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Tuesday, July 28th, 2009 09:28 am
Title: Lethewards: Chapter Three: Wayfaring Stranger part III
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: 5689
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 suicide, blood, graphic images, depiction of institutionalization.
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters and make no profit from them
Part Summary: Tony's side of the events in Chapter One
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.
As always, thank you for all the kind comments. New parts Sunday and Tuesday.
As promised, a longer part. Thanks everyone who's kept with me.
Previous Parts: Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two part I part II Chapter Three part I part II



STARK: I started to see people who weren't dead. It was getting hard for me to tell who was real or not. It became a guessing game, really. I'd see someone, say hello, and if they didn't hit me, it was generally a good bet they were real. And it just sort of...went on like that for a while. I...I did okay, you know, in terms of functioning. At least I think I did. Eve-everything's sort of blended together.

SAMSON: Aside from these people, did you you experience anything else?

STARK: [pause] Well, yeah, yeah, I guess you could say that.

SAMSON: What was it?

STARK: Well, it was kind of like phantom pains. Old wounds acting up. Except instead of just acting up, they'd open up.


His office door flying open jarred Tony out of his memories of boarding school and he became aware of his lightheadedness and of the pain at his wrists. He looked down at himself. He was covered in blood.

"Tony?"

He looked up, "Maria?" he swallowed, trying to remember what happened, how he got this way, "I...I think I need help."

"Call an ambulance!" Maria yelled, running over to him. She knelt down in front of him, taking his hands into hers and trying strips of her torn shirt around his bleeding wrists, "What happened?"

"I-I-" Tony had stopped thinking coherently, "I don't know. Please, I need help."

"Just calm down," Maria's voice was strong but gentle, "deep breaths, okay." She lifted his wrists, hoping gravity would help stem the flow, "It'll be all right."

Darkness was starting to creep into the corners of Tony's vision. He could hear Maria's voice, but it was getting further away. Tony knew he should be scared, but he wasn't.

---

Tony was exhausted. He wanted to sleep. He needed to sleep. He remembered that dream, the one of Steve's death and didn't think he could handle it right now.

He rubbed a hand over his face, hoping Maria would return with his coffee soon.

"My God, what a miserable creature you'd turned out to be."

Tony recoiled at the voice. He didn't need to look up to know Howard was standing next to him. Tony pulled his legs in tight to his chest. He felt like he was thirteen again. His father always had that effect on him.

"You thought you'd take the coward's way out?"

"No..."

"You never were able to stand your ground. Always running away."

"Shut up!"

"No son of mine would ever--"

"Shut up!"

"Tony?"

Shit. Maria was back. Tony couldn't bring himself to look up, to see the look she must have on her face. He did his best to calm himself, to make it see like he had some sort of control.

"Are you all right?"

Tony didn't know a question could hurt. She could tell. Of course she could tell, she wasn't stupid or blind.

"No...no I'm not."

Her heard her set down whatever drinks she had gotten, then felt her sit on the foot of the bed.

"What's the matter?"

Tony had to say it. He didn't want to say it. He still held out hope that Reed would find something buried in all those tests, even though it had been three weeks since they had been taken. He wanted anything but to say those three words.

"I'm going insane," his voice broke and he cursed at himself mentally, "I can feel it. I can feel myself slipping."

He felt a hand on his arm and he couldn't tell if it was real. He looked up finally. Maria stopped mid-sentence -- Tony hadn't even been paying attention to what she had been saying; He had learned to tune voices out over the past few weeks.

"Excuse me," a nurse came before Maria could continue, "I'm sorry, miss, but visiting house will be ending soon."

Tony felt something in his stomach squirm. She had to leave. She wouldn't return -- what reason would she have to return? And he's be left here with the peanut gallery, not to mention anyone who found his room number. And then he's have to face whatever was waiting for him at the house--

"He's checking out," Maria's firm voice shook him out of his thoughts.

"What?" Tony focused on Maria, ignoring whoever else might have been in the room.

"He's checking out," she repeated, standing.

Tony watched her. There had to be some kind of catch. Why was Maria Hill bothering with him? She had plenty of other things should could be doing. Why was she even here in the first place?

"What are you doing?" he asked finally.

"Getting you some help."


---


Tony began unpacking his suitcase. He didn't really think he'd be staying that long, but it gave him something to do. Maria seemed to have thrown aside all of his nice clothing and opted for a number of ugly sweaters he had forgotten he owned. He changed from the clothes he had gotten in the hospital into the most decent of the sweaters. The fabric was heavy and uncomfortable on his stitches, but he didn't roll up the sleeves.

He looked around the room for something else he could do. He ignored the looming presence of the queen-sized bed. He decided to look around.

"It's not polite to snoop, Master Stark," Jarvis' voice came from somewhere behind Tony as he started to look around Maria's desk, "We raised you better than that."

Tony ignored him. She hardly had anything in the drawers. It was somewhat disappointing, if only it meant he had no real distraction.

"If you're that interested in the woman, it would be much easier just to speak with her."

"I never did like easy," Tony muttered, having picked up a pen and was currently twirling it in his fingers idly.

"Your wrists would suggest otherwise, sir"

Tony fumbled with the pen. It bounced off the desk and landed on the floor. He stood there, looking at the carpet.

"Do you know how long your mother cried when she saw those scars? And of course she got no sympathy from your father..."

"Okay, all right," Tony turned sharply. Jarvis was gone. Not that he had actually been there in the first place.

Tony ran a hand through his hair. He turned back to the desk, picked up the pen, then sat down. He searched around and found some blank sheets of paper. He began to work on...something. If one could doodle advanced machinery, Tony was doing it.

He went from sitting to pacing. Anything to stay awake, at least until day break. They were always worse at night.

It was when he was sitting and working that he heard her shuffling around the room. Tony ignored her as long as he could, but she said nothing, made no snide comment, nothing to make it clear to him who was there. Tony's self-hating curiosity got the better of him and he turned to look.

He fell out of his chair, caught off-guard by how close she had gotten. It was pure reflex that he got as far from her as he could, because after the initial shock passed, he realized he wasn't really that frightened.

Of course, he knew he should be scared. She was dead. He had held her in his arms as she died. She looked dead -- long dark hair tangled and falling in her face, crimson stains down the front of the white kimono she had been cremated in. She wasn't real. He could smell the blood and ash mixed with her perfume. She bent down and he could feel her hand on his cheek. He could taste her, the same as always but tainted by her own blood as she kissed him, deep and passionately, like she always had. He should be scared, but for that moment, he wanted nothing more than for this demonic shadow of Rumiko to suck him dry.

"Tony?" Maria had come through the open door. He must look absurd right now. She rushed over, kneeling beside him, "What happened?"

Rumiko had moved to the other side of room unnaturally quick the moment Maria had entered her space. Tony could see her glaring unspoken curses at the other woman from near the bed. She wasn't real.

Maria put a hand on Tony's cheek, saying his name again, softly and with compassion that made something inside him ache. She was real. He leaned into that contact. He wanted more of it. He wanted that feeling Rumiko had stirred in him. He wanted that taste, pure and uncorrupted by death. More than anything, he wanted her to stay.

He was on autopilot, only vaguely aware of what the rest of his body was doing. All he knew what that she didn't pull away. She broke the kiss, gasping for air, but she stayed. He had to--

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

Tony blinked. She would-- she was real and she would stay? That didn't make any sense...He found that he didn't care if the logic was faulty. He didn't care that she would leave eventually like all the others. She was here now. She was real and she was here and she would stay.


---


The shower was interesting. Tony had gone off to get clean and was about to step into the water when he remembered the doctor said something about keeping the stitches dry. He stood there a moment, thinking up, then eliminating several different strategies. He eventually decided that some plastic wrap was probably the best approach. He pulled his pants back on, then when back to ask Maria if she had any.

Maria blinked over her cup of coffee, "Plastic wrap?"

"To, you know, make a seal," he held up his wrists.

"It'll hardly be waterproof," Maria set down her mug and got up, going over to a drawer in the kitchen area.

"Well, I figure it'd be better than nothing..."

Maria took out a tube of plastic wrap. She wrestled with it for a bit, then managed to rip a piece free. She wrapped it gingerly, pressing down around the stitches but careful to avoid the wounds themselves. She looked at them for a moment, a rather displeased expression on her face.

"That's for shit," she said finally.

Tony felt something distinctly embarrassed growing inside him. He, quite frankly, needed to bathe, but it was looking like he wouldn't even be able to do that. He was staring down at his ridiculous-looking wrists when Maria made the offer.

"I can help."

"Help?" Tony raised an eyebrow, though still not looking at her directly.

"You know," she waved a hand near her head, "wash your hair. You can...loofah the rest." Her words were staggered a bit, like she was regretting them even before she spoke.

Tony blinked, looking up at her finally, "Are you...sure?"

"Yeah, I--it just...needs to be done, right?"

Tony smiled, though humorously, "It's...really not necessary."

"Yes it is," Maria stated bluntly. As if to soften the comment, she added, "It'll...help you feel human again."

"I think I'm feeling just a bit too human," Tony muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Maria put a hand on his shoulder, "Come on."


Normally being naked with a woman running a hand through his hair would be...enjoyable, to say the least. But sitting in the bathtub, knees drawn close to his chest with Maria washing his hair was far from a turn on.

"We should go to that chili place down the street," Maria attempted at idle conversation.

Tony was well aware of his appearance. If he had to guess, he'd say that he lost around 30 pounds in the past couple months. He probably looked like some kind of ghoul to her. It was her way of not so motherly telling him he needed to fatten up. Tony said nothing in response.

She rinsed the last of the suds from his hair, "All right, done."

"Thank you," Tony told her over his shoulder.

"Yeah," Maria dried her hands, "Call if you need anything." Then she left, closing the door behind her.

Tony didn't move. He let out a deep sigh, realized now how completely pathetic he had become.


---


There was little warning before the SUVs pulled up and thugs came pouring out, guns blazing. Tony ducked around the corner of the warehouse, giving himself some pretty sorry cover, but cover nonetheless.

Tony wasn't used to guns -- avoided them quite frankly -- but his instincts began to take over. He cocked the gun Maria had given him back in the apartment. He looked around the corner, found a likely target, and fired off a couple rounds. The bullets bounced off the door of the SUV -- armored vehicles? -- and that only served to draw attention to himself. Tony ducked behind the wall again, cursing to himself. The adrenaline and extra sleep wasn't enough to shake the creeping feeling coming over him -- the feeling he had gotten used to over the past few months. He took a few deep breaths, then got ready to try again.

He turned the corner, gun pointed at the SUVs. He froze.

James had run out of the barn, shield guarding him from the gun fire -- something Steve had done on occasion. He was right in Tony's line of fire.

It hit him all at once. He was standing on those courthouse steps, pointing a gun at Captain America. The dream that had haunted him for so long was playing out in front of him in living color.

His mind began to swim. Was this actually happening? Or was this just another trick? Did his own mind really hate him that much?

Tony felt someone grab him from behind. Another knocked the gun from his slack fingers. Tony struggled against them out of reflex more than anything. He didn't know what was happening any more. He didn't even really care.

He was vaguely aware when Maria rounded the corner and decked one of the thugs. Things got blurry when the remaining man threw him against the side of the warehouse. But everything became clear when three shots rang out and Maria fell to the grass.

Tony couldn't take his eyes off her limp body, even when the men came for him again and made to drag him off. He fought them, needing to be by her side. He couldn't leave her.

"Whoa, hey now, he doesn't belong to you," Peter jumped down from the roof onto the thugs, "He's ours. Got our names on him and everything."

The moment he was free, Tony ran to Maria. Blood. Check her breathing. Oh God, there was so much blood. Pressure. Apply pressure. There was too much.

Tony looked up. Peter was trying the two men up with his webs.

"Pe--Spider-Man!" Tony called frantically.

Peter looked up from what he was doing, then dashed over.

"Please, Peter," Tony begged softly, "I-I know she's done-- just please. Please help her."

Tony couldn't see the younger man's face through his mask, so he could only imagine what he was thinking about this pathetic man asking him to save the woman who had used his mind as a playground. Whatever might have crossed his mind, Peter didn't let on. He sprayed his webbing across her back and pulled the makeshift bandages tight in an effort to stop, or at least slow down the bleeding.

"Thank you."

"Yeah, okay, just-- stay here," Peter looked around, "Just...don't move."

He jumped back up on the wall and crawled onto the roof, off to be a hero.

Tony looked down at Maria. She was pale from the life spilling out of her. It looked like she was sleeping. He brushed a loose piece of hair from her face.

"I'm sorry..."


---


Maria had gotten out of surgery an hour ago. Something had gone wrong. Tony felt bad for not having paid closer attention to what the doctor had told him, but he had been too transfixed on the pale woman in the bed, tubes and wires coming out of her body. The Avengers told him to go with her, they would take care of everything there. Tony had a feeling they just wanted him gone and out of way. They didn't know what to do with him. He didn't know what to do with himself, honestly.

He watched Maria's chest rise and fall, the only sign she was alive and probably even that was aided by machines. He should call Pepper. Or Rhodey. But he didn't want to bother them any more than he had earlier in the week.

"Are you happy with yourself, Stark?" Maria's voice came from somewhere near the door, "You've done it again."

Tony let out a long sigh. He braced himself.

"You guys aren't even trying any more," he tried to sound like the hallucination had no effect on him, "There's no way you can convince me you're real. She's laying right there."

"There are plenty of possibilities for this," she shrugged, walking over to her body, "Plenty of phenomena that even your precious science as yet to explain. Psychic projections, out of body experiences, signs from God--"

Tony laughed, laughed hard, "Signs from God?"

Maria looked at him blankly, clearly not as amused as him, "After all these years, all you've been through, you still find it hard to believe?"

"No, no," Tony waved a hand, hysterical grin still on his face, "It's just...of all the possible ways for my insanity to have manifested, it had to be religious delusions."

"'Delusions?'" Maria scoffed, "I thought you were supposed to be smart. You've been given the signs all your life and you still can't see."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Tony turned serious, starting to grow angry.

"Exactly what I said," Maria said coolly, "All of this," she waved a hand, "what happened to all of them," this time, a wave in the direction of the hospital bed, "This is your fault. This is what you deserve."

Tony stood, rage filling him, "What I deserve? What the hell could I have done to--"

"It's not what you've done, it's what you're going to do."

Tony stopped, mouth open. He closed it, studying Maria. She nodded as if she were encouraging a child who was trying to solve a difficult problem.

"And you know it, too," she went on, "Deep down, you know it's coming. All that self-loathing you could never exactly explain. You've been punishing yourself for it all these years and didn't even realize. You know it's true."

Tony was quiet, the anger having left him. Something had hit home. His gaze drifted over to the woman in the bed.

"Why..." his voice broke. He swallowed hard, "Why them? Do they deserve this?"

"No," she answered quickly, "the only reason they get hurt is because they have the misfortune of knowing you."

Tony recoiled as if he had been struck. He sat again, fighting down the emotions that threatened to drown him. He was silent far a long while, gathering himself.

"What is it?" he choked out, "What do I do?"

He could her the smirk in her voice, "You're the futurist. Figure it out."


---



Tony wasn't exactly sure how he got back to Long Island. He had to get away from that hospital room, away from everyone, and instinct took over. He was fairly certain he took Maria's car. Someone probably would have stopped him if it hadn't been hers, right?

He shuffled into the dark house. It remained unchanged from when he had last seen it a week ago. He passed the dinning room on the way to the bedroom. Sitting around the table were the original Avengers -- Steve, Bruce, Thor, Jan, and Hank. Tony spared them a glance, swallowing hard has he fell under their gaze. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and kept walking.

"Tony?"

Tony spun on his heel. Hank had gotten up from the table, concerned look on his face.

"Are you all right?"

Tony's voice stalled. He was real?

"Uh," he swallowed again, choking on the dryness there. He put on a fake smile, "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. Just...getting sick, I think."

Hank didn't look entirely convinced.

"What," Tony fumbled to change the subject -- Hank would figure it out, he would know -- "What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be in Canada or something?" He tried to brush it off as a joke.

"The door was open, sorry," the new topic seemed to have phased Hank slightly, "I was looking for the schematics for this project. I remembered having asked you to take a look at it before..." he waved a hand vaguely, "everything happened."

Tony nodded, "Yeah, I remember. I'll get it."

Tony hurried off toward the work area. Hank of all people would figure it out. He would recognize the symptoms wouldn't he? Tony couldn't decide if that was a good or bad thing. He dug through on of this filing cabinets, looking for Hank's project. Once he had it, he hurried back to the blond-haired man.

"Here," he handed the folder to Hank rather quickly, "I didn't really get a chance to look at it. Things came up."

"Yeah," Hank smiled a bit, looking almost bitter but understanding. He looked Tony over for a moment, "Are you sure you're all right?"

Tony himself nodding, " Yeah, it's just...a flu or something. I just need some sleep."

This didn't seem to ease Hank at all, "Some flu..." he muttered, "Do you have anyone to check in on you? You know, if it's that bad."

"Uh, yeah," Tony sputtered, "Rhodey's going to be by soon." Soon as in a couple days, but he didn't need to know that.

"Do you..." Hank seemed to be trying to find the words, "want me to stay until he gets here?" He seemed a bit reluctant.

Tony was caught-off guard. He had been under the impression Hank had made him public enemy number one like everyone else. He searched the other man's eyes. He did want Hank to stay. He wanted anyone to stay. He didn't want to be alone.

People around him got hurt. People around him died. Tony didn't want to hurt Hank any more than he already had. He didn't want Hank to die.

"No," he shook his head, "No, I'll be all right. Thanks. You," he swallowed again, mouth dry, "You probably don't want to stick around if it's contagious. It's...it's a bad one."

Hank nodded slowly, brow still furrowed, "All right. Thanks for the file."

"No problem," Tony tried to smile again, "Any time."

Tony showed Hank out. Tony closed the front door. He stared at it. It was better this way. This way no one else could get hurt.


---


STARK: I knew...I knew they weren't real. I knew the things they said to me, the real people would never say. But...it was what I had always thought in the back of my mind. They...they brought my every fear to living color. Living, breathing, punching color. And I...I just couldn't ignore them. Everything they told me was true and I couldn't ignore them. I had to do what they said.

SAMSON: What'd they tell you do to?

STARK: Fix it. I had to fix what I had did wrong. And I tried. I tried it for a while but...I just couldn't think with all of them yelling at me...

SAMSON: What did you fix? Or try to fix at least?

STARK: I... [pause] it was little things. I couldn't do much because I didn't want to draw attention to myself and have people come looking for me. But, it was small things. When I realized I had my Extremis powers back, I started transferring funds to an account I knew the Avengers used. Small amounts, but enough. And I'd try to mess things up for Osborn where I could. And I, uh, I worked on a new Iron Man. Not for me. I was just making it for someone else, someone who'd be better at it than me.

SAMSON: Did you happen to have anything to do with Steve coming back?

STARK: [pause] Yes.

SAMSON: Mind me asking how you did it?

STARK: I...made a deal

SAMSON: With whom?

STARK: ...I'd rather not say

SAMSON: That's fine. So, that's what you did in the four months you were missing?

STARK: Yes. I... a lot of it was seeing what I was capable of, as well. I knew the parameters of the Extremis when I was first injected, but they had changed.

SAMSON: What did this...testing process involve?

STARK: [pause] Just, you know, seeing what I could take

SAMSON: Were you seeing if it was possible to kill yourself?

STARK: ...Yes

SAMSON: And what did you do when you realized you couldn't?

STARK: [laugh] I tried to get drunk. But that didn't work out either.

SAMSON: What do you mean?

STARK: I mean the Extremis wouldn't let me. It sped up my metabolism, made it so the alcohol would be processed so fast I never actually got drunk. I guess it got tired after a while, because then I just started throwing up.
It's like this...little demon living in the back of my mind robbing me of everything good...

SAMSON: Drinking was good?

STARK: Well, no, but it would have been really nice to have gotten drunk at that point.



---


The room was small and white and just like every other medical facility Tony had ever been in, except with thicker doors and bigger locks. His head was still foggy and his body felt disconnected. He was sitting up on the cot, rubbing his neck idly.

Rhodey was never going to speak to him again, not that he blamed him. Tony had done some horrendously stupid things to Jim in the past, but that had topped them all. At least that meant Jim would probably stay away now, he wouldn't end up dead. It was a small consolation.

The door lurched open and Samson's green-haired head peeked in. He smiled.

"Morning, Tony."

"It's morning?" Tony muttered, mind still churning slowly.

Leonard chuckled, "It is. It's terrible hard to tell time in this place unfortunately."

"It's terribly hard to tell time when you've been knocked out for two days."

Samson didn't reply right away. He set his briefcase down on the rickety table they had put in the rooms, no doubt in hopes to make it feel homey. He opened it.

"Well, I have some good news then" he pulled out a small metal box Tony vaguely recognized somewhere in the back of his mind. Leonard walked over to him, "We had to keep you sedated until we were able to get this made." He opened the box. Inside was a large, smooth, golden ring.

"The dampening anklet," Tony looked at it emotionless.

Samson nodded, "It'll help us isolate exactly what's wrong -- whether it's something brought on by the re-emergence of the Extremis or something else."

Tony said nothing. He offered his leg so Samson could put it on. It was cold on his skin, but there was something different from the last time he had the anklet on. The data streams weren't severed, leaving his mind silent. In fact, Tony noticed for the first time that he hadn't had them at all since he had woken up.

"The sedatives had nanites?"

Samson looked at him over his glasses, apparently not surprised that Tony had figured it out. He nodded, "They did. We weren't sure how fast you would metabolize the sedative, so we put the nanites in there to prevent another incident like what happened with Jim."

Samson went back to his briefcase, "Now, I don't want to rush you into anything," he turned and looked Tony in the eye, "So if you're not ready, I understand completely. But I'm here to help, Tony. If you want to talk, we can talk."

Tony looked at him a moment. He didn't want to talk about it. He just wanted everyone to stay away. But he did want help, even if he didn't deserve it.

"We," he swallowed, "we can talk."

Samson smiled kindly. He nodded and removed from his briefcase a pen, a pad of paper, and a tape recorder. He sat, scribbled something on the paper, and turned the recorder on.

"Okay, since we've never had a true, formal session before, I'm going to ask you a few basic questions. What's your full name?"

"Anthony Edward Stark."

"Do you know the date?"

"September...tenth, twenty-eleven."

"Do you know where you are?"


---


There were no words to describe the rage filling Maria right now. The guard's face was becoming a blur and she could hear the blood pounding in her temples.

"I'm sorry," the guard seemed to be able to see Maria's anger because his voice cracked and he didn't sound nearly as firm as he had a moment before, "No one is allowed to see him without direct permission from Commander Osborn."

Maria found that her voice wouldn't work when she opened her mouth. An extensive string of expletives ran through her mind but it seemed like her vocal cords couldn't keep up and stalled out.

A hand appeared on her shoulder.

"Come on," Potts' voice was quiet, "We can work this out later."

Maria looked away from the guard finally. Potts had been crying quietly the entire ride to the negative zone prison gate. Her eyes were puffy and her nose was red, but she looked almost serene. She gave a weak, defeated smile.

"Let's just go."

Maria gave one last glare to the guard, then turned and began walking without a word.

"H-" Pepper cleared her throat, breaking the silence that had fallen over them on the way back, "How did he look at least? The stuff on the news was horrible..."

Pepper hadn't gotten a chance to see Tony before Osborn and his press team swept him away to 42. Maria glanced over to the red-head.

"He looked..." half-dead, like he hadn't eaten in weeks, like a survivor from some kind of horror movie, "sick, but not too bad."

Pepper smiled like she knew Maria was lying, but said nothing. She was looking down at the tissues in her hands like they held the real answer.

"I'll call Osborn later," Pepper said after a minute, "see if he can get us in."

"All right," Maria nodded, trying to sound gentle, though she knew Osborn would somehow manage to make it a long fight.

The rest of the drive was silent save of Pepper's occasional sniffing. Maria dropped the other woman off at her apartment, fighting through a swarm of reporters than had gathered out front to get to the door. She then headed for Brooklyn.


---


"How did this happen?"

Steve was the first to break the heavy silence that had fallen over the group. He looked up, searching the faces -- Luke, Clint, Peter, Jessica Drew, Logan, Bucky, joined by Carol and Hank who had flown in after seeing the news. They all avoided eye contact. None of them answered. Steve felt frustration growing in him.

"How did we let this happen?"

That made them stir. Luke scowled, Logan rolled his eyes, Carol crossed her arms, hugging herself tight.

"How the fuck is this our fault?" Luke hissed.

"It shouldn't have gotten to this point," Steve tried to keep from yelling, the frustration beginning to boil over into rage, "This is the second time we've been attacked by one of our own--"

"Third," Hank corrected.

Steve hesitated. He hadn't forgotten Hank's own break down, just felt it wasn't prudent to bring it up with the man sitting there.

"This shouldn't keep happening," Steve finished.

"So, what?" Luke waved a hand, "It's our fault that he locked himself up in that tower and pretended he was God?"

"He did it to himself," Logan grunted. Steve noted he didn't seem all that concerned.

"He..." Carol spoke finally, "He doesn't let anyone in any more. Even if we tried--"

"But you didn't try!" Steve was standing. He looked around at them all. No one else spoke. He squared his jaw, trying not to grind his teeth.

"Maria Hill has more compassion than you lot."

He didn't wait for any sort of response, he didn't care. He turned and left the apartment, needing to clear his head.

Speak of the Devil. As he exited the building, he found himself facing Maria Hill down at the other end of the alley. They stood staring at each other for a moment.

"They're not letting anyone see him," she said finally.

"What?"

"Need permission from Osborn," venom dripped from her words, "What deal did you make with him?"

Steve clenched his jaw. He calmed himself, then answered, "What had to be done."

Maria raised an eyebrow, "You sound like Stark," Steve blinked, but wasn't given a chance to respond, "If it makes you feel better, you probably couldn't get in to see him anyway, being unregistered and dead."

Steve said nothing. He was fed up with her already. He pushed past her. He rounded the corner and found himself face to face with a mob of reporters.

"Miss Hill!"

"Do you know why he snapped?"

"Was he working with the Skrulls?"

"Do you want to comment on the allegations against you?"

"Is that Steve Rogers?"

Steve froze. The swarm seemed to have noticed him finally. They turned to him. It seemed like some of them didn't exactly know how to approach him, others shoved microphones in his face.

"Are you really Steve Rogers?"

"Did you fake your death?"

"Were you there when Stark went crazy?"

"Why are you in Brooklyn?"

Steve looked over to Maria. She seemed surprised, but amused. She noticed Steve's gaze and shrugged.

"They must have followed me from Potts' place."

Steve's eyes narrowed. He squared his shoulders and pushed through the crowd without a word.

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