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Friday, July 10th, 2009 02:34 pm
Title: Lethewards: Chapter One: Autophobia
Rating: R
Fandom: Marvel - 616
Pairings: Primarily pre-slash Steve/Tony, but with several platonic relationships, as well as references to past relationships and a few minor relationships
Part word count: 7963
Genre: Drama, angst, hurt/comfort, character study
Warnings: These are warnings just this part, seeing as they may change from part to part. Please see this post for overall fic warnings Depiction and talk of mental illness and attempted suicide, at this point, character canon deaths stand.
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters and make no profit from them
General Summary: Tony's in the middle of a breakdown and gets support for an unexpected place.
Thanks: My beta [personal profile] autolobotomysuicide and being absolutely fantastic. [personal profile] jazzypom and [livejournal.com profile] pandanoai for their adivce and beta work, as well as cheer leading. And last but not least, [livejournal.com profile] oddwildflowers for being an amazing cheerleader.
Author's note: Please, please, please see this post for a list of overall fic warnings and for background information/changes from canon.
Thank you so much to everyone who commented on the last part. I'm going to be posting twice a week for sure, but haven't got any set days, because I'm indecisive like that. Thanks again :)
Previous Parts: Prologue



Chapter One:
AUTOPHOBIA



SAMSON: Miss Hill, I'm glad you could come. Please sit down. I'm going to record our conversation if that's all right. This is simply going to be for my personal records.


HILL: That's fine.


SAMSON: All right, now. Before I go speak with Tony, I was hoping to hear your side of the story. I understand you were the one that was with him the days before his disappearance.


HILL: That's right. He was staying with me at the time. It wasn't that long -- only a few days. I'm not sure how much help I can be.


SAMSON: Anything you can tell me will help. How was it that he came to stay with you?



Maria Hill would not have called Tony Stark a friend exactly -- and she wasn't sure he would say that he would call her one either -- but she has certainly gotten to know him over his stint as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their mutual commiserating over Norman Osborn's rise to power. She had seen him push himself to the breaking point plenty of times. She had seen him crack, but never shatter, even though she was certain that he was that close to diving back into the bottle each day she saw him. Yet, he had always managed to hold himself together.

So when she walked into his office to find him covered in blood and bleeding from the wrists, she can't say she was surprised. Startled, yes, but not surprised.

With her old job gone and new ones being hindered by Osborn's damned investigation, she had been forced to take an intelligence job with a private contractor that didn't care too much about their employees' backgrounds. It's not what she would have wanted to be doing, but it paid the bills and at least she was using some of the training S.H.I.E.L.D. had given her.

It was at this new job that she had come across an order placed to Stark International for a variety of things that go boom. She had noticed a mismatch in the number ordered and the number received and, seeing as the missing item was something that goes boom real good and was not the type of thing anyone should ever really let out of their sight, she decided to utilize her connections. While he was no longer CEO, Stark was still held a majority of the the stocks and must have some kind of knowledge of what business the company was doing, so she drove the two hours from D.C. to New York hoping that he was still being let into the staff meeting

"He asked not to be disturbed," Stark's new secretary didn't seem to be intimidated in the slightest -- no doubt she was used to angry government-types yelling at her all the time -- "He has a conference call with the overseas division in ten minutes."

"I don't care what he's doing!" Maria growled, "This is a matter of national security!"

"I'm sorry, may I see your ID again, Miss Hill?" the secretary said calmly, "I was not aware you were working for NSA...or any government agency for that matter."

Maria felt her eyebrow twitch. This scrawny little pencil pusher didn't even blink. She supposed that being able to resist intimidation techniques was one of the requirement for being Stark's assistant.

Maria decided to give up on the civil route. She walked passed the desk and straight toward the oak door labeled: "Anthony E. Stark, Chief Technologist." She ignored the squawking of the girl behind her and opened the door with more force than was necessary.

Maria's stomach leapt. It did whenever she saw blood in great quantities, and there certainly was an abundance covering Stark, his desk, and the floor around him. The dying sunlight was coming in from the floor-to-ceiling windows behind him, casting an orange-red tinge across the room, reflecting off the blood creating some kind of grotesquely beautiful painting.

"Tony?"

He was startled, pale, frightened.

"Maria?" he swallowed hard, "I...I think I need help."

"Call an ambulance!" She yelled at the stunned secretary beside her. Her adrenaline was kicking in. She ran over to Tony, ripping a makeshift bandage from her shirt, "What happened?"

"I-I-" Tony stammered; he was starting to go into shock, "I don't know. Please," he sobbed, "I need help."


---


Of course news that Tony Stark was hospitalized traveled fast. It traveled even faster when some idiot with the need to feel important let it out that Tony had apparently slit his own wrists.

"No, I'm fine...real-- Pep-- Pepper, please, calm down...Pepper --"

Maria had been listening to this one-sided conversation for about fifteen minutes now. She could only imagine what the other side was like.

"No, you don't -- Maria Hill...yes, that Maria Hill... I don't --"

Maria pinched the bridge of her nose, headache creeping its way from the back of her neck to her brow. Once Tony had been admitted (required for cases like this), she had placed calls to his emergency contacts -- Rhodes and Potts (she dully noted to remind him to update the list; He still had Hogan and Rogers on it, plus someone named Cabe whose number was disconnected). Potts had called personally before she had gotten a chance to do it herself, so she was on the phone with Rhodes once more, half listening to the him, half to the voice drifting out of the private hospital room into the hallway.

Rhodes let out a deep sigh, "In the back of my mind, I always figured this was going to happen. I'm pretty sure that's why he gets into the suit half of the time."

"Well then why the hell didn't you help him?" Maria growled into the speaker.

"You don't think I've tried?" Rhodes yelled back, "I've seen that man destroy himself a little everyday since I've met him! I've tried! Pepper's tried! Captain fucking America tried! You can only do some much for someone who doesn't want help."

"He wanted help today..." Maria sighed.

"Yeah..." the fight seemed to have left Rhodes, "Look, I'm not going to be able to get stateside for at least the next two days -- I'm in the middle of something big right now."

Maria knew that "something big" to Rhodes was probably some kind of massive sting on some soviet splinter group and involving an excessive amount of weaponry.

"Is there next of kin I can call?" Maria leaned her head back against the wall.

Rhodes hesitated for a moment, "He has a cousin, but I wouldn't recommend calling him."

"That's it?" her brow wrinkled, "One cousin? Not aunts, uncles...?"

"Not that he's told me about."

"Well, anyone else I can call? His emergency contacts were all either dead, MIA, or you and Potts."

"You could try Henry Hellrung or Carol Danvers," he said after a moment, "Or Hank Pym, but I'm not exactly sure what kind of terms he and Tony are on."

Maria was there the day of Janet Van Dyne's funeral. She made the decision not to call Pym.

"All right. I'll keep you updated on his condition."

"Thanks ."

There was a click on the other end of the line. For the first time, Maria noticed that Tony was silent, apparently off the phone now.

She entered the private room. Tony was sitting up in bed, having placed the cell phone on the bedside table. He was nearly as pale as the bandages around his wrists, making the dark circles under his eyes even more shocking. He looked entirely uncomfortable in the over-sized clothes that had been given to him to replace the ones that had been dyed crimson. He looked to her when she entered and gave her a weak smile.

"What'd Rhodey have to say?" Tony asked half-heartedly, as if he already knew the answer but felt he should ask out of obligation.

"He can't come in for a few days," Maria reported. Tony nodded, "He said I should give Danvers and Hellrung a call."

Tony's face soured, "Carol's probably out on some mission. Henry's probably dealing with zombie Skrull lobsters or something."

Maria raised an eyebrow, "'Zombie Skrull lobsters'?"

"California's got its own kind of weird."

An awkward sort of silence passed between them as Tony avoided looking at her, fiddling with his bandages. It was painful to look at him, but also something morbidly refreshing -- this wasn't Tony Stark, Playboy Billionaire or Tony Stark, Genius Inventor or Tony Stark, Iron Man and Registration Proponent. This was Tony Stark, Fragile Human Being Just Like the Rest of Us. There weren't many people who got to see that side of him.

"You want something to drink?" Maria asked . "I think the cafeteria might still be open. Or vending machines."

"Coffee," he said quickly. Then, as an afterthought, "would be great. Thanks."

"Coffee?" she raised an eyebrow, "If it's decaf. You need sleep."

"I --" he hesitated, as if considering what he was about to say, "I'm okay. I'd...rather stay awake."

Maria's brow furrowed, but she didn't press the matter, or point out that he had just lost two pints of blood and looked like he hadn't slept in a week on top of it.

The halls of the hospital were empty and every other ceiling light was out. She suspected that the place had officially gone into the night shift. Turns out the cafeteria was closed, so she was forced to hunt down a vending machine. She got him a bottle of juice -- juice was good for him, right? That's what they gave you after you donated blood -- and a bottle of water for herself.

As she returned to Tony's room, she heard his voice drifting out into the hallway again.

"It wasn't like that...I don't..."

He was on the phone again, she realized. Even without the Extremis, that man was never disconnected.

"No...shut up! Shut up!"

Maria got to the threshold of the room and hesitated. Tony was sitting with his knees pulled up close to his chest, arms wrapped around them with his head down, shaking all over. And his cell phone was on the bedside table, untouched from the last time she had seen it.

"Tony?"

He stopped trembling, though it took him a visible effort.

"Are you all right?" It was a stupid question, and one she already knew the answer to, but it seemed the best one to ask right now.

"No," Tony choked out after a moment. "No, I'm not."

Maria moved into the room finally, setting the two drinks she had gotten next to the phone on the table. She then sat at the foot of the bed.

"What's the matter?" she asked gently, watching him closely.

He twitched, as if trying to even think of the words was causing him pain.

"I'm going insane," he was still talking into his knees, but she could hear some kind of fear in his voice, like he was admitting it to himself for the first time, making it real. "I can feel it. I can feel myself slipping."

She put a hand on his arm, "We can get you some help. We can --"

It was in his eyes. He had looked up finally and she could see it in his eyes. He had already given up, resigned himself to whatever madness he was going through. And he was scared of it.

"Excuse me," a nurse had appeared at the door way, "I'm sorry, miss, but visiting hours will be ending soon."

Maria gave another glance to Tony.

SAMSON: Why did you sign him out?


HILL: He needed to be with someone. His short list of contacts was getting shorter by the day, so I figured that person would be me.



"He's checking out," she said with her best no-back-talk tone, getting to her feet.

"What?" the nurse blinked.

"What?" Tony had a deer in the headlights look about him.

"He's checking out," Maria stated again.

"Um," the nurse looked over to Tony quickly, then back to the dark-haired woman, "with cases like Mister Stark's, we're required to keep the patient for twenty-four hour observation."

"He'll be under observation," Maria said simply, "So get him the weaver he needs to sign or whatever so he can get out of here."

The nurse hesitated for a moment, then left without another word.

"What are you doing?" Tony's voice was hushed.

"Getting you some help."



---



It wasn't until Tony was sitting in the passenger seat of her car that Maria realized how completely in over her head she was. Yes, she had taken an abnormal psychology class in college, but that was in no way preparation from something like this. The man was obviously in the middle of some kind of mental breakdown and needed to be in the hospital she was currently walking away from, but he had seemed to be immensely uncomfortable there, with people seeing him like this. She opened the door, sparing a glance at him as he once again fiddled with his bandages. She shrugged her coat around her shoulders, the April night nipping at her. Was that how it had gotten this bad? Tony didn't want anyone to know his weakness? Or because there was no one around him to notice?

"Where do you want to stay?" Maria asked, getting into the driver's seat, "My place or yours?"

"Yours," Tony said quickly, "if that's all right."

"Wouldn't have offered if it wasn't," she started the car up, "Where are you staying these days?" When Osborn had taken over the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. he had taken over the Avengers as well, meaning that the Avengers Tower had been given over to him. Tony had actually been kicked out of his own home on top of everything else. "We'll stop by to get some of your stuff first."

"Long Island," he gave her something of an apologetic look, "I can just buy some clothes or something if it's too far out of the way."

It was out of the way. Two hours out of the way, in fact, and considering that they'd be driving back to DC (not even being head of S.H.I.E.L.D. had paid enough to be able to live in New York), it'd add four hours onto the trip.

"It's fine," she reassured him, heading towards the 495 on-ramp.



---



Two hours later, they were pulling up to the Stark Long Island Estate. Maria had seen pictures of it in fluff pieces in magazines, but they hadn't conveyed the true grandeur of the place. It was gated, of course, with a large circular driveway that led to a ridiculously huge mansion, no doubt passed down from one Stark to the next for generations.

She sat back in the seat, taking the sight in. She looked at Tony. He was tense, and seemed like he was in some kind of trance, looking at some shadow of the family history that lingered there. Maria wrinkled her brow -- she had gotten far too poetic since she left S.H.I.E.L.D.

"Tony?" she asked softly.

Tony blinked, coming out of it, "Uh, yeah," he began to dig through his pockets. He pulled out a ring of keys, flipping through them, hands shaking. When he found a particular key, he held it up for Maria to take. "Do you, uh, mind going in for me?"

There was that fear again. He was actually afraid to go into his own home.

"Sure," she said, taking the keys from him, "What, no palm print scanner or robot guards?"

Tony gave a weak smile, "That's the override. There's a suitcase in the hall closet."



---



The house was about how she imagined it. The architecture was classical, but the d├ęcor was a mix of the tacky modern furniture Tony seemed to be so found of and a variety of mismatched chachkes that were no doubt gathered from hundreds of business trips around the world. Finding the hall closet, Maria wrestled with jackets and coats to pull out the suitcase he had mentioned. She rolled it down the hall she assumed led to the bedroom, passing pictures of Tony's parents, old Avengers teams, old friends, and business partners.

The master bedroom was larger than most apartments. She heaved the case onto the king-sized bed, opened it, and began collecting clothes. Tony's closet was bigger and better stocked than her own, and it took her a moment to find something casual amongst all the dress shirts and suits. She folded the clothes quickly and put them in the case, then moved on.

She opened the chest of drawers near the door and began pulling out socks, underwear, and night clothes. As she uncovered the bottom of the drawer, she found a small, velvet jewelery box. She paused for a moment, opening it. The ring was white gold with a large diamond as the focal point and smaller stone inlaid around it. She had to admit, the man had good taste. But who the hell was he going to purpose to?

Maria snapped the box closed and returned it to its place. She finished packing and zipped up the suitcase. Heading back out to the man sitting in the car, it finally struck her how excessively large the house was. It didn't seem like half of the place was even lived in, with only the bedroom and workshop area giving away that the manor wasn't derelict. All of this absurd house was far too large for one person. That probably summed up a lot of things in Stark's life.

Maria rolled the case down the driveway. She could see Tony's figure shadowed in the passenger seat. He looked like he had fallen asleep -- or passed out. She tossed the case into the trunk, then headed to the front of the car. Tony woke with a start as she opened the driver side door.

"You need anything else?" she asked, leaning into the car, her arm on the roof.

"No, no," Tony shook his head, shifting in his chair, "I'm fine."

Maria nodded, sliding into the seat. She buckled herself in and as she started the engine, Tony asked, almost sheepishly:

"Why are you doing this?"

She was silent for a moment as she turned the wheel and drove down the circular driveway, considering his question.

"Because someone needs to," she looked straight ahead, driving back towards New York.



---



They walked into Maria's Georgetown apartment at around four in the morning. At this point, Maria was more or less running on pure "Do not pass out and fall down the stairs" motivation that she had honed working long hours on S.H.I.E.L.D. missions. Her apartment was nothing to look at. She had a treadmill in the corner, a small lounging area, but that was it. She was never actually here often enough to bother making the place feel homey.

"Wow," Tony blinked, taking the place in.

"What?" Maria raised an eyebrow.

"Nothing, it just, reminds me of Steve's place," he gave a sideways grin, "except, you know, less girly."

Maria rolled her eyes. He was making jokes. That was a good sign, wasn't it?

Tony followed her, looking around at the sparse surroundings as they walked. He seemed to be, well, she wanted to say "cheerier," but he still looked more than half-dead, so she settled on more awake.

"When was that taken?" he pointed to one of the few pictures she had actually framed and put up. It was her shaking hands with Nick Fury.

"When I first became a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. He came out and greeted all the new recruits."

Tony said nothing in return. She wasn't even sure he was listening. He may be more "awake," but he was still scattered.

"You can take the bed," Maria said was a tired sigh, rolling the suitcase into the bedroom.

Tony looked startled, "I'm fine with the couch--"

Maria raised a hand, silencing him, "You look like you need a good rest in a nice bed. You'll just have to settle for this one."

Tony smiled weakly. It was painful to look at. "You don't have to do this."

Maria gave him the kindest look she could muster while a voice in the back of her mind wondered loudly what the hell Potts was doing.

"It's nothing," she shrugged, "get some sleep."



---



Tony did not get some sleep. Maria heard him doing...something all throughout the morning hours. At first it sounded like he was going through his suitcase, then he was talking on the phone, then just...pacing, from what she could tell. He was actually avoiding sleep.

She had to call Samson. Hell, she settle with anyone, meta therapist or not.

At around seven, Maria heard a large thud from the bedroom. She listened for a moment, but heard nothing else. She got up from the couch and went to knock on the door.

"Tony?" she called. No answer.

She opened the door. The chair at her desk was tipped over and Tony was on the floor, back against the far wall, looking scared out of his mind.

"What happened?" she half-ran, half-slid to be in front of him. He was looking past her, somewhere on the other side of the room. She spared a glance over her shoulder -- nothing.

"Tony," she put a hand on the side of his face. He looked at her finally, leaning into her touch like an attention-starved cat.

Before she could ask him again, he lunged forward, catching her in a kiss. It was hot and desperate, like the contact was what was keeping him from finally succumbing to whatever it was that had a hold on him.

She pulled away, needing to breathe. The moment the touch broke, he began nipping at her neck.

"Tony," she said again. Besides the fact that she very much did not want to be sexed up by Tony Stark, this whole thing didn't seem...natural. His hand was already up her shirt, cupping her breast, while the other was firm on her back, holding her in place. His touch wasn't caring, loving. It was like he was forcing it, going through the motions, some formula in his head of "This Makes Women Feel Good." He needed something, and it wasn't sex.

She dislodged him from her neck and removed his hand from under her top. She held him by the shoulders just far enough so she could take him in. He looked almost frantic, that fear having returned to him. He tried to get out of her grip, but she held him there. She looked him in the eye.

"You don't have to fuck me to get me to stay."

Tony's expression changed completely. He blinked, apparently surprised.

Maria watched as that surprise turned to...what, she wasn't entirely sure. Happiness? Self-pity? Hope? He covered his face with a hand before doubling over into Maria's lap, sobbing. She held him there, listening to him muttering something, but not able to hear the words.



---



Tony had effectively passed out soon after he began crying into Maria's lap. After half an hour of sitting like that, she decided for the sake of her knees to move him to the bed. He was lighter than she would have thought -- lost a lot of weight she suspected -- and had no trouble with the move.

He didn't sleep long, though. Around noon, he came stumbling out, running a hand through his messed hair. Maria, who hadn't been able to go back to sleep after that, had already been out for a run, taken a shower, eaten, and set in on the work she had brought home with her.

"Morning," Tony said weakly. He paused for a moment, "Afternoon?"

"Afternoon," Maria affirmed, raising to make him an omelet. She didn't ask if he wanted one because he'd probably say no.

"I'm calling Samson today," she said without any preamble. She had her back to him as she was at the stove, but she could tell he wasn't happy with this prospect.

"I'm fine," there was a hint of panic . "Well, I'm not fine, but I can deal with it."

"Oh yes, because you've been doing such a great job so far," Maria snapped, flipping the omelet.

"Maria..." Tony's voice was quiet. She turned to look at him finally. His shoulders were slumped as he looked down at his bandaged wrists.

"You asked me for help," she said more kindly, putting the omelet on plate and taking it to him, "I'm getting you help."

"I don't want you to get help," Tony sounded frustrated, "I just...I want someone to just be there..."

Whatever of her own frustration she might have had in her left at that moment. He was utterly defeated. It seemed to hurt him to have even think about it, much less admitted it.

"Pepper's overseas every other week, Jim's been running around blowing stuff up for years now, no one wants to be seen with me after what happened with the invasion...I don't even have the Avengers any more. I just..."

"Need a friend." Maria finished.

Tony looked up finally. He gave a humorless smile, "Need a friend."

"You need more than a friend, Tony," Maria looked him straight in the eye, hoping to appeal to his reason.

"I..." Tony closed his eyes for a moment, "I think I'd rather start with a friend first."

The rest of the morning was more or less uneventful, save for Tony's shower -- He couldn't get his stitches wet, so it was something of a logic problem to figure out how to get himself clean without getting his hands wet. It was resolved with the somewhat awkward solution of Maria helping him with his hair and him using a loofah on a stick to get the other places (with Maria far, far away from the bathroom at that point).

She had taken the day off to help Tony settle, as well as to just plain figure out what to do with him. Tony had apparently told Potts that whatever business trip she was on was more important than coming back just to see him, so that meant she wouldn't be stateside for at least a week. Rhodes was still two days off himself, so it meant she was going to be Tony's only support for a few days at least, and probably a while after that (she couldn't imagine Rhodes washing Tony's hair for him).

Maria was reviewing the files that had brought her to Tony's office in the first place, when he walked back into the living room, damp but looking decidedly more alive. He came and read over her shoulder for a moment.

"There's a mismatch in the shipment," she told him.

"Yes there is," his brow furrowed, "This was over six months ago. Why has no one investigated it before?"

"That's what I'm trying to figure out," Maria took a sip of her tea, "That's why I came to see you."

Tony sat down beside her, taking the paper from her hands. He stared at it for a moment.

"This is your company? The one you're working for now?" he asked after a moment.

"Yeah," she nodded.

"Have you reported it to anyone?"

"No. If this really is something other than a miscount..."

"You don't want the right people knowing you know." Tony finished for her, "And it's not a miscount. You don't lose track of something like this unless it's a terribly run company, in which case they shouldn't have access to this kind of weaponry in the first place."

"So we're on our own," Maria said flatly, "I mean, there's no way we can take this to Osborn, and no other government agency will trust us as far as they can throw us."

"We need to go to the Avengers," Tony stated, a far off look on his face, "The real Avengers, not Osborn's travesty against heroes."

Maria's eyebrow twitched at the thought, "You think they'll trust us any more than the CIA?"

Tony gave a half-hearted shrug, once again looking very tired, "Who else is there?"

"Well...you have connections. Throw some money around," she offered.

Tony shook his head, "No one will come near me. Besides, even if they did, I don't have anything to throw at them. Osborn's locked all my accounts and got me on an allowance."

"How the hell was he able to do that?" Maria felt a surge of heat in her chest.

"He says that I've been funding domestic terrorists and put a hold on everything pending investigation."

"Domestic terrorists?"

He nodded, "I sent Jarvis to work for the New Avengers and have been paying his wages, plus some."

Maria raised an eyebrow. That at least explained where the butler was, "Why'd you send him away?"

Tony's face was hard to read, "Because they need him more than I do. Plus he's probably better off with them than working for the most hated man in the world."

Maria said nothing in response. She certainly couldn't argue that since the invasion people flat out avoided the once wildly popular billionaire, so there was no point in giving him the hollow comfort of denying it.

"Well then," she said after a moment, "I suppose we'll have to find us some domestic terrorists."



---



It was nearing sunset by the time Maria and Tony were standing outside the brick building in Brooklyn. It wasn't too much to look at, but Maria supposed that was the point. She glanced over to Tony. He looked like he wanted to run away as fast as he could. This would probably be the first time he's really talked to the New Avengers since the day at Central Park. Since Registration, perhaps.

"I'll go in with you," Maria offered.

Tony shook his head, "I think they hate you even more than they hate me. Let me talk to them first."

With that, Tony walked through the brick wall.

HILL: I don't know what they talked about. I just remember him looking as scared as hell to go in there.

It was several minutes before Tony came back out. He was stiff, puffing himself up, trying to look strong.

"They don't want to help, but I figure I can talk to the new Captain America into it. He and I are on speaking terms at least. Problem is, he's out at the moment."

Maria crossed her arms, "We'll wait then."

Tony nodded, "That's what I told them. I asked if you could wait inside but uh..."

Maria nodded herself, knowing she was not welcome in that place, "At least it's a nice night to be out ."

Tony gave an apologetic look, "I can wait with you if you want."

Maria waved a hand, "I'll be all right. You see if you can convince the rest of them to play along."

Tony swallowed hard, apparently not liking that prospect, yet made no protest. He gave a few words of parting, then returned to the hideout.


---

It was one sunset and another twenty minutes before this new Captain America showed up, jumping down from the adjacent rooftop. Maria had only seen footage of him on the news and he didn't seem like much from the shaky, camera phone footage. Now, seeing him literally in living color, he certainly looked the part -- he was well built in the freakish, superhero kind of way, had that same disapproving look on his face that Rogers had given her on many occasions. In terms of appearance, he could almost pass as Rogers in a new, shiny uniform. Almost.

He had his gun on her in seconds . "What are you doing here?"

She held her hands up in surrender . "Stark and I are here looking for some help dealing with some missing bombs. He's inside talking to the others."

He considered her a moment, seeming to weigh the risks of trusting her and of letting the weapons stay missing. He then turned and walked into the apartment. Maria followed.

"What bombs?" the Captain asked the moment he walked in. His entrance caused the Avengers to stir -- Wolverine had been standing by the threshold and Tony, along with Spider-Man and a man Maria recognized as Clint Barton, had been sitting on a couch in the lounging area.

"Stark bombs," Wolverine grunted, following the man into the main area of the apartment.

"Stark bombs?" the Captain raised an eyebrow, looking to Tony.

Tony let out a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. Maria decided to do most of the talking. She explained to them what little they knew at this point. The run down was short, but she could tell that these Avengers were willing to put aside whatever hatred they held towards Tony and herself to help the greater good.

"What else?" the Captain asked, looking over the files.

"Not much," Maria had her arms crossed over her chest, "We wanted to get you in on it before we went any further."

"All right," he nodded, looking up, "I need you -" he pointed at Maria, "-to get me the names of the people who placed the order, who received the order, who over saw the person that placed and received the order, and of any other high ranking officials. A complete roster would be best, but I doubt you'll be able to get it without someone noticing. And you," he turned to Tony now, "Same thing, plus anyone you just generally have a bad feeling about. Then both of you lie low. If this is something big, it could be on both sides of the deal. Don't let on to anyone that you have any suspicions. I'll contact you when I've got anything."

It wasn't exactly the plan Maria wanted to hear, but it seemed to be the best course of action -- Maria and Tony where certainly on a number of watch lists, both official and not, so if they started poking around, someone might notice.



---



Maria had decided that Tony was quite possibly the most pitiful creature she had ever seen. Everyone has that weak side that they wanted desperately to keep hidden from the rest of the world, and too his credit, Tony had been fairly successful at it for a number of years. But everyone had heard about the time he had spent on the street a few years ago after he had fallen off the wagon. Watching the man listlessly pace around her apartment, it became abundantly clear to her that when Tony Stark let that facade of strength and stability slip, it was incredibly hard for him to pick it back up.

"We should be doing something," he muttered.

"You should be sleeping," Maria pretended she didn't feel exactly the same.

Tony's face twisted with frustration and he stopped pacing, "Sleeping won't find those bombs, Maria! Do you have any idea the kind of damage those things can do--?"

"It's not your fault," she said calmly.

Tony paused, looking rather like he felt exposed, "I don't -- It's just, we should be doing something."

"You won't help anyone if you die from exhaustion ."

He looked like he wanted to reply, but said nothing. He started pacing again.

Maria watched him for a moment, "Why are you avoiding sleep?"

Tony's movements stuttered slightly, but he continued to pace, arms crossed over his chest. He was silent. She thought for certain he simply wasn't going to reply until she heard a quiet whisper:

"I've been having nightmares."

"Nightmares?" Maria raised an eyebrow, trying to keep the skepticism out of her voice. It couldn't be that simple.

Tony seemed to sense her doubts, the familiar expression of frustration returning to his face, "They...they weren't just nightmares. I could feel them, smell them..." he trailed off. After a brief silence, he said, again in a hushed voice, "They were horrible, Maria."

Maria got up from where she had been sitting at the kitchen table. She went to Tony, standing in front of him with her hands on his shoulders.

"Let's think about this," she said softly, "I'm not trying to lessen anything that you've been through, just, let's look at it logically: Weird things start to happen when you don't sleep. Things like hallucinations," Tony blinked, then began searching her eyes, "not to mention the fact that you can die from lack of sleep. If you get a good night's rest, you might feel a whole hell of a lot better. It's a good start at the very least."

Tony swallowed, then nodded, "Yeah, yeah, you're right. I've been an idiot."

Maria scowled, "I didn't say that." Even though he had been.

"I know, just," he shook his head, "thinking out loud."

"So does this mean you'll actually go to bed now?"

Tony smiled weakly, "Will, uh," he cleared his throat, unable to look her in the eyes, "will you...be here, when I wake up?"

Maria was taken aback slightly, but smiled gently, "Of course."



---



When Tony finally slept, it was for fifteen hours straight. She kept the bedroom door open so she could see him from the couch. He didn't roll over, didn't toss, didn't turn, he didn't stir at all. He was effectively dead to the world. Maria had made sure he wasn't actually dead, of course, checking his breathing on several occasions.

She had never seen the man so still.

At around hour fourteen, she heard a knock at her window. She jumped, turning to find a red, white, and blue-clad Avenger hanging onto the side of her building.

She went over to the window and opened it. "What happened to doors?" she hissed as she watched him slide into the room.

"Would you have rather had me stand around on your doorstep, waiting to be buzzed in?" he growled back.

He walked over to the kitchen table and set down a thick file folder.

"You're working for terrorists," he stated.

Maria let out a deep sigh. There was a part of her that had been expecting this, "What group?"

"R.O.A.D. -- the Righteous Order of the Almighty Divine. Some splinter group of the fundamentalist anti-mutant group Reverend Stryker started up. Fairly new, hadn't heard of them before, but their network is huge. About half of your company and a good chunk of the list Stark gave me has some kind of affiliation with them."

Maria began flipping through the file, "How have they managed to keep such a low profile?"

"None of them knows who else is in the group. Some cabal at the top keeps a track of the members and gives orders, coordinating things like ordering the bombs."

Maria recognized some of the faces in the file. All of them had seemed fairly normal when she had met them, but she supposed that was the point.

"So where are the bombs?"

"They have a warehouse just outside of Verona, Virginia. That would be our best bet."

Maria wondered briefly how it was possible for this man to have gotten this much information, but then decided it probably involved breaking teeth and extensive illegal background checks.

"When do you head out?" she looked up.

"A-sap," he said sharply, "Where's Stark? He wasn't at his place in Long Island."

Maria motioned toward the open bedroom door.

"What's wrong with him?" the Captain was looking past her. Maria had apparently taken too long to think up the proper words because he raised an eyebrow. "That bad?"

Maria nodded, "He's going to want to come with us no matter the protests against it, so I say let him sleep a little while longer."

The man nodded, "We'll go ahead and take a look at the place. Directions are in the file. Keep in touch."

---

Tony woke up only about forty-five minutes after Captain America left. Maria figured he must have some kind of The World Needs Saving! internal alarm clock. He still looked like he could use another fifteen hours, but the moment he saw the folder, he perked up like a cat that had spotted some string.

She told him what the Captain had told her.

"Let's get going then," he looked at her like it was a wonder they hadn't already left.

"Yeah, yeah," Maria let out a tired sigh, not looking forward to another long drive, "Are you ready for whatever's there?"

Tony gave a fake smile , "Yeah, I feel a lot better."

Maria doubted that. She studied him a moment, then walked into the bedroom and opened her wardrobe. She felt around inside, searching with her fingers, then pulled down the handgun she had hidden in the false top. She checked it over quickly, making sure everything looked like it was in proper working order, then went back into the living room. She handed it to Tony.

"Keep it well hidden until we cross into Virginia. Guns might be legal in the District now, but it's not a good idea to let people know you have one."

Tony blinked, taking the gun from her, "I don't need this,"

"Do you have your armor?" she had a hand on her hip.

Tony looked like he had been punched in the gut. He cursed under his breath, "...forgot the damned armor..."

"Don't feel bad," Maria tried to sound casual, though she knew it was a sign of exactly how far gone he had been, "you had other things on your mind."

That didn't seem to make him feel much better.

"Come on, no use worrying about it now," she tossed his coat at him, "Let's get going."



---



It wasn't so much a "warehouse" as it was a barn in the middle of a field. It was the only building standing for a mile and the only way to it was via a dirt road. It looked abandoned, surrounded by overgrown grass and creeping kudzu vines. Maria parked near the treeline, next to an old, decommissioned S.H.I.E.L.D. transport that Captain America probably got a great deal on. The four Avengers that had been there when Maria and Tony went to the apartment were there, crouching behind the tall grass.

"Someone comes and goes about every thirty minutes," the Captain whispered . "Dropping something off or picking something up. None of them wait around. None of them every cross paths."

"Surprised no one's come snooping before," Wolverine grunted, sniffing the air.

"They could have paid off the local authorities," Barton suggested, "or maybe they're in on it."

"Wouldn't put it pass them," Maria muttered, watching a man leave the barn.

"All right -- Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Stark, you're on look out," Captain America ordered, handing Tony a small comm device, "Ronin, Hill, you're with me."

As soon it was clear, the six of them rushed forward, trying their best to stay low. Once at the building, the spider crawled up the side of the barn, deciding to get a good vantage point from the roof. Tony stayed by the entrance and Wolverine watched the road.

The warehouse was only half-full, but it was half-full with the largest arsenal Maria had seen this side of S.H.I.E.L.D. There were explosives from Stark, guns from Oscorp, ammunition from some Chinese company Maria only had passing acquaintance with, as well as a variety of devices she couldn't place on sight.

"Good God," the Captain lost his composure for a moment, "They're planning a war."

Maria said nothing. It was rather impressive. The rustic exterior gave no hint of what lay within. The entire thing was reinforced with thick walls of lead, completely secure and undetectable. The windows were huge, letting the sunlight shine it. Maria figured they must have had some kind of holographic projector on the panes, in case anyone wanted to peek in. All of this in the middle of nowheresville.

"Where's the money coming from...?" she wondered aloud.

"You said they were anti-mutant?" Ronin was inspecting a crate of hand grenades.

"That's how they started," Captain America replied in a hushed tone, "They're moved on to all metas in general."

"Oh good, they're diversifying..."

"We're not going to be able to do all this in one day," the Captain straightened his posture, "We should head back, do some more recon. See how far this goes--"

The commlink crackled. Maria, who had failed to be given a communication device that the others were using, had to wait for the message to be relayed to her.

"A couple cars coming in at high speed," the Captain told her, heading for the door, "We shouldn't stick around."

He barely had time to finish his sentence when they could hear the growling of the engines and the tires skidding to a stop on the gravel road. Wolverine shouted something. Guns were fired.

They were in an incredibly bad spot for a fire fight, not only because they had no where to run, but because they were surrounded by high explosives. Maria peeked out, seeing two SUV loads of thugs with guns, and realized she had to choose between the rock and the hard place.

She couldn't see Tony, but she could hear him firing off his gun. There was surprisingly little cover out there, so she could only guess that he was hiding by the side of the warehouse.

"How the hell did they know we were here?" Ronin hissed, no doubt missing his bow.

"We'll worry about it later," she could see the gears working in the Captain's head, trying to figure the best plan of action.

He took the shield from his back, "All right, I'll get you some cover," he then addressed Maria directly, "You find Stark. Get him somewhere out of the way."

Maria nodded her understanding. The Avenger ran head first at the thugs, using the shield as cover. Maria and Ronin followed suit, going in opposite directions. Maria scanned the area. Wolverine was down, full of bullet holes that she could see healing. There were a few miss-aimed webs hanging off the roof, but Spider-Man was not in sight -- still on the roof, she decided. She turned the corner of the building and found Tony grappling with two of the thugs, apparently having been jumped from behind.

Maria ran full force and checked one of the men in the face, sending him to the ground. The other one was more prepared and caught her fist as she sent it flying at his head. He let go of Tony, throwing him hard against the side of the barn, then focused his full attention on Maria.

Maria aimed a kick at his torso, but he caught her leg and held it tight against the side of his body. Maria hopped a bit, trying to decide what to do next while bracing herself for whatever her opponent threw at her next.

What she was not expecting -- rather stupidly, she would add as she looked back on it -- was for the first thug to recover so quickly. She only felt the first two hits. She'd be told later that she was shot three times. She vaguely remembered falling to the ground, the two shouting, though the words were lost. They turned their attention back to Tony.


HILL: Obviously, it gets a bit fuzzy after that.

SAMSON: I was told you were in a coma for two weeks due to those injuries.

HILL: That's correct. There were...complications. Stark was already missing by the time I woke up.

SAMSON: All right, thank you, Miss Hill. Is there anything else you would like to add?

HILL: ...This shouldn't have happened.