Chapter 1: Prologue
13th Century BC
Thebes, City of the Living
“You are not going anywhere without me! It’s my job to protect you!” Bek yelled as he followed Seth into his rooms.
“No,” Seth said calmly, turning to poke a finger hard directly into Bek’s chest. His best friend and lover was, unfortunately, also a member of the medjai, Pharaoh’s royal guard, and had therefore stalked him halfway across the palace. “Your job is to protect the pharaoh, who is sick and possibly dying. Especially vulnerable and in need of extra protection, if you ask me.”
This was true. Pharaoh was sick, though Seth didn’t think he was likely to die. Now or ever. He was quite old, but he’d been old when Seth had been born, and no matter what had happened to him, Death never seemed to cross his door. Still, the medjai belonged near Pharaoh for as long as he was living, and Seth was more than capable of protecting himself from an attack, no matter how unlikely one was.
“My job is to protect the royal family,” Bek growled back, “including the stubborn ass of a prince who won’t live long enough to be Pharaoh if he goes running off without any bodyguards!”
“I will be with High Priest Imhotep in his home, not wandering the city or riding out into the desert. What could possibly happen?”
“I hate it when you say things like that.”
“Why’s that?” Seth tried to sound innocent, but he couldn’t hold back a smirk. He’d said that countless times, since they were children, always convincing Bek into some kind of trouble.
“Because the worst things always happen, and I end up paying the price.”
“Bek,” Seth said soothingly. He stepped forward into his lover, their chests touching lightly, faces so close their breaths mingled, and brought his hands up to grip Bek’s trim waist. “I will be fine. Imhotep just wants to discuss some additions to Pharaoh’s tomb. The architect has drawn them up. I’ll meet with him briefly, nod politely, and be back before noon.”
“Seth,” Bek’s voice was soft suddenly and the anger left his face completely.
Seth shivered slightly as Bek slid his hands up Seth’s arms to grip his biceps. Seth could feel him running his thumb over the gold bracelet wrapped around his arm and its blue stone, knew Bek had a habit of tracing the star engraved there, just as Seth did to the identical band that circled Bek’s arm.
Bek stared into his eyes for a moment, then wrapped his arms around Seth and pulled him close.
“Your father will not be in this life much longer. You will be Pharaoh soon and cannot go off like this without us there to protect you.”
Seth opened his mouth to protest, but Bek knew him well and quickly cut him off.
“I know you can protect yourself and you’re not helpless, but please, Seth. Can you please start to be more careful? You know I don’t worry about you because you’re Prince of Egypt. I worry about you because you’re you and if anything were to happen…”
Bek always knew how to do that. How to play on his heart just enough to make him feel bad for whatever foolish thing he had been ready to dive into.
“I promise, Bek,” he said, gliding his arms around Bek’s waist to his back, squeezing him lightly. “I will be more careful, but my father is ill and should have all of his guard here with him. I won’t be long. Do this for me and I promise this is the last time I go anywhere without you.”
Bek pulled back slightly to look Seth in the eye. “You swear?”
“I do. Last time.”
Bek pulled him close again, lips brushing his ear, and whispered, “I don’t believe you.”
Seth laughed as Bek pulled away and looked into his eyes again. “You know me too well.”
“I do. And yet I still love you. But please be safe for me, Seth.”
“I will,” Seth replied. “I love you, too.”
After watching Seth mount his horse and leave the palace, Bek spent most of his day standing guard outside the pharaoh’s bed chamber. There were no other visitors except the occasional physician, and they all said the same thing. Pharaoh was dying. Nothing was going to bring him back this time, and everyone knew it. Bek could feel it in the air, even if the prince denied it.
Bek nodded a farewell to the guard who had come to relieve him for the evening and made his way to Seth’s rooms to see how his meeting with the high priest had gone. It was almost night, the sun hanging low, just above the horizon.
When he pushed open the doors to Seth’s rooms, he found them dark, empty, no sign of the prince.
“Seth,” he called out as he walked through the sitting area to the bedroom, glancing out along the balcony as he went. “Seth?”
Panic started to rise, and he tried to push it back. Just because Seth wasn’t in his rooms didn’t mean something had happened to him or that he wasn’t in the palace at all. He could be in the gardens or visiting his mother or sisters. That was it, he was probably having a meal with his mother. He did that often enough.
As he hurried along the palace corridors, lost in thought and trying not to worry too much, Bek looked up and found two other medjai approaching him, their hands raised in greeting.
“Bek,” Nakht greeted, while beside him Khay nodded briefly at Bek.
“Have you seen the prince?” Bek asked. “I was just in his rooms, but he’s not there.”
“Not since this morning,” Nakht replied. “Is he alright?”
“He had a meeting with High Priest Imhotep this morning. He should have been back hours ago, but I’ve been with the pharaoh all day. Khay?”
“Same,” he answered, shaking his head. “Not since this morning. You’re not worried, are you? It’s the high priest.”
“I’m always worried where Seth is concerned,” Bek muttered. “I’m going to ask Takhat if she’s seen him today.”
He continued on. Nakht and Khay, sensing his concern, followed closely behind him.
When they reached the queen’s chambers, they asked Seth’s mother and sisters if they’d seem him that day, but the answers were always the same—either not that day or not since the morning. Bek’s panic grew with each person they spoke with. Even servants and other medjai all gave the same answers.
“I’m going to see the high priest,” Bek announced, heading for the main palace entrance. It was dark now, but he didn’t care. He had to find Seth.
“We’ll come with you,” Nakht said.
Mounting their horses, they rode into the city. It was a brief ride to Imhotep’s residence. Bek couldn’t imagine anyone being foolish enough to attack the prince, let alone to doing so this close to the palace, but Seth seemed to call trouble to him no matter where he was.
When they reached the high priest’s home, an opulent structure that housed not only Imhotep but all the Priests of Osiris, neither Imhotep nor any of his priests were there. They entered anyway and asked to question all of the servants present, though the servants all said the same thing. The prince had come in the morning, spoken to the high priest only briefly, and left shortly after. Imhotep and his priests had then ridden out to Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead, to finalize the tomb for the dying pharaoh.
The servants, the five of them present in the house, stood still and silent in a line, heads bowed. Khay watched over them with a menacing eye.
Bek knew something wasn’t right, could feel it in his bones, in his soul, that something had happened to his Seth. He stood back, staring at the servants for a moment, wondering what to do next.
“They’re lying,” Nakht said at his side. “Something’s not right.”
“I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way. What do you think we should do?”
Nakht surveyed the servants in front of them with a critical eye. “The young one on the end,” he said, tilting his head and pointing with his chin in the direction of a young servant, maybe twelve or thirteen years old. “You think she will break?”
“You,” Nakht called out, getting the child’s attention. She glanced up hesitantly, a frightened look in her eyes. “Come here.”
She approached them slowly, nearly trembling with fear.
Bek knelt down to her level, looking in her lowered eyes, and whispered, “I won’t hurt you, child, but I need you to be honest with me. Can you do that?”
He saw her eyes flick over to the line of other, older servants.
“Come.” Bek took her by the arm and lead her away from prying eyes and ears, with Nakht following closely behind. When they were far enough away he said, “No one will harm you. If you tell me what I need to know, I can take you away from here. You can have a nice job serving the queen in the palace, but you have to tell me what I need to know. What happened this morning when the prince was here?”
The girl still looked unsure, but Bek could tell she was more afraid of the other servants than of him, and the offer to work for the queen was too good to pass up. Finally she whispered, “One of the priests, I saw him pour something into the prince’s drink when he arrived. It made him sleep, then they took him away. I don’t know what they were going to do, but I know they meant him harm.”
“And he was alive when they took him?” Bek asked. “Only sleeping?”
The girl nodded quickly.
“Do you know where they were taking him?” Nakht asked.
“Into the desert,” she answered, fear in her voice, “to the City of the Dead.”
Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead, hidden in the desert of Egypt, was a monument to the power and wealth of the pharaohs. The Kings of Egypt, their families, and all their treasures were buried here, guided to the afterlife by only the pharaoh’s priests and bodyguards. Only they knew the location of the city.
Bek had been there just once, and he had never wanted to return again. The silent city, surrounded by the ever-changing sands of the Sahara, was unnerving, had left him feeling anxious to return to the living.
Nakht had sent the young servant to the palace with a message for the other medjai, that they were needed in Hamunaptra. The city was normally a day’s ride into the desert, and Imhotep and his priests had a significant head start, though they would hopefully be slowed by an unconscious and unwilling prince. Bek, Nakht, and Khay mounted their horses straight away and hurried after them, trying to make up as much ground as they could.
They rode through the night, resting only briefly, and managed to make it to Hamunaptra just as the sun’s rays broke over the horizon.
Abandoned just outside the city, they found horses and an empty cart. Bek paused as he recognized one horse in particular.
“That’s Seth horse,” he said to the others, though they were medjai and would know Seth’s mount on sight just as well as he would.
“We know he’s here then,” Khay said. “Where do you think they could be?”
“The ritual chamber,” Bek replied. “If he’s still alive, they’ll take him there first.” And if he wasn’t, they would likely have him in the preparation room, and nothing Bek did would matter because they would already be too late. He prayed to the gods they weren’t too late.
“You think, what?” Nakht asked. “They’re going to perform some ritual? A spell on the prince? You really think he would use the book?”
“Why else would they bring him out here? Either that or he’s already dead.” Bek’s heart seized with grief at the thought. Please, please don't let it be true.
Keeping a close eye out for any of Imhotep’s priests, they made their way through the city to the ritual room, a large stone chamber that was once used for rituals into the afterlife. They encountered no one, but as they approached the ritual chamber, they could hear many voices chanting.
Bek crept closer to one of the two arched entrances and peered inside the room and down the stairs that lead to the main chamber. Near the bottom of each staircase lay an eerie black pool that writhed and moved in a way no earthly liquid would move. Gateways to the underworld.
In the center of the chamber, he could see Imhotep, and in his hands was the Book of the Dead, a heavy black book engraved with dangerous spells and incantations that were not to be used. The book should have been locked, never to be opened. The sight of that forbidden book alone would have been enough to prove Imhotep had dangerous and nefarious plans in mind, but Bek also noted that the high priest had in his possession several artifacts—a knife, an amulet, and an arm bracelet—ritualistic items only used for the priests’ darkest magic.
Imhotep’s priests knelt on the floor surrounding him and the large stone slab in the center of the room, chanting and praying. And on the stone slab…
Bek’s heart seemed to stop, his breath caught in his chest. Laid out on the stone slab, his hands crossed on his chest as if in death, was Seth.
He pulled back away from the door and looked at Nakht and Khay. They had to move fast. He closed his eyes and steadied himself with a deep breath. For Seth. When he opened them again, Nakht and Khay were looking at him with the same resolute expression, ready for his command.
Bek stood and turned back to the room, drawing his sword before giving the signal. He rushed into the chamber and bypassed the stairs completely, leaping off and landing directly behind Imhotep. Nakht and Khay were close behind, swords drawn as they approached Imhotep’s priests. Bek reached an arm around Imhotep’s neck and knocked the book from his hands with the other. But even the high priest knew how to defend himself and he twisted away, kicking Bek unexpectedly.
Off-balance and falling, Bek reached out to steady himself, trying to land on his left hand, but it touched only the edge of the stone floor and his arm slid into the inky black pool as he fell on to his side. His whole arm was suddenly engulfed in a burning cold pain. He screamed, quickly drawing his arm from the pool and cradling it shakily to his chest.
More voices filled the chamber and footsteps pounded along the stone stairs. Bek looked up.
The other medjai had arrived.
They converged on Imhotep and his priests, forcing them against the back wall at the points of their swords. Two of them grabbed Imhotep by the arms, restraining him as he screamed in anger and frustration.
Bek closed his eyes and took deep, steady breaths through the pain that seared its way up his arm and into his shoulder.
He opened his eyes and stared up at Khay, who stood next to him, his face filled with concern. “Are you alright?”
Bek nodded and forced himself to stand, still clutching his left arm. It looked strange to him, shining and almost gold.
“Seth?” he asked softly.
Khay opened his mouth but no words came out, and he closed it again. His eyes were filled with pity as he simply shook his head.
Bek’s heart seized, his breath had already turned quick and shallow. He approached the stone slab and the still body of his lover. Seth’s chest did not move, and his eyes were closed. The pain in Bek’s arm was forgotten, nothing compared to the pain and agony that tore through his heart.
Bek stood, unmoving, next to the stone slab. Seth was laid out neatly, naked and covered in a linen sheet.
He was no longer in the ritual chamber, but in an antechamber of the preparation room, awaiting the priests and their grisly process. Bek had remained at Seth’s side even as the others led Imhotep and his priests away. He stayed by Seth as his body was moved, washed clean and prepared for the process of mummification, made ready to enter the next life.
Bek hadn’t said a word since the other medjai had arrived, hadn’t even allowed anyone to look over his arm, which was now a strange and slightly shining gold. It no longer caused him pain, but a dull ache had taken over. It didn’t matter. No physical pain could reach him at this moment. His heart and soul had already been removed from his body and laid on the stone before him.
He didn’t even know how long he’d been standing here, without food, without sleep. He no longer had need of either. He felt nothing.
Nakht entered the antechamber behind him and came to stand by his side.
“Have you been here all night?”
Bek couldn’t move, couldn’t open his mouth to form the words, or even nod his head to answer. Just kept his eyes on the still face of his lover, his entire world.
Nakht took a deep breath and said, “If you were wondering, one of the priests confessed. The spell Imhotep was attempting would transfer his soul into the body of the prince. He was aiming to be Pharaoh.” He paused. Bek could feel Nakht’s eye on him, searching for any kind of response before he sighed and continued.
“The priests are to be mummified alive as punishment for their crimes. And Imhotep himself…” He paused again, and when he continued this time his voice was no more than a whisper. “Imhotep will suffer the Hom-Dai.”
The Hom-Dai was the worst of all curses—so horrible that it had never been performed. It was gruesome, and a terrible risk, a terrible curse. Imhotep would be cursed to remain alive forever, sealed inside a tomb filled with sacred flesh-eating scarabs. He would never be released, for if he was he would arise a walking disease, a plague upon mankind, an unholy flesh-eater, with the strength of ages, power over the sands, and the glory of invincibility.
Bek still did not move or speak.
“You should be getting ready to leave, you know,” Nakht said softly after a moment. “You can’t be here for the burial tomorrow. We must return to Thebes.”
“I’m not going,” Bek said quietly. His mouth felt dry and his tongue heavy, his voice rough and scratchy.
“I’m not returning to Thebes.”
“You can’t stay here, it’s no place for the living and you can’t— You can’t mean—”
“I will stay,” Bek said, his voice was stronger now, and sure. No room for argument. “I failed him in this life. I will not do so in the next.”
Bek could still feel Nakht staring at him but he didn’t argue. Eventually he turned and left without another word, leaving Bek alone with his grief.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1 (Steve)
Steve used to enjoy the quiet of the museum library, but after several years shelving books instead of being out in the desert, using the knowledge he had gained over so many years, he was bored. Bored out of his mind. Being a librarian had been fine for a little while but it was not the reason he had come to Egypt.
He seemed to be stuck here though.
The library was at least cool, away from the sun and the heat in the lower levels of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities. He wasn’t sweating or hot as he carried the loosely bound papers and larger volumes around the room, climbing ladders to put the heavy tomes away. He added another to the growing stack already cradled in his arms. And then another. Oh, to hell with it, another. He could manage, and it was one less trip he would have to take back and forth between the stacks and his desk. He turned and started back toward the shelves.
And ran smack into something solid and unmoving. The books fell from his hands, and he cringed at the sound of all those delicate papers tumbling to the floor.
“Rogers, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He cringed again at the voice of the last person he wanted to see right now. Or ever, most days.
“I’m just reshelving some things, Director,” he said, standing straighter and ignoring the mess now littering the floor at his feet. He looked up into the angry face of Director Nicholas Fury, the museum's curator. “Just, you know, doing my job.”
“You’re making a mess of it, from what I can see.” Director Fury looked down at him, dark eyes narrowed.
Steve just stood straighter, hating his smaller stature but refusing to bow under his boss’s glare. Just because he was shorter didn’t mean he would be intimidated easily. He was sure Fury knew that by now, but he still felt the need to test him, to breath down his neck at every opportunity.
It was a hard battle but Steve resisted the urge to glare right back. He needed this job.
“You need to be able to see where you’re going, Rogers,” Fury explained. “Which you know since this isn’t the first time I’ve come in here to see your ass on the ground cleaning up papers. Remind me again why I haven’t fired you?”
Steve resolutely kept his gaze straight ahead, boring a hole into his boss’s shoulder. He wished it was an actual hole. The glare was getting harder and harder to hold back. This wasn’t the first time they’d had this little conversation either. “Because you did a favor for an old friend.” And not all the years of study Steve had had with said friend as his mentor, or the glowing recommendation that his mentor had given him. No, none of that.
Fury didn’t respond immediately, and when Steve glanced up at his face, the glare was somehow worse than before. Steve belatedly realized his tone had probably been slightly less than respectful.
“Clean this mess up,” Fury said, as he turned and walked back toward his office, “and get back to work.”
Steve was able to wait until the director had at least crossed the library threshold before he growled and bent to pick up the papers and books at his feet. Years. He had studied archaeology and Egyptology for years, first at home in Brooklyn and then abroad in London, where’d he met the brilliant Dr. Abraham Erskine, a renowned expert in the field. He had been incredibly lucky that Dr. Erskine had been suitably impressed by him and taken him on as a protege. Other students would have killed for the knowledge and opportunities he’d received under Dr. Erskine. But what did it amount to in the end?
Even with a recommendation from Dr. Erskine, all the archaeologists in Cairo took one look at him and said he didn’t have enough experience to join their expeditions. Better luck next time, kid. Those were the best reactions. A few had accused him of lying and forgery. And Dr. Erskine was no longer alive to verify anything. All Steve had was a worthless piece of paper and a head full of knowledge he would never use.
Steve jumped at the sudden voice and spun around as he climbed to his feet, the papers falling to the floor all over again.
“Damn it, Natasha,” Steve gasped, gripping his hand to his chest. “You scared the crap outta me. I’m gonna put a bell on you or something.”
“I dare you to try,” she said, and her smirk said without a doubt that he wouldn’t get very far. “Now, as I was saying, you need to be more careful.”
“I know, I know,” he muttered as he bent once again to pick up the papers and books. He glared at her briefly before he did so, his coworker was still standing there, not moving to help at all. Natasha worked in another area of the museum but she always stopped by to help out, or just to annoy him to death. “Watch where you’re going, don’t carry so many books, careful on those high ladders…”
“Actually, I meant be careful what you say. You were mumbling under your breath, something about ungrateful bastards looking over your shoulder. Watch out, Fury has ears everywhere.”
“Yeah, and you’re one of them,” he accused, rising to his feet again, arms full of books and papers, though some still remained on the floor.
Natasha gasped in mock innocence and held a hand to her chest. “Steven, I would never! You know I’m loyal only to you, dear.”
“You could help me out, you know,” he called over his shoulder, walking past her toward his desk. He would have to organize everything again before attempting to put them back on the shelves.
“You’re doing fine on your own. I have to get back to the exhibit anyway, before that ungrateful bastard gets on my ass too.” She smiled as she said it with a false sweetness that made Steve’s teeth hurt. Probably from the way he was grinding them together.
Natasha patted his shoulder on her way out. “Don’t worry, Steve,” she said and when he looked at her, she had a suddenly sincere smile on her face. She could do that too well—tease him and annoy him to no end, but then turn it all around and remind why he loved her so dearly. “It’ll all work out. And don’t forget about dinner tomorrow night.”
She kissed him lightly on the cheek before turning and exiting the same way Fury had just moments ago.
He worked steadily for the rest of the morning, straightening and re-organizing the books that he had dropped and getting on with the tasks demanded of a museum’s librarian. As boring as they may be. It had been exciting at first, when he had come to Egypt and been hired at the museum. Shelving had taken him forever, as he would get distracted reading whatever books he was supposed to be putting away. There was so much more knowledge here than at the university library in London.
The novelty had worn off quickly.
A sharp bang from somewhere in the storage rooms startled Steve for the second time today.
“I’m going to die of a heart attack before I hit thirty,” he muttered, as he set down the books that were in his hands and moved toward the back of the library to check it out.
The storage room was a large windowless area where many of the museum’s artifacts were kept when not on display in an exhibit. The light from a few torches near the entrance illuminated the artifacts around the room—found treasures, jewelry and pottery, canopic jars and sarcophagi, tools and implements used for mummification.
As Steve crossed the threshold into the room, he reached out to his right and grabbed one of the torches from its holder on the wall.
“Hello?” he called, his heart pounding in his chest. All the times he was sick as a child and he was going to die of fright here in Egypt when his heart suddenly gave out. He was used to mummies and dead things scattered around, noises in the dark shouldn’t scare him anymore.
“This is ridiculous,” he mumbled quietly, shining the light from the torch around the room as he walked on.
A noise, sounding like a low groan, came from an open sarcophagus to his right.
There it was, another groan.
“Clint?” Steve breathed out as he approached the sarcophagus. It couldn’t be Natasha. He’d seen her walk in the opposite direction. Though he supposed she, or anyone really, could’ve snuck back in later to mess with him. “I swear to God, if you snuck in here again Natasha is going to murder you in your sleep.”
With a high-pitched shrieking sound, a mummified corpse rose by itself from the sarcophagus, sitting up and looking at him. Steve screamed and jumped back, almost dropping his torch as his other hand reached for his chest again to clutch at his shirt, his breathing shallow and rapid.
Laughter broke through the fear eventually, and the sound of a familiar voice quickly replaced it with rage.
“Damn it, Tony!”
“Oh man, you should see your face right now,” Tony said, though slightly out of breath with laughter.
“Asshole!” Steve shouted again. He reached over and smacked Tony on the back of the head. “Have you no respect for the dead?”
“Oh, it was worth it,” Tony replied, wiping a tear from his eye. “Besides, I didn’t hurt anything, right fella?” He wrapped his arm around the corpse and looked him in what was left of his face. “See? We’re still friends.”
“Yeah well, you and me ain’t gonna be anymore if you keep pulling stunts like this. You’re gonna get me fired. Fury already hates you, try not to ruin anything important, okay?” Steve took a deep breath. His poor heart was finally getting back to normal. He really couldn’t handle anymore surprises today. “Why are you here, anyway? Fury catches you, you’ll be donating enough money to build that new wing he wants if you ever want to get back in here.”
Tony hadn’t been back to the museum after the last trick he played on Steve, which almost lost them several important volumes on the Nineteenth Dynasty. Steve had managed to save them, and Tony had donated a significant amount to the museum as an apology and was quickly forgiven, though temporarily banned.
“I think I found something and I need you check it out.” He laid the mummy back down and hopped out of the sarcophagus. As he straightened, he reached into his pocket for something.
“What do you mean you ‘found something’?” Steve asked, disbelieving. “Found it where? In a poker game?”
“I couldn’t wait until you got off work,” he continued, trying to bypass Steve’s inquiry. “What do you think?”
Tony held his hand out to Steve, and in his palm sat a small metal box. There were hieroglyphics engraved into the sides, and the lid was a series of hinged interlocking triangles that came together in the center, fitting together like puzzle pieces.
Looking at it, sitting there in Tony’s hand, Steve forgot all about his early question. It was something. Definitely something… He shoved the torch in Tony’s direction and reached out to lift the box gently from Tony’s palm. He turned it this way and that, examining the markings on the sides and looking for— ah, right there.
With a twist of the base, the interlocking pieces on top snapped open to reveal an old and worn piece of parchment, folded tightly into a small square.
“Steve?” Tony asked quietly.
Steve could feel Tony’s eyes on him as stared at the parchment, both excited and a bit jealous that Tony would find something this amazing before him.
“Come on,” Steve said, walking quickly out of the storage room and back to his desk in the library.
Steve knew the parchment was old, and therefore, delicate. He sat in his desk chair and set the box down on the desk in front of him, removing the parchment and laying it on the desk as well. Tweezers. He needed tweezers. He started rummaging through his desk drawers. There was a pair somewhere around here.
“What are you doing?” Tony asked coming up behind him.
“Looking for tweezers,” Steve replied, head bent low over his bottom drawer. He made a sound of triumph when he saw a pair in the back and held them up for Tony to see, who then looked at him like he had gone mad. He reached back and pulled out some of the other archaeological tools he possessed but had never gotten a chance to use.
“Tweezers.” Tony’s voice held no inflection and he looked unimpressed.
“Yes.” Steve used the tweezers to gently lift one corner of the parchment, beginning to unfold the paper carefully to avoid tearing it. “You found something, Tony, and it’s old. I have to be careful with it.”
“Wow, it’s almost like you’re a real archaeologist, and not just a librarian.”
“I will stab you with these tweezers.”
Steve worked diligently, unfolding the delicate piece of parchment. As he was working, trying not to allow any rips or tears, he didn’t really look at what was on the parchment, so it was only as he sat back in his chair, triumphant, that he had a chance to take it all in. And the smile of triumph froze on his face, disbelieving, then gradually falling altogether.
“Steve,” Tony said after he had been sitting silently for a few moments. “What is it?”
“I…” Steve started, having trouble believing the words let alone allowing them to escape his mouth. “It’s a map.”
“A map? That’s great! To buried treasure, right? X marks the spot?”
Tony shoved himself beside him in the narrow space behind the desk, leaning over to get a better look at the map.
“Hamunaptra.” The name was whispered and Steve continued to examine the markings in front of them, hoping in vain that they’d rearrange themselves into something that made more sense.
Tony froze next to him, then stood up straighter. “The City of the Dead?”
Steve couldn’t see his face but he could hear the smile in his voice.
“I thought that was a myth?”
“I mean,” Steve began, “that’s the most widely spread belief. That it’s just a made-up fairy tale told by some Egyptians to lure treasure hunters into the desert. It might not be a city filled with ancient riches, but some scholars do believe Hamunaptra existed and was used for ancient rituals and as a resting place for the pharaohs.”
“You’re about to start lecturing, aren’t you?”
“I’m not lecturing, you asked a question and I answered it.” Steve glared up at Tony briefly before returning his gaze to the map. “If this map is correct and Hamunaptra exists—even if it’s filled with nothing but corpses and broken pottery—this is a major find, Tony. But if it’s real… Hamunaptra is said to be where the priests kept the Book of Amun Ra. Do you know what we could learn if we found it?”
Steve tried not to get too excited. He was almost positive that he was reading the map and its markings correctly, but a second opinion couldn’t hurt. As distasteful as the thought was, he’d have to take it to Fury if he wanted an expert opinion. If he was right though and it led them to Hamunaptra and the Book of Amun Ra…
“Wait, isn’t that book made of solid gold?” Tony asked, hopefully. “So there still might be treasure.”
Steve sighed. “Yes, there might be treasure.” He reached for the map, carefully sliding it onto a large mat that had been sitting on his desk. As he stood, he slid the puzzle box into his pocket then gently lifted the mat and parchment from his desk.
“Where are you going?” Tony stepped back and out of the way as Steve brushed past him heading for the doors.
“To see Fury. Maybe if you’re good he won’t have you thrown out.”
Tony whined behind him. Steve just laughed and continued out of the library.
It was close, but Steve was able to stop Fury from having Tony removed from the building.
Several shouting matches and an explanation later, Steve and Tony stood beside Director Fury’s desk as he examined the parchment. Natasha, who had been in the curator’s office when they arrived, stood opposite them, turning the metal box over in her hands.
“I’m almost positive it’s from the Nineteenth Dynasty,” Steve explained, then reached and pointed out several markings on the parchment. “The cartouche there in the corner is obviously Seti II. The rest is a map of several locations along the Nile, but this here?” Steve pointed to a depiction of a city in the desert, not far from Thebes. “That’s Hamunaptra.”
“Hamunaptra,” Fury scoffed. He reached a hand out and picked up the parchment to get a closer look. Steve couldn’t help but cringe though he knew the curator was used to handling such delicate artifacts. “Doesn’t exist.”
“Some scholars believe—” Steve started but Fury quickly cut him off.
“I know what those whack jobs and charlatans believe.” Fury held his hands out to pass the parchment over to Natasha. “But the City of the Dead is a myth, and no— Ah!”
Fury quickly dropped the parchment to the floor, and as it fell Steve could see that one side of it had caught fire. Fury must have held it too close to the candles on his desk as he passed it over to Natasha.
“No!” Steve said, as both he and Tony dove to the floor, trying to put out the flames and salvage as much of the map as they could without ruining it further. When they finally put the flame out, Steve held it up, but most of the map had been burned away. Including the way to Hamunaptra. What remained was falling to pieces in his hands.
“You destroyed it,” Tony accused. “You burned off the part with Hamunaptra.”
“It’s for the best,” Fury said, a note of finality in his voice. He folded his hands together on the desk and his disappointment was almost a physical wave washing over them. “It was likely nothing more than a hoax anyway. Rogers, you need to teach your friend not to believe every seller in the market. But you, I thought you knew better than to believe this nonsense.”
“Apologies, sir,” Steve said through gritted teeth, “for wasting your time.”
“Good. Now get the hell out of my office.”
Steve kept his eyes forward the entire walk back to the library. Anger pulsed through him, his jaw was starting to hurt as he ground his teeth together, and his fists were clenched so tightly he could feel his nails pressing into his palms. Director Fury was wrong. That piece of parchment had been something. Something real, authentic. A map to an unknown world of knowledge. And now it was gone, burned away to nothing. Steve hadn’t looked at it long enough to be able to draw it again from memory, and too much of it was burned away to have any hope of finding the city. They’d more likely end up lost in the desert if they tried.
He wanted nothing more than to slam the door closed behind him. He barely stopped himself as he turned sharply and realized he would have shut it right in Natasha’s face, unaware that she had been following him and Tony.
“You forgot this,” she said, holding out the puzzle box.
It wasn’t the parchment, wasn’t a map to a lost city, but it was still something. Maybe if Steve examined it closer, he could unlock it’s secrets.
“Thanks,” he said and took the box back. He tried not to sound angry, not to be angry at her. It wasn’t her fault the curator was an ass.
“Fury’s right, you know.”
Steve grimaced and turned away. Why must she contradict him when he thought such nice things about her?
“Natasha,” he said, a note of warning in his voice.
“Maybe not about it being a hoax, but about it being for the best.”
He looked back at her and regretted it. Her face had that soft look again. It was hard to be mad in the face of a concerned friend.
“I’ve seen men drive themselves mad looking for Hamunaptra,” she said. “It’s a fool’s errand, searching for that place. Either it doesn’t exist or it shouldn’t be found. Maybe it doesn’t want to be.” She shrugged then smiled at him, soft and sad. “I like you too much, Rogers. I don’t want to break in a new friend.”
Steve watched her walk away, closing the library door firmly behind her. He wanted to listen, to be a good friend and not let her down, but he couldn’t. He had held in his hands a key to a forgotten piece of history, and he couldn’t just let it go. He looked down at his hands then, at the puzzle box he clutched tightly.
Maybe he didn’t have to.
“Tony?” he called over to where Tony had been politely ignoring his exchange with Natasha by quietly rifling through the items on his desk. “Where did you really find this box?”
Chapter 3: Chapter 2 (Bucky)
Finding a place to hide from the heat of the midday sun was the worst part of Bucky’s day. Luckily the street he’d found today was narrow with many deep doorways lining the buildings. He pushed himself back as far as possible into the corner of his chosen alcove and tried to doze a little. He couldn’t let himself fall completely asleep though. He had to remain alert enough to protect himself if he needed to, alert enough to keep away the strange nightmares and visions that had been plaguing his sleep. Dozing lightly throughout each day seemed to be enough to keep his energy up.
Though the lack of food wasn’t helping his situation.
He’d been in Cairo for about a week now, and he’d been this person for almost a month. Maybe Bucky was who he had been before, but there was really no way of knowing, and he was beginning to doubt he ever would.
He looked down at his clothes, which were starting to fray and wear in some places; new stains appeared each day. His beard was thick and scratchy, his whole face itched with it. His whole head itched. There was sand in his scalp, hidden in his chain-length hair, that he thought might never come out, even if he ever managed to bathe.
The more worrying part was his left sleeve, which had gotten ripped in the fight two days ago. It had barely been long enough to cover his arm before, but now a large tear up one side made it harder to hide the gold that shone through. He moved it deeper into the shadows of the alcove, away from the desert sun. He wasn’t likely to survive like this much longer if he couldn’t keep it hidden.
It been bad luck the other day. The sun had hit Bucky’s hand just right, glinting off his golden arm and into the eyes of some greedy thieves who saw gold and thought only that they could take it from him. No matter if it was attached to him. He had fought them off with skills that came naturally to his body, even if his mind had forgotten, but he’d lost the metal box from his pocket. He knew he hadn’t felt it fall and suspected it had been lifted in the confusion of the fight. A coward probably ran off with it before Bucky had even realized it was missing.
He mourned its loss briefly and moved on. He still had two other artifacts that might help him remember who he was, who he had been before. And he pitied the man who tried to take them from him.
Bucky closed his eyes and tried to doze again, but stiffened at the sound of footsteps echoing along street, followed by soft voices, arguing. He hoped that if he pretended to sleep they would walk on and leave him be.
“Wait,” a low voice said nearby—too close—and the footsteps stopped. “Wait, I think this is it.”
“Are you absolutely sure?” The second voice was deeper, sounded tired, skeptical.
“Yeah, I think—”
“No ‘I think,’ Tony. I have been in four fights in the last two days. You need to be absolutely sure this time.”
“Come on. You know you would have gotten in just as many fights without me.”
“Tony,” the deeper voiced hissed.
Bucky continued to feign sleep and prayed to the gods that these newcomers would give up and move on. It was hot and he was too tired to deal with them.
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” the first voice reassured. “Look at his arm.”
Bucky growled low but didn’t open his eyes. “I dare you to try and take it from me.”
“What?” the second voice said, startled. “No, no. We don’t mean you any harm.”
“Yeah, I saw what you did to the other guys,” the first voice said. “You can keep it.”
“Of course I’ll keep it,” Bucky growled again. “It’s my arm.”
Bucky finally opened his eyes then and stood, tall and straight to look down on the other men, intimidating. He let his eyes rake over them where they stood, a few feet away from his alcove. The taller of the two was dressed in a expensive-looking suit. His dark hair was combed back and his goatee neatly trimmed. The wary look he was directing at Bucky proved he probably did see what had happened to the two men who had tried to take his arm by force and blade. Bucky dismissed him easily and turned his gaze to the other.
The other man’s clothes were different, slightly worn and disheveled, as if they didn’t fit him well or maybe he just hadn’t bothered to adjust them right. His golden hair was neatly parted to one side, and even from this distance Bucky could tell his eyes were blue, a light blue the color of the afternoon sky. Though he was short, shorter than Bucky by almost a head, his eyes were fierce and determined, his jaw strong and set. Bucky couldn’t dismiss him as easily as the other, but it was more than just his look, it was something about him that seemed familiar and tugged at a string buried deep in the knot of his memories.
“We don’t want your arm,” the shorter man said stepping forward. “My friend found something of yours.” He reached into his pants pocket and presented what he removed to Bucky, holding it out toward him flat is his palm.
The metal puzzle box.
“Found it?” Bucky objected, reaching out for the box. “You mean he stole it.”
The shorter man took his hand and the box back quickly before Bucky could grab hold of it. “Yeah, he did. And I’ll give it back to you, but I want to ask you a few questions first.”
Bucky stepped closer, and closer again, until he was right in the other man’s space, looking down into those sky blue eyes that stared back at him confident and unafraid.
“You think I can’t easily take it back from you if I choose?”
“Steve,” the taller man warned softly.
“I’m sure you could.” Those blue eyes bored into Bucky’s never wavering, never blinking. “How about instead, I buy you a meal and a drink. You sit down with me and my friend, let us ask you a few questions, and you can walk away with the box once we’re done.”
Bucky looked him over, as well as he could this close up. That string in the back of his mind tugged again, telling him to just say yes, to go with this man anywhere he wanted to go.
“And why should I trust you?”
The shorter man smiled, “Well, you shouldn’t trust my friend. At all.”
“But me? Maybe because no matter how much of a fight I put up, and I will give you one, you’ll probably still walk away with what you want. But if you trust me you could leave with the box and a full bully after a few hours away from the sun. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? For just some answers?”
Bucky doubted he could provide any answers, at least not any the men were looking for. He wasn’t really sure what they were looking for. But that damn string tugged harder, and he really couldn’t find any reason to say no. He stepped back again, though he still looked warily at the other men.
“Alright,” Bucky said. “I’ll give you what answers I can.”
The shorter man smiled then, blue eyes softening, and Bucky felt that tug again, but from somewhere in his chest.
“Thank you. I’m Steve,” he said and held out his hand. It looked soft and clean, and Bucky was suddenly self-conscious of the dirty state of his entire being. He reached out anyway.
He followed Steve and the taller man, who had introduced himself as Tony, down a few streets until they encountered a small shaded cafe that appeared to serve mostly foreigners rather than locals. Bucky hadn’t looked in a mirror in the last month, and even though something about Cairo, about Egypt, felt like home, he knew he was still a foreigner. He just didn’t know from where.
They sat down at a small table in a secluded corner. The waitress seemed ready to object, which was unsurprising given the way Bucky probably looked, but Tony waved her off and she listened without question.
Once they were settled and had ordered, and Bucky had emptied the cup of water placed in front of him, he looked expectantly at the others, mostly at Steve who seemed to be running the show despite Tony’s obvious wealth.
“Well,” Bucky asked. “What do you wanna know?”
Steve pulled the box from his pocket again and placed it on the table in between them. He tapped the top of the box lightly with one figure. “This box, how did you come by it?”
It was a simple enough question, but Bucky wasn’t sure how easily he should give up any answers. Not that he really had any.
He shrugged. “Found it in the desert.”
“That’s helpful,” Tony griped. He looked at Bucky, making his eyes wide, and said slowly as if talking to a simpleton, “Can you narrow that down a bit?”
“Tony,” Steve admonished.
“He’s doing that on purpose,” Tony accused, pointing at Bucky. “And he made an agreement.”
“With the man who stole from him,” Steve said. He turned back to Bucky. “Look, can you be a little more specific, please? I know you have no reason to like or trust us, but just… work with me a bit and then we’ll all part ways.”
Bucky nodded and looked down at his hands where they rested on the table. The were grimy and filthy, dirt caked under his fingernails. He quickly hid them under the table. He felt bad about his response, his lack of response. And he didn’t like that he felt bad, but it hadn’t really dawned on him at the time that explaining anything about the box was going to lead to him explaining that he didn’t really know anything, and why he didn’t really know anything. He was suddenly uncomfortable. Looking at Steve’s face again, though, Bucky wanted to tell him everything.
Why did he want to trust this complete stranger?
Finally, Bucky sighed and gave in. “A city in the desert. Well, the ruins of a city in the desert.”
“Okay,” Steve started. “Well, was it a dig? Were you with an expedition?”
“No, I—” He stopped, then took a deep steadying breath before continuing. “I actually don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Steve asked, looked a bit confused. “What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I mean I don’t remember anything beyond about a month ago,” Bucky explained, pausing to think about how explain this. “I woke up in-in some tomb in the ruins of this city. Alone. With a gold arm and the only thing around me was that box.” He pointed to the puzzle box on the table, firmly under Steve’s hand. Though that was technically a lie; he had a few more things, but he refused to give away everything. They’d already seen the arm, really everyone had seen the arm. No use hiding it now.
“You don’t remember anything at all?” Steve asked, and Bucky was grateful that his tone and expression were simply curious, not pitying.
“You said your name was Bucky,” Tony cut in. “Is that true, or…?”
“I don’t know. It’s the name that was in my head. I figured it was mine, at least it sounded right, felt right.”
Steve’s brow was furrowed and he looked thoughtful. “Okay, so you woke up in the desert a month ago with no memory, just this box and a name. You had nothing else on you?”
“Just the clothes on my back.”
“Those clothes?” Steve asked, nodding in his direction.
Bucky looked down at the robes he wore—once white, but now starting to brown—and the brown scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. “No, I was wearing, uh, a uniform of some kind. They didn’t really look familiar or feel right. I got these from a tribe of bedouins.”
“Bedouins? They were near the ruins?”
Bucky laughed without humor, shaking his head. “No, no. Uh, I left the ruins in a bit of a hurry. There was nothing around. I wandered the desert for a bit and they found me, helped me get back to Cairo.”
“Back to Cairo? So you had been here before.”
“I don’t know,” Bucky answered. Everything about Steve at this moment was quiet and kind, but the interrogation still made him uncomfortable. “It was just one of those things that was in my head. Just Cairo, I needed to get to Cairo.”
Steve nodded and opened his mouth again, but Tony cut him off.
“What were you going to do with the box?” Tony asked. “I mean, no offense, but you could have sold it, made some quick cash so you wouldn’t be living on the street.”
Bucky glared at him. “How do you know I wasn’t going to? Maybe you stole it before I had a chance.”
“Point taken,” Tony said and held his hands up in defeat. “Carry on.”
“So, you were going to sell it?” Steve asked.
“I wasn’t going to sell it.” Bucky sighed. “I was trying to find someone who could tell me something, anything about it. I hoped it might jog something loose in my head, help me remember.”
“Did you open it?”
Bucky shook his head. “I didn’t know it could open. I guess it makes sense though. I didn’t even try.”
Steve picked up the box and twisted the bottom, causing the interlocking pieces of the lid to snap open. Bucky peered inside, hopeful, but it was empty.
“Nothing in it anyway.”
“Well, there was…” Steve started, trailing off. He looked down and rubbed the back of his neck, sheepish.
Bucky raised an eyebrow and signaled for him to continue.
“So, there was a parchment inside, a very old parchment. Nineteenth dynasty old—”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m a librarian,” Steve said, as if that answered the question. “Anyway, it may have gotten burned and... destroyed.”
“But it wasn’t our fault!” Tony insisted, likely in reaction to the anger Bucky could feel clouding his expression.
“It honestly wasn’t our fault,” Steve said, apologetic. “That’s one reason we came to find you.”
“So you stole from me, destroyed my property, and then used what was left to bargain with me to get information. Did I miss anything?” Bucky ground out, letting the anger bleed into his voice. He didn’t want to hurt either man, but he needed them to stop playing games with him.
“Well, when you put it that way—” Tony started.
Steve talked right over him. “I’m really sorry, I—”
“Enough!” Bucky growled, loud enough to cut them off, but not to disturb the other patrons around them. “You will tell me everything you know, then you will give me back my box and leave me the hell alone.”
Steve nodded. “Yes, absolutely.”
Their food arrived then. The waitress had actually been hovering nearby, unwilling to interrupt. He didn’t blame her.
Bucky tried to savor his meal. He hadn’t had food like this since... well, ever as far his memory was concerned, but his focus was mostly on Steve as he explained what he knew about the box and the parchment that they had found inside.
“And the map led to a lost city in the desert, a place called Hamunaptra,” Steve was saying when Bucky felt a sharp pain in the back of his head. He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, the rest of Steve’s explanation lost as he focused on the pain and the memories that unfurled along with it. It wasn’t much—a city, ruins in the desert, and a pathway winding through his mind, through the desert, sand and rock and sun.
When the pain had gone, Bucky opened his eyes, took another deep breath, and said, “Hamunaptra,” testing the foreign and familiar word on his lips and tongue.
“What?” Steve asked, cutting off the remainder of his explanation.
“Hamunaptra,” Bucky said again, furrowing his brow, trying to keep the memories from slipping away again. “I know it.”
“You know it?” Tony asked. “You know it how? Know it like you know the name, or know it like you’ve been there?”
“Like I’ve been there. I think— I think that’s where I was, where I woke up and found the box.” He closed his eyes once more and focused on the name as he said it again. “Hamunaptra… Yeah, that’s it.”
When he opened his eyes again, Steve and Tony were staring at him speechless, excitement in their eyes.
“You were there?” Steve whispered. “You were actually at Hamunaptra?”
“Yeah... I mean, yes. Yes, I was.” The more they talked about it, the more they repeated the name, the more confident he was that he had been there.
“Could you— could you tell me how to get there?”
“Why?” Bucky asked, a thread of fear shivered its way down his spine as he thought of the man in front of him traveling through the desert to that place. “Why would you want to go there?”
“What do you mean, why?” Steve asked incredulously, his eyes excited, voice eager. “It’s a lost city, filled with ancient artifacts no one has seen in thousands of years, untold knowledge. No one has set foot there since the time of the pharaohs. It’s—”
“No one except me.”
“What?” Steve asked shaking himself and suddenly seeing Bucky again. “Oh, right. No one but you. So, can you? Tell us how to get there?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky hedged, the fear along his spine more insistent. “I don’t… I don’t know if I can explain it, how to get there I mean. And Steve, you shouldn’t, there’s something out there in the desert, something—”
“I’ll tell you what’s out there,” Tony interrupted. “Treasure.” He paused and Bucky didn’t like the calculated look he saw in his eyes. “I’ll pay you.”
“What?” Bucky asked, startled.
“Tony…” Steve started.
“If you lead us to Hamunaptra, I’ll pay you. No matter what we find, whether it’s treasure or just a bunch of broken pots and dead people, I will pay you a handsome sum to lead us into the desert to Hamunaptra. What do you say?”
Bucky hesitated, looking back and forth between Tony’s knowing expression and Steve’s surprised one.
“Maybe there’s something out there that you missed,” Tony continued. “Something that might help you remember. Either way, you come out on top.”
Steve was looking at him now, his expression hopeful, and Bucky couldn’t bring himself to say no. What did he have to lose, really?
“Alright, you got yourself a deal. After,” he added quickly, cutting off their celebratory exclamations, “we negotiate an exact and fair price. Deal?”
“Done,” Tony said triumphantly. He stood extending his hand.
Bucky stood as well, shaking his hand to close the deal. Just as he let go, he was almost knocked over as a weight suddenly attached itself to his side, arms wrapping tightly around his waist.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Steve exclaimed, enthusiastically squeezing Bucky’s middle, heedless of the staring eyes of the other patrons. “You have no idea what this means to me!”
Bucky looked down into Steve’s excited face staring up at him, so close, too close. “You’re-you’re welcome.”
He almost fell back as he was suddenly released, and Steve went to give Tony the same overenthusiastic treatment, despite the other man’s grumblings.
Bucky dropped back down into his chair a little stiffly and looked at the remains of his meal, forgotten on the table. He reached for his fork as the others sat down, beginning to eat again as the others discussed some of the basic logistics of the trip.
“But in the meantime, you can come stay with me at my apartment,” Steve said absently in between bites of his lunch.
Bucky looked up at him sharply, unsure of what to think about that, surprised at just the offer, as sincere as it appeared.
“It’s going to take a little time to make arrangements, and I can’t let you go back to living on the street. We’ll head over there after lunch, maybe pick up some things for you on the way, clothes and necessities.”
“Are-are you sure?”
“Of course,” he replied, as if it was no trouble, unaware of how much the offer meant to Bucky, who had been just a random stranger only an hour or two ago. “Besides, Tony’s buying.”
“What?” Tony objected. “Who said?”
“Thank you,” Bucky said softly, likely unheard, and turned back to his meal, leaving the other men to bicker.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3 (Steve)
What was I thinking? Steve thought as he led the dirty, homeless complete stranger back to his apartment. Tony was walking beside him, rambling on about... something. Steve had stopped paying attention several minutes ago.
He looked back over his shoulder at Bucky, taking him in, from his face to his clothes to his arm. His long hair was knotted and scraggly, and Steve could see sand and dirt caked into his thick beard. The man’s robe may have been white at one point, but it was a dingy brown now. The bottom was caked with dirt and torn, and the left sleeve was ripped almost to the elbow. Steve could see the strange gold of his arm through the tear. It was hard to tell just from his hands, but higher up on his wrist and forearm Steve could see where the the gold would shine when the sun hit it.
Steve glanced back up at Bucky’s face to find the man looking right back at him, eyes narrowed slightly. He quickly turned his gaze forward and tried again to focus on what Tony was saying.
Yeah… this may not have been the best idea.
It really wasn’t, but everything about Bucky was too much of a mystery, too intriguing to resist. And the possibility that Bucky had been to Hamunaptra, could lead them there... Steve couldn’t let the opportunity pass, even if it came in the form of a stranger with no memory who had threatened him more than once.
You did steal from him, whispered a voice in the back of his head. It sounded a lot like his ma.
True. And for some reason that Steve couldn’t begin to explain he trusted Bucky, felt safe with him.
When they had first come across him, Steve had thought Bucky was Egyptian, as he laid in the doorway pretending to sleep. Cairo had its share of unfortunates, poor and homeless, and in the shadowed alcove all Steve could see were his clothes, his dark hair and tan skin, and the slight glint of gold from his arm. As soon as Bucky had stood and fixed those pale gray eyes on them Steve had seen through the grime on his face to the features beyond; then Bucky had opened his mouth and Steve had detected the faintest hint of a familiar accent.
As they bargained, every inch of Bucky’s expression and appearance had screamed dangerous. And yet here they were, offering him money to lead them into the desert where he could do anything to them—rob them, beat them, leave them for dead. It happened often enough to unsuspecting and naive travelers that it was a real concern. But something within Steve urged him to trust. When he saw Bucky’s expressions as he remembered Hamunaptra, the sorrow and the torment and the fear, he found himself more than willing to offer up his apartment to the strange man.
Though he was regretting it a bit as it slowly became a reality.
They made their way through the last streets toward Steve’s building, an area of the city filled mainly with foreigners—expats and British and American adventurers. The building wasn’t the newest around, but it still managed to accommodate at least some of the luxuries the British had come to expect. Steve lead the way up the stairs to his small set of rooms, a single bedroom, a bathing room, and a sitting room and kitchen, along with a small balcony, all fully furnished. It wasn’t much but it was all he needed, and all he could afford with his wages from the library and his yearly allowance. Tony had offered to share his own lavish accommodations, but Steve refused to rely on anyone but himself. He was grateful to have a friend like Tony, but he just couldn’t bring himself to accept what was offered.
They would have to discuss the terms of the expedition to Hamunaptra. Steve didn’t want it to be charity, an excuse for Tony to help him gain experience and get away from the library. It needed to be a funded expedition with Tony as the benefactor; he would gain the most profit from whatever they found.
None of that mattered to Steve anyway. He didn’t care about money; he wanted knowledge and adventure. To be recognized as someone with skill in the field. Hopefully this wasn’t a fool’s errand as Fury and Natasha had warned. Hopefully it amounted to something great.
Steve unlocked his door and welcomed the others inside.
“Well,” he said, gesturing to the sitting room and small balcony. “This is it. It’s not much, but I hope it’ll be alright until we leave.”
Steve watched apprehensively, as Bucky looked around the room, and was pleased to see a small smile on his face when he turned back to him.
“I’ve been living on the streets and sleeping in sand for a month,” he said. “This is perfect, thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Steve said, returning his smile. “So, uh, my bedroom is through there. ” He pointed to the only other door in the room. “There’s only one, but the sofa here will hopefully be okay. I thought you might want to bathe while Tony and I figure out getting you some clothes and other things. I don’t think any of my things will fit you.”
Bucky smirked as he looked him up and down, and Steve felt his cheeks heating under the scrutiny. He knew he was short and slim. His clothes would never fit Bucky, who had to be almost a head taller and nearly twice as wide through the shoulders. Well, maybe not that broad but he would rip through any of Steve’s clothes and probably Tony’s as well. They’d have to buy him some new ones.
“Yeah, I don’t think so either,” Bucky replied. “I would love a bath though, and maybe a shave if you have a blade.”
“Of course,” Steve said, turning toward the bathroom hoping to hide his surely blushing cheeks. “Follow me.”
He hoped he didn’t sound as stiff and awkward as he felt while he explained to Bucky where his towels, soap, and razor could be found. Steve also left him with a robe that was likely to fit since the main reason Steve liked it was that it was too big for him.
When he returned to the sitting room, leaving behind the sound of the bath filling, he found Tony lounging on his sofa, flipping lazily through the paperback Steve had been reading recently. He shoved Tony’s legs off one side of the sofa and sat down heavily.
“Get your feet off my furniture, heathen.”
“Technically, it’s not yours,” Tony said, closing the book and tossing it lightly back onto the table. “You’re just renting it.” He sat up and placed his feet square on the floor, resting his elbows on his knees as he looked over at Steve, who did not like the concerned look he was receiving.
“Are you sure about all this?” he asked.
Steve sighed. “I know it was kinda rash, but I can’t let him go back to living on the streets.”
“Not that,” Tony started to wave him off but paused, considering. “Well, yeah. Okay, that too, but we’ll get to it in a minute. I meant the whole… desert expedition with amnesiac hobo thing.”
“He’s not a hobo, Tony,” Steve chastised. “And I thought you were on board with this? You offered to pay for it?”
“Well, that was my contribution to the rash decision party,” he replied. “Treasure and adventure, it all went to my head a little bit. And he was really convincing, but we can’t know for sure that he was actually at Hamunaptra. Hell, he can’t actually know for sure.”
“I know, but something about him…” Steve trailed off. He couldn’t describe it, and probably shouldn’t, but it was just a feeling in his gut, in his heart, when he looked at Bucky. Like he knew him and could trust him. “I trust him.”
“Are you absolutely sure?” Tony pressed. “I’m far too pretty to end up a corpse in the desert, so I just need to know, need you to be completely sure you want to trust him to take us to what may or may not be Hamunaptra.”
“I am,” Steve said, still not quite believing it in his head, but his heart was sure. “This is our shot. We could find something big, bring it back and show the world something amazing.” He smiled and nudged Tony with his shoulder, trying to get the concerned look off his face. “Fame and fortune.”
Tony scoffed, “I have fortune, thanks. But I guess more can’t hurt. I’ll take the fame though.”
Steve laughed and let a comfortable silence fall between them. After a minute he said softly, “I didn’t really believe you, you know. About the arm.”
“I figured,” Tony said, just as quietly. The sound of the bath water running had stopped a moment ago, and they didn’t want the man in the other room to hear them discussing him. “It’s strange, right? Unnerving. Metal, gold and yet not. And it moves. He ate lunch with it. And it doesn’t move like metal, like any fake limb I’ve ever seen.”
“You know he’s not going to let you take it apart, so don’t ask,” Steve warned, hearing the enthusiasm in Tony’s voice.
“He might,” Tony said with a shrug, “but you know I don’t really do that much anymore.”
“You’re a liar,” Steve said. “And don’t even think about insulting our guide before we’re even out the door. Besides, didn’t you say he almost killed the guys that tried to take it from him?”
“I don’t want to take it from him, I just want to mess with it and give it back.”
Steve couldn’t help but laugh. “Tony, why don’t you go get him clothes like you promised before he comes out here and hears you.”
“Alright, I’m going,” he said, standing from the sofa. “But he’s going to be in there a while. It’s going to take a lot to get all the sand outta that hair.”
After Tony left, Steve lounged around and tried to read, feet propped up on the sofa. He was paying for it, and he could do what he wanted. He couldn’t focus on his book though. His mind was buzzing, excitement and worry warring back and forth as he thought about all the books he’d read and stories he’d heard about Hamunaptra. He was glad for that, the history and the myths. If he didn’t have Hamunaptra and their expedition to focus on, he was pretty sure his mind would be firmly occupied with the man in his bath tub right now.
Steve heard the water start to run a second time then and figured Tony was probably right. Bucky likely hadn’t bathed in a month or more and Steve had told him to take all the time he needed. He deserved to feel clean.
And that was the thing. Steve didn’t know anything about this man, but some part of him wanted him to be happy and safe and here.
It was unnerving.
Surprisingly, Tony came back before Bucky was of out the bath, a large duffel bag slung over one shoulder.
“That was fast,” Steve said, rising to take the bag from him.
“I know a guy,” Tony said. “They’re not tailored or anything, but they’ll fit well enough, I think.”
“You always ‘know a guy.’ For everything. I’m sure these will be fine. Thanks, Tony.”
Steve took the bag through to his bedroom, the only way to get to the bathroom. He knocked lightly on the door and spoke without waiting for a reply.
“Bucky? I’m leaving some clothes out here for you. You can use the bedroom to change when you’re done.”
He heard a soft thanks from the other side of the door and left the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Tony was again lounging, feet up on the sofa. Steve sighed and bypassed the other chair in the room to sit on the floor, back against the sofa. He reached for his paperback while he waited. They should probably discuss the expedition in more detail but that could wait until Bucky joined them.
Steve actually managed to get lost in his book for a few moments, looking up only when he heard the soft click of his bedroom door. His breath caught in his throat and his mouth was suddenly dry as a completely new Bucky stepped into the sitting room.
The man before him was so different from the other. Dressed in loose pants and a soft ivory shirt that he’d left open a bit at the collar he seemed slightly hesitant, almost shy. His tan skin was clean and golden. He had managed to shave off the thick beard to reveal a sharp jawline, and with his dark hair combed and framing his face, his grey-blue eyes stood out, bright and clear. He was striking, handsome.
Steve had found men attractive before, but not with this sort of visceral reaction. He could barely breathe with the strength of it, and it frightened him more than a little to feel this way.
Bucky stepped further into the sitting room, looking down at him almost expectantly, but Steve’s tongue seemed unable to move, words not forming in his brain as he looked up into Bucky’s eyes.
“Um, thanks for the clothes,” Bucky said after a moment. “They seem to fit okay?”
It was a question, like he wasn’t sure he looked alright in them. He looked more than alright.
Steve’s brain finally caught up and he managed to get his mouth moving. “You-You’re welcome. Tony knows a guy.”
“Well... Thanks, Tony. I really appreciate it,” Bucky said. He stood there awkwardly for another moment before moving toward the chair and sitting down.
Steve shook his head slightly, closing his book again, trying to regain a bit of control. When he glanced up at Tony, the other man was looking at him curiously, one eyebrow raised. Steve looked away quickly, but he could feel his cheeks heating again.
“So,” Steve started. Time for a distraction. “We should probably talk a bit about the expedition, maybe a general plan for now so we have something to work with.”
“I’m just the purse on this one,” Tony replied, sitting up. “You’re the expert here. Well, both of you are, I guess. Tell me what we need, and I’ll make it happen.”
“Okay, I’ve got a few ideas where we can start…”
It was well into the evening before Tony left. They’d talked for a while, discussed some initial plans, made a list of supplies. Steve had gotten increasingly excited as they outlined the journey, the reality of it finally setting in. They had taken a break for dinner, and after a brief farewell to Tony, Steve had decided to make use of the bath, leaving Bucky alone in the sitting room, looking through the books Steve had on his small book shelf. Some of them he’d acquired here, but many of them he’d brought from home.
It wasn’t until he was sitting in the tub, relaxing into the clear water, that he thought about the fact that he’d left a man who had been a complete stranger earlier this morning alone in his apartment while he bathed. Just the idea should be setting off alarm bells in his head, but all Steve could think about was that it was Bucky. Everything was fine because it was just Bucky.
As they had talked through the journey ahead, things seemed to come back to Bucky. He would get quiet every so often and then remember a detail about the way there or something about the city itself. He didn’t seem to have had any great revelation about himself, but the more they talked about Hamunaptra, the more things seemed to come back to him. Maybe actually going there would help him too.
Planning the expedition also seemed to help Steve get over his embarrassing display from earlier. Bucky was very attractive, but that didn’t mean anything. And they still had to work together. Though he hoped that he could help Bucky with his past and maybe gain another friend here in Cairo. He had so few.
Steve climbed out of the tub and put on some more comfortable clothes. It was a bit too early for bed, and he was too keyed up about their trip anyway. It was unlikely he’d be able to sleep yet. He also had to gather the spare pillows and blankets to give to Bucky to set up on the sofa.
When he entered the sitting room again, bedding in hand, Bucky wasn’t where he’d expected, wasn’t anywhere in the sitting room. It took Steve a panic-filled moment to realize he was sitting in one of the chairs out on the small balcony, elbows resting on his knees as he looked out onto the street below.
Steve dumped the bedding onto the sofa and went to join him.
“Hey,” he said, pushing open the door and heading for the unoccupied chair.
Bucky looked over at him briefly before returning his scrutiny to the street. He didn’t say anything.
They were on the second floor, not far above the street. Steve always enjoyed sitting outside on cool evenings like this one and watching the late night revelers go by. Though he didn’t think Bucky actually saw any of them. His eyes seemed unfocused, lost in his own head.
Steve was unsure whether he should stay or go back inside and leave him to his thoughts. Eventually he figured maybe just having someone nearby might help, so he sat back and turned his eyes to the street below as well. They sat together for a while in a companionable silence, enjoying the sounds of the night. Long enough that Steve almost jumped when Bucky finally did speak.
“I can’t thank you enough,” he said softly, not looking at Steve. “For everything.”
“It’s-it’s no problem really,” Steve said. “You are leading us out into the unknown desert. It’s really the least we could do.”
“You didn’t have to feed me, or offer me clothes, or let me sleep in your apartment.” Bucky laughed as he said the last part, shaking his head. “I can’t believe you let a complete stranger with no past into your apartment.” He looked over at Steve then, smiling. “You must have some kind of deathwish. I could be anybody, I could be some kind of crazy killer, and you’re ready to just let me use your bathtub and sleep on your sofa.”
“You’re not just anybody,” Steve replied, looking into Bucky’s eyes. “You’re Bucky. See? We’re not strangers anymore. And you do have a past, somewhere out there, and we’ll do our best to help you find it.”
Bucky looked away then, though Steve had seen the surprise and the pain in his eyes.
“You really don’t remember anything? You have no idea who you are or where you’re from?” Steve asked quietly, unsure if Bucky would answer. It was a personal question, and he could rightfully ignore him, but Steve just wanted to help, wanted to know Bucky.
“I don’t remember a thing before I woke up in that place.” He took a breath before he continued. “Sometimes… sometimes I get flashes of things, but it’s so jumbled and confusing. I just can’t put it all together. There are things I know, but I don’t know how I know them or anything beyond a simple detail. Like I know I’m not from Egypt, and yet something about Egypt still feels like home. I know how to fight, but I couldn’t tell you the style or where I learned it.”
“So there are things there,” Steve said with confidence. “Things in your head that you might remember. They may still come back to you.”
Bucky looked down, shaking his head. “It’s been a month and I still know so little. I don’t think I’ll ever remember.”
“Don’t say that. You will.” Steve sat back and looked at him. He didn’t know what would help or hinder Bucky’s recovery, but maybe bringing up one thing couldn’t hurt. “So… your accent.”
Bucky looked up at him curious.
“If your accent is anything to go by, you’re definitely American. The way you talk, you sound like you’re from New York—Brooklyn specifically.”
“Really?” Bucky leaned toward him, excited but cautious. “How do you know?”
“It’s where I’m from,” Steve said. “I grew up there. Mostly.”
“You did? But you don’t sound like I sound.”
Steve looked down at the street again. Thinking about Brooklyn, talking about it, was always a little hard now. As much as he missed it, he wasn’t sure he could really go back. “I’ve been away too long, first in England and then here. I’ve kind of adapted to the local speech, I guess. Some of the Brooklyn has faded away.”
“You don’t sound happy about that,” Bucky observed. He leaned back again, maybe sensing that Steve needed a little space, thinking about the past.
“I’m not, and yet I am. It’s hard to say. But hearing you talk… reminds me of home.”
Steve could feel Bucky’s eyes on him.
“Why’d you leave?”
“It’s a long story,” Steve sighed.
“I’ve got time,” Bucky replied, earnestly. “Tell me about it. If you can.”
Apparently, there’s nothing like a complete stranger to make you open up, and Steve found himself talking about things he probably hadn’t even told Tony.
“My dad was an archaeologist, took me and ma all over the place on adventures. I don’t remember most of it though, but I do remember Egypt. I remember he loved Egypt more than any other place. Made me love it too. He died when I was about six. My mom didn’t want to take me back to her home in Ireland so we ended up in New York, in Brooklyn. Things were good, but I had a lot of my dad in me. Wanted to travel, wanted adventure. I only really stayed in New York because of ma, so when she died when I was about eighteen, I just… left.”
“Steve…” Bucky said. “I’m so sorry.”
Steve shrugged. “It’s over and done,” he said. “A long time ago.”
“How-how’d she die?”
“Spanish flu. She was a nurse. For all the illnesses I had as a child, I managed to survive that one, and she didn’t.” Steve shook himself a little and took a deep breath, looking over at Bucky. “So, yeah. I took the money my dad had left us and went to school in England. Managed to work under the best Egyptologist in the field. Met Tony somewhere in there and he never really left me alone, even when I decided to move here a few years ago.”
Bucky laughed at that, shaking his head. “Tony. You’ll have to tell me his story, but I think that’s for another time.”
Steve nodded, laughing along with him. He could always trust Tony to lighten the mood, even when not present. “Yeah, he’s… Well, he’s Tony.” He looked over at Bucky consideringly. As much as it would kill the mood again, he had one more thing he needed to know. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Bucky responded, though he looked hesitant about replying.
“When-when we were talking about Hamunaptra, at one point, you looked almost… afraid. What— Is there something we need to know? Something about that place before we head out?”
Bucky went still for a moment. “You’re gonna think I’m crazy.”
“Let a stranger stay at my apartment, remember?” Steve replied quickly. “You don’t have the market cornered on crazy.”
“Alright, but I warned you.” Bucky puffed out a long breath. “When I woke up in that— that tomb in the desert, I swear there was a voice whispering to me. And that the sand, the ground moved like something was living underneath it. That place… it’s cursed or haunted or something. There’s evil out there. I felt it, and it called to me.”
Steve was half-afraid of what Bucky would see on his face. He didn’t believe in any kind of hocus pocus. He’d heard them all, all the stories about mummy curses and haunted tombs. It was all nonsense that could easily be explained with reason and science. But even if the… whatever it was out there in the desert was nothing but a trap or a trick, the fear in Bucky’s face was too real for Steve to dismiss. Something had scared him, badly.
“As soon as I woke up, I was already running out of there,” Bucky continued. “There wasn’t much around me anyway, except the box and— and sand.”
“Why are you going back then?” Steve asked. “Why lead us there if there’s something evil like you said?”
“Because…” Bucky trailed off, thinking. “Because there might be something out there that I missed. Something to help me remember. Maybe I am crazy and there’s nothing out there, but if there is, we should be prepared for it.”
“Okay.” Steve was surprised to find himself agreeing, but it was true. “We will be.” There was likely nothing out there, but they could be prepared either way. “Whatever you think we need, we’ll get it and we’ll be ready.”
“Thanks, Steve,” Bucky said softly, smiling over at Steve. “I think, I think maybe I should turn in now.”
“Oh,” Steve said, standing abruptly. He didn’t realize how late it had gotten while they talked. “Yeah, you must be tired. Sorry.”
He walked back into the sitting room, holding the door for Bucky before securing it closed, and gestured to the pillows and blankets that he had left on the sofa.
“Here’s some blankets and things if you need them. I’ll just be in there if you need anything though, okay?” Steve said haltingly. He could feel his face heating again, and he didn’t know why. They were just going to bed, to sleep, in two separate areas of his apartment.
“Thank you, Steve,” Bucky said, smiling at him again, this time wide and sincere. “Have a good night.”
“Good night, Bucky,” Steve replied. He turned toward his room, closing the door behind him with a soft click.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4 (Bucky)
It took surprisingly little time to get everything ready for the expedition to Hamunaptra. When Steve had explained that Tony had a contact for just about everything and he’d make it happen, Bucky had been skeptical. Steve was right, though—Tony really did know a guy for everything. Within a few short weeks, they had all the supplies they needed and transportation was set.
During those few weeks, Bucky stayed with Steve in his apartment. It shouldn’t have surprised him. He felt like he really knew Steve even after just their first day together, but it was still amazing that a person could open their home and life to someone they just met. Steve did still have to work at the library, so Bucky ended up spending most of his time planning the expedition with Tony, who asked far too many invasive questions, which Bucky thankfully couldn’t actually answer. He’d never been happier to have no memory.
The hardest part of the planning process had been Steve trying to convince his boss that he needed the time off. Bucky wasn’t privy to any of those discussions, but Steve came home just about every evening complaining. Apparently, he couldn’t tell the curator the real reason for the expedition, so a lot of questions and lying were involved in the negotiations. Eventually, he was begrudgingly granted a month of leave—and not a day more. And Bucky was pretty sure Steve had only been given that much after he offered his immortal soul to the museum in exchange.
Actually, that was hardest part for Steve. The hardest part for Bucky was probably living with Steve during that time. Laughing conversations and shared meals, quiet moments spent in one another’s company. The initial connection he’d felt only grew stronger with time, and Bucky began to worry about what would happen once the expedition was over and they had to part ways. Steve had his job at the museum, and if they found anything at Hamunaptra, even if it was only the city itself, opportunities would open up for him, here in Cairo or back in England or New York. And what was Bucky but a lost a man with no past?
Nothing was really coming back to him. Bucky kept as busy as he could during his weeks with Steve, trying not to think about the things he had lost, but very little came back to him and nothing concrete.
As the first day of their journey dawned, Bucky and Steve were up with the sun gathering the last of their things. Most of their supplies would already be waiting for them, along with Tony, when they arrived at the docks in Giza. It would be quite a long journey, but at least the first part of it would be easy, almost relaxing, as they traveled down the Nile on a riverboat.
Bucky stood in the living room waiting for Steve. The bag he clutched was filled with clothes and books and other personal items for the trip, just about all of them brand new. He had tried to protest initially, but neither Tony nor Steve would hear it, insisting it was all part of his fee for leading the expedition. He really hoped they found something. Bucky was confident that he could lead them to Hamunaptra, but he needed Steve to find something amazing to feel he had paid them back for their generosity.
“Are you almost ready?” he called. “It’s far too early to listen to Tony complain if we’re late.”
“Sorry,” Steve called as he rushed out of his room, tugging on his jacket. “Sorry, I’m not used to these clothes, but Tony insisted. Something about looking like an archaeologist and not like a librarian.”
Steve probably wasn’t used to these clothes because they actually fit. The suit had been tailored to his body, and as he bent to fiddle with his bag, grabbing the hat Tony had also purchased, Bucky couldn’t help but let his eyes linger at where the jacket was buttoned along Steve’s slim waist, where it hugged his shoulders, and where the pants fell from his narrow hips. When Steve stood with his bag in hand and placed the hat on his head, he looked impressive, professional, and… incredibly handsome.
“There’s no way Tony will get there on time. He was probably up half the night drinking, as usual. Alright,” Steve said, hefting his bag up onto his shoulder. He came forward to stand next to Bucky by the door looking up into his face with a slight smile. “Shall we?”
“‘Bout time, Rogers,” Bucky griped lightheartedly, returning the smile. “I’ve been ready all morning.” He reached for the door and held it open, gesturing for Steve to proceed. “After you, sir.”
Bucky closed the door lightly behind him and followed the soft sounds of Steve’s laughter down the stairs.
Tony was, surprisingly, waiting for them at the docks when they arrived, supervising the crew as they loaded the supplies. There wasn’t a lot they would need for the trip along the river, but they would be spending a few weeks in the desert, several days ride from civilization.
“There you are,” Tony said once he spotted them. Breaking away from the crew, he came to meet them. “I was starting to worry. Not like you to sleep in.”
“We’re right on time,” Steve said, dropping his bag. “I’m surprised you’re actually here and conscious. Don’t you usually sleep off the hangover til noon?”
“Gotta protect my investment, Rogers,” Tony said. He wrapped an arm around Steve’s shoulders and turned him toward the boat. “Plenty of time for drinking on the trip. Let’s check out our accommodations, huh?”
Bucky just shook his head and watched them start to walk away, Steve reaching back uselessly for his bag as Tony steered him up the gangway and onto the deck. Bucky waved him off and grabbed the abandoned bag as he trailed along behind, listening to Tony yammer on about the boat.
As he walked along the gangway, Bucky felt the back of his neck prickle, the hairs standing on end and a slight shiver running down his spine as if he could feel someone’s gaze physically on him. He peered around at the crew and the few other passengers waiting to board.
A small group of several other passengers stood below still directing the crew as their cargo was stowed. He could tell by their accents that they were also American, though one—a short man with thin wire glasses—had a different accent, one that Bucky had never heard and couldn’t place. Not that that was particularly surprising given the condition of his memory. He’d have to ask Steve about it later. By the look of their clothes and cargo and from what he could hear of their conversation, they also seemed to be on some kind of archaeological expedition.
They seemed normal enough, just another group of foreign explorers here to dig their way through the treasures of Egypt, and something about them did put Bucky on guard, his back stiff and gaze alert, but they were not the source of Bucky’s initial unease. The man with the glasses eyed him strangely as he made his way toward the deck. Bucky continued to watch for a few moments before shaking off his apprehension and turning to follow Steve and Tony. There would be time to observe them later.
Unsurprisingly, Tony had a cabin to himself while Bucky and Steve would share the cabin across the hall, a small room with two beds, some sparse furniture, and a small window that looked out onto the deck, the river, and the desert beyond.
Following Steve into the room, Bucky dropped their bags to the floor and stared warily at the two beds, side by side with only a tiny nightstand and the open window between them. Sharing Steve’s apartment was one thing—Steve slept in his own room with the door firmly closed while Bucky slept on the couch. This was, for some reason, entirely different, and Bucky’s stomach felt odd at the thought of Steve sleeping so close to him, just within reach.
“Have a preference?” Steve asked as he turned back toward Bucky and gestured to the beds.
“Uh, no?” Bucky said, coming back to himself and looking between the two beds. “Seems pretty much the same.”
Steve shrugged. “Yeah, but I just thought, couldn’t hurt to ask.” He bent and grabbed his bag, placing it on one of the beds and Bucky’s stomach did that odd sort of flip again. The air in the room suddenly seemed hot and stifling despite the breeze that came in through the window flowing out the door they had left open behind them.
“I’m going to take a little self-guided tour of the boat,” Bucky said, backing toward the door. “I’ll see you in a bit?”
“Oh,” Steve said and looked up at him, brow furrowed in confusion. “Yeah, I guess. I’ll just hang out here for a bit until we shove off.”
“I’ll meet you out on the deck.” Bucky hurried out the door and into the hallway. He felt bad for leaving Steve so suddenly, but they would have several days on the boat in such close quarters. He didn’t know why that seemed to affect him. He’d been living with Steve for weeks and this shouldn’t be any different.
He wandered up out to the deck again and tried to stay out of the way as he watched the crew prepare for their departure. He didn’t stay long though, just took a quick loop around, returning to the interior of the boat as soon as he could without seeming hurried. The eyes were back on him, he could feel them watching him as he circled the deck but couldn’t tell where they were coming from. Even as he made his way to the cargo hold he could still feel the prickly sensation in the back of his neck.
He knew it couldn’t be the little man with glasses from before—he didn’t look nearly stealthy enough to avoid notice. Bucky lingered over their possessions, pulling out a few items he should probably check over and keep with him in the room, but the watcher never left. He hoped they would be gone by the time they left port, or else this was likely to be a long trip.
Bucky was starting to think he was just being extremely paranoid. They were a few days into the trip along the Nile and the sensation of being watched refused to leave him. The only time he felt safe, like he could let his guard down, was when he was locked up in his cabin, though that was a lonely and boring way to travel. Even more so since Steve had been giving him a wide berth since they had left Giza, and Bucky knew that was his fault. Steve must have read something in his face during his abrupt departure from their room and thought Bucky needed some alone time.
He was definitely getting it.
Steve only seem to appear back in the cabin to sleep, and even then he came back quite late, arms laden with books and papers, back to looking like the librarian instead of the archaeologist, but it suited him well. Even when Bucky did leave the cabin, he sometimes couldn’t find Steve, though he knew he was likely hiding out in the quiet of Tony’s usually empty cabin.
After a few days wallowing alone in the cabin away from the ever-present eyes of the watcher, Bucky finally gave up and ventured out into the cool night air to find Steve. From the way the others acted, he may be the only one that felt like he was being watched, but that didn’t mean he was the only one being watched and if someone was out to harm Steve, Bucky needed to be there with him, to protect him.
He made his way along the deck, eyes scanning the few passengers for signs of Steve, when he came across Tony engaged in a game of cards with the other group of explorers, minus the squirrelly little man with the glasses.
“Bucky!” Tony said, raising a glass of amber liquid to his lips. “Glad to see you out and about! Now that you’re feeling a bit better, maybe you’d care to join our little game?” He held up his other hand to show Bucky his cards while still keeping them hidden from the other three men at the table.
“Feeling better?” Bucky asked, raising an eyebrow at Tony.
“No need to be embarrassed, my man,” Tony insisted. “Everyone gets a little seasick now and then. Have a seat and a drink and join us!”
“Thanks, Tony,” Bucky said, “but I think I’ll pass on the game.” He didn’t bother to correct him about the seasickness. It was a better excuse for locking himself in his room than, “I’m being watched by unseen eyes,” or even “My roommate is making me nervous and I don’t know why.”
Okay, he had an idea why, but it was an impossibility and Bucky knew better than to dwell on it.
“Are you sure?” one of the men asked smugly, an older man with graying hair. He was, without a doubt, the one in charge of the other expedition. The younger men, a bald man with glasses and a dark-haired man whose every action screamed hired muscle, just watched him, smirking. “You might need to earn a little extra funds to cover the bet when you lose.”
“Bet?” Bucky asked and turned to Tony who had been making a not-so-subtle slashing motion in the direction of the older man. “Tony, what bet?”
Tony spun around in his chair to look fully at him. He placed an elbow on the table trying to look casual and turned wide eyes to Bucky trying to look innocent. He failed spectacularly at both. “Bet? What? I have no idea what—”
“Your friend here bet that you all would make it to Hamunaptra before we do,” the hired muscle said, still smirking.
“You’re looking for Hamunaptra?” Bucky asked. Hired muscle responded with a single nod. “And who says we are?”
“He does,” the bald man spoke, tilting his glass in Tony’s direction.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” Tony said as he turned back toward the table for another sip of his drink. “I’m so glad you know how to be discreet.”
Bucky sighed. He already had enough to worry about between the evil in the desert and the unseen eyes that watched him, and possibly the creepy man with the glasses. He could look out for Steve and Tony, but these men were on their own.
“Have you seen Steve?”
Tony waved a hand, eyes on his cards. “If he’s not on the far side of the deck, check my room.”
Bucky wandered around the side of the deck past the others and paused to pat some of the horses that were on board when he felt eyes on him again, but different ones this time. Instead of the usual prickle along the back of his neck, this felt different—greasy, slimy. The other watcher waited, observing, unnerving him. This one made him feel cold, sent a chill across his skin and down his spine. He turned quickly and found the source of the feeling, watched the little man with glasses ducked quickly back around the corner.
“Hey, are you alright?”
Bucky jumped and turned back around to find Steve standing nearby and watching him with a concerned expression, a book clutched in his hands as usual. He noticed then the small table off to one side covered in books and maps and papers. He had walked right by it while Steve was away.
“Yeah,” Bucky said, willing his heart to stop pounding so fast. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? You’ve been a bit… off since we boarded,” Steve said looking unconvinced, but Bucky could also see the hurt and sadness in his eyes, a knife to his heart knowing he’s been the cause.
“I was just looking for you.” Bucky moved toward the table and gestured at one of the chairs. “Do you mind if I sit with you?”
“No, not at all.” Steve approached the table, setting his book down and sitting in the opposite chair.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky began without preamble, because it needed to be said. He was hurting Steve, and even if he couldn’t explain everything, he should at least explain something. Steve hadn’t thought he was crazy when he mentioned the evil in the desert, maybe he wouldn’t think he was crazy about the eyes that watched him.
They hadn’t talked about anything really serious since his first night at Steve’s apartment. Most of their conversations had been about the trip, or Steve’s boss, or some other fairly innocuous topic. He was glad for it, to have had the distraction of Steve’s company keeping his mind off the more difficult things.
“What for?” Steve asked stiffly, eyes on the map in front of him.
“For hiding away in the cabin, letting you think I needed space and time alone. I just… I think I’m going crazy and I didn’t want to drag you down with me.”
“What do you mean?” Steve looked up at him sharply, concerned.
“I know you took the whole ‘there’s something evil in the desert’ thing in stride, but ever since we got on this boat I’ve felt eyes on me, like someone’s watching my every move, waiting. The only time I didn’t feel it was in our cabin. So I’m sorry if I made you think I… I don’t know, that I didn’t want to be around you or something, but I miss… talking to you.”
Steve looked at him consideringly and Bucky wasn’t sure what he was more afraid of—Steve thinking he was crazy or Steve not buying his excuse. It was only half the reason after all.
“Is that why you brought a bunch of guns up to the room?” Steve asked. His expression was guarded and Bucky couldn’t read him. “Why you started carrying one around with you? You feel unsafe because someone’s watching you?”
“Yes,” Bucky replied, thinking of the bag of weapons he’d grabbed from the cargo hold.
Steve blew out a sharp puff of air. “Well, I’m not convinced there’s someone watching you, but I’m not ready to have you committed yet. You could’ve let me know at least. It was a little weird to walk back into the room to a rifle propped up against the door. And the one in the nightstand scared the crap outta me.”
Bucky stifled a small chuckle. “Sorry about that. It made me feel a bit better.”
“Understandable, I guess,” Steve said, smiling softly at him.
“So, what have you been working on?” Bucky gestured to the pile of books and the map spread out on the table.
“Just doing some research,” Steve said looking back down again.
“Research on what?” Bucky asked. “You’ve been doing research for weeks. At this point, you probably know more about Hamunaptra than the ancients did.”
“No one knows anything about Hamunaptra,” Steve replied. “That’s the point. It was a hidden city. Well, some people think it’s a mythological city, that it doesn’t even exist. Only the priests and the medjai went there, and nothing about the city, no account of it’s layout or construction or anything, were ever written down. It’s all speculation. I’ve had to comb through books and books on ancient texts to get even a scrap of information.”
Something Steve said caused a flare deep in Bucky’s memory. He closed his eyes briefly and tried to grasp it but it slipped away, back into the darkness he couldn’t reach. He shook it off and open his eyes again to see Steve watching him curiously. He could usually tell when something affected Bucky this way, but very little ever came from it.
“So what...” Bucky started, returning to their conversation once more. “What have you found out so far? Anything useful?”
“Well,” Steve said, moving a few things off the map and smoothing it out on the table. “My mentor had actually pieced together a map of the city based on several scrolls and texts. I’ve made some changes here and there, but it’s all speculation. What I’m really hoping to find is an ancient ritual book used by the city’s priests called the Book of Amun Ra.”
Steve gestured at the map, but Bucky kept his eyes on Steve. The man was already handsome, but when he talked about his work and his passion, his face lit up in a way that Bucky both admired and envied. He couldn’t look away. To feel that passionate about something must be glorious.
“I think I’ve heard the gossip about this,” he said, smirking. “Isn’t that supposed to be made of solid gold?”
“Don’t listen to everything Tony tells you,” Steve advised, looking up at Bucky through his lashes. “But yes, according to accounts it’s made completely of gold.”
“Quite a treasure.”
“Knowledge is better than gold.”
“Spoken like a true librarian,” Bucky teased.
Steve glared back at him, but Bucky could see the smile has was holding back.
“So, any idea where to find this gold book?”
“I’ve got some ideas,” Steve uttered mysteriously through a smirk and left it at that.
They sat in comfortable silence for a while as Bucky watched Steve work. He was surprised, had been since the beginning, that everything seemed to be comfortable with Steve. Even without a memory, talking to Steve was easy, comfortable in a way that felt familiar, like they’d known each other forever. Simply being around him put Bucky at ease, made him forget for awhile about everything, even the eyes that still prickled the back of his neck.
As Bucky watched Steve work, making small notations on the map, he thought back over the weeks that he could remember, about everything that Steve—and Tony—had done for him and started to feel guilty about the few secrets he’d kept. Like how, when he woke up in the desert, in that tomb, the map and the metal puzzle box weren’t the only artifacts he had found. He had been keeping them hidden, collateral in case everything went wrong, but maybe it was time he showed them to Steve.
Bucky opened his mouth, the words ready to roll from his tongue, when a shout from the back of the boat interrupted, sending him to his feet and on alert.
“What was that?” Steve asked looking up from his work.
Barely visible against the deep blue of the night sky, Bucky could see the smoke curling up from the rear of the boat. The shouting growing in volume and the light flickering orange and red along the deck confirmed it.
“Fire,” he said, reaching for Steve’s arm. “There’s a fire on the boat. We’ve gotta go.”
“Go? Go where? We’re on a boat.” Steve stood breaking out of Bucky’s hold and began scooping up all of his research, sliding it quickly into his bag.
Bucky’s gaze shifted over the rail to the black of the river below. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but it didn’t look good. He reached for Steve again, grabbing his hand, and started pulling him toward their cabin. “Let’s check it out, but be prepared.”
“For what?” Steve shouted.
Another yell and several raised voices sounded from behind them, and Bucky stopped, glancing back to find a similar commotion near the front of the boat, smoke and the flickering light of a fire. “Can you swim?”
“What does that—” Steve’s eyes widened and turned to look over the edge of the railing. “No. No way. Absolutely not.”
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Bucky said and started tugging Steve along again. “Come on, let’s get what we can from our room and find Tony. I think we’re headed overboard. Soon.”
As they made their way through the interior of the boat, the shouting and commotion grew even louder. Bucky pushed through the crowd, keeping a firm grip on Steve’s hand. The few other passengers onboard all had the same idea, running back to their rooms to quickly grab what possessions they could carry, while the crew headed out to do what they could against the fire.
He pushed the door of their cabin open but stopped just inside the threshold.
“Bucky, what—” Steve asked, confused, from where he had pressed into Bucky’s back. Bucky could feel him trying to peer around his shoulders but held him back.
The room was a mess—sheets and pillows had been pulled from the beds, their clothing littered the across floor, their bags turned upside down and thrown to the side. And in the middle of it all stood a figure, short and slender and dressed head to toe in black, a black scarf even wrapped around their head and face leaving only the deadly gaze of their eyes and a strip of pale skin. In one hand, they clutched the metal puzzle box.
“I don’t think that belongs to you,” Bucky said calmly, though he could see the figure was already tense and ready for a fight now that their only exit head been cut off. “Give it here and we’ll be on our way.”
He took a step further into the room, leaving one hand raised behind him trying to signal Steve to stay out of this, when the intruder suddenly sprang toward him. Bucky was prepared and blocked each punch and kick they attempted, trying to land a few of his own. Bucky wasn’t surprised that they seemed to be evenly matched in strength and speed. He was surprised though at the intruder’s fighting style, which mirrored his own, the strange form that came to him from the deeper parts of his mind, the ones he couldn’t reach but were apparently so ingrained into his muscles. Each seemed to be able to predict the other’s every move.
If he hadn’t been fighting the figure, he definitely would have been asking them some questions.
They exchanged blows back and forth, turning in a small circle around the cluttered and narrow space. Bucky was just contemplating a way to gain the upper hand when his opponent was thrown off balance, stumbling to one side and landing in the pile of pillows and blankets as if hit from behind. The metal box landed at Bucky’s feet.
Bucky quickly scooped it up and stood, moving toward the door and Steve, who stood just in front of him, eyes wide in shock and holding a heavy candlestick in his hands like a baseball bat. Bucky didn’t waste time thinking about the situation. He clutched the metal box in one hand, grabbed the only full bag left in the room—which thankfully held his pistol, rifle, and ammo— and swinging it over his shoulder as he shoved Steve toward the door.
“Move, move, move!”
Bucky pushed Steve out the door and ran past him, grabbing his hand and pulling him along down the corridor. The shouts from both crew and passengers were more frantic now and they could hear the roaring of the fire that was quickly engulfing the boat from either end. They ran out onto the deck where the crew had given up on trying to put the fire out and instead were gathering cargo, including the horses onboard, and trying to shove them overboard.
Both ends of the boat were ablaze. The night breeze blew smoke and heat into their faces. Bucky scanned each face on the deck looking for Tony.
“Do you see him?” Steve’s question was muffled, asked through coughs. He covered his nose and mouth with one hand trying to avoid inhaling any more of the thickening smoke.
“No, I can’t—” Bucky cut off as he noticed a familiar face weaving through the panicked crew. He lifted a hand, waving it to get Tony’s his attention. “Tony! Let’s go!”
“Are you guys alright?” Tony asked coming up to them, two bags slung over his shoulders. “Your room was trashed when I went to look for you.”
“We’ll explain later. Let’s go.”
“Go where?” Tony echoed Steve’s earlier question.
Bucky rolled his eyes and shoved Tony toward the railing. “Hope you can swim, rich guy.” He hurriedly helped Tony over the railing through his protests and gave him a hard push, propelling him down into the water, before he turned to Steve, who looked back at him apprehensively.
“Come on, we need to get off this thing and I’d prefer to do it now before I catch fire. You ready?”
“I don’t think I have a choice.” Steve clutched the strap of his bag to his chest with white-knuckled fingers and stepped up to the railing next to Bucky. “Let’s go.”
Bucky took a moment to store the metal box in Steve’s bag, closing it up tight. He helped him over the railing first before joining him on the other side. Bucky looked over at Steve who was eyeing the water with a nervous but determined look. He reached out and gave Steve’s arm a quick squeeze, followed by a reassuring smile when he turned wide eyes toward him.
“We’re gonna be alright,” Bucky assured him. “On three?” Steve nodded a little too quickly. “One. Two. Three!”
A split second before they jumped, Bucky realized that Steve had never given an answer about whether he could swim.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5 (Steve)
Steve could swim, but not well. It was not a priority for a child as sickly as he had been to learn how to swim. So he wasn’t going to drown, but it was not easy to make his way to shore. It likely would’ve been a lot more difficult without Bucky helping him out and urging him on. And he was thankful that whoever had set the boat on fire had at least managed to wait until the Nile was a little narrower.
Once he reached the shore, wading through the shallows and pushing his way through the reeds, Steve collapsed down onto solid ground. His breathing was a bit rough from the exertion and the smoke he had inhaled before they jumped, so he closed his eyes and focused on taking slow, deep breaths. He hadn’t felt this way since his childhood running through the grimy back alleys of Brooklyn.
When he felt a bit calmer, Steve opened his eyes and focused on the dark sky above and the scattered stars until his breathing returned to normal. He looked around to find Bucky sitting next to him watching the boat burn in the middle of the river. The red and orange lights flickered across his face, and made the gold of his arm shine in the darkness where it was visible beneath his shirt.
Tony lay on his other side, still panting, eyes closed.
“We need to get those horses,” Bucky said, “and whatever other supplies are floating around.”
“Horses?” Steve asked, sitting up and peering out into the water. A few horses, whether theirs or the other passengers’, were struggling to make their way toward the shore. Some bags and boxes floated along the river as well, hastily thrown overboard. They wouldn’t be able to retrieve them all, but anything would help at this point.
Bucky stood and reached a hand down to help Steve to his feet. “Ready to go for another swim?” he said with a smirk.
Steve groaned, but turned and set his bag down on the dry land a bit farther away from the river. “Yeah, yeah. Let’s go.”
“Come on, Tony.” Bucky kicked Tony lightly in the hip. “We still have work to do. Unless you’d prefer a slow death in the desert?”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Tony griped. He sat up and took Bucky’s proffered hand, climbing unsteadily to his feet. “Next time we have to escape from a burning boat, warn me ahead of time. I would’ve had less to drink.”
This was not how Steve had expected their trip to go, but he had no choice but to work with it. The burning boat, the strange black-clad intruder, swimming for his life, and now here he was, trying to salvage any and all supplies he could before they got carried too far off by the Nile current. He could see the crew and other passengers doing much the same thing, though they were on the other side of the river.
It was not a good day.
They recovered what they could, including three horses, none of them the original ones they brought onboard, but they would have to do.
“So,” Steve said, surveying the supplies they had. “What do we do now?”
“We keep going,” Bucky replied, and pointed away from the river. “Hamunaptra’s that way.”
Steve had known that traveling to Hamunaptra would involve several days riding on horseback through the desert. He also thought he would have a nice long riverboat ride down the Nile to prepare for it.
So he did not expect to be riding through the desert for this long or this soon.
Or on a camel.
They had gotten lucky with the supplies they were able to pull from the river. It wasn’t everything they needed, but luck stayed with them when they came across a bedouin tribe and were able to trade for the rest of the needed supplies, exchanging their horses for three camels. Bucky insisted since they would be traveling through the desert much longer than they had originally planned.
Even so, it was a long and trying journey. Steve’s back ached and his legs were sore. Even daydreaming about discovering the Book of Amun Ra was doing less and less to keep him optimistic about their expedition. Bucky seemed confident that they were going in the right direction though. He would spend part of their evening by the fire reassuring them that it was only a few more days, cheering them up with the prospect that it would all be worth it in the end.
Steve wasn’t entirely sure who he was trying to convince. Though it could be Tony, who had kept up a steady stream of complaints until Bucky had pushed him off his camel and left him behind for a short while, sprawled in the sand.
They were also being followed by the other group of explorers from the riverboat, who had managed to catch up to them after a few days. Despite the other group’s claims to also be traveling to Hamunaptra, Bucky was convinced they were following them instead of just traveling in the same direction.
“They did say they were going to Hamunaptra though,” Steve said a bit skeptically as he rode alongside Bucky. He glanced back again, but the other travelers weren’t visible. He could really only see them at night by the light of their camp fires, and from what they had seen, the others had somehow managed to salvage all of their supplies and acquire a large team of diggers. “So they’re probably just heading in the same direction we are.”
“I thought Hamunaptra was the secret mythological city?” Bucky asked, glanced doubtfully at Steve from the corner of his eye. “No one knows where it is or if it even exists and now these guys are so sure they know where they’re going?” he scoffed. “I don’t believe it. They’re following us.”
“Okay, valid point,” Steve conceded. “But you seem so sure you know where you’re going. Maybe one of them does too. What if you were with an expedition or something, and there’s someone else out there who knows where the city is?” He was pretty sure he would have heard by know if that was the case, and he didn’t like the idea of the other expedition following them, using them and Bucky in that way. Though there was no way to prove it even if it was true.
Steve looked over at Bucky, who seemed suddenly stiff, back straight and rigid in his saddle, and was looking resolutely ahead and not at Steve.
“I don’t…” Bucky trailed off. “I don’t trust their guide. I’ve got a bad feeling about him. Maybe he’s one of those-those thieves who takes foreigners money, leads them into the desert, and leaves them for dead.”
“You think so?”
“Maybe,” Bucky replied. “Something about him makes my skin crawl.”
Steve turned around as if he could somehow see the man behind them.
Bucky sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ll add it to list of things driving me crazy.”
“Do you still… feel eyes on you? Like you’re being watched?” Steve asked, watching closely for Bucky’s reaction.
He hesitated, but said eventually, “Yeah, I do. I didn’t immediately after we jumped off the boat, but… they came back.”
Steve nodded. “Alright. We’ll be extra careful then.”
They hadn’t discussed it, but it seemed unlikely that two fires, one on either end of the boat, had started by accident at the same. It was too coincidental, seemed too deliberate. While Steve may have thought Bucky was crazy or paranoid under normal circumstances, some things just didn’t add up. And he knew Bucky, wanted to believe in him.
Which was hard when Bucky woke them up before dawn.
Steve pulled the light blanket over his head and ignored the hands shaking him.
“Steve, wake up!”
The blanket was pulled away and hands gripped his shoulders, hauling him into a seated position.
“Bucky, what are you doing?” Steve grumbled. “The sun’s not even up yet.”
“I know, which is why we have to leave now.”
Steve almost fell back down when Bucky let go to start gathering their things.
“What?” Steve mumbled sleepily. “Bucky…”
Bucky knelt back down and placed his hand on Steve’s shoulder, looking him earnestly in the eye. “You gotta trust me, Stevie. This is it. Now let’s go. We have to get Tony up, or at least drape him over his saddle.”
Bucky managed to get them both up and moving before the sun was even over the horizon, barely even an orange glow in the distance. Steve had no idea what was going on but he could see the other group of explorers close behind them, closer than they had been in previous days, so whatever Bucky knew, maybe they knew it too.
They rode for a short distance when Bucky suddenly brought his camel to a halt and put out his hand signalling them to do the same. As they waited, the other group slowly came up to stop beside them.
Steve leaned over toward Bucky. “What are we waiting for?” he asked.
“We’re about to be shown the way,” Bucky responded, staring off into the distance at a rock formation.
“Hey, Stark,” one of the other travelers called, a dark-haired man Steve he heard the others call Rumlow. He smirked at them. “Don’t forget our bet. First one to the city gets five hundred bucks.”
“What city?” Tony grumbled. “There’s nothing here but sand.”
“Wait for it,” Bucky said, amused.
By now the sun was almost fully over the horizon, heating their backs as they stood silent and still staring off at the rock formation. As the last edges of the sun cleared the eastern horizon, the front of the rock formation shifted, blurred and reformed itself into the ruins of an ancient city. Steve stared for barely a second, awestruck and confused, hardly believing his eyes. He was ready to turn to Bucky, demand an explanation, something bound in science and reason, when he remembered the bet and dug his heels sharply into his camel spurring it forward.
No way was he going to lose this one, even if the bet was Tony’s and not his.
Steve raced toward the ruins, slapping his camel with his riding crop and making the encouraging little noises the bedouins had taught him when they made their purchase. Feeling the wind in his face, brushing his hair back from his forehead, and the desert sun warming his back, Steve had never had this much fun and excitement in his life, despite escaping the fire on the river boat, swimming for his life, and riding through the desert. If he wanted an adventure, a break from the mundane everyday of life as a librarian, he’d achieved it, and they hadn’t even reached the city yet.
Hearing Tony’s cheer, Steve turned in his saddle smiling wide and searching for him and for Bucky, who was just behind him and far ahead of all the others but Tony, their horses not built for the sand, unable to compare to the camels. Bucky was smiling just as wide, making the same noises as Steve and urging his camel on, pulling up just alongside him. His long hair whipped around his face where it had come loose and his gray-blue eyes shone as bright as the gold of his arm in the sun. He was beautiful.
They shared a brief look, laughing, and turned back toward the city.
There were benefits to there being only three of them. They would have much more work without a whole team of diggers, but unloading their supplies and setting up camp took no time at all, and with two teams working in the city, Steve was glad this gave them opportunity to pick their dig site first. He glanced at the other group, the crew still unloading the horses, as he looked over what was left of his research. He probably didn’t need it any longer. Most of it had been lost to the Nile during their swim, but it gave him comfort to have the notes and texts with him.
“So, where are we headed now?” Bucky asked, brushing the dust off his hands and peering over Steve’s shoulder at the water-stained map he’d laid out on top of a rock wall.
Steve shivered slightly at the closeness, feeling Bucky’s loose hair brush against his neck and shoulder as he leaned over. He wanted to turn his head, knowing how close Bucky would be, but keep his eyes firmly on the map in front of him.
“According to my research, the Book of Amun Ra can be found here, under the statue of Anubis,” Steve stated, pointing to a spot on the map. He looked up at the stone torso and jackal’s head sprouting up from the sand in front of him. He pointed at it with his chin. “There. It’s legs go deep under the ground. If we start here, we should be able to get to it.”
He rolled the map up again and turned to look at the hole they had dug in the ground. The city had been covered by sand over the millennia, so the hole was actually in the roof and would drop them down into one of the buildings. Tony stood nearby polishing a rounded silver mirror.
“And what’s with the deal with the old mirrors?” Bucky asked.
“Ancient mirrors,” Steve replied, smirking at him. “And you’ll see.”
“See, you think you’re being all cute and mysterious,” Tony said as he continued to wipe the dirt and sand from the mirror, “but really you’re just being annoying.”
Bucky laughed and bent down to grab their rope, anchoring it to a thick stone pillar. Steve took the mirror from Tony and adjusted it, setting it up to catch a beam of sunlight and reflect it into the room below. When Bucky had the rope tight enough, he lowered Steve down into the room first, then Tony before he climbed in himself.
“Ready?” Steve asked, glancing at the others. Another rounded mirror, old and dust-covered stood nearby. He gripped the top of it. “And then there was light.”
He tilted the mirror just so, catching the light beam streaming in from above and sending it bouncing back and forth between the other mirrors scattered around the room, illuminating the stone tables and metal tools scattered all around coated in thick layers of dust and sand.
“Neat party trick,” Bucky said, sounding impressed.
“What is this place?” Tony asked, picking up a thin metal rod that was slightly hooked at the end.
“Oh my god, it’s-it’s a sah-netjer, a preparation room,” Steve said excitedly as he moved around the room examining some of the other tools.
“Preparation for what?” Bucky asked hesitantly. He help up a long and rusted serrated blade.
“For entering the afterlife,” Steve said in a slow and spooky voice, shooting a teasing smile back at Bucky, who laughed with a shake of his head.
“This is what I mean about the being annoying thing,” Tony said. He picked a cobweb covered torch from the wall and brushed it off, before pulling a silver lighter out of his pocket. It flared swiftly to life, and Bucky grabbed another, lighting it from Tony’s.
“Lead the way,” Tony said gesturing at Steve while he held the torch aloft and looked around for an exit.
Once they got out of the preparation room, the labyrinthine corridors of the building were dark and empty, lit only by their flickering torches, and their voices echoed eerily even in whispers. Steve walked out in front, with Bucky at his back, but he paused when other echoed voices sounded in between theirs.
“Did you hear that?” Steve whispered. He looked back at Bucky who nodded gravely, pistol suddenly in his hand.
They crept along the one side of the corridor. Steve could see the bottom of the statue in front of them now, the legs and feet of Anubis positioned high on a square base. As they approached, the other voices grew louder. Bucky moved in front of him, pistol held high, and he quickly turned the corner of the statue, gun aimed and ready to fire. He paused.
“Jesus, you scared the crap out of us.”
Steve peered around him to find the other group, several with guns high and pointed at Bucky. He felt Tony come around to stand beside him and turned to see he also held a gun, produced from somewhere. Steve hadn’t even known Tony had brought any weapons. It wasn’t much anyway, a tiny deringer.
“Yeah, well. You did the same,” Bucky replied.
Everyone hesitated a second, but eventually lowered their guns, still eyeing each other with a fair amount of distrust.
“Well then,” the leader of the other expedition spoke up, and Steve was instantly on alert, hackles raised at the haughty tone in that single word. “Now that that’s settled, you should probably move along and find your own dig site.”
“We were here first!” Steve surged forward but felt a hand on his arm holding him back. Guns were raised once again, and he was pulled back into a body, a strong chest pressed into his back, one arm up over his shoulder with a gun pointed at the older man.
Things had escalated quickly, and they were definitely outnumbered. Steve wasn’t ready to back down from the main reason for this expedition, but he needed a solution that didn’t involve bloodshed. He looked around quickly for any way out of this, eyeing the legs and feet of Anubis next to him and the floor underneath. Seeing a small crack in the floor and the dust falling down into it, he was struck with an idea. He reached up to pull Bucky’s arm, and his gun, down, suddenly realizing that it was Bucky’s chest he was pressed tightly again, his other arm still gripping his bicep firmly, holding him back.
“Alright,” Steve said, glaring at the older man. “We’ll find another spot to dig. Come on, Bucky, Tony.”
“Steve—” Bucky started to protest, so close that Steve could feel the breath on his ear.
“It’s alright, Buck,” Steve assured him. “It’s a big city. There are other places to dig.”
He felt Bucky relax slightly and allowed himself to be pulled back along the corridor eyes still glaring at the other group.
Bucky pulled him back and down another corridor, while Tony led the way with his torch held in front of them. When they were far enough away, Bucky stopped and pushed him gently against the stone wall.
“Tony,” he called out for the other man to stop, then turned and held Steve in place with a hand on his shoulder. He leaned in close, searching his expression, though Steve didn’t know what for. “Okay,” he said finally, looking Steve in the eye. “I’m assuming you have a plan for this, because I thought we came all the way out here for what’s underneath that statue, and I know you, you are not the type of person to just walk away.”
“I’m not,” Steve whispered, smirking. He paused and glanced back down the corridor, listening for any voices from the others. “But that’s exactly it, what’s underneath that statue. There’s another level below. We go down, find the right spot, and dig up from there. The book should be hidden in a secret compartment in the base. We can get to it and whatever else is there before those assholes do.”
Bucky smiled and squeezed his shoulder. “Knew you had a plan. Alright, let’s see what we can find.”
By the time they managed to find the room directly below the statue of Anubis, it was getting late in the day. The only good news was that they could hear the other team wrapping up for the day as well. Steve had hopes that they could get an earlier start the next day and beat them to the book. Assuming they were all digging in the right spot.
The two camps were a good distance away from each other, and despite their earlier altercation they were trying to at least play nice, be somewhat friendly.
Well, Tony was being friendly. Steve knew that Bucky didn’t want anything to do with the other men, so he stayed back at their own camp to keep him company.
Actually, Steve was pretty sure Tony was just trying to cash out that bet. They did win after all.
He was sitting by the fire reading, Bucky next to him staring blankly into it. Steve couldn’t read his face to even guess at what he might be thinking, but he didn’t want to ask either. Instead he shot him curious and concerned glances every now and then, sat close enough to hope that his presence was at least somewhat comforting.
Steve hadn’t really thought about what it would be like for Bucky to revisit this place. He was regretting his lack of empathy now.
“So, our friends in the other camp had to stop a bit early today.”
Tony emerged from the darkness around them, his smirk displaying a bit of schadenfreude around the edges. Bucky and Steve looked up as he took a seat on the other side of their fire.
“What?” Steve asked eagerly. “How come?”
“They had some of their dig crew trying to open a compartment in the base of that statue,” Tony said, digging around in his bag. He pulled out a dark bottle and uncorked it, taking a deep drink before continuing. “Apparently, the Egyptians boobytrapped the thing.”
“Boobytrapped?” Bucky asked.
“Oh, no,” Steve muttered, his smirk quickly melting away.
“As soon as the stone came loose it sprayed them all with some kind of acid,” Tony said gleefully, taking another drink. “Half their dig crew suffered burns.”
“Tony, that’s awful,” Steve admonished.
“Hey, I’m not happy about the burns.” Tony took one final pull from the bottle before passing it across the fire to Bucky. “I feel bad for the diggers, but at least it’ll delay their start for a bit tomorrow. It should’ve happened to that asshole, Rumlow. He was supposed to open the thing. But Pierce stopped him, told the diggers to do it instead. Apparently this has happened on other digs.”
“It has?” Bucky asked, giving the bottle a sniff before taking his own sip.
“Yeah,” Steve replied. “I’ve heard stories.”
“Someone didn’t want that statue opened,” Tony said.
Steve accepted the bottle from Bucky and took his own drink, the whiskey burning on the way down. “If it contains what I’m hoping, maybe they didn’t.”
They passed the bottle back and forth for a few moments in silence, when Steve felt Bucky go still beside him.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
It was hard to hear much over the sounds of the crackling fire and the voices from the other camp, but underneath that, Steve could pick out the sounds of horses whinnying and a rhythmic pounding.
“Get down,” Bucky stood and ran to his pack, picking up his rifle and setting up behind a low wall nearby.
The beat of hooves grew louder and Steve moved to kneel down beside him. Tony grabbed his gun as well and squatted down behind another section of wall, bottle in hand.
Steve heard Bucky hush him, but it was nearly drowned out by the sound of hooves and shrill voices, a warcry or warning, as figures dressed in black, their faces hidden, came riding into the city. Shouts erupted from the other camp along with the sudden sound of gunfire. Still crouching low behind the wall, Steve peered up and over as the riders first surrounded the others, then some tore through with torches, lighting the tents on fire as they sped past. Some of the other camp, likely the poor diggers caught up in all of this mess, ran from the fires and the intruders on horseback, but Steve could just make out Rumlow, the man Tony had called Pierce, and their other associate firing at the riders.
Once most of the tents were ablaze, the riders seemed to realize there was a second camp and sped toward the three of them and their tiny camp. Steve had to cover his ears as Bucky fired, hitting one, then another of the riders, knocking them from their horses. Steve itched for some way to fight back. He wasn’t letting anyone scare him away, but this was not his area of expertise. He might hold his own in a back alley fight, but guns and horses were something entirely different.
Looking around for any way to help, he spied a torch within reach leaning against their fire. The riders had turned their focus toward them now. Steve dashed for the torch, determined to fight. He grabbed it and turned as a rider approached their camp, torch in hand and heading straight for their tents. Steve jumped into the horse’s path, waving the torch in front of him, and was rewarded as the horse stopped abruptly, throwing its head back away from the fire.
“Damn it, Steve!”
A hand gripped the back of his shirt and pulled him down. He fell, sprawled back on the sand, as Bucky stepped forward and raised his pistol toward the sky. The shot fired frightened the horse enough that it reared back, tossing its rider to the ground before turning and sprinting away. Bucky lunged toward the fire and when he stood again he held his hand high, a lit stick of dynamite crackling brightly.
“Enough!” a voice shouted into the night, deep but not masculine, loud enough to echo through the city.
Steve pushed up on his elbows to see that their camp was now completely surrounded by armed intruders. Even Rumlow, Pierce, and a few others stood nearby, having been herded by the riders into their camp. All eyes turned to the figure climbing to their feet in front of them, the one Bucky had just knocked off their horse, and apparently the one who had just yelled.
“No more, but you must leave this place,” the figure said threateningly, the spark from the fire reflecting in their eyes. “Leave this place or die. You have one day.”
The riders spurred their horses into motion and the figure backed away, mounting another horse and riding off with the others.
Steve looked away from the riders as they departed through the gates of the city and into the desert night. Bucky stood over him looking concerned, his hand extended.
“Are you alright?” Bucky asked as he gripped Steve’s hand and pulled him up.
Steve climbed to his feet, stumbling into Bucky’s chest as his eyes strayed back toward the direction the riders had gone.
“Yeah,” he said absently. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He looked at Bucky, suddenly realizing how close they were. Bucky’s face was inches from his, looking down at him with worry in his gray-blue eyes, and he still gripped Steve’s hand, holding it close to his chest. Steve warmed at the proximity but stepped back quickly, brushing the sand from his pants and scanning Bucky quickly. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Bucky said finally taking his eyes off Steve to look around at the mess that was their camp, though it wasn’t as bad as their neighbors’. At least their tents weren’t on fire. “Fine.”
“And I’m fine too,” Tony called. He was sitting back against a wall, still gripping his gun and the bottle and looking a little shell-shocked. “In case anyone was wondering.” He glanced down at his hands and took a deep pull from the bottle.
“We should probably clean this up, make sure the others are okay as well,” Bucky sighed.
“Yeah, I guess we should check on the others.” Steve glanced over at the other camp, where he could see them moving around, putting out fires and picking up the items scattered across the sand. His eyes caught the city entrance again and he could swear there was a figure on horseback watching them, but the night was too dark to see anything at all. It had to be his mind playing tricks, as the threat to leave or die replayed over and over in a voice that was curiously familiar.
Chapter 7: Chapter 6 (Bucky)
With the camps cleaned up Bucky settled down by their fire, sitting next to Steve who was staring blankly into the flames. He had seemed particularly distracted as they picked up and helped the other camp move a bit closer to their own, a mutual truce for the night, but Bucky was starting to get a bit worried.
Tony sat opposite them again and handed Bucky the bottle as he sat down.
“I think I may be finishing that bottle tonight,” Tony said, leaning back against his pack. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep otherwise.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” Bucky said. He took a drink of the whiskey and held the bottle toward Steve, bumping his elbow lightly to get his attention.
Steve looked up at him with wide blue eyes, confused and unfocused, but he accepted the bottle and seemed to see more of his surroundings as he took a drink, less fixated on whatever was going on in his head. He passed the bottle back with a smile, bumping a little against Bucky’s shoulder.
“What don’t we have to worry about?” Steve asked.
“Really?” Tony asked, deadpan. “We don’t have to worry about the lunatics on horseback who came through here with guns and swords and fire?”
“At least not for tonight.” Bucky shrugged. Tony’s disbelieving look made him continue. “You really think they’ll come back tonight? They were just here. Plus, they didn’t hurt anyone. They had weapons and they destroyed some of our supplies, but no one was hurt. It’s like they said, we have one day to get out of here. They just wanted to scare us.”
“What about tomorrow then?” Steve asked, his voice low. “What happens if we don’t leave by tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.”
They sat by the fire, passing the bottle back and forth until Tony had had enough that he was snoring lightly against his pack on the opposite side of the fire. Steve and Bucky kept drinking, small sips here and there, just to relax them, loosen their tongue enough to fall back into normal conversation.
They started out a comfortable distance apart, but as the alcohol flowed Bucky found his shoulder and hip pressed against Steve’s, their knees bumping occasionally, Steve’s head leaning close to his as he talked.
“You know,” Bucky started, looking across the fire at Tony. “In all the weeks I’ve known you, I don’t think you’ve told me his story yet.” He jutted his chin out, pointing it in Tony’s direction. “I get you—librarian, archaeologist—but what’s he doing here? Shouldn’t he be drinking, gambling, philandering somewhere else? New York, Paris, London?”
Steve laughed softly. “He did his share of philandering in all of those places. He followed me here. He’s from New York too, but I didn’t meet him until London. We’re both orphans. His parents died awhile back, not that he had a great relationship with them from what he tells me, but they left him a fortune and quite a few successful businesses. He runs them from here. He’s actually a genius, an inventor. He could be doing anything.”
Steve paused then and looked with an affectionate gaze across the fire at the sleeping man. “I guess he kinda adopted me. When I said I was leaving for Cairo, he suddenly decided London was boring and came along.”
“He looks out for you,” Bucky said with a teasing smile.
“I can look after myself,” Steve argued petulantly.
“Yeah, but you don't have to.” Bucky bumped his shoulder into Steve, who made an indignant sort of noise, but Bucky could tell he was smiling.
They sat in silence for a bit, and Bucky almost jumped when Steve suddenly rested his head sleepily against his shoulder.
“Can I ask you something?” Steve said, nearly whispered. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“What is it?” Bucky braced himself. There were a lot of questions out there that he couldn’t answer, but there were also quite a few that he could but didn’t want to.
“What... Why is your arm… the way it is?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky breathed, relieved. They hadn’t talked about it, but at least it was a question he could answer honestly. “I just woke up like this.”
“Is it— It looks metal but it moves. Does it…” Steve trailed off, likely tongue-tied from the alcohol and unsure of what exactly he was trying to ask.
Steve was leaning against his right side. Bucky noticed that he did this often, stayed to his right. At first he thought that Steve was doing out of fear or disgust of his strange arm but had hoped maybe he was just being respectful, unsure if Bucky would appreciate him touching or staring. Now that he knew Steve better, he figured that was more likely the reason.
Bucky held up his left hand, offering it palm up to Steve.
Steve lifted his hand from Bucky’s shoulder and gave him a searching look before tentatively reaching his hand out and stroking his fingers lightly along Bucky’s palm. The soft touch sent shivers along his spine, amplified by the heady feeling from the whiskey.
“It-it feels normal, like skin,” Steve said, leaning forward to get a closer look at it as he kept trailing his fingertips over Bucky’s palm, his fingers, his wrist. The skin looked like metal at first; it shined like metal, like gold, but the closer you got to it the more you could see all the lines that a normal flesh-and-blood hand would have. “And you have no idea…”
He trailed off and Bucky could see his cheeks pinking slightly in the firelight where he was bent over Bucky’s hand, so close. Steve withdrew his hand and sat back, looking at the fire and not at Bucky.
“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered. “I keep asking you these things and I know you can’t remember anything.”
“It’s okay, Stevie,” Bucky reassured. He didn’t mind the questions from Steve. He wasn’t pitying, he was just curious. And he cared. “I don’t mind. You can ask me anything.”
Steve still looked embarrassed, uncomfortable.
“Wait here a sec, okay?” Bucky said and he stood to grab his bag from the tent, bringing it closer to the fire. He sat down again, still just as close to Steve so that their shoulders pressed together again, and began to rummage through his bag. “I didn’t tell you everything when you asked me the first time about waking up here.”
“That’s understandable,” Steve said thoughtfully. “You didn’t know if you could trust us.”
“Well, the metal box wasn’t the only thing I found before I left the city.”
Bucky pulled a bundle of grey cloth from the bottom of his bag and held it out toward Steve.
Steve looked at him questioningly before he reached out and gently took the bundle. He slowly unwrapped it to reveal two arm bracelets, tightly coiled spirals of gold, each end holding a carved blue stone. Arm bracelets were not an uncommon find in the tombs of Egypt, and even the stone, carved lapis lazuli, was common in Ancient Egyptian jewelry, but they were usually carved to resemble a scarab, the sacred beetle. These stones were circular, with the shape of a star carved into each one.
Bucky watched as Steve picked them up, setting the cloth wrap down on the other side of him, and examined them.
“I know they’re probably nothing special,” Bucky said. “But they… I dunno. They feel special to me, important somehow. I was going to sell them in Cairo, but I couldn’t bear to part with them once I actually got there.”
He reached over and plucked one from Steve’s hands. They were both exactly the same except one was just a hair larger than the other.
“No, I feel…” Steve smoothed his thumb over one of the bright blue stones. “This feels familiar, not like I’ve seen it in a museum or seen pictures, but like I’ve held it in my hands before.” He shook his head lightly and handed the bracelet and the cloth back to Bucky. “How strange.”
“No, that’s how I felt when I saw them,” Bucky said, carefully wrapping them back up and placing them at the very bottom of his bag. “Probably why I couldn’t bring myself to sell them.”
Steve hummed thoughtfully and returned to staring blankly at the fire again. The noises from the other camp had gradually stopped, the only sounds now were the soft crackle of their fire and Tony’s light snores. Bucky knew it was late, but he was still buzzing with alcohol and adrenaline, and the soft hum under his skin everywhere that Steve had touched.
He felt Steve’s head drop gently to his shoulder once again and looked over to see his eyes closed, his breathing soft and even. After everything that had happened in the last few days, Bucky was feeling increasingly protective, possessive toward the man beside him. Even though he no longer felt the eyes watching him as he had on the riverboat, he had felt the evil of this place prickle along his skin as soon as they set foot here.
He would help Steve in any way he could. If that was by digging through the sand and ruins to find a book, he would gladly do it, but he feared it meant wrapping Steve in his arms and carrying him from this place, whether he wanted to leave or not.
After a while Bucky did lift Steve into his arms, but instead placed him gently on his bedroll.
The next day, Steve was somehow up before the sun and prodding them along, down into the depths of the city to start their work before the other team could wake.
Bucky was carefully digging up into the ceiling in the area they determined was directly below the statue of Anubis, while Tony leaned against the far wall and nursed his hangover, listening to Steve explain the process of mummification in graphic detail. He had no idea how or why Steve had decided this was the best topic to discuss. Maybe he had been inspired walking through the preparation room again this morning. Steve held one of the thin hooked metal rods in one hand as he talked, gesticulated with it. Bucky was a little disturbed as he listened to the description.
“They removed your lungs, intestines, stomach, and liver first and dried them out, then stored them in canopic jars, but left your heart inside your body,” Steve explained.
“Why the heart?” Tony asked.
“They thought it was the center of intelligence and feeling.”
“So what did they do with the brain?”
Bucky paused, leaning on the pick he was using to dig, and turned to watch Steve wildly flailing the metal rod around as he explained. There was a pounding in the front of his head, a sharp pressure that grew as he listened.
“Oh, they removed it from the body. First they’d take a rod like this—” Steve stopped and looked down at the rod in his hand thoughtfully. “Actually, it would’ve been this exact rod, wouldn’t it? Anyway, they’d shove it up your nostril, scramble it all around a bit, and then pull the whole thing out through your nose.”
“Please,” Tony implored, groaning. “Please stop before I vomit. For the record, don’t put me down for mummification.”
“Well, you’ll be dead when they do it,” Steve said.
The pressure grew, pooling behind his eyes, and his vision blurred around the edges until Steve and Tony and the room around him faded away into a brightly lit chamber, a stone slab in front of him and a figure wrapped tightly in cloth. His heart ached and his lungs seemed to seize in his chest at the sight. He couldn’t breathe and the world around him spun again.
A hand gripped his bicep and the world faded back, Steve’s concerned face peering up into his.
“Are you alright?” Steve asked. “I said your name several times. You made an odd noise…”
“Yeah,” Bucky said softly, then shook himself and went to grab the pick again. “Yeah, I’m fine. We should get back to work on this.”
He turned away from Steve, back toward the hole he was trying to work into the ceiling, when there was a loud crack, dust drifting down from the ceiling. He stepped back just in time as the ceiling broke and a large stone box fell to the floor in front of him.
Tony yelped and jumped to his feet while Steve gripped the back of Bucky’s shirt, yanking him farther away from the stone box. They were all left stunned and coughing as the dust settled and they could focus on what exactly had fallen from the ceiling.
Steve stepped forward and ran his hands over the top, brushing some of the dust away.
“Oh my god,” he whispered, awed. “It’s a sarcophagus… buried at the base of Anubis.”
“Is that…” Tony started, coming to stand by Steve and the box. “Is that a good thing?”
“Well, it was either someone really important,” Steve said, his fingers tracing the carvings and symbols etched into the lid. “Or he did something really bad.”
Bucky stared at the sarcophagus, his head pounding again, pressure building behind his eyes, as Steve turned and went to retrieve his pack from the floor near the far wall where Tony had been using it as a pillow. He set it down next to the sarcophagus and rummaged around in it until he found his tools, namely a small brush. Standing and turning back toward the sarcophagus, he began gently brushing the remaining sand and dust from the lid, revealing a series of hieroglyphs carved into the center.
“Can you read it?” Tony asked. “What does it say?”
“He Who Shall Not Be Named,” Bucky whispered, as Steve read the same from the hieroglyphs.
Steve turned his head sharply, looking back at him over his shoulder in surprise and confusion.
He didn’t know where the words had come from, but they had formed in his head as he stared at the sarcophagus. He couldn’t even play it off as somehow knowing how to read the glyphs—even if Bucky wasn’t standing too far away to read them, Steve was blocking half of them.
“I don’t— I don’t know. The words just…” He trailed off and looked down, not knowing where to go from there or how to explain.
“Have you seen this before?” Steve asked, turning around fully to face him. “Is it familiar in anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky said softly, then repeating it louder, agitated. “I don’t know. It looks like every other sarcophagus in your museum. I don’t understand. I don’t know why—”
“Hey,” Steve said gently, stepping closer to him.
Bucky kept his eyes down, focusing on Steve’s feet as he approached. He felt a hand grasp his bicep, squeezing lightly before rubbing up and down his arm soothingly. Another hand touched his cheek, lightly forcing his head up to look into Steve’s calm, concerned face, his eyes searching Bucky’s.
“It’s okay, Buck. It’s alright. You don’t need to say anything or try to explain. It’s alright.”
It wasn’t alright, wasn’t normal. The things he was seeing, remembering, they weren’t normal memories. That sarcophagus had been buried in sand and stone for thousands of years. There was no way Bucky had happened to see it on a dig or had seen something similiar in a museum. Those words were very specific to this sarcophagus and whatever it contained.
He what? He’d been scared before, scared of the faceless evil he could feel from the ruins of the city, but now? Now with these visions, these memories pressing against his skull trying to break free, he was terrified.
“Steve, maybe we shouldn’t open it.”
“Bucky, there’s nothing in there that can hurt us,” Steve insisted quietly, absentmindedly stroking his thumb along Bucky’s cheek.
“I don’t think it was meant to be opened. Ever,” Bucky pressed.
“I don’t think we have to worry, can’t open it anyway,” Tony called from the other side of the sarcophagus, startlingly them.
Steve jumped slightly and dropped his arms, turning to look at Tony, who was walking around the stone chamber examining the lid. He gave it a quick push, but it didn’t budge, even tried to lift it with the same results.
Bucky followed Steve back over and watched anxiously as he and Tony examined every inch of the lid, and hoped that there really was no way to open it.
“Ah!” Tony exclaimed, brushing more sand from the lid. “It looks like—like you need a key or something to open it,” he said thoughtfully. “It’ll take a while to crack this without it.”
Steve maneuvered around to the other side, standing next to Tony to examine the lock, while Bucky stayed put, peering over the lid. There was a circular metal piece imbedded into the stone lid, the center of which almost looked like a star, though a strange star with each point different, shaped more like jagged puzzle pieces.
“A key,” Steve muttered. “Wait! A key!”
He sprinted back to his back and rifled around, emerging with a triumphant look on he face and holding aloft the metal box. As he walked back around to the lock, he pressed the bottom and turned, popping open the little metal pieces, the puzzle pieces. When Steve fit the open box perfectly into the metal lock of the sarcophagus, looked up at them with a victorious smile, Bucky couldn’t smile back, couldn’t even look Steve in the eye. He could only stare at the lock and key with apprehension.
Tony reached over to grasp the bottom of the metal box, pressing it into the lock and giving it a twist. The faint clinking of metal gears sounded from inside the sarcophagus as he turned the key in the lock, followed by a louder, more distinct click. The lid popped up just a hair, and Tony gave it a shove with both hands, moving it abruptly toward Bucky’s side of the box. He caught the edges and helped Tony lift and slide it gently to the floor.
“Now that just seems like overkill,” Tony said, looking inside the now open stone coffin at a smaller, black sarcophagus completely covered in carvings and glyphs.
“Not really,” Steve said running his fingers along the glyphs of the inner chamber. The lid was free from sand and easily visible. “Archaeologists have found several mummies inside double sarcophagi. It’s usually someone pretty important.”
“There’s another lock on it though,” Tony griped. “If I got into the first one, I can get into the second one just as easily.”
“Then why are you complaining if it was so easy?” Steve teased. “We have the key.”
“Alright, let’s get this one out,” Tony said, moving to one end of the stone chamber and reaching in to grasp the inner one. “Bucky, care to give me a hand here?”
Bucky approached the opposite end, stretching his fingers wide as he walked. His palms tingled as he stared at the black sarcophagus. He didn’t want to touch it, but he tried to trust in Steve’s words that there was nothing inside that could harm them. It was just a mummy, a thing no longer living. There was nothing to fear. It still felt like the cold burn of ice as he laid his hands on the smooth surface to lift it out.
Steve stood along one side, reaching down to help, instructing them to lift on his signal.
The inner coffin was heavy but not the weight of stone, more likely wood from the feel of it, probably reinforced with at least some metal as part of the locking mechanism. They maneuvered it out of the stone box with little difficulty and stood it upright, leaning it carefully against the wall.
“If there’s a third box in there, I’m heading back to the tent and you’re on your own,” Tony said, standing and leaning to stretch out his back. He gestured vaguely at the glyphs covering the lid. “So, what’s this one say?”
“Uh,” Steve hedged.
“Steve?” Bucky asked. The pressure in his head was a steady pulse that seemed to grow with each beat. “What does it say?”
“Well...” Steve placed a hand on the very center of the lid where it looked as if there had been writing at one point but it had been carved out. “The sacred spells have been chiseled off. So, whoever this was, they were condemned not only in this life but in the next.”
“What else?” He could tell there was something else, something bad that Steve was holding back. Bucky shivered suddenly, down the spine like a chill wind on his neck, but the air in the chamber was stagnant and stale.
“It says, um...” Steve hesitated. “It says, ‘Death will come on swift wings to whomever opens this chamber.’”
“Well, that’s ominous,” Tony said, staring at the black sarcophagus now as if it were a scorpion, tail poised and ready to sting.
“That sounds like a curse,” Bucky said softly.
“Yeah, I’m starting to side with Bucky on this one. Are you really sure this is a good idea, Steve?”
“There is nothing to be afraid of here,” Steve insisted, looking back and forth between the two of them. “This is just a bunch of nonsense designed specifically to scare away graverobbers, and you all are buying it.”
“Well, we are a kind of graverobber,” Tony joked.
“There is no curse,” Steve said slowly. “There is nothing to be afraid of. Now hand me the key.”
Steve took the key from Tony’s outstretched hand and snapped it into place in the lock, giving it a turn just as Tony had with the outer chamber. The inside of the sarcophagus lid made the same series of metal clinks, but at the final click the lid sprang open with enough force to knock Steve back. Bucky lunged forward, wrapping his arms around Steve to steady him, but froze when he looked up into the skeletal face of the mummy, leaning out of the coffin toward them. What was left of his skin was brown and glistening in the flickering torch light, making it seem alive and moving, empty eye sockets staring out at them.
A scream caught in his throat and he felt Steve stiffen in his arms. Tony jumped back, falling to the floor, and made a strangled sort of high-pitched scream.
Steve stood straight and stepped out of Bucky’s arms. “I hate it when these things do that!”
“Do they do it often?” Tony asked. “Because you could warn a man next time!”
“Is it supposed to look like that?” Bucky stepped to the side, examining the mummy but trying not to get any closer than was absolutely necessary. He curled his lip in disgust as he looked at the side of the thing’s the face, avoiding the sightless stare. “It still looks…”
“Juicy,” Steve said. “No, I’ve never seen a mummy look like this before. It’s almost as if it’s still… decomposing.” He stepped up to it and glanced around the mummy into the coffin, then down at the lid where it had fallen to the floor. “Look at this.”
The inside of the lid was scratched, a pattern of four parallel lines over and over above a string of glyphs.
“These look like…” Steve placed his fingers into one set of four lines and traced them down.
“Fingernail marks,” Bucky finished, shivering again. “He was still alive when they put him in here.”
“What does that one say?” Tony asked, pointing at the glyphs that were scratched into the wood.
Steve ran his fingers underneath the marks as he recited, “Death is only the beginning.”
Chapter 8: Chapter 7 (Steve)
Steve should have been elated. Today had been an accomplishment he had dreamed about his entire life. They had found a sarcophagus with a mummy—a bit juicy, but a mummy still. It should have been something to celebrate.
The day was a bit marred, however, not by the ominous words carved into the chamber or still decomposing state of the corpse, but by Bucky’s mood—his apprehension, his fear, cast a shadow over every positive emotion Steve felt, as if his happiness was directly connected to Bucky’s.
He tried to ignore it, to feel the excitement that this discovery deserved as he examined the inside of both the inner and outer sarcophagi and the mummy itself. Tony had taken up his position along the wall once again, lounging back against Steve’s pack, but Bucky had left the room saying he needed some air, and Steve found it hard to focus on what was in front of him, mind wanting to stay with the man who had left the room.
Steve did his best to note every detail he observed about the state of the mummy and the burial in his journal—the most interesting thing being the scarab skeletons he found buried with the corpse—before he gave in and packed up, signalling to Tony that they could stop for the day.
As they walked through the city, passing alongside the other expedition’s campsite, Steve held the scarab skeletons, running his thumb along the smooth wings, and glanced over at the large group of tents around the campfire. He stopped abruptly when he noticed their expedition leader, Pierce, sitting by the fire and struggling with a large square object.
A book, Steve realised.
He scowled, angered that they had found it instead of him, but also breathing a sigh of relief. The book wasn’t gold, but black and metal. Even the outer pages were covered in hieroglyphs, and two metal clasps held the book firmly closed. Not the Book of Amun Ra then, likely the Book of the Dead. There was still time, and the artifact Steve sought was still out there. More interesting was the cover of the book, a familiar star-shaped lock set into the front.
Steve smirked and moved on towards their camp, not sparing Pierce another glance, but plotting through the jealousy and curiosity.
“Hey,” he said as he approached Bucky where he sat staring into the fire.
“Hey,” Bucky greeted. One corner of his mouth lifted as he looked up at Steve before sliding over and making room for him. Tony sat down on the opposite side. “How did it go? Did you learn anything else?”
“I took a few notes, yeah,” Steve said. He held out his hand, ready to show Bucky the scarabs, when they were interrupted by footsteps approaching across the sand and the sound of voices calling out to them.
“Hey Stark,” Rumlow called, stepping into the circle of light from their fire, another figure close behind him. He held up a knife, its scabbard made of gold and covered in jewels, and waved it tauntingly at them. “What do you think these’ll fetch us back home?”
“Some manners, maybe your dignity. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. You can buy anything these days,” Tony said, not sparing a glance in their direction as he pulled another bottle of whiskey from his pack and uncorked it.
Rumlow scowled, curling his lip in Tony’s direction. The other man stepped up next to him, turning a gold amulet and chain around in his fingers. Jasper, Steve had learned, though the others called him Sitwell.
“Heard all you found was a juicy mummy,” Sitwell said, laughing. “Dry him out, maybe you can sell him for firewood.”
Steve scowled, clenching his fist around the scarabs in his hand. “Not all of us are here for profit.”
“I’m sure you and the mummy will be very happy together, Rogers,” Rumlow said, before turning to leave. “I’ll stick with the cash though.”
“I’ll stick my foot up your ass,” Steve grumbled, turning back to Bucky, who was smirking at him, eyebrows raised. Steve cleared his throat, feeling his cheeks heating, and held his hand out again, uncurling his fingers to reveal the two scarabs stacked on his palm. “Anyway, I found these in the coffin with our juicy friend. Scarab skeletons, flesh-eaters. They can survive for years feasting on a corpse.”
Tony made a slightly disgusted noise. “They ate him?”
“And he was alive when they put him in there,” Bucky said softly, picking up one of the scarabs.
“According to my research, it was part of a ritual called the Hom-Dai,” Steve said, holding the other scarab up between his fingers, turning it to and fro as the light from the fire played off its shining wings. “It was reserved for only the worst blasphemers. I’ve read about it, but I’ve never heard of it actually being performed.”
“So, this guy was that bad then?” Tony asked. “Got a little too friendly with the Pharaoh’s wives?”
Steve laughed. “It’d be something much worse than that. They never used it because they feared it. They thought the Hom-Dai carried with it a curse, and if the person who suffered it ever rose, they would bring with them the ten plagues of Egypt.”
Steve spoke matter-of-factly, in his lecture voice as Tony called it. This was all nonsense and superstition to him, but he felt Bucky shiver slightly and glanced over to find him staring blankly into the fire, the scarab in his hand forgotten.
“You alright?” Steve whispered, leaning into Bucky’s shoulder. “It’s just a story, you know?”
Bucky blinked and shook his head slightly, looking over at Steve.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. He looked down at the scarab in his hand and held it out to Steve. “Yeah, I know. Silly superstitions, right?”
“Right,” Steve said, but he continued to watch Bucky, who stood and went to one of the packs that held most of their rations.
They were just stories, the strange mythology of a long dead civilization. Nothing could hurt them now. As Steve stared down at his hand, at the two scarab skeletons resting on his palm, their wings a deep iridescent blue even after thousands of years inside the tomb, a feeling of unease settled in the pit of his stomach, a feeling that had a lot less to do with his concern for Bucky then he was willing to admit.
The camp was quiet. The fires were low and banked for the night, the travelers asleep, some snoring softly in their bedrolls.
Steve slowly picked his way through his own camp toward the others. Tony and Bucky were curled up on either side of the fire, the tents forgotten as they talked and drank into the night. The other camp appeared much the same. The diggers had crowded in the few tents that remained after the raid, but the explorers, the so-called archaeologists—Pierce, Rumlow, Sitwell, and their creepy guide, Zola—were passed out close to the fire, a few half-empty bottles nearby.
As slowly and quietly as he could, Steve stepped around the sleeping forms, his eyes glued to the black metal book Pierce cradled loosely against his chest even in sleep. He crept closer, knelt down by Pierce’s prone form, and gradually slid the book from his hands. Gripping it tightly to his own chest he quickly snuck his way back to his own camp.
“That’s stealing, you know.”
Steve jumped, a half-strangled yelp escaping his lips, and turned to find Bucky awake in his bedroll, one eye open and staring at him.
“Shit, Bucky,” Steve said, his heart pounding rapidly. “You scared the crap outta me.”
Glancing around quickly to make sure no one had woken with his yell, Steve glared at the other man, who was now reclining, weight resting on one elbow. Bucky stared back expectantly at Steve, eyebrows raised.
“That usually happens to people who lurk around the camp at night when they should be sleeping.” Bucky stood and approached the fire, sitting in their usual spot and patting the space next to him. “So. What have you got planned for the stolen book? He’s going to notice it’s gone kinda quick, you know?”
“It’s not stealing, it’s borrowing,” Steve argued, sitting next to Bucky and placing the book in his lap. “I’m gonna give it back. I just want to read it first.” Steve reached into his pocket and pulled out the metal puzzle box, the key to just about everything around here apparently, and held it up. “Not like he’ll be able to get it open anyway.”
Bucky glanced somewhat nervously between the book and the key. “You sure this is a good idea?”
Steve felt his stomach clench with unease again, but he ignored it and settled the key firmly into the lock, giving a quick turn.
“It’s just a book,” he said as the metal clasps snapped open. “No harm ever came from reading a book.”
As Steve flipped the heavy cover open, the fire flickered with a strong wind that swept through the camp, ruffling his hair and sending shivers down his spine. He looked up at Bucky who was glaring at him.
“Just a night breeze,” Steve said, smiling at him, though his spine still tingled even as the air around them was still.
“I really hope I never have to tell you ‘I told you so,’” Bucky griped, leaning closer to Steve to stare at the glyphs carved into the first thick slab of the book.
“It’s just a book.”
Steve knew at this point he was trying to convince himself just as much as Bucky, his unease growing. He focused instead on the glyphs in front of him and Bucky’s soft breaths as he leaned in, peering over his shoulder. He ran his hands along the carvings, the metal smooth and cold despite the warmth it should have gained from his arms and Pierce’s before that.
“What’s it say?” Bucky whispered.
“Ahm kum Ra. Ahm kum Dei,” Steve recited softly. “Um, it’s talking about the day and the night.”
He continued whispering the passage softly, following the symbols with his fingers. The wind picked up again, blowing sharply through the camp, bringing a strange smell with it, the stale and sour smell of death, of decay. The fire flickered again, low as it was, until it faded to almost nothing. The warmth it provided disappeared completely and the cold wind followed, picking up again.
Bucky leaned in closer, his head raised and looking around the camp, though the fires were out and little could be seen in the darkness.
“I don’t think it’s just a book, Steve.”
A sudden roaring noise seemed to come both from the ground under them and yet pounding in their own ears all at once. As the other occupants of their camp rose, confused and startled from their sleep, jumping to their feet and looking around the camp, the roaring changing to a strange buzzing sound surrounding the city and growing louder.
“What the hell?” Tony said, rising from his bedroll and blinking at them. “What’s going on? What’s the noise?”
Bucky stood abruptly and stared toward the entrance to the city.
“Locusts,” he muttered, eyes wide. “We have to go.”
“What?” Steve stood, the book falling to the sand, forgotten. “Go where?”
“Anywhere. Inside.” Bucky grabbed his hand and started pulling him toward the ruins “Now. Tony, come on!”
As Bucky pulled him along, Steve looked back at the camps and the thick black cloud that was approaching, barely visible against the night sky. The others began shouting and running as well as the swarm rose sharply, a nightmarish wave that crested before descending on the camp.
They headed toward the entrance to the closest building, running through the corridors. The halls were dark, the torches from their daytime activities close to running out, but Bucky and Tony each grabbed one as they ran past. Steve could hear the others, Pierce and his companions, on their heels as the escaped the swarm.
The twists and turns of the corridor blended together as he focused only on keeping upright, Bucky tugging him along and Tony pushing at his back. The walls around them rumbled suddenly and the floor shook under their feet, bringing Bucky to a halt. He held the torch high and kept steady while Steve and Tony reached out to brace themselves against the wall. Dust and debris floated down from the ceiling, and the rumble transformed to a dull roar that echoed through the corridors.
“What the hell is going on?” Tony yelled above the din.
“Steve read a book,” Bucky called back over his shoulder. “Things didn’t go as planned.”
“Goddamn it, Steve!”
“It was just a book!” Steve defended.
The walls around them gradually stopped shaking, and Steve pushed away from the wall, stepping up beside Bucky who was staring down at the floor in front of him where the sand was moving, bubbling up from underneath.
“What is that?” Bucky asked, warily.
The sand erupted into a swarm of iridescent beetles, black-blue bodies tumbling over one another and moving toward them.
“Scarabs!” Steve cried, pulling Bucky back and pushing Tony toward the other end of the hall again. “Bad ones! Shit, shit! Move now!”
Steve pushed Tony along, glancing back at Bucky, who was running backwards, swinging the torch widely to ward off the flesh-eating bugs before he gave up and threw the torch at them.
The corridor lead them to a strange room with little more than a tall crumbling staircase to one side and a raised stone dais in the center. They ascended the stairs, but with the beetles close behind, Tony leaped onto the dais with Bucky on his heels. Steve hesitated for a split-second, unsure of the leap, before he noticed an alcove in the wall, set back away from the stairs. The gap was much smaller, less chance of falling. He jumped that way instead, smacking roughly into the wall. He turned and pressed his back firmly against it as he watched the scarabs skitter quickly up the stairs and beyond.
The floor shook once more and the walls seemed to move, but Steve quickly realized it was only the wall at his back. A secret doorway that turned too quickly for him to shout. Bucky and Tony faded from view, leaving him stranded alone in a dark passage.
He turned and pounded a fist on the wall, trying to see through the darkness for any mechanism that would send him back the way he’d come.
“Bucky?” Steve shouted. “Tony? Anyone!”
The floor rumbled, the walls roared. He couldn’t tell if the pounding in his ears was the rapid beating of his heart or the shaking of the building around him. Steve stumbled along the passage, hands out and skimming along the walls as he walked.
He heard a soft groaning under the roaring of the ruins.
“Hello?” he called, hesitantly.
The groaning continued, growing louder as the ruins around him seemed to settle again.
“Is someone there?”
Steve turned a corner to find a figure with his back to Steve, standing in the middle of the corridor, illuminated by a small bit of light coming from some cracks in the ceiling. As he approached, he realized it was Sitwell.
“H-hello?” he called out. “Mr. Sitwell?”
The man only groaned and made a soft gurgling noise. Steve reached out and grasped his shoulder, turning him around.
“Are you— Oh my god!”
Steve jumped back, holding his hand to his chest as if burned, as if contaminated by the figure in front of him. Who had no eyes. Nothing remained but empty, bloody sockets, the red running down his cheeks as if they had been ripped right out of his skull. As he stared at the figure Steve noticed the blood from the corners of his lips, dribbling out his mouth, and realized the gurgling sounds he made were words half-formed without a tongue.
Stumbling back into the wall, Steve’s fear warred with the urge to help this man. He had no idea what he could do. He had no idea what had happened, what had done this. Sitwell shuffled toward him, his hands outstretched and reaching, begging for help, but Steve could only slide away along the wall, unable to look away from the gruesome visage.
“I’m-I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I don’t know what to do. I-I’ll go get help. I’ll find someone for you. Please… please stay here.”
Steve backed away quickly to head down the corridor again, to find someone, anyone who could help. He turned the same corner into the darkened passage, and screamed.
The figure in front of him this time was stooped and skeletal, and even in the darkness of the corridor it glistened, juicy. Steve stumbled back, flailing and falling to land on his backside. His eyes stayed glued to the figure in the passage that moved toward him in an oddly fast shuffling step that dragged one foot behind him.
Steve climbed to his feet and ran as fast as he could through the dim corridors, his arms in front of him feeling his way along the walls. He could hear the shuffling gait behind him even over his own panicked breathing.
Luck was not with him.
He turned one corner to find a dead end, trapped on three sides by stone walls. Steve spun around ready to race away, but the figure, the creature, the mummy, stood a few feet away, head cocked, staring at him with stolen eyes.
Steve backed away quickly until he hit the wall, pressing as far back as he could. His breathing hitched, heart stuttering as the creature did nothing but stare, unmoving. Steve’s panic rose the longer it stood there, just watching, waiting. He needed to get away. He slid along the wall, closer to it, hoping to somehow get around and make a break for it. Maybe the creature would be slowed down enough by its one useless foot. The crumbling stone of the wall caught on his clothes as he slid along, tearing, scratching into the skin of his back.
As he worked his way closer to the mummy, its head the only part of it moving as it turned to watch his progress along the wall, Steve could see it in more detail, though he really wished he couldn’t. Where it had been brown and decaying before—assuming it was the same mummy because what else could this be—the sickly decomposing flesh glistened and clung to a reanimated skeleton. It’s face was round and featureless, muscle missing in places so that the white of the bone shone bright underneath. It had no nose, no ears, stolen eyes constantly staring from lidless sockets, and Steve could see a pink and living tongue from between broken teeth in an open, lipless mouth.
The creature had no lungs, no organs, but the stench of it seemed to waft over Steve as he inched closer, a strange combination that smelled both of life and death, putrid and rotting with the bloody smell of fresh meat.
Nearing the creature Steve paused, ready to run for it though that would mean brushing past as quickly as possible, when the mummy leaned closer. Its horrifying face was just inches from his, eyes roving over his face. If it had a nose, Steve thought it would be smelling him as well. The creature stopped, focusing on Steve’s eyes.
“Seth,” it rasped brokenly. A hand reaching toward him, his face, his throat.
Steve stopped breathing, frozen in terror, staring at the bloody skeletal fingers reaching for him.
“Steve? Where are you?”
“Bucky!” Steve called, hearing the shouts followed by the pounding of footsteps. “Tony!”
He heard them round the corner, could barely see them from the corner of his eye, but one of them held a torch. He couldn’t take his eyes off the mummy—it was even more terrifying, more disgusting in the flickering light. Bucky and Tony stopped short at the sight of the creature, which turned to glare at them, Steve momentarily forgotten.
“Holy shit,” Tony gasped.
“Steve?” Bucky asked, his voice breathy.
Steve turned to look at them, their eyes wide and shocked as they stared at the mummy. He wanted to respond, to ask for help, beg them to get him out of here, but he could only stare, mouth open.
Bucky recovered first. He lunged forward, past the mummy, to grab Steve’s hand and pull him sharply away from the wall and the creature, tugging Steve behind him. He pulled a gun from somewhere—Steve hadn’t even realized he’d been carrying one—and aimed it at the creature.
The mummy opened its mouth impossibly wide, jaw unhinged like a snake, and let out an inhuman screech.
Bucky fired straight at the creature’s chest. The screaming stopped as it stumbled back but it didn’t go down, simply started toward them with its awkward shuffling gait. Bucky froze as he watched it, his gun still raised, mouth open in shock and horror.
“Let’s go. Come on, Bucky.”
Steve gripped Bucky’s hand and pulled. Tony joined in when Bucky didn’t move immediately, grabbing his other hand and pulling roughly. He finally moved, shaking off the fear, and the three of them turned and ran down the corridors, searching desperately for the exit while the echoing sounds of the mummy followed them out.
Tony was the first through the exit, rushing out into the night, which was blessfully free of the locusts, but he pulled up short. Steve and Bucky slammed into his back, other bodies slamming into theirs. Steve glanced back realizing that Pierce and Rumlow had been following them, but he didn’t know for how long. He likely missed them while he’d been dealing with the mummy.
Just the thought of the creature had his brain freezing in terror.
Steve looked forward again and peered around Tony to find their camp once again surrounded by the same masked riders who had terrorized them the night before.
Two of them came forward, a body slumped between them. Steve realized it was Sitwell—eyeless, tongueless—as the men threw him to the ground in front of Pierce.
“Bastards!” shouted Rumlow, surging forward, but Pierce held him back.
“What have you done to him?” Pierce glared at the riders.
“We saved him,” said one who was still astride their horse. Steve recognized the eerily familiar voice from before. “Saved him from the creature that you have released, before he could finish him off.”
“We didn’t—” Steve started, unsure. “I didn’t mean—”
“I shot him,” Bucky interrupted. “If that counts for anything.”
The masked figure raised a sculpted eyebrow at him.
“How did that work out for you?”
“Not well,” Tony muttered.
“I told you to leave or die,” the figure said, voice low, as they urged their horse forward to tower over them. “And now you’ve doomed us all. For three thousand years we kept this place safe from idiots like you. This creature... no mortal weapon can kill him. He’s not of this world.”
“What can we do?” Steve asked softly, voice shaking.
“You’ve done enough.” The figure turned away and signalled to the other riders, who dismounted and began searching the camp and the city ruins. “Now leave, before he finishes you off.”
“You have unleashed death upon the world. He will never eat, he will never sleep, he will never stop. And now we can only hope to clean up your mess. Leave. Now. Before I kill you myself.”
Chapter 9: Chapter 8 (Bucky)
Adrenaline still pumped through Bucky’s system as they hastily packed up camp and headed out into the desert. Not the best idea in the middle of the night, but between the mummy creature and the strange riders in black, no one wanted to risk it.
There was little talk, just movement—items thrown into bags, mounts quickly saddled, tents left up and abandoned. Even Tony seemed to be unable to find a quip that could make their situation any better. The only option open to them was to leave, as quickly as possible, forget they had ever been here and leave the others to deal with the creature they had awakened.
Despite their differences, the two groups worked together and traveled together. Little could be done to help Sitwell except to make him comfortable while they traveled until they reached the city and he could be brought to a doctor. Bucky didn’t know what could be done for the man at all; his eyes and tongue had been ripped from his skull, stolen to be used by a monster.
As they traveled through the desert, Bucky became more concerned about Steve, who had been just as silent as the others during the packing, but he knew that this was different. Steve wasn’t silent out of haste, of fear. He was silent out of guilt. Bucky could see him brooding, blaming himself for everything that had happened back at the city. And as much as Bucky wanted to talk with him, to comfort and reassure him, it wasn’t the time. He simply stayed by his side, hoping his presence was comfort enough for now.
They traveled as quickly as they could, riding swiftly and silently during the day and collapsing exhausted into their bedrolls at night, if they chose to stop at all instead of dozing fitfully in their saddles. The need to get as far away from Hamunaptra as possible urged them along.
The fastest way to get back to Cairo was the way they had originally intended to arrive—through the desert with camels and horses to Luxor, then north on a riverboat back to Cairo. The trip through the desert had left Bucky drained and yet oddly energized by his concern for Steve, who seemed content to follow the others. He let Tony do all the talking and trailed behind Bucky, head down and staring blankly at the ground in front of him.
By the evening of their first day in Luxor they were safely aboard the riverboat and on their way to Cairo. Bucky followed Tony along the hall toward their room, casting anxious glances back at Steve every so often.
“Well, at least we can relax now,” Tony said, checking the numbered doors as he passed by each cabin. “Unless this one catches fire too.”
“I don’t think we have to worry about that,” Bucky replied drily, thinking again of the masked stranger who had ransacked their other cabin and followed them into the desert.
“Here,” Tony said, stopping at a pair of doors on opposite sides of the hallway. He pointed at one then the other. “I’m here, and you two are over there. Now I’m going to pass out for the duration of the trip. Wake me when we hit Cairo.”
He vanished behind the cabin door before Bucky could even get out a quick, “Thanks, Tony.”
Bucky sighed and pushed open the door to their room, holding it open for Steve as he followed him inside and sat heavily down on one of the two narrow beds. He set their bags down and turned to stare hesitantly at Steve, unsure of what to say, how to start.
This was so far from how he had imagined things would turn out. Every bad feeling he’d had he thought he was just being paranoid, thought he was just going crazy. He’d never dreamed that any of it would be real, the watching eyes and the evil in the desert. How he had felt, what he had seen, none of it mattered. His mind was broken and he knew that. None of this should have happened.
Especially not to Steve.
“Are you alright?” Bucky finally asked, because what else could he really say?
Steve just looked at him from his seat on the bed and shook his head, just a small movement back and forth, before he went back to staring at the ground in front of him.
Bucky was at a loss. He didn’t want to pressure Steve into talking, but he needed to know he was okay or going to be okay at least.
“You should eat something,” Bucky tried. “We haven’t had a decent meal in a while.”
“I’m not hungry.” Steve’s voice was barely audible across the room.
“Steve,” he hesitated, but eventually gave in. Maybe Steve needed to be pushed. “Please talk to me. You’ve been quiet for days. You’ve barely said a word to anyone. I need to know you’re okay.”
“I am not okay, Buck,” Steve said, standing and turning to face Bucky. “How can I be okay? Look what I’ve done.”
“You haven’t done anything,” Bucky asserted.
“I want to Hamunaptra.” Steve stepped closer to Bucky as he spoke, his voice rising as he talked, almost frantic. “I want to Hamunaptra, when everyone told me I shouldn’t. I was warned, Bucky. Warned by Fury, by Nat, by you. By those goddamn maniacs who burned our boat down and terrorized us in the desert just so this wouldn’t happen!”
“Nothing has happened,” Bucky insisted. “There’s some lunatic in the desert and the other lunatics are taking care of it. It’s out of our hands. We didn’t get what we came for but we’re here and we’re alive.”
“Did you not hear what they said? This thing brings death to the world. It’s not going to stay in the desert or even in Egypt. We can’t just leave and pretend it never happened.”
“They also said that no weapon could kill it,” Bucky reminded him. “How do you expect to fight it, to do anything against it? You don’t know anything about it, and they obviously do. Let them handle it.”
Steve turned frustrated, running his hands through his hair before he turned back to Bucky again. “I can’t just walk away, Buck. It’s my responsibility. I—”
“It is not your responsibility,” Bucky interrupted, stepping forward until he was just inches away from Steve. He reached up and gripped Steve’s biceps tightly, resisting the urge to shake some sense into him. “That thing had you, it almost killed you. If Tony and I hadn’t distracted it, you’d be worse off then Sitwell, and I am not going to let that happen. I can’t lose you. Not again!”
He was breathing hard, staring down into Steve’s wide, shocked eyes, when he realized what he had said.
Bucky pushed him away and stumbled back. His head was suddenly pounding, a painful rhythm that echoed throughout his entire body. He dropped his head into his hands trying to calm it, trying to breath deep, slow breaths, but his lungs refused to cooperate. He looked up again but his vision blurred, a haze that swept in from the corners of his eyes, and everything shifted. The room was different, no longer their cabin on the riverboat but a lavishly decorated bedroom with pale stone walls and an open balcony that looked out onto a city that no longer existed on this Earth.
Steve still stood in front of him. He knew it was Steve, knew it somewhere deep in his bones, in his heart, in his soul that the man before him was Steve, and yet not. He was tall and strong, muscled, with rich tanned skin and deep brown eyes. He looked confident, regal, and stared at Bucky with a playful smirk pulling at his lips.
Bucky could only stare, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, frozen, as the man who was Steve but not stepped toward him, reaching out. His hand gently touched Bucky’s face, palm resting against his cheek and he smiled, soft and pure. His lips moved, but Bucky couldn’t hear anything beyond the rhythm still pounding in his ears, but the words, he knew those words…
The man came closer still, his face inches away, a familiar emotion in his eyes, and Bucky couldn’t handle any more. He shoved himself away, stumbling back, and put his hands over his eyes, blocking out the vision, hallucination, whatever it was. He hit the wall hard and slid down to sit, curling his knees into his chest as the pounding vanished all at once, replaced by the sounds of his own breathing, short and panicked, and Steve urgently calling his name.
“Bucky. Bucky, please. What’s wrong? Please talk to me. Bucky…”
He blinked rapidly and lowered his hands, looking up to find Steve kneeling in front of him, his Steve, short and blond and stubborn and incredibly concerned.
“Bucky?” he asked again. “Are you with me?”
“I— Yeah, I’m here. I’m with you.” He closed his eyes tight, trying to shake the vision, but the image of the other Steve was burned into his mind. He opened his eyes again, focusing on the here and now.
Steve reached out, and Bucky tried not to flinch away as he placed a steadying hand on Bucky’s shoulder.
“What happened? Was it a memory?”
He wanted to say no, but something stopped him. It was too real. He had no memory of that man, and still he knew he had touched him, hugged him, held him, knew too that he was somehow Steve.
It wasn’t possible.
“I... I don’t—,” he started to reply. “No. No, it wasn’t a memory. It was nothing.”
“It wasn’t nothing,” Steve whispered.
“It was me losing my mind, Steve,” Bucky said and he pressed further into the wall, leaning his head back against it and staring blankly at the ceiling. “I keep seeing things, things that can’t possibly be real, things that I can’t explain. Something in me is broken, and I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t think I can.”
“You are not broken,” Steve insisted. “There is nothing wrong with you. Whatever this is, it’ll be okay. I’m here with you, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Bucky heard Steve shift, settling on the floor in front of him, his hand trailing along Bucky’s bicep. He ran it soothingly up and down, squeezing lightly, silently trying calm Bucky down.
They sat like that for several minutes while Bucky’s panicked breaths returned to normal, but he still couldn’t look at Steve, staring instead at the cracked ceiling of their cabin, following the lines and counting the chips in the paint.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a memory?” Steve asked. “Can you tell me about it?”
“It wasn’t a memory,” he whispered. “It couldn’t have been.”
“How do you know? How can you be so sure?”
“Because…” Bucky trailed off, unsure how much he should tell Steve, how to explain. He knew he could trust him. Steve should’ve have brushed him off as a lunatic ages ago. Even so, the strange things happening to him kept piling up. Eventually it might be too much. Bucky closed his eyes tight and tried to explain.
“It’s like— it’s like I’m seeing the past,” he started, carrying on before Steve could interrupt. “Not my past. Like, the ancient past. Back at the dig site. I saw... The room changed and it was like it was new, no dust or sand, as it had been thousands of years ago. That can’t be a memory.”
“I suppose not,” Steve said softly. “But what about the words? You knew what was on the tomb.”
Bucky shook his head, keeping his eyes shut tight, his head still back against the wall, unwilling to look at Steve.
“I don’t know. I couldn’t read it, the words were just there, in my head somehow.”
“And now? What did you see just now?” he pressed, his hand gripping Bucky’s bicep.
I saw you.
Bucky righted his head, staring into Steve’s concerned face, and the world spun. For a split second, this world was overlaid with the other, Steve and not-Steve both staring at him. Though their expressions differed, that emotion in their eyes remained the same. Bucky was scared to name it, but something in him pushed him to act, to forget for just a little while the mess inside his head, the mess out in the world.
He reached up, just as the Steve in his vision had, cupping his Steve’s face gently, running his fingers lightly along Steve’s cheek.
“Bucky?” Steve’s voice shook slightly, eyes wide and questioning, and he seemed to freeze, sitting still and straight on his heels, surprised and unsure. His hand held tight to Bucky’s arm, anchoring him in place.
Bucky’s knees dropped to the sides and he sat up, leaning forward and reaching for Steve with his free hand, setting it gently on the side of his thigh.
Steve jumped slightly at the contact, eyes staring at the hand on his leg, but Bucky caressed his cheek, trying to bring his attention back up.
“Steve,” he whispered, bringing his face in closer as Steve’s eyes slid back up to focus on Bucky’s. “Tell me if I’m wrong.”
Steve’s mouth parted in tiny O of surprise, but he seemed to relax, his body losing its stiffness. His head tilted, leaning into Bucky’s hand and his parted lips met Bucky’s halfway, a soft but firm press signaling Bucky that he hadn’t been wrong.
Bucky slid his hand up Steve’s thigh and over his hip to grip his waist and pull him closer as they exchanged soft but demanding kisses. He could tell Steve was a bit tentative but still eager, and he touched his tongue gently to Bucky’s bottom lip, asking a question Bucky was willing to answer.
As their kisses deepened, open-mouthed and hot, Bucky slid his other hand down to Steve’s waist pulling him up, needing him closer. He guided Steve up to his knees and Steve seemed to be on the same page, pulling Bucky up with him, awkwardly kneeling, unwilling to break apart for any second.
Bucky pulled him closer, chest to chest, and ran his hands up Steve’s sides and around to his back, clutching at the fabric of his shirt. Steve finally released his grip on Bucky’s bicep and trailed his hands up Bucky’s arms, his neck, to tangle his hands in Bucky’s hair.
He had no idea how long they stayed there, on their knees, pressed tightly together, hands and mouths moving in increasing desperation. Bucky finally had to break away, pulling back as they both breathed in quick, gasping breaths. He pulled on Steve’s shirt, tugging it up out of his pants.
“I need this off,” he demanded.
Steve wasted no time, standing and pulling his shirt up and over his head, barely stopping to undo just a few buttons. He tossed it to the side and stood looking down at Bucky, still breathing quick.
Bucky saw his eyes flick briefly toward the beds on the other side of the room, saw him hesitate for just a moment, before he reached out offering his hand. Bucky grasped it, allowing Steve to pull him to his feet as he searched his eyes for any sign of doubt.
“Are you sure?” Bucky asked softly. “We can stop.”
“I’m sure,” Steve said, his hand holding Bucky’s tight. He reached the other up to grab the back of Bucky’s neck and pull him down for a hard, demanding kiss.
Bucky was left reeling as Steve pulled back from the kiss all too soon and tugged at his shirt.
“You too,” he said, smirking.
Bucky returned his smirk, already tugging his shirt free of his pants and slipping it off over his head. He tossed it aside, but when he looked back, Steve’s eyes were focused on his shoulder, his expression no longer playful but still curious. He reached out, resting his hand on Bucky’s chest and sliding it up, following the thin tendrils of gold that spread along his shoulder reaching out toward his chest and collarbone.
Bucky knew his arm was strange and couldn’t say how or why, but it didn’t bother him. He barely even remembered anymore that it was different, now that he wasn’t living on the streets, fighting off lowlifes who thought it was something they could take and sell. For Bucky, it was just his arm.
Standing here now, as Steve ran his hands along his chest and arms, Bucky shivered slightly, forgetting about his arm, about the visions, about his shattered memories, and focused on the man in front of him.
Bucky reached for Steve, cupping his face in both hands again as he kissed him, hot and wet, and walked him back toward the bed. When he felt Steve hit the edge of the mattress he pushed him down, urging him back toward the head of the bed, crawled along with him, trying to keep as much contact between them as he could.
He reveled in the feel of Steve’s bare chest sliding along his as he covered Steve’s smaller body with his own and gave a slight roll of his hips. When Steve’s lips moved from his mouth down along his neck, Bucky lost himself to the sensation, to the smooth skin under his hands and the low moans in his ear, to the thrill of having Steve, of being with him, here and now.
The boat was quiet this time around, lacking the boisterous anticipation of their first trip. It seemed the crew and the few other passengers had sensed the somber atmosphere of the two expedition teams and had retreated to their own cabins and tasks early in the evening.
In the dark of the cabin the only sounds Bucky could hear were Steve’s soft breaths and the beating of his heart under Bucky’s ear where he lay, face pressed against Steve’s bare chest and his left arm draped over his hips. Steve’s hand rested on top of his as he lightly ran his thumb back and forth over Steve’s prominent hip bones, his other arm wrapped around Bucky’s bare back and soothingly stroking his waist.
The hand at Bucky’s waist stilled suddenly, and Steve picked up his other, letting his fingers trace invisible patterns along Bucky’s hand, his wrist, his forearm, and back down again.
“Can-can you feel this?” Steve asked suddenly, hesitantly. His voice barely above a whisper in the dark room. “I realized, I touched your arm, but I didn’t ask you what it felt like, whether it felt the same as the other.”
Bucky lifted his head and turned it slightly to rest on his chin, looking up at Steve, whose eyes were turned away, watching his hand as it traced the patterns on his skin.
“I can feel it,” Bucky replied just as quietly. “It feels completely normal to me, just like the other. Only thing that’s strange is the color.”
“It’s so... strange,” Steve said, continuing his patterns up Bucky’s bicep and onto his shoulder, and Bucky knew without looking that he was following the little veins of gold as they faded into his the rest of his skin. “Are you okay with it? Like this?”
“I don’t think anything can be done.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
Bucky scoffed and turned his head to lay it once again on Steve’s chest, listening to his heart beat and the woosh of his breaths in and out. “When would I have had time for that? I was penniless and homeless before, haven’t had time since.”
Steve exhaled, a small breathy laugh. Bucky felt his chest jump with it.
“Fair enough. But there’s time now.”
“It’s not going to help, Steve. It’s just one of the many things about me that can’t be fixed.”
“No.” The word was soft but firm, not angry either, just resigned. “No, Steve. The arm’s not changing, and I’m fine with it, but it’s been months and nothing has come back to me except some hallucination from three thousand years ago.”
“Maybe a change of scenery would help?”
“To where?” Bucky asked. “I thought I would find something in Cairo. Everything in me when I woke up told me I needed to get to Cairo. And where did that get me? I still can’t remember a thing. I still don’t know who I am.”
Steve was quiet for a moment, but his hand shifted from Bucky’s shoulder to card through his hair, brushing the long strands back and behind his ear.
“It brought you to me,” Steve whispered. “I’m glad for that at least.”
Bucky’s heart clenched at Steve’s words.
“I am too,” he agreed. “But I just don’t know where to go from here.”
“We can go anywhere. We can stay in Cairo, but we could go…”
Steve trailed off and Bucky could feel his uncertainty but didn’t know whether he was unsure of the words or Bucky’s reaction to them.
“We could go to New York,” Steve said so softly Bucky could barely hear him. “I haven’t been back in years. And if you are from there like I think, you might— you might remember something. What if you have family there?”
Bucky sighed and closed his eyes. He didn’t want to get his hopes up, but his heart soared at thought of staying with Steve, that Steve was making plans that involved him. Part of him was afraid that anything that had happened between them was just a nice distraction to Steve, something to take his mind off the horrors of the last few days. He would give anything to stay with Steve, if that was what he wanted too.
But things might never change for him, and there was always a chance they might get worse.
“Maybe you’re right. There’s nothing in Cairo for me, nothing but you. If you want to go to New York, I’ll go with you, but I just don’t think anything will get better. This is it. This is me.”
Steve threaded his fingers through Bucky’s hair once more, running his fingers along his chin and tilted Bucky’s face up to look at him, a soft smile on his face.
“I don’t know if you noticed, but I kinda like this you. I just want to help you, in any way I can. And if you never remember anything, who cares? I’ll still take you home to New York, at least for a little bit.”
Bucky couldn’t help the small smile, just a gentle curve of his lips, as he looked up into Steve’s eyes.
“Alright, Stevie. Home to New York.”
Chapter 10: Chapter 9 (Steve)
“I can’t believe he wouldn’t at least let me look at it,” Steve grumbled, dropping his bags just inside his apartment and holding the door open for Bucky to do the same.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t say I blame him,” Bucky said, sinking down into Steve’s couch with a sigh.
“Yeah, look what happened last time,” Tony said, catching the door before Steve could shut it in his face.
Steve sat down next to Bucky, their shoulders brushing briefly before he leaned forward to drop his head into his hands, ignoring the glare Tony sent his way as he unloaded his own bags.
“You’re never going to let me forget this, are you?” Steve groaned.
“Nope,” Tony said. He sprawled on the floor in front of them, head resting back against one of their bags. “Sorry, but resurrecting a mummy stays with you for life.”
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Bucky asked, his hand coming up to rub small circles on Steve’s back. “Don’t you have your own fancy apartment?”
“You know you miss me when I’m gone,” Tony said.
“I don’t know yet, I haven’t gotten the chance to experience it,” Bucky teased, and Steve laughed when Tony made a slightly offended sound.
Steve sat back, leaning into Bucky and resting his head against his shoulder. He was grateful for their banter and especially for Bucky’s presence beside him. The weeklong trip back, traveling swiftly up the Nile, had been a wonderful distraction. He was filled with happiness and still a bit of wonder just thinking of the days and nights spent with Bucky in their cabin.
Steve had managed, for a time at least, not to dwell on the darkness he’d unleashed back in the desert. There was nothing to be done about it while on the riverboat. Despite what Bucky and Tony seemed to think, Steve knew that this was his responsibility and he had to do something to stop it, any way he could. The best idea he could come up with though began with what he did best; research, gather all the knowledge he could and strategize. He needed to get back to the museum, to the library and Cairo, and he needed to get a second look, a real look, at the Book of the Dead.
They had seen nothing of the other travelers while on the riverboat and Steve was hesitant to approach them when they were more concerned with caring for their friend. He had hoped to reason with Pierce as an archaeologist, a man of knowledge, and convince him to allow the museum to borrow the book with a promise to return it shortly.
But Pierce refused, wouldn’t even hear Steve out.
There was still a chance. Pierce and Rumlow had taken Sitwell to a local doctor and would be in Cairo for some time while he healed. Steve would have to try again, maybe enlist Natasha or even Fury to help him. Pierce might be more willing to listen to the director of Cairo’s museum. Though Steve wasn’t sure how to go about approaching them, especially if it lead to explaining anything that happened in the desert. Best case scenario, he would get a delightful “I told you so” from both parties. He’d rather not dwell on the worst case.
“I don’t know about you gents, but I need drink,” Tony said, climbing to his feet.
“When do you not need a drink?” Steve asked.
“It’s been a rough few weeks and I deserve a bottle,” he pronounced. “And so do you.” He made an aborted gesture toward his bags, then shrugged and turned for the door. “I’ll get those later. Meet me at the bar for lunch. But bathe first. You both stink.”
Steve laughed and pressed closer into Bucky, who wrapped his arm around Steve’s shoulder and pulled him against his side, resting his head against Steve’s.
“You up for a drink and dinner?” he asked.
“Only if you join me in the bath,” Bucky murmured into Steve’s hair.
“I could be persuaded,” Steve said, smiling, basking in the warmth and comfort. He could enjoy this for now, just for a moment, before he started planning again.
He would fix things. He had to.
When Steve and Bucky arrived at the bar, a local place and favorite for many travelers including Tony, they found him settled in at the bar next to a scruffy looking blond man, one Steve knew well.
“Clint,” he called, clapping the man on the shoulder as they came up to the bar. “How’re you doing?”
Clint jumped slightly at the contact and turned to face them.
“Steve,” he said, smirking. “It’s been awhile.”
“Yeah, well,” Steve hedged. “We just got back from an expedition. We planned it kinda quickly while you were gone.”
“Oh, I am well aware,” Clint laughed. “Natasha is not happy with you.”
Steve groaned. “Let’s not talk about that right now. Tony, where’s my drink?”
“Can’t avoid her forever, man,” Tony warned. “You work with her.”
“Well, I can avoid her for now. Drink, please?”
No matter what lie he had told Fury and Natasha to get that month away from the museum, he knew that they had known the truth of it. He hoped they were willing to play the charade a little longer and forget anything he had mentioned about Hamunaptra, but if he needed their help to get that book from Pierce it was unlikely.
Tony signaled their bartender while Steve introduced Bucky to Clint and they took the empty seats next to him.
Steve sipped the drink Tony slid his way and listened distractedly to the bits of small talk and banter. His hand twitched, itching for his pen and paper, as his mind catalogued the books he thought he needed from the library, anything that might tell him something about the Hom-Dai ritual or the identity of the man buried beneath the statue of Anubis. He doubted there would be much, but he might be able to piece something together.
Whatever those masked riders had said, they didn’t seem to think the creature could be stopped. Any small bit of information Steve could get would likely help them. There must be something out there about this ritual and its so-called curse.
Steve jumped, startled from his thoughts, as the empty seat next to him was suddenly occupied. He glanced over to find Rumlow settling in, hand raised toward the bartender. He looked tired and unkempt, but still managed to sneer at Steve when he realized who was sitting beside him.
“Rumlow,” Steve greeted, nodding at the man despite his expression. “How’s your friend?”
“He had his eyes and his tongue ripped out,” Rumlow said, throwing back the drink the bartender had set in front of him and signalling for another. “How do you think he is?”
Steve nodded and turned back to his drink, unsure of what to say. His chest tight with guilt, he turned his mind back to his research and took a sip of his drink, but the liquid that hit his lips was thick and salty; a metallic taste coated his tongue. He quickly spit it back out, vaguely aware that the others at the bar had done the same. Steve held up his glass, no longer filled with the amber whiskey the bartender had handed him but with something thick and dark red. Almost the color of—
“Blood,” Bucky gasped beside him.
“No,” Steve said said turning swiftly around in his seat, taking in all the glasses along the bar and the tables nearby, each filled with the same blood-like liquid. “It can’t be.”
“Look,” Bucky said, eyes wide as he nodded toward the ceramic fountain in the center of the room, its waters no longer clear.
“He’s here?” Steve whispered, a shock of fear running along his spine.
“Who’s here?” Tony asked, staring at his drink and then the fountain in confusion that morphed into fear as realization dawned. “The mummy? How? And how do you know?”
“The plagues,” Bucky said, eyes still glued to the fountain, staring at the blood, thick and red, bubbling up from the center and dripping down horrifically down the sides. “You mentioned it before, that he brings the plagues of Egypt.”
“‘And the rivers and waters of Egypt went red and were as blood,’” Steve recited. “It’s the first plague.”
“What does it want?” Tony said as he looked around as if expecting the creature to suddenly jump out from behind one of the stone columns around the restaurant. “Us? Did it follow us?”
“Us or—” Bucky started, then turned to Rumlow. “Where are your friends?”
“What?” Rumlow breathed out, eyes on the glass clutched tightly in his hand.
Steve was surprised at the shaken look on the normally cocky man’s face.
“Your friends, where are they?” Bucky insisted, louder this time, reaching out to grasp Rumlow’s arm, shaking him slightly.
“I— I don’t know where Pierce is, but Sitwell’s upstairs. He rented a room.”
“Come on,” Steve said rushing toward a set of stairs in the back of the restaurant.
“Steve, wait!” Bucky called behind him.
He was already charging up the stairs but paused at the top to wait for the others, staring at the doors along the corridor with no clue which one belonged to Sitwell.
“Which room?” Steve asked as Bucky, Rumlow, and Tony caught up.
“Last one on the right,” Rumlow said, but he made no move forward.
Steve turned to start down the hallway but a hand grabbed his arm, pulling him back, and a body brushed past him to head down the corridor. He glared at Bucky’s back but followed him quickly to Sitwell’s room, Tony and Rumlow reluctantly tagging along.
Bucky pressed an ear to the door before gripping the handle and turning. It was unlocked. Steve kept a hand on Bucky’s back, peering around his shoulder as he slowly opened the door and surveyed the inside.
The words were so low Steve could barely hear them.
“What?” he asked. “What is it?”
Bucky opened the door fully and stepped into the room, allowing the others to follow and gain a full view of the inside.
A silver platter was laid out with tea for several people on the sitting room table, but only one of the chairs was occupied. They could only assume the dried-out corpse in the far chair was what remained of Sitwell. The mummy was nowhere to be found.
“How…” Tony started and trailed off, as they stared at the mummified remains.
“It’s the curse,” Rumlow said, his voice low and shaking.
“Curse,” Steve asked, tearing his eyes from Sitwell to focus on Rumlow. “What curse?”
“The chest,” Rumlow said, eyes fixed on the corpse and its hollow stare. “There was a curse on the chest. Whoever opened it would die.”
Steve wanted to insist that there was no such thing as a curse, but the evidence to the contrary was staring him blankly in the face, slouched in front of a half-empty tea cup. There was nothing of this world that could do that a human so quickly, to drain the blood and life from them, leaving nothing but a dried and empty husk. The creature was here, and it was coming for them.
Maybe curses were real after all, and maybe the world wasn’t what he had always thought it was.
“Where’s your other friend, Pierce?” Bucky asked.
“I don’t know. Probably at his office.”
“Okay,” Bucky said, turning away from the corpse and looking over at the three of them. “I’ll go get Pierce. You three head back to Steve’s apartment.”
“What? No,” Tony said, shaking his head and holding his hands out in front of him. “No, no, no. I didn’t open that chest. You didn’t, and Steve didn’t either. Why are we getting involved?”
Steve saw Bucky’s eyes flick to him for a moment, watched him took a deep breath before he turned back to Tony and answered.
“Because we’re a part of this. We started it, and we’re going to finish it.”
Tony cursed as he turned on his heel and headed out the door. “Fine, but we’re going to my apartment,” he called. “At least I have booze. Come on, tough guy.”
“I’m going with you,” Steve said, catching Bucky’s arm before he could make it out the door.
“Damn it, Steve,” Bucky swore with a shake of his head.
“I started this. And I’m not letting you go anywhere alone.”
Bucky sighed. “Alright. Let’s go.”
According to Rumlow, Pierce’s office and apartment were on the second floor of a low building not far from the restaurant, accessible by an outside stairwell. As they made their way swiftly through the streets, the afternoon sun was on their backs. Steve followed the long shadows in front of him, when they suddenly disappeared and the sky around them grew dark.
“Bucky,” Steve called, as he stopped and looked back at the sun, now eclipsed. “I don’t think that was scheduled.”
“Darkness?” Bucky asked, coming back to stand next to him and observe the darkening sky. “Seems a little out of order.”
“Technically, we already had locusts back in the desert,” Steve said. “I don’t think this thing cares much about biblical accuracy.”
“Come on,” Bucky said, grasping Steve’s forearm. “I’d rather not stick around for some of the later ones.”
As he approached the building, Bucky slowed and pushed Steve behind him, creeping slowly up the stairs. Reaching the top, Steve could see the door was already open and could hear noises from within, the sound of papers rustling and items falling to the floor accompanied by a low accented voice urgently repeating, “Where is it? Where is it?”
Bucky let out a low growl as he gazed through the slit in the door. The door cracked loudly against the wall as he shoved it open and disappeared inside.
Steve followed him through and pulled up short at the chaos inside. Papers were strewn across the floor, drawers had been pulled from the desk and cabinets and overturned, and several small tables had been knocked over, their contents scattered among the clutter. Bucky stood off to the side and it took Steve a moment to realize he had his left hand around someone’s throat, pressing them back against the wall.
The guide from the expedition, Zola, frantically clutched Bucky’s wrist, a nervous expression flitting across his face.
“Looking for something?” Bucky’s voice was hard gravel and Steve could see him struggling not to squeeze the other man’s throat. “Let me guess. A book, maybe, or a knife. Seems like you came back from the desert with a new friend.”
“What friend?” Zola choked out. “I have no—”
Bucky gave him a shake, slamming him back into the wall. “I’d choose your words carefully,” he ground out. “What are you doing with this thing? What’s in it for you?”
“It is better to be the right hand of the devil than in his path.”
Bucky growled again. “What does this thing want?”
As Steve came closer, Zola’s eyes flicked to him, watching him with an intensity that made Steve’s skin crawl.
“Whatever he wants, he will take. You cannot stop him.”
Steve grew still. Zola’s eyes were still on him but he ignored it, focusing instead on Bucky. He could see the rage on his face but could somehow feel it too, ice that started in his chest and burned through his veins. That wasn’t what made him pause though. Bucky’s arm, the one that held Zola by the throat, seemed to glow brighter the longer he held on to the other man. It had to be a trick of the light, a reflection of the lamps that flickered around them as Steve moved closer.
“Tell me,” Bucky demanded, the tendons in his forearm twitching as he squeezed.
“The book,” Zola choked out, focusing his attention on Bucky, who released his hold on the man’s throat just enough to allow him to speak. “He needs the book and the artifacts from the chest.”
Zola’s eyes twitched, glancing at him again, and Steve felt a twist in his gut.
“What else?” he asked. “You’re hiding something.”
Zola smirked at him then, and Steve felt a chill run down his spine. “Oh, did I forget to mention that he needs a body to possess? Apologies.”
“Who?” Steve asked, but he already knew, his mind flashing back to a skeleton reaching out for him and a rasping voice in his ear.
He felt the anger from Bucky intensify suddenly. Steve was unsure of what he’d do but knew without a doubt what he could.
“Bucky, don’t—” Steve started, but the words were lost as an inhuman scream sounded from out on the streets below.
Bucky let go, dropping Zola to land coughing in a heap on the floor, and rushed alongside Steve to the window.
The afternoon streets were still dark but strangely deserted under the eclipsed sky. Even without the sun they could still make out the hooded figure in the street and the skeletal remains at its feet. The figure bent over the corpse, removing something from its grasp, and Steve recognized the Book of the Dead as the figure turned toward them, gaze fixed somewhere down the empty street.
The mummy was no longer the nightmarish skeleton that had haunted them through the corridors of Hamunaptra, dark and decaying. It was so much worse. Thick tissue and muscle had grown around his skull, but there was no skin—it was just bloody, red and dripping. The same for its skeletal hands that gripped the black book to its chest. The creature wasn’t a walking corpse, a decaying mummy, but a demon made of fresh blood and bone.
Bucky’s hand on his shoulder pulled Steve down below the window before the creature could notice them. They waited a moment, holding their breath and hoping it would walk away. When they peered back over the lip of the window it was gone, leaving Pierce’s remains crumpled in the street.
“We need to get back to Rumlow,” Steve said softly.
Climbing to his feet, he turned back toward the room to find Zola had gone, escaped through the open door while they were distracted.
“Damn it,” Bucky cursed, striding into the middle of the room. “Little bastard got away.”
“We can’t worry about him right now,” Steve soothed, reaching a hand out to grasp Bucky’s arm and stop his frustrated pacing. “It’ll be after Rumlow next. We have to keep him safe.”
“And you,” Bucky said. He grasped Steve’s arms, his grip tight. Steve could feel Bucky’s arms twitching as if he was restraining himself from shaking Steve. “We have to keep you safe.”
“Bucky, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Steve looked up into Bucky’s eyes and was startled by the intensity he saw, the fierce determination boring into Steve.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice. You can’t just brush this off. I will keep you safe, Steve. You before anyone else. Got it?” He squeezed Steve’s arms once more before he took a deep breath and dropped his hands, turning toward the door. “Come on, let’s head to Tony’s.”
Steve was frozen where he stood for a moment more, his body still locked by Bucky’s protective gaze, but he shook it off quickly and followed after him. He didn’t need protecting. There was a world to be saved, no matter the cost.
Chapter 11: Chapter 10 (Bucky)
The streets were deserted, and the darkened skies made it difficult to tell what time of day it actually was. Bucky wasn’t sure what have driven the people from the streets, the eclipse or some strange feeling brought on by just the presence of evil walking through the city. He wanted to run, to get back to Tony’s apartment as soon as they could, but they were cautious and made their way slowly, peering warily around each corner, expecting the mummy to jump out at them at any moment.
Zola never said it, but Bucky had seen it in his eyes, in the way they followed Steve around the room with a crazed sort of glee. The creature needed to possess someone, and for whatever reason he had chosen Steve. Even if his first task was to go after the others—Sitwell, Pierce, and Rumlow—it wouldn’t be long until he came for Steve.
Bucky’s chest felt tight and ice ran through his veins, a calm sort of rage. He didn’t know how, but no one would touch Steve, no one would take him from Bucky ever again.
The thought sobered him. This possessive protectiveness had been rising since their time in the desert. Bucky had probably even felt this way before their expedition if he really let himself think about it. Even as they walked he had to resist the urge to grip Steve’s hand, a reminder that he was with him and safe. He didn’t quite know where it was coming from, knew that at the very least Steve wouldn’t appreciate it.
Bucky tried to shake those thoughts and focus on the now, focus on getting them back to Tony’s apartment and keeping them alive in the process. So many buildings seemed dark, doors and windows covered. He couldn’t see any light or movement beyond.
They were along the main street, almost to Tony’s building, when an odd noise reached Bucky’s ears. A high-pitched sort of whine that seemed to grow in volume and intensity as they walked, almost as if something, a projectile, had been launched and was falling.
Bucky searched the area around them, quickly glancing over his shoulder as they walked, looking for the source of the strange noise. He found it when he looked toward the sky.
“Shit, Steve, we need to move!”
Bucky reached back and grabbed Steve’s hand, pulling him forward into a run. He thought at first that they could make it to the apartment—they were so close he could see it—but as the noise grew louder, he knew he couldn’t risk it. Instead he pulled Steve into a nearby doorway, one with a particularly deep alcove, and shoved Steve against the wall and down toward the ground. As Bucky hugged him close, covering him with his own body, he could see Steve’s eyes were wide, shocked.
Pressed into the alcove, Bucky could hear the explosive sound of stone crashing together and tumbling to the ground as the fire rained from the sky, could hear the sound of screaming from inside the buildings around them. Burning rock fell, slamming into the buildings and streets, and Bucky prayed that they were pressed deep enough into the alcove, that nothing fell too close to their cover.
He didn’t know how long they crouched in the doorway, but it was long enough that Bucky’s legs and arms ached. He could feel Steve shaking slightly beneath him, his hands gripping the fabric of Bucky’s shirt, head resting against Bucky’s chest. Even after the last flame had fallen, they stayed a moment longer.
Bucky took a deep breath, letting it out as he dropped his arms and reached a hand out to Steve, who stared blankly into the street beyond. Piles of flaming rock filled the street and a torn awning nearby was still ablaze, waving wildly as it burned.
“How many plagues does that make it?” Bucky asked, still holding out his hand, trying to get Steve’s attention.
Steve blinked and shook his head slightly, coming out of the stupor the ordeal had left him in. He finally noticed Bucky’s hand and reached out to take it in his own shaking one.
“Uh, I don’t know. Four, I guess,” Steve said, as he stood. “I don’t think he has to follow any rules and use all ten though.”
“Come on,” Bucky said, Steve’s hand still in his as he carefully stepped into the street. “Let’s get to Tony’s.”
They had been so close, only a block away. They picked their way around the rubble toward Tony’s building, the side of which was scorched but appeared to be mostly unharmed. They climbed the stairs quickly and found the door unlocked when they reached it.
“Tony,” Steve called, pushing open the door.
Bucky noted that he seemed to have calmed down, his eyes once again determined as they searched the apartment for any sign of their friend. The place was fairly lavish and clean, not counting the empty liquor bottles that cluttered the table in front of the couch. Tony was nowhere to be found, at least not in the main sitting room.
“Tony?” Steve called again, louder this time as he moved toward a closed set of doors that lead to the bedroom. “We’re ba-AH!”
Bucky reached for a weapon he wasn’t carrying as Steve jumped back into him clutching his chest.
“Oh, thank god, you guys are back,” Tony said from where he had just appeared on the other side of the couch.
“Damn it, Tony!” Bucky exclaimed.
“What the hell?” Steve said. “You scared the shit outta me!”
“I did?” Tony asked, offended. “Did you not just see that it was raining fire outside? And yet I scared you?”
“At least you were inside for that,” Steve grumbled.
Tony scoffed and came around the couch to throw himself dramatically down on it, an arm carelessly flung across his face. “Yes, inside, cowering here and hoping the ceiling wouldn’t cave in.”
“Yeah, yeah, we all had it tough,” Bucky said. He came forward and loomed over Tony, eyeing the empty bottles on the table. “And what the hell is this? We weren’t gone that long.”
Tony moved his arm down a fraction to look up at Bucky, confused. “What the hell is what?”
Bucky gestured at the bottles, one eyebrow raised.
“Oh, that wasn’t me,” Tony said and went back to covering his eyes. “It was Brock.” He said the name with a sneer.
“Who?” Steve asked, leaning over the back of the couch to look at Tony.
“Rumlow. You know, the guy we’re trying to protect from the evil mummy creature. Though I don’t know why we’re making the effort.”
“That is an awful name,” Bucky muttered.
“That’s what I said. I don’t think he took it well.”
“Where is he, anyway?” Steve asked.
“He killed the last bottle, then went to sleep it off in the other room.” Tony waved a hand in the direction of the bedroom doors.
“We should probably check on him,” Bucky sighed.
He and Steve turned toward the doors, but Steve reached them first, grasping the handles in both hands and swinging the doors inward. As they opened, he leapt back into Bucky again with a startled yelp and a curse.
Over Steve’s shoulder, Bucky could see Rumlow, or what was left of Rumlow, laid on top of the covers, another dried and mummified husk.
“Well, I can never sleep there again,” Tony said from behind Bucky where he was peering over his shoulder. “How did he even get in? I didn’t hear anything.”
“The window probably,” Steve said.
He entered the room fully and headed toward the open window. He gave the bed and the corpse a wide berth. Bucky stopped himself from going in after him, though he was grateful when Steve stayed far back from the window, craning his neck to look out and down toward the street.
“He was probably here during all the fire and... whatnot,” Bucky said. “You would’ve been too distracted. He managed to get Pierce too, before we could reach him. So, what do we do now?”
“What do you mean ‘what do we do’?” Tony said. “What else can we do? That’s it. It got them all.”
“Yeah, about that,” Bucky started, but Steve came back toward them and cut him off.
“It doesn’t matter,” he asserted. “You heard it just as well as I did. This thing will never stop. And it’s my fault. I read from the book, I brought that thing to life, and I have to stop it. I can’t let it keep hurting people, can’t let it destroy the world.”
“You can not be serious,” Tony said, shaking his head at Steve in disbelief. “What can we possible do to stop this thing?”
“I have an idea,” Steve said, brushing past them and heading for the door, “but I need to check some things at the museum first.”
“Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like this idea?” Tony asked.
“I get the feeling you’re gonna hate it,” Steve said as he opened the door, gesturing for Tony to go through.
“Well, good. Glad we cleared that up,” Tony grumbled, leaving the apartment.
Steve looked at Bucky expectantly, still holding the door. This time, Bucky made sure to grab a weapon before he followed Steve and Tony. Bullets may not work on this creature, but maybe they would at least slow him down.
The streets were still disturbingly empty as they made their way toward the museum. The entire city seemed too quiet. Night had fallen for real, and the darkness seemed to absorb any light or sound in the streets.
Bucky was glad to see the bright lights outside the museum and shining through several windows as they approached in Tony’s open-top car, a luxury he rarely used but one that made them feel at least a little safer in the deserted streets. Even so, he directed Tony to pull the car up around back and park behind the building, as close to the staff entrance as possible. It was a bit darker, fewer lights, but maybe that would keep them somewhat hidden should the creature arrive.
Steve lead the way, unlocking the staff entrance and guiding them through the back corridors of the museum toward the offices and the library. When he pushed open the heavy doors to the library, he stopped short just inside the entrance.
“Rogers? What the hell are you doing here?”
A tall dark-skinned man stood near a desk in the center of the room, Steve’s friend Natasha to his left. Bucky had only met her a few brief times before they left on their expedition. He didn’t really know her and based on the look she usually gave him—similar to the glare she was sending him now—he knew that she didn’t trust him.
“Director, I just— I needed to get something from the library,” Steve stammered, moving farther into the room as he spoke, inching toward his desk.
Bucky stayed close, leaving Tony at the entrance.
“Damn it, Rogers, this is not the time for—”
“Steve, you shouldn’t be here right now—”
As Natasha and Director Fury spoke over one another Steve stilled again, and Bucky could sense his shock and alarm, his hand moving toward his gun as he searched for any threat nearby.
“It was you!” Steve shouted, taking several steps toward Natasha. “It was you the whole time! What the hell, Natasha?”
“Steve, what are you talking about?” Bucky asked, but kept his hand on his gun.
Natasha didn’t reply, but she didn’t have to. Her face went very carefully blank as she looked down at Steve, who stood in front of her now, glaring.
“The man in the desert,” Steve said, angry and accusing. “The one who threatened us. It was you, wasn’t it? And in the boat, too. You trashed our room, attacked Bucky. Why?”
Even with her face still blank, giving away nothing, Natasha seemed to flinch back at the thread of angry betrayal in that one word. She kept silent, staring into the face of her friend. Bucky stayed by the desk, ready to intercede, but this was Steve’s fight for now.
“Because you were warned and you didn’t listen,” Fury answered instead, leaning back against the desk, arms crossed. Steve turned toward him, but Bucky kept his eyes on Natasha, who lowered her gaze now that Steve’s focus was elsewhere.
“You were told not to look for Hamunaptra, and yet you couldn’t leave it alone. Now you’ve unleashed a monster who’s busy wreaking havoc on Cairo, and if we don’t stop him, the world.”
“I don’t—” Steve started. He looked between Fury and Natasha, backing away to stand beside Bucky again. “You’re going to stop him?”
“No one else is going to,” Fury said.
“How?” Bucky asked. “Who are you people? This seems like a bit much for two museum employees. No offense.” The last he directed at Steve, who glared in his direction before he turned back to the others.
“We,” Fury began, standing taller, “are descendants of the medjai, the royal guard of the pharaohs of Egypt. And for three thousand years we kept Hamunaptra and its secrets protected from grave robbers, meddling treasure hunters, and foreigners; until you came along and threatened everything. Now the creature has risen.”
Bucky glanced over at Natasha, looking her up and down with her pale skin and red hair, her bright green eyes. He wondered how she fit into this, because despite what the director professed she didn’t look the part.
“Who is he, this creature?” Steve asked. “If you’ve known about the City of the Dead for this long, you must know a lot that you’re not telling us.”
“I don’t care what you know,” Bucky said, interrupting before Fury could explain any further. “I think you’re just as clueless as we are. You don’t know how to kill it, do you?”
Fury glared at him but Bucky simply stared back, refusing to bow under the man’s gaze.
“No,” he admitted finally, “but we’re working on it.” Fury pushed off the desk and walked around it, gripping the chair and leaning forward, looking at each of them briefly—Bucky, Steve, and Tony still listening by the door—before he continued. “According to our histories, the creature was once a man called Imhotep, high priest to Pharaoh Seti II. He was a trusted advisor to the pharaoh but wanted more. When Pharaoh was on his deathbed, Imhotep drugged and abducted his son and heir, Seth, taking him to Hamunaptra where he attempted to perform a ritual on him, one that would allow the high priest to possess the prince’s body and become pharaoh himself.”
“Steve?” Bucky leaned toward him, having sensed Steve stiffen next to him at one point during Fury’s story, but Steve ignored him.
“He didn’t succeed?”
“No,” Natasha took over. “The prince’s lover was also one of the medjai. He alerted the others to the prince’s disappearance and they were able to stop the ritual before Imhotep could complete it. They couldn’t save the prince, though.”
“That is a really nice story and all, but how does it actually help us kill the damn thing?” Tony asked.
Bucky was a bit surprised when Tony didn’t even flinch under both Fury’s and Natasha’s glare.
“The creature may have gained his full power by draining the lives from the men who opened that chest,” Fury explained, “but he is a demon, not a man. If he wants to appear as a man and not a monster, he’ll need to complete the same ritual. He’ll have to—”
“He’ll need to sacrifice and possess someone,” Bucky interrupted and ignored Natasha’s glare. “We’ve already figured that out.”
“We’re hoping if we track him, he may be vulnerable during the ritual and we can kill him then.”
“No,” Bucky said vehemently before she had even finished the thought. “Absolutely not.”
“Why?” Fury asked. “What difference does it make? If that’s the time we can kill him, then that’s what we’ll do.”
“And if it doesn’t work?” Bucky asked, stepping threateningly towards him, only Steve’s hand on his arm holding him back. “You said you’re hoping it works. So you’re fine sacrificing an innocent life? Or at least letting them be bait?”
“If one person must die to save the world, it’s a small price to pay.”
“You’re not the one that has to pay it!” Bucky shouted.
“If it must be done—”
Steve’s voice was calm. He didn’t shout over the others, but his voice was just firm enough to cause them all to fall silent.
Bucky dropped his head and took a quick breath before he looked back at Steve, feeling the ache in his chest at the danger Steve was in. He knew Steve felt guilty about the book, responsible for everything that had happened. Wanting to stop it was one thing, and Bucky was on board with it now. But sacrificing himself was something entirely different. There was no way Bucky would let Steve be in that position.
“What?” Natasha asked. “How can you be sure?”
“Zola told us,” Bucky replied, continuing at their looks of confusion. “He was Pierce’s guide, and he’s apparently sided with the devil.”
“And…” Steve said, looking a bit uncertain. “In the desert, at Hamunaptra, he called me Seth.”
“What?” Bucky demanded.
“Right before you got there, he reached out to me, and called me Seth.”
“I don’t understand. Why—”
“Why doesn’t matter,” Natasha spoke over him. “What matters is he somehow thinks Steve is Seth. He probably wants to finish what he started, so he’s unlikely to choose another body. This could work to our advantage.”
“I’m not going to let you risk Steve, use him as some kind of sick bait!”
“You might not have to,” Steve said, reaching out to grasp Bucky’s arm, squeezing it gently. “I read from the Book of the Dead and brought this Imhotep back to life. If the black book can give life, then the gold book might have some clue to take it away. That’s why we came back here tonight. I just want to check over my notes of Hamunaptra, see if there was any other clue about the location.”
They ignored Tony’s low groan at the implication they’d be going back to Hamunaptra, and soon.
“And he doesn’t just need me.” Steve reached into his pocket and pulled out the metal puzzle box, the cursed thing that had started everything. Bucky regretted picking it up in the desert. “He can’t open the book without this. If we head back to Hamunaptra, he’ll likely follow us anyway, so that will get him away from Cairo or any other areas with people. Hopefully we’ll find something there, whether it’s the Book of Amun Ra or”—Steve’s eyes flicked over to Bucky—“some other way to kill him.”
“I hate to interrupt,” Tony said, looking nervously out the library doors, “but we may have company soon. There’s something going on outside.”
They rushed out of the library and toward the windows that looked down onto the museum’s front gate and courtyard. As they approached, Bucky noticed a strange noise that sounded like low chanting, realizing that it was one name repeated over and over again.
The five of them peered out the windows at the gate below, where a mob of people now stood, shuffling slowly toward the museum entrance. Some held torches, and others weapons or anything they could grab that could be used as weapons. The disturbing scene was made worse as the mob got closer and Bucky realized the state they were in.
“Ah, the most disgusting of the plagues,” Tony said. “Sores and boils.”
“I don’t know,” Bucky said, grimacing. “I was pretty disgusted when I almost drank blood. We need to get out of here. Now.”
He turned to find Fury now heavily armed and holding a large rifle in both hands.
“You go,” he said, turning toward the large staircase that curved down to the museum entrance. “I’ll hold them off. Get to Hamunaptra and stop this thing.”
“Nick,” Natasha said, but he cut her off with a sharp look and one word.
As they raced back down the corridors toward the staff entrance, Bucky followed close behind the others, almost running into Steve when he suddenly veered back toward the library.
“Steve! Where the hell are you going?” Bucky shouted, turning to head after Steve. He vaguely noticed Natasha and Tony skidding to a halt down the hallway. “We don’t have time for this.”
“I’m doing what I came here to do,” Steve called, sprinting over to his desk and shuffling books and papers around until he pulled a rather large book closer and began to hastily flip through it. “If we don’t know where the book is, there’s no point in going back.”
Bucky glanced back at the door, where Natasha and Tony stood, sending worried looks between him and the front of the museum. He could hear it now, a low banging as the mob reached the doors and tried to enter. Bucky hoped Fury could hold them, just for a little bit longer.
The banging continued, growing in volume, as Bucky watched Steve flip quickly through the pages, running his hands over the words printed there.
“Steve,” Bucky warned.
“Patience is a virtue,” he said in a singsong voice, eyes never leaving the book.
“Tell that to the angry mob.”
“Got it,” Steve cried, triumphantly, standing up and looking over at Bucky, his finger still pressed to a point on the page. “Horus. It should be under the statue of Horus.”
“Great,” Bucky said. He reached forward and grabbed Steve’s hand, pulling him toward the exit. “Now, let’s go before they bring out the pitchforks.”
Shoving the back door open with a dull thud, Bucky pulled Steve through, then shoved him forward toward the back seat. Natasha grabbed the keys from Tony’s hand and pushed him out of the way as she sat in the driver’s seat and jammed the keys in the ignition.
“This is my car, you know,” he griped, shifting over to the passenger side.
“Have you ever outrun an angry mob and a resurrected mummy?” Natasha asked, turning the key, the engine roaring to life.
“Have you?” Tony said incredulously.
Bucky gripped the side of the car, his other hand reaching out to steady Steve as Natasha sharply backed up away from the door. She shifted gears quickly and the car was thrust forward, around the building and toward the entrance. The mob, a mass of men and women under Imhotep’s control, barely even noticed them as they sped around the courtyard and through the gate into the main streets of Cairo.
Bucky was grateful Natasha was driving. She seemed to know the maze of streets and alleys well, quickly turning the car around and finding different routes when they encountered more of the mob.
“Where are we going?” Steve shouted over the wind rushing past, trying to lean forward as the car swerved through the streets.
“Out of the city,” Natasha called. “We can figure everything else out from there.”
They were almost out of the city when the street before them was suddenly obscured, consumed in a swirling cloud of sand. Bucky was thrown forward as Natasha hit the brakes and tried to turn them around, away from the sand storm, but it moved toward them and filled the world around them.
Bucky ducked his head behind the front seat, covering his head and face as much as possible, hearing the shouts and curses from his companions. Natasha tried to keep the car moving forward though she couldn’t see where they were going. He started to reached one hand out, searching for Steve, but the car lurched up, the ground beneath them lifting and throwing them to the side. The car tipped dangerously, threatening to throw them out, and Bucky gripped the seat as hard as he could with one hand, still reaching for Steve with the other.
“Steve!” he called desperately, his hand grasping at nothing but sand and air.
The shout was faint, sounding much too far away to be coming from the seat next to him. Bucky shouted again, crawling across the seat, when the car pitched abruptly to the opposite side, hard enough to throw Bucky right out of the vehicle and into a stone wall, his back and head hitting it painfully. He was dimly aware of something hitting the ground next to him as he covered his face and head again, the sand storm intensifying for a moment and then vanishing just as suddenly as it had arrived.
When he was sure the storm had passed, Bucky raised his head, brushing the sand from his face and hair. In front of him, their car was completely upside-down, and Bucky’s heart seemed to stop in his chest before he recalled the body that had landed next to him, figuring the others were probably thrown from the vehicle as well. He looked to his side to find Natasha climbing to her feet and shaking the sand from her hair. Tony was on her other side, leaning one arm against the wall and gripping his head in his other hand.
As he stumbled to his feet, Bucky swiveled his head to the other side expecting to see Steve but found only the piles of sand blown up against the stone wall. His heart lurched and his breath caught in his throat as he quickly scanned the dark streets for any sign of Steve. He found them devoid of any live aside from the three of them. His gaze fell on the overturned car and Bucky shouted Steve’s name, tripping over his feet as he rushed toward the car and peered underneath.
There was no one there.
“Steve!” Bucky shouted his name again and again, each time growing louder, panic seizing his chest. He could hear his heart’s rapid beating in his ears, his breaths coming faster, unable to focus on anything except the fact that Steve was gone and he needed to find him.
Someone screamed his name, and Bucky felt hands tighten around his biceps shaking him slightly. He blinked several times, finally focusing on Tony’s worried face in front of him, Natasha at his shoulders looking concerned.
“He’s gone,” Bucky choked out after a moment, his voice quiet and rough. “It’s taken Steve.”
Tony nodded sadly, releasing Bucky from his grip and stepping back. “I know.”
“We’ll get him back,” Natasha said confidently.
Bucky simply looked at her, unsure how to respond. He would chase this monster to the ends of the Earth to find Steve, but they were out of their depths with how to kill it, and doubt filled Bucky’s mind that they would ever get him back alive.
“He has the book,” Bucky whispered. “And now he has the key and Steve. He’s on his way to Hamunaptra, and we don’t even have a solid plan.”
“We need to get back there,” Tony muttered. “Preferably before they do.”
“I think I know a way,” Natasha said thoughtfully. “Come.” She turned and walked quickly down the street, back in the direction they’d come.
Tony gave him one quick, searching look, then turned and followed after her.
Bucky watched them walk away, then took a deep breath and lifted his eyes to the sky for a moment before he turned and quickly jogged after them.
Please, Steve. Please stay alive until I can get to you.
Chapter 12: Chapter 11
Bucky had no idea how late it was, but he was extremely tired of this slow creeping through the streets of Cairo. He lamented having to part with Tony’s car, but there was no way they’d have been able to get it upright again, assuming it even still worked. Maybe it was cursed now, too. He really just wanted any way to get to Steve as quickly as possible, and this stealth and sneaking wasn’t cutting it. The creature had likely left the city by now—he had everything he needed after all—but it was probably better not to risk it.
That didn’t stop his mind from running through all the terrible things that could happen to Steve before they were able to get to him.
Natasha led them back through the city, and Bucky was surprised when he realized they were heading toward the area around Steve’s and Tony’s apartment. Their trip in the car hadn’t taken them as far as he thought with all the twists and turns needed to avoid Imhotep and his mob. Even so, he couldn’t imagine what Natasha could hope to find back here.
Especially when they stopped just outside the bar they had been in earlier.
“Wait,” Bucky said, grabbing Natasha’s arm before she could open the door. He dropped it quickly, seeing his mistake in the glare she sent him. “Sorry, but what are we doing back here?”
“As much as I could use a drink, I don’t think that’ll help right now,” Tony said.
“We need to get out of the city as quickly as possible,” Natasha explained.
“Yes, and…” Bucky trailed off, prodding her to continue.
“And I know a pilot.”
“Who’s at the bar,” Tony added.
“Probably. But if he’s not here, we’ll check his apartment.”
“You know, that really doesn’t bode well.”
“Also, we don’t have a plane,” Bucky mentioned.
“I’m working on it,” Natasha said, pushing through the door. “Just trust me.”
“You know I really have no reason to, right?” Still, Bucky followed her into the bar.
“You did try to murder us,” Tony reminded her. “Several times.”
“I didn’t try to murder you. We were just trying to frighten you,” Natasha said, somehow managing to sound offended.
“Really not that much better,” Tony muttered under his breath.
Bucky had finally had enough. He pushed ahead of Natasha to block her path, standing firmly in front of her, arms crossed as he glared down at her. “I’m gonna need a little better explanation than that if we’re going to trust you. Claiming you’re medjai—” he looked her over head to toe, obviously unimpressed “—whatever that means, ain’t gonna cut it.”
She narrowed her eyes, staring up at him for a moment and Bucky wasn’t immediately sure she would actually respond.
“I don’t owe you any explanation,” she said finally. “But Steve is my friend, and apparently he’s attached to you. Let’s find my guy and get going, and I’ll at least tell you a few things.” She turned and walked toward the bar again, casually calling back. “And you can’t complain about the whole trying to scare you thing. Look what happened.”
“You know, sometimes a conversation works a lot better than setting someone’s boat on fire,” Bucky said, looking after her.
“But it’s much less fun,” she said, smirking at him over her shoulder.
“You know, I always thought she was kinda scary,” Tony said, clapping Bucky on the shoulder. “Sometimes I hate being right.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Yeah, it is.”
Bucky headed toward the bar once more to find Natasha already there, leaning against the bar next to the only person still in the place, patron or employee; a slightly disheveled looking man who was bent low over his drink. It was only as they got closer that he realized it was Clint from earlier and that he wasn’t bent over his drink, his head was pillowed on his hands and he was asleep, snoring softly.
“Oh, no,” Tony said, coming closer. “No, no, no. Absolutely not. I am not trusting Barton with a plane, let alone my life on said plane. No, I am out.”
“He’s actually a very good pilot,” Natasha assured them.
“If the next words out your mouth are ‘when he’s drunk,’ I am definitely leaving.”
“I’m not drunk,” Clint mumbled, his voice raspy and still filled with sleep. “The booze is still blood. I’m just taking a nap. Or I was trying to, til you assholes showed up. Ow!”
Clint sat up quickly, rubbing the back of his head where Natasha had smacked him and looking at her with a wounded expression.
“What was that for?”
“The creature has Steve, and the book, and the key,” Natasha explained slowly, annunciated each word like she was talking to a child.
“Oh, fuck.” He rubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. “What’s the plan then?”
“We need you to fly us back to Hamunaptra.”
Clint did nothing but stare at her for a few moments, then sighed deeply and said, “Gimme about two hours.” He rose from his bar stool and headed toward the door. “You know Phil’s gonna kill me, right?”
“Thank you, darling,” Natasha said with a small smile and such sweetness that Bucky wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not.
Clint left the bar without another glance back or any question about what had just happened.
Tony sat down on one of the many stools at the bar and looked dejectedly at the bottles and glasses around him, giving one a slight sniff only to quickly turn his nose away. “I don’t care if he’s sober, I’m still not getting on any plane that he’s flying.”
Bucky ignored him and continued the staring contest he’d apparently started with Natasha. Neither made a move to sit, or talk, or even blink.
“So,” Bucky said after a while, “is he medjai too?”
Natasha gave a short breathy laugh and finally turned away, sitting in the stool Clint had vacated.
“No,” she said. “And neither am I, technically. Happy?”
Bucky shrugged and pulled a chair closer to her. That seemed to be all the explanation he was going to get from her. He pulled an empty glass closer, running his finger around the edge and trying hard not to think about Steve. They had some time to kill, apparently.
“You can trust me, you know,” Natasha said softly, not looking at him, her eyes focused on the bottles lined behind the bar. “This whole mess started mostly because I care about Steve. I want to get him back just as much as you do.” She looked over at him then, a tiny smirk on her lips, and Bucky wanted to hide from her too-knowing gaze. “Maybe not quite as much.”
His eyes flicked away. So much for not thinking about Steve. But he should have never believed that was possible. Steve had become his world, part of his heart, his soul, and he couldn’t lose him just as he’d found him. Again, something deep in his memory added and he quickly shied away from it. Another time. He’d think about that another time, when he had Steve back and safe.
“Alright, boys,” Natasha said after a time, slapping her hand down on the bar and startling the others. “If we’re going to fight this thing, we’ll need some weapons. Shall we kill some time by arming ourselves to the teeth?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Bucky agreed.
The three of them stood and headed out into the silent streets again. Bullets hadn’t worked before, but at the very least, it’d make him feel better.
Steve woke to grit in his mouth. His face was pressed against the cool sand of the desert with no recollection of how or why he was there. As he opened his eyes to see the sun rising above the dunes, his mind was suddenly filled with the events of the previous day, and his ears filled with Bucky’s voice, shouting his name in alarm.
Sitting up, he looked at the desert around him trying to get a sense of where they were and instantly wished he hadn’t. The creature, Imhotep, stood not too far away, his hand clutching Zola by the neck and his mouth open horrifically wide as he drained the life from the man. Zola’s arms and legs twitched pitifully as he was reduced to a brown and withered husk that Imhotep tossed aside, discarded on the sand.
Seemed Zola had learned the price of siding with the devil.
Steve pushed himself to his feet, brushing the sand from his clothes and deliberately ignoring the monster that approached and stood threateningly over him. When he finally looked up, all he could see around them was desert, miles and miles of desert. Cairo was nowhere in sight, but neither was Hamunaptra. There was still time at least.
“Ignore me, but your insolence will not save you,” Imhotep uttered. He spoke in Egyptian, but Steve had studied the language all his life and understood quite clearly.
“Probably not,” he replied, looking up into the creature’s bloody face, if it could even be called that. His terrifying countenance was more skull-like and lacked some features like a nose and lips, only the stolen eyes stared back at him. “But I can at least annoy the hell out of you for now.”
Skeletal fingers were suddenly wrapped around his throat, squeezing and lifting him to stand on his toes. Steve gasped for breath, gripping Imhotep’s bloody wrist with one hand and clawing at his fingers with the other. He merely watched as Steve struggled to breathe.
“Play your petty little games, Seth,” the creature said after a while, tightening his hold as spots began to appear at the edges of Steve’s vision. “Your fate in this life will be the same as in the last.”
As the darkness filled his vision, Steve thought of Bucky and promised to hold out as long as he could, praying that the others were on their way.
The sunrise over the Sahara would have been a lot prettier if Bucky wasn’t literally strapped to the wing of an airplane and flying thousands of feet above the sand. At least he was having a better time than Tony, who had almost thrown up twice.
Bucky hadn't known who Phil was when Clint mentioned him, but he now knew why he was going to be pissed. Turns out Barton was a pilot but did not have a plane, which meant stealing one. From the Royal Air Force. Or at least from the local air strip operated by the Royal Air Force, where Clint’s friend Phil was stationed.
By the time they had appropriately armed themselves and made their way to meet him, Clint had already picked the locks on the hangar and had the plane fueled and ready to go. The cover of darkness helped them sneak in and take off pretty much unmolested and most people had fled or taken cover to avoid the plagues and other mummy-related catastrophes currently ravaging the city.
No one had mentioned the plane would be a rickety two-seater. Or that Bucky and Tony would be fastened to the wing with nothing keeping them from plummeting to the ground but a worn leather strap around the waist.
“How much farther?” Bucky yelled over the sound of the plane's propellers and the wind roaring in his ears.
“Not far,” Clint shouted back, his eyes on the horizon.
“You’ve been saying that the entire time,” Tony shouted from the other wing. “Can you be more specific, please?”
Bucky couldn’t see Natasha’s face but knew she had to be smirking at Tony.
“Explain to me again why you get to be the one in the other seat,” he called.
“Because I know she can kick my ass,” Clint said.
“You know I can kick your ass too, right?”
“Yeah, but you don’t live with me. I’d like to be able to sleep in my own apartment.”
“Fair enough,” Bucky conceded and went back to looking out over the desert, searching for any sign that they might be close to the City of the Dead again.
As the sun rose and morning dragged on, Bucky’s hope of finding Steve alive was slowly dwindling. Imhotep had already had him for hours, and Bucky had no idea how long it would take them to get back to Hamunaptra. A creature who could bring darkness and call fire from the sky, who could enslave an entire city, surely had some way of traveling quickly through the desert.
A vision flared to life inside Bucky’s mind, a haunting image of a man—the man from his earlier vision, the other Steve—laid on a raised stone slab, cold and still in death. Bucky’s heart ached at the thought. He would not let that happen again.
“Fuck! Hold on!”
Bucky shook the vision off and looked up at Clint’s shouted curse. A wall of sand had risen in front of them, a shifting wave that threatened to engulf their tiny plane. Clint tried to raise the plane but the wall of sand moved with it, coming closer with every second. The center of it suddenly stirred, undulating and reforming itself into the face of the creature, mouth wide and gaping as it reached up to swallow them whole.
Covering his head and trying to hide his face, Bucky was lost to the sandstorm around them and the shouts of the others as the plane spiraled down. He could hear Clint shouting, trying to get the plane under control, but they continued to drop toward the sand below, finally landing with a jolt that snapped Bucky’s head back and flung his whole body up, the leather strap cutting into his waist painfully.
The sand continued to blow around them for a few more minutes, piling on top of them and the plane. Bucky just kept his head down, groaning at the slight pain in his head when the wind finally died down.
“Everyone alright?” Clint called.
“Swell,” Bucky said, lifting his head to see the others, shaken but alive, their plane nose down in a dunes. Natasha and Clint were lifting themselves out of their seats, while Tony struggled from his spot on the wing.
“Can someone get me the hell off of here?” Tony called, twisting around and trying impossibly to reach the straps on his own.
Once unstrapped, the four of them stumbled away from the plane, brushing sand from their clothes and hair. Clint stood looking forlornly at the plane.
“Man, Phil is really gonna kill me.”
“Come on,” Natasha called from where she stood on top of the dune, her hand shielding her eyes from the sun as she looking in what Bucky assumed was the direction they had been headed. He could no longer tell. “We’re close.”
Reaching the top of the dune, Bucky could see it not far off, just as he had the first time. Hamunaptra.
There was no sign of Steve or Imhotep or even Zola as they reached the ruins of the city and entered the underground corridors just as they had done the first time. Dropping down into the preparation room, the four got ready to make their way through the dusty stone hallways, with torches held high and weapons raised.
“So,” Clint whispered after a moment. “Where are we going again?”
“We have to find the statue of Horus,” Bucky replied. “Steve thinks we can find the Book of Amun Ra there. Then we need to find Steve and destroy the creature.”
“Got it,” Clint said. “Where’s this statue?”
They all exchanged uncertain looks.
“I, uh—” Bucky started, but was cut off by a sudden sharp pain in the back of his head. A series of images flashed through his mind, of stone chambers and stairs, of corridors lit by torches, and a tall statue of man with the head of a falcon. The images vanished just as suddenly as they had come. He blinked a few times, staring blankly at the concerned faces around him. “I-I think I know.”
“You think?” Natasha said, looking at him skeptically.
“No. No, I do know,” he replied with more certainty as the images coalesced in his mind and the path became clearer. He should be concerned, should be questioning the visions and strange knowledge, but there was no time and they had nothing else. If whatever was in his head could lead them to the book and to Steve, he didn’t care where it came from. “This way. Let’s go.”
Natasha’s voice was low and urgent, but he ignored it and carried on through the corridors, not caring whether the others followed. This was all they had. He pushed on through the corridors, following the path he had been shown as quickly as he dared, trying not to somehow alert the creature to their presence. Turning one final corner, he found what they had been looking for. Just as with the statue of Anubis, only the legs and feet were visible, high up on a square pedestal.
“Here,” Bucky said, they others falling in behind him.
“Are you sure?” Tony asked, eyeing the legs. “Because that could be anyone’s feet, really.”
“Shut up and gimme the damn crowbar,” Bucky said and held out his hand. As soon as the heavy metal was dropped into his hand, he stepped toward the statue and began trying to pry the base apart.
The legs were higher up than Anubis’s had been. The base was wide and almost as tall as Bucky, and there was really no good way to open it except to shove the crowbar between the stones and pry off one side. Bucky jammed the crowbar between the stones of the closest corner and shimmied the crowbar until he had enough leverage to really pull, causing the side of the base to slide away.
“Come on,” he uttered pulling hard on the tool as the side of the base began to give.
“Bucky, wait,” Natasha said, reaching a hand out to him, but she wasn’t quick enough. The entire side of the base came loose suddenly and crashed to floor, the noise echoing off the walls and down the corridors.
She sighed and looked at the stones on the floor. “Well, if he didn’t know we were here before, he definitely knows now.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Bucky said. He waved the cloud of dust away from the now open side and reached in toward the dull glint of gold he could see through the haze, pulling out a heavy book similar to the black one, but this one was made entirely of gold. He brushed it off and held it up for the others to see. “We have the book.”
“And now we really have to move quickly,” Natasha said. “Thoughts on where they would be?”
Before he could respond, the ground beneath them shook and a sudden crack ran along the floor and split the stone open wide, sand running down into the hole as a skeletal figure crawled its way up. Then another, and another, as four new mummies, skin cracked and dry around their bones, emerged from beneath the floor and came toward them, pulling long swords from the decaying belts at their sides.
“Holy shit, who are these guys?” Tony shouted as the four of them stumbled away, the ground still shaking beneath them.
“Imhotep’s priests,” Natasha called, releasing a curved blade from her back. “He knows we’re here. We need to get to Steve. Fast.”
Bucky held his own blade out toward the mummies as they backed up toward the corridor, when one of the mummies suddenly sprang forward at him, swinging its sword wildly while another dove for Natasha. They fought them off as best they could. Clint and Tony joined in behind them with rifles, but the mummies wouldn’t go down. Bucky had even managed to cut off one of their arms, but the hand attached to it merely continued to crawl along the floor toward him.
“This doesn’t seem to be working,” he called over his shoulder. “Thoughts?”
“I got this,” Clint said. “Outta the room, come on!”
Clint and Tony fled through the door first, Natasha and Bucky on their heels as they ran through the corridors. Coming to a low stone archway, Clint suddenly stopped and turned, signalling them through with a wave of his hand and a chanted, “Go, go, go.” It wasn’t until Bucky passed him that he realized Clint held a lit stick of dynamite in his hand. He tossed it through the archway into the path of the mummies and turned and ducked his head as the explosion went off, rocking the building and collapsing the walls around the mummies.
“That’s not going to hold them for long,” Clint said once the dust began to settle around them.
Bucky could feel the ground shaking beneath his feet once again, hear the mummies scrambling on the other side.
“You two go find Steve,” Natasha said as she grabbed Clint and pulled him down one corridor.
“What?” Tony said, gaping at them. “Where are you going?”
“We’ll hold them off and then get out of the city. You have to save Steve and kill the creature. And if you fail, we have to gather the other medjai to help us finish the fight.”
“That was a great pep talk, really. So much optimism.”
“She’s great at that, right?” Clint said. “All sunshine and flowers.”
“Come on, Tony,” Bucky said. He nodded quickly at Natasha then turned down the opposite corridor, gripping the gold book tightly under his arm and holding his sword high in his other hand. “Let’s go.”
There were no visions this time, but he knew as he turned each corner that he was headed in the right direction. When an arched stone doorway suddenly appeared in front of him Bucky felt a chill, like icy fingers running down his spine. He held out a hand behind him, signalling for Tony to slow down as he crept silently toward the archway and peered inside the room. A similar archway stood on the opposite side of the room and two stone stairways led to the main chamber.
The two figures in the room immediately caught his eye: Imhotep, standing in the center of the room with the black book in his hands, and Steve, who was laid out and tied to a large flat stone slab alongside the three artifacts that must be needed for the ritual. Bucky’s heart stopped, fear gripping tight around it as the image from before of another man on the same stone slab flashed through his mind, but it started again, the fear loosening its grip, when Steve turned his head to glare at the creature that approached him, his arms pulling at the ropes that held him down.
He’s alive. There’s still time. You’re not too late. He repeated it over and over, a mantra to keep that fear at bay as he looked over the rest of the room and formulated a plan. His gaze passed over the pools of strange black liquid that seemed to bubble and smoke at the bottom of each stairway, unsure what to make of them. The liquid moved in a vaguely unnerving way, almost like hands reached out trying and unable to break that surface.
As his gaze shifted back to Imhotep, Bucky watched the creature pull the metal box, the key, from inside his robes and place it into the cover of the book. He turned it once, the locks springing open, then removed it and returned it to his robes once again.
Tony gripped his arm suddenly, pulling him back away from the archway and into the corridor again.
“So,” he said. “You have a plan? Please tell me you have a plan.”
“Yeah,” Bucky stared absently at the archway again, nodding. “I’ll distract the scary guy, you untie Steve and get him the gold book.”
“That’s it,” Tony asked, unimpressed. “That’s all you got?”
“You got anything better?” Bucky turned back to look at Tony expectantly, one eyebrow raised.
Tony sighed, shaking his head. “What about the key? Can’t open the book with the key…”
“That’s also you.”
“Me?” Tony screeched, before Bucky could shush him. They both turned toward the chamber entrance, listening a moment for an indication that the creature had heard them. He continued in a softer voice. “Me? What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“Thought you knew a thing or two about picking pockets?” Bucky replied, looking smugly at Tony.
“You’re going to hold that against me forever, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Are you ready?”
“Not really, but since when does my opinion matter?”
“Good. Let’s go.”
Steve came back to reality slowly. As the fogginess in his head lifted, he started to feel first the grit still in his eyes and mouth, the taste of sand, but only for a moment before he felt the tight bindings around his wrists and ankles, holding him down and stretching him out along the cold stone at his back. He blinked his eyes open and the massive stone chamber came into the view. The walls were lined with torches and crumbling stone pillars ran along either side of the room, stretching toward the arched ceiling.
A noise to his right, the rustling of cloth, had Steve awkwardly turning his head to find the creature, the priest, Imhotep, standing over him clutching the Book of the Dead in his bony fingers. Steve glared, but the creature just smirked down at him once he noticed Steve was awake, before ignoring him again to reach into his robes.
Steve pulled at the ropes binding him, testing them, but they were wound too tightly, and he only managed to chafe his wrists further with each movement. He looked around the room, becoming still as he noticed the three artifacts laid on the stone next to him: an amulet, a bracelet, and a knife. A very sharp looking knife. Looking back at the creature, Steve realized the black book was now open.
Please, Bucky. Hurry.
A loud shout, an awkward sort of battle cry, suddenly pierced the chamber, echoing off the walls and arched ceiling and causing him to flinch in his bindings. The next moment, a body hurtled off one of the staircases to latch itself onto the back of the creature. A very familiar looking body.
“Tony!?” Steve shouted, surprised and half laughing as he watched the other man flailing and trying to keep hold of the creature, both arms wrapped tightly around its neck.
“Oh, hey, Steve,” Tony gasped. “Funny meeting you here— Ah!”
The creature twisted, somehow throwing Tony off his back and into one of the stone pillars, but just as he was dislodged, a second figure came running from the other side, tackling the creature to the ground but quickly springing back to his feet and drawing a blade.
“Bucky,” Steve breathed, smiling.
Fingers were suddenly at his wrists and Steve’s attention was pulled to Tony fumbling with the tight knots there, trying to loosen them quickly. He could still hear Bucky shouting, clashing with Imhotep. They needed to get him free quickly.
“Did you find it?” he asked, pulling one wrist free as Tony moved on to the next one. “Did you find the book?”
“Under Horus, just like you said,” Tony muttered, working at the rest of the knots. “We still need the key, though.”
“He has it. It’s in his robes.”
“Yeah, we’re working on that.”
Tony quickly loosened the rest of the bindings, and before Steve was even standing, pulled him off to the side and shoved the book into his hands.
“See if you can do something with this,” Tony said. “I’m going to get the key.”
“What?” Steve shouted back as Tony ran back toward Bucky and Imhotep. “Do what with it?”
“I have no idea. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Steve stared down at the gold book in his hands, unsure what to do. When he looked back up at the others, Imhotep threw up his hand, sending out some invisible force that tossed both Bucky and Tony back into the wall behind them. He opened his mouth then, screeching into the chamber.
“Priests!” he called. “Kill them! Kill the medjai and bring me the prince!”
Footsteps echoed through the chamber from the corridors outside, and Imhotep’s priests filed in through the stone archways, marching down the stairs.
Bucky and Tony stood quickly, stumbling over to stand in front of Steve, who let his eyes run over Bucky a moment reassuring himself that he was here and he was unharmed.
“Did you get it?” Bucky asked, barely moving his head, eyes still on the approaching mummies.
“Not yet,” Tony replied. “I can get it this time. Just distract him or something.”
“I think I might be a bit busy. Steve? Any ideas?”
“Uh...” Steve turned his gaze to the book he held, running his fingers along the engraved glyphs. “Yes. I have something, but I have no idea what it’s gonna do.”
“Okay,” Bucky said, nodding. “We’ll work with that. Tony?”
“On it,” Tony said with a shake of his head and rushed away from the mummies toward the stone pillars.
“Did I mention how incredibly happy I am that you’re okay?” Bucky said over his shoulder, glancing at Steve with a quick smile.
“You hadn’t,” Steve replied, grinning. “I’m glad you’re here and not hurt. Now please stay that way.”
“I’ll do my best,” Bucky called as he rushed the advancing mummies, swinging his sword and carving the head from the nearest one’s neck, though it did very little. The headless corpse kept coming straight at Bucky.
Steve stared down at the inscription in front of him, hesitating for a second. It must do something, but he had no idea what, and after the last time he had read something from a book he was a little wary. Still, this was their only chance at the moment. He began to read, the ancient language flowing easily from his practised tongue, but as much as he could he kept his eyes on Bucky, watching while he fought the mummies who refused to stay dead.
When he finished the last of the inscription, a brilliant flash of light sparked through the chamber and Steve had to quickly turn his head, covering his eyes.
“Steve,” Bucky yelled. “What the hell did you do?”
When Steve turned to look back at Bucky, he found the other man’s arm, the left one, was glowing with a steady, golden light.
“I-I have no idea,” he shouted back. “Just go with it.”
“Go with what?” he shrieked, continuing to fend off the advancing priests.
Tony suddenly appeared at Steve’s side, thrusting the metal puzzle box into his hands, before collapsing over, hands on his knees and panting, rough gasping breaths.
“Got the stupid box. Now please tell me my part is done.”
“Yeah, all done,” Steve said. He grabbed the key and quickly opened the gold book, turning the pages and looking for anything that might stop the creature, keeping one eye glued to Bucky. “Just try not to die.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice.”
The flash hadn’t blinded Bucky, but it did take a few minutes for the spots to clear from his vision, and the slight glow from his arm was an odd distraction as Imhotep’s priests continued their assault.
“I could use a little help here, Stevie!” he shouted, blocking a swinging sword from one side and slicing a hand from a mummy on the other. He was surviving, but barely. Six to one were not good odds, and if they forced him back much farther he’d be trapped in a corner.
“Working on it!”
“Well, work a little faster!” Bucky yelled and he felt his back hit the wall, as an unexpected attack from his right sent his blade flying from his hand. “Shit,” he muttered, ducking quickly to avoid another arc of a blade right where his neck had been. He managed not to lose his head, but a skeleton hand was suddenly gripping his throat as he stood again.
“You’re pretty strong for a guy with no muscles,” he gasped out before the hand tightened, cutting off more of his air. Bucky tried to suck in a breath, reaching his left hand up to grip the mummy’s wrist.
Another flash of light blinded him for a split second, but as his vision cleared he watched the mummy in front of him somehow disintegrate, crumbling to dust and falling to the ground.
“What was that?” Tony yelled.
“I have no idea,” Bucky rasped, “but I’ll take it.”
He advanced on the five priests remaining, ducking under swiping blades and reaching arms to grasp any part of them with his shining left hand. As soon as he touched them, each mummy disintegrated in a burst of golden light.
“Yes!” he shouted, blinking away the spots from his eyes as the last mummy crumbled before him, only to find the creature, face twisted in rage, bearing down on him. “No, no. Steve!”
Bucky quickly tried to back away, but the mummy swept an arm out, and an invisible force tossed him to the side again, straight into one of the stone pillars. He kept his arms up to brace himself against the impact, but he was still momentarily stunned. Standing quickly, Bucky flung his left arm out wildly, trying to hit any part of Imhotep, but when he made contact, there was no flash of light.
“Steve!” Bucky called desperately, pressing his back against the stone and looking for any weapon he could reach, but there was nothing close.
Imhotep reached a hand out toward him and Bucky ducked, rolling to the side and searching again for a weapon as he stood. His sword lay close by, just a few feet away, but before he could move toward it, a sharp punch to the gut had him stumbling back, hitting the stone slab behind him.
“I’ve got it!” Steve shouted behind him, and the sharp syllables of an ancient spell were suddenly echoing around the chamber.
When Steve’s voice had faded, Bucky’s arm flared to life with an almost blinding light.
“Now!” Steve called.
Bucky lunged forward and placed his hand on the creature’s chest. The glow seemed to stream down his arm, from his shoulder to his fingertips and onto the startled Imhotep, engulfing him in a golden fire.
When the glow faded, Bucky stepped back and stared at the creature… who looked exactly the same. No flash of light, no tumbling to dust or shrieking in pain.
“Steve,” Bucky said, sliding along the stone slab and moving toward his weapon. “Steve, it didn’t do anything!”
“It did!” Steve called back, as Bucky lunged for his sword, grabbing it from the floor and spinning back to face the creature.
“How?” Bucky shouted, dodging another swing and coming up behind it.
Imhotep turned and came toward him, a maniacal grin twisting his bloody face, his hand reaching out again. Bucky gripped his sword in both hands and raised it straight out toward the creature. With an angry, desperate yell he shot forward and stabbed the sword up into his chest, aiming for his heart.
The creature hunched over as the blade pierced its chest, a shocked expression on its hideous face.
“He’s mortal now,” Steve said, approaching Bucky and the creature.
Bucky pulled his sword free, sending the creature stumbling back. Its long and bony fingers clutched helplessly at the wound in its chest. It took several halting steps away, slipping into the strange black pools at the bottom of the chamber’s stairs and sinking down into the writhing liquid. Its torso became submerged and only its horrific red skull remained visible. The creature looked up at them, at Steve and uttered a halting phrase before the reaching hands in the pool overcame it and pulled it under.
“What did he say?” Bucky asked after a moment, the three of them staring solemnly at the place Imhotep had disappeared.
“Death...” Steve said softly. “Death is only the beginning.”
The words seemed to echo around Steve’s mind, too ominous, not an ending at all, and he continued to stare at the pool and the reaching hands beneath it.
“Steve,” Bucky said from beside him.
Steve turned, his hand seeking Bucky’s, but before they could connect the ground beneath them shook and the chamber walls around them rumbled, dust falling from the ceiling. He stumbled back into the stone slab, reaching out an arm to steady himself.
“We need to get out of here,” Tony called, arms covering his head. “Feels like this place is about to come down.”
“Come on,” Bucky said, grabbing Steve’s arm and hauling him up.
“Bucky, the books,” he said, looking around for the black and gold books.
“Steve,” Bucky pleaded.
Steve stared at him for a second, and suddenly felt all the damage he’d done with those books in that one word and the urgency in Bucky’s eyes. He turned away, ashamed, and spotted the artifacts on the stone table: the knife, the amulet, the bracelet. It wasn’t what he had come for, but he could leave with something at least. He picked them up quickly, shoving them in his pockets, and turned back to Bucky.
He reached for Bucky’s hand and they followed Tony out of the chamber and through the twisting corridors. The building shook around them, stone and sand fell from the crumbling ceiling. Tony skidded to an abrupt stop at an intersection in the corridors, looking between the various ways they could go.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Steve asked.
“No,” Tony said, shielding his eyes from more falling sand. “Do you?”
“Damn it,” Bucky growled and pulled Steve down one of the hallways. “This way!”
Steve reached his arm up, trying to cover his head as the roaring in the building grew louder, his other hand held tightly in Bucky’s. Turning a few more corners, Steve looked up to see a light shining in through a doorway at the end of the corridor, but before he could even register the relief, the stone ceiling behind them began to crash down, caving in the way behind them.
“Faster!” Tony screamed, pushing hard on Steve’s back.
“Damn it, Tony!”
Steve stumbled forward into Bucky, but luckily they were just reaching the doorway, and the three of them tumbled out onto the hot sand just as the last of the ceiling fell behind them, blocking the entrance.
Rolling over onto his back, Steve panted, clutching his chest and trying to catch his breath. He could hear the others beside him in similar positions, could feel Bucky where he had fallen, pressed against his side. Steve closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, his hands reaching to clasp Bucky’s again, reassuring him that it was all over. They were safe.
Steve rested there a few minutes more, holding tightly to Bucky’s hand, when a shadow fell across his face. He opened his eyes to two figures standing over them blocking the sun, and suddenly realized he could hear the soft sounds of horses nearby.
“Natasha,” Steve gasped, relieved, as she reached a hand to help him to his feet. Clint stood next to her offering the same to Bucky. “You’re alright.”
As he stood, Natasha wrapped her arms around him tightly. “Don’t sound so surprised. I should be saying the same thing to you.”
Steve laughed and returned her embrace. “I’m so sorry. I—”
“Me too,” she said, cutting him off. She released him and stepped back to look him in the eye, hands grasping his biceps. “I’m glad you’re alright. Just… don’t ever do anything like that again.”
“What she said,” Clint said, clapping him on the back. “And if you do, please don’t involve me.”
“Or me,” Tony muttered, standing and brushing the sand from his pants. “Now, as thrilled as I am that we’re all alive, can we please leave now? I’m starting to hate the desert. Missing that cold, wet London air. And I need a drink. Barton?”
“Closest bar’s about a day and a half away. I already asked.”
“We should leave now, then. Preferably never to return.”
Steve watched them head toward the horses that stood close by, giving Natasha a small smile. She raised an eyebrow and smirked at him before she turned to follow the other two.
“Don’t take too long,” she called over her shoulder. “Long ride ahead of us.”
A familiar hand slide against his, tangling their fingers together, and Steve looked over at Bucky, smiling softly.
“Thank you, for coming after me.”
“Always,” Bucky said, smiling.
Steve looked down at their clasped hands and froze, eyes wide as he gazed at Bucky’s left hand in his right.
“Bucky. Your arm.”
Bucky’s arm, at least what Steve could see, was no longer that strange gold that he’d grown accustomed to, but a deep tan like the rest of his body. Steve stared down at it, amazed. Whatever they’d done to kill the creature had somehow put Bucky’s arm back to the way it should have been.
“Steve,” Bucky said, squeezing his hand trying to pull his attention away from his arm.
Steve looked up into Bucky’s smiling blue eyes, watching as Bucky brought his right hand up to cup Steve’s cheek gently then leaned forward to press a soft kiss to Steve’s lips.
“Let’s go home.”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed, tilting his head to rest his forehead against Bucky’s. “Home.”
Thank you for reading! I really hope you enjoyed it and would appreciate a kudo or comment or rec if you did!
This is only my second Stucky fic, and both fics have been written this year and for Big Bangs. So I am exhausted! But I have ideas for two sequels for this one!
Come bother me on tumblr if you like at scootypuffjrsucks.