When they found him, they weren’t entirely sure what to expect. HYDRA had captured Tony seven months before from a business trip. It had taken seven painfully long months to locate the missing genius and by that point they were all a little hopeless about what they would find. If they were HYDRA, they wouldn’t have wasted any time in turning Tony into their personal genius, which would mean instant and intense brain washing.
Torture was involved – the cocky bastards had sent them images and videos of Tony being tortured periodically to mock the Avengers. It hurt them on a deeper level to watch Tony get tortured, partially because he was their friend but also because he was still the only civilian on the team; he wasn’t trained for torture. But there he was, on screen over and over again while the Avengers watched, looking for any hint as to where the genius was being kept.
HYDRA had tried to turn him like they had turned Bucky. They didn’t want another super soldier – they turned out to be too much of a risk to control with their superior reflexes and abilities – but they did want a technical genius like Tony who could build them weapons beyond all the others on the market. Because Tony could do that. He could build weapons that were better than every other weapon out there and no one would be able to defeat HYDRA then. It really was the perfect plan, going for brain over brawn, and all they needed to do was brainwash the billionaire. It should have been simple, Tony was a civilian and untrained, breaking him should have been easy and then conditioning him to build weapons for them a breeze since he had spent a solid portion of his life developing weapons.
When the Avengers finally stormed the correct facility, killing everyone in their path with few exceptions, they found Tony in an empty room, crouched in the corner with his knees drawn up to his chest, head down, yanking at his hair in response to all the noise.
“Tony?” said Bucky, kneeling down in front of the captive, setting aside his gun and holding out his hand. “Baby, it’s me, Bucky.”
Tony whimpered and cringed more into himself, the wall, anywhere that was away from the noise.
“Baby, you’re safe,” continued Bucky, inching closer. “But we’ve got to get out of here. We’re outnumbered. Tony, please, look at me.”
“No,” said Tony, his voice broken and scared but firm enough to relay that he wasn’t going to say anything other than no.
“Bucky, we don’t have time,” said Natasha from the door, firing at a guard who peered around the corner. “Just grab him and let’s get out of here. Worry about his mental state after.”
Against his better judgment, Bucky reached out, knowing Natasha was right. It killed him the way Tony was afraid of everyone but he didn’t have time to wheedle consent out of the genius. Instead, Bucky tore off his black jacket and wrapped it around Tony, scooping the genius up and following Natasha out of the cell. He hoped the familiar smell would jog something in Tony’s brain, help the billionaire know that he was safe, but he couldn’t be sure it would work.
The fight out was a blur for Bucky and he wasn’t ashamed to admit that he had been content to just follow the others out and allow them to do the heavy work; his priority was Tony and getting his boyfriend out of that hell hole of a place. It was only when they were on the quinjet flying back to New York that Bucky tuned back into reality and only then it was because Bruce was trying – and failing – to check Tony over for his injuries.
The genius was less than pleased with Bruce trying to touch him, cowering away from the patient doctor and closer to Bucky, who it seemed he had deemed safe, or at least safer than the others.
“Tony, why won’t you let Bruce check you?” asked Bucky softly, looking down at the man he had fallen in love with, the one who had always been strong and stubborn and fearless to the point of being dangerous.
“No,” whispered Tony, shaking his head.
“Will you let one of the other doctors look you over then?” asked Bruce.
“No,” replied Tony.
“May I check you for injuries?” asked Bucky.
“No,” said Tony, though it sounded much softer, less like a no and more like a yes.
“Tony, is Black Sabbath better than Justin Bieber?” asked Bucky.
“No,” said Tony, but again it had that tone to it that made it not sound like a refusal.
“Bruce,” said Bucky over Tony’s head. “I’m pretty sure HYDRA tried to brainwash him. The only problem with that is they probably thought it would be easy since Tony isn’t a soldier and they underestimated the pure stubbornness that I Tony Stark.”
“Tony knew he wouldn’t hold out forever,” said Bruce, suddenly understanding the extent of the damage done to his best friend. “So he focused on something small – saying no. And with all of the trauma he’s experienced his mind has gone into preservation mode.”
“Baby, I’m going to check and see if you’re hurt,” said Bucky in a calm voice, looking down at Tony. “Okay?”
“No,” said Tony, using the tone that meant yes.
“Good,” said Bucky.
The super soldier began checking Tony for injuries, running his hands along the billionaire’s body, noting at cuts, bruises, or sprains the genius had sustained during his absence. It appeared that HYDRA hadn’t been interested in breaking Tony’s bones – if they had damaged his body too much the genius wouldn’t be physically capable of making weapons – and the biggest worry was the malnutrition Tony was suffering from. He was weak and on the verge of starvation.
“Tony, we’ve arrived at the Tower,” said Bucky, still in that calm voice. “We’re going to go inside now. I’m going to carry you so you don’t fall. Then we are going to go to our room and get you cleaned up, okay?”
Tony didn’t respond but he also didn’t protest when Bucky left the quinjet carrying him, so everyone took it as a win. When they were blissfully alone in their shared bedroom, Bucky helped Tony into the bathroom and set him on the counter next to the sink. Tony eyed the bathtub with distrust – he hadn’t been overly fond of it to begin with – but Bucky ignored that in favor of setting the shower running hot and the spray gentle.
“Do you want me to stay or would you rather shower on your own?” asked Bucky.
“No,” said Tony.
“Baby, I don’t know what you mean by that one,” sighed Bucky. “So, I’m going to guess and go with you want me to leave.”
As Bucky took a step towards the door, Tony screeched and threw himself off the counter at Bucky. Bucky caught him easily and settled the man back on the counter, soothingly talking to him again.
“Okay, I’m sorry, I guessed wrong,” said Bucky. “I’m staying, relax. Why don’t we get you out of these things and cleaned up? Then we can go to sleep. Sound good?”
Tony didn’t argue and instead let Bucky bring him under the gentle spray, relaxing minutely when Bucky’s large hands began washing away the dirt, sweat, and general grime that had gathered in Tony’s hair over the last seven months. Painstakingly, the soldier washed his shorter lover until the water ran free of murk. Then he carefully dried Tony off and helped the man limp to bed. After a few tense minutes of frustration on both parts, Bucky finally managed to get Tony to put on a sweatshirt that belonged to the soldier – Tony refused any of his own clothing – and sweat pants that were entirely too big on his emaciated frame but tied up so they wouldn’t slip off.
“Hey Tones,” said Bucky softly when they were laying in bed, Tony all but on top of him in his quest to get closer to his boyfriend. “Think you’re ready to talk?”
“No,” whispered Tony.
“Okay,” said Bucky easily, remembering when he had first come to the Avenger’s Tower and Tony had been the only one to respect his unwillingness to talk at times. The others hadn’t been rude about it but they also hadn’t understood when was the time to push the issue and when they should leave it alone. “Sleep well. I love you. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Tony did not sleep well. He slept horribly. He woke up crying from nightmares, too exhausted to do more than burrow into the warm hallucination that was Bucky, allowing his imagination to comfort him with the conjured words of comfort and reassurance, things that Bucky would say if he was with Tony. But Bucky wasn’t with Tony. Bucky hadn’t come for him.
In those first few days, Tony hadn’t been concerned. The torture wasn’t pleasant but he knew that Bucky would be there soon in his glorious battle armor, striking down the bad guys and looking fine as hell in the process. Then Bucky would take him home, patch him up, and cuddle the shit out of him. Tony might even be able to get to pick the movie for movie night if he looked pathetic enough.
But days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and Tony reached the point where it got too hard to continue making up lies and snarking at his captors. It was too difficult to continue hoping that his friends – his teammates – would come for him. But Bucky, Bucky would, Tony knew Bucky would, if only because Bucky understood what it was like to be turned into something you’re not. So as the others faded with the torture, Tony focused his flagging mind on Bucky and saying no. He kept those two points fixed and the painful reality was more background noise as he retreated into his mind to escape the constant cold and hunger and pain and fear.
Which made this hallucination to strange – Tony couldn’t remember the last time he was warm. HYDRA always kept his cell cold as a form of psychological torment. Hallucination Bucky was fantastic at words but he had never been able to actually warm Tony up.
“You’re safe now,” said Bucky, rubbing one hand up and down Tony’s back under the comforter, the other resting on the back of Tony’s head, keeping the genius’s ear resting over his heart. “I’m so sorry it took so long, but you’re safe, baby. You’re safe, I’ve got you.”
It broke Bucky’s heart to see the man he had fallen in love with, who was always so strong and independent, reduced to the shell of a human that rested in his arms. However, Bucky knew that his Tony was somewhere beneath the surface, hiding away maybe but still there, and he was going to coax him out.
A week later Tony hadn’t ventured out of the bedroom. He was calm enough when Bucky was with him and they were in the familiar setting but the moment Bucky offered to take him to the common room or the lad, Tony would panic and hide in the closet. Eventually, Bucky took to just leaving the door to their bedroom open, a continuous display of the freedom Tony finally had after seven months. Sometimes Tony would look in its direction, sometimes he would inch closer and peer out, but he always hurried back to Bucky.
When Bucky started stepping just outside of the room, Tony was first anxious. In captivity, Bucky had become his only source of comfort and safety and to have the man too far away was disturbing. So when Bucky stepped a few feet out of the room, Tony stood at the doorway looking lost and scared, trying to decide if he would risk getting punished and breaking the illusion he had created by following his pretend boyfriend out of the room. In the end, Tony managed three hesitant steps before a panic attack hit him and Bucky was next to him, coaching him through it on the ground in the hall.
Over the next few weeks, Bucky managed to get Tony all the way to the common room, though Tony clung to him like a baby koala. The genius had made progress, though, and no longer jumped when one of the Avengers entered the floor or joined them on the couch. He was also starting to eat more than just broth, which was all he had been able to stomach in the beginning. Bruce suggested bringing in a therapist but Bucky stanchly refused, knowing his boyfriend well enough to know that a therapist would be a poor idea until Tony had adjusted more. A stranger would just set Tony back.
“Are you hungry?” asked Bucky one afternoon, sitting on the couch with Tony, who was curled into his side like a cat.
“No,” said Tony in that tone that meant yes.
“I’ll get you something to eat,” said Bucky. “I’m thinking we try pizza today. What about you?”
“Bucky,” whispered Tony, looking up at the soldier with eyes that were far more clear than they had been since they rescued Tony nine weeks ago.
“Holy shit,” cursed Bucky, looking back at Tony, who had said his first word beside no since the abduction. “You said my name.”
“Real?” said Tony, unsure of his words.
“Yeah, baby,” said Bucky, laughing and crying just a bit at the same time. “This is real. You’re home, baby, you’re home.”
Tony looked around the common room as though seeing it for the first time. And maybe he was, because when he looked back at Bucky, his eyes were full and he threw his arms around Bucky’s neck.
“I knew you’d come for me,” said Tony softly. “I knew it.”
“Always,” said Bucky, kissing the top of Tony’s head.
“How long was I gone?”
“Seven months, three days, twelve hours, and seventeen minutes,” said Bucky. “We’ve had you here at the tower for nine weeks, though this is the first time you’ve actually spoken.”
“Sorry,” whispered Tony, ducking his head, already exhausted by the interaction.
“Are you kidding?” said Bucky, knowing Tony was feeling guilty for only just managing to snap out of his self-imposed mind prison.
“I thought this was a dream,” admitted Tony. “When it got bad, I pretended you were there – not getting hurt but it helped with everything, to pretend I wasn’t alone. And I thought I finally went mad altogether and imagined up the whole tower.”
“Baby, you’re alive, I don’t care if you thought you were on Mars,” said Bucky.
“Can we argue about me being stupid later? I’m tired.”
“You are many things – annoying, asshole, flirt, genius, sweetheart, caring idiot – but stupid is not one of them.”
Tony closed his eyes against the pure adoration that he could feel radiating off of Bucky and cuddled in closer, allowing Bucky to wrap the blanket more firmly around them in the couch. Tony was still weak, still scarred, still in no condition to face most of the Avengers let alone the world, but he was home, Bucky was holding him for real, and if it was all a dream and he was going to wake up back with HYDRA, well Tony knew that it meant Bucky was one day closer to find him.
“Sleep, Tony,” said Bucky, kissing the top of Tony’s head. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”