In the end, that first encounter with the Winter Soldier left everyone feeling more than a little confused. There did not seem to be a concrete reason why the assassin would retreat. He was outnumbered but it had been clear that he did not seem to be at a disadvantage because of it. So what had prompted the retreat?
It was a sticking point that Steve couldn't stop mulling over. He wondered if it was just wishful thinking that made him feel that it was a little sign of Bucky pushing through the Winter Soldier brainwashing – at the mention of Peggy – that had caused the sudden, illogical retreat. Had the other man felt something was… not quite right? That maybe he was doubting the veracity of his claims and beliefs?
The old Bucky was in there. He was. Steve refused to believe otherwise. He was almost certain that in the coming days, he would be seeing more of the Winter Soldier and he would need to pull it together. It had been quite a miracle in itself that he had walked away from this first encounter uninjured especially when, at the start, he'd been in a state of disbelief at Bucky's memory loss that he hadn't done much more than let trained reflexes react. His limbs had almost locked up the first time Bucky made a strike at him and really, that should not happen again.
Still, the thought of having to face off against Bucky, who currently seemed to have no qualms about killing him, made Steve's insides turn. Bucky was his best friend and though they had sparred in the past, there was never this distance between them. Never this threat that things could turn lethal if he let his guard down just the slightest bit.
He wanted to save Bucky. He had to.
He startled slightly as he turned around to find Tony standing behind him, not having heard the warlock's approach. They had all stopped for the night, and he had wandered a little distance away from the campfire. He had sort of probably, well rather, definitely, been avoiding Peggy because he knew that she would be at once concerned for him and also ready to lecture him about not properly defending himself. He doubted he could escape Peggy for long, but well, he could hold off for a little longer.
"Hi Tony. Is there anything wrong?"
Tony huffed a small laugh. "That should be my line to you. Are you okay?"
"Ye… well, not really. I just, I guess I really hoped that the Winter Soldier wasn't Bucky, or that if he was, he'd remember."
"Well, I'm sorry for that too. But at least he's alive?"
"I know and I'm thankful, but… We'll be seeing more of him."
"Yeah, I'm sure we will," Tony agreed. "Which… leads me to my next point. Steve, you can't. You can't act like that again. You weren't at your best and it was some minor miracle that you didn't get any more injured. Don't order the rest of us to stand aside. I think we all know not to use lethal force. Well, maybe not Clint, but I'm sure he'll listen to you. He's probably just jealous of Natasha and-"
"What?" the warlock protested, completely unabashed of what he'd implied. "You can't tell me you didn't suspect? Even a little? Just remember how she greeted him by name! And he almost smiled back at her despite the situation!"
"I try not to imagine what Bucky does in his spare time, okay?" Steve replied, but was unable from keeping himself from blushing. He just thanked the gods that the light wasn't very good at the moment. "I've… I've walked in on one too many encounters."
That sent Tony into peals of laughter and Steve couldn't help but smile in response. When the warlock finally sobered, there was still a bright twinkle in his eyes. "Well, okay, don't need to be so embarrassed, Steve. But just, don't act like you did today. Promise m- us that."
"Did Peggy send you here?"
"Yes and no. I did want to talk to you but she did ambush me along the way. She may still come find you though. She seems to have a big lecture lined up. Reminds me of Pepper, she does."
"Thanks, Tony. I appreciate it."
It was then Tony's turn to look a little self-conscious. He never took honest, sincere compliments and gratitude well, a fact that Steve now found both endearing and exasperating. Still, Steve was glad that he had friends who truly cared for him.
"I guess I should return to the camp and let Peggy find me. Better to get it over quickly, don't you think?"
"Huh. Usually, I just run from Pepper as much as I can."
"How does that work out for you?"
"Maybe you should try it my way next time."
"And give Pepper a heart attack? Nah."
Days later, they were finally approaching their destination. Up ahead, the HYDRA fortress loomed before them. It was a hulking, forbidding monstrosity constructed out of dark grey stones, situated at the foot of the mountain valley and built into the rocky, partially snow-covered valley side. It looked as unwelcome as the harsh climate of the northern mountain ranges were to visitors, fitting in that HYDRA would not want unsuspecting tourists trampling all over their base of operations. The bleak landscape added to how deserted the place appeared to be but Tony knew that it was all merely an illusion.
Even if HYDRA was extremely incompetent, the amount of damage his little band of travelers had caused the cult organization would not have gone unnoticed. Besides, they'd once employed Natasha's services and even if they'd lost their top spy, Tony did not doubt that they would still have a decent network of spies. This desolated stillness was manufactured, possibly hoping to lull them into a false sense of security. Or HYDRA wanted them to think that the base had been abandoned.
"It's too quiet," Clint muttered, and Tony saw Natasha nod in agreement.
"Keep up your guard. They know we're here," Natasha warned.
In the end, they made it right up to the tightly shut wood and steel gates without encountering a single HYDRA operative. It was highly unusual compared to how the cult had seemed to be desperately throwing obstacles in their way just a few days prior. The most resistance they'd faced was from Nature herself, manifesting in sudden gusts of buffeting winds, that seemed to be warning them against approaching the stronghold, as well as slippery areas of ice. This sudden cessation of activity and resistance gave Tony the feeling that HYDRA had something really sinister planned for them.
Steve and Peggy had started their journey up north because HYDRA had started making noticeable movements. However, despite the number of HYDRA outposts that they had taken out, they had not gotten all that closer to the cult's main objectives. Very little precious information had been left lying around in the smaller bases. Sure, world domination was on the cards but the question right now was how? How did HYDRA plan to do that?
The cult was amassing in numbers and over the past few years, there had been unsolved murders that they now knew were linked to HYDRA. But there did not look like the movements an organization set on domination would take. As far as they could determine, HYDRA did not have very many singularly powerful members, with the exception being the Winter Soldier (though he was used mainly for assassinations) and the wizard Arnim Zola. They were not enough to achieve HYDRA's goals. So what were they not seeing?
"So, do we knock politely or bust the door down?" Clint asked. "'Cause I'm sure they know we're here, either way."
As if in answer to Clint's question, the gates started to creak, opening outwards to reveal an empty and barren courtyard.
"Now, that's not ominous at all," Tony commented with a raised eyebrow. "It's so obviously a trap."
Steve nodded. "But we're still going in anyway. Trap or not, this place was always our objective. Stay alert everyone!"
After they had all passed through the open gates, there was a sudden strong gust of wind that slammed the gates shut behind them. Tony turned around to see a shimmer gloss over the structure and he knew without even needing to delve into his magical senses that they were locked in for the foreseeable future. Not that they were planning on retreating from this juncture. Despite that, there was still no sign of any HYDRA personnel. Instead, the main doors to the fortress swung open as if beckoning them to go further into the black belly of the beast. As there was nowhere else to go but forge on inwards, they got into position, with Steve at point, and then ventured into the waiting darkness.
As soon as the last of them passed the threshold, the doors slammed shut and then flame torches flickered to life. Before them stood what appeared to be a near endless throng of HYDRA operatives and they barred any further advancement into the fortress.
"Well, shit," Tony muttered eloquently.
Then, the fighting began.
It was chaos. The men that HYDRA were throwing at them weren't particularly outstanding fighters, but there were so many of them and only five members on Tony's side. Sooner or later his side was going to tire out and become easy pickings for the HYDRA masses. It was then that Tony detected a wild fluctuation of magical energy emanating from somewhere further inside the compound. His eyes sought out Bruce and they met. Bruce too, had felt that phenomenon. It was even clearer now that HYDRA was deliberately trying to contain and stall them for some reason or another.
Tony took to the air, knowing that it was no longer the time to be cautious about his powers. He cleared a wide swath of enemy men that were surrounding his friends to give them a breather as Bruce hurriedly relayed what they both had just discovered.
"Someone will have to go on ahead to investigate what's happening," Bruce said just as Tony landed again, next to the wizard.
"I'll go," Tony said. "The nature of the energy is Chaos, so I'd be most suitable for that."
"You're not going in alone," Steve said, barreling on with his words before Tony could so much as protest. "There will be other agents further down, I'm sure of that. You'll need support to be able to get as far in as you can. Natasha and I will go with you."
"Steve, you're the only heavy hitter right now, unless…" Tony trailed off. "Bruce?"
While it would be good to have Bruce with him when they got close to the source of the magic, Tony was confident enough in his skills to be able to handle whatever nefarious, arcane scheme that HYDRA had in mind. So if Bruce was on board with staying behind, then…
"I'll be fine with transforming, Tony," Bruce assured him. "If I choose to let it happen, I can control myself. In this situation, I think my magic can take a backseat for now."
"The three of us will be more than enough to hold them all off and prevent them from getting in our way," Clint said with steely conviction.
"Get going," Peggy ordered even as she turned to fire off more arrows at the advancing personnel. "We can handle this."
No sooner had she spoken did Bruce begin his controlled transformation into his hybrid weretiger form. Then Bruce leapt directly into the way of the approaching HYDRA agents and rapidly cleared a path leading towards the other door at the far end of the room. Wordlessly, Tony, Steve and Natasha followed behind, and were out of the door and into the hallway. The door slammed shut again and a loud roar was heard. Tony could imagine Bruce standing guard by the door, daring any of the men to try and get past him to go after them.
"Alright then, let's go," Tony said.
He'd already gotten a lock on the where the chaotic energy was coming from and it was easy to just let his senses guide him along. He could even focus better because with Steve and Natasha flanking him, he knew they had his back and could look out for any incoming threats. Tony was careful, however, to make sure he didn't reflexively start to fly. He was now wary about how often he could use his powers before the damage to his heart would start really affecting him. Without a clear idea on what the magical flux meant, he needed to be careful with expending his powers because he would most certainly need to use them when they finally reached the source.
They had just entered another room when a by-now familiar figure dropped in front of them – the Winter Soldier. Immediately, Steve stepped forward, partially shielding both Tony and Natasha with his body. Tony was glad to note that there was no longer hesitation affecting Steve's posture, no more of that hurt and pain in Steve's stance like in the previous times they'd encountered the assassin, who always seemed to mysteriously withdraw. He didn't doubt that Steve would try to jog the other man's memory but the paladin appeared to be more inclined to knock out his friend-turned-foe and secure him before doing his best to attempt to subvert the brainwashing.
"I've told you before, Captain. I'm not who you think I am."
Steve didn't bother with a rebuttal this time. "You going to stand in my way?"
In lieu of a verbal answer, the assassin lunged forward, weapons drawn. Steve met him halfway with a clang as shield and blade clashed. The paladin shot Tony and Natasha a look, tilting his head slightly to indicate that they should proceed without him.
For all that the Winter Soldier insisted that he had never known Steve, the other man was clearly drawn to Steve in some manner. It was now evident in how the assassin did not even make an attempt to intercept him and Natasha, despite clearly being able to see what they were planning. Had he wanted to, a man of the Winter Soldier's caliber could've done a lot more to try to disable Tony and Natasha before engaging Steve. He was, instead, solely focused on fighting Steve and had barely spared Tony or Natasha more than a passing glance. Tony hoped, for Steve's sake, that they could save Bucky from his brainwashing after all of this was over. Then he was running alongside Natasha, progressing deeper into the fortress and closer to the source of energy.
The further they went, the stronger Tony felt the energies. He knew it wasn't just because he was getting closer to the source. The amount of energy was increasing with time and he was just beginning to be able to identify the other fluctuations of energy. There was a spell at work… a summoning spell?
"Shit. I think it's a summoning spell I'm sensing. Maybe a ritual."
"How far along is it?"
"I can't be sure. This feels very complex. But it's definitely not complete yet."
"We'll need to hurry then," Natasha proclaimed.
"Care to take a ride?" Tony suggested seriously, though he still could not resist adding, "I'll try not to grope."
Flying the both of them would be faster, even if it would aggravate the effects of his curse again. But now that he knew what was happening, time was of the essence so that they could prevent the completion of the summoning. Besides, if they didn't stop it, there was a high chance that they would end up dead anyway.
Natasha responded by looping an arm firmly around his waist. "You wouldn't dare anyway."
"And you would rather grope someone else."
At this juncture, Tony wisely decided to shut up. He looped an arm around Natasha too and started his invocation. Then they were off, speeding down the hallways and heading unerringly towards the source of Chaos magic. He only slowed down when an open doorway came into view, choosing to land the both of them under the cover of some shadows a distance away from the open entryway. From this distance, he knew for certain that he had been right and that a summoning ritual was in progress.
This close to the swirling mass of energy forming, Tony could conclude that it was most definitely an extremely complex summoning ritual and the only person who could possibly be performing it had to be Arnim Zola. It did not take too much conjecture to conclude that, with this level of complexity and the length of time it was taking even for someone as powerful as Zola, a portal to the Underworld was being created for the Red Skull to manifest in the material plane.
Should they succeed, the world as they knew it would be doomed.
"So remind me, which devil does HYDRA worship again?" Tony muttered to Natasha mostly rhetorically.
"The Red Skull," came the prompt reply. "So it really is a summoning ritual."
"Seems like that was their plan all long. HYDRA doesn't just worship the Red Skull and want world domination. They're making it possible for their devil to rule the material plane," he hypothesized. Then after a beat, he added, "So. It looks like I'll need to shut that down."
Natasha looked at him carefully, eyes narrowed. "Tony," she began to say.
"Save it, Natasha. Out of the two of us present, I'm the only one with the means to do anything. Bruce and Peggy are probably too far away to get here in time to help me. I'll need you to tell the rest that the Red Skull might pay a potential visit if things don't go according to plan."
Natasha's lips pursed into a thin, hard line. Tony could tell that she wasn't pleased with what she was hearing but knew that it was the logical course of action. She could stay and help him deal with Zola but on the off-chance that they couldn't stop the summoning, there needed to be a warning given to the rest of their friends. Forewarned is forearmed, after all.
"Don't get killed. I don't want to deal with the aftermath," she warned quietly.
"You can handle Pepper and Rhodey."
"I'm not just talking about them, Tony."
He elected to ignore the implications of that statement. "You don't trust me?"
"I don't trust you to look out for yourself."
"I'm really not planning to die, Natasha. I promise. I'm just saying that anything could happen. Trying to stop a ritual already underway is tricky and while I'm very good, I'm just taking precautions. Don't all of you say I don't take enough precautions normally? This is an improvement!"
Natasha gave him another long searching look, her expression still grim, as if ascertaining the veracity of his statement. "Come back out, Tony."
Then she was off, melting into the shadows, going back the way they came.
Tony smiled slightly, glad that in the end, Natasha still trusted him enough. He was being completely sincere though. He did not have a death wish and he would try his damn hardest to get back out alive. Then the smile slipped off his face as he steeled himself for what he was preparing to do. Right. He couldn't screw this up. The portal should not be opened.
"Alright. Showtime," he muttered to himself.
The fight between him and Bucky had, over time, degenerated into something that required less skill and was more akin to an all-out brawl. Steve had lost his shield to one corner of the room they were in and in the other far reaches of the room, lay a couple of daggers that Bucky had been relieved of. They were mostly throwing punches at each other by this point, though Steve wasn't going to believe that Bucky had run out of hidden knives.
He managed to flip Bucky down on to his back and almost winced in sympathy at the loud thud it made. However, Steve knew better than to let up. Whatever else HYDRA had done to Bucky other than manipulate his memories, it had made Bucky stronger and able to take more punishment than a normal human. Steve followed up by grappling the other man, attempting to pin him down.
"Why… are you fighting me?" he asked. "And only me."
Bucky grunted, trying to throw Steve off. "Orders."
"Really? To focus just on me?"
"…I am following my orders, technically."
There. That was yet another spark of Bucky's personality shining through the brainwashing. HYDRA may have brainwashed Bucky into thinking that he was a loyal soldier to the cult but Bucky had never been one to thoughtlessly follow orders. Authority issues had occasionally reared up when he had still been with the Mainheim army and Steve was hoping that their past few tussles had stirred up enough warning flags in Bucky's head that all wasn't what it seemed to be.
Steve grew more confident that even if it wouldn't be today, a method to break Bucky completely free of the spell HYDRA had used on him would be found eventually. If he had to knock the other man out to facilitate the process, then he would.
Bucky managed to free a hand and produced another knife from somewhere on his person. Steve had no choice but to let Bucky go so that he could flip away to avoid the sharp point of the blade. Bucky used the opportunity to swiftly get back up on his feet, and produced another hidden knife that he held in a readied stance. That left the two of them circling each other warily this time, looking for any gap in the other's guard to take advantage of.
"You were never one to blindly follow orders, Bucky. I'll bet that got you into some trouble with HYDRA too. You know something's not right, don't you?"
The dark-haired man frowned slightly, as if he were mulling over Steve's words and wasn't liking the conclusion he was coming up with.
"I'll bet this wasn't the first time you doubted what they told you. I know you're Bucky, even if you don't remember it now. You've always had a strong will, was stubborn even, and I know whatever they did to you wouldn't have held as well as they'd have liked it," he continued to speak, encouraged by the way that Bucky appeared to be really listening to him now. "You never give up despite overwhelming odds. I always felt you were kind of a hypocrite whenever you lectured me about not getting into situations with the odds stacked against me."
The frown on Bucky's face deepened and his brows furrowed. Slowly, almost as if he were unconscious of the movement, Bucky lowered his knives. Steve did not dare approach yet. Much as he hoped that he'd gotten through to his friend, he could not discount the possibility that it was an act and that the Winter Soldier was still at the forefront rather than Bucky.
Steve had to force himself not to run over to Bucky when the first syllable of his given name slipped out of Bucky's lips. Not once had Bucky called him by his name, not even his surname, since they'd met on opposing sides of the field. It had always been "Captain", so this was either progress or really good acting.
But if it were acting, surely Bucky would've tried it earlier…?
Then he was snapped out of his hopeful musings when he heard metal clatter to the floor. Bucky had abruptly dropped his knives and his hands were now clutching his head. Steve stepped closer immediately, worry overriding any warning instinct.
"Bucky? What's wrong?"
"Ste- No, I'm not… No!" Bucky's fingers dug deeper into his hair, almost as if they were trying to dig through scalp and skull, and his voice was strained.
Unexpectedly, a lithe hand seemed to come out of nowhere from behind Bucky and Steve had to fight against an ingrained instinct to defend his old friend by intercepting. Steve could see a sharp, needle-like point held within Natasha's fingers that was then swiftly jabbed into the side of Bucky's neck. Bucky's eyes widened in surprised and he managed to turn slightly to catch sight of Natasha before his eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled. Natasha caught the unconscious man and carefully slowed his downward momentum and guided him to the floor. Steve was next to them at once.
"I just knocked him out. Don't worry," Natasha assured him.
"Yeah, I know. Just…"
He hurriedly checked over Bucky because he couldn't help himself. He trusted Natasha, really, he did. It was just… It was Bucky and he never thought he'd see Bucky again. Even whilst fighting him, Steve could never get over the fact that this was his friend and the deeply ingrained concern he had for him never really went away.
But he quickly got himself back together. The situation was not over yet. They were still within the belly of HYDRA's base. Natasha had been with Tony and for her to double back alone, it meant that something must have happened.
As if she'd read his mind, Natasha spoke, "Tony figured out that Zola is attempting to summon the Red Skull to the material plane. He wants us to be warned of that possibility, in case his attempt to disrupt the ritual goes wrong."
He was about to protest Natasha's decision to leave Tony alone to handle both Zola and the dissolution of the ritual but realized that there wasn't really any other way to go about doing this. The rest of the team had to be informed of HYDRA's plan and be ready just in case they had to fight HYDRA's patron devil and of the two of them, Tony had a greater chance of properly stopping the ritual.
"Alright," he said instead. "We'll need to get the news to the others. I'll take Bucky, you go on ahead."
"He'll be out for a long while, Steve. But I promise it doesn't have any lasting effects," she said before swiftly disappearing ahead of him.
Steve went to collect his shield and then crouched to pick up Bucky, slinging his friend over his shoulder and adjusting the weight so that he could still have some maneuverability if they were ambushed by HYDRA agents. He thought it was unlikely but it was best to be prepared. He glanced back at the door that led deeper into the fortress and sent a prayer for Tony's safe return before departing through the opposite door.
He wasn't going to accept an outcome that did not have Tony walking out of this alive. HYDRA had taken Bucky from him and he'd been lucky enough to get his friend back alive, but no more. HYDRA was not taking anything more from him.
Tony made no overt attempt to disguise his approach. No other HYDRA agents leaped out at him and it appeared like it was only Zola in the ritual room. The room was covered with sigils and runes, some painstakingly carved into the stone while others were painted on with what looked suspiciously like blood. It was debatable if they were of human or animal origin. There were black candles lit up at several key points on the floor, which held the biggest carving of an inverted pentagram. All in all, it was the perfectly eerie setup to be summoning a big bad devil into the material realm.
"Not interrupting anything, am I?" he said loudly to get Zola's attention.
If the situation weren't so serious, he would've laughed at the way Zola had started and looked up at him with wide, disbelieving eyes from where he had been in the middle of weaving complex hand symbols that made the air before the evil wizard glow in patterns. Even as it were, he still found it funny and couldn't quite suppress a smirk.
"Please, don't be so dreadfully clichéd and attempt to ask how I managed to get down here. Seriously, your idea of security? Really, really bad. All those goons you were throwing at us? Barely any decently tricky booby traps on the way here? Were you even aiming to stall us? Trying to properly summon a greater devil takes quite a lot of time, you know. Did you even do your research?"
Zola sputtered indignantly. "The Winter-"
"Ah yes, HYDRA's prized assassin. You know, I think whatever mind whammy thing you did to the guy is probably starting to wear off or it wasn't nearly as strong as you thought it was. When we encountered him, he didn't even do anything but head straight to take on Steve. He didn't even look in my direction once. What good is a brainwashed assassin who can't follow orders?"
Zola seemed momentarily at a loss for what to say before visibly pulling himself together. "It is of no matter. You alone cannot stop me."
Tony didn't bother waiting for Zola to reply. He stretched his arms out before him, palms facing the nearest point of the inverted pentagram and whipped a bolt of energy at it. To his surprise, a shield flickered to life, deflecting the blast harmlessly away. Huh. He had to give credit to Zola for reacting as fast as he had. Guess the old wizard wasn't one of HYDRA's best assets for nothing. Then he found himself dodging a fireball. Zola had now abandoned advancing the ritual to, instead, focus on eliminating Tony.
The next few minutes passed in a flurry of spells and invocations being exchanged, leaving the ritual in its incomplete stages. Zola, though not a battle-oriented mage, was still proving to be a decent challenge with offensive spells. The other wizard was also doing an impressive job of safely deflecting Tony's blasts away from the important points of the ritual's setup. Clearly, it was important that the summoning ritual go through successfully. It just made Tony all the more determined to prevent that from happening.
Well, if directly pinpointing the pentagram was not having an effect, then he'd just have to do things in a roundabout fashion.
Tony threw a particularly nasty amalgamation of invocations in Zola's direction, which would hopefully hamper him enough to not be able to figure out Tony's actual intentions. He ignored the resulting twinge in his chest due to it. Yeah, he had been sticking to less complex (and hence, less powerful) invocations lately but this was not the time to be worrying about the condition of his heart. Besides, he estimated that he still had ways to go before he really had to worry about overusing his powers.
Taking Zola's cry of pain to be proof of a successful diversion, Tony directed his next eldritch blast up towards the ceiling. Like he had expected, nothing appeared to divert or neutralize his attack. A large crack started winding its way through the stone ceiling and tiny pebbles and dust began to rain down. Tony hit the crack again with another targeted blast and finally, larger pieces of the ceiling began to fall, knocking over several candles and cutting through some of the sigils.
"No!" Zola's voice cried out, an equal mix of denial and fear coloring his voice.
Which… was a little strange. Tony could understand denial, but fear? Not quite. Sure, the Red Skull was probably going to be more than a little pissed but the reason that a ritual was needed to summon the devil in the first place meant that the devil was not powerful enough to get through on his own, probably due to specially targeted wards or the like. That meant that the Red Skull's mental influence would not be toogreat either, so Zola shouldn't sound that fearful of whatever potential punishment.
Then Tony noticed what the other wizard had seen before he had.
Zola had been standing in one of the arms of the inverted pentagram when Tony had first entered the room, now the wizard was backing away from the center of the pentagram. There was a light beginning to glow and pulsate erratically. Then lightning-like sparks began to leap out from the ball of light and Zola flinched even though none of the sparks flew anywhere near him.
Seconds later, Tony was able to fully feel the disordered flow of energy in the room even though he was not actively trying to sense it. As counterintuitive as it may seem, even when harnessing Chaos energy, there was some sort of order to it. The rules weren't as strict but there was still some form of control to using it. This tenuous control was now unraveling. Even so, Tony could not feel a tear forming between the planes when he sharpened his concentration, which meant that the fledging portal was still closed. Closed but destabilizing all the same. He realized that whatever step he had interrupted Zola in, it had been crucial to the stability of the portal and diverting Zola's attention away from completing that step now seemed to not be an entirely good move. But well, he had no way of knowing just what he'd interrupted.
Using his stronger ties to Chaos, Tony attempted to wrestle with the energy gathered in the primitive portal, trying to force it within the appropriate boundaries.
"It's no use," Zola suddenly said. "This ritual is very delicate. There's no salvaging it if any part went awry."
Diverting his attention from the portal for a moment, Tony saw that Zola was now at the doorway of the room. Why did it not surprise Tony that Zola was abandoning the plan now and retreating to safety instead?
"So you're going to run. You guys don't need this base anymore?"
"We have countless others. This fortress no longer matters," Zola replied with a shrug. Then with a wave of his hand, the wizard disappeared, teleporting himself away to safety.
While it irked him to let the enemy in front of him get away, Tony was far more concerned about the portal going unchecked. Despite Zola's words, he was still going to try to control the energy and have it disperse in a manner that wouldn't lead to things going boom. But just to be on the safe side, he was going to have his friends clear out of the fortress first.
He quickly set up a barrier around the ball of light, preventing it from growing any larger while he diverted the rest of his attention to sending a telepathic message. He rarely used this ability, and if done wrongly, it could even damage himself and that was not an outcome that he wanted. He ran through his group of friends to determine who would be best suited to receive a telepathic message from him and not get dangerously distracted when they were likely still in the middle of mopping up all the HYDRA agents.
Hey, Natasha. Just wanted to let you know that the portal's still closed but well, whatever there was of it is getting unstable. Zola escaped and you all need to get out now. I'll be sticking behind to dissipate the portal properly or buy you guys more time if it can't be done.
Tony supposed that he was lucky that this method of transmitting a message was a one-way street. He was sure that Natasha would have choice words for him but he really did not mind not knowing them. Message sent, he turned back to the job at hand. The barrier was still holding, so he took the opportunity to carefully sense and analyze the energies gathered in the room. Zola had said that it was impossible to prevent a disaster from occurring but he was not going to take it as the truth until he had fully analyzed the situation for himself.
His mind whirred as his senses fed him increasing amounts of information about the portal and its energy flux. He could not help but frown once he realized just how big the devastation would be if the portal was left unchecked. Yet the calculations he was making could not seem to completely nullify the portal without some form of collateral damage occurring and even the smallest blast zone would take the entire fortress down with it.
Then his temporary barrier finally lost out to the battering from the portal's energy. Tony had to quickly begin with his best option of siphoning away enough of the portal's energy to reduce the output of the blast should it happen. He worked himself hard, a part of him concentrated on controlling the energies while another part desperately ran through calculations and simulations that changed the way he handled the portal's deterioration. All the while, he ignored the recurring twinge in the vicinity of his chest that was slowly becoming a constant ache. So he was doing all he could do control the deterioration but he was beginning to sense the truth in Zola's words. The best that he could do would be to delay the implosion but it would still happen sooner or later. He could no longer afford any distractions, not even to send another quick message to Natasha to urge his friends away from the fortress if they'd yet to do so.
He really hoped they had.
Steve and Natasha were now back where they'd started and were helping Peggy, Clint and Bruce (still shifted) deal with the remaining members of HYDRA that were still alive or not incapacitated. There had truly been an endless amount of low-ranking agents thrown at them and the sheer number of them in and of itself had given Steve a very uneasy feeling. Because if HYDRA had so many men to spare so thoughtlessly, then just how large was the cult?
It was around this time when, suddenly, he heard Natasha curse with feeling, followed by the sound of choked off cries of pain from the two people she had been dealing with. Steve was not surprised to see the duo unfortunate enough to encounter Natasha lying unmoving, most likely dead, on the floor.
"What's wrong Natasha?" he asked, because that was considered something like an overreaction on Natasha's part.
"The portal's not open but it's destabilized and going to bring down the fortress. Zola has escaped and Tony ordered us to retreat."
"What about him?"
"He said he's going to stay and neutralize the portal. In the worst case scenario, he would be buying us time."
Now, Steve understood just why Natasha had cursed. Because of course Tony would do that, would sacrifice himself so that they could escape. Logically, they should follow what Tony had told them because there was no need for them to perish with the collapse of the portal. But at the moment, he was so, so tempted to ignore logic – at least when applied to just himself – and go after the warlock.
Natasha probably correctly interpreted the look on his face because she added, "Steve, I don't like doing what Tony says as much as you do. But… we have to trust him. He'll come out of this alive."
Reluctantly, Steve nodded. "Right. Let's tell the others."
In his mind, he sent a prayer to the gods, praying for Tony's safe return.
The degradation of the portal was accelerating as time slipped by, almost at a rate faster than a mortal could handle, so it was a good thing that Tony was not an ordinary man. But he had a limiting factor in that his body was weakening as his broad-scale manipulation of the portal's energies involved great use of his warlock abilities as well as a level of concentration and control he rarely used. This was especially exhausting because he had so much riding on the line. In the end though, Tony knew that it was going to come down to how much strain his heart could take before giving out permanently and whether the portal would destabilize completely before that happened.
Perhaps it was the situation at hand but Tony found himself involuntarily recalling some of the thoughts that had gone through his head during the earlier days after he'd been cursed. After repeated failures in finding a permanent cure, he had briefly considered going out in a blaze of glory, refusing to bow to the curse that was now tied to his powers. But now when he found that he was in a situation that could really cause it to happen, Tony realized even more strongly that he truly wanted to live. In the past, he had Rhodey and Pepper. Now, he still had them and had gained even more people whom he cared about.
Steve, a part of his mind whispered.
Yes, Steve. Steven Rogers who had shaken up his life the moment Tony had laid eyes on him and still continued to do so. Tony had been unsure of whether he should initiate a change in his and Steve's friendship. He had not had a serious relationship and taking that step forward was daunting. He didn't know if the paladin was interested so he hadn't wanted to risk it. But things were all beginning to fall into perspective now and he wanted a chance to at least tell Steve.
The chances of his survival at this point were distinctively low, Tony could admit that, but miracles were known to happen.
Decision made, he recalculated for his new resolve. There was still no way for the implosion to not happen, so he shifted his focus to account for impediment of portal decomposition and damage control. Once he had the best result, Tony threw up his hands before him, palms facing the crackling energy ball and then formed the strongest possible barrier. Chaos leapt to his command readily and though there was some interference due to the portal, it did not do much to deter Tony's command over the forces. He made good use of the less rigid properties of Chaos energy, making the barrier strong but able to adapt to contain the fluctuations in the portal's energy output so that it would last close to twice as long as a normal barrier would.
Once everything was in order, Tony began his swift retreat. It was going to be next to impossible for him to make it out of the fortress but if he was a respectable distance away from the portal, he would definitely have an increased chance of survival. He put on a burst of speed, unconsciously activating the invocation that granted him flight.
Agony lanced through him. Then he crashed against the wall, sliding to the ground, gasping for breath.
His last invocation, the invocation that he'd been using so frequently lately that he just hadn't thought about it, was going to be his undoing. The last invocation that fed into the curse which was now fully devouring his heart and with it, his life. Had he the breath, he would probably have laughed at the irony that it was going to be the curse after all that did him in. Tony clutched reflexively at his chest, knowing that the action would do nothing to relieve the pain of dying via cardiac arrest.
His last thought was that he really should've taken a chance with Steve sooner.