“I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,/Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down/The dark descent, and up to reascend...” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
buying a stairway to heaven
0. God has many eyes. Some are small, some are vast, some peer into the darkness, others stare into the sun, but no pair of eyes is sharper than Uriel’s.
(Though that is not what he will call himself, one day. Uriel is a strange name, even among humans.)
Uriel’s eyes see everything, given enough time.
He finds Gabriel in 1881. It was only a matter of time, really, and good ol’ Gabe hasn’t made himself all that hard to find. (Granted, it’s been nearly three thousand years. He’s grown arrogant, not that he wasn’t in the first place.)
“Raz,” Uriel whispers. “I’ve got him.”
“We moving in?”
On the wind, there’s the faintest rustle of wings.
Uriel pauses. “No,” he says, folding his own wings (wide, golden-brown) in tight. “Not today. We know where he is. Now we just wait.”
“For what?” Raziel turns towards him, heaven’s light stirring beneath her eyes.
Uriel is God’s sharpest pair of eyes, and he is the archangel of wisdom. “For when it’s time.”
Michael fell millennia ago—was pushed, actually—and Uriel finds him in 1945.
“Save him!” Raziel cries, her own wings (slender, sleek storm-gray) already outstretched as if she, no more than an urim, can haul an archangel—the archangel—up by his feathers.
“I can’t,” Uriel says, and she curses him in every language she knows, but she doesn’t leave his side.
“He’s an angel still, though he doesn’t know it,” Uriel whispers. (Sometimes, he wishes he couldn’t see half as well as he can.) “He’ll come back.”
Michael dies in 1945, but he’s born again, and dies again in ’86, and he’s born at the open of 1987.
Please, Father, Uriel thinks, and he cannot help but watch. Please, let this be the last time.
Ezekiel doesn’t try to hide. He’s rather too busy and besides, he can’t just fall and expect no one to notice him, least of all Uriel.
Ezekiel scrapes out a living as a man, but he, like Gabriel, knows exactly what he is. He uses heaven’s light for little things, a few healings here and there, once to chase out some low-level demons, but Ezekiel is the angel of death. He has power that very, very few—Michael, basically—can rival, but he won’t use it.
“I don’t understand,” Uriel tells Raz one day, watching Zeke way down there using only a flare of his angel-fire to banish illness. “He could do so much more. It’s almost like he’s scared of it.”
“You’re forgetting something,” Raz says. (By this time it’s 1968 and they’ve watched Ezekiel try and kill himself a hundred times already, only to find that the angel of death cannot die.)
“He’s transformation, too,” she says, and it’s amazing how often he forgets that urim she might be, but she is God’s secret-keeper also. “Maybe he transformed himself, and doesn’t know how to go back again.”
Uriel’s not convinced. “Maybe,” he says, and keeps on watching.
Ramiel isn’t hard to find. Out of all of them, Ramiel loved Azrael the best, and he will not leave his side even if Azrael has been leading the legions of hell for something like ten thousand years. (He’s weirdly loyal like that. Uriel looks at his scattered brothers, and can relate.)
Uriel and Raz try and avoid looking at him for the longest time. It’s just sad, is what it is, watching Ramiel’s wings (broad, deep gold) blacken with hell’s heat. Soon enough he looks like a demon though he isn’t, and it hurts to see him like that.
It hurts to see all of them, God’s children, wandering the earth. Lost, Raz says, we are lost.
Uriel knows it, but he still keeps waiting.
“When?” Raz will ask, and he’ll furl his wings tighter, watching, always watching.
“Soon,” he’ll say, and wait.
This one he sees thirty-two years before it happens: The time comes when Azrael slips out of hell. He’s been bound there for quite some time, but he gets loose on Lucifer’s tail feathers, clawing and scrabbling his way into the warm light of earth.
Uriel is there to see Az—soot-black, his wings more scar than feather—stand, shake himself off, and smile.
The whole of hell snarls behind him.
“Raziel,” Uriel says, stretching his own wings out now, feeling heaven’s light groan within them.
“Yes?” She too stands, her feathers spread and at attention.
She smiles, takes his hand. They’re not afraid. “Let’s go,” she says.
1. Clint Barton pulls the arrow back to his cheek, bowstring tense, humming, and breathes. He doesn’t let go, not yet, but it feels good to stand with an arrow drawn back, ready to fly at the slightest provocation.
He stands there for what feels like hours, taut and waiting. Then, when the sun sets and it’s too dark for archery, he relaxes.
The air is clear and cold as he walks home, sharp and with just a hint of burning blown in from the west. It’s autumn, but the summer was a dry one and the mountains have been burning for weeks now, though Clint’s little home hasn’t been touched.
Leaves crunch underfoot, stirred up by the wind. They dance for him, spinning madly in the night air. The night animals aren’t afraid of him, and don’t bother hiding their luminous eyes. They watch him go curiously through the trees, a human who doesn’t act much like one. The braver ones even flit closer, owls perching near his head and raccoons shifting through the undergrowth.
He smiles, and tosses what scraps of bread and crackers he can dig out of his pockets.
Home is a little cabin, small and hidden beneath an outcropping of rock. Moss creeps up the sides and flowers—though they’re withering now—bloom against the foundations.
Clint goes in through the window because the front door is booby-trapped—not by him, actually, but by the real owners of the place, who left when the winds turned black—and drops his bow, kicking off his boots on his way to the kitchen.
(Whatever food the cabin’s owners left is long gone, but Clint Barton is nothing if not a survivor, and the mountain is giving.)
Two venison sandwiches later, Clint makes sure all the lights are off—wouldn’t do to have the park rangers spot him, now would it—and curls up against the window, watching the leaves dance in the burning wind.
He falls asleep to their rustling song, face pressed against the cool glass, and dreams.
Sometimes, Clint dreams of flying. He’s always liked to watch the hawks on the mountain, swooping and soaring above the trees, and sometimes he gets an itch between his shoulder blades, an urge to join them. To fly.
He rolls his shoulders, flexing the muscles. His wings aren’t heavy, and the feathers sigh in the wind. He spreads them, testing the air beneath. It’s a firm wind, strong and solid. Perfect.
He raises his wings—they’re huge, he can tell by their shadow—high overhead, and brings them sweeping down.
Flying is amazing. Easier than you’d think, but then Clint’s always had his eyes on the sky. He’s memorized the movements of birds and his feathers sing, tilting to catch the wind as he rolls and dives and rises, higher and higher.
Clint Barton dreams of flying, and these dreams always leaving him aching inside, as though something integral is missing. His shoulders itch.
The sound of crackling leaves wakes him up.
He comes awake suddenly, too fast for the hollowness to set in, and scrambles away from the window instinctively, wrapping himself in shadow.
He reaches for his bow, never far from his side, and watches.
Outside, the crunching leaves—footsteps, human judging by their rhythm and weight—pause, drift closer to the cabin.
Clint waits. Barely breathes. Knocks an arrow before he can think about it, the bowstring humming with tension.
Through the window a shadow spills dark and heavy, ink-black and lined by white moonlight. The shadow twists, comes closer until its owner is visible, leaning in to peer into the window.
It’s a man, young, with dark hair, pale skin, and eyes like fire, bright bright green and cunning.
Clint doesn’t dare move, other than to aim right between his eyes.
The man grins, a flash of teeth, and disappears. A second later the door rattles. The stranger tests it, pushing and pulling, seeking entry.
Clint waits. The door’s booby-trapped. Opening it will trigger an alarm and a shotgun mounted on the opposite wall. If this stranger wants to have a face, he’ll leave well enough alone. There are plenty of cabins on the mountain. He doesn’t need this one.
The door rattles one last time, then stills. Silence.
Clint stays where he is, hidden in deep shadow with his arrow pulled back, brushing his cheek.
More silence. The stranger’s gone.
Clint cautiously stands up, keeping his arrow drawn. He slinks through the shadows in small movements he learned from the birds, never taking his eyes off the window. It’s quiet outside but the hairs on the back of his neck are stiff, his whole body screaming a warning.
He gets himself beside the window, still hidden, trying to see out into the moonlit woods, searching for any sign of the stranger—
With a terrific thump, the stranger hurls himself against the window, hard enough to rattle the glass. Clint flinches instinctively, pressing deeper into the shadows. He can’t get a good shot off, not here, but if he can get just a little farther away without the man noticing—
The stranger grins wildly, ignoring the blood trickling down his face. The window is cracked, hairline fractures spreading across the surface of the glass.
“Little bird,” the stranger coos, and his voice is deep and terrible. His eyes are too bright. “Little bird, I know you’re in there.”
Clint stays completely still. His muscles shake with the force of it.
“Come now,” says the stranger. “You can’t hide from me. I can smell you.” The stranger tsks, slamming his fist into the window. The glass wavers, threatens to break. The stranger searches the darkness with his burning eyes, scanning every bit of shadow, but he can’t see Clint, not from this angle.
Finally, the stranger makes a disgusted sound and pulls away. “Very well,” he calls, his shadow spilling behind him. “So be it. You better fly, little bird. We’re coming after you!”
Leaves crunch again, the stranger walking away. Clint stays frozen, watching the man’s shadow get smaller and smaller, narrowing to a thin line.
The shadow flickers, so fast he almost misses it, but Clint has a sharp pair of eyes. There’s very little that can hide from him.
The shadow grows wings.
This is a dream, he thinks, shaking his head vigorously. The shadow disappears, gone for good this time. The hairs on the back of his neck relax.
This has to be a dream.
But as he straightens and cautiously relaxes his bow, he knows it’s not. Dreams are of flying, of wings that sit light on his back, not of this, strangers and shadows.
The window’s damn near broken, too. The blood on it is real.
It’s time to go.
The stranger said he’d be back, said we. Is he bringing more friends, then? More strangers with too-bright eyes?
Clint’s not going to stick around to find out. There are dozens of other cabins on the mountain, most of them empty, and there’s food enough everywhere. He’s probably overstayed his welcome anyway. He normally doesn’t stay in the same place for longer than a week, and he’s been here two and a half.
He grabs what little he needs and goes, slipping out through the window in the back, keeping his eyes peeled and an arrow within easy reach.
Unlike the stranger, he doesn’t make any sound as he steals through the woods, moving slowly so he doesn’t crush leaves and twigs underfoot. The mountain is steep in places, jagged in others, making the way nearly impossible for someone who isn’t him, who’s spent his whole adult life wandering the mountains, carving an existence out on their ragged sides.
The stranger, if he is after Clint, is going to have a hell of a time following him.
Why me? Clint thinks. What have I done? I don’t know this guy. Why’s he after me?
The way down is dim, but there’s light enough to see. The moon, nearly full, hangs over the mountain, slanting between the trees, and firelight glows behind him over the ridges, creeping ever closer.
He doesn’t like it. It feels wrong somehow, his pristine sanctuary turned into a sour note, a bad taste at the back of his tongue. Wariness curls in the pit of his stomach. He needs to watch out now, closer than ever before.
Clint runs. Slipping down steep slopes, jumping piles of rock, sloshing through creeks and half-dry riverbeds to confuse anyone who might be following him. He doesn’t hear anything other than the sound of his own breath and heartbeat, but that doesn’t mean no one’s there, it just means they’re very, very good.
But Clint is better.
He’s halfway up the next mountain in less than three hours, just as the moon is sinking below the ridges, and from here, he can see the burning.
Fire sweeps over the old mountainside, frighteningly fast, driven by the winds they call the Santa Anas out in California. Trees and cabins go up smoke, dancing orange and red. He wonders if the stranger and any friends of his had the sense to get off the mountain before it went up.
He turns, the sense of danger fading, and continues his trek.
This mountain isn’t his favorite—the trees aren’t nearly dense enough to provide steady cover—but it’ll do for now. He needs to rest a little more before he moves to safer stomping grounds.
Moving carefully, he makes a nest for himself out of branches and leaves, tucked against the hollow of some gnarled tree roots.
It’s not much, but there’s something comforting about the maze of branches over his head, the thick scent of leaves and earth. It feels a bit like home (though of course, someone like Clint Barton doesn’t have a home) and it’s enough to lull him into a catnap, eyes and ears still open for any sign of the stranger.
He starts as the sound of loose earth and cracking branches jerks him awake, flailing for his bow, and he instinctively curls in and rolls to the side, punching his way out of his little nest.
He’s halfway across the clearing, down on one knee with his bow drawn, a hiss starting in his breath, before he’s fully aware of what’s going on.
There’s another person in the clearing.
Not the stranger, no, though her eyes are nearly as bright. This person is a woman, her hair a fire, fists up like she, a hundred and thirty pounds soaking wet, can take him on.
“Who are you?” Clint growls—actually growls, it’s been that long since he’s spoken—aggressively, pulling his bowstring back. (He usually won’t shoot actual human beings, but, well. It’s been an unusual day.)
“Who are you?” the woman fires back, her voice lovely and more than a little familiar. “This is my land.”
Clint bares his teeth. “I’m just passing through,” he says. “You didn’t have to jump on me.”
“You didn’t have to sneak onto my land,” the woman returns. “I run a bed and breakfast, we have space.”
“Sorry,” he says through gritted teeth, keeping his eyes on her as he lowers the bow. She warily drops her fist. “Wasn’t intending to spend the night under a tree. I’ve got a cabin back there.” He jerks his head back towards the other mountain, where the fire blazes merrily in the early morning light, and she turns.
He steps fast, bow and arrow up, and gets behind her before she can react.
Her fists go up again. “Who are you?” she repeats. “I know everybody over there and you’re not one of them. What are you, a squatter?”
“Just passing through,” he says again. She circles him, eyes flashing. She’s not afraid. “I don’t mean any harm.”
“That’s what they all say,” she retorts. “Put the bow down.”
She sighs. “My name’s Natasha,” she says. “There, better?”
Natasha huffs an annoyed sigh, putting her hands on her hips. “If you’re not going to share, get the hell off my land.”
“You can’t own land here,” he snaps. The bowstring hums, quivering in his hands. “This is a national park, the best you can do is have a cabin. You don’t have a fucking bed and breakfast. Who are you? Are you one of his?”
“One of whose?” she demands, and she’s not reaching to put her fists up now, oh no. Her hands are creeping to the back of her waistband, and the hair on his neck stands straight up like an electric charge has run through it.
“Hands where I can see them,” he says. She gives him a look and something inside him twists, lurching against his ribcage. He knows that look. “Who are you!”
“I told you,” she says slowly, patiently, hands raised palm forward. The universal gesture of peace, though it’s not, he knows it’s not, that’s a threat where he comes from. “My name is Natasha, Natasha Romanoff. I live here on the mountain. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Liar,” he growls, electricity sending shockwaves through his system. The bowstring sings, aches to be let go. “You’re working with that one guy, aren’t you?”
“What guy?” she says in that same slow, soothing tone, eyes alight.
“You know what guy. Tall, dark hair, crazy eyes,” he spits. “He said he and his would come after me. You’re working with him!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Everything’s too bright, too hot, electricity and smoke billowing in the air. The wind crackles, charged.
“Liar,” he snarls again.
Her palms are out, facing him, that’s not good, that’s dangerous, and he pulls back and lets the arrow fly, singing for her—
Light, brilliant white and terrible, blasts outwards, and he throws up his hands to defend himself, the skin blistering, a shriek rising in his ears, and then he’s gone.
The stink of burned flesh drags him back up from soft, pillowy darkness, and Clint jerks, coughing. His mouth tastes like ash and his hands fucking hurt, but he’s alive.
He sits up carefully, feeling old, like the light has gone inside him and melted his bones, leaving hot goo in their place.
“What the fuck was that,” he mutters, standing painfully. He’s got such a tight hold on his bow his fingers ache, but the bow itself is undamaged, if a little warm.
The forest is ash.
Trees lay bowed and leafless, stripped to their bones by heat. Soot flutters down from the sky, borne by the wind. A lone hawk keens, wheels in the blistering air, and is gone.
About twenty feet away, there’s a moan and the soft shff of skin on ash. The woman is still alive. Clint doesn’t know what the fuck happened, but she should be more hurt than she is. She has a few burns and she’s unconscious, but she’s alive.
He missed her.
He never fucking misses but he missed this one, at point blank range, too.
“What are you?” he mutters, crouching next to her. She breathes, steady and even, her wildfire hair spread in the ash behind her.
She’s beautiful. Clint is aware that that is a very disturbing thought to have about an unconscious woman, but it’s the truth.
The thing in his chest twists again, writhing, beating against his ribs, and he wants to touch her. She looks so familiar, he thinks, so familiar, but he can’t put a name to it.
Instead he stands, bow tracking in the ash, and circles her, debating. If she’s an enemy, now’s the best time to kill her. She’s vulnerable now and he has no idea how long that will last, so if he’s going to make a move, he best do it quickly.
But he knows her. He knows that he knows her, from a long time ago, and she has to know him.
But he’s never seen her before. Maybe in the crowd once, during a show? Maybe back when he still pretended to be a part of the human race, in the supermarket, across a crowded movie theater?
“You’re staring,” she says, and he startles, tripping back over his bow. Her eyes are still closed and she’s breathing deeply, evenly. There’s no sign she’s awake. “That’s a little rude, you know.”
“What the fuck did you do?” he growls, knocking another arrow just in case. “The fuck was that?”
“You tried to shoot me,” she says, sitting up and shaking the ash out of her hair. (For a split second in the soot around her, he thinks he sees the imprint of a pair of wings.)
“You—did you blow us to hell?”
Natasha doesn’t answer, climbing fluidly to her feet. The thing in his ribs kicks. He can barely breathe.
“What are you?”
“I told you already,” she says irritably. “I’m Natasha.”
“You can’t be human,” Clint snarls, pulling the bowstring until it sings. “Humans don’t—what are you, an alien? Some sort of government experiment?”
The corner of her mouth twists up in something that resembles a smile. “Probably.”
“You asked,” she says, and holds her palms up this time, facing the sky.
The light she kindles in her hands is smaller, fragile, fluttering like a heartbeat. He can’t help but stare because it’s beautiful, a tiny little pulse formed between her slender fingers.
Clint can’t breathe. “How?” he says wonderingly. How? Just this morning his biggest concern was finding a new place, not this, not strangers prowling in the night and woman with light between their hands.
This shit isn’t possible.
“I don’t know how,” she admits. “I’ve been able to do it since I was a child.”
He stares some more, and she rolls her eyes.
“I told you before, I’m not going to hurt you. You might want to get the hell out of here, by the way. Someone will have seen that.”
“Who are you?” he says again.
“We’ve been over this,” she mutters. “My name is Natasha. I am a freak of nature. Please leave so I can carry on with my life.”
“I know you,” he says, before he can stop himself. “At least, I think I know you.”
“What?” she turns back around, frowning now, and oh no, he never wants her to frown, he’s never wanted to her frown. The thing in his chest keens.
“You’re familiar,” he tries to explain. “I’ve seen you before somewhere.”
Her lip curls. “Impossible.”
She cants her head, extinguishing the light in her hands. “What’s your name?”
“Clint,” he says. “Clint Barton.”
Natasha pauses, head tilted, considering, but her frown only deepens. “No,” she says. “I don’t know any Barton. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” He doesn’t want to see her frown. He hates—hated—it, when she frowned. “It’s not your fault.”
“You should leave,” she says again. “I’ve been on this mountain for three years. I don’t want any trouble now.”
Clint remembers the stranger all of a sudden, terrible eyes and shadows, prowling out there. “You need to hide,” he says urgently. “If you are who you say you are, then you’re in danger. There’s a man on this mountain and he’s not a friendly. He’s looking for me, and he might come after you too.”
“Why? What’s so special about you?”
He should be stung, he really should be, but he’s not. He shrugs. “Dunno. But someone crashed the cabin I was staying at, and said he’d be back with friends.”
Now is not the time to mention the strange shadows, probably. Yes, here is a girl who can conjure light between her hands, but people don’t have wings. Everybody knows that.
Natasha frowns again—the thing in his chest whimpers—and casts around nervously, scanning the trees. “What did he look like?”
“Really tall, dark hair, green eyes.” Clint pauses, considering how much he should tell this girl. “Menacing. I could feel him, you know? Like touching a live wire.”
“I’ll keep an eye out,” she says. “You should go.”
Clint hesitates, but she’s right, he knows she’s right. He’s only imagining that he knows her. It’s a trick. A cruel trick, but his mind has come up with far crueler. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I should go.”
He turns, kicking up soot. “Be careful up here.”
Clint paces off through the ashy trees before she can say anything. He’s determined not to hear her. Let it go, Barton. Let it go.
He straps his bow to his back and moves on.
The wind tastes of burning. The trees groan, hardly louder than a whimper, and leaves rain down, the color of Natasha’s hair.
You’re losing it.
Clint makes it half a mile when a shrill, furious shriek fills the air. No, not the air, the space between his ears, piercingly loud and in a language he can’t understand, but it’s a cry for help, he knows it.
He goes back.
He doesn’t think, doesn’t pause to debate the wisdom of going to Natasha’s aid. He just goes.
There has been enough waiting, he hears, deep inside himself. He ignores it, and runs as fast as he can.
The clearing isn’t hard to find again, not with the burns and the shrieking growing louder, louder, loudest yet.
He has an arrow knocked and loose before he can stop to see everything, and it finds its mark in soft flesh. A man claps a hand to his neck and drops to the ground, blood bubbling from underneath his fingers.
There are six of them, big, burly men—one in a business suit, what the actual fuck—with scarred knuckles and gleaming eyes, ringing around Natasha tauntingly.
“All alone now, little bird,” one of them sings, teeth bared. They, unsettlingly, remind Clint of the stranger. He knocks another arrow. They haven’t seen him yet, creeping through the ash, or noticed their fallen friend. “No one’s here to save you.”
Natasha, to her credit, doesn’t respond to the taunting. She arches an eyebrow, disdain in every pore of her being, and roundhouse kicks the speaker in the face.
The thing in Clint’s chest cheers.
The man yowls, lashing out clumsily with huge, meaty fists, but Natasha is faster. She moves like she’s flying, fists and feet and fire.
Clint doesn’t think. He fires off one arrow, then another, then another, all with unerring precision. The men he hits don’t cry out. They don’t have time. His arrows fly true, and they drop.
The ash is stirring now, twisting against a ground-bound wind that makes Clint’s whole body ache, singing fly, flee, fight. Soot twists into black, oozing tendrils, rising, falling, heaving like a living thing.
It’s unnatural, and his skin prickles.
There’s only one man left standing now, trading blows with Natasha.
Clint pulls back, breathes. Waits, for just the right moment.
There’s a flash of skin, just the barest hint beneath the business suit, but it’s all Clint needs. He lets the arrow fly, urging it straight and true, and the business man cries out, clapping a hand to his collarbone where the arrow bites deep.
Natasha springs, and it’s over.
They stand among the ash—still writhing—and six dead men, panting.
“Thanks,” she says. “I guess. How did you know to come back?”
“I heard,” he tries, and stops. The shrieking voice is gone from his ears. “I just knew, I guess.”
“Huh.” Natasha sweeps her hair back, licking blood from her split lip. “Fuckers. They were waiting for you to leave, I think. They didn’t come after me until you were out of sight.”
“They feel like the stranger,” Clint murmurs, crouching next to one body. “Dangerous, you know?” He turns the dead man over, pulling his arrow from his chest. Blood soaks his fingers, but he’s killed before. It doesn’t bother him.
The ash stirs.
Too late Clint rears back with a roar, howling in pain, a knife stuck between his ribs. The dead man—no, not dead, most definitely alive—surges to his feet, his completely, horribly black. The air burns suddenly, reeking of sulfur, and for a moment Clint sees blackblackblack and sharp teeth and claws, a pair of wings so badly charred they look like a bat’s, not a bird’s, and the man—creature—lunges for him.
He puts an arrow between its eyes, white spots flashing in his vision.
The man drops, twitches. The ash stirs and now Clint sees something, a black, smoky ooze, writhing around the body, and the man staggers to his feet again.
He’s grinning, and there’s no light in his eyes, just two yawning pits.
The rest are standing too, shaking off their fatal injuries, black-eyed and hungry. The air burns and the taste of sulfur nearly chokes Clint.
“Clint!” Natasha shouts (the shrieking is back, lower in pitch this time but still furious). “Close your eyes!”
He does, screwing them shut even as he lets another arrow fly.
Natasha’s light, brilliant, burning, blasts out, washing over him (it doesn’t hurt, this time) and the six man-shaped creatures. The world turns red and black, light-shadow, and a terrible, roaring screech threatens to shatter his eardrums before it cuts out.
The light fades.
Clint cautiously opens his eyes, drawing another arrow just in case.
The things are gone.
Six blackened husks of people smolder on the ground and Natasha kneels in the ashes, breathing heavily.
“Are you okay?” Clint asks, going to her.
She’s pale and shaking, sweat beading her face, but she nods. “Takes a lot out of me,” she pants. “There were six of them.”
“Yeah,” he mutters, eyeing the burned bodies. “What the hell were those things?”
“I don’t know,” she says between breaths. “They looked like people but I saw—teeth. Claws.”
“Wings,” he murmurs.
Natasha looks at him sidelong, but she nods. “Wings,” she confirms. “You saw it too?”
“Great ugly ones,” he says. “They looked like they’d been burned, or something.”
“Where are you from?” she asks, and the random question catches him off guard.
“Where. Are you. From?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because you’re like me, aren’t you?” she says, a knowing glint in her dark eyes. “You’re different. You could see that they weren’t just people. You know things.”
He thinks of the way he felt when the stranger came to the window, the knife’s edge of danger he would get, sometimes, just walking in the streets. One of the reasons he came up to the mountains was because he couldn’t stand that feeling, that knowledge that something bad was about to happen and he couldn’t do anything about it.
“I’m from the circus,” he admits.
“The circus,” she mutters. “Fair enough. Come on.”
“Oh, so you want me to go with you now.”
She rolls her eyes. “If you want to stay and fight of more of those things, be my guest. I have a car, and a safe place. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“No,” he says, eyeing the charred lumps of monster. “I’ll come. Maybe between the pair of us, we can figure whatever the hell this is out.”
Natasha smiles, and the thing in his chest kicks violently. “Good,” she says. “I’m Natasha. It’s nice to meet you.” She holds out her hand.
“Hi, Natasha,” he says, a smile tugging at his lips. “I’m Clint. Pleasure’s all mine.” He grabs her hand.
Neither of them are prepared for the rush of electricity, ringing loud like heaven’s clearest bell, that drops them to their knees.
2. She doesn’t talk to him all the way to her “safe place.” Frankly, that’s okay with him. His ears are still ringing in clear bell tones and he can’t stop shaking, lightning pouring through his body like he’s made of silver.
It, oddly enough, doesn’t hurt.
They touched, and every nerve ending burst into flames. That kind of power is something you only get from grabbing hold of a live wire, not shaking somebody’s hand, and Clint would really like to know what the fuck is going on, thanks.
First there’s a stranger at his window, then there’s a girl with fucking light in her hands, then there are black-eyed men, then he touches Natasha and it’s like fireworks in his brain.
Something really fucking weird is happening to him, and he wants to know why. He’s lived thirty-odd years without anything this monumentally strange happening. Yes, he is different. He knows too much, he sees too much, he occasionally has existential crises that make him look schizophrenic, but he’s never seen anything like this.
It’s bizarre, and now Natasha won’t talk to him.
She drives, hands white-knuckled on the wheel, and doesn’t look at him.
“I’m sorry?” he ventures, vaguely apologetic but mostly freaked out. “That’s never happened to me before.”
She doesn’t say anything.
“I bet it’s never happened to you either,” he says, hoping he’s reading her right. “I mean, you can do the light thing, but this is something else entirely, right? It’s new for me too, I promise. I mean, really new. Yesterday morning I woke up and worried about hunting. Now, I’ve got a fucking monster after me, and when we touch, we glow! Isn’t that awesome.”
“You should stop talking now,” Natasha says evenly, eyes fixed straight ahead. “We’ll be there in a few hours.”
Clint quiets. He knows she must be freaked out. A man she met two hours ago in the forest glows when he touches her. That’s pretty freaky, even for someone who makes light.
How does she do that? He wonders. Of course there’s the comic book story—she fell in a vat of something sketchy, she was tested on by the government, she’s a plain old mutant—but that seems a little too garish for Natasha, and besides, if that was the case, where does he know her from?
He has the answer, he knows he does. It itches in his chest in that spot right below his ribs, white-hot, but he can’t grab a hold of it.
Eventually, he gives up. It’ll come to him, he knows it will. He just has to be patient.
Clint is nothing if not patient. He’s a hunter, after all. Patience and watching, that’s what he’s good at. It will come.
His ribs fucking hurt. The man-creature got him pretty good, right near the bottom of his ribcage. It doesn’t hurt enough to be a stomach wound—those suck—but it hurts enough to keep him from sleeping.
He’s stitched it up as best as he can. He has a firm no hospitals rule, and it’s not a fatal cut. Tasha—Natasha, he reminds himself fiercely, Na-ta-sha, she’s not your friend, just a ride to somewhere safe—had some asprin in the trunk, and it’ll do for now. When he gets near civilization—if he doesn’t run screaming first—he’ll find something a little stronger.
“D’you ever think,” he says, breaking the quiet again (he doesn’t miss the way she tenses, every finger white-knuckled on the steering wheel) with his knees drawn up to his chest. “D’you ever think that you were made for something more?”
It takes her almost two full minutes to answer. “More than what?”
“Than what we are. You know, always running, always hiding, scraping out a life wherever we can find one.”
“I thought that’s what everyone does,” she says dryly. “Aren’t we all just scratching out a life where we can find it?”
“You know what I mean,” he says, because she does, he knows she does. He can see it in the line of her shoulders, the tension in her spine. He can read it in the space between her fingers, the flash of teeth she gives him, a tired smile.
“Maybe,” she murmurs.
“Do you ever feel that way? I do. Sometimes I feel like I should be doing something else, something important—” He cuts off, jerking his head away to look out the window and the mountains flying past. He feels that way most of the time. Like he should have a purpose, but he doesn’t. Like someone just forgot that Clint Barton was supposed to be something. Like an unfinished story, and he itches with it.
“Do you ever feel that way?”
Natasha doesn’t answer.
He curls up, pulling his legs in tighter, leaning against the window. It’s no nest, but he’s not going to sleep anyway. His head hurts.
He closes his eyes.
“Yes,” she says, but he’s already gone.
When he dreams of flying, he’s never alone. There’s always somebody at his side, taking every turn, their wings—smaller than his, he can tell by the shadows, slenderer and better for dives—rushing beside his.
It feels good. He’s not a solitary creature, never has been. He’s not built to be one. He’s built for this, for soaring with his flock-mate, for nesting with another, for searching, and searching, and searching—
When he flies, he’s never alone, but there’s an ache inside of him. A great, yawning pit, a weeping wound, a cry that started way at the top of the golden gates and plunged down, down, always down.
He’s never alone, but there’s supposed to be more of them.
He hates flying without all of them. It hurts, like feathers plucked out and bent, cast down to earth.
He has another—finally, finally, he’s not alone—but it’s not enough. It is never, ever enough, and the hole in his belly yawns wide.
“Wake up,” Natasha says gently, and for the third time in less than a day Clint startles awake, reaching for his bow.
He’s disoriented, and his head hurts something terrible, but Natasha doesn’t seem all that concerned, just mildly anxious.
“We’re here,” she says. She steps out of the car. He follows her, blinking blearily in the midday light. He didn’t mean to fall asleep but he’s glad he did. He feels more rested than he has in days, and though he’s not in the mountains anymore—he’s surrounded by wide, sweeping plains—he feels safe. The harsh note of sulfur is gone.
“Where are we?” he asks, looking around.
Natasha cuts him an unreadable look. “Somewhere safe.”
She leads him to a hillside, leaving the car hidden in long grass. Half-buried in the hill is a door, rusted steel, and he snorts.
“My life is the fucking Hobbit,” he mutters. She looks at him oddly.
“I don’t understand that reference.”
“Probably for the best.”
Natasha opens the door after punching in a series of numbers—4372216, not that he’s looking or anything—and steps inside. He follows. (He’s getting used to that, following her.)
Inside, a little home has been cut into the hill, reinforced with old, strong steel. It’s Spartan, but the quarters are tight enough to feel like a nest and that’s enough for Clint.
“No stove,” she says, throwing a pack of food, mostly canned soup and fruit, down on the rickety table. “You’re gonna have to eat everything raw.”
He shrugs. He’s had worse.
Two cans of Campells later, he feels slightly more human and he rolls his shoulders, eyeing his host. “So,” he says.
“Are we gonna talk about what happened?”
“I’d prefer not to,” she says.
“Seriously? You shoot beams of light out of your hands, and you’d rather not talk about what happened out there? Because that was some weird shit, let me tell you.”
It’s her turn to shrug. “Stranger things have happened.”
“Not to me,” he counters. “And not to you, either. You were pretty shaken up earlier.”
“I’ve recovered,” she says dryly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to check the perimeter.”
“Not alone, you’re not.” He stands, grabbing his bow. “What if some of those things followed us here, huh?”
The look she gives him is positively withering, but also deeply amused. “I can handle myself.”
“I’m sure you can,” he says, because he’s seen the way she fights. It’s rather terrifying. “But everybody could use some backup, especially when we don’t know what the fuck is going on.”
“Says I,” he says, agreeably. “But seriously, I can help. I have good eyes, and my arrows are faster than you can get your hands up.”
Natasha considers for a moment, then nods. “Fine. Stay out of the way if I let one off. I’d rather not have to scrape your burned ass off the side of the prairie.”
“No promises,” he says, and then stops. Wait. Burns. He was burned earlier by her freaky light-thing. He was burned and he was stabbed, he shouldn’t be able to move let alone snark with Red over here—
Frantically, he yanks up his shirt to check the knife wound, tearing at the bandages. Stitches unravel in his fingertips.
The wound is gone.
There’s not even a scar left, just smooth, clean skin. The burns on his hands are also gone, as well as a dozen other little bruises and scrapes he’s picked up roughing it out in the woods.
He’s clean and injury-free, like he was never hurt in the first place.
“Oh my god,” he says, and sits down.
Suddenly, the world and Natasha’s voice seem far away, distorted as if in a tunnel. Wind rushes in his ears, whispering, and the space between his shoulders itches.
He thinks he can’t breathe.
“Barton,” Natasha is saying, pushing at his shoulder. “Barton, talk to me.”
He can’t hear her, can’t make his mouth respond to his brain. Dimly, he realizes that this is what panic is. He’s panicking. Clint Barton, who’s seen so much of the world, who watched his childhood home burn to the ground, is panicking.
“Breathe!” Natasha shouts, slapping his chest. “Goddamnit, asshole, breathe!”
He manages to get his lungs working again, focusing on the sound of her lovely voice. Some of the terror eases, and he’s able to raise his head.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
He blinks, takes a deep, trembling breath. “I healed,” he says, and shows her.
Hesitantly, her hands come to trace the spot where he was wounded, circling new flesh. There’s no burst of light, no rushing wind this time, but her hands tingle and leave him aching, aching, a hole gaping below his collarbone.
“You healed,” she repeats, awed. She meets his eyes, and the thing in his chest hums. “That’s amazing. You are like me, better even. I take a day at least to recover from something like that. You mended in six hours.”
“Wait, you do this freaky healing shit too?” His voice is an octave too high. He’s panicking again. “What the fuck?”
“I haven’t always been able to do it,” she explains. “The light, I’ve been doing that for years, but the healing didn’t come until a few months ago. I fell in the forest and broke my leg, had to spend the night under a tree. When I got home the next day, it was completely healed.”
“Wha—but I can’t do anything like you, with the light,” Clint argues. “I’ve never been—never been special like that.”
“You said already that you can feel things,” she points out. “Danger, wrongness. And you saw what I saw, that those men weren’t really men. You’ve got to have something. What did you do in the circus?”
“I’m the Amazing Hawkeye,” he says distractedly, turning this over and over in his mind. “I shoot shit.”
“Wouldn’t be amazing if I did, now would I?”
“So maybe that’s it,” Natasha says. “Maybe your gift is your eyesight. You don’t miss much, do you?”
He thinks of her hair, the way it spreads like a fire, each individual strand bright and independent. He thinks of the way he can count her freckles, the way her eyes, dark brown, are flecked with bits of green.
“No,” he says, “I don’t.”
“I didn’t think there were any like me,” she murmurs. Her hands are warm, electric, on his chest. “I didn’t think—I was so alone.”
“Do you dream of flying?” he asks, out of the blue. His heart is calming again, beneath her hands.
She meets his eyes. “Sometimes,” she admits. She’s smiling, just a little. “More, recently.”
“Maybe that’s it,” he murmurs. “I know you from somewhere, I swear I do. You’re so familiar.”
She cants her head. “Now that you mention it, you are too. Did you ever spend time in Russia?”
“Never. Spend any time in the American Midwest?”
“Never farther east than Colorado.”
“Damn.” The mystery—all of the mysteries—itch at him. He hates not knowing things, and suddenly there’s a lot of shit that he just doesn’t know, and it’s terrifying him and pissing him off at the same time.
“Damn,” she agrees. She pulls her hands away. He has to fight not to whine at the loss.
“What are we going to do now?” he whispers, enjoying her warmth, letting it soothe away his fear. He’s only known her a few hours and already it feels like lifetimes. He’s comfortable with her. He would go with her anywhere.
“Now,” she says, and sucks in her lip. “Now, we figure this out.”
It’s a good plan.
Unfortunately, it’s just the two of them in the middle of nowhere, without any money, internet connection, or social skills to start looking into the matter. They’ve both been living wild up in the mountains for years now and while they can deal with each other, dealing with other people is a little too daunting.
Clint wouldn’t know what to do with one of the new computers if you put it in front of his face and beat him with it. Natasha’s a little better off. She has a SAT phone she uses for emergencies, but she’s not ready to call in her limited contacts, not yet.
They’re both waiting for the strange creatures to fall on them again.
“They remind me of my mother’s old stories,” Natasha tells him when it’s night again and they’ve secured their little nest. “Of the demons, the hungry ones.”
“Demons,” Clint says, rolling in his mouth. It fits. “Sounds about right.”
“Where did they come from?”
“They were sent,” Clint says, completely sure. “They were sent by the stranger who came to my cabin.”
“The tall one?”
He nods. “He had the worst eyes. They were—they weren’t human, not really. They were like a wolf’s eyes.”
“I knew men like that,” Natasha remarks, not looking at him. “They’re not as uncommon as you think.”
“This one was different,” Clint says, remembering the stranger and his predator’s grin. “This one was worse.”
“And you think he’s after you?”
Clint shrugs. “He called me the same thing those demons called you. ‘Little bird,’ he said. Creepy fucker.”
“We’ll have to be careful, then,” she says. “We’re safe here for now, it’s pretty far out of the way and no one knows I have this place. In a few days, we’ll move on. If we keep going they won’t be able to find us.”
Us. It makes the thing in his chest warm whenever she says that. It’s been less than twenty-four hours and already they’re us. Not that it surprises him, not really. Freaks have to band together, after all. “So, what? We just run from them forever?”
“No,” she says. “We run for the higher ground, so to speak. They’ve got the high ground now. They know who we are, where we lived, that sort of thing. We know nothing about them.”
“So we learn,” he nods, picking up on it. “And then we fight back.”
“It shouldn’t be too hard to lure them into a trap, once we know their weaknesses,” she agrees. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll even learn why we are the way we are while we’re at it.”
“Maybe,” he mutters.
“You’re thinking too hard.”
“Your face,” she explains. “Your face gets all flat and blank whenever you’re thinking too hard, and you’re doing it now. You should stop before you hurt yourself.”
“How?” his voice rises again. “I fucking healed from a knife wound! Monsters are after me! I’m suddenly fucking special, a freak with fucking powers, and none of it makes sense! How did this happen? Why here, why now?” Why you, he doesn’t say. Why us. Why.
Natasha’s eyes are probably softer than he’s seen them. “I used to ask myself the same thing,” she says. “I used to wonder how I and I alone was this way, was different from everyone else. I used to hate it. My gift was used as a weapon and I hated it, but I didn’t know how to change.”
“You ended up in the forests somehow,” he says. “What did you do, cut and run?”
She smiles, crookedly. “Something like that. I made my peace with it out there. It became a part of me.”
“So I just have to sit back and get my zen on,” he mutters, sinking lower into his seat.
“If that’s what works.”
“Tell me,” he says, looking up at the ceiling. “In your dreams, do you fly alone?”
She hesitates, he can feel it, but he does not look at her. He doesn’t want to know, and if he looks at her, he will. “Sometimes,” she says eventually. “Mostly, no. Mostly I’m with someone else. I hate it when I’m flying alone.”
“It feels wrong,” he murmurs, eyes closing. “Huh. I’m not the only one.”
She nods. “You’re not the only one.”
They’re in that little hillside home for two days, and they leave again at dawn. Natasha’s car is where she left it and they just drive, following the burning winds west. She has a place in Malibu, she says, a place on the beach, private and lonely. She hasn’t been there in a few years, but it’s still nice.
He’ll like it there.
Privately, Clint doesn’t think so. He’s terrified of the ocean. He’d rather stay far, far away, thanks, but Natasha’s got him in the ribcage already. He’ll go wherever she goes, God knows why.
Sometimes he feels like a caged bird in her presence, beating his wings against the gilded bars. It hurts, but he’s happy enough. Other times he’s soaring free beside her, partners in crime, and if they had wings, they’d be brushing.
(He doesn’t dream of flying again. Being with her is close enough.)
They make it to Malibu as the sun sets, hot fire over the water. The hills, dry and brittle, whisper and threaten a fire.
But her home is on the beach, a wayward wooden hut half-buried by the sand, and the fires won’t touch them here.
“Some asshole moved in up there,” she mutters, shielding her eyes. In the distance up on the bluffs, there’s a house crouched at the edge, all windows and stark lines and light.
“Just some rich jerk,” Clint tells her, touching her wrist gently. They’ve practiced the touching and the jolts are little now, hardly more than pricks of warmth. “He won’t bother us.”
“We won’t be here long anyway,” she says. “But come on! Let’s fish!”
At first, he’s terrified that she’s going to ask him to get in a boat, but it turns out she has a few poles buried in the sand and bait’s not hard to find, and they fish from the shallows.
Every tug of seawater on his toes sends sparks of panic through his heart, but he ignores them. He’s a man, damn it, he’s not afraid of a little saltwater.
(Except, of course, he is, but he won’t admit it.)
Natasha doesn’t seem particularly keen to go any deeper, though, and that’s fine by him.
He’s a terrible fisherman. She’s much, much better, and between them they get enough to eat.
It turns out that he’s the better cook, which makes him smug, until she proves she’s the one with the stronger stomach by eating the eyes. They spend the night laughing at each other, a sudden companionship that Clint doesn’t know he was missing until she’s there, curled at his side, pointing out the stars she knows and singing them in Russian.
By the time the moon, full now, a great bright eye, is at its highest, they’re lounging on the beach stuffed full and comfortable, so used to each other that the company feels like an old friend’s.
“I like it here,” he admits. As long as he’s not out on the water, it’s beautiful. The beach is clean, white sand and the sky is huge, wide open. Perfect for flying, he thinks, if only he had the wings to do it with.
“It’s nice,” she murmurs drowsily, leaning against him. Warmth stutters through him. This woman is amazing, he thinks. Absolutely amazing.
The stars are bright, nearly as bright as they are up in the mountains, and there are millions of them. He used to watch them as a kid, picking out his favorites, but he’s stopped that long ago. Something about looking up at all the stars made him incredibly homesick.
They doze. Even the sound of the ocean is soothing, a steady shhh of the tide coming in, the whispered shaaaaa of it going back out.
Shhhh, shaaaaa. Shhhhh, shaaaaa. God’s lullaby, shhhh, shaaaaa, shhhh, shaaaa….
His eyes are starting to close, almost of against his will. Shhhh, shaaa, shhh, shaaaa….
There, beneath the rhythm of the ocean, is the unmistakable sound of soft footsteps muffled by sand.
He reaches for his bow. It’s gone, back in the wooden hut, damn it how could he be so stupid? So complacent?
“Natasha,” he whispers, and she goes tense beside him. Her body thrums with energy, he can feel it. The hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up. The taste of sulfur hits the air. “RUN!”
They’re up an moving in a heartbeat, bolting away from the footsteps and outraged roar. A sudden light flares, dull, sullen red, and Clint sees, for a moment, that there are ten of them.
“Shit,” he hisses, racing beside Natasha. “We’re outnumbered, and I don’t have my bow!”
“I don’t have enough juice to take them all out,” she says grimly. “We’ve got a fight on our hands, Barton.”
He thinks that they’re going to lose this one, but he’s not going to tell her that. “Let’s go,” he says instead. “As far as we can.”
The full moon lights the way, turning the sand silver. How did they miss their attackers like this? It’s almost as clear as day out here, and they know better than to let some idiots sneak up on them.
Natasha turns to hurl off her own miniature suns, blinding and burning the pursuers. The sand moves on its own, stirred up by that same oozing force from the mountains. Some of them she hits and they go down, a flash of fangs and claws and ragged wings.
The others stay on, howling on their heels.
We’re trapped, he thinks. We can’t even outrun them!
They finally stop running beneath the bluffs, taking refuge in the outcroppings of rocks, too tired to run any farther.
“How many left?” Natasha whispers, pressed to his side.
In the shadows, Clint feels seven of them moving around, wicked intentions and hunger.
“Seven,” he whispers back.
She laughs. “Lucky number. Close your eyes.”
The next bolt of light she hurls is a starburst, so bright it burns the shadows of the attackers through his eyelids. They scream, unnaturally loud.
“You can’t win!” one of them shrieks, clearly more angry than agonized. “You cannot defeat us all, little bird! There are more of us than you!”
“Well now, that hardly seems fair,” a new voice, rich and self-assured, rumbles. “The seven of you against just the two of them? Tsk tsk, Patchy. Daddy would be ashamed.”
“You dare—“ one of the creatures hisses, and Clint desperately wants to open his eyes, but instead of fading the light is growing brighter, sharper, stronger, and the creatures wail in pain.
“Tash, are you doing this?”
She shakes her head against him. “No.”
The light grows. “Hammiel, is that you? You let yourself go, big guy! Of course I dare. What are you gonna do about it? You look like you couldn’t even handle a human, let alone go toe to toe with me on my best day.”
“This does not concern you,” the creature—Hammiel?—hisses. The light sharpens, hot, insistent.
“Oh,” says the new voice, low, dangerous. “But it does.”
“Mercy—” Hammiel cries, but it’s too late. Clint knows it’s too late. The air is charged, lightning in every particle, singing, humming, clearer than bells, and the light swells—
There’s a faint pop, a sizzle, and a dying scream. The light fades.
Cautiously, Clint opens his eyes, pressing into Natasha warily.
The bluffs are bleached white and all traces of the seven attackers are gone, just little smudges of ash on the rocks.
In the middle of it all stands a man, not much taller than Clint with dark hair, dark eyes, and a grin in his beard. Clint freezes. He’s literally been living under a rock for the past decade and even he knows this guy.
“Well well well, little bro,” Tony Stark says with a wide, easy grin. “What trouble have we gotten ourself into this time?”
3. Of all the things Tony Stark expected to find underneath his house causing a commotion, two half-dead angels and a miniature horde of demons isn’t even the strangest.
Still, though, the company’s unexpected. He’s heard that more and more are leaving heaven to roam the earth but still, Malibu isn’t exactly prime angel territory. Most of them, bless their hearts, go for Vegas.
Tony sighs, dims the lightshow a little, and puts on his best grin. “Well well well, little bro,” he says, furling his wings. “What trouble have we gotten ourself into this time, hmm? Long time no see. Uriel, right?”
The angel—Uriel, he’s gotta be, Tony remembers those eyes—blinks, his mouth hanging open.
“Centuries haven’t been kind?” Tony turns to the other one. This angel he doesn’t know, but she’s a pretty one, if a little young. “And you are?”
She stares at him, looking only slightly more intelligent than Uriel. At least her mouth is closed.
Tony sighs again.
“Hel-lo,” he says, slowly and clearly. He thought angels were an intelligent bunch, but it has been awhile. “What brings your feathery asses to my front door, mm?”
They stare some more.
He has to physically stop himself from sighing again. They’re clearly not hunters then, when means he doesn’t have to fry them, but seriously, what’s a pair of little fledglings doing on his doorstep?
The she-angel recovers first. “You’re Tony fucking Stark.”
His eyebrows disappear into his hairline. (One benefit of a human body: more mobile features. He loves it.) “Yes,” he says slowly. “And you are…?”
“Natasha Romanoff,” she says. “This is Clint Barton.”
His eyebrows, if possible, go even higher. “Pleasure. What, you decide to go native?”
More stares. Uriel—Barton—seems to be recovering himself.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Tony adds hastily. “I mean, I’m one to talk, I’m pretty sure I invented going native—”
“What the hell are you talking about,” Uriel—Barton, Barton—snaps, taking a threatening step forward.
Tony glares, his eyes flashing. The air hums. “Oho,” he sings, a startled grin, all teeth, spreading across his face. Their dimness makes sense now. “What have we here?”
A fallen pair, it seems. Interesting. Very interesting.
“What are you talking about?” the redhead, Natasha, demands, stepping forward with Barton. She raises her hands. To Tony’s eyes, they glow.
“Hey,” he growls, his own light flashing. “Put that out! You want the rest of the horde to see?”
“You’re like us,” Barton breathes, catching Natasha’s hand. Her fire dies. They’re flock, then.
“Of course I’m like you,” Tony snaps. “Now come on. A pair of cherubim like yourselves’ll get killed out here. Jesus, do you light up every time you feel threatened?”
They stare some more.
“Real cream of the crop, you are,” Tony tells them. “Now come.” He puts just enough command in his voice that they follow. “Idiots.”
He turns on his heels and picks his way back up the bluff. It’d be easier to fly, of course. But they’re fallen. They’ve got no idea what’s going on, what they are, who he is.
If they’re fallen, he’s certainly not going to tell them. Tony might have abandoned his post, but he never fell.
The other two trail him inside. Pepper’s waiting by the door, hands on her hips. “And they are?” she says.
“Old friends,” Tony lies easily, because it’s sort of true. “Redhead’s kinda hot, no?”
Pepper sighs, rolls her eyes. “Don’t stay up too late. You’ve got a meeting in the morning.”
He pulls a face at her—wonderful human elasticity—and makes sure to seal the place up behind him. It doesn’t look it, but there are Enochian sigils carved deep into the foundations of the house, the most powerful ones Tony knows. The whole place is so warded Lucy himself would have a devil of a time—ha, punny—getting in.
The two fallen, of course, have no idea what’s going on, and also no clue that the room Tony guides them in can be ringed in holy fire in about two-point-three seconds.
Of course, that means Tony would be stuck in there with them, but he’s pretty sure he can take a pair of cherubs, even if he is drained and out of practice.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” he says magnanimously, waving his hands. “Sit, sit. You want anything to drink? Whiskey? Bourbon? Orange juice?”
They’re back to staring at him again, pressed up close together. Isn’t that cute.
Tony sighs again. “Okay,” he says. “Why do I feel like I’m going to hate the next few hours?”
“You’re like us,” Barton says immediately, eyes tracking—yes, it’s definitely Uriel in there, Tony can see his light underneath layers of human skin—his every move. “You’re special.”
“Of course I am,” Tony laughs. “I’m Tony Stark, remember?”
“That’s not what he means,” Natasha says. “He means this.” She kindles another light in her palm and Tony hisses, lunging forward to smother it. It’s a strong little light, burning his skin, but he snuffs it out anyway.
“Are you crazy?” he demands. “I told you to knock that off! You’ll draw the rest of them to us!”
“Them? You mean the creatures?”
Creatures, Barton said, not men. Tony turns and eyes him. “Yes,” he says. “Describe them to me.”
Barton trades a glance with Natasha and apparently they decide to go along, because Barton says, “They look like men, but they’re not. They have fangs and wings. You can’t see them all the time, but sometimes it’s like they slip. They feel wrong.”
Interesting. A pair of fallen who have no idea what they are, but can wield the light and see demons. Very, very interesting.
“They’re demons,” Tony says.
“No, seriously, demons. Fallen angels, tortured souls, all that.”
“Demons,” Barton says flatly.
Tony nods. Barton cants his head, birdlike even in a human skin, and then nods. “Okay. Why are they after us?”
“Because Red over here keeps flashing like a fucking strobe light,” Tony says crossly. He can feel them out there now, just low-level demons but still, prowling in the darkness. They, unlike these idiots, are hunters.
“They can sense it?”
“Darling, they can see it,” Tony explains. “Whenever you use it, you send off a sort of—astral light, if you will. Demons aren’t from earth, so they can perceive it.”
As a matter of fact, the pair of them just ooze heaven’s light. It spills from them, thick and iridescent, leaving a fine, shimmering trail. They can’t hide it, not like Tony can. He’s going to have to teach them, then.
“You’re giving off light,” he says. “A fuckton, actually, we could probably use you to solve the energy crisis, but it’s how they’re tracking you.”
“Why us?” Natasha demands. “And how do you know all this? You’re like us, aren’t you? How did you end up like this?”
Tony hisses at her, his wings rising despite himself. It won’t do to reveal them. It won’t do at all. “I am like you,” he concedes. “I’ve always been this way.” He kindles a light in his own palm, friendly and warm. He might as well. The horde knows where to find him anyways.
Damn. He was rather fond of this place.
“How?” Barton demands. “What’s wrong with us?”
It’s Tony’s turn to stare. An interesting pair of fallen indeed. “Nothing’s wrong with you,” he says. “You are exactly what you’re supposed to be. Well, not exactly, but pretty damn close.”
The hordes are howling now, scratching at the walls. Pepper will be awake and frightened.
“What are we supposed to be?” Barton demands, taking a step forward, then another and another. His wings, though he can’t see them, rise wide and tawny behind him. “You better give us some answers, Stark.”
Tony laughs. He can’t help it, it’s absurd. “Or what?” he says. He takes a step back, then again. He lets Uriel—still Uriel, for all he fell and wears a human skin—think he’s frightening him, intimidating him. Tony gets nearer to the door.
“Or we’ll burn you, right, Tasha?”
Natasha nods grimly, advancing on her own. “That little show on the beach must’ve drained you. You don’t have a lot of juice left.”
And oh, they’re so ignorant it’s almost cute. Poor little cherubim, thinking he’s limited to their fell-power.
Tony grins. He’s almost out the door now, and they’re still well inside.
“Tony?” Pepper calls. “Tony, what’s going on?”
“You kids might wanna stay here,” he says, grinning widely. His wings rise, stretching to their full extent. “It’s gonna be a little messy.”
“Stark!” Barton snarls, and lunges across the room, wings spread wide, but it’s too late.
Tony steps back through the open doorway, flicking his fingers, and holy fire erupts, racing around the room and sealing them in.
Barton hisses, drawing closer, but Tony doesn’t have time to deal with him, not right now.
He has some demons to smite.
“Play nice now,” he sings, and he lets them see him as he is, light and fire and wings outspread, huge, sleek. “I’ll be back soon.”
And the angel once known as Gabriel flicks his wings, and is gone.
Clint Barton can’t breathe.
He can’t. He’s just stopped, somewhere inside himself, and the fire is roaring and Nat’s saying something, screaming it, but it’s all too far away and he just can’t.
Fire. He can feel it, not the heat but the power, hard and unyielding like a chain. Feathers—Stark’s feathers (a falcon’s feathers, dusty gray, black-barred)—drift and smolder in the flame. The air is rich with burning.
Nothing makes sense.
Outside, beyond the ring of fire, there’s shrieking, and a roar in Clint’s head like a wildfire, snarling and singing in a language he doesn’t know but is quickly learning.
“Natasha,” he says raggedly, reaching out for her. She grabs his hand. Warmth spreads between them and he forces a breath, unsteady still but growing steadier. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know,” she murmurs. “I can’t—we can’t get past the fire.”
It’s not a normal fire, that’s for sure. It burns a little hotter, a little purer, and flashes when they drift too close.
Clint doesn’t understand. It doesn’t make sense.
The screaming outside rises to a fever pitch, accompanied now by booming thunder and flashes of light that he sees but doesn’t see—astral light, Stark said, whatever the hell that is—and it’s blinding.
The roar deepens, evens out. Clint, acting on some deep, waking instinct, stops pacing, and listens.
“It’s a voice,” he breathes. “Can you hear it?”
It is a voice, the roar, sharpening into words—no, not words, but something else, a humming song, a laugh, a sharp, quickly-cast sigil—
Enochian springs into Clint’s mind unbidden, and he knows it to be true. The voice is speaking in Enochian. The language of God. (A memory surfaces, of the circus: there was once an old man and an old woman, their faces withered, their eyes blind. They were from Eastern Europe, the land of tall stone churches and stained glass, and they couldn’t see Clint, then just ten or eleven, but they seemed to know.
They drew on his skin in a strange, lilting language. His wrists, his neck, his ribcage, with unerring precision for all they could not see.
“What does this mean?” he had asked, curious and too used to the strangeness of circus life to question it.
“One day,” they said, their hands tender and almost reverent, “you will understand.”)
“I hear it,” Natasha says, but she doesn’t understand, not yet. He tilts his head, trying to hear it all.
The shrieking—also Enochian, but more wordless screams of pain and rage than actual words—redoubles. The demons are burning.
The deeper voice, Stark’s, is laughing now, wild and loud. The house trembles.
Then Stark roars a word, a command, and Clint flinches back from the force of it.
Burn, Stark commands, and there’s silence.
Natasha looks at Clint, confusion in her eyes. “Do you understand that?” she says.
Clint, dumbstruck, nods. “Yeah,” he says. “He’s speaking Enochian. He said—he said burn, and those things did.”
“What are we dealing with,” she whispers, her face half-shade. “I don’t—I don’t understand.”
Clint, though, thinks he might be starting to. “Think about it,” he says, pacing, back and forth between the bright flames. “What can we do? You can do the light thing, I’ve got these feelings, we both can heal crazy fast. We’re being followed by literal demons, if Stark’s telling the truth. Speaking of Stark, he has fucking wings and speaks Enochian.”
“What are you getting at?” she says, and she’s getting it too, he knows she is.
“He knew us,” Clint continues. “He called me—at least I think it was me—Uriel. He said we were fallen.”
“Fallen,” she repeats, eyes flat. “As in, fallen angels.”
When she says it, it’s not nearly as impressive of an idea. “Yeah,” he says.
“You think we’re angels.” It’s not a question. It’s an admission, and her lips curl into a bitter grin as she says it.
“We’re clearly not human,” he says. “We can’t be.”
“But angels? White wings, naked babies, little hearts in our eyes?” Natasha’s laughing at him now, he can tell.
“No,” he argues. “You saw Stark’s wings. White and fluffy my ass. They were fucking huge.”
She looks at him, disbelieving.
“I saw yours,” he says impulsively, instinctively. “Back in the woods, the first time I met you. I saw your wings, or the shadow of them.”
Natasha blinks, looks like she’s on the verge of saying something important. Bites her tongue, drawing back.
Whatever she was going to say is lost, because Stark breezes in, stopping just outside the ring of fire. His face is smeared with soot and there’s a light in his eyes transcending human brown, fierce and unknowable.
“Okay, my little cherubs,” he says, clapping his hands. “Here’s the deal. You’re going to tell me exactly why Azrael is following you—if you let him out of hell I’ll kill you—and what you’re doing here.”
Stark snorts, that light in his eyes glowing, and the air stirs as if by huge wings. “Tell me!” he thunders, and lightning flashes, the starburst casting the shadow of enormous, outstretched feathers over them, and something in Clint howls right back, furious and frightened.
“We don’t know what you’re talking about!” Natasha shouts, hands over her ears.
“Of course you do,” Stark snarls. “You’re being hunted! By Azrael! Whom we sealed in hell nearly four thousand years ago!”
“Azrael,” Clint murmurs, trying to remember. The name sounds familiar, in the way Natasha is familiar, the way Stark is familiar.
“Tall guy,” Stark snaps impatiently, letting the lightning dim. “Dark hair, green eyes, wears that body like he owns it—”
“Azrael rebelled,” Natasha says suddenly, her own eyes lit up. Power swells in the circle of fire, and if he listens, Clint can hear feathers stirring. “He rebelled and he—we—you,” she says, gazing at Stark with wide, knowing eyes. “You and Michael were told to seal him away.”
Stark bows his head. “You remember, then.”
“Clint,” Natasha breathes, a reverence coming over her face. “Clint, I think you’re right. We’re angels.”
She says it, and he believes it down to his bones. Angels. They’re not human at all, they’re fucking angels of the Lord, and it’s an awakening deep in his bones that rises, hot and tasting slightly like a forest fire.
“You’re Gabriel,” she says, directing it at Stark.
He twitches, impatience and something that looks an awful lot like guilt crossing over his face. “Sometimes,” he allows. “And who are you, little fallen? I know Hawkeye over there, but you’re a new face.”
“I don’t know,” she admits. “I can’t remember.”
“Then how to you know of Azrael, and what Michael and I did to him?”
She shrugs. “I know things,” she says. “I was told of it, a long time ago. That’s when Michael fell, wasn’t it?”
Clint’s head is spinning. Heat rises in his bones, a heat he can’t name, can’t touch, and it burns him—
“Was pushed, actually.” There’s an expression on Stark’s face, a storm cloud, and his wings are mantled, bristling. “Az always was a tricky one.”
“You left then, right after,” Natasha is saying. Clint can’t hear her. He’s overcome with the burning.
Stark sighs, kills the ring of fire with a wave of his hand.
“I really don’t want to do this,” he says. “You’re fallen, and that very rarely happens by accident. I should just leave you alone and let Azrael rip you apart, but I can’t seal him away alone.”
“You can’t,” Clint says, agreeing, strongly. He knows—he knows something, but it’s slipping under the surface of his thoughts, impossible to touch and white-hot. “You need—”
But he can’t say it. He doesn’t know, exactly, and it slips through his fingers like that feeling of purpose that he’s been searching for all his life. He is made for more, but he doesn’t know what more is or how to find it or how to measure up.
“Come,” says Stark, extending his hands. “I can’t give you back your memories. That is between you and the reason you fell. But I can give you access to your power.”
Stark—Gabriel? Clint has a vague memory of a bright, laughing light, jokes and amusement when he could outrun them all—bares his teeth. “Come,” he commands. “Or you’ll die.”
Natasha goes to him, reaching to touch his hands, but he knocks hers away. “Both of you at once,” he says. “It’s easier that way.”
“Clint,” Natasha says, in the way that makes the thing below his ribs purr and kick. “You have to.”
Stark presses two fingers to their foreheads, closes his bright eyes. He breathes. He’s speaking—not him, his mouth is closed, but him, the deep, rumbling growl of an angel—now, low, slow Enochian.
Clint’s whole body itches.
The heat swells.
Fire trickles down his back, his vision clouding with light. Natasha cries out, and he’s screaming too, waking up—
The heat reaches a breaking point inside of him and he falls.
Wow, he thinks, dimly, dimmer, I have wings.
4. Bruce Banner is not a real person. It’s a real name, but it’s a stolen one, a borrowed one, and if someone were to actually look into it, they would come up with a whole lot of fabrication and a startling lack of personal details.
According to these skimpy records, Banner was born in 1973. He went to MIT and Johns-Hopkins. He once fell in love with a girl, and applied for a license to marry her. He’s published a few articles on various bits and pieces of science—experimental technology, the nature of caner, the advancements of modern medicine—and signed a contract to write a book on dying.
Then, there’s nothing. A warrant for his arrest, signed by a General Ross, denouncing Banner as a traitor. A few newspaper articles of an awful, burning green light that appears whenever Ross gets too close.
Internet chatrooms full of speculation, on the light, on the mysterious symbols that appear after, on the way anyone who goes after Banner comes home battered like they’ve been hit by a semi truck, not reserved little Bruce.
That’s it. That’s all there is to the man, and it’s a miracle no one’s caught on quite yet.
Bruce Banner is not Bruce Banner. His name is, or rather was, Samuel Greene. He was born in 1338 in Scotland. He nearly died in the Second War of Scottish Independence, and it was only a heartfelt prayer that saved his life.
For you see, the angel of death, by 1357, had grown tired of his job. It was a thankless task, collecting souls, and he was sick of the illness he had to bring, of the way all manner of beings—even angels—recoiled from his touch.
So when Samuel Greene prayed not to die, Ezekiel appeared and offered him a way out. If he would let Ezekiel into his body, then he would never die.
Samuel accepted this, and ceased to be Samuel.
Ezekiel lived Samuel Greene’s life for a long time. When the witch hunts began, and people grew suspicious of that Greene fellow, who never seemed as old as he should be, he left England and took on a new name, and a new life.
And so it went. Being the angel of death had its benefits. He could disguise his appearance, heal from any injury, and live forever. He could hide, and though they searched for him, no angel could ever find him.
By 2008, he was Bruce Banner, and someone discovered his power. He ran. Somehow he ended up in India, working as a doctor (believe him, the irony of that isn’t lost), and there he stayed, content to live the rest of this life as a hunted man.
This, predictably, did not last.
“Wow,” says Tony Stark, pushing aside the strands of beads and stepping into Bruce’s room. He grins. “Nice digs, Zeke. Living the high life, we see.”
Bruce Banner looks up, alarm in his eyes, and stretches his raven-dark wings. “Gabriel,” he says warily. Every muscle in him is poised to flee. “Long time no see.”
“Actually, it’s Tony now,” the archangel hums, breezing into the room. “I’ve gone native.”
Banner blinks. “Not that surprising,” he says. “You’ve been down here a while.”
“I make your little stint look like a long weekend,” Tony laughs. “Anyway, I like the glasses. Makes you look almost harmless.”
“I am harmless,” Bruce mutters. “I haven’t taken a soul in seven hundred years.”
“And for that, you are to be commended.” Tony bows, his eyes bright, amused. “’course, one might ask why the famous angel of death has hung up his boots and is choosing to live in a meatsuit.”
“One might ask the same thing of God’s chosen messenger,” Bruce retorts dryly. “But no one’s been able to get ahold of him in a few thousand years.”
Tony laughs, apparently delighted. “You should have come to find me,” he says. “We certainly could have avoided this whole General Ross situation. What happened?”
Bruce shrugs delicately. “I was experimenting. With my power, and what it could do for people, instead of against them. It… didn’t go so well. He might have seen my true form.”
Tony’s eyebrows rise. “Any he didn’t collapse with his eyes melting out?”
Bruce gives him a withering look.
“Hey,” Tony says, hands raised, “I am actually a huge fan of your true form. It’s awesome the way you can level a city block with a flick of your finger.”
Bruce draws back, startled. “Uh, thanks?”
“Don’t mention it,” Tony says, wandering around the room, occasionally poking whatever catches his interest. “You don’t have to worry about Ross anymore. I took care of him.”
“You killed him?”
“Not at all,” Tony says, rolling his eyes. “Really, Ezekiel—or do you prefer Bruce?—not everyone solves their problems by killing. I paid someone in the American government a lot of money to make him stop. He will. You’re free to come back to civilization.”
“I’ll pass on that, thanks,” says Bruce. He’s eyeing Tony now, still tense, his wings still half-extended, ready to flee.
Tony grins. “Come on,” he whittles. “You really prefer living in this shack to a proper nest? All this noise to a nice, calm little place on the beach?”
“What do you want, Gabriel?”
“Tony,” Tony says firmly. “Anthony if I’m being bad.”
“Fine, Tony then. What. Do you. Want?” Ezekiel’s wings are fully spread now, bristling in anticipation. He feels backed in. (It’s not a good idea to box the angel of death in.)
Tony looks him up and down. “Never mind,” he says. “Have a nice life, Zeke. See you around.”
With a flick of his own wings, he’s gone.
Bruce waits for several minutes, tense and wound, but Gabriel doesn’t return. The air is still and silent, except for the hum of his own faintly-sparking power.
He furls his wings again, and starts making plans to run.
He doesn’t get far. In fact, he makes it to just the outskirts of the city before someone falls in beside him, bright-white and heaven-burning.
“Remember me?” she says, and he has to fight back the glittering green power that’s been his curse for so long.
“Vaguely,” he murmurs, stepping back, putting space between them. Her wings are long, but not nearly long enough. She won’t be able to get at him, not without a good few seconds of warning. “Raziel, right? The urim.”
She nods. She’s wearing her current skin comfortably, much more comfortably than he is. It doesn’t look like her light pushes at the seams of it at all when his is quite literally bursting. He fights off a frown. “Ezekiel, the seraph,” she says. “You’re missing a few wings.”
He shrugs. “Six were a little hard to manage. I decided two was better.”
Her laugh is a little forced. “I forgot you’re transformation too,” she says.
“Why are you here?”
“Uriel sent me,” she says. “Remember him?”
Bruce does. It’s hard to forget the watcher, the feel of his eyes. “What does he want?”
Her lips twist. “We need your help.”
“Oh no,” he says, preparing to fly. “No, I’m not getting roped into this again. Death is fair. Death is impartial. I’m not going to kill for your side.”
It’s her turn to frown. “We don’t want your power,” she says soothingly, sweetly. Her eyes are bright and open. Trustworthy.
She’s anything but. She’s an angel, of course she’s not trustworthy.
“You all want my power,” he says. His feathers writhe, spreading out. “Always.”
“Not this time,” she says. “This time, we need your knowledge of the human world. Gabriel—Tony Stark—has heard of you. You’re smart.”
“Yes, I am. That’s why I’m not going anywhere near you or him, thanks. I enjoy my freedom.”
“We’re not going to drag you back to heaven,” Raziel promises. “We’re not going to imprison you or try and use your power. We just need you to help us find someone.”
“Who?” he says warily.
His feathers grow cold. Azrael. The Other. The carrier of souls. Death’s left hand, when Ezekiel himself is the right.
“Azrael is fallen,” he says. “He’s in hell. I remember. It took two archangels to put him there. We lost Michael that day.”
“Azrael has slipped his bonds and crossed over,” Raziel tells him, her hair a fire in the hot wind. “He tried to kill both Uriel and myself. He has revenge in his heart, Ezekiel. We need to catch him and send him back.”
Bruce laughs. “And you think I can help you?”
“You worked with him for centuries,” the other says. “Aside from Ramiel you’re the one who knows him best.”
“We didn’t work together,” Bruce says, keeping the distance between himself and her. “I took lives. He split souls. That’s it. Hardly any overlap at all.”
“But still,” she says. “We need you. You have the same power he does. You can track him.”
“What are you going to do if I say no? Sic Gabe on me?”
She smiles. “Not at all. For one I don’t think he’s up for that, and for two, you love this planet, or at least living on it. We’re not asking for your power. We’re not asking for you to wipe out the other side. We just need you to help us find him.”
He hesitates. He genuinely considers running for a moment, far and fast and without looking back. He could do it, too. He has a power none of them can match, and they all fear it instinctively. They will let him go.
But he has been alone for so long. Angels are not solitary creatures, they’re like wolves that way. The lone angel sickens and dies, but the flock thrives. The flock is strong.
And besides, they’re not asking him to take sides. They’re not asking him to smite Azrael—though Bruce heard he goes by Loki, these days—off the face of the earth or wipe out his hordes. They’re just asking him to find the demon.
Something that feels like higher purpose stirs at the base of his spine.
“Okay,” he says, and he’s going to regret it, he knows he is. “I’ll help you.”
Raziel smiles. “Wonderful.”
Flying is amazing. There’s no other word for it, it is amazing, and he wants to do it forever and never, ever stop.
The air is hard and firm beneath his wings (wide, tawny, a hawk’s wings) and the wind pushes him northwest, catching in his feathers and pushing like his oldest friend.
I am an angel, he thinks, over and over again. I am an angel. I am an angel.
It’s strange to think about. Somehow he thinks that all the stories of angels—sweet, pretty, all-good things—are just that, stories, and that real angels are more. They have to be more, really. Clint himself is an angel and he’s not perfect. He gets angry, he steals, he cheats.
In Christianity, there is no clause for angels, no get-out-of-jail-free card. Angels don’t have their own personal savior. Clint doesn’t remember much about being an actual angel—just light, mostly, a faint, heavenly song, and watching from the sky—but he knows they don’t have a Messiah.
If an angel fucks up, he’s out.
That’s gotta be why I fell, he thinks, flying on, farther and farther north. I sinned, somehow.
Gabriel—Tony Stark, he prefers to be called, but he is actually the legitimate Archangel Gabriel, the messenger of God—said that he didn’t know why Clint and Natasha—Raziel—fell. He said that he didn’t want to know, because he had to work with them and he’d rather not know just what exactly they did to betray their heavenly brothers.
(Personally, Clint thinks that Stark’s a bit of a hypocrite. He’s on earth the same as them, and he hasn’t been seen upstairs for thousands of years. But, then, Gabriel’s always thought of himself as special. Clint remembers that well enough.)
It bothers Clint that he can’t remember, though. After Stark triggered their whatever it is that makes them angels, he and Natasha didn’t have much time to talk, so he doesn’t know if she knows why they chose to fall—and it is a choice, Tony was explicitly clear on that—and what happened to get them to that point.
From what Clint understands, angels only fall for three reasons. One, they’re tired of Father’s favoritism towards the humans. Two, they sin and are thrown out. Or three, they fall because one of their flock has fallen, and an angel does not like to be alone.
I’m fine alone, Clint says to himself. Really, I am. He spent years alone in the mountains, after all. He didn’t speak a word to anyone for half a decade. His only friends were mountain lions, and he was fine with that. He left the circus and the city to get away from people and the things they carried with them.
But he’s flying now, with his own wings—and he still can’t get over that, wings, his very own set of wings that respond to him like a dream, like they’ve always been there—and he’s alone.
And it hurts. He doesn’t like it half as much as he would if Natasha was flying with him, or, hell, if even Tony was with him.
Maybe that’s why he fell. Someone else decided to jump, and he followed.
He just can’t remember, and it’s frustrating. It’s beyond frustrating, it’s driving him crazy, but there’s nothing he can do about it, not now.
The air turns hot and heavy, and his feathers stick straight up. He’s flying in the middle of the day but suddenly there are living shadows everywhere, faint moans riding the wind.
In the clouds there are shadowy souls. Human ones, mostly, trapped in the gray, heavy air, writhing and moaning miserably. He’s close.
There is a pull towards the ground, like a magnet or gravity, and it weighs on him heavily. He can feel the shadows whisper, hiss, caress his skin tenderly, their claws pulled in.
These demons won’t hurt him, not until he tries to leave.
The smell of sulfur grows, sharp and pungent. Yellow dust coats the ground and the air, and Enochian symbols pattern the earth. Even from this high, Clint can read them.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
“Truer words,” he mutters to himself, angling his wings down. “Truer words.” He doesn’t remember much of the mythology—angel and human—surrounding the concept of hell, but he remembers enough to know that it’s not a place he wants to be.
It’s where Azrael was, used to be, for thousands of years.
Clint does remember Azrael. He was a smaller angel, his wings long and narrow, built for speed, not for distance. A slip of a creature, with no bright-white power to his own.
Azrael was one of Death’s. The soul-splitter, they called him. He didn’t have an angel’s strength but he had Death’s green light, and he ferried souls from their bodies all the way here, to the gates of Hell, or upstairs to heaven.
Clint remembers Azrael’s eyes, and the fury there.
He didn’t think much of it then. He was busy in heaven. Being the watcher meant being on the job all the time, and he spent far more days watching the earth than he did his own kind.
He probably should have not done that, because Azrael fell. He fell, and Gabriel and Michael were sent after him. There was a fight, and Michael was lost. The only angel ever to fall not by choice but because they were quite literally forced into a human body.
After that, God’s punishment had been swift. Azrael had been cast down, and Gabriel sealed him in hell.
Azrael’s brother—actual brother, created from the same star—followed him down not soon after, and once they got over the shock of losing Michael, life went on.
But not, it seems, for Ramiel.
Clint can see him from here, sitting in the shadow of hell.
He slows down, coming in for a landing, and sets his feet down in the harsh yellow dust. Clint makes sure to furl his wings tight against his back, so the wandering shadows don’t get any ideas.
If they cut his wings, he’ll be trapped here.
That would suck.
Clint picks his way across the flat plain, closer and closer to the mouth of shadows. He brought his bow, and its weight is reassuring. The demons brush against him, tug at his feathers curiously—they feel like children, isn’t that fucked up—and laugh, whispering in broken Enochian.
He gets closer to hell.
The actual gate into the place can’t be seen, not even by his eyes. It can be felt, though. It hangs in the air like a stormcloud and light bends around it, runs from it, casting deep, wild shadows. Heat shimmers and sulfur and soot leak through the cracks.
In the shadows, there is another angel.
He doesn’t look much like one. He too is wearing a human skin, some huge, blonde guy, but his wings are out and hanging limp (they’re singed and covered in ash) and soot is smeared into his face. He has tired blue eyes and a hammer resting at his side.
His name is Ramiel, though that’s not what he calls himself anymore.
“Thor, isn’t it?” Clint says brightly, tilting his head.
The other angel doesn’t even twitch.
“I’ve heard about fallen angels doing crazy things,” he continues, edging closer and closer, “but becoming a pagan god is a new one for me. Still, though, Thor’s an impressive achievement. You’ve lasted a few thousand years now, what with all those prayers.”
Still no reaction.
“Tell me, did you do it just to be with Azrael? Cause I gotta say, that’s kind of pathetic, even for you.”
In a heartbeat, Ramiel is on his feet and across the dusty plain, burned wings flared and massive.
“Do not,” he thunders, darkening the sky, and looms above Clint, “presume to understand the nature of my fall, or why I have done what I have done. I am no pathetic little cherubim for you to insult, Uriel. I have done what I have done to protect my brother?”
“Really? Because it sure as hell looks like you’re not paying much attention to him,” Clint says carelessly, and he’s pushing it, he knows he is, but this is the only way he knows how to reach Ramiel.
“You dare,” Ramiel snarls. He’s huge, and his light is strong for all he’s spent the last several thousand years beside the gates of hell. Being a pagan god has really worked out for him.
“I do,” Clint says back, evenly, gathering his own threads of power. “Where is he, Thor? Where’s your Loki?”
(And that is one of the more interesting things he remembers, watching Azrael reinvent himself as a pagan god to slip out of hell every once and a while, stir up a little chaos, and then slink back, Ramiel thundering at his heels.)
“Where you put him,” Thor snaps. “In the pit. Still, after all this time.”
“He’s not,” Clint says gently.
Ramiel goes very still.
“He got himself loose a while ago, actually,” Clint continues, carefully stepping closer. He doesn’t think that Ramiel or Thor or whoever he’s trying to be would hurt him. He remembers that Ramiel was always the one laughing. “He slipped the sigils and crossed over.”
Clint shrugs. “I don’t know, exactly, but long enough. We think he’s been out for something like three months.”
“Three months,” Thor repeats, and the clouds above darken. “That is not possible.”
“It is,” Clint says. “He’s been going back and forth. He’s only recently moved here permanently.”
“I have been watching the whole time,” Thor rumbles.
“No you haven’t.”
“Buddy, we’ve been over this. Yes, I do. No, I’m not scared of you, and no, I’m not threatening you. Have you been watching closely? As closely as I have been?”
“I—” but Ramiel falls silent.
He hasn’t been. He’s been sitting by the gates of hell for millennia, only leaving to play pagan god when the humans pray for him (no one’s really prayed to Thor for centuries), and he’s grown inwards, not outwards. He only sees what he wants to see.
“You’ve been blinded by your loyalty,” Clint says. “Your loyalty to a creature who gives none to you back. He’s been leaving hell for years, Thor. You just stopped noticing because it was easier, wasn’t it? You didn’t have to go out and fight him anymore, didn’t have to listen to his hatred, watch him slip deeper into hell.”
Thor is still quiet.
Clint waits nervously (though he doesn’t show it, of course, that’s just suicidal) with his wings half-spread, power thrumming just beneath his skin. He doesn’t have enough energy to take on Thor, but he can put up enough fight to get away, if he has to.
Finally, Ramiel closes his eyes. “Perhaps you are right,” he rumbles, and woah, that’s a little different than Clint was expecting. He remembers Ramiel being the loud, impulsive one, never backing down, always arguing, never yielding. He never admitted that anyone was right, not even his own brother.
“Understand this,” he continues. “While you spent your life merely watching the world, the rest of us have lived it. It is not a kind place. The centuries have been hard for many of us, and it is no wonder that more chose to fall with every century’s end.”
Clint shrugs. He doesn’t remember heaven much, but he remembers all of his life on earth. Not all of it was good. “I can understand that.”
“Perhaps I chose not to see,” Thor rumbles. He looks behind him and he’s looking into hell, searching for his brother. Clint knows that Loki is not there. “That fault is my own. What do you want, Uriel? Why have you come now, after all this time?”
Clint sighs. “Long story,” he says. “I can tell you on the way back.”
“Back?” A frown now, a delicate one. Delicate, hah. As if anything about Ramiel, the thunder of God, is delicate.
“Yeah. We’re building a team.”
“A flock, you mean,” Thor says, and that’s the Ramiel Clint remembers, smug, proud Ramiel.
“To stop Azrael.”
“To kill him, you mean.” Thor’s already turning away.
“No,” Clint says, though that would probably be better. “To stop him. That’s it. We don’t want to kill him. Just keep him from destroying the earth.”
“You think that he would?”
“You tell me. Would Loki?”
Thor tilts his head, considering. “Perhaps. If he is angry enough.”
Another pause. “I believe so.”
“Then come with me,” Clint urges. “Help us. We need you.”
“Raziel, Gabriel, Ezekiel, and myself.” He waits until Thor turns away again to say, “Oh, yeah, and Michael too.”
“Michael,” Thor rumbles. “The Michael.”
The giant sighs, furling his wings. He’s not going for it, Clint can tell he’s not.
“Redemption,” Clint offers. “This could be redemption for you, for Azrael. Think about it. Everything that went wrong, all those years ago. We can fix it. We can make this better.”
Ramiel laughs. “You have not lived here long enough,” he says, but there’s a spark in him, a little flare of hope.
Clint has him. “Come on,” he says, spreading his wings.
He leaps into the air, and this time, Ramiel follows him.
This time, Clint flies with two at his side, and it feels so much better. The desert air is hard and warm, letting him coast, and he can’t help but laugh and loop around Natasha, enjoying the ease with which his feathers tilt, catching the wind.
“Cherubs,” Tony mutters, derogatory, but Natasha laughs. The thing in his ribs kicks happily. This feels right. He’s made for this, for flying side by side, the tips of his wings just brushing theirs.
(And even Gabriel doesn’t pull away. He’s been alone too, and even though they’re going to get Michael, he allows the little comfort.)
“We’re getting close, right?” Natasha asks, scanning the desert. In the darkness, she can’t see as well as Clint can, can’t pick out the individual human lives in an instant. They’re nearing a small town somewhere in southern Afghanistan and human lives are like torches below, burning hot, fast, and bright.
Somewhere in the mess of them, there’s the brightest light of all, but it’s hiden, buried beneath four thousand years of humanity and grime and dust.
Michael the archangel is here. Actually, if there’s any sort of conflict at all, it can be assumed that he’s there. Michael has had something like three hundred different human lives (he doesn’t live very long in each, usually), and each and every time, without fail, he’s been a soldier.
It’s engrained into him, it seems. He can’t seem to shake the compulsion to serve, to give everything he’s got and then some to whatever or whoever he believes in at the time. He’s been a soldier every time. Achilles. Sun Tzu. The Lionheart. Alexander the Great. And if he’s not leading the battle, he’s fighting as hard as he can anyway, leading charges that shouldn’t be possible, fighting off more man than he should be able to, serving with more loyalty and devotion than any human man should have.
He always dies, though. Humans, even ones who were once archangels, are mortal, and Michael invariably gets himself torn to pieces. As part of the fall’s punishment (doesn’t matter that he was pushed—there’s no Messiah for the angels, no loopholes, no forgiveness in their code), he’s reborn again and again as a human, barred from heaven for all eternity.
This time, he’s twenty-five and a man named Steve Rogers, Captain, and if they don’t get him out of the desert in two and a half minutes, he’ll die.
“See him yet?” Clint asks, directing it at Tony.
The older angel is silent.
Clint can’t see Michael, not yet. He’s out of practice and he stopped watching for Michael years ago (it got too painful, after a while. There was not a single angel in the regular garrison who did not like Michael, because he was the best of them), so the angel’s signature is hard to pin down.
But Tony can find it. Everyone knows about Gabriel and Michael. They were the first to pair off, testing the delicate lines drawn by the code. There’s a distinction, between flock and feather-brother, playmates and fellow soldiers and lovers.
Gabriel and Michael were lovers.
For thousands of years, they worked. They were the pair, never one without the other.
Michael’s fall devastated Gabriel. Clint doesn’t know—or rather, doesn’t remember—the specifics, but he knows Gabriel left soon after, and what’s left is Tony Stark.
“Yes,” Tony says, finally. His wings are stiff, every feather tense and angled. “I see him.”
Natasha and Clint share a glance. She knows more than he does, he thinks. She knows everything, it seems, even if she can’t remember all of it.
“Can we get to him?”
Tony doesn’t answer, merely angles his wings downward and dives. They follow, and the sound of bullets and screaming and raw, human fury, hits him like a tidal wave. Everything is louder and brighter now, that his eyes are open to it. The astral plain burns with human souls, each one bright and wavering, and as he watches, some snuff out and disappear, guided by their light either up or down.
Finally, finally, Clint sees Michael.
And also the bullet heading straight for his throat.
“We’re not fast enough!” he shouts, furious, and reaches for his bow—to do what, he doesn’t know—even though he knows, from the distance and the angle and the trajectory, that there’s no stopping this bullet.
Steve Rogers will die, again, and Michael will be reborn into a tiny, useless human baby.
But Clint forgets that Tony was once Gabriel, the Messenger, and the messengers are always faster than the rest of the garrison.
Tony flies forward, too fast for anyone but Clint to track, and grabs Michael by the back of the neck, surging upwards and back out into the desert.
“Dramatic, much?” Natasha mutters, but she’s smiling, and they follow slower now, enjoying the humans’ startled shouts. Clint can’t wait to hear all the conspiracies about “Alien Abduction in Afghanistan! Government covering up soldiers’ mysterious disappearance!”
By the time they reach Tony again, he’s standing with his wings spread wide like he’s braced for a blow, across from Steve, who is shining like the fucking sun.
Tony woke him up, then.
“Who the hell are you?” Michael snarls, his own wings (enormous and snow-white, without even the slightest stain despite his thousands of years on earth) mantled. His light shines with confusion and aggression and anxiety—he doesn’t remember Gabriel.
He doesn’t remember. Clint’s heart sinks. He lands beside Tony, one wing automatically reaching out to steady the other. (They’re not flock, but the reaction is instinctive.) “Hey, take it easy,” he says soothingly, hands out, palm down. Natasha lands on his other side and does the same. “We’re not here to hurt you. We’re your friends, Michael.”
“My name is Steve,” the archangel growls, and wow he’s still terrifying. “Rogers, Steve, Captain. RA16 732 287.”
“Jesus,” Natasha says. “We’re not terrorists or anything. We’re not kidnaping you.”
“Rogers, Steve, Captain,” Michael repeats, stubbornness and fury in his bright eyes. “RA16 732 287.”
“That’s enough,” Tony snaps. Tension is in every line of his long wings. “I know you remember me, Michael. Think. You’re an angel. Look at your wings. Hell, look at mine. Look at hers. Look at his.”
Clint and Natasha spread their wings helpfully, letting Steve see them in the pale light. The soldier looks them over, his face flickering through a thousand different microexpressions in a few seconds. Then, slowly, he looks at his own.
“You remember,” Tony says lowly. “I know you do, I woke you up myself. Michael.”
“Don’t call me that,” Steve says. He lowers his wings just a fraction. He remembers, then. He knows what he is. “My name is Steve.”
“I can respect that,” Tony says warily. He doesn’t move forward, which is strange. Lovers are always affectionate, wing-to-wing, and this is just painful to watch. “Steve. I’m Tony. Do you remember me?”
Steve looks at him, hard.
“Do you remember them?”
“I’m an angel,” Steve says, slowly. “But I don’t know them. I know you, though. Gabriel. You left me.”
Tony, to his credit, doesn’t flinch, but his wings to mantle, just a bit. “Yes,” he says steadily. “I did.”
“Is that all you remember?” Natasha cuts in, stepping forward just a bit, protectively. “Your fall, I mean?”
Steve turns on her. “You’re fallen too, aren’t you?” he says. “All three of you are.”
“Not me,” Tony corrects. “I actually just live here, never fell at all—”
“But you abandoned your post,” Steve snaps, anger in his confusion now, blotting all else out. “You left and came to live here. You’re needed, that much I remember, but you abandoned them, just like you left me.”
“You were pushed out of Heaven,” Clint says. “No one left you. Azrael betrayed you.”
“No,” Steve says, his eyes bright and cold. “He left me. I called for him, and he didn’t come. I fell.”
Tony is silent.
Oh, Christ, Clint thinks, because isn’t this just wonderful. Broken flock-bonds are never fun, and he needs to have them working together. The world needs them. “Look,” he says placatingly, stepping forward to join Natasha. (Tony stays where he is.) “We’ve made mistakes. Can you really blame us for it? We’re not perfect either. Yeah, we fell, but we’re trying to make up for it. Can you believe that? We want to mend what we broke.”
“Why?” Steve says, fixing that betrayed anger on him. “How?”
“Remember Azrael?” he says.
Steve’s mouth tightens. That’s a yes, then. “He’s gone. He slipped out of hell and he’s here, now, and he’s planning something. We don’t know what, but it’s bad. We need to stop him. We need your help.”
“No,” says Steve. “I owe these people a debt. They’re my brothers. I won’t leave them to die here.”
“If you don’t, Azrael will kill them all anyway,” Tony says, and it’s in Gabriel’s rolling voice. “He means war and death, you know that. Better than anyone, actually.”
“You don’t need me,” Steve says. He’s unconvinced.
“Yes, we do,” Natasha argues. “We need everyone we can get. We’ve picked up Ramiel and Ezekiel already, and there’s the three of us, but you’re Michael. You can beat him. We need you to beat him.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not the one you’re looking for. I don’t remember anything, except falling. I’d rather be human, thanks.”
“And how’s that not a betrayal?” Tony says, teeth bared. “Help us.”
“Why? You didn’t help me.”
“Don’t do it for me,” Tony says. “Do it for your precious humans, then. Do it for whatever reason you want, but do it. You’re supposed to be the Good Guy, remember? You told me once that you hated bullies. Azrael means to crush the human world. He’s the biggest bully of them all, aside from Lucy.”
Steve looks at him, then at the other two.
“Please,” says Clint. “You can go back to being human after, just help us. It’s not a flock, just a temporary garrison.”
Steve looks across the desert, back at the fighting that’s slowly fading down.
“Fine,” he says, bitterly. He does not look at Tony, but he takes Clint’s hand. Power thrums between them. “Tell me what I need to do.”
5. 5. It, surprisingly, is Tony and Bruce who hit it off first. That’s really fucking weird for two reasons. Reason the first, no one hits it off with Tony Stark—even as Gabriel he was an annoying asshole—like that. In fact, most people just want to hit Tony Stark, not go off an do science with him. Reason the second, back in heaven, Ezekiel was the outcast.
There are only four angels who serve Death directly, Ezekiel and Azrael being two of them, and out of all the angels who make up the hosts of heaven and hell, the ones who serve Death are the worst off. The thing about Death is, he’s not natural. Angels aren’t supposed to be mortal beings, but Death makes it so. He can kill whatever he wants.
So his angels have a hard time of it, because they smell like Death and they wield his bright green power, and none of the others want to flock with them.
Tony, though, doesn’t seem to care, and he and Bruce get on like the woods on fire.
Second-most surprising is Steve and Thor. Clint wasn’t even aware that Michael and Ramiel knew of each other’s existence, but here they are stomping around like old battle buddies, flipping each other in to trees just to see if they can.
“Fledglings,” Natasha says, mostly fondly but also slightly exasperated. “Clearly, we did our meeting wrong. We should have been blowing shit up or throwing each other into trees instead of running away together.”
“If it makes you feel any better, you did knock me on my ass,” he says helpfully. “And we set shit on fire, so we sort of did it right.”
She laughs, head thrown back. He grins, feeling the same thing. It feels good to have a flock this big. Six is perfect, six is a good size, and they haven’t made a flock-bond—probably never will, because those things take time and effort and the will not to kill each other, which Tony and Steve clearly do not have—but it feels right.
The flock thrives, lives on.
They might be able to do this, if only they could actually find Loki.
That’s what Tony and Bruce are working on. Between them, they should be able to do it. Tony has access to some of the most advanced technology in the world and Bruce knows Azrael’s Death-light. They also are the two who have the most intact memories of heaven, who chose to leave rather than to fall.
They’ll find him.
It’s just taking time.
“Easy,” Natasha murmurs, settling in for the long wait.
“It’s not even that I’m impatient,” Clint says, because he isn’t, he’s never impatient. He’s a hunter and a watcher. Patience is a necessary skill. “It’s that the longer it takes to find Loki, the more tense we get.”
It’s true. Bruce doesn’t like being around people, especially his own kind. An eternity of having the power of death has made him anxious and wary; he’s afraid that if he touches them, or looks at them too long, they will die.
Thor is restless, eager to be back at Loki’s side, watching over him. That kind of devotion is admirable—really, it is, most angels don’t even have that loyalty to their Father—but right now it’s counterproductive, because when they’re at Loki’s side again they’re going to be pounding his face into the nearest hard surface.
Tony and Steve don’t even look at each other. It’s mostly anger on Steve’s part, but in the past few days since they’ve come together, a lot of Tony’s guilt has turned to anger too.
Clint can’t remember the specifics of Michael’s fall, but he knows it resulted in Gabriel’s departure from heaven. And for an angel like Steve, loyalty and duty down to his pinfeathers, that is the cardinal sin. The ultimate betrayal, and he refuses to even glance in Tony’s direction.
The tension between the pair is so thick Clint could literally shoot an arrow through it and it would stick, which is terrifying and a little sad.
Gabriel and Michael are archangels, and not only that but two of the original four. They’re the greats, God’s firstborn. A fight between the pair of them, even if they’re not running at full strength, would be cata-fucking-clysmic.
“So,” Clint says, trying to ease some of the tension. “How goes the hunt?”
“It goes,” says Tony cheerfully, straightening. He balances himself by resting a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. Weird. Weirder still, Bruce doesn’t try and shake him off.
“No solid locations yet,” Bruce murmurs, not looking up from his screen. “He was seen in Stuttgart, Germany, but that was only for a few minutes.”
“What was he doing there?” Steve stops sparring with Thor, folding his wings (he remembered how to, finally, after dragging them around awkwardly for a few days) and coming over, though he stands on Bruce’s other side, away from Tony.
“Awkward,” Natasha mutters into his ear, and Clint gives a long-suffering sigh.
“He stole something from the museum,” Bruce says. “I can’t find out what.”
“Here,” Tony says, sliding onto Bruce’s chair—in his lap, Jesus Christ, Gabriel has no shame—and taking over the keyboard.
Steve’s jaw tightens.
Don’t use Ezekiel to make your former lover mad, Clint thinks. Bruce is a nice guy, one of the most genuinely nice people he’s met on this earth. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Getting caught in a war between the greats is the last thing he needs, or deserves.
“Bingo,” Tony says, victorious, and leans back. The surprising thing is, Bruce lets him, seeming not to mind the contact at all when all he did in the past week has been to flinch whenever they get too close to him.
“What did he steal?” Steve’s voice is even, if a little tight. It’s to be expected, really. He doesn’t remember much (not that Clint does either). He just remembers the fall, mostly. Not all that was before, not that he was happy, once upon a time, and that Gabriel was his feather-bond and they were never without each other.
“He stole the Staff of Moses,” Tony says.
“You heard me, Bossman. He picked up the Staff of Moses. Not that the humans knew what it was, just that it was really fucking pretty, but he knew, and he’s snapped it right up.”
“What, exactly, does the Staff of Moses do?” Steve asks. Tony and Bruce share a look, but Clint wants to know too. He doesn’t recognize the name, and it doesn’t conjure up any images of destruction.
“It works miracles,” Natasha says quietly. Everyone turns to her, and she lifts her chin. “I was a secret-keeper,” she explains. “I know things. And I know that the Staff of Moses contains astral energy, about as much as an archangel. When wielded by a righteous being, it has the potential to do anything. Split oceans, raise mountains, raze towns, you name it.”
“Loki can’t use it, though,” Steve says. “He fell. He’s not a righteous being.”
Thor makes an unhappy sound, but doesn’t argue.
“You gotta relearn your definition of righteous,” Tony says, eyes fixed on his screen. He’s typing fast, scrolling through pages and pages without pause. Clint wonders what he’s looking for, because the air tastes like thunder and fire and worry.
“Yeah?” Steve rises to the challenge, turning towards Tony with his wings opening up. “And what is it, exactly?”
“Righteous, noun,” Bruce fires off, “‘characterized by uprightness or rigidity; conviction, or a firm, unyielding quality.’ Also, ‘justifiable’ and ‘morally upstanding,’ but not in the context of the code of Moses.”
Tony pets the back of Bruce’s head with a wing, apparently rewarding him for agreeing with him. Fucking weird.
“Azrael is a sinner,” Steve insists. “He can’t wield anything heavenly.”
“Moses was a sinner too,” Tony says. He still hasn’t looked up. “Righteous doesn’t mean pure and blameless, it means convicted. Moses had the conviction to stand up in front of an ocean and make it part for his people. As long as Azrael as conviction, he can do whatever he wants.”
Tony makes a satisfied noise, apparently finding what he was looking for. “Do you know what this is?” he asks Natasha, his dark eyes serious.
She leans forward, and Clint feels everything in her go tense and taut. Oh, shit.
“Yes,” she says, lowly. “That’s the motherfucking Ark of the Covenant.”
Clint feels all the blood drain out of his body. Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He can’t remember half of heaven but he knows what this is, every unfledged hatchling knows what that is.
On the screen—from Stark Industries’ private, confidential records, Tony’s personal records, probably—it just looks like a little blue box, not terribly large and glowing faintly. The universe is reflected inside it, but anything without astral vision would just see faint, squirming blue light.
It looks harmless.
It’s anything but.
“According to angel lore,” Tony says, in his storytime voice, “the Staff of Moses and the Ark of the Covenant were created at the same time, in the same instant. The Ark is meant as a doorway to God—it literally holds the key to entering the Kingdom of Heaven and the Holy Throne. Of course, the humans weren’t told how to open it, and largely viewed it as a power source. This is what keep the staff going. Without it, the Staff is mostly useless, reduced to only an angel’s power. With it, the Staff is literally the power of God.”
“It’s missing, isn’t it.”
Tony’s mouth thins. “Yeah,” he says.
“Fuck,” Clint says feelingly. “Azrael has it.”
“Seems that way,” Steve says, pacing now. His warrior’s brain is no doubt thinking up a dozen ways this shit could go done.
Clint, who thinks a similar way, has yet to think of a scenario where this goes well for them, or for the world.
“What does he need with both?” Bruce asks. His wings are brushing Tony’s, a reassurance.
Natasha closes her eyes. She knows, Clint can tell.
“He’s going to open a door,” she says.
“To God?” Steve stops moving so fast Thor crashes into him. “He’s going after God?”
“Because that went so well the last time,” Tony says, and is generally ignored.
“Not God,” Natasha says, and she almost sounds afraid. Clint loves her, in that moment. He loves her, because she knows so much and refuses to break under the strain of it. She raises her wings, holding off the shadows, and he loves her for it. The thing in his chest, right next to his heart, kicks and turns violently.
“Then to where?”
She opens her eyes and meets Clint, and he knows.
“To Hell,” she says. “He’s going to open a doorway into hell.”
“Oh, fuck,” Tony mutters. His eyes gleam, and the emotion is unidenfiable. “He’s going to jumpstart the apocalypse, isn’t he. Pick up where Lucy left off.”
“It makes sense,” Natasha says heavily. “He’s angry, he stole both, he has to have a plan. This is it. This is his plan.”
“We’re fucked,” Clint mutters. Damn it. He thought this was it. He thought this was his purpose, saving the world, finding a flock, not running off on some suicide mission. (And it is a suicide mission, going after Loki now. He has all the pieces, and they don’t have shit. A location, enough power, enough strength and teamwork and loyalty to each other. They don’t have any of it.
They’re going to lose.)
His purpose is, apparently, to let the world die.
“We can’t win,” Bruce says. Tony hooks a wing around his shoulders.
Steve, from where he’s pacing back and forth like a crazy person, stops and looks up. His bright white wings almost hurt to look at. “Yes,” he says slowly, looking between all of them, even Tony. His light flashes, nervous but determined. There’s the archangel Michael, the Bane of the Enemies of God. “I think we can.”
Tony snorts, and Clint tends to agree with that sentiment. He lets Natasha wrap a wing around his own shoulders, and wraps her in one in return. “Not fucking likely,” the messenger says.
Steve takes a deep breath and stands, straight and proud. “Yes, we can,” he says, and conviction shimmers in his voice. “We just have to form a flock.”
6. “You want us to do what,” Clint says flatly.
Steve’s face is open and earnest. “Fight back,” he says. “We can! We stopped Azrael—Loki—whatever he’s going by now before.”
“You fell for it,” Tony points out, sliding closer to Bruce. Their wings brush, little comforting strokes that twist at the light in Clint’s chest. “It’s not worth falling again.”
“You love this world,” Steve points out, brow furrowing. “You’ve been here four thousand years. You’re really just going to let it burn because you’re afraid?”
“There are other places to go,” Tony snaps.
“What, back to heaven? You left, Tony. I don’t think they’ll take too kindly to you showing up like nothing’s happened.”
“What do you know? You never payed attention to anything that went on up there anyway!”
“Of course it’s relevant,” Tony snarls. “You’re going to lead us, right, you with your smile and your yes, Daddy, anything for you, but you don’t know what the hell’s going on! You’ve been a meatsuit for four thousand years!”
“What about you?” Steve—Michael now, his enormous wings spread out—snaps back. “You’ve been away so long you’re barely more than a fledgling! Step out of your meatsuit and what are you?”
“Gabriel, messenger of God,” Tony hisses. “Archangel, if I remember right.”
Clint winces. Yes, Gabriel’s an archangel, but Michael is the archangel. The soldier, the warrior. The strongest out of all of them, except maybe Ramiel on a good day.
Steve curls his lip. “You’re a coward,” he says. “You always have been. Always running instead of fighting head on!”
“There are better ways of fighting than charging right into it. Remember Delphi? Yeah, I distinctly remember you nearly getting shredded in the vortex. I saved your ass that time.”
“You cheated,” Steve says, the expression on his face clearly showing what he thinks of that technique. “You ignored the rules of combat.”
“We were fighting demons! Fuck the rules of combat!”
“With that attitude, I’m amazed you don’t want to save the earth! You fit right in here!”
“Woah, hey now,” Clint says, slipping between the two of them. Tony and Steve are standing across from each other and the strain of so much fury makes the air sizzle. They’re seconds away from ripping into each other, and that is the last thing they need right now. “Knock it off.”
They round on him. (In hindsight, it was probably a bad idea on his part to draw their attention to him.) “Stay out of it,” they both snarl, the intent behind their words enough to make his feathers stick straight up.
“Make me,” he almost, almost hisses, but Natasha drags him back.
“Let them fight it out,” she murmurs. “Don’t get between the greats.”
He wisely steps back. He doesn’t think Gabriel and Michael are stupid enough to go at it here, now, with the world their Father so dearly loves in the balance, but he’s been wrong before.
“Is this your way of thanking your Creator?” Thor snaps, coming to stand beside Steve. His anger and hurt, festering for millennia, is aimed towards Tony. Thunder rolls above them. “The One who gave you your wings and a purpose?”
“Who gave me a choice too,” Tony says bitterly, smiling. “Think about it, Point Break. Daddy dearest gave us the light and the wings, oh yes, a song in our hearts and all that shit, but he gave us free will too. Interesting concept, am I right? Ever heard of it? It means we can be whatever we want to be. We don’t owe him anything.”
Steve draws back, furious now. “We owe Him everything!”
“He let you fall!” Tony shouts. His wings tremble under the strain of it. “He let Azrael and Lucifer fuck us all over! He lets millions of people die every day! He lets our wing-brothers and sisters tear themselves to pieces over it! How many of us have died since dear ol’ Dad let Lucy have the run of the place?”
“That’s not the point,” Steve says, and Thor growls.
“It is the point!” Bruce roars, and everyone goes quiet. Green light—death light—shines from Ezekiel, and Clint’s feathers hide. “It’s always been the point, hasn’t it? Every time we step up to save this miserable planet, we’re the ones who get torn down. The humans don’t care. Their world’s going to hell anyway. I’m sure things will be much the same under Loki.”
“You’ve spent the past few centuries trying to heal people,” Steve argues. “You’re telling me all that work is for nothing?”
“Let me tell you a little something about humans,” Bruce says bitterly. “They’re going to take any chance they have to rip each other to pieces. It’s that simple.”
“There are good people,” Thor tries, but Tony and Bruce shut him down.
“I’ve spent seven hundred years looking at what people do to one another,” says the angel of death. “Believe me, there are no good people. Don’t believe me? Go stand in Central Park with your wings out, see how long it takes for the army to show up and fill you up with bullets.”
“There’s a reason I’ve been a living as a human for this long,” Tony adds. “People suck. They’re half demon anyway, most of them.”
“What about Pepper?” Clint cuts in, surprising himself.
Tony flinches. “What about her?”
“Is she a bad person?”
“Yes or no,” Clint says impatiently. They don’t have time for this, this little existential crisis or whatever.
Tony, for once, is silent.
“I saw you fly through hell to get her,” Natasha says, tenderly now. “You put half your power into her so she’ll be safe, so Azrael can never touch her. You gave her an archangel’s blessing. You only do that for a very select group of people.”
Tony draws back, blinking. “How do you know about that?” he says, at the same time as Steve goes, “you did what?”
Raziel’s smile is knowing. “I know many things. Does Pepper know?”
“Know what?” Clint says, but Tony shakes his head.
“She doesn’t. Though her given name is Virginia, so I doubt it’ll take her long now that she knows who I am.”
“What’s going on?” Steve’s face is furrowed in a frown, head canted unhappily. He’s never liked it when he’s left out of the loop, poor thing.
Clint could kick himself. He watched Gabe years, he should’ve put it together before now.
“You never stopped doing your job,” Natasha says. “After all this time, you still watch over them.”
“They’re not a bad sort,” Tony mutters, but they’ve got him now.
“Four thousand years you’ve been looking after the holy line of David,” Clint says, shaking his head. “Two thousand after the relations of Jesus Christ.”
“I was tasked with their safety,” Tony says stonily.
“Free will,” Steve crows, grinning now. “You’ve had the choice to leave them, but you haven’t. You’ve stayed to do your duty.”
“Duty has nothing to do with it,” Gabriel hisses, spinning with his wings mantled. “The holy line isn’t so holy any more, did you know? My duty to them ended with the Tudors in 1534.”
“But you stayed with Elizabeth,” Clint murmurs. He didn’t find Gabriel until 1881, but even then he was watching over King David’s line, wasn’t he. (Of course, the names have changed over the centuries, but it’s hard to hide from an angel, especially one as crazy as Gabe.) “Even though you didn’t have to.”
“That’s different,” Tony says. He doesn’t look at any of them. “There’s a difference between a family and the whole world.”
“Not really,” Clint says. “Just depends on how you look at it, doesn’t it?”
Tony snorts. Bruce touches his arm and green light seeps into Tony, spreading through him. Instead of recoiling from death’s touch Tony leans into it, his wider wings coming to hover over Bruce, pulling him near.
It’s intimate, and Clint looks away. “I’m with Steve on this one,” he says. “The world is an awful place, yeah. But there are good people in it. Good people on it. It’s our home too.”
“What about heaven?” Natasha says, and Clint laughs.
“They’re not letting us back in there, are they?” he looks around at this ragged group of angels, Steve who was pushed out, Tony and Bruce who left, Thor who hurled himself down after his brother. Clint and Natasha, who fell.
“No,” says Bruce, “probably not.”
“You don’t seem all that concerned,” Steve points out.
“Neither do you.”
Michael shrugs, stretching his wings. “I’ve been here for a long time,” he says. “I can’t remember all of it, but I’ve lived enough lives to understand that this is a world worth fighting for.”
“God’s little soldier,” Tony mutters.
“We are soldiers.”
“We are not soldiers,” Tony snaps, eyes transcending humanity again. “Not all of us.”
“No,” Steve allows, stepping back. “Not all of us.”
“Our Father made this world,” Thor rumbles, folding his own charred wings. “He has chosen to love it and its inhabitants. They are a good people, if misguided. He would not want us to turn our backs on them.”
“Fighting this means hurting your brother,” Bruce says quietly, still at Tony’s side. “Means killing him, maybe, if we cannot turn him aside.”
A shudder seems to pass through Thor, all the way down to his pinfeathers. But he bows, and thunder fades. “So be it,” he says. “He has chosen this hellish path. I will do my best to turn him from it, but I know what must be done.”
“Will you have the strength to do it?” Tony asks.
Steve glares. “Will you?”
The messenger’s grin is sharp and cutting. “We’ll have to see, won’t we, Soldier-boy?”
“Does that mean you’re in?” Natasha asks, her own sleek wings folded neatly. “You’ll help us save the world.”
“God help me,” Tony mutters, tilting his head towards the sky. God, if He’s watching, is silent. Tony shares a look with Bruce, and their wings touch. “Yeah,” he says, clearly, fiercely, challenging Michael to deny him. “I’m in.”
Clint grins, feeling heaven’s light stir inside him. “Excellent,” he says. “Let’s go save the world.”
“Flock first,” Steve says. “It’s the best way. If we’re a flock, we’ll all be stronger.”
They look at one another, bitterness and anger still evident in some faces.
But one by one, they all, even Tony, nod.
Steve smiles. He holds out his hand, light kindling there in his palm. “Come,” he says. One by one, with lights in their own hands, their very selves held open and exposed.
When they touch, the light is blinding, and binding, and Hell itself won’t be able to tear them apart.
The world, as it turns out, is very difficult to save, even for angels. (Admittedly, they’re ragged and worn-down, but still.)
The problem with the world is that it doesn’t listen. They spend the better part of a week trying to get world leaders to brand Loki an international terrorist, but without definitive proof even Tony’s money can’t do much.
After that fails, they use Stark Industries to try and track Azrael, using Tony and Bruce’s world know-how to manipulate the internet. (Which, interestingly enough, still manages to confuse Michael for all he’s spent thousands of years on earth.)
That plan bottoms out too, and they’re left scratching their tail feathers, well and truly stumped. Loki is in the wind. He’s just gone, and they can feel his presence on earth but they can’t find him. The sigils he’s using are good, very good, and though they’re three archangels between them, they’re out of practice.
Clint willingly fell, so that’s a drain on power, Gabe’s been cut off from heaven for years, and Michael’s just waking up.
“Takes us a while to get any traction,” Tony says cheerfully, and moves on to the next method. He’s enjoying himself. Clint wonders if being the messenger was really that boring. There hasn’t been a prophecy in centuries, though. It must’ve been dull. It’s no wonder he built himself a pretty little empire, though his decision to do it with weapons really isn’t fair. Of course he revolutionized the weapons manufacturing industry a hundred times over. He has all the knowledge of heaven in his head.
Steve, by comparison, is having a hard time. Michael rarely worked with others. He had a flock, Clint remembers them vaguely—a howling bunch of ragged-winged soldiers, they were—but they’ve been gone since the schism.
(Michael loved only one before Gabriel. His lover chose to fall.)
It’s been awhile but Steve still isn’t used to brushing wings with a flock. He’s had human companions, battle buddies out in the desert, but never any like this, light and heat and crackling, nervous power. They’re clumsy with each other, learning the boundaries of the flock-bond, and it’s confusing to him, even it was his idea.
Poor Bruce damn near electrocutes him by accident every other day. Steve has this awful habit of just freezing up and staying somewhere for hours, not moving a muscle. Bruce, always moving some equipment or other, invariably ends up tripping over him and flashing green-death fire.
It would be hilarious if they weren’t on a schedule.
Ramiel is rarely seen. He’s been masquerading as a pagan god, after all, and he goes out to answer prayers and indulge in earthly pleasures. Drowning in guilt, Natasha says. Tony says he’s just enjoying life before the apocalypse.
“It’s disgraceful,” Steve mutters.
Tony cackles. “You think angels are so different from humans?” he says. “We sin too. It’s in our nature, and it only gets worse the longer you’re here. You start going native.”
“Shut up and work,” Clint breaks in sternly, chasing the two apart. “We have to find him before he cracks open that portal.”
Tony and Steve leave each other, Tony to work and Steve to fly. It must be strange, seeing each other after all this time. Clint’s never taken a lover from the host of heaven. He’s done so on earth, plenty of times—going native, he supposes—but it’s different in heaven. More intimate, he thinks. Gabriel and Michael had a thousand years together, then four thousand apart.
“It must be strange for them,” Natasha murmurs, drifting back to his side. The thing in his chest kicks. “Can you imagine?”
“Yeah,” he says. He doesn’t look at her. She’s been with him so long. Faithful Raz, watchful Raz, knowing and knowing and knowing. “I think so.”
Her smile is lopsided, but genuine, and she brushes his wrist. It’s been days since their first meeting but there’s still a flicker of light, a pulse of warmth. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s leave them to it. I could cut the tension in this house with a knife.”
She’s right. Between Steve and Tony’s animosity, Thor’s sorrow, and Bruce’s near-constant anxiety that he’s going to kill them all, their little safe house feels less like a place of rest and more like a wooden hut perched over a volcano, and the lava’s rising. And this is with the flock-bond.
So they walk.
They don’t fly, not yet. Flying’s a bit too much like falling, and the newly-woken angel in Clint shivers at the thought. Walking is fine for now.
They walk, and the miles disappear behind them.
“Why did we fall, do you think?” she asks, after long minutes of silence.
He shrugs. He’s thought about it since Tony woke him up, but he doesn’t know the answer. “Dunno.”
“Are we evil? Did we chose to fall so we could join Lucifer?”
“No,” he says strongly, shaking his head. “No, we would never.”
“I’m not so sure,” Natasha murmurs. “I know a lot of things, Clint. Terrible things. I’ve done terrible things in the name of heaven. What if—what if we got tired of it? What if we decided falling was easier?”
He thinks of his life as a human, those lonely years in the mountains. He thinks of what they must do now, so they have a place to live. “Never easier,” he says. “I promise you, whatever our reason for falling, it wasn’t easy.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I watched the earth,” he says. “That’s all I did. That was my job, right? So I’ve watched the whole thing. This planet, the ones on it. Struggling. Day after day. It’s never been easy, for anyone, angel, demon, or human. It wasn’t designed to be easy.”
Natasha quiets. “No, I guess you’re right.”
He laughs, trying to lighten the mood. “What, the great and mighty Raziel admits she was wrong? Miracle of miracles! Somebody call the Horsemen, the apocalypse is starting early.”
“Don’t blaspheme,” she scolds, but a smile tugs her lips and she’s a little brighter inside. “The Horsemen don’t take kindly to being summoned unnecessarily, you know.”
“Ah, I forgot you’re on first name terms with them.”
“Only with War,” she sniffs. “Famine’s a whiny bitch, Pestilence is disgusting, and Lord knows what Death’s up to when he’s not giving Zeke nightmares.”
“Poor Bruce,” Clint says, still laughing. “He’s terrified he’s going to kill Steve by accident.”
“I think Tony’s banking on it. Have you ever seen him that angry? He’s livid.”
“Once,” Clint says. “Back in 1891. The descendent of David he was looking after at the time was threatened by some human who thought himself a god. Gabriel did not take kindly to that.”
“I’m not sure. It was very bright and scared the residents of Sweden half to death, but no one bothered that particular descendant again.”
“You think he’ll be okay?” Natasha asks, chewing her lip thoughtfully. “The last thing we need is for two archangels to kill each other over an old quarrel.”
“It’s not old for them,” he says gently. “Steve’s been living as a human all this time, dying and being reborn. Each life, even this reclaimed one, is new and fresh to him. And we know Gabe’s got a long memory. They loved each other.”
She shrugs. “We don’t have time for the past. We’ve got problems now.”
He thinks of Azrael, green-lit with death, and nods. His wings tremble, press closer to him. “Yeah. We have to find Loki, Nat. We have to. We’re just six. We can’t take on the whole of hell.”
They walk, farther and farther away from the tension of their companions. The night air is cool and clear, a far cry from the burning mountains, and Natasha is warm.
He loves earth. He didn’t realize, but he loves this little planet.
Finally, they reach the edges of the woods, hand in hand. Their wings brush. The air around them hums, charged, static.
Natasha turns to him. “We’re going to die trying to stop this, aren’t we?”
Clint hesitates. “Yes,” he says. “Probably.”
She nods once, and she’s not afraid. He is. “Uriel. Clint.”
His feathers shudder. The thing in his chest writhes, wrung out and bright-hot. “Natasha,” he says, tenderly.
Her smile is warm. “Stay with me,” she murmurs, pulling him in close. Her wings brush his, and fire races up them. He groans. Needwant clouds his eyes.
“Always,” he pants, ragged, and threads his fingers through his hair, scraping his nails along her scalp.
She gasps and he grins, victorious, until he feels her fingertips tracing the waistband of his jeans. “An amazing thing, the human body,” she whispers into his ear, just the barest hiss of air. He shudders and mouths a line down her neck, enjoying the feeling of her own shiver. “They feel so much more than our own.”
“Yes,” he agrees, and cool air hits his heated, supercharged skin. “They do.”
He lets the heat rise, and it bears them down.
“Congrats,” Tony says without looking up as they slink back inside a few hours later. “I think Jesus saw that from heaven. What did you do to him, Natasha? Poor thing’s so bright he’s making the sun jealous.”
Clint grins. Natasha merely arches a cool eyebrow, kisses him on the cheek, and wanders off in search of a shower.
“Nice,” Tony mutters.
“Hey,” Clint begins heatedly because he’s heard of Tony sleeps-with-anything-that-moves Stark, and Gabriel was never exactly the most chaste angel.
“It’s a compliment,” Tony clarifies, not looking up from the mess of wires he’s currently pumping juice into. “By all means, get what you can now. The world’s probably not gonna be here tomorrow.”
“You don’t mean that,” Clint says, alarmed. Tony, for the first time, looks up.
His dark eyes are serious. “Yes,” he says, “I do. We can’t find Loki anywhere. We’re certainly not a functional flock, and I’m weaker than a fledgling.” A quick, self-loathing grin. “Not that you should be surprised or anything. I’ve been cut off from heaven’s light for a long time. I’m mostly human, now.”
“You’re not,” Clint says, because he can see an archangel’s power stirring underneath that skin. Yeah, sure, he’s nowhere near as luminous as he should be, but they’re all having a rough time of it. They’ve been running and fighting for days. A little exhaustion is to be expected.
Tony smiles again, but doesn’t say anything else.
“What’s going on?” Bruce wanders back in, more at ease than they’ve seen him.
“Nothing much, big guy,” Tony says, and there’s his cheerful self again, bright and hard like armor. “Was starting to wonder where you’d gotten to.”
“Talking to some old contacts,” Bruce murmurs. At Clint’s questioning look he clarifies, “The ravens. They’re still loyal to me. They remember Azrael’s fondness for burning them.”
“None. There was a sighting in Somalia, but he’s long gone. For a demon with charred wings, he sure can fly.”
Tony shrugs again. “It’s not the wings so much as the determination.”
“So what are we gonna do?” Steve comes back into the room, tired-looking and haggard. His hair is mussed, like he’s been doubled over somewhere holding on tight. “If we can’t find him—”
“We have to find him,” Clint says. “It’s not an option.”
“Look,” says Tony, leaning back with lightning crackling in his fingers. “I don’t know what to tell you. We’ve tried everything. He’s on earth somewhere, but we can’t pin him down. We’ve got less than a day before he opens the portal. We’re screwed.”
“Whatever happened to being the bearer of good news?” Natasha says lightly, coming back with a towel wrapped around her head and her wings outstretched, drying. “You’re gloomier than I remember.”
“The earth went to shit,” Tony says flatly.
“Yes, that.” The messenger shakes his head, standing and pacing irritably. “We’re done.”
“There you go again,” Steve cuts in, anger glittering in his eyes. “Quitting. Taking the easy way out.”
“You think this is easy?” Tony spits, rounding on him. “This was never easy!”
“You’ve been living the high life for centuries!”
“Because I’ve earned it!”
“You haven’t earned anything! You turned your back on heaven,” Steve says, taking a step forward. Light gathers in his palms. “You left them!”
“I had no choice!” Tony fires back, stepping until he’s right in Steve’s face, his own wounded light swelling. “You were gone! Fallen, born again as some crying baby. Azrael was in hell, where he belongs—”
“Do not go there,” Ramiel snarls, and is generally ignored—
“And I couldn’t go back!”
“You promised me!” Steve roars.
“How could I go back, huh? You were gone! What was I going to say, that I let Azrael throw you down? What would Father have said?”
“It would have been better than abandoning them!”
“Leave him alone,” Bruce says, moving to get between them, but Steve turns on him too.
“You did the same thing,” he says bitterly. “You chose to leave heaven and hide here on earth like some disobedient cherubim, you, a seraph!”
Bruce bristles now, true anger stirring in his eyes. “I took myself away so I wouldn’t hurt anyone,” he says. “I’m the angel of death, Michael. Everyone I touches dies!”
“Not everyone,” Tony says instantly, turning to his friend. “Not me.”
“Not me either,” Bruce laughs, and he’s bitter, he’s so bitter. “Did you know the angel of death can’t die? That’s why Loki’s going to win, by the way. You can’t kill what already belongs to Death. I should know. I’ve tried.”
Steve and Tony both flinch back like they’ve been struck. “Ezekiel,” Steve says, softening, and there’s the Michael Clint once knew, kind Michael, faithful Michael, who flew his howling flock and did God’s good work with all the joy he could muster. “I’m sorry, I—”
Bruce shrugs. “I got low,” he says. “I’ve tried to heal the earth, but there’s only so much I can do. Everything I touch dies eventually, and I’m going to outlive all of you. My flock, my friends. All gone before me. So I came here. I helped people. I don’t collect souls anymore.”
“I didn’t mean to imply that you were a traitor,” Steve says.
The grin Bruce gives him is downright frightening. “But I am, it’s okay. Don’t worry, we’re all traitors here. Fallen angels, the lot of us. I don’t know what you were thinking when you gathered us together, Uriel. This isn’t a flock, this is a horde, just a few steps away from hellfire.”
Clint winces, all the attention and heat focused on him. “I don’t know what I was thinking either,” he admits. “I didn’t mean for it to happen, it just sort of did. But we made a choice, didn’t we? We decided to try and save the world, even though it looks pretty hopeless.”
Tony snorts. “It looks beyond hopeless,” he retorts.
Clint shrugs. “I watch things,” he says. “That’s all I do. That’s the task I was given. But for some reason, I decided to stop watching and act. There’s your free will, Stark. I guess that makes me a traitor to heaven, but I love this planet. It’s a good world. It doesn’t deserve to burn. Maybe we do. But not the earth. Never the earth.”
Natasha smiles, brushes his wrist. The comfort is instant and very much welcome.
He takes a deep breath. “We can do this,” he says. “We’ve got to do this. Not for Father, not for the humans, but for us. Let this be our redemption, if we’ve fallen so far.”
Everyone pauses, taking it in.
“I forgot that you’re wisdom to,” Natasha murmurs in his ear, amused. “That was a pretty speech.”
“Thanks,” he mutters back. “I pulled it out of my ass.”
“I am with the watcher,” Thor rumbles, folding his wings again. “Perhaps I have been negligent of my duties. I sat beside the gates of hell for millennia and did nothing against what I saw there. I owe it to the earth to mend what I have let pass.”
“You already know I’m in,” Steve says, meeting Clint’s eyes. “I put Azrael in hell once. I’ll do it again, even if it means a fall.”
“I’m in,” Natasha says. He can still feel her pressed against him, around him, warm, solid light.
“I guess I am too,” Tony says. His eyes are fierce, unwavering. “Redemption. Huh.”
Bruce looks between all of them tiredly. “I’ve got nowhere else to go,” he says. “It’s this or hell, and I’d really rather not spend time down there. Bad for the stress levels and all that.”
Tony slaps his shoulder. “That’s the spirit,” he says, that hard, protective cheerfulness coming up again. “Come help me with this. We have a little shit to find.”
“That is my brother you speak of,” Thor says reproachfully.
Tony grins. “You can be big shit, then.”
“Oh God,” Clint groans, dropping his head into his hands. “Please, let us get through this.”
There’s no indictation that his hasty—and most likely blasphemous, considering he didn’t really do it as he’d been taught—prayer had been heard, but he thinks, for just a small, trembling moment, that he hears a faint laugh.
They find Loki at three in the morning.
“There!” Tony crows, standing up and spreading his wings so fast he clips Thor in the face. “We’ve got him!”
“Where?” Steve says, rushing over to peer over Tony’s shoulder. They, for once, don’t growl and snap at each other but rather focus on the screen, where a tiny green light has appeared.
Clint’s feathers go stiff. Loki.
“New York City,” Tony says grimly. “Shit.”
“He picked a good spot,” Clint says, already turning the problem over in his head. “Huge city, cultural center of the West—”
“The cesspool of human pride and wanting,” Natasha says, coming beside him.
“Damn good place to hide, too. There’s what, eight million people there? How long do we have?”
Tony checks his watch, and swears. “Five hours. Not enough time, not if we still want to have enough power to fight him. He’s going to open the portal.”
“So we get there, and we close it,” Steve says. He looks around at all of them. “Right? We go and we close the portal up again. Tony and I can do it, we know the sigils.”
“It’ll have to do,” says Clint, spreading his wings. They tremble, eager for the fight. “We’ll work out the details on the way. We have to go.”
The rest of the flock—half horde, half in hell already—spreads their own wings. The air sighs.
“Let’s go to war,” Clint says, and takes off.
7. When Loki opens the portal into hell, they all feel it.
It’s a shock, a raw, gaping wound, and the world’s power twists away from it, screaming. All of creation howls out and Clint’s wings rattle, straining beneath the weight of it.
It’s unnatural. Of course it’s unnatural, but it’s wrong, it’s so wrong. The three planes were created to be kept separate. There’s a heaven, a hell, and earth. Three distinct layers. There are pathways between the three, but they don’t touch.
When they touch, all that lives trembles.
That’s what Azrael’s portal is. It’s not another pathway hacked from the fabric of the universe, it’s an actual door, a tesseract, open on both sides. Earth and hell are touching.
“Fuck,” Tony swears, and he’s gone, hurtling away with the speed only a messenger can manage.
Clint agrees with that, and they’re off before they even pause to build a plan. The sheer wrong of the touching planes calls to them. They can’t help but go to it, even if it means flying in without a plan, ragged-feathered and so tired they can’t even see straight.
“Faster,” Steve urges, wings straining.
“We’re going as fast as we can,” Natasha hisses through gritted teeth, but she pulls her wings in tighter, trying to ride the wind all the way to Loki’s feet.
Tony will be there soon. Gabriel’s always been the fastest—he is the runner, after all—and he won’t fail, not now, not with the world hanging on his shoulders.
Clint believes in him. Gabe’s a lazy, arrogant, sneaking son of a cherub, but he’s always been stubborn. There’s a reason he guarded David’s line two thousand years beyond his official duty.
Tony will get there, and he’ll hold Loki off. He won’t be able to for long, of course. All these centuries have weakened him, and the running and the fighting’s only taxed what little reserves he’s got, but he’ll think of something.
“We’re coming,” he hears Bruce whisper, his raven-sleek feathers shining green. All of Death’s power is behind them now, bearing them in on a cold, brittle wind. “We’re coming, we’re coming.”
Personally, Clint doubts that Tony can hear them all the way out here, but it’s a nice thought. He doesn’t know, exactly, the limits of an angel’s reach anymore.
Half of his knowledge is missing. When he was Uriel, Clint was an archangel. A being of great, terrible power and great, terrible wisdom, the last war council, the watcher of all the earth. He saw the creation of the world, and all its long, vicious struggles, and every angel’s fall, but he can’t remember any of it.
Natasha feels the same. The others—mainly Tony and Bruce, because their memories of the higher plane aren’t damaged, not like the rest of theirs are—say she was the secret-keeper, but she doesn’t know what secrets she kept.
“Powerful ones,” she’d said to him once, in the woods with their clothes strewn around them, wings outstretched to soak up the sun. “The oldest secrets in the universe.”
“Do you miss them?” he’d asked. He missed the things he once knew. He felt less without them, as if someone had taken a knife and cleanly cut away part of his wings. Had left him half-blind and struggling in the leaves, weak as a newborn human, blind and deaf to all the higher powers.
“No,” she’d said, smiling, a little crooked half-curve that made the thing in his chest kick. “Do you?”
“No,” he’d lied. She had laughed. She knew he was lying.
Natasha—Raziel, Raz, my friend, my friend—always knows.
They fly on. Their wings tremble under the weight of it. The earth is still vast and their wings aren’t big enough, aren’t long enough with the exception of Thor’s, but his are charred and clumsy. He hasn’t used them in a while and he can’t work them right.
He’s trying, though, face set, and thunder trails in his wake. A pagan god indeed.
Clint smiles. Now that’s the way to fall. Fuck this born-as-a-human shit, becoming a pagan god is the way to go.
As they get nearer and nearer to the city, the air burns, becoming supercharged. Lightning flashes across the surface of his feathers. Electricity hums, and the power deep inside him wells him, whispering, putting itself in his hands.
“Almost there!” he bellows over the roar of thunder and wind and the rush of wings.
They can feel New York, a ragged hole of hellfire and misery, and there’s Tony’s light at the top of Stark Tower, throbbing a staccato white in fury.
Clint takes a deep breath. “Here we go,” he says, flaring his wings out to stop, and aims himself straight and true.
He doesn’t have enough power. That’s the truth of it, plain and simple. He’s never been a weak angel but he’s at his lowest right now, and Azrael is white-hot with hellfire.
He doesn’t stand a chance.
And maybe it’s cowardice that drives him, just maybe, but he doesn’t want to die here, right now at this moment with the portal creaking open and the city of New York writhing in fear. He’s an archangel, damn it. If—when—he dies, it’s going to be in a blaze of glory and he’s going to take as many of the fuckers with him as he can.
He’s not going to die alone in a single flash of lightning because he’s so tired he can’t raise enough energy to shield himself.
So, as he approaches Stark Tower—and that’s a nice touch, Loki, a very nice touch—he stamps out his bristling, angry light and spreads his wings in a gesture of peace, circling the tower once, twice, before coming in to land.
Azrael is waiting for him.
Four thousand years have been kind to him, if you look at just the surface. His chosen body is young and strong, handsome too, with the sort of intense eyes that follow you. When he sees Tony he smiles, spreads his hands invitingly. He looks charming.
But then Tony looks deeper. On the human plane he’s normal, but on the other planes, he’s a wreck. His true form has gone blue, almost as if he’s been frozen, not burned, and the Enochian that once decorated him in elegant, beautiful patterns, denoting soul and Death’s friend and guide, has been blurred, warped, and distorted.
His wings have gone slack, feathers falling away in great patches to reveal bone-white skin and sores. He has fangs now, sharp, grinning ones, and a pair of ornate horns growing from his frozen face.
His eyes, once a clearest green, flash crimson.
Tony sticks a grin on his face and folds his wings in so Azrael—no, this is not Azrael the angel, this is no angel at all, this is Loki—can’t see them shudder. “Az,” he says cheerfully, though the nickname tastes like ash in his mouth.
“Gabriel.” The demon’s red eyes are amused. Tony decides to not look at him through the astral planes, and settles on his less terrifying human form instead.
“They don’t really call me that anymore,” Tony says conversationally. The wind whistles around them. Up above, the portal shimmers, growing as it tears a hole in the sky. The humans can’t see it yet, but they will soon.
“No?” Loki arches a cool eyebrow. “You fell?”
“Something like that.”
The fallen angel tsks, his face amused. “What made you come to your senses, brother? The last time we had a good long conversation, you seemed very keen to throw me in a pit in Hell and lock away the key.”
“Ah, the folly of youth.” He looks around, getting stock of his surroundings. He needs to distract Loki. He can’t stop the portal from opening—he doesn’t have that much strength. But he can slow it down, maybe, keep Loki from opening it all at once, until the others get here.
He resists the urge to curl his lip. He’s never had a flock. He hates being dependent on one now.
“So, tell me, Reindeer Games,” he sings, switching gears and gesturing to his tower. “World domination’s gotta be more fun if you’re hammered, right? Can I get you a drink or something?”
Loki’s eyebrow goes up, and though Tony’s trying not to watch the astral planes, he can’t help but hear the ragged hiss of hell-torn wings stirring. “Terribly hospitable for an angel, aren’t you.”
“Fallen,” Tony stresses. “C’mon, Az, for old times’ sake.”
The demon smiles thinly. “I am not Azrael.”
“Loki, then. What’s one drink between old war buddies gonna do? Who’s it gonna hurt?”
“No one, since I will have your little world soon,” Loki says, and he’s trying to gauge Tony’s reaction, isn’t he. He wants to know where Gabriel stands on the whole destroy-my-Father’s-world thing.
Tony isn’t going to tell him.
If there’s one thing he’s learned down here, it’s how to bullshit, and he’s going to bullshit for all he’s worth.
So he grins. “Come on in, then.” He opens the door with a wave of his hand, sauntering in with his wings furled tight.
Loki pauses, then follows, oozing confidence. He is not afraid of Tony. He thinks he’s won.
(And maybe he has. The first time they fought him, Gabriel and Michael had barely won, and Tony had been at full power at the time. He’s running on empty now. Maybe they’ll fail, maybe they’ll fall. Maybe this is the fight they are destined to lose.)
Tony smiles anyway, pouring drinks with steady hands.
“Sir?” JARVIS says. Tony silences him with a flick of his fingers.
Loki accepts his drink, sipping at it with his eyes gone livid and bright. “So,” he says. “What’s your game, Gabriel? What are you after?”
“Tony,” Tony repeats firmly, and smiles again. “Game? I don’t have one.”
“You’re not going to try and save this little planet? Your Father’s planet?” A challenge is bedded into his words, sharp as a hiss, vicious, cruel.
Tony shrugs. “Why should I? I’ve been here three thousand, eight hundred and sixty-seven years, and they’ve never given me a reason to die for them.”
“No? You protected David’s line for that long.”
“It’s a hobby,” he lies through his teeth. “What else am I supposed to do down here? I won’t go back upstairs and no offense, KFC, but downstairs is a little too crispy.”
“You could do anything you wished,” Loki fires back, head canted to the side. “You are an archangel, after all. The world would throw itself at your feet if you so desired. You chose to live as a human instead of as a god.”
Tony shows him all his teeth. “Look around, Az. This look like a human’s life to you? I am a god to these people. The rich always are, and I’m the richest son of a bitch on this side of the earth.”
“True enough,” Loki agrees. “But true power is not just money, brother.” His eyes are glowing green again, Death’s power stirring beneath the surface. “True power is so much more.”
Tony shrugs again, delicately, taking a careful sip of his drink. “Is that an offer?”
Azrael laughs. He laughs long and hard, his thin body shaking. He laughs with his head thrown back, teeth bared. He laughs and he laughs, and green light bubbles beneath his skin, ripping at the seams.
“An offer,” the demon laughs, calming down again. He tosses the drink aside, letting it splash on the floor. JARVIS makes an annoyed sound. “Oh, Gabriel, I thought you were smarter than this.”
“I’m very smart,” Tony tells him. “And it’s Tony. Anthony if you absolutely have to.”
“Gabriel,” Loki repeats. “And you are still Gabriel, are you not? You did not abandon David’s line. You stayed as their protector, and you were still the messenger to the human race, though over the centuries you’ve lost your message. You are not going to join me and my own. You are still an angel.”
It’s Tony’s turn to laugh now, and he laughs just as long, hard, and toothily as Loki did. His feathers shake with it. “An angel,” he says. “That’s a good one, big guy. That’s a good one.”
Loki frowns. “What do you mean by that?”
“I’m not an angel,” Tony says. It’s not bitter. It isn’t. He chose this. “I am no more an angel than you are. I chose this. I left. I’m a coward."
The demon shrugs. “You seem whole to me,” he says. “But I have been wrong before. Tell me, little bird, what broke you so? Was it me?”
Tony looks away.
Loki laughs. “It was! Oh, did I break your heart, little bird? Did I break your spirit the day I threw your lover out of heaven?”
“No. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t Michael. It was—” he stops.
“Tell me,” Loki croons. “Tell me, little bird. Give me all your sorrows and I’ll take them away.”
The portal wavers. It’s opening, it’s cracking wide, but there’s nothing he can do to stop it, but he can slow it down, he knows he can. He just has to keep Loki talking.
“It was me,” he says tiredly, draining the rest of his glass and pouring himself another one. His wings are so tightly furled that they hurt. “I couldn’t stay there anymore. I couldn’t just blindly follow orders knowing that—knowing that it’s in the Plan for some of us to fall. To die.”
And that’s always been his problem, hasn’t it. As the messenger, Gabriel goes everywhere. He meets everyone. He sees everything.
After Michael fell, he had gone to his Father and he had begged with all the strength in his feathers. He had begged, he had pleaded, he had said please, please, take me instead, and his Father had said, quite simply, no.
It is not your path to take, He had said. It is not your time. But it was Michael’s.
You mean we’re meant to fall, Tony had snarled back. You mean we’re meant to suffer.
Father had said nothing.
Gabriel left the next morning.
Azrael laughs. “You’re smarter than the rest of them, then. Some of our compatriots are still sheep to Daddy’s rod, eager to follow, eager to please.”
“So happy to run on their own swords,” Tony mutters. He doesn’t look at Loki.
The demon nods. “So can you blame me? For choosing to leave on my own time, of my own accord, rather than dragging it out?”
“No,” says Tony, because even though this mess, Steve, him, all of them, is all Azrael’s fault, Tony can’t be angry with him. He can’t. He can’t, because he did the same thing.
He walked out. He chose to leave heaven, leave his Father’s side. He chose to live on the earth, and even though he looked after David’s line he still sinned. He acted like a human, like the worst human, and his feathers are so dirty now it’s amazing he can still fly.
Loki smiles, a predator’s grin. “So why do you fight me then, little bird? What can you possibly hope to accomplish in fighting this war you cannot win?”
Tony tilts his head. Feels his feathers rustle. “What, you’re not gonna ask me to join you? No last attempt to sway an archangel to your side? ‘cause let me tell you, that’d get you some props downstairs. All them bitches would want a piece of you.”
“Do you really think I’m that foolish, to offer you a place at my side,” Loki says with a gentle, mocking laugh. “Did you think I’d fall for that?”
Considering who and what Azrael is, no, no he really didn’t. But he shrugs anyway. “Worth a shot,” he says.
Loki nods. “It was.”
“We’re going to stop you, you know.” There’s a heat growing inside him now, a swell of power, of light. Tony frowns. It’s not his power. All of his has been burned away. So what is this?
“Oh? And how are you going to do that, Gabriel?”
“Let’s do a headcount,” he says. His mouth feels weird, moving almost of its own accord. His fingertips tremble. His wings itch. “We have Michael, the archangel. We have your brother, the Thunderer,” and here Loki makes an annoyed, bitter huff, “God’s personal secret-keeper and the scourge of traitorous souls, and the eyes of God who have seen all of us since we were formed from stardust.”
“I have an army,” Loki points out. “I have all the power of Hell.”
“We have Death,” Tony says, laughing. The light inside his chest bubbles, surges white-hot, heaven-red. “We have Ezekiel, and you know in a flat-out fight he’ll kick your ass.”
“He is but one,” Loki says, pacing now, affecting an uncaring attitude. He holds himself high. “I have many.”
Tony laughs. He laughs and the light grows, almost unbearable, this heat and warmth that is not his own.
Loki snarls. He steps forward, fingers raised, flashing green, ice-cold. Death’s power, the splitter of souls. “We’ll see who is laughing when your little flock comes and finds you hollowed out,” he purrs. “When they see the mighty Gabriel reduced to an empty shell. I might even wear your feathers as a coat. They’re so very handsome.”
Tony grins, and lets Loki press his fingers, Death-bright, to his chest.
They are cold. Cold, cold, so very cold, but it’s outside of his body, it’s beyond him. Loki’s reaching fingers can’t find him. The heat is blocking them.
“What—” Azrael growls, tries again. And again. And again, searching for Tony's soul so he can peel it out and stuff something else in.
The voice that comes out of Tony’s mouth is not his own. “You are going to lose,” says the voice. Tony’s body shakes, and it’s so bright he can’t see.
Loki, to his credit, doesn’t even blink. “And why is that?” he asks, still grinning. “There’s a hole into hell now, it can’t be stopped. I have already one.”
“You lack conviction,” says the voice, and Tony burns.
Loki, still laughing, wraps his fingers around Tony’s throat. “We’ll see about that,” he growls, and hurls the angel with all his might.
Tony falls. He doesn’t feel himself going through the glass, even though it shreds his skin and his delicate primary feathers. He doesn’t feel the race of fire that follows, thrown bright green and easy.
He feels the fall, though. The ground rushing up, the air surging past. He feels the fall and it’s terrifying, it’s every angel’s worst nightmare, and he’s afraid, he’s so afraid, but it’s now or never. They have to stop Loki. They have to.
There’s power in him now again, transferred from whatever spoke through his mouth. There’s a fire in his chest again, a life in his feathers. The ground is rushing up, and he can feel his flock enter the city.
Gabriel takes a deep breath, fighting the fear of falling.
He opens his wings.
They get there, and it’s probably already too late. Tony held Loki off somehow, kept him distracted, and as a result the portal’s only half the size of what it could be, but it’s not enough. It’s wide enough now that the demons can start slipping through, and they are.
There are dozens of them.
Tony’s in the air, flying faster than the human eye can follow, Jesus fuck he’s running hot, where did he get that power from, and he’s dropping demons left and right, but it won’t be enough, Clint can see that already.
Some have slipped past Tony and they’re making themselves known now, streaming fire, tearing holes in buildings and trailing death.
Clint feels the fear rolling from the city in waves. People start screaming now, horrified at the smoky, billowing things that are coming with their claws out, searching for anyone and everyone to tear into.
“What are we doing, Michael?” he asks, because of course the archangel will know what to do. He’s done this before, right?
“Crush them,” Steve snarls, and folds his wings, dropping onto the head of the nearest demon and ripping in.
Clint looks at Natasha. She shrugs. “Seems legit,” she says, and rolls off after him.
“Oh, Lord, this is gonna hurt,” he mutters, but follows them down.
The first demon he hits is a young one, weak and inexperienced. He can tell because he doesn’t even need to draw his sword. The force of his will alone breaks the thing, tears it cleanly in half and sends it dashing into the side of a building.
Demon blood mists in the air.
The next one shrieks a war cry. It’s a hideous, mangled creature, burned flesh, awkward wings, bits of white, gleaming bone.
It was a little girl once, no older than twelve.
This one is harder. It’s an older demon—three, four hundred years, maybe—and she knows what she’s doing, and that the human in him can’t bring himself to hit something that once was a child.
The angel, though. The angel can, and his hands go up, and light swells in his veins, and he slams into the child with enough force to shatter bone.
They fall together, interlocked, and the demon shrieks. She beats at him with her bony wings, tears at him with her claws, tries to get her teeth and darkness in him, but she too is weak, and he is an archangel.
Her body falls to the ground below, and the fire’s growing.
Clint does that again and again. The lesser demons fall to the ground, their bodies crisping, feeding the fire, and after five seconds there’s nothing of them left.
It’s not really that easy.
Frowning, he flicks his wings and goes up, hovering above the city. Smoke and fire spill into the air and sirens are wailing, but so far the damage is only minimal, considering. It doesn’t look like much damage was done.
“It’s not that easy,” he whispers, and he focuses his eyes, finding the light of his flock.
There’s Steve on the ground, wings spread out. The ground around him is littered with smoking bodies. There’s Thor on a low-slung building, his feathers crackling with lightning. He’s killed many enemies too.
There’s Tony, still shining with unexpected power, perched on top of the Empire State Building, and he’s doing the same thing Clint is, looking around to see what’s going on.
There’s Natasha, half-hidden in shadow. She’s got her eyes on Stark Tower, and there’s Loki, his wings outstretched, burned feathers, charred bone.
“Well done,” he booms, sickly green light flashing around his head. “Well done indeed. Not bad for a flock of half-fledged rejects, I’ll give you that.”
Clint feels himself drawing instinctively closer to Tony and Natasha, hovering in the singed air.
(To the humans down below, it will just look like a group of floating people. No wings, no heavenly light. Just people, surrounded by fire.)
“But did you really think that that would be all?”
Even from here, Clint can see the smile on Loki’s face, sharp-toothed and wide.
The portal is ripped even wider. Farther, farther, farther still, the fabric of the universe torn neatly in two. The world screams and his vision doubles, blurring as his wings strain to keep him up in the air.
Then the screaming starts down below. The rift is wide enough now that humans can see it, and they’re pointing, screaming, crying.
Hellfire lights up the sky.
“No,” Loki booms, and his eyes have gone from green to nearly crimson. “This is only the beginning!”
“Oh, shit,” Tony says feelingly, and Hell pours down.
Well, not all of Hell. (Hell is a very complex, strictly-divided place. Not all demons are allowed into the same parts of hell. God, before he decided to invent free will, thought it would be best if demons weren’t allowed to congregate so much. This is probably a very, very good thing.) But hundreds of demons are coming, hundreds of them, ranging from tiny, harmless imp to raging warlord, and oh fuck they can’t stop them all.
Clint swallows. “Steve,” he says, in a very small voice. “Battle plan?”
“Surrender now,” Loki suggests. “I won’t kill you. You have my word on that one. I wouldn’t waste so much raw talent, and besides, aren’t we all in the same boat? Traitors and fallen the lot of us?”
“We’re not like you!” Steve thunders back. Righteous fury is rising in him now, and he flares his wings. “We’re not traitors!”
Loki laughs, and the legions of Hell assemble behind him. People are running now, screaming and pointing and trying to escape the flames.
Poor things. This is gonna hurt.
“Suit yourself,” says the demon airily, and he raises a hand. “You’ll beg me for mercy soon enough.”
“Not fucking likely!” Clint bellows, and his roar is taken up by the others. Their strength solidifies. The lone angel dies. His power is not enough. But the flock, well. The flock survives.
“Have it your way,” Loki hisses, all aflame in his pagan power. He raises a hand. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Clint loses track of what happens after that.
There’s fire, he knows that much, and the whole world is shaking and ringing with concussive power. Buildings crumble and bridges topple. Flames eat away at the pavement, at people, and demons fall like rain, slashing and howling at anything alive they can reach.
It feels like the end of the world, and Clint would be looking for the Horsemen but he’s too busy trying to fend off a pack of demons who are tearing at him, shrieking for his blood.
Off to his left, he hears Natasha—Raziel, the executioner—moving, too fast for even his eyes to follow. Tony is above and very bright, and Steve is below and if anything he’s brighter. Thor is all thunder and heat, taking out ten, fifteen, twenty at a time.
Bruce isn’t here yet, but he’s not going to be. He’s too slow, too timid. He’s afraid of his own power. They need him, but he’s not coming.
“He’s not coming,” Clint mutters, slamming his power into a demon’s chest, tossing it back a hundred yards.
Tony’s light flashes. “Of course he is,” Tony hisses back. “He’s coming. Just give him a minute. He can’t fly as fast as we can.”
Clint snorts but fights anyway.
It’s chaos. He does what he can, of course. He fights and kills and wraps his wings around humans, shielding them as best as he can. He puts out the fires where he finds them. He swoops all over the sky, trying to hold up buildings, up mountains of men.
He tries. They all do.
It still isn’t enough.
Clint wipes his mouth, tastes bile, tastes fear. He’s on the ground now, surrounded by dead blackened bodies, and his wings shiver.
Natasha lands beside him, her eyes dark with concern. She’s bleeding a little, but he doubts that she feels it. “You okay?”
He nods, smiles as best as he can. “Just fine, Tasha,” he says. “You?”
She gives him a crooked grin. “Never better. Another round?”
Clint looks up. The sky’s dark now, there are people screaming, dying, shivering in terror, and there’s Loki, there’s Azrael, hands outstretched like wings, laughing and laughing.
“Yeah,” Clint says. “One more round.”
They leap back into the fray.
Thor is not the name he chose for himself, but then, neither is Ramiel. They are the names he has worn but he did not chose them, just accepted them, just shouldered their weight.
Ramiel, the thunder of God, is good at shouldering the weight. He is not particularly bitter about it. He knows his place, and that is at Azrael’s side. They are two sides of the same coin, as the humans say.
Ramiel, the angel of storms, of rain, of new life. Azrael, the angel of death and winter. Without winter’s death, there can be no spring. Without the cleansing storm, the earth will grow over and Death’s power will fade.
They balance each other. Always have. Ramiel and Azrael, Azrael and Ramiel. Brothers. Fledged from the same star, taught to fly among the same field of planets.
They were raised together. They played together, they fought together. When the others started to shy away from Azrael, fearing his coldness, his Death-light, Ramiel stayed at his side.
I will always be by your side, he’d said once, long ago before this mess, before their Father had Michael and Gabriel seal his beloved little brother in the deepest pits of hell. I will never leave you. I will never betray you.
Azrael—they call him Loki now, the trickster, the mischievous—had only smiled. (At the time, they had still been young, and Ramiel had been foolish. Too trusting, too kind. He has grown older now. He knows what evil lives in their Father’s world. He knows what lies.) Of course, brother, he’d said.
Of course, of course.
And now, Ramiel is dead. He no longer wears that name.
I have worn it too long, he thinks. He is no angel. He is Thor. God of thunder. Thor, laughing warrior. Thor, of the blackened wings, of the deep anger, of the sorrow.
“Hey, Point Break,” Gabriel snaps, hurtling by. “Heads up!”
A demon comes screaming after the archangel, and Thor blinks slowly. He reaches out easily, and pulls the creature out of the air. It squeals, burning his hands.
“There you go!” And the angel who chose to call himself Tony speeds off, leading the next horde on a merry chase.
Thor frowns, tilting his head up. He cannot stop the portal. He spent centuries beside the gates of hell, he should know what can and cannot be done.
Sealing the portal as they are is not possible. Holding back all of hell forever is not possible.
But damn it, they’re going to try anyway.
Thor takes off, shoving from the side of the building and throwing out his wings, catching the fiery air and letting it take him up, higher and higher until he’s level with the tip of Stark Tower, with the hole between worlds, with the oncoming hordes.
(It is fitting that they both took on the names of Norse gods. Thunder and lightning, light and darkness. Truth and lies. Two sides of the same coin, all these centuries later.)
“Brother,” he calls, cries out, and Loki turns.
It hurts to see his true form. The human skin he’s wearing hides the scars, the burns, the tattered wings. It hides the horns, the Enochian carved into spirals on his soul.
The fallen angel smiles. “Ramiel,” he hums. “Or is it Thor now? I’ve heard of you, you know. The humans prayed to you almost as often as they did me.”
Thor says nothing. He can’t.
“You look nearly as ragged as I do,” Loki continues. “Did you really sit outside the gates of hell for four thousand years? I must admit, that’s a little more tenacious than I would have expected, but who knows, maybe you were ill-informed. Did you think I was coming home?”
His throat closes up and something inside him withers, but Thor soldiers on. “You can still come home,” he says, landing on the roof. He comes closer to his brother, and Loki doesn’t pull away. Their wings brush, charred feather on feather. “You can still return with me.”
Loki gives him a quick, vicious grin. “Come home,” he says mockingly. “Come home, come home? To what, exactly? To the hosts of heaven, waiting with their swords to crucify me? To our Father, to be raised like a pig for slaughter?”
“That’s not how it is,” Thor argues, reaching out blindly. “That is not how our Father loves us.”
“Your Father,” Loki snarls, and he is lost then, he is lost, he is lost.
A howl builds in Thor’s throat. He forces it down.
“Ours,” he says. He reaches out again, grabs Loki this time, pulling him close. Loki is cold, but he is warmer to Thor’s touch. Even after all this time, they are still brothers, forged from the same star. Their light recognizes each other. “Our Father. And he will forgive you. He will welcome you home with open arms. Please, Loki. Please. You give up this poisonous dream. You come home.”
Loki licks his lips, searching Thor’s eyes with his own bright ones. “You really believe that,” he says.
“I do,” Thor says earnestly. He smiles, hoping to disarm, to remind Loki that not always were they blood and bone, charred feathers, anger, pain. “We can go home again.”
“Ramiel,” Loki says, and he sounds the most sincere he’s been in millennia. “We can never go home again.”
“We can,” Thor insists. “Close the portal. Call off your hordes. Come home.”
Loki laughs. “Even if I wanted to close the portal, I could not. It is opened now. I shall not close it ever again.”
Loki curls his lip, and his fingers flair with Death’s light. He draws a knife, carved with Death's whispers. If it cuts deep enough, Thor will die, regardless of his power. “Sentiment,” he snarls, and leaps.
They’re losing this fight. They are losing this fight and it’s Bruce Banner’s fault, and he could have been in the city half an hour ago but he’s terrified.
He doesn’t want to let it go. He’s not supposed to. He is neutral, he is neutral, he is expressly forbidden to use that power on any one particular group, but he wants to.
He can see the fire and hear the screams from here.
He can feel Tony, his flock, waver and struggle. They’re dying.
They need him.
He takes a deep, uncertain breath, and angles himself towards the city.
It doesn’t take long to get there, and it’s a mess. The city is in ruins already, Manhattan is bleeding, people are dying left and right. He can feel Death here. The Old Man is slung low of the ruins, waiting, watching.
His breathing picks up.
But he’s in the city now, and Tony turns to him, lights up so fast, laughs and whoops and comes hurtling by to brush wings with Bruce.
They are flock.
Natasha cheers him on. Steve beams. Thor, who’s currently plunging from the top of Stark Tower, booms a greeting. Even Clint gives him a smile.
They trust him. They need him.
He takes another deep breath.
“You got this, big guy?” Tony asks, as they land to regroup, wingtip to wingtip.
Bruce nods. He hasn’t done this in a while, but he knows. His body remembers. He can feel it, ice cold, rising up. “I’ve got this.”
“What’s your secret?” Steve asks curiously, turning to look at him. “Everyone would always talk about it, but no one would tell me exactly just what it was, what you can do.”
Bruce gives him a lopsided, nervous smile. His feathers go green. “You wanna know my secret?”
He smiles. “Death is a transformation,” he says, and then all is lost to the howl of his rising power.
Pride makes Tony’s feathers a firestorm. “That’s the way!” he roars, and lets the light—not his, this light, not his but so much stronger, so much purer, it’s been thousands of years since he’s had this much strength—thunder out of him, rending and burning and purifying the demons.
Bruce lets go, and it’s amazing. When he says that Death is a transformation, he’s not fucking kidding, and it’s awesome.
Ezekiel’s true form is that of a seraph. There are very few seraph in existence, for the simple reason that they are enormous. Ezekiel is huge, green light and six wings and a power that can’t be stopped, and the demons see him coming, Death-lit, and run.
Tony cackles. He’s high on pain and adrenaline and this newfound light, and they’re all probably still going to die, but hell is he going down fighting.
Call me a coward again, he thinks, viciously triumphant, and tears his way through six imps and a warlord with ease.
“Hey!” Clint shouts across their flock-bond. “What the hell is that?”
Tony looks up in the portal, and his blood goes a little colder. “That,” he says, feeling a little green, “is the Serpent of Eden.”
Well, fuck him sideways. The Serpent of Eden. When the stories tell it, they make the snake sound tiny, a little garden snake or grass snake. The stories are fucking wrong. The Serpent of Eden is the basis for every sea monster myth ever. It's as long as a skyscraper and as thick around as an aircraft carrier, and fire drips from its fangs and every sin sparkles in its scales. The Horsmen's plagues ride on its spines, wating to plunge to the earth below. It roars, and the sky trembles.
“Well fuck you too,” Tony thunders at Azrael. The fallen angel hears it, and laughs.
“Can you stop it?” Clint asks.
Tony swallows. He can’t.
“We can,” Michael calls. “Come here.”
Everything in Tony, once Gabriel, screams run, run, you won’t make it out of here alive if you go to him.
He lands easily, on one knee, rolling with his replenished strength. He meets Michael’s eyes—I’m not a coward. I fought for you, I challenged Father for you—and grins. “What’s the plan, big guy?”
To anyone who’s not them, it doesn’t look like much, just Tony being himself, being loud and stupid and entirely too much.
But Michael has known him (biblically, isn’t that hi-fucking-larious), and known him, and known him. To anyone but Michael, it’s a careless jab.
But to Michael, it’s a peace offering. A concession. The last and final surrender of Gabriel the archangel, who will probably die today.
Michael nods. It’s a small gesture, but it’s familiar, and warmth stirs in his chest. They are no longer of the same feather, but they’re still flock. Still companions.
It’s new. It’s new and different and they probably won’t get the chance to test it out and learn these new boundaries, but it can still feel good, he thinks. They make better friends than lovers.
“Do you know what that is?” Steve asks. The others are coming, ringing around them, smeared with light and blood and soot.
“That,” says Natasha, “is the Serpent of Eden.”
“Funny,” Clint says dryly, though there’s a nervousness he can’t quite hide. “I thought that was smaller.”
“Who knows what they’ve been feeding it,” Tony quips, as Bruce comes back. He’s still in his seraph form and therefore unreachable, but seems to realize they’re not enemies. He sees the Serpent and howls at it, Death’s light reaching out.
“So,” Ramiel rumbles, searching the skies. He’s still seeking out Loki, after all of this. “What is the plan?”
Everyone looks to Steve. They can’t help it, really. It’s instinctive. He’s Michael, of course he’s going to get them out of this.
Steve blinks. If he’s overwhelmed by their trust, he doesn’t show it.
“Ramiel, I need you up there, bottlenecking the portal,” he says quickly. “Use your lightning, do whatever you can to slow down the hordes. Uriel—”
“Clint, sorry. You need to get up high too. Keep your eyes peeled, call out patterns and incoming waves. Coordinate.”
“Tony,” Steve says, and it’s a concession too. A forgiveness. “I need you flying point, okay? You’re the fastest. Try to keep them off the streets and away from people. Make yourself a target.”
Tony grins. “Oh, I am so good at that.”
Steve smiles. “I remember. Raziel and I will stay here, working containment. Don’t take any stupid risks. Keep in touch with all of us. We’ve got this, guys.”
Tony grins and takes off, wings rushing with his sudden power and the freedom of a sin forgiven. Behind him, he hears Steve says, “And Zeke? Go crazy,” and Tony laughs like a madman.
Loki is does not know what he signed up for.
High above New York City, Clint Barton wipes the grime off his face and pauses to breathe.
It’s a mess. To the untrained eye, it’s sheer and utter fucking chaos. To the trained one, much the same.
But he’s not an idiot, and he can see what’s happening.
The angels are losing.
It’s inevitable, of course. They’re making some head way—Steve knows his shit—but it’s not enough. It won’t be enough, if they can’t close the portal.
The Serpent of Eden has currently met its match in the form of Bruce Banner, which would be hilarious if the world wasn’t hanging in the balance, and they’re crashing buildings and wrecking shit, which is to be expected.
Tony is also kicking some major demon behind, riding whatever high he managed to pull out of his ass. Clint doesn’t worry about him too much.
Natasha and Steve, however, concern him. They’re on the ground, and angels are not made for ground combat. They’re vulnerable.
But Clint is watching their backs, arrow after arrow finding its home in demonflesh.
They’ve got this.
But they can’t hold back all of hell.
Thor spent a good bit of time trying to bottleneck it, but abandoned that in favor of chasing Loki around to beat the shit out of him. Clint seconds this plan wholeheartedly.
“We’re not going to win like this,” he warns Steve, taking aim again. And again. And again.
“We have to,” Steve says, through gritted teeth. “We can’t fail.”
The threat of failure, of their world lost, hangs over all of them, straining their already tired wings.
We were made to stop this, Clint thinks. He puts a bolt through a demon’s skull. We have to stop this. Because they do. This is their higher purpose, he knows it, he knows it. He can feel it all the way down through his bones, in every individual feather.
They were made to stop this apocalypse here and now, to protect this planet, to put Loki back where he belongs.
“Stark, got another horde incoming,” he says tightly.
“Copy that,” Stark sings. He shoots past, light streaming from him in broken, sparkling strands. He smites like it’s his fucking job.
Clint keeps firing. Demons drop all around him, but there are so many, so many, and it’s not all that surprising when one clips him from behind, drawing a line of hellfire up his back and scattering tawny feathers into the air.
He’s falling. The pain makes it hard to breathe but he steadies himself, and Tony’s there for just long enough to drag him up, balance his flight, and send a rush of light to numb the wound.
“Thanks,” Clint says, and picks a demon off Stark’s back in thanks.
And so it goes. Sometime during the fight Thor goes down, one of Loki’s knives buried in his gut. His wide, charred wings strain to support him. Clint bounds over to hoist him up, and Thor grunts a thanks.
Down below, Steve takes a fireball to the stomach. He drops, and for a sick second, he looks dead.
But he stands again, and throws Natasha up into the air where she crashes into Loki and sticks to him, wings rolling and clashing before he throws her off and climbs upwards.
Bruce comes back into view, roaring and tearing at the Serpent. The Serpent will not be stopped. Of course it won’t be, it’s the fucking Serpent of the fucking Garden of fucking Eden. It’s not going down, not even to Death’s right hand.
“We have to stop that snake,” Steve rasps. He’s still fighting, but he’s weakened. His light dims. All of their’s are dimming. They’re burning too much energy, and Loki’s hits just keep coming.
He runs out of arrows and has to make a dive for it, crashing into some glass that shreds his human skin and tatters his feathers. Pain nearly blinds him.
No good blind, he thinks, struggling to stand up. He can’t. His legs and wings won’t work, beat feebly in the broken glass. He can’t heal himself. He doesn’t have enough strength.
Redemption slips through his fingers and disappears into the burning air. Down below Steve takes a bad hit trying to protect some civilians, but it hurts when those humans come back up with coal-dark eyes and teeth bared.
Natasha is still in the air, but just barely. Her right wing is a mess, and he aches to go to her, his of-the-same-feather.
The Serpent and Bruce rip at each other, equal forces, and Loki is laughing and laughing and laughing.
“Ezekiel!” Tony cries, shaking off a horde to rush towards the Serpent. “Ezekiel, get Azrael!”
The Angel of Death roars, unhearing, unseeing. He’s too far gone. They’ve lost him.
“Bruce! Do it!”
The Angel of Death turns. He turns, against every possible thing Clint has ever seen, and goes for Azrael.
And Tony flashes, bright, alluring, and takes the Serpent up.
“What are you doing!” Michael bellows, shoving off the ground with his wings stained sooty, reaching for Gabriel, but the messenger is too fast.
“Gabe, Tony, no,” Clint says, and he finds the strength to get up, to move, out the window and towards his flock. Terror and anger and not fair, not fair, not fair, are the beat of his wings, and he pushes at the air, forcing it to bend to him.
He rises. He grabs Natasha and they rise together. He grabs Thor and they rise higher still. Thor grabs Steve, and they’re so high, but it’s not enough—
“Steve,” Tony shouts, barely audible over the roar of the portal. He’s so close now, holding the Serpent there. (A tesseract opens both ways.) “Steve, Michael, kapara, you know what to do. You know the sigils. With the four of you—five, Bruce, wake up and lend them your strength—you have enough energy. You can close the portal.”
“We can do it together,” Steve whispers.
Tony acts like he doesn’t hear. “Be right back,” he says. “Should be fun, right?”
“Don’t!” Clint roars, over the howling cries. He wanted redemption, they all wanted redemption, but not like this, not like this, no, never, not at the cost of flock.
Tony doesn’t stop. He doesn’t slow down. He doesn’t even pause, just wraps his power—not Gabriel’s power, not his familiar light, not anything Clint recognizes, but so brilliant, so beautiful—around the Serpent, Loki’s greatest weapon, and dives headfirst into hell.
Light flares, lightning tearing across the sky and the Serpent of Eden dies in a flash of hellfire, spitting out of the portal with enough force to blast every nearby demon into ash.
In Bruce’s tight grip, Loki howls.
“The sigils,” Clint says, hollowly. In his chest and his wings, he feels the death of his flock-mate. “The sigils, Steve.”
Slowly, Steve begins to chant, his voice old and ancient and strong, everything he was and is and should be. Enochian forms in the air, strong and powerful. Lit with angel-light.
“Help me,” says Steve, through gritted teeth. He watches the portal, his eyes too bright. Too hopeful. They know what happens to an angel in hell, know that even clever, quick-thinking, wild-hearted Gabe, had no chance. “Help me, I can’t—I don’t have—”
Natasha adds her voice and power to his, strong and clear. Her face and wings are slick with blood. Clint licks his reddened teeth and as his own voice, ringing. The sigils form in the air, writ in feathers and ash, and the portal stutters.
Tony’s not coming back. He’s not coming back, he’s gone.
Thor adds his voice too, thunder-deep. The clouds converge.
And then Bruce speaks slowly, voice harsh with grief, Loki still dangling in his grip. The sigils, filled with their power, gleam, and the portal dims. Dies.
Loki goes limp, defeated, and what’s left of hell’s army drops to ash and sulfur.
Together, as a flock, linked together, they sink to earth.
They touch down in a circle, and what’s left of their light disappears.
The portal’s closed, hell’s army is defeated, Loki has been put down again.
But at what cost? He thinks, a little dull inside. One of us. My flock. Again.
“That’s the way it has to be,” Natasha says, the first one to speak. Her throat is cracked and dry. “Clint. Uriel. That’s the way it is.”
“What do you mean?”
“Redemption isn’t free,” she says. She too is looking up at the sky, at the space where the portal used to be. “It’s never free. It’s a cost.”
“Blood, usually,” Bruce says. He’s small with his sudden lack of power, small and shaking with the loss of his feather-mate.
Redemption is a blood price. Always. Since the dawn of time.
For some reason Clint finds that really fucking funny, because he laughs and laughs until he thinks he’s dislocated his ribs and his teeth are slick with blood.
“Is this what you wanted!” he howls, aiming at the sky, at heaven, at hell, wherever God has decided to watch this little shitshow from. “Another fucking sacrifice! Haven’t we given enough? Don’t we deserve forgiveness too, a fucking break, maybe? This hasn’t been easy for any of us!”
The sky has no answer.
“You said that you loved us!” he roars. Anger and sadness and desperation—exhaustion—has made his heart black. “You promised a happy ending! Where’s Gabriel’s, huh? Where’s Tony Stark’s? He did everything you asked of him. He did everything you wanted him to. He died for us. He died for us!”
Again, no response.
Clint drops his head and his wings, too tired to hold them up. He can feel his heartbeat—a human thing, even though he’s not anymore, maybe never ways—against his chin, and the thing in his breastbone, the thing that is an angel and a human together at once, kicks feebly.
“Please,” he whispers. It’s echoed all around, and the humans are creeping out now, and Tony is gone, he’s gone, he’s gone. “Please.”
“Come on,” Steve says, gently, with his hand at the back of Clint’s neck. “We need to get out of here. We can’t stay.”
“Can’t fly,” Natasha says.
Slowly, one by one, they turn away.
Behind them, there is the rush of wind.
“Sometimes,” says a voice, deep and fond, in Clint’s very pinfeathers, “you deserve to have your faith rewarded.”
“What the actual fuck,” Tony Stark chokes, lying flat on the ground with his wings outstretched, all the soot and grime and blood wiped clean from him. “Was that?”
Clint is grinning so wide he nearly splits his face, and as one they dive forward, smothering Tony in feathers.”
“I missed me too,” Tony says, muffled but affectionate, “really, I did, but guys, air,” and battered, dusty, cracked New York is filled with the sound of laughter.
Thank you, Clint thinks. Thank you, thank you, thank you. He didn’t know he still had that much faith in him.
The voice in his feathers laughs. All will be will, my son.
There’s another rush, and Loki is gone. Thor makes a sound, concerned, but they drag him back in to the feathery pile. Later, later, there will be time for mourning later. Right now, they’re all alive. They beat the fucking apocalypse and they’re alive, they’re alive, they’re alive.
“It’s amazing,” Steve says, reverent. Clint cracks up.
It’s a fucking miracle, is what it is.
0. God has many eyes. Wide eyes, narrowed eyes, eyes big and small. Eyes that look upon the world with scorn. Eyes that gaze down with tenderness.
No pair of eyes is sharper than Uriel’s.
Though that’s not what he calls himself now. Uriel is the name of an angel, a pure creature sitting just outside the gates of heaven. Uriel is the name of a creature long dead. Uriel is the name of a creature who fell.
No, he prefers Clint now. Clint Barton. It has a ring to it.
No pair of eyes is sharper than Clint Barton’s.
He watches the world with Natasha at his side, their eyes bright and shining. New York City slowly heals around them, righting itself again. Humans are resilient like that.
“Hello,” says a man unexpectedly, sitting down beside them. Natasha looks at him sideways, and Clint blinks.
“Hi,” he says. This is New York, after all. People are fucking weird here.
The man, middle-aged and balding, but with a kind face, smiles slightly. “You did a good job up there,” he says.
Clint frowns. “Excuse me?”
“You know,” the man says. “Up there. A few weeks ago, when that whole mess happened. You did good.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Clint. Inside he is quietly panicking, because he really, really doesn’t want to have to run again.
Natasha nods seriously.
“You too,” says the man. He has a nametag on, some kind of security badge. It says Phil Coulson. “You were excellent. You did very well. I knew you could.”
“Excuse me,” Clint says again, his wings tense. “But who the hell are you?”
Phil Coulson smiles, gentle and warm and so, so bright, he is a light that’s growing, and growing, and growing. “Hell has nothing to do with it, son,” he says, so, so gently.
Everything in Clint is singing, clearer than bells, and Natasha is laughing beside him. He can barely believe it. Here, now, after all this time.
“Redemption was never that hard to find,” says Phil Coulson, a laugh and a song in his voice. The light he is grows, and everything in Clint, angel and human, sings out. “You did not need to redeem yourself to me, child. You did not need to ask forgiveness. It is already yours.”
Clint swallows around the joy in his throat, his entire being leaning in, drinking up this light, this forgiveness.
Phil Coulson smiles, the corner of his eyes crinkling.
Clint licks his lips, tentatively finds his voice again. “Father?”