See chapter I for all warnings.
The next night, the nightmares returned, and Steve was up and wandering again. Checking the doors, checking his teammates.
He wanted to believe that what didn’t trip the security alarms would be caught by the wards, but doubt lingered.
He paused in front of the windows behind the sofa in the main room, using the back of one hand to part the shades and look out onto Fifth Avenue. The surrounding buildings were lit up as always.
He sat down on the floor behind the sofa to stare out, lulled by the commonality of it.
He passed his hands over his face and wondered if any of the chill from his nightmares was a holdover from his time in the ice, but those nightmares had long passed. The new cold he felt was left behind by the thing that had shared his body and tried to leech the last bit of warmth from his bones. Its rage, unchecked, had left a mix of repulsion and exhilaration in the back of his mind, the taste of blood in the back of his throat. It made him clench his fists in denial and need.
The thing had been like a rabid dog, in a way, single minded and heedless. But it had known full well what it was doing, had been capable of seeing the consequences. It had enjoyed their pain.
Worst of all, it had made Steve privy to that. Made him capable of feeling that joy vicariously.
It had peeled him open and sneered over what it found.
He looked out at the nearby buildings and tried to put it all away. It would never leave him, not entirely, but if he worked it out like the poison it was, sooner or later it would recede into one more lesson learned, one more wound healed.
He looked at his hands. Tony...
He just wasn’t sure if that would ever really heal. Tony meant well, was trying to help, but things couldn’t go any further. He was glad Tony had not asked him anything else about how he felt.
Part of him wished Tony had heard the last thing he’d said to him in the hospital, though. That had been spoken from the heart.
He felt the slight disturbance in the air just before he saw the glow of the arc reactor above the edge of the sofa, startlingly bright in the interior darkness. Tony leaned over the sofa to look at him but didn’t say anything.
Tony pulled the shades open just a little further, then sat close beside him on the floor, back against the sofa, legs stretched out and bare ankles crossed. They stared out at the world together until Tony’s head rested against Steve’s shoulder and his breathing evened out into sleep.
The chill vanished.
Carol found Clint with his arms folded, staring at the sofa from a distance early the next morning.
She looked at him, waited for him to give some sign as to what was causing the look of consternation on his face, then came closer when he gestured her over.
Expecting a spider the size of Texas, she approached when he circled one hand as a means of telling her to look behind.
She was not expecting Steve and Tony to be sound asleep and propped against one another. Steve had an arm looped around Tony’s head, which was cradled in against his chest. It didn’t look even remotely comfortable. But it did look...necessary.
Clint grabbed her and pulled her into the kitchen. “What the hell is this?” he said, sounding interrogative but also a little gleeful.
“With those two, it could be anything or nothing,” she said. “C’mon, after everything that happened? It obviously got really personal, so don’t tell me you’re surprised.”
“No, but can’t they do anything normally?” Clint said. “Behind the damn couch, seriously? Tony’s already like one of those really spastic kids who won’t go to sleep until they fall down somewhere, and now he’s got Steve doing it. This is messed up.”
“Just leave them alone,” Carol said. “They’ll figure it out.”
“That really doesn’t reassure me, somehow,” Clint grumbled.
Two nights later, it took Tony several moments to realize he was awake because something was different.
He’d fallen asleep at one of his drafting tables, head resting on folded arms. The monitors told him it was just after one in the morning, and the headache told him that eyestrain had become his new best friend. He shoved aside an empty coffee mug and the disarticulated parts of the housing of one gauntlet along with a handful of printouts on the kind of energy output the demon had used to move people and things. He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes, wishing he had a reset button and wondering who else was awake upstairs.
Steve could probably handle his own nightmares, but he didn’t have to.
And it was easier to sleep without feeling like it was stolen, when Steve was in the same room.
Admit it. Same bed.
“Fine, whatever,” Tony said aloud with a sigh. Even if Steve really did feel anything beyond friendship for him, he wasn’t going to screw everything up by pursuing it any further. Steve already had front row, center tickets to the Unending Tony Stark Spectacle of Self Destruction. He didn’t need the additional albatross around his neck, to go with the mantle of Captain America and all that entailed.
Your god, your symbol of all that’s right.
The demon had already seen Steve through the eyes of others, had been around enough to know who they were. Whatever it was, wherever it had been, it had a sense of the world. It did not fear heroes.
Even had Tony wanted to entertain the idea of how good it could be with Steve, it had a taint to it now that would never be lifted, no matter what they did. Steve would never look at him again without seeing the damage done.
Pathetic, dirty little whore, just like he thought.
He would not taint Steve further.
He tried to decide whether he wanted coffee, a drink, or both. Screw it; both.
Something hummed just outside the normal range of hearing, a buzz that was more a feeling than an audible sound. It was as if something mechanical had kicked on nearby, but he knew he hadn’t activated anything. It didn’t vibrate in the table or floor, but it was there behind his eyes and moving over his skin.
Something that was not a voice said, very clearly somewhere in the center of his brain, You Will Listen And Understand.
Startled, he glanced in the monitors again, and reflected in them was a humanoid shape standing behind him.
He slammed the chair back as he spun, left hand out and ready to send them through the opposite wall, but it was only an instinct borne of long practice; the gauntlet he’d been working on was still in pieces in front of him.
The man in the suit and trench coat was already further back and to one side, just out of range of fists or chair, looking calm despite Tony’s reaction. The weary but curious eyes, the tilt of the head, the blue tie loosened around his neck – it was all just as Steve had described. It was the visitor he’d had in the hospital.
The voice in his head wasn’t loud but it was immense, all-encompassing and impossible to ignore. There was a sense of space and motion to it, something undeniable, something you had to believe in utterly. It was more than words; it was concept and design wrought in additional dimensions that shouldn’t have been able to take shape, and he saw and understood it all the same. It was a glimpse of everything he wasn’t able to touch in his clumsy, physical form.
“Stop it,” Tony said, bringing one hand to an ear. “Whatever the hell you really are, knock it off.”
The hum stopped. “You are able to understand me,” the man said.
“That doesn’t mean I want to hear it,” Tony said. “You must be Castiel. What, no wings?”
“I am already aware that you are not likely to be convinced,” Castiel said.
“All I need to know is that you’re some supernatural life form,” Tony said. “Do you have an errand for me, too? Because things like to fly on in here, lately, and blackmail the shit out of me. If that’s the only reason you saved me – and I’m not completely sure you did – then go ahead and put me back the way I was.”
A crease appeared between the man’s brows, and Tony couldn’t tell whether it was trying to process what he’d said, or was just beginning to get annoyed. He wondered what exactly happened when someone annoyed an angel. Couldn’t be much worse than annoying a demon.
“Being called to a higher purpose is not an errand,” Castiel said. “You are already in a position where fighting to keep a balance is your calling.”
“‘Higher purpose’ isn’t the way you put it to Steve,” Tony said. He thought about the other gauntlet and wondered if it would have any effect on whatever Castiel really was, if he could get to it. “Why should I believe you?”
“Steve found my appearance and your subsequent recovery to be proof enough,” Castiel said.
Steve believes there’s true good in the world, Tony thought. He’s part of it. “The proof I have so far is that demons don’t respond to all your supposedly holy words and symbols,” he said aloud.
“It requires more than words,” Castiel said, glancing around the workshop. “It requires conviction. You didn’t believe it would work, and so it didn’t.”
“Now he tells me,” Tony said to the ceiling. “I’m not willing to dangle anything out there on probabilities, right now. I’m not gonna convert to...whatever and start quoting from the Bible at whatever wanders in here. That’s not how the world works.”
There was a disturbance in the air, and then Castiel was closer than necessary, right in his face, and Tony had never even seen him move.
“Do not assume to know how the world works.”
The angel’s voice was a deliberate growl. Tony fought the urge to step away. There wasn’t exactly menace in the way it was standing there, or even in the expression on its face, but there was something that changed in the air, charged it. The man in front of him looked weary and was no larger than he was, but there was a sense of power in his proximity. Atom-splitting, world-rending might.
Had it been his first run in with the phenomenal or even something legendary, he might have been humbled.
“So I’ve been drafted into the big war between heaven and hell, right?” Tony said. “Because I opened one of these seals? I’ve already got my hands full with crazy bastards like Doom and the Mandarin, so I’m already fighting the good fight, like you said. Find somebody else to recruit.”
Castiel regarded him for a moment as if he wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “I thought the Winchesters were my greatest trial,” he said, looking concerned again. “Whether you choose to believe or not, this war will go on. And it will be your choice in how difficult things become. You are already involved, and that will not change. Do what you must to avoid losing further ground.”
“You’re not giving me a hell of a lot to go by,” Tony said, keeping his voice low.
“That is what faith is for,” Castiel said.
“And I think we’ve already established that Steve’s the guy for that, not me,” Tony shot back.
“Then consider the fact that you were well aware that he had been possessed before the demon revealed itself,” Castiel said. “Of your five senses, Tony, which one gave you proof the moment you entered the kitchen?”
Tony stared, feeling a moment of dread cascade through him. “He was – ”
“Before he spoke to you, before he turned to you, you knew. Call it what you like. But consider it, and do so closely, before you decide how the world works.”
He didn’t like what it was inferring, but he didn’t want to call it on any of that and get confirmation. “I don’t have powers like the others,” he said finally.
“Neither do the vast majority of the mortal hunters that are already in the field,” Castiel said. “The choice the demon made that day was not completely random. Steve was only the first one out of the house after it was attracted.”
“I didn’t bring it,” Tony said just short of a shout. He walked around Castiel, turning away and putting distance between them, to keep his hands down rather than shove at whatever was confronting him, rather than risk hitting it with everything he had. “Screw you, I did not bring that thing here!”
“Denial only entitles you to so much,” Castiel said behind him. “You have considerable knowledge at your disposal. Use what you have.”
“Or what?” Tony said.
“You are already marked,” Castiel said.
When he turned, Castiel was gone.
Instead of breaking something, Tony turned back to the schematics for retuning the repulsors.
The tremble in his hands was residual adrenaline. He refused to believe otherwise.
Steve watched Tony try and diamond-etch a ward into the underside of his shield later that morning. It wasn't going to work because of the vibranium alloy, but Tony was determined to try anyway, convinced he could part the thinnest layer of particles on the surface. Painting wasn’t good enough.
Tony had come and asked for the shield, and Steve hadn’t questioned his apparent change of heart about using symbols and wards.
He knew a tattoo could be ruined, by the tearing of skin. There was nothing foolproof, anymore. Tony would have found a way to imprint the wards on Steve’s soul, if he could have.
Steve felt like they both had enough marks on their souls as it was.
There was no such thing as safe. They’d known that long ago, long before demons had been added to the list of things to watch out for.
“I think I’ve got a handle on the wavelength these things are on,” Tony said, flipping a magnifying lens attachment down over his goggles to get a closer look at the etching. “Might be able to disrupt them with it. At the very least, it should distract them, maybe make them uncomfortable, assuming most of ‘em are built the same way.”
“Because there’s no way you can just count on rituals and symbols to keep the things out,” Steve said.
“Magic,” Tony said with audible derision.
“Faith,” Steve corrected.
Tony straightened and pushed his goggles back, and glanced up at Steve through his eyelashes.
“These demons already adhere to one set of rules,” Steve said. “You might not be able to get them to adhere to yours.”
He didn’t add angels to that equation. The demon had at least been up front about what it wanted.
“Besides, there’s Thor,” Steve said.
Tony put everything aside and looked up at him. “What about him?”
“There are gods,” Steve said. “You’ve met him. There’s your proof.”
“Yeah,” Tony said, drawing the word out. “The minute the Big G comes down here with a hammer, I’m all for him. Until then, I get to have my doubts.”
“Castiel seems like a pretty decent hammer,” Steve said.
“He’s a tool, that’s for sure,” Tony said.
Steve stared openly at him. “Did you...Tony, have you seen him?”
“I might have had a brief conversation with the angel of Bad Tidings last night,” Tony said, keeping his poker face.
Steve reached out and put a hand on Tony’s shoulder without hesitating for the first time since the whole thing had started. “What did he say?”
“I don’t know, pretty much the same line he fed you,” Tony said. “All hands on deck, seals should stay closed for maximum freshness. The demons know we’re here, and we should be ready.” He paused. “I can’t say it wasn’t an angel...whatever they really are.”
Realizing how big the admission was, Steve pulled Tony’s gloves off, then took Tony’s hands and gripped them between his own on the table, checking Tony’s eyes to see if there would be more than just an open question in them over it. When there wasn’t, he looked at their hands for a moment, then into Tony’s face again, making sure he had all his attention.
“I have to believe that good ultimately wins out,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I just let it happen. We all do what we can, whatever we can, to make sure that’s how it turns out. Faith isn’t sitting around waiting to be saved, or hoping for the best. It’s a lot more than that. So when you’ve done what you can, and it’s the best you can do...you have to be able to stand back and believe that things will turn out the way they need to. We will survive this, and find a way to make things better.”
Tony dropped his eyes, looking at their hands. Something seemed to settle in him. He tilted his face in, and it was obvious that he was waiting to see if the other man showed any hesitation at the move. He never did, so Tony kissed him, quick but warm, then leaned away again, holding his eyes.
“I have faith in you,” he said.
Steve ran a thumb along the knuckles of Tony’s right hand, stunned, glad he hadn’t let go yet.
“I’ll let you be the one with all the other faith, for now, and you can keep it for me for later,” Tony said.
There was a long moment of silence. Then, slightly hoarse, Steve said, “That’s a start.”
When Steve was gone, Tony sat with his head in his hands and wondered why he had zero resolve where Steve was concerned.
Angels and demons were real, so it was a safe bet that hell was real, too.
Tony figured he’d been headed there anyway.
S.H.I.E.L.D. reports said the thing lumbering through Gravesend and headed for Brooklyn had been tracked from Brighton Beach, where the destruction had started. It had come right out of the Atlantic, whatever it was, and it basically had all the fixings of someone’s experiment gone wrong.
“You guys, didn’t we rent this movie?” Tony said over the open communication link.
Four stories high on four legs, it was squat and elephantine but had the head of any standard prehistoric predator. It was slamming a blunt snout into buildings and gaping a mouthful of shark-like teeth at anything that moved.
“Cloverfield,” Clint said, swinging his bow off his shoulder and nocking an arrow. “Saw it in the theater. It’s not that big, though.”
“I hated that movie,” Peter said. “The spiders were unrealistic.”
“They weren’t really spiders,” Hank said.
“Hawkeye, get to the roof of one of these buildings and take out the eyes if you can,” Steve said. “I’m going in from the front to push it back. Spiderman, see if you can tangle it up from any side.”
It was a good plan, a reasonable plan, until the part where they discovered that it could breathe fire with blowtorch intensity and aim when it was pissed off.
“Do not jump in front of me again,” Steve said, and that time it was in his Captain America voice. “I will sideline you.” He pushed his cowl back and scowled openly at Tony.
They had barely made it back before the argument started. No one was going to deny that the yelling was better than the creepy, weighted, mom-and-dad-are-fighting silence that had pervaded the cleanup (oversized zoo reject returned to the ocean sans a few parts) and the return to the mansion. The yelling was always better, even if it sounded like it was killing them to do it.
They always sounded like they could barely stand it.
“Then pay attention to what the hell you’re doing,” Tony snapped, and that time it was his CEO of Stark Industries voice, warped through the voice filter on his suit and made more menacing as a result. “And you can’t sideline me, someone has to jump in front of you while you’re not paying attention.”
Steve pointed at Tony. “You. Are in no position, ever, to determine whether I’m paying attention.”
Tony flipped his faceplate up. “When you start wearing an asbestos costume, or have your shield remade to be Captain America-shaped, then maybe we can see how true that is.”
There was a moment where they faced off right there in the foyer, where Steve looked like he could have happily body-blocked Tony with his shield and Tony could have put them both through a wall and out into the yard.
Then Tony stalked away, leaving a whiff of scorched metal behind. Steve stripped off his gloves and vanished toward his room, eyes snapping, jaw set in anger.
“Thaaaaat’s not over,” Peter said softly in the resulting silence. “I. Am. Out of here. I’ll be under my bed.”
“Better not lose another punching bag out of this,” Clint said. “I like the new one better.”
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Jan said, but she looked worried. “C’mon, you guys. They’ll be fine.”
“I’m not refereeing it,” Hank said, walking away. “I’m calling Ben, for that. And that’s even if Tony’s out of the armor.”
“I wish Thor was here,” Peter said.
“Hell, I wish Hulk was here,” Clint said.
“Whatever they do, I hope they get it done,” Carol said.
Tony was out of the armor by the time Steve got downstairs. He was looking it over with a critical eye as it hung from the ceiling, assessing the damage. He was still out of breath, and hadn’t changed out of the street clothes he’d worn under the armor when they’d been called out. His hair was damp with sweat, and Steve wanted to put his fist through a wall to keep from thinking about how Tony’s hair curled at the ends when it was wet.
He had a few dozen things to say, most of them accusatory, but he didn’t want to argue. He couldn’t let things settle the way they were. He couldn’t lose the ground he thought they’d gained.
“Don’t even start,” Tony said without turning. “You left me out, you didn’t even give me a spot, so it’s not like I was ignoring orders.”
Steve was more than happy to start, beginning with what a ridiculous thing Tony had just said, but what came out of his mouth was laced with outrage, and it was the last thing he’d meant to say.
“You called me a coward.”
Tony turned to look at him as if he’d lost his mind, but there was no confusion in it. He knew exactly what Steve was talking about. “I didn’t,” he said, then came closer, stopping a good three feet away, hands on hips. “I said if you let it get away with what it did, then that made you a coward. You never listen when you’re pissed off.” He smirked. “I was kind of counting on that.”
“And you offered yourself to it,” Steve said, swinging his arms out wide in an I can’t believe you gesture. “That was...do you have any idea what it could have done, with the armor? How dangerous it could have been?”
“I was more concerned about getting you loose,” Tony said, tucking his chin down, smirk dropping in favor of something that looked...careful. Guarded.
“You didn’t think,” Steve said, voice rising in volume as he stepped closer and raised a hand to point a finger at Tony’s chest without quite making contact. This was not turning out the way he’d intended, but then, he was no longer sure what he’d intended. “Why the hell would that have been okay, to offer yourself instead?”
“I never would have let it get too destructive, once I was in the armor,” Tony said. “I have failsafes in that thing in case the chewy center needs to be put out of commission, temporarily or otherwise.”
Steve stared at him for a moment, realizing what he was saying.
“And you have an override code, anyway,” Tony added with a half-shrug.
Steve kept staring.
Tony looked at him more carefully, from eyes to mouth to the center of his chest and back, looking him over as if he wasn’t completely sure he was okay. There was finally something serious in his voice when he spoke again.
“Look. I wasn’t gonna let it get away with killing you from the inside, Steve. Of the two of us, I get to go first. You don’t ever get the chance to die in front of me. Do you get it?”
Steve kept staring at him without blinking, but he clenched his jaw and fists.
“If you’re gonna hit me, you should just go ahead and do it,” Tony said, expression and tone as goading as anything Steve had ever heard from him. “The suspense is killing me.”
“You’re an idiot sometimes,” Steve breathed.
“Ah, I heard that rumor,” Tony said, expression smug as he tilted his face back. “If you’re gonna do anything other than hit me, you should maybe go ahead and do that, too, or I co – ”
Steve wrapped a hand around the back of Tony’s neck and pulled him in, somehow managing to do it without being rough. When mouths met and Steve cupped Tony’s face in both hands, there was still the suggestion that he could get free anytime he wanted to, that it was an option.
Tony did not want to get free.
He stepped in closer, full body contact, kissing back like he needed it, hands wrapping around Steve’s shoulders. He levered one thigh between Steve’s to get in closer, feeling the hum of excitement that was nearly pouring off him, feeling the heavy length of him through his jeans.
“This doesn’t get to be about how you need to make things up to me,” Tony said between one kiss and the next, mouth never leaving Steve’s.
“This is about how bad I want you,” Steve said, and Tony didn’t expect that to hit home as hard as it did, even said with panting breath against his throat and sealed with a near-bite. He couldn’t do anything but arch into it.
Steve pushed his hands under Tony’s shirt, palms flat and sliding upward slowly as if trying to memorize the feel of his skin. It was urgent but still not rough. There was a reverence in the touch, and the difference was immediate and amazing: they had not done this before, Steve had never touched him. The same power was there, but the intent was all Steve’s this time. He buried his face into the hollow of Steve’s throat, inhaling salt and sweat and leather and a hint of that morning’s aftershave, all of it male and aroused, until Steve pulled him up to kiss him again.
“I don’t think you’re a whore,” Steve said against his mouth.
“I don’t care,” Tony panted. God, he could not get close enough.
Steve began stripping Tony’s shirt off him. “Yes you do.”
“Not talking right now,” Tony said, helping with the shirt. “Having sex.”
The shirt was tossed somewhere behind them, and Tony started working on Steve’s belt while pushing him back to the wall behind the armor to get some leverage, and Steve reached up to remove his own shirt.
“I don’t even really like guys,” Tony added.
“You don’t like anybody,” Steve whispered.
“Right,” Tony said, and then he was silent because there was skin on skin, Steve’s chest flush against his own and he could feel his heart; the arc reactor didn’t get in the way. Steve was kissing him again and pressing his hands into the small of his back, and Jesus, he didn’t remember that being a hot button, but they ended up sliding down the wall. Tony ended up in Steve’s lap and it sure as hell wasn’t convenient, but it wasn’t like they were going to stop for something as negligible as comfort, not when Steve had his hands on Tony’s ass and Tony was able to find just the right amount of friction even through their jeans.
“Jesus, you are so – ”
Tony wasn’t sure what he was going to finish that sentence with, and it didn’t matter.
It was worth it to watch Steve slam his head back against the wall, eyes shut tight and teeth bared in silent ecstasy as he arched beneath him. Just as good if not better to have something as simple as that sight and the feel of Steve’s skin bring him off hard enough to cause his eyes to roll back in his head.
Then, just to listen to Steve breathe for a moment. God, the chance to do that.
“Next time, we get our clothes off,” Tony said, hands braced against the wall on either side of Steve’s head, leaning in until their foreheads touched.
Steve started to laugh and tried to muffle it.
“Next time started thirty seconds ago,” Tony said, reaching for another kiss.
With the urgency gone, it was a long night of something slow and deep, of shivers and shared breath, of patterns drawn with fingertips. Tony now had schematics for Steve.
That was bliss.
“You’re not a fling,” Tony said at some point in the dark, later. They were lying side by side in Steve’s bed, temporarily sated.
“No, I’m not.”
Steve sounded resolute, even to his own ears.
Tony let one hand rest palm up on the bed in silent invitation, and Steve took it.
“And, you don’t know me,” Steve added. “Or you’d have known how I feel about you, long before this.”
“You’re assuming I didn’t,” Tony said.
“You didn’t,” Steve said. “So how exactly did you know it wasn’t me, that morning? Besides the fact that I was already supposed to be out of the house.”
Tony was silent long enough that Steve used their joined hands to pull him closer across the bed, then under him, bracing his elbows on either side of Tony’s head to avoid placing all his weight on him. In the glow from the arc reactor, there was still nothing wary in Tony’s face, no discernable moment of panic or even uncertainty. He didn’t want to test it, but the level of trust humbled him.
“Tell me,” he said softly, urgently.
“I just knew,” Tony said. “I can’t explain it.”
There was more, and Tony was holding out on him; he knew it. But he wasn’t going to press. Not then.
“I don’t understand how you’re able to look past it,” Steve said. “Why you don’t see...what happened, when you look at me.”
“I’m able to separate you from the thing that was running around wearing you,” Tony said. “Why aren’t you?”
The words were hard, but he found them anyway, thumbs stroking at Tony’s temples. “Because there were a few moments, there, where I really didn’t feel very separate.”
“Wow, where do you get off being complicated and human?” Tony said, then grinned.
Steve sighed. It was disconcerting and comforting at once to have someone be so accepting, when he wasn’t sure how much acceptance he could dole out for himself, yet.
Tony reached up and kissed him.
When Tony awoke later, it was because the air was too hard to breathe.
He laid there in the dark and tried to get a handle on it. It was the same thing he’d felt while looking at Steve’s back, that morning in the kitchen, a storm front, air ringing and charged with electricity and something sour and metallic that coated it until it was a struggle to get it down. He had felt the same while drowning in his own blood later that same day.
Steve was large and warm and safe beside him, real to the touch, undisturbed. He didn’t hear anything in the hallway beyond that wasn’t familiar.
The feeling of electricity sharpened, and denial wasn’t good enough anymore.
Tony sat up and had vaulted Steve’s sleeping form on his way to the door long seconds before Jarvis turned the lights on low and intoned that there was an intruder.
The perimeter alarms had never gone off. There was just Jarvis’ uninflected notification.
Steve sat up and reached for his shield automatically, realizing that Tony had been up before Jarvis had alerted them.
“Jarvis,” Tony murmured. “What’ve we got?”
“The signature matches the last known readings of subject nine one eight,” Jarvis said.
The demon. It was the file number he’d assigned the demon.
“Is it alone?” Tony said.
“There is only one subject,” Jarvis said. “Would you like me to alert the team?”
“No,” Tony said. “Not yet. Monitor and set experiment nine one eight on my mark.”
Tony met Steve’s eyes, and they shrugged into enough clothing to be decent before slipping into the hallway.
The rest of the house remained dark, but just past where the hallway opened up into the main room was a male figure, face in shadow, stock still inside a lit pattern on the floor.
It was a devil’s trap composed only of light, orchestrated from above.
It had been headed right for them, right for Steve’s room as if it had known they were there.
“You found a way to set that up,” Steve whispered.
“I hoped it might come in handy,” Tony said. “It was your idea. Figured I’d cover all the bases.” He placed a hand against Steve’s chest to ask him to remain where he was.
Steve put his hands over Tony’s, holding it in place. “What’re you going to do?”
“If it could get out, it wouldn’t still be standing there,” Tony said. “Trust me. I need to look at it.”
“This is just a guy,” Steve said. “You have to remember, it’s probably some poor guy it caught off the street.”
“I know,” Tony said.
It was looking up and smiling openly at them, twenty-something and Tony’s size with no visible sign of trauma. It looked like any guy of a thousand who could have walked in off the street, Joe College, dark hair and eyes and olive skintone. Tony got within feet of the edge of the outer circle of the devil’s trap and looked him over, checking his eyes, waiting to see what it was that he’d felt or heard that had brought him out of a decent sleep.
“Tony,” it said. “You’ve been preparing. Dropped by to see your friend Steve, felt you here.”
“How exactly does that work, anyway?” Tony said, forcing himself to sound detached. “That you felt me here.”
It didn’t answer except to keep smiling. It raised its eyes past Tony to Steve, and leered.
“Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei,” Tony said quickly in Latin.
It flinched and turned its attention back to him, but the smile didn’t change. “Not good enough,” it said.
“But you still don’t like it, do you,” Tony said, surprised. “And they’re just words. It’s all in the application.”
He heard and felt the air move, a door click, but he didn’t look. There were soft footfalls along the hardwood floors, and something moved above him. The others were awake. He had not wanted an audience for this, but it wouldn’t stop him. He was careful not to move his attention from the figure in the light.
“Come a little closer and find out,” it said. It was aiming for coy, but falling short with the amount of barely veiled rage that was leaking through. “It earned you a real eye-opening experience, before. This one’s not your type, but you’re so easy.”
“You’re the one stuck in the middle of a symbol,” Tony said, beginning to circle it. “Proud of yourself?”
“We all have our crosses to bear,” it said. “Oh, Tony. We’re going to have such a good time. I remember how you taste.”
Tony heard Steve make a low growl of sound, and he tried to ignore it. He moved to the edge of the light again and came face to face with it, dropping his voice even further, not wanting it to carry. “You dumb motherfucker, you left me alive,” he said, mirroring in the same smile it was showing him. “Now I’m gonna see what you’re made of.”
“I already know what you’re made of,” it said. “I left you even more dead than you already were.” The smile dropped and the dark eyes became darker from one blink to the next, devoid of white or iris. “I did you a favor, Tony. I can smell him on you from here. Did you guys stage a little reenactment, already? Because he loved it, he screamed the entire time but he couldn’t get enough, and he loves you best when you’re helpless.”
Tony heard the shield coming, could have picked that sound out of the middle of any situation, and training made him freeze to avoid getting in its way.
The demon flinched out of the way just far enough, and when the light from above glanced off the shield, it disrupted and deflected enough of the light to break the trap.
The demon was barreling into Tony and bearing them both to the floor while something tore into the ceiling above. The lights began exploding in a shower of sparks, and they lost the trap completely, along with all available light.
“Now!” Tony shouted, and then hands were around his throat and a few moments of solid chaos erupted while he tried to break the grip. Steve was lifting the demon off him a moment later and was about to be overenthusiastically helped by the rest of the team, but the body had already quit fighting and was stiff in their hands.
Lights began coming on in the adjacent rooms as Jarvis automatically activated them.
Peter was on the ceiling and had one hand out, ready to web the hell out of the guy; MJ was peeking at them from down the hall from behind a door that was open by just the barest sliver; and everyone else was standing in a loose half-circle, ready to battle anything that moved. Or didn’t move fast enough.
“Back up,” Tony said, climbing back to his feet. “Let him go, and back up.”
Steve kept a fist clenched in the back of the guy’s jacket, partly holding him up, then reluctantly let him stagger away. His brows arched in surprise when the guy began to cough violently and scrabble at his own throat.
“Steve, back up,” Tony said.
“What’s it doing?” Hank asked. “What’d you – ”
“You can’t hear it,” Tony said. “But there’s a note that every glass shatters for, if it’s tuned just right. I’m not sure I got it just right. Jarvis, can we get another pentacle?”
“Not enough broadband light sources remain in that area of the house,” Jarvis said.
“I can draw – ” Steve started, but then a thick black smoke began pouring out of the eyes, nose, mouth and ears of the stranger in front of them, and Steve finally did back away.
It poured down the man’s form and pooled at his feet as if there was genuine weight to it, a dry ice fog wrought in black. The man bent forward, gagging, finally falling to his knees while his body tried to expel something it was never meant to hold. The blackness spread, crawling out along the floor, writhing with sentience and denial.
It drew together suddenly as if reaching some threshold, tightening into a more solid looking mass, and then twisted with a violent snap.
The air expanded, and to Tony it felt like the inside of his head did as well. The lights went out when he felt a subsonic note that resonated in his bones and folded him to the floor.
“They ring,” Tony heard himself say in the dark. He felt slow and badly put together and couldn’t figure out why it was dark. “Like bells made of acid.”
“He’s not making any sense,” someone said, and he was fairly sure it might be Jan. “I think he hit his head.”
“Open your eyes, Tony,” Steve said, and he sounded shaken. Tony thought that was nuts, because how often did that happen?
He opened his eyes and the rest of him seemed to snap together, and he was perfectly clear about what had just happened. Steve had gathered him into his lap, for chrissakes, sitting crosslegged on the floor with one hand on the back of Tony’s head to hold it up so he could look at him carefully.
“You asked me how I knew,” Tony said to Steve’s worried face.
Steve looked at him like he didn’t understand, and Tony finally realized that was because he was answering a question from earlier, and they were no longer on the same page. Then it seemed to click in Steve’s eyes, and Tony wished he hadn’t said anything, because Steve looked even more worried.
“The symbols and the exorcism crap,” Tony said. “It works. It all works, if it’s done right. I have to figure out why.”
“Not right now,” Steve said. “The science part worked, too. Okay?”
“Sure,” Tony said, glancing around. “Everybody okay? Did we kill the delivery guy?”
“Everybody’s fine,” Carol said from over Steve’s shoulder, leaning in a little to look down on him. “The guy isn’t injured, and he doesn’t remember anything, so we called him a cab.”
Tony looked at Steve again. “Was he okay?”
He wasn’t questioning Carol’s account, and everyone knew it immediately. He was asking Steve whether post-possession life was bad enough that someone should look at the guy.
“Yeah,” Steve said with a half smile. “He was, after a little bit.”
One week later
“What’re they mad about?”
Tony seemed genuinely perplexed. Pepper could only eye him steadily. The engineers for the next generation, full-sized arc reactor – that was replacing the one destroyed as a last ditch effort to save Tony a year earlier – were balking over the details. “Something about Crayons and fourth graders,” she said. “You weren’t, by any chance, the slightest bit insulting when you talked to them, were you?”
“No idea what that’s about,” Tony said. “People get ideas.”
“They do,” Pepper said, and managed to make it sound like an accusation. She made a note in her Blackberry. “You’ll need to either redraw the schematics, or go ahead and just rebuild it yourself, because they can’t go any further with what they have.”
“Now, that would be fun,” Tony said. “No time for it right now, though.” He held a disc out to her that was roughly the size of a half dollar and twice as thick, gold with a white center. It seemed decorative except that the center was raised and looked like it could be pressed in to activate something. “Keep this on you. As in, all the time.”
“What is it?” she said, turning it over between her fingers.
“It’s one of those personal alarms,” Tony said. “But it drives off demons instead of muggers.”
She tucked it away in a pocket without further comment.
“Next item,” he said.
Tony was passing through the kitchen with a half dozen things on his mind when he was grabbed by the back of his shirt. The bottom was pulled up over the top of his head so that his arms were trapped and he couldn’t see. Then a hand shoved his head down on the kitchen table and held it there.
He didn’t bother struggling. He could tell the difference between being pranked, and being attacked after the amount if time he’d spent living with the rest of the Avengers. Plus, he was fairly certain he recognized those hands. He just sighed and rested his arms on the table and waited to see what he was being subjected to. There was a snap that sounded like a pen cap, then the telltale reek of a permanent marker, then the cool slide of ink being applied to the skin of his right shoulder blade.
“Steve, are you drawing on me?” Tony said.
“Are you poisoning me with a Sharpie?” Tony said, making sure he sounded affronted.
He could hear the grin in Steve’s voice. “Carol suggested it. And it’s not going to poison you.”
It was that anti-possession symbol, again. Tony remembered his semi-discussion with Carol weeks earlier. “I don’t see the point,” Tony said. “Unless you were just looking for an excuse to...oh my God. You were. You’ve always wanted to draw on me, haven’t you, you pervert.”
Steve huffed a brief, surprised laugh. “No one’ll see it.”
“Don’t be adding, you know, whole masterpieces,” Tony said.
Steve hummed. “I don’t know...I kind of like you as a canvas.”
“You kind of like me bent over the table,” Tony said. He shoved his shirt up from his face and lifted his head in time to see Peter come into the kitchen and catch them like that.
Peter looked at them for a moment, blinked, then shook his head and left again. “Don’t wanna know,” he called from the other room.
“That’s never gonna get old,” Tony said.
Steve sighed, but it sounded amused.
Tony waited until he heard the pen cap click again when Steve seemed to be done, and opened his mouth to say something. His brain locked up, though, because Steve was blowing on his handiwork to make sure it was dry, and, well, there was another hot button that Tony hadn’t realized he had.
Steve finally let him up and didn’t seem to mind the groping he immediately received.
“So, if someone wanted to find a bunch of supposed demon-hunters who were living off the grid, where do you suppose they’d start?” Tony said with his hands under Steve’s shirt.
“I’m pretty sure you have a few resources in mind,” Steve said, looking amused and letting Tony lean him up against the counter behind. “And, we know a lot of people on and off the grid.”
Tony thought about it for a moment, then said, “We do have a lot of resources.”
“Thinking of brainstorming with the experts?”
“Thinking of whipping them into shape,” Tony said.
During a rainstorm that Thursday, a group of idiots in clown costumes managed to take out all eighteen of the pump rooms in the subway that hadn’t been upgraded yet, allowing one hell of a flood and a near complete disruption of the underground portion of the system. All but one clown was caught because not only did they not remove their costumes as they tried to get away, but they kept shouting ‘we all float down here’.
“It’s a Stephen King reference,” Carol kept explaining. “Just never mind and smack that clown.”
No one was hurt even if Tony did step on the third rail, which hadn’t bothered to short out as soon as it usually did. Most people later believed the real crisis was the lightshow that caused.
“It’s Thursday,” Peter said, as if that explained everything.
With the subway evacuated, the clowns in custody, and the rest of the pump system accounting for the parts that would need to be replaced, the Avengers headed for home. Tony stayed on the ground, because while the suit was insulated well enough to have kept him from frying to a crisp, the jet boots were shot.
“I need the exercise,” Tony said. “And I can deter any clowns that might be lurking.”
“Plus, a foot patrol means we’re more of a visible presence,” Steve said.
“Fine, you guys walk, in the rain, and deter,” Clint said. “Watch out for balloon animals, too.”
Two blocks later, Steve was arguing the merits of horror novels of his time versus the extremes that the typical novel went to in modern times when he realized Tony was no longer beside him.
Glancing back, he saw Tony several steps away, half-turned toward a still figure on the other side of the street that was staring at them steadily.
They were being called up.
/~~/ /~~/ /~~/ End /~~/ /~~/ /~~/