If the Ambassador to the Fae had died just two weeks earlier, they wouldn’t be in this mess.
Instead -- whoever it was, Bucky didn’t keep track, and the guy had been chosen before Bucky was even born -- he had died three days after Steve’s eighteenth birthday. Which meant that Steve, along with Bucky and another two dozen young men from Brooklyn between the ages of 18 and 25, were loaded into the tram. Each young man was given a bag containing soap and a comb, a towel, and new clothes.
They were told to shower in the tram’s shower car and to dress in the new clothing. Bucky didn’t know what was going to happen to their old clothing.
Bucky stood guard over Steve in the showers. He was tiny, frail, with weak lungs, and a mouth that somehow compelled people to want to punch it.
Steve was his best friend.
They put on the clothes, which turned out to be robes -- Bucky’s barely reached below his knee, showing off his calves and ankles and bare feet, where Steve’s dragged on the ground and Bucky had to engage in some inventive blousing around the belt to keep Steve from tripping -- and then were directed to another car, where they were given a meal.
That was nice, at least.
Despite that, everyone was looking at the food with distrust.
Perfect, polished apples and fresh oranges and nuts and berries and a thick porridge.
“Rabbit food,” someone complained. “Damn faeries don’t eat meat.”
“How do we know this ain’t Summerlands food?”
You weren’t supposed to eat food from the fae, everyone knew that.
“What do you think, pal?” Bucky wondered, picking up an apple. He took out his pocket knife -- he’d hidden it when they came to collect all the clothes and other stuff, not willing to lose it, even if his trousers and shirt and belt had gone who even knew where -- and started to cut the apple into slices. “You think the fae plan to poison or control us all? I don’t believe that. This is just fancy, rich-people food.”
He offered a slice of apple to Steve.
Steve -- because Steve had never backed down from a dare in his life, not even if it put his life on the damn line, much to Bucky’s eternal frustration -- took the slice off the end of Bucky’s knife and bit it in half. The soft crunch seemed to echo through the car, and everyone went still, watching to see what happened.
He did not immediately die, or turn into an animal, or sprout donkey ears, or any of a thousand other consequences the tales warned of. Steve chewed and swallowed. “Ain’t half bad,” he opined, and popped the other half into his mouth. “Kinda tart,” he added, through his chewing. “In a nice way.”
That broke the ice enough for everyone else to be able to eat, and all at once everyone was passing rolls -- no butter, but there was a smearable fruit paste (nothing like what Bucky thought of as jam) -- and eating barley soup and bickering over choice fruits. “I s’pose I could get used to it, if I had to eat naught but fruit and mushrooms all the time.” If nothing else, it would be lovely to have a full belly all the time.
Ambassador to the Fae… It was a position of power, and a life sentence of servitude all at the same time. “You think the King died? Ma said the last call was for young men, too.” The last call was over twenty years ago. Bucky hadn’t been born yet, and Dad had been too old. They’d heard about the choosing on the radio. Twenty years -- that wasn’t long. The Ambassador had been 19 when he was picked, so he’d died, whoever he was, before he was even forty.
“What do you think, you want to be picked?”
“Who the hell would want to be picked?” Steve wondered. “Spend the rest of your days kowtowing to the Summer King and having the whole Court treat you like some kind of animal?”
“Could be nice,” someone opined from down the table. “Never hafta work again, surrounded by the fae. I seen one, once’t. So pretty you can’t hardly tell th’ men from the women. Heard they like to revel, too.”
Bucky took a bite of the roll, dipped it in his soup. It wasn’t bad that way, but he wondered why they had to eat vegetables and grains on their way to meet the Fairy King. Was the scent of meat so foul to them? He didn’t know. Wouldn’t matter. With hundreds of potentials, the King -- or Queen, maybe -- would surely pick someone prettier, someone who wasn’t half-hungry all the time. He rubbed at his knuckles, still bruised from the last fight he’d been in.
“Most of us, we just get a few meals an’ a fancy smoking jacket--” Bucky plucked at the fabric. “An’ go home with a story to tell.”
“It’d be different,” Steve said to Bucky, “if the Ambassador was a real job. A chance to do some good. But I ain’t interested in bein’ a glorified messenger boy.” He picked up another roll and looked like he was considering stashing it in his robe.
“Ain’t a job,” another man declared, “not glorified or nothin’. It’s a sacrifice. It’s a scapegoat. One person, every generation or so, an’ the fae don’t come boilin’ out of their sacred hole like a bunch of wasps to take whatever they want. We learned bullets, an’ we could keep ‘em at bay if they fought like men. But they don’t. My gram told me, she told me about the raids, back when her gram was a young ‘un. They wait in the shadow and grab you where you can’t see ‘em coming. They steal you in your dreams. They open holes to their caves under your feet. And that ain’t even beginnin’ to cover what the Winter Court look like. Drive you mad, just to see their faces. Chase you down with the Grand Hunt, and let their beasts feed on you.”
“One man, or one woman, for twenty years of peace,” Bucky said. He peeled an orange and ate the slice, like a little piece of sunshine. “I’d go. Iff’n I didn’t have responsibilities here.” He gripped Steve’s shoulder and shook him, just a little. “Scared what this one would get up to, if I wasn’t around to stop him.”
Steve made a face, but didn’t actually contradict Bucky. “How long, you reckon, until we get wherever they’re takin’ us?”
“Shouldn’t be too long,” someone said. Bucky didn’t bother to introduce himself, or Steve, didn’t want to ask any names, in case someone from their group was selected. “The opening to the hill’s just outside Boston, I hear. The King an’ his court don’t want to travel too far. We should be home tomorrow, or the day after.”
It went unspoken that one of them, on one of the trams, would not be home tomorrow.
Bucky wondered if they brought in people from all over the country to stand before the King, or if it was just a select few boroughs. And if that was the case, what made the selection? No one knew. Or said, if they did know.
Mostly, people ignored the fae, aside from showing the general courtesies.
Everyone left honey and bread at the windowsill, paid the ancient tolls and taxes. Troll tax, some people called it. Bucky’d been on the island his whole life because leaving meant taking a bridge. And bridges meant tolls.
The tram rolled to a stop not long after a second meal -- the same as the first, and Bucky was already bored with the fare.
“You’re Irish,” someone said, shoving Steve out of the tram and onto the packed dirt. “Maybe they should take their own back, first.”
Steve was human, not halfling. Probably. But he was short and slight, and Irish, and the mistake had been made more than once.
Steve boiled up off the ground, fists already clenched and eyes practically spitting fire. “Say that to my face,” he snarled, “and see what it gets ya!”
“Steve, no,” Bucky said, with a sigh, grabbing hold of Steve’s robe. “I don’t want to stand in front of the King of the Summer Court with blood on my fist, and neither--” He directed a look at the bully. “--do you. If I punch you enough times, think you’ll look troll enough for them to take you?”
Bucky could do it, too. Three-time welterweight boxing champion of his district. He might have gone four, but a sudden weight gain had taken him up a class, and he didn’t have the money to train. But he didn’t want to fight. Not today. He was too damn scared to fight today. Fighting a man, even a bully, wouldn’t ease that fear.
Nothing would ease it, until they were back on the tram and headed home.
Steve strained against Bucky’s hold for a little longer, just to make his point -- it was like a little yap-dog trying to pull a mastiff. Then he subsided with a growl, yanking himself free of Bucky’s grip and brushing down the front of his robe with furious swipes. “Ain’t worth it, anyhow,” he muttered.
“No, it ain’t,” Bucky said. “But if you want, I’ll trip him on th’ way home and we can go a few rounds. Maybe the King’ll take him. God only knows what they look for in an Ambassador.”
He’d heard the rumors, everyone had. That the Ambassador was nothing more than a decoration, and how that decoration was… used.
Steve squeezed his arm, trying to be reassuring. “S’okay, pal,” he said. “Pretty soon, this’ll just be a story to scare our kids with someday. Y’know, assumin’ we ever have any.” Steve sure as hell wasn’t likely to ever snag a dame, no matter how many times Bucky tried to set him up. They took one look at him and turned up their noses, or they got mad when Steve stepped on their feet trying to dance, or -- on one memorable occasion that Bucky actually had thought was going well for a change -- Steve opened his mouth and went off on one of his rants, and the girl made the first lame excuse that popped into her head and beat feet.
Soldiers moved them along, armed with wooden billy clubs and obsidian daggers. Pretty, Bucky thought, and wondered how much they’d be worth.
They-- and dozens of others, hundreds, maybe, and then… “Nine hundred and ninety-nine,” a man said, counting, and he pushed Steve through the gate. “One more.”
“I’m goin’,” Bucky said, and he shoved the bully out of his way, following after Steve. He couldn’t let Steve face this alone.
“Thousand, that’s it. Put the rest of these bastards back on the trams,” the gatekeeper said.
“Almost lost you there,” Bucky said, catching up with Steve and grabbing his wrist like Steve was a cranky toddler. “But I’m with you, pal. ‘Til the end of the line.”
The field they’d been corralled into, like a herd of damn cows, was in a riot of spring. Despite the heat in the trainyard, the field felt like March. Flowers blooming everywhere, birds fluttering around, singing songs of praise, there was even a hutch of damn bunnies hopping in the grass. Bucolic.
Bucky wanted to puke. He could sense the glamour, the fae magic, practically a smell, like a whiff of licorice. He was sensitive to it; the family lore said that a few generations back, there’d been a halfling in the Barnes family tree. Of course, hundreds of families in the world said that, didn’t mean it was true.
“God, do you smell that?” Bucky wondered.
Steve took an exploratory sniff of the air. “Smell a thousand guys all crammed together,” he said. “Maybe it was for our sake they made us shower.”
“Smells like glam,” Bucky muttered, quiet, just enough for Steve to hear it, leaning toward Steve’s good ear. “Stinks of it. Magic.”
There wasn’t a stage, like what Bucky might have expected; instead the King and a few court members were lounging on a little hill, covered in flowers.
“That’s him, all right, King Howard,” someone said. “Seen a painting of him, once. Wasn’t a very good likeness, but I’d still know him. I’m told the faeries don’t let anyone take pictures of them. Wonder why.”
Bucky stared. Even as far back as he and Steve were, practically on the edge of the crowd, he could see that King Howard was… beautiful.
There wasn’t any other word to describe it.
And not earthly beauty, not like a pretty dame to dance with, but ethereal.
He was fall on your knees and pray to your maker gorgeous.
“Can you see?” Bucky asked. Steve probably couldn’t, but Bucky would give him a boost, if he wanted to crane and peer.
“No, gimme a hand up,” Steve said, already putting one hand on Bucky’s shoulder for balance. “How many guys get to say they’ve seen the Court?” He put his foot in Bucky’s cupped hands and stood up, peering over the crowd for a moment, and then dropped back down.
“Apparently, a thousand,” Bucky said. “Least, regular joes. Dunno if the mayor or the president or whatever gets to talk to ‘em.” Steve was smart. Even if he’d had to quit out of art college because of the money, he’d always been up to his ears in a book. Fact-books, too, not dime store novels, either. “Is there a-- a Fae Ambassador? Someone who stays human-side?”
The King gestured and one of his court went to listen to him speak, holding a little conference. The way the crowd in the front moved, Bucky imagined no one could hear it, except the fairy who was listening to the King.
He could smell it again, that whiff of bitter herbs and licorice.
Bucky shook his head, trying not to look at the King.
His gaze fell instead on a-- younger fae. He couldn’t tell how he knew that one was younger -- they were all beautiful and youthful, but this one seemed… not quite finished, somehow. “Who’s that?” he wondered. “The skinny guy in the back there? You saw him, Stevie?”
Steve nodded. “I saw him. I’m not sure... Is he wearin’ anything on his head?”
Bucky squinted. “Yeah, he’s got a silvery-looking band around his forehead.” Bucky traced the line against his own forehead, unable to look away. As lovely as the King was, this fae was… interesting. Despite looking everywhere except the King and court.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Steve said. “Sounds like the Prince’s coronet. So that’d be the King’s son.”
Bucky just kept looking. It would all be over soon, and he wanted to save it up, to really remember.
There was a crackle as an announcement system came on line. The silence that fell over the group of men was terrifying, full of anticipation. No one knew-- was this the selection? How did the King choose?
After a moment of silence, and nothing happened, the crowd erupted into a flurry of whispers. The man -- a human man -- tapped the microphone, then cleared his throat. “His highness, King Howard of the Summer Court, is grateful for your appearance here today--”
“He don’t look grateful,” Bucky muttered.
“--and he wishes to walk among the crowd. Please do not touch his Highness as he makes his way through to select his new Ambassador.”
The King and his court made a stately procession, moving wordlessly and perfectly in step. The men folded out of his way like butter, opening a wide path in front of him.
It was terrifying, the way King Howard would turn his head and the men would wordlessly move aside. Compelled. Glamoured.
Bucky grimaced, reached out and grabbed Steve’s hand. He didn’t want to lose Steve in this fog of magic.
The King was coming closer, so close that Bucky could see the shade of his eyes, like a deer, like the very edge of the night. The sneer on his mouth, the way his hair was perfect and fell in short waves over a shapely head.
He was utterly beautiful and completely alien. Bucky thought his skin looked like it might be cold.
Steve, because Steve never backed down from a dare, no matter how terrifying or stupid it was, stood up as straight as his crooked back would allow, lifting his chin defiantly. He let Bucky pull him back as the King drew closer, but he didn’t look away, like most of the others did. He just looked right back, his jaw set pugnaciously.
King Howard stopped, right there, in front of Steve, assessing him in a single glance. Like so many did, Bucky waited for Howard to just look past, to not see the value, to dismiss him. But he didn’t.
“What’s your name?” King Howard asked.
If Bucky hadn’t felt the way Steve’s hand jerked, he’d have thought Steve had no fear at all. “Steve. Steven Grant Rogers.” It came out smoothly, confidently. Verging on defiant.
“Your majesty,” someone hissed, horrified. Bucky didn’t know who it was, he couldn’t stop staring.
Howard waved a hand negligently, as if dismissing the person’s concerns. “Did you know that you are dying, Steven Grant Rogers? Four, maybe five years. If you’re very lucky, you might have as many as ten left to you. But no more than that. Did you know it?”
Steve’s mouth worked, pinching as if he were tasting something sour. “It’s not how long a man lives that matters,” he said after a moment, “but what he does with the time he has.”
“And what do you do,” King Howard continued, “with the time that you have, Steven Grant Rogers?”
Bucky squeezed Steve’s hand, a sliver of cold fear going through his belly. Was this why the former Ambassador had died so young? Did Howard take-- like a predator, the weak and the sickly? Were they predators, the fae, for all that they ate no meat? Everything the stories said seemed to suggest it.
“I do what’s right,” Steve answered.
“You’re very lovely,” the King said, reaching as if he was going to touch Steve’s face and stopping a mere breath before the mark. “So, so very mortal. And honest. And brave. Look how you stand there, spitting fire at me with your eyes. Tell me, Steven Grant Rogers, would you like to breathe for the first time? Take a rich, deep breath without coughing or choking on it? Would you like to run, just for the sheer joy of it?”
There was the faintest whiff of anise seed and cloves, and Steve looked almost dazed.
“I...” For the first time, Steve seemed uncertain. His grip on Bucky’s hand tightened. “I would like that,” he admitted.
“I thought you might,” the King said. “Then, will you do what’s right, honor the agreement between the fair folk and the humans, let go your mortal ties, and join me?” The King offered a long fingered, graceful hand, to Steve.
“Oh, oh, oh, no,” Bucky said, unable to help himself. “No, no.”
Steve looked at him, and his mouth twisted into something that Bucky couldn’t read. “Buck... I...”
“Let go of the King’s chosen,” one of the fae barked at him, pushing Bucky back, trying to break his hold on Steve’s hand.
“No-- let me, god damn you, at least let me say goodbye,” Bucky growled, and he shoved, harder than he thought was possible. The air erupted into that licorice smell, and he was back on his feet, grabbing Steve’s hand again. “Steve--”
“Sire, your Majesty,” The fae -- a guard, perhaps, or a courtier -- put one hand on Howard’s arm. “That man carries steel-- he has a weapon, sire.”
Everyone in the crowd turned to stare, even the ones who weren’t looking before. Steve’s fingers were cold and shaking in Bucky’s grip, his eyes wide.
“Your pocketknife,” Steve said -- barely even a whisper. “Oh God, Buck, I didn’t... Didn’t think--”
“You dare,” someone else said, and there was a ringing noise of glass, and…
Bucky barely turned his head in time to see the obsidian sword come down.
For a long moment, he didn’t even feel the pain as his arm and hand spasmed and let go of Steve’s hand, then fell in the grass. Bucky fell to his knees beside it, warm wetness gushing down his side.
Black crowded the edges of his vision, and Steve’s face followed him into the darkness.