The parking lot was dark, but the night skies were beautiful, full of stars as always over the desert. Bucky taught Archeology until 7pm on Tuesdays; he was used to the long, lonely walk around the sprawling community campus, the gravel crunching under his feet, the scent of the hot night air.
He had been teaching for a few years now, but he had been a soldier for much longer before that; no matter how familiar his surroundings, no matter how low the odds to get mugged in this sleepy, dusty little city, something between his shoulder blades never quite entirely relaxed. So, really, if he hadn’t taken so much time finding his car keys, he might never have gotten jumped.
But it was dark, and he was tired and fumbling with his bad hand, so he didn’t really register the steps coming up behind him until there was a gun digging into his back. And really, Hollywood made a big deal out of heroes twisting wrists, karate-chopping necks and headbutting foreheads, but the plain truth was that when someone had a gun on you, there was nothing to do but comply and do what you were told and hope the gun went away.
So now Bucky was sitting in the back of a van. With a goddamn bag over his head. As in, they were taking him somewhere. He couldn’t even get mugged for money like a normal person.
“No need to panic,” said one of the kidnappers. He had a deep voice and a no-nonsense tone. “We’re not going to hurt you. The whole bag routine is for us. Secrecy. You understand.”
Bucky didn’t understand shit. His brain was working double time, but he couldn’t think of a single military-related reason for this to happen to him, and at this point in his life, hazing felt very unlikely. It had to be related to someone he knew. Natasha—who taught Russian at Lehigh and was, in some weird way, his best friend—always hinted at having shady connections. It was probably for show, but also maybe not. Oh, God. Was she in witness protection or something?
Or maybe this was about Sam. A lot of Bucky’s sessions with Sam at the VA had involved getting rid of his hyper awareness and buzzing paranoia. If only Sam hadn’t been so good at his job, Bucky would have never gotten jumped like this. Fucking Sam, everything was always his fault. Or Clint. Maybe it was all a prank by Clint. The guy’s social acceptability scale was completely fucked-up at times. Was it Bucky’s birthday or something? Or some weird holiday Clint was intent on celebrating? First time they’d met… No, that had been in summer…
“James Buchanan Barnes. You were in black-ops teams for almost six years, if our intel’s correct,” said a woman’s voice. “A lot of South American missions, until you resigned three years ago on indefinite medical leave.”
Oh. Great. So this was about his own past.
By the sounds of it, the woman was rifling through his messenger bag. “Ah, there’s your ID, Professor Barnes. Ancient history, archeology, South American mythologies… Talk about a career change. Does that pay well?”
Bucky had to clear his throat. “I get by.”
“Eh, I don’t know,” said the man. “According to your electric bills, you didn’t put on your heating last winter.”
“This is Arizona,” Bucky said.
“Didn’t it snow last year?”
“It’s a community college.” Bucky’s hair was damp with sweat under the bag. Fuckers had gone through his bills. And checked last winter’s weather. “They pay me what they can.”
“Uh-huh. Hill, you wanna brief him?”
“We’ve got a job offer for you,” the woman said.
And where the fuck do you get off? Bucky thought, but said nothing. Don’t antagonize still seemed like the safest option here.
“Say yes, and you will receive twice your annual salary, in whichever form you choose. Say no and Director Fury here will just drop you somewhere in the desert.”
“Again, without bodily harm,” said Fury with a hint of dark amusement. “But you will have to hitchhike your way back home. We’re not saints.”
Bucky tried to keep breathing slowly. The van kept driving forward without taking any turns; they must be way out in the scrublands by now. He still wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t about to get sacrificed during some kind of deep desert satanic ceremony.
“My last job interview wasn’t nearly this intense,” he croaked.
“We’re not exactly in the education business.”
“Yeah. No kidding.” Bucky tried to swallow. His throat was so fucking dry. “Can you at least take off the bag?”
“That’s not gonna be possible at this time, Mr. Barnes.”
Yeah. Secrecy and all. Couldn’t see their faces. Fury and Hill—obvious nicknames. Probably had tea with their pals Sadness and Valley every other day. Discussed their kidnappings of the week. The bag was a simple and efficient way to keep him still without restraints; he had no way to tell whether he was still held at gunpoint.
Bucky exhaled. He was sixty-five percent sure he wasn’t going to get maimed or killed, which wasn’t too bad, considering.
“What’s the job?” he asked cautiously.
They told him.
He snorted under his bag, a little sadly. There went his sixty-five percent. “Right. So you guys are insane.”
“You’re one of only three people in the world who have both the knowledge and the physical skills for this mission,” Hill said calmly. “And you were our first choice. If you say yes, you’ll be air-dropped in the Brazilian rainforest within twenty-four hours, with full supplies and equipment.”
“What—right now?” Bucky stammered.
“There’s not a moment to lose, Mr. Barnes. This is bound to become something of a gold rush. So to speak.”
“Find El Dorado,” Bucky repeated, just to make sure. Maybe he’d misheard. “You want me to find the city of El Dorado.”
“No, we’ve found it already,” Fury said. “What we need is to understand exactly what that we found. What makes El Dorado what it is? Why is it special?”
“We’ve got a few satellites pictures,” Hill said. “It doesn’t look like a city of gold.”
Bucky shifted on his seat. Tension was making him sit too stiffly and his posture was hurting his left shoulder, which tended to protest even at the best of times. Ironically, he’d had to keep in military shape to ensure a full recovery, which meant a stint in the Brazilian rainforest wasn’t what was scaring him. What was scaring him was, oh, everything else about this insane bullshit.
“It’s not a city of gold,” he rasped at last, because he had to keep talking and this was something he knew, something he could talk about almost without thinking. “That’s a Western bastardization of the original myth. It’s about a man. Or—perhaps a race of men. It’s possible they all had golden hair or skin or eyes, which would explain the name. But ancient alchemy also associates the word gold with the idea of perfection, which would make El Dorado, ‘the golden man’, a physically and mentally superior being…”
“Hell, you are a professor,” Fury snorted. “Will give a lecture with a bag over his head.”
Bucky worked his jaw, clenched his fists until his nails dug into his palms.
“Which is exactly why we need you,” Hill put in. “We need someone who will know what they’ve found. Once again: you can say no. But say it quick.”
Bucky bit back a scathing refusal on principle. He didn’t appreciate being grabbed in the Lehigh parking lot. He didn’t appreciate being given ultimatums. He didn’t appreciate being mocked for his humble job and his humbler paycheck. He was jumpy from the adrenaline, and aching with tension, and seriously afraid this whole fucking thing was going to be a serious setback on his paranoia.
But he was also deeply, almost morbidly curious about what the hell these people were going on about.
“I wanna make a phone call.”
A silence answered him. Then the sound of someone rifling through his bag again.
“How do you unlock your phone?”
“Just—just swipe,” Bucky said. “Just—with the…”
“You don’t even have a lockscreen?”
I’ve been trying to work on my paranoia, Bucky didn’t shout. Instead he repeated through gritted teeth, “Just swipe.”
“Who are we calling?”
“Natasha. Should be in recent calls.”
Seconds later, the phone was ringing close to his face. Speakerphone, of course. Still, these people really were confident, to just let him call somebody like that. Bucky took another deep breath just as the call connected.
“Barnes, what’s up?”
“Hey,” he exhaled. It felt so fucking bizarre to hear her voice in those circumstances. “Nat, I need you to tell me the truth. Is Clint pranking me?”
He could almost hear her frown. “What?”
“Just tell me,” he went on after another labored breath, “if I’m being pranked by—someone. Including you. Red Room protocol.”
“Hey,” Hill said. “What was that last part?”
Fury shushed her. “Let him.”
Red Room protocol was just a safeword, because both Bucky and Nat were Russian-descended dorks who enjoyed Cold War callbacks. It basically meant I am freaking out right now so I need you to cut the bullshit and be completely straightforward with me. Natasha had had some troubles of her own. It was good to have a code. And too bad if some assholes mistook it for a threat. Served them well for kidnapping Bucky in the first place.
“No one is pranking you,” Natasha said in a slow, serious tone, “that I know of. Do you want me to call Clint and check? I’ll make him talk.”
“No. It’s fine.” Another deep breath, in and out. “Listen. Don’t freak out. I’m pretty much being kidnapped. Except they want to offer me a job. I’m not telling you what kind of job,” he said loud and quick, in case they cut off the call. “Just—yeah. That’s the situation.”
Another long silence. Almost a full minute long; if not for static on the line, Bucky would have been afraid Natasha had hung up. Then, “Can I talk to them?”
There was a beep as someone took the call off speakerphone. “Fury speaking.”
Bucky wasn’t able to follow the ensuing conversation, because all he heard on Fury’s part were grunts and snorts and scoffs. At one point he said: “An eyepatch, actually,” which—what did that mean? Did Natasha know this guy? Did they have their own crisis safeword?
And then without warning Bucky was put back on the line. “Hey, Barnes,” Natasha said. “These people are legit as far as I can tell.”
“Fuck me,” he mumbled, “you really are in the Mafia. Or the CIA. Or something.”
“Or something,” she said dryly. “Are you going to judge me? I hear you were in black-ops.”
Bucky couldn’t find anything to say to that. He didn’t hide the fact that he was a veteran—but he hid just about everything else.
“They’re offering you a lot of money. I’m assuming it’s for something dangerous.”
“I’m not going to hurt anyone,” Bucky said, then frowned under the bag over his head. “Right?”
“Right,” Hill said. “Unless someone tries to hurt you first.”
“How likely is that?”
“I’d like you to stay out of trouble, but you’re the best judge here, James,” Natasha interrupted. “Take the job or don’t.”
Her matter-of-fact tone sobered him right up. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. I think… bye, now. I’ll be. In touch. Hopefully.”
Fury cut the call. “Well?”
Bucky swallowed. This wasn’t really about the money. Though he absolutely wasn’t going to say no to the money, but—fuck, if this whole thing was even just half-real, well…
What the fuck. El Dorado was a real fucking place. And some shady organization had decided that James Buchanan Barnes should be the one to explore it. They’d obviously researched him beforehand, so they must know this was exactly the kind of wet dream on acid he’d risk everything for. And Bucky didn’t have a family who’d miss him. A few friends, a few students. A small life.
Except he still didn’t appreciate their methods.
“There is—an experimental process being developed by Stark Industries right now,” he said, clenching his damaged hand. “A nanobot injection for nerve regeneration and—and that kind of shit. I don’t know the details. I want a place in that program.” He remembered to add, “Besides the money.”
Another silence, then: “That sounds doable,” Hill said.
Just like that. Bucky felt dizzy. He wasn’t really going to do this, was he? It was idiotic. It was borderline suicidal. He didn’t know who these people were. He couldn’t trust anything they were saying. He had to go home. He had papers to grade—
El fucking Dorado.
“I wasn’t sure you’d say yes,” Hill said as she led him to the chopper.
“I had papers to grade,” Bucky muttered.
Despite Bucky’s paranoia clawing at the back of his mind, the SHIELD people hadn’t turned out to be Satanists or Mormons—even though Fury looked like some nightmare hybrid of both with his leather duster and actual fucking eyepatch. Hill was almost disturbingly normal in comparison, a military type with close-cut hair and a poker face. They’d given Bucky his belongings back and shook his hand and even said welcome to the team.
They weren’t kidding about the timetable either. The chopper was waiting in the middle of the desert, all lights off, massive and poised like a giant dragonfly. Within six minutes of Bucky climbing in, they were wheels up and zooming through the night sky—Fury was flying the chopper, which he probably shouldn’t have been doing with only one eye, but Bucky wasn’t about to call him out on it. He hadn’t been aboard a helicopter in years, and a confused part of his memory was floundering, asking, what is this? Are we back? Did we never leave?
Hill gave him giant headphones, waited till he’d settled in his seat, then opened the channel. “Briefing time,” she said, her voice distorted by the sound system. “Listen close.”
Bucky just raised his eyebrows. Hill dragged a light pack between them. “Food and supplies are here,” she said, “clothing and sleeping gear here, various tools here and here. You’ve got aquatabs, a full medpack and all the comms system you’ll need. You up to date on your vaccinations?”
Bucky grunted assent, which didn’t stop her from grabbing his right arm, pulling up his sleeve and injecting him with three different syringes. She even put a little band-aid over it when she was done.
“Get some sleep,” she said. “We’ll be there in five hours.”
“What about the actual briefing,” Bucky said in disbelief.
“What more do you want? We’ve found ruins in the rainforest. Several reliable sources confirm them to be El Dorado. It’s your job to tell us the rest.”
Bucky rolled his eyes so hard he nearly strained something. This was why he’d left black-ops—well, that and the crushing sense of guilt, but Hill wasn’t his goddamn shrink.
He changed into the clothes she gave him, then went to the cot at the back, lay down and slept. Incredibly deep, to the point that he wondered whether Hill had added a light sedative to her cocktails of vaccines. By the time he emerged, the sun was slowly rising over the horizon, and the landscape underneath the chopper’s belly had changed completely. A few clouds were creeping over a blue layer of atmosphere, with the dark, luxurious mass of the rainforest stretching beneath. This was so fucking surreal he didn’t even feel disoriented as he sat up on his cot; it just felt like the continuation of a dream.
When she saw him walk back to the main area, Hill said something to Fury, unbuckled herself from the copilot seat and joined Bucky at the back.
“Breakfast,” she said after they’d both put on their headphones again, handing him a protein bar.
Bucky took it, but didn’t unwrap it. “I’d like to know who I’m working for.”
“We are SHIELD.”
Bucky looked through the glass. Large bands of sun were trickling across the dark green fur of the forest. None of this was really happening, was it? Maybe he’d just fallen asleep grading papers again. The pre-Columbian archeology essays always gave him some fucked-up dreams.
“I don’t know what it stands for,” he said.
“You’ll think of something.” She handed him an earpiece. “Put that in. Check in regularly. Anything goes wrong, you just give us a call, we’ll pull you out right away.”
“We’ve got an aircraft carrier off the coast. And despite whatever you may think of us, we have our operatives’ backs.”
“Sure.” Bucky looked down at the canopy again. There was a river looking like a steel band from up high, glinting golden in the rising sun. “I’m gonna have to jump, aren’t I?”
“We’ve got a suggestion box, if you can think of another option.”
“You guys realize I haven’t done that in over three years?”
“Like riding a bike,” Hill said. “Or falling from one.”
Bucky looked at her for a minute. He had a lot of questions, but he had a feeling none of them would get answered. One thing was clear—they did need a very special skill set for this mission, and he was their best candidate; maybe their only candidate, or they wouldn’t have pulled him out of retirement.
“One more thing,” he said. “How long is this going to take?”
“Depends on you,” Hill said as the chopper belly opened with a rush of whistling wind.
Bucky had been in a daze ever since he’d been made to get into the helicopter—ever since he’d been made to get into the van, really—but the jump slapped the feeling right out of his mind.
Opening his arms on autopilot, taking a deep breath through his oxygen mask, he looked at the rising ground and thought with crystal clarity: this is real.
He filled his lungs, then exhaled in a sharp burst when his parachute opened. Like riding a bike. This whole thing was such complete madness his mind hadn’t caught on yet. He felt like he was taking a vacation from his life—like he was wearing someone else’s skin, using someone else’s brain.
He really should have been grading papers right now.
He kept breathing slowly in his mask, angling himself as best as he could during the descent. A thick, humid fog was rising over the canopy like a silver exhale. He could smell rotting leaves and fungi, he could hear sizzling insects, bird calls, monkey chatter. It was all so strange and yet so familiar. For all his Brazilian missions, though, he had never ventured quite so deep into the forest.
Just before he touched down, he lucked out into what couldn’t really be called a clearing—just a fallen tree that made it easier for him to come down without snapping too many branches on his way. A knee-deep swamp welcomed him back to the ground, and he buckled off his parachute right on time, landing without damage in the squelching mud.
Heat rose off the ground like burning smoke. The sun hadn’t even risen above the tree line yet, but he could already tell he’d soon feel like he was breathing soup. It didn’t matter. He felt alive. He took a few deep breaths, then took stock of himself and his surroundings. They’d given him boots that kept the water out and tactical pants thick enough to resist thorns and snagging branches. He was still wearing his deep red, long-sleeved henley, which would protect him from the sun and insects. Bucky preferred long sleeves to keep his left arm out of sight, even when there was no one around to see it.
Except, perhaps, a golden-haired shining example of human perfection. Maybe. If his own course material was to be believed.
Bucky took off his pack, set it down on a stump and loosened the straps. He dug into it a while and got out the things he needed—namely his GPS and a machete—before he packed it tight and shouldered it again. He took a glance at the small screen, positioned himself in the right direction then started hacking his way forward.
Despite decades of industrial-then-digital revolution, one’s basic progress through hostile environment hadn’t changed much; you had, quite literally, to make your own way through. Within minutes of hacking at vines and branches, Bucky was sweating through his shirt. The bushes were thick and dark and the swamp kept trying to pull him down, letting out loud suction noises every time he freed one of his feet from the mud.
Then a slithering shadow through the branches made him stop.
Bucky unholstered his Glock from his thigh, standing still, looking around. Only an idiot would shoot at a predator, but firing into the air would be a sure way to discourage any close curiosity from sharp-clawed animals.
The shadow didn’t reappear. After a while, he had no other choice but to get moving, keeping his weapon in hand. The forest soon found ways to take his attention off the incident—twining vines, hungry swamp, scolding birds. Heavy, clumsy bugs buzzed through the air in slow-motion. Bucky checked his GPS again. Hill’s instructions had been very vague; they’d detected the ruins from orbit, so he only had a general direction to follow. At least it didn’t look like he’d landed too far away from target.
He took a few gulps of warm water from his camel pack, ascertained his grip on the Glock and kept walking. The swamp had slowly turned into an uneven mangrove, with knots of monstrous roots he periodically had to climb or walk around. At least the wildlife was much quieter here.
In fact, it had been getting quieter for a while now.
His body took charge before his brain even knew what was happening. He whipped round and shot at the dark mass charging at him; the recoil slammed through his arm and there was a fleshy noise of impact, followed by a shriek and growl. Only an idiot would shoot at a predator. An idiot he was. He hadn’t realized just how dark his surroundings had gotten as he burrowed ever deeper into the mangrove. Panting, he got his balance just in time to fire again—not fast enough this time; a hint of gold streaked across his vision, followed by an exploding pain in his thigh.
He stumbled back, one step, two steps. His thigh bled abundantly, dark arterial blood. Not good. At all. He had completely underestimated the danger here. He had fucked up so badly. He had maybe three minutes before he passed out. And then five till he died. He couldn’t bandage himself, not while he was still so exposed, and he kept retreating up and up a knot of roots—until they suddenly gave under his feet with a thick smell of rot.
He wrenched his arm on the way down, managed not to snap his neck. The water wasn’t deep enough to break his fall, but it certainly was deep enough for him to drown in if he didn’t manage to get back up. The animal had been surprised, but not deterred; Bucky could hear it growling above, trying to figure out how to get to him.
His thigh was still bleeding, the blood so hot on its way out of him it felt like acid. His vision was swimming, dark dots dancing in the air. Calling for backup was a no-go; there was no way a chopper could reach him here. And he hadn't even been here three hours, for fuck's sake. He had to get up, and focus, and make some sort of tourniquet. Something. Anything. Now.
His fingers scrabbled around, trying to find purchase in the mud, grab a root, pull himself up. But then he stopped, moved his hand in the water again, more slowly. Beneath the layer of soft warm silt was flat stone. No, he realized as he mapped the edges of a large flat square. Not stone.
When he looked up, the city was there.
It spread out within a close-crowding nest of immense trees, all white marble and empty streets, looking like every El Dorado drawing in every book Bucky had read as a child. Massive buildings carved out of limestone, with delicate arches, huge sets of stairs and perfectly round domes; all of them impossibly preserved, only a few crumbling walls here and there. All dressed up in moss and vines like green fur coats. The sun shone intermittently through the branches, dappling it all with delicate light.
Bucky swallowed. His head was spinning. Maybe it was this miracle of a city. Or maybe it was the blood pumping out of his body. Then his vision refocused to the foreground and he found himself staring at a small blond guy with wide, shocked blue eyes.
Now that’s weird, Bucky thought.
The guy was completely frozen. The cloud cover moved overhead and a slow ray of sunlight fell right on him, making him look like some kind of scrawny misplaced angel. He had homemade jean shorts, really skinny legs, and an NYU tote bag slung over his shoulder.
Hallucination, Bucky decided. That being dealt with, he struggled again to get up, sloshing more of his own blood around him. He was bathing in red. A movement caught his attention; the man had taken a step back. His bare feet caused ripples in the water. He had a blurry shadow floating behind him. Bucky began to realize that despite the sun coincidentally shining down on him, this guy probably wasn’t a vision. Maybe. Bucky didn’t have the energy to be weirded out. He was dying. So much of the past twenty-four hours had already been weird as fuck, anyway.
Right then, a huge black shape fell into the water behind him, growling deep in its chest. Bucky turned round, dodged one swipe of claws, another one, tried to get up, failed, found himself backed against a huge gnarled mangrove tree root—
Which was right when a rock flew through the air and beaned the animal right on its ugly head.
It turned round and snarled at the NYU apparition, who hissed a “Shit!” and stumbled back when the monster charged. He fell backwards in his hurry and put his arms above his head—just in time for Bucky to find his Glock’s trigger and empty his clip into the beast.
The shots sent off hundreds of birds from the branches. Their echo took ages to die in the empty marble streets. Bucky let go of his pistol and fell prone in the warm water.
The little guy was all right. Uncurling with wide eyes. Such blue eyes. Bucky’s blood made the water smell like hot iron. More sunlight was streaming in through the canopy. The beast’s corpse was fuming next to him. Some kind of wild dog, with yellow eyes. Not what he’d been looking for. Not at all.
El fucking Dorado, he thought, eyes closing.
Crumbling stone. Vines. Daylight still washing down on him.
Bucky couldn’t have been unconscious for more than an hour. Except an hour should have been enough to kill him. He tried to push up on his elbows, then let out a groan when his injured shoulder refused to follow suit.
Reaching down, he found his pants ripped around his wound, and his thigh badly but tightly bandaged.
He made another, more successful attempt at sitting up and realized he was inside the ruin of a stone house. There was no roof, and when he looked down—yep. It was flooded. His body was resting just above water level, with his hand and foot dipping in, like someone was trying to play a frat house joke on him.
Then there was a sloshing of water and the scrawny guy from earlier came in. “Finally! Get up. Now. Sun’s going down, we can’t stay at ground level.”
So, scratch that, Bucky had slept all day. He wasn’t the kind of man who asked stupid questions in the middle of danger, but part of him still stopped and blinked at the guy’s accent—because, Brooklyn? For fuck’s sake.
Saving his breath, he did his best to get up. His injured leg screamed at him, but it was a slash wound, not a twisted knee; it could still hold his weight. He just had to grit his teeth. He knew how.
NYU was watching him warily. When he saw that Bucky wasn’t falling right back down, he slipped under his left arm and led him out of the ruin, half-supporting his weight with nothing but sheer stubbornness. On the other side of the flooded street stood a huge building, five or six stories tall, alive with moss and vines, but mostly intact. Bucky was relieved that he only had to cross the street; he still saw dark spots when he moved.
Keeping his head down, he realized he could see his boots through the water; unlike in the mangroves, it was amazingly clear. There were darting little goldfish there, zipping away from him every time he took a step forward. They followed the little guy when he moved, though, nipping at his calloused heels. He wasn’t actually barefoot. He was wearing flip-flops.
The sun was setting, turning the air soft and warm like honey. The marble pavement shone through the water, a gorgeous vibrant gold. Bucky couldn’t look away from the tiny sparkling fish.
“Here,” NYU said. He was a solid line of warmth against Bucky’s side, straining with the effort of holding him up. “Up here. Come on.”
Bucky winced when he saw the winding staircase, but there had been mentions of not staying at ground level, so he just clenched his jaw some more and resigned himself to a lot of pain. By the time they’d reached the third floor, he was close to passing out.
The room they walked into had vines coming in through the window, but it was clean and dry. Someone had set up camp there a while ago; there was camping equipment, but also a bunch of candles stuck all around the room, bedding of straw on a stone pallet, and rags hanging around the window by way of curtains. It was an immense relief to sit down on the bed and lean against the wall. The bandage on his thigh was sprouting dark cherries of blood.
“Hey,” NYU said. “You gonna be okay?”
Bucky took a minute. Just a minute. Eyes closed. Breathing. Everything fucking hurt. Then he wiped the sweat from his brow and opened his eyes again. Outside the window, the night was falling. He saw a lot of golden-eyed shadows snuffling in the water.
“What are they?” he managed.
“Wild dogs. Jungle hyenas. Local breed.” His voice was clipped and tight. “Pull down the curtains so I can make some light.”
Bucky obeyed, though reaching for the makeshift curtains felt like an eternity of agony. The candles lit up, one after the other. NYU was frowning a lot. He swore when he burned himself lighting the last candle with his bodega neon plastic lighter. Fuck, that fucking Brooklyn accent.
“You’re not the gold man,” Bucky slurred.
NYU blinked at him. “What?”
“Never mind.” He closed his eyes again. God, the pain. Couldn’t think. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing!”
“M' Bucky. Just got here. Sorry about… everything.” Bucky swallowed. “Think I’m more outta shape than I realized.” Now that he’d been motionless for more than two minutes in a row, he could begin to string two thoughts together. “What’s your name?”
Yeah. Very ‘Lost City’. Steve definitely wasn’t the droid Bucky was looking for, blond hair notwithstanding. But he was still a mystery, with his goddamn flip-flops and his NYU tote bag. There was something to be found here for sure. If Bucky lived till morning. Fuck, he was going to have to call for backup, wasn’t he? Cancel the mission on day one.
“Hey. Don’t die.” Steve snapped his fingers in front of his face a couple of times. “You can’t die up here. I won’t be able to move your body.”
“Found a way to bring me to the bottom of your building, though,” Bucky mumbled, smiling. “Made me float in the water. Right? Smart.”
“I’m serious. You can’t stick around. I can’t stand treasure hunters,” Steve said. “Especially not the ones stupid enough to get themselves mauled.”
“M’not a treasure hunter. Don’t care about gold.”
“Yeah? Why did you come here, then?”
Bucky watched Steve from under his eyelids. “How ‘bout a giant golden man with super strength and stamina?”
Steve blinked, then snorted with too much anger to sound really humorous. “Sorry, we’re all out. Try coming back next week.”
Bucky grinned at him. “You’re funny.”
“You…” Steve obviously tried to pull himself together. “All right. You’re spending the night. But tomorrow, you have to go.”
“Sure,” Bucky said, then pitched down to a horizontal state and promptly passed the fuck out.
He had an agitated night, full of half-remembered memories of Steve checking his pulse and bundling him up and making him drink what felt like gallons of water. When he woke up, for good this time, he was alone. Fragile morning daylight was streaming in through the open window. He sat up without thinking about it—then froze.
His twisted shoulder didn’t hurt anymore. His thigh felt fine, too. When he pressed at the bandage, he felt shallow scratches underneath, the type that’d heal up in under a week.
“What the fuck.”
“Oh, you’re awake,” Steve said, coming in with an armful of dripping reeds. He seemed jittery and didn’t look him in the eye. “Feeling better?”
Bucky looked at him incredulously. “Yeah.”
“Great. Then you can get out of my hair. Remember? Can’t stick around.” With that, he turned his back to Bucky and started piling his wet reeds in a corner.
Bucky got up. His thigh didn’t scream at him. “What did you do to me?”
Steve was still trying very hard to appear very busy. “Don’t know what you mean.”
“I’m healed. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
“What, from the wild dog? It just scratched you. They’ve got venom on their claws, it fucks with your head. You probably thought it was worse than it was.”
Bucky knew what bleeding out felt like, thanks. “Look,” he began.
Click. Steve had bony wrists and narrow fingers, but his hands on the gun weren’t shaking.
“Just leave,” he said, very pale. “All right? Just go away. And tell whoever you’re working for that there’s no treasure. Just old stones and jungle dogs. Everyone’s gone. Everyone’s dead.”
Bucky slowly raised his hands. “Hey,” he said quietly. “Hey. You can’t shoot me.”
“What, you gonna tell me the safety’s on?” Steve scowled. “I’ve seen the same movies you have, pal. And I know how to shoot a gun.”
“Sure. But you won’t.” Bucky reached out, slowly, and lowered the barrel with two careful fingers. “’Cause you just saved my life.”
Steve looked trapped. He tried to pull up the gun again, though without much conviction. “Just go.”
“Why am I healed?” Bucky asked steadily.
Steve lowered the gun completely. “God. I’m so fucking stupid.”
“For saving me? Or for thinking you could shoot me?”
Steve sat down on a crate and put his head in his hands. Bucky could do nothing but watch him, feeling oddly guilty. Who was this guy, anyway?
“It’s all right,” he said after an awkward couple of minutes. “I… won’t tell anyone you’re here. But I can’t leave before I ask you a few questions.”
“Like ‘where’s the gold’?” Steve muttered.
“I told you, I don’t care about gold.” Bucky hesitated. Steve was very tan—and he obviously knew his way around the jungle. “How long have you been here?”
“I’m not Robinson fucking Crusoe. Go rescue someone else.”
“Not saying that. Just—impressed you’ve survived on your own. I mean, I almost got killed on my first day. Looks like you’ve been here a while.”
“I can get by on my own,” Steve snapped. “Unlike you people.”
“I’m not a treasure hunter,” Bucky insisted. Apparently, he was far from the first on the scene. SHIELD had been right thinking this was a gold rush. Or an arms race. “Why am I healed?”
“It’s—what this place does, all right?” Steve sighed. “I don’t know how.”
“All right, sure,” Bucky said, “leaving that aside for now, why are you here? And how did you know the city was here at all?”
“How about you mind your own goddamn business?”
Bucky heard Steve’s voice shake on the last word and abruptly realized this guy was truly, actually scared shitless of him. Hell, the gun should have been enough of a clue.
“All right,” he said. “All right. I’m going. Thanks. For your help.”
Steve didn’t move, didn’t say anything, rigid with tension. Bucky had to walk around him to get to the narrow stairs he’d almost failed to climb the day before.
“Bye,” he said at the door, and, “Sorry,” because that felt like something he should add, and, “Thanks again.”
Going down the stairs was a lot easier than climbing up had been. He was still dazed, with a thousand questions buzzing through his head, and he still felt weak from hunger and blood loss. But he could walk no problem, just a faint limp that would probably be gone within days.
When he came out of the building, the magnificence of the city overwhelmed him all over again—white marble arches, luxuriant vines, streets of transparent water gleaming almost blue in the bright daylight. A place of healing—literally.
A sudden thought came to him; but when he rolled up his left sleeve, his burn scars were still there. Maybe he just needed more exposure. Some experiments were in order. He could find a nice nook to set up camp in, preferably not too far from Steve.
“You gave us a fright,” Hill said on the satellite radio.
“Mm. Sorry,” Bucky answered, unpacking his stuff. He’d had no problem retrieving his pack from where it had fallen the day before. It was quality stuff; even though it had soaked in the water all day, everything inside was dry and ready for use. Also the wild dog's corpse had still been there, partially eaten by, presumably, more dogs. This place could heal you but couldn't bring you back to life; good to know.
Bucky had set up shop on a terrace roof, on the building directly across from Steve’s. The sniper in him was urging him to stay as high up as possible.
“What happened?” Hill insisted.
“Was busy getting there.”
“Not a one,” Bucky said, thinking about a yellow-eyed hyena, about bleeding out into the water and then healing overnight, about a small guy with golden hair and clenched fists and a gun. And very blue eyes. “But it does seem like other parties found this place before you did.”
“Was there a body?”
“Nothing so dramatic. But clear evidence of recent encampments.” It was credible bullshit; he couldn’t exactly tell her Steve had mistaken him for one of many treasure hunters. Bucky had promised him he wouldn’t tattle, and he intended to keep his word.
“But there’s no one left now?”
A hint of movement caught Bucky’s eye; from his vantage point, he could clearly see Steve coming down the flooded street with his absurd NYU tote bag slung over his shoulder.
“No,” he said, “just me.”
Bucky spent the remainder of his first day setting up camp on his rooftop; he ate two good meals and had himself a full night’s sleep. In the morning, he felt about ready to take on a dozen wild dogs at once.
Getting dressed, he had to brush the hair away from his face ten or fifteen times before he finally realized it had gotten longer. Frowning, he ran his fingers through it again. Definitely several inches longer. Almost past his chin. Okay, maybe—maybe this made sense. If this place was stimulating the human body, then—he looked at his nails and winced. Yeah, all right. Way to be observant, Barnes.
He took the time to clip them so he wouldn’t scratch himself, but there wasn’t much he could do about the hair. Besides, he’d been trying to grow it anyway as a discrete and belated fuck you to army regulations, so maybe this wasn’t too bad. Shame SHIELD hadn’t packed him any hair clips, though.
He decided to take a leaf out of Steve’s book and go light on equipment; but he also kept a leaf out of his own book, and didn’t go down unarmed. Grey henley, brown pants—better than his literal red shirt from the day before, Christ. Strapped backpack, fingerless gloves, a gun and a torch buckled on his hips.
After a moment of hesitation, he rolled up his sleeves. Even the left one. He just wanted—he wanted to check. If the burn scars healed.
Climbing down from his base camp, Bucky jumped off the last couple of steps to land feet-first in the water. His first mission, he decided, would be mapping the city. Fuck, he’d gotten off to a rocky start, but this was still so much better than grading papers.
He unrolled Hill’s digital scroll—basically a flexible, waterproof tablet—and called up the satellite imagery of the ruins, then started tracing the buildings he already knew. B, he wrote on his own. Like Bucky, or Base Camp, or Better Believe It, Buddy. On the one across the street he wrote an S for Steve. Or Surprise. Or Seriously, What’s Up With This Guy. Then he packed his scroll again and headed out.
The beauty of his surroundings was almost unbearable. The city had obviously been planned out, then built all of a piece: the streets were straight and wide, intersecting only at right angles to form a harmonious grid, gathering the buildings in perfectly square blocks. They looked like they’d all been erected within the same decade and conceived by the same architect, reaching out to one another with delicate bridges and vertiginous arches. It was a dream of a city. It looked so much like what Bucky had always imagined.
He kept walking the wide streets, marveling at the beautifully flooded pavement, the sheets of green vines. Coming down through the canopy, the sunlight dappled everything with gold and reflected off the crystalline water to trace bluish, moving shapes on the marble walls. Bucky’s heart kept pounding at every turn from sheer amazement. He was intent on staying alive this time, though, which meant he was also on the lookout for jungle dogs, but they obviously kept their distance during the day.
It was very hot and he quickly emptied out his camel pack. After a considering look, he held it under the water and let it fill up. It was just so damn clear. Maybe he wouldn’t even have to use his aquatabs. But he should go back to his rooftop to test it first. Not to mention he was getting hungry; he’d spent the entire morning wandering around El Dorado like a stunned baby bird.
He took out a strip of jerky, unrolled his scroll to make a few last notes, then put it away and headed back to camp, chowing down. He hadn’t made three steps when he rounded a corner and smacked straight into Steve.
“Jesus,” Steve gasped, sloshing water as he scrambled away. “What are you doing here?”
Bucky swallowed his mouthful. “Um. Hey. Want some jerky?”
“I thought you were gone!”
“Well, I do have class on Monday. But I guess I’m just gonna have to bail. Hardly an original move in community college, y’know. My buddy Clint isn’t there half the time. And he literally sleeps through his own classes when he does show up.”
Steve was frozen, obviously under the impression that Bucky’s banter was just a prelude to brutal violence. Bucky felt bad for trying to be flippant.
“Look, uh—Steve,” he said. “Thanks… thanks again for your help. I would’ve died without you. And—so you know, my handlers checked in, and I didn’t tell them you were here. I’m not going to tell anybody. Like I said. I owe you one.”
Steve kept staring at him.
“Jerky?” Bucky offered again.
Steve’s stomach let out a surprisingly loud growl. He winced at himself, and Bucky bit back a smile.
“Sounds like a yes,” was all he said, pulling out a strip and handing it over. “Here. It’s, uh. It’s teriyaki flavor.”
On automatic, Steve reached out and took the strip of meat. He looked at it for a second, then gave it back. “I can’t. I’m allergic.”
Steve said nothing. Then, again, with resignation: “I thought you were gone.”
“I’m not going anywhere for at least another couple of days,” Bucky said, apologetic. “I got a job to do. But—I promise I’ll be a good neighbor. No loud music, no laundry after dark.”
Steve’s lips twisted, which could have been an attempt at repressing a smile—or a shout of rage. His eyes tracked the strip of jerky when Bucky popped it into his mouth. For someone who’d claimed to be allergic, he sure looked sorry he hadn’t accepted the offer.
“You saved me, too, yesterday,” Steve finally mumbled. “So. Thanks. I guess.”
“It was nothing,” Bucky said, and meant it—Steve wouldn’t have needed saving if he hadn’t drawn the wild dog’s attention on purpose. “Hey, listen. Would you like to maybe work together?”
Steve’s eyes widened. “Excuse me?”
“Maybe compare our research, at least? I don’t know why you’re here, if you’re a spy or a journalist or a treasure hunter yourself, or whatever. But it’d be dumb not to collaborate in the field.”
Steve opened his mouth with the very clear intention to tell Bucky exactly where he could shove his proposition—then he clicked it shut, as if struck by something, and seemed to think furiously for a second.
“Okay,” he finally bit out.
“Okay?” Bucky repeated, bewildered. “I mean—what? Is that a yes? You’re in?”
“It’s what I said,” Steve said brusquely, reaching for Bucky’s digital scroll. “What have you got so far?”
“Uh, here—” Bucky showed him, still feeling a little blindsided.
Steve blinked at the flexible tablet, then frowned at the map. His blue eyes moved quickly over Bucky’s notes; he swiped through with a few flicks of his long fingers.
“That’s—that’s impressive,” he said after a while. “You haven’t even been here two days.”
“Thanks,” Bucky said cautiously. “Just basic reconnaissance. I was thinking I could start with that big building there. Tomorrow.” He tapped at the center of the map. “I mean, it’s obviously the heart of the place.”
“Yeah.” Steve looked conflicted; he hesitated a long time before he spoke. “I’ve… I’ve been gearing up to go for a little while, actually.”
Bucky blinked at him. “Are you serious?”
“But—but I know it’s going to be dangerous,” Steve temporized.
“All the more reason to pool our resources.”
“Yeah. I guess.” He ran a hand through his hair. He really had nice hair, glinting gold in the sun. And nice eyes. So fucking blue. And he wasn’t that scrawny. Small, sure, and slight, but with square calloused hands and wiry limbs. Bucky steered his thoughts on safer tracks; he didn’t want to spook him.
“We can go back to either of our camps. Talk this over. It’s going to get dark.”
Once more, Steve looked he’d bitten into a lemon and answered like he was throwing himself off a cliff—but what he answered was, again: “Okay.”
“Okay,” Bucky repeated almost like a question. “Then… okay.”
They went to Bucky’s rooftop, which had Steve scowling when he realized it had a clear view of his own ruins. But he didn’t run away, maybe because Bucky was putting his cards on the table bringing him up here. He still looked anxiously at Bucky’s food when he started to unpack it, which Bucky couldn’t help noticing.
“Can I offer you anything?”
Steve hesitated for a long time, then nodded at a bag of dried snacks. “That.”
“Almonds?” Bucky sat down on the terrace roof. He was making Steve nervous, and he wanted it to stop. “C’mere, we’ll share.”
Those had been the right words; Steve slowly sat down as well, and relaxed by a fraction when Bucky popped a few almonds in his mouth before passing over the bag.
Okay, Bucky thought, watching him eat. Not allergies.
Bucky knew something about paranoia; he wasn’t going to begrudge a man for that kind of thing. He wondered how alone Steve had been, and for how long.
“Fuck,” Steve breathed, “that’s so good.”
“Yeah. I mean. It’s just almonds.”
Steve rubbed his forehead. Eating had made him relax some more. “I probably sound completely crazy. I just—” He crunched on another almond. “I’ve been eating, uh, mostly reeds. For the past few weeks. I’m not that good a hunter, and there’s nothing really edible around here. So.”
“Reeds,” Bucky repeated, blankly. “But. Can we digest those?”
“No. I get sick. And… then I get better. Thanks to this place.” Steve winced. “It’s really not ideal but—it works.”
“Jesus Christ. I’m cooking pasta right now,” Bucky said, scrambling to his feet, and saw in the corner of his eye something on Steve’s face that definitely looked like a tiny crooked smile.
The pasta took a few minutes to heat up—Bucky had enough dehydrated rations to last three months. SHIELD was nothing if not efficient at packing. As he prepared the ramen in front of Steve, to let him see he wasn’t tampering with it, Bucky idly thought again about his students who would be waiting for him on Monday. His life felt so far away right now.
Steve scarfed down his pasta with something close to desperation, then had to take a moment. Eventually he exhaled and reopened his eyes. “Thank you. For that.” He looked at Bucky’s stuff with more attention than before. “You’ve got great equipment.”
A dick joke tried to make its way past Bucky’s lips, but he bit it back. None of that. Steve was—he was—there was maybe a reason Bucky’s brain kept trying to shift into flirting gear; the loose tank top, cut-off jeans, flip-flops and brightly-colored tote bag. And his hair and his hands and his eyes. And the stubborn desperate bravery he’d shown, saving Bucky’s life; and the deep, selfless generosity he’d displayed, saving Bucky’s life again right after.
But the last thing Bucky wanted was to make him uncomfortable.
Steve’s eyes were still roaming on the SHIELD-issue gear. “Who’re you working for?”
“You know, I’m not even sure,” Bucky said. “They basically kidnapped me. I used to be in black-ops, but—I’m retired. I work as a community college teacher, now. They grabbed me two days ago and briefed me and airdropped me here with supplies and a mission.”
Steve looked so stunned he almost forgot to be tense. “Seriously? But—why did you say yes?”
“Well, I mean, they’re paying me a fair bit of money. But really, I just… The call of adventure, you know?” He sat back, leaning on his hands, surveying the darkening city. As night fell, the marble turned blue and silver. “I mean, look around. This is… this is like a something out of a dream.”
“Your mission,” Steve said, in a cautious tone. “What is it exactly?”
Bucky laughed. “Hell, I don’t even know that. My own research tells me I should be looking for some long-lost South American civilization. But now, with that healing thing, I’m thinking maybe… there’s a naturally occurring event close by, and the entire city was built around it. A giant, sprawling place of worship. Or healing. Or both. Which would explain why it’s so perfectly organized and why all the buildings look the same; it’s not really a city that generations of people built organically over time. More like a hospital complex. I mean, just imagine it. People coming from all over South America in pilgrimage for genuine miracles.”
In the receding light, Steve had softer edges. His gold hair looked silver. “What do you teach?” he asked quietly.
“South American civilizations and mythology, basically. A few other things, too—you’re paid by the class at Lehigh, so you better offer a variety of ‘em if you wanna eat.”
“Why South America?”
Bucky twisted his mouth. “I led a lot of missions on the continent. Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, mostly. It took me too long to realize I wasn’t one of the good guys. By the time I pulled out, I had all this leftover knowledge gathered over dozens of missions and I—I wanted to do something good with it. Make amends.”
“But you’re here now,” Steve said, blue eyes steady on him. “You’re back in.”
Bucky picked up his earpiece and made sure it was off. “No. Like I said, I couldn’t pass up on the adventure. But depending on what I find here, I might not give a fully honest report. Might not report anything at all.” He tossed his earpiece in his pack. “I guess it’s also why I took the job. Couldn’t let anybody else do it. You know?”
Steve didn’t answer anything, but for once, his silence didn’t sound tense, or hostile. They both watched the stars for a little while.
“What about El Dorado?” Steve asked after a while.
Bucky turned his head to look at him. “How do you mean?”
“The name. With your City of Miracles theory, how do you explain the name?”
“Oh, that’s easy. Healing—it all makes sense. Alchemy says gold equals perfection, and it’s an analogy that’s found all around the world. El Dorado is the city where you go when you want to be perfect.”
Steve huffed. “Hasn’t worked for me.”
“Of course, perfect can mean a lot of things; some sources said the Aztecs, Olmecs and Mayans sacrificed only ‘perfect people’—by which we would mean, today, fully-abled people—although a lot of other testimonies contradict that, speaking of disabled victims only—” Bucky’s brain caught up on what he’d just heard. “What do you mean, it hasn’t worked for you?”
Steve looked away.
Bucky felt disproportionately crestfallen. Everything had been going so well.
“It… hasn’t worked entirely for me, either,” he said, slowly, like an offering. “I have nerve damage. In my left arm.”
Steve glanced at him again.
“So far, it hasn’t… It’s still…” Bucky decided to change the subject. “My hair’s longer, though. Hell, it’s grown even more today.”
“Yeah, mine does too,” Steve said, then quickly added, “Not that I—it’s just hair.”
Bucky blinked. “Okay?”
“I could cut yours, if it gets in your way. I—I cut mine. All the time.” He looked on the brink of panic now, for no discernable reason. “You don’t have to, but I thought—when you said—”
“It’s fine,” Bucky said to put an end to whatever this was. “I kinda like it that way. I’ve always wanted long hair but never quite managed to grow it.” He ran a hand through his hair; it was tickling his nape now.
Steve looked deeply relieved. Bucky wasn’t sure what his deal was, but he liked where they were now.
A deep quiet had stretched around them. Bucky looked into the darkness and let out a gasp. “Holy—look—”
The city was alive with fireflies, drifting in the flooded streets, glowing on and off in the dark. Bucky crawled to the edge of the roof, eyes wide. The buildings looked completely new in the pale moonlight; if not for the wrapping vines dangling in the water, Bucky could have almost believed the whole place had been built overnight. The fireflies danced over them, pinpricks of light.
“Are you seeing this?” Bucky said, delighted.
“I should go,” Steve said.
His tone made Bucky turn around. All of his tension was back; he’d gotten up and was shouldering his bag again.
“You—you can sleep here if you want,” Bucky said, disconcerted. “It’s so warm…”
“No,” Steve said, slipping on his flip-flops. “It’s fine. I only have to cross the street.”
Bucky remembered not to push. “Okay. If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure.” Steve threw him a quick glance. “Sorry. And thanks. This—this was nice.” And he fled.
After a second, Bucky turned to the edge again and lay down on his stomach. The marble was still warm from the day, radiating into his body. There were a few quiet seconds where nothing moved, only the fireflies in the dark; then, five floors below, Steve stepped out of the building and quickly crossed the street, leaving a trail of rippling silver in his wake. Fireflies gathered around him, dancing.
“Night,” Bucky said.
He’d barely raised his voice, but the city was so deeply quiet Steve still heard him. He looked up, haloed in tiny flickering lights, and gave Bucky a small wave before slipping into his own hideout. The fireflies stayed gathered where he had stood a moment before, forming a bereft little cloud, blinking as if in loss.
Morning came, bright and bracing. Bucky opened his eyes to sheets of sunlight kissing the marble where he lay.
He ate a quick breakfast, grabbed an extra chocolate-banana energy bar, and went down the stairs to reach the flooded street, with his heart beating double-time. He wasn’t sure Steve would show up, but—and Bucky got a stupid thrill—he was in fact already waiting for him.
“Hey,” Bucky said, handing out the bar. “Got something for you.”
He pretended not to notice while Steve carefully examined the package. Eventually, Steve tore it up and chomped down. “’Fanks,” he said through his mouthful. “S’good.”
“We could go hunting, y’know. Your gun isn’t ideal, but I’ve got a pistol…”
Steve quickly swallowed. “No way. No gunshots. Can’t be that loud.”
“Because of the treasure hunters? Are there any still around?”
“Yeah,” Steve scowled. “On the other side of town. Don’t seek them out, they make wild dogs look nice.”
“They pillage stuff. Beat you up, destroy everything.”
Bucky blinked. “And you still brought me to your place? I could have been one of them.”
“I thought you were one of them.”
“You were dying,” Steve mumbled, looking at the ground.
Bucky found nothing to say for a minute. Then another thought struck him. “Is it because of them that you don’t have food of your own anymore?”
Steve’s nose wrinkled, which—seriously, Bucky was doing his best here, but this guy was so fucking cute. “Thought they could drive me away,” he muttered, taking another vengeful bite.
Bucky wasn’t sure how to tell Steve how goddamn impressed he was. “Is that when you figured out the healing thing? After they attacked you?”
“Oh, yeah, no—I knew that before then,” Steve said distractedly, finishing up his energy bar. “Okay. You ready to go?”
It was a hot day; they headed out at a slow pace, trailing in the knee-high water. Bucky kept smiling at the tiny darting fish stubbornly chasing Steve’s heels as he walked.
“Look at these little guys. What do they want from you?”
“Dead skin, I guess,” Steve said. His shoulders were tense, but his tone wasn’t as guarded as the day before. “You know, like in those spa things. If you weren’t wearing boots, they’d be after you, too.”
“Isn’t that dangerous, being quasi barefoot in this place?”
“I’ve been okay so far. The city floor’s pretty clean.”
Tiny butterflies twirled through the air, dancing in groups of two or three. Steve kept chasing them away with his hand. The empty buildings sat in their scarves of moss and drapes of ivy, casting refreshing shadows over the translucent water. Bucky felt like his whole body was singing with life. Nothing but the ruins and their shroud of wild, green nature. Nothing but—
“Uh,” he said when a pack of Twizzlers drifted by.
Steve walked past it without even looking; his sloshing stride sent the candy bobbing away joyfully from him. Bucky poked at it with his Glock. “Who’s littering in El Dorado?”
“Don’t touch that stuff,” Steve answered.
Bucky stood there for a minute, wondering if he should pick it up—it looked seriously wrong, floating there like a bright red blotch of capitalism amidst ancient magical ruins. But Steve kept walking away from the candy like it was a time bomb, so Bucky cast it a last puzzled look, decided not to ask, then hurried after him.
“Hey—sorry,” he said reflexively when Steve flinched as he heard him approach. “Say, I told you who I worked for, yesterday. Might if I ask the same?”
“You haven’t really told me anything,” Steve said. “You said you didn’t know who they were.”
“Yeah, because I don’t.”
Steve’s narrow shoulders were bracketing his ears again. To think the day had started so well. “I don’t work for anybody.”
“You’re here completely solo?” Bucky raised a doubtful eyebrow. “How’d you get the money for this?”
“Maybe I’m rich,” Steve said. “Or maybe that’s my own business.”
“Aw, c’mon. Just wondering what another Brooklyn guy is doing hundreds of miles deep in the rainforest. Can’t blame me.” Bucky waited for a reaction, but Steve didn’t give him anything. “You gotta admit it’s a hell of a coincidence,” he insisted.
“Not really,” Steve said stiffly. “Obviously, the city’s location has been leaked through American channels. So of course a bunch of Americans started showing up all at once.”
Bucky wasn’t used to people being so wary of him for so long. His students called him Mr. B, for fuck’s sake. And sure, this was an entirely different situation—a completely batshit insane situation—but if you took away the mythical city and impossible healing, it was just Bucky and this amazing, inexplicable person who just wouldn’t relax around him. He was running out of ideas to make himself seem less threatening.
Just then, his earpiece started pinging. He automatically raised a hand to it, which of course made Steve even tenser. Bucky hesitated, then popped the piece out of his ear, turning up the volume and holding it between them.
“Barnes. Status update?” said Hill’s tinny voice.
“Hill. I’ve roughly mapped out the area and I’m investigating the most promising ruins today.”
“Still no other presence?”
“Some impressive fauna, but not a soul,” Bucky said, maintaining eye contact with Steve. “Check in again tonight.”
She signed out and Bucky raised his eyebrows at Steve, who looked down. He had absurdly long lashes, fanning over his cheeks. When Bucky bumped his shoulder, he wasn’t as skittish as before; he even exhaled like he was telling himself to relax.
Bucky put his earpiece back in and decided to call it a win.
The huge building Bucky had spotted the day before was looming closer when he suddenly went still. “Hold on. Did you hear that?”
Steve froze. The ruins were silent, huge empty streets glowing white and gold in the sun. The water lapped softly at the marble walls.
A flight of parakeets chattered loudly as they went by.
But just then it happened again, quite clearly this time; the breeze carried human voices down to them. Steve stepped back, sloshing water. “Shit.”
Bucky gestured at him to be still, then peered around the corner very carefully. There were a dozen people in front of the temple-like building they’d been going for, in camouflage clothing and carrying what looked like blocks of C4.
One of them looked very, very familiar.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” Bucky mumbled.
“What the hell are you doing,” Steve hissed, pulling him back. “Did you listen to a fucking word I said earlier?”
“I know this guy.”
The worst part was that it made sense. They’d been part of the same South American expeditions. They had the same training. They were both Americans, and the location of the city had been leaked to Americans—Steve had just said. Of course it was likely that they’d both get involved.
“His name’s Brock Rumlow. We were in black-ops together,” Bucky groaned. “Bolivia, mainly. That guy’s a literal neo-nazi.”
“I’m aware,” Steve said.
“Right.” Bucky leaned against the wall and pushed his hair out of his face. It was past his chin; he absently noted he would have to tie it up soon at this rate. “They were carrying packs of C4, Steve. They’re gonna blow up the whole thing.”
Steve gaped at him for a second of shock; then his fists tightened. “They can’t—they can’t do that. I can’t let them do that. We gotta draw them away.” He snatched Bucky’s digital scroll from his belt, unrolling it with fumbling fingers. “What’s the quickest way to the bell tower?”
“The what?” Bucky leaned over the map to see which building Steve was pointing. “Oh. Right. It’s—hold on.” The software let him simulate the quickest route through the map he’d made himself. “But—are there actual bells in there?”
“Yeah, there’s one. Come on.” Steve was already taking off, flip-flops slapping at the water. “We gotta hurry!”
He started wheezing as he ran; to Bucky’s ear, it sounded like an asthma attack, but Steve could keep up with him just fine, so he didn’t ask himself too many questions. They hurried down the streets, turning left and right, and it was only when they got to the bell tower that Bucky realized Steve had been having an attack—continuously healed by the magical power of the city.
“Jesus fuck, Steve—”
“No time,” Steve gasped, “climb!”
They threw themselves into the building and up the stairs; unfortunately, the tower was one of the few buildings in town to be in actual ruins. Past the first floor, Bucky actually did have to climb—using his hands, carefully placing his feet, pulling up with great effort. There was indeed a bell, Bucky realized, looking up the tower shaft—a huge bronze thing, still gleaming gold in places.
Which was just… odd. Bucky was no expert, but—no, actually, he was an expert, and it seemed like a very Christian thing to find in South American ruins.
But then he had to stop thinking about it, because the stairs stopped; none had subsisted past the fifth landing.
“Fuck,” Bucky gasped, pulling himself up.
“The balcony,” Steve called, already out. Bucky got out right after him, but Steve was gone; squinting against the sun, Bucky looked around, then up—and found him scaling the wall.
“Steve! You’re gonna break your fucking neck!”
“Just catch me if I fall,” Steve yelled. In the distance, a muffled explosion sent a tornado of birds up from the branches. “Shit—”
Bucky put down his Glock and held out his arms, looking anxiously up at Steve, who had ditched his flip-flops before climbing up the wall like a fucking spider monkey. He reached the ledge and leaned inside through the belfry window to push at the huge bell, which was only hanging on by a thread.
“Steve, be caref—”
Everything seemed to happen all at once: Steve shoved the bell which swung once, away from him, then back towards him—and suddenly broke off; he lost his balance and fell backwards off the tower; Bucky lunged to grab him before he went past the railing and the bell fell down and through the building with a humongous gong, breaking off the stairs as it went in a thunderous rumble of crumbling masonry.
Steve was dangling over the void, holding onto Bucky’s arms. The railing was digging into Bucky’s stomach. They were on the seventh fucking floor.
“Just—just don’t let go,” Bucky gasped. Steve was clinging for dear life. “It’s okay. I got you—”
“I know,” Steve panted in echo, “just—” and he climbed back up as Bucky pulled him, inch by inch, until Steve could throw a leg over the railing, and the next moment they collapsed onto the balcony together in a tangle of limbs.
They stared at each other, panting, eyes wide with fear and disbelief. Steve was right there on top of him, and they were already so close—and getting closer with every heaving breath—that Bucky just reached up and kissed him.
Steve kissed back in the same gasping way, trying to catch his breath at the same time. Stars were falling behind Bucky’s eyelids, because of the shock and effort or maybe because of the way Steve was angling his head, now, pushing back, opening his mouth. Bucky shifted under him, reached up with hungry hands, fingers trailing through his hair—
And Steve slammed him down onto the stone. “No,” he panted. “No.”
Bucky was too stunned to move. Steve’s hands were digging into his shoulders, pinning him there.
“Sorry. I...” Bucky’s chest was heaving. “I thought—sorry.”
Steve didn’t answer anything, still frozen up on top of him, breathless, eyes wide. There was something in his gaze Bucky couldn’t read. Guilt twisted in his stomach.
“Shut up. Don’t move,” Steve said, frozen perfectly still. His eyes alone were moving, straining to see over the railing. “I can see them.”
Bucky’s thoughts did a painful 180°. “Shit. Rumlow?”
“Coming this way?”
“Yeah. They’re gonna investigate this building for sure. Maybe grab the bell—it’s golden metal.”
“Well—good,” Bucky said, trying to wrangle his thoughts into some semblance of a line. “We wanted them here. Right?”
“Right,” Steve said.
“We—we just gotta keep quiet.”
And so they kept quiet. Steve didn’t even move off Bucky, who stared hard at the sky and tried to think about nothing. He just listened, listened. The jeeps rolled in, doors slammed, loud voices discussed the falling of the bell, and it was promptly carried off while Steve and Bucky lay there on the balcony, hidden by the railing, breathing together. Still so close.
The whole thing probably didn’t last more than ten minutes, but by the time Rumlow and his crew had gone away, Bucky felt like he’d been stuck under Steve for an eternity.
Finally, finally, the jeeps rolled away, splashing the waters apart. Bucky exhaled more deeply when Steve, at long last, moved off him.
“Steve,” Bucky gasped out, bracing up on his elbows. “I’m—I’m sorry.”
Steve was straightening his shirt; he was flushed pink, though of course he had a thousand reasons to be, between the exertion, the panic and the near-dying. “S’okay.”
He’d kissed back, part of Bucky protested. He had. But then they’d both been shot up with panic. Maybe he just hadn’t realized what he was doing, until Bucky got a bit too adventurous and snapped him out of it. Bucky couldn’t apologize again without sounding like he was demanding forgiveness, so he bit his tongue and resigned himself to feeling like an idiot.
They both just breathed by themselves for a minute. Then Bucky cleared his throat and, because such was life, forced himself to make eye contact again. “Okay, so… Now we climb down?”
Steve winced. “Or we learn how to fly.”
It was actually pretty easy. They scaled down the remnants of the stairs, which wasn’t that hard, thanks to the rubble sticking out of the wall; they could more or less rappel down, using the thick vines trailing down the walls on the few occasions where they found no purchase. Once they were back in the water, Bucky bent over with his hands on his knees and let out a long deep breath. He didn’t mind jumping out of airplanes, but seven floors was a lot.
“Some black-ops soldier.” Steve winced, rolling his shoulder.
Bucky straightened up with a frown. “You hurt?”
“It’ll heal.” He turned to look in the direction of the temple, pushing his bangs out of his eyes—his hair was growing, too, though at a slower rate. “They’re going to come back tomorrow to blow it up.”
“We can’t let that happen.”
“Steve,” Bucky said, “those are trained black-ops guys. They outnumber us five to one. There’s virtually nothing we can do.”
“Sure there is,” Steve said, setting his jaw. “We can get in there before they do.”
They went back to camp to gather some more supplies before they set off; what should have been a quick reconnaissance mission was turning into a surprise full-on temple run. Despite everything, the one thing that Bucky couldn’t put off his mind was the goddamn kiss. Some soldier, indeed.
He was packing up the last of his gear when his earpiece pinged.
“Hill,” he said. He’d completely forgotten to warn her. “I—I was, uh, just about to call you.”
“Have you ever heard about Abraham Erskine?” she asked abruptly.
Bucky snorted. “I should hope so, yeah. The college library’s named after him.” He kept packing. “Why are you talking to me about the greatest historian of the late 20th century?”
“We’ve gotten new intel. Erskine had started working with Howard Stark in the sixties.” This time she didn’t even bother to explain the name; Stark was to science what Erskine was to humanities. “Apparently Stark was the money behind all of Erskine’s South American exploratory expeditions. Only those.”
“So they found El Dorado half a century before we did.”
“That’s jumping to conclusions.”
Bucky didn’t bother reacting to that. “How did you find out about this?”
“After the city showed up on satellite, we went through everything we could get our hands on for relevant data. A nurse’s journal from the seventies mentions Stark’s people several times during her travels to South America.”
“A nurse’s journal from the seventies?” Bucky repeated, amused. “You’d make a good historian, Hill. If you ever lose your job, come down to Lehigh.” He peered over the edge and saw Steve coming out into the street, looking around warily. “Quickly, before I go—Brock Rumlow’s here, leading a whole black ops team, so you might wanna look into that.”
Bucky signed off and swung his backpack on, called “Coming,” over the edge, and hurried down the stairs to meet Steve.
Crossing the city was a tense affair—Bucky kept expecting to run into Rumlow and his team—but they got to their goal unimpeded. When he saw the temple, Steve let out a noise like someone had punched him in the stomach. It hit Bucky almost harder than seeing the actual damage. The frontispiece had crumbled over the stairs, and the entrance was nearly blocked off by the walls that had collapsed inwards.
Bucky frowned. This didn’t look like Rumlow and his goons had been trying to get in. More like they’d tried to keep everybody out.
He turned to Steve to share this thought but abruptly changed his mind when he saw his eyes were a little too bright. Steve didn’t notice Bucky’s awkwardness; he just stood there, in front of the ruins—actual ruins, now—looking devastated.
“It’s okay,” Bucky tried. “Hey. We can still go in. Just gonna hafta crawl a bit.”
“Yeah.” Steve wiped his eyes, squared his shoulders and raised up his chin. “Yeah. You’re right. Let’s go.”
They walked up the couple of steps to the entrance, then bent under the cracked lintel and slipped into the dark. Bucky tried not to think about how dangerous this was, about what would happen if all the rubble suddenly caved in. He just crawled forward as best as he could. Steve had less difficulty than Bucky, who was bigger, less flexible, and encumbered with his gun and bag; and yet Steve was the one to hurt himself, hissing with pain.
“You okay?” Bucky asked, instantly alarmed.
“Fine. Just a scratch.”
“I’m an idiot—I got headlamps,” Bucky said.
They came out of the rubble into the intact portion of the corridor; it was too dark for Bucky to see, but by the echo of his own voice, he could tell it was stretching a long way ahead. They were fully inside the building now.
“Hold on…” Bucky opened his pack, pulled out the headlamps. “Here.”
They put on the headlamps and turned on the lights. Bucky winced when he saw the bright red blood on Steve’s hand. “That’s way more than a scratch. Hold on—I got a first-aid kit somewhere...”
“I’m okay,” Steve said, fixing up his headlamp. “It’ll heal.”
Bucky didn’t like hearing him say that.
They both turned towards the long hallway. It was sloping downwards; the darkness inside was so thick it looked like some gelatinous mass just waiting to swallow them. Their lamps only lit up the first few feet ahead.
Steve took a deep breath, then went on. Bucky followed, still thinking about his first-aid kit. Steve was probably right about the healing, but it didn’t stop Bucky from feeling weird about it. Just… letting him bleed like that.
They walked in silence for a timeless while. There was nothing in the dark to give them a sense of distance; but when Bucky turned around, the collapsed entrance was a faraway rectangle of light.
“Steve—hey, slow down. We don’t know what’s in here.” He looked around again and got a bad shock when he saw blood stains of the wall; then a second, different sort of shock when he realized the blood was fresh. “Jesus fuck, Steve—is that yours?”
“I’m fine,” Steve answered, already far ahead. He hadn’t stopped when Bucky had.
What the fuck is this guy, Bucky thought for maybe the tenth time since he’d met him. He followed hurriedly, spotting more and more traces of blood as he went. The air was still and cold, away from the stifling heat of the jungle; the silence was absolute. At this point, Bucky was getting ready for an endless descent into entrails of stone, so he was surprised when they abruptly arrived at a cul-de-sac. The hallway just—stopped.
“Oh. Well.” Bucky looked uncertainly at Steve, who was standing there. “Didn’t expect that to happen so soon.”
Steve didn’t answer. Bucky stepped forward and spotted something Steve’s body had hidden from him: a round hole in the middle of the wall.
Which clearly wasn’t a wall. It was a door.
Bucky stared at Steve. “You’ve lied to me,” he said. “You’ve been here before.”
“Never said I hadn’t. But I never got past this part.” Steve’s jaw was set. “No matter how much blood I throw at it.”
“No matter what?” Just then, Bucky had a second epiphany. “Oh my God. You hurt yourself on purpose?”
“Yeah. That hallway gets really nasty otherwise.”
Steve waved a hand around. “The walls close in on you. Spikes come out of the ground. Indiana Jones stuff.”
Rarely had Bucky found this level of Hollywood accuracy in actual real-life ruins, but that wasn't even his main issue right now. “But—you went through that? Didn’t you get hurt?”
“Yeah, I did,” Steve said, clutching his bleeding hand to cut the flow. “And as soon as I got blood on the floor and walls, it all stopped. I suppose it’s a chemical reaction of some sort. I’m not a scientist. I just know it works.”
Bucky looked at him incredulously, trying not to imagine Steve bleeding out in those cold, silent entrails of stone, half-dying, terrified, so completely alone. “But—” he began, except he wanted to say twelve different things and couldn’t choose for a second. Then the most insistent option made its way through. “But it’s dumb. What’s the use of a deadly trap that stops when it wounds someone?”
“I don’t think it’s a trap,” Steve said. “More like an initiation thing. Pound of flesh, that kinda stuff.”
“Aztec hazing,” Bucky mumbled. “Wonderful.”
“It’s not Aztecs.”
“No, I know. The area’s Neyaphem, but they never built cities like—” Bucky trailed off. Steve wasn’t really listening. He was staring at the door.
Bucky aimed his torch right into the hole. It was incongruous—just burrowing in the middle of the door like that. Too big for a keyhole, too small for a window.
“So. You haven’t figured out how to get past that part.”
“Oh, no, I figured it out.” Steve sounded very tired. “You have to reach inside.”
“But you can’t do that because…?”
“It’s…” Steve sighed, then added his own torch to Bucky’s, angled a bit differently. “Do you see the red thing?”
Bucky squinted. The hole was lined with something that looked like red fluff. He stepped closer to get a better look. It was some kind of squishy velvet moss.
And it was twitching.
Bucky took a whole three steps back. “That shit is alive.”
“Yeah. I think it’s related to sea anemones. Don’t know for sure.” Steve shrugged. “It burns like hell. I never managed to fit my arm all the way in, even wrapped in plastic. Maybe it’s got microscopic barbs, like jellyfish. Or just very potent venom, or electric shocks, or something. I don’t know.”
“Couldn’t you just shove a stick in there?”
“I tried, but I think it’s like the hallway. It needs something alive. And I could do the hallway. But that stuff… I can’t.”
Bucky stared at the hole for a moment. Then he stared at Steve.
Then he stepped forward and pushed his left hand into the hole.
Steve startled, but Bucky didn’t let himself react; he had to worm and twist his way inside, pushing and shoving, just stuffing his arm inside for all it was worth until there was the sudden pop and pssh of decompressing hydraulic levers. Whipping his hand back out, he watched the slab of stone sink into the ground.
Steve was boggling at him. “How—”
“I don’t feel pain,” Bucky muttered.
“I don’t feel anything at all in my left arm.”
Steve stared at him. Bucky pulled up his sleeve and saw a horrorscape of inflamed skin, quickly turning black in places. He promptly tugged his sleeve back down. Problem for later.
Steve was still staring. “Nerve damage. You… you said something about nerve damage…” His voice faltered. “…the day before.”
“Yeah. On my last mission, I—well, there’s no need for details, really. Let’s just say it involved a lot of fire and I’m lucky my left arm moves at all.”
Steve was silent, staring at Bucky. When cold air wafted out of the tunnel, he turned his head to look at it—into the new stretch of the hallway, the one he’d never seen before.
“I really wasn’t expecting to do this,” he said. “With you. Today.”
Steve had been trying and trying to get past that door, Bucky thought, which must mean he had reached into it again and again, and screamed in pain, pushed and pushed himself, never quite managing to stand the agony long enough for the mechanism to click. Here, alone, beating uselessly at the door that wouldn’t open.
“Well.” Bucky cleared his throat. “Rumlow’s on our heels. So. We should get a move on.”
Steve looked at Bucky in a whole new way, vulnerable for the first time. “Bucky,” he began, “I… I have to tell you… I should tell you…”
He couldn’t speak.
“It’s okay,” Bucky said softly. “Let’s just go.” He tried a smile. “Age before beauty.”
Steve’s smile looked like it had crept up on him. “I’m pretty sure I’m younger than you.” He was still so pale. “Thank you. You’re—I never expected anybody to—” He swallowed again. “Thank you.”
He shuffled past the door and deeper inside. Bucky, throat tight, followed.
It was a long dark descent. The building was not big enough for that kind of hallway length, which meant they must be underground by now. The air was cool and just a little musty. After a while, the corridor opened onto a large room. Their lamps reflected on water.
Unlike the outside, this room was obviously flooded on purpose; the stone path cut straight through, rising just above water level. It looked deep, and something shone sparkling gold when Bucky briefly directed his torch into it. His heart jumped, and he looked again; but there was nothing.
“What do you do?” he asked. “In life, I mean?”
Steve didn’t answer for a moment. “I’m an art student.”
Bucky laughed, with a bit of hysteria. “Wow. You weren’t kidding when you said you were young.” And broke, he added to himself, which just added to the Mystery of Steve, now almost as great as the mystery of El Dorado itself. Where did he come from? What had he been about to say earlier? And always that first question, the one he’d never answered—how did he know about the city at all, when Bucky would have never found out if he hadn’t been kidnapped by alphabet soup maniacs?
“I’m twenty-two,” Steve said in half-hearted protest.
“Uh-huh,” Bucky said, distantly aware they were both stalling. “Do your parents know you’re here?”
“Depends on your beliefs,” Steve said. “They’re dead.”
“Oh. Shit. Steve, I’m—”
“You didn’t know. And I never knew my dad, anyway. My mom, though, she—she died earlier this year. She was a nurse, she—” His shoulders were tight. “It’s kind of why I’m here.”
Bucky stared at him. “What do you…”
Of course, that was when voices rose from behind them. Bucky’s hand darted out to clap over Steve’s torch; in the same breath, he reached up to turn off his own. “They’re coming. Get in the water,” he said. “Quietly. Go.”
They slipped into the black mirror, trying not to make waves. It wasn’t cold—it didn’t seem to have a temperature at all. Bucky’s feet scraped the bottom, enough that he could keep his head out, but Steve had to swim to stay upright, which made the water splash softly in the dark. After a few seconds, Bucky drew Steve close so he could hang onto his shoulders.
“Sorry,” Bucky murmured.
“No.” Steve’s breath was warm on his cheek. “No, it’s.” His fingers tightened on Bucky’s shoulders. “It’s all right.”
They stayed still and silent, pressed against the wall. It was hard not to breathe too heavily, but after a few minutes, they managed to be perfectly immobile. Almost. Bucky’s eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, which wasn’t absolute like before; he could see Steve’s shadow on a background of deep murky grey.
Voices sounded in the hallway above, closer now, loud and raucous. Bucky barely heard them. He wasn’t breathing.
Steve was the one to bridge the gap this time.
Bucky didn’t see it coming. The kiss was wonderful and strange and so, so soft; Steve only had to lean forward by an inch to press their mouths together, and then neither of them were moving, two statues sharing an embrace that might be their last.
“Some kind of room,” yelled a voice right above them. A loud splash; Bucky felt waves break against his shoulder. “Shit! There’s water off the path!”
He heard their voices as if from very far away. It didn’t matter. Steve was still kissing him, actually going through the motions of a kiss, but so excruciatingly slowly it felt like time was grinding to a halt. Either someone was going to see them by accident, or they would stay hidden by chance. It was out of Bucky’s control, so there was nothing to do but sink into the softness of it. Steve’s fingers were digging into his shoulders, holding on so tightly.
“Keep back, boys.” Rumlow stepped forward. “There’s another goddamn door down there.”
“Let’s just blow the roof off this place.”
“We have to see how far this thing goes. No point collapsing the entrance if there’s another exit.” He turned back. “Everyone out, let’s go get more charges.”
His men crowded out of the room. Bucky and Steve stayed pressed into each other for another five minutes, barely moving. It was the longest, deepest kiss of Bucky’s life; and when it finally broke off, he wished it had never ended.
Steve awkwardly swam to the stone path to haul himself up, sitting on the edge, dripping wet. Bucky lit up his flashlight again, then did the same, resting heavily on the stone.
For a little while they didn’t say anything.
“I can’t let them do that,” Steve said at last, very quietly. “I can’t.”
Bucky got to his feet with a huge effort; he felt waterlogged inside and out, his mind still caught up in the silence and the stillness and the softness of Steve.
“It’s okay. We got there before them; we can keep that ball rolling.” He reached for Steve and pulled him to his feet. “You and me, Rogers. What do you say? You Indiana, me Jones.”
Steve snorted, without letting go of his hand. It was the first real laugh Bucky had pulled out of him, and it made him smile, and it made him want to kiss him again, so he did. Steve kissed back again, for real this time, and God, Bucky wanted to get out of here, to go back in the sun with him.
“You still bleeding?” he asked instead when they parted.
“No. And I don’t think your arm’s inflamed anymore, either.” Steve hesitated, then blurted, “It’s—it’s in the water, Bucky.”
Bucky blinked. “What?”
“The thing that’s healing us—it’s in the water.” He was speaking very fast. “That’s why we didn’t heal until just now.”
Bucky looked hard into his eyes. At this point, he could have demanded explanations from him, but—he didn’t care, really. It didn’t matter. He already trusted him with his life, whatever else he was hiding.
“Tell me everything when it’s over?” he asked in a low voice.
Steve let out a shaky laugh. “Deal.”
Bucky couldn’t hold back another half-smile. He let go of Steve and turned towards the stone path. “All right. Home stretch.”
They walked the path all the way through the flooded room; at the end was another door. It just swiveled open without any prompting on their part.
Bucky slipped right behind Steve and had to move out of the way quickly—unlike all the others, the stone slab slammed back shut behind them. Then his brain registered daylight; he looked all around and blinked.
“Oh my God,” Steve said weakly.
It was an immense domed room, with a curved ceiling of hard crystal; at first, Bucky didn’t understand what was above, until he recognized the murky waters of the mangrove he’d crossed to reach the city. The sunlight shining through was a deep shade of amber. They were deep, so deep underground.
The floor ahead was flooded as well, but with crystal clear water, just like in the white marble streets. The stone path kept going through the middle. More goldfish were swarming on each side of it, bigger and shinier. The stone path led to a flight of stone stairs, and the stone stairs led to a stone platform, and on the platform sat a huge contraption made of sleek, shining metal.
It was a slab of steel with vials attached to it, along with needles and cables. Only one of the vials was still intact, filled with some kind of blue liquid; the others had all shattered over time. The entire thing looked uncomfortably like an iron maiden designed to inject the victim with something.
“What,” Bucky said slowly, “the fuck…”
A rock whizzed through the air and smashed right into the last vial, which exploded in shards of crystal. Bucky swiveled round, hand going to his Glock, expecting Rumlow and his goons; but it wasn’t them.
“Steve?” Bucky said, lost.
Steve’s eyes were shining again. “It’s in the water. That’s why… It’s what I thought.” He sniffed, then wiped his nose on his sleeve. “It’s all gone in the water. That’s the last of it. Thank God.”
The stone door blew up.
Bucky tackled Steve into the water right before a chunk of rock could take his head off his shoulders; when he looked up, breathless, Rumlow had swaggered in without even waiting for the dust to fall.
“Oh, hey, Barnes,” he said, with more contempt than shock. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said when I saw you.” Bucky got to his feet, trying to keep Steve behind him. “You’re too late, all right? We’re all too late. The secret of El Dorado was apparently this… this thing, somehow, and it’s broken. It’s been broken for years.”
As he spoke, his voice faltered. Years, only? But the myth of El Dorado dated as far back as the 16th century.
Rumlow was cackling. “Jesus Christ, Barnes, you haven’t figured out a thing.”
“I’ve been here three days,” Bucky said, prickling. “And I got farther than you ever did, without blowing up historical ruins.”
“Historical, my ass,” Rumlow snorted. “Anyway, we don’t care about your old stones, Barnes, and we don’t care about the Stark-Erskine machine, either. We’re here for the golden boy.”
“What?” Bucky said, even more confused. “Steve?”
“Didn’t realize what we’d caught that first time. Let him slip away. And he figured out the laced food pretty quick.” Rumlow smirked. “Thanks for flushing him out.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Bucky said, appalled. “What—just because he’s blond? He’s from Brooklyn, you fucking buffoon! What kind of dense asshole would think—”
“Buck,” Steve said quietly.
Bucky turned around and froze.
All the fish were converging on Steve in spiraling strands, like a galaxy of life. He was standing in a literal sea of gold, fists clenched, white-faced, rigid and brave. All those sparkles in the water as they crossed the galleries, Bucky thought. The fish, following Steve like they always did. Like the fireflies did and like the butterflies did. A ray of light was shining down on him again, like on the first day—but it was no accident this time: the fish in the swamp above were trying to reach him too, and their boiling struggles were chasing weeds and mud away from the surface, making way for the sun. Everything about this place reaching eternally for him.
“Oh Steve,” Bucky breathed. “Oh no.”
“Can somebody please kill this dumbass,” Rumlow said, and then a sudden shot—a shock at the back of Bucky’s head, a crack of bone, Steve’s scream—and then nothing.
A horrible headache pulled him out of the darkness. He winced, tried to get up, then realized he was blind in one eye and his body wasn’t responding.
A lot of blood was pooling on the stone path next to his head, and he didn’t like the color at all.
This again, he thought. Except Steve and his stone-throwing abilities were gone. Everything was silent. The fish had dispersed. His body had been left alone at the foot of the empty machine. Bucky closed his eyes. Come back, Steve. El Dorado. Golden boy. Need you to save me again. But Steve had already told him how. It’s in the water, Buck. Not him. The blue fluid in the vials. The Stark-Erskine machine. The expeditions. A quiet place for experiments. Some kind of healing fluid. A nurse traveling regularly to South America with them. My mom was a nurse, she—
In the water…
Bucky tried to move, pushed and pulled at his own limbs, even though his head roared with pain and his other eye threatened to go dark as well. Come on. Come on. Neither his legs, nor his good hand would yield to his pleas. Unresponsive, useless.
But his left arm.
His fucking useless claw of an arm was moving. He hadn’t felt it, because he felt nothing in this arm. But he saw it in the corner of his eye, twitching like a dying spider. It was good. It was still good. It was moving.
He pushed himself off the path and straight into the water, breaking the surface with a loud splashing sound. Everything was blurry. He couldn’t breathe now. Genius, Barnes. He was still very much going to die. A little fish darted before his good eye, a blurry flash of gold in the water. It didn’t care about him. They’d chase you too if you were barefoot, Steve had said. Fucking liar, Steve. But could you blame him? He had been so afraid from the beginning. Good reason, too. I’m not a treasure hunter, Bucky had told him, then joked about finding a gold-haired perfect man, like a thing to be brought home. El Dorado. What a goddamn fucking idiot. His mind was sinking into itself, but panic tugged at his limbs like he was a puppet on strings—chest burning, body spasming, all removed from him, oddly distant even as he drowned—
But he could fucking move, he could move again, and he pulled himself out of the water and halfway onto the stone path, and gasped for breath.
For a moment, he felt all the powerful rush of being alive, when he’d been dying seconds before; then he promptly passed the fuck out and splashed back in.
He went on like this for five undignified minutes, needing both water and oxygen, sharing his time and energy between both, until finally most of him was healed, enough that he could cling to the edge and not let go, breathing in huge gulps of air while his body finished healing from his horrific head wound. His sight and motor control were back; the rest of it was being taken care of by the water still soaking his hair, slowly healing cracked bone and split scalp.
All right, Bucky thought when he was coherent enough to manage incandescent rage. He was apparently going to finish this thing like he’d started it: soaking wet and covered in his own blood.
He had no problem leaving the temple; Steve’s blood still stained the ground—of course Steve’s blood, because Steve belonged here, somehow. It’s not Aztecs. Bucky had said Neyaphem, but still hadn’t realized Steve was a fucking Neyaphem—he knew how this city worked, he knew where to find it, because it was his city.
Bucky didn’t have his Glock, because someone had taken it from him; but Steve’s backpack had been dropped in the water and Bucky had extracted his clunky gun from it. He ran up the hallway even though he still saw stars in the darkness, his head still healing. Going back, the corridor didn’t feel as long, or as dark. It felt like no time at all before he got to the entrance and squeezed through the debris, most of which had been cleared away by Rumlow’s men.
Their chopper was right there, at the foot of the temple; but they were busy unloading and packing so that Bucky could slip out unnoticed, ducking behind the collapsed rocks. Once he was safely hidden underneath a curtain of vines, he reached for his earpiece, which was miraculously still in his ear.
She was there at once. “Barnes.”
“Remember what you said about having your operatives’ backs?”
Her voice changed. “Yes.”
“Okay. Great. How fast can air support get here?”
Hill didn’t repeat air support? in bewildered tones, nor did she ask why he needed it. “We are not authorized to land choppers in the area. Things are a little tense with the Brazilian government these days.”
“Rumlow's party got their helicopter down here no problem.”
“Oh,” Hill said, still aggressively neutral. “Can I promise my Brazilian colleagues the arrest of an illegal military squad in their jungle?”
“Could be arranged, yeah,” Bucky said darkly, looking at Rumlow’s men stacking explosives in front of the temple.
“Then we have no problem.”
“Can you track my position?”
“See you when I see you.” It was getting dark; he hadn’t realized how much time they’d spent in the temple.
Then Bucky’s every sense sharpened: three men were walking to the helicopter to load Steve in. He was conscious, but only just barely, stumbling and faltering, with his hands bound in his back. His face was a bloody mess. They’d beat him up until he couldn’t fight anymore.
Rumlow was there himself—he shoved Steve forward, making him stumble again before he could be lifted into the chopper.
Bucky took the calm, cold decision to kill him, right there and then. Then he put his anger away for later and assessed the situation. It was a big chopper, the kind that could hold ten to fifteen people inside. Right now Rumlow’s team was spread all over the ground, carrying explosive charges. Ten people was a lot.
Bucky hummed, then slid the gun in his holster and got out his hunting knife instead.
Blood in the water did not attract the fish, because the fish responded only to Steve, like the temple had. But it did attract the wild dogs. It was dusk. It was their time.
Bucky let his wounded left arm trail into the water. It closed quick; he had to carve himself up again every five minutes. Nerve damage really was a swell thing, all things considered; his blade could dig deep without any pain at all.
Rumlow’s men were finishing up, placing more explosive charges in the temple to set off as they left. That was why they’d brought the chopper; they were planning on leveling the whole city and couldn’t afford to do it from the ground. They hadn’t seen Bucky. They weren’t on the lookout for him. Nobody could have survived what they’d done to him in the temple.
The first wild dog came out sniffing and growling from the dark mangrove trees.
Then there was another one, and then another one, and suddenly there were ten and twelve and twenty and it was a whole pack coming out of the jungle, yellow eyes alive, driven crazy by the scent of blood. Bucky slowly stepped back from them, leaving the shadows, drawing them out in the open. Just as he hoped, most of the pack detached itself from him, drawn to the noise and heat of Rumlow’s men.
Rumlow himself was the first to sound the alarm, the first to get his gun out; they all started shooting and the animals ran around in a frenzy, attacking instead of fleeing like the rabid modified beasts they were. Bucky backed himself against a rock, got out Steve’s gun and counted calmly in his head—one. Two. Three. He aimed for the gut every time, taking no chances. Rumlow’s men might heal eventually, collapsing in the water as they did. At least they’d suffer a lot in the meantime. There was so much noise and chaos no one had even noticed there was a hostile shooter in the mix; Bucky had to shoot two wild dogs coming for him with fangs bared, and then suddenly he had a clear path to the chopper. He took off running into the melee.
It was completely dark now; Bucky met no resistance and literally propelled himself into the open chopper, slamming bodily into—ugh, Rollins—who’d been left to guard Steve and was ejected out the other side with a shriek and a splash. Steve, who’d been tied to a weapons rack and desperately trying to see what was happening outside, froze, eyes wide.
“Hey,” Bucky said, kneeling next to him. “Hey, Steve, hey—” He looked even worse up close. “The fuck did they do to you—”
“Bucky,” Steve managed.
“M’fine. Rolled into the water,” Bucky explained, shoving the gun in his holster and getting his knife out again.
“It’s gonna heal,” he started sawing at his bonds, “isn’t that what you always say—”
“You fucking jerk,” Steve choked out. “I thought you were dead.”
“Thought you were from Brooklyn,” Bucky said, on the verge of hysteria.
“I’m fine,” Steve repeated weakly as the ropes came loose and Bucky started patting him down, “Bucky, Bucky, I promise. I’m fine. Just—banged up. A little.”
“Banged up,” Bucky repeated bitterly. His hands turned into fists in Steve’s shirt. “Banged up.”
Steve put a hand behind his neck to press their foreheads together, eyes closing. “You're okay.”
Bucky breathed with him for a moment, too short; then he sheathed his knife and got up, pulling Steve to his feet. “We gotta move.”
But they didn’t move. Outside the chopper, Rumlow’s men were still frantically trying to keep the frenzied wild dogs away, an attempt made harder by the near total darkness; they’d resorted to shooting into the air to scare them off, which just added to the general chaos.
“And I am from Brooklyn,” Steve added like an afterthought, holding onto Bucky. “Asshole.”
“Uh-huh, right,” Bucky said. “You sure that’s your whole family tree?”
“I told you, I never knew my dad.” He was swaying where he stood. “My mom was American. She met him during the Stark expeditions in the 70s, she was part of their medical team—”
A growl and a scream and more gunfire made them both jump; two wild dogs had slammed a man into the water and he’d started shooting haphazardly to try and get them off him.
“Okay—really gotta move this time—” Bucky pushed Steve out of the chopper, landing after him in the water. Steve still wasn’t steady on his feet; Bucky helped him move a few paces away from the chopper to lean against a wall, and then they had to stop again, too soon. The healing wasn’t quick enough. Bucky himself was still wounded, losing a lot of blood—fucking hobby of his by now.
“It’s okay,” he said, with an effort to focus, “we just gotta get up on a roof somewhere. I’ve got air support coming—”
Shots exploded over their heads; Bucky ducked on instinct, though they’d already ricocheted off the stone walls. And then:
Bucky groaned. “Oh, fuck me—”
Rumlow wasn’t taking heed of the dogs; even mutated by the Stark serum that had leaked into the water for decades, even rabid with panic, they just weren’t enough for him to care; nor could he be bothered that his men were being torn to shreds, shooting each other in panic. He only cared about his prize getting away. His eyes were burning red, and for an insane moment Bucky thought he was some kind of creature too—then he realized it was night vision goggles.
“I fucking see you!” Rumlow bellowed. “Did you think you could get past me?” He shot a salvo into the air. “Let’s see how well you heal from that!”
“Look, I’m gonna draw him away,” Bucky said quickly, “you go that way and I’ll—”
“Ain’t happening.” Steve was still pale but visibly taking root where he stood. “You start running, he’ll never let you stop.”
“Steve, for the love of fuck, he’s got a fucking gun—”
“So do I,” Steve growled, and snatched his own gun out of Bucky’s holster.
At this distance, in the dark, an untrained shooter had no hope of actually managing to hit Rumlow, much less slow him down—and Steve was no exception. In fact, he completely missed him.
Which was no surprise, because he’d been aiming at the chopper’s tank.
The explosion threw them both into the water. And then—before Bucky even recovered from the first blast, he heard it set off the C4 charges in the temple, because Rumlow had been stupid and lazy enough to land his aircraft too close to a building he planned to blow up, and now there was an inferno of fire raging through the city, thundering overhead, washing over them like a demon’s breath, but they were in the water—lying underneath, safe from the blazing shockwave, and Steve was holding on tight to Bucky to keep him there. Bucky held on too, his face into Steve’s neck. Steve had knotted his arms behind his back.
Reeds were flowing around them, enveloping them. It was silent there. It felt like they didn’t need to breathe. Like there was enough life in the water to sustain them forever.
And then they couldn’t breathe anymore, and burst through the surface, coughing and choking. The last of the wild dogs were running away howling, scared off for good this time, singed at the edges. Rumlow’s men were lying in the water, some still moaning, some silent. Rumlow himself was nowhere to be seen.
Burning ashes were raining from the sky, soaked vines smoldering and hissing, all vegetation fringed with fire.
Bucky sat back in the water with a great sloshing wave. “Jesus fuck.”
Steve was looking at the sorry ruins of the temple. He didn’t look desolate like he had a few hours ago. Just exhausted.
“I guess that’s one way to set things right,” he said, wanly. “Wish the roof hadn’t gone with it.”
Bucky looked at him.
“All you wanted was to destroy that machine,” he said in a slow voice. “That’s why you came here.”
“Stark had financed Erskine’s first expedition to Brazil in the late 70s,” Steve answered in a monotone. “When they found the Neyaphem—my dad’s people—and realized they healed their wounds within minutes, Erskine asked to study them, maybe draw some blood. In return, Stark built this city for them.”
So it had been built all of a piece, Bucky thought. In the fucking seventies. No wonder it looked like Hollywood’s version of El Dorado. That was what it was based on.
“That’s not how the story goes, usually,” he said.
“Erskine was a good man,” Steve answered in the same hollow voice. “Or so my mom kept telling me. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He wanted to help mankind. To help it heal.” He swallowed. “He managed to splice the Neyaphem’s DNA into some kind of super healing serum, but then he realized he couldn’t synthetize whatever made them special. Which meant he’d just have to suck them dry to keep the production going. So he called an end to the whole thing. Stark wasn’t happy.”
Bucky felt cold. “Did he sell them out?”
“Not on purpose. So my mom kept telling me, too.” Steve swallowed again, more convulsively. “Got drunk, babbled. Word got around quick. It got him killed and it got everyone here killed. Taken away, locked into labs. For nothing. Erskine died without revealing the serum’s formula and nobody could ever recreate it.” His face was streaked with soot from the explosion; the water was drawing clear lines there, like tear tracks. “And now there’s no one left.”
“There’s you,” Bucky said quietly, but Steve shook his head.
“I’m half-Neyaphem,” he said. “I did get a mutation, but it wasn’t the healing. My health fucking sucks, actually. That’s irony for you. My mom had me after she went back to New York, the last time. She told me about my dad only when she started getting sick, and she wouldn’t tell me where the city even was, until—”
“Until she died this year.”
“Yeah. And then I just had to come here and make sure… make sure it was all gone.”
He kept looking at the ruins. The water hadn’t yet healed the traces of what Rumlow’s men had done to him, the cuts and the bruises.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky said.
“Don’t be. You’re the only one who...” Steve sniffed, then wiped his eyes. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“But why was Rumlow after you?” Bucky asked. “Why did you have an entire black-ops team after you? They weren’t after the serum. They didn’t care about healing mankind. And they beat you up once, they already knew you didn’t heal. So why…”
Steve, extraordinarily, made an attempt at a smile. “Do you know why they call it El Dorado?”
Bucky smiled back—how could he not, when Steve smiled at him. “Is it the goldfish? You obviously have some kind of soul bond with them. Or something.”
“No, they really do want my dead skin,” Steve said with a tired laugh. “Just like the firebugs. And the butterflies too. They’re all just really particular about who they wanna eat from—I guess I taste like home. They’ve been soaking in serum for years.”
Bucky hesitated. “You said you had a mutation…”
“Bucky.” Steve was staring ahead at the fiery ruins again. He still had a faint shadow of a smile on his lips. “Touch my hair. Like you did that one time.”
Bucky did. Steve closed his eyes when Bucky’s fingers cautiously ran through the golden strands.
The last time, Bucky had been too dazed by the kiss itself to realize—but now he registered that it didn’t feel like hair. At all. It was much too smooth and cool to the touch. Even then, the complete absurdity of it took a moment to register; and then it hit him like a ton of bricks.
“It’s gold,” he mumbled, “oh my God, your hair’s made of pure gold,” just as SHIELD’s chopper roared over their heads.
“I can’t commend you for your actions,” Hill said as the jungle unrolled under the helicopter’s belly. “But I will admit you were not responsible for most of the damages.”
“I nearly died. Three times.”
“You look fine to me.”
Her chopper had touched down and then left again at once; minutes later, the Brazilian police had swarmed into the ruins to round up Rumlow’s men, in various states of shock, but all of them healed from their wounds—except for Rumlow himself, horrifically charred.
The burn marks on Bucky’s left arm had never healed either. Even blood healing had its limits.
Steve was curled up under an emergency blanket, soaked to the bone and looking terribly tired. Bucky would have loved to hold him near, but disclosing their closeness to Hill seemed ill-advised. He’d just boosted him up into the chopper and Hill hadn’t discussed it, in her obvious hurry to leave again.
“We’ll have to make an official apology about the destroyed ruins,” she added. “But to my novice eye, they don’t look very ancient.”
“Yeah, no, turns out they’re from the 70s.”
Hill blinked once. Then said, “Explain.”
Bucky gave her a much bowdlerized version of the story, which had her scowling by the end.
“So the Stark-Erskine machine is destroyed. And all we’re bringing back is a solo treasure hunter who got caught in the crossfire.”
Bucky cleared his throat. “Well, actually…”
He felt more than he saw Steve going rigid. Without looking at him, Bucky just zipped open his bag and pulled out his camel pack.
Steve stared. Hill just looked blank.
“I filled it up with water from the ruins,” Bucky said, tossing it to her. “I don’t know that it’ll be useful to you. But I fulfilled my end of the bargain. Find out what made El Dorado special and bring it back.”
Hill’s face betrayed nothing, but her shoulders had relaxed. “Yes, you did.” She carefully transferred the pack into her bag. “You’ll get your money. And your place in Stark’s program.”
Bucky had completely forgotten he’d asked them for that. Now he realized he maybe didn’t want it anymore. His messed-up arm sure had a way to come in handy in tight spots.
"Get some rest," Hill said, and left to lock herself with the pilot, presumably to report to Fury.
After she was gone, Bucky turned to Steve, who winced.
“I’m sorry—I just, I thought—when you told her…”
“Hey, it’s okay. Rumlow left laced Twizzlers around for you. I’m not gonna begrudge you a last bit of paranoia.”
Steve sighed mournfully. “I would’ve devoured every last strip of that beef jerky if I’d realized just how oblivious you really were.”
“Yeah, I got no excuse. There were lots of signs. And you’re an awful liar.” Bucky ran his fingers through Steve’s smooth gold hair. “But also, in my defense, this is just ridiculous.”
“Fuck you,” Steve muttered, scooting close to him. Bucky looped his arm around him and tucked him into his side, closing his eyes. It was over. Even though his ears were still ringing from the explosion, it was all over.
He didn’t notice he was almost falling asleep until Steve’s voice roused him.
“Why’d you kiss me that first time on the balcony, if you weren’t trying to touch my hair?”
Bucky huffed and shook his own hair off his face. It was brushing his shoulders now. “Why do you think?”
“Don’t know,” Steve said. “Maybe you should explain it to me—”
Bucky pulled him close and kissed him again. He tasted of smoke and magic.
“We will contact you again soon,” was all Hill said before closing the door on the helicopter which rose into the night and vanished through the cloud cover.
Bucky stared looking up at the sky for a moment. So this was his fucking life, apparently. Was he some kind of freelance secret agent now? He wasn’t shocked anymore at Nat apparently being one; it seemed these things happened more easily than one would think. You just tripped in the community college parking lot, got yourself kidnapped then dropped into the heart of one of humanity’s most enduring mysteries. Solved it over one long weekend, got back home in time to agonize over ungraded papers. Maybe he’d get to do Atlantis next time, and find out it had actually been built in the late 90s by Woodstock rejects. Or something.
Steve was looking around the scrublands like they’d just been dropped there by a goddamn UFO. “Where are we?”
“My backyard, more or less. Arizona,” Bucky said. “I moved here after I came back from—oh, shit. You don’t live here at all.”
“That’s fine.” Steve shrugged. “Didn’t want to stay alone in that chopper with that Hill person. And there’s nothing waiting for me in New York anyway. After my mom died, I moved out, dropped out of school. You know.”
For the first time, it occurred to Bucky maybe Steve hadn’t thought he’d be coming back from El Dorado.
He put an arm around his shoulders. “Well, come on. I don’t live that far.”
As they walked through the scrublands, shuffling over crackling earth in a state of dazed exhaustion, Steve reached up to comb back Bucky’s long hair. “I can cut it for you.”
The idea was nice, but Bucky shook his head. “I like it long.”
“You were gone, what? Three days? You can’t keep it that long.”
“Steve, I’m a teacher at a community college. I can do any random fucking shit I want.” Bucky grinned. “Besides, didn’t you know? You debunk one conspiracy theory, you have to set a new one free into the world. That’s some kind of law.”
“Is it, now.”
“Your hair,” Bucky said. “That’s how you paid for your trip to Brazil, huh?”
“You’d be surprised how much I can make out of strands melted together in the oven.” Steve shrugged. “But my hair doesn’t grow that fast. And if anybody ever finds out I’ll die in a lab. So in the end it’s just another shitty thing my body does.”
“I was tempted, you know,” Steve cut off, rigidly. “To get into the machine. All the pain it caused and yet I still thought about it. I thought—since I had Neyaphem blood, maybe the Stark-Erskine serum would have a huge effect on me. Turn me into that superman you were talking about. Or just… make me normal.” He swallowed. “I’m glad you were there. Kept me from trying.”
They said nothing for a little while.
“Look up ahead,” Bucky said quietly. “That’s my house.”
“Not much. But it’s all mine. And the couch’s all yours. Or the bed. Or—anything.” He took a breath. “Anything, for as long as you want it.”
Steve’s shoulders tensed under his arm. He was going to say no—he thought he was trouble, or he was too proud to accept help, or both. Bucky was so fucking gone on this guy, this fucking last heir of a not-so-long lost civilization sporting goddamn solid gold hair, who also just happened to be a queer art student from Brooklyn, a spitfire, a miracle. He wasn’t going to accept shit, no matter how much he wanted to—unless Bucky managed to throw him off his game.
Which he knew exactly how to do.
“I’ll even sort out your college papers for you if you wanna enroll late,” he went on. “Just take your time. Finish your degree, find a job and you’re golden.”
Steve’s conflicting emotions suddenly unraveled into an outraged stare. “I’m what.”
In the end, Nat heard a little about Bucky’s trip, and Sam and Clint just enough to think someone was playing them for a fool. Bucky’s bank account had doubled in size overnight, which had put a nice dent in a few leftover debts. His left arm was still fucked-up, and he still wasn’t sure what he was going to do about it. His students had gone damn near batshit over his new flowing hair and his complete lack of explanation. Coincidentally, one Steve Rogers had enrolled late into art and gender studies, and people murmured that he was dating a teacher. He was a pretty chill guy, walking around in flip-flops and always carrying a shitton of snacks in his washed-out NYU tote bag. Every once in a while, he gave himself a haircut and treated his freelance black-ops boyfriend to a fancy dinner two towns over; both events, of course, unrelated.