Sabrael kneeled on the rooftop, his bow loose at his side as he watched his Initiate navigate the Old Mexico landscape. Initiates rarely left their territories, even Initiates bonded to members of the Host like himself. After the Chitauri tore the world apart and remade it into a reflection of the Chitauri homeworld – an unknown leader at their head – it was difficult to travel safely. The Wastes were bad enough, sprawling lands of lawlessness and rampant with Chitauri activity, but here in the Hinterlands, it was much worse because there was little to no human civilization left at all – only the remnants of it. Crumbled buildings and abandoned cars, skeletons and tatters of clothes, all of it heart-wrenching and a warning to the unwary.
So, understandably, Sabrael was worried for his Initiate. Phil Coulson was one of the best, most professional Initiates that Sabrael had ever worked with before – Sabrael’s twin and partner, Razial, felt the same way – and in the New York Chapel he was second only to Head Initiate Nicholas Fury. He didn’t want to have to train a new recruit to take Coulson’s place. And he disliked working with Initiate Maria Hill, the only other Initiate that was trained to handle two members of the Host.
“I can hear you worrying.” Coulson’s voice came loud and clear in Sabrael’s ears, though he knew the Initiate had only thought it. Initiates had the best weaponry the Host could gift them with, and one of those was assigning members of the Host to an Initiate to create an immortal-mortal bonded team. Coulson was a bit different, in that both Sabrael and Razial were assigned to him, and he wore two medallions instead of one, but he deserved the honor.
Plus, he rode herd on their antics. Most other Initiates refused to deal with the two of them, considering their penchant for pranks, terrifying Recruits, and generally ignoring authority of all kinds (read: Maria Hill).
Tilting his head and focusing his thoughts, Sabrael responded, “You can?” The link between Initiate and Host was only supposed to send intentional thoughts, not unintentional thoughts or the emotional state of either person. However, it was possible that Sabrael had accidentally sent something he hadn’t meant to…
“I can’t really, but I know you are,” Coulson replied.
Sabrael snorted and pulled an arrow out of his quiver, lightly stringing it, as the Initiate approached the reason they were here in the first place. The Chitauri didn’t often raid the Host’s plane of existence, but when they did they often stole important relics in hopes of harvesting the Host’s energy. This artifact was ancient, powerful, and Sabrael wondered how the Chitauri managed to make it past the Host’s impressive defenses to get at this – and, once they had it, why they dropped it here. The many chapels, paired with their assigned members of the Host, had become aware of this relic through a means of sensory measures originally designed to pick up one of the Host sent down to Earth’s plane of existence. The fact that this relic could be picked up so easily by such measures – when those sensors were calibrated for actual sentient beings and not this sword stuck in the ground – worried Sabrael.
Not that he really thought one of the Host could spring a trap on an Initiate, but… well. There were plenty of stories about the Chitauri possessing members of the Host, of experimenting on captured members of the Host, of many things that could all be a direct threat to the Host and the Initiates. And… yeah, Sabrael was fond of Coulson, even if the Host were discouraged from growing attached to mortals in any capacity.
Coulson stopped by the sword, which was plunged to the hilt in the rocky ground, and eyed it.
“Can you identify the sword?” Coulson asked, and Sabrael felt Coulson increase the bond between them. Obligingly, Sabrael psychically ‘felt’ his way down the bond and into Coulson’s eyes, to look out through the Initiate’s gaze at the artifact before him.
It was instinct that had Sabrael leaping mentally out of Coulson’s mind and eyes instantaneously and bringing his bow up and loosing, all in a matter of seconds. Instinct, as well, that had his mottled brown wings spread as he launched himself off the roof, twisting to loose another arrow since he had seen that his first one had been snatched out of the air by a huge, broad hand.
“Peace! Hold your fire, little cousin!”
Sabrael paused, wings pumping to keep him hovering, arrow still drawn, and stared in shock at the huge, winged form standing where he had been moments before. The hair was a little longer, there was a scar across the bridge of the nose, but he knew this person. And if this man was here, then that down there…
Sabrael swallowed and did his best not to think about what would have happened if he had actually killed this man.
“I take it you know this particular member of the Host?” Coulson’s dry voice echoed in Sabrael’s ears.
Licking his lips, Sabrael relaxed his grip on the arrow and shoved it back into his quiver. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Yeah, I do. And that means that that down there is Michael’s sword.”
“The state of this world is… troubling to mine eyes,” Michael said soberly, fists braced on the table where Head Initiate Fury and Initiate Coulson had placed the few maps that had been made after the Chitauri invasion.
“We’ve been doing what we can to contain the Chitauri, but without a concentrated effort into the Hinterlands, we have no way of knowing where their portals are located. They’ve learned not to place them up in the sky anymore – we found one in the old subway system here in New York City. Putting the portals on the ground – that’s new. Until recently, we didn’t even think it was possible.”
Michael stared solemnly down at the paper and sighed, pushing off the table and rubbing the back of his neck. Sabrael sat on one of the beams up above, watching closely, as the large man folded his arms. “My kith and I, the stronger members of the Host – we lost many, in the first push against the Chitauri. But we had removed their portal. We had killed their queen. We… retired, leaving the rest of the Host to aid in the reconstruction. And yet no reconstruction has taken place, not in truth. Instead, it seems, you have been battling alone for decades.”
With a small movement, one that Sabrael knew indicated discomfort on Coulson’s part, Coulson tapped one of the maps carefully. “On the whole, we have rebuilt what we need. We’ve gotten the technology we need to in order to remain safe. The members of the Host who were here were most helpful. It wasn’t their fault the Chitauri learned to move their portals elsewhere, where no one would notice.”
Apparently, Michael was either empathic – something Sabrael couldn’t rule out, though it was extremely rare, especially with the more powerful members of the Host – or just more attuned to humans than most of the Host were, because he winced lightly. “Ah. I meant no offense, Initiate. I just wish – well. Wishing will not change the past. I shall gather my kith and we shall rally forth. There must be an underlying force pushing the Chitauri to continue. This long, drawn-out warfare is beyond their mettle and ways.”
“Well, any help you can hand down to us,” Fury grunted, looking over the maps. “We know about several low-emitting portals, but they’ve got to have a more sophisticated portal that actually lets them walk through, not just body-hop. Otherwise we’d have exterminated them all by now, and we haven’t.”
Michael nodded. “I shall consult with the members of the Host still on this plane, and then I shall retrieve the necessary warriors to lead a concentrated search upon this earth.”
There couldn’t be any clearer of a dismissal – Coulson, at least, picked up on that and inclined his head, turning to leave. Fury didn’t, or rather, Fury picked up on it and couldn’t care less about it. Sabrael suppressed a snort and propped his chin on the heel of his hand. After Coulson was gone, Fury turned to Michael and put his hands on his hips, looking for all the world like a man who was scolding his child.
Which, not good. Michael was one of ye olde timers, who protected mortals but knew his station was above them. Sabrael shifted nervously. He’d sworn an oath to defend the Initiates of this chapel, and, well, if it came to a dust-up between him and Michael…
Michael’s gaze flickered up – Sabrael froze – before turning to look at Fury levelly. “You wish me to explain the Host to you?”
“I want to know why the hell you haven’t moved your ass on this already. The Host revealed themselves for the sole reason, I thought, to keep mortals alive. And so the minute you shut down the portal and drop the reason the portal existed in the first place into our oceans, that job was over? No more reason to stick around? No reason to think that not all the Chitauri died?”
Michael unfolded his arms, face solemn and just a little haughty. “I need not explain the intricacies of the Host to mortals, Head Initiate Nicholas Fury. I need not make excuses. You and yours deserve nothing more than that.”
Sabrael swallowed and prepared to jump between a superior officer and the Head Initiate, praying that Michael remembered him enough to not actually do any lasting harm.
“However – I understand your anger. And while I do not have to answer to you, I will do so. You think that this battle lies here, on this world. You do not have the scope and concept of the Chitauri – the scope of the universe, and the worlds we are sworn to protect. The lesser Host remain here, bound to this plane and this universe, but for someone like I, I am sworn to turn my attention to many worlds. And, I confess, we believed there was no way for the Chitauri to become as clever as they have. Someone or something is using them as a tool, and I must report this to my superiors. Rest assured, Head Initiate, the Host will strive to keep humans alive and safe – but we are by no means obligated to do so. We do so because we want to, and the minute we stop wanting to, we are allowed to lay down our arms and continue our existence elsewhere.”
Fury stared hard at Michael a long moment before giving a short nod. “Fair enough. But frankly, Mikey, I don’t like the idea that you’ll just waltz in when it suits you to do so. Commitment means something. I’m scrambling here to protect civilians and establish a safe zone. I’m doing my best to reunite the east and west coasts, hell, to get communications with Europe and Asia and Africa back up. So far the only reliable means of communication and firepower we have are the members of the Host that you left here – left, without any backup and any help. No way to return to wherever you’re from.”
“I assure you, all members of the Host—”
“Don’t bullshit me. After the last big battle, after the first Chitauri war, you and Gabrael disappeared. All the heavy-hitters did. You think I didn’t realize what happened when Sabrael and Razial both were unable to get in contact with their superiors? What it meant when Ourael suddenly couldn’t help me anymore if I wanted something analyzed by your healers? You left them swinging in the wind, and even if you won’t stir your mighty ass for us humans, you shouldn’t have left them here alone. They weren’t equipped to being cut off. So many disappeared, Michael. So many just stopped caring and died, through careless or reckless acts, or through apathy.”
For a long moment, Michael held Fury’s gaze, and Sabrael barely breathed, thinking back to all those years, those seventy long years of no contact, no knowledge, of losing the comfort and security of the High Plane. Thinking back to how he had clung to Razial, and she to him, huddling together to outlast the storm that was isolation.
He knew Fury cared, probably more than any human should have, about him and Razial. Knew, too, that Coulson and Hill might not always like it (Hill more than Coulson), but they humored him and Razial often enough. They gave them more freedom, allowed Razial to travel as she needed and allowed Sabrael to disappear as he needed. The humans at this chapel genuinely cared for their two members of the Host – which was more than could be said about most chapels, and most members of the Host. He and Razial had gotten lucky. They were both high-maintenance, needing an Initiate to handle the both of them because separating them also separated their minds, and that was something they could not survive. Most chapels would have dismissed them, or forced them to separate. And all chapels required the Host to be on call at any time to deal with any threat.
Michael finally looked away, mouth tightening. “I – apologize. You are right, of course. I could explain the grand reasons for this, explain that all members of the Host are supposed to do what happened here, but you are right in assuming that the lesser members of the Host are more ill-equipped to handle it than our more powerful members.”
“Like yourself,” Fury interjected.
With a tight incline of his head, Michael murmured, “Like myself.”
“What really happened these past seventy years, since we’re all in the spirit of cooperation and sharing secrets?” Fury pressed. “Why stand with us through one big battle and then leave?”
Heaving a sigh, Michael walked around the table, letting his fingers drag over leather maps and parchment scrolls. “It was a very costly battle. Your world, before then, had never been a viable option for the Chitauri. They were focused on other planets in this system, and we were battle-fatigued from them. When they attacked here, they didn’t just attack here.”
Sabrael could remember that – could think back to the very minute that all of the Host had realized the Chitauri attacks had been petering out because they had been gearing up for this big confrontation. That the Chitauri were attacking throughout the entire planetary system, and while yes, the biggest push had been on a backwater planet no one had suspected the Chitauri would even bother to notice, let alone breech the thick veil between that world and the Chitauri’s dimension – that was just the icing on a very messed up, very painful cake.
So many had died, in that battle that lasted no more than a day but took out more than half of the Host. Quite a few of the great members of the Host had been lost – Gabrael, Urial, Raphael. Gabrael had been lost on this very planet, in fact, and he knew that Michael had mourned the loss of his closest brother deeply, especially since Lucael had come back from his captors colder, more ruthless. No wonder Michael had left this world as soon as possible; the memories it held couldn’t be good.
“In the end, we needed to replenish our ranks, and train the new members. There is a new Raphael, for example, and I have been extensively training him to be able to handle the power he now holds. And, I will admit, we took advantage of the fact that our sensors on the High Plane never registered another Chitauri invasion. No new portals appeared, no concerted effort to breech the veil between dimensions occurred.”
Fury frowned at Michael. “The last battle didn’t end the Chitauris. In fact, more have appeared now than ever, controlling humans, sometimes even living behind human eyes. Yeah, maybe there aren’t that many Chitauri walking around in their original form, but they never left this world.”
Michael nodded solemnly. “Which, to me, means that either they have found a way to mask their energy from the High Plane – unlikely, as you humans still use our sensors to identify a Chitauri hiding in a human skin – or that the portals they opened that we closed on that day were not the only portals they opened. And those other portals have remained open, as no one knew about them to close them, making your planet the only gateway between the Chitauri dimension and this middle plane of existence.”
“Well.” Fury looked over the table and grimaced. “Shit.”
“What do you do up here, little brother?”
Sabrael tilted his head at Michael and spread his arms expansively to encompass the wooden beams and narrow walkways, all hidden in shadow. “Just chill. Hang out. Catch a few z’s. The usual.”
Michael quirked an odd look at Sabrael. “You are using human colloquialisms.”
“Yeah,” Sabrael grunted, turning back to the mess of blankets he had fashioned into a hammock, up in the rafters over the main room in the chapel. He liked being here, in the high ceilings, the warmth and noise below him – it never really got quiet in the chapel, and sometimes you would hear the children sing and hum, and he could listen to the comings and goings of the Apprentices, Initiates, and the common civilians. No one ever noticed him up here, and when he wasn’t on missions, well…
“You have found yourself very close to these humans. To this chapel, specifically. And you still scent of Razial. She stays with you?”
“We work together. We work well together, so we work together. And we cover a lot more territory than New York,” Sabrael said defensively.
“It was not—” Michael bit his lip and cleared his throat. “I merely ask because I – we worked together, once. Sabrael. Clint.”
Sabrael blinked at his human name, the first time in nearly seventy years that he heard it aloud and not through his mental connection to Razial or from Initiate Coulson. “We did, once,” he replied, but his voice was distracted as he narrowed his eyes at Michael. “You – you had two brothers. Close brothers, I mean, since I know we’re all supposed to be family through the Host.”
“Aye,” Michael said softly, sitting on a beam and looking down at the movement of humans below them. “I did.”
Sabrael swallowed. He hadn’t – he hadn’t had any direct interaction with any other members of the Host since all the big dogs slunk off of Earth after that last battle, and it took him a while to place his memories, line them up. “I remember their rank. I remember Lucael, and Gabrael. I don’t… I don’t remember their human names. Or yours.” His voice trailed off, and he cleared his throat. “It has been very long since I last saw you.”
“Lucael… did not come down. He does not believe that the Chitauri managed to steal my weapon, even though it was too powerful for them to move. He thinks instead that I dropped it a-purpose, because I always held a fascination for humanity that Lucael disdained.”
The words tugged out a memory, and Sabrael leaned forward in his nest of blankets, chin propped up on the heel of his palms. “Thor,” he said slowly. “Your name was Thor.”
“Is,” Michael corrected gently. “We do not lose our names when we become of the Host, merely take on new ones as befitting our new ranks.”
“It’s been a long time since I was Clint in any capacity,” Sabrael mused quietly, thinking of the human name that had been lost to everyone except those closest to him. “I’d like to think the fallible part of my being disappeared and left me strong.”
Michael hummed under his breath, his slate-grey wings dipped with a soft light blue fanning out of his back and gently stirring the air around them, much larger than Sabrael’s own. “The moment we think ourselves infallible because of our rank is the moment we fall the hardest,” he murmured.
“Your close brothers were Loki. Loki, and Steve,” Sabrael continued.
Those blue eyes turned to focus on Sabrael with laser-like intensity. “That is their names, yes, though Steve fell into the ocean and has not been seen for these seventy years.”
Sabrael watched Michael – Thor – for a long while before mantling his spotted brown wings and shifting uneasily in his seat. “Why are you here, Michael? I doubt that the Chitauri really managed to breech the High Plane and steal your very sword, not without alerting everyone up there. It really is more likely that you dropped it, as Lucael mentioned. And if you dropped it – why not take it, and return? Why stay here?”
“There are greater things happening in the wider world, little cousin,” Michael sighed. “You, your Initiates here, all of you focus on the immediate. On the quick patch to fix what had been broken. And I have to say that I am disappointed that the Host left here on Earth remained scattered, broken, and adrift. Unwilling to help one another protect this planet.”
Sabrael’s shoulders hunched up, wings spreading instinctively, even as he replied flatly, “Not so much unwilling as unable. Earth had a population of over fifteen billion at the time of the war – afterwards, yeah, it had been whittled down a few billion, but there’s still an easy seven billion living in the world. The Chitauri have seven billion minds and bodies to play with, and do you want to know how many of the Host were left here? No more than two thousand, for all of the world and all of its cities and all of its wild spaces. We’re stuck playing catch-up and trying to find all the artifacts the Chitauri have stolen, on top of finding a portal and convincing enough of the Host to help us close it – because those portals don’t close easy. Believe me, I’ve tried. Beyond that, the Chitauri have been whittling us down. We may have started out with two thousand, but I’m willing to bet there’s not more than five hundred or so still alive and sane today. The Chitauri have been experimenting, you know. They infect human minds, and they’ve learned to infect ours. I’ve had to personally put down members of the Host that were being controlled by a Chitauri spirit. Those of us that could find a city and claim a territory to protect did so, and we protect the land we take as fiercely as we can. Sure, we’re not as connected as we should be, but you know what?” Leaning forward, Sabrael bared his teeth in a parody of a smile. “I think we’ve done a damn fine job keeping most of humanity alive and stemming the flow of Chitauri over this planet.”
For a long moment, there was no sound, only the harsh breathing of Sabrael and the soft rustle of Michael’s wings. Then, Michael nodded slowly. “You are correct, of course, brother. And while it pains me to reveal this – for I had been commanded not to – there is a larger reason for why I’m here, beyond my own personal one. Lucael only knows of the personal reason, and did not agree with and thinks I am on a fool quest. No doubt he is right, in some measure. But the Supervisor directly summoned me, and told me that Earth is the source of Chitauri infestations within the outer worlds. If we, members of the Host, do not make it clear that we managed to clear away the consistent Chitauri excursions and remove their capability of using this world as a bridge-point, the Supervisor is going to give this world up for naught and destroy it.”
Sabrael’s mouth fell open.
“And the deeper, most personal reason,” Michael continued, “is that the Host has begun to get small radiation signatures from the ocean to the north – where Gabrael went down, and the most prized artifact of the Host lays buried in the deep. Perhaps Gabrael still lives. Or perhaps it is the artifact itself that our instruments are reading. In any case, it is something that needs to be looked into, no matter that our brethren believe it to be no more than a fluke. And as much as you and Loki believe I would simply drop my sword like a careless child, it was not my fault that led it to be buried in that wasteland in which you found me. Something is not right on the High Plane, and I worry that one of our brethren have been corrupted by the Chitauri menace. But how do I check for such a thing? We left all such scans and tests with the humans on this plane of existence. And again, who do I insult in such a manner? Which of our brethren, who have survived being tortured by the Chitauri, do I dare imply they may be tainted? Do I instead look amongst those who fought at the front lines, with the most contact?”
Sabrael stared at Michael.
With a studied, careful measure of casualness, Michael shrugged one shoulder and rubbed at the back of his neck, golden strands of hair tangling around thick fingers. “I did not take my sword and return to the High Plane, Sabrael, Clint, my brother, because something is coming, and I can feel it stronger here on this plane of existence than the High Plane. Something that the Supervisor also noticed, and is preparing against. And because I think perhaps we can end this if we strike preemptively.”
Swallowing, Sabrael cleared his throat and ventured, “How do you intend to do that, by yourself?”
“You said it yourself, brother; there are members of the Host all around this planet. I was not lying to your leader when I said I would speak with the members of the Host still left on this planet. I hope that if I raise my sword in battle, they will join by my side.”
Sabrael laughed bitterly. “That’s highly optimistic, Thor,” he said, dropping the title and switching to Michael’s true name. “Everyone here has carved out a place for themselves, a safe zone that rarely, if ever, touches another member’s safe zone. There are only a few members who willingly travel through the Wastes, because it is there that Chitauri lie in wait for lone members of the Host and take them down. You raise your sword, you’ll be lucky to get more than three to show up behind your banner. And that’s including me and Razial.” Hunching his shoulders, wings drawn in against his back, he looked down at the people who moved slow below them, listened to the chatter that echoed through the wide chamber and vaulted ceiling.
“I can but try,” Michael sighed. “Your chapel here has very complete maps. Perhaps I can use those maps to contact our kin, once I look into Gabrael’s final resting place.”
“That radiation might just be from the artifact,” Sabrael couldn’t help but point out.
Michael licked his lips. “Aye.”
“So, it sounds like the guy just wants to reconnect with you guys that are still here on Earth.”
“Yeah, but…” Sabrael was lying on his stomach on Phil’s bed, feet kicking lazily in the air, as he twitched his wings. “I know we don’t like you guys calling us angels and thinking we’re sent by some godly power, but we do have ranks. Not – not the archangels of Judeo-Christian religion, but we definitely have a kind of ‘warrior’ class. He’s the – the head of it. The biggest, the strongest, the one least likely to – to notice us.”
Phil, sitting at his desk and finishing up the reports for the day, paused and glanced over at Sabrael. Clint, here in Phil’s rooms, though it had been a long time since Phil had used that name aloud. He rarely needed to, after all – Clint and Razial, known as Natasha, were so closely attuned to Phil’s moods that Phil never even needed to look at them to have their attention when he wanted it. “Perhaps you only thought so,” he said. “He seems very interested in traveling the world and finding the others, talking to them.”
Clint snorted. “I think he’s more focused on Gabrael, actually. And why shouldn’t he? Gabrael’s the only one here that really is worth anything, if you’re looking for strength. The rest of us have our quirks and selling points but we’d never be on the level Michael needs to eradicate the Chitauri presence here.”
Phil watched Clint’s wings twitched, considering his words carefully. Having been the Initiate wearing both Razial and Sabrael’s medallions for just over ten years now, he had come to know more about them than they expected. There were times, such as when Natasha listened to classical music, or Clint read some of the old fiction books preserved in the ancient library, where they were solidly Natasha and Clint, their titles forgotten in their pleasure. There were other times, such as when Natasha had to deal with tunnels or enclosed spaces, or when Clint had to get in water to swim or hide, when their titles also fell away and fear made them shake down to their bones. He’d gotten a feel for which time was which, for when it was alright to address them with their names and when he had to use their title to keep them strong.
Now, Clint was just Clint – and using Clint’s title might be comforting to Clint but it also would be doing him a disservice, by making the topic impersonal when it was in fact highly personal and relevant. “You’ve worked with Michael before, Clint?” he asked quietly.
Clint’s wings twitched, and for a moment it looked like he considered rolling onto his side and ignoring Phil’s words. Then he took a steadying breath and shook his head. “No. No, I haven’t. I mean, I heard of him, but never… direct work with him.”
“Have you worked with the warrior class often?” Phil asked curiously. Other members of the Host might have found that rude, but this was a valuable opportunity to learn more about the hierarchy and interactions of the Host that Phil wasn’t going to pass up.
Clint stared at the wall for a long moment before licking his lips. “Not often. Most of us are – cannon fodder. Soldiers that are there to make sure that the warriors don’t die. And – okay, I get that they’re more powerful, they often have terrific powers – Michael can summon lightning, if he desires, and I think Gabrael can compel the truth from everyone he meets while they speak to him and is much stronger, physically and mentally speaking. I’ve worked with a few other warriors, but they don’t… pay attention to us. They’re much bigger, much brighter. They’re suns in the solar system and we’re moons that reflect their light.”
Phil couldn’t resist the soft pain in Clint’s voice. As an Initiate who traveled fairly extensively before the Wastes and the unsafe territories, he had met with many different smaller members of the Host. Each one had had their own skills, their own abilities – Zaphkael, for example, was a mechanical genius who could bend and twist the laws of science to force electronics to work the way he wanted them to, and Clint himself had the ability to see and hear things most members of the Host couldn’t, let alone humans. Natasha could wrap shadows around her body and disappear in the middle of the room if it was shadowy enough. All these skills were vastly underrated by the members of the Host who had them, and part of that was because they had lower titles. The high-titled members of the Host – Gabrael, Michael, Raphael, Azrael, and others – had awe-inspiring powers that gave a good reason for humans to think of members of the Host as gods or angels.
He moved over to the bed and put a soft hand on his lover’s shoulder, being careful to avoid the feathers. That was an intimate move that most members of the Host only tolerated in a sexual setting, and that wasn’t the type of intimacy Phil was aiming for right now.
Clint turned his head to meet Phil’s eyes.
“Nothing I can do,” Phil said softly, “can keep you from thinking what you are. But I have said it before, and I’ll say it now – what you do here, with me and Natasha and all the other members of the Host who are fighting tooth and nail to keep their territories safe, it is important. It is necessary. And humans might be dazzled by the warrior class, and focus on them, but it is your strength and your skill that keeps them alive from day to day.”
Clint smiled, warmth creeping into his eyes and his tension melting from his back and shoulders. “Thanks, Phil. I know – I know you and a lot of the Chapels think we’re one body, working together, but I’m sure Michael will focus on Gabrael first and only contact other members of the Host as an afterthought. And I can’t blame him. If I’d lost Natasha, and had a chance to see her or get her back, I’d focus on her too.”
With a small snort, Phil leaned down and pressed a kiss to the corner of Clint’s mouth. “I think you and Natasha are much different than Michael and Gabrael.”
Clint let out a rough chuckle. “I’d hope so, Phil,” he began, but Phil gently nudged Clint over on the bed, rolling him so that he was on his back, wings delicately folded so as not to be twisted or crushed one way or the other. With one hand braced on the headboard, the other curling around the two medallions around Phil’s neck that represented the foci for his mental connection to both Clint and Natasha, Phil lowered his lips to Clint’s and kissed softly into those plush lips.
What if I had been in a delicate situation?
Phil smiled at Natasha’s clipped voice ringing through his mind, even as Clint’s smile tugged up into a smirk. If you had been, he murmured mentally as he slipped onto the bed, Clint scooting to one side to make room for Phil, you would have ignored my query.
You two will be the death of me, she replied, and Clint laughed as Phil straddled his waist and kissed Clint far more thoroughly, letting his hands wander to Clint’s stomach and creep up underneath the cloth. And while Natasha couldn’t join them physically, she could share in their pleasure and pleasure herself in turn, their three minds joined together far more intimately than most Initiates and Host members ever were joined.
Initiate Phillip Coulson had worked his way up the ranks of Initiates to the point he was today – second only to the head priest of their chapel, the only Initiate ever to be linked to two of the Host, one of only five people in this world that ranked as top scholars on the Host, and all in all a skilled fighter, able to hold his own against Chitauri-strengthened hosts, Chitauri, and even the Host themselves. It was sobering to realize that he could still turn into a gleeful Recruit by the presence of one of the Host.
Then again, meeting Gabrael, the second most powerful angel in the Host and Phil’s personal hero, was not something that happened every day.
Phil paused, mentally correcting himself. Members of the Host disliked being called angels strongly; they claimed no closeness to any deity, no superhuman knowledge. They abhorred the worshipful actions some humans lavished upon them. The proper title for all of them was ‘member of the Host,’ or, depending on how close you were to them, ‘winged ones.’ Those that loved the attention and craved it were those that took advantage of their power and strength for monetary gain. They could be good fighters, but often they were looked upon as hedonistic fallen members of the Host who were slumming and soiling their purpose with the filth of this world.
(Then again, Phil really couldn’t blame Zaphkael all that much – he knew what had happened to that particular member of the Host.)
Phil knew all this intimately, of course. He had a relationship with Razial and Sabrael, after all. Beyond that, he knew they hated to be called angels and eschewed all connections to a deity. That didn’t change the fact that Phil had grown up with stories about the white-winged angel who was kind to all humans and a protector of the bullied and victims of this world. He had grown up on stories about Gabrael, about his selflessness and his heroics, about his sacrifice to take down the artifact of the Host that had been perverted by the Chitauri to open a portal from the Chitauri home world to Earth. And now to find out that Gabrael had not died, and instead had remained encased in ice, lost as his power slowly regenerated enough for him to be found by a fellow warrior…
“Geez, Phil, calm down,” Sabrael muttered.
Phil shot Sabrael a lofty look, smoothing his fingers over the two medallions that allowed him to connect to Sabrael and Razial. “No need to be jealous – you will always be my personal member of the Host,” he teased lightly.
Sabrael, dressed today in a sleeveless vest and thick black denim, arched his wings and preened.
Phil turned his attention back to Fury and Michael, both of which were quietly bringing Gabrael up to speed about the world and all that had happened. Gabrael had already been hit with the hardest news – that Initiate Margaret Carter had passed on, that his closest friend Chaylael had fallen in battle, that his close companion Ourael had gone to the west coast and then had proceeded to be cut off from the east coast by the ever-growing Wastes and unsafe zones.
“And now?” Gabrael asked, when Fury and Michael fell silent. “What now?”
“Now,” Michael said heavily, “we have to figure out how the Chitauri are climbing into this world hand over fist, and at least close off the portals they have hidden. And then, brother, we clean up this world bit by bit.”
Gabrael stared heavily at the maps, at the grim reports of increased Chitauri incursions and possessions, at the sheer amount of land lost to the Wastes, at the cold, blunt refusals sent back from most all other members of the Host. “And what then? When does this end?” he asked tiredly. “The war was supposed to be over. We were supposed to have saved this world, and moved on to the next.”
Michael placed a large hand against Gabrael’s shoulder, thumb caressing the joint that connected Gabrael’s huge white wings – as pure white as the clear moon – and sighed. “I know, my brother. And I understand.”
Head Initiate Fury cleared his throat and turned to Sabrael, who was standing in the shadowed corner of the room. “The artifact Michael brought back – it’s under guard, in the basement. Can you go and look it over, give us some idea of what it can do? How it was perverted, and how to cleanse it of the Chitauri’s manipulations.”
Sabrael bowed his head and moved to the door, even as Phil cleared his throat and stepped forward.
“Not all of the Host still on Earth denied us help, of course. And while Michael was searching the ocean for you, I and my team were looking at the most likely sources of Chitauri access points, trying to gather as much information as possible in order to find the easiest way to undo what the Chitauri have done. I believe we have found something that may make all of this easier.”
Gabrael’s deep blue eyes swiveled to Phil and narrowed in on him. “And you are?”
“Initiate Phil Coulson. I grew up hearing stories about you, Gabrael.”
Phil could have bitten his tongue in two at hearing those words fall off his tongue. As it was, Fury raised an eyebrow at Phil, and Michael looked amused. Gabrael just looked wary.
Clearing his throat, Phil reached into his satchel and pulled out the two rolls of parchment and the thin leather hide that he had compiled all his reports on and organized all the information. “You can look through that, see what we found,” he said, trying to maintain some dignity.
Fury, of course, knew about Phil, Razial, and Sabrael’s excursion into the Wastes in the north and to the west, so it was Michael who unrolled the first parchment, brow furrowed. Gabrael scrubbed a hand over his face and then let out a sigh. “You said your team? And you wear two medallions. That seems odd. Most people can barely handle one member of the Host within their mind and sharing their private thoughts.”
Phil smiled, just a little. “Well, it’s not like Razial and Sabrael are difficult to handle.”
With a sharp glance over at Fury, Gabrael turned back to Phil and studied him a long moment before spreading his hands, his wings lifting and fluttering at the movement. “What can I hope to do? An old warrior like myself, so out of step and time?” He paused and looked around the room, face bitter. “There’s no one here to link a medallion to me, and without a handler you might as well just have an everyday member of the Host instead of me. Michael’s the same. Just because we’re more powerful doesn’t mean we don’t need a handler to keep this plane from draining our magic.”
Phil bit his lip. He knew that every member of the Host needed an Initiate trained to handle the mental connection, but it had never been played off as something necessary to those of the Host except to give them companionship. At least, not by the higher levels of the Host. It was always portrayed as a link that the Initiates needed – a link that would allow them to gain speed and strength and sight, to have temporary small amounts of power in their grasp. He had known a handler was necessary for weaker members of the Host (if being Razial and Sabrael’s handler had only taught him one thing, it was that) and hadn’t planned on finding a handler for Gabrael, let alone Michael. If Michael and Gabrael needed a handler…
“Initiate Hill is trained to share the mental load with a member of the Host. As am I, in the old days before Sabrael and Razial settled down in this territory. We’ll initiate a link with you two, and hopefully be strong enough to give you what you need,” Fury interjected calmly.
Gabrael opened his mouth, to say what Phil wasn’t sure, but Michael grinned widely and clasped a hand to his heart with a loud slap. “Aye, this plan has merit! We will need to review these reports of yours, and summon forth the members of the Host who have not refused the call!”
Smiling, Phil began to move forward to the table, in hopes of explaining the plan that would make this world safe and permanently close down all access points the Chitauri had in their world. But something pulled at the back of his mind, something dark and dangerous, cold as ice, seeping through his heart and lungs in an instant. Eyes going wide, he stared at Fury in shock even as something screamed in his mind, screamed for help, for safety, for the self, and then went as silent as a tomb.
Blackness came, and was a relief.
Gabrael was – he wasn’t doing so well. Being pulled out of the ice and having the life slammed back into you by Michael could do that, he supposed. Part of the problem was the shock; after all, it felt like only days since he’d last seen Ourael, only hours since he’d seen Chaylael leave for battle. Mere minutes since he grabbed the Tes’rae from its altar and flew with it away, pursued by the hordes of Chitauri. His brethren had, of course, tried to keep them off of him, but his strength had been failing, the link between the High Plane and himself lessened by the artifact he carried, and he fell into the cold water with it still clutched in his hands.
The Tes’rae was an ancient power source, designed to open gates between planes of existence and allow members of the Host to travel from world to world in order to best defend the land. There were smaller, ‘mini’ Tes’raes, but this one had been the source, the link that all gates connected to, and it needed to be recovered at all costs.
He could remember the cold, the ice. The fears crowding at the forefront of his mind. The feeling of being torn free from his Initiate, Peggy, the only human he’d told his true name to and the person he’d come to love here on Earth.
Now they dragged him from what he had thought was his death, and told him he needed to fight once more.
He listened to Initiate Coulson – uncomfortably, because he could tell the man worshipped him, and it was dangerous allowing humans to worship you, as humans tended to tear down their idols faster than anything else – and slowly began to notice something dark creeping about the room. Something that Gabrael had felt before, years ago though it seemed only like seconds, a darkness that leeched all life and free will.
Gabrael’s wings snapped up, spreading like the sunrise behind him, even as Initiate Coulson gasped, eyes flying wide, and fell to the floor.
One of his medallions had turned a murky black.
With a muttered oath, Fury grabbed a sword from the wall and yanked a gun out of his thigh holster. Shoving through the doorway, he raced down the hall and towards a set of stairs, descending into what Gabrael assumed was the basement. Michael had fallen to Initiate Coulson’s side, grasping at the medallion and obviously trying to bring the Initiate around.
Gabrael, a warrior in heart and mind and deed, followed Initiate Fury.
The spiraling stairs led Gabrael deeper and deeper into the earth, and he came dashing around the corner just in time to see – to see Lucael, Loki – a hand pressed over Sabrael’s heart. Lucael’s wings were black dipped with red, an unnatural color that they hadn’t been before, and as Gabrael stared in shock Sabrael’s mottled brown wings darkened, blackened, and it was then that Gabrael realized a dark essence was oozing out of Lucael’s hand and into Sabrael’s flesh.
Possession, Gabrael thought immediately, and pulled on what little power he had at the moment to manifest his sword and leap at Lucael, past the fallen forms of Initiates and Recruits and the Head Initiate.
Lucael whipped around and laughed, hard and bright and sharp, before bringing his arm up. Gabrael’s sword hit Lucael’s guard and skidded to the side, which gave Lucael enough time to backhand him and knock him back.
Lucael and Michael were two of the oldest and strongest warriors. There wasn’t much Gabrael could hope to do, but he pushed himself off the floor and righted himself.
Lucael tilted his head, eyes glowing Chitauri-blue. “I thought you had died in the last battle,” he remarked blandly. “Ah well. We’ll be taking the Tes’rae, now.”
“What happened to the brother I remember, Lucael?” Gabrael demanded, moving a step forward.
Lucael’s lips twisted into a bitter grimace. “He became lost. He was weak. Now I am strong, and we are legion. We will devour this world and make it our own.”
Sabrael stepped up beside Lucael, eyes glowing the same blue, and Gabrael felt it tug at his chest, seeing such a young warrior twisted by Chitauri possession. “Join us, Gabrael. Brother. Join us and live – or perish here, on the floor, surrounded by humans.”
“Certainly think highly of yourself, don’t you?” Gabrael remarked with a sneer.
Lucael gave no warning, nothing at all, just was suddenly launching himself across the room with his knives flying forth from his fists. Gabrael caught one in the meat of his upper shoulder, dodged two others, and was nearly skewered through the heart by an arrow from Sabrael had Gabrael not been wearing his armor. As it was, the force of the arrow knocked Gabrael back to the doorway.
Which was when Michael thundered through, sword upraised.
Lucael took one look at Michael and grabbed at the back of Sabrael’s neck, dragging the younger member of the Host towards the Tes’rae. “It’s too late, in any case. You have failed to protect this realm.”
Grabbing the Tes’rae, Lucael activated it, and he and Sabrael were gone.
Michael stared at where they had been standing, swallowing convulsively. “Lucael,” he whispered. “Loki.”
“Brother—” Gabrael began, trying to hold back his moans of pain.
Michael whipped to face Gabrael, with such a heartbroken expression that Gabrael immediately put his hand out. “Thor,” he whispered.
“Loki did this, Steve,” Michael gasped. “Loki – must have thrown my sword to this plane. Why? I knew the Chitauri could not storm my quarters without outside help. I thought maybe one of the lesser members, twisted by past torture, suddenly taking revenge, not… not my brother. Steve, Loki did this.”
“No, Michael. Thor. It was not Loki.”
At that, Michael seemed to shake himself out of his shock and grief to stare harshly at Gabrael. “I know what I saw, Steve, and—”
“His eyes were blue.”
That gave Michael pause. After a moment, he ventured, “Loki’s eyes are changeable, and not always as green from afar as they are when you view them closely.”
Gabrael barely refrained from rolling his eyes – apparently, Michael and Lucael were still a thing, nice to know not all things changed when one went to sleep for seventy years – and instead shook his head. “Sabrael had brown eyes, and just now, they were glowing blue as well. They were possessed, Michael.”
It took Michael a few more moments, and then he shook his head slowly. “The barriers between the High Plane and this plane of existence are carefully guarded, and I know that Lucael has not ventured to this plane in decades.”
“I tell you only what I know,” Gabrael groaned, limping. He had forgotten how much wounds hurt when he was unable to heal them immediately. “In any case, they have the Tes’rae, and the ability to allow the Chitauri portals to become permanent the minute Lucael unlocks the Tes’rae secrets. We need to look over the information Initiate Coulson provided us with, find handlers, and then summon those members that will come and retrieve the Tes’rae.”
Razial paused, balanced as she was on the roof of this warehouse. “I’m here, Phil,” she murmured almost soundlessly. “I’m working. Pinning down the last link, remember?”
“Sabrael’s been taken.”
Razial felt her heart leap into her chest. Deep blue velvet wings folded and spread nervously, shifting as her emotions jumped within. Outwardly, there was no change, and this high up no one would see the movement of her wings.
“How was he taken?” Razial managed to ask.
There was a pause, and guilt came across the mental link so thick that she could practically taste its sour and sharp aftertaste. “When Michael found Gabrael, he brought back an important artifact as well – the Tes’rae? And Sabrael was guarding it.”
Razial cursed in a language unfamiliar to earth and turned on her heel, silently padding back towards the edge of the roof. “How are we going to get him back?”
“I don’t know,” Phil whispered, and she could almost see his tongue darting out to the corner of his lips, wetting them, a nervous tic very few knew about.
“I’m on my way back. We’ve got a good enough estimate to know what they’re doing and how to stop it. We don’t need this.”
“No – Razial, I called because Michael and Gabrael want to pull together members of the Host here on earth and build a task force to find the Tes’rae, bring it back.”
Razial couldn’t stop the small huff of laughter from escaping her lips, even as her stocking-clad feet hit the shadowed edge of the roof and her wings pumped powerfully to carry her away from the warehouse. “Who does he think will come? Baruchial? Hadranial? Hazial? Maybe Omael?”
“If we can guarantee their territory safety, I believe those ones will come – but for right now, Gabrael believes a small taskforce is necessary to respond quickly. And I know you are out in the Northern Wild.”
With a frown, Razial landed in her small nest, set atop the clock in the center of the tiny, now-abandoned, town. There she began packing, mulling over Phil’s words, even as she quickly and competently packed up her belongings and slung the pack onto her back, between her wings. “Why would my being in the Northern – oh no. Really?”
“We need him,” Phil said, and Razial could practically taste his desperation. “We need him, because he can confirm what we’re looking for, and he was one of the best. I’ve got in contact with the west coast already.”
“Do you honestly think they can work on a team with me? Let alone Gabrael? You know his resentments, and the big guy’s fears,” she cautioned.
“It’s necessary. And Razial?”
She hesitated, on the edge of the clock tower and ready to take off. “Yes?”
“Be – be careful.”
She bit her lip, knowing what it must have been like to feel Sabrael – Clint – disappear from his mind and be taken over by a Chitauri. “I’ll do my best.”
With that, she adjusted her course and began to fly, black pants and shirt helping her to blend in with the night sky as she made her way deeper into the Northern Wild, looking for someone that most of the Host tried regularly to forget.
Kalazael felt his nose twitch and did his best to itch at it without getting the sap on his fingertips on his nose – it wouldn’t kill him, of course, or even paralyze him, but no one wanted to have dirt on their nose when they meet such an important visitor.
He chuckled darkly and stirred the boiling pot another moment before turning back to his experiment.
Though he wished she’d just come out of the trees and face him. He could be intimidating, yes, and he knew that he would never again be able to return to humanity or civilization until he managed to figure out the cure for what had been done to him, but she was one of the elite, a skilled warrior. Surely she should be better than this.
He switched back to the pot and froze.
Razial was sitting across the campfire, legs folded and wings neatly tucked against her back.
“I see you came out,” Kalazael murmured, taking off the thin-wire glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “It was getting tiresome to pretend I couldn’t smell you.”
That gave Razial pause – after all, only the Chitauri could scent members of the Host in the way that Kalazael implied – but she shook it off admirably well and said quietly, “The New York Chapel is assembling a team to retrieve the Tes’rae from possessed brothers of ours.”
Kalazael blinked at her a long moment before letting out a breathless laugh. “All the bad news up front, huh?” he asked, rubbing the back of his neck. After a moment where she didn’t reply, he sighed and stirred the pot again before motioning to the two crudely fashioned bowls. “Take one. You might as well eat while you’re here.”
“We need to move quickly on this. We have a few days at the most before the Chitauri manage to stabilize their portals into something permanent. My handler and I think we’ve found a way to collapse all the portals, but we’ll need the Tes’rae for it.”
“It’s nice that you still call me brother, lump me in with the rest of you,” Kalazael murmured, as if he hadn’t heard Razial. “So many others refused to do so. Then again, they’d seen what I am up close. I’m pretty sure you’ve only heard rumors about my… condition. Would you be singing the same tune if I transformed, do you think?”
“I think we need you. Not to remove you, or to cage you, or to condemn you. We need someone able to pull together the information we gathered.”
Kalazael looked up at her, hazel eyes flashing green-blue momentarily before he bared his teeth in something that couldn’t really be called a smile. “Because what the Chitauri did to me, you think I can track them down.”
“I think – and my handler agrees – that you know more about the inner workings about them than anyone else, and you can tell us whether we’ve managed to figure out a way to permanently close down the portals. All of them.” Delicately, she picked up the bowl and held it out for him to serve her food.
For a moment, he stared at her, and then he let out a snort. “You can’t ever permanently close the portals. They’ve anchored them too firmly—”
“In aural radiating wavelengths, yes, we’ve figured that out. But aural radiating wavelengths have to emit from somewhere. All gates pass through the Tes’rae, and the aural spectrum originates from building gates. If we can lock down the Tes’rae, we can lock down their gates.” She stared at him with steady eyes, short red hair curling about delicate ears, wings relaxed.
He refused to let hope spring in his heart. Fifty years hunted and shunned by his own kind had taught him that the Host had as little use for him as the Chitauri did now, and both saw him as a hybrid abomination that didn’t deserve to live. “It’s possible. Feasible. You’ll want someone with a better grasp on the mechanisms of the Tes’rae. A scholar, a scientist.”
“And we’re convincing him to join us as we speak now.”
Kalazael narrowed his eyes at her, feeling his wings – oversized black and purple monstrosities that looked more like leather than feathers – shift in surprise. “He’ll never agree to it. He’s too firmly entrenched in the west to come over here. If the Tes’rae is even here. They could have taken it anywhere.”
At that, Razial looked into the dark wilderness around them, at the towering trees and cliff face, the flashes of light that came through the thick brush from the mutated animals that scurried and fought there. “No,” she said softly. “Because Lucael took my Sabrael, and the only reason he took Clint was because he needed him.” Her gaze turned back, and it was weighty there, the emotions tamped down but still present. “Otherwise, he would have killed Sabrael and been done with it. He nearly killed Gabrael, and Sabrael, for all his skill, is nowhere near Gabrael’s level.”
Kalazael stared at her in shock. “Gabrael died. I – saw him fall. In that final battle.”
“Not so final of a battle,” Razial sighed, lifting the bowl to her lips and sipping at the liquid broth. “And not so final of a death. It took Gabrael a long time to recover his power, recover enough of his power to give off enough of a signal that Michael noticed it, and went looking. There’s a lot more to speak of, Kalazael, but all of it boils down to the fact that we do need your help.”
“With Michael and Gabrael there – do you really think they’ll let me walk away at the end?” he said roughly, flexing his fingers and debating his course of action. “Do you really think they’ll accept me on this task force, work alongside me?”
“I wouldn’t be here if we weren’t going to guarantee your safety—”
“Don’t lie to me!” he snarled, wings spreading with a leather-like snap, shoving himself up off the ground.
Immediately, Razial rolled back, quick and nimble, gauntlets appearing on her arms as she stood, aiming the gauntlets at him.
He stared at her a moment before smiling. “I’m sorry. That was mean of me.”
She was breathing hard, wings trembling, angled to present a smaller target, hands rock steady, focused entirely on him. After a long moment, she let out a slow breath and murmured, “Stand down.”
His eyes darted into the dark, but whoever it was nearby, it was someone too far away for him to smell. He turned to look at her, tension coiling in his shoulders.
Taking in another steadying breath, she slowly let her signature weapons dissipate into the ether. “We need you, Bruce.”
He met her gaze calmly.
Phil Coulson took in a deep breath, rubbing at his forehead. Great distance between himself and Razial made it extremely difficult to offer her his strength, especially considering the immediateness of her need. But he hoped that Kalazael would agree, would come in. Michael and Razial would do their best, of course, and if he didn’t come, they could still probably pull it off, but Kalazael would help them complete it that much quicker.
Sabrael’s life was measured in days. Hours, maybe, but Phil couldn’t let himself think about that, not right now. He needed to believe that Sabrael would hold on and continue to be useful enough to Lucael – to whoever or whatever was controlling Lucael – so that he didn’t die.
Phil couldn’t keep Sabrael’s medallion around his neck, not while Sabrael was being controlled, otherwise he invited that possession to happen to himself, but he gripped the blackened medallion tight in his hand as he sat before the communication cube. Zaphkael was difficult to deal with on the best of times – trying to handle him when Phil was unbalanced like this was inviting trouble.
Pulling in a slow, considering breath, Phil activated the cube and keyed in the coordinates for the Malibu Chapel.
It took a moment of off-white clouds floating across the projected viewing screen before the room came into focus. It was an average Recruit, probably doing scut work for some infraction, but at least it wasn’t one of Zaphkael’s automated creations. All of them took deep pleasure in ignoring the New York Chapel’s Initiates, as per Zaphkael’s orders.
“I need to speak to the member of the Host, Zaphkael. Please inform him of my call.”
“Ah – yes, Initiate. Do you want me to patch you to his quarters? Or Initiate Potts’ personal receiver?”
Immediately, some tension drained from his shoulders. “Initiate Potts’ receiver, please.”
He knew Initiate Potts (Pepper); they had both studied in the Chicago Chapel, one of the oldest and biggest Chapels in the entire United States (though it fell not that long ago), before being moved in a caravan to their appointed Chapels. They hadn’t been very close, but they had worked together, learning the tricks of interacting with members of the Host, how to handle the mental load one of the Host placed on their handlers. As it was, Hill was still having trouble connecting with Michael, and Fury wasn’t much better with Gabrael. There were a few, like him and Pepper, who were excellent and skilled almost to an unnatural degree, and there were others who would never pass the trials no matter how much they studied or learned. Pepper probably deserved sainthood for putting up with the hedonistic Zaphkael; it was difficult for Phil to handle both Sabrael and Razial, true, but he’d take the both of them over Zaphkael any day.
Which was being mildly uncharitable towards the member of the Host, but Zaphkael took pride in making people react to him in such a way.
The screen shifted, refocusing to a large room overlooking the sea. Zaphkael’s quarters, he thought, and winced. If he was interrupting Pepper in one of her many moments of trying to get Zaphkael to do something, she wouldn’t be happy to see him either.
“Tell him I don’t want to talk to his emotionless face!”
Pepper Potts came into view, the angle of the receiver showing her face and the ceiling behind her and not much else. At the moment she was frowning past the receiver, to where the off-camera voice had shouted. “Behave, Zaphkael,” she said sternly.
“And how are you doing today, Initiate Potts?” he asked, letting the corner of his mouth twitch up in amusement.
Her eyes shifted to focus on him and a tired, worn smile appeared on her face. “I’m doing as well as can be expected, I suppose. How are you, Phil?”
“Why is he ‘Phil’?! His name is Initiate!”
Pepper ignored the shout, even as Phil smiled. “I’m doing – as well as I can be. I need you, Initiate, and your member of the Host, to travel to New York as soon as possible.”
“What? What did he say? Pep, Pepper, Pepperpot, stop holding it away from me, you are a very bad Initiate—”
“That seems very sudden, Phil,” Pepper said, talking over Zaphkael’s interjections, and Phil saw the tips of bronze and gold feathers appear in the corner of the screen. “It leaves the western coast almost entirely undefended. I doubt Hazial will want to stir herself to come down the coast this far, especially considering the Wasteline dividing our territories.”
“The Chitauri have the Tes’rae.”
Dead silence answered him, and suddenly the screen shifted, twisted as Zaphkael took it from Pepper’s hand and glared into it, deep brown eyes and black hair wild. “How the hell did they get their hands on that?” he demanded. “It was sunk at the bottom of the ocean. Why didn’t it stay there?”
“It began emitting again,” Phil murmured. “Or, at least, a signal came from its position strong enough to be picked up by most scanners.”
Zaphkael’s handsome face twisted into a scowl, his right wing fanning lightly as he concentrated. His left wing was mostly mechanical – canvas stretched over a metal frame that hooked into Zaphkael’s nervous system – and whirred as the joints shifted, trying to mimic the natural fanning motion of the right. “That isn’t right,” he murmured. “No signal should come from it. Unless someone activated it, which I doubt.”
“We’ll need your mind, Zaphkael. Yours, and your handler, because it’s only a matter of time before the Chitauri figure out how to use the Tes’rae to open up another portal. Additionally, we believe that in the last war, the Chitauri did not just make a single portal – only one large one, intended for their soldiers. Their scouts and guerilla forces came in small, additional portals. Because those portals had been set up separate of the main portal, they only destabilized, they didn’t collapse like the main portal. We have an idea on how to track them down, but we’ll need you and an expert on Chitauri to build a mechanism to block the Tes’rae’s feedback and shut down all portals permanently – as well as a tracking device.”
At that, Zaphkael’s upper lip curled in a barely concealed snarl. “Who knows more about Chitauri than I do?” he demanded, the mechanical limb twitching.
Phil held Zaphkael’s gaze for a long moment.
Slowly, comprehension appeared in Zaphkael’s eyes. “How the hell did you – well, I can guess how. But you said you had Gabrael, and that purist wouldn’t want anything to do with him. Or me, come to think of it.”
“I think you don’t know as much about Gabrael as you think you do. We have you, Razial, Kalazael, Michael, and Gabrael forming a task force to bring the Tes’rae home the minute we’ve built the emitter that we need to clean up the Tes’rae and lock down all gate-movement through the Tes’rae.”
The communicator suddenly shifted, bringing Pepper’s face back, even as Zaphkael began to mutter under his breath. “We’ll get moving,” she sighed. “If everything moves as fast as you say it will, I won’t bother Hazial with our territory, just have our Chapel increase patrols and tighten security. We’ll leave as soon as possible – hopefully, we’ll get there by tomorrow evening, perhaps the morning after.”
Phil nodded, ready to sign off of the cube, when Zaphkael’s face pushed into the frame again, dark eyes solemn. “You said Razial without saying Sabrael,” he said.
Phil inhaled in a slow, controlled manner, keeping his expression schooled and his body language loose. “Sabrael’s been taken. By Lucael – who’s also been taken, and who we think cast Michael’s sword down to Earth in order to lock Michael out of the High Plane.”
“Shit,” Zaphkael muttered, and he disappeared.
“Phil, I’m so sorry,” Pepper began, voice softening and eyes holding both sympathy and understanding. Then again, she would know a bit how it felt, to lose a member of the Host. Zaphkael had been on a raid on a Chitauri nest when the Chitauri had managed to drag Zaphkael down. No one had heard from him since, and Hazial had begun the process of merging the two west coast territories, when Zaphkael had staggered into Malibu, bloodied, broken, a hole torn into his chest that glowed with the light of his power, and missing one wing. Pepper had resigned herself to Zaphkael’s death – finding him alive had had her on the phone with Phil, trying not to cry, as she began the intricate process of linking to Zaphkael’s mind (the less said about Zaphkael’s previous linked Initiate, the better) and witnessed the horror and pain he was in within her own mind.
“We’ll get him back, Pepper,” Phil said very deliberately and calmly.
She nodded. “I believe you. And we’ll do everything in our power to do so.”
“Thanks,” Phil breathed, more for the fact that she had so quickly and readily agreed without bringing up the statistics of what happened to members of the Host that had been Taken, and signed off. After a moment of staring blankly at the cube, he dropped his head and ground the heels of his palm into his eyes, taking in a shaky breath.
“They’re on their way?”
Phil half-turned to nod at Head Initiate Fury, since his voice wasn’t strong enough to answer affirmatively.
“That’s good, then.” Fury folded his arms and cleared his throat. “Your favorite boy’s head is a little too messed up for me to traverse easily, but he’s determined to see this through. So’m I.”
With a short laugh, Phil pushed up off of the desk – communication cubes were all set in a single room in all the Chapels, though personal receivers could be carried to accept incoming messages – and turned to look at Fury. “He’s not my boy,” he said, and his voice was as mild as ever. “Beyond that, I don’t see him as a ‘boy,’ do you?”
“He’s very young,” Fury replied, moving with Phil out of the communications room and down the hallway of the Chapel, towards the training halls. “I don’t think he’d had the title of Gabrael very long before he fell into that water and disappeared for seventy years.”
“You’ll be fine connecting with him long-term,” Phil said confidently, nodding. “It might be a bit shaky and weak at times, but you’re solid in maintaining the bridge, and that’s what matters.”
Fury’s mouth twitched up in a smile. “I come over to try and cheer you up, and you end up trying to boost my mood.”
“Well. We help one another, as we can,” Phil replied, eyes traveling over the large hall to see Gabrael slamming his fists into the bag hanging from the ceiling in a corner. “We do our best to help one another.”
We’re coming to help you, Sabrael. We’re coming.
“Zaph, we need to pack—”
“You were a kid – hell, might not even have been born when the Tes’rae fell into the sea. Were you born? You shouldn’t ask anyone’s age but I’m an angel, I’m exempt of conventional human rules—”
Pepper let out a low, controlled sigh, rubbed her temples, and cleared her throat. “Zaphkael, I get that you want to leave right now, but we have to put together some type of supplies, at least. We’ll be crossing the Wastes, and the Great Waste at that, not just the thin stretches that normally separate the territories from one another.”
Tony felt his spine stiffen at the full name. He’d been given that title, sure, a title that Ourael had sneered at in one moment and praised in the next. Tony had a suspicion that his mentor had coveted that title in some way, and was disappointed it went to Tony instead of himself. Then again, Tony had wished, in the dank cave of experimentation and torture and pain, to be able to have the abilities that Ourael had had.
But Pepper knew he disliked the full title, and normally called him either Tony or the shortened form Zaph. That she was using the full name meant she thought he was dicking around and wanted him on point.
He was so far from dicking around that it wasn’t even funny at this point.
“We won’t need supplies. You just need to contact Hazial – I know you said you wouldn’t, but you should, she needs to know what’s happening here – and then we’ll leave. It’ll be quick and easy, should get there within two days. A day and a half. Maybe a day, if I can pull it off.”
“Zaph…” Pep let out a long sigh and rubbed the back of her neck.
He turned around to watch her, his brown eyes calculating, assessing. She was the closest thing he had to a sister, now.
If he had slept with his sister first and the relationship was platonic second.
But he knew what a lot of people thought of him. He didn’t really care, anymore. To be fair, he had barely cared before his fun vacation in Chitauri hands, but afterwards he was fully aware of just how much was at stake and how much he could lose at any given second. Sleeping with Initiates might drive Pep crazy, might piss off the Head Initiate given that Initiates rarely stuck around when they realized sleeping with Tony wasn’t worth being forgotten the next morning, or ignored when Tony was hit with a brilliant idea and left the bed to play around in his workshop.
(Oh, wow, workshop, he’d need to talk to Dummy and Butterfingers, Jarvis, discuss what was going to happen around the Chapel when Tony wasn’t here to deal with things…)
In any case, he was watching Pepper carefully. She wasn’t all gung-ho for this – well, she was, but in a different way. She was completely aware of the infinitesimal chances Sabrael had. She knew Phil, as a good friend and better ally, and she knew that the New York Chapel, along with the Seattle Chapel, and been one of the very few in this half of the world that actively tried to both stamp out the remaining Chitauri and rebuild the infrastructure that had shattered during the war. Now, though, she was thinking about the safety of this Chapel.
Which was good. Of course it was. He just didn’t see that this Chapel would matter all that much if the Chitauri came back in full force. They were barely sticking it out as it was. The Great Waste bumped right up against the edge of the territory he patrolled and cared for, and Phil had said in the communication that they believed there were small portals that were still active. Destabilized, but active. That meant that if the Chitauri figured out how to link one portal to the Tes’rae, and how to use the Tes’rae to locate and link to the other portals…
There’d be a lot more Chitauri than the roving bands he hunted down, that’s for sure. A lot more, very quickly. Too quickly for anyone to react – especially if Lucael, one of the biggest names in the Host, had locked down the High Plane. The only way to do that was to disrupt the radial stream, and disruption was always easy. Stabilizing the radial stream could take him, by himself, maybe a month. With helpers, maybe a week. For others? People who didn’t deal with Higher Technology on a daily basis? They’d need to find a manual, or call the Supervisor down to help them – and the Supervisor was a hit or miss situation, considering that they were in charge of quite a few universes and all of them required their attention all the time.
“Look, I trust Phil. But this could be a trap, you know?”
Ah, that’s what was bothering Pepper. More than once, Host members had been lured out of their territories by Initiates who had been possessed by Chitauri.
“No worries, Pep – no blue eyes. Not even a hint of it. No stilted conversation, or movements. Emotion, all of that, present.”
“Some Chituari are very good at manipulating their host body,” Pepper murmured, and then she took in a deep breath. “And some people don’t need to be possessed to do the Chitauri dirty work.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” Tony scoffed, moving past her into the workshop and tapping his fingers on the top of the mechanical arm that rolled over to him with an inquisitive beep. “This is Phil we’re talking about. If the Chitauri were holding one of his Host hostage and making him call us, you’re damn right he’d call us willingly – happily, even. He trusts us to handle it. And you know Initiate. I know him, even if I’d rather not. He wouldn’t ever betray the Host like – like others might.” Unspoken went Obadiah’s name.
Pepper’s clacking shoes followed Tony into the workshop. “Tony, you’re willing to just go? You have responsibilities here, you’re finally implementing the reactor technology, and traveling across the Great Waste, not to mention the lesser wastes and lawless stretches of land that—”
“You’d want him to do it for you, if it was me that got Taken,” Tony said quietly.
She took a deep, shuddering breath before nodding. “I would,” she said hoarsely. “But I would also be highly aware of the fact that members of the Host rarely, if ever, survive possession by a Chitauri.”
He walked up to her, placing gentle hands on her shoulders and letting his forehead rest against hers – actually kinda difficult to do, when she was wearing heels and he was short to begin with. “I get it, Pep. Going to war’s a difficult decision. But I’ve been telling people something’s been coming. I’ve charted out everything, showed the increasing amounts of Chitauri, not decreasing, pointed it out to everyone who could listen – who would listen to me. I’ve had time to get ready for this, because I knew the Chitauri weren’t gone.”
“You’re going to get hurt,” she whispered.
He paused a moment. There was something off about her voice, something assured and concrete there, and as much as he preferred his technology to the magic that was forbidden to the Host, he knew there were humans out there who had some level of precognition, and that Pepper was highly sensitive. So he let out a sigh and flapped both his wings – the one that creaked and clacked as he moved it as well as the one that shifted gently with the hushing sound of feathers and skin. “I’ve been hurt before, Pep. I’ll bounce back. I’ve done worse things for lesser reasons.”
She took a deep breath and he could almost physically feel her defenses and walls building back up, her spine straightening, her eyes going cool. “We’re not leaving just yet. Give me half an hour to notify the Head Initiate, set up the patrols, and get ahold of Hazial like you mentioned.”
Tony turned to the nudging robot on his right, running a gentle hand over the top of it. “You think we should ask her to help us find this thing? She’s one of the more powerful ones of us, you know.”
“Which is why, if you – if you fail, she’ll be needed to hold this coast and protect. The task force Phil mentioned is small, but will have a better chance of surviving because of it.”
Tony quirked his lips up, thinking of Carol. “I doubt Hazial will be happy with your assessment of it.”
“Hazial,” Pepper said severely, and Tony bit back his smirk at remembering Pepper and Carol’s interactions, “will just have to deal with it at the moment.”
“I don’t want to take long. The longer we wait, the lower our chances are of catching this before the Chitauri figure out the Tes’rae. We are literally running against a clock, and one we can’t even see, with no idea of how much time’s left on it or if it already stopped ticking,” Tony pointed out.
“I’ll be as quick as possible.”
“Well, I’ll be ready to go in an hour,” Tony offered. “Think you can match that? Meet me on the flight deck.”
Pepper let out an exasperated sigh but didn’t offer up a different time, indicating she was fairly confident she could make the hour deadline he set up. He watched her stride confidently out of his workshop, watched as she made her way up the stairs.
Then he turned to his robots, the companions he’d made to talk to when he got lonely. He was – most members of the Host dismissed him outright because of his insistence on his human name instead of his title of Zaphkael. The ones that didn’t see him as a disgrace to the Host believed him too hedonistic, too willing to indulge in human vices, to pay attention to. He had a few close friends – for all that Pepper and Hazial usually went head to head when Carol was pulling rank, when Carol was just Carol, she was a pretty cool friend to have. And there were a few others that, if he showed up on their doorstep with news of a Chitauri base he wanted to raid, would look after his territory while he did so. But, all in all, he was alone here. He’d run through Initiates like water, his mind too chaotic for most Initiates to handle. Obadiah had been the first Initiate to stick for more than two months, and he’d been like – a father to Tony. He’d worked with Howard – sorry, Ourael, he always hated to be called Howard – and understood a bit what Tony was like, how Ourael had trained him. When Obadiah had set him up to die…
Tony had dabbled in what was pretty much forbidden magics, mixing his power and strength and magic with human machinery in order to allow him to fly once more. And his wing, while it ached at points and certainly wasn’t as flexible or responsive as his natural wing, was pretty good. It handled fairly well, and while it wasn’t perfect, it was a serviceable replacement.
It had got him thinking. Instead of sleeping with pretty much every one of the Chapel’s personnel, he’d locked himself away in his workshop and focused entirely on merging Host technology with human technology. The result had settled in his chest, plugging up the hole the Chitauri had dug into his grace, the seat of his power. Once he learned how to make it run without the grace of a member of the Host, he had inserted it into the Chapel’s power grid one day.
That had been chaotic, if only because no one had expected all the systems to go offline, and then intermittently work. Once Tony had worked out the bugs, though…
They were one of the few Chapels that had working lights. Air conditioning, and central heating. Computers. The internet, of course, wasn’t up simply because there were no more international networks, but their communicators were superb. Hell, Tony had managed to get the televisions working – and even though there weren’t any broadcasted channels, they’d managed to uncover DVDs and VHS tapes.
And Tony’s technological adaptations had regulated water in New Malibu as well as a few outlying towns that were near. Slowly, he was building transportation that wouldn’t need oil to get around and didn’t require horses, either – mostly because horses, while still the main method of travel, made transportation vulnerable since all the Chitauri would need to do was kill the horses and effectively cripple all transportation. As it was, the caravans that moved across what used to be the United States and Mexico were heavily guarded and took a long time to get anywhere. Traveling without a caravan was practically suicide, too.
So Tony had done a lot of things to try and make the quality of life better, reading through manuals and books to get ideas or understandings of what society had been eighty or so years ago. But he’d also built mechanical dogs and robots, small toys to keep kids and adults both entertained.
He’d miss his robots, if he didn’t end up coming back.
Clearing his throat, he lifted his voice and said quietly, “Jarvis?”
There was an electronic hum from all around him, and then his project, his prototype, a fully functioning AI who could and would monitor and handle the security of the Chapel replied, “Yes, sir?”
Tony smiled tiredly. “I’m – going on a little trip,” he said quietly. “I need you to lay low, and keep these guys occupied.” Running his fingers over the top of Dummy and Butterfingers, he added, “I don’t know if I’ll be coming back, Jarvis.”
It took a moment – processors were still lagging, and now Tony would never get to fix it, never get to see Jarvis in action – before Jarvis said solemnly, “I shall do my best to keep them occupied, sir.”
“Good,” Tony whispered, rolling his shoulders. “Good.”
Less than thirty minutes later, Pepper came out onto the flight deck – the large, circular deck built at the top of the Chapel. It was half-covered by a roof, for days that it rained, but it was mostly out in the open, to allow for members of the Host to land and enter the Chapel. Tony was standing on the very edge of the deck, looking down at the cliff and the ocean below. The Chapel was set at the top of a hill, built both on the edge of the cliff and dug deep into the cliff itself, and from here he could just barely make out the lights twinkling below, deep in the rock.
“Tony?” Pepper asked.
With a wide smile and easy manner, Tony turned away from the edge and picked up the harness that would allow Pepper to ride beneath him as he flew to the New York Chapel. “Shall we, then?”
Razial opened the doors to small guest chambers and nodded at them. “These will be your rooms, while you’re staying with us; you can set your stuff down here and follow me to the lab to get started.”
Kalazael carefully put his bag down inside the doorway, looking at the small desk, the chest of drawers, and the bedroom. “No bath?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
She pointed down the hall. “Shared bathrooms, in the guest quarters.”
“Having people share a bathroom with me – is that wise?” he asked dryly.
Razial licked her lips, uncertain of how exactly to respond, but thankfully he wasn’t watching her closely, instead moving to the bathroom and opening the door to look around. “Better than digging a latrine, I suppose,” he muttered, and turned back to her. “Well, let’s see this lab, then?”
She inclined her head and led the way down the hallway, Initiates and Recruits hugging the walls as Kalazael walked by with his enormous wings trailing behind him like the robe of a king. It was at odds with the man, of course, who was on the small and short side, a bit thick in the middle, with greying hair and weak eyes, but no one noticed that, not when his wings could force someone to hug the wall to keep from tripping over his pinions.
Razial never had that kind of consideration, mostly because she was female, and secondly because her wings were tight, compact things that hugged her body tightly and took up as little space as possible. To each their own strengths, she supposed.
When she began to move down the staircase instead of up, Kalazael paused at the landing and looked down. “A basement?”
“Technically,” she replied.
“Me, in a small, confined area, underground?” He looked at her askance. “Do you know what happened to me?”
She met his gaze without saying a word.
Heaving a sigh, he shook his head and followed her down the steps.
Kalazael stiffened, turning to see Gabrael standing a flight of stairs above the two of them. Razial bit her lip and tried to decide whether she should intervene or not, especially considering that of them all, it was Gabrael and Michael that Kalazael had the most problems with.
“I haven’t seen you in – ages,” Gabrael said, hustling down the stairs and falling in line, his wings barely half as large as Kalazael’s even though he was significantly taller and broader than Kalazael. “How – well. How have you been doing recently?”
Kalazael blinked at him. “Well, I’m not dead.”
“That’s always a plus,” Gabrael muttered, looking over at Razial. “You showing him to the lab?”
“Yes,” she murmured. “I believe that he can look at the information we’ve gathered and our proposed plan and let us know if it’s feasible.”
“That’s good,” Gabrael sighed, walking with them down the stairs. “Do you – mind if I come with you? Obviously I wouldn’t want to intrude if you’re going to be very involved, but it just gets…”
He trailed off, and Razial could sympathize to a degree. When she had first been assigned here, she had been lucky – Sabrael had been stationed here already and so the Initiates and Recruits didn’t stare so much. She’d been on the world all those seventy years, and so saw humans adapt and learn, listened as their language subtly changed. It wasn’t a large gap, between now and seventy years earlier, but she could imagine Gabrael floundering, surrounded by humans who gawked and hero-worshipped and did everything they could to be around him while exhibiting new customs and speech patterns and slang that only confused Gabrael further.
“Ah,” Kalazael said when he realized Razial and Gabrael were waiting for his answer. “Yeah? Sure?”
The smile that spread over Gabrael’s face was boyish, charming, and full of relief. “Great. That’s – great. Good. Um. I heard Head Initiate Fury and Initiate Coulson speaking; Zaphkael? I think that’s who they said, that Zaphkael’s coming. I don’t think I’ve ever met him, though.”
“He’s Ourael’s apprentice. When Ourael fell in a raid, Zaphkael took over Malibu Chapel and the territory there,” Razial murmured.
Something lit up in Gabrael’s face. “Ourael’s apprentice? I can’t wait to meet him. Ourael, Chayleal, and I had some fun times together.”
Kalazael winced, even as Razial kept her face perfectly blank. “I don’t think – well, he doesn’t talk about Ourael very much, you know. Not something he delves into,” Kalazael attempted, looking over at Razial as if for backup. Zaphkael’s dislike for his mentor was a widely known secret among the lesser members of the Host; the upper members rarely bothered with the gossip and interpersonal relationships of the lower members.
With a sigh, Razial entered the third underground floor and made her way down the hallway, keeping a brisk pace. “I wouldn’t lead with that kind of intro, Gabrael,” she said calmly. “Perhaps you ought to let him do the talking first. Supervisor knows he loves to hear his own voice.”
Kalazael chuckled at that, following Razial into the room. It was fairly spacious, with almost all this Chapel’s heavy-hitting weapons gifted to them by the Host (or collected from the Wastes, from the hands of thieves, or from fallen Chapels) resting on the many tables. Pointing at the bench seat to indicate that the two of them should sit, Razial moved to the bookshelf and pulled out a roll of parchment.
“Gentlemen, we think we can lock the Tes’rae down by blocking the aural waves using a gamma filter. Using the information gathered from scouting out Chitauri strongholds, we believe that the portals into Hel are powered by the Tes’rae. Back in the final battle, the Chitauri had taken the Tes’rae and twisted the emitting power so that it recognized Chitauri mastery and obeyed Chitauri orders. We believed that the Chitauri immediately used this mastery to open up the portal in the sky that our kith fought so hard to close – and it ended with the ultimate sacrifice of Gabrael, who took his life into his hands when he managed to locate and break the Tes’rae’s connection to the portal. You kept the Tes’rae out of the hands of the Chitauri by hitting the ocean and drowning it, and its power signature. However, new evidence has made us believe that the Chitauri left on this world are not Chitauri stuck here because that portal closed, but Chitauri who climb through small portals spread across this entire world, hidden in pockets of the Waste. These portals, without the Tes’rae, are small, and need time to recharge after about three Chitauri pass through, which explains why this world has not been overrun with Chitauri and yet continues to be plagued by them. Because these portals are so numerous and spread out, it is impossible to close the portals the way we did the last time – by overloading it with the power we have in our High Weapons. It would take too long to find them all, let alone expend that much energy to overload them.” Shifting the parchment so that Kalazael could pick it up and study it to his heart’s content, Razial locked eyes with Gabrael, he who would be in command with Michael and the one who needed to be convinced before she took this to Michael and began planning out their strategy. Michael would defer to Gabrael in this matter, and she needed to explain to Gabrael why they needed to build this filter, why they couldn’t just assault the Chitauri right off the bat. “We can’t locate every single portal. Yet every portal links to the Tes’rae in order to open rifts between dimensions. If we can prevent the Tes’rae from opening any more gates at all, these portals will all close and all that will be left is exterminating the Chitauri that are left behind from those portals.”
“That’s what they said last time,” Gabrael pointed out. “If we were to remove that portal, everything would be fine. We’d have won and all that would be left was getting rid of the stragglers. Look how that turned out.”
Razial lifted one shoulder. “True. And this is just what we can figure out, to the best of our knowledge. But this explains everything that has been happening and taking place. It explains why the Chitauri need the Tes’rae – to make certain we don’t stop it from closing their portals out, and to open their portals wide enough to allow multitudes to come through with no recharging period. We can only hope that this will end it once and for all.”
“It looks solid enough, but I don’t think I’ll be much help with this. Building the filter – that would just be a stop-gap measure, wouldn’t it?” Kalazael asked.
Razial looked at the notes before her and had to admit that it was a very tenuous thread of hope she was offering. Perhaps, with Zaphkael here, she could work with him and Kalazael to make the solution more permanent. Still, it was the best hope they had, and so she kept her voice level and mild as she replied, “It might be, yes. But it’s the first step to cutting off the portals so that nothing more can come through. With your help, and Zaphkael’s knowledge, we should be able to fine-tune the filter and make sure it works.”
“All this means we need to find the Tes’rae, does it not?”
The three of them turned to see Michael standing in the doorway, face solemn and wings folded tightly back. After a moment, Razial inclined her head. “It does.”
Heaving a sigh, Michael came in and took a seat on top of one of the tables, legs dangling off the side as he looked them over. “I have traveled as far as I dared in my search for aid,” he rumbled. “It does not appear as if we will be able to secure any help beyond ourselves.”
At that, Razial frowned. “I’m certain Zaphkael is on his way here; Phil contacted him directly, and he’s old friends with the Initiate that handles Zaphkael.”
Michael shrugged his broad shoulders, lips thin and tight in a grim face. “None others answered my call. I stretched myself as far north and south as I could reach, spanned the breadth of this country and the oceans, hoping for one positive response.”
“It’s been a long time since anyone sounded the Call here on earth,” Kalazael said mildly, shoulders tense and face averted from the weight of Michael’s gaze. Razial mentally applauded the fact that Kalazael was still in the room when there were two warriors within striking distance – worse had happened to Kalazael with less touchy members of the Host nearby, and yet only the tension in his neck and back revealed his discomfort with the nearness of Michael and Gabrael. “You’ve forgotten all of us for this long. It’s a small wonder that you managed to mentally reach anyone at all – most wouldn’t even bother to give a response.”
Michael rubbed his chin, fingers combing through the short beard, before turning to Gabrael. “What say you, brother? I have exhausted my strength utterly; I cannot contact even the High Plane at this moment.”
Gabrael looked at the papers she had provided, and then at her and Kalazael. “Right now, this seems like a joke,” he said bluntly. “There’s four of us here. Five if you count Zaphkael, but he’s not coming for at least another day. Then you have to factor in the time it will take to build a filter. And of course there’s the added complication that we need to locate the Tes’rae in order to implement this plan. I don’t think there’s any hope if it’s just us. We’ll need more help than this.”
“There’s no time,” Razial said, nerves and worry for Sabrael leaking into her voice and making her sharp, voice biting. “The longer it takes, the less likely it is to bring back anything of Sabrael – not to mention Lucael.”
Michael’s face closed down, even as Gabrael took a deep breath. “You have to face the fact that most likely neither of them will be recovered,” he said softly. “Possession by the Chitauri—”
“And how long do we wait?” she challenged, temper rising as her wings unfolded with a snap behind her, small but poised to charge or leap back as needed. “Do we wait until the Chitauri have used the Tes’rae to open all their portals to the fullest? Do we wait until someone cares about this world again? Do we wait for someone to take pity on us?”
Gabrael met her glare steadily, with sympathy but also with the strength of a commander. “We’ll wait until we have an estimate for how long it will take the filter to get made, and how long it will take to locate the Tes’rae. Then we’ll decide what to do. If it takes long to make, we may as well try to call more to our group in order to not throw our efforts away for nothing.”
“At the least,” Michael added, “we will have to wait for my strength to replenish, and for Gabrael’s steadiness. There are no Initiates here to link with us as we need – Initiate Hill and Fury are doing their best but are not what we need. And Kalazael has no one to link with.”
Kalazael jerked one shoulder in a weak shrug. “Not many Initiates will try to link with my mind, what with my darker side. And I don’t need a handler in order to replenish my strength the way most members of the Host do.”
Michael gaze Kalazael a steady look before hefting one shoulder. “Nonetheless. There is still a need to plan, and plan well. We will move with all speed once we have viable technology, but until then, we must be deliberate and thorough in our preparations.”
Biting back her response to such ‘deliberate’ measures, Razial merely nodded. They didn’t have a personal stake in this like she did. It wasn’t their lover, their twin, out there being twisted by the Chitauri control. Minute by minute, she worried that more and more of Clint was disappearing, being eaten by the darkness that ruled him now.
She needed Zaphkael here, as quickly as possible. If anyone could speed up and build the impossible out of scraps, it would be him.
Gabrael was getting the hang of this new world. Slowly but surely, he and Michael were talking to the Initiates and the Recruits, were focusing on what was a part of this new world and what had changed from when they had last walked the earth. Michael could catch Gabrael up to their brethren above, the other worlds they had gone on to save, the other peoples they had met. Razial was extremely competent and seemed to understand perfectly that they helped one another out, and left them to their own devices. Kalazael was wary of the two of them, and the file on him that Initiate Coulson had brought Gabrael and Michael explained why.
He knew, of course, that being captured by the Chitauri was worse than a death sentence. Death came quickly with a death sentence. With the Chitauri, they experimented and possessed; they took apart piece by piece and stared dispassionately at your pain. Chaylael had been at their mercy for three days and had come back gaunt and haunted. Kalazael had apparently lasted months in their hands before one of their experiments at merging a Chitauri body with the body of a member of the Host backfired on them, and Kalazael became – what he was now. No longer needing a handler to boost his power, no longer fully a member of the Host, but neither a Chitauri – something between the two.
“It is disheartening, to read of these,” Michael murmured, setting down the sheaf of parchment and rubbing his temple. “They have suffered so much, our brethren here. We thought the job over and we took ourselves and left. They had to face the horrors of what lay here alone, and they did so without complaint. Not one knocked against the doors of the High Plane asking for help. Jahial never mentioned seeing their suffering.”
Gabrael bit his lip a moment, searching for diplomatic words, but Michael noticed his hesitance.
“You know of something.”
“Not know,” Gabrael corrected, lifting one shoulder. “Just – suspect. Maybe. You said Lucael was taken.”
Michael’s face became shadowed. “Yes,” he said gravely. “But – Steve – why does that matter now? We are going to bring them back.”
Gabrael started at the sound of his true name, not heard for many years. Swallowing, he put a hand on Michael’s shoulder. “Thor – have you considered that Lucael had been taken, since you returned to the High Plane those seventy years ago?”
Michael’s – Thor’s – face went slack in shock and horror. “No, Steve,” he whispered. “Could he live all those years up there with no one suspecting…”
Michael trailed off and closed his eyes in pain. Gabrael felt like a heel for mentioning it, but he was above all a strategist, and the fact that those in the High Plane were ignoring Michael and Gabrael’s requests – something that should have been impossible – was too important to shrug off as inattention.
“If he has been controlled all this time, he may have left traps for our brethren up above, which explains why they have not responded to your calls,” Gabrael continued, gently. “We have to consider that option.”
“Consider that the brother I once loved more than life itself has been gone these past seventy years. That he has been lying to me so skillfully that I did not notice. That he – I—”
Michael went silent, head bowed.
Gabrael didn’t know what else to do – he couldn’t imagine, say, Chaylael (Bucky) in this position, or what his reaction would have been, so all he could do was offer comfort.
“We’ll get him back,” Gabrael murmured, even though Chitauri possession killed the host within weeks, sometimes days, and recovering the consciousness that was Lucael was most likely impossible now. “We’ll find a way.”
It was evening at the cafeteria, the members of the Host taking up one table and the Initiates and Recruits watching them with wide eyes. Phil played with his spoon and tried not to worry about Sabrael, about the medallion that grew colder in his pocket with every passing hour.
The doors flew open and Zaphkael strode in, a shit-eating grin splitting his face in two. “Fury, baby! You miss me?”
Fury narrowed his eyes at the member of the Host who stood dramatically in the doorway, one wing bronze and gold feathers, and the other fire-engine red canvas, both spread arrogantly behind his neat and expensive clothes. Everyone else here was dressed in denim and khakis; dressed in worn canvas that chafed. Humans as a whole were rarely well off enough to have honest-to-god cotton or silk like Zaphkael wore. On his arm, he had a pair of straps and belts – the harness, Phil realized, that Pepper had ridden in while they traveled here.
“You sure we needed him?” Fury muttered under his breath.
“He is the best,” Phil said back peaceably, even as there was a huff from behind Zaphkael and Initiate Potts strode into the room, carrying a small bag – probably her own clothes, as Zaphkael had many eccentric traits, but making others his packhorse wasn’t one of them.
Strutting to the table – Phil mentally winced, because on the best of days Zaphkael was difficult to swallow, and this was after he had flown from Malibu to New York City, probably with only one or two resting periods – Zaphkael offered his hand to the nearest one. Gabrael.
Shouldn’t be too bad, Phil hoped. As long as—
“Name’s Zaphkael, protector and defender of the west coast and caretaker of—”
“Ourael’s territory. You’re Ourael’s apprentice? I knew him; he was a good man and a fine general.”
Phil physically winced, and Fury muttered curses under his breath. Razial let out a long sigh even as Zaphkael’s face went wooden, and his eyes went mean. “Well, I’d like to think I’ve grown past that sack of bones, honestly,” he said cuttingly.
Michael frowned, even as Gabrael’s face went from mildly interested to outright hostile. “I worked with Ourael and he was one of the sharpest and adaptable generals I worked with. You would do well to respect your mentor.”
“Aye,” Michael chimed in. “It is not right to put down your mentor, even in the sake of competition.”
Phil was already standing up, getting ready to intervene, but – surprisingly – it looked as if Zaphkael was going to respond and then reined himself in. “I really couldn’t care what you think, of him or me. Anyway, I can see you’re all busy, so if you’ll just point me in the direction of the lab and let me save the world – again – while you guys sit around and stuff your faces with – is that processed soy?”
Pepper, looking pale and exasperated, grabbed Zaphkael’s elbow even as Razial stood up.
“I’ll show you to the lab,” Razial offered, and Pepper jumped on the offer like it was a lifeline, dragging Zaphkael out with her.
Fury let out a long, low breath. “Alright. You’re going to take food down to them – make sure Zaphkael gets those fresh greens we’ve set aside for him – and look after Pepper, because for them to make the trip this fast he had to drain himself and her considerably. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t fall asleep in the lab or accidentally build one of those robotic menaces he’s so fond of building.”
Phil heaved a deep sigh. “Of course,” he murmured, standing up and making his way to the kitchen. It wasn’t as big a hardship as it seemed, really, since he wanted to sit and chat with Pepper a bit in any case. And, while he and Zaphkael had a carefully maintained façade of hatred for one another, he worried about Zaphkael. He had heard of the member of the Host’s missing status, of Zaphkael’s miraculous return, of his seclusion and isolation. Zaphkael was one of the few that teamed up with two other members of the Host to put down Chitauri when they had been amassing into something like an army two or three years ago. Beyond those heroics, Zaphkael was highly knowledgeable and while he was pretty bad with human interaction, he was still a good person. Phil had sent via caravan small gifts of old earth technology, now obsolete, for Zaphkael to tinker with, and Zaphkael would send back crates with self-regulating temperature, with pure chocolate – a great delicacy – nestled carefully inside.
Phil had something of a sweet tooth.
Taking a tray with a plate of processed soy hash, bowl of stew, and leafy greens on it, he made his way down to the lab to see Razial walking back towards the cafeteria.
“How bad of a mood is it?” Phil asked quietly.
Razial let out a huff of air.
“Pepper’s calming him down now. You might want to have Fury try to talk to Gabrael about this.”
“The less Fury talks about Zaphkael the better,” Phil grunted – an uncharacteristic display of frustration that had Razial pausing and turning to him worriedly. He waved off her concern and made his way into the lab, where Pepper sat, upper body sprawled over a cleared worktable, and Zaphkael paced, the parchment and reports left out from Razial’s briefing of Gabrael and Kalazael in his hands.
“Is this all correct?” Zaphkael demanded the minute Phil closed the door behind him and nudged Pepper over to set the tray down.
Phil poked Pepper to make her sit up and handed her the hash and stew. “Is what correct?” he asked.
“All of it! The portals, the filter, the stop-gap, everything?” Zaphkael demanded.
At that, Phil lifted his eyebrow at Zaphkael and said blandly, “That’s what you’re supposed to tell me. You are the genius in this room, after all.”
Muttering under his breath, Zaphkael shoved everything on one worktable to the very end and spread the parchment out before him, eyes intense and wings quivering like a dog hunting for the scent.
“Thanks, Phil,” Pepper said quietly, giving him a weak smile. “It was a pretty long day. And even still, I’m sure Tony didn’t use my strength as much as he should have.”
“You know me, Pepperpot, I’m a selfish asshole who takes exactly what I want. If I wanted more I would have taken it,” Zaphkael muttered absently, voice fond.
Pepper turned to Phil with an amused look in her eye that disappeared when she got a good look at his face. “Oh, Phil,” she whispered, and put an arm around his shoulders, her medallion gently clinking against Razial’s medallion still around his neck. “We’ll get him back. You’ll see. Tony likes Clint as much as he likes anyone, you know that.”
Just like that, Phil’s defenses crumbled and his shoulders sagged. “I sent him down to it. I didn’t even think that, if the Host sensed the Tes’rae, surely the Chitauri will as well. I didn’t even think—”
“You’re missing and mourning Clint,” Zaphkael interjected abruptly, cutting off Phil’s words, “but you’re forgetting that he is also Sabrael – a warrior that’s been through more wars than you could hope to fathom. He’s strong. He’ll hold on. What we need to do now is locate the Tes’rae and have the filter ready to go. In fact, if you could have the big dumb blond twins working on that locating shit with Kalazael – how did you convince him to be near purists like them? Or convince them to tolerate someone like him? – I’ll get to work on the filter. But we need a surefire way to locate the Tes’rae, and we need to do it before they open up more than a few portals. The Tes’rae doesn’t have a charging period, and we just have to hope that the patrols will keep the Chitauri from moving in the open, and that their mini-portals are spaced far enough apart that they can’t open more than a few before we track the Tes’rae down again. If we’re doubly lucky, we can hope that Sabrael and Lucael know as much about the Tes’rae as every other normal member of the Host, and it will take them time to figure out how to link the Tes’rae to the portal, which will further delay them.”
Phil bit his lip and nodded tightly. “You’re right, of course. Thank you – Tony.”
Tony – Zaphkael – twitched. His true name was oddly intimate in Phil’s mouth, and while Zaphkael had allowed Phil to know his true name (Zaphkael seemed to actually have an aversion to his title, something Phil had never heard of before), Phil had never used it, always calling him Zaphkael and, rarely, Zaph, the way Pepper did. Using his human name seemed too intimate, especially with a member of the Host who was so abrasive personality-wise, and already had a handler that wasn’t Phil.
“Yeah, yeah, you get sappy on me and I kick you out of the lab. Gossip over there like old biddies while I work my magic here,” Zaphkael muttered under his breath, turning back to the pieces of parchment, fingers dancing and bouncing against the edges of the papers and across the tabletop. Phil watched him for a long moment, watched the intensity and the little twitches of the mechanical wing that didn’t quite hold still the way the real wing did as their owner turned his mind to this new problem.
“How’s Razial holding up? I know you three were close,” Pepper murmured.
“I don’t think she’s letting herself think anything but that we’ll get him back. But we – we’re Initiates, Pepper,” he said tiredly. “We’re trained for the worst-case scenario. Gabrael and Michael have already approached me and informed me that Lucael – the one that took Clint – may have been under Chitauri control for seventy years. That he might be behind the shifting of the Host’s focus from this world to other ones. That this Lucael may have managed to lock the High Plane down, at least enough that Michael and Gabrael cannot return. They both feel that they’ve recovered enough of their strength that they should have been able to mentally contact the High Plane by now and still – nothing.”
“And of course none of our Host can return – haven’t been able to for years now, really,” Pepper murmured, taking another spoonful of stew and tapping the spoon absently against the bottom of the bowl. “Then again, none of our Host were strong enough to ascend without help from one of the warrior rank in any case, so that may not be a good measure of whether the High Plane has been closed down.”
Phil rubbed the back of his neck and reached into his pocket, took out Sabrael’s – Clint’s – medallion. Holding it in his hand, he took a deep breath in and released it.
“We’ll get him back, Phil,” Pepper repeated, rubbing a thumb over the back of his hand. “Zaphkael is a damn good warrior, and an even better mechanic. He’ll have this up and running for you in no time.”
Kalazael finished eating his food, listening to Gabrael worry about offending Zaphkael in one breath and trying to figure out why Zaphkael would talk badly about an old friend in the next, and Michael trying to comfort him, and watching Razial ignore them both to finish her own food. It was both mildly amusing and incredibly frustrating to listen to, since Gabrael was fretting about driving away the one member of the Host that had voluntarily left his territory to help, and Michael was attempting to placate Gabrael in his clumsy way, assuring him that ‘Zaphkael is yet one of us and understands the duties of his position and title.’
Neither of them knew anything about Zaphkael, and it showed.
Once Kalazael finished his plate of food, he stood up and excused himself, taking his tray and utensils to the bins that would be carried back into the kitchen when the main meal was over. As always, everyone stepped out of his way, and some of the braver Initiates watched him with wary eyes.
Well, why wouldn’t they? He’d killed plenty of Initiates like them, Initiates who thought they could bring down the abomination, the beast that lived inside him now – and they knew it.
Turning on his heel, he walked back to the table where the other three members sat. “I’m going to go see if I can help Zaphkael any in the lab.”
“He’s not in the best of moods right now,” Razial cautioned.
Kalazael mainly knew the Zaphkael of today by reputation – they had both been apprentices at the same time, for different veterans of the great battle. What little Kalazael did know of Zaphkael came from almost a full century ago, when they were both young and still earning a title. They had been sent to this plane of existence to fight the Chitauri and then were assigned to mentors in order to teach them how to live with humans safely and responsibly. Ourael had taken Zaphkael to the west coast, and even though he and Zaphkael had only rarely interacted since the war, he had fiercely missed the rambunctious young member of the Host too brash and too bold for his own good. He’d missed making jokes about science or nature, about studying late into the night on a project while they had been earning their titles – missed just having someone around who didn’t think Kalazael was strange for holding on to those simpler memories.
He made his way down into the depths of the Chapel, ignoring the way the humans scurried past him and tried not to make eye contact. Outside the lab, he paused, noticing through the small window in the doorway the slumped form of Zaphkael’s handler and Initiate Coulson.
Perhaps he shouldn’t be here, not right now. That must be intensely private for—
The door suddenly opened, and Zaphkael stood there, barely an inch or two taller than him, eyes bright and almost feverish. “I think I might have figured it out!” Unceremoniously, Zaphkael grabbed Kalazael’s shirt and dragged him into the room.
Kalazael gently closed the door behind him even as Zaphkael spun away in a whirl of movement and the click of motors in his mechanical wing. He followed Zaphkael’s chatter with one ear as he cleared away the dishes from the two slumbering Initiates and located a worn blanket to throw over their shoulders.
“Have you heard a word I’ve said?” Zaphkael demanded.
“I have no trouble listening and doing something at the same time,” Kalazael remarked dryly. “I can’t speak for you.”
Zaphkael’s mouth twitched up in what might have been a smile before turning back to the slate and chalk where he’d been working out his equations. “I think we can narrow down the low-level beta radiation the Tes’rae gives off, given maybe a couple of days. No more than three, but maybe four if it takes a while to find everything I need. Now, if I can jury-rig this receiver to search for the radiation in concentric circles and boost its power so that—”
“Where’d you get that receiver?” Kalazael asked curiously.
Zaphkael waved a hand dismissively. “They’re a dime a dozen; it won’t be missed. In any case. You know gamma and beta radiation and the interactions between the two the best out of all of us – will this work?”
Kalazael fiddled with his glasses as he peered at the hasty scribbles and generally horrible handwriting that scrawled across the slate haphazardly. “If I’m reading it right, then – yes,” he said slowly. “I believe so.”
“Ha-hah!” Zaphkael crowed, whisking the slate away and digging through a mound of electronics and weapons that had been pushed to one end of the table. “You have to calibrate it, and I’ll figure out how to boost its power.”
Obligingly, Kalazael turned to the receiver and began gently opening it up and pulling out its component parts. It was calibrated to pick up incoming transmissions from the Chapel’s communication cube – short-term, and a different type of wavelength than what he needed, but Zaphkael was notoriously good at manipulating machines and as long as Kalazael followed the instructions on the paper, everything should go just fine. Focusing on the mechanism, he began picking it apart.
He didn’t know how long it was, though long enough for him to get halfway there, before he felt a sharp sting in his side.
“Ow!” he yelped in annoyance, twisting around to see Zaphkael holding an electrified wire.
Zaphkael leaned forward, staring into Kalazael’s eyes. “Really got it under control, huh big guy?”
Kalazael stared at Zaphkael in shock. “Did you just – poke me to see if I would lose control?” he asked faintly.
“Yep. Good control, by the way.”
“Yeah. Thanks,” Kalazael muttered, and then winced as Zaphkael viciously electrocuted him again. “Can you stop that?”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Both Kalazael and Zaphkael turned to see Gabrael standing in the middle of the room, hands on his hips. Zaphkael recovered first to give Gabrael a jaunty smile. “We’re studying the effects of unplanned electric shocks to the self-control.”
“That’s not funny and you know it,” Gabrael said tightly. “We’re on a tight deadline here. If you haven’t forgotten, there is a man missing and we need to get him back – two, including Lucael. You left before Michael and myself could discuss the timeline and plan set up.”
Kalazael felt more than saw Zaphkael’s back come up, wings snapping to attention in outrage. “Excuse me – of the people here in the room, who’s actually contributing to locating the Tes’rae and who’s been sitting on ice the whole time? Oh, was that in poor taste? I guess I’ll just say ass, then.”
White wings spreading in a sudden, furious movement, Gabrael bared his teeth at Zaphkael, whose wings puffed up even more. After a long moment, Gabrael huffed in disgust. “This isn’t worth it. There’re bigger problems than trying to teach common sense to someone like you.” With that, he strode from the room, throwing over his shoulder, “Just get it done. Fast.”
Kalazael watched as Zaphkael paced the lines of the lab, growling under his breath, hissing at times. He noticed that Zaphkael kept rubbing at his chest, and that Zaphkael would stop every few minutes to tinker with this or that electronic mess on the table before striding on. After a few minutes, Kalazael decided that he might as well give it a try.
“Zaphkael – do you remember me, at all?”
That brought the other member of the Host to a stop, blinking at Kalazael for a moment. “What?” he asked, startled enough out of his anger to have nothing but confusion in his voice.
“You – do you remember me?” Kalazael repeated, suddenly feeling foolish for having asked.
“What – of course I remember you, do you think I talk about astrophysics and computer coding with just anyone?” Zaphkael demanded.
Kalazael lifted a shoulder in a studied move, made to look careless. “I only wonder, as you certainly didn’t seem to recognize me before. In fact, I could go so far as to say you still don’t even know my title, let alone my name.”
There was a long moment of silence before Zaphkael lunged across the room and tackled Kalazael to the floor, wings flapping playfully as he dug fingers into Kalazael’s ribs.
Kalazael shrieked in laughter, and went beet red from mortification.
Perched on top of Kalazael’s hips, Zaphkael smirked. “I remember that. Bruce. I also know what happened to you, and wished I could’ve been around to help.”
Breathing hard – panting, more like – Kalazael stared at Zaphkael and shook his head slowly, a fond smile on his mouth. “Tony. And I know why you weren’t around to help. Kinda difficult to do anything when you’re in a cell yourself, wouldn’t you think?” He paused a moment, as much to catch his breath as to weigh the merit of asking, but in the end curiosity won out. “What’s in your chest?”
Zaphkael froze for half a second before pasting on a smile. “My shirt?” he tried gamely.
Tentatively, Kalazael reached up a hand and touched the edge of the circle of light he could faintly see, this close up. His fingers hit something hard and cool, and he drew in a deep breath before letting it out.
“They tried to open you up and expose your grace to the world,” he murmured.
Zaphkael – Tony, he’d always preferred to be called by his human name – flinched a bit and cleared his throat. “Yeah,” he whispered, shifting to one side and moving to lie down next to Kalazael on the floor. “They tried, they succeeded, I got the hole to prove it. But I got free. Fashioned myself a wing, screwed it into bone and muscle, used faith and trust and pixie dust and everything we’re not supposed to in order to keep it together and working. When I got back to Malibu, I made it better. And I covered the gaping hole they took from me.”
“I’m sorry for what they did to you.”
“I’m sorry for what they did to you,” Tony countered.
They lay there on the cold concrete floor for a long while, listening to the soft breaths of the Initiates and the beeping of the electronics that were working.
“It’s never this quiet in my lab,” Tony muttered under his breath after a few moments, shifting to curl up against Kalazael’s arm. “I’ve always got one of my robots whirring around. Can’t stand the silence after – after.”
Kalazael patted Tony’s arm. “You flew straight from Malibu to here, didn’t you? No stops?”
“Had to stop,” Tony yawned. “Pep needed restroom and eating breaks.”
Running his fingers through Tony’s hair, Kalazael murmured, “Rest your eyes a bit. I’ll wake you in an hour or two, and we’ll get back to work.”
“You’re a good friend, Bruce,” Tony slurred, nuzzling into Kalazael’s chest and breathing in deep. “Not like director dickhead or asshole angel.”
And with that, Tony fell asleep, leaving Kalazael to choke on his laughter and do his best not to go into hysterics at what Head Initiate Fury and Gabrael would say about their new titles.
Michael stepped into the room behind Gabrael and studied his brother. Of the members of the Host, Michael would be hard pressed to find one other besides Lucael who was as old as himself. Oh, there had been mentors for him, of course. He had inherited his title from his mentor, who had been one of the few of the Host who had retired instead of being cut down when he was young.
What that really meant was very little. Age or seniority didn’t work like that within the Host. But Michael fancied that he knew more of the world, comprehended it a bit better. For example, he knew his brother Gabrael, had fought alongside Gabrael for centuries before Gabrael had fallen and taken a part of Michael’s soul with him to the bottom of the ocean. He knew his friend was hurting, and he needed to help in any way he could.
Even if it was just letting Gabrael release steam in a sparring session.
Gabrael was antsy and nervous, wings quivering with suppressed emotion, and Michael found himself sighing. He knew, at least, what would get Gabrael worked up like this. Zaphkael may be shorter than most other members of the Host, too lean and thin to be a warrior, but beyond that, looking into animated brown eyes and listening to fast speech spilling in a rambling sarcastic diatribe – Michael could see an echo of Chaylael there. And if he could see it, Gabrael would have noticed it immediately.
“Have you had time to recover your strength?” Gabrael asked Michael, voice tight.
“Enough,” Michael murmured. “Enough to spar with you now. There were few humans in the past who could join with the likes of us and be useful instead of a hindrance, and that has not changed over time. We will make do.”
“This is – this is a shot in the dark. Worse, because at least a shot has the capability to hurt if it hits; we’re a joke. Three weak members of the Host and two badly drained warriors. The Tes’rae is as good as gone.”
“Nay, now you speak from desperation and frustration,” Michael rumbled, stepping over to Gabrael’s side and placing a heavy hand on Gabrael’s shoulder. The younger man shifted uneasily under Michael’s hand, but Michael wasn’t about to let go, not yet. “Give these young ones time. They are eager to help and most knowledgeable in their fields. They have demonstrated aptitude and courage.”
Gabrael snorted. “All of them?”
“You may remember young Zaphkael as a rowdy member of the Host, before his title was conferred upon him and he was assigned to Ourael as an apprentice. Ourael did not take Zaphkael into the field all that often, but surely you can recall stories of youths that crept into battle and aided their mentors – Zaphkael was one such youth. I may not know who he has become, nor understand why he acts in the manner that he does, but I know that his heart and his grace is pure and strong. He will not falter, and he will not break.”
Folding his arms, Gabrael turned to meet Michael’s gaze. “But he might bend. He’s not a hero, like Ourael. Like Cha – like Bucky.”
Michael smiled tiredly. “There are very few members of the Host who could be a hero in the way that you and Chaylael were in that final battle. I do not think I could meet your exacting standards. My temper is too sharp, my rage too easily roused. We are not without our flaws, and we are made better because of them, not lessened.”
For a long moment, Gabrael stared at Michael, and Michael let his hand drop from Gabrael’s shoulder. The younger male was a superb fighter with a soft and noble heart, but there were times when he grew inflexible and stubborn. Normally, he only grew short with others when he was tired or stressed – both of which could apply in this situation – but there was something else there in Gabrael’s eyes, something that Michael had seen once, over a hundred years ago, when Gabrael first met Chaylael.
Bringing it up to Gabrael would not help, especially since Gabrael was still unaware of his own feelings and thus would not be receptive in the least to the implication that he was short and snappish with Zaphkael because he found Zaphkael physically attractive. No, Michael would have to wait and see if the infatuation deepened into something more serious, and then delicately bring it up. That may take days, or years – it had taken years with Chaylael, though that had been in part because the admiration Gabrael had for his close friend went unexpressed during the years that they had been training under separate mentors.
Instead, Michael gestured to the training mats at the back of the room. “Do you wish some physical activity, to settle your mind?” he asked.
Gabrael looked at the mats. It was fairly late at night, and there were few Initiates within the gym facilities, and most of those willingly ignored the two members of the Host amongst them. After a moment, Gabrael nodded and rolled his shoulders. “It’s been a while; I need to get back into shape,” he said quietly. “Thank you, Michael.”
Bumping Gabrael’s shoulders with his own, and letting his grey wings slide soothingly against Gabrael’s white ones, Michael felt warmth seep into his smile. “The pleasure is mine, Steve. Long has it been since I have had someone to spar with separate from training. You are an old and dear friend.”
That eased something in Gabrael, and it was with looser shoulders and relaxed wings that Steve, not Gabrael, stepped up to the mats and fell into starting position.
With a wide grin on his face, Thor shucked the title and the weight of it in his mind, immersing himself in the present, in a sparring match with an old friend.
It was both familiar and not, sparring with Steve. Thor had spent many an hour with Steve, Loki, Warren, Scott, and Benjamin, testing his strength and mettle against theirs. Here, now, Steve was both desperate and driven, far different than the laid-back teasing and taunting that normally accompanied such an activity in their youth. But he remembered Steve’s moves, the way Steve twisted and turned, the strength in Steve’s shoulders and the length of Steve’s reach. He remembered Steve’s propensity to eschew dirty tricks, tricks that Loki and Scott used without fear and that the rest of them tried to avoid if possible. Oh, Thor knew that not all opponents were honorable, but when it came to fighting, particularly with his brothers, he kept his movements clean and straightforward.
Steve was rusty – there were several points where he left himself open to attack, or overextended – but this was not to beat Steve down, merely to give Steve time to find his feet in this new life, to get used to limbs that had not been used in decades. Thor, at the very least, only had to become used to the culture and the swirl of humanity around him – Steve had that more to deal with, and he was not dealing well in the first place.
After they had gone an good amount – perhaps an hour – Thor dodged a blow and said through his panting, “Zaphkael seems a sharp young man.”
Steve’s eyes flashed, and his next attack was far more vicious than his previous ones. “Zaphkael is a self-centered idiot who think of himself and his amusement.”
“He reminds me of lost friends,” Thor said, and his voice was shaking from more than just exertion at the moment.
At that, Steve froze, and Thor could not pull his punch in time, sending Steve sprawling across the room. Steve landed with a grunt, and Thor, wide-eyed and worried, rushed over to his side, the tips of his wings fluttering in agitated motion. “Steve, brother, I apologize most heartily! I did not expect your uncharacteristic reaction.”
“No, it’s fine,” Steve groaned, rubbing his chin, wings flopping in an ungainly mess as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. “I should have paid more attention and not get thrown off my stride like that.”
“True enough, though it pains me to see you hurt because of mine actions,” Thor admitted.
Still rubbing at his jaw, Steve eyed Thor a long moment. “You brought Zaphkael up for a reason.”
Thor waited a few heartbeats before slowly nodding his head. “Aye. You had not a problem with Kalazael or Razial before this – only when he arrived did you show any agitation. I wonder if it is because of him, or because of who he resembles.”
“He’s not like Chaylael,” Steve said softly.
Thor clasped Steve’s shoulder in commiseration. “That is true, Steve. But is that not a good thing? To look for the past in the present will only bog a warrior down and prevent him from enjoying the present to its fullest.”
With that, Thor figured he’d done his best to try and let Steve work out his aggression and frustration. Patting Steve’s back, he stood up and made his way out of the gym. He needed a place to rest and wait, because soon they would be out on their quest to locate and lock down the Tes’rae, and a tired warrior was a warrior who put his entire company in danger.
Though he may stop and visit the kitchens before he took himself to bed…
Tony came slowly awake, which in and of itself should have been a sign right there. When had he come slowly awake ever? Even before his capture and time under a Chitauri knife, he had come awake all at once, bright and eager and ready to do something new, something exciting. His mind rarely slept, even if his body did, and his dreams were vivid nightmares or scattered dreams of numbers and blueprints.
But now, now he blinked open bleary eyes to stare at the broad chest underneath his nose. It had been a while since he’d fallen asleep with someone in his bed, he thought muzzily, and tried to remember yesterday’s events. He certainly didn’t recall finding someone to share his bed with, or at least, couldn’t recall any of the activities sharing a bed usually entailed for himself.
Which is, of course, when he realized he wasn’t in a bed, but somewhere much harder and colder on his back and on his mechanical wing, which was protesting the unnatural position in which he’d fallen asleep. With a groan, he pushed himself up a little and rubbed at his eyes, blinked a few times. Maybe he’d fallen asleep in his lab, but why—
“—manage to get this far, really. It’s only been a day.”
“Well, I’m glad that he did. The sooner we solve this—”
“We need to tell Gabrael and Michael that it might not be the weeks we projected, but rather days. This is – this is leaps and bounds beyond what I proposed, here—”
First speaker was Phil, Tony realized groggily. Second was Pep, and third had to be Natasha – the voice was recognizable but not overly so, and female, and the only recognizable females to him in this Chapel were Pepper and Natasha. He licked his lips and realized he had ended up drooling on Bruce’s chest; there was a damp spot on the other man’s shirt. Grimacing, he glanced around and realized that the reason it was so hard and cold was because he was on the floor.
“Ugh,” he grunted, and gripped the edge of the table to haul himself upright. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep – the New York Chapel was situated mostly underground, which didn’t allow for a lot of natural light that the Malibu Chapel had by virtue of being atop a hill and in a cliff, that allowed for windows facing the sea. Then again, a lot of old Chapels were built like bomb shelters from long ago; the only reason the Malibu Chapel wasn’t like that was because Tony had insisted on building an entirely new chapel instead of heading back to the Los Angeles Chapel, allowing the protection of solid rock while not sacrificing safety for a good view.
And if it was because he was claustrophobic and still sometimes got panic attacks when in a dark, enclosed area for too long, well. No one had figured that out yet.
Pep, voice amused. She could be amused – Tony hadn’t leaned on her strength to get them here, only to keep himself from noticing when his mechanical wing began to protest and the nerves in his back and shoulders began to scream.
“What are you doing in here?” he grumbled, focusing on her. She was standing with Phil and Natasha around the table where he’d been working before Kalazael had come down, before Gabrael had interrupted them. “Shoo. Don’t you have other things to do?”
“We’re all waiting for you to pull something brilliant out of your ass,” Pepper said wryly.
Tony couldn’t help but preen at that. Phil looked amused and Natasha exasperated, but Pepper had that fond look that made Tony feel like his foolishness was worth that smile. “Of course. Then again, you got it halfway there, Nat.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t call me that.”
“Tasha? Tash? Natalie? Razzy-baby?”
A hand poked his calf, and he looked down to see Kalazael slowly getting up, his deep black and purple wings stretching and relaxing with the sound of soft leather folding and unfolding. “Don’t upset Razial,” Kalazael said mildly.
Tony knew, of course, that most members of the Host embraced their titles thoroughly, some even forgetting their human names entirely and living just as their title, but he never saw the point in that. He had earned the title Zaphkael because of his talents and his magical quirk; that didn’t stop him from being Tony, an engineer in his former life and a certified genius who had died while trying to stop his inventions from killing millions of innocents. He was proud of his origins, even if they were humble and not like Steve or Bruce, both of which had much better histories than he did. No one knew Natasha’s, of course, because she kept herself shrouded in mystery because she was frustrating like that, and Thor was one of the very oldest and very first members of the Host that it was a wonder he still remembered his name.
And Clint, well, Clint was a lot like Tony – died saving people from something he had done himself. Hardly heroic, and they bonded over that and their second chance. Or had, at least – it’d been at least fifty years since he’d last physically seen Clint.
“Alright, well, question still stands, what are you all doing here? I can’t work with you underfoot, go scurry somewhere else, c’mon, I’m close to a breakthrough and once I get this filter going and Brucie gets this scanner up we’re gonna be in business.”
Phil pulled at the schematics Tony had been drawing. “Your plans look like both of these will be finished at the same time – I don’t think sending out a team to locate the Tes’rae would be helpful without the tracker you designed here, but looking at the tracker, I think the filter will be finished first. This tracker looks really complicated, you know. We don’t have half the items you listed here, and the other half will take a while to scrounge up.”
“Eh, give me two or three days, or one or two, depending on what’s available,” Tony said, waving a hand nonchalantly.
“If the items aren’t here, you can’t magic them out of nothing.”
That was a new voice, and one that had offered judgment last night. Tony did not need further frowns from tight-assed-white-winged-sticks-in-the-mud. “If you have nothing helpful to offer, Stevie-baby, I don’t think you get to contribute to the discussion here,” Tony said pointedly, turning away from where Steve was standing and moving towards the mess of electrical pieces.
Steve’s hand shot out, gripping tight Tony’s elbow, and Tony whipped around, wings flaring in defense as he knocked Steve’s hand away.
The entire room was silent.
“My name is Gabrael. You may shit all over your title, but you won’t do the same to mine,” Gabrael snarled.
“Yeah? I know all about you, Gabrael, and I know that you got this title because someone felt sorry for you somewhere. I earned my title of a genius and millionaire and hundreds of other things, and deserve to be remembered however I fucking want to,” Tony hissed back, feeling his grace and magics begin to whip about his body like a miniature hurricane.
“I knew guys that died in that last war without all that and are still worth ten of you,” Gabrael said cuttingly. “Stop thinking you can waltz in here and have us clap at your cleverness.”
“Oh-kay now, we’re gonna go get something to eat,” Pepper cut in, eyes hard as she inserted herself between Steve – sorry, Gabrael – and Tony, taking Tony’s hand and tugging him towards the doorway. “You barely ate anything last night and we need to discuss what items you’ll need Razial and Kalazael to locate to get these things made.”
“Actually, I think I can figure out the basics, you just go ahead and eat something. I’m sure they have coffee here; if you could bring me back a cup, that’d be nice.” Bruce stepped forward, picking up the small scanner he’d been working with last night, neatly inserting himself between Gabrael and Pepper.
Before Tony could really work himself up – or, rather, before Tony could really let loose on the insufferable dick who was standing in his lab, in his space – Pepper had ushered him out the doorway and was dragging him down the hallway. Around them, initiates scrambled to get out of the way.
Well. His wings were still outstretched, and his chest was glowing. He could understand why, even if their fear only pissed him off even more.
“Tony,” she said warningly.
“No, Pep, no, aren’t you supposed to call me Zaphkael, don’t shit on my title, you know? Gabrael is a fucking prick the self-righteous and pretentions asshole!”
The last bit was shouted, and had the few initiates that were hugging the walls of the corridor disappearing like smoke. Michael, who was down the hall, simply stared.
Tony stopped, vibrating with fury and hurt, and his hands were coming up before he knew it in a defensive posture. “You have something to add, Stormwing?” he snarled. “Something to cram down my throat?”
Michael cocked his head at Tony and smiled bemusedly. “I know not what your intent is, desiring a fight so, but I shall not oblige. Have you broken your fast yet?”
“Won’t fucking deal with me, huh?” Tony snarled, and there was rage curling in his chest, rage and power that had his normally blue grace starting to shade towards red. “Think you’re too good for me?”
“I think that whatever matter drove you to this is petty enough that it can be set aside to hear my report,” Michael said coldly. “Do not forget whom you speak to thusly.”
“Believe me, I fucking won’t!” Tony snarled.
“Tony,” Pepper growled, dragging him down a side hallway. He could feel her mind, terrified and furious on his behalf, and it helped more than she would ever realize in calming him down. Not a lot – planes above, definitely not a lot – but enough that he didn’t dig his feet in and confront the oldest of the Host all in full-out battle.
“Tony, look, you need food. I know you burned through a lot of your energy yesterday. They’ve got vegetables, fresh vegetables, here for you.”
“They’ve got no right!” Tony seethed.
Pepper grabbed his face and forced him to look her in the eyes, her green eyes focused and intense. “Look. You’ve dealt with this before. You’ve had to handle it. What’s wrong now? What’s going on?”
Tony shrugged away and stormed down the hallway.
That? That was what Howard couldn’t shut up about? That was who Howard wanted Tony to be more like? That aggravating dick?
He stalked into the kitchen and glowered at the first person he saw. “Vegetables. Fresh. And coffee.”
“Say please!” the kid snipped at him.
That made him pause, and he stared at the unruly mop of hair for a moment before tilting his head. “Who are you, kid?”
“I’m the person you gotta go through if you think you’re gonna find something to eat,” the kid replied.
“You gotta name?” Tony asked, feeling his wings slowly relax against his back, even if they didn’t fold back yet.
Blue eyes watched him suspiciously. “Harley,” the kid finally said.
“Well. Harley. I would like some coffee and something green. And fresh.” He paused, and then as if conferring a great favor, said, “Please.”
Apparently he wasn’t as cool as he thought he was; the kid just rolled his eyes and trotted away from the pot on the oven. “Here,” Harley said, fishing out some—
“Holy fuck are those actual real blueberries?”
“Ah, ah!” Harley jerked them away and put them behind his back. “What do you say?”
Tony blinked at Harley and then grinned, something in him settling. “I like you, kid.”
Kalazael came into the kitchen to see Initiate Pepper (‘Don’t call me Initiate Potts, it sounds ridiculous’) perched on one of the tables, Tony and a kid huddled in the corner around some appliance of some kind. Around them was the normal bustle that heralded dinner – people cooking and chopping, getting plates and bowls together and silverware washed. Every so often, one of the workers would glare in the kid’s direction, but both Tony and the kid ignored the movement around them.
“What’s going on?” he asked Initiate Pepper.
“Oh, Harley told Tony that no one could get the old coffeemaker working, since it wasn’t compatible with the electrical output the Chapel’s generators put out in their outlets. Tony said that he could. So, here we are.” She turned to look at him with a dangerous look in her eyes. “They’re having fun.”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied easily. “I just thought maybe Tony wouldn’t mind translating a bit of his notes for me, since I’m not sure I understand his schematics all that much. Or, rather, I understood it all, but I’m not sure if he really meant this piece or if Razial and myself can substitute another piece in its place without messing anything up.”
The woman gave him a terrifyingly level stare before motioning to the two people hunched on the floor. “Honestly, I’d let him get this out of his system, but if you’re willing to bother him then be my guest.”
With that lackluster permission, Kalazael moved over to the corner and watched for a minute as two sets of hands worked quickly and competently to reassemble the gutted machine. They were both talking in quick, shorthanded sentences, focused intently on their work before them. After watching for a minute or two, he decided that he really could wait – which was when Tony reached out and motioned for him to come in closer. “Hey, you got strong fingers, we’re trying to coil this wire, can you just grab the end of it and twist?”
The kid looked up at him, blond mop of hair bobbing about cheeks and chin. “Who’s he?”
“This is Bruce, say hi, don’t be a hooligan, Bruce, this is Harley, they don’t bite all that much and I’m pretty sure they had their rabies shots.”
“Hey – Tony, I just wanted to ask your help with something, actually—” Kalazael began, which is when both Tony and Harley fixed him with an expectant stare and he found himself caving like wet papyrus.
Tony had a – a type of joy about him, focused entirely and wholly on the project in front of him, and Harley was clumsy but willing to learn, all the basics there. Bruce found himself interjecting into the conversation more and more as he found out that both Harley and Tony would talk over him if he gave the two of them half the chance.
When the three of them had finally gotten the machine working, albeit jerkily and messily, Tony wiped his hands on his trousers and turned to Bruce. “You didn’t come to me for that, though. Let’s take a look at what you’ve got done.”
It took Bruce a few minutes to remember his original reason for being there, and then another couple of seconds to figure out where the paper had gone. Locating it, he put it in front of Tony and tapped one of the components Tony had hastily sketched last night before they’d been interrupted. “That piece, there – Razial and I think we found a substitute for it, but we’re not sure if you wanted that specific kind of scanner or not.”
Tony frowned, picking up the piece of paper and eyeing it. “You’ve found everything else?”
Bruce smiled faintly. “The nice thing about an old industrial city is that it isn’t that hard to find machine parts in junkyards. We sent Michael and Gabrael out to bring back what we didn’t have.”
At Gabrael’s name, Tony’s eyes narrowed, but Bruce preemptively stalled the anger or outburst by poking at the paper again. “See, your scanner’s designed to pick up the aural radiation via radio waves, but I’ve been around this a lot longer and I think a simple light scanner, fine-tined to pick up the short aural waves, will give us a way to track the Tes’rae even if it’s more prone to breaking. It’s certainly easier than trying to jury rig a radio scanner from the bits we have – the type of parts we’d need for that are ridiculously tiny and therefore much harder to find.”
Folding his hands over his chest, Tony tapped a finger against the glass covering in a slow, steady motion. “Huh. You’re absolutely sure about this?”
“Of course,” Bruce said, mildly affronted.
“Well, then, why ask me?” Tony hitched a shoulder and continued, “Let’s get it done and get it trucking. This time tomorrow we should be out on the road, tracking it down!”
“We still need the filter that will lock the Tes’rae’s power down, keep it from activating and stabilizing the portals,” Bruce cautioned.
Tony waved a hand dismissively. “I’ve already got most of what I need to do that. It’s a simple effort of reversing the radiation and changing its speed – we just need to make that power source incompatible with the portals. Mess with the output and nothing can plug into it anymore.”
Bruce looked at the coffeemaker and smiled.
Gabrael couldn’t do much to help the three scientists, except stay out of their way. Initiate Coulson had witnessed Gabrael’s – uncharacteristic interaction with Zaphkael, and while he hadn’t said a word to Gabrael, the quiet condemnation was worse.
Kalazael and Razial had both sent him and Michael out throughout the city, scouring the junk heaps for this or that piece of machinery, and it was with a mixture of relief and guilt that Gabrael noticed Zaphkael did not return all day. By the end of it, Kalazael had left, grumbling under his breath with a paper sheet clutched in his hands. Razial had proceeded to take him to task for his behavior with just a few short and cutting sentences that had been devastating.
Michael hadn’t said a word at all, and somehow that had been even worse.
The next morning, he’d awoken to find that overnight Kalazael, Razial, and Zaphkael had managed to cobble together both a scanner and a filter and once they had rested up, they were ready to go. Now that the time for action was upon them, Gabrael was more in control, less likely to go off on someone.
So while Michael once more tried to reach all nearby members of the Host in order to make their party a little less laughable, Gabrael was stuck trying to pull together a task force of initiates that would allow him and Michael to tap into their full potential. As it was, he and Michael had been passed between Initiate Hill, Initiate Fury, and Initiate Coulson intermittently. Gabrael knew, and acknowledged, that linking a mortal mind to one of the top members of the Host was difficult under the best of circumstances, but he and Michael needed a steady mind to ground them and allow them to pull power if (when) it came to a fight. Without the presence of an initiate to share the mental and magical load, he and Michael would be no better off than any of the other three on this journey. Worse, in some ways. And while Initiate Hill and Initiate Fury had both agreed to remain secluded and mentally linked with Michael and Gabrael, that didn’t change the fact that distance would put a strain on both the Initiates’ minds as well as on Michael and Gabrael’s strength. What they really needed, and were unlikely to get, were many Initiates trained to pair their minds with a member of the Host, who could conceivably trade off with one another when either Gabrael or Michael’s minds were getting too much to take.
“We don’t have enough Initiates trained in handling members of the Host, not members like you and Michael,” Fury grunted. “Sure, we got kids who think they’re hotshots, think they can handle it, but none of them really know what it’s like to pair to a mind that’s been around for millennia. It’s humbling and maddening, to a degree.”
“There’s got to be someone we can take,” Gabrael implored. “I understand you and Hill need to stay here, and because of our warrior rank Michael and I should be fine without having you close by – but Initiate Pepper can only handle Zaphkael and no one else. Initiate Coulson might be able to do it, except we need him to try and reconnect with Sabrael, bring him back. All Coulson’s attention will be focused there. We need someone around in case Kalazael loses control – having a mind chain his mental self down might help him keep control over himself.”
“The nature of Kalazael means that I don’t trust just any Initiate to handle it,” Fury snarled. “I need all my Initiates in good fighting order, and anyone who tries to control Kalazael on a good day let alone a bad day will have difficulties from the man’s mental issues.”
Gabrael met Fury’s eyes levelly. “We’ve got to try, sir.”
After a long moment, Fury blew out an explosive sigh and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ll send Hill out into the field with you. She’s trained to handle two members of the Host at once. That’s the best I can give you.”
“How about switching Michael to someone else? Let Hill deal with Kalazael, and Kalazael alone?” Gabrael pushed.
Muttering filthy curses, Fury pointed at the door. “Out. I’ll see what I can do, but don’t plan on it, hotshot.”
Stepping out of the office, giving Fury a respectful bow – one which Fury didn’t see since he was looking at the reports on his desk – Gabrael turned around to nearly bowl Initiate Coulson over.
“Ah,” Gabrael said awkwardly. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no, my fault entirely. Are you ready to go? You don’t look ready.”
Gabrael looked down at the tough pants and rough shirt before looking back up at Initiate Coulson. “How so?” he asked curiously.
“Just – you aren’t up there, loading up on horses to track the location of the Tes’rae? No pack, nothing with you?”
“We’ll – I was just going to fly,” Gabrael said in confusion. “What do we need, beyond our handler’s attention, ready to give power to us at less than a moment’s notice?”
Initiate Phil nodded slowly. “Well, there’ll be horses for the initiates, at the very least, and definitely one or two of the members of your party will be riding.”
Gabrael opened his mouth to ask why – if they had perfectly serviceable wings, then they definitely didn’t need mounts, and the handlers could ride with the Host – until he remembered the mechanical contraption taking place of Zaphkael’s wing, and the small size of Razial’s wings, and the oversized and likely impractical wings of Kalazael. Closing his mouth, he let out a huff of a sigh and muttered under his breath, “Off to save the world with winged ones that can’t fly and half of which are damaged – and the other half are too old.”
Initiate Coulson smiled a little. “I think the group will surprise you.”
Razial had to admit that she was the least patient out of the entire group. With Gabrael and Zaphkael snipping at one another, leaving cryptic messages just within earshot of one another while casually ignoring the growing anger of the group, she was ready to strangle the both of them and leave them for dead.
“Do you know,” Kalazael murmured by her side, his horse awkwardly settled in the same pace as her own gelding, “I think Michael’s ready to bring lightning down on the both of them?”
Her breath left her in a huff. “I am not the only one fed up with them?”
“Oh Razial, right now I’m imagining sitting on Tony’s head,” Kalazael chuckled.
“Well, some of us have important things to carry, so,” Zaphkael said airily into space, some tangential meant to dig at Gabrael, whose mount only had him and him alone to carry.
“That’s it,” Razial growled, half-turning in her saddle to glower at the red-winged male and mouth open to scold both him and Gabrael for their highly unprofessional behavior.
Which was when they were ambushed.
They had been traveling through an old, now-overgrown park, following the visual traces of leftover radiation still dotting the landscape – a clear trail that couldn’t be wiped away by rain or wind, only the breakdown of elements over time – and it seemed like the worst place for an ambush. In a wide open space, room to maneuver for the winged members of the group and clear space for aiming weapons – it seemed ridiculous. The advantage would be for those being ambushed, not the ones attacking. Normally.
But they were taken thoroughly by surprise. Chitauri boiled out of the semi-tall grass and wild growth, blue-grey humanoids with dull bronze armor and glowing red eyes. Immediately, the horses screamed, rearing and nearly throwing the Initiates to the ground.
A Chitauri grabbed the calf of a mounted Initiate, and that Initiate’s eyes went light blue.
“Shit,” Razial grunted, throwing herself off her horse and at the Initiate, gauntlets of electricity crackling into existence.
Michael let out a defiant yell, one that was echoed by the very heavens themselves in a thunderclap and the muted roar of a lightning strike. He and Gabrael had jumped aloft in seconds, trained warriors responding to an attack by removing themselves from the immediate action and taking aim with their personal weapons.
Too bad that there were two winged ones under the command of the Chitauri who also flew in the air.
Out of the sun, Lucael’s black and red wings snapped open as he dived at Michael, knocking the warrior from the sky and onto the ground. Lucael wielded a bladed scepter or spear with deadly precision, drawing blood from Michael’s arm and leg before Michael responded properly and began to defend himself.
Razial lost track of him then, plunged into battle herself. Chitauri were puppet masters, and the element of surprise allowed them to get far closer to the Initiates than they would have otherwise. She knew that somewhere to her left, Zaphkael was hissing like an enraged cat, mechanical bangs and explosions making her eardrums ache. Michael was still locked in combat with Lucael last she saw – but she was focused on the humans under their care, the ones that were mentally being taken over by Chitauri. A good enough knock to the head early in the possession stage could knock the Chitauri influence out, but the longer they were possessed by the Chitauri, the more desperate the measures would need to be to knock the Chitauri out of their mind. There were some members of the Host who were strong enough mentally to reach out to possessed minds and remove the influence of the Chitauri, but they were rare and the method itself took too long.
Punching someone in the head was quicker and normally produced the same results.
A familiar war cry had her fumbling a hold, and she turned to realize that it wasn’t just Lucael fighting his brother, but Sabrael as well. Sabrael, who was engaged with Gabrael and Zaphkael both. Sabrael, whose eyes trailed blue fire and whose mottled brown wings were reflecting crimson undertones that hadn’t been present in his feathers before.
Phil’s voice had her snapping out of it, barely in time to avoid the Chitauri warrior from decapitating her. Grimly, she focused on the battle, on nothing but taking down all the Chitauri she could reach.
She turned, electricity crackling at her fingertips, and saw Kalazael.
This – this was the feared abomination told in whispered stories and cautionary tales by Initiates everywhere. Gone was the short, unassuming man with greying hair at the temples and warm brown eyes filled with sharp intelligence – this was a grey-skinned grotesque half-man, half-Chitauri monster nearly twice the size of a normal human. The oversized wings that had never folded away properly when Bruce walked were suddenly no longer oversized but terrifyingly proportionate, the black and purple plumage a sickly green that pulsed with Kalazael’s rage. He was nothing more than a beast, a massive hulk of muscle and animal power that tore apart Chitauri with his bare hands, ignoring the fact that he came close to trampling the Initiates. Most got out of the way in time.
Some did not.
She watched in horror and primal fear as the monstrosity tore up the ground, swing a headless corpse like a club to knock other Chitauri flying. It was only when she heard Zaphkael yelling, shouting Sabrael’s name, that she shook herself free of the paralyzing terror and turned her back on the creature that was decimating the landscape.
Zaphkael was flying, mechanical wing obviously slower to respond than his natural wing, though he was overall a fairly good flyer for someone missing one wing. Before him, Sabrael shot through the air, a bag around Sabrael’s neck. The filter, and the scanner.
Sabrael could not be allowed to leave with that bag.
Zaphkael was holding his own, and even gaining on Sabrael, but he had obviously been in the air a while because his wing was clicking in protest and he looked greyed out, beat up, exhausted. She zipped past him, her small wings affording her better maneuverability, and twisted around the minute she overtook Sabrael to fold her wings and drop like a stone onto him.
He obviously wasn’t expecting that – no member of the Host simply stopped flying in midair, even if it was to dive at another flying opponent – and they went crashing to the ground in an uncontrolled fall.
Hopefully, the long fall would knock the Chitauri presence loose. If not, well. She had her electricity, which sometimes worked, and she had stubborn fists. Eventually, something would knock loose the control he was under.
They hit the ground in a jarring crash, one that had him groaning and for a minute, she was so certain he’d be fine, that Phil could reach out and touch his mind and bring him back.
But when he looked up at her, swaying on his knees, his eyes still trailed ice-blue sparks.
With a frustrated snarl, she spun, the heel of her foot lashing out at his temple, but he rolled away and came up fighting. The two of them were twins in all but blood; their fighting styles were different, yes, and where Natasha as slim and toned Clint was compact and rough, but they sparred so often together that there wasn’t much difference in their levels of skill. He grabbed her hair and she sank teeth into his arm; he backhanded her and she mule-kicked him in the groin. Their fight was vicious and neither one was pulling punches, too focused on taking the other one down, hard, to notice anything going on around them.
Which was why, she would realize later, she hadn’t noticed. Why she had gained the upper hand and grabbed Clint’s temples, electricity sparking from her fingertips to knock him unconscious, all without knowing. Why, when she stood back from Clint and looked up, she realized that what she was staring at was Phil, impaled, on Lucael’s weapon.
She didn’t scream. Or cry. She didn’t even fold from the sudden mental loss, the gaping hole in the corner of her mind where Phil had once been. Instead she stood, and stared, and watched as Phil was discarded like so much extra baggage.
She stood there, and stared, until the fight was over, long after Kalazael had gone off into the woods somewhere, lost.
Gabrael came to lift Sabrael’s limp form.
“C’mon, Nat,” Zaphkael murmured, taking her by the shoulders. He was scorched and bruised, sooty and smelling of burned grace, but he wasn’t overly gentle or tentative – and she forced herself to acknowledge his clumsy motions, too-heavy hands, and tired limbs that dragged at her.
She put Phil’s death to the back of her mind, and forced herself to continue. They still had a job to do.
“I’m pretty sure we’re right on top of it, which means that since we can’t see it, it’s down there,” Zaphkael snarled.
Gabrael folded his arms. “No one is going down there by themselves. We’re going to wait for backup to arrive and then we’re going to proceed cautiously down—”
“Fuck your caution!” Zaphkael growled.
Michael and Razial hung back from the two arguing, watching the drama played out in front of an old subway entrance as Initiate Hill and Potts contacted the New York Chapel to ask them how to proceed, the other Initiates milling about in a defensive position.
“Ten bucks says Zaphkael loses his temper in ten minutes,” Razial murmured, but her voice was so world-weary. She had lost her Initiate, Michael remembered, and he ached for her even as he was helpless to do anything but stand and watch.
So he did not answer, merely stood back and observed, listening and filing away but not interrupting or contributing in any way. Not that he could – he and Gabrael could bond over the fact that they were out of their time and out of place, that they had nothing in common with this world, but the truth of the matter was that Gabrael was always the better brother at blending in. Steve remembered what it was like to be small and picked on, and he related well to humans in that area. Michael was old, one of the oldest of the Host along with Lucael, and he had long forgotten any type of closeness or similarity with humanity. Now, as he watched the bickering and the sniping, he had to admit he didn’t feel he missed much.
Then again, looking at the stores of knowledge within the Chapel, listening to the scrabbling fight these humans had every day just to continue living… perhaps humanity wasn’t all as bad as he thought. Certainly not as weak as he and Lucael had once assumed races had to be, in order to allow themselves to be possessed by the Chitauri.
The Chitauri, who had started out as a parasitic race on one world, a world that the Host was in charge of guarding. A world that the Host had tried to cultivate, only to realize that the Chitauri were not symbiotic as they had once believed but parasites, a virus, infecting their host by jumping mentally from body to body and wearing their host out faster than the Chitauri’s magic could heal it.
The Chitauri, who had made the Host pay dearly for ever attempting to aid their race.
They did not have the time to continue this pointless bickering – bickering which was only intensified by the fear in both Gabrael and Zaphkael’s minds, if not voices. Finally, Michael decided it was in the best interests of all if he stepped in.
“Enough,” he rumbled. “This arguing gets us nowhere. It is plain that the Tes’rae is below ground. We will leave our weakened brother aboveground, with the Initiates, in an easily defensible position, while we four descend and locate the Tes’rae.”
“Going into enemy territory,” Gabrael began hotly, but Michael interrupted.
“Is the only option we have, little brother. There is no other way in which we can locate the Tes’rae. If there was, if there was merit to finding another route, I would be first to help you, but we are losing time and we are down one member of our group.”
“He’ll come back,” Zaphkael grunted. “In fact, Pep, I’d really like it if you could alert me the minute Bruce comes back, because I trust that he’ll come back. In the meantime, if you could hold onto this for me, that’d be great.”
Initiate Potts looked both exasperated and strained as she took the bag from Zaphkael that held the filter – the tracker, obviously, was coming with the members of the Host as they traveled through the underground system. Michael could spare some sympathy to her and the other Initiates; with Coulson’s death, they were down one of their most skilled handlers. Razial was linked with one of the supporting Initiates, a woman of Asian descent named May, but it was clear that both Razial and May were uncomfortable and uneasy with one another. Initiate Sitwell was trying to link to Sabrael’s mind, bring the smaller man around, but Sabrael was unresponsive – and that drained on all of them, worrying what that could mean.
No, that was a lie. They knew very well what it meant, when one of theirs was Taken and then their mind was unreachable – they just refused to acknowledge it. Not now.
Initiate Hill, who had attempted to control Kalazael in the ambush, was suffering from the backlash of her mental connection to him at the time of his transformation from friend into beast. The other three Initiates were, to varying degrees, wounded or suffering from the mental strain of trying to pass off overpowered members of the Host between their minds. As it was, Michael was feeling drained, weakened, as he did his absolute best to keep from leaning on the three Initiates who were trying to support his mind with their own – he had not had time to catch their names. He only knew that if it came down to a fight, he would not be at his best, keeping himself in careful check and unable to access the store of power he had at his disposal because he would burn out their minds with the connection.
The most important thing, at this moment, was protecting Sabrael – unresponsive and therefore not much more than dead weight – and making certain the mortals would be safe. Relatively speaking, of course, but as he and Gabrael systematically searched for a good defensive position outside the crumbling subway entrance, they both acknowledged this would give the Initiates a better chance of surviving the day.
Eventually, they located a building not too far away that wasn’t too dilapidated, one that would afford the Initiates the advantage of the high ground while not keeping them pinned or stuck in an area they couldn’t retreat from. The remaining horses were tied in the alley, feedbags around noses to keep them as fresh as possible, and once the two of them had the Initiates situated and Sabrael protected with them, Gabrael was ready to return to the group.
Michael squatted down next to Sabrael, brushing fingers through sand-blond hair, and looked at Initiate Sitwell. “There was an old tactic of Initiates, one that would allow one strong Initiate to link all members of the Host nearby telepathically. Is this something you know how to do?”
Initiate Sitwell slowly shook his head, but Initiate Hill had her sleeve pressed against her nosebleed, eyes bloodshot, and she was nodding. “It’s an old battle tactic,” she said, voice weak but no less certain. “I’m not sure it’s taught anymore. But I can try to link you four together. Or.” She winced and bit her lip. “If I can’t, I’ll try to have Sitwell replicate it, and I’ll work on Sabrael.”
“Your effort in this area would be much appreciated,” Michael responded gravely. “I must leave, now, and if your attempts succeed we will know, of course. If they do not, I thank you for trying.”
Rejoining with the group gave Michael new purpose. There were no mortals to protect, no bodies to carry. Just the goal before them, and the certainty that they could not fail.
“Splitting up has got to be one of the most stupid things—”
“Look, angel-cake, the tunnel splits two ways and the scanner clearly shows an equally dark trail leading in each direction. If we’re going to find the Tes’rae—”
Gabrael snarled over Zaphkael’s words, “I don’t think we can afford to split our number any more than it already has been!”
“Good thing it’s not up to you, now, isn’t it?”
“Zaphkael, skies above, I am going to tear out your tongue and strangle you with it!”
Gabrael and Zaphkael both turned to Razial, and her tone as well as her body language let them know that there was no way she actually thought of them as gentlemen at this point in time.
“We will split up,” she said calmly. “Michael will go with me and you two will go that way. Either Initiate Sitwell or Hill will link our minds together or we’ll be out of contact, but I’m positive a war-cry will echo throughout these tunnels well enough to alert one team that the other needs help. And while we are searching you two will work out whatever it is that is keeping you from acting like rational beings.”
With that, she turned on her heel and made her way down the right-hand path.
Michael shrugged. “She makes a valid point, brothers. This needless infighting only weakens our strength.”
“I wanted to go down that way,” Zaphkael muttered, but before Gabrael could snarl at him for that – it was like an involuntary response, one that he didn’t even realize was happening until it happened – Zaphkael dug into his pocket and pulled out two small circles with clips on the back, handing them to Michael. “Here. They won’t work well down here – too much rock or distance, or both, keep the signals from getting through, but these will allow us to contact each other for some time.” Then he turned to the left-hand path and began walking down it.
Realizing that either he was going to stand there looking like an idiot and leave Zaphkael on his own in territory or he was going to get his act together and behave in a manner befitting a warrior of the Host, Gabrael swallowed his indignation and followed Zaphkael into the dark.
For the first couple of minutes, there was nothing but silence, Zaphkael’s footsteps sounding on the concrete floor, sometimes hitting stray bits of debris, sometimes walking on the ancient rails. In small spots there was the sound of water dripping, and in others the dry rustle of something scurrying in the dark.
The cold air and the absolute darkness reminded Gabrael of the blackness of the deep sea, and he shivered.
It was perhaps a bad idea, but he began, “Zaphkael—”
“Tony,” Zaphkael corrected angrily.
Gabrael let out a long, low breath. “Tony,” he said, and it didn’t physically hurt to use Zaphkael’s human name, but it should have. “We need to find a better arrangement together.”
“We really, really don’t,” Zaphkael said sharply. “You are an arrogant prick who thinks he knows it all and I don’t waste my time on people like that.”
“People like what, Zaph – Tony?” Gabrael challenged.
“People like you! People like you and like Obadiah and like Howard – I’m sorry, Ourael – who think you can dictate my actions because you know better than me, because you fucking don’t, okay?!”
The words echoed around them in the tunnel, the low light coming from Zaphkael’s chest – something Gabrael had wanted to ask him about but had been first afraid that that was too intimate and then too angry with Zaphkael’s attitude and behavior to actually do so – illuminating Zaphkael’s face and there was…
Pain, on his face. Fear, and defensiveness.
Gabrael remembered Zaphkael’s easy interactions with Initiate Coulson – with a lot of the Initiates, now that he thought of it, though only Initiate Coulson had recently passed – and swallowed back his initial retort. Showing amazing tact, he thought, he took in a deep breath. “I’m not trying to dictate your actions,” he began.
Zaphkael snorted, arms folding and dimming the light source almost entirely.
“I’m not. Okay? I don’t think you need to fall into line. But we need to work together as a team. What we did up there, it wasn’t working as a team. It was a disaster and we need to keep the other Initiates safe.”
“We should have kept them all safe.”
The words were soft, careful, and made Gabrael’s heart ache. Zaphkael sounded so young, so naïve, and Gabrael was starkly reminded that Zaphkael – that all members of the Host here on earth, for the most part – were second-generation apprentices who had not served in the last big war. They weren’t used to losing Initiates in the fight.
“We’ll do our best. But they signed up for this when they chose to become an Initiate.”
“They didn’t sign up to die!” Zaphkael hissed.
Gabrael bit back his initial retort, again, and strove for tranquility. “No, they didn’t, but they signed up to put their lives on the line to protect ordinary citizens. And it’s our job to come up with a plan that will keep them safe.”
After a long moment, Zaphkael let out a sigh and his arms unfolded, revealing the light in full. “We need to find the Tes’rae, but it’s not going to be easy. They won’t want to give it up. Depending on how long it had taken them to get it up and running, they might have a stable portal nearby that can spew out Chitauri as badly as they had in the last war.”
Gabrael nodded. “We need to figure out how we’re going to keep the Chitauri away while we leave with the Tes’rae.”
“Well, the filter will mask it, and history tells us the Tes’rae is like, what, the shape of a book or something?”
“The Tes’rae isn’t going to be unguarded. And if they managed to stabilize it and link it to one of their portals—”
The mental shout threw Gabrael, even though Zaphkael was moving, shooting through the air with both his wings flapping furiously, leaving Gabrael in the dark. With a worried hiss – his wings were too large to maneuver underground like this – he ran after Zaphkael, feet pounding on the concrete as he tried to keep up with Zaphkael’s flight.
As he ran, he became aware of the roar of Thor and the crackle of lightning. Apparently, they didn’t need to find the Chitauri; the Chitauri had found them.
Tony shot out of the subway system, into open air, to see the Chitauri doing their damnedest to get at the building in which Thor and Steve had placed the Initiates. Why? What was the purpose of that? The Chitauri could have snuck away from them all, could have just slipped away and made the group of them go off on another long chase. Time was on their side, and against the members of the Host. Why—?
Long, thin fingers gripped Tony’s wing – the organic one – and yanked. With a scream of pain and defiance, Tony lashed out with his feet and for his troubles got fingers wrapped around his throat.
He stared into Lucael’s ice-blue eyes and saw madness.
“You, Zaphkael,” Lucael purred, “are perfect.”
Before Tony could do anything – he could hear the heavy tread of Thor, the soft shushing sound of Natasha’s wings, hell, he could hear Steve coming towards him – Lucael let go of Tony’s wing and tore the front of Tony’s shirt, baring the thick glass covering and mechanical generator that kept Tony’s grace sealed behind the glass.
“You know, I don’t normally put out this fast, but if you wanted to get me undressed, all you needed to do was say so,” Tony babbled, hands flexing as he called into life his weapon. Every member of the Host had one, of course, but his, his was a bit less… traditional. Not a broadsword or a war hammer. Not even a bow, like Sabrael. No, his – like Natasha’s – was a little more hands-on and quite a bit more interesting than a simple sword or shield.
Lucael smiled gently. “Always so amusing, your line was,” he murmured, and then Lucael’s spear was jabbing down towards Tony’s chest.
With a yell of shock and fear, Tony brought his arms up in front of him, crossed, red and gold gauntlets blazing with fire that burned everyone but him, fire made out of his grace that shot out from the palm of his hands. His crossed arms knocked the spear off course, so instead of slamming straight through the center of the glass cover, it skittered to the side, cracking the edge, and Tony could feel his grace bleeding out into the open air.
“Good boy,” Lucael murmured, and then he was pulling the Tes’rae from a bag Tony hadn’t noticed before, a bag that had been hanging from a strap, slung across Lucael’s chest. The Tes’rae, the legend of old, looking no more than a glorified cube that glowed with power.
Almost delicately, Lucael placed the cube against Tony’s gauntlets.
Immediately, the cube glowed and hummed, shooting out a powerful wave that knocked Natasha back – she had almost reached Lucael from behind, coming up out of the subway – and Tony shrieked, high and full of pain, as the Tes’rae latched onto his grace and pulled.
Deep inside his mind, he could feel Pepper crying out in shock as the link between them blasted wide. And shit, that was what Lucael needed, that was what the Chitauri needed, they needed a member of the Host connected to an Initiate so that the Tes’rae could latch onto the familiar energy source of a grace and use the member of the Host to link to a powered human, anchoring the portals in this world. You needed something of this world in order to bridge to it, and what could be better than one of the guardians of it? An Initiate’s mind was the perfect anchor.
And Tony had just given them Pepper.
With a snarl, he twisted out of Lucael’s grip on his throat, earning himself quite a few scratches, and the Tes’rae fell off his chest and onto the floor, away from the weapons that were made of his grace and powered by his grace. Breaking that physical link wouldn’t help, of course – the Tes’rae, once locked onto his grace’s signature, wouldn’t let go unless Tony gave it another source or put the filter on it. And the filter was with Sabrael and the Initiates, currently under attack by the Chitauri.
But the Chitauri could sense the Tes’rae. Once Tony put the filter on the Tes’rae, all the Chitauri would know what happened and would tear all of their group, down to the Initiates, apart looking for it.
Thor – Michael – came thundering out of the subway and slammed into Lucael’s side, knocking the other member of the Host away. Natasha, meanwhile, grabbed up the Tes’rae and stared at Tony’s chest in shock.
“We don’t have time for this!” Tony snarled. “You need to retrieve the filter and put it on the Tes’rae, and keep the wounded safe. Thor and I’ll keep the Chitauri away from you; go off with Stevie there and close it off before we have another army pouring through the portals!”
Because the Tes’rae had stabilized the portals, that Tony knew for sure. Now, he didn’t know how many the Tes’rae had stabilized – certainly, his grace wasn’t strong enough to allow the Tes’rae to reach very many. Only within a certain radius, but he didn’t know how large that radius was or how many portals were in that radius. As it was, he could hear a muted roar from the subway – it was probably safe to bet there was one there, and it was stabilized, and that Chitauri were coming through.
Steve came to a stop before Tony, looking shocked and surprised, but before he could ask stupid questions Natasha grabbed his arm, the Tes’rae clutched in her other hand, and dragged him over to the Initiates and Sabrael.
Tony threw himself into the battle, doing his level best to keep the rest of the Chitauri away from Steve and Natasha as they took the Tes’rae and moved to defend the Initiates and Sabrael. He didn’t know what to do – what could they possibly do? Put the filter on, and lock the Tes’rae down, and the Chitauri would tear them all apart looking for it. Leave the Tes’rae unlocked, unfiltered, and have the portal spew out more and more Chitauri in a never-ending tide.
There was a bestial roar from the distance, and something large and green stormed its way towards the fight.
Well. At least it wasn’t just Thor and Tony anymore.
Still, the battle continued, a horrible, terrible fight that hurt more and more to participate in. Tony’s grace was bleeding out from the cracked glass, he needed his grace to power his gauntlets, the Tes’rae kept trying to drain Pepper through him in order to make the portal larger, and he knew his movements were slowing, his energy leaving him.
“Zaphkael! This can’t go on much longer!”
“I’m doing the best I can!” Tony yelled back, his wings clumsy in the air as he twisted and turned, trying to dodge the bodies that flew at him. As it was, he was trying his hardest to keep his protective chest covering from flying off completely, since the last attack had hit him square in the chest.
“Zaphkael!” It was Razial’s voice this time, hard and tough. “We need you to draw them away. Michael can only do so much, and Kalazael is not responding to any orders or tactics.”
Of course he wasn’t responding; he was currently huge and monstrous, a green-winged and grey-skinned giant that was storming around and crushing Chitauri like one crushed cockroaches.
Ew. Bad analogy.
“There’s nothing I can do I don’t think you understand that!” Tony snarled into the jury-rigged communicator, hissing as a sword scored a hit against his shoulder. “I’m doing the best I can, I just can’t shut down that portal without putting the filter on the Tes’rae, and if I do that then they’ll—”
An idea flipped through his head, rapid-fire, and he quickly thought it through, planned it out. It could work. It might work.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do!” he shouted, desperately twisting away from an arrow and hoping his mechanical wing stood up to this kind of abuse. “I’m going to dive down low at you guys and you’re going to put the filter on it to disrupt its power signature the minute it looks like I’m gonna hit you guys!”
“It doesn’t matter if we mask the power signature now, all the Chitauri know exactly who took the Tes’rae and where it is—”
“Yes, thank you, captain obvious, but they won’t be able to tell anymore. Because once I do that, every Chitauri will be on my tail. The Tes’rae used my grace to emit its signal – so it’s been altered enough that as long as the filter is put on at the exact instant I come down on you, it’ll look like I’m holding it in my hands.”
There was a moment of horrified silence. “That’s – that’s suicide, Tony,” Razial said quietly.
Tony laughed weakly. “You don’t know that. Hell, when I got captured by the Chitauri everyone wrote me off for dead. Don’t throw me out of the game yet. I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve.”
“I should be the one to draw them off,” Gabrael said quickly. “I’m not that winded, and Razial can transport Sabrael as easily as I can, and you can take the Tes’rae.”
“They need a power source to follow – look, we don’t actually have time for an extended debate here!” Tony gasped breathlessly, whirling around to catch another sword on his armored chest. “Just trust me when I say there’s a specific reason they’ll follow me, one that doesn’t apply to you, okay?”
“Just trust me, goddammit!” Tony shouted.
There was a long moment, and then Gabrael said quietly, “Awaiting your descent.”
“Right.” Tony licked his lips and strained his thoughts, reaching out for Pepper – so far away, and with that jamming signal of those damned Chitauri, so hard to make out. “Right.” Focusing his thoughts, he whispered, Hey Pep. I want you to take care of my bots for me. You know they get lonely. And take care of yourself, as well, you know?
Tony, wha—ing over—swer me!
Gritting his teeth, he pulled his wings tight to his body in a snapping motion and plummeted to the ground, racing faster and faster as he dove at the small shelter where Razial and Gabrael were guarding the Tes’rae and Sabrael. Michael glanced over at him, and Tony could tell that he was trying to say something, do something, but Lucael wouldn’t be ignored, and soon drew Michael back into combat. Kalazael was still in his bestial form, a monster that mothers told their children about in the dark of the night, and was bathing in the blood of the Chitauri.
It was just on Tony.
He judged the distances quickly, calculated and measured and adjusted for wind and height and the weakness in his left wing, and then he threw his wings out wide, catching air underneath them, shooting out of the dive into a rapid ascent. As he did so, he unhooked the fastenings of his chest armor plate and threw it to the ground, threw the protective covering over the hole in his chest away.
His grace, by virtue of being the power that had jump-started the Tes'rae and allowed it to stabilize the nearby portals, gave off the same power signature as the Tes’rae. More or less. Hopefully more, and hopefully the Chitauri would follow him away, because Sabrael needed medical attention, the Initiates needed relief, Razial and Gabrael were tiring, and Tony had promised Phil he’d get Clint back.
Tony only hoped that all of this effort wasn’t wasted.
As he shot away from the battlefield, wings pumping like his life depended on it (it did) and not looking back to see if the Chitauri ranks were following him (they were, of course, Tony was a genius, a certified genius, his plans always worked), he made some more snap measurements. Set as they were north and west of the New York territory, there was Rogzael’s territory coming up as long as Tony could make it far enough north and just a bit more west. If he could make it there… he might be able to live. Certainly Rogzael’s territory was one of the best defended territories in Northern America, and Rogzael one of the fiercest of the Host left on this planet.
Making up his mind, Tony twisted and shifted, leading the Chitauri across the land, praying that his grace and power didn’t run out through his chest before he made it to that territory.
Razial watched silently as the hundred or so Chitauri flew or raced after Zaphkael, screeching and snarling horribly. Behind her, Gabrael was tearing strips off his shirt to stop the bleeding from his copious wounds – she hoped he’d let her hand him the Tes’rae and carry Sabrael, because frankly she didn’t trust him not to pass out from blood loss soon – and Sabrael lay quiet and still on the floor.
He was supposed to have woken up by now.
She hadn’t allowed herself to think about what it might mean, that he had been taken. She deliberately ignored the knowledge that lesser members of the Host died within hours of being possessed – the sole exception Kalazael, and he was not right. A mix between Chitauri and Host, both and neither, a monstrosity that hulked in the background, still idly stomping on downed Chitauri.
Michael and Lucael still battled, though she could not bring herself to care.
It wasn’t as if she and Tony had been close, though Tony was one of only four people who knew her true name. In a way, they were more like brother and sister, close but not that close. She had played pranks on him before, tricked him into doing things he didn’t want to do, and outmaneuvered him daily. He had retaliated by leaving little technological booby traps, by teasing her mercilessly, and treating her no different than he treated anyone else. Better, most of the time, than others treated her, because she knew Gabrael and Michael looked at her and saw a woman first, someone who had been pressganged into service of the Host, and Sabrael and Phil looked at her and saw their lover first, someone who they wanted to protect from the world. Tony always trusted her to handle herself, and trusted her to speak up when she needed help, and never condemned her for that needing.
She felt her heart clench in her chest. She’d seen Lucael stab Phil, felt his mind tear away from hers, and she had continued to push through. She hadn’t allowed herself to really understand what it meant that he was just – gone. He would not see Sabrael returned safe and sound. He wouldn’t be able to smile that wry smile of his and take them out for a special treat afterwards. He wouldn’t be able to curl up on his bed, one of them on either side, and breathe them in as he read to them from stories of the past.
Phil was dead.
She collected herself, face calm and emotionless, and turned to Gabrael. Steve. She felt she earned the right to think of him as Steve, with all they’d been through in this short day. “We need to get Sabrael back to the healers immediately,” she murmured. “If anyone can fix him, it would be them. And once Michael has subdued Lucael, he needs to bring him as well. We need to join back up with our handlers.”
She needed to join with someone again. It had taken her so long to trust Phil, to let him into her mind, to entrust the secrets of the universe that she guarded to a frail mortal who would die long before she did.
Well. Not quite true. She knew her lifestyle was dangerous. In some corner of her mind, she had hoped she would not last past him.
But she did. She had.
“I will carry Sabrael. You’ll carry the Tes’rae.”
Gabrael protested immediately. “That’s not right. I’ll carry him.”
“You are bleeding from multiple areas,” Razial let out a long, controlled sigh, and continued, “and you aren’t healing, which means that your connection to Initiate Fury must have broken. You’ll need to reconnect with an Initiate to keep from passing out before we make it back home.”
He looked like he was going to be stubborn, but sooner or later he’d either pass out or give in. At the moment, she didn’t care which. Instead, she turned to the last link she had left to her life and hefted Clint over her shoulder. The Initiates should have horses, as long as they hadn’t been attacked – unlikely, since Hill had managed to keep them telepathically connected throughout the battle, which indicated she had been undisturbed – and there were definitely—
She swallowed. There were definitely horses coming back that wouldn’t have a rider. Clint could ride on one of them.
Gabrael felt… old. Felt the weight of the world on his shoulders, as he watched Razial ghost about the Chapel. With the Tes’rae locked down, and Michael standing guard over Lucael – who still was not in his right mind – the fight itself was over. There wasn’t any massive amount of clean-up, no buildings to rebuild. Just lives, and lives were far more difficult to rebuild than a building.
He felt… pain, for the loss of Initiate Coulson. Coulson, who believed the best of Gabrael even when Gabrael was acting self-righteous and petty with Zaphkael. Coulson, who Razial was obviously far closer with than most members of the Host ever got with their handlers.
Then there was Sabrael, having to relearn how to control himself. His shaking hands, when he was once the greatest marksman of the entire Host, was his biggest frustration, and he tried not to show how much he detested his now-weak body.
And, of course, there was Zaphkael.
Tony, who lived as if he was human. Who didn’t shy away from praise unless it was deserved, who challenged Gabrael at every turn for the joy of challenging, it seemed. Certainly Gabrael never understood why Tony always dug his heels in over the most ridiculous things.
Tony, who had earned the title Zaphkael and eschewed it – not, as Gabrael had once thought, because he didn’t value it, but rather because he didn’t think he had earned it yet.
Initiate Potts hadn’t said anything to him, but she hadn’t had to. It was clear from her tight posture and too-polite tone that she was angry with him, angry with Gabrael for failing to look into Tony’s character and only took the outside. Gabrael, if he was honest with himself, was angry with himself for doing the same.
He had died and become a member of the Host because he had been fighting against bullies. He had no great redemption story like Tony, no realization of the importance of serving like Michael. He had no careful tale of trying to right wrongs of the past like Razial or an important story like Kalazael’s, dying in the process of making life better for people and choosing to continue his life afterwards.
“You don’t choose the story that brings you to the Host,” Chaylael had told him in their bunker after a long day of training, back before they had been Chaylael and Gabrael but just Bucky and Steve. “Way I see it, you prove you deserve to be here the minute you take a title and become part of another society to try and make it better.”
And Tony had taken that title, and had come down, and had tried to make life better. He’d sacrificed himself so they would survive.
He couldn’t even offer to take Tony’s place in Malibu – with Initiate Coulson dead, Razial and Sabrael still needed someone to handle them. Head Initiate Fury had taken on that duty, trying to help Sabrael recover from the effects of being Taken (it was always worse for members of the Host, though Steve wasn’t sure why) and keep Razial strong when her Initiate and her partner were both very much out of commission. He needed help, and had asked Initiate Potts to deal with Razial and Sabrael. She had agreed, looking lost and tired, and she – and Initiate Hill and Head Initiate Fury – were the only ones who could really be linked to Steve for any amount of time. Every other Initiate needed a break from his mind, a break from him.
He didn’t belong down in this world any more. He should have just gone with Michael and Lucael, disappeared with them up to the High Plane. He could move on to another world, try and help there, and put what had happened here, the brief opportunity he had had before him without realizing it, out of his mind. Or perhaps the Supervisor would allow him to simply move on in his existence. Retire, and train fresh recruits for a title and a position as a member of the Host.
He kept to the gym and the rooms granted to him, did his best to stay out of the way until he could figure out how to catch up with Michael. The entire Chapel was largely unaffected by the battle, beyond trying to find an Initiate who could be a good fit with Razial and Sabrael both. Kalazael had left days after they had returned from the battle, disappearing to the south, and Michael had left a few days later, with Lucael. Instead, he’d taken Lucael and went to try and contact Jahial into opening up the High Plane, letting them ascend. There were a lot more technological advances there; if anyone could put to rights Lucael’s mind, it would be up there.
Steve’s shoulders stiffened and he turned to look at Razial. “My name’s Steve,” he offered.
She stared at him a long moment before the corner of her mouth ticked up in a tired smile. “Mine’s Natasha. But I know you earned your title, the same way I earned mine. It was only ever Zaphkael who didn’t feel that he’d earned it, and who felt that he was more use as a human than as a member of the Host.”
“Still. I’d like – to remember him, in some capacity.”
Razial tapped fingers against her thigh, looking for all the world like she was judging him. Then she let out a sigh. “You don’t have to do that, you know.”
That made Steve’s back go up. “And why not?”
“Because he’s come back.”
Steve blinked at her a long moment and then let out a disbelieving laugh. “What?” he asked, voice shaking.
Natasha rubbed at her neck. “Rogzael brought Zaphkael back. He’s – he’s not great, but he’s not bad, either. He’ll live. With a lot of work, and help, and healing, but… he’ll live.”
Steve nodded slowly, not sure what to do with the information. On one hand – and it seemed so cruel to say it – but with Tony dead he could mourn properly, appreciate the sacrifice. He could remember Tony as someone he admired, someone he wished to have known better even though they’d known each other for such a short period of time.
Now, though – now Tony was sticking around, and Steve wasn’t sure what he could do with that knowledge.
Somehow, some of that must have translated to his face, because Natasha muttered something under her breath and asked him, “Have you ever gone outside the Chapel since you got here?”
The question was strange, and definitely off topic, and it made Steve stare at her a moment. “No – no, I haven’t.”
“Take some time outside. Here—” she broke off, digging into her pockets, and pulled out some brass coins, “—get something to eat. Stare at nature. Figure shit out in your head, because soon enough you’re going to have to make a decision, and you don’t want to be rushed into it. And, for the record, you shouldn’t let anyone rush you, either, so just tell Tony to back off if he gets too overbearing. But for right now, go get some sunshine and air.”
Within fifteen minutes, Steve found a young, fresh-faced Initiate hovering at his door, informing him that he was there to direct him to the surface and act as a guide if Steve wanted her to hang around. Steve thanked the young woman – Initiate Stacey – but declined. He figured if he was going to travel around outside, he might as well do it by himself instead of forcing someone away from their duties to babysit him.
It was a little after noon, and there were all manners of people in the street – pickpockets and beggars, mothers and young teens, horses and donkeys and carts of all makes and shapes.
When they had left, those two weeks ago, he didn’t really remember riding through this mass of humanity. He knew that Chapels that housed members of the Host almost always claimed a territory, and took it upon themselves to keep that territory clean of Chitauri. As it was, two weeks ago he had ridden out with Zaphkael (Tony), Razial, Michael, and Kalazael, made their way out of the walls of the city, and into the outlands.
The way it had been explained to him, people clawed and begged and shelled out huge amounts of money to live inside the walls of a territory. The walls were guarded by Initiates, and the Initiates normally had basic tech to scan whether a Chitauri was possessing a traveler or not. Living inside the walls could also, to some extent, guarantee safety. Some territories still had electricity, almost all of them had running water, and every single one of them had a member of the Host who regularly patrolled the territory and made certain that any Chitauri within the walls was removed with extreme prejudice. He’d also been informed by Initiate Coulson, back when they’d been riding on the road out of the gates, that though there weren’t as many humans in the world as there had been, there were still people, and not all of them could fit in cities. The Wastes that stretched across the land and scarred the world weren’t everywhere – only where large battles had happened, large enough to leave huge mounds of Chitauri and Host corpses lying around to poison the water and air, to leave rubble and ruined buildings strewn about like a toddler’s playthings. Most of the land was what was called ‘outlands’ – where he and the others had gone, searching for the Tes’rae by radiation signal – and the outlands were simply lands not protected by a member of the Host. They could be fertile or barren, safe or divided up by roving bandits. There could be a Chitauri portal in the woods behind your house or game to hunt and put on the table for your family.
Steve didn’t remember much about traveling through the outlands, so focused he had been on needing to be ready, needing to find the Tes’rae. The Chapel was set very close to the westernmost wall, so it hadn’t taken them more than half a day to travel out of the territory, and then only two and a half days to happen upon the ruined city where they’d found that subway, and the Tes’rae, and had lost Initiate Coulson as well as Tony.
Well. They didn’t lose him, did they? He was apparently back, and Steve didn’t know what to do with that.
He’d never really acted on his attraction to Chaylael, in part because they had met in wartime and were rarely, if ever, in the same vicinity, let alone given some time with one another in private. He didn’t – he hadn’t had time to fall in love as a human. He’d been in battle since he’d become a member of the Host. He didn’t know what to do with his attraction.
Aimless, he wandered along the streets, watching as people stole and people gave selflessly, as people eked out survival by selling charms that probably wouldn’t do much when it came down to it. He bought a few rolls of some kind of food from a corner stall – beef, the seller had hawked, but if there was one thing that Steve had noticed it was that beef, or any kind of pure meat, was in short supply. In any case, it didn’t taste too bad, and beyond that it wasn’t as if he could get food poisoning, being a member of the Host.
He walked around these people and he realized – they were fighting so hard to make a life for themselves, here. Their world had fallen apart, everything they had known either didn’t exist or existed in an entirely different context, and they still strived. He knew members of the Host weren’t supposed to get attached, weren’t supposed to identify too closely with the population they were trying to protect, because it spelled disaster for when the member of the Host had to be reassigned to a different planet, a different people.
But the more he walked around here, the more he realized he wanted to stay.
Oh, not here. Not at the New York Chapel, where they already had two members of the Host to protect the territory. Maybe just someone who can hunt down the Chitauri forces. Putting that filter on the Tes’rae had closed down the portal, had caused the Chitauri to scatter (or to follow after Tony) and allowed the Initiates and the remaining members of the Host to regroup and retreat back to the territory’s walls. Those Chitauri were still out there – and there were still Chitauri out in the world. They needed to be put down, removed.
He’d need an Initiate, though, in order to access his grace regularly. In order to be more than a military-trained human, he’d need that link.
Decided, with the sun far lower in the sky than when he’d left, he made his way back to the Chapel and walked into the busy courtyard.
“Well, well. They told me they found ya again, but I didn’t quite believe ‘em.”
Steve turned to see a short, stout man leaning against one of the columns in the gardens that grew in a carefully controlled manner around the courtyard. He blinked at the man and said slowly, “I’m sorry, do I—”
The man walked forward, and Steve caught sight of the medium-sized grey-and-brown wings tipped with yellow on the very ends. It took him a moment to place the name, but then he smiled slightly. “Rogzael,” he said warmly.
“Gabrael.” Rogzael tilted his head curiously. “Thought you died.”
“I thought I did too,” Steve replied frankly.
Rogzael nodded his head, wiry hair wild. He was wide with muscle, a particularly feral and dangerous fighter, if Steve remembered. Two short, sharp swords that he wielded with deadly precision. Rogzael had only been with Steve for a few missions, but they thought of one another fondly.
“Brought yer boy back. Pretty beat up,” Rogzael finally said. “So I can’t stay. Territory’s undefended, after all.”
“Of course – thank you. For bringing him back.”
Rogzael looked at him contemplatively and then barked a short laugh. “The two o’ya are a pair, I haveta say. Well, then. Why’re you here an’ not in there?”
A tall, lanky man in a long coat strolled out. “’Ey, Rogs, we ready to go?”
“Gabrael, this is Initiate LeBeau. LeBeau, Gabreal.”
The man smiled and offered his hand out to Steve. “’Eard a lotta things about you, all good o’course. Amazin’ story. An’ o’course Tony was full of stories.”
Steve blinked at the Initiate. “I’m sorry?”
“Hallucinating, so babbling quite a bit,” Rogzael explained. “Wouldn’t shut up about ya. C’mon, LeBeau, we gotta head on out before it really gets dark. We need to get outta the territory and set up camp before true dark.”
The two of them left, and Steve stared at the doors of the Chapel a minute before heaving a sigh and squaring his shoulders. Tony had made it back – the least he could do was thank the man for his sacrifice.
“We’re leaving, Pepper.”
Pepper eyed Tony and Tony did not appreciate her looks, he really didn’t. “You still need to make repairs to your wing,” she pointed out.
Considering that he was still clinging to the bedpost to stand and was still wounded and bandaged and the glass cover had hastily been taped up, at least she had picked something other than the obvious to say. Still.
“I don’t want to stay here another minute. Asshole angel is around every fucking corner with those sad blue eyes trying to thank me for my ‘sacrifice’ and I can’t stand it!” Tony snarled.
Pepper shrugged elegantly. She was much thinner than when he last remembered seeing her, though from what he understood she had been running herself into the ground trying to train Initiate May to handle both Razial and Sabrael.
Plus, well. She’d thought he’d died. So. Some mourning was understandable, he supposed.
“Is it so wrong to let him thank you?” Pepper asked quietly. “You – you gave your life for them to live.”
Tony glared at her and limped and stumbled his way to the bathroom. The infirmary had despaired of him a day and a half ago and told Pepper that he most likely wouldn’t stop breathing in his sleep, but since he refused to stay in the infirmary (as evidenced by his numerous attempts to escape, all of which had failed miserably) it was now her problem. As it was, he could mostly stand. Mostly. And really, all he needed was his wings in good condition.
Of course, there was that minor detail that his mechanical wing was, in fact, not in good condition.
Grumbling under his breath, he splashed water on his face and glared at his reflection in the dingy mirror before dropping his eyes. He didn’t deserve the thanks. The Tes’rae had stabilized because of the weakness in his body, because of the weakness in his grace, and if it hadn’t used his grace a portal wouldn’t have been opened and not as many people would have died that did. He was only fixing his mistake.
He didn’t want to be thanked for being a decent person.
It was harder to get into the shower, what with making sure his mechanical wing wouldn’t get directly sprayed by the water, the cast on his leg wouldn’t get too messed up, and the bandages wouldn’t be destroyed. Still, he felt grimy and dirty, and he needed to just feel clean for some period of time. It would give Pepper time to bring food, and think up new arguments against him leaving – and give him time and energy to limp his way to this Chapel’s lab and start fixing his wing so he could leave.
Of course, he didn’t exactly think it through all that well, because when he got out of the shower he realized he didn’t want to put back on the dirty clothes he’d stripped off.
(Not to mention he couldn’t bend to actually get those clothes off the floor in the first place.)
Heaving a sigh, he grabbed the nearest towel and wrapped it around his waist before clawing his way out of the bathroom, leaning heavily on the doorway. “Pepper, do you think you could—”
He stopped. Because, of course.
“Tony, I – oh,” Steve said in a quiet voice, staring.
Tony knew he wasn’t that much to look at. For all his hedonistic ways, no one ever forgot he’d been held by the Chitauri for months before he’d gotten free. Scars lined his torso and spider-webbed out from his chest-piece. That, of course, didn’t include the many bandages that wrapped around his torso and his shoulder, were taped in place over his abdomen and over the upper edge of his chest-piece.
“Steve,” he said snidely, hoping to get a rise out of the prudish angel.
But Steve just smiled awkwardly. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ve been – trying to talk to you for a while now.”
“I know,” Tony said dismissively. “You don’t need to. We’re good, great, you can go on with your life and leave me to mine.”
For a long moment, Steve just stared at him, obviously torn between leaving and staying, and Tony was not going to stumble-trip his way back to the tiny cot across the room, not with Steve watching, so he stood there, still dripping a little from the shower, towel wrapped around his groin, and glowered.
Steve swallowed and said slowly, “I really want to – to thank you, for—”
“Great, okay, fine, your welcome, apology accepted, everything’s okay, we good now? We’re good. You did your duty, yay you, now can you please—”
“Would you please just let me speak?” Steve snarled, and that was good, his calm façade was snapping and he would realize that this was a monumentally stupid idea. Tony didn’t have the time or patience for this, and Steve didn’t really want to speak to him, he just felt obligated to because Tony had nearly died.
“You know what, I don’t think I need to hear you speak, I think I get it loud and clear, and there’s no more reason you have to be around me, so you know, you could just go, call on up to Jahial and ask her to open up those pearly gates and let you back in—”
“Dammit, Tony!” Steve shouted.
That gave Tony pause, because Steve… didn’t really get angry all that much. He certainly didn’t explode like that. Or, at least, not this quickly.
“I’m trying to say that I want us to start over,” Steve said in a rush.
Tony blinked at him.
“I just – we started off on the wrong foot. And I’d like – the chance to get to know you better. If you would – if you don’t mind. I know that – Initiate Potts said that you wanted to leave, but your wing isn’t fixed up yet, so I just – while you’re here, do you think maybe we could – talk?”
He was pretty sure he wasn’t hallucinating, but that meant he was really hearing Gabrael, foremost tactician of the Host, stuttering like a schoolboy. Objectively, he knew that Gabrael had been very young when he died – younger than Tony and Clint, for sure – but Gabrael had always held his title close to him like a shield and stood on its dignity. This fumbling wasn’t characteristic at all.
“Why would – just, why?” Tony finally asked, squinting at Steve.
Steve spread his arms, a little helplessly. “I misjudged you. Badly. And I said things that were untrue and harsh.”
“We both said harsh things,” Tony pointed out.
“Yes, okay, but I shouldn’t have done that, is my point, okay?” Steve said, voice frustrated. “I just – can we get to know each other or not?”
“Well, when you make it sound like an ultimatum,” Tony replied instantly.
Steve let out a sigh and turned to leave the room.
Which was when, of course, Tony realized that first, his mouth had gotten away from him pretty spectacularly here, and second, he really didn’t want Steve to leave. “No, wait, Steve, ah, I mean, Gabrael—”
Unthinkingly, he took a step forward – when the whole reason he had stayed leaning against the doorway of the bathroom was because he was too weak to do anything but lean on the wall all the way back to the bed. He realized that just a little too late, of course, when he felt his bad leg buckle under the weight of his body and began to fall to the ground, wings flaring up in surprise.
And then Steve was there, gripping his arms and holding him up. “Tony! Tony, what happened, are you okay? What do you need?”
Tony flushed. “Ah. Maybe get me over to the bed, if you could.”
“Sure, sure, of course,” Steve said instantly, gently carrying Tony over to the bed and helping Tony sit down. “Jeez, Tony, you can’t scare me like that.”
“You’re calling me Tony,” Tony murmured under his breath.
Steve bent down, trying to catch Tony’s eyes. “What, Tony? What did you say? What do you need?”
Shaking his head slowly, Tony repeated, a little louder, “You called me Tony. You are calling me Tony. Right now. All the time.”
“You asked me to call you by that. You don’t like your title, even if I think you more than deserve it,” Steve replied quietly.
Tony stared at Steve a long moment and then said quite seriously, “You left something important back by the bathroom.”
“I – I did?” Steve said, surprised, and he turned and looked uncomprehendingly for a moment. Tony watched him, feeling the weird feeling of shock and surprise and hope bleed away into amusement and eagerness when he saw Steve’s shoulders stiffen in shock.
“Oh,” Steve said, very, very quietly.
Tony, of course, couldn’t let it rest there. “I mean, I completely understand that you were concerned for my well-being, but sheesh, Gabe, leaving the towel over there, and then not even having the decency to look? You’ve insulted my ego.”
The tips of Steve’s ears went red. “You’re hurt,” he said, and his voice sounded very strained. “Now isn’t the time.”
“Well, if now isn’t the time,” Tony purred, letting one of his hands slide over Steve’s back to watch him shiver, “when is the time?”
“Not now,” Steve managed in a strangled voice.
Tony chuckled and tugged Steve closer. “Is this what you want, Steve?” he asked, and though his voice was teasing, there was a serious quality to it. “Is this what you want when you asked for us to start over?”
“I wouldn’t presume—”
“Don’t bullshit me, Steve, I want a straight answer.” Tony made absent note of the shiver that ran through Steve’s frame when he’d used Steve’s human name, but right now he needed an answer. He needed to know he was reading the situation right.
Steve’s throat bobbed, and then he nodded once. “Yes. Tony. Yes. Eventually.”
“Mmm,” Tony hummed, tugging again at Steve’s sleeve until Steve finally turned to face him, cheeks red with embarrassment and eyes pointedly not traveling lower than Tony’s neck. “I think we can do quite a few things here that won’t aggravate anything.”
“Tony, I don’t think—”
Carefully, Tony leaned up and pressed his lips against Steve’s, letting them linger, tasting the other’s chapped lips and breath with his own. Steve let out a soft sigh and let his eyes fall shut.
“C’mon, Steve,” Tony murmured, pulling on the taller male as he lay back on the bed. “Nothing too strenuous, I promise. Just lie here with me.”
Steve made a soft, hungry sound in the back of his throat, lipping and nipping at Tony’s mouth, and Tony grinned, deliriously happy. “You understand,” he said roughly, “I’m never letting you go again.”
“Mmm,” Steve hummed, and Tony watched him carefully settle around Tony’s limbs. “That’s good, since I want to see how long this can last.”
“Forever,” Tony whispered, kissing Steve again.
Steve kissed back, one hand stroking gently down Tony’s side. “Forever,” he agreed.
Phil Coulson opened his eyes and stared across the grassy plain stretched before him. It was rich, vibrant, everything what Earth had once been before the Chitauri and their wars had torn apart the land.
That was how he knew he was dead.
“That’s correct, Initiate Phil Coulson.”
Phil turned to see a sexless, genderless, glowing form standing next to him, watching him. Judging him, and Phil shifted uncomfortably at the idea that perhaps this being was going to judge where he was going to go in the afterlife – Heaven, or Hell.
The being laughed, its voice echoing and strong. “No, Phil Coulson, that is not my function. Your religious beliefs are your own, and you will be judged according to them. No, my function here is much different. You were a handler for some members of my Host while you were on Earth, were you not?”
Phil stared at the being for a long moment, trying not to gape. “Your Host?”
“Yes. I am the Supervisor; I oversee the protection of the worlds in a certain quadrant of the Universe. The Host are my warriors and bureaucrats, administrators and healers. They fix what they can and rebuild when they can’t fix. Surely you must wonder about the Host – where they came from, why they had human names and human bodies? Or did you believe them angels from a religious tradition?”
“They had names from religious traditions,” Phil countered, but he felt faint.
The being laughed again, and held out a hand to Phil. “Come, and learn.”
Phil couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that – who knew how interesting his life would be since he was now dead? – and so took the hand offered.
Immediately, the scenery changed, to reveal a fantastical city spiraling into the clouds, spires and domes and shimmering waterfalls everywhere he looked. Phil stared in wonder as the being motioned to the city. “The home of my Host. A place for them to replenish their strength, to travel from one world to the next, and to be safe. The Chitauri invaded this through one of my Host, and I must make amends to him, and to his brother.”
“Lucael,” Phil murmured.
“That’s right. Lucael, Loki, a lost prince left to die, with a streak of vicious justice and cold comfort throughout his being – and yet, such a capacity for building, for strength. All my Host have their stories. From the circus child who fell to his death trying to save a fellow performer, to a young genius trying to make the world a better place and dying during a kidnapping; from a scrawny young man who fought bullies even when there was no hope of winning to a smart young woman who took care of animals and children and ruthlessly punished the wicked around her. Even a prince of a foreign land, spoiled and self-centered, who learned to love and give his life for that love.
“They all began somewhere, Phil. Most began on Earth. Some began on other planets. Some are still young enough to remember their past lives; others have lived so long they remember nothing but their time within my Host. All were given the same choice that I am going to give you.”
That Phil latched on to, and he narrowed his eyes at the being. “A choice?”
“That’s right. When a good person dies, they have a choice – continue on to the afterlife of their religious belief, or be reborn within my Host, a protector of the worlds beneath my care. I warn you that being a part of my Host is long, unforgiving work that is rarely recognized. But the Host will become brothers and sisters to you, kith and kin. You will be granted your wings and a title, a title that mortals beneath you will use to address you. You will not age, or sicken – you will live forever, unless death is brought to you by weapons or magic.”
Phil opened his mouth, and the being held up a hand to stop him from speaking.
“The other option is rest, Phil Coulson. You have worked long and hard already, have been removed from your fellow humans by virtue of your position as Initiate. You deserve rest and more, you deserve peace. Both of those qualities you will not find with my Host. Make your decision wisely, and fully informed. Once made, the only way to leave my Host is through death, and then you will travel on as if you never made the choice to be a part of my Host.”
Phil didn’t even need to think about it, not really. “If I choose the Host, will I be able to see Natasha and Clint again?”
The being had no features, nothing to determine expressions, but Phil felt like it was smiling anyway. “Yes,” it murmured.
“Then I choose the Host. I choose them,” Phil said immediately.
“Well, then,” the being said, and then there was a flash of light.
Phil looked up, looked around. He recognized the area, he was certain. This was – his old room, his old quarters. He was inside the New York City Chapel.
Ecstatic, he turned to his door and nearly staggered. His limbs felt new, weak, coltish, and he had an odd weight on his back—
Eyes widening, he staggered over to the mirror and stared.
Navy blue wings shot with silver, the ends of the feathers dipped in white-gold, flexed behind his head.
Noise at the door made him turn, and he watched as the door opened and Razial (Natasha, Natasha, Nat) came inside, helping a limping Sabrael (ClintClintClintClint) into the room. For a brief second, they didn’t notice him, didn’t register the presence, but then their heads snapped up and Phil saw the shock, the fear, the surprise, the pure gratitude and happiness in their gazes.
“Phil,” Sabrael – Clint – gasped, pushing off of Natasha to stumble into his arms.
Natasha stood there, stock-still, staring at his wings and then at him. “You could have chosen peace,” she whispered. “I did not think – I had hoped, but sometimes the Supervisor decides that a good person needs peace, and they do not offer the choice at all.”
“Peace is here, with you,” Phil said, more honest and open than he’d ever been in his life.
Natasha let out a huffing laugh, and then murmured, “You called it, by the way.”
“I – what?”
“Before we left, those weeks ago—”
“You mentioned something about how Gabrael and Zaphkael needed to clear the air. Well, they’ve been in each other’s pockets for the past week, while Zaphkael’s been healing, and Pepper finally looks like they’ve stopped being idiots.”
Phil laughed and shook his head, freeing one arm from Clint’s clinging body to invite her close. She came, hugging him tight, which was when he heard Clint mutter, “What’s your name?”
And Phil opened his mouth to say it, to ask Clint why he suddenly had forgotten Phil’s name, but what came out was, “Pelael.”
“Good name. Strong name. Probably means you’re apprenticing to Gabrael,” Natasha hummed against his skin. Suddenly, she began laughing.
“What?” Phil asked.
“I can just imagine trying to study under Steve now that Tony’s figured out what he wants.”
Tony stared at himself in the mirror. He couldn’t quite meet his eyes, but he could look at himself, at the broken and scarred wreck of his body.
He was healed. He’d finished fixing up his wing just yesterday, and now he was healed, and he should be heading back to Malibu. Back to the people who need him, back to Hazial who was frustrated and annoyed with him for leaving his territory unguarded for so long. Back to warmth, and sunshine, instead of this freezing fall that had set in here at the New York Chapel.
Back where Steve most decidedly wasn’t.
He didn’t want to leave, he realized sadly. Pepper had finally trained May well enough that May could handle the personalities of both Natasha and Clint. Fury had managed to get Steve to take the Host Assessment, the test that helped pair members of the Host to Initiates. A young woman, no nonsense and highly competent, had been selected from a neighboring Chapel, and had traveled to New York along with the other top five candidates. She had managed to link with Steve’s mind on first try, and he and his new Initiate, Sharon Carter, were practicing daily on their bond.
Everything was moving forward, and all Tony wanted was for time to stop and let him live with Steve for as long as he could.
Razial and Sabrael were a rarity. Most Chapels refused to house more than one member of the Host at a time simply because of the difficult personalities and the necessity of feeding them and the lack of qualified quarters. As it was, Natasha and Clint were sharing a room, as were Steve and Tony. Steve had gotten a message from Thor, from the High Plane, saying that the healers were working on Lucael and looking to repair the damage Lucael had done while he wasn’t himself. And Kalazael… Bruce had disappeared before Tony had returned.
And now, here he was. Healed, completely. Ready to go home. Only, not.
The door to their quarters opened, and Steve walked into the main room. Tony splashed his face with water and looked down at the sink. He could do this. They’d been keeping everything light and easy, had been sidestepping anything really heavy or commitment sounding (for all of their ‘forever’s, it sure seemed like no one would confirm it, Tony himself included) and maybe now Tony could make things more serious.
Maybe pop an idea by Steve, too. Once he’d softened Steve up a bit.
On that note, he stepped away from the sink and opened the bathroom door to stare at Steve stripping down for bed. Miles, it seemed, of glowing skin, healthy and pink with just the hint of a tan. Slabs of muscle that Tony just wanted to sink his teeth into. Those white, white wings that looked softer than a cloud and fluttered so prettily.
“You out of the bathroom—” Steve began, turning around, and he stopped and stared at Tony.
Tony himself was naked, still a little self-conscious, but completely and one hundred percent interested in the man standing before him.
“Tony… you’re still hurt,” Steve started to say, but his voice was dry and Tony approached Steve in a slow stalk that he knew from experience looked very, very good.
“Not hurt anymore,” Tony contradicted huskily. “Everything’s healed up. Ready and raring to go. Are you?”
Steve licked his lips, hands automatically reaching out to bracket Tony’s hips. “Are you sure?” he asked.
“You know, I’m pretty sure you’re still a virgin, Steve,” Tony began thoughtfully. “Am I right?”
Steve’s ears flushed, and Tony just couldn’t resist it any longer. He leaned forward, and Steve leaned to meet him, their lips sliding against one another before Tony pulled away and tilted his head.
“I’m going to get down on my knees,” he purred into Steve’s ear, letting his hands rest against Steve’s chest and gently trail down to the waistband of Steve’s trousers. “I’m going to take your cock into my mouth and suck you until you forget any name but mine. And then I’m going to lay you out and lick you up until you’re hard again.”
Steve gave a full-body shudder, eyes falling shut and hands clamping on Tony’s hips.
“And then,” Tony murmured, “I’m going to climb up on top of you and ride you like my own personal dildo until I paint your chest with my come.”
“Tony,” Steve groaned, hips bucking against Tony’s. Tony grinned, sharp and fresh, and felt his wings stretch and preen behind him as he slowly sank down to the ground, dragging Steve’s pants and underwear with him to reveal a very thick, very flushed cock.
“You can say no, Steve. You know that, right?” he said suddenly. He’d sprung this on Steve, yeah, and they were in an established relationship, but they had been taking it slow, and maybe Steve wanted it to go slow—
“I know, Tony,” Steve whispered, voice hoarse. “I’m good. I’m good.”
Tony grinned wickedly and then swallowed Steve down whole.
With an unrestrained shout, Steve’s knees gave out and he sat down heavily on the bed, dislodging Tony (and choking him, a bit, which was awkward). “Holy shit,” he gasped, but before he could do anything, recover in any way, Tony had suckled and licked his way over Steve’s cock again, drawing in Steve’s organ and lapping at the head.
Steve whined and within seconds was coming in Tony’s mouth.
For a minute, they both froze, Steve going plum in embarrassment, and Tony trying to decide whether to feel cheated or smug that Steve had come so fast. After a few moments, he shook his head and nudged Steve onto the bed, spread out on his back.
“I know it’s been a while,” he teased lightly, knowing that Steve was sensitive about it but unable to resist the tease, “but really, Steve, in seconds? I don’t even think you lasted 30, you know.”
Steve threw an arm over his head and grunted. “’M sorry,” he mumbled.
“Oh, don’t be, you stroke an old man’s ego,” Tony replied easily. “Still, I’m not sure I’m all that happy waiting for your refractory period to kick in. Whatever can I do to take up the time while we wait for you to recover?”
“Not old,” Steve muttered, fingers sliding up Tony’s chest. “Can I – can I lick you?”
Tony laughed shakily, instantly five times harder than he had been at the beginning with the idea of Steve delicately licking around his erection in his brain. “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I might just shoot off right then and there.”
Steve’s fingers curled lightly around Tony’s erection before rolling the two of them so that Tony was on his back and Steve was kneeling above him. “Well,” he said, and he looked uncertain even as he tried to remain calm and composed, “perhaps I should prepare you, then?”
Tony’s mouth dropped open as Steve lifted and spread Tony’s legs and then licked across his hole.
“Holy fucking hell, Steve you bastard!” Tony shouted. Fuck, wasn’t this fast? Too fast? Had he pushed Steve too far? They’d shared handjobs and kisses and tentative forays by one or two fingers into the other’s ass, but never – fucking shit, never anything like this.
Not that Tony was really complaining, of course, not when Steve was giving him tentative kitten licks into his clenching hole and Tony had stretched himself in the shower, had prepared himself a bit because he knew he was going to try and get Steve to do this today, but hell, he’d used a bland, generic lube and that couldn’t taste good, could it?
After a few licks, Steve pulled back and looked at Tony in confusion. “Is that how it’s supposed to taste?” he asked doubtfully.
Tony found himself torn between laughing hysterically and bewilderment. After a couple of heartbeats, he asked, “Out of curiosity, who told you what it’s supposed to taste like?”
Steve hesitated before mumbling, “I asked Sabrael for – tips.”
“Ah.” Tony manfully repressed the urge to giggle and instead cleared his throat a few times to get himself under control. “It isn’t, but I’ve been planning this, so what you’re tasting is lube.”
“Lube?” Steve repeated slowly, taking another long look at Tony’s ass.
“Mmm. Worked myself open in the shower, thinking about taking your dick. If you were hard you could probably just slide right in and start pounding, but since you’re not, we’re going to fool around a bit more before I ride you until I’m satisfied,” Tony explained.
Moaning, Steve’s hips juddered against Tony’s, and Tony could feel that Steve’s body was valiantly trying to make a comeback. Still, even with a young person’s refractory period, it would take at least ten minutes to get Steve hard enough that he could fuck Tony properly. Luckily, they’d been practicing heavy make-out sessions for a few days now, and it wasn’t difficult to convince Steve to lie down on the bed.
“Another day,” Tony promised, moving to straddle Steve’s waist, doing his best not to lose his erection while not coming before Steve was ready for another round, “I’ll let you prepare me. Leave the lube out, hold my legs open for you, let you see what you’re comfortable with.”
“I was trying—” Steve began, cheeks flaming.
Tony pressed a kiss to Steve’s lips (ew, the lube he’d chosen really did taste horrible) and smiled. “I know, but this is what comes from both of us preparing and not talking with one another, so we’ll have better communication next time.” Moving his lips to Steve’s jaw, he suckled a hickey there, fingers kneading Steve’s shoulders. “Right now, let’s wait for your body to catch up again, shall we?”
And it wasn’t any hardship to kiss and learn Steve’s upper body all over again, to locate that specific spot on Steve’s neck that had him arching beautifully, or that zone on Steve’s ears that had him growling and gripping Tony’s waist authoritatively. Tony didn’t really keep track of time, but when he felt Steve’s hardness pressed against his ass, he was ready to get this show on the road.
“Alright,” he murmured, pulling away from Steve’s long, lingering kisses, ignoring the mewl of discontent and dislike from Steve’s mouth. “Alright, we’re ready for this, right? You ready to go again? Sure feels like it.”
Without waiting for a reply, he raised himself up on his knees and reached back to stroke Steve’s erection, making Steve moan and cry out. “That’s it,” he purred, lining Steve up with his hole – it was a little tight because from the shower to now, his muscles had had time to contract, but still mostly loose – and slowly sitting down in one smooth motion. Beneath him, Steve’s breath left him in a punch and he gaped wordlessly up at Tony.
“Exactly,” Tony said smugly. “We could have been doing this from the – ungh – from the beginning, but no, you – mmmf – you wanted to wait, so we waited,” he gasped, settling his ass snug against Steve’s groin. His own erection was purpled, ready to go off at any minute, and so he leaned forward and gasped as Steve’s erection shifted and rubbed against that specific point just on the inside of his ass.
“Alright, now, I’m gonna go off like a rocket soon enough, but afterwards if you haven’t come you have my permission to fuck me into the mattress, you got it?” he grunted.
That seemed to light a fire under Steve’s ass, because he groaned deep in his chest and his hips pumped upwards, one heavy, strong, smooth thrust that shook Tony deep inside. He gasped, mouth falling open foolishly, and moaned. “If you – gahh – if you keep that up, I’m going to come too – too motherfucking soon, Steve,” he panted.
“Well,” Steve grunted, fingers fisted in the sheets as skin slapped against skin, “would serve you right. Only be f-fair.”
The incredulity of Steve making a joke at the moment had Tony laughing, giggling like a schoolgirl as he gasped and groaned around Steve’s thrusts and his own bouncing on that lovely thick cock that dragged at his rim and slid over his prostrate every time it pumped inside—
He came with embarrassing quickness, though he was proud to say it was not the under-30-second-wonder that Steve had been earlier. And he had maintained his erection while bringing back Steve’s, so really you could count that time, too.
But now, slumped on Steve’s chest, he murmured and moaned encouragement as Steve’s hands moved from the sheets to Tony’s hips, physically moving and manipulating Tony’s body, and the manhandling was fucking hot – if Tony was younger, he’d probably be on his way to hardness again. As it was, his erection twitched and drooled out more come, but he was loose and sloppy and pliant and that was enough to drive Steve wild.
Steve came with a shout, head thrown back on the pillows, and Tony could feel his cum dripping out, trickling down his thighs. It made him feel extremely satisfied and content. He should probably clean them up, but for right now he just curled against Steve’s chest, feeling Steve’s heartbeat slow back down, the warmth that Steve radiated like a furnace, and couldn’t really summon up the energy to move.
Tony wasn’t sure how long he was like that, but he was roused from the doze he’d fallen into by Steve getting up and disappearing into the bathroom. Muttering petulantly, he curled up in the bed, too logy to make his limbs move correctly.
A warm, wet cloth wiped over his limbs, and he blinked open at Steve’s form bent over him. “It isn’t fair,” he slurred.
“What isn’t?” Steve asked quietly.
Tony licked his lips. “You came twice an’ I’m the one worn out.”
Steve chuckled, pressing a kiss to the corner of Tony’s mouth. “Old timer.”
Tony did not appreciate that nickname and grumbled and glowered as he cocooned himself in the blankets. When Steve came back to bed, slipping in proved difficult, and for a few futile moments Steve tried to get Tony to give up some of the covers. Finally, Steve let out an exasperated huff and just lied down, clearly unwilling to push the issue.
After a couple of minutes, Tony crept onto Steve’s chest and curled around Steve’s body, cuddling close. With a warm chuckle, Steve pulled Tony closer and pressed a kiss to the top of Tony’s head.
“You know,” Tony muttered contemplatively into Steve’s chest.
Steve’s wings stretched out like arms before relaxing against the bed sheets. Steve’s actual arms were wrapped around Tony’s waist, one hand stroking up Tony’s spine and the other simply laying heavy and content against Tony’s bare skin.
Then those stroking fingers poked at Tony’s ribs.
Tony blinked open eyes he hadn’t realized had closed and stared at Steve a moment. “What?” he asked in a sleep-heavy voice.
“I don’t know. What were you going to say?” Steve asked.
It took Tony a minute to figure out what Steve actually meant, because mind-blowing sex really took it out of him and he was so ready to just fall asleep right here, right now. “Oh. Well. I was thinking that maybe you should come hang out in Malibu sometime.”
Steve didn’t answer for a moment, and Tony found himself biting his lip and far more awake than he wanted to be at this hour. After quite a few heartbeats, Tony added, “Because. You know. Someone needs to take care of that territory? I mean, there are still a lot of Chitauri trapped on this side of the portals now with no way to get home, and it’s better to get rid of them entirely. And I was working on a way to generate electricity cleanly, you know? So. I mean. Maybe you could come and visit me there sometime.”
Steve let out a long sigh, his hand moving from Tony’s waist to rub at his chin. “I – I get what you’re saying. And honestly I feel that too many members of the Host in this territory is going to be problematic, especially considering that there’s enough of us here to at least enlarge the territory, make safe a larger area. But I need to stay here until a handler can be found for Pelael. Initiate Carter came from the Miami Chapel, so we’ll most likely look for an Initiate from there for him. And moving there means Razial and Sabrael won’t be happy with me, but can this Chapel really support two more members of the Host? Is it fair to have four of us here, when there’s so much need for us elsewhere? And if I come with you to Malibu, that’s three members of the Host concentrated in one territory. We need to focus our efforts into making as much people safe as we can, which would mean establishing a new safe territory and building a wall to protect those living inside it.”
Tony didn’t move for a long while, weighing in his head what he was about to propose. It’s not like it was something new, he rationalized to himself. It was even a necessary step to healing this world. But if it was something that other members of the Host could go for – well, now, that was something completely different.
Well, part of springing sex on Steve was to soften him up to the idea that Tony had been thinking about for a while, now. No time like the present.
“Maybe – you know, there’s a lot of space on this continent. A lot of places that just never get paid attention to because our territories are specific and defined areas. Trade can’t take place except within territories, not across the way it could before.”
“Humans used to use cars to travel,” Steve murmured.
Tony sat up, excited because Steve was letting him talk instead of cutting him off or being dismissive. “Yeah, that won’t work anymore because no gas, right, no more oil coming in from overseas. But they traveled differently before – and they had electric stuff. Cars. Electric cars. If we get electricity up and running – I was in the middle of trying to implement a territory-wide energy initiative based off of reactor technology I had when I was human and just never got around to implementing because the board of my company didn’t see any real returns in it. If it works there – there’s no reason it wouldn’t work elsewhere. No more reliance on torches or generators. Hospital equipment can start working again. Everything can start working again, mostly. Anything on electricity, because it’s really easy for me to adapt electrical equipment to running off the reactor tech.”
“You’re proposing – what? You want to travel around and rebuild this? Implement this tech?” Steve asked.
He looked upset, lying there and looking up at Tony from the rumpled sheets, and just a little disheartened. Quickly, Tony made a cutting motion with his hand. “We all travel around. Chapels can – they can handle keeping the Chitauri out of their territory, they’ve done it before when their member of the Host was incapacitated or injured or just plain not there at the moment. But the other places, they’re lawless because no one’s there to put laws in place. They’re cut off. If we rebuild—”
“You want to rebuild the country.” Steve’s eyes were wide.
“Well. Yeah. That’s what this has always been about. Protecting humanity. Making them safe. This is just a… an extension of that.” Tony found himself fiddling with the sheet that was draped over his lap and forced his hands still. Ourael had told Tony to focus on the Chitauri, that his tech was distractions that he couldn’t afford, not while there was physical danger present. Before, Obadiah had pointed out that there were other things that needed to be done for humanity than the toys he built – shelter and food were most important, before all that extra stuff. He had also reiterated the importance of removing the physical danger, and the physical danger wasn’t gone, not just yet. Just because no more Chitauri could get into the human world now that the Tes’rae was shuttered and locked away from any type of sensing equipment didn’t mean that there weren’t still Chitauri wandering the wastes as well as the edges of the territories.
“So we all go around, what, building homes?” Steve asked, but he seemed excited. Tony licked his lips and shook his head.
“Not – not homes,” he said slowly. “We build – laws. Communities. We find out what they have and work with it. Rebuild roads, first. Connect small towns to one another. Find Chitauri nests and exterminate them.”
“That could take years,” Steve said quietly. “The Supervisor might pull us out before then, since we’ve gotten rid of the immediate threat.”
Tony hitched one shoulder. “Still. We travel around. Roaming police force meant to mediate disputes, rebuild cities, and remove the pest problems. And we’ll meet up with one another sooner or later. Communicators on us, after all. You can train Pelael on the go. Razial and Sabrael can run into you guys often enough. And our Initiates can build small Chapels, train people on how to deal with Chitauri. How to recognize them. It’s not that difficult to build a detector for Chitauri presence. It just takes time.”
Steve sat up, the sheet falling down and baring him to the moonlight, and Tony did his best not to be distracted because hey, important conversation here—
Slowly, carefully, Steve kissed Tony as thoroughly as he could manage.
Tony blinked dazed eyes at Steve as he leaned back. “So is that a yes?”
“That’s a hell yes, Tony,” Steve chuckled, pulling Tony back and kissing him again.