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Far-fetched

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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.
 
Kind of.
 
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.
 
Steve follows.
 
--
 
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--
 
Alien? 
 
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?”
 
“What’s Buffy?”
 
“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. 
 
“Why?” 
 
“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. 
 
There isn’t. 
 
“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. 

Chapter Text


She’s walking, pace fast for someone so short, but he keeps up easily. They’re moving in the direction of the pub, steady and silent. It’s still before midnight, and he slept the day before, so he’s nowhere near tired, particularly not after meeting Buffy, and hearing of superstitions come to life.
 
As he walks, he finds himself glancing at her every so often despite his efforts not to. When he first saw her -- the tension in the room, the way she easily grabbed the bartender by the collar -- he thought that was a sign she was HYDRA, but now he sees it for what it is. She’s someone who can walk into a room full of monsters and scare them
 
He sees why, too, now that he’s looking. Apart from the fact that she’s strong. That assuredness, that effortlessness. It’s something he knows he’s got on the battlefield, even if he’s felt lost half the time since he woke up. It’s something Tony has, in or out of the suit, and Natasha and Thor, too, which is why they all work so well together in the field. It’s confidence, matched with ability.
 
“How will you find him?” Steve asks, breaking through the silence. “Tarak-ha.”
 
She doesn’t answer him. After a moment, she asks instead, “You are military, right?”
 
“Former,” he admits.
 
“I knew it.” She sounds pleased with herself.
 
“What gave me away? I know it’s not my haircut. And I’ve got the beard now.” It's new, and he's not sure he'll keep it. He runs a hand across it, to be sure. 
 
“Your posture,” she says. “Only army guys stand like that.” 
 
He adjusts his shoulders as he walks, suddenly aware of them. 
 
“You’ve got the super strength going, so obviously someone was offering up the juice during basic.”
 
“Juice?” He doesn’t know what she means. They mostly had water and milk to drink during training in the forties.
 
“Either that, or you’re not human.”
 
“I’m human,” he says.
 
“Okay, so you’re human, but you’re strong. Stronger than me, maybe,” she says, sounding thoughtful. “Are there more like you? Are you part of a -- I don’t know -- a unit, or something?”
 
“No.”
 
“I knew some guys a long time ago, and the army was giving them meds to make them strong. It worked, but they were nowhere near as strong as you.”
 
“There’s no unit. It’s just me who’s like this.” He’s not sure how hard he can press, whether she trusts him yet, but he asks anyway. “You said there are more like you?”
 
Her eyes dart to his face -- she does look a bit dubious. “Yes.”
 
“How did you get so strong?” If there were someone out there who had recreated the serum, it wouldn’t be long until they were abusing it, if they weren’t already. 
 
“We’re born like this,” Buffy says. “No meds.” 
 
“And you’re the original one? What does that mean?” 
 
She looks like she’s not sure if she wants to say more, but she speaks, maybe despite herself. “Used to be, there was only one slayer. ‘One girl in all the world with the strength and skill to fight the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness.’” She speaks like she’s reciting something long-memorized. “Not a great life expectancy in that gig. And when that ‘one girl’ died, the next one was called, her powers activated. On and on.”

He waits for her to continue. 
 
“That one girl used to be me. But, we changed it. Now, all of the women who can have the power, do have it. There are a few hundred of us. They don’t have to use their power, and they don’t have to join us, but we’re here if they need us. And, among other things, we make sure demons like Tarak-ha don’t rip open reality.”
 
“How did you change it? Make it so there’s more than one.”
 
She shrugs. “Magic.” 
 
“Right,” he says.
 
“And you’re not with the army anymore,” she says, like it isn’t a question. 
 
“Not for a long time.”
 
“Why not?” she asks.
 
“It’s a long story.”
 
“I showed you mine,” she says, tone entreating. “Besides, it’s a long walk. We’ve got time.” 
 
He’s not ready to get into it. “I’ll just say, I was ready to take my own orders.”
 
He can see her nod out of the corner of his eye. 
 
“I get that,” she says sounding sympathetic. 
 
A beat, and then her tone changes.
 
“What I don’t get is why you’re here . You’re the one-and-only extra-powered army guy who’s ready to take his own orders, and for some reason you’re tracking down this amulet? Which you didn’t even know belonged to a demon?”
 
“I knew it was dangerous. Knew it needed to be found and destroyed. That was good enough for me to get involved.”
 
“Is that right?” she asks. 
 
“You can trust me, Buffy,” he says, answering the question underneath her question.
 
He could’ve said, ‘you can trust me, I’m Captain America,’ but he doesn’t want to. For one thing, it sounds foolish. And another, there’s something appealing about not being recognized, about stepping into someone else’s world, even if only for a little while.
 
“I’ve already told you more than I should, if I couldn’t.” She’s silent for a long moment, then finally says, “I’m thinking, if all the demon needed was his amulet, we’d be seeing some carnage by now.” 
 
“Makes sense.” She’s right. It’s a good deduction, and he can feel himself slipping into talking strategy. “Is there something else he might need? Another rare item?”

“Could be. That, or he has to wait for a specific day, maybe a particular moon phase, or someone specific to participate, or -- oh! --  both! Like, a ritual sacrifice, maybe.” She stops, then cringes. “I promise I’m not as excited about the idea of ritual sacrifice as I just sounded.”
 
“That’s a relief,” he says dryly.
 
“Either way, we need to figure out what else he needs to get the party started and then we can crash it. Well, crash before… the party. Crash the party prep.”
 
“Crash the party prep,” he repeats.
 
“Y’know. Stop him before he starts ending the world.”
 
“I agree that would be the ideal time to stop him,” he says, voice wry. 
 
“It usually ends better for me that way.”
 
“Okay. We have a plan, then: crash the party prep,” Steve says. “Where do you suggest we start?”
 
“Easy. Research mode. I’ve got some people I can call. I’d go straight to headquarters but I’m not bringing you around the girls until I know more about what your deal is.”
 
Headquarters. The word reminds him of the Triskelion, makes his skin crawl a little. His gut tells him he can trust her, but then he didn’t see it coming with Pierce until it was too late.
 
“Your friends are still awake?” he asks, wanting to dig a little more. 
 
“Slayers are up all hours. Comes with the territory.”
 
“Because of the vampires.” In spite of all he’s seen, it just sounds silly when he says it out loud.
 
“They-who-tend-to-be-nocturnal,” she agrees.
 
“Then the sunlight part is true? They can’t go out in the day?”
 
“Not without a heavy blanket, at least,” she says. “They also don’t like stakes through the heart, or being beheaded. Though that would go for most of us, really.” 
 
“What about garlic?” Steve asks, curious now.
 
She scrunches up her nose. “Doesn't hurt them all that much. They just don’t like the smell.”
 
“Holy water and Crucifixes?”
 
“Yes and yes. Moderate hindrances. Usually.”

“Silver?” 
 
“No, that’s werewolves,” Buffy says. 
 
“Werewolves are real too?” 
 
Why had no one at SHIELD mentioned any of this? Nick Fury, all of the other Avengers, they’d seemed like the alien thing was a huge revelation, and yet, all of these superstitions were real too. Did they not know ? Or was she making it up? The… thing she beheaded with the axe certainly didn’t look human. Maybe the slayers had a different belief system, around aliens? Maybe it was all the same thing?
 
“...Really not their fault, and with time they can learn to control it,” she says, and he’s missed some of what she was saying, lost in thought as he was. She trails off, but he’s reluctant to let silence take over again, now that he’s successfully gotten them talking.
 
“Not headquarters, you said. Where are we going, then?”
 
There’s a slight pause, and  by the look on her face, he thinks maybe she’s embarrassed. 
 
“My place. I figure, things get rowdy, I can take you.” He tries and fails to interpret that comment innocently. As he told Natasha, he may be ninety-five, but he’s not dead.
 
She’s looking at him like she’s waiting. “If you’re coming, we’ll need to get onto the Tube.”
 
They’re a block or so from where they started at the pub.
 
“Actually? I’ve got some wheels,” he says. 
 
--
 
For someone who chopped off a monster’s head right in front of him an hour ago, she’s holding onto him pretty tight. Maybe she’s never been on a motorcycle before.
 
He weaves through the traffic easily, enjoying the feel of the wind in his hair (he’s put his hat away, now -- he doesn’t want to lose it). It’s a guilty pleasure of his, finding his way to a bike when he’s away from home, and even with the dregs of SHIELD being washed away, there are still resources for agents, if you know where to look.
 
She’s got his helmet, not that he really needs one in the first place, and maybe she doesn’t either, but she took it when he offered it, and offering it felt like the right thing to do. 
 
Helmet aside, her hands are balled up in his bomber jacket, and she’s clinging to him like she’s now more concerned with the motorcycle being secretly evil than with him. He can feel the handle of the axe poking him in the side, wonders idly if the blade might be somewhere less than safe on her person.
 
“I was assuming you had four!” she yells in his ear.
 
“What?” he yells back, over his shoulder.
 
“Wheels! Four wheels!”
 
He laughs, letting himself speed up for the fun of it, and to feel her grab on a little tighter. The roads are empty, the clouds low and bright. It’s the most fun he’s had in a while, since he’s not quite sure when.
 
“Turn right up ahead!” 
 
He does. It’s a few more turns after that, and then he parks, leaving the bike on the curb. She takes the helmet off and hands it to him, shaking out her hair. She doesn’t say whether she’s relieved to be off the bike, but it takes a few steps for her walk to become less rigid.
 
“It’s up here,” she says, indicating the brick apartment building. 
 
Without another word, she lets them into the front entrance, then up a set of narrow stairs and into a flat. She seems to watch him closely as he follows her into the apartment, and he sees some tension leave her shoulders once she shuts the door behind them. 
 
“Everything okay?” he asks. 
 
“I was just double checking for something,” she says, “but you passed.” 
 
“Passed what?” He’s not quite sure what to expect from her yet, and half of what she says needs a follow-up inquiry.
 
“I didn’t invite you in.”
 
“Oh. I’m sorry -- it seemed like I was supposed to come in after you, but I can wait outside if you want, while you make those calls--”
 
“No,” she says. “It’s a good thing.” 
 
“Now I’m not sure what you mean.”
 
“It’s nothing,” she says. “Just another vampire thing you need to learn. They need to be invited in; you didn’t.”
 
She pulls the axe out of her red leather jacket and places it on the two-person dining table. Then she takes the jacket off and lays it across the back of a chair. He’s pleased that she trusts him enough to leave the axe there, even though he feels like he shouldn’t care.
 
“If it helps,” he says, “There are a lot of things everyone knows that I’m still learning about.”
 
“I’m not sure it does,” she says, incredulous, with a tilt of her head. She makes her way towards the kitchen. 
 
The flat is small, mostly unadorned, and since the kitchen is a galley, he stands off to the side and waits for her to tell him what comes next. He feels like he takes up too much space in here. It’s the right size for someone like her, but for him -- the chair looks small. Should he sit? What are the chances he’d break it? He didn’t used to have to worry about that kind of thing.
 
She comes back into the room holding a cell phone, and taps away at a text message as she moves to the loveseat and sits down. 
 
“Steve?” she says, noticing him again. “You can sit. Unlike at that bar, I promise nothing in here bites.” 
 
He frowns, looking between the two tiny wooden chairs at the table, and the absolutely pocket-sized couch she’s sitting on. He sniffs, then pulls out a chair at the table and gingerly lowers himself into it.

“I split my time between here and Rome,” she says, “So it doesn’t make sense to rent a bigger place.” 
 
She must have noticed him looking around like he wasn’t sure where there was space for him to sit. He doesn’t want to come off as rude. 
 
“No, it’s -- very nice --” 
 
“Hello?” She’s picked up a phone call. “Dawnie, good, you’re up. The bar was a bust. No, the guy knew who’d bought it, but that demon was a dead end. Literally, now.”
 
She’s toed off her boots and Steve can see her sock-clad feet propped up against the coffee table. She wielded the axe like it was slicing butter, threw him over her shoulder like he weighed nothing, but she looks so delicate now, knees up, feet moving a little every so often like she might be restless.
 
“Do you think you can do a little more digging on the ritual? We’re thinking Tarak-ha might need some other rare items, or maybe a specific day or star sign or something, to get things cookin’.”
 
There’s a pause while the other person speaks, and Steve can’t quite make their words out. 
 
“We--? Oh, right. I met a guy who’s tracking it too. ... No, he’s a definite white hat. Ex army guy, but way strong. Not that we need the firepower, with the girls on call, but... He wants to help, so I want to see what homework we can give him.”
 
Another pause. 
 
“Yes, he’s here right now.”
 
Another. 
 
“Yes.”
 
And another. 
 
“Steve…” She looks at him. “Rogers, right?” 
 
He nods. 
 
“I don’t know, is that his name?”
 
She stops moving her feet against the coffee table and Steve feels his breath catch. 
 
“Dawn,” she says, sounding a bit huffish, “you know I don’t pay attention to that stuff--”
 
She turns to look at him, evaluative. He’s feels strange staring back at her, so he averts his eyes, finds himself looking at the television even though it’s off.
 
“I guess, yeah, now that you mention it… Yes. Um. I don’t know. Yes? I mean, I can ask.” 
 
He’s feeling like he’s under a microscope, the way she’s still staring, and he can see where this is going. The person on the other end of the line is definitely more familiar with his not-so-secret identity than Buffy is.
 
“Say, Steve?”
 
He has to clear his throat, and reluctantly meets her gaze. “Yes?”
 
“You wouldn’t by any chance happen to be Captain America, would you?”
 
“Um,” he says. For some reason, his cheeks start to feel warm. Why is he feeling self-conscious?
 
“Judging by his face, I think that’s a yes,” Buffy says into the phone. 
 
“It’s a yes,” he confirms.
 
There’s chatter on the other end of the call, while Buffy continues to stare in his direction. She doesn’t look star struck, like some of the people who recognize him on the street (before the hat, and now the beard, anyway). It’s more like, a few things are clicking into place from their earlier conversation.
 
“Dawnie, I’m gonna let you go, okay? Call me when you find something. I’ll be up for a while, but tomorrow’s fine too. … Yeah. If it were going to happen tonight, we’d be seeing signs. Love you.” 
 
She ends the call, placing the phone down on the coffee table without looking at it.
 
“Huh,” she says.
 
Steve swallows.

Chapter Text

Okay. Yeah, she sees it now. That was her bad. 

To be fair, he’s usually wearing that hooded mask thing when she’s seen him in pictures online. And, really, the Avengers have always been a little -- showy to her. Not that she wasn’t grateful! She definitely was pro-Earth-not-being-invaded-by-aliens. It’s just that some people save the world from a portal of incoming doom anonymously

Or maybe she just likes her news to look a little less like her personal life.

Either way, she hasn’t spent a lot of time following the Avengers, other than the immediate aftermath of the Battle of New York, and that was only for two reasons: One, she had slayers on the ground, and two -- like everyone -- she wanted to know how extensive the casualties were. 

She wasn’t as keen on the celebrity culture that popped up after. But she’s at least a little bit familiar with the story of Captain America. Everyone is. 

Now, Steve kind of looks like he wants to sink into the floor. His jaw is clenched, his arms are folded, and he’s looking anywhere but her. It occurs to her that he could have told her. Told her more clearly, anyway. She thinks maybe he didn’t want to. Maybe he wanted to just be Steve Rogers for a little while. 

She takes pity on him, speaks first. “Really, Steve, it’s no big. I don’t need an autograph, and I’m not gonna run away screaming.”

He doesn’t respond, but he does hazard a look her way.

“I was pretty sure I could trust you,” she says, “and I’m usually right about that kind of thing. But it’s helpful to know more about who you are.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘Captain America’ is who I am,” he says, voice quiet.

That hits her. She still remembers what it was like, fighting against her calling, insisting that she was just Buffy , not the Slayer, not the Chosen One. Now, she feels like she’s choosing it, every day. There are three hundred other girls who can take up the mantle. She does it because she wants to, not because she has to. But he’s the only Captain America . That she knows of.

“No, sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean that. I just meant -- I trust my gut. And my gut said to trust you. Some people might tend to question that. But if you walk in, and you’ve got this reputation of being a hero, then no one’s going to second-guess my gut.” She smiles at him. “No gut guessing.”

“I can see where that would be helpful,” he says.

She gets off the couch, walking across the room and sitting down at the other spot at the table. His eyes follow her as she moves. 

“Dawn’s going to figure out Tarak-ha’s next move, no problem,” she says. He’s looking less chagrined now, but the urge to comfort him hasn’t left yet. “She’s pretty much the authority on demon tomes.”

“She’s a friend of yours? You were calling her by a nickname.”

“She’s my sister. And I guess you could say we work together too.”

“Is she a slayer?”

“No,” Buffy says. “She’s more like… a very smart person who’s been doing research on this stuff for longer than some of our slayers have been alive. She helps run things.”

“And can I ask what that looks like?” he asks. “Working with hundreds of other slayers? I find it’s sometimes a challenge to work with only a few other heroes, but hundreds...”

She thinks he might feel more comfortable asking her things than opening himself up to questions, but the more she answers, the less tense he looks. 

And being clammed up? She gets it. For some reason, it’s easy enough to slip into explanation mode.

“There are a lot of places that need help,” she says. “I was called -- I became the slayer, I mean -- when I was fifteen,” (she sees him balk at this, and ignores it) “and I spent years living on something called a Hellmouth, which is pretty much literally what it sounds like. It was an unusually active and volatile place to live. But there are a lot of places that have some degree of vampire and demon activity, and we’ve been able to save a lot of lives through protecting those places.”

He leans forward, glancing down at the table a little awkwardly before placing his forearms on it. She feels him waiting for her to continue.

“We train a handful at a time, as they’re called, or if they ask. They can go back home after, or somewhere that needs help. Whatever they’re comfortable with. New ones get paired with more experienced ones. We’ve got maybe twenty or thirty in London at any given time, another twenty in Rome, seventeen in New York.” (She doesn’t say why it’s less there, but feels the twinge of it.) “I’m not in charge of them or anything. I’m more like a… senior consultant. They bring me in for the tough problems, or when the new recruits need a pep talk. Just since I’ve been doing it longer.”

“They?” Steve asks.

“It’s not a ‘they’ they. It’s just Dawn and some of my other old friends from back home, and some of the slayers who have been doing this a while.”

“And where’s home?”

“California.”

“I should’ve guessed that,” he says.

She frowns, unsure whether to be offended. (She’s heard one too many valley girl jokes in her life.)

“I just mean, you look like you come from somewhere with lots of sunshine.”

She bites back a smile, and then his eyes go wide. “Because -- you’re American, and blonde, and a little bit tan, and you don’t have much of an accent.”

“Thank you?” she says.

He clears his throat. “You -- your team -- you’ve been able to keep hundreds of powered people working together peacefully?”

“There have been challenges, here and there.” Buffy still feels a wave of sadness when she thinks about Dana, about Simone. “Slayers who are sick, or who think they can make the rules for the rest of humanity, or who want to use their powers to hurt instead of help. It’s never easy. We deal with it as it comes.”

“When did all this happen?” Steve asks. “The change, from one slayer to hundreds. I know I’ve missed a lot, but I’ve never heard about any of this -- slayers. Vampires.”

“Oh gosh,” Buffy says, thinking. “Eleven years ago now? Has it been that long? Yeah. It was two thousand and three. With a few hundred of us, it’s not top secret anymore, but we prefer to operate out of the spotlight, so it’s not exactly common knowledge either.”

“And before that, how long were you-- alone--”

“Seven years,” she says, understanding his question through the jumble of words.

“So you’ve been fighting vampires for--”

“Eighteen years.” 

“That’s quite a while,” Steve says.

“It’s gotta be some kind of record,” Buffy agrees. “And I mean that literally.”

“Ever thought about retiring?” he asks.

“That’s the thing,” she says. “This is my retirement. I’m not the only one anymore. I don’t have to save the day if I don’t want to. Someone else can step in, and they usually do.”

He nods.

“Now,” she asks, “can I ask you something, or is it going to make your jaw get all clenchy again?”

He looks like he’s about to clench his jaw and then visibly fights it off, like he’s thinking about how to not do it, and then he says, “Go ahead.”

“They’ve been saying you’re the same guy from the forties.” 

Okay, no, there’s a clench, even if he’s trying not to.

“We don’t have to talk about this,” she adds.

“It’s okay. Yes. I am the same guy from the forties.” He says it in a tone that’s a little bit ironic.

“So, you’re, what, immortal? You don’t age…?”

“I think I age -- I’m not really sure. It hasn’t been that long for me. But, no, I haven’t been around all this time. I was frozen.”

She can remember bits and pieces of the Captain America story. Something about being the One and Only Super Soldier, saving the world from HYDRA, and then disappearing. Admittedly, she did not pay super close attention in history class, and she’d never been to the Smithsonian. 

And then, poof! He was back, at the Battle of New York, in the same costume and everything. But...

“Frozen?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“What, really? Like Austin Powers?”

“What’s--”

“Oh, right. Sorry. It’s a movie, a comedy, with this secret agent guy. He’s like -- frozen in a tubey thingy, kind of, to keep him in stasis, and they unfreeze him when they need his help again.”

“No, not like that.” Steve leans back and folds his arms. “I was frozen in ice. I went down in a plane crash in the North Atlantic. The serum that made me -- how I am -- stopped me from freezing to death. I was asleep. And they didn’t find me for a long time.”

“Ah.” She feels like she’s intruded, now. “So you… were… frozen in the forties, and got unfrozen? Defrosted? I’m not sure what the right term is, if there is one, sorry. When did you come back?”

“It was almost three years ago.” 

“That’s… Wow. So, what, right before New York.” She doesn’t mean to bring up New York, but it’s slipped out.

“Yeah.”

“That’s, what, sixty-something years,” she says, pivoting away from the topic.

“Sixty-five.”

“Huh. So. From your perspective: waking up in the future. How’s that been going?” she asks.

Unexpectedly, he laughs, and it lights up his face.

“Well, most of my friends are dead, and the ones who aren’t don’t remember me very well.” He pauses, considering. “I’m enjoying Google. You can learn a lot very quickly on your own, now.”

“Boy howdy,” Buffy says. “That’s gotta be a big change from the era of the Dewey Decimal system.”

“It is. There’s a lot that’s changed. Grocery stores. Cable television. Cell phones .” 

“Oh! I was around when that one changed, the cell phones. For some of it, anyway. We only had these big, chunky ones when I was a kid, and they didn’t have Google on them.”

“That must have been a big change,” Steve says, and it sounds genuine, even though he’s been through so many larger changes himself.

“I still forget to bring mine with me half the time,” Buffy admits. “It drives Dawn up a wall. But I didn’t get my first one until I was in my twenties. Sometimes I like not being reachable -- or traceable . And everyone else has one, so if I need to call someone, I just borrow one.”

He pulls his out of his pocket, gesturing with it to show her. “Some of them aren’t traceable. Just so you know, or in case you need one.”

“Neat,” she says. “But does it have Angry Birds?”

“Maybe?” he says, then looks down like he’s about to unlock it and check.

“I’m joking.” She can’t decide whether she needs to watch what she says, or go out of her way to mess with him.

“Ah.” He grins, and ducks his head.

Mess with him. Definitely. 

Come to think of it, he looks younger than she expected, especially when he’s smiling. Even though she doesn’t follow the Avengers the way Dawn -- and Xander -- do, she’d have to be blind not to notice that Steve is attractive, particularly when he’s sitting there taking up all of the space in her little dining room. She noticed that before she knew who he was -- after all, she’s always had a thing for the tall, broad-shouldered types. She wants to be Professional Buffy on a Mission, but also -- she is human, and she is not blind.

“How old are you?” she asks. “In your time, I mean. Minus the time skip.”

He looks a little surprised, like no one bothers to ask him that sort of thing. 

“Thirty.” He pauses. “Though, to be honest, it’s felt off, celebrating my birthday. I was born in July. When I went under, it was February, but they woke me up in June. Either I turned twenty-eight a month after that, or my birthday’s in November now.”

She narrows her eyes, watching him. “And it feels like it matters?”

“Not exactly,” Steve says. “It just occurred to me, is all.”

She realizes, suddenly, that she missed four months too. She’d died in May and they brought her back in September. By the following January, Buffy was in the thick of it, struggling with the whole heaven thing, but Dawn had insisted on a Buffy Birthday Bash -- the one that ultimately trapped everyone in their house. It wasn’t exactly a joyous celebration. By the year after that, her house was full of potentials, and it was off to the races after that.

“Y’know, I’ve honestly never thought about that,” she finds herself saying out loud.

“About what?” Steve asks.

“Adjusting the birthday.” She’s not sure why she feels compelled to overshare with him, but it’s all she’s been doing since she met him. “I died for a few months, one time. And after I got back, it just never occured to me that I’d lost that time, age-wise.”

“You died?

“Wow, that is going to bug me now.”

“For a few months --?”

“Yes?” she says, feeling self-conscious. “I’ve actually died twice. It’s a long story. But I’m on a great streak now. Buffy Summers: 13 years without an on-the-job death.”

“Do slayers have multiple lives?” Steve asks.

“Oh. No. Valid question, given the context. The first time, I briefly drowned and needed CPR. It’s more of a technicality than real death. The second time, I was big-time gonezo and my friends brought me back with magic.”

“You’re saying magic can bring people back from the dead?” He doesn’t sound tempted by the prospect, but all the same, she wants to shut down that line of thought. 

“Not without -- and I mean this with no exaggeration -- incredibly disastrous unintended consequences. My entire hometown ended up a crater in the ground.”

“I see.”

“Most people, even those who have access to magics, wouldn’t be able to even attempt it. But - I imagine you’ve lost some people and, uh. Don’t go there. Please.” 

“I won’t,” he says. He sounds serious.

“I believe you,” she says.

“Most of my friends had good lives,” he says, thumb rubbing absently at his arm. “To them, I was the one who died.”

She’s not sure what to say.

“Now I’ve got some new ones, and it’s gotten easier, but it’s hard not to wonder what I missed.”

“So, on the temptation scale: resurrection, no. Time machine, yes?”

“Maybe,” he admits.

“That’s valid,” she says. “I’m pleased to say that, despite everything I’ve seen, I have not come across any actual time machines. I can only imagine the havoc they’d wreak.”

He’s quiet, and she’s thirsty, so she gets up to grab a beverage from the kitchen.

“Soda?” she asks. “It’s that or water.”

“Water,” he says. “Thanks.”

She takes her time, pulling a glass out of her cabinet, examining it for dust, rinsing it out, and then filling it up. For herself, she grabs a can of Diet from the fridge, no cup. She places the drink in front of him and sits back down. 

“How’d you go from being unfrozen to being the leader of the Avengers?” she asks, popping open the can. “What about your retirement?”

“I thought about it. But they said they had a mission,” Steve says. “Asked me if I wanted in. I didn’t have anything else to do. Military strategy was my specialty, before, so I took the lead there, but there’s not really a leader of the Avengers.”

“How do you figure?” Buffy squints at him.

“Well, for example -- Tony -- Iron Man, he makes all of our tech himself. Not only designs it. Makes it. And he and Bruce Banner are the two smartest people I’ve ever met. Thor is definitely the strongest, other than Hulk, maybe, but Hulk doesn’t always listen. And Natasha -- Black Widow -- could probably take every one of us out if she put her mind to it. Clint too.”

“Which one’s Clint?” Buffy asks.

“Hawkeye.”

Buffy smiles, trying to be polite. Is Hawkeye the arrow guy? She’s not one hundred percent sure. How many Avengers are there exactly? 

“So you’re saying you’re all equal, and you all have your strengths,” she says.

“I guess that’s what I’m saying.”

“Isn’t that what a good leader does? Notices their team’s strengths and leverages them?”

His cheeks get a tinge of pink and he sips his water. He’s way too humble, and for whatever reason, Buffy is very okay with making him blush.

Her phone buzzes where she left it on the coffee table and she gets up to grab it.  There’s a series of texts from Dawn. One from earlier:

     DETAILS?? Now? Kthx

Then more from just now: 

     Tarak-Ha won’t be in our dimension again until the ritual 

     Ritual must be during new moon. (Night after tomorrow.)

     Tarak-Ha will need the amulet and a blood sacrifice. 

     Demon, not human. V rare demon type. Eryu. Likes water.

     May live in sewer near Thames?? Lol lucky you

     Find and slay first

Another buzz, and Dawn’s sent a picture. It’s a photo of a page in a book, featuring the Eryu demon’s description and picture. Eryu’s got the beady eyes, ridged face, pointed ears, and thick neck -- the whole nine, with a distinctive marking on its sternum like an infinity sign. 

She sits next to Steve and places the phone, facing up, between them.

“Dawn’s got answers,” she says. “Tarak-ha’s going to make his move the night after next, and needs one of these bad boys for the ritual. If we can find it first, we can stop this before it begins.”

Steve leans over to look at her phone. 

“Eryu,” he says.

“Yeah. Really not much of a looker.”

“He couldn’t be convinced to run? Hide?”

She looks more closely at the description. “According to this, it wants to be a servant of Tarak-ha. And it’s strong. You’re welcome to try to talk some sense into it, but I find there are generally two types of demons out there: the ones who basically want to be left alone, and the ones who want to cause some damage, up to and including destroying the world.”

Her phone vibrates again, several times, in rapid succession.

     OK now that that’s done

     ARE YOU STILL WITH CAP, TELL ME EVERYTHING

     HAS IT OCCURRED TO YOU THAT HE’S EXACTLY YOUR TYPE

     GET IT (hands up emoji, dancer emoji, hands up emoji, peach emoji)

     JUST SAYIN (star eyes emoji, fireworks emoji)

She flips the phone over, but it’s definitely too late, she knows he saw it. This is also why she hates cell phones!

“So, are you ready to pack it in for the night? Or should we go look for the Eryu demon now?” Buffy asks, pushing her embarrassment away. She can kill Dawn later.

“Not tired,” Steve says. He looks like he’s stifling a smile. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

They’re in the sewer near the Thames, as directed by Dawn, not too far from the London Eye. Even at this time of night, they’d had to be careful of the tourists, watching out for stragglers who were meandering around long after the attractions had closed. 

When they’d found a break in the action, Buffy easily strong armed a storm drain out of the pavement and -- poof! They were in.

It wasn’t often she got to expose a beloved, world-famous superhero to the more glamorous side of slaying: the sewer. 

It’s enough to make her feel a little embarrassed. Sure, the slayer gig sounds cool and secret agenty in the abstract: she’s a ‘senior consultant,’ she’s brought in on the tougher assignments, she’s the original one

But this is the reality of it -- sewer time. Pack your waterproof boots, friends, because we’re going in.

She wonders whether Steve has super smell. She really hopes not.

He looks okay with it all, she thinks, watching him clomp through the shallow puddles. Really, he looks more comfortable walking through the dank, wet tunnel than he’d seemed in her apartment.   

“It’s up ahead,” she says, indicating an upcoming fork in the sewer pipes. They’ll go left. 

She’s targeting hot spots near the Thames. Places she knows she can reliably find some demon action, and where -- if nothing else -- there may be a vamp or two hanging out who knows more. 

It’ll have to do until Dawn is able to get more intel their way in the morning.

--

Earlier, Steve had looked a little nonplussed as he saw her pack her weapons up -- grabbing the axe where she’d left it and pulling out three stakes (one for her, one for him, and a spare), which she’d put into several easy-to-reach spots on her person. He didn’t have any weapons on him that she could see.

He’d volunteered to drive them again on his motorcycle, and it was less scary this time, knowing that he was Captain America, protector of freedom and purveyor of justice, and not some random ex-military guy on a bucket full of steroids. 

She’d let herself enjoy it a bit, watching the light from the traffic signals reflect off the dark streets and puddles, the overcast sky bright from the full moon behind it. 

“Don’t you have a shield?” she’d asked, giving herself an excuse to lean a little closer. 

“It’s in the back,” he’d said. 

She hadn’t been quite comfortable enough to turn around and look behind her at where ‘the back’ might be, but figured it out after they’d parked, when he popped open a small trunk on the motorcycle and pulled it out.

“Shiny,” she’d said, admiring. 

“It does the job,” he’d agreed, and fastened it to his back.

--

Now, with the shield on, she thinks even she would recognize him on the street -- and that’s despite the close-cropped beard and lack of a uniform. But then, that’s why they had been trying not to be seen.

They turn left, making their way down the tunnel, until she notices some shadows up ahead. 

“Eyes up,” she says, nodding, but Steve is already looking alert. 

She hears raucous voices before she sees anyone at all, and she knows what that means: vampires. Eryu isn’t likely to be chatting its friends up about its latest kill.

“Vampires. You’re gonna want this,” she says to Steve, and pulls a stake from her jacket, handing it to him. He glances down and there’s a second of uncertainty on his face, but then he takes it, holds it awkwardly.

Four vampires, all male, clustered together, approaching languidly in the opposite direction until they get close enough to -- she assumes -- catch a whiff of human in the air. There’s one up front who’s no doubt the leader, standing ahead of the rest and gesturing with a nod. The others close in, a U-shaped formation, stopping Steve and Buffy from moving any further. Ready to chase them should they try to run.

The leader-vamp sniffs the air. Growls. “A slayer.”

“Yep,” Buffy says. “In case you’re confused, that’d be me -- not him.”

“Your kind is sweet. What a joy that there are so many now. I look for them -- enjoy them so decadently when I find one.”

“You don’t say.”

“You’ll be my fourth,” he says, grinning. She feels something sharp spark in her gut at his words, like seeing red. “I like the young ones better, but you’ll do. C’mon, boys.Have you tried slayer before? We can share this one.”

Before they can act on his command, Buffy springs forward, launching herself at the nearest vampires. She stakes the first two quickly -- one is a straight shot, the other only needs a few hits before she has her angle. 

Once she’s down to the other two, she notices that Steve has also jumped into the fray, fighting the leader. Only, he’s wearing his shield on his arm and is playing defense, the stake hidden in his hand behind the shield. The vamp is laughing, ducking some of Steve’s punches, taking others -- and even when Steve lays him out, he gets up again grinning, joyful in the fight.

“Stay down,” Steve says to him.

“Do it again,” the leader-vamp says, voice a purr. “The blood is always sweeter after a bit of violence.”

“Steve,” she calls to him. “The heart!”

Steve frowns, and smashes the vampire with the shield instead. It makes a dull thud against his head, knocking him down hard.

She makes quick work of the third one. This group isn’t particularly challenging, wouldn’t be even without Steve lending the assist, but then she’s gotten stronger, the older she gets. 

Steve’s still not using the stake, but the leader is up again, so she gets between the two of them, ready to strike the laughing vampire. 

“I wait for their smell on the air,” the vamp says to Buffy, ignoring Steve. “I find them. Your kind always beg for their lives. So ready to kill; never ready to die.” He wipes a trickle of blood from his face, licks it. “Precious little girls.” 

She’s reminded of Spike -- not today’s Spike, fighting the good fight in California, ready for her call should it come. This vampire (alternative views on slayer death wishes aside) is Spike as she first met him: irreverent, and deeply evil. His friends —or minions — are dust, but he’s still enjoying himself. He hasn’t even vamped out.

She’s going to kill him.

“Your kind dust too fast to beg,” she says. 

She wants to beat him to a pulp. Wants to make him beg for his life despite her words. Instead, she grabs his throat and pushes him towards the side of the tunnel until she’s able to slam him against it. 

He laughs again. She backhands him with her other hand, holding him in place. Now, his face shifts, yellow eyes staring into hers. He snarls.

“Do you understand that you’re not going to be killing me today? Is that sinking in for you yet? You stop at three.”

He struggles but doesn’t speak. But maybe he can’t. She’s stronger than he is, and he’d be choking if he needed to breathe. She fights the urge to crush his trachea. She needs to ask him a question.

“You have one chance to live. Eryu demon. Ugly. Infinity sign on its chest. Seen it?”

His nostrils flare. She lets her grip loosen enough for him to speak.

“I don’t associate with demons,” he says.

“Try again.” She pushes him harder into the metal of the wall. He tries to kick her, to twist, but she holds steady, jams a knee into his hip for good measure. Steve stands at the ready behind her, but she’s not concerned about the vamp getting away.

“We saw a nest up ahead. Maybe a mile. It’s new,” the vampire says. “Didn’t exactly ring the doorbell to see who was in. That’s all I know.”

“Cool,” she says, and stakes him. His eyes widen in shock as he turns to dust.

Everything is silent as she catches her breath. Hearing him talk about killing slayers — she needs a moment.

“Buffy,” Steve says.

“Use the stake. Not the shield,” Buffy says, biting back harsher words.

“I’m -- They’re strong. They can really take a hit.”

She doesn’t answer. She’s trying to calm down. Needs to calm down.

“And they look -- human.”

“Is that why you were hesitating?”

“I thought if I knocked him out—”

“Because they’re not. Human. And they’re not going to hesitate when they get a chance at your jugular.”

“You killed him. You told him you’d let him live.”

“You know, Steve, I’m actually feeling okay about lying to a bloodthirsty demon who killed three of my slayers. But thanks!”

He’s quiet for a moment.

“Fine,” he says. “I hear you. But that wasn’t about getting information on Eryu.” He’s found the heart of the matter himself, putting a stake right through it. “It’s about what he said to you. It was rage.”

“Yeah, well.” She shrugs, turning her back to him and pacing away, then back. “ I’m only human. My job isn’t just to protect the world. It’s to protect my girls. It’s because of me they were called. And he isn’t the first one I’ve met who hunts us. His death was fast. It wasn’t cruel. He deserved what he got.”

“And that’s for you to say?”

“Yes.” She’s unequivocal.

“You’re not the judge, jury, and executioner.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” She folds her arms, smiling wryly. “I am the law. There is no higher authority than me when it comes to slaying vampires.”

“Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.”

She frowns, about to speak, but he interjects, calm.

“Not because you’re unjust, but because you’re only human. And the killing… What that does to a person.” (She flinches. She knows what he means.) “Maybe there are other ways to handle this. A process. Confinement, or--”

“What, jail?” She scoffs. “The system isn’t equipped to hold them.”

“That could change.”

“Sure. And if they build one that can hold vampires, Steve, I promise it won’t be long until you and I are in it too.”

He frowns, then looks thoughtful, folds his arms. She continues.

“And what’s the point of jail in the first place? Punishment? Rehabilitation? They’re demons. Literally. That is a demon inside of an old human suit.They don’t have a conscience, no guilt, nothing. No point in punishing them. And they can’t be rehabilitated. I’ve been doing this job for almost two decades and I can count the number of ‘good’ vampires I’ve met on one hand. And a good vamp who’s chosen to be good on their own as a first step -- who hasn’t been forced into it somehow? Zero. None.”

Now she’s thinking out loud. “And sure, we could resoul them all, and then let their human souls suffer for what the demons did -- hope they don’t go crazy from it, or keep feeding from the bloodlust, that sounds great. Or maybe we can take after your military buddies and go back to chipping them. Make it so they can’t bite anyone. That’s great, too, right? You know what that’s not going to stop? Them growing a bunch of demon eggs in their crypt or having their friend kill twice as many people so they can feed too.”

She stops.

“I realize those were very specific examples that may have made no sense to you whatsoever. But my point stands: we’ve been doing this a long time, and this is what it has to be.”

“You’re really sure there isn’t another way?” Steve asks.

“I wish that there were. Really, I do. If there are vamps out there keeping to themselves, buying blood from the butcher or blood bank, living peaceable lives, I am certainly not busting their doors down. You saw me in the demon bar— that’s blood bank blood on tap. They can go about their business in there. But those guys we just saw? They attacked us. There’s no good in them. And, frankly, I’m more concerned with the people who will die if I don’t stop them.”

He’s still got that thoughtful look on his face, staring at a spot between them on the ground. She feels a little deflated, though, and guilty. Like she might have been chewing his head off for no good reason. It’s not his fault. Vamps do look human, that’s kind of how they getcha. And Steve seems like the phasers-set-to-stun type of hero. She takes a step forward and places her hand on his shoulder. He raises his head, meets her eyes.

“It’s not an easy job,” Buffy says. “I’ve met plenty of slayers who’d rather say ‘no thanks’ and walk away, pretend they have no idea what goes bump in the night.”

“No,” he says. “You’re right.”

“I am?” 

Huh. She really doesn’t get to hear that very often. He’s not just playing at being humble -- he can really listen and adjust his views. It’s a rare quality in a hero, in Buffy’s estimation.

“Yes. I don’t see another way. And I -- I wanted to say I see it differently, but I wasn’t exactly asking each Chitauri whether they might reconsider their options, was I?” 

“It’s a luxury we don’t have,” Buffy says.

She hesitates for a second and then grabs at his hand, pulling him gently forward to get him walking again. He looks down at where their hands are joined as he starts walking, expression open, and she shoots him a small smile before letting him go. He smiles back at her.

“C’mon,” she says. “Let’s go find that nest.”

--

A mile above ground? Ten minutes. Easy. Five, if she runs. 

A mile in the sewer? Slower. Much slower.

“It’s funny,” Steve says. “So much has changed, but this is the same.”

“Tracking demons?” Buffy asks.

“No, the sewer. The Howling Commandos and I -- we were in London in forty-four, targeting a suspected HYDRA base. We used the sewer to get in. It’s not exactly glamorous, but it’s effective, if you don’t want to be seen.”

“That’s why the vamps use it,” she says, then thinks out loud. “I mean, it probably is the same. How often is London upgrading its sewer infrastructure?”

“Good point. See?” Steve says. “That’s comforting. Something I can rely on to stay constant.”

“Sure. When all else is lost…” She trails off, noticing an enclave up ahead with a little bit of light emanating. “A demon nest is found.”

He sees what she does. They come to a stop. 

“The book said that Eryu is strong. So, I need you at full throttle here,” she says. “No hesitation.”

He pulls the shield off of his back again and grips it, tightening the strap with the other hand.

“Understood,” he says.

Buffy takes the lead, moving quietly, not wanting to give away the element of surprise. Steve slips into step behind her and, though she can sense him, she can’t hear him at all. Perfect. 

She moves around the corner, poised so that she can see into the nest and -- bingo. 

Eryu is there, sitting (oddly enough) in the center of the small enclave, candles lit around it, as though in meditation. Not only that, but it’s wearing the amulet. The infinity sign on its sternum is just above the glinting dark stone in the amulet. 

Two in one: bonus.

She and Steve can take it -- probably -- but it’s always better not to let a demon get a hit in, in the first place. Buffy doesn’t hesitate, pulling the axe out of her jacket and throwing it in a smooth arc. Ideally, this bad boy would destroy the amulet and Eryu both in one foul swoop. Her aim is good, but Eryu looks up, black eyes meeting hers, and the axe stops midair, hanging frozen. She hears Steve’s breath catch from behind her.

“You can’t stop it,” Eryu says, and before Buffy can get a quip in, it blinks, and it’s gone. 

There’s a frisson in the air. It’s the scent of magic, of teleportation, lighting up and fizzling out. It makes the the drip-drip-drip of the sewer feel cacophonous. 

“Aw, nuts,” Buffy says.

Chapter Text

Steve isn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t that. 

For one thing, their bodies turn to dust. She hadn’t mentioned that. He associates battle with the smell of blood and gunpowder, of course, but also with the thud of bodies to the ground. He imagines he’d have one less scar inside of him if he didn’t have that association -- the sound, and the sight of the bodies, and sometimes the smell. If the bodies had turned to dust instead.

But then, if that were true on both sides, they’d have one less way to mourn their dead, and Steve knows how hard it is to mourn when there’s no body. 

He expects her strength, her confidence, because he’s seen that from her already. He doesn’t expect her speed or her ferocity. The vampires are strong, but Steve and Buffy are much stronger. He’s not worried for their safety, not worried they might lose. Still, she kills ( slays ) three before he’s really gotten the one under control. 

Steve hasn’t trained for this type of conflict, so maybe he can match her with time, but from what he’d seen tonight -- on speed, and on taking the shot the very second it presents itself, she might just have the edge over him.

When she pulls the last one over by his throat, he can see fire behind her eyes, see her fighting for control of herself. He knows what that’s like. 

It makes him worry for her. When he hears her speak later, it’s clear that she still carries this all on her shoulders like she’s the only one. 

She’s beautiful, when she’s fighting. Of course. She looks a little like Clara Bow, that starlet from the silent era that his mother loved, the “It” girl -- with those big doe eyes. He’d have to be a fool not to notice.

And she’s strong. He’s always been drawn to that strength, whether it was Peggy aiming her gun and pulling the trigger without flinching, or Bucky throwing punches to save Steve’s sorry hide (later, throwing staggering metal punches at Steve himself).

It’s the way Buffy moves through the mission -- focused. Ready for a fight. But with a sense of humor and a little bit of brazenness.

Sounds familiar, now that he thinks about it.

Maybe he has a type as well.

--

Eryu vanishes.

It’s not the first time he’s seen magic. He’s seen that and more from HYDRA, not to mention Thor and Loki, even Tony -- the flying metal suit is still magic to him as far as he’s concerned.

But Eryu’s dark, glassy eyes -- stopping that axe mid-air, disappearing with an eerie blink. It still surprises him. He remembers what it was like when he shared the USO stage with a magician, watching the men burst into cheers as the magician sawed his assistant in half. Absurdly, there’s a second where Steve feels a similar thrill at Eryu, before it sinks in that they’re back at square one, with less than forty-eight hours until it sacrifices itself for Tarak-ha.

They find their way out of the sewer, locating a ladder that leads up to a storm grate on the street. He climbs up first, getting to the top and pushing up the grate. Once he’s on the street he reaches in, offering a hand to Buffy. Though she’d grabbed his hand earlier, she hesitates for a second, but then she takes it. 

Her hand is small in his, warm and soft. It feels delicate. He knows it’s not.

When they’re both standing above ground, they take stock of the quiet, empty street.

“Should I call it in?” Steve asks. “There’s not a lot of time.”

The corner of her mouth turns down, like she’s stifling a laugh. “Call in the Avengers?”

He nods. 

“Please tell me what the big green guy is going to do other than clock Big Ben.” She pauses, nudges him with an elbow. “Get it? Clock? Big Ben?”

That is… very silly.

“I get it, Buffy. But in my experience the Avengers do tend to be helpful in a crisis.”

“I appreciate that, really, but it won’t be necessary. I’ve got a better idea.”

“What’s that?” 

“It’s sort of like calling in the Avengers, only with someone really powerful.” Buffy pulls out her phone, which she seems to have remembered to bring with her. She dials. Waits.

“Hey Will, it’s me. I don’t know if you’ve talked to Dawn today, but I’m tracking a demon called Eryu -- or an Eryu demon -- I’m not really sure on the name-species divide here. It wants to open up a hell portal with a bigger, badder demon named Tarak-Ha. The uszh. And it magicked away from us. We’re going to need a tracking spell, at least, and something to stop it from doing that teleportation thing again. We’ll be at headquarters tomorrow at ten thirty. Love you.” 

She hangs up, sticking her phone into her jacket pocket. 

“Who’s--” he starts, but she smiles and cuts in.

“Willow. My friend, and basically the most badass wicca out there. I’m the one they call when they need someone extra plucky to do some punching, but she’s the big guns. Think of me as the you , and her as the … guy who can fly, with the lightning.”

“Thor?” Steve asks.

“Yes?” Buffy responds, voice going high.

She’s absurd. He can’t stop the laugh that escapes him. “I can understand not knowing every Avenger’s name and tag, Buffy, but you do realize that Thor is the Norse God of Thunder, right? There is a day of the week named after him.”

“What, is he the actual Norse God of Thunder?”

“By all accounts.”

“I thought he was a wizard guy in cosplay.” She scrunches up her nose. “Did he come from Norway?”

“No. He came from another planet,” Steve says. “It’s called Asgard.” 

“Wow, how long have Norweigians known about aliens?”

Steve frowns, unsure. “That wasn’t really my--” 

“No, actually, you know what? We can talk aliens later.”

Now she’s got him thinking about when and how exactly Thor became entrenched in human ( Midgardian) mythology. He’s not sure whether Thor would even have the answer. But she’s still talking.

“...The important thing is that Willow is going to handle this. Easily. She will deliver Eryu, and I will slay it. In so doing, we will prevent the Tarak-ha from coming back into our dimension and bringing along the apocalypse. And after that: party down.”

“All right,” Steve says. “So what now?”

“For now, I could use some food and some shut-eye. Big day tomorrow.” 

It’s late. She probably needs to sleep more than he does; most people do.

“So I’ll take a ride home?” she says, like it’s a question. “Along with a promise that you’ll be back at my place tomorrow at ten AM.” 

“I can do that,” he says.

She starts walking back towards where his bike is parked, in the direction of the London Eye. After their sewer adventure, it’s now about a mile in the distance. He shakes his head, clearing it, and follows. 

 

--

The walk back to the bike is a hell of a lot quicker than their time in the sewer, and the drive flies right by. He says goodnight to Buffy and, soon, he’s back in his hotel room. He quickly showers the grime off from the sewer, somewhat displeased to realize that his arms are gritty from vampire dust. 

After, he’s too wired to sleep -- or he’s slept too recently. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. 

It’s only eleven o’clock in Washington. He pulls out his phone and dials. 

“Steve!” Sam picks up after the first ring. He sounds pleased.

“Hi Sam,” he says, a rush of gratitude flowing through him. Sam’s a rare find, someone so easy to talk to, easy to work alongside. He’s missed his voice.

“How’s the break going?” Sam asks, voice ironic.

“It’s been… interesting. How are you? How’s Washington?”

“Picking up the pieces. I’m working with a new group, now. Folks who were former-military-turned-SHIELD. It’s a lot to work through, but it’s going.”

“It sounds like you’re doing good work.”

“Nah. They’re doing the work. I’m just helping them direct their energy where it’s most productive.”

“And that’s why you’re the right man for the job.”

“All right, all right, flatter me another time. What have you been doing? Where are you calling me from?”

“London, presently.”

“Yeah? What’s in London?” Sam’s voice is suggestive, like he knows Steve has something specific he’s skating around.

“Natasha gave me some intel about an amulet that needed recovering. And I met this woman, who was tracking it too--”

“Is she SHIELD?” Sam asks. 

“No. She’s something else.” 

“Uh huh.” Sam sounds like he’s fighting back a laugh. 

“No, I don’t mean it like that.” Steve stops. “Sam, have you ever seen a vampire?”

“What? A vampire?  Like, ‘I vant to suck your blood ’?” (He does the Dracula accent.)

“Right.”

“No, Steve. Why?” he asks, slow, measured. “Do you have something to tell me?”

“They’re real.”

The line is silent for a moment. 

“Fuck that.” Sam says. “No. Nope. I am not ready for that.”

“The woman, she’s a vampire--” (the word sounds silly as he forces it out) “--slayer.”

“Is that what she told you?”

“I saw it with my own eyes.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. The vampires -- they look human, but they can do something to change their faces, when they attack.  I saw her kill four of them, stakes through the heart. They turned to dust.” 

“You didn’t happen to smoke or drink anything unusual before you saw this?” Sam asks.

“Sam, you know I can’t.” He hasn’t tried to smoke anything unusual, so he can’t say that for sure, but Sam knows alcohol doesn’t affect him.

“And this girl didn’t do something? No chance she’s playing tricks on you?”

He hadn’t really considered that, but his gut tells him no. He had seen her in that bar, seen that bartender vampire’s face change, before she had known he was there.

“No. She’s who she says she is, as far as I can tell. And she’s -- strong. Almost as strong as I am. But she’s tiny.”

“All right. So tiny girl was tracking this amulet, because, what? A vampire had it?”

“A demon,” Steve says, closing his eyes and rubbing them. 

“C’mon, man,” Sam says with a groan. “Aliens and gods weren’t enough? You had to go take a ‘break’ and stumble into finding out vampires and demons are real?”

Steve laughs, but it’s like it’s forced out of him. Sam’s reaction is a balm. He’s been going along with it all because that’s what he does when he’s on a mission, and because he’d stumbled into her world so he let her take the lead. But talking to Sam is like being back in his own world, where this is very slightly ludicrous.

“So what, now? Gonna go buy a big crucifix? Whittle a wooden stake?”

“We’re still in the middle of this thing. Trying to get the amulet back before it can be used to let in something really nasty from another world.”

“Do you need help?”

Steve lets himself smile. Having Sam is different -- but just as good -- as having Bucky at his side. He could say yes, and Sam would be on his way tonight. Just because Steve asked, not because he commanded, “Avengers Assemble.” It’s a nice feeling.

But, he doesn’t need the help right now.  “She says it’s under control.”

“You trust her.” It’s not a question.

“She’s smart,” Steve says. “Strong. And she’s been doing what she does for a long time.”

“Is she cute?” Sam asks, far too good at reading him.

“That’s not -- really --”

That’s not a no.”

“I’m focused on the mission,” Steve says. 

“Sure,” Sam says. “What’s her name?”

It honestly hadn’t occurred to him until this moment, but he knows how similar the name sounds. He knows what he’s going to get as he says it. “Buffy.”

Sam laughs, boisterous, and Steve finds himself smiling and shaking his head. 

“Really? Buffy?”

“Yes,” Steve says.

“A slayer named Buffy,” Sam says. “That’s almost a soldier named Bucky.”

“Close, but no cigar,” Steve agrees.

“I’m not going to make the joke that I’m thinking of right now,” Sam says. “Your virgin ears couldn’t handle it.”

“Hey,” Steve says, affronted, though he’s not one hundred percent sure what the joke would be.

“Is that all?” Sam asks, “Just demons and vampires?”

“So far.”

“No leprechauns?”

“Sam.”

“I’m serious. They’re probably real too.”

“You’re messing with me.”

“No, I’m happy for you. Told you you needed a hobby, didn’t I?”

“You might have said that once or twice.”

“Yeah? And I’m gonna keep saying it, till you take a real break.”

“I appreciate that.”

“All right. I need to be up at oh five hundred, so I’m going to sign off. Gonna have some weird dreams, too, with this vampire stuff.” He pauses. “You’ll call me if the situation changes?” 

(If you need me, he doesn’t say.)

“I will.”

“And I wish you luck with your new strong-but-tiny girlfriend.”

“She’s not--”

“Your girlfriend. Uh huh. So we’ve said about our crushes since the dawn of time.”

He ignores that remark.

“Sam?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks. For listening.”

“Anytime.”

--

He gets a little rest, eventually. Not sleep, but he lays down with a book, then rests his eyes, and that’s good enough. 

In the morning, he waits, watching the clock as it slowly ticks to 9:00, 9:30, 9:35, 9:40… And when it’s time, he pulls on a pair of dark slacks and a t-shirt, and grabs his shield, slinging it over his back. 

Time to go.

Chapter Text

Steve arrives at her door at 9:58. 

He’s a little nervous, not about the mission (though he’s still ready to call it in, if things change), but about what it feels like to be standing at a pretty girl’s door.

Steve had never gotten that dance with Peggy. To him, this is about as close as it gets to a date. He tries to stifle those thoughts, to shove them down, to not listen to Sam’s laughing voice in the back of his mind, and it mostly works, but his heart still beats a little faster than normal.

When he rings the doorbell, she calls, “Just a minute!” from somewhere in the apartment, and he waits, shuffling a bit, bearing his weight on one foot, then the other.

The hall, like the interior of her apartment, is claustrophobically small to him, and he’s wearing the shield, which makes him -- if not recognizable -- then at least conspicuous. There’s only one other door on this level of her building, but there are stairs that go to other floors, and what if someone needs to get by him, the shield does stick out a bit, and--

She opens the door. 

“Hi!” she says. “Ready?”

It’s taking him a second to find his voice. He nods.

She moves to lock the door, and he has to step on one of the stairs to get out of her way. Thankfully, he’d chosen to step down one, so when she turns, he’s ready to set off. 

“Thought you seemed like the punctual type,” Buffy says. 

“Thanks.” It had sounded like a compliment but he’s not entirely sure.

“Did you get any sleep?”

“I got some rest,” he says. “You?”

“Took a little while to fall asleep, but then I was out . It’s hard, sometimes, winding down after a fight, but once it finally hits you how tired you are...” She trails off.

“I know what you mean.”

“Yeah?” She looks like she’s studying him for a second, like she knows ‘rest’ and ‘sleep’ aren’t the same in his book. “We’ve got coffee, if you need it.”

He’s never been much of a coffee drinker, particularly since the caffeine doesn’t affect him, but he nods and thanks her anyway. 

They make their way out to the street. He’s got the helmet sitting on the back of his bike, ready for her. It’s like a corsage, a bouquet of flowers. It’s as close as he’s gotten. (He tamps the thought down.) She stops by the bike, notices the helmet waiting there.

“It’s around the corner, actually.” She smiles. “We can walk.”

--

‘Headquarters’ turns out not to be as grand as he might have imagined. It’s a large terraced house, not a sprawling, glass and cement building like the Triskelion. The exterior looks older, maybe Victorian, and it’s three stories tall. It reminds him of Brooklyn, the building he lived in as a kid, only nicer.

Buffy walks in without knocking, hanging up her red leather jacket on a coat rack by the door. The chestnut wooden floors creak as he steps inside. 

At the entrance, there’s a staircase with a large bannister, and two young women walk down the stairs, eyeing Buffy and Steve, but they don’t speak until they’re around the corner, launching into a low whisper. 

“Might wanna take this off if you want to go incognito,” Buffy says, rapping a dull beat against the shield. 

As he starts to remove it, looking around for a closest to stash it in (surely no one would take it, right?), a voice sounds from the hallway to their left. A man with short black hair and an eye patch is walking towards them, grinning.

“The Buffster!” 

“Xander!” Buffy smiles back at him, greeting him with a warm hug. He squeezes her tight. She’d said some of the others working with the slayers were long-time friends, and this is clearly a reunion. “I wasn’t expecting to see you. How’s Cleveland?” 

“Gotta love the Cleve,” Xander says. “Fantastic restaurants, Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and I can honestly say that it’s the easiest Hellmouth I’ve ever had the dis pleasure of living on.” 

“Oh!” Buffy lets him go with a sudden jolt. “Wait, I need to introduce you--”

Xander steps back, eyes moving to Steve, who happens to be holding his shield in his hands, watching them like a deer caught in the headlights. Xander’s eyes flit down to the shield, then back to Steve’s face.

“Is that--” Xander starts.

Steve releases the shield from one hand, letting his arm hang down at his side, and holds out his other hand to Xander in greeting. 

“Steve Rogers,” Steve says.

“Uh huh,” Xander says, shaking Steve’s hand. “Is the world ending, Buffy? Are we in imminent apocalypse mode?”

“Not especially?” Buffy says, sounding unsure. 

“Then why are we calling in the Avengers?” 

“We’re -- not -- calling in the Avengers,” Buffy says. 

“Is that or is that not Captain America?” Xander asks, voice getting a little louder. “He’s got the shield. Buffy, have you seen the shield?”

(Some of the other young women, slayers Steve guesses, seem to be gathering in a nearby doorway, no doubt trying to figure out what the fuss is about.)

Steve offers a polite smile. “I just go by ‘Steve.’”

“We met on patrol,” Buffy says, sounding defensive. “We were both looking for an amulet-thingy. It seemed rude to leave him out once I was tracking it.”

“And now he’s here,” Xander says. He looks a little glassy-eyed. 

“Just looking to help,” Steve says, feeling a need to explain himself.

“Great! Help. We love help. Can always use some help!” Xander lets out a nervous, high chuckle.

Steve looks at Buffy, who is looking at Xander with something between frustration and affection. Not knowing quite what to do next, Steve places the shield at the bottom of the coat rack, so the tails of Buffy’s coat partially block it from view. That’ll do. Maybe putting it out of sight will help.

Maybe not. Xander is still staring.

He’s dealt with this before, on the streets of New York or Washington when he’s out for a run. He’s still never quite sure what to do with people who get starstruck, because in his mind, he’s just a guy from Brooklyn, and he’s not actually very exciting to talk to.

Usually, they take out their camera phone and Steve poses for a picture with them. That tends to make them happy, often they’ll bounce away right after, and Steve can feel pretty good too. Sometimes they’ll walk after him for a block or two, but if they do that he just speeds up on his run until they can’t follow. He figures then he doesn’t have to be rude and they can tell their friends they saw how fast Captain America can run in real life.

He can’t exactly do that here.

Buffy grabs Xander by his arm and pulls him down the hallway, but she looks at Steve and nods her head in an unmistakable “c’mon” gesture. Steve obliges. The doorway up ahead has a few women in it, looking their way, but some of them walk off as Buffy and Xander approach, getting back to what they were doing. The ones who remain seem to be in the middle of their own quiet conversation, and only shoot Steve, Xander, and Buffy a quick glance before disregarding them. 

“Have you seen Will around?” Buffy asks.

Xander shakes his head. “Not yet. She’s on her way in. Sent a supply list earlier this morning.” 

“Supplies, as in, for a specific spell? That’s gotta be a good sign,” Buffy says.

They get to a kitchen, outfitted with three high tops along one wall (one occupied) and a large island in the center, which is covered in snacks and surrounded by bar stools. There’s a pile of papers in the center with an unloaded crossbow on top like a paperweight. The room is smaller than the kitchen at Avengers tower, but the feeling is the same: a room for lots of people to gather.

“So, um, how do you two know each other?” Steve asks.

“High school,” Buffy says, right as Xander says, “Hellmouth.”

“Hell school,” Xander continues. “Hellmouth high school. Uh. We went to high school on a hell mouth. Together. Not in Cleveland, it was a different--”

“Xander and I met when we were sixteen,” Buffy says, mercifully cutting him off. “He was my first friend in Sunnydale -- the town we lived in -- who found out I was the slayer. And he’s stuck around and been a major world saver ever since.” 

“Sometimes with crayons,” Xander says, but doesn’t explain further. Steve doesn’t ask.

“Now, he helps with some of the slayers in Cleveland, but he splits his time between there and here, kind of like I do with Rome.” 

Buffy moves across the kitchen, pulling two mugs out of a cabinet and pouring some coffee into them from the pot on the counter. She places one steaming cup in front of Steve, puts her own next to his, and then crosses past Xander to grab a banana. Steve thinks he hears her whisper “Be normal!” into his ear as she walks by. Xander says, “Uh huh, trying,” a little louder (loud enough for Steve to be sure) as Buffy unpeels the banana and takes a bite. She sits next to Steve on a barstool and he takes her cue and sits as well. 

He thanks her before taking a sip of his coffee. It’s weaker than the stuff he used to drink, brewed over a real fire with the Howling Commandos, when he’d have a cup for the camaraderie and not the taste. He supposes that part isn’t so different, now.

“Who’s here?” Buffy asks Xander, once she’s done chewing. 

“Just a few of the girls,” Xander says, clearing his throat. “Andrew’s taken a group up north for a training exercise, so you’re looking at a mix of the too-busy and the uninterested.”

“My kind of girls,” Buffy says, voice bright and filled with humor. She seems to catch herself, then frowns, glance shooting over to the two girls seated at a high table on the opposite wall. “Not that training isn’t… important. Or of the good. It’s definitely a thing that… we all should be doing.” She pauses, seemingly satisfied with her correction, and Steve stifles a laugh. 

She turns back to Xander. “Is Dawn here?”

“Grabbing the supplies Willow asked for,” Xander says.

“When did she leave?” 

Xander looks at the clock on the microwave. “Maybe half an hour ago? Forty-five minutes? I know she wanted to get back before you got here, said said something about you and an icon destroying an amulet--” He has a look of emerging understanding, eyes drifting to Steve. “ Oh. She could’ve been a little clearer. I thought she meant you had a talisman or something.”

“I’m thinkin’ she wanted to see the look on your face,” Buffy says. 

Steve interjects, thoughtful, despite himself. “More like a tall - ish man.”

“Funny.” Xander laughs, and it turns into a giggle. “Captain America is funny.”

“Oh, Dawn’s gonna be disappointed she missed this.”

Steve has his moments, when he loses the thread of the conversation in the midst of new slang or references he doesn’t understand, but he’s following this one. It sounds like Dawn has a few things in common with her sister.

“We can stage a redo,” Steve offers. “Start over when Dawn gets here? I used to punch Hitler on stage every night. Got a cheer every time.”

Xander giggles again. 

“Reel it in, Xander,” Buffy says.

“Reeling,” he replies, turning his laugh into a cough. “Help me out here, Buff. Distraction? What’s the sitch exactly? Where’s the big bad?”

“Okay,” Buffy says, disposing of the banana peel and retaking her seat. “So, we got a tip that a demon had his hands on an amulet originally belonging to an old-realm bad guy named Tarak-ha. I went to check out the lead, and found that the demon who supposedly had the amulet had already handed it off. Dawn did some research and found out that the amulet has to be worn by another demon, called Eryu, who does some self-sacrifice magic badness to bring Tarak-ha back to our reality and bring hell with it. We tracked that demon, but it poofed away, so I called Willow for some wicca-ssistance.”

“And what’s the timeline here?” Xander asks. “Before the Tarak-ha badness ensues?”

Steve can hear a little bit of what must be the normal Xander -- calm under pressure, unintimidated by the scope of the mission Buffy’s described. And the two of them have a comfort in the mission that Steve has found only comes through years of weathering dangerous situations together.

“Countdown clock is set to tomorrow night,” Buffy says. “I’m thinking, Willow can either track it or conjure it, and we can slay Eryu and prevent badness.”

“Do we have to slay him?” Steve asks, the thought suddenly occurring to him.

“It’s a demon,” Xander says. “That’s kind of the M.O.. What are you suggesting?”

“Well, he was wearing the amulet,” Steve says to Xander, but he’s looking at Buffy. “We just need to destroy that. That’s the key that opens the door.” 

Xander and Buffy both seem to blink at that remark, and he’s not sure why. He presses on. “So I’m saying, let’s destroy the amulet and let Eryu go.”

“Maybe,” Buffy says, furrowing her brow like she’s thinking it through. “I’d want to look into what Eryu does for fun. Is it hanging in a crypt waiting for big T-h, minding its own business, or is it off, y’know, rampaging and killing. Dawn would know.”

“Let’s ask her, then,” Steve says. 

He doesn’t want to kill, or watch Buffy kill. Not if there’s another way. Sometimes there isn’t, and he takes her point about the vampires, about them not hesitating when they go for the kill -- but Eryu is something different, isn’t he? They should at least check. This defacto kill-first-ask-questions-later approach rankles Steve.

“You’ve got my word that we’ll figure out if Eryu is a threat without the amulet, and only slay him if the answer is yes.”

“Thank you,” Steve says. 

He knows that he’s pushing her in a different direction, but she’s got a small smile on her face that he can’t help but mirror. It’s clear that Buffy and her friends are striving for good, to protect people, to hold that above all else. And Steve knows there are sacrifices in that, sometimes picking the good over the ideal. Still, he’d expected her to be more rigid, more set in her ways, with the way she’d spoken before. He’s pleasantly surprised.

Buffy finishes her coffee, then gets up to put the mug in the sink. 

“So, we’ve got a little time to wait for Dawn and Willow. Do you want the grand tour?” she asks. 

He takes a few more sips, too, not wanting to appear ungrateful. “Sure.”

--

There’s some sort of wordless communication between Xander and Buffy on their way out of the kitchen, and Xander ends up excusing himself, something about a morning check-in with the group. 

Steve wouldn’t mind taking a tour with both of them, particularly once Xander settled down a little, but the tour with Buffy alone is a bit more comfortable. Being with her had almost made him forget the kind of reception he usually gets from new people.

Meanwhile, grand tour is putting it strongly, though the house is very nice. The main floor has the big eat-in kitchen, an adjacent large room that looks like it could be used for a big Thanksgiving dinner or a conference call, and a smaller living room equipped with some worn couches. The second and third floors have bedrooms, bathrooms, and the occasional library or media room. 

It reminds him of a university. He’d never dormed when he was in art school, but he’d known kids who had.

(He pushes the thought away, of how old those kids are now, how many may not still be around. The remembering, then the pushing away, is getting faster and easier but it still stings sometimes. Less so, when he’s distracted.)

As they walk, she explains that the building used to be ‘Watcher’s Council’ residences, before the council’s actual headquarters building had been blown up by another big evil, years back. 

“So, there used to be an entire group of people employed full time to help the slayer?” he asks.

“Yes to the ‘entire group of people employed full time,’ but I’m not signing onto the idea of the council being in any way helpful,” she says. “Every slayer was assigned a watcher, who was a book-smart type educated on all the different demons and was there to, y’know. Watch. And train her. But that watcher could be anywhere along the spectrum from ‘literally evil’ to ‘brilliant and heroic,’ and the slayer didn’t get to choose who was a fit for her or ask for a different one if it wasn’t a match. And then there was the whole cruciamentum steal-your-powers-on-your-18th-birthday-to-see-if-you-die thing. I don’t even wanna get into that.” 

He wants to ask, but doesn’t, not if she doesn’t want to get into it. They make their way back downstairs, then down another flight of stairs towards the basement. 

“Point is?” she continues. “We changed it. Everyone has options. You can have a watcher, or you can have a slayer mentor, instead. You can join a group that all works together, a few slayers and a couple of watchers. Or you can hang solo. We’ve got HQ for the girls who are in training, or who need a place to live. But my vision for this new slayerhood has always been that every piece of it is optional, other than the using-your-powers-for-evil side of things. That’s not allowed. And more flexibility gives all of us what I always wanted: the ability to have a normal life.”

A normal life.

Steve had wanted that, too, before he went down in the ice. He’d loved leading the Commandos. Had relished each and every mission, every HYDRA base they’d shut down. But through it all, he’d always thought that eventually they’d win and go home. And if he were lucky, maybe he’d get to spend some time with his best girl, too, once they had more time to spare. 

Then, he went to sleep for sixty-five years, and when he woke up nearly everyone was gone -- and it was even more painful with the ones who weren’t.

Now, he has new friends, but there’s no more of that feeling, like someday he might be able to lay down his shield and pick up a real life.

They come to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, and he’s happy to be distracted from his thoughts. The basement is a large training room, equipped with mats on the walls and floors. One long wall is lined with heavy-duty punching bags, and another wall is dotted with archery targets (he thinks of the crossbow he saw upstairs). The middle of the room is spacious enough for a few small groups to run drills. Everything looks well used, but well maintained -- with a bit of wear around the edges, but patches on the bigger tears. She stops in the middle of the room, a few steps away from him.

“This is where the magic happens,” Buffy says. “Not… literally. The literal magic probably happens in the dining room.”

“It’s nice,” Steve says. He means it. 

“It does the job,” Buffy agrees. She looks him up and down, and Steve notices a gleam in her eyes that wasn’t there before. “Hey.” 

“Yeah?”

“I was wondering how strong you are. I’ve been getting stronger, so I have to be careful when I’m training with the girls. And we didn’t get a chance to figure that out, before.” 

He looks down at the mats, then back at Buffy. He sees her see it.

“Me too,” he admits. He can feel his heart speeding up, like when he was outside her door. “I wondered, about you, too.”

“You game?” she asks. 

He feels himself nod.

She toes off her shoes and socks, pushing them towards the wall, and he does the same, feeling irrationally vulnerable at the thought of letting someone see his feet -- but mats tend to work better barefooted. And anyway, she’s looking at his face, not his feet, as she drops into a sparring stance. He does the same. 

He’s just thinking about how he’s not going to be comfortable making the first move when she charges him, aiming a punch at his stomach that he blocks. She tries again, leveling a few at his head, his neck, his ribs, and he backs up, staying out of her reach, until finally she lands one against his ribcage. 

Steve feels it, but it doesn’t throw him.

“You’re holding back,” Steve says.

“You haven’t even tried to hit me,” Buffy replies. “C’mon.”

He wants to. Wants to test her, test himself. And it all feels like this is a way to test something else, too. He also does not want to hit someone who doesn’t deserve it, and, yes, particularly a woman. 

Natasha would tell him to snap out of it, to can the misogynistic crap. He’s sparred with Tash before, and she has no problem with knocking him down when the opportunity presents itself.

So, Steve throws a punch, and Buffy dodges it, then she lands a second punch, and this one smarts. The wind is knocked out of him.

He starts trying to tag her in earnest, now, even if he’s still pulling his punches, and goes for one, two, three hits -- all of them ducked, the fourth one blocked, and then he grabs her arm on the next block, and they struggle, pushing at each other, until they launch away. He thinks she’s still holding back, but then so is he. 

She charges him again, this time aiming a roundhouse kick at his head (higher than she should be able to reach), but he swerves, avoiding the worst of it, and sweeps his leg under her. She trips, but grabs his arm on the way down and hauls him down with her.

They jump back up, springing apart, and he has a sudden moment where he feels naked without the shield -- it’s such a big part of how he fights -- but he pushes the thought away and, anyway, she’s leveling punches and kicks at him, rapid fire. He’s returning them almost as fast, landing some, dodging others, their intensity gradually increasing, until she lands a solid kick to his chest and sends him flying across the room, hitting the wall on the opposite side. 

“Steve!” she calls, running towards him, but he’s up already.

“I’m fine,” he says, and something shifts behind her eyes.

She smiles before she attacks this time, and now he thinks she might not be holding back, or at least not as much. He matches her blow for blow, hits every bit as hard as she does, and when she ratchets it up further, so does he. Still, he lets her set the pace, staying attuned to their surroundings, keeping the sparring contained, aware that if they didn’t stop themselves they might smash right through those padded walls. 

Buffy jumps towards him, launching into a backflip which ends in a kick to the head that sends him sprawling. She lands several feet away and brushes the hair out of her eyes. He stands, wipes at his mouth.

“You’re good,” she says.

“You too.” 

They rush towards each other again, their motion a blur. His earlier suspicions are confirmed. He’s still holding back on strength, but he’s all out on speed right now and she’s beating him there, landing blows he’s trying his hardest to dodge. She knocks him down with another powerful kick, but he grabs her as he falls, and she lands on top of him in an ungraceful heap, her knees jabbing into his midsection.

Somehow, both of them stop here. She sits up, peering over him, her knees pressing into his ribs.  He’s flat on his back, his hand still on her leg, but he makes no effort to move it. He’s a little out of breath, and more than a little warm. Buffy must be too; he can see the patches of pink high on her cheeks and the way her breath is shuffling that wayward strand of hair until she has to loop it behind her ear once more. 

Neither of them speak, but Buffy lifts a hand towards his face, like she’s about to touch him, and -- they both hear the steps at the same time. Buffy jerks her hand away, looking up. So does Steve, removing his hand from her leg as he rushes to sit.

“Buffy?” a female voice says. It’s a woman, with long brown hair, making her way down the stairs while Xander follows. Once the woman gets to the bottom, she folds her arms with a smirk, evaluating the scene before her.

 “Yeah, this seems about right.”

Chapter Text

It’s the second time in twenty-four hours that Buffy resolves to give Dawn a good killing later. 

Of course, she should have known that sooner or later Dawn and Will would be back, and that Xander would happily lead the hunt back to her and Steve. Maybe it was more her fault for getting so caught up in the sparring that they caught her by surprise.

Still. A little embarrassing. A little too her .

Buffy stands and extends her hand to help him up but he’s already in the middle of a kick-to-stand, and she lets herself stare a little at the line of skin across his midsection that’s exposed as he lands on his feet, because why not. Once he’s up, she wipes her palms against her jeans, and folds her arms, approaching her sister.

“Steve, Dawn. Dawn, Steve,” she says. 

Steve, being much more polite than Buffy or any the Scoobies, extends a hand, and Dawn shakes it, looking him over. 

“Hey Cap,” Dawn says.

“Nice to meet you,” Steve replies. “I’ve heard good things.”

He’s too sweet for his own good. It’s gonna get him into trouble where Dawn is concerned. She looks between Steve and Buffy, then back. Raises her eyebrows at them.

“So, who’s stronger?” Dawn asks. “Willow and I have a bet going.”

“I think it was a draw,” Steve says.

“Yeah. Unclear.” Buffy frowns. “Wait. A bet? Which one of you bet against me?”

“Buffy. It should be obvious. I did,” Dawn says, breaking into a grin, and turning around to head back upstairs. “Willow’s looking through the stuff right now. Says we’re gonna have to head back to wherever it was you saw Eryu in order to do the conjuring.”

“Goody,”  Buffy says, setting up the stairs. “More sewer time.”

--

The four of them find Willow in the dining room, sorting through a few piles of magical ingredients that Buffy would probably be able to recognize by sight by now if she’d been paying attention for the last decade and a half. 

Oh well.

Steve cranes his neck as they approach, looking curious, and then his eyes fall onto Willow. 

“Steve Rogers,” he says again, offering his hand. “You must be Willow.”

“Ooh, I can’t,” Willow says, holding hers up, but waving hi instead. “Dragon thistle is super sensitive, and the oil from our skin turns it caustic. I had to do a protective incantation for this part, the mixing.” 

Steve lowers his hand, resting his arms somewhat awkwardly by his sides.

“Not that it’s not nice to meet you!” Willow looks vaguely alarmed, like she realizes she may have just insulted him. “Because it is. I’m a big fan of your, y’know... Saving the world from aliens and HYDRA. And, hey! Now you’re friends with Buffy. She’s also very into saving the world. So that’s neat.”

Steve smiles. “I’ve heard you’re also a major world saver around here.” 

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Willow says, looking reluctant. “I’ve had my moments.”

Buffy hears that as Willow referencing her near-world ending, always fresh in her mind, no matter how many years pass. It’s still a source of her own magical grounding, not going to that place again. Buffy hears that, but figures Steve will only hear it as humility. That works too.

Buffy sits and, taking her cue, so does Steve. Dawn and Xander move to the opposite side of the table.

“What’s the status?” Buffy asks.

“Oh, the demon conjuring?” Willow asks. “Easy peasy. I just need to mix the ingredients for the spell, and -- oh, Buffy, can you pass me that mortar and pestle?”

Buffy grabs the marble mortar and pestle from one side of the table, careful not to touch the interior where the ingredients will go (that much she knows), and puts it down next to Willow. 

“Thanks. So, where was I? Right. Mix ingredients. Go back to where you met this demon--”

“Sewer?” Xander asks.

“Sewer,” Buffy confirms, wrinkling her nose. 

“And then boom! Conjuring. Well, not an actual boom, more like a ‘pop.’ And then I’ll magic the amulet right off him, and you’ll just need to--” Willow mimics a staking motion.

“About that,” Buffy says, as she feels Steve tense slightly beside her. “Dawn, what’s the story with Eryu? What’s he doing when he’s not trying to sacrifice himself to summon Tarak-ha?”

Dawn shrugs. “From what I was reading, the seeking Tarak-ha is kind of its thing. Eryu is sentient, it can speak and listen, but it’s not the kind of demon that’s gonna curl up with some Funyuns and the new season of Grey’s Anatomy when it’s bored.”

“Does it kill?” Buffy asks. 

“Hold on, let me pull my notes back up.” Dawn takes out her phone, reading off of it. “It’s not exactly a killer. It’s mostly a snoozer. Eryu wakes when the amulet is near. I’m talking, like, same country: activate. And its sentience is tied to the amulet. The closer the necklace, the sharper Eryu gets.”

“So, not a kill-maim-destroy demon,” Buffy says.

“Hey, what’s with the self-sacrifice bit?” Xander asks. “Seems to run counter to the whole survival instinct thing.”

Buffy shrugs. “We’ve seen it before. Remember those demons who wanted to reopen the hellmouth by jumping into it? 

Xander nods. “Point.”

“Eryu believes that it will merge with Tarak-ha when it summons him,” Dawn says. “That its corporeal essence only serves to unite it with Tarak-ha.”

“So, dumb , but not especially evil,” Buffy says. 

“I wouldn’t say not evil,” Dawn says. 

“But on a scale of, say, Clem to the First…” 

“I don’t know,” Dawn says. “Middle, maybe? It can definitely tear some shit up once it’s working to free Tarak-ha. If you’re asking me whether it eats humans or kills for fun, the answer is no. But at the end of the day it is trying to rip our reality open.”

“Sure,” Buffy says, “but you said it’s because he wants to merge with Tarak-ha, and he’s only sentient in pursuit of that. It’s kind of not his fault when you think about it.”

Dawn furrows her brow, then looks between Buffy and Steve. Buffy feels a little too seen. Dawn has always been open to friendly demons and vamps -- she’s not committed to the black and white like the watchers of yore. But like the rest of them, she usually needs to see some evidence of demon-goodness before extending that olive branch. Talking like this during slayer research time is not usual for any of them.

“What does it eat?” Xander asks, looking thoughtful. “Not Funyuns. Not humans.” 

“Small animals. Birds,” Dawn says. 

“Eugh,” Buffy says. 

“Buffy, I hate to break this to you,” Xander says. “But you also eat small animals and birds.”

“Well, yeah, when you put it like that ,” Buffy says. 

“What are our options?” Steve asks. “Other than killing it. And what happens to Eryu when the amulet is destroyed?”

“Unclear,” Dawn says. “They’re connected. So it’s possible that destroying the amulet destroys Eryu too. But it’s never been destroyed before, so I’m not sure.” 

“And if we don’t slay him?” Buffy asks. “Will? Options?” 

“I can trap him in a crystal? Send him to another world?” 

“Can you send him to Tarak-ha’s world?” Buffy asks. “Then they can be together, even if they’re not merged.” 

“I think so,” Willow says. “The amulet is probably getting its power from a self-contained dimensional rift, and then the demon’s life force is channeled into it, it breaks the walls down further. If I have the amulet, I can probably channel its magic into sending them both into Tarak-ha’s world. I won’t know for sure until I feel it.”

“If you send Eryu and the amulet to Tarak-ha, will they be able to open the walls to our reality from that side?” Buffy asks.

“No, I don’t think so. My guess is the amulet will only have enough juice for one trip, but, again, I’ll have to feel it to be sure.”

“Okay,” Buffy says. “We’ve got a plan, then. Step one: you finish the magic prep sesh. Step two: we all go hang in the sewers. Step three: we summon Eryu and send his ass back to Tarak-ha, locking the door on the way out. And Steve and I will be there in case things get dicey.”

“Actually,” Dawn interjects. “As much as I love quality sewer time with the fam, Xander and I need to catch up on a few things.”

Buffy is well aware that Dawn and Xander have something going on, but with Xander in Cleveland looking after his girls, and Dawn leading the research side of things in London, it tends to be in flux. Dawn hasn’t been as forthcoming with her as she normally is. She’s said she doesn’t want to put Buffy in the middle of their business, and Buffy can’t exactly blame her. 

Still, Buffy narrows her eyes at them, unable to resist the urge to press.

“Xander, you’re really passing on your chance to go on a mission with Captain America?” 

Xander lets out a small noise, then clears his throat. “Yes. That is correct.”

“Kay!” Buffy says, bright. “Suit yourself. Will, how long till we’re ready?” 

“Ten minutes?” Willow says. “Let me just pack up.” 

“Perfect,” Buffy says. “Steve? Change of venue?” 

--

“Sorry about the whole ‘mission with Captain America,’ thing,” Buffy says. She’s sitting with Steve in the lounge, on an old leather sofa. “It seems like you like it better when we call you Steve, but… I couldn’t help myself.”

“It’s fine,” Steve says. “I get it. Hey, I even have the uniform in my hotel room. If you really want to mess with him, I could suit up.”

She blinks. Buffy wants to give him credit for his sense of humor, his ability to roll with the punches, but all she can think at first is that there is something intriguing about the idea of seeing him in that suit in person. She’s not sure if her expression’s given her away, but when she looks up again he’s studying her, and she starts gabbing to cover. 

“That’s all right,” she says. “Xander and Dawn are working through something right now and I’m not sure how much it’s going to help for Xander to be making goo goo eyes at you in the suit.” She tilts her head, thinking. “Unless Dawn is, too, maybe. Then it could work.”

Steve seems to ignore that comment. “You really think Willow can do all this?”

“Oh, yeah,” Buffy says, voice positive. “This is small potatoes for her. She could probably rip that portal open to Tarak-ha without ever using the amulet if she wanted to.” 

She pauses, remembering that Steve’s also in charge of protecting humanity, and did not have the benefit and bias of knowing Willow for the last zillion years. 

“She… wouldn’t want to,” Buffy says, by way of clarification. 

“I figured,” Steve says. 

“She’s more the Glenda the Good Witch type,” Buffy adds, and Steve nods. “Spends a lot of her time at this coven up north along with another old friend of ours, my old watcher. They work with a group of slayers who have magical aptitude. Train them to use magic safely.”

“That sounds nice,” Steve says. 

“It is. Mostly.” 

Steve adjusts his seat on the sofa. Buffy scooches too, crossing her legs under her and facing him.

“So,” she asks, “were you still holding back?”

He looks like he isn’t quite sure how to answer. Maybe he’s scared to hurt her feelings, which is an answer, itself. Then again, she’s pretty sure if they’d both gone all out then someone would’ve ended up injured, at least.

“It’s okay,” she says. “I’m not in on their bet.”

“It wouldn’t be possible to not hold back in that space,” Steve says. 

“Yeah, I was thinking the same,” Buffy admits. “The walls, the equipment, the staircase. It would be easy to destroy it all. Have you ever brought down a building before?” 

Steve shakes his head. Buffy tries to stop herself from imagining what she was doing when she brought a building down, and what kind of damage she and Steve could do together. Not to compare notes, here, but she knows she’s stronger than Spike, and Steve might be stronger than she is. She could really let herself go, and maybe he could too… She forces herself to snap out of it. 

“Let’s just say, it’s not pretty,” she says instead.

“I can imagine.”

She wonders if he can.

“So, big open space next time?” she asks.

He laughs, and it’s easy, relaxed. She wonders how many people get to see that side of him.

“Why, do you have some place in mind?” he asks.

“Easy,” she says. “Parks. Football fields. Cemeteries.” 

“Cemeteries?” Steve asks, looking incredulous.

“I have fought in a lot of cemeteries,” Buffy says, “and not once have I gotten into trouble for property damage.”

“Good to know,” Steve says. “Trust me, when you get into trouble for property damage, it tends to put a damper on things. I still get plenty of angry letters from New Yorkers. People whose homes or offices were destroyed.” 

Buffy raises her eyebrows, a little surprised that he gets letters like that, even if she’s not surprised that he reads his fan mail. “Sounds like they’re big dumb jerks who are failing to recognize that without your help they’d be more worried about whether they made the cut in the afterlife than the details of their insurance policy.”

He shakes his head. “It’s their livelihood, though, or their home. I don’t blame them for being sore about that.” 

She bites the inside of her lip. “You’re nicer than I am.”

“I’m not,” Steve says. “I just see it for what it is. People hurting.”

“Really?" She narrows her eyes at him. "Do you really not hear that? You’re definitely nicer.”

Steve sighs. “I’m just saying, I don’t blame them, but we did the best we could.” 

“Yeah?” Buffy asks. 

“Once the Chitauri started coming in, there wasn’t a lot I could do other than try to contain the damage and the casualties, while the team tried to stop Loki.” He pauses. “Loki was the, uh, ‘Big Bad’ who was responsible.”

“Right,” Buffy says. She knows about this part. “From what I understand, despite your reluctance to call yourself what you are: you’re the leader. The one setting the strategy. Calling the shots. Telling Iron Man who to -- you know. Iron.”

“That’s not really what he--”

She pats his arm. “I know. I’m joking. I’m just saying, you should give yourself more credit. You did more than damage control.”

“I’m not trying to be hard on myself,” he says. “What I mean is, it caused a lot of damage, and a lot of pain to people. I’d rather not see that again.”

She realizes what he means now. The Tarak-ha ‘slicing open reality’ thing, and his worry about the size of the threat. The likelihood of another portal letting angry hordes in to a major city. 

“You won’t,” Buffy says, putting some extra certainty into her voice.

“Maybe I’m being reckless, asking you to take a chance with sending him home instead of slaying him.”

“No,” Buffy says, and leans forward to push back a stray tendril of hair that’s fallen across his forehead. He starts, but then relaxes into it. She smiles. “I get complacent, sometimes. I’m all, ‘kill the evil, save the humans, rah rah.’ I don’t always stop to think about other options. It’s good, having someone to challenge that. Make us remember there are shades of grey.”

When he hazards a glance at her, he looks so vulnerable and tender that she has to stop herself from leaning closer and embracing him. She could forget, around the way he fits so seamlessly into that Captain America persona, that he’s a man who’s younger than she is, who’s lost more than she could imagine. He’s also been doing this for what, four or five years? Maybe? She’s not clear on the details, on how long it was between him getting beefy and him getting frozen, and now how long he’s been back, but it can’t be much longer than that. She’s been doing this kind of thing for much, much longer. 

“Thank you,” he says.

They’re silent for a second, until Willow calls out “I’m ready!” from the other room. 

“Shall we?” Buffy asks. 

“Lead the way,” Steve says.

--

Steve isn’t sure what to expect, where ‘magic’ is concerned. 

He’s seen Loki and Thor phase in and out of their battlesuits like sand through an hourglass, but that wasn’t so different from the way Tony’s Iron Man suit could find Tony and cocoon him, wherever he happened to be. Steve’s watched Loki blast bright shots of energy from his scepter, but that wasn’t all that different from HYDRA’s weapons. Magic and technology, where the Avengers were concerned, were often easy to confuse -- especially for a man out of time.

This? This is different. 

The chanting in Latin, and the herbs that smell like the thurible from the Mass he’d go to as a boy. It masks the smell of sewer, at least.

He’s next to Buffy, standing at the ready. As much as people think he’s constantly prepared, ready for whatever comes, sure of himself… He’s taking his cue from her right now. 

And she looks fairly relaxed. So he resolves to be the same, assuming a similar posture (legs set a little wide, arms folded). Buffy lets out the occasional yawn, or looks down to smooth her shirt, or shows some other minor sign that she’s bored, not nervous.  

Like the Avengers ( when they are listening to Steve, anyway) , there’s not a lot of chatter permitted as the mission gets underway. And then, Willow finishes her incantation, and with a flash of light (and the ‘pop’ she promised), Eryu appears. 

He seems unsurprised to see them, unfazed by the phasing, which Steve can’t quite understand. To suddenly be somewhere else would have to be disorienting but--

“You can’t stop it!” Eryu says, like before. 

“Wanna bet?” Buffy asks. “Give it another minute.”

Willow chants behind them, at the far end of the recess, while Buffy and Steve stand within it. Eryu blinks, like before, but he doesn’t disappear this time. 

He looks at Willow, then at Steve and Buffy, and lets out a roar.

“Will?” Buffy asks. 

Come,” Willow says, her eyes shining and growing darker, and Steve feels the change in her, sees a hint of the power Buffy mentioned. It feels like a shiver down his spine.

The amulet rises off of Eryu’s shoulders, and the demon screams for it, grasping at it, but it flies out of his claw too quickly and into Willow’s outstretched hand. Now, he’s alarmed, and he lunges at them, trying to get to Willow. 

Buffy cuts in front of him, and Eryu attacks, trying to throw her aside. 

“Steve,” Buffy calls over the struggle. “Stay on Willow. Don’t let him get back to the amulet.” 

Then, she twists herself out of Eryu’s grasp and kicks him hard. Steve can hear the thump of it, and Eryu flies until he hits the far wall. Although he falls to the ground, Eryu jumps up again without any hesitation, springing back into the fight. Buffy is landing her punches (Steve knows how hard they sting, now), but it’s like Eryu doesn’t feel it. He manages to pick her up, tossing her down onto the wet ground and then moves around her, unconcerned, towards Willow. 

Steve throws his shield, which knocks Eryu down before it bounces on the ground and returns to him. 

Still, Eryu’s up again, and Steve is ready to jump into the fray, until Buffy grabs at Eryu’s shoulders and wrenches him back, throwing him into the far wall of the recess. She has him boxed in, now, and that’s the upper hand. It’s obvious. When he tries to get out, he may get a hit or two in, might knock her down for a second, but he can’t do much more than that. The fight goes on for several more minutes, but Steve doesn’t have to throw his shield again.

She’s stronger. 

It gives Steve enough time to notice what Willow is doing. The amulet floats in her hand, and she’s speaking, but her voice is too low for him to make out over the noise of the fight. Suddenly the amulet glows bright orange, and as the light in it gets brighter, Eryu notices, letting out a roar that sounds like he’s in agony. It’s enough to make Steve feel sorry for him. 

Silence,” Willow says, and though her voice doesn’t seem loud, it’s somehow right in Steve’s ear, and echoing off of the walls. “You and your sovereign will be together.”

She extends her other hand towards Eryu and he begins to float as well. He doesn’t seem like he can move at all, his arms and legs slack, his yell silenced, though his mouth is still open. Something hits Steve low in his gut, bristling at the way Willow has just stopped it all. 

He can’t help but think: How would you be able to fight that, if you had to? 

Buffy wisely steps back, facing Eryu, until her back hits Steve’s front, and then she finds his hand, giving it a squeeze that reassures him, if only a little. 

“Let the demon and the sovereign join on the other side,” Willow says, her voice still ringing like she’s speaking in his ear. 

Another flash of light, and Eryu and the amulet are gone. 

There’s a long moment of silence, as Willow closes her eyes, breathing deeply. Buffy lets the quiet hang. 

Finally, when Willow opens her eyes, they look normal -- not so dark, not so glassy -- and Buffy releases his hand.

“All good?” Buffy asks Willow. 

“Yeah.” Willow shakes out her hands, then puts them into her pockets. 

Steve’s had friends who are stronger than they look -- in fact, most of them fit that bill. But this is something different. He thinks of Star Wars, which Tony had insisted he watch. (“The originals, not the prequels, Capsicle, don’t mix them up!”) It’s just like that. The force, or maybe the dark side, where Darth Vader could lift people up and choke them without touching them. 

But she wouldn’t want to, Buffy had said. And he trusts Buffy.

They head back the way they came, finding their way to the street. They’d chosen a nearby sewer grate in an cul-de-sac to avoid the crowds in daylight, and parked the car just so to make it harder for anyone to spot them.

He squints at the light as he emerges from the manhole, and almost forgets to extend his hand for Buffy and Willow to follow. The ride back is mostly quiet.

“That went great.” Willow says. “I got him to the right dimension and everything, I’m positive. And there’s no way that amulet has any gas left in the tank for a return trip.”

“Worked like a charm,” Buffy says. 

“Ooh! Worked like an amulet,” Willow adds with a silly grin. 

They fall into silence again, until soon Willow’s parking in front of the slayer HQ. She heads inside, calling dibs on the first post-sewer-shower. Buffy stops in front, looking up at him with a careful and curious stare.

“Steve?” Buffy says. “You all right?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m fine. That was just... different.”

“Bad different?” she asks. 

“I’ve seen a lot of strange things,” Steve says. “And it’s not any stranger, in some ways.” 

“And in other ways?” 

Steve’s not ready to say, just yet. He’s still thinking, about what he saw and felt, and what it means.

“C’mon,” Buffy says, and instead of walking back up the walkway, turns in the direction of her own apartment. “Let’s get the sewer stink off of us, and then we can talk.”