It made Steve’s blood boil to hear his commanding officer’s words. “I don’t want to see anybody trying to be a hero; none of us can win a battle against those tanks. We can’t risk all our troops just to rescue a few. It’s a hard truth, but they understood what they were signing up for in this war.”
He stifled down his opinions in front of Colonel Phillips, but the words ricocheted in his head over and over, growing with heat until he knew what he had to do.
Steve snuck off after nightfall, a rocket launcher strapped to his back and the bare beginnings of a plan in his head.
The neutral zone between the two fronts was a sorry excuse for a forest, but it still offered him cover. Steve ducked between the wiry trees, keeping low in the shadows as he caught his breath between sprints.
There they stood: imposing giants on the landscape, a sore spot of gleaming metal against what used to be lush green. But these tanks were not built for blending into landscapes: the Goliaths carved new ones in their path. They were mountains on wheels, each with a volcano of a canon at the ready. There were only two of the hulking Goliaths before him, towering over their smaller brethren, but two was all that was needed against an army of flesh and bone.
Steve balled his hands into fists, his resolve hardening. They had brought giants to a fistfight. History had taught him that these soldiers fought dirty; experience taught him that they didn’t care about wartime rules. This was an enemy that stole secrets, gassed neutral towns, and didn’t believe in keeping prisoners alive. He knew he had only a little time left before they played their usual games.
Edging closer through the last line of trees before the scorched edge of camp, he paused to observe. This late at night there were only two relaxed sentries chatting near the tanks. There was no fence, as the Goliaths were wall enough. Beyond the tanks the lights of the encampment were dim with only a few tents still seemingly awake. Steve didn’t know everything about these strangers, but he knew people. People tend to get sloppier with confidence, and nothing raises confidence like knowing you brought the biggest gun to the fight.
Timing the lazy sweeps of light from the sentry towers, he darted to the nearest tank in between arcs, hugging against its hull to stay in the shadow. He quickly deemed it unnecessary. The largest structure near him was brightly lit amongst the surrounding crop of grey tents and the noises of enjoyment carried loudly across the air. The officers were having a party. Steve guessed they were celebrating their prisoner haul of the day. Out of habit he ran his hands over the location of his launcher, his sidearm, and the knife tucked in its holster against his body.
He took a deep breath, trying to calm the rage that coiled his muscles into a spring. These bullies deserved to be punched, but he wasn’t here to deliver revenge. This was a stealth mission, hidden from both sides. If Steve failed he would be captured and killed by one side, or shunned with dishonor from the other.
He turned his head ever so slightly around the corner of the tank and was relieved to see no sentries posted outside the tents. But not everyone could be gathered together at the celebration. He darted between structures, avoiding any lights or stray eyes, working his way systematically through the camp. Further back he found was he was looking for. Another tent was lit up, a beacon in the dark that set his pulse racing.
There was an acrid smoke in the air but thankfully it was from the cigars, not guns, that dangled from the officer’s fingers as they chatted outside the tent. Steve’s mind raced as he calculated his options, then he threw those quickly out as he saw his chance. The officers laughed raucously about something before parting ways, one officer walking off and the other stepping back inside. Steve sped forward while their backs were turned and snuck a boot toe in the tent flap, keeping it open by an immeasurable sliver. There were two uniformed men tied to chairs at the center of the tent: the hostages. Even from this distance he could read the slack posture and the bloodstained clothes. He paused, hopeful…
One hostage starting coughing, his chest heaving against the tight rope bonds. The other one leaned his head towards the sound. They were both alive. Steve’s decision was made.
He pulled the flap open an inch more. Luck was still with him; the guard was facing away from the door. Steve stepped quietly behind him, pulling the man into a chokehold vice. The guard went down silently, passed out but not dead. Steve didn’t know how much time he would have and rushed to inspect the hostages.
One had a crude bandage swathed around his head and eyes, red staining through the cloth. The other man had a purple mottled face, but he was alert and staring at Steve with suspicion. Steve knelt down beside him, pointing at his uniform. The hostage looked relieved to see that he and Steve wore the same colors.
"Can you walk?" Steve whispered as he cut the ropes on the man.
The hostage nodded, but pointed over to the other. "He banged his head real bad; he'll need help."
Steve moved towards the other hostage, bent low and whispered "My name is Steve Rogers from the 107th. I'm here to get you out."
A huge smile bloomed beneath those bandages and the man attempted to sit up, but quickly sank back into his chair. Steve slid an arm around his waist and helped him to his feet. “What’s your name, soldier?”
“I’m James.” He was grinning but his voice was slurred and his limbs shaky.
Steve turned back to other man. “Does he have a last name?”
“Not sure; he only woke up recently.” He stood to help Steve with the unsteady man between them. “I’m Sam Sawyer. How are we-?”
"Camp is to the west. If we stay along the tree line we should get back fine."
They slipped out of the tent as softly as possible, grateful that their enemy provided their own celebratory distraction. They retraced Steve’s path as quickly as they could with the injuries between them, pausing tensely in the shadows every time there was a crackle of noise. Steve was grateful to see the first few trees approaching and the dark safety of the forest. He halted suddenly, eyes glancing backwards. The bandaged hostage tugged on Steve's arm, lips pressed together in worry, unable to see why they stopped. Sawyer began to speak but Steve cut him off.
"Take him back." Steve helped the bandaged man lean against his fellow soldier.
"Where're you going?" Sawyer whispered back.
Steve looked over his shoulder at the huge mammoth of a tank at the front of the lines, growling deep as someone woke up her insides. That sound was everyone’s worst fear. "There's something I gotta do first."
As he stared at the not-so-distant barrel of the Goliath, an idea had struck him. Steve gestured for the two men to continue forward without him and then he waited until he could no longer pick out their bodies amongst the trees. With one steadying deep breath, Steve strode out into the field, the beginnings of the morning sun lighting up his silhouette for anyone to see. He reached for the launcher on his back and he half-grinned. It was reckless as hell but it just might work.
Chapter One. Many weeks later…
It had been a whirlwind few weeks. When Steve had rushed into the enemy camp to save those men, he had only hoped for a successful rescue. But the man he had saved, bandages now removed and scar healing nicely, had been the Crown Prince. After a rushed debriefing from his superior officer, he was sent away from the war zone with only an explanation that ‘the king awaited him’. What he had discovered after the helicopter landed was a grateful royal family, a new adoring public, and a million camera flashes in his eyes. They gave him a room in the palace and an open-ended invitation to stay. Steve had mentally promised himself to leave once this bizarre hubbub had died down, but each day seemed to bring new interest in ‘The Hero Who Faced the Goliath and Won’. The King greeted him warmly each time they met and Steve couldn’t bring himself to turn down such a royal welcome, not when there was nothing but an empty house or a return to the warfront awaiting him when he left.
So before he knew it days rolled into weeks. The press conferences were fewer now, and Steve found himself with more time to wander his temporary new home. He discovered the palace was just a building, a spectacularly dressed one, but it was still just inanimate walls surrounding objects that sparkled and shined. As much as he lingered in front of the art with appreciation, he found his interest most sparked by the people within. The King was kind but distant, the Queen had always been just a portrait and a beloved memory, and the two royal children could not be more different. The Prince was a constant surprise, but his sister Peggy was easier to understand. Not that Steve would ever get used to how beautiful she was up close, more so than pictures he’d seen in newspapers. Thankfully she and Steve seemed to have more in common and conversation between them came easier. Steve had spent most of his first few weeks tagging along beside her, trying not to stumble on his words too much, and letting Peggy be his tour guide in the capital city.
He hadn’t actually seen much of James up close. Much like those blurry paparazzi photos he always seemed to feature in, Steve had only caught glances of the Prince as they passed in the hallways. There were a few rare overlapping moments when James arrived late for a meal and Steve left early. Those minutes always left Steve with quite an impression. The Prince was always full of charm and smiles, switching between jokes and flirtation with ease, always the center of attention when he joined the group. It made Steve wonder why he had such a reputation for being ‘darkly troubled storm cloud’ as one end-of-aisle magazine had colorfully declared. He only ever seemed to smile.
But things were changing. That afternoon Steve was surprised in the hallway with a glossy gold envelope, handed to him upon a silver tray. It was a formal invitation to the royal ballet, a fundraiser event with raffled seats to benefit arts education. There was a note, in the King’s hand as he was learning, written across the envelope. ‘Breakfast is at 7 am everyday. I’d like this family to restart an old routine’. Steve wasn’t quite sure what to make of the ‘family’ part, wondering if he was included in that word or if it was referring to The Family.
Re-reading the invitation details, he smiled. Steve knew Peggy was attending the ballet and, as far as he knew, was still without a date.
There was a knock at his door. Putting the invitation on his pillow so he wouldn’t forget, he opened the door. One of the palace attendants, decked in the identifiable crisp white blazer with the royal insignia on the breast pocket, inclined his head in greeting.
“The Crown Prince requests your presence in the portrait salon.”
Thanking the attendant, Steve closed the door and wandered half-heartedly to his closet wondering what he should wear. He has never met Bucky in this manner, by personal request. It wasn’t a mealtime nor was there was a meeting on his agenda. Steve pulled on a slightly nicer pair of jeans and hoped for the best.
The Prince looked anything but. James greeted Steve from where he lounged in the armchair, with an air of relaxed power and a whispered promise of debauchery. There was a glint to his eyes that seemed at odds with the stiff ancestral portraits that lent the room its name. The war didn’t seem to have touched him, despite the faintest scar across his forehead and brow. His dark hair framed smooth skin and a pink mouth tugged sideways in a smirk as he gave Steve a lingering once-over. A blush started to rise in Steve’s cheeks under the long gaze. If he was honest with himself, both the royal siblings had caught his attention, but where Peggy was friendly and accessible, James had remained a captivating mystery.
“I, uh…” Steve was unsure of how to address him. Peggy had quickly corrected Steve to just call her ‘Peggy’, but he had never spoken to the Prince alone like this. “You wished to meet me here, Your Highness?” Steve cringed at the stilted words.
James grinned over his glass of something dark and expensive looking. “Your suits are awful, Steve.” He rose from the chair and approached Steve, trailing a light hand across his shoulders.
“Or just the one, I assume. You wore it at the press conferences but you can’t wear it to the ballet. It really doesn’t fit you.”
“Well since joining the army I’ve gotten a bit...” Steve was aware it was too small now, but he never really had much occasion to wear it or a desire to replace it. The last time he wore it had been his mother’s funeral just before he had joined up.
“We need to get something that fits you, the new you.” The hand unoccupied by his glass was grasping Steve’s muscled bicep as if to prove his point.
A blush rose in Steve’s cheeks. James was standing much too close and his hand felt much too warm. “I haven’t had time to shop. Things around here have kept me pretty busy.”
James shrugged, clearly untroubled. “Let’s go see my tailor. And-” He winked at Steve. “You can call me Bucky”.
Leaving the glass on a table Steve was sure was probably a two-hundred-year-old antique, the Prince guided them towards the door. His hand lingered on Steve’s back, a gesture Steve wasn’t quite sure what to do with.
James was grinning the whole stroll through the palace. A plan had begun to form: he knew how he could knock this so-called great hero down a few pegs, even if he had to do the knocking himself.
After a detour to the kitchen where Bucky snagged a bottle of whiskey ‘for later’, they ran into Peggy in the hallway. Steve waved, happy to see her. He had been hoping for an opportunity to ask her to accompany him to the ballet. She brushed past him without a word, heels clicking like a cold echo in the hallway. His heart sank. Just as he thought he was getting a hang of the royal life in which he was suddenly intertwined, something seemed to have changed for the worse.
Bucky watched as Steve stared after her with his brows knit in confusion. He slung an arm over Steve’s shoulder.
“You’re not shiny anymore.”
Steve shrugged him off. “What does that mean?”
“Peggy likes causes, always has. You were new and needed a friend and a guide. But you don’t anymore.”
Something in his tone made Steve glare back at him. “Did you say something to her?”
Bucky laughed. “I couldn’t make Peggy do anything even if I begged. My sister is pretty strong-willed, as I’m sure you know.” Bucky replaced his arm across Steve’s shoulder. “There’s been some headlines recently.”
“So?” As remarkable as it was, it wasn’t anything new to see STEVE ROGERS: OUR NEW HERO! emblazoned in bold font.
“A certain type of headline about you and the Princess.”
Steve flushed. “We aren’t-“
“I know, I know. I’m just guessing someone in my father’s council may have suggested she return to her campaign for healthcare reform and not flirting with you in the hallways.”
He couldn’t help but sigh. “Was I that obvious?”
“It’s okay, I’m not judging. Much.” Bucky grinned. “Peggy’s a bit cliché for you, isn’t she? Newly returned war hero gets it on with the Princess…”
“Hey-!“ Steve’s cheeks felt overheated.
“You’re boring.” Bucky raised a hand before Steve could protest further. “Or at least you’re acting boring. You just got home from the shitty never-ending war with our neighbors, the keys to the kingdom are practically slapping you in the face, and all you’ve done is hide in the manor chasing the skirt of someone who’d rather talk healthcare than hearts.” The grin slipped a little on Bucky’s face. “It’s weird to be alive; trust me, I know. We’ve both left better men than us dead on the battlefield while we got lucky. But it doesn’t mean we should stop living just because we think we shouldn’t be the ones alive.”
Steve met Bucky’s gaze with a similar searching intensity. He wondered again what Bucky may have brought back from the war. Steve tried to hold eye contact longer, chasing something he thought he had seen under the smile, but Bucky looked down and away from him. Bucky twisted the lid off the whiskey and held the bottle up to Steve.
“Consider it a first step. And because I say so.” He held the bottle closer, hand brushing against Steve’s.
“Well, if my Prince commands it...” It didn’t come out quite as sarcastically as Steve meant. He drank a long gulp, eyes locked on each other, Steve’s hand over Bucky’s on the bottle. Bucky pulled the bottle away slowly, watching Steve’s lips savor the last expensive drop. Bucky’s face gleamed like he had just won a bet.
“That’s right Steve, your Prince commands you. And right now I’m commanding you to have fun. The great hero deserves a night out on the town.”
“The ballet is tonight, I can’t-“
“Does it really look like Peggy is going to happily take your arm and bring you there as her date?” Steve looked downcast. “Cheer up Stevie, if you come with me I can take you somewhere a hell of a lot better than a ballet full of old people and old money.”
Bucky half-led and half-pushed Steve down the hall and towards what he knew was the smaller exit near the back gardens.
“Can we just leave the palace like this?”
“Haven’t you heard, Steve? There’s a royal ballet happening. Do you really think the guards will be paying attention to two people leaving, rather than the crowds that will be arriving for the reception?”
Steve dug in his heels until Bucky was forced to stop and face him. “But you’re not just anyone; you’re the Crown Prince.”
Something dark flashed across Bucky’s face. “Well then you’re lucky I’m the Prince. No one pays attention to me.”
Steve started to say something, but he lost his train of thought as Bucky leaned in closer and grasped both his shoulders.
“Steve, you gotta trust me. The car’s already waiting for us and the evening is just beginning.“
Steve tore his eyes away from Bucky’s eyelashes and suddenly noticed the unmarked black SUV idling in the driveway. “Where are we going?”
Bucky licked his lips and let his gaze roam across Steve’s body. He didn’t look back up until he was sure his intentions were clear. “We’re going to have fun.” Steve’s resulting blush felt like fuel to Bucky. He suddenly wanted to find out how low that pink went.
He smiled and knew that every ounce of it was genuine. He may be intent on destroying his city’s new pet, but -by god- he was going to enjoy every second of it.