Every avenue leading towards Bucky is a dead end. Steve spends months with Sam, tracking each trail they come across, following leads, listening to whispers, but it always stops, just before they reach him.
“Don’t think he wants to be found, man,” Sam tells him one night over the clinking of beer bottles against a well-worn bartop.
That night they’re in Brașov. A week later, Chisinau. Places Steve doesn’t speak the language. Places he never got to see the last time he made his way around Europe, with the Howling Commandos.
Eventually, Sam gets an invitation back to Washington. The army is picking up the remains of what SHIELD (no, HYDRA) left behind. Not all of them were bad. Not all of them knew.
Sam can help.
“I don’t have to go,” he says to Steve. That night they’re in Warsaw.
Steve’s been there before, but it’s changed. Even the “Old Town” wasn’t built, or rebuilt, until after he went under the ice. And the rest of the city is a mishmash of restorations and Communist architecture. There is very little left of the city he’d seen during wartime, but then that was the point, wasn’t it? It had burned down.
They’re in a run-down hotel room, Sam sitting on the bed nearest the door, contemplating whether to pack up his wings and his clothes.
“You should go.” Steve says. “We both could use the break.”
“You could come.”
Steve doesn’t respond.
“You could help.”
“I think my army days are over.”
“Then what? You gonna take a break? A real one?”
“Sure. You could call it that.”
Sam’s look is skeptical. But he gets up and moves towards the wardrobe, grabbing for his backpack and his two sets of clothes.
By the next night, Steve is alone in the shabby hotel room.
It suits him.
He does decide to take a break.
A break for Steve is hunting Hydra.
It’s a break from the Winter Soldier and who he used to be, from SHIELD, from the Avengers and New York City and getting recognized on the street.
It’s a break from thinking so damn much, because to him, hunting Hydra is more of a do activity.
The fall of SHIELD has caused an influx of weapons, tech, and mystical objects that’s spread out across North America and Europe.
They, unlike Bucky, are easy to track. Even easier, with friends who have spent a lifetime in covert ops. It’s a quick call to Natasha, to ask what the highest priority is. A mission by himself is a field trip. A getaway. She gets it.
“London,” she says. Her voice is low. He doesn’t ask where she is, and she doesn’t offer it. “A gem, housed in a necklace. Tarak-ha’s Amulet. It went missing the night SHIELD went down. They might look to sell it on the black market, or they might wear it themselves.”
“What does it do?”
“Allegedly? Opens a portal to another world.”
“I’m guessing it’s not a friendly world?”
“I’m thinking we don’t want to find out.”
The line disconnects.
So he winds up in London. Makes a list of the seedier pubs and shops, places their old intelligence (the reliable remnants of it) told them Hydra frequented. He gets through the first three on his list, spends a few hours in each listening, waiting to hear something that will be useful.
It’s at the fourth pub that Steve overhears something he can use.
Two men, drinking thick, dark porters, keeping their voices low enough that he wouldn’t be able to hear them if not for the serum. They’re a table over from him, and everything about their posture and tone is furtive.
“She’s the Slayer,” one says. “The real one. The original.”
The man tilts his head towards the bar, an indication.
Steve allows his eyes to follow. He’s not sure what he’s looking for. The bar is empty, save for two or three men (also drinking dark beer) and a blonde woman, standing at the bar. She’s talking to the bartender, but the bartender is avoiding her eyes.
Steve hears her say “amulet.”
He looks more closely.
From where he’s sitting, against the far wall, he can turn his body and look right at the bar. He’s got his baseball cap on, pulled low, and no one pays him any mind. They are noticing the blonde woman. The other patrons at the bar are angling their bodies away from her. The bartender still won’t meet her eyes. Conversation drums on at the tables around him, but it’s tense.
She smiles, a pretty expression, he can tell, even from where he looks on, over to the side -- but it doesn’t reach her eyes.
Then, she grabs the bartender by his collar, hits his head against the bar, and jerks him back up.
His face looks deformed, now, in the low light. What did she do? If she can do that without the amulet...
The bartender sputters, something about an abandoned row house, Steve can’t make out the address, but she can, and the woman lets him go.
“Was that so hard?” he hears her ask.
No one else looks up. Like they want to make sure she doesn’t notice them. Like they can’t get back to what they were doing until she’s gone.
She walks out of the pub.
The clouds are low, trapping the moonlight, and keeping the dark streets sharp, at least to his eyes.
He hangs back by a block or so. She’s wearing low slung jeans and a red leather jacket that hits down past her knees. Even without the serum, he thinks he’d be able to keep eyes on her from a distance, with the red of her coat and the bright blonde of her hair.
There are enough people out, at first, to keep him obscured. As she gets into a seedier part of town, the crowds disburse, and he finds himself having to keep farther back to avoid being seen.
He’s not covert ops. Tony, especially, likes to make fun of how he sticks out -- six-foot-two, two hundred and forty pounds -- (“You look like Brad Pitt trying to avoid the paparazzi, it’s ridiculous, no one could possibly fail to notice you,” Tony says, once, before a mission, and knocks the baseball cap off of Steve’s head.) -- but he can see and hear from a distance, and distance is his friend when he’s trailing a lead.
She ducks into a row house, and he follows. He pauses at the entrance, looking for some gap in the boarded up windows for him to peer into. He doesn’t find one, so he waits a moment, giving her time to get further inside, and then he pushes the door gently open.
It’s dark. Musty. Enough to remind him of the days when any bit of mold or dust would trigger his asthma.
He can hear her, follows her voice. He pauses outside of the room she must be in, standing with his side up against the wall, hidden, but ready to peek into the open doorway.
“This isn’t really up for negotiation,” she says. “You can either give me the amulet, or you can get slain and then give me the amulet.”
“You’ll have the amulet,” a voice responds, rasping, “when Tarak-ha the Destroyer uses it to slice open this reality. He’s ready. He will beckon his brethren home, and they will feast on your flesh, they’ll tear open your eye sockets and suck the juices from your brain, they’ll--”
“Yeah. I get it. You hear one ‘slice open reality’ monologue and you’ve heard them all. I’m going to ask you this one more time: do you have the amulet, or does this destroyer guy have it? Cause I’ve got places to be.”
Instead of an answer, Steve hears a roar, followed by the grunting, smashing sounds of a fight breaking out. The drywall next to his head thumps, raining some dust onto his hat and shoulders.
He’s moving into the room before he can stop himself -- he’s not sure whether the woman is Hydra, or something else, the way she scared all of the patrons in that bar. But, obviously, the man talking about tearing open eye sockets can’t be a good guy, and it’s his job to stop the bad guys and get the amulet, so --
Steve rounds the corner to find the woman pulling an axe out of the inside of her coat, and moving it forward in one sure motion towards her attacker, slicing off his head.
The body drops. Steve looks at the head, on the ground. Is it--
It almost looks Chitauri.
She rounds on him, axe still in her hand, but her eyes dart between her weapon and his face, and she asks, “Who are you?”
He doesn’t want to give her a moment to move with that axe in her hand, so he steps forward before she can react, grabbing at her wrist, and pivoting their arms down so he can disarm her.
She’s strong. He can’t quite get it away from her.
She looks at him again, her brow furrowed, and then down to where he’s holding her wrist. She tries to break free from his grasp. He doesn’t let her, so after a moment of struggle, she takes advantage of it, spinning until she gets him behind her, his front to her back, and she pulls, hard, flipping him over her shoulder.
He lands on his back, harder than he expects. The breath is almost knocked out of him. It’s a move he’s tried with Natasha, but they do it during sparring, in the training room, when there are mats on the floor.
He’s still holding onto her, uses the leverage to pull himself up to his knees, manages to slip his grip from her wrist to the handle of the axe, and wrenches it from her hand. Her eyes widen, but Steve flings it away before she can grab it again. A little too much strength behind his throw, the axe is launched into the wall, stuck there by the blade.
“Who are you?” he asks.
His grip on her wrist falters, and she elbows him in the face. There’s so much more force behind it than he expects. It’s more like being hit by Bucky than Natasha. She darts away from him, moving several steps back.
Up close, she’s tiny. She’s wrapped up in her big, red leather jacket, and under it is a wooly looking beige sweater. All of it threatens to swallow her up. She can’t be more than five foot two or three. Woman or not, she’s closer in size to him before Project Rebirth, not after.
How is she so strong? Maybe almost as strong as him, though they’d have to go all out for him to tell. Who did that to her -- who’s experimenting on women -- Hydra, or --
She rubs at her wrist, looking him up and down. “You’ve been following me.”
“Are you Hydra?”
“I’m Buffy,” she says. “Who’s Hydra?”
“Let’s skip the Abbott and Costello. I’m Buffy. My name is Buffy. Who’s Hydra?”
“The bad guys,” Steve says.
“Yeah, well. Not it.” She shrugs. He stops, looks at her again. She doesn’t feel dangerous.
“You’re American,” he says. He hasn’t heard an American accent in the days since Sam left.
“You too.” She pauses. “Why were you following me?”
“I’m looking for that amulet too.”
“Why? Who are you working for?” She eyes him again, and he feels a little too seen. “The army? The Initiative?”
“No. I’m working alone.”
“Then how do you know about it in the first place?” she asks.
”I’ve got sources. Look. I’m just trying to make sure it stays out of the wrong hands.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got it under control,” she says. “This is pretty much my run-of-the-mill Tuesday.”
She takes a step towards the wall where the axe is stuck, and he moves into her way.
“I wouldn’t do that,” he says.
“I wouldn’t do that,” she responds with an eye roll, and moves as though to step around him. He puts himself in her way again.
“Look,” she says, “I don’t know if you heard, but Chaka Khan is about to destroy the world, so unless you want your brain juices in some demon’s mai tai, I’m gonna need you to get out of my way.”
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” Steve asks.
“I’m so not interested in having my credentials questioned.”
They pause for a beat.
“Okay, listen,” she moves to get around him again, and this time she anticipates his counter, ducking around his other side with a burst of speed. She grabs the axe, leaving a poof of drywall dust in her wake, and slips past him. “You seem nice, kind of, but I really do need to go stop the apocalypse.”
Stop the apocalypse?
He moves into step beside her. “The people in that bar were afraid of you. That man’s face, after you…” He’d never seen anything like it. “How can I trust you’re not going to use the amulet for yourself?”
She stops, raising an eyebrow.
“The people in that bar were vampires. They’re supposed to be afraid of me.”
“Vampires? Like, Dracula, vampires?”
Steve had seen Son of Dracula in 1943 after he got Bucky back. They laughed together at the parts that scared everyone else, tossing kernels of popcorn up into the air and catching them in their mouths.
Vampires. It seemed far-fetched, but then, it wasn’t any more so than aliens and gods and men in metal suits. Everything had been that way since he’d awoken from the ice.
“Yes. Like Dracula.” She sounds like he’s hit a sore spot. “Why is that so hard to believe? Everyone’s all good with aliens now, but still shocked about vamps. Trust me, they’ve been hanging around way longer.”
They’re out of the house, now, heading back down the street.
“They called you ‘the slayer.’”
“Yuh huh,” she says, looking ahead.
“Because I am the slayer,” she says, slowly.
“The original one.”
“Is that what they said?”
“What made you like this?” Steve asks. “You’re strong.”
Was there another experiment going on? Like Project Rebirth?
“Oh, I dunno, you know how it is -- latchkey kids, children of divorce, growing up ‘chosen,’ -- it’s complicated.”
“Wait.” He stops, intending to grab her shoulders and stop her as well. He tries, and she pulls herself lithely out of his grip and stops on her own.
“No touchie,” she says, holding up a hand. “You don’t seem like you’re getting this. I’m Buffy, I’m a vampire slayer, which means it’s my job to stop vampires and demons, like the ones you just saw. I’m the ‘original one,’ because there are a lot of vampire slayers now. It’s a long story. I’m going to find the amulet and make sure reality doesn’t get ripped open. And who did you say you are?”
“Steve Rogers,” he says. He could give her a fake name, but he’s not undercover, not even on a mission, really, so why not. This is interesting, at least. He waits to see if there’s a spark of recognition.
“Listen, Steve? I appreciate the concern, but I know what I’m doing. I’ve been doing this a long time, probably longer than you’ve been enlisted, even--”
“Somehow I doubt that,” he says, more to himself.
“--And I’m really not needing any help, here,” she continues. “So, pat yourself on the back, and go tell your so-not-the-Initiative-2.0 buddies that the slayer is handling the amulet. They’ll know who I am.”
“I told you, I’m working alone,” Steve says.
“Right, well. Ditto. It’s under control. Thanks for stopping by.”
“I’ll help you,” he says. “I’m good to have around in a fight.”
She seems to consider this. “And when we find the amulet? What would you want to do with it?”
“Destroy it,” he says.
She nods, maybe more to herself than to him.
“All right,” she says, falling back into step. “For the record: if you’re evil, this is going to end badly for you.”
“Likewise,” Steve responds, picking up his pace alongside her.