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i find that i can never escape being a soldier

Chapter Text

When Michael realizes he is James Barnes, it is too late for him.

He now recognizes the flash that consumes him, body and mind and -- soul does he have a soul was he an angel is he the asset they don’t have souls-- as Grace. With it, comes a flood of memories.

He remembers being James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th division, remembers now-obsolete weaponry from the second World War, remembers khaki army tents and old friends, the fiery feel of some junky alcohol burning in his throat, remembers the laugh of friends whose faces he can’t quite remember, remembers fierce protectiveness and a shield, a stubborn blonde who used to be shorter than him, and -- and he remembers falling, the sick wrench in his gut when the metal snapped, remembered the feeling of falling, of shutting his eyes to the cold and hoping his friends made it.

He remembers being Michael, remembers the Heavenly War -- bayonets attached to primaries, wrenches of light and screaming voices as angel after angel died, remembered the faintly golden glow of the battlefields, mud covering everything, consisting of the blood of angels, their wings, and the ash, the ash that permeated everything. Remembered slowly gaining despair and wounds and clinging to a victory because it was his duty.

(He remembered, somehow, being Mikha’el -- before the reprogramming, before the War, remembered the Garden and smiling at younger siblings, remembered feeling happy and hopeful, knowing nothing but song and hope, the live wire feel of Lucifer’s wings on his own, the trilling sound of Gabriel’s laugh, Raphael’s quiet, knowing smile, the feel of his Father’s grace on his being like a patch of constant sunlight.)

He remembered being the Winter Soldier, too, remembered this chair, remembered the processes that won him his metal arm (remembered, too, the times where it would be removed in punishment for a botched mission, or for being disrespectful, remembered his voice going hoarse as wires were roughly torn from nerve endings) remembered beatings and brainwashings and missions and duty, remembered that he was a creation of Hydra, remembered that he was classified as less than human. The asset. It.

It is too late for him because Bucky -- Michael -- realizes that because they are also the Winter Soldier, there is no feeling in their left arm, that it whirs when they move it, that it binds them to this place. Debt. Words from scientists swim around his vision -- the fist of Hydra, experimental. Theirs. He is a weapon and he belongs to them.

It is too late because that muscle memory causes them, in the mess that is shared mind and regained memory, to open their mouth willingly to some sort of gag, a plastic mouth guard molded to their teeth, to obediently bite down, keep the object in his mouth. It is Bucky’s instinct that has them test the bindings around their wrists, tugging upwards hard, only to be stopped by some form of straps. Michael’s instinct, the asset’s instinct, contrasts that, in that it is such that it causes them to stop dead still when someone who -- something, something in their body recognizes as authority barks out a few orders in Russian.. (Michael was created to follow orders and the other part of this body flinches at these people, screams that they are to be followed.)

It is the Winter Soldier’s instinct to close their eyes, freshly gained memories telling him that when he feels like a human, has the memories to accompany such, is more than a tool, it means that soon frost will envelop their skin, and they will once again be the clean slate. A weapon. (He is Hydra’s, Hydra ’s tool to remake how they see fit)

Michael knows reprogramming and the Winter Soldier knows brainwashing. As they feel the cool metal settle around their skull, the nodes pressing into key points in his skull (so much like needles too much) and he wonders that certain things have crossed universes.

Cold orders ring out across the room, from technicians to guards and vice versa; “Be sure not to break it again. We need it shortly.” “Check its bindings, it might damage itself in the process again.” (Memory that is now losing significance comes bluntly to the surface; a time where he had thrashed around too much, had given himself a concussion and damaged the equipment. The punishment that had come afterwards had been severe -- he remembered hunger, being too sore to so much as move to receive whatever food had been tossed to him.)

The nails that dig into a seat at a Hydra base, the scream that fights its way past a gag, muffled by the object preventing the asset from biting off his tongue, the eyes that squeeze shut in pain -- they belong to an archangel, an assassin, and a good man.

The thing placed back into a cryogenic chamber has no memory of being any of these things.

The asset is woken, and told his next target is Tony Stark.

Chapter Text

Debriefing was short; the asset was given only the details he needed on his target.

 

Tony Stark, male, billionaire and philanthropist, approximately 6’1”.

 

Suspected to be the man behind the Iron Man suit.

 

Escaped from terrorists in Gulmira a few months ago; and information from the press conference was stated; citing an explosion. SHIELD infiltration and visuals state a suit flying out of the wreckage; further investigation required.

 

The gun they gave him was cold and black and it fit the contours of his metal arm well. After a few rounds in the training room to make sure it was in good functioning condition, he felt it was satisfactory.

 

He tugged the strap around and let it slide to his back, tugging on gloves that would cover his metal hand, and a loose sweatshirt and backpack, both designed with the purpose to conceal who he was (what he was), and conceal his weaponry, the backpack slotting over the gun, and a few pockets hidden in the sweatshirt, the modern sneakers, and casual pants that hid knives.

 

A communicator was given to him, and he slid it into his ear, hearing the voice of the young technician checking the systems.

 

“Test, one, two, three. Asset, can you hear me?” He tapped it twice, the only signal he was allowed to return. If the plan went to succession, this earpiece would function as a three way communicator.

 

“Alright, asset. You’re bound for the property of Tony Stark. Tap twice if you need a review of anything you’ve learned of him. For now, your only mission directive is to get visibility on Stark, and remain in place.”

 

He was dropped some distance from the building, so as not to cause suspicion as he walked around, hands in the pocket of his sweatshirt, and forcing his steps to become casual as he gauged the building quietly, eyes darting around from each sector of land, looking around for the secondary target.

 

Obadiah Stane was the bypassing -- a jumping point to get to Stark. It was suspected that he had arms dealings with those in Gulmira, so it was thought that he might do their job for him. However, they could not rely solely on outside sources -- Stane did not work for Hydra or SHIELD, so he was therefore unreliable.

 

Stane was now walking up to the outside doors of the building, discussing something in low tones into a phone held close to his ear. He looked as if he was trying too hard to be comfortable and casual as well-- his shoulders were taut, and his fingers kept beating an uneven drumbeat against the pocket of his jacket, and every handful of seconds, he would shoot the furtive look of someone doing something they shouldn’t around the building.

 

The asset read his posture and gauged that he was there for a similar reason.

 

The Winter Soldier’s approach was a subtle one, simply brushing past Stane, earning nothing more than a distracted glance as they both carried on in their opposite directions.

 

Obadiah never noticed the device that the asset had slipped into the pocket of his well-tailored suit, which, with a quiet buzz, was already at work wirelessly picking up and downloading the information on Stane’s devices.

 

The asset ducked into an alley shortly afterwards, tugging himself effortlessly onto the metal bars that made up a fire escape and waiting as the information was forwarded to his superiors at Hydra.

 

As his technician spoke of their findings over his comm, he noted with some quiet satisfaction that they had been correct about Stane’s weapon dealings. Most of the information and marked profits were now told to him over the phone, the buzz of decreasing stock and weapons profits filtering over him as he reviewed it for anything important. Nothing struck him as vital.

 

It was the rookie who called him, a new tech expert for Hydra that had showed some promise, and seemed to now continue to do so, if she was the one assigned to a mission like breaking into Stark’s property. The orders she issued echoed around the empty alley. The resonation made from shifting into a more empty space made her voice seem tinny, almost robotic.

 

“Obadiah Stane has given us a window to get past the building’s interface. Stark gave him a way to get past JARVIS, and we may be able to piggyback it.”

 

The backdoor that Stark had built so long ago, for a friend who would turn out to betray him. The asset’s face twisted into a grim half-smile, understanding, and leapt down from his perch, landing quietly, and hurried towards the building, circumnavigating the small handful of SHIELD agents easily, ducking around them and through a service door.

 

“Hey! You aren’t supposed to be here. What’s your-” called out the random, unlucky intern who had been occupying the space that the asset needed to get through, who now had one of the Winter Soldier’s knives slid under his ribs before he could make too much noise.

 

The body was neatly shoved into a hallway, with a tagging chip left behind for Hydra’s cleanup crew. They could deal with it later. There was only a small time window, going off the assumption that Jarvis was a well built AI and security system, and Tony Stark seemed to treat him almost as a person.

 

There were a few clicking sounds over his comm, and then, the technician’s voice sounded suitably smug as she stated; “We’re in. In a way.”

 

He tapped the comm twice, prompting the technician for further information-- (this would be that much easier if he knew how much mobility he was granted.) She seemed to consider for a second on how to explain.

 

“A bug placed in its system. It might detect your presence, probably will, to be honest, but it is restrained from telling Tony Stark or anyone else, or taking defensive or security action against you. We’ve set up a system that is not dissimilar to memory loss. Data on you -- your visuals or location or presence in the building -- will be deleted shortly after it is gathered. Since JARVIS is an AI, it’ll seem as though it’s just forgotten something.”

 

The asset nodded once. So he would still have to keep out of the sight of the living members of the building -- which shouldn’t be too hard in itself. He was designed for that -- it would be a waste to Hydra to use him for explosive, showy missions, and risk his name becoming anything more than a ghost, a rumor.

 

The Winter Soldier -- only the handlers closest to it believed in it entirely. (It wasn’t even sure it believed in itself. It didn’t have much of a past, and was a few levels below human, at any rate. It had no past and no future.)

 

His comm buzzed lightly for a few moments, vibrating in his ear and nearly startling him, his hand tightening into a fist in a reflex motion before he let himself listen to the two voices over the comm -- evidently Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane, though what he was listening to made next to no sense, without any sort of context.

 

That’s more than what I’ve given anyone else who crossed me. Or pissed me off,” Tony Stark’s voice, judging from the videos that had already been viewed by him in the prep stage.

 

I don’t-” Obadiah Stane. Personally, the asset found this confrontation a little bit amusing. Obadiah had come off as dislikable in the few impressions of him he had received. Like a handler that would automatically be gauged with suspicion.

 

Don’t lie. Did you really think you could keep it up forever? I told you, I could track the electronic trail you left in minutes. Didn’t take long for me to figure out who was dealing weapons under the table.

 

At least Hydra’s sources were correct about that. He could hear typing sounds lightly on the other end, as if someone was making a note of that. Case cleared at Hydra. Though, from the way things seemed to be going between Stane and Tony, they wouldn’t be able to use Obadiah for anything.

 

He turned his focus back to the conversation between the inventor and, apparently, the illegal arms dealer. It didn’t take an expert to tell that something was off with Tony Stark-- these were not his typical mannerisms, not his usual way of speaking.

 

If the asset had visuals, he didn’t doubt that Stark’s body language would somehow be altered, as well. It would almost be impossible not to alter one’s body language, with the words being issued now.

 

But being the bleeding heart that I am, I decided to give you a chance to redeem yourself. You could’ve stopped. I would’ve left you alone for the most part. It’s more that what I’ve ever given anyone else who was guilty of your crimes.

 

There wasn’t much of a question in the asset’s mind anymore that this was a very different Tony Stark. If the man speaking could even be called that.

 

Though now I think of it, I’ve never had anyone like you before. First time for everything, huh?” The voice grew more grim with the next words. “There’s no getting out of it. No matter what lies you’re thinking of now, there’s nothing you can say that will change my mind.”

 

There were a few moments of silence, the asset letting his back lean against the wall as he heard the technician on the other end struggle, furiously typing away on her keyboard, and muttering something about a scan, something else about cloaking. She was drowned out, though, by what Stark was saying through the comm.

 

And for what you’ve done to JARVIS, not even Michael could save you now.

 

A shiver ran down the asset’s spine, causing it’s back to hunch a little, and the fingers of the hand that Hydra had given him to tighten involuntarily.

 

That tone of voice was dangerous, and the asset flinched back from it, almost as if expecting pain. It wasn’t until the technician on the line cleared her throat that he realized he had missed some of the conversation that had transpired. (At least the fact that she was still there was good enough sign that they hadn’t deemed the threat issued by Stark good enough reason to withdraw.)

 

(But there was something there. Not even Michael-- there was nobody close to Tony Stark named Michael, and he was a self-claimed “devout atheist”, so chances were he wasn’t talking about the archangel. But-- some part of him, some sunken part of his stomach, clung to that as if it had significance, and that -- he was afraid of that.)

 

He knew that failure to complete the mission to Hydra’s satisfaction would not result in anything good --pain pain pain sharp flashes of pain against his spine or shoulders, bones needing to be rebroken in multiple places after they had been neglected for too long, choking on water and spluttering it in front of the cold faces of the handlers, or worse, total sensory deprivation, when he started seeing shadowy images he was never able to make out at the corners of his --

 

He was on a mission. It didn’t matter who Michael was, unless they posed some sort of threat to his final objective. He forcibly turned his attention back to the conversation ringing in his earpiece, forcing Michael out of his mind. Tony Stark was talking again. The asset was beginning to get the sense that this man should not be underestimated at any cost.

 

You can talk, if you want.” The man’s voice was back to being light and cheerful, though for all the asset knew, it could have reverted back to that some time when he wasn’t paying attention. “Do you good to get that off your chest before you go on your merry way.

 

Obadiah’s voice was dangerous in his own right, though after hearing Tony’s tone when he heard that JARVIS had been compromised, it hardly brought notice to the Winter Soldier’s mind, not causing anything more than a passing wonder at what was happening in the room. “Who are you?” The question the asset was interested in the answer to, as well.

 

Me? I’m Tony. Though you can call me Gabriel for now. I’ll be serving out justice tonight.” Perhaps the jab about Michael was only that, then -- religious significance of some sort. Why Tony Stark was interested in angels was a matter for the psychologists at Hydra (Or SHIELD. They amounted to the same thing.) A part of the asset relaxed at that thought.

 

What?

 

What? Didn’t you understand my whole spiel earlier? I’m going to punish you. Eye for an eye and all that. You should feel lucky, usually I’d just kill you and be done with it. You’ve done that to others. But, no. That’d be letting you off too easy. So here’s what I’m going to do.

 

Tony Stark -- or perhaps, as he had stated to Obadiah Stane, Gabriel, seemed almost casual, conversational, when he stated this to the other man. It was unnerving, when compared to his usual snarky exterior.

 

I’m going to lock your voice away. You won’t be able to talk. You won’t be able to communicate in any shape or form, though charades are an option. And then I’ll dump you in the middle of a village in Afghanistan. You won’t have any identifying features marking you as Obadiah Stane. Maybe, if you’re lucky, a village will take you in. If you’re not…. You can see how the other side lives, hm?

 

The asset blinked, hand pressed to the ear where the comm was lodged, not realizing how engrossed in this conversation was. Judging by the radio silence on the Hydra end of the communicator, his technician was also listening in something like either fascination or awe.

 

Either Tony Stark was entirely delusional, or he actually possessed the ability to carry out his threat against Obadiah, which…. Would be impossible. Should be impossible, unless he intended to drag Stane into some back room for plastic surgery and have a plane drop him off in Afghanistan. Illegal and improbable, with a small chance of working to completion.

 

An eye for an eye, Obie. Be grateful I’m not harsher, because there are so many other things I could do to you.”

 

Then, Stark fell silent, besides the quiet sounds of people moving, and there was a sudden, harsh gasp from his technician, and he heard her moving quickly, calling out for other technicians in the base and typing furiously. He tapped the comm twice, waiting for her to explain what she saw.

 

“We have visuals,” she said unnecessarily, and he waited for her to get to what it was that was seen. “He -- we don’t know how, but he carried through on his threat. Changed Obadiah’s face, and, presumably, took away his voice.” Her voice sounded strained.

 

“Do not move until further information has been gathered on Stark, or if absolutely necessary.” She fell entirely silent, along with whoever was standing with, when Stark began talking once again.

 

So, that’s that. I’d say see you later, but that’s doubtful unless I come on over.” Another faint gasp from the team of technicians on his comm.

 

“He’s disappeared. Obadiah Stane has disappeared.” Grim tone of voice from his original technician, her tone sounding almost shaken.

 

He almost wanted to shake his head. She wouldn’t last long with the amount of death to be dealt with, tech skills or no. At the very least, the mysterious disappearance of Stane didn’t interfere too much with his mission. The interference with JARVIS would be thought to only be his doing, and he was already in.

 

JARVIS was talking now, and this sounded much more clear to him, as if someone was standing beside him and talking. “Sir? Is everything in order?” Interesting. It sounded almost -- shrunken. Subdued. Had Stark programmed his AIs to genuinely have personalities?

 

Stark seemed back in normal form, his voice easing back into his typical tones. “Yep. You?

 

I am in perfect working order, Sir.” JARVIS’s voice sounded strained, and the asset guessed that that might be his systems protesting that they were not, only for the alarms to be ignored. He let out a huff of breath. Good for the technician. “Also, Ms. Potts and a man in a suit are trying to enter the building.

 

Stark seemed careless, a little off-hand, when he said “You can let ‘em in.” The asset didn’t know who the suited man was. It was probable that he was one of the agents of SHIELD, or some other facet of the government that had been gathered outside the building.

 

It wasn’t unlikely that they were here for some reason having to do with this conversation, considering how big Stark technology was, and the implications of Stane’s arms dealings.

 

Sir.. About what you said regarding being the angel of justice?

 

What? Perhaps this was a code. The Winter Soldier’s hand reached into the sweatshirt he was wearing to pull out another butterfly knife. Maybe this was the thing that would set off security.

 

“Not quite what I said, J. I said I’d serve out justice, though I’m technically the angel of mercy. Michael just occasionally shoved his work over to me, so I’ve got a rep for dealing out judgement, too. It’s why I’ve got the fancy horn and all he’s got is the sword.

 

That was certainly odd. His handler was speaking again. “To the best of our knowledge, Stark was not affected by PTSD or any sort of dissociative identity disorder on his return from Gulmira, as stated and shown by court trial and press conference, but perhaps -- perhaps there is some trace of this left behind. It would account for Stark referring to himself as Gabriel.”

 

It was a hollow explanation, and they both knew it -- it fell through in too many places. It still left the question of how he could do that to Stane, and it made no sense that his AI wouldn’t have called a doctor, or why he had reprogrammed it to suit his alternate personality. But -- angels?

 

I see.” JARVIS sounded as if he wanted to ask more, which the asset wouldn’t object to at all. He was infiltrating to gain more knowledge on Stark, and yet now-- he was more confused than when he began the mission. Tony Stark, the ex-weapons developer, was far less confusing than Tony Stark, the archangel Gabriel. (if he could be believed on this.)

 

Sir, there is also--” The asset narrowed his eyes, tensing automatically. JARVIS was not an actual computer, but he felt like if it was, the asset would be able to hear whirring as he tried to find something. He could almost hear the frown in the AI’s voice as JARVIS stated, “--I forgot. That-” and the program settled back into silence.

 

When it seemed apparent that there wasn’t much more conversation happening between Stark and the other members of the building besides quick checkings to make sure everyone was alright, make sure that Stark was in one piece, and the ex-weapon dealer’s quick denial that Obadiah had ever been in the building, his technician began to speak again, her voice more subdued than it usually was, and a tone of quiet disbelief ringing there as well.

 

“Information about the archangel Gabriel and potential reasons for his connection to Tony Stark will be communicated over the next few hours, asset. Do your best to discover more on your own.”

 

The asset sighed and sat down, back leaning against the wall as the technicians discussed in low voices, knowledge about the Annunciation and Sodom and Gomorrah filtering through the metallic voice of the comm. Sometimes it would be interspersed with low discussions between Pepper and Tony, or any of the other members of the building.

 

This seemed like it would be much more complicated than he had thought.




Chapter Text

Something was wrong with Jarvis.

 

It was a day after Gabriel had given his AI (His son, in a way) the body, and at first, besides the lingering doubt on Jarvis’s part regarding the Obadiah incident, there hadn’t been any bugs with it. Jarvis was learning to use a human body well, picking it up more quickly than the other bots (though he could still work on showing human emotion. His smiles were downright unnerving as of yet.)

 

It was when playing with the bots that Tony was first clued into the fact that something was undeniably off. Jarvis was playing peacekeeper, settling an argument between Dummy and You about whose turn it was to use the tablet that Tony had recently built. (It was a prototype, but it had much better holograms than the last, apparently. It also seemed to be much better for playing a driving game that Tony had written up in between making excuses to once again evade paperwork and working on the next suit. )

 

Jarvis’s motions still seemed very careful, tentative as he took the tablet away from the both of them.

 

“You, did you not say that your brother could use the tablet if he gave you the last brownie?” (The experiment from last week, when Jarvis quietly emerged. Dummy’s brownies had been inedible, as he seemed to have added toothpaste to the cookies, but Butterfingers and and You’s had survived his massacre of baked goods.)

 

You hesitated, fingers still clenched around the tablet’s corners, tugging it to himself stubbornly one more time.

 

“Yes. But it’s my turn now. He had it since lunch.”

 

“Be that as it may. Are you going to let Dummy use the tablet, or shall I take it away from the both of you?” Jarvis had not yet mastered the art of looking threatening, and it was probably hard to take his word seriously when he was doing his best to frown in disapproval, lips tugging downwards to an extent that was nearly comical.

 

“He said I could have it!”

 

“My turn!”

 

There was a fair bit of protesting when Jarvis reached down for the tablet, pulling it out of both of their hands, which was then shortly followed by whining, and You looked like he might have wanted to take violent action, almost baring his teeth for a second.

 

“Promise I didn’t do anything wrong! I’ll let him have it after!”

 

Jarvis didn’t listen to either of their arguments, and handed the tablet over with an air of finality to Butterfingers, who began to tinker with it nearly immediately, shooting a thinly disguised smug look over at You and Dummy, which earned another swath of complaints and cries of injustice from the bots.

 

Tony huffed out a quiet laugh at the situation, swiping across the screen once again and trying to focus on his work once again, to the soundtrack of You grumbling complaints and the quiet pinging noises coming from the tablet that Butterfingers was busily doing who knows what on. He sensed Jarvis coming over before he saw him, his back turned to the youngest bot.

 

“What’s up, Jarvis?”

 

“Not much, sir, unless you count the arguments between young mister Dummy and You to be of any import.” Nonetheless, his voice sounded troubled.

 

Tony sent away the holograms he was working on with a flick of his wrist, and propped himself up on the counter, turning to Jarvis and unwrapping a Snickers bar from the half full box he had borrowed from the kitchen.

 

“Talk to me, J. You look-- “ He waved his chocolate bar in the air for a moment, searching for the right sequence of words to describe the AI’s composure as it was. “-- like someone who’s trying to remember where they left their car keys.”

 

Jarvis seemed to mull this analogy over in his head for a few minutes, filing it away. “I suppose that is as apt of a description as anything I could give, sir. I feel like --”

 

The frustrated gesture and small noise he made then were entirely not Jarvis, and it made the younger bots look up from their animated conversations, confused. Butterfingers shut down the tablet and tentatively made her way over to Jarvis, slipping her way under his arm, which prompted a small smile from Jarvis, and soon the other two did the same, You hopping onto the counter behind Jarvis to stand on it and drape himself over the youngest’s shoulders and Dummy hugging Jarvis’s knees.

 

It was a sight that would have made Tony’s heart melt, had Jarvis’s frustration not been so concerning to him. He leaned over and patted his eldest (youngest?) son on the shoulder and offered an encouraging smile.

 

Jarvis seemed to calculate for a moment. “It feels as though -- as though there is something I need to tell you. Something urgent. But every time I have gone to alert you, be it like this --” JARVIS was next to speak, the AI’s technological voice ringing through the room as Tony watched the bot. “--or this, I seem not to be able to.”




Tony pondered this for a moment, frowning to himself as he turned back to the screen and called up JARVIS’s code, swiping left and right quickly and scanning for anything wrong, and mentally swearing to everything that if Obadiah had left some bug or problem behind on Jarvis, he would personally hunt him down in the middle of Afghanistan and do the best he could to make matters worse for his old friend and father figure.

 

“The only thing I can think of is that something might have been left behind when Obadiah got past you, J.” He frowned, flipping past. “Nothing seems too out of place, besides that.” He frowned, using both hands to zoom in. “Wait. That might be it.”

 

There was something there that was undoubtedly not his coding, not the way he had designed Jarvis. The scientist in him admired the subtlety of the coding, and the way that it was simple enough to almost seamlessly mesh with Jarvis’s own. Almost. It was undeniable now that something was wrong. Using the one bug he had seen, the rest of the errors, the bugs, were easier to find, and he could sense Jarvis looking over his shoulder as cold fury burned in his stomach.

 

Someone was messing with his kid. Again. And unless Rhodey or Pepper had taken it upon themselves to learn coding to this extent, he had no reason to spare them.

 

“Sir?” Jarvis asked, and Tony turned around, smiling lightly as best he could, while using his Grace to run a scan through the building.

 

“You’re alright, J. It looks like someone used that backdoor I was stupid enough to program in to slip in.” The smile slipped for a moment. “I’m working to find them now.”

 

The scan of the building didn’t lead to anything untoward on the first few floors; nothing unexpected. Pepper, assuring somebody that Stark was undoubtedly signing their papers as they spoke, a handful of bored people with new work to sign, two janitors discussing the recent football game, and about six or seven interns that floated somewhere between ecstatic and confused. One of them was missing, as well, which gave Gabriel cause to frown.

 

It was on the second floor that he found what he was looking for.

 

The fact that his mind was walled off originally gave Gabriel some cause for concern. But using a tendril of Grace to nudge at the wall (which made the man shudder involuntarily, something that Gabriel took a finite level of comfort in), he found out, that somehow, the walling wasn’t voluntary. Something a step away from amnesia. It felt-- almost familiar, and something about it made him shiver.

 

He nodded to Jarvis with half a smile before flying to where he could sense the assassin, and before the masked man had time to react to Gabriel’s sudden appearance, had slammed his hand into the other’s back and flown him up to the workshop, eyes burning.

 

He was only vaguely aware of the knife that had been slammed into his chest; the only concern it posed to him was Dummy’s quiet gasp. He shifted his hand to two fingers and promptly knocked out the assassin, removing the potential threat from the room.

 

Jarvis approached cautiously, tensing, and Gabriel didn’t need supernatural empathy to read the bot’s unease, though Jarvis was doing an impressive job of keeping it off his face.. He bent down beside the scared younger bots and murmured something to the three of them; doubtlessly telling them to stay away from the assassin who had hacked into his systems.

 

Dummy eventually nodded, and the three trooped back over to the area of the floor that had been turned into their living space, though each of them took the time to cautiously poke the man in the face and make the most threatening faces they could, as if, next time, they would keep people like that out of the building by willpower alone.

 

You looked at Tony, eying the knife still lodged in his torso. “Will you be alright?”

 

Tony pulled the knife out and let it sit with a quiet clatter on the counter, pressing a hand to the wound to heal it, and nodded to You, running a hand through his hair and kissing the bot’s forehead lightly, smiling. “Of course.”

 

You nodded as if this was satisfactory, before drifting back with the other two bots, and hugging Dummy when a hug was proffered, the three sitting in a small circle and talking quietly, Butterfingers leaning on Dummy’s shoulder and holding You’s hand, and Dummy leaving a hand on You’s shoulder lightly. Tony sighed and gave a tiny smile before returning his attention back to the assassin on the couch, tugging his sleeve up.

 

“As for you--” he murmured, looking down at the man and turning his head to view him. His face was masked with something that looked a bit like a muzzle, and he had unkempt brown hair drifting around his face. Gabriel frowned down at the mask, and twitched his finger for a moment, and the mask unbuckled at the back, letting Gabriel pry the thing off and discard it.

 

“Let’s see who you are.” he murmured to the comatose man on the couch, working to get his fingers underneath the mask. Because, surprisingly enough, that was information that he could not glean from the man’s mind. Another search just yielded the title “the asset”. (It felt as though there was an electric fence around the man’s memories, some forcefield that Gabriel couldn’t seem to push through.)

 

He blinked in quiet confusion when the man’s face was revealed, letting out a low whistle in quiet wonder. “J?”

Jarvis was at Tony’s shoulder in a manner of seconds, quiet footsteps landing him besides the inventor and archangel as he surveyed the man on the couch with something caught between amusement and worry, as his forehead creased, wondering what this could mean, wondering why this would be left for him.

 

Jarvis seemed to sigh with relief when he saw the asset, minus mask, lying out on the couch. “--that was what I was trying to remember for you, Sir. Facial recognition software marks him as James Buchanan Barnes, though there is a three percent chance of error.”

 

One lip twitched upwards on Tony’s mouth, in a distracted smile. “I don’t think there’s really much doubt, Jarvis. Though--” he pulled the earpiece out of James’s ear, sensing the tiny buzz of electricity, “--I want to know how he’s still alive. And, better yet, why he’s working for Hydra.” A small spark went up, and Gabriel found himself holding a fried piece of technology. He tucked it into his pocket, already having gained what he needed.

 

He turned to the screen once again. “Well, first things first, J-- let’s fix you up.” He began swiping his fingers, deleting lines of invasive Hydra code, and working his way carefully around his son’s programming, before swiping down, and Jarvis sighed, deflating a little. When he looked up, his expression was dry.

 

“Sir, I am not sure if you’ve noticed, but there’s an intruder in the building.”

 

Gabriel snorted a little at that revelation, and turned back to Bucky, glad to see the faint sense of relief Jarvis held himself with now. He touched the asset’s temples lightly, and, using the knowledge of who he was against the man’s own mind barriers, dove back in again.

 

It was still confusing. Jumbled memories. A sense of duty that rivaled Michael’s own. And that barrier, the barrier that surrounded anything actually useful. Gabriel reached out and shoved hard, using the information he had. (You are Sergeant James Barnes of the 107th division of the United States Military. You are a good man. You are Steve Rogers’ best friend.) The barrier didn’t give, but it bent.

 

Enough that Gabriel could make out a few things -- outdated guns. An old tune -- gory, gory, what a hell of a way to die --, and a shield.

 

He startled out of the man’s mind when he realized he was being grabbed, and looked at the matal arm around his wrist with something akin to surprise before he wiggled out of the hold. No need to have to fix the prosthetic so soon.

 

James’s eyes were wild, bordering bloodshot, as he propped himself up on the couch and warily took in Jarvis, Tony, and, in the background, the three younger bots staring at him as if he had a blue elephant trunk growing out of his left ear.

 

“Who are you? What did you do?” His voice sounded-- wounded. Defensive. Like a snarling animal backed into a corner.

 

Gabriel sighed, and offered the man a hand. “Gabriel. For now. I’m usually Tony, though.” The smile he plastered on was bright and cheery and definitely not ironic. “I’d ask your name, but from what I’ve seen of your mind, I know the answer to that better than you do.”

 

James hesitated, before speaking slowly. “I am a weapon. I don’t need a name.”

 

Tony sighed to himself. Maybe the bending of the barrier only resulted in his gaining of information-- it might not have benefitted the other at all. He only hoped he hadn’t somehow made things worse in the asset’s mind.

 

He almost didn’t hear what Bucky said, but when he realized what it was, there was a smile creeping back onto his face.

 

“--I think. I think I could be James.”



Chapter Text

Considering that James very nearly stumbled in to a meeting between Tony and a SHIELD agent the day after he was -- kidnapped? Saved? Imprisoned? He had the distinct feeling that he would be stopped if he tried to walk out, but he-- didn’t yet see the need. Something more insistent than his duty to Hydra was telling him that he needed to stay here.

He hadn’t yet been able to sleep here, though, and he sensed that the AI was uneasy around him, having had no more communication with him than a curt reply when he asked a question. Having an invisible voice that could control about everything in the building that didn’t like you somehow made it harder to sleep, if his own racing mind wasn’t giving him enough trouble.

(There was still the urge of his to slink back to Hydra, or to complete the mission to the best of his ability. The part of him that had to hide a flinch every time Tony casually gestured in his direction, telling him to make himself useful and toss a screwdriver over or something. It was what found him perched in a dark corner more often than not. It was what he was used to, after all. There wasn’t a good reason why he shouldn’t be on the balcony or lying on the couch or anything. He tried, a few times, but it felt wrong. He did not -- did not deserve comforts.)

And so he now stood here, crouching almost into a fighting position as he watched the man in a trenchcoat talk to Tony, sliding the metal arm out in front of him in lieu of any other weapon. He glanced at Tony warily when the man, almost imperceptibly, shook his head, and tightened the hand into a fist, still wary of the man he had been sent to kill.

The man noticed Tony’s head shaking, and turned, looking straight at James, who froze, tensing into a crouch. The asset’s confusion increased when he huffed out a sigh, his eyes passing right over the soldier, and turned back to Tony. He stood up a little straighter, leaning against the doorframe as the two talked, the hair on the back of his neck standing up. Something was wrong with -- Gabriel. This wasn’t right-- why wasn’t he being seen? He decided to test this, stepping into the room and standing right behind the man.

Gabriel shot him a look over the man’s shoulder, but whatever was keeping him hidden held, apparently. He decided to wait and listen, fading back into the corner of the room, still remaining tensed in case anything were to go wrong.

“There’s only one man capable of building the kind of technology found in that suit,” the man with the eye patch said, “and I’m looking at him right now.”

James wondered how Tony would react. In the day he had spent here, he had seen the man work on the suits, not bothering to hide it-- firing a half-built repulsor at a crash test dummy, and having JARVIS record how the data went. James had slipped away warily after that. If the theory that Hydra was forming had been correct, and this man was Gabriel the archangel, there should be no need for him to build a weapon such as this.

And yet.

Stark simply offered a small smile and an excuse about Obadiah Stane also being able to build a suit of his own.

That was shot down in about thirty seconds flat by DIrector Fury, whose level head impressed the Winter Soldier. “That first suit we’re talking about?” Even from the angle that the asset was at now, he could read the smugness from Fury’s voice. “It was found in Afghanistan, shortly after you made your escape from the Ten Rings. It was also found in the location where we’ve estimated you landed after flying out of the cave system they were holding you in. Fast forward two months, and Gulmira is defended by an extremely advanced mechanical suit with a vendetta against Stark weaponry. And who do we know just shut down the weapons section of his company?” His head tilted towards Tony.

To Tony’s credit, he didn’t back down from that. “Excellent deduction, Mr. Holmes.” He clapped his hands together, and James could almost sense that he wanted the SHIELD agent out of the building. “Now, you got any proof there? Anything besides speculations that couldn’t hold up in court?”

“The power source that’s powering the suit seen in Gulmira is a miniaturized arc reactor. We’ve got the energy readings to back that up.”

Tony’s reaction to that was more startled than anything else, and he slipped a little, casting a look over Fury’s shoulder to look at James, who stared back at him as Fury turned once again to make sure there was nothing behind him. Catching himself, Tony made it look as though he was staring off into space, and took another bite of his candy bar, chewing thoughtfully as he seemed to mull an answer over.

“Right, then. You got me. I did build both suits.” He held his hands up in a gesture of mock surrender. “So then, Director Fury, what are you going to to do with that dangerous and highly classified information?”

Fury took another look over Tony’s shoulder at James, before focusing on the man and raising an eyebrow. “Nothing. For now, all I was looking for was confirmation.” He walked around the couch, and stopped in front of Tony, crossing his arms over his chest and levelling a stare at the man. “SHIELD could use a man like you, Stark.”
Tony took a step back from the agent and leaned against the arm of the couch, and took another bite of his candy. He gave a tight-lipped smile around the mouthful of chocolate. “You mean, SHIELD could use my suit. I’m not doing any more military contracts. I thought that was cleared.” He began to walk away, and James with him, fearing for the invisible cover if he left the -- Gabriel’s side.

Fury continued to walk with him. “We already have two suits, Stark.”

Tony turned back around, inclining his head and smiling. He pointed the half a candy bar at the director. “Which, by the way, are totally useless without a power source.” The smile faded away, and he looked deadly for a second. “I’m not going to build you a suit, Agent. That’s the end of it.”

He seemed to consider something, and then took a step closer. “Oh, and, by the way, don’t even bother trying to hack into the computer systems. The last guy who tried it is a mess.”

James looked up at him, and caught Tony’s eyes for a brief flash. He would have looked a little more offended if it wasn’t, well, accurate. One of his fingers reached up to unconsciously rub at the dark circles under his right eye. Hardly the longest he had ever gone without sleep, but in a place like this -- where he was actually more scared of whatever Gabriel was than what Hydra could do -- it felt oppressive, the lack of sleep here.

The nights here felt far too long, wandering aimlessly through empty halls filled with modern furniture and the occasional quirky object (he had already solved the 12x12 rubik’s cube he had found on a shelf on the third floor.) There were also, oddly enough, more floors on the inside than there were on the outside.

When he looked back to the conversation wearily and warily, Tony was patting Fury on the arm, tight lipped smile having found its way back onto his face. “I assume that I’ll be seeing you again. After all, you do have my number.”

Fury looked back towards Tony once again, eye narrowing as he evaluated the man, before nodding once and making his exit. As soon as the door clattered shut behind him, Tony exhaled, and James blinked at the window, where he could once again make out his reflection, looking just as perturbed as he was.

“Make a note, J.” Tony said, finishing his candy bar and, crumpling up the wrapper, tossed it into the into the bin. “We need to get those suits back as soon as possible. Which reminds me--” James inclined his head at Tony when the man turned contemplatively towards him, biting his fingernail for a moment, before raising an eyebrow.

“And as for you-- how would you like to help out?”

There was a moment of disbelief throughout the room, before Jarvis’s voice sounded across the space, stretched almost taut with wariness. “-Sir, I doubt that that is a good idea.” James actually agreed with Jarvis, to be honest. Why on Earth would Tony Stark -- Gabriel -- trust someone who had tried to kill him so recently?

Tony shrugged, looking generally unconcerned about it. “I can manage him. Besides, it’s not as if I’m known for my good ideas, eh, J?” The question was directed upwards, with an innocent beam from Tony, and the interface’s sigh was long and drawn out.

“I suppose not, Sir.”

“Excellent!” Tony said, clapping him hard on the shoulder. “We’re going to have to adjust a suit to fit you-- probably going to have to recalibrate the weight of it so that your metal arm doesn’t tip it off balance, unless you wouldn’t mind just forgoing armor on that arm, and then it would be -- pretty well balanced, mind if I have a look at that?”

James’s eyes were narrowed, but he complied, raising the arm out in front of him straight and refusing to move, while Tony poked at it gently. “J, can you get a few pictures of -- you alright?” The asset looked uncomfortable, tugging his arm closer to his chest every time Tony glanced away for a few seconds.

James didn’t speak until Tony prompted him further, trying to nudge something out of him with an ‘It’s alright’ and a few subtle sparks of grace meant to have a calming influence on the other man. When he did, it was a soft statement.

“It’s not my arm. Sir.” Tony flinched a little at the ‘Sir’, but shrugged it off.

“--what do you mean?” He immediately backed up from it, however, sticking his hands into his pockets and letting a quietly relieved James slide his (or the) arm back down and rest behind his back.

James looked at the arm, his eyebrows slowly meeting each other in the middle of his forehead, and one of his fingers traced slow circles around the middle of the star, and Gabriel could see faded scars reflected in the metal surface. “It is-- it is the thing that binds me to Hydra.” He looked up at Tony, who was keeping expression and judgement off his face both, and set his shoulders back in what looked like determination. “They gave me it.” Twisted it upwards to look at it. “And. It has always felt like -- as if this completes it. Makes me their weapon.” His expression was quiet disgust now, and Gabriel, with a sinking heart, could recognize it well.

It was disgust for himself. As if James wanted nothing more than to rip the metal arm off of his shoulder and move far away from it. The last thing Tony expected to hear was a huff of dry laughter coming from James, and he perked his head up in surprise when that was what he received.

“I don’t know you. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. But -- I don’t want to help you. And I don’t think you want that, either.” He looked confused at his own words, tipping his head to the second, and Gabriel felt -- oddly proud. Good job, kid. Probably the most you’ve spoken out to anyone in a few decades.

James nodded once and slipped back into the stiff position that he was usually in; tensed for a fight to break out around him, because of him, for him, before slipping out of the room. Gabriel shook his head. The kid disappeared with more grace than an angel. He nodded. “Right. Let’s factor him out of the invasion plan, then.” He clapped his hands together. “Right, then. Let’s break into SHIELD.”

-----------

James was only entirely aware of the mission when it was ended. He looked up when Gabriel and a few suits appeared in the workshop, then returned to the tablet that a curious Butterfingers had handed to him, brow wrinkled as he scrolled through articles, not entirely knowing how he should react to these. He was aware of Tony’s movements, and aware when he peeked over his shoulder, looking at what James was reading, and aware when the man let out a quiet huff of breath.

“So you don’t remember anything.” Tony said heavily, sounding as though something had been taken out of him as he looked at what James was reading. The Smithsonian article on James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th division. Captain America’s best friend.

James shook his head, and closed out of the tab, and Tony was quietly amused to see that one of the other things the man had been looking at was a Wikipedia article on the archangel Gabriel. As if that would help. He sighed, and opened that tab up. “So-- is it true, then? How can archangels exist in this universe?” His look towards Tony was almost accusing.

Tony sighed and hopped over the back of the couch, settling next to the assassin, ignoring the way he immediately tensed.

"Here. I'll try and show you." James looked intensely wary, but he shut down the tablet, setting it off to the side, and nodded, sliding one leg over the couch and looking as though he prepared to stand up at the slightest aggravation. Tony wondered what it would take to get the asset to stop acting like a startled cat, before holding his palms up in front of him, extending them slowly. Blue grace swum around them, and the asset blinked. Tony grinned, and tossed the man a lollipop, which James caught, looking confused as he turned it over in his hand. 

“It is true. As for how it’s possible--” He shrugged. “I blame it on my Father, for the most part.” He turned towards James, and his eyes were serious. “I don’t know why I’m here, or what I’m supposed to do. But until I find out-” He shrugged. “I’m just going to be Tony Stark, not Gabriel. Unless people try to break into my house.” He gave a tiny smile towards James, but the asset met his eyes and saw that there was nothing resembling a joke caught in there. “Then I might have to be Gabriel.”

He clapped James on the shoulder once again, and retreated to his workshop, the glass around it becoming opaque as he left James with a lollipop and something to think about.

------------------

Tony worked to distract. His hands would fly over something, and if it worked well enough, he could become totally immersed in that piece of work. Wouldn’t have to worry about a confused Bucky Barnes on the couch and the measures he was taking to make sure that the Winter Soldier wasn’t a threat. Wouldn’t have to think about the silence in his head, or whether it would ever be allieviated. Wouldn’t think about his failure to protect Jarvis and the bots. The only thing he would be focused on, sometimes for periods that could span hours, would be how to make the thing in front of him work in the most effective way possible.

Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be working now, as he disassembled the suits that he had recovered from SHIELD and tried to make them more effective, and the third time he dropped something, Jarvis had entered, and was now hovering over him, worry flooding off of him in a way that made Tony’s wings want to curl up against his back. He sighed, setting down the piece of metal he had been tampering with with a note of regret, letting it clatter to the counter. “You alright, J?”

A look of exasperation crossed his son’s face, and Tony could hear it in his voice when he spoke next. “Funnily enough, I was about to ask the same of you, sir.”

Tony nodded briefly and resumed working, fiddling with a few of the smaller components and testing different kinds of wires as he slid them together, before he shrugged. “What Hydra did to his mind, it reminds me of why I left. Not-” He gestured around the workshop. “Not here, obviously, but home. Heaven, when it was still home.”

“Sir?” He sensed that Jarvis was desperately curious about how the brainwashing of an ex-soldier could possibly remind him of Heaven, of all places. He exhaled, long and low, and clenched at the edge of the counter to get a grip back on this world, this universe. This one, where his family wasn’t going to hurt him.

“-- We fought a war.” His exhale was shaky. “There was a war, set up around the forces surrounding Michael and Lucifer. The Fallen, those who hadn’t yet. It was-- in the middle of the War, Raphael and Michael came up with the idea of reprogramming.” Jarvis walked around to stand next to him, and Gabriel dipped his head against the other’s shoulder for a second, grateful.

He pulled a long needle out of the air, frowning at it as he rotated it in one hand. “It was a procedure designed to create a more perfect army. Better soldiers. It was secretly tested on some of the other side first.” He set the needle down, and shook his head. “And then on Michael.”

His mouth was a grim line. “I talked to him afterwards. Went to go send a message or something trivial.” He laughed for a second, and the sound was low and humorless, shaking his head, before ducking down his head, remembering. “The good parts of my older brother -- his steadfastness and steadiness, the quiet faith you could always feel he had in you, the dry smile he would crack after making a joke were gone. He was what the war needed. Turned him into a weapon and set him on the field.”

He turned back to the work, but not after letting Jarvis give him a small, almost dignified hug, and chewed on the skin outside of his thumb, before picking up a few pieces of scraps, fitting them together quietly, flexing his finger inside the cuff he was beginning to form.

“And then -- slowly, the rest of the Host followed. Becoming a group of mindless soldiers.” There was anger underlying his voice, something dark setting in. “Any memories deemed invaluable for the cause were taken away. I started avoiding them all, Spending more time on Earth, interacting with the small population there.”

He wiped his face with the heel of his palm, leaving a streak of grease there. “It was when I was gathered by Raphael and told that I needed the procedure -- the removal of anything resembling autonomy -- that I left home.” His voice tapered off there, growing quieter and almost cracking.

“From what I’ve heard, from there, Raphael announced I was dead. And that was fine.” He shrugged again. “I borrowed the name Loki, and spent time serving out justice in a different way. The Host never knew I was actually alive there until I died.” Set down the bunches of parts and the half-constructed gauntlet and forced a smile. “Sorry for spouting off on you, J. I don’t think you wanted to hear me ramble on like that.”

Jarvis looked rather troubled. “It’s good to hear more of your history, sir. And-- I am sorry.” He looked cautious as he reached out towards Tony, touching the back of his hand quietly. Tony was surprisingly touched by the small gestures of comfort that his son had been offering, and nodded.

“It’s not your fault, J.” Shook his head, snapping back into things. “Anyway. The point of all of that was -- him. If there’s brainwashing like that going on here, to the human population, it needs to be stopped.” His face was calm. “If he’s like that due to Hydra, then I’m going to work to shut them down. And --” He looked towards James, his face softening.

“I’m gonna see what can be done to fix him.”

Chapter Text

If nothing else, James was slowly willing to get closer to the residents of the building. Tony had been cautious at first about letting an assassin approach his kids, especially after what had been done to Jarvis, but once a few weeks had passed without incident -- he had actually caught James willingly sleeping out on the couch without threat of smiting once or twice, which was a good sign -- he was willing to give James a chance.

 

Which was now why he approached the asset, book tucked firmly under his arms as he walked over to James’s usual perch -- a window seat on the top floor, with a tinted window so that he couldn’t be seen, but he could see out. There was a small ledge between this window and the ground, which Tony supposed was why this was the room chosen-- it would be easy to get from here to the ground and just out. Any threat could be safely dealt with.

 

“James.”

 

The asset turned his head at what he had now accepted as his name. (It was still hard for him sometimes, to be called James or given a nickname by Tony -- who had laughed at his disgusted expression when he had called him JJ -- or just. Treated warily, but like he was a human. Asked if he wanted food consistently. Someone had taken to leaving containers of takeout fried rice outside the door to this room, and -- it was good to finally have enough.)

 

He flinched, grabbing the object flying through the air towards him out of instinct, before staring at the thing uncomprehendingly. A hardback copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone glanced innocuously back up at him, and he blinked at Tony, setting it down next to him and glancing at the mechanic oddly. Was he expected to read a kid’s book now? This reaction didn’t seem to satisfy, as Tony sighed, stepping over to sit next to him and drop the book into his lap.

 

“I thought you might want to read it to the kids.”

 

He thought the look he gave Tony then was the right combination of guarded ‘please do go on’ and incredulous ‘why in the name of Hell would you think I wanted to do that?’.

 

Tony just raised an eyebrow, tossing a Snickers wrapper between his hands, his eyes flicking across the frame of James’s face. The asset watched his hands, tracking the motion of the candy wrapper, before snatching it out of the air, and tossing it across the room into the small trash bin, avoiding Tony’s raised eyebrow.

 

“Stop.”

 

He looked at the book in his head, tilting it back and forth between his hands and flipping to a random page, tracing a finger down the line of a sentence. Magic. Well, considering who had tossed the book at him, he was almost tempted to ask if there was any truth to the world contained in this book. He didn’t say anything, however, but he could hear a tiny cheer coming from behind him as he sighed, tucking the book under his arm and walking down the hall to where the bots would be found.

 

------

 

It was admittedly awkward at first. The bots seemed to be instinctively nervous of him, which the asset could understand, but he kept reading quietly. They were all a good foot or so away from him,  leaning on each other at his right side, not wanting to approach the metal arm that occasionally would move to flip a page. It didn’t hurt him. He was used to the handlers. This was nothing.

 

All the same, it was a surprise when he caught Dummy inching closer out of the corner of his vision. He kept reading, but relaxed his right side. When he felt a small weight leaning on his legs and side, he forced himself not to tense, left hand clenching for a second before he kept on reading. He sensed a tiny shift in the atmosphere then, as if he and Dummy had changed something with this small interaction.

 

There seemed to be some unspoken interaction between the bots then, because Butterfingers clambered on top of the couch a few sentences later to rest her legs over James’s shoulders and look down at the book. He began to follow the words he was reading with his finger so that she could read along with the story, and wondered a little at the shift. You, meanwhile, moved to the other side of the couch and stared at James’s arm intently, as though he was studying it.

 

He was totally surrounded. Since they weren’t seen as large threats, however (they might have superhuman strength, but so did he, and he was better trained than they. Besides, odd AIs or no, they were still children.) he let it continue, doing his best to ignore the lump of quiet panic that began to rise in his throat; claustrophobia and the fear of being touched, past memories telling him not to trust.

 

He caught Tony sitting and talking quietly with Jarvis across the room in his peripheral vision, and shot him a look that just said What do I do? The billionaire was no help, he caught James’s look of mild despair and just gave a tiny grin and shot him a thumbs-up before continuing to talk to Jarvis.

 

James sighed and continued to read. It’s not as though he could do much else.

 

However, the glares directed at Tony’s side between pages being flipped increased in number and ferocity when Butterfingers pulled a couple of hair bands off of her wrist and idly began braiding his hair.

 

-------

 

“What happened to him?”

Tony looked over at James at Jarvis’s words, catching that the assassin was still glaring at him, while the kids seemed to have curled around him. He made a mental note to keep watching You, who was watching James’s left arm as though he wanted to take it apart.

 

“I don’t know what you mean.”

 

He wondered at how Jarvis still hadn’t quite gotten the hold of smiling or frowning, which he thought (quite fairly) should be basic human emotions to grasp, and yet he had mastered the act of giving Tony long, dry looks. Then again, even before Jarvis had been given a physical body, he had sometimes felt like JARVIS had been giving him a ‘Look’.

 

“With all due respect, sir, this is the man who was sent to assassinate you a month ago.”

 

Tony sighed, and rolled his hands back and forth, watching Butterfingers sort another braid into a disgruntled James’s hair, working her fingers to give him a french braid along the side of his head.

 

“I unlocked something. Whatever they’ve been doing to his head, it’s -- to me, it feels like a ball of electricity.” He held up his head, displaying a small blue glowing ball of light in his head, and then coated it in a dull grey sphere. “--like that, I suppose. Over time, it would start to break down and he’d start remembering things.” He let a few blue sparks fly out from the grey sphere floating above his hand.

 

“So you’d think they’d do it again and again and again.” The grey layer became darker and darker, slowly preventing any sparks from ever flying out. He held up the ball. “And you’ve got the perfect asset. No memory of who he was, and no way of getting it back. I probably wouldn’t be able to get anything out of him if this had been what his mind was like.”

 

He flicked the grey ball, and most of the grey fell off, drifting to his hand where it dissolved into molecules. “But for whatever reason, it only feels like they’ve done it once. Only one layer. Why, I’m not sure. But-- something happened. And it allowed me to pull some things out.” He touched a finger to the surface of the grey ball, and a few tendrils of blue light were pulled out, and began to drift around the sphere.

 

Jarvis watched the sphere uneasily, looking from it to James with a raised eyebrow.

 

Gabriel balanced the representation of James’s mind in his hand. “It shouldn’t be like this, by all rights, and I can’t figure out why it is. But -- he’s got bits of James Buchanan Barnes bleeding through to the asset. Some fragments of his personality. A few memories, I think. Enough that he’s more confused than anything else.” He closed his hands, and the ball disappeared. “He’ll stay here until I figure out what happened, or I find somewhere for him that could actually be safe.”

 

He looked over at James, and frowned when he noticed that the assassin had stopped reading, looking alert. Dummy started to complain, whining and pulling James’s hand back to the page. Gabriel slowly began to stand up, wondering what had put the man on alert.

 

When he heard a muffled gasp behind him, and turned to see Pepper there, his first thought was something along the lines of I should have seen that coming.

 

“Pepper, I can explain.” he said, watching the three bots jump off the couch, leaving James behind, forgotten, and rushed over to her, grinning. She still looked like she was in shock, taking a few hurried steps backwards.

 

“Who are they?” She pointed at Jarvis, who had come to stand behind Tony, doing his best to smile. “Who is he?” She looked over at the couch, saw James’s metal arm, and took another step back. (Luckily, James had thought enough to duck his head, so she wasn’t asking why Bucky Barnes was sitting on their couch.)

 

Tony looked at Jarvis, and winced a little. “Smiles, J. Probably important. Work on that.” It looked like the bot was a shark with mild indigestion.

 

“Understood, Sir.”

 

Tony turned to Pepper, and sighed. “Well, uh. Introductions. That’s Jarvis, but I call him J, because he’s got JARVIS running at the same time.” Gestured up at the ceiling, and a second later, JARVIS’s voice rang out over the sound system.

 

“Pleasure to meet you again, Ms. Potts.”

 

Pepper looked vastly uncomprehending, shaking her head. “I don’t understand.”

 

It probably didn’t help when Dummy finally collided with her, a little clumsily, wrapping his arms around her in a hug, before grinning. “I’m Dummy!”

 

She nodded at this mindlessly. “I-- I see. Dummy?”

 

“I made them bodies.” Tony said, and pointed at the corner of his workshop, where the charging stations for the machines still rested, looking as though they were almost asleep. “J’s was last.”

 

“I’m Butterfingers.” Butterfingers said next, prying her brother off of Pepper and holding out her hand to shake Pepper’s.

 

“You.” You said, not moving from where he was now, reading a Mandarin version of Harry Potter off of one of the tablets lying around.

 

“Oh my God.” Pepper said. She looked as though she were about to collapse. Tony helpfully pulled over a chair from where he and Jarvis had just been sitting, and she sat down with a disbelieving little huff of air.

 

“Sorry for not telling you earlier.” Tony said, pulling a chair up besides Pepper and giving her what he hoped was an apologetic enough of a smile. “Honestly, there’s been so much going on recently that it just kinda slipped my mind.

 

The look Pepper gave him was somewhere between incredulous and hysterical. “You gave your robots human bodies. How did that slip your mind?”

 

Tony’s shrug was nonchalant, and that just made Pepper look even more hysterical. “It’s not the craziest thing that’s happened, so, yeah, I forgot.”

 

“Are you mad?” Dummy asked, going over to Pepper, presumably to try and hug her again, when he was stopped, probably rather sensibly, by Jarvis, who pulled him back.

 

“She is not mad, Dummy. She simply requires time to understand what is happening.”

 

“It doesn’t seem so hard to understand.” Dummy returned, his frown looking a little petulant. Jarvis just nodded, tugging the youngest bot back over to the couch to give Pepper a few moments to mull this over on her own.

 

She seemed to be managing a little bit better when she finally spoke, seemingly having gotten past the phase of “Tony’s done something stupid and there’s really nothing I can do about it so we might as well run damage control”, breathing in and out with a much more steady rhythm. “How did you give them bodies?”

 

Tony shrugged. “Humanoid robots. They’re way too expensive to go out on the market yet, and they’re just prototypes. They’re not actually human bodies, because that would be impossible.” A lie, but it’s not as though he could tell her he’d snapped the bodies out of thin air. He looked over at the bots. “Pretty realistic work, if I do say so myself.” And if he was allowing himself a tiny smile of pride as he looked over his kids, then what of it?

 

“Except that one.”

 

Tony blinked at Pepper, wondering what she meant by that. “Hmm? Which one?”

 

Pepper pointed over at where James was sitting, hair dangling over his face, and metal arm very noticeably shining in a patch of sun. It was an easy mistake to make, Tony thought, considering how far ahead James’s prosthetic was to modern ones (which gave him even further cause to investigate Hydra), and the recent talk about robots. The fact that James didn’t even look like he was breathing, let alone making any movement, was probably not helping his case.

He exhaled once, slowly, and wondered how best to explain to Pepper how the man on the couch was not a robot, but Captain America’s dead best friend, still in the peak of health. And with a metal arm.

 

“Actually, that’s -- not a robot. His name is James. That’s just an advanced prosthetic I’ve been studying, seeing if I can determine the source of it. It’s made partially of vibranium, which makes it rather interesting.” Pepper managed to take this all into stride. In fact, she looked a little bit relieved to find out that Tony hadn’t built another robot that looked disturbingly, realistically human.

 

“And --- there’s probably something else you should know.” His wince was mostly internal, but not enough that it didn’t garner a deeply suspicious look from Pepper over the cup of tea he -- hadn’t noticed Jarvis hand her. Huh. He gave the best innocent smile he could, raising his hands in a worldwide gesture of surrender, acknowledging that, yeah, he probably should have told her about all of this awhile ago. Anyway.

 

“James? This is Pepper. She’s -- a good friend of mine. You can trust her.” From what he understood of James after a month or so of living with him, the look he was receiving now could be translated to mean ‘I hardly trust you.’ Nonetheless, he got up from the couch, shaking off an annoyed Butterfingers (who, Tony noticed, with a smile he was desperately trying to keep hidden, had found some bows somewhere) with a promise to let her braid his hair again later.

 

James sighed as he approached them, using the stray hairband Butterfingers had left him to tie his hair back into a messy ponytail, keeping the hair out of his face for easier identification. Still, it took Pepper a few good seconds of staring at the assassin before it fully hit her.

 

“Oh my God.”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Oh my God.” Pepper seemed to be fading into vague hysterics again, which prompted Tony to lean over, petting her back in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. She covered her mouth with her hand for a moment, before pointed at a distinctly uncomfortable James.

 

“Tony, can you explain to me why there’s a man here who looks exactly like Bucky Barnes?” A quick prod of her thoughts left him with the knowledge that she was hysterically wondering if he had taken his childhood love of Captain America too far, and was now collecting people. Sadly, it wouldn’t have been the weirdest thing he had done.

 

“He doesn’t look like Bucky.” he stated quietly, giving her a tiny look of ‘I am so sorry for this’ before his words and their meaning struck her, and she placed her head in her hands.

 

“No. Nope.” A shaky breath in, and another look at James, disbelief swirling in her eyes and springing up through her voice. “Tony, how -- why --?” Closed her eyes and took a few breaths in and out. Tony was amazed by how much calmer she sounded when she asked again, eyes still closed. “Why is Bucky Barnes alive and in our living room with a prosthetic arm?”

 

Tony shrugged. “--He goes by James. Er, as for the other ones, it’s probably best that you don’t ask.” Somehow, he got the sense that the reassuring smile he shot Pepper then was far from the reassuring effect he meant to give her. “I honestly don’t know too much about why he’s alive, though. Or -- you know, not old.”

 

James had awkwardly started drifting back to the couch, where he was greeted quietly by Jarvis. Tony only picked up the tail end of whatever he was muttering in Russian, but it idly made him wonder if Hydra agents had ever considered washing the asset’s mouth out with soap.

 

Pepper seemed to be gathering her thoughts along with her papers, as she shuffled the latter back into her folder neatly, sorting them out. Once she had finished that, she just looked at Tony and simply said “Okay.”

 

That was possibly the last thing he expected, and maybe it showed, because she kept talking.

 

“It was a little startling at first, but -- the kids are cute. You’re going to have to keep them away from the press for awhile, though, that could raise more questions than we really need right now. As for -- James, I think it would be best if the reporters didn’t know you had him around, alright?” She pulled a few things out from the folders and laid them down on the coffee table where he could pick them up. “I need these signed today. Without you somehow putting bits of My Immortal in the middle of them.”

 

He took the papers from her with a grateful smile, making a note to himself to actually do them this time. And, as Pepper walked out, he was grateful for how long she had dealt with him, or this could have gone down much worse.



Chapter Text

It was surprising, how quickly six months could pass in this house. James could almost say he was getting used to it. He didn’t slip into a defensive position every time one of the kids entered the room he was in. (Jarvis and Tony, he was still worried about. Jarvis had control of the entire building, and Tony was an unknown, even after all this time, even after admitting he had been Gabriel.)

 

He had, somewhere along the line, taken up the position of Tony’s bodyguard. Jarvis had suggested it to him one day, after quietly noting the assassin’s restlessness, and Tony had approved it. (Pepper, actually, had been the hardest one to convince.) There was something about Tony that kept him calmer. He wasn’t worried about Hydra locating him, and didn’t so often feel the need to hide from every stranger who bore some resemblance to a handler.

 

Today Tony was having another meeting. Sleaze trying to get Stark to sign more weaponry contracts. However, it would be a good test run for James being out in public. Pepper, who had a knack for actually thinking ahead, had gotten James an inconspicuous suit, rather than the sweatpants and Captain America T-shirt Tony had gotten James as a joke. (He had taken to wearing it around, and, truth be told, neither Pepper or Tony really wanted to suggest anything else.)

 

“James, remember that he isn’t allowed more than three drinks during a business meeting,” Pepper called over her shoulder, scribbling down some last minute notes about the meeting while also trying to hold Dummy as Jarvis tried to get syrup off of the bot’s face. (It was a strenuous job that required two people.)

 

The asset doubted it mattered, considering Gabriel’s classification as archangel, but nodded once, hovering at the edge of the kitchen.

 

Mission: Watch Tony Stark.

 

Confirm.

 

He turned his left arm over, flicking his wrist and bending his elbow, testing it. It looked -- human. The story that Stark had told Rhodey and Pepper was that he had invented a polymer coating for the metal. Gabriel had later told the asset that there was an illusion being set up.

 

“-Rhodey and Pepper already know you as James, so they’ll see you as James, with, y’know.” He had inclined his head towards the tan arm that the asset was warily studying, looking as though he wasn’t sure what to do with the appendage. “But everyone else will just see you as -- another guy. Dark brown hair, brown eyes, little bit taller than average, muscular. Typical bodyguard material.”

 

Jarvis was standing quietly to the side, dressed in a matching suit, and James tightened his own tie for their introspection, wondering at the way his hands looked different. (Small things. Things that would not mark him as the asset, but someone else. Hands more designed for public combat than assassination. Scars in different places, and made a bit less noticeable. Well-trimmed nails that almost looked polished. His thumbs looked double-jointed, which was an interesting development. (Quiet bending of his right hand proved that the illusion did not actually result in him being double-jointed. Disappointing.)

 

“James, we have to go.”

 

It struck the assassin as odd that with both the ability to teleport and a chauffeur, Tony preferred to drive himself, but he slid into the back, before a flash of past orders rolled to the front of his mind, twisting his stomach for a second. (It didn’t feel right, that he should call things back. Not after the Chair.)

 

Objective: Kill Howard Stark. (Mission details: do not let it look like an assassination.)

 

Mission accepted.

 

Carried through successfully.

 

Something else, while he had been reading about Tony in an attempt to learn more about the archangel, mechanic, billionaire.

 

Trip to demonstrate Stark weaponry.

 

Army-driven vehicles.

 

Vehicle destroyed there, Tony Stark taken captive-- origin of the Iron Man suit to follow.

 

He looked at the man in the front seat again, processing this information as Jarvis sat in the seat next to him.

 

I see. Diagnosis: Stark has an unconscious fear of others driving, based on previous experience and the cause of death of his father.

 

(He didn’t feel guilty about killing Howard. It had been a mission, the same as the rest. If you were an asset, you did not fail to carry out missions. It was a well-built weapon, and had undergone years of honing to Hydra’s specifics, but weapons could be replaced if they failed to achieve results.)

 

All the same, it did change his quiet exasperation as to why Stark kept Happy around, without actually using him as a chauffeur. (Previous explanation: Stark has too much money.) (The Winter Soldier was not without its moments of pique, and there were a few things that his current keeper was doing that just outright bewildered him.)

“So, what’s your name, then?”

 

The asset looked at the reporter talking to him. This was what Stark called the ‘social’ part of the meeting; press and paparazzi hanging around, along with people just trying to get his autograph, and a handful of hopeful college kids trying to sell their ideas.

 

Looked at the woman standing in front of him. Body language: one leg slightly in front of the other, looking up through her hair, chewing her lip. Diagnosis: flirting. Heels, long dress, sleeves impractical for a fight. (Though a flash of red hair in the crowd reminded him that he had known someone who could fight like that easily.)

 

Scars: none. Muscle toning: minimal. Possibly a jogger. Look at him: evaluated. Curious, but not enough so to be called suspicious. Pad of paper and cameraman some distance behind her. Conclusion: reporter.

 

This conclusion only took a few seconds to make, as he eyed her, raising an eyebrow. Action prescribed: do not give an answer. Follow previous mission. (Guard Stark.)

 

Which, to his irritation, seemed to be hard, as no sooner than he had made the decision to turn away from the reporter, he found Tony’s arm wrapped around his shoulder, tugging him a few inches down, as he struggled to keep an annoyed expression off of his face and to not act on the instinct to flip Tony’s arm off of him.

 

“James! Come meet some of these wonderful people.” (Noted: Gabriel’s tiny wince and drawl on the word ‘wonderful’. Conclusion: Stark was being sarcastic.)

 

Jarvis was standing off to the side, answering questions simply in an impeccable British accent to a few curious bystanders, who were beginning to break off and head over to Stark, who was currently chatting up a member of the House of Representatives, talking at a speed the asset would have deemed humanly impossible if he hadn’t had experience with a few handlers.

 

Action plan: Fade into the background of the conversation. Give as few answers as possible.

 

He started to tense up when he realized he couldn’t pull his left arm out of Stark’s grip. (Illusion or no, it was still made of metal. It shouldn’t happen.) Breath in, out. Try and conceal the widening of eyes, and do not flail too much. All the same, he can only do so much to suppress the small bubble of panic that rises in his chest at the fact that he cannot pull his arm away.

 

Tony glanced at him as soon as he recognized the sound of the asset’s ragged breathing, and James stilled as he got the sense that the other was-- reading him somehow. It took only a few seconds before he gave the soldier a half nod, releasing his arm, and turned back to the conversation at hand.

 

“-- and I told him he wasn’t allowed to leave it there, because it was bright orange, for fuck’s sake. But the thing was, he told me--”

 

With that, the asset shrunk back, assuming his old position of holding himself still and straight at Tony’s shoulder, ignoring the looks from the rest of the crowd and just trying to ride out the storm.

 

 






 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Did you know that they consider you the strong and silent type?”

It’s a casual question thrown in the asset’s direction, one he knows that for the sake of the cameras and for the sake of the man himself, he would have to answer correctly. He evaluated the forced edges on the sides of Tony’s smile, and the way the other seemed to be casually edging away from the paparazzi and cameras; taking advantage of “old friends” or grabbing a drink, adjusting a sleeve, to slowly edge away.

Assessed: Stark is apprehensive of both the cameramen and some of the people who wish to talk to him.

Action diagnosed: Casual demeanor to be assumed. Directive should be to get Stark to a more comfortable zone.

He offered his own polite smile; it may have been as faked as Stark’s, but he was indubitably better at the game of faking to be someone else. (He mastered it even behind closed doors, Internet searches and old books helping him better fit into the skin he was told should be his, that of Bucky Barnes. It didn’t yet-- feel right.)

“That I did not.”

Faking, faking, they all were, just like Stark pretending to be a little bit buzzed right now, as he looped an arm around James’s shoulders, tugging him down a few inches with the faux clumsiness of it.

“Well, they do. Come on, James, lighten up. Talk to some of the scientists or something.”

Breaking out of character for a second, the asset shot Stark a dark look. It didn’t interest him at all. (They approached him with interest every so often, trying to get closer to Stark, and their sterile talk and the faint smell of metal or sparks or chemicals or the sterile scent of a medical wing just made him shiver, albeit unnoticeably. The handlers were one thing, he recognized them. There were too many anonymous minds who had contributed to the hypothetical equation of the asset.)

Hypothetically, doctor, what materials would strengthen the bond between a metal arm and the musculature of a human arm? Here’s a list of the possible materials used and the mass of the arm. It’s an interesting thought experiment I’ve given to my students.

Hypothetically, what chemicals must one inject into a living person’s bloodstream to prepare them for the cryogenic process, while preventing total brain/bloodstream failure? I do apologize-- I am aware this process is most commonly practiced on the dead, but m companions and I have made a bet, and I hoped you could clear that up for us.

I understand you’re considered a master of psychology. Hypothetically, if a total amnesiac were to exist or to be created from an existing soldier, what would be the best way to turn them into a soldier once again? Could their muscle memory be trusted with a gun, or should they be placed through more intensive training?

Hypothetical questions and their less than hypothetical results.

As he shook hands, he couldn’t help but pull back every so often and wonder how many of them helped. Wondered at the new and bizarre questions they got, and their actual value as thought experiments. Perhaps a few of them had realized the less than hypothetical nature of them.

We see how well that went.

He trailed behind Stark at a distance of a few paces, raising a skeptical eyebrow as Hammer approached the two of them, and Tony’s smile became visibly more forced as they tried to continue to walk to their ride.

The asset silently sighed. He had been looking forwards to getting back. (It wasn’t home, exactly, but it was closer than anything he could remember. A small chilled room in Hydra was hardly home, either.) Edged closer to Stark, because Hammer’s posturing was suspicious.

Action diagnosed: Do not react as of yet.

(Mission: Protect Stark.)

There wasn’t much more than a wayward look passed his way, as Hammer proceeded to clap Stark on the back, giving the mechanic a huge cheesy grin that made the asset’s skin crawl.

“Anthony! What did you think?”

I think that you should not have those weapons, and you are a petty, power-hungry man who will do nothing good with them. I’m also curious as to how you made them in the first place, as your weapon-building skills looked to be the picture of incompetency last time they were demonstrated.

But it wasn’t as if the asset were going to say this aloud.

He saw Gabriel twitch a smile, and cursed under his breath. Right. Archangel. Hammer’s grin became downright maniacal, and James realized the man thought that Stark’s smile had been directed towards him.

“Much better than we expected.” Tony allowed, and it was with a bit of exasperation that the asset realized that he was being roped into this, too. He was allowed to sleep freely for the first time in years, couldn’t Tony finish this quickly so that he could do just that? Pepper, too, was edging closer to her boss, and they formed an odd sort of triangle against Hammer. Tony wrapped an arm around her shoulders protectively, looking to Hammer. “Where are you off to now?”

“Actually I was hoping you and Ms. Potts-- and I suppose if you want, James--, would be willing to join me for dinner.”

“No.” It was the asset’s reply, and it caused the three other members of the conversation to look over at him, bewildered. Right. Well, then, might as well run with the situation. He glanced at Pepper’s watch meaningfully. “It’s late.”

Hammer’s smile was twitching and a bit uneasy, as if James had thrown him off some script he was supposed to be following, but was quick to regain his sleazy look, throwing an arm around the shoulder of Stark’s that wasn’t tucked around Pepper. “The best of work happens around this time. Don’t you think eating should, too?”

“No, because that ruins your digestion.” Tony said, and the asset could see that he was working to keep the false smile on his face. (Marked as an excuse or a snarky comment. The asset had not seen Tony eat anything but sparse candy and Dummy’s smoothies every so often ever since he had been staying at the building.)

Pepper seemed to share this sentiment, raising an eyebrow and stating, maintaining an impressively cool tone. “This coming from the man who’s been eating nothing but candy whenever I see you around.”

Whether Tony was actually affronted by this or not was hard to tell. “Hey, I love my candy.”

Hammer’s expression was even making the skin on James’s left arm crawl, a feat that should be physically impossible. But he somehow managed. “That sounds like a great slogan. What candy are you promoting?”

It was about at that time that the asset realized that there were men with guns approaching. (It wasn’t something he’d entirely be able to explain later, when they were explaining this to the Avengers, beyond ‘I’m awesome.’) There were a handful of men in suits who looked as though they were waiting for orders, and James knew them to be Hammer’s -- assets, so to speak. Their posture, the attempt at a casual meander as they approached the four of them, all the small things had the asset tensing for a fight.

Well. It appeared that Gabriel knew most human languages already. Sign language wouldn’t be a problem, if he knew dead languages (there were more deaf people than there were who spoke an ancient version of Swahili) The question was if he’d know the hand signals for enemies and the like. (Obviously not the Hydra ones, because they were paranoid.)
Something told him that even these were a little outdated, but he teased a small child holding a model of some new gun into letting him hold it and stretched, holding it out between his hands, over his head, and catching Tony’s eye for a second before handing it back.

Enemy in sight.

Gabriel absently nodded along to something that Hammer was saying-- something about seafood, James was far less concerned about the ramblings of the scientist than the approaching targets and Gabriel’s response, which was-- slightly off. Waved a hand nonchalantly in front of his face, which meant to cease fire, rather than hold fire, but it was close enough.

“--How about this, then? James and I will get --” there was an audible pause there as Gabriel raised an eyebrow and said the next word in the most skeptical voice managable “-seafood with you. Pepper probably has several excuses to make to large company owners as to why I have not yet filled out the paperwork I need to, so she can take our car home.”

It didn’t pass the asset’s inspection that the hand thrown clumsily around Pepper’s shoulder had curled around her back, Tony looking protective now.

James almost wanted to sigh when he felt the barrel of a gun being pressed to the back of his head, knowing that he could easily disarm these goons in a handful of seconds, but for having orders from his han - from Tony to hold back.

Instead, he faked a flinch and raised his arms over his head, folding his hands behind his skull, placing the left one on the outside, comfortable in the knowledge that the gunman would be in for a nasty surprise if he had orders to dispose of the bodyguard.

“There’s a bomb planted here.” Hammer said casually, and James was fairly confident the man wasn’t lying-- whatever tenseness had remained in his body posture had slipped out when the three of them had had guns cocked to their backs. He spoke like someone who had half a deck of cards up their sleeve, and didn’t care who knew. “If you three don’t come quietly, it will go off.”

Hm. Perhaps it was for the better that he hadn’t pulled away their guns, then. Still, a part of him was calculating alternative solutions. Assuming that Hammer had something to set off the bomb, it was possible that he would be able to immobilize him and find it. He should also silence him, in case the trigger was vocally activated. But if he did make a run for Hammer, Pepper would be in danger, and he didn’t want to be at Stark’s blame if she was shot.

(Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t all too worried about what might happen to Gabriel if he was somehow shot. The gunman would probably be worse off for that experience.)

“We’ll come.”
And it was decided for him. His mission was still to offer what protection to Tony Stark that he could, and it certainly wouldn’t be effectively carried out if he was left here as the inventor was carried off to an unknown destination with a man who was willing to either shoot or bomb them.

His spine curved a little as he relaxed, sound of the metal whirring in his arm lost to the crowd.

“Excellent. Right this way.” Hammer played up the friendly host every bit, leading them to a dark limo and even pausing to offer Pepper, who had made the unfortunate decision to wear heels, a hand to step over the curb. (She shot him a look that, even through whatever fear she must be feeling, due to the goosebumps on her skin, was the pure image of disdain, and but for the image James had to uphold, he would have snorted into his shoulder.)

They slid into the car, accompanied by one of the gunmen, Tony squeezing Pepper’s hand quietly; a surprisingly childish gesture meant to bring comfort.

Tony exhaled as he realized that there was someone else already in the car with them.

“Hello, Rhodey.”

Rhodey looked a little bit exasperated at seeing Stark’s face again, and the asset’s mouth twisted into a tiny smirk as he wondered what sort of things Tony would do during their MIT days.

“Hey, Tony.” Rhodey’s eyes followed Hammer as he got into the part of the limo that wasn’t filled with gunmen. “Pepper.” Nodded at the asset as well, raising an eyebrow. “-James?”

The asset really wished that the question hadn’t been in that statement, but Rhodey did know him with an entirely different face. He gave a small smile, and tipped his head to the side of the car where Pepper and Tony were holding hands. “Don’t worry, Rhodey, if you’re scared, I’ll hold your hand for you.”

It did the job he had hoped it would, and broke some of the tension there, Rhodey snorting quietly. “I’d rather take my chances with the guns, James.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t the first time he had ever been tied to a chair, and considering his not-quite-chosen line of work, James suspected it would likely not be the last. He was going to decide to focus on getting his hand out of where they were tied behind his back, rather than Gabriel’s inexplicable disappearance in a blinding flash of light.

 

(Obviously, that was Gabriel. Tony Stark, unless James had been slipped something in his coffee that morning, was not forced to disappear when somebody drew bloody Satanic symbols on the wall.)

 

Rhodey nudged him hard with his elbow, and James stopped letting his left hand rotate within the wrist socket long enough to give him an annoyed grimace, before directing his attention to what had previously been no more than a blank screen, face slowly blanking as he realized that Gabriel had reappeared there.

 

From his capture in the tower, he knew that Gabriel could teleport -- Fly, some part of him whispered, so why didn’t he just remove himself from this circle of fire?

 

Perhaps it had something to do with the conversation the two were having. Azazel. He turned the name over in his head. Something that felt like bile and sulphur rose up in his chest, causing his nose to wrinkle in distaste towards the screen.

 

He didn’t know Azazel, so why did the name make him feel as though his throat was about to fill up with smoke?

 

More importantly, he wondered whether or not Azazel would be able to replicate some of the feats that Gabriel has.

 

His head is pounding and he shuts his eyes, letting his head drop to his chest. This is not beneficial to the mission. Diagnosis: ?? Did not receive blow to the head or chest. Air levels are functioning correctly. Illness possibility: minimal. Possibility of being drugged: also minimal.

 

It took him a moment to realize that Rhodey was hissing his name, eyes still directed to the guards standing to either side of the projecter.

 

James.” He turned his head, tilting it in Rhodey’s direction a little. “You alright?” He nodded once.

 

I think.

 

“Can you get us out?”

 

James was going to snap the cuffs, or at least try to. It would be harder to avoid getting shot at, but they’d have a moment where they held the element of surprise, and if he could bluff one of the guards into coming over--

 

but his headache returns in full force, and any escape attempts are quickly driven out of his head by a painful ringing and a searing pain, bucking forwards and driving his forehead into his knees, anything that might make the headache ease, and--

 

His hands are free. He doesn’t know how long it takes him to notice this, but he has full mobility when the headache begins to ease up, and when he raises his head, wary against a new wave of pain, he spots a camera, and a suspicious lack of room, the sprawling sterile whiteness replaced by a set of grey walls with an odd flickering light.

 

Ah. The circle of fire.

 

Azazel- Hammer-- the person who trapped Gabriel is watching him with the sort of disgusted curiosity that middle schoolers get on their faces looking at an interesting Petri dish underneath a microscope.

 

Gabriel just looks bewildered, which makes James wonder. If Gabriel hadn’t transported him here, then who--

 

He is really tired of the room going white, whether it be because of his recent splitting headaches, or, as seems to be the recent case, literally filled with white light.

 

M Y C H I L D R E N.

 

It’s not a voice he recognizes, nor a language he feels like he should understand, but, two seconds after forcing himself upright again, he is kneeling in some instinct carved deeper than his bones.

 

------------------------------

 

This is not right.

 

He has no idea how James got here, but he shouldn’t be, if Azazel’s powers are still gone. Bucky Barnes should have no relevance to their Father, and he wonders at it as his lips move against his volition to greet his Fallen brother.

 

M Y C H I L D R E N.

 

That isn’t right. There is only Gabriel and Azazel here, and when Father first arrived, he gave no greeting to Gabriel, no acknowledgement that he was using the archangel as a mouthpiece. Not even a ‘hello’ to the youngest of the cardinal four. So-- while there is a part of him that clings to the expectation that he wasn’t forgotten, that doesn’t seem right to him.

 

Then, James kneels in the corner, head tipping so his long hair falls in his face, and Gabriel’s heart sinks like a stone in water, the name forming in his head moments before his Parent ever speaks it.

 

Michael.

 

Azazel’s face is tightened with lines of pure hate as he turns to the kneeling man who faces Gabriel. Michael. Michael. He lashes out, striking towards the eldest angel blindly, a clumsy kick aimed at Michael’s side, and the metal arm grabs his leg and twists, Michael never standing from where he is kneeled.

 

A painful high note is sent through the room, making both Azazel and Michael wince, and Gabriel’s head start throbbing.

 

Michael. Azazel. Stop this.

 

There is a moment of hesitation, and Azazel jerks his foot out of Michael’s grip, rounding on his father.

 

“Why is he here?”

 

It’s hard to hiss in Enochian, and yet Azazel manages, and Gabriel feels his features being pulled into an expression of sadness that is too ancient even for him to master, and he feels-- lonely, almost.

 

Michael has as much a place here as do you, Azazel.

 

Why? Why were either of his brothers here? How did Michael-- it sunk into Gabriel then, that if Michael was here now, he must have died somehow. I gave the Winchesters that key so that neither you or Samael would die, Michael. How did you manage to die in the Cage? Did Lucifer actually kill you? You said that was impossible.

 

The small wounded noise he makes at that dies in his throat, never making it out-- his Parent still has a grasp on his autonomy.

 

“Why are you here?”

 

It’s nearly shouted from Azazel, an accusation and almost a curse, cut raw to the bone with a scraping of -- is Azazel crying? He can’t be.

 

To tell you that you can come home, if you want.

 

Gabriel stiffens inside his body, and wants to call out, wants to plea, wants to beg the question of his Father-- what about me? What about me? Can I come home? Let me go with you, Father, please.

 

There’s a moment of almost stiff hesitation, and then Gabriel can feel his head turning towards James-- his brother.

 

As can you, Michael.

 

James’s frame is shaking, and he looks remarkably fragile for someone so built. His eyes are wide, and he looks undeniably afraid.

 

“I don’t-- I don’t know you. I don’t know this. I am not-- I am. I am not Michael. I don’t--”

 

It was spoken in perfect Enochian, and James looked a little bit afraid for that, raising his hand to firmly cover his mouth for a moment, eyes closing as he breathed in and out, his body slowly settling as the soldier adjusted. When he opened them again, there was a fierce set to them.

 

“No. This is where I am meant to be.”

 

Azazel’s mouth was curved into a sneer, and he stepped in front of Michael.

 

“That goes for me, as well. I have no interest in returning to a universe where there is a Father who thinks he can disappear for aeons and then give some paltry forgiveness. I am staying here.”

 

No no no no no! This was all wrong! What was Azazel thinking? What was Michael, of all the angels thinking-- what had happened to the angel who would willingly claw his wings off for the deity gone? Why were they passing up on this? And why wouldn’t their Parent let Gabriel speak? Why wasn’t he granted the same offer?

 

Very well.

 

His voice was tinged with disappointment, as if Michael and Azazel were simply two teenagers announcing their intentions to drop out of highschool to become a photographer or something of the like.

 

Michael. Come here.

 

Michael looked less like he was walking towards the circle of fire, and more as though he were a fish being hooked on a line, being slowly reeled in, his movements jerky. He knelt again, one knee dangerously close to the line of holy oil, and his head tipping over the flickering flames.

 

Gabriel bit back a quiet hint of instinctive concern for the elder-- holy fire couldn’t hurt him now, remember?-- and watched from his bystanding seat as he -- as his Father approached Michael, tucking Gabriel’s hand through the long hair.

 

I give you yourself then, my sword.

 

It sounds a bit like a blessing, and a little bit like an order, and around Father’s hands, light begins to expand, illuminating Azazel’s startled face. Michael’s eyes began to glow golden as well, his mouth falling open in a silent scream, and then he collapsed forwards, circle of fire disappearing as he fell towards it.

 

For a terrifying moment, Gabriel was afraid that their Father had killed Michael, or-- possibly worse, brought him back to full power.

 

A few seconds passed, and he noted the absence of grace in his brother, and the rising and falling of his chest with a metaphorical sigh of relief, his Father still trapping his body.

 

Goodbye, Azazel, Michael. Do what you will with this chance, then.

 

There wasn’t enough control for Gabriel to scream no, for him to reach out with his Grace and tug his Father close to him, to fly after him, so the archangel was forced to stand stoically in the middle of the extinguished circle. The blaze of his Father’s spirit began to diminish into a handful of sparks, until Gabriel was curled on the floor, wrapping his form around the last drop of the presence.

 

When he stood again, not bothering to wipe the tears from his cheeks, he felt noticeably empty, and something in him ached, wanting to call back that warmth, that purpose.

 

Instead, he turned a cold smile to Azazel, walking softly around Michael’s comatose form, and tipped his head to the side, watching Hammer’s features distort from an angry sneer to fright.

 

“Right. Now, what to do with you.”

 

Chapter Text

Gabriel was soft and dangerous as he walked towards Azazel, one finger after another tucking behind his thumb, cracking each knuckle individually in an ominous procession. Azazel’s chin rose, but Gabriel could see the tremor in it, could smell the all-too-human sweat leaking from Hammer’s pores into the designer sweat, could feel his brother’s heartbeat ( and how odd was that, that Azazel, who cast humanity aside, would have a beating heart ) as if it shook the floor.

 

Azazel began backing towards the door, but with a contemptuous flick of Gabriel’s fingers, it was locked, and as Hammer made a wild grab for the handle, the metal began to glow red-hot under his fingers.

 

Gabriel took Azazel’s footing out from underneath him with another snap, and walked over to his brother, who was cradling his burnt hand to his chest and doing his best to maintain the callous sneer that had been painted across his face before, trying his best to keep up whatever illusion of control he had had. “You won’t smite me, Gabriel. ” The archangel’s name was spat out like it was the worst insult Azazel could think to give, followed by an actual glob of spit that never got the chance to hit Gabriel. “You couldn’t ever kill. That’s why you left, you coward -

 

His voice was cut off suddenly, Gabriel striking like a snake, suddenly appearing in front of his Fallen brother, fingers spread over the lay of Azazel’s face, and nails leaving crescent moon indents in the other’s skin. Azazel was breathing under his hand like a frightened animal, chest heaving and hands scrabbling out behind him.

 

Gabriel’s voice was soft, but it was soft like the raising hairs on the back of your neck when you feel someone behind you, dangerous and unknown and unreadable.

 

“Have you forgotten Gomorrah, Azazel?” He straightened his spine, eyes narrowing dangerously. “‘ And he overthrew those cities .’ Michael continued to guide Lot and his family away, but I was the one to turn both towns, and all those in them, to ash.” His fingers pulled away from Azazel’s face, curling in a loose fist by his side. “Have you forgotten the Flood? Raphael brought the rain, and Michael split the earth, but I brought the water from the ground.”

 

( He didn’t think about these things guiltlessly. He remembered seeing children in Sodom, a little girl who had sat on a windowsill and peered secretly into her brother’s schoolwork, not allowed to learn it for herself. He remembered an blind older man before the Flood, who had made small wooden carvings for a living despite his lack of sight, and when Gabriel had asked for one, had included his wings. He remembered a singing bird that didn’t know it had chosen the wrong town to settle in. He remembered a dog that had swum circles around Raphael’s ankles for three days in the Flood water until it had died. )

 

( Gabriel had not left home because he was unable to kill. He left because he was unable to kill when it was unnecessary. )

 

“You may think you’re stronger,” Gabriel said, crouching in front of Azazel, “because you were able to do worse to them in Hell, but all that says is that you’re malicious. That you are a bitter child, Azazel. They deserve saving.” Azazel’s mouth opened, doubtlessly to spit a retort, but before he could get a word out, Gabriel pressed two fingers to his forehead, and the only noise that came from his brother was a quiet huff of air, his mouth shutting slightly, eyes drooping shut. Gabriel caught Hammer by the shoulder before his head met the floor, suddenly very weary.

 

It was too much.

 

That Michael was dead - not dead, but alive here. Alive as Bucky Barnes. That Hammer had been Azazel, and that Father had been willing to speak to him. Gabriel had hoped for aeons in his universe that Father would return, to settle things and to retain order, and to maybe answer some questions for once, and now that he had seen Him, he was only more confused than before.

 

He held up his hand, and the door, previously welded to the wall, flew away from them ( carefully guided so as to not hit Pepper or Rhodey ), Gabriel holding up one comatose brother in each arm, and stepping out to meet his friends.

 

----------------------------------------------

 

Rhodey was currently starting to wonder if something had been slipped into his drink. First there was the mess with the tech, and Tony - Gabriel? disappearing, and now Tony appeared to be in the suit, somehow, having crashed through the wall. He was confused for a good moment before the visor flipped and revealed Jarvis’s face, who twitched something that Rhodey guessed was a smile at him.

 

The few remaining guards who hadn’t flipped out at the rest of the oddness, or when the wall originally exploded, seemed to look at each other for a bewildered second before gritting their teeth and picking up their guns. Jarvis took each of them out with a few well-aimed repulsor blasts in a matter of minutes. Rhodey would wager that however much Hammer had been paying them for this job, it wasn’t enough.

 

Then Pepper screamed, a sudden, sharp noise that she quickly stifled, and Rhodey’s attention was brought to the fact that another part of the warehouse was destroyed, as Tony walked in grimly, dragging James and Hammer with him. Hammer he dropped like a sack of flour, while James - Rhodey thought it was odd, but there was something like a twinge of regret over Tony’s face as he lowered the other gently to the ground.

 

“Hey, Pepper. Rhodey.” It was the voice of somebody trying too hard to be lighthearted, and Rhodey could detect the strain in his old friend’s voice. “Are you two comfortable there, or do you want me to give you a hand?” He didn’t wait for an answer, snapping once dramatically, and before Rhodey could ask what the hell that was supposed to do, he realized the cuffs were just… gone.

 

Good thing he hadn’t actually made a bet with anyone that things couldn’t get weirder from here on in.

 

Tony walked over to the Russian man with the bird, who, despite the dramatic nature of the goings-on around him, had calmly sat in the middle of it, murmuring what was either nonsense or very quiet Russian to said bird. He only had the time to briefly look up at Tony before Tony had placed two fingers in the middle of his forehead, and Ivan Vanko’s spine slumped backwards, the bird’s feathers ruffling in a brief moment of distress.

 

He nodded at Jarvis. “Hey, J, could you get those symbols off the walls? I can’t have SHIELD find them out, they could use them against me.” Jarvis nodded, as if it made perfect sense that a secret government group could use bloody designs painted on a factory wall against Tony, and began firing at the sigils until they were ashy messes.

 

Tony - Gabriel? turned back towards them, guilt apparent on his face, but not in the same sense that it had when he had laid James to rest on the floor of the apartment. More in the sense of a child who was playing a prank who got caught. Unrepentant.

 

“I probably have a lot to explain to you both.”

Chapter Text

I give you yourself then, my sword.

 


 

and then everything was dark.

no - it was light, it was -

it was both at once and the lack of both; color and an environment drained of it, it was the feeling of being surrounded by a crowd and that of total isolation, it was pain and glory and fire and ice –––

 

it was creation.

 

it was father.

 

michael opened their eyes and found themselves - they knew the word for what they were, easy as breathing. archangel. just as they knew that the being surrounding them, almost … holding them? was their father, and that they were meant to serve him. ( they didn’t know exactly what it meant, just that there was a thread wrapped tightly around their stardust-carbon core that whispered of obedience. )

 

their first word caused a spark of surprise to ripple through the being that created them; it was possible he simply didn’t expect them to be able to talk yet, or maybe he expected… some questioning. what is my name? who are you? who am i? where are we?

 

but no, the new archangel’s first word was stoic and quiet, hundreds of eyes turned to the indescribable being.

 

‘ father. ‘

 

( memorable to michael for years afterwards; because days or years or aeons later, when lucifer was formed, xe opened xir eyes and there was a sharp twist of light, like the universe’s first smile, and xe simply said ‘ mikha’el! ‘. like someone greeting an old friend after years of separation. even as a primordial twist of energy, helel pushed the boundaries. )

 

the second question told just as much about the newly formed creation.

 

‘ what do you need from me? ‘

 

not spoken with any attitude, simply… mikha’el’s desire to help. to be useful, to be a good child. at the time, god simply thought that that was what he wanted ––– someone with that desire to follow. he had sighed, wrapping a curl of grace around mikha’el’s own.

 

‘ nothing as of yet. your name is mikha’el. you are my sword, and you will be the oldest. do you understand? ‘

 

‘ yes, father. ‘

 


 

they were so much older than any of their siblings. there were so many years that they spent totally alone - father didn’t seem… totally capable yet, of showing affection, or at least not to the thing he’d doomed to the fate of child soldier since birth. there were long, long periods where he was just … away, leaving mikha’el with nothing but their thoughts in the not-space that was the universe at the time.

 

once or twice, they ran into their father’s sibling, who introduced itself as death.

 

death seemed to have … a faint curiosity in mikha’el, and one day, they remembered sitting in front of it, playing some convoluted version of chess, in which they were moving about a sea of black pieces, and death sat behind a seemingly infinite number of game pieces; all of different shapes and colors, sizes and materials - and it controlled none of them.

 

death’s pieces moved of their own volition, mikha’el struggling to keep up as they pushed around a sea of dark pawns and bishops and knights –– and three queens. ( there was another dark queen piece, but that was on death’s side, for some reason. )

 

death seemed only to watch as its pieces moved, and mikha’el tried to counter - the only time it moved was to pull a captured piece, regardless of player, off the board.

 

at the time, mikha’el didn’t understand what their father’s sibling was trying to teach them.

 

nowadays, they knew too well.

 


 

they are both gold and fire and wings in different forms at the beginning of gabriel’s creation, michael darker and more sonorous, the hilt of a sword more than the brass of an instrument, and michael recognizes nem as a brother.

 

they know somehow, that gabriel is the last of the archangels that will be.

 

mikha’el was gold and dark steel and obedience. lucifer was light and beauty, and … questioning . raphael was electricity and steadiness. but in gabriel, there was the rough draft of something their father would spend years and hundreds of other creations trying to iron out.

 

there was the first draft of what was truly free will.

 


 

there were only four names that their father gave out to the angels; only to the archangels. mikha’el, who is like god? helel, day star, son of the morning. raphael, god who heals. gavri’el, god is my strength.

 

the rest of the duty went to mikha’el, as father created the seraphim, the ophanim, the principalities - mikha’el struggling to pull up something like creativity in themselves as they named each of their younger siblings.

 

the burning one.

 

god is my shield.

 

beauty of god.

 

( israfil, castiel, jophiel … )

 

there were so many, and created in so short a time it seemed like they were made all at once. which was… new, for mikha’el. by their best estimate, they were 23 billion years old, and the rest of the archangels were approximately 14 billion, created right before the big bang was; the rest of the host built in the shining aftermath.

 

not that mikha’el was overwhelmed by the company; but they had spent so much of their life alone. something that their siblings would … never know. they found themselves occasionally fleeing to isolation, the love that poured unconditionally from their hundreds of siblings and the other three archangels overwhelming them. their wings were still down soft, and the feeling of adoration, of admiration, seemed to weight them, covering mikha’el’s bones in tar.

 

their father would come to tell them that that feeling was simply responsibility. that this was what mikha’el was made to do. look after all their siblings. not let them be hurt.

 

on that day, they had vowed to try their best for him.

 


 

earth was nothing more than a recently-cooled hunk of lava, surrounded in warm water. father had invited them to come see the recent creation, and mikha’el, in a moment of attempted responsibility, had quite literally taken gavri’el underneath their wing. they were wading in the water, curious single-celled organisms swirling around their wingtips where they dragged in the water.

 

gavri’el was giving mikha’el a huge grin, dipping nir fingers into the water and stirring it about, feeling the tiny blips of life that existed. something in that mischievous smile made mikha’el want it to stay, and they dipped their own fingers into the water, pushing two of those micro-organisms together, both they and gavri’el watching intensely as one swallowed the other.

 

it was easy enough to feel something change with that. later, father, in a quietly amused voice, would bring up the word ‘mitochondria’, which on its own would always be enough to get gavri’el giggling.

 

( especially when mikha’el, in their driest voice, interrupted zachariah’s droning with ‘the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, as we all know.’ )

 


 

of course, like any peace, it couldn’t last forever.

Chapter Text

they worked best together. it was a lesson that their father had tried to make them understand from the beginning, but with this, as it is with so many other things, the best and only teacher was experience. but where could that come from? the universe was still so raw and new that their races, like comets tailing each other, pushed solar systems together and spurred new suns simply from the heat of them in passing.

 

mikha'el was protective of their three siblings, yes, but for the most part, they found that laughable. the worst that they could get hurt was a fleeting burn or scrape from their spirals through supernovae or asteroid belts, and raphael was soon to heal that. they felt invincible, and why shouldn’t they? they were the joyful first children of god, with the biggest playground to ever exist.

 

( helel teased mikha'el for the anxious look mikha'el always carried about them, the way they would sit out of some of their games and keep watch over them with a sharp and focused eye that their father would later enscribe to the birds of prey.

 

put down your sword, brother. it’s only us. it will only ever be us.

 

you’re wrong, mikha'el wanted to whisper. it’s never been only us. there were things created between me and you, put together and then erased entirely when our father was discontent with his creation. he was trying to make something perfect, and he struck on it with you, but you must understand the imperfections that exist in this universe.

 

but it was their job to protect their siblings, and maybe that meant letting them stay innocent as they watched, ever-vigilant, for the things that could creep from the dark places between the stars. )

 

it was how they usually were, dancing together - mikha'el, dark and graceful and all holy fire and tempered steel, helel cold and white and so beautiful the planets shifted out of instinct to orbit around xir, raphael, with their wings of electricity crackling off the surface of moons as they passed, and gabriel, sweet gabriel, with the loudest and clearest voice among them all.

 

( holy, holy, holy! the lord god almighty! who was, and is, and is to come! )

 

it was a joyous song, then. in the later years of wartime, when mikha'el would lift their voice to join the chorus, it sounded like a militant hymn, and after their siblings started to die, in the year spliced around the apocalypse, it became frantic and turned into a funeral dirge, the host weeping from thousands of eyes for some of the first angels to die since the war had ended.

 

it was how they usually were, but, like any siblings, they bickered, and had petty fights, and drove off on their own. ( funnily enough, mikha'el and helel did this the least. they always seemed to understand each other, on some level more visceral than the other four would ever have. gabriel would never admit it aloud, but sometimes ne was jealous, of how easily they fit together. )

 

they were all divided today, though, even helel and mikha'el. mikha'el was . . . gabriel never quite knew the right word for it, but they called it ‘training’, so ne eventually did the same.

 

helel was sulking, forced to help xir father after crashing into venus so hard xe had sent the planet orbiting in a different direction ‘round the sun.

 

raphael and gabriel were both . . . exploring, in their own way, raphael carefully mapping out the location and makeup of new stars and planets, recording what the new elements could be useful for, and gabriel finding the most fun and daring paths through nebulae, weaving nir way through the rings of planets and laughing when nir wings clipped chunks of rock and ice, sending them spiralling off into space.

 

time was a very new thing, too.

 

it stretched and folded in on itself, making things seem out of depth and perceiving the loops of time as other than they were. be that as it may, gabriel, deep in the floating sparks of the new universe, realized it had been quite some time since ne had seen nir siblings, and ne started to worry.

 

and ne shivered.

 

it was cold here. not in the familiar way that helel’s grace was cold, like winter when home was nearby and the snow was falling, serene and beautiful, or the first breath of wind in the fall, but like dark water, suffocating and instantly seeping into your bones, and gabriel realized that for one of the first times since nir creation, ne was afraid.

 

the unknown was always daunting. and though ne was already exploring things that were inherently new, it was all based off of things that had been seen before. new stars, but gabriel had seen stars before. new moons and planets and dwarf planets, but gabriel had seen them before, as well.

 

space wasn’t dark. it wasn’t light, either - it just was. the empty places that father had not yet filled. but here and now, in the corner of the universe where gabriel found nemself stranded, it was undeniably dark.

 

( in the corner of their eye, ne saw a star wink out. not . . . die, ne had seen that before, all supernovae or black holes, but just be suddenly and instantly consumed, and gabriel’s throat felt dry. that wasn’t supposed to happen. ne didn’t know why ne felt that - ne’d seen nir father uncreate or unwrite things before, but there was a sickening clench deep in the archangel’s stomach that told nem that that shouldn’t have happened. )

there was something wrong here.

 

but gabriel was young, and gabriel was curious, and ne had never been hurt before. ne was the youngest child of god, one of the four compass points of the host. what reason would ne have to be afraid? so ne stood nir ground, and casting about the area around them, picked up a chunk of rock about the size of a basketball ( not that basketballs existed, in those days ), and lobbed it into the darkness with all nir considerable strength.

 

and the blackness laughed.

 

it was callous and terrible and indifferent, and it was laughing, the sound carrying all around gabriel and chilling nir straight through their feathers and the starlight that wrapped around nir in an imitation of fabric.

 

we can see your fear, little bird. we can SEE YOU shaking, down to the fragile heart of you.

 

there was a sickening noise, and gabriel could feel it getting closer, starting to surround nir. it felt . . . curious, but not in the bright-hearted way that gabriel had felt when ne had first set off. it had the same sick sort of curiosity that a child has as they surround a slug in salt, or sit with a magnifying glass over an anthill.

 

gabriel was prey to them, caught in the tendrils of their void, and they simply wanted to play with nir. ne didn’t matter to them, and that realization sent something in nir heart pounding.

 

ne could never explain what ne did next, but ne would forever be glad of the path of action. the moment the darkness started to close in on nem, ne called up –– ne remembered what mikha’el had told nir, about how they pulled their sword out of thin air, flaming and glorious, and nir initial, instinctive thought was to do the same, reaching into nir grace in a moment of panic.

 

but instead of pulling out a blade, ne extended nir arm, and found that ne was holding . . . a silvery bugle, enochian engravings surrounding the rim of the horn. it was beautiful, and simple, but there was no time to admire it now. ( in the darkness, in the reflection ne could see of it in the metal of nir instrument, there were flashes of teeth. ) gabriel did . . . the only thing ne could think to do.

 

ne pressed the bugle to nir lips, and blew, a clear and sonorous note echoing through the existant cosmos.

 

and mikha’el heard it, wings immediately snapping to attention and celestial sweat wiped off their brow.

 

and helel heard it, shaking off the clouds of sulfuric acid that surrounded xir and immediately glowing with a bright and furious light.

 

and raphael heard it, freezing where they stood with their fingers wrapped in intricate beams of starlight, weaving.

 

and they shot, straight and true as arrows, to where their brother called for their aid.

 

( in the very least, mikha’el and helel did. raphael pushed off, and found themselves stopped by their father’s hand. he did not speak a word to them, but they knew, suddenly, and all the same, that they were not meant to follow. their place was here, waiting with their father for their siblings’ return. so they watched the trails of sparks that their older siblings had left in their wake, and prayed for their safe return. )

 

and the leviathan l a u g h e d, long and cruel, coiling around gabriel and staring nem right in the eye.

 

go and call your siblings, little bird - we will devour them as well.

 

they drew so close to nem that gabriel could feel the noxious darkness that reeked off of them, freezing nem where ne stood, and bringing nir eyes to water, only to freeze the tears in the corner of nir eyes as soon as ne formed.

 

you can watch as we eat them whole and alive. we think we will save you for last, little bird - maybe we will shove the celestial meat of your siblings down your throat until you beg us to consume you as well.

 

gabriel, in years to come, can’t remember ever a time where ne appreciated helel’s title as lightbringer as much as ne did now, as ne felt, more than saw, a familiar energy slam into nir back, wrapping arms and wings alike around nir, and the leviathan s c r e a m e d, for the furious shining that came in helel’s wake, driving them back and uncurling their form from where they had wrapped it around the stars.

 

mikha’el was there a fraction of a second later, looking grim but unsurprised, their blade drawn. ( their hands, for the most part, were still soft and unmarked with calluses, but they looked right holding a sword, like two pieces of a puzzle finally clicking together. ) when they spoke, there was nothing but a ringing authority in their voice, and for a moment, gabriel was almost afraid of nir own brother.

 

mikha’el didn’t look like mikha’el. there was a righteous fury in their eyes, and their back was straight, but even confronted by this . . . momentarily unnamed evil, they looked calm. more so than gabriel had ever seen them look before.

 

take gabriel back to our father. don’t look back, just go.

 

gabriel could almost see a silent argument going on between his two older siblings. helel’s outrage at the statement, both at being told what to do by xir sibling, and at the idea of leaving mikha’el behind, and a look from mikha’el that instantly made helel’s protests die in xir throat, mouth shutting with a snap and eyes narrowing, before finally nodding, gabriel carried close to xir chest.

 

michael?

 

yes, helel?

 

you better be back in a few minutes, or i swear to our father i will find wherever you ended up and drag you back by the ear.

 

mikha’el is laughing, and gabriel is really worried for nir sibling now, because mikha’el’s cheeks are flushed with an out of character excitement, and their teeth are bared in a wild grin, body looking almost at ease as they slide into a defensive position, their sword raised.

 

i’ll hold you to that, helel. now go!

 

and gabriel clung tight to nir brother as they shot back towards the grace of their father, the last reaching tendrils of the leviathan repulsed by the morningstar’s glow. looking back desperately as they flew, gabriel was just able to see mikha’el, for a split second, illuminated by the fire cast by their sword, slashing and rolling with the darkness in a deadlier version of their dancing, before the horizon swallows the both of them up, and they nearly barrel into raphael. ( raphael, who has been almost dancing themselves with anxiety, trying in vain to see what had happened to their brothers. )

 

it takes a moment for gabriel and helel to catch their breaths, gabriel drawing ( a little mournfully ) away from nir older brother to curl by their father’s warmth - ne loves helel with all nir young heart, but ne needs a break from the cold. helel starts pacing back and forth in place, until raphael’s hand on his arm settles him, and he sits down as well, hackles still raised.

 

and together, in solemn silence, they wait.

 

( it’s the same story that every war tells, worried family sitting on the docks or near the entrance of the village or in the airport to see if their loved ones will make it back. this is just the first of these events to occur; a universal predecessor. together they wait with bated breath, for the return of the soldier they love. )

 

and they wait.

 

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

 

and then there’s a familiar light on the horizon, at last.

 

like dogs when their owner returns from a long vacation, they’re charging at the weary form of their brother, graceless and uncoordinated and nearly tackling michael where they stand, their father watching from a distance. mikha’el has just enough time to hastily sheath their sword before they’re jumped, wrapping their arms and wings around their younger siblings and murmuring comforting words.

 

gabriel feels something hot on nir face, and presses the back of nir hand to nir cheek, looking with bewilderment at the silver liquid accumulated there. ne hadn’t really noticed how worried ne actually was until mikha’el returned and the balloon of stress building in nir chest was allowed to burst.

 

there hadn’t been danger, before. there had never been a moment where mikha’el or one of the other archangels had flown out of sight where there wasn’t a bone-deep assurance that they’d also be coming back soon and safe.

 

speaking of –– their father approaches from behind them as soon as their barrage of questions to mikha’el seems to have died down in intensity a little, and mikha’el struggles to their feet, pushing themselves with some effort into the military attention pose that had become expected of them.

 

( when mikha’el stood, gabriel gaped a little bit, involuntarily, as the scope of what mikha’el might have been through became clear. they were leaking golden grace in several places, long lacerations crossing their arms and chest, feathers missing from their wings, and, most notably, a large bite mark through their arm, looking almost as if the leviathan had managed to bite through holy flesh and sinew to the point where their teeth poked through to the other side. )

 

father? what was that?

 

it was gabriel who spoke first, voicing the question they all had.

 

LEVIATHAN. IT - THEY WERE YOUR AFTERBIRTH, SO TO SPEAK.

 

is that what mikha’el’s been training so hard to fight?

 

the moment after ne asked that is always one that will stand out in gabriel’s memory. nir father looked . . . so sad, for a moment, turning away from his four children to face out into the sea of creation. his face was unreadable, and gabriel’s heart ached just for that, just because ne didn’t know what ne could do to make him feel better.

 

. . . IT IS ONE OF THE OPPONENTS MIKHA’EL WILL RAISE THEIR SWORD TO, YES. BUT IT IS NOT THE ONLY ONE. RAPHAEL?

 

gabriel now saw nir sibling spring into action, their face having that same set determination that mikha’el’s had, when they stood and faced off against the leviathan. raphael tucked themselves under one of mikha’el’s arms, helping them to sit, and then cast their dancing grace, like so much static electricity, through the cuts and scrapes that mikha’el had sustained, closing their wounds until they were no longer visible.

 

( helel sat on mikha’el’s other side, with their hand held firmly in xir own, and the sheer light that xe gave off was driving back the black blood and bile of the leviathan that coated michael in noxious slick, like a bird caught amidst an oil spill. )

 

raphael seemed caught on the bite mark, though, their hands passing over mikha’el’s arm uncertainly, the soldier’s skin closing and re-opening underneath their fingers. the most damage they’d had to heal before was surface-level scrapes and cuts and burns. it was hard enough for them to patch mikha’el’s other lacerations. they looked hesitantly at their father, but he seemed . . . distracted.

 

gabriel, now, curled against their side, wrapping an arm over their shoulders and humming - a church hymn, major key and uplifting, rather than the ‘gloria in excelsis deo’ that michael and raphael’s grace seemed to thrum in key, or the wordless violin music that came from lucifer. raphael sighed, their shoulders slumping and relaxing, and they let blue lightning furl around mikha’el’s arm.

 

when the four of them drew back from each other, separating into four clear beings rather than one amalgam of light, michael’s face looking wan and drawn out a little more than before, and a clear line of scars where the leviathan’s teeth had sunk into their arm.

 

it wasn’t . . . clear what they were waiting for, but they had all turned their heads to their father, the silence tense and tenuous. after one beat, two beats, three, he sighs, turning his eyes towards his children.

 

. . . YOU FOUR WORK BEST TOGETHER. THIS WAS A GOOD EXAMPLE OF HOW IT HAPPENS. IF IT HAD JUST BEEN ONE OF YOU CONFRONTING THE LEVIATHAN, YOU WOULD HAVE FAILED.

 

he turned to each of them, speaking to them in turn.

 

GABRIEL. YOU ARE THE MESSENGER. YOU CALLED FOR YOUR BROTHERS TO HELP, AND THEY FLEW TO YOUR AID.

 

RAPHAEL. YOU ARE THE HEALER. YOUR BROTHERS WILL ALWAYS BE ABLE TO RELY ON YOU WHEN THEY ARE BROKEN ON THE SEAS OF THEIR PRIDE OR ENEMIES GREATER THAN THEM.

 

but who outshines us? gabriel wanted to ask. what is written in the lines of a script we cannot see that is grander than we are? is there a real chance that we, like the stars, will burn out one day?

 

HELEL.

 

there was a heavy sigh in their father’s voice as he turned to helel, and he looked . . . mournful.

 

YOU ARE THE LIGHTBRINGER. YOU SAW THE POWER THAT THAT CAN HOLD.

 

but, father, gabriel interrupted, mikha’el was able to defeat them on their own. does that mean that they are above us? or that they don’t need us?

 

their father smiled, and gabriel could feel the opening of his arms like when your face starts to have feeling again, after coming in out of the cold, and gladly, ne jumps into them, nestling nemselves right by the familiar core that they all stem from. raphael soon joins, as does helel, albeit more hesitantly. mikha’el, however, is still standing, looking . . . lost. this, for them, is the last dregs of whatever they had of a childhood.

 

so their father makes his way to them, mikha’el’s wings folding gently to lean against their siblings, watching their father in rapture.

 

THAT WAS THE QUESTION I WAS WAITING FOR ONE OF YOU TO ASK. YES, MIKHA’EL FOUGHT THEM. BUT . . . THEY ARE STRONGER THAN MIKHA’EL ALONE. IF THEY HAD MET WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG, GAVRI’EL, MIKHA’EL WOULD HAVE BEEN CONSUMED. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?

 

not really, ne admitted, and nir father laughed once, not being mean, just . . . quietly amused at the things he had created.

 

MIKHA’EL IS STRONG BECAUSE THEY FIGHT FOR YOU, GAVRI’EL. THEY ARE ABLE TO WIN FIGHTS BECAUSE THEY WANT TO PROTECT YOU. BECAUSE THAT IS THE NATURE OF THEM, AS MUCH AS IT IS YOURS TO TRY AND MAKE OTHERS SMILE.

 

mikha’el’s head had dipped, chin resting on raphael’s shoulder and cheeks flushed at . . . praise? they had learned to not expect much of, from their father. gabriel could sense an uplift in the song that flowed through them, daybreak on a september morn.

 

YOU ARE EFFECTIVE BECAUSE YOU LIVE FOR EACH OTHER. SEPARATED, YOU MAY FACE SOME CHALLENGES THAT WILL BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR YOU TO OVERCOME. BUT TOGETHER, YOU CAN ACHIEVE ANYTHING.

 

I KNOW IT.