“Are you just gonna lie there?”
Adrenaline gave Steve one last, weak attempt to protect his body, and his eyes popped open to see his target standing over him, a hand extended towards him. He jerked, instinctively trying to pull away, and he must have broken his leg or done something to it because the white flare of pain originated from there and then he was out like a light.
“Steve, good to see you!”
Steve lands beside the people sitting in front of the camp, beside the angel who had once been a mere messenger like Steve himself and is now a warrior in their battle to protect and govern humanity. Bucky is an old friend, even if he goes by the name James now, and Steve can’t help but smile shyly as Bucky slings an arm around Steve’s shoulders, dragging Steve to sit beside him, and waves at the other angels arrayed out in a half-circle. “Steve, this is my group – that’s Carol, there, and Sam, and Natasha.”
Noise from the building behind them makes Steve turn and glance, in time to see a short man stride out, wings impressively spread behind him. Then another man comes out, tall and broad and glaring.
The second man, dark wings and dark skin and dark clothes making him rise like a column from the bright surroundings, snaps something at the first man, who salutes sloppily and meanders over to the five of them. Closer, Steve can see that the white wings are edged in gold, and that grease and oil stain long and slender fingers. The man’s skin is bronzed, not quite white like Steve and Natasha, not dark like Sam and the second man. Bucky is only a shade or two off, and Steve’s hands itch to sketch the confident swagger of this first man, the wide sweep of over-large wings, the shock of black hair vivid against the bright blue sky—
“Anthony,” Natasha says quietly, and the man grins, teeth too bright and sharp in his face.
“Natalie, my dear, you wound me. Well, I’ve finished looking over your weapons and capabilities. The next time something breaks, don’t wait to call like you did here. It only makes it worse in the long run.” The man – Anthony – pauses, and squints at Steve. “You’re new.”
“Messenger,” Bucky rumbles, and while he’s not confrontational, he’s protective. It’s his interaction with Anthony that tells Steve this must be someone powerful, someone not to be upset, because Bucky has no problem arguing with his commander and treating everyone around him like they were all on the same level. “He’s bringing marching orders for our troop.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I got to you before you moved on!” Anthony says jovially. “Keep up the good work, message-bearer – keep your eyes sharp and your ears open. You’ll learn a lot in your profession, if you don’t move on to seemingly more attractive pastures.”
With those cryptic words, Anthony ruffles Steve’s hair and then he’s gone between one breath and the next, disappearing like the really powerful archangels can. Steve can only stare in awe, even as the rest of the garrison grumble about Anthony’s tendency to show off and swan about.
In his years as a messenger, Steve learns that Anthony, for all that he was not, in fact, an archangel, he is the angel that the archangels rely upon to counteract human weapons. Humanity is a self-destructive race, one bent on seeking their own ruin, and SHIELD works tirelessly to protect humans from themselves. Most humans acquiesce; some do not. Those that do not have created technology, weapons, and traps uniquely suited to entrapping and killing angels, and Anthony is the angel who takes apart the technology, weapons, and traps and learns how to undo their effects. He keeps his fellow angels alive, and Steve regards him as a hero.
Until, of course, the day that Anthony falls.
It had been strange, terrifying, to think that the darling, the skilled angel with so much strength, could succumb and fall to earth, to be cast out from SHIELD. Steve is a newly-made warrior and scared, terrified that it could happen to him, too.
He spends the rest of his service with SHIELD proving he is an exemplary angel, committed to SHIELD’s cause.
His lips were dry and cracked, and he licked them as he fought to open his eyes and take in his surroundings. It was very dry in the air, and the surface beneath him was inexplicably hard and painful. His stomach felt like it was crawling up into his spine to suck the marrow out of his bones – a sure sign he had done some majorly intensive healing recently, and still hadn’t replenished his reserves.
It was that that led him to remember the battle, the struggle, the final defeat at the hands of his intended target. Which meant that he was either dead – though he hadn’t known angels went anywhere after they were dead – or he was still on the floor of a cave in the middle of Afghanistan. Feeling the arid climate and the radiation of heat even though he knew he wasn’t in the sun, he figured he was in Afghanistan and not dead.
He wasn’t, strictly speaking, even supposed to be here. Yes, he was tasked with taking care of this specific problem, and he took to it enthusiastically, building his team specifically with the goal of capturing and subduing this person in mind, but strictly speaking he wasn’t supposed to have been doing more than just casual recon. Now, he not only alerted their target to the fact that SHIELD was on their target’s tail, but he had failed to check in for however long he’d been lying here.
Though he had to wonder, why did his target leave him here, alive? Leave him alone long enough for Steve’s bones to reknit and for Steve to wake up?
Stifling a moan, Steve cracked open his eyes and stared up at the dark ceiling. A shift in the air had him tilting his head and staring in shock.
Perched on a rock outcropping, black hair wild, blue eyes piercing and one of them obscured by a piece of technology Steve knows nothing about except every human always seems to be wearing them, fine hands and narrow wrists crossed and propped up on his knees, sat his target.
Anthony Stark, SHIELD’s rogue angel, and now second only to Lucifer himself on SHIELD’s shit list.
Steve knew he was gaping, stunned, lying there like a beached whale as Anthony tilted his head. “Do I know you?” Anthony mused, fingers tapping against the dark black material of his pants. Blue lights pulsed in lines up and down his legs, and over the exposed black cloth at his shoulders and upper arms. In the center of his chest, a circle gleamed with a soft electric blue light, highlighting the angles and curves of the metal chest-guard. “I feel like I know you. I’m normally very good with faces, but, you know, millennia old – gets hard to remember every single detail sometimes.”
Steve wasn’t sure whether he should confirm that they had met before, even though it had been very briefly, or deny ever knowing Anthony, since in truth they never really knew one another – Steve had only known Anthony’s reputation, and Anthony had only ever known him as a messenger. But before he could choose, Anthony shrugged one shoulder dismissively.
“Well, it doesn’t matter so much, I guess. The past has little to no bearing on someone always looking forward to the future, and let me be clear, angel, I am very much future-oriented. Which is why, you may notice that you’re not dead – because I, my long-lost kin, have a better plan for the future than SHIELD’s highly unrealistic and authoritarian outlook on life. Normally, Pep gives these talks, because people seem to dislike me when I talk more than a few sentences at them.” Anthony grinned, a shock of white teeth lit by his chest-light, dazzling in the murky gloom of the cave even with the soft light coming from the mouth of the cave. Almost belatedly, Steve realized that Anthony had wings – and why Anthony should not have had wings. Angels who fell from SHIELD were stripped of their wings, turned into humans, essentially. No more grace, no more wings, no more access to the higher energies all angels could tap in to. But Anthony – Anthony had wings.
The wings were… metal. Interlocking golden metal sheets, and Steve became aware of the soft singing noise of servos and gears continuously adjusting. He realized his staring was both overlong and extremely obviously, as Anthony chuckled lightly and spread them to their full width. “Pretty neat, huh?”
“Can you – do they work?”
Anthony grinned, a wolfish, dark grin that had Steve nervous instantly. “No point in making wings that can’t fly, now, is there?” he drawled.
“I – guess not,” Steve replied quietly.
Anthony made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “None of that’s important right now, of course. What’s important is the future, is freedom from never-ending rules and a system of exploitation. It’s time to take the world back, my brother, and I have to ask, will you join me?”
Steve stared in ill-concealed shock and distaste at the slight man who grinned like a maniac and asked Steve to just – join him. Just like that. Slowly, he shook his head. “You betrayed the Council, and all your teachings, and you ask me to join you in that?”
“Eh. Truthfully, I didn’t expect you to agree. It’d be a bit suspicious if you did, especially when you did your utmost to kill me a little over seven hours ago.” With a casual shrug of his shoulders, Anthony snapped his wrist and a circlet of metal went spinning towards Steve, too quick for Steve to do anything except flinch and throw a hand up to try and protect himself.
Metal snapped around his neck and a lock clicked.
It was as if – as if the world suddenly became darker, as if a shadow draped itself over Steve’s eyes and nose and ears, muffling everything. He gasped, head dropping back against the floor as he stared up at the rocky ceiling in shock.
“C’mon, man, breathe,” Anthony said, voice vaguely annoyed. “Or can you not?”
Steve panted, quick harsh breaths puffing through his chest, terror seizing his heart and holding it hostage. He couldn’t connect to SHIELD anymore, couldn’t reach for the unending energy source that powered him, that pulsed through his veins, that made him who he was.
“Hmm. Adverse reactions. Maybe you will die anyway.” There was a faint scuffing noise, and then Anthony was standing over Steve, head tilted. His gaze was reptilian in nature, cold and calculating. It was the first time in their (admittedly short) conversation that Steve actually was scared of Anthony, because what hid behind that affable smile and those floppy bangs was a demon, and now it was clear why the Council had made Anthony their top priority and put Steve and his team on this mission. “Though I hope you don’t. I have a bit more tests to run through. You are an archangel, aren’t you? A new one, though. Relatively. Still got the shine on your pinions, I see.”
“What—” Steve dragged in a painful gasp, trying to still his racing heart, calm his panicked breathing. “What did y-you do?”
Anthony grinned, face manic and more than a little terrifying. “Ah, you can speak! You’re probably going to live then. Excellent. That makes things so much better!”
Steve did his best, under the circumstances, to glare at Anthony from where he twitched and shuddered on the floor, feeling as if fire was dancing through his veins as his body began to realize that he really wasn’t connected to SHIELD anymore.
“I see you’ve reached that withdrawal point,” Anthony said absently, crouching down next to Steve and poking Steve’s shoulder. Even that felt muffled, far way – until suddenly, it wasn’t.
Everything – the rock beneath him, the gravel and sand against his hands, Anthony’s touch, the weight of his wings and the shape of his bones, the scrape of the fabric he wore, the pressure of his supplies and packs that were strapped around his waist and thighs, the rough shape of his boots, the air brushing against his skin – everything suddenly snapped back into focus, but in a completely new way. He didn’t know how to accurately describe it, didn’t know how this was different, only that before everything was normal, and then the warmth and security and safety and power he was always plugged in to disappeared and then the world snapped back into focus – minus the power aspect.
He whined, gasped and convulsed weakly against the floor, only that made it worse, made it hurt more.
“Success!” Anthony crowed, leaping to his feet and thrusting his fists in the air. “Ah, success, and first major trial, too! I am a genius!”
“What did you d-do to m-me?” Steve croaked.
Anthony chuckled to himself, then reached down and Steve heard the whine of motors as those gloved fingers – those gloves felt more like metal than leather or cloth – gripped Steve’s shirt and hefted Steve up. “I,” he said, sounding smug and self-satisfied, “have cut you out of SHIELD’s network. You have no power, no link, nothing that makes you an angel now except your wings. But don’t worry.” Anthony grinned, a sharp shark’s grin, pitiless and predatory. “I’m not a total monster. You can still fly.”
Steve passed out.
Steve woke up to absolute silence. There was no one around him, and instinctively he reached out, searching for the sun, the node, of SHIELD. It was like trying to straighten out a broken limb, forcing burned skin to flex, being stabbed and burned and stripped of nerves with his hands. He let out a moan, voice too wrecked and hoarse to sound loud in any way.
A tube was unceremoniously stuck in his mouth.
He jumped up, glad that he was healed enough that such movement was possible, intimately aware that he wasn’t healed completely because his legs and side ached from the recent healing, and his eyes focused on the inhuman and dangerous creature perched like a pixie on a chair beside the bed.
And the creature could have possibly resembled a pixie, because of its diminutive size and wings, but those were the only similarities. This creature had horns that curled back behind pointed ears, shadow-black skin broken up by a vibrant red toga-like cloth that covered chest and genitals of the creature, and glowing red eyes. There were only three fingers on each hand, along with a thumb, and the creature’s feet was three-toed like a bird’s, and all digits were tipped with claws. Hair like cobwebs tangled behind the horns and ears, and the lipless mouth split to reveal fangs. The wings were leathery, like a bat’s wings, stretched paper thin over skeletal ridges, and they flapped furiously to keep the tiny creature aloft.
Which was when, of course, Steve noticed that the tiny creature held a glass of water, and the tube had been a straw.
“What—” he began, but his voice was cracked and pulled at his throat painfully, so he stopped and began to cough. The creature gave an exasperated sigh and lowered itself and the glass to the small table set next to the bed.
“Well, if you don’t want it,” the creature muttered, voice high pitched and petulant, and then it zipped out of the room, door swinging shut behind the tiny frame.
Steve looked around. He was in a small room, not unlike the rooms given to angels on the Higher Plane, only the room wasn’t made of white marble but of wood, the bed wasn’t a nest in the center of the floor but a small rectangular shape shoved in the back corner of the room, and there were no windows, no light melody of safety and happiness.
No connection to SHIELD.
Weakly, Steve reached out for the glass – if they had intended to kill him, they would have done so by now, and he couldn’t get very far with his throat as bad as it was – and carefully sipped. It could have been boiling hot demon water, or some demon spell mixed in with the liquid, but if there was anything nefarious Steve didn’t notice it. It tasted just like water and went down just as smoothly. When nothing completely horrible happened to him, he slowly pushed off of the bed and stood on shaky legs to take in the rest of the room.
It looked… like any other room. Not particularly demonic in any way. No dirt, no dust. No window, so he didn’t know the time of day, and just as he made up his decision to see if the rest of the building matched this strange neutral theme, he heard voices coming down the hall.
“—tried, but he freaked out and so I just left.”
“You did good, Harley, don’t worry about it. Go and find Rhodey and Pep, will you? We’re gonna get this thing rolling once I’ve collected enough data.”
The door opened and Steve saw the pixie-creature first, still as terrifying, though slightly less threatening than before. Then his eyes moved to the man standing in the doorway and he fought to keep his breathing steady, even as the pixie-creature muttered an agreement and zipped away in an angry rush of wings.
It was Anthony. Who else would it be, really? But this Anthony wasn’t clad in red and black armor, wasn’t lit up in cool blue light. This Anthony didn’t have wings, and the lack of them made it difficult for Steve to do anything except stare in shock. Like this, Anthony looked… almost human. Pathetically so, in fact.
“I see you’re up and around. This is your room now, and while you’re here, you can use anything you find in here. That collar’s still on you, of course, and it’s linked to my personal electronic system. Say hi, JARVIS.”
“Hello, Agent Rogers.”
The metallic and cold voice that came from everywhere and nowhere had Steve jumping, and he took a surprised step back. “What—?” he began, and stopped.
“JARVIS is another one of my attempts to meld magic and technology together. He wasn’t my first, but he’s my best, and he’s linked to your collar. JARVIS never sleeps, never rests. He never takes his eyes off you. Everywhere you go in this house, he’ll be watching. That’s not to say he’s enough to keep you safe, of course. I’ve got a bunch of stuff around here that you probably shouldn’t go poking at, and a lot of people around here who won’t take kindly to an Agent of SHIELD wandering around like he owns the place, so—”
Anthony’s rambling speech was interrupted by the arrival of a tall, muscular man, powerful arms folded across his broad chest. Everything about him ate up the light – his skin, his hair, his eyes, his wings.
Steve stared in shock at those huge pinions folded almost delicately against the broad back, barely taking in the man himself. How did this man get wings? Was he a fallen agent? He had to be, with those wings, but when you fell, you lost your wings, you didn’t get to keep them. Was he one of the angels that defected when given a choice of dying or defecting? But SHIELD knew when such a choice was made, and those angels were permanently branded by their broken oaths. This man didn’t have the tell-tale black brand over half his face… The wings weren’t metallic like Anthony’s, weren’t fake, weren’t bat-wings. How the hell—
“Ah, yes, Rhodey, honeybear, feel like guard duty?”
The man narrowed his eyes at Anthony. “No, I do not.”
The voice was sharp, pointed, and the man – Rhodey? – stepped to the side to reveal a demon. Her eyes were green, snapping with flames, and her alabaster skin was dotted with glowing red freckles. Her red hair waved in the nonexistent breeze, mimicking flames, and her clothing was barely more than crimson tatters that only just covered the essentials. Pointed ears were pierced with gold hoops and her nails were curved and wicked.
“Ah, Pepper, my beauty. Rhodey, Pepper, say hi to our new guest, Steve!”
The two new visitors stared flatly at Steve, and Steve glared back.
“Tony,” the woman sighed, running long-nailed hands through her hair. “I see you’re testing out your collar.”
Anthony bounced on his toes, looking for all the world like a child being praised. “That’s right! And so far it’s working beautifully, so I’d like to take it out for a bit more thorough testing.”
“What does that mean?” Steve demanded.
Of the three standing in the room with him, only Anthony looked over and smiled. It wasn’t a very comforting smile, but neither was it a terrifying smile, so Steve wasn’t going to step back the way his instincts were asking him to do. “It means that the collar effectively keeps you from linking up with SHIELD, but I need to know if it affects you in any other way, so you’ll get to wander around and JARVIS will monitor you, gather data. It also means,” Anthony turned back to the powerful man with agitated wings, “that he’ll need a guard.”
The man’s upper lip curled, and Steve noticed that the man’s canines were unnaturally long and sharp. “With all your plans, you want me to step out and do this?”
“Anyone else might kill him,” Anthony said casually. “You’ll at least have a good reason for it if you do end up killing him.”
“I don’t want a babysitter,” Steve growled.
The woman’s eyes cut over to him dismissively. “You seem to think you’re something other than a prisoner. You’re not, no matter how eccentric Tony is. And we all know what you’re capable of, even if Tony treats you like you’re a puppy.”
“He is, a puppy of justice!” Anthony crowed, darting over to Steve before Steve could really grasp what was happening, and pinching his cheeks. “Look at that adorable earnest expression.”
Eyes flashing furiously, Steve brought both his arms up—
—and nothing happened. He couldn’t make his arms grab Anthony, couldn’t make his hands curl into fists to punch, couldn’t do anything at all except stand stock still as Anthony stood before him. Standing like this, Anthony was three or four inches shorter, definitely slimmer, and now, now Anthony’s smile was predatory, smug. “See? Testing like that. Anger or hatred as the foremost emotion during movement shuts down movement.”
“That doesn’t seem safe to me,” Rhodey said, voice sounding like the growl of thunder in their tiny room, and when Steve looked over at the other two people in the room, he realized that even if he’d managed to punch or grab Anthony, they were both poised to take him out, the woman glowing with hellfire and an angelic blade tainted with dark runes in the man’s hands.
“The testing, or the method? Doesn’t matter; the point is to work out the kinks with the agent,” Anthony said absently, stepping away. “And I couldn’t ask for a better… specimen. Look at those shoulders and that waist. I tell you, I can pick them.”
“You picked him?” the woman asked, voice dry.
Anthony made a face. “Very well, he fell into my lap, but look at my luck – power and eye candy in one lovely package.”
The man grunted and sheathed his weapon. “You think coincidence, I think Council sent you poisoned bait.”
Steve’s eyes widened, because – that would have been perfect, really, that the Council sent an agent to get captured, even if it wasn’t completely true. And now he had something productive to do while here beyond find a way to escape.
The man noticed his realization, and a forbidding look passed over his face but before he could say a word, Anthony waved a negligent hand. “So he gets to wander about the place, testing the collar a bit, seeing if there are loopholes he can exploit or not, and you get to take a step back from the troops you get so frustrated with.”
“I’d be less frustrated with them,” Rhodey began, upper lip curved in a sneer, “if they weren’t all so spineless.”
“Not all of them could walk away from SHIELD like you,” the woman murmured. She glanced at Steve a long moment before turning back to Anthony. “If you were going to have James guard your pet agent, what did you need me for?”
Anthony’s smile turned feral and dangerous. “We’re ready to make our move. Start the final preparations. The humans might think they have the technology to take down SHIELD, but they’re useless. We’ll tear apart SHIELD's heaven and place the Council’s heads on pikes outside their very own walls.” Halfway out the door, he paused. “Oh, Steve, you can wander around. Just don’t start anything, since it’s not like you can defend yourself with that thing on your throat.”
Steve stared at Anthony in shock as he and the demonic woman left the room, leaving him alone with his new guard.
“So what did you do to get assigned babysitting duty?”
Steve got a little satisfaction from the fact that those words had his guard glowering at him, those thundercloud wings mantling and ruffling in irritation. He wasn’t sure what to feel for this man; on the one hand, James was an enemy and deserved nothing but contempt. On the other hand, James had insinuated he hated the scores of angels who had been given the choice of following Anthony or dying. That implied a sense of honor that, before, Steve would have applauded. Now… He felt personally betrayed by this man, this Rhodey, than anyone else in Anthony’s band of the fallen and broken. Though he would never trust those other angels that fell under Anthony’s control, he understood their decision. James’ decision, however, meant that he’d willingly stepped away from SHIELD to follow Anthony, and that didn’t make sense at all.
But the man didn’t answer, and instead just glowered at Steve. After a long moment, Steve figured if Anthony gave him free reign, Steve might as well take advantage of that. He certainly didn’t want to sit in this room and wait for Anthony to grace him with his presence again.
So Steve stood up and opened the door. Rhodey grumbled under his breath, dark skin rippling as muscles flexed, clearly wishing to do something physical to Steve but stopped by Anthony’s order to keep Steve alive and healthy. Steve grinned, sharp and cocksure, and walked out into the hall.
For the rest of the afternoon, Steve slowly made his way through the three floors, the two wings of the house, the main house, the attached gym. He opened every door he possibly could, came upon servants and meetings where the people (and Steve used that term loosely; yes, there were some humans, but most were demons and fallen angels) glared at Steve but were helpless to keep Steve from wandering around.
It was past sunset when Steve finished poking through yet another box of books and papers (the basement was musty and full of boxes like this) and turned around to see Anthony sans the mechanical wings and technology Steve had seen when Anthony had been standing in the garage this morning. Anthony seemed… shorter, smaller. His eyes were amused, one eyebrow quirked, and he was leaning artlessly against the doorframe, arms folded. “Is this what you’ve been doing all day?” he asked, voice rich and full of secret laughter that made it sound like he was mocking Steve.
So Steve spread his hands, equally as mocking as Anthony. “You said I was free to wander around as I pleased. You told me no one in the house – this is a mansion, by the way, I’ve seen houses and this place is easily five times larger than a house – would stop me, or lay a hand on me, so long as I didn’t start anything. You told me I couldn’t have weapons or my shield, but that I was free to ‘poke around.’ Well.” Steve smiled, wolfish and defiant and challenging. “I poked around.”
“That you did,” Anthony murmured, eyelids half closing and an inscrutable expression appearing on his face. “Rhodey, honeybunch, pumpkin pie, he give you any trouble?”
James grunted. “He didn’t harm anyone. He didn’t break anything. He damn near entered every single fucking room in this thrice-damned mansion of yours.”
Steve couldn’t help his smile from turning smug.
Anthony’s lips pulled into a predatory smile. “Initiative. I like.”
Steve wasn’t sure how long he’d been in this mansion; none of the rooms he’d had access to had windows or doors that led to the outside. There were no clocks, no one brought him food (though he’d found the kitchen, and there was always food on the table or in the multiple fridges), there seemed to be no set schedule. Oh, he’d walk in on meetings, had seen a variety of demons and fallen angels – and the demons had been smug and viciously superior when they realized SHIELD’s star angel was collared and in their presence (and Steve had been able to fight back for the first few days, until Anthony had tweaked something in the collar and then Rhodey had had to step in), while the fallen angels had been a mix of sneering and obsequious. The humans just hadn’t approached him at all, which he could understand – SHIELD maintained order and goodness by using warriors like Steve to remove and punish the sinful. His face was plastered on ever SHIELD poster at every town square, reminding humans that SHIELD was watching and ready to punish the sinners and protect the pious.
He was growing bored of poking his nose everywhere, and Rhodey was definitely growing bored. When Steve asked if there were books somewhere he could read, or art supplies, Rhodey had been surprised.
“I’ll ask,” he had said, and when Steve woke up the next time, Anthony was sitting in a chair, munching on blueberries. His hair was disheveled, clothes mussed, his chest glowing blue, and on the table next to him was a crown made of antlers and machine pieces and two large, curled horns.
“What’s that?” Steve asked.
“My crown,” Anthony replied nonchalantly. “After all, the king of Hell has to wear something to make him look good.”
Steve frowned. “I thought Lucifer was the king of Hell.”
“Lucifer is a myth that SHIELD perpetuates because they’re all morons. Come on, I don’t have all day. Armies to run, inventions to complete, chop chop.”
Warily, Steve stood up and followed Anthony out of the room and down the hall. When they reached a door that had previously been locked, Anthony paused and eyed Steve a moment before huffing out a sigh. “I don’t know why you asked for the art supplies – I have to guess you were being sarcastic, because no one’s as sarcastic as the good Cap, now, are they?”
Steve narrowed his eyes at Anthony, but the shorter male continued on obliviously, “—but you asked for them, and so this room is now yours. There’s a selection of books and some basic supplies. You need anything else, you ask Rhodey – yes, he’s still your bodyguard – and I’ll get it for you.”
Anthony pushed open the door, and Steve stepped into a brightly lit room. What Anthony had dismissed as a ‘selection of books’ was really three bookcases worth of books, and ‘some basic supplies’ meant a huge, well-lit area with an easel, a table, various media, and a stool.
Steve turned to look at Anthony, and was shocked to see that Anthony actually looked… anxious. Nervous. As if he expected something from Steve, and Steve remembered Anthony’s long, lingering glances, his obvious flirtations from before, and he had to swallow a smile.
This would be much easier of Steve could engage in pillow talk instead of trying to piece together Anthony’s plans by overheard conversations and by walking into unlocked rooms at random, hoping to walk into a meeting.
So Steve let his smile soften, and his eyes warm – which wasn’t hard, because this would make his days go by so much faster – and he said quietly, “Thank you, Anthony. It’s perfect.”
“Tony,” Anthony corrected.
And, well, Anthony had been harping on Steve to call him by the shortened form of his name. It would be a sign to Anthony that they could be friends, and Steve certainly wanted Anthony to think that they could be friends, so Steve inclined his head. “Tony.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Of course you don’t,” Anthony said dismissively. “You believe SHIELD is perfect. You can’t fathom that they’d leave one of their own to die, but they did. I didn’t get this hole in my chest because it’s fashionable, you know. I got it because fucking humans decided the fastest way to bleed my grace out was by doing that.”
Steve paced the small room, unable to comprehend Anthony’s casual revelations. “SHIELD is making the world a better place. It’s keeping people from making bad decisions. SHIELD keeps everyone healthy and safe, and in return it asks that people follow a moral code. For centuries upon centuries, humans have admitted they need a common moral code in order to form a good society.”
Anthony shook his head. “SHIELD creates a society it thinks is good. Not everyone agrees with that. What does SHIELD do with dissenters?”
“Jails them,” Steve replied, then paused. “Sometimes just punishes.”
“So they don’t have freedom to choose. That’s not what Father wanted for his creation. He wanted humans to pick and choose. I don’t know why, and I don’t particularly care, but the Council abandoned me once they found out I had been giving technology to humans, and then when they found out what I knew about them, when they realized I wouldn’t shut up about their betrayal, they had my wings torn from my back and cast me, not to earth, but into hell. Hell. A pretty angel like me, how do you think that worked out for me?”
“Obviously pretty good, since you’re king and all,” Steve replied automatically.
Anthony laughed, a quiet bark of sound before he went still again. “I guess you could say that,” he said softly. “But we’ll have to agree to disagree. Humans make fucking stupid decisions, they kill one another for the pettiest reasons, and they are so far from perfect that there’s no hope for them to be the perfection and embodiment of good SHIELD is looking for. SHIELD is fighting a losing battle if it’s trying to build a good society, which makes you wonder why they keep at it.”
Steve folded his arms. “You keep at it because there’s always hope. People can be good, can get better.”
“But they can relapse, too,” Anthony pointed out. “They can do something good and minutes later something evil. There’s no perfect human being because human beings cannot, physically or mentally or emotionally, reach perfection. They can strive, but they will backslide. Having a self-sustaining good society is impossible.”
“No,” Steve said, shaking his head vehemently. “You’re wrong.”
“Oh, captain my captain,” Anthony mused, voice sad and amused at the same time. “You are so hopelessly naïve.” Standing up, he walked over and looped a hand around Steve’s neck, pulling Steve’s head down to brush a kiss against Steve’s lips. Steve went with it, because this was the direction he’d been moving in purposefully so Anthony would begin to discount Steve as a threat, and because he wanted Anthony to think that Steve welcomed his touch. “It’s been stimulating, but there’s a man in the torture chamber waiting for me, and Rhodey should be back from his errand now. Be a good boy and make a list of things you want or need, and I’ll get them to you.”
“Thanks, Tony,” Steve said, just remembering in time to call Anthony by the more familiar nickname.
The first time Steve had had sex with Anthony, it had been a surprise to the both of them, he was sure. They had been arguing about free will again, and whether humans had a right to choose wrong, and suddenly they were rutting against one another like animals, lost in their lust and coming embarrassingly quickly. The second time Steve had had sex with Anthony, it had been in the small room of Steve’s, Steve’s dick sliding between Anthony’s thighs, Anthony’s head thrown back, and even with the scarred chest and glowing-blue metal piece in the middle of Anthony’s chest…
Steve had thought Tony was beautiful.
This third time, Steve was aiming to be a little more sophisticated, to amaze Anthony and ingratiate himself even more with his host. He showered, cleaned himself, and when Anthony came in to converse with Steve again, Steve pinned Tony against the door, moving one thigh between Tony’s legs, and holding Tony’s hands in place as he kissed Tony, thoroughly and wetly, making sure that Tony was rubbing helplessly against his thigh when he pulled back. “We need a bed,” he gasped. “Mine was too small.”
It took Anthony a few minutes to get the message, and Steve was sure he was making it more difficult for Tony by suckling Tony’s fingers and nipping at Tony’s fingertips. “M-mine,” Anthony gasped, and suddenly they were in the room.
Teleportation, Steve mentally added to the list of powers Tony had, but this bed was humongous, and Steve wasted no time placing Tony on the bed and slowly stripping away all of his clothing.
“Steve,” Tony whined, hands pinned above his head in one of Steve’s hands, while Steve’s other hand roamed over Tony’s body, dipping in the cleft to rub and catch at the tight pucker there. “Steve, please oh maker please.”
“Right here,” Steve murmured. “You have lube somewhere?”
Tony whined. “No, Steve, it’s not like I’m – fuuuuuck, shit, Steve – it’s not like I’m fucking while planning world domination.”
“I don’t see why not. You need to enjoy the little things in life,” Steve murmured in Tony’s ear.
Anthony slapped Steve’s shoulder. “You annoying fucker.”
“No fucking yet,” Steve murmured. “No lube. Guess you’ll just have to deal with me giving you a blowjob.”
Anthony went cross-eyed.
And from that moment on Steve had an open invitation to enter Tony’s room.
Steve memorized the passageway that led to Anthony’s door as the shorter male tugged Steve to his room. “Lube, Steve! I got lube specifically for you.”
“Oh, I doubt I’ll be the only one using it,” Steve murmured.
Once inside, Tony stripped down so quickly it almost seemed a shame. Steve loved peeling Tony out of his regal ‘ruler’ clothes and taking Tony apart bit by bit. With enough sucking on Tony’s nipples, rimming, and ball-sucking, he could have Tony screaming with a need to release.
But they had lube, and much more interesting things could take place now. Steve grinned and took the lube from Anthony’s hand. “How do you want this?” he asked, voice low and commanding. “All fours? Be my bitch for the night?”
Tony shivered, eyes blown, and he licked his lips predatorily. “I think I’d rather have you underneath me,” he said, voice crooning, “and I want to mount that thick dick and give you the ride of your life.”
Steve wasn’t exactly skilled in seduction, but he knew letting Tony call all the shots wasn’t a good thing. So he said, “I wanna see you on all fours, first. Wanna lick you open until you’re sloppy and begging for my dick, and then I’ll lift you up and force you to ride my dick.”
With an eager whine, Tony clambered up on the bed and went down on knees and forearms, his pink picker clenching convulsively. “C’mon, Cap,” Tony teased, though his voice shook and his body fairly vibrated with need. “You love to eat me out so much, I wonder. You do that a lot with other people? Like to stick your tongue up their dirty asshole? Like to suckle and moan into asses and bite down on cheeks? Like precum to drool continuously from your dick.”
“Tony,” Steve growled, and then he was prying Tony’s ass open with his thumbs, pressing French kisses on that ring of muscle, loving the fluttering spasms that had Tony gasping and moaning wantonly.
Steve could, and had in the past, eat out Tony for hours, but right now this was only the appetizer to the main course. Grabbing the lube, he began working fingers in with his tongue, shoving more and more in as it squelched around his fingers and splurted and schlurped. When he could move four fingers in and out with ease, he stepped back and undid his fly, letting his dick jut free – he almost always remained dressed, unless he intended to sleep the night in Tony’s bed, but honestly that barely happened and only ever happened because Tony asked him to stay – before crawling onto the bed. Pressing his lips against Tony’s he sucked Tony’s tongue into his mouth and moaned.
Rolling onto his back, Steve gripped Tony’s waist and physically lifted the slighter male up before impaling Tony on his dripping cock.
Tony let out a stifled scream – and Steve stopped, scared he’d hurt Tony unintentionally, but then Tony was jerking in Steve’s grasp, trying to fuck down onto Steve’s dick.
Ohhh, yeah, Steve thought as he groaned and began pistoning Tony’s hips against his groin. Perfect.
Steve stared up at the ceiling. He should leave, now. He had it all planned out, figured out what he needed Tony to do to disable JARVIS so that he could walk out with his collar without raising an alarm, had all the necessary elements in place.
Why, then, was he hesitating?
He didn’t know.
C’mon, Steve, you got this. You know what you need to do.
Carefully, he eased himself out from under Tony’s sprawling hold, moved over to where his pants were. Inside his pocket was a folded up painting he had done, and he looked at it a long moment, tried to remember the small cruelties Tony was capable of, the larger cruelties he didn’t blink an eye at. Sex had only ever been a way to get close enough to Tony to figure out what his plans were and how to get out of the house. JARVIS was a combination of a tech virus and an iron elemental. The creature ran every one of Tony’s electrical inventions and could temporarily turn off the collar.
And JARVIS could be reasoned with.
“JARVIS?” Steve called softly, pulling on his pants and shirt.
There was silence for a long moment, and then a whir before that strange metallic voice said, “Yes, Agent Rogers?”
“Would you say your primary duty is to care for Anthony?”
There was a long silence, and then, sounding grudging and uncertain, JARVIS replied, “Yes, I would say so.”
“So if I made you choose between, say, keeping him alive and monitoring me, you would pick him over monitoring me and raising the alarm if I left?”
JARVIS’s voice was much colder and cruel when he said, “I can raise the alarm while keeping him alive and monitoring you.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, and he steeled himself for what he was about to do. “I get that. But if you were to direct people to someone – and I know no one’s around today, not that many at least, because almost all the doors were unlocked to me today – you’d direct them to him, if his life was in danger. Not me. And I’m not doing any of this because I’m angry at him, or because I hate him. In fact… I could almost say I love him.”
After a few moments, JARVIS said quietly, “He may forgive you, but rest assured I will not.”
“Didn’t think either of you would, actually,” Steve said softly, and he put his hand on Tony’s chest and pulled the glowing-blue metal piece from its socket.
Tony’s eyes flew open, wide and shocked, and his gaze locked on Steve.
Steve held up his drawing, and he said quietly, “You are going to destroy SHIELD. I can’t let that happen.”
Tony gasped a bit, trying to reach for the metal piece Steve held in his hands, and Steve forced himself to ignore the helpless noises he was making, the pain-filled noises that tore at his heart.
Falling back against the bed, Tony whispered, “They… will betray… you like… they did me.”
“They cast people out because they did something wrong. I haven’t done anything wrong, Tony, except maybe sleep with you.”
That made Tony flinch, and his eyes closed, and Steve dropped his painting on the bed and dumped the metal piece on top of the dresser before he burst out of the door.
Rhodey was skidding around the corner from the opposite direction.
Steve knew Rhodey would save Tony first, and so he ran, ran hard and fast, following the paths he could remember and praying he’d get free of the mansion before Tony could come after him.
And if that was because he was expecting Tony to kill him, or because he was worried Tony wouldn’t, he didn’t know.
Sprinting out of the front of the mansion, Steve realized why there were no windows, no way to tell time. The entire house was in a cavern, underground, and Steve hesitated for half a second before he picked a tunnel at random and ran through the honey-comb like tunnels and passages, sniffing for fresh air and doing his best not to retrace his steps – though there were times he was sure he’d be caught, because he’d come to a dead end and needed to back-track. When Steve finally got out into the open air, and ran far enough to get momentum behind him, he spread his wings and took a deep breath. He hadn’t used his wings before, mostly because Tony had kept him in that mansion and not let him out, but in part because Steve was terrified he couldn’t actually fly. The wings were improbable, even impossible, and to use them Steve had always thought an angel needed to be connected to SHIELD in order to utilize their angelic natures. Tony had said he hadn’t taken away Steve’s ability to fly, but Tony was a liar and a thief, a killer and a rogue. Steve might have doubts in SHIELD because of Tony’s words, but he certainly didn’t think Tony had told him the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
He needed to get going, though. If he was going to make this escape work, if he was going to head back to SHIELD and figure out this mess he was in, he needed to fly.
Closing his eyes, he spread his large wings, fully spread them and let the wind ruffle through the feathers, caress the skin and delicate bone structure. And then, he began to pump them, heavy and powerful, huge gusts of wind swirling about his legs and the ground, debris like leaves and twigs flying away from where he stood because of the strength of wings. Slowly, he raised off of the ground, lost that solid entrapment beneath his feet, and when he opened his eyes to gaze at the full moon, he saw it through blurry eyes that had tears trickling down his face.
He could still fly. It may have been slower, more uncomfortable than usual, but he could fly.
It took him a while to push past that first exhilaration, that first rush of amazement and love and joy, but after flying aimlessly with the wind (and away, always away, from that house and that demon who played tricks and spoke lies and wasn’t telling the truth he couldn’t be) Steve reoriented himself. He knew where the nearest garrison was, of course – he knew where all the physically-on-Earth outposts were – but he didn’t want to go there. He needed to find his team, the team he was supposed to have as back-up that night when he decided to scout out Afghanistan. They would chew him out for leaving without them, they’d fuss and snap and be hurt that he ‘didn’t trust them,’ but they’d also believe him when he said he’d been kidnapped. Others, he knew, wouldn’t be as understanding, and would think that Steve had fallen with Tony.
Which, to be fair, wasn’t an unreasonable thing to think. Especially when considering so many angels, who had gone head-to-head with Tony, had defected in order to live.
Steve only wished he hadn’t left his shield behind. Still, his shield and his weapons had all been locked down; he had grabbed the chance to run and hadn’t slowed down once he seized upon the opportunity. And it wasn’t as if anyone could wield the shield; it was his, in all ways it mattered, and would reject everyone else.
So he made his way towards his team, growing more and more confident as he traveled. The collar was still painful and he kept envisioning it being removed, but for now he dealt with it by ignoring it. His team had last been stationed in Turkey, and they would have moved since then, but it would be easy enough to find them. He could always find Bucky, no matter where he was or in what situation. Something to do with the fact that they had not only grown up together but bound themselves together in a ritual, becoming brothers in everything except actual blood. There was always the chance, of course, that Bucky was with Natasha, but he didn’t know how long he’d been missing. He had some general idea – long enough for Tony—
He stopped, hovering in the air, realizing that he’d been calling Anthony Tony all this time. It was – it was one thing to get close to Tony – to get close to Anthony, to figure out how to get free, but he couldn’t lose his objectivity, he couldn’t be… close to Tony. Anthony. He had to maintain distance.
Taking in a deep breath, he put aside the person he’d come to know and focused on the Anthony he knew needed to be taken down. Anthony had treated Steve… well. He’d been courteous and while he could be cruel, it was never arbitrary. That didn’t make it better, but Steve understood the tactics of Anthony’s reactions and actions. He knew Anthony would be a devious opponent, and he’d learned enough of Anthony’s mansion and movements that he could give a thorough report, he felt. He knew Anthony commanded not just demons and fallen angels, but had deals with humans, giving them technology that could and did disrupt SHIELD’s magic. Anthony had been experimenting with technology to bring back a shadow of a fallen angel’s grace, enough so that they had some resistance to SHIELD magic and weapons.
That was the leader he needed to take down – the one amassing an army, right now, to tear apart SHIELD. That was what he needed to focus on.
Taking a steadying breath, he landed on the ground and breathed out, long and low. It was now or never. He’d need to be debriefed, he’d need to give his report, he’d need to be reevaluated to make sure he was fit for duty, but he was here, in front of the SHIELD garrison, and—
A solid body slammed into Steve’ arms wrapped around Steve’s shoulders tight, nearly crushing Steve, and mottled grey wings flared. Steve had been taken off-guard, but then he wrapped his arms tight around the man and returned the desperate hug. “Buck,” he gasped, and to his shame he could feel tears prickling the corners of his eyes again. “Shit, Buck, I missed you.”
“You fucking slacker, you’ve been gone two months.”
Steve’s eyes widened, and he stepped back – and now he could see the rest of his team, Thor and Jane and Janet and Clint (and Natasha, but Natasha wasn’t supposed to be here, wasn’t a part of his team, unless she’d been reassigned?), standing behind Bucky in various stages of surprise – to stare Bucky in the eyes. “Two months?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said, and he didn’t look too steady himself, clutching at Steve’s sleeves. “You didn’t know?”
Slowly, Steve shook his head. “No, I was… kept away from windows, from clocks. From calendars, even. From computers and phones and anything that could give me a sense of passing time.”
“What’s on your throat?” Natasha asked.
Steve swallowed, feeling the metal press against his skin. “Anthony has come up with a way to… cut angels away from SHIELD. I can’t – you can’t feel me, can you?”
“No, I was – I was surprised to see you here—” Bucky began, but then he stopped. “Anthony can cut agents out of SHIELD’s network? Cut off our graces?”
“With this, yes. We can – I can still fly. I still have my martial training. I can’t access magic, though, or use my grace to heal.” Steve took in a deep breath. “I need this off my throat – carefully, because it’s supposed to be impossible to take off except by the person who put it on. And then I need to talk to the full Council. Anthony has said… he’s implied a lot of things, but he never outright explained any of his motivations. I’m hoping the Council can help explain.”
“Of course,” Jane murmured. “Come on inside. I may not be a technological genius like Anthony was – is – but I’m sure we can get that off you eventually.”
Home, thought Steve, and he breathed in deep the air around him as he followed his team inside.
And tried not to think of how he left Anthony (Tony).
As always, the assembled Council was arrayed in a circle of tables around the lowered center. Steve stood in the middle, facing the current head of the council, Obadiah. A huge, powerful man with broad shoulders and thick slabs of muscle packed onto that wide frame, Obadiah was the final say on all matters regarding SHIELD.
And Steve had never felt very comfortable standing before the entire Council. Some, he knew and trusted – generals and warriors who he respected, like Nicholas and Charles and Reed – and others, like Norman, Tiberius, and Justin, he wasn’t sure about. But the Council always gave the orders, and Steve had always obeyed.
Which is probably why the Council – or, at least, Obadiah, since Steve couldn’t see the whole of the Council arrayed around him – was so surprised about these questions.
“You want to know why Anthony was cast out?” Obadiah repeated.
“Yes, Councilmember Obadiah,” Steve repeated, making sure to keep his voice even and calm. He was cleaned up, dressed in SHIELD’s uniform, the hated collar finally gone from his throat (though it was still reddened and irritated), desperately missing the shield he normally had on his back and was now missing.
The belligerent came from a member behind him – Justin, Steve thought – so Steve half-turned to face Nicholas and said respectfully, “Because he has angels following him that willingly left SHIELD for him. That is – unheard of, for many good reasons. I am curious to know how well their stories match with the reality, because when I asked their reasons for stepping away from SHIELD for Anthony, they painted Anthony out like a saint, which we all know is not a correct picture of him in the least.”
“He’s managed to delude some of the lesser angels, yes,” Tiberius said dismissively. “Anthony has always been a fast talker and charmer when he wants something. What lies did he tell you? What has he done to make you doubt our mission?”
Steve hesitated, not quite sure what to say but knowing his answer would either alleviate the Council’s suspicions of him or risk having them strip him of his wings and making him another fallen angel that Anthony could snap up. He was betting they wouldn’t want to lose him, when he was the only one besides Thor who could wield one of the ancient weapons.
“He tried to get me to see things his way. Of course he did; but I think it amused him to actually discuss his reasoning and try to get me to see it his way. He spoke about quite a few things I disagreed with, but he seemed to have the idea that he was stripped of his wings not for giving technology to humans, but because he threatened the Council. I didn’t see how he could possibly have threatened any of you, but he was most insistent.”
Only because he was turning back to Obadiah did he see Xavier exchange a meaningful look with Nicholas, but then Obadiah began speaking and he didn’t have time to interpret the look they shared.
“Anthony always had a greatly inflated sense of himself,” Obadiah chuckled. “We removed him because he was a danger to order and to keeping this world safe and free from corruption and evil. And we were right, were we not? After being cast out, he could have lived his life as any other fallen angel, as human as you pleased, and instead he grasped after power and transformed himself into a technological monstrosity in order to become the right-hand man of Lucifer himself.”
Steve stared at Obadiah a long while before inclining his head. “Thank you for answering my questions, Councilmember Obadiah, Councilmembers. I understand that because of the extended nature of my capture that I will need to be debriefed and evaluated before returning to the field, but I assure you this has in no way changed my conviction to stop his influence and protect humanity.”
“Very well, Warrior Steven,” another member – Odin, Steve believed, though he didn’t turn around to check if he was right. “We hope your recovery is swift and thorough.”
“You may leave,” Obadiah added, as if the dismissal wasn’t clear enough, and Steve bowed deeply to Obadiah and then strode out of the small side door that took him down the narrow hallway and back into the lobby area outside the Council’s chambers.
He nearly slammed into Johnathon; as it was, only quick reflexes had him jumping sideways and only knocking into the man instead of sending Johnathon to the ground.
“Dude,” Johnathon said, rubbing his shoulder, his vibrantly red wings stretched out and then pulled in. “You alright?”
Steve hitched one shoulder and muttered under his breath, which is when Johnathon smiled unnaturally wide and said, “Awesome, me too!” and took Steve’s elbow, practically dragging him aside. Johnathon wasn’t a scrawny kid anymore – like Steve, he grew up some, though not as dramatically as Steve had – and it took Steve a moment to get his feet under him and plant them.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
Johnathon gave him a sharp look, even though his voice remained light and easy. “I thought you said you were hungry; I was heading over to meet up with my sister in the mess. C’mon, you snooze you lose!”
Steve wanted to object, but his day had been weird enough so far; what was one more strange occurrence?
Johnathon pulled him into the mess hall, and this early in the afternoon, so soon after lunch, it was nearly deserted except for the errand angels cleaning up and restocking the food available. Johnathon grabbed a tray and piled it high of food before heading over to his sister, Susan, and sitting down.
With a sigh, Steve did the same, and if he put his tray down a little more forcefully than he needed to, well, it wasn’t as if he had been unclear about his desire for an explanation.
Susan smiled sympathetically, but her eyes were worried, nervous. Johnathon’s movements were jerky and anxious. Steve felt himself drop into battle-readiness, trying to figure out what was going on, but before he could find a way to ask that would be likely to net him answers, a presence came up behind him and Johnathon. Steve cautiously turned his head, and was only further confused when Nicholas and Reed stood there behind him.
“Councilmembers?” Steve asked, confused.
“Hello, Sue,” Reed murmured, bending down to kiss her cheek. Nicholas, however, stared directly at Steve long enough to make Steve highly uncomfortable.
“Your preliminary briefing mentioned that Anthony was amassing an army,” Nicholas began, voice crisp and brisk. When Steve opened his mouth to reply, Nicholas continued speaking. “You mentioned his house was underground, and it was luck more than skill that got you out of the maze of tunnels that led down to it. Could you find it again?”
“The outside, yes sir. Making my way back through the tunnels… I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I have a good memory but I know I backtracked quite often, and I was terrified of being found before I even really got away. Hitting that first breath of air, I shot straight up and flew without thinking for a bit. It’d been a while since I got to actually… fly, sir.”
Nicholas stared at him a long moment. “Anthony tried to convince you he had the right of it, didn’t he? But you’re too much a SHIELD soldier to let him just convince you to defect. But did you have doubts? Did you wonder?”
“I think it’s clear, sir, that I did, otherwise I would not have asked for clarification in the Council’s chambers.”
“And did you get that clarification? Do you now understand?” Nicholas pressed.
It seemed as if Nicholas wanted Steve to say a particular phrase, or give a particular answer, or make a specific connection, but Steve wasn’t sure where Nicholas was going and so he said simply, “Not completely, sir, but I feel I have a better picture now.”
“Do you.” Nicholas glanced over at Reed as he pulled back from Susan. “Well. The Council will inform you shortly, but I felt I should tell you they have decided to send you out on a mission. Simple recon. Your team will, obviously, be taken off of searching for you and will instead prepare to track down Anthony, based on the information you gave.”
Steve frowned. “I understand that my capture would make me unsuitable to get back on my original mission, but I believed my team was under my orders, not anyone else’s. If they are being put on this mission, shouldn’t I be with them?”
“That would be best, wouldn’t it?” Nicholas murmured.
Too many conflicting signals, and Steve wasn’t sure what was the purpose of Johnathon dragging aside so that he could hear riddles, but he was already confused and short on temper, so he said quietly, “Of course, the Council can do as it pleases.”
Nicholas narrowed his eyes at Steve and said very pointedly, “If you go visit your team, or speak with them, about this mission, it will not be a good thing for you. You should not attempt to figure out their orders, nor should they know yours.”
Since standard mission procedure was always that the mission stayed between the angel completing the mission and the person who gave them the orders, Steve wasn’t sure what Nicholas was implying. Yeah, if agents were close they’d discuss their mission in broad terms, they’d bitch and moan about certain requests, but in the end, they never shared specifics. But it sounded like Nicholas was practically daring him to tell his team what he was ordered to do.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
Nicholas sighed and rolled his good eye. “You youngsters. I suppose I should be thankful you have that in you, but right now it’s very frustrating, I’ll have you know.”
“Come on, Reed. We still have to speak with Xavier and Erik.” Nicholas turned on his heel and strode away, SHIELD’s uniform covered up by his signature long black coat. Reed patted Susan’s hand and stood up.
“Give it some thought, Steven. Anthony has a way of using the truth to explain his… delusions of grandeur.”
Steve watched Nicholas and Reed exit the room, and he turned to Johnathon and Susan. “Do you have an explanation for that conversation?”
Susan hefted a shoulder. “Nicholas seemed very interested in making sure you heard that. He certainly didn’t need to accompany Reed to see me.”
Steve stared down at his plate as Johnathon chattered with Susan, and he turned the words over and over in his mind.
But he didn’t understand what Nicholas could have wanted him to know. It was frustrating, because he wasn’t stupid, but it sounded as if Nicholas wanted Steve to ask about his team’s new assignment, share his assignment with them. It sounded as if Nicholas was trying to tell Steve that there was truth in Anthony’s words, but… why would a Councilmember try to convince their warrior that there was truth in the words of demons? Of the demon, the King of Hell?
Finally, Steve shook his head and stood up. If Nicholas was trying to get Steve stripped of his wings, he wasn’t going to oblige. Obadiah and Ivan already disliked Steve because of his transformation that had made him able to wield one of the ancient weapons; he wasn’t going to give them an excuse to remove his wings.
Steve hovered, wings moving powerfully as he squinted at the choppy waves and black water below. The mission was… frankly, it was insulting. Something he would have done before, yes, but when he was a wisp of an angel, a messenger, someone that could zip over and who was saddled with grunt work. It had been a while since he had to do this kind of busywork. He had forgotten how much he hated it.
Heaving a sigh, he moved on. A SHIELD ship had gone down in these waters, and he was supposed to be searching for the wreckage. It was far enough north that even with his connection to SHIELD powering his grace, he still felt the chill of the air, and chunks of ice floated on the rough water, bouncing up and down. He knew that some SHIELD ships had unconventional travel paths, but he couldn’t really figure out why there would be a SHIELD ship this far north. There was nothing up here, not a settlement that SHIELD could be bringing supplies to, not a shipping lane that SHIELD would be patrolling for black market ships and goods dealers.
He heard a crackling noise, and he turned in time to see a purple-blue light burst in his face, and then something close to a shockwave slammed into him, and he fell.
It was dark, and cold. He thought he could hear voices, noises, but every time he reached, he fell short. Pain made him retreat, and then pain brought him back. He fought to keep himself aware, to keep himself present, but the black tide dragged him under again and again.
He woke up suddenly, jerking upright and falling off of wherever he was. Colors blurred in his vision and tongues of flame brushed against his arms and back, gripping him tight and jerking him up.
He blinked, tried to focus his vision. Everything hurt, and he couldn’t make anything out, understand what was happening around him.
He stared forward, and closed his eyes.
The blackness pulled him under again.
“—can’t stay down here forever. Your people need you. And he left you, remember?”
“Enough, Pepper. Send Rhodey in; I have something I need him to do. Rally our forces at check-point eight, delta-six.”
Rustling fabric, and then the click of a door shutting. Steve blindly reached out and felt cool, slim, familiar fingers link with his.
“Tony?” he whispered.
Or, at least, tried to. Certainly his lips moved, but he couldn’t hear any sound from them, couldn’t figure out why he heard an odd croaking noise. Those fingers squeezed his hand, and then there was a small tube pressing gently against his lips. “Open up, Cap, let’s get some water in you. Nice and cold, just like you like it, yeah?”
Obediently, Steve cracked open his lips, and everything felt… sore. Painful. He started to try and make sounds again, started to try and speak, but Tony’s thumb moved against the back of his hand, and the water soothed his throat, so he fell quiet, blinking open eyes he hadn’t realized were shut.
Everything was blurry, and it was difficult to make colors stay where they were supposed to be. After a few moments of trying to get his eyes to focus, he gave up and closed them. “Whu-ppned?” he mumbled around the straw in his mouth.
There was silence a long moment, and then Tony – Anthony – said quietly, “Someone set you up.”
Steve could feel his brow furrowing, was trying to put the pieces together, but the great thing about To – about Anthony – was that he loved to show off and explain in his own time. “Best I can figure it, you were sent up to the arctic on a bogus trip and there was an ambush waiting for you, using a modification of my weapons. Now, to be fair, it’s not much modified, and let me just say I’m very glad it works the way it’s supposed to, but you’re really not the person I hoped to be testing it on.”
Steve opened his eyes to slits and glared.
A rakish smile dripped off of Anthony’s face, and then Steve closed his eyes as Tony sighed. “Yeah. Well. It was blamed on me, of course. My weapons, after all. But I have no operations in the north, and the Resistance focuses on populated cities where the chances of catching and tearing apart an angel is high. In the wilderness, angels are on alert already. Bad decision to try and capture an angel there – and capture is their main goal, after all. They want to rip out the grace of every angel they can find.”
Steve made a questioning noise, fingers clutching at Tony’s hand reflexively, and Tony let out a soft sigh.
“Yeah, that’s why I’m… like I am. Gaping hole in my chest, neurotic and paranoid, controlling and building this empire. Because I learned something in that cave, those years ago. It’s that humans aren’t built to be perfect. They can try, but they’ll fall short. I’ve traveled the human world looking for a perfect human being, someone who can be good because they’re good, and I haven’t a single fucking one. So what SHIELD’s doing, here, what SHIELD thinks they’re doing, they’re really not. You all are fighting a losing battle, and I know that most of that Council knows that. So why do they keep at it?”
Lips brushed Steve’s ear. “It’s because they’re profiting, Steve. It’s because something is rotten at the core of SHIELD, and I’m going to tear apart the whole fucking organization until I root it out. Because you know what? Someone set you up. Someone sold me out, years ago. When someone gets too popular, too smart, too quick, they disappear. Well, I’m not disappearing now, Steve. I’m taking this fucking fight to their doorstep.”
There was a click – the door opening? – and then Tony leaned away, and those fingers brushed the hair on Steve’s forehead. “Get some rest. You’ll need it soon enough. Here.” A folded piece of paper was placed in Steve’s fingers, and he tried to grab at Tony’s hand, keep Tony here, but Tony was too quick.
“It was more to me, Steve, than an easy fuck,” Tony murmured, and then the door clicked, and Steve was alone.
He tried to be angry about that, fought to stand up, but pain washed over his senses and he slid into the black once more.
“Fuck, Steve, how the hell do you get yourself in these positions?”
Steve blinked open his eyes, and he realized he could see again. Colors stayed where they were supposed to, features on the face didn’t blur and slide sideways when he looked. Clearing his throat, he glanced around and realized he was in the master bedroom of Tony’s underground mansion. He looked back at the weight at his side and saw Bucky sitting on the edge, Clint at the doorway behind him, bow strung but the arrow pointing at the floor.
“Finally found you. You’ve been gone another month. I swear, I’m tying a leash around you and you are never leaving my sight again. Can you stand?”
“I… don’t think so.” He cleared his throat and painfully pushed himself upright. “Where – what’s going on?”
“SHIELD’s under attack. It’s like everyone in the world decided to turn on SHIELD. We have rioting in all the major cities, demons attacking more garrisons than we realized they knew about, fallen and turned angels battering heaven’s doors trying to get in.”
“Shouldn’t you be there, then?” Steve croaked, and was pitifully grateful when Bucky supported him the rest of the way off the bed.
“We were,” Clint said by the doorway. “But then we got a message from an old archangel we all thought had died – James Rhodes, do you remember him? – and when Bucky looked with your bond, he found you. Maybe you can help fix this mess.”
Bucky slung Steve’s arm around his neck and wrapped an arm around Steve’s waist – and, in this position, as Bucky got them ready to leave, Steve could see the night table next to the bed (the bed, the bed he’d shared with Tony, the bed that meant so much and so little).
There, propped up against stack of books he can remember putting there since he read before he went to sleep, was his painting of Tony, a depiction he’d doodled in his copious free time. His fingers clenched at the sight of it – which was when he realized he had a piece of paper clutched in his fingers. One-handed, he pushed it open and stared at the familiar, sloppy handwriting.
Maybe you’re right, about how I am, about how others see me. Still, humans deserve free will, and if they need any caretakers at all, they certainly don’t need corrupt ones. Have your Jane look up HYDRA.
“Is Jane busy?” Steve asked absently, wings dragging against the ground as he stumbled and had to be caught by Bucky.
Bucky grumbled under his breath. “Of course she’s busy, why wouldn’t she be? It’s only the end of the world out there…”
“I need her to research something for me,” Steve continued.
Clint sighed. “Well, none of that can happen here. Let’s go, people. Time’s wasting.”
Steve stared down at the files Jane had placed before him. He and his team had reassembled, and in the past two weeks had fought to eke out some ground that was safe for the angels stranded from heaven. Certainly there was no way to enter heaven that was not under guard by Tony – by Anthony’s – fallen and turned angels. On earth, demons and humans alike were capturing and killing angels as fast as they could find them. Steve and his troop had created this sanctuary in upstate New York, hoping against hope that they could save more here than engaging demons and humans outside. With the fortification and establishment of territory, Jane had broken away from warrior duties and done the research he requested.
And had put together these files.
“What the hell?” he said tiredly, closing the file and leaning back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“I double-checked everything,” Jane said softly. “Steve, if this is who’s at the core of the Council, why the hell are we protecting them? We should be out there, dragging them to trial for these crimes.”
Steve dropped his head and shook it a moment. “Just… bring the rest of the team in here. And let’s figure out what we’re going to do from there.”
Jane left, and Steve turned back to the files.
Steve didn’t know what it stood for, didn’t care. Instead of the circle with the rising phoenix as their motif, HYDRA’s motif was an octopus, eight tentacles curled around the central head. HYDRA had been in control of the Council for years, long enough to build a society that reflected HYDRA’s twisted goals. HYDRA had only ever been interested in making sure that humans acted the ‘right’ way, and had systematically killed and eliminated potential threats to that world order. HYDRA had grown inside of SHIELD, a heart of rot covered by SHIELD’s propaganda and well-meaning intentions.
Steve fought not to put his fist through the desk.
HYDRA had bases all over the world, and had started wars against ‘undesirable’ peoples who wouldn’t bow to HYDRA’s plans. HYDRA had manipulated and coerced world leaders, business magnates, entire countries into giving up resources for HYDRA personnel. HYDRA had been SHIELD, only slightly more extremist. SHIELD punished sinners; HYDRA killed them. SHIELD dictated what was moral and good; HYDRA enforced those morals and killed when people or tribes or countries refused to accept those morals.
The door opened, and Steve tried to order his thoughts so that he could tell his team what HYDRA had done to SHIELD.
Thor was the most devastated. He and Steve had been chosen by their Father and had ended up enforcing evil in the world instead of good. Jane tried to console him, but it was hard when Bucky strode back and forth, swearing up a blue streak. Janet perched silently in a chair, staring into space, and Clint asked the question that was on all their minds.
“What do we do now?”
Steve stared at the files and then let out a long breath.
“Now,” he said quietly, “I challenge Obadiah to a duel, and the victor becomes head of the Council.”
The troop of fallen angels camped at the main entrance to heaven fell silent when Steve landed before them. When his team landed behind them, they stepped aside.
Steve strode up to the gates of heaven and slammed the doors with his shield. The sound of the metal bouncing off the gates ricocheted into the sudden and absolute silence.
“Obadiah!” Steve snarled, voice carrying loudly. “I challenge you to personal combat. I name you liar, and false angel. Do you deny these charges?”
For a long moment, Steve received no response, and just when he turned to Thor to tell the angel to bring lightning down on the gate, a response was shouted back.
“We all lie at some point, Steve, my boy, but I am no false angel.”
“I call you false. I call you a falsehood of a person, who seeks to hide your true evil behind the good SHIELD had tried to do. And I demand that we settle this in battle, or that you abdicate your Council seat to me.”
There was another long silence, and then Obadiah’s voice rang out again, mocking and cruel. “I should have guessed the King of Hell’s whore would grab power for his new master.”
Steve smiled, and it was not a pretty smile. “And I should have guessed that the head of HYDRA would be too cowardly to meet the challenge fairly. After all, HYDRA uses angels to do their dirty work, don’t they?”
Within moments, the gates of heaven opened and Obadiah strode out, dressed in dull iron armor that was colored black and grey, his whip coiled at his belt and his sword unsheathed. “If it’s a personal challenge you want, boy, we need terms,” Obadiah growled. “What do I get if I win?”
“You get to remain in power. You get my allegiance. And you get to know that you managed to beat your most powerful opponent in combat. You think Anthony will have anyone brave enough to stand up to you when you could defeat me?” Steve grinned, and it was a shark’s grin, a devilish grin. “Let’s go.”
In one fluid motion, Obadiah had his whip unfurled and lashing out, lightning dancing along the edge, and Steve cried out. Around him, his team shouted in indignation, but he had no time to focus on them, not now. Not when he was desperately trying to keep ahead of Obadiah’s lightning attacks, fast and precise, preventing him from pulling out his shield and protecting himself.
With a snarl, the next time Obadiah snapped the whip out, Steve caught it and grit his teeth as the powerful bolts shook his body. Slowly, inexorably, he dragged Obadiah closer and closer.
Then Obadiah whipped out his sword and nearly decapitated Steve – as it was, the sword bit into the meat of Steve’s shoulder and Steve cried out, dropping the whip. Desperately, he tried to get his shield up to block another blow from the sword.
“You think you’re better than us?” Obadiah yelled, the whip crackling as it lashed out again, scoring Steve across the chest. “You think your hands are any cleaner, when you walked children into jail, when you created and enforced the laws that kept people docile? You think you’re innocent of the oppression and pain? You’re a part of the system, Steve, and the fact that you were blessed by the Father makes it all the sweeter.”
“I can still change the system,” Steve grunted, and he launched himself at Obadiah.
Within minutes, Obadiah was lying dead at Steve’s feet.
It took a bit for Steve to realize he’d choked the man to death, and then he jumped off of Obadiah’s corpse and stared.
“Well, that was anti-climactic,” Clint grumbled.
“You sure you want to leave?”
“I am sure. There are other worlds for SHIELD to protect, and my lady Jane has agreed to head the Council on this new world. We will keep HYDRA from reforming.” Thor clasped Steve’s hand and shook it once. “Are you sure you will not come with us? This earth has little for us left. Humans have rejected our presence. You will not be welcome, with your wings and your magic.”
“I’m sure,” Steve replied, smiling. “I think I have something waiting for me, you know.”
Thor smiled warmly. “Aye. I will visit as often as I can, shieldbrother.”
“And I, you,” Steve replied, yanking Thor’s arm to his chest so he could draw Thor into a tight hug. “Keep safe.”
Thor nodded and left. Steve looked around the room – the office of the head of the Council, and where Steve had found incriminating paper after incriminating paper. HYDRA hadn’t just wanted a world remade in their image, they wanted a broken world, a world without spirit, a world that would produce products that HYDRA could broker with other worlds. HYDRA was by no means completely gone, but with the thorough cleaning of the house, Steve was confident that should a single HYDRA agent sneak into another world, the remaining SHIELD agents would notice and react appropriately. Deciding he’d done as much as he could here, he treated himself to a break, spreading his wings and launching himself into the air.
SHIELD had tried, desperately, long and hard, to reclaim this world. They’d tried to quell the riots and the looting, the violence against any beings that looked like they might have been angels or had angelic blood. Finally, they agency as a whole, led by Nicholas and Xavier, had decided to wash their hands of this planet. In the future, perhaps they’d be back to check on it, make sure the demons weren’t too much of an infestation, but for now, all the angels were leaving.
Except Steve and Bucky. Bucky, because he was staying for Steve. And Steve, well…
He rubbed nervous fingers against his pants as he landed. He knew his way, now, but there might not be anyone there. Certainly, it would be foolish for Tony to return here, of all places…
But he could hear him, as he walked through the maze of tunnels and up to the doors of the mansion. And that meant Tony was here.
He knocked on the door.
There was absolute silence for a minute, and then Tony was swearing under his breath at how someone had managed to find him here, here, of all places, and then the door was flung open.
Steve had the pleasure of seeing Tony speechless for the first time, ever.
“Miss me?” Steve asked quietly.
“I – the angels are leaving today. Rhodey wasn’t sure if he should stay or go, and I told him he should go, should return to his brothers, but he’s stubborn in his own way – why don’t you come in? Or are you leaving? That looks really nice on you, by the way.” Tony stepped back, and Steve followed him into the foyer.
Around him was his right-hand people: Pepper, Rhodey, Happy, Harley, and Rumiko. Steve glanced at them, but he really didn’t care if they witnessed this part. “I’m not leaving. I’m staying. With you.”
“You—” Tony broke off, voice choked in his throat, and Rumiko made a pleased sound.
“If you’ll have me,” Steve added on the end. “Also, Bucky stuck around too.”
“The more the merrier,” Pepper purred. “Come on, everyone. Let’s give them some… alone time.”
Tony didn’t seem to notice or hear. He stared up at Steve in shock. “You – you really are staying?”
“Really staying,” Steve murmured, stepping forward, and the way that their bodies met, that their lips brushed one another, that their arms slotted perfectly around one another – all of it meant that Steve had made the right decision.