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20 Featherbeds

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"BLAST! OH, BLAST IT ALL TO HELL!" The carriage jerked roughly to a stop, throwing Steven forward from his seat inside, and he winced slightly at his driver's curse. "Sorry, sire," he apologized quickly. Steve was nonplussed as he leaned his head out from the carriage window. He smelled the rich petrichor and felt light droplets dusting his skin and hair.

"What did we hit?"

"A rock as big as my head," Clint told him gruffly. "We'll see to it, sire. Thor and I will have it fixed in no time."

"Perhaps we might have avoided it if you had let me steer the carriage," the blond giant nagged in smug tones. "So much for your eagle eyes, Barton."

"Leave the horses to me, Odinson. Just keep swinging that hammer of yours." Thor's father was the best blacksmith in the village, and Thor sat at his knee learning the trade since he could walk. Odin sent him to the palace to cross-train in the royal stables. He joined Clint frequently while they transported members of the royal family, which he was grateful for; robbers thought twice about accosting them when they saw Thor towering over them, despite the temptation of the carriage's royal seal.

Clint climbed down and checked the horse's hooves for stones while Thor saw about the wheel. "It's cracked, sire."

"Can it be fixed?" Steve felt guilty sitting inside the warmth and comfort of the carriage while his coachmen were getting rained on. Thor's expression looked grim, but he nodded.

"As speedily as we can manage, Your Highness."

"Sire, would you care for a nip of something to warm you up?" Clint offered. "There's a bottle of brandy packed away in the chest, under the seat." Thor gave him a pointed look, but Clint shrugged, and then he smirked.

"Thank you, but, no," Steve offered, suppressing a little smile.

"Just sit tight, sire, and stay warm," Thor reminded him. He retrieved a sturdy blanket from one of the trunks and leaned inside the carriage, wrapping it around the prince's reed-thin body. He bowed and backed his way out, carefully closing the door. Steve ruminated as they worked on fixing the wheel. He retrieved the small, leatherbound book from the seat and the stub of charcoal he had tucked in his tunic pocket and began to sketch. It soothed and entertained him on long trips, and he often brought the sketchbook along with him to quell the boredom of court. He found the endless rounds of conferences, balls and festivals horrendously dull, particularly the visiting nobles themselves, but there was his life as a prince.

And yet, it was lonely.

*

"James! A word, please!" Bucky winced at his mother's impatient tone as it rang through the corridor. Rebecca grinned up at him from the other side of the chessboard, dark eyes dancing.

"You're in for it, now," she murmured gleefully.

"That's enough out of you, brat. I haven't even done anything..."

"That's the problem." She contemplated her options, then moved her black knight. He scowled, but before he could map out his own strategy or reply to her jibe, his mother pounced. She caught sight of him from the doorway of the library and swept inside.

"Aha! You won't escape, try though you might, James Buchanan!"

"Wouldn't dream of trying," he offered, before Bucky turned on the charm. "How may I serve you, Mother?"

"That's enough of that," she told him, swatting him upside the head.

"Ow!" He rubbed the offended spot and pouted.

"You need to make a choice, James. You need to find a proper bride - "

"Or a consort," he interrupted, slate gray eyes twinkling.

" - by your twenty-first birthday, which is NEXT WEEK, I might add," Winifred snapped. "And I want GRANDCHILDREN," she emphasized.

"And Becca will give them to you, eventually," he teased. Rebecca responded to this claim by tossing one of his captured pawns at him, which he handily ducked.

"Your father married me when he was eighteen," she emphasized.

"And Father was the luckiest man on the earth," he told her. Winifred cut her eyes at him. Rebecca ducked her face, stifling her smile.

"Indeed, he was. Don't try to flatter me or put me off." She brandished a parchment scroll, and Bucky groaned loudly.

"Not this again..."

"This last batch was a motley bunch," his mother told him. "Coming in from every corner and out of the woodwork. Every woman that has crossed that threshold in a pair of kid slippers, calling herself a princess, has put in a claim for you."

"Some of them were legitimately royal," Bucky argued.

"Hardly," Winifred said, shuddering. "Princess Gertrude won her title at the country fair."

"She was cute," Bucky argued.

"She smelled like a goat," Rebecca threw in. Bucky shrugged, then nodded.

"Princess Wilhelmina had the most calloused hands I've ever felt."

"Oh, that won't do a'tall," Bucky agreed, but his tone was amused. Wilhelmina went by "Billy" when they'd had the time to chat, and she had a bawdy sense of humor, even if, as his mother pointed out, she had the hands of a washer woman. She certainly wasn't the worst of the lot.

And there had been SO many. Tall, short, plump, overly toothsome or toothless, dripping in perfume, braying, shrill, painfully bashful, snide, gaudy, vapid, provocative... some were plain dull. A select few were breathtakingly beautiful, but poorly informed of the local government and affairs of their own villages, which boggled Bucky's mind.

Bucky found one consolation in the endless rounds of matchmaking engagements: His parents hosted balls every season, and Bucky adored dancing. He was graceful and light on his feet, and he left every partner dazzled, breathless and flushed. Bucky lost himself in the lovely strains of music, the swirl of beautiful gowns across the floor, and the warm, soft bodies within his grip. Being a prince... wasn't the worst thing in the world.

Yet, he yearned for a partner. An equal, not just a queen to sit beside him on a matching throne or to bear him children. Bucky wanted someone to ride horses with, take along with him on hunting expeditions, picnic with on the lush grounds and surrounding beach, who enjoyed reading and who was smart enough to beat him at chess.

Someone tender between the sheets would be nice, too, if he had to be honest... the gender wasn't particularly important. Bucky tried to be discreet, but Queen Winifred knew her son's tastes weren't limited to a woman's kiss or touch. Yet she adored her son and wanted to see him happy.

As a doting father, of course. She still wanted grandchildren, and in her mind, that involved a dutiful, suitable daughter-in-law. All her son needed was a little more persuasion, as for the perfect young lady to cross the palace threshold and catch his eye.

 

Fate could be fickle.

*

"I must apologize, sire," Thor rumbled as he leaned his head in through the carriage door. His blond hair hung lank and damp around his face, tendrils snaking loose from his braids. "The wheel is beyond repair. It will need to be replaced."

"It's getting dark out, sire, and it's shaping up to be quite a storm. We'll need to find shelter," Clint added. "We're not far from the next village, if we unhitch the horses?" He looked hopeful, and Steve sighed, then nodded. He wasn't looking forward to riding out into the cold, damp night on horseback, but there was no help for it.

"Thor, I'll ride double with you." His blond brows rose, and Thor shook his head.

"Sire, it wouldn't be proper-"

"I need to borrow your warmth, Mr. Odinson. Propriety won't win over staying warm, which we can manage if we double up." Thor nodded, then bowed.

"Yes, Highness."

"Gather up the rest of the blankets, Clint."

"What about the trunks?"

"What about them? Sarafina might object to taking them with us," Steve pointed out as he climbed out of the carriage. He stroked the pretty white mare's nose, and she gently whickered at him. He skillfully unhitched her from the wagon while Clint did the same with her sister, Cleo. Clint felt badly about leaving Steve's belongings behind.

"Do you have your sketchbook, sire?"

"Yes, indeed. Not to worry." It was the one thing he couldn't leave behind, and Clint knew that. They gave Steve a leg up onto Sarafina's saddle, and Thor climbed on behind him, wrapping them both in the blankets. Clint retrieved the lantern from atop the carriage and mounted Cleo, bundling himself as well, and they set off down the road, following the village lights ahead.

"Are we stopping at an inn?" Thor asked.

"Not if we can help it," Clint grumbled. "No telling what kind of rabble are taking shelter in some of those dumps. You won't be dinner for bedbugs tonight, your Highness."

"Then what do you suggest?" Thor inquired.

Clint pointed into the distance. "That." Thor and Steve followed his hand, just as thunder rattled the ground around them and lightning flashed across the sky. The lightning's bluish glow illuminated the turrets of a large, ivy-covered castle in the clearing, roughly two miles away. Steve was grateful for Thor's warm bulk at his back and the soft cocoon of blankets, but he was wracked by several gusty sneezes, anyway.

"Are you up to riding that far, sire?"

"For a warm bed, certainly. Onward, Mr. Odinson. Mr. Barton." Clint signaled to his mare to gallop with a low click of his teeth, giving the beast her head, and Cleo took off, splashing up gravel and mud with her hooves, with Sarafina in fast pursuit. Steve hung on for dear life, exhilarated by their night's ride, hemmed in by Thor's brawny arms as he guided the reins.

*

"It's a night not fit for a dog out there," George remarked as he stared out the window at the sheets of rain pouring down. Winifred tsked at him.

"Do close the shutter, darling. You're letting in a horrible draft."

"Nonsense!" He thumped his chest with his fist. "The cool night air keeps a man hale and hearty, Winnie! It builds up a strong constitution."

"Ridiculous," she snapped as she swept over to the window, ignoring his mutinous look, and slammed the shutter closed. "Some of us with more delicate 'constitutions' and more common sense can do without that draft." George sighed, scratching his nose thoughtfully.

"Did you talk to the boy?"

"Yes, yes... I did your dirty work for you," Winifred told him.

"And?"

"Still no decision made. Not that I blame him; so far, none of them have been suitable."

"I was partial to the one with the horsey teeth. She was good with children."

"She smelled like cabbage and picked her teeth at the dinner table, without even using a napkin." That crime was unforgivable. Winifred went to her desk and lit a red beeswax taper. She unrolled her scroll and went down her list. "I'm going to have to write my hand cramped with all of these refusals," she grumbled. "Ring for some tea?" she asked him. George sighed. "Have a cup with me?"

"If by 'tea,' you mean brandy, then let's." George picked up the long-handled brass bell from the marble-topped table and gave it three firm shakes. The resulting chimes brought their sassy housekeeper, Pepper, striding into the parlor. She smoothed her apron with her long, slim hands and curtsied.

"How may I serve you, your Highness? My queen?" She nodded to them each, and George gestured flippantly to Winifred.

"Tea for this one, Miss Potts."

"Jasmine," Winifred clarified.

"And would you care for something warm to drink as well, sire?"

"Brandy," Winifred said flatly. George shrugged, then nodded. Pepper's smile was more polite than knowing, to her credit, and she curtsied again before backing out of the room. Winifred turned back to her list, dipping her quill pen into the small ink pot.

"Lady Tessa." She clucked her tongue thoughtfully. "No. Too raucous. No pedigree." She went down the line with each, naming each bridal candidate's flaws, and on occasion, their virtues. George drifted off in a brandy-fueled reverie about the ball he would likely have to hold and how many mouths he would have to feed. Surely Bucky wouldn't mind, but it was growing tedious. And pricey. His wife droned on, once in a while snapping "George! Are you paying me any attention a'tall?"

"Yes, my darling. Continue." She gave him a dubious look and continued down the list, sighing when she reached the end of it.

"Two maybes. Fifteen definitely nots."

"Not a single yes among them, then."

"A harvest ball would be nice," Winifred replied. George restrained himself from crossing the room, bracing his hands against the damask upholstered wall, and banging his forehead against it.

*

Pepper looked up from her dusting at the sound of the large bell at the front gate being rung. Sir Anthony, the captain of King George's guard, set down his sword and the rag he was using to polish it. "It's too late for polite company to come calling," she murmured.

"Impolite company might be more entertaining, milady."

"You might make yourself a tad more useful by answering that, Sir Anthony."

"Fine way to speak to a knight, Miss Potts." A smirk twisted his lips. “And are you implying I’m not useful?”

“Aren't knights supposed to be chivalrous?” she prodded. Tony opened his mouth, then closed it.

“Chivalrous? I’m chivalrous! You DOUBT ME?” He turned on his heel and went to the door, unlatching the heavy bolt. Several yards away, he saw three men wandering through the second gate, astride two lovely white mares whose legs were spattered with mud. The men themselves were bedraggled and soaked through, and Tony tsked. “Miss Potts, I bade you to remove yourself from here.”

“Vagabonds?” she suggested.

“We can't be certain.” Tony belted his scabbard at his waist and sheathed his sword before strolling outside. The medium height blond man who rode single waved to him and attempted to smile through the runnels of water dripping through his hair.

“Greetings, sir knight.”

“Sir Anthony,” Tony corrected him. “What brings you gentlemen out into this rough night?”

“Our carriage, which unfortunately lost a wheel,” Thor explained impatiently. He was anxious to get Steve inside, as he’d begun sneezing at more frequently and was shivering with cold against him. Thor and Clint were growing worried, and it showed in their demeanor.

“We were unable to repair it. His Highness’ belongings are still inside,” Clint added. Tony’s dark, tapered brows flew up, and his eyes flitted among them.

“His Highness? His Highness is inside, enjoying brandy in the parlor!” he scoffed.

“This is no time to jest!” Thor’s scowl was dark through his dripping hair. His arm was wrapped snugly around the small figure concealed within the blankets tucked in front of him on the horse! “His Highness, Prince Steven Rogers, is seated here before me, and he requires shelter!”

“Prince…Steven?” Tony’s expression was doubtful. “A Prince? Seriously?” Tony approached them and peered up into the face hooded by the blankets.

Eyes of the purest blue stared back at him, and Tony blinked. “Good evening, sir knight.” The voice was deep and rich, flowing over Tony like honey. There was an earnestness and dignity in the young, lean face, what he could see of it in the darkness.

“Erm… Good evening… Sire.” Tony managed an uncharacteristically awkward bow.

“I realize we’ve arrived unannounced and very late,” Steven offered. “It will be difficult to replace the carriage wheel in the dark. Might we trouble you for shelter tonight? And would your stable master provide us with a wheel?”

“Let’s discuss this inside,” Tony suggested. He led the around to the stable yard, where Clint and Thor led the mares into freshly raked stalls. At Tony’s nod, they settled them with feed bags of oats. Steve sneezed again, and Tony offered him his lawn handkerchief. Steve dabbed gingerly at his reddened nose and followed Tony to the front entrance.

He sighed in relief at the warmth of the hall as Tony gestured for him to cross the threshold first. “You’ll perhaps forgive me, sire, for being …skeptical of your credentials.”

“Three strangers on the road in the middle of the night? I’d question your ability to guard your king’s safety if you were less ‘skeptical,” Steve pointed out.

“Are you…doubting my abilities as a knight?” Tony’s dark eyes widened. “I can't believe what I’m hearing! First Miss Potts, and now-“ his voice trailed off as Steve shed the damp blankets, giving Tony his first good look at him. “Aren't… Aren't you a bit short for a Prince?”

“You will respect his Highness, sir,” Thor boomed as he came inside. But Tony didn't hesitate to look Steve over. The young man wore rich, yet simple clothing, partnering his dark pants with a tunic that matched his eyes. He didn't bother with a doublet or jacket, which was unfortunate in light of the change in weather, but the tunic was embroidered with his family crest.

He was small and slight, and he wore his wheat blond hair short. His limbs were thin enough to be considered…bony. His collarbones, cheekbones, shoulders… All of him appeared to be sharp angles and knobs. His face was angular, with a surprisingly firm jaw that hinted at a stubborn disposition.

He almost looked…delicate.

“Sir Anthony, who was at the gate?” Pepper’s dulcet tones carried into the foyer, and she paused, looking at Tony for an introduction.

“Miss Potts, are the king and queen still in the parlor?”

“Yes, Sir Anthony.”

“Please beg an audience with them before they retire?”

“At once,” she murmured, but not before treating herself to a good look at their guests. Clint had the audacity to wink. She hurried away before he would see her blush. She composed herself before entering the parlor, and George looked up at her in surprise.

“Forgive me for disturbing you, sire, but we have guests. They are requesting a place to stay the night.”

“Here? What brings them out so late?” Winifred demanded. At that moment, Bucky appeared in the doorway. He was about to let his groom, Phillip, dress him for bed, but the commotion downstairs caught his interest.

“I’ll take care of it, Mother,” he told her.

“Nonsense.” Winifred swept out into the corridor, with Bucky and Pepper trailing in her wake. “I would know who shows up on my doorstep at this ungodly hour.”

“Highness,” Pepper told her, “they are requesting shelter.”

“They are, are they?” Winifred stole a peek in the hall mirror, checking briefly to see that her elaborate braided coronet was still tidy, and she strode into the hall. She watched all three men turn and rush to bow.

“Good evening, your Majesty,” the blond giant intoned. Winifred was almost tongue-tied by his massive bulk and his indecently handsome face.

“Your Majesty,” Clint echoed, perhaps more loudly than necessary, which couldn't be helped; Clint Barton was slightly hard of hearing. Winifred drilled her fingertip into her ear, but she stood by and accepted their bows, greetings, and kisses on her signet ring. The smallest of the three of them, however, knelt on one knee when he approached, and kissed her ring almost reverently.

“Highness,” Thor murmured, wanting to remind him of his own status, but he stopped himself when Clint briefly kicked him.

“Highness?” Winifred caught that. When Steve rose to his full –modest – height, she noticed the royal crest on his tunic. “You’re King Joseph’s son?”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“Truly?” Her eyes swept over him and found him, somehow, lacking.

He couldn't know that it wasn't his fault. The constant tide of “princesses” with fabricated titles, questionable status and negligible dowry or manners gave the Queen a jaundiced eye. “I’ve never met you at court.”

“I was ailing last spring, my Queen. I had to remain at home.” It wasn't unlikely, she supposed. There was no meat on him, and he would be carried away on a low breeze.

“That would explain much,” she muttered.

“Mother, where should we put them tonight? Tony said he already stabled their mares…oh. Hello.” Bucky stood transfixed in the entryway as he joined his mother, and his eyes landed on Steve.

Love at first sight.

He always wondered how it would feel, doubting that such a thing was possible, the sort of tale to share with children at bedtime. Steve could only stare back, rooted to the spot. He swallowed roughly, and all of the moisture seemed to leave his mouth.

Bucky was the handsomest man Steve ever laid eyes on. He had to be dreaming him, because there could be no other explanation for that wicked cleft in his perfect chin, or the sinfully red lips, and those eyes, a liquid blue-gray that put diamonds to shame. He was slightly over medium height, sinewy and lean, and his shoulders were enviably broad. Steve’s imagination took him in shameful directions, picturing how he would look stripped out of his dark red tunic.

Bucky was similarly affected by the vision before him. He was so small, so vulnerable looking, and his arms suddenly ached to draw him in close, knowing he would easily fit. His blue eyes –good heavens, they rivaled the very sky on a summer day – were fringed with long, thick lashes and were boring into his so intently that Bucky shivered. His patrician features could almost be described as pretty…no, not the slightly crooked nose, but it lent his face character, made it memorable. His lips were deep pink and lush, made for wide smiles and decadent kisses…

“Hello.” Steven reached out to offer him his hand. “I’m Steven.”

“Steven?” Bucky repeated, dazed.

“His Highness, Prince Steven Rogers,” Thor clarified. Winifred sighed.

“This is my son, who had no concept of etiquette.”

“Prince Steven, may I introduce Prince James Buchanan Barnes, eldest son of His Majesty, King George, and Her Majesty, Queen Winifred.” Pepper intervened, and Winifred looked slightly less disapproving.

“Prince… Steven?” Bucky inquired. “You’re truly a prince?” Delight bloomed in his gut.

“Miss Potts, please show our guests into the kitchen and have Cook fix them something warm to drink. Then take them to the study to sit by the fire and dry off.”

“Yes, Highness.” She nodded briefly. “Please follow me.” Winifred waited until they were down the hall and out of earshot.

“I know what you’re thinking, Bucky, and NO.”

“He’s a prince,” he said quickly, almost pouncing on it. “My consort has to be of royal lineage-“

“I need to send word to King Joseph to verify this young man’s claim,” Winifred reminded him. “He could be a chimney sweep or a pig herder, for all we know…” Winifred rolled her eyes.

“Mother, I don't think I doubt him. He seems…genuine.”

“Genuine,” she scoffed. “He’s respectful, I’ll give him that. James, I simply don't know. I’m not certain we can trust him, and that we can believe he is who he says he is.”

“He wears the crest. His companions defer to him,” Bucky pointed out,

“It could be an act.” She didn't admit that she found the little slip of a man charming, nor mention how tempted she’s been to pat the cool, pale cheek and ruffle her fingers through his soft-looking blond waves. This Steven was, after a fashion, adorable. But she stiffened her resolve. “They can stay the night. His companions can stay in the servants’ quarters.”

“Of course!”

“Prince Steven,” and she gave the word questioning emphasis that made Bucky frown, “may stay in the green suite.” It was in the wing of the castle opposite from Bucky’s, and he huffed his resentment. That would put a crimp in his plans to inquire on his needs… The floorboards in the corridors were exceedingly loud. “I must have Pepper prepare it.” Bucky’s sigh was ragged. He leaned down and dutifully kissed his mother’s cheek.

“Good night, Mother.”

“Sleep well, lovey,” she clucked as she smoothed her palm over his lightly stubbled cheek.

There was much to do to prepare the green suite. Much to do, indeed.

Chapter Text

Winifred was reaching the end of her rope. In the beginning, she had loved the challenge of finding her son a suitable bride. All of her peers at court bragged to her about their beautiful grandchildren, and she pined for some of her own.

However, Winifred had to admit she was growing tired. Each round of prospective brides – and yes, the occasional ambitious male consort, too – brought nothing but disappointment. She exhausted reams of parchment and pints of ink writing refusal letters to each family. And Bucky… Her oldest child, the apple of her eye, wasn't helping in the slightest. He cared nothing for customs and the dictates of court, etiquette, dignity, or tradition. He expected his bride to be…entertaining, of all things! An EQUAL.

Preposterous.

The crown and it's expected obligations weighed heavily on her brow. It was hard enough to herd three daughters and to mold them into pedigreed princesses, and she was irritated that no one else in the neighboring provinces seemed capable or even interested in doing the same. Rebecca, her oldest daughter, showed promise even at fifteen of becoming a formidable wife and mother, the ideal queen… Well, perhaps more “ideal” once she managed to quell that mischievous streak of hers. Growing up alongside her brother guaranteed that she learned from his antics, following wherever he lead, whether it was swimming in the creek when they were supposed to be learning their history lessons, shooting each other ridiculous looks during church when their heads were supposed to stay bowed in solemn prayer, or they were sneaking Pepper’s trays of tarts out of the kitchen and smuggling them to the barn to gorge on them with the stable master’s children. At least she’d outgrown their mock duels with the wooden practice swords, but she had no interest in learning any of the “ladies’ skills” at Winifred’s knee, such as needlepoint or playing the harp. Still, Rebecca was capable and bright, just as beautiful as her brother, and had a smile like sunshine.

George only had one heir to his throne. At the moment, Bucky had none. So, there you had it. Winifred had her work cut out for her. She rang for her second housekeeper, Carol. The sturdy blonde looked slightly mussed, as it was late, but she greeted her queen with a pleasant smile.

“How may I serve Her Majesty?”

“Run and find Victor. I need the two of you to do some heavy lifting, prepare the green suite.”

“We’re having company? I didn't realize we were hosting another candidate-“

“It was short notice, and whether our guest turns out to be a ‘candidate’ or not remains to be seem. I want you to do several things for me.” Carol promptly reached for a scrap of parchment and Winifred’s abandoned pen, starting a hasty list. “Have Victor bring down the mattresses from the attic.”

“How many, your Highness?”

“All of them.” Carol looked taken aback.

“Er… Are we having that many guests?”

“No. Just the young man and his two servants.”

“Servants? Is he a prince?” Carol asked hopefully. Winifred’s lips tightened and she shook her head.

“We can only guess. We have no proof of his lineage or breeding. It bears investigating. But in the meantime, I’ve prepared a test. Bring the mattresses to the green suite. Pile them high. Bring the ladder if you must.”

“Oh, my,” Carol murmured. “I will, your Highness. Are we making sure…his Highness doesn't get a draft from the floorboards?”

“If you like. I have a different goal in mind.” She continued. “Stoke the fire in his room. He’s chilled from his travels. Pile the blankets thick.”

“Yes, Highness.” Carol scribbled away.

“First, however, I need you to go to the kitchen.” Sometimes, the old methods were the most effective, Winifred mused. “Ask Cook for a pea.”

“A pea.” Carol looked flummoxed, but she nodded. “Yes, Highness.”

“Send Victor up to the attic while you’re doing that. Spruce the room up.”

“Yes, Highness.”

*

Bucky had told Winifred good night, but bed was the last place he planned to visit. His own was, at any rate.

His groom, Phillip, undressed him and helped him into his long, comfortable nightshirt and soft drawers. Bucky sat and allowed him to sponge his skin with warm water with rose petals floating on its surface in a wide basin.

“Thank you, Phillip,” Bucky murmured.

“Your wish is my pleasure, Highness.” And it was. Phillip grew up in the palace himself, child of two servants, and he served the royal family himself from the time he learned to walk. He was fond of Bucky, at one time his young charge and now, his kind and reasonable master. Bucky watched Phillip in the mirror, encouraged by his patient and tranquil expression.

“Phillip… Have you ever been in love?”

“Yes, Highness.” A hint of a smile played at the corner of his mouth. “Just ask my lovely wife.”

“What was it like? In the beginning? Was it sudden?” Bucky wasn't untried in passion or infatuation, but love was a different animal. He was on a first-name basis with Attraction, certainly. But Love, up til now, had eluded him.

“When I realized what it was, yes. It took some convincing myself that I hadn't just been punched in the chest.” They exchanged smirks, and Bucky felt his ears grow warm. Phillip wiped Bucky’s skin dry with a warm towel and helped him into the nightshirt, his large hands gently freeing his long dark locks from the neckline where it tangled in the ties. “When I recognized it for what it was, that changed everything.”

“How?”

“I could breathe again.” Bucky chuckled and nodded. “Time moved forward again, perhaps more swiftly than it ever had before once she told me she loved me, too. But in that moment when I looked into her eyes, and realized I had found everything I never knew I wanted… Sire, everything changed. And time had stopped. There was nothing else but that moment between us.” Phillip continued to groom Bucky as they chatted, paring and buffing his nails, smoothing oil on his feet and massaging him, and combing his hair, weaving it into a comfortable, loose plait.

“Fetch my slippers?” Phillip’s brows quirked.

“Certainly, Highness. Were you planning to stay up for a bit.”

“I was planning…to wish our guest a good night. I just want to make sure he feels at home.” Phillip retrieved the satin-lined slippers and waited for Bucky to step into him before he gathered up the basin and towels. “Will there be anything else, sire?”

“Perhaps just stoke the fires before you go, Phillip. Please.”

“Of course, sire.” He backed out of the room, bowing as he left. Bucky went to the armoire and found his robe, then shrugged into it himself. He waited until he heard Phillip’s footsteps receding into the east wing, before he crept downstairs. He found himself craving a cup of warm milk and a taste of something sweet.

*

Steve sat at the kitchen table feeling much warmer and looking much less blue. His nose hadn't begun to cooperate yet, still clogged and sniffly, but his toes were no longer numb. Miss Potts, the serene strawberry blond with the lovely smile, had already taken his boots and set them by the hearth to dry, along with his damp stockings. Thor and Clint stood by, ensconced in the corner with tea, wishing heartily that it was brandy, but they had to see to their prince’s safety and comfort, first.

They all looked up at the incongruous sounds of stomping feet and muttered curses. They saw a man who at first glance appeared enormous –even next to Thor – dragging something heavy down the corridor. Thor and Clint abandoned their mugs and peered after him, leaning their heads into the corridor.

“You, there! Mind your language in the presence of our prince! And of ladies!” Pepper hid her smile.

“Pardon my lack of polish,” a loud, rusty voice snarled back, “and feel free to keep warming yer lazy arses by the fire while I finish my tiresome work. Carry on!”

“Victor!” Pepper hissed. “These are our guests. Mind your tongue.”

“What’s this important work that he’s getting up to?” Clint wanted to know.

“He’s preparing the green suite,” Carol interjected. “I’ve just finished touching it up. Fire’s all warm and toasty, too.” She didn't mention the Queen’s unusual change to the layout of the room. She almost felt guilty when the young prince gave her the most disarming smile, so full of gratitude.

“Truly, we did not mean to impose. You’ve all been kind to extend me, and my companions, such incomparable hospitality.” Steve’s hands were wrapped around a hot mug of the Queen’s favorite jasmine tea, generously honeyed. Carol squirmed slightly, but she returned his smile and curtsied. She smuggled something into her apron pocket from the store room before she took her leave. Pepper plied Steve with some gingersnaps and began to towel his hair. He closed his eyes in pleasure at the light massage and sighed.

“It’s our pleasure to serve you. Did you travel far tonight, Sire?”

“Yes. From about thirty miles north, while the sky was bright and clear. The storm caught us off-guard. Clint missed the rock that took out our wheel. Thor didn't let him hear the end of it.”

“Goodness!” Pepper tutted. She ran her hand through his hair, which began to lighten and shine in the firelight as it dried, and it felt soft as a kitten’s fur. She enjoyed the sound of his voice, deep and soothing, and his open and easy demeanor.

“You’ve a fine hand in the kitchen, Miss Potts. If my mother tasted these, she would steal you away.” Steve munched on a gingersnap, and he delicately wiped his fingertips on the napkin beside the plate. “I was on my way home to her.”

“Will she be worried?”

“Yes,” he admitted, without dissembling. “I had hoped to be back before supper.”

“We should send word of your whereabouts. I’m sure my Queen would agree, if she hasn’t summoned a courier already.”

“Please, don't send one out at this hour, into the cold.”

“Sire, it’s no trouble, surely. Your mother will be anxious for your return.”

“I agree with Miss Potts, Steve.” The young prince had padded into the kitchen so quietly, startling them both. Steve turned and met Bucky’s smile with one of his own. “You look much more comfortable,” he remarked. “And less blue.”

“I have Miss Potts to thank for that.” But Steve stifled a sneeze, turning and blocking it with his sleeve. “Apologies. Being caught out in the rain undoes me.” Bucky frowned.

“Are you feeling poorly? Let me call for Bruce,” Bucky insisted. Pepper nodded, understanding that was her task, not his, and she laid down the towel she was using on Steve’s hair.

“I don't mean to be a burden-“

“But…how could you? I beg your pardon, Steve, but you’re not like any prince I’ve ever met before.” Bucky cleared his throat when he realized how he must have sounded. “Steve… Being a royal comes with certain privileges. We’re entitled to be served, from birth. That doesn't make you a burden.” Steve’s dark blond brows drew together, creating a divot between them that Bucky, frankly, found adorable. “The servants are here to take care of you and see to your wishes!”

“I’m a prince, James-“

“Bucky,” he corrected him.

“All right. I’m a prince, Bucky, but I’m not a child. Nor am I helpless. I don't expect to have everyone falling over me.”

“What kind of wretched kingdom did you hail from?” Bucky’s expression was aghast. Steve fell silent.

“Erm…”

“Gotcha!!” Bucky reached for the discarded towel and swatted Steve with it, tousling his already messy hair. Both men dissolved into chuckles. “I gather you’re not a child, Steven.”

“Steve is fine. Please.”

“I still plan to have my court physician take a look at you and mix you a potion for those sniffles before you retire, Steve.”

“You needn't.”

“I must.”

“I won't burden you.”

“You’re right. You won't. Because seeing to your needs and ensuring your good health is no burden to me or my staff.” Pepper wasn't back quite yet, and Steve’s mug was empty. “I came down for milk. Would you like more tea?” Those stunning blue eyes lit up, and Bucky never wanted to stop staring into them.

“Yes, please!”

They chatted and lost track of time, but once in a while, they would hear Clint, Thor or Victor grumbling and cursing as they continued to drag one featherbed after another down the corridor, with Carol dogging their heels, fussing and giving them explicit instructions. Bucky hovered close to Steve, absently drying Steve’s hair, then just stroking it for the pleasure of how nice it felt sliding through his fingers while they talked. Steve was very conscious of Bucky’s closeness and the gentle contact wherever it was made, whether it was to tuck his blankets around him more snugly where he sat, or if their fingers touched when he refilled his mug and handed it to him. He smelled like lye soap and roses, and he lingered on the naturally spicy, male scent of his skin.

“It’s late, Bucky. Aren't you tired?”

“I often stay up to read later than this, or I join my friends at the inn for cards.” Steve smirked.

“You gamble?”

“Don't mention that to Mother. She’d have my hide tanned.”

“Your secret is safe with me.” That went without saying; Steve wondered if he would ever see Bucky again once his carriage was fixed in the morning. Yet part of him longed to know more of Bucky’s secrets, and to spend more time in his company, hearing those notes of mischief in his pleasant baritone, watching those eyes twinkle. Their chat was interrupted this time by a relatively compact, middle-aged man with graying dark hair and kind eyes.

“This is Bruce Banner, our physician,” Bucky explained. “Mr. Banner, Prince Steven was caught out in the rain. He will need a potion to help him rest tonight.” Bruce noticed his title and straightened up.

“Your Highness?” Steve nodded and sighed. His eyes were drooping with exhaustion. “How do you feel? Are you in pain? Feverish?”

“I’m still shaking off the chill, but I’m all right.” Bucky shook his head.

“He’s stuffed up, sniffling, and developing a cough.” Bruce tsked, them nodded.

“It’s nothing serious,” Steve insisted.

“It could be. It WILL be, if you don't let me take a look at you, Highness.” Not once did Bruce question Steve’s title, lineage or connections. “Please allow me to care for you?” Steve flushed, partly due to embarrassment, but his eyes were also slightly glassy.

“You may, Doctor.” Bruce opened up his satchel and pulled out a small metal horn, which he placed against Steve’s chest, placing the end into his ear to listen. “Is it all right if I open your tunic?”

“If you must.” Steve shrank in embarrassment but complied. He was self-conscious about his thin physique, and it was awkward, knowing that Bucky was watching him.

“I’ll give you two a moment,” Bucky offered, and Steve was relieved that he understood his need for privacy. He was reluctant to leave, but he dutifully stepped out into the hall. Bruce smiled at Steve and untied the lacings of his tunic, slowly exposing his narrow chest. He spread the panels apart, letting it sag down off of his shoulders, and Steve shivered from the draft. Bruce winced at how thin he truly was, at the stark relief of his ribs protruding through the taut skin, so fair that the delicate blue veins were visible beneath it. He breathed on the horn to warm it and brought it to his chest to listen again. He gently thumped his back with his fingers, and Steve coughed. It was a thick, ragged sound.

“Do you normally have trouble breathing, Highness?” His eyes were full of concern as he covered him back up.

“Some days, it’s more of a struggle than others. Our family physician gives me a liniment to rub on my chest.”

“With eucalyptus?” Steve nodded. “I’m going to use my own recipe, which also includes white flower oil. It’s a decongestant. Should clear you right up and loosen those lungs.” Bruce rebundled him into the blankets and brought a small clay jar out if his bag. He opened his tunic again slightly and coated his thick fingers in the oil, then massaged it into Steve’s chest. Steve was wracked by another fit of coughing, but he felt his airway opening up. “There we are.” He went to the stove and took the kettle and poured steaming water over a small rag. He fanned the rag to cool it a bit and wrung it out, then approached Steve again. “Let me put this against you for a minute. There we are…” The steaming cloth warmed the liniment and soothed the ache in his chest, creating soothing vapors that penetrated the congestion in his nose.

“You’re a gifted man, Dr. Banner.”

“Your praise humbles me, Your Highness.”

“I cannot thank you enough.”

“You can thank me by resting well and regaining your strength, Highness.” Bucky returned to the kitchen, and he looked relieved to see Bruce’s smile. “We’ll have him back on the mend, Highness.”

“Goodnight, Bruce.”

“Good night, sire.”

*

“The suite is in order, Majesty.”

“You remembered the pea?” Carol nodded, and Winifred ignored her maid’s obvious discomfiture. “Then that will do.”

“We definitely needed the ladder,” Carol mentioned.

“I’m most certain that you did. Tell Janet that I am ready to retire.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

*

“You didn't have to walk me to my suite. Your room is all the way upstairs,” Steve informed Bucky, but delight was fluttering in his gut. Bucky had given Steve his robe while they were still in the kitchen, exchanging it for the blankets, and when Bucky shed the garment, Steve saw the silhouette of Bucky’s lean, gracefully muscled body through the sheer fabric of his nightshirt, limned in firelight, and his mouth once again went dry.

His robe smelled like him. Steve never wanted to take it off.

“I would be a poor host if I didn't make sure you made it to bed, safe and sound,” Bucky teased. He opened the door, and he was about to warn him about not letting the bed bugs bite, but the sight that greeted him robbed him of speech.

“Oh. My.”

“Bucky?”

“Steve…” He stared back at Steve, agape and pointing to the enormous…tower before them. “Just so you know, I wasn't responsible for that!”

“Not to sound dense, Bucky…”

“You won't. You couldn't,” he assured him.

“Is that where I’m to sleep tonight?”

“Would you…just…give me a moment?”

“Of course.” With that, Bucky nodded a quick bow, then dashed down the hall, propriety be damned.

“Mother!”

Chapter Text

Bucky gently knocked on his parents' chamber door, out of breath from his sprint up the stairs and in a lather. "Mother... a word, please."

"Enter, James." Her voice was clipped, and he knew he was catching her indisposed, but there was no help for it. He was tight-lipped, steeling himself before letting himself inside.

His parents were already tucked in; his father was sitting up and reading by lantern light, dressed in his nightshirt and stocking cap. His mother was similarly attired, her long, dark hair hanging in a single, gleaming braid down her back for the night. She looked less imperious, more approachable, but her expression brooked no argument.

"Mother, I realize you assigned our guest the green suite."

"I did, indeed. It seemed suitable." She looked annoyed that he would even question her choice.

"It seemed that way before you modified the bed. Is there any particular reason why Prince Steven is at this time staring up at the ceiling, wondering how to scale the mountain of mattresses Victor brought in there?" His tone was calm enough.

"Because perhaps he didn't notice the ladder that Victor was also kind enough to bring in for him," Winifred told him just as calmly. Bucky couldn't stop his eyebrows from jumping into his hairline. He opened his mouth, then closed it again.

"Mother... this is most unusual."

"James, my darling. I realize that you don't always agree with my opinions about the one you should marry."

"We've established that," he agreed.

"I have my methods, James. You shouldn't question them."

"Methods? This is one of your... methods, Mother? We're judging his climbing ability?"

"No. And don't be cute." George sighed and clapped his book shut.

"This might have been avoided if you had made a choice sooner than this," he told him. "There were plenty of ladies to choose from."

"The choice seems like it's been taken out of my hands!"

"Nonsense. You just need my counsel and maternal wisdom as you make your decision," Winifred insisted. Bucky bit his lip against a retort that would no doubt get his ears boxed. "Don't question my methods. If he passes my test, then we'll perhaps... consider him."

"Consider him?" There was a hint of hope in his voice, and he tried to restrain the excitement quickening his pulse.

"I've seen you look at him. You're being very protective of him, James." Bucky's cheeks flushed, and his father gave him a pointed look.

"You can't remain a bachelor forever," George admonished. "Even if we've been considering brides up til now." His eyes didn't hold judgment.

"No... no, no, no. Not 'forever,' per se, but-"

"Sometime while we're still alive, James." Bucky approached the bed and sat on the edge, taking his mother's hand. "What are your thoughts on this young man?"

"So far?" She nodded. "I find him very promising." And adorable. And sweet. And funny. And bright, easygoing... the list went on, even in their short acquaintance.

"Don't you find it odd that he showed up conveniently, at a time of night where we would have to take him in? Your status as an eligible, unwed prince has been popular topic among the commoners. He could be anyone." She squeezed his hand. "That simply will not do."

"How will this test prove-"

"Leave that to me."

"Listen to your mother," George scolded gruffly. He'd learned long ago that this route was the easiest. Bucky sighed.

"But-"

"No. No buts, James."

"But, but-"

"Get yourself to bed." Bucky threw up his hand.

"All right, then. You know best, Mother."

"Good night, my love," she told him again. "Sleep well."

"Good night, Father."

"Some things cannot be questioned, son." Bucky rolled his eyes, then removed himself from their chamber, fighting the urge to grumble under his breath.

He was worried already what his mother must think of Steve, but his stomach tied itself in a knot wondering what Steve thought of his eccentric mother, and he hoped upon hope that she didn't scare him off.

*

"Thor?"

"Yes, sire?"

"You took part in this?"

"Yes, sire," he repeated numbly as the two of them, along with Clint, stared up at the pile of featherbeds and mattresses. "I merely did as I was asked." Thor rubbed his nape. The request itself had been more of a snarled demand from Victor, the slightly feral-looking blond with a profane mouth. "I'm not entirely certain why."

"Is this how they usually accommodate their guests?" Clint muttered. Thor shrugged. Steve crossed his arms over his chest.

"I guess I should see to it, then." Steve turned to them. "You have decent rooms?"

"Yes, sire," Thor assured him. "With nice beds no higher than normal above the floor..." Clint kicked him, and Thor glared back. Steve tried not to chuckle but failed.

"Hold the ladder?" he asked. It was a long one, easily tall enough to reach the second story of the tower. The room had spacious vaulted ceilings, which Steve supposed was fortunate. He'd be able to entertain himself by counting the swirls and knotholes on the rafters...

"Hold it steady for me?"

"You're getting into it now?" Clint inquired. He looked worried for his prince's safety.

"It's growing late, too late for decency. I really should try to sleep." They all turned toward the sound of a low knock on the doorframe. It was Bucky, still dressed in his night clothes and slippers, looking sheepish. Steve automatically smiled.

"Erm... I wanted to see if you needed anything else. Would you like my groom to see to your comfort? He can bring you some nightclothes? More blankets?" There was already a mountain of blankets atop the leviathan bed.

"I wouldn't mind a nightshirt, if it's no troub-"

"PHILLIP!" Bucky called out into the corridor, anxious to make some sort of amends for the outlandish sleeping arrangements. Steve rocked back on his heels in surprise; Thor and Clint glanced at each other and shrugged. "Phillip!" He turned to Steve. "Could you just excuse me one more time?"

"Certainly, er, Bucky..." With that, Bucky dashed off again.

As he rounded the corner, he collided with Tony, who was head back outside to resume his evening watch. Tony caught his prince's arms to steady him, and he was about to apologize, but Bucky cut him off.

"Where is Phillip?"

"I believe he's retired to the servants' quarters, sire."

"Rouse him for me, please, and have him bring a change of nightclothes to the green suite."

"Phillip's nightclothes?" Tony asked, confused.

"No, nonono... just one of my nighshirts. Just... go fetch him. Go! NOW!" Tony turned on his heel and went to do his bidding. A few doors down, he ran into Pepper.

 

"Ah, Miss Potts! Would you do me the kind favor of fetching Phillip?"

"Even though his Highness ordered you to do that very thing?"

"Why, Miss Potts! Are you ignoring a royal order?" Tony's dark eyes widened, and his hand flew up to his chest in mock horror. She rolled his eyes at him and brushed past.

"Go stand guard, Sir Anthony." He smirked as he walked off, until she threw back, "Some of us have actual work to do."

"WHAT!" She smothered a giggle and hurried to the servants' quarters, where she saw Phillip stepping back into his shoes, still alert and ready to work.

"You've heard?"

"I believe everyone heard," he replied, shrugging. "What's one more task?"

"Our guest will need nightclothes."

"From Prince James' wardrobe, I presume?"

"Well, he can hardly be expected to wear yours," Pepper pointed out. Her blue eyes were dancing. "He's rather petite, though, so I imagine they would fit..."

"That's enough of that, Miss Potts." He headed over to Bucky's rooms and went to the trunk. He drew out a pristine white linen nightshirt, fresh with the scent of the lavender sachet tucked within its folds, deciding it would do. Phillip headed to the green suite, where Bucky was waiting impatiently, pacing outside the door. Phillip was nonplussed.

"Does he need anymore blankets, Highness?"

"He said he didn't," Bucky told him. "But a few more wouldn't hurt." Phillip fought the smile tugging at his lips. He recognized the infatuated look on Bucky's face, heard the anxious tone in his voice.

"I think I will have enough," Steve argued back from the suite. Phillip took that as his cue to enter, but he paused when he saw Victor and Thor's handiwork towering over him.

"All right, then." He glanced at Steven, and the two of them shared a shrug. "Let's get you changed, then."

"That would be fine," Steven agreed. "Er..." Bucky was staring at him, still, but he shook himself when he realized it. His cheeks flushed pink and he cleared his throat.

"Right. I'll just... right." He left the suite, somewhat reluctantly. Steve felt a pang of regret watching him leave, too. Phillip went about the business of getting Steve ready for bed, while Thor and Clint waited outside the door. Phillip noticed Steve was smiling as he pulled the nightshirt on over his head, smoothing his slender hands over the fabric.

"Where did this gown come from?"

"From his Highness' wardrobe," Phillip explained. Steve's smile widened.

"Oh." Then, "Does he wear this one frequently?"

"Somewhat." Steve's cheeks grew warm with that knowledge.

"It's... nice."

"Indeed, sire." Phillip maintained the use of Steven's title, unwilling to offend him, even if his queen doubted his lineage. He was also very pleasant, much less obnoxious and entitled as some of the "prospects" that came through the palace gates every week... Phillip shuddered with the thought. Something familiar tickled his nose, and he inhaled it deeply.

"Have you been sick? Have you caught the ague?" Phillip inquired.

"Being caught out in storms doesn't agree with me, I'm afraid."

"So, you've seen Bruce, then." Steve looked confused. "The salve. He put some on your chest?" He nodded, smiling.

"It's made a difference. I truly appreciated that he went to the trouble-"

"Trouble?" Phillip wrinkled his brow. "It was no trouble, your Highness." He stared pointedly at him. "Have... you been made to feel like it's troublesome to others to see to your needs?" Before Steve could answer, Phillip laid a hand on his shoulder and pressed on, despite the familiarity that wasn't fitting for a servant to a royal. "The good doctor is doing his job, which is to see to the health and physical comfort of everyone under this roof. You're currently under this roof. Bruce was no doubt honored to serve you, Prince Steven. As am I."

"Thank you," Steve told him quietly. Phillip nodded and released him, then backed toward the doorway.

"Would you care for anything else before you retire?"

"No, thank you."

"If I may be so bold, Highness," Phillip added, after a thought, "Prince James doesn't consider your needs troublesome, either, from the looks of it... pardon my temerity in suggesting it."

"You're pardoned, er, Mr...?"

"Coulson, sire. Phillip Coulson."

"Good night, Mr. Coulson." Phillip walked out; Thor and Clint ambled inside, looking expectant.

"Hold the ladder steady," Steve told them. "This should be interesting." He squared himself and let Thor and Clint get on each side of the ladder, holding it still as he climbed the first rungs. When he reached the sixth, he paused.

"Don't look down, sire," Clint suggested.

"Of course I want to look down, now!" he grumbled. But he continued to climb. The mattresses and featherbeds were a grand variety of thicknesses and fabrics, and to Queen Winifred's credit, they didn't smell musty despite their usual storage in the palace attic. When he reached the top and began to hoist himself onto it, it wobbled slightly, but he was lightweight, and it didn't shift much beneath him. "Alley-oop," he muttered as he pulled himself up and settled himself against the pillows.

"Comfy, sire?" Clint asked.

"I suppose."

"Call for us when you wake, sire," Thor reminded him. We will leave the ladder here."

"Get some rest, sire. We'll get that wheel replaced first thing in the morning. You'll be back in your own bed in no time," Clint assured him.

"Good night, Mr. Barton. Mr. Odinson." Two sets of worried but resigned blue eyes peered up at him, and they waved to him as they left the suite. Steve sighed as he tried to arrange himself comfortably, burrowing under the pile of blankets.

He hoped Bucky had sweet dreams.

Chapter Text

Toss. Turn. Flip. Lean. Huff. Flip back. Nudge. Sprawl. Curl fetally. Grooowwl… Sigh.

Hopeless.

Steve stared up at the ceiling – closer to it than he ever planned to find himself, EVER – an hour after climbing into the sumptuous bed. His eyes were drowsy. His limbs were limp with exhaustion. The blankets were plush and warm. All of the necessary requirements had been met, so why in heaven’s name wasn't he asleep? He smacked the pillow beneath his head, punishing it for its failure to lull him into much-needed slumber. What was wrong with him?

He couldn't pin down the problem. It was just… Some niggling, prodding little chafe, like an itch he couldn't scratch. No matter which side he turned, he couldn't escape that odd little nuisance. A pebble in his shoe never rubbed him so raw. He tried to fit himself into a comfortable nook, some accepting hollow in the nest of blankets, but the effort was frustrating him and making him ache.

The worst part was his constant worry that he was being an ungrateful guest. Bucky and Winifred did so much to accommodate his needs and give him suitable shelter from the cold, damp night. “Blast,” he murmured. This wouldn't do. This simply wouldn't do.

He spent a handful of hours drifting in and out of near-sleep, never losing complete consciousness, but feeling his eyes blur and ache every time they opened. He watched the darkness shift as time passed, the sky slowly melting from black to soft indigo.

Through the night, he thought of home with his chamber’s ridiculously large four-poster bed with its small step stool beside it; the raised frame didn't make it easy to climb into without one, but, he admitted, he’d never needed a ladder before when he retired. His own bed smelled mildly of sandalwood and had a firm mattress, perfect to support his delicate spine. Steve’s one and only complaint about his own bed, of late, was that it was so empty.

He missed having a partner to cuddle and hold, and he felt Peggy’s loss so keenly, even though their marriage had been short. Queen Winifred asked him about his father, but thankfully, she hadn't asked him about his late, beloved wife. Steve hadn't merely skipped the recent spate of festivals, negotiations and balls due to illness. He’d spent months in mourning. Lady Margaret Carter had stolen his eye the first time he’d watched her reject a persistent suitor, Duke Gilbert Hodge, with a wicked right hook when he tried to take liberties with her in the garden. The first time they were introduced, Steve was a stammering mess. Her eyes twinkled with amusement when he used far too many syllables in his own name. And hers, for that matter...

“Good afternoon, Lady M-Mar-Margaret. I-I’m S-S-St-Steven R-Rogers.”

“That was quite a mouthful. Steven, you say.”

“Um. Yes. Although… I like Steve, too.”

“I think I like Steve, too,” she teased. His eyes stayed on her face, not down in her décolletage. “I might like Steve even more if he introduced me to a glass of cordial.” He blushed. She beamed. A friendship was struck that kept them in company too constant for propriety. Their betrothal was announced weeks later amidst many wagging tongues. Yet the palace deemed it a strong match; the Rogers’ crowns were pleased with Lady Margaret, charmed by her wit, kindness, beauty, and how much she cared for their only son. She involved herself completely in the responsibilities of running a palace and overseeing their territories. Peggy was amazingly skilled in horsemanship, archery, and fencing (her father’s constant attempts at siring a son yielded a household of sassy daughters, and he taught her everything he knew) and despite Queen Sarah’s initial misgivings, Peggy oversaw the training of the pages and fledgling knights, both in battle skills and proper chivalry. She tried to teach Steve how to dance, but it was never his strong suit. Love, however, had a way of overcoming things like stepped-on toes.

It crushed him when she left this plane of existence, depriving him of his confidant and strongest supporter. The love Steve felt for Peggy, while not passionate, was golden and genuine, the bond between them borne of practicality and compatibility. On her death bed, she made him promise her that he wouldn't live out his days alone.

“There’s never going to be anyone else for me like you, sweetheart.” She smiled wanly up at him, wiping away the thick tears cooling on his cheeks.

“Always so dramatic, Steve. But there will be someone. You will share all of that love in your enormous heart with someone who had damn well better deserve it.” He almost smiled.

“That’s fine talk for a princess.”

“That lady title…” She was interrupted by a fit of wet sounding coughing. “…that I was introduced to you with, Steve… Might not have been wholly accurate.” They’d joked about that often enough, the princess who would trade kid slippers for chain mail. She left him, regrettably, on his birthday, when the summer heat was at its peak. His mother helped him find consolation that on the anniversary of Peggy’s passing, there would always be sunshine, and he would always be reminded of the warmth and kindness that she shared with them all.

 

Traitorously, his thoughts drifted to Bucky. Steve couldn't deny his attraction to the gregarious young prince, and if he was being honest, his wit, kindness and dark good looks reminded him of his late wife. Yet…

Passion. That precious, missing element that his marriage had lacked. It rolled off of Bucky in waves; he wore it like a fine garment. Bucky possessed such a radiance, a warm glow of vitality and charm that Steve found irresistible. It terrified him. Especially now, if he misstepped and gave a bad impression of himself as a poor houseguest. His lovely mother would be so offended! She had gone to so much trouble!

There was just no help for it. The night was a disaster. An absolute disaster.

Visions of Bucky’s smile and beautiful eyes, and the memory of his brief, gentle touch visited him through the night, making him occasionally smile. He stayed awake imagining that face, that voice… He was so exhausted that his eyes burned, yet he began to fight sleep so he could continue to think picture him. He tossed and turned, never finding adequate purchase against the featherbed that would keep him from landing against that troublesome, nagging little burr.

It was the longest night of Steve’s life.

 

Upstairs:

It was the longest night of Bucky’s life.

While his bed was large and comfortable, Bucky felt it was trying to swallow him up. The lack of a pliant partner made it seem more yawning and empty. Bucky tried to drift off, but he couldn't stop thinking about Steve. He was so worried about what he must have thought. He groaned when he pictured those mattresses, practically swaying from how top-heavy they were. Bucky was so embarrassed by his mother’s latest tactic. What on earth was she trying to prove? How would stranding someone atop a pile of mattresses help her to decide if Steve was marriage material? Or rather, a “true prince?” It boggled his mind. It truly did.

Steve was so calm about it all. Bucky smiled at the memory of how pleased he’d been with the care he received from Bruce and Phillip, and his tranquil demeanor when faced with the unusual bed. It was charming and utterly adorable. It was all Bucky could do not to slam the door to the green suite shut, tuck Steve under his arm, and sweep him off to his own room to cuddle close for the night. But that wouldn't do at all. His mother would be appalled at the very thought…

Bucky finally fell into an uneasy sleep, but he had the most absurd nightmare that Steve was waiting for him in a tall tower, and that he had to climb a ladder to reach him. The rungs were endless, and the higher he climbed, the farther out of reach Steve seemed.

He woke at dawn in a cold sweat.

*

 

The servants' quarters:

Phillip cursed his sharp hearing on nights like this. He was well accustomed to hearing Victor snore on the other side of the room. Stuffing wads of lamb's wool into his ears usually did the trick.

On this particular night, however, Prince Bucky's anxiousness and overall air of desperation regarding his houseguest's comfort made Phillip realize that he needed to keep his ears open. Pepper and Carol had grown accustomed to listening for the princesses' cries throughout the night when they were little, providing governess duties as well as housekeeping and cooking. Phillip was responsible for the Prince's comforts as his designated groom, and that responsibility encompassed the needs of his overnight guests... the males ones, at any rate. Phillip knew that he needed to remain vigilant in case he was needed, but unfortunately, Prince Steven brought along two rather noisy servants, apparently with septums as deviated as Victor's. Clint's hearing loss ensured he had no trouble sleeping through the racket. Phillip sighed.

It was going to be a long night.

*

Guard tower:

Tony sipped his third cup of black tea as he kept watch from the turrets, not minding his wakefulness. He could do without the solitude, but his cheeky invitation to Miss Potts to accompany him during his watch was met with a flippant "Good NIGHT, Sir Anthony."

It was worth a try...

*

The king and queen's chamber:

George dreamt of the springtime fox hunt. Winifred dreamt of holding court over a brood of gray-eyed grandchildren. Both of them slept soundly, without a care in the world. A smug smile rested on Winifred's lips.

*

Simon, the palace groundskeeper, fell asleep that night wondering where his ladder had gone...

*

Morning:

When a diligent rooster from a neighboring farm crowed at the crack of dawn, Steve longed for Clint to take it down with one of his arrows; it wouldn't be the first time he'd managed such a feat. Even in the throes of an excruciating hangover from indulging the night before, Clint was the sharpest marksman in Steve's kingdom and the surrounding territories. Steve groaned, knowing he had to get up soon, and he wasn't looking forward to the inevitable interactions with his hosts.

His entire body ached from the contortions he'd twisted and bent himself into all night in an attempt to get comfortable, but he never evaded the burr beneath him. At best, he'd had maybe an hour of fitful sleep, broken up into tiny increments whenever his eyes chose to droop shut. Steve sighed up to the ceiling, blaming how close the rafters were on his delirium...

Then he remembered.

Steve gingerly peered over the edge of the mattress - mattresses - and saw how far above the floor he was; it was almost dizzying, especially in his drowsy state. He remembered Thor and Clint's injunction to call for him in the morning when he was ready to start the day, but he didn't see any means of doing so that wouldn't wake everyone in the castle. Even the small bell that he would have used to ring for someone was down on the vanity, woefully out of reach. He didn't trust the ladder to remain steady from so high up, and he wouldn't risk sustaining an injury in someone else's home-

The door to his chamber creaked open gently, making the hinges moan slightly. He squinted at the sound. "Thor?" he said carefully, hopefully, trying not to speak too loudly. "Phillip?"

"Apologies," came the reply, in a soothing tenor. "Your servants were not awake yet, and I didn't want to disturb Phillip. Actually..." Bucky paused just inside the doorway, "...I wanted to check on you. To see how you'd slept."

"Slept?" Steve croaked. The concept was so foreign to him after the night he'd had, that he wanted to be sure he'd heard Bucky correctly.

"Yes, Steven. Slept. As in, sleep, that thing that happens when you lie down and close your eyes." Bucky's expression was impish, and he was shrugging into his discarded robe, the one that Steve borrowed from him the night before. Steve could have sworn that he sniffed its folds briefly, closing his eyes at the scent before he tied it shut. Bucky was still in his nightshirt and slippers when he entered, and his hair was escaping its braid. He looked rumpled and adorably tousled.

"Ah." Steve shook his finger at him knowingly, managing a little smile for his benefit as Bucky let himself the rest of the way in. But he paused, smile fading as he really took a good look at Steve.

"Steve... perhaps you haven't heard of it. It never came, did it? Were you up all night?"

"What gave me away?" Steve yawned. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude."

"You're not. Not at all. Oh, Steven, I'm the one who's sorry. Here I am, barging in, when you could no doubt use more rest-"

"Oh, no, Bucky. Not at all. You came at just the right time. I... was wanting to get out of bed. Down... from bed. Beds," he remembered, gesturing vaguely to the distance between them.

"How is the air up there?" Bucky risked asking.

"Oh, do stop!" Steve scolded, but he was smiling, and despite the dark circles under his very bloodshot eyes, it made Bucky's heart stutter. Those tired eyes, the rumpled night shirt and his tousled blond bedhead made Bucky long to cuddle up to him. He stopped himself when his thoughts wandered to how it would feel to bury his nose in Steve's neck, just below his ear...

It was so hard to want what you couldn't have. Bucky considered the matter at hand, namely that poor Steve had slept horribly while in their care. He needed to make amends of some kind. And technically, wasn't his mother's test over?

"You're still stranded up there," Bucky pointed out.

"So it appears."

"Would you like me to help you down?" Bucky tested the ladder, and to Steve's consternation, he began to climb the first three rungs.

"NO! Don't! Not without someone to hold it steady, Bucky! Just... hold it for me, and I'll climb down, if you don't mind." Then, when he realized how sharp he'd sounded, Steve added, "Please." What he didn't add was that he didn't want to be treated like damsel in distress, being rescued from a tower. His cheeks were turning a furious shade of scarlet. Bucky just smiled up at him and retreated back to the floor, then leaned against the ladder, gripping it snugly.

"I'll hold it. You climb down to me."

"It's still so early," Steve mentioned, but he eagerly began to climb down. Bucky was pleased to see he was having no trouble, but he earned an inadvertent peek up Steve's nightshirt, its hem floating and swaying around his bare legs as he descended. His mouth went dry at the sight of his lean, tapered thighs, his fair skin dusted with sandy hair. He caught the briefest, clandestine glimpse of his … Oh, goodness. There it was, dangling and swinging like ripe fruit. Bucky fought against the blush, but it raced over his flesh, making him tingle everywhere. He reined himself in and forced himself to stare at the floor until Steve finished his awkward scuttle. Bucky wisely backed up to let him down, but his shoulder blades brushed against Bucky’s chest. Steve was still tired, and not well coordinated; he stumbled back against Bucky anyway with a low “Oof!” Bucky instinctively reached for him, hands gripping those bony shoulders. Steve glanced over his shoulder at him apologetically.

“Clumsy.”

“It’s okay.” Bucky swallowed, and his thumb stroked the plane of Steve’s shoulder reflexively. “I have you. Safe and sound.”

“Yes, you do.” Warmth flooded Steve at his touch, staring up into those amazing eyes. He recovered his wits with difficulty. “It’s still so early. I don't want to disturb anyone-“

“You won’t. You’re coming with me.” Steve brightened.

“Oh. All right, then.”

*

They snuck – crept, Bucky decided; princes didn't do anything as provincial as sneaking - down the corridor to the opposite wing. “Are you hungry?”

“Not quite yet.”

“Are you chilled?”

“A little.”

“Then let’s bundle you up and tuck you back in.” Steve gave him such a grateful look that Bucky was ashamed of the night’s sleep that he lost.

“We’re tucking me back in?”

“Yes. We are.”

Steve liked the sound of that “we.” He liked it very much, indeed.

They rounded the corner and Bucky opened the heavy door to the chamber on the right. “It’s not the green suite, but it serves my needs,” Bucky apologized as he guided him inside. “I can call Phillip to stoke up the fire?” It had died down almost all the way to embers.

“Please, don't wake him yet. I can take care of it, Bucky.” It thrilled him to hear his name spoken in that delicious voice.

“But-“

“I’m perfectly capable.” He watched Steve pad over to the fireplace and reach for the iron poker. He turned the remains of the log until low flames agitated and flickered from it before he set another narrower log inside, watching it catch. He continued to stoke it up, and Bucky stared at him, the way the firelight shone on his blond hair and fair skin. Steve looked up from what he was doing, meeting his gaze. “You’re staring.”

“You’re beautiful.”

“No,” Steve stammered, shaking his head. He turned to put the poker back into its holder, and he was surprised to find his hand wrapped in Bucky’s grip.

“Yes. You are, Steve.” His voice was reverent.

“Are you… Is the fire good enough? Are you warm enough? I can-“

“Yes it is, yes I am, and no you can't. Climb into bed, Prince Steven.”

“I’m not going to put you through the trouble-“

“No. You won't. It’s no trouble, Steve,” and Bucky had a twinkle in his eye, “but you’re going to hurt my feelings if you refuse my humble attempt at hospitality.” Bucky turned to the bed and patted it invitingly. “It’s nice and comfy.”

Steve sighed. “It certainly looks it.” He hesitated at the edge of the bed, but at Bucky’s insistence, he crawled between the soft, smooth sheets…

That smelled just like Bucky. Steve moaned in pleasure at the firmness of the mattress, how the bed seemed to welcome him, yielding to his slight weight. “Oh, Bucky,” he groaned, “this is so nice.”

Steve’s voice was garbled by the pillow, but it was doing things to Bucky, sending wicked messages to forbidden places. He swallowed as he pulled the covers up to Steve’s chin. Steve’s head nuzzled into the pillow, and Bucky couldn't help reaching out to smooth a tendril of his hair back from his eyes.

“Won’t your mother be expecting us soon?”

“Mother sleeps in until about an hour past dawn. That gives an hour to nap.”

“Us?”

“You weren't planning to kick me out of my suite, I hope?”

Wordlessly, Steve reached out and pulled back the covers, moving back to make room. Bucky happily climbed into bed and let Steve cover him.

“I can't remember the last time anyone tucked me into bed.”

“Would you like me to tell you a bedtime story, too?” Steve smiled sleepily, enjoying the way Bucky’s eyes crinkled when he joked like that. He turned on his side to face him, hand curled under his cheek.

“Yes, please.”

They chatted another few minutes, Steve struggling to smother his yawns, but his eyes drooped and he feel asleep mid-sentence, his ankles tangled together with Bucky’s; Steve had terribly cold feet.

It was the nicest nap Bucky could remember having.

*

Pepper was in the kitchen, fussing over several pots and pans. She divided her attention between one filled with sausages and another holding sizzling potatoes. Carol came inside with a basket of eggs and a bucket of fresh milk. She began to cut fruit just as Phillip entered the kitchen, looking panicked.

“Prince Steven isn't in his quarters,” he fretted.

“What do you mean, he’s not there?” Pepper argued. “You didn't help him down?”

“I meant to. Someone beat me to it. I need to find him.”

“Perhaps it was one of his own servants?” Carol suggested.

“No,” Thor growled from the doorway. “No one summoned us at all.”
“Can’t say we’re too pleased about that,” Clint added grimly. “We told him to wait for us. Thor told him not to climb down that bloody ladder by himself.” As if on cue, they heard the scrape of wood being dragged across the floor. Phillip, Thor and Clint jerked their attention to the corridor, where they found Victor hauling the ladder behind him.

“Fellows could make yourselves useful,” the tall, feral-looking blond informed them. “Wouldn't hurt my feelings if you wanted to start hauling them bloody mattresses back up to the attic?”

“Never mind the mattresses,” Thor warned. “Where is his Highness?”

“In his room. Where do you think?” Victor chided him.

“Don't be cheeky,” Clint told him. “Where is Prince Steve?”

“In the prince’s room,” Victor reiterated.

“The green suite is empty,” Phillip argued.

“In the OTHER prince’s room. Prince JAMES,” Victor finished, exasperated with them all. Phillip, Carol, Pepper, Thor and Clint were all silent for a moment. Victor cursed. “Fine then, lazy arses, the lot of you. I’ll take back the mattresses myself, unless he’s planning to stay another night.”

“No, Mr. Creed,” Pepper told him gently. “That will not be necessary.”

Chapter Text

Victor's revelation had the kitchen in an uproar. Queen Winifred would be eager to see the result of her "test." Pepper put lids on each of her pans and let them continue cooking while she hurried back down the corridor to check on both princes.

She caught Phillip backing quietly out of Bucky's room, and he held up his finger to shush her, looking slightly panicked.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, per se," he whispered. "But look inside. Quick." She brushed past him, just inside the door, cracked slightly ajar.

The sighed that greeted her made her agree that whispering was a good idea. Both princes were tucked into Bucky's bed, their breathing deep and sonorous, just short of snoring. Bucky's arm was thrown protectively around Steve where he was huddled under the covers, almost like he was snuggling a teddy bear.

"Seems the prince saw to his guest's comfort himself," Pepper mused. The top of the prince's blond head was nuzzled up beneath Bucky's chin, his fingers curling into Bucky's nightshirt collar.

"Her Majesty will be most put out," Phillip fretted with a sigh.

"Come along, now," Pepper encouraged. "There was no help for this." They closed the door and headed back toward the kitchen. "When Prince Bucky has his eye on something, you know he will stop at nothing to get it."

"Yes, yes..." Phillip rubbed his nape helplessly. "Her Majesty is stubborn, Miss Potts. She will have her way."

"Prince Bucky is just as stubborn. I get the feeling he won't want his mother to write another denial letter to this one's family."

"Perhaps not." Then it hit him. "Shouldn't we try to contact his family to let them know he's here?"

"Already done. I've summoned a courier." She gave him a small pat. "Chin up, Mr. Coulson." They headed to the kitchen, where Tony was just walking in, pilfering a cup of milk from the pitcher that Carol had just filled.

"Did my eyes deceive me, or did I just see a mountain of mattresses in the green suite?"

"Your eyes are just fine, Sir Anthony." Pepper smacked his hand as he tried to steal a sausage link from the pan. He looked wounded and settled for a chunk of melon instead.

"One of Her Majesty's tests," Carol filled in for him.

"Mattress climbing? That's what we're using as a guide, now? The prince's consort is expected to scale his way into the royal family?"

"Do stop," Carol scolded, but a smirk played at the corner of her lips. Victor re-entered the kitchen, with Thor and Clint following him. The two of them still looked put out.

"We expected to find Prince Steven in the chamber we arranged for him last night," Thor grumbled.

"And we told him not to climb down that blasted ladder by himself," Clint added grimly.

"I imagine he didn't," Phillip said blandly. "I believe His Highness assisted His Highness." Thor's brows drew together.

"Come again?"

"Prince Bucky. I believe he took it upon himself to help Prince Steven down the ladder." The other two servants' reactions left Phillip nonplussed; they had their own concerns. Victor decided the same thing.

"Certainly didn't fly down," he muttered as he filched a sausage without Pepper there to stop him. Cliff neatly cuffed him upside the back of the head for his disrespect.

"So he's in his Highness' suite?" the carriage driver asked, just to make sure he'd heard correctly.

"Napping in Prince Bucky's suite. Rather soundly, in fact." Phillip's tone remained bland. "Haven't you a wheel to replace?"

"It would go faster with three sets of hands," Thor decided. He clapped Victor on the shoulder just as he bit into the sausage, nearly making him choke on it. "Let's go, man."

"Fine with me," he grumbled under his breath as they turned to leave. "Ladders, mattresses, carriages... work a man's fingers off, then, when he could hunt instead."

 

*

Pepper climbed the stairs once breakfast was ready and went to wake the queen. She drew back the curtains, flooding the room with sunlight.

"Those better not be dust motes I see, Miss Potts," Winifred warned in the gravelly tones of early morning.

"Never, your Highness," she promised. "I've brought up a bath." She helped Winifred up from bed and wrapped her in her robe, taking her sleeping mask from her and putting it into the side table drawer. Pepper sprinkled rose petals over the steaming bath water in the bathing chamber and got her settled and soaking before going back to the wardrobe to select her gown. She laid dress, bliaut, stockings and underthings out on the bed. George was still snoring away. Henry, George's groom, entered quietly and went through George's wardrobe and trunk to lay out his garb, too. Pepper approached him and gently took his arm.

"Mr. McCoy," she whispered, "I need you to help me avoid an incident, of sorts."

"How may I do that for you, Miss Potts?" Henry didn't pry and was the soul of discretion, and Pepper trusted him most out of the staff when a delicate situation arose.

"Please... go down and wake the prince. Quickly. Make sure he is ready for breakfast, and be certain to have Phillip take care of our guest, as well." Her voice caught a little on the word "guest."

"Also, could you bring me some parchment? Just leave it in the kitchen?"

"It would be my pleasure."

"You're a dear." And he was. His large, thick-featured face smiled calmly back at her, blue eyes twinkling. Hank patted her shoulder fondly before she attended Winifred once more. By the time Winifred was finished with her leisurely soak, Pepper finished writing her letter to the Rogers' palace, discreetly handing it off to Franklin, the young blond page. He hurried out to the stables and rode out on a small dappled mare, only beating Victor, Clint and Thor by minutes as they rode out to the carriage with the new wheel. The three servants rode out into the morning sunshine, enjoying the building warmth and fresh air. They came to the carriage, still standing unbalance by the damaged wheel. Victor whistled as he dismounted his horse.

"Fair wrecked it, didn't you?"

"Clint's fault," Thor told him, earning himself a shove as he tethered his horse to a tree. The three of them righted the carriage and easily up the side enough to remove the damaged wheel, pulling it from the axel.

"Should we bring the trunk?" Thor inquired. "His Highness will be needing fresh clothes."

"We'll make a satchel," Clint told him. "Wrap up some of his garments in my jacket." Victor struggled with the wheel's bolts while the other two unpacked the trunk and carefully sifted through Steve's trunk. He watched them lift out one of his jackets, embroidered with his family's crest, a comfortable pair of boots, pants, stockings, breeches and shirt.

"Wish we'd done this before," Thor admitted.

"It was raining," Clint reminded him.

"My little finger wouldn't fit into that jacket," Victor mused. "Bit small, your prince."

"Not in the ways that matter," Thor assured him. "You won't find another with a bigger heart or a more sensible head on his shoulders."

"I'd follow him anywhere," Clint added. "You'd do well to respect him." Victor shrugged.

"Fine by me. Our own prince has a fondness for 'good things that come in small packages,' if you take my meaning. Likely has a soft spot for 'im." Clint shrugged.

"Good things do," he agreed.

"He deserves his happiness," Thor murmured. "Wherever he finds it."

Thor and Clint hitched their horses to the carriage and rode it back, following Victor and contemplating whether Steve would be as enthusiastic to return home as he'd been the night before.

*

"Rise and shine, your Highnesses," Phillip beckoned. He drew back the curtains and gave Bucky's shoulder an uncharacteristic shake. "It would be prudent to make haste, sire. Her Majesty is with Pepper, getting dressed for breakfast."

"Far too soon," Bucky yawned. He reached out and gave Steve's scalp a gentle scratch. "You won't be happy with us, but we really must rise and go to breakfast." Steve groaned and his eyes cracked open. His expression was endearing.

"You're a cruel man to introduce me to this wonderful bed and then pry me out of it."

"Apologies, Highness," Phillip offered.

"Bathe and dress Prince Steven first," Bucky ordered gently. "It might be for the best if we're not dragging into the hall together..."

"Very good, sire." They watched a very sleepy Steve drag himself from the bed, shivering slightly from the draft. The fire had died again, and he wasn't looking forward to changing into the previous day's clothes, or even stripping down to bathe.

But he soon reversed his opinion when Phillip brought in the bath, and the steaming water eased his aches and pains. From the adjacent bed room, it was all Bucky could do not to ask Steven if he could have the privilege of washing his hair, but he took no liberties. He did, however, catch his brief groan of contentment, and he had to refocus his thoughts...

Bucky was a gentleman. Even when it was supremely difficult.

Clint and Thor parked the carriage outside the gate and temporarily stabled the horses, giving them feedbags before they went inside with Steven's belongings. Thor knocked on Bucky's door, blushing slightly as he did so. Phillip greeted him expectantly.

"Yes?"

"I need to give these to his Highness. Fresh clothes from his trunk. We brought back the carriage." Phillip beamed and took the bundle.

"Excellent, Mr. Odinson. I will see to it he's dressed and ready for breakfast." Thor nodded and strode off to find Clint in the kitchen for his own meal. Minutes later, Steve was dressed and hastily combed, and then Phillip led him to the great hall. It was ornately furnished, featuring an enormous dining table surrounded by two dozen chairs. Steve was more accustomed to taking breakfast in the smaller nook just off the kitchen at his own estate, but he had to admit the room was impressive, with its brocade upholstered chairs, fine crystal goblets, and linen tablecloths. Every piece of silver in the room gleamed, freshly polished.

“You have a lovely home,” Steve murmured.

“You’d do well to tell the queen that,” Phillip suggested.

“Indeed.”

“Perhaps, tell her the dining room is just one of the rooms you enjoyed here,” Phillip continued.

“Oh. Er…”

“She takes special pride in the green suite, Highness.”

“Yes. Right.” Steve cleared his throat, tugging at his collar. “Noted.”

“Good luck, sire.”

“Pardon?”

“Er, enjoy breakfast.” He turned to go. “I must fetch Prince Bucky. Her Majesty will be down soon.” He left Steve flustered, starving and anxious. He wandered the room, examining the paintings and small figurines where they lined the walls.

*

Bucky just finished stepping into his shoes when he heard a knock at his chamber door. “Enter.” Phillip came inside and attended him by the vanity. He picked up the comb and began to style Bucky’s hair. “He’s in the dining room.”

“And Mother?”

“On her way down.” The soothing strokes of the comb did little to settle Bucky’s nerves. Phillip rubbed some almond-scented oil into his hair to soften it and give it shine before clubbing it back from his face with a black cord.

“Phillip?”

“Yes, sire?”

“I’m so lonely. I want… I want Prince Steven to pass her blasted test.”

“I see that, sire.” He combed his hair a few more strokes, just to ground him. “He affects you that much?”

“Phillip,” Bucky told him, sighing heavily, “yesterday, before those three men entered my front gates, I played chess with my sister. Argued with my mother. Ate a fine mutton for supper. Rode my favorite horse and hunted quail with Victor.” He toyed with his fingernail. “All of those things were enough, before.”

“Before, sire?”

“Before he smiled at me and looked at me with those blue eyes, making me realize not one bit of my life mattered until he walked into it.” Phillip nodded, and his smile made his eyes crinkle.

“Then it’s time to make haste and sit down for breakfast, sire.”

Down the hall, Pepper retrieved the prince’s clothing from the day before, rumpled but dry. She decided to smooth out the wrinkles by steaming them, but when she picked up the trousers, a small book fell out of the pocket. “Oh,” she muttered, startled. She picked it up, noticing it had no royal stamp or insignia on it. She knew it was forbidden to read something meant for royal eyes only…

Pepper crept out into the hall and glanced around, finding it empty. She darted back into the suite and gently flipped open the thin leather cover. She gasped at the contents of the pages, containing sketches rendered in pencil and charcoal. “Oh, my. How lovely.” Each one was drawn by a skilled hand. They featured various subjects, like the layouts of rooms of his own home, the stables on his property with horses grazing in the adjacent field, foxes peeking up from burrows, flocks of quail scrabbling for seed… Pepper smiled as she continued to flip through it, noticing that he also had a knack for drawing people. Some of them looked like they were drawn at court, people in the middle of conversations, some caught in moments of laughter; one sketch looked like it was drawn in the middle of a ball, but Pepper couldn't imagine how he would manage to draw others dancing when he would be expected to join the quadrilles and waltzes, himself.

Toward the middle of the book, she saw several drawings of a young, dark-haired woman, smiling genuinely and achingly lovely. Steve had captured the twinkle in her eyes and her cupid’s bow of a mouth. Pepper realized that she must be someone special to Steven, for her image to rendered so skillfully, with such loving attention to detail…

Sinking dread filled her gut. “Oh, Bucky.” Immediately she feared the worst. Pepper quickly tucked the book into her apron pocket and headed to the laundry room.

*

Winifred and George presided over the table at opposite ends of it. Steve sat halfway down, alone and awkward, while Bucky was ordered to sit on Winifred’s immediate left. Winifred ordered him to take that seat when he’d asked if she had a preference, and he’d already begun to sweat.

“Carol, please pass me the potatoes.” Carol hurried to carry out her request. Moving the dishes around the table took stamina every time the occupants of the table wanted a different food, as it was so long.

“How are you enjoying your breakfast, young man?” Winifred demanded, pausing with a chunk of melon speared on her fork.

“Everything is lovely, Majesty.” His eyes had dark smudges beneath them, and Steve was so tired, despite his nap. Bucky thought he would fall asleep in his scrambled eggs.

“Pardon? You’re speaking too softly, dear.”

“Lovely! Everything is LOVELY,” he emphasized.

“Oh, good. Good. No need to shout.” The dining hall was cavernously large, and Steve felt… Very small and far away.

“How did you manage last night?”

Steve cleared his throat. “It’s a very pleasant room, Majesty.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to speak up again.” She smiled, but her brows were beadled.

“It’s VERY PLEASANT,” he tried again. George drilled his finger into his ear, wincing at his volume. Steve flushed deep scarlet. Bucky smothered a sigh and toyed with his potatoes.

“You liked it, then?”

“Yes, it was very… Comfortable.”

“Very what, dear?”

“Comfortable, Mother.” Bucky interjected on his behalf, giving her a quelling look.

“The suite was nice and warm,” Steve told her.

“He was warm enough, Mother,” Bucky told her, just as Winifred, predictably, was about to make Steve repeat himself.

“Prince Steven can speak freely,” she told her son, “and for himself..” Bucky stabbed a sausage and took a savage bite beside her as his mother grilled him like a flounder.

“The blankets were very soft. Phillip and Dr. Banner treated me very well and made me feel welcome. And I appreciate the way the …bed was arranged.” Even if it had confused the dickens out him.

“If you don't mind my frankness, dear, you don't look as though you slept restfully.” His posture was straight and upright in his seat, but he looked like it was having a strain on him.

“Slept, your Majesty?” His voice was a low croak. He was just so tired, trying so hard not to yawn.

“Yes, dear Steven. Did you sleep?”

Bucky began to sweat.

“Er…I…”

“Miss Danvers, please pass me the orange juice,” George beckoned, waving her over. Winifred scowled, but Steve welcomed the brief distraction.

“Was the bed not comfortable?” She pressed.

“The bed was perfectly suitable,” he stammered out.

“Yet, surely there was something amiss, for you not to have rested well last night?”

*

Pepper returned to the green guest suite and noticed something small and green lying on the duvet. It looked like a bit of debris at first, no doubt left from the stack of featherbeds that Victor returned to the attic. She squinted at it as she approached, and she picked up the small, dented, uncooked green pea, rolling it between her finger and thumb.

*

“I feel…that perhaps, Majesty, I was just homesick.”

“Come again?” Steve wasn't sure if she hadn't heard him, truly, or if she simply comprehend his reply.

“Homesick, Winnie,” George boomed from his end of the table as he spread jam on his bread.

“Homesick?” she repeated in confusion.

“Of course, Mother,” Bucky admonished. “It’s always harder to sleep in a bed, in a strange room, that doesn't feel like one’s own.”

Steve felt uneasy, hating the urge to hedge and evade. He was pathologically honest, but to confess the flaw in the bed would likely offend the queen most heinously.

“Yes, your Majesty. I think I was merely…homesick. But, I think you have a grand home, and that you have been unerringly generous and kind for providing me with shelter.”

Winifred gave him a curt nod, her lips pressed into a thin line. She raised her juice glass to him in a salute.

Phillip arrived and interrupted them briefly, apologetically. “The carriage has been fixed.”

Bucky’s heart sank. He stared down at Steve, who looked so bleak, so tired.

He made up his mind quickly. Bucky rose and took his plate with him, rounding the table. George looked amused as he set his plate in the place beside Steve, then pulled out the chair and say beside him, more closely than etiquette dictated.

He didn't give a damn.

Chapter Text

Steve couldn't even remember what he'd eaten for breakfast. His stomach knotted itself up with the tension that hung thickly in the air. Bucky was practically thrumming with it beside his elbow, yet when he glanced over at him, Bucky offered him a smile that was meant to be reassuring.

What Steve couldn't realize was that Bucky was a fretful mess, worried not only that Steve wouldn't pass his mother's ridiculous test, but that Steve would find out why he was under such intense scrutiny. Bucky knew that they'd made a connection, but it was new, fragile, and in danger of his mother's machinations and scheming crushing it.

Worse, Steve was leaving him. His drivers replaced his carriage wheel, and Pepper had his belongings all packed.

Both princes politely excused themselves from the dining hall, with Steve giving Winifred reassurances that the meal was excellent, even though it wouldn't help. Once they made it into the corridor, Bucky let out the pent-up breath from his chest. Steve suppressed a smile as they headed for the green suite.

"That went well," Steve remarked. Bucky felt a frisson of panic, until he noticed that Steve's expression was slightly flat, almost discouraged, and his tone was almost... facetious.

"Steve-"

"Is this the part where you tell me not to worry?" They stopped inside the suite, and Steve hesitated a moment, trying to find the right words. "Bucky," he asked carefully, taking his hand, "this is a bold question, but-"

"I don't want you to leave," Bucky blurted out. "That back there... I just-"

"No. Don't try to explain it."

"Please, Steve."

"No, Bucky... I was treated well. I don't want you to believe any differently." He sighed and squeezed Bucky's hand; his fingers were cool and dry. "I just feel like I might have disappointed your mother, somehow." Steve answered his own question nimbly, even if Bucky didn't want to admit it.

"No! No, Steve. You didn't disappoint anyone. Steve... you're our guest. There weren't any expectations- I mean, we didn't... I didn't... oh, I don't know what I'm saying..." Steve grinned at him.

"You didn't have any expectations of me at all?" Bucky blushed furiously, eyes growing round.

"Steve-"

"Not even a little? Or maybe... something you hoped for?"

"Well... maybe... something... damn it, Steve."

"That's no language for a prince," Steve chided, but his voice was soft and held a ripple of amusement.

"You would know."

"I would, actually." The joke lay unspoken between them, and Bucky sighed. Why on earth did his mother have a problem with Steve?

He was just so delightful.

"I'm going to miss you," Bucky told him earnestly.

"Perhaps we will meet at court. I've been leaving the palace a bit more often, lately. It's easier when the weather's warm."

“With your carriage’s new wheel, it shouldn't be too difficult, the next time you get caught in the rain.” Steve smiled, taking his other hand in his, playing with Bucky’s fingers. They both savored the contact, this precious opportunity to touch, possibly their last.

“It’s not just the weather. Being chilled gives me the ague and a cough that often refuses to go away.” Bucky frowned.

“Oh, Steven, for heaven’s sake… Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. Don't worry yourself. Bruce has a real talent with herbs.”

“But you were warm enough? The room wasn't too cold or too stuffy?” Bucky interrogated him again until Steve released his hands and took his shoulders instead. That silenced him, made him stare into those soft blue eyes.

“Yes. There was only one thing-“

“Wait. One…thing, you said?”

“Yes. Just a tiny little lump, almost like a stone. I tried to see if I tracked a pebble into bed with me, but I never found it. I’m just overly sensitive to things like that, I guess.”

“But, it was a lump. Out of reach. Just enough to be a nuisance.” A light went on in Bucky’s eyes.

“Yes, Bucky. Why?” Steve released him, but Bucky took his hands.

“You didn't say anything before.”

“It didn't seem like breakfast conversation,” Steve argued, puzzled by Bucky’s growing anxiousness. “Honestly, Bucky, I was practically nodding off into the porridge; I couldn’t tell your mother something so-“

“Honest,” Bucky finished.

“Rude,” Steve corrected him. “I was just grateful to be here, Bucky. I’m grateful for all I have. Have you ever gone on walkabout, or gone with your father into the territories?”

“Occasionally,” he replied. “What does that have to do with you for having something poking you in your bed, Steve? We should have examined the bed more closely before shoving you into it!” And there was Bucky fretting again.

“I have gone with my father very frequently, with him and his tax collector. It opened my eyes, Your Highness.”

“You don't have to call me that. We’re equals, Steven.”

“I don’t believe I’m any better that anyone else in my father’s kingdom, Prince James Buchanan. Not by birth. Not for my wealth, not for my character. I met dozens of our subjects, watched them stare at us as we passed. Some of them looked fearful. Many of them barely had a penny to their names, yet they offered Father and me their only scraps of bread at their tables. I saw leaking roofs and children with no shoes and clothing full of holes. You’ve seen it. It hurts my heart.”

“Steve…” Bucky admitted to himself that Steve was right. He’d seen the state of the villages, felt similar tugs on his heart toward the condition of those he would rule.

“I met people who didn't have a place to rest their heads at night, and it makes me grateful for any bed offered to me, Bucky. I have so much. And I take so much, even when I don't want to, and don't mean to. I didn't mean for my carriage to lose a wheel. I didn't mean to track wet footprints across your floor, or for you have to stable my horses, shelter my servants, or have Dr. Banner attend to my cough. I’ve often worried that people fuss over me too much. That they may feel they have to give me too much.”

“No, Steve.” During these confessions, Bucky watched him in growing disbelief. Now he was frustrated, almost wanting to shake him after what he’d heard. “You deserve kindness. And you deserve to speak your mind. You’re allowed to be honest.”

“It’s not polite to tell someone their stew has too much salt.”

“No. But then you always end up dining on salty stew.”

Steve had to admit he had a point.

“I’ll have Victor throw out the mattress. Hell, he can throw out all of them.”

“You most certainly will not. That’s wasteful,” Steve huffed, shaking his head.

“They robbed you of a good night’s sleep.”

“I’ll sleep in the carriage on the way home. Bucky?”

“What?”

“I don't mind the lump.”

“Steve… Silly goose. That’s ridiculous! How do you not mind?”

“Because of it, I woke up in your arms.”

A puddle. That’s what Steve turned him into, with those words and that earnest look. Bucky swallowed and licked his lips. “Maybe that was where you should have slept in the first place.” And Steve was staring at him, and Bucky was itching to touch him again, arms craving his slight weight-

Before Bucky could ponder the wisdom or impact of his words, Steve closed the remaining gap between them, cupped Bucky’s face in his hands and kissed him, making his heart stutter in his chest. It took a few moments for his brain to process that the delicate looking, sensitive, beautiful young man had captured his mouth and was doing sinful things to it. Hot breath mingled between them and Steve’s soft lips were caressing his, coaxing them to open. Bucky moaned into his mouth and his arms once again drew Steve in, welcoming him home. Steve combed his fingers through his thick hair and shivered at Bucky’s smooth, warm caresses down his back.

Let me soothe all of your aches. Let me make you feel at home. Let me hold you and never let you go.

All of these thoughts swirled in Bucky’s consciousness, transported through his touch. Steve sighed into his kiss, almost purring beneath the warmth of his large hands.

A brief, sharp knock at the chamber door shattered it all to pieces. Both men flew apart, startled out of their composure and blushing like children. Bucky’s eyes were glassy with desire. Steve’s lips were puffy and deep rose.

Pepper looked sheepish and apologetic, and she cleared her throat, hands clasping a small book. Steve’s sharp intake of breath almost made her regret her boldness, but she recovered the moment.

“Milord, you dropped this… Er, it fell from your pants –pocket. It fell from your pocket.” It was all he could do not to snatch it out of her hands. She handed it to him calmly and told them, “The carriage is ready. I have packed your things.”

“You’ve been so helpful, Miss Potts.” He brandished the book. “This is very valuable to me. I would have been anxious if I’d found it missing once I arrived home.”

“I gathered it might be important, your Highness.” Steve felt a spike of panic in his chest. But Pepper merely bobbed a curtsy and left them alone once more. Bucky expelled a shaky breath.

“She won't be the only one looking for us,” Steve pointed out. “Clint and Thor will be champing at the bit.”

“It’s too soon,” Bucky muttered. “It’s far, far too soon, Steve.”

“I won't outstay my welcome after arriving unannounced,” Steve told him. “Mother will be worried by now, as it is.”

“We’ve had a constant stream of guests of late. What’s one more?” Steve stared at him quizzically.

“Why have you had so many visitors?”

“It’s just… It’s so ridiculous. You don't even want to hear this, Steve…” At Steve’s shrug and coy smile, Bucky sighed. “It truly is silly.”

“I could use a laugh.”

Bucky shook his head, and his smile faltered. “Oh, Steve… My mother has been after me to find a bride. A princess.”

Steve’s eyebrows flew up, and he couldn't stop the cough that escaped him. “Oh, no, are you still sick? Do you need me to ring for Bruce?”

“No, no… I’m fine, Bucky.”

“So, Mother has been after me to choose a wife. Or a consort,” he amended. Steve nodded, but he felt a hard, tight little ball of tension form in his stomach. “We’ve had many princesses cross the threshold these past few months, or so they told us.”

“Told you…?”

“About their titles and pedigrees. All of them claimed to be princesses.” Bucky threw up their hands. “Some of them were more convincing than others. A lot of them seemed… Eager. It’s flattering. Nice to be wanted, I suppose.”

“But?”

“But… I had to question why.” Bucky rubbed his nape. “I felt like I was on display at the market, like a rooster.” Steve chuckled, and some of his tension dissipated. “It just seemed a bit unreal. And very few of those potential brides seemed ‘real’ to me. None of them made my heart race, or made me…want.”

Bucky felt his face grow increasingly warm under Steve’s scrutiny.

“The queen wants to marry you off.” Bucky chuckled, then nodded.

“If it wasn't so time-consuming… No. That’s wrong. I’m just…so tired. I want to live my life and stop searching, and stop putting on appearances and kissing hands…”

Steve cleared his throat and smirked.

“Hands. I said, hands.”

“Maybe this is taking so long because you’re simply being too choosy.” Bucky gave him a wounded look.

“You’re making me sound conceited.”

“No. You’re in high demand. Part of me is jealous. I’ve never had anyone line up for the chance to petition me for marriage.” Yet he didn't sound jealous at all.

“No endless rounds of houseguests. Your mother doesn't spend hours writing refusal letters?” Steve’s eyes darkened with sorrow, suddenly, and Bucky began to panic again.

“No. She has other ways of occupying her time.”

Like mourning, Steve almost told him, grieving her strong, vivacious daughter-in-law. But it wasn't the right time, when they had so little of it left.

“No one has ever caught your eye?”

Before Steve could reply, they were interrupted by heavy footfalls. Thor and Clint, both of them looking rueful.

“Sire, it would be wise to leave before-“

“That’s fine. We will make haste. Let’s give our kind hosts some breathing room,” Steve decided. He felt a mixture of relief and regret.

He would dearly miss Bucky. Things between them were new, uncertain and fragile, but he’d only had a brief, tempting taste.

“Steve,” Bucky wanted to argue, fingers clenching at his sides to avoid reaching for him. “You don't have to rush off.”

“Walk with me?” Steve beckoned. Bucky’s shoulders drooped in defeat, but he nodded. Thor and Clint pretended not to notice the way the dark-haired prince slung his arm around their prince’s narrow shoulders as they headed to the front gate, or the look of yearning that passed between them.

The carriage was waiting for him as promised, and Steve was surprised to see that Bucky wasn't the only member of his family who had come to tell him goodbye. “Hello,” chirped the slender girl of teenaged years with Bucky’s dark good looks. She held out her hand to him, waiting expectantly. Steve smiled genuinely and kissed it.

“May I introduce my sister, Rebecca. Becca, this is Prince Steven Rogers-“

“Queen Sarah’s son,” she interrupted, but she realized her slip. “Apologies. I…overheard Mother talking.” Bucky sighed deeply. “It’s nice to meet you, Highness.”

“Your brother doesn't have to defer to me,” Steve told her warmly, squeezing her hands in his gentle grip. “Neither do you. It’s a pleasure, Rebecca. Thank you for extending your hospitality to me.”

“I didn't, necessarily, but you’re welcome, anyway,” she told him saucily. He was too adorable. She darted in and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Have a safe journey home, Steven.”

“Steve,” he corrected. “Thank you, Princess Rebecca.”

“Becca,” she corrected him.

“Brat, she means,” Bucky deadpanned. She stuck her tongue out at him when Steve released her and flounced off just as Bucky tried to swat her. “Mother worries about the princesses who walk through that door, and let's the ones that live under our roof already run wild.”

“You have more than one sister?”

“I have three. Becca is the one that keeps Mother’s hands full.”

“I never would have imagined. Especially not with her older brother setting such a sterling example of princely behavior…” Steve narrowly avoided a swat, himself, and Bucky was grinning at him.

 

"Maybe you SHOULD make haste starting your trip home, after all," he teased.

"Are you sure? The green suite would do nicely-"

"It certainly would NOT." Bucky sighed.

"Thank you for everything, Bucky," Steve murmured. Clint climbed up into the driver's seat while Thor opened the carriage door with a flourish. "Good luck finding a bride."

"Do you really mean that?" Bucky asked quietly. He was holding Steve's hands, gripping them more tightly than farewell etiquette dictated.

"No. I don't."

"I hate this."

"I do, too."

"Don't... don't be a stranger, Steve."

"I won't be, now that we've been properly introduced," Steve told him, attempting to lighten the moment. Thor and Clint were telegraphing anxiousness without meaning to, and Steve knew he really had to go. "Goodbye, Bucky." Releasing his hands was painful, cutting him off from his warmth and the energy he seemed to radiate, like sunshine.

"Goodbye, Steve." He let Steve climb up into the carriage and backed away. Thor gave him a sympathetic smile, and he managed to watch him close the carriage door and turn to go back inside the castle, listening to Thor climb atop the carriage seat himself. But at the first snap of the reins and the sound of departing hoofbeats, Bucky abandoned all self-restraint and decorum.

"Hold! HALT! PLEASE!" Bucky sprinted after them, his fine shoes striking gravel, but he couldn't heed it, not when one last, precious opportunity was riding away from him. He heard Clint's hasty "WHOA!" as the carriage abruptly stopped.

Inside, Steve felt himself similarly jostled, making him hope they hadn't thrown another wheel. He peered out through the window and out of his periphery he saw someone rushing after them.

"What...?" His heart flipped when he saw Bucky, running up to him, the goal he had in mind written across his features.

He grasped the carriage door handle and jerked it open, bound inside, and he reached for Steve, panting slightly.

"You wouldn't deprive me of just one more...?" Bucky pleaded. The desperation and need in his eyes were reflected in Steve's.

"Of course not." Steve's fingers curled into Bucky's collar. "That would be rude." Steve leaned off the edge of the carriage seat, meeting Bucky halfway where he knelt on the floor, perfectly matched in their heights, and they gave each other a proper goodbye.

Clint and Thor stared down the road for several minutes, wondering idly when they would begin their journey. Wisely, they said nothing.

*

Bucky and Winifred skirted around each other for the rest of the day.

 

Pepper spent her afternoon diligently cleaning every chamber, trying to avoid the unease that plagued her since breakfast. Prince Bucky's tension was infecting them all, even the unflappable Phillip, whose eyes followed the prince in and out of every room.

"I just feel like we missed something," he confided to her while he was going through Bucky's wardrobe, putting away his clean clothing.

"Missed something?"

"Just... some small detail. Something we should have done, something we should have known," he fretted. "This was an unusual visit."

"That's putting it mildly, Mr. Coulson."

"Well, did you notice... he arrived unannounced. He had a broken carriage wheel."

"Indeed."

"Yet... her Majesty tested him, as though he was a candidate."

"That, she did." Yet it rankled with Pepper, too.

"That just seems...unfair."

"Her Majesty no doubt saw what we all saw. The prince seemed smitten with him as soon as he came in through that door." Pepper dusted some knickknacks as she mused. "In her eyes, that made Steven Rogers a candidate."

"He's mentioned a preference for a consort," Phillip agreed.

"If he is who he said he is, it could be a strong union."

"We need proof. I'm simply afraid that it might be too late once we get it."

"Why?"

"Because her Majesty said we are having more guests in three days."

"Good heavens," Pepper muttered. She pondered the additional wrinkle of the sketchbook, of the drawings in its pages of a lovely woman. Pepper was unsure of whether or not to tell Bucky. He was so upset.

This didn't bode well.

*

Meanwhile, in another kingdom, and another drawing room:

Queen Sarah looked up from the heavy scroll, written in an unidentified hand and frowned.

"Well, this certainly explains my son's delay in returning home," she said, eyeing the young blond page. Franklin shifted uncomfortably where he stood, tugging at the collar of his page's uniform.

"Yes, Majesty."

"Mayhap he will arrive home by this evening?"

"Very likely, Majesty."

"Who wrote this letter, young man?"

"Miss Potts, the palace's head housekeeper."

"Why didn't this communication come from Queen Winifred?"

"Er... it's complicated, your Majesty." The young blond paled and his eyes darted to the floor. "Queen Winifred... wasn't... certain of Prince Steven's identity."

"She... wasn't certain?" Sarah's color rose and her chin hitched up several notches. "This won't do. This won't do at all." Queen Sarah rose from her damask and nailhead upholstered chair and re-rolled the scroll, laying it on her escritoire. "Wait in the kitchen. Jessica will give you some tea and bread, dear. Rest yourself, for I'm sending you on a return errand." Franklin bowed solemnly.

"Certainly, your Majesty. My pleasure, your Majesty." He gratefully backed out of the drawing room while Queen Sarah gathered up quill and inkpot.

"Don't scare the poor lad, dear," Joseph chided from his reclining couch, where he casually smoked his pipe. "He's only the messenger."

"I know. I have no qualms with the messenger, only the message itself. According to this housekeeper, Steven arrived at the Barnes's palace in the middle of the night."

"How did they receive him?"

"He was given a suite to sleep in, and Thor and Clint were allowed to stay in the servants' quarters."

"What's the matter then, dear?" Joseph shrugged, but she rolled her eyes.

"This Miss Potts insists here, 'We were unsure of the prince's identity, and we've had a steady flow of guests as Queen Winifred and King George preside over selecting a bride - or CONSORT," she emphasized, "for Prince Bucky. The king and queen demand that the identity and status of all candidates bidding on marriage to Prince Bucky be verified before they are approved." She waved the scroll at him. "This is ridiculous. My son didn't arrive at their palace in search of a groom!"

"Sarah," Joseph considered, "even if he wasn't searching for a groom, as you so aptly put it... what if he found one?"

"Ridiculous," she repeated. "Steven's just out of mourning. He isn't looking for someone to marry so soon. And Peggy isn't so easily replaced, Joseph. She was perfect for him."

"Perfect? You weren't that fond of her when her house first bid on the marriage," Joseph reminded her.

"She grew on me. She had a sterling character and a kind heart. Lovely girl, in hindsight, and she loved our son. This 'Prince Bucky,' on the other hand... he must be fickle, if they have a constant stream of brides coming in and out of the palace, offering him their hand in marriage."

"Aren't we jumping to conclusions?"

"From this message, certainly not," Sarah huffed. "Ridiculous," she said once more. "Steven's identity should have been clear from his seal and crest. It was right on the carriage door!"

"Perhaps that sort of thing can be faked," Joseph suggested as he blew smoky rings from his pipe.

"That's a horrible habit you have," Sarah told him, shuddering.

"Which you gladly suffer, because you love your husband," he countered.

"This Miss Potts insists that they were unsure of his identity," Sarah continued, fuming. "I should hope that they treated him properly and according to his status..."

"They didn't offer him a stall in their stable," Joseph joked, but she wasn't in the mood.

"Who's to say they didn't?"

"Darling, don't fret."

"I'm not fretting. I demand to know how my son was treated on his unanticipated stay with this Queen Winifred and Prince Bucky." Sarah sighed. "What kind of name is 'Bucky?'"

"Your future son-in-law's," Joseph jibed. She crossed the room and soundly swatted him with the scroll.

They awaited Steve's return, and Sarah busied herself penning a letter to the neighboring queen, pouring out all of her assumptions and questions raised by the message she received that afternoon. She gave it to Franklin when he returned to the drawing room, and told him in clipped tones that it was imperative that it reached Queen Winifred's hands, and her hands only.

*

The next morning found the Barnes' palace returning to its normal routine - namely that of Queen Winifred ordering the staff to prepare the guest suites and to freshen the servants' quarters while she resumed writing her refusal letters in the library. She munched on a small bowl of macadamia nuts at her desk, busy with her quill.

"Mother. A word." She looked up and gave her son a cautious smile.

"You look like you have something on your mind, James."

"You have some idea what." He expelled a sharp breath. "I don't want anymore prospective brides. Please call off the search."

"What on earth for? Call off the search?" She gave him a jaundiced look. "Don't tell me that one of the previous ones caught your eye?"

"I doubt it would have mattered if one of them had. But, to be frank, none of them did." She smiled, but he held up his hand. "I have made my choice. I want Steve."

"James, no. Absolutely not."

"He's perfect."

"He's no such thing. He failed my test."

"How, Mother? I don't understand." He mulled his next words for a moment. "I'm not sure I WANT to understand."

"James, don't be fresh."

"Mother, let me be frank, then. Who I eventually marry, or don't marry, is my choice."

"Provided your father and I approve-"

"NO, Mother." His tone was insistent, yet his eyes pleaded with her, forcing her to realize that this wasn't her little boy that she was chastising, but a young man capable of making his own choices.

Informed choices, she corrected herself, once she informed him.

"You're. Telling. Me. No."

"Yes. Because you're not hearing me. I want Steve."

"James, he didn't pass my test."

"What was your test? Tell me about this infallible test of yours, Mother," he retorted. "Stranding him atop a pile of featherbeds? Trying to see if he's afraid of heights?"

"No. Trying to see how perceptive and honest he is. Those are important traits in the person you marry." Bucky's mouth dropped open, then closed. He looked confused and perturbed.

"Perceptive and... honest?"

"When Victor brought in the mattresses, they put something special beneath them all. If our guest had been truly perceptive, and if he'd been honest with me, he would have told me about the small pea that was set down before all of the mattresses were stacked up."

"What?"

"I said, there was a pea underneath-"

"A pea." Bucky held up his finger and thumb, with little space in-between. "So, that was just a pea?"

"What do you mean, 'just a pea?'"

"That must have been what kept him up," Bucky muttered to himself. "Mother, didn't you notice how tired he was at breakfast?"

"He seemed a bit under the weather, but I wondered if he merely had a fragile constitution." Bucky restrained himself from slapping his forehead.

"Mother, poor Steven didn't sleep a wink!" Bucky began to pace the chamber, tugging on the hair at his nape. "That poor man tried so hard not to offend...!"

"To offend?"

"He didn't want to complain, Mother, and he certainly didn't want us to think he had a 'fragile constitution.' Couldn't you see that? He was just being polite, thinking of how kind you were to give him the suite for the night."

"James, did he tell you something?" she prodded.

"He said he felt a lump in his bed. Thought he'd just picked up a stone on his ride here and tracked it into bed with him. He couldn't get comfortable around it." Bucky remembered how he'd slumped against him in relief that morning when he tucked him into his own bed, how his muscles relaxed so completely when he held him. "He didn't want to make a fuss about it."

Winifred mulled this over, and Bucky felt a glimmer of hope. Perhaps this new information would sway her decision?

*

Winifred's planning hit a roadblock the next day when Franklin returned with the message from Queen Sarah. He reluctantly handed it to her, bowed, backed out of the library, and beat feet for the training yard. Winifred huffed at his hasty retreat and went to her desk. She cracked the blue wax seal on the scroll and scanned the neat, curly handwriting. She felt a strange, sinking feeling in her gut as she read the message.

"Oh, dear. George! GEORGE!"

Pepper's head popped up around the corner of the doorframe. "Would you like me to fetch his Highness?"

"Please, do. And please bring me a glass of water, Miss Potts. I may faint..."

*

Franklin the page was summoned again, and his eyes boggled at the sight of the handful of scrolls laid out on the queen's desk.

"Take another page with you, young man," WInifred told him grimly. "We have visits to cancel and plans to rearrange. I want you take these to the kingdoms and properties on this list. Deliver them with my sincerest regrets." George watched Franklin dart out of the library, looking determined.

"You've had a change of heart?"

"I can't tell you as of yet," Winifred sighed. "And I certainly can't tell James. I want the proof from the queen's lips."

"We haven't had much contact with that family," George considered. "We've certainly never met Steven Rogers before his stay here."

"You accompanied Joseph on his hunting trip?"

"Once. Many years ago. Before they had a son."

"We would have run into him at court, surely?"

"Perhaps we just kept missing each other," he reasoned.

"I would have remembered him," Winifred insisted. And she would have, she mused. He was delicate and petite, and those soft blue eyes were certainly memorable, as well as the surprisingly deep voice.

"He seemed pleasant enough. He gave me the impression of someone with a lot of humility."

"Hardly a princely trait," Winifred sniffed.

"But perhaps it's a desirable one, dear. Bucky could certainly use some, himself." George loved his son, but he worried that being the eldest child in the family, set to inherit immeasurable fortune and abundant land, and having a constant flow of admiring women – and men, for that matter – might have gone to his head. “Steven seemed very grounded. I’d like another chance to get to know him.”

“You aren't going to encourage a union between them?” Winifred looked mulish and desperate. Her visions of grandchildren were slowly evaporating.

“You may get your chance. Queen Sarah is set to arrive in two days. She is bringing her entire entourage with her.”

Chapter Text

Pepper helped their cook, Jeanne-Marie, turn an enormous roast hog on a spit, dodging the droplets of sizzling fat that burst from its crackling skin. "The vegetables need to go into the soup!"

"I'll do it," Carol called back from the chopping table. She picked up the cutting board of diced potatoes, turnips, carrots and onions and scraped them into the simmering pot with the blade of her knife.

"How many pies do we have so far?"

"Four, once the cheese tart is finished."

"Roll out some dough for a mince pie. It's his Highness' favorite," Pepper told her. Carol smothered a sigh but didn't complain. They needed to make a grand impression, and what was one more pie?

The castle was in a mad scramble to finish preparing for Queen Sarah's arrival, and the kitchen was a clanging, splashing clamor of steam and smoke. The guest suites - including the green one - had been cleaned ruthlessly, rugs beaten, linens ironed, and every possible surface dusted and oiled to a gleaming finish, with lavender sprigs laid over every pillow.

The royal family were coping with the impending visit in different ways. Winifred's younger daughters were bubbling with excitement at the prospect of meeting another queen. George looked forward to sharing a brandy with Joseph again, at long last, in the hopes of sorting out the hoopla surrounding Bucky's prospective engagement - and to enjoy a brief reprieve from Winifred's scheming. Winifred was in rare form, snapping out instructions and running her white-gloved fingertip over everything to make sure it was perfect.

And Bucky...

Phillip had to physically pry his hands away from his mouth to stop him from biting his manicured fingernails. The young prince paced anxiously through the great hall until George suggested - rather sternly - that he join Sir Anthony in training the pages in the yard as a distraction. All he could think of was Steve. The previous night was a sleepless ordeal of tossing, squirming, punching the pillows, and remembering the robin's egg blue of his eyes. The memory of Steve's touch lingered on his flesh; even his hair craved his slender fingers running themselves through it. It was ridiculous. Bucky was all nerves and jitters while he yearned for Steve, and he was fretting every moment leading up to his mother's visit, hoping she would see the benefits of a match.

What was the proper etiquette to use when begging a queen to marry her son? Bucky had no clue. His stomach kept fluttering. He raised his index finger to his lips to chew on that nail. Tony, without even glancing at him, reached up and pulled down his hand. "No, sire."

"It's my hand."

"Phillip will have my hide if I let you undo his work. I don't want to incur his wrath, your Highness, so those fingernails must remain pristine."

"Why is my knight in command afraid of my groom?"

"Because my liege is also afraid of his groom." Bucky sighed, then nodded.

"You don't have to be so honest."

"Yet I do, sire. It was implied when you knighted me." He took the liberty of clapping Bucky on the shoulder. "All of the extra mattresses are back up in the attic, sire. We won't be stranding Prince Steven up in the rafters on his visit this time. That should bring you some comfort?"

"Well, that's helpful," Bucky deadpanned. He sighed and scrubbed his palm over his face. "This shouldn't be so complicated."

"It's not that complicated," Tony argued. "You're a prince. He's a prince, or so we can assume. He passed your mother's test - he didn't let on that he did, which, in a sense, means he failed it, but we know that he passed it, and you might want to remind him that the Queen appreciates frankness-"

"She does," Bucky interrupted, "and I did."

"But at this point, your Highness, perhaps explain to him why he was being tested in the first place." Bucky's cheeks heated up.

"I tried... sort of. I don't know how well I accomplished that." Bucky watched the pages who were dueling each other with wooden practice swords and clapped for them dutifully.

"Left things clear as mud?"

"You could say that."

"I get the feeling you can be very frank with Prince Steven, and that he's less fragile than he looks."

"I just think we gave him the wrong impression," Bucky fretted. "He must think we're a den of lunatics -"

"Palace," Tony corrected him. "A palace of lunatics, sire." Bucky tsked and cuffed him soundly. "OW!"

"Watch that insolent tongue, sir!"

"And royal-born aren't lunatics," Tony assured him cheerfully. "They're eccentric!"

Bucky did a double take, huffed, then tackled his knight in umbrage, much to the delight of the pages, who cheered them on, thinking it was a wrestling demonstration.

"Phillip wouldn't want you to soil your clothing, sire!"

*

"It's very remote from town, isn't it?"

"Hm?"

"Their castle," Sarah prodded. "Have you heard anything I've said, son?" Her expression was skeptical. Steven blushed.

"Apologies, Mother."

"Don't look so fretful, sweetheart," Sarah urged. "We'll get to the bottom of this."

"There's nothing to get to the bottom of, Mother. Can we please... just let this be a friendly visit? I just want you to meet Bucky."

"Ridiculous name," she muttered, but she smiled. "You're truly that fond of him?"

"He's an amazing man. It was hard to leave him."

"And he's been on your mind since. You've been moping so much that I feel every word I say just vanishes into thin air before they reach your ears."

"I've been listening!" he argued. His pleading tone must have vexed the young child slumbering against him to his left, plastered along his side and drooling on his doublet. She whimpered and fidgeted for a moment until he patted her and rocked her slightly. She smacked her lips and settled back down. Steve leaned down and kissed the top of her head, breathing in the sweet scent of her sable brown hair.

"I would have liked you to find a decent stepmother for Grace," Sarah reminded him.

"How about an excellent stepfather instead?"

"This is very unconventional, dear."

"Peggy was unconventional, too." Sarah sighed and shook her head. "I love you, Mother. I know you want what's best for me, and I've decided that's Bucky."

"Oh, you've decided? Aren't we being a bit hasty?"

"Mother-"

"Your father and I need to know more about this 'Bucky'," she emphasized. "I intend to interview his mother at length." Steve cringed. "I need to see how things are run at their palace, how they oversee their territories and rule their kingdom. Besides," she pointed out sternly, "their hospitality during your last visit left much to be desired."

"By you," he murmured. "I was made welcome, even if the methods were unusual, Mother."

"Your prince made you feel welcome, you mean." It was as much an accusation as an argument.

"He certainly did," he retorted. "He most certainly did." Grace squirmed against him, snaking her little arm around him more tightly in her sleep, like he was a security blanket. "Give him a chance. He's a good man, Mother."

"I want to know if he'll make a good son-in-law, Steven." It felt odd to even voice that sentiment. Sarah wondered how they ever arrived at this quandary.

*

Pepper found herself in a quandary too, as she watched the young prince pace and fret. "Can I fetch you a cup of tea, sire? Or perhaps something slightly stronger?"

"It's too early for anything stronger, blast it all..." He sighed and rubbed his nape. "Do I look all right?"

"Very dashing, sire." She smiled warmly. "Phillip has done his work well." Then she reached for his hand. "One moment..." She peered down at his nails and clucked her tongue. "Perhaps tuck your hands behind your back when you see him, unless you plan to have him take care of-" She was interrupted by a loud knocking at the door. Both of them shared a wide-eyed look of panic.

"No tea," he decided quickly.

"I'll answer that," she assured him. Then she had a thought. "Highness, I know it might not be my place to inquire... have you perhaps spoken to Prince Steven about-"

"Perhaps I'll answer the door, then," Sir Anthony interrupted. "Since everyone else is so thoroughly occupied..." He quirked one dark brow at Pepper, and she stuck out her tongue at his retreating back. "Pardon my temerity, sire."

"Of course."

"Has Prince Steven ever mentioned-"

They both looked up at the sound of the creaking door hinge. Sunlight flooded the front hall, and Pepper thought better of prying, after all. There was a footman dressed in fine gray livery and a smart cap, and he looked like a man who bore the burden of distinguished introduction.

"I'm most proud to announce the arrival of Her Majesty, Queen Sarah and His Majesty, King Joseph, and their assembled members of court." Anthony nodded curtly.

"A moment," he told him before he turned, cupped his hand around his mouth and bellowed, "JARVIS! Front and center!" Pepper winced, and the footman rocked back on his heels, drilling his pinkie in his ear. Within moments, Jarvis, the palace footman, hurried into the front hall, gave Bucky a brief bow, and headed for the door.

"Go receive our guests," Anthony told him curtly. Jarvis flipped him a dirty look before smiling at the other footman and following him out.

There were two smart carriages in the courtyard, white horses hitched to them with silver tassels hanging from their bridles. Bucky's quick glimpse through the doorway showed him the familiar royal seal on the carriage doors, and his stomach flipped.

He decided to forgoe decorum and stepped out into the courtyard himself. "Sire-" Tony began.

"It's fine," he told him. "No sense in lollygagging. Let's bid them welcome properly."

He allowed Jarvis to do his duty, opening the second carriage door while the Rogers' footman handled the first, and Bucky's breath caught when he saw a fair, slender hand reach out for assistance. For a moment, he thought it was Steve's, until the footman helped a petite, stately woman down, offering her the aid of a small, brocade-upholstered step stool. She was roughly Winifred's age, with slightly graying blonde hair braided into a coronet. Steven's blue eyes stared out from her face, creased at the corners with laugh lines, with lashes just as long and dark as his. Bucky noticed, however, the slightly mulish tilt of her lips, and his hands began to sweat. She wore a surprisingly simple blue day gown and white bliaut over it, with the family seal embroidered on it in silver thread. She was clearly a woman to be reckoned with; she terrified him.

She was followed shortly by King Joseph, as tall and portly as his wife was tiny, and Bucky could tell Steve didn't get his robust health, but he did have the same open smile and aura of warmth, and Bucky liked him immediately.

"Greetings, Queen Sarah. King Joseph. I bid you welcome to-"

"Are you the welcoming committee?" Sarah interjected. Bucky was stunned to have been cut off. Her eyes flitted over him, but there was a ghost of a smile pulling at her lips.

"Not... quite."

"Save your salutations for my entire company, then, young man, once we're all accounted for. I know you mean well, but let an old woman get her bearings after a long trip. You've horribly bumpy roads in your territories, of which I'm sure you're aware."

"Save your salutations for my entire company, then, young man, once we're all accounted for. I know you mean well, but let an old woman get her bearings after a long trip. You've horribly bumpy roads in your territories, of which I'm sure you're aware."

"Er..." Bucky stumbled over that one. Of course their roads were bumpy, because hadn't-

"You can understand my concern, since my son's incident that led to his visit here, at your estate," she added with a huff.

- Steve's carriage broken a wheel on one such bumpy road?

"Allow me to apologize for the less than ideal traveling conditions," he attempted, even if it was something he could do nothing about. Dimly, he wondered if he could send Victor and the pages out to clear errant rocks from the roads for the next, oh, hundred or so miles.

"Whyever for? Can you control the sunshine and the rain, young man? Could you predict whether or not we end up beset upon by a band of robbers?" Sarah's rhetoric had Bucky's head spinning.

Joseph took pity on him. "George never mentioned his firstborn could control the sunshine or predict dire events, last time we spoke. He owes me a game of croquet." He reached out and shook Bucky's hand vigorously. Bucky was impressed by his crushing grip.

"Greetings, sire. Welcome to our home. How can we help you enjoy your stay?"

"A little help?" Bucky couldn't suppress his joy and excitement at the sound of the familiar, deep voice calling out from the carriage. His footman was leaning inside the carriage, and Bucky nodded to Joseph and Sarah apologetically, knowing he was about to risk further loss of decorum, but... it was Steve.

It was Steve.

Bucky practically trotted - galloped - to the carriage, where the footman was carefully backing his way out. "I can help him!" he offered quickly.

"You needn't, sire," the footman told him, stifling a grunt as he struggled with something. Bucky couldn't quite see around his broad shoulders through the door frame.

"But-"

"I have her, sire," he told him quickly, trying to keep exasperation out of his tone.

"Wait... her?"

"Introductions might be best made when she wakes up," he explained as he backed his way down, carrying a little girl against his chest. "Princess Grace appreciates her beauty sleep." Her little arms, dimpled elbows and all, were wrapped around his neck, and her rosebud mouth hung open slightly. She was adorable, and Bucky felt his heart squeeze.

"Princess... Grace?"

"Or Goblin, as her mother called her, more often than not," Steve informed him fondly. Bucky was still rapt, watching the footman hand over his precious burden to the queen, whose face melted into a beatific smile. "She takes after her quite a bit. Healthy as a horse, just like she was." Steve's voice was wistful enough to make Bucky turn curious eyes on him. The words "like she was" gave him pause. Steve’s expression was so soft and fond, it left Bucky no question of who sired the lovely child. He faced Bucky now, and his smile turned impish. "Bucky? If you don't mind... could you help me down?"

"Oh, good Lord," Bucky muttered at himself, snapping out of his daze. "Sorry. So sorry, Steve. Just... let me..." He nudged the footstool to the edge of the carriage and reached for Steve, gripping his arms to steady him; if simple courtesy dictated that he only needed to extend him his hand, Bucky could claim that he never did things simply. It was too tempting to touch him and to want him close.

Jarvis proceeded to usher the rest of the royal couple's entourage inside, including their governess, Steven's head physician and the queen's lady-in-waiting. As he urged them inside, Tony touched his arm briefly.

"You're slacking in your duties," he muttered.

"I most certainly am not!"

"Are you sure? I labored under the assumption that the footman isn't supposed to let the prince or any other member of the royal family help their guests out of the carriage." Jarvis looked alarmed, and his eyes flitted in the direction of Tony's pointing hand.

“Oh, dear. Er, Your Highness, please… And your Highness… Sires…”

“They’re staring,” Steve whispered into Bucky’s collar.

“Missed you so much,” Bucky breathed into his hair.

“This really isn't proper,” Steve reminded him as his fingers curled themselves in the back of Bucky’s tunic.

“Don't lecture me about etiquette. And don't let go of me yet.” Bucky’s arms tightened around him and he closed his eyes against the prick of heat that threatened his dignity more than his too-enthusiastic welcome. “There were some things we didn't discuss on your last visit.”

“I’ll answer every question you have. We’ll discuss anything you want.”

“What do youwant?”

"More time with you.” He drew back far enough to stare up into his face. He never wanted to stop. “A second chance.”

“You won't need it. I want you. I want to be with you. I never want to let you go-“

"Prince James!” Tony called out more beseechingly than usual. “Her Highness, your mother, begs an audience with our guests. All of them.”

"Of course, she does. She would,” Bucky muttered.

“She wishes to make her introductions inside the castle.”

“This is going to be a long afternoon,” Steve guessed.

“Give me incentive?” Bucky asked. It was almost a plea, in that tempting voice that recalled silk sheets and lavender-scented pillows at dawn.

Tony tsked, folding his arms over his chest. “Kissing the guests wasn't in your etiquette lessons, Prince… Bucky.” Tony’s voice rose on a plaintive note on his name. Then he sighed gustily. “Oh, blast it all.”

*

 

“I bid you welcome, Sarah. Consider our home yours,” Winifred said smoothly after making a sweeping entrance, garbed in her kingdom’s colors – black, red, and deep, rich red – and wearing a modest gold circlet on her head. “I’ve been anxious for this visit with you-“

“I can't imagine why,” Sarah snapped, cutting her off. Winifred’s smile faltered slightly. “From what my son told me –my only son, I have to clarify – the welcome you extended him was impeccable. Flawless. You have no reason to feel anxious at all. Does she, Joseph?” She gave a lofty chuckle. Winifred returned it and waved away the suggestion.

“She won't bite,” Joseph assured the dark-haired queen easily. He held out his arms as George lumbered into the study. They enjoyed a brisk, back-slapping grapple, much more fervent than decorum dictated.

 

Pepper took that as her cue to break out the brandy.

Chapter Text

If the Barnes palace assumed that Queen Sarah would be their most challenging guest to please, the assumption was premature. Princess Grace, at the mere age of two, sent the entire staff of the palace hopping.

The footman's claim that it wasn't prudent to interrupt her "beauty sleep" hadn't exaggerated. The lulling effects of the carriage ride only lasted as long for the formal introductions to be made, and Grace took that as her cue to let the company around her know that she didn't appreciate being passed into one too many pairs of arms, namely that of her governess. She fidgeted and squirmed, and her little body promptly twisted and flailed as though she was made of jelly. Steve recognized her cranky whimpering and looked anxious.

"Uh-oh," he muttered. "Gracie, dear!" Sleepy blue eyes snapped open, and her pink lips puckered indignantly. "It's all right, sweetheart-" He was cut off by an unladylike wail. Her governess flinched as her little feet kicked her in her efforts to get down. Steve recognized the arch of her body as the beginning of an ordeal, perfectly timed when he was attempting to make a good impression.

"Gracie," he said gently.

"It's all right, sire," the governess offered. "She just needs a moment." She bounced her and tried to walk her about the foyer, and it wasn't much different from wrestling with a wet cat.

"Grace?" Winifred inquired. "She is your daughter?" She looked intrigued and surprised, wondering when she missed that tidbit of information the last time they'd spoken.

"She is, indeed," he explained. "Barrel house voice and all..." His smile was disarming, however, and he relieved his governess of her flailing charge. Winifred watched in amusement as Steven spoke to her, cajoling her in even tones. "Gracie, are you a princess, or are you a little goblin?"

"Not a goblin," she insisted sulkily. Her scowl was determined.

"Are you acting like a goblin?" he inquired.

"NO!"

"Gracie?" His voice took on a doubting lilt. "Do you need time in the naughty girl chair?" He looked pointedly at Winifred, mouthing Do you have one? to back up his claim. She tried to keep a straight face, giving him a little nod.

"I have naughty girls of my own hiding around here somewhere, but that chair might be free..." Sarah raised an eyebrow.

"Don't wanna sit in the naughty chair!" Behind them, George's lips twitched, and he had to turn away, but Bucky saw his father's shoulders shaking slightly and suppressed his own smile. He remembered Becca at around the same age, particularly her sassy pouts and astonishing lungs. His younger sisters, Meredith and Rose, joined the adults in the hall in their girlish attempts at a ladylike walk, but their eyes lit up at the sight of the little girl squirming in Steve's arms.

"I wanna play with her!" Rose insisted, pointing.

"We do not point," Winifred reminded her sternly. "And you haven't been introduced." Gracie rubbed her eyes and stared balefully, but with interest, at the two princesses.

"This is Princess Grace," Bucky offered. "She just woke up from her nap."

"Want a cookie?" Meredith piped up. "Can she?" she asked Steve.

"Dinner will be served in a few minutes," Winifred reminded them. But Grace changed gears and stretched her arms out toward Bucky's younger sisters, wriggling to get down. Before Steve could promise time in the fabled "naughty chair," Meredith approached and held out her arms, and Grace let the momentum carry her into her embrace. She clung to her new friend like a little monkey.

"One cookie might not hurt. What do we say when someone's kind to us, Gracie?" Sarah prodded.

"Thank you," she murmured. She tightened her grip on Meredith, who was struggling under her weight but grinning. Both younger Barnes sisters bobbed a curtsy and darted off, ladylike behavior forgotten in their search for Pepper in the kitchen.

"Would you like to see the rest of the castle?" Bucky offered once the girls scampered off, and the adults had the chance to stare around the room at each other, awkwardness settling over them like a damp cloak.

"Please," Sarah told him imperiously. He offered her his arm, and off they went, entourage in tow. Bucky fought the knot of tension in his gut, feeling her walking stiffly against him and feeling like a chastised child, somehow. Queen Sarah wasn't shy, and she grilled him with endless questions about their estate and staff, their territories, their land's assets and surprisingly, the castle's medical resources.

"Dr. Banner is our house physician. He's quite skilled."

"He is, indeed, Mother," Steve informed her softly. "He has a magic touch with herbs. I felt right as rain after he treated me. I wasn't in the best of shape when I arrived."

"Yes, well. I'm glad this Dr. Banner gave you the reception you deserved." Bucky winced. Steve flushed. "I imagine the circumstances were unusual, and perhaps less ideal, with you arriving in the middle of the night. Especially with your identity in question?" she suggested, but her words were tinged with scorn.

"Mother! That will do," Steve said firmly. Sarah huffed a low "hmmph!" and Bucky ducked his head sheepishly. Thankfully, Pepper came along and announced that supper was ready. They made their way back to the dining room, where Phillip escorted everyone to their place at the table. Pepper and Grace's governess herded the younger girls back into the kitchen - Steve saw the telltale traces of cookie crumbs around Grace's coy, smiling mouth - and he sat beside his father at the table. Bucky took the place across from Steve out of discretion, but he craved the place beside him, where their hands and elbows could occasionally bump. Steve's smile was secretive, blue eyes twinkling, and Bucky risked a smirk.

It was just so nice to have him back, no matter what the outcome of the visit. Becca nudged him from her place on his left. She smirked up at him.

"Someone has a crush," she whispered.

"Brat," he whispered back, but he wouldn't deny it. She sipped from her water glass in an attempt to stifle her broadening smile; it could only be called a grin, now, certainly. Bucky kicked her under the table. She kicked him back, and he would have taken further umbrage, but Winifred hissed at them both to stop. Both of them stared back at her innocently as Phillip made the rounds with the tray of roast pork. He sighed under his breath at their antics, grateful that the families were going to be distracted by the sumptuous meal.

"I trust your journey went more smoothly this time, Steven," Winifred said evenly.

"Pardon?" he inquired. "I'm sorry, Majesty, could you please speak up a bit?"

"We could switch seats if you like," Sarah interrupted. "Perhaps the other side of the table?"

"I'll manage, Mother," he told her placatingly. Sarah turned back to Winifred.

"Steven is deaf in one ear. Sometimes, he doesn't realize how loudly he is speaking."

"But, I'm not ignoring your words," Steve assured Winifred. Winifred colored significantly. He wondered dimly if he sounded like he was shouting... His own mother planted that uncertainty in his head.

"Perhaps... we could have accommodated you more adequately the last time you breakfasted with us, if we had known, dear Steve."

"Perhaps you could have," Sarah agreed smoothly. Both husbands looked uneasy.

"Care for a game of croquet before the sun goes down, Joseph?" George asked as he dug into his pork.

"Love one!" he boomed, grinning. "I'll try not to trounce you too soundly, old friend."

"Don't cheat this time, Father," Becca accused while she tore apart a dinner roll.

"I never cheat!"

"Skill always wins over subterfuge," Joseph promised, eyes twinkling as he raised his glass. George looked slightly indignant, and he shook his finger at him.

"I'll show you skill!"

The conversation was interrupted briefly by the sound of small feet pattering down the corridor and the slightly heavier thuds of Grace's governess as she was led a not-so-merry chase. Steve flushed beet red again and he sighed, easing his chair back from the table.

"Excuse me... Majesties... Mother... Father... let me just... get-" He darted out of the dining room. Sarah facepalmed silently; Joseph chuckled.

"That's our Goblin," he offered cheerfully.

"Takes after her mother," Sarah agreed. "Margaret was certainly that spirited and seldom sat still." Her soft smile lent itself to the assumption that she didn't see that as a problem.

"This little one will be up on a horse and fencing out in the yard soon enough," Joseph told them.

"Goodness," Winifred exclaimed. Sarah shot her a glare. "How... intriguing." She took a different tack. "Does Steven always attend to his daughter like that? I notice you've brought a governess for Grace."

"He's very hands-on," Joseph told her simply. "He does more for himself than most in his position, with his title, unlike we old things. That includes raising his daughter." He cut into his meat with enthusiasm. "Grace is the apple of his eye." On cue, Steve walked past the doorway, Grace bouncing on his hip and the governess in tow as they headed back toward the kitchen. Bucky smiled at the sound of his deep voice humming in soothing tones and the simple, fatherly babble he exchanged with his little girl. He elbowed Becca.

"Can you blame me for how I feel?" he whispered.

"Not at all, Bucky. Not one bit," she whispered back. "He's lovely."

Steve returned to the dining room shortly, his tunic collar slightly askew and the front panels of his doublet slightly wrinkled. But he was pleased and calm, and he nodded his apologies to their hosts.

"She's settled down with her supper," he murmured to Sarah.

"No harm done," George assured him. "Let's feed you up, now."

"Gladly," he agreed. The amount of food on the table was staggering, and he leaned aside slightly to allow Phillip to fill his plate, nodding up at him and murmuring his thanks.

The rest of the supper progressed without further incident, if one ignored the occasional baleful look exchanged between the two queens, whose seemingly polite phrases were tinged with acid.

*

George and Joseph never quite made it out to the croquet court. George insisted on showing his friend his den of hunting trophies and many of the collectibles he'd brought back from voyages abroad, and of course, George decided they needed a spot of brandy to wet their lips, especially after Joseph's "long, dusty journey" from his own kingdom. The Barnes sisters and their tiny houseguest were ensconced in the nursery, playing with dollies and prattling on while the governess sat down to a well-deserved meal in relative peace, compliments of Pepper.

Bucky furtively invited Steve to see the palace stables and grounds, something they'd missed out on during Steve's last stay.

"You're sure it's wise to leave them alone?"

"Who? Your little girl and my sisters?"

"No, of course not. Our mothers." Bucky sighed, shoulders sagging. But he took Steve's hand, lacing their fingers together, needing that point of contact.

"How much trouble can they get into? Surely they're capable of a civil conversation," Bucky reasoned.

"My mother can be a gracious woman," Steve warned, "but my arrival home put a bee in her bonnet."

"The mattresses?" Bucky guessed.

"The mattresses," Steve echoed, "and what they signify."

"And what would that be?"

"Whether or not I'm worthy to be with you," Steve told him softly. They paused when they reached the stables, nodding to the staff who were cleaning out stalls and brushing manes.

"Oh, Steve... no. It's not... you're wonderful-"

"We discussed this last time. I know your parents want the best for you, and that your mother has devoted a lot of effort to finding you the perfect bride. Not a questionable groom."

"Questionable, my foot." Bucky shook his head and sighed in exasperation. He squeezed Steve's hand more tightly. "It's effort better spent accepting that I want no such thing."

"What do you want, Bucky?"

"You don't even have to ask."

"I'd still like to hear the answer."

"I'd much rather show you, Steve." Bucky gave him a heated look. Steve's heart knocked in his chest.

*

Winifred steeled herself for the inevitable interview that she'd spent two days dreading and fretting over. She smoothed her hands over her voluminous skirts and spoke to Queen Sarah.

"Would you care to join me in the study for tea?"

"If it's not too much trouble," Sarah told her sweetly.

"What kind do you prefer?"

"What kinds do you have?"

"Every tea leaf imaginable."

"Oolong will suffice, my dear." She rose, and her two ladies in waiting followed suit, hovering nervously around their imperious mistress. "Please, lead the way." Winifred was relieved that the men chose to reacquaint themselves on the croquet court instead of in the study.

Phillip had just finished lighting a fire as they arrived. "Would you care for anything else, your Majesty? Majesty?" He nodded to each woman, already shrinking slightly from Sarah's stony gaze and Winifred's grim look.

"Please ring for Pepper to bring tea. Oolong and crumpets."

"My pleasure, Majesty." He bowed and backed out of the room, glad to escape. The ladies in waiting looked as though they envied him that luxury. Sarah sat in the velvet armchair by the fire; Winifred chose the brocade chaise, even though she sat bolt upright on the edge of it.

"My son told me some interesting highlights about his last stay here. I was wondering if you could enlighten me a bit about his accommodations."

"He stayed with us in our guest suite," Winifred told her. "We received him late at night, in the middle of a storm."

"Yes, he mentioned that. I received a letter from a... Virginia Potts?"

"Pepper? Er... yes. She's my housekeeper and cook."

"I thought it was highly unusual to receive the letter from one of your staff. She begged my pardon for the less than ideal circumstances, assured me of Steven's safety, and said that her Majesty the Queen wished to... how did she put it, it was so quaint the way she worded it ... verify my son's identity."

"That's... accurate," Winifred allowed. Her palms began to sweat.

"So you admit you questioned his lineage and status."

Winifred huffed. "Surely you see my reasons, Sarah."

"Perhaps you should enlighten me." Sarah leaned forward in her chair. "We have plenty of time."

"When your son arrived at our home, he caught us in the middle of the bridal season. My son must choose a wife and fulfill his obligations as prince. You can see he is my only son."

"He must choose?" Sarah countered. "Is he capable of making such a choice himself?" Winifred's mouth gaped; she closed it, then it dropped open again, her jaw working furiously.

"Of course he is capable! I merely want him to make the best choice, both for himself and for the future of the crown!" Pepper chose that time to enter the study with the tea tray, and she poured for them both, silently offering a tong full of sugar to Sarah. She nodded, and Pepper dropped a large wafer of sugar into her cup; Winifred shook her head no. Pepper backed her way out of the room, as relieved to leave as Phillip was.

"What do you feel is best for the crown, then? A bride of his mother's choosing, regardless of his preference?"

"His preference? You presume to know my son's preferences so soon after meeting him?" Winifred's smile was brittle.

"Clearly, he has a preference for my son. I presume nothing." Winifred nearly choked on her sip of tea. She managed to set the cup on its saucer without breaking it. "Surely you've noticed?"

"James... my son has certainly noticed Steven. He seemed impressed by him, I will admit." Sarah gave her a cool smile.

"That display of theirs at the front gate would indicate that."

“Display?” Winifred’s voice had a sharp edge. “What… display?”

“James’ greeting to Steven when he helped him from the carriage. He was very… eager.” Sarah sipped her tea, eyeing Winifred over the edge of her cup. “More eager than you would expect, from two people who have been apart for less than a week.” Sarah wouldn’t let on that Steven looked happier than she had seen him since she lost her daughter-in-law, with the sparkle returned to his eyes and the glow in his cheeks.

“James is very enthusiastic, sometimes more than decorum allows,” Winifred said. She sighed. “Grace is legitimate? Steven has been married before?”

“Yes, clever woman. He has. Margaret passed away following an injury that grew infected. She was helping to train the pages in the courtyard, and she suffered a cut on her hand from a sword that hadn’t been properly cleaned.”

“Training the pages?” Winifred was aghast. “How unusual.”

“Margaret was unique. Her parents were unconventional, yet she was still a lady of upright character. She adored Steven.” Sarah sighed. “We didn’t run a constant stream of eligible women through our castle to find him a wife.”

“That might be exaggerating things. Yet you are correct, madam. Many potential brides threw in their bid to become the next queen. Few of them had the lineage they claimed. Some of them were frightful.” Winifred shuddered. Sarah suppressed a smile.

“Our Peggy – Margaret – was everything she said she was. She attended court regularly, but she had little patience for it. She had that in common with Steven. He tends to be humble.”

“Yes. Yes, he does.” Winifred risked another sip of her tea, but her mind raced. Sarah eyed her levelly.

“Now that you have verified my son’s identity, what are your intentions?”

“My… intentions?”

“Will you still search for a bride for James? If that is your goal, Winifred, then I fear we are finished here.” Winifred set her cup down.

“I have the feeling you were finished here before we even began, Sarah.”

“Why did you subject my son to such an outlandish sleeping arrangement? He slept on a pile of mattresses high enough to need a ladder. Preposterous!” Winifred’s nostrils flared, and her sigh was gusty.

“I needed to know that he would be honest with me. Instead, he erred on the side of graciousness. Your son is endlessly polite, but Sarah, I crave honesty in all who solicit my son’s affections. Surely, you can see why.”

“Honesty?” Sarah shook her head. “Your explanation grows more puzzling by the minute.”

“Beneath the mattresses, there was a small irritant. A pea.”

“A…pea, you said?”

“Indeed. A small, garden pea. Uncooked, so that it was still hard as a pebble.” Sarah’s expression mingled anger with confusion. “I wanted to know if he would tell me about it in the morning, provided that he would feel it through all those featherbeds.”

“Madam… surely you are insane.” Winifred shrugged.

“George’s mother subjected me to the same test before we were betrothed.” Sarah’s brows flew up to her hairline.

“Of all the traditions that you could continue, that one is certainly the strangest, Winifred.”

“It worked. She found me rude, but she trusted me.”

“Her opinion may have been justified.”

“George and I have been happily married for thirty years. We have three beautiful children. All I suffered was one sleepless night.” Winifred contemplated the crumpets and reached for one, splitting it apart before she reached for the jam spoon. “You didn’t come here only to question my hospitality. Certainly, this meeting has a different purpose for you.”

Sarah sighed. “Indeed, Winifred.”

“Would you care to share it with me?”

“Steven is smitten with James. I wanted to meet my prospective son-in-law.” Sarah refreshed her cup of tea. “And his mother.”

They spent the next hour discussing the Barnes’ kingdom’s rule over their territories and their alliances with neighboring lands, their management of their resources, and Bucky’s prospects. Bucky was evidently popular at court; Sarah admitted that she feared him to be a rake, but Winifred corrected her quickly.

“Bucky is impulsive, but my son is still a gentleman, one of fine character. I won’t have him slandered by your assumptions. This will be his first marriage-“

“Will it?” The sharp edge returned to Sarah’s voice. “You would consider it? A marriage between our sons?”

“Not a traditional one.” Winifred’s defenses slipped for a moment. She realized she’d been neatly trapped. “If my James marries your son, he won’t have an heir.” She looked at Sarah pointedly. “You have a grandchild.”

“A granddaughter,” Sarah agreed. “Who very may well have a gaggle of sons one day to inherit the crown. Winifred, my son is a widower. He was already wed to the perfect woman for him. He sees her every time he looks at Grace. She is his world. I would like to one day have more grandchildren, but Steven hasn’t rushed to find a second wife. And I won’t press him when his heart already appears to be taken.”

From the corridor, they heard the scurry of tiny feet and raucous giggles. Sarah’s lips twisted in amusement.

“Goblin?” she called out. She footsteps changed direction, and the door, slightly ajar, swung open with a push from small, chubby hands. Grace gave her grandmother a mischievous smile.

“Nana!” she cried out as she ran toward her.

“Who’s a naughty goblin? Is it you?” Sarah reached for her, and Gracie shrieked with giggles as her grandmother tickled her judiciously.

Winifred watched with envy and longing. Grace smiled as she noticed she held the other woman’s attention.

Her eyes were a lovely, light blue. Her hair was sable brown, almost the same shade as Bucky’s, and she had an adorable cleft in her tiny chin.

“I’m the goblin!” Grace conceded. Sarah peppered her little cheek with kisses, and she released her when her governess showed up in the doorway, looking rattled. She beckoned to Grace, who returned to her, only to twist around in her arms and wave to her grandmother and hostess. “Come play, Nana!”

“Soon, sweet,” she called after her. Her governess ducked out and closed the door. Sarah caught Winifred’s wistful look.

“If Bucky and Steven marry, Winifred, that would make Grace your granddaughter as well.”

Winifred contemplated this as she bit into her crumpet.

*

The sun had gone down, painting the sky in lush purple and crimson streaks. George and Joseph had retired inside for a goblet of brandy. The stable hands finished grooming the horses and cleaning the stalls and went back inside the castle.

Bucky and Steve hadn’t made their way back inside. The warm evening beckoned to them, and they lingered outside, away from prying eyes and ears. With Steve pressed back against the outer wall of the stable, Bucky continued to show Steve what he wanted, all semblance of decorum forgotten.

“Missed you,” Bucky rasped into Steve’s throat.

“It was only four days,” Steve told him, chuckling, then moaning with need when Bucky lapped a hot path over his flesh. Steve’s fingers clutched Bucky’s thick hair as he held him there, giving him full consent.

“Even that was too long, Steve.” His cheek tipped itself into Bucky’s warm palm, and he nipped at the pad of his thumb, grazing it with the edges of his teeth. Bucky shivered, eyes dark with passion. He leaned in and claimed Steve’s mouth, thoroughly tasting him, thrilled with the desperate sounds he made. Bucky hemmed him in against the barn’s outer wall, where Steve clung to him, slender body pressed flush against his. Bucky’s knee nudged his thighs apart, and Steve’s hips ground against it, practically riding it, craving more contact. His hardened flesh throbbed, twitching to life and seeking Bucky’s heat. “Any time I spend away from you is too long…”

“I missed you, too,” Steve breathed, letting his lips graze Bucky’s earlobe before sucking it inside his hot mouth. “I dreamt of you.”

“At least you slept. My bed felt too empty after you left.” Bucky’s hands roamed over Steve, fingers flying over buttons and cuffs as he divested him of his doublet and shirt. Steve made an undignified noise when those hands caressed him, when Bucky resumed his attentions to Steve’s throat.

“They’ll wonder where we are.”

“We can sneak up to my room.”

“You’re a prince. Princes don’t ‘sneak.’”

“I need you. I need to have you to myself.” His eyes were lust-glazed, raking over Steve with hunger, and the same intensity was written across Steve’s face.

“You have me, Bucky.” Steve’s shirt slid down his arms, and Bucky painted every inch of his body that he uncovered with his mouth, enjoying every desperate, squirming moan that clawed its way out of Steve’s throat. Steve wanted to regret that his doublet and shirt were getting slightly trampled – Phillip would be appalled when he took care of their guests’ laundry, certainly- but Bucky was worshipping his flesh, hands working him out of his trousers, and Steve couldn’t worry any further about his clothing. Bucky slowly slid to his knees.

“You’ll ruin your trousers,” Steve scolded breathlessly.

“I don’t care.” Steve’s were sliding down his thighs, and he felt a draft of cool air envelop his stiff, heated flesh. His cock bobbed free and jutted forward when Bucky freed him from his breeches. “Look at you…”

“Bucky…” Steve felt self-conscious, so exposed out in the open, but Bucky was staring at him reverently.

“No, look at you.” Bucky’s hands traced the outline of his ribs and he breathed hotly over Steve’s cock, now straining toward the source of heat. “Steve…” Bucky’s eyes shuttered slowly and he groaned in pleasure as his mouth engulfed Steve, enveloping the purpling, gleam head of his cock The vibrations of his voice rolled up and down Steve’s spine, and his hands roamed over him, measuring him, exploring him so tenderly, from his ruched nipples to the dents of his hips, fingers combing through the thatch of sandy hair nestling his cock. Steve’s head tipped back against the barn wall as he lost himself in Bucky’s touch. His mouth was like molten satin, tongue lapping at him, pulling cries from him that he couldn’t stifle. All he knew was Bucky loving him with every swallow, making his legs tremble.

“Bucky…Bucky…” So desperate. So aroused. All for Bucky, who was sighing over how Steve tasted, at the almost frantic tugs of Steve’s hands on his hair. Steve’s hips wantonly pressed him further into Bucky’s heat, and one slim leg hooked itself over Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky’s fingers traced the vulnerable, exposed skin of Steve’s glute, grazing over the silky cleft. Steve was leaking, trickling his salty essence into Bucky’s mouth, and he moaned at Steve’s response to him. Bucky was a generous lover, and Steve deserved so much to be loved. Bucky bobbed his head in smooth, quick shunts, and Steve was so close to tipping over the edge. Steve arched and jerked into his mouth while Bucky delicately caressed him, dancing over his opening.

“Please,” Steve begged. “Oh, please, Bucky.”

Bucky peered up at him, mouth still wrapped around his cock, blue-gray eyes smoldering for him, and he reached up and traced Steve’s mouth with his fingers. Steve took his cue and sucked them inside, slicking them with his spit. Bucky moaned at the sensations Steve’s mouth pulled from his own loins. He pulled his hand free reluctantly and let it drift back to Steve’s vulnerable cleft. He snaked a finger inside, probing his snug sheath. “Bucky,” Steve moaned. There was nothing else but Bucky in Steve’s realm of awareness. His mouth, and the slow slide of his finger, then fingers as they skillfully stretched him. Bucky’s fingertips grazed the tender spot inside him that made him see stars. He was arching and keening, pleading with Bucky.

“I can’t… can’t stop it… oh, Bucky! BUCKY!” He stiffened and jerked, spilling his seed in long, salty gouts down Bucky’s throat. He kept swallowing him down with rough humming sounds, fingers lingering inside him, massaging the last of his climax out of him. Steve was gasping and shuddering, and his leg slipped loose from Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky let his length pop loose from his mouth, but then gave it one last, adoring suck to clean him off. Steve’s body spasmed, and his face was completely love-drunk and debauched.

“If you want to do this again, Bucky, you need to marry me,” Steve told him.” Steve’s legs were still trembling. Bucky reached down for Steve’s breeches and helped him step back into them, but he was as unsteady as a newborn colt.

“There’s no question of my intentions, Steve.” He slid the breeches up and helped him retie them with fumbling fingers. He stood and gathered him close, stealing lazy, consuming kisses from him.

“Tell me again.”

“I want you. I never want to let you go, Steve.”

“If we can sneak back into your room, you can show me again, Bucky.”

“No. No sneaking. We’ll walk right in through that door and put any doubts to rest about our intentions.” Steve looked hopeful. “And you won’t be staying in the green suite tonight.”

That went without saying.

Chapter Text

Following Bucky’s decision, both princes walked directly into the house through the kitchen – neither of them wanted to rouse the guards if they entered through the front door – hand in hand, looking satisfied and glowing. Bucky’s hair was hopelessly tousled, tendrils escaping in every direction, and Steve’s clothing was thoroughly rumpled. The buttons of his shirt were done up hastily and wrong, pushed into the wrong holes, and his face gleamed with sweat, completely flushed.

Pepper looked up from a pot of tea that she was brewing in the kitchen. “Did you enjoy your tour, Highness?” she asked politely. Amusement danced in her blue eyes, however, at their disheveled state. Steve grinned, unabashed.

“Very much. I’m enjoying my stay, Miss Potts. And it’s wonderful to see you again.”

“You’re too kind, and it’s wonderful to see you, too. Prince Steve, would you care for some chamomile?”

“Could we have a pot brought up to my suite?” Bucky asked.

“Certainly, sire.” It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if Steve wanted anything brought to the guest suite; Winifred arranged for him to have the red suite this time, slightly smaller but beautifully furnished. The adjoining suite, separated by a door, was occupied by Sarah and Joseph. Pepper wisely let the suggestion die unspoken. “Phillip was looking for you. He wondered if you cared for a bath before you retire.” Bucky’s eyes lit up, and his fingers tightened around Steve’s.

“Please ask him to bring one up.”

“Very good, sire.” Pepper watched them leave the kitchen, and her lips curled into a little smirk. There was little question of how they occupied themselves while their parents discussed their futures.

They entered the corridor and began to climb the stairs to Bucky’s suite, but Tony’s voice stopped them.

“Your Highnesses. Forgive my temerity-“

“Every time,” Bucky deadpanned. “But, go on.”

“Erm… I was keeping my watch from the east tower, sire… there’s a remarkably clear view of the stables from there. I diverted His Majesty and His Majesty from taking a tour of them earlier this evening. I thought it… wise.” Tony kept a straight face, but his eyes flitted over the blades of grass flecking Steve’s doublet and the wrinkled state of his trousers.

“Has Father retired?” Bucky asked him, blushing furiously. Steve was red as a raspberry beside him.

“Both of your parents are in their suite, sire.”

“Your diligence and… foresight… are appreciated, Sir Anthony.” Tony gave them a brief nod, bowed slightly and watched them leave. At first.

“Sire? Phillip might have something for those… grass stains.” Steve made a face, pinching the bridge of his nose as they took the stairs.

“Stop. Laughing. Bucky.”

“It’s your face. It’s priceless.” Bucky’s own expression was comical, too, if Steve had to be honest.

“You’re horrible.”

“But, you love me.”

“I do, you wretch.”

They made it into the suite, and Steve opened his mouth to gently scold Bucky for the awkwardness with his captain of the guard due to his beloved’s impulsiveness, but Bucky pulled him into his embrace and kissed him with renewed longing. Steve made a helpless noise in his throat, and without breaking their contact, he soundly kicked the door shut behind them, letting Bucky back him up against it.

“Want you,” Steve rasped between kisses. The ardor between them hadn’t cooled since they left the stables, and the quiet chamber and the promise of solitude was too tempting, the large, comfortable four-poster bed calling to them to cradle their flesh-

“Er… pardon the intrusion, sires,” Phillip offered, interrupting them just as Bucky’s hand was prying open Steve’s buttons again. Steve’s low mewl broke off, changing to a yelp of embarrassment. Both princes sprang apart, looking guilty and flushed. Phillip gave them an awkward but tidy little smile.

“I brought up the bath.”

“I wasn’t aware that you already had, Phillip. Erm… thank you.”

“It’s… most appreciated, Mr. Coulson,” Steve added before he stared down at the floor, slightly out of breath and rubbing his nape.

Phillip cleared his throat. “It’s my pleasure to serve you both. I hope you enjoy your stay with us this time, Prince Steven. You’re a most welcome guest.”

“Phillip?” Bucky asked. “It’s rather… soon, but depending on how the situation with Mother and Queen Sarah is progressing, well, if all goes well-“

“Prince Steven may become more permanent than a guest?” Phillip surmised. His hazel eyes were kind, crinkling at the corners.

“That’s what I’m hoping,” Bucky admitted as he took Steve’s hand, drawing the blond prince close. His thumb stroked Steve’s knuckles comfortingly, and he felt his tension relax by small increments with the contact. It helped that Steve was already fond of Phillip and that of all of his staff, Bucky’s groom wouldn’t judge him or what lay between him and Bucky.

“There’s lavender. I thought that might be relaxing after your journey today, Prince Steven. I’ve taken the liberty of laying out bedclothes.” He gestured to the ones that were draped over the trunk at the foot of the bed, two pristine white nightgowns, one that came from Steve’s own trunk. His slippers were resting beside Bucky’s next to the armoire, and there was a sachet of lavender resting over the pillow on the bed.

“Phillip? Could you please ask Pepper, that, er, we might like to delay the chamomile tea that she was going to send up for a while? That we’ll ring for it when we want it?”

“Of course, Majesty.” Phillip offered him a little bow. He’d backed up toward the door, when Steve had a thought.

“Mr. Coulson? One last thing: Could you let my parents know that I’ve retired for the night, and that I would like Gracie to stay with her governess tonight?”

“Not to worry, sire. Miss Grace is ensconced in the princesses’ suite this evening, and she announced that is where she plans to stay.”

Steve looked relieved. “Goblin sometimes makes nighttime treks to stay with me when she gets frightened,” Steve explained to Bucky.

“I’ve had my sisters do the same thing, and occasionally woken up with a little fist or foot in my mouth,” Bucky told him comfortingly. Steve chuckled. “I wouldn’t lock her out, Steve.”

“Will that do, sires?” Phillip asked, just to be certain.

“Indeed, Phillip.” Bucky looked pleased, but he was squeezing Steve’s fingers impatiently, looking like he would give Phillip the bum’s rush any second if he couldn’t have time alone with his bridegroom. “Good night.”

“Good night, sires.” Phillip backed out and gently clicked the door shut behind him.

“Finally!” Bucky’s eyes were dark with desire, but Steve held up a hand to delay him.

“Locks,” he reminded him. Steve locked the door with the tiny key, setting it on the side table, and before he could even ask “Where were we?” Bucky set himself upon him hungrily, hands tired of the clothing that separated them. They made their way toward the bathing chamber, dropping a trail of clothes as they want. Steve didn’t mourn his grass-stained shirt as Bucky peeled it off of him and dropped it onto the floor. His flesh was feverishly hot beneath Steve’s hands as he bared him, just as anxious to see and touch him without any barriers, and he felt his breath catch at the sight of him, tunic gone as Steve’s fingers deftly worked him out of his pants.

“My God, Bucky, you’re stunning.”

Bucky shook his head. “No. You. You take my breath away, Steve.” Steve dipped his fingers into Bucky’s waistband, giving his trousers a rough tug and letting them drop around Bucky’s ankles. Steve threaded his fingers through Bucky’s hair at his nape and brought him down for a consuming kiss, cupping his hardness through his soft breeches. Bucky moaned beneath his firm touch, wrapping his arms around him, letting Steve take from him to quell the ache of need.

They both eased into the tub, a snug fit, certainly, but the water was deliciously hot, scented with sprigs of lavender and white rose petals, and Steve straddled Bucky’s legs, enjoying the vantage point of being able to lean over him and kiss him senseless. His hands cupped Bucky’s face and he rested atop Bucky’s muscular thighs, letting the dark-haired prince caress him with languorous strokes of the washcloth. They remained like that for stretching minutes, just making up for lost time and washing away the cares of the day, as well as the dirt from the stable wall… Bucky couldn’t let Steve go to bed dirty, could he?

Certainly not.

And if he lingered at Steve’s throat, tracing it with his mouth, lapping spirals over his pulse, sucking his earlobe between his teeth to make him squirm on his lap, that didn’t make his ablutions any less effective, did it? Steve didn’t mind, if his moans and whispered curses were any indication, and he was enjoying Bucky’s hospitality thus far. His blunt, well-buffed fingernails gently scored Bucky’s shoulders and back, making him growl into Steve’s flesh. Steve ground himself down against Bucky under the water, making it ripple and splash up slightly from the tub. Bucky reached between them and grasped Steve’s cock, feeling it pulse and throb, and he pumped it, gathering it up against his. Steve thrust himself further into Bucky’s grip, face slack with pleasure. Bucky kissed his way down his neck, over the delicate collarbones, then trailed down Steve’s narrow, taut chest. When he found Steve’s vulnerable pink nipple, he latched onto it and suckled it, making Steve writhe and arch against him. He thrust down against him harder, urging Bucky to continue, to push him further. He was turgid and stiff with want, and when Steve thought it couldn’t get any better, with Bucky toying with his tender nipples, moving from one to the other, Steve felt him probing him again under the water, testing the tender, firm ring of muscle between his cheeks. Steve’s hand bumped against Bucky’s as he groped their cocks, continuing to thrust against him while Bucky snaked a finger inside him. The heat of the water made it easier, soothing the sting of the intrusion as Bucky began to work him open.

“God, Steve. You’re so soft… so tight… can’t wait to feel you around me…”

“Bucky… oh, God, Bucky… Bucky…” His name was all Steve had the sense to say. He was wrapped up in Bucky completely, possessed by his touch and voice and the wicked things he was doing to him to claim him again. His finger massaged him skillfully, then more deeply, twisting strokes that made him gasp and moan as he rutted and thrust against Bucky. He smelled Bucky’s hair and skin, dewy and rosy from the heat of the water; dark tendrils grew plastered to Bucky’s brow from the steam. Steve’s fingers shook as he stroked those locks back and he kissed him so possessively that Bucky whimpered into his mouth. His hips ground down more roughly against Bucky, friction building between them as they buffeted each other, and Steve lost all semblance of reason when Bucky snaked a second finger into him.

Bucky was getting so close, needing to be inside his love, and he was in danger of reaching his peak too soon. He wanted to draw it out, truly watch Steve come apart around him, make him as shaken and drunk with it as Bucky felt. Sooner than Bucky would have liked, he pushed a third finger inside of him, but Steve didn’t protest. If anything, he keened and whimpered for more. He snapped his head forward, breaking the kiss to latch onto Bucky’s neck, biting him against the pain and pleasure of being stretched and invaded. The pain of the bite scorched along Bucky’s nerves, so sudden and unexpected, but he felt Steve lightly suckle the wound, laving it with his tongue to soothe it. It helped him focus past the haze of arousal to realize that he wanted to take Steve on the bed.

“I’ll hate myself for this, but we need to get out,” Bucky rasped. “Please. You’ll thank me in a minute.”

“You better have an excellent reason for ending this lovely bath that Phillip laid out for us,” Steve warned him, voice husky as he nipped at Bucky’s jaw. Bucky kissed him in apology.

“I’ll warm you up again. I promise you, Steve, but I need to take you.” He flexed his fingers inside of Steve, and Steve shuddered against him. Steve’s hand gripping their cocks flush was too sweet to stop, but Bucky had waited far too long for this, captive of the dreams that plagued him at night since Steve had left in his carriage with its repaired wheel. Bucky worked his sweet spot when he found it, and oh, did Steve sing out for him, ragged cries filling Bucky’s ears. “Please, Steve. Bed. Now.”

“Yes! Damn you, yes, Bucky!” Steve yelped at the feeling of Bucky removing his hand abruptly, feeling his muscles twitch with the loss, but Bucky quickly rose and lifted Steve in one smooth motion, then wrapped his slender legs around his waist.

“Light as a feather,” Bucky murmured, pleased with how easily he fit against him.

“Do shut up about that,” Steve muttered, and he lightly bit Bucky’s lower lip in punishment as Bucky carried him over to the bed, scooping up a towel on the way. He almost dumped him down to the bed, needing to see him sprawled and begging for him. His gaze swept over his body. Mine.He’s mine. The thought lit up his brain, burning like a flame, and Bucky quickly swabbed Steve down with the towel to keep him from getting a chill. Steve flinched at the roughness of the cloth moving over his sensitized, bare skin, but he lay back on the bed, writhing, cock a deep shade of rose, erect, and leaking at its tip.

“Want you. God, how I want you.” Bucky chucked the towel aside and covered Steve’s body with his, and they groped and caressed and kissed, a rolling tangle of limbs across the mattress. Bucky reached down to tease him again, testing him. He was looser, his walls practically sucking at Bucky’s fingers. Steve was on his back, rolled slightly toward Bucky with his legs sagging open while Bucky scissored and curled his fingers inside him again. “I need oil. Just something to ease the way…”

“In my trunk,” Steve told him weakly, desperately. “A small brown bottle. It feels nice, Bucky, but hurry!” Bucky once again extracted his hand, and Steve cried out in complaint, needing to be filled.

“Nice?” Bucky’s voice was dark and held a challenge. He rummaged in the trunk and found the bottle in question, tightly corked and wafting up the scent of mint and eucalyptus when he opened it. Bucky poured out a few precious drops and slicked himself, gasping at the sensation of his own grip and the warm oil. “Tingles,” he muttered.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Steve teased, smirking up at him. “Don’t forget me.”

“I couldn’t… how could I, when you’re ready for me, so soft…” Bucky knelt between his open thighs and poured more of the oil over his fingers before dipping them inside Steve’s flaring hole, rosy from Bucky’s play. Steve bucked up into it, gripping the sheets beneath him, so ready, and Bucky was in love with him already… Steve’s eyes fluttered shut and his head tipped back as Bucky lined himself up with him, cock teasing his hole, pushing up against it so insistently. His skin was silky and slick and hot, and Bucky kept two fingers pressed into Steve, pulling him open as he pushed himself inside.

BUCKY.” Steve’s eyes snapped open wide and he released a shuddering breath. And another as Bucky rolled his eyes in one exquisite thrust. And another. Another, as he gripped Steve’s narrow, hard little hips.

“Steve… Stevie…” Steve’s walls swallowed him up, practically sucking him inside, and they squeezed him, making him welcome. “Relax, please…”

“No. Please. Move, Bucky.”

“Steve…”

Move.

And Bucky moved. Steve felt perfect wrapped around him, pulsing and squeezing and pulling cries and curses from Bucky’s lips. Steve felt stretched and full, feeling the burn ebbing away to slick, throbbing pleasure. His body thrummed with each thrust as Bucky’s pelvis snapped sharply, gradually quickening, and he tilted Steve’s hips up a few degrees, changing the angle, and Steve lost his head. He kept gripping the covers, and Bucky feared he would tear them, but oh, Steve… he was so beautiful, so lost in their lovemaking and taking Bucky so well. He wanted to make it last, but his own climax was building, and then Steve had to touch him, gripping Bucky’s shoulders and holding on for all he was worth. Steve thrust up at him, matching his strokes, thighs clamped around him like a vise. Steve’s eyes drifted over Bucky, taking in the long, mussed hair and sweat-slicked skin.

They would need another bath…

Bucky’s features were strained and tight, hips pounding into his love, hitting that sensitive little bundle of nerves inside of him unerringly and pushing Steve over the precipice. The climax, when it hit him, worked its way up his spine and tingled over his flesh, nipples ruching, toes curling, pushing cries up from Bucky’s throat. He pounded faster, with no semblance of control anymore as it surged up and poured from him, and his hand covered Steve’s when he reached down to grip his own cock and pump in concert with Bucky’s thrusts. Steve was shuddering, raw and coiled tight around Bucky, and he sang out long and loud, pulsing around Bucky as he came, drenching both of them in his release. Long, sticky streams of his seed spattered over Bucky’s firm abdomen while Bucky’s face contorted with his pleasure, and it was the most beautiful thing Steve had ever seen. His grip on Steve’s hips was almost punishing as he finished, wanting to hold him as close as he could keep him, and it was. So. Damn. Good. He filled Steve with his hot, thick seed, hips jerking their past few pumps as they wrung him out.

Limp. So limp. Bucky folded and collapsed against Steve, panting into his neck. He winced for a moment when Steve’s arm flopped around him, then relaxed again when his fingers stroked through his sweaty hair.

“Love,” Steve panted, “you. Bucky.”

“Mine. You’re. Mine. Now.” Bucky licked his dry lips and swallowed, trying to catch his breath and regain his senses, but he was so drunk on Steve, dazed with passion for him. He loved him completely.

“Husband,” Steve rasped. “Want you. Want you to be… my husband, Bucky.”

“Never anything less, Steve.” He lined Steve’s throat and jaw with kisses, breathless and soft. “I love you, too.”

They sprawled together, wrapped tight in each other’s arms, listening to each other’s drumming heartbeats. They gradually made their way under the covers, limbs tangled, souls connected as they held each other.

They woke up shortly before dawn and made love again, slowly, sweetly, well-rested and comfortable from a night in a proper bed. Bucky’s thought before he entered Steve again was that his husband’s night in the green room atop the stack of mattresses and the nuisance posed by the pea would become their favorite story to tell their children at bedtime…

*

Once Steve was sleeping soundly again – snoring unchecked, Bucky grinned to himself – Bucky crept out of bed and unlocked their chamber door. He pulled on his nightgown belatedly and debated slipping Steve into his. It would be such a shame to disturb him. His heart melted at the sight of him, tucked in and warm, tousled blond hair staticky and clinging to the pillows. He went downstairs and found Phillip already up, preparing for the day.

“Phillip? Did Mother or Father say anything before they retired?”

“Just that they had an announcement they wished to make at breakfast.” Bucky’s face was anxious, and he knotted his hands together.

“Did they seem… all right?”

“Right as rain,” Phillip assured him. “You look like you could use a bit more sleep, sire.”

“I’m rested enough, I-“

“Go back to bed,” Phillip chided him. “Please, sire. Return to your guest. Don’t let him get lonely without you.”

“Mother will notice that I didn’t sleep in my own bed.”

“Not if she wakes up late enough. She and Queen Sarah were up late. Pepper brought them chamomile, but they were chatting for quite a while. I had to stoke up the fire again.” Bucky’s shoulders relaxed slightly. “Sire. Go back to bed.”

Bucky didn’t need to be told twice. He’d considered returning to his own chamber, in the interest of propriety.

Propriety be damned. Steve was in the red room, tucked in and smelling sweetly of sleep and lavender, and Bucky needed him in his arms.

“Good morning, Phillip,” he told him before he dashed up the steps in his bare feet. Phillip chuckled behind him and went to go polish the silver for the breakfast table.

*

Phillip refilled their bath and helped both princes get ready for the day, and Steve agreed quietly with Bucky that he had the most pleasant manservant he’d ever met. Steve caught up with Gracie in the princesses’ chamber, where she was gleefully jumping on the bed and stirring everyone up, giving her governess fits. Steve kissed her soundly and urged her to get ready for breakfast, giving her morning tickles and hugs, and Bucky’s heart melted to see him so loving with his child.

They took the girls out into the garden briefly while they waited for their parents to stir and rise, and Bucky was surprised that his mother wasn’t up quite yet.

“She’s usually taking her first cup of tea by now. I hope she’s feeling well?” Bucky wondered.

“Mother tends to be an early riser, too,” Steve mused as the two of them hoisted Grace up by her hands, swinging her through the air. She was giggling and crowing, while Bucky’s sisters waited for their turns, too. “Miss Potts,” Steve called out as he saw Pepper removing the long tablecloths from the wash line and laying them in her basket, “have our mothers awakened yet?”

“I heard your mother stirring from behind closed doors,” Pepper told him cheerfully. “Perhaps she needs a slower start today. It’s hard sometimes when you sleep away from your own home, certainly, in a strange bed, Your Highness.”

“True,” he allowed thoughtfully, but Steve still wore a slightly troubled look.

“Will she be fine, Steve? Do you want to check on her?” Bucky asked, concerned by his love’s expression. He squeezed his shoulder and kissed his cheek. Gracie hopped up and down, crying “Up! UP!” and trying to get Bucky’s attention. Bucky reached down and lifted her, swinging her up onto his shoulder. “Would you like to visit your gran-gran, Goblin?” he asked her. Steve chuckled at the use of the nickname.

“Yes!”

“Then, let’s go.”

They headed back into the house, where they smelled the scent of coffee. “That’s unusual,” Bucky murmured. “We hardly ever drink coffee. Mother prefers tea.” Steve shrugged, raising his blond brows. But Gracie stomped up the stairs with the two men in tow, and they met Carol in the corridor, struggling under a tray.

“Milady wanted coffee today. Both of them, actually,” she explained.

“Really?” Bucky replied, surprised.

“Mm-hmm. Seemed both queens were up late last night.” Her blue eyes twinkled and her lips twitched, and she gave Bucky a look. “Seemed some noises kept Queen Sarah up last night, too, once she retired.”

Steve and Bucky both turned beet red.

“Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes, sires,” she told them cheerfully as she went to both queen’s chambers with the strong, black coffee and sugar. Gracie followed Carol to her grandmother’s guest chamber… directly adjoining Steve’s, and she knocked pertly on the door.

Steve cradled his palm in his face. Bucky snickered helplessly and gathered him close, kissing his temple.

“Can never. Face. Mother. Again.”

“You’re betrothed. You’re a grown man. Everything will be fine.” And Bucky grinned down at him. “And now, Mother won’t have to find me a princess. No more balls. No more potentials parading in and out of our home. Because, Steve… this will be our home. Steve gave him a dubious look.

You were loud, too,” he pointed out.

Bucky’s mouth clapped itself shut.

*

Once Carol had assured both men that their mothers were fine, albeit cranky, they went to the breakfast table. Their fathers were engaged in a discussion about their next planned hunt, and also sipping the strong, earthy-smelling French roast.

“Good morning, son,” George greeted, holding out his arm for a brisk clapping of his back.

“Good morning, son,” Joseph echoed fondly, taking Steve’s hand and squeezing it. Both kings looked mischievous, trying to suppress smirks.

“What’s going on, Father?” Bucky asked timidly. Steve braced himself.

“Nothing at all,” George said calmly, holding out his arm toward the empty breakfast table. “Find yourself a spot to sit in a moment.”

“In a moment?” Bucky looked baffled.

“Yes. Because I need to hug my future son-in-law,” George informed him as he shoved back his heavy chair and engulfed Steve in a hug so firm that it made him grunt. Bucky’s face split into a smile, sunny and broad and filled with so much relief.

“You approve?” he asked hopefully.

“Sure… feels like it,” Steve huffed. But he clapped George on the back affectionately. “Thank you, sire.”

“You can call me Father from now on,” George assured him. Joseph rose, too, from his seat and gave Bucky the same treatment, even squeezing him and lifting him briefly off his feet. Bucky “oof’ed!” and laughed, returning the hug, and George took the same cue, lifting Steve, too. All four men were laughing and hugging, making the servants peek around the door jamb to the dining room.

“That’s nicely settled,” Pepper murmured.

“Crazy bunch, that lot,” Victor countered, but he, too, looked pleased as he went out to the stables to help feed the horses and see about the carriages. The pint-sized blond pipsqueak that his sovereign was so smitten with looked like he was about to cry. Aye, that was sniffling that Victor heard, after all, followed by a low, choked sob from his own prince. “Ridiculous,” Victor muttered under his breath, “but at least I ain’t haulin’ mattresses out of the damned attic.”

*

Bucky was wrong.

Winifred held one more ball in honor of Steve and Bucky’s engagement, and it was widely attended by all of the nobles from the twelve adjacent territories. Aunts, uncles, and cousins Bucky had forgotten he even had showed up for it, and Steve nearly lost his composure when his former mother and father-in-law came, embracing him and assuring him that they were relieved that he found love. And love him, Bucky did. It was in his face, voice, and in the way his eyes followed Steve in and out of the room, every time. Steve begged off most of the dances until Bucky threatened to drag him out for a waltz.

Steve, surprisingly, complied. If the gathered company thought it unusual, they didn’t comment on it, merely raising glasses to the two grooms as they took a whirling, laughing turn around the dance floor, eyes shining with love. Meredith, Rose, and Grace kept their governesses running all night with their exploits, hiding under punch tables and chairs, running about, and letting their older cousins dance them about on their feet. Their grandmothers – Winifred and Sarah – vacillated between scolding them and indulgently bouncing the girls on their laps for most of the night, boasting about how their sons had been in their youth, arguing about who was the most adorable and well-behaved.

They finally conceded that both boys had been absolute heathens. But both women sipped cups of spiced cider and basked in their families, done with tests, games, and the struggle to find a bride for the prince who instead found the perfect groom and added to his loving family.

And it all started with a stack of featherbeds and a pea.

FIN.