Sitting in the worn chair behind his heavy wooden desk, Steve was reviewing the daily rosters for the upcoming week when a cursory knock sounded at the door before his lieutenant rushed in. He pushed the paperwork away as Jack halted a few feet in front of his desk, obviously flustered. Steve wondered what could have happened. Normally the middle of the day was quiet for the castle guards and Jack, although young, had a steady head. Now, though, his blue uniform jacket was askew, as though he'd pulled it on quickly, and his quickened breathing only slowed down as Steve watched him, waiting for an explanation.
Jack snapped off an impeccable salute. "Sorry for the interruption, sir, but there's been a... disturbance." Steve waited, one eyebrow raising as Jack flushed under his gaze. "Sorry," he said again, then seemed to realize he was repeating himself and straightened, almost visibly regaining self-control. "There was some sort of explosion in the old dungeons, sir."
Steve was on his feet in an instant, settling his azure helmet on his head before reaching for his shield where it leaned against the corner of his desk. Usually the weight of his armor was an annoyance; at the moment, he found himself grateful for the regulation that demanded the Captain of the Guard be armored when on duty. His shield, lighter than it looked and white star shining in the bluish mage light, gave Steve silent reassurance in its familiarity. He might have to carry a sword, but his shield would ever be his first line of offense as well as defense.
Moving toward the door, Jack on his heels, he asked, "Details?"
"Barton reported it, sir. He and Banner were doing the shift patrol." Jack ran a hand through his brown curls, not able to fully repress his sigh.
Steve nodded, understanding his lieutenant's reluctant tone. Barton and Banner were two of his most experienced guards, but they always seemed to end up on low-duty shifts - Barton due to his attitude, and Banner his infamous temper. He headed for the stairway that led to the lower levels, wondering what could have happened.
"Just an explosion? Any idea what caused it?"
"No, sir. Barton left Banner behind to keep an eye on things and found me - I'm the duty officer today - and I came and got you. Although," Jack paused, a hint of uncertainty creeping into his tone. "He mentioned that they thought they heard someone... arguing? With himself?"
Steve's eyebrow lifted, but he remained silent. No doubt Jack was afraid the two guards were imagining things, but Steve was more afraid that they weren't. No one lived in the lower levels - which weren't dungeons, regardless of their nickname. Unused store rooms, old laboratories from the king's youthful days, and one block of prison cells, which was as close as the castle had to an honest dungeon. No one should have even been down there; the main reason he insisted the shift patrol include them was because of the castle youngsters' habit of getting lost down there every few months. Not that he had ever been one of them, Steve thought, his lips turning up into a half-smile for an instant. No, the leader of the group he'd tagged along behind in his youth would never get lost in the castle. The prince would have been horrified at the very thought.
Thoughts of Prince Anthony, once Steve's surest way to lift himself out of a gloomy mood, now served only to make him morose, only too aware of the differences between the royal heir to the throne and a humble soldier. His smile faded, and he wondered if the prince still had a talent for getting into trouble; he hadn't been seen since he'd gone away to study some arcane field at a far-distant university, several years ago.
Visions of shattered doors and blackened halls filled his thoughts, so Steve was pleasantly surprised when they finally got to the bottom of the stairs and turned to the side that held the laboratories and found... nothing. He could smell the acrid scent of smoke in the air, and the heavy brass-bound door was hanging open instead of being shut as it should have been, but other than that.... He halted and looked around, finally meeting the strangely embarrassed gazes of Barton and Banner. The two guards stood in the small nook across the wide hallway from the open door, and he could see the chagrin on their faces. Clint Barton, a bow and quiver strapped securely to his back even for a patrol in the depths of the castle, seemed torn between resignation and laughter. Beside him, Bruce Banner looked nervous, but Steve knew the man well enough to recognize his normal expression. Banner's loose grip on the short sword belted to his waist told Steve that there was no immediate danger.
"It looks quiet enough now," he said dryly, lifting his helmet off of his head in order to look directly at them, and waited. He crossed his arms over his chest, settling them in place against the ridges of his chest plate through long habit. Although the light gauntlets now obscured the star on the blue-tinted metal of his armor, Steve knew that most people found the symbol of his office on the shield much more striking. And intimidating. Although he was known as a kind captain, Steve didn't mind taking advantage of such an easy tactic, especially when he doubted he'd get the full truth out of his men otherwise.
Bruce swallowed, glanced at Clint, and sighed. "Well, sir..."
Any possible explanation was cut short by an eerie, high-pitched noise emanating from behind the open door. Steve caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye and jerked around to look. He heard Barton and Banner call out some sort of warning, but his vision filled with flashes of red and gold and dark hair and flailing limbs, giving him the barest glimpse of a vaguely familiar man before he instinctively threw his arms up. Even with his shield in front of his body, he only managed to tangle his limbs with the other man's.
The solid weight of the other man knocked Steve backwards, and after some blinking to clear his vision, he found himself on his back, the stone of the dungeon floor chilling him even through his armor. He almost didn't notice it, since the man laying draped across him chose that moment to lift his head.
"Dammit, that wasn't supposed to happen."
Steve's eyebrows shot up before they settled down into a frown as he glared at the man... who seemed to be muttering about thrust ratios and designs as he reached down to fiddle with something below his hip. He seemed vaguely familiar, but Steve couldn't place him. He did notice the neatly trimmed goatee and high cheekbones and deep blue eyes and long pointed ears, which seemed to trigger some sort of memory in the back of his mind… which was immediately pushed aside by the pleasantly warm weight of the man on top of him. Catching his thoughts, Steve firmly pulled his mind back to the moment. Only when he moved to try to sit up did the stranger seem to actually take notice of him.
"My, my. Looks like a few things around here have improved during my absence." The dark-haired man looked Steve over with a warmth that Steve wasn't used to being on the receiving end of.
Resolutely pushing aside the threatening blush, Steve sat up, forcing the other man to move. Caught between falling over backwards and standing up, the man found his feet with more grace than Steve had expected. He didn't seem fazed by Steve's glare, either. To the side, he saw Jack, pale and staring at the man, and Barton and Banner, who both seemed to be trying - and failing - to stifle laughter.
"Here, let me help you--"
Ignoring the man's words, Steve clambered to his own feet, knowing that he'd looked ludicrously awkward doing so, encumbered by his armor and the shield.
"Who exactly are you, and what are you doing down here? These levels are closed to the populace." He felt a brief flash of pride at the stern tone he managed, rather than betraying how off-balance he actually felt. The fact that the other man, gorgeous as he was, hadn't stopped eyeing him, didn't help. Neither did the nagging feeling that he knew him, although Steve couldn't figure out how. The rich clothing, a black tunic and red pants, with a matching knee-length coat thrown loosely over the top, were distinctive signs of wealth, but he didn't recognize the style.
At his words, however, the stranger stopped leering at him and met his eyes, genuine surprise on his features. "You don't know who I am?" He almost sounded hurt. Meeting dark azure eyes for the first time, Steve sucked in a breath. Even as the man introduced himself, pieces clicked into place in his head. "I'm--"
"Prince Anthony." Steve interrupted without meaning to, and ducked his head in instant apology. How could he ever have forgotten the ears that marked the prince's heritage from his mother? Gods knew he'd spent enough time staring at them in his younger years. "My apologies, your highness. I wasn't aware that you had returned, and..."
"Captain." The prince's voice was warm, and Steve saw a flash of amusement in his eyes. Then the man smiled, and Steve nearly forgot to breathe. He had forgotten just how very attractive the prince was. That, or he'd spent the last eight years in more denial than he'd realized. Having the full force of the prince's attention on him was something he'd always hoped for when he was younger. Between his own youthful ineptitude and the prince's self-absorption, it had never happened. Now... now, he reminded himself sharply, it was entirely inappropriate. "Please, allow me to apologize. I only returned home yesterday, and I got so caught up in setting up shop down here that I didn't even think about notifying you. I should have realized that the patrols would come down here, although I never expected to... run into anyone."
The prince's voice was smooth, the words polished, but Steve could see the sincerity in his eyes, almost hidden beneath the surface of off-handed amusement that seemed to be normal for the man. As the prince paused, his eyes flickering over Steve again, Steve tensed, unused to the sort of attention the man was giving him, and wondering how much trouble he could get in by telling a member of the royal family to stop ogling him. Or if it would even do any good. Remembering General Fury's stories about King Howard in his youth, Steve doubted it.
"In fact... let me make it up to you." At the sudden low note in the prince's voice, Steve's eyes flew up to meet his again. "In three days, there will be a celebration of my return. My father has informed me that anyone of importance will be present, and that my attendance is mandatory." The prince's mouth twisted a little at the last words, but he continued on, "So, please. Allow me to make up for my clumsiness and my interfering with your duties by inviting you to attend with me."
To the side, Steve could see all three of his guardsmen staring at them, eyes wide. He wasn't sure what his own face looked like, and was glad there were no mirrors in the hallway. "Your highness, I appreciate the offer, but surely there must be someone... more suited to attend than me. Besides, I'm sure General Fury will task me with organizing the security," he said, aware that he was fumbling even as he spoke.
"I'm sure that your second in command can be trusted with that," the prince replied, waving a hand. "I suspect you'll end up rather busy with other things anyway. Fury and my father usually have me wrapped up with special security, and once they find out what I'm working on, well..." His voice trailed off as he gestured toward his legs. For the first time, Steve noticed the golden boots the prince was wearing. They didn't look like anything he'd ever seen before, and seemed to be covered in armor plates. And how exactly had the prince crashed into him, anyway?
The prince caught his look, and grinned. "I'm working on a way to fly. The boots are only part of it, but they'll propel the thing overall... if I can ever get the thrust ratios right, that is." He stopped abruptly, clamping his mouth shut. He threw a pointed look at the other guardsmen, and added, "That is of course a highly-classified secret."
"If it ever becomes more than theory," Steve muttered, realizing that the insane man in front of him had crashed into him because he was testing experimental flying boots. He was forcefully reminded of the few conversations they'd had as children, with the prince excitedly babbling about this or that bit of scientific knowledge, and Steve listening and trying to sound interested.
Apparently he muttered too loudly, as the prince laughed. "Of course it will. I'm working on it, after all." He paused and cocked his head, casting an odd expression at Steve, before continuing, "Regardless of your efforts to distract me, I do think that I have to insist you accompany me to my ball. If nothing else, you will at least have the pleasure of my owing you a favor for protecting me from the general boredom of the event, not to mention the stupidity so proudly displayed by most of the court."
"You make it sound so inviting," Steve murmured, and didn't miss the smile that flashed across the prince's face. He sighed. "Your highness, you can't invite me to be your companion at a royal ball - I'm only the captain of the guard, not a member of court. It wouldn't be appropriate."
"And that, captain, is exactly why I'm inviting you. Don't even think of trying to wriggle out of it, Steve. I'll see you in three days." The prince whirled around, striding back toward the area he'd apparently claimed as his laboratory, talking to someone named "Jarvis" who seemed to be hiding inside the room. Steve felt a moment's pity for anyone who worked as the prince's assistant. Then he realized what had just happened.
"Did... the prince just invite me on... a date?" He sounded as bewildered as he felt, and Jack closed the distance between them, standing at his side.
"I believe he did, sir. Although it seemed to be more of a command than a request." Jack's voice was even, but Steve had known him long enough to see the laughter he was holding back.
Steve bit back a groan and turned to face the other men. "Barton, Banner, continue your patrol. Inform the lieutenant in charge of the prince's new laboratory and that it will continue to be patrolled... albeit with some added caution. Dismissed." He watched the two guardsmen leave, relieved that they at least managed to contain their grins until they thought he couldn't see them. "You too, Jack. Back to work."
Once they were gone, Steve allowed himself to sag, wondering how his youthful fantasies all seemed to have come true at once… and in a way guaranteed to ruin his career, his digestion, or both. With a soft groan, he pulled himself upright and started the trek back to his office, wondering if he wouldn't accomplish more good by banging his head against a wall than by trying to talk General Fury out of forcing him to go to the ball.
"What am I supposed to do, Sharon?" Steve groaned, flopping back across his bed. Once his shift had ended, he'd wasted no time in seeking out his closest friends, counting on their advice and sympathy. He should have known better. Both of them were part of General Fury's elite squad of… well, "spies" didn't sound very nice, but it was the truth. Their matching black uniforms looked almost sinister and definitely austere beside his blue one, with the white star of captaincy and red bands of color that denoted his station.
Beside him, sitting easily on the handmade quilt that covered the bed, Sharon laughed at him, and across the room, flipping a knife idly in his fingers, Bucky rolled his eyes.
"He’s the prince, Steve. You do what he asks," she replied. Her smile was clear in her voice, and he made a face before draping an arm over his eyes.
"I can’t go to a ball! I’m a guard, not a nobleman, and I can’t be a prince’s date." He sighed, remembering the prince's appraising stare. "Not that he even knows who I am. I didn’t introduce myself, and he obviously doesn’t remember me."
"You’ve mooned over Tony since you were old enough to notice him," Bucky pointed out. "You can’t tell me you aren’t interested."
"That’s… not the point," Steve protested lamely, lifting his head to glare at his friend. Sometimes he wondered if being picked for General Fury's squad had been a good thing for his friend; the general's influence seemed stronger every time they spoke, between Bucky's habit of cutting straight to the heart of a matter and the biting tone he usually used while doing so.
"You can’t just not go. He’s the prince. Besides, you’re the only person he’s actually shown an interest in since he got back. He ignores the guards, doesn’t talk to his father, and only comes out of those rooms for food when his assistant forces him to." Bucky sounded more amused than sympathetic, and Steve made a rude gesture at him. How his friend knew all that, he didn't bother to ask; working directly for Fury, Bucky usually knew too much about too many things that Steve either couldn't or didn't want to know about
"That doesn’t mean it’s okay for him to invite me on a date." Steve knew he was whining and couldn’t bring himself to care. Sharon was right – Tony had been an object of fascination for him for years. Tony, not Anthony; in Steve's mind, there was a clear difference between Prince Anthony, the crown prince, and Tony, the brilliant mischief-maker he'd always wanted to call his friend. It had been a source of much amusement for his friends, watching as he'd followed the prince around, listening to his nonstop flow of words about things that interested him and never demanding his direct attention. He'd probably spent more time in the prince's company than Bucky's, at one point, but Tony had never seemed to really notice him. Steve suspected if his friends knew the depth of his fascination for the prince, he would be the subject of their pity rather than their laughter.
"It does mean that it’s okay for you to go, since he’s already asked you. Well, ordered you." Steve threw his pillow at Bucky in a vain attempt to wipe the smirk off of his face. Bucky ducked but otherwise ignored it, pointing at him with his knife. "Seriously, Steve. You’ve been obsessed with him since you hit puberty. Maybe now you can actually do something about it." Bucky waggled his eyebrows at Steve, who felt himself blushing.
"He doesn’t even know who I am," he muttered. "I’m sure he doesn’t remember the scrawny kid who followed him around, let alone think that it’s me." Sharon reached out and patted him on the arm, offering silent comfort in response to his morose tone.
Bucky snorted. "You’re forgetting a couple of things." Steve looked up, and Bucky leaned forward, slipping his knife back into its hidden holster. "First of all, you don’t have a choice – it was effectively a royal command. Secondly, if he doesn’t know who you are, how did he know your name?"
Steve stared at him, speechless.
Standing on a balcony, hidden behind thick velvet curtains in a deep sapphire tone, Steve let his gaze skim across the semi-controlled chaos of the hall below. From the corner below him, a small orchestra of strings and brass played while couples in bright satin and silk and brocade swirled together around the dance floor. His hand brushed nervously at the thick blue fabric of his dress uniform, the tight-fitting clothing feeling stiff and strange. He only rarely wore it, but they were the only clothes he owned that he’d felt might stand up to the scrutiny of the wealthy and nobles he’d be rubbing elbows with at the ball.
He still wasn’t sure what he was doing here. Yes, the prince had invited him – ordered him? – to attend, but he hadn’t seen Tony again since their initial encounter. He didn’t even know where or when he was supposed to meet Tony. Maybe the prince had forgotten? A strange mixture of relief and disappointment ran through him at the thought and his fingers tightened on the railing for a moment.
"Hiding up here in the rafters to avoid people?"
The voice drew him out of his thoughts and he swung around, glad to be broken from his contemplation of the crowd below. In front of him, Sam grinned, one hand on his hip. His friend tilted his head, his eyes scanning over Steve, and he shook his head. "You’re a pathetic sight, Steve."
"Thanks," Steve returned, his voice dry. Taking in Sam’s richly-embroidered robes – a dark red, which flattered his dark skin – he sighed. "You’re attending the ball, I take it?"
"All members of the court are required to attend… unofficially, of course. Since I'm the Minster of Public Works, that includes me." Stepping closer, Sam stood beside him and looked over the balcony at the people milling below them. "You’re late, you know."
"What?" Steve jerked his gaze away from the dancers again, this time meeting Sam’s amused expression.
"For your date." Sam’s smile widened, and Steve wondered what his face looked like before deciding it was probably better that he didn’t know. "The prince, of course, planned on being stylishly late – as he’s the whole reason for the party, he gets the grand entrance – but he’s been looking for you for ten minutes."
"I… he…" Steve snapped his mouth shut before taking a deep breath and forcing his suddenly turbulent thoughts into some semblance of order. "He never told me where to meet him. Or when."
Sam chuckled, looking entirely unsurprised. "Typical. But you may want to go downstairs and meet him before he decides that you’ve abandoned him to the sharks and goes to hide in his lab instead. If we could avoid angering the king tonight, the court would appreciate it." King Howard’s temper was legendary, and the prince had always excelled at provoking it, especially after Queen Maria's death. Steve winced. He found himself moving before he consciously thought about it, and paused, looking back at his friend.
"Downstairs, outside the main doors. He was waiting in his rooms before he got impatient," Sam supplied, and Steve flushed at the implications of the prince waiting for him in his bedroom. He attempted to push the thought away, and headed for the stairway, the sound of Sam’s chuckle following him down.
As he rounded the corner into the main hallway, Steve caught sight of the prince, pacing back and forth beside one of the guards standing outside the entrance of the grand hall. He looked impossibly handsome, in his formal scarlet coat and pants, all edged with gold. His black hair looked tousled, as if he'd been running his hands through it, and he seemed to be muttering to himself. Steve hoped Tony wasn’t too upset with him for being late. When he caught that thought, he frowned a little – Tony was the one hadn't communicated with him, after all.
The prince must have heard the click of Steve’s boots on the marble floor, since he stopped, his head snapping up to look in Steve’s direction. For an instant, Steve saw an odd mix of frustrated impatience and worry on the man’s face, and he wondered about it. Then the prince reached out and grabbed his wrist, and he forgot all about his worries at the shiver that ran through him at the touch.
"I was beginning to think you’d stood me up." Tony tossed the words out in a light tone, and Steve gaped at him.
"I… you…" He stopped and shook his head. "You never told me where to meet you, or when, and I didn’t know if you’d forgotten about it, or—" He shut his mouth abruptly to stop the flow of babble, and found himself flushing at the warm smile that curved Tony’s mouth. The prince moved closer, leaving only inches between them, and looked up into his eyes. Steve hadn’t noticed before that Tony was shorter than him, and the thought flashed through his mind of how well the prince would fit against him. He blinked, and caught his breath at the considering look on Tony’s face. He was so close, close enough that it would only take the slightest effort to tilt his head and close the distance…
"I think we’d better go in," Tony said abruptly, whirling around toward the doorway. His hand fell away from Steve’s wrist and Steve felt strangely bereft without the touch. He followed the prince toward the large doorway, his stomach twisting at the thought of appearing at the top of the steps beside Tony, with the eyes of all the court and visiting nobles on them… on him, judging him and wondering why he of all people was beside the prince… He stopped, not missing the sidelong glances that the guards – his guards, Luke and Tigra – gave the two of them, their curiosity obvious. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t—
"Steve?" Tony’s voice pulled him out of his growing nervousness. He swallowed harshly, trying to fight back his worries, and met the prince’s gaze, hoping that his inner turmoil didn’t show on his face.
"Sorry, I… I’ve never…" He struggled to find the words to explain to Tony why this was such a bad idea, why he couldn’t go down into that room… and then he felt Tony’s fingers slip into his own, winding their hands tightly together.
"Hey," Tony said, voice soft and close to his ear. "Don’t think about them, Steve. Just think about me, okay?"
Steve’s eyebrows shot up of their own accord as he wondered if Tony had any idea just how long Steve had been thinking about him, and Tony’s mouth curved a little. He tugged gently at Steve’s hand, urging him toward the doorway. Steve drew in a shaky breath and let it out slowly, steeling himself, then nodded. "Okay. Let’s… get this over with." Tony’s smile widened, and he pulled Steve forward. Steve expected him to let go of his hand, but Tony’s hand remained firmly clasped around his, and it was… nice.
They paused in the doorway and the crowd’s noise died down as people turned to look up at them, the orchestra music fading away. Across the hall, Steve could see King Howard looking at them, and although he couldn’t read the expression on the king’s face, he felt the tension radiating outward from the man. Or maybe it was the tension from Tony; he realized that although Tony seemed relaxed and perfectly at ease, the prince was nearly as tense as he was. He wondered if their clasped hands were for his benefit or for Tony’s, and decided he didn’t care, as long as Tony didn’t let go.
"His Royal Highness, Prince Anthony Edward Stark!" The introduction rang out across the hall in Jarvis' clear voice, echoing in the silence filling the room, and the prince inclined his head to the crowd with a smirk. He started down the stairs and Steve walked with him, acutely aware of all of the people staring at them, of the whispers starting as the celebration’s guests realized who the prince’s companion was. Steve repressed the urge to duck his head, instead looking straight ahead, meeting the eyes of the people they passed. Only when they were halfway across the hall did Steve realize that Tony was heading for the throne, and his stomach roiled as he wondered if Tony intended to take the smaller throne on the dais. If he did, what should Steve do? Stand behind it? To the side? Disappear into the crowd? He bit his lip, barely having the presence of mind to bow deeply when they stopped in front of the king.
"Prince Anthony," King Howard said, his voice dry but distinctively tinged with irritation, "How good of you to attend the celebration that we have prepared."
From the corner of his eye, Steve saw Tony’s lips tighten. "I could hardly miss my own party, could I? My apologies for my lateness; there was an unfortunate lack of communication between myself and Captain Rogers." Titters and the soft susurration of whispers behind them were clear in the echoing room, and Steve fought back both the embarrassed flush and the wave of irritation that they provoked. The king’s gaze moved to him, and he forced himself to meet King Howard’s eyes squarely. The king knew him, after all, even if only in passing. A moment passed, and whatever Howard saw in his face, it made something in his expression soften a little as he looked back at his son.
"It is good to have you home again." Howard pitched his voice lower, for only those close to him to hear, but Tony remained stony-faced. Steve thought he saw the older man sigh, before he stood. "Tonight, we celebrate Prince Anthony’s return. For too many years has he been studying in faraway lands; now, he is home and ready to take up the mantle of heir to throne." Howard paused, and Tony rolled his eyes before releasing Steve’s hand in order to turn and face the crowd behind them.
"But tonight – we celebrate! Musicians, play!" he called, a wide grin on his face, and Steve saw Howard’s eyes narrow before he turned, standing slightly behind Tony. The lack of the prince’s touch made him all too aware of the staring eyes and low voices around them. Without a further word, Tony pushed through the crowd and headed for the refreshments at the side opposite to the orchestra. Steve trailed behind him, not sure what else he could do.
He spotted the guards discreetly hidden around the room and suspected that General Fury had stationed some of his special agents in the balconies and dark corners. He wondered if Sharon or Natasha were among the dancers, or if Bucky was stationed somewhere up high and shadowy, a bow at his side. Probably yes to all of the above, he decided absently. Also probably best for him not to know for sure; if he had to survive his friends’ knowing and somewhat pitying gazes for the night, as well as the contempt of the court, he didn’t think he’d make it.
When Tony stopped, he almost walked right into him, but caught himself just in time. Looking over the prince’s shoulder, Steve recognized the slight figure who had stopped him, a smile on her lips.
"Jan!" Tony exclaimed, a real smile flickering across his lips before he raised her hand and kissed it. "It’s wonderful to see you."
"You too." The woman sounded sincere, and Steve felt himself relax. At least someone here was friendly, he thought. She was wrapped in a silken gown of green and gold, and Steve couldn't help but admire her, even as she cast a curious gaze up at him and tilted her head. "Who is your gorgeous companion?"
He blinked, and then blushed when he realized she was talking about him. Tony laughed, not unkindly, and introduced him. "Lady Janet Van Dyne, Captain Steve Rogers. Captain Rogers commands the castle guard."
Lady Van Dyne raised an eyebrow at that, but graced Steve with a smile. "Jan, please." Steve had vague memories of the two of them together when they were younger. At one point, the entire castle had been convinced that the prince would marry her; only his leaving to study abroad had really put an end to those rumors. Looking at the two of them now, Steve suddenly wondered how much had just been rumor; they looked very friendly as they stood chatting. He felt awkward, standing at Tony’s side listening as they discussed fashion and nobles and made cutting remarks that made him increasingly uncomfortable, ever more aware of how much he didn’t fit into the prince’s world.
"I’ll just…" he finally muttered, and turned toward the refreshment table, intending to use the sparkling punch as an excuse to escape. He saw Jan glance at him, her eyes kind, and murmur something to the prince, but was already some distance away from them.
Stopping in front of the table, he looked doubtfully at the delicate crystal glasses before carefully picking one up and filling it with the ruby red punch. He sipped at it, pleasantly surprised by the pure, sweet flavor, and drained the cup. He refilled it, then turned to look back at the crowd, not able to stop the depression that swept over him. The prince had barely spoken to him, had barely noticed him – but what had he expected? He was only a soldier, not a nobleman or a scholar, and he didn’t fit into the prince’s world. He reminded himself that Tony didn’t remember him, and certainly wouldn’t care if he did. He’d come into this expecting to be a joke, and it was only his own fault if he’d allowed himself to hope for anything else.
A sandy-haired man standing beside him gave him a sympathetic glance. "Too much for you too, huh?"
Steve nearly dropped his crystalline glass, but caught himself in time. He met the man's gaze with an awkward shrug, noticing that even in his fancy gold and black attire, he seemed ill at ease.
"Yes. I’m not… really used to this sort of thing," he admitted, not able to keep his eyes from returning to the prince, now dancing with Jan in the middle of the floor.
"Me neither." The other man followed his gaze, and sighed. "I suspect Tony roped you into this the same way Jan did me." Steve glanced at him, surprised. He smiled. "I’m Hank, Hank Pym. I studied with Tony, but the Van Dynes sponsored me. I’ve known Jan for years." He sighed again. "Not that it’s done any good."
The low tone of his voice was something Steve recognized, and he felt a pang of sympathy for the man. Hank obviously cared deeply for Jan, and she… well, just as obviously, she didn’t feel that way about him, or she wouldn’t be dancing with the prince, would she? Then he remembered her kind gaze, and wondered. Mouth twisting, he told himself that if he couldn’t help himself with his own romantic issues, he certainly was in no position to help anyone else.
He and Hank chatted amiably, drawn together by their shared awkwardness, and time passed. Steve was aware of the glances thrown his way by members of the court, pitying and amused by turns, but he found them easier to ignore while talking to Hank. Their conversation finally ended in the middle of Hank’s story about his study of a rare type of ant when Lady Van Dyne came up beside him and wrapped an arm around his waist. Hank stopped speaking in surprise, and when Steve saw the look she gave him, warm and soft and caring, he decided that he’d misjudged her. No one could look at someone like that without it meaning something.
"I’m so sorry, darling," she apologized. "Tony caught me up in his stories – you know how he is," and Hank smiled reluctantly. "But I finally escaped, and came straight back to you. So… a dance?" She looked up at him and fluttered her eyelashes, and Hank smiled.
"Of course." And they were gone, lost in the crowd of dancers without even saying goodbye to Steve. He found that he didn’t mind; after that brief display, he thought that Hank was perhaps just blind to Jan’s interest, and hoped that she would make it clear to him. Before his own barely-suppressed insecurities rose to the surface, an arm wound its way around his shoulders and he looked sharply to the side, only to meet laughing blue eyes.
"Miss me?" Tony’s words puffed out in a soft breath of air against Steve’s cheek. He set his empty glass down on the end of the table and turned, just enough to look straight at Tony. His thoughts tumbled over themselves for a long moment, and he saw the bright glitter in Tony’s eyes start to fade at his silence. His answer slipped out, honest and open and completely unintended.
"Yes." Steve’s heart almost stopped, fear of rejection and embarrassment warring with each other, until Tony’s lips curved in a small, pleased smile.
"Good." The prince’s reply was equally soft, and Steve blinked. Then Tony’s eyes shifted to a point over Steve’s shoulder and his smile disappeared, replaced by an expression of courtly politeness. Steve wondered if he’d imagined the brief flicker of weariness, then turned around, wondering what Tony was looking at. Unable to make out anything specific in the crowd of richly-dressed people, he glanced at the prince, a questioning eyebrow raised. Tony's lips curved in something that could have been a smile, just for an instant, then answered his unspoken question. "I have to mingle… go play nice with people, or my father will kill me."
"Oh." For a minute, Steve could only remember his youth, always lost in the background as he watched the prince smile and laugh with other noble children – his best friend, James, and Jan and Ty and Whitney and Reed and all the others – and he started to pull away so that the prince could go and attend to his duties. Tony’s hand tightened on his shoulder, preventing the movement, and Tony tilted his head.
"I thought you might… go with me." It wasn’t quite a question, but Steve heard an unspoken please beneath the words, and he stared at Tony, wondering if he was imagining things. Tony’s lips twisted into a semblance of a smile, and his arm slipped down, leaving a trail of warmth behind as the prince’s hand slid down his back, coming down to rest on his hip. Steve felt his face heating, and Tony laughed quietly. Steve found his lips curling up in response to the sound, and, feeling daring, he reached out and wound his arm around Tony’s waist as well. The prince looked surprised, and Steve wondered if he’d overstepped his boundaries, and then Tony made a quiet, content noise that Steve wouldn’t have heard if they weren’t standing so close together.
"Come on," said Tony, and pulled Steve forward, into the crowd.
Steve didn’t know how long they spent winding through the people, Tony smiling and making small talk and fending off every request to dance by tilting his head at Steve in a silent refusal. The noise and crowd and closeness threatened to give Steve a headache, but he kept a polite smile plastered on his face as he trailed behind the prince, their hands tangled together. Whether it was Tony’s way of laying claim to him, using him as a ready-made excuse, or simply to keep them from getting separated, Steve couldn’t tell, but he wasn’t about to complain. He’d dreamt for years of getting to touch Tony, and even the feel of the other man’s fingers wound through his made a pleasant warmth rise up in his stomach.
As the evening progressed, Steve was introduced to an astounding number of people, most of whose names flew right out of his head as soon as they were said. He remembered the big blond prince from the northern kingdoms, shining in golden armor and red cape, and his flirtations with the beautiful dark-skinned woman from the southern savannahs whose black gown breathed simplicity and beauty, and the prince’s younger brother, dark-eyed and wrapped in green, glaring at them both from the shadows. The young court artist, Peter, was someone Steve already knew, and Sam had only smiled knowingly at them when Tony paused to speak to him about improvements to the water system in the capital. A young woman with dark curls and an exotic accent, dressed in full skirts scarlet, made him blush with her smile. Her brother, white-haired and garbed in tight sky-blue tights and tunic, remained silent even as the man Tony pointed out as their father spoke in low tones with the king. Steve couldn’t make out his face, but the nobleman’s white hair and violet and red robes were striking. He made a mental note to keep an eye on the man, who radiated an air of danger even at his most courteous.
He paused for a moment to speak to Clint, making sure that the evening had been quiet, and came away reassured. If Tony noticed the flush on his face from the sly words his guardsman had had for him, he didn’t say anything, and Steve was grateful for that. No matter what Barton might imply, he couldn’t convince himself that the evening was anything besides a convenience for the prince, if not an outright joke at his expense. When he caught sight of General Fury, resplendent in his dress uniform of black with bright red insignia and flashes of gold, and his assistant Coulson, his uniform only slightly less decorated, both men watching the two of them, he didn't find himself reassured that he was wrong.
The prince wrapped up his discussion with a visiting professor before turning and pulling him toward the center of the room. Steve followed along, only realizing at the last moment that Tony intended to dance with him. He froze at the thought. In the middle of the crowd, all eyes on them, pressed up against the man who had filled his thoughts for years? He couldn’t do it. He balked, resisting the prince’s hold on his hand. When Tony turned to frown at him, he shook his head.
"I… I can’t." He winced at the high-pitched tone of his voice, and Tony’s frown deepened.
"What do you mean? You know how to dance." It wasn’t a question and Steve bit his lip. Give him a field full of enemies and the air full of arrows, and it would be safer than this, he thought with a note of hysteria.
"Yes. But I… you’re the prince," he hissed, and Tony rolled his eyes.
"Believe me, I’m well aware of that fact."
"I’m just a guard," Steve protested, and Tony opened his mouth, then closed it as understanding dawned on his features.
"Steve…" The prince hesitated, and shook his head. "One dance, please? Just one?" Looking into Tony’s eyes, earnest and hopeful, Steve couldn’t say no. Letting out a breath, he nodded reluctantly, and the smile that lit up Tony’s face nearly made the entire night worth it.
As Tony led him onto the dance floor, he focused on the prince, trying to block out the rest of the court and visiting nobles who stood staring at them. He was aware of the music falling silent for a moment, of the sea of bodies parting in front of Tony, but he ignored their surroundings as best he could. Instead, he watched Tony stop in the middle of the hall and turn to face him, still with that brilliant smile on his face. This time, when the prince reached out, Steve didn’t back away. He moved closer, the feeling of Tony’s arm sliding around his waist making him shiver. He clasped Tony’s shoulder with his free hand, their joined hands extended out to the side.
The music began again, and they danced.
After, Steve could never tell how long the dance lasted, only that it seemed to last forever but ended all too soon. He spent the entire time watching Tony, captured by the light in his eyes and the curve of his lips, memorizing the feel of him in his arms. He’d dreamt about this, about holding Tony close, sharing smiles with him and… he blinked, barely catching himself before he could lower his head to steal a kiss. From the prince. In front of the entire court. Red crept up his cheeks, and Tony’s smile widened as if he knew exactly what Steve was thinking.
Steve only knew that the music had ended because Tony stopped moving. Standing there, bare inches away from the prince, their eyes locked, the sudden sound of Jarvis’ staff hitting the floor brought him back to reality. Jerking his head up, he saw the king rising to his feet, his eyes on them, and only Tony’s arm, still wrapped firmly around his waist, prevented him from stepping back from the other man. He heard the king speaking, although he couldn’t have said what the words were if his life depended on it, and after a moment, Tony nodded sharply and the king turned and left. Slowly, Steve became aware that they were standing in the middle of the dance floor, arms still around each other, and that there was no one else around them. In fact… glancing around, Steve swallowed as he saw that the entire dance floor had cleared, leaving them alone in the center of it.
Tony seemed to pick up on his growing unease and flashed him another smile before releasing Steve’s hand and using the arm around Steve’s waist to guide him toward the edge of the room. Around them, the crowd began moving, and as the sounds of gossip and orchestral music and hundreds of people filled the room again, their attention turning back toward each other, Steve felt the tension in his spine draining away.
"Where are you—" he began to ask, and Tony waved a hand to silence him, gesturing instead toward the wide glass doors at the side of the room. They opened onto the outside terrace that edged the building, separating the dance floor from the carefully-tended gardens by a wide expanse of marble and a wall of shrubbery. Suddenly craving the cool outside air, free of perfumes and people and noise, Steve nodded and followed the prince’s lead. They slipped outside, both of them glancing around. Although Steve could hear an occasional noise from the gardens that told him they weren’t the first people to go this way, he didn’t see anyone else on the terrace. Even so, he didn’t complain when Tony pulled him into a darkened corner, well away from the doorway and the windows and only barely lit by the glow from the ballroom.
Sitting down on the cool marble bench, Steve risked a glance at the prince, who released his hold on Steve’s waist only to reclaim his hand. Tony leaned back, rolling his shoulders, and Steve watched as tension he hadn’t even seen in the other man eased, leaving him loosely reclining against the bench.
"So, Captain…" Tony drawled, watching Steve with a deceptively languid gaze. "Care to tell me why you’re so ready to bolt?"
"I…" Steve searched desperately for words to explain his hesitation, his discomfort with the situation, without giving away half a lifetime’s worth of longing. "I just… you’re the prince, and I’m just a guard, and there’s no way you could date me, even if you actually wanted to, and I know that tonight was just… convenient, and it doesn’t mean anything, and—" Steve’s babble was cut off by a soft pair of lips pressing against his own. Taken by surprise, Steve could only sit and stare at Tony, shocked, as the prince pulled away, licking his lips before smiling lazily at him.
"Did that feel like convenience?" he asked, his voice warm with amusement. Steve blushed, and Tony laughed, low and fond. He cupped Steve’s cheek with his free hand, leaning his forehead against Steve’s. The casual intimacy made Steve’s breath catch, and he began to think that maybe he had misunderstood the prince’s invitation after all.
"But… but you…" He drew a breath, and tried again. "You didn’t even see me after you invited me, until tonight, and… you don’t even know who I am." He couldn’t quite keep the low, hurt note out of his voice, and Tony made a noise of protest.
"I’m sorry about the not seeing you thing, but I was in my lab, and I get all wrapped up in my work when I’m down there, and…" Tony took a breath, obviously stopping himself from babbling, and caressed Steve’s cheek with his thumb. "Anyway. You’re wrong. I know who you are."
Steve couldn’t stop the disbelieving snort that escaped him, and Tony frowned at him. "I do, dammit. Steve, I knew who you were the instant I saw you."
"Before or after you collided with me?" Steve asked wryly, trying to dislodge his heart from his throat.
"After… but only because I didn’t see your face until then." Tony’s eyes swept over him, his frown softening. "Steve… I’ve always known who you were. I remember you – how could I forget one of the only people who ever treated me like a normal person, instead of someone they could use?"
Steve swallowed hard, his own hand coming up to touch Tony’s face. "I… I didn’t think you ever noticed."
"Of course I noticed! You were always there, always willing to listen when no one else would, with your sketchpad and your smile…" Tony’s words trailed off, and he shook his head, his lips curving before he leaned forward and kissed Steve again. This time, Steve leaned into it, smiling at Tony’s quiet gasp as he poured years of longing into the kiss. When they broke apart again, Tony’s eyes were wide, staring at him. "How long have I not seen that?" he asked softly.
Steve shrugged awkwardly. "As long as I’ve known you." To his amazement, Tony’s cheeks turned pink at his words, and he brushed his fingers against the warm skin.
Tony drew in a shaky breath before speaking. "I spend way too much time in my workshop, and get caught up in my work and forget about everything else, and never remember birthdays or holidays or appointments unless Pepper nags me, and I don’t sleep enough and get cranky and take it out on everyone around me, and I hate court events but have to go anyway, and…" He paused, licking his lips, and Steve watched, captivated. Tony turned his hand beneath Steve’s, twining their fingers together. "And I completely don’t deserve you or the way you look at me, or the way you kiss me, but I’d be happier than I could ever say if you’d be willing to keep on doing it, even with all of my bad habits."
A warm feeling welled up deep inside Steve, and he tightened his grasp on Tony’s hand, meeting his gaze squarely in order to let him see all of the emotion Steve had hidden for so long. "You won’t be able to keep me away."