Every inch of Tony’s body hurt, but it was nothing compared to the emotional torment that raged inside of him. He felt raw and torn apart. As if it weren’t bad enough that he’d been the cause of so many deaths and had to carry that guilt, the moment he tried to do the right thing the whole world went to Hell. The loss of the Accords, the fights with Rogers and Barnes, the loss of that friendship right along with Clint’s and Natasha’s, Rhodey, finding out that Barnes had been responsible for his parents’ deaths even after all that and Steve had known. He wasn’t sure how any one person was supposed to bear it.
Tony lay on the ground, partially in snow, and stared at the shield Steve had left behind. The cold seeped into the metal that encased him and eased some of the physical pain, not that it mattered. The blood on Tony’s face hadn’t so much dried as it had frozen. He felt drained and exhausted to the point that it surpassed the need to sleep. Despite all the pain, a transcendent kind of numbness had overcome him. He couldn’t even think about getting up, about moving. His suit was fried anyway and surely Steve and Bucky had taken the Quinjet. It wasn’t like there was anywhere he could go.
He’d have to get up eventually, of course. He knew that, in a distant sort of way. He’d probably have to scavenge for parts from what was in the HYDRA base to at least get a message out for a pickup. God, but there would be Hell to pay for this entire, massive clusterfuck. Somehow, he’d have to scrape up the energy to deal with it all, to try and hold things together when they did nothing but fall apart. Tony’s eyes fluttered shut for a moment. He was so tired of the struggle.
He couldn’t be sure how much time had passed since Rogers had left him there, dragging Barnes off with him. Hours, at least. In all honesty, Tony couldn’t even bring himself to care. The sky outside had fallen dark as Tony floated in his half-aware state. He probably had frostbite, now that he thought about it. The Iron Man armor, especially without power, wasn’t exactly insulating. When he first heard the sounds coming from deeper inside the compound, it took Tony a minute to place what they were.
The sounds continued though, and Tony’s sluggish brain eventually registered them as footsteps, several sets. Voices accompanied the footfalls, though Tony couldn’t make out the words or at least was having trouble processing them. His brain felt like it was moving through molasses. He rolled his head to the side, the most movement he’d made since he’d been left alone, to watch in the directions the noises were coming from.
Something inside told him he needed to get up, to move, to go, but Tony couldn’t so much as make his fingers twitch. He couldn’t know who it was that’d found the base and was investigating, but, in the end, he supposed it wasn’t like it really mattered. Tony didn’t have any friends left. All he had were enemies, those who were quicker to turn their backs than to give him a smile. It certainly wasn’t Rhodey or that Spiderkid coming to have tea. Pepper hadn’t talked to him in nearly two weeks and Happy was with her.
Light was the first thing he saw, the blinding beam of a flashlight sweeping over floors and walls. It swept over him, too, and then jerked back to focus on him. The voices were louder, all of a sudden, and then the footsteps picked up in speed. The shadowy shape of a person crouched beside him, the others staying back. Tony couldn’t even say how many there were. Two or twenty, it made no difference to him. He attempted to focus on the person crouched beside him, with moderate success. It occurred to him for the first time that he likely had a concussion.
Goggles and a ski mask were pulled aside to reveal and man’s face framed by a furry hood. His skin was tanned and weathered, his expression grim. He said something that Tony couldn’t make sense of, a foreign language maybe, and then said something to the rest of the group when Tony didn’t respond. Tony felt himself beginning to drift again until a gloved hand on his chin brought him back.
“Tony Stark,” the man said gruffly, his voice heavily accented. “Iron Man.”
Tony could only blink sluggishly at him. The man’s frown deepened. He spoke again to those behind him and Tony let himself slip away even as he felt hands upon his suit, lifting him enough to begin dragging him back into the compound.
Another enemy fell as Bucky and the other Avengers headed deeper into the base. It’d only taken a year for Steve to track down someone able and willing to help with what HYDRA had left in Bucky’s head, a Professor Charles Xavier. Of course, it’d taken months on top of that until they could be sure all of the programming had been removed. Nearly two years in total and yet so much had happened, so much had changed. It seemed like such a short time in his lifespan and yet…
The Avengers were back together, legalized and forgiven of everything that’d happened with the Accords. At least the outside world had forgiven them. The more Bucky learned, the more he realized they would likely never be able to forgive themselves. First and foremost, Tony Stark had never made it back from Siberia. At least, not that anyone could find. The media backlash from his disappearance had been huge.
At first, the popular theory had been that he’d just run off to avoid taking any responsibility for what happened. Those were the sensationalists, though, that were driving that theory. No one with any real authority believed it, though there were some who believed he’d dropped off the radar to help Bucky and Steve hide. As time had passed and the search led by Tony’s friends and associates became more and more frantic even those who doubted had to admit that his disappearance seemed to have a sinister edge. It certainly didn’t help their theory when Steve and Bucky reappeared without Tony accompanying them.
Bucky was already back in cryo by the time the news hit the media, but Steve and T’Challa had immediately headed back to Siberia to search for answers. They’d found drag marks and footprints inside the compound, the signs of some sort of aircraft outside, but that was it. Steve had snuck into Ms. Potts’ home to leave the information where she would find it, but it got them no closer to finding Tony. Four months after his disappearance, the Iron Man armor been dumped outside of Stark Tower. It was beaten to Hell, ripped apart, and covered in blood. Reports confirmed that the blood was Tony’s and there was more present than a human being could survive losing.
A villainess by the name of Madame Masque claimed responsibility for Tony’s death and even released a few short videos of the man himself being tortured. Bucky had looked them up and watched them, driven by some morbid sense of curiosity. Tony’s screams reminded him of his own when he was strapped to the chair back with HYDRA. He hadn’t even been able to finish the first one and it still haunted him if he dwelled on it for too long. He hated going into Steve’s office and seeing the Iron Man helmet, scratched and burnt with shattered eye slits, sitting there on his desk. Steve claimed it was a reminder but it only reminded Bucky of nightmares.
Eventually, though, there was another alien invasion and Steve, right along with his band of misfits, had risen up in Earth’s defense. With the loss of Iron Man still fresh in their minds, the people of the world seemed much more willing to welcome them back. There were more restrictions than there had been before, but the Avengers were still able to run themselves. Since the claim had been announced, Steve’s top priority had been apprehending Madamee Masque.
She was a slippery one, though, and more than happy to fight dirty at the drop of the hat. Every time they’d felt like they were closing in some new emergency would arise and she would slip through their grasp. Bucky knew that Steve, and the rest of the team, too, felt like they had to get her. She’d killed Tony and they hadn’t been able to stop it. Pepper Potts lent them resources for that goal, but would provide nothing else. Rhodes refused to speak to any of them besides Spiderman and occasionally Vision.
The team was in the middle of storming one of Madame Masque’s hideouts, actually. The intel had come from Sharon Carter, who had lost her job over slipping Steve information so regularly but had been appointed to help them when the Avengers had reformed officially. She was very good at her job. Time was of the essence, though, and not a one of them wanted to give Masque a chance to slip away. The others tore through their own opponents even as Bucky pushed deeper and deeper into the base.
He ran into Widow about three levels down, a fierce expression on her face. She jerked her head down the hall even as she kept on moving. Bucky fell in behind her without question. They could clear a lot more ground together and covering each other’s backs.
“Ran into a very helpful guard just a minute ago,” Natasha said by way of explanation, pausing only to throw a punch hard enough to knock her opponent out. “Masque has rooms this way. She keeps everything of importance to her there. It’s the first place she’d go in case of an attack and even if we don’t find her, we could find plenty else of use.”
“Provided we get there before any of it’s destroyed,” Bucky supplied as he gunned down three guards in the hallway ahead without breaking stride.
“Yes. So let’s hurry things along, shall we?”
They fought in tandem, working together to take out anyone they encountered. Bucky may have never known Tony Stark, not really, but that made him no less willing to fight in the name of a good man. He knew that for the others it was more personal, but the only memories Bucky really had of Tony were from the man trying to fight him and take him in…or from the end when Tony was trying to kill him for killing his parents. He could understand the reaction completely but that didn’t make it any more pleasant to deal with.
Natasha indicated a door to the left of the hallway and Bucky covered her as she forced her way in. It was a bedroom, a woman’s judging by the vanity set up against one wall. Baubles and papers covered every surface, the entire room a bit of a mess. The furnishings were all upscale and nicer than anything the average person could afford. It looked like the guard had been telling Natasha the truth.
Neither of them dropped their guard as they began to quickly search the room. Bucky kicked in the two doors in the room, one leading to the bathroom and another to an expansive walk-in closet. Natasha swept the room in her own way, as well, sweeping aside a curtain to rifling through a bookcase in search of clues. She was the one who found the trapdoor clichély placed under a thick rug. The dust inside had been recently disturbed, meaning chances were good Madamee Masque had gone that way. Natasha adjusted her Widow Bites as they peered down into the darkness.
“Someone needs to stay here and guard this room. There’s no telling what secrets she has hidden.”
“You’ll have a better chance of catching her than I would,” Bucky acknowledged, but grabbed Natasha’s arm to stop her before she could disappear through the trap door. “Steve’ll lose it if she manages to get her hands on another one of us.”
Natasha’s eyes glinted sharply.
“She won’t. The only thing she’s gonna get is what she deserves for everything she did to Tony.”
Then Natasha was gone and Bucky almost felt bad for Madame Masque when the Widow caught up with her. Almost. He could still remember the way Tony sounded in that video. She did deserve it.
He turned his attention back to the room at large, glancing at some of the papers scattered around. He couldn’t tell what they were about without actually reading them, but the techs and analysts who worked for the Avengers would take care of that. As soon as the area was cleared, there’d be a cleanup crew to pack up this entire place and take it back to headquarters. Bucky just needed to make sure no goons came in to destroy it before they had the chance. Madame Masque would have an office somewhere in the base, too, but Bucky couldn’t worry about trying to cover all possibilities.
Nothing appeared obviously dangerous as Bucky took his time strolling through the room and looking everything over. There was a wooden box with a glowing stone in the lid that Bucky would bet money was magical, but there wasn’t anything too alarming. He decidedly ignored the blood-crusted bullwhip curled up on the bedside table. He approached the vanity instead, pictures stuck in the edge of the mirror like some scene from a movie about a teenage girl. Bucky’s stomach roiled when he got close enough to notice they were all of Tony. Just how sick was this Madame Masque?
Tony strapped to a table, strung up from the ceiling, sprawled boneless across the floor. In the few where he was looking at the camera, his eyes were nothing like the ones Bucky could only vaguely remember from their brief encounters and the pictures he had seen since coming back. They were listless, unfocussed. If it weren’t for the pain that lined Tony’s face, Bucky could even have believed they were taken after death. There was one where Tony was hanging limply from where his wrists were chained to the ceiling and he was wearing a full three-piece suit, though it was soaked through with blood in several places. Bucky had never even heard of dressing up a captive just to torture them.
One photo in particular jumped out at him from among the rest. It was clearly older, judging by the discoloration of the ink and the wearing at the edges. Bucky almost didn’t recognize Tony in the picture, between how young he was in the photo and the lack of his distinctive facial hair. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen or so, baby fat still clinging to his cheeks. He looked sullen and bored, the complete opposite of the young woman clinging to his arm and beaming happily. Bucky could only assume this was the true face behind Madame Masque. She hadn’t just taken Tony because he was a hero and that irritated her. They had some sort of history.
He moved on after that discovery, checking over the rest of the room and then slipping into the closet. Madame Masque was no minimalist, that was for sure. She had jewelry and clothes and bags and shoes, all meticulously hanging or put away, unlike the state of her actual bedroom. It took Bucky longer than he cared to admit to realize that there was a section of the closet that wasn’t for her. Men’s shoes and clothes stayed there. They were impeccably cleaned but Bucky was still able to spot a bit of blood inside the lip of one of the shoes. He quickly headed for the bathroom, checking and confirming his suspicions that there were products there meant exclusively for the male gender. He headed back to the closet to see what else he could find even as he activated the switch for their coms. The team tried to keep the coms as clear as possible, but if there was ever a time for an exception, it was now.
“Cap, I think I found something. Can you head to my coordinates?”
There was a grunt as Steve likely took out yet another opponent.
“I’ll be there in less than two minutes. What do you have?”
“Not sure yet, but it’s something I think you should see.”
He didn’t want to say what he thought it meant. If hopes were raised only to be dashed…Steve would get through it but it would take a toll. Despite everything, Tony had been a friend.
“Alright. I’ll be there as fast as a I can.”
“See you soon, Steve-“
A muffled thud had Bucky spinning around with his gun up, aimed at the large armoire next to the door. There was another little shuffling sound and then renewed silence. Bucky stayed still for a long moment before cautiously approaching the cabinet, his gun staying trained on the carved, wooden doors. Metal fingers wrapped around one of the handles and he paused again, listening closely, before he threw the door open. The man inside, chained and bloody, cringed away even as Bucky hurriedly lowered his gun and opened the other door.
“Shit!” Then, remembering his coms were still wide open. “I have Stark. He’s alive. God, he’s fucked up but he’s alive.”
There was a clamor over the coms, too much for Bucky to make anything out, but he knew it meant the others would be heading to his location in masse. All but Natasha, most likely, as she continued to hunt down the woman responsible. Bucky pushed the distraction aside in favor of examining Tony more closely. He needed to find a way to get him out of there without hurting him further.
Tony’d been kept groomed, under the blood that was dried against his skin. His beard and hair were trimmed, his clothes silk pajama bottoms. His arms had been pulled up over his head and cuffed to the ceiling of the small space. Blood was tracking down from where the metal cut into his wrists. He hung there heavily, his weight unsupported by his legs, as if they had just given out on him. There was more blood, lines of it as if from cuts or gashes, though he did not seem to have wounds beneath them. Most worrying was the dark purple coloring of several of Tony’s fingers and most of his hands, the same color showing up again on his feet and toes. Of all things, Steve’s shield, the one he’d dropped and left behind in Siberia, hung on the back wall. It was partially hidden by Tony’s drooping frame, but it was instantly recognizable none the less.
The genius flinched as Bucky reached for him, but didn’t struggle. His eyes still held that dulled, almost dead quality to them that they’d shown in the pictures. He didn’t look at Bucky as the former assassin wrapped an arm around his waist to lift him and take pressure off his arms. His head fell forward, resting on Bucky’s shoulder so that hot puffs of air blew against the skin of his neck.
“You’re gonna be okay,” Bucky told him, though this lack of response was honestly starting to worry the soldier. “The whole team’s here, plus some you wouldn’t have met. You’re going home. You’re safe now.”
Still nothing, but Bucky just lifted the smaller man up a bit more, frowning at how light he was. A hand run down Tony’s side revealed ribs pressed out against the skin. He was dangerously underweight. Leaving that for later, Bucky reached up with his metal hand to examine the shackles around Tony’s wrists. They were of a thick, heavy metal and the chaffed and cracked skin peaked out from either side. The chain in between them was short, too, barely long enough to attach to the ceiling of the armoire with two links on either side. There was no way Bucky would be able to get them off one-handed without causing Tony more pain.
Footsteps in the bedroom had Bucky drawing his gun again and making sure he was between Tony and the door. It wasn’t hard, considering the armoire was tucked to the side of it and all Bucky had to do was lean sideways to get a view into the bedroom. Steve was hurrying toward him, his expression such a mix of emotions that not even Bucky could identify them all. Bucky beckoned him closer.
“He’s cuffed to the top of this thing. I need you to get the cuffs off while I lift him.”
Hope shined in Steve’s eyes as he crossed into the closet and finally came into view of Tony. That’s when the screaming started.