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And There But For the Grace

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Hell wasn't a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley's opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

-Good Omens, Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

 

Everyone knows the story of the war in Heaven. That it began with pride. That Lucifer, best beloved of God's best beloved, resented the newly created human souls. Was angry that they would supplant the Angelic Host in God's favour. That he disregarded Michael's warnings and, in his pride and anger, sought to seduce others to his side.

The Seraphim and Cherubim, the Thrones and Dominions: Lucifer's golden tongue wooed them as he raised his will against God's. He was the Light Bearer, the Morningstar, the best and wisest and most favoured of them all. When he spoke, words flowed like manna from his lips. He enticed them: the High and the Low, the Powers arrayed by God's Right Hand and the mere Angels, who had barely the will to raise against him.

Steven, who was the least of the lesser Angels, listened as Lucifer spoke. As Lucifer whispered in his ear that this would prevent a greater wrong. That the humans should not be set above the Angelic Host in the favour of God. That humans would be mortal and weak and helpless and it would ask too much of them, to be placed so high. That it would be cruel to make them shoulder such a burden. Steven, who had a deep well of righteous anger, believed him. Steven—who trusted too far, who loved too much—believed, too, that the faith of all the Hosts of Heaven could never break.

But the Angelic ranks arrayed, one against the other, bright and shining and terrible. The Hosts of Heaven fought and the firmament of the universe trembled and cracked. The rebellion faltered and broke and Michael cast Lucifer down.

There were whispers that this too was part of God's ineffable plan, that Lucifer had served God's will even in this great unthinkable act. It was little comfort to those who lost for all eternity the warmth of God's grace.

In the end, there were some who chose to leap, defiant and wild with their rebellion. Some fell, heedless of what would become of them. And some were flung, despairing at the magnitude of their loss.

Steven was flung from Heaven, the Seraphim implacable in their majesty and unforgiving power as they cast him out. They tore the wings from his back and threw him down into Hell, his light transformed to darkness.

 


 

Hell was a place of nothing. Endless, empty, and cold, ruled over by Lucifer, inhabited only by the fallen angels. Demons. They were demons now, Steven reminded himself. Still with their ranks and Steven was still the least of the lesser.

He refused to think of himself as a demon, clung to the memory of being an angel. He wasn't alone. Most embraced their new identity—some with glee, some with resignation—but some, like Steven, refused. A fallen angel was still an angel, they told themselves.

Their numbers dwindled as Hell began to fill with human souls.

Hell was no longer empty and cold, stretching into the endless distance. It was twisting itself into strange and malevolent shapes, echoes of human imagination.

Such was the nature of Lucifer's Hell.

It was a place of punishment, but every human was the architect of their own eternity. Every human knew, in the secret place in their heart, what they deserved. That was exactly what they received.

Steven hated it. Hated the screams and the blood and the fire. Hated the pain. Hated the torture. He was the least of the lesser and rarely came to anyone's attention, but rarely wasn't never. He was forced to take his turn. Steven broke humans on the wheel, flayed the skin from their bodies, tortured and burned and crushed. Through it all he heard the litany of their sins, even when their lips and tongues and jaws had been torn from their bodies.

It became harder to hold to the belief he was not a demon; that he was a fallen angel, even if he was soaked in blood. Doing so began to seem pointless. The few others who'd hung onto the distinction gave up and embraced their new identity.

As the earth's population grew, so did Hell's, filling up with ever more human souls.

Demons were not precisely a secret on the earth. Some humans knew they existed and had learned to use them as tools, as weapons, summoning them away and out of Hell. Binding them to serve, binding them to obey, binding them into physical bodies—on earth, demons, like the angels they had been, were creatures of spirit, only human magic allowing their physical bodies to manifest.

But humans always made mistakes, went the rumours, especially if they didn't know your name, and then you would be free. Surely Lucifer's eyes couldn't be everywhere. There were some demons who never returned. You could be free and out of Hell.

Out of Hell.

The next time a human summons slipped like a whisper through the gates of Hell, Steven answered it. He needed out, he needed to get away, before he lost himself entirely.

 


 

HYDRA Weapons Facility - Kreischberg, Austria - June 1943

The circle binding him was solidly and expertly drawn, with no flaws, no weak spots. Steven manifested exactly in its centre. There was no smoke, no flaring lights. It was entirely undramatic and unimpressive, just like the body in which his spirit was housed.

It was practically indistinguishable from a human's.

Short, his spine was curved, giving him a mildly hunched appearance. His face was sharp and thin, his fingers slightly too long, a short shock of yellow hair fell over dull blue eyes. Before the Fall, before the Seraphim, he would have been tall and golden and shining, but they'd left only darkness behind and his body reflected that darkness.

He was clothed in cotton pants and a button up shirt, leather shoes, similar to the three men watching him. Two were tall, one short and plump with round glasses and eyes like holes in the world that made Steven wonder if he really had escaped from Hell.

These were the first living humans he'd ever seen. He waited to feel...something. Anything. Some kind of reaction to whole and unharmed human beings, instead of damned souls bound for torture. He felt nothing.

He couldn't stop staring at the short man's eyes. They were wrong. If he chose, Steven could look at him and see the sin on his soul, but he didn't need to. He knew what he'd find.

Disdain rolled off the man in waves. "This, Herr Koch, is what you value more than the human mind." The short man's voice was dripping with contempt as he gestured at Steven, crouched in the centre of the circle. "You take shortcuts with magic and demons and neglect the power of intellect."

"This is nothing to do with you, Zola," Koch replied, lip lifting in a sneer. "Go back to your science experiments."

"Are you afraid I'll stay and see you fail?" Zola asked.

"We're not afraid of anything to do with you. We're following our orders. I suggest you do the same."

Zola turned and gave them a thin lipped smile that didn't touch the winter in his eyes. "Science will change the world while you play with your books and sigils," he said. "My designs will create wonders you can only dream of."

"Then why didn't Schmidt give this job to you?" the other man asked. "Why isn't one of your machines stopping the Americans from using the serum?"

When Zola didn't answer, both men turned away dismissively, focussing on Steven. Steven listened as Koch spoke to him; he didn't have a choice. Koch had summoned, he'd answered, and Koch had bound him. He listened, but he didn't take his eyes off Zola.

Go to a man named Abraham Erskine, Koch said. Possess him, sabotage his project, kill him so it looks like he committed suicide. Steven quailed at what he was being told to do, but he had no choice. He'd answered the summons. He'd made his choice, decided being out of Hell was worth the cost and now it was time to pay it.

They opened the circle and, as he stepped out, his body dissolved into spirit. He wasn't free. There was a leash of power binding him to Koch; he could see it like a long black cord winding between them. He tugged at it experimentally, but it was strong. Even without his name, Koch could still bind him beyond his ability to break it.

Koch's orders were like a burning brand in his chest. "Go," he commanded and Steven went.

 


 

Camp Lehigh, New Jersey - June 1943

Dr Abraham Erskine. It took time to get to him, but he wasn't hard to find. Once found, Steven followed him, and the more Steven stayed by his side the worse he felt about what he had to do. Dr Erskine was a good man.

Steven listened as Dr Erskine and a woman named Peggy Carter argued with a Colonel Phillips that Gilmore Hodge should not be chosen for Project Rebirth, the project he was here to sabotage. They lost. He listened as Dr Erskine met with a man named Howard Stark and they went through, step by step, what would happen on the day of the project.

He didn't want to do this. He didn't want to hurt Dr Erskine. He didn't want to hurt anyone. He didn't have a choice. The night before Gilmore Hodge was scheduled to receive the serum and become the first in a new breed of super soldiers, Steven slipped inside Dr Erskine's mind. Carefully, delicately, so the man didn't notice he was there. Then he took over. Dr Erskine fought. He slammed against the edges of Steven's control, battered himself against the walls Steven caged him in. It was fruitless; he couldn't throw Steven out.

As Steven tampered with the serum, no one thinking twice about the conscientious Dr Erskine making one more check that everything was ready for tomorrow, Dr Erskine's mind was screaming. Steven tried to block it out.

It was simple to walk the body through the next day's events. Or rather, to allow the body to walk itself. That was the key, he realised. The body knew how to move, how to stand. All he had to do was give it enough freedom while keeping a tight hold on Dr Erskine's mind and he was beyond suspicion. Colonel Phillips and Dr Erskine's relationship was strained over the selection of Hodge, Dr Erskine and Hodge had no relationship to speak of, and Steven had listened in on enough of Dr Erskine and Howard Stark's conversations to carry them through.

The only concern was Agent Peggy Carter, who gave Dr Erskine an assessing look when she arrived. He knew there should be no physical sign that Dr Erskine was possessed, Steven had controlled it, but he wanted her to denounce him, to accuse him; to say stop, something's wrong, but the nature of being bound was such that you couldn't sabotage yourself.

Dr Erskine was a constant stream of noise in his mind, alternating between pleading with Steven not to do this, ranting at him in anger, and impassioned reasoned argument. Steven didn't respond to any of it.

It became much easier to block him out when the man in the tube began screaming. People in the room made noises about stopping, but Steven in Dr Erskine's body said, "No, this is expected, it must continue," as Dr Erskine begged him to bring it to an end. Howard Stark questioned it but Steven gestured at him emphatically and he continued.

The screaming eventually ceased. They opened the tube and Gilmore Hodge, or what was left of him, fell out. For the second time on earth, Steven wondered if he'd actually left Hell. At least Hodge was dead. He couldn't feel what the sabotaged serum had done to his body.

Dr Erskine had gone still and silent in his mind; Steven thought he'd have been weeping if he could. Everything was a blur after that. Shouting and accusations and denials and counter-accusations and the important men threatening to take away the money.

Steven kept Dr Erskine very quiet. Agent Carter was looking at him suspiciously. Steven tried to give her a reassuring smile. Judging by her eyes, her face, her body, it only sharpened her suspicion.

Dr Erskine was driven back to Camp Lehigh, escorted back to his offices. The men escorting him were solicitous of a tired and devastated old man, not suspicious, and Steven used Dr Erskine's body to acquire a gun.

"I wondered what was going to happen to me," Dr Erskine said when the doors were shut and they were alone in the office.

Steven sat his body down in a chair. It didn't take him long to work out how to use the gun and he pressed the muzzle against the body's temple.

"Do I at least get to know what you are?"

It took Steven a long time to answer, the cold, sharp metal of the gun digging into delicate skin. "I guess I'm a demon." There was nothing left of him he could call an angel, even a fallen one.

"I guess that means I'm going to Hell." It was exhausted, weary and hopeless. It hurt. Steven hurt for him. He lowered the gun so it was pointing at the floor and closed the body's eyes, turning his attention inward, looking at Dr Erskine, at that part of him that was eternal.

"No." His voice was soft. "No, you're not going to Hell." It was a poor excuse for comfort after everything he'd done. He once more placed the gun against the body's temple. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry. I don't have a choice."

"I can't forgive you."

"No." Steven gave a low, humourless laugh. "We don't get to have that." He paused. "I'll make sure it doesn't hurt," he promised. He'd have to stay, even through the body's death, but it seemed simple enough: wrap himself around Dr Erskine's mind, shield him from what was happening so there'd be no pain, and pull the—

The door exploded open and something slammed into Steven, shoving him out of Dr Erskine's body like he'd been hit by a tank. He manifested briefly, sprawled on the floor. Looking up, he could see Agent Carter standing in the doorway, see a glittering chain with a round amulet hanging around Dr Erskine's neck, the gun on the floor where it had fallen from his slack fingers.

She'd thrown it and driven him out.

Desperate gratitude burned through him like a fire. "Back to Hell with you," she told him, matter of fact, like she dealt with demons every day. Steven met her eyes briefly and then his leash tugged at him. He dissolved into spirit and was dragged back to the ones who'd summoned him.

 


 

Camp Lehigh, New Jersey - July 1943

"I'm sorry, I'm still having trouble with the idea that demons are real."

"Well, I suggest you get used to it," Peggy said. "Because it appears that HYDRA has no such trouble."

Colonel Phillips waved a hand at her. "All right, all right. So I just have to wear this," he swung the chain hanging on his finger back and forth, making the round amulet glint in the light, "and that, what, tells them to go away?"

"Not quite. It will shield you from," Peggy counted off on her fingers, "possession, interference, or anything else their summoners might come up with. MI6 has been using them since it was founded. They've proven extremely effective." When he looked sceptical, she added, "Semper Occultus? It's not a coincidence."

"Should I ask how you know all this?"

Peggy's smile was small, her eyes distant, briefly lost in a memory. "My Aunt was British Intelligence. I'll let you guess what her specialty was."

"Noted." Colonel Phillips sighed and then put the chain around his neck. "Just when I thought life couldn't get any stranger."

 


 

The Battle of Azzano, Italy - October 1943

Sergeant James Barnes, 107th Infantry Regiment, bared his teeth—half desperate grin, half threat. He knew his men were looking to him and if he broke, they'd break. So it was real simple. He wouldn't break.

He heard muttered prayers, curses, outright threats, all aimed right up at God. Never an atheist in a foxhole, especially not one as desperate as this. There was a roar of approaching tanks, getting closer. Sergeant Barnes knew they weren't theirs. Didn't really sound like the German's, either.

Blue fire exploded out of the night, wiping the Germans off the face of the earth. Cheers erupted around him, whoops of glee, but they were cut short when that same blue fire was turned on them.

It was too much. Some men broke, bolting for safety. Too many died. The rest had no choice but to surrender, including Sergeant James Barnes.

Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. Sometimes they're just another enemy.

The Battle of Azzano ended fast once HYDRA was involved.

 


 

HYDRA Weapons Facility - Kreischberg, Austria - November 1943

"Their last mission failed," Zola said. "Clearly, demons are a waste of our resources."

"We didn't fail." Koch's voice was very patient. "The Americans abandoned their program because it failed so spectacularly. We achieved exactly what you wished us to achieve. Zola is the one wasting resources. He's taking prisoners for his experiments that you need to work on the Valkyries."

"Dr Erskine is still alive," Zola said.

"And is completely discredited."

Johann Schmidt was facing the windows, his hands behind his back. Dr Zola stood at one side of the room, the two demon summoners on the other. Steven stood behind them, thin and hunched and still, the binding Koch held keeping him tightly in check.

"Enough." Schmidt said without turning. "Dr Zola, you may continue with your current subject. But only him. The rest of the prisoners are to work faster and harder. Herr Weber, Herr Koch, your demon may once more prove useful. You may keep it."

It was a clear dismissal. They left the room, Koch and Zola exchanging vicious glares.

 


 

The room was dark and cold and he was strapped to the table. He couldn’t move. He'd given up trying; there was nothing he could do to budge the straps.

"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, 32557038." It was a harsh, broken whisper dragged out of a throat scraped raw.

Shallow breath. In and out. Anything deeper hurt too much.

"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, 32557038."

Shallow breath. In and out. Repeat.

It was all he was going to say. Problem was, now he'd started saying it he wasn't sure he could stop.

Except to scream. He couldn't seem to stop the screams. He'd been determined not to start, not to give Zola the satisfaction, but they escaped, no matter how stubbornly he clenched his teeth.

He knew no one was coming for him. He knew he wasn't gonna walk out of here alive.

They hadn't even wanted him. He'd been standing in the corner, trying to keep morale up. A challenge: come up with different, increasingly improbable ways to kill the bastards that were holding them, his last smoke a reward for the most creative. Bucky wasn't sure who they'd been going for when the guards had shoved their way into the cell. He hadn't hesitated before he shoved himself forward, getting right up into that black-helmeted bastard's face, daring him, fucking daring him, to take him instead.

Tense long seconds had passed and then the guard had smirked like the evil prick he was and grabbed him, hard and vicious. Bucky had grinned back, teeth bared, spitting in the eye of death and danger just like always.

Bucky didn't regret it for one goddamned second. There weren't many left of the 107th, but they were his men and he was their Sergeant and he'd look after them, right up to the gates of fucking Hell.

Bucky kind of thought he might be there now. Kind of thought this evil little bastard Zola might be some kind of devil. The stuff he was doing sure as shit wasn't natural.

"Sergeant Barnes."

Zola was back. Bucky kept his eyes on the ceiling, didn't acknowledge his return. Repeated his mantra of name, rank, and serial number.

"We are going to do great things together, you and I. We're going to show them what the power of the human mind can achieve."

Name, rank, and serial number. Shallow breath. In and out.

Zola was doing something. Bucky could hear equipment, feel it clamping down on his body. "HYDRA has need of you." There was a pinch and the sharp burn of a needle in his left wrist.

Name, rank, and serial number. Shallow breath. In and out.

The hum of electricity filled the air. "This may hurt, but it's only the beginning."

Name, rank, and serial number. Shallow breath. In and out.

And screams.

 


 

Allied Base Camp, Europe - December 1943

The 107th Infantry Regiment was almost back to full strength, the men who'd returned from the battle at Azzano bolstered with new recruits, men from other units, and men from the Strategic Science Reserve. Their specific focus: HYDRA. The problem was, HYDRA was impossible to take prisoner. Suicide capsules were standard issue and no one was fast enough to stop them. Intelligence was scarce on the ground. It was a lament Colonel Phillips had voiced to Agent Carter many times.

"Colonel Phillips," she said on this particular day, eyes on the file she was flipping through. "There's one kind of HYDRA agent who's not going to suicide rather than be captured."

"And who might that be."

"The demon summoners." She glanced up at him, gauging his reaction.

He didn't reply, simply raised an eyebrow, inviting her to continue.

"They know when they die they're going straight to Hell. And they're going to have some very...eager company waiting for them. As I'm sure you can imagine, demons don't serve out of the goodness of their hearts." Colonel Phillips gave a snort of laugher. "They're essentially slaves, not that anyone should spare them a moment of pity. I suspect an eternity of torment they know is waiting is going to override even loyalty to HYDRA."

Scratching his chin thoughtfully, he considered it. "So if we find these particular HYDRA people, we stand a chance of actually getting some intelligence?"

Peggy nodded once, sharply.

"How do you suggest we do that?"

"If only you had access to someone who was an expert in the subject who could assist you." Peggy looked at him levelly but there was fire burning in her eyes.

After a long moment of silence, neither looking away from the other, Colonel Phillips cast his gaze heavenward. "I take your point. Consider yourself on active duty." He sighed. "They're going to hate this."

They did, but no one could deny that she was right. Together, Agent Peggy Carter and a specialist division of the rebuilt 107th cut a swath through HYDRA. Agent Carter had an uncanny sense for where HYDRA would be found, a whipcord iron will—and a terrifying right hook—that silenced anyone who questioned her right to be there, and a gift for knowing the exact person with the exact skills needed for whatever situation they found themselves in. She rapidly came to be an essential part of their operations.

They were proud of her. They needed her. They knew she'd never let them down.

 


 

HYDRA Weapons Facility, Kreischberg, Austria and Allied Base Camp, Europe - June 1944

"Schmidt wants this Agent Carter woman dealt with. She's causing him too many difficulties." Weber stopped outside Steven's binding circle.

Koch nodded and turned to Steve. "Go. Possess Agent Peggy Carter and kill her. Make it look like a suicide. Something messy, something bloody. Something slow."

Steven didn't protest, even though everything in him was screaming No. If they knew he objected...there were worse things they could make him do to her before she died. He bowed his head and when they opened the circle, he left his physical body behind and found her.

She was sitting alone in a tent, deeply engrossed in a file. There were men everywhere, tents everywhere, but his attention was on Peggy Carter. She looked the same as when he'd seen her last, saving him from having to kill a good man.

Only this time she was wreathed in protections. She was glowing with them. Relief flowed through him. Maybe a more powerful demon could break them, but he was the least of the lesser and he'd never been more grateful for that.

Protections or not, the command to possess her, to kill her, was driving him like a whip across his back. This was going to hurt. Somehow, he didn't mind; it was far better than the alternative. Steven was oddly content as he hovered in the air above her and then, having no choice, flung himself against her shields.

It didn't just hurt. It was agony. Her protections lashed out against him, smashed him backwards, stunning him and slamming him into the ground like a fist of steel. He writhed in pain, felt like he was gasping for air, as if even without a physical body he might drown.

Calmly, she looked up from the file she was reading, surveying the tent. "Do feel free to stick around and try again," she said, one corner of her mouth curving up in a challenging smile. There was no fear, not even the barest hint of concern.

Half stunned, Steven was filled with something a little like admiration and a little like awe. He wondered what was going to happen when he tried again, if he'd have to keep trying until her protections destroyed him. Until they—

His scrambled thoughts stuttered to a halt as he realised nothing was driving him to try again. As he realised it was gone. The binding, never as strong as it could have been since Koch didn't know his name, was gone. The backlash of her protections had shattered it.

He was free. She had, all unwitting, set him free.

He stared at her as she read the file, wondering what to do now.

She'd said he could stick around. It seemed as good a plan as any.

 


 

Steven stayed with her as she and the 107th tracked HYDRA across Europe. It didn't take him long to figure out who they were looking for: Koch and Weber, the men who'd summoned him up and bound him. If her people hadn't been protected against possession, Steven would have been tempted to take one over long enough to help. But they were and he couldn't and so he simply followed.

It was terrifying, sometimes. Peggy Carter had no fear and her people followed where she led with an awed wonder, a fierce loyalty, and a deeply hidden love.

They found Koch, dug him out of the hole in which he'd gone to ground when Steven hadn't returned, when he'd failed to kill Peggy Carter. Koch was afraid to die and his suicide capsule remained unused. It didn't take long for him to start talking, and his hatred of Zola played almost as large a part as his fear of death and what came after.

It was Koch's information that led them to HYDRA's Headquarters, led to Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter speeding after the Valkyrie while the 107th roared into battle against HYDRA, led to Agent Carter climbing up the wheel well of the airplane while Colonel Phillips looked on in what Steven knew was well-concealed terror. But there was no choice, there was no one else, and Steven knew she'd never give up without a fight.

Cat-quiet and cat-steady, Peggy crept through the plane, never knowing Steven was at her shoulder. She froze when she saw the first bomb, painted with the name Chicago, then the next and the next, each painted with the name of an American city. A noise made her melt back into the shadows and as the HYDRA soldiers filed past her she stepped out and calmly shot them, one bullet each, and they fell dead at her feet. Just as calmly, she reloaded and continued to make her way forward.

She paused when she reached the closed door. Steven slipped through, saw the man who had been Schmidt, who now looked like he truly belonged in Hell, adjust the plane's controls and take cover behind a pillar.

He had no way to warn her.

Peggy went through the door and hugged the wall, spotted Schmidt and his bright red skull hiding in in the shadows, and shot at him. He dodged at the last minute and her bullet only grazed his arm. It was enough to disrupt his aim, blue fire from his rifle splashing against the door, melting it to slag as Peggy dashed towards the plane's controls. Schmidt fired again as Peggy hit the ground, sliding forward on her stomach, and the plane's window shattered.

Cold wind whistled in, a screaming counterpoint to the silence of their fight.

Peggy rolled to her feet and fired at Schmidt, once, twice, as he ran towards her, a third time, hitting him each time, but he seemed to shrug them off even as streams of blood trickled from his body. She dodged too late and he grappled with her, bodily picked her up, his strength overwhelming her training and speed, and heaved her across the room. She rolled as she hit a pillar, but she still hit hard. Steven heard the sound of bones cracking.

As Steven watched, hovering helpless above her, Schmidt turned to the plane's controls. It gave her time to struggle to her feet.

Schmidt turned and raised his gun, but Peggy's was already aimed, not at him but at the anomalous metal structure bolted to the floor directly behind the pilot's chair. Schmidt had time to bark out, "NO," in an almost panicked voice as she fired and it exploded in blue light. An unearthly glowing cube tumbled to the ground. "What have you done?" he demanded as he scooped up the cube.

The world went mad. It split itself open and Steven thought, for one brief moment, they were being pulled down into Hell.

Peggy stood, leaning on the metal pillar for support, breaths shallow and careful, as Schmidt dissolved into nothing and the world snapped back into here and now.

She was limping, one hand against her ribs, as she made her way to the pilot's chair and she eased herself into it with a hiss of pain. After a brief look at the readouts on the control panel, she reached for the radio. "Agent Carter to Colonel Phillips. Do you read me?"

"Carter, this is Colonel Phillips." The relief in his voice was palpable. "What's the situation?"

"Schmidt's dead. The situation is mostly under control."

There was a muted cheer in the background that Colonel Phillips quickly hushed. "Give us your coordinates and we'll get you a landing site, we'll get Stark over here to talk you down."

Peggy paused before she replied, "That's the part of the situation that's not under control."

"Explain."

"The plane's locked onto New York and it's moving extremely fast. There's no way to stop it and there's no way to slow it down."

"Carter—"

She interrupted him. "You know what it's carrying. The only way to stop it is to put it down, right here and right now. Into the water."

When he spoke again his voice was hard and firm and absolute. "Agent Carter, I order you not to do that."

"Colonel Phillips." Peggy's voice was cool and crisp and just as absolute. "There's no other way." Silence was the only response. A long, heavy silence, undercut with the static of an open line. "Colonel Phillips." Her voice gentled. "Chester."

"Understood, Carter." Colonel Phillips had aged in the time it took him to reply. "Agent Carter...Peggy. I—"

She cut him off. "There's no time for that. Just swear that you'll finish our work. That you won't let it die. That's all I need."

"You've got it, Carter." His voice had cracked on the first syllable but he brought it under control. "You've got it."

"Thank you." She reached out and, with one finger that trembled only slightly, turned off the radio.

If she hadn't had her protections, her barriers against possession, Steven might have been able to save her. The demon-possessed were strong and resistant to damage, if the demon wanted them to be.

He might have been able to save her.

Peggy breathed deeply, then winced and shook her head, smiling a little. Perfectly serene, she pointed the plane's nose towards the waves. Steven watched her eyes. They were clear and wide, never looking away from the water rushing ever closer.

He would have tried.

Peggy Carter would never know he was there, but he could at least make sure she didn't die alone. He could stand witness to these last moments of her boundless courage, of her perfect grace.

Steven knew the moment her body gave up, the second her heart stopped, her breath ceased. It didn't take long. Mortal bodies were so fragile.

The part of her that was eternal was blinding golden light, so bright it was an agony, but he didn't turn away.

She saw him.

He was a demon. Steven knew what she would see. Before the Fall he too had been golden and shining, not dark and twisted as he was now.

She saw him.

There was judgement and curiosity in her eyes, but no fear. This woman knew no creature from the pit of Hell was coming for her. 

"You said I could stick around," he told her. After a moment, amusement suffused the air around them and he could feel its warmth like a gift. "And I didn't want you to die alone," he added in a whisper, not knowing if she would understand. 

Her eyes pinned him in place as the seconds ticked past and then she smiled, gloriously radiant, and was gone.