Warnings: this story contains Aftermath of Torture, Past Torture, PTSD and Graphic Depiction of Violence. I'll add some new warnings in the chapter where they're needed.

Prologue: Dead hero

Iron Man was dead.

The weakest and most immoral and annoying part of himself was still there, because Tony Stark was still alive, but he was just an empty shell, a former shadow of the brilliant hero who had protected the Earth and advanced single-handed the human technology. He had fallen, defeated by his own arrogance and impotence. And he wasn't worthy anymore.

A pair of brown eyes opened in a pitch black room, but there weren't any emotions in them.

Those eyes were empty.

The room was so cold it seemed carved in stone. The only thing in the place delimited by those inhospitable four walls was a bucket for when he needed to relieve himself, because, a part from that, his prison was completely empty: they didn't allow him to have a bed, nor a blanket, and without the clothes the cold was unbearable.

He was sitting on the icy floor, with his knees against his chest, careful non to put his weight on his wounds. The weight of the chains, which bound his wrists together and both his arms with the iron collar on his neck, was becoming too much to endure, so he rest his hands on his knees and sighed.

He was always bound like this when he was in that cellar, and only when the guards decided it was time to hurt him again he was freed from those chains, just to be bound with his hands above his head in the torture chamber. He looked down at his wrists, where there was a red circle, a mix of dried blood and open wound, due to his harsh restraints. He brushed it with his fingers, ignoring the familiar suffering that flared with just a simple touch.

The pain was nothing new to him. It had been part of his life, way before than Afghanistan, it had been his faithful companion in his path as Iron Man and now it was the only sensation that differed from a cold numbness.

He shifted, stifling a groan.

His back was healing, and now he could lay down without biting his lips to suppress a scream. That just meant he was about to be taken to another torture session.

He didn't have any means to know how much time he was spending in his little prison, and truthfully he didn't care, but he could guess that he was being tortured every four or five days. It wasn't a real, unbearable torture, like the one Natasha sometimes had spoken about: just the whipping, the beatings, and the little burns when his captors wanted to play with the cigars on his naked arms and shoulder. It wasn't anything that could harm him in a really grave way, even when they were whipping him, they were careful non to tear his skin too much; they didn't even break one of his bones, they didn't use knives or electricity. And they didn't use the water to hurt him, for which he was oddly grateful, since it was the torture that scared him the most, after his experience in Afghanistan.

He grimaced, thinking about his captor.

It seemed that Johann Schmidt wanted him in pain, but not half dead. Covered in bruises but not utterly broken.

Maybe the Nazi was trying to break his will one wound at a time, not noticing he was already cracked; maybe he wanted to scare him, making him submitted to pain before requesting his help into building some weapon. Maybe Schmidt was simply a sadist who enjoyed torturing an enemy without even coming up with a pretext. He didn't really care; not worth looking for an answer.

Occasionally the routine changed: it was Schmidt himself the one who came to his cell with some guards; instead of taking him to the torture chamber, he guided him to a oddly luxurious part of the building. There, Tony didn't experience pain, just surprise. Sometimes he found himself in the dining room, where he could eat a real meal, with clean plates and cutlery, instead of the frowzy food that was brought in his prison only once a day. Other times Schmidt allowed him to have a shower or to shave, little kindnesses that maybe had the goal to make him speak, but actually let him completely indifferent.

In these occasions, his captor tried to interrogate him about the Avengers, and Steve in particular, and about the Arc Reactor; he offered him a room with a bed, instead of a prison, a real bathroom, instead of the bucket, and some clothes, if Tony answered his questions, all in vain. After seeing that this bargain didn't work, Schmidt tried to begin a conversation about many specific subjects, such as the weather, politic, mythology, just hoping for an answer from a man who was famous because of his inability to shut himself up.

But Tony never talked, not even once.

During the tortures he screamed, cried, whimpered for the pain. But his voice had expired with a last curse, yelled like it was a supplication, with his own blood that was suffocating him and the blood of his arrogance's victims that clouded his vision. And it didn't make sense, it wasn't fair that he was still alive.

While the world was wondering where Iron Man was, while the Avengers were looking for their lost companion, while Fury and the S.H.I.E.L.D. were preparing to face a new threat without their most suitable man, Tony Stark closed his eyes and let the weariness and the pain win over his conscience.