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a marvelous gift

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Bucky Barnes didn’t remember his birth. That was fine; who did? He’d heard the story of his birth many, many times, and maybe that would have been normal, except his story was usually told in grave, hushed tones, not a happy reminiscence.

It wasn’t that his parents were unhappy about his birth—they loved him dearly. The problem was that on the day Bucky was born, the warlock Zola appeared.

“I am here to bestow a gift to your child,” he cackled evilly while hellfire leapt up around him. (It was possible Bucky had a bit of an imagination and embellished a few details.)

Bucky’s parents gasped in fear. Everyone knew the warlock Zola did twisted experiments with his magic, and his gifts were more often curses. Winifred Barnes curled protectively around her wailing infant son and George stood tall in front of them.

“Please, sir,” George said respectfully but also somehow strongly and with a lot of pride and intimidation because he was a strong and proud man. “A gift isn’t necessary.”

“A gift he shall receive,” Zola declared in a nasally voice. “A gift any parent would kill for. Complete obedience. Child, stop that incessant noise.”

And Bucky stopped.

That was Bucky’s curse—he was cursed with obedience. He could no more disobey a direct order than he could stop himself from blinking or breathing. He tried to hold back, the way someone might hold in a sneeze or a cough, but it made him dizzy, out of breath, quivery, and sick to his stomach.

His parents were terrified. This kind of curse could bring great harm and distress to their son. Anyone could take advantage of it, knowingly or not, and hurt him. It was a nightmare. They quickly forbade him from telling anyone of his curse, and they sought out council from any fairies or magicians with reputations for kindness.

They got the same answer from everyone—no one could remove Zola’s magic but Zola himself. And asking Zola was not an option. Whenever Zola’s experiments didn’t go according to his plan, he simply killed the test subjects.

Bucky hated his curse. He wasn’t naturally disobedient, and he was usually happy to help his mother and father and the sisters who came after him. What he hated was how careful his family was around him. He hated that he had no choice—any obedience on his part wasn’t a character trait, but a product of his curse. He felt like he wasn’t a real person, just a toy soldier who went where he was pointed.

But for the early years of his life, Bucky’s curse didn’t come much to light. His family took care not to give him orders, and he would have had to obey his tutors anyway. Friends were often dangerous, but Bucky had three sisters and his parents; he didn’t need friends besides his acquaintances at his lessons. His family was just on the cusp of wealthy—they probably would’ve been over the threshold had they had fewer children—and his life was largely ordinary and comfortable.

Until, of course, he met Steve Rogers.

“We’ve been invited to the ball at the palace,” Winifred announced to her children over breakfast one morning when Bucky was thirteen. Bucky wasn’t paying much attention; he and Becca had found a mangy stray dog and brought him inside without their parents’ knowledge. He was hiding under the table and they were slipping him table scraps. “James, you are welcome with us.” Bucky looked up quickly from where the dog was licking bacon grease off his fingers so his mother wouldn’t grow suspicious by his lack of attention.

“Can I dance at the ball?” He asked. He loved to dance, but children weren’t often invited along.

“If there are girls there for you to dance with,” his mother assured him. Bucky tried not to wrinkle his nose. He knew he was supposed to start liking girls soon, but so far he didn’t quite. He could enjoy dancing with a girl if she knew some of the faster, fun dances, but every girl he’d danced with so far only knew slow waltzes and those were terribly boring. Besides, girls his age had just started getting so…giggly. He didn’t know what to do with that.

“Madam, there is another message,” their butler, Nathan, said, handing Winifred another envelope with the royal crest sealed over it. Winifred thanked Nathan and opened it, her eyes getting wider and wider as she read.

“We’ve been invited to dine at the same table as the queen and the prince!” She cried, a hand flying to her mouth. George looked up quickly from the work papers he’d been poring over, dangerously close to Elizabeth’s sticky baby fingers.

“Have we?” He asked. “Why on earth?” George was related to the royal family, but distantly enough that it hardly mattered. It made them noble, but only just, and they’d never been invited to dine with them before.

“It’s because of James,” Winifred said. “He’s the same age as the prince. It seems they would like Prince Steven to experience other boys his age.”

“I don’t wanna sit with some stuffy prince,” Bucky protested, the dog’s head resting on his knee. “He probably thinks he’s better’n us just ‘cause he’s got a crown.”

“He’s going to be our king someday,” George reminded him sharply. “And we will pay our respects. James,” he said seriously, clearly. “You will be on your best behavior today.”

Bucky scowled furiously at the command, even deeper when his mother didn’t counter it. “Yes, sir,” he said sullenly, because the curse was already taking hold. His father’s face softened.

“I’m sorry to give you an order,” he apologized. “But it’s very important we don’t offend the royal family.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky repeated, because he was still mad but on his best behavior. Did his father have to give the order so early in the day? Bucky had to sit completely still all through his lessons and couldn’t sneak away to climb trees during languages the way he normally did. Bucky learned languages faster than any of his peers, and he got bored easily. Listening to their poor pronunciation was sometimes torture, and today he had to endure it with his hands folded primly atop his desk. He couldn’t even convince Rebecca to counter the order because that wouldn’t be acting on his best behavior, either.

He submitted to his bath without a word of complaint and even scrubbed under his fingernails without prompting. He was already exhausted of being on his best behavior by the time they got to the palace. His obedience wasn’t automatic—he still had to do it himself, so every time he forgot and let his posture slouch or his mind wander from his parents’ boring conversation, he got a stomachache.

His mother pressed a kiss to the top of his head just before they got out of the carriage. “Just a few hours,” she promised. “Then you’ll be done. You can complain to me for as long as you want afterward.”

“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” Bucky said pleasantly. “I’d love to.”

Winifred snorted at him, because he was obeying but still managing to sass her. Bucky knew she secretly loved when he did that. She would have hated to see him obey without a fight.

They took their seats at the high table. Bucky was a little impressed despite himself. The goblets were gold. There were servants milling about, and Bucky had to remind himself he couldn’t sneak amongst them to explore the palace.

It was ages before the queen and prince entered, and everyone had to stand when they did. The prince was a little runt of a thing—he was probably smaller than Becca, even though he was Bucky’s age and therefore two whole years older than her. His whole body was small and scrawny. Bucky was starting to grow, getting aches in the middle of the night while his bones stretched, but the prince didn’t look like that was a problem he had.

There was a lot of bowing and curtseying and Bucky wanted to roll his eyes. Why should he have to bow to someone just because of their blood? Could the prince hit a homerun or climb the highest tree in the forest? Those were things Bucky considered worth bowing over, not sitting in some fancy throne all day.

The night was going fine, no hiccups to record, and Bucky stayed polite and on his best behavior through the meal. He had to admit, he got a little more intrigued with the prince when he thanked all the servants by name and got scolded by his mother more than once for being too loud or eating too hastily or doodling on his napkin.

And then the cake happened.

“Have some cake,” the prince said, sweeping a hand at the cake a servant had just put in front of him. He barked it at Bucky, really, an order in the truest sense, and his mother gave him a narrow-eyed look that made him blush.

Bucky couldn’t focus on that. His parents had abandoned him somewhere and he’d just been giving an order that was going to prove disastrous. Because the prince hadn’t said, “Eat your cake” or “Eat the one piece of cake in front of you”; no, the prince had said, “Have some cake.” Unspecific orders were the worst kind.

Bucky tried to hold back. He clenched every muscle in an effort not immediately devour the cake. He took very small bites, eating as slowly as possible. It was all no use. Eventually, he finished his piece of cake. But his curse wouldn’t let him stop eating.

Bucky clenched his fist around his fork, willing himself to overcome. His head started spinning. He needed more cake. He had to eat more cake. He tried taking deep breaths. There was buzzing in his ears.

“What’s wrong?” The prince asked.

“Do you see my mother anywhere?” Bucky managed to choke out. He was going to fly apart into a million pieces. He was going to throw up. He was starting to sweat.

“I don’t know who your mother is,” the prince told him with a shrug. If Bucky weren’t about to die from lack of cake, he’d laugh. Maybe, if the prince weren’t the prince and they were in the same lessons, they would be friends.

“I think she’s dancing with your father,” the queen said kindly. “Is there something you need?”

I need more cake. “No, Your Highness, thank you, Your Highness,” Bucky’s mouth said, because he needed more cake but he also had to be on his best behavior. It was too much. He couldn’t take it anymore. He lunged at the piece of cake discarded on the table next to him. But he pounding in his head hadn’t subsided. Devouring more cake was not being on his best behavior. What was he supposed to do? He’d gotten two competing orders.

“You really like cake, huh?” The prince laughed. Bucky was going to cry. He was going to throw up while he was eating cake. He couldn’t stop. He looked around desperately, mentally screaming for his mother or father.

“Hey, what’s the matter with you?” The prince sounded concerned now, and Bucky’s heart squeezed again. Worrying the prince was not being on his best behavior. He was going to break down in sobs soon.

“I need my mother,” Bucky mumbled. Then, blessedly, his mother appeared, and she could see instantly from the look on his face that something was wrong.


“Mama,” Bucky practically sobbed. “He said have some cake.”

It didn’t take any time at all for her to understand. “Stop eating the cake, James.” His muscles relaxed. He set down the fork. But he still needed to get away. He wasn’t being on his best behavior. He stood so quickly he knocked into his mother. Another stab of pain in his stomach. He bowed as best he could.

“Forgive my manners, Highness…es,” he amended at the last moment, giving them each a formal nod. He was a minute away from vomiting, and that would make it even worse because vomiting at the queen’s table was certainly not his best behavior. “I gotta go.”

He sped away and made it to the front hall before he had to drop to his knees, gasping. His mother caught up to him easily. “Don’t worry about your best behavior,” she said quickly. It was enough to stop the pounding in his head, but it came a moment too late, and he threw up into a potted plant. Bucky was crying a little, not because of the pain from his curse anymore but from embarrassment and rage and the after-effects of disobedience.

His mother stroked his hair back from his forehead. “James, I’m sorry,” she murmured. “We shouldn’t have given you orders and then left you.”

It wasn’t long before his father came looking for them, and he took one look at the sweat, tears, and snot on James’s face and his own took on the same guilt as Winifred’s.

“Nathan is bringing the carriage around,” he said gently. “We’ll go straight home. I’m sorry, son.”

They babied him the rest of the night, giving him a second warm bath and letting him bring the stray dog up to his room, but he didn’t feel well enough to even enjoy it. He fell asleep with his face buried in the dog’s fur, his tears mingling with the dirt caked there and turning it to mud. He hated his curse. He would give anything to break it.

Bucky had wandered away from his lessons again. It wasn’t his fault, as he repeatedly insisted to his parents. It was boring. He already spoke French better than his instructor and was well on his way to surpassing the man in Latin, as well. Why should he have to sit in a stuffy room on a beautiful spring day?

He was in the marketplace, thinking he might try his hand at charming one of the shop girls for a sweet roll—it had worked once before, and he was getting better at the charming act, though he always had to be wary of strangers—when he heard a commotion coming from an alley. He wandered over and saw his mangy stray being barraged by some boys throwing rocks at him.

“Hey!” Bucky howled indignantly. “Stop that!”

The dog, whom they’d all started calling Dum-Dum thanks to Elizabeth’s limited grasp of words and Annabelle’s little-girl idea of humor, saw him and immediately whined, trying to get closer to him, but one of the boys pulled at his tail. Bucky saw red, and he was ready to charge in fist-first when he noticed another kid on the ground, beside the dog. It looked like Dum-Dum was standing over him, protecting him. The boy spat blood and got to his feet.

“You heard him. Stop it,” he said, and Bucky felt a jolt in his spine. That was the prince. These boys clearly didn’t know that—no way would they have dared disobey him if they did.

“Thought we told you to shut up,” one boy said, sending the prince sprawling with a kick. That made Bucky even madder. These kids were all older, sixteen at least, and the prince was tiny enough as it was. Nothing about this was fair.

And so he dove in, punching and kicking and even biting when necessary. The prince helped as best he could, but he was wheezing the way Dum-Dum did when Bucky tried to get him to run too far, and he already had bloody knuckles and a black eye blooming. Dum-Dum, for his part, clawed and bit at the boys, and eventually they ran off.

“Have fun with your ugly mutt!” One turned over his shoulder to yell. Bucky snorted. It was an order, but not one hard to follow.

“I will!” He called back, one hand already smoothing over Dum-Dum’s fur to see if he was injured.

“Not talking about the dog!” The boy shot back. Bucky glanced quickly at the prince and saw his face turn red.

“You alright?” Bucky asked, trying to tramp down on the giddy feeling he was getting. He rolled his eyes at himself. Now he was going to have fun with the prince, regardless of circumstance. So irritating.

“’m fine,” the prince insisted around a few coughs.

“You sure?” Bucky asked, concerned despite the smile he was holding back.

“Yes,” the prince said. “I’m not some kind of invalid.” He was leaning a little bit against Dum-Dum, but Bucky wasn’t going to mention it. Dum-Dum didn’t seem to mind.

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Alright, but you did just get the snot kicked outta you by some bigger kids.”

The prince huffed. “I can handle it. I had ‘em on the ropes.”

Bucky let himself laugh at that, but he threw an arm around the prince’s shoulders so he didn’t think Bucky was making fun of him. “Course you did.”

“James, right?” The prince asked. Bucky wrinkled his nose.

“Bucky,” he corrected. “Only my parents and tutors call me James. You’re the—Steven, right?”

The prince wrinkled his nose right back. “Steve,” he said. “Only my mother and tutors call me Steven.” Bucky laughed at that. He liked Steve. He had a streak of something a little bitter, maybe what Bucky’s mother would call wicked. It wasn’t evil, not like Zola. It was fun.

Bucky wasn’t really paying attention to where they were going, content to follow the prince, Dum-Dum padding along beside them, but before long he realized they were on the path to the palace.

“Oh,” he said awkwardly. Should he have put his arm around the prince? That wasn’t proper, probably. He saw the prince’s face drop a little and he squirmed away from Bucky.

“Thanks for helping,” he said, stiff and formal now in a way he wasn’t before. “You can go if you want.”

Bucky saw the flash of hurt in his eyes and felt a little pang in his chest. “What if I don’t want?” He asked. “You gotta go home now? I was gonna climb some trees, if you want to come.”

Steve tipped his head to the side for a moment, assessing Bucky, and then his face split into a smile that quickly turned to a wince as it pulled at the cut on his lip. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll race ya.”

It wasn’t much of a race, considering Bucky’s legs were so much longer than Steve’s and Steve’s breathing sounded a bit like an old train coming down the tracks, but Bucky held back a little so he only won by a few feet. Dum-Dum trotted dutifully at Steve’s side, like he was making sure Steve didn’t fall down dead.

“Beat ya, punk!” Bucky crowed.

Steve scowled. “You’re a jerk,” he muttered. It made Bucky laugh again. They scrambled up the tree, and Bucky saw Steve grimacing a few times as he reached for branches so he gave him a few boosts under guise of nudges. Steve narrowed his eyes like he knew what Bucky was doing, but he didn’t complain. Dum-Dum barked at them, mournful at being left behind on the ground, but it wasn’t like he’d enjoy being up the tree, either.

They stayed in the tree for a long time, perched on branches with their backs against the trunk, swiping apples hanging around them and puckering their faces at the sour, unripe taste. They talked about food and complained about their lessons, and Steve revealed he had no patience for learning.

“I like to know things,” he explained. “I just hate being stuck inside when the weather is good and I’m not si—” He stopped, embarrassed, and Bucky didn’t press it. He knew about keeping secrets.

The falling light soon sent shadows through the leaves, and before Bucky knew it there were a few royal guards clustered around their tree. Dum-Dum, usually one to greet people happily, sniffed warily. He must’ve been put off from his earlier encounter with the boys.

“Prince Steven,” one said, craning his neck back to look up into the tree. “You must come down at once. It isn’t safe. And you’ve given your mother quite a fright, running away from us like this again.”

Steve rolled his eyes at Bucky, jaw set in annoyance. “I didn’t run away, Coulson,” he argued. “I’m just being normal.”

Coulson looked pained. “Your Highness, I know Sir Timothy indulged your little adventures before his disappearance, but the simple fact is you are not normal.”

Dum-Dum growled warningly, and Steve’s little flinch at Coulson’s words had Bucky agreeing. He hated the sad look in Steve’s eyes, so he elbowed him.

“He’s right, you know,” he said gravely.

“He is?” Steve asked, and Bucky felt bad for his teasing because of how hurt and betrayed Steve sounded.

“No one normal has that big of a nose, Steve.”

Steve gaped for a minute, and then he cracked up laughing hard enough to make him wheeze again and lean off the branch as he clutched his side. Coulson looked even more distressed.

“Your Highness, please,” he begged. Steve sighed.

“I’m coming,” he said. “See ya around, Bucky,” he added more quietly as he started climbing down. Bucky followed him, something seizing up in his chest at the thought of not seeing Steve again.

“Race ya here tomorrow,” he blurted out, practically whispering so the guards wouldn’t hear.

Steve paused and looked up at Bucky. His nose was sprinkled with freckles and it made Bucky want to laugh.

“Okay,” he said with a wicked little grin. “First one to dodge their lessons wins.”

It didn’t even take a month before Steve and Bucky became inseparable. It was difficult for Bucky’s parents, at first, to treat Steve like any other kid and not call him “Highness” or “Prince Steven”, but Winifred saw the way Steve’s shoulders drooped and the disappointment in his eyes the first time she did it and made it her last.

Bucky, for his part, started to learn his way around the castle, including the secret passageways Steve used to sneak away from his guards.

“Is that safe?” Bucky asked, stomach twisting. He couldn’t stop picturing bandits coming in during the night, creeping down the twisting hall and finding Steve’s room. It wouldn’t be hard to overpower Coulson, who watched over Steve’s sleep, if there were more than one of them, and then Steve would be exposed and vulnerable. Someone could easily slip a knife between his visible ribs, cut across the pale line of his throat, and it made Bucky ill.

Steve rolled his eyes. “There are guards everywhere,” he pointed out. “Even if someone got in, which is unlikely with all the patrols, someone would catch them.”

Bucky couldn’t shake the image of Steve taking one last, gasping breath, and he shuddered at the thought. “You oughta tell the Commander,” he said. “It’s their job to keep you safe.”

Steve put his hands on his hips. “If I tell ‘em I won’t have any way to sneak out anymore. That what you want?”

Bucky couldn’t understand the tight feeling in his chest and throat. He was not quite fourteen and his dad had yet to sit him down and explain to him about bodies and feelings and love. All he knew was a world without Steve Rogers was a world he couldn’t bear.

He grabbed Steve’s arm and shook him a little. “You’re too important to let something happen to you, Rogers.”

Steve glared at him, yanking his arm away. “Because I’m the prince,” he said glumly. Bucky couldn’t take that, couldn’t take Steve thinking he was only worth something because of his blood. He grabbed Steve and pulled him roughly against his chest, muffling the indignant squawk Steve let out.

“Because you’re you,” Bucky whispered into his hair, not entirely sure why he was on the verge of tears.

Steve relented, which was unusual and probably had to do with how much of a weirdo Bucky was being, but he dragged Bucky along with him to see Fury, the head of the Royal Guard. “Probably the last time you’ll ever see me,” Steve huffed.

When Steve detailed his secret tunnels, Bucky saw Fury’s lips and eye-patch twitching a little. “You already knew,” he accused.

“We’ve known about those since Sir Timothy was here,” Fury admitted. Sir Timothy, Bucky had learned, used to be Steve's personal guard, before Coulson, but he'd vanished without a trace months ago. There was still a search party looking, because Steve insisted, but no one was very hopeful he was coming back.

“But you still let me sneak out?” Steve asked. Now Fury was definitely trying not to laugh.

“Well, I wasn’t much for lessons when I was your age, either,” he revealed. He winked, though Bucky wasn’t sure if it counted as winking if it was the only eye he had or if it was merely a blink. “I’m nice like that.”

Bucky slept a little easier, knowing Fury was making sure Steve was safe, and he didn’t even have to lose Steve.

Or so he thought, until winter came, after they both turned fourteen and Bucky had only a few months to fifteen and he grew three inches and Steve didn’t grow at all. Bucky was waiting by their tree, breath puffing in front of him, and Steve came staggering out. Dum-Dum ran to his side immediately, yapping in a way that almost sounded worried.

“Steve!” Bucky cried, hot on Dum-Dum’s heels. Steve’s face was ashen and sweaty and he was breathing hard. When Bucky grabbed him, he could feel Steve’s pulse racing in his thin wrist. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Steve croaked, voice sounding painful as it scraped its way out of his throat. “What are we doing today?”

“I think you’re sick,” Bucky said. “You better get back to bed.”

“I’m not an invalid,” Steve snapped, swaying on his feet.

“Okay,” Bucky soothed, not sure why Steve was getting his hackles up over a cold. Dum-Dum was jittering in circles around Steve. “But even superheroes gotta rest, you know. Sounds like you got a cold or something.” Bucky reached out and felt Steve’s forehead, pulling back with a startled cry when he felt how hot it was. “You’re burning up!”

“I’m fine,” Steve insisted.

“Steve—” Bucky started.

“Bucky!” Steve cut him off. But then his eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted like Bucky’s ma did last year when they found the nest of mice in the cellar. Bucky caught him with a worried yell, Dum-Dum barking up a storm beside him and leading the way up the palace walk.

Bucky got maybe three feet inside the castle grounds before a guard came running. “What have you done to him?” The man demanded. Bucky didn’t know him.

“I didn’t—I—” Bucky didn’t know what to say. Steve was still limp in his arms. Bucky hadn’t realized how skinny Steve really was until he realized he could lift him without too much effort at all. He had a painful lump in his throat and he couldn’t quite draw a full breath, not from exertion but from terror.

“Mr. Barnes, what happened?” Coulson asked, and seeing his familiar face gave Bucky a wave of relief so strong he could cry.

“I don’t know,” he said, biting his lip hard. “He—I think he’s sick; he has a fever, and he just—he fainted…” He was babbling, and he refused to give Steve up when the first guard tried to take him from Bucky’s arms.

“I'll take the prince,” the guard said.

“No,” Bucky argued. “I’ll carry him.”

“Come on, then,” Coulson cut short any further argument. “Let’s get him to the healers.”

Bucky had never been to this part of the palace. He’d only been to the kitchens, the great hall, Steve’s room, and the library. He’d seen barely half of Steve’s home.

Even with Steve as skinny as he was, Bucky was a little out of breath when they finally reached the infirmary, a room with white walls and white curtains and a blazing fire. A woman in white took one look at Steve and tutted, gesturing to an empty bed for Bucky to put him down.

“Send for the queen,” Coulson told the guard, who saluted and left quickly.

“Is he gonna be okay?” Bucky asked, digging his fingernails into his palms.

“Get that dog out of my infirmary,” the healer said, and Bucky swallowed hard. It wasn’t an answer. Coulson put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder and steered him out of the room. Dum-Dum didn't want to go; Bucky had to grab him by the scruff of his neck and drag him, and he was growling all the way.

“Let the healers do their job,” Coulson said. “I’m sure the cooks would whip you up something if you headed down to the kitchens.”

“I’m not hungry,” Bucky mumbled. He had no intention of leaving the hall in front of the infirmary door, and he didn’t for hours, waiting through the queen sweeping into the room and the shadows lengthening through the windows and the servants lighting the lamps in the hall—until the queen came out and gestured at him.

“Come with me, please,” she said, and then he didn’t have a choice. He wasn’t sure if he would’ve gone with her if not for his curse. She led him down the hall into a small guest chamber bigger than Bucky’s room and his sisters’ room put together. She wasn’t saying anything, and it was making Bucky nervous.

"I swear I didn't hurt him," Bucky blurted out. His face quickly went red. He shouldn't have spoken to the queen before she spoke to him. But he couldn't help it. What if she thought he hurt Steve and never let him see him again?

"I know," she told him gently. "Steven gets sick very often."

Bucky's brow wrinkled. "He hasn't gotten sick since I've known him." Then he went even redder. He certainly shouldn't have contradicted the queen.

She just nodded, though. "The spring and summer are easier on him. Steven is..." Her eyes went distant as she looked out the window. "Steven is a bit fragile."

"No disrespect, ma'am, but no he's not," Bucky said. In for a penny, and all that. She looked back at him and smiled, a quiet little laugh bubbling from her lips.

"I'm very glad the two of you met," she said. She looked very sad. "Steven doesn't have many friends. People are always on their best behavior with him, since he's the prince, and if they don't realize he's the prince they can be..." She paused. "Cruel."

Bucky thought of the boys who were beating Steve up that day all those months ago, nearly a year ago now. He frowned. "Well, they're idiots. Steve's the best."

There was something in her smile he didn't understand. "I'm telling you that Steven gets sick so you'll understand, Bucky. He doesn't appreciate getting sick, and he tries to fight it and push through. Sometimes he needs someone to help him, but he won't admit it."

Bucky didn’t even have to consider that before he was vowing, "I'll help him."

She smiled at him again. "I know you will, Bucky. You're welcome to sleep here until Steve is better. I will send a message to your parents."

"Wow, thanks," he said, taken aback. He'd thought he was going to have to sneak in later tonight. The queen nodded at him again and turned to leave. "Hey," Bucky called after her. It was disrespectful, but she didn't seem to mind any of his other disrespect so far. "How'd you know my nickname?" Most adults only called him James.

Queen Sarah looked over her shoulder, laughing at him a little. "Darling, Steven doesn't stop talking about you unless he's not talking at all."

Bucky had gotten Queen Sarah's permission to sleep on a cot beside Steve's and he'd brought Dum-Dum in, too, to the healer's disapproval, so he was there when Steve finally woke up.

"Bucky?" He croaked. Bucky flew up, grabbing for the pitcher of water on the table.

"Here, drink some water," he said, naturally bossy from being a big brother. Dum-Dum was sitting up and alert, whining lowly.

"What are you doing here?" Steve asked. His hair was sticking to his forehead in sweaty clumps and his eyes were a little glassy, but at least he was talking.

"You swooned in my arms!" Bucky told him. "Couldn't leave you all alone."

Steve scowled. “I hate this.” He didn’t just sound angry; his voice sounded tight like he was going to cry, and he bent his head so Bucky couldn’t see. Bucky pretended not to notice, because he was a good friend.

“Steve, everybody gets sick,” Bucky pointed out, trying to sound cheerful. “’s not a big deal.”

Steve fidgeted with the blankets over his lap. “It’s a big deal for me,” he admitted, sounding defeated. “I get sick all the time. The healers think I might not even live long enough to be king. I’m…I’m weak.”

Bucky’s heart was squeezing painfully in his chest. The thought of Steve dying was unbearable, just like when he’d been worried about someone getting in the castle and killing him. He’d never thought about Steve’s own body doing the job.

“Hey,” he said roughly. “You might get sick but you’re not weak.”

Steve snorted, annoyed now. “Bucky, I can hardly climb our tree. You always have to help me and pretend you’re not, like I’m a little kid.” He pounded a fist onto the mattress. “I probably wouldn’t be a good king, anyway,” he whispered.

Bucky couldn’t handle that, couldn’t take the sadness in Steve’s eyes or the doubt in his voice. He climbed up onto the bed and wormed around so he was tucked around Steve.

“You’re the only guy I’d trust to be king,” he said loyally. “Your ma’s a good queen, but if it’s gonna be anyone else, it has to be you. You stand up for what’s right and you’re not afraid to fight, even when you know you’re gonna lose. You’re the bravest guy I know.”

Steve tipped his head against Bucky’s shoulder. “Yeah?” He asked, voice small like it never was in the daylight.

“Yeah,” Bucky promised, and maybe it was a little weird but he turned his head and kissed Steve’s hair. It didn’t feel weird. It felt easy as anything, natural, and it felt good. He wished he could make Steve feel better—he wished he could tell him about the curse, and how it made Bucky feel weak and scared and like he wasn’t a real person.

Bucky opened his mouth, trying to force the words out, but all it did was make his arms shake enough that Steve pulled back and gave him a funny look. Bucky sighed a little and pulled him back in, closing his mouth. He couldn’t tell Steve. He resolved to get someone to counter the order not to tell anyone as soon as he got home. Steve would feel better if he knew Bucky’s weakness. He wouldn’t feel so alone.

They fall back to sleep like that, curled around each other protectively, and it was many years before they would truly part.