Bucky was a farmhand on Steve’s family’s farm. Steve was thin and sickly, and ill-suited to the many tasks that had to be done, so Bucky did them in his stead. Polishing the saddles, mucking out the stalls, fetching water from the well. And because Steve’s parents were busy with their own jobs on the farm, they left the delegating of work to Steve.
“Mother wants this bush dug up,” Steve would say.
“As you wish,” Bucky would reply.
He’d do the hard labor while Steve watched, memorizing every detail so he could sketch it later. Eventually, he started finding things for Bucky to do that his parents hadn’t asked for, things that would keep Bucky in close proximity. Things he could easily do for himself despite his illness.
“Hand me that bowl,” Steve said one day.
Bucky stood close, reaching over Steve’s head to pluck the bowl down from the high shelf, never losing eye contact.
“As you wish.”
That was the day Steve realized that, for Bucky, saying ‘As you wish’ was the same as saying ‘I love you’. And that Steve loved him back.
Bucky set the bowl on the counter and Steve felt himself drifting closer, like a butterfly to a buttercup. Bucky leaned in and –
“Hold it,” Jake said. “What is this? Is this a trick?”
“What are you implying?” Grandpa Rodney asked in return. He had his chair right next to Jake’s bed, reading to him while he was sick.
“You said there’d be adventure and giants and stuff. Is this a kissing book?”
“Give it a rest, kid. This is just the start.”
Jake wasn’t so sure his grandpa could be trusted. So far there hadn’t been any swordfights or pirates or anything exciting. Just a lot of talking and goo-goo eyes.
“When does it get good?”
“Keep your shirt on, smarty, and let me read.”
True to his word, the book got much more interesting. Bucky was murdered by the Dread Winter Pirate and Steve, who became less sickly, was engaged to Princess Hildegarde. He didn’t love her because he was still pining for Bucky even though over five years had passed, but it was the only way to save the family farm. Which was sad, sure, but then Steve got captured by a villainous band bent on murder.
Even better, the villainous band was being followed by a mysterious man in black, and while the Giant and the Mastermind kept moving to get Steve to the rendezvous point, the Swordsman stayed behind to finish off the man in black.
“Not that your human spider impersonation isn’t great and everything, but I don’t suppose we could move this along?” Tony called over the edge of the cliff.
The man in black had scaled the same rope up the cliff face that Tony and his compatriots had, but Pierce had cut it once they reached the summit. Only the man in black hadn’t fallen, he was now free climbing. Very slowly.
“Send more rope.”
“Sure, sure. I could do that. But I don’t think you’d trust it, since I’m waiting up here to kill you and everything.”
“Then wait,” was the terse reply.
“I hate waiting,” Tony grumbled to himself. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to make you trust me?”
Tony stomped around another minute before going back to the edge. “I swear on the soul of my father, Howard Stark, that you’ll reach the top alive.”
The man in black looked up at him, kohl-rimmed eyes piercing, and nodded. “Throw me the rope.”
Jake enjoyed the next bit of the book much better than the first bit. The man in black and Tony Stark had an epic sword duel, but Tony was defeated. Instead of killing him, the man in black just knocked him out and continued his pursuit of the others.
He was waylaid by the Hulk, a giant of a man with unbeatable strength but also a strong moral code. Pierce had ordered him to ambush the man in black and kill him, but the Hulk wanted a fair fight. And he got one, as best as that could be arranged with such a difference in their sizes, but eventually the man in black beat him too, cutting off his air until he passed out.
“This is good stuff, Grandpa,” Jake said.
Grandpa shook his head. “You’re just as bad as your Pop-Pop. Adrenalin junkies.”
Lastly, the man in black faced off against Pierce, who had set up a little picnic of sorts using a flat stone for a table. He sat on a fallen log, Steve beside him with his hands tied and a blindfold over his eyes, Pierce’s knife at his throat.
“You bested my swordsman, which means you have great skill. And you bested my giant, which means you have great strength. But you won’t beat me. My intellect is unparalleled.”
The man in black sat opposite Pierce and pulled a small vial from the pouch on his belt. “Iocane,” he said.
He tipped the vial of powder into one of the two wine goblets on the stone table, mixing it in with his gloved finger. He then proceeded to move the goblets like the cups in a game of chance until he set them both back down. One in front of Pierce and one in front of himself.
“Where is the poison? You decide, we both drink. One of us dies.”
Pierce looked smug, not a blonde hair out of place. “A game of wits, then. All right. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison in his own drink? Only a clever man would do so, because only a fool would reach for what he was given, and I, sir, am no fool.”
“That your decision?”
“No. You must have anticipated that I would come to that conclusion, so I can’t choose the wine in front of me. I also know that iocane comes from Australia, which is populated with criminals. Criminals are used to having people not trust them, so I can’t choose the wine in front of you. But this is also common knowledge, so I can’t choose the wine in front of me.”
“On the contrary. I’m giving you the benefit of the inner workings of a finely tuned mind. You should be thanking me.” Pierce leaned back, grabbing hold of Steve’s knee with one hand. “You beat the Hulk, which means you’re strong and might be convinced to put the poison in your own goblet. So I can’t choose the wine in front of you. But you also beat Tony, which means you’ve studied. You know that man is mortal, and you’d put the poison as far from you as possible. So I can’t choose the wine in front of me.”
“So you’ll just talk me to death then?”
Pierce narrowed his eyes. “Is that one of your compatriots, come to help you?” he asked, looking over the man in black’s shoulder.
When the man turned to look, Pierce switched their goblets and then sat back the way he was, expression even more smug than before.
“Make your choice.”
“Each from our own,” Pierce replied.
They both drank, and the man in black watched dispassionately as Pierce toppled over, dead from iocane poisoning. Before he untied Steve and removed the blindfold, the man in black affixed a black face guard over the lower half of his face, leaving only his eyes and the top of his head visible.
Steve blinked against the brightness of the sun as his blindfold was removed. “So it was in his cup?”
“Sleight of hand. It was in both,” the man in black said, pulling Steve to his feet. “I built up an immunity to it.”
“That guy is so cool!” Jake said enthusiastically. He blew his nose and tossed the used tissue on the pile around his trashcan.
“There’s something about a man in black,” Grandpa agreed. “Now zip it.”
The man in black turned out to be the Dread Winter Pirate , who had murdered Bucky. When he told Steve how Bucky had pleaded for his life, for a chance to get back to the boy he’d left behind, and suggested that soon-to-be Prince Steve hadn’t loved Bucky like he said he did, Steve got mad and pushed the Dread Winter Pirate down a steep, steep hill.
Plot twist! He turned out to be Bucky, back from the dead. He really had been captured by the Dread Winter Pirate who, instead of killing him, had taken him on as an apprentice and then passed over the title once he was ready to retire.
Meanwhile, Princess Hildegarde’s men were in hot pursuit, and they chased Steve and Bucky into the Fire Swamp. They had to elude gouts of flame erupting from under their feet, pits of lightning sand waiting to suck them under, and Rodents of Unusual Size.
“Wait,” Jake interrupted again when Steve and Bucky barely made it out of the Fire Swamp alive only to be captured by the Princess’ men. “That’s not fair! After all that?”
“Are you going to interrupt me every other page? Because that’s really annoying and we’ll never get this book finished before your bedtime.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Noted. Shut up.”
The Six-Fingered Man, who worked for the Princess, gave Steve his word that Bucky wouldn’t be harmed. Instead, he’d be returned to his pirate ship and sent on his way. That was a big fat lie, though, because they tortured Bucky instead in a special chair that sucked years of his life away. When Steve told Princess Hildegarde he didn’t love her and couldn’t marry her, she used the chair to kill Bucky. For real this time.
Jake bit his lip to keep from protesting again.
The Hulk moved through the Thieves’ Forest until he found Tony’s place. The great swordsman was so drunk he could barely stand.
“I found him. The six-fingered man. The one who killed your father,” the Hulk said, but Tony just passed out.
It took some time, but the Hulk got Tony sober. He fed him, got him cleaned up, and filled him in on everything that had happened, which the Hulk had mostly overheard from other people’s conversations.
“We need the man in black,” Tony said. “He beat me with the sword, you with his strength, and presumably he out-thought Pierce. We’re going to need his help.”
They were on their way through town when they heard it, a sharp and echoing cry of despair.
“Do you hear that, Big Green?” Tony asked. “That’s the sound of ultimate suffering. My heart made that sound when the Six-Fingered Man killed my father. Has to be the man in black making it now.”
“His true love is getting married tonight. To someone else. If that’s not a moment meant for ultimate suffering, I don’t know what is.” Tony turned in a circle and, as the cry petered off, he pointed to the south. “That way!”
They were too late, though. When they found the access to the dungeon through the tree, the man in black was dead.
“What now?” the Hulk asked.
“Now we need a miracle. Pick him up and follow me.”
There was only one man in the whole of the kingdom who stood a chance in bringing the man in black back to life: The King’s former Miracle Man.
“The Miracle Man will save him, though. Right?” Jake asked. “It’s not fair that he and Steve found each other again just for him to be dead and Steve to marry that stupid Princess.”
“Maybe we should take a break,” Grandpa said. “You’re getting all worked up over this. You do know it’s just a story, right? Not a biography?”
“I’m not stupid.”
“You’re a McKay, of course you’re not stupid. But you’re getting emotionally invested. Maybe you should take a nap.”
“No! I mean, I’m okay now. It’s okay. You can keep reading.”
The King’s Miracle Man was a doctor named Strange, who lived outside the village. He had shaky hands, which made for shaky miracles, and that’s why he’d been let go. Tony offered to pay him, but Dr. Strange said he preferred dinner. So he and Tony made a date, and then he worked a miracle.
Bucky was brought back to life because he was only mostly dead, not all-the-way dead, and Jake couldn’t help cheering about that even though it made Grandpa grumble at him again.
Bucky, Tony, and the Hulk made a plan to get through all the guards at the castle gates, rescue Steve from his own wedding, kill the Six-Fingered Man, and then ride off into the sunset. It was a dodgy plan because Bucky was so weak from being mostly dead he couldn’t move real well, and they all got separated once they got into the castle.
It was only strength of will that enabled Bucky to make his way to Steve’s rooms, using the wall to hold himself up because his legs were so weak. But he’d made a promise to himself, and to Steve. There was no stopping true love. Only delaying it. And he’d been delayed long enough.
He was just in time, too. Princess Hildegarde had Steve pressed up against the wall, a knife at his chest ready to plunge into his heart. And Steve, who’d been taught from childhood never to hit a girl, would probably let her do it. He looked resigned. Until he saw Bucky.
“You came back!”
“Told you I would. Hey, Princess.”
“Ah, the Dread Winter Pirate. This is perfect. I can kill Steve, blame it on you, and frame all of Guilder for it. I will have my war!”
A look of resolve crossed Steve’s face and he reached out, grabbing the Princess by the wrist and forcing the knife away from his heart.
“How dare you manhandle me! Guards!”
“They’re not coming,” Bucky said with a grin. “It’s just the three of us. And I won’t have any trouble making it look like you took your own life because Steve rejected you.”
“No,” Steve said. “No-one is dying today. Not because of me.”
He wrenched the knife out of the Princess’ hand and shoved her into the nearest chair.
“Tie her up, then,” Bucky said. “So we have time to get away.”
He staggered a little, but waved Steve off when he made to come and help. Steve tied up the Princess and then let Bucky lean on him as they went in search of the others. They ran into Tony in a hallway, and then the Hulk called to them from the courtyard below, horses at the ready so they could make good their escape.
Steve didn’t hesitate to jump out of the window, knowing the Hulk would catch him. Tony paused, though.
“I have no regrets about killing the bastard who killed my father,” he said, “but I have no idea what happens now. My whole life has been about getting revenge.”
“I know a pirate ship that needs a captain,” Bucky said with a grin, and then he jumped out the window too.
“Wait a second,” Jake said when Grandpa stopped reading. “That’s it? That’s the end?”
“They all live happily ever after, blah blah blah. I thought I’d save you the kissing. That’s all that’s left.” Grandpa closed the book.
“Oh. Well, I mean. I don’t mind. If you want to read the last bit. We should finish the whole thing, right?”
“I’d like to go on record as saying I’m only humoring you because you’re sick.”
Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.
Bucky cradled Steve’s face in his hands and poured all his love into that kiss. It was apology for having been gone so long and promise of better days ahead. It was joy and strength and desire, all wrapped up in one curl-your-toes kiss.
They would never be apart again.