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In a Color Unseen

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Steve hiked through grass laden with dew, to the top of the hill overlooking his village. The sun’s first rays had yet to burn away the mist curling through the valley, casting a veil over the sleeping houses and fields. Barely allowing himself a moment to catch his breath, Steve set to unpacking his equipment.  

The easel went up first, followed by the wood panel covered in yesterday’s charcoal sketch, and then his paints and pallet, all judiciously laid out in the hazy pre-dawn light. The horizon glowed with the coming day as Steve raced to mix his paints, scooping the pigments out of painstakingly labeled jars and incorporating it into the egg-yolk binder.

He began filling in the charcoal outline, building up the colors of the underpainting before the sun rose in earnest.  As he worked, the village below woke. The air filled with birdsong, and the crowing of the village’s roosters attempting to outdo each other.

Smoke poured from chimneys while children ran off to the cowsheds for morning milking. Steve could just make out Peter hauling two big pails back to where May waited by the door of their home. Father Lantom had flung open the doors to the old stone church to greet those that came for the morning meal.

Steve’s brush moved ever faster as he tried to capture the scene in quick, but precise strokes.

The sun rose, spilling liquid gold across the vale. A rider on a white horse crested the hill with the sun. They galloped along the sun’s path, a cloak streaming behind the rider like a banner. Perhaps it was red, the color of the poppies that swayed in the field behind Bucky’s old house, or the garnets on Father Lantom’s chalice and the sacramental wine given to the faithful.

He painted this new, familiar figure in, taking care that he didn’t accidentally dip his brush in the wrong color in his haste. He ruined more than one study that way, without even noticing until someone pointed it out.

The rider continued through the village, before stopping and dismounting at the base of Steve’s hill. His brown, windswept curls set over warm eyes and strikingly handsome face came into view—Tony.

Tony lead his horse, Andromeda, up along the same path Steve traveled. His clothes, in the style of a common man’s, though of such fine make that none but someone of Tony’s stature could afford it, were covered in dust from the road.

“Your Majesty,” Steve said, his heart caught in his throat. He briefly flailed about before bowing awkwardly with his brush and palette still in hand, suddenly glad of the breeze that carried the pungent smell of his paints away.

It all still felt faintly unreal, like the world had been completely upturned. Steve could see no discernable reason for the visit. Steve was nobody to warrant the King’s attention in the first place, let alone the near daily visits he’d been getting. Any moment Steve could simply blink and the world would be right again and Tony gone.

“I’d hoped to greet the sun with you,” Tony said, waving Steve up from his bow, “but my stable master thought to delay me. I only just escaped before the captain of my knights caught up with me.”

Steve set aside his brush with a soft sigh, regaining some of his composure. He had a teasing lilt to his voice when he said, “Though I am pleased to see you, you shouldn’t worry Sir Rhodes so, Your Majesty.”

“Then his days will be filled with naught but boredom.” Tony laughed, petting Andromeda’s neck merrily. He dipped his head at Steve. “It would please me greatly if you called me Tony.”

Steve looked down at his paints, mouth twisting into a wry smile. Tony’s name sat unspoken upon his lips, light and sweet, but he was entirely without status; he could not call the King by his Christian name, not for the world to hear.

He said, “So you’ve told me, Your Majesty.”

The smile faded from Tony’s face, and he busied himself with removing a basket from Andromeda’s saddle. Steve felt a pang of loss, but he could not allow himself to be drawn further into the illusion Tony’s attention created.

“You should finish it,” Tony said a moment later, nodding to Steve’s easel. “It is fascinating to see you paint. I have never seen anyone capture the movement of my knights so well.”

A rush of heat flooded Steve’s cheeks. “I am not painting your knights, Your Majesty.”

He hadn’t thought his painting of Sam and Redwing would be noticed like this. It had been nothing more than a small gift to congratulate Sam for winning the King’s tourney.

“Nonetheless, I wish to see you paint,” Tony said, his smile returning, though not as bright as before.

Steve tore his eyes from him to take up his brush once more. He’d lost precious time speaking with Tony, already his paints had begun to dry. Thankfully, he was almost done with this stage of painting.

When Steve finally turned away from his work, he found Tony had laid out a feast atop a large blanket. Fruits and fresh bread spilled out around parcels of cheese. A roasted fowl of some kind sat upon a fine porcelain dish, ringed by delicacies the likes of which Steve had never seen. His stomach rumbled and off in the distance he heard the Church’s bell ringing the call to Morning Prayer. He had missed breakfast.

Offering Steve a slice of bread loaded with jam, Tony asked, “Are the pigments I sent satisfactory?”

Steve hesitated. This was different from accepting a meal from Father Lantom and different still from the pigments and brushes Tony had sent before. It felt dangerously close to stepping off a cliff he had no business being near.

Tony’s lips quirked in a nervous smile, his hand slowly lowering.

“Thank you,” Steve said, wiping off his hands and shyly accepting the food. He sat a respectful distance from Tony. “They are very fine, Your Majesty.”

They ate quietly for a short while, Tony handing Steve bits of this and that to try, slowly closing the space between them. Some of the foods were familiar, though much finer than Steve’s usual fare, some were strange and exciting.

“But…?” Tony tilted his chin expectantly while he worked to split open a fruit. Then at Steve’s bewildered look, he said, “The pigments are fine, but?”

Steve bit his lip, uncertain if he should continue. Tony raised an eyebrow at him. “I am not so familiar with the colors, that is all. Peter says they are much more vibrant, I’m sure they will be beautiful once I learn to properly identify and mix them.”

Tony hummed thoughtfully as, at last, he broke the fruit open to reveal a waxy white interior dotted with dozens of little seeds. He broke off a handful of seeds and passed them to Steve before taking another handful for himself.

They were strange, jewel-like and sticky with juice that stained his hand. Steve squeezed his eyes shut and ate the whole handful at once, gasping at the bright tart-sweet juice bursting over his tongue.

Tony chuckled, a smile breaking wide over his face. It was a soft, sweet sound that somehow felt like a victory, though Steve hadn’t been trying to draw it out. Without really meaning to, he found himself leaning in, not quite bridging the small distance left between them.

The fruit’s juices dyed Tony’s lips a rich, dark color. Steve’s heart fluttered in his chest, recklessly trying to soar. Oh, Lord, was he beautiful.

“They were brought by traders from the East, I thought—” Tony began.

The sound of approaching hooves interrupted him, and Sir Rhodes called out, “Your Majesty, the Royal Adviser has been looking for you.”

Steve froze as the weight of what he’d forgotten, if only for a moment, crashed down on him.

Tony threw Sir Rhodes a most displeased look. “Obie and his damn suitors can wait.”

“He is getting impatient, and rightfully so.” Sir Rhodes dismounted from his horse, greeting Andromeda with a pat on the nose before turning to Tony with a harried scowl. “There are a mere two months left to decide upon a spouse and make the necessary arrangements.”

The words stung, painfully reminding Steve of reality. Tony must marry within a year of his coronation, and no matter how much his attention felt like something more, he was not for the likes of Steve. Steve knew that.

Steve stood to leave, murmuring, “Thank you, Your Majesty,” but the rest of his words caught in his throat, and he found he could not move an inch further. He needed to leave, but he had not been dismissed. Almost as if he were invisible, the world moved on without him.

Sir Rhodes knelt and began packing away the feast. “Come, you have three new ones waiting for you back at the castle, and you cannot receive them like that,” He said with a sharp look at Tony’s dusty attire.

Tony sighed, and then also got to his feet, wiping off his clothes. “It seems I am being called away.”

Being addressed broke the spell and at last words spilled from Steve’s mouth, but they weren’t what he expected.  “Your cloak, might I ask what color it is?”

A look of surprise passed over Tony’s face before he said, “Its red.”

Red, like the fields where Bucky ran beside him so long ago.

Red, like the stones on the chalice locked away in the church, worth more than anything else in his tiny village.

Red, like the wine he’d been told was the blood of Christ.

Sir Rhodes finished loading the basket and strapping it back on to Andromeda’s saddle. Pulling his cloak back on, Tony mounted her. Steve watched him ride off, feeling as though the ground had disappeared from beneath his feet.

Steve had known it from the start.

Eventually Tony’s attention would fade, he’d marry a nobleman or a foreign princess, and Steve would be left with only memories. Steve looked back at his painting, at the rider with the flowing red cloak he had captured in careful strokes.

Well, perhaps not only memories.