There is no such thing as love at first sight.
Before we continue, we must be perfectly clear on that matter. Love at first sight is balderdash—a silly, fanciful notion borne on children’s wishes and lies spun by unlucky dreamers.
However, love at hundredth sight? Thousandth? That, my darlings, is perfectly reasonable.
It was a lucky thing, then, that the young king and his pretend knight were more the latter than the former. Certainly, the king remembered none of those sights and the pretend knight only the most recent, but being as love ran truer than faded memories, what did it matter?
No, it was not first love that drew them together, neither was it mere infatuation that had them walking through the gardens, hand-in-hand, exchanging shy glances and secret smiles. It was old love, bone-deep and bound up in their very souls.
“Where do you come from?” James asked as they stepped down from the terrace and onto the snow-covered garden path.
“Nowhere very important,” Steve replied, eager to avoid a lie as he took in his surroundings, focusing on one topiary in particular. “That’s an excellent lion.”
(Truthfully, it was a bit lopsided, but that is another story altogether.)
“Is it?” James said, inspecting it. “I don’t even notice them anymore. The lions, that is to say.”
“They’re the symbol of your house, aren’t they?”
“They are,” agreed the boy who had never allowed himself to roar.
"They suit you," Steve said, before squeezing James' fingers, feeling a memory, clean and clear, prick at his mind. He'd known another lion once, he was sure of it. A little boy with dark hair, playing at being the king of the jungle to make Steve laugh. Funny, that he'd think of Bucky now.
“Does it?” James said. “I never thought much of it before.”
“Oh yes,” Steve replied. “Not a vicious lion, though. Fierce when you have to be. Loyal, too.”
“But you hardly know me,” James protested. “We’ve only just met.”
“I suppose it’s just something in your nature,” Steve lied, thinking of the way James had charged after the runaway horse. His loyalty in keeping his promise and leaving the stag alive.
Steve wanted to tell him. To confess the when and how of their prior meeting. But how could he? James knew him as a boy, slight in stature and short of breath. He wouldn’t understand. Or, worse, he’d prefer this temporary version of Steve’s true self.
“My nature?” James echoed.
“Of course,” he smiled. “Aren’t all rulers lions, in the end?”
It was the wrong thing to say. James’ face was like a thundercloud, and Steve immediately regretted his choice of words.
“I’m no ruler yet,” James said stiffly.
“I shouldn’t have made assumptions…” Steve began. “I only...I was only saying something stupid about the hedge.”
James stopped, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he considered this man. This stranger who somehow did not feel strange. The way the light of the garden torches caught in his hair, his lips pink and cheeks rosy from the cold.
There was that feeling again. That intimate understanding, tugging him forward so fast he feared he might trip and fall right into the knight’s waiting arms.
“Do I—” James bit his tongue before shaking his head. “It’s the silliest thing. But I feel as though we’ve met—”
Steve, believing that James might recognize the rather unique bend of his nose, demurred, looking down before lifting their still-clasped hands to his lips, where he pressed a kiss to James’ frozen fingers. The gesture was so staggeringly romantic it served to distract James from his query, though that was undoubtedly because James was very young, and to the very young, romance can be quite overwhelming.
“Show me more of your gardens?” asked Steve, relieved that his ruse had worked, being as what he knew about romance could barely fill a thimble, most of it gleaned from Clint and Natasha, neither of whom were especially well-versed.
They made their way further into the maze of snow-capped hedges and trees, some gone spindly and brown with the season, others evergreen and biding their time until their friends rejoined them in the spring.
Turning the corner, they came upon a magnificent statue, this one a stone dryad clinging to the trunk of a living tree. Steve found something familiar in the dryad’s expression, and he smiled as he stepped close, stroking his free hand down the creature’s unmoving cheek.
“She’s nice,” he said. “Does she have a name?”
James frowned, shaking his head. “No, I—but she ought to. I don’t—”
“What is it?”
“These gardens are here all year round,” he said slowly. “But I never come here.”
“Don’t you?” Steve looked back, one brow raised. “You know your way around the maze awfully well for someone who’s unfamiliar.”
“Yes, that’s…” James sighed, furrowing his brow.
The thing of it was, he did know. He knew every twist and turn of these gardens. If need be, he could have walked the two of them back to the palace or further into the maze without a second thought. He knew these gardens as surely as he knew how to dance, yet he couldn’t recall when he’d learned about either.
Another casualty of his sickness, he supposed.
“You ought to know,” he said quietly. “If we. Because…” he shrugged, gesturing to their entwined hands. “Sometimes I have trouble remembering things. I get very sick, and I—”
“You’re sick?” Steve said. “So am I.”
James scoffed. “You don’t look sick.”
Steve stiffened, his hand loosening its grip as something akin to disappointment shone in his eyes. “Appearances can be deceiving. You don’t look sick, either.”
“I’m not—” he frowned. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have made assumptions. My sickness is...it’s like I said. I get confused. And I forget. Alexander—”
“That’s...the regent,” Steve said, his face drawn into a sneer.
“Yes,” Bucky said, surprised at his tone. “He sees that I receive treatments. He’s very good to me…”
Even as he'd said it, James felt that it wasn't right, and Steve's question confirmed it. Alexander is very good to me —the thought was in his head. The response on his tongue. And yet, he found that he didn’t believe it to be so.
“It seems to me,” Steve said. “That he bullies you, whether you’re sick or whether you’re well.”
How could Steve know that? James frowned. “No, he—”
“You’re frightened of him.”
Steve knew he ought not to push. Knew he was revealing something he could not yet know. But he couldn't help it—he'd never been good at keeping his tongue, and he'd seen what transpired between Alexander and James in the woods. How petrified James was of the man who was in charge of both his life and the welfare of his kingdom.
James took in a shaky breath. “No,” he said, haltingly, as he looked up to meet Steve’s eyes. “He’s the only one who helps me.”
Another line. Another lie.
“I don’t believe that’s true, either,” Steve said, drawing James away from the path and towards a bench which had been tucked under a bower of now-bare branches. “Haven’t you got friends?”
“No,” James frowned, even as Sam’s face sprang into his head. Sam was only an acquaintance. Not so good to him as Alexander, surely. Not a very good friend at all. Wasn’t that so?
James wasn’t sure.
His head was beginning to hurt.
“I could be your friend,” Steve said softly.
James looked up sharply at his words, sure he’d heard them spoken before. “But Alexander—”
“Are you the king or aren’t you?”
“I am,” James said, though it was more a question than a definitive answer.
“It seems to me,” said Steve, turning his head in a way that exposed the fine line of his jaw, perfectly matched to the stubborn set of his shoulders. “A king can do as he likes. Why should you—”
“A king serves his kingdom,” James snapped, his voice sharp.
“Oh,” Steve laughed, knocking their knees together. “There’s the lion.”
James couldn’t help but blush.
“Anyhow,” Steve went on. “All I mean to say is that you don’t serve this Alexander. He serves you, and he serves your kingdom. Whether or not you’re sick—and I’m sorry that you are—I think you ought to be allowed to make your own choices about your life and your friends. Don’t you?”
Now that Steve said it, James found the idea intriguing. Sam was his friend, he was sure of it. Steve could be his friend, too. After all, he was nearly a man grown—he’d be eighteen in barely a month’s time. Surely choosing them couldn’t corrupt him too terribly?
“I suppose,” he said after a moment. “We could be friends. But—”
“But as for the kingdom ,” James continued, casting Steve a reproachful look. “I’m so...forgetful. What if I make the wrong choice when it matters most?”
Steve considered the question, balancing what he knew of James with what lessons he’d had imparted to him over the years—from his mother, from Nick, from Natasha, even from Clint a time or two. He wasn’t sure of much; wasn’t sure whether James was sick, or only manipulated into believing himself to be. Wasn’t sure if he could save him at all, now that he knew the truth of his station.
But what he was sure of—what he felt right down to the quick—was that James was a good man. The kind of person who would be decent to a stag, or a lost boy in the woods. Kind and careful to the bitter end.
That was something.
“Perhaps you will make the wrong choice sometimes,” Steve said. “But I feel as though, because you are who you are, if you do make the wrong choice, it will be the wrong choice for the right reasons. Whereas this Alexander fellow—”
“How do you know so much?” James said, a bit breathless as he leaned closer to Steve’s warmth. “I don’t understand any of this.”
Steve smiled and bit his lip. "I don't know very much," he said. "Only that I've spent my life surrounded by good people. I was born to one, raised by another. My brother and sister are the best people I know. I know what good looks like, James. And I see the goodness in you."
A flush ran through James' body, and he sprang to his feet, pulling his hand from Steve's, which brought with it an instant sort of regret. "My head hurts," he said. "You can't say things like that, Steve. Please…"
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, though he didn’t look very sorry at all.
“I ought to go—” James began, taking a few steps back before nearly stumbling over an errant tree root.
“Wherever you’re going,” Steve said, rising to his feet and reaching out to steady him, recognizing the look of a spooked colt that was ready to run. “I’d like to go with you.”
It was only when Steve’s hand closed around James’ arm that he relaxed, allowing Steve to accompany him with a single nod.
Together, they wound their way further into the gardens, leaving the maze behind them and wandering far past what was well-kept and into the wildness of a place long forgotten.
“I think this was my mother’s,” James murmured as they stepped through a worn wooden gate into a small, walled garden lit only by the bright moon overhead reflecting off the snow.
“I’ve never been here before,” James said, walking towards an archway made of twining rose stems, long since dead. For someone unfamiliar, he certainly knew his way.
“Do you miss her?” Steve asked, ducking under the arch with him, the withered wood giving them scant cover from the snowfall.
“I never knew her.”
Steve frowned, something about that not quite sitting right with him. By his count, and Natasha’s story, the king would have been six or seven when she’d died—old enough to remember a little, at least. “Oh no?”
“No,” James said, before reaching into his jacket, down past his cravat, where he drew out an oval locket on a simple gold chain. “I carry this, though.”
Stepping closer, Steve watched as James opened the necklace to reveal a miniature portrait of a woman who resembled him greatly—same dark hair, same dimple in her chin, same smile on her lips.
She looked awfully familiar.
“I know it’s foolish,” James said, as Steve frowned in his confusion. “But I like having her close.”
“It’s not foolish,” Steve murmured, reaching out to draw the locket closer, studying the picture, then James, then the picture once more.
“I don’t understand,” Steve said. “Now my head hurts.”
They were standing so close, there, under the winter sky. The pretend knight and the not-quite king, frozen by their forgotten past.
Neither of them would be able to say who leaned in first, but it happened, all the same, their lips brushing together in a tentative, awkward kiss. It was terrible and wonderful, memorable for its loveliness and gawkishness in the way most first kisses are.
Steve pulled back, laughter on his lips. “My nose got in the way,” he said apologetically.
“That’s alright,” James said. “It’s not a bad nose.”
“Too big,” Steve shrugged. “I’ve had it broken a time or two.”
“I don’t mind,” James said, before leaning in again.
Hesitation gave way to tenderness, their second kiss lasting longer than the first. That one was broken by James, who pulled back with a shy smile. Steve chased after him, seeking out a third when the chiming of the clock tower rang out across the gardens.
Steve froze as the bells died away; only eleven chimes left.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “James, I’m sorry, I have to go.”
He would come back. He would find his way again, of that he was certain. But he couldn't let James see. Couldn't begin to explain. It wasn't the right time, and there was never enough time.
He’d have to find his fairy godfathers. Beg for more magic. Deeper magic. Magic that would keep him big and strong and brave.
Though as he turned on his heel and began to run, he didn’t feel very brave at all.
The second chime sounded. Ten to go.
“Wait!” James shouted behind him.
Steve prayed he could find his way through the gardens, taking turn after turn in the maze as time stretched and bent before him, his legs carrying him along at high speed.
The third chime sounded as he left the gardens. Nine left.
The strength in his legs was fading; the magic beginning to weaken its hold.
Eight now, the bells tolling into the night.
“Steve, please ,” James’ voice rang out again, but further off now—Steve was losing him, by what miracle he wasn’t sure, given that James knew the grounds better than he did. There wasn’t time to think about that, no time to ponder further magic.
He charged across the terrace and through the crowd, reaching the top of the steps where he could see Lucky waiting at the bottom. Right where he'd left him. Only now, he was looking slightly more like a giant dog than anything resembling a noble steed.
Steve began to run down the stairs, his mind full of mixed up thoughts. The woman in the miniature—the queen. His mother. Peggy’s house. A boy holding a paper star. A boy named Bucky. A boy with dark hair and wide eyes and—
As he neared the bottom of the steps, Steve looked back, but only once. Selfishly wanting one last glimpse because it had all gone wrong, somehow. He hadn't rescued James, hadn't done anything at all, really. Wasn't even sure he could come back, because how could he let James see him small and weak when he'd obviously preferred the bigger, stronger version?
James was standing at the top of the stairs, wild-eyed and frantic. “Steve!”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, more to himself than to James as he turned away.
Something slipped. A leather strap loosened. The shield clattering to the ground behind him. Damn, damn, damn …
“Steve, I don’t understand—” Bucky’s voice. Closer now.
No time to fetch it. He’d be lighter without it, anyhow, even if he would miss the star. The star!
A sob rose in his chest as he reached the bottom of the steps and flung himself onto Lucky’s back, spurring him onwards into the darkness.
No more James.
No more magic.
No more secrets.
Steve tumbled to the dirt outside the gates of the palace, Lucky yelping as his master landed on him with a rather undignified grunt.
And so, there Steve sat, heaving for breath with his dog at his side, nothing to show for himself but the tattered blue rags of a soldier’s suit clinging to his now-small body.
Instinct drove him the moment he made out hooves in the distance, crawling to the side of the road, Lucky following. They hid behind a bush as half a dozen riders went roaring past—members of the royal guard, no doubt. James must have sent them, but they wouldn’t be looking for him as he was now. Only as he had been.
How had they mounted so quickly? More magic. Perhaps the same magic that had allowed him his escape within twelve strokes of the chimes.
Steve waited until he was sure he was alone before getting to his feet, scrubbing a hand across his red eyes and squaring his shoulders, facing the world as a failure.
Because he had failed. James was still trapped within the palace walls, more so now than before, and Steve hadn’t been very brave at all. Hadn’t used the magic he’d been gifted. Hadn’t done anything, really, save for stealing a kiss in a snowy garden.
He had been a fool to think one night would be enough.