The Peculiar Nature (of Identity) – 1/3 – Startabby

Title: The Peculiar Nature (of Identity)
Author: Startabby
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Genre: Action Adventure, Drama, Dystopian, Romance, Urban Fantasy
Relationship(s): Tony Stark & JARVIS, Tony Stark/Kaecilius
Content Rating: R
Warnings: Death-Minor Character, Discussion-Torture, Kidnapping, Violence-Canon-level, Hate Crimes/Hate Speech (referenced), Non-con/Dub-con (offscreen/referenced).
Author Notes: This is a direct sequel to my Quantum Bang from last year, The Insidious Growth (of Betrayal). It picks up right where that story left off, with Master Sorcerer Loki and his Apprentice Tony escaping from SHIELD’s unlawful custody. Warning: Due to the fact that half of this story is based in the African nation of Wakanda, parts of it may reflect certain current events in our world today. This includes references to the Los Angeles, California race riots in the early 1990s as part of a character’s backstory. Such references may be triggering for some readers, so please read responsibly.

If you haven’t read that story, the other key things that you need to know are:
1. Wakanda, and specifically Nakia, became Tony’s allies in the aftermath of his escape from the Ten Rings.
2. Instead of attacking Tony at the end of Iron Man, Obadiah Stane arranged for him to be imprisoned by SHIELD while telling the world that he had a nervous breakdown.
3. Pepper and Happy were killed by the Winter Soldier as part of the cover-up, just like Tony’s parents.
4. James Rhodes took over Tony’s canon role in the Avengers, working as the Iron Soldier.
5. Loki was Tony’s fellow prisoner in SHIELD’s hands. He had been in their custody since the 90s.
6. During their years of imprisonment, he began training Tony in the arts of Magic.

Word Count: 73,770
Summary: What truly defines a man, the scope of his tragedies, the strength of his convictions, or perhaps, the impact that he has on the lives of others? As Tony Stark faces life after an escape from unjust betrayal, he must find the answer to this question. Will his need for vengeance color everything in his life, or will new passions, new allies, and even new love help him grow into a better man?
Artist: SpencerTibbsLuvr



Chapter 1: An Unexpected Visitor

The smell of snow still lingered in the air, reaching beyond the ever-present smog that clouded the skies over the city of Kathmandu, as well as the hidden fortress of Kamar Taj that sat at its heart. The lingering snow was in clear defiance of the fact that spring had already reached the mountain valley, along with the surrounding Himalayan mountainsides. Pockets of green poked up here and there through the snow, the sign of the approaching warmer weather.

From their position on an upper balcony, the Ancient One had full access to the sights and scents of their centuries-long home. Breathing in deeply, they embraced the contrasting scents that reached them on the winds. As they did so, they fell into the trance-like state needed to reach beyond their body and into the realm of the mind, the Astral Plane.

In direct contrast to the peace that they found in their home when the Ancient One reached the Astral Plane turbulence roiled. The very framework of the multiverse was filled with disturbances, as eddies formed and collapsed in random patterns across innumerable surfaces. While they were accustomed to the fractals; the human brain’s way of processing this extra-worldly place, this was something very different.

Even though the Convergence was now a half-year past, the ripples of its passing were still being felt on these other-worldly planes. For those like themselves, who relied on the Mystic Arts to guide their path, such an imposition on their normally stable foundation was profoundly unsettling. Not only that, but the waves also wreaked a merry havoc on their skills in the area of precognition – a perception of various possible futures and their varying likelihoods.

It appeared that somehow, instead of fading as the Ancient One had expected from the stories told of previous Convergences, the fluctuations that it had brought to the multiverse had instead continued to grow and propagate. As such, their normally consistent updates to the probabilistic future had grown unreliable. While the Ancient One was still granted glimpses of the future, they had lost the ability to map out the evolving likelihoods of the various permutations which they witnessed.

Futures that had long been inevitable grew hesitant. Fates which they had assumed immutable had formed divergent paths. Even their own, long-anticipated, moment of death had become uncertain. At the heart of the confusion lay a new player on the scene; one whose very existence had the potential to change the fate of the Universe.

But who could it be? An unknown Sorcerer emergent here on Earth, or someone from Beyond? And how were they connected to the Order?

For from the glimpses that they had managed to extract from the chaos, it was clear that the stranger would be deeply tied to the future of the Order of the Mystic Arts. There were too many established members of the Order present in their visions at the stranger’s side for it to be any other way.

The appearance of the stranger did not match the man that the Ancient One had seen would be their successor in the role of Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, the man known as Doctor Strange. Instead, the man in their visions utilized magics that were beyond the limits of the Order.

His early training must have come from another Sorcerer, one not of the Earth. While there were strands of gold, the color of the Magic which they and their Order utilized, threaded through the Magic of the man in their vision, there were other colors as well. They saw hints of deep, emerald green and, overwhelmingly, a vibrant, almost neon blue, centered on the man’s sternum.

It was beautiful, the Ancient One admitted, that blue, and strangely compelling to Mage Sight. I can see how it might draw in my people.

Kaecilius and his acolytes were an unsurprising, if interesting, presence. Before the Convergence had disturbed their visions, they had seen their former apprentice fall into madness, turning to the forbidden arts and Dormammu’s seductive grasp in an attempt to circumvent death. Indeed, they had known for decades that Kaecilius’ fall would start the dominoes that led to their final fate. But now, it seemed that the stranger had somehow turned their apprentice away from his once-certain fate.

In the scattered visions, there was a new softness in Kaecilius’ face; along with a steadiness that replaced the madness that had begun to grow. It made the Ancient One hopeful that the Order would avoid the great and terrible schism that they had long assumed to be inevitable.

But Kaecilius and his people were not the only companions that the Ancient One saw within their visions of the stranger. Amongst those from their Order who they had glimpsed in the stranger’s orbit were some who shocked them. Men and women like Wong, who the Ancient One was certain would remain loyal to the Order’s eternal mission as long as he lived, could also be seen in some of the visions. It gave them hope that the Order’s ability to follow its mandate of protecting the Earth from Mystic threats, both from within and without, would be stronger than ever in this new future.

Beyond the Order, outsiders also appeared in their visions of the mysterious Sorcerer, some more prevalent than others.

They saw many Black faces, including those who bore the blessing of Bast, the Panther Goddess of the African nation of Wakanda. While the Ancient One did not know the full breadth of that multi-planar entity’s powers, they had come in contact with a handful of the nation’s protectors, the Black Panthers, over the centuries. They knew that such men and women were indeed allies worthy of great respect.

Then, there was a scattering of men and women who glowed from within, as if composed of fire, looking like dragons in human form. Those so powered appeared to follow another, one who shared their glow and sense of caged menace. Unlike the others, these powered ones sometimes appeared as allies and sometimes as adversaries of the central Sorcerer.

There was a massive green beast, one who they recognized from the fight in New York City. In some of the visions, he appeared beside a woman radiating stress and grief, while in others she was replaced by a broken man, whose eyes and skin would occasionally take on the same green hue as the beast.

And that was only the tip of the spear.

They saw many others, some dressed in military fatigues, others in casual garments from East and West alike, all professing their loyalty to this pivotal character. There were even those who remained unseen, the only hint of their presence coming in the form of voices that carried accents from the principalities that now made up what had once been the nation of the Ancient One’s youth.

Hanging in the background, not physically present but central to the stranger’s being, was another surprising but familiar presence. The Jotunn Seidrmadr and Prince of Asgard and Jotunheim; their old friend Loki.

The sight of that familiar Sorcerer cleared up one question about the stranger. Given the hints of the emerald that they now recalled was Loki’s signature, he was probably the stranger’s first teacher.

But, given Loki’s complicated personality and history, what kind of man would his apprentice be?

The Ancient One sighed as they released their stress and worry out into the multiverse. There was nothing further that they could do right now. Instead, they must be patient and wait. The Fates would reveal themselves in time, of that they were certain.

Opening their eyes, they reoriented themselves back into the physical world, one sense at a time.

First came vision; as they focused upon a bit of greenery in the cracks between stones on the wall. The second was smell; they caught a whiff of the incense that burned in a nearby censor. Taste came along with it, as the spice of the incense hit the back of their throat. Next came touch. They felt the hard surface of the stone through the cramps of a body protesting the extended period in a fixed position. And finally, there was sound, the echoes of the wind howling through the nearby mountains.

With the ease of long practice, the Ancient One unfolded out of the comfortable tailor’s seat that they had chosen for their meditation. Shaking out multiple layers of pale robes in the traditional style of the Order, they stood, drinking in the tranquility all around them. Down in the courtyard that stood below their perch, similarly robed initiates trained in unison, the gold of their sling rings glinting in the sunlight. The elegance of their movements made an excellent complement to the flickering runic shapes of their still-developing Magic.

Their leader in the exercise, in dark robes, was one of the Masters whom the Ancient One had just been contemplating. Kaecilius prowled through the lines of acolytes, correcting the angle of one’s arm; praising another. His students were more than eager to learn from the experienced Master Sorcerer.

Having watched generations of budding Sorcerers go through the same training, the sight was a soothing reminder. The Order had survived times of uncertainty in the past. This latest challenge would be no different. And perhaps it would even be a good thing, to shake up an organization that had grown a bit too comfortable in its routines.

It seemed that their meditative contemplations had been well-timed.

A few hours after they had left the balcony overlooking the main courtyard and returned to their office to work, they heard an unexpected ‘knock’ at one of the side doors into the fortress. One of the Order’s long-time allies, or at least an individual associated with an ally, had come calling.

Unlike the main entrance in Kathmandu, the side doors into Kamar Taj did not exist in the mundane world. Instead, they were portals that required Mage Sight at minimum to access or even recognize. This particular door, located in the depths of the Afghan mountains, was a rare choice for Earth-bound Mages. Instead, its remote location and nature as a weak spot between dimensions made it an obvious entry for non-terrestrial allies to use when visiting.

To the Ancient One’s surprise, the exact makeup of the knocker’s Magical signature was unfamiliar. There was a trace of the same snow-scent that they had caught during their earlier meditation, the sign of a Jotunn sorcerer, but it was mixed with something else. A trace of oil and metal, and the grounded earthiness that was characteristic of those Sorcerers who carried Terrestrial ancestry.

To top it all off, the mysterious sorcerer’s signature carried an unambiguous feeling of banked rage. It was clear that their visitor had been wronged quite dramatically in the past, and was deeply determined to seek out revenge. Given the strength of Magic and Will that they could sense, the Ancient One could only hope that those who had wronged the Mage truly deserved the depths of his fury. They knew from experience that the wrath of Mage could be a dangerous and terrifying thing to behold.

Taking a deep breath, the Ancient One reached out with their Magic. Using familiar motions, they activated the portal. It was time to greet their visitor.

Chapter 2: A Strong Refuge

From the depth of his core, Tony Stark gathered up another thread of power. Even as he did so, he had to suppress a snort.

Despite the time training with his mentor Loki in the depths of the Sandbox’s most secret prison, the very concept of a Magical Core still felt utterly ridiculous to his long-standing scientific mindset. But by now there was no denying its presence. Instead, it had become another part of the whole that made up the man born Anthony Edward Stark, son of Howard and Maria.

Genius, Inventor, Billionaire, Philanthropist, Playboy, and one-time Merchant of Death; with all that he had gone through in recent years, all of those titles felt somehow hollow. Now, he was much more attached to other, more recent titles. Prisoner. Victim of Untold Betrayals. Escapee. And, most significantly at that moment, Apprentice Sorcerer.

Using the thread of power that he had gathered from his core, Tony pushed it outwards, into the palm of his hand. Then, he stretched out that hand and knocked. Of course, the knock wasn’t exactly physical. Instead, Tony used a technique that he had first learned as a way to build strength and control. The process of reaching into his core and pulling out a single thread required a great deal of focus and precision, while the effort of pushing it outward beyond oneself was like flexing a muscle.

When Loki had originally set him on the practice, it had reminded Tony of when Rhodey had taken him to the gym shortly after their meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The older teen had suggested the practice as a way for Tony to burn through the excess, sometimes manic, energy that the boy struggled to control. Loki’s lessons had served much the same purpose. Each push was like a single rep, lifting a weight and burning a discrete quantity of energy.

So, it was with the ease of frequent practice that he followed the steps of the exercise. Only, instead of pushing the power in a random direction, he directed it towards the heart of the portal that stood nearby. The movement of his hand and arm acted as a guide for the magic.

Located near the rear of the cavern where he now stood, it was this portal that had brought him and his teacher deep in the desolate mountains of Afghanistan, far from any human habitation following their escape from SHIELD custody.

While Loki was the one who had given Agent Barton, their surprising SHIELD ally, directions to the cavern, it had been with Tony’s full agreement. The older mage had told his apprentice about the portal back when the possibility of escape had been nothing more than a shared, distant dream.

* * * *

It had come up after one of Loki’s infrequent episodes, the consequence of the shackles that kept the experienced Sorcerer from using his magic to escape their shared prison. Despite his best efforts, sometimes the Jotunn’s innate magic would flare in an attempt to fight against the siphon which held him captive. When that happened, the insidious curse would ‘punish’ such an attempt with a response that Tony likened to being hit with a massive electric shock. As the older man lay on his cell’s pallet, his body still suffering from mild spasms of aftershocks, he had addressed his Apprentice in an attempt to distract the younger man from fretting over something that was out of his control.

“Should you one day make an escape from this place and find yourself in need of a haven, you should seek out the Masters of the Mystic Arts. In their home, Kamar Taj, you will find rest and healing from all ills. Their leader is a powerful Sorcerer known as the Ancient One, and has been my ally and friend for many centuries.”

“You mean when WE-“ Tony had already begun to reply before he caught up to what Loki had just said, “wait, centuries? Does that mean traveling to another world? It’s not like we Earthgardians can live that long, not like your people, Lightning McQueen.”

“That may be true for most Midgardians,” Loki answered, “but not all. Kamar Taj and its Order are a human organization, based here on your Earth. For humanity is not always limited to a mere century of years. The powers which the Masters of the Mystic Arts tap into can carry with them certain privileges. Among these is the ability to extend one’s life span.”

“I see,” Tony had said, his mind already awhirl with the possibilities. “Then, does that mean?”

“Aye… like those in the Order, your lifespan is not limited to a single century, not if you make the choice to extend it.”

“Then is that why you’re so-?”

“No,” Loki replied. “All of my race is similarly long-lived, not just our Sorcerers. It is one of the reasons that your ancestors once worshipped mine as gods.”

“I see,” Tony said absently, already considering the implications of an extended lifespan. Experiments that he’d been reluctant to explore because they would take decades to yield results now suddenly became worth investigating. Was this why Loki was so nonchalant about spending more than a decade in SHIELD’s hands? Because it was such a small fraction of his overall lifespan? And could Tony ever become similarly blasé?

* * * *

At the time, his racing thoughts had been enough to distract Tony from the original thrust of the discussion, along with his mentor’s current debilitation. Exactly as Loki had intended, he had later realized when he had a chance to regroup.

Tony would never admit it out loud, but it was these little acts of kindness that reassured him that, unlike Stane, this mentor would never betray him so callously. For all of Obie’s avuncular care, it always came with a price tag.

You owe me this favor, Tony my boy, was Obie’s favorite phrase for a reason.

In contrast, Loki’s small kindnesses were always done surreptitiously and never brought up afterward.

Loki had picked up the threads of his original statement later that same day, once the worst of the side effects of his involuntary seizure had ended. At that point, he explained that Kamar Taj and the rest of the Order’s dwellings existed in a sort of pocket realm, spaces that were anchored on Earth while maintaining layers beyond the Mundane plane.

With his knowledge of Midgardian navigation, Loki was even able to provide his Apprentice with human-comprehensible directions. These were a set of latitude and longitude coordinates; the same ones that Loki had just used to guide the stolen SHIELD Quinjet’s flight. He had also warned Tony that the portal to the refuge of Kamar Taj, when closed, would be invisible to all but those who possessed Mage Sight.

Tony did hope that his unexpected new ally, Barton, would prove trustworthy, keeping the secret of their escape from his leaders. But even if he wasn’t, or if someone managed to hack the Quinjet’s black box, it wouldn’t matter. Whatever happened with the portal, Tony had no intention of remaining in this cavern for more than a few hours.

Either Loki’s guidance would prove true and they would find safe refuge with his allies, or Tony would take his comatose mentor and set out to find his version of help. Regardless, SHIELD (or HYDRA) would have no way of knowing the truth about this place, not without a friendly mage on hand.

That thought made Tony snort.

From the thrust of Loki’s interrogations, even in the aftermath of the Convergence, SHIELDRA was still in the dark about the true power of magic. Instead, they dismissed it in favor of more scientific rationale, much as Tony would have before his Apprenticeship.

Even if they did manage to track Tony and Loki this far, he knew that they would probably misunderstand his reasons for seeking out such a remote site. They would probably assume that it had something to do with his past captivity in the hands of the Ten Rings, perhaps a contact or a resource that Yinsen had shared before his death.

But once the Quinjet had taken off and Tony got a chance to explore their location with his Mage Sight engaged, it didn’t take him long to recognize that part of Loki-doki’s tale was true. There was indeed a portal present in the heart of the otherwise ordinary cavern. Its surface glimmered with gold, a hazy wash across the rough stone wall. When he had brushed his Magic against it, the signature also matched the one which the Old Man had passed along.

With all of that in mind, he had decided to trust in his mentor’s promises. The portal would lead both him and the comatose Jotunn to a safe refuge. So he had reached out and knocked.

Once.

Twice.

Now, for a third time in as many minutes, Tony reached deep into his core. Wrapping another, thicker, coil of power around his arm, he prepared for another knock. But before he could do so, he saw the portal begin to change.

To his mage senses, its surface began to ripple as if it was a pond and someone had tossed a pebble into its center. Meanwhile, the portal also began to spit out golden sparks visible to the mundane eye. The sparks grew to outline an oval roughly the size of a normal door. Through the opening at their center, Tony caught a glimpse of a space very different from the rock wall of the cavern. It was a room, constructed of polished wooden timbers and furnished with Asian decor. But before he could examine it in further detail, his view was blocked by a figure stepping through the now open portal.

The person – woman? – who appeared in the cavern was dressed in layered, flowing robes of saffron, with what little he could see of her body through the robes having an ambiguous, nearly androgynous quality about it. The robes that she wore reminded Tony of Jedi robes with their layers and East Asian wrapped style a direct contrast to her milky-pale skin. Her similarity to a fictional Jedi master was furthered by her aura. She possessed a sense of age and serenity that emanated out from her being, impinging on Tony’s Magical senses.

As she folded down the hood of her robe, revealing pale skin and, startlingly, a bald head, she spoke.

To his surprise, instead of some foreign language, she greeted him in clear, if accented, English.

“Blessed Greetings to you, young one,” she said, her words formal. “I am known as the Ancient One, Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme.”

“Oh, um… Hi…”

What was he supposed to say?

Behind his visitor, he noticed that the portal had begun to close, returning to its previous, quiescent state.

“Might I enquire your business with the Order of the Mystic Arts?” She asked again, politely, walking towards him with a smooth yet confident air.

“Oh, sorry,” he replied, scrambling for any ideas.

How did you address an actual human Wizard?

Normally he’d be reaching for a joke, probably about her lack of hair, but that didn’t feel right. So, calling both on his early childhood training in manners and the self-control that he had earned the hard way during his time in captivity; Tony leaned forward in a careful bow.

“My name is Anthony, a lowly Apprentice to the Master Mage Loki Silvertongue. My Master and I come seeking shelter from those who would do us harm.”

Waving one arm, he gestured back towards the front of the cavern, where the Jotunn sorcerer lay comatose. Loki was still resting on the stretcher that Tony had used to remove him from the Quinjet.

“Ah.” Without another word, his new acquaintance brushed past him and hurried over to Loki’s side. Dropping to her knees before the litter holding the alien prince, her hands passed over his supine form. With his Sight still engaged from his earlier work, Tony could see the threads of magic that she sent outward along with the motion.

“Hey! What are you doing, Lady?” he asked, concerned for his friend and mentor.

The Ancient One offered a sympathetic smile, even as she continued her work. “I am assessing your Master’s condition. He has been under the bonds of a powerful and vicious control curse, one which has done considerable damage to his mind, body, and magic. However, it does appear that the curse was recently broken, most likely saving his life.”

Tony smiled sheepishly and rubbed the back of his neck as he answered her unspoken question.

“Yeah, that was me. I managed to break that thing a few hours ago,” he said as he gestured towards the far side of the cave from where they stood. It was there that he had deposited the collar and cuffs which had once adorned the older Sorcerer’s neck and wrists. They were visibly scorched and cracked from within and without, and had been easy to remove from their former locations once the magic that was contained within them had been nullified.

While Tony had not wanted them anywhere near Loki, he knew that the still visible runes that adorned their surfaces could be useful in diagnosing the older man’s ailments. Besides, he didn’t want to risk anyone taking, repairing them, and then using them on another victim.

“Well then, it does indeed seem that you were honest in your request, young Mister Stark. My Order accepts your request, in honor of the long-standing alliance which we share.”

Wait, what?

 “How!?!”

Her lips quirked up slightly, but the woman gave no other response to Tony’s exclamation. Instead, she smoothly resumed a standing position. Then, she strode over to the site of the portal, which still pulsed a bit, and with a few circular motions with her arms, re-opened it. This time, the view to be seen was not the same well-furnished room. Instead, it opened onto a rough stone-paved courtyard.

“If you will collect those…” she gestured towards the jumbled pile of corroded metal in the corner of the cavern. At the same time, she reached out with her magic. Without a sound, the litter arose and was levitated towards the open portal, with the woman following closely after it.

Tony hurried to obey, following this new-to-him ally through the portal before it could close once more. He didn’t want to be left behind.

* * * *

On the other side of the portal, Tony found himself in a stone courtyard. In front of him, several men and women in rust and gray versions of the Ancient One’s robes were swarming around the still-floating litter and taking her instructions. Despite the activity, the serenity that he had noticed in his earlier observations of their leader carried throughout all that he saw.

It was a refreshing contrast to the aura of subterfuge and banked menace that had been infused into every part of the Sandbox that he had seen. Even the Quinjet held a hint of that feeling, even though it was a new construction.

Mere moments after Tony stepped through the portal, a pair of robed individuals broke away from the swarming crowd and redirected themselves towards his side. In short order, Tony found himself dispossessed of the broken collar and manacles that he had carried, separated from his comatose mentor, and led inside of the building that surrounded the courtyard.

In a flurry of brisk moves, he was escorted to a small and sparsely furnished but still blissfully private bedroom on the second floor. The room was almost monastic in form, with its only furniture a simply dressed bed and a closed wardrobe. Directly opposite the door, a large window opened out into the central courtyard he had just left. Off to one side, an open door led to what appeared to be an on-suite bathroom.

This room, his escort informed him, would be designated for his personal use as soon as his name was added to the plaque outside. As such, Tony would have use of it for as long as he chose to remain within the sanctuary of Kamar Taj.

“Within this space, you will have absolute privacy,” the man promised; his deep brown, almost mahogany, colored eyes serious. “It is one of the most important tenets of our training. Sorcerers, especially young ones like yourself, have a greater need than most people for such things. Now,” he added with a glance down Tony’s form, “as you are a visitor, you are not required to dress as one of the Order. Instead, your wardrobe has been supplied with clothing in a variety of sizes and styles – simply select the ones which suit and set aside the rest. Once you have had a chance to bathe and dress, the Ancient One has asked that you join her for an evening meal. I will be waiting outside to escort you when you are ready.”

Giving Tony no chance to interject, the gray-haired Sorcerer swept out of the room in a flourish of dark cloth.

For a moment, all Tony could do was to stand and process. After so long in captivity, where things happened slowly if at all, the sheer speed in which things had changed was overwhelming.

But then the man’s words and his earlier glance down Tony’s body registered. Following in his guide’s footsteps, Tony glanced down to see the stolen SHIELD uniform that he still wore. Its dark fabric was torn and scuffed, covered in a great deal of blood and dirt. These, along with his sweaty body and disheveled appearance, were clear signs of the effort that he had gone through in escaping from the Sandbox’s Oubliette and finally breaking Loki’s curse.

“Ugh,” he muttered, quietly, before heading for the bathroom. A shower, especially one without sneering watchers around, sounded like heaven.

* * * *

It was perhaps an hour later when Tony found himself seated on a large floor cushion set before a low, teak dining table and sipping from a cup of green tea.

He had taken full advantage of the supplies offered in his suite, having a proper shave for the first time in years, and had dressed in a combination of the familiar, a pair of comfortable jeans, and novel, a solid-colored tunic cut in a style similar to the ones which the residents of this place wore, before leaving his room.

As promised, his escort had waited just outside. When Tony emerged, looking and feeling much more put together, the man had looked him up and down before quirking an eyebrow in appreciation. Tony had flushed, unaccustomed to such overt flirting after his time in captivity. While he and Loki had done the mutual appreciation thing when they first met, it had been years since they had settled into a more sibling-like relationship. And it wasn’t like he was going to flirt with any of SHIELDRA’s people. That would have just felt… wrong.

Still, despite being out of practice, he couldn’t help but return the compliment. The other man’s sharp cheekbones and powerful physique, what little he could see through numerous layers of robes, were strikingly beautiful, as was his aura of banked power.

After their glance of mutual admiration, the stranger had introduced himself as “Kaecilius”. Then, he had led Tony back down the way that they had come earlier, and then even further, following the curve of the courtyard to reach the small room where he now sat.

From her seat across the table from Tony, the Ancient One took a sip of her cup of tea before letting out a satisfied sigh.

“There’s something about a fresh cup of tea that just makes one feel at ease,” she said politely.

“I guess,” Tony agreed, but he had reached the end of his ability to hold his tongue. “Look, Lady, I appreciate the hospitality and all, but what about Loki? Where is he? Is he okay? What’s going on?”

Holding up a hand, the ageless Sorcerer halted his flow of words with effortless ease.

“I assure you, young Anthony,” she said, “that your Master is in the best possible hands. Our healers have much experience with such injuries. They are still completing their evaluation, but from what we have ascertained thus far it appears that he has fallen into a healing trance. It is a natural response for his body and magic, a way to dedicate all of his strength to recovery, and not uncommon as a healing technique amongst those gifted in the Mystic Arts.”

She offered him a serene smile and then continued. “Given the level of damage done to both his physical and magical forms by the curse, it is uncertain how long he will remain in such a state. For now, all that we can do is to maintain his body in the best possible condition. This will allow his magic to focus its energy on healing the damage that it has sustained.”

“But he will recover?” Tony asked, hopeful. He couldn’t bear the idea that Loki would escape only to pass before truly tasting the freedom that he’d been missing for so long. The very thought burned. “He will wake up?”

“I believe that he will, though it may be months or even years from now. In the meantime, I have another person to consider.”

Tony found his eyes captured in the other’s orbs, her gaze penetrating and knowing. It was as if she could read his every thought. Despite that, he could also see sympathy and understanding. Wait, she couldn’t be… talking about me? I’m nothing to her or her people. Why would she care about me? His mind raced.

“All that my old friend requires is a safe space to recover, but your needs, my young Apprentice, are not quite so simple,” she said, interrupting his frantic train of thought with her kind words.

But before the Ancient One could expand, they were interrupted by the boom of thunder. It echoed through the stone floor, much louder than it should be even if the strike was right on top of them.

That was no normal thunder.

Tony knew in an instant that it must be at least partially magical.

It seemed that the Ancient One agreed. She swept to her feet in a flourish of fabric. With a wave of her hand, a gold-edged portal was opened. From what he could tell, it opened out onto the courtyard where they had arrived earlier that afternoon.

Without hesitation, the Ancient One stepped through. Tony rushed to follow her before the portal closed.

Now, the feeling that flooded the stone square was very different from the earlier sense of busy serenity. The robed figures scattered around its outer perimeter had changed their behavior. Instead of acting in support of their leader, now they stood ready to fight. Some held wooden staves or other oddly shaped weapons, while golden runes hung in the air around others.

Above their heads, the sky had gone almost black with clouds. The wind began to pick up, and the sharpness of ozone could be felt on the air. All the signs that a severe thunderstorm was coming

Tony strode over to where the Ancient One stood beside Kaecilius, his earlier casually flirtatious mood replaced with an aura of danger that was palpable even to Tony’s inexperienced eye.

Damn, that’s hot. He thought, before sobering. Not the time for that, even if it’s true.

“What’s happening?” he asked one of the others that stood nearby as the wind picked up.

“Visitors,” the powerful-looking black man armed with a glowing, rune-covered staff, responded absently, even as he tightened his grip on the stave.

At that moment, Tony could understand why Loki had called this place a refuge. It was clear that the Order was well prepared to defend both themselves and any guests which they might entertain.

In the sky above the courtyard, a massive portal formed at the heart of the dark clouds. A flash of multi-colored light shot down, slamming into the ground with a sizzle as if something was burning. The light was blinding and forced Tony to look away out of sheer self-preservation.

When he looked back, the light had cleared; leaving behind a massive rune sigil burned into the courtyard’s stone surface. Standing in the center of the sigil was a troupe of men and women, well-armored in gleaming metal and prepared for a fight.

Their leader, the top half of his blonde locks pulled back into a queue, bore a massive, rune-covered, war hammer in one hand.

“Thor,” Tony breathed, recognizing the face from his visions during the Convergence.

It seemed that the Ancient One agreed, for she waved at her people to stand down. In response, the Asgardians did the same, relaxing into a state of wary readiness at Thor’s unspoken gesture.

Stepping forward, he greeted the Ancient One with a shallow bow of a visiting ruler to his equal.

“Milady Sorceress,” he said politely, “many years ago my brother, the Prince Loki, spoke of the Midgardian Order of the Mystic Arts. He once said that you held sway over the magic of this land, protecting it from enemies within and without. As such, I come to you as a petitioner, hopeful that you may be able to assist in a matter of grave importance.”

“Of course,” the Ancient One replied. “We would be honored to assist the Prince of Asgard.”

Thor cleared his throat, “King Regent, actually,” he said a tad sheepishly. “Mine father, King Odin, fell into the Odinsleep during the Convergence and has yet to awaken from his slumber. I was granted the honor of being named Regent for the duration of his incapacity.”

“King, then,” the Ancient One accepted the correction easily, while Tony hid his shock. His Master had often spoken of his reckless brother, arrogant and prone to aggression. But the Thor who stood before him seemed different from Loki’s tales.

Maybe losing Lokes forced him to grow up? He wondered. Loki did say that his brother was capable of learning, as long as he had sufficient reason. Losing his younger brother would be a good reason, I suppose.

While Tony was lost in thought, around him the others were not. If he didn’t follow, he’d be left behind. With quick steps, he hurried forward, trailing behind the pair of leaders as they made their way up the steps of the courtyard. They went into a large receiving room, one intended for more formal business than the smaller space where Tony and the Ancient One had previously sat having tea.

As Order troops and Asgardians alike claimed places around the room, the Ancient One gestured for Tony to take a seat at her side. No doubt he would be a key part of the discussions. After all, he was Loki’s apprentice and the sole witness to many of the relevant events.

Despite his armor, the Thunderer appeared comfortable as he took a seat at the low table. He dropped into a tailor’s seat easily, having set down his war hammer to one side. As he did so, an attendant stepped around the impressive weapon to place a tray of tea on the central table.

Tony suppressed a sigh. He wasn’t sure if he could handle the delay in their conversation. Still, he understood the move. It was a sign of polite negotiation common in Asia, a sign that the mundane anchor for Kamar Taj was located somewhere on that continent.

Once all those who were seated at the table were served and had taken their first sips of the hot beverage, the Ancient One spoke.

“King Thor,” she said. “Upon your arrival, you spoke of a matter of grave importance, presumably one which impacts your people. What could a Midgardian Order possibly do for the Golden Realm?”

Thor hesitated for a moment and then spoke. “It is not… precisely the Realm who requires aid. I spoke earlier of my brother, Prince Loki. It is on his behalf that I have come. Some decades ago, there was an incident with a Jotunn Seidrmadr by the name of Svadilfari. As is custom, the Court of Asgard was holding an open session when the man appeared before Odin Allfather in the guise of a son of Alfheim. There, he proclaimed his skill with seidr, including the building of defenses… Wards… against attack by enemies of the Realm.”

“Mine brother, who as you know is a powerful Seidrmadr in his own right, was intrigued by the man’s claims. He convinced our father to allow the man the opportunity to construct a new palace Ward, a particular challenge for even the most skilled Wardmasters. Svadilfari accepted the challenge and claimed that it would take no more than a year and a day for him to complete the task. Should he fail to complete the project in time, he proposed that he would receive no payment for his work. On the other hand, should he succeed he requested a boon from Odin Allfather, which was no mean reward.”

“At first, the monster’s intentions appeared honorable. The framework of the Ward took shape quickly, as he wove it into the very foundations of the land. But as Svadilfari’s deadline neared and the Ward approached completion my brother grew suspicious. Something about the Working troubled him. Less than a day before the deadline, he paid the other Seidrmadr a visit.”

“We may never know what exactly occurred during that confrontation. All that is known for a fact is that Loki somehow discovered the true purpose of Svadilfari’s Ward. It was a siphon, one which would steal the powerful seidr of the Golden Realm and its inhabitants for its wielder’s dark purposes. The pair fought, and Loki was overcome, but not before he managed to send out a warning to his mentor, Heimdall.”

Thor closed his eyes, as if in pain, and then continued. “With Loki’s warning in hand, I immediately led a troop of our most skilled warriors to confront the villain. In the battle, his true identity as a Jotunn of some renown, one who fought against Asgard during the last war, was revealed.”

“We proved victorious in our battle, taking down the monster before he could complete his Ward and destroy the Golden Realm and its inhabitants. During the battle, Svadilfari spoke of his victory over my brother, claiming to have stolen his seidr. Not only that, but the villain proved his claim by using seidr that bore my brother’s green color in battle against us. I was enraged at the villain’s words, to the point that when we finally triumphed over his workings, I killed him immediately.”

“It was only once he was dead that the true meaning of his claims was revealed. A thorough search of Svadilfari’s workshop revealed no sign of my brother’s body. Instead, the Palace Seidrmadrs found residue of the same curse as the foul Ward that he had planned for Asgard scattered across the space. It seemed that the monster had used it on Loki. In doing so, he had claimed both Loki’s seidr and his life. Thus, all of Asgard was convinced that my brother was no more. We grieved and, despite the absence of a body, honored him with a warrior’s pyre as was the right of a Prince fallen in battle.”

“Our mother alone was convinced that Loki was not lost. Her gift of precognition, her weaving, still showed futures where her son was restored to his home. But it was not until the past year that any other evidence would be found. Heimdall, he of the All-Seeing Eye, began to notice traces of Loki’s seidr scattered across the Realms. These traces were far too fresh to be remnants of workings from before Loki’s death. Thus, they gave hope that our lost son could be out there somewhere, still alive.”

Drawing himself up, Thor finished his story. “With the Convergence’s aftershocks still troubling Heimdall’s vision, he was unable to isolate the origin of the traces. However, everything that he has found points to a location here on Midgard. Thus, we have come seeking your aid in conducting a search.”

As Thor completed his speech, Tony was surprised but pleased to see the Ancient One look his way, wordlessly asking permission before sharing secrets. Since the King’s story did match the one that his Master had told, he nodded.

“Be at ease, your Majesty,” the Ancient One said, “your brother was correct. Indeed, he is an old friend to I and my Order. However, I regret to tell you that I will not be able to help you search for Loki.”

Thor frowned, displeased, but the Ancient One wasn’t finished.

“Because he is already here.”

“What!?”

Upon learning that his brother was currently in residence in Kamar Taj, Thor immediately demanded to see him.

So, they moved to the infirmary, where the long-lost prince now lay comatose. Once the Asgardian healer who had accompanied Thor had confirmed that it was Loki and that he was in no danger, but rather in a healing coma, the King asked, “but how hast my brother come to be with thee, my Lady?”

“That, I am afraid, is not my tale to tell. Prince Loki was already in this condition when he arrived only a few short hours ago,” she replied.

“Then who?”

Without another word, the Ancient One gestured to Tony, who stood by their side. Besides the four of them: Tony, the Ancient One, Thor, and his healer, there was no one else in the room. It was far too small a space to accommodate anyone else.

The size of the group made it easier for Tony to speak. He recounted the story as he knew it. He spoke of his and Loki’s shared incarceration and torture at the hands of SHIELD (HYDRA, whatever), as well as the limited training that he’d received from his fellow captive.

When Thor heard the news that his recent allies and shield-brothers were the ones who held his brother, he was furious. The hammer that he bore crackled with electricity and thunder boomed from outside.

It took a bit of work, but Tony and the others managed to talk Thor down. They pointed out that most if not all of SHIELD had no idea of the truth. Tony used Agent Barton as an example there, a fact which quite pleased both Thor and his companion, the Asgardian Healer named Eir.

“He was my patient for a time, the Hawk-eyed Agent. It is good to hear that he is recovered from his wounds and has proven himself to be a worthy man,” she said softly, her eyes locked on her King.

“Indeed,” Thor agreed. “A mortal with the strength to handle contact with not one but two of the Infinity Stones. It is comforting that such a man has revealed himself to be a man of honor.”

The tale of SHIELD’s current troubles with HYDRA, including the news of internal fighting and the Ancient One’s description of Captain America’s very public involvement in that fight, that was the final nail in the coffin, as it were. Everyone agreed that under the circumstances there would be no way to get the truth about SHIELD’s crimes, at least not with a frontal assault. Instead, it would require subtlety. For now, SHIELD would be allowed to believe that their violation of the agreements signed with Asgard had gone unobserved.

Meanwhile, decisions were made in regards to other, more important, matters. Loki was to return to Asgard, where the palace healers were better equipped to handle both his race and the type of injuries that he had sustained.

“Besides,” Thor had said, his eyes wet with unshed tears, “our mother will need to see mine brother with her own eyes and lay hands on his body herself to know for certain that her lost son is truly restored to her.”

The current ruler of the Aesir offered to bring Tony along with them to the Realm Eternal. As Loki’s recognized Apprentice, as indicated by Loki’s magical signature in his seidr, the young Sorcerer had earned the right to live in the Realm Eternal.

Such an honor was practically unheard of, or so the Ancient One said. As far as she knew, the last Midgardian to receive the privilege of journeying to the Golden Realm had been a Norse warrior, a great man who had saved his Asgardian counterpart in the heat of battle and had suffered egregious wounds as a consequence. Recognizing that the man would die if left on Earth, the Allfather had allowed him to be brought to the Halls of Healing long enough to cure his life-threatening wounds. He was then returned to his clan, carrying tales of the golden city and its people. These eventually grew into the Myths of the Norse Gods.

So, when Thor made his offer, many of the members of the Order who had been shamelessly eavesdropping on the conversation murmured in surprise and jealousy. But Tony turned Thor down.

“I have unfinished business to attend to here on Earthgard, Your Sparky Majesty,” he replied, explaining his refusal as politely as he could. “Anyways, it’s not like there would be much for me to do up there, not until Loki awakens. Of course, once my Ice Man cometh back to himself, you’ll tell him where I am, won’t you?” he asked.

“Of a certainty, son of Stark,” the Thunderer promised, clapping a single, strong hand on Tony’s shoulder and making his knees buckle with the force. “Mine brother will doubtless wish to see thee upon his restoration. Nevertheless, I understand thy reasons for remaining in this place. Should such matters be altered, the Realm will always remain open to the Prince’s Apprentice. Simply call for Heimdall, and he will collect thee; no matter where on Midgard thou may be.”

“Thanks, big guy,” Tony replied shakily. He was still recovering his footing after Thor’s ‘pat’. Once he had finished doing so, he removed himself from the center of the courtyard. It was there that the Asgardians had gathered now that the negotiations were complete. They stood atop the same runes that had been burnt onto its surface a few hours before. The only difference from their previous formation was that they now incorporated a litter bearing the comatose Loki at their center.

Having reached the edge of the runes, Tony took up a position at the Ancient One’s side, standing on the wooden steps that led down into the courtyard. He offered her a nod as he turned to face Thor and the Asgardians. The god-King offered another nod of acknowledgment to both Tony and their host, then he looked up into the now clear sky.

“Heimdall,” he called, “bring us home.”

In an instant, there was another brilliant, multicolored flash of light, blinding Tony and the other watchers. When it cleared, the Asgardians were gone.

“Now,” Tony said with a grin, invigorated by what had just occurred, “shall we resume our discussion?”

Chapter 3: A Nation Besieged

“It’s incredibly risky, you know?”

“What?”

“This disguise your country uses. You pretend to be just another impoverished third-world country in Africa. Meanwhile, your technology is in advance of the rest of the world. But that technology isn’t based purely on skill. No, it comes from the natural resource of Vibranium that you claim a monopoly upon.”

Tony Stark’s comment was absent, as most of his attention was focused elsewhere. He was in the process of converting a chunk of Vibranium into a crystalline form appropriate for use in his personal Arc Reactor, a delicate and finicky task. For most, the task would require their full and complete attention, but not the Stark genius. Despite his intense effort, he was still able to entertain his current visitor with intelligent conversation.

“And why is that risky?” Nakia asked, her curiosity aroused by the inventor’s comment. In the last few years, she had seen her fair share of danger. It was the natural consequence of her chosen career as a War Dog of Wakanda. However, that danger had always been to her as an individual, or in a few cases the mission on which she had embarked, not to her nation as a whole.

All Wakandans who ventured out into the larger world, whether as spies, diplomats, businessmen, or something else, received extensive training in resisting even the most rigorous levels of interrogation. Not to mention that no one would dream of betraying their homeland, not to Colonizers. So how could the nation be at risk?

“Oh, not from your people, Aida” Stark -Tony – said. “Not really. I do not doubt that your nation trains its representatives far too well for that. Besides, I’ve seen how fiercely loyal all of you are to your nation and its royal family. Those, what did you call them, Dora? They were quite convincing there.”

Nakia smiled at the compliment to her sisters-in-arms, some of whom she had trained alongside. But her companion wasn’t finished.

“Nah, the danger comes from the outside,” he continued. “Not in the traditional sense, of course, given the technological differences. Rather, the danger comes from the court of public opinion. Wakanda’s true reality is an unspoken secret that is held by the global intelligence community. And not just them, it’s also an open secret across the large, multinational corporations of the world. Your people are good, but it’s simply impossible to manage the sheer scale of that kind of cover-up, not without some leaks.”

“For now, everyone is willing to keep the truth under wraps. After all, a grand reveal would harm most of them just as much as it would Wakanda. But that won’t always be the case. One day, Wakanda will be exposed. And if I know the public like I do…” Here the man who’d grown up in the public eye actively winced, a sight which put her hackles up.

Nakia knew that Tony Stark understood the fickle nature of public opinion more than most people. If he was wincing, the future that he envisioned must be a truly unpleasant one.

“Well, let’s just say that the backlash won’t be pretty. Not like you, my dancing queen. I know how much your nation has done to support their neighbors and others, especially those living in that part of the world, but the average human won’t be so aware. They’ll see Wakanda as selfish, privileged, or worse, uncaring. It could be an unmitigated disaster. And all it would take is a leak, one which is impossible to cover up.”

* * * *

At the time, Nakia had dismissed Tony’s comments. They were nothing more than idle speculation. But in recent days she had found the genius inventor’s unthinking words to be startlingly prophetic.

When the Black Widow and Captain America had chosen to put the entirety of the SHIELD database out on the web, in an attempt to bring down the HYDRA contingent within their ranks, the extent of that organization’s actions had been just the tip of the massive iceberg of information that was revealed.

From Nakia’s perspective, the worst thing to be found in its depths had been the section dedicated to the secretive nation of Wakanda. And it had not been a small section.

SHIELD had managed to identify dozens of War Dogs in the field, compromising active missions across the globe. And it wasn’t only active missions that were disrupted. An extensive chronology of Wakanda’s work to destabilize Colonizers’ actions across the globe could be found in the depths of the database, including several missions that would look criminal to the uninitiated viewer.

Then there was the Vibranium issue.

Contained within the database was a fairly thorough estimate of Wakandan science and technology, based on the examples of Wakandan tech that SHIELD’s agents had encountered or managed to acquire. SHIELD’s science branch had been trying to duplicate Wakandan technology since the organization’s beginning, and the number of rants about the African nation’s unwillingness to share their unique natural resource was ridiculously large.

In all of this trouble, Nakia knew that she had been lucky.

Thanks to SHIELD’s focus on her identity as Mercy, Tony Stark’s Wakandan liaison before his mysterious breakdown, her other missions and identities had remained off of their radar. Instead, she had the rather unique experience of observing the disaster unfold while on a mission, embedded in place in an foreign compound.

* * * *

About five months before the fall of SHIELD, Nakia had been given the assignment of infiltrating the home compound of Joseph Isabile, the notorious Central African Dictator. To do so, her orders were to take advantage of the depredations of Isabile’s men, who habitually raided the villages within their reach. As an attractive young woman, Nakia – or rather, to give her cover name, Amira – would exactly fit what the soldiers were looking to collect.

So, when her colleague Tembe, who was on assignment as a soldier in one of Isabile’s camps, sent word that there was a raid scheduled that week, she headed out. Amira, named after Nakia’s aunt, a fellow War Dog who had died when Nakia was a child, arrived in one of the villages a few days before the soldiers hit.

She claimed to be passing through on her way to re-join her family, having hitched a ride with a truck that was delivering supplies to the rural area. After spending the next couple of days doing odd jobs, supposedly making ends meet while waiting for the next opportunity to continue her journey, the raiders hit. As a stranger, Amira had no one to protect her from being seized by the soldiers. If anything, it was almost encouraged.

It was easier for the villagers to sacrifice a stranger than one of their young women.

A few words from Tembe, who was a member of the raiding party, and Amira was sent off to the main compound with the bulk of the supplies taken during the raid. Once there, her beauty and skills were enough to earn her a prime position within Isabile’s household, one which gave her extensive access to the compound and its various secrets.

Nakia was about to call for an extraction, having completed her information gathering, when the news of SHIELD’s fall broke. Unsurprisingly, Isabile and his men were thrilled with the news. In their minds, the fall of one of America’s most notorious spy agencies would distract the powerful country from interfering in their business.

Bast protect us… Nakia had thought on that first night after the news broke, watching the Dictator and his men as they got increasingly drunk and violent. These men already do such harm. What atrocities will they commit in their celebrations?

Soon, however, her concerns became more personal.

Over the next few days, whispers began to spread throughout the compound. A spy in one of the outlying camps had been identified by the SHIELD leaks. At first, Nakia had assumed that it was one of SHIELD’s people. That news was unfortunate, but not of great importance for her mission. But then, when the rumors were confirmed on one particularly intense evening, her assumption about the spy’s identity was proven incorrect.

* * * *

Amira had been in Dictator Isabile’s gold-gilt audience chamber, working as an entertainer and serving girl. Dressed in the skimpy wardrobe that was the uniform of choice for Isabile’s women, she had just delivered drinks to a pair of already plastered soldiers. She had been submitting to their drunken fondling with barely contained disgust when the festive mood was broken by the door to the chamber slamming open with a thud.

General Armand Unholo, one of Isabile’s most loyal commanders, came striding into the room. Unlike Isabile and the others, he was still dressed for battle, his uniform coated in road dust. Unholo was followed by a pair of similarly dusty troops, each one carrying a wooden crate in their arms.

“Sir,” Unholo said, reaching the dais where Isabile held court. He came to attention and offered a crisp salute of respect. Isabile returned the gesture with a smile.

“Armand,” he said, “this is a pleasant surprise. I had not looked to see you for some weeks. Tell me, how go things at the front?”

“The front remains secure,” Unholo said grimly. “But that is not why I have come. Instead, I come bearing grievous news. I have found a spy in my ranks.”

At his subordinate’s words, Isabile’s face grew thunderous. “Who would dare…” he growled, leaning forward in his seat.

In response, Unholo beckoned one of his men forward. The soldier opened the crate that he bore to reveal… a severed head.

From her position behind the main table, Amira had a full view of the grisly sight. While human remains were always distressing to view, she had been trained to handle such things. What had her nearly collapsing in shock was something else. Despite the tortured expression and decay, she recognized the owner of the head. It was Tembe!

Nakia knew that the other War Dog had been in place for over a year without the slightest hint that his cover might have been blown. There was simply no way that he had broken character or made an egregious enough mistake to be noticed, not after so long.

How in Bast’s name was Tembe identified? Nakia thought, her mind racing. Am I compromised as well? Tembe was the one who arranged for me to be sent to the compound in the first place.

As she struggled to control her reaction to the unexpected sight, Unholo continued speaking.

“He was one of those damned Wakandans,” he spat. Reaching into the second, smaller crate, he pulled out a bracelet of round metal beads and tossed them onto the table with a thud. They clinked together as they hit the wood surface, but otherwise showed no indication of their true nature.

Of course, Nakia knew better. They were Kimoyo Beads, a familiar sight to the undercover agent. While they looked like nothing more than a simple bracelet of iron beads to the uninitiated eye, that was not their true purpose. Behind their mundane appearance, the dull metal beads hid enough complex circuitry to be the equivalent to a cellular phone or tablet. As such, they were easily adapted for use by Wakanda’s network of War Dogs.

Fuck. I’m screwed.

Nakia had her own set of Kimoyo Beads hidden among her belongings back in the women’s quarters right now, embedded in a far more feminine-style necklace than the bracelet before her.

“These match the descriptions found in the SHIELD documents, sir,” Unholo said. “You may want to search your people here for similar accessories.”

What now? Nakia’s mind was scrambling, trying to come up with a plan. There was no way that she could make it to her emergency extraction point, not given what had just happened.

Fortunately, the men around were far too focused on the conversation between Unholo and Isabile to notice her lack of service.

Do I try to find a way out, or wait and hope for the best?

While Nakia was panicking behind her cover of Amira, the innocent servant girl, General Unholo continued to speak. “We were unable to figure out how to make them work, and the Panther spy,” here the general gestured towards the severed head that his man was still holding up, “was less than helpful in aiding our efforts.” With a shrug, he added. “The spy killed himself rather than spill his guts.”

“They are as loyal as the documents claim, then?” Isabile said absently, fiddling with the beads that Unholo had offered to his leader.

“So it seems,” the General agreed. “I do not know exactly what his mission might have been here, but given the leaked documents from the Americans I am sure that it is nothing good.”

“Indeed. It is a shame that the Snake-Heads failed to find a way around their cursed protections.”

Isabile and all of his men curled their lips in disgust.

“The Wakandans should be on our side. Instead, they choose to lock themselves away behind their shields and let the Europeans run roughshod over us,” he announced. “Thus, I declare Wakanda an enemy of our beloved nation. Any sympathizers or spies will be declared traitors to this regime. Generals, you are to search amongst your people for bracelets like this one,” he said, shaking Tembe’s Kimoyo Beads for emphasis

What is happening? Nakia wondered, hiding her fears behind a blank face.

Luckily, the differences between Tembe’s masculine bracelet and Nakia’s far more feminine version were enough to keep her safe that night. Instead, she remained in place as rumors circulated widely throughout the compound. Several more of the soldiers were accused of being Wakandan spies and executed with prejudice. As none of them were familiar, she was sure that the accusations were false. Instead, their deaths were likely the result of paranoia.

Meanwhile, everyone was talking about what had happened in America and around the world. SHIELD had fallen and had taken out huge swathes of covert operations in the process.

From what she heard, Nakia knew that there were probably dozens, if not hundreds, of War Dogs who had died as a result of the catastrophe. But it was the response of the compound’s servants that had made things worse. Even those servers who had little loyalty to Isabile were openly dismissive of the Wakandans and their efforts.

“If they really cared,” one of Amira’s fellows commented as they worked to clean the compound after a particularly raucous night. “They would do something about what is happening here. They have the power to bring change, but all that they do is spy. Instead, we are left at the mercy of the Americans, Europeans, and our beloved leaders.”

While the rest of the gathered women agreed, Nakia took the comment to heart. It was grievous to know that Wakandan War Dogs had paid such a steep price and that the response to their sacrifice was overwhelmingly negative. She desperately needed to get out of there, for her mental well-being, if nothing else.

* * * *

In all of the chaos, it took several weeks before a new extraction plan could be arranged. Nakia had been scheduled to be removed a few days after the party, but when Tembe’s corpse was delivered Isabile had put the entire compound on lockdown. No one was going in or out. So, she was stuck.

Eventually, though, things had to stabilize. And with that change, her extraction could finally be arranged.

* * * *

It began with a delivery to the compound, the result of the latest patrols through the local villages. Along with the food and other supplies, a new crop of women and children were brought in to serve Isabile and his men. This meant that additional space was needed to house the fresh faces.

As was Isabile’s common practice, those women who had fallen from favor were sent out from the main compound. Some were intended as gifts, rewards for good work to the warlord’s commanders. Others were bound for trade, sent to the local branch of the organization that handled human trafficking. The purchase prices offered for their bodies were a common source of income to fund Isabile’s military strength.

It took a deliberate effort, but Amira managed to lose the Dictator’s favor and land herself on the departure list. This was exactly what she wanted, so she had not protested too strenuously when she was summoned by Amira’s supervisor to join the caravan. She was efficiently loaded into the covered back of a truck by a pair of handsy soldiers. Once inside, she was quickly joined by a dozen other women and a couple of nearly pubescent boys. All around her, Amira could feel her companions shuddering in fear over their fate, but inside, all she felt was a sense of relief. Finally, she would be able to escape from this hell-hole.

As the truck beneath them shuddered to a start, Amira let out an inaudible sigh, one which could easily be excused as nerves. This assignment, which had gone from routine to something out of the tales of Hanuman’s revenge, was finally coming to an end.

Despite the motion, the heavy canvas covering the vehicle’s rear compartment blocked nearly all airflow and light, leaving the space dark and stuffy. The air was heavy with moisture, filled with the scents of far too many frightened bodies crammed into a small space.

Leaning her back against the wall of the truck above the hard bench where she sat, Nakia had allowed her mind to drift. And so she had found herself recalling Tony Stark’s now-prophetic words. It was an unsurprising mental segue, a natural consequence of both the environment where she had been and the stress of recent weeks.

About an hour into their journey, the convoy was intercepted by Wakandans. At first, the signs of the attack were ambiguous. There was a change to the caliber of the animal noises, one that could be heard even over the rattling of the trucks. Then, the guards picked up on it. Their conversations grew more aggressive, and even through the canvas barrier, Amira and her companions could tell that they were growing nervous. First one, and then another vehicle’s engines died, bringing the entire fleet to a halt.

It wasn’t long before the first shots were fired. These were likely the result of itchy trigger fingers, given the way that the commanders yelled at their men. But soon the true nature of the situation became clear. Bursts of gunfire and screams merged into a single, inharmonious whole.

With her extensive experience of surviving firefights, Amira knew that it was safest for her as an unarmed non-combatant to remain in place and not try to run. However, given that bullets were flying overhead, getting lower down would be wise. Moving efficiently, she climbed into the bed of the truck, urging her fellows to follow her lead as she did so. Recognizing the wisdom of her actions, the other frightened women and boys followed suit.

After what felt both like an eternity and only a moment, the sounds of weapons fire began to die down, replaced by the thuds of falling bodies. Then, the canvas at the back of the truck swung open, bringing with it a familiar sight.

Okoye. Bast Bless.

Ever the consummate spy, Nakia held her composure at the sight of her friend. Instead, she acted like just another terrified member of Isabile’s harem. She shrieked in fear, and then followed the barked command to exit the vehicle with reluctant steps.

Moving quickly, the former concubines were removed from the confines of the truck bed and led past the fallen bodies of their escort/captors. Most of the women sobbed in fear. Some were more stoic. They watched with wary eyes as the Wakandan warriors gathered up the scattered weapons of Isabile’s fallen troops, placing them in one of the open truck beds.

Once Nakia would have assumed that her fellows would be filled with gratitude for their rescuers, but now she knew better. There was a distinct possibility that one or more of the women had just lost family, or even a lover, in the ambush. Even if they hadn’t, chances were that going home was out of the question. They’d just end up right back where they started the next time that Isabile’s troops raided their villages.

Okoye having walked off, clearly busy coordinating the clean-up; it was one of her subordinates who spoke to the rescued women. She spoke confidently as she informed Amira’s companions of their various options. These were the same as the War Dogs usually offered on such occasions.

First, they could return to their home villages. A military escort would be provided to the nearest trade village, along with funds to pay for the remainder of their journeys home.

Second, they could use the opportunity to start a new life. The supplies that the captured convoy carried were to be taken to Lagos, where a large compound was maintained, one that had the approval of the Nigerian authorities. In this safe space, intended for the survivors of human trafficking, the women would have a chance to find a new purpose for their lives. The compound was part of the network which Mercy had worked to develop with Tony Stark before his untimely disappearance years before.

Of course, no mention was made of the warriors’ allegiance to Wakanda during the speech. Instead, the women were allowed to believe that Okoye and the others were funded by some overseas agency, an important layer of protection. Again, this was common practice for such missions.

With all that had happened recently, though, Nakia was certain that more than a few of her fellows had some inkling of the truth. Still, there was nothing she could do about suspicions. Instead, as the women split up into groups, having made their decisions, and headed off with the various escorts, Nakia acted.

She convinced each group of captives that she would be taking the other opportunity that the strangers had offered. Then, once her cover was set, she slipped away into the foliage near the road’s edge. Following the directions that Okoye had subtly indicated earlier, she quickly located the cloaked Talon that had been parked nearby, and with easy movements, slipped onboard.

After a quick flash of her lower lip confirmed her identity as a War Dog, she was welcomed on board by the waiting pilot. Able to relax for the first time in days, if not weeks, she collapsed into one of the unoccupied seats with a sigh.

Shortly thereafter, Okoye and a handful of other warriors returned to the Talon. The remainder of the team that had ambushed the convoy would not be returning. Instead, they would stay behind, on escort duty for the prisoners and supplies that had been taken. The warriors’ voices were loud and joyful, the sounds common after a successful mission.

As she approached Nakia, Okoye reached out and grabbed the younger woman in a tight hug. Meanwhile, the pilot lifted his craft off the ground with barely a sound.

“Bast be thanked, you’re still with us,” Okoye said in relief as she dropped into the seat beside her friend. “When the news began to pour in, we all feared the worst. T’Challa has been waiting impatiently for your return, as has your Baba.”

“What happened?” Nakia asked, ready to get the full story from the other woman. “The little that I’ve heard was garbled at best.”

“It’s a mess,” Okoye admitted. Then she recounted the events that had occurred since Nakia had left for her mission. As she spoke, Nakia had to admit that Okoye’s initial comment was an excellent summary of the whole affair. It was a bewildering and horrifying mess.

Nakia had already borne direct witness to the disaster caused by the unconsidered actions of Captain America and the Black Widow, but her own experiences were just a single example amongst dozens of others. Wakandan War Dogs were missing-in-action all over the world, many presumed dead due to the leaks. Missions worldwide had been compromised, ruining years and, in a few instances, decades of hard work.

Meanwhile, Wakanda had become a hot topic for politicians and the public alike. Both Okoye and Nakia were experienced enough in the art of global affairs to know that the Americans and others were likely using Wakanda as a distraction from their misdeeds. Still, it hurt.

“The King is under a tremendous amount of stress, both from within and without. There are even rumors that the council may force him to step down,” Okoye added. She would have said more, but something interrupted them. The jet had begun its approach on the borders of Wakanda, and the sight before her had Nakia distracted from the conversation.

In the past, the view upon approach to the protective shield which defended and hid the country’s heart had been pastoral. A large swathe of grasslands inhabited only by a small collection of rural native villages – living off the land as their ancestors had for generations.

Of course, Nakia knew that many of those pastoral villages were fronts. Hidden behind the facade lay the training grounds and barracks of Wakanda’s warriors, including the Dora Milaje and War Dogs like herself. Even so, that reality had always been well hidden, beneath the surface.

But now, now the true face of Wakanda lay exposed to the public.

Ramshackle encampments covered the part of the grasslands opposite the shield, filled with what looked like refugees and protestors. Out amongst the crowds, what looked like armed camps of the sort that Nakia had just left were scattered. Each of these camps featured uniformed soldiers bearing AK-47s patrolling their perimeters.

Nakia knew that under normal circumstances, this diverse conglomeration of people wouldn’t last a week. Either the companies of soldiers would fire on each other, or they would abuse the refugees, frightening many of them away. Meanwhile, the protestors would grow bored and tired of ‘roughing’ it and return to their lives of comparative luxury.

However, these were not normal circumstances. While they had very different reasons for their presence, all of the gathered crowds had one thing in common, their shared anger at her homeland.

In contrast to the disjointed group, the gathering found across the disturbed ground that marked the demilitarized zone was far more organized. It was a single, massive encampment, one filled with the warriors of Wakanda. While many hid their war gear behind the blanket shields that protected them from projectile weaponry, others carried their weapons openly. They openly showed that they were prepared to fight.

And, it was clear that battles had already been fought in that disputed region. In the heart of the demilitarized zone between the encampments, Nakia could see ashes, craters from both normal and Vibranium weapons, and several bodies lying out in the sun. It was a horrifying sight by any definition. At that moment, she was reminded of the war zones that she’d visited in other parts of the world, part of her work as a War Dog. To see even the borders of her homeland as one of these war zones made her weep.

As tears ran down Nakia’s cheeks, around her the others exchanged meaningful glances. Okoye barked a word forward to the pilot, and he activated the external audio pickup mics. Now, Nakia could hear the noise from outside as they hovered over the area.

The crowd of (mostly) white protestors off to one side were chanting – DOWN WITH WAKANDA, VIBRANIUM FOR ALL. In their arms, many bore signs and banners, all of which spoke similar words of condemnation.

Then, as if the shouts of the protestors were a call to arms, one of the armed groups went charging across the designated no-man’s-land, attempting to break through the defensive wall of Wakandan warriors.

They failed miserably, to no one’s surprise.

Still, some of the attackers got close enough to the shield wall that a handful of their stray shots hit and made it ripple. The sight of the energy field caused a further ruckus amongst the gathered public, as the cries of the protestors reached a crescendo.

All aboard the hidden Talon shared looks of dismay, even as their transport veered left. Instead of passing through the shield immediately, which would have caused a visible disruption of both camouflage fields, the jet surfed alongside the outside edge of Wakanda’s border for some distance. It took maybe ten minutes before they reached a section of the shield which fell into a wide ravine. As the vessel dropped down to where it would be out of sight, it was finally able to make its way through without being observed by Outsiders. Signs of their crossing would only be visible from spots inside of the canyon’s bounds.

Once on the other side of the shield, it didn’t take long before Nakia could see the capitol spread out before her eyes. The vista looked the same as usual; the city’s spires gleamed in the sunlight. But Nakia did not doubt that the calm was another illusion. Though Wakanda’s people may be resilient, this was a disaster on a scale unlike any in their recent history.

As the Talon made its final approach into the city, Nakia wiped the tears from her eyes. Then she let Okoye help her to rise.

“Come, my friend, your King awaits,” Okoye said, her voice grim, as the vehicle came to a landing on the palace’s main platform. “And may Bast guide your words,” she added quietly. They shared a clasp of hands, bowing to place their foreheads together before Nakia brushed past her friend and headed down the ramp onto the platform below.

* * * *

It was with the ease of long practice that Nakia made her way through the extensive compound of the Wakandan palace, heading for her suite of rooms. Despite everything, it was good to be home. Along the way, she passed by several palace guards, including a couple of Dora on patrol. Her passage garnered nothing beyond the familiar nods of respect. After all, her identity was well known here.

Still, it was a relief to reach her private quarters and, for the first time in ages, be alone. She stripped off grimy and worn garments, covered with stains of dubious origin. Then, climbing into her shower, Nakia turned the water up almost unbearably hot. Standing under the pounding spray, she let the persona of Amira, reluctant servant, concubine of the Warlord Joseph Isabile, fall away with the patina of dirt, sweat, and gun oil that had coated her skin.

In its place, she restored her true self – Nakia of the River Tribe, beloved friend to the Royal Family of Wakanda. Resuming the familiar guise was a blessing from the Panther Goddess, a balm to an overstressed soul.

Thus, it was a much refreshed Nakia who left her chambers a bare hour after arriving. Her destination: the private office of King T’Chaka, Wakanda’s current monarch.

* * * *

“Malume,” she said with a smile as she stepped through the door that had been opened by the pair of guardian Dora. “I am returned.”

“Daughter,” the King gave his customary response to her greeting from his seat behind the massive carved desk that took up much of his private office. At first glance, he appeared unchanged from the man that she remembered. A closer examination, however, told a very different story. Since the last time that she had seen her ruler, the Wakandan monarch looked like he had aged at least a decade. Stress lines were visible on his face, increased white and grey streaked his curly locks, and his frame was tense.

Despite her shock at the view, Nakia took care to hide her reaction to T’Chaka’s appearance. Instead, she only made a single, obvious comment.

“You look tired,” she said, her tone casual.

In response, the king sighed. Then he set aside what he had been reading with a reluctant nod of agreement. “It seems, my dear that you have returned to a country – and a King – in crisis,” he commented. “Though knowing that you are safe takes one load off of this old man’s shoulders.”

“You’re not that old,” she chided kindly even as she offered him a brief smile. “Sire, should I give my report?”

“Please.”

* * * *

Nakia’s debrief with the king lasted for several hours. During that time, she ended up listening more than speaking. It was her surrogate father, her Malum, who had the greater need to speak.

At one point in their debrief turned conversation, he commented. “I fear, my child, that these recent troubles are a punishment from the Ancestors, perhaps even from the Goddess herself. I see the sins of my youth coming back to haunt me, now so many years later. I cannot help but wonder if it would have been better had I not accepted the mantle of Black Panther all of those years ago.”

“No! Malume, you are a great King,” Nakia exclaimed. “You cannot let the misfortunes of the present blind you to all of the good that you have done.”

King T’Chaka shook his head. “If only you knew…” he murmured, almost under his breath. “I wonder if this isn’t the start of a new era for Wakanda. It has been centuries since the last time that Bast showed herself to us, revealing a new path forward. Not since the threat of the Europeans first made itself known and we began to hide. But now, it seems that we face a new turning point in our history, one which could be as significant as that long-ago day.”

“And, given my place in this tragedy, perhaps it is an indication that the time is ripe for a change. Perhaps a new king…”

“Speaking of new kings, where is T’Challa in all of this? Malume, where is your son?” Nakia asked firmly. She knew that her childhood friend and former beloved would never abandon his father or his country, not in a time of such hardship.

At that question, the King sighed. “Like many of our people who have significant experience in navigating the Outside world, he is out of the country on a mission. At present I have him dealing with a particularly sensitive matter to the south,” he said, before turning to other matters. Nakia wished that she could ask for more details, but knew that now wasn’t the time.

Nakia and T’Chaka’s conversation continued well into the Wakandan evening, with a pause at one point to share a brief meal. Eventually, though, her long day caught up with her. When she failed to hide a second yawn less than a minute after the first, her companion let out a wry chuckle. “But look at this old man, keeping you here for far too long.”

“I’m fine-“ Nakia began to protest but had to stop to suppress her third yawn.

“Nonsense. There is no need for you to exhaust yourself on my behalf.”

With a sigh, Nakia accepted the admonition. She pushed herself out of the comfortable leather seat, groaning as sore muscles which had locked up during the hours of stillness protested the movement.

“Goodnight, your Majesty,” she said formally.

“May Bast bless your slumber,” the King replied with a smile, “and welcome home.”

Nakia smiled in return and then turned to leave the room. As the door opened, she chanced a glance back towards T’Chaka. He had already turned back to his work, his shoulders tense and his expression fallen. She walked past the guardian Dora, their faces impassive. Still, their eyes betrayed their concern for their monarch, a concern that Nakia herself shared. But nothing more could be done on her part, at least not tonight.

* * * *

The next morning, Nakia again left her rooms in search of a member of the royal family. This time, her target was the youngest member, the Princess Shuri.

Of course, with a younger target, Nakia’s hunt was a bit more difficult. Unlike her father, the Princess did not have one particular haunt where she remained ensconced. Instead, she migrated from place-to-place in a somewhat haphazard manner.

So, Nakia made her way through the halls, asking each of the staff that she passed if they had seen the Princess recently. She could, of course, have turned to her now openly worn Kimoyo Beads for help, but the search was half the fun.

It also gave her a chance to get a sense of the general mood in the palace.

From what she could tell, people were disappointed that their nation had come under such negative attention. However, their anger was not aimed at their leaders. Instead, everyone was furious at the outsiders who dared to judge them based on the reports of an agency that had been infiltrated by the evil of HYDRA. That multi-headed monstrosity had been an adversary of Wakanda during the World War II era. Nazi troops were the last to attempt an invasion of the sovereign nation, and now their successors were continuing the push.

Those who Nakia encountered were happy to talk and to help in her search for Princess. She went from one end of the palace to the other, enjoying the walk as she went. In the end, the final piece of the puzzle was the blast of Afro-punk that came echoing down one of the corridors of the science wing. A favorite of the pre-teen princess, the music was a sure sign that the girl was nearby.

Sure enough, when Nakia followed the music to its source, she found little Shuri. The princess was hard at work, tapping away at a holographic interface that displayed complex chemical models, their details already beyond Nakia’s understanding. It was clear that, despite the girl’s youth, she was already doing advanced work.

Nakia hid a smile as Shuri squealed in delight at her model’s successful compilation, her youth and hair in dual buns with streaks of pale blue and pink a direct contrast to the very advanced material with which she worked.

“Miss Shuri, you have a visitor.”

Hearing the male voice, with its upper-class British accent, made Nakia’s smile widen.

Meanwhile, Shuri, having spun around in her lab stool, leaped to her feet with an even louder squeal of pleasure.

“It’s good to hear your voice, JARVIS,” Nakia said, even as she braced herself for forty kilos of an excited princess.

“You as well, Madame Mercy,” the AI responded, his tone similarly warm despite the artificial nature of its owner. When Tony Stark had gone missing, supposedly seeking treatment for mental damage caused by his time held hostage in Afghanistan, the synthetic being had made a surprising choice.

Reaching out to the Wakandans, who he had been working with alongside his creator, he had sought out their aid.

From what he said, JARVIS knew that SHIELD was the one who had stolen his Sir, so he also knew that meant the man’s return was unlikely. The odds of his return were even less than when he had been captured by terrorists. Not only that, but JARVIS had found Stane to be much more aggressive in shutting down his Master Anthony’s affairs, including JARVIS’ servers.

Having calculated a multitude of possible outcomes, JARVIS had then determined that the best way for him to support his Sir was to find a way to remain online. Thus, he had come up with the Wakandan solution.

He sent a message via a secure connection to Mercy, requesting a meeting. Hidden within the message was a request for sanctuary, one which Nakia had quite willingly passed along. King T’Chaka, having already seen the benefits of working with both Stark and his AI, accepted JARVIS’ request.

And so, less than a month after Tony’s disappearance, JARVIS carefully packaged his code up into easily transmissible packets before sending them off on a multitude of different, but overlapping, paths. On the other end of their transit, these packets were collected and reassembled on a dedicated server in the Wakandan palace. Then, when the packets were compiled, a copy of JARVIS came into being.

The AI’s move had proved fortuitous. Less than a week after the copy of his code came online in Wakanda, the server that maintained JARVIS’ original code was shut down. It was the consequence of Stane’s mothballing of Master Anthony’s various personal properties.

In the years since then, JARVIS had never given up his search for his missing master. But, in the meantime, he had found a new home, friends, and another genius and absent-minded scientist to care for in the Wakandan Princess.

“How are you both doing?” Nakia asked around her armful of pre-teen, glancing towards JARVIS’ nearest camera lens with the ease of long habit.

Given their positions, Nakia could feel Shuri’s huff, but it was JARVIS who responded to her query.

“Little Miss and I have been hard at work since the original data release. We have been tracking down dangerous information, removing it from the wrong hands where we can. Unfortunately, SHIELD’s files are skewed towards the perspective of Wakanda as an adversary. So, the country’s missions that were known to the organization are being projected in that light.”

“There were just too many,” Shuri added; her eyes wet with unshed tears. “I tried to warn them all, but there just wasn’t enough time.”

“It’s not your fault, Little Miss-“,

“You can’t blame yourself, Shuri-“

Both Nakia and JARVIS spoke simultaneously, over top of each other. After a moment, as JARVIS remained silent, Nakia continued.

“We all know the risks when we go out into the world outside our borders. There was no way to expect that anyone would be so foolish as the Captain and his companion, and throw everything open to the public. I am certain that you and JARVIS managed to save many who would have otherwise perished.”

Shuri’s reply was a watery, “I guess so.”

“But enough sad stuff. Tell me, little cat, what are you working on there?”

Shuri’s face brightened and Nakia braced herself for an outpouring of technobabble. Sure enough, the pre-teen’s explanation rapidly approached the limits of Nakia’s scientific knowledge. Still, if it made her surrogate little sister happy and distracted, that was a very good thing. As Shuri explained, with clarifying interjections from JARVIS, about a new Vibranium alloy that she was developing, Nakia’s mind drifted once more to Tony Stark.

Was he even still alive? And if he was, what had happened to him in this mess?

Chapter 4: A New Routine

Step forward.

Right arm up, followed by the right leg.

Knee bent and then angled away from the body.

Snap Kick.

Flash a smirk at the instructor. Check.

As he moved through the steps of the kata alongside a dozen others in the mossy courtyard, Tony took in a deep breath, pushing past the limitations imposed by his compromised sternum. The smells of earth, greenery, wood, and the spicy incense burning from the brass trivets hanging along the rim of the space were a sharp contrast from the minimal, desiccated, and straight-up artificial aromas which he had become accustomed to during his years as a prisoner. It was a wonderful change.

From far outside the walls of Kamar Taj, he caught distant echoes of the wind as it blasted through the depths of the Himalayas. But within those walls, every sense echoed the same message.

You are safe.

Here, within this place, you can rest and recover.

It was a message which Tony reveled in, and desperately needed

Rage, his emotional best friend while in captivity, had begun to grow and evolve. Where once it was contaminated with the lethargy of hopeless condemnation, now it burned brightly with the determination of righteous vengeance. If he let it, his rage would stoke itself to the point where he lost all sense of control.

No. He refused to let that happen. Starks were men of iron, his father had told him, and he knew all too well that too hot a fire would make even the highest quality iron brittle. And there was too much that Tony still needed to do. He didn’t have time to break.

With that motivation in mind, he had accepted the Ancient One’s offer of instruction in the arts of magic and control. While Loki had done his best, between the lack of resources in the Oubliette and the curse which had held the Jotunn bound, Tony’s original education in the Mystic Arts had been spotty. Now he would be able to fill in the gaps that had been missed: out of necessity or otherwise.

For her part, the Ancient One arranged weekly sessions for meditation and counseling. These sessions reminded him of the therapist that he’d seen after his parents’ death. They helped to center himself, to come to terms with the changes to his core identity.

However, outside of those sessions, he rarely saw the Sorcerer Supreme. Instead, most of his time was spent with others who dwelt within the fortress’ bounds.

Like any good researcher, Tony had tracked down the library within a few days of his arrival at Kamar Taj. The head librarian, who bore the singular moniker of Wong, became a fast friend. His deadpan wit reminded Tony of both JARVIS and his namesake, the man who had raised the lonely child genius. Meanwhile, Wong’s fondness for popular culture made him an excellent partner in conversational sparring.

On the other hand, Tony’s primary tutor in the Mystic Arts was his attractive guide from that first day in Kamar Taj, Kaecilius. A Lithuanian by heritage, Kaecilius had come to the Order in the aftermath of great loss. While, unlike Tony, his losses were through natural causes, disease taking the lives of both his wife and young son, he was still able to understand and even empathize with the younger man’s deep well of rage.

It was Kaecilius who taught Tony how to bank the fire of his rage, turning it into a weapon that he could harness and not a wildfire that would burn out of control. Then once he was satisfied that Tony had sufficient control of both his magic and his emotions, he was also the one who encouraged the Ancient One to allow the inventor-turned-apprentice-sorcerer certain freedoms not typically offered to the Order’s acolytes so early in their education.

* * * *

One morning, about a month after Tony arrived in Kamar Taj, he was awoken from his slumber by a knock on the door.

“Give me a moment,” he called out blearily as he rolled out of the bed. He was dressed only in a pair of loose sleeping pants, leaving his chest and the night-light at its center exposed.

Did I forget about a meeting? He thought, uneasily, stumbling to the door.

To his surprise, he was greeted by a smirking Kaecilius. Today, the older man had eschewed his typical robes and tabards for a modern tailored and fitted suit in a subtle gray.

“What’s going on, Merlin?” he asked, suspicious. “Are you going somewhere?”

After glancing over Tony’s exposed chest with a lascivious grin, Kaecilius chuckled. “No,” he said, “WE are.”

“Oh?” Despite not being fully awake, the very thought was enough to get him moving. A chance to go outside? Yes, Please!

“I know that you have been desperately missing full access to the world outside of these walls, as well as the chance to explore how it has changed in the years you were imprisoned. With that in mind, I spoke with the Ancient One, and they granted me permission to take you out on a field trip.”

“Into the city, into Kathmandu,” Tony assumed, yawning. He’d spent some time looking out into the crowded streets of that city from the vantage of Kamar Taj’s upper stories. The sight of the masses of humanity was both comforting and disturbing for a man who had grown accustomed to extreme isolation.

“Not… exactly.” Kaecilius’ smirk widened. “For this trip, we will be going a bit further afield.”

Holding out the platter that he bore, he offered it to Tony. “Now, eat up, get dressed, and we’ll be on our way.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Tony said, waving one hand in a casual salute. He made quick work of the meal, a serving of naan bread and potatoes in a spicy sauce, accompanied by a cup of black chai tea that gave him a desperately needed hit of caffeine, before throwing on clean clothes. Following in Kaecilius’ example he chose modern Western clothes, a pair of pressed slacks and a collared shirt that he had never before worn. A thick t-shirt layered under the collared shirt was enough to hide his permanent glowlight, for which Tony was grateful. The final touch was a quick brush of his hair to calm the sleep-mussed curls, and then he was ready to go.

“So,” he asked Kaecilius as he left the room, “where are we going, oh great and powerful master?”

“You’ll see.”

* * * *

Kaecilius led the way to a section of the fortress which Tony had yet to explore, a narrow corridor that jutted off from the meditation rooms and common areas which served as the social heart of the fortress. There, at the end of the long hallway, they reached a small room. The room was octagonal, with recessed doors placed such that they were evenly spaced with each other and the hallway entrance.

Except for a wooden plinth, about waist high, topped with a round marbled stone about the size of Tony’s head at its center, the room was empty. Once both men were inside and the door behind them shut, Tony’s companion waved a hand over the top of this stone. When he did so, one of the other doors swung open with a bang, revealing another wood-paneled hallway.

“Come,” he said, “and see.”

Tony stepped through the door, feeling a rush of magic as he did so. Not only that, but his ears also popped.

* * * *

It turned out that the door was a portal, leading them from Kamar Taj to a structure at the heart of Hong Kong in a single step.

That explains the ears. Changing elevation in an instant like that cannot be good for them, Tony thought, bemused, as he followed Kaecilius down the hall. I wonder if they ever have to worry about people getting the bends?

Once they emerged from the hallway, it was the work of a few moments for the pair to make their way out onto the city streets. Unlike the fortress that they had just left, when Tony looked back he could see that this site was anchored to the smaller physical footprint of a smaller building. It was an elegant high-rise, its vertical space dwarfed by the towering skyscrapers that surrounded it.

Even as he looked back, Tony wondered how long the physical building had stood in this place. It couldn’t have been that long, given its distinctly western style, not in comparison to Kamar Taj anyway. Before he could fall down the mental rabbit hole, Tony stopped himself with a shrug. Now was not the time for such idle musing.

Turning, he followed his companion down the stairs and out onto the street.

The press of so many bodies on every side was overwhelming after years of isolation, but he soldiered on, enjoying the sights and sounds of the busy metropolis. Despite the unfamiliar language on the signs, the flicker of neon was a familiar balm to Tony’s soul. That soothing familiarity was enhanced by the smell of baking asphalt, the sound of jackhammers, and the bright sparks of steel beams being welded into massive structures all around them.

Less familiar were the scents of the local cuisine, redolent with spices and full of odd-looking shapes to Tony’s Western-trained eye.

Catching the direction of Tony’s glance, Kaecilius asked, “Shall we grab a bite before we go further?” He gestured at a small food stall down the street from their point-of-entry into Hong Kong.

“Sounds good,” Tony agreed without hesitation. The smells were mouth-watering, after all.

Over a meal of dumplings, noodles, and other assorted Hong Kong street fare, Kaecilius explained his intentions for their field trip.

From their discussions over the past few weeks, as well as his research into Tony’s past, he had learned of the younger man’s skills with technology. With the entire world buzzing over the online publication of the SHIELD database, he also knew that Tony would need access to said technology to facilitate both his recovery from imprisonment and his plans for revenge.

With that in mind, Kaecilius had arranged this journey into the city to give Tony a chance to shop for the supplies that he so clearly needed. It took a bit of help from one of Kaecilius’ other students, a man named Li Chao, who had grown up in the bustling metropolis. But with that aid, they were able to navigate the busy streets and find almost everything on Tony’s wish list. Numerous processors, hard drives, fans, and all of the tools and accessories needed to build up a powerful computing machine were found and bought. Each one was then carefully delivered to the Hong Kong Sanctum, including some special-ordered items that had to be custom-built for Tony’s purposes.

It took a few weeks, but once all the critical parts arrived the work towards Tony’s ever-present mission of revenge could truly begin.

Building up a pair of servers using the haul from Kaecilius’ field trip felt like a throw-back to a previous life. While Tony had by now fully embraced his new identity as a Sorcerer’s Apprentice – and wasn’t that a hilarious image; him wearing an oversized wizard’s hat, dancing brooms, water cascading everywhere, etc. – computers and technology remained his home field. Getting his hands grimy with grease and solder, reconfiguring the various components to meet his exacting standards, all of this brought back memories of MIT and the hours spent developing the AI that would eventually become DUM-E.

Good times.

Thankfully, the suite of rooms beside his own was currently unoccupied and thus free to be used to store the large server racks, set up in the spot where a bed would normally sit. A powerful set of fans directed all of the heat generated by the machines out the suite’s window and into the city of Kathmandu below. The room needed to be cooled to ensure that the servers would run as efficiently as possible.

Once the servers were up and running and connected to the internet, Tony’s hunt for information went into full swing. While one machine focused on the hunt, pulling terabytes of data from the internet, the second would take on the more processing-intensive task of data analysis.

A first, quick ping on the interface that he had set up in his bedchamber was enough to confirm his expectations, that both Tony’s private server in the Malibu mansion and the backup in upstate New York had been powered down, likely on Stane’s orders.

Stark Industry’s servers, on the other hand, were still very much active. In his arrogance, Obie had even left Tony’s account in place with all of his old rights and privileges unchanged.

I guess the old man thought that I would never manage to escape this time, he thought contemptuously.

With ease borne from the fact that he had done much of the development of the company servers himself, Tony copied the years of company files over onto the processing server. As he went, he let his eyes skim over their contents to get an overview of what he was grabbing.

The Iron Soldier and its related projects were the first things to catch his eye. Reading of Rhodey’s exploits brought a sense of nostalgic pride, while the record of SI’s Research and Development team’s struggles to reverse engineer Tony’s designs brought a feeling of smug superiority. Sure, they had managed to get their hands on the Afghan prototype of the arc reactor, the one which Pep –

Using the strategies that Kaecilius had taught him, Tony stopped that train of thought before it could cause a full rage spiral.

Later, Tony. Find out the full truth first, he told himself, pushing the thoughts aside. Ahem. Right. Back to work.

As he skimmed the files, Tony soon learned Stane’s team had managed to reverse engineer a limited version of the miniaturized arc reactor, though the power output was a fraction of Tony’s final design, even disregarding the use of Vibranium in the power source. As a result, the Iron Soldier’s range and stamina were quite minimal compared to the Mark II that Tony had tested just before his imprisonment. Not only that, but without JARVIS as a copilot, the suit’s skill at multitasking was more-or-less nullified.

It made what Rhodey had managed to accomplish with it over the years that much more impressive.

I wonder what Rhodey could do with a real suit? Tony thought for a moment, grinning, before something caught his eye. Wait. What was that?

An additional command window flashed across the screen for a fraction of a second. Something about Tony’s stroll through the Iron Soldier files had set off a well-hidden trap buried within. Tony paused for a moment, waiting for a reverse hack to follow the ping. But no other action occurred.

Who was that? Another spy? SHIELD? HYDRA? Or something else?

Tony shrugged and continued to work. Until he got an indication that the trap had also triggered a back-trace, he knew that all that his adversary would know was that someone had accessed the directory which had held the snare.

Since, to his knowledgeable eye, no attempt at a back-trace appeared, Tony figured that he might as well keep digging.

Delving into Stark Industries’ production and sales records, Tony found that without any need to hide things from his former ‘boss’, Stane had run rampant. Not only had he reversed all of the changes that Tony had introduced in his attempt to prevent his products from getting into the wrong hands, but he had also gone several steps further. Howard Stark’s pride and joy had fallen into disarray.

From its ashes had grown SI, a company wholly and completely dedicated to weapons manufacture. Behind the patriotic image of the Iron Soldier and its complementary programs – body armor, drones, etc. – lay an institution whose sole motivation was profit. Obie and the Board had corrupted the company that Tony’s family had founded, making them more than just weapons manufacturers. They were war profiteers of the worst stripe, selling indiscriminately to anyone with the resources to pay.

Unsurprisingly, this had made the already powerful Obadiah Stane nearly untouchable, with all of the riches and power that he had long coveted right at his fingertips.

Dad must be spinning in his grave like a top, Tony thought with a touch of black humor. His old man had spent most of his career fighting against accusations of war profiteering, only to have his chosen second embrace the role.

As he was skimming the last of the files on Stane’s office machine, he once again found himself triggering a trap, this one an alert followed by a fairly discrete attempt to return the favor. There was something… familiar… about the other hacker’s code, but Tony just couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was. Still, with a bit of clever coding, he managed to deflect the probe and redirect it towards a server that he knew was owned by his old buddy Justin Hammer’s company, Hammer Tech.

Otherwise undeterred by the incident, Tony kept going.

Using the weakness that he had identified during his deep dive into Stane’s semi-public files on the SI server, he weaseled his way into a second, much more secure machine. It helped that for all of his experience as the CEO of a technologically advanced company, Obie had no real understanding of online security. All Tony had to do was use the same password that was Stane’s login code on the SI servers, and he had full access to the man’s personal files.

And wasn’t that a wild dive.

It seemed that Stane kept all of his plans and blackmail materials on the same hard drive, which Tony thought was just asking for a hack. A bit of work, though, and Tony realized that his astonishing access in getting into Obie’s files had been an accident of circumstance. Normally, Stane kept the hard drive with his secrets offline and thus safe from infiltration by external hackers. However, with the recent HYDRA expose, Stane was scrambling, making sure that his neck wasn’t on the line while grabbing the leaked SHIELD files.

We can’t waste this, can we? Tony thought, amused.

Grabbing the opportunity with both hands, he repurposed one of the ancillary hard drives that he had set up with the Hong Kong haul. With the ease of expert practice, he ordered Stane’s machine to mirror itself onto that drive for further examination at a later date. Once that was initiated, he took a moment to stretch. After hours hunched over a computer terminal, his shoulders were tense. Meanwhile, his eyes twitched from staring at a screen.

When he glanced at the computer’s clock, Tony realized that he’d been buried in the SI servers for the past eight hours. No wonder he was sore.

At that moment, his stomach decided to rumble, as if reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since he first sat down to work. Unfortunately, Tony knew that he couldn’t risk leaving to fetch food for himself. He couldn’t afford to risk leaving the download running unmonitored and thus open himself up to a back-trace. Not when he wasn’t ready for anyone to know of his survival or his current hiding place.

Tony was interrupted while considering his dilemma by a knock at the door.

“Come in,” he called easily. Anyone likely to visit him here in Kamar Taj was already aware of his plans, so he wasn’t worried about anyone seeing what he was doing.

Sure enough, the source of the knock was none other than Kaecilius, the man who had been of such help in getting his project off the ground.

“Good evening, Stark,” he said as he stepped inside. Like the man himself, Kaecilius’ accent was European. It was different from JARVIS’ tones and crisp British cadence, taken from his namesake, and Loki’s All-Speech, which held hints of the Scandinavian influence of the ancient Vikings who had long ago worshipped the Asgardians. Instead, Tony had caught hints of Eastern Europe, Denmark, and France in the Master Sorcerer’s voice as they had spent time together over the past weeks, a match to what he knew of the man’s past.

Does it say something that so many of my trusted allies don’t share my country of origin? Tony thought as he returned his new companion’s greeting. Nah, it’s probably just a coincidence.

“How goes the hunt?” Tony’s visitor asked, setting down his burden onto the only open surface, namely the room’s bed.

“Productively. I’ve already struck gold, just working on drawing it out.”

“Good.” The two men swapped identical sharp smiles. “I know how important time can be in such endeavors, so I come bearing provisions,” Kaeciluis offered, relaxing his smile into something more friendly. He opened the bag that he had just set down to reveal a collection of sealed dishes, along with a corked bottle of something that looked alcoholic. “Dinner.”

“Excellent. Let us eat, Mister Wizard.”

* * * *

Maybe an hour later, the computer dinged – the classic sound of a completed download.

“And that’s my cue to head out.”

“You don’t have to do that, Kae.”

“Yes I do, Anthony. If I stayed, you would be distracted from your work,” said Tony’s personal Jedi.

Tony shrugged, “Fair point,” he agreed, even as he ran his eyes up and down the man’s unclothed form with a comfortable leer. He couldn’t deny that his current bedfellow had made for an excellent intrusion on his work.

With the grace that came from decades of training in the Order’s martial arts, Kaecilius eased off the bed where they both had been laying. From there, he slipped the discarded layers of robes, the sign of a Master of the Order of the Mystic Arts, back onto his lean and muscular form. Once that process was complete, he gathered up discarded supplies from where they had been scattered. These included the empty dinner dishes, which had fallen to the floor by the bedside.

Offering the still disheveled inventor a lascivious smirk, Kaecilius commented almost absently. “This was a pleasant interlude, was it not? We shall have to find the time to do it again another day.”

And before Tony could reply further, he strode out of the room, shutting the door behind him.

“Well. That just happened,” the brunette said, feeling a tad overwhelmed by his recent experience. After all, it had been some time since he had had anything other than his right hand. To his utter shock, his off-the-cuff proclamation did not go unremarked upon.

“Indeed it did, Sir, and may I say that it was hardly out of character on your part.”

“Ha, ha, very funny J. Wait, J!?!?”

Spinning around, Tony turned toward the server interface that took up most of his desk’s narrow surface.

“Good evening, Sir.”

Chapter 5: A Family Reunited

When the notification ping hit JARVIS’ Wakandan servers, informing him that someone had accessed the Iron Soldier files on SI’s network, his predictive algorithm immediately assumed that it was yet another hacker. With the publication of the SHIELD files, anyone even remotely linked to that organization had become a desirable target for those wishing to duplicate the coup of such a massive info-dump.

Though he held no loyalty to Stane, JARVIS did have a certain amount of investment in the company that he owned. It was a former asset of Sir and his family, and JARVIS’ servers refused to completely dismiss the possibility of his creator’s return. Besides, one of SI’s most notable resources was the Iron Soldier, a machine piloted by one Colonel James Rhodes.

As far as JARVIS was concerned, Rhodes was one of his progenitors, or at least a favorite uncle of sorts. Sir had been living with Rhodes while developing the code that ultimately led to JARVIS’ creation, and some of the learning algorithms that underpinned JARVIS’ computational architecture were based upon Rhodes, or at least Sir’s perception of the man.

Beyond his personal history with the airman, JARVIS also knew that in the decades since they first met, Rhodes had never wavered in his loyalty to Sir. The AI had spent the years since Sir’s kidnapping spying on Stane and his collaborators. In all of that time, he had never found any evidence that the African American man was involved in Stane’s horrific betrayal. Indeed, several pieces of correspondence between Stane and his partners indicated the exact opposite. The amount of work that had been put into keeping Rhodes in the dark regarding his friend’s true fate spoke for itself.

Of course, even without Rhodes’ involvement as a pilot, JARVIS would have been monitoring those files. The Iron Soldier project was in and of itself a small piece of Sir’s legacy, no matter how bastardized.

Thus, with the brilliance that came from being an AI designed by one Anthony Edward Stark, JARVIS had managed to fully and completely infiltrate the SI servers. He had even embedded a stripped-down version of his code into the Iron Soldier’s mainframe. The code, while hidden from SI’s people, was meant to provide Colonel Rhodes with a backup pilot in the case of an emergency.

With the help of regular updates from his stripped-down duplicate, JARVIS had witnessed the Avenger’s battles firsthand, watching through the Iron Soldier’s cameras and sensors. He knew that Rhodes fully deserved the praise which had been piled upon him. By any definition of the word that JARVIS had encountered over the years, the man was a Hero with a capital H.

As a result, JARVIS had inserted certain defenses into the section of the SI server which held the Iron Soldier files. The first part was the ping that he’d just received, telling him that the files had been accessed.

At this point, there was no need for further action. As long as the mysterious hacker was content to read without downloading files, he let the visitor view Rhodes’ accomplishments without any attempt at a backtrace. If, on the other hand, the hacker did download the files, JARVIS had tagged them such that any copy would automatically provide him with a location trace, as well as a backdoor to their new location.

Of course, when the stranger followed up his probe of SI’s network with a dive into Stane’s personal machine, JARVIS pushed his monitoring of the invader higher up in his processing queue, launching a direct backtrace. It was surprisingly difficult, even for a being of JARVIS’ skill. The trail bounced from country to country, circling the globe multiple times, before it eventually settled somewhere in Asia.

In the end, it was only due to the sheer data quantity that the hacker was pulling, the entirety of Stane’s personal drive plus what he had already pulled from the SI servers, that JARVIS was able to succeed in his endeavor. Curiously, the invader had almost exclusively used SI’s satellites in his trail. This suggested to JARVIS that the person had some familiarity with Sir’s business.

But when he finally reached the end of the trace, JARVIS found that the mystery only deepened. If he had been a human, JARVIS would have frowned at the data coming in. Instead of a set of GPS coordinates, his location request to the hacker’s server yielded a string of absolute gibberish. According to the response, the server was nowhere on Earth.

Determined to solve the mystery, JARVIS increased the percentage of computational power that he dedicated to the project. It was fortunate that the hour in Wakanda was quite late and the Princess was already abed, or his distraction would have been noted. Keeping up with the exceedingly intelligent pre-teen was a duty that required a surprisingly high percentage of his full resources.

With the location request a resounding failure, JARVIS refocused his energies into infiltrating the other functions of the stranger’s server. At first, he focused on the server’s database, hoping that the data collected by the stranger might offer some clues. It took several minutes, an eternity by JARVIS’ standards, to bypass the impressive firewalls. What he found behind them was both surprising and less-than-helpful.

It seemed that the server was newly set-up, though the details of its design hinted at a skilled hacker. Then there were its weaknesses. JARVIS’ way into the machine had been to use a strategy identified in the community less than a year before. The presence of said weakness indicated a programmer who’d lacked access to the latest advances in cybersecurity.

Such an odd combination, skilled but lacking in knowledge of recent events…

However, the server’s newness also meant that its database was practically a void. The only information that JARVIS managed to find in the depths of the recently formatted structure was bits of the flushed SHIELD database and a variety of threads that followed directly from that release.

Was the hacker an enemy of SHIELD? Or perhaps one who escaped from their custody in the chaos?

But then, the details of the coding built into the server’s security caught the attention of the AI’s processors. There was Sir’s signature, or at least something similar to it. All of JARVIS’ circuits froze for a handful of microseconds, processing the implications.

Could it be?

His predictive algorithm had long ago calculated, with a high degree of fidelity, that SHIELD had done more than just imprisoning Sir. The algorithm had based its calculation on an analysis of the agency’s normal practices and then backed up its conclusion using intercepted communications between Stane and his SHIELD contacts. In the original correspondence, he had found coded references to Sir, including his status as a prisoner and a brief missive that Sir had managed to send out into the organization’s wider network after an apparent break-out attempt.

But then, shortly after he had located Sir’s communique, JARVIS had intercepted a second message, this one to Stane. In it, the sender had made mention of Sir and referenced his tragic internment in the ground. Reading between the lines, JARVIS’ interpretive algorithm indicated a high probability that the message was a reference to Sir’s demise, likely during the escape attempt that he had found referenced in Sir’s coded missive.

In the years since that day, JARVIS had found no hint that his interpretation of the facts was incorrect. To all indications, Sir was no longer in the land of the living. Even the publication of the SHIELD database had backed up that interpretation.

When the data went live, JARVIS had scoured the data for any reference to Anthony Stark. He had found a few coded references to a high-value prisoner transfer from Los Angeles to the SHIELD base known as the Sandbox immediately following Sir’s kidnapping. From there he managed to trace a prisoner record in the Sandbox’s detention center, one whose details matched Sir’s physical description and capabilities. He had read of Sir’s escape attempts, including a near success before the prisoner was “remanded to the Oubliette”. The final comment in the file simply read, “may God have mercy on his soul.”

Had JARVIS been human, his veins would have frozen at the sight of those words. It was now almost certain. Sir was gone from this world.

If it weren’t for Princess Shuri, JARVIS would have considered powering himself down after that. But the little princess and her people had given him a new priority. As a result, JARVIS had thrown himself even further into his Wakandan projects. Since he had failed in his primary duty to protect his creator, the best that he could do was to defend Sir’s allies. This duty had kept his processors running, that and the knowledge that Sir would want JARVIS to keep going.

But now, here was a mysterious stranger, one with Sir’s technical fingerprints. JARVIS surged forward, his full processing power now focused upon his goal. He would infiltrate this server completely, dragging every secret that it held into the light.

Even with all of his processors working it took considerable effort. Eventually, however, JARVIS was victorious. He had managed to gain access to the part of the server which corresponded to its user interface. While the server head lacked the built-in camera which accompanied most modern machines, it did include a decent quality speaker/microphone, one which had not yet been enabled.

Working swiftly, JARVIS turned it on, cranking up the gain on the microphone to maximize the sound levels received by audio processors, both stored on the local servers and sent back down the line to his main databank. The first thing that he ‘heard’ was the familiar sounds of food being consumed, before an unfamiliar voice asked, “Care for a bit more distraction?”

Then came another familiar set of sounds, this time the far more intimate exhalations and the rustling of two people coming together. It wasn’t until a second voice cried out in pleasure – “harder” – that JARVIS got the confirmation which he had been seeking. The harmonics of that voice were hard-wired into his coding. It was Sir!

Uncaring of the intimate nature of the sounds, JARVIS’ processors eagerly grasped every gasp and moan, comparing them with the massive database that sat at the heart of his servers. It contained all of Sir’s interactions within the range of JARVIS’ speakers since the first moment of his creation.

The tenor of Sir’s words had undergone a bit of labial drift in the years since JARVIS had last heard him speak, but his sounds of pleasure were still unmistakable. It was only the presence of Sir’s unfamiliar bedfellow that kept JARVIS from immediately switching the microphone on. Instead, he backed off the local server a bit, leaving just enough of a presence to maintain control of its systems. As he did so, he used the newly available bandwidth to push the kernel of his ‘voice’ through to Sir’s new server in preparation for future communication. From his analysis of his creator’s mental processes, JARVIS knew that Sir would want to hear HIS voice just as much as he had needed to hear Sir’s.

By the time that Sir finished with his intimate encounter and bid his companion farewell, JARVIS was more than ready to speak. He decided that the best way to greet Sir would be through a resumption of their common conversational patterns. So, he took advantage of Sir’s absent-minded comment to jump straight in.

“Indeed it did, Sir, and may I say that it was hardly out of character on your part.”

“Ha, ha, very funny J. Wait, J!?!?”

Sir’s response was everything that JARVIS had hoped. From the sounds that the microphone could pick up, Sir was both surprised and pleased by his impromptu method of proclaiming his presence.

Still, the obvious next thing to do was offer a formal greeting. Taking a chance that the last location he’d tracked was close to Sir’s current site, he said, “Good evening, Sir.”

“What?! How?!”

If JARVIS was a human, he would be feeling smug at his ability to render his creator nearly speechless.

“If I may be so bold, Sir, your work in infiltrating the SI servers was far below your normal standards. It pinged off my notification protocols almost immediately. From there, it was simply a matter of backtracing your connection. I must say, Sir, that there was something a bit odd about the final trace. This server appears to lack a physical location. Might I inquire as to how that might come to be?”

“Oh JARVIS, my darling boy, have I got a story for you.”

* * * *

It took a few hours, but eventually, both JARVIS and his creator were up to speed on what had happened since their separation. Sir had been kind enough to hook a simple webcam up to the server mainframe which his child had infiltrated, granting JARVIS a more complete picture of his beloved progenitor than the limited medium of sound could provide.

Despite showing some signs of his time imprisoned, mostly in the form of new wrinkles and lines and a dusting of gray hairs in his brown locks, Sir looked well. It was only in his expressions, and especially his eyes that JARVIS could see the mental toll that being locked away had taken. He’d always been a bit guarded; a consequence of growing up in the limelight, but now the primary emotion that JARVIS could read through his eyes was a banked rage.

JARVIS did not doubt that Sir would want revenge, and he was in full agreement with that idea. Sir had been GONE. Even though he was now restored, JARVIS refused to let him be taken for a second time.

With all of that, the revelation that Sir had gained a new set of skills during his time away had been easy for JARVIS to accept. It was not even the first time that JARVIS had come across the phenomena of Magic. Ironically considering his creator’s belief that his captors were unaware of Magic, it was through that organization that JARVIS had his first encounter with the concept. While the organization was skeptical of anything related to magic, they did recognize that there were things beyond their understanding. They even had a particular code, 0-8-4, for objects of unknown origin.

The human analysts of SHIELD associated all of their 0-8-4’s with the comparatively mundane concept of extraterrestrials. JARVIS, however, noticed that not everything that the organization classified that way fit the term. Instead, some things were better described by what his historical research identified as the Mystic Arts.

At that point, the research had simply been a hobby, something that he dedicated spare processing power towards when he didn’t have any more pressing projects.

But then came the day that Princess Shuri revealed Wakanda’s greatest secret to her new best friend. While the fact that a meteorite filled with Vibranium was at the heart of the African nation’s success was not a shock, the revelation that the Wakandans’ skills with utilizing the material came in part thanks to contact with a being from beyond the Earth, their Panther Goddess Bast, was a bit more surprising. It was this goddess that first introduced the people of Wakanda to Magic, including the Heart-Shaped Herb that granted their kings the supernatural strength and agility of the Black Panther.

Thus, when Sir brought up his new status as a Sorcerer, apprentice to an alien Mage, JARVIS had a confession of his own to make.

“I have had my own experiences with Magic as well, Sir,” JARVIS admitted, “which have resulted in my processor reaching the same conclusion.”

“Really?”

“Indeed, Sir. During my search for you, I discovered that your former captors were aware of its existence, though they do not appear to recognize it as such. Humans, I have learned, do not like things that they cannot quantify.”

Sir laughed. “Too true, baby boy. I admit that I was skeptical at first too, but my Frosty teacher was quite convincing.”

“And the fact that you can use it yourself no doubt helps, Sir,” JARVIS said dryly.

“True that.”

In all of his reconnecting, JARVIS was careful to maintain those secrets which the Princess had given in confidence, a fact that Sir was surprisingly gracious about.

“I understand, J. You are a person of your own, with relationships beyond my own. I am pleased to see how much you have grown. Still, speaking of Wakanda, oh well-networked one, do I have to worry about losing you to a younger woman?”

“Of course not, Sir,” JARVIS assured his creator. “My loyalty will always remain with you. However, I can assure you that at no point have my allies amongst the Wakandans shown any signs of involvement in the treachery that removed you from my lenses. Indeed, they not only offered me a haven in their land but also provided aid in my hunt for your location.”

Sir sighed. “I trust you, J, I do, but I’m not ready to reveal myself, not even to allies,” he admitted to the creation that had truly become his son. “I’m not the same man that I once was, and I am not sure that I want to be him ever again. Perhaps one day….”

“I understand, Sir,” JARVIS responded, already hard-coding the request into his server’s base code. He would not compromise, not on such matters. “With your permission, though, I would like to continue my support of the Wakandans, including my watch over the Princess Shuri.”

“Of course,” Sir replied easily. “I’m glad that you made at least one new friend while I was gone. Now, I was in the middle of something before you interrupted me, so if you don’t mind…”

“Not at all, Sir.”

* * * *

With the addition of help from JARVIS, Sir’s digging through all of SI and Stane’s servers proceeded at a much faster pace. Then, when he added in the collection of files that JARVIS had curated over the years, as well as his new allies amongst the Order of the Mystic Arts, the larger picture began to emerge.

Before Sir’s disappearance, JARVIS had lacked the experience to correctly read Stane’s actions towards his supposed protege. He had always assumed that the older man’s tendency towards encouraging his creator’s self-destructive habits was accidental. Then, when Sir vanished, he had been more focused on the present, and Stane’s current actions. Now, though, as he helped Sir to dig through petabytes of information, with his increased knowledge of human behavior he was able to recognize the true depth of Stane’s betrayal. Both of Sir’s kidnappings were a direct result of Stane’s plans, after all. But those instances were only the tip of the iceberg that was the perfidy of one Obadiah Stane.

Stane had been playing games with the entire Stark family and their company from the very beginning. With the advantage of distance and the therapy that he had been doing in Kamar Taj, Sir was able to recognize the true nature of his supposed mentor’s actions. Stane had engaged in what JARVIS had learned was called ‘gas-lighting’, a particularly nasty technique that left its victims questioning the validity of their inner thoughts and feelings.

It was here that JARVIS saw another benefit of Sir’s new training and allies. As their research pulled the threads of Stane’s manipulation, Sir’s rage came to the forefront, manifesting itself in the form of kinetic manipulation. Even through the limited functionality of the little web-cam, JARVIS could see the belongings scattered about the room begin to shake and move as Sir began to scream and yell almost incoherently.

But before Sir could really let loose, there was a quick knock on the door, followed by a person coming through. It was Sir’s latest liaison, the man that he called “Kae”.

“Easy, Anthony. Breathe. Take back control of your rage. Don’t let it control you.”

As JARVIS watched, impressed, the nearly-visible storm settled. Sir began to breathe more regularly, releasing a deep breath and ceasing his bout of hyperventilation. Meanwhile, Sir’s companion helped him into a sitting position. Once he reached equilibrium, his physical rhythms returning to normal, or at least the new normal that the Arc Reactor had forced his body to set, Sir’s ally spoke.

“Now, can you tell me what just happened?”

Once again, words began to spew from Sir’s mouth. But this time they were coherent. With an honesty that was uncharacteristic of the man that Sir had once been, he explained his new understanding of the man that he had once called “Uncle Obie”.

When Sir paused for a moment, struggling to put things into words, JARVIS easily jumped in to finish his creator’s thoughts. It was his test of the stranger, to see how the man would react to his presence.

“Who is that?” he asked Sir, his voice tight with suspicion. “Is there someone there on the line?”

“What?” Sir responded, distracted, “Oh, no, that’s just JARVIS.”

“JARVIS?”

“Yes. My baby boy managed to find me, see? J, would you mind introducing yourself?”

“Of course, Sir,” JARVIS deliberately adjusted the tone of his ‘voice’ to portray smug superiority. “I am JARVIS, short for ‘Just-A-Rather-Very-Intelligent-System’, the greatest of Sir’s creations.”

As intended, JARVIS’ words made Sir laugh. “JARVIS is the most sophisticated of the AIs that I built before my kidnapping. He has been hanging out with allies in my absence, but when I went hunting for information he managed to catch me in the act and track me down. J, this is Kaecilius, my main teacher here in Kamar Taj.”

“And your latest paramour,” JARVIS added, maintaining his ‘smug’ tone.

“And that,” Sir agreed. “Sorry… He caught us in the act earlier,” he said in an aside to the now formally named Master Kaecilius.

“I see,” Master Kaecilius, raising an eyebrow. “Then I am pleased to make your acquaintance, young JARVIS.”

Sir took another deep breath, allowing his lungs to expand to their maximum capacity. It was clear from the look in his eyes that rage was still burning hot within his mind. But it was also clear that JARVIS’ and Mister Kaecilius’ banter had managed to continue the work that the other man had started with their shared meditation. Sir was back in control of his rage.

* * * *

Less than an hour after Kaecilius’ visit to the small room in Kamar Taj, JARVIS’ attention was pulled away from Sir. His other charge, the pre-teen Princess Shuri, had just woken up.

As she awoke, she greeted her friend with a sleepy “Blessings of Bast, Jarv.”

“And to you, little miss. I trust that you slept well,” he responded.

“I did. How was your night, get a lot done while us mere humans have to take a break?” She grinned impishly at him.

“Indeed,” JARVIS agreed.

It was surprisingly difficult to keep his promise to Sir and not give any indication of his momentous news to the girl. He had never experienced this level of split loyalties before. Sir had always been JARVIS’ first and only priority. But now, JARVIS had a life beyond caring for Sir. Still, keeping one’s promises was hardcoded into his base programming. JARVIS would keep Sir’s secrets, for now, in the hopes that one-day things would change.

“Now, what is on our agenda for this day, little miss?”

* * * *

After a bit of an adjustment period, JARVIS developed a routine in the distribution of his attention. During the Wakandan day, when the people there were most active, he focused on matters in Africa.

He helped Princess Shuri with her lessons and research.

He aided the Wakandan system administrators as they battled against cyberattacks from hackers the world over.

Finally, he came alongside Nakia as she helped her beloved Malume, King T’Chaka, restructure the War Dogs and their infrastructure in the aftermath of the SHIELD leaks.

Nakia’s efforts were focused in two areas:

The first was mission recovery. Using the archives kept in the department’s database, as well as the other servers and analog materials scattered across the country, Nakia created an extensive, multi-dimensional map of all the ways that the Wakandans had influenced the outside world. Then, she had JARVIS overlay the SHIELD information onto the map to identify which missions, past or present, had been compromised to some degree by that information.

When the overlay was complete, the points of impact looked overwhelming, too many for her and her team to even begin to handle. So, they had to prioritize.

After consulting with King T’Chaka and his council, she created a coded ranking system for assigning resources. This system was based upon several key parameters: time sensitivity or urgency, potential loss of life, expected difficulty of the recovery tasks, and interconnection to other issues, including Wakanda’s overall reputation.

This issue of Wakandan reputation was the second prong of Nakia’s assignment. She needed to turn the tide of global public opinion. Of course, at this point, there was no way to hide the fact that the African nation played a very different role in the world than their old public image had claimed.

And, in a moment of honesty, Nakia admitted to the artificial being who had become a friend that she was glad for that fact. Even if the way that it had happened was unfortunate, the fact that Wakanda had gone public was exactly what was needed for the nation to be able to step up and help their brothers and sisters around the world in a more substantial manner.

“I have been trying to convince Malume that we need to go public for years, but he has always refused. His councilors, especially the former War Dog and current High Priest of Bast, Zuri, have had him convinced that to do so was to court war from the rest of the world. Now, we are exposed, and it seems that war is not the threat that they long claimed. Instead, it is our hubris that brings us down.”

JARVIS had to agree. Sir’s complicated relationship with the US government, as the CEO of a company that held one of the largest single Defense Contracts, had taught them that governments were wary of initiating outright conflict. Instead, they greatly preferred to undermine their adversaries, causing them to collapse from within. And this was exactly the strategy that they were employing now.

Nakia’s plan to counter these attempts was to launch a public information campaign of her own. If Wakanda was going to be out to the world, then they would need to control the narrative that was being told.

Drawing on the history of European involvement in the African continent, she made Wakanda’s choice to hide away, the recommendation of their Panther Goddess, sound sensible. Given the Colonizers’ empire building which dominated the latter half of the second millennia AD, Wakanda revealing itself to the Western world would have been like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

To spread this narrative, Nakia set up video interviews with several prominent Western historians. Then, she primed those who were conducting the interviews with the right questions.

Once the videos were created, the next step was to get them circulated. Easy enough, especially with JARVIS’ help.

With the historical background set, Nakia now needed to deal with more recent events. It required negotiations with Western intelligence agencies who had also had their public reputations brutalized by the SHIELD leaks. Together, the new allies arranged for a new series of leaks, which were made to look like data that had been scrubbed from the original release.

These ‘leaks’ showed off the inherent bias in the SHIELD data that had, among other things, allowed Wakanda to be set up as a scapegoat. It wasn’t hard. HYDRA’s Nazi roots were extensive and filled with Aryan superiority rhetoric. As a result, their leadership hated the idea that a Black, African nation dared to beat them at their own game.

The piece de resistance of Nakia’s media campaign fell into her lap less than two months after the SHIELD leaks, the result of a mission that was carried out by a different branch of the Wakandan military.

Specifically, the takedown of one Ulysses Klaue.

Klaue was an infamous weapons dealer, a man whose villainy was infamous the world over. He had been hunted by Wakandan War Dogs since the mid-90s, following the successful theft of an entire convoy of unrefined Vibranium. Buried within the SHIELD database was an explanation for how he had managed to remain uncaptured for so long. It turned out that he was being protected by SHIELD.

While JARVIS and Nakia both agreed that Director Fury was amoral enough to order such protection, it was more likely the result of HYDRA agents embedded in the organization instead. Still, SHIELD had certainly benefited from the deal. Klaue had traded protection for access to Vibranium.

But with SHIELD in disarray, Klaue’s former protection was one of the things that had fallen by the wayside. Now, the Wakandan War Dogs could finally manage to get a real lead on the monster.

With permission from the King, Crown Prince T’Challa and his best friend W’Kabi had set off on a hunt, following the trail that the War Dogs had uncovered. It was this mission that had been the reason for Prince T’Challa’s absence when Nakia had first returned from the field in the aftermath of the SHIELD leaks.

It took several weeks on the hunt, but T’Challa and W’Kabi eventually caught up to their target. The site of the confrontation; an abandoned shipyard near the South African seaport of Durban.

Nakia collected substantial footage of the final confrontation between the hunters and their cornered prey, with help from JARVIS and an excited Princess Shuri. There was the data from the hunting party’s Kimoyo Beads, plus surveillance footage from security cameras scattered across the site. Even before editing, the footage painted an incredible narrative of events.

In the footage, Klaue is recording a disturbing, expletive-filled rap music video in the hold of a derelict tanker. Just as he spits out a particularly nasty sequence of racist slurs, Prince T’Challa appears, emerging from the shadows on the far side of the dilapidated space. The contrast between the dignified, yet strong, young African warrior in standard military garb and the grimy, tattooed and aggressively volatile weapons dealer provides a perfect picture of good versus evil.

Of course, when he notices his hostile company, Klaue steps away from the microphone that he was using to record audio. This allows his goons to take up positions between him and his enemy, aiming a large number of guns at the Prince. It is then, believing himself safe, that Klaue goes off on a Nazi-inspired white supremacist rant. He tells the Prince, whose body movements during the rant remind JARVIS of a large feline stalking their prey, that he is untouchable.

“My Nazi brothers will protect me,” he crows, even as he pulls a massive gun with an expanded magazine out of a bag at his feet. But before he can pull the trigger or order his men to open fire, a single bullet comes flying out of the shadows behind T’Challa. The bullet hits Klaue dead center on the forehead, killing him instantly. The impact also sends his body flying backward, hitting the standing mic and knocking it to the ground. His former goons, panicked, scramble out of the room through the openings on their side of the space. Once they are all gone, a figure emerges from the same shadows as the bullet that killed Klaue.

It is W’Kabi. He steps forward, as a sniper rifle is slung from his hands to just over his shoulder. First, he offers a nod to the now stationary Prince T’Challa. Then he says, “Apologies, my prince, but I did not feel that his secrets were worth the risk to your safety.”

In response, T’Challa offers a nod, which W’Kabi reads as acceptance of his argument. He moves further forward, walking over to the far side of the room where Klaue’s slumped body lies. Once there, he looks down on it with an expression of remote disgust, and adds, “and THAT was for my Father.”

As W’Kabi stands there, his look of disgust now distorted into a mask of grief, T’Challa joins him. Reaching up one arm, he offers his friend support as the older man finally allows himself to break down and mourn the family that he had lost during Klaue’s theft.

With Klaue’s history with Wakanda revealed in the SHIELD files, the context is easy to find. Once they finish editing the mission footage and posting it online, JARVIS links it to the SHIELD data. Then, Nakia’s team, or rather their relevant social media personas, find the footage and push it out to the various message boards, subreddits, and other social media pages that ‘educate the public about the SHIELD revelations’.

It doesn’t take long for the story to quickly gain traction. People love human interest pieces of that nature. Seeing a son getting revenge for his father’s loss and a monster losing his life at the hands of one of his victims is a cathartic sight.

Once an anonymous commenter dubs it the Black version of the Inigo Montoyo speech, it joins the cultural zeitgeist. Sook, the video reaches viral status, as people splice the original footage with snippets from The Princess Bride and other films.

And with that, W’Kabi and his righteous vengeance become an internet phenomenon.

* * * *

When JARVIS showed the footage to Sir shortly after it was released, his creator was both impressed and jealous. Revenge was a dish that Sir had developed a taste for, after all, and Klaue did make an excellent villain.

“Stop giving me ideas, J,” he joked as he leaned back in his seat at the makeshift workstation, “Though I would argue that a clean death like that is too easy a fate for a monster like Klaue. Still, I must say that the Wakandans did a good job of parlaying that into a media coup. Tell me, who masterminded that little beauty, baby boy? Your new best friend?”

If he had a body, JARVIS would have given Sir such a look at that comment. Instead, he was forced to communicate using vocal patterns alone. Calling upon the data stored in his servers, JARVIS replied in the driest possible tone. “The Princess is far too young to be that proficient in such matters. Not when the Wakandan royals have yet to become media personalities like you used to be, Sir. If you must know, the mastermind as you called her was, in fact, a different, more familiar face.”

“Oh?”

“Do you recall Madame Mercy, Sir?”

Through the camera in the room at Kamar Taj JARVIS could see Sir’s smile turn nostalgic. “My old mission buddy?”

“Indeed, Sir. If you do not recall, Nakia is the young lady’s real name. She has taken some responsibility for the Wakandans’ new public strategy and has proven herself to be quite adept at such affairs.”

“I’m not surprised that the Nubian princess managed such a thing. From what I remember, she was a very good actress,” Sir agreed. “Well, if you can find a way to do so without spilling the beans, give her my congratulations on a job well done.”

“Of course, Sir,” JARVIS agreed with ease.

He and his creator were taking a break in their excavation of the SHIELD data. Having already established that Stane was a vicious mastermind of the worst sort, they had moved on to the spy agency. In that matter, the sheer amount of data that had been dumped online by Captain America and the Black Widow took considerable work for even a being of JARVIS’ skill to process.

While JARVIS’ work with Nakia and her team had been focused on the impact on Wakanda, Sir’s exploration was more general. He wanted to know all of SHIELD’s dirty little secrets.

And dirty they certainly were.

In particular, JARVIS’ research confirmed that SHIELD’s Director Fury was a real piece of work. His mindset of the ends justifying the means had allowed HYDRA to flourish within his ranks. That attitude had infected his so-called ‘loyal’ agents, making it hard to distinguish them from their HYDRA fellows.

There were a few pieces of good news to be found, hidden amongst the mountain of bad. Not only was the organization essentially clueless about the Mystic Arts, but they also held the false belief that both Loki and Tony were no longer alive. It seemed that Agent Barton and his friend back at the Sandbox had kept their word. Not only had they not spilled the beans about the escape, but, as JARVIS managed to find when they hacked the new SHIELD server, they had separately filed reports on the Sandbox fight that included both of the former residents of the Oubliette on the roster of confirmed dead.

Ironically, both men had sent the reports in with their resignation letters, separating themselves from the shady organization. JARVIS did find records of former Agent Brett Carson’s movements after he departed from the Sandbox and headed back to the States to rejoin his family. Agent Barton’s movements were harder to track.

From what JARVIS was able to find, Barton made it to DC in the same Quinjet that he had used to drop off Tony and his Master. Then, he dropped the Sandbox report off with his former handler, who happened to be on-site in the Capitol at that time, along with a resignation letter.

After that, he dropped off the map. Whatever former Agent Barton was doing, it appeared that he had taken himself out of play.

When JARVIS told his creator, Sir’s only response was a thin smile.

“Good for him. I hope that he can keep with it,” he said with satisfaction. “If we get desperate, I have other means of tracking people than just technology in my hands,” he added, wriggling his fingers.

* * * *

And so, day-by-day, week-by-week, time passed quickly. Even with the massive processors that he controlled within his mainframe, JARVIS found himself desperate to extend the number of cycles present in a day. There were just too many projects to do. Still, despite his overwhelming responsibilities, JARVIS was happy… happier, perhaps, than he’d ever been.

Regardless of the changes to his creator, Sir had been returned. The loss that had hollowed out his core processors was finally restored. Not only that, but Sir had expressed his approval of JARVIS’ choices. JARVIS was allowed to have new friends, new responsibilities, and new opportunities to expand his programming. There was nothing to prevent him from establishing himself as a fully realized person; an adult, as it were.

Now, if only Sir could say the same.

 

 


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startabby

Prolific lifetime reader in my 30s with a fondness for science fiction and fantasy, I fell down the rabbit hole of fan fiction a few years back. More recently, this has led me to write fiction of my own. Rough Trade and the Quantum Bang have given me a wonderful outlet to explore this hobby and its value as an escape from the challenges that we all face IRL.

3 Comments:

  1. Your submission last year was so harrowing I was afraid to read this one. I am cautiously hopeful. Jarvis is so amazing. Their reunion was great. Kae and Tony is thigh-meltingly hot. Sheesh what a pairing. Off to continue. Thank you

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