Bucky needs to escape - just for a short while, just for long enough to clear his head of the arguments with his father and the expectations of the kingdom. Slipping away from the castle is easy enough for a man trained from birth to lead an army. He makes it to the stables, takes his horse, and rides as fast and as far into the forest as he can. He doesn’t even look back until the sight of the castle has faded from view, and then he slows his horse to a gentle walk.
The woods are silent, other than the sounds made by himself and his horse. It’s as if he is the only person left in the world, and Bucky can’t lie to himself: it feels good. In the palace, he is always surrounded by those hangers-on who wish to impress him as the future king. It’s an empty kind of loyalty. They feel nothing for him and everything for his title. That isn’t what he wants.
The rhythm of his horse’s hooves is soothing enough to chase the scowling thoughts from his mind. He’s getting far enough away that he ought to turn back if he wants to return home before nightfall. His stomach is growling to remind him that he hasn’t eaten all day; his mouth is dry too. It had been foolish to run off like he had - rash and ill-tempered.
Up ahead, he can hear the gentle rush of a waterfall and the burbling of a stream. Heading towards it, he decides that he’ll allow himself and his horse to get a good, deep drink, then he’ll turn around and go home. If he’s lucky, he’ll be able to slip back without anyone noticing his departure - but that seems highly unlikely. His luck isn’t that good.
His thoughts freeze when he comes to the edge of the treeline. Here, the forest opens out into a green clearing, the centre of which is dominated by a shallow lake with a low waterfall tumbling down into it. The sight of the water makes him ache for a taste, but he is more cautious than to run forward immediately: there is another man here.
He is hip-deep in the water in front of Bucky. His torso is bare and his skin is golden from the sun, tanned in a way that speaks of manual labour and days spent working for his living. Bucky is so much paley; his time is spent indoor, working on treaties and balancing his father’s disasterous finances.
The man is larger than even the strongest of Bucky’s knights. He looks like he might be able to break Bucky in half if he felt inclined to do so. Every muscle is toned to perfect, and Bucky has to admit to himself that he might not be staring solely to evaluate whether or not he’s a threat.
The man turns, exposing his chest instead of his back, and at the sight of his face Bucky feels like he might fall from his horse. He knows this man.
Steve, the skinny little servant’s child who used to get into fights with his superiors. Bucky had lost track of how many times he had stepped in to stop the knights from teaching him a lesson about respect - a lesson that would have been taught with fists and swords, the kind of lesson Steve wouldn’t have recovered from. Steve had disappeared from the castle after his mother had died and Bucky hadn’t heard from him again. None of the scouts he had sent searching for him to bring him into his service had returned with any news of his whereabouts.
And now here he was, right in front of him, built like a Greek god instead of the skinny kid that Bucky remembers.
He pushes his horse forward, out of the clearing, and Steve’s gaze springs towards him, defensive already.
Bucky smiles. “You’re bigger than I remember,” he says, even if his voice sounds hoarse, even if he feels like he’s ridden into a dream.
Steve smiles that same shy smile. This is real, alright. Bucky isn’t going back to the castle until he’s sure that Steve is coming too.
Written at my Tumblr.
Bucky can’t stop staring at Steve. He watches every single movement, every single facial twitch, and compares it to the small, frail boy that he remembers. Steve leaves the pool and gets dressed, pulling on coarse and simple clothes. He wears a deep frown as if he is troubled by Bucky’s presence.
“I’ve been searching for you for years,” Bucky says. He steps closer to Steve. “I thought you’d died.”
“You were wrong,” Steve answers.
“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “I get that.” He might understand that he had been wrong in assuming Steve was dead, but that is the only thing that he does understand. They had been best friends, inseparable, or so he had thought. “I’ve found you now. Can we go home?”
“Back to the castle?” Steve asks. His hair is still damp from his earlier dip into the lake and his clothes cling to his skin. “I can’t.”
“Trust me, you can. You will.” Bucky offers a smile. “Even if I have to drag you there myself.”
“That really wouldn’t be a good idea,” Steve says. His frown only grows more anguished. In his face, it is easy to recognise the serious and brave teenager who had left the castle so many years ago. His body might have changed, but he has not. “When I say that I can’t go, I mean it literally.”
“What?” Bucky takes a step closer. What he really wants to do is reach out and touch Steve to confirm that he’s real. Listening seems a lot harder than that.
“There was a curse,” Steve says, shifting awkwardly. “It’s what made me like this.” He gestures vaguely, but it’s enough to indicate his entire body. “I’m supposed to help the world,” he mutters, as if the explanation is embarrassing.
More than embarrassing, it’s simply confusing. “You’re not making a lot of sense,” Bucky says.
“There was a witch,” Steve says. Perhaps that is supposed to clarify things. “I saved her life. In return, she made me like this - I think she thought it was a gift.”
“I’d be inclined to agree with her.”
“I’m strong enough to help people now, but the closer I get to the castle the weaker I get.” Steve looks over Bucky’s shoulder into the woods as if he can somehow see the castle despite the thick covering of trees and the long miles that separate them. “The last time I tried to come home I passed out before I came within a mile or two of the city. It’s not possible.”
Witches. Curses. They aren’t concepts that are new to Bucky, but it’s the first time that he’s had any encounters of his own with them. To a prince, the stories only ever come second-hand; the heir to the throne must always always be protected from the darker side of life.
“Then we’ll break the curse. Or I’ll stay out here. Whatever it takes,” Bucky vows.
Steve watches him for a moment, his eyes careful and considering. Bucky stands taller, his shoulders straightens, and hopes that Steve remembers their childhood together as well as he does: games in the castle’s courtyard and stolen adventures in the city’s streets.
Steve’s caution splits into a grateful smile. They used to be inseparable. Maybe they can be so once again.