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The Picture at the end of the Puzzle

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T’Challa wasn’t alone in his bed. He knew from the moment he woke up who was pressed against his back and spooning him. Flashes of a perfect smile and flirty words that had unexpectedly greeted him yesterday floated to the surface of his memory as he touched the arm slung around his waist. Those snippets were chased by teasing words that danced around T’Challa’s inquiries as he attempted to procure the reason behind Tony Stark’s unplanned visit. It had been late at night, and T’Challa had been too exhausted to meet Tony’s dance of wit with one of his own.

Instead, he had let Tony slide in close to him, wrap his arms around him, and touch him in a way that promised so much more if T’Challa yielded and let himself get swept up in Tony.

Just like he had the first time Tony had seduced him, T’Challa had let go and enjoyed Tony’s company.

He had been doing so for months now. He’d been cocky the first time Tony had come on to him. He’d been certain Tony Stark was more interested in vibranium than in him. Tony Stark was a businessman, and vibranium was now accessible when it hadn’t been before, but still kept under a tight watch. T’Challa had assumed that Tony wanted T’Challa to loosen his watch and he planned to persuade T’Challa through physical means.

Tony Stark had a reputation after all.

At present, T’Challa felt ashamed for his past misconceptions of Tony. Back then, he had slept with Tony—the man was attractive, and T’Challa found himself tempted to enjoy a night—believing soon after Tony would ask for special treatment in regard to vibranium supplies. T’Challa would then refuse him, and Tony would return to his business empire to stew.

Tony didn’t ask for any special treatment. The next time they met face to face was on the battlefield, and Tony had offered to “tend to” T’challa’s wounds afterwards. It wasn’t until several sexual encounters later that T’Challa realized Tony was not sleeping with him because of the vibranium.

Tony Stark was genuinely attracted to him. T’Challa couldn’t deny that the attraction was mutual.

T’Challa slipped out from Tony’s embrace and stood up from the bed.

Tony groaned.

T’Challa looked over his shoulder to see Tony blink his eyes open and his fingers flex and grab the blankets. “Where am I?” Tony asked.

“Wakanda. Specifically, my bedroom.”

Tony’s grinned. Creases formed at the corners of his eyes. “Hey, gorgeous. Have a good night’s sleep? You certainly wore me out.” Tony wiggled his butt. The effect was muffled by the blankets covering him.

T’Challa’s mouth curved. “It was good. I have had better.”

Tony huffed. He rolled onto his back, and tucked his arm behind his head. “Just remember, it takes two.”

“Will you tell me today why you decided to surprise me with a visit?” T’Challa asked. Tony had just woken up and he was in a good mood. He might slip and reveal himself.

“Friends like to visit each other, last I checked. Or have I been teammate-zoned?”

“Teammate-zoned?”

Tony waved his hand flippantly. “You know, like friend-zoned, but teammates. Not as professional as coworkers, but still not enough to cross into the world of friendship.”  

“So I will take that as a ‘no.’”

Tony smiled at T’Challa, which confirmed that T’Challa had interpreted Tony’s response correctly.

T’Challa shook his head in exasperation. He didn’t press the issue. He had a long day ahead of him, and it mattered little the reason for Tony’s visit. It wasn’t the first unexpected one, and it wouldn’t be the last.

T’Challa gathered his outfit for the day then went to the bathroom, where he washed himself. When he emerged from the bathroom, dressed for the day, not only did he find Tony fully awake and dressed himself, but the man and T’Challa’s sister Shuri were chatting amicably. Tony was seated on the edge of the bed, and Shuri had grabbed a chair and planted herself in front of Tony with a tablet.

T’Challa raised an eyebrow. “And what are you doing in my room? Have you no respect for the royal chambers?”

Shuri rolled her eyes. “Royal chambers he says. As if it’s something special and not his bedroom.” Shuri turned her grin on Tony. “What does it feel like to sleep in royal chambers, Tony?”

“Shuri,” T’Challa reprimanded.

“What? You make it sound so grand. I’m just wondering if your bedroom lives up to the hype.”

“Mine is better,” Tony stated, eyes skimming over the tablet. The corner of his mouth lifted with subtle joy.

“Ah ha!” Shuri declared.

No respect, T’Challa thought to himself. Not from his impudent little sister or Tony. He’d just have to show them the error of their ways when he didn’t have a country to rule. “If you do not need anything, then I will leave you two alone. I assume I will find you in the labs later if I need anything.”

Shuri and Tony nodded, Shuri’s movements energetic and enthusiastic while Tony’s were slower as he continued to look over the tablet.

It warmed T’Challa’s heart to see Tony and his sister getting along.

It was surreal to remember a time when he’d been wary of the two interacting because he believed Tony would try to seduce Shuri as Tony had him. His playboy reputation spoke not only of Tony sleeping with young men and women, but of him sleeping with one family member then sleeping with another.

Tony had never once looked or spoken to Shuri in a manner that suggested any intentions beyond companionship and a shared love of science and engineering.

As T’Challa left the room and closed the door behind him, his gaze slid to the side where Okoye stood guard. “You let my sister into my room.”

“There were no noises to suggest she would walk in on something.” Okoye’s eyes shimmered with amusement. “She wished to speak to Tony.”

T’Challa frowned at that. Tony had arrived late last night, and from what T’Challa knew, Tony had been escorted straight to him. “How did she find out he was here?”

“She did not say, but your boyfriend has patterns.”

T’Challa straightened. “He is not my boyfriend.”

Okoye cocked her head. “What do you call a man whom you have sex with and care for?”

“A friend with benefits.” T’Challa strode away. He didn’t need to look back to know Okoye followed him. “Patterns?”

“He comes to you when he is having a bad day.”

“And how would my sister know when he is having a bad day?”

“Oh my. I don’t know. It isn’t as if there are many ways for people to communicate across oceans instantly.”

T’Challa grimaced. Okoye’s sarcasm was more than fairly deserved.

“Also, it isn’t as if your boyfriend’s daily life isn’t plastered across every magazine or website that calls itself news.”

Another fairly earned remark. “Mocked and disrespected by those I consider close, and it hasn’t even been an hour since I woke up. Today is shaping up to be fantastic.”

“That it is, my king.”

Even with a council to help him, ruling a country was not easy. It was a fine balance of many acts, and one wrong action could lead to the suffering of thousands, if not more. The world was watching him and Wakanda. He wasn’t sure if he was thankful or regretful for the centuries of isolation in terms of media. To remain isolated, Wakanda had needed to be careful with how information was spread. There were media outlets, but not many, and while foreign outlets were rushing in to document “El Dorado,” the swarm was small and contained due to regulations T’Challa had swiftly set in place.

However, T’Challa was still not quite prepared for how aggressive reporters and photographers became upon seeing him. Before he’d been almost invisible to them. Now they came at him like he was a steak and they were starving dogs. Even for a warrior, such as himself, their fervor could be frightening.

The day dragged on with discussions that turned into debates. Legislation and trade were the two big topics of the day. Other countries were vying for more vibranium. T’Challa and the council had come up with a timetable to slowly introduce vibranium to the rest of the world, but it would seem their timetable was unsatisfactory to many.

It was in the middle of such a discussion that the security system flared to life. Projected blocks of information appeared around T’Challa and his council as the alarms went off. Okoye rushed to T’Challa’s side as T’Challa activated his Black Panther necklace. As his armor seeped over his flesh to protect him, he read the projected text stating what had triggered the alarm.

His stomach knotted and his heart plummeted. Resistance fighters.

There were those in Wakanda who believed that their king had betrayed them and that the country should have remained in isolation. He understood their doubts and fears. Not long ago he was of the same belief. However, he was a king. He had to enforce his decisions. He also had to protect the civilians who were caught in destruction the resistance brought.

With Okoye by his side, T’Challa rushed off to where the resistance was attacking. A town not far from the palace. The fighters weapons were advanced, so advanced that T’Challa knew that former scientists who had worked in the palace labs were lending aid to the fighters.

“You want to share vibranium with the world? Then this is what you will get,” was what the resistance fighters said with their weaponry.

T’Challa arrived at the scene with the Dora Milaje and an army of loyal warriors to subdue the fighters and protect the civilians. He was startled when Iron Man landed next to him.

“Looks like you could use some help. So what’s the strategy?” Iron Man asked.

“Subdue the fighters and keep the civilians safe.” T’Challa eyed Iron Man.

Iron Man’s repulsor boots activated and he lifted off from the ground. “Simple. I like it.” Tony zoomed into the fray.

T’Challa ran in behind him, launching himself at two fighters. He took one down with a punch and another with a kick. A third charged at him with a gun, and he swiftly disarmed the man and used the man’s running force to trip him and knee him in the gut.

A blast knocked T’Challa off his feet and sent him somersaulting into a cart of vegetables. He grimaced as he searched for the blast source.

A repulsor cannon decimated a home, as a father and child escaped the house just in time.

Rage boiled T’Challa’s blood. He shouted for his warriors to help the parent in child as he rocketed himself at the cannon and its operators. The operators were far more prepared than the first group of guerilla fighters to attack him. Advanced armor electrocuted T’Challa if he tried to slice through it with his claws. He ducked and dodged a spear that was coiled in electricity while he also avoided punches from a gauntlet that added enough force to the blow that a punch could level the wall of a building.

In the midst of the fight he heard his warriors shouts and the cries of his people. Those sounds empowered him to keep fighting until he took down the operators and destroyed the cannon.

Even after he stopped the cannon, the fight wasn’t over.

“Looks like you’re having some trouble out there,” Shuri’s voice came over the suit’s communications system.

T’Challa sprang into the middle of Okoye’s battle against three fighters. He seized one of the fighters and slugged them across the face. The fighter fell like stones. “Unless you have something to make the fight go faster, I suggest you keep quiet.”

“I do. EMP beads.”

T’Challa was hit by another blast. His ears rang. He heard Okoye call his name. She appeared before him and guarded him as he recovered from the blast.

“Don’t tell me they have another cannon,” T’Challa said.

“Not just another,” Tony’s voice joined Shuri’s on the comms. “Looks like three.”

“Great,” T’Challa said. “Shuri, deliver those beads.”

“Gotcha. Tony, you’re going to want to get out of there.”

“How big a radius do those beads have?” Tony asked.

“Sending you that information right now. Also, delivery should be there shortly.”

Tony whistled appreciatively. “All right, I’ll catch any outliers.”

As promised, the EMP beads arrived shortly after, via jet, and rained down on the battlefield. Once the jet flew out of the EMP’s radius, Shuri activated the beads remotely.

The battle changed in a moment.

The resistance fighters’ advanced weaponry was shut down instantly. Without the use of their weapons, the fighters were easy to subdue. Even so, they were not easy to capture. Sensing the turn in battle, many fled like ants whose home had been flooded. The battle ended quickly, and T’Challa was able to add more manpower to helping the civilians.

T’Challa was in the middle of cuffing the last of the resistance fighters they’d captured when his sister’s voice startled him.

“T’Challa, your boyfriend is doing something stupid,” Shuri said.

T’Challa was tempted to grumble and point out that Tony was not his boyfriend, but right then was neither the time nor place for banter with his sister. He handed off the fighter to one of the Dora Milaje and walked a few paces away to give himself privacy. “You will need to give me more details.”

“Tony was helping people of the rubble on the west side. The homes there took a lot of damage and some people were unable to escape. He was freeing them, but he’s in one of the unsecure homes right now and is outside of his suit. The house could collapse at any moment.”

T’Challa cursed. Just as T’Challa had learned that Tony was not the cut-throat businessman who would do anything for a sale or a playboy who would fuck anything that moved, he had also learned that as brilliant as Tony was, he was a reckless idiot. Perhaps not as reckless as some, but when Tony did something dangerous, it was never by small measures.

Tony may not be his boyfriend, but T’Challa wasn’t going to let Tony kill himself.

T’Challa raced off toward the west side of the village. As Shuri had said, the homes were destroyed, having been the entry point of the resistance fighters. By the time T’Challa and his warriors had assembled, the resistance fighters had done enough damage that several families wouldn’t have a home to return to for the night. T’Challa would have to find them shelter.

Just as soon as he made sure Tony Stark didn’t die.

Only a few civilians remained in the area. Most of them were injured. Only two of them appeared unharmed, and they were doing their best to tend to the wounds of those around them.

“King T’Challa! T’Challa! T’Challa!” Two bandaged children cheered from beside an elderly couple. The children were bandaged and one held an ice pack to her face.

T’Challa hurried to one of the people tending to the wounded. “Supplies will be here shortly. Where is Iron Man?”

Before the person could answer, the children chimed in and pointed. “In the leaning house!”

T’Challa nodded and took off in the direction.

The leaning house was an understatement. The first floor of the home was missing two walls, and the only thing keeping it up was the iron man armor, which was working as a pillar to keep the house standing.

T’Challa’s heartstrings twisted around his heart and choked it.

“Tony!” T’Challa marched over to the home. Items and debris were strewn everywhere. Splintered pieces of wood and shards of glass covered the floor. Broken chunks of furniture made piles in the mess.

“T’Challa!” Tony shouted.

Crying came from farther in the house. It was the sound of a child sobbing.

T’Challa didn’t think. He raced into what was left of the home and headed toward the sound.

“Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay. You don’t have to go alone anymore.”

T’Challa rounded the base of the stairs and froze.

Tony was pale as a ghost and his left leg was lodged deep into the hole were the staircase had given out under his foot when he’d been trying to go down the stairs. He had tucked his other leg under him, in a half cross-legged pose. Other than the pallor of his face and his watery eyes, Tony gave no facial indication that he was in pain from were the jagged floorboard stabbed into his leg.

A child who had to be five or younger stood in front of him crying. Tony had slung his arm around the child and was rubbing their back. “See.” Tony gave the child a soft push so they would turn and see T’Challa. “The big, protective panther is here to help you.”

“Tony,” T’Challa couldn’t bring himself to speak loudly.

Dirt spilled from the ceiling.

Tony grimaced.  He pushed the child toward T’Challa. “Go.”

T’Challa couldn’t waste time arguing. Save the child, then return to save Tony. T’Challa carefully walked up the stairs and scooped up the child. He murmured reassurances and carried the child to safety. All the while fear constricted his chest. What if the house collapsed before T’Challa could save Tony?

Images of Tony crushed and dead bombarded T’Challa.  He shook his head and forced himself to focus. Once he had the child safely outside, T’Challa set them down. He kneeled in front of them and pointed in the direction of where the other townsfolk had been. “I need to help Iron Man now, but if you go that way, there should be people there to help you. I promise they aren’t faraway. Can you handle that?”

The child sniffled and nodded.

Relief swelled in T’Challa’s chest. He watched as the child ambled off in the correction direction then dashed back inside the house. Panic spurred him to move at top speed. He reached Tony in seconds, running up the stairs without a bit of caution.

“Hey, you’re back.” Tony beamed at T’Challa.

“Of course, I’d be back.” T’Challa examined the hole and Tony’s leg. He inwardly hissed. The wood from the stairs had gone deep into Tony. How Tony hadn’t passed out from pain was a miracle.

Twin arms wrapped around T’Challa’s shoulders, startling him out of his contemplations. Tony slouched against him and clung. “Just slice me out of this, King Charming, and carry me like the damsel in distress that I am. Let the doctors worry about my leg.”

T’Challa hesitated. He didn’t want to risk causing Tony more harm, but the only reason the house was still standing was because of Tony’s armor outside, and the house was still crumbling. T’Challa wrapped his arm around Tony’s waist then sliced the wood around Tony. Tony clenched his teeth as his body dropped and the wood in his leg moved.

T’Challa lifted Tony up and carried him in his arms. T’Challa ran out of the house at top speed, barreling past the Dora Milaje who had just arrived. “Don’t you dare do something like this again,” T’Challa said to Tony. He eyed Tony’s leg. With the wood still in place, Tony’s bleeding was minimal. The palace wasn’t far. He could carry Tony there if necessary.

Tony weakly glared at T’Challa. “You’re not my king. I can save a kid if I want.”

T’Challa was flabbergasted. “Did you just-”

“My king,” Okoye cut in. “Please, set Tony Stark down over here. We have the medical supplies and knowledge to treat him.”

“Drugs!” Tony threw his head back. “Give me all of the pain killing drugs, or put me back in my suit. It’s fully stocked and prepped to drug me.”

T’Challa was frozen. His mind replayed Tony’s previous response repeatedly.

“My king,” Okoye softly urged as she gesture to a spot where a blanket had been set for Tony.

Slowly, T’Challa set Tony down and let those with medical knowledge take over from there.

He stared in awe at Tony.

“Your boyfriend is safe, King T’Challa,” Okoye whispered to him. “It is time for you to check on your people.”

T’Challa nodded numbly.

He didn’t move.

Okoye tilted her head. “My king…are you frozen?”

He was. He couldn’t believe it, but what he couldn’t believe more was how blind he had been. Tony’s defiant words had sucker punched T’Challa, but instead of seeing stars, he was seeing Tony anew. Each time Tony had proven a rumor about himself false, it had been as if Tony had given T’Challa a puzzle piece. T’Challa had taken those puzzle pieces Tony had given him and had tried to attach them to the unsolved puzzle the world had come up with for Tony. Tony’s words—that sucker punch—had knocked aside the world’s puzzle of Tony and left T’Challa with only the pieces he’d been given. When he joined those pieces together he saw a whole different image than the world had created.

Tony was a brave, intelligent, kind, and resilient person. The kind of person who made T’Challa’s head spiral in a rush and left him immobile. He couldn’t move or speak, he was too entranced.

He’d fallen for Tony Stark.