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Debts

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Later, T'Challa would remember it like a blur. He couldn’t say if he screamed or not, nor if he gestured. He did remember running, and the awful realization that, though he tried with all his might, he wouldn’t make it in time. The helplessness he felt, that shiver of it, was something that was shocking in its darkness, because for all that T'Challa had fought, for all he had struggled, for all he had learned, and for all he had gained, he was still too slow.

BOOM. Just that. A thunderous boom and T'Challa's world changed.

T'Challa was carelessly tossed by the blast, in the opposite direction he was running. It felt careless, like a second thought, or at least he perceived it as such. The Black Panther would land on his feet, of that there could be no doubt, but what of his father? His father. T'Challa felt cold.

He rolled to his feet, wanting to see for himself, and at the same time dreading it. Taking a deep breath, preparing for the worst, still unclear if he’d be able to handle it, he blinked dust out of his eyes and looked. He frowned, not understanding. There, in his father’s place, stood Iron Man.

Where was his father? He clearly remembered looking at his father on the speaker’s podium. He could describe his exact expression; he could repeat his last word. His father didn’t have time to get away. Did Iron Man have something to do with the explosion? What was going on?

T'Challa took a running leap towards the last place he saw his father.

“Highness,” a weak voice croaked.

T'Challa didn’t have time for it. He headed for Iron Man. Dimly he heard crying, groaning, coughing, and screaming. It, too, was far away.

“Hold on, he might be injured,” the voice said, and this time T'Challa recognized it as Tony Stark’s, and T'Challa paused, confused. “The suit protects him right now, keeps pressure on any lacerations or on any broken bones. It’s better if we wait for the EMTs.”

Stark’s voice, now that the ringing in his ears became more manageable, was not coming from the suit. But how? And why?

The suit.

It was a suit. A resistant, metal suit. A suit in which anybody could become incased. Even his… Dare he hope?

T'Challa looked around the room, searching desperately for Tony Stark's familiar figure, so he might get some answers. In itself, the fact that T'Challa needed to search for Mr. Stark and couldn’t simply follow his voice, was telling. Resolved to focus better, T'Challa finally found him. He had a bloody gash above his eye, his expensive suit was rumpled, and he was gingerly supporting his weight on a nearby wall, but his eyes were bright and alert. He was thumbing his watch, before he looked down at it.

“What, if anything, do know of his condition?” T'Challa asked brusquely.

“Fry, out loud please,” Stark said with a small understanding smile.

“His Majesty is in good health,” a woman’s voice said. T'Challa exhaled, feeling almost sick with relief. The woman—Fry?—continued, “He is alive, and none of his organs have been damaged. His ulna is broken, as is his tibia in two places. He has several small lacerations on his arms and legs.” T'Challa took a shaky deep breath, and went on listening. “The damage occurred during the blast, when the prioritization of his torso and head that’s programmed in the suit made it impossible for it to cover the area in time. He is currently conscious, though in considerable pain. Would like me to open the faceplate?”

“Yes,” T’Challa ordered, though he distantly realized he wasn’t in the position to order anything to Stark. The man who saved his father. Could it be? T'Challa needed to see it to believe it.

“You heard him,” Stark said, small, reassuring smile in place.

As the Panther God was his witness, if what had been said was true, T'Challa owed Stark a huge debt.

The plate opened, and his father’s face came into view. T'Chaka was his usual calm self, a few beads of sweat were the only thing that betrayed the pain Fry mentioned. Knowing him, he was keeping it at bay with meditation. T'Challa should let him get back to it. And he would, in a minute.

“Father,” T’Challa said, and his voice had never sounded more like a prayer when saying the word as it did then. He spoke slowly in his mother tongue, expressing his immense joy and relief at seeing his father alive. “I’m glad you are yet with us,” he finished, the last Wakandan word trembling in the air, before fading.

“I too am glad,” his father said, and smiled, before switching to English. “And I am thankful and indebted to Mr. Stark, for the promptness of his answer.”

“We all are,” T'Challa agreed, and turned.

Stark wasn’t there anymore. T'Challa frowned, and scanned the room. It hit him suddenly, that there were more victims. The sounds of pain and horror made themselves known to him once again. And with them, the understanding that they had been attacked, and there were people in need of aid. Which was what Stark—Mr. Stark—was doing. A wave of shame, though not of regret, hit T'Challa. He looked towards his father, who was regarding him with kind eyes, and asked for his permission. T'Challa received it in the form of a tacit nod, and with a last, lingering gaze on the father he almost lost, he headed towards Mr. Stark.

T'Challa reached Mr. Stark in time to prevent the woman he was helping from falling.

“It seems you were right, Mr. Stark,” the woman said, and sighed. She had strips of Mr. Stark's shirt as bandages for a head wound. Blood was slowly sweeping through. “I wasn’t quite ready to stand.” She patted T'Challa arm. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

“You’re going to be fine, Dr. Fonce,” Mr. Stark assured, and helped her sit down, propped against a wall.

Dr. Fonce rolled her eyes. She stopped halfway through and winced. “That was a long time ago, Dr. Stark.” She smiled. “I’m a representative now. I rarely have to time to dabble in biochemistry and less to entertain new ideas.”

Doctor Stark?! T’Challa was startled, but not completely taken aback.  Of course, Mr. Stark was a genius, but he obviously did not like people to be reminded about his PhD—or PhDs?—when addressing him. Whether that was because he was modest, he didn’t give it much importance, or he wanted other people to underestimate him, one thing was certain, there was more to Mr. Stark than met the eye. 

Mr. Stark brightened. “If you can say all that without stuttering, you'll be just fine.” He winked. “How’s your daughter?” 

Before Fonce could answer, two doctors with the UN insignia, as well as ten security agents came in. By the time the first security agent reached them more were on their way. Mr. Stark stumbled into an upright position, and nodded to the security agent.

“Go right this way, sir,” Gruber, at least according to his uniform, said calmly.

“Sure, right away,” Mr. Stark agreed. “If it helps, according to the public plans for the building, factoring in the approximate speed and the power of the explosion, it shouldn’t have done any real harm to the integrity building, so everybody should be safe. At least until everyone’s out. Be careful, anyway.”  

“Thank you, sir,” Gruber said. “We’ll be careful.”

“Fry,” Mr. Stark said, and suddenly the suit was aloft. It followed Mr. Stark down the hallway, gliding gently.

With Gruber supporting Fonce, T'Challa walked side-by-side with Mr. Stark. T'Challa hesitated in offering his help. He knew it was the sort of custom that differed from person to person, and T'Challa didn’t want to offend Mr. Stark, but he did step closer. When Mr. Stark looked at him questioningly, T'Challa offered his arm. Mr. Stark chuckled and took it.

“Thank you,” T'Challa began. “Wakanda owes you for saving her king, King T'Chaka owes you for saving his life, and I owe you personally for saving my king and father when I could not.”

“Whoa there,” Mr. Stark laughed. “You don’t owe me anything. In fact, nobody owes me anything, but especially you.” He turned to T'Challa, brown eyes sparkling, giving him a playful look. “Around the time of the explosion my eyes landed on a very handsome man. You see, I am known to be easily distracted when I have to listen to speeches; no offense your esteemed father, it seemed like he was sincere, but I usually do more than one thing at a time. And this guy was a knock-out. Absolutely gorgeous.” Mr. Stark smirked at T'Challa removing all doubt as to who he was referring. “When the man looked scared for his father, I called the suit to protect him.” 

T'Challa was a bit surprised by Mr. Stark's declaration, not many people would admit to even half of that, and it took a few seconds for him to say, “Regardless.”

“No way,” Mr. Stark said and snorted. “I didn’t save your father, you did. Wakanda owes you. Your king and father owe you. You, personally, owe you. No need to put me in the middle. Take responsibility for your actions.” Mr. Stark slapped him lightly on the shoulder, and walked forward, back straight, without any help.

While they were talking, they had reached the doors exiting the building, where the press had already gathered. T'Challa blinked. He was aware of his surroundings, of course he was, but to him the journalists were not as important as a sniper, suspiciously placed people, or another sign of attack. However, the presence of the media was clearly relevant to Mr. Stark. T'Challa wondered if that was one of Mr. Stark's eccentricities, or if that was the way T'Challa himself would behave once several years had passed since Wakanda had rejoined the world.

Nonetheless, T'Challa would not let himself fall for a misdirection. He did not know Mr. Stark’s reason for shying away gratitude as he did not seem to be type to be easily overwhelmed, but he obviously didn’t want to be reminded of what he’d done. That was fine; T'Challa only needed to say it once. All that was left was going about paying his debt.

By the time T'Challa reached them with his father, Fonce was already foisted on two EMS personnel, Gruber had been on his way back into the building, but was stopped by the firefighters who were heading in the same direction, the police had cordoned the surroundings off, and Mr. Stark was trying to explain T'Chaka's situation to another pair of EMS personnel who seemed out of their depths. It probably wasn’t helped by Mr. Stark having another conversation with a Fire Captain. It was an admirable reaction time, but no matter how well trained, the most T'Challa could expect was controlled chaos, and he needed to make sure that neither his father, nor Mr. Stark, would be a victim of some unfortunate mistake.

“Pardon me,” T'Challa said, interrupting the activity surrounding Mr. Stark. “What seems to be the problem?”

That seemed to aim their attention on him, and both the closest medical personnel and the Captain started talking at the same time. Mr. Stark smiled mischievously, and held his tongue, taking a small step to the side, wordlessly backing away from the conversation. But he didn’t take his eyes off T'Challa, and to be the focus of his undivided attention made deciphering what was being said harder than usual. T'Challa was familiar with the sensation of another predator evaluating him. It was finally a familiar feeling during a day filled with events that he could not change; he couldn’t even alter. He took comfort in the knowing the dangers the challenge posed, so he straightened, gathered his wits, and focused. Mr. Stark would not smell weakness. T'Challa would persevere.

“I understand that you want the opinion of an engineer,” T'Challa told the Captain. “It is advisable that you should find one who did not take part in the incident. I am sure you have perfectly qualified men. In the meantime, Mr. Stark's opinion is that the building is more or less intact, but, in order to be certain, a second opinion is recommended, since that engineer would probably not be suffering from a recent head wound. As to the data Mr. Stark has in his possession he could upload it easily to your server and he would be freed to receive medical attention.” He kept his voice calm, and he didn’t glare, but he was firm.

Mr. Stark’s smile widened.

“I understand that your EMS system is physician oriented and that you have the necessary training to make sure that my father is in stable condition,” T'Challa said. “However, it also my understanding that he is in such condition, with the possible exception of sedation, and that his getting out of the suit might endanger him as the metal acts like a tourniquet. It might be better if it was done at the near an operating room, leaving the hospital as the preferred option. In the meantime, perhaps you can check over Mr. Stark so we can go.”

“What he said,” Mr. Stark offered, looking amused.

After that, events started unfolding smoothly. Mr. Stark got the green light in about ten minutes. He received four stitches for his head wound, had severely sprained an ankle, bruised a couple of ribs, and had a light concussion. Mr. Stark refused brain imaging, but reported no brain bleeds as scanned by his tech.

While Mr. Stark was with the EMS T'Challa instructed the Dora Milaje to protect their King, secure the ambulance, and prepare to accompany them to the hospital. He also attached six cameras to ambulance, four to the upper corners, one to the back, and one to the front. He verified that they were transmitting to his tablet, and made his way around vehicle just as Mr. Stark was directing Fry to get his father inside, with the Doras hovering tensely around them. In truth, the Doras had had a tough day, and had received the same slap T'Challa did. Their King had been in danger, and they had been caught unawares, so they were more determined than ever to be vigilant.

“He could only be safer encased in vibranium,” Mr. Stark observed. “And vibranium doesn’t breathe as well.”

Teela didn’t comment, which seemed to be what Mr. Stark was expecting, and offered her arm when it was his turn to climb in.

“Thank you,” Mr. Stark said, taken aback.

At first, T'Challa thought that Mr. Stark’s behavior was based upon discrimination, the fact that Teela was a woman. He wouldn’t be the first. Though that made little sense when T'Challa considered that Ms. Potts was the CEO of Stark Industries, and was personally chosen by Mr. Stark. That meant that his surprise lay elsewhere.

“I find your change of heart incredible,” Mr. Stark said, while he continued watching Teela suspiciously.

Ah, it was due to the slight animosity between Wakanda and the Starks. Mr. Stark had admitted his mistake, apologized for it, tried to protect as many people as possible, sent relief, and offered recompense. He did the best he could, and it was a lot better than Wakanda expected, especially considering their experience with foreigners. They were more weary than anything else. As for Howard Stark and his vibranium theft, it did add to the weariness, but it was mostly an issue that had ended with his death.

“You saved our king—l” Teela began, but was interrupted by an exasperated, or frustrated, Mr. Stark.

“That’s enough of that. I got the highlights from the good son over there,” Mr. Stark said, and gestured vaguely to T'Challa.

“Boss, Ms. Romanoff asks if you are alright,” Fry said.

“Tell her I'm in pristine condition, and ask her if she's still in one fiery piece,” Mr. Stark mumbled and by-passed Teela’s hand, before climbing in the ambulance. He stopped after he was in, and addressed Teela, “By my calculations, you should still hate me. Friendly advice? Go back to that.” He sat down, flicking the watch, and activating a hologram.

T'Challa clasped Teela’s shoulder before getting in the ambulance. It was an assurance, both that she had his trust, and that he would try to solve the issue with Mr. Stark. She nodded, and closed the door, while T'Challa took the tablet to keep an eye on the road.

“Is that one of mine?” Mr. Stark asked, sounding bewildered.

“The tablet? Yes,” T'Challa answered without taking his eyes off it. “The cameras, too.”

“Finding out that my tech is used by the Royal Family of the most technologically advanced country in the world does things to my ego.”

T'Challa’s eyes flickered to Mr. Stark long enough to see his dramatic rendering of someone who was impressed. He didn’t have a real reason for it because everything that Stark Industries put on the market was the best, and he definitely knew it. Why, then, would he act like that?

“Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country not only because it produces the best technology, but because most citizens have the best tech.”

“Wouldn’t that make you the richest country?” Mr. Stark asked wryly.

“We are that, too. And the most socially advanced one.”

“That sounds perfect.”

T'Challa glanced at Mr. Stark. “Too perfect?”

Something dinged, and T'Challa tensed.

“It’s me, Your Jumpiness.” Mr. Stark got his phone, two bars that extended vertically connected with a flexible screen, out of his pocket. “What can I say? I’m old school… I like imperfections for anything that includes people. It makes things real.” He pressed on a red alert.

“Once the weaknesses are known they can be avoided, worked around, covered, or even transformed into strength,” T'Challa agreed. “However, consider this: Wakanda is the best compared to other countries, but we have our own problems.”

“Now that makes me feel better.”

They made eye contact: Mr. Stark smirked, and T'Challa's lips twitched into a slight smile.

Mr. Stark looked down, and his smirk froze. “Shit,” he whispered.

T'Challa turned to first to T'Chaka. He was fine, lightly sedated, and aware. They frowned at each other.

“What seems to be the problem?” T'Challa asked.

“I’ve got the results of the facial recognition,” Mr. Stark said. He seemed shaken. “The attacker is Cap's friend—Bucky.” He looked up, and explained, “Steve Rogers and James ‘Bucky’ Barnes, they were best buddies during the Second World War. They were both presumed dead, but whereas one had a super duper serum, the other was a regular human.” He paused. “Or not so much.”

The situation could become complicated if Mr. Stark was emotionally involved.

“Is this going to be a problem for you?”

Mr. Stark chuckled. “Just a huge, blonde one.”

“The Captain.”

“I’ll deal with it,” Mr. Stark said, but he was tense.  “You’ve got other things to worry about.” He glanced at T'Chaka.

“I do have many responsibilities, but one of them is finding the attacker.”

“Since you made such a big deal of it, I figured your father and/or king is the most important one,” Mr. Stark said brightly.

T'Challa nodded calmly. “And his continued safety must be assured.”

“It will be.”

They glared at each other, plastic smiles on both their faces.

“What do you fear?” T'Challa asked outright.

“Uncontrollable variables,” Mr. Stark said, putting his cards on the table. “What about you?”

“Incapable, or unwilling people on the search for this man,” T'Challa answered in kind. He paused, hesitating. “Not getting all the information.”

Mr. Stark smirked, inclining his head, and T'Challa knew it was as close to an admission as he was going to get.

“What are you offering?” Mr. Stark asked bluntly.

“I cannot tactically analyze a situation I do not know,” T'Challa defended.

“C'mon, you’re still going to get involved regardless of the amount information you have.”

“Then help me not make a mistake.”

“How about you offer me something, and I'll think about it,” Mr. Stark shot back.

T'Challa smiled. He would be lying if he said he wasn’t entertained by the rapid fire negotiation. “I offer you something, Mr. Stark, and information is what I'll get. No uncertainty about it.”

“Yes, uncertainty,” Mr. Stark replied. “How do I know you even have something to offer?”

“You have the chance to know a variable.”

“Do I?”

T'Challa realized he got closer to Mr. Stark then he intended.

“Sure you do.”

Mr. Stark studied him, effectively stopping the conversation.

“What were we arguing about?” he asked airily.

“About telling me the whole story,” T'Challa said suspiciously.

“Oh. I thought I was asking what you were offering.” Mr. Stark rolled his eyes. “I even thought you answered me: knowing that you are one of the variables. But, you see, there’s no point in finding out the label of the variable, if it’s uncontrollable. There’s no use in knowing that you're going to be there, if I don’t also know how you're going to behave. And it only increases the number of possible combinations. Long story short, there’s nothing you could offer me.” He watched T'Challa in silence. “Except you leaving this to me.”

“That’s not going to happen, Mr. Stark.”

Mr. Stark waved a hand. “Tony, please.”

T'Challa nodded, easily accepting what was asked. “It’s not going to change my answer, Tony. But please, call me T'Challa.”

“T’Challa, I like my nicknames.”

“I figured.”

“Okay, damage control: what are we talking about here?”

“The way I see it, if you could give me an accurate depiction of the whole picture, I would do my best to bring them alive without collateral victims,” T'Challa proposed.

Mr. Sta—Tony sighed. “What’s your opinion is on impossibility?” He smiled, but it seemed pained. “Steve didn’t sign the Accords because he didn’t like the choice or the responsibility for the team's actions be in other hands. Also, he might have noticed that people have agendas.”

T'Challa was taken aback. “He chose the ostrich's example. I cannot say we're unfamiliar with not wanting to hear what nonsense the world sprouts, and we had our own country—our home—to see to, but even us gave it up eventually. He must know that he cannot do that indeterminately. Today, tomorrow, or next year, his willful ignorance of the facts would catch up with him until not even his fame will be enough to cover his mistakes. The world is a cold place if don’t have a home.”

M—Tony looked at the picture again. “What if a person is his home?”

T'Chaka let out a heavy exhale. It drew T'Challa's attention, and they made eye contact. As they were expecting, the re-entry was difficult. Perhaps they hadn’t planned for this, but they knew it would be strenuous. Remembering all those long talks he had with his father gave him comfort as if it was expected, and so, still under control.   

“The Captain will not stop,” T'Challa said.

“Would you?”

*

There were no complications at the hospital, T’Chaka’s treatment went according to plan, and he was in surgery. The Doras had secured the hospital, and he had run background checks on the medical personnel. Everything checked out. Tony had decided to stay put until he found out the results of the operation, and was outside coordinating with his relief organization, and the authorities.

All was good when T’Challa received a message concerning the whereabouts of the attacker.

“The CIA is as leak-proof as always,” Tony said as he walked in the waiting room.

“It is concerning,” T'Challa agreed.

There was a pause in which they both regarded the door used by the nurse to bring news of how the surgery developed. 

“You can stay with your father,” Tony wheedled.

“I cannot,” T'Challa said. “It is my duty. Especially if it can lead to avoiding someone getting hurt, or losing their lives.”

“There’s no shortage of super-humans and heroes,” Tony said, his voice becoming odd on the last word.

“The same thing applies to you.”

“It does,” Tony admitted.

T'Challa stopped his next words, surprised.

“I’m not going,” Tony said. “The victims are here, and I’m staying with them.”

T'Challa frowned.

“At least until the police has everything under control.” Tony looked down at his phone, pressed a few symbols T'Challa didn’t know. He lifted his eyes. “Don’t get killed, don’t let them get killed, and try not to kill anyone.”