It was the words that first caught Bucky's attention. Or rather, one word in particular.
It was a word that would make most people turn around and walk the other way despite whatever altercation was taking place round the corner, despite that someone might be hurt or in danger. That was because most people didn't know any better. They simply went about their day-to-day business living their crippled little lives with the fear always hanging over them – the fear of the unknown.
But Bucky wasn't most people. He might have only been eleven years old, but he'd been brought up not to fear what others feared most, taught to run towards the darkness instead of scampering away from it in terror. That wasn't to say he had no sense of self-preservation – he knew how to read the signs, call for reinforcements, or pull out the even bigger guns if he had to. Because you couldn't fight the dark if you were dead.
"Yeah, cry all ya like, little witch baby."
Edging around the corner, Bucky found the cause of the commotion. Three boys about his own age and size were picking on an even smaller boy, calling him names and kicking him while he was down. The kid was curled up in a ball on the dirty ground, just taking whatever these bullies were dishing out, not even attempting to defend himself. He grunted when he took another shoe to the ribs, but said nothing in response to their taunts.
"Why ain'cha callin' for mummy, huh?"
"Yeah, mummy'll save ya!"
"Oh no, maybe she'll come along and curse us all!"
All three laughed at that, but Bucky had had enough. Nearby a broken wood carton was propped up against the alley wall and he pried a loose plank from it, quickly making his advance. One of the boys noticed first, then alerted the others. The biggest of them took a step forward, looking like he was about to rush at Bucky, but then he noticed the plank in his hands and hesitated.
"Wanna try it, punk?"
"Who you callin' punk?"
The boy clenched his fists, but then one of his buddies held him back.
"Leave off, Donny. That's the Barnes' kid."
"Barnes? As in, Crazy Old Man Barnes?"
He watched with satisfaction as the realisation came over the kid's face, and then suddenly all three of them were turning and making a run for it like the Devil was on their heels. Bucky dropped the plank once he was sure they were gone, and hurried to the smaller boy's side. He was straw blonde and skinny as a rake, his too-big clothes all out of place and muddied from the ground. He hadn't moved an inch since Bucky had come round the corner, but he appeared to still be breathing.
"Hey-a, Pal," Bucky said with a tight smile, "Chased those bullies off for ya. They kicked you good an' hard, though. Reckon you're alright, or no?"
"'M fine," the kid croaked, clearly in pain, "I've had worse."
Slowly, carefully, he uncurled himself, looking and moving like a grandpa. Long sleeves and long pants covered whatever bruising there might be, and he'd obviously protected his face enough that there was little more than a graze on his chin. His skin was otherwise clear and pale, his face sort of ordinary looking, but then bright blue eyes blinked up at Bucky and suddenly everything clicked into place.
"You, um…" Your eyes are real blue, like. "What's your name?"
The boy clearly noticed his staring, because he stared right back, looking as though he could will all Bucky's secrets to the surface if he only stared hard enough. But after a few moments, he relented, seemingly satisfied with something.
"It's Steve. What's yours?"
"James Barnes. But everyone calls me Bucky. Sometimes I even forget I'm called James, y'know? But, um, do I need to call a doctor or somethin' for ya, Steve? Reckon they roughed you up pretty good…"
"Nah, I'm fine. Just gonna be sore for a while. Nothin' I can't handle."
"If you say so," Bucky replied, though he didn't really believe it. Steve remained sitting on the ground as he started to brush the dirt from his sleeves, and Bucky hesitated before he spoke again. "So, um, what those punks were sayin'… Is it true?"
Steve froze, refusing to look Bucky in the eye.
"She'd never curse anyone, 'specially a kid, if that's what you mean… But yeah, my ma's a witch. A good witch, though. She's a good person…"
"Does that mean you're one, too?"
Steve's shoulders hitched in some semblance of a laugh.
"Well, no, 'cause then I'd have to be a girl."
"Right. So you're a warlock, then?"
Cautious eyes glanced back at him curiously from under long lashes. "You know, you asked that way too easy. Why, what are you?"
Bucky paused, realising what Steve was getting at. People who knew things… they didn't go around just blabbing to anyone and everyone that they knew things. Except that that didn't mean people wouldn't still find out. Clearly Steve's mother had gotten herself a reputation somehow. And Bucky's old man had a slightly different sort of reputation, though a reputation all the same. That meant he and Steve already had something in common, so what the heck…
"My family are Hunters. As far back as anyone can track 'em. And I'll be a proper Hunter too, someday – staking vamps and casting out demons and the like."
"Oh, wow," Steve finally looked up, his eyes big and round, "My ma's talked about your family before, now I think about it. Just in passing, I mean. She… She actually told me to stay away from Hunters."
"Well. I'm not a full Hunter yet, y'know – haven't even banished a spirit by myself or anything! So maybe I don't count?"
Steve thought about it for a moment, before finally nodding in acceptance. Bucky grinned.
"But if she said that to you… you must be a warlock, right? Surely she wouldn't warn you off Hunters without a reason. And I promise I won't tell."
"Yeah, I promise."
"Okay, so… My ma says I'm like a warlock, but not. She's had other witches and other people check me out, but no one knows what I am. Not exactly."
Somehow the vagueness of Steve's answer only made Bucky all the more interested. "You can do magic though, right?"
"Um. Sometimes? But I don't really like doing it."
"Why not? You must be able to do some neat things!"
"Not so much. Sometimes the power comes out without me meaning it to. And even when I do it on purpose, bad things always happen, so…"
"What sorta bad things?"
"You ask a lot of questions," Steve answered with a sigh, "And I dunno. Starting fires. Making walls or bits of the roof collapse. Just… bad things."
Bucky took a moment to think. His uncle was usually the one in charge of his training since his father was always out on a hunt somewhere, and he'd always said that Bucky had an odd knack for strategy. Almost as good as his aim, he said.
"You probably just need to learn how to control it better. I mean, you're only a kid, right? And kids like us go to school to learn things. Obviously you can't go to school to learn to be a warlock, but that doesn't mean you can get to be one without learning warlock types of things." A plan was beginning to form in Bucky's head. Something told him that Steve would probably object, but Bucky figured that if he pestered him about it enough that he'd probably give in. "Hunters have to know lots of weird things too, and I bet my father's got books about magic somewhere. Maybe I can nick one while he's not looking and we can go practice together. I'll help you, don't worry!"
"Bucky, I'm not sure that—"
"Aw, c'mon, Steve! It'll be great. With me in your corner, we'll get you sorted in no time."
Steve huffed yet another sigh. "Fine."
Bucky headed through the front door with a skip in his step. He had a few friends already, even if they were mostly the kids of other Hunters that worked with his father, but somehow he just got the feeling that Steve was going to be the best pal he ever had. They'd only parted ways at the end of the block, Bucky watching as his new friend had hobbled home a little worse for wear, meaning that Steve must've lived close by. Bucky couldn't wait to see him again.
His mother was at the stove cooking dinner, her long dark hair cloaking half her face, covering the scar that tracked down from her forehead and pinched the skin across her eyelid. She'd always hidden it behind her hair, as if she were ashamed or embarrassed about it. Bucky could never understand why she thought that way, though. He thought it was a great scar, thought it made her look like a fierce warrior or something, but she just didn't agree. After all, all their family members had more than their fair share decorating their bodies – it was just another part of being a Hunter.
"Someone's in a good mood."
"I made a new friend today, Ma. These bullies were hurting him and I chased them off. Now me and Steve are gonna be best pals."
"Oh? And what might Steve's last name be?"
"That's …Sarah Roger's boy?"
Bucky gaped. "You know her?"
"Not exactly." She left the stirring spoon in the pot and turned to face him, her hands coming down on his shoulders. "You know what she is, that Ms Rogers?"
"Yeah, Steve told me she's a—"
"Don't say that word while you're inside the house, alright? I'll allow you to be friends with this boy, since you helped him today, but your father and your uncle don't need to know about it, do you understand?"
The seriousness with which she said the words had fear curling in the pit of Bucky's stomach – not because of what Sarah Roger was and the magic she supposedly held, but fear that Bucky's friendship would end before it had even begun. That fear soon became resolve, however. Steve was going to be his friend whether he liked it or not, and Bucky was determined to keep it that way.
Steve rolled over on the bed and let his eyes fall open. Taking a deep breath, he found himself breathing easier than he had in days. Possibly weeks. The rattle of his lungs was gone and he felt clear-headed, instead of like there was a black cloud swirling around in his skull trying to punch its way out.
He treasured these moments, but was also wary of them. It was always the calm before the storm. The longer he went without pain or illness, the more brutal the next attack would be. It had been like this since he was about fifteen. Just slowly building and building. He didn't know what it was building to, but at the rate things were going he figured he'd be lucky to see thirty.
It was almost funny to think how innocent he'd been once, back when he'd been barely ten and still learning how his new friend Bucky would fit into his life. Bucky had been the first one to ever actively encourage him to use his magic. His mother had tried, of course, but when even the simplest of spellwork would continually spiral out of his control, Steve had instinctively put a cork in the 'everyday spells' category. The fear of hurting himself or worse – his mother – had prompted him to keep things bottled up tight after that. At least until Bucky had started stealing some of his father's black arts manuscripts and then dragging Steve to an abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere so he could 'practice'. Surprisingly enough, it had worked in the beginning. Between Bucky's encouragement and not having to worry about other people nearby, he had managed to get a better handle on controlling and directing the power inside him, but only to a point. For starters, only certain kinds of spells had worked – namely those invoking destruction. Then, the more power he used, the weaker he became afterwards. The latter was what had worried him most – his body was scrawny enough and illness-prone enough as it was.
Then the headaches had started. He'd been fourteen by then. Ever since he could remember he'd always had strange dreams and terrible nightmares, but suddenly they'd taken a turn for the worse. Leaving pain and other lingering effects in their wake. Visions of horrible creatures and the trails of bodies they left behind. Phantom figures of himself or Bucky trying to fight back, only to fail in the worst possible way. Occasionally his mother had been able to soothe him with a specially brewed elixir, or a spell of dreamless sleep, but they had only worked some of the time. During the day he was tired more often than not, but he'd learned to live with it.
Pushing the thoughts away, Steve looked to the chair by the bed and found Bucky – a fast-asleep Bucky still dressed in his hunting gear. There'd been a vengeful spirit down by the docks of late, causing grief to the men who worked night shifts. That he hadn't even undressed himself was a good sign that he'd dismissed the spirit and was sleeping off the excitement of the fight. Steve wished he'd made it to the bed, though. Bucky had spent far too many nights in the chair at Steve's bedside, watching over him while he slept. Whether it was mopping his fevered brow or waking him from a bad nightmare, it didn't matter. Bucky's presence alone soothed him in a way nothing else ever had. And even while the nightmares continued to get worse, even while his body continued to break down under the stress of his power, Bucky was always there at his side.
They'd moved into their own apartment just before Steve had turned eighteen. He'd still been staying in his empty childhood home up to that point – 'empty' because his mother had died six months prior. Even right up to the end she'd still maintained that it was some kind of cancer, too advanced for anything to be done, but Steve never believed it. Too often he'd heard her chanting to the spirits in her room at night, burning herbs and crushing bone ash and pulling drops of blood from her needle-pricked fingertips. He never heard enough to know what she was appealing for, but he was confident that it was for him, for his health. His mother had always blamed herself for the weakness of his constitution. With his worsening attacks it made sense that she would squeeze out her magic to the last drop trying to help him. She was just that sort of person. And that was what Steve attributed her death to – she'd burned herself out, over-reaching with her magic to the point that her body just couldn't take it. And still he had no idea if anything she'd tried had worked.
Bucky's father had been the true impetus for their move, however. With Bucky spending so much time with Steve, and Old Man Barnes suddenly turning back up after nearly three years gone, it was only a matter of time before their friendship was finally discovered. Barnes had been livid that his son was associating with an untried magic user, so Bucky had removed himself from his home and dragged Steve along with him. Their hearts were both still tender and sore at that point, but after some adjustment it turned out to be one of the best decisions they ever made. Steve could still vividly recall the first time they shared 'their' bed, how they'd woken tangled together, the physical closeness that had only grown more intimate with time…
He made a happy noise as the memory filled him up, and it proved to be just enough to stir Bucky from his sleep. Bucky groaned as he shifted, joints popping as they protested having been sitting too long in the same position.
"Ugh, mornin'. How you feelin', Stevie?"
"For once, probably better than you."
Bucky's eyes popped. "Oh yeah? As in, good enough to get out and about for a bit? You just spent your twenty-first birthday in bed sick, y'know, so I've been kinda desperate to take you somewhere fun."
"It'd be real nice to get out of here, that's true. But are you okay? You look a little… frayed around the edges."
"I'm fine. It was just a little tougher than I expected." Bucky hunched over tiredly, elbows on his knees, and raked his fingers through his hair. "It's almost like all the things we usually hunt are getting stronger somehow. Or maybe I'm just imagining it. Who's to say…"
Closing his eyes as the images rushed forth, Steve reached out to grab hold of the fabric of Bucky's pants.
"I don't think you're wrong. The dreams lately... Something's building. Somehow I just know it."
"See, didn't I tell you to pay more attention to them? If you tried to embrace them more rather than just pushing them away, maybe you'd start to understand them better. Maybe they'd hurt you less if you stopped fighting them so much."
"I feel like I'd lose myself if I did that," Steve confessed, heart in his throat, "But I don't really wanna talk about it. Tell me about the spirit instead."
"Fine, fine. So it was weird because it didn't seem to have an anchor like it usually would. Flyin' about the place, tossing things over - and I mean really heavy things, too. A bunch of the dockworkers actually asked me if they could help, so I ended up with them running around after it, whacking at it with iron bars while I tried to tie it down and banish it… It's so strange that normal people seem to know about this shit now. Two of the guys down there knew what I was hunting before I even got there! Probably woulda tried taking care of it themselves if they had half an idea how. Ten years ago this would never—"
"A lot can happen in ten years, Buck. Hell, a lot can happen in just one or two years. I mean, look at us?"
Bucky looked over at him, then reached down to grab his hand and press a kiss to the back of it. They'd been through so much together – Steve's illnesses, Bucky's hunting injuries, the ups and downs of Steve's powers, the demands of Bucky becoming a full-blown Hunter, family difficulties, growing up, moving out, falling in love… Really, it was a wonder they'd made it as far as they had. Or perhaps not. Bucky was the physically more capable one, sure, but Steve wasn't completely helpless. Bucky had taught him plenty of hunting techniques over the years. He knew how to throw a punch, knew how to aim and fire a gun or a crossbow. His kill count wasn't that great by comparison, but that he even had a kill count made Steve feel all the better for it.
After a shower each, they went out just as Bucky had suggested – dinner and making out in the back of the movie theatre was the agenda. They came straight home after, though, when Steve felt the first signs of a headache coming on. Bucky put him straight back to bed, then quickly climbed in beside him and wrapped Steve in his arms.
"I wasn't gonna tell you just yet, but I found the name of a guy who might really be able to help you—"
"We've been through this a thousand times, Buck," Steve said with a weary sigh, "We've talked to a heap of Seers, dozens of wizards and warlocks all over New York, and they all basically say the same thing – my power's too strong for my body and it's killing me. There's nothing to be done."
He could practically feel the denial radiating from Bucky's skin.
"This guy, though… Steve, listen, he's a scientist. A doctor, even. He just happens to know a bit about our kinds of things. Maybe he'll have a different perspective."
"Sure thing. I'm going to sleep now, Buck. Good night."
Perhaps Steve was as much in denial about not being able to be saved just as much as Bucky was that he could be saved. Steve wished he could be more optimistic, but it got hard to keep one's hopes up after hearing so many times that there was no hope to be had.
Steve crawled out from under the covers, head screaming like someone had been nailing hot spikes into his skull.
He reached over to the bedside drawer and pulled out a nearly full sketchbook, one that he kept apart from his usual book that he filled with pictures of buildings and scenery and people. Somewhere along the line Bucky's words had wormed their way into his brain, as they were wont to do, and he'd started letting the nightmares in. Bucky kept journals of his hunting encounters, so Steve had started keeping a journal of his own – one filled with all the horrors in his head.
Oddly enough, it helped. The nightmares were still a horrendous experience, but he found that he could navigate them better now, make some sort of sense of them where previously they'd made nearly no sense at all. He'd probably always known that there was some kind of connection there, some kind of circular link between his magic and monsters and dreams and real life. He'd never thought that what he 'saw' was actually real, though, that they'd been any more than warnings or rationalisations of the life he lived. He'd never thought that the things in his dreams were events that actually occurred, or would yet occur. But all the more he was starting to acknowledge that this was the most likely scenario. The more he sketched, the clearer the dreams became, and the more he was starting to get a sense of people and locations and even strings of legible words.
His hand felt stiff as he finally put the pencil down and looked. On the paper was an endless string of hellspawn crawling from out of a fiery pit – demons clawing their way out of Hell. A great serpent watched over them with glittering eyes.
Steve's heart clenched with foreshadowing.
Standing just outside the door, Bucky watched as Steve scribbled frantically in his sketchbook, purging the horrors that haunted his mind. He knew Steve didn't want him looking in that particular book, and Bucky didn’t mean to pry, but he hadn't managed to stop himself taking a peek every now and then when Steve was out.
He hated that Steve had to dream of all those horrible things, he always had. He wished he could take it from him – he'd gladly bear any of Steve's hurts if only to spare him. But he'd (mostly) come to terms with the fact that that wasn't a possibility. He had to believe that Steve endured all the things he did for a reason, just as Seers and other mediums did. The dreams were part of that, Bucky was sure. The drawings in Steve's sketchbook, they were creatures he was intimately familiar with, things only someone like a Hunter would know. Some of them Bucky only recognised because of descriptions he'd read in his family's journals and some obscure demonology manuscripts. He would have been more worried about why Steve was having 'visions' of them if he didn't know the answer already.
Bucky looked down at the half-crumpled letter in his hand.
His uncle had summoned him to Europe. There was an open Hellmouth there – an honest to god doorway to Hell – hidden somewhere in the Alps. No one yet knew who was responsible or how they'd accomplished it, but Hunters from all over were flocking there in droves to fight the many and varied things that kept escaping it and terrorising the surrounding countries. No matter how deeply he was tied to New York, Bucky couldn’t deny his calling. He had to go.
It would be hard, exhausting, a true test of his training, and fraught with death, but the hardest part of all would be having to tell Steve that he was leaving.
Life felt so empty without Bucky in it.
That wasn't to say he didn't understand Bucky's reasons, because he did, but that didn't mean Steve had to like it either. In fact, there was a lot not to like. Namely what he saw when he closed his eyes. Since the day Bucky had left, whenever Steve slept, all he could see was Bucky. Some might have thought that a sweet thing, but they didn't know the darkness that cloaked his dreams. No, Steve wasn't that lucky. He didn't get to see Bucky walking and talking and loving him. Rather, he saw Bucky fighting and screaming and dying. Hardly 'sweet', and as far from comforting as you could get.
Steve wallowed in his gloom and depression for more than a week, scribbling frantically in his sketchbooks like a man possessed, before he finally woke up to himself.
He couldn't stay there, letting the endless stream of darkness pile up on top of him. He had to go. He needed to be by Bucky's side or not anywhere at all. But he couldn't do it as he was.
It didn't take long to find the scrap of paper with Bucky's handwriting on it. Bucky had made a point of putting it somewhere obvious, somewhere Steve couldn't not find it. And now Steve stood there with it hanging between his forefinger and thumb, the name and address staring up at him. Willing him to go.
Steve couldn't imagine what made this man different from any of the ones that had come before, but while Bucky had pushed him as insistently as ever, Steve had resisted just as strongly. Now he was left with no other choice. He just had to hope that the guy was different enough to help him in some way. It gave Steve some small sliver of hope that since the man was an actual doctor with knowledge of both science and magic, that he might think a little outside the box. Hope was probably a dangerous thing to have, but as far as Steve was concerned, 'dangerous' didn't hold quite the same threat over him that it did for others.
All too soon Steve found himself sitting in some nondescript examination room, the pen in his hand scratching across a paper asking after his medical history. How the hell he was supposed to fit it all on a mere two dotted lines he had no idea. He'd been just about to start squeezing things down the side of the page when a bearded, bespectacled man wandered in and moved to look over Steve's shoulder.
"Quite the bragging rights you've got there."
He had an accent and didn't appear to be aware of Steve's suspicious gaze as he flicked a button on his starch-white lab coat.
"You'd be the first to call them that," Steve said curtly.
The man looked thoughtful. "Yes, I suppose so." He stuck his hand out suddenly. "I'm Dr Abraham Erskine, by the way."
Steve did the polite thing and shook the man's hand. "Steve Rogers."
"Indeed you are. I dare say I've been waiting for you."
"What do you mean by that, exactly?" he said with pointed curiosity. Steve didn't know what to make of the doctor except that he was clearly eccentric, but the idea that he'd been waiting for Steve? He didn't recall Bucky saying that he'd met the man, only that he'd gotten his name from somewhere…
"I don't mean that I already had your name written down. No, nothing like that. But, tell me, did a significant event occur in your life, say, ten days ago?"
His heart seemed to freeze in his chest for a moment too long. "How do you…? My b--… My best friend left for Europe. He's gone to fight at the Hellmouth."
Dr Erskine glanced away and adjusted his glasses, and Steve wasn't sure if he was being addressed or if the Doctor was merely talking out loud.
"And if we assume that by 'best friend' you mean 'lover', then yes, that would do it. The shock of sending a loved one off towards certain death would definitely do it. But the readings being so high is still unexpected – it's a wonder there's any control at all. The fact that nothing more has happened in the meantime is almost unbelievable. Unless they can act as a deflection at the same time—"
Steve cleared his throat. "Are you going to start explaining or should I just be on my way?"
"Oh, no, no, you must not leave! There is so much to be done. So much…" The doctor paused and seemed to collect himself. "You must know of my reputation for blending science and magic, else you wouldn't be here. I have a particular machine in my lab that is able to measure currents of supernatural power travelling through the city's air space. Usually these currents are just echoes of events that have already occurred and concluded, but we noticed a number of months ago that there was a specific current that appeared to be flowing constantly. We've been monitoring it. It waxes and wanes like any magical source might do. But then about ten days ago there was a sudden… high capacity blast, if you will."
"That… was me?"
"Yes. I believe it was you, Steve. You set off our detectors when you entered the clinic here. You're throwing off a lot of power without even realising it. If this is your normal state? Well, I’m surprised you're still functioning, to be quite honest."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Steve tried to comprehend the doctor's words. He could feel a headache coming on, but while he would usually be hurrying back home, maybe Erskine would prove himself helpful after all. He looked at his hands and wondered if there were people out there who could see the power pouring out of him. Maybe they could see how weak he was with it. Maybe they could tell it was killing him and therefore left him alone.
"I've been told before that it'd kill me eventually," he confessed.
"And I would agree with that assessment," the doctor said with a gentle tone, "To contain such power as you have requires being sound in both mind and body, and going by what you've written on your medical history form there, clearly your body has never been up to the task."
"So your conclusion is that my body is the problem?"
Erskine gave a secretive smile and then bid Steve to follow him. They left the examination room and moved across the floor of the clinic, ducking into a hidden alcove that housed a flight of stairs. Steve followed close behind as they headed down. They descended far enough that Steve concluded they had to be at least two storeys underground – a basement beneath the basement. The door they eventually passed through opened into a large room filled with strange looking machines and scientific equipment and desks covered in paper.
"Welcome to my lab."
Before he could even get close enough to anything to take a better look, a brown file was shoved into his hands, the cover of it stamped 'classified'.
"This is something I've been working on for a long time, Steve. I've just been waiting for the right candidate to come along, and I think you might be that person."
Steve flipped open the file, the front page revealing the details of a project labelled 'soldier enhancement procedure'. Steve blinked with confusion – he was no soldier.
"The military were the ones who initiated this project," Erskine continued, "Somehow they'd heard about my unique expertise and they recruited me to find some way of either temporarily or permanently strengthening soldiers in order to lessen casualties and increase offensive damage during combat. I created several versions of a serum I thought would work – a serum that combined both scientific and magical methods – but initial tests were unsuccessful. The military pulled their funding, but that did not stop me from continuing work on the serum."
"So it works now?"
Steve got the feeling he knew what was coming next.
"After many refinements and having tested it on mice, yes I believe it should now be successful. I just need a willing subject. I'm hoping that might be you."
"How do you know I'm the right person for the job? How do you know my body won't just give out from the serum? It's probably just as likely to kill me. And what if I lose control of my powers? I could end up killing all of you as well."
Once again, Erskine smiled that elusive smile of his.
"So, I may have a slight confession to make. You met my secretary Marion?"
"Yes, I did. She looked at me funny."
"Well, Marion… she might have some slight ability with foresight, you see…"
Slumping his shoulders, Steve helped himself to a chair. So the secretary was a Seer. He supposed that could be a good sign in some roundabout way. Perhaps she'd already seen that he would take the serum, that he would survive the enhancement and be all the better for it. Surely the doctor wouldn't waste such an experiment on a no-hoper like him without some sort of guarantee, would he?
Steve pressed at his temples, trying to hold back his oncoming headache. He could sense that it was going to be a bad one. Not only that, but it would be his first ever that Bucky wouldn't be there to help him through it, and that was not a thought he cared to entertain. Bucky not being there was…
"What did she see?"
The doctor hesitated. "For fear of influencing events, I'm not going to tell you. Only know that both paths have… some negative outcomes. I think the phrase is, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't."
Steve sighed, knowing he shouldn't be surprised by the response. Seers were rarely forthcoming about the details of their visions.
"Fine. Let's do it then."
Erskine bounced on his toes. "I was hoping you would say that."
An army base in Italy was the last placed Steve had ever expected to find himself. Yet there he was.
Apparently, despite that the military had pulled their funding from Dr Erskine, he still had some contacts within the system. It seemed that they were well aware of the Hellmouth, just as they were aware of the mass migration of Hunters. The European forces were content to let the Hunters do the heavy lifting, but had deployed ground and air support to major cities to deal with anything that made it that far. Of course, that didn't mean they left the Hunters completely to their own devices. Dr Erskine had been in touch with two of his 'underworld' contacts – two supernatural folk who worked for some secret arm of British and American intelligence, keeping an eye on the Hellmouth and Hunters both. They were to meet Steve and take him wherever he needed to go.
Looking to the mountains in the distance and then back down at his hands, Steve took a steadying breath. It was unsettling enough to be in a foreign land, but to be in a foreign body as well was taking its toll. He had to keep reminding himself that it was still his body and still his face, just… upgraded. Against all odds, the serum had worked. And it had given him the physique of a 'super soldier', just as it had been designed to do. Suddenly, after the years of pain and illness and nightmares, he had found equilibrium. He had almost perfect control of his power now, his newfound strength could regulate the fluxes of magic within him and contain it, where before it would simply push its way out of him and make him sick. He could recognise magic within others for the first time ever. He could sense the supernatural all around him – light prickles on his skin, shadows out the corner of his eye, auras emanating from people's bodies. It was all the intricacies of magic he'd always wished for. It was just so… strange.
The nightmares were still a problem, however. Still filled with horrors, and still leaving him gasping afterwards. But he felt more equipped to handle them now. The images were clearer than they'd ever been, and he was getting a better sense of time and place more quickly. He brushed a hand across his bag and thought about the sketchbooks he had packed in there. He still drew what he saw in his dreams and found a strange comfort in continuing to do so. Now he just needed to find Bucky so he could help Steve make sense of it all.
A short time later a truck pulled up in front of him. A man with a moustache got out of the driver's side, while a woman – quite likely the most beautiful one he'd ever laid eyes on – emerged from the passenger seat.
"That'd be me."
Steve got to his feet, moving to shake hands with the two of them. He could pick up a slight resonance in the air that alerted him to their hidden nature. Erskine hadn't given him any specifics, but something about their 'feel' told him that theirs was a very physical type of power.
"I'm Peggy Carter," the woman said with a confident smile, "And this is Howard Stark. We'll do what we can for you, but if I understood Dr Erskine correctly, we will only be able to take you so far."
"That's already more than I can ask for, ma'am."
"Just Peggy is fine. And I'm glad to see the good doctor was finally successful. You make, uh, quite the picture, Steve."
Steve could feel the blush creep from his hairline right down to his toes. He was all too aware of the height and the ridiculous muscles he'd acquired, and it registered that Peggy's was the first real compliment he'd ever gotten from a dame. Thankfully, he managed to bite his tongue just in time to stop those exact words falling from his lips.
Howard cleared his throat. "Shall we head out, then?"
Eager to get going, Steve was all too happy to take the out, grabbing his bag and jumping into the back seat of Howard's truck. Howard kicked it into gear and then they were leaving the base and making for the mountains. Hours passed, during which Steve was enlightened to the fact that both Peggy and Howard were Shapeshifters, an ability that made them excellent 'spies' for their respective intelligence agencies. Although apparently Howard also had some sort of low-level affinity with metal – a fact that made him a dab hand at inventing things, and what had initially endeared him to one Dr Erskine. Peggy had then explained that she had a special knack for reading people, but Steve had to wonder whether she didn't actually have a power for that, but instead was just naturally extremely intelligent and perceptive. In return Steve told them his own story, which, of course, included Bucky. He gave no indication of the actual measure of their closeness, but he had no doubt that Peggy had still picked up on his feelings for his friend. Howard, on the other hand, was more fascinated by the friendship between a warlock and a Hunter and asked more than once how they'd gotten away with it.
The truck came to a stop just as the sun was beginning to drop below the horizon. All three of them stepped out into the chilled air and Howard clicked on some sort of fancy looking torch. Peggy produced a roughly drawn map of the area and explained the terrain to Steve.
"The Hellmouth is here on this plateau. It's about two miles from where we are right now, and there are encampments of Hunters scattered everywhere in between. Your best bet would be to find Bucky's group. Do you know who he'd be with?"
"Not for certain, but his father's known as Old Man Barnes. I always took it that he was some bigshot in the Hunting world."
Howard scoffed. "Yeah, I'd say so."
"Jacob Barnes is known to the military intelligence community," Peggy clarified, "He's very effective at what he does, but he also makes a lot of noise and has little regard for the consequences of his actions."
"Do you know where he is, then?"
"Not as such, but I figure with those powers of yours that you could probably scry Bucky in a matter of seconds."
"Oh, right." Steve blinked as the realisation settled over him. It was still taking some getting used to that he could use his magic so freely now. He closed his eyes and held his hand over the map, reciting one of the finder spells Bucky had made him memorise way back when. Any time he did simple spells now it was startling how quickly and smoothly his magic reacted, and the finder spell was no different. Almost immediately he felt a tugging sensation in his hand, followed by heat. He opened his eyes to see a small brown mark burning itself into the map, and Steve knew that that was where Bucky was. He'd thought that was the end of it, but as soon as he moved his hand away a storm of images flashed through his mind in quick succession. He gasped at the violence, the blood and the corpses he could see. Clearly it was a vision of the Hellmouth. But what made it even worse was the deathly pale face of Bucky that revealed itself, clear as day.
"Oh, god. No, it's not…"
"Steve, talk to me!" Peggy grabbed his shoulders and shook him with considerable strength. "What did you see?"
"It's Bucky. He's… I saw him dead. I saw piles of people dead. I don't… don't know if it was the present or the future. I have to go."
He turned hurriedly to the truck to grab his pack, hefting it onto his back. He strapped whatever weapons he could to his hips and thighs and into his boots. Then he made to leave.
"Wait, Steve. Take this." Howard quickly produced a large disc of metal from the back of the truck. It shone silver and was etched with spelled runes. "It's a shield. I made it from a unique silver alloy, so it should pack a punch to any nasties sensitive to silver, and the runes should help to repel most medium to high-level spells."
Steve took the shield gratefully and hooked it over his arm.
"Please be careful, Steve," Peggy appealed, "And don't hesitate to reach out to us if you need help. Both of us are receptive to telepathic communication."
He thanked them both profusely and then headed off at a run. He wished he could say more – he owed them that – but the thought of Bucky simply clouded his focus too much. Hopefully they understood and could forgive him.
Traversing the forest path was tedious but not difficult. He used his powers whenever he came upon the Hunters' camps, hiding himself with a cloaking spell. Listening in to their conversations proved fruitless, so he moved on as quickly as he'd arrived. It took him nearly an hour to cover the 'two mile' distance, moving mostly uphill and having to go the long way around several obstacles, but he reached the plateau eventually. He could see the Hellmouth up ahead – a large crack in the cliff face that glowed with a golden aura. Hunters stood guard, waiting for whatever might approach, but things seemed quiet for the time being. Even so, the Hellmouth was not where he was headed. Instead his destination was in the opposite direction – what turned out to be a cave with the stench of ripe flesh wafting out from within. He divested himself of his pack and hid it carefully in a tree nearby, before returning to the cave entrance and arming himself with his shield and an iron machete. He recalled Bucky once telling him very clearly that most flesh-eating nasties could be taken out with a swift beheading.
"Who the hell are you?"
Steve turned to find an aging man in hunting leathers, his expression clearly not amused.
"I'm Steve and I've come to get James Barnes."
"Yeah, and I'm Santa Claus. You can call me Colonel, though."
"Well, Colonel, I'll be on my way now."
The Colonel made a noise Steve supposed was meant to be a laugh, though it sounded more like a wheeze.
"Son, you go in there and you ain't comin' out. I'm assumin' that by James you meant the Old Man's kid Bucky. He's been in there a good few days by now, along with a few other whackos that call themselves Hunters. More likely to be stale vampire chow by now."
Steve blinked. "So it's vamps in there?"
"Son, did you hear anything I just said?"
"Yeah I did, but I'm ignoring you."
He left the Colonel to splutter to himself and moved quickly into the cave. He followed the passage downwards and only stopped once he sensed something nearby. Another spell came to mind and with a swift motion of his hand a 'bomb' of sunlight exploded through the cavern, the screams of dying vamps shocking his ears. He send up another, though this time directed it to linger for a longer time, allowing him plenty of light to attack the vamps that were still kicking. They tried to swarm him, but with their bodies weakened by the 'sunlight', he was able to relieve them of their heads with little difficulty.
Then came the hard part.
Bodies were strewn all around the cavern, but none appeared to be Bucky. The sound of a voice suddenly reached his ears, and in following it Steve located a second room at the back. He found a cage filled with men, some English speaking and some not, but all were beyond grateful to be set free of their prison.
"Never thought we'd be getting' outta that one alive, eh boys?"
"Zis is quite ze unusual circumstance."
"What's y' name, kid? We gotta thank y' properly."
"Um, I'm Steve. Steve Rogers."
"More like Captain America, ain't that the truth!"
"Nice one, Gabe. Captain America it is. What y' think, kid?"
"Um, I'm actually looking for Bucky Barnes. Have you seen him?"
"Oh, zis iz very bad, Captain. Zey took him to ze feeding room. No one ever comes out."
"The feeding room?"
Steve barrelled ahead as soon as he knew the way, kicking aside the rock that'd been used to block the door. He found another smaller cavern behind it, one with rotting bodies literally piled against the walls. He illuminated the room with a whispered word, and felt his knees go out when he found Bucky lying in the middle of the floor. He must have been their most recent victim.
"Bucky, no. No, please."
A hand against Bucky's cheek found his skin to be cold and waxy to the touch, but with all the blood and bitemarks covering his body, Steve should have known. He just couldn't accept that this was the end.
"No, I won't let it end here. I can't. There's gotta be…"
He gasped as the memory came to him. One of Bucky's father's books of dark magic. A book of great demons and beasts and summoning spells.
Before he could even think it over he was slicing open the palm of his hand and painting his blood onto the dusty ground. A snake-like symbol took shape, and as he closed the circle around the outside of it he could feel the ground start to shake. The symbol glowed red, and a moment later a humanoid beast took shape in its centre, crimson skin clinging to misshapen bones.
"You called for me, Warlock? You dare disturb my slumber?"
"You guard the gates of Hell, so you can retrieve souls, can you not? My friend is dead and I want him back."
The creature looked at Bucky's body, then looked back at Steve. Staring at him like he was imagining peeling Steve's skin back, layer by layer.
"What's in it for me, Warlock? There is always a price."
"When I'm dead you can take my soul. That good enough?"
"Mm, I accept. State your conditions – you get three."
"I want Bucky to come back to me alive. I want us to live long lives and then die together."
The creature smiled. "Humans are so easily pleased."
Then an instant later the creature was gone, taking its summoning symbol with it. The pressure in the cavern mounted, making it hard for Steve to get a full breath in, but then it relented just as quickly as it had come. It left him gasping, his illumination spell growing weak, but then it happened.
Bucky's body convulsed. His cheeks regained a hint of colour, and he convulsed again. Next thing he was rolling onto his side and hacking up a lung, and Steve quickly rushed to his side to help him up.
"Buck? Are you alright?"
The coughing continued, but Bucky managed to settle himself enough to reply.
"Stevie? That you?" He looked up, weak and bleary eyed. "What happened? You got big?"
"I went to see a doctor."
Steve hooked his shield on his back and took the brunt of Bucky's weight. They exited the cave to whistling and cheering courtesy of the men he'd rescued from the cage, along with plenty of exclamations of Bucky being alive. The Colonel, along with a scattered group of Hunters, was also among those watching them. He could feel the displeasure from the Hunters' unfriendly looks, so was more than happy to follow the so-called 'whackos' as they made a camp of their own. The Howling Commandos, as they dubbed themselves (since two of them were werewolves), retrieved whatever was left of their belongings, and Steve got his pack, and they were able to build a fire pit, pitch tents, and make some semblance of a meal from what food Steve had brought with him. Steve took a moment to close his eyes and make a connection to Peggy, letting her know that he had Bucky and was safe, and then one look at Bucky's drooping body had him deciding that it was bed time.
He crawled into the tent, dragging Bucky in after him, and finally they were alone.
They settled in their sleeping rolls, but Steve was all too aware of Bucky's wakefulness.
"What'd you do, Steve?"
He couldn't hide his flinch. "What do you mean?"
"Everything," Bucky hissed, "Your new body, first off. Then you being here at the Hellmouth. Then… me. I… I'm pretty sure I was dead. No. I know I was dead. I don't know how, but I'm sure of it."
"Well… I went to that doctor you told me about. He fixed me. My magic's stable now. Then he got me over here so I could find you. I'd been having visions of what was happening. I saw you dead… Then actually finding you like that, I… I couldn't, Buck, I just couldn't leave you like that, I—"
"You're a damn fool, is what you are."
Bucky wrapped his arms around him like he'd always done, and eased Steve's head against his chest. Somehow, despite the change in Steve's size, they fit together as perfectly as ever.
"You made a deal, didn't you."
Steve nodded, noting that Bucky hadn't phrased it like a question. They knew each other too well.
"That's what every Hunter is warned about from birth – never deal with demons. I'm not gonna ask you details, 'cause I don't wanna know, but I hope you're prepared for the worst."
His fingers gripped into Bucky's undershirt, digging in deep. How was he ever going to let go again?
"It will have been worth it, just to have you like this again."
Bucky clucked his tongue. "Like I said, a damn fool."
The other Hunters were suspicious of Steve, especially Bucky's clan once they figured out who he was. But once they'd seen him fight a time or two, they were nice enough to back off a little.
Between stints guarding the Hellmouth, Steve used what little resources were available to devise a way of closing the damn thing. With the combined knowledge of those around him, along with a few 'mind calls' to Peggy, he'd decided that it was the work of a single, very powerful demon. A demon with enough juice could rip a hole between dimensions and keep it open for as long as it had power. A demon with enough standing in Hell was able to command any creatures beneath it to do its bidding. Steve read enough about high-level demons until his eyes went crossed.
He looked up from his notebook as he sensed Bucky draw near.
"Stevie, there's something—"
"Something coming. Something big. I can feel its power."
He hooked his shield over his left arm and picked up a rune-etched sword with his right. Then he and Bucky were hurrying back to the plateau, where more Hunters were gathered than Steve had ever seen in one place before.
The first blast sent the front line flying.
Streams of creatures of all kinds began flooding through the rip and then the screaming started. Bucky positioned himself on an outcrop above the plateau, taking out the creatures from above with rifle modified to kill demons. Steve, on the other hand, made his way towards the Hellmouth itself. He had an idea of what might work, but he had to get close enough to do it. He cut down dozens of creatures as he went, some of the bodies disintegrating into dust while others fell to the ground and melted into fiery ashes.
Once he made it to the front line he cut his palm open for the second time in as many months and began placing symbols around the rock face. He recited an incantation all the while – a spell written in Latin that he'd crafted himself. He just had to hope he had all the words right.
He got his first inkling that it was working when the ground started to shake. Someone was angry.
"You again, Warlock!"
A section of ground nearby collapsed downwards, taking Hunters and creatures down with it. Then a beast rose up in their wake. Crimson-skinned and skeletal.
"So it was you all along," Steve said between grit teeth, coming to the sudden realisation that he'd most likely been tricked in his deal to bring Buck back to life.
"How smart of you to figure me out!"
The creature's cackling sounded like screeching metal.
"Too bad you won't live long enough to enjoy it."
It threw a bolt of power at him, which Steve was barely able to deflect with his shield. He didn't have time to pick up his sword again, no matter that it probably wouldn't help, so he drummed up a bolt of power of his own, aiming it at the Hell-beasts core. It appeared to take a hit, except that it only laughed in response. He threw another bolt in quick succession and used the distraction to finish drawing the final symbol on the rock wall. He started up his incantation again, and that was what really got the creature's attention. It threw blow after blow at Steve, but he was able to counter them all. He almost felt as if he had the upper hand until Bucky entered into the corner of his eye. Two demons had him by the throat and were dragging him towards the Hellmouth's opening.
"Not so tough now, are we?" the creature taunted, smiling a lipless grin.
The demons were attempting to push Bucky right into the rip, while Steve had to keep deflecting shots of power. He was running out of time and losing the thread of what he needed to do.
"Kill it, Stevie! Use its name!"
He wracked his brain, and then it came to him in a moment of clarity.
"I cast you out, Hydra!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, feeling the hope swell as the beast's expression turned sour.
"Not fast enough," it hissed is response. And Steve watched in slow motion as Bucky's body seemed to get sucked up by the Hellmouth, its golden glow swallowing him whole.
"No! No!I cast you out, Hydra!"
He felt the snap as the tight reign he kept on his power came loose. The resulting boom knocked down Hunter and demon alike, but Steve was adrift at sea. His magic was too much and too fast. The Hydra looked curious more than scared, and Steve was determined to put the thing down if it was the last thing he did.
Getting to his feet, Steve thought he heard his name being called, but he couldn't bring himself to shift his focus. He staggered towards the demon, hands raised, and he held the beast in place with sheer will alone, keeping it still enough that he could take it in his hands and…
Pulling its heart from its chest was the easy part.
But he could feel the swell of destructive energy building, energy wrought by the beast's death. Steve had just enough time to cast a protective bubble around them before the Hydra screamed like nails on a chalkboard. And then it all went dark.