With Stark bound in the center and the circle awaiting a final, closing stroke, months’ worth of preparation is finally about to come to fruition. Justin Hammer confirms that the angel ward is perfectly scribed into the walls of the room before stepping towards the man in the middle.
Stark looks smaller like this, nothing like the smooth-cut figure in a suit that can speak quickly and cleverly enough to command the attention of the entire room. No, he had gagged Stark, in case he called upon their special guest sooner than Hammer was ready. Unlike Stark, he plans meticulously, and he works to set those plans into motion—nothing like Stark’s headfirst corkscrews against his problems, nothing like Stark’s hired help, nothing like Stark’s unnatural prosperity.
Hammer sets down the tome and picks his way to the outer edges of the containment circle, careful not to smudge the thick lines of paint. No, he is nothing like Stark—yet. But once he is, he will not waste the opportunity like Stark has. With so much power, so many possibilities, Hammer will finally carve his name into history above the bloodstained etching of Stark’s own.
He expects Stark to wake when he puts a hand on him, but Stark doesn’t so much as stir. Hammer smiles. The sedatives were heavy, but not heavy enough that Stark will miss the moment Hammer takes his glory from him. He had made sure of that.
His hand slides below Stark's collar, towards the faint glow of the amulet below his shirt. Hammer deftly undoes the top two buttons, then reaches for the hard, jagged shape of the binding stone that sits over a laceration of scars on Stark's chest. It seems to pulse in his hand, like a heart turned cold. If the stones are any representation of the heart of its bearer, Hammer wonders what must have possessed an angel to willingly bond with Stark. Arrogant, self-serving, and corrupt, he would say that Stark is better suited to be a demon himself.
Hammer doesn’t fault him for it. It’s hard to succeed in their world otherwise. In fact, he admires Stark’s ingenuity—with his father’s death and the downwards spiral of his company, nothing could have saved it short of a miracle; of course Stark found a way to create his own. But his mistake was thinking he could convince everyone that Tony Stark, with his laundry list of defects, could have achieved what was near-impossible by himself.
Hammer doesn’t want Stark out of the picture; a certain level of competition is healthy, after all. He only means to show the world who Tony Stark really is—or, more importantly, who Tony Stark is not.
The chain of the amulet snaps pathetically easily, despite all the stories he’s heard of the strength of an angel’s bond. Hammer reconsiders; maybe the angel was no more willing to be bonded with Tony Stark than it will soon be bonded to him. The stone plummets to a freezing cold when he closes his fist around it and pushes Stark back on his side. It must be rougher than he intended, because this prompts a groan from Stark, the first sign of consciousness in over twenty-four hours.
Good. It's almost time.
Hammer steps clear of the markings. There is already triumph swelling in his chest as he closes out the circle, and then all that’s left is to wait.
He doesn’t have to wait long at all.
The temperature drops first, a quick-seeping cold that seems to fill in every crevice of the room. The lights are next—he avoided any electrical lighting that could be manipulated, but the flames of the candles around the room still dim and waver. Stark lays at the epicenter, obscured by a cloud of darkness that wasn’t there before. An odd scent fills the room; Hammer can’t find any other word for it besides unnatural.
The angel arrives. There is no holy light, no glimmer of grace.
Hammer blinks, and there is another man kneeling over Stark’s crumpled form. He wears civilian clothing, strands of dirty blond hair falling over his forehead as he leans down to cup a hand over Stark’s cheek, then over his chest: checking for a heartbeat, perhaps, or on the scars that Hammer had glimpsed. “Tony,” he hears him murmur.
If not for the ashen wings tucked between his shoulderblades, Hammer might have mistaken him for a human. A civilian. A lover, even.
“Angel,” he makes himself known, barely keeping the tremble of excitement out of his voice. He rises to his feet.
The angel turns serene blue eyes on him. Hammer feels no fear; he has planned and executed everything perfectly, and now the angel has practically delivered himself into his own cage. The wards on the wall would prevent him from using his powers, and the containment circle, an old and ancient symbol that Hammer had paid top dollar to be unearthed, is capable of keeping even the most powerful of angels in captivity.
Yet there is a raw intensity in the angel’s gaze that makes Hammer shiver. He is not an idiot; he will still have to be careful with this one.
The angel tilts his head. “You.”
The voice is nothing like the one that spoke Stark’s name so gently. It is low, even-keeled, compounded by layers and layers of other voices, with an edge of warning to it.
Those unnatural blue eyes slant towards the stone clutched in his hand. Laughing, marveling at how easy it all has been, Hammer steps forward to the edges of the circle once more and raises the stone. “Angels are bound to whoever holds it.” You’re bound to me now, this says.
The angel sneers. It’s an expression that he wears well for a holy being. “Angels.” He draws to his full height—taller than Stark, Hammer imagines, and certainly taller than him. He approaches the edge of the circle from the inside, until a scant few inches remain between them. Whatever the angel means to say next is sidetracked by his gaze flickering to the stone once more. He says instead, “That doesn’t belong to you.”
Ah, so he has grown soft on Stark, then. It isn’t ideal, but he will still do. “It does now,” Hammer sneers in return, “and my first command is—”
A hand shoots out, quicker than he could have hoped to catch. Strong, decisive fingers close around his neck and squeeze, and it’s the stinging cold that Hammer first becomes aware of, pulsing from the angel’s hands and bleeding into his own body, as if replacing the air being suffocated from him.
“W-Wards,” Hammer chokes out, the corners of his mouth still stretched upwards in a manic grin as he stares the angel down. “T- Take one st-step out…and you’ll burn.”
The angel’s eyes flicker away, assessing the rest of the room for the first time. His expression, however, is unconcerned. “Will I?” the angel muses.
Hammer feels his feet leave the floor. In three steps, the angel has covered the distance between the circumference of the circle and the wall of the room, slamming Hammer hard enough against it to splinter wood.
“N-No!” Disbelief and panic together wrench the word from his mouth. The hand around his throat tightens, colder and colder and never less unforgiving, and Hammer kicks and claws and wheezes.
Over it all, the angel promises quietly, “Touch him again and I’ll kill you."
Hammer chokes out a wait, but it goes ignored. The angel leans in, his other hand closing over Hammer’s forehead and forcing his head back against the wall. “Forget,” he whispers.
Hammer’s body jerks. The stone falls from his spasming hands, but it’s a sensation so faraway and insignificant now. There is something pushing at the gates of his mind, an impalpable force that fills every crevice of his thoughts the same way the cold had flooded the room.
It doesn’t hurt.
Like a wave of the ocean, it recedes, leaving him feeling strangely…empty.
He’s dimly aware of being released by someone and falling to the floor, heaving for breath. The gaps in his mind fill in with confusion as he opens his eyes to an unfamiliar room. This isn’t his bedroom. He’s not wearing what he wore to sleep. Where—
There’s something glowing on the floor in front of him, but a hand takes it before his vision clears and he can discern what it is. Hammer raises his head, a feeble attempt to watch a stranger walking away from him, towards another man slumped in the middle of the room. Hammer watches as the first man steps over decorations of red paint on the floor, bends down, and reaches behind the other man. Then he lifts him into his arms.
“Steve,” the second one sighs, winding his arms around the other’s shoulders securely. A flash of dark hair, a glimpse of his face— Stark?
The first man stands effortlessly, though his head remains bowed towards Stark’s face. Hammer thinks he sees him brush a kiss over his forehead.
In a blink, they are gone.
Hammer has a moment to wonder what smells so potently of sulfur—and then he is succumbing to the irrepressible urge to sleep.