole and carried it over the shoulders of four or five men, rotating among the party so no one suffered undue strain, but T’challa was alone and preparing himself for his mates. He would bring the okapi back through sheer force of will or not at all. He took one graceless step, caught his balance, and took another, drawing on the reserves of strength and stamina he rarely touched. He was T’challa, son of T’chaka, chosen by the goddess to take his father’s place as their people’s protector and eventually as their king. The weight of an okapi was nothing next to the weight of those responsibilities. If he wished to be worthy of his name, he would do this. Failure was not an option.
“Bast, lend me your strength,” he breathed as he made his way back toward the village. Later he would return for his clothes, but until his prey was delivered to the village—to his mates, though they would not see it as such—he would remain as he was, marked only by the blood of a successful hunt and the signs of the goddess. Neiman and James would not understand, but the rest of the village would know and bear witness.
He strode into the village center to the excited shouts of the children and the cheers of the older boys who had started imagining their own coming of age ceremonies and taking their place as men. He hefted the okapi off his shoulders and let it fall to the ground. “The hunt was successful. The goddess grants her blessing,” he said in Kari.
“Seen and witnessed,” the village elders intoned.
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
Phil had seen many wondrous and unbelievable things in his career at SHIELD. It was to be expected from an organization that had its roots in Captain America. He might have even gone so far as to consider himself immured to them now, but that was before he watched T’challa stride back into the village completely naked but for a leather belt, carrying an okapi that had to weigh more than twice what T’challa did.
His analytical mind catalogued the shape and location of the bloody marks on his skin, too neat to be from injuries and too precise to be accidental, while the more mortal side of his attention fixated on T’challa in all his naked glory. The way the villagers crowded around him and the reaction of the village elders when T’challa dropped the okapi clearly indicated actions of significance, but Phil hadn’t seen anything like it from the other villagers since their arrival.
Then T’challa looked in Phil’s direction, meeting his gaze boldly, before nodding his head and turning toward his hut, giving Phil an equally unfettered view of his backside. Clint had told Phil T’challa had an ass on him. He hadn’t doubted Clint’s assessment, but seeing it for himself… Clint might have understated the situation.
Phil might have been embarrassed to be caught staring—he was the epitome of unflappable—but T’challa’s brazen manner had invited his gaze, sought it out almost. Clint’s insistence that T’challa was interested in him floated through his memory, but that couldn’t be right. What about him could possibly interest T’challa? Even with his cover as an anthropologist, he’d be leaving eventually, yet everything he knew about anthropology suggested the hunt today was a mating display. He shook his head and went to find Clint. Maybe he’d seen something that would shed more light on whatever that had been just now.
“See something you like?” Clint asked the moment Phil stepped into his hut.
Phil didn’t startle. He’d trained that reflex out of himself years ago, but his heartrate picked up a little at the sudden spike of adrenaline.
“It was a little hard not to notice,” Phil replied dryly.
“Now you see what I had to deal all day yesterday and today,” Clint said. He reeled Phil in for a kiss, which Phil gave gladly. Yes, T’challa was nice to look at—Phil wasn’t blind—but that was all it was. An attractive body. Clint was just as attractive and with so much more to offer as well.
“Sitrep, Barton,” Phil said mildly when they separated.
“He went hunting,” Clint replied.
“I figured that much out on my own. Details, Clint.”
Clint settled on one of the camp stools and rubbed his hand through his hair. It was starting to get long. Any time now, Clint would take a razor to it, if past missions were any indication, which was too bad in Phil’s opinion. He liked Clint’s hair a little on the long side.
“He left camp with a spear and a Bowie knife, although I’m sure that’s not what he’d call it, and went out to the same pool as yesterday,” Clint narrated. “He poured water over himself, but didn’t bathe per se, and then he took the spear and the knife and headed out, completely naked. I know I told you I could track him if he left before I was ready, but now I’m not sure I could have. He doesn’t move through the forest so much as he becomes the forest.”
“How so?” The description intrigued Phil. He’d have to watch once they began their trek with T’challa to see if he noticed the same thing.
“Even with the hunters from the village, there’s some sign we’ve passed. A broken twig, a footprint in mud, a string caught on a stray twig, something. But with T’challa, there wasn’t any of that. And okay, sure, no string from his clothes since he wasn’t wearing any, but he moved so lightly, so fluidly that he didn’t leave any indication he’d been through there. If I’d lost him even for a second, I doubt I’d have been able to find him again,” Clint said.
Phil thought back to his Rangers training and all the tricks they’d learned to pass unseen, but Clint was right. The training was all about erasing the signs of their passage, because leaving some sign in the first place was inevitable.
“So he went hunting,” Phil prompted.
“Yeah, he finally found a likely spot—I could see animal tracks, decent sized by the depth of them in the mud—and settled down to wait. He’d make a damn good sniper. Once he found his spot, he didn’t move until the antelope-elk-type thing showed up, and when he finally made his move, he threw that spear straight into its eye. Killed it instantly. I could’ve done the same with the bow in my sleep, but to throw a spear that hard at that distance takes some muscle as well as skill.”
“Could you have done it with the spear?” Phil asked, not because he doubted Clint’s skills but because if Clint said no and T’challa had managed it, then Phil wanted to know how.
“I could’ve hit the target. I honestly don’t know if I could’ve gotten the spear that deep, though,” Clint replied. “It was a good six inches in, and I got the feeling it didn’t go deeper because it hit the other side of the animal’s skull.”
“You think he’s a mutant?” Phil asked.
“He’s something, that’s for sure,” Clint said with a shake of his head.
Phil’s lips quirked despite his best attempt at staying professional. “Go on.”
“So he kills the thing, drags it out of the water, and cuts its heart out. I’m half expecting him to tear into it right them with his teeth, but he didn’t. He said something I didn’t understand, and I don’t think it was in the language from the village either, and then he started painting blood on himself.”
“In what order?”
Clint frowned. “He started with the nose for sure, then I think it was the ears before the eyes. The handprint on his chest was after he was done with his face, and then those damn lines pointing straight at his dick. When that was done, he picked the carcass up like it didn’t weigh much of anything and carried it all the way back here draped over his shoulders. That motherfucker had to weigh five hundred pounds, and yeah, I can squat that, or even carry it a short distance, but that wasn’t a short distance. And then he strode into the village, cool as you please, and dropped it at Bondeko’s feet like a tribute.”
“I saw that part,” Phil said. “I also heard what he said.”
“Did you understand it?” Clint asked, sounding surprised.
“No, I haven’t suddenly learned Kari overnight, but the way he spoke and the elders replied suggests they’re aware of what he’s doing and why, and that it has some kind of significance. Markings like he put on his face and body aren’t random. And to do it in blood from an okapi he hunted alone smacks of a ritual hunt. The question is why. What purpose did the ritual serve? And does it tie into the bathing and meditation yesterday?”
“Fuck, you’re hot when you go all college professor on me,” Clint said.
Phil felt heat rising up his neck at the compliment, but he brazened it out. “Focus, Barton. We need to figure this out.”
Clint snorted. “I spent the day watching a super hot guy do super hot things completely naked, and now I’m here with an even hotter guy who’s doing even hotter things, and you expect me to concentrate?”
“Don’t patronize me,” Phil ground out. He had no trouble imagining Clint’s reaction to T’challa hunting—he’d had his own reaction to watching the man return with his kill—but that was no reason for Clint to make fun of him.
Clint was suddenly up in his face, pulling Phil’s hips to slot against his own. “I know what I find attractive in a man,” he informed Phil, “and while T’challa’s pretty damn sexy, it takes more than animal magnetism to draw me in. And before you say it, who got me off without getting me naked this morning, hmm? It wasn’t him, believe me. I am right where I want to be with exactly who I want to be with. I find you incredibly attractive, and I always have. And you don’t get to tell me I don’t.”
“I still don’t know what you’re doing with an old man like me,” Phil muttered.
“Last I checked, I was trying to have a relationship with you,” Clint said. “One that will hopefully involve lots of smoking hot sex and plenty of nights spent curled up around each other too. And dinners and teasing and watching trashy TV and drinking beer and whatever else either of us decides to do when we have time off. I want that, Phil. T’challa’s hot. I’m not going to deny that, and if you weren’t in the picture, I might take him up on what he’s waving around, but you are in the picture. I don’t want a casual fuck with a stranger when I have a chance at a relationship with you.”
Phil couldn’t help himself. He had to follow that declaration with another kiss. He kept his hands on Clint’s shoulders—his fucking amazing shoulders—and stopped Clint’s hands when they would have wandered. “We still have to figure this out.”
Clint sighed. “So you think the marks have meaning beyond just showing he made a kill.”
“Yes. They’re too straight and deliberately placed to just be splashing blood on himself,” Phil said.
“Well, sight, smell, hearing, those are the senses most animals rely on when hunting, so it could be an acknowledgment of that,” Clint mused. “But that doesn’t explain the hand print on his chest or the arrows on his hips.”
“Obviously hunting is about eating, but this wasn’t just a hunt. T’challa went alone and he brought back a huge animal, far more than one person could consume,” Phil mused. “Probably more than the village could consume at once.”
“So he has an ego problem,” Clint said.
“Or he was thanking the village for its hospitality, but if that was it, why go alone? He could join a troop of hunters like you’ve been doing. Unless he has something to prove?” Phil replied.
“Like what?” Clint asked. “Nobody seemed surprised when he lugged that thing in here, so it’s not like they doubted his abilities.”
“No, but we might have if we hadn’t seen it for ourselves,” Phil said. “We’re asking him to take us out into the jungle. Maybe this is his way of proving to us that he’s capable of doing the job.”
“Not buying it,” Clint said with a shake of his head. “This is personal. The way he cleaned himself out and stretched himself yesterday, the way he painted himself with the blood. Whatever his reasons, they’re deeper than that. They have to be. Why else would he go to all the trouble? We were ready to leave right away. He’s the one who asked for the delay.”
“Something personal, then,” Phil mused. “Some sort of vision quest, maybe? Although that tends to be more associated with Native Americans than with African tribes.”
“We could try just asking him,” Clint suggested. “I mean, not telling him we’ve been spying on him, but just a casual observation about that being a big animal for one hunter and was there any reason he’d gone alone, or something like that.”
“You think he’ll tell us?”
“Probably not, but it can’t hurt to try. You got a better suggestion?”
Phil was fresh out of suggestions. He might have taken a couple of anthropology classes back in the day, but this was way beyond what they’d studied. His gut agreed with Clint, though. Whatever this was, it was personal and ritualistic and more nuanced than they were seeing, no matter how keen Clint’s vision. “Not really. If you get an opening tonight, ask, but casually.”
“I can do casual, boss,” Clint said with a mock hurt look on his face.
“As casual as a bull in a china shop,” Phil muttered.
Clint laughed, which had been his goal. “I’m going to freshen up and change before dinner tonight. I reek of the forest.”
Phil was tempted to offer his help, but they couldn’t afford to slip now, not when they finally had their first lead. T’challa might not be the one they were looking for, but he was definitely more than he appeared.
Chapter 10: Chapter 9
When Clint came out of his own hut fifteen minutes later, in clean clothes and having wiped off the worst of the sweat, T’challa had already reappeared. He’d tied a cloth tied around his hips again, but hanging much lower than usual so that the lines he’d drawn in his iliac creases were still visible.
Damn if that wasn’t worse than him being naked because now, with the cloth in the way, the lines hinted at the hidden power beneath the garment without revealing anything. Clint shook his head at himself. He’d seen the guy naked multiple times now. There wasn’t any mystery left. Or there shouldn’t have been. And yet he struggled not to stare. He’d jokingly called it animal magnetism when he and Phil were talking about it earlier, but now he wondered if he should have made it a joke. T’challa oozed sex, which made no sense. Clint had seen him practically jerking himself off and fucking himself open with his fingers. If any moment should have left Clint feeling stalked, it should have been that one, not T’challa looking at him across the village grounds now.
Except T’challa hadn’t known Clint was there then. Now he knew and was watching Clint as pointedly as Clint was watching him.
With a shrug Clint pulled up a piece of log next to where T’challa fucking lounged, insolent and on display for anyone who bothered to look. Clint shouldn’t look. He should turn away and go back into the hut with Phil. He loved Phil, and he wanted Phil. This morning had proven that beyond any doubt. Yet here he was, fighting the urge to adjust himself in his pants because of T’challa. Motherfucking, overweening cat. Preening like he owned the place and everyone had to bow down to his majesty. He had a thing or two to learn if he thought sex appeal alone was enough to distract Clint. He had a mission, and that was all that mattered. “That was a big-ass buck you dragged in here. You hungry or something?”
T’challa looked at him with an amused smile dancing around the corners of his mouth. “Or something. It seemed an appropriate offering to thank Bondekofor his hospitality.”
“Then what’s with the blood?” Clint asked. He meant to look at the marks on T’challa’s face. Really, he did. Except that those stupid fucking arrows on his abdomen were practically flashing at him. Look at us, they shouted. Look at the tentpole he’s not even trying to hide under the wrap he’s wearing. He dragged his gaze back to T’challa’s face. “I’ve gone hunting with Bondega’s warriors plenty of times and I’ve never seen them do that before.”
T’challa’s eyes flashed with something Clint couldn’t catch and would have missed if he hadn’t been watching so closely. “I am not one of Bondeko’s warriors.”
“You got me there,” Clint replied because Clint certainly hadn’t had this kind of reaction to any of them. “Is it typical of your tribe?”
“Under certain circumstances,” “T’challa said. “And before you ask, yes, this is one of those circumstances. Mr. James.”
That didn’t answer Clint’s question at all, but T’challa’s tone made it clear the subject was closed. With a shrug, Clint leaned back on his elbows, hoping his own stiffy wasn’t as obvious beneath the heavier fabric of his shorts. “We’re about to spend who knows how long in the jungle together. Think you could call me Clint?”
T’challa rose from his seat and turned the hunk of meat suspended over the flames. “If you wish, Clint. Is Dr. Neiman not joining us?”
Clint swallowed down the surge of jealousy, only half sure it was because he didn’t want to share Phil with T’challa. Pushing that thought aside as ridiculous, he focused on the matter at hand. T’challa had agreed to guide them both into the jungle. Of course he’d want to know where Phil was. And even if that wasn’t his reason, Phil had made his feelings for Clint perfectly clear. Clint didn’t need to be jealous.
“I’m sure he’ll come out when the food’s ready, if not before,” Clint replied with forced casualness. T’challa didn’t seem to notice the off note in his voice.
See, Phil? I can do casual.
T’challa checked on the meat again, bending to turn it and giving Clint a perfect view of his ass. The drape he wore might cover it, but it did nothing to hide the shape. The image of T’challa with his fingers up his ass flashed through Clint’s mind again. God, he bet T’challa was an eager bottom. Fuck. He had to think about something else. Cooking. That was it. T’challa was cooking. In fact, it was the first time he’d seen T’challa—or any of the men—cooking. Great. Another thing to wonder about. Their list of questions kept getting longer without satisfactory answers to any of them. He kept track of T’challa in his peripheral vision, all too aware of the firelight reflecting off his smooth skin as twilight fell and the jungle drifted into night. He bet it tasted salty after being in the jungle all day.
What the fuck is wrong with me? If Clint weren’t such a dyed in the wool cynic, he’d swear it was some kind of magic, but growing up in the circus had cured him of any such beliefs. He’d seen all the tricks in the book and then some. He looked around for some kind of distraction, only to find none. Usually the village children flocked around T’challa like bees to honey, but tonight they all seemed occupied elsewhere. Even Bondeko and the warriors all seemed to be eating with their own families, something that hadn’t happened since T’challa’s arrival. Yeah, something fishy was going on.
“Dr. Neiman, please, join us.”
Clint looked up as Phil approached, camp stool in hand, and took a seat next to Clint. They didn’t touch, but Clint looked his way and smiled. Phil returned it with a quirk of his lips.
“Was it a good hunt today?” Phil asked.
“A very successful one,” T’challa replied, turning his potent gaze in Phil’s direction. Oh, fuck no. He wasn’t getting Phil, no matter how hot he thought he was. After a moment he turned back to the fire again, flashing his ass in Phil’s direction. Apparently satisfied with the way the meat was cooked, T’challa pulled it from the fire and drew the knife from its sheath. He cut the meat into three pieces and offered one to Phil. Phil took it with a surprised “thank you.” Clint started to bristle, but before he could say anything—or before Phil could kick him in the back—T’challa offered the second piece to Clint.
“Thank you,” Clint said automatically. “Is this from your kill today?”
“The best piece,” T’challa replied with a pointed look. He cut a bite-sized piece from the chunk still in his hand and put it into his mouth, his gaze fixed on Clint and Phil as he ate.
Beside him, Phil went stiff. Too stiff. Something had occurred to him that Clint had missed. Whatever it was, it didn’t stop him from taking a bite of the meat in his hand, so Clint did the same. The iron-soaked flavor of organ meat burst across his tongue as he chewed. What was he missing? The villagers shared food amongst themselves all the time, and more than once, Clint was sure they’d given him or Phil the choicest offerings as a way to impress them.
To impress them… Oh, shit. T’challa was trying to impress them, but that didn’t make any sense. They’d already asked him to be their guide. Besides the fact that Clint and Phil could take care of themselves in the jungle just fine, T’challa didn’t need to win them over.
Unless it wasn’t about being their guide at all, but what else could it be? That was the only connection between them. Except T’challa had watched Phil like he was the best thing on the menu since he’d walked into the village and he’d been preening all evening. Had he gone hunting for Phil’s benefit? For Clint’s? But that didn’t make sense either. The villagers made sure Clint and Phil had plenty to eat. T’challa didn’t need to go hunting for them.
Yesterday T’challa had spent the day doing what Phil said was probably a purification ritual, one that included cleaning himself out. Then today he’d gone hunting alone and smeared blood over his heart and groin. Fuck. He was coming on to Phil. The meat that had tasted so good a moment ago turned to dust in his mouth. Except he’d given the meat to both of them. Phil first, but he’d deliberately cut the meat into three pieces and served Clint before he ate. Holy fuck, how had he missed this? Unless he had lost all touch with human nature out here in the boonies, T’challa was propositioning them. Not Phil. Not him. Both of them. Fuck, fuck, fuck. What were they supposed to do with that?
Clint had seduced information about of his share of marks over the years with SHIELD, but that was for a mission. Half the time he didn’t even have sex with them. He just got the information he needed and knocked them out or drugged them or found some other reason to call a halt. T’challa might have information they needed, but seducing him—or being seduced by him—wasn’t in the mission plan. Besides, he’d already agreed to guide them into the jungle. Even if he somehow double-crossed them, he and Phil had survived in worse circumstances than the middle of a jungle teeming with life. They could live off the land long enough to make it back to civilization if they had to. He supposed an argument could be made for them having a better chance of T’challa taking them where they wanted to go if one or both of them were sleeping with him, but that assumed such a place existed, that T’challa knew where it was, and that he’d wasn’t already willing to take them there. And it assumed they couldn’t persuade him some other way or even that sex would persuade him. They hadn’t discussed payment for him guiding them into the jungle, but they had funds at their disposal, so that wouldn’t be a problem.
Most of all, though, things had changed. He had Phil now, and suddenly the thought of having sex with someone else held no appeal. He would do it if he had no other choice, if refusing would lead to the deaths of innocents or nuclear war or something catastrophic like that, but worst case here, they’d go home with no more information about the Black Panther than they had now.
No matter how he turned it over in his head, he just couldn’t see a single thing to justify accepting T’challa’s interest, not even his own admitted attraction to the man. He’d meant it when he told Phil he wanted more than just lust. He had a chance at something real and lasting with Phil, and no matter how sexy T’challa was, it wasn’t worth throwing away that chance for what would amount to nothing more than a fling. At the end of the day—week, month, whatever—he was going home to SHIELD. He was going home with Phil.
Now he just had to figure out how to turn T’challa down without losing their guide. At least so far, it had all been relatively innocent. A shared meal didn’t have to be a prelude to seduction. Even if T’challa insisted that it was, Clint could claim cultural differences to cover up accepting by mistake. He’d talk to Phil when he could get him alone, and they’d figure out a plan.
Phil always had a plan.
Fuck, he hoped Phil had a plan.
Chapter 11: Chapter 10
For everyone who wanted to know what Phil was thinking. :D
T’challa strutted back to his hut when Clint—he’d been invited to call him by his first name—and Neiman finished the offering he’d given them. He’d made his first tribute and been accepted. Tomorrow when he faced the ancestors, he would have that much going for him. Nothing else, perhaps, given that his desired mates were outsiders, but that much. And he would cling to that for all it was worth.
And they had watched him. Neiman had been there when he came back with the okapi. T’challa had felt his gaze following him as he delivered his prize and had it witnessed, as he returned to his hut for a covering, as he finished preparations for his offering, and as they ate. And Clint—Clint couldn’t keep his eyes off T’challa from the moment he joined him by the fire. He’d preened and postured invitingly, and Clint had reacted. His clothes were not as revealing as T’challa’s own, but T’challa hadn’t imagined the erection he’d seen hiding beneath the thicker cloth. It was far less than what he wanted, but it was a workable start. If they saw him as desirable on a physical level, he could hold their interest long enough to prove his worth as a mate on an emotional and spiritual level as well.
And in two days, he would guide them into the jungle, into his territory where he could control their interactions. He would have them at his side all day and near to hand at night, close enough to show them how things could be.
Then it would remain only to see if they could accept all that he was. If they could, he would have all his heart desired.
He lay down on the sleeping mat with a smile on his face.
Zuri’s beloved voice drifted through his mind, ever the teacher of lore and legend. It had fallen to him to teach T’challa all he needed to know to one day take his father’s place. “Few could meet all of a guardian’s needs. Thus it became our way for the guardian to take not one, but two mates, each a balance to the other as much as to the guardian, in perfect unity, so that when calamity came, the guardian had the strength to ward it off but also the humanity to return home after.”
The strength to keep up with him and the compassion to draw him back to himself. His mother provided the strength and Zuri the compassion for his father. If T’challa had read them right, Clint would be his strength and Neiman his compassion. Already Clint had proven himself capable, following T’challa through the jungle, even when he was hunting and doing his best to move unseen. T’challa had heard tales as well of Clint hunting with Bondeko’s warriors. They spoke of his prowess with a bow, his aim unparalleled by anything they had ever seen. Whispers of him never missing had begun to circulate with the same reverence as the villagers spoke of the guardian. If Clint stayed long enough, he would become their guardian in the villagers’ minds, much as T’challa already was in his people’s minds. And T’challa had no doubt he could—and would—defend them if it came to that. He was not blind to the darkness that shadowed Clint’s aura at times, but T’challa had seen enough already to know Clint would not allow any harm to come to those he took under his wing.
If Clint accepted his suit, he would stand beside T’challa against any threat, lending his strength and his aim and his cunning to the fight just as T’challa would bring his. They would be a wall between their people and the world. And when the fight was over and they came home weary and burdened, Neiman—dare he think of him as Phil—would be there with the kindness that shone from his very soul to remind them of why they fought. Perhaps Phil would fight beside them as well. He had the look of one who had trained in combat, though not so obviously as Clint, but while he could fight if it came to that, he did not have a warrior’s soul. His truest calling would always be to bring them home. By any means necessary.
Now he had only to convince the ancestors of his logic and win their approval. Yes, they were outsiders, but who better to help protect against the outside world?
“Are you as freaked out right now as I am?” Clint asked as he followed Phil into his hut. Phil didn’t need the question to know how unsettled T’challa’s overture had left Clint. Otherwise he wouldn’t have followed Phil so openly.
“Yes,” Phil admitted. He set down the camp stool he’d carried back in with him and took a seat. “That was quite a show T’challa put on for us tonight.”
“I told you he was interested in you,” Clint said, sitting down on the other chair, only to bounce right back up and pace the length of the hut.
“You did, and I told you he was interested in you, and it appears we were both right,” Phil replied. “But that was more than just interest.”
Clint stopped his pacing and turned to face Phil with a frown. “Not following you there, boss.”
“Offering food he killed and cooked himself, and not just any piece, but the best piece. And then you add in the purification ritual yesterday. Don’t you see, Clint? He’s courting us. He’s not looking for a roll in the sack. He’s looking for a spouse.” He paused, then added, “Or two.”
“Like together? All three of us?” Clint asked. “But that’s….”
Phil smirked at Clint. “Hot as hell?”
Clint swallowed hard. “I wouldn’t kick him out of our bed if you were good with him being there too, but you said courting, and I’m not seeing that.”
“What’s not to see?” Phil ran his hand through his thinning hair. “He cleans himself, inside and out—but doesn’t get off—and spends the rest of the day meditating. It’s not just about cleanliness, and it’s definitely not about self-pleasure, or he wouldn’t have stopped. Which begs the question of why. Because he’s anticipating a not distant future where he won’t have to take care of those needs himself. And with two male lovers, he doesn’t know how the roles are going to shake out, so he cleans himself inside as well and opens himself a bit so if one of us is a pure top, he’s ready for us.”
“Okay, maybe,” Clint allowed, returning to the seat, “although I think that’s stretching it a bit.”
“Rituals, Clint. We’re talking about a tribe steeped in who knows how many generations of rituals. Everything has layers of meaning beyond the surface.” That much Phil did remember from his classes.
“Uh-huh. Go on.” Clint still sounded skeptical, but he hadn’t stopped listening, and Phil was just getting going.
“Okay, so he gets himself clean, physically and symbolically, ready for a new stage in his life,” Phil said. “What’s next? He has to prove his worth. He’s a warrior, a hunter, so how does he do that? By showing he can provide for a family.”
“And the blood?” Clint asked.
“Again, symbols. I don’t have them all figured out, but the handprint on his chest is obviously for his heart, and the lines on his abdomen for sex, both parts of courting and marriage. And he doesn’t just bring the meat back. He picks the best piece and prepares it himself before offering it to his chosen one, or ones, all the while bearing the marks from the hunt.”
“And we took it and ate it and thanked him,” Clint said. “We just accepted him without meaning to, didn’t we?”
“At the very least, we said we were open to the courtship,” Phil admitted. “That doesn’t mean we’ll accept him when all’s said and done.”
“Yeah, no,” Clint said. “Not unless he’s a lot less attached to his tribe than I think he is. When this mission is over, we’re heading back in to SHIELD. Kind of hard to keep a relationship going in those circumstances.”
“But he doesn’t know that part,” Phil reminded him. “To him, we’re a couple of anthropologists who would probably love an excuse to spend the rest of our lives learning about him and his people, whether they’re the source of the legend of the Black Panther or not. And if we were just a couple of anthropologists, he might even be right.
“But we aren’t.”
“No, we aren’t,” Phil agreed, “which means we have a decision to make. We need him because right now he’s our only lead. Sure, we could just head into the jungle ourselves, but we have no clue where to start searching. Nothing has shown up on any of the imaging we’ve done, even the stuff that’s supposed to map what’s beneath the canopy. If we have any hope of tracking down the truth behind the tales, it’s through him.”
“And that means being around him for who knows how long,” Clint said.
“And possibly encouraging the courtship because we don’t want him to change his mind if we turn him down,” Phil said glumly.
“That feels really fucking dishonest,” Clint said.
“I agree. Do you have a better suggestion?” Phil asked.
“Maybe see if we can get it across that we’re together and happy with each other?” Clint suggested.
“I’m certainly not opposed to the idea, but if I’ve read this right and he’s truly courting both of us, that may not be a deterrent. He only has to win us over to the idea of him, not to the idea of each other as well,” Phil said. He really wished he thought that would work. Like Clint, he wouldn’t kick T’challa out of bed if the opportunity came up, but not at the risk of this new, fragile thing he was building with Clint. He liked sex as much as the next man, but his relationship with Clint—a real relationship that would last beyond the bedroom and enrich his life as a whole—was worth far more than a bit of fun in the sack. Or a mission. This mission anyway. All that without considering that T’challa appeared to be far more invested in this than a bit of fun.
That summed it up as far as Phil was concerned, but it didn’t help them. They had a mission to complete, and the thought of failing for no good reason rankled. On the other hand, was the mission so critical that they could justify leading T’challa on indefinitely in order to complete it?
Chapter 12: Chapter 11
Don't expect this speed of posting to continue - I have edits that just came back in, but I love this chapter too much to make you wait for it.
Clint woke slowly the next morning, lulled by the warmth of Phil’s body. They’d talked more last night before falling asleep and had decided Clint would move his things into Phil’s hut so that there would be no question as to whether they were together.
Fuck, they were together. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to that idea.
“You’re thinking too loud,” Phil murmured next to him, eyes still closed.
“About that,” Clint said. “Now that we know what T’challa’s doing, is there any reason for me to follow him today? I feel bad enough spying on him as it is.”
Phil sighed and opened his eyes. “We think we know what he’s doing, but that doesn’t mean it’s all he’s doing, and it doesn’t mean we can afford to let him out of our sight. He’s still our only lead on an active mission.”
“Phil,” Clint whined.
“I know. I hate it too. The rituals are obviously supposed to be private, and here we are invading them, but we can’t let this chance slip by.” Phil rolled onto his side and kissed Clint. “But the fact that you feel that way says so much about you. Another reason I care for you so much.”
Clint grumbled a little but made to sit up. Phil’s arms tightened around him, holding him in place. “This is the last day,” Phil reminded him. “Tomorrow we leave on the trip and we won’t have to sneak around anymore. He’ll be our guide and we’ll have the perfect excuse to keep him in sight.”
“You don’t seriously think he’s Hydra or AIM or whoever, do you?” Clint asked. He couldn’t put his finger on when it had happened, but T’challa had moved firmly into the “good guy” category in Clint’s brain. Didn’t mean Clint trusted him all the way, but nothing about him made Clint worry he would do anything to deliberately hurt them or sabotage their mission.
“No, but I’ve been wrong before,” Phil replied. “And even if I’m not, he’s—”
“Still our only lead on the mission,” Clint finished with Phil. He sat up, and this time Phil let him. “Fine. I’ll follow him, but if I have to spend another day watching him prance around naked, I get a blowjob tonight to make up for it. I’ve been perpetually horny since he walked into the village.”
“Such a hardship,” Phil quipped. “I’ll spend the day working myself up to it.”
Sneaky motherfucker. Clint had intended his comment as a joke on Phil, but Phil had turned it right back around, and now Clint would spend the day wondering what Phil was doing to “work himself up to it.”
“Bastard,” he grumbled.
“I’m quite sure my parents were married at the time of my conception,” Phil drawled. “But you’re welcome to ask them if you doubt my word.”
Clint snorted a laugh despite himself. “I’m never going to win one with you, am I?”
Phil smiled from his spot on the bedroll. “It depends on what you consider winning. Now, go on before he leaves without you. I’ll be here when you get back to give you your reward.”
Clint followed T’challa out of the village again, not at all surprised when he went to the pool and stripped down. He poured water over his head like he’d done the day before and spent a minute scrubbing off the bits of leftover blood, but he didn’t hang out in the water. Instead he settled back down on the rock where he’d meditated the first day.
Great. Another day watching him do nothing.
T’challa grabbed a pouch from his belt and shook some kind of yellow powder onto the rock in front of him. He dribbled water into it and stirred until he had a thick paste, which he proceeded to smear on his face. Ten stripes: two on each cheek, three on his forehead, one on each temple, and one on his chin, all painted inward toward his nose. Next were twelve stripes on his chest, circling his heart. Finally he ran stripes up his thighs and down his abdomen, pointing toward his groin. With Phil’s lecture about rituals and symbols and the idea of courting in mind, Clint tried to guess what they might mean today.
Unlike the marks the day before, these all pointed outward—or inward. T’challa had painted them from outside to inside, so Clint went with that. So the focus was inward. Mind, heart, body? It seemed too simple, but nothing else jumped out at him.
T’challa pulled a second pouch off his belt and got out some kind of herb. He closed his eyes and chewed on it for a few minutes. Then he grew still, so still that Clint had to focus to see his chest rise and fall with his breaths. His very slow, barely there breaths. That wasn’t worrying or anything. And Clint had no clue what he’d taken so he didn’t know how to bring him out of it if he stopped breathing entirely.
He nocked an arrow and prepared to defend T’challa against anything that might think he was easy prey—or already dead. Fuck, he hoped T’challa didn’t die on him. How would he explain that to Phil?”
As the herbs took effect and he slipped into a meditative state, T’challa conjured an image of his grandfather’s face. Only once before had he sought audience with the ancestors, after the goddess’s gift first manifested, but then he had his father and Zuri to guide him. This time he had to find them alone. That would be the first test. Could he even come before them to state his case? The air shimmered around him as he slipped deeper into the trance. He was usually safe in the jungle, his gifts tricking other predators into believing he truly was the panther he had taken his name from, but today he had Clint watching him too. He would not have been safer in the heart of the temple of Bast itself.
With a smile on his face at the thought of Clint’s strong arm protecting him, he fell the rest of the way into his mind, letting all connection with the world outside his skin disappear. His awareness narrowed to the thump-thump of his heartbeat, the slow in and out of his breathing, and the gentle throb in his groin. Heart, body, soul, all centered on one goal: winning his mates.
“You risk much coming to us so far from home.”
The voice startled T’challa into opening his eyes, but it was not the familiar pool and jungle that met his gaze. Rather it was the temple of Bast, ghostly in its lines but recognizable nonetheless. “I risk nothing, honored grandfather,” he replied with a bow of his head. “I am as safe in the jungle as I am in the temple.”
“Safe from the jungle creatures, perhaps, but what of other men?”
“I am not alone. My mate—one I would call my mate—stands watch. Whether he accepts my suit or not, he will not let any harm befall me.”
“And if he is the threat? Who will protect you from him?”
T’challa bristled at the implication that Clint would somehow hurt him. “A soldier and warrior he may be, but he would not harm me for no reason. He is a good man.”
“Now perhaps,” another voice said. T’challa turned to see a woman he did not know, but he bowed to her nonetheless.
“Honored grandmother, I would take the man he is now as my mate. His past formed him, but it does not define him.”
“And his present?” she asked. “Does it define him?”
“Insomuch as it defines us all,” T’challa replied, not sure where she was going with her questions.
“He is not all that he appears,” she said. “Or perhaps he is more than he appears.”
“And I am not?” T’challa asked. “I have time to learn all his secrets and he mine before we bond. I ask only your blessing to continue.”
“You truly believe outsiders—the very men you were empowered to defend against—are your best choices as mates? Are there no worthy warriors among your peers?” a third voice asked.
T’challa bowed to the newcomer, another man he did not recognize. “There are many worthy warriors among my tribe, but while they would stand at my side, they do not stir my heart or my body. My mates must ground me as much as strengthen me. To do that, they must touch my heart. These two outsiders have done that. I look at them and I see my future. I see them at my side in a fight, in my fight or in theirs. I see Clint’s gifts supporting and enhancing mine. And I see a kindness in Phil to outshine any darkness. No matter what comes, we will face it, and we will triumph, for how can such goodness fall?”
“All too easily, my son,” his grandfather replied. “It takes only a knife in the dark or a spear gone astray. They are not of our world. Will they stay with you?”
“If they will not, then they are not the mates for me,” T’challa said, “but I could find a way to share them with their old lives if they were willing to share my life too.”
“Are you so sure? Could the memory of them alone draw you back?” the woman asked.
T’challa gave the question the consideration it deserved. The whole point of having mates was so they could do what the guardian could not and ground him in his humanity when he had given in to the animal nature of his gifts. T’challa had seen his father struggle without Zuri. It was one of the reasons T’challa had stepped into the role of guardian while his father still lived. T’chaka was still king, but T’challa would lead the fight to protect their people. If he shared Clint and Phil with their own lives, if they spent part of their time away from him, he would face the risk of having to fight without them. He had done it before, but it had been a struggle, and that was before he had met his mates. If he bonded with them and they left, would he be able to draw himself back? And if he couldn’t, would he pose an even bigger risk than the one he fought? He looked deep within himself, to the core of his humanity, and entwined with it the gifts from the goddess. He felt along the seam between them, but they were so enmeshed that he could not separate them. He was T’challa and he was the Black Panther, and one did not preclude the other. Then he conjured the image of Clint’s and Phil’s faces as they had looked the night before, pale skin turned gold in the firelight. His soul leapt toward the image, in perfect harmony with itself.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Then prove it. Change now, without their presence to ground you,” she challenged.
The demand shocked T’challa, but if the only way to win her blessing was to do this, then he would do as she demanded.
“Kitoko, no,” his grandfather said. “This is not something you have the right to ask.”
“Why not?” she said. “He asks our blessing. Why should he not prove his claim?”
“What if he fails?”
“If he fails, then we will not bless his union,” she said with a shrug.
“And he will be trapped between his two selves,” Azzuri said. “You were a guardian’s mate, but you were never a guardian. You do not know what you ask of him.”
“Grandfather,” T’challa interrupted. “I can do it. And if I am wrong, I will break off the courtship and return home. Mother and Shuri helped me the last time. They will be able to help me again. But it will not come to that.”
“I pray to Bast that you are right,” Azzuri said with a shake of his head.
Once again, T’challa reached for his inner being, the mix of human and preternatural that made him who he was. He coaxed his gifts to the surface, feeling his fingers elongate, his teeth sharpen, his muscles thicken, and his senses heighten. Because he had seen his father’s transformation, he knew the shape of his face had changed ever so slightly, that his limbs had stretched and curved, ready for a panther’s pounce rather than a human jump. He reveled briefly in the flush of power that came with allowing his extra senses free rein, but the challenge he faced was not to free his gifts, but to come back to himself after.
Once again he focused his inner eye on Clint’s and Phil’s faces, on the strength in their auras, on the shadows and light that made them who they were. No, he didn’t know all their secrets. Kitoko was right about that, but he knew the core of them. He shook himself all over, a cat shaking water from its fur, and returned to himself, fully human once more, his gifts dormant until they were needed.
“Are you satisfied, honored grandmother?” T’challa asked, unable to keep the edge of smugness out of his voice.
“They are and will always be colonizers,” she said coldly. “I cannot bless this folly, but I will not oppose it. It will be on your head if it all falls to dust.” She disappeared before he could reply.
“Grandfather?” T’challa asked, trying not to despair.
“You have my blessing, T’challa. If the thought of them alone prior to your bonding gives you that much control already, I look forward to seeing what your bond will do,” Azzuri said.
“Honored grandfather?” T’challa asked the other man, whose name he still did not know.
“As one guardian to another, I give you my blessing,” he said. “May your mates be your strength and your comfort for many long years.”
T’challa bowed deeply to them both. “I am honored by your blessings.”
When he straightened, only Azzuri remained. “Not everyone will see it as Shungu and I do,” he warned. “Many will share Kitoko’s fears.”
“Do you think she is right?” T’challa asked.
“I do not believe that she is right,” Azzuri responded, “but I do not know that she is wrong. Our gifts in death differ much as they did in life. Kitoko has been said to have the Sight, but she is not unbiased. She lost her mate and her son to defending our people against the colonizers. It is possible her bias has swayed her interpretation of what she has seen. It is also possible that the events she has seen will not come to pass. For all her wisdom, she is still only human, and the choices of each determine the paths that open before them. If you choose this path, you will spend your life defending your choices, especially if they are not always by your side. Do not let that discourage you. Your faith in them will make you stronger than others’ doubts.”
“Thank you, Grandfather,” T’challa said.
“Now go. Your mate grows anxious.”
T’challa grinned at his grandfather. “Then I should return to him.”
“I expect not to see you again for many years.”
T’challa bowed once more and opened his eyes to the jungle. He took stock of his body, but he felt none of the ache he associated with the aftereffects of his transformation. It must have occurred only on the ancestral plane then. Good. He would not have wanted Clint to find out this way. He would share his gifts when the time came, but not before.
Feeling lighter than he could ever remember, he dove into the pool and removed the ochre from his skin. Unlike the blood marks, these had served their purpose now that he had the ancestors’ blessing.
He glanced toward the tree where Clint sat motionless and considered calling him down, but it would not be right to take the next step in their courtship with only Clint. They would have time once the three of them were alone in the jungle. While he had no fear for his own safety and he believed in their strength, he would take no chances now that he had the ancestors’ blessings. Once they bonded, his gifts would protect them too. Until then, he would not let either of them out of his sight.
Chapter 13: Chapter 12
Clint returned to the village ahead of T’challa, feeling deeply pensive. Watching T’challa today had felt far more intrusive than it had the previous days, which was ridiculous since all T’challa did was sit and meditate, even if he was naked the whole time. After three days of it, it was hardly worth mentioning. All the rational arguments in the world didn’t change the way he was feeling, though.
“Are you all right?” Phil asked as soon as Clint walked into their hut.
“Not sure,” Clint replied honestly. He moved into Phil’s space, wrapped his arms around him, and rested against his chest. “It was a… strange day.”
“What happened?” Clint didn’t have to look up to know Phil was frowning. Funny how he knew the different tones of his voice so well.
“Nothing really. He went back to the pool, painted some lines on his face, chest, and groin with some kind of pigment, took some kind of drug, and didn’t move. And I mean didn’t move. It looked like he was barely even breathing. Then, hours later, he opened his eyes, washed the pigment off, and got dressed like nothing had happened, like I hadn’t just spent hours hoping he wasn’t going to die on me.”
He pulled away to look up at Phil. “I was really afraid he was going to die on me, and I wouldn’t have the first idea of what to do about it.”
“This mission is getting to you too, isn’t it?” Phil asked.
“Too?” Clint parroted instead of answering. He was more interested in what was bothering Phil.
“It’s like we talked about yesterday. He has this image of us that’s based on false pretenses, and if we’re right, he’s courting us based on that. Christ, Clint, how am I supposed to feel? I’m damn tempted to call it all off and just go home. Fury wouldn’t like it, but if I told him it was a wash, he’d accept it,” Phil said.
“You’d do that?” Clint asked.
“If I thought for a moment it would make things right, yes,” Phil replied, “but we’ve set something in motion, and I’m not sure even leaving would be enough to stop it now. Your reaction just now proves my point. You’ve started to care about him, not just as a lead in our investigation, but as a person.”
“He’s a decent man,” Clint said. “Cocky as hell, but decent.”
“Like you have room to talk about someone being cocky,” Phil said in that deadpan Clint so loved. “It’s more than that, though, isn’t it?”
Clint shrugged. How was he supposed to answer that question without making it sound like Phil wasn’t enough for him or like he was questioning his commitment to their relationship already? “It isn’t, but it could be,” he said finally. “Right now he’s a decent man with just enough mystery surrounding him to be fascinating. If we left today or tomorrow, that’s all he’d be, and that would be the end of it. And I’d be fine with that. If we stay, we’re going to get to know him better, and that edge of mystery will probably be solved, one way or another.”
“And which way it will be solved is something neither of us can predict,” Phil added. “You realize it’s been less than a week, right?”
Clint shrugged, feeling defensive, but he forged ahead. He’d started this conversation. .He wasn’t going to chicken out now. “Yeah, so? I’ve spent the past three days watching things I suspect no outsider was ever supposed to see.”
“And that creates a sense of intimacy between the two of you, at least on your side,” Phil continued. “It’s logical. The question is what happens now. A part of me says we should call it and let it go, for our sanity, for our relationship, for his sanity, and probably his safety. And yet I can’t quite seem to let it go.”
“You always have hated ‘what ifs.’ So what do we do, boss?” Clint asked.
“I don’t know,” Phil admitted. “Thoughts?”
Clint took a deep breath and rolled the dice. “Yeah, I have a few, although I don’t know if you’re going to like them.” He moved away to pace the confines of the hut. He resisted the urge to wrap his arms around his waist as he did.
“I’m listening,” Phil prompted. “Talk to me, Clint.”
Those words had always been his kryptonite, even when they were nothing but an order in the field. Now, with his first name instead of a call sign or his last name, he was helpless to hold anything back. He took a deep breath and let it all come spilling out.
“If we do this, if we keep going and walk into the jungle with him tomorrow, we see it all the way through to the end. The courtship, the mystery, the Black Panther, all of it. We commit to it fully, knowing we might not come back from it. We know what he wants. If we go into the jungle with him, we’re accepting his right to try to convince us. Maybe it works out, maybe it doesn’t, but I can’t play a role anymore. I can’t sit back and let him court us, knowing we’re just using him for a mission.”
Phil breathed a sigh so deep and heartfelt Clint feared for a minute he’d fucked everything up for good. “God, I love you.”
Clint froze, trying to reconcile Phil’s declaration with everything Clint had just said.
“You don’t see it, do you?” Phil asked when Clint turned to look at him. “You make all these comments about your dark past and shitty upbringing, like they’re all there is to you, and you don’t see what a pure fucking soul you have.”
Clint shook his head, too overwhelmed by Phil’s image of him to focus on anything else. “After all the shit I’ve pulled, all the people I’ve killed? You’re out of your mind if you think there’s anything pure left in me, but for what it’s worth, I love you too. That doesn’t solve the problem of what to do about T’challa or the mission or anything else.”
Phil couldn’t decide if he wanted to jump for joy at the knowledge that Clint loved him back or if he wanted to rage—or cry—at Clint’s poor opinion of himself. He’d never let himself imagine Clint would feel the same way, not even over the past few days. Sure, Clint had said he wanted a relationship, but hearing the words made it real in a way nothing else could. It didn’t change anything, but having that reassurance gave him the courage to consider the rest of what Clint was suggesting. Actually letting T’challa court them, giving that courtship true consideration, possibly not coming back…. They were big, scary thoughts when he’d devoted his entire life to protecting those who needed it, first in the Rangers and then with SHIELD. Except the longer things went on, the more time he seemed to spend doing paperwork rather than actually protecting people. To some extent that was the price of doing business and advancing through the ranks, but he missed being in the field. Not that being with T’challa would be the same as being in the field, but it would be a new adventure, something to bring a little excitement back to his life again. Could he take that chance?
Going with him under Clint’s conditions wouldn’t have to mean saying yes and leaving everything behind, but it would mean being open to that possibility.
“Could you really do it?” Phil asked Clint. “Could you leave Natasha and SHIELD behind if T’challa convinced us to accept him?”
“Honestly?” Clint said. Phil nodded, hoping he wasn’t setting himself up for heartbreak. “I could leave SHIELD in a heartbeat. I believe in what it stands for, but I don’t believe it’s the only way to do the same work. And I don’t believe being here has to mean leaving SHIELD behind completely. I mean, we’re in Africa on a mission now. What’s to say there won’t be other missions in the area that we could take? Rendezvous with someone in Kinshasa for a briefing, do the job, and then come home? Yeah, it wouldn’t be the same amount of work we’ve been doing, but it wouldn’t be walking away entirely. And if you think anything short of death could keep Nat away from us permanently, you don’t know her as well as you think you do. When I told her we were coming to Africa, her first question was to ask if we were looking for the Black Panther, and her second text was an order to be careful. Hell, for all we know, she’s sitting in Kinshasa laughing at us right now, waiting for us to tell her we’ve found him and we’re staying here because we also fell in love. You know nothing surprises her.”
Phil couldn’t argue with that. He also noticed that Clint consistently said “we” and “us,” not “I” or “me. He’d already decided whatever they did, they’d be doing it together. That gave Phil the courage to reply, “Then let’s do it. Let’s take the chance and see what comes. I only have one more question. When do we tell him the truth?”
“When we know that not telling him will matter,” Clint said. “If we end up leaving, it doesn’t matter that we aren’t who we said we were.”
“And if he can’t forgive us then?” Phil asked. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to accept T’challa’s courtship, but he could be open to the possibility. And if he was going to do that, it meant not screwing things up before they ever started.
“Damn, I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Clint said. “Hell, I don’t know. I don’t know a damn thing about relationships. I suppose if we tell him now and it changes things, it’s better to know before we get more invested, but if we tell him for no reason, we’ve compromised mission security and our identities for nothing. You’re the senior agent. You tell me.”
“I wish I knew,” Phil replied. “There’s no easy answer. I think we play it by ear, give it a few days, even a few weeks, depending on how long it takes us to go wherever he’s taking us. And then we see how we feel and how he does. Like you said, we don’t play a role from here on out. We can be ourselves without telling him everything. And it could be as he gets to know us better, he’ll change his mind and it’ll be a moot point. Or we could decide we’re not interested in what he’s offering. And if he doesn’t change his mind and we haven’t changed ours, we’ll tell him when the time seems right. I don’t know what else we can do.”
“You mean you don’t have a plan Z?” Clint joked.
“I don’t have a plan A,” Phil said. “Not for this. For a mission, sure, but this stopped being a mission the moment we started considering his courtship. Emotions aren’t predictable the way actions are.”
“No, I don’t suppose they are,” Clint agreed.
Noise outside drew their attention.
“I suppose we should go see what’s going on,” Phil said. “We can continue this later.”
“Lead the way, boss,” Clint said, but he leaned up for a kiss before Phil could move.
Phil gave it to him willingly. He suspected they’d both need all the comfort they could get as they navigated the minefield they’d just created for themselves. He just hoped they wouldn’t step on one and set off a series of explosions that left one or all three of them maimed or worse.
Chapter 14: Chapter 13
T’challa walked back into the village in harmony with himself and the universe. He had won the ancestors’ blessing. Nothing short of his mates refusing him could bring him down. He ducked into his hut to leave his pouches, then returned to the fire pit in the center of the village. He took what had become his seat and waited. Clint had returned before he did, so he would be in the hut with Ph—Neiman. He had to go back to calling the good doctor by his last name until he was given permission. He might think of them as his mates already, but they had only consented to hearing his suit, not to accepting him. Taking liberties they had not allowed would not help him.
His presence at the fire acted as honey to flies for the village children, who flocked around him. He smiled and welcomed them, though his attention remained fixed on the dark opening to Neiman’s hut. Before long, Clint and Neiman both emerged. Clint looked at him across the open space, nodded, and smiled. Neiman’s expression remained reserved but not cold. It made sense. He had not spent the past three days observing T’challa at his rituals. T’challa would have to see if he could nurture that connection tonight and over the upcoming days. He did not want to lose his mates because he paid too much attention to one and not enough to the other.
“Tell us a story, T’challa,” the village children begged, drawing T’challa’s attention to them. T’challa knew many stories, the lore of his people learned at Zuri’s knee, the legends and stories of the children’s tribe, and stories from much of the Congo basin, for he had traveled more than most, a wanderer before he became the guardian. He could easily pick one and keep them entertained for any number of hours, but while he was sure Neiman would appreciate them all, professor that he was, one tale begged to be told. Did he dare, now while he had not yet won his mates? Could he reveal even a little of his secret?
But they already knew enough of the legend to ask vague if leading questions. Recounting the legend itself would tell them only that he had heard it, not that he lived it. With a decisive nod, he turned to the children. “What story shall I tell you?”
The children settled around him, calling out suggestions, but the most frequent request was for the tale of the guardian, as he had known it would be. It was always their first request if he let them pick the story he told. He settled more comfortably in his spot, tipped his head to his mates in silent invitation to listen, and began.
“Many seasons ago, when the land was fresh and new and the waters teemed with abundant life, the people worshipped many gods and goddesses, for life was precarious, and they needed all the protection they could gain. Some chose to worship the great gorilla with his strong arms and mighty voice, peaceful until angered, but merciless when defending his territory. Others chose the eagle, great hunter of the skies, who traveled here and there at will, but always returned to his nest. Still others chose the crocodile with his thick skin and sharp fangs. And others chose the great snakes, cunning in their hunt and deadly in their bite. And to each people, the gods granted their blessings. One people, though, chose differently, preferring the stealth and sleek power of the great cat. Bast looked with favor on their offerings and granted them her protection.
“Ages came and went, each of the peoples learning to live in harmony with each other, for balance is necessary in all things, but then the outsiders came.”
Neiman flinched at that. Good, he had understood that much of the tale. Though T’challa did not blame all white men for the deeds of the past, not all of his people were as open-minded. Kitoko had reminded him of that all too clearly in his vision today. The better T’challa’s mates understood the prejudices they might encounter, the more prepared they would be to counter them.
“Chaos followed in their wake,” T’challa continued. “The children of the tribes began to disappear, taken as slaves or felled by diseases against which they had no defense. The people turned to their gods for help. What the gorilla or the eagle, the crocodile or the snake bestowed on their followers, I cannot say, but Bast in her wisdom and grace granted to her people a guardian to protect her people from all those who would wish them ill.”
Clint sat up a little straighter at that. Good, he too understood at least something of the tale. T’challa had not changed physical form today, under Clint’s watchful gaze, but over the past three days, especially during the hunt, he had let glimmers of his gifts shine through. “The guardian took his task, or hers, seriously, warding off all who came with evil intent. And when the guardian grew old and ill, a new guardian rose among the people to take his place, so that in each generation, one person bore the gifts of the goddess and Bast’s people remained safe.”
He could end the story there, for the origin of the guardian was complete in those words, but the lore went on. He glanced at Clint and Neiman, trying to decide what else to say, when all around the village, mothers began calling their children to come eat.
“But the rest,” the children protested.
“Another time,” T’challa said. “Go, your mothers are calling.”
They went with mutinous expressions on their faces, leaving T’challa alone with Clint and Neiman. “Join me?” he asked.
Clint moved first, but Neiman followed so quickly T’challa might not have noticed if he hadn’t been watching. “Your story sounds a lot like the one we’re trying to chase down,” Neiman said.
“I thought you might enjoy it, Dr. Neiman,” T’challa said.
Neiman smiled. “Please, we’re going to spend who knows how long together over the next few weeks. The least you can do is call me Phil.”
“I would be honored,” T’challa said with a formal nod.
“Tell us more about the guardian,” Clint said. “Is it just legend, do you think?”
NO¸ T’challa wanted to shout, but this was neither the time nor the place to reveal such information. “I have traveled many places and met many people. Beliefs vary from tribe to tribe, but many take comfort in the idea of someone to protect and watch over those who cannot defend against unknown dangers,” he said instead.
“Then it isn’t a legend of just one tribe?” Phil asked. “Interesting. How similar are the beliefs you’ve encountered in different places?”
“Phil, this isn’t an interrogation,” Clint teased. “Give the man a chance to breathe.”
Phil flushed ever so slightly, bringing a smile to T’challa’s face. “It is fine, Clint. I admire passion in all its forms, academic as well as physical.”
Phil’s flush deepened, and wasn’t that interesting?
“That doesn’t excuse me getting carried away,” Phil said. “We should eat something. Would you like to join us?”
Did Phil realize what his casual invitation meant? He was a student of human interaction, so surely he had some idea. T’challa certainly hoped so. “I would be delighted.”
“It’s nothing as special as yesterday’s dinner,” Phil warned. “Just a bit of rabbit stew. I put out some traps today. Clint or I try to add to the village stores every few days. We wouldn’t want our presence to leave anyone else hungry.”
The explanation was mundane and logical, but T’challa couldn’t stop the thrill at knowing Phil had made the meal with food he had caught himself, much as T’challa had done the day before.
He had to stop reading meaning into every little gesture. Out on the trail, they would only have each other to rely on, so of course they would feed each other with food they had gathered or killed. It would be a matter of survival, not courtship.
“Don’t let him lie to you,” Clint said. “Everything he makes tastes better than I think it should. Don’t ask me to cook for you, on the other hand. I’ll hunt all you want, but I can’t cook to save my life.”
“Believe me, he’s tried,” Phil quipped.
T’challa laughed. “Then Clint can hunt, and you and I will cook when we are in the jungle,” T’challa told Phil. “As long as each of us contributes to the partnership, how we each do so is less important.”
The fire pit behind Phil’s hut was small, clearly intended for a single family rather than for a large crowd like the one in the center of the village where T’challa had prepared his courtship offering the night before, but T’challa found he preferred the simple intimacy of it. Yes, his offering had to be publicly made and received, and he had followed the laws and traditions to the letter, but Phil and Clint were not bound the same way, both because they were the ones being courted and because, as outsiders, they did not know the law anyway. If—when—the time came to formalize their courtship into a bond, they would have to do so in the prescribed manner, but this moment was between the three of them, not in front of his people, gathered to watch their guardian—their prince and future king—bond with his mates.
Phil ladled a thick stew into three bowls. He offered Clint one first, as was proper given their relationship. He should always serve his lover before one he was only considering. It spoke highly of his regard for Clint. Then he gave one to T’challa. T’challa accepted it with a short bow and genuine thanks. When Phil had his own bowl in hand, T’challa took a taste of the stew.
Clint was right. The stew seemed simple, chunks of meat in a thick broth along with some cassava and other root vegetables, but the flavor was rich, supplemented by an herb T’challa didn’t recognize. Perhaps something Phil had carried with him in his travels. The thought warmed T’challa as much as the stew did. Phil had cooked for them and used not only meat he had hunted but something from his own stores to make it better. Even if he did not intend it as a courtship gesture, it spoke well of him as an eventual mate.
“This is delicious. What did you put in it?” T’challa asked. “If sharing would not give away any secrets, of course.”
Phil laughed, a warm, gentle sound that brought a smile to Clint’s face. He should smile more often. “No secret,” Phil said. “It’s cardamom. It goes well with almost any meat, so I use it to add extra flavor to stews when I don’t have any other spices.”
“I’m sure someone would have shared some pili pili with you,” T’challa replied.
“I’m sure they would have, but after weeks of that, I wanted a different flavor. If you’d prefer pili pili, I can get some.” Phil started to stand, but T’challa grabbed his hand to stop him. Phil and Clint both tensed minutely at the gesture, only relaxing when T’challa released him. Yes, Phil might not wear the warrior on the outside, but the soul of one lurked beneath the surface.
“There’s no need. As I said, this is delicious. I love encountering different tastes as well as different tales when I travel.”
“You should see what he can do with a fully stocked kitchen rather than a rations travel pack,” Clint said.
“How long have you been together?” T’challa asked, hoping Clint’s comment was a simple statement, not a way of pointing out something T’challa would never share with them.
“We’ve been friends and partners in the field for ten years,” Phil said. “The rest is… newer.”
It was and wasn’t an answer. Certainly ten years of friendship and working together would lead to a depth of familiarity it would take T’challa a long time to match, but T’challa had not pegged their romance as being new. Perhaps the ease of a long friendship added to the depth of their intimacy on other levels?
“You are fortunate to have such a strong foundation to build on,” T’challa said rather than pressing for more details. No matter how much he wanted to know, it was best if they shared their secrets in their own time, no matter what Kitoko implied.
The two exchanged fond looks, an expression T’challa desperately wanted directed at him.
“That’s one word for it,” Clint said after a moment. “We’ll have to tell you that story sometime. But not tonight. Tonight we should discuss the trip into the jungle. Anything special we should know?”
T’challa almost asked for the story anyway, but Clint was right. With the journey looming, they needed to be prepared.
“You have gone hunting with Bondeko’s warriors, so you know much of what you need. The most important thing is never to go off on your own. Here near the village, the worst the jungle has to offer is kept at bay by the smell of fire and the noise of the village. As we travel into wilder parts, that will not be true. Danger lurks in every corner, and not all of it is obvious,” T’challa replied. “I know you are experienced, but do not let that make you overconfident. I would not lose either of you if I can help it.”
“We’d rather not be lost,” Phil replied so dryly T’challa couldn’t decide if he was joking. “We’ll stay together. We’d planned to take a tent so we could sleep at night with relative confidence that we were safe. We have a second one if you want it.”
T’challa pondered why they would have two tents when they only needed one. Was their romance truly so new they had not planned on sharing a tent? If so, perhaps he was not as late to the game as he had feared. “Thank you, but no. I am used to sleeping beneath the canopy. I will be fine.”
They exchanged looks at that as well, though their expressions were more calculating this time. He was tempted to tell them now, to lay it all out in the open, but while his heart had made its decision, his mind wavered. He silently cursed Kitoko and her accusations. There is no rush, he reminded himself. They were accompanying him into the jungle. He had time to set his mind at ease before he gave in to the demands of his heart. Besides, his mother would never forgive him if he arrived home bonded before she had a chance to meet his mates.
Eventually darkness fell, and T’challa excused himself, leaving Clint and Phil alone at their hut. “Ready for bed?”
Clint wiggled his eyebrows, making Phil laugh. “Come on, Hawkeye.”
Clint threw a flirtatious look over his shoulder as he walked into the hut, and Phil remembered the joking promise he’d made that morning if Clint did his job today. Clint hadn’t actually said whether T’challa had spent the day naked, but given the mentioned lines on his groin, Phil imagined he had. The lightheartedness of the joke had gotten lost in the seriousness of the conversation when Clint returned, but Phil wasn’t one to break a promise.
“Are you coming, Phil?” Clint called softly.
“Not yet,” Phil replied without thinking. The choked laugh he got in return was worth the lapse in his usual persona. Clint had never fallen for it anyway, so he didn’t know why he bothered when it was just the two of them.
Clint had lit the rush light in their hut and stripped off his outer layers, leaving only his boxer briefs in place. Form-fitting as they were, they left little to the imagination.
“See something you like?” Clint drawled.
“More than one thing,” Phil replied with a wink. Clint’s smile morphed into a cocky grin as he reached for his shorts.
“No, let me.” Phil couldn’t put his finger on why it felt so important for him to take care of Clint tonight, but he’d learned long ago to listen to his gut. He quickly stripped his own outer layers off and stretched out next to Clint. Propped up on one elbow, he took in the full length of Clint’s body in the low light. “How’d I get so lucky?” He kissed Clint before he could reply because he knew Clint would counter by saying he was the one who didn’t deserve Phil, and that would lead to an argument they didn’t need to revisit tonight. He’d work on Clint’s self-esteem another time.
Clint opened his mouth beneath Phil’s, letting him explore to his heart’s content. Phil took his time. They’d kissed before, quick pecks as they said hello or goodbye, and deeper kisses during the frantic makeout session yesterday morning, but they’d always been rushed by circumstances or desperation. Phil fully intended to hit the desperation stage before the night was over, but they didn’t have to rush this time. Night had fallen, and T’challa was safely tucked away in his hut. They didn’t have anywhere to be before first light tomorrow, and Phil intended to take full advantage of it.
Clint tried to roll toward Phil, but Phil caught his hip, keeping him flat on the mat. If they started rubbing against each other, they’d end up racing toward their climaxes, and that was the opposite of what he wanted for tonight. He wanted—no, he needed Clint to understand how much Phil loved him, how much Phil wanted him. They could get off after he’d burned that realization into Clint’s skin.
Clint whined deep in his throat when Phil pushed him back down flat, a soft, entreating sound that Phil could get addicted to. He caressed Clint’s side tenderly to settle him. “Relax,” he murmured against Clint’s lips. “We’ll get there. Let me savor you first.”
“You’re killing me here, Phil.”
“La petite mort?” Phil joked.
“Not fast enough,” Clint muttered.
Phil laughed and kissed Clint again. Clint retaliated by wrapping his arms around Phil’s shoulders and pulling him down on top of Clint.
“Behave.” Phil poked Clint’s side to punctuate the order.
“You know I don’t do well with orders,” Clint retorted, rocking his hips beneath Phil’s.
“If you don’t behave, I won’t blow you. How’s that for incentive?” Phil asked.
Clint groaned. “Fuck, Phil. Just hearing you say it out loud is almost enough to make me come.”
“Then it’ll really blow your mind when we get to the real thing,” Phil said. He bent enough to press sucking kisses along the tendon in Clint’s neck, down to his collarbone and across the broad, muscled shoulders that had caught his attention the first time they’d met. Since then Phil had come to see Clint as more than an attractive package or even a highly skilled agent, but his fascination with Clint’s shoulders and arms had never waned.
“You planning on leaving marks, boss?” Clint asked.
Phil nipped a little harder. “Don’t call me boss when we’re in bed.”
“What about sir?”
“Not that either.” Phil sucked hard on the curve of Clint’s shoulder. If he wore a regular T-shirt, it wouldn’t be visible, but if he wore one of the sleeveless ones, T’challa would be able to see the mark.
Clint gasped, then quipped, “Possessive? I like that in a guy.”
“I’ll show you possessive.” He was playing right into Clint’s hands, but that was beside the point. They’d passed the time for teasing. He pushed up on his knees, stripped his underwear out of the way, and grabbed Clint’s, pushing it down to his knees. He settled his weight over Clint’s legs so they were trapped between his own. Clint might have hurried him along, but Phil was still the one in charge.
“Fuck, please,” Clint begged.
“Did you want something?” Phil was so close he could feel the heat radiating from Clint’s skin, but he didn’t touch his cock yet. He was a greedy bastard. He wanted more of that begging first.
“Fuck you, Coulson.” Clint squirmed, trying to lift his hips enough to initiate contact, but Phil hovered just of reach.
“Not tonight,” Phil replied. “No condoms, remember?”
Clint groaned. “Do something. Anything. Just touch me, for fuck’s sake!”
Phil had mercy on him and licked a single stripe up his cock from root to tip. Clint stuffed his fist in his mouth to muffle his shout. Phil wanted so badly to reach up and pull Clint’s hand away so he could hear him scream, but while they’d said they were done hiding, Phil didn’t want to share Clint’s sex noises with the whole village.
He scooted down a little more and nuzzled the base of Clint’s cock, taking the time to savor the musky scent and the feel of wiry hair against his skin. Another time, when this wasn’t still so new, he’d rub his face all over Clint’s groin and just revel in it, but neither of them had the patience for that tonight. He mouthed his way up Clint’s cock, careful to keep his teeth behind his lips, until he reached the head. He licked across it and played the tip of his tongue into the slit, reveling in the bitter taste. He drew back the foreskin and sucked gently on the sensitive head. Clint’s hips bucked again, and this time Phil didn’t stop him. With Phil’s weight on top of him, the movement wasn’t enough to choke Phil.
He sucked a little harder, enjoying the spurt of fluid that coated his tongue. He shifted a little so he could get his hand on Clint’s balls and rolled them in his palm. They were full and heavy. He’d be getting a mouthful before the night was over.
“Phil.” The desperation in Clint’s voice urged Phil to hurry. As much as he wanted to draw it out between them, to show Clint how much he cherished Clint’s trust and his love, Phil was starting to feel the effects himself. He rutted against Clint’s legs as he took more of the shaft in his mouth.
Clint gasped and tried to curl double, but Phil’s weight on his legs held him in place.
Holy fucking hell! Phil “never a hair out of place” Coulson was going down on him like a goddamn pro. He should’ve known Phil would be as good at blowjobs as he was at everything else, but he’d spent so long not letting himself imagine it because it wouldn’t ever happen that he couldn’t quite make his brain accept that it was happening now. Phil worked him thoroughly but oh so fucking tenderly that Clint didn’t know if he wanted to beg him to hurry or for him to never ever stop. God, he’d been blown before. He wasn’t some motherfucking virgin, but this wasn’t just a blowjob. He didn’t know what it was besides the best thing he’d ever felt.
“Shit, Phil,” he begged, unable to put his desires into more words than that.
This was comfort and tenderness and safety and love and lust and desire and everything all rolled up in his cock sliding between Phil’s lips, in Phil’s tongue along the shaft, in his throat swallowing around the head. Shit, fuck, holy hell, Phil was deepthroating him. What had started as a joke because Clint had spent the day watching T’challa naked again, even if it had been less showy this time, had become something far beyond a simple reward for a job done well.
After everything they’d said to each other, after all the things they’d discussed, this was affirmation. This was him and Phil united in the face of whatever the future held. Good or bad, they’d deal with it together.
He clutched at Phil’s shoulder with one hand, not wanting to grab his head. He didn’t want Phil to feel trapped or forced or anything. The other hand, he kept pressed against his mouth to stifle any shouts. He drew his knees up so they framed Phil’s ribs, an approximation of a hug.
He bit the base of this thumb to stifle his scream. When he could catch his breath, he gasped out, “Fuck, Phil, close.” He struggled to get the words out past the haze of lust in his head. Phil tapped his hip to show he’d heard him, and didn’t let up in the slightest.
Oh fuck! Phil was going to swallow. That realization pushed him over the edge. His balls drew up tight as he came… and came… and came. And Phil worked him all the way through it until he collapsed back on the mat, panting for breath, so sensitive that the whisper of Phil’s breath over his cock was exquisite torture.
“You gotta let me,” he begged, reaching for Phil’s underwear.
Phil arched so Clint could finish stripping him, but before Clint could even get his mouth on Phil’s dick, he was climaxing, his come exploding all over Clint’s face.
“Shit, sorry,” Phil gasped. “I didn’t realize I was that close.”
“’S okay,” Clint said. “I like that I can get you that worked up.”
“The noises you were making and the way you just gave yourself to me. Of course I got worked up. I’m not made of stone.”
No, stone-cold badass or not, Phil was all flesh and blood. Hot, naked flesh Clint still wasn’t well enough acquainted with. “Tomorrow night, I get to blow you.”
Clint looked at Phil in surprise.
“What? Did you expect me to say no?”
“I expected you to point out that we’d be in the jungle and that T’challa would be sleeping a few feet away,” Clint said.
“We’re in the jungle now, and T’challa’s sleeping a few feet away,” Phil replied. “And yes, tomorrow night we’ll be in a tent, not a hut, and T’challa will be sleeping closer than he is now, but that doesn’t change anything. I can’t let the fact that we decided to let his courtship proceed change the way I treat you now. You’re my partner and my lover. He’s someone who might someday get added to that. Or not.”
Clint nodded and reached for his discarded boxers to clean off his face. When that was done, he snuggled close to Phil. “I feel the same way. If his courting us gets in the way of us, we stop it right then. But you have to tell me if you feel that way. I’m shit when it comes to relationships. I don’t want to fuck this up because I missed some sign that should have been obvious but that I didn’t know how to read. I didn’t exactly have any good role models growing up.”
“I’ll tell you,” Phil promised, “as long as you talk to me too. Relationships go both ways. Deal?”
Clint kissed the side of Phil’s neck and snuggled closer. “Deal.”
Next chapter: into the wild!
Chapter 16: Chapter 15
I'm sorry this has taken so long to post. Work is kicking my butt right now. I'd love to say it won't take as long for the next chapter, but I'm afraid to make any promises except that I'm working on it every chance I get.
T’challa rose well before the sun the following day. He had completed the required rituals, but he had made no preparations for the trip itself. While he was confident in his ability to travel lightly and swiftly through the jungle and to live off its bounty as he did so, he would not be alone on this trip nor could he move at his usual speed. His eagle had proven better than T’challa had expected in the jungle, but T’challa had not traveled far. He had yet to see how Phil would fare outside of the village. Neither had seemed worried when discussing the trek, and they had made it as far as the village over some difficult terrain, but that guaranteed nothing. Over the distance they had to cover—and allowing time for him to be confident in his decision to take them home—they would need provisions.
He checked the pouches on his leather belt and the pockets of the shorts he wore as a guide, making sure he had matches as well as flint and steel so they would always have a fire at night. From another pouch he withdrew his snares and checked each one over for wear. He could not set snares as they traveled, but they would not travel every day. At times they would stop to rest for a day or two, to replenish their supply of meat, to gather what greens they could find, to bathe and rest and clean their clothes and gear. They were not soldiers on a forced march. Their trek had no timeline beyond T’challa’s courtship. If they arrived in a week or a year, it mattered not, as long as when they arrived, he could present them as his desired mates with confidence.
Kitoko’s words lingered in his mind, that they were not all and also more than they appeared, but he pushed them aside. The jungle had its ways of bringing out the heart of a person, and that was what mattered in the final reckoning.
He examined his spear next. The hunt two days prior had been a simple one, but even the simplest throw could damage the point, making it that much harder to bring down his prey the next time, but the point was as sharp and the edge as lethal as ever. He would have no trouble feeding his mates while on their trek.
He dressed not in the comfortable wraps he’d been wearing in the village, but in his more western attire, the cutoff pants and vest he’d been wearing when he arrived, and went in search of breakfast.
Lisanga welcomed him to her fire with a knowing smile. “I will prepare the okapi hide and save it for your return. It would make a fine piece for a mating bed.”
Heat rose in T’challa’s cheeks, though it would not be visible beneath his dark complexion. Instead he bowed his head to Lisanga. “I would be honored to present the work of your hands to my mates.”
Lisanga smiled impishly, giving T’challa a glimpse of the girl she had once been, before age and responsibility had matured her. “They are good men. They may be outsiders, but they have never once hesitated to join us in our traditions. You have chosen well.”
That required more than a simple bow of his head. He rose and bowed to her formally. “Thank you for your blessing, honored mother.”
“Eat. They will be out soon, and you should be ready for them.”
T’challa hurriedly consumed the fufu she offered him. As he thanked her once more for his hospitality, he heard the rustle of movement behind him and turned to see Phil walk out of his hut. He had spent days studying his mates, yet still Phil surprised him. Gone were Phil’s light pants, shirts, and sandals, replaced by an outfit similar to what Clint usually wore: camouflage pants, dark T-shirt, and heavy black boots. T’challa had seen the warrior beneath Phil’s kind exterior, but he had thought it a thing of his past, not of his present. Looking at him now, heavy pack resting on his shoulders as if it weighed nothing, a handgun holstered at his hip, with an ease in his limbs and aura T’challa had not known was missing, he looked every inch the soldier. An intriguing soldier T’challa wanted to know better. Then Clint stepped up beside Phil, and T’challa wondered if he had truly seen them at all. Clint wore a similar pack to Phil’s, but lighter, and clipped to it were a bow and quiver. Here, finally, was the hunter Bondeko’s warriors had praised, the warrior T’challa had sensed beneath the surface. T’challa would pity anyone in the path of Clint’s arrows except that he already knew those arrows would only seek those who deserved to die.
Yes, these were indeed warriors worthy of being his mates.
“Have you eaten?” he asked when they approached.
“We finished the stew from last night,” Phil said easily. “It wouldn’t still be good when we returned anyway.”
If T’challa had his way, they wouldn’t be returning at all, or only with him to gather any items they left behind now when he came to collect the okapi hide. “Then shall we go?”
Clint grinned at T’challa as he nudged Phil. “Into the wild.”
“Geek,” Phil muttered, his voice full of affection.
“Like you’re one to talk,” Clint shot back, an open smile on his face. “How many Captain America cards do you own again?”
Phil didn’t reply to the rhetorical question, too entranced by Clint’s expression to think up a witty reply. How many people ever got to see this side of Clint? Hawkeye had a reputation around base, not just for his perfect aim in the field, but as a rousing good time, but Phil had seen him after those nights, looking loose physically but somehow even tenser than before, nothing like the easy, laughing man in front of him now. Did those one-night stands realize what they’d missed out on? Or had they been so focused on being able to brag they’d bagged Hawkeye that they’d missed everything that made him Clint?
Never again, Phil swore. From now on, Clint would have all the affection he could stand to go along with the sex. He would know what it meant to be loved, not just fucked. T’challa’s open, curious expression caught Phil’s attention, and he kept a scowl off his face by force of will alone. Phil might have agreed to see what T’challa’s intentions were, but if he thought for one moment that Phil would let him toy with Clint in any way… well, Phil hadn’t been Black Ops for nothing, mission be damned.
“It’s a movie reference,” Clint explained as he gestured for T’challa to lead them out. “From my favorite movie series, which is based on my favorite book. I’m not completely obsessed like Mr. Captain America fan back there, but sometimes I just can’t resist a good line.”
“Movies are not a luxury we have this deep in the jungle, but books are a valued treasure,” T’challa replied. “Perhaps you will share yours with me in the future.”
Phil relaxed marginally as they left the village behind. The offer seemed genuine, and that allayed some of his worry that T’challa only saw Clint for his looks. He forced his gaze off Clint’s ass and onto his surroundings. Even with T’challa guiding them, danger could come from any direction, and Phil was meant to watch Clint’s back, not his backside.
“I don’t have it with me, but I bet I could find a copy in Kinshasa,” Clint said. “We’ll have to head that direction at some point to send off our notes and pick up more supplies, so I could look for one then.”
T’challa’s flinch was so minute Phil thought for a moment he was imagining things until Clint glanced back his way with a raised eyebrow. Whatever had caused the reaction, at least Clint had seen it too. They’d discuss it later, if they could find a moment alone. For now they would both keep their eyes open for any other oddities.
“Do you have a thought to where we might find the lost temple?” Phil asked.
Another flinch, though T’challa’s expression was serene when he turned to look at Phil.
“A few, but they are not easy to find, even for me,” T’challa said. “We will explore and we will see what we can find. Sometimes the goddess is willing. Sometimes she is not.”
The villagers had referenced a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses over the weeks they’d spent there, and T’challa’s story of the guardian had included more than a few as well, but as he tried to remember exactly what he’d said, he thought Bast, the warrior goddess and defender of Ra, was the only one identified as a goddess by name. If she was the goddess T’challa referred to now, they could be closer than they’d hoped.
“Makes it hard to believe in them, doesn’t it?” Clint drawled from T’challa’s other side.
“Only sometimes,” T’challa replied. “Other times, it makes it quite easy.”
Clint spluttered a little. “Okay, you got me there.”
T’challa smiled at him before turning to include Phil in the warm expression. Yes, Phil could see why Clint would find T’challa attractive, and not just on the physical level. Even in a language not his own, he managed to banter with them. Phil returned the smile, and they fell into comfortable silence as they continued deeper into the jungle. The undergrowth thinned out as they entered a section of tall canopy, the huge trees enough to block the light from the jungle floor. Even the sound of their footsteps seemed hushed. With greater sightlines, T’challa ghosted ahead of them some, giving Phil an opportunity to see what Clint had meant when he talked about T’challa becoming the forest rather than moving through it. Even keeping his gaze fixed on their guide, he nearly lost him among the tree trunks and gently swaying vines.
Phil gave Clint the signal to move right while Phil moved left, always keeping T’challa in sight between them. Clint reached back for his bow as he followed Phil’s direction. A moment later, they heard the sharp cry of an unknown animal, followed by a silence so deep and thick it seemed the world had stopped spinning. Then a monkey chittered overhead, and everything returned to normal. Phil dropped his guard slowly, though he could draw his pistol in a split second. Clint kept his bow in hand.
T’challa returned with a smile on his face and a dead rabbit in his hand. “It is no okapi, but it will make a good dinner for us tonight, roasted over a fire.”
“If you’d told me you were going hunting, I’d’ve gone with you,” Clint said, gesturing to his bow.
“For such a small target, your arrows were more than we needed,” T’challa said. “A well-placed stone to the head left the meat intact for us to enjoy.”
“You haven’t seen me shoot,” Clint replied defensively.
“I have not,” T’challa said agreeably, “but I look forward to the time when I do. Bondeko spoke highly of your skills. And your kindness in sharing them with his village.”
When he’d seen Clint shoot, he wouldn’t question whether he could bring down something the size of the rabbit without damaging the meat, but Phil wouldn’t save him from that pitfall. T’challa would have to learn that one on his own.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, drawing their attention toward the sky, but the canopy was too thick to let them see the approaching storm. “If you would?” T’challa held the rabbit out toward Phil. “I will check the skies.”
Phil took the rabbit skeptically, not sure how T’challa intended to check on anything through the leaves overhead, but T’challa simply scaled the nearest tree like a ladder until he disappeared into the greenery above.
“Think he’s going to abandon us?” Clint asked softly.
Before Phil could answer, T’challa dropped back down beside them. “We have an hour, perhaps two, before the storm is upon us. I know a spot not far ahead where we can take shelter, until it passes or for the night.”
“Let’s go,” Phil said. He’d marched in worse than a rainforest thunder shower, but that didn’t mean he liked doing it. If they could stay dry, he’d take it.
Chapter 17: Chapter 16
Clint wouldn’t admit to being curious about the shelter T’challa claimed to know about. He had been all over this section of jungle while hunting with Bondeko’s warriors, and he hadn’t seen anything more substantial than the jungle canopy to provide protection from the weather. Then again, it hadn’t rained while they were out, so maybe it was in some out-of-the-way corner they’d skipped.
“Not far ahead” turned out to be a forty-five-minute hike slightly east of the direction they had initially been heading, but not so far east as to be a complete change of direction. By the time T’challa slowed, the roll of thunder was nearly constant, and the dappled patches of sunlight from early in the day had given way to a uniform gloom that seemed more like dusk than midafternoon. Clint looked around, seeking the shelter T’challa had promised, but he still couldn’t see anything more interesting than a particularly large deadfall of branches.
The deadfall that T’challa was walking purposefully toward.
Well, shit. Did he expect them to burrow under a pile of brush like snakes? They’d probably find snakes under there if they started digging, and Clint really didn’t want to deal with a snakebite on top of the rain. He had a multipurpose antivenin, but given the variety of snakes in the area, it wouldn’t necessarily be more than partially effective.
“Give me one moment,” T’challa said. “It has been some time since I last used this shelter. I should make sure nothing dangerous has taken up residence in my absence.”
Clint frowned as T’challa reached for the pile of brush. He glanced at Phil, who met his gaze with a pinched expression of his own. That made him feel a little better. If Phil’s Ranger tricks hadn’t given him a better feeling about this, then they were on the same page. As always, Clint thought. Worst case, they had their tent and could pitch it in a matter of a minute. It only slept two, but they could squeeze T’challa in until the storm passed.
“We should have brought the second tent,” Clint murmured to Phil as T’challa pulled away a section of brush to reveal an empty space beneath it.
“Or maybe we shouldn’t have underestimated him,” Phil murmured back. T’challa ducked into the open space and disappeared completely.
A moment later, T’challa popped his head back out. “It will be snug with all three of us, but it is safe. Come, the rain will start any second now.”
And fuck if T’challa wasn’t right. Clint felt the first drop of rain hit his arm as they crossed to the entrance to the shelter. Phil shrugged off his pack and handed it to Clint before ducking into the small arch. He reached back out for his pack, then took Clint’s and his bow, so Clint could follow him in. T’challa came in last, pulling the brush back into place behind him. With that source of light gone, the interior of the shelter was almost pitch black.
“Just a minute,” Phil said, digging in his pack from the sound of the rustling Clint could hear. After a few seconds, he switched on a flashlight, pointed carefully behind him so it wouldn’t blind anyone. “There. Now we have a bit of light to see by.”
Clint looked up from where he sat, squished between Phil and T’challa, to examine the roof. What had, from the outside, appeared to be a random pile of brush, now resolved into a carefully woven net of branches and leaves, crisscrossed so tightly that the rain didn’t penetrate.
“Fucking brilliant,” Clint said to T’challa. “Did you build this?”
“No, though I always check on it when I am in the area. There are shelters like these scattered throughout the region, if one knows how to look. Local guides share their locations, a trade secret of sorts. Knowing where to seek shelter can mean the difference between life and death in the right circumstances.”
“Truth,” Clint replied.
“The construction is ingenious.” Phil ran his hand along the inside. “I’ve built my share of makeshift shelters, but nothing like this.”
T’challa beamed beneath the praise.
The patter of rain on the branches above them increased, signaling the beginning of a downpour. T’challa rapped his fist against the frame that supported the entryway. “The first rain of the season. At home the children will dance to celebrate, and their mothers will despair of ever getting all the mud off them.”
“That would be something to see,” Phil said with a soft smile.
“There are no children here to lead the celebration for us, but it is still the first rain of the season, and it must be marked. Will you dance with me instead?” T’challa asked.
“I thought the point of finding shelter was to stay dry,” Clint joked.
“Skin dries faster than cloth,” T’challa replied with a challenging arch of his eyebrow. “With you or without, I will dance.”
Clint swallowed hard as he exchanged glances with Phil. When he looked back at T’challa, he had already pulled off the vest and belt he was wearing and was unbuttoning his shorts. Feeling like all the air had been sucked out of the small space, Clint watched as T’challa shimmied out of his shorts and turned to move the brush out of the way, his ass practically in Clint’s face. T’challa stood into the rain with the same grace that had marked everything Clint had watched him do, took two steps away from the shelter, lifted his arms and his face to the sky, and began to dance.
“Fuck,” Clint breathed.
“He probably would if you asked him,” Phil said next to him, his tone so flat Clint tore his attention from the spectacle of T’challa dancing in the rain to look at Phil instead.
“Hey, whatever you’re thinking, stop.” Clint nudged Phil’s shoulder with his own. “You know I didn’t mean it literally.”
“I know,” Phil said, tearing his own gaze away from T’challa. “He’s just so….” He waved his hand toward T’challa.
“Yeah, that exactly,” Clint said. “We could join him. Make him as crazy as he’s making us.”
The image of Clint and T’challa dancing together in the rain flashed through Phil with all the power of the lightning flashing overhead. He could see it clear as day, and what an image it was. Clint wouldn’t say anything more, an invitation for them both to join T’challa, but Phil could see the way he was vibrating with excitement. T’challa had talked about the children of the village being the ones who danced in the rain, but Clint had never had the chance to be a child, not really. All the mud puddles Phil had played in as a boy, all the splashing and laughter and joy had been denied Clint.
“Go on,” he said. “I know you want to.”
“I want us to,” Clint insisted.
Phil knew that too. “Not exactly my style, Barton.”
“Fuck that. We’re in the middle of the jungle with no one around to see but you, me, and T’challa. And T’challa and I don’t care.”
No, Phil didn’t imagine they did, but then they were both a good deal younger than he was. Younger and more fit and less inhibited. “Go on. Make him regret teasing us.”
Clint got a mulish expression on his face, but Phil kept his unflappable mask in place. Clint could glare all he wanted. Phil had developed a resistance to everything but his puppy dog eyes years ago, and Clint wasn’t deploying those. “Fine, but don’t blame me when you miss out on all the fun.”
Clint pulled his T-shirt over his head, but before he could strip his pants off, Phil pulled him in for a quick kiss. “Who says I won’t be having all the fun I need, watching you run around in the rain like a forest spirit come to life just for my enjoyment?”
“I think you’ve got me mixed up with T’challa. He’s the forest spirit if ever there was one.”
Phil looked outside to where T’challa swayed and leaped beneath the falling rain. Clint had told him how in tune T’challa was with the jungle, but seeing it for himself took his breath away.
“Go on. Before you miss your chance,” Phil urged.
Clint finished stripping and stepped outside, his lightly tanned skin the afterimage contrast of T’challa’s darker complexion. “Is there a trick to this? Or do we just jump around like madmen?”
T’challa threw his head back and laughed, the sound so full of joy that Phil almost joined them despite his reservations. “The only ‘trick,’ as you say, is to enjoy the rain, but if you wish to learn one of our dances, I will teach you.”
Clint glanced back at Phil, but Phil shook his head and waved for Clint to go on. Clint shrugged and turned back to T’challa. “Sure, but I should warn you, dancing has never been my strength.”
It was the oddest thing about Clint. He could run across the roof of a collapsing building without stumbling or shoot accurately from any perch including a moving one, but ask him to do the simplest of dance steps and all his grace and poise deserted him.
“Then it is good that our dances are less rigid than most,” T’challa replied. He brushed past Clint, close enough their shoulders touched, and circled behind him. “Turn to face me.”
Clint turned as directed so he was looking straight at T’challa. Phil couldn’t see T’challa’s expression, but he recognized the mischief in Clint’s. He had seen it far too often, usually right before Clint did something ill-advised and sometimes dangerous but always exhilarating—for him, anyway. It was usually hell on the people watching. Maybe he should join them, if only to keep Clint in check.
Clint circled T’challa as T’challa had circled him, but he didn’t stop at brushing shoulders, instead bumping his hip against T’challa’s as he passed. Every muscle in T’challa’s back went rigid, and when he turned to follow Clint, his expression had changed from joyful to lustful. Phil’s gut tightened in protest, but he pushed the concerns aside. They had agreed to let T’challa court them both. If T’challa’s focus was on Clint now, that was because Phil had chosen to stay in the shelter. He had no reason to worry, and certainly no reason to be jealous. If he went out there, T’challa would include him too.
They circled each other again, two predators looking for weaknesses; then T’challa laughed again, breaking the tension as he used Clint’s shoulders for a base to jump into the air, higher than Phil thought he should be able to, except that when Clint did the same, he jumped just as high.
When T’challa approached the next time, Clint braced himself and tossed at the same moment T’challa jumped, propelling him even higher than before.
T’challa whooped and cupped his hands so Clint’s next leap started with a boost from T’challa.
Phil turned away, trying to block out the image of them together. They were playing more than flirting, enjoying each other’s athleticism for the pure pleasure of it, not with any ulterior motive. They’d tire eventually and come back inside, wet and laughing, but they’d come back inside. They weren’t going to suddenly fall to the ground out there and go at it. Even if T’challa were willing, Clint wouldn’t do that. He’d made it clear they were in this together and that if T’challa didn’t want both of them, he couldn’t have either of them.
That was so much easier to believe when Clint was curled up around him, not outside frolicking naked in the rain with T’challa.
Chapter 18: Chapter 17
High on the exhilaration of dancing in the first rain and the undercurrent of desire that ran through him at the opportunity to see Clint naked and touch him under the guise of the dance, T’challa grabbed Clint’s biceps—how had he developed such incredible muscles?—and twirled him around one last time. “It grows dark, and we have left Phil alone. Perhaps we should return to the shelter and prepare something for dinner?”
“Lighting a fire in that small a space with us all in there won’t be easy.” Clint moved effortlessly with the twirl, grasping T’challa’s arms in return. “But if anyone can manage it, it’ll be Phil.”
“You have so much faith in him,” T’challa observed.
“He’s the one person who’s never let me down,” Clint replied. “Everyone else… well, it hasn’t been always been pretty, but Phil says what he means and does what he says he’ll do. It makes it easy to believe in him.”
“You are fortunate to have each other,” T’challa said.
“Believe me, I know.” Clint released T’challa’s arms and turned back toward the shelter. T’challa followed leisurely, enjoying the view. Clint’s back was as muscled as his arms, every inch of him chiseled granite, and that continued down over his buttocks to his legs. Whatever hardships had shaped this man, they had left him in perfect physical condition, apart from the scars that marked his skin at random intervals, everything from the pucker of a bullet hole to the slash of a knife wound and perhaps even the bite of some kind of whip. No, his life had not been easy, to judge by those marks, but he had retained the ability to laugh and to play. He bore scars, but he had overcome. He wondered if he would find similar marks on Phil’s body when he was finally allowed to see.
Clint bent to enter the shelter, eliciting a flush of heat that spread from T’challa’s groin across his skin. Clint’s skin would taste cool and sweet from the rain, he was sure, but he did not make a move to find out. One day soon, he would have the right to reach out and touch or taste when presented with Clint’s naked backside. For now, he would settle for drinking in the sight. When Clint had time to get settled, T’challa ducked in after him. Clint had scooted over as close to Phil as he could get, a peaceful look on his face, but Phil’s face was not so calm. T’challa tensed, looking for what had upset him. Finding nothing immediately, he pulled his shorts back on. At home or if they were already his mates, he would have stayed undressed, letting the freshly washed air caress his skin, but Phil already looked uncomfortable, and T’challa did not want to add to it.
“Shall I start a fire so we can roast the rabbit?” he asked when he was partially dressed.
“Is it safe to have one inside?” Phil asked, eyeing the low ceiling dubiously.
“No, but the rain has eased off enough that I should be able to start one right outside. The cover for the entrance is built at an angle to keep a small section of ground outside the walls dry as well,” T’challa explained. “And the beauty of the shelter is that it provides all the dry wood we need for a fire. We will simply add a few more branches to the top before we leave in the morning.”
“Ingenious,” Phil said. “I prepared the rabbit while you were… dancing.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” T’challa said.
“I know, but you hunted, so I’ll cook. And tomorrow it’ll be Hawkeye’s turn to make sure we eat.”
“Hawkeye?” T’challa asked. Phil obviously meant Clint, but this was the first T’challa had heard that name.
Clint folded in on himself a little, but he met T’challa’s gaze as he replied, “When I was a kid, I was in a traveling circus as a trick archer. They gave me the stage name Hawkeye, and it kind of stuck.”
“Fitting, then, that I had started to think of you as a serpent eagle, a kind of hawk that hunts along the river,” T’challa said.
“And Phil?” Clint asked. “Have you started to think of him a particular way?”
T’challa turned to where Phil was hunched over a small pile of wood, starting the fire. “Yes. A forest cobra, sleek and deadly, always alert, but able to pass unseen until it’s ready to strike, but since then I have seen that is not all there is to you. You are also the one who organizes everything and who makes sure things go as planned or who fixes them when they don’t. I have not found an animal yet for that side of you. Perhaps there is not one. Perhaps that is simply Phil.”
Phil flushed visibly even in the low light, but when T’challa glanced to Clint for reassurance, Clint had a smile on his face. “That’s a perfect description of him. Both the cobra and the rest.”
Phil shot Clint a look T’challa could not read, but some of the tension that had filled the small space dissipated, so he had done something right. Now he had only to keep doing it.
One thing was clear: he could not court Phil the same way he courted Clint. Clint responded to the open physicality he had so far employed, but while he didn’t think Phil was immune to it, he would not win him that way.
Clint let out a shuddering breath when Phil’s shoulders dropped a bit at T’challa’s description. Clint couldn’t list all the ways T’challa had nailed it without giving away more than they were ready to say, but Phil had noticed too, and that was what mattered right now. He’d known when he went outside with T’challa that leaving Phil alone in the shelter was a bad idea, but he hadn’t been able to resist the lure of playing in the rain. T’challa might have called it dancing, but for Clint, it had been pure, acrobatic fun.
Right up until he’d come inside and seen Phil’s face. He still had a shit ton to learn about relationships, obviously. And they were considering adding a third. Yeah, he’d lost his ever-loving mind.
Okay, first things first. Make sure Phil felt loved and appreciated and see if he could get rid of any lingering doubts.
His skin had dried enough despite the humidity in the air that he could pull his boxers back on, which would hopefully help a little now that he wasn’t giving T’challa a free show. That done, he scooted around until he could peer over Phil’s shoulder at the fire he’d started. When Phil turned his head questioningly, Clint smiled and dropped a kiss on his nose.
Phil snorted and shook his head, but he was smiling as he added more wood to the growing flames.
Clint one, Phil’s issues zero.
“Sorry about the Hawkeye slip,” Phil murmured.
Clint nuzzled Phil’s neck instead of replying out loud. No, it wasn’t easy to talk about his past, but becoming Hawkeye, both in the circus and with SHIELD, was the one good part about his childhood, and T’challa had taken the revelation in stride instead of asking all kinds of questions. They’d said they were going into this as themselves, and if he couldn’t even share the circus, he’d never be able to share the rest.
He could feel T’challa’s gaze on them, but he remained as much of a respectful distance away as the small space allowed. Good, that meant he accepted that Phil and Clint needed time for themselves too.
“Get the rabbit for me?” Phil said.
Clint turned back toward the interior of the shelter, only to have T’challa hand him the carcass. Phil skewered it on a stick and held it over the flames, turning it slowly so it would cook on all sides.
“Now we wait,” Phil said with a rueful smile.
“What is that tool you used to start the fire?” T’challa asked, looking at the flint and steel combo Phil always carried with him.
“It’s a trick he picked up in the Rangers,” Clint said. “Matches can get wet. Flint and steel don’t, and having them in that metal frame holds them at the perfect angle to spark every time.”
“The Rangers,” T’challa said, sounding impressed. “That explains everything. I knew there was more to you than met the eye.”
“See? I’m not the only one who sees through that bland façade you wear,” Clint said. Phil shot him a look, but he sat a little taller all the same. Clint still didn’t know how people missed it when it was as clear as a neon sign to him, but being underestimated was Phil’s superpower. Clint shifted to lean against the wall of the shelter. “Tell us a story while we wait,” Clint asked T’challa. “Something about you, since I told you about the circus.”
“Hmmm, a story about me,” T’challa said. “But nothing about me is all that interesting.”
“That’s because it’s your own story,” Phil said. “To us, it’s new… and interesting.”
“Very well,” T’challa said. “When I was very small, I decided I was old enough to be a warrior like my father. Even then I was aware enough to realize they would not agree with me, so I snuck out when my mother was working and Zuri was with the other shaman. My father had left that morning on a hunt, and I imagined I could catch up with them.”
Clint wondered who Zuri was, besides one of the shamans, but he didn’t interrupt to ask. He could ask when the story was over.
“I gathered my spear and my chest plate—children’s toys, of course—and started off into the jungle in the way I had seen the warriors go that morning. I marched along, a brave little man, until I realized I didn’t know where I was. I plopped down right where I was and started screaming for my baba. Someone must have seen me leave, or perhaps it was simply a mother’s intuition, but one way or another, my mother had followed me. But she wanted me to learn a lesson, not just come home safely, so cunning woman that she is, she hid in the brush and rattled branches. I jumped up, sure I was about to be eaten by a leopard or something worse. I tried to run, only to trip and land right in Zuri’s arms. I was so scared I burst out crying. Zuri calmed me down, as he always did, and then my mother stepped out of the undergrowth, as stern and regal as ever, and I lost it all over again. I was more scared of her anger than being eaten by a leopard. She just shook her head at me and told me if I was that determined to be a warrior, she would start training me with the older boys. It was the happiest day of my life until I discovered the next day just how much work it would be. Then I decided I had been a fool.”
Phil chuckled. “Your mother sounds like a formidable woman.”
T’challa smiled in the low light. “You have no idea. Though if I can persuade you to come home with me, you will have the chance to meet her and my father. Unfortunately Zuri now walks with the ancestors.”
“Was he your brother?” Clint asked.
T’challa shook his head. “My father’s other mate, and a second father to me. His death gutted our family.”
“Is that common?” Phil asked.
“Perhaps not common, but not unusual enough to cause comment,” T’challa replied. “Particularly in my family, although it is not limited to us. We seem to do… better with two mates at our side rather than one.”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Clint asked as he digested the information that their relationship would be easily accepted by T’challa’s people—at least in theory.
“I have a younger sister,” T’challa said. “She is alternately my best friend and the bane of my existence. What of you?”
“I’m the oldest of three,” Phil said, giving Clint a moment to gather his composure and decide how he wanted to answer. “My parents have retired to Florida. My sister is a doctor in Houston, and my brother is a teacher in Virginia. We aren’t close.”
Clint grimaced a little. Phil rarely talked about his family. All Clint knew was that things had been tense since Phil came out to them shortly after getting out of the military. “And I have one older brother, although I haven’t seen him in twenty years. My parents died in a car accident when I was a child,” Clint said in a monotone.
Phil reached over and squeezed Clint’s hand. T’challa bowed his head and raised his arm across his chest solemnly. “My comfort for your loss.”
Clint nodded in return, unsure how to answer. Even the one story was enough to show him how very different T’challa’s relationship with his family had been to Clint’s own.
“The rabbit’s ready,” Phil said, breaking the moment.
The somber mood lingered as they ate quickly. The rabbit was perfectly cooked, crispy from the flames on the outside, juicy and not too done on the inside, but Clint barely paid it any attention, caught up in his racing thoughts. In the space of a few minutes, he’d learned more about T’challa than he could completely digest.
T’challa had a close-knit family, if unusual by American standards. His tribe accepted polyamory and had no apparent issues with same-gender relationships, unless Zuri being a shaman changed the rules. T’challa was observant enough to see through Phil’s façade, something only three people had done, and Clint wasn’t sure Fury counted since they’d known each other for so long. T’challa was not too proud to share stories that put him in a less than perfect light.
Any one of those revelations would have been a lot to process. All of them together…. If he hadn’t already been in love with Phil, T’challa would have won him pretty much completely with that story. As it was, he’d have to check in with Phil when they had a bit of privacy, but the sense of family alone was even more seductive than T’challa’s smoking hot body.
They finished eating, and Phil buried the fire, making sure no coals lingered that might set fire to their nest overnight. Clint pulled out their bedrolls and looked at the space. It was going to be one hell of an interesting night, all three of them squeezed in there together. He shrugged and stretched out in the middle, on one edge of the sleeping mat. He could spoon around Phil, leaving the remaining space behind him for T’challa.
T’challa turned his back to Clint, giving them that much privacy as Phil came in and pulled the covering over the entrance. Phil eyed the spot Clint had left for him and grimaced again. He’d been doing a lot of that today. Clint really should have suggested they set up their tent for the night so he could reassure Phil in private, but it was too late for that. He’d have to settle for sleeping curled around Phil and hope that got his point across.
Phil started to stretch out still fully dressed.
“Come on, Phil. You aren’t going to make me sleep next to you with those heavy pants on, are you?”
Phil rolled his eyes at Clint’s wheedling. “Hand me the flashlight.”
When Clint passed it to him, he promptly switched it off. Clint thought about making a snarky comment, but he’d already pushed Phil enough today. Instead he listened patiently to the rustling of clothes as Phil stripped off his pants. He lay down in front of Clint, fumbled in the dark for his wrist, and wrapped it around his own chest. Clint scooted closer until they were pressed together from shoulder to knee, to give T’challa a little more space, but mostly to offer Phil silent reassurance.
Once they were settled, T’challa lay down as well. They weren’t touching, but Clint could feel the heat from his body anyway. He had just started to drift off, listening to the quiet sounds of their breathing, when T’challa shifted and hit Clint in the back with his elbow.
“Sorry,” T’challa whispered as he settled down again.
“It’s fine,” Clint replied.
Ten minutes later it happened again. When it happened a third time, Clint sat up. “Okay, this isn’t going to work.” Keeping Phil’s hand in his, he shifted until he was facing T’challa’s back and Phil was snug against his back. He kept his arm and Phil’s between his body and T’challa’s, mirroring T’challa’s position so they had a little more space.
Not much. And feeling T’challa’s body heat through his boxers against his cock wasn’t particularly helpful for his peace of mind, but it was still better than an elbow in the ribs.
Yeah, they were definitely setting up their tent from now on, even if it was pouring down rain.
Chapter 19: Chapter 18
Clint woke slowly the next morning, warm and comfortable. He could hear the calls of the forest birds, so it had to be getting light outside, but in their little shelter, it was still dark and quiet.
He started to stretch, only to realize that during the night, he and Phil had shifted enough that not only was he feeling Phil’s morning wood pressed against his ass, but he also had T’challa’s ass pressed against his own morning wood. Well, fuck. Was this heaven or hell? He didn’t lift his head, but as he took stock of the rest of his body, he realized both he and Phil had their arms draped over T’challa. Phil’s hand was only on his arm, but it was more contact than he’d had up until now. Clint’s hand was right over T’challa’s heart. Fucking hell, talk about skipping a step or twenty. He’d never lost track of his surroundings like that, not even when he was a kid. He wasn’t sure what that said about T’challa and their eventual relationship, but he had some thinking to do on top of the conversation he needed to have with Phil.
T’challa stirred and then sat up as if waking up with Phil and Clint spooning him was the most normal thing in the world and didn’t even deserve a comment. He pushed open the shelter door and stepped outside, letting in fresh air along with the morning light.
Damn, he’d say they stunk up the place except that the mixed scents of the three of them smelled good. Too good. He’d be addicted before he knew it. And all they’d done was sleep. If they ever got around to fucking—he pushed the thought aside because he was horny enough as it was, with no way to do anything about it. He didn’t know where T’challa had gone, but he wouldn’t be gone long enough for what Clint had in mind.
Behind him Phil shifted. Clint rolled over to face him. “You okay?” he asked when he saw the disgruntled look on Phil’s face.
“Yeah. I keep telling myself we need to be rational about this, and then I wake up with my hand on him, not just on you.”
“You’re not responsible for where your hand ended up while you were asleep.” Clint refused to let Phil feel guilty about that, no matter what else he might be feeling.
“That doesn’t hold water for us, and you know it. You slept last night too, and neither of us should have been that deeply asleep with him so close.”
Clint couldn’t even argue when he’d had the same thought. Before the last few days, he’d never slept well in the field unless he knew Phil or Nat was awake, keeping watch, and even out of the field, he only slept deeply if he was in a locked room, alone or with Nat. He hadn’t been surprised when he slept well next to Phil, but T’challa was still a stranger in many ways. Not that his subconscious gave a damn.
“I know. Are you okay otherwise?”
Phil shrugged. “I don’t know yet.”
Before Clint could press for an explanation, T’challa stuck his head back in. “There is cassava for breakfast if you’re hungry, and then we should be on our way. Now that the rains have started, we should plan to do most of our travel early in the day so we can set up camp before the heat brings them on.”
“We’ll be right out.” Phil sat up and reached for his pants, so Clint did the same.
T’challa nodded and stepped back out.
“We aren’t done with this conversation,” Clint said as he pulled his clothes on.
“I’m not avoiding it,” Phil promised, “but now isn’t the time.”
Phil was right, so Clint pulled him into a quick kiss before sticking his feet in his boots and crawling out of the shelter.
The humidity had dropped overnight, leaving the jungle fresh and clean. Clint stretched a little, reaching up as high as he could, then bending double to work out the kinks from sleeping on the ground.
He could feel both Phil’s and T’challa’s eyes on him as he straightened and arched into a backbend, but neither said anything. He figured Phil didn’t say anything because T’challa was there. He wasn’t sure what held T’challa back, but feeling his admiring gaze was enough for now. While Clint wasn’t above using his flexibility to catch a lover’s attention, that wasn’t his goal at the moment. He did a few lunges to loosen up his legs before the day’s hike, then smiled at T’challa. “I’ll take that cassava now before Phil makes me go pack up our gear.”
“Like I’d trust you anywhere near my gear,” Phil retorted.
“You don’t trust me? I’m hurt.” Clint winked at Phil as he mimed being shot in the heart.
Clint turned and grinned at T’challa. “Don’t you love his brand of pillow talk?”
“He does have a way with words,” T’challa said with a deadpan perfect enough to rival Phil’s.
“One of you is bad enough. How am I supposed to deal with two?” Phil muttered.
Clint just whistled innocently as he took the cassava from T’challa and ate it, but his heart rate picked up at Phil’s words. Phil’s comment might have been off the cuff, but he’d talked about dealing with two, both Clint and T’challa, not just Clint. Despite whatever misgivings he was still feeling, he had to be coming around to the idea, or he wouldn’t have said it, no matter how rhetorical the question had been. Clint was tempted to ask T’challa to take a short walk so he could talk to Phil now, but he didn’t want to be that obvious. He could wait a few more hours. At worst, they’d sleep in their tent tonight, and he could talk to Phil before they fell asleep.
T’challa frowned when they reached the usual ford on one of the hundreds of streams that crisscrossed the jungle, their water levels rising and falling with the rains. He had not expected it to be so high. He looked upstream and down, but the path it took was too twisting to see a more likely spot to cross.
He glanced skyward, taking in the clouds that had started to form. “Normally I would suggest we cross and push on to a clearing another mile or so ahead, but the water is swift and high, and I do not like the look of those clouds. We should make camp now so we have time to cook before it storms,” he told Clint and Phil.
“You two make camp. I’ll get us some fish.” Clint unhooked the bow from his pack and strapped the quiver to his hip.
Phil unlashed the tent as if Clint’s suggestion were perfectly normal, but T’challa trailed along behind him as Clint found a perch above the water. After listening to Bondeko’s warriors’ tales of hunting with Clint, T’challa wanted to see for himself.
For several long minutes, Clint simply sat in his perch, an arrow resting on the string of his bow but not pulled back to shoot. Behind him T’challa heard Phil setting up the tent. When he was done and it was silent again, T’challa turned to look at Phil, who had come up beside him. “Can he truly catch a fish with a bow?”
Phil chuckled. “Yes.”
Phil gave no explanation, no reassurance, just that one word, but his tone conveyed everything he didn’t say. His faith in Clint’s abilities was boundless. T’challa did not know much about the American Rangers, but he had heard enough in his wanderings to know they were highly trained. For someone with that background to have that much faith in another’s skills said much. “The water will throw off the arrow and his aim.”
“No, it really won’t,” Phil replied.
T’challa’s eyes widened, but he left it at that. Clint would make the shot or he wouldn’t. All they could do was wait.
Almost faster than T’challa could track, Clint drew and loosed the arrow on the bowstring. It pierced the water, a rope trailing behind it. When Clint pulled the rope back to him a moment later, a large fish dangled from the barbed tip of the arrow. It had gone straight into the fish’s eye.
Phil’s smug smile said “I told you so” far louder than any words could do.
“A very impressive shot,” T’challa called up to Clint.
“It wasn’t bad,” Clint replied. “Two more that size? Or do you think we need three?”
“Two should be plenty,” Phil said as he caught the fish Clint tossed down to them. “I’ll start gutting this one. You can give the other two to T’challa.”
Again Phil’s faith resonated through his words. Clint had said he would catch two more, and Phil accepted it as fact. T’challa shook his head, not in disbelief, but at how much he still had to learn about his mates. Above him Clint returned to watchful stillness, so motionless T’challa could not even see him breathing. Then the same flurry of movement and Clint tossed a second fish down to T’challa, even bigger than the first. “I can bring the third one when I come down if you want to get started on that one,” Clint called.
“Does it bother you if I stay to watch?” T’challa asked.
“Course not,” Clint said. “The Amazing Hawkeye, remember? I love an audience.”
T’challa caught an odd undercurrent in Clint’s voice, but now was not the time to ask. Just as T’challa was not ready to lay out every detail of his past and present, Clint and Phil were entitled to the secrets of their pasts. A time would come, he hoped, when those secrets could all safely come to light, but he would not press.
Clint repeated the feat of marksmanship and speed a third time and hopped down from his perch with all the lightness of a bird alighting on a branch. His hawk was aptly named indeed.
Not his hawk, he reminded himself. Not yet. Soon, please Bast, let it be soon, but not yet.
“I see now why Bondeko’s warriors admired your skills as a hunter,” T’challa said as they walked back to where Phil had started the fire. He kept back his comment about how quickly and efficiently Phil had gutted the fish and started the fire. Silent, deadly, and as whip fast as a cobra. Instead he took out his own knife and began preparing the fish Clint had tossed him.
“I enjoyed hunting with them as well,” Clint replied as he prepared the third fish. “They taught me a lot about the area and the native plants. What’s safe, what to watch out for, that sort of thing.”
“Is this your first time in the Congo, then?” T’challa asked.
“Yes. Not my first time in Africa, but it’s usually been in Egypt or elsewhere along the Mediterranean,” Clint replied. “I’m enjoying learning about a new place.”
“If you have those fish ready, we can put them on the fire,” Phil interrupted.
“You got it, boss,” Clint replied.
T’challa had nearly forgotten that in the world outside the jungle, they were more than lovers. He had not thought a relationship such as theirs would be accepted, but perhaps escaping those constraints was part of the lure of the bush. If so, he could use that to his advantage in convincing them to stay.
When they had the fish grilling over the fire in a cleverly constructed web of green branches so it wouldn’t fall to pieces—another of Phil’s Ranger tricks, it seemed—Clint sat down with his back against Phil’s bent knees. “Tell us another story?” he asked.
“I keep telling you my life is not as interesting as you think it is,” T’challa demurred.
“We would still like to hear it,” Phil replied quietly. “If you don’t mind.”
That made all the difference. T’challa might resist one of them asking, but both of them asking for the same thing? He would never deny them if it was in his power to do so. “What would you like to know?”
“You mentioned training with the warriors after you convinced your mother to let you,” Phil said. “I’m sure you have some stories from that. I certainly have plenty from Rangers training.”
“Get him to tell you about the time he—” Clint didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence because Phil had clapped his hand over Clint’s mouth.
“We want to hear T’challa’s story,” Phil said. “I don’t care if that’s your favorite. You know it already.”
“But I don’t,” T’challa said.
“Another time,” Phil replied. “Please.”
“As you will.” T’challa settled himself more comfortably and tried to decide which story to tell. Phil was right that he had plenty. One stood out, though. “I told you the first day came as a shock to me. I was young to start training, but my mother had allowed it, and no one would dare gainsay her. I came limping home from the first day, every muscle aching from how hard I had worked trying to keep up with the older, stronger boys and girls. W’kabi, my best friend, was waiting for me right outside my family’s house, arms crossed and as mad as I had ever seen him. ‘It’s not fair,’ he shouted at me. ‘You get to be a warrior, and I don’t.’ I could hardly tell him I regretted my insistence, so I puffed my chest out as big as it would go and told him how amazing it was, determined to make him jealous. Thank Bast my mother did not hear me. She would have given me such a lecture for that. And that was before she decided on a punishment. W’kabi was having none of it. ‘You have to teach me,’ he insisted. So instead of going inside and begging Zuri for something to ease the strain of overworked muscles, I found myself going through a second round of training with W’kabi. He had no more skill than I did, but that did nothing to lessen how hard the exercises were. By the time we had finished and his grandmother had called him home for dinner, I could barely stand. I do not ever remember sleeping as soundly as I did that night.”
Until last night, but he did not think Phil in particular was ready to hear that.
Clint laughed outright, and Phil chuckled softly in that understated way he had. “That’s a good one. Did you ever tell W’kabi the truth?” Clint asked.
“No, but he begged to go with me until his grandmother relented. When we got home that night, he looked at me and said, ‘How did you do it, when I made you teach me in the evenings?’ I just smiled at him.”
“And I bet that drove him batshit,” Clint said as he started to reach for the fish.
“Don’t touch,” Phil ordered. “You hunt. I cook.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m not as bad as that.”
“Cairo.” Phil replied. Clint pulled his hand back and let Phil check the fish.
“What happened in Cairo?” T’challa asked. “A story for a story?”
Clint buried his head in his hands.
“Don’t look at me,” Phil said, though Clint hadn’t moved. “You’re the one who tried to cook just now.”
“Fine,” Clint huffed. “We were in Cairo for a few days on our way home from visiting the Pyramids. Phil had caught some kind of stomach flu or something. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty. Things were a little tense in Cairo at the time, so we were trying to keep as low a profile as two white guys can in Egypt, so I didn’t want to go to a restaurant to get food. I begged the lady who owned the house where we were staying to let me use her kitchen, figuring I could at least make Phil some tea and toast, something easy to settle his stomach.”
“It’s a miracle he didn’t burn the house down,’ Phil interjected. “We had to pay for the landlady to renovate the entire first floor to get the smoke stains out.”
“I see.” T’challa smothered a laugh with effort. “I will make sure not to let him cook. I doubt my family’s house would survive.”
Phil and Clint froze. It took T’challa a moment to realize what he’d said. “That is, if you’re willing to come home with me at some point.”
“You might persuade us yet,” Phil said after a long moment.
T’challa exulted silently at his acceptance and took the fish Phil handed him on a cassava leaf. The fish was light and flaky with just the hint of smoke to season it. “My mother would love you for your cooking alone. Now that Zuri is gone, making sure we are fed has fallen to her. We do not starve, but cooking is not her strength. W’kabi took pity on me and invited me to eat with his family frequently before I left. His mother is a wonder with food, and he has picked up many of her secrets.”
“I know Clint keeps me around for my cooking,” Phil said, his expression fond as he looked at Clint.
“Not just for your cooking,” Clint squawked. The way Clint turned to face Phil as he continued spoke of Clint’s need to convince Phil of his words. T’challa would have to watch that as well, then. Phil came across as confident to the extreme, but Clint seemed to think otherwise.
“You do know that, right?” The words were soft, so soft T’challa might not have heard them if he had been anyone else.
“I know,” Phil replied, his voice and expression tender.
For a moment T’challa felt like an outsider, but then Clint turned back and grinned at him. “It’s a pretty damn good reason, though, isn’t it?”
“A good reason indeed, although I am sure I can find better. His ability to anticipate and fulfil the needs of those around them before they even realize what those needs are, perhaps?”
Clint beamed at him. A much better reason, then. He would remember to tell Phil that regularly.
The sun started to set, and although thunder still rumbled in the distance, the sky overhead had cleared, allowing a few of the brighter stars to shine through. “It appears the rains missed us today. We can hope the stream will go down enough overnight for us to cross safely in the morning.”
“We can cross even if it hasn’t,” Clint said. “It won’t hurt us to get wet.”
T’challa didn’t answer. He couldn’t. Not when all he could see was Zuri’s beloved face, slack and bloated from the water they’d found him floating in. He couldn’t stay still. If he did, he would see his father’s destroyed expression when it hit him that Zuri was gone. He had gone into seclusion, seeing no one but Ramonda for weeks. It had taken only three days for T’challa’s gifts to manifest, a clear sign that T’chaka would never again be the guardian for the tribe. “We’ll see in the morning. I wish you both a good night. I’m going to scout a bit to make sure all is safe for the night. I will see you in the morning.”
Chapter 20: Chapter 19
“What did I say wrong?” Clint asked when T’challa was out of sight.
Phil had been asking himself the same thing since the moment T’challa tensed up. “I don’t know. Do you want to wait for him to come back?”
Clint thought for a bit. “No, I don’t think so. He can take care of himself, and if he sees us waiting up for him, he might not come back as soon. He needs to sleep too. We can ask him about it tomorrow if we can find a way to bring it up.”
“Yes. Would you stow our gear and spread out the bedrolls while I take care of the fire?”
“Sure thing, boss.” Clint had called him that earlier in the day too. It said all Phil needed to know about how comfortable Clint had gotten around T’challa.
“Be careful about that. Yes, it fits our covers too, but we don’t want T’challa asking too many questions about it.”
“Sorry, Phil. I left my cover behind in the village,” Clint said.
“I know, and I know we’ll have to tell him eventually, but not yet,” Phil said. “Besides, outside of SHIELD, I’m not your boss anymore. I’m your partner.”
Clint grinned. “I like the sound of that.”
Phil liked the sound of it too, and the more he thought about having to hide their new relationship when they went back, the more he hated it. As he smothered the fire with dirt, he stewed over their options. Nick wouldn’t care. Phil knew that with the same certainty he knew Clint would make the shot, any shot he said he could make. Nick wasn’t the problem. But he couldn’t do anything to fix the problem without bending or breaking more rules than Phil could ask him to. No, if they went back, they would have to hide.
If they went back.
He shook his head at himself. It had only been two days since he and Clint had agreed to consider T’challa’s silent offer. Forty-eight hours shouldn’t have been enough for him to reconsider his plan for the rest of his life, but here he was, thinking if they went back.
He shouldn’t be so easy to sway, but he’d always had one weak spot, and T’challa had found it without even trying. Since the day he left the Rangers, he had carefully cultivated his everyman image. No one special here, nothing to look at, just a government drone doing his job, perfectly forgettable. In that time, only Clint and Natasha had seen through him if he didn’t count Nick, who’d known him before SHIELD. And now T’challa.
He’d fallen for Clint the first time they’d worked together and Clint hadn’t dismissed him as just another suit. They hadn’t even left headquarters, so it wasn’t like he’d done some heroic stunt in the field. No, Clint had just taken one look at him and known he was more than he let on.
He never knew what Natasha was thinking, even now, but after she’d tried to seduce him and he’d firmly told her he would have anyone fired who pressured her for sex (and turn a blind eye while she killed them later) and that he was flattered but he was gay, she’d thrown her lot in with him completely, trusting him and Clint as much as she trusted anyone. He’d wondered for a while if she and Clint would end up together, but as far as he knew, their relationship had never gone that direction. They’d ended up siblings, not lovers. And she had never once questioned his ability to keep up with them.
T’challa shouldn’t have seen more than a mild-mannered professor, competent enough from a lifetime of living among the people and in the places he studied, but nothing more. No one special, nothing to look at, just a guy doing his job. Clint’s revelation that Phil had been a Ranger should have been a surprise, if not an outright shock. Instead T’challa had taken it as an explanation of what he’d already seen.
What was Phil supposed to do with that?
Apparently, rewrite his plan for the rest of his life.
“Is everything okay?” Clint asked. “You’ve been standing there staring at the ground for a while now.”
“Just thinking,” Phil said.
“Well, come think in the tent where we can get naked and snuggle up together.” Clint grabbed Phil’s hand and tugged. Phil quirked his lips as he followed. Snuggling up to Clint, naked or otherwise, sounded perfect.
Inside the tent with the flap zip closed, Phil finally relaxed. He stripped down and went into Clint’s outstretched arms.
“Wanna tell me what you were thinking about?” Clint asked.
“Us, SHIELD, Natasha, T’challa, the future. It’s all a jumble in my head,” Phil said.
“It’s been a couple of crazy days,” Clint agreed. “A little more detail would be useful.”
Phil sighed and tried to put his thoughts in order. “If you’d asked me a week ago what could persuade me to leave SHIELD, I’d have told you nothing. And I would have meant it too. To suddenly find myself wondering if I want to go back has left me feeling like I just jumped out of a plane only to discover I forgot my parachute.”
“Good thing we jumped together, then,” Clint said. “Between us I’m sure we can find a parachute somewhere, even in freefall.”
Phil laughed. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but I’m so glad I did it.”
“Do you want a list? Because I could go on all night.”
“You really mean that, don’t you?”
“Yes. If anyone should be asking what he did, it’s me,” Clint replied. “But since I know what you’ll say to that, I won’t bring it up. But you should stop wondering too. It doesn’t matter what we did to deserve each other. We’re here together now, and that’s what matters.”
“When did you get to be so wise?” Phil asked.
“It must be all those times Natasha kicked my ass trying to knock some sense into me,” Clint said.
“What do we do now?” Phil hated to put the burden of an answer on Clint, but he was floundering.
“What do you want to do?” Clint asked. “Not what you think we should do. Not what you think is possible. What do you want?”
“In an ideal world?”
Phil rested his head against Clint’s shoulder and set aside all his reservations. “In an ideal world we’d find some way to do it all. Find the Black Panther so we complete our mission, accept T’challa’s courtship, proclaim it to the world, or at least all relevant parties, and keep taking missions to protect people from everyone who’s out to hurt them. But some of those things are mutually exclusive.”
Clint nodded but didn’t say anything. Phil stayed where he was and let possibilities roll around in his mind. “I don’t know what it is about him,” Phil said after a while.
“I do,” Clint said. “He’s the real thing, and he doesn’t care who knows it. And because he is, he sees other people more clearly too. Maybe he doesn’t know we’re SHIELD agents, but he’s figured out we’re both more than just anthropologists. Nobody sees through your cover. Even at SHIELD nobody sees through you except Nat and me. And he saw it right off. He didn’t know you were a Ranger, but he knew you were a badass. And he wants to take us home and introduce us to his mother. You never talk about them, but I know you miss your family. Accepting T’challa means accepting his family too.”
“You and Natasha are all the family I need,” Phil insisted.
“And nothing will ever change that, but you could have a mother again, or a mother-in-law. You could be a son and brother again. That’s got to be seductive.”
Phil thought about the stilted texts and phone calls he exchanged with his parents and siblings on their birthdays and anniversaries, about all the things he couldn’t say about work but also all the things he didn’t say about his personal life. He didn’t date much, but he’d had a few relationships over the years. He hadn’t told his family about any of them.
“What about you? You’d have a real family for the first time,” Phil said.
“No, I had a real family for the first time with you and Nat, but yes, the idea of being part of a network of family is appealing. I’m not gonna lie.”
“You really want to do this.”
“I really want us to do this,” Clint clarified. “If you aren’t on board with it, then I’m out too. But yeah, I want it all.”
Phil took a deep breath and let the familiar scent of Clint’s body soothe him. “No more searching for the Black Panther, then?”
It was half statement, half question, but he didn’t worry Clint would misunderstand.
“If we find him or proof of him or proof he doesn’t exist, great, but no searching that would take us away from T’challa,” Clint said. “And if things don’t work out with him, we’ll deal with it, but the more I learn about him, the more I like him. Not everyone would share the kinds of stories he’s shared with us. They’d pick stories that made them look good. His first successful hunt or his first battle, or a time he really impressed someone. Instead he told us about going alone into the woods and getting scared and about how his best friend conned him into doing twice the training everyone else was doing.”
“We owe him a story or two in return,” Phil said.
“You made me tell him about Cairo. I’m pretty sure that counts as a story in return,” Clint protested. “If anyone owes him a story, it’s you. I even told him about the circus.”
“I’ll have to come up with a good one, and no, I’m not telling him the story about the time I pranked Nick,” Phil said.
Clint snorted, but the humor didn’t last.
“At some point I have to tell him why I haven’t seen Barney in twenty years, and you have to tell him about your family’s reaction to you coming out,” Clint said morosely.
“Yes, but that doesn’t have to be now. We both have other easier stories we can share first.”
“If we can figure out how to tell them without giving ourselves away.”
Phil kissed Clint’s collarbone. “We’ll figure it out. We always do.”
Phil heard rustling outside. They both froze, listening for any threat, but the sounds resolved into T’challa’s footsteps. Phil angled his head up so he could kiss Clint goodnight. Clint returned the kiss with a flick of his tongue, but Phil wasn’t willing to take it beyond just a kiss with T’challa right outside. Not when they were seriously thinking about including him, possibly soon.
“Love you,” Clint whispered against his lips.
“Love you too, Hawk.” Phil fell asleep to the feeling of Clint’s smile.
Chapter 21: Chapter 20
As they settled around the fire the next night with a duck roasting for dinner, Phil took a deep breath and started the story he’d decided to tell.
“I got my first job when I was fifteen, stocking shelves and doing odd jobs at a hobby shop close enough to school that I could walk there after class three days a week.”
Clint perked up immediately, a sly grin on his face like he knew exactly where this was going. Scratch that, he did know exactly where it was going. Phil hadn’t told him the story in these exact words, but he’d talked often enough about his trading cards for Clint to make the connection.
T’challa turned his way as well, giving Phil the same look of concentrated attention he’d given Clint when they were dancing in the rain. Phil took another deep breath. He could do this.
“I already knew the owner pretty well. I’d been buying used comic books from him since the first time my parents gave me an allowance. Captain America was always my favorite because I knew he was a real person even if the comic books weren’t all accurate.”
“Dork,” Clint said in an affectionate stage whisper.
Phil ignored him completely. “But those weren’t the only ones I read or even the only ones I collected. I read them all and had quite a collection of Archie and of Wonder Woman, although I told everyone those were for my sister. I hadn’t outgrown the comics by the time I started working there, but I’d started looking beyond them. My parents indulged me with toys when I was younger, but as far as they were concerned, I should’ve outgrown my fascination with Captain America by then. They weren’t about to spend good money on something useless like a trading card, no matter how much I insisted it was a collector’s item.”
His mother wanted him to try out for the debate team, insisting his fascination with history made him a knowledgeable candidate. His father kept trying to persuade him to pick a sport. He didn’t care which one, just something to get him out of his room for more than a few minutes at a time. Phil had tried track, because the one thing he’d always enjoyed was running, but he’d enjoyed it for the freedom it offered. Track practice was the exact opposite of freedom.
“My parents set certain requirements about the money I earned, to teach me about budgets and savings and financial responsibility, they said. First, I had to put half of everything I earned in a savings account. Second, of the remaining money, I had to put half toward buying things I needed. Not the big stuff. They still bought my clothes, but if I needed anything for school, I had to pay for that. And once I turned sixteen and started driving, I’d have to pay for my insurance. But the remaining money was for me to use as I wanted. And what I wanted was the Captain America trading card Mr. Williams had on display in the shop window. I worked and saved for months, and I know he gave me a discounted price, although he denied it until the day he died. When I finally got the money I needed, I walked into the store feeling lighter than air. I was going to make my first real purchase with my own money, a true collector’s item that would be the start of a collection worthy of my idol.”
He could feel Clint holding in the comments he wanted to make. He almost told him to go ahead, if only to lighten Phil’s mood.
“Phil has the best collection of Captain America memorabilia of anyone I know,” Clint said, obviously done waiting. “You should see it. It’s amazing.”
“Perhaps someday I will,” T’challa said, “but we should let Phil finish his story.”
Phil smiled. “There’s not much left to tell. I did buy the card, and since then I’ve completed the collection as well as picked up other items as I’ve found them. It’s one of those things I can do between projects, when I’m stuck in the office. One day I’ll have a place worthy of displaying it. For now most of it is in the spare bedroom of the apartment I rarely use.”
“And your parents’ reaction when you showed them your first purchase?” T’challa asked.
Phil didn’t flinch at the prompting, although his parents’ disappointment had been clear as day. “They told me if that’s how I wanted to spend my money, that was up to me. They’ve never understood, and I doubt they ever will, but I always point out that their lesson about budgeting stuck with me.”
They’d never understood much of anything Phil had done from that point on. Not the Army, not the Rangers, not his degree in history, not his decision to walk away from all of that for a desk job with the government, and certainly not his decision to come out, but he’d learned to live with that too.
“Dork,” Clint repeated, making Phil laugh and shake his head.
“I should see if the duck is ready. It can get stringy if it’s overcooked.” He pushed to standing and walked the few steps to the fire. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw T’challa lean over to Clint.
“Who’s Captain America?”
Phil shook his head at himself as Clint started to explain.
T’challa lay awake for a long time after Clint and Phil went into their tent, mulling over Phil’s story. His tone had stayed lighthearted throughout, but T’challa had heard the shadows that lingered beneath Phil’s words, of his adoration for an American icon who had passed not into legend but into children’s stories, of parents who had not understood their child, who had tried their best—T’challa chose to believe that because the thought of a parent deliberately neglecting their child rankled too much to contemplate—but who had lost that connection too early. Where T’challa had talked of his friends along with his training, Phil had spoken only of his parents’ opinion of his purchase, not of showing it to his friends.
It seemed a bleak life to him, though perhaps there were pieces T’challa was missing, as he had missed the significance of Captain America until Clint explained it to him. More than ever, he wanted to take his mates home, to introduce them into the life of his family and of the village, where everyone knew everyone else and they worked as a community to see to everyone’s needs. He wanted the sad memories replaced by new ones. T’challa’s mother could never replace their mothers, but she could offer them the same love and affection she showered on her own children. T’chaka was a shadow of the man he’d once been, but even in the depth of his grief, he’d always had time for T’challa and Shuri, sharing their grief as they, too, struggled to accept Zuri’s loss.
And Clint had lost his parents as a child, he’d said. He’d talked of the circus, but not of a new family, only of a brother he hadn’t seen in twenty years. T’challa knew what he would gain from a bond with Phil and Clint, but he’d worried what he had to offer them. Now he knew. Beyond his own affection, he could offer them the place in a family they’d had too little of. It would be up to them to accept it, but T’challa would make the offer all the same.
“I guess it’s my turn for a story,” Clint said at dinner the following night. “Although mine isn’t a very happy story.”
“Clint,” Phil said with a worried glance.
Clint shook his head. “It’s okay, Phil. It’s time.”
T’challa frowned. Clint had not even started his story, and he could already tell he was not going to like it. “Not all stories have to have happy endings. The sad ones have lessons to teach and value of their own.”
Clint forced a smile. T’challa might have been pleased at being able to read him so well already, but it tore at him to see Clint upset. Phil obviously felt the same because he moved to sit behind him, bracketing Clint with his knees as if he could shield Clint from the memories.
“I told you I hadn’t spoken to my brother in twenty years,” Clint said. “I didn’t tell you why.”
“If the telling is too painful, you need not do it,” T’challa said.
“No, I need to. If we’re doing this”—he waved his hand back and forth between the three of them—“thing, you need to understand.”
T’challa nodded, wishing he could join Phil and complete the circle of protection, but Clint’s admission of “this thing” between them was not an invitation, however encouraging it might be that one could be forthcoming.
“After our parents died, Barney and I got sent to an orphanage. If our parents had family, they’d either lost touch or they didn’t want us. By the time I was old enough to go looking, I’d stopped wanting to know. Either way, we ended up in a group home. Barney was a couple of years older than me and pretty big for his age. I was only six and about as scrawny as they came, so the bullies went for me right away. Barney tried to protect me, but that just got him a reputation for being a fighter, which made it even harder to find a foster family willing to take us in. A few gave us a try, but it never worked out. One family tried to use us as servants. Another wanted the money but didn’t buy things for us with it like they were supposed to. And the less said about the third family, the better. Barney broke the foster father’s nose, which landed us right back at the orphanage.”
T’challa fought the rage growing inside him. If he let it get the better of him, he would change without his conscious volition, and with no mates to draw him back, he could lose himself in the guardian. The last time that had happened, half the village had been wiped out.
Phil had his face tucked against Clint’s hair and his hands clenched tightly on Clint’s arms. He knew what was coming and was already bracing for it.
“After that Barney started plotting to get us away from there permanently. Our biggest fear was them deciding to separate us. I was still young, but Barney was reaching the age when he’d be moved from the orphanage to an adolescent group home, and who would protect me then? He snuck out one night and saw the flyer for a traveling circus, Carson’s Carnival of Wonders. It sounded like a dream come true.”
T’challa could no longer restrain himself. He rose from his seat and moved close enough that he could reach out to Clint. He didn’t touch, as much as he wanted to, but he hoped Clint would take his outstretched hand. His relief when Clint took the offering and clung was palpable.
“We ran away the next night because we didn’t know how long they’d be in town. We had the clothes on our backs and the few things we could stuff in our backpacks. Carson took one look at us and told us we’d have to earn our keep, but as long as we did, he’d let us stay. For Barney, that was easy. He was big enough to help the roustabouts with the tents. I wasn’t strong enough yet for any of that, but I could give food and water to the animals and I didn’t eat much anyway, so Carson let me stay. Barney had made it clear we were a package deal.”
“How could anyone do that to a child?” T’challa asked.
Clint shrugged. “There are a lot of bad people in the world. Anyway, Carson had two star acts at the time, Trickshot and the Swordsman. I loved hiding in the wings to watch them perform. Trickshot was an archer and would do all these amazing shots. Half of them were faked, but I didn’t know that at the time. And then the Swordsman would come out and do his routine, and it looked like he was dancing with the blade, Then they’d bring out Esmee and she’d stand against a board with her arms and legs stretched out. The Swordsman would throw knives at spots all around her body. The audience always gasped and applauded when the knives came so close without ever hitting her. I started imitating their movements when I could steal a moment or two alone. Trickshot caught me at it and decided if I was going to pretend to be him, then I could learn a useful skill or two. When he put that first crappy bow in my hand, it felt like I’d regained a part of myself I never knew was missing. So fast forward eight years, and between them, Trickshot and the Swordsman had taught me all the tricks of the trade, and I’d gotten good enough to have my own act instead of being Trickshot’s sidekick. He wasn’t thrilled, but he kept the most visually impressive shots for himself.”
“The faked ones,” Phil added.
“Yes, the faked ones. I could have made them without the tricks, but Trickshot wasn’t about to let Carson find out about that. What I didn’t know at the time was that Trickshot and the Swordsman had another motive for teaching me. They used the circus as a way to case places to rob, and they’d been grooming me to join their crime ring. They’d already sucked Barney in with the lure of easy money. He wasn’t happy that I’d become Carson’s pet, as he called me, because it drew attention away from him. By that time I’d filled out, so I wasn’t looking to him for protection.”
Phil snorted. “If you can call being thirty pounds underweight filling out.”
“Let me tell this my way, okay, Phil?” Clint asked. “I know it makes you angry, but what’s done is done, and nothing can change it now.”
Clint might be right, but given a chance, T’challa would have a thing or two to say to the people who should have protected and nurtured Clint and who had instead starved him.
“When I turned sixteen, Trickshot and the Swordsman decided it was time I started repaying them for training me. They took me with them on a robbery, although they didn’t tell me what they were planning until they were breaking into the pawn shop. I protested, told them it was wrong and that I was going to tell Carson and the police. They jumped me. I tried to fight, but I wasn’t strong enough to hold them both off. By the time they finished with me, they’d broken both my legs and shot me in the arm. My saving grace was that they shot my right arm, not my left. Barney stood by and watched, and when they walked away, he went with them without even looking back. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since.”
“Did no one bring them to justice?” T’challa asked.
“I never told anyone what happened, not then. I gave the hospital a fake name because I didn’t have insurance or any way to pay for treatment. As soon as I could, I ran away again and tried to survive on my own. That didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but eventually Phil found me and helped me get my life turned around. Things have been better since then.”
T’challa suspected he hadn’t heard the whole story or even the worst of it, but he wasn’t going to ask tonight, not ever if he could help it, not when Clint looked so small. In that moment T’challa could easily see the scared, hurt child he must have been.
“It is late,” T’challa said. “We should sleep. Go. I will take care of the fire tonight.”
Clint nodded and let Phil lead him toward the tent. That alone worried T’challa more than anything else he had seen or heard. Clint had never been docile, but now he seemed broken, as if anything more than putting one foot in front of the other required more effort than he could summon.
Their flashlight flickered on for a moment as they got settled, then flicked off again. T’challa stretched out on his own sleeping mat and braced himself for a restless night.
Chapter 22: Chapter 21
Phil bundled Clint into their tent. Past experience with him and the kind of story he’d told tonight suggested Clint would need as much physical contact and comfort as Phil could provide to stave off nightmares. He doubted he’d be able to keep them all away, but he’d do his best.
Clint smiled wanly at him as he pulled Clint’s clothes off. Phil stripped as well and lay down next to him, touching him everywhere he could reach. Clint burrowed into his arms and clung with a neediness he rarely showed.
Damn Barney, the circus, and everyone else who’d ever hurt or betrayed Clint to hell and back. Clint didn’t deserve this.
Usually Clint was a restless sleeper, even when he slept well—not that Phil expected that to happen tonight—but Clint didn’t move as they lay there, as if by being still he could hide from all the demons chasing him. He’d been that way all the time when he’d first joined SHIELD. Cocky as hell on the outside, but any time he thought no one was watching, he’d gotten small and still, like he could pass unnoticed if he didn’t move. Phil had studied enough psychology to recognize the signs of past abuse, even if he hadn’t learned the whole story until much later. As Clint grew more secure in his place at SHIELD, especially after Natasha joined them and Strike Team Delta came into being, he’d relaxed and those signs had disappeared.
They were back tonight with a vengeance.
Phil had no better idea how to help now than he’d had when he first noticed, but he had options now that hadn’t existed then. He cupped one hand around the back of Clint’s head, offering him a sense of security. With his other hand, he stroked Clint’s back, showering him with the tenderness he never received as a child. What Clint had shared with T’challa was bad enough, but he’d left out the worst parts—the beatings when he missed a shot, the constant fear of being denied food, the attempted rape that had been averted only because another performer had come looking for Clint. Probably to give him more work, Phil thought bitterly, even if that kind of abuse had forestalled another. Phil had gone searching, after Clint first admitted how bad things had truly been, but Trickshot had died in a robbery gone wrong, and the Swordsman had been killed in a prison fight. Phil hadn’t found any trace of Barney Barton, but he hadn’t searched nearly as hard. Yes, Barney had betrayed Clint and left him for dead, but in many ways, he’d been as much a victim as Clint, even if he’d handled it differently.
Phil pushed those thoughts away and focused on providing Clint what comfort he could. Usually they had Natasha to help as well, but she was half a world away. A rumble of thunder sounded overhead and the first drops of rain pattered on the canvas of their tent.
Just what they needed. A storm. And T’challa was outside with no shelter. It wouldn’t have mattered who was out in the rain, Phil wouldn’t leave them there, but he’d heard what Clint said a few days ago when they’d talked. I want it all. And he’d chosen tonight to talk about his parents’ death, his time in foster care, the circus, and his brother’s betrayal, all the pain and misery of his childhood tied up in a bow and handed to T’challa, a gift of trust so deep and so powerful that Phil couldn’t miss the significance of it. And T’challa had grown righteously angry on Clint’s behalf. He’d offered his hand for Clint to hold, and Clint had clung to it as he’d finished his tale. Clint would never do anything to make Phil think he wasn’t enough—he was too kind for that—but Phil was man enough to accept that Clint had made his decision. He wanted T’challa there with them. Phil might be less certain of his own stance, but that was a problem for a different night. Right now Clint was hurting, and T’challa could help. All Phil had to do was invite him in and make that known.
He heaved a sigh, kissed Clint, and rolled to his knees so he could reach the zipper on the tent flap.
“Get in here before you get soaked,” he called to T’challa.
“Are you sure? I would not want to intrude.”
Lightning crackled overhead and the rain started falling more steadily. Phil reminded himself again of the way Clint had held T’challa’s hand as he talked, the barely contained fury on T’challa’s face that matched the rage burning in Phil’s chest. “I’m sure. You can help me comfort him. He gets nightmares when he talks about his past.”
T’challa crossed the space in three large strides. He startled visibly when he saw both Clint and Phil were naked, but he kept his gaze resolutely on Phil’s face as he climbed into the tent. “How can I help?”
“Get undressed and lie down behind him. Physical contact helps keep him grounded in the present,” Phil explained as he zipped the tent back up, shutting out the building storm.
T’challa had not moved when Phil turned around.
“I wouldn’t have suggested it if I didn’t mean it,” Phil said softly. “But if it makes you uncomfortable, leave your clothes on. Either way, I want your help, and Clint needs it.”
T’challa nodded sharply and pulled his clothes off with an economy of movement Phil might have admired in other circumstances. T’challa lay down behind Clint as Phil had instructed. Phil nudged Clint until he was spooned into the curve of T’challa’s body. Then Phil returned to his own spot with Clint’s head on his shoulder.
Clint let out a shuddering breath, but Phil could feel the tension draining out of him. His skin still felt cooler than Phil thought it should, but with the three of them crammed into a two-man tent, the air inside was already growing warm from their body heat. Phil reached over him to squeeze T’challa’s arm in silent thanks. T’challa grabbed his hand and twined their fingers together. Phil almost pulled back out of habit. He had invited T’challa inside to help Clint, not because he needed anything. But the feeling of T’challa’s hand in his as they cradled Clint between him stirred something inside him. He had always kept himself a step removed from the teams he worked with, even Clint and Natasha, not wanting to cross a line in their professional lives without an express invitation. His personal life hadn’t been much better after he’d come out to his family. They hadn’t rejected him outright, but it had put a strain on their relationship that left even the simplest of interactions stilted and more work than they were worth most of the time. He’d convinced himself he could be satisfied with his friendship with Nick and Jasper, his almost friendship with Clint and Natasha, and the professional respect of his peers and subordinates at SHIELD. Finding out Clint loved him too was more than he’d ever dreamed he’d have, but even in that, he’d seen himself as alone in taking care of Clint when he needed it.
The hand in his now reminded him he didn’t have to be alone. He could ask for and receive support even as he supported Clint. And when the time came that he needed support, he could find it from more than one source if he had the courage to reach out and take what was on offer.
The thought was too big to digest with Clint still shivering slightly between them. Phil needed to focus on soothing him, but tomorrow when sunlight drove away the rain and the dark thoughts of the night, Phil had some serious thinking to do. He’d considered accepting T’challa’s courtship because Clint wanted it and Phil hadn’t seen any reason against it, but he was beginning to want it for himself as well.
With a smile Phil moved their joined hands to rest on Clint’s hip. Maybe this would work out after all.
Chapter 23: Chapter 22
Trigger warning: remembered/dreamed attempted rape
Hands grabbed at him, pinning him down. He tried to scream, but his face was pressed into the ground, and all he got was a mouthful of dirt. He fought as hard as he could as his assailant pawed at his clothes, but he couldn’t find the strength to push them away. He was better than this. He knew how to fight, but his body didn’t cooperate. Fear choked him as something hard and blunt nudged his dry hole. They’d rip him open and tear him to shreds. He didn’t want it, not like this.
He thrashed in their hold. He had to get away. He had to get back to Phil. No, that wasn’t right. Phil wasn’t in the circus. Phil was at SHIELD. Nobody at SHIELD tried to hurt him. But they were holding him down.
A scream escaped, and hands shook him. Not to silence him. To wake him?
He gasped and sat up, his eyes searching the darkness for any clues to his whereabouts.
“Clint, stop. It’s us.”
Phil’s voice washed over him. He clung to that sound like a lifeline. “Phil?” he croaked, his voice broken.
“Stand down, Hawkeye. I have the watch,” Phil ordered. Even in the total darkness, Clint trusted that voice. He’d always trusted it.
“You are safe, my hawk,” a second voice said, startling Clint. Only then did he register the twin lines of heat, one in front of him, one behind.
“Wha—?” His voice cracked. He swallowed around the lump in his throat and tried again. “What happened?”
“You had a nightmare,” Phil said. “I was hoping having both T’challa and me here would keep them away, but apparently that didn’t work.”
T’challa. The second line of heat was T’challa. He blinked a couple of times to clear the fog of the nightmare from his brain. It did nothing to improve his vision in the darkness, but it did help him wake up a bit. They were in the Congo, on a mission. Except they’d put the mission aside because of T’challa.
T’challa who was in the tent with them, curled protectively around Clint. Curled nakedly around him if Clint’s senses weren’t playing tricks on him.
Fuck, he hated it when the past reared up and bit him in the ass. It was twenty years ago and more, but when it grabbed him in his dreams, it may as well have been the present moment.
“I don’t… I can’t….” He shook his head again.
“You are safe, Clint,” T’challa said in a voice so sure, so compelling that Clint had no choice but to trust it the way he trusted Phil’s.
“The last thing I remember is coming back to the tent after dinner,” he said.
“You were pretty out of it,” Phil replied. “We got settled for the night, but then it started raining.”
Clint listened carefully. Yes, that was the sound of rain pelting the tent.
“I couldn’t leave T’challa outside in the rain, and you were still so out of it. I thought having him here might help you,” Phil continued.
“I would help in any way I can,” T’challa added. “You have only to tell me what I must do.”
If Clint knew the answer to that, he’d have sent these nightmares back to the hell they came from years ago. “Keep me focused on the present,” he said because he could feel the weight of T’challa’s expectation in the silence. “It was a long time ago. I just have to remember that.”
“You’re safe,” Phil said in the voice that had guided Clint out of true hell more than once. “We’re right here, and nothing can get past us to hurt you. You know there’s not a lot I can’t deal with.”
“And if something happened Phil couldn’t stop, I would,” T’challa added. “No one will hurt you while we stand watch.”
Clint clung to that thought amid the terror still making him want to puke. They were standing watch. Not Phil. Not T’challa. Both of them. Phil had asked T’challa inside, had put him behind Clint to watch his back.
Phil hadn’t said it that way, but he didn’t need to. Now that the confusion had started to fade, Clint could think enough to know their current positions were Phil’s doing. Clint’s face was buried in Phil’s neck, the familiar, beloved scent of his skin surrounding Clint, the first thing he smelled when he took a breath. The first thing he would’ve seen if they’d had enough light to see by.
Usually it was Nat in front of him and Phil behind, Phil guarding his back where he couldn’t trust anyone else, and Nat whispering reassurances in his ear, but Nat wasn’t here. Instead Phil took on that role, leaving T’challa to guard Clint’s back.
It should’ve bothered him, but it didn’t. T’challa would have his back, no matter what. He’d said it, sure, but Clint had known it before tonight and the nightmares and the sinking sense of loss and violation and desperation that always hit him after a trip down memory fucking lane.
He reached for Phil blindly. When he found his arm, he clung so tightly it had to hurt, but Phil didn’t say anything. He just moved closer, if that was possible, and let Clint hang on for dear life. With his other hand, Clint reached behind him for T’challa.
T’challa caught his hand and held it, his tight grip a comfort Clint hadn’t known he needed.
“Relax now,” T’challa said. “Even if you can’t sleep, rest safe in the knowledge we are here and will allow nothing to harm you. Not tonight. Not ever again.”
For a moment Clint allowed himself to believe it. He kept a tight grip on both of them as he forced his breathing to match Phil’s. In, out, in, out, slow and steady, not fast and frantic like it had been when he woke up in a panic.
To keep himself in the present, he concentrated on the physical sensations. On Phil’s breath ruffling his hair. On the tickle of Phil’s chest hair against his nose. On the weight of Phil’s thigh between his own.
On T’challa’s breath against the back of his neck, where it should have tickled but didn’t. On the tangle of feet, too many just to be Phil’s. Of the softness of T’challa’s limp dick snugged right up against his ass.
The comfortable intimacy of it stole his breath. This was Phil’s doing too. He’d put money on it. T’challa would have come in out of the rain at Phil’s invitation no matter what else was going on between them, but he wouldn’t have chucked his clothes off and snuggled up against Clint’s ass without Phil’s permission. He wasn’t a fuckwad. He was a decent, honorable guy who would’ve respected whatever boundaries Phil put up. Except Phil hadn’t put up any as far as Clint could tell. If he had, T’challa wouldn’t be wrapped around Clint like a vine, holding him as tightly as Phil was, keeping him safe and centered and here.
If he could just get rid of the hungover feeling he always had after his nightmares, he’d make something of that. Something important, but he couldn’t quite pull it all into focus.
Tomorrow, he told himself. Tomorrow when it was light and he’d slept, he’d figure it out. Until then he’d take what he could get and drown himself in Phil and T’challa. Everything else could wait a few more hours until dawn.
Chapter 24: Chapter 23
T’challa rose with the sun in the morning, leaving Clint and Phil to wake together without him there to make things awkward. He had not slept after Clint’s nightmare, too caught up in the whirl of emotions the experience had brought to life in him. Clint’s story had been heartbreaking from beginning to end, but the bleakness had gone even deeper than his words explained. He was such a powerful, energetic man, his presence as bright as the noonday sun. To see that dampened, covered in the storm clouds of the past, shook T’challa to his core. T’challa would have said nothing could clip Clint’s wings, that he had the strength to soar above the fray and keep himself safe and whole, but last night have proven that even his eagle—his majestic hawk had a weakness. His past held specters he held at bay through force of will alone, and sometimes even that was not enough.
T’challa wanted this Trickshot and Swordsman in front of him, subjugated beneath his claws, begging for mercy as Clint had surely begged when they beat him and left him to die. Their mistake had been in leaving. T’challa would make no such mistake if the goddess should bring them to cross his path. Then again, Phil had known the story already, so perhaps justice had already been served upon them.
He could accept that. If anyone could bring justice to bear for one of his mates, it was the other. Once they bonded—and he knew now that it was when, not if—they would be as one life, one spirit, one will. Any action by one would be seen as an action by all three. Their word would carry the same weight as his within the tribe, and they would answer to all for his actions just as he would answer for theirs.
The sound of the zipper on the tent opening drew his attention. Phil stepped out, dressed for the day in the now familiar pants and T-shirt. It had been a week since they left the village, and last night had been hard for all of them. T’challa knew a place a half day’s walk away where they could set up camp and spend a night and a day resting, bathing, cleansing their clothes, and recovering from the toll their trek had taken on them physically and emotionally. The time to simply exist together would be good for all of them. He would suggest it when Clint joined them.
First, though, he needed to speak with Phil.
T’challa had sensed from early on that Clint was more open to his courtship than Phil was. Perhaps it was his unusual upbringing, or perhaps it was simply his personality. Either way, winning them had clearly meant winning Phil because he would not separate them, regardless of their choice. Last night Phil had offered T’challa not just shelter from a storm he could have easily weathered where he was, but also a chance to comfort Clint at Phil’s side. He had invited T’challa into more than just their tent. He had invited T’challa into their lives, and that deserved recognition.
When Phil set a pot of water over the fire he’d already started and sat back to wait for it to boil, T’challa joined him, sitting so he faced Phil rather than the fire. He waited for Phil to look up. When he did, T’challa cupped Phil’s cheek in his palm. “Thank you for last night.”
“I couldn’t exactly leave you out in the rain,” Phil demurred, though he leaned into the touch.
“That was not what I refer to. Even bringing me out of the rain, you did not have to let me help you with Clint. You did not have to let me see you both unclothed. You shared an intimate moment between you with me, and for that I say again, thank you.”
Phil met his gaze, the blue of his eyes bright in the filtered light of dawn. “You’re welcome. Thank you for being willing to help.”
“Anything in my power to do for you, you may consider it done.”
Phil froze at T’challa’s words. The thanks had already caught him off guard with T’challa’s perceptiveness of the whole situation, but that last… it was quite a vow, one more suited to a formal ceremony than to sitting around a campfire waiting for the water to boil so they could make coffee. Realizing T’challa was waiting for some kind of response, Phil bowed his head in thanks. That seemed to satisfy T’challa because he stood and moved away to gather the gear he hadn’t brought into the tent during the night.
Phil stayed where he was, mulling over the puzzle T’challa had presented him with. Ever since Clint first brought it up, Phil had been trying to imagine how a triad could work between them. Clint and Phil were both so fiercely independent. They only worked together because the missions they’d run over the years had taught them what to expect. Trying to add a third unknown personality to that mix had to be a recipe for disaster.
He’d softened that stance a little over the week of their hike as T’challa moved with and around them in everyday tasks like hunting and making camp. Clint, usually so protective of his place, easily shared hunting duties with T’challa. T’challa cleared a spot for the fire each night while Phil gathered wood but stepped back when Phil was ready to cook. That ease had surprised Phil, but T’challa was an experienced guide, and he’d credited it to that. Then Clint had pushed the envelope by telling T’challa about Barney. It never got easier, hearing Clint talk about that time of his life. This was only the second time Clint had ever laid it out that clearly in Phil’s hearing, but he would drop bits and pieces into conversation sometimes, usually after a particularly hard mission or any mission involving a child, no matter how smooth or successful.
Phil had been prepared for a night of sleep broken by Clint’s nightmares. He hadn’t been prepared for how right it had felt to have T’challa there too when Clint woke up screaming. Then T’challa had to go and say exactly the right things at the right times. He couldn’t have done better if Phil had fed him the lines.
That had been enough to make Phil reconsider whether T’challa had a place in their lives. And to top it all off, T’challa had thanked him this morning for including him. Not for the shelter, which Phil could have brushed off as common human decency. No, T’challa had thanked Phil for including him in caring for Clint, like he knew what a huge step that had been for Phil. Hell, maybe he had known. He’d certainly surprised Phil enough in other ways. Why should this time be any different?
With those two gestures, T’challa had secured his place in their lives. Now Phil just had to find a way to show him.
Clint trudged through the jungle, every nerve on high alert. There wasn’t any more danger than there’d been for the past week, but damn if he could get his body to believe it.
Hyperawareness, the shrinks called it, and Clint had identified exactly two triggers for it—too many hours sitting in a sniper’s nest and nightmares about the circus. Stupid fucking brain. Always fucking him over.
He’d known when he started talking about Barney’s betrayal that this would happen. It was why he never talked about it. He’d never told anyone but Phil and Nat before yesterday, and if he had his way, he wasn’t telling anyone else ever again. He still had nightmares sometimes even if he didn’t talk about it, but these days they were usually about other things. Or not as bad or as detailed as the one last night.
Everything after he finished telling T’challa about running away from the hospital was a blur. He’d woken up with Phil, both of them naked, in the tent this morning. Phil had kissed him, made sure he was awake and aware, gotten dressed, and left him to pull himself together in private. He appreciated the gesture, but he kind of would’ve preferred Phil stay to answer a few questions. Like why Clint had vague memories of T’challa comforting him when he woke up screaming too. Or why he had the oddest sensation of being sandwiched between the two of them. And especially why that sensation was coupled with the feeling of bare skin, and nothing but bare skin.
Had Phil really brought T’challa into their tent to help comfort him? And let—or told—him to get naked in the process? It would explain the blur of memories, but it didn’t quite fit with where he thought things were. It could’ve been wishful thinking, but he didn’t usually hallucinate after his nightmare. Sure, he couldn’t remember all the details, but what he did remember had usually happened. And if that held true this time, then T’challa had been in their tent last night.
Fucking hell. He needed to talk to Phil.
He could drop back to walk beside Phil easily enough, but T’challa wasn’t scouting ahead like he usually did. No, he was right there too, keeping both Clint and Phil within his line of sight at all times. Clint couldn’t decide if he felt protected or smothered, because he could feel Phil’s gaze on his back too. Like they were both keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t snap. Well, fuck that. He’d been dealing with his own shit for years. He wasn’t going to lose it because of one stupid fucking nightmare, even if it had been the worst one. Even the nightmares of being left for dead weren’t as bad because he’d lived through that and survived. He’d learned that night what he could take, but the threat in that interrupted rape remained an unknown, and it tortured him like no other nightmare could.
But damn if it didn’t make him feel cherished to have them so concerned.
Phil’s concern made sense, but the more he thought about it, the surer he was T’challa had been there too. Unless he’d heard Clint scream from outside, he wouldn’t have any reason to be worried, and that meant Phil had brought him inside and let him help comfort Clint after the nightmare.
Maybe they were making progress after all.
Chapter 25: Chapter 24
About halfway through the afternoon, earlier than they usually stopped to make camp, T’challa called a halt. “We’ll set up camp here for the night. The stream should be safe if we wish to bathe or see to our clothes. We could all use a rest.”
Phil glanced over to Clint to make sure he didn’t decide T’challa meant him instead of them, but Clint’s expression didn’t change. A little grumpy, maybe, but that was his resting face to some extent.
“Clean clothes do sound nice,” Phil said. “And a bath sounds even better.”
“Then let me make sure nothing has changed since my last visit here, and then we can enjoy the water,” T’challa replied.
We can enjoy the water, he’d said. Phil tensed automatically, but he’d made his decision that morning. He wasn’t going to balk at the first hurdle. Better for T’challa to decide now if he didn’t find Phil attractive enough to continue rather than later, when Phil had fallen harder for him.
He watched T’challa out of the corner of his eye as he walked along the bank of the stream.
“You okay with this?” Clint said softly at Phil’s side.
Phil turned to look at him, a smile on his face. “Yes. I’m okay with all of it.”
Clint looked surprised, but a smile grew as he took in what Phil had said. “Do I remember T’challa in the tent with us last night?”
“Yes. I thought having us both there might make you feel safer.”
“Fuck, I love you,” Clint said.
Phil smiled even wider. “I love you too. Are you feeling okay now?”
Clint shrugged. “Getting there. But you don’t have to hover, okay? If I need you more than usual, I’ll let you know.”
“Maybe I like being close to you.”
“I like having you close, but I can feel you worrying from a mile away, much less a few feet.” He leaned in and kissed Phil softly. “I’ll be okay. I’ve been dealing with this shit for years.”
And didn’t that just break Phil’s heart. “I know, but you don’t have to deal with it alone anymore. Even before we got together, you didn’t have to deal with it alone, but definitely not now. And I know T’challa would say the same thing if you asked him.”
“If you asked me what?” T’challa said. If Phil hadn’t trained himself out of his startle reflex years ago, he would have jumped sky-high. How did T’challa move so quietly?
“If Clint has to deal with his nightmares alone,” Phil said. “I told him he didn’t and that you’d agree with me.”
T’challa stepped close, well into their personal space, but Phil didn’t step back. This was where he wanted T’challa, inside their circle of intimacy. “You are right. I would have your burdens be mine to share.”
Though the words were directed at Clint, T’challa never took his gaze off Phil as he spoke, making it clear he intended it for both of them.
“The stream is safe. Nothing lurks to bother us in the deeper section.”
Phil grabbed the hem of his T-shirt and pulled it over his head. “What are we waiting for?”
T’challa grinned as he ran an appraising gaze over Phil’s chest. Phil made himself stand still and let T’challa look. Clint hovered at his shoulder like he was ready to defend Phil if T’challa said anything negative, which Phil appreciated, but he didn’t think it would be necessary. Not if the heat in T’challa’s eyes was any indication.
That gave him the courage to walk to the edge of the stream, untie his boots, and strip the rest of the way off. He didn’t look back at them as he walked into the cool water. When he reached the deepest part, it swirled around the tops of his thighs, lapping occasionally at his balls. He bent over to splash water on his face, well aware of the show he was giving Clint and T’challa, but then, that was rather the point.
Behind him Clint whooped. Phil turned to watch him tear his clothes off and take a running jump into the stream, splashing water all over Phil. The chill felt incredible on his sweaty skin. T’challa followed more slowly, but he never once looked away from Phil, and if anything, the heat in his eyes grew more intense.
If it hadn’t been for the cold water, Phil would’ve been getting hard. As it was, he let himself watch with open appreciation as T’challa undressed and strode into the water like he owned the place. Then again, this was his territory, so maybe that wasn’t so unreasonable.
“If you wish, my people use this plant for washing. I don’t know the name in English, but it smells sweet and works well against both sweat and dirt,” T’challa said, offering a handful of crumpled leaves.
Phil took a few, wondering if this was the same plant Clint had seen T’challa use in his purification ritual. If so, it seemed they could be used as lube as well. Maybe he’d wait to bring that up until they’d had a chance to talk about things a little more. He hadn’t wanted to rush with Clint. He wasn’t going to rush with T’challa either. “Thank you.”
Clint watched T’challa like a hawk, ready to jump to Phil’s defense if he did anything to trigger Phil’s self-esteem issues, but T’challa’s gaze was as appreciative as it was assessing. Even so, Clint ran a hand down Phil’s back to the swell of his ass because it wasn’t like he’d had that many opportunities to see and touch either. And if it made Phil glance at him with a warm smile, well, he was allowed to be greedy, wasn’t he? Especially this early in a new relationship. Not that he expected it to change any time soon. Or ever. Never sounded pretty fucking perfect, now that he thought about it. An entire lifetime spent being greedy for Phil’s smiles. Hell yeah, he could live with that.
“I should have known your keen eyes would pick out only the best of men, Hawk.” T’challa’s words might have been addressed to Clint, but his gaze stayed fixed on Phil.
Good, let Phil see T’challa was interested in him too. Clint had tried telling him that from the day T’challa showed up, but Phil hadn’t been listening. T’challa’s open appraisal and obvious approval would be a little harder to ignore.
“I definitely won the jackpot,” Clint agreed.
T’challa tilted his head like he didn’t quite understand the expression, but he nodded all the same. Phil squirmed a bit under Clint’s hand and T’challa’s gaze, but Clint didn’t let him pull away. After a moment T’challa turned his attention to Clint. “And you, Hawk? You saw how effective the herbs are. Will you use some as well?”
Clint flushed as Phil turned toward him with an amused twitch on his lips. “Well, Hawk?”
“You knew I was there?”
“You did not give yourself away, if that is your fear, but yes, I knew you were there. The jungle shares its secrets with me.”
“And you still…?”
“The goddess’s rituals are set, no matter who might be watching,” T’challa said, his expression turning mischievous, “but she will forgive me for being more… thorough than required.”
“I knew it!” Clint took a step closer to T’challa. “And what were you thinking about?”
T’challa put on an expression of complete innocence. “Of how I wanted to be worthy of the goddess's blessing on my future endeavors.”
“What ‘endeavors’ might those be?” Phil asked suddenly. Clint blinked, torn out of the sensual battle of wills and words with T’challa. Phil was playing along. T’challa looked as surprised as Clint felt.
“Why, winning the approval of the ancestors, of course,” T’challa replied with a little smirk to match the one Phil had worn earlier. “What other reason would there be?”
As far as Clint was concerned, Phil had never looked so good as he did right then, fully naked, head up, shoulders back as he stepped boldly into T’challa’s space. “Courting us.”
Oh, hell yeah!
Chapter 26: Chapter 25
The breath rushed from T’challa’s lungs at Phil’s blunt words. They had been circling this moment from the first time T’challa had laid eyes on them, but now that it was here, he barely dared to believe it was happening.
“And to do that, I had to win the approval of the ancestors,” T’challa replied, holding Phil’s gaze as Clint moved to stand beside them.
“Did you?” Phil asked.
“I did. My grandfather gave his blessing. All that remains is to introduce you to my family. My mother would never forgive me if I bonded before she met my mates.” He pushed aside Kitoko’s concerns.
“Good.” Phil took the final step closer to cross the distance between them and kissed him. T’challa gasped into the kiss, the warm, dry touch of Phil’s lips against his own. His body stirred in response, the guardian purring at the attention. He had told the ancestors these were the mates for him. He had been right.
“My turn,” Clint said. Phil stepped to the side and turned T’challa into Clint’s arms. Where Phil’s kiss had been warmth and safety, Clint’s was fire and strength. And where Phil had kept the contact chaste even when T’challa gasped, Clint kissed him deeply, claiming T’challa’s mouth with his tongue.
Yes, this was what he needed, what he had always hoped to find when he selected mates of his own. Just as his mother’s fire had been balanced by Zuri’s gentle patience, Phil would balance Clint and together they would make him whole.
He arched against Clint without thought, finding strength to match his own. It would be so easy to give in to that strength and beg Clint to bear him down to the ground and claim him, to beg Phil to ground him through it. The hardness against his thigh assured him Clint was more than willing. He broke the kiss and rested his forehead on Clint’s shoulder, panting harshly. “I can’t,” he forced out between his clenched teeth as he fought his desires and the guardian’s instincts to continue. “We can’t do this yet.”
He took a step back, pitting his will against every fiber of his being, which longed for the passion he would find when he finally claimed and was claimed by his mates.
“Why not?” Clint asked.
T’challa started to reply, but Phil smacked Clint on the back of the head.
“That’s the wrong question,” Phil told both of them. “Tell us what is and isn’t allowed, and we’ll abide by it.”
Clint grumbled a little, but he nodded his agreement anyway.
“Some would say we have done too much already, being naked in the stream together, but that is not a bond.” T’challa pushed away the images that flashed through his mind of their bodies wrapped around one another, limbs so entangled it was impossible to tell which belonged to whom. He had vague memories of crawling into bed with his parents—all of three of them—as a child and being swallowed up by their embrace. Thinking back, it was the safest he had ever felt. Being similarly surrounded by his mates would be even better. “A bond will only occur when we find satiation together.”
“So we can mess around all we want as long as we stop short of coming,” Clint summarized. “I can live with blue balls for a few more days if it means doing this right.”
“You are already bonded,” T’challa said. “You do not have to abstain for me.”
“Yeah, no,” Clint said. “That was before. Now that we’re in this together, we’ll be doing it right. If you don’t get to come, we don’t either. Right, Phil?”
“Of course,” Phil said. “You’re our guide in this just like you are in the jungle. We don’t want to make things complicated for you with your people.”
They would bring complications no matter how carefully they followed the law around a guardian’s bonding simply for being outsiders, but T’challa would worry about that when the time came. First he had to introduce them to his mother and T’chaka and then he had to explain to them about the guardian. If neither of those things sent them screaming into the jungle, then they could worry about how to consummate their bond.
“What is your expression? We will cross that road when we come to it?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Phil corrected. “And yes, we will, but I meant what I said. Tell us what we need to do so your people will accept our relationship.”
“For now it will be enough that the ancestors gave their approval and that we have waited to bond until they can meet you. The rest will come as they get to know you as I have,” T’challa replied. “I will bathe separately to avoid temptation. I will prepare my shelter for the night and bathe when I’m done.”
“Don’t do that,” Phil said as he caught T’challa’s hand. “You’ve told us where the line is. We won’t cross it until you tell us it’s time. You don’t need to run from us.”
“As tempting as you are,” Clint said with a leer that conveyed exactly how attractive he found T’challa, “I sat in that tree and watched you fuck yourself with your fingers. If I can do that and hold my perch, I can take a bath in a stream with you and not jump you.”
“And if I can’t resist you?” T’challa asked.
“Then we’ll help you explain to your mother what happened,” Phil said with a shrug. “But I don’t think that will be necessary.” He crumpled the leaves in his hand and began to rub the cleansing liquid over his arms.
T’challa watched for a moment as Phil scrubbed his chest and under his arms unselfconsciously. Clint started to do the same, although he winked at T’challa when he worked his way down his chest to the nest of light curls at his groin. T’challa tore his gaze away. Clint might have been able to keep his perch while T’challa completed the purification ritual, but T’challa knew himself too well for that. Now that the guardian had his mates’ acceptance of his courtship, any delay was too long. Especially having held Clint in his arms and cradled his body as he slept. He had touched Clint’s skin, felt the rock-hard muscle beneath as he had helped Phil comfort him from the nightmare. Now, though, with no memory-fueled terror to color the scene, T’challa knew better than to allow himself to touch and taste any of the bounty spread out before him. His lovers were a feast for his senses, and he wanted nothing more than to gorge himself on them. Soon, he promised the restless guardian.
He forced himself to look away, to keep them on the edge of his peripheral vision rather than stare at them directly. He finished his own ablutions quickly and stepped onto the bank to retrieve his clothes. Dressed, he began gathering branches to make a shelter for himself so that if it rained during the night, they would not feel obliged to invite him inside. Now that they had accepted him, sleeping in such tight quarters with them would be torture.
He lost himself in thoughts of what he would say to his mother and T’chaka to convince them to accept Phil and Clint. He would start by telling them of Azzuri’s approval and of Kitoko’s challenge. T’chaka especially would see the import of that. Then he would explain how Clint had kept watch over him through the preparation rituals. He could hear T’chaka’s chuckle at that, but Clint didn’t know his guard had been unnecessary. He would follow that with Bondeko’s and Lisanga’s approval. Then he would share Phil’s watchfulness, the careful consideration he had for those around them, and how that resulted in such a deep caring that T’challa knew Phil would be able to draw him back. Finally he would tell them of the yearning he sensed in both men for a true home and a true family, something T’challa could provide.
The sound of branches landing on his pile startled him out of his thoughts.
“That wasn’t enough to make a shelter for all three of us. We can leave our shirts and shorts on, but we aren’t sleeping alone in our tent with you out here,” Phil said. “And the tent is a little small for all three of us, especially if we’re trying to be good.”
T’challa didn’t see how sleeping together regardless of how dressed or undressed they were would help with being good, but he simply nodded and added more woven branches to the roof he had constructed between two trees.
Chapter 27: Chapter 26
I just realized I have been spelling Bondeko's name wrong for the past several chapters. I've gone back and fixed it, and it will be right from here on out.
Phil kicked dirt over the embers so they wouldn’t spark during the night and cause a fire. Clint had already spread their bedrolls under the shelter T’challa had built and was sitting cross-legged on them wearing nothing but his boxers. Phil would see how T’challa reacted to that. He might have to make Clint put a shirt back on, no matter how much he groused about sleeping in one. He could do it when he had to, as Phil had seen on more than one mission, and if a shirt made the difference between T’challa sleeping with them or sleeping elsewhere, Phil would insist.
“Ready for bed, T’challa?” Clint called.
“In a moment,” T’challa called back. “I must do my final check for the night.”
Phil joined Clint under the shelter but left a little space between them. He started to warn Clint not to push but stopped himself. Clint might play at being the jokester, but when the cards were down, he knew when to take things seriously.
T’challa appeared in front of them and glanced back and forth between them.
“Where would you be most comfortable sleeping?” Phil asked.
Clint patted the space Phil had left. “Right here would be a good spot.”
“That is not a good idea,” T’challa said.
“Would you be more comfortable like we were last night?” Phil asked.
“It is not a question of comfort but of control. If I were to sleep between you as Clint suggested, I would not be able to restrain myself. It would be too much like my dreams come to life for me to resist.”
Clint groaned. “You really shouldn’t say things like that. I’m trying to be good, but you’d tempt a saint.”
Phil ignored him, even if he was right. “Then what would give you the most control?”
“If I lay behind one of you, I could move away if it got to be too much,” T’challa said.
Clint reached up for T’challa’s hand. When he squatted down, Clint looked him dead in the eye. Phil had experienced that piercing, demanding gaze more than once and knew how hard it was to look away. “We may joke and tease and flirt, but we will never ignore the word no, and we will never pressure you into anything. You can always move away or ask us to move away or do anything you need to so you feel comfortable with us. If you want us to pitch the tent and sleep in it, tonight or any other night, tell us. Yeah, I’ll probably pout and complain a bit, but that’s more out of habit than anything.”
Phil heard the echo of Clint’s experiences in the words and wanted to beat Trickshot bloody, but he kept his expression clear. “Clint’s right.”
T’challa shook his head. “I know that. I’m acting like an unblooded boy who has never known a lover’s touch rather than an experienced warrior, but you are my mates, and that changes everything.”
“Tell us a story,” Clint suggested. “We can lie here together, however you’re most comfortable, and you can tell us another story until we fall asleep. That will keep our minds off messing around.”
T’challa sat down on Phil’s other side and stretched out. Phil settled next to him, close enough to feel the heat from his body but not quite touching. Clint snugged up behind Phil, fitting their bodies together tightly.
“I told the children in Bondeko’s village part of the legend of the guardian because they asked. Would you hear the rest?”
Phil tensed and felt Clint do the same, but he kept his voice steady. “If you like. We definitely enjoyed the first half.”
“I may have embellished a little for them,” T’challa admitted. “My abba would scold me if he were still alive.”
“I’m sure they didn’t mind,” Phil said with a smile. “Tell it to us however you want.”
T’challa took a deep breath, rolled onto his back, and stared at the ceiling above them. “Deep in the jungle, in a land time passed by, dwelled a forgotten people, known only as the Lost Ones, if they were known at all. They lived as they always had, simply and in harmony with the land. From time to time, one of them would wander the wider world to see what had been learned in their absence and, if the wanderer deemed it worthy of the goddess, would bring it back to aid the Lost Ones. In time the goddess blessed them for their faithfulness, bestowing on them a guardian who would make sure no harm came to them from outside, for everyone knew outsiders meant trouble—disease, famine, war, and death followed wherever they trod.”
Phil recognized the cadence of a beloved story repeated over and over again. Unlike when T’challa told the story to the children, this telling had weight about it, like the words themselves carried lessons to be learned and rules to be followed.
“The role and gifts of the guardian passed down from generation to generation, parent to child to grandchild and beyond, for the need of the goddess’s protection never waned. The gifts of the goddess were bountiful, but the price was high, and the guardian could not walk that path alone. Instinct pushed the guardian to find a mate, a partner in whom to balance the senses so that the guardian could always return to the village in proper form, yet few were they who could meet all of a guardian’s needs. Thus it became the way of the Lost Ones for the guardian to take not one, but two mates, a balance to each other as much as to the guardian, so that when calamity came, the guardian had the strength to ward it off and the humanity to return home after.”
And that was the explanation that had been missing for the custom among T’challa’s people of taking more than one spouse. Whether the guardian was real or a legend, the story promoted a triad relationship as a positive one.
“Have you ever met one of the wanderers?” Clint asked. Phil was tempted to kick him, but at least he hadn’t asked if T’challa had ever met the guardian.
“I meet wanderers regularly,” T’challa said. “Take yourselves, for example. Are you not wanderers, coming to the Congo to see what can be learned to take back to your people? That is the beauty of legends. Whatever they meant to the people who first created them, they have relevance for us all.”
Wasn’t that an interesting answer? “By that argument, you could be a wanderer for your people as well.”
“I am indeed a wanderer for my people,” T’challa agreed easily. “And knowing my sister, she will take her turn when she is old enough.”
“Is she a lot younger than you?” Clint asked.
T’challa rolled to his side so he was facing them. “She will be sixteen this year. When she is eighteen, Nakia will take her into the world outside our village to help her find her way.”
“Who’s Nakia?” Clint asked.
“My other best friend,” T’challa replied. “Many in the village expected me to take Nakia and W’kabi as my mates because we were always together as children, but W’kabi is like a brother to me, and while I love Nakia, I do not desire her. My inclinations have always run toward men.”
“Lucky for us.” Clint reached across Phil to grab T’challa’s hand and tug him closer.
“Definitely lucky for us,” Phil agreed as T’challa moved where Clint wanted him. Where he wanted him was apparently almost as tightly pressed against Phil as Clint was.
Not that Phil was complaining.
“Lucky for me as well,” T’challa said. “While they would make suitable mates easily accepted by my family and tribe, they would not satisfy the longing inside me for adventure. I can tell already that being with you will be a grand adventure worthy of many tales to pass down to future generations.”
Phil laughed softly. “I’m looking forward to those adventures, whatever they turn out to be.”
Clint pushed up on one elbow to lean across Phil and run a hand down T’challa’s arm until he could clasp their fingers together.
“Clint?” T’challa asked.
“You’re all snuggled up to Phil, but I want to touch you too.”
T’challa pushed up until his position matched Clint’s and kissed him above Phil. Damn, but that was a beautiful sight. Without the cold water from earlier to keep him under control, he felt his body stir. He rolled flat between them so he had both hands free. He slipped one hand beneath Clint and wrapped it around his hip, right where the waistband of his boxer briefs gave way to skin. He ran his other hand along T’challa’s jaw and down the line of his neck to rest on his shoulder. He knew where the lines were with Clint, but they had promised not to ask T’challa for more than he could give without violating his people’s traditions.
T’challa broke the kiss with Clint to look down at Phil. Even in the deepening twilight, Phil could see the intensity in his eyes, and he shivered beneath it.
“Cold, my own?” T’challa asked. “Or is it something else that makes you tremble?”
“Like you have to ask,” Phil replied tartly. “I’m lying here watching two of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen kiss over me. I’m definitely not cold.”
T’challa slid back to the ground and rested his head on Phil’s shoulder. On his other side, Clint mimicked the position, which put their clasped hands on his abdomen, right below his navel. “We could make you warmer,” Clint purred before turning his head to nip at Phil’s collarbone.
“I’m sure you could, but you aren’t going to because we promised T’challa we wouldn’t push,” Phil retorted.
“You are not pushing if I am offering.” T’challa flattened his hand on Phil’s belly and drug it slowly upward. “I would admit to great curiosity at how you will feel in my arms. I have held Clint, but so far you have eluded me.”
What was Phil supposed to say to that? He wasn’t fool enough to say no except that saying yes was a risk they’d decided not to take. Then again, T’challa was an adult. He could make his own decisions, and they’d told him clearly that they’d respect that. Instead of answering, he turned his head so he could kiss T’challa for the second time.
Unlike that afternoon in the stream, there was no hesitation between them now, only heat. Clint urged him back onto his side and spooned up behind him, only to start rutting against him when he was settled. He rocked back against Clint as the kiss with T’challa continued, gentle brushes turning into nips, turning into the wet hot slide of tongues. Unable to stop himself, Phil reached for T’challa’s hip and pulled him closer so he could rock back and forth between his two lovers. He wanted to strip away their remaining clothes and let them drive him wild, but that would cross all the lines, and he wouldn’t do that to T’challa. Instead he gripped T’challa’s side firmly and kissed him back with all the skill and passion he could muster. When T’challa moaned into his mouth and then rolled onto his back panting, Phil couldn’t stop the smugness in his chest. He might be balding and on the wrong side of forty, but he’d still managed to reduce this gorgeous man to a moaning, panting mess.
Clint nipped along his shoulder like he knew what Phil was thinking, but Phil couldn’t bring himself to care. After years of doubting himself and resigning himself to being alone for the rest of his life, he had not one but two men who wanted him. He was a lucky bastard, and he didn’t care who knew it. Nick would just have to deal with it. Phil was going to be selfish for once in his life and hold on to this gift with both hands.
Chapter 28: Chapter 27
Clint spread his clothes out to dry, glad he’d decided to stuff a pair of shorts in his pack along with his other gear. He could wear them while the heavier pants dried so he wasn’t sitting around in just his underwear. Not that he was complaining about seeing Phil that way. At work he wore briefs beneath his suits, insisting boxers never stayed smooth and ruined the drape of the fabric, but he was wearing boxers now, giving Clint all kinds of fantasies about sliding his hand up Phil’s thigh and inside the loose hem.
Sue him, he was fucking horny after last night. He reminded himself again that nobody had ever died of a case of blue balls, but goddammit, he hoped T’challa’s village was close. He didn’t know how long he could take the kind of provocation Phil and T’challa had presented him with last night. Still, he was glad Phil had been the one in the middle. He deserved to know how sexy he was. Phil might fool the rest of the world, but he couldn’t hide from them.
Restless, he rolled to his feet and started a series of stretches Nat had taught him as a way to relax both his muscles and his mind. He usually had better luck with his muscles. But since the stretches often preceded her pounding him into the mat, his mind would calm too. She wasn’t here now, though, so he wouldn’t be sparring with her.
Maybe he could convince Phil to spar with him. That could be fun. Usually Phil preferred mixed martial arts, but if Clint could get close enough to turn it into a grappling match, he could take advantage of all that bare skin.
“Do the forms have meaning?” T’challa asked from behind Clint.
Clint spun around, dropping to a defensive crouch out of habit. T’challa held his hands up to show he meant no harm. “I did not mean to startle you, but your stretches had the look of something more than a simple act. I thought you might share them with me.”
“Um, I guess. I mean, I don’t really know all the meanings behind them. For that you’d have to ask Nat, but I can show them to you.”
“I would like that,” T’challa said. “You can tell me more about this Nat while you do.”
“Natasha,” Clint said. “Nobody gets to call her Nat until they’ve proven themselves to her. She’s my Nakia, based on what you said. She’s my best friend, maybe even like what a sister is supposed to be. I don’t exactly have a way to judge that. She does all this yoga and shit. She says it keeps her centered. I just follow along and do whatever she does. I don’t know how much it does for my mind, but it keeps my body flexible, so I keep tagging along when she drags me to the gym.”
Clint slid into the warrior pose, then down into the splits. Making sure T’challa was watching, he shook out his arms, braced them to lift his weight off his legs, and flowed smoothly into a handstand. From there he let his feet fall into a back bend. He levered himself up to standing, a smirk on his face at the look of surprised lust on T’challa’s face.
“I shall enjoy practicing these forms with you if they help you to move like that.”
“Stop showing off,” Phil scolded from across the campsite. “I can still kick your ass.”
“Is that so?” Clint said. “Bring it on.”
Phil rolled his eyes but stood and came to stand a few feet away from Clint. “The rules are simple,” Phil told T’challa. “The first one to pin the other one for ten seconds wins.”
“Other than that, anything goes,” Clint added.
They started slowly, circling each other as Clint searched for a hole in Phil’s defense. He wouldn’t find one, but he looked anyway. Things were a little different here in the jungle than they were on the sparring mats at SHIELD. For one thing they were both shirtless and Phil wasn’t even wearing pants, though he did have his boots on to protect his feet. Clint was barefooted, so he’d have to watch his toes. Getting tired of the waiting game, Clint lunged for Phil. He didn’t make contact, but he did dodge the blow Phil aimed at his solar plexus. That would’ve knocked the breath out of him good if it had landed. He aimed a blow of his own at Phil’s side, only for Phil to catch his arm in a tight hold and spin.
Clint didn’t want a dislocated shoulder, but he had to get free. He kicked back and caught Phil’s calf with his foot. He jerked hard, pulling Phil off balance, and took advantage of that to jab him in the gut with his free elbow. That was enough to force Phil to let go of his wrist. Clint danced out of reach to regroup. He hadn’t had this much fun in months.
“C’mon, Phil, you can do better than that,” Clint taunted.
Phil came at Clint this time with a flurry of kicks and hits designed to put him down hard. Clint blocked the ones he could and grunted through the ones he couldn’t. At least Phil had hit him with his leg, not his boot. At this point he’d take what he could get. Stuck on the defensive, he did his best to stay out of Phil’s reach until he found an opening to exploit, but Phil didn’t give him one. He just kept coming and coming, driving Clint back.
Clint grimaced and tried to take back the offense, but his foot landed on something slippery, throwing his balance off. Phil pounced, taking Clint the rest of the way to the ground. With a sigh, Clint tapped out.
Phil grinned down at him, bright and happy.
“You only won because I slipped,” Clint grumbled. “If I’d been wearing boots, you wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Phil quipped right back as he pushed to his feet. He offered Clint a hand and pulled him up into a quick kiss.
“I knew you were both warriors, but I had not expected such skill,” T’challa said, breaking the moment. Clint turned to look at him but left his hand resting on Phil’s lower back. “I see now you have more to offer than Clint’s skills with the bow. What of you, Phil? Are you a marksman as well?”
Clint bit his tongue to keep from blurting out that Phil was in the top 2 percent at SHIELD. That wouldn’t mean anything to T’challa, and it would let their secret out.
“I was a Ranger,” Phil reminded him. “Not the team sniper, but you didn’t get accepted into the program without being a good shot. I’ll never be as good as Clint, with a gun or with his bow, but I can generally hit what I’m aiming at.”
“You have stayed in practice?” T’challa asked.
“Yes, I find a bit of target practice relaxing after a difficult day,” Phil replied. Best of all, he was telling the truth. More than once, Clint had gone looking for him at the end of the day only to find him emptying clips into paper dummies. He claimed it was less of a spectacle than sparring with some unsuspecting junior agent. He only did that when someone needed taking down a peg or when Clint or Natasha goaded him into a match.
“Relaxation is important. Would either of you be willing to practice with me? Your styles are very different than what I am used to,” T’challa said.
“That was just messing around, not really a specific style of fighting,” Clint said, “but yeah, I can do that if you want to try some different things. Same if you want to try some different weapons. A staff or a club or even a knife. We can leave the blades covered so we don’t hurt each other. I know you have your spear, but do you hunt with other weapons?”
“Some of our hunters prefer the bow or even a slingshot for small game—a rock damages the meat less than a spear tip or arrowhead—but I have always preferred the spear,” T’challa said. “I can use other weapons, but that is the one that speaks to me.”
“I feel the same way about my bow. I can use any gun you put in my hand, but given a choice, I’ll always reach for my bow,” Clint said.
“You two can play around with weapons later,” Phil said. “I’m hungry, and the stew should be hot.”
Clint whooped and grabbed his mess kit on the way to the fire pit. The sound made both Phil and T’challa laugh, and that, Clint decided, was the second best sound in the world. He’d have to wait until T’challa’s people approved their bonding for the best sound.
Chapter 29: Chapter 28
“We should reach the village in two days,” T’challa said as they made camp a few nights later.
“About fucking time,” Clint muttered.
T’challa laughed. He couldn’t help himself. Clint’s grumpiness made him want to wrap Clint up in the softest wool and protect him from anything that would upset him. And if he tried, Clint would pitch a fit and fight his way out. After their practice matches the past few days, T’challa had no doubt he could do it too. T’challa had started to learn some of Clint’s and Phil’s tricks, but they adapted to his faster than he had expected, leaving him at a definite disadvantage. If it had been a real fight, he would have summoned the guardian, bond or no bond, to protect his mates, but he would not endanger them by shifting for no reason.
“What do we need to know when we get there?” Phil asked. “Are there rules we need to follow or traditions to observe?”
T’challa’s cheeks burned as he thought of all he had not told them. “A few. We will meet the sentries first, for even with the goddess’s protection, we guard our borders carefully. One of them will run ahead to announce our arrival. My parents will meet us along with the shamans and elders of the tribe.”
“Does everyone get that kind of welcome?” Clint asked.
“No,” T’challa said slowly. “My parents sit on the council of elders. Baba…” He took a deep breath and reminded himself he had to tell them. He could not let them walk into the situation unaware and at risk of offending someone in their ignorance. “I suppose you would call him the chieftain of the village.”
“You’re a prince,” Clint said, sitting down hard as if his legs could no longer support him. “Phil, we went and fell for a fucking prince.”
“Don’t tell me you’re surprised,” Phil replied. “You’re usually more observant than that.”
“You knew?” Clint accused.
“Suspected.” Phil turned to T’challa. “Too many things didn’t add up. You were obviously more important than you claimed to be.”
T’challa should have known better than to think he could fool two men who studied other cultures for a living. Bondeko’s tribe had refrained from using his title at his request, but that had not stopped them from treating him with deference. Phil had obviously picked up on that. “I did not set out to deceive you, but it is safer for me if outsiders see me only as a guide.”
“A fucking prince,” Clint repeated with a shake of his head. “You sure you want to take up with me? I’m not exactly princess material.”
Phil smacked Clint lightly on the back of the head before T’challa could reply. Clint yelped and glared up at Phil’s unrepentant face. “No putting yourself down.”
“My people do not stand on such formalities,” T’challa said, drawing their attention back to him. “You are a skilled hunter and warrior, as you have proven more than once since we left Bondeko’s village behind. That is more than enough to qualify you as my mate.”
“And me?” Phil asked, though he sounded more confident than Clint had.
“You are as much a warrior as Clint is, a match for his strength in all ways, but when I look at you, I see the same kindness in your eyes that I saw in Abba’s eyes before he died. If it comes to that, I know you will both stand beside me in a fight, and when it is over, you will bring us home and remind us what we fight to protect. Many warriors lose sight of that when the battle fever takes them, but you will not let us fall prey to that madness.”
“He’s got you pegged, Phil,” Clint said quietly.
“It will be my honor to stand beside you and to guide you home,” Phil said formally.
T’challa bit his lip at the surge of emotion Phil’s vow evoked. The words were so close to the ones he would say when they formalized their bond in front of his people.
Clint pushed to his feet, offering T’challa a nod of his own. “I swore a long time ago that I’d protect anyone who needed it. That’s especially true for people I care about. If my marksmanship can aid your people, as a hunter or as a warrior, it’s yours.”
T’challa reached for them both. He needed the contact to steady himself. The guardian whined inside him, wanting them with a desperation that bordered on madness. He could only hope he could convince his parents quickly because the longer he had to wait, the harder it would be to remain the master of his emotions.
He had spent enough time with W’kabi to know all his grandmother’s stories, the most common being the tale of the guardian who had lost himself and killed her family along with many others before disappearing into the woods. He could not let that happen to him, not so soon after Zuri’s death. His people would not deal well with losing a second guardian so soon after the first. He owed Clint and Phil those two stories as well, especially Zuri’s, so they would understand the cloud that hung over his remaining parents.
Their embrace gave him the strength to silence the guardian inside him, but it did nothing to settle the jittery nerves. Neither he nor Clint had brought down any game that day, which gave him an excuse to run for a time. “Will you finish setting up camp while I find us something for dinner?”
“We can do that,” Phil replied. “Are you sure you’re okay to go alone?”
“We are but hours from where I grew up. I know these woods nearly as well as the land of my birth,” T’challa said. “I will be well.”
“See you when you get back, then.”
T’challa gave each of them a quick kiss and turned to sprint into the underbrush. He would run until his nerves settled, and then he would find something to bring back for dinner.
When T’challa was out of sight, Clint rubbed the back of his neck and gave Phil a worried look. “We have to tell him.”
“I know,” Phil said. “I just can’t figure out how to do it without screwing everything up.”
“The longer we wait, the harder it’s going to get.”
“I’m open to ideas if you have any,” Phil said.
Clint grimaced and started to pace the small clearing where they had decided to spend the night. He had always done better when he could move. “The only thing I can come up with is saying something like, while we’re sharing secrets, we have one to tell you too. If we don’t tell him and he finds out on his own somehow, it’ll be worse than telling him ourselves.”
“How would he find out?” Phil asked. “Nobody out here knows anything about us, and it’s not like Fury’s going to come looking as long as our trackers are active. He knows we didn’t bring communication equipment since it would be too obvious. We can find an excuse to go back to Kinshasa in a few months and tell him we quit, or whatever we decide, and that will be the end of it.”
The thought was tempting. Far too tempting. They could just let their past slip away and move forward as T’challa’s mates, nothing more, nothing less. Except…. “And what? Never talk about the last ten years of our lives? Leave Jaz and Fury and all our friends out of our stories? I wouldn’t have anything to say after Barney abandoned me, and you’d have to go back to the Rangers to find things you could talk about, assuming you can even talk about most of that time. I can do deep undercover, but we’re not talking a few weeks or months. We’re talking the rest of our lives.”
Phil sighed and sank to the ground. “I know. But if we tell him and he takes it badly, we lose our chance.”
Clint straddled Phil’s lap and rested his forehead against Phil’s. He hadn’t expected this reaction from Phil when he had taken so long to come around to the idea of being with T’challa in the first place. “And if we don’t tell him, we spend the rest of our lives waiting for that sword to fall.”
“Let’s get through the next few days, and then we’ll find a way to tell him,” Phil said. “We won’t go into the bonding ceremony until we do.”
“Just remember, whatever happens, you’re not alone. As much as I want to stay, if T’challa changes his mind, I’ll be leaving with you. I hope it won’t come to that, but if it does, we’ll deal with it together,” Clint said.
T’challa returned to camp just as the sun was setting. “The jungle was generous tonight. If we roast the duiker, we should not have to hunt again before we reach my home.”
“The fire’s ready.” Phil took the duiker and spitted it. “You never did tell us how to go about greeting your parents.”
T’challa settled next to where Clint was checking his arrows and tried to decide what to say. They so rarely had visitors from outside the tribe that formalities were reserved for times of ritual. T’challa could not ever remember an outsider coming far enough into their territory to have a chance to greet the royal family. If protocols existed, he did not know them, but he could not leave his mates with nothing to guide them.
“They will be wary,” T’challa said finally. “It is not often outsiders visit our home. We prefer the protection our remote location offers us and rarely invite others in. Within the tribe we observe formalities only on special occasions, when a ritual requires ceremonial roles.”
“But we are outsiders,” Phil said, “and not just from another village or tribe. You don’t have any suggestions?”
“How did you first greet Bondeko?” T’challa asked, at a loss for what else to say.
“With a respectful bow and a request for shelter within his village,” Phil said.
“Then offer my parents the same,” T’challa said. “They will understand the intention and the respect. The rest will come in time.”
Clint humphed next to him, but he didn’t say anything else.
“Do they speak a language we know?” Phil asked.
“They were wanderers in their time. They speak French and Lingala fluently as well as our native tongue. You will be able to greet them,” T’challa replied.
“Good. It wouldn’t be a great start to our visit if we couldn’t even speak to them.”
T’challa would have to teach them Wakandan after they bonded. He doubted anyone would agree before that. Still, they spoke multiple languages already. One more should not be that hard to learn when they were surrounded by it every day.
“Is there a spot where we can clean up a bit before we meet them?” Clint asked. “I’m back to being a sweaty, disgusting mess. Not the best first impression.”
“There is a spring where we can bathe and change before we meet them,” T’challa said, “although I have only our traditional attire to offer you.”
“Is that kosher?” Clint asked.
“Allowed,” Phil replied. “Will it bother anyone if we’re wearing your tribe’s traditional clothes when we aren’t part of the tribe?”
Again T’challa had no answer, but the image of Clint and Phil in the brightly colored tunics and loose pants his people wore filled him with the desire to push on through the night so they could reach home that much more quickly. If he had been alone, he might have considered it, but he would not risk his mates in the darkness, when all manner of predators waited to strike the unwary. He could wait two more days, especially since they would not have to hunt or cook tomorrow. They could make camp late and eat as darkness fell so they would reach the border by midday the day after. And that night they would sleep under his roof, even if his mother would not allow them in his bed.
“You are my mates,” T’challa said finally. “You may wear them if you wish.”
And if anyone disagreed, T’challa would make his position clear as forcefully as necessary.
Chapter 30: Chapter 29
Sorry for the delay, guys! Work has been a bear, and I don't honestly see that changing any time soon, but I'm still working on this and will post as often as I get a chapter done.
Clint studied the scenery as they left camp the last morning in the jungle. From everything T’challa had said, he expected some kind of hidden entrance to the village, a pass or tunnel it would be easy to miss if someone didn’t know it was there. Clint wanted to recognize the landmarks in case he left the village without T’challa and someone decided it would be funny to leave him behind. Maybe T’challa’s people were kinder than that, but in Clint’s experience, bullies existed everywhere. He wouldn’t be at all surprised if the warriors put him through some kind of hazing. Phil would probably escape it, being older and more dignified, but Clint just knew some young buck was going to try to take a piece of him. Clint wouldn’t go on the offensive, but he’d be damned if he let someone make a fool out of him.
As they walked, he looked for a path or any kind of sign that others had passed this way recently. T’challa’s people didn’t let outsiders in, but T’challa was proof that they went out, which meant there had to be a path, however faint.
He couldn’t find a single fucking trace.
The more they walked, the more the landscape seemed to run together until he would have sworn they’d passed that rock formation before. “Are we going in circles?” he asked Phil softly.
“It feels that way, doesn’t it? At least T’challa hasn’t blindfolded us to keep their secret safe. Just keep watching. There will be some kind of sign eventually.”
When they passed the same rock formation for the third time, T’challa stopped and walked up to it. “Here,” he said, gesturing for Phil and Clint to come closer. “This is the key.”
He brushed away a bit of moss to reveal a groove in the rock. It looked like any of the dozens of other cracks and chips until T’challa brushed more of the moss back. “You know you are home when you find the goddess’s symbol.”
Clint looked at it more closely until the fissures resolved into the head of a large cat. “Did someone carve that in the rock?”
T’challa smiled. “Only the goddess. Come, we are close now. We will meet the sentries soon and they will take us to the stream so we can bathe before we go into the village.”
T’challa stepped around the rock. Clint and Phil followed. As they passed it, a chill ran over Clint’s skin, raising the hairs on his arm with an almost electric charge. He frowned and looked at Phil for confirmation. Phil nodded silently.
Clint rested his hand on his bow. He didn’t reach for an arrow, but he could have one nocked and aimed in the blink of an eye if necessary.
They hadn’t gone far, maybe five hundred feet, when a voice called out a challenge. Clint might not understand the language, but he knew a demand when he heard one. T’challa called back, his voice light. A moment later another man appeared, a spear in hand and a bow on his back. He was a little shorter and stockier than T’challa, but he carried himself with the same confidence, like the jungle was his playground and nothing there could hurt him.
“W’kabi, I had hoped you would be here,” T’challa said. “Come, I have people for you to meet.”
W’kabi said something else in the unknown language, but T’challa just laughed. “Don’t be rude. Phil, Clint, this is the brother of my heart. W’kabi, be the first to welcome my mates to Wakanda.”
Phil nodded his head respectfully, not quite a bow, but definitely an acknowledgment of the introduction. Clint made himself do the same, although the gesture felt awkward. He really wasn’t cut out for this formality bullshit. He just wanted to shoot things. Bad guys preferably, but he’d take shooting his dinner if that’s what he could get.
W’kabi’s expression lost none of its distrust, but he returned the nod before turning his back on them and talking to T’challa in their language. Clint glared. Yeah, he wasn’t much to look at, sweaty and gross after a week in the jungle without much of a chance to clean up, but that didn’t mean W’kabi had to be rude about it. He opened his mouth to say something, but Phil squeezed his arm gently and shook his head.
Clint grumbled under his breath and resolved to show W’kabi just what he was made of at the first possible moment. It would be in bad form to shoot the spear out of his hand, wouldn’t it?
“Stand down,” Phil ordered under his breath.
Clint shook his hands and arms out, trying to release the battle-ready tension that had grown since they’d passed the rock with the cat head on it. He didn’t know what was going on here, but he was damn sure he didn’t like it.
Finally T’challa argued W’kabi down and looked back at Clint and Phil with a smile. “We can go to the stream to clean up. W’kabi will send word ahead that we have arrived, and someone will bring us clean clothes. He cannot accompany us until a replacement arrives to take his post, but I am sure Mother will send someone as soon as she hears. She knows what it would mean to me to have W’kabi with me as I bring my mates before the elders.”
Clint could have done without that reminder and without W’kabi’s sour expression, but he’d dealt with worse. As long as he kept it to nasty looks, it wouldn’t even make Clint’s list of unpleasant things in his life. He focused on T’challa’s smile instead. He could deal with pretty much anything if it meant T’challa would keep smiling at him that way.
Once they left W’kabi, they followed a clear path down the hill into a deep valley. At the base of the hill, T’challa veered off the main path onto a smaller one. “The stream is just ahead.”
They rounded a bend, and Clint stopped in his tracks. He’d seen his share of amazing things with SHIELD, but they hadn’t prepared him for this. The stream T’challa referred to tumbled down the cliff face in misty sheets to pool at the base before burbling down into the valley. T’challa walked to the water’s edge and undressed quickly. Clint let himself look because he didn’t know when he’d get his next chance. Probably not until after they’d bonded, if T’challa was right. He’d curled up behind T’challa and rubbed against him. He’d stretched out between Phil and T’challa and grabbed those perfect curves as they made out. He’d kept his hands outside T’challa’s clothes, but that hadn’t stopped him from memorizing the feel. His palms itched to reach out and touch now, but he didn’t know how long it would take someone to arrive from the village, and he didn’t want to fuck things up before he’d even met the elders. He didn’t think they’d look kindly on Clint feeling up their prince before they were bonded or married or whatever the hell they called it.
Besides, if he got his hands on all that bare skin, he might not stop, and then T’challa’s mother would kill them all.
T’challa looked back over his shoulder and winked at Clint before diving into the pool.
And just like that, his dick perked up and stood at attention. Fuck. How was he supposed to get naked with a stiffie? If it were just the three of them, he wouldn’t care, but T’challa had said someone would bring them clothes.
Maybe the water would be cold and that would help him settle down. He pulled off his clothes quickly and jumped into the water.
And of course it was warm. No help there.
Phil joined them at a more sedate pace. Clint was tempted to tackle him just to ruffle his perfect exterior a bit, but he refrained. He didn’t care all that much about his own image, but T’challa would have a hard enough time selling the elders on them without Clint making things worse.
T’challa swam to the far side of the pool and plucked leaves off one of the plants. “Here,” he called. “Help yourself to all you need.”
Clint was halfway across the pool when he heard rustling in the undergrowth. He glanced toward his gear, but he’d never reach it in time.
“W’kabi said you’d brought outsiders home,” a woman’s voice drawled, “but he left out a few details. I will speak to him about what constitutes relevant information.”
“Okoye!” T’challa called. “I did not expect you to come all the way out here to greet us.”
Clint sank deeper beneath the water. He wasn’t body shy, but he wasn’t ready to flash an unknown woman until he had a better idea of the customs of T’challa’s people.
“It is my job to protect you, my prince. You would not let me go with you when you left, but I will resume my post now that you are home.”
Prince. He’d told Phil they were dating a fucking prince, but T’challa had never used the word, so Clint had convinced himself it wasn’t really like that, more like Bondeko. He’d been the chief of the village, but he’d been one of them too, not set apart like royalty.
“Of course you will,” T’challa said with a roll of his eyes. “Stand guard if you must, but do not spend too much time staring at my mates. You would not want to make W’kabi jealous.”
Okoye retorted in their language, making T’challa laugh again. “You do not have to see what I do in them. You have only to accept that they are what I have been searching for all my life.”
Okoye inclined her head. “Then I wish you the goddess’s blessing. I will guard their lives as I do yours.”
Clint might have bristled at that, but Okoye didn’t know them yet. If she was T’challa’s guard, she had to be a damn good warrior herself. Since she seemed inclined to accept them, he’d ask if she wanted to spar with him sometime, see if she could teach him some moves.
She turned away, focused on the path leading to the pool rather than on them.
Clint swam over to where T’challa rested against a curve in the pool. “I don’t remember you mentioning her. You talked about W’kabi and Nakia, and your sister, of course. Did I miss it?”
“No,” T’challa said. “I could have mentioned her as W’kabi’s wife, but she is much more than that, and it would have required an explanation I was not ready to give. I suppose you would call Okoye a general. She sees to our defenses and leads our warriors if battle comes. She has also taken on the role of my personal guard, no matter how many times I tell her I am perfectly safe within our borders.”
“We could try convincing her we’re more than enough to keep you safe,” Clint offered.
T’challa laughed softly. “You are welcome to try. She is more likely to believe we will pose too much of a distraction to one another and so will need protecting more than ever.”
Clint snorted. “Yeah, okay, I might see her point, but that’s just when we know we’re safe. If we were worried about any kind of danger, we wouldn’t be distracted. Ask Phil. I’ve been watching his back for years without being distracted.”
T’challa frowned a little. “Is anthropology such a dangerous field?”
“When we’re out in the field, yeah.” Clint hid his wince. Fuck, they needed to tell him the truth because the more comfortable Clint got, the more likely he was to let little things like that slip, and he didn’t want to fuck everything up by giving away too much before they’d come clean. “You never know when someone’ll decide to take exception to our presence. Hell, to our existence sometimes. We’ve pulled each other’s asses out of the fire more than once.”
“Then I continue to be glad you have had each other, for protection as well as for comfort and love,” T’challa replied.
“My prince, it will not win you any favor with the king and the elders if you keep them waiting too long,” Okoye broke in. Clint glanced her way, but her back was still turned respectfully. “You would not wish them to question your eagerness to present your mates to them.”
Clint didn’t doubt T’challa’s eagerness to present them, but his own eagerness to be presented was getting smaller with each passing second. Before he could freak out any more than he already was, Phil joined them and squeezed Clint’s side. “Deep breath, Clint. Whatever their titles, they’re still the parents of the man we’ve fallen for, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. They want him to be happy just like we do. We’re all on the same side here.”
Easy for you to say, Clint thought.
His thoughts must have shown on his face because Phil whacked him gently on the back of the head. “No putting yourself down, even in your head.” He turned to look at T’challa. ‘This is not a new problem. You have to help me break him of it. He’s convinced he’s worth less attention, respect, love, you name it, because of his past. I keep telling him the way other people have treated him doesn’t have anything to do with his worth as a person or to me. He still doesn’t believe me.”
“I believe I shall enjoy tackling this problem,” T’challa replied. “It will be no hardship to shower him with all the respect and affection I have to give.”
Clint wanted to sink beneath the surface of the water and just disappear, but they wouldn’t let him drown himself, which meant he was pretty much stuck. Then again, stuck between Phil and T’challa wasn’t a bad place to be. As long as he could stay there, he could deal with the rest. Like the fact that they’d fallen in love with a fucking prince.
Chapter 31: Chapter 30
Work is still crazy, but I think I see the light at the end of a tunnel (and no, it's not an oncoming train), so have another chapter!
Phil smiled at T’challa’s reply and Clint’s reaction. It would be good to have an ally in his quest to overcome Clint’s insecurities. And if T’challa approached Phil’s own insecurities with the same determination, maybe he’d eventually come to believe they wouldn’t grow tired of him when they could have each other. T’challa had said he would rely on Phil to bring them home, and his tale of the guardian and the necessity of compassion underscored that idea, but that was small comfort next to the two gorgeous younger men next to him in the water.
He’d said for years that Clint read him better than anyone else, including Nick, and he proved it once again when he poked Phil in the side. “While we’re working on insecurities, don’t forget to tell Phil regularly that he’s far sexier than he thinks he is. Otherwise he’ll spend his time worrying we’re going to throw him over for a younger model, which is bullshit because it’s his experience that makes him so attractive.”
T’challa pushed off the wall where he’d been resting and swam close enough to brush against Phil, naked skin to naked skin. “That will be even easier than reassuring you. Our bonding day cannot come soon enough.”
“My prince,” Okoye called from above. “Remember your manners.”
Phil winced at the thought of the general hearing everything they’d said since she arrived.
“Do not worry,” T’challa said in Phil’s ear. “She is the epitome of discretion, and her loyalty to me is unassailable. She will tell no one of our conversation nor allude to it in any way. You need never fear speaking freely in her presence.”
“I’ll remember that,” Phil said. “But she is right. We don’t want to make things harder for ourselves when we meet your parents.”
“That is true. Come, we should dress.” He swam to shore and walked out, completely unconcerned by his nudity. Phil admired his confidence as much as his physique. He couldn’t stop his glance toward where Okoye stood guard, but her back remained to them, so he followed T’challa out of the water.
Two piles of cloth waited next to their dirty clothes. T’challa picked up something from the first and tossed it to Phil. It took him a moment to realize it was a towel. Since arriving in the Congo, he had mostly let his skin dry naturally, either because the chances to bathe had been rare or because he hadn’t had a towel to use, but he didn’t turn down the luxury now. Not to mention stealing surreptitious glances at both Clint and T’challa as they dried off. The cloth alternately covering and revealing hard, muscled limbs was its own seduction.
When they were dry, T’challa shook out the items from the other pile. He handed Clint and Phil each a pair of dark trousers with drawstring waists. His own trousers were much more ornate, bright blue swirling through patches of yellow, and if Phil wasn’t mistaken, that was gold thread at the hems and at the waist. Then T’challa handed out long, straight tunics. Phil’s was a solid dark green, simple but flattering. He handed Clint a maroon one, so dark it was almost purple, fitting since even undercover, most of Clint’s shirts were purple. Then he put on his own, the same yellow and blue as in his trousers. Unlike the ones Phil and Clint wore, though, T’challa’s had ornate embroidery along the collar, the cuffs of the sleeves, and the hemline. It also fit more precisely along the line of his shoulders. This was clearly his outfit, not something brought out at random. And it was an ensemble fit for a prince.
He was starting to sympathize with Clint’s “just a kid from the country” routine. Phil had dined with, protected, and once even overthrown heads of state, but this was different. If T’challa had his way, he’d soon be married to one, at least by the tribal customs of Wakanda. Given that the head of state was the prince of an isolated tribe and therefore unrecognized by any external authority only changed the way that union would be viewed by outsiders—and damn if Phil hadn’t started thinking of the rest of the world in the same terms T’challa did. It did nothing to change how Phil felt about it.
T’challa slipped his feet into a pair of sandals. “I have no shoes to offer. We do not keep extras for wanderers returning home the way we do clothes.”
“Our boots are fine unless that will be a problem later,” Phil said.
“They will be fine. I thought only of your comfort,” T’challa replied.
Clint would be more comfortable in his boots until he got the lay of the land, Phil knew, and at the moment Phil was inclined to agree with him.
When they stepped back onto the trail they had taken to arrive at the pool, W’kabi flanked them along with three other similarly dressed men—an honor guard for T’challa or extra protection against outsiders. Phil didn’t know which, but either explanation left him with the distinct impression Clint had been right once again in his reaction to learning T’challa’s position within his tribe. They were dating a fucking prince.
At least when he told Nick about it, he wouldn’t be able to accuse Phil of setting his sights too low or selling out for a nobody. Not that Phil cared all that much what Nick thought of his choices. They were good friends, but this was more important.
When they reached the place where the path split, one back toward the jungle, away from T’challa’s home, and the other inward toward the village presumably, Okoye joined them as well, giving Phil his first good look at the general who was also T’challa’s personal guard. Tall and slender, she moved with all the deadly grace and harnessed power that made Natasha such a powerhouse at hand-to-hand combat. Not that he knew how to engineer it, but he’d love to see the two women spar. Perhaps once things were more settled, he could see about inviting Natasha to visit.
“Who d’ya think would win?” Clint asked him softly. “Nat or Okoye?”
“I’m not sure I could predict it,” Phil replied just as softly. “Definitely not without seeing Okoye fight.”
“That can be arranged,” Okoye said from ahead of them without looking back.
“Actually, I’d really like that.” Clint took a step forward, but four crossed spears blocked his path.
“Enough, W’kabi,” T’challa said. “He was not threatening her. He was asking to spar with her. We have been sharing our styles with each other for weeks now. And who better to teach our ways than Okoye?”
“I meant no disrespect,” Clint added. “Sorry if it came across that way.”
“It did not,” Okoye said as W’kabi grumbled. “My love is at times overly protective of me. While the warrior in me would remind him it is not necessary, the woman appreciates it too much to stop him.”
And that was diplomacy if Phil had ever heard it. Both a reminder to W’kabi to relax and permission to continue. Maybe she’d give Clint lessons in that too.
The path turned sharply around a cliff face and opened out into another valley, far larger and deeper than the one where they’d bathed. Nestled in the valley was a collection of buildings far larger than he’d expected. This wasn’t a village like Bondeko’s. This was a city hidden artfully among the trees.
Phil kept his expression neutral despite his sudden misgivings. A settlement this large should have been visible on their satellites, even if explorers on foot had somehow missed it. Next to him, Clint was tense as his bowstring again, although he hadn’t reached for his weapon. As fast as he was, the others were too close. He might get off a shot or two before they were overwhelmed, but that would just enrage the others and alienate T’challa, who was already their one safety net. No, they’d have to see how this played out and go from there.
“I’m not sure the bath is going to make much difference by the time we hike all the way down there,” Phil said to T’challa.
“But that is the beauty of it. We do not have to hike.” T’challa led them the rest of the way around the bend to a structure of wood and stone with heavy ropes strung from it down into the valley. “All we have to do is activate the water wheel in the valley and this will bear us down to the city.”
First the city was hidden, and now they had a rudimentary equivalent to a cable car or ski lift. Things definitely didn’t add up here.
“That’s ingenious,” Phil said to hide the suspicion growing under his sternum.
“It saves both time and labor. We use it for goods as well as for people,” T’challa explained.
Most inventions came from that exact desire, and T’challa had mentioned wanderers multiple times, so one of them could have seen cable cars or something similar and brought it back, but that didn’t explain the city being successfully hidden. He’d accepted T’challa’s assertions about the goddess as part of his beliefs, but now he wasn’t so sure it was simply faith. Something was definitely going on here.
Okoye stepped into the first basket to reach the machine. She obviously expected T’challa to join her, but there wasn’t space for all three of them. “I will take the next one down,” he told her. “I wish to arrive with my mates. W’kabi, you should ride down with her. I would have you with me when I bring my mates before our people.”
She scowled but didn’t protest beyond that, and W’kabi grumbled a little about guarding T’challa’s back even as he looked pleased to be included. Phil braced himself mentally. If arriving with them was that important to T’challa, they would probably have a welcoming committee at the bottom. He put on his best professional smile and posture, determined to make as good an impression as he could.
The second basket arrived, and T’challa gestured for Clint and Phil to precede him into it. “Will this hold the weight of all three of us?” Clint asked, his skepticism clear in his tone.
“It has held the weight of an okapi and a hunter to steady the cargo. That is more than the three of us combined. I would not risk you if I had the slightest doubt about its safety,” T’challa replied.
The reminder reassured Phil. Maybe things didn’t add up quite right at the moment, but T’challa would not have gone to all this trouble only to deliberately harm them now. He stepped in and braced himself against the side as Clint, then T’challa followed him. The contraption started to move, throwing Phil off balance for a moment, but once in motion, it floated smoothly down into the valley. They reached the bottom in a matter of minutes. T’challa stepped out first and turned back to offer a hand to both Clint and Phil. Phil appreciated the help as much as he did the symbolism. He didn’t know who was watching, but he was sure someone was.
When T’challa moved enough for Phil to see beyond him, he was proven right. Okoye stood at attention to one side, spear held perfectly straight. When T’challa stepped off the platform, she slammed the butt of her spear against the ground. Around her other warriors did the same. T’challa nodded to them and turned to the group of people gathered beyond.
“Baba, Mama,” he said with a deep bow.
One of the men stepped forward and embraced T’challa. A woman stood directly behind them, and when the man—the king, Phil reminded himself—released T’challa, the woman took his place. When she, too, stepped back, the king spoke to T’challa in Wakandan.
Phil didn’t understand what was said, but he could practically feel the cool disapproval radiating off him in their direction. He kept his expression neutral because he could sense the tension in Clint’s body and could guess at the expression on his face without needing to look. At best he was frowning. At worst he looked halfway to murderous.
“I have heard your concerns, my king,” T’challa said formally, replying in Lingala, “but I would ask you weigh them against the blessing of the ancestors. Azzuri and Shungu both accepted Clint and Phil as my mates. Bondeko holds them both in high esteem, and Lisanga has promised to make a blanket for our bed out of the okapi hide from my ritual hunt. These things should not be set aside lightly. Give my mates a chance to prove themselves to you as they have to others.”
“They may stay,” the king said, “as long as they are worthy.”
Deciding now was the time for boldness, Phil took a step forward to stand at T’challa’s side. He bowed as deeply as T’challa had done. “Thank you for your welcome, Your Majesty. We will endeavor to be worthy of your approval and your son’s affections in every way.”
“You speak Lingala,” the king replied, surprise cutting through the coldness on his face. “That is unexpected.” Phil tried to reconcile the king in front of him with the father in T’challa’s stories and failed. Even taking into account the formality of the situation and the shock of T’challa bringing home two white mates didn’t help. Behind the king, the queen seemed carved from stone.
“Between us we speak many languages,” Phil replied easily.
“What other skills do you bring to my people?” the king demanded.
“Baba,” T’challa protested, but Clint ignored him. Phil hid a smile.
“My skill as a warrior or a hunter,” Clint said. “T’challa can vouch for both, but I’d be happy to prove them again in any situation you choose.”
“And you?” the king asked Phil.
Phil let his smile show. “The strength to stand beside T’challa in battle and the compassion to guide him home.”
Chapter 32: Chapter 31
T’challa nearly burst with pride at Phil’s reply. He might not understand the full significance of what he had said, but he could have chosen no better way of answering T’chaka.
“What did you tell them?” T’chaka asked harshly in Wakandan.
For once, T’challa replied in the same tongue rather than in a language that would include his mates. “I told them the legend, nothing more. It was a way to explain our triad bonds. They are used to hearing the lore of different peoples as part of their studies. They took it as just that—another story. I would not endanger our secrets without your permission.”
“Did you prompt him in what to say?” Ramonda asked.
“No, Mama. I told them only to greet you both as they would other village chieftains. Anything beyond that, they have figured out on their own,” T’challa insisted.
“You said Azzuri and Shungu gave their approval, but there should have been a third ancestor,” T’chaka said.
“Kitoko did not refuse the match but also declined to give her blessing,” T’challa said. “She looked at them and saw only outsiders, but when she challenged me to prove they could draw me back, I changed and returned to myself with no struggle at all. They are my mates, Baba. I will accept whatever test you propose, but when all is said and done, if they are still willing, I will bond with them.”
“Kitoko outlived the guardian she mated and was killed by the guardian who brought home an unsuitable mate,” Ramonda reminded them. “She has reason to be wary.”
“Wary, yes, but that does not change the challenge she put before me nor my success in completing it,” T’challa replied. “The thought of them was enough to bring me back to myself even before we bonded. How much more powerful then will our bond be when it is fully formed?”
“This is not the place for such a discussion,” T’chaka said finally. “Settle them in lodgings and return home. We will discuss it more in private.”
T’challa had hoped for a warmer reception to his bonding announcement, at least after he shared the ancestors’ approval, but they were in public. He missed Zuri more than ever. Abba would have balanced T’chaka’s and Ramonda’s stoicism. T’challa refused to believe it was more than that. He would take Phil and Clint as his mates even if it meant walking away because having found them, no one else would do. He would not start with that when he talked to his parents, but if pushed to it, he would make his stance clear. It would unsettle the tribe even more if he left and they had to find a third guardian in such a short time, but having T’challa lose himself would be no better. T’chaka could argue all he wanted, but having made his choice, the guardian would not be easily denied.
Pushing his concerns aside for now, T’challa turned to Clint and Phil. “Come, let us get you settled.”
Phil raised an eyebrow in a gesture T’challa had seen him use with Clint, a silent question requesting an equally silent answer. He shook his head, grateful Phil refrained from asking while they were in public. He led them into the village to a small house set aside for the rare visitor. Occasionally another chieftain would seek audience with T’chaka and would need a place to stay during their council. It would serve his mates until he could win his parents over and bring them into his bed.
“It is nothing fancy,” he said as he showed them the simple house. “A bedroom, a place to bathe, and a firepit should you wish to cook, although I hope you will eat with me instead of alone here.”
“Your parents seemed less enthusiastic than I’d hoped they would be,” Phil said with the gentle tact T’challa had come to love.
“They didn’t order us shot on sight, Phil,” Clint said before T’challa could reply. “That’s better than the reception we’ve gotten in some places.”
T’challa added that to his list of stories to ask about someday.
“They were among those who expected me to take Nakia and W’kabi as my mates. Abba—Zuri—was the only one who understood.”
“They are still in mourning,” Phil surmised, showing off his keen intelligence, his second best trait in T’challa’s eyes. “How long has it been?”
“Two months,” T’challa replied, his own grief at losing Zuri warring with his contentment at having found his own mates. “We found him not far from the entrance to the valley. He’d tried to cross a stream that was too deep and drowned. He never learned to swim. Baba and my mother have been disconsolate since.”
“And here we come, barging in with the subtlety of a sledgehammer,” Clint said with a sigh. “No wonder they looked shocked.”
“That is part of it,” T’challa said. “The rest is a sad story, but I do not believe it applies to us. I will do my best to convince my parents you are suitable mates, but it may take some time for them to come around.”
“We have time,” Phil replied. “No one is expecting to hear from us for another three months, and even then we only need to get somewhere we can send a message so our friends know we’re fine.”
“I hope it will not take that long,” T’challa said. He did not think he could wait that long without losing control of the guardian. Right now that would result in coming to find Phil and Clint and completing the bond, approval or no approval, but the longer this dragged on, the less certain he was of how the guardian would react. Everyone knew cats were temperamental on a good day. When pushed, they could be unpredictable and downright deadly. Once he had his mates, it would not matter because they would be able to draw him back and rein him in if necessary, but with them so close at hand but still denied, the guardian would be more volatile than ever.
“You and me both,” Clint said. “Are we allowed to kiss you before you go back to convincing them? I don’t want to get you in any more trouble than we already have.”
“I am not in trouble,” T’challa said. “Yes, it is the tradition of my people to seek the approval of the ancestors and the elders before bonding, but I am fully an adult, and the ancestors gave their approval. If the elders disapprove, it does not stop us from bonding. It only makes our lives more complicated. I prefer to avoid that if I can.”
“That didn’t answer my question,” Clint said, stepping into T’challa’s space. “Are we allowed to kiss you?”
T’challa smiled and kissed Clint as much because he wanted to as in reply. Clint met him halfway, pouring all his fire into the kiss. Inside T’challa, the guardian stretched and purred in delight. T’challa pulled him closer, aligning their bodies. Clint rubbed against him a little before wrapping one leg around T’challa’s thigh. The movement opened more space between them and let T’challa thrust more directly against Clint’s groin. He ran his hands down Clint’s back and lower, intending to take Clint’s weight so he could feel both of Clint’s legs around his waist.
Phil cleared his throat. “As much as I’m enjoying the show, you both need to take a step back and a deep breath or you’re going to end up bonded accidentally. And that will get us in trouble.”
“Spoilsport,” Clint grumbled as he took the prescribed step back.
“Only because we promised T’challa we wouldn’t bond until we had his parents’ approval,” Phil said. “Otherwise I’d be right there with you, believe me.”
“Not helping, Phil,” Clint said, “because now I’m picturing you climbing T’challa like a tree, and that’s too damn sexy an image.”
Phil snorted. “I just watched you actually climb him like a tree, so don’t even go there, B-babe.”
T’challa was quite sure listening to them talk about bonding and all it entailed would set him off if they continued. He could imagine it far too easily, their bare bodies, eager hands, hard cocks, and all the time and freedom to explore and enjoy. He had never been so glad for the loose pants and long tunic that would allow him to go before his parents without embarrassing himself.
“When the time comes, I will gladly submit to being climbed or ridden or climbing or riding or any other variation of coming together that feels right in the moment, but for now, I should join my parents. The sooner I convince them, the sooner that time will come.” He took an additional step away from the temptation embodied in his hawk and caught Phil’s hand. “As soon as I’ve had a kiss from you as well.”
Phil kept their kiss gentle despite T’challa teasing him with the tip of his tongue. The guardian rumbled his dissatisfaction at Phil’s ability to resist, but T’challa admired him all the more for it. They needed one cool head among the three of them, and when it came time to pull himself back from the guardian, he would be glad of it.
No matter how frustrating it was now.
He took a backward step toward the door, half hoping Clint would snap and take the choice away from him. It was selfish, he knew, but presenting his parents and his people with a fully functioning bond would have avoided all the discussion. Clint’s gaze stayed on him until he had to turn or trip on the steps, but he held himself immobile. No, if T’challa wanted to break with his people’s traditions, he would have to initiate it. And listen to his mother scold him for giving in to weakness.
“I will be back as soon as I can,” he told them. “Think of me until then.”
“Always,” Clint promised.
T’challa sucked in a breath, poised on the balls of his feet. The guardian whined inside him, eager for the consummation that was so close at hand and yet so far away. He closed his eyes, struggling with himself, tensed slightly, and fled. It was that or take them both to bed.
Chapter 33: Chapter 32
As soon as T’challa was out of sight, Clint turned to Phil. “We have to tell him. We’ve waited too long already.”
Phil flinched because Clint was right and Phil was the one who’d insisted on delaying. “Tonight,” he said. “We’ll tell him tonight if we can find a moment alone with him.”
Clint shook his head. “Not ‘if.’ We make a moment. He’s brought us home to meet his parents. Fuck, Phil, that’s like one step short of getting married. Nobody’s ever taken me to meet their parents before.”
No one had taken Phil home that way either, and he hadn’t ever expected anyone would, given how gone he was for Clint and that Clint had no family left. “I know. Tonight. We’ll find a way to tell him tonight. In the meantime, does anything seem odd to you?”
“Everything,” Clint replied, “but I’m keeping an open mind. Just because they’ve chosen to live in relative isolation doesn’t mean they have to be completely primitive. T’challa’s obviously educated, and he talked about his sister going out to see the rest of the world when she’s older. They may not invite the outside world in, but they have contact with it by going out.”
“True,” Phil said, “but it’s still odd. How have they managed to stay off the map? This is not a tiny village of fifty or a hundred people we’re talking about.”
“I don’t know,” Clint admitted. “It makes you wonder about that story T’challa told. The goddess’s protection, Bast, a guardian, it’s exactly the rumors we were sent to track down, only on crack. And then here we are in a valley that doesn’t exist. I mean, I didn’t keep exact track of where we hiked because I didn’t want to make T’challa suspicious, but we’ve both studied maps of this area extensively. I would have remembered something this big. So a valley that doesn’t exist despite all the mapping technology and satellites now available. A tribe that’s more advanced than any of the other isolated tribes in the area without having any visible contact with the outside world. A more defined political structure. No, there’s definitely something going on here. The question is what. And do we care?”
“What do you mean, do we care?” Phil asked. He’d followed along with Clint’s observations right up until the end, impressed as always at how Clint’s vision translated into more than just marksmanship.
“Assuming T’challa still wants us after we tell him who we really are, we’re staying here, so does it matter if there’s something odd going on? We won’t be answering to SHIELD or Fury anymore, so we won’t have to investigate it, just live with it. And while it’s definitely odd, none of it feels bad. I’m not getting Hydra vibes or even just generic bad guy vibes. And after all the merc work I did, I can usually call them a mile away. However they’ve managed to build and hide this completely, it’s not malicious. So do we care why or how odd it is?”
Phil hadn’t thought about it that way. He’d been a soldier and an agent for so long that he couldn’t turn it off entirely, but Clint had always had a unique perspective on things.
“Maybe not,” Phil said slowly, “although I’d feel better if I understood. Not to report to Fury or anyone else, not unless we find something that truly is a threat. But I think you’re right. It’s odd, but it’s not bad. More unexpected.”
“So we tell T’challa the truth tonight, and if that doesn’t fuck everything up, we do whatever it takes to convince his parents to accept us. And then we fuck his brains out until we’re as bonded as we can get.”
Phil snorted. “Such a way with words.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “Dressing it up with pretty words doesn’t change reality. I’ve wanted to get my hands on that ass since he flaunted it at me that first day in the jungle.” He reached out and pulled Phil into the bedroom. “And when that’s done, I can finally get my hands on yours too.”
Phil grinned. “And if I want my hands on yours instead?”
“Time and place, babe,” Clint replied immediately. “Name them and my ass is yours.”
Phil groaned at that. He should’ve known better than to try to hope his flirting would work on Clint. Hawkeye was infamous around SHIELD for his banter, and Phil was more than a little rusty. Up until a few weeks ago, he’d always met Clint’s comments with complete deadpan, mostly because to respond in any other way might reveal his true feelings. Now that he could respond, he didn’t know how.
“Hey,” Clint said. “That wasn’t the look I was hoping for when I offered you my ass. You okay?”
“Of course. Just thinking how out of practice I am at flirting, that’s all.”
“Is that all? That’s nothing to worry about. You don’t have to flirt to get my attention. Just walk in a room and you have it.”
“Even next to T’challa?” The words slipped out without conscious volition.
“Even next to T’challa,” Clint said, as serious as Phi had ever heard him. “Yeah, I want him too. Yeah, I think the three of us will be amazing together, but that doesn’t mean—will never mean that I want you less.”
“Sorry,” Phil said. “Old insecurities die hard.”
Clint backed Phil toward the bed—a real bed with an actual feather mattress, not just a sleeping mat of woven reeds—and down to sitting. Then he climbed onto Phil’s lap, straddling him. The position caused his tunic to ride up, leaving only the thin fabric of the loose pants between their groins. “We’ve both got old insecurities, and mine aren’t going away any faster than yours, but don’t ever doubt how much I want you.”
He rocked his hips against Phil’s, letting Phil feels his erection. Phil was tempted—God, so tempted—to urge Clint to keep going and find some reassurance in their mutual release. T’challa had said it was fine since they were already “bonded,” but it felt wrong when he couldn’t find his own pleasure until his tribe agreed to their bonding.
It hit him all over again how crazy this was and at the same time how incredibly much he wanted it. Crazy or not, this was where he wanted and needed to be. In a hidden valley in the middle of the Congo with two of the most incredible men he’d ever met, on the verge of bonding with both of them when he’d almost given up on having anyone to spend his life with.
“I’ll try, and once we’re bonded, you and T’challa can remind me as often as you want, but right now we should figure out how to win his parents over. Otherwise that bonding is a long way off.”
Clint groaned and rolled to the side. He pulled Phil down next to him. “I already feel like Legolas, offering my bow, but that’s all I got.”
“Hey, remember that conversation about insecurities?” Phil pushed up onto his elbow and stared down at Clint. “You’re so much more than you know.”
Clint snorted. “Yeah, yeah, I pulled myself out of my shitty beginnings by my own fucking bootstraps. You know what? That’s doesn’t mean a damn thing when we’re trying to convince African royalty I’m a good match for their only son.”
“Okay, first of all, don’t ever brush off the hardships you went through and the way you managed to retain your compassion and moral compass despite it all. You are a miracle, end of conversation. But even if we leave that out—which we shouldn’t, but even if we do—how about the fact that you’ve turned your skills as a sniper into observational skills that match or outpace most of our analysts? Because you weren’t ever put in the box, so to speak, you think outside of it easily, and that leads to conclusions and solutions other people wouldn’t consider. You might think that’s not important, but out here in an unknown situation and with people whose customs we don’t have the slightest idea about, it’s going to be crucial. Not to mention that gut instinct you talked about.”
Clint grumbled some more but didn’t argue, so Phil leaned down to kiss him. “We’re outsiders, and to some extent, we always will be. We’re never going to blend in here, not physically anyway, so we have to make our status as outsiders something positive. What can we bring to them because we have a different perspective on things?”
“If nothing else, we think like outsiders, so we can look at things the way potential threats from outside would and help counter them,” Clint said slowly.
“That’s exactly what I mean. We could also sit in on negotiations of any kind to add a different perspective, and depending on who the negotiations are with, the perspective of the other party,” Phil said. “And both of those are things you could do just as well as I could.”
“Okay, so maybe I do have a few things to offer,” Clint said slowly. “Still doesn’t mean I’m not totally out of my depth.”
“Focus on the fact that T’challa wants us here and believes we’re who he needs in his life. Surely that carries weight with his parents.”
“Yeah, I’m holding on to that like a lifeline.”
“We’ll get through it. I don’t think they’ll make it easy, but we’ll measure up to any test they put us to. Even before Natasha joined us, we had the highest success rate on missions in SHIELD history. Together we can figure anything out, and if T’challa is there to guide us, we’ll have no trouble.”
“I hope you’re right,” Clint said with a deep sigh.
“Enough wallowing.” Phil stood up and tugged on Clint’s arm. “We need to secure our gear. I don’t think anyone will come snooping around, but better safe than sorry.”
Chapter 34: Chapter 33
T’challa had barely crossed the threshold of his home when Shuri grabbed his hand and pulled him toward her room.
“You shouldn’t grab me that way when I’ve just come home,” T’challa said as he followed her. “I haven’t had time to let down my guard.”
“Pffft, you couldn’t hurt me if you tried,” she replied. “I heard Mama and Baba talking. You brought people home!”
“I brought my mates home,” T’challa corrected.
“Outsiders?” Shuri’s tone betrayed her excitement as much as her curiosity. “When do I get to meet them?”
“As soon as I convince Baba to give them a chance to prove themselves. He isn’t as excited about outsiders as you are.”
“What does he know?” Shuri asked with all the infallibility of her youth. “They’re your mates, not his. It’s stupid that he gets to decide if they’re right for you.”
Privately T’challa agreed, but having felt the guardian stir within him, he understood T’chaka’s concern too. It would be far too easy to lose control. “Because we are still feeling the repercussions of the last time a guardian chose an unsuitable mate.”
“As if you would choose anyone unsuitable. You are the most responsible person I know,” Shuri said.
“Then perhaps you do not know enough people,” T’challa retorted.
Shuri rolled her eyes. “Tell me about them?”
T’challa grinned. He couldn’t help it. Thoughts of his mates would always bring a smile to his face. “They are not young men, but they carry the weight of experience and maturity with grace.”
Shuri smacked his arm. “You don’t have to wax poetic for my sake. Save that for Mama and Baba.”
T’challa chuckled. “You say that as if I were exaggerating their traits for you, but I am not. That truly is how I see them.”
“Where did you meet them?”
The memory of walking into Bondeko’s village and seeing them there swamped T’challa. In the few short weeks since he had first laid eyes on them, they had become his everything. “I visited Bondeko and Lisanga as I often do when I go wandering. They were there and had been for several months. Long enough for Clint to have impressed everyone with his ability as a hunter. They claimed he never missed.”
Shuri scoffed at that.
“Do not be too quick to dismiss their claims,” T’challa said. “I traveled with him to come here, and I watched him spear the eye of a fish in moving water with an arrow that had a string attached. Not once, but three times in a row. That is no easy feat. And when I first expressed concern to Phil that he might have trouble because of the distortion from the water or the weight of the rope, he refrained from laughing at me, but I could tell he wanted to. He has absolute faith in Clint’s ability to shoot any target he says he can shoot, and I have yet to see Clint do anything to shake that belief.”
“What tribe are they from? Bondeko gets almost as few visitors as we do.”
“They are not from the Congo,” T’challa said. “They are scholars here in Africa to learn more about our people and our ways. They came from America to study stories of the guardian.”
“You brought colonizers home?” Shuri squealed. “Oh, this is going to be fun!”
“Really, Shuri,” T’challa scolded. “They are hardly colonizers. Outsiders, yes. White men, yes, but not colonizers. You know better than that.”
“As if the elders—the ancestors—will see it any differently,” Shuri said.
“I cannot speak for the elders,” T’challa admitted, “but I sought and gained the approval of the ancestors before I ever began courting them, as is proper. They are my mates, no matter what anyone else says.”
“I cannot wait to see you try to convince everyone of that,” she said with a mischievous grin. T’challa reminded himself she was both young and sheltered and that the arrival of Clint and Phil was probably the most outrageous thing she had experienced in her life. That it would mean the difference between a happy life and a constant struggle to control the guardian—if the gifts did not pass immediately on to someone else should he be denied—would not register with her until she was older.
“I am glad to provide you with a source of amusement, but this is my future at stake. Had I never met them, I might have settled on others, but the guardian will not be dissuaded now. It will be them or no one.”
Shuri sobered at that, and T’challa knew she, too, had felt Zuri’s loss and the changes his death had wrought on their family. “I am sorry, brother. I did not mean to make light. I do not count much next to the will of the elders, but you have my support.”
And that was why he adored his little sister even when she drove him to his wits’ end. “The most important thing you can do will be to help make them welcome. Baba and Mama will come around in time, and when they do, the elders will follow, however grudgingly, but Clint and Phil must stay long enough for that to happen. They do not understand about the guardian yet. If they leave, it will destroy me, but they may do it thinking it will help.”
“You haven’t told them?” Shuri exclaimed. “That is madness, even for you!”
“I will tell them,” T’challa said. “I held back at first because I did not know them. Then I could find no easy way to bring it up. I dare not change to prove it to them before we have bonded, but how else are they to believe me? To them I am a matter of superstition and legend. It is to the goddess’s credit that we have kept it to that, but it is not easy to bring up this late.”
“Men!” she said, as if she would be any better in the same situation. “Always making things more complicated than they need to be. You act as if honest conversation would be worse than losing a limb. Really, brother, I thought Abba had taught you better than that.”
T’challa flinched at that, because Zuri had taught them that they lost nothing by expressing their emotions honestly, but the time had never been right, and a small part of T’challa still feared their reaction to his deepest secret.
“I will find the right time to tell them,” T’challa said. “Before we bond. I promise. But if I cannot convince Baba to give his blessing, it is better they leave not realizing the truth.” He did not tell her he would leave with them. It would not matter because if he did, he would forfeit the gifts of the goddess and the legend would remain a legend with no one to let the secret slip.
“Oh, you are insufferable!” She threw her hands up and shoved him out of the room. “Go talk to Baba and Mama. I am going to welcome your mates and show them around the city. I will make sure no one speaks out of turn, but if you do not tell them, I will. I am warning you now.”
“Do not,” T’challa ground out. “I am serious, Shuri. This is not your secret to tell.”
She glared at him. “And it is not yours to keep, but I will respect your wishes for now.”
That did nothing to reassure him, but he could hardly forbid her from meeting Phil and Clint. Even if he did, she would ignore him. Better to let her go with her agreement to respect his wishes than for her to decide to defy him not only in meeting them but also in keeping his secret.
“Show them all our favorite hideaways,” he said instead. “They will appreciate them. Especially where we watch the sunrise. It is the wrong time of day, but it is always a spectacular view.”
“No, I think I will leave that to you,” she said. “You can take them there to celebrate your bonding.”
T’challa groaned at the thought, making her laugh in delight. But sweet goddess, the idea of leading them to the isolated cliff, of spending the night making love with them under the stars, and then watching the sun rise together on their first morning as bondeds was enough to shake the control he had recovered while talking with his sister. “You are an evil, evil brat.”
“And you are far too easy to rile,” she retorted. “Go. The sooner you talk to them, the sooner you can live out whatever scenario just went through your mind.”
He started out of the room, then turned back. “I love you, brat.”
“I love you too, idiot.”
He embraced her quickly, glad she had matured past the stage where she was too grown up to say the words or accept the hug. He dropped a quick kiss on her braids and let her go. She smacked him as she walked by toward the door of their dwelling. In the city the guards would let her pass without escort at first, although he fully expected to listen to a rant later about how they followed her the entire time she spent showing Clint and Phil around. He would listen to it and agree with her about how unfair it was, because he had chafed beneath Okoye’s presence more than once, even though she was one of his dearest friends. And then he would thank Ayo for her diligence, if only because Ayo’s presence would keep anyone who had not yet heard from overreacting to Phil’s and Clint’s presence in the city.
Now he just had to convince his parents to be as supportive as Shuri.
Goddess help him.
Chapter 35: Chapter 34
When Shuri was out of sight, T’challa walked deeper into the house toward T’chaka’s study where he knew they would be waiting for him. All important family discussions took place there, the one place where they were assured of absolute privacy. No one other than family ever passed through those doors.
He knocked before entering to let them know he was there but did not wait for a reply before going inside. The first was polite. The second was the privilege of family. They were seated around the firepit as usual, though no fire burned within it.
Out of public view, his mother rose from her chair and embraced him warmly. “It is good to have you home, my son.”
“It is good to be home, Mama,” he replied as she pulled his head down so she could kiss his forehead. She was a tall woman, but he had outgrown her about the time he reached adulthood. She had never let that stop her when she felt the need to show him affection. “Baba,” he added, when his father did not rise. He did smile, though, so T’challa left it at that and took his chair.
“You put quite a cat among the peafowl today,” Baba said when he was seated.
“I know, and I am sorry, but I could not think of a way to send word ahead. I was not completely sure until a few days ago that I would bring them home. I knew I wanted to, but I had to be sure they were the right ones first. And by then, we were so close that I just came home.”
“You are the guardian now, not simply a wanderer. That changes more than just your need for your bonded. You will never be as happy outside our territory as you are in it,” T’chaka said. “I wish I could have given you more time.”
“That is not a worry for you to take on,” T’challa said hotly. “I know—better than most now—that if you had your way, Abba would be sitting here today and for many years to come.”
T’chaka flinched, but he smiled sadly nonetheless. “He would be so proud of you. He told me from the first time he laid eyes on you that you would be the best of us when your time came. I only wish he could have lived to see it, that age rather than loss had led to you taking on the mantle of guardian.”
“I know that, Baba. But I believe with everything I have that he is feasting among the ancestors at the news that I have found my mates.”
“He always did love a feast,” Ramonda said, a waver in her voice that she would never have allowed in public. Okoye might be the greatest warrior of their generation outside the guardian, but woe to anyone who forgot that Ramonda had once laid claim to that title. T’chaka and Zuri had been the envy of every man in the tribe when they won her favor to fulfill their triad.
“Have you completed the rituals?” T’chaka asked.
“I have. Bondeko and Lisanga bore witness in your absence. Lisanga promised to prepare the okapi hide from my hunt and send it for our bonding bed,” T’challa reminded them.
“Yes, you mentioned that. It is a generous offer,” Ramonda said. “She is as fierce as any warrior and as wise as any shaman we have. Your chosen must be impressive indeed to have won her approval.”
“They are, Mama. If you would get to know them, you would find the same warrior spirit in them as you carry within you,” T’challa said.
“Two warriors?” T’chaka asked. “That is not our way.”
“Phil is as trained a warrior as Clint is, but while he can and will defend himself if necessary, it is not his calling the way it is Clint’s. Clint would burn himself out in a fight if left to it, but Phil….” He paused, struggling to put what he sensed into words. “Phil would fight for as long as it took to protect those he loved, but it will never be his first instinct. He must be pushed to it. He will always try diplomacy first. He was a Ranger in the American military, but while that experience provided his training, it does not define him. He is the one who will always make sure everyone comes home. He will rescue them if he can and avenge them if he can’t, but he will bring them home and care for them once he does. He told you himself when you asked him what he had to offer us. The strength to stand beside me in battle and the compassion to bring me home.”
“It was a daring answer,” Ramonda said.
“I did not prompt him, Mama. I told you that,” T’challa insisted. “I shared the guardian lore with them, but they still see it as a legend, not the truth. I will correct them when I have your approval. If we are not given permission to bond, it is better they leave believing it a story that colors our lives, not the one thing we hold above all others.”
“You would accept it if we denied that permission?” T’chaka asked.
“I will continue to try to convince you for as long as it takes,” T’challa said, “but I cannot force you to accept my choice. I hope it will not come to that, though. We have lost too much already.”
Ramonda’s gaze sharpened, but she let T’chaka continue his line of questioning. “Tell me more of your audience with the ancestors.”
“What would you have me say?” T’challa asked. “I have told you already that Azzuri and Shungu gave their blessing and that Kitoko declined to do so despite my success in facing the challenge she set before me. I know I am asking much of everyone by bringing home not only outsiders but foreigners as well. I know that my role as guardian will bind Phil and Clint here in a way it would not if I were anyone else. I recognize the challenges in my choice, but it is my choice. I do not know how else to make you see that I have made it, that the guardian inside me recognizes them as suitable. You must remember what it was like, Baba. I have heard the tales of how hard Mama made you and Abba work to win her agreement, yet you never wavered. You knew she was the right mate for you, and you did what it took to convince her of that fact. If she had continued to refuse, what would you have done?”
T’chaka gave Ramonda a fond glance. “Lost my mind.”
“Then you know what you would be asking of me if you refuse me the permission I need,” T’challa said.
T’chaka sighed. “Zuri said you would be the best of us. He did not say you would also be the most difficult.”
T’challa bowed his head, fighting back the emotions that threatened to swamp his control. He would not help his cause by losing himself in them.
“What would Abba say if he were here now?” he asked without lifting his head. His voice broke, but he could do nothing to stop it.
Ramonda barked a bitter laugh. “He would not be here now,” she replied. “He would be sitting with your chosen already, getting to know them. He always did lead with his heart.”
“Because he always said that anything else was folly and would lead to more pain than it avoided,” T’chaka finished.
T’challa looked up, knowing his eyes were wet, but his parents’ cheeks glistened with their own tears, so he let his fall too. “We have lost our heart and our way without him here. I cannot bring him back, but I can bring a new stability to our family. Give them a chance. If they prove me wrong, then I will accept it, but do not judge them for the color of their skin or the land of their birth. Let them show you who they are and how good they are for me. That is all I ask. The rest will come in time if you let it.”
“Your heart is truly set on them,” Ramonda said slowly, as if she were only now coming to understand how deeply T’challa felt.
“It is, and so is the guardian. If I cannot have them, I cannot be the guardian,” T’challa said. “There is no longer one without the other.”
Chapter 36: Chapter 35
“Hello? Are you here?” The woman’s voice—girl’s, really, from the sound of it—made Clint jerk upright, already reaching for the knife that wasn’t in its usual place on his thigh. He took a breath and reminded himself that they were in T’challa’s city now and so among, if not friends, at least people who could be trusted not to stab them in the back. In the chest maybe, but they would do it honorably, face-to-face like warriors.
He reminded himself to be polite and walked toward the entrance. Phil had gone into the bathroom and not come out yet, so Clint would have to play diplomat. Fuck. He sucked at being diplomatic.
“Yes,” Clint replied, stepping into the area with the firepit. The girl—he’d been right, she wasn’t more than fifteen or sixteen—wore elaborate braids and a brightly colored blouse and loose pants nearly as decorated as T’challa’s had been. “Shuri?”
She pouted at him, but her eyes twinkled. “How did you know?”
“Well, you aren’t the queen because I met her already. You aren’t one of the guards because you’re not carrying weapons, and you came looking for us, so you know T’challa well enough not to wait for an introduction,” Clint said.
Shuri’s smile widened and she laughed delightedly. “Oh, I like you already. You will make the elders crazy, which is perfect. If they are grumbling about you, they will pay less attention to me.”
Clint chuckled. “Unless they decide to give up on T’challa and groom you to be the next ruler instead of him.”
Her eyes widened comically for a moment before she narrowed them in a shrewd gaze that made him worry a little about what she might come up with next. “Which one are you? T’challa talked about both of you, but it was always together. He didn’t give me enough to guess.”
“I’m Clint. Phil will be out in a minute.”
“Good. Who knows how long T’challa will be locked away with Mama and Baba? Since Abba is not here to welcome you, I decided to volunteer.”
“You don’t think he’d be locked in there with him?” Clint asked. T’challa had mentioned his other father more than once, but rarely with enough detail to give Clint more than a vague sense of the man.
“Great Bast, no! He hated that kind of thing,” Shuri said. “He would leave them to argue tradition and the will of the ancestors because it would tell him nothing he couldn’t find out better by simply meeting you. We revere the ancestors, but they are not omniscient. Nor are they free from prejudice and other flaws. Abba always said his own heart and an open mind were as good as any wisdom the ancestors might bestow.”
“He sounds like a very wise man,” Phil said from the doorway. Clint turned to smile at him.
“Phil, come meet T’challa’s sister. Shuri, this is Phil.” Clint refused to use their fake last names.
“Your Highness,” Phil said with a very correct nod of his head. Fuck. He’d forgotten to do that. Diplomacy fail. He’d be lucky if he didn’t get them kicked out before dinner.
“Please, no,” Shuri said with a shudder. “Save the formal manners for Mama and Baba. They appreciate that kind of thing. I can do it when I have to, but there’s no one here to insist, not even my idiot brother.”
Score! Clint didn’t pump his fist in the air at being the one to read the situation right. He might see better at a distance, but Phil was usually the one with better people skills up close.
“As you wish. I’m afraid we aren’t set up to be good hosts, but can we get you anything?”
She studied Phil with the same piercing stare he had seen from T’challa early in their acquaintance. Clint tried to see Phil through her eyes, but all he saw was the same warmth and kindness he had always seen beneath Phil’s carefully cultivated façade.
“I’m beginning to understand,” she said after a moment.
Clint opened his mouth to ask what she understood, but Phil shot him such a stern look that he shut his mouth fast enough to make his teeth click together.
“Come on. I told T’challa I would show you around the city while he convinces Mama and Baba that you belong here.” She turned and winked at Clint. “I know all the best stories. Not even W’kabi can tell you as many embarrassing stories about T’challa as I can.”
Clint whooped and started toward the door. “This I got to hear.”
Phil just rolled his eyes and followed along.
Shuri laughed again, that same delighted sound Clint could already tell he would love and hate in equal measure, depending on whether it was aimed at him or at someone else. Nobody would ever get a big head with her around.
He thought briefly of Nat and wondered again how soon he could get her here. Then again, he wasn’t sure he wanted Nat and Shuri to compare notes. Nat had far too much dirt on Clint that she would be thrilled to share so someone could burst Clint’s bubble when she wasn’t around to do it.
“Do you want the formal tour or the family one?” Shuri asked.
“The family one,” Clint said before Phil could reply. He’d probably ask for the formal one, and Clint knew they’d need it eventually, but they could learn as much or more by seeing things through Shuri’s eyes.
“I was hoping you’d say that. Come on. We’ll go out the back. Maybe that way we can slip away without Ayo noticing. She won’t say anything, but I wasn’t as lucky as T’challa, to have my guard also be one of my friends.”
“Is that wise?” Phil asked.
“Do I look like I care?” Shuri replied. “Besides, T’challa said Clint was a warrior and a hunter. You’ll protect me if I need it, won’t you?” Shuri batted her eyelashes at him in such an exaggerated fashion that he burst out laughing. He’d probably just given them away to Shuri’s bodyguard, but Clint didn’t give a damn. Shuri was trouble with a capital T, and he loved it already.
“Anything for you, darlin’,” he drawled.
She laughed harder and led them out the back door. Clint didn’t need to look to know they hadn’t evaded her guard, but since the woman hung back to give them the illusion of privacy, he didn’t say anything. If he caught her eye later, he’d give her a nod to show he knew she was there, but for now, he focused on Shuri.
She led them down a meandering path among the towering trees. The undergrowth had been cleared back enough to make for safe and easy passage, but the canopy above them was completely untouched. Someone flying over the valley wouldn’t see anything except more trees.
“We’re on the edge of the city here,” Shuri said with a wave of her hand toward the cluster of buildings Clint had seen on their way in. “That’s the formal tour. The informal tour is all out here. You saw the spring on the way in, I guess?”
“We did,” Clint said, fighting to keep his voice even. If Shuri had been a little older, he might have given her a knowing wink, but he wasn’t about to corrupt T’challa’s little sister. Not until he knew she was already corrupted.
“We learned to swim there,” Shuri said. Her expression darkened for a moment. “I just wish we’d made Abba learn.”
“I can see it being the perfect place to learn,” Phil said gently while Clint tried to find a way to lighten the mood. Shuri’s expression smoothed out at Phil’s quiet words.
“Do you swim?” she asked.
“We both do,” Phil replied.
“Good.” Clint watched with growing admiration as she squared her shoulders and shook off the heavy mood. “Someone has to help me beat T’challa the next time we go.”
“Done,” Clint said because he would always side with the underdog, and besides, if he helped Shuri win, he was sure T’challa would make him pay for it later, and wouldn’t that be fun?
“Behave,” Phil muttered in English.
God, he loved that man. Even when Clint didn’t say anything, Phil could read his mind.
“The legends say the goddess herself warms the spring for us, you know,” Shuri said. “Another of her many gifts. That’s what Abba always said. He wouldn’t come in the water with us, but he would sit on the edge and watch us as we played. He would never have drowned in the pool, even if he was there alone, but outside the valley, we lose much of the goddess’s protection.”
Clint shared a pointed look with Phil. They’d already talked about the oddities he’d noticed, but this was something else entirely. Maybe it was a child’s simple faith, but something in Shuri’s declaration shook him. They had considered T’challa’s talk of the goddess and her blessings as a sort of creation myth, but now Clint wondered if that was true. He’d seen enough strange things in the circus and at SHIELD and learned about even more—the Red Skull, anyone?—to know the world wasn’t as black-and-white as people liked to believe. His assertion before the mission that the Black Panther was just a legend was starting to feel a little short-sighted. He could ask. She’d probably tell him, but they’d agreed to abandon the mission. If the legends were true, they’d find out in time. “You promised us embarrassing stories. What’s the dumbest thing T’challa ever did in the water?” he asked instead.
The clouds in Shuri’s expression disappeared and her smile broke out again, as bright as the sun. “He broke his leg when he was about ten,” she said. “I don’t really remember it because I was too young, but Mama told me the story over and over so I wouldn’t do the same thing. He was showing off, you see. He’d brought some friends with him, and he was being all puffed up and important because he knew how to swim. W’kabi got tired of the bragging and dared him to jump into the water from the big rock on the far side of the spring. Only the water isn’t very deep there. T’challa wasn’t about to back down from a dare. Don’t let him fool you. He still can’t. Anyway, he climbed up on the rock and jumped before anyone could stop him. He broke his leg when he hit the bottom and couldn’t leave the house for months while it healed.”
“I bet he hated that,” Clint said.
“He did, but W’kabi got it even worse. His grandmother was so angry at him that she made him spend every day with T’challa to help him with everything he couldn’t do, so instead of getting to come in and taunt T’challa with stories of all the things he’d done while T’challa was stuck inside, he was stuck there too, running to do T’challa’s bidding,” Shuri said. “Abba said he didn’t know whether they’d end up brothers in all but blood or if they’d never talk to each other again.”
“It sounds like they ended up brothers,” Clint said.
“Yes,” Shuri said with a huge sigh. “Unfortunately it means I ended up with two overprotective older brothers instead of just one.”
Clint smirked and leaned in close to whisper, “You’re about to get a third. Phil’s the biggest mother hen you’ll ever meet.”
“Just what I need,” Shuri groaned.
“Don’t worry. I know all the tricks for getting around him. We’ll sneak out and see what kind of trouble we can get in together,” Clint replied.
“Or not,” Phil replied dryly. Clint shot him a leer over his shoulder. Phil could protest all he wanted. He hadn’t tried to curb Clint’s mischievousness in all their time together at SHIELD. He wouldn’t start now. It wasn’t like Clint would do anything really dangerous with Shuri along anyway. He might be impulsive, but, come on, he wasn’t that irresponsible.
“Come on. I want to show you the cave T’challa was convinced would lead us to buried treasure.”
Oh yeah, Clint was definitely sneaking out with Shuri as often as he could get away with it.
As long as T’challa didn’t kick them out first when they told him the truth.
Chapter 37: Chapter 36
Clint’s sides hurt from laughing so much as Shuri finally brought them back to the house T’challa had offered them. If Shuri had an off switch, he had yet to find it, and she had no qualms about sharing all her brother’s secrets. Clint couldn’t wait to tease T’challa about his buried treasure.
“When I asked you to show my mates around the city, I did not expect you to disappear with them for hours,” T’challa said as soon as they walked into the house with a glare at Shuri that she gleefully ignored. Damn, but he had to find a way to get Nat here. She and Shuri would get on like a house afire.
“We went hunting for buried treasure,” Clint said with his best imitation of Phil’s deadpan delivery.
Shuri giggled, and, to Clint’s delight, T’challa practically squirmed. If he’d had lighter skin, Clint would have put money on him blushing.
“I had hoped to spend some time with you before dinner,” T’challa said to Phil, ignoring Shuri’s continued laughter and Clint’s smirk. That was okay. Clint would make it up to him later. “My parents have invited us to eat with them tonight.”
Clint’s stomach sank. Fuck. First a formal introduction he was only barely prepared for, and now a state dinner. They might not call it that, but Clint knew an interrogation when he saw one. He’d survived enough of the damn things.
He looked down at his slightly rumpled outfit and cursed his enthusiasm for climbing around in the cave with Shuri.
“Do not worry,” T’challa said. “I have brought clothing befitting my mates rather than what we keep for wanderers coming home.”
The knots in Clint’s belly tightened more. Not that he’d go to anybody’s house but Phil’s and Nat’s looking like he’d been playing in the mud—what? He never got to play in caves when he was a kid. He was making up for it now—but “clothing befitting my mates” sounded awfully damn formal.
“Does this mean Mama will make me wear a dress?” Shuri asked, looking down at her own muddy clothing.
“You will have to ask her that,” T’challa said. “It matters not to us, but you know how she is about observing the formalities.”
Shuri sighed and gave Clint a half-hearted glare. “It’s a good thing I like you. I hate wearing dresses.”
T’challa said something in Wakanda that made Shuri laugh and made T’challa glare at her even harder. She waved at Clint and Phil and left the house.
“She will be the death of me someday,” T’challa muttered when she was out of earshot.
“Better not be,” Clint said. “I’d have to kill her, and I like her too much for that.”
T’challa grimaced. “Having the two of you become friends might be even worse.”
“Definitely worse,” Phil said through a chuckle. “I’ll help you keep them in line as much as I can. I’ve had a few years to practice on Clint.”
“How soon are your parents expecting us?” Clint asked. “Because we wanted to talk to you about something. It can wait until after if we need to hurry.”
“Are you sure it can wait?” T’challa asked. “I can ask Okoye to take word to my parents that we will be delayed.”
Clint winced. He wanted to talk to T’challa now, to get things out in the open as soon as they could, but making them all late to their first meeting with T’challa’s parents would fuck with their attempt to win them over, and he didn’t want that. “It can wait. But come back here with us after dinner? For a while, anyway. Long enough so we can talk for a bit.”
“I had planned to do that anyway, so it will be no trouble at all,” T’challa replied. He handed them each a bundle of cloth. “Outfits for dinner. I will wait outside if you wish to wash quickly before you change.”
“You don’t have to run off,” Clint said. “It’s not like you haven’t seen us naked before.”
“That was in the wild, where we had no real choice—or can justify it that way if anyone asks,” T’challa replied. “While I would stay gladly, I do not wish to give the elders any reason to question our courtship. Okoye will not speak of the time spent at the hot spring, but here, anyone could walk by and draw conclusions.”
That didn’t sound so good. It also didn’t sound like what T’challa had said on their way here. Had he misunderstood or had something happened to make T’challa draw back from them even before they could tell him about SHIELD? He studied T’challa’s expression as carefully as he could without staring, but he couldn’t interpret what he saw, as if T’challa was struggling with something. All his self-doubt came clawing at his throat at the thought of what T’challa’s parents might have said about their courtship, about Clint’s lack of anything more profound to offer than good aim, about all the reasons Clint was no match for anyone, much less royalty. And it didn’t matter if anyone outside this valley recognized T’challa’s parents as heads of state. Clint knew royalty when he saw it.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. He should’ve quit while he was ahead and gone home with Phil without risking everything on the chance of adding T’challa to their lives too.
“We’ll get ready as quickly as we can,” Phil said, interrupting Clint’s spiraling thoughts. “We want to make a good impression.”
“Your answer to my father’s question was a good start,” T’challa said. “I will wait for you outside.”
Phil’s answer. Not Clint’s because Clint hadn’t had an answer. Fuck and double fuck. Clint looked down at the clothes in his hands and then over at Phil. “Am I the only one worried about this?” he asked.
Phil tipped his head toward the bathroom. Clint followed him into the small space. Phil poured water into the basin on a stool and splashed some on his face. “No,” he said finally, “but delaying it won’t help us any. Think of it as any other mission. Keep your eye on the objective and roll with the punches as they come.”
“I hope nobody starts throwing punches. I wouldn’t put money on my chances against so many guards, especially since I won’t have my bow,” Clint said.
“Figurative language is a thing,” Phil reminded him.
Way to have a joke fall flat.
“Yeah. I’ll be on my best behavior. I promise.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Phil said as he stepped aside to let Clint wash up.
“Maybe not, but I promise anyway since we both know I’ll be the one to fuck it up if one of us does,” Clint said glumly. He washed his hands, splashed water on his face, and scrubbed under his arms to get rid of the worst of the sweat. That would have to do since they didn’t have a tub or a convenient hot spring in the house. He wondered if T’challa had one where he was or if bathing always involved going down to the spring.
“That’s my partner you’re insulting,” Phil scolded. “I take it personally when people do that.”
Clint smiled as he knew Phil intended. Best of all, Phil’s faith in him settled him to the point that it might even be justified. He could do this. He just had to keep his wits about him and think before he opened his mouth.
They changed into the garments T’challa had brought them, fancier versions of the outfits they’d worn earlier. Better fitting too. The earlier one had been a bit tight around the shoulders for Clint, but this one, while still snug, didn’t leave him feeling like he might tear a seam if he moved the wrong way. Phil’s fit him better too, showing off the breadth of his shoulders and his trim waist, and the sapphire blue was the perfect color to bring out his eyes. “Looking good there, babe.”
“You clean up pretty good yourself,” Phil replied. “Come on. Let’s get this over with so we can tell T’challa the truth and face whatever fallout there is from that. And then get on with the rest of our lives together.”
That sounded pretty damn perfect to Clint. He brushed his hands over the tunic one more time, making sure it lay smooth across his torso. Slipping his hand into Phil’s, he walked toward the front of the house, T’challa, and the future.
Chapter 38: Chapter 37
Phil took a sip of the guava juice Shuri had offered them when they came into the sitting room a few minutes earlier and listened to her and T’challa bicker. It reminded him of his siblings, a thought that made him smile around the pang in his chest. Even if his sexuality hadn’t been an issue for his family, his work with SHIELD would have put a strain on their relationship, but he missed them sometimes, when he had a few quiet moments to himself. Of course that happened less often as his responsibilities increased, but a part of him would always regret the rift.
Next to him, Clint had the same grin on his face that he’d sported the entire afternoon spent with Shuri. Phil was sure letting those two team up was a bad idea, but he’d never say that aloud, not when Shuri made Clint smile in a lighthearted way Phil had rarely seen. Life had done its damnedest to grind Clint down, so Phil would encourage anything that lifted him up again. Even if it meant more headaches for him.
The door swung open and the queen walked in, the king one step behind her. Phil rose to his feet immediately, offering them a half bow. Clint scrambled to his feet, a far cry from his customary grace, and did the same. Phil hid his smile because if Clint had let his guard down that far, then he would encourage Shuri to tease T’challa every chance she got.
“Your courtesy is appreciated,” the queen said, “but inside these walls, we are a family like any other.”
“I didn’t want to presume,” Phil said.
“And that is to your credit. Sit. The meal will be ready shortly and we will eat. Until then, we can get acquainted,” the queen said.
Phil waited until she sat before returning to his own seat. She might have said not to stand on formality, but he didn’t see any harm in basic manners.
“T’challa said you were once part of the American Rangers,” the king said, speaking for the first time. “That is an impressive feat.”
“It was a logical step in my desire to protect those I care about,” Phil replied.
“But that is no longer your calling?” the queen asked.
Mindful of telling the truth at the same time that he didn’t precipitate a conversation best held in private, Phil replied, “I can and will still fight if necessary, but I have found that the best weapon of all is knowledge. The real war is the silent war, and that is won with fact and details and foresight. If I can provide that through my studies, then I have protected my family and my world in a far more effective way.”
“A very diplomatic answer,” T’chaka said with a small smile.
“And one Abba would have agreed with,” T’challa added.
“You will have your hands full curbing that one’s impulsiveness if you stay,” Ramonda warned with a fond glance for her son.
“I have years of practice,” Phil replied.
“Hey,” Clint protested.
“Look me in the eye and tell me I’m wrong,” Phil said.
Clint blushed and ducked his head, rubbing at the back of his neck.
“As I was saying,” Phil continued, turning back to Ramonda.
She smiled as well, the expression changing her face from a mask of stone that not even Maria Hill could top to a kinder, more approachable one. There was the mother, not just the queen.
“Will you share your secret? I have yet to have any luck with either of my two cubs.”
Phil chuckled as both T’challa and Shuri’s hackles rose at that, much like the cubs Ramonda compared them to. “I find bribery works quite well. Give them a sufficient reward for making the wiser choice, for coming back safely.”
That got a laugh from T’chaka. “Just as Zuri did with us, my love, even if he would not have put it that way,” he said to Ramonda. Then he turned back to Phil. “You have options open to you that a parent would not.”
“Bribery is bribery. You just have to find the reward that works,” Phil said, refusing to let the heat curling in his gut show on his face. Yes, he had the implied options with Clint now, but until a few weeks ago, that hadn’t been true. And technically he didn’t have those options with T’challa yet, although he hoped it would not be long. Judging by T’challa’s expression, he felt the same.
“And you, Clint?”
“I think I’ve always been a fighter first,” Clint admitted. “It’s taken a lot of years of Phil explaining things for me to learn the value of diplomacy. Even then, my first inclination will always be to reach for my bow.”
“As I reach for my spear,” Ramonda replied.
Phil swallowed down the surge of hope at the comparisons T’challa’s parents were drawing between themselves and Clint and himself. The more they could see on their own that the differences were on the surface, not at the heart, the more likely they would be to accept him and Clint.
“Mama, you should show Clint how you use your spear. As talented as he is with a bow, he would learn it quickly, I’m sure,” T’challa said.
Don’t say it, Phil silently ordered Clint.
“I would be honored,” Clint said. Phil let out a soft sigh of relief. He’d worried Clint would either claim he could already use a spear—which might be true but was hardly diplomatic—or would insist he didn’t need anyone to show him because the use of ranged weapons came naturally to him. Also true, but again not the impression they wanted to give.
He should have known better. Clint might be brash among other SHIELD agents where he felt comfortable, but he had some sense when he was outside those walls.
“Tomorrow, perhaps,” Ramonda said. An unknown man appeared in the doorway, causing Clint and Phil both to tense in preparation for a fight, but Ramonda simply rose to her feet. “Now we should eat while the food is hot.”
Everyone followed her into a different room with a table loaded with food. Phil could smell the spicy pili pili sauce from where he was standing. T’challa and Shuri didn’t seem to notice, making Phil hope they simply enjoyed spicy food as opposed to this being another test for Clint and him. Fortunately they were both used to eating anything put in front of them and they’d had several months to get used to this particular spice, so it wouldn’t faze either of them.
“Mmm, mossaka and plantains,” Shuri said as she rushed over to the table.
“Shuri loves mossaka,” T’challa told Phil, “but we eat fish more than we do chicken, so she doesn’t get it very often.”
“Just for special occasions,” Shuri said. “But this is a special occasion. It’s not every day T’challa brings outsiders home for us to meet.”
“Not outsiders,” T’challa said. “My mates.”
“Isn’t that what I said?” Shuri asked innocently.
“Shuri, stop baiting your brother,” Ramonda said in a tired tone that suggested this was far too normal.
“Yes, Mama,” Shuri said, but out of her mother’s sight, she glared at T’challa and made what was obviously their equivalent of the middle finger
“Shuri,” Ramonda scolded without even looking.
The words satisfied Ramonda, but Phil saw Shuri’s mutinous expression. She wasn’t sorry at all, no matter how prettily she said the words.
To cover Clint’s chuckle, Phil said, “It all smells wonderful. We have discovered quite a few new flavors since we’ve been in the Congo, but this will be another new one for us.”
T’chaka took a seat at the head of the table and Ramonda at the foot. Shuri sat on one side, but before Clint could go to sit next to her, T’challa caught his hand and Phil’s and guided them to places on either side of him.
“It is good that you appreciate the different flavors of the region,” Ramonda said.
“We’ve found all kinds of things to appreciate since we got here,” Clint replied.
“Like T’challa?” Shuri asked from across the table.
Phil leveled her a steady look, the one that sent junior agents scrambling for cover. “Do you expect us to deny it when we’ve accepted his courtship?”
Shuri spluttered at his reply, making T’challa laugh outright and his parents smile. “I’m beginning to believe you will fit right in,” Ramonda said.
And that? That was the sweetest victory he had ever known.
Chapter 39: Chapter 38
T’challa could have been walking on air, he was so thrilled with his parents’ reaction to Phil and Clint. He had known that would be the case if they would give his mates a chance, but he had expected it to take longer for them to warm up to the idea. Bast bless Shuri and her sometimes tactless ways. Or maybe he should say her manipulative ways, because he had no doubt she knew exactly what she was doing when she teased them during dinner.
Tonight he would hear what Phil and Clint had to say and tell them what they needed to know. If they took his revelation well—please Bast they would—tomorrow he would formally petition the elders to allow their bonding to take place within the week, and all would be well in his world again.
He followed them into the guest lodgings and reminded the guardian this was only temporary. Soon they would be back at this side again, in his bed this time rather than on bedrolls under the stars, and they would be bonded, with nothing to hold them back.
Not soon enough.
Nothing short of taking them to bed and bonding with them this instant would be soon enough, but T’challa still had some control over himself, and he had long known that the time of waiting as the elders considered the guardian’s proposed match was as much a test of the guardian’s control as it was for the elders to make up their minds.
As soon as they were alone and away from prying eyes, he pulled Phil and Clint to him, one with each hand. “You made my mother laugh. You have no idea how hard that is since Abba died. For that alone, Baba will accept you.”
He kissed them each thoroughly, starting with Phil because he had broken the ice and eased the underlying tension at dinner. When he pulled back to turn to Clint, Phil looked decidedly glassy-eyed. Good. Let him feel a bit of what T’challa was feeling.
The moment his attention turned to Clint, Clint pounced. T’challa returned the kiss with equal fervor, nipping and biting at Clint’s lips as Clint tried to devour him. Gentle goddess, let the elders approve quickly. He didn’t know how much longer he could wait.
“We should talk before we get carried away,” Phil said, ever the voice of reason.
Clint groaned as he took a step back from T’challa, looking as wild-eyed and desperate as T’challa felt, but with an undercurrent of… fear? What did Clint have to fear here in Wakanda?
“Why don’t we sit down?” Phil suggested. He took one of the seats and T’challa sat in another, but Clint remained standing. After a moment, he began to pace the space behind Phil’s chair.
“We told you we’d come to study the legend of the Black Panther,” Phil said. T’challa nodded, tensing despite himself. He had known from the beginning why they were there. Bondeko had sent word to him as soon as they arrived in the village. It had been a concern at first, but they had come to learn, not to exploit. “We did come to learn more about him, but not to study him. We were sent to determine if he was a threat or to recruit him if we could.”
T’challa frowned. What kind of university did they work for? “Recruit him?”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Clint said from behind Phil, his face betraying his agitation. “We gave up on that before we even left Bondeko’s village.”
“That didn’t answer my question,” T’challa said, tension mounting at Clint’s unease. He had expected questions about how they kept Wakanda a secret, about the goddess, perhaps even about the guardian, but wherever this conversation was leading, it was not there.
“We work for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division,” Phil explained. “SHIELD for short. Our mission is to protect the world from threats beyond the scope of individual national security agencies. We were sent on a mission to investigate rumors of the Black Panther. Fury, our boss, doesn’t like things he can’t explain, so he instructed us to see what we could find out.”
Pain swamped him at the idea that their relationship had been one-sided. Had he so misjudged them and the situation that eh had fallen in love with ephemera? If they were not Clint James and Phil Neiman, anthropologist come to learn about and from remote African cultures, where did that leave him? He did not want to believe it, yet they had just told him they were not who they had said they were. Where did that leave him?
T’challa wanted to curse but could not find a word strong enough in any of the languages he spoke for this betrayal. He had known they were searching for the Black Panther from the start, but he had assumed his secret was safe. Now he feared the worst. Did they suspect he was the guardian and had stayed to prove it? Had they played him all along? If so, the betrayal went even deeper than he feared.
From birth, all Wakandans learned one lesson above all others. Do not betray their secret to the outside world. And T’challa had done just that. Oh, he had not known he was doing it, but that was no consolation now. He would be lucky indeed if he was simply exiled for his trespass. Others in the past had been executed for less.
“And what did you find out?” he forced himself to ask. The situation might yet be salvageable. And if not, he would know how much damage he had done.
“That there are a lot of legends and beliefs around the idea of some kind of guardian, but no evidence of anything,” Phil replied. T’challa smothered his sigh of relief. One secret, at least, was still safe. “We haven’t reported back yet because we came here with you instead.”
Oh Bast preserve him. He might escape with his life yet, as long as the elders did not order Phil’s and Clint’s execution to keep their secret safe. T’challa would not survive that, even if he was spared having to carry it out.
“Is anything you told me the truth?” He was torturing himself with the question, but he had to know if the men he had fallen in love with existed at all.
“All of it,” Clint said so quickly T’challa almost believed him. “All the stories we shared, all the pieces of ourselves, it was all the truth. The only lie was our last names and our jobs.”
There was some relief in that. He had not been completely deceived. Only mostly. “What are your real names?”
“Clint Barton and Phil Coulson. And everything I said about diplomacy and understanding is true. As a senior agent, my job is understanding a situation and trying to resolve it without bloodshed if I can,” Phil said. “And if I can’t, then my job is to make sure my agents come safely home.”
The heart, just as T’challa had believed him to be. “And Clint?” Clint was and always would be the warrior, but that could translate many different ways. “What is your job?”
“Whatever Phil tells me to do,” Clint replied. “That may mean going undercover for information, it may mean infiltrating the compound of a drug lord or weapons dealer to steal their plans, or it may mean taking out the kingpin who is about to trigger World War III.”
“Spies,” T’challa said woodenly, his heart falling all over again. “You’re spies.”
“Among other things,” Phil said.
“Spies and assassins, and I brought you to our valley and shared our secrets with you. Should I expect an invasion?”
He hated to ask, but he could not leave the question unanswered. He had to know how great the danger was.
“No!” Clint stopped his pacing directly in front of T’challa. He reached for T’challa’s hand, but T’challa reared back away from the touch. He could not allow emotion to overtake his reason right now. He had done that from the moment he laid eyes on Clint and Phil, and look where that had left him. Clint’s expression grew shuttered, making the guardian whine with the desire to comfort his mate. T’challa pushed that down, shutting the guardian behind an iron wall of hurt and fear.
“We haven’t told anyone about you or your people or valley or anything, and we aren’t going to. We decided before we ever left Bondeko’s village that if the courtship went as we hoped, we’d leave SHIELD behind. If Fury has something in Africa or if the world’s ending, we might help out, but nothing beyond that. You have to believe that.”
T’challa wanted desperately to believe it, but he could not yet. He had to think, and that meant being away from the distracting presence of the men he had come to love. “I do not have to believe anything,” he said. “I need time to think. Do not try to leave the valley until I have returned. To do so will result in your deaths.”
Staying might result in their deaths as well, but T’challa had already flouted tradition and tribal law. He could not do it again.
“We aren’t going anywhere unless you make us,” Clint swore. “I don’t know how to prove any of this to you, but name any price and we will pay it if it will convince you.”
He sounded so sincere. “Then stay here as I asked you to and do nothing else that might raise suspicion. Right now this is between the three of us. If it stays that way, the decision of what to do with you is mine, and mine alone. If others learn of it, the decision may be taken out of my hands, and if that happens, I can do nothing to change the outcome, whatever that may be.” He took a deep breath and immediately regretted it because he could smell them, and they smelled like home and safety and all that was good in the world. Until the start of this conversation, he would have said that described them perfectly, but now…. He did not know what to think, and staying here with them only made that harder. “I will return in the morning, and we will see what is to be done.”
Clint looked like he might protest, but Phil rose and stopped him with a hand to his shoulder. “We will be here waiting, whether it’s tomorrow, or the day after, or a week or month from now. Clint is right. We aren’t going anywhere until you tell us to.”
T’challa nodded and turned on his heel to leave. As he stepped into the darkness, he heard Clint say to Phil, “Fuck, Phil. We’ve got to fix this. I don’t want to lose him.”
“We’ll find a way,” Phil replied. “We won’t give him up without a fight. I promise.”
T’challa had taken two steps back toward the house before he realized what he was doing. He wrenched himself forcibly away and walked into the jungle. He had to think, and he knew of no better place than the overlook where he so often watched the sunrise.
Chapter 40: Chapter 39
“Fuck, Phil. We’ve got to fix this,” Clint said, eyes as wild and tortured as Phil had ever seen—and Phil had seen him endure days of physical torture. “I don’t want to lose him.”
“We’ll find a way,” Phil replied, mind racing as he tried to come up with a solution. This was his job, dammit. He found solutions, no matter what the problem was, but this was a problem he’d created, even if Clint was too upset to point that out right now. “We won’t give him up without a fight. I promise.”
Clint laughed humorlessly. “How do we fight a betrayal of our own making? He’d be well within his rights to take us to the edge of the valley and toss us into the jungle.”
As long as they did that instead of tossing them into a pit somewhere, Phil could live with it. Not happily, but they’d survive, He’d still have Clint and they’d rebuild and move on, but Christ, he didn’t want to. He wanted to stay in this valley full of contradictions and become such a part of the fabric of daily life that no one thought twice about the white men walking in their midst.
“By staying if he’ll let us and by not betraying his secrets even if he doesn’t,” Phil said finally. “If we have to leave, we go back to SHIELD and tell Fury we found nothing but rumors.”
“You’d lie to Fury?” Clint asked.
“It wouldn’t be a lie,” Phil insisted. “Our mission wasn’t to uncover a hidden valley and a previously unknown African nation. Our mission was to find the Black Panther, and we didn’t.”
“No, we didn’t,” Clint said slowly. “We found T’challa instead.”
“But that’s personal, not professional, and I don’t report to Fury on personal matters.” Yes, Nick was his friend, and he’d shared personal matters with his friend off the record in the past, but he wouldn’t share this, because off the record or not, if Nick knew, it would change the way he did things, and someone would eventually start asking questions. And if he ever decided that national or global security was at stake, he would use that knowledge as ruthlessly as he used everything else. That it was for the greater good would be no consolation to T’challa and the people of Wakanda, and the betrayal T’challa felt now would be complete.
Expression wistful, Clint ran his hands over the fabric of the outfits T’challa had given them before dinner, when everything had seemed so hopeful. In a flurry of rapid movement, he pulled the tunic over his head and tossed it aside. “I can’t look at it anymore. He offered it to Clint James, not Clint Barton. We can say all we want that the only lie was our jobs, but it doesn’t matter. He fell in love with our covers, not with us.”
“Don’t say that,” Phil pleaded as Clint put on his own clothes again. “Don’t give up.”
“I’m not giving up,” Clint replied, “but if we’re going to fight this battle, I’m doing it as myself. As Clint Barton, Hawkeye, former carney, and epic fuck-up. The next time I wear that outfit, or any like it, it will be because T’challa asked me to wear it, not some person who doesn’t really exist.”
“God, I love you,” Phil said as he wrapped his arms around Clint. He wished momentarily for one of his suits, so he could do the same. He could change back into the clothes he had worn since arriving in Africa, but unlike Clint’s T-shirt and cargo pants, those clothes were selected for his cover, not from his own wardrobe. Even the heavier pants and shirt he had worn as they trekked here were not his usual attire. Then again, if they convinced T’challa to let them stay, he would be leaving Agent Coulson behind and would just be Phil. And just Phil wore T-shirts and jeans and comfortable clothes, not just suits. “Let me change too, and we’ll figure out what to do next.”
Clint paced as Phil stripped out of the outfit T’challa had given him. Not even his spiraling thoughts could keep him from ogling Phil’s ass in his tighty-whities as he bent over to retrieve his pants.
That’s yours, no matter what happens.
He clung to that thought with all his might because if he didn’t, he’d go back to obsessing about T’challa. He’d known it was a mistake to wait as long as they had, but the time had never been quite right. They hadn’t been alone or they’d been caught up in other things. And now they’d told him and the worst had happened.
No, not the worst. He’d heard them out, even if he’d left when they were done. He’d left, but he hadn’t called his guard or dragged them before the king to denounce them. They still had a chance to salvage this. They’d been on fucked-up missions before. Hell, fucked-up was pretty much normal for Strike Team Delta, and they still had the best completion record of any team at SHIELD. And those missions had only been a matter of life and death. This mission was far more important than that. They’d find a way to pull it off.
The dry snap of wood breaking, only with extra punch, echoed through the deepening twilight. A second later, he heard it again. Phil’s head snapped up and their eyes met. That sound—the sound of gunfire—didn’t belong in the valley. He didn’t know who was attacking or if any of the nearby tribes even had access to guns, but it didn’t matter. They’d come into his territory with hostile intent.
“Hawkeye, go! Find somewhere high and don’t let anyone not wearing Wakandan dress into the valley,” Phil ordered.
Clint was already moving before Phil finished giving the orders. This, he knew. Eyes up high with a gun—or a bow. He grabbed his bow and quiver and raced out of the house into the shadows of the jungle. He hoped the entrance to the valley, not the way they had come in, had a logical bottleneck where people with guns trying to invade would have to pass. As he ran, he could hear the sound of fighting. He didn’t approach the Wakandan warriors, not wanting to interfere with their lines of defense. Instead he scaled one of the huge trees and settled in the vee of two thick branches. He grabbed an arrow, focused his senses outward, and fired at a gunman in the woods.
Training took over and he fired without conscious thought, picking off the invaders before he ever saw most of them, the sound of their guns all he needed to find them. Battle raged across the space beneath him. He couldn’t look to see if T’challa led the fight, or if he was elsewhere, defending his home from a different vantage point. He couldn’t allow any distraction. One unlucky enemy stuck his head up from cover, giving Clint his first view of the attackers.
Fuck. Whoever they were, they were white Aryan types. T’challa had already worried Phil and Clint would bring SHIELD down on them, and now this. Had they been followed somehow? He’d like to think he would have noticed, but he’d been so wrapped up in T’challa that he hadn’t paid as much attention as he might have otherwise. Clint took the man out and moved on to the next. They’d deal with that later. First they had to stop the invading forces and figure out who they were and how they’d found a valley that didn’t exist on any map.
Shouts below him drew his attention to where Okoye and W’kabi fought hand-to-hand with one of the soldiers. Not hearing more gunfire for the moment, Clint took aim and waited for an opening.
Goddammit, the first thing they were doing when this was over was sparring together so Clint would be able to anticipate their moves and take out the attacker without hitting them in the process. Finally he got a break and shot the man right through the eye.
Okoye looked up and gave him a sharp nod before moving on to engage the next in the flood of outsiders. Feeling like he’d been given the highest of accolades, Clint shadowed the Wakandan warriors from the trees, moving forward as they did and harrying their adversaries. As twilight fell, he had to rely more and more on his hearing rather than his sight. He only hoped Okoye and her warriors were up to the task of defeating the men who had dropped their weapons as they ran out of bullets, because Clint wouldn’t be able to make another shot like the one before. Even his eyesight couldn’t penetrate total darkness.
He wished wistfully for a comm unit so he could check in with Phil. If he knew Agent Coulson at all, he’d be in the village getting the noncombatants to safety and then doing anything he could to coordinate the fight, but without the technology usually available to them, his effectiveness would be limited. That made it all the more important that Clint hold the line because if he failed, the village would have no warning.
This would be a really fucking good time for the mythical guardian to show up, but no animal roar split the night, just the shouts of the warriors below as they marshalled their forces.
That was the second thing Clint was doing—learning enough of the language to follow their battle plans, because he couldn’t help by clearing a path if he didn’t know where they were going. At least their enemies were just as clueless, falling to the attack-and-fade style of fighting.
The sounds of gunshots became more sporadic. Clint hoped that meant they were winning rather than that the invaders had gotten what they came for and were leaving. If he had any idea who they were or why they were attacking, that would help.
“Try to take one alive,” he shouted down to Okoye in Lingala. She lifted a hand to show she’d heard him. With the aid of two other warriors, she brought one man to the ground.
“Heil Hydra!” he shouted before foaming at the mouth and convulsing.
Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck! He had to find Phil and tell him this now!
Chapter 41: Chapter 40
Phil spared a thought for all the gear he didn’t have and the resultant inability to follow the action, but now was not the time for that. He needed to focus on making sure the villagers were somewhere safe so he could join the battle. He stepped outside the house to see if he could find anyone he recognized to tell him where everyone should go. He hadn’t gone more than a few feet when Shuri’s guard—Ayo, he thought—came running up to him. “Come with me. I will get you to safety.”
“I can take care of myself,” Phil assured her. “Where are you sending people to stay out of the fight?”
“To the temple,” she replied.
He considered for a moment. “They’ll listen to you before they listen to me. I’ll guard our retreat as we move people toward the temple.”
She gave him an appraising look before relenting. He followed her from house to house as she urged people toward the heart of the valley. The very young and the very old were all who remained. Everyone else, it seemed, had gone to join the fight.
As the rapid crack-crack-crack of gunfire continued, he ached to be out there with them—with Clint and T’challa—but this came first. The valley had plenty of warriors. They needed someone to watch over those who couldn’t protect themselves.
He kept a sharp eye in the direction the sounds of battle came from as they gathered people ahead of them, but the noise didn’t seem to get any closer, and he thought he heard fewer gunshots as time passed. Clint taking out the shooters, he hoped, and not them shooting less because they had no one else to shoot at.
Clint’s the best there is, he reminded himself, but even Clint could fall victim to a stray bullet or a lucky shot, and with night falling rapidly, it would get harder to tell friend from foe.
He pushed those thoughts aside. He didn’t need Clint’s running commentary in his ear to know he was doing his job, making every arrow count in a way that would hurt their enemies the most.
They reached the center of the valley and a large stone structure that could only be the temple. Ramonda and T’chaka stood on either side of the entrance, spears in hand.
“Shouldn’t you be inside where it’s safe?” Phil asked them.
“I may not be as young as Ayo these days, but I can still throw a spear hard enough and straight enough to kill a man,” Ramonda replied. “I will do my duty as I always have. Defending the temple is exactly where I belong.”
“Apologies, Your Majesty,” Phil said, because he was clearly speaking to the queen in that moment. “I forgot your history. If you will allow it, I will stand guard with you.”
“You don’t wish to join Clint and T’challa in the heart of the fight?” T’chaka asked.
He wished for nothing more, but Ayo had already abandoned them, and while Phil had no doubt both king and queen were formidable warriors, spears against guns was a recipe for destruction. He might not have Clint’s aim, but he still carried his Glock. “As dark as it is, there’s nothing I could do that they can’t do as well or better,” he replied. “Clint will know I’m here to guard those who can’t if someone gets past them. Do you have any idea who might be attacking? T’challa gave us the impression the valley was usually peaceful.”
“We are not without our enemies,” T’chaka replied, “but few of them attack with guns. Those are the weapons of outsiders—guerilla groups who terrorize small communities such as Bondeko’s village, government and peacekeeping forces who try to neutralize the guerillas, foreign hunters in our jungles for sport, human traffickers thinking to take advantage of our apparent lack of protection.”
The choice of words caught Phil’s attention. Apparent lack of protection. Now was not the time to ask, but if they convinced T’challa to give them a second chance, Phil would ask about that. He couldn’t help protect the valley if he ran afoul of the hidden protection T’chaka alluded to.
In the short term, T’chaka’s reply didn’t give Phil any additional insight. He knew about the political unrest in the Congo, fueled by weak local governments and corruption in the outlying areas. That situation had given rise to the rumors that had brought him and Clint to the area in the first place. He didn’t see how any of the threats T’chaka mentioned could have found the valley, though, unless they stumbled on it by sheer luck. If they hadn’t been with T’challa, he wouldn’t have found the path, and he was trained in that kind of tracking. Then again, if they were guerilla forces, they could be native to the region and possibly know about the valley from experience or hearsay. Either that or someone had followed them in. Given how soon after their arrival the attack was taking place, he couldn’t dismiss that possibility, no matter how much he wanted to. He hadn’t let his guard down completely on their trek here, but he also hadn’t been as focused as he would have been on an active mission. In his mind, he’d called the mission the moment they set foot outside of Bondeko’s village. They had seen no sign of any hostile forces in their three months’ tenure, so he had trusted that the only threats would be ones from the jungle itself. That might have been hasty.
He checked the magazine in his pistol and patted his pockets to see how many more he had on him. Not enough if it ended up being him against an invading army, but it wouldn’t come to that. The sounds of gunfire had already become less frequent. Before long, Clint would come swaggering up to the temple, sweaty and grinning, flushed with victory. Phil had spent years holding himself in check each time he saw Clint that way, but now he wouldn’t have to. And if they were lucky, T’challa would find the look as irresistible as Phil did, and they could get past their earlier argument. Surely their defense of the valley would convince T’challa of their sincerity.
Movement among the houses drew his attention, and he readied himself to fire.
“Hold,” Ramonda ordered. “They are our warriors returning.”
Phil lowered his pistol, though not his guard, and waited. A warrior Phil didn’t recognize approached the king and bowed before beginning to speak in Wakandan.
“He’s telling Baba about the attack.”
Phil didn’t jump at Shuri’s words only by dint of years of Clint appearing behind him out of nowhere. “What is he saying?”
“That the attackers were colonizers—white men,” she replied before falling silent to listen.
Language lessons. As soon as Phil knew they were staying, he would insist on them, because the man spoke for far too long to just tell T’chaka they had been attacked by white men with guns.
“He’s describing the attack,” Shuri said after a moment, “and especially praising the archer in the trees who made every shot he took, even one to kill an attacker fighting Okoye and W’kabi directly.”
While completely unsurprising, the news settled something in Phil. Clint had made it to the fighting and had helped turn the tide in their favor.
“They said they never saw him, but every time someone fired a gun, an arrow took the shooter out within seconds,” Shuri went on.
If they never saw him, then he had stayed hidden in the trees, out of reach of the attackers, and that meant he’d be making his way back with the last of the returning warriors once he knew they’d eliminated the threat. As the number of people in the area outside the temple grew, he expected Clint to arrive with Okoye any second. He looked around for T’challa, who surely would have come to the front to stand with his family if he had returned, but he didn’t see him. He was probably with Clint and the others. Or just with Clint.
That thought did nothing for his concentration, and he couldn’t let that wander right now. He needed to learn what had happened and anything he could about the reasons behind the attack so he would know if they needed to brace for more.
He heard muttering at the back of the throng of warriors. Then Clint pushed his way through to the front. He was sweaty and flushed, just as Phil had predicted, but the victorious grin was nowhere to be seen. Phil frowned as Clint came to stand beside him.
“Hydra,” he said under his breath, barely loud enough for Phil to hear.
Phil’s stomach sank at the realization that they probably had been followed, possibly for more than just the time it had taken them to arrive here. If Hydra was tracking them, they had to be sure they’d eliminated the entire cell before they could report what they found to anyone else, or the valley would never know any peace again.
“Did you see T’challa?” Phil asked in English just as softly. “We need to warn him. Even if we leave right now, I don’t know if that would help. If you didn’t get them all, they’ll keep attacking until they destroy the valley because they’ll want to know why we were here.”
“And even if we told them, they wouldn’t believe us,” Clint finished. “And no, I haven’t seen T’challa since he left earlier.”
“What are you saying?” Shuri asked.
“Do you know where T’challa is?” Phil said instead of answering her question.
“No. None of the warriors have mentioned him.”
Clint’s frown deepened. “That doesn’t strike you as odd?” he asked her.
“Very odd,” Shuri replied. “He should have been the one leading the attack.”
“I saw Okoye and W’kabi, but no sign of T’challa,” Clint said.
“Is there anywhere he might have gone that he wouldn’t have heard the gunshots?” Phil asked, hoping against hope they could find a rational explanation for T’challa’s absence.
Shuri shook her head. “Unless he left the valley entirely, he would have heard. Sounds echo through the whole area so we always have warning of someone coming.”
“There wasn’t time for him to leave the valley,” Clint said. “We’ve got to find him. He could be hurt and need help.”
“Wait,” Shuri said as another warrior pushed his way to the front.
The man’s voice was sharp and breathless as he delivered his news. Next to them, T’chaka and Ramonda froze and Shuri let out a gasped moan.
“They took T’challa.”
Chapter 42: Chapter 41
Sorry this took so long for me to post. My weekend did not go to plan.
No. No, no, and fucking hell, no.
“What do you mean, they took him?” Clint demanded.
“They captured him,” Shuri snapped. “Knocked him over the head and dragged him off unconscious. What else would I mean?”
“Fucking Hydra messing with shit that’s none of their fucking business,” Clint spat. He spun around, intending to grab the rest of his gear and start tracking. He’d burn the fuckers to the ground for this.
“What do you know?” T’chaka said sharply, interrupting Clint’s cursing. “Who took my son?”
“Clint was able to identify them as a white-supremacist terrorist group known as Hydra,” Phil said before Clint could let loose the string of curses on the tip of his tongue. “They have been active since before World War II. Among other things, their operatives search out any hint of technology or other advances that could benefit them.”
T'chaka’s face hardened. “You seem to know much about them.”
“We’ve encountered them before,” Phil replied. “They are bad news.”
“What would they want with us?” Ramonda asked. “We have no advanced technology.”
“It could be anything,” Phil said as Clint grew steadily more impatient. The longer they stood here talking, the farther away those Hydra bastards took T’challa. “They may have stumbled across the valley and come in to see what was here. They may have heard the same stories of the guardian that we did and come to see if there was anything in them that they could exploit.”
They may have followed us here, Clint thought bitterly.
“Did you bring them here?” T’chaka asked.
“No,” Phil replied firmly. “We have no association with Hydra.”
“Very well. Since you know so much about them, you are best suited to go after them. Bring T’challa back or do not come back,” T’chaka said.
If they didn’t find him, Clint wouldn’t want to come back, other than maybe to give them answers they wouldn’t want to hear.
“It will be done,” Phil replied formally.
Fucking finally. Released from the king’s presence, Clint sprinted for the house they were staying in. He’d gathered most of his arrows after the battle as he searched the Hydra dead for clues. He hadn’t found any, but he’d refilled his quiver, and that was far more important now.
He muttered nonstop under his breath as he dug through his pack for the rest of his weapons. He pulled a tac vest over his black T-shirt, rotating at the waist to make sure it wouldn’t restrict his movement. He strapped a knife to his thigh and jammed another one into the built-in sheath under his arm. A third went into the boot sheath, and a fourth beneath his arm guard. He buckled the holster for his pistol around his waist and stuffed extra bullets in every pocket available. Then he pulled out the sniper rifle he’d broken down and hidden in the bottom of his duffel and started assembling it. He didn’t know why Hydra was here or what they wanted with T’challa, but they’d pissed him off now. It had been years since he’d been active in the underworld, but his name still carried enough weight for them to know it. He’d make damn sure they understood the mistake they’d made in pissing off Hawkeye—before he ended them for good.
Behind him, Phil made his own preparations. Clint didn’t bother watching. Phil knew how to suit up for battle as well as Clint himself did. Phil would be ready and they’d rain hellfire and brimstone down on the motherfucking bastards who thought they could steal their mate.
The sound of footsteps outside broke his concentration. He spun and sent the knife on his arm flying through the air to land at the feet of whoever was approaching.
“It’s Shuri,” she called. “I need to talk to you.”
“Bring the knife back with you,” Clint replied, “and talk fast. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to find them.”
“No, this is important. I need you to listen to me,” Shuri insisted. “There’s something you need to know before you go after him.”
“Shuri.” Okoye came up behind her, a frown on her face. “That isn’t your story to share.”
“No, it isn’t, but if I don’t tell them, no one will.”
“Tell us what?” Phil asked, all conciliation and gentleness. Fuck that. They needed to get moving.
“The legend of the guardian,” Shuri said. “It’s not a legend. T’challa is the guardian, but he can’t control it easily without bonded mates to ground him.”
“You’re seriously telling me he can turn into a half-beast creature,” Clint said incredulously.
“Yes, but now that he’s met you, he won’t change again until you’re bonded,” Shuri repeated urgently. “If he does and he loses control, he might never return to himself. You have to bond with him when you find him. Once you have, he’ll be nearly invincible, but until then, he’s as vulnerable as any of the rest of us. And if he loses control and changes before you arrive, completing the bond will be even more important.”
“Fucking hell,” Clint muttered. “How the hell are we supposed to do that?”
“Shuri will be staying here,” Okoye said with a glare at the girl, “but W’kabi, Nakia, and I will come with you to help you find him and protect you as you complete the bond.”
“Does the king know about this?” Phil asked.
“He did not forbid us to go,” Okoye replied.
Great. Not only did they have to rescue T’challa from Hydra, they had to complete the bond and do it all without the king’s knowledge or blessing. This night couldn’t get any worse.
“Fine, got it. Find him, bond with him, get the hell out of there, and destroy the entire base on our way out,” Clint said. “Let’s go. We’re wasting time.”
Okoye sent Shuri back into the heart of the valley. “You understand that in order to complete the bond—”
“Yeah, I got it,” Clint interrupted. “T’challa didn’t leave out that part.” And they would be having words about keeping vital secrets when Clint found him. If he’d just fucking told them, they could have bonded before the battle started and T’challa could have defended himself better. Clint had sparred with him enough to know he was a good fighter even without his extra gifts, but to have the power of legends at his fingertips and not be able to use it? Yeah, they were having words.
“Do not be angry with him,” Okoye said. “It is forbidden to share that lore with outsiders.”
“Even the ones he’s planning on bonding with?” Clint said as he started back toward where they had fought the Hydra forces. “That seems like pretty important information for us to have.”
“He would have told you before the bonding ceremony,” Okoye replied as W’kabi and another woman—Nakia, presumably—fell in beside them. “He is an honorable man.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Clint was in no mood for platitudes. They had a job to do. “Tell me the goddess’s protection or whatever you call it gives you a way to track him.”
“Unfortunately not,” W’kabi said. “Once outside the valley, we are on our own. Only the guardian retains the goddess’s gifts outside our borders.”
“Fuck,” Clint said as they climbed out of the valley toward the place where they had come in. “What’s the plan, boss?”
“Find the Hydra base,” Phil said. “Once we do, Okoye, W’kabi, Nakia, and I will provide a distraction while you get inside and locate T’challa.”
“And fuck him or get him to fuck me,” Clint said. “Gonna need something to ease the way for that.”
“As long as you bring each other pleasure, the method does not matter,” Okoye interjected.
Fine, so he’d suck T’challa off instead of fucking him. Didn’t make it any better.
“Once you’ve found him and gotten him free, preferably as the guardian, we finish off the base and get the hell out of there,” Phil continued.
“And then we will stand guard while you complete the bond and bring him back to himself,” Nakia said.
Now that was an idea Clint could get behind. And once all that was done, the three of them were going somewhere private to hash out all the secrets and hurt feelings and uncertainties so they could return to Wakanda with an actual plan between them.
They passed the stones that marked the entrance to the valley. Around him, everyone gripped their weapons tighter. Clint set an arrow to the bowstring, ready to pull and fire at a moment’s notice. They couldn’t be too careful.
“About time you boys got here.”
Clint spun around, sure he was hallucinating, because Nat was supposed to be in DC, not in the jungle outside Wakanda.
“What are you doing here, Romanov?” Phil asked.
“Saving your asses.” She tossed them comm units. “Again.”
Chapter 43: Chapter 42
Because my beta is awesome and I had a really good writing day yesterday, have another chapter.
Clint spluttered at Nat’s reply, still not sure what she was doing there. Her answer to Phil wasn’t helpful at all.
“Natalia, it is good to see you again,” Okoye said.
“Okoye,” Natasha said with a nod. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
“I too. Hydra agents have captured my prince,” Okoye said.
“I knew there was a cell in the area—that’s why I’m here. I didn’t know they had taken T’challa.” She turned to Clint. “I take it you found what you were looking for.”
“You could say that,” Clint replied. “T’challa is the Black Panther, except he can’t shift until we bond with him. Stupid fucker neglected to tell us a few things before he went and got himself captured.”
Natasha raised one elegantly arched eyebrow at him. Shit. He’d have some explaining to do. “Not now,” he told her, knowing she’d understand. “First we get him back. Then we talk.”
She rolled her eyes at him and turned back to Okoye. “Introduce me?”
“Of course. Natalia Romanova, also known as the Black Widow, this is W’kabi, my husband and T’challa’s brother of the heart, and Nakia, our sister of the heart,” Okoye said.
“Good to meet you both,” Natasha said. “I located the Hydra compound this morning. I was waiting for nightfall to get inside and see what they were up to, but we have more important things to worry about now.”
“Like burning the whole fucking cell to the ground,” Clint said. “They found the valley. We can’t let any of them get away or our secret will be out.”
“Our secret,” Nat said, an amused lilt to her voice. “We will definitely be talking after, little bird.”
“We’ll talk all you want,” Phil interjected, “but for now, we need to move. You said you know where they’re located. Lead the way.”
Natasha took off toward the east, beyond where they had gone as they came from Bondeko’s village. “When did Fury send you?” he asked as he ran to keep pace with her.
“About a week ago or so,” Natasha said. “We got wind of a Hydra cell in the area. He told me to meet up with you, figure out what they wanted out here, and eliminate them.”
“I know what they wanted, and they can’t have it,” Clint grumbled.
“But you can?” she teased.
“Hell yeah, I can.” He glanced over his shoulder at Phil who was two steps behind him. “We can.”
She laughed softly. “About time you manned up and got your head out of your ass.”
“Yeah, yeah, you told me. Tell me so later. After we rescue T’challa.”
She slowed suddenly and raised a hand for silence. The others gathered around her until they could see the dim lights of a small encampment carved out of the jungle.
“I haven’t scouted the compound at all, so I don’t know where they’re most likely to have T’challa. I do know there are a lot of them—close to a hundred—and they’re heavily armed,” she said.
“Fewer than that now. We killed quite a few when they attacked us,” Clint said.
“Fewer is good, but there are still a whole lot more of them than there are of us,” Natasha replied.
“It will not be the first time we have faced impossible odds together,” Okoye said. Clint looked between the two women again and decided he really, really didn’t want to know.
He studied the layout of the compound and the movement of the guards on rotation. “They’re expecting an attack,” he murmured. “They may not know who they captured, but they’re still expecting retaliation.”
“From what they think is a Stone Age tribe,” Natasha replied. “They aren’t expecting Strike Team Delta. If they were, there would be more of them patrolling. We use that to our advantage.”
Clint could feel the questioning looks on his back. Fuck. He’d be doing more explaining than he’d planned on, at least to these three. He’d hoped they could work things out with T’challa and let the past stay in the past, but Okoye knew Nat and now Nat was talking about Strike Team Delta. Okoye was far from stupid. She’d have questions Clint really didn’t want to answer.
But that was for later too.
“What’s our play?”
“Coulson, can you still use Hawkeye’s bow?”
“I’ll never be as accurate as he is, but I can usually hit the target,” Phil replied.
“Good. Do you have enough bullets for your guns, Clint?” she asked.
“Depends on whether you’re talking a full-on firefight or taking out anyone unlucky enough to get in my way,” Clint replied.
“You’re going after T’challa while the rest of us create a distraction,” Natasha replied. “If you’re the one in a full-on firefight, something is seriously wrong.”
“Yeah, I have enough bullets.” He handed Phil his bow and unhooked his quiver. “Take good care of her for me.”
Phil knew how important Clint’s bow was to him. He’d bring her back safe if anyone could.
“Always,” Phil replied.
Clint turned back to study the compound again, feeling naked without his bow and quiver, but he saw the wisdom of Nat’s plan. If Hydra thought Strike Team Delta was coming down on them in full force, they wouldn’t be watching the shadows for someone sneaking in the other way.
“See that small building at nine o’clock about a quarter of the way into the compound? They’re either holding T’challa there, or they have something else in there they really want to protect,” Clint said.
“How can you tell?” W’kabi asked.
“Because there’s no reason to have that many guards on a building that size otherwise,” Clint explained. “Give me five minutes to get into position, then start the attack directly opposite.” He handed his comm unit to Okoye. “You’ll need this more than I will.”
“What if you need help?” Okoye asked.
Clint snorted a bitter laugh. “If I need help for what I have to do, we’ll be far beyond hope anyway. You know Nat. You know what she’s capable of. Multiply that by three. That’s Strike Team Delta.”
Okoye nodded and tucked the comm unit into her ear.
“Good luck,” Clint said to the others.
Nat nodded sharply and started in the direction of the planned attack. The others followed quickly, leaving him alone with Phil.
“Be careful,” Phil said.
“I’m always careful, boss,” Clint joked. “You know that.
“Sure. Careful enough to throw yourself off buildings without a net,” Phil replied. “I mean it. I expect you and T’challa to be unharmed and bonded the next time I see you. I have a few promises to keep to both of you.”
Heat curled in Clint’s gut, but he pushed it down. He couldn’t drop his guard no matter how much he wanted the bonding that would occur before the night was over. They had too much to do between now and then to let it distract him.
“You do the same. I want you able to keep those promises.”
Phil pulled him into a tight hug and kissed him hard and deep before releasing him just as abruptly and following Natasha and the others into the darkness of the jungle.
Okay, yeah. Mission. T’challa. Rescue.
Clint took a deep breath, straightened his tac vest, checked the placement of his guns and knives one more time—as if Phil would mess those up even in the heat of the moment—and headed toward where he hoped T’challa was being held. The plan working depended on his reading of the situation. He really didn’t want to be wrong.
He ghosted through the shadows toward the closest point to the building that was his target. Hydra was smart enough to light the area too well for him to sneak in at ground level, but as always, they lacked the imagination to look up, and this was obviously a temporary facility, so they hadn’t cleared the bigger trees, just the underbrush.
That was fine for the usual line of attack, but not for an assassin who grew up in the circus and learned to walk the high wire before he ever hit puberty. With positively feral glee, he climbed a tree at the edge of the compound and made his way silently through the branches from tree to tree until he was directly over the building. Landing on the roof would give him the high ground for a few seconds longer.
As he waited for Nat to start the battle, he tried to get a glimpse in the tiny, barred window to see if he was right and T’challa was inside, but the angle was wrong from his perch, and he could only see a small patch of bare dirt, not even a shoe or a piece of cloth. Although the fact that there was a light on in the building was encouraging. Someone was in there, either T’challa or someone Clint could make pay for taking T’challa—and wring information out of in the process.
SHIELD liked to think they had civilized Clint, but that was all on the surface. Beneath the mask of Agent Barton, he was still the ruthless mercenary who would stop at nothing to fulfill his mission. And that was his mate in there. Agent Barton had fucked off the moment Clint realized Hydra had taken T’challa.
Chapter 44: Chapter 43
Clint held position, forcing himself into the same still place he went when he was in sniper mode, even though he didn’t have his bow or a rifle in his hand. He catalogued everything within range of his eyesight, keeping track of guard movements, the guy smoking behind one of the buildings, the one jerking off in his office in another. That one was dismissed as unimportant. Caught with his pants down—literally. When the mission was over and they were all safe, he’d find that funny. Now it passed through his consciousness and out again, no threat, so not worth his attention.
He could hear the guards talking, mostly in German, which reminded him again that he really needed to sign up for that German course Coulson was always urging him to take. Except he wasn’t going back to SHIELD. He was staying in Wakanda with T’challa. He’d do better to learn Wakandan, or whatever they called the language they spoke. Still it would be nice to know what they were saying. Maybe he’d have a better idea of who was in the building below him if he knew German.
He should have kept the comm unit. Nat would be able to tell them what they were saying, but then she’d be able to hear as he bonded with T’challa, and the only person who should hear that was Phil.
A flaming arrow shot out of the woods to land at the foundation of one of the flimsier buildings.
Really, Phil? A flaming arrow? Clint appreciated a good entrance, but that was too corny even for the Amazing Hawkeye back in his circus days. Then again, it certainly announced “his” presence. Below him, shouts went up as everyone scrambled for cover while moving toward where the arrow had come from. Then he heard the general shouts change to “Black Widow.” Nat had let herself be seen so the Hydra goons would know who they were dealing with. If that didn’t draw everyone in the other direction, nothing would.
He tensed, readying for the drop to the roof below. He wouldn’t move until he was sure everyone who was going to head into the fight had moved that way, but he couldn’t afford to delay any longer than necessary. When all but two guards had moved away and the two remaining had taken up defensive positions, he judged it was time and dropped onto—and through—the roof. He’d known it was a temporary building, but damn, this was ridiculous!
He rolled to his knees, pistol pointed at the door. In his peripheral vision, he could see T’challa struggling against whatever held his hands behind his back, but he had to deal with the remaining guards first. At least no one else was in the room with them. That would make things a little easier.
The guards burst in a second later. Clint shot them between the eyes—pop, pop—before they could even get off a shot. He stayed where he was, fully on guard, for a few moments longer to make sure no one else came to investigate, but the sound of gunfire and explosions elsewhere in the compound appeared to have everyone else occupied.
Satisfied they were as safe as they were going to be until the whole compound had been burned to the ground, Clint got to his feet, tucked his pistol away, and turned to examine T’challa. His hands were pulled tightly behind his back, his feet shackled to the chair legs with heavy chains, and a ball gag in his mouth.
No, his dick didn’t twitch at the sight of the gag, thank you very much. He wasn’t that much of a pervert.
“Hold still, you stupid bastard. Let me get rid of the gag, and then I’ll see about the rest,” Clint said.
T’challa glared at him, but he stopped struggling, so Clint figured that was as good a start as he was going to get. “I should be so angry with you,” Clint said as he found the buckle on the gag. “You go all righteous on us about keeping secrets and then we have to find out from Shuri that the guardian is real, and what’s more, it’s you. If I weren’t so fucking glad to see you unhurt, I’d leave you here to stew for few more days.”
He released the gag and looked down at the cuffs holding T’challa’s wrists.
Well, fuck. “These are electronic. I can’t pick them,” Clint told T’challa. “I was really hoping to avoid this, but the only way I see out of them is for you to call up the guardian and break them. Shuri said you’re pretty much invincible in that form.”
“I cannot do that,” T’challa said. “It is not safe until we have bonded.”
“Yeah, I know. Shuri told us that too.” Clint glared down at T’challa. “How do you want me to do this? I can jerk you off or we can go for a quick and dirty blowjob.”
“You mean to do this now?” T’challa asked. “Here, like this?”
“Unless you got any better ideas,” Clint replied. “Look, we fucked up not telling you about SHIELD sooner and you fucked up not telling us about the guardian sooner. That just means we’re human. It doesn’t change what Phil and I want, so unless it changes what you want, this is going to happen one way or another. No, it’s not hearts and flowers and declarations of undying love, but it wasn’t ever going to be like that. Not with as worked up as we all are.”
He cupped his hand around T’challa’s cheek, relieved when T’challa leaned into the touch. “Phil, Natasha, Okoye, W’kabi, and Nakia are out there fighting everyone left on the base. We’ve got to get out there and help them, and the only way for you to do that is to unleash the guardian, or whatever you call it. And if that means we bond right now, quick and dirty, then we do it, and later, when it’s all over and it’s just the three of us, we add Phil in and do it right. But if we don’t do it now, we may not have a later.”
Another explosion rattled the walls of the building. “Like, right now.”
“Use your hands,” T’challa said. “As much as I have dreamed about your mouth, you will be less vulnerable this way.”
“We’re coming back to that mouth thing,” Clint said as he reached for T’challa’s pants.
“I look forward to it,” T’challa replied in a gravelly voice that did things to Clint’s insides.
Clint got his hand inside and wrapped around hard, hot flesh. He wanted to strip all the fabric away so he could see as well as feel, but with a battle raging outside, he didn’t dare. They needed to keep their guard up as high as they could and still complete the bond.
T'challa’s head fell back as Clint stroked up and down his shaft, thumbing across the sensitive spot just below the head every time. T’challa bit his lip, making Clint want to lean down and soothe the spot with his tongue. Later, he promised himself. When this was over and they were alone and safe, he’d do all the things he couldn’t take the time to do now.
Like find every sensitive spot on T’challa’s body until he was out of his mind with pleasure.
“Kiss me,” T’challa said around a low, throaty moan. It was a bad idea without someone standing guard at the door, but Clint couldn’t refuse, not when T’challa looked at him with blown pupils and an open, gasping mouth.
The moment their lips met, he felt it, this sudden sense of other and partner and mate. He’d never been one to believe in fated anything, much less fated lovers, but the way it felt when he grasped onto the sensation felt right in a way few things in his life ever had. He sped up his strokes along T’challa’s cock, his desire to draw this out warring with his awareness of the battle that raged on outside. With his free hand, he unzipped his pants and straddled T’challa’s legs so he could get both of them in a grip. Hopefully that would count as mutual orgasms enough to cement the bond so T’challa could break out of the cuffs.
“Yes,” T’challa gasped into Clint’s mouth. “Make it happen.”
Clint kissed the sound away and worked them over faster as he tongue-fucked T’challa’s mouth. The strength to face calamity, he chanted over and over in his mind. That was what he offered the guardian. His strength and cunning and skill, his aim and his years as both a mercenary and a SHIELD agent, all the resources and knowledge they’d pounded into his head, sometimes despite his best efforts. All of that was T’challa’s for the taking now. Clint didn’t know what calamities they’d have to face later, but they were facing one now, and Clint would face it at T’challa’s side, as his lover and his mate and a source of strength for the guardian. And when it was over, they would lay their battle-weary bodies in Phil’s hands and let him guide them home.
His climax blindsided him, leaving him panting against T’challa’s mouth as hot liquid coated his fingers. He let his cock slip free of his grip and gave T’challa a testing stroke, but some of the stickiness on his hand was from T’challa too. He wiped his hand on his pants leg and met T’challa’s gaze. “Did it work?”
Chapter 45: Chapter 44
There probably won't be a chapter tomorrow because I'm traveling to North Carolina to be with my mother-in-law as her husband recovers from open heart surgery. I'll still be writing. I just won't have internet access to post.
“It worked. Take a step back so I can release my hold on the guardian without worrying about hurting you as I change,” T’challa said softly.
“You won’t hurt me,” Clint replied with an assurance he shouldn’t have felt. “The guardian picked me too, right?”
T’challa nodded as he closed his eyes. Clint waited, not sure what to expect. T’challa shuddered from head to toe and when he opened his eyes again, the slit of cat eyes had replaced his rounded pupils. He took a deep breath and seemed to taste the air before bunching the muscles of his chest and shoulders and snapping the cuffs apart as if they were nothing. Fuck, that shouldn’t be hot.
When T’challa brought his hands around to the front, Clint saw that dagger-like claws had replaced his fingernails. He stretched his hand out without hesitation, determined to step up to the plate and be the strength the guardian needed.
“You shouldn’t trust me so much,” T’challa said. Or maybe the guardian. The voice was the same, but something in the inflection was subtly different.
“I have no reason not to,” Clint replied, “and plenty of reasons to trust you.” He stepped fully into T’challa’s space and kissed him quickly. “And I’ll prove that to you as often as I need to, but for now we need to get out there and make sure none of these Hydra fuckers escape. If they do, the valley won’t ever be safe again.”
T'challa growled deep in his chest, a sound that should have sent fear scurrying down Clint’s spine. He’d heard the shrieks of cougars and pumas sometimes when they were really in the middle of nowhere with the circus, and he knew what those sounds meant, but coming from T’challa, the sound meant only vengeance on their enemies, not danger to Clint himself.
“You know everyone on our side except for Natasha,” Clint said. “Long red hair pulled back in a braid. Anyone else dies.”
T’challa nodded and sprang out the door. Clint palmed his pistol and followed. The fire from the flaming arrow was spreading, but not fast enough for Clint’s liking. He took stock of the fighting in a split second and veered off to where Phil was grappling hand-to-hand with a goon twice his size.
Phil was kicking his ass.
“Coulson,” he shouted as he pulled one of his knives and readied it to throw. Phil ducked automatically, leaving Clint a direct line to the man’s throat. The knife pierced his jugular with a satisfying spurt of blood.
“Where’s my bow?” Clint asked when Phil straightened.
“Romanov has it. Once the actual fighting started, I wasn’t going to be any use with it. She’s more used to carrying it and fighting at the same time than I am.”
Clint nodded. “The guardian is loose. He recognized me, but I don’t know for sure if he’ll recognize you until you’ve bonded. Be careful, okay?”
“Always,” Phil replied as an inhuman scream rent the air. They looked across the compound to see T’challa slice a man’s throat with his claws. When T’challa tossed the limp body aside, they caught sight of W’kabi pressing a hand to his bleeding shoulder.
“You’re a better field medic than I am,” Clint said.
Phil tossed him one of his guns. “Then you’ll need that more than I will.”
Clint caught the gun, checked the safety, and tucked it into his belt. He covered Phil as he made his way to W’kabi, then turned to find Natasha. He’d feel better when he had his bow in hand again.
He found her a few seconds later as she took down a Hydra soldier. She passed him his bow without even looking at him.
“We need to blow this place,” Clint said. “You got any explosives?”
“What do I look like? A walking armory?”
“Usually,” Clint replied.
She glared at him for a moment. “No, I don’t have any explosives, but the buildings are burning like they’re made of paper. We just have to spread the fire, something I’m sure our local friends can tell us how to do best.”
“You’re telling me about that before you leave,” Clint said.
“You know I don’t kiss and tell,” Natasha replied.
Shit. It was even worse than Clint thought.
He pushed the thought of Okoye and Natasha and whatever mischief they’d gotten up to out of his mind. “Find them and spread the fire. I’ll hold the perimeter.”
“You want a boost?”
It never failed to amaze him just how strong she really was. He nodded and used her cupped hands as a vaulting point to reach the lowest of the branches overhead. He swung up until he was straddling one and drew back on his bow. From his perch he could see the entire compound and everyone still in it. The remaining Hydra soldiers were starting to look frantically for escape routes, like they’d get far in the jungle at night with the guardian on the loose. Even so, Clint wasn’t taking any chances. The moment he had a clear shot, he took them down.
Before long he saw Natasha and Okoye with thick branches in their hands, spreading the fire from building to building and driving everyone ahead of them… right into the guardian’s waiting claws and fangs.
Clint was going to have to be careful or he’d develop a new fetish.
Watching Hydra burn was really fucking satisfying.
When the flames started to gutter and the only movement below was from his team, Clint slung his bow over his shoulder and swung down to the ground. “Everyone okay?” he called.
“W’kabi got the worst of it, but the knife missed anything vital. I stitched him up, so as long as it doesn’t get infected, he’ll be fine,” Phil reported.
“Come,” Okoye said, “you must complete the bond before T’challa loses control of the guardian, but this place is tainted now. We must return to the valley where we can guarantee your safety and your privacy.”
Clint looked over to where T’challa stood apart from the rest of them, eyes wild and fangs still bared. “I don’t know if we’ll make it that far.”
“Any distance from here is better than none,” Okoye insisted. “You are his mate. If you lead, he will follow you.”
That was probably true, up to a point, but while the quick handjob had been enough to create the bond, it hadn’t really satisfied either of them, and it hadn’t included Phil. T’challa would follow, but Clint didn’t know how long his patience would last.
“There is a little grotto not far from here,” Nakia said. “It would provide shelter and a defensible position the rest of us could guard. It is not ideal, but it is better than the middle of the jungle if you do not think we can make it back to the valley.”
Clint weighed the options. Sooner was better in terms of keeping T’challa from losing himself, but they’d be on the hard ground of this grotto with nothing between them and the rocks and dirt and whatever else was around. Plus they wouldn’t have any of the plant T’challa had used as lube.
“Or we can head back to my camp,” Natasha said. “It’s not exactly a safehouse, but I have a tent and a bedroll. That’s a step up, at least.” She smirked at Clint. “I might even have a few other necessities.”
That sounded like the best option they were likely to find.
“You’re the best, Nat. Let’s go.”