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Rise of the Champions

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Sir Steve Rogers, who’d once been the Paladin of the Western Lands, was finding the future to be not all that different from his own time.

Yes, there were things that they hadn’t had three hundred years ago…like magic, and dragons, and the politics were insane.  Steve had had a dose of politics back in the day, mostly because of all that Paladin mess, and Howard Stark had been the King of Propaganda, but that was nothing on what Baron Nick had to deal with on a daily basis.  Steve, as the Baron’s newest Knights’ Commander, had been a witness to the crap that his boss had to handle every single day.  It was not pretty, and there were times when Steve was shocked that Baron Nick managed to hold his temper in public as well as he did.

In private, though, Steve had heard the ranting.  He’d just looked at Mistress Maria, Triskelia’s newly appointed Court Wizard, and had echoed her shrug.  When they were alone, the Great Wizard had bemoaned the fact that she’d given up her position as Head of Great Order for the Western Lands for this shit, and why had she done something like that?

From what he’s heard, Baron Nick had proposed to Mistress Maria, and she’d accepted…which was why she’d left her job in the Wizard’s Guild in order to spend her time in Barony Triskelia.  Steve thought they made an interesting couple.  Both were strong personalities and he could see clashes in the future, but he also got the impression that they were just the sort of couple who actually enjoyed a bit of strife in their relationship.

The surprise, though, had been the Baron’s Steward, Sharon Carter.

She was one of the very few in Triskelia who was the closest to guessing who he really was.  It hadn’t even been two days, just enough for him to get settled into his rooms at the castle, Stewart Sharon had approached him and let him know that she was a direct descendant of Lady Peggy Carter, and asking if he was some sort of descendent from the fabled Paladin.  Steve had discovered that Peg had kept her name, even though she’d eventually married – a man named Daniel Souza, a veteran of what was now called the Century War – and had had a rather large family.  Steve was happy for her because, as much as he’d loved her and wanted to marry her, he’d come to realize that he would not have been happy with her, burdened by the guilt of losing Bucky the way he had been.  That didn’t even figure his feelings toward his best friend into the equation. 

Perhaps it had been the best thing for all concerned that he’d been exiled into the Void.  It seemed everything turned out well in the end.

There was even Bucky, still alive.

It seemed like a miracle.  Steve had seen Bucky fall to his death; there should have been no way he could have survived.  And yet, he had, in Hydra’s hands, and they’d made him their puppet, the assassin known as the Winter Knight.  As furious as Steve was that his best friend – and the man he loved – had been treated so horrifically, he was also pitifully grateful that Bucky was still alive, and could possibly be cured.

He had faith in the Wizards who were doing their best to figure out how to remove the curses that had been affecting him for so long.

All three seemed to be good men, the Grand Masters.  Stephen Strange of Great Order was the one Steve hadn’t really gotten to know all that well, but even he could tell that the Grand Master was powerful and confident, and would do what he could to save Bucky in any way he could. 

Grand Master Ianto Jones of Cardinal Order was undeniably kind.  Steve had seen it when they’d confronted the man over Bucky’s survival.  He’d done the best for Bucky, letting him decide whether to see Steve or not.  Yes, it had hurt that his best friend hadn’t want to, but Steve could understand it.  Bucky honestly didn’t remember who he was, and it was good that he had such a fierce protector who was only willing to do what was in Bucky’s best interests, no matter what those interests ended up being.  He was also the one that Steve knew rested most of the hope of breaking the curses that were controlling Bucky; everyone kept claiming that Ianto was the best curse-breaker in the world.  The former Paladin was willing to believe it, having seen the work he’d already put in on preparing for what had to happen next.  Ianto had also been willing to accept Steve’s input into the actual plan, for which Steve was very grateful.

That left Grand Master Phil Coulson of Void Order.

Steve had a lot of feelings toward Grand Master Phil.  He’d been the one to pull Steve from the Void, and to help him recover from this entrapment.  He’d also encountered Bucky as the Winter Knight, back when they’d first found out that Hydra was still around, in the form of a cabal of Void Wizards who wanted more power than they’d already had.  From what he’d been told, those Void Wizards had actually killed the Wizard, but the Void had brought him back as its Champion. 

Steve didn’t understand that part.  Or the part where Ianto was the Cardinal counterpart for Phil.  It was magic and, while he’d mostly been able to accept that magic was real, Steve just didn’t get what all that meant.  He figured he would have had to be a Wizard himself to figure it out.

It had been Phil’s daughter, Daisy, and her friends who’d found the original scroll detailing the magical construction on the arm that had been grafted to Bucky’s shoulder.  When he’d met her and her friends, he’d been impressed by those young people.  If those were the future of this world, then he thought it would be in excellent hands.

However, there was something about Phil Coulson that Steve couldn’t put his finger on. 

He’d gotten hints of a past that hadn’t been exactly up and up.  Steve knew that everyone had things they’d done that they weren’t proud of – hells, look at his own past for prime examples of that – but this…this just seemed extreme.  No one was talking about it, at least not in front of him, and Steve had to admit he was curious about it.  Those around him seemed to be very much aware of what that was, and he suspected it had something with how he’d come to adopt Daisy, although he couldn’t have said why he believed that.  He was also very certain that Baron Nick was somehow involved, since he and Phil were such good friends. 

He also thought Mistress Maria didn’t approve, but wasn’t going to say anything against the Void Grand Master.  It was as if he was on the outside of some conspiracy surrounding Phil Coulson.

Steve wanted to ask.  But he didn’t dare.  For one, he respected Phil way too much to go prying.  And two, he doubted very much that he’d get any sort of answer from anyone in the know.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t curious.  It just meant that he wouldn’t go looking for answers.  He’d trust that he’d be told if and when it became necessary for him to be made aware. And he had to trust the Grand Master when it came to Bucky.  He just had this feeling that, if he knew, that could very well change. 

He couldn’t say why that was. 

Sighing, Steve turned his attention back to the Court goings’ on.  Truth be told, he was just as bored as Baron Nick seemed to be, despite his admirable poker face.  He was standing at the left of the throne-like chair that the Baron was seated in; on the other side, Mistress Maria also stood, looking almost severe in her deep blue robes, her dragon at her feet. 

Steve had been introduced to the Court the same week he’d reported for duty, bringing Sam along with him.  Sam had insisted, saying that Steve wasn’t nearly as acclimated to the future as he should have been, and leaving himself available at any time Steve needed to vent.  He’d done it a couple of times now, and Sam had been invaluable in helping him work through it.  He was so very grateful for his friend, for seeing him through.

Gabe had done the same, although he hadn’t come along.  Baron Nick had invited the older Elf, but Gabe had refused, saying that he was, “Retired from those sorts of shenanigans and didn’t want to be dragged into Court intrigue.”  That didn’t stop him from visiting, using a Teleport Artifact that he’d been given by Pepper for just such occasions.  Gabe usually showed up about twice a week, for dinner and to brag on just how well his many-times great-grandson, Trip, was doing under Phil’s tutelage.  Gabe was very proud of Trip, and wasn’t afraid to share his pride with anyone who would listen.

Apparently it was a very big deal to be the Novice of one of the current Grand Masters.  Gabe genuinely liked Phil, and was getting to know the Grand Master, even having his own dinner with the man once in order to discuss Trip’s situation.  From what his old friend had said, both Trip’s original teaching Master and the second one who’d taken him on had both been Hydra, and Gabe had been concerned about his great-grandson’s reactions to that. Sam had offered to speak to him about it, but Trip had claimed that he’d been talking to Andrew Gardner, who worked for Phil and who had been one of Sam’s instructors at university.

He was dragged out of his reverie by Baron Nick, who was seeming to finally get tired of the argument playing out at the base of the raised dais where the Baron was seated.  “Gentlemen,” he cut across the torrent of words that both men, one whom had claimed that the other had swindled a plot of land from him, “this has gone on long enough.  Now, as I see it, that land was never meant to be sold in the first place –”

The Baron went on to untangle the mess, which Steve understood was just a mistake on the seller’s part, the man believing that he’d owned the plot outright and had had every right to sell it; however, the former Paladin wasn’t sure how Baron Nick had managed to get that from the double cases of verbal diarrhea that had been vomited up by both parties.

In the short time he’d been serving as Knights’ Commander, Steve had seen the Baron handle such things with a brisk efficiency that only made Steve respect the man more.  Yes, there were times when he didn’t exactly agree with what the Baron had decided, but it all seemed to work out in the end.

And he was pretty sure Baron Nick had secrets he wasn’t sharing.

Well, that shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Movement at the back of the room caught Steve’s attention.  Coming to stand just inside of the open double doors was Grand Master Phil Coulson, his daughter Crystal in his arms, their dragons at their feet.  Phil was dressed casually, in a dark blue tunic and trousers, so this visit couldn’t be for Court or Wizard business; besides, he wouldn’t have brought Crystal with him if that was the case.  The little girl had her head leaning on his shoulder, looking as if she wanted to hide but was too curious to do it, wearing a bright yellow dress that brought more attention to her odd, two-toned hair.

Steve found himself gaining a little buzz of excitement at the Grand Master’s appearance. Could this be something about Bucky?  Or did he have other news to impart?

The Baron must have noticed because, after unravelling that particular mess, he called the Court closed for the day, which was a relief, since he really wanted to know why Phil was there.  Steve had been told that he wasn’t required to be there every day, but he felt it was his duty.  The Barony was paying him, after all, and he wanted to do the best job he possibly could.  If that meant standing around looking imposing while feeling incredibly bored, well, he could do that.  His job was protecting the Baron and the Barony, and for him that meant being there whenever the seated Baron was exposed to the public, as it were.

Not that he didn’t think Baron Nick couldn’t protect himself.  The sword he wore wasn’t for show; it was a well-cared for weapon, one that had seen a lot of use.  And, if what he’d heard was true, then the current Baron had used it to take over from the former Baron who, by all rights, was an evil and lazy asshole who’d tried to bleed every bit of money out of the people that he could, in order to line his own coffers.  One of the servants had confided in him that, as soon as he’d taken over, Baron Nick had taken it upon himself to reimburse the citizens as much as he could from those self-same coffers, what the previous Baron had stolen.  He’d only kept what the Barony would have taken in fair taxes.

Yes, this was a man Steve could very easily work for.

The other was moving out of the room, after giving a slight nod toward the Baron and carrying a child who had been through too much already in her short life.

Once Steward Sharon had closed the doors, the three of them headed out themselves, toward the door at the back of the Court that would take them into the residential areas of Triskelia Castle. Steve liked the back ways and hidden passages, and had thoroughly explored them in his first week as Knight’s Commander, ostensibly to learn all of the ways in and out of the castle for security reasons.  Well, that had been true, but it had also been sheer curiosity and delight in discovery that had had Steve trekking through dusty, narrow passageways and dark cubbyholes, using his artistic skills to map everything for future reference. 

Phil and Crystal were waiting in the Baron’s sitting room, the Grand Master seated on the couch with his daughter in his lap, the dragons curled together on the hearth.  Iliad, after a glance at his mistress, joined the other two, who made room for him.  The idea that dragons were always cuddling each other was frankly adorable, Steve thought.

“Phil,” Baron Nick greeted, shrugging out of his formal over-robe.  “Give me a moment while I get out of all this crap finery.  I swear, if I’d known I’d have to wear this sort of thing I never would’ve kicked the old Baron out.”

Steve knew he was censoring himself because, only after about a day of working for the man, he’d come to realize that the Baron was a lot more profane than that.  If Crystal hadn’t been in the room, that sentence would have been a lot dirtier than it came out.

“Hi, Uncle Nick,” Crystal chirped, waving.

The soppiest expression ever came across the Baron’s normally stern face.  “Hi, Miss Crystal.”  He made a detour, pressing a kiss to the little girl’s forehead, then withdrew to his bedroom. 

Mistress Maria was smirking from where she was seated in a chair by the window.  “I had no idea he’d practically melt when a little kid was in the room.”

Phil snorted.  “He was worse with Daisy.”

“How is that possible?” she asked, disbelievingly.

Steve had got the distinct impression that Phil and Mistress Maria really didn’t get along, and he figured it had to do with Wizard politics.  No one had actually said anything to him, but the former Paladin had heard about the rift between the Voids and some of the Greats, and had worked it out that Mistress Maria was one of those Greats who didn’t care for Voids or Cardinals.  Although he suspected that attitude was thawing.  Something must have occurred to have changed her mind, and he thought it boded well for Phil’s crusade to fight against the prejudice.

This time, Phil smirked.  “Just don’t call him adorable.  He hates that.”

“D-darned right, I do.”  The Baron reemerged from the bedroom, down to his tunic and trousers, and censoring himself again, because Steve was absolutely certain he hadn’t meant to say ‘darned’.  “Men aren’t adorable.”

“Keep telling yourself that, Nick,” Mistress Maria laughed.

Once Nick was sitting, Crystal climbed off her father’s lap and made a beeline straight for the Baron, who picked her up the moment she got to him and settled her on his own knee.  She leaned into him trustfully, and honestly…it was adorable.  There was no getting around that.

“Steward Sharon is bringing hot chocolate and snacks,” Phil reported.  “I asked her if she’d mind when I ran into her out in the hall.”

“I could use something to drink after that…stuff.”  Another case of the Baron not using the more colorful term.  Steve was finding it really hilarious, and it was all he could do not to laugh out loud.

He also knew that Baron Nick didn’t drink hot chocolate after Court.  It was usually something much stronger.  He’d said it was because he had to deal with idiots, and alcohol made the whole thing bearable.  It didn’t hurt that he had excellent taste in wines.

“Crystal,” Phil chided her quietly, “say hello to Mistress Maria and Sir Steve.”

The child bit her lip in embarrassment.  “Hi, Mistress Maria and Sir Steve.”

Steve couldn’t help the smile.  “Hello, Miss Crystal.  How have you been?” 

That earned him a smile of her own, and she bounced a little on Baron Nick’s lap.  “Dad is teaching me my magic!  He’s also teaching Wanda and Trip, and they’re both so nice.  I think Wanda really likes Trip, and they’re gonna be best friends, I just know it!”

From Phil’s expression, it was a little more complicated than that, although he was mostly amused by her exclamation.  Steve would have bet it was some sort of teenaged crush, most likely on Wanda’s part, because Trip was Gabe’s great-grandson and had inherited the Elf’s sense of honor, if not any of his Elven features. 

From Mistress Maria’s face, she was thinking the word, ‘adorable’ quite loudly. 

“So,” the Baron drawled, staring at Phil knowingly, “I’m pretty certain you’re not here just for a visit, Phil.  So, spill.  What’s going on?”

“Actually, I’m here for Steve.”  Those blue eyes, with their flecks of black in them, turned toward where Steve was seated. 

His heartbeat suddenly thundering in his ears, Steve whispered, “Bucky?” Please, let it be about Bucky…

The Grand Master nodded.  “Ianto has the final piece we need to attempt the curse breaking.  We’re going to start tomorrow.”