Anna was living in New York and writing her doctoral thesis on apocalypse cults. When she set up detailed Google Alerts to catch any articles, blog posts, or academic musings on the subject she wasn't expecting news reports in her inbox. Especially not news reports about museum break-ins, thefts from specialist goat breeders, desecrations of ancient monuments and other generalised weirdness.
At first she'd figured she'd done something wrong, then maybe that Google's algorithm was having some sort of heart attack. Having eliminated those possibilities, she should have just put it down to a technological hiccup, but she'd never been able to ignore a mystery. (Or pass up an opportunity for thesis procrastination.)
It took two weeks and digging into the archives of multiple international libraries (and thank goodness for digitised collections), but when she figured out why she was getting alerts for seemingly random and bizarre international crimes she almost dropped her laptop.
Someone (or more likely someones) was apparently working through the shopping list necessary to summon Abaddon, favourite of apocalypse cults throughout history. The possibly demi-god, possibly demon, possibly the devil himself took up two full chapters in her thesis. While history was rife with disagreement on almost every aspect of Abaddon, the one thing everyone agreed on was that the purpose of his summoning was to destroy the world.
Maybe ten years ago she would have laughed the whole thing off, added it as an interesting footnote to her thesis, and moved on. That would have been before Norse gods, before aliens in New York, before killer robots in Sokovia.
Before the world had proven itself to be stranger and more terrifying than anyone could ever have imagined.
As it turned out the police weren't interested in her meticulously referenced research. Neither were the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, Homeland Security, or the EPA (a longshot, but the end of the world would represent a threat to the environment). Anna was pretty sure she was now on several watch lists and not one person had listened to her. Even when she offered to send them a copy of what she'd compiled.
In retrospect, that had actually seemed to make things worse.
It was Karen who, after watching Anna flop onto her couch and pull a pillow over her face, groaning in frustrated despair, had said, "You know, Captain America comes into the coffee shop after his morning run a couple of times a week."
Anna pulled the pillow off her face and stared at her, the whites visible around her eyes. "What."
"Captain America. If you're that desperate, you could try telling him," Karen said, voice soothing, like she was talking to a cornered animal. "We all pretend we don't know who he is, but please. He's Captain America. Have you seen him? Like anyone wouldn't recognise those biceps."
"He's not going to listen. No one will listen. And what if the world ends and I'm just left standing here waving these damn papers and screaming, 'I told you so'? It's not going to be much of a consolation when we're all on fire!"
"Okay, you need to calm down. Take a deep breath." Anna did as she was told. "He'll listen. He's about the nicest person I've ever seen. Even if he can't do anything to help you're no worse off than you are now, right? No, actually, you're much better off, because you'll have seen Captain America up close and personal."
Anna dropped the pillow back over her head. "I'll come with you in the morning."
Steve smiled at everyone as he came into the coffee shop. He liked it here. He was pretty sure they all knew who he was, knew who they all were, but everyone—customers and staff alike—was nice enough to pretend they didn't. Some days it would be him and Bucky, some days him and Sam, some days the three of them. They could stop in after a run, get a cup of coffee, and relax in peace.
It was just him today, so he ordered his usual and grabbed the paper and his regular seat at the back of the shop. Before he could take a sip of his coffee he felt someone watching him and looked up to see a tall, dark haired woman staring at him intently. People staring at him wasn't exactly a new experience, especially when he was wearing running gear—which Bucky never failed to give him shit about buying two sizes too small; not that he actually did that—but this felt different.
She was coming over, a manila folder in her hands. "Captain America?"
"Steve," he corrected, voice neutral, because he wasn't exactly pleased about being interrupted. "It's my day off."
"Steve, right, okay. Yes. Sorry." She rubbed her forehead. "I'm Anna. Is it okay if I sit down? I need to talk to you about something. I tried to tell just about everyone else and no one would listen, so you're kind of my last hope."
Steve studied her. She looked tired, and there was strain around her eyes. He softened because he never could resist someone who needed him. "Take a seat, Anna," he said, nodding at the other chair. "Tell me what's wrong."
"I think someone's trying to end the world," she said bluntly as she dropped into the chair. She set the folder down in front of her. "Or maybe not. But I think someone at least needs to check and make sure and no one will listen. They all think I'm crazy."
"And now you think I'm crazy, too." She sighed. "I'm not. I'm writing my doctoral thesis on apocalypse cults," she said and explained what she'd found out, that it looked like someone was planning to try and summon Abaddon to destroy the world. Steve listened, frowning when she explained that none of the agencies would listen to her. He wasn't precisely surprised, because her story did sound objectively crazy, but still.
"You think this ritual they've been collecting the material for, you think it's actually going to work?" Steve asked.
"I don't know. Maybe they're going to go out into the desert and the worst that's going to happen is some poor goats will die. But maybe not. Maybe it will work. Aliens came out of the sky and you know a Norse god. I'm saying how can we know it won't?" She looked at him, and her eyes were worried and tired and a little bit afraid as she pushed the manila folder across the table. "I'm an expert in this. I really am. I know when they have to do the ritual, I know where they have to do it. It's all in here. Would it be so hard to go and check it out, maybe stop it just in case?"
Steve looked at her, looked down at the folder, and he nodded. "Okay." He patted her hand. "Okay. I'll look into it. I promise."
"Really." Steve smiled gently and watched her smile tentatively in return. "Go home, get some sleep. You did good. I'll take it from here."
"Remind me again why we're doing this?" Sam asked, feet up on the dash of the Quinjet.
"Because some girl made doe-eyes at Steve and asked for help and he can't say no to that," Bucky replied from the rear of the Quinjet. He hadn't been fast enough to call shotgun and he'd only just stopped sulking about it. Sam hadn't yet noticed the tiny balls of paper littering his hair.
Steve rolled his eyes. "No, because she made a good point and she had a lot of well-researched evidence to back it up."
"Well-researched evidence based on a bunch of internet news stories about weird crimes, which clearly leads to someone summoning a demon who's going to destroy the world," Bucky said. "I love you, Steve, but you're so gullible."
"I'm not gullible."
"No, you're right. You're a sucker."
"I'm really not."
"You really are." Sam was looking back and forth between them, grinning like he wished he had popcorn. "How long did you spend looking for Jenny Myers' kitten when it got out because she was all big eyes and Steve you have to help me in the middle of winter? And it turned out it was hiding under the stove the whole time?" Bucky asked, eyebrows raised.
"Oh, that you remember."
"I remember having to haul your frozen ass in out of the cold," Bucky said and then grinned slyly. "And I remember how I got you warm."
Steve's ears went pink.
"You're both ridiculous, I hope you know," Sam told them.
"Not as ridiculous as flying half way around the world on the strength of some girl's thesis." Despite his words, Bucky didn't sound unhappy about it and he leaned back in the seat, stretching his legs. "About a demon destroying the world."
"No one said you had to come," Steve pointed out dryly, glancing back over his shoulder to look at Bucky.
Bucky grinned at him. "And let you go on your own? What if someone does summon a demon and it's lost its puppy or something? We might never get you back."
Steve shook his head and glanced at Sam. "You've got a little dandruff problem there, Sam," he said, lifting his chin in the direction of Sam's hair.
"Are you kidding? My hair is perfe—" He patted his head and came away with a handful of paper balls. He glared at Bucky, who smiled beatifically back. "Very funny. You're like a hundred. Aren't you a little old for spit balls?"
Steve tuned out their bickering as he looked for a spot to set the Quinjet down.
They left the Quinjet and made the rest of their way on foot. Anna had provided relatively precise coordinates but, as it turned out, they didn't need them.
They could hear chanting.
Sam launched himself into the air while Steve and Bucky split, to approach the chanting from opposite sides.
Sam's voice came through their communicators. "I've got a visual. There's thirteen people, one guy up on a little rise, can't tell if the rest are men or women; they're all wearing robes, so no way of knowing if they're armed. Oh, scratch that, some of them have big ass knives and, yeah, okay, I didn't need to see that. I like goats."
"I'm guessing they're ex-goats now?" Bucky murmured.
The location clearly hadn't been chosen for its defensibility, as there was plenty of cover on either side. Steve and Bucky took up positions where they could see what was going on but not be seen by any of the group they were watching.
"Yeah, very ex, and now the skinny-ass dude on the rise is drawing a circle with their blood," Sam replied.
"I'm thinking these guys fall in the crazy not dangerous category," Steve said and stood up from behind the rocks he'd been using as cover.
"Unless you're a goat," Sam pointed out.
He could see Sam's skinny-ass dude standing outside the circle he'd drawn. He was chanting, the other twelve people echoing his chants.
Steve made it three strides towards the group when the circle began to smoke. The ground cracked with a noise like thunder and the sky went dark. Wind howled down on the group, whipping around them in a frenzy, and Sam was forced out of the sky, landing hard. Instinctively, Bucky and Sam made their way to Steve, fighting against the wall of the wind.
"This does not look good!" Sam yelled.
"You think?" Bucky replied.
Steve kept his eyes on the spot that had been a circle of blood. He could hear the man who'd drawn the circle laughing hysterically, a note of triumph in it. The others, the robed twelve, were cowering on the ground. A pillar of darkness exploded from the circle, stabbing up into the sky, the force of it slamming the laughing man backwards to crash into the ground, and he was still laughing.
As quickly as the chaos had begun, it ceased. Everything went still, the weight of the sudden silence oppressive.
Standing where the circle had been was something mostly shaped like a naked man. His skin was obsidian black and carved with faintly glowing red runes; in place of fingernails he had curving black claws. He was built on heroic lines, seven foot tall and proportioned to match, and his eyes were blood red. He was gazing around with an expression of faint annoyance.
The laughing man climbed to his feet and addressed the demon, bowing low. "Abaddon, who is called Apollyon, the Destroyer, angel of the abyss, king of the plague of locusts, I am Lucas, your prophet, and I have summoned you forth to wreak destruction upon the world." The robed twelve repeated the words with varying degrees of successful harmony, some seemingly too petrified to do more than mumble.
Steve unsheathed his shield, holding it ready, Sam and Bucky readied their weapons, but they held steady, waiting to see what would happen, waiting for a hostile action.
Abaddon turned his gaze on Lucas. "No you're not."
This seemed to throw Lucas, whose mouth opened and closed like a landed fish. "I'm not...what?"
"You are not my prophet."
Lucas looked over his shoulder at the robed twelve, met the eyes of one standing near the front, who shrugged and then gestured frantically at him to turn around. He did so. Abaddon was much closer. Lucas swallowed hard. "But, but I gathered all the offerings. I spoke the words. I drew the circle. I summoned you. You're here. I must be your prophet."
Abaddon smiled slowly, revealing a mouth full of very sharp, very white teeth. "Anyone can gather the offerings and say the words. Only a prophet can do so safely. And you are not my prophet."
"Okay, that's enough." Steve wasn't going to let the guy get eaten by a demon from hell, no matter that he was the one who'd summoned him up in the first place. "Abaddon, right? I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to go back to wherever you came from."
Abaddon turned around to stare at Steve, menace disappearing from his smile to be replaced by pleased intrigue. He slowly approached Steve. Steve braced himself, watching warily, could feel Bucky and Sam at his back, but Abaddon did nothing hostile. He stopped six feet away. "You," he said to Steve, eyes slowly travelling up and down Steve's body. Steve felt himself flush at the frank appraisal he could see even in the red eyes. "You could be my prophet. I can see that you are worthy. You can sit at my right hand while I show you such pleasures as you've never known."
It was so unexpected, Steve blinked. He could hear Sam stifling a laugh behind him. "No thanks."
"Are you certain you wish to refuse?" Abaddon asked, sliding closer and stretching out a hand, palm up, claws curled, "You could experience delights you cannot imag—" He stopped and his nose wrinkled. "Someone loves you. Someone is your romantic and sexual partner and they love you." It came out as an accusation. "You cannot be my prophet if someone loves you in that way. Who has made you useless to me?"
Bucky, looking incredibly smug, raised his hand. "That'd be me."
Abaddon sighed in irritation. "Which also renders you useless," he said to Bucky. Bucky continued to look smug and shrugged.
Steve felt himself sliding back from the edge, letting the shield drop to rest against his thigh, even though he knew he probably shouldn't. Abaddon looked like a demon from hell, like the embodiment of evil itself, but nothing he'd done so far had been hostile.
"What of you?" Abaddon said, turning his attention to Sam. "Would you be my prophet?"
"Uh uh," Sam said, folding his arms. "No. Third choice? I don't think so."
"Be not like that," Abaddon said. "You are beautiful and could be great in the new world. Only be my prophet and I could show you pleasures and delights of which you have only ever dreamed."
"Third. Choice. I've got some self-respect, you know. One," he pointed at Steve, "two," he pointed at Bucky, "three," he pointed at himself. "You don't want me for a prophet, you just want a prophet and I happen to better than all those other guys." Sam nodded his head at Lucas and the robed twelve. "Which, honestly, doesn’t look like it would be hard."
"It's not that they were more desirable than you, simply that that was the order in which you were standing."
Sam tilted his head and gave Abaddon a look that clearly said he wasn't buying it. Abaddon threw his hands in the air. "Fine. Be not my prophet. Sit not at my right hand."
"I won't," Sam said.
"Good." Abaddon stalked back to where Lucas was standing.
"I could still be your prophet," Lucas said peevishly, kicking the dirt.
Abaddon's eyes narrowed. "You summoned me forth to the world and you are not my prophet. You could never be my prophet for you are not worthy. There is no one here to be my prophet. For that I will destroy you." His claws would have shredded Lucas' jugular if Steve hadn't been fast and strong and the shield made from vibranium. The shriek was deafening. Abaddon's eye glowed with anger.
Steve stood between them, Lucas cowering at Steve's feet. "Don't," Steve warned, shield held high. It didn't matter that Lucas had summoned Abaddon in the first place; that he'd wanted to destroy the world. Steve couldn't let Abaddon kill him. "Don't hurt him." Bucky and Sam's guns were trained on Abaddon.
"I will destroy him. I will destroy all of them. I will shred them into nothing and leave only their ashes to blow away in the desert so not even their names are remembered."
"And I'm asking you to please not do that."
There was a long pause. "I do not understand."
Steve wasn't sure which part was unclear. "I'm asking you not to hurt them. You don't have to. I can make sure they never do anything like this again."
"What will you give me if I agree not to hurt them?"
"With what are you threatening me?"
"I'm not threatening you. We'll have to stop you if you won't agree, but I'm not threatening you with anything. I'm just asking you to choose not to hurt them."
"You are asking me."
"And why should I agree?"
"Because it's the right thing to do."
Abaddon stared at him. "You do know what I am."
The corner of Steve's mouth pulled up in a smile. "It doesn't mean you can't do the right thing."
Abaddon appeared to be completely baffled. He stared at Steve some more. Then he looked at Bucky. "How is it that you live with this?"
"You have no idea, pal," Bucky told him. "I've been dealing with him since he was a kid."
"My condolences," Abaddon said, with genuine sympathy.
"Hey," Steve protested. "I'm not that bad."
Abaddon and Bucky and Sam shared a look which, considering two were human and one a demon from hell, contained a surprising amount of understanding. Steve huffed in annoyance.
"Very well. I will spare them in exchange for what you have given me: the first truly novel experience I have had in millennia."
"And what about destroying the world?" Steve asked.
"I have no prophet. Destroying the world is far from worth it if I've no one worthy to sit at my right hand." Abaddon cast a long look at each of them, lingering longest on Steve, and Steve couldn't help a little shiver as he met those red eyes.
Then he was gone.
Lucas threw himself at Steve, clinging to his legs and babbling his thanks, tears streaming down his face. Steve stared up at the sky and sighed while Sam called in the local authorities. Summoning demons wasn't technically illegal, but animal cruelty and theft were. The ex-goats and various sundries the group had stolen from museums were helpfully all here in one place.
Later, once all thirteen of the would-be world destroyers had been taken into custody, they made their way back to the Quinjet. "Shotgun!" Bucky called.
"Hey, I already called shotgun," Sam said.
"You called shotgun for the way out. I'm calling it for the way back."
"No way, man. Shotgun's shotgun for the whole trip."
"What planet are you from, Wilson?"
"Not ancient old guy planet where they don't know how shotgun works, obviously."
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, trying not to laugh. "Bucky's right. Shotgun only goes one way." Sam opened his mouth to protest and Steve quickly added, "I'm flying, I make the rules."
Once they were in the air and out over the open ocean, Steve leaned back in his seat, relaxing a little. "Nice change when someone decides not to destroy the world."
"Yeah," Sam said. He paused for a beat. "Guess there was no prophet in it."
There was a moment's silence then Steve started laughing.
Bucky whipped around in his seat, eyes narrowed, then tackled Sam, who was laughing too hard to avoid him. Bucky straddled Sam's stomach and started rubbing his knuckles on Sam's head in the traditional manner.
"All the things you can't remember and you remember a damn noogie?" Sam asked, retaliating by shoving his fingers into Bucky's ribs. Bucky yelped and batted at him. "That's right, Barnes, I know you're ticklish."
"I will turn this Quinjet around, so help me," Steve said sternly, in his finest Captain America voice, still chuckling. He listened to Sam and Bucky for a few minutes, their good-natured bickering interrupted by the occasional yelp, then grinned as something occurred to him. "Hey," he called over his shoulder, knowing full well he was going to regret it. "Does that mean they were a non-prophet organisation?"
Twin groans of disgust answered him, followed by an ominous silence, and he smiled to himself as leaned forward to adjust the controls.
He was definitely going to pay for that one.