Steve didn’t look up from his book, merely calmly and deliberately turned the page. He’d heard the boy - the groundskeeper’s grandson, he recognized him from when he stole glances at castle life out his bedroom window - sneak through the hedge and make his way stealthily around the perimeter of the walled garden until he was mere feet away. It was a first in Steve’s young life - having another child nearby, close enough to speak. He’d watched from afar, wondering what it would be like, to have someone his age nearby. To converse. To chat. Dare he even hope ... to play? He supposed he could call the guard, but he found he didn’t have the will. He was far more interested in learning about this daring boy who’d broken rules, protocol, and quite likely, the law to sit cross-legged on the milled stones of the patio, looking at him curiously.
Waiting for an answer, his young face intent as he watched the pages turn. It was a nice face, Steve thought. A face he would like to draw, perhaps.
“Do you read?” he asked softly, pitched so only the boy would hear.
“Don’t know how,” the boy with the nice face shrugged.
And that broke Steve’s heart.
The stormy blue eyes that widened, the sheen of unshed tears of gratitude that glittered, the brilliant smile that lit up the world ... years later, Steve would be hard-pressed to identify which one thing he fell in love with that day. He just knew that that boy’s curiosity and courage opened the world to him. The boy would one day tell him that Steve’s generosity in sharing with a boy so far beneath his station opened the world to him as well. A world the two of them would always share together.
Steve learned that the boy’s name was James Buchanan Barnes - a grand name for an earl, but a mouthful for a young boy. So Steve dubbed him Sir Bucky, and knighted him with a wooden sword from his toy chest.
Bucky learned that Steve was the prince, the son of King Joseph, remanded to the Southern Palace because the King - a gruff and ruddy-complected fellow with a tendency toward excess - was ashamed of Steve. Prince Steven was born small and sickly, and his father the King did not want to admit that he’d fathered such a child. So Steven has been kept secluded from public view, and his mother, Queen Sarah, had chosen to remove herself from the main palace in the capitol, to raise her son in privacy and safety at the Southern Palace.
“You still sick?” Bucky had asked.
Steve had shrugged. “Sometimes. Not right now.”
And that had settled that. Steve learned that Bucky’s parents, Winnie and George, had sent Bucky to live with his grandfather so he could learn a good trade, and benefit from association with the royal house. Bucky was slated to remain at the Southern Palace while he was apprenticed to his grandfather, probably a couple of years. More if he didn’t pay proper attention.
“Do you miss home?” Steve had asked.
“Sometimes. Not right now,” Bucky had replied with a grin.
One day when Bucky visited Steve, Steve was reading a book on Greek mythology. Bucky was still learning to read, so the words were still beyond what he could make out easily, but he remarked on the pictures of Medusa and her mane of snakes. The boys became engaged in a spirited debate about them, including how would the Medusa take a bath - would she put a single cap upon her head, or tiny little caps on each snake head? Steven found this hysterical, laughing so hard he nearly triggered an asthma attack. Bucky had grabbed his hands, looked him square in the eyes, and made him count out his breaths slowly and calmly, and accidentally discovered a way to help Steve regain control of his breathing.
That night, Steven knew he had to give Bucky something of equal value, but struggled to find something as important as the gift of breath. Finally, inspiration struck, and when Bucky arrived in the garden the next day, Steve gifted him with a drawing of Medusa with little bathing caps on each and every one of her snakes. This encouraged Bucky to be more imaginative, for Steve to draw more, and for Steve to keep a drawing pad with him so he could make cartoons and drawings as he taught Bucky to read, and Bucky let his imagination fly free.
They exchanged secrets, ideas, each teaching the other new things - Steve taught Bucky to read, then to do problems, Bucky taught Steve how to run and play, how to recognize which fruits on which bushes tasted good, and which to stay away from.
They met that way for months, the prince and the groundskeeper’s errant grandson, Steve sitting out in the walled garden reading, plunking away at a lute, or drawing with his tongue sticking out, the other boy sneaking through the hedge to join him. Steve always had food and drink ready to share, and the boys would enjoy a meal together as the kitchen staff rejoiced at the prince’s increased appetite.
Bucky shared his secret route through the castle grounds, and soon, he and Steve were quietly creeping around the practice grounds, the kitchens, the laundry, and even the stables, where Steve discovered an adorable abandoned white kitten he promptly named Alpine. He used a table knife to knight the kitten, and asked Bucky to keep him safe for him, one knight protecting the other.
Bucky accepted the charge with all due solemnity, and made sure to always bring Alpine with him every day after that, sometimes snug against his heart tucked into his tunic, sometimes riding on this shoulders, and a few times where Alpine had managed to snare his claws into Bucky’s unruly mop, sitting upon his head.
Rain or shine, they’d meet. On the terrace when the weather was fine, inside the sun room when it wasn’t. Steve would leave the door unlocked and Bucky would slip in, use one of the towels Steve was always careful to supply, and the pair of them would sit in front the fire as Steve attempted to teach Bucky everything he’d learned from his tutors. They’d eat while Bucky relayed the latest castle gossip, or some funny tale of Alpine’s shenanigans. Those were the best days, Bucky would soak up the fire’s heat and Steve’s teachings, and often fell asleep on the rug in front of the fire for a while in the late afternoons, Alpine snugged up close against him.
Sometimes Steve curled into them both, and the afternoon slipped by in a comfortable bubble of warmth, companionship, and happiness.
Bucky had been visiting Steve every day for nearly nine months. He knew it was nine months because Steve had taught him how to count. It was becoming more and more difficult to hide the fact that he could read, write, count, and do sums from his grandfather. The urge to read aloud, to sum up numbers, to tell him about all the amazing adventures he shared with Steve ... he faced the daily challenge and held his tongue, but it was getting harder.
At least Grandpa Fury didn’t mind about Alpine. He’d taken a liking to Steve and Bucky’s cat, and so had his cat, Goose. It made for a cozy family life, even if Bucky did hold secrets back from Grandpa. He couldn’t be sure if Alpine kept their secrets or not - she seemed awfully friendly with Goose, and he wasn’t sure what the code of secrecy was among cats.
The day was overcast and held the scent of oncoming snow as Bucky bundled up and tucked Alpine in his jacket to make the journey through the gardens and the hedge to the secret garden where Steve’s sun room lay. He always looked forward to his visits with Steve, and it never occurred to him to wonder if Grandpa noticed his lengthy absences. He always made sure to have his chores done before he set out, so maybe Grandpa didn’t care so long as the work was done.
Today when he got to the terrace, he saw that the sun room was dark, and the grate was cold and lifeless.
He pressed his face against the chill glass, cupped his hand around his eyes, and peered inside.
In the nine months that he and Steve had been meeting, this was a first. There’d been a handful of times when Steve hadn’t been present - off using the privy - but there’d been signs of his presence. A book left open on the chair, a plate of food, his mug and a pitcher beside it. A cheery fire on a dreary day.
Bucky tucked Alpine a little closer to his heart, earning an aggrieved meow from the cat - no longer a kitten, but an adolescent with opinions that could not be ignored,
Bucky ignored her anyway, and reached out to see if the door was locked.
It was. No entry through here. Steve hadn’t been here today. And that worried Bucky.
He retraced his steps, back through the garden, through the hedge, back to the courtyard, and into the kitchens. If there was news about the prince, the scullery maids would be sure to be gossiping.
And they were, in hushed voices and worried expressions.
The Prince has caught a chill.
The Prince is running a fever.
The Prince is dying.
He’d been doing so well, seemed to have really taken to his food lately, and had you noticed how good his color’s been the past few months? You’d never know he nearly died last winter.
Bucky knew Steve got sick more than was normal, but he never said anything about nearly dying.
He crept further into the kitchens, staying low, darted from table to table, and stayed out of sight and out from under heavy feet scurrying to and fro among the preparation stations.
Dr. Erskine’s been called for. Such a nice man. He’s so good to Prince Steven. He’ll see him right as rain.
Her Majesty would’ve been better off with a man like that. The King ... ugh. He’s not done right by her or the Prince.
It’s only delaying the inevitable. That boy’s been cursed, I tell you. Cursed. Or poisoned. I’d look into that Alexander, Earl of Hydra if I were in charge. Shifty as the day is long.
Don’t you talk of poison in a kitchen! People will talk. Nothing comes out of this kitchen that isn’t safe and delicious.
Spies. He’s got spies here, I tell you.
General Fury’d find ‘em out before they could do any harm. No, it’s just Prince Steven’s delicate constitution.
General Fury? Grandpa?
He needs soup. That chicken soup he likes so much. And those little cheese sandwiches he’s taken a liking to. And cider. Make sure there’s cinnamon sticks to stir. A pitcher, to quench his thirst. And some of that honey with the eucalyptus. Don’t forget the little custard tarts he loves. That’ll fix him up.
They were preparing food to go to Steve. All of the things that Steve made sure he had for Bucky when he visited. The kitchen staff thought Steve was doing better because he always shared his food with Bucky.
Had Steve been holding back so there’d be more for Bucky? But he saw him eat, his appetite was good. Wasn’t it?
Alpine shifted grumpily inside Bucky’s jacket, and he whispered soothing nonsense to her to get her to settle. He had to follow the servers when they took the food up to Steve. He had to find Steve.
It was a good plan. He’d skittered out of the kitchen in pursuit of the workers laden with platters loaded with fragrant soup, savory sandwiches, sweet tarts, and heady cider. He clung to the walls, sliding into alcoves, and silently trailing the group as they chattered among themselves as they climbed up through the castle.
The good smells were making Bucky hungry, and Alpine too, but he petted her gently and promised her a bite of cheese when they got to Steve. Maybe a bit of that chicken soup if she was extra behaved.
It just didn’t occur to him that this might not work.
Finally, they’d run out of stairs to climb, and Bucky peered around the corner at the big wooden door that opened inward when one of the workers knocked.
“Cook sent up some of the Prince’s favorite, Your Highness. She says he gets some of her soup in him, he’ll be feeling better in no time,” announced the leader of the group, an older assistant to the head cook. She was kindly and offered a hopeful smile to the Queen, who sat in Steve’s room beyond the limited view Bucky had through the doorway.
He heard her before he saw her, a gentle, melodious voice that seemed weighed down and exhausted.
“Place it by his bedside, and please thank Cook for me. I appreciate you all trudging up the stairs to help take care of my boy.”
“We all love Prince Steven, Your Highness. There’s nothing any one of us would do for him. Or you.”
“You are all very kind. Tell me, has Dr. Erskine arrived yet?”
“Not that I heard tell, no, ma’am.”
Bucky could hear the heavy, weary sigh that followed. “Very well. Would you mind asking one of the pages to find General Fury and send him up to my office? Thank you.”
The kitchen staff delivered the platters, arranging them in efficient silence, and then bowed and curtseyed and backed their way out of Steve’s room to head back the way they’d come.
Now Bucky was alone, tucked into an alcove, staring furiously at the open door, trying to figure out how he could get in without being seen by the Queen.
“You might as well come out and show yourself,” the Queen called then, just as Alpine chose the moment to meow loudly.
Bucky frowned, angry at himself that he’d failed in his mission and a bit put out with Alpine. But when he stepped out and faced the Queen, he realized he hadn’t failed. He was standing in the doorway to Steve’s room, and he could see him now, pale and still, in the big four-poster bed.
“And who might you be?” Her Majesty asked, not unkindly. Now that Bucky could see her up close, he could see so much of Steve in her worried features. Her eyes were that same crystalline blue, and her hair the same wheat gold. There were laugh lines around her eyes, and frown lines framing her lips. She stood there, hands clasped in front of her, waiting.
Waiting for Bucky. Oh.
He drew himself up to his full height, spread his feet apart, and bowed deeply from the waist. “I am Sir Bucky of the Prince’s Personal Guard. He knighted me himself with a wooden practice sword, so it’s official. And this is Sir Alpine, she’s a girl and a cat, and she was knighted with a table knife, but Steve did it, so it’s official, too,” Bucky blurted without taking a breath, and now found himself gasping.
“I see. Well, yes, if a Prince knights you, with a practice sword or a table knife, of course it’s official. And why are you here, Sir ... Bucky, was it?” she asked with a gentle, amused smile that only looked a little frayed around the edges.
“I gotta take care of Steve. He’s my best friend, and we share Alpine, she’s both our cat. He’s been teaching me to read and do numbers, and we play together every day, and everybody’s saying he’s sick, but I gotta do what I can to help him get better, I just gotta -“
“You’re General Fury’s grandson, aren’t you?”
“My grandpa is the head groundskeeper, but he’s no general.”
“He was my father’s general. And mine. He retired and came with me to the Southern Palace when I left the capitol when Steve was an infant. He takes good care of the land, and all who live on it. You like your grandfather?”
“Sure. He’s my grandpa.”
“Well, Sir Bucky, would you mind if I asked him if you could stay with Prince Steven? You and Sir Alpine, of course. Because my son needs someone with such devotion, such a sense of duty, and such passion. Now, I need to find your grandfather to make plans on Steven’s care. Will you sit with him and see if you can get him to eat some of that wonderful food? And don’t forget to help yourself. Sir Alpine, too. This is a solemn charge, Sir Bucky. Are you up to the task?”
“Your Queenliness, I was born for this,” Bucky vowed, grinning.
Over the next five, nearly six, years, Bucky not only stayed with Prince Steven, he moved full-time into the castle, and he and Steve shared first that childhood bedroom, and later a suite of rooms, along with classes, weapons, and equestrian training. Along the way, they collected other children of Queen Sarah’s circle of trusted advisors to form a spirited cohort of classmates, friends, and potential advisors to the future King.
The Master at Arms, the Royal Falconer, her Chief Spy, and her Foreign Minister, among others, all moved their families into the Palace and allowed their children to be educated with Steven and Bucky. So Riley, Sam, Natasha, and Peggy joined their classes and their lives, along with Tony, Clint, and Pepper.
The Queen was quite pleased with her choices, seeing both a diversity of point of view, and a like-mindedness regarding the goals and responsibilities of royal house. And seeing her son, now healthy, tall, and strikingly beautiful, surrounded by good friends, good people, she knew she’d made the right decision when that bedraggled little boy and his haughty cat had first demanded audience in service of their Prince.
Alpine was still haughty, and she ruled over the rooms shared by the Prince and his Knight like no other. Bucky, on the other hand, had grown up to be nearly as beautiful as her son - she was biased, after all - and remained a stalwart, devoted companion and partner in crime.
“Joseph underestimates you. He underestimates Steven,” Nicholas Fury said from a half-step behind as Sarah watched her son and his friends cavorting in that same garden where Bucky and Steve had met in secret so many years ago.
“Joseph discounts Steven. He doesn’t consider him a player on the board. Steve will be 18 this summer, and Joseph hasn’t laid eyes on him since he was 18 weeks old.” She sighed. “If I didn’t possess the bloodline, I’d’ve been dead years ago, just as he thinks Steve is.”
“Betrothing you to the House of Rogers was not your father’s finest moment,” Nick agreed.
“Yes, well, Alexander had wormed his way into Father’s confidence by then. Although the pair of them have been at a standoff now for nearly 18 years. But then, I wouldn’t have Steve, so it wasn’t a total waste.”
“Well, removing yourself from his poisonous reach was a good tactic. Joseph is stuck between the rock and the hard place, unable to move on you, and unable to move on. Killing him serves no purpose for Pierce, not when you hold the bloodline. And as long as you live, Joseph has a permanent case of blue balls - no concubine, no lover, no satisfaction. A whiff of scandal of that kind, and the Council would take action against him.”
“Hmmph. They could’ve taken action when Joseph refused to acknowledge his son and drove me to take up residence here to protect him. I’m surprised Pierce hasn’t tried to infiltrate our palace.”
The throaty chuckle from General Fury had her whirling around, eyes wide in dismay. “How many?”
“Enough were sent back that the stream turned to a trickle. I even let a few of them live.”
She snorted an unqueenly snort. “Anyone who thinks you left the battlefield behind is naive.”
“My grandson still has a hard time believing I once commanded the armies of the land. Even when I can still beat him hand-to-hand, and with a staff. But he’s surprisingly my superior when it comes to long distance. His eyes ... amazing. He is a constant source of pride to me.”
“You were good to accept him when your daughter-in-law remarried.”
“She was good to my son. She loved him, and she stood by him when he was ill. I have always been fond of her. I would never deny her happiness. And look what it got me - a grandson fit to be the first knight of a king.”
“What’re we talking about?” interrupted the cheery voice of Abraham Erskine, Steve’s doctor and Sarah’s close friend. He’d just arrived for a regular visit, and despite appearances of a bumble-headed old fart, he was surprisingly light on his feet, and very good at sneaking up on people.
“How beautiful my son is,” Sarah replied with pride and love.
“Of course he is. He is your son, after all. Steven was always beautiful. Illness never dimmed his spirit,” Abraham tutted as he moved up to join them at the window overlooking the garden where Steve and Bucky had played all those years ago. “All of them are beautiful, inside and out. A cabinet fit for a king.”
“Yes, I think so. He’ll have your and Nick’s counsel, and my other ministers as well. But I think we are looking at the future of the kingdom down there.”
“Well, then, it’s a good thing I’m here.”
“Why are you here, Abraham? Not that I don’t enjoy your company, but -“
“I am here to give Prince Steven his check-up.”
“Check-up? But I thought all of his ailments were cured -“
“That is why I do the check-up. Always. To make sure that is the case. I am confident in my treatments - I have always been so. I check up to make sure there are no new variables added that I did not account for.”
“Even frail and sickly, Steven would have been a better king than his father. I am grateful that you were able to bring his body in line with his spirit. Joseph will have no choice but to cede the throne when we arrive in the capitol.”
“My people are preparing the way even now. By the date of his birthday and his full majority, nothing will stand in the way of him claiming his throne.”
“And this is why the check-ups are important. Joseph will try to claim that Steven is not fit, and the Council will likely have him examined. They will likely test for his bloodline as well. And he shall pass without a blip.”
“A blip. He is your son, after all.”
Queen Sarah smiled then, a content and happy smile as she watched her son enjoy the day with his friends. His team. The people he would forge the future with.
“No seriously. Our Clint has a girlfriend,” Natasha was saying as her fingers intertwined with those of her own best girl, the Lady Margaret. Or Pegs as she was called among their little group.
“I find it hard to imagine that he could un-nock his arrow long enough to notice anyone,” Sam chuckled.
“Oh, she noticed him first. Goddess help us, but she took a shine and wouldn’t take no. He’s pretty happy about it, all things considered.”
“It’s funny,” Pegs said then, smiling at Natasha. “Once upon a time, we’d all be on the docket to sell into advantageous marriages. Being invited to live here, to be educated along with you two heathens, it seems our parents have lost interest in those plans. We have the opportunity to make our own destinies.”
“Hmm, that’s something you might want to take a look at, Steve. You know, when you’re king,” Nat suggested with a smirk.
Steve blushed, ducking his head, as he always did when conversation rolled around to his impending kingship. Bucky reached over and laid a hand on his arm, gentle and supportive.
“You’re gonna be a great king, Steve. You can’t help but be, what with your Mom, and Abraham. And Grandpa. You’ve got the best role models and teachers anyone could hope for. But more than that, you’re you,” Bucky added, moving his hand so it was flattened against Steve’s chest, directly over his heart. “This is why you’ll be a great king.”
“Yeah, but I’m my father’s son, too -“
“Only by blood. Grandpa says there’s nothing in you of your father. He sometimes thinks that maybe your real Dad was an angel, not that idiot.”
“That could be considered treason, you know,” Pegs pointed out with an elaborate eye roll.
“Calling King Joseph an idiot? Well, I’ll be in good company in the royal prison.”
Sam snorted at that. “As if Steve’d ever let anything happen to you, Buck. Two of you’ll be annoying the retainers together in your dotage. Don’t know how you’ll ever fit wives into your lives, you two are so tight.”
“To the end of the line,” Bucky agreed, smiling, but Steve frowned. “Steve?”
“I just wanna enjoy these last few months. I don’t wanna think about how everything’s gonna change. The stuff I’m gonna have to say goodbye to. Y’know?”
There was a chorus of understanding, so Sam popped up and grabbed a ball made from a sheep’s bladder with leather sheathing, and challenged, “Go long!”
“You have any idea what he’s on about?” Pegs asked Natasha.
“It’s a Sam thing,” she shrugged, even as Steve and Bucky raced down the long edge of the garden, jostling and shoving at each other as the ball sailed overhead.
“That’ll keep ‘em busy for a while,” Sam said, dropping back in his seat as he reached for Riley’s hand. “Think they’ll ever wise up?”
“Those two?” Riley asked, watching as the two boys literally stumbled over each other as they both made a grab at the ball that was rolling out of sight into a copse of trees. “Hardly. Some day soon, one of us is going to have to do something.”
“I vote intervention. Let’s lock ‘em both in the tower,” Pegs suggested.
“The pair of them have shared a bed so long, you think that’ll do anything?” Sam countered.
“He’s got you there,” Riley added.
“Bugger, you’re right. They are just too used to being together.”
Nat opened her mouth, and Sam shot his hand out to close over it.
“Don’t even. We are not doing anything to hurt them. Right, Nat?”
She glared at him, then nodded once, grudgingly. He lowered his hand, and she protested, “If putting them together doesn’t make them realize how they feel about each other, maybe pulling them apart will -“
“Sorry, darling, I can’t agree,” Pegs interrupted. “Steven has far too much already weighing on his mind. Any kind of disruption with Bucky would only make his life worse. We have to trust that they’ll eventually figure it out. And if not, well, then. We just sit them down and explain the facts of life to them, eh?”
Sam looked at her consideringly. “That’s ... that’s actually not a bad idea.”
“It’s really not,” Riley agreed, eyebrows raised in surprise. “But timing.”
“If they haven’t noticed by the time we start out for the capitol, then I vote we stage an intervention,” Pegs declared.
“Well, that gives us two months, then. All right. We’re agreed.”
Steve leaned with his back against the tree, arms crossed over his chest, while Bucky rooted around under the bushes trying to find the ball.
“You could help, you know,” Bucky groused as he dropped to his knees and crawled deeper into the brush.
In his spot against the tree, Steve tilted his head to better observe Bucky’s ... progress. A small smile formed on his lips as he watched, studied ... and then suddenly Bucky turned around and caught him staring. “What, my pants split or something?”
“No, no, sorry, lost in thought,” Steve sputtered, blushing.
Bucky stood up and tossed the ball at Steve then, and even distracted, Steve’s reflexes were good enough that he caught the ball and held it between his palms.
“I remember the first time we tossed a ball around. You’ve come a long way.”
“If you’re trying to be delicate about me being a total klutz, don’t be. I know the treatments have changed me.”
“You make it sound like you’re not you anymore. But you are,” Bucky shrugged, putting his hand out for the ball. Steve passed it over wordlessly. “All the treatments did was remove barriers. Barriers to your health, your ability to grow, the proper working of your body. You’re not somebody new, Steve. You’re just you without all the illness and pain. Right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Steve replied grudgingly. “I just can’t get past the idea that I’m some kind of imposter now. I see the way people look at me - it’s not the same.”
“Well, now they have to look up ...”
“That’s not it, and you know it, jerk. They look at me like I’m worth more than I was. And that just makes me feel ...”
“Like they’re a bunch of judgmental assholes? Because that’s what they are.”
“Even the women who look at me like they want to eat me alive?”
“Especially them,” Bucky chuckled, tossing the ball to Steve, who caught it handily. “Anybody catch your eye?” he asked then, his serious expression belying the light tone of his voice.
Steve tossed the ball back to Bucky and then shrugged, looking toward the ground. “No.”
“Oh. Well. That’s good then. I guess,” Bucky seemed to be digging himself in deeper.
“Um, well, I guess ... I guess you don’t want to start something when we’re all going to be moving soon.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Steve replied, holding up his hands in the negative when Bucky made to toss the ball again.
“You’ve been training for this your whole life,” Bucky reminded him, and let the ball drop from his hands. He came closer, and put both hands on Steve’s shoulders, kneading them gently. “You’re going to be a great king, Steve. This country is lucky to have you.”
“But all I’ve ever known is here. I don’t know that I’m ready for court intrigues, a big city - I -“
Bucky stepped closer still, and Steve found himself fascinated by Bucky’s lips forming around the words. “You’d never been out of this garden before we met. And when you discovered the world beyond the hedge, you didn’t want to just stay in the garden any longer, right? And you didn’t. You moved beyond the hedge, beyond the walls. Into the towns and out into the country. You forget that when you’re king, you’re in charge. You can put a stop to the court intrigues. And if the city is too busy, you can make changes for the better.”
Bucky paused to lick his lips, and Steve would swear his eyes dropped to look at Steve’s lips, making Steve’s heart hammer in his chest, a shiver of anticipation rippling through him. Then he said, his voice low and his face close, “I’ll be there by your side, as long as you want me to be. I won’t let you face this alone. To the end of the line, right?”
“Yeah,” Steve breathed, waiting and hoping that Bucky would lean in just a few inches more and kiss him, the moment bright and shining and full of promise as Bucky seemed to start to do just that -
“Hey, losers! Abraham says he’s ready, you need to come in and get your check-up!” Sam called as he trotted toward them.
And then Bucky smiled faintly as he stepped out of Steve’s space, retrieved the ball in one smooth move, and started to follow Sam back to the castle. “Coming?”
Steve mentally shook himself out of the broken moment, and nodded, smiling. “Race ya!” he shouted, and launched off from the tree to sprint ahead, Bucky chasing him, laughing.
It was always an occasion when Abraham Erskine visited the Southern Palace. Not that he didn’t have rooms there, and the resources of the Southern Court for anything he might need or want. And not that he didn’t visit often - he sometimes came for days or a week at a time, and was only gone a few days before he was back again. Or he might be gone for months, and then settle in for a visit just as long. This time, he’d only been gone a little less than two weeks.
It was just that everyone was always so glad to see him, with his tales of lands beyond the Palace, his remembrances of luminaries past, and the stories he’d make up on the spot. He was a born storyteller, and everyone loved him, from the Queen herself, down to the youngest apprentice and scullery maid.
The Southern Court ran very differently from the capitol. Here, people were elevated because of what they could do, and they had opportunities to learn and grow. A feast was attended by everyone in the castle, and once the cooking was done and the platters brought to the banquet hall, everyone shared them around, helping themselves and passing them on so the kitchen and serving staff could be invited to join in. It was a style of household that Sarah had settled on not long after arriving at the Southern Palace with infant Steve in tow. The only time there’d been private meals were when Steve had been ill, or Sarah hadn’t felt like socializing.
The shared bounty, the shared responsibility, and the shared joy was something Steve had grown up knowing. But until recently, he hadn’t realize just how rare and special the relationship between the royal family and the people of the castle really was.
He looked around, trying to burn the memory of this happy time so he would never forget just how good it was.
He glanced over at Bucky to his left, and found his old friend watching him speculatively.
“What? I have something coming out my nose?”
“Nah. Just thinking. About what you said earlier.”
“I say a lot of things. Anything in particular?”
“About how court in the capitol is going to be different. Intrigues and such.”
“So ... I was thinking maybe it’s time I actually moved into my room.”
“You know. Slept in my own bed.”
“But we always -“
“Someday there’s going to be a queen in your life, Steve. Or maybe a, you know, a wife in mine. I thought maybe it’d be easier if we started sleeping apart now, so it’s habit by the time we leave for the capitol.”
Steve felt his world crumble around him. He and Bucky had been sharing a bed since that day Bucky had announced to his mother that he and Sir Alpine were born to protect Steve. He’d awakened from that fever to see Bucky’s hopeful face. Bucky had bossed him until he’d finished every drop of soup, and then he and Alpine had snuggled under the covers with him. It was the best sleep he’d ever had up until that point.
And he’d slept well nearly every night since, with Bucky’s warmth spreading beneath the covers, the steady beat of his heart and the even rise and fall of his breath lulling Steve into sleep each night. Sometimes the careful grooming of his head by Alpine, or her rumbling purr.
The only nights they’d slept apart since then were when Steve had been undergoing treatments. And those nights had been miserable and lonely for them both. The only reason that Bucky hadn’t snuck into Steve’s infirmary room was because Abraham had warned him it would be dangerous for them both, and Bucky would never do anything to risk Steve.
“Buck, I ... I don’t want to,” Steve said then, his voice small and broken, as he reached out to circle Bucky’s wrist with his fingers. “So much is gonna change. I need something that doesn’t -“
The smile that Bucky gave him then was incandescent and comforting. “Okay. For now.”
“For now,” Steve repeated, feeling like the win had a time limit attached. A time limit that was fast approaching. He smiled, but inside, his heart was breaking.
Between them, the end of the line had always meant forever.
Now it seemed to mean until they arrived in the capitol and he ascended to king.
And now more than ever, Prince Steven dreaded his destiny.
“Well, Steven, your results came back and everything looks good,” Abraham was saying. He swirled the amber liquid in his glass, and took a deep draught of it. “But something is not right with you, I fear.”
“No, I’m fine, Abraham,” Steve insisted.
“Nothing good ever comes from a man who feels he needs to reassure others of his honesty. Look, if you can’t talk to me, talk to your mother. She always has your best interests at heart. And she has to listen to you.”
“She’s your mother,” Abraham answered as though he thought Steve had suddenly become a dullard.
“Oh. Yeah. Of course.”
“Talk to her, Steven. Let her set your mind at ease.”
“And if she can’t?”
“Then you work the problem. Just as I taught you.”
Work the problem.
If only it were that easy.
“I’m the Queen, Steve. And you’re about to be King. No one in their right mind would presume to eavesdrop on the pair of us speaking together.”
“Oh, all right. Just let me let General Fury know that we are exiting the banquet voluntarily, so he doesn’t send anyone after us, okay? I’ll meet you in the garden.”
“Okay. Okay, thanks.”
And with that, Steve slipped out of the banquet quietly, unaware of eyes tracking his every move.
“Really?” Nat asked, giving Bucky a sour look.
“Damn, Barnes. You pine any louder, we’re going to have to have the Head Forester trim your branches.”
“It’s not like that. You know that. It’s my job -“
“It’s like that. It’s always been like that. It’s always gonna be like that, Buck. You should do something about it,” Sam pointed out evenly.
“In two months’ time, he’s King Steven. My job is to protect him at all costs. Always.”
“Even from you?” Nat challenged.
“Maybe especially from me.”
“You’re an idiot,” she shook her head fondly, Pegs nodding sagely beside her.
“She’s not wrong, man,” Sam agreed.
“I have to concur,” Riley added.
“If you think he’s not into you, you haven’t been paying attention the past five years,” Sam pointed out, the voice of reason.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Beg to differ.”
“Beg all you like, it’s not like that. Not for him.”
“Damn, it’s a good thing you are pretty. ‘Cos you are definitely not smart,” Nat observed as she sipped her wine.
“Well?” Queen Sarah asked as she slid her arms through Steve’s and hugged herself against his bicep. “What’s troubling my beautiful son?”
“The future. I’m ... I’m scared, Ma.”
“You’re going to be a brilliant king, Steve. You have nothing to fear.”
“I’m not worried about being king, Ma. You’ve trained me, and I have the best advisors. What I’m afraid of ... I’m afraid of losing Bucky.”
“Bucky? Son, that boy would follow you into hell without a thought -“
“He wants to move into his own room. Because we won’t be able to share when I’m king.”
“Well ... it’s his right, of course. Are you sure you aren’t holding him back for your own comfort?”
Steve stopped walking then, and let go of his mother’s arm, stepping around to face her. “I’m in love with Bucky, Ma. He’s ... he’s it for me. I don’t want anyone else. I’m never gonna want anyone else.”
She tilted her head and smiled at him, lifted her hand to cup his cheek in her palm. He closed his eyes and leaned into her touch.
“Does he want you back?” she asked gently.
His eyes opened again, and there were tears glistening on his long lashes. “I don’t know. I’ve never asked. I don’t ... I don’t want to ask him for something I can’t give back.”
“Oh, Steven. You only need father a child to carry on the bloodline. You needn’t be married to do so. You needn’t swear fidelity to the woman who carries your child. You must only treat her well and respect her needs and wishes. Just that will make you a better man, and a better king than your father. I know you will be a wonderful father, unlike your own. I know you will be a kind and just king. Again, unlike your father. Because that is who you are, Steven. A man who loves. So tell that boy, that man, of yours, how you feel. I don’t think you will be disappointed.”
“You’re going to be king. You wouldn’t be the first king to have a prince consort, and you’re not going to be the last. What, you thought you were unique?” she chuckled fondly. “There are actually contingencies in place for just this situation. And don’t forget - as king, you can make changes. Like ... removing the need for a queen of the royal bloodline to marry so that her husband becomes king rather than just recognize her right to rule. Recognize equality. And ... eliminate barriers to divorce.”
“He’s a good man, Ma.”
“He is. And he’s been good to us both. If I could ... if I could, I would grow old with him.”
Steve stood there for a long moment, looking at the quiet happiness that glowed through his mother’s eyes. He straightened and felt himself fill with resolve, with the will of a king. His fingers drew a loving line down the side of her face as he smiled at her. “My first act as king will be to sever all ties to Joseph Rogers. I will dethrone him, disown him, and divorce him. He will become a man without a country, with no resources, no friends, no future, so long as he remains in this land.”
“Alexander will try to fight you.”
“You mean you and Fury don’t have any dirt on good ole cousin Alex?”
“How dirty do you want to get, my lord?” she grinned up at her son.
Steve led his mother on his arm back to the banquet hall, and was met at the entrance by Abraham, and Nat and Pegs. The smile on Abraham’s face was soft and sweet, and Steve felt a swell of affection for the man. He knew from what his mother had said that their relationship was always chaste, always proper. But the happiness that they each brought the other was so evident, so real, Steve could not imagine a future where the two of them couldn’t be together. He’d meant what he said about usurping Joseph Rogers, ending his rule, his marriage, and his influence. And if what Ma had said about Alex was true, Fury would make short work of her devious cousin at last. All he had to do was turn 18, arrive at Court, and press his claim as hereditary king.
The royal court at the capitol wouldn’t know what hit them.
But in the meantime, as Ma went off with Abraham, Steve found himself suddenly ambushed by Nat and Pegs as they flanked him, each of them snagging an arm as they practically frog-marched him toward a quiet alcove off the main banquet hall.
“Ladies, if I didn’t already know you are devoted to each other, I might think I’m being kidnapped.”
“You are being kidnapped, you oaf. It’s time for an intervention,” Pegs announced, voice pitched low so only Steve and Nat could hear.
“What’d I do this time?” he whined as they pulled him into the curtained-off space.
When the curtain had fallen back in place, Nat released his arm and wheeled so she was facing him, fists planted on her hips. “What are your intentions?” she demanded.
“I, uh -“
“He’s making noises about moving into his own space, maybe even requesting a room of his own. Are you going to let that happen?”
“No. I already asked him to stay. He’s convinced we won’t be able to share when we get to the capitol -“
“The answer is simple, Steven. Surely you can see that,” Pegs challenged. “Well?”
“Um, maybe you can enlighten me?”
“You love him, he loves you, the pair of you are acting like self-sacrificing idiots.”
“I told him I don’t want him to leave. I can’t force him to share a bed with me -“
“You can let him know that it means more than real estate to you, Steve. We’ve watched the pair of you orbiting each other for years, and there is no way you can convince me that you don’t -“ Nat argued.
“I do. I do love him. He thinks he needs to make space for a queen. That’s why I needed to talk to Ma.”
“I don’t need to marry the mother of my children. I just need to father them.”
“Oh. Well, that’s sorted,” Pegs replied, laughing.
“Well, of course it’s going to be one of us. Where else will you find someone you actually like who expects nothing from you?”
“Are you serious? But you’re together -”
Pegs grinned, shaking her head at him. “Steven, we would both die for you. All of us would. But you think it would be a hardship to bring a life into this world with you? That’s nonsense. Go get your boy. We’ve got this succession thing sewn up.”
“I do expect a good title, though,” Nat added thoughtfully. “If you’re not married to either of us, neither of us would be queen, and that’s okay. Duchess? Marquis? What would Barnes be?”
“Apparently he wouldn’t be the first Prince Consort.”
“I like that. It suits him. You just need to change the laws so you can marry that boy.”
Steve stared at Pegs for a long moment before a smile overtook his face, so big and blinding, it made his cheeks hurt.
“That’s it. That’s perfect. I gotta go talk to Ma again. I’ll meet you back at the table, okay? And don’t tell anyone about our conversation.”
“Not even Sam and Riley? They knew we were coming to see you -“
“Not even them. The next person to know needs to be Bucky. Okay?”
In unison, the two women raised up on tiptoe to plant a kiss on each of Steve’s cheeks. “All right, darling. A grand romantic gesture is exactly what’s needed, so we’ll remain silent. But you will be providing details over breakfast.”
“Yes, Lady Margaret, I will. Now, I have plans to make!”
Bucky hadn’t seen Steve for most of the evening, and he was feeling out of sorts. The others were right, Bucky loved Steve with all of his being, and he would put aside his own happiness to ensure Steve’s, without hesitation. He’d been doing that ever since the first time he’d entered Steve’s childhood rooms, and he would continue to do so until the grave.
It didn’t mean that the thought of Steve finding someone else didn’t hurt. He knew that Steve wouldn’t be forced to find a wife upon arrival at the capitol, but he also knew that courtiers and people of influence would be jockeying for favor, and trying to place a female relative in the royal bedchamber would be an avid spectator sport as soon as Steve was crowned.
Not that Bucky was interested in being in the stands for that. Part of him was trying to protect his heart by moving out of Steve’s bed and bedroom now, but when Steve asked ... he just couldn’t deny him.
He’d never be able to deny him.
Someday soon, though, he was going to have to learn. To protect Steve. To do the job he’d solemnly accepted over five years ago.
As for Sir Alpine, she was only interested in being petted, having delicacies served at her whim, and curling on the pillow by his head. He supposed he’d have to leave her behind as well ...
But not tonight. At least, that’s what he hoped as he left the banquet early, returning to their empty rooms, and readied for bed, wondering just where Steve was.
By the time Steve got back to his suite, it was quite late. He’d had to wait until the banquet was winding down, since Ma was the hostess, and he needed her help before he was ready for the next step. He hadn’t seen Bucky leave, but Buck was a social animal, and he frequently would knock back a few with some of the guys from round the castle. He convinced himself that’s all it was, and not that Buck was making time with one of the women - or men. He’d never talked about being with anyone, and Steve liked to think if someone had caught Bucky’s eye, he would have told him.
Finally, it had been time to bid everyone goodnight, and Steve had escorted his mother back to her quarters. It had been worth it, though.
Now he was standing outside the door to his own rooms, rooms he’d shared with Bucky for the past three or so years. They’d graduated to this suite as they’d both grown up, moving from the single room that had been Steve’s childhood bedroom to a suite of bedrooms, sitting rooms, bathing rooms, and even a little dining room where they normally ate together. The walls were decorated in his art, lovingly framed by Bucky in his spare time. Sometimes Bucky would compose stories, just so Steve would have something to inspire his art. They’d settled into a domestic routine so easily, they’d fit together so well, that it had taken Steve a long time to realize that what he felt for Bucky wasn’t ordinary. It wasn’t routine or simple. It was complex and glorious. And tonight ... tonight, he finally knew not only what he could do, but what he should do.
Straightening his clothes and taking a deep breath to steady his fluttering nerves, Steve opened the door and strode through to find Bucky sitting up in bed, reading. Alpine was curled at the bottom of the bed, her tail wrapped over her nose as she snoozed. She didn’t wake for Steve’s arrival, and that was okay.
“Hey, Buck,” Steve greeted, sounding stiff and terrified to his own ears. He hoped that his friends, his mother, were all correct, and that Steve wasn’t about to lose his best friend and the best thing that had ever happened to him through a miscalculation.
Bucky looked up from the book, and the smile he gave him was soft, fond. A little sad, a little hesitant for a moment, before he seemed to make a decision and let his smile shine through. “Steve. I thought maybe you’d -“ he shook his head. “Sorry. Have a good time?”
“Because I wasn’t with you.”
“Oh. Well, I looked for you, but I couldn’t find you.”
“Yeah, had to talk to Ma for a while. Did you know that she and Abraham are in love?” Steve asked as he started stripping out of his banquet finery.
“You just figured that out?” Bucky chuckled. “Steve, if it weren’t for your father being the actual King, old Abraham would’a been your Daddy the moment he laid eyes on your Mom. It was every bit as good as the fireworks on your birthday.”
Steve paused before he pulled his nightshirt on over his head. “Really? Wow. Guess I might’a been distracted at the time. Y’know, nearly dying and all.”
“Yeah, yeah, pull the pity card. You know that doesn’t work on me, punk.”
“Only because you’ve been by my side through it all. Don’t know how I would’ve got through it all without you, Buck.”
Bucky looked at Steve with a strange expression on his face, which quickly morphed into a smile, even though it was a little stiff around the edges. “Pledged myself to protect you, whatever the cost. To your Mom. Me and Alpine. So, you’re stuck with us, right?”
Steve finished pulling on the shirt, toed off his shoes, and stepped out of his breeches. Then he collected his things to fold them and set them aside, palming a small box from his breeches pocket as he did so.
“I sure hope so,” Steve answered finally, as he pulled back the covers and slid into bed beside Bucky. He leaned back against the pile of pillows, and stretched his arms, feigning a yawn. Bucky watched with an amused smile, and Steve hoped against hope that twinkle in Buck’s eye meant interest, not that Steve looked foolish.
Then he dropped the box in the middle of the bed between them.
“Open it and find out.”
Bucky huffed under his breath, and reached for the little box, a velvet covered hinged box of some age. He opened the lid carefully, and gasped softly. Nestled carefully in the center of the box was an antique silver ring, burnished to a soft gleam, with tiny red stones - garnets - around a delicate pale blue diamond. It was his grandmother’s ring, handed down to his Ma to be given to the person who stole Steve’s heart. It’s why he’d seen Ma back to her rooms, so he could get the ring ... and give it to the person who’d stolen his heart ... no, the person to whom he’d freely given his heart.
“Steve - you found somebody?” Bucky asked then, turning a stricken face toward Steve, tears glittering in his eyes.
“I never needed to find anybody, Bucky,” Steve replied, frowning. The tears threatening to flow down Bucky’s cheeks, the broken, ragged breath he drew, the expression of loss on his face - these were not the reactions Steve had expected.
And then Steve realized what Bucky must think.
“No, you got it wrong. I didn’t need to find anyone, Buck. Because I’ve always had my person right beside me. It’s you, jerk. You’re my somebody.” He reached out then and covered Bucky’s hand with his own, smiling hopefully. “I’ve been so scared about everything that’s happening, because I was afraid of losing you. But then you showed me that if I didn’t say anything, I could lose you anyway. So I kind of talked it over with Ma ...”
“You talked about ... us ... with your Mom?”
“Ma knows where it’s at - she loves Abraham after all, and she kicked my no-good father to the curb. But anyway ... apparently there’s this thing about being King. Hereditary King rather than married into the family King. I get to make the rules. And I would not be the first King to have a Prince Consort.”
Steve took the box out of Bucky’s hand and gently extracted the ring. He held it up, and positioned it at the tip of Bucky’s ring finger, eyebrow arched hopefully. “What I’m saying, Bucky Barnes, is that I love you, and I can’t imagine a future without you in it. So ... if you’ll have me ... I want to marry you on my18th birthday, right in the garden where we first met, and we’ll travel to the capitol as husbands. And when I’m crowned, I’ll marry you again in front of everyone. We will serve this country together, the way we’re supposed to be.”
“But what about succession?”
“According to Pegs, she and Nat have it all sewed up. I don’t, uh, have to be married to the woman who bears my child. I just have to be good to her, and being good to Nat and Pegs is something I wanna do anyway. The making a baby part ... well, we’d work that out later. Could you live with that?”
“Do I get to have you the rest of the time?”
“Do I really have to say it?”
“Well, a guy likes to be wooed a little, Steve. This is a big commitment you’re talking about. Wait, can Sir Alpine be our best man?”
“I’d pay money to see her in a wedding finery. She might as well be, though. So is that a yes?”
Bucky extended his hand to Steve, so Steve could slip the ring on his finger, but when Steve started to do that, Bucky grabbed his hand and pulled him close. “Say it,” he whispered, his lips mere inches from Steve’s.
And those butterflies that had fluttered in his stomach back in the garden, when he’d thought Bucky might kiss him? They were back in full force as he felt Bucky’s breath against his lips.
A promise of forever. It’s what it had always meant between them, and now they were going to make it a reality.
“To the end of the line,” Steve breathed, and Buck’s mouth closed over his as he slid the ring onto his finger.
“Good. ‘Cos I love you, too, Steve Rogers. And I will marry you as many times as you want. Now kiss me again.”
The end of the beginning