New York City, three years ago
Central Park was glowing.
A dome of crackling blue energy encased Sheep Meadow. Its glow was bright enough to make the surrounding lawns and footpaths clearly visible, even at two A.M. on a rain-soaked February night. The rain evaporated where it hit the dome, creating an eerie halo of fluorescent blue fog around it. Writhing blue tendrils snaked along the ground, detouring around trees and structures. From an aerial vantage point, Steve could see that three of the tendrils had reached north all the way to the lake, making the waters behind Bethesda Fountain boil, and several more were creeping up on Central Park West.
"Can you tell what it is?" he yelled, pitching his voice to carry over the muted roar of Iron Man's jet boots.
"Not specifically." The metal-clad arm around Steve's waist tightened a little as Tony slowed their flight and tilted them to hover vertically above the dome. "My sensors don't recognize the energy signature, which means it's magic rather than tech." He didn't actually add "I hate magic," but the disgust in his voice made his sentiments clear enough.
Steve did a quick visual search for the rest of the team. Spider-Woman was flying in tight circles a few yards below them. Spider-Man clung precariously to the little weather vane tower atop the carousel roof. Luke was out of sight, but he had to be on the ground somewhere, hidden by the trees.
"Can everyone hear me?" Steve called out. Magic tended to play hell with their communicators.
There was a ragged chorus of acknowledgement, broken only by a few mild bursts of static. Thank God for small favors.
"Right. Everyone stay back until we know what we're dealing with. Luke, can you see anything useful down where you are?"
"Just a lot of blue," Luke grumbled. "What the hell is this thing?"
"Hey, guys." Spider-Man's voice sounded a little shaky. "I don't mean to be an alarmist or anything, but the last time my Spider-sense went off like this, Galactus tried to have the Earth for a midnight snack. Not that I think this is Galactus, unless he's shrunk down a hell of a lot and taken up special-effects displays as a hobby, I'm just saying--"
"Thank you, Peter," Steve said quickly. "Tony, can you take us closer?"
"Take care, Captain!" a new voice called out. Steve turned to see Stephen Strange floating toward them, his cape billowing behind him far more dramatically than the speed of his flight would account for. "There is strong infernal magic at work here, and a great deal of energy being channeled. Let me examine the area before you make any moves."
Steve waved his free arm toward the dome. "Be my guest."
"Hold on," Tony said. "Are you using 'infernal' metaphorically here, or--"
"Absolutely not. Whatever this spell is, it's drawing power from one of the hell dimensions. The energy signature is unmistakable." Strange turned toward the dome and made a fluid, complex gesture with his hands. Nothing happened that Steve could see, but Strange's habitually stern expression grew even darker than usual. "I don't know what Doom thinks he's doing, but he must be stopped immediately."
"Doom," Tony sighed. "Why am I not surprised. Is he in there?"
"And is anyone else in there with him?" Steve added. The weather and the late hour would keep most people out of the park, but the place was never entirely empty. If Doom had innocent bystanders trapped in that dome with him, the situation would become even more complicated than it already was.
"I can't tell." Strange gestured again, and shook his head in frustration. "Has anyone contacted the Fantastic Four? They tend to know what he's up to."
"I'm trying." Tony tilted his head back slightly into what Steve had come to recognize as his "checking my readouts" posture. Light flickered in his helmet's eye slits. "No response at the Baxter Building. Actually, I think Reed said something last week about going off-planet."
Knowing Reed Richards, that could mean anything from "intergalactic emergency" to "family picnic three solar systems over." Either way, it seemed the Avengers were on their own for this one.
"We should--" Steve meant to suggest that they join Luke on the ground, but his voice was drowned out by an ominous rumble, followed by a startled yelp from Spider-Man.
"Uh, team?" Luke's voice sounded strained. "Is Manhattan supposed to get earthquakes? 'Cause we seem to be having a doozy right now."
Below them, the ground bulged and the trees swayed. The water in the lake churned, and the carousel sprang to life with an incongruously cheery burst of colored lights and tinny music. At least a dozen new tendrils sprouted from the dome, slithering along the grass in all directions. An icy burst of wind whipped the rain across Steve's face and made him tighten his hold on Tony.
"This can't be good," Tony muttered.
The air around them rippled with energy in a way that made Steve's hair stand up on the back of his neck. The next burst of wind was impossibly warm, and smelled of brimstone. A moment later, Strange arched his back and screamed. Blood burst from his ears and nose, dripped from his eyes like tears. Spider-Woman swerved toward him as he began to plummet, but she wasn't going to be fast enough.
"Peter!" Steve snapped.
A web line shot out to intercept Strange in mid-fall. Steve hoped Peter would find a way to bring him down safely, but there was no time to worry about it now.
"Tony, I don't care if you blast through it or tunnel under it, we need a way inside that dome."
Tony's response was cut off by a burst of high-pitched chittering noise. The night sky above them abruptly became even darker, blotted out by a roiling black cloud that moved toward them as they watched.
"What the hell is that?" Spider-Woman demanded.
A few small fragments detached themselves from the cloud and zoomed ahead, coming close enough to be illuminated by the dome's glow. Steve caught a glimpse of fanged muzzles and webbed, claw-tipped wings. Tony must've seen it too, because it was he who answered Spider-Woman's question.
Steve crouched on a creaky piece of scaffolding three stories up the facade of a darkened office building, and watched the children play in Bowling Blue. There were maybe ten or twelve kids all together, ranging in age from toddler to preteen, playing some sort of complicated version of tag that involved a great deal of running back and forth across the lawn of spongy blue moss that gave the park its name. The smoky oil-light of the street lamps didn't allow for a clear view, but to Steve they all seemed cheerful enough, not at all afraid, and in the hour since Steve had staked out this block, he'd seen no sign of the spirifer who'd been recently rumored to be preying on the young in this part of Barrelhouse Row.
Children's souls were supposed to be more pure, and therefore more valuable than adult ones. Tempting targets for the illegal soul trade. And many of the ones in Barrelhouse Row had no adult to look after them, making them easy prey. Of all the new breeds of criminal that had sprung up all over the city since the Descent, Steve hated spirifers the most.
"Anything new up there?" A faint hiss of static accompanied Luke's voice over Steve's communicator. They never got clear reception anymore -- too much magic in the air, according to Tony.
"Nothing." Steve kept his voice low. "Anything on street level?"
"Not a peep." Luke sounded annoyed. "I think today's a bust. Or maybe this whole rumor's a bust."
"Maybe." They'd checked No-battery Park and the Zeeport earlier, with no more luck than they were having now. If there was a spirifer, he or she was keeping clear of the area today. "I'm going to wait a bit longer."
"Suit yourself," Luke said over another burst of static. "I'm going to check the side streets again."
A pair of women in shabby coats emerged from the Customs House, collected three of the younger children, and shepherded them inside. The game paused around them, then resumed again, just as noisy and chaotic as before.
Not a care in the world, Steve thought. Children could adapt to anything, it seemed, even perpetual darkness. The younger ones probably couldn't even remember daylight. He wondered how many of the older ones could recall when Bowling Blue was Bowling Green, and the Watchful Minotaur statue at the north end was the Charging Bull. The old financial district now housed most of Lowered Manhattan's formerly homeless population, as well as anyone else who'd felt like moving into the empty office spaces after the Descent. Federal Hall was now a middle school, and the Stock Exchange housed a thriving flea market twice a week. Tony liked to joke that the place hadn't been this financially solvent in decades.
Steve waited, but there was nothing unusual in the intermittent trickle of in-line skaters and bicyclists along Broadway. The tag game slowly thinned out as more children were called home to dinner. A few wandered off on their own, and Steve signaled Luke to track them until they got to safety. He decided he'd wait until the last kid was gone, then head home himself.
A chorus of high-pitched chirps to the northeast made him rise to his feet. Bats were as common in Lowered Manhattan as pigeons used to be, but when they gathered in large numbers it was usually a bad sign. Somebody below shouted. The children scattered, and the riders and pedestrians swerved toward the buildings, taking shelter where they could. Steve hefted his shield and moved along the scaffold, mindful of the patches of slippery black mold that marred the wood.
"I see them." A bulky Luke-shaped shadow rounded a corner at the far side of the park and jogged northward on Broadway. "Shit. That's a lot of bats. I think they're after somebody."
The bat swarm moved down Broadway in a churning, squealing mass that began a few feet above the pavement and filled the available space between the buildings on either side all the way to the rooftops. The entire block went from dark to pitch-black as thousands of wings blotted out the street lights. Steve couldn't remember seeing that many bats in one place since the Descent. What sort of disaster were they bringing now?
He'd just reached the edge of the scaffolding when a web line shot out from the middle of the swarm to anchor against the building directly ahead. Spider-Man swung out in a clumsy, uncontrolled arc, and several hundred bats detached from the main swarm to follow him. He was clearly in bad shape, not in control of his swing at all. The web would keep him from hitting the ground, but he was going to slam into the glass-and-steel wall ahead of him any moment now.
Steve leaped without thinking, all instincts focused on the spot in mid-air where he wanted to be three seconds from now. He bounced off an awning over an abandoned storefront below, let the shield drop to the street as he tumbled through the air, and got both arms around Peter moments before the other man hit the wall. The collision knocked the breath out of him, but Steve still managed to twist as they fell, to take the brunt of the impact when they hit the ground. He rolled both of them over, kept rolling until they smacked into a lamppost and stopped.
Damn. That was close. He would be bruised from shoulder to hip later, but the adrenaline surge kept him from feeling the pain at the moment. Besides, there was no time to worry about minor injuries. The bats were still coming, and Peter was a limp, motionless weight in Steve's arms. Steve struggled to his feet, slung Peter over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, and sprinted for the nearest doorway. He kicked his way inside, and let the door swing shut behind him just in time to keep the bats out.
The place he'd broken into was stripped bare, but the prescriptions counter in the back and the aisle markers between the rows of empty shelves indicated that it had been a pharmacy once. Steve lowered Peter to the floor, and dragged one of the shelf units over to barricade the door. He could hear the rattling outside, as the bats threw themselves against the metal grating that covered the window. He didn't think they'd break through, but there was no point in taking chances.
Peter was unconscious but breathing. His suit was torn and bloodstained in dozens of spots where the bats had nipped and clawed at him, and there was one especially nasty-looking gash over his left ear. He had a bundle strapped to his back, something square and bulky encased in a thick layer of webbing. Steve left it alone and started to tug at Peter's mask instead, but before he could remove it, there was a crash behind him. The shelf he'd used to block the entrance toppled to the floor, and the door flew off its hinges. A pair of Clay Men barreled through, sledgehammers clutched in fists bigger than Steve's head. One of them was missing an ear, and the other had no fingers on his left hand.
Unfinished Men. What the hell had Peter gotten himself into?
"Yo, Cap, catch!" Luke shouted from outside, just as Steve's shield came flying at him over the Unfinished Men's heads. Steve snatched it in mid-air, and got it angled over his head just in time to absorb a bone-jarring hammer blow from one of his attackers. A moment later, Luke knocked the other one to the floor with a flying tackle.
Fighting Unfinished Men took no skill, just brute strength. Steve ducked beneath another ponderous hammer swing, and slammed the shield edge-on into his opponent's midsection. It sank in with an unpleasant squelching sound and a splatter of damp mud. The Unfinished Man doubled over with a grunt, and Steve pulled the shield free and smashed it down on the back of his head. The man went down and stayed down. Steve turned just in time to watch Luke finish pummeling his opponent's head into a smear of mud on the floor.
"Thanks," Steve said.
"No problem." Luke shook bits of clay from his hands. "They'll get up again in a few minutes, though."
"I know. We need to get Spider-Man out of here." Steve knelt at Peter's side. "Are the bats still out there?"
Luke gestured toward the busted door. "See for yourself."
Outside, some quick-thinking soul had smashed open a street lamp and used the flame to set the contents of a trash can on fire. The oily smoke that poured out smelled vile, but it served to keep the bats at bay. A few of the bolder pedestrians were breaking off branches from the dead trees in the park and piling them in the middle of the street to make a bonfire. The bats shrieked and retreated upward. A few tried to dive-bomb the bonfire builders and were waved back with burning branches. Once a proper fire got started, the entire swarm turned and headed northward, presumably back to their masters at the Brass Embassy.
"We need to get a move on," Luke said. "If the devils want Spider-Man this badly, they'll send reinforcements."
"I don't think it's Spider-Man they want." Steve finally detached the bundle from Peter's back and held it up. "I think it's this."
"Huh." Luke poked at the thick layer of webbing with one finger. "What the hell is it?"
"We can find out later." Steve slung the shield onto his back and tucked the bundle under his arm. It felt surprisingly heavy for its size. "Right now, we need to figure out how to move Peter." Normally he might've summoned one of the Jessicas to carry Peter back to the Sanctum Sanctorum, but if the bats were still on the prowl, flying was a bad idea. Maybe they could get somebody to run for the medics...
"Hang on, I see something." Luke hopped over the pile of broken shelving in front of the door and jogged outside. Steve could hear him muttering "Watch it, folks, coming through, coming through..." as he shouldered his way through the crowd, followed by an earsplitting "Yo, taxi!"
Steve used his free arm to haul Peter up again and carry him outside. The crowd on the sidewalk parted to clear his way toward Luke, who was handing a fistful of glim to a wiry young man in a pedicab.
"Come on, Cap." Luke waved him over. "I got us a ride."
And that, Steve thought, was possibly the first thing that had gone right for them all day.
Peter twitched and moaned a few times during the ride uptown, but was still unconscious by the time the pedicab reached Bleecker Street. The Sanctum Sanctorum looked like an abandoned wreck from the outside, all boarded-up windows and scorched, crumbling walls. Inside was warmth and soft light. Wong and MJ met them in the foyer with a first aid kit, reassuringly calm and efficient.
"What happened?" Wong demanded once they had Peter settled on an ottoman in front of the fireplace.
"We're not sure," Luke said. "He had a swarm of bats on his tail when we spotted him. I think he might've had a run-in with some Unfinished Men, too. Two of them attacked us when we first tried to help him."
"It sure as hell wasn't bats who did that." MJ dabbed antiseptic on the bloodied lump over Peter's ear. "He didn't die at any point, did he?"
Steve shook his head. "Not while we were with him, anyhow."
Death in Lowered Manhattan was a temporary condition most of the time; you had to practically dismember an opponent if you wanted to be sure they wouldn't get up again. Still, Wong had been very emphatic in warning the Avengers not to become cavalier about mortal injury. Something about it "anchoring" the victim in this dimension, which would become a problem if they ever found their way back to Earth. Wong was their best remaining authority on magical matters, so they all took his word for it. No one ever asked aloud if a way back was even possible.
"He had this with him." Steve held up the bundle Peter had been carrying. Most of the webbing had dissolved during their cab ride, revealing a rectangular metal box, slightly smaller than a shoebox. The sides of the box were plain, but the top was covered with an intricate arrangement of dozens of interlocking gears, the largest about the size of a silver dollar, the smallest no bigger than Steve's thumbnail. "I think it's what the bats where after."
"Hm." Wong took the box from Steve and examined the gears with a puzzled frown. "Do you know where he might've gotten it?"
"Not for sure," Luke said. "But if I had to bet, I'd bet on the Brass Embassy."
"Not a wager I'd take." Wong ran his fingers over the gears. "Whatever is inside, the devils must value it highly. Locks like this are extremely difficult to make."
"Can you open it?" Steve asked.
"Not without a great deal more knowledge than we've got right now." Wong prodded one of the larger gears to make it turn. There was a series of faint clicks as several of the other gears moved in response. "I've seen similar locks back in our world, but never anything this intricate. The gears must be arranged in a specific sequence in order to release the locking spell. There's usually an accompanying spell to reveal the pattern. Without it, the possible combinations are nearly infinite. I'll check the library, but if the spell was custom-designed..." He sighed and handed the box back to Steve. "You might have Mr. Stark take a look. It is a combinatorics problem, after all."
"True," Steve said. "If nothing else, it might put him in a better mood." Tony was always antsy these days. A nice mechanical puzzle to play with would probably be good for him.
"Great," Luke said. "I'm gonna go upstairs and cuddle my wife and kid. You go keep the mad scientist in the basement happy."
Like all the other levels in the building, the basement in Sanctum Sanctorum tended to adjust to the needs of its occupants. Tony needed a workshop, so he got a workshop, complete with a number of sturdy lab tables and enough space for all the equipment he'd scrounged from Stark Tower and the Baxter Building. When he started spending all his days down there, a bathroom and a shower stall had materialized, then a small nook with a cot and a dresser. Steve privately wished that the house wouldn't encourage Tony's bad habits, but with Strange dead, there was no one around to complain to.
For once, Tony wasn't elbow-deep in circuitry when Steve came in. The generator was off, and the room was illuminated only by the screen of Tony's laptop and a couple of half-gallon jars filled with phosphorescent beetles. Tony sat on the floor in a dejected slump, his back propped against what looked like an eight-foot-tall picture frame made out of wires and circuit chips. He must've been working until recently -- the brazier where he heated his soldering tips was still smoldering, and the air smelled of charcoal smoke. An open notebook lay on the floor at Tony's feet, the pages covered in Reed Richards's illegible handwriting.
"Hey," Steve said, and Tony looked up with a start. There were charcoal smears on his t-shirt and on his face, and he badly needed a shave.
"Steve." Tony's eyes had that bleary look that he usually got when he'd gone more than twenty-four hours without sleep. "Did you just get back?"
"A couple of minutes ago." Steve put the box down on the nearest table and sat down on the floor next to Tony, close enough for their arms to brush. "How's it going?"
Tony let out a tired, impatient sigh and listed sideways a little, letting his weight sag against Steve's shoulder. The contact lasted barely a heartbeat, then Tony shivered and pulled away. Steve wanted to tell him that it was all right, he didn't mind being leaned on, but Tony spoke first.
"I've got good news and bad news." He grimaced and ran his hands through his hair. "The good news is, I now understand how Reed made his multiverse portal work. The bad news is, I can't do it."
"I'm sure you'll think of someth--" Steve began, but Tony was shaking his head impatiently.
"It's not a question of me figuring it out. I have figured it out. But the portal needs negative matter to activate it. Reed must've found a way to produce the stuff, but whatever device he used, he didn't keep it in the Baxter building. It couldn't be just a simple Casimir oscillator, that wouldn't produce enough; he must've come up with something more--" He broke off and made a vague "I give up" gesture with one hand.
"I... see," Steve said, though he wasn't at all sure he did. "You have a working portal, but no fuel for it."
"Story of my life these days." Tony sighed. "Dammit. Ten months of work, and for what? " He tilted his head back and aimed a poisonous glare at the device looming above him. "My sixth dead end in three years. Stupid, useless piece of shit..."
"Hey." Steve sincerely hoped Tony was talking about the device. "Don't beat yourself up over it. You're trying to create interdimensional travel with nineteenth-century technology. Of course it's going to take time."
"Tell that to the million and a half people outside who want to go home," Tony muttered.
It was always like this. In the three years since the Descent, both Tony and Wong had spent most of their time searching for a way to return Manhattan to its proper place in the multiverse, with Wong focusing his efforts on Dr. Strange's library and Tony sticking with what he called "the engineering approach." But where Wong seemed to take his repeated failures philosophically, Tony kept sinking into a blacker mood with each setback. The jokes about the mad scientist in the basement were getting less funny every day.
How many days had it been since Tony had last been upstairs? The fact that Steve couldn't remember proved that it had been too long, and he mentally kicked himself for losing track. He'd made it something of a personal mission to ensure that Tony didn't recluse himself in the basement completely, that he would occasionally come up for a proper meal and a bit of conversation with somebody other than Steve. The others teased him about it -- Luke and Jessica had announced several times that little Danni was available if Steve was that desperate for somebody to nanny -- but they didn't know Tony the way he did. They didn't understand how obsessed he could get, how he let his own health and sanity fall by the wayside when he thought he was failing at something.
It might've been different if Tony could still go out as Iron Man. But Lowered Manhattan had no power grid, not even sunlight to provide solar power. Tony had a generator and a dwindling supply of gasoline to fuel it, and he was hoarding it all for his work in the lab. There was nothing to spare for charging the armor. Without it, Tony had focused all his shaky sense of self-worth on his efforts to move Manhattan between dimensions. And so far, all those efforts had come to nothing.
"I'm sure you'll figure it out," Steve said, acutely aware of how weak that sounded. Judging from the look on Tony's face, he was aware of it too.
"I can't afford to wait for 'eventually'! I'm down to less than a third of my gasoline stash. What happens when I can't fuel the generator anymore and every piece of equipment in this fucking lab turns into a very expensive paperweight?" Tony closed his eyes and tilted his head back to lean against the machine behind him. He looked utterly drained, and not just from lack of sleep. Steve wished he had more to offer than empty reassurances, then remembered that for once he did.
"Sounds as if you could use a distraction." He got up and retrieved Peter's box from the table. "Here. See what you can make of this."
"It's... a box." Tony took it, turned it from side to side, rested it in his lap and ran his hands over the gears. "Where did it come from?"
"We don't know yet." Steve gave a quick description of their run-in with the bats and the Unfinished Men. Tony's expression shifted as he listened, from exhausted gloom to an odd mixture of concern and excited curiosity.
"Is Peter all right?" He demanded when Steve finished.
"He'll be fine." Steve shrugged. "He's had a bad knock on the head, but you know how it is down here. If you don't die, you're all right, and if you do die -- well, most of the time you're all right anyhow. "
"Great." Curiosity had free reign now. Tony jumped to his feet and carried the box closer to one of the glowing beetle jars. "Hmm. Well, Wong is right about it being a combinatorics problem, but there's no way I can try every possible combination here, not when each one has to be set by hand." He raised the box higher and lowered his head until his nose was nearly touching the gears. "I wonder if these come off..."
"You don't think you could just dismantle it, do you?" Steve asked. Tony shook his head.
"The devils aren't stupid. They're not going to build a lock like this and then stick it on something you could just take apart. But if I can see the mechanism beneath the gears, I might be able to figure out how it's supposed to unlock. Or at least reduce the number of combina-- wait, did you know there's writing on it?"
"There is?" Steve hadn't noticed any marks at all. "Where?"
Tony stepped aside to let Steve get closer to the light. "Here, have a look."
Sure enough, once he leaned close and squinted, Steve could see that each gear was marked with a tiny, faintly etched symbol. It didn't look like any writing he'd ever seen, but then according to Wong, the devils in this version of hell had thirteen different alphabets, each with own highly specific purpose.
"I bet it's a cipher." Tony sounded positively gleeful at the prospect. "I bet if I solve it, it'll tell me how to open the lock. I should--"
"Excuse me, Captain. Mr. Stark." Wong stood just inside the doorway, looking slightly less imperturbable than usual. "The Black Widow has just arrived. She says she knows what happened to Peter."
"For the record," Natasha slurred through a fat lip and a swollen jaw, "I never told him to steal any box. That was entirely his own idea."
They -- Steve, Natasha, Tony and Wong -- were gathered in the kitchen, in accordance with the unwritten house rule of "if Tony comes out of the basement, feed him." Now Wong had a pot of mushroom soup reheating on the stove, and the kettle on the burner next to it, which raised Steve's hopes for the possibility of tea or coffee. Earth-imported foodstuffs like tea leaves and coffee beans -- and flour and sugar, for that matter -- appeared at the Bazaar only at the Masters' whim, and were worth their weight in rostygold. Wong normally rationed them with an iron hand, but apparently the combination of Tony's presence and Natasha's battered state qualified this as a special occasion.
"What exactly is going on?" Steve demanded. "What's in that box, anyway?"
"I have no idea." Natasha winced as she shifted the icepack against her jaw. "All I know is, about a week ago, all these couriers with Brass Embassy insignia started going in and out of the Library. I poked around, and it seems that some senior devil back in Hell has decided that keeping all the Embassy Archives in one centralized location is too risky. So out goes an Infernal Decree, and now they're dispersing the Archive contents to hidey holes all over the city."
"Okay." Steve decided not to ask what Natasha meant by "poking around." She tended to be disturbingly well-informed about doings at the Brass Embassy and the personal habits of devils. "So how does Peter fit into all this?"
"By accident, mostly." Natasha shrugged. "I've been trailing the couriers whenever I got the chance, noting down the hidey hole locations. It seemed like it might be useful intel someday. Know your enemy, and all that. Yesterday, I ran into Peter just as two couriers were leaving at once. I asked him to follow one while I took the other. Follow, that's all. Not rob. I don't know what the hell he was thinking."
"Maybe it called to him," Tony said. Everyone turned and stared at him until he heaved an exasperated sigh and rolled his eyes. "Come on! It's a puzzle box made in Hell. For all we know, it could be sentient."
"Then maybe you shouldn't be keeping it in your lap," Natasha said dryly.
"Good point." Tony moved the box to the table. It sat there, looking perfectly innocent, and showed no sign of calling anybody.
"There didn't have to be a specific reason," Steve pointed out after a few moments. "Peter can be... impulsive, sometimes."
"As opposed to the rest of the superhero community, which is so well-known for its caution." Wong ladled soup into bowls and set them on the table. "We can ask Peter about his line of reasoning when he wakes. The question is, what do we do in the meantime?"
"Whatever it is," Natasha said, "I suggest you do it quietly. I've never seen the devils so stirred up. I was ambushed three times on my way here, and I don't think they even know I'm involved. They're just going after anybody in costume."
"If that's true," Wong said, "then this must be a very important box."
"Meaning I should stop lallygagging and get the damn thing open." Tony sighed. "I get the message."
"Having dinner is not lallygagging," Steve said firmly. "And you're not going to get anything done if you keel over."
Tony didn't look especially convinced by this line of argument, but he did start eating. Steve decided to count it as a victory.
"I'll see what I can discover in the library," Wong said when they were all done with their soup. "It'll help to have a copy of all the symbols on these gears. If they really are one of Hell's alphabets, I may be able to find something useful in my notes, or in one of Dr. Strange's old journals."
"I'll copy it for you," Tony promised. "Hopefully, it won't make my hair catch on fire or anything."
"I don't think that really happens," Wong said, but he didn't sound all that sure.
Natasha refused Wong's offer of a guest room, shrugging it off with a joke about needing to feed her houseplant before it ate the neighbors. At least, Steve thought it was a joke. He got her to borrow a coat and hat from Jessica Drew before she left, and hoped it would keep her from being ambushed yet again before she made it to wherever it was she was living these days.
Tony disappeared into his workshop, and Wong into the library, leaving Steve at loose ends. He felt as if he should be going out and doing something, but there was nothing to be done, not until they had more information. That seemed to be the running theme in Steve's life these days, and he hated it.
He understood the need for good intelligence; any competent soldier did. But ever since the Descent, life had become an endless, thankless scramble for scraps of knowledge; scraps that often made no sense, or made sense only on alternate Thursdays, or needed a thousand other scraps to put them into context. And the end goal of all the scrambling wasn't even victory -- just plain survival.
Both the devils and the Masters of the Bazaar loved secrets, and they loved to keep the human population of Lowered Manhattan guessing. The rules of the world were forever shifting. Curfews, taxes, the number of days in a week, the prices at the Bazaar, the list of proscribed materials -- anything could change at any time, and ignorance of the law was no defense. Only the electricity ban and the law against unlicensed soul trading remained constant. In a way, Steve had to admire the devils' strategy. It was nearly impossible to organize an effective resistance when you had to do three days' worth of reconnaissance just to go on a grocery run.
Here they were now, expending valuable time and resources on what was probably some junior devil's boxed lunch, and all Steve could do to help was wash the dishes.
"Cap?" MJ came in, looking tired but reassuringly calm. "Peter's awake."
Peter appeared to be deeply embarrassed, but otherwise none the worse for wear. He was sitting up on the ottoman with a pile of pillows propping his back and a blanket draped over his legs. The combination of rueful expression and the slightly too-long hair flopping over the bandage on his forehead made him look about twelve years old.
"It just seemed like such a perfect opportunity," he said sheepishly. "A carriage horse near the park got spooked and ran up on the sidewalk, mowed that courier guy right down. He let go of the box. All I had to do was shoot a web out."
"If you ever pull something like that again," MJ growled at him, "I'm going to leave you to bleed to death on the rug."
"No, you won't," Peter said. "It's Wong's rug."
"So what you're telling me," Steve said, "is that you've been attacked, Natasha's been attacked, and the Unfinished Men are out there trying to beat up anyone in a costume, all over a box that we don't know how to open, containing we don't know what."
Peter shrank a little against his pile of pillows. "Yeah."
"Great," Steve muttered, and went back down to the basement to see if Tony was making any progress.
The smell of burnt plastic wafting up the stairs boded ill, and the harried look on Tony's face did not reassure.
"Are you planning to burn down the house?" Steve asked as he ducked through the door into a cloud of smoke. "Because some advance notice would be nice."
"Ha-ha." Tony was waving a spiral-bound notebook in front of his face as if it was a fan. He was wearing welding goggles, though Steve could see no welding equipment anywhere. Maybe he'd put them on to keep the smoke from his eyes. "I've been trying to copy these symbols for Wong, that's all. Except I don't think they want to be copied."
The mystery box was on the table in front of him. It was surrounded with scattered sheets of paper, all with jagged, black-edged holes burned through them. Scattered among the mess were several twisted lumps of charred metal and plastic that might've once been Tony's drafting pencils, and one larger lump whose origins Steve couldn't make out.
"Do I want to know how this happened?" Steve picked up one of the papers and squinted at it in the dim light. "It looks as if you've been trying to write with a soldering iron."
"It couldn't have gone any worse if I had," Tony grumbled. "I tried to be clever at first -- had a stash of double-A batteries charged up from a few days ago, so I popped a couple into a digital camera and tried to take a photo." He prodded the large lump on the table with one sooty fingertip. "That was the camera."
"Ouch." Steve eyed the box with new-found respect. "Maybe you shouldn't be messing with it until we know more."
"Don't be ridiculous," Tony huffed. "It's not hurting me any. I think the symbols don't mind being read; it's the writing they object to."
"The fact that you think they have opinions," Steve said, "is cause enough to worry in my book."
Tony laughed, not very convincingly. "It's just a figure of speech. Of course they don't have opinions. And if they did, I wouldn't give a shit, because I'm not letting a goddamn magic alphabet tell me what to do."
Steve's view of that must've shown on his face, because Tony burst out laughing and smacked Steve's chest with the back of his hand.
"Relax, will you? Tell you what, if these scribbles do start having opinions, I'll just call you down here to disapprove at them. Not even Hell's alphabets could stand up to that."
He grinned, and despite his concern, Steve found himself grinning back. For all the soot and the smoke, Tony seemed to be genuinely enjoying the challenge the box presented. Steve couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Tony like this, energized and excited about his work instead of brooding over his latest failure. Even back on Earth, this side of Tony had shown itself all too rarely. Since the descent, it had disappeared almost completely, and Steve missed it, dammit.
"All right," Steve said, "it's your call for now. But promise that you will tell me if anything goes wrong. Or, better yet, tell Wong. He's more likely to know what to do."
"Promise." Tony traced a little X over his heart. "Now go away and let me work."
"Remember, no burning down the house without advance notice," Steve told him, and went upstairs to finish the dishes.
Natasha returned the next morning, in civilian clothes, bearing a bag of bagels and a jar of spiced mushroom spread. Her jaw had swelled even more impressively overnight, and turned a vivid shade of purplish-blue that clashed with her hair. She and Peter made a fine pair of battered bookends at the opposite ends of the breakfast table.
"It's still a mess out there," Natasha said grimly. "The Unfinished Men are out in packs, and the LMPD is setting up checkpoints. Yesterday they were going after anyone in a costume. Today they're just going after anyone. I hope you all appreciate these bagels, because I got patted down twice just to fetch them."
"Great," Peter muttered. "I do one impulsive thing, and all Hell breaks loose. Literally."
"Really?" Luke said. "Because from where I'm sitting, you've done about a million impulsive things, and now the odds have finally caught up with you."
"Now that's just mean," Peter said. "Entirely true, but mean. Damn, I miss the days when if I messed up, all I had to worry about was a rage-filled editorial in the Daily Bugle. Which was exactly the same as what happened when I didn't mess up, so really not that much of a worry."
"Let's find out what's in that box," Steve said, "before we decide if you've messed up or not. Tony and Wong are both looking into it, but it might take a while. Natasha, you seem to have more contacts among the devils than the rest of us. Can you get anything useful out of them?"
"I can try." Natasha looked uncertain. "I know this filing clerk at the Archive. She says she can get into the records room and find out what that particular courier was supposed to be delivering yesterday. And there are a few junior Embassy officials I've been cultivating. But devils are greedy bastards, and right now they're all nervous, too. I used to be able to intimidate them, if I worked at it a bit, but these days they're more afraid of being caught talking than they are of me. So I'll need bribe money. A lot of it."
"How much?" Steve asked.
Natasha pursed her lips and gazed up at the ceiling for a while, looking as if she was doing sums in hear head. "Let's say... Three hundred thousand echoes. To start with, anyhow."
There was an appalled silence all around the table. Peter, MJ and both Jessicas looked slightly dazed. Luke glanced around dining room with a speculative look in his eye, as if gauging the market value of the furniture. Only little Danni, oblivious to adult concerns, continued to cheerfully bounce in her fathers lap as she gnawed on her bagel.
"Three hundred grand?" Peter squeaked. "That's not bribe money. That's... winning the lottery and breaking the bank in Vegas, all at the same time."
Natasha shrugged. "I'll be asking a lot of devils to run a lot of risk. This isn't just the ordinary business of passing rumors and hints around. We need concrete intelligence here, and the people who have it will have to answer to Hell if they get caught giving it to me. I have to make it worth their while."
"That's great" Jessica Drew grumbled. "But where the hell are we going to get that much money? Is there a human anywhere in the city who actually has that much?"
"The Kingpin," Peter said sourly.
"We are not dealing with the Kingpin," Steve snapped. "I'll go Uptown and talk to the Falcon. He's got his people harvesting glim at the source, they ought to be able to raise a decent sum at short notice."
"Right," Luke said. "I might know a guy who might know a guy who might have a line on some moon pearls."
"Good." Natasha nodded. "I'll talk to the Rubbery Men. If any of them talk back, I can score some amber."
"I'll... be of no use whatsover." Peter slumped in his chair a little. "Man, remember when if you needed a medium-sized fortune, you just went and asked Tony Stark for his pocket change? Those were the days."
"Speaking of Tony..." Steve reached for a bagel. "I should bring him some breakfast."
"You know he might come out of there more often if you didn't keep coddling him," Jessica Jones pointed out.
Steve pretended he hadn't heard that.
Steve came down to the basement to find the generator running and the room flooded with electric light. This was such a rare occurrence that he stopped in the doorway and stared for a while, blinking as his eyes adjusted to more light than he'd seen in months. Normally, even when Tony had the power on, he never wasted it on something as mundane as illumination. They had candles and beetles for that, expensive but legal and fairly easy to find.
"Hey, Tony." Steve finally himself and stepped all the way into the room. Tony was sitting at his worktable, scribbling rapidly in a notebook. "What's going on?"
"Steve!" Tony sounded disturbingly cheery, almost manic. "I've been making progress." He waved the notebook -- slightly tattered but unsinged -- in one hand.
"That's good." Steve shoved another notebook aside to make room for the plate he'd brought down. "Have you been up all night?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Tony said in a tone that clearly meant yes, of course I have. He was wearing yesterday's clothes, including the welding goggles, and his skin had a pasty look Steve didn't like at all. "And anyway, that's not the point. The point is, I've found a way to get these symbols copied over. The trick is to write them down backwards."
"Okay." Steve opened the notebook that was lying on the table. The symbols Tony had put down looked a little bit like Egyptian hieroglyphics, a little bit like some ancient writings Namor had once shown him in Atlantis, and a little bit like the mutant aliens spider he once saw in a cheesy sci-fi flick on late-night cable. In fact, if he looked at them for more than a few seconds at a time, some of the lines seemed to wriggle and squirm on the page. Steve slapped the cover shut and rubbed his suddenly-itchy eyes. "Should I bring these up to Wong, then?"
"No!" Tony swept his arms across the table and gathered both notebooks to him in an oddly possessive gesture. "I mean, not yet. Not until I get it all in order and write up my findings. No point in Wong going over stuff I've already done, right?" He looked down at the pile of paper in front of him, winced, and raised one hand to rub at his eyes. He seemed startled when his knuckles met the frame of his goggles.
"Right. Sure." Steve made a move as if to pick up one of the notebooks, and Tony immediately hunched over it in a protective huddle. "Tell me what's wrong."
"Nothing!" Tony sat up straight but kept his arms folded in a circle on top of the table, as if shielding his notes from some imminent threat. "I just-- I really need to keep working, all right?"
"I don't know, I'm starting to think you need to stop." Steve glanced around the room as the question he should've asked as soon as he came in finally occurred t him. "Where's the box?"
"It's..." Tony fidgeted in his seat a little, then finally lifted one arm with visible reluctance and pointed toward his sleeping nook. "It's over there."
The box was sitting on top of Tony's nightstand, within easy arm's reach of his pillow. The covers on the cot were twisted up and crumpled, though that didn't prove that Tony had actually slept the night before -- he hardly ever bothered to make his bed these days.
"What did you do, take it to bed and cuddle it?" Steve laughed, but the laughter stuck in his throat when he saw the furtive, guilty look on Tony's face. "Wait, you didn't really, did you?"
"N-no," Tony muttered without much conviction. When Steve just stared at him, he fidgeted some more and reached up to adjust his goggles. A thick red drop trickled out from under the frame and slid down his cheek like a tear.
"Jesus, Tony!" Steve stepped forward, too fast for Tony to retreat, and snatched the goggles from Tony's face. "What the hell are you doing to yourself?"
The whites of Tony's eyes had gone dark red. Drops of blood beaded at the corners and more blood crusted his lashes.
"Nothing! It's no big deal." Tony grabbed the goggles from Steve's hand and put them back on. "It's just a side effect of the Correspondence."
"The Correspondence?" Steve repeated blankly. Tony tapped the notebook in front of him.
"The symbols on the box. It's not just a code or an alphabet of Hell, it's an entire language unto itself. I think I'm starting to understand it. But..." Tony gave a shaky grin and a shrug. "It's a little hard on the eyes."
"All right, that's enough." Steve marched toward the nightstand, but Tony put on a startling burst of speed and got there first.
"Whoa, wait! What are you doing?"
"I'm locking that thing away until we know what's in it," Steve told him in his best don't-argue-with-me voice. "It's clearly not safe for you to be working on it."
"Oh, come on." Tony shuffled sideways a little, using his body to completely block Steve's view of the nightstand. "It hasn't harmed me any."
"You're weeping blood, Tony. Also, you're creeping me out."
"Nonsense." Tony smirked. "You're Captain America, nothing creeps you out."
"That's what I used to think," Steve said grimly. "Move aside, I'm taking that box."
"Oh, give me a break." Tony spun around, grabbed the box from the nightstand, and stomped across the room with an air of long-suffering exasperation. He shoved the box into a cabinet on the back wall, dug a sturdy-looking padlock from a drawer, and made a great show of locking the cabinet doors.
"There," he said, finally turning to face Steve again. "Satisfied?"
"Give me the key," Steve ordered, and Tony tossed it to him.
"Now are you satisfied?"
"Not quite," Steve said. "You're coming upstairs with me."
"I need to--" Tony began, but Steve stepped forward and gripped his arm before he could get a proper argument going.
"Now, Tony. You're going to eat breakfast--"
"That breakfast right there?" Tony pointed at the bagel Steve had left on the table earlier. Steve snatched up the plate with his free hand.
"We'll bring it back up. You're going to eat it, and then you're going to shower, because I smelled you from across the room and I really wish I hadn't, and then you're going to go and sleep in a proper bed for once, and you're not going to work on any magic boxes or... or Correspondences until we have more intel on what we're dealing with. Got it?"
"Sir, yes sir!" Tony grumbled, and let Steve drag him upstairs.
"The Correspondence?" Wong frowned in a manner that in anyone else would've suggested mild concern, but in him served as a sign of incipient panic. "Are you sure?"
"That's what Tony called it," Steve said. "Why, does that mean anything to you?"
They were in the first-floor library, a handsome room that always made Steve feel a pang of nostalgia for the Avengers Mansion. The elaborate mahogany boiseries were more opulent than the Stark family's more streamlined style, but the thick carpets and the antique furniture gave the same impression of having been selected by somebody with a great deal of money and excellent taste, or at least an excellent decorator. The sturdy oak bookcases that lined the walls held Stephen Strange's entire collection of magical books and journals, as well as everything Wong had managed to add over the past three years. After Tony's workshop, it was probably the largest stockpile of proscribed materials in all of Lowered Manhattan.
Wong sat behind the massive rolltop desk at the back of the room, with several books and one fragile-looking papyrus scroll spread out in front of him. Like Tony, he lit his workspace with jars of glowing beetles -- he didn't like to have candles too close to the books. He'd been immersed in his own research when Steve had come in, but the mention of the Correspondence caused him to immediately put his pen down and give Steve his full attention.
"I've heard of it," he said slowly, "but have never studied it myself. If I recall correctly, it's a written language that has been adopted by the denizens of several Hell dimensions, but is not native to any of them."
"So what is it native to?" Steve asked.
"No one knows." Wong adjusted the wire-rimmed glasses he'd started to wear for reading in the past couple of years. "All I know is, Dr. Strange tried to make a study of it some years ago, using mostly secondary sources, then put it aside. He had a theory that it's sentient, and hostile to humanity."
Steve tried to imagine how that might work, and failed miserably. "How can a language be sentient?"
"You'd be surprised at what unlikely things can be sentient if you know how to recognize them," Wong said wryly. "In any case, I don't know that it's true, only that it's what Dr. Strange believed. What I do know is that scholars who spent too much time examining the Correspondence directly have a way of ending up dead or mad. You were right to get Mr. Stark away from that box."
"Now we just need to make sure he keeps away from it," Steve sighed. "He's asleep upstairs right now, but when he wakes up, tell him what you just told me, will you?" Surely even Tony, with his half-atrophied sense of self-preservation, would know to be wary of hostile sentient languages.
"I'll make it sound very vague and mystical," Wong promised. "That's usually guaranteed to make him stay away in disgust."
"Thanks," Steve said, and went to get changed for his trip Uptown.
The Unfinished Men Steve and Luke had fought the day before would've recovered by now, and reported to their superiors. That meant the Brass Embassy had to know that the Avengers had their mystery box. Going out as Captain America meant inviting trouble not just for himself, but for the Uptowners, whose existence was already precarious enough. Steve hated sneaking around Manhattan as if it were enemy territory instead of home. It seemed like an admission of defeat, somehow. Still, despite frequent accusations to the contrary, he did know when and how to bow to practical necessity. There was more at stake then his pride. So he threw on a leather aviator jacket over jeans and a plain gray sweatshirt, and left his shield behind when he left the house. In the perpetual shadows of Lowered Manhattan, this was as unobtrusive as he was ever likely to get.
No matter how many times he'd done it, that first step through the Sanctum Sanctorum's front door into the street always gave Steve a faint shiver of unease. Wong claimed that he was simply feeling the loss of the magical protections that still clung to the house even after Stephen Strange's death. Steve thought it was the smell. He'd gotten used to the round-the-clock darkness and the muted sounds, to reading by candlelight and doing all his laundry by hand, to car-free streets and darkened billboards in Times Square, to a diet that was ninety percent mushrooms. But the stale, musty air was a forcible reminder that the city wasn't being kept in perpetual night by magic or illusion, it was actually underground, cut off and sealed in. A million and a half people, all buried alive together, and Steve seemed to be the only one still bothered by the thought.
Tony insisted that it was all the same air, indoors and out, and the difference was all in Steve's head. Tony had barely set foot out of the basement in three years, so Steve wasn't inclined to take his opinion for it.
He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and walked north, keeping a wary eye out for the patrols and checkpoints Natasha had warned about. The streets were a great deal emptier than normal. Apparently, everyone who could was staying indoors for the day. After several blocks, Steve ducked into a small grocery store on MacDougal and bought two loaves of bread and a dozen packets of jerky ("100% local-caught squirrel! No rat, bat or pigeon, guaranteed!") The grocery bag gave him a plausible reason to be outside, and some lucky Uptowner would appreciate the donation.
There were LMPD checkpoints every five or six blocks, and Unfinished Men roamed the streets in packs. Steve had to circle out of his way several times, and occasionally duck into doorways to avoid being seen. Luck was with him, though, or maybe just good timing, and he reached Herald Square unmolested. Now, it was just a matter of going up.
In the days immediately following the Descent, Manhattan's population went through a drastic vertical shift. With no electricity to power the elevators, thousands of people were forced to move downwards, leaving the world of luxury high-rises and multimillion-dollar penthouses to anyone who was willing to make the climb. An entirely new infrastructure sprung up nearly overnight, connecting the higher levels of the city through a network of catwalks, zip lines, and complex rope-and-pulley arrangements. Some of the new Uptowners claimed that they hadn't touched the ground in years.
The Macy's building was one of the central access points -- nowhere near the tallest building in the area, but high enough to make the climb a bit of a challenge. Steve slung his grocery bag onto his shoulder, and took a running leap at the south facade. He used the overhang over the door as a springboard to launch himself still higher, caught the lower edge of a third-floor window with one hand, and free-climbed the rest of the way to the top.
There was a platform mounted on the roof, with dozens of nylon cables fanning out in all directions to connect to the surounding buildings. Some of the cables were thick and sturdy enough for climbing, others were barely thicker than a length of fishing line. Steve grabbed one of thinner cables, tugged once, then three times fast, twice, once, three times again. He waited a minute, repeated the sequence, then settled down with his back to the platform to wait for a response. It took a little over five minutes before one of the sturdier cables began to vibrate, signaling that someone was approaching. A few seconds later, a teenage girl in biker shorts and a baggy sweatshirt rappelled across 35th Street to land in a defensive crouch about six feet in front of Steve.
"Who are you?" The girl's expression was wary but unafraid. She had a knife strapped to her thigh, and what looked like the grip of an aluminum baseball bat protruding from the pack strapped to her back. Steve kept his hands in plain sight and did his best not to look like a threat.
"Captain America," he said. "I'm here to see the Falcon."
The girl's eyes widened a little, but she didn't relax her stance or take her gaze off Steve's empty hands. "Got any proof?" she demanded.
Steve dug his Avengers card from his jacket and held it out. "Is this good enough?"
"M-maybe." The girl folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips. Steve thought she was trying just a little too hard to look unimpressed. Teenagers had that reaction to him, sometimes. "What do you want with Sam?"
"I'd rather tell him myself. Here." Steve offered her the grocery bag. The bread was a little squashed, but other than that everything was in good shape. "I've brought a donation."
"Hmm." The girl snatched the bag from his hand and examined the contents before stuffing it into her backpack with an approving nod. "Sam's on the East Side today." She leaped up to grab a cable, swung her legs up and over, dangled upside-down as she gave him a wide grin. "If you're really Captain America, you should be able to keep up."
The trip that followed was fairly dizzying, even by Steve's standards. They traveled fifteen blocks in under ten minutes, leaping and swinging in a manner Steve normally associated with Spider-Man. He kept up, though he thought the girl cheated a couple of times, taking shortcuts over supports that wouldn't hold Steve's weight and forcing him to scramble the long way around. By the time they reached their destination, on the roof of what must've once been an incredibly pricey condo tower just north of the UN, he was starting to wish he hadn't worn a jacket.
Unlike the Macy's building, this one clearly wasn't intended as a transportation hub. There were no cables or catwalks connecting to the surrounding roofs; they'd had jto ump ten feet onto a three-inch ledge from a smaller building next door, then scale the wall the rest of the way to the top. Once they got up there, Steve could see the reason for the limited access. The roof was lined with rows of long, narrow boxes holding the fat black mushrooms that had become the city's main food crop. The air was thick with the smell of damp earth and mulch. Oyster mushrooms sprouted from straw-filled plastic bags suspended from metal frames, and a row of metal trash cans served as planters for one of the odd underground plants exported by the Brass Embassy, the one with the black leaves and the translucent white berries that tasted like candied ginger. And propped up on poles overhead was a glim net, sagging heavily beneath the weight of glossy, blue-black jewels. This close to the cavern roof, the glim didn't have time to break up as it fell, resulting in larger, more valuable pieces. The contents of that one net could keep a Downtown family comfortably housed and fed for a month, even at the inflated Bazaar prices.
"You'll have to hang here for a while." Steve's guide made a quick round of the mushroom garden, checking the box contents with a critical eye before squatting at the edge of the roof, directly opposite where Steve was standing. "The Falcon patrols this side of town in the mornings, but I can't say for sure when he'll be here." She gripped the edge and let her feet swing down, dangling by her fingertips. "I'll tell him you're waiting if I see him."
"What if he's already come and gone?" Steve asked, but the girl dropped out of sight before he finished getting the words out. By the time he jogged across the roof and looked down, she was shimmying down the wall, five floors below him and at least fifty floors above the street. "Thanks!" Steve called after her, but she didn't look up.
There was nothing left to do but sit and wait again, so Steve sat and waited. This high above the city, the world was eerily silent. The phosphorescent spots on the cavern roof looked almost like stars except that the unfamiliar constellations they formed never changed. Steve found himself drumming his fingers against the side of one of the metal planters, just to have a bit of ordinary noise to ground him.
A series of short, high-pitched hoots in the distance made him rise to his feet and raise one arm in greeting. A few seconds later, the Falcon glided down to a smooth landing on the one corner of the roof that wasn't covered by glim net. Redwing circled overhead, still hooting.
"Cap." The Falcon's wings shimmered out of existence as he stepped forward to shake Steve's hand. "You're not looking like your usual colorful self."
"Unfortunately," Steve said, "my usual colorful self is kind of wanted right now."
"I know." Sam's smile grew a little cooler. "We actually had the LMPD up here, for the first time ever. Asking about you and Luke and Spider-Man. Threatening to arrest us all for not paying taxes on our glim. Good times all around."
"Sorry." Steve winced. "They didn't actually arrest anybody, did they?"
"Nah." Sam shrugged it off. "They knew better than to try, up here. Man, you should've seen all the gear they lugged along, just to get here. You'd think they were going up Everest. I think some of the rookies had parachutes." He barked out a laugh, accompanied by a matching cackle from Redwing. "No, the cops were no trouble. If the devils decide to come calling, though -- that could be a different game." He gave Steve a suspicious look. "Are the devils going to come calling?"
"I don't think so," Steve said. "I mean, no one really knows what they'll do. But I'd say if they haven't come up by now, they probably won't. "
"You'd better be right," Sam said darkly. "Okay, then, if you're not here to bring trouble, then why are you here?"
"I need a favor," Steve said. "And before you ask, yes, it's related to yesterday's business. But it's not something anyone will be able to trace to you."
"Uh-huh," Sam said. Redwing swooped down to sit on his shoulder and fixed Steve with a beady, skeptical glare. "What kind of favor?"
"I need glim," Steve told him. "As much you can spare in the next couple of days."
"Really?" Sam raised his eyebrows, and Redwing gave an amused little chirp. "Normally, when you come around looking for a favor, it's because you want me to do something noble and suicidal with you. Captain America begging for money is a new one on me. What do you need it for?"
"It's a long story," Steve said.
"Great." Sam smirked. "I could use some entertainment on a slow day. Talk."
Steve talked, and Sam's expression grew steadily more grave as he listened. He asked no questions when Steve finished, just shook his head and let out a low whistle.
"Damn. That's a hell of a lot of money to cough up when you don't actually know what you're buying."
"I know." Steve nodded. "But we're kind of in a bind here. Whatever's in that box, the devils and the Masters want it badly. We can't give it to them, not without knowing what's in it, and according to Wong there's no safe way to destroy it or get rid of it. We need to know what's in it before we can clear up this mess."
"Great," Sam said sourly. "You know I can't get you three hundred grand in glim, right? It would take weeks to gather that much, even if I could afford to hand you the entire Uptown harvest over that time. Which I can't."
"I know," Steve said. "I'm only asking for what you can afford to spare. And if there's anything I or the Avengers can do for you in return, just say it."
"Well..." Sam looked thoughtful. "I do have a spot of high-rise construction work going on about fifty blocks north that could use another strong back."
Steve shrugged out of his jacket. "Lead the way."
Six and a half hours later, Steve was enjoying a new and enhanced appreciation of walking on solid ground. The sidewalk on Fifth Avenue was nice and broad. It didn't wobble or sway beneath his weight, and if he accidentally stepped off it, he'd just end up in the street, with nothing worse than a stray rollerblader to worry about. Steve had a good head for heights, but a day spent installing what Sam had called "an Uptown extension" over East Harlem came close to exceeding his tolerance.
He was fairly sure that Sam had drafted him mainly for amusement value. Everyone else on the crew had been a skilled construction worker. They hadn't really needed him. But they'd all seemed glad to have him anyway, and it had felt good to do something physical yet non-violent and immediately useful for a change. For all his worries, Steve found himself feeling fairly cheerful as he walked back to the Sanctum Sanctorum. Naturally, it wasn't meant to last.
There was a checkpoint at 42nd Street, large enough that Steve could see it from three blocks away. He veered west to avoid it, then had to keep going to avoid the LMPD patrols that suddenly seemed to be everywhere. By the time he finally turned south again, he was on the riverfront.
At least there were no patrols there, or any other sign of life, for that matter. Not so much as a sorrow-spider creeping in the shadows. The creatures that lived in New Hudson liked to come ashore sometimes, and they had a habit of eating anything they could get their tentacles on. Even the devils tended to avoid the western riverfront, and all of the city's shipping was done on the east side. Steve found himself flexing his fingers as he walked, his hand itching for the comforting weight of his shield.
"Hold it right there, Rogers!"
Damn. He'd been so focused on the potential dangers from the river that he'd missed the sound of human footsteps half a block away. Trust Maria Hill to patrol where no one else would, and to recognize him across a wide, badly-lit street. There was no place to run, and Steve didn't feel like running anyway. He stopped and waited.
Hill wore her old SHIELD battle uniform under a frayed Army jacket with LMPD patches hand-sewn to her right sleeve and breast pocket. The three officers with her wore similar patchwork uniforms. The LMPD itself was a patchwork, formed from the NYPD, SHIELD and military personnel that got stranded in Lowered Manhattan after the Descent. They did a fine enough job dealing with ordinary day-to-day police work, but in a city where Hell ran the legal system and owning a flashlight was a capital crime, they could never be completely trusted. And Hill in particular was not someone to whom Steve was inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. She had followed some pretty shady orders from pretty shady people even back when she was SHIELD.
He wondered what she was doing here. Hill was one of LMPD's higher-ranking detectives, as well as their liaison to the Brass Embassy. Why was she patrolling the streets like an ordinary beat cop? Then again, the ordinary beat cops were probably busy manning the checkpoints.
"Is there a problem, officer?" Steve asked in his blandest, most innocent tone. Hill's answering scowl could've blistered paint.
"Put your hands on your head." She had her gun drawn, all of them did. This would be a tricky fight if it got that far. Steve stayed where he was, hands at his sides.
"Am I under arrest?"
"I'll let you know in a minute. Put your hands up."
If she patted him down, she'd find his Avengers card, with its hundred-year battery and miniaturized transmitter/receiver. Enough proscribed tech to warrant a hanging, or maybe even something permanent. The Masters could get highly inventive with their execution methods when they thought it was worth the bother.
Not that Steve had any intention of letting himself be arrested. "Is this what the LAPD does now? Harass random pedestrians? No wonder you took to the job so well, Hill."
"Shut up," Hill growled. "I have sworn statements from two witnesses saying you made off with Embassy property yesterday. You're lucky I don't arrest you on the spot."
"What witnesses? Unfinished Men?" Steve rolled his eyes. "So well known for their upright moral character. Even the devils won't admit their testimony in court."
"We're not in court." Hill took a step toward him, gun still raised. "For the last time, put your hands up."
The other three officers were fanning out behind her, covering Steve from three sides. Not from the river side, though -- none of them were willing to turn their backs on that black water. That gave him a direction to retreat in, provided he didn't mind getting wet. And possibly eaten. And if Hill got close to him, she'd be in the line of fire, enough to make the others hold their shots for a few moments. He could make this work. Steve raised his arms and clasped his hands together at the back of his neck.
Hill finally holstered her gun to frisk him. She was quick and efficient about it, patting him down from shoulder to ankle, tossing his matches and his Swiss army knife to the ground as she went through his pockets. When she reached the inside chest pocket on his jacket, she paused, fingers tracing the edges of the Avengers card through the cloth. Steve tensed, ready to make a grab. The thought of taking a hostage left a foul taste in his mouth, but it would only be for a few seconds, just enough to get him in position to jump. He was almost ready--
"He's clean." Hill stepped back, sounding thoroughly annoyed with the universe. "Everyone stand down."
Steve lowered his arms, trying to look less confused than he felt. Hill had the excuse to arrest him literally at her fingertips, and she was backing off. What was the point of the whole exercise if she wasn't going to follow through?
"Here's the deal, Rogers." Hill's voice was ice-cold. "The devils want their property back, and they don't care how they get it. They'll tear the city apart if they have to, but there's no reason why they should have to. If that box surfaced again -- in an anonymous package, maybe, or a lost and found office at a police station -- then they'd be satisfied. No questions asked, no further trouble. You have my word on it."
Ah. That's what the point was. Maria Hill's notion of a good will gesture. She could've arrested him, and she didn't, and now he was supposed to trust her.
Steve wasn't impressed.
"The devils are going to just back off and play nice? Forgive me if I don't just take you word on that."
Hill's right hand twitched toward her holstered gun, then clenched into a fist and remained at her side.
"You don't have a choice," she said flatly. "Or maybe you do, if you're willing to keep hiding behind Wong's apron while the city is torn apart around you."
"Fine words," Steve said, "from someone who's doing the tearing. Last time I checked, it was your people running the checkpoints and making the mass arrests, Hill."
"Would you rather the Unfinished Men do it?" Hill demanded. "They don't make arrests, and they don't ask questions either, they just crack heads. At least when I and my men stop somebody, we let them go in one piece when we're done."
"I'll remember that," Steve said, "next time there's a round of executions in Embassy Square."
"Look." Hill stepped even closer, and pitched her voice low enough so that only Steve could hear it. "I don't actually give a shit what you think about me. But think about this: the only reason the devils haven't shown up at your front door to reclaim that fucking box is because they don't know where you live. I do know, and I haven't told them, just as I haven't told anyone about that contraband tech in your pocket. You can hate me all you want, but you still need to trust me, because things can get a lot worse than they are now."
"It never works, you know," Steve told her. Hill glared at him with wide, furious eyes.
"What doesn't work?"
"Collaborating." Steve didn't bother to keep his voice low. Let the other officers hear, they were in it too. "I've seen it a hundred times, all through the war. You think you're preventing the greater evil by going along with the small ones. You think you're being pragmatic, and reasonable, and doing what has to be done. But the small evils pave the way for the greater one, and when it happens, you'll be right in the middle of it, wondering how your hands got so filthy. You may think it'll be somehow different for you, but it won't be. This is what happens. This is how it works."
From the look on Hill's face, Steve thought she might forget about the gun and go for his throat with her bare hands, but apparently the SHIELD training held. She reined in her temper and stayed where she was.
"You have no idea how it works," she hissed at him, "or what I've prevented while you sat around composing pretty speeches. You want to despise me for what I'm doing, fine. What have you done these past three years, Captain America?" She spun around and walked away from without waiting for an answer, gesturing for her men to follow. "You have my offer!" She called out without turning to look at him as she crossed the street. "It's your call now."
Steve waited until they were all out of sight before he gathered his belongings from the ground and began walking himself. His earlier cheerful mood was completely gone, replaced by tension and futile anger. Encounters with Hill always had a bad effect on his temper, and this time was made worse by the fact that he had no good answer for her final question. What have you done for the past three years, Captain America? The answer was, precious little. The Avengers had devoted most of their resources to searching for ways to return Manhattan to its proper time and place, and so far they had nothing to show for it. And without that one all-important thing, everything else they did was a band-aid on a gut wound.
It was a long, plodding walk back to Bleecker Street. By the time he reached the Sanctum Sanctorum, all Steve wanted was food and sleep, in no particular order. But all thoughts of rest vanished when a pale-faced Jessica Drew met him at the door.
"Tony's gone," she announced, before Steve could even begin to ask what was wrong.
"He's what?" Steve felt suddenly cold. "What do you mean gone?"
"Gone from the house," Wong said, walking into the foyer behind Jessica. "No word to anyone. We don't even know exactly when he left."
Steve couldn't even remember the last time Tony had left the house. "Where could he possibly go?"
"I don't know," Wong said grimly. "But he took the box with him."
The cabinet in the workshop was wide open, the padlock left on the floor in pieces next to the bolt cutters Tony had used to remove it. Aside from the box, nothing seemed to be missing, but then again, Tony was the only one who had the complete inventory.
"I should've known." Steve picked up the broken lock and dropped it on the table, resisting the childish urge to hurl it at the wall. "Should've known it was too easy when he locked it up of his own free will... How long has he been gone? Has anyone talked to him?"
"I did," Wong said. "He came into the library to ask if I'd made any progress, and I told him about the Correspondence. He did his usual grumbling about magic, then left. That was about two hours ago."
"I heard the generator going," Jessica offered. "About an hour ago, when I came down to the storeroom for some candles. It's off now, so he must've shut it down before he left."
None of the other Avengers had seen or heard Tony all day, which was hardly unusual. If he hadn't left the front door ajar when he walked out, they might not have noticed him missing at all.
An hour or less. He could've gone anywhere in an hour. It was certainly more than enough time to run into a checkpoint or get picked up by a patrol. Steve's imagination was all too ready to paint grisly images of what the Unfinished Men might do to Tony if they found him wandering the streets with the box.
"All right, let's try and think about this from Tony's point of view. Why did he leave in the first place? Where would he go?"
"The Brass Embassy," Wong said. "Or possibly the Library." When everyone turned to look at him, he shrugged and spread his hands. "I doubt Mr. Stark wandered off on his own whim. He knows how dangerous it is out there. The box -- or rather, the Correspondence written on the box -- must be influencing him somehow, and the box is devil-made. My guess is, they designed it to want to return to them if stolen."
That sounded... terrifyingly plausible. Steve closed his eyes for a moment and tried to will himself into calmness. It wasn't an entirely successful effort, but at least he managed to speak without shouting.
"All right then, let's assume Tony is headed north. If we move quickly -- " and if he hasn't gotten himself killed yet -- "we may catch up to him."
Three minutes later, Steve and Luke were headed north on Sixth Avenue, while Wong and Peter took MacDougal and both Jessicas scouted ahead by air. Steve wished they weren't so short-handed, wished they had a quick way of locating Black Widow, or Daredevil, or the Falcon. They had no way of knowing what Tony was thinking or what the Correspondence was telling him. He might've headed for the nearest checkpoint to turn himself in, or he might be taking a roundabout route and trying to avoid being seen. The Avengers needed to cover as much ground as they could, and at the moment it wasn't much.
"Cap." Luke grabbed Steve's shoulder and pulled him to a halt as he pointed toward an overturned trashcan a few paces ahead of them. The streetlight at the corner wasn't quite bright enough to dispel the shadows around the can, and it took Steve a moment to realize that the small gray lump nestled among the spilled trash was actually a sleeping cat, curled up with its tail wrapped around its paws.
"You want to do the honors?" Luke whispered, "or should I?"
"My boots are quieter." Steve inched forward a step. "Stand by to grab if I miss, though."
The cat's ears twitched a little as he tiptoed toward it, but Steve held his breath and kept moving until he was close enough to drop to his knees and grab. The cat woke with a yowl and a great deal of violent thrashing, but Steve had a good hold on it by then. He cradled the hissing beast firmly against his chest as he climbed to his feet. The cat snagged its hind claws in the fabric of his sweatshirt, made one last attempt to wriggle free, then abruptly went limp in Steve's grip.
"The sixth alphabet of Hell is the alphabet of wards and barriers," it hissed resentfully.
"Thank you," Steve said in his most polite tone. "But I'm not actually looking for secrets right now." He shifted his hold and attempted a gentle rub behind the cat's ears. It craned its neck around to glare at him, its yellow eyes expressing deep contempt.
"What do you want, then?"
"A friend of mine is missing," Steve said. "He might've passed this way in the last hour or so. Human, about my height but thinner, black ha-- black fur on his head and face. He's carrying a metal box, a little smaller than you are. If you help us find him, my friends and I will owe you a favor."
"What makes you think I care for human favors?" the cat growled, but its eyes narrowed to slits, and the expression on its face -- as far as a cat could be judged to have expressions -- shifted from derisive to calculating. Steve waited in silence, doing his best to project an air of respectful calm. It was difficult. Every second he stood there was another second for Tony to get farther away and deeper into trouble. But cats couldn't be rushed or bullied into cooperating, they could only be persuaded. So he waited, and eventually the cat let out a half-hearted purr and butted its head against his chest.
"I saw a black-furred human like the one you describe," it admitted, "before I fell asleep. He went into the below place."
"The below place?" Steve repeated blankly. The cat bristled its whiskers and twitched one paw northward, where a pair of unlit globe lamps flanked the entrance to the West 4th Street station.
"He's gone into the subway?" Luke sounded as appalled as Steve felt. Short of throwing himself head-first into New Hudson, it was the most suicidal thing Tony could've done.
"Below place. Spider country." The cat twisted free of Steve's slackened grip and darted into the shadows. Steve took a stumbling step toward the subway entrance, but Luke grabbed his arm.
"Hold it, Cap. We can't just go running in there."
"I know," Luke said. "But if we're going to go down after him, we'll need light. And weapons. And back-up."
Luke was right. More to the point, Luke was saying what Steve himself should've been saying if he'd been thinking clearly. This was no way to run a rescue mission. Steve mentally shoved aside the nightmare images of Tony's eyeless corpse, and reached for his communicator.
Light was the tricky part. A search of Tony's workshop turned up a propane lantern but no fuel, and six flashlights, only two of which had functioning batteries. Jessica Jones wrinkled her nose in disgust as she filled old pickle jars with glowing beetles and screwed on the lids.
"I hate these things," she muttered, shaking a couple of stray beetles from her sleeve. "All those creepy legs."
"You think those are creepy," Luke said, "wait till we get to the sorrow-spiders."
Jessica glared as she shoved a jar into his hands. "Not helping, dear."
"So," Peter said, "do we actually have a plan? Or are we just going to wander around in the dark until our eyeballs get eaten?"
"We'll go in two groups," Steve said as he hefted his shield. "One flier in each group for advance scouting. If Wong's theory is right and Tony's taking the most direct route north, then he'll most likely be in one of the Sixth Avenue tunnels, so we'll check those first."
"Right." Peter nodded sagely. "Wander in the dark until our eyeballs get eaten it is, then."
The Lowered Manhattan City Council, elected six months after the Descent and mostly ignored by the real powers that ran the city, had an ongoing project in place, slowly bricking up all the subway entrances and exits. They hadn't gotten around to West 4th Street yet; the entrance on Sixth Avenue was piled high with sandbags and draped in yellow police tape. It didn't entirely keep the sorrow-spiders in -- there were too many ventilation ducts and access tunnels around for that -- but it did, for the most part, keep the humans out. The popular consensus was that anyone who actually made the effort to get past the barriers deserved their fate.
So what does that make us? Steve wondered as he made his way down the stairs.
Some of the sandbags had been pulled out, leaving a gap just large enough for a grown man to squeeze through. Which also made it large enough for a decent-sized spider. Steve hoped not too many had gotten out in the hour or so since Tony opened the way. Even more, he hoped that Tony still retained enough of his right mind to take a weapon and a light with him when he left the house.
"We'd better close the hole behind us when we go in," he said. "No need to let any more of these things out into the streets."
"Great." Peter shot out a web to pull one of the shifted bags back into place. "There's nothing I love more than entering a black pit of crawling horror and blocking my escape route behind me."
The air on the mezzanine level smelled of mold and rot. The beam of Steve's flashlight picked out cobwebs smothering every inch of the walls in a thick gray layer. More webs clung to his boots as he walked, and hung from the ceiling like shredded drapes. They made for slow, sticky going, but there was an unexpected benefit to them: Tony's earlier progress left a clearly visible trail. Maybe they wouldn't have to split up after all.
"Everyone stick close." Steve shifted to a fighting grip on his shield as he moved toward the stairs. "We can follow the--"
A faint skittering sound was the only warning he got before the spiders leaped from the shadows.
There were at least a dozen of them, maybe more. Steve couldn't judge the number in the dark, not when they were moving so fast. The one that went for his face was the size of a large cat, and Steve thought he could hear its mandibles clicking as it leaped toward him. He got the shield up just in time. The spider smacked into it with a thud and dropped to the floor, where it immediately launched itself at Steve's ankles. Steve brought the shield down edge first, decapitating the beast just as its fangs grazed his boot. Thick, foul-smelling goo splattered the floor, sizzling where it hit. The body's legs were still twitching when Steve kicked it aside.
"Cap, get down!" Luke shouted behind him. Steve dropped into a crouch, and a length of chain sailed over his head to knock another spider out of the air before it could land on top of him. There was no time for thanks -- two more were already attacking. Steve sprang back up and swung his shield again.
It was hard to tell how everyone else was doing, in the chaos of jumping shadows and small, bobbing light sources. The dark blur on Steve's left appeared to be Wong, fighting with a staff. The fast-moving shadow on the left had to be Peter. Jewel and Spider-Woman were presumably in flight and Luke was somewhere behind him. No one sounded in obvious distress, so Steve focused on his own opponents and kept fighting.
He took down three more, glanced around for the next one, and realized no more were coming. Around him, the battle wound down as the rest of the Avengers ran out of things to fight. There were crushed and dismembered spider carcasses everywhere, and dark puddles on the floor. Steve's shield looked nearly black from all the spider-blood smeared on it, and his boots and jeans were liberally splattered with the stuff. Post-battle laundry day was going to be a hell of a party.
"Is anyone hurt?" Steve called out.
"Nah." Luke coiled his chain around his arm again. "Just really grossed out. You okay, honey?"
"Ugh." Jewel landed next to him. "That stuff is in my hair."
"I'd like to state for the record," Peter said, "that these things are no relation whatsoever. Also, judging all arachnids by the actions of a few extremists would be bad and wrong. Right, Jess?"
"I'd like to state for the record," Spider-Woman grumbled, "that he's no relation, either."
"This can't be all of them." Steve turned in a slow circle, aiming his light at the darkest corners of mezzanine, but saw no sign of movement. "They're probably regrouping. We need to move."
The fight had wiped out a large portion of Tony's trail, but they picked it up again at the turnstiles and followed it to the staircase leading down to the Sixth Avenue Express platform. The cobwebs grew thicker as they moved further inside the station, and the smell of rot became stronger. Small lumps tangled in some of the thicker strands turned out to be rat corpses when Steve took a closer look. Faint scratching sounds in the darkness indicated that the Avengers were being watched, but nothing jumped out to attack them.
The farther they went, the more uneasy Steve felt. Why weren't they being attacked? It occurred to him that they didn't really know how intelligent the spiders were. Could they plan an ambush? He aimed his flashlight onto the stairs in front of him. The stairwell was so choked with webbing that he could only see a few feet in. Now that he'd thought of it, it was an excellent place for an ambush, a confined space with low visibility and awkward footing. But Tony's smudged footprints were visible on the top steps, which meant they had to follow. Steve brushed the nearest cobwebs aside and started down the stairs.
The walls in the stairwell looked different than the walls on the mezzanine, oddly rippled rather than smooth. Steve raised his flashlight for a better look, and realized that the layer of webbing that covered the tile had numerous small spheres embedded in it, clumped together like clusters of some bizarre fruit.
"Ugh." Spider-Woman poked at one of the clusters, then jerked her hand back. "Are these their eggs?"
"No." Wong sounded sick. "They're eyes. Human eyes."
"What?" Steve moved the flashlight closer, then had to stagger back a step and swallow the rising bile in his throat. Wong was right. Those were human eyeballs in the webs. Hundreds of them.
What the hell is going on here? They'd always assumed that sorrow-spiders ate the eyes of their victims. The thought was horrible enough in and of itself. But this-- were they storing their food for later? Or--
"Oh, shit..." Peter said in a strangled voice. "It's hatching."
One of the eyeballs burst open with a barely audible pop. A baby spider the size of a small marble wriggled out, dripping fluids, and disappeared into the depths of the webbing. Someone let out a stifled gagging sound. Steve couldn't tell who it was, but he shared the sentiment.
They needed to find Tony now. Needed to bring him home alive and whole, and then they needed to come back here and torch the place.
Something moved on the staircase below them, claws clicking on concrete. The cobwebs shifted, and a light bobbed near the bottom step, then moved toward them.
"Something's coming," Steve hissed, and readied his shield.
A spider emerged from the shadows and crouched on the lowest step illuminated by Steve's flashlight. Its body was nearly three feet high, and its legs spanned the full width of the stairwell. A dozen unblinking eyes the size of silver dollars regarded Steve with unnerving intelligence. Dangling from its mandibles was a narrow strap with a small but bright LED light clipped onto it. Steve felt a sick jolt of fear. He'd seen Tony wear that headband in the workshop more times than he could count.
He lurched forward a step, and the spider skittered backwards. It stopped when he stopped, waited, then raised one claw-tipped leg and crooked it in an awkward but unmistakable beckoning motion.
"Great," Luke muttered. "It wants us to follow it."
"Of course it does." Peter sounded resigned. "And I'm sure it's totally not a trap at all."
They followed, of course. What choice did they have? Their guide led them onto the express platform, then down onto the uptown track and into the tunnel. More spiders watched from the walls and ceiling, nestled in the clear spaces between the eyeball clusters. A few of the younger, rat-sized ones darted back and forth between the rails. There had to be several hundred spiders, just within the limited range of the Avengers' lights. Steve tried not to think of what would happen if they all attacked at once.
"More humans?" A smooth, surprisingly pleasant voice murmured from the shadows. "What an unexpected abundance of guests we have today. I suppose it's an honor."
"Who's there?" Spiders darted out of the way as Steve advanced deeper into the tunnel. Was he imagining things, or was the darkness directly ahead of him somehow blacker and... more solid than it had been before? Something blocked the way ahead of him, a pulsing, misshapen bulk the size of an SUV. The guide spider scurried toward it, still clutching Tony's stolen light in its jaws, and the added illumination finally allowed Steve to see what he was facing off against.
He'd been expecting a single giant spider. But the thing in front of him was made up of at least a dozen spiders, all fused together into a single lumpy mass. Legs sprouted from the beast's sides and back. Hundreds of eyes looked in all directions. Venom dripped from at least six sets of fangs that Steve could see from where he was standing. Smaller spiders gathered around its lower legs, clicking their mandibles in a burst of nervous chatter as Steve moved closer.
"What are you?" he demanded.
"We are the Spider Council." The compound body rippled slightly as it spoke. The silky contralto voice sounded disturbingly human. "We would ask why you invade our home, but we suppose it's obvious enough. You've come for this, yes?" It made a series of rapid-fire clicking sounds, dozens of jaws moving at once. The guide spider moved sideways, and Steve saw Tony, on his knees in the narrow gap between the wall and the Council's body.
Tony's clothes were torn and filthy, and his face was smeared with blood from a ragged gash on his left cheek. He was clutching the box to his chest and rocking from side to side, his gaze fixed on some far-off point.
"Tony!" Steve called sharply, and Tony turned, but it seemed to be just an instinctive response to a loud noise. If he recognized Steve, or any of the other Avengers, he showed no sign of it.
"He can't hear you." The Council sounded amused. "The Correspondence is singing to him, and he's deaf to all other voices."
"Let him go," Steve said. "It's the box you want, right? You can have it, then. You don't need him." They could come back for the box later, when Tony was safe. Now that they knew exactly what they were dealing with, they could plan their attack better...
"Ah, but we do need him." The Council reached down with one of its side legs and curled it tenderly around Tony's throat. Tony didn't seem to notice. "We need them both. A human whose eyes have been marked by the Correspondence... We had begun to think that this city would never produce one, that we would be the last of the Spider Councils. Alas, this one has not been marked enough yet." It tightened its hold and pulled Tony closer, pressing his back against its side. "We'll make you a deal, humans. You cannot kill us, and you won't leave here without our permission, but we're prepared to be generous. Go, and leave your companion here. We'll take good care of him while continues his study of the Correspondence. And once he's been sufficiently marked, we'll take what we need and return him you."
"Take what you need. Right." Steve suppressed a shudder. "You mean his eyes."
"We only need one." The Council lowered another leg and tapped the tip of a curved black claw against Tony's temple. He didn't even flinch. "Surely that's a small price to pay for life and safety?"
The other Avengers would be in position behind him by now. Steve couldn't risk a glance back to check on them, but after three years of teamwork he had a good idea of where everyone would be.
"Peter?" He whispered.
"I'm set." Peter's answering whisper came from behind him and to the left, right where he needed to be. "Would be nice if you could move about two feet forward."
"No problem." Steve took a step, and tipped his head back to glare up at the Council. "No deal," he said loudly.
The Council let out another burst of angry clicks. "We told you, you have no choice."
"If that's true, then why are you bothering to talk to us?" Steve shifted his weight forward. "Now, Peter!"
Two web lines shot out from behind him. One snagged the spider leg around Tony's throat and jerked it back, the other one caught Tony himself. Tony dropped like a dead weight when Peter started to pull him in, but didn't let go of the box. There was no time to stop and see how he was, or to help Peter. The Spider Council was charging like an angry rhino, and the other spiders were streaming from the walls and dropping from the ceiling. Steve tightened his grip on the shield, ran forward, and leaped.
He landed on the Council's back facing away from the main battle, but it hardly mattered anyhow. The thing had eyes and fangs everywhere. The topmost legs tried to stab Steve with their claws. He kicked them aside, and brought the shield down with all his strength, aiming for what looked as if it might be a joint between two fused spider bodies. The shield sank deep with a sickening wet sound. Steve pulled it back and struck again, and again.
Spiders dropped onto him from above, too many to avoid or kick aside. Steve felt a sharp, burning pain in his shoulder, then in his knee. There was nothing to be done about it, so he ignored it and kept fighting. Then Spider-Woman was there, blasting the ceiling and making the spiders there scatter. Steve acknowledged the help with a quick lift of his arm, then smashed his shield down again.
The Council lurched forward, suddenly off-balance. Steve had to drop to one knee to keep from being thrown off. He risked a quick look down, and saw the Luke was pummeling the Council from below, while Jewel and Peter attacked from the sides. Wong and Tony were nowhere to be seen. Steve decided to take that as a good sign.
"Tiiiiimberrrrrr!" Peter anchored a web line to the Council's side and pulled. Luke and Jewel helped it along with a flurry of blows, while Steve kept striking from above. The Council let out a high-pitched wail and shuddered so violently, Steve nearly lost his footing again. When he felt it start to topple, he leaped.
It was hard to judge in the dark, but he managed to miss the ceiling, and to twist just enough in mid-air to be on his feet and facing the right way when he landed. The impact sent a stab of pain through his right knee where he'd been bitten earlier, but he stayed upright and lifted the shield again, ready to keep fighting.
There was no need. The Council was still twitching and waving its legs around, but the movements were clearly death throes. Gray ichor oozed from dozens of wounds, and the clicking of its fangs was growing fainter. Around it, the other spiders drew back, as if unsure of what to do next.
"Great," Luke panted. "I declare victory. Can we leave now?"
"Where's Tony?" Steve demanded.
"Up here!" Wong yelled from the platform above.
"See?" Peter pointed in the general direction of Wong's voice. "Everyone accounted for. I'm with Luke -- can we please, please go now?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "We can go."
Tony wasn't waking up.
Or maybe "waking up" wasn't the right phrase for it, since he didn't actually appear to be asleep. His eyes were open, and he showed a limited awareness of his surroundings, flinching away from bright light and starting at loud noises. But his eyes were dull and unfocused, and he didn't seem to recognize Steve or anyone else around him, or to know where he was.
He also kept climbing out of bed and trying to go downstairs, presumably because downstairs was where the box was. Tony was no more lucid when walking than when lying down, but he was damned persistent. After his third try, Wong cut a towel into strips and tied Tony's wrists to the bed frame. Steve dragged a recliner into the room and settled down to keep watch, to ensure Tony didn't hurt himself trying to break free.
"It's the Correspondence," Wong said. "It's still affecting him."
Tony was in one of the third-floor bedrooms. The box was down in the basement. Wong had chalked protective sigils around Tony's bed and on the walls. If all this wasn't enough to protect him, then what was?
"There has to be something else we could do." Steve bit his lip and shifted restlessly in his chair. The spider bites on his leg and shoulder felt like hot needles digging into his skin. Wong had applied a poultice to each bite to draw out the venom and keep the swelling down, but at the end of the day, the only reliable cure for sorrow-spider bites was time and patience. Steve was feeling critically short of both at the moment.
"Maybe if we moved the box even farther away from him. Give it to Natasha for safekeeping." He didn't like the thought of fobbing the danger off onto someone else, but if anyone could deal with it, the Black Widow could.
"We could try it." Wong didn't sound very optimistic. "But I suspect that at this point, the connection between his mind and the Correspondence is too strong to be undone by mere physical distance. We need to find a way to break the link." He crouched next to Tony's bed and examined the chalk marks on the floor with a critical eye. "There are stronger spells I could try, but they might do more harm than good. We have no information on how the Correspondence responds to human magic, or what it might do to if it feels threatened. It might kill Tony rather than let him go, and it might be powerful enough to make the death permanent." He wouldn't quite meet Steve's eyes as he spoke, but the thought he was trying to hide was clear enough. The Correspondence might be killing Tony already.
"Don't do it yet," Steve said. "Not until we've tried everything else."
"What we need," Wong sighed, "is a trustworthy devil. But I suppose that's a contradiction in terms."
"I've certainly never met one," Steve said. "Anyway, what could a devil do that you can't, with all of Strange's library at your disposal?"
Wong shook his head. "The devils have specialized knowledge. They're on good terms with the Correspondence, they've incorporated it into their writing and into their system of magic. Presumably, they have methods for warding against it."
"The sixth alphabet," Steve blurted out. Wong abandoned his inspection of the wards to give him a startled look.
"That's what the cat told me yesterday, when I first picked it up." Steve frowned, trying to recall the exact details. "The sixth alphabet of Hell is the alphabet of wards and barriers. I'm pretty sure that's what it said. Is that helpful?"
"It could be." Wong leaped to his feet, looking much the way Tony did -- or used to -- when he made some exciting technological breakthrough. "I have notes on several of the alphabets, including the sixth. I'd never fully deciphered it, but knowing specifically what it's for makes a great deal of difference. If you'll excuse me--" he bolted out the door.
Steve slumped down in his chair and tried to resign himself to waiting. He hated this feeling of uselessness, of having nothing to fight and no immediate goal to strive toward. He almost wished he was back in the subways, battling the spiders again. Then, at least, he'd felt as if he was accomplishing something. And any number of spider bites would be preferable to watching Tony thrash around on the bed, whimpering in distress and fighting against the restraints.
"Tony?" He leaned across the narrow gap between chair and bed, and pressed one hand against Tony's chest. Tony was fever-hot, his face flushed and his t-shirt damp with sweat. His heartbeat was alarmingly rapid beneath Steve's palm. "Tony, if you can hear me at all... please come back."
Tony's breath hitched in a painful-sounding gasp. He strained his arms against the bindings hard enough to make the bed frame creak, then abruptly went limp.
"Let go," he panted. It was the first coherent thing he'd said since they brought him home from the subway ten hours before.
"Tony?" Steve scrambled out of the chair, barely noticing the stab of pain as his injured knee hit the floor. For a second, he thought he saw a flash of awareness in Tony's eyes. But it vanished as quickly as it came, or maybe Steve had imagined it in the first place. Tony's gaze was blank and distant again, and his arms rested limply at his sides.
"Dammit." Steve clenched his hands around the edge of the mattress until his fingers ached. "What's wrong with you, Tony? Where's that famous Tony Stark stubbornness? You never pay attention when I try to talk sense to you. You mouth off to gods and alien invaders and congressional subcommittees. But some stupid magic box starts talking to you, and suddenly you listen? Tell it to go to hell, you're good at that."
Tony flinched as if in pain, but made no sound.
Steve slumped forward to rest his forehead against the edge of the mattress next to Tony's shoulder. He felt drained and hopeless and -- no point in denying it, not to himself -- afraid. This was far from the first time he'd kept vigil at Tony's bedside, not knowing if his best friend would live or die, but apparently he'd reached his limit. The thought of being stuck in this sunless subterranean world without Tony was too bleak to bear.
"Come on, Shellhead." Steve tried to force a laugh, but managed only a loud, half-strangled breath. "You and I are the only founding Avengers left in this town. That means we stick together, right? You can't leave me here alone." He wrapped one hand around Tony's forearm, just above his bound wrist. "Do you hear me? Don't leave, Tony. I can't do this without you."
The door opened with a barely-audible creak. Someone cleared their throat. Steve looked up to see Jessica Jones watching him from the doorway with a disturbingly understanding look in her eyes.
"Uhm, hi." She licked her lips and gave him a small, nervous smile. "I was going to ask if you wanted me to sit with Tony for a while so you could get some rest, but I can see that you don't."
"Thank you." Steve felt his face grow warm as he realized how he must look, kneeling there at Tony's bedside, practically weeping into the sheets like a hero in a Victorian melodrama. He stood up, and did his best to look calm and steady. "I'm fine here."
"Yeah, I can see you're doing great." Jessica stepped back into the hallways and started to pull the door closed, then paused. "It'll be all right," she said. "Wong is in the library right now, muttering in tongues to himself. He'll figure something out."
"I'm sure he will." Steve hoped he sounded confident rather than desperate. Jessica gave him another smile and shut the door. Steve sank back into his chair, but found himself fidgeting, unable to make even a pretense of rest. After half an hour of jumping every time Tony moved or made a sound, he gave in to impulse and moved from the chair to the floor, leaning sideways to lean his head on Tony's arm. It wasn't exactly a comfortable position, but the contact made him feel better. It seemed to settle Tony a little, too. At least, he stopped thrashing around quite so much, even if he still occasionally flexed his hands and muttered "Let go" in a ragged voice. Eventually, Steve closed his eyes and drifted into a restless half-sleep.
He woke to the sound of the door opening again. Wong came in, with a book clutched in one hand and a tray balanced on the other.
"Captain? Is everything all right?"
"For relative values of 'all right,' yes." Steve braced one hand against the bed and hauled himself to his feet. He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but the crick in his neck suggested several hours spent in the same position. "Did you find something?"
"I have." Wong set the tray down on the dresser. "Something worth trying, anyway."
The tray held a porcelain bowl filled with dark-green liquid, and a small paintbrush. The book looked old, with a frayed leather binding and thick vellum pages yellowed at the corners. Wong held it open to a page filled with strange-looking geometric hieroglyphs and chaotic margin notes in several different handwritings.
"This is the sixth alphabet. And this--" Wong tapped a fingertip against a line in the middle of the page, "--appears to be the sequence for shielding the mind against magical influence." He turned the book sideways and frowned at one of the margin notes. "Or possibly shielding the lungs against sulfur fumes. Secondary sources differ."
"Is it safe?" Steve demanded. Wong spread his hands.
"As safe as anything originating in Hell can be. The ink I've prepared has certain protective properties that should minimize the danger. But at this point, anything we do is going to carry a certain amount of risk, including doing nothing at all."
Well, that's comforting. Steve reached down and brushed his fingers against Tony's cheek. Was it his imagination, or was Tony's fever getting higher? The heat radiating from his skin couldn't be natural. He'd burn up from the inside if they didn't do something to stop it.
"How do we make it work?"
"From what I've gathered," Wong said, "the glyphs must be drawn directly on the skin. The first one here goes on the pulse points over the wrists, the second one over the solar plexus, and the third to center of the forehead. I understand you're a good hand with a paintbrush, so perhaps you should do the application."
"Right," Steve sighed. "Help me get that t-shirt off him."
Tony began to struggle as soon they untied him, but he was too weak to put up a real fight, and it only took a minute before exhaustion got the better of him. Wong pinned him down while Steve sat on the edge of the bed with the book open in his lap, and painted the first glyph on Tony's left wrist. The ink in the bowl had a musty herbal scent, and dried almost instantly, sometimes clumping on the brush before Steve had time to apply it to skin. Steve worked as quickly as he could without sacrificing precision, while Tony kept chanting let go let go let go under his breath. The words slowly trailed off into indistinct muttering, and by the time Steve finished the design on Tony's right wrist, Tony was still and silent. Steve hoped that was a good sign.
Tony didn't react at all when Steve began to trace the second symbol on his chest. The ink lines obscured the pale pockmarks of old shrapnel wounds as well as the darker, more recent scars of more heart surgeries than Steve cared to think about. For the first time, he considered how lucky they'd been that Tony hadn't developed any new and exciting health problems in the years since the Descent. Medicine in Lowered Manhattan had reverted to a step above leeches and mustard plasters, and natural illness was one of the few things that killed permanently. Steve's brush hand faltered for a moment, before he pushed the thought away and forced himself to focus.
The final symbol was the simplest -- just a few short strokes precisely placed. Steve brushed Tony's hair out of the way and painted it on, then dropped the brush back on the tray and closed the book.
"How will we know it's working?" He asked. "Will he just wake up?"
Wong shrugged. "We'll know when it happens."
For a few seconds, nothing happened at all. Then Tony blinked, lifted his head from the pillow, and said "Steve..." in a hoarse, breathless voice.
"Hey!" Steve grabbed Tony's hand. He was pretty sure he was grinning like an idiot, but given the circumstances, he figured he had a good excuse. "You with us again?"
"Steve!" Tony repeated, more urgently this time, and tried to sit up. He made it about half-way before collapsing again. "It's not safe! You have to lock it up, don't let anyone look at it, it's not--"
"We know." Steve gripped Tony's shoulders and held him down as firmly as he could without hurting him. The last thing they needed now was for Tony to rub all the ink off in a struggle. "It's okay, Tony, we know, we've got the box locked away from everyone. You're the only one who's been affected."
"Oh. Good." Tony stopped straining against Steve's hold, and let his head fall back onto the pillow. The panicked expression on his face shifted to confusion. He lifted one arm to examine his wrist, then tucked his chin down to peer at his chest. "Huh. You really did paint on me. I thought I was hallucinating."
"I didn't think you'd noticed." Steve clasped Tony's hand. "You were so out of it."
"They're protective symbols," Wong said, "designed to shield you from the influence of the Correspondence."
"Well, they're working." Tony gave Wong a shaky smile. "Thank you."
"You're quite welcome." Wong cast a thoughtful glance at Steve and Tony's clasped hands as he gathered up the ink bowl tray and the book. "I... should go put these away now." He hurried from the room before Steve had a chance to add his own thanks.
"How do you feel?" Steve asked. Tony's hand already felt cooler against his, as if the fever was receding along with the Correspondence's hold.
"A hell of a lot better than I did an hour ago." Tony sounded tired. "You know what I really, really hate?"
"Magic?" Steve guessed.
"That too." Tony winced. "But right now, what I really, really hate is being mind-controlled. And being mind-controlled by magic, that's a double whammy right there. Remind me to never do that again, okay?"
"Like you ever listen to me." The words came out more harshly than Steve intended. He'd made to sound lighthearted, but the memory of Tony kneeling empty-eyed at the Spider Council's feet was too fresh.
"You'd be surprised." Tony looked away for a moment, then turned to face Steve again. "I could hear you, you know. When you were talking to me earlier."
"You could?" Steve blinked at him. "I thought you could only hear the Correspondence."
"At first, yeah." Tony shivered a little. "Everything else was just white noise. It wanted me to bring the box to the Brass Embassy, and it was... very, very insistent. I never even thought about disobeying until I heard you saying my name, and then I couldn't-- I tried, but it-- it wouldn't let go."
"I'm sorry," Steve said. Tony shrugged.
"Hey, you did tell me to keep away from that damned box. Here's your chance to say you told me so."
"I don't want a chance to say I told you so!" Steve tried to speak calmly, but he seemed to have no control over his own voice anymore. Every word came out a little shakier, and a little louder than the one before. "I could happily go the rest of my life without needing to say I told you so. I want you to stop almost dying on me!"
"Oh, come on." Tony rolled his eyes. "It's been years since I nearly died on you. Besides, this is Lowered Manhattan. I'd have stayed dead two, three hours max."
"We don't know that." Steve had to fight the urge to grab Tony by the shoulders and shake him. Past experience had conclusively proven that no amount of shaking, yelling, or rational explaining could instill a sense of self-preservation into Tony Stark. "We have no idea what the Correspondence could do. It's a sentient language with magical powers. For all we know, it could've killed you premanently."
"I don't think it actually wants me dead," Tony said thoughtfully. "Not until I return the box, anyhow. Insane, maybe, but not dead."
"If that's true," Steve said, "then why did it send you into the subway? The only reason you're not dead now was because a cat told me where to find you."
"It..." Tony hesitated. "The thing about the Correspondence is, it doesn't think like us. It doesn't understand about check points and police departments and things like that. All it knew was, the streets were full of humans, and it doesn't like humans."
"But it likes sorrow-spiders?"
"Mostly, yeah. Apparently, the spiders and the devils are... allied, I guess? In some sort of accord, anyhow. The Council would've returned the box to the Embassy once they were done with me, and as far as the Correspondence was concerned, that was good enough. It really didn't care what happened to me after."
"Was that supposed to be reassuring?" Steve asked. "Because it really isn't."
"Sorry." Tony patted his arm. "I didn't mean to get you all overwrought."
"I'm not overwrought."
"You're not?" Tony gave him a look of utter disbelief. "Because I'm pretty sure I recall you kneeling. By my bed. In a distinctly overwrought manner. I felt like little Nell on her deathbed."
"You were hallucinating," Steve said in his best deadpan voice. Tony just kept smirking at him, until he blushed and looked away. "Okay, fine, maybe I was a little... upset."
"Upset. It's a perfectly proportionate reaction when someone I care about tries to get eaten by giant spiders."
"I wasn't trying to get eaten."
"Could've fooled me."
"Fine, I'm sorry," Tony sighed. "Will it make you feel better if I promise never to do that again?"
"Making me feel better isn't the point," Steve said. "But I'm going to hold you to that promise."
For the next ten days, the Avengers' existence narrowed to an ever-repeating cycle of money trickling in, and then trickling out again every time Black Widow visited. Sam arrived on the second day with an oversized duffel containing more unpolished glim than any of them had ever seen in one place. Peter dug an ancient Leicaflex from the back of his closet and begged Tony for some batteries so he could take a picture.
Luke went out four days in a row and came back looking more annoyed each time, before returning on the fifth day with a knapsack filled with moon pearls. He didn't say where he got them, and Steve didn't ask.
Natasha kept popping up at random intervals, staying just lost enough to stuff her pockets full of jewels and to deliver enigmatic snippets like "Mr. Mirrors has visited the Embassy and stayed for two days" or "three senior devils were seen leaving the House of Chimes after curfew." The fact that the devils and the Bazaar Masters were increasing their cooperation was discomfiting but not, in the general scheme of things, very informative. When Steve pointed this out, Natasha just growled "I'm working on it," and disappeared for three more days.
The devils' city-wide hunt for the box did not slack off as time passed. If anything, it became more intense. Posters advertising a five-thousand-echo reward for "return of stolen embassy property" were lost under new layers of wanted posters promising ever-increasing sums for information leading to the capture of Luke Cage, Captain America and Spider-Man. Peter brought a handful of them home after going out on a grocery run one morning.
"I'm framing mine," he said, holding up a poster with a rather dramatic sketch of Spider-Man swinging on a web line. "Just think, all those years with Jonah Jameson gunning after me, and I've never had a wanted poster before."
The LMPD went into a frenzy of activity for several days, arresting random people for everything from illegal tech possession to jaywalking. This sparked a rapidly spreading rumor that the Masters had authorized daily executions in the Bazaar until the devils got their box back. Maria Hill was seen going into the Brass Embassy alone, and not coming out until the next day. There were no executions, but the number of checkpoints doubled overnight.
Steve took to patrolling triple shifts every day, even if he had to do it out of uniform and without his shield. He was, perhaps, just a little bit rougher than he needed to be with any spirifers, dream-honey dealers and Unfinished Men he came across. It felt good to keep busy and to be accomplishing something, however small; but the nagging sense of his own uselessness never quite went away.
"Aren't you overdoing it a little?" Tony suggested. "I mean, honestly, when I'm the one telling you to slow down and take it easy, something's very wrong with the universe."
It was two in the morning, and they were in the workshop having dinner. Sort of. Steve was picking sullenly at the contents of his bowl, while Tony ignored his altogether. But they were in the same room, at the same time, with food, which had been enough for Tony to laugh and call it a date earlier. Normally, Steve shrugged of such teasing, but now he found himself oddly self-conscious and hesitant to meet Tony's eyes.
"Right," he said. "Something wrong with the universe. You mean aside from the fact that you, I, and the entire population of Manhattan are all stuck in a giant underground hole with no daylight, no fresh air, and no way out?"
Tony let out an amused snort. "Yeah, besides that."
"It's just... I hate spinning my wheels like this!" Steve burst out. "The entire city's in an uproar, innocent people are being rounded up like criminals, and I'm out chasing petty crooks while we raise bribe money for devils! What good am I doing here, exactly?"
"Could be worse," Tony said. "You could spend three years in a basement tinkering with tech that doesn't work."
Steve let his shoulders slump. "I'm wallowing, aren't I?"
Tony looked up from his work to give him a fond smile. "Just a little."
Steve stabbed at the contents of his dinner bowl with his fork, and tried not to sulk. Dinner was mushrooms -- again -- mixed with pieces of the pale, lumpy fish from the East River. Or what passed for the East River these days, anyhow. Steve supposed that sulking over his food was even more childish than sulking over lack of useful occupation, but there were times when he thought he might trade the shield for an apple or a glass of orange juice.
Across the table, Tony's dinner sat untouched while Tony kept working. He wore a pair of goggles with jeweler's loupes mounted on the lenses, and was poking at something tiny and intricate on a metal tray in front of him. The beetle-light was probably too dim for the work, but Tony was becoming increasingly obsessed with conserving his dwindling supply of fuel.
"What are you tinkering with now?" This was a risky question -- he might end up having to feign comprehension through a two-hour lecture on anything from nanotechnology to plasma physics -- but Steve figured he and Tony could both use the distraction.
"Fiber optic camera." Tony used a pair of tweezers to pick up a length of cable barely thicker than embroidery floss. He leaned forward until his face was a few inches above the table, and squinted behind the goggles as he attached the cable to the camera. "It's part of my new cunning plan to get our box open."
"Your what?" Steve's desultory mood abruptly turned to churning anxiety. "Tony--"
"Hey, hey, it's all right." Tony quickly sat up straight and lifted his arms, hands bent back to better show off the symbols on his wrists. "Still protected, see?" He tapped his forehead and his chest.
"Not if you go looking at the stuff again!" Steve tried to sound calm and rational, but suspected he wasn't doing the best job of it. "We don't know how strong your protection is, you can't risk--"
"I'm not going to look at it!" Tony looked genuinely horrified by the idea. "Honestly, trying to read the Correspondence was the wrong approach in the first place. I would've realized it ages ago, except for the whole mind-control thing. Because the point wasn't to read the box, but to open it. With this," he prodded the little coil of cable with one finger, "I can get the camera under the gears and inside the lock, take a look at the inner workings. Bypass the Correspondence altogether."
"I seem to recall that it melted your last camera," Steve said. Tony dismissed the objection with a careless wave of his hand.
"That was because I tried to photograph the actual symbols. I won't be doing that now. That's the one limitation the Correspondence has -- you have to look at it before it can affect you."
"I don't like it," Steve said.
Tony glared at him across the table. "Suggest an alternative, then."
And that was what it all came down to, wasn't it? They had no alternatives, or at least no good ones. They could admit defeat and return the box to the Embassy, or they could get the damned thing open and find out why it was so important. What they couldn't do was spin their wheels in uncertainty while the devils and the Masters tore the city apart looking for their property.
"You're right." Steve said, "if you can figure out the lock, then you should. But don't open it right away. Give Black Widow a chance to get more intel first. I'd like to know what we're dealing with before we set it free."
"Spoilsport," Tony muttered, and went back to work.
Most of the team were gathered in the parlor for a desultory poker game, when Peter suddenly set down his cards and said, "Uh-oh." This was never a good sign coming from Peter, so four more hands of cards hit the table as Steve, Luke, Jessica Jones and MJ all snapped to attention.
"What's going on?" Luke demanded.
"Not sure." Somehow, in the split second between his "uh-oh" and everyone else's reaction, Peter had moved from his chair to the ceiling. Now he squatted upside-down next to the chandelier and surveyed the room with nervous eyes. "Not an immediate threat, but definitely something--" He scurried across to the nearest window and looked out on Bleecker Street. "Oookay. There's about six devils gathered across the street, and they're looking very purposeful."
"What?" Jessica Jones nearly knocked the table over in her scramble to get to the window. "I thought this wasn't supposed to ever happen? Where's Wong?"
"I'll go find him," MJ said and hurried from the room.
Steve strode to the window and pulled the curtain back. There was, indeed, a group of devils sauntering up the block at a suspiciously slow pace and peering oh-so-casually into the first-floor windows of the brick townhouses across the street. The streetlights seemed to flicker and smoke a bit more than usual wherever they passed.
"Stylish bunch, aren't they?" Peter muttered. The devils were wearing zoot suits and fedoras. Steve supposed it was an advance from the Victorian-style frock coats and top hats they'd favored when they first arrived in the city. "I don't suppose they're just out looking for a jazz club?" MJ and Jessica both tilted their heads up to glare at him until he wilted a little and hunched his shoulders. "Okay, I guess not."
"I don't think they've made us," Steve said. "They wouldn't be combing the block like this if they knew which house they were looking for."
"Call me paranoid," Luke growled, "but devils across the street is already too close as far as I'm concerned.. And how are they on this block at all? I thought the wards were supposed to keep them away."
Steve had thought so too. In addition to the spells Strange himself had cast to disguise and protect the house, there were also the ones Wong had added after the Avengers had moved in. Supposedly -- Steve wasn't entirely sure he'd understood the details -- any devil that approached too closely would be seized with a sudden impulse to be somewhere else. The fact that they were this close now was cause for worry. For a moment, Steve wondered if Hill had decided to sell them out after all. But no, if she had revealed the exact location of the Sanctum Sanctorum, the devils would've arrived in greater numbers, likely with a swarm of bats and an army of Unfinished men backing them up. They didn't go in for subtlety.
"The wards are still working," Wong announced as he marched into the room. He was frowning, but his voice was reassuringly calm. "I would've felt it if they were damaged or removed."
"Then what are they doing here?" Jessica hissed. Her eyes were furious, but Steve could see the cold fear behind the anger. "My kid is asleep upstairs, Wong, if we get attacked here--"
"I don't think they're going to attack," Peter said. "Not in the next couple of seconds, anyhow." The twin scowls Luke and Jessica sent his way would've been comical under any other circumstances.
"We need to get them away from the house," Wong said. "I can reinforce all the protective spells and add some new ones, but it'll do no good if they're already inside the wards."
"No problem," Steve said. "Peter, suit up. You're with me."
"Aye-aye, Captain!" Peter gave him an appallingly sloppy salute, and did a somersault from the ceiling down to the floor.
Less than ten minutes later, he and Spider-Man were both on the roof, in costume, watching the devils try and fail to cross the street yet again.
"You know," Peter whispered, "this is actually kind of funny."
Steve had to admit that it was, a little. Even inside the wards, the devils were still clearly affected by the spells. The kept stepping into the street, then stumbling to a halt, glancing from side to side in obvious confusion, and returning to the sidewalk. Another brief session of window-peeping, and they would recover their wits and try again.
"This is all very well," Steve murmured, "but they're getting a little closer every time. We can't let them keep doing this." They needed to create a distraction, and they needed to create it from somewhere else. Steve gestured eastward and Spider-Man rose to his feet, silent for once.
This part of West Village was well-suited to rooftop travel, the streets not too wide and the buildings not too high. Steve and Peter made their way to the east end of the block, then swung diagonally across the intersection on one of Peter's web lines to land on top of an abandoned newsstand. Steve looked around, mentally mapping several fast departure routes, and positioned his shield for a throw.
"All right, let's get their attention."
"Ohh, let me!" Peter leaped ten feet from the newsstand roof to the nearest lamppost, perched there at a precarious angle, and shot a remarkably well-aimed web to snag a devil's hat right off his head. "How's that?"
Steve gave a thumbs-up as all six devils headed toward them at a run. "I'll go north, you go south. Make sure you've really lost them before you head home."
"Got it!" Peter let out an attention-grabbing Tarzan yell as he swung away, three of the devils stampeding after him at breakneck speed. Steve bounced his shield off the corner of the nearest building with enough noise to ensure that the other three would come after him.
Past experience had proven that devils were perfectly capable of scaling walls and leaping roofs when they had to, so Steve decided to stay off the streets for the time being. There were already a few pedestrians gawking from a safe distance, as well as at least three checkpoints within a five-block radius that Steve knew about. He had no intention of endangering civilians or drawing the LMPD into a full-scale manhunt. So he took off across the rooftops, making no effort at evasion or concealment until he was in sight of Washington Square Park.
The devils were fast and agile, but they didn't know the neighborhood the way Steve did. He led them in a wide circle around the park until he heard the unmistakable sound of an approaching bat swarm in the distance, then veered south onto Thompson Street, where he finally dropped to the sidewalk and ducked inside an abandoned parking garage.
The garage was a maze, five winding levels of brick and cement abandoned cars still rusting in their spaces. The walls were slick with mold and patches of luminescent fungus that provided the only light. The devils' cloven feet made an deafening clatter on the concrete floors, echoing off the walls and drowning out the softer sound of Steve's own footsteps. Steve found an elevator shaft, pried the door open just enough to squeeze through, and clung to the electrical cables on the back wall to wait as his pursuers thundered past on their to the lower levels. Once he was satisfied that they were all below him, he climbed the cables to the top, and made his way onto the rooftops again.
Twenty minutes later, having circled several blocks out of his way to make sure he was free of pursuit, Steve returned to the Sanctum Sanctorum to find Peter brushing dirt from his costume in the foyer, and Wong surrounded by a pile of books and notes in the library.
"Can you tell what happened?" Steve asked.
Wong put down the notebook he'd been scribbling in, and frowned at the page for a long time before replying.
"I believe," he said slowly, "that I've discovered a gap in the wards. Not all of them, mind you. The shields against ordinary physical invasion are working just fine. It's the spells originally cast by Dr. Strange to ward against magical intrusions that are the problem. They were designed to protect the Sanctum Sanctorum itself, its contents, or any of the people living here -- Dr. Strange and myself, to begin with. When you and your team moved in, I expanded the spells' protection to include each of you. But I did not think to expand it to include specific items in our possession."
"Specific items." Steve winced as the implication sank in. "Like the box."
"Among other things." Wong's frown grew more pronounced. "The box is almost certainly what the devils have focused on, if they attempted a location spell. But in fact, any unique item known to be owned by one of us would do."
Steve's shield. The Iron Man armor. Any costume or weapon ever used in public by any of them. Just thinking about how vulnerable they'd been all this time made Steve feel a little sick. Now that the devils had almost found them once, how long would it be before they returned?
"Could you expand the wards again?" he asked. "We could each give you a list, so that you know which items need concealing."
"I can try." Wong didn't sound very happy at the prospect. "It will take time, however. And there is always an element of risk in having me modify one of Dr. Strange's spells. He was the Sorcerer Supreme, and I'm... not."
"Maybe not," Steve said. "But you're the one who has sheltered us and kept us safe for the past three years. I think we can consider your abilities well-proven."
"I appreciate the confidence," Wong said wryly. "But perhaps we'd each better pack an emergency bag, just in case."
Luke and Jessica moved out. Natasha offered them one of her many bolt-holes and they took her up on the offer, leaving all their identifiable possessions behind. Steve was sorry to see them go, but he couldn't blame them, either. The Sanctum Sanctorum could no longer be considered secure, not even after Wong expanded the wards, and Luke and Jessica had a kid to think about.
The remaining Avengers set up a watch schedule, two people on the roof at all times. Even MJ took her turn, glaring Peter into submission when he looked as if he might be vaguely considering an objection.
"I don't need superpowers to raise an alarm," she'd growled, and Peter had raised his hands in surrender and quickly changed the subject.
Just about every watch saw at least a few devils lurking at the far ends of the block, but none ever came near the house again.
Natasha disappeared for two days, and came back looking unwashed and sleep-deprived and carrying a messenger bag half-filled with warmly glowing chunks of amber. She tossed the last of their glim stash into the bag on top of the amber, and surveyed the resulting pile with a critical eye.
"I guess it'll have to do," she said. "My contact at the Archive says she's ready to come across with the information. Though I'll have a hell of a fun time getting all this shit around the checkpoints and to my rendezvous spot."
"Do you need backup?" Steve asked.
Natasha shook her head. "Amaryllis will run if she thinks I'm not alone. I'll deal."
"Your devil informant is named Amaryllis?" Peter looked affronted. "Whatever happened to nice respectable names like Beelzebub or Mephisto? Hell has no style anymore."
"Be careful," Steve told her. "The LMPD's getting jumpier every day. I'd rather not break you out of a jail cell if I don't have to."
"Who are you kidding?" Natasha smirked. "You're just itching for a nice exciting jail break."
Apparently, his restlessness was more obvious than he'd thought. "Okay," Steve admitted, "maybe a little. But that's still no reason for you to provide me with one."
Natasha's smile reminded him disturbingly of Tony when he was up to no good. "I'll do my best to keep you frustrated."
With no jailbreak to keep him occupied and all other tasks finished for the day, Steve retreated to his room and tried to read, but the Dick Francis mystery he'd borrowed from Jessica Drew failed to hold his attention for more than a minute at a time. He was just considering going downstairs to look for something else, when someone knocked on his door. A moment later, Tony came in without waiting for an answer.
"Hey, Picasso." Tony held up a glass jar. "I need you to do a touch-up for me." The jar held about a cup of dark liquid and thin brush.
Steve set aside his book and sat up. "Is something wrong?"
"Nah, just normal wear and tear." Tony brushed the hair back from his forehead to show where the glyph Steve had painted ten days before was starting to chip and fade. "I've been careful, keeping the ink covered when I wash and everything, but I don't think it's meant to be permanent. And..." he winced and rubbed one eye with the heel of his hand. "I think I'm hearing it again. I'm hearing something, anyhow."
"Again?" Steve scrambled to his feet. "How bad is it? You should've said something sooner."
"Relax." Tony held up the jar again. "It only started a couple of hours ago, and at first I wasn't sure if I was really hearing anything. Once I was sure, I went straight to Wong and then to you. So let's do this, and then we can both stop worrying about the voices in my head, okay?"
"Of course." Steve glanced around the room. "Uhm... over there would probably work best."
Just as the Sanctum Santorum had accommodated Tony by adding a sleeping area to his workshop, it had accommodated Steve by creating a work area in his bedroom. Three days after the Avengers had first moved in, the room had acquired a small alcove with a sturdy oak drawing desk and stool, just the right height for Steve to comfortably sit and sketch. The light was bad, but no worse than anywhere else, and a drawer in the desk provided an apparently infinite supply of paper and pencils. Even on days when Steve didn't sit down to draw, just knowing that the place and the materials were there was a comfort.
"All right, then." Tony put the jar down on the desk, planted himself on the stool facing Steve, pulled his t-shirt off and dropped it to the floor. "Do your stuff."
Steve set new candles in the two mirror-backed sconces on either side of the alcove, and lit them with the smaller candle from his nightstand.
"Okay, give me your hand."
The last time they'd done this, Tony had been catatonic, possibly dying, and Steve had been too worried to focus on anything except the immediate task. This time around, it became impossible to ignore how intimate the whole process was. How close Tony was, how comfortably his hand rested in Steve's cupped palm. How much the stroke of brush against skin felt like a caress. Steve tried to focus on the intricacy of the design, on keeping the lines straight and the ink smooth and even. Tried to pretend that he wasn't acutely aware of Tony's knee pressed against his thigh. He kept his hands steady and avoided looking at Tony's face as he worked, but he didn't need to look to know that Tony was being unusually still and silent.
Things only got more awkward once he finished retouching the symbols on Tony's wrists and had to move closer to work on the chest design. Tony spread his knees apart to give Steve room to stand, and leaned back, bracing his hands on the desk behind him. The position certainly offered a good angle for painting, but it also made Tony's back arch and stretched his jeans tight across his groin. Steve's mouth went dry. There was no way Tony was doing that without knowing exactly what he looked like, or without noticing Steve's reaction.
He stirred the ink with the brush, and painted a line. Tony curled his hands around the edge of the desk.
"Maybe I should get these tattooed on," he drawled. His voice was light but not entirely steady. "It would make showering easier, at least."
Steve made a valiant but only partly-successful attempt to keep from imagining Tony in the shower. "According to Wong, these symbols are from one of Hell's alphabets. You probably don't want them on you permanently."
"Good point." Tony let out a short, nervous laugh and lapsed into silence again.
Three symbols down. One to go. Steve leaned forward and brushed Tony's hair back from his forehead with his left hand.
"Tilt your head back. A little more. Good, now hold still."
"Sure." Tony closed his eyes. "No problem."
"I'm almost done." Steve placed the final brush strokes, dropped the brush into the jar, and rested his right hand on Tony's shoulder. "There. That should do it."
"Already?" Tony opened his eyes and blinked slowly, as if dazed. "That was fast."
"Did it help?" Steve asked.
"I think so..." Tony stared into the distance for a few seconds. "Yeah. I can't hear it at all now. Thanks."
"You're welcome." That was Steve's cue to step back. Or at least to pull away. Not to stand there, one hand one Tony's shoulder and the other in his hair, and stare like a dumbstruck idiot at Tony's mouth. This was no good. He was making an awkward moment even worse, and the longer he hesitated the more it would--
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Tony said, "just kiss me already." And then, while Steve was still trying to process the words, he did the job himself, tugging at Steve's collar to pull him closer and pressing their mouths together.
For a moment, Steve simply froze, then instinct and tactical training kicked in. Situation: Tony was kissing him. Appropriate response: kiss back. Steve's hands were already in more or less the right places; it was no effort at all to pull Tony closer, to lick into Tony's mouth and make him groan, to shift his weight forward until the stool Tony was sitting on tilted back to bump the desk. Something fell to the floor with a muted clatter. Steve suspected it was the ink jar, spilling its contents on the carpet. He didn't care. Not when Tony was right there, still clutching at Steve's collar and breathing soft, needy noises into Steve's mouth.
"Yeah," Tony gasped when Steve finally pulled back, "okay. That went well." He sounded vaguely surprised by this turn of events, as if he hadn't been the one who started it.
"You were expecting it not to?" Steve asked.
"I..." Tony hesitated. "Honestly, I wasn't sure. You seemed like you wouldn't mind, and I'm generally pretty good at telling if someone would mind being kissed, but I had a lot of wishful thinking working against me here."
"Wishful thinking. Right." Steve struggled to collect his thoughts. It was difficult, when Tony was still so close and stroking his thumb along Steve's collarbone in a very distracting manner. "Just how much have you been wishfully thinking about this?"
"A lot," Tony admitted. Steve frowned, feeling suddenly suspicious.
"Wait. You didn't invent this whole touch-up business just to get me to kiss you, did you?"
"No!" Tony's momentary look of outrage quickly shifted to a smirk. "Though I totally would've if I'd thought of it."
Steve decided he could live with that.
"You're staring at me," Tony declared.
Steve considered denying it, then decided not to bother. After all, it wasn't as if he was being subtle about it.
"What can I say?" He shrugged. "You look good."
It was true, and not just in the obvious sense. Tony was a good-looking man, that was hardly news. But more to the point, he was smiling as he worked. His eyes were bright with enjoyment, and he moved with more energy that Steve recalled seeing in him since-- well, he wasn't sure how long. Steve wondered how much of this rare good mood came from Tony finally having something constructive to do, and how much was due to the fact that the two of them had spent a significant fraction of the past twenty-four hours necking like horny teenagers. The latter was certainly doing a lot for Steve's own mood.
There was a small bruise on Tony's neck, barely visible above the collar of his t-shirt. Steve could remember exactly when and how he put it there. Just seeing it made him want to reach across the table and pull Tony close again, wires and circuit boards be damned. Apparently, making out with Tony Stark was addictive, once you got started.
"Wait, I take it back." Tony set aside the fiber optic camera he'd just finished connecting to his laptop, and stood up straight. "You're not staring, you're ogling. Captain America is ogling me. I'm deeply shocked."
"No, you're not," Steve said. "And I'm not ogling, I'm... appreciating."
"Appreciating. Right." Tony smirked. "Well, you can keep appreciating from a distance for now, because I finally got this working." He snapped the laptop shut, coiled the camera cable on top of it, and picked up the whole bundle. "Let's go try it out."
The box was in a cabinet at the back of the room, locked inside a sturdy portable safe Wong had provided after they'd brought Tony home from the subway. Steve opened the cabinet and hesitated, hand hovering over the safe's combination lock.
"Are you sure it's--"
"It's fine!" Tony said irritably. "I'm protected, you're right here, and as I've told you about a million times, I'm not going to look at it. Here." He marched over to the shower stall and snatched a towel off the rack. "Cover it up before I come near it, if it makes you feel better."
"It does, actually." Steve felt faintly foolish, swaddling the box in layers of fluffy terrycloth, but a little foolishness seemed like a small price to pay for Tony's safety. "And you really can't blame me for being cautious, given how much trouble we've had already."
"I'm not blaming you," Tony said. "I'm the one who's been possessed by that thing, and trust me, I'm not looking to relive the experience. But we still need to do this, so let's get it over with, all right?"
"All right." Steve placed the towel-wrapped box on the table in front of Tony. "Just be careful, will you?"
"Aren't I always?" Tony drawled, then quickly held up one hand. "Don't answer that."
He lifted the camera with a pair of tweezers, and slid his hands under the towel.
"Okay, let's see if I can get this in place... fuck, it's like trying to thread a needle without looking... nope, not there... and not there either... got it!" He moved the box aside and bent over the laptop, typing in rapid-fire bursts. "Look, it's working." He turned the laptop around so that Steve could see the screen, which looked rather like a kaleidoscope rendered in shades of gray -- dozens of geometric shapes rearranging themselves in rapidly shifting patterns.
"I'll take your word for it," Steve said.
"It's perfectly straightforward, really." Tony made an unnecessary and entirely unsuccessful attempt to look modest. "Under all the magical bells and whistles, it's just a regular lock. A little more complicated than most, sure, but still just a bunch of tumblers that need to be lined up. I've got the camera mapping it from the inside and feeding the images into the laptop. Once it's done, I've got a program that'll crunch through the combinations until it finds the right one. It'll take a few hours, maybe a day, but we'll get the thing open."
"Uhm, hello?" Peter's voice drifted down from the top of the basement stairs, sounding a great deal more tentative than usual. "This is your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, giving you advance notice that I'm coming down. So that you can, uhm, get decent and everything. I'm just saying. Coming down reeeeeeally sloooooowly, okay?"
"It's fine, Peter." Steve suppressed a grin. "I think we may have traumatized him a bit earlier," he murmured to Tony.
"It's his own fault." Tony looked smug. "He should've knocked before barging in."
"I don't think most people knock before entering a kitchen," Steve pointed out.
"Hey there." Peter cracked the door open and poked his head in. "Sorry to interrupt whatever it is I'm interrupting, but Natasha's back, and she says she has info we all need to hear."
"All right, correct me if I'm wrong." Natasha coiled in one of the plush armchairs in the first-floor drawing room like a large cat waiting to pounce. "I'm neither a magician nor a lawyer, so maybe I've heard wrong, but don't most supernatural contracts have an escape clause? Some condition that will invalidate the whole thing?"
"Not always," Wong said judiciously. "But in the majority of cases, yes. Of course, the condition is often hidden, or phrased in a misleading manner. But it appears to be built into the nature of both gods and devils to make their bargains reversible. I suppose creatures that live for millennia must be wary of making unbreakable commitments. Why do you ask?" His expression abruptly turned dark. "You haven't made a bargain yourself, have you?"
"Hell, no." Natasha looked disgusted. "I may be reckless from time to time, but I've never been that crazy. But we all know someone who is."
"Okay, I'll bite," Tony said. "Who is it?"
"Dr. Doom." Natasha's lips curled into a predatory grin. "According to Amaryllis, our mystery box contains his infernal contract. The one he sold Manhattan with."
"He sold it?" Wong leaned forward, eyes wide. "Are you certain?"
Natasha shrugged. "As certain as I can be, given that I got the intel from a devil."
"I've wondered about that." Wong sprang to his feet and paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. In three years of living in the man's house, Steve had never seen him so visibly excited. "All this time, I've tried to find out what Doom had done, what spell he might've used. I considered the possibility of a sale, but everything I've learned about the Masters of the Bazaar indicated that they will only buy from the rightful owner. Doom was never the rightful owner of Manhattan, so how could he have done it?"
"More to the point," Peter said from the other side of the room, "can we undo it?"
"I bet we can." MJ had been sitting on the couch with her legs tucked up and her head pillowed on Peter's shoulder, but now she planted her feet on the floor and sat straight, as tense and excited as everyone else in the room. "Otherwise, why all the fuss? The Masters and the devils have all been collectively shitting bricks ever since we got that box. If the contract was unbreakable -- if there isn't something we can do about it -- why would they care?"
"Not to mention," Tony added, "why put a brain-eating lock on it?"
"We must get that box open," Wong had stopped pacing, but didn't relax. Now he was staring intently into the fireplace and drumming his fingers against the mantelpiece. "We need to know what's in that contract."
"I'm working on it," Tony said.
"In the meantime," Natasha said, "here's one more thing to think about: I've been keeping an eye on the Brass Embassy as much as I could over the past few days, and they're beefing up security in a hurry. Doubled guard at every entrance, new wards, new bars on the windows, passwords changing every six hours. And yesterday, they had a shipment of mirrors delivered -- large ones, all six feet high or more. I counted at least ten, and they were still bringing them in when I left."
"Mirrors?" Steve frowned. "What do devils need that many mirrors for?"
"Search me." Natasha shrugged. "If I looked like them, I'd be sending all the mirrors out of the house."
"There must be a connection." Steve did his best to sound calm, but his heart was pounding. Could it really happen, just like that? After three years of futility, could they finally accomplish something real, something that would actually bring the city back into the sunlight, instead of just fighting to make the darkness a little more tolerable? "The Embassy hasn't changed its routine in years. Now they're increasing security just as we get our hands on a possible way to undo what Doom has done? If that's a coincidence, I'll eat my shield."
"Great!" Peter said. "We get to storm the embassy to Hell. I'm sure that won't be a problem at all."
"Can it even be stormed?" Jessica Drew asked. "From what I've heard, the place is warded to hell and back. Literally."
"I may be the able to do something about the wards," Wong said. "Weaken them, at least. But it will take time, and the release of magical energy will attract attention. I can't just march up to the front door and start casting spells."
"I have some ideas about that," Steve said, "but let's not jump the gun. We don't know yet if we'll need to storm anything, and we won't know until Tony gets that box open."
"But no pressure," Tony muttered.
"You know," Peter said, "if this thing does turn out to be the box that saved Manhattan, I'd just like us all to remember who it was that snatched it. I'm just saying." He rocked his chair back, looking highly pleased with himself. "Let's see the Daily Bugle put a negative spin on that one."
"Do you think it'll work?" Tony's voice was muted and sleepy, his breath warm against Steve's bare skin. They were in Steve's bed, tangled together on top of the rumpled covers, their clothes in a heap on the floor. Tony had one arm draped across Steve's chest, and his head tucked into the crook of Steve's shoulder. "Can we really put Manhattan back where it belongs?"
"Yes," Steve said.
There was a brief, expectant silence, and then Tony planted his left elbow on the pillow next to Steve's head and propped himself up.
"That's it? That's all you have to say? Where's my inspiring Captain America pep talk? I feel cheated."
"You asked a yes or no question." Steve wrapped one arm around Tony's waist and pulled him back down. "I answered it. If you need more... well, you heard Wong. Contracts can be broken."
"I know," Tony said. "I used to keep three international law firms on retainer, just to deal with that sort of thing. I'm just saying, if that's what it comes down to... Hell might have the better lawyers."
"Doesn't matter," Steve said firmly. "The devils are thieves and cowards, and the stakes aren't the same for them as they are for us. They can afford to lose. We can't. That means they'll back down if the cost of winning becomes too high. We won't."
"I hope you're right," Tony sighed. "About them backing down, I mean -- I already know we won't." He trailed his hand down Steve's arm, and curled his fingers comfortably into Steve's cupped palm. "I never thought I'd have to harrow Hell just so I can have internet access again. It'll be worth it, though?"
"Is that what you miss the most?" Steve asked, amused and appalled at the same time. "The internet?"
"What I miss," Tony grumbled, "is a world where the laws of nature work properly. A world where cats don't talk, and clay people don't walk around, and giant spiders can't exist because the square-cube law matters, dammit. Also, a world with coffee makers. And lots of coffee to put in them." He lifted his head from Steve's shoulder and fixed Steve with a curious look. "So what do you miss?"
"Weather," Steve said promptly. "Sun and clouds and rain and snow. Even that godawful half-frozen slush we seem to get in the city every winter. Just... anything but stale air and darkness." He gazed up at the candle-lit ceiling, tried to imagine an open sky instead. It was disturbing, how much difficulty he had remembering the colors. "I am half-sick of shadows," he muttered.
The sympathy in Tony's eyes took the sting off his laughter. "Okay, Lady of Shalott." He wriggled closer and planted a kiss on the corner of Steve's mouth. "Tell you what, if we get back to Earth--"
"When we get back."
"Okay, when. When we get back, you just tell me what weather you want, and we'll find a place that has it and go there. And then we'll sit out in the weather and drink coffee."
"It's a date." Steve buried his fingers in Tony's hair and pulled him in for a longer, deeper kiss.
If Doom hadn't brought about the Descent, he and Tony might never have done this. It was probably selfish of him to consider that, weighed against everything else. Just at that moment, though, with Tony's mouth pressed against his, Steve found it difficult to care.
"That's it?" Steve picked up one of the three folded sheets Tony had removed from the newly-opened box. The sheet appeared to be heavy-stock cotton paper, cream-colored and gilded at the corners. The neat, tiny writing that covered both sides was in no language Steve could recognize, but it wasn't the Correspondence, either. "I was expecting something a little more impressive."
"Personally, I'm very impressed." Tony picked up one the other two sheets. "The last contract I signed was over a hundred pages long. Apparently, Hell has mastered the art of the concise legal document. Come on, let's see what Wong can make of this."
"Well. This is interesting." Wong laid out the contract pages in order across his desk in the library and squinted at the small writing in the dim light. "You have to give Doom credit for inventiveness."
"Can you actually read that?" Steve leaned in from the other side of the desk to peer at the pages. "It doesn't even look like a language to me."
"The second alphabet of Hell is the alphabet of deeds and contracts," Wang said in a distracted tone as he flipped the first page over. "It's also the one most commonly distributed outside of Hell, and most comprehensively documented. I can read it as well as I read any of the human languages I've studied. However--" He gave Steve a pointed frown. "--I cannot speed read it. Allow me a few minutes, please."
"Of course." Steve stepped away from the desk and wandered to a nearby bookcase, where Tony was leafing through what appeared to be an illustrated encyclopedia of sea monsters. "I'll just... wait over here."
"See?" Tony murmured with quiet amusement. "I'm not the only one who thinks you hover."
Steve decided not to dignify that with an answer.
"I was right," Wong said after several minutes of expectant silence during which Steve absolutely, definitely did not hover. "Doom had no authority to sell Manhattan to the Masters. What this contract describes is a workaround, a three-way deal between Doom, Hell, and the Bazaar. It was the devils who gave Doom the power to transport Manhattan to this dimension. Once that was accomplished, he and the Masters performed what appears to be a formal exchange of gifts."
"Exchange of gifts." Tony rolled his eyes. "Right. Sounds like a tax dodge to me. Or a way to get around trade regulations."
"Something like that, yes." Wong smiled thinly. "The Masters cannot purchase a city from a man who has no right to sell it. But they're under no obligation to investigate the provenance of any gifts they receive. So Doom gave them Manhattan, and in return the Masters gave him..." He picked up the last sheet and frowned at it.
"Gave him what?" Steve prompted.
"According to this, 'the power to bend all earthly creatures to his will.' Some form of mass mind control, I presume."
"Yeah," Tony said in a tight voice. "That sounds like the sort of thing Doom would do."
Steve felt sick. He'd guessed it before, of course. Doom would never have attempted a bargain this big and this risky without a proportionate payoff. But to hear it spoken out loud, to know beyond doubt or denial that Doom had been ruling Earth for three years while Steve and the other Avengers were trapped and out of reach--
"How do we undo this?" he demanded, at the same time as Tony said, "What does Hell get out of it?"
"As it happens," Wong said, "both your questions have the same answer." He tapped his finger against the last page. "Without a proper Bazaar sale, Manhattan's presence in this dimension is unnatural. It takes power to keep it here, and that power must be maintained. By the terms of the contract, there is a ritual that must be performed every year on the anniversary of the original bargain. Doom must tithe a thousand human souls to Hell, and in return, the devils renew the spell that keeps us here."
A thousand souls a year. Steve suppressed a shudder and forced himself to focus. He couldn't afford to lose his composure now, not when they were so close to an answer.
"So if the ritual doesn't happen--"
"Manhattan returns to its proper place." Wong's voice shook with barely suppressed excitement. "It would void both Doom's contract with Hell and his arrangement with the Masters."
"How much do you want to bet that this is what the Embassy has been preparing for?" Tony sounded as shaken as Steve felt, but his eyes were cold and determined. "We'll have to get in there. Does anyone know when the anniversary of the Descent is, exactly? It should be sometime soon."
"Two days from now," Steve said. Both Tony and Wong turned to stare at him. "What?"
"We haven't had a day or a night in three years," Tony said slowly. "Half the clocks in the city don't work and the other half don't agree with each other. And you can rattle off the date just like that?"
Steve shrugged, feeling suddenly self-conscious. "I have a good internal clock. Can we stick to the point, please?"
"The point. Right." Tony shut the book he was holding and leaned back against the bookcase behind him. "The point being, we have two days to figure out how to get into the Brass Embassy just as they've doubled their security. That should be fun."
"Actually," Steve said, "Getting in is the easy part."
It felt good to wear his uniform in public again. To feel the familiar weight of the mail shirt across his shoulders, the comforting heft of the shield on his arm, and not to have to hide it. Steve had kept to the rooftops for most of the trip, but now he dropped to the street, let himself be clearly seen as he crossed Park Row to the entrance of One Police Plaza.
His entrance caused something of a stir. The guard at the front desk leaped to his feet, and the officers milling in the lobby all spun to face him. A few of the officers drew their guns, but they looked uncertain as they did it. Steve stopped, lowered the shield to the floor to rest against his leg, and slowly raised his hands above his head.
"I want to talk to Maria Hill," he called out.
Despite its name, Hell's embassy to Lowered Manhattan was built not from brass but from massive blocks of mottled gray stone, with an imposing marble portico across the front facade. It squatted in the center of what used to be Sheep Meadow, surrounded by mossy blue lawns and carefully tended patches of luminous fungus, and warded with at least as much protective magic as the Sanctum Sanctorum. Over the years, every superhero in the city and a few of the supervillains had had a go at the place, and no one had managed to so much as crack a window pane.
Some people claimed the name was a reference to the metallic yellow sheen of the devils' eyes. Some cited rumors of a ballroom with a heated brass floor where humans who'd sold their souls were forced to dance barefoot for Hell's amusement. As Steve climbed the steps to the front door, he wondered if the name had anything to do with the vast array of locks that guarded the building's doors and windows.
"Keep your eyes down," Maria Hill hissed from just behind his right shoulder. "This'll have a better chance of working if you at least try to look defeated."
Steve slumped his shoulders and kept his gaze fixed on the polished marble beneath his boots. Didn't look up, not even when the bottom edge of an iron door came into view, with a pair of cloven feet on either side. The feet -- or hooves, Steve supposed -- poked out from the cuffs of crisp black trousers with gold braid down the seams. The devils had a thing for elaborate uniforms.
He felt horribly exposed, standing in front of the guards with his wrists shackled and his shield out of reach. The presence of three uniformed LMPD officers behind him didn't exactly help. Hill had sworn that her people were trustworthy, but to Steve they were another unknown quantity in a plan that already had more unknowns than he liked. He would've left them out all together, but Hill had insisted that it would look suspicious if she showed up escorting an important prisoner alone, and Steve had to go with her judgment on that one. She'd spent a lot more time dealing with devils than he had.
"Detective Hill," the guard on the left greeted. His speech was a little slurred, like all devils'. Fangs and forked tongues were poorly suited to human sounds. "We weren't expecting you tonight."
"Hello, Marlowe. Wormwood." Hill's voice held the ease of long familiarity. She nodded at each guard in turn, then rattled off a long string of guttural syllables that were presumably the password. "I've got a present for your bosses."
One of the other officers planted a hand in the middle of Steve's back and shoved. Steve let himself stumble forward a little, then decided it would be in character to finally stand up straight. He squared his shoulders and glared at the guards, who stared back with impassive yellow eyes.
"That's one of your superheroes, isn't it?" Marlowe hissed. "One of the ones the Masters posted the reward for."
"That's right. He had this with him when we caught him." Hill took a step forward and held up the box, balanced on a circular tray draped in a velvet cloth the color of dried blood. "Still don't know what the fuss is about this thing, but I figured I'd better deliver it in person."
Wormwood let out a thoughtful hiss and darted his tongue out one corner of his mouth. "Maybe we'd better bring him in while you wait outside. Security, you know?"
"What, thinking of claiming the reward for yourselves?" Hill's sneer was pure acid. Steve could sort of admire it when it wasn't directed at himself. "I hope you have a convincing explanation for how you managed to capture a fugitive while standing guard duty. Or are you going to tell them you abandoned you post and try to explain that instead?"
The guards' eyes narrowed to angry slits. They hissed some more, but seemed to have no better response to offer.
"Tell you what," Hill said, "you let me go in there and claim my money, and I'm sure I'll be in a very good mood when I come back. And when I'm in a good mood, I like to share. Spread the wealth around." She smiled thinly. "Make sure my friends are as happy as I am. You two are my friends, right?"
Wormwood and Marlowe squinted at each other, then at Hill, then at Steve. Wormwood flicked his tongue again, and stepped forward.
"We need to make sure he's secure," he said.
Steve stood very still while the two devils patted him down and tested his shackles. Their hands were hot enough that he could feel them through leather and mail. Marlowe pulled Steve's cowl back to examine his face, stepped back with an annoyed shrug, and turned toward the door.
It took him nearly two minutes to undo the array of locks and deadbolts that barred the door. When the final bolt clicked aside, he shoved the door open and gave Hill a jagged, mocking grin.
"Go on then, bring him in."
"Thanks," Hill said, and shot him in the face.
Marlowe dropped to the ground, looking more startled than hurt. Wormwood spat out what was presumably a curse, and pounced for Hill's gun arm. Steve intercepted him with a tackle, which felt a lot like tackling the Rhino but did at least take him down for a couple of seconds. Steve rolled free just in time for one of Hill's men to toss him the key to the shackles. Hill herself planted herself just inside the open door, and let the box and the velvet cloth drop to the ground to reveal Steve's shield.
Inside, an alarm bell clanged. Marlowe and Wormwood leaped to their feet and attacked Hill again, only to be shot down once more by the LMPD officers. Marlowe did land one pile driver of a blow that would've probably cracked Hill's skull if she hadn't raised the shield in time. The impact drove her to her knees but didn't budge her from the door.
"We'll have every devil in the embassy here in a moment!" she yelled. "Your people better get here soon!"
"They're coming," Steve yelled back. "Give me my shield!" Hill tossed it to him, and he caught it and slipped his arm through the straps.
The clatter of cloven feet on stone tiles signaled the imminent arrival of reinforcements from inside the embassy. At the same time, Steve's own reinforcements swooped down from above, where they'd been circling out of sight in the darkness beneath the cavern roof. Spider-Woman and Jewel carried Black Widow and Wong, while Spider-Man clung to Iron Man's armor, with the Falcon following close behind. Only Luke was missing -- he was back at the Sanctum Sanctorum with Danni, having lost a vicious argument and two out of three coin tosses with his wife.
The prospect of fighting with his shield again felt great, but the sight of Tony in the armor was even better. Though maybe it wasn't the armor itself, but the memory of the bright anticipation on Tony's face as he put it on. Tony had poured every last drop of his gasoline stash into the generator in order to get the repulsors and power cells charged for this one last battle.
"If we pull this off," he'd told Steve with a grin, "then we'll be back on Earth and I'll have all the electricity I want. And if we fail -- well, then it'll hardly matter, will it?"
Now he landed on the terrace with enough force to make the marble shudder beneath his boots, and blasted Marlowe and Wormwood with a burst of repulsor fire before they had a chance to get up again. Spider-Man provided the finishing touch by webbing both devils to the floor.
"Good timing," Steve said. "Let's all get inside now. Hill, you have point."
According to Natasha's intelligence, the ritual was to take place in the domed chamber at the center of the embassy building. According to Wong, it was likely to happen at the same time of night as Doom's original spell three years ago. According to Hill, she knew the building layout well enough to get them where they needed to go. That was a few too many accordings for Steve's liking, but they'd had no time to lay elaborate plans. Steve followed Hill through the door, and didn't bother to suppress his smile as Iron Man fell into step beside him.
The front door opened into a short, narrow corridor that led to a high-ceilinged antechamber containing some ornate but otherwise unremarkable chairs and benches. A row of chandeliers held thick, smoky candles that gave off a strange greenish light. The walls were hung with tapestries of elaborately robed devils and mythological beasts. The embroidered figures seemed to move in Steve's peripheral vision, but held still when he looked at them directly. There were six sturdy-looking doors leading out of the room, but no windows.
"I don't mean to complain," Spider-Man said as they all filed into the room, "but shouldn't somebody be attacking us by now?"
As if in response to his words, all the candles went out. There was about half a second of complete darkness before the high beam on Iron Man's helmet switched on. And in the space of that half a second, the room somehow filled with several dozen very angry-looking devils.
"You just had to ask, didn't you?" Jewel muttered, and floated up to the ceiling.
"Make for the northwest door!" Hill yelled, just as the first line of devils pounced.
With that many bodies in the fight, there was no space for finesse. Steve's tactics narrowed to "if it's not an Avenger or a cop, hit it." Devils were preternaturally strong and fast, and their touch scorched like hot iron, but at the end of the day, fighting them wasn't that different from fighting Unfinished Men. Steve slammed his shield into yellow-eyed faces, dodged blows from sharp-clawed hands, and did his best to keep himself pointed into a more or less northwest direction.
He tried to keep an eye out on the others as he moved. Jewel, Spider-Woman and Falcon attacked from above, darting in and out of the thickest parts of the fight. Spider-Man leaped from wall to wall, shooting webs as he went. Black Widow fought side by side with Hill and her team, matching Hill's moves with an ease that spoke of shared SHIELD training. Wong kept close to the walls, making complex hand gestures and chanting words Steve was too far away to hear. With any luck, this meant the building's internal wards would be weakened when the Avengers tried to advance further inside.
Iron Man, predictably, was in the thickest part of the fight. The devils seemed frightened and enraged by him at the same time. They would surround him in groups, hissing and spitting, then attack all at once. The armor was already scorched and dented in several places, but Tony was steady on his feet and firing repulsor and plasma blasts at a steady pace.
"Iron Man!" Steve slammed an elbow into a charging devil's chin, dropped and rolled to avoid a clawed swipe from behind, and came up on his feet at Tony's side. "We need to get everyone together and through that door over there."
"Gotcha." Tony fired a flare toward the ceiling. "Avengers, to me!"
Something looped around Steve's ankles and yanked. He twisted as he fell, rolled, and brought his shield edge down onto what turned out to be a two-headed green snake with a body as thick as Steve's thigh. The thing looked familiar, and it took Steve a moment to figure out where he'd seen it before.
"They're coming out of the tapestries!" He yelled. Not the most coherent statement he'd ever made, but he suspected the others would know what he meant.
"No kidding?" Spider-Man swung down from the chandelier to web the snake's heads to the floor. "I was wondering where the giant flying dog came from."
Another flare burst, followed by a small but remarkably loud explosion that turned the northwest door into splinters. Either Wong's counterspells were working, or the high-tech energy of the repulsors was too much for the wards. "Everyone this way!" Tony shouted. The armor magnified his voice to drown out the noise of the fight. He launched into the air, dipped, and came up again with an LMPD officer dangling from each arm. He tossed them through the blasted doorway like rag dolls, then dove in again to get Hill, just as Falcon and Jewel flew down for the rest of the Avengers. Steve battered his way through on his own, sprinting though the doorway just as Spider-Man swung in above him.
They were in another corridor now, which gave them a slight tactical advantage. The devils seemed reluctant to follow them into a confined space where they could only attack two or three at a time. They hung back in the antechamber, and let the creatures from the tapestries give pursuit. A snake-tailed panther nearly took a healthy bite from Steve's leg, and something that looked like a cross between a greyhound and a vulture managed one swipe of its beak across his left shoulder before a plasma burst sent it reeling back.
"You all right?" Tony's voice sounded slightly winded behind the faceplate. He was limping, one metal boot melted out of shape and smoking at the seams.
"Fine." Steve flexed his arm to make sure. The mailed sleeve of his uniform was torn right through and singed at the edges, but there was no blood. The creature's beak had been as hot as the devils' claws, hot enough to cauterize the wound it made. Steve suspected it would hurt like hell once the battle rush wore off, but right now all he felt was a dull throb. "You're the one who's limping."
"It's nothing." Tony braced his hand against the wall and took another clanking step. "They fried the circuits but didn't get past the insulation. Hey, Hill, are we almost there yet?"
"Shut up and keep moving," Hill snapped back.
The route they followed turned, branched, turned again and again. Dozens of corridors crossed each other at oblique angles. It seemed to Steve that they were covering more ground than the building could actually contain. But Hill never slowed or hesitated as she took each corner. Steve just hoped her confidence wasn't a bluff.
Just as he was thinking of echoing Tony's "are we there yet?" Hill took one last turn and stopped in front of a wooden door that looked no different than the several dozen other doors she'd guided them past.
"Here," she said. "And you'd better hope your intelligence was good."
"If it doesn't, your corpse can say 'I told you so' to my corpse," Tony told her, and blasted the door.
The room on the other side matched Natasha's second-hand description -- a windowless octagonal chamber with a domed ceiling and a large circular mirror embedded in the floor. Eight more mirrors hung on the walls, reflecting the light of the green-glowing candles in brass wall sconces. The three devils gathered around the floor mirror were all dressed in pinstriped suits and garishly-colored neckties. Perhaps Tony's earlier words about Hell's lawyers hadn't been that far off.
On the floor at the devils' feet was an odd assortment of items, carefully arranged around the mirror's edge. A bottle of water, a clump of dirt, a small, blown-glass sphere, a bowl filled with some sort of oil. One of the devils was kneeling next to the bowl with a lit match in one hand, but he leaped to his feet with when the Avengers burst in. The match dropped to the floor and flared out. All three devils hissed and bared their fangs, but didn't immediately attack.
"Captain." Wong edged forward to stand at Steve's left. His clothes were singed and one side of his face was red and blistered from a devil's touch. "We need to destroy that floor mirror."
"Got it." Steve threw the shield. It ricocheted off the mirror's surface toward the back of the room, where it shattered one of the wall mirrors and embedded itself in the elaborate silver frame. But the glass on the floor remained unbroken, not so much as a scratch to mark where the edge of the shield had struck. Tony's follow-up blast left only a few faint cracks.
"It's never that easy, is it?" Tony muttered.
The devils had been backing away from the door the whole time. Now one of them spun around to face one of the wall mirrors, and gestured rapidly, chanting something indistinct under his breath. Hill promptly shot him in the back, which made him stutter into silence, but by then the mirror had darkened and something that definitely wasn't a reflection stirred inside the frame. Moments later, the glass rippled like water, and a sorrow-spider the size of a large cat tumbled through to land on the floor with a muted thump. Three more spiders followed in quick succession, just as the rest of the wall mirrors also began to darken and ripple.
"Oh, great." Spider-Woman let out a dramatic sigh. "It's those guys again."
Steve dove into a forward roll toward the far side of the room, where his shield was still stuck in the broken mirror frame. By the time he came up on his feet to retrieve it, there were at least twenty spiders in the room, and more were pouring in from all sides. One leaped for Steve's face, all clicking fangs and dripping venom. Steve knocked it aside hard enough to make it burst against the wall in a spray of gray ichor, then spun around to smash the shield into the nearest mirror on his right. For all its liquid rippling, it shattered like normal glass. Silvery shards rained to the floor, followed by half a spider as the portal it was coming through abruptly closed.
"Break the wall mirrors!" Steve called out. "It'll stop more of these things from coming through!"
"Gotcha!" Natasha launched into a spinning kick and slammed a boot heel into the glass behind her. Tony blasted two at once, then ducked as Jewel darted over his head to break a third one. Peter pulled another with his webs, and the influx of spiders slowed to a trickle. The ones already in the room swarmed to attack, but the Avengers already knew how to fight them, and Hill and her team were catching on fast.
There was one wall mirror left intact. Steve began to work his way toward it, saw Tony turn to do the same from the other side of the room.
"I've got it!" Steve yelled to him. Iron Man's weapons appeared to be their only chance to damage the ritual mirror. With any luck, Tony could get the job done while the rest of them kept the spiders busy. Steve crushed a rat-sized spiderling under his boot, then ducked to avoid a larger one. "You get the one on the floor!" Tony gave a quick, jerky nod and altered his course toward the center of the room.
The three pinstriped devils had retreated to the corner farthest from the door, putting the writhing mass of spiders between themselves and the Avengers. Steve tried to keep an eye on them as he fought, but they made no threatening moves -- or moves of any kind, for that matter -- until Tony came within easy striking distance of the ritual mirror. Then one of the devils pulled something small and glittering from his breast pocket and threw it. He didn't seem to be aiming for anything in particular, but instinct still made Steve leap forward to intercept. The projectile -- a small glass vial -- shattered against his shield and expelled a small, dense cloud of glittering blue mist that rapidly thinned out as it expanded to fill the room. When it reached the walls and ceiling it began to thicken again, coalescing into intensely glowing blue strands that twisted themselves into strings of complex, curving shapes. Steve had only had a few brief glimpses of the Correspondence when Tony was working with it, but he recognized the symbols now.
"Don't look at it!" Even filtered through the armor, Tony's voice held a note of borderline panic. "Everyone look away!"
"Look away to where?" Natasha snapped back.
Good question, Steve thought. The walls and the ceiling were completely covered with the Correspondence now. The floor was clear, but it was also littered with pieces of broken mirrors. As the spiders scurried back and forth, Steve couldn't avoid catching partial glimpses of reflected symbols. He tried to focus on the spiders -- they were the ones he needed to fight, after all -- but already his eyes were starting to burn. A warm drop trickled down his cheek. Steve swiped at it with the back of his hand and saw a dark red stain spread against the brighter red of his glove. His eyes were bleeding.
A shift of light and shadow at the edge of his peripheral vision warned him that a spider was attacking. Steve barely managed to swat it aside in time. His limbs felt suddenly clumsy and heavy with fatigue, as if he'd been fighting for hours rather than minutes. The sounds in the room became muted and meaningless, the colors all faded except for the cool blue glow of the Correspondence. The twisting symbols were endlessly fascinating, and Steve was seized with frustration at his inability to see them properly in the mirror shards.
Look up. The words weren't so much spoken as planted directly into his mind. If he looked at the walls, he could see the Correspondence properly. He could read and know its secrets, which were the secrets of the universes. All the universes, an infinite number of them, he could spend a thousand lifetimes reading and never scratch the surface...
"Steve!" Tony's voice was clear, but it seemed to be coming from a great distance. "Steve, listen to me, you need to close your eyes!"
Why? Tony sounded terribly urgent, but Steve couldn't imagine what could be more important than learning what the Correspondence had to say. Surely, Tony would understand. Whatever he wanted, it could wait a little longer.
"Don't listen to it, Steve! Don't look at it!"
Ignore him. This is more important. This is--
A burst of light filled the room, so searing-bright that Steve's vision shorted out completely. It hurt enough to make him drop to his knees, but it also cleared his head. The intrusive, slithering presence of the Correspondence receded from his mind and he understood what must've happened. Flare. Tony had fired a flare.
It was a temporary reprieve. Already, Steve's vision was beginning to clear. White spots still danced before his eyes, but they were fading rapidly. If he closed his eyes, he'd be useless. If he didn't, he'd be worse than useless. The Correspondence had made Tony walk out of the Sanctum Sanctorum and hand himself over to the Spider Council. There was no telling what it might make Steve do.
He started to rise to his feet, but a blow between his shoulder blades drove him to his knees again. One of the sorrow-spiders had dropped down on him from the ceiling. Now it skittered across Steve's back and over his shoulder, and sank its fangs into the same spot where the beaked creature from the tapestries had mauled him earlier. Steve knocked it to the floor by reflex, but the deep sting of the bite and deeper burn of the venom helped ground him in his own body, gave him something to focus on even as his vision fully cleared. It wasn't as effective as Tony's flare had been, but it was a hell of a lot better than his earlier mental fog. When the Correspondence began to whisper at the edges of his mind again, Steve gritted his teeth and dug his fingers into the wound.
He could see some of the others now. Hill and Black Widow, kneeling in the broken glass, their blood-streaked faces tilted up to stare at the wall in front of them. Spider-Man, face down on the floor, breathing but not moving. Tony, standing in the center of the room, with his armored feet planted on top of the badly cracked but still unbroken mirror. And in front of Tony, blocking Steve's view of the rest of the room, the Spider Council.
It must've come in through the one remaining wall mirror, though Steve imagined it would've had difficulty fitting through the frame. Its compound body was smaller than it had been in the subway, and marked with multiple scars, but it seemed they hadn't done a thorough enough job killing it the first time around. Now it crouched low to the floor and tapped its claws thoughtfully against the stone as Tony spoke to it.
"--The one you really want, right?" Tony was saying. He'd taken his gauntlets off and dropped them to the floor, presumably as some kind of good-will gesture in whatever negotiation he was attempting. "The others are no use to you, no more than any random person whose eyes you might steal in the night. Promise to let them go and I'll come back with you."
"Tony, don't," Steve ground out. Neither Tony nor the Council seemed to notice.
"And why would we want you, little metal man?" There was a sound like nails on a chalkboard as the Council scraped one claw down the length of Tony's battered chest plate. "Are you someone important inside that shell?"
"You tell me." Tony took his helmet off and set it down next to the gauntlets. "You're the one who wanted me the last time."
"Ahhh..." The Council's entire oversized bulk lifted off the floor and sank back again as it sighed. "You are the Correspondence scholar."
"That's right." Tony shuddered but held his ground as the Council lowered another claw to press against his exposed throat. "Do we have a deal?"
The Council scurried forward until a dozen of its faceted eyes were only inches from Tony's face. "The Correspondence doesn't have you now," it hissed.
"I'm protected." Tony indicated the painted symbol on his forehead, lifted his hands to show off his wrists. "But I'll remove the protection if that's what you need. Just let the others go."
Dammit, Tony! Steve balanced the shield for a throw, but held back. Tony was standing too close for a clear shot. And Steve didn't trust himself to throw true just then, not when he was dizzy with pain and devoting most of his energy to keeping the Correspondence out of his mind. Not when the Council could kill Tony with one blow.
"Very well." The Council pulled its claws in and moved back. "We have a bargain."
"The others?" Tony insisted.
"Will be allowed to leave the room once the ritual is completed." The Council sounded amused. "They will still have to make their way out of the building, of course. We cannot vouch for what the devils might do."
"Good enough," Tony said, even though it clearly wasn't. Something was definitely off, Steve thought. Tony was a better deal-maker than that. He had asked for no guarantees, took no notice of the three devils who were now slinking out from behind the Council. Did he have a plan of some sort? What did he think he was doing?
At the moment, what he was doing was scrubbing off the symbols Steve had so carefully painted on, first from his face, then from his wrists. But not from his chest, that one was still hidden by the armor. Was one symbol protection enough? Was that Tony's plan?
If it was, he was showing no sign of it now. Tony walked away from the mirror to stand at the Council's side, and when he turned enough for Steve to get a look, his face was slack and his eyes were blank. He didn't seem to notice as the devils gathered around the mirror.
It took them only a few moments to rearrange their ritual items and to refill the bottle and the bowl. One of the devils set the oil in the bowl alight, while the other two chanted. The mirror's frame began to glow, while the glass within it darkened. A shadow formed and grew larger, as if the mirror was a window and a figure was approaching it from the other side. In the space of a few heartbeats, the figure grew close enough to be illuminated by the glowing frame, and Steve could see the light reflecting off Victor von Doom's armor.
Steve threw the shield, because he had to at least try. It bounced off the glass just as it did the last time. Steve thought he saw a few new cracks appear, but it wasn't going to be enough. One of the devils hissed at him from the far side of the mirror, but didn't move from his place.
"Tony!" Steve yelled. Iron Man was the only Avenger still standing. If Tony had a plan, he needed to execute it now, while they still had seconds to spare. "Come on, Tony, take your own advice! Weren't you telling just a minute ago to close my eyes and fight it?"
Tony shook his head and swayed on his feet, but didn't look in Steve's direction. Had he even heard, or was he just reacting to the Correspondence again? Steve had no way of telling; all he could do was raise his voice over the devils' chanting and keep trying.
"Listen to me, Tony! Iron Man! Remember what I told you before? They'll back down and we won't, that's what makes the difference! Don't back down on me now!"
Tony's legs buckled. He pressed his hands to his temples, cried out, then dropped to his hands and knees as if struck down. His head lolled forward until Steve couldn't see his face anymore, but he thought he'd seen a flicker of clarity in Tony's eyes just before he fell. There was nothing Steve could do from where he was, except call Tony's name again and again. Tony had said that Steve's voice was the only thing he could hear over the Correspondence, but it hadn't been enough the last time. Would it be enough now?
"Let go!" Tony clenched his fists and screamed. "Letgoletgoletgo--" The Spider Council lifted a claw to strike at him, but at that moment, the armor's unibeam fired.
The floor in the center of the room turned into a smoking crater. The mirror tumbled into it, along with all three devils. Tony rolled away from the edge barely in time to keep from falling in after them. He rolled onto his back, still screaming, and fired again. Parts of the ceiling began to collapse. The air filled with dust from the falling stones, so thick that Steve couldn't see Tony anymore. Then again, he couldn't see the Correspondence, either.
Steve's shield was out of reach, his left arm was useless, and his head swam with pain and the numbing effect of spider venom. He moved anyway, made it to his feet, staggered toward the spot where he'd seen Tony last. He saw the Spider Council's dark shadow sway in the billowing dust, scrambling away from the crater and toward the door. The rest of the spiders were scattering in all directions, trying to avoid the falling rubble.
Another burst of light from the unibeam, then another. Tony was bringing the entire room down. Steve had no idea if the ritual mirror could survive this level of destruction, but he suspected it hardly mattered. It was buried under tons of debris now, with more coming down every moment. There was no way Doom was coming through.
Steve managed to stagger three, maybe four steps before a chunk of rock the size of a watermelon glanced off his good shoulder and sent him sprawling to the floor. Getting back up seemed like a waste of effort, so he crawled the rest of the way, until he saw Tony's metal-clad arm in front of him.
"Steve!" Tony's face was blackened with dust and streaked with blood and sweat. "I knew it would work, I knew I could do this if you talked me through it!"
"This was your brilliant plan?" Steve didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Have me yell at you? You're insane."
"Worked, didn't it?" Tony's arm trembled as he raised it to bump Steve's chest with his fist. "You need to go now. I think I took out some supporting walls. This whole place is coming down any moment."
"What about you?"
"I'm a bit stuck." Tony gestured toward the lower half of his body, and Steve realized that his legs were buried under several feet of rubble. Without the armor, Tony would've been crushed to a pulp. With it, he was merely immobilized.
Damn. Even if he'd been uninjured, there was no way Steve could shift this much rock in time. "Can't you move it?"
"Out of power. Hydraulics down." Tony punched Steve's chest again, harder this time. "Go!"
"Stop that!" Steve caught Tony's hand in his. "I wouldn't have left you like this even before I knew I loved you, you really think I'm going to do it now?"
"Steve, please!" Tony looked utterly terrified, and Steve was fairly sure that it wasn't the shower of rock around them that had him in such a state, even if one softball-sized chunk did only miss his head by inches. "We only have a minute or so--"
"And you really want to spend that minute arguing?" Steve demanded. And then, because Tony looked as if he was actually considering it, Steve leaned down and kissed him.
It wasn't much of a kiss. Both their mouths were full of dust, Tony was in no shape to anything but lie there, and Steve only had one usable arm to hold him with. I hope the others make it out, Steve thought, and then pushed the thought aside, because there was nothing he could do about it either way, and he didn't want his last moments to be filled with fear or regret. He was here, and Tony was here, and if he was going to die in the ruins of Hell's embassy -- well, at least he was kissing the right person.
The floor began to shake. Here it comes, Steve thought, and braced himself. But the crushing impact he was anticipating never came. Seconds ticked by, and the shaking stopped, and then Tony was bracing one hand against Steve's chest and pushing him away.
"Not dead. I've noticed." A gust of wind blew across Steve's face, and his breath caught in his throat, because wind in Lowered Manhattan was never this cold. Steve lifted his head to look around, and realized that the room -- no, the entire building around them was gone. Not destroyed, but truly gone. Around them was open space, beneath them was not stone but cold, damp mud, and Steve had never been so grateful to sit in cold mud in his entire life.
The rubble that had pinned Tony's legs was gone too. Steve levered him up into a sitting position and turned both their faces into the wind. It was still dark, but the darkness was different now. Steve tilted his head back.
"Tony, look up."
Above them, farther away than it had been in years, the sky was full of stars.
Paris, two months later
"So," Tony said, "how about that weather we're having?"
"It's wonderful," Steve said fervently.
They were having a late brunch at a cafe around the corner from their hotel, seated at an outdoor table despite the steady gray drizzle. The striped umbrella over the table kept them mostly dry, and the morning chill made each swallow of Steve's hot chocolate feel twice as welcome going down. Tony, on his third cup of coffee, was dividing his attention between his newspaper and his PDA. Steve just leaned back in his chair and watched the city go about its business around them. The steady stream of cars and pedestrians was reassuringly ordinary, until he looked across the street, where a work crew was busily scrubbing a fifty-foot fresco of Victor von Doom from the side of an office building.
"Stop that," Tony muttered without looking up from his PDA screen.
"The glaring. It's only a picture, Doom can't actually feel your righteous disapproval."
Steve tore his croissant in half with a great deal more viciousness than an innocent pastry deserved. "Doom has a lot to answer for."
"Oh, I don't know," Tony said. "If he hadn't taken over the world, it would've been us dealing with that Skrull invasion instead of him. Maybe we should send him a thank you card."
"Don't even joke about it." Steve growled. "I'll take ten alien invasions over the mess we've got now."
In the wake of his deal with Hell and the Masters, Doom had used his new power to dissolve all the world's governments and declare himself the sole ruler of a unified Earth. Now he was back in Latveria, hiding behind sealed borders, his magically-imposed world order turned to chaos. The United Nations, SHIELD, the Avengers, and every other superhero on the planet all had their hands full trying to keep some semblance of order as the world subdivided itself again. A part of Steve wished it didn't have to happen that way, but you couldn't mind-control people into world peace.
"I know what you mean." Tony glared at his newspaper one last time before folding it and shoving it aside. "With an alien invasion, you at least know who the bad guys are and what you're supposed to do about them. Nice and simple, right?"
"Right," Steve sighed. "I could go for a bit of nice and simple in my life right now."
"Really?" Tony gave him a crooked smile. "What are you doing with me, then?"
"Good question." Steve found himself reluctantly smiling back. "What am I doing with a guy whose idea of a brilliant plan is to bring the roof down on top of his own head?"
"Oh, come on." Tony rolled his eyes. "How many times do we get to have this argument? It was a good plan. It worked. We brought Manhattan back and nobody died."
"It was a terrible plan. It only worked because you got lucky. And Hill and Natasha will never speak to you again."
"Sure they will," Tony said confidently. "I'll just have to charm them a little, that's all."
"Once they're out of traction."
"Yeah." Tony's grin wilted a little. "Okay, maybe I'll have to charm them a lot."
"If I were you," Steve said, "I'd keep the charm to myself for a while."
"Maybe you're right." Tony looked chastened for a moment. A very short moment. "Maybe I'll charm you instead." The leer that accompanied the words was not so much charming as utterly obscene. A few weeks ago, Steve might've blushed at it, but he was developing a tolerance for Tony's antics.
"You can try," he said placidly, and sipped his hot chocolate.
Tony's gaze turned calculating, as if he was taking Steve's non-response as a challenge. He started to say something, then swore and patted at his pockets at the same time as Steve's own coat beeped urgently at him.
"Dammit." Tony pulled his communicator from his back pocket and scowled at it. "I swear, every time we get an hour to ourselves, Hill comes up with an emergency. I think she's cockblocking us."
"I'm pretty sure she's not doing it on purpose," Steve said. Tony's scowl deepened.
"She totally is. I bet she and Black Widow are in it together, plotting against us."
"If Hill and Natasha were plotting against us, we'd have bigger things to worry about than interrupted brunch dates." Steve put his cup down, and reached across the table to press the "acknowledge" key on the communicator in Tony's hand.
"Where does SHIELD want us?"
"Geneva." Tony let out an annoyed huff. "Apparently, HYDRA is trying to break up the Eastern European summit."
"Will there be weather in Geneva?"
"Almost certainly." Tony's annoyed glare relaxed into an amused half-smile. "And coffee too."
"Well, that's all right then." Steve stood and pulled Tony to his feet. "Let's go save the world."