For as long as he could remember, Bucky had been Steve’s best friend.
Steve’s mother told stories about how Steve and Bucky had quite literally run into each other in the halls of the castle when they were young. Bucky had turned a corner, running from his mother, and collided right into Steve. Steve, being smaller and much less accustomed to actually being on his feet seeing as he was only taking his first steps, had fallen right on his bum. Predictably, Steve had started wailing and Sarah – his mother – had rushed forward to pick him up. However, before she could, Bucky dropped down next to Steve and hugged him and told him not to cry because he’d accomplished his first fall, which was apparently worthy of a “bration,” he said. Bucky’s mother had rushed forward and apologized greatly for Bucky’s mishap, but Sarah was delighted. “Steven has had his first fall,” she had said. “We shall celebrate.”
And from that point on, Steve and Bucky were best friends. Sarah hired Bucky’s mother, Winifred, to be Steve’s nurse and she brought Bucky to see him every day. They grew up together. They spent nearly every minute together. There was not a fond childhood memory Steve had that did not involve Bucky.
The only complication there was that Sarah was the Queen of their land. Steve was the Prince and her only child. Winifred was a palace maid, her Alpha was a cook for the Crown, and Bucky was, according to Steve’s father, King Joseph, commoner than a toad.
Prince or not, commoner or not, Steve and Bucky were best friends. They were inseparable, and not even the bloody King Joseph could change that.
“I leave you alone, you’ll end up setting your hair on fire and starting wars with two other countries,” Bucky told Steve solemnly. “My ma’s not your governess, I am!”
“You make a pretty good governess, Buck,” Steve answered seriously.
“Damn right I do,” Bucky said with a firm nod. “Now eat your fuckin’ vegetables, or I’ll get the switch out!”
Steve ate his vegetables, obviously. All jokes aside, he always did what Bucky told him to. Always. Bucky, a year older, took care of Steve, protected him, made sure he was fed and warm and always happy. And obviously Steve obeyed him, because Bucky just knew what was good for him, he was older, after all. Steve didn’t like taking directions from anyone else, but no one else was Bucky. When Bucky told Steve to do something and he did it, Bucky would say he did a good job and ruffle his hair. Steve would feel all happy and squiggly inside and it made him want to do something else that would make Bucky say he was good. That was just how best friends worked.
“When do I get to be a knight?” Steve asked his mother.
“After you become a squire,” Mother said.
“When do I become a squire?”
“After you become a knight’s apprentice.”
“Well, when am I going to become a knight’s apprentice?”
“After you present.”
“When will –”
“Steven!” Father interrupted him. “You know full well that boys present around fifteen, I know Doctor Erskine taught you that lesson!”
Steve thinned his lips and scrunched down in his chair. “Sorry, Father,” he mumbled.
“You don’t need to be so sharp with him,” Mother said.
“He needs to stop asking so many questions,” Father snapped. “Giving me a damn headache.”
Steve pushed his plate away from him, though he’d only eaten half his meal. He didn’t feel like eating anymore. Father didn’t notice. Mother did, but she couldn’t dismiss him. Father carried on with his meal, the sound of his chewing echoing throughout the vast dining room; the sound put Steve’s teeth on edge.
“You’ve finished?” Father finally asked Steve.
“Yes, sir,” Steve answered without looking up.
“Go, then,” Father told him promptly.
Steve pushed his chair back and slipped off it. Mother met his eye briefly and gave him a slight smile. Steve waved a little, then folded his hands behind his back the way his teachers had drilled into him and began to march out of the room. If he could just get out before his father could think of something else to scold him on –
“Oh, Steven!” Father called.
Steve froze, wincing. “Shit,” he whispered under his breath. Louder, he said, “Yes, Father?”
Steve turned on his heel and tried not to walk too morosely back to the dining table. Father waved him closer and Steve approached reluctantly.
“Lord Pierce told me you were late to your lesson today,” Father began, eyebrows drawn tightly together in disapproval. “Why was that?”
“I wasn’t late!” Steve blurted out.
“Are you calling your uncle a liar?” Father demanded.
Steve opened his mouth to defend himself, but Father quickly snapped, “Quiet!”
Steve shut his mouth with a snap. He clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth so hard it hurt. Father glared at him.
“Punctuality is a sign of a thoughtful King,” he said importantly. “The opposite would then be a sign of what?”
“A careless one,” Steve muttered.
“What was that?” Joseph demanded. “Speak up!”
Steve was not very thoughtful. You couldn’t blame him, he was hardly thirteen.
“I thought you told me to be quiet,” he snarked.
Father shifted in his chair to look at him. Steve returned his father’s glare. Father put down his utensils, worked his jaw from side to side, then raised a hand.
He backhanded him in the face. Steve jerked to the side, stumbling as his balance was thrown, gasping, and Father grabbed his chin to jerk him back to facing him.
“I will not tolerate your attitude,” he growled. “You are a prince! Act like one!”
“Yes, Father,” Steve gritted out.
“Go to your room,” Father snapped at him. “You’re not to leave it but for your lessons for a week! And I’d better not find out that you’ve been wasting time in the garden doodling flowers again, am I clear?!”
“Yes, Father,” Steve answered bitterly.
Father let go of him, then pointed. Steve turned on his heel again, cheek tingling with the after-effects of the blow. His mother didn’t say a word.
“Sometimes I wish he’d been born a girl,” Steve heard his father saying as he left. “Then I wouldn’t have to waste so much of my time raising him.”
Steve let the door to the dining room clang shut behind him. Hands balled into fists at his side, he all but ran back to his room.
He still slept in the nursery, in the same bed he’d had since he was six years old. The nursery was in the West Wing of the castle, and at that time in the evening, it was bathed in warm, pink light from the setting sun. Steve slammed the door behind him again and ran to fling himself onto his bed.
“‘S the matter with you?” Bucky demanded.
Steve stopped himself from jumping two seconds before actually doing it. Bucky was sprawled on his bed, a book in hand and a plate of cheese and bread with him. Steve’s stomach grumbled. He grabbed a chunk of the bread before climbing up next to Bucky.
“That was my dinner, yannow,” Bucky responded calmly.
“I’ll call for more,” Steve muttered, sinking his teeth into the bread.
“Your pa act like an ass again?” Bucky asked.
Steve turned away from Bucky. “Doesn’t matter,” he muttered.
Bucky cupped Steve’s chin, his fingers so much more gentle than Father’s. Steve let Bucky move his head, his neck not seizing up in protest, and Bucky brushed the knuckles of his other hand over Steve’s still smarting cheek.
“Why’re you all red?” Bucky asked.
Steve thought about pulling his chin from Bucky’s grip. Instead, he flopped sideways onto Bucky’s shoulder. Emotion swelling, he curled up next to him, hugging his arm, and rubbed his stinging cheek against Bucky’s clothes. Bucky pulled his arm free, but put it around Steve, his touch comforting as always. Steve sniffed back tears going down his nose.
“Aw, Stevie,” Bucky said softly. “Your pa smacked you again, didn’t he?”
“Uncle Pierce told on me,” Steve mumbled. “‘Cause I was with Doc in the garden drawing plants for his botany book and it made me late to his lesson.”
“That weren’t late!” Bucky defended him in a gentle but firm tone. “And it weren’t your fault, neither! I was there, I could –”
“Won’t help,” Steve cut him off. “Might make it worse.”
Bucky went quiet again. Steve looked down at the bread in his hands and put it back on the plate. He’d lost his appetite again.
“I’ll stay the night with you,” Bucky offered. “We’ll make a nest by the fire, like when we were little –”
“You can’t,” Steve interrupted again. “Father got really mad the last time you slept in here with me.”
“Oh,” Bucky said quietly.
Steve sniffed again and wiped his nose with his sleeve. Bucky leaned to the side, then pulled out a hanky and offered it to him. Steve took it with a barely audible thanks and blew his nose. After, Bucky took it back and tossed it onto the bedside table.
“Your ma’ll talk to your pa,” Bucky reminded him. “She put a stop to it last time he hit you, she’ll do it again.”
“He said he wished I was a girl,” Steve blurted. “So he wouldn’t have to waste time raising me.”
“Aw, Stevie,” Bucky murmured again.
“I wish I were a girl, too!” Steve shouted abruptly, sitting upright. “Then he wouldn’t yell at me about drawing or being a minute late to history lessons!”
“You like your history lessons,” Bucky said, his eyes wide.
“Not since Father's uncle started teaching me!” Steve snapped. “I can’t stand him! He just feels like slime!”
“That ain’t just you,” Bucky assured him, raising his eyebrows. “Ma hates ‘im, too.”
Steve slouched then, letting out a heavy sigh. Bucky put his arm around him again and gently pulled him into a hug.
“How ‘bout we go down to the kitchens?” he suggested. “We’ll ask my pa to give us a treat an’ you know he’ll do it, you give 'im those bug eyes and he'll give you anything. We’ll get us some apple tarts and fresh milk and it’ll all be better.”
“Okay,” Steve mumbled.
Bucky reached up and ruffled Steve’s hair. “C’mon, punk, give us a smile. You like apple tarts!”
Steve rolled his eyes and raised his eyebrows at Bucky. Bucky grinned at him, then winked. Suddenly, his hands were at Steve’s sides and his fingers were tickling and Steve couldn’t help but shriek with laughter; he collapsed back onto the bed and Bucky set on him at once.
“I told you to smile!” he claimed in a sing-song voice. “I warned you!”
“Stop!” Steve shrieked. “Stop it, I smiled, I smiled, give it up!”
Bucky stopped his onslaught and Steve went limp on his back, panting hard. Bucky grinned down at him, his eyes dancing with the mirth. He was breathing hard, too, and he was a little flushed, the blacks of his eyes a little big. Steve caught his breath, then swallowed and licked his lips. Bucky’s gaze shifted down some.
“What?” Steve said.
“Nothing,” Bucky answered. He cleared his throat, then swung off the bed on the other side and walked around for the door. “Come on!” he called. “Let’s go!”
Steve scrambled to get off the bed and follow him. He’d follow Bucky anywhere, much more so when there were apple tarts involved.
Bucky couldn’t walk Steve back to the nursery when they left the kitchen; he had to go home, to his family’s apartment in the servants’ quarters. Steve took the servants’ passageways back to the nursery so he wouldn’t be caught out of his room alone. He wished Bucky could stay and by the time he got back, he regretted saying that he couldn’t. He didn’t want to be alone.
Ma Winifred was waiting for him, though. She beckoned him to her with a smile and Steve happily stepped into her arms for a hug. She petted his hair softly for a moment, then pushed him back a little and knelt down in front of him.
“Your mother said that she’d be in to say goodnight to you before you fall asleep,” she said. “Are you alright, love?”
“I’m okay,” Steve answered, smiling back at her. “Bucky snuck me into the kitchens and Cook gave us apple tarts.”
“I’m glad,” Ma told him. Then she patted his cheek with motherly gentleness and said, “Are you ready for your bath?”
“I don’t need help taking a bath!” Steve whined. “I’m almost fourteen years old, Ma!”
“Don’t make me redundant, Steven,” Ma told him with a wink. “Go on, it’s all ready for you.”
Ma patted his cheek one more time and then pushed up as Steve started to cross the room. Ma’s hand followed his shoulder for a moment, slipping off him as he left. There was at least a screen that would give him some modesty, but the bathtub was by the fire in the same room. Steve stripped off his clothes and got in, then began to wash himself with efficiency, sure to even get behind his ears. There was a towel hanging on a rack in front of the fire, so when Steve stepped out again, it was warm as he dried himself. His nightshirt was on the same rack, just as warm, and Steve tied the laces of its neck as he walked out from behind the screen.
Ma waved him to her as he stepped out, seated on a chair near the bed. A footstool was in front of her and Steve sat down on it, his back to her. She began to comb his hair and Steve slumped onto a hand, letting his eyes shut. He was sleepy and warm and definitely ready for bed.
The nursery door opened and Steve lifted his eyes. Mother smiled at him, shutting the door again, and crossed to him. Steve raised his arms and she wordlessly knelt before him to scoop him into her arms. Though he was already in adolescence, Steve was still quite small, and he fit easily against his mother’s neck.
“I’m so sorry, my darling,” she whispered to him. “Your father’s sworn not to do it again.”
“‘S what he said last time,” Steve mumbled.
Mother pulled back and cupped his face with both hands. “I know,” she said, her tone weary.
Steve shrugged. There was really nothing she could do, and even less he could. Ma put the comb down on a table next to them and stood up.
“I’ll leave you,” she said softly.
“Thank you,” Mother told her.
Ma touched Steve’s hair one more time before going. Mother took the chair she’d vacated and picked up the comb. She resumed brushing Steve’s hair and Steve slumped over his lap once more.
A while later, his mother put the comb down. She guided him up from the stool and to his bed.
“Sleep well, my darling,” Mother told him in a soft voice. “Tomorrow you’ll be allowed to help Doctor Erskine with his book again.”
“Father said –” Steve started to say.
“I explained it to him,” Mother assured him. “You’re illustrating a very important book for the scientific community and it will do well for our name. Your father understands now.”
Steve was reluctant to believe her, but got into bed. Mother pulled the blankets up around him, then bent and kissed his forehead.
“I love you, darling,” she murmured. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Goodnight,” Steve whispered back. “I love you, too.”
Mother brushed his hair back off his forehead with a smile. Then she turned and she walked out. The nursery door shut and latched behind her.
Steve turned onto his side, holding the blankets up to his chin with a hand. He took in a deep breath and as he did, he caught a funny scent on the blankets where Bucky had been sitting earlier. He shifted, breathing it in, and eventually he was lying right in it, inhaling it deeply.
Steve liked it. It was rich and earthy and gave him the same squirmy feeling inside that he got when Bucky praised him. He smiled to himself; even if Bucky couldn’t sleep over anymore, he had this.
The smell was faded in the morning. Steve woke from a dream about Bucky tickling him to Ma pulling open the curtains, and under the blankets, his cock was hard and twitchy.
“Breakfast is already ready,” Ma announced. “Come on, out of bed!”
Steve sat up reluctantly, holding his knees up sheepishly. “I can dress myself,” he said without really looking at her.
Ma raised her eyebrows. “I’m sure you can,” she answered. “But a prince need not waste his energy with such menial tasks, remember?”
“Please?” Steve asked.
Ma thinned her lips, then sighed. “Be quick,” she told him, and walked out.
Steve threw off the blankets. There was nothing he could do about his morning wood, even less that he wanted to do with the dream that had brought it on. He put on the clothes Ma had set out with shaky fingers, grateful for the looseness of his trousers and the length of his tunic, as they easily hid the outline of his member. He rushed out, expecting Bucky to be waiting outside with his mother.
But he wasn’t there.
Steve looked up at Ma, eyebrows furrowed, and Ma just sighed.
“You can’t see him today,” she said. “I’m sorry, love.”
“What?” Steve burst out. “Why not?!”
Ma took his shoulder and began walking him. “He’s presented,” she said shortly.
Steve looked at the ground, blinking. Ma marched him from the nursery to the dining room, where his parents were already eating.
“Sit,” Father told him emotionlessly.
Steve sat. Mother looked at him and gave him a tight smile. Steve picked up a spoon and began eating his porridge without a word. Bucky had presented. And Ma said he presented, not that he was presenting, which meant that it had happened sometime during the night. Sometime during the night, just a few floors away from Steve, Bucky had had his first rut.
Steve was suddenly thinking of that funny scent that had been left on his blankets the evening before. How he had liked it. How it had smelled, how strong and delicious it had been. His heart was beating fast in his chest.
No one said a word during breakfast. Steve finished and just sat there until a servant took his dishes away. Father got up and left, Mother kissed his hair on her way out, and Ma touched his shoulder to prompt him to get out of his seat. He had lessons to attend. Lessons that Bucky usually joined him for.
“Ma?” Steve said quietly as they left. “What’s going to happen to Bucky now?”
There weren’t any unbonded Alpha servants in the castle. Definitely no young Alphas, ones barely presented.
“I don’t know,” Ma told him, just as soft. “Your mother said she’s working something out.”
“I thought boys presented at fifteen,” Steve mumbled.
“He’ll be fifteen in just a few weeks,” Ma reminded him.
Steve went quiet again. His heart was sinking.
Ma escorted him to all his lessons, to science and maths with Doctor Erskine, history and law and geography with his great uncle, fencing and riding with Sir Fury, strategy and logic with Sir Philips. She was distracted all day, just as much as Steve was. She was probably even more worried about what would happen to Bucky than him.
At the end of the day, Steve pleaded out of dinner with his parents, saying he didn’t feel well. Ma let him lie and left him in the nursery alone. Steve got ready for bed on his own, combed his own hair, and tucked himself in. He didn’t feel well. He was sick with worry about Bucky. What if he never got to see him again?
There was an even nastier worry in the back of his mind. If Bucky had presented during the night, then he would have already begun producing pheromones in the evening. Steve had asked Dr. Erskine. That funny smell on his bedspread, it had to have been Bucky's growing rut-scent.
And Steve had liked it.
Ma was on time the next day. Steve didn’t protest in being dressed by her and they left for breakfast. For once, his father was gone, and Steve felt relief at that.
“I have news,” Mother said the second Steve and Ma Winifred walked in. “Come, come in!”
“What did he say?” Ma asked of her, sharp and worried.
“Yes!” Mother answered excitedly.
“Oh, thank the gods!” Ma gasped, clapping her hands to her breast.
“What, what’s going on?” Steve demanded.
“Sir Fury is taking Bucky as his apprentice,” Mother told him.
Steve’s jaw dropped. Then he whooped and ran to hug her. Mother squeezed him and patted his hair, then pushed him back with a smile.
“You’ll have Sir Fury's lessons with Bucky now,” she said. “I hope you’ll help him catch up.”
“Duh!” Steve answered happily.
Bucky was there when Steve arrived for his lessons with Sir Fury. He grinned and winked at Steve and Steve felt the urge to run up and hug him. But he stopped just at the last second. Close to him, he could smell something almost like the rich, earthy rut-scent that Bucky had left on his bed two nights ago.
“Hurry up, you’re late,” Fury told Steve. “You’re sparring with James today.”
Steve almost wanted to giggle about Fury calling Bucky that. Nobody had called Bucky James since Steve had nicknamed him when they were five and six, not even Bucky’s own mother.
“Thought you could get rid’a me, punk?” Bucky muttered to Steve as they faced each other in the sandpit.
“Not a chance,” Steve answered with a grin.
Bucky grinned right back.
Throughout the sparring match, Steve could really only focus on one thing. Bucky’s full scent had come in, since he was an Alpha then. Just like his rut-scent, it was rich and earthy and filled Steve’s belly with that squirmy feeling. He didn’t know what it meant, but he did know one thing.
He liked it.