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Drifting Sands

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T'Challa's stealth jet hovered just off the edge of the RAFT. Storm clouds gathered overhead, rain and ocean spray mixed and visibility was down to just a few steps ahead of him. In the pitch black it was impossible to see where -the RAFT  ended and miles of ocean began.

Avoiding the cameras and sensors with the help of Shuri's vibranium tech, Steve and the others ran from the doorway into the battering wind and rain. They were free. Twenty feet and they would be on their way. He could get them set up safely away from all the mess he had created.

"I take it things in Siberia didn't go so well," Sam said as they ran toward the ship.

"It could have gone better," Steve said, sending the signal to open the doors and looking for signs of the jet. Able to only gleam a vague sense of the jet through the rain as water tossed against it, he ushered Wanda, Hawkeye and the others aboard.

"I'm sorry, I really thought he had your back."

"It's not his fault, Sam. Zemo had something planned we didn't account for. We'll talk later."

A shout carried from the door behind them as Steve jumped onto the open platform. "Take us out!" He yelled to the pilot.

Another scream behind him.

A hollow sound of gunfire lost in a storm.

Then agony against the back of his skull.

Steve’s legs crumbled. The jet shuddered. Then nothing but air and fire along the back of his head. He tried to shift, to roll, but nothing responded. He couldn't brace or shield himself when he crashed into the ocean twenty stories below.  

Waves rose and tossed him. A burning raged in his head and roared down his spine as the sea pounded him relentlessly. He couldn’t fight it, his strength meant nothing to the waves, to the numbing pain in his head. Somewhere above, he heard a cry, almost lost to the winds.

He didn’t know who they were.

He hoped they were safe.

 

***

 

Tony sat at his desk, staring at the package Steve sent him. He didn’t dare open it. There was no return address, there was no indication who sent it. But he knew, down in the pit of his stomach, it was from Steve. Tony didn’t want an apology, or an explanation, or whatever was in that cardboard box. He wanted to take it out in the middle of the ocean weight it down and let it sink to the depths of the ocean, forgotten.

Instead, he shoved it in his safe and paced the compound; a ghost wandering the halls of a place he barely lived in even when the Avengers were at their peak. The home in Malibu was too lonely and too far away to keep an eye on Rhodey. New York reminded him of Steve. And if he bugged Pepper while she and Happy had a private moment together she’d kill him.

Rhodey was asleep, which he definitely needed. He did not need Tony disturbing his sleep to have late night confabs about Steve, or Siberia, or Steve, or his parents.

Or Steve.

He kept coming back to that part. Bucky killed his mom, killed his dad. And Steve knew. Steve knew and he didn’t say anything. The worst part, the absolute worst part was that he understood why. He had read Bucky’s files. He read everything they had. He found the tech his father had been working on, he found the reason Hydra murdered his parents. He found the old video files they kept on how they created their Winter Soldier. Hydra was distressingly proud of the lengths they went to with their assassin.

Tony had no doubt that Steve had watched every single one of these and blamed himself for every bit of it. But he didn’t come to Tony, he didn’t trust Tony with the information.  Too many emotions, too many fuzzy, incomprehensible and squishy feelings. He needed to build something.

He didn't run to his labs, he damn well didn’t run away from his feelings. Tony surrendered himself to science. Unthinking, he worked, and tinkered, and built, and rebuilt things in the lab until he was covered in grease and small scratches, until his stomach gnawed from hunger, until his eyes stung from sweat and lack of sleep. When he finished, he stepped back and looked at what he’d made.

"Son of a bitch, even here," he muttered as he looked at four prototypes for a new shield.

"Fuck this. I need coffee."

Tony hit the coffee maker for pot number four, and took himself to the shower. Throughout, he forced himself not to think of all the reasons his life was run by memories of someone who didn't have the decency to be honest about his true feelings. Tony would have understood if Steve was protecting an old flame. Hell, Tony could be remorseless when it came to protecting people he had more than a passing tryst with. But nothing in the records indicated anything between Steve and Bucky. They’d been some great secret of the war.

So what had Tony been to Steve? A passing friendship, a half decent second fiddle until something better came along?

Tony wanted to yell, he wanted Steve in front of him so he could scream until his voice was raw. He wanted to throw everything that was weighing on him back in Steve’s face. Instead he stood in his room, abandoned.

"Message coming through on a secure channel, Boss," Friday said in the silence. "Meta information looks clean."

"Play it, Friday," Tony said from his seat on the floor, back against the bed.

"Coordinates, 46.7420 ° N, 60.8810° W, ASAP."

Tony blinked twice. "Who the hell wants me to go to Canada?"

"Educated guess, Boss, but from the information you've given me over the years this type of message suggests Nicholas Fury."

Tony let out a groan, of course the paranoid ex-commander of the Avengers would do things the old spy way. What the hell did he want?

Dealing with what Fury wanted was better than focusing on that stupid package in his safe. He wanted nothing to do with Steve or his letters, or his apologies. Not now, not ever. Was that even rational?What would Graham, his therapist say about his current mental state? Tony, you’re in a fucking crisis and need to get your ass in here and not work on another fucking project for people who can’t see you’re clinging by your fingernails . Whatever, maybe Fury would have something interesting for him.

He set off in the dark and landed an hour later on top of a trail. It was on the side of a large hill, or small mountain, with hills and a roadway off in the dark behind him, and the ocean in front. A simple wooden platform had been set up for tourists and easy travel down to what he could only assume was a lovely view in sunlight. Now with a soft rain and no ambient light to speak of, it felt more wild than the platform and the surrounding signs of human interference suggested.

Not far away, sitting on one of the benches, Fury looked up at him.

"Any particular reason you chose the middle of nowhere in Canada of all places for a secret meeting?"

"Has to do with a mutual friend of ours.” Fury paused, dramatic as always, before he started the real reason he’d summoned Tony. “I know things didn't go so well between you the last time you saw each other, but. . . I've exhausted all my options Tony and you're the only one left."

A stone settled in Tony’s stomach, a gnawing, heavy sense of worry dug into his gut.

"It's Rogers, Tony. He's hurt."

"So, I'm sure his friends in Wakanda can take care of him quite well. If that's all."

"I can't reach them, Tony. The Captain infiltrated the RAFT, he freed his team before Ross and the guards opened fire. It was bad, Stark. Hawkeye was shot and recaptured . Sam Wilson got away to parts unknown, hoping Wanda is with him, but Rogers fell. He spent three days in the ocean before we found him."

Fury stood. "You’re the genius billionaire philanthropist. This is your chance to do something and prove an entire compound full of geniuses wrong. Steve doesn’t has much longer left. He's dying Tony."

"You forgot playboy. You want me to save him? Your precious fucking super soldier -- First Avenger my ass -- god forbid something happens to him. But I'm a liability until my money or my clout can get you something."

"Don't save him for me, or anyone else. If you're still mad at him for what he did, save him long enough so you can punch him. I don't care, we just need him back."

"Why?"

"Because like it or not, despite your conviction that the Sokovia Accords are good and what we need, you know deep down you're wrong, and that Ross is dirty. And if Steve dies, you'll blame yourself for it even if you had nothing to do with it. At least this way you gloat about saving him."

"Did you know?"

"Did I know what?"

Tony's throat tightened, hot tears and suppressed emotion formed sharp jagged pieces from his jaw down to his collarbone. "Don't fuck with me, Nick, did you know what happened to my parents? Did you know his precious best friend assassinated my parents? Choked my mother with that fucking metal arm of his?"

"No, Tony," Nicholas Fury said softly. "When they died I was still working for the NSA, I didn't start with Shield until '95. Their deaths were suspicious given what your father was involved with, but your father had a lot of enemies. We all do."

"And after you found out you were working for Hydra, what happened then?"

"Tony, I can answer your questions but time isn't on Rogers’ side here."

"You wouldn't have dragged me out in the middle of fucking nowhere if you thought he didn't have more time than you're letting on. So out with it, Nick."

"Most of the files related to Hydra and Shield's backhand dealings were encrypted, firebombed when Zola was destroyed, or stuck in some warehouse behind three levels of governmental red tape and cold war espionage. We had enough to go on that Sergeant Barnes had been involved in several key assassinations, but that was second hand information. All evidence of him existing had been manually scrubbed save for a few eye witness accounts of a super strong dude with  a metal arm. We had his torture files, we had the procedures he was put through to do what they wanted, but no, we didn't have a kill list."

"Did Steve know?"

"Steve and Natasha were the ones who unearthed all of this but they still couldn't find any tangible proof that he was directly tied to something. Nat suspected there might have been a facility, in case he went rogue and they needed to put him down. Can't kill him, but you can bury him with his own dead. Zemo knew where to look. We didn't. If Steve knew your parents were on that list, he didn't share it with anyone."

"Why the fuck not, he should have told me, keeping this from me wasn't his decision to make."

"I can’t answer that for him, Stark? And you won’t ever get the answers you want if he doesn’t survive this. Ross’s endgame was always to get rid of the Avengers.  Not control them, get rid of them."

"You think Ross is behind Zemo? That doesn't track."

"No, I don't think Ross is behind Zemo but I think he's capitalizing on the fallout. He's been gunning for having supers under his thumb since he tried to bag and tag Banner eight years ago. He knows he can't use Rogers for his own gain so he's going to poison the well somehow. Meanwhile if Rogers ends up dead so much the better. Steve can answer your questions once he's out of the woods, but right now he's fighting for his life and I've got no idea how to save him. So if you want someone to be angry at in the morning, come with me."

 

***

 

"Boss, we have a problem."  

Alarms sounded further into the compound as Tony looked up from his work bench. "We don't have time for this Friday. What the fuck is going on?”

"Four unknown aircraft on headed this way and they're loaded down with weapons. They were using a new stealth tech it's why we didn't pick them up before now."

"How far out are they? Any idea their origins? Hydra coming at us?"

"We've got fifteen minutes to scramble. Signatures don't register as Hydra. Can't tell you much more than that, Boss."

Tony swore, shoving his equipment into the travel cases, attached them to Dum-e and ran deeper into the compound. The blare of alarms multiplied, Fury stood in the middle of the maelstrom, untouched, issuing orders as doctors and staff ran around packing up their equipment.

"Where is he?"

"Under sedation, they're getting him ready for transport. You don't need to know where he's going. In fact the less you know the better."

"Bullshit, I haven't fixed him yet."

"You've got him alive that's more important than his memories rights now."

"It's Ross. Isn't it? He's found this place?"

"That's my guess and I'm not leaving it to chance. You need to leave here now. Before he or his goons spot you and decide to use you as their scapegoat."

"Fury, what are you going to do?"

"Disappear. I'll get in touch with you once we know things are safe. You've done what you can, Tony. Now you need to run."

Tony hesitated. "Boss, he's right. We've got to go now. Ross is on one of those aircraft and they're minutes from landing."

"Fuck! Get in touch with me, Nick. Don't leave me out of the loop.."

"I promise, Tony. Now get going."

He ran, like the coward he was. He ran through the compound to one of escape tunnels. Why the fuck was he listening to Fury? He never listened to anyone. On the fly he switched direction. He ran into Dum-e on the way, snagged one of his equipment cases from him and grabbed the first tech he saw. "Dumm-e, this is your new friend--"

"Uuhhh-- Carl?"

"Dum-e, meet Carl, Carl, meet Dum-e. He's going to keep you safe, because he knows if he does, there's a cushy job with Stark R&D in it for him with a 401k that would make an investment firm weep."

"Y-yes sir, Mr. Stark."

Tony saluted and ran down the hall away from the escape hatch and to where they were loading Steve up for transport. "Taking over from here boys, Fury is going to ground and we have to assume all our locations are compromised." That sounded military enough, yes?

Who the fuck knew he was only tangentially military.

They hesitated, but relented when they heard weapons fire above. Seconds later they took off on the other side of a mountain range and flew into a massive fog bank as it rolled along the coast.

"What are Fury's orders, sir? If all our locations are compromised, where do we bring the asset?"

"We need to go somewhere dark, boys, I don't want to start playing International Running Man with Ross any time soon. How how long do we have before Spangles wakes up?"

"I've got him under with a steady cocktail, Mr Stark, but it's going through him fast, his stress levels are elevated so he's blowing through the sedatives. I'd give it two hours at most."

"Then we've got an hour people. Friday, you with me?"

"Always Boss."

"I need somewhere safe, away from a lot of people where they won't look twice at a helicopter landing."

"Mr. Stark, I do not have enough fuel to touch down outside of my flyzone," the pilot said over the radio. "I have a limited window on where we can set down. If our safehouse is scrubbed I need to know where we are going and fast. I'm burning time while I float in this soup."

Tony looked down at Steve's face. The doctor was hunched over him and the cabin was filled with the steady beeping of the monitors.

"How much fuel do you have?"

"I've got enough for my flight plan, you tell me where you want to set down and I'll tell you if it's doable."

Tony felt the edges of panic settle about him. He couldn’t risk Steve at the compound, nor in New York, that'd be courting trouble. Overseas was obviously too far, so his places there were out. Malibu was usually under the gimlet eye of Ross or one of his cronies. That left one place, one awful place.

"I know a place, and it's not that far. Can you make it to Long Island?"

 

***

 

He didn't recognize the bedroom.

He didn't recognize the feel of the bed beneath him. Nothing felt familiar. Panic gnawed at his insides and he stayed stock-still in the bed waiting for the sounds around him to coalesce into something he knew.

Nothing.

No radio to orient him. The sound of the room settling around him was unfamiliar. The breeze coming through the window carried unfamiliar sounds. He didn't smell anything he recognized, but there was a musty, unused scent to the room. He didn't feel like he was under attack, and he wasn't tied to the bed.

The fact that he wasn't locked up didn't rule it out but he felt reasonably sure if he wasn't tied up or drugged out he could free himself. Probing why he knew that set off fireworks in the back of his head.

Even if he wanted to know why he was sure of his capabilities, the answers weren't forthcoming.

Finally, he opened his eyes and took in the room. The wallpaper was peeling, a muted shade somewhere between green and blue, dulled by age. It was clean. There wasn’t a speck of dust on the furnishings, and while the bedclothes on top of him were discoloured, that was from age not dirt.  

It was huge.

The bed sat on four large posters, with a canopy above his head, obscuring the ceiling beyond. The windows on either side of the bed were tall, covered in dark curtains that hung to the floor and let no light in save for the smallest sliver at the edge. There was a large dresser across from the bed and a panelled door leading God knew where. Another door to his right was open, the light was off but he could see the sheen of gleaming chrome and porcelain suggesting a bathroom.

This wasn’t a place he’d willingly bunker down in if he was fighting. But it wasn’t a place he’d expect kidnappers to bring him either.  No, that would more likely be postmodern austere concrete stained with a disturbing array of bodily fluids.

He shuddered and ignored a nagging headache in the back of his brainpan.

He needed -- he needed -- he couldn’t -- he had to -- he needed --

***

The lights were too bright, too cold. Everything was too cold. Were they testing his stamina again? God, not again, they promised him no more tests. They promised after the blood draws and a few endurance runs they'd have what they were looking for. He couldn't stop shaking and the light hurt his eyes. He had to get out of here.

"Mr. Rogers, you can't get up."

"Please, sir, get back on the table you're not in any shape to be moving."

When he shook his head, the back of his skull caught fire and he went to his knees, screaming on the concrete floor.

"Steve, it's okay, you're safe. I'm here, I'm not going to let them hurt you."

Steve opened his eyes and saw Howard kneeling in front of him. "Howard? Get me out of here, please. I can't do this anymore. No more tests. No more, I thought I was doing the right thing, but this... I don't want this."

"Steve, you're not being tested," Howard said, and Steve felt his friend's too warm hands against his face and down to his shoulders. It didn't feel right, Howard never touched him, not before the testing started and especially not after he found out Steve was gay.

"Please, Howard, I won't tell anyone, I just want to fight, please don't let them test on me. Get me out of here, please? I'll go into hiding, you'll never have to see me again."

Howard and an orderly got him to his feet but he couldn't hold his own weight and the two men grunted as they held onto him. He felt the shock of the cold stretcher against his back and the clasp of the restraints on his wrists echoed around him. "You promised you wouldn't let them do this," he said softly. "You promised."

"Steve..."

Pain shot through the back of his head and he let out a scream. What new test had they rigged him to now? Were they testing his pain threshold, his ability to withstand torture if he was caught by the enemy? The pain crested and somewhere near his hand he felt a sting and warmth spread through his arm and up to meet the agony ripping through his neck and skull.

"You need to leave, Mr. Stark, now. We have to put him back under and you're in the way."

"Help me, Howard--."

 

***

 

Standing proved easier said than done.

He didn't expect to be so dizzy or so tall. Everything hurt like the aftermath from a back alley fight.

The second time he stood proved better and he made use of the facilities, listening for anything that might mean trouble was close. He couldn’t hear a lot, the house felt empty, timeworn. The large bathroom had a small window which indicated he was in a secluded wooded area.

He was on the second floor of a large house. He’d only seen one room and a bathroom, but if they were anything to go by the place was massive. He left the bedroom, and took a right down the hallway toward the main stairway. The hall was old, dusty and had an air of abandonment to it, yet Steve couldn’t shake the vague sense of familiarity.

Steve, of course that was his name. He leant against the wall as a wave of dizziness crested. It passed and the buzzing agony in the back of his head vanished as his surroundings became more familiar.

It felt empty in the house and all around him. That didn’t feel right, for the place to be empty, they never left the place empty for long, between family and friends dropping in unannounced.

He needed to --

***

 

He had to run, he had to get out of this place. It wasn’t safe, there were dangers lurking behind every corner. Memories  threatened to overwhelm him no matter where he went.

The ‘staff’ were lying. They were tricking him, trying to keep him away from the doors and any exits. He was trapped and if he didn’t find a way out soon he didn’t think he’d ever leave under his own power. Someone was playing for keeps.

He needed to get somewhere safe. Each turn down the corridor led to a different set of rooms, but no way out. There were no windows either. His chest hurt, every breath felt sharp and didn’t go deep enough.

They were following him he knew it. They were behind the doors he refused to open and they were closing in. He had --

 

***

 

Tony didn't want to leave Steve , he wanted to stay there and watch as they set everything up, but Ross had already left several messages on his voicemail, yelling loud enough each time he was amazed he hadn't heard it through the phone. He had the helicopter refuel and drop him off in Hawaii, a car picked him up from a small airstrip he'd purchased and he bummed around for several hours, spent enough in the right places that the local papers did a small story about him spending the weekend on the Big Island looking to make some kind of deal to fund HURL for three years.

By the time he got back to Malibu, Ross was standing in his driveway, surprisingly alone for once. Tony gave a casual wave as he paid his Uber driver and sauntered up to the house watching as Ross steamed in his three piece under the midday sun.

"Heya, Ross, how's it going."

"Where is he, Tony?"

"Now, that's a conversation starter," Tony quipped as he walked past him and opened the front door. Ross stormed in behind him, barely holding in his rage. "Care for a drink, Ross, you look a little stressed around the edges. Pepper swears by this Kale and beet juice smoothie. Friday probably has the recipe, might help with that complexion of yours, it's looking a little blotchy today."

"Answer my question, Tony. I know you know where he is, and you're going to tell me."

"Rhodey's in New York as far as I know. Vision is at the compound too. I haven't been there in a while I've been doing some humanitarian work you understand. All about giving back you know."

"That's not who I meant and you know it. I know you have him stashed somewhere and I'm going to find him."

"Careful there, Ross, that government issued paranoia is starting to become pathological. Might want to dial it back some."

"When I find out where you've got him hidden, Stark, so help me, I'll drag you  to the same tribunal and they'll burn the lot of you."

"Could I suggest yoga? It really helped me after New York. No? Okay then, you can leave if you're done threatening me."

Ross stormed off, his complexion growing even blotchier if possible. Tony didn't let out his breath until after Friday let him know he’d returned to his car and had driven off.

 

***

 

The dark walls closed in around him as he ran and dodged from one corridor to the other. He couldn’t tell if he was getting anywhere or going in circles. There was no exterior light to show the way. He just knew that behind him lay danger.

Pain clawed along his the back of his skull, his neck felt stiff, aftereffects of their torture, he surmised. They had ripped his identity from him, he couldn’t find his name in the echoing silence of his thoughts.

He didn’t recognize his own hands, or the feel of his feet against the floor. Nothing was familiar except for the invasive understanding that he was in danger within these walls.

He turned down the wrong hallway. A door opened in front of him and the sound of pounding feet behind caught up. Pain lanced across the back of his head, his breathing came in short harsh gasps as he threw all of his might into a punch taking down the people in front of him.

Shock spread as he watched the man crumble to the floor, blood pouring from his nose and spreading down his face. His unfamiliar knuckles were smeared with the same brilliant red.

He stumbled forward, panic urging him on. Where had that strength come from? Did he hurt the man, did he kill him? He had never done that before. He’d never been the cause of someone’s death before. Or had he?

They were coming from everywhere now, from both ends of the hallway and from another door. He didn’t know how many were there, only that they grappled him to the floor as someone jabbed him with first one needle then a second.

They tied his wrists and ankles, bound him so he couldn’t move and dragged him back through the maze of corridors to the lab.

“What the hell? I said get him, not torture him!” Someone yelled as they laid him on the stretcher. His body felt taut, stretched too tight in his skin and the world was bleeding colour around the edges. He had no idea what they’d given him or even if it was working or the adrenaline and panic was doing the job for them.

“Steven, you’re safe, I know you don’t believe me but we’re here to help you.”

“His vitals are too high, we need to put him under again.”

“No, absolutely not, he’s had too many meds and I don’t care if he can toss them off like they’re nothing, it’s still affecting his liver and heart.”

“Then what the fuck do you suggest, Dana, he’s going to get out of those restraints and then we’re all fucked. No matter what you try and tell him. You should have seen Frank go down.”

“We’ll give him his memories back. Resting his brain isn’t working and we’re taxing him too much physically. Get BARF and set it up.”

He felt straps wrap around him and press him tightly to the stretcher as people scrambled around him. A device wrapped ---

 

***

 

The next few weeks were a cavalcade of orders coming from the council, small skirmishes that required Tony's personal touch in some way.

He never spent more than a few hours stateside. Long enough to switch his suit or drop something off at the compound. Most of it was public glad handing, no fights to break up, no hydra nests to get rid of, instead it was body guard duty for a public dignitary. It was ride along for a summit. Ross and the council dodged areas prone to conflict, refusing to send him near somewhere he'd potentially feel compelled to intervene.

That didn't stop him from seeing the news reports. Devastating weather trends, government upheaval in once stable countries. And there was a hostage taking in Latveria but Ross was keeping him as far from that border as he could. Friday and Rhodes were monitoring the situation for him while he was stuck in time out babysitting politicians while they wined and dined in some do in London.

Something interesting needed to happen fast. The world was opening up and swallowing the greedy rich bastards up while they planned to line their pockets with yet more money. How much money did one person need?

Weird sentiment coming from a billionaire he supposed, but even he knew that his money was ridiculous. Maybe he could find a way to take all the rich bastards into space and any of them who didn't have a sudden and profound change of heart he could just leave there. Starting with that orange menace running for president.

"Incoming phone call from Pepper, Tony. It's urgent, status one encrypted."

Tony stared around at the milling crowd and took off into the air above the colonnade.

"Patch her through, Friday," he said, once he was high enough.

"Tony, I wouldn't call you but you need to hear this. I tried to get ahold of Fury first but he's not responding and I don't know how much information I can give out around here without Ross or one of his crew listening in." She snorted. "Listen to me sounding like Happy."

"Well, that's what happens when you've been married for awhile," Tony said. "What is it you want me to hear?"

"I don't even know how to explain it, Tony. I don't know how he got my number. I thought you said he had amnesia."

"Retrograde, trauma induced - are you saying he called you? Did you speak with him?"

"No, he called my private cell while I was in a meeting, I've got the message here, I'm uploading it to Friday now. Tony, he... he sounds, Tony, what the hell happened to him?"

"Can't talk right now, too many people about, I'll listen to the message and get back to you. Give my love to Happy."

"You better get back to me. I don't like this,Tony." Pepper said and hung up.

"Do you want me to play the message?" Friday asked.

A crash sounded below and Tony watched as a car careened through a park heading straight for the delegation. "Later, Friday, first there's work to do." He said heading off toward the vehicle. Stopping one small car wasn't really much for his abilities or pushing the limits of the Ironman suit but it did give him something to focus on instead of the message he didn't want to listen to.

He settled in front of the car and locked his boots to the ground for stability. The car slammed into his legs and he pressed down on the hood to keep it from moving. He looked into the car to see if there was anyone hurt and shut off the engine. There was no one in the vehicle and the front driver’s door was wide open as someone ran from the scene.

The explosion hit him in the chest and he fell back as the car hood turned to shrapnel. Pieces of metal stuck in the chest piece of the suit and his cameras showed nothing but static as Friday tried to reset against the onslaught of debris.

Another bomb sounded behind him. Screams echoed throughout the park and near the hotel. He pushed away from the debris, his viewscreen back in working order.

“Friday, patch into local emergency and send crews here to help with the injured.” He took to the air looking for the location of the second explosion.

On the third floor of the hotel, smoke billowed from several broken windows and fire spewed from the west side.

“And send a message to Vision, I’m going to need back up here.”

“Should I get in touch with Ross as well, he’s going to want --”

“He sent me here to guard the hotel, I’m fucking guarding the hotel Friday. I don’t need a rubber stamp for this.”

He flew off to the building, barely a stone’s throw from the first bomb and entered the third floor. Smoke filled the large room he was in and he scanned for signs of survivors. The ballroom was destroyed with fire spreading along the west corridor and a gaping hole in the middle of the floor.

Tony could hear the screams of people from the next floor down, and further into the hallway. Several bodies were scattered about the room, those closest to where the buffet had been judging by the debris pattern.

His chest behind the wall of metal and his own genius tingled and twitched. Tony didn’t have many nightmares of his time in Afghanistan, those had been replaced by a decade worth of new and ever more awful nightmares of aliens someday descending upon his home and turning it into a wasteland.

He called up a map of the hotel, the blueprints, and overlaid with them with information he’d been given as to where the Summit was to take place. The ballroom on the third floor had nothing to do with the summit, according to the hotel itinerary a comic convention had booked the space. The summit was taking place four hotels away using the underground system connecting the sister hotels to get from one to other.

Tony tried to tap into the Fire suppression system to get rid of the spreading flames and found the hotel had been hacked. The  system wasn’t reporting an issue. Aside from the screams and roar of the fire there wasn’t an alarm to be heard.

“Might as well do this the old fashioned way,” He said, unleashing the fire suppression gear. Ball bearings the size of golf balls popped from his shoulders and along his arms and spread around the room toward the places with the highest heat signatures.

Once nearby the canisters popped and unleashed a sticky foam that covered and smothered the flames. Once the fire was no longer burning and as the smoke cleared, the destruction became clear. He quickly checked for any signs of life in the room, ignored the twinge in his heart when the signs came up empty and shored up the middle of the floor where the bomb had ripped through making sure to maintain integrity until the authorities arrived and assessed the rest of the damage.

He flew out the window and surveyed the front of the hotel. Chaos and panic reigned supreme as people fled the building. The bodyguards were nowhere to be found and he couldn’t see a sign of emergency vehicles or Vision.

He scouted the perimeter of the hotel and tapped into the scanners. Emergency vehicles were being rerouted to the sister hotel to block traffic to ensure the diplomats were able to leave in safety. The bombs were being  reported as hoaxes.

Tony’s guts twisted.

“Rhodey, are you seeing this shit, what the fuck is happening?”

“I’m watching it Tony, but I’m cut off, I can’t access any of the systems. The emergency response systems have been hacked. There aren’t enough first responders on the ground near you to get in touch with.”

“Rhodey, I need backup where the hell is Vision?”

“Ross has him overseeing a project in Canada. I can’t access his communications. I think Ross is interfering.”  

“I need backup Rhodey, something is happening here,” Tony growled. He flew off toward the other hotel in time to see several dark cars speeding away in carefully traffic free areas.

“Friday, are those cars heading to the designated safe houses? Can you tell?”

“Not from this distance Tony, we’re going to need to track them.”

Tony flew closer, he didn’t want to get too far from the bombings, worried he missed something in the debris and was leaving bystanders to fend for themselves. He picked up speed and flew to the front of the caravan?, and sent a burst of tiny GPS trackers along the line of identical cars. They were small enough to land on the cars and fall into the windows to be picked up on clothing or a shoe, with any luck he’d be able to not only track the cars but the diplomats as well.

Friday and James were still working to undo the mess of the hack that had been enacted on the emergency scanners and get the police and ambulances to respond to the bombings by the first hotel.

He backed off the cars, letting them get the lead as they sped away from the chaos downtown. In order to ensure the safety of all of the diplomats and not put them all in one place should an attack happen there were four safety areas set up in case of a catastrophe. At some point the caravan split and the cars stopped following one main line of traffic, some entering the regular flow and others leaving the city entirely.

“Ross is online and he sounds pissed, Tony.”

“Patch him through,” Tony said.

“Tony, what the hell are you doing? Where the hell are you?”

“Dealing with fallout Ross, where the hell is Vision? I need back up.”

“You don’t need anything, Vision is doing his job, why can’t you just follow your orders? You are not required to follow the diplomats, your presence is just calling attention to their exits.”

“What about the first responders, Ross?” Tony asked, watching the dots travel along the map in his GUI.  It all appeared normal, the cars followed the correct routes and he cursed as he hovered above the city.

“What about them? They were dispatched appropriately.”

“Like fuck they were, Ross, there are people dead in the hotel and you’re saying all is fine?”

“You’re job was to cover the exits to make sure the diplomats had a safe exit. Instead you were too busy getting involved in something that didn’t concern you and put people in jeopardy. If any one of those diplomats goes missing it will be on your head, Tony.”

Another bomb exploded behind him sending a cascade of smoke and debris through the air. He  swung around heading back, ignoring the diplomats.

“Tony, I don’t fucking care if the buildings are falling around your ears. Your job is to protect the diplomats! Do not engage in any other activity, that is an order.”

Rage rose in throat like hot, acidic bile hanging up, he screamed at his view screen. Goddamn Ross, fucking god damn all of them.

“HOW THE FUCK WAS ROGERS THIS RIGHT FRIDAY?”

“You got me, Boss, still can’t connect with the emergency services but the explosions are drawing attention.”

Tony reconnected with James. “Tell me you’ve got something.”

“I’m not some hacker, Tony. I can lead men into battle but fixing a city’s emergency response system is more of a Friday or Vision’s gig. Where the fuck do I start, Tony?”

“Can you get through to Vision?”

“Still nothing, I don’t know what the hell Ross is doing there but I can’t reach Vision at all.”

“I need to go back and deal with the fall out, Rhodey. I’m sending you the info on the trackers. Keep an eye on the diplomats, something is fishy but I can’t put my finger on what it is yet.”

He took off back toward the hotel as he had Friday try and scramble the first responders, there was so much chaos below as people ran scared from the hotel and the damage spread out. He’d stopped the fire but the structural damage would continue along with water damage. The third explosion carved a hole in a building two doors down.

Tony flew down through the smoke, Friday switched his screen to highlight survivors and shore up supports to keep debris from crushing anyone. Where he could he deployed his fire suppressants and pushed through the thickest of the carnage.

Minutes ticked by as he worked until he heard something behind him. He spun at the noise, raising his repulsors to see four smoke covered people coming behind him with hands raised.

“Whoa, Ironman, we’re here to help, dude,” a husky voice said behind the grime. Two others came behind them with a makeshift stretcher.

“There are three in that room over there, it should hold up but I can’t guarantee--”

“You go and fix the big shit, we’ve got the people, my buddy is on the corner on the phone, he’s got ambulances on their way but it’s going to take forever with the traffic. Mark where you find people you can’t move.”

“Thank fuck,” he whispered and turned off to finish his scout of the damage. Tony moved in and out of the building; an apartment complex judging by the people he came across and he moved everyone he could find to safer rooms or outside if he trusted he wouldn’t hurt them more in the transfer.

Volunteers outside were cordoning off locations and moving vehicles for responders to get through. The fourth time he came out of the building carrying survivors he heard the sirens and felt the air leave his lungs in relief.

Ross was still trying to get through on his phone he could see the messages piling up in the background and he swiped them away with the middle finger salute.

Once he was sure he was more of a liability than an aide to the arriving fire trucks and ambulances he flew up higher above to survey the damage and had Friday map the entire place while he let his heart settle from his throat.

“How’s it look, Friday?”

“Chaotic but under control, fire and EHS are handling the main sections and police have arrived to help control traffic. The diplomats got away safely.”

“Sure, yeah, that’s good,” Tony panted out. His heart continued to overclock and he could feel sweat bead along his skin.

“I have the message from Pepper’s phone, she’ll want to know you’re safe and what you think of the message,” Friday chimed in and he thanked his genius to program her to pick up on the rising panic attacks.

“Let’s hear it.”

“P-pepper?” Steve’s voice came through thick with something Tony had never heard before. Was Steve crying? “Pepper, did I fuck up? I think I fucked everything up. I’m sorry to call you, but my memory is messed up. I tried to call Tony but the number I had wasn’t in service. Did he change his numbers? Pepper, I need your help. I need to reach him.” He sniffled thickly. “Did Tony leave me? I know you’re his friend first and foremost, I don’t want to put you in the middle of our di-divorce but--”

The message cut off and before Tony could process anything, Friday had reconnected him with Pepper.

“Tony are you okay? News is just starting to filter in about an explosion? What’s going on?”

“HE THINKS WE’RE MARRIED?”