Atonement

(c)2008 gekizetsu


Avengers/Supernatural crossover in that the Winchesters don’t appear but the lore (i.e. demons, seals and Castiel) will; AU branching from/roughly a year post-Iron Man movieverse and combining/screwing with Avengers comicverse, meaning most of the team is together, Hulk is already gone, Peter is around even though I guess he shouldn’t show up until after Disassembled, and both Extremis and Civil War are far in the future. ps: Marvel fans: quit emailing me corrections and just try and enjoy the story, okay? It's all for fun.

Drama, humor, angst, cliches, and POV changes; R for dark themes, language, and not-quite graphic m/m con and noncon.


Steve and Tony find out that there are supervillains that can get right in when no one is looking.

____________

We forgive to the extent that we love.

 -- Francois de La Rochefoucauld


/~~/


When Steve Rogers came down the stairs, he could feel a faint vibration in them. He paused at the bottom to look in through the glass walls that encased that side of the basement workshop/garage that Tony Stark used for imagining things that would either destroy or save the world, depending on what mood he was in.


The lights were a little lower than normal, meaning he wasn’t working on one of his cars. When Steve leaned in a little, he could see the ambient glow of the monitors on the drafting tables. Tony was there, cast into shadow by the plasma screens, flipping something between the fingers of his right hand as he tilted his head at whatever had his attention.


Steve hesitated at the security pad. No point bugging him while he was thinking; he could just leave a note on the door.


Pepper had taken great pains to encourage him to bug Tony, though, for whatever reason. She said it was good for Tony to have to pay attention to something outside his head for a few minutes at a time, and Tony had been down there since midnight, and now it was after ten the next morning. He didn’t exactly forget that anyone else existed, or at least, Steve was fairly sure that was the case. He just...wandered off. He’d come up once, waving at whoever was around, mumbling things under his breath. Steve had dealt with geniuses before, evil and otherwise, and knew there was an occasional disconnect from the mundane involved.


Sleeping, eating, dumb things like that.


He and Pepper were really the only people who could get Tony’s attention, lately, and it almost always involved needing to touch him, as if the contact reconnected him with the physical world. A hand on the shoulder, fingers ruffling his hair, maybe shaking his chair until he gave up and looked. The first was something Steve stuck to, and the last two belonged to Pepper.


Once you had his attention, though, you had all of it, and it was worth it, even when he was being nosy. Well, maybe only sometimes when he was being nosy.


The armor was nowhere in sight. Likely tucked away under the floor, again, waiting to be activated. Something besides the armor had all of Tony’s attention for once.


There were graffiti-like black marks across the glass in places, the occasional equation scrawled in marker, put there when pacing was being done and something wasn’t going exactly the way Tony planned. That was a new habit.


Near the middle of the wall to Steve’s right, amid the ruins of another equation, there was a tableau of stick figures engaged in what was arguably an orgy.


Steve shook his head, tried not to smile, and tapped in the security code when the touchpad appeared on the glass.


He almost recoiled from the volume of the raucous, disjointed noise that hit him the moment the door was open. Hard to call it music, even though there were apparently drums involved. It explained why the stairs had been vibrating.


Steve decided not to try shouting over the screaming that he couldn’t catch words out of. He headed for Tony, meaning to get into his peripheral vision, maybe nudge his chair a little. Dummy paced him immediately like an excited pet, rolling and bobbing along behind. He had wondered at first whether Tony had programmed it to do that to everybody, but after seeing it with anyone else who had ventured down there, it had become apparent that it was latching onto him when it wasn’t following Tony. If there hadn’t been ‘music’ blaring, he likely would have heard it hooting at him.


The first time you saw him, you patted him and said hello, like he was a dog, Tony had said. It’s your own fault. Now he thinks someone likes him.


Steve hadn’t pointed out that Tony was the one referring to the robot as a he.


He folded his arms and stood next to the chair, close enough to watch the schematics on the monitors reflect off Tony’s dark eyes with a blue glow that made him look a little unearthly in combination with the glow from the disk in the center of his chest. The latter was barely muted by the grease-smeared gray t-shirt he was wearing.


He moved a hand to rest it on Tony’s shoulder, knowing it wouldn’t startle him – few things did – when Tony whipped around to look up at him.


Instead of landing on his shoulder as intended, Steve’s hand ended up cupping the side of Tony’s face. Startled, Steve tried to save the whole thing but not jerk his hand back, and he ended up sort of ruffling Tony’s hair before dropping his hand.


He hoped the blush wasn’t as visible as it felt.


Tony took the whole thing with a raised eyebrow, then turned his head and whistled sharply with two fingers. The music cut off, leaving a ringing absence in its place for a moment.


“Slipknot helps me think sometimes,” Tony said, swiveling back to stare up at Steve. “So, what’s this? You come down here to feel my forehead? Do I look peaked to you?”


“No, I was just...” Steve began.


“Because I’m fine, it’s the lights, but if you think I’m dying or something, it’s okay to say so,” Tony said. “Caffeine will probably fix whatever it is, anyway.”


“I wasn’t, I was coming down to tell you – ”


“Do you two want to be alone?” Tony said, glancing to Steve’s right.


Steve twisted slightly and found Dummy right at his hip, almost touching him. He looked at Tony. “You should give him a better name than Dummy.”


“And then what? Stock options?”


“What’re you working on?” Steve said, gesturing at one of the monitors.


“Toroidal magnetic fields, for confining a plasma,” Tony said. “Controlled thermonuclear fusion.”


Steve nodded. “And this is the part where I say, ‘I thought you weren’t working this weekend’, and then you say, ‘No, this is just for fun’. Right?”


Tony smiled, one of the occasional genuine smiles that few people were able pull out of him. “This is just for fun.” He clapped his hands down on his thighs and stood. “What do you want to do, today?” He paused. “It’s day, right?”


“It’s 10:14am,” Jarvis intoned from nowhere in particular.


“Saturday,” Steve said.


“Yeah, good,” Tony said. “Jan’s gonna try and make us all watch Zoolander later, so I was down here trying to clear my head, maybe accidentally hit it on something hard enough to make me think Ben Stiller is funny.”


“I think Peter’s the only one left in the house,” Steve said. “They were trying to get him to go with them to Rodeo Drive.”


“Horror.”


“I’m just going to go check out the beach,” Steve said. “Wander around, maybe sketch a few things, since the weather’s decent. It’d be – ”


“I can put Dummy in a bikini, if it’ll make you happy,” Tony said.


“I was thinking you, not Dummy,” Steve said. Then he blinked. “To go with me, I mean. Not in a bikini,” he added quickly when Tony smirked.


“I’m gonna let you off the hook and just walk away,” Tony said, clapping Steve on one shoulder. “You get started, and I’ll go find my bikini, and I’ll catch up.”


Steve shook his head as Tony headed for the stairs. So few conversations ended up the way he intended.


Dummy hooted, so Steve patted him.


/~~/


It was the look on Tony’s face that Peter remembered most, later.


He hadn’t wanted to go to Malibu for the weekend. But MJ had found out that Tony had invited everybody to hang out at his insane house leaning out over the Pacific, and she had been all over it. Weekend, in Malibu. Shopping, beaches, stargazing, the chance to meet up with a few contacts from her soap days; he really couldn’t say no to her. If they were needed back in NY for anything, they’d get there soon enough, no problem. It wasn’t like the whole city was unguarded. Thor and Clint and Hank weren’t coming out. Thor was handling something personal for a couple of weeks. Jan and Carol decided to come, though, so at first it seemed like MJ would be happier that way, girl’s weekend out, but she conned him into going, and then Cap decided to go, too.


‘Cause, you know, God forbid Cap and Tony be apart for a weekend.


He rolled his eyes. BFF, omg.


Jan had started calling them Night and Day, and not just for the differences in their looks.


Cap was fine, he just wanted everybody to feel included and had really become someone Peter wanted to have around all the time; Tony, though, Peter was never going to completely get Tony even if he had pretty much learned to admire the guy. People always knew where they were, with Cap. With Tony, there was too much going on underneath to really figure out what he was up to, and half the time it wasn’t even to his own benefit, which was even more confusing.


Still. He was pretty hilarious, even if he might be a little nuts. He had a way of looking at people like they were simultaneously amusing and boring him. Peter found it easy to trust him all the same.


Cap came up from the mad scientist’s lab and said he and Tony were going to the beach, and invited Peter along, and Peter said nah, I’m gonna wander around, look at stuff, find the girls around lunchtime. Then Cap was gone for about ten minutes, came back, and started acting...weird.


Looking at him like he was about to play a joke on him. Asking him where everybody was. Peter wondered if it was some really odd training exercise.


Then Tony had walked into the kitchen and frozen.


Peter knew Tony well enough to be aware that he could get caught up in stuff and vanish right into it, to the point where he’d practically not recognize someone once they got what little of his attention they could. So the moment of hesitation and confusion on his face was nothing new when he looked at Steve’s back, then lifted his eyes to Peter’s for an instant. Peter barely registered it.


Tony was in jeans and a t-shirt, hair still wet from the shower. “Decided not to go?” he said to Steve’s back. Half statement, half question. 


Steve began to turn, eyes narrowing and raised to the ceiling like he was trying to remember something. Peter caught the edge of the uncharacteristic smirk that twisted eyes and mouth as he turned, and wondered what the hell was going on, this time.


Something was always going on between those two, and Peter just ignored 99% of it.


“Oh, Tony,” Steve said, the words coming out with a hint of amusement and sounding like you are seriously fucked, now.


The air was too heavy to ignore. Peter sat up a little straighter.


The hesitation on Tony’s face vanished, leaving him blank. He looked at Steve like he was measuring something, looking at him too hard for it to be just some sort of inquiry or even the prelude to an argument.


“This just got even easier.”


Peter frowned. Steve didn’t even own a tone of voice like that, much less use it.


Out of everything else that happened in the minutes following, all the crazy shit that went on that he mentally captured with a photographer’s eye, the next moment stood out with glaring intensity.


Steve got up and headed straight for Tony, the motion purposeful, and Peter tensed and stood because of the look on Tony’s face, the mix of wide-eyed shock and anger, the naked alarm. It looked like betrayal, like the unforgivable was happening in front of him.


“Who are you?” Tony demanded, and then Steve had a hand up and Tony was being hurled backwards and slammed against the wall behind without being touched, arms spread, hands pinned flat.


Peter had never been slow, but it took him a moment to catch on, to do the math. Steve didn’t have powers like that. Even if he had, he sure as hell wouldn’t have been using them on Tony, no matter what Tony had done.


Peter went for the ceiling with the intent of attacking from above, but whatever was pretending to be Steve gestured up and back without even looking, and Peter found himself pinned flat to the ceiling without the benefit of his powers. It was like having an even weight press on him, gravity reversed. He could barely breathe.


“I didn’t even know who I was grabbing,” it said conversationally with Steve’s voice. “He just seemed like the best bet, big enough and one hell of a set of shoulders to get the job done. And I get in here – ”


It tapped on the center of Steve’s chest.


“ – and bars and stars, it’s Captain Fucking America. The irony is killing me, man. But he couldn’t lock down far enough or hide from me fast enough to keep from giving me all of you. I walk in here and I’ve got Spiderman, and I can’t have asked for anything better, but then you just waltz in.”


“So you’re not somebody pretending to be him,” Tony said, voice strained but not flat enough to entirely cover the relief. “He’s still in there.”


“Trapped in his own meatsuit,” it said with a grin that Peter could hear. “Pissed off and demanding that I release him immediately. All that righteousness. He’s a real scream, isn’t he? A keeper.”


“Let him go and you can have me,” Tony said, eyes and voice steady, gaze centered carefully over Steve’s shoulder.


It paused for a moment. Then it shook Steve’s head as if trying to recover from a blow. “Wow, all the willing sacrifice. I hit the lottery.” It came a step closer, leaning in, breath ghosting across the underside of Tony’s jaw. “Newsflash, tough guy,” it said. “I’ve already got you.”


Tony didn’t blink, just centered his eyes somewhere on the middle distance, carefully away from Peter.


“None of you’ll do anything to so much as fuck up this guy’s hair while I’m steering him around, so I own you while I’m here.” He looked up at Peter for a moment, then back, and Peter could still see part of its expression. “He’s such an open guy, Tony. It takes someone used to lying and hiding to avoid just letting me have everything. And you wouldn’t believe the stuff Cap’s already given away.” It paused. “Or maybe you would.”


It flashed that grin, again. It was worse than parody.


“So what do you want?” Tony said.


“Got something for Iron Man to do. You can do it even better than Cap can, because the armor can go damn near anywhere, can’t it?”


“Maybe,” Tony said. “What do I get?”


It wasn’t Steve that grabbed Tony roughly by the throat, but it was the same powerful hand that could snap his neck with just the right twist. Tony closed his eyes.


“You screw with me, and you’ll get nothing back but a pretty shell,” it said. “You give me what I want, and he won’t even have a scratch. You only get to check one box, so be careful.”


It turned its back on him to walk away and look up at the ceiling, at Peter.


Peter finally saw what Tony must have. Steve’s eyes were no longer a clear, bright blue. They were oilslick black without whites or iris, completely alien. X-Files alien. He didn’t want its attention, whatever the hell it was.


“Not that it matters, but you even gonna tell me what sort of errand this is?” Tony said suddenly, and Peter recognized the tone: button-pushing, all the way. “I mean, what does something like you want? You like the bondage thing, obviously, you kinky bastard, but you don’t seem to need the whips and chnnnnnh – !”


It gestured at Tony again without looking at him, and Tony’s head slammed back into the wall as he grimaced, body arching but unable to break the invisible grip that held him in place. He was choking, the beginnings of a scream audible low in his throat but not getting loose.


A spot of blood bloomed and spread on his shirt, just below the glow of the chest piece over his heart, and Peter struggled to shout, to do anything, but he didn’t have enough breath as the thing pressed him against the ceiling a little harder like it was worried about losing its grip on him.


“See, I was going to make a demonstration of Parker instead, but you just can’t shut up,” it said. “That’s cute, but we’re not getting anywhere, are we, Tony? Steve’s in here begging me to stop hurting you. I’m loving that, but why don’t you cut us both a break and keep your bullshit to yourself?”


Tony had known. Tony had read it well enough to know why it was turning its attention to Peter, and the thing hadn’t known enough to realize that torturing Peter would have shut Tony up a lot faster.


Tony’s teeth were clenched as he gasped for air, still pinned but slumping as much as he could against the wall when the thing eased up on him.


“I can find another Avenger to help me,” it said. “I don’t really need you that bad.”


Tony shook his head, panting, eyes closed again.


It clapped Steve’s hands together once, sharply. “Good, ‘cause things’ll get done easier with that suit. Let’s go. You guys are boring the shit out of me.”


Tony was suddenly free of the wall and he stumbled a little before righting himself with one hand, skin pale but eyes steady on the form advancing on him.


It did nothing but gesture him back through the doorway he’d come from.


When whatever held Peter to the ceiling let go, he was barely able to catch himself in time to keep from ending up facefirst on the table below.


He moved a hand to hit the comm link in his pocket, to alert the rest of the team, then froze. If Steve was wearing his - and he would be - it would know. Tony’s would go off, too, unless he’d left it somewhere on one of his workspaces downstairs. There was no telling what it would do if it knew some kind of force was assembling against it.


“Jarvis,” he said breathlessly.


“I have already alerted the others and shut down all unnecessary communications.” The disembodied voice of the AI was soothing even though it carried a trace of urgency. “It may be best if you leave the premises at this point. Please do not allow anyone to enter the house.”


“Did you scan it?” Peter said, moving out of the kitchen but reluctant to leave. There had to be something he could do. “Do you know what it is?”


“The energy signature overlapping the Captain’s biorhythms are not on file,” Jarvis said. “This is not a known entity or method of attack.”


“It said it didn’t know who it was grabbing,” Peter said. “So, possibilities?”


“Based on information given verbally and the observed physical manifestations, the indication is possession.”


Peter let his head rest against the doorframe of the main entrance to the kitchen. “Like, demonic possession?”


“I believe so.”


This was officially crazy. Demons. Not like what Doom enjoyed raising, but the kind from horror movies that needed to possess people and mess with their heads. “What’s...I mean, it can do anything to either of them, if it wants to. What’re we supposed to do?”


“I am monitoring.”


That didn’t help, but it was better than nothing.


“Shouldn’t I – ”


“Interfering at this point presents an unnecessary risk,” Jarvis said.


Peter couldn’t figure out why it hadn’t set his senses off. Something inhuman and malevolent had walked right up to him, sat at the table with him with his death playing out behind borrowed eyes, and he’d never felt a thing. Feet away, sharing the same air, and never had a clue. But Tony had barely entered the room before he’d hesitated.


He moved, finally, intending to meet the others when they arrived. They’d all figure out what to do.


/~~/


It kept a hand – Steve’s hand – on the back of his neck as they descended to Tony’s workshop.


Tony could feel something twist in his chest. He wasn’t sure what the hell it had tried to do to him, but it had done damage. Not as much as it was capable of, but damage all the same. The injury wasn’t going to drop him, not right away, but the arc reactor had been slightly dislodged and it was a matter of time before that became one hell of a thing to work around. He could fix it himself – he’d originally done it in a goddamn cave, after all, and survived that. He just needed a chance to do something about it before he bled to death from the constant friction that wouldn’t let the internal tears heal.


Jarvis had wisely kept quiet and would have sent out an alert by then. What the hell anybody was going to be able to do, he couldn’t imagine.


“FYI,” it said in Steve’s voice, tightening the hand on his neck. “You try and knock me out, you’ll just be knocking him out. I can pilot this guy no matter what shape he’s in. You’re not gonna risk it, though, right? Because that’d piss me off. Everything’s been so friendly so far.”


Not Steve. It was not Steve. It was not Steve. Tony would hold on to that as hard as he could.


“What exactly are you, anyway?” he said.


“Nothing you have a way of fighting,” it said with a laugh. “None of your technology’ll solve this one, Tony. Tony Stark, here at the end of the world, nothing but a tool for me to use. Damn, luck like this proves I’m living right.” They reached the bottom of the stairs and it released him with a shove.


Here at the end of the world.


Tony took a breath and turned to get closer than he wanted to. “Steve,” he said, locking gazes with the man in front of him, “...if you’re in there, fight it. Do whatever you have to, to get out in one piece. Understand? None of this is you. No one’s gonna believe that you had – ”


He still didn’t scream when it gestured at him and everything from shoulders to hips felt like it was on fire, like something sharp and red-hot was gripping his guts and clenching a fist.


Shrapnel had felt like that.

 

When he could open his eyes again, when he could feel anything but tearing, shredding pain, he was on his side on the floor in the fetal position and the thing wearing Steve was crouched beside him, running a hand back through his hair. “You could have been done by now, could have done this one small thing and been free, instead of dying,” it said softly. “You open your mouth again, and I’m gonna turn my attention to Steve. Understand?”


It kept petting his goddamn hair, with Steve’s hand, and Tony felt a shudder of rage work its way up his spine.


“I’m gonna find out what you are,” he said, ignoring how hard it was to talk, ignoring the copper tang of blood in his mouth. “And I’m gonna find a way to take you apart.”


It smiled down on him with something nearly fond. “I’ll bet you’re everything he thinks you are,” it said softly. “I wish I had more time.” It braced hands against knees and stood. “Put the armor on, Tony. You’re running out of time in so many ways.” It kept smiling. “I do like listening to the mighty Captain America beg, though. You’re killing him with your antics, you know that? He’s wearing himself out in here, trying to get to you.”


Tony climbed to his feet slowly, ignoring the moment of vertigo that washed over him and briefly overshadowed the pain. “If I find out that he’s not in there, the face isn’t gonna stop me from vaporizing you.”


“Don’t take the chance,” it said.


“What do you want me to do?” Tony said, wiping blood from his nose with the back of one hand.


“There’s a spot in the Agoura Hills you should get to,” it said, advancing on him. “There’s a finger canyon a mile south of the hot springs. Where the walls are highest, there’s a stone in the center of a symbol carved into the rock. Shatter the stone and remove the symbol – leave no trace of either. Scour the earth beneath and burn anything nearby. Simple enough, right?”


It came to stand directly in front of him, nearly breathing on him. The eyes were Steve’s, but only on the surface. Tony couldn’t find a trace of him.


“And when I’m done, you let him go,” Tony said, refusing to back away.


“Sure,” it said with a smile that looked wrong and painful on Steve’s face. “Why not?”


“Right. Because if you’re just gonna kill us anyway, there’s no reason for me to do anything for you,” Tony said.


The smile dropped. It backed away and picked up a cutting tool from a nearby workbench and turned it thoughtfully in one hand. Tony waited, wondering if he’d be able to dodge whatever it tried, realizing that whatever it had done to him had left a sharp, rending pain in his guts that felt a little permanent.


It placed the tool against Steve’s forehead just over his right eye and let it slice the skin open, creating an immediate line of blood that flowed right into the open eye. Then it pressed the tool right against the white of Steve's eye. No autonomic function kicked in to make him blink.


Tony froze, one hand fisted against his solar plexus while he tried to catch his breath. “No,” he said. “Leave him alone. I’ll do it. Okay? Leave him alone.”


“Are you sure?” it said, smirk returning. “Because he’d look good with a patch.”


Just fucking leave him alone!” Tony shouted, ignoring the hint of hysteria that bled into it, pissed off when it ended in a coughing fit he couldn’t suppress.


It tossed the tool to the floor. “Then get it done, before your shell gives out. If I get bored waiting around here, I’ll have to find things to amuse myself. You get it?”


Tony straightened, spat blood on the floor, and headed for the grid. Jarvis initiated the armor sequence without being asked.


/~~/


“Sir, your vitals are – ”


“Focus on finding the damn place, Jarvis,” Tony said. “We don’t have time for anything else right now.”


He was conscious, and he could fly. Anything else had to get in line while he figured out what to do about whatever had grabbed Steve in so short a time. It took him less than a minute to head north and hover.


“There are six possible locations in the targeted area,” Jarvis intoned. “We are approximately a mile south of the Seminole Hot Springs.”


“It said ‘where the walls are highest’,” Tony said. “Which of the canyons here is deepest?”


Geographic, topographic and altitude stats flashed across the HUD.


Malibu Creek State Park / Latitude: 37.271832 / Longitude: -119.270203


“Focus in and give me some stats.”


“This is a slot canyon that is not open for public hiking,” Jarvis said. “It is accessible only via restricted, unpaved patrol roads.”


“And from the air,” Tony said. “Any monuments, anything yelling for attention?”


“No configurations of a manmade nature are detected.”


“Zero in on the deepest part,” Tony said, and when the crosshairs popped up on the HUD, he dropped out of the sky.


The canyon was narrow and steep and cast him directly into shadow when he hit the dust at the bottom. Sheer, slick rock faces ascended on either side, and it was barely wide enough for him to walk through without sidling sideways in spots. He walked roughly fifty yards before Jarvis chimed in.


“Scans indicate the immediate area was subjected to a mass spectrum electromagnetic event within the last 350 years that affected the atomic structure of the rock formations.”


Tony glanced around. “Centerpoint?”


“4.5 meters ahead.”


Tony stepped further forward and checked the ground and surrounding rock walls. With erosion acting over that amount of time, there would be no visible remnant regardless of what kind of energy had been used, but he looked anyway.


“There is an enclosed cavern three meters below your position,” Jarvis said.


“Any idea what’s in there?” Tony said.


“Unable to penetrate the strata with radar,” Jarvis said.


“I guess we’re going in, then,” Tony said.


The repulsors made quick precision work of the ground above in a wide radius, leaving the cavern below open without fully collapsing it.


When the dust cleared a little, Tony landed below and looked around.


There was a boulder nearly dead center of the cavern, roughly chest high and likely too large for him to move with the armor. There was a wide circle carved into the rock floor around it. Loops and whorls and scripts of what looked like a language he almost recognized were carved inside the circle and into the stone above it. Parts of individual symbols and figures had been filled in with molten metal. “You getting this?”


“Searching.”


Tony ignored how tight his chest was beginning to feel. “Begin recording and relay directly to Reed Richards, but don’t page him. Make a copy for everybody else on the Avengers link but don’t send it yet. I don’t want this turning into some huge battle with Steve in the middle.”


“The symbols are consistent with a pentacle from the Key Of Solomon, Clavicula Salomonis, a Hebrew and Latin text of the – ”


“Not caring right now,” Tony said. “What the hell’s it for?”


“This particular pentacle is known as the Fifth Pentacle of Mercury, containing a versicle from Psalm xxiv. 7:--'Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.’”


“Let me guess,” Tony said. “This is somebody’s culty little doorway to something. Not Doom’s speed, though.”


“The available literature dictates that this would be intended to seal or otherwise restrain a negative force, generally pertaining to – ”


“It’s got a Psalm on it, Jarvis,” Tony said, vision swimming. “I’m getting the whole gist of this already. What’s the metal?”


“Lead, sir.”


“So if it’s meant to seal something away, and breaking it is going to make my unwelcome houseguest happy, then chances are this is really...Biblical,” Tony said. “Literature say anything about this being one of a series, or something?”


“No exact information available.”


“Hypothesize,” Tony said. “C’mon. What’s something like this used to avoid?”


“The Apocalypse, sir,” Jarvis said.


Tony wasn’t sure if he felt more like laughing, or just leaning his head wearily against something. “Why is it always the end of the world?” he said.


“Because bringing about the opening of a WalMart is not your style, sir.”


“And I’m okay with that,” Tony said. “Anything contained directly below or around it that’s gonna get loose when I blow it up?”


“Nothing physical is buried immediately under or around the stone or pentacle,” Jarvis said.


Still, Tony hesitated. He didn’t believe in all this stuff, no matter how many things he’d seen conjured since getting in with the Avengers. But the thing wandering his house in Steve’s form was real, and powerful, and it still hadn’t wanted to come up and do this for itself. Or, it hadn’t been capable. The stone was well hidden and covered, and it would have taken something...like him, to get this done.


Then his vision grayed again and it felt like something gave in his rib cage, really, it didn’t matter what he was setting loose as long as he got the thing to let go of Steve.


He melted the metal set into the symbols, watched it begin to pool, then shot straight up and timed two anti-tank missiles on the stone. The canyon tumbled inward on itself with an impressive dust plume that was going to be visible for miles. There had been nothing around it to burn, so he didn’t hang around.


“Suggestions are now being taken for how to get rid of whatever’s in the house,” Tony said breathlessly.


“Engaging auto pilot.”


“Aside from that, Jarvis,” Tony said.


“Sir, I’m trying to impress upon you that you are – ”


“Losing patience,” Tony said. “Seriously, I’m open to figuring out how to evict old black eyes, down there, with the least collateral damage. Hit me.”


“Demonic possession of this nature suggests that the victim be restrained. An application of holy water and a full exorcism should take place.”


Tony looked down on the dust cloud again as it receded. “Like, Linda Blair, pea soup, all that? That’s what we’ve got?”


“All current data suggests so, yes.”


“I’m all out of holy water,” Tony said.


Then he blacked out.


/~~/


“What I mean is, I don’t know what it is, and stay away from the house until we figure it out,” Peter said on his cell from the roof. He’d seen Tony take off in the armor, but hadn’t been able to locate Steve no matter which window he chose to monitor. He had to still be underground.


“But we have to do something,” MJ said over the phone.


“Yeah, I know, but whatever that is, it includes you staying away from it,” Peter said.


He heard MJ make a worried sound. “Just...don’t try anything alone. Carol and Jan are on their way.”


/~~/


Pepper was at home, and looked at her phone when it signaled an incoming personal email. It was from Jarvis. That was a first.


The information that scrolled by made her do exactly what the email asked her not to: she dropped everything and headed for Malibu.


/~~/


It didn’t come anywhere near him while he still had the armor on.


He scanned it again and came up with the same readings; almost but not quite an energy signature, or not one he could fully analyze with the suit. But it wasn’t just Steve in there. What inhabited him was measurable.


Demons. Old school, incorporeal, possess-you-just-to-do-it, fresh out of hell, demons. He wanted to laugh. He really did.


He murmured to Jarvis to go ahead and send everything out to the others.


“You want proof?” Tony said when he got the armor off. The thing in Steve’s form had been staring at him the whole time with an interest he recognized. He’d seen it so often that he’d begun to consider it a default setting in some of the crowds he’d been in, at parties and gallery openings and charity events. People occasionally looked at him with longing and greed, but seeing it in Steve’s face put a thrill of dread through him.


“I have it,” it said, composing Steve’s face into a more impassive expression. “I know the seal’s broken. It’s funny, isn’t it, that another war’s been going on right behind you, right under you, and we’re winning. There’ll be nothing left.”


“I hear that a lot,” Tony said. Sweat was pouring off him and he wasn’t sure if he could straighten completely any longer without actually being in the armor. Internal bleeding, maybe a couple of broken ribs; whatever it had done to him earlier, the price was coming due. “Look, I don’t want to keep you if you have a war going on...so how about if you let Steve go, and we call this good?”


“I think I’ll keep him,” it said. “He’s holding up better than most.”


Tony wasn’t surprised. It was going to kill him there if he didn’t find a way to get it upstairs, into a more open area, and give Jarvis a chance to use its own weirdness against it. The others would know, by then, and would be trying to figure something out. But he couldn’t leave it up to anyone else. “How about a tour of the house, then? Unless Steve gave it all away, already.”


He was confusing it. He watched something foreign play over Steve’s features as it tried to catch up with him. It could move Steve’s face but it couldn’t really make it look like Steve’s emotions, and it never really filled out his eyes.


“Seriously, stay for coffee or something, tell me about how great it is to be out of hell. Oh, and you might wanna pack a few of the big guy’s clothes, if you’re keeping him, since he’s pretty big in the shoulders. Get his toothbrush.”


“Your attempts to delay me are not working,” it said.


Tony looked at the stairs. Getting up them was probably not going to happen, now that he couldn’t really straighten, and he didn’t want it chasing him. The quickest way to an open bank of windows would be his own room via the elevator at the back of the garage.


He headed for the elevator. It felt like one or more major joints were going to dislocate, but he walked, and he didn’t look back, not even when it immediately crowded up against him. It was as warm as Steve and smelled like him, sharp and clean and male, and if he just didn’t look for a moment then he could go on being cavalier about it.


It put a muscular forearm up under his chin and slammed him against the wall by the elevator in a more traditional way for once, but it didn’t cut off his air.


“Don’t kill me down here,” Tony said quickly. “I did what you wanted, so I get to choose where I die.”


He wasn’t sure if he convinced it, or of it was just curious, because its expression stayed flat, but it pushed him back into the elevator.


Tony kept his eyes off it until the doors opened again. If it all went wrong, he didn’t want to watch Steve, of all people, kill him.


Short stumble down the hall to his room, the Pacific meeting the sky through the windows.


All those windows.


Tony raised one hand. “Now, Jarvis!”


The windows behind Steve lit up into the configuration of the First Pentacle of Saturn; sixteen squares inside a triple circle, layered with Hebrew script. Meant for striking terror into spirits, if the Key of Solomon was anything to go by.


Hell, it was worth a try. It was pretty much all he had, right then. That, and a little exorcism prayer.


“I conjure, I address, and I exorcize, that you may approach unto and come before the Throne of God, the Living and the True, and before the Tribunal of the judgment of His Majesty, and before the Holy Angels of God to hear the sentence of your condem – ”


Enough.


It waved a hand toward him, and Tony felt the same force that had thrown him against the wall. It was impossible to resist; it just seized him and pushed, moved him without effort. He landed on the bed, skidded across it, and found himself spread-eagled, pressed into the mattress. He couldn’t move.


At least there was less pain than he’d expected. Or, he just couldn’t feel all of it anymore.


“That was it?” it said. “That was the best you had?”


It stripped Steve’s shirt off and reached for his belt.


“Maybe I have a little more time than I thought,” it said.


Tony didn’t answer. He was busy trying to stay conscious, and he knew anything he said was going to just piss it off further anyway. At least it had thrown him on the bed, and not into the wall again or right out the damned windows onto the rocks below.


“You wanted to know, earlier, what you’d get out of it,” it said, advancing on him. “I guess I didn’t tell you everything, did I?”


Tony strained with every muscle when it got on the bed with him and straddled him, when it used Steve’s hands to pull his jeans and briefs down around his knees. He did everything he could not to start hyperventilating with what little air he could pull in. “No, no,” he said. “C’mon, you’ve got better things to do. Nobody wants this.”


It leaned in close, bracing Steve’s large hands on either side of Tony’s head, looking close in his eyes. “He’s always wanted this,” it said. “Never noticed, did you. Saw him and didn’t see everything, even though he’s so bad at hiding. He’s been daydreaming of this.” It leaned in further and whispered against his throat. “Your god, your symbol of all that’s right, has been thinking of holding you down and fucking you. It’s pretty much all you’re good for.”


It bit him, teeth breaking skin in the tender spot between neck and shoulder.


“Jarvis,” Tony gasped, “...lockdown, epsilon, xi, omega, version one."


Locking down Jarvis also meant locking down the house.


This is not how anyone gets to remember Steve.


“It isn’t you,” Tony said, muscles trembling with the attempt to move. “Steve, it isn’t you. I know it isn’t. I forgi – ”

 

It latched one hand against his throat and cut off the words, cut off his air, and used the other to reach down and grip Tony in a firm hand, thumb stroking idly. Tony clenched his jaw when he felt himself respond.


“You know it’s not really him, but you’re up for it anyway,” it breathed in his ear. “Whore. Pathetic, dirty little whore, just like he thought.”


It would have been easier, tolerable, if it had just slammed him against a wall and taken him, been rough, gotten it over with. That never would have felt of Steve. He never would have held onto that.


Instead it was careful with him, with hands and mouth that his body still knew were Steve’s even though they’d never been this close. Steve had never run callused but indifferent hands along ribs and hipbones as if testing where they’d break, never tasted his skin like he was something to devour. Never ground hips against his like he was relearning the mechanics.


“Forgot how much fun a body can be,” it said, biting along his jaw. “C’mon, Tony, just pretend it’s him.”


“It’s okay, Steve,” he whispered when it looked at him and grinned. If Steve was in there anywhere, he’d hear.


For all the alien malevolence, the weight and the hands were a friend’s.


Blood in his mouth and pain in every breath, he still moaned Steve’s name when he came.


/~~/


“I don’t care,” Carol said to Peter via comm link. “Jarvis has an automatic directive to protect the house and whoever’s in it. He doesn’t get to make decisions for us.”


Peter was still trying to figure out if there was a way into the house from the roof that didn’t involve the doors or windows. Carol was headed straight for him in full costume, with Jan, and they were all for a frontal assault, and didn’t care whether Jarvis was trying to keep things contained.


“We’re gonna have to sneak up on it, then,” Peter said. “I got the idea it doesn’t really care what happens to the host, and nobody’s powers are going to work if it gets a chance to do the wall-slamming thing.”


“Are we seriously doing the salt and holy water thing?” Jan said.


“We do whatever we have to,” Peter said.


/~~/


When Ms. Marvel bursts into your church and asks you to bless all the water you can, you do whatever you can to help even if you’re not used to superheroes. California’s getting just like New York, you hear.


/~~/


“You’re so useful,” it said.


It kept stroking Tony’s hair and he didn’t have enough strength left to flinch away. It reminded him of Obie, of the night he’d been paralyzed and helpless to do more than watch while someone he’d once trusted had stolen his life away.


“You’re not going to live, but the others, they’ll be here, they’ll be perfect. World’s full of superpowered humans, good for a few things and then so helpless.”


It was drawing a fingertip from sternum to navel, and it felt like being unzipped. It was still reaching in and tearing him apart.


“Liked you best, though. No powers, but so able all the same, too in love to say no. This has been satisfying in ways I can’t even describe, Tony.”


“Let ‘im go,” Tony said, barely able to form the words. He’d never been so cold in his life. He could feel blood running warm and steady from his nose, kept choking on it in the back of his throat, and he wondered what the hell it had done to him. “Steve. ”


It was laughing at him. “That’s all you’re worried about? That’s how I got you, you know. You’ll never have a chance to learn from that.”


Tony didn’t feel anything but the cold.


“He’s long gone,” it said, close to his ear.


It leaned in and kissed him, and he faded away.


/~~/


After that, there were flashes of consciousness that didn’t quite connect again. He was off the bed and clothed again, slumped in the doorway, trying to get out. He was on the stairs. He was down in his shop. He was going to find Steve, just find him and fix this, just –


/~~/


Hands, on his throat, his face, warm enough to burn the chill away. He didn’t have a chance to open his eyes, and he didn’t want to, anyway. The voices were familiar, their tones frantic.


“He’s in shock,” he heard someone say – it sounded like Carol – and then there was nothing else.


/~~/


He could not stop shaking.


He wasn’t sure where he was, not until he made a conscious effort to really look around. He had the ocean right in front of him, the water close to his feet, and a long stretch of empty beach on either side.


It was hard to move, at first, with limbs that felt as if he needed to fill them out again. Clumsy, like an oversized costume. He was so damn cold that he was amazed he could still feel his fingers. It was only internal, though. He felt like Steve Rogers again and only that, with nothing else pressing him down. His senses still took a few minutes to fully return; scent of ocean salt, feel of the wind on his face, sound of traffic some distance behind him. The Pacific Coast Highway. Still in CA, still in Malibu. Maybe not even that far from the house. He didn’t have his comm link.


The cut on his forehead had torn open again and bled sluggishly. He wiped his own blood out of his eye, feeling how it had crusted along his eyebrow and lashes.


He tasted blood, and wiped at the drying swatch of it that was on his mouth and chin. Looked at his fingers.


The blood in and on his mouth was Tony’s.


No matter how he tried, the ocean wasn’t big enough to scrub that off him; nothing ever would be.


/~~/


In the end, they’d had to take one of the front windows out when Jarvis didn’t respond. After that there had been a tense search of the house that revealed too much and too little when they could only find Tony but not Steve.


/~~/


Frantic as he was, it still took Steve half an hour to orient himself and get back to the house. There was no road access from that desolate stretch of beach, and it was the angle of daylight that told him to keep heading north, with the ocean to his left. He knew he’d been spotted when Carol descended on him from above in full costume. He didn’t realize what she was carrying until water was poured on him.


“What – ”


“Get down,” she said without landing.


He did as he was told immediately, getting on his knees in the sand, hands held out in full view, knowing she was only trying to figure out if it was really him. Jarvis would have scanned him, Tony would have, and Peter would have let everyone know what he’d seen. They’d make sure he was himself again before they did anything else.


“It’s gone,” he said.


She landed well away from him, tossing a small bucket to one side. “Holy water,” she said. “Not exactly sure if that’s enough, you know? I’m going to make you drink some. If you’re still possessed, we have a problem.”


He didn’t try to argue with her, just took the water bottle she offered him. His mouth still tasted of blood, and he wondered if it always would, one way or another.


Nothing happened. Nothing happened when she offered him a set of rosary beads, either. It was all about faith, and if the others had reached a point where it had become obvious to them that throwing holy water on him was the ultimate test, then they really had seen all they needed to from Jarvis.


“Just tell me he’s still alive,” Steve said.


She looked regretful, and he realized they just weren’t getting away with this one.



/~~/ /~~/ /~~/

Part II