It was morning; a Sunday, maybe. JARVIS had yet to wake him, so he probably didn't have any meetings he was late for, and his chest didn't hurt for the first time in a very long while. His head did feel pretty sore, but it was the sort of ‘sore’ which just reminded you what a great night you’d had the night before. As long as he stayed here, in this space, everything was okay. Even the soreness in his head felt muffled, as if it was happening from far away. Or -
"This is a dream,” Tony murmured, blinking in the morning light, warm and heavy with sleep. His mouth felt - odd. Numb. His body still had the pleasant lassitude of sleep, his limbs only slowly starting to come back to awareness. His fingers twitched as he woke up a little more, turning his head towards the daylight streaming in from the large windows. He tried to stretch, and found that his right arm was trapped under a heavy, warm body. Something - someone - was insistently pressed against his bladder, a steady pressured that was just the wrong side of pleasurable.
There were fingers carding through his hair, large and capable and familiar. “I'm still asleep.”
The chest under his shifted slightly as his bed partner stirred. “It’s early,” Steve said sleepily, and pressed his lips against Tony’s temple. “Go back to sleep.”
“Mmmm.” That did sound appealing. The fingers in his hair resumed their slow caress, and Tony felt his eyelids start to close again, his body slipping easily back into its relaxed state. He was so comfortable, he could probably drop off in a couple of minutes. But - “didn't you try to wake me?” He forced his eyes open. He was sure that somebody -
“No, sweetheart,” Steve said into Tony’s hair, his words sleep-slurred. “Let's stay here forever. Don't want to wake up.”
“...me neither.” If Steve wasn't insisting they get up, surely a lie-in would be okay. Nobody was looking for him; JARVIS would have woken him otherwise. No, he could stay here. He could stay like this forever. “Let's just stay in bed, then.” As long as JARVIS didn't -
Wait, that was wrong. What was wrong with that thought? His fuzzy brain couldn't figure it out.
“Sure thing,” Steve said drowsily. He stretched, his joints popping, and resettled his arms around Tony.
His lips pressed against the shell of Tony’s ear, and despite himself, Tony shivered, his train of thought derailed. Steve was so deliciously heavy around him, his skin warm and smooth under Tony's fingers. “Or we could…”
Steve smiled, his eyes closed. He tucked his face against Tony's neck. “Boss? You have a call,” he said, and yawned.
“Boss,” Steve said, more insistently, twisting on the sheets and smiling up at Tony. His voice was a bit higher-pitched than was normal. “Boss.”
"Boss, you have an urgent call, you need to wake up."
“Enough, FRIDAY; I'm up, Jesus fucking Christ.” Tony groaned, a hand over his eyes. His head felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. Christ, he could do with a drink.
He took the hand away and blinked in the soft glow of the artificial light. The curtains weren't open; it must still be dark outside. What time was it? "FRIDAY, it's the middle of the night; who the hell is calling me?" FRIDAY wouldn't put anyone through unless they rated as important enough for her to skip the automated voicemail... or unless they had managed to convince her that what they had to say couldn't wait.
There was an almost imperceptible pause before FRIDAY answered. “His majesty, King T’Challa, is on the line for you, boss. He apologises for the late hour. He says it's urgent.”
Tony finally managed to focus his eyes on his watch. 04:07 blinked at him. Oh, fuck his life. He’d finally managed to drop off to sleep a grand total of two hours ago. And it had been a good dream, too; someone had been hugging him, and he’d been just about to -
Fuck. “Gimme a minute.”
He staggered out of bed, pulling on a pair of black slacks and a grey cashmere sweater before heading into the bathroom. The illuminated mirror greeted him with a bruised-looking reflection that was perhaps not unexpected, given that he'd had a grand total of seven hours' sleep in two days. He grimaced and ran the cold tap until it was icy, splashing some water on his face. He looked like a raccoon, for fuck's sake. Did he have time to tidy himself up a little, try to cover up some of the bags under his eyes? Probably not, if T'Challa was calling him urgently. He dragged a comb through his hair and called it quits. At least he looked reasonably alert.
Oh, well. It was 4am. Even royalty couldn’t expect you to be perfectly coiffed in the middle of the night with 30 seconds’ notice. It would do.
He planted himself in front of his tablet and managed an approximation of his usual ‘investors’ stance - shoulders back, limbs loose, big smile - before tapping the ‘accept call’ button. ("Always take important calls on your feet, Tony," Obie had used to say, back when Tony had been learning the ropes. "It makes you more alert. It also prompts people not to waste your time." Good old Obie, Tony had thought at the time. Every action should accomplish at least two things, otherwise you're just being lazy and obvious. Subtlety is the key...)
“Your majesty,” Tony said evenly. “A pleasure as always. What can I do for you?”
The connection was perfect, as always. The worry lines on T’Challa’s face were crystal-clear. “My apologies for waking you, Dr Stark,” the king said. “I know that it is the middle of the night in New York.”
Tony’s smile didn’t waver. “For you, I’m always available.”
“Ah, you are kind.” T’Challa coughed, looking a little uncomfortable. “I hesitate to ask this, Dr Stark, but - is the connection secure on your end?”
That was - unusual. Tony paused for a moment. “Of course. Do you need additional security?”
Tony swiped through on his tablet and the familiar hum of the scrambler filled the penthouse. The lines were normally pretty damn secure, of course, but if T’Challa was calling about certain guests that Tony suspected were sleeping under his roof, then it couldn’t hurt to get all his toys up and running on the off chance that someone (Ross) had been able to crack his encryption. “All set. Shoot.”
“I need your help,” T’Challa said without any preamble. “Captain Rogers has been off the grid for twelve hours, and he missed his designated check-in four hours ago. We have been unable to get in contact, and I fear that he may need assistance.”
Tony felt the beginnings of a migraine prickling closer. This was not what he'd been expecting. Help with Barnes, maybe. A discussion about the Accords, possibly. Even - even! - a request for assistance in getting Barton in contact with his family. (He didn't know where they were, he didn't. The Bartons had all disappeared within days of the Raft break-out, and Tony had no fucking idea where they were. He'd looked. He'd spent a sizable portion of the sixteen days since the break-out looking, and he had no idea whether the lack news meant that Barton himself was with them, or Romanoff. Whether the lack of news was a good sign.)
He had a whole list of things that T'Challa could have been calling about, alright. But this was nowhere near the top. Had Rogers told T'Challa to contact him? Did he even know that this was what T'Challa was doing? What the hell was Rogers doing out of Wakanda anyway? "...what?" he managed finally, sounding more bewildered than he'd like.
“Will you be able to assist him?” T’Challa said, looking a little put-out to have to say it aloud rather than have Tony offer unprompted.
Jesus Christ. His fingers went to his wrists, to where he could feel the metal of the suit bracelets. He'd put them on once he'd repaired the suit, and never quite got around to taking them off again. It was probably for the best, anyway; it couldn't hurt to have the suit accessible wherever he was. (It wasn't like he had someone in his bed he needed to be considerate of, anyway.)
“Why me?” When he has the entire team to choose from, he thought, but did not say. Even if Barton had gone to ground, it wasn’t as though Rogers was running short on back-up.
That much had been made abundantly clear to him.
“There is no one else,” T’Challa said. He looked away briefly, looking troubled. “Mr Barnes has elected to go back into cryogenic suspension. And Ms Maximoff would attract too much attention if she leaves Wakanda.”
“Wilson, then,” Tony said unthinkingly. “Or Romanoff. Or - Barton, if he's still there. Lang, maybe. Plenty of choice.”
T’Challa held his gaze unblinkingly. “None of those individuals are in Wakanda. Nor do I have a way of reaching them.”
None - none of them? Barton, maybe, but -
“Yeah,” he said, hearing the disbelief in his voice. “Sure.”
The king looked away for a moment. “Dr Stark, I do not mean to presume, but I feel that I should clear up some misapprehensions on your part with respect to your teammates.”
“Former teammates,” Tony snapped, feeling the familiar rush of rage. “Hard to be teammates with someone when -” When they don't want you, he thought, bitter. Hard to be teammates when the team doesn't want to be a team.
“Your teammates,” T'Challa continued without pause, talking over Tony, “did not stay in Wakanda for longer than a few hours. They came here to safely deliver Ms Maximoff. And then they departed.”
“- when they - what?” Tony blinked. The last he’d heard - the last every scrap of available information had assured him - the Avengers had been broken out of the Raft, and had been safely ensconced in Birnin Zana. He'd tracked them himself. “But I sent -” he snapped his mouth shut.
T’Challa smiled thinly. “Sent them to me? Yes, that much I had gathered. But there were some disagreements between the Captain and the others around the best way to approach things. To approach - reconciliation.”
Reconciliation, Tony thought faintly. Sure. Unthinkingly, he rubbed at his sternum, at the echo of remembered pain.
The king's knowing eyes tracked the movement. He seemed troubled by it, hesitating a little. “Some have returned to look after their families, and others to pursue a different approach. At any rate, I cannot reach them at this moment. Oh - there are ways to contact them, of course, dead drops and suchlike, but they will take time. And I am not certain that the Captain has that time to spare.” T’Challa paused, seeming to weigh his words carefully. “Dr Stark,” he said finally, “I have tried alternate methods of contacting Captain Rogers. But he missed his check-in point. He is not answering his communicator. And Ms Maximoff - she cannot find him.”
Something in Tony went cold at that. “You have her looking?”
"She has attempted to reach out to the Captain, but she cannot find him. Either he is out of range, or something is blocking her." T'Challa took a deep breath. "The Captain - I believe he sent you a way to contact him should you have need of him. I regret that I must ask first, on his behalf. Will you help?"
Damn you, Rogers. "Where is he?"
As if there was a choice.
"Boss, I strongly advise against this."
"Uh huh," Tony said absent-mindedly, gulping down a coffee and flicking through the briefing pack T'Challa had emailed through. Dammit, Rogers, you don't do things by half, do you? One false move, and he could trigger a major conflict. Did the US even have a position on the Ossetian question? "FRIDAY, prepare a briefing for me on South Ossetia for the trip over. Recent events, key players, things likely to explode. You know the drill." How the hell had Rogers even made it into Georgia undetected?
He'd need to leave a note, make it clear that his trip was unauthorised and that no one in the US military (or the UN Accords Council) had any knowledge of his entry into Georgia, let alone the restricted South Ossetia region. If anyone spotted him...
Christ, the last thing the world needed was another flare-up in this region.
"FRIDAY, take a note, to be delivered in the event of my incursion being detected - I, Tony Stark, being of sound mind and - okay, you know what, that sounds like a will. Scrap that." He closed the briefing pack and tossed the tablet on the nearest chair, heading for the door. "I'll think of something on the way."
"Boss, I really think that you need to arrange for back-up-"
"Later, baby girl. Later." It was going to be a long flight, and he needed to read up on all the ins and outs of the most recent Caucasian conflicts before he committed anyone else to this.
"Yes, boss." She didn't sound reassured.
The lift swallowed him up.
The flight was uneventful. Good weather, strong headwind... under any other circumstances, Tony would have enjoyed it. As it was, he could feel the strain the suit was under as he urged it to go just that little faster to Rogers's last known coordinates. Bastard is trying to kill me, he thought sourly. The phone wasn't enough, the letter wasn't enough, he's now trying to make sure that I never sleep.
Sleep had not been an easy commodity to come by, recently. Not with everything that had happened.
He hadn't needed the hospital, in the end. He'd taken a few heavy hits, sure, but Rogers had pulled enough of his punches that there wasn't anything broken. A couple of cracked ribs, sure, and the bruising wasn't going to fade anytime soon, but nothing requiring hospitalisation. I'm fine, Pep, Tony had said, had promised, had shouted, in the days after. He didn't break anything, I'm fine!
She'd just shaken her head. Sometimes, Tony, I don't know whether you're lying to me, or to yourself.
"Boss, have you made a decision about back-up?"
FRIDAY wouldn't let up. God damn it. "Vision," he said abruptly. "I'll check in with T'Challa before going in, and I'll keep in contact with you throughout, FRI. I drop out of contact for more than four hours, you contact Vis and tell him where I am. You do not tell Rhodey, clear?"
"Four hours, baby girl. Not a moment earlier." He wasn't going to have Vision unavailable in the event of a major attack for nothing other than a poor cellphone signal.
He arrived at the coordinates on schedule, sending a quick burst of data to T'Challa before he crossed into the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast. The last thing he needed was T'Challa assuming a lack of communication from Tony amounted to a casualty and working his was down the contact list.
He circled the Hydra base before landing. From his initial scan, it looked to be abandoned. Lead lining as well; someone didn't want prying eyes inside. Hmmm.
There were signs of more recent habitation inside the base. The doors had been rebuilt, and then forced open again - courtesy of a supersoldier, no doubt - and there were supplies stacked near the entrance, mostly food rations. A supply run? Someone had re-occupied the base fairly recently, and Rogers had interrupted during a vulnerable moment. They'd tried to close the door, Rogers had fought...
"Cap?" he called out.
"Boss, it might not be the best option to attract the attention of whoever was here," FRIDAY said in his ear, sounding worried.
"They're not here anymore, FRI," Tony said absent-mindedly, rounding the corner. The base was clearly deserted; whoever had been here had obviously left. The question was, had they taken Rogers with them? Or...
No, don't think like that.
"Cap?" He called out again, more loudly. "Rogers, are you here?" If it had been Hydra, they would have likely taken Rogers with them. But Hydra wasn't the only military power in these parts; if it had been the Ossetian paramilitaries, they may not have even recognised Rogers without his shield. They may have evacuated and left him behind. Injured, probably. Or pinned down by rubble, maybe. Likely needing medical attention, anyway.
He followed the trail of destruction until he came to what looked like a command centre. The damage was greatest here: the doors had been ripped clean off their hinges, the computers almost entirely destroyed. And, in the centre of it all -
"FRIDAY, am I seeing things? Is that what I think it is?"
"It does appear to be part of Captain Rogers' body armour," FRIDAY confirmed.
Yeah. The lower half. Boots and black combat trousers, utility belt, knife... unless Hydra had started outfitting its soldiers with Avengers-issue body armour, that outfit was something Tony himself had designed. Well, sort of. Clearly, Rogers had visited a tailor in Birnin Zana before running off on his jaunt. And where the hell is the rest of it? And St-Rogers? "Cap? You here?" He called out again. "Steve! Come on, show yourself, Rogers! Steve!"
He heard the whimper before he saw the movement out of the corner of his eye. His head whipped around, the HUD tracking the source of the source and zeroing in on it in seconds. "Jesus Christ!"
The source of the sound - a small boy, bare-legged and dwarfed by the Captain America upper body armour - peered tearfully out from beneath one of the discarded doors. He was blue-lipped, almost frozen.
Must have crawled under there to get out of sight when I arrived, Tony thought, with the part of his mind that was not busy having a nervous breakdown.
"Steve?" He managed.
The kid crawled out from under the metal cautiously, drawing himself up as tall and as brave as he possibly could. He had one of Rogers's smaller knives in his grip, held tremulously with both hands in front of him like a sword. "Who - who are you?"