Chapter 1: Act I
in the middle of the night.
It’s the middle of the night when the Queen’s cries echo through the bedchamber. There’s pain written fresh across her delicate features, hair splayed about her shoulders, the crown of her head, her temples, damp with sweat. Her fingers close around a wrist, squeeze tight, scrabble to find fingers, squeeze even tighter. The man beside her pales, tries to say something soothing, and gets a glare and more squeezing for his efforts. It’s three days, or maybe three hours, or maybe three minutes that feel like three hours or at least three days, before the tension finally goes out of her body, a different kind of cry echoing from somewhere beyond her lifted knees.
“Oh!” the man says, already smiling, relief breaking across his features.
The crying grows louder and then louder still and the midwife emerges from beyond, cuts the umbilical cord, carefully, delicately, gently hands the baby to her apprentice. She cleans up the Queen and the apprentice cleans up the baby, just enough. It’s not proper for the first memory of the royal child to be of the little one covered in blood and bodily fluids.
The Queen slumps back into her pillows and the King beams, leans down, kisses her forehead, whispers sweet devotions somewhere to the right of her temple.
“Your highness,” the midwife says as she comes back with the baby. She’s glowing, holding a bundle so tiny, there’s barely anything there. The Queen reaches up, expectantly, glowing in a different way, for a different reason, and the midwife hands her the baby, helps her cradle the bundle to her chest.
“Oh,” the Queen breathes.
“It’s a boy,” the midwife says, beaming.
The Queen freezes.
“A boy,” the King repeats after a moment, still, utterly, like a stone giant. It becomes clear, after another moment, that he’s shaking.
“No,” the Queen breathes, a quake in her chest, the tears fast gathering in her eyes. “No, no, no. Anything but that.”
in the middle of the day, three years later.
The young boy fidgets in his seat. He can’t seem to sit still, his legs thudding against the wood of the carriage, his fingers drumming on his lap. He has a little doll his caretaker has given him and it had occupied him for a whole five minutes before it had ended up on the floor. He gets up on his knees, little hands on the window, stretching to see as much as he can of the greenery around him.
His caretaker clears her throat in exasperation. She reaches forward.
“Young master,” she reprimands.
The boy whines a little, resists her touch, but then gives in when she tugs, insistently at the back of his collar. He sits back in his seat with a thump.
It’s not really fair. He’s only three after all.
“I want to go home,” he says, a frown on his face.
“This is your home now,” his caretaker says. “Or it will be when we get there.”
“I want Mama,” he says, a little louder.
The caretaker sighs, adjusts her dress.
“You’ll have a new Mama soon. I hear she will be just as kind and just as pretty.”
“I want Papa!” he insists, voice rising.
“If we could all have what we want, I would have a gold carriage unto myself,” the caretaker snaps, but then catches herself. She has the good grace to look guilty, at least.
The young boy frowns at her tone, looks sullenly out the window. He’s old enough to understand that he’s left his home, but too young to understand that it’s forever.
“We’ll be there soon, young master,” the caretaker says, more soothing. “You’ll like it, you’ll see. I hear there’s a young prince just waiting to play with you.”
That, he does understand. He looks back at the caretaker brightly.
“Someone to play with?”
He really is a sweet little boy. It’s not his fault he doesn’t understand, that some things are written far before a person is born and once written, some things cannot be undone.
“Yes,” the caretaker soothes with a warm smile. “Maybe you will even be best friends.”
“Yes,” the young master says, with all of the gravity and seriousness of a three year old. “I would like that a whole lot.”
There is a sword, buried to its hilt in stone. It stands in the middle of a courtyard, crumbles of rock surrounding it, the hilt gleaming bright blue in the moonlight, a red stone glowing at its end. It always gleams brightly, regardless of time, a taunt, a reminder of what is to come. It is a sword of power, a sword born of sacrifice, a sword cursed to remain buried until the one who is worthy comes for it.
You have heard this story before, but not quite this one. It’s called Excalibur in another time, but in this one it’s called Furore .
You see, this sword took the life of its owner. Well, that’s not true. A better way of describing it would be that it took the owner’s life to create this sword. For Furore to be created, for it to be embedded, deep into the stone, Nicholas Fury had to die. He is not the sword, but the sword would not have existed, but for him. It was his great sacrifice, you see, for his King and Queen.
But that, too, is not the beginning of the story.
The story is this: there is a kingdom nestled in the heart of the land. After centuries of bloody, brutal warring, the continent shattered into four separate empires. The other three only matter in that they surround this kingdom, the one at its heart, and it’s only through a tenuous arrangement of treaties and marriages that keep this kingdom safe, as enclosed by treacherous forest and enemies as it is.
That is not the whole truth either.
It is through a tenuous arrangement of treaties and marriages and magic that keep this kingdom safe. This is where the story truly begins.
There is an order of mages that has protected the kingdom--this Middle Kingdom--since its very inception. The Order of the Shield has trained and developed those magically inclined for centuries, much longer than any of the kingdoms have been around. Every generation, the Order produces one great mage, the most powerful wizard of them all: the Merlin. Since the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, the Merlin has sworn fealty to the Crown, vowing to protect its Kings and Queens and its people from all harm--from intruders, from dark creatures, from dark magic. In exchange, the mages are protected, given extraordinary responsibility and privileges.
This story begins with a specific Merlin, a mage named Johann Schmidt. Known as the Red Merlin, for the way his pallor seemed to grow red whenever he used magic, Schmidt was the most powerful Merlin the Order had seen in centuries. His skin seemed to constantly glow red, the magic running like electricity over and through his veins. The spells he used made the Crown grow infinitely powerful, endlessly wealthy. Schmidt was beloved by the King and Queen, given privilege beyond his wildest dreams.
It was not enough.
By the time his apprentice, Nicholas Fury, uncovered the dark books, the carcasses of the dark creatures in his chamber, Schmidt’s skin had grown a bright, blood red, the dark power seeped into his blood. They met in the middle of the courtyard, the night of the young prince’s twenty first birthday. Schmidt had killed most of the King’s and Queen’s Knights.
Fury had looked up to his mentor, had seen his own powers grow under Schmidt’s guidance, never quite as much, never quite as parallel, but formidable in their own right. They met in the middle of the night, blood spilling over the cobblestones.
Schmidt’s spell had broken, the King and Queen had cast him out. The young prince, who had long looked at Schmidt with wariness when no one else had, had broken his staff, had thrown a torch at him, burning his face. Schmidt radiated red with ebbing magic and pure, unadulterated hatred. His influence gone, his power gone, he had left only this, only his darkness.
“I curse you,” he had screamed at the King and the Queen. He had pointed to the young prince. Fury had moved to block it, but it was too late. Schmidt had cast his spell, had cut up with his hands, let the tendrils of black smoke wind its way from his fingertips toward the royal family, engulfing the King and Queen, creeping up the prince’s body like poisoned vines. “ I curse you and your little brat. You will never know happiness. This family will never know another prince. Each shall die at the age of your son. ”
The King and Queen had howled in anguish as their son had collapsed against the stones, the curse sweeping through him, taking his brave, young life.
Fury had driven Schmidt back then, spell after spell, hitting him where he was weak, where the dark magic had eaten away at him, flesh and soul. Schmidt had lashed out with what remaining magic he had and had been met with a shield spell so powerful, it had driven him back into darkness altogether. He had disappeared into the inky black night, nothing left of him or his red skull.
The King and Queen cradled the prince, sobbing, and Fury had done the only thing he could think, his own powers nearly spent.
“I have sworn fealty to you, my lieges,” he had said, stepping forward. “I will protect your family with every breath I have left to me. I cast upon you a spell--your family will have only daughters, only princesses. This spell won’t last forever--nothing does. When it fails, when the last of the spell runs out, you will have me, my fury, to protect the crown prince. Only the most worthy can wield it, only the strongest. It is the only thing that can defeat it, Schmidt’s curse, and it will listen only to the one who can save him.”
Nicholas Fury died that night, the last of his magic spent in service of his King and Queen, only his fury left behind to protect the royal family from a greedy man’s dark curse.
the legend, again.
Legend has it that the sword was created by a great mage, a powerful Merlin. The sword was cursed to stay, buried in stone, until the time was right, until the right person came to wield it.
Only the strongest person can lift the sword from the stone, it is said.
Or maybe it is the bravest.
Perhaps the most worthy.
Generations of Kings and Queens have failed to find this person, the strongest, bravest, and most worthy person, a Knight, undoubtedly, of great valor. Then again, the royal family has only had daughters for so many generations, they have not needed to rush.
And, as time plays its cruel, ironic tricks, many, if not most, have forgotten almost entirely why the sword was created at all. It stands in the courtyard, glinting, mocking, a bedtime story and a relic, a thing to be looked at and wondered over, never to be used, and certainly, definitely, never to be lifted.
That’s the thing about fury, isn’t it? It burns only as long as you remember what caused it in the first place.
His hands are shaking. There’s a crown on his head and it reflects the torchlight, captures the bright yellow and orange and casts it back onto the walls. The yellow and orange glints flicker because here too, he is shaking. He’s shaking all over.
He’s nearly sick with anger, with worry. He doesn’t know if he can do this.
The burden lays thick across his shoulders, his body heavy with it. This changes nothing, he tells himself, but that’s not true and he doesn’t like lying. This changes everything, in a way he can’t fully grasp yet. He’s aged years in the span of a day.
He doesn’t have the time to grasp anything anyway. Every second he wastes, the closer he is to--
He breathes out some of his anger, teeth grinding, jaw twitching.
“Are you ready?” his friend asks, eyeing him, somewhere between caution and awe. “If we’re gonna go, we have to go now.”
His hands are shaking, but he tightens his grip around the hilt of the sword, a bright, sparkling blue with a red gem on the end. The smooth, bright metal of the blade also catches the torchlight, bending it, distorting it, twisting it against the wall, lights dancing in his eyes. For a moment, it’s all he can see. He lifts the sword and it’s featherlight in his hand, cool as water to the touch, but he feels the power there, brimming under his palm. It feels like an extension of himself, natural, comfortable. He’s never held it before.
He takes a deep breath and puts it in the sheath.
“I can’t believe it was you all along,” his friends says, definitely in awe this time.
The young man shudders, frowns.
“It wasn’t,” he says. He licks his dry lips and pulls up the hood of his cloak. “I wasn’t the first. He was.”
before, or: an incident with a dragon.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The plan was this: ride out with the others, stay in formation for as long as the horses bothered to listen to any of them, let the Prince take the lead because he likes to hear himself talk and anyway, the village isn’t paying the Crown to look at the rest of them, check the well--it had been gurgling and spitting out some foul-smelling, unidentifiable kind of magic for weeks--help clean up some of the burned houses, maybe play with a kid or two, flirt with the locals, and be on their way back. Routine village management, excellent for them because they got out of the castle for a while and even better for the Crown because it made them more beloved by the villagers. Only--
“Ow,” he complains, glaring at the doctor.
The doctor looks less than impressed. He’s applying copious amounts of salve to puckered, burned skin.
“You’re in here three times a week, at least once with a broken or sprained something, and the other time with a bruise somewhere on your body, usually half the size of whatever limb it’s developing on, and the salve is what you’re taking offense to?” The doctor puts gauze over the burn, a large streak on his right arm.
“It hurts,” he whines.
“Good. You have no one to blame but yourself.”
“This wasn’t my fault,” he says--no, insists.
“It never is,” the doctor says, shaking his head.
“No, Doc,” a familiar voice comes from the doorway. There’s a grin there that he can’t see, but he can just hear. “It is. Let me tell you--”
“Shut. Up,” he says, loudly, interrupting.
“You know,” the other boy says. He comes through the doorway, eating an apple. Just eating it, smugly, with his brown hair falling across his bright blue eyes, and a smirk the size of his entire, stupid face. “Such disrespect is usually grounds for punishment. Some lashings. Courtyard humiliation. A beheading or two.”
“Or two?” he says, making a face. “Do I have an extra head you haven’t been telling me about?”
“Yeah, what we need is for you to grow another head to taunt people twice your size and dragons a hundred times that,” the other boy snorts.
“You’re being dramatic--”
“I’m being dramatic? You--”
“No more taunting,” the doctor says sternly. “And no more dragons. I don’t want to see you here for two weeks, Steve.”
The boy--Steve, opens his mouth to protest. This really isn’t fair. This mostly wasn’t his fault. This time.
What happened was this: there was a dragon. They got to the village and the Prince started his rounds. It was mostly all going well--Sam and Thor were looking into the well, Natasha was helping a villager rescue a cat from the top of his roof. There was even a cute village girl with brown curls and red lips who was flirting with Steve. Then, from a distance, Steve saw the wings.
The dragon bell went off almost immediately, the bells pealing through the previously calm air, now frantic with the energy of barely contained panic. On the one hand, the villagers had run drills a million times. On the other hand, dragon.
It would have been fine, except the girl got locked out of her home. Just as the dragon descended. Well, it’s not like Steve was going to let her get eaten. A dragon’s magic is fearsome, but its appetite is even worse.
“You’re maybe three haybales tall on a good day and you thought you were gonna take a dragon all by yourself?” the other boy asks. He swings an arm around Steve’s thin shoulders and Steve tries not to wince, but fails. “Oh, sorry.”
Steve wants to be annoyed. The way the other boy is lounging against him, smirking, is not only inconvenient, it’s aggravating too. But, well--
He had managed to unsheath his sword. He got in two shallow cuts to the dragon’s snout, dodged its teeth half a dozen times, and jumped out of the way of dragonfire once. Somehow in the process, he had managed to get himself trapped against a barn. There was no way around it, just an enormous, angry dragon and all three haybales of Steve.
That’s when the Prince had reappeared with a sword, a torch, and three other Knights.
“I saved you,” the other boy says, his smirk widening. “I saved you and this is the thanks I get.”
Steve tries to elbow him, but the other boy dodges it.
“Usually a prince would get a kiss from a fair maiden for that kinda thing,” the Prince says.
Steve tries not to color, but he mostly fails. He scowls.
“You see any fair maiden around here, your royal highness?”
“Well you’re fair enough. And probably still a maiden,” the Prince says with a wolfish grin. Steve turns tomato red. The Prince leans closer. “I wouldn’t say no.”
Steve’s heart hammers in his chest, that familiar twist any time his stupid, awful, horrible best friend flirts with him like this. His scowl grows more pronounced.
“No thanks,” he says drily, shoves a hand in the Prince’s face. “I’d rather kiss Sam.”
“Tony’s boy?” the doctor looks up, interested. He’s putting away the ingredients for the salve now.
He’s his apprentice,” Steve says. He pushes his bangs out of his eyes.
“Right, right,” the doctor says. “How’s he doing? Tony said he had promise, but then he made me promise not to tell anyone about the promise he said the boy had.”
“He’s the worst,” the Prince says. “Sam, not Tony. Well, maybe Tony too, I don’t know.”
Steve rolls his eyes. Sam and the Prince had worked out their differences years ago. They are now two parts of a best friend trio.
“Tony’s fine,” he says. “And Sam’s great.”
“Well, kiss whoever you like,” the doctor says. “As long as it’s not a dragon. And not in my infirmary. Now get out.”
Steve pushes himself off of the bench, his arm wrapped in gauze, some salve applied to his temple, some more to his chin, and some more gauze peeking out from under his shirt.
The Prince frowns.
“If I hadn’t gotten there in time--”
“Stop worrying so much,” Steve says. “I had him on the rocks.”
The Prince rolls his eyes so hard, they nearly fall out of his skull.
“Thanks, Bruce,” Steve says on his way out the door.
The doctor waves at Steve and the Prince, a fond, exasperated smile on his face, looking a little green around the edges.
Steve and the Prince leave the infirmary, a smaller wing than most would imagine, given how many dragons and wild entanglements with rogue magic the Crown’s Knights have on any given day. They wind their way through the stone hallways, leaning together, whispering, laughing in intervals, gossiping about their day. Their shoulders bump, sometimes their hips. Neither can fully dislodge the overly affectionate smiles that steal over his face when the other isn’t looking. They've been best friends for so long that being together is as easy as breathing.
“We have Hel Week next week,” the Prince says as they pass under an arch, looking out onto the courtyard. In the middle, buried in rock, is the gleaming silver of the sword, Furore. It’s such a familiar part of the scenery now that not even the Knightlings pay too much attention to it. And they’re the ones who are supposedly training to be worthy enough to wield it.
“Are any of these drills helping us get ready for--” he gestures widely at the sword in the stone.
The Prince snorts.
“You mean a week of twelve hour swordsmanship drills isn’t making us any, what is it--”
“Worthier, nobler, braver--”
“Yeah, sure, all that,” the Prince says. He peers through the column as he spots someone just beyond the courtyard. “Is that Natasha and--”
Steve doesn’t have to look up to know who the Prince has seen.
“Huh,” the Prince says, squinting. “When did that happen?”
“About three Hel Weeks ago,” Steve snorts. Sometimes it’s astonishing, how oblivious the Prince can be when he wants to be.
“I like it, I think,” the Prince says.
“I don’t think Nat cares at all what you think,” Steve says. It’s with a lingering, fond smile. Natasha Romanoff was one of the first Knightlings he had made friends with, all those years ago, when he was small and sick and every Knightling only made fun of him behind his back because, being best friends with the Prince, they couldn’t make fun of him to his face.
“She’s trouble, that one,” the Prince says, sagely.
They approach the enormous, gold-gilded double doors to the Grand Hall.
“The King and Queen wanted us?”
“The King and Queen never want me,” the Prince says with a grin. “You’re their favorite.”
Steve snorts, rolls his eyes. All of these years and he can’t fully admit to the Prince, or even himself, how uncomfortable the King and Queen make him. There’s something about the way they watch him, closely, with eyes that are too sad. It makes sense, he supposes. It’s hard not to pity an orphan.
“Is it about the dragon?” Steve asks, a faint frown now pressing to his lips.
“No,” the Prince says quickly.
Steve’s frown deepens.
“Bucky, you don’t have to--”
“No, I mean it,” the Prince--Bucky--says, his shoulders relaxing. “I think they want to throw a ball.”
“A ball,” Steve looks at Bucky, nonplussed. “Aren’t balls usually for, I dunno, finding the beloved princeling an equally beloved princess--”
“Don’t start with me,” Bucky says, shoving at Steve’s shoulder. Steve stumbles a little, hisses in pain as a sharp sensation shoots through his burns. Bucky looks immediately stricken. “Oh shit--shit, sorry.”
“I’m fine,” Steve says after a moment of gritting his teeth and breathing shallowly through his nose.
Bucky doesn’t look convinced, but he knows that Steve hates being coddled. Steve is allergic to sympathy and pity, as every Knightling has learned a dozen times over.
“As I was saying--” Bucky interrupts Steve with a groan, but Steve ignores him with a grin. “--thought a ball was for princelings who aren’t already betrothed.”
“Ugh.” Bucky makes a face. “I haven’t even met her!”
“Doesn’t make you any less engaged,” Steve says. He ignores the now-familiar, low twist in his stomach. This isn’t news, Bucky’s betrothal. Everyone knows the story: the Middle Kingdom is constantly on the brink of war with its surrounding neighbors. But for its Merlin and Bucky’s mysterious engagement, the Crown’s grasp on peace would be tenuous at best. Marriage for love is an unnecessary luxury when one is royal.
Still, Steve thinks, gloomily, as Bucky tips his head to the guards who open the chamber doors, he doesn’t have to like it.
Inside, the chamber is as gilded as the doors, a thin sheen of gold on nearly every surface except the high, painted ceilings and the rough stones of the ground. The thrones are raised, two chairs of gold and plush, red velvet. There’s a man prostrated on the ground before them. The King waves his hand and the man pulls himself up.
“Thank you, your majesty. Thank you, thank you.” The man is nearly in tears.
The King and Queen are beloved and this is precisely why. They actually care. Steve can feel it every time they look at him, with fondness, if sadness. Not once have they made him feel like the orphan he is, his parents having died in a neighboring realm when he was but a baby. They had been high-ranking, close to the King and Queen. When they died, his caretaker had smuggled him out of the realm, through the thickly twisted forest, back to the Middle Kingdom, to her--and his, he supposed--royal family. The King and Queen had taken him in and raised him alongside Bucky. It had been kind of them, too kind of them, and it’s something Steve has never forgotten.
The man leaves and then the King and Queen are staring at them, gesturing for Bucky and Steve to come in.
“James, Steven,” the King says, warmly. Next to him, the Queen’s eyes track them. No--the Queen’s eyes track him. Steve flattens his hair nervously.
“He’s not dead,” Bucky complains, next to Steve. “He’s not 100 years old either. Take a second to call him what he wants to be called.”
“Steven is fine, your highness,” Steve says, elbowing Bucky in the side with his uninjured arm. In his relatively short life of twenty years, he and Bucky and the King have had this exact same conversation no less than three hundred thousand times.
“Has he forgotten to eat again? He’s always so grumpy when he hasn’t eaten,” the King says with a smile and a wink and Steve barely suppresses the snicker he knows is going to annoy Bucky. As constantly displaced as he feels, sometimes, when he stops thinking for half a second, he feels warm with affection for these people. His family, for what it’s worth. He loves them dearly, would die for them.
“Take me to the feast!” Bucky declares dramatically and the King and Queen rise as they approach.
Steve bows out of habit, but Bucky ambles up the stairs, past the twin thrones, toward the side passage to their Dining Chamber.
“Steven,” the Queen breathes as Steve approaches her. She gives him a smile, a little tight around the corners, but warm and lovely all the same. She’s a beautiful woman, with sweeping hair and the bluest eyes he’s ever seen. She takes his face between his hands and kisses his forehead. “I’m so glad you weren’t hurt more. You must be careful, darling.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Steve mumbles, his throat dry. He likes the Queen--loves her, even--but she makes him feel nervous. “Your majesty.”
“No, of course not. You are not at all a brash, reckless, young man,” she says. For a moment Steve thinks he’s misheard, but before she lets go, he catches the twinkle of mischief in her eyes. “The burns will heal?”
“Bruce is the best,” Steve says.
“Doctor Banner is the best,” the Queen agrees. She offers Steve her hand. “Come. Let us, as James says, feast.”
It is a moderate feast, because it isn’t a feast at all. It is a dinner, four courses, as befits the royal family and their wardling, which is to say Steve gets full after two courses and Bucky eats everything he can’t finish. They’re on their usual side of the table and break out into leaned-in whispers and snickers every few minutes.
“You two are like two heads of the same hellhound,” the King says over his roast meat.
“Should we be offended?” Bucky asks, sticking a fork in the air.
“I kinda like the sound of us being hellhounds,” Steve admits thoughtfully. He drinks from his goblet. The wine is sweet and cool, not too strong, which is just as well because Steve gets drunk after two goblets on a good day.
“I would dare anyone to describe you two in any other way,” the King says.
Bucky braces himself to answer--he and the King have a long-standing habit of getting into the most ludicrous and nonsensical conversations during dinner--but the Queen is quick to cut him off.
“James, Steven, we were thinking of having a ball.”
“That sounds...nice,” Steve says, picking his words carefully.
“Does this mean the arranged marriage is off?” Bucky asks, hopefully. He asks this about once a month.
“Still no, son,” the King remarks mildly.
“Then what is the point?” Bucky sticks his fork in the air again. Steve eyes it warily.
“It is a nice chance to meet others your age. You and Steve are always spending so much time with those Knightlings--”
“Whose fault is that?” Bucky asks, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t recall asking you to draw a bunch of kids from the villages and neighboring realms to train all their lives to pull some sword out of some stone.”
“Eat your spinach,” the Queen says. Then she daintily dabs at her mouth. “The Knightlings are fine, but both you and Steve are, how do I say this--”
“Bad at mixing with royal company that isn’t one another,” the King offers helpfully.
Steve and Bucky glance at one another. It has to be a brief glance because otherwise they’ll end up laughing. There’s at least a dozen different incidents the King and Queen could be referring to, but the incident they were most likely recalling involved the ambassador’s son from the East, who had taunted Steve nearly all day, before Steve had knocked him sideways and Bucky had accidentally tripped him into the lake. Apparently the squalling brat didn’t know how to swim and had cried for nearly three hours after about how traumatized he was. The lake in question was shallow enough that even Steve’s feet could more or less reach the sand at the bottom. “Royal company” was always so dramatic.
“And anyway--” the King clears his throat.
Bucky and Steve look away from one another and back to the leader of their land. This, then, was the real reason.
“You’re going to be twenty one soon, James,” the Queen says, softly. “Two moons time.”
Steve’s stomach twists. He feels lightheaded, all of a sudden, like there’s not enough air for him to force into his lungs. Twenty one to many princelings would mean little more than the consummation of a marriage, preparing to take the throne. Here, in the Middle Kingdom, it means--
“No one’s going to be able to,” Bucky says, shrugging, as though this does not matter. Maybe it doesn’t, but Steve can’t shake the feeling that it does, or it should. “No one’s been able to get that damned sword out of that damned stone as long as it’s been in damned existence.”
The King and Queen look at him, displeased with his language, but they can’t exactly dispute what he’s saying. Since they were kids, all of the Knightlings have known that the Prince’s twenty first birthday would be an occasion to never forget. That is when they would try, all of them, to pull the sword from the stone. It’s what they’ve been training for, nearly their entire lives. And once they have, once someone finally manages to do the thing no one, in all of history, has managed to do, well then--
Actually, Steve has no idea what comes next. He just knows it’s something big, something significant. He spears his potato miserably. At barely three haybales high and weighing a little over six stone, Steve would never even come close. He’d be lucky if he didn’t slip on the damned stone itself and crack his head open against it.
“You want a ball to usher in the Great Ceremonial Extraction of the Elongated Dagger From the Overlarge Pebble?”
Sometimes. Bucky was so. Annoying.
Steve’s expression must be written all over his face, because the King nods toward him, giving him a look that says, clearly, same.
The Queen, on the other hand, clears her throat, puts down her cutlery. She picks up her goblet and gives Bucky a calm, serene, terrifying smile.
“Yes, dear. And if you’re good, I’ll even allow you to go the entire ball without having to dance with your mother.”
Later, when they’ve settled on Bucky’s bed, both in their bedclothes, Steve’s nightshirt going past the tips of his fingers, Bucky cross-legged across from him, they talk about it.
Steve holds out his arm reluctantly and Bucky takes the top of the gauze, starts unwinding it. In his twenty years of life, the Prince has had more than enough experience tending to Steve’s wounds.
“Maybe it’s cursed to stay stuck there forever,” Bucky’s saying. “It’s actually a grand trick by whichever Merlin created it. There’s actually no way to get the sword out--no, even better, there’s no sword at all, it’s actually just the hilt and stone.”
“That’s stupid,” Steve says. “You’re stupid.”
“We’ve trained our entire lives for this day,” Bucky says, ignoring him. He lays the used gauze on the bed and reaches for a wet washcloth to gently wipe away the remains of the previous salve. “But no one’s ever told us what’s supposed to happen next. Whoever pulls the sword--if there’s someone. He doesn’t become King. He doesn’t become the next Merlin. He just gets these accolades and maybe a bigger room.”
“Maybe he gets powers,” Steve shrugs. “It’s magical, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Bucky says. He leans forward toward the side table, brings a bowl of salve to his lap. “Maybe I’ll get to marry whoever pulls it from the stone.”
“Yeah right,” Steve snorts.
Bucky looks up, grinning.
“Maybe it’ll be you. What d’you think? You wanna marry me, Stevie?”
Steve flushes, his stomach, as always, twisting with deep feeling. He’s imagined it, on more than one night, what it would be like to be married to Bucky, to have him not only as his best friend but as his-- but no, he tries to shut that down immediately.
“Pass,” he says, drily. “Anyway, didn’t you hear? The sword only answers to the bravest. Or the most worthy. The strongest in the land.”
“Don’t know anyone braver or more worthy or stronger than you.”
“Yeah right,” Steve says again. He sighs, partially from the injustice of it all and partially because Bucky’s cool fingers are applying cool salve to his burning skin. “I’m so strong, Thor had to help me get the swords at practice today.”
“There were a lot of ‘em,” Bucky shrugs. He finishes the salve on Steve’s arm and beckons him closer. Steve leans forward and feels Bucky’s cool fingertips at his temple, then at his jaw. He barely suppresses a shiver.
Then Bucky reaches for Steve’s shirt, where the old gauze is still peeking out from underneath.
“I’ll get that one,” Steve says, cheeks warming.
Bucky raises an eyebrow, but shrugs.
“Suit yourself.” He takes the roll of gauze and starts binding Steve’s arm again.
“Hey,” Bucky says, after a while. “You know you are, right?”
Steve, who has by this point started drifting off, sitting up, blinks himself awake.
“Those things. Brave and worthy and strong.” Bucky finishes the gauze, puts it away. Then he’s close, so very, painfully close. His fingertips are at Steve’s cheeks and Steve has a little difficulty breathing as a result. “I mean it. I think the world of you. If the sword doesn’t give way for you, well--screw it. It’s its loss.”
Steve doesn’t know what to say to this. He can’t help the way his chest warms, the heavy, sweet feeling that settles somewhere behind his ribs. He definitely can’t help the pink that spreads across his cheeks, the warm, affectionate smile that appears, bashful.
“You gotta say that,” Steve mumbles. “You’re my best friend.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, just watches him. The expression on his face is cautious, a little strange.
“Yeah,” he says. Then he smiles, all easy charm again. “Best friends.”
Carefully, Steve crawls under the covers. After putting away the materials and blowing out the candles, Bucky crawls in next to him.
They’re far too old to be doing this, really. Steve has his own chambers and they’re rather good chambers, too, as large and luxurious as Bucky’s. But some nights, when they’re both tired or one is hurt or one is anxious or simply because they just damned well want to, they do it anyway, consequences be damned.
Steve always wakes up in the morning, his head tucked into Bucky’s neck, Bucky’s arm sprawled across his narrow shoulders, and he thinks oh, if it could be like this forever.
The story goes that the King and Queen, young and vibrant, conceive a child. The castle is happy, the villagers are happy, hell, the entire Kingdom is happy, because who doesn't love a royal daughter?
Except, in the middle of the night, when the squalling baby is handed from the midwife to the Queen, it turns out that after centuries of princesses, the Middle Kingdom is to finally have a little prince, all of their own.
The celebrations are subdued, although no one knows why.
A few years later, a small boy arrives in a carriage. He has light hair, bright blue eyes, and his caretaker assures the King and Queen that he is just as much of a handful as he looks. The King and Queen immediately fall in love with him. This is a problem, but they won’t realize this until much later.
The boy is an orphan, it is said, his parents killed in a terrible accident in the Northern Realm. The King and Queen adore the boy so that they raise him with their own son, the Prince and his wardling. One of the boys is small, sick, and one of the boys is vibrant, healthy.
They both love one another dearly, that much has always been abundantly clear.
As the boys grow, the King and Queen recall a myth, a legend, a fairytale that is still told in the villages. It is the story of two Merlins. The story goes that the crown prince will die on his twenty first birthday and the only one to save him will be the one who wields the great magical sword, fury buried deep within rock.
Maybe the King and Queen believe the story, or maybe they just choose to be cautious. For whichever reason it may be, they create a training program, gather children of the realm-- village children, orphans, diplomats’ sons and daughters, children of means and children who have nothing to their name--and whosoever else chooses can become a Knightling, training day and night throughout their lives to protect the Crown, to swear fealty to their Prince and, eventually, their King. But that is not all.
The story goes that it is not simply to protect, nor is it loyalty for loyalty’s sake. No, the real reason the children gather, the real reason they fight, is to save the Prince, a princeling fated to die the moment he was born.
So the King and Queen watch and the children train, knowing that one day, they will face the sword in the stone.
The Prince, too, trains, just in case.
It is always an assortment of just in cases, when a life is on the line.
before, or: a few kids become friends.
They’re seven years old, so they don’t know any better, really. A little boy, Brock, grinds dust in Steve’s eyes because he’s bigger than Steve, stronger than Steve, and, mostly likely, completely jealous of Steve. Brock is towering over him, dropping pebbles onto Steve’s head and Steve, knobbly knees skinned, bony elbows smarting, is trying to get to his feet, trying desperately not to cry.
This is the first time that Bucky saves him.
“Hey, that’s my friend!” he roars, coming up behind Brock, shoving him hard in the shoulders until the other boy goes stumbling into the briars. Brock howls in pain, thorns sticking to his palms, but Bucky doesn’t care. He’s the princeling and anyway, he’s beyond caring. He bends down next to Steve, helps rub the pebbles and dust out of his hair. “Stevie?”
Steve looks up and he’s--furious.
“You shouldn’t have helped!” his eyes are bloodshot, red. He started crying the moment Bucky appeared and now he can’t seem to stop.
Bucky, for his part, looks as flummoxed as any seven year old can look.
“He was bullying you!”
“You shoulda let him!” Steve shouts. He rubbing his tiny little fists into his eyes, trying to get the dust out.
“Are you kidding?” Bucky, now, seven years old, hands on his hips and a little exasperated. “You’re my friend.”
“You’re the prince,” Steve says angrily. He’s still crying, a little. “Now everyone’s gonna think I’m weaker than I am. They already know.”
“You’re not--” Bucky, seven years old, and flummoxed. “You’re not weak, Stevie. You’re just a little--well, little.”
“I could have handled it,” Steve says. He’s so angry, he’s hiccoughing. He gives up trying to get up, just sits down instead. “I’m supposed to be a Knightling too.”
“Of course you are,” Bucky soothes. Now he gets down on his knees, crawls toward his best friend. “I know that. I know you’re a Knightling.”
“No one else does,” Steve says. Now the anger gives away, leaving only a sad, hurt little seven year old boy instead. “No one else takes me seriously. They tell me you’re the only reason I’m here.”
“Who says that?” Bucky asks, suddenly furious. “You tell me and I’ll go knock their heads off.”
“They tell me I’ll never be strong enough to pull the sword,” Steve says. He sounds miserable. He wipes his wet face on his dirty tunic. “How am I gonna save you if I don’t pull the sword out, Buck?”
“Hey, you don’t have to save me,” Bucky says. He shifts uncomfortably where he is. “I’m not going anywhere anyway. Anyway, that’s just a stupid story. I’m not going to die. Only old people do that. So what’s a stupid curse gotta do with me?”
Steve considers this. And, because he’s only seven years old, and hurt, and cannot possibly imagine or even fathom losing his very best friend, he accepts this quickly, nodding.
“You’re right,” he says and visibly brightens.
“Maybe I’ll pull the sword out of the stone and save you,” Bucky says, grinning.
Steve rolls his eyes.
“Stupid,” he says, though it’s fond. “Who’s gonna want to curse me? I’m just a little nobody.”
The Knightlings are a group of dozens, if not hundreds, of children. They come from various backgrounds and families, span a variety of ages, and live in scattered housing throughout the castle town. They train according to their age group and each group, at the age of twenty one, faces the sword in the stone. There’s a ceremonial day celebrating it, as each of the Knightlings step up to the stone and try their strength and luck, the King, Queen, and princeling watching. Not once has the sword even wobbled before someone’s valor.
As each cohort of Knightlings fail, they become the King and Queen’s Knights, no longer destined for the sword in the stone, but still in sworn protection of the Crown all the same. Some decide to leave, go back to their families and realms. Most decide to stay and as a result, the Knights are mostly friends, warmth and camaraderie always floating across the courtyard and around every inch of the castle and castle town.
In Bucky and Steve’s cohort, there are about two dozen Knightlings who start at the same time, all within a year or two of each other. Steve is the smallest of them all. At first, Bucky and Steve hate all of them, each and every one of these foreign, strange children. Then, eventually, they make friends. Mostly Bucky makes friends and they eye Steve warily, until they realize that Bucky is the charming, handsome princeling, but Steve is the dry, witty, funny best friend. Both are acceptable, in the eyes of children.
Steve makes friends with Natasha first and it happens almost entirely by accident. The accident is that Steve thinks she’s a boy.
“I’m not a boy,” Natasha says, dryly, holding a wooden sword to Steve’s throat. They’re not even in the training grounds. They’re on break and Steve had just wanted to sketch by his favorite tree, but he had found a strange redhead sitting where he usually sits instead.
“Put that down,” Steve says, annoyed. “I might be small, but I’m--mighty.”
Natasha looks him up and down, skeptically. Then she shrugs and withdraws the sword.
“I have seen smaller. I’ve definitely seen mightier.” She goes back to what she was doing, which was reading some book in a strange language.
Well, she doesn’t say no, so Steve sits down next to her. She tenses, but after a moment, scoots over to let him have some more room at the base of the trunk.
“I’m Steve,” he says, after a minute of silence.
“I know who you are, Steve,” she says.
“Do you have a name?” he asks, annoyed.
She raises an eyebrow carefully. There’s almost a hint of danger there, in that eyebrow raise, although Steve cannot, for the life of him, figure out why or how.
“What are you going to call me if I say no?”
“Red,” Steve says, automatically.
“Stupid. Boys are so predictable,” Natasha says, as though she’s not eight years old too. “Call me Natasha.”
“Natasha,” Steve says. Then he says, “I’m going to call you Nat.”
“Don’t do that,” she says.
He doesn’t listen to her. In fact, he never listens to anyone and this, more than anything, eventually makes her relent. She even ties Brock to a tree one day, when Bucky’s away, and he’s taken up taunting Steve again. After, when Steve begrudgingly thanks her, Natasha shakes her head.
“I didn’t do it for you. I did it because I hate that guy. He’s the worst.”
There’s no pity in her eyes. In fact, there’s no sympathy there at all--just cold, clinical dislike. Steve believes her immediately. He likes her even faster than that.
“Guess we’re friends now, Nat,” he says one day, during one of their breaks, Natasha reading, Steve sketching, both against their favorite tree.
“Yeah, sure,” Natasha says. “Whatever.”
But next time during training, before Bucky gets there, when everyone partners up and Steve’s left partnerless, again, as usual, Natasha grabs two wooden swords and drags Steve with her to her spot.
It’s the first friend, other than Bucky, Steve has ever made.
The others accumulate, somehow, some through Bucky, others through Natasha. In the end, of the two dozen, it’s the four of them--Bucky, Steve, Natasha, and Clint. At least until late in their fourth year, when an ambassador’s son from the Southern Isles appears, tall and broad-shouldered, golden, and with the sunniest smile any of them have ever seen. His name is Thor, he has a weird accent, and none of the girls, and, frankly, a good portion of the boys, can seem to stop making eyes when he’s around.
“I shall pull the sword from the stone, for I am Thor and I am mighty,” Thor pronounces loudly, confidently, the moment he sees Steve. He extends a hand. “I shall save you from your curse, your Highness.”
Everyone looks at him, astonished, before bursting out into laughter.
“No, no,” Bucky says, later. “I kind of liked the idea of Steve as the prince instead. He can do all of the training and the reading and I’ll go get into brawls instead.”
Steve, under the weight of Bucky’s arm, winces and glares.
“I haven’t been in a fight in--”
“--two weeks,” Clint guesses.
“Two days,” Bucky says.
“--two hours,” Natasha adds.
“You must be very brave and mighty to fight so,” Thor says, completely seriously. “Where I am from, a man shows his worth as often as he can.”
“Well in that case,” Bucky grins. “Stevie here is the greatest man the kingdom’s ever seen.”
All of his “friends,” and even Thor, laugh.
In retrospect, Steve thinks, maybe having no friends for the first eight years of his life hadn’t been the worst fate. Alas.
before, or: a brief interlude of magic.
It happens on an afternoon when Bucky is inside, in lessons, and Steve is wandering the grounds by himself. It’s a bright, sunny day, warm enough to wear a short-sleeved tunic, but not so warm that Steve is going to risk burning. He’s about to settle by the Mage’s Lake, a small, clear body of water situated behind the castle walls and before the boundaries of the northernmost walls of the castle town. The lake is rumored to be a source of power for the mages’ Order, although, Steve personally thinks, it is a rather convenient rumor because just beyond the edge of the water is a copse of dense trees that separate the lake from the Merlin’s Tower.
It’s not a large tower, certainly not big enough to loom or be ominous, but few wander in that direction, mostly because the current Merlin is said to be eccentric. More than one Knightling has wandered toward the Tower and come back with something just off with them--hair an unusual color, nose a different shape, speaking in the croaks of frogs and not the language of humans. Once, Scott Lang goes into the Tower on a dare and when he reemerges two days later, his ears flap like bat’s wings and he can’t eat anything but tropical fruit for the next three weeks.
Steve, personally, doesn’t feel like tempting Merlin’s fate or his ears, but as he settles by the water, sketchpad on his lap, he sees thick spirals of purple and blue smoke crawling out from the midst of the trees. He puts his charcoal pencil down in alarm, on his feet before he can think about it. He’s nearly to the trees when someone comes barreling out from the middle of them, cursing loudly, running blindly, and stumbling over long, aquamarine robes.
Steve barely has time to blink before the other boy has run into him, foreheads colliding, grasping at Steve’s shoulders before they both go tumbling to the ground.
“Shit!” the other boy curses.
Next to him, Steve is sprawled on his back, looking up at the leaves in a daze. He turns his head to look at the other boy and the boy pushes himself up to sit. He’s still cursing, rubbing his forehead now.
“Hey,” the other boy says and reaches a hand toward Steve. “Sorry. I was trying to avoid the--” He gestures to the plumes of smoke.
“Is everything okay in there?” Steve asks, taking the boy’s hand to get pulled up. He rubs his own forehead, where, undoubtedly, a bruise will form and he’ll have to hear about it from Bucky for the next week.
“Yeah,” the boy says. “Well, no. I think I set the barn on fire, shit.”
“There’s a barn in there?” Steve asks with interest.
“Yeah,” the boy says. He’s frowning. “Well, there was. Now it’s...okay, I’m a little concerned I might have accidentally created a dragon? I mean I shouldn’t have, I definitely don’t have enough power for that, but the last time I tried to make wings, I turned a table into a snapping turtle, so I mean, who can really be sure?”
“Are you--” Steve frowns now. He looks over the boy beside him. He has dark skin and dark, close-cropped hair, large, brown eyes, and an easy smile. He looks about twelve or thirteen, maybe only a year older or younger than Steve himself. That doesn’t seem right. “You’re not the Merlin are you?”
The other boy blinks rapidly, then he throws back his head and laughs.
“The Merlin? God no. I am not even half as crazy as that man,” the boy says. He gets to his feet and offers Steve his hand. “Sam Wilson.”
“Oh,” Steve says. He takes Sam and gets to his feet. “Well you can’t blame me. What with the--robes and the smoke. And the dragon. ...wait, is there a dragon?”
Sam looks back toward the copse of trees with a worried look on his face.
“Look, if there’s a dragon back there, Stark’s gonna kill me, so if there is a dragon--”
“We have to smuggle it out,” Steve says. “Of course. Where are we gonna take it?”
“Maybe we can adopt it,” Sam says, smiling.
“Sure,” Steve says. “Give it a good name, a good home.”
“I used to live in the Tower, but after this--” Sam looks up at the spire dubiously.
“I live over there,” Steve says, gesturing at the castle without thought. “I’m actually pretty sure the King would be thrilled with a dragon--”
“Wait, the King?” Sam asks, mouth dropping open.
“Oh.” Steve turns bright red. “Yeah I’m--”
“Oh shit,” Sam breathes out. “Shit! You’re the prince, shit, Tony’s going to kill me, I’m sorry your highn--”
“Calm down,” Steve laughs. “I’m Steve. I’m not Bucky. Him. The prince, Bucky.”
“Thought the prince was named James?” Sam asks.
“Only on bad days,” Steve says. He’s grinning more now. Sam’s easy to talk to. Steve doesn’t find that with people often, or ever. “You’re a mage?”
“Mage apprentice,” Sam says, groaning now that they’re back to talking about magic and the colossal disaster he’s apparently made. “I started with Stark--the Merlin a few months ago. The Order said I had potential or something, but so far I’ve only managed to turn his table into a snapping turtle, his soup into a boot, and now maybe his barn into a dragon.”
“Maybe you should stop trying to turn things into other things,” Steve observes.
“Yeah,” Sam says, distracted, as the smoke now starts billowing even more furiously than before. There are pink tendrils beginning to appear. Sam backs up, tugging Steve by the arm. “Something to remember for next time. Hey, I think we should maybe run.”
Steve doesn’t need to be told twice. He and Sam hurtle around the lake, disrupting a rather angry swan and about half a dozen ducks, and just manage to get to the other side and dive behind a large, stone monument to one of the Crown’s ancient and venerable ancestors, before the trees alight in a bright, blinding, turquoise light.
“Shit! ” Sam says next to Steve.
The air around them feels heavier somehow, weighted with something that prickles against Steve’s skin. Once the light fades back to normal, Steve sticks his head around the side of the statue. At the entrance to the copse, there stands a tall man with dark hair and a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. He’s breathing heavily and his arms are raised in the air. His skin is covered in what looks like blue, purple, pink, and turquoise colored powder. He looks angry and amused and bewildered all at once.
“Wilson! ” Tony Stark shouts. “Why in magic’s name is there a talking sheep where my shed used to be! ”
Tony Stark is eccentric, Steve quickly learns, there’s no way around it. After the sheep incident, Sam invites Steve into the Tower and Tony, now normal-colored again, offers him a cup of tea.
“Take an apprentice, they said. It’ll be fun, they said,” he’s muttering to himself at the other side of the room--the kitchen, as far as Steve can tell, although in addition to food and potions ingredients, there are any manner of gadgets littered across the tables and shelves. He’s stirring something in a cauldron and Steve gives Sam a look, but Sam shrugs.
“Could be a potion,” he says. “Could be one of his ‘famous’ soups. They’re famous because they’re terrible.”
“Do I come into your home, criticize your potions?” Tony says loudly, as he vigorously stirs a concoction that is now emitting thick smoke that smells like flowers and, strangely, pineapple.
“Yeah, actually,” Sam says. “All the time. Yesterday, in fact. This morning, I think. Right now, even.”
“You turned my favorite shed into a sheep,” Tony says.
“First of all, you only have one shed. Had. Second, I’m not the Merlin,” Sam says. “I’m learning. I’m your apprentice. You’re supposed to be teaching me things.”
“I’m trying. Can’t you see I’m trying? You can’t teach an old griffin to do new aerobics,” Tony says.
“That’s literally not a saying,” Sam replies.
“So, you’re the wardling,” Tony says, ignoring him. He brings a bowl of the concoction to Steve, puts it down with a spoon.
“I’m the wardling,” Steve confirms. He eyes the “soup”(?) dubiously. Soup isn’t supposed to smoke or smell like flowers, as far as he can tell. “Thank you?”
“It smells better than it tastes,” Sam says at the same time Tony says, “It tastes better than it smells.”
Steve relaxes with a smile. He hasn’t been exposed to that much magic in his lifetime, only the knowledge that the sword in the stone is magical in some manner, but neither the Merlin nor his magic seem particularly awful right now. He might even like them.
“You like it?” Tony asks, jerking his head toward the castle. “Growing up there?”
Steve shrugs, looks out the window toward his home.
“I can’t complain,” he says.
“You can,” the wizard says. “And you should. Often and as loudly as you can.”
Sam rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling.
“You inviting him to stay here with us?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Tony says with a grin. Then he jerks his head toward Sam. “You can have his room. He can sleep on the sheep.”
Steve becomes a frequent visitor of the Tower after that. He likes Sam and Tony, enjoys their banter, Sam’s dry sense of humor, and Tony’s eccentricities. He likes the thrum of magic in the air, how he can’t quite reach it, but can feel it slide across his skin. The Tower is quiet, but not too quiet, and only here can he escape the prying eyes of the other Knightlings, of the King and Queen, and the sense that he should belong, but just can’t, or doesn’t. Here, in the Tower, where Tony frequently turns one thing into another or Sam tries to turn one thing into another and actually ends up turning another thing into something else, where Tony mutters incantations wherever he goes, and where animals are always flying in through the windows or walking through the front door, asking for a favor, Steve feels normal.
He spends his days with the Knightlings, his nights with Bucky and the King and the Queen, and in the middle, whenever he can spare a minute, he spends time with Sam and Tony. It’s the most content he’s ever been. It’s winter before it becomes a problem.
The problem is when Bucky finds out.
Bucky’s been busy for months now, on official and unofficial princeling duties. Steve sees him at training, sometimes, and at dinner, on other occasions. But sometimes, now, he’ll go days without seeing his best friend. He tries not to take it personally. He knows it can’t always just be the two of them and, in fact, one day it won’t be, in a way that will be irrevocable. As he grows older, he learns to recognize the things he’s feeling and bury them deep, in any manner he can. Pining for what you can never have doesn’t seem like a good policy to him.
Some days, Bucky will come back from his duties exhausted, go straight to his chambers and drop asleep. Other days, he’ll seek out Steve and the two of them will sit on the parapet by the chapel, watching the sun set, pockets full of treats pilfered from the kitchens. Steve thinks he can weather through the other days, if only he can continue having these.
“Are you avoiding me?” Bucky asks once, sleepily, as they watch the colors bleed into the air.
“Avoiding you?” Steve frowns. He’s peeling a walnut from its shell. “How am I gonna avoid you? We live across the hall from each other. Also we’re on the roof together.”
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Bucky says, quietly. He pulls his knees up to his chest and rests his chin on top of his knees. “Are we growing apart?”
Steve pauses his efforts, stares at Bucky in astonishment.
“We’re almost fifteen now,” Bucky says with a shrug. “I guess people grow apart as they get older. And you’re never here, I never see yo--”
Steve drops his walnut, turns his body toward Bucky.
“You’re always busy! I’m the one who’s here,” Steve says. He’s frowning. He hasn’t liked thinking about this, how lonely he feels when Bucky’s busy. He likes their other friends just fine, but it’s not the same. They tolerate Steve--like him, even--but no one ever looks at him the way Bucky looks at him. Maybe that’s selfish, but he’s fourteen, he’s allowed.
“I know,” Bucky says. He sounds miserable. He pulls his knees closer to his chest. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired. And I miss you.”
“Hey,” Steve says. He takes Bucky’s face between his hands, looks at him with the full force of his will. “I’m here. You’re not getting rid of me. You’re the only person I care about.”
“You don’t mean that--” Bucky starts and Steve shakes his head.
“You are. You’re my best friend,” he says. “I love you.”
He almost chokes on the words, the feeling in his chest thudding in near panic, a solid, crushing weight against his heart. He tries to mean it platonically as possible and he thinks he even manages to. Mostly.
“Listen, Steve,” Bucky says. He looks down at his lap. “When I get married--”
“It doesn’t matter,” Steve hears himself saying. He hates this topic. He can’t get away from it fast enough. “I’ll just move down the hall, you and your--princessling will still have to put up with me. She’ll ask hey, why’s that weird kid still here, and you’ll have to say, honestly I’ve tried to get him to leave, but I think he might be a ghost now, his spirit’s tied to this place, he’ll never leave. We should just accept it and invite him to dinner.”
Bucky gives him a look that Steve can’t really read, but after a moment, he relaxes. He smiles, that charming, easy smile that he uses to de-escalate situation. It drives Steve insane, as though he is someone to be managed.
“Yeah. Okay. It’s a promise. When your spirit starts haunting the halls of the castle I’ll at least invite you to dinner a few times,” Bucky says. He looks a little brighter for it. Then he smiles. “I love you too. Best friends.”
“Yeah,” Steve says after a moment, with a light laugh that he doesn’t really feel. “Best friends.”
Sometimes, Steve will be mid-story before he feels Bucky’s head lolling against his shoulder, his eyes closed, breathing in and out deeply. Steve will hold his breath then, unwilling to wake him up. Every once in awhile, when he feels particularly brave or melancholy, he’ll reach to his side, press his fingers into Bucky’s soft, brown hair. He imagines running his fingers through the strands, fingertips brushing against the short bristles at the back of Bucky’s neck. Once, he musters the courage to kiss Bucky on his temple. In his mind, he’s kissing him elsewhere too.
It’s foolish, Steve knows, because Bucky’s his best friend and his Prince and betrothed to someone else besides. Steve, all of fourteen--almost fifteen--years old, and deeply in love with his best friend, can’t help but watch him as they grow, knowing he’ll always be close, but also knowing he’ll never be close enough.
So it hurts him, more than he cares to admit, when the hurt and anger cross Bucky’s face. Steve and Sam come out of the woods, carrying chickens that Tony needs delivered to the other side of the courtyard as soon as possible, for reasons he will probably never explain, and probably should never be asked about, laughing and bumping shoulders with one another.
“Steve?” Bucky asks, warily, sharply.
Steve stops in his tracks, surprised, and Sam, who had been telling him a story about the mages’ school he went to as a child, slows next to him.
“Bucky, oh--” Steve sounds flustered, but only because he wasn’t expecting Bucky back yet. He’s been gone two days in meetings with the King and ambassadors from the Northern Realm. He had had a busy few days before that too; he and Steve have only run into each other once in the past week. “Hey, you’re done?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, running a hand through his hair. He looks annoyed. “Why are you carrying a chicken?”
Steve blinks and looks at the chickens in his arms and in Sam’s. Sam looks at him and neither can help the grin and laugh that escape.
“Sorry, Sam and I were--”
“Sam,” Bucky says, coolly. “Who’s Sam?”
There’s something in his tone that makes Steve frown.
“I’m Sam,” Sam says, nodding. “I’d shake your hand, but, well, chickens.”
“Shaking hands isn’t usually the proper protocol,” Bucky says, still cool. “Usually people bow to their Prince.”
Steve’s mouth falls open and Sam freezes.
“Bucky!” he starts, but Sam Wilson just shakes his head.
“Sorry, I didn’t know who you were. We haven’t met before--”
“Should I polish my crown for you?” Bucky asks, definitely cold this time. Steve notices the crown in his mop of hair for the first time. Bucky hates wearing that thing, hates bringing attention to it even more.
Sam’s eyes narrow.
“Didn’t know it was like that. Steve said you hated--”
“Steve isn’t your Prince,” Bucky says and Steve, beside Sam, bristles.
“What the hell. Bucky, you’re being a dic-- ” he starts, but Sam cuts him off. He bows, chickens and all.
“My apologies. Your highness.”
The silence that follows is unnerving and uncomfortable. Steve looks from Sam to Bucky and back, trying to figure out what is happening. He’s not entirely sure when this animosity developed, but there’s clear dislike written on both of their faces.
“Well, Steve,” Bucky says, stiffly. “If you can deign to spare just a second for your best friend, I’ll be inside.”
Bucky whirls on his heels and crosses the grounds to the castle entrance before Steve can say anything else.
“So that’s the Prince,” Sam says, after a minute. He’s looking at the entrance with distaste. “Don’t think I care for him.”
It takes another moment for Steve to realize he’s shaking, he’s so angry.
“Yeah,” he says. “At this moment, I don’t think I do either.”
Steve finds Bucky in his tutorial chamber, brooding. He’s checked his chambers, the dining chamber, and the library, before finding him here, pretending to read a book, as angry as he is sulking.
“What the hell was that,” Steve demands, slamming the door behind him.
Bucky looks up at him and for a brief moment, guilt flashes across his face. Then it smoothes into something harder, cooler.
“You want to tell me why you were such an asshole to Sam?” he asks. He’s shaking again, just remembering it. He had apologized to Sam profusely on Bucky’s behalf at least four times before Sam had threatened to turn him into a chicken.
“Didn’t know you were Sam’s keeper,” Bucky says. “When did you start hanging around him anyway?”
“None of your business,” Steve says, because he’s angry.
“He’s a mage, or did he forget to tell you that?” Bucky challenges.
“Of course he’s a mage,” Steve snaps. “Do you think we were carrying chickens to bring to your dinner table, you royal brat? We were carrying them for Tony--”
“Oh, it’s Tony now!” Bucky says, jumping up from his seat. “You on first name basis with the Merlin?”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “I don’t see you having a problem with the Merlin and the mages when he’s protecting your family --”
“They’re your family too,” Bucky nearly shouts. He’s so angry now, so worked up, that he slams his fist against the table, knocking a goblet to the ground. “We’re your family, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“Of course I haven’t forgotten,” Steve says. He’s angry and perplexed and feels a little sick. He hates fighting with Bucky. They rarely fight. But he’s not going to give Bucky a free pass for being an asshole when he was the one being an asshole.
“News to me,” Bucky sneers. “Now that you’re always with your new friend. Guess a Prince wasn’t enough for you, you have to have a mage too?”
Steve’s ears are ringing. They’re actually ringing, he’s so livid. He stares at Bucky in cold fury.
“Are you serious,” he says after a moment of disbelief, voice low. “Is that what you think of me? That I’m only friends with you because you’re the Prince?”
Something crosses Bucky’s face. He looks stricken, like he knows he’s gone too far.
“No,” Steve says. His voice is wavering, he’s so angry. “You know I don’t make friends easily. You know I don’t care what your title is. You know I would do anything for you and--” His throat feels thick, sticky. “Screw you.”
“Steve,” Bucky says and he looks completely changed now, scared and remorseful. “I’m sorry, I’ve been so stressed and I didn’t mean it--”
But Steve’s backing up toward the door. He never cries, he hasn’t cried in years, but this--this is something he can’t handle right now.
“You hold all the power in this friendship and you know it,” Steve says. “Screw you for using that against me.”
He turns and leaves the room before Bucky can follow.
He doesn’t speak to Bucky for a week after that, avoids him whenever he can. The King and Queen sense something is off between the two of them, but they don’t intervene. They make a concerted effort to never interfere in the matters of teenage boys.
It’s two weeks later that Steve comes back to his chamber after a long day of training with the Knightlings and watching Tony and Sam brew spells, and finds Bucky sitting on his bed. Bucky stands up immediately and he looks so miserable, so heartbroken, that Steve doesn’t have the heart or the energy to turn around and leave.
“Please,” Bucky says, already pleading. “Let me apologize, Stevie. I’m not leaving until you let me apologize.”
Steve looks at him warily, but doesn’t stop him. He just drops his training gear on the chair closest to his desk.
“Steve, look at me,” Bucky says. “Please.”
With a sigh, Steve turns toward him. Bucky inches closer until he’s in front of him, wringing his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he says, miserably. “I’m so so sorry. I was completely out of line. I was tired and stressed and jealous and I missed you and then I saw you with Sam and you were so happy and--”
“Is this your apology?” Steve asks, dryly. “Blaming it on me and Sam?”
“No! Fuck,” Bucky scrubs his hands over his face. “No, I’m not. I’m not making excuses. I was an asshole. You were right to call me an asshole.”
“You were the biggest asshole, Bucky,” Steve says, but his voice doesn’t carry the same edge that it did before. He’s already forgiven Bucky, of course. In truth, he probably forgave him at least a week ago. He’s never been good at staying mad at him.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Bucky says. “I’m so sorry. I was out of line. I don’t know why I said any of that. I don’t care about my title. You know I don’t.”
“I know,” Steve says. He’s tired. He’s sore from training and he’s cold from the chill air outside and he’s probably developing a cold as they speak and he’s tired and he’s missed his best friend. “You hate that crown.”
“I don’t know why I said that,” Bucky says, with a slight groan. “I hate that thing. It’s obnoxious. I don’t care. I’m sorry.”
“Fine,” he says. “You’re forgiven.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything for a moment. Actually looks overcome with emotion, relief being the first and foremost of them.
“I’m sorry, Steve,” he says again. “I don’t hold any of the power--that’s. I hope you don’t think that.”
Steve shrugs and Bucky frowns.
“That’s not true at all,” Bucky says. “I never think of--it’s never the prince and the wardling. People say that, but it makes no sense to me. I’d be lost without you. The last few weeks have been--miserable.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “For me too.”
“I’ll apologize to Sam,” Bucky says.
“It’s the least you could do,” Steve replies, with a pointed look. Bucky at least has the wherewithal to look embarrassed and chastened.
“I missed you,” Bucky says, softly. He reaches forward, tucks a stray strand of Steve’s hair behind his ear. It’s an old gesture, repeated time and time again from childhood. Steve almost sighs.
“Yeah, I know,” Steve says. “Me too.”
Bucky draws him into a hug, lean, muscled arms enveloping Steve’s bird-like frame. It’s not fair, how much Bucky’s grown and how much he hasn’t. Still, sometimes, when Bucky holds him like this, it doesn’t seem too much at all. It actually seems perfectly complementary, like they fit together and, maybe, were meant to.
Bucky does apologize to Sam, eventually, although it takes a lot longer than that for the two of them to actually start liking each other. In fact, for at least the first two or three years after meeting, Bucky and Sam are cool toward one another, just avoiding being outwardly hostile. They play civil for Steve, whom they both love dearly and whom, it turns out, neither of them can say no to. It isn’t until they’re seventeen and Steve collapses in the Tower from a lung infection none of them expected that they finally realize they don’t have to be in competition.
Something changes overnight between the two of them then, born maybe of the possibility of losing their best friend. It takes Steve nearly two months to recover and in that time, when they’re not spending time in Steve’s chamber with him, Bucky and Sam start spending time together too, mostly because Steve’s too weak and sick to do anything with either of them. They have the same sense of humor, it turns out. They also both like reading, have ravenous appetites, and some strange fascination with a game called the Spires of Ogre’s Gate.
By the time Steve gets better, Bucky and Sam are not only friendly, they’re almost warm toward one another. The first time Steve sees this, after they’ve all gone down to the lake to see if they can catch a glimpse of the lake monster that Tony has accidentally created, he actually laughs in their faces, hard, for a full minute.
“Holy crap,” he says, after he’s finally stopped laughing and the two of them are looking at him indignantly. “You’re both idiots. I’ve been trying to tell you for years.”
Bucky tells Sam to turn Steve into a duck and Sam almost does, but then the lake monster emerges and the three of them--Steve, Bucky, and Sam--get distracted.
before, or: training and some books.
Brock Rumlow is a piece of shit. This is not new information. He's been a piece of shit ever since he walked in through the gates of the castle town, all of eight years old and carrying a chip on his shoulder the size of the Merlin’s Tower. He comes from a wealthy family in a town adjacent to the castle and he has, ostensibly, been told all his life that this means something. He’s twice the size of Steve and has been a colossal asshole to him since the first day they met, partnered up by Instructor Coulson in the training grounds. He had taken one look at Steve, then seven years old and tiny as a fledgling bird, and evidently found him wanting.
That first day, they're practicing holding swords, nothing else. They're partnered up to help each other learn the technique. Imagine Steve’s surprise when, in the middle of adjusting his grip on the wooden stick, he feels a sharp pain on the top of his wrists. He gasps in pain and the wooden stick goes clattering to the ground. He looks up at Rumlow, shocked, only to see Coulson looking at the both of them.
“Is everything okay over there?” he asks.
“Steve can't hold his stick,” Brock says, all innocent. “He says it's too heavy.”
The other Knightlings snicker. Steve flushes in indignation.
“I don’t think it’s too--”
“Try again, boys,” Coulson says, returning his attention to Clint Barton.
Steve glares a little at Brock, but picks up his stick. Again, he tries to hold it using the technique Coulson had shown him. This time, he feels a hard, painful hit on his forearm.
“Ow!” he yells and the stick goes clattering to the ground.
This happens two more times, until Coulson takes pity on Steve and switches out his stick for something lighter, something a baby could hold.
Steve, angry, humiliated, and protesting, corners Brock after training, an hour later.
“Hey! What was that for?”
Brock looks at him loftily, a nasty smirk on his face.
“I don't know what you're talking about, duckling.”
“What did you call me?”
“If it looks like a duckling and is as big as a duckling…”
Steve lunges for him then.
The two tussle on the ground, grappling at each other, hitting one another. Brock is twice the size of Steve. By the time someone comes and breaks up their fight, Steve has a black eye, a bruise across his jaw, and cuts and scrapes across his arms and legs. Brock just looks a little mussed up. He smirks as the guard pulls them apart.
Steve doesn't tattle on Brock. Even then he has principles set in stone. So Brock doesn't get in trouble and Steve gets a lecture from the King and Queen for his effort.
Steve hates Brock Rumlow from that moment on. So does Bucky.
There’s at least half a dozen incidents during their first year alone. Most are the rivalries of children, taunts and bullying, pushing and shoving, spreading rumors about Steve when Steve is out sick or any time Bucky has to intervene. Steve hates it when Bucky does this, breaks up their fights. He never has the upper hand with Brock and it makes him feel disappointed and embarrassed that Bucky learns this so quickly, that whenever he sees the two of them in the courtyard together, he barrels across, shoves into Brock before Steve can think to stop him. They’re somewhere between twelve and thirteen, old enough to be embarrassed and for it to matter, when Steve finally snaps at him.
It’s after tutorials, when Steve is trying to catch up on his reading when Brock finds him.
“Look at the duckling in its natural habitat,” the sneer comes behind him. The hairs at the back of Steve’s neck prickle immediately, that low, angry thrum in his stomach every time he even sees Brock, cold and familiar.
He tries to take a deep breath.
“Leave me alone, Rumlow,” Steve mutters. He tries to ignore him. Every time they end up in a fight, the Queen takes him aside, tells him about the merits of patience, of not letting those who are baser than him get under his skin. He will never measure up to you, darling, the Queen has said to him, many times, and maybe Steve believes it, but maybe he doesn’t, because it never matters either way. Brock always gets under his skin.
“Not so brave without your boyfriend around, are you?” Brock says, coming up behind Steve and shoving his head down into his book.
“What the shit,” Steve growls and smacks Brock’s hand away. “Don’t you have someone to be disappointing?”
“The only disappointment here is you. Or d’you think I didn’t hear what Coulson said to you the other day?”
Steve flushes, despite himself. He’d been having a few rough weeks in training. They had moved on to heavier swords, to more rigorous exercises. Steve had managed well so far, but his body is too small, his strength and endurance too little for what they’re starting. He’s been working extra hours, exhausting himself just to gain some muscle, a little more stamina, but his lungs are too weak, his body unwilling to put on any weight. A week ago, he had pushed himself too hard during training and ended up with an asthma attack. The Queen had forbid him from from returning to training for two full days. Coulson had suggested he not move on to the broader swords just yet.
“I can’t believe they thought someone like you could be worthy enough to pull the sword from the stone,” Brock says. He’s moved around the table now, fingers dangerously close to Steve’s inkwell. “It’s an insult to the rest of us.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Steve asks, angry and flustered.
“You think we don’t know about you? We haven’t heard about your sad, tragic past? Your parents died doing something stupid and the King and Queen took pity on you.” Brock says and Steve is up on his feet immediately. “They’re probably embarrassed of having someone so weak and useless hanging around. You’re not fit to shine the Prince’s shoes, let alone--”
“Shut up,” Steve says, shaking. “I’m their family too, they love--”
“They had no choice,” Brock says. He can tell he’s hit a nerve, so he’s closing in on Steve, like a shark with blood in the water. “You’re pathetic. A poor, pathetic, orphan boy no one wants--”
Steve launches himself at Brock, but before he gets to him, Brock’s been slammed back against the shelves behind him.
“Say that again,” Bucky snarls, arm at Brock’s throat. “Tell me again how no one wants him.”
“Bucky--” Steve starts, angrily, but Bucky’s too busy trying to strangle Brock to hear Steve.
“I ought to send you back to the pathetic village you came from, you overgrown, pea-brained waste of space.” Bucky’s so livid, he’s turning red. Brock is too, but for other reasons. He can’t breathe.
“Bucky, ” Steve says again, but this time his hands are at Bucky’s shoulders, trying to drag him off of Brock. “If you kill him, Coulson’s gonna kill you .”
“He’s worth ten times you,” Bucky spits out as Steve hauls him back. “A hundred times. The sword will never yield to you.”
Brock glares daggers at the both of them, massaging his throat.
“Can’t go a day without your knight-in-shining-princeling rescuing you, can you? Pathetic duckling.”
“He’s not my--” Steve starts, but Bucky tries to launch forward again and he gets cut off. His hands clasp around Bucky’s shoulder just as the librarian finally finds them.
“What is going on here? ”
“Nothing,” Brock says. He knocks over Steve’s inkwell in spite and Steve watches in distress as the dark ink bleeds into his books, into his homework assignment. He’ll have to start over.
“Mr. Rumlow,” the librarian says severely, but Brock doesn’t care. He throws Steve and Bucky both a look, smirks nastily at Steve, and slinks back into the stacks and out of the library.
“Steve,” Bucky says as Steve, shaking, starts to clean up the mess.
“Don’t,” Steve says at him, low and angry.
“Don’t talk to me,” Steve snaps. Bucky freezes next to him, but Steve doesn’t care. He feels sick to his stomach, powerless and disappointed, every bit as pathetic as Brock said he was.
Bucky helps Steve clean up his books in silence and follows him back to his chambers. It isn’t until Steve washes the ink off of his hands that he turns on Bucky.
“I want you to leave me alone,” he says.
Bucky’s mouth drops open, his face immediately stricken.
“You make everything worse,” Steve says and he realizes, with horror, that he’s close to tears.
“I was just trying to help,” Bucky says. His eyes are large, round. He can’t hide the look of hurt there, because Bucky can never hide anything from Steve.
“How is he ever going to stop picking on me if I can’t fight for myself? How is anyone ever going to take me seriously?” Steve says. He has to take a few breaths to calm the waver in his voice. He’s overwhelmed with emotion; anger and humiliation, dangerously low self confidence, and just an edge of despair.
“What are you talking about? Everyone loves--”
“Shut up, Bucky,” Steve says. His hands are balled into fists. “You never listen to me. I’ve told you to let me deal with him and you never listen. You always have to be the hero, you always have to be my hero.”
“But we’re best fr--” Bucky starts, but Steve doesn’t let him finish. He shoves Bucky into the wall with all of the strength he has.
“I’m not pathetic,” he says and, to his shame, he starts crying. He’s just so tired. “I know I’ll never be the one to pull the sword, but--”
“Steve,” Bucky breathes out. “Stevie.”
Before Steve knows what’s happening, Bucky has his arms wrapped around him.
“Steve, you’re the bravest person I know. You might not be as big as Rumlow, but you’re a hundred times the person he is,” Bucky insists. “I meant it. I mean it. Don’t I get a say in it?”
“A say in what?” Steve asks. His face is buried in Bucky’s chest. He’s trying to stop from crying more.
“It’s about me, isn’t it?” Bucky says. “The legend. The sword, all of that. Only the person worthy enough to save me is gonna be able to get it out. I don’t know why the sword gets to decide. I think I should get to decide who’s going to save me.”
“That’s not how it works,” Steve says.
“Sure it is,” Bucky says. He’s starting to relax under Steve. He rubs Steve’s back soothingly and Steve, despite himself, hiccoughs. “You think I want an asshole like Rumlow rescuing me? No, it’s gotta be my best friend. You’re the one who’s gonna get the sword out of the stone, you’re gonna be the greatest Knight in the entire kingdom.”
“It’s not nice to tease,” Steve says, miserably.
“Who’s teasing?” Bucky pulls back, looks Steve in the eyes seriously. “It’s you, kid. I pick you.”
It’s cheesy and Bucky clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but Steve is so grateful, so overwhelmed, that he doesn’t say anything at all. He just nods.
“Let me handle him, Buck,” Steve says, after he finally collects himself. “Please.”
“Okay,” Bucky says, reluctantly. “Fine. No more interfering.”
He’s not going to keep his promise, Steve knows. He’s too stupidly good, his best friend, valiant and loyal to a fault. He will never let someone else hurt Steve and Steve knows it.
Bucky smiles at him, bright and encouraging, and kisses the top of his head. Steve sighs and, despite himself, smiles back.
Steve will think later think, later, that this was the moment he realized that he was in love with him.
It’s not new, for the Knightlings to try and approach the sword. It’s not usually the Instructors who pull them away from it, when they try. The sword is magical, encased in enchantment. It will only let the worthiest of people approach it at all; anyone it deems less than will be pushed back by a forcefield that runs through their limbs like caustic electricity. Who the sword deserves worthy changes on any given day. Once, when Steve was particularly angry at Bucky, the sword wouldn’t let him within a ten foot radius of it. The next day, when Bucky got in trouble with his Instructors for not doing his homework and Steve took the blame for him, the ten foot radius was gone. No one has ever gotten close enough to touch the hilt. That, it will not relent for anybody.
“I shall do it this day,” Thor says, one hot, lazy, summer day when they’re sixteen and bored. They have had this same scene play out time and time again over the years. It almost invariably starts with one of them, lazy and bored.
“Yeah, sure, bud,” Bucky says, snorting.
They’re on the grass near Steve’s favorite tree. Clint’s fallen asleep with a book over his face and Natasha is tying his legs together for entertainment. Sam is playing with a spell that turns plants into varying gradients of color and Steve is watching his efforts with fascination. Since that fateful day, years ago, Sam has gotten much better at controlling his magic. Bucky’s head is resting in Steve’s lap and it takes all of Steve’s very little self control to not put his hand in Bucky’s hair, to run his fingers through.
“You are approaching your twenty first birthday,” Thor says. “If we do not wish for you to fall dead of curse, one of us will need to best the magic sword.”
“No one’s falling dead from a curse,” Steve says, maybe a little too sharply. They’ve been talking about this more and more in recent years, this legend that the Prince will die on his twenty first birthday if someone doesn’t pull the sword out of the stone. It makes Steve feel ill every time, the thought of losing Bucky. He actually can’t think about it at all.
“He might,” Natasha says, nodding at Bucky. She finishes tying a particularly tricky knot. Clint lets out a little snore. “The sword hasn’t let anyone closer than, what was it last time?”
“I believe it was the princeling,” Thor says. “Five feet.”
It was Bucky himself who had gotten closest to the sword, actually. Three feet from the hilt on his fourteenth birthday, two weeks after he had ridden out with the Knights and helped rescue an orphan girl from a burning village.
“Great,” Natasha snorts. “Maybe by your twenty first, someone will be able to step on the rock itself.”
“I’m not planning on dying,” Bucky says, lazily. This time, when no one’s looking, Steve really does put his hand in Bucky’s hair. Just at the crown, where it’s not noticeable. Bucky doesn’t say anything, but a soft smile appears on his face.
“No one ever does,” Sam says, wisely. A dandelion in front of him turns a brilliant shade of turquoise.
“Go on, then, Thor,” Steve says, annoyed at this conversation. “Pull it out.”
Thor gets up from where he was lazing, shakes off the grass and crosses the green toward the courtyard. Everyone perks up, expectantly, except Bucky. He seems exceptionally content where he is.
“I am the Mighty Thor,” Thor pronounces as his feet hit the cobblestones. “And you, Mighty Sword, shall bow to your equal.”
Natasha snorts with laughter next to Steve and even he has to smile. Thor is impossible to stay annoyed at.
Thor takes a step closer, and then another one. He breaches the ten foot parameter and then takes another step closer.
Steve blinks and straightens.
For a few feet, Thor continues inching closer. Every step he takes, the breath catches in Steve’s throat. Everyone is watching the blond giant raptly, eyes glued to him as he approaches the stone.
For a brief moment, Steve thinks he’s going to do it. He’s within five feet of the sword.
Then his foot brushes the stone itself and Steve gasps--
But not before Thor is blasted back with a cry.
He’s lifted off his feet and thrown back, luckily into the grass. After a moment of tense, concerned silence, Thor yelps, “Curses to Asgard!”
The four of them fall into one another, giggling helplessly.
It, of course, starts a challenge. Natasha manages seven feet, Sam, six and a half. Bucky himself manages five before being blasted back onto the grass.
“Come on, Steve!” Sam cheers as they all watch him, the group now on their feet. “Save your princeling!”
“Yeah, sure,” Steve grumbles. “Let me just go pluck the sword out of the stone.”
“Save me, Stevie!” Bucky gasps out dramatically, swooning into Sam’s arms.
“And do it fast,” Sam complains. “He’s heavy.”
Steve rolls his eyes as he approaches the courtyard. He makes it past the ten foot mark and breathes easier. Okay, maybe he won’t be embarrassed today. He hears the others teasing him behind his back and he smiles, shakes his head ruefully. He’s so distracted by how stupid his friends are, how much he stupidly loves him, that he doesn’t even notice his friends start to quiet down.
It isn’t until his foot touches the base of the stone that he realizes how quiet it is.
“Holy shit,” Bucky’s voice comes from behind him somewhere.
Steve blinks, expecting the power to run through him, to blast him backwards, but nothing happens. Swallowing nervously, he looks back at his friends, but they’re all staring at him, open-mouthed.
“Well,” Sam says. “Go on.”
After a moment, Steve does.
One foot steps on the base, then another. He’s within three feet of the sword. This is the closest any of them have ever managed and Steve thinks it must be a joke, maybe this is the wrong stone altogether. He takes another step before he feels the energy start, at the balls of his feet and then running through his soles, up his ankles, and his legs.
It doesn’t feel painful, actually. It feels welcoming, almost, a warm, embracing power that feels less foreign to his body than it does familiar.
He can see it in his mind’s eye, somehow, the sword, him lifting it. He thinks he sees a dark man with an eyepatch, although he doesn’t know why.
He’s within a foot and a half before the sword reacts, the enchantment finally rejecting him. He feels it sweep him off his feet, push him up, into the air, and arc back onto the grass. Somehow, he manages to land on Bucky himself.
The both of them lay on the grass, blinking up at the sky, dazed.
It takes a minute before everyone erupts.
“Steven, you are the worthiest among us all--”
“I can’t believe you did that--”
“You almost had it--”
“My hero,” Bucky says, looking at Steve beside him, grinning. His smile is wide, bright, blinding in its belief and happiness.
“It was a fluke,” Steve mutters, pink. He sounds too pleased with himself for it to fool anyone, though, and everyone laughs.
Everyone falls around him and Bucky after, laughing, talking, discussing Steve’s heroic feat.
It’s another ten minutes before any of them hear an indignant cry behind them, by the tree.
“Hey!” Clint’s voice cries out. “Why am I all tied up?”
in the meantime, somewhere else, or: a darker magic.
There’s a mirror on a wall. It’s large and wrought in dark metal, stretching from the ground toward the stone ceiling, stopping a mere foot or two from the top. The surface of the mirror ripples, sometimes reflecting what it sees, other times reflecting things that are not there at all.
It is enchanted, of course. Everything is enchanted in this story.
The man--if he can be called that any longer--peels back skin from his fingers in disgust. It’s bright red and falling in small clumps, as though his very flesh is rotting. It is possible that it is. Dark magic always holds a price and when curses aren’t manifested, the price folds in on the one who cast it. He had cast his curse a long, long time ago. He had been a fool then, hadn’t realized what Fury was going to do; hadn’t anticipated how long he would have to wait. His body, held together by a few strands of magic, a dozen sacrifices or so, and sheer, vehement willpower, is nearing an end. He has looked through all of the sources of power, the books that would tell him otherwise, and he had found them wanting--there was no way to transfer to another body, to find another host. Death could not be cheated, not even by magic.
But then, a mere twenty years ago, it had happened. After two centuries of agonizing, impatient waiting, Fury’s spell had finally run its course.
The man walks up to the mirror, as he always does. His face is skeletal, his eyes sunken deep into its sockets. Magic had taken his ears from him, had eaten away at his nose. It had boiled into his skin and left it a blood red. But still, he is alive. And when the curse finally manifests, he will no longer be bound to this mirror, his magic will be his again, he will be replenished all that it has cost him.
He turns his head side to side when he hears a knock on the door.
“What,” he snaps, angrily.
The door opens and a young girl comes in. She’s maybe thirteen or fourteen, with long brown hair, and eyes that glow amber. He had found her with her brother, twins with an unimaginable amount of power. He had killed her brother in front of her, had drank his blood to help bind his body together. She had watched him, hatred and loathing in her eyes, anguish even. She had loved him, he supposed, her twin. What was his name again? Something with a P.
The act had bound her to him in ways she could never break--not by magic, but by vengeance. She needed to stay with him, always, so that she could one day kill him. It was loyalty, in a way.
“His birthday approaches, my lord,” she says. She looks at him like she always does, with a desperate kind of hunger, as though she would like nothing better than to tear him to pieces. Undoubtedly that is exactly what she would like to do. But she cannot, not until he is stronger. It means nothing if she kills him while he is weak; although he is never that, the Red Merlin is never weak.
“A boy’s twenty first birthday is a most magical occasion,” the Red Merlin says.
He gazes into the mirror and it ripples. There was a fairytale about this once, he recalls. Mirror, mirror, on the wall. But this mirror has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with power. He is beholden to it. To survive Fury’s fight, he had bound his magic to the object, an ancient mirror of magical heritage--rumored to have belonged to the original Merlin himself--that both preserved and amplified what magic he had left and what magic he would gain over the next two hundred years.
“Perhaps we shall send him a present,” the Red Merlin says. “After all, he is our Crown Prince. It is only polite.”
“What would be polite would be to gut you like a fish,” the girl hisses out.
“I do not think he would like that at all, dear Wanda,” the Red Merlin says. He turns from the mirror and gives her a ghastly, horrible smile. “You know nothing about boys. Your brother really should have taught you better.”
before, or: a ball and its accompanying shenanigans.
“Are you sure?” Steve asks, frowning. He’s tugging on his bowtie for the 127th time. Behind him, the Queen smiles warmly, smooths his lapels down.
“You look dashing, sweetheart,” she says and kisses the crown of his head. Steve tries not to blush, but, as usual, his fair complexion doesn’t allow him to hide it.
“I haven’t worn a suit, since--”
“James’s seventeenth birthday,” the Queen smiles wider. “I remember. You both looked so handsome.”
Bucky’s seventeenth birthday had been spent, for Bucky, miserably. There had been an important delegation from the Southern Isles, so they had spent the entire day in meetings and the evening at the formal dinner and dance, before the two of them had escaped to their favorite parapet and gotten drunk off of a stolen bottle of wine.
“I’ve grown a little,” Steve says, examining himself in the mirror. It was true and he didn’t feel too embarrassed admitting it to the Queen. She was, after all, the closest thing to a mother he had.
“Don’t be modest,” the Queen chides. “The tailor’s measurements were several inches different from last time.”
That makes Steve feel a little better. He’s still not the biggest and he never will be, but somewhere between his eighteenth and twentieth birthdays his body had finally decided to hold on to a little more weight and a little more height than before. In truth, it’s probably the potions he’s been secretly taking from Tony, but he’s not going to tell the Queen that.
The Queen fusses with Steve’s hair, helps comb it over and he has to admit, maybe he doesn’t look half bad. The deep blue suit, perfectly tailored to him, makes him look taller and brings out the blue of his eyes. The bowtie is a darker blue and his shirt, inside, is a nice shade of black. Maybe he does look dashing.
“Oh, all of the ladies will be so pleased to see you,” the Queen says, a twinkle in her eyes. “And some of the gentlemen too, I wager.”
Steve almost snorts before he realizes it’s unbecoming to snort in front of the Queen. He has never had very much luck in those departments, men or women, although there was a diplomat’s boy who he had messed around with a few years ago. Bucky hadn’t known and Steve hadn’t told him. It didn’t matter anyway, Steve told himself, both then and now. Bucky is betrothed to someone else and nothing Steve does will change that.
“Thank you, your highness,” Steve says, turning toward her and smiling.
The Queen gives him an exasperated look, a sigh.
“Mother,” he amends.
“Of course, Steven,” the Queen says, fondly. She kisses the top of his head again and then steps back. “I will see you in the ballroom.”
The ball was announced in almost every corner of the Middle Kingdom and in some corners of the other ones as well. The ballroom, large enough to house at least four villages, was bustling with young lords and ladies, village girls and boys, diplomats sons and daughters. The Knightlings were interspersed through, and by the time Steve made it to the stairway leading down to the ballroom, he was rethinking everything--most of all, his attendance.
He found himself peering down the doors onto the floor and, in a split second, decided against it. No, they could have fun without him, he was perfectly content to be back in his chambers, with his sketchpad and penci--
He feels a hand tightly grasp his upper arm and he nearly panics, memories of his childhood with Brock resurfacing, when he hears a hiss in his ears.
“If I can’t leave, neither can you.”
Steve relaxes almost immediately, turns and--
Ogles. Bucky’s suit is a deep black, scattered here and there with silver gems that make him look like he’s wearing the twinkling night sky. His bowtie is a royal blue, the same color as his eyes, and at his breast is the silvery sigil of the Middle Kingdom, a perfect red star encased in a sphere of silver and blue. His hair is brushed to the side; there’s an understated silver crown sitting atop his head. He looks breathtaking. He literally takes Steve’s breath away.
“Oh,” Steve says, just as Bucky frowns and asks “Too much?”
“No, no,” Steve breathes out and wills his cheeks not to pink. “You look--well, you look good, Buck. The dames will be all over you.”
Bucky looks ridiculously pleased at that, but kind of in awe himself.
“That’s a good blue on you, Stevie,” he says, with a grin that takes over his face. “Do me a favor and always wear it?”
Steve gives him a half smile.
“Sure,” he says. “I’ll work on it.”
“I’ve been avoiding going in,” Bucky says, nodding to the ballroom. “Ma invited the entire kingdom. And then some besides. What am I supposed to do in there?”
“Dance? Flirt? Have fun?” Steve suggests.
“Who am I supposed to flirt with?” Bucky asks, looking annoyed.
“Are you serious?”
Bucky raises an eyebrow.
“You couldn’t stop flirting if you tried,” Steve says. “You would flirt with a tree if you could. No, I’ve seen you flirt with a tree.”
“There’s no one in there I wanna flirt with,” Bucky says vaguely, his eyes flickering to Steve.
“Maybe she’s there,” he says. “Your fiancee. Maybe you’ll meet her and she’ll take your breath away.”
“Yeah, sure,” Bucky snorts. “Or maybe you’ll meet someone. Maybe the love of your life is inside this castle right now.”
Steve’s ears start ringing at that.
“Sure, yeah,” he says, faintly. “Maybe.”
They stare at one another uncomfortably, maybe a little sad. Bucky reaches forward to tuck a stray strand of hair behind Steve’s ear, like he always has, and Steve’s heart overreacts, the way it always does.
“You really do look so good, Stevie,” Bucky says. “Hey, can I?”
Steve gives him a questioning look and Bucky just smiles at him. He unpins his sigil, then carefully pins it to Steve’s chest instead.
“There,” Bucky says. “No one can mistake you for nobody now. They’ll know you’re mine--my best friend, I mean. My family.”
Steve can’t speak.
“Go in with me?” Bucky asks, giving Steve a half smile. He offers his arm. It takes a moment, but Steve accepts it.
“All the dames will think you’re taken,” he says. “They’ll ask questions and whisper.”
Bucky’s smile turns cheekier.
The enter the ballroom together, Steve on Bucky’s arm. Everyone hushes for a moment and Steve can feel those eyes on him, everyone judging and finding him wanting. He can’t blame them, he supposes. He knows he’ll never be good enough for Bucky, for a prince.
Across the room, the King and Queen bow their heads to the two of them. Steve might be mistaken, but the Queen looks as though she’s going to cry.
They eat first, at stations situated along the walls. Steve, finally, reluctantly, lets Bucky go as he heads toward the King and Queen. He has duties first, after all. The King and Queen will introduce him to the room and he will open the ball in the name of the Middle Kingdom. He doesn’t need Steve for that, Steve thinks, with a small twist in his stomach. It’s better not to watch it happen at all.
Luckily, he finds Sam near the hors d'oeuvres. He’s already talking to someone.
“Hey, Steve!” Sam looks delighted to see him, as usual. He’s by a beautiful girl in a pale blue dress. “This is Claire Temple. She’s from the Southern Isles.”
Steve says hello to Claire. The three of them grab food, stand in the corner, talk, and watch the ball be announced. Claire and Sam say something to him, but Steve forgets to listen. His eyes are on Bucky, near the thrones, that midnight sky suit twinkling around him. He’s the Prince, Steve reminds himself. There has never been a time when Steve hasn’t had to share him. It will only get worse as they get older, his ownership over Bucky lessening, everyone else’s ownership growing. One day, Bucky will be King and then he won’t be Steve’s at all anymore.
“Here,” Claire says, cutting into Steve’s thoughts. She hands him a drink. “You look like you need this.”
“Thanks,” Steve says, sheepishly.
“How long?” Claire asks, nodding at him and then at Bucky.
“What?” Steve looks startled. Next to Claire, Sam tries not to look too amused.
“You and the prince,” Claire says. “How long have you been together?”
“Oh, we’re not--” Steve coughs out and Sam sighs loudly.
“Have you told him?” Claire asks then. She’s sharp, this girl. She’s also witty and funny and empathetic. Sam looks over the moon.
“Is it that obvious?” Steve mutters, taking a sip of his drink. He winces at the hard liquor.
“Only to someone with eyes,” Claire says.
“I don’t think he knows,” Sam says, then. “If it makes you feel any better.”
Steve doesn’t know that it does. He doesn’t know that it doesn’t either, though.
Once the dancing begins, the ballroom becomes alight with the kind of energy and joy that only young people can bring. People find partners if they want--boys and girls, boys and boys, girls and girls--and the music ranges from slow, instrumentals, to music that is more upbeat, that everyone has fun dancing to. Bucky’s busy, of course, with his own host of ambassador’s sons and daughters to entertain and dance with. He smiles and laughs, dips when appropriate, even flirts. Steve wonders, briefly, if she’s here, Bucky’s true love. Steve wonders if he’s met her.
No one really approaches Steve, which suits him just fine. They do stare at him though, look at the crest on his chest. He hears whispers when they think he’s not paying attention. He overhears one of them at one point, a girl whispering to her friend “They’re not together, are they? The Prince can do much better.”
Steve tries not to pay attention, but he accidentally breaks a glass anyway.
It’s only after another glass of wine and a dance or two with Natasha, Claire, and Sam, separately, that Steve finds himself at the drink table, bumping into--
“Oh!” the girl says. She has brown curls and is wearing bright red lips. Her red dress, flaring out at her hips and cut perfectly to every curve on her body, fits her like a glove. She’s stunning, the best looking girl around.
“Wait, aren’t you--”
“You were with them,” she says, smiling widely. “With the Knights, when they came to my village.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember your nam--”
“Margaret. But you can call me Peggy,” the girl--Peggy--says, with a large, beautiful smile. “You were Steve, right?”
Steve feels a little warm, a little giddy that she remembered him at all.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m glad your village survived the dragon.”
“Me too,” Peggy says, laughing. She has a bright, clear laugh. “I’m glad you survived the dragon as well.”
“You heard about that.”
“I was there,” Peggy says, giving him a look. “I saw it happen.”
Steve covers his face with his hand and Peggy laughs again. It’s so pleasing, he can’t help but smile, even through his embarrassment.
“Drink?” he asks her.
“Sure,” Peggy says, eyes twinkling. “But only if you ask me to dance.”
Steve has never been a good dancer. Bucky was the one with all of the graceful moves, the charisma that made every song come alive around them. They danced together for years, through formal lessons, and through their own, private ones, in Bucky’s chambers, when Bucky was bored and Steve unable to say no.
But Peggy’s a good partner and after a few mishaps, Steve manages to glide her around to the music. Their conversation is free-flowing, easy. She makes him laugh with her sharp, biting wit and he makes her smile, lean in closer in fascination. She makes Steve feel as though he has something interesting to say. They dance together through one song. Then Peggy asks him if he wants to dance to another one.
“Are you sure you don’t want another partner?” Steve asks, sheepishly.
“I am positive there isn’t another person in this entire room who would delight me half as much as you do,” Peggy says and Steve is so flattered, so pleased, that he almost steps on her toes. Peggy laughs and kisses his cheek.
Soon, at least a few hours have passed and Steve has forgotten about everyone else. He’s danced only with Peggy this entire time.
He smiles warmly at her, offers to get her another drink after their third or fourth dance, and she obliges.
“My feet are killing me,” she says to him. “The only way we women are able to suffer through beauty is with copious amounts of alcohol.”
Steve laughs at that.
“I can’t claim to know anything about beauty, but I assure you, that’s the only thing that helps us men too.”
“Cheers,” Peggy says, and they clink their glasses together.
By the time he finishes this--his fourth or fifth glass of the night--Steve’s head is definitely swimming pleasantly. He’s relaxed and happy. When Peggy leads him outside to the hallway and kisses him, he’s not even surprised. He holds her close, hand at the small of her back, and kisses her back and that, maybe, surprises him a little bit.
After a good ten minutes of making out, Peggy leaves him to freshen up. Steve can’t help but grin after her, warm and infatuated and drunk and happy. His own hair is mussed up and he tries to flatten it back, to wild degrees of unsuccess. He’s waiting in the hallway, peering through the columns at the night sky with that same, stupid grin, when he hears a quiet voice from somewhere to his right.
“You have rouge on your face,” Bucky says.
Steve turns to him in surprise. His chest reacts accordingly, fluttering something sweet and warm. Affection, maybe. Love, definitely.
“Oh, Buck,” he starts, alcohol making his reaction slower. He’s so happy to see Bucky, he doesn’t notice how unhappy Bucky looks.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Bucky says. He looks down at his feet and not at Steve, which makes Steve frown. “I thought maybe you had gone back to your chambers. I felt guilty for leaving you alone, but I guess I shouldn’t have.”
Steve frowns at Bucky’s voice.
“Why would you feel guilty? I’m right here.”
“You have rouge on your face,” Bucky repeats, now a little more sourly. “And your bowtie’s askew.”
“Oh, right,” Steve says, looking down at the offending article and laughing in embarrassment. “Peggy and I were--” He brightens. “Oh Buck, you haven’t met her yet. Wait until Peggy comes back, she’s just stepped out--”
“Is that her name?” Bucky asks, harshly. “Peggy?”
Steve’s head is swimming too much to interpret Bucky’s tone.
“What? Yes, she--remember the village? The dragon village.” Steve’s trying not to giggle. “You saved me. She was there. I saved her. Then you saved me. So it’s kinda like you saved her. I bet she’ll want to thank you.”
“Do you like her?” Bucky asks.
“Sure I do,” Steve answers happily. “She’s great. She’s funny and smart. She’s not like anyone else we know. And I think she likes me--”
“I have to go,” Bucky says abruptly.
That makes Steve pause, his feelings deflate.
“Wait, where are you going? You just got here.”
Bucky shakes his head and tries to move away, but Steve grabs his wrist.
“Buck? You just got here.”
“You’ll be fine, Stevie,” Bucky says. His expression is strained, strangely tight. “I told you, didn’t I? The love of your life is in the castle. Guess I was right. I’m always right. I always try to tell you that.”
Steve’s tongue gets all tied in his mouth, the words jumbled up. You were right, he wants to say. He is here. But Bucky moves from him too quickly. He turns on his heels and walks away, walks back into the ballroom.
“Bucky,” Steve calls after him again, but Bucky either doesn’t hear him or purposefully chooses not to. He doesn’t turn around, leaving Steve to feel as though he’s done something wrong, like he’s hurt Bucky somehow.
By the time Peggy comes back, Steve’s buzz is wearing off, he’s so confused and hurt by what’s just happened. He tells her, somewhat incoherently. Whatever she sees in his face settles something for her. She softens, sighs.
“Go to him,” Peggy says.
“What--” Steve asks and Peggy shakes her head. She reaches forward, helps clean up the rouge from his face.
“Oh Steve, I like you so much. You’re so funny and sweet,” Peggy says. “It would be treasonous of me to deny my prince that kind of love.”
before, or: something almost happens.
It’s almost impossible to find Bucky in the mess that is the ball. There are too many people and Steve is too drunk and the castle is too big. He spends an hour looking anyway and even though this is his ball, even though the Crown Prince should be the most recognizable and guarded individual in the entire place, no one seems to know where he’s gone.
Steve’s gut tightens with panic, the same, tense feeling that settles into him any time he and Bucky fight, or any time he imagines losing Bucky, to the curse or otherwise.
“Sam,” he grinds out when he finally finds his friend. “Have you seen him?”
Seeing the look on Steve’s stricken face, Sam straightens.
“Let me cast a searching spell,” he says. He drags Steve to the hallway. “Do you have anything of his?”
Steve’s face falls, his panic climbing steadily.
“No, I don’t--”
“Is that yours?” Sam interrupts. He’s pointing at Steve’s chest.
Steve looks down at the sigil, the one Bucky pinned on him earlier.
“No,” he breathes and he unpins it with some difficulty, puts it in Sam’s palm.
Sam leans close to it, mutters something, face stony in concentration. His eyes glow a faint golden around the rim of the irises and Steve feels something prickle the air around him, a faint electricity that crackles off of Sam’s palm.
Slowly, the sigil starts to spin. It spins slowly at first and then faster and faster, until the circular motion makes Steve dizzy.
“Ah,” Sam says and the pin clatters to a halt. “He’s outside somewhere, in the open air. But still in the castle. Somewhere high.”
It takes Steve’s brain just a moment too long.
“Oh,” he says, then, sighing in relief.
It’s cooler up on the parapet than usual. Even in a suit, even after enduring the humid warmth of so many bodies inside the ballroom, Steve shivers a little. He finds Bucky at their favorite spot, sitting against the wall, a bottle of alcohol in his hand.
“Whoa there, buddy,” Steve says as he slides down the wall next to Bucky. “You’re going to hate yourself in the morning.”
“Stevie,” Bucky says brightly, miserably, turning to him. “Hate myself now. What’s a little more?”
“Bucky,” Steve frowns. He puts his hand out for the bottle and Bucky shakes his head.
“Nope!” he declares and puts his mouth on the bottle, takes another swig.
“Okay there, that’s good. Hey, can I have some? I’d really like some,” Steve inches forward, and they struggle for a brief minute before Bucky finally relents. He sighs, slumps back against the stone. Steve puts the bottle to the side.
“Where’s Peggy?” Bucky asks. He draws his knees up to his chest.
“She’s dancing with someone now,” Steve says. “A girl I think.”
Bucky frowns, turns his gaze at Steve.
“Want me to use my Princely Powers on her? She can’t treat you like that. Your true love.”
Steve pauses and for a moment they stare at each other.
“That’s okay,” Steve says quietly. “I don’t think I’m meant for love.”
“That’s nonsense talk,” Bucky says. “You’re the greatest guy I know. Any guy or gal would be lucky to have you. They should be over the moon! They should build castles to you.”
“I don’t want castles built to me,” Steve says.
“What d’you want then?” Bucky asks and Steve shrugs.
“What about you?” Steve asks after a minute. “Did you find her? Whoever you’re gonna marry?”
“Ugh,” Bucky pronounces in disgust. “Ma said she was here.”
“Oh,” Steve replies, his throat dry. “Did you meet?”
“No,” Bucky says. He sighs, closes his eyes, and bangs his head against the wall. Steve frowns. “I spent all night lookin’ for you. I’m an idiot.”
“Oh,” Steve says again. This entire conversation is--he feels his earlier good feelings wash away, the brief happiness he felt with Peggy, just a moment when he could maybe have a different story. He rubs his face. “I’m sorry.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything at all. He doesn’t say anything for long enough that Steve thinks maybe he’s fallen asleep.
“I hate this,” Bucky says suddenly and turns to look at Steve, furious.
“I--what?” Steve asks nervously. “Being up here with me?”
“What? No, idiot,” Bucky says in exasperation. “I hate this. This ball, these duties, this--crown . Being forced to marry someone I’ve never met before. I hate all of it. It isn’t me.”
Steve frowns and Bucky’s looking so aggressively at his hands that Steve almost grabs them so he doesn’t do something stupid.
“You’re good at it,” Steve says carefully. “The duties, the crown, everything. You’ll be a good husband too. I’m sure you’ll love her. I know she’ll love you.”
“Who cares?” Bucky says. He laughs and it’s ugly. “God, Steve. I’m gonna die anyway. You know that. Twenty first birthday, because of some stupid mage’s curse. No one’s ever gotten the sword out. None of us can even touch it. I’m gonna die and I’m gonna do it knowing I never got to do what I wanted to do. Or be with who I wanted to be with.”
“You’re not gonna die,” Steve says. He can feel it again, that rising panic. “Screw you for saying that. You’re not gonna die, I’m not gonna let you. I’ll switch places with you, it can take me instea--”
“Shut up,” Bucky says and he looks livid. “Never say that again. You don’t get to say that.”
“And you can?” Steve’s suddenly angry too. “You’re not allowed to lose me, but I’m allowed to lose you? Screw yo-- ”
“Do you know,” Bucky breathes out low, angry. “How many times I almost lost you? Every time you were sick. Every time you got a lung infection or a blood infection or even a simple goddamn cold. Every time you passed out, I thought it was gonna be the last time I saw you. I’ve lived with the fear of losing you my entire --”
“Are you kidding?” Steve asks, his voice growing louder. “You’re cursed. We know you’re cursed, you’re going to die on your twenty first birthday if someone doesn’t pull the fucking sword from the stone and I can’t do anything about it. There’s no potion that will cure you. There’s no medicine. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts, there’s just you and a Merlin’s curse.”
Steve is so angry, his ears are ringing. Next to him, Bucky’s breathing harshly too. They glare at each other, hands balled into fists, a snap away from shoving one another to the ground. Steve wants to do it, he’s itching to do it. Then, suddenly, the fight goes out of Bucky.
“God, I can’t,” Bucky says and covers his face in frustration. “Don’t you see? I can’t lose you.”
Steve takes another minute, but then he, too, goes limp.
“Yeah,” he snorts. “And you’re real negotiable to me.”
Bucky sighs and Steve is suddenly so tired, he can’t hold himself up. He lets his head list onto Bucky’s shoulder.
“What do you wanna do?” he asks, echoing Bucky’s words from earlier. “Who do you wanna be with?”
Bucky doesn’t answer for a long time. When he does, Steve’s the one who’s almost fallen asleep.
“I just wanna be,” he says. “Nothing in particular. I don’t want to be the princeling, I don’t want to lead or set examples or foreign policies. I’m not like--you. I don’t have those ambitions. I just wanna be, you know? Be and be happy.”
“Sure,” Steve answers, sleepily.
“And as for who--” Well, Bucky doesn’t answer that. Steve looks up at him, curiously, and Bucky’s watching him with something Steve can’t fully read. His expression soft, sad, open, his gaze pointedly intense.
His fingers drift to Steve’s jaw and Steve stills. Steve doesn’t breathe, doesn’t move. They’re so close, Steve can feel Bucky’s breath on him.
“Bucky?” Steve breathes out.
And maybe Bucky would have answered, had the dragon bells not chosen that exact moment to peel out.
before, or: another incident with a dragon and a sword in a stone.
“I don’t understand why,” Sam is saying through gritted teeth, “There are so many damned dragons.”
He and Tony are in the middle of the courtyard, holding up two small shields with the royal sigil on it. They need physical objects to hold certain incantations, for example, forcefields to shield hundreds of guests from dragonfire.
“It’s a long story, grasshopper,” Tony says. He mutters something and a shot of green tries to spear through the dragon’s wing. It doesn’t exactly manage and the dragon roars angrily, spitting golden dragonfire onto the shield. “It involves a King, two mages, and half a dozen dwarves. I’ll tell you sometime when you’re older.”
“I hate you,” Sam says. Tony has, undoubtedly, heard this multiple times.
“I have heard this multiple times,” Tony says.
Next to Sam, Tony is sweating slightly less and doing three times more. Sam’s parts of the shield are holding up more or less fine, but dragonfire is caustic and it takes a certain number of years to conjure enough magic to create an impenetrable shield. Tony’s shield is impenetrable, but he’s also trying to spear the dragon and keep the guests inside the ballroom. It’s a remarkable amount of willpower, focus, and magic. He is, after all, the Merlin.
“Can’t you kill it?” Sam pants out. “You are, after all, the Merlin.”
“Never, ever kill a dragon,” Tony says. “If you’re not sure he’s going to stay dead.”
The King and Queen’s Knights finally assemble, half stampeding down the drawbridge to the fields beyond the castle town, half spreading out across the courtyard and the town itself. There are bows and arrows, spears and shields spread wide. They’re getting cut down by dragonfire almost faster than they can release anything.
“Shit,” Steve breathes out. He and the Knightlings have spilled out onto the courtyard.
“Sam, what’s its weak spot?” Natasha asks, scanning the massive reptile in the sky.
“A dragon’s weak spot is its heart,” Sam gasps out. The dragonfire almost breaches one area of his shield and he has to put a little more of himself into it to reinforce it. He looks like he’s ready to collapse. “Same as the rest of us.”
“Clint,” Natasha says, but Clint’s already notching an arrow into his bow.
Next to Steve, Bucky stumbles forward with his sword.
“Bucky no,” Steve gasps, reaching out to grapple at his shoulder. “You’re not sober.”
“It’s my duty,” Bucky grits out and Steve’s not sure how to interpret that, after their interrupted conversation. Doesn’t have the time to, frankly.
Bucky and Thor advance forward with their swords. Behind them, Natasha pulls out her daggers.
Clint starts firing arrows. The dragon roars, swoops in and bats against the forcefield. Tony and Sam grunt. Sam’s legs are shaking.
Clint’s arrows and Natasha’s daggers bounce off its scales, while Thor and Bucky try to draw the dragon down. It spits dragonfire again and a corner of the forcefield cracks under the heated magic. The fire spills down through the hole, sets Steve’s favorite tree in flames. Thor and Bucky knock into one another, trying to escape the fire’s spreading radius. Their swords go clattering to the ground. The tree lights up in magenta and the dragon sees this, maybe senses where the forcefield has started to crack.
“Fuck,” Sam breathes out, just before his knees give away beneath him.
Tony tries to reinforce where Sam’s shield breaks, but the dragon’s too fast. It spirals down toward the gaping hole and Steve doesn’t even think, he reacts. He takes a spear, sets the tip into dragonfire, and throws it at the dragon’s snout the moment it’s within range. The spear goes through the snout.
There’s a moment where the dragon, caught off guard, reels back, pausing in shock.
The dragon, livid, blind with pain, hurls out a stream of dragonfire.
“No,” Sam breathes out.
“Run! ” Thor shouts.
“Steve! ” Natasha screams.
“No,” Steve hears Bucky’s voice in unfiltered, unrepressed horror.
Steve stumbles over cobblestones and falls to his knees, covering his head with his arms, as though it will help at all. Then, everything turns a blinding white.
Steve opens his eyes a few moments later, shakily, trying to focus. Where he expected to feel searing, excruciating pain, he feels something cool and comforting instead. It’s something he’s felt before, years ago, a tingle crawling up his limbs that’s familiar. The light is so bright, he can barely see through it.
“Oh my god,” he hears someone breathe behind him.
Steve looks up then and what he sees he can’t fully process.
Bucky’s standing on the stone, a mere feet from him, the dragon hovering above him. Its wings are stretched out, covering the night sky. It looks enraged, shocked, hurt. There’s a sword piercing its heart.
Bucky’s holding the sword with both hands. Its hilt is a bright, sparkling blue, with a deep red stone on the end. Next to Bucky, where there should be a sword in a stone, there is nothing.
“It was the Prince all along,” someone says, behind him. “He was the savior of his own curse.”
The dragon bleeds out from its heart. Its wings fold into itself, its dragonfire dissipating in air, and it tips back onto the cobblestones.
Cheers go up from every corner of the castle town.
“No,” Tony breathes out as Bucky spears the dragon through the heart with Furore. Everyone around them is cheering so loudly, Steve can feel the noise rattling in his head. He feels lightheaded with the meaning of it all.
The dragon, dead. The curse, broken.
Bucky, his own savior.
Bucky, not to die at twenty one.
Briefly, still swimming in light, Bucky still bathed in Furore’s magic, Steve remembers a moment on the parapet, fingertips on his jaw. His chest hurts. Maybe, he thinks. Maybe--
“Wait,” Steve turns to Tony. “What?”
Tony looks ashen, pale.
“This isn’t right,” he says. “He wasn’t supposed to retrieve it for himself. And not before his twenty first birthday.”
“Why not?” Steve asks, watching Bucky. Bucky’s pulling Furore back from the dragon’s chest, the blade glowing, the magic making him glow too. His crown glints on his head, the Knight, the Prince, the King. It should be a victorious moment, a moment of pure, unadulterated triumph. And it is, for everyone else. But Tony’s tone, his face, makes something drop into Steve’s stomach, heavy as lead. “What’s going to happen?”
Tony looks like he’s going to be sick. He shakes his head.
“I don’t know. The Order has never said.”
elsewhere, at that moment.
The edges of the mirror gleam with an unnatural light. The reflection ripples rapidly, one image appearing after another, unable to focus on any particular one. There’s the flash of a dragon, then a boy in a suit and a crown, a tree on fire, a King and Queen watching from the parapet in horror, a sword glimmering where it protrudes from a stone. Suddenly, a bright, white light spills from one corner of the mirror. It catches through the ripples in the middle, spreads across the entirety of the glass, until the entire thing is alight.
“The sword has awoken,” Wanda says, shielding her eyes from the burning light as best as she can.
“Oh, I know,” the Red Merlin leers across the parapet. He fastens a cloak around his shoulders, flexes red fingers. “I feel it. I’m very powerful, you know.”
“We will see how powerful you are once he runs it through your stomach,” she spits out.
“Shh,” the Red Merlin says to her. He holds up a jagged knife. It glows in the moonlight. “I’m starting to think you do not like me very much.”
“I don’t,” Wanda says.
“A pity,” the Red Merlin says. He tucks the knife into a fold in his cloak. “I promise I will finally slit your throat, as I did your brother’s.”
He turns to her with what could have once passed for a smile.
“After I slit his.”
after, or: what happens.
Bucky, still bathed in magic, turns toward Steve, Furore in hand, a light in his eyes.
“Can you believe it?” he asks Steve, shakily.
“You did it, Buck,” Steve says. “You pulled the sword from the stone.”
Bucky doesn’t look like he cares. His eyes are red. He says, more tightly, “The dragon was going to kill you. Steve.”
“You saved me,” Steve says. Bucky drops the sword, as though it means nothing to him at all, and pulls Steve to him in a crushing hug.
“I can’t lose you,” Bucky repeats for the second time that night, into Steve’s hair.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Steve promises. He doesn’t let go for a long time.
It’s true, no one expected the Prince himself to pull the sword from the stone, and before his twenty first birthday too.
It’s also true, no one knows what to expect now that he has.
What happens is this: after the dragon dies, after its carcass has been burned, after everyone has given Bucky a moment to breathe, his curse broken, his victory and its joy spread far and wide, he makes sure that Steve is okay, kisses his forehead, and takes Furore back to his chambers.
Then he disappears.
He’s there and then he’s gone. Steve doesn’t believe it at first, but Furore is on the ground and Bucky isn’t anywhere at all. The King and Queen sound the castle alarms. There’s a manhunt for him, their beloved princeling, their savior and wielder of the sword, for hours. At the end, it seems as though he’s disappeared without a trace.
“There’s magic here,” Tony says, bending down, as close to Furore as it will allow. He touches the ground and winces in pain. Furore won’t let anyone touch it. It won’t let anyone within a foot of it. But this is a different look of pain. “It’s dark and...red.”
“Red?” Natasha asks.
“Magic leaves a residue,” Tony says. “It’s hard to explain. Each person and spell has a signature, a weight, a style, a color. Non-mages have their own signature, but it’s usually duller, a grey or a brown. If magic touches a non-mage, it leaves a mark, changes the original signature. This one is dark and red. This entire room is awash with dark and red.”
“And heavy,” Sam says, a rare, serious expression on his face. “It’s weighing the air down.”
They’re all in Bucky’s chambers. Thor and Clint are looking through every closet and crevice, for the thousandth time. Sam is sussing the ground around the sword with Tony. And Steve--
“Hey, Steve?” Natasha says softly. He’s leaning against the wall, arms tightly crossed at his chest, his entire body coiled tightly, tense, and disbelieving. He’s hearing the conversation, but having a hard time processing it. All he can think is the curse was broken, it should have been broken, but Bucky was gone anyway. His eyes keep going in and out of focus.
Natasha rests a hand on his shoulders. Her expression and tone, for once, is gentle.
“Steve, you have to come back to us,” she says. “We’re going to find him. We just need a little time.”
“A lot of time,” Tony mutters from the ground.
“Less time, more magic, Stark,” Natasha’s eyes at Tony dangerously and Tony Stark, Merlin and all, decides to mind his own business for once.
Steve takes a deep, shuddering breath.
“I just don’t understand where he went,” Steve says, coming back a little into himself. He scrubs his hands over his face. “He was here, Nat. I saw him walk into his chambers. I said goodbye to him outside the door.”
“The sword wasn’t supposed to yield to him,” Tony says again. “That’s not what’s written.”
“Wanna tell us what’s written then, wiseass?” Natasha’s glaring at him as Steve, somehow, tenses further.
“We only know a little more than you do,” Tony says, straightening. “The sword is the only way the curse can be broken. I don’t know how that’s supposed to manifest. No one knows. Maybe you stab another dragon and the princeling reappears. Maybe he’s stuck in a mirror. Maybe he’s invisible. Schmidt didn’t actually leave instructions.”
“Schmidt,” Steve says. “Who’s Schmidt.”
“Schmidt is the reason you’re in this mess,” Tony says with a sigh. “He was, arguably, the greatest Merlin the Order’s ever seen. Arguably because we all know I am the greatest Merlin the Order’s ever seen, I mean it’s laughable really, and if we were to ever call a Mage’s duel, I’d like to see the old man try to--”
“Tony,” Sam warns.
“--right. Anyway. His name was Johann Schmidt and he was the Merlin about, oh, three Merlins ago. He turned to the dark arts and was cast out of the Order and the castle for it. He cursed the family before he left, any crown prince was to die before his twenty first birthday.”
“Why twenty first?” Clint asks.
“What, do you think I have a direct line to Schmidt? I’ll ask him the next time we exchange postcards,” Tony says. “The princeling then was twenty one, I suspect it had something to do with that.”
“Why now?” Steve asks, almost shaking. “Why Bucky?”
“Your princeling is the first son the royal family’s had in...what, two hundred years? Before he died, Nicholas Fury cast a spell on the family to save them the heartache. Daughters only until the spell runs out.” Tony shrugs. “Magic only runs for so long.”
“So Bucky drew the short end of the stick,” Clint says. “Where’s Schmidt now?”
“I don’t know,” Tony says. “I’ve been trying to find him for the past fifty years. I guess he found your princeling instead.”
Steve lets out a frustrated noise, slams his fist against the wall, and bruises his knuckles for the effort. Natasha looks at him, unimpressed.
“But he’s alive,” she says. “And he has Bucky.”
“That seems to be the case,” Tony says. He tenses. He seems like he knows what Natasha’s going to say and he’s ready for it.
“And now you know how to find him.”
Sam looks up at Tony, eyebrows furrowed, and Tony sighs.
“Now that I have his signature--yeah. I have a good idea where he is.”
“Okay,” Natasha nods. “We’re going to find him.”
“And do what? Glare at Schmidt to death?” Tony looks annoyed. “He’s still a Merlin. And you--”
“Don’t care,” Steve says. He’s finally found something to latch onto, a hope or a purpose, something more than just losing his mind. “I’ll figure it out when I get there.”
“We,” Natasha says. “Don’t be self-sacrificial.”
“That’s a stupid idea. Reckless. I can’t come with you,” Tony says. “Where he is--there are enchantments I can’t break. No other Merlin can get through.”
“Good thing I’m not a Merlin,” Sam says, finally standing up. “Yet.”
Tony stares at the room of them--Steve, Natasha, Thor, Clint, and Sam. They all look angry, hollow, reckless--vipers coiled to strike.
“For the record, this is a bad idea,” he says, slowly. And then, “You’re going to need some magic.”
The others leave to get ready, all except for Sam, who Steve can tell is watching him closely, trying to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. Any other day, Steve would snap about being handled, but he doesn’t have the energy today. He’s barely keeping himself together.
“We’re gonna get him, Steve,” Sam says. “We’re not going to let Schmidt kill him.”
“It’s in three days,” Steve says, with a shudder.
“Bucky’s twenty first birthday.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re going now,” Sam says after a minute. “Just give us a few hours to get ready. Do you have everything you need?”
Steve doesn’t know how he can begin to answer that.
“You have to go see them,” Sam says. Steve looks up at him questioningly and Sam gives him a hard look. “The King and Queen. They’ve already lost one son today. They can’t lose another without getting a chance to say goodbye.”
Steve looks at his shoes guiltily. He doesn’t know how to face them, the King and Queen. After everything they’ve done for him, he was the reason Bucky was taken. If he hadn’t challenged the dragon, if he had run fast enough. If Bucky hadn’t had to save him again--
“It wasn’t your fault,” Sam says, as though he knows exactly what’s going through Steve’s head. They’ve known each other long enough that he probably does. “If you start, you’ll never stop.”
“I have to find him, Sam,” Steve says. He remembers Rumlow, remembers Bucky saving him time and time again. “I’m going to be the one to save him, this time. I have to.”
Sam nods. “Go talk to the King and Queen. I’ll meet you at the Tower in three hours time.”
Steve blindly obeys, gets to his feet. He’s following Sam to the door when it happens.
One minute he’s standing and the next he’s tripped over something. He curses as he hits the ground, pain shooting through his knees. He gropes about for whatever caught his foot and his hand closes around something cool and hard.
“Steve,” Sam says, but he doesn’t have to finish his sentence.
Steve blinks as the sword comes easily off the ground, light and solid in his hand. That
same bright light makes the air glow around him and he feels it again, for the third time in his life, the comforting, welcoming feeling of its magic.
“Steve,” Sam says again, but this time he sounds strange. Steve looks up at him, somehow. “Its signature--the sword’s signature.”
“Yeah?” Steve looks back at it, the bright blue hilt in his hand, the red gem twinkling at him. He shouldn’t be able to pick it up. It doesn’t make sense--the sword chose Bucky. It can only have one true owner. But here it is, fit perfectly to his palm.
“It’s,” Sam stops. He looks as though something’s dawned on him, something--big. Something changing. “Shit. Holy shit.”
“It’s the same as yours,” he says.
Steve looks at him, uncomprehendingly.
“I don’t think the sword was ever his,” Sam says, carefully. “Bucky’s. I think that’s why he was able to pull it out, to save you with it. Steve, I think the sword was meant for you.”
Steve opens the chamber doors aggressively. None of the guards stop him. None of them could, even if they wanted to. They see him, then what’s in his hands, and their eyes widen. They step back in shock. His head is spinning, an incomprehensible thundering between his ears. Somewhere in between his panic and his grief, he registers, dimly, surprise--maybe even betrayal. Perhaps, deeper than that, something settling into place. A reason for why he has felt the way he has, his entire life.
If Sam’s right, he doesn’t know how he’ll ever forgive the King and Queen.
The Queen is sitting on her chair, looking out the window. The King is pacing. They both look horrified, miserable. The Queen’s hand shakes, resting on the chair arm.
“Did you find him?” the King’s voice comes, immediately, when the door opens. Then he stops short. He sees Steve first and pales. “Oh, Steven--”
Then he sees Furore and turns green.
“Steven--” he starts and Steve points the sword at him.
“Sit,” he says. He’s shaking, he’s so angry. He believes it, he realizes. He believes Sam.
The King, slowly, hesitantly, listens.
This, more than anything, proves it to him.
“Tell me,” he says, once he can speak. His voice is low, wavering with barely repressed feeling. “What happened to my parents.”
The King doesn’t look at him. The King looks at his feet.
“They died,” he starts the lie, but Steve cuts him off.
“No,” Steve spits out. “The truth.”
It’s the Queen who finally answers him. She looks up at him and she seems to have aged overnight, fine lines etched into her face, a weariness so heavy that she wears it openly, like a coat, as though she’s too tired to hide it any longer. She’s so heartbreakingly sad that, for a moment, he forgets to feel betrayed, forgets to feel disgusted, forgets that they did this, they did this to him and to Bucky.
“We’re your parents, Steven,” the Queen says. “That is the truth. You are our son.”
twenty years ago.
What happened was this: Queen Sarah gave birth to a beautiful and fragile baby boy in the middle of the night, twenty years ago. It was the first boy the royal family had seen in over two hundred years. She had remembered then the stories from her childhood, stories told to her by her mother, who had been told by her mother’s mother, and so on. Every King for the past two hundred years had been King by marriage. The Rogers family had not had a baby boy since Nicholas Fury had died for them, sealing off their heartache with his loyalty and love, for as long as it remained. She had known that night, had looked at her beautiful, wailing baby son and had known the protective spell had ended. She had also known that she would do anything to protect him, anything to save little Steve’s life.
The idea was the then-Merlin’s, Tony’s father, Howard.
“You can’t fool magic,” he had said. “But you can fool mages.”
The plan was simple: bring in a boy from a neighboring kingdom, the same age as Steve, and raise him as the crown prince instead. Bring him when he’s so young he can’t remember anything else, when no one else can remember what the young princeling himself looks like or, at least, be able to tell the two apart. Should Schmidt come back, he would come for the Crown Prince, not the small, blond wardling who grew up with him. And maybe the curse could be fooled too--after all, Schmidt had cursed the Crown Prince specifically, not the King and Queen’s son. The young boy would be the Crown Prince, Steve would not.
It had worked, spectacularly well. Bucky had been the youngest son of the Northern Realm, a failing kingdom that had wanted to strengthen its alliance with the Middle Kingdom. The Northern King and Queen had sent their youngest, three years old at the time, to the Middle Kingdom, assured that he would be loved, cared for, and treated well. When the time came, they would see him again. This too, they were promised.
The problem King Joseph and Queen Sarah did not foresee was that they would come to love Bucky as dearly as they did Steve. That in being their son, Bucky would, in essence, become their son too. And now they had lost him.
after, or: now.
“We were young,” the Queen says, quietly. Her voice is shaking, her tone as broken as she looks. “We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to lose you, our son. We thought we could save you.”
Steve feels so ill, he nearly reels from it. He clutches Furore with something like desperation, trying to focus the overwhelming, crushing weight of this revelation into something physical, something that will ground him. Otherwise, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. It was his fault after all.
“So you sacrificed him instead,” he says, repulsed. “You sacrificed an innocent boy instead. You gave Bucky to Schmidt.”
“You’re our son,” the Queen pleads and Steve snaps.
“He was your son! ”
“We didn’t know,” the King says, raising his voice. “He pulled out the sword. We thought it was over!”
He looks stricken. God, Steve has the same expression any time he’s upset. How could he not have seen it? How could nobody have seen it?
“And what if he hadn’t?” Steve’s voice is rising beyond his control. Furore is glowing a bright, harsh white. “What if no one had? He was taken by Schmidt anyway. He loved you and you gambled with his life. You practically handed him to him.”
“Son--” the King says.
“Were you ever going to tell him?” Steve spits out. “Were we ever going to know? ”
“Steve, please,” the Queen says, reaching forward and Steve recoils in disgust, takes a step backward.
He doesn’t have time for this. Doesn’t have time to process the magnitude of this betrayal; how fucked up it is that everything he’s ever known has been a lie, that he has parents, that he’s had parents all along . That Bucky was taken from his own parents when he was a baby. That Bucky’s not their real son. That Bucky’s not the Prince. That he’s the Prince. That Bucky, wherever he is, doesn’t know any of this. May die never knowing.
“At least take this,” the Queen says, quietly, as though she can read Steve’s mind.
He stills in shock when he sees it in her hand, the crown.
“It’s not--” the Queen says, shakily, starting and stopping. She takes a breath and tries again. “It’s not his. It’s yours. We made it for you.”
Steve doesn’t want to ask why, or when they thought he would have reason to wear a crown. He can’t even stand to look at it.
“I don’t want your stupid crown,” he nearly snarls. The Queen doesn’t move.
This time it’s the King who does. He takes the crown from the Queen, holds it in front of Steve, as though he means to set it upon his head.
“You might not want it,” the King says, sadly. “But it’s yours. And whatever Schmidt is about to do to James, he doesn’t know that.”
Steve follows Sam out of the castle. He feels it, on his head, the weight of it, both physical and metaphorical. He knows the moment the others see it, both in his hands and on top of his head. Their eyes follow the gleam of both. There’s a shocked, still, silence.
“Steven?” Thor finally asks, haltingly.
Of all of them, Natasha, of course, does not look surprised at all.
“You have the Queen’s eyes,” is all she says.
Steve doesn’t know what to tell them. There’s a lump in his throat, a sense of unease that’s only growing. Imposter syndrome. He can’t speak.
“I hope you don’t expect us to call you your highness,” Clint says after a minute, breaking the silence. “Bucky’s ego is bad enough.”
Steve manages a shadow of a grateful smile.
“Do not worry, Steven,” Thor says, clapping a large hand on his shoulder. “We have always had two princes. You have merely never thought of yourself highly enough to see it.”
“You don’t have to follow me,” Steve says. “It’s going to be dangerous. I don’t expect you to come with me.”
There’s silence following this pronouncement. Then Natasha snorts.
“Yeah. You stand there, holding the sword we’ve spent our entire lives training to be worthy of, a crown on your head, and you tell us we don’t have to follow you into battle. Nice try. None of us want to be beheaded for disloyalty.”
“Also,” Clint adds. “I feel like you have a good story to tell us. And we have a longass ride through the woods.”
“This is true,” Thor confirms. “I cannot bear to listen to Samuel’s story about the sheep one more time.”
Tony had tracked Schmidt’s signature from its trail end, in Bucky’s chambers, deep into the Norn Forest. The Forest, a thick, dark woods that buffers the westernmost edge of the Middle Kingdom from the Asgard Mountains and the sea beyond, is nearly impassable. This, of course, makes it the perfect home for Hydra, Schmidt’s association of dark creatures, shadow mercenaries, and cast out mages.
“I’m assuming he’s an uninspired, textbook villain,” Tony had told all of them, before they had set out. They had met him at the Tower, found him muttering over maps and enchanted trinkets. “It’ll be something completely cliche, like a tower with lightning or a fortress with gargoyles and black-clad guards strolling the rooftops with, I don’t know, poison arrows. I’m almost positive about the lightning. If there’s lightning, there’s definitely something evil happening.”
Tony had given them three different maps and instructions.
“Again, cliche, but follow the path. There’s a reason stories have paths. There’s a reason this one has a path.” Tony had looked at each of them in turn, unimpressed and suspicious. Then he had turned to Steve in particular. “You, Plot Twist, what are you going to follow?”
“Why me?” Steve had asked, annoyed and ignoring the new crown and sword thing.
“Of this entire band of merry idiots, you are the one most likely to do something stupid, like stray from the path. So, humor a one hundred year old mage.”
“We’re going to follow the goddamned path,” Steve had said.
Tony hadn’t looked convinced.
“Follow the path and find the lightning fortress of evil solitude. I don’t think the artist formerly known as our princeling is dead yet. Magic is the most powerful when a mage follows its rules. Schmidt cursed the Crown Prince to die on his twenty first birthday. If he kills the princeling before then, it will cost him. He won’t risk that.”
There would likely be layers upon layers of enchantments and protections. Schmidt had been preparing for hundreds of years for his curse to manifest. That was plenty of time to regain his strength, found a shadowy organization of lost and cruel souls, and fortify his evil lair.
What those enchantments and protections might be, Tony couldn’t say.
“Except the black-clad guards,” Tony said. “There will definitely be black-glad guards. With poison arrows. And glowy eyes.”
The company of five move through the forest at a glacial pace at first. Their horses are nervous, skittish, and the path isn’t wide. Every time one of the horses stop off the faintly phosphorescent trail, the others react by becoming unsettled, stomping their feet, and throwing their heads about loudly and fitfully.
“Animals sense danger better than we do,” Clint says, uneasily. He tries to calm his own horse as Sam canters his back to the path.
“Magic too,” Sam says. “And these woods are filled with it.”
The woods whisper and sway in the dark, the rustling of leaves and the calls of animals echoing through the passageways, sounds magnifying the farther in they get. Steve can feel the heaviness of the magic here, a sharper prickling on his skin, uncomfortable and discontent. He can see it on the others’ faces as well. Despite Sam’s best abilities to charm protections around them, the natural magic of the woods is too much even for a talented mage. The rogue magic bleeds through, crawls under their skin, unsettling them all.
They stop as rarely as possible and even then, only to rest the horses. Sam and Thor try to tell stories for a little while to distract them from the thick feeling of dread settling about them, but even they fall silent after a while. Natasha pales, holding on to her reins tightly, her eyes darting around the forest as the trees press in closer and closer. Steve can barely keep food in his stomach and he certainly can’t sleep. He thinks the magic is so dark here, so malicious, that it’s attempting to drive them all out their minds.
Steve holds onto the hilt of Furore when it gets too bad. The sword warms immediately under his touch, like calling to like, that familiar magic washing over him to offer its protection. The longer he holds it, the calmer he feels, and the more it all makes sense--the curse, the legend, the sword beneath his fingers. He can’t hear it, but he can feel what it’s trying to say. That it was made for him, made to save him, and meant to help him save.
When they finally emerge from the trees, they’re scratched, sore, exhausted, and jittery. They’ve crested a hill, which slopes down past the forest, the land dipping into a valley where sprawled, in the middle, is a massive fortress. It’s a deep, gleaming white, as though its skeleton is made from bone. Steve can feel an almost physical pull toward it, as though the curse is here, manifested, and the sword, and Steve by proxy, is drawn to it. He pulls on the reins to his horse and it stops at the top, stomping its feet in protest. The magic is somehow even thicker here, although its quality is dangerous, frayed and fraught. Even the non-mages can feel it, harsh upon their skin and in their hair.
“I don’t know what he’s been doing for the past two hundred years, but I get the feeling he’s gone off the deep end,” Sam mutters.
“Yeah, I get that too,” Clint says. He nods toward the sight in front of them. “Might have something to do with the fortress. And the lightning.”
By Steve’s estimation, it’s taken them three days to get through Norn Forest. It’s Bucky’s birthday today, and they’re running out of time.
They tie their horses to the trees at the edge of the forest. They’re so anxious, snorting and whining in despair, that they’ve been rendered almost entirely useless. Sam bends to the ground, retrieving a spade from one of the many pockets inside his mage’s cloak. He sticks it in the ground, digs a hole, a palm’s length long, and perfectly circular. He takes out a small vial with a dropper and carefully, holding his breath, squeezes out three, thick, blood red drops into the hole. It immediately starts hissing and Sam hurriedly puts the dirt back on top.
“Dark and red,” Steve observes.
“It takes magic to counteract magic,” Sam says.
He waits a minute and then picks up a clod of dirt from the hole. He closes his hand over it and mutters something in Latin. Light glows from inside his palm and, when Sam turns toward Steve, his eyes are glowing red too.
“There’s a layer of enchantment,” Sam says, scanning the fortress. “Maybe two. Guards at the parapets. Guards inside. They’re human, but without human weakness--hexed. I think their eyes are glowing. Don’t tell Tony.” A pause. “No drawbridge to cross the moat and the water definitely holds half a dozen different curses. The only way in is up.”
“Up?” Steve asks.
That’s when Clint unties a long length of sturdy rope from the side of his saddle. There’s a hook at one end and it’s tied to an arrow at the other.
The plan sounds simple enough: Sam will force back the enchantments, layer after layer, fighting Schmidt’s old magic with his new one. He’ll buy them enough time to creep closer. Clint will take out whatever guards he can from afar, Thor will take out the rest. He’ll buy Clint time to secure the hook and rope to the top of the parapet, where Steve and Natasha will clamber up and over. Natasha is more than equipped to take out whatever guards are waiting for them inside. Steve--well, the rest is up to him. He has to find Bucky. He has a feeling he’ll find Schmidt in the process. Furore shines brightly in his sheath, a pinprick of pure, white light, in a haze of red and black.
“Sam,” Steve starts, voice thick with feeling.
Sam shakes his head, a hand at the back of Steve’s neck.
“It has been my honor to call you my friend, Steve,” Sam says. “Now you’re my Prince too. I don’t have to be a Merlin to swear my fealty to you. You have it.”
“After this is over, we’re getting you your own Tower,” Steve promises.
Sam’s face breaks out into a grin.
“Oh man, risking my life battling dark magic to finally escape Tony Stark? So goddamned worth it.”
Sam and Steve embrace, quickly, and then Sam draws his mage’s cloak over his head.
“Be safe,” Steve tells him.
“Get your boy,” Sam replies and steps forward, down the hill.
Steve watches him as he approaches the fortress, Merlin’s toys in hand, already flicking gestures and incantations into the air. A dark shape materializes into the air the moment he’s halfway down the slope. It’s a large, almost corporeal shape, with large wings, like a bat the size of a horse. It screeches in the air, lightning flashing behind it, and it swoops down. Sam throws something small and circular, growing bright turquoise at it.
“Steve,” Natasha’s voice comes from somewhere behind him. “He’ll be fine. Time for us to go.”
inside, or: another kind of magic.
The man stumbles back from her, catching himself against the wall in surprise. It’s like this with the stronger ones. They try to fight, which is admirable. There’s always a somewhat tense moment--tense for them, merely interesting for her--when they try to fight off the magic stealing across their conscious, melding to their psyche. There’s always a moment where it seems as though they might actually succeed in throwing her off. In seven years, not one has managed.
The Red Merlin brings her prisoners and she steals their free will, forces something else over it instead, something blank and only willing to obey whatever is identified as its master. In this case, that happens to be the Red Merlin. She doesn’t tell the Red Merlin that no matter how much she reprograms the men into his Hydra soldiers, they will always have a strange, inexplicable pull toward her. It’s like the relationship between a vampire and its sire. She isn’t their master, but she is their creator. Magic will always draw to magic.
The soldier straightens after he loses that internal battle and she flicks her fingers over his temples, a red light pouring from her fingertips and seeping into his skull.
“Go,” she tells him, stepping him. “Do as he bids.”
She doesn’t particularly like it, creating the Red Merlin’s soldiers. There was a year or two after Pietro’s brutal murder, when she had nearly lost herself to grief and rage. During that time she had been nearly as cruel as the Red Merlin himself. Then, one day, the mirror had showed her an image of Pietro as he was and she had realized her own bloodthirst served no purpose. Cruelty, even for the sake of a broken heart, would never bring her brother back to her. Now, she performs her duties the way a doctor might, clinical, because she has to.
The Red Merlin is otherwise preoccupied with the boy, so she doesn’t bother to find him the way she usually does. It isn’t a matter of wanting to be near him, so much as it is needing to be so. He thinks she’s waiting until he regains his power to kill him that she is held by some misguided sense of honor and purpose. That’s not true at all. The truth is that despite his lessened state, the Red Merlin is still a Merlin. Even bound to the mirror, or maybe because of it, she can’t touch him. She has certainly tried.
There’s something wrong with the boy, though. Wanda can’t put her finger on it, but she can feel it. The Red Merlin, in his vengeance and hunger, hasn’t noticed. She isn’t going to tell him.
Instead, she goes into his chamber again, craving, as she always does, a glimpse at the mirror. Sometimes, it shows her what is meant to be, what she wants to be. Other times, it shows her what has already happened. All she wants is to see Pietro, one more time.
It’s in front of the mirror, it rippling and showing nothing at all, and her trying to mask her disappointment, that she feels it. There’s something crashing wildly against the fortress’s enchantments. She had set up most of them, so as they fall, one by one, she can feel it jabbing under her skin.
Annoyed, she crosses to the window. That’s where she sees them: the five fools trying to breach the fortress. She’s seen them before. She has no doubt that they’re here to rescue the boy.
She could flick her fingers and push them back, crush them under the weight of her magic in an instant, even from where she is. Instead, she rests her elbows against the stone window ledge, puts her face in her palms.
“I don’t,” Wanda says aloud, to no one, as though repeating herself, “like you. And stop talking about my brother, you găoază.”
storming an evil fortress.
Sam peels back the layers of spells one by one and with no small amount of difficulty. By the time Steve, Clint, Natasha, and Thor step forward, he has three creatures surrounding him. His arm is bloody and he’s been forced to his knees, sweat gathering at his brows.
“He’s fine,” Natasha says at Steve’s elbow, because she knows he’s about to stop, jeopardize the plan for Sam. “Trust him.”
“Everyone can use a little help,” Thor says, producing a hatchet from a strap on his back. He throws it with deadly aim at one of the creatures and it’s solid enough to fall back with a screech and a sickening crack as the blade hits the middle of its forehead.
“That’ll leave a mark,” Clint mutters as they race down the hill, through the broken shields of spells. They’re nearly to the bottom of the hill when the poison arrows start flying.
“That’s annoying,” Natasha remarks, calmly, and both Clint and Thor unstrap the bows and arrows from their backs.
“You two go ahead, we’ll follow,” Clint grunts, as he lets loose an arrow. It splits one of the poison arrows cleanly in half and then arcs up and down, falling into the cursed moat with a sizzle.
Natasha grabs Steve’s hand and pulls him along. They dodge flurries of arrows here and there. Steve pulls out Furore and Natasha pulls out her own sword and they bat arrows away as they go. One nearly grazes Natasha’s arm, but Steve pulls her out of the way just in time and they both stumble into one another and tumble down the hill.
Behind them, Clint and Thor are shouting.
“Sam, some fire!” Clint yells and Sam, who has since gotten rid of the dark creatures, flicks his hands up. The ends of Clint’s and Thor’s arrows catch alight and they send them off, up and into the parapets. They hear shouts of anguish as dark guards get pierced, catching into flames by magefire.
Natasha and Steve finally roll to a stop and scramble to their knees. That’s when people start to climb out of the moat itself.
“What the fuck,” Natasha stops, repulsed. The guards have slimy, grey, scaled skin and empty eye sockets, as though the water of the moat has curdled them into corpses. They lift themselves out of the water, climbing to their feet, and producing swords from somewhere behind them.
“Shit,” Steve says, but he has Furore out within seconds.
Clint and Thor keep volleying magefire arrows up and guards keep catching on fire on the parapets and falling over, dead, into the moat itself. Each time a body hits the water, it burns up, like acid poured on a body.
Steve and Natasha hold off the first wave of corpseguards. Natasha disembowels one, while Steve, back to her, decapitates another. Furore flashes out, bright and white, and corpseguard after corpseguard falls to its fury. The power thrums through Steve’s arms and he feels taller, fuller, as though the magic is finally giving his body the height and health it has always craved and deserved.
Natasha retrieves her sword and cuts the legs out from under one of the corpseguards. Another is nearly on top of her, but Thor sends an arrow through its throat.
“Thanks,” she gasps, and Thor merely grunts as three of them start to climb on him.
“You have to get him closer,” Natasha says after a few more minutes of frantic fighting. She’s covered in the dark red and grey slime of the corpses, gasping at a gash in her side. Beside her, Thor’s hair is matted with sweat and blood. When he gets a chance to breathe, he sends an arrow up toward the guards atop the parapet. The rest of the time, he has his doubleswords out and he’s cutting through the onslaught.
“Give me a minute,” Clint pants out. He’s wrestling with a corpseguard on the ground. It nearly bites down on him, but then it screeches, goes up in flames. A few feet away, Sam has one arm up, still fighting back the last layers of protection, and the other flashing around him, trying to help as much as he can.
Steve is surrounded by a hoard of them himself. He has a gash on his jaw and his arm is bleeding. Furore sings out, cuts through them easily, one after another, after another.
“There’s too many of them,” he grits out. “I can’t leave you alone.”
“Stick to the plan,” Natasha hisses, in pain or frustration.
Clint grabs his arm, hauls him away from the ring of dead corpses around him. Thor and Natasha have made a clearing, but not for long.
“We can hold them off down here,” Clint says. He’s gasping in pain. One of the corpseguards drove a dagger into his leg.
“Clint are you oka--”
“No time,” Clint says. “Natasha can’t come with you. You have to get in alone. Don’t let the guards catch you.”
Steve nods. He puts Furore back in his sheath. He’s exhausted, hurt, sweaty, anxious. He fears for his friends’ lives. He fears for Bucky’s even more.
Clint unhooks the rope and hook from his back, fits the arrow to his bow and takes a step back. Even injured, Clint Barton is the best shot in the Middle Kingdom.
“Climb, Steve,” Clint says as he lets the arrow fly. It catches, securely, onto the edge of the parapet. “Climb fast.”
How Steve makes it up the rope, scales the side of the fortress, and hauls himself over the edge, collapsing onto the walkway, he couldn’t say. It takes some strength and willpower leant to him by some divine power or, at least, a powerful wizard. He lays on the stone for half a breath, trying not to shudder. His body’s never been strong enough for this--he’s never been big enough or healthy enough to be a Knightling. His lungs are working harder than they’ve ever worked before, but--surprisingly, they’re not struggling for basic functions. He’s bone-weary and hurt, even winded, but it’s nothing his body isn’t handling. He pushes himself up to his knees and he feels Furore through his sheath, at his back. Whatever magic the sword is supplementing him with, it’s helping. He’s surviving.
He gets to his feet and looks around him. The walkway is littered with bodies of fallen Hydra soldiers, but nothing else. There are no other living beings leading to the door into the fortress. He breathes a sigh of relief. He looks over the edge of the parapet once, to see his friends fighting below. They’re exhausted, injured, and outnumbered, but they’re still fighting, valiantly. He’s filled, for a brief second, with a sense of gratitude, an overwhelming amount of affection for these people, his friends, who have been with him in every way he’s needed them and in some ways he’s never realized before. He’s put his life, and Bucky’s life, into their hands and they’re fighting as though that means something.
It’s the first time Steve allows himself to imagine them as his . He still hasn’t processed any of the consequences of the earlier revelations. What it means to be the real prince--he’s not sure. But if he is their prince, if they are his knights, then he thinks, it might be okay. He might rescue Bucky and it might all be okay.
Steve straightens, draws Furore out, and opens the door into the stairway.
The stairs are steep, leading down from the battlements and through the tower to the level underneath. Steve keeps the sword close to his chest, his eyes carefully watching each corner he turns. The fortress is large, sprawling, and he’s not sure where he is inside or where he’s meaning to go. To his surprise, there are no Hydra soldiers inside, at least not where he’s treading. He wonders if most of them were sent up as corpseguards through the moat, or if he’s just drawing closer to where they’re all standing, waiting for him.
He walks through three or four dimly lit halls, pushing doors open carefully, peering through cracks, trying to gauge some idea of where he is and where Bucky might be. After at least fifteen minutes of cautious ascent, he’s still no closer to an answer.
He curses out loud, feeling, rather than seeing, the time trickle away from him. He doesn’t have the time for this, literally. Every minute he spends winding his way through this foul-feeling place is another minute Bucky is closer to his twenty first birthday and, with it, Schmidt’s sacrifice to the curse.
“There has to be something I’m missing,” he mutters out loud.
“There is,” a voice says suddenly, behind him. Steve whirls around, but not before he feels two, cool hands touch his temples.
Something smooth shifts through his skin, hot and electric. It takes him one shuddering breath to realize it’s magic of some kind. In Steve’s head, there’s something thick that he suddenly can’t think around. It’s like a heavy blanket shrouding his own thoughts, suffocating his conscience. He struggles against it, tries to push at its weight, an anvil over his free will.
“What did you--” he starts, but his tongue, thick in his mouth, stops forming the words.
He loses control of his limbs, somehow, drops to his knees. No, Steve thinks, desperately. Not like this.
His last thought is of Bucky, laying somewhere, ready to die. Then, everything vanishes.
Wanda watches him, the blond boy with the crown atop his head. She tilts her head curiously as she steps back. The one the Red Merlin took was also wearing a crown. Could there have been two princes without him knowing? Or was one a trick? It doesn’t matter, she supposes. She really doesn’t care.
This one came alone, which was both impressive and stupid. She had been following him for a while without his notice, hearing his muttering at intervals, watching the way he grew more frantic the less able he was to discern where he was. There’s a strange energy about him that she can feel. It might be the sword at his back. It might just be him. If Wanda were to make a guess, she would guess that this was the prince who should have been cursed and that, somehow, the Red Merlin had taken the wrong one instead.
She likes him, she thinks. She doesn’t know him yet, but she has a feeling. Maybe he will be less predictable than the others. And if not, she’ll just steal his sword and cut the Red Merlin open herself.
She sits down on the bottom step of the stairs and patiently watches.
It’s like being caught under a dark, opaque cloud. Steve can’t see around it, the blackness, can barely think around it. He loses sense of time quite fast, loses his sense of self even faster. It’s substantial, coating his throat, covering his eyes, hardening around his bones so his limbs refuse to move. Dimly, he thinks he hears a voice. It’s not happy with him.
Steve wants to answer the voice, wants, desperately, to listen to it and please it.
Stand, it says.
He does so. It feels so good to obey. The pain in his body ebbs away, leaving behind a numbness that is so soothing, he craves it.
Draw out your sword, the voice says now.
Again, Steve almost scrambles to obey. He loves obeying, he was created to obey.
His hands close around the hilt of the sword and he nearly breathes out a sigh of relief. The swirling blackness presses harder against his conscience, suffocating what is left there. He’s close to giving himself over entirely; the path of least resistance. He feels, rather than thinks, what a blessing this would be.
Then, he feels a familiar, inviting warmth.
The sword starts to glow in the boy’s hands. She’s been disappointed so far. He’s answered her commands swiftly, almost eagerly, just like every soldier and corpseguard she’s ever created.
But now, he pauses, as though feeling something, or hearing a call.
“Cut off your hand,” Wanda instructs.
The blond boy--this prince--shifts the sword to one hand, his arm and other wrist stretched out in front of him. He tenses, ready to do as she bids.
Then, he hesitates.
The command is there, ready to be obeyed. The voice, ready to be served.
Cut off your hand, it says, and he’s glad to, relieved to, even. He’s about to move when--
The warmth in his right hand grows stronger, a white light interrupting the fog of black he’s cocooned in.
It’s a small memory that nestles in, a disruptive thought.
A boy wrapping another boy’s wrist in gauze. The injured boy--the smaller one--winces.
Stop fidgeting, the boy helping him says. He looks tense, scared. He has kind, expressive eyes. They’re worried. You’re going to open your stitches.
It’s not so bad, the injured boy says. Anyway I had him han--
If you finish that sentence , the other boy growls. I’ll kill you. He almost cut off your hand, Steve.
Steve, that’s the boy’s name. Steve remembers and it dawns on him--oh. That’s his name too.
He’s gone now, Steve says. The King and Queen banished Rumlow for life.
Thank god, the other boy--Bucky? (Oh, Steve remembers, that was Bucky.)--glares.
It wasn’t that bad, Steve frowns.
You’re lucky it didn’t cut through the bone. Norns, I thought Ma was going to collapse, Bucky says. She was by your side the entire time Doc was stopping the bleeding and stitching you up. She didn’t let you go.
He was insulting you, Steve says, frown replaced with a scowl now. He said you weren’t the real prince, that no one was gonna stop the curse from killing you. What was I supposed to do?
Norns, Steve, Bucky says, a little angrily. It’s just Rumlow. Rumlow talks shit. That’s literally all he does. You have to stop getting into these stupid fights.
They’re not stupid, Steve says, petulantly. If he’s gonna say shit about you, I’m gonna fight him.
They’re stupid, Bucky says. He ties the gauze a little harder than it strictly needs to be. Anyway, I’m not worth your hand. Or your life.
This time, it’s Steve’s turn to be angry.
Shut up, Bucky, he says. Of course you are. Of course you’re worth my entire life.
Bucky turns pink, a little angry, a little pleased.
You’re stupid, he finally says, just as Steve says I love you, stupid.
Bucky stares at him, for a second, and laughs.
Furore’s light leaks through the black curtains, bright shafts piercing through the cloud holding Steve’s free will captive.
Bucky, Steve thinks, gasping.
Then, he breaks free.
He comes back to consciousness, just as four soldiers round the corner. They see him, stare at him with glowing, blank eyes. One of them moves to Steve before he can force his thoughts back into order. He forces Steve to his knees with a cruel blow against his back and bends Steve’s right arm back until Furore falls to the ground. Steve lets out a cry as hot pain flashes through his arm. The soldier’s shortsword is to Steve’s throat within a breath and he draws it forward, ready to cut across when--
The soldier crumbles to the ground in a gurgle of blood.
Steve stares in revulsion, heart hammering. His head is still foggy from the enchantment, his arm throbbing painfully; he can barely process what’s happening. The soldier’s throat has been sliced clean across. Steve swallows bile, scrambles forward for Furore. By the time he clasps the sword to his chest and rises to his feet, two guards are equally dead on the ground. The third lurches toward him and Steve manages to lunge forward, the soldier’s body meeting the end of Furore with a sickening crunch and gurgle. Steve pushes the sword in further and then pulls it back. The soldier falls to his knees and then onto his side.
Steve, winded, with sticky, black blood running down his sword onto his hands, turns to find himself facing a girl with brown hair, dressed in scarlet, about his age.
“Stay back,” Steve says, finding strength in his voice, despite his trembling hands. “I don’t want to kill you.”
The girl tilts her head, gives him an amused look.
“I doubt you could,” she says. “Even if you tried.”
Steve raises Furore, as though to test this challenge, but she holds up a hand.
“I have something you want. I will offer you an exchange.”
Steve stays the sword, warily.
The girl twirls her wrist and bright red light starts leaking from her fingertips.
“I will give you your princeling,” the girl says and, for the first time, she starts grinning, widely. “If you let me kill Johann Schmidt.”
written in stone.
Steve follows Wanda’s directions--up three flights of stairs, through the passageway on the right, down one flight of stairs, inside an iron door, bolted shut, and under an archway with an inscription in Latin. By the time he sees the archway, he’s dizzy from the effort. He’s also having difficulty breathing through the magic in the air. The inscription he can’t read, but Wanda warned him--it’s meant to keep out anyone who has not been invited by the Red Merlin himself. Furore doesn’t seem to care much for ancient Latin text and old protective spells. It pulses and Steve feels the spell pass smoothly over his skin. He steadies himself against the wall, takes a deep breath, then two, then opens the door.
The chamber is large, almost cavernous, and the ceiling high, with moonlight trickling through the window and the cracks above. There’s a mirror at the other end, unmissable, set into the wall; it’s the largest mirror Steve has ever seen. The glass keeps rippling with images and Steve feels it low in his stomach, an anxiety about this object that he can’t explain. He moves closer to it, feeling its pull, and then stops. He doesn’t have time for this--he needs to find Bucky. He doesn’t know what time it is specifically, but the air around him is almost shaking in anticipation. He has until midnight and that’s--
“Very soon, I assure you,” a voice, low and compelling, says, just before the door shuts behind him.
Steve whirls around to see--a man, tall, dressed in black, with a grotesque red face, hovering over--
“Bucky,” Steve nearly gasps and stumbles forward, but then his body stops mid-step.
The man with the red skull face raises a finger and Steve can’t move, can’t feel his limbs or will them to listen to him. In front of the man, Bucky lays on a stone slab, pale as moonlight, in the moonlight. There are bruises on his face, his eyes are closed, and his shirt is ripped open, exposing his chest to the cool air. There’s already two lines of blood--in the shape of an x--above his heart. The man has a jagged knife in his hand.
“I must admit, I am mildly impressed that you have somehow managed to avoid death,” the Red Merlin says. He looks at Steve with thorough, uninterested disdain. “It is not always an easy feat, for non-mages, weak and pathetic as you are. Still.”
He flicks a hand and Steve lets out a surprised hiss of pain as he feels a sharp, coarse heat sweep through him, starting at his shoulder and working its way down.
“Let him go,” Steve grits out, gasping while his limbs feel like they’re boiling from the inside out. “--and I’ll spare you.”
The Red Merlin laughs, cold and high at that.
“Such mercy! Cursed to die on his twenty first birthday and the King and Queen send you?” the Red Merlin sneers. “You could not break a dish, let alone a curse.”
“Try me. Let him go,” Steve says. “He’s done nothing to you.”
“Done nothing to me?” the Red Merlin looks almost surprised; an expression that twists his tight, red skin repulsively. “I do not care what he has or has not done. He is to pay for the sins of his ancestors, the ones who stripped me of my power, cast me out, humiliated me!”
“You ever think they had a good reason to?” Steve asks, unable to control himself.
“Humans fear what they do not understand. Why should I have been punished for wanting to know more?” the Red Merlin says. “No, they fear true power because they cannot control it. They crave subjugation and I will give it to them. They will bow to my power. And this boy--this pitiful, weak boy, will be my sacrifice.”
Steve struggles against the hex, fights against binds that he can’t see, but can feel. Every muscle strains against the magic, only to be held so solidly in place, that the invisible restraints only strengthen.
“Another few minutes and your princeling will be mine,” the Red Merlin says. He runs a finger across the bloody x and brings it to his mouth. “The curse will complete upon his soul and I will claim it to my power. I will become the greatest Merlin the world has ever seen.”
Maybe it’s the horror of the situation, Bucky lying in front of Schmidt, close to lifeless, Steve unable to move, all of his nightmares come true. At this, suddenly, inexplicably, Steve starts laughing.
The Red Merlin pauses.
“What. What is so funny? ”
Steve can’t stop. He would be doubled over with it, if his body would allow it.
“The greatest Merlin in the entire world,” Steve says, through laughter. “Is a pain in the ass named Tony Stark. And he wants you to know that if you were to call him into a Mage’s duel, he would like to see, and I quote, that old man try to win.”
The Red Merlin’s face twists in fury.
“Actually,” Steve says. “I don’t even think you’re the greatest mage in this room.”
The Red Merlin only has a chance to blink before Wanda materializes, passes a hand over Steve’s invisible bond, unraveling the hex.
“Wanda,” the Red Merlin says. He puts his hand in front of him, raises a hex from the ground, but Wanda simply flexes her fingers, the red light flashing out and dispelling it. “This is not the way to avenge your brother.”
“You dare,” Wanda asks, her voice trembling with fury. “To speak of him.”
“You were always too emotional,” the Red Merlin says. He seems calm, but Steve can see it, the sudden alarm in his eyes. They flick over to something, somewhere behind Steve. “Everything requires a sacrifice. Or did you think I chose you because of your charm?”
Wanda, hands up, falters at that, and it’s just a moment’s hesitation too much.
“He begged me to spare your life instead,” the Red Merlin leers. “So I did. For I am good and generous. And his death was so beautiful.”
The Red Merlin forces her back as she screams, slams her against the opposite wall with the force of his power. Her head hits the stone loudly and she cries out in pain. Steve moves toward her, but the Red Merlin raises a hand toward him, the dagger hovering over Bucky’s heart.
“Ah, ah, wardling,” the Red Merlin says. “Your princeling has only a few moments left. Do you not wish to say goodbye?”
Steve’s eyes flicker out the window, to the moon, high in the sky. Midnight is a few minutes away, perhaps less. Bucky will be twenty one and the curse will be complete.
“It is a shame,” the Red Merlin says. “That sword could have saved him. It is the only thing that could have.”
“Because only one is worthy enough to wield it?” Steve asks, slowly. “And because it is meant to save the prince?”
“That was that idiot Fury’s intention, I believe, yes.”
“You cursed the prince,” Steve says. “For you to regain all of your powers, he has to die.”
“Yes,” the Red Merlin mutters, watching the moonlight shine up Bucky’s body, inching closer and closer to the heart. “The prince will finally die.”
“Which prince?” Steve then asks.
The Red Merlin, intent upon the mark on Bucky’s heart, staring intensely as, suddenly, the moonlight shifts across, as, suddenly, it starts to glow, looks up.
Bucky’s body starts gleaming as the moon moves into place, as it reaches the midnight hour. The Red Merlin, his dagger poised an inch above Bucky’s heart, pauses.
“This one,” he says. “The one I have cursed.”
“About that,” Steve’s grin widens. “Turns out there’s been a misunderstanding.”
Steve shifts his hand to his back and, from the wall, Wanda flicks her wrist.
Suddenly, the veil of magic lifts--his crown, and Furore, glitter back into place.
“What--” the Red Merlin sputters and Wanda shouts, “Steve, the mirror! ”
The Red Merlin roars, throws up a hand, but Steve blocks the magic with a slash of his sword. The Red Merlin throws up another hand, and another, and another, blasting Steve with hexes, with curses, with spells, with pure, raw, venomous magic. Wanda, from the wall, raises her hands and deflects, protecting Steve from the curses that Furore doesn’t cut through. The sword glows in his hands and he stumbles back, toward the opposite wall, toward the mirror.
“I will kill him,” the Red Merlin shouts. “He is still a prince and he will be my sacrifice.”
“No! ” Wanda screams and Steve is within inches of the mirror when he sees it, reflecting in the glass.
The Red Merlin raises the dagger and--there’s nothing Steve can do, it’s too fast, it’s within the blink of an eye--
Steve screams, smashes the mirror with the sword.
Behind him, the Red Merlin howls in body-wrenching pain, collapses to his knees.
There’s a blinding, unbearable light as the mirror breaks, Fury’s protective magic and the Red Merlin’s preserving one meeting once again, at last, crescendoing in battle. Steve’s lifted off his feet, the power slamming him against the wall opposite the mirror. He gasps in pain and drops the sword, but the light doesn’t abate--white meeting black and red--it’s all he can see, the magic is all that he can feel, sinking into his skin, ripping through muscle and bone.
Dimly, in the background, he can still hear the shrieks, or echoes, of the Red Merlin, his flesh being torn apart. Steve blinks through his own agony, tries to open his eyes against the light.
The dark wizard is still there, bleeding, falling apart, but still alive. His hand clutches the stone table.
That’s when Wanda appears.
“It is time you die,” she snarls and, dagger to his throat, she slits it open. “For Pietro.”
The Red Merlin dissipates with a loud cry and another flash of unseeable light, body falling to the ground, then scattering to red ash.
Wanda gasps, clutching the stone table to keep from collapsing to her knees. She’s bleeding from her side, from her temple.
Steve stumbles to his feet, somehow, scrabbles to clutch Furore to him and limp his way to the table.
“Wanda,” he pants. His head feels like it’s being cleaved in two. Dimly, he registers that his shoulder is in searing pain too--it feels dislocated, at a minimum.
“Steve,” Wanda says and she’s crying. “Steve, I’m so sorry. I couldn’t get to him in time.”
Steve doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He looks at her in confusion. Then he looks down at the stone table.
Bucky, still pale, still lifeless, with a jagged dagger through his heart.
after, or; no, just after.
He doesn’t know what happens, after. Wanda tells him, later, that he had lost all control of his senses, that seeing Bucky there, impaled, he had ripped the dagger out of his chest and tried to claw closer. She tells him that he had ignored the blood splattering down between them, that he had just kept muttering no, no, come back, and we broke the curse, you’re not going to die, we broke the curse, over and over, in grief, that he had tried to cradle Bucky closer and closer to his own chest, in a misguided attempt to bring him back to life, to bring him back to him.
By the time Steve regains his senses, he’s curled up on a horse, wrapped tightly in a blanket. There’s someone riding behind him, arms around him and on the reins, keeping him on his seat. There’s trees surrounding them; the forest presses in, quiet and close. It’s less oppressive than before, almost as though something, fundamentally, has changed. He gives in to the bliss of silence and blankness for a while, lets his mind drift, feeling only the steady footfalls of the horse’s feet and nothing more. He’s drained--there’s an ache in his temples and deep within his bones that he can’t dispel. He can barely keep himself upright. His arm hurts, his head hurts, and somewhere, deep in his chest, something else hurts, something intangible. He knows that he’s missing something, that he’s avoiding confrontation with something terrible, something that will tear him apart. He pushes it to the side anyway, welcoming the dark.
It’s when he shudders that the horse slows.
“Hey,” a voice, soft, soothing, says. “Steve?”
It’s a familiar voice. He doesn’t want to recognize it or even acknowledge it. He tries to go back to sleep, to the cocoon of numbness awaiting him eagerly. But he’s never been the person to avoid what he has to confront.
He opens his eyes. It’s almost immediately a mistake. Even his eyes hurt. He sways in his seat and the person reins the horse to a halt, tightens their hands at his waist.
“Let’s stop here,” the person--a woman--says.
There’s some other noises and after a minute, Steve feels a hand on his arm. He looks down and Natasha is staring up at him in concern.
“Can you get down?” she asks. She sounds softer, kinder, than she’s ever been. There’s dirt and blood streaked across her forehead; her otherwise bright red hair is matted with grime. Still, she looks healthy, alive.
“Yeah,” Steve mumbles. He fumbles with the front of the saddle and, eventually, makes it down with some help. “Where are we?”
“In the woods,” Sam says behind him. “We’re on our way back. Are you okay?”
Is he okay? Steve thinks, physically, not so much, but he’s managing. He’s surviving. Again, there’s something else there, something else tugging at him. He actively avoids it.
“Is everyone okay?” he asks. Natasha helps him sit down on a log, on the path. She hands him a canteen of water.
“A little worse for the wear, but,” Clint says. He’s helping calm the jittery horses down again. “Those corpse fuckers didn’t stand a chance.”
“Your arm,” Steve says, slurring in his exhaustion. One of Clint’s arms is in a fresh and roughly made sling.
“I’ll hold a bow again, Steve,” Clint says. “Don’t you worry.”
“Thor--” Steve says and the blond giant appears with a giant sack.
“I am merely getting the provisions, Steven,” Thor says. There’s a gash across his neck, various scrapes and bruises across his arm, and his armor is nearly in pieces, but he, too, is okay. He dumps the sack of food in front of them all and sits down across from Steve on another log.
“We’re going back,” Steve says. He finishes the water and hands Natasha the canteen.
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s about time, don’t you think?”
“I think so,” Steve agrees.
There’s a silence as they eat. It’s almost resounding, even with the woods surrounding them and the occasional skittering of animals here and there. It feels tense, for some reason. Steve is so tired, he almost thinks he imagines it. But then, when he focuses, he sees the looks that the others are giving one another. They look tired, sad, but in a way that doesn’t make sense. They’re going home. This is good, right?
“Am I missing something?” Steve finally asks out loud.
No one answers, for a minute.
“How are you feeling?” Sam finally asks.
“Okay,” Steve admits. “Tired. That was a long journey.”
“It sure was, bud,” Sam agrees. He eats his dried beef and watches Steve carefully--too carefully. Steve almost bristles. He hates being handled.
“Why are we going back, again?” he asks, frowning. There’s something there, something at the edge of his awareness. He’s almost certain he’s forgotten something.
“We did what we came to do,” Natasha says. Her voice is too measured, too bland. She picks apart a random twig. “Usually, people go home after.”
“That’s true,” Steve agrees.
Again, that silence. Again, that pull; a dream or a misplaced thought.
“I feel--” Steve starts and then stops. A wave of nausea washes over him. He rubs his hands over his face. “--there’s something I’m forgetting. It feels vague.”
The others look at one another, but Steve doesn’t notice. He’s getting closer, and closer, to whatever it is he doesn’t want to face. It’s hurtling toward him, overwhelming him. He doesn’t know what it is yet, but he can tell he won’t be able to avoid it for much longer. He’s almost shaking.
“What were we doing again?” Steve asks, looking up.
That’s when one of the horses whinnies. There’s the snap of a twig and, beside the horse--an extra horse, Steve notes--there’s a girl in red.
It comes back to him, in an instant.
“Wanda,” Steve gasps, and he’s on his feet.
“Steve,” Sam says, hands on his shoulders. The others have gotten to their feet immediately. “Steve, wait.”
“Where is he?” Steve tries to break away from Sam. “What did you do to him?”
“Steve, hold on,” Sam tries again. He tries gripping Steve harder, but Steve pushes him, stumbles forward. “Steve.”
He pushes past Clint, doesn’t even bother to look at Natasha. He’s almost to Wanda, desperate, clawing at the air, when he feels Thor’s arms around him.
“Steven,” Thor’s voice comes, deep, and low. “Please listen. You are leaving the path and we cannot let you do that.”
“Let me go,” Steve struggles. “Wanda. Wanda. Where is he?”
Wanda watches him, sadly, pale in the moonlight.
“I’m doing the best I can,” she says, but her voice comes softly, like a wisp.
Steve tries to elbow Thor, tries to kick at him, but Thor is twice his size, and three times as strong. He doesn’t let go. He doesn’t even seem to move.
“Steven,” Thor murmurs in his ear. “Please. Listen to us.”
“Listen to what? ” Steve spits out. “Let me go. I have to go to him. I have to go to Bucky.”
And then, overwhelmed, grieving, remembering everything that he has lost, Steve starts crying.
Thor lets him down and he doesn’t stop. He crumples to his knees, holds his palms to his face. He shakes, swallowing gulps of air, trying to will his body to stop, to calm down, to at least avoid an asthma attack, but nothing will listen. Not even he will listen. He falls apart there, on the forest floor. Not even a magic sword will fix this.
At some point, someone envelopes him in a hug. Sam holds him like that, tucked close, grieving himself, until Steve finally wears himself out.
“Magic calls to magic,” Sam says, after a while, in Steve’s hair. “He held magic, even for a second. It might be enough. That has to be enough.”
Steve doesn’t know what Sam means. He won’t know what he means for a while. But, sometime later that night, he sees Wanda again, shimmering and nearly translucent, and when she reaches out to touch him, she passes through him entirely.
They ride through the woods in silence punctuated by grief. Steve sleeps most of the way and the others let him, encourage it even. They emerge at the crest of another hill, this one looking down at a familiar castle town. It was not supposed to be like this. They were not supposed to come back without the person they meant to go save.
Steve is still asleep. Sam might have used an enchantment on him. No one thinks to blame him.
“Clint and I will take him,” Natasha says, turning to the others. “Sam, you and Thor--”
“Don’t worry,” Sam says. “We’re going to do our best.”
Thor goes to the extra horse, lifts a limp body wrapped in a bright, red shroud. Hovering beside the body is a girl in red, almost ghostly in how ephemeral she is.
“I am sorry,” Wanda says, her voice soft as the wind.
“Save him,” Natasha says, voice hard and fierce. “It’s the least you can do.”
Clint carefully helps Steve down from the horse. Then, between him and Natasha, they carry him through the front gates of the castle and to the King and Queen.
Steve wakes up to a soft light falling on his face. He doesn’t open his eyes for a moment, letting sound and feeling filter in first. There are soft, hushed voices somewhere in the room and a warm blanket pulled up, covering most of him. There’s a dull ache in his head, somewhere above his eyes, and although he’s lying on soft padding, his body feels sore, all over. He can feel gauze wrapped around various body parts. That, at least, feels familiar.
“How long?” a voice--a woman’s--asks, softly.
“For him or--”
“Him. For Steve.”
“Any day now,” the other voice--a man’s--replies. Maybe because he’s been in so many similar situations before, but this voice he recognizes immediately. Doctor Banner.
“‘m right here,” Steve sighs, his eyes fluttering open. “Stop talking about me like I’m not.”
“Oh,” the Queen’s face turns toward him. Her eyes are red-rimmed, her skin pale, pulled tight. She looks like she’s aged a decade overnight.
“How did I get here?” Steve asks, voice hoarse from disuse. Doctor Banner comes to him immediately, helps lean up, extremely slow and even more carefully.
“Miss Romanoff and Mister Barton brought you,” the Doctor says. “You were in bad shape, Steve. I thought I told you to stop that.”
“You know what they say about bad habits,” Steve says, wincing as his muscles pull. Doctor Banner gives him a goblet of some cool, thick concoction.
“For the pain,” he says. “And to help clear your head.”
“Do I need a clear head where I’m going, Doc?”
“Where is it that you think you’re going, Steve?” Bruce asks.
Steve doesn’t answer for a moment. The liquid--whatever it is--cools the fire in his muscles. It drops down his veins, settles into his bones. It helps with the pain. Magic always has its cost and Steve’s used a lot of it that hasn’t belonged to him, lately.
“To Bucky,” Steve says. “Wherever he is.”
“Steve,” the Queen says then, with a start. She’s been hanging back, cautiously. Now she approaches him warily. She sits down on a chair next to his bed. “James is--”
“I don’t care,” Steve replies. He remembers everything. He’s calmer now, more able to accept whatever truth he has to swallow. “Your highness--mother. Whoever you are. I don’t think you understand.”
The Queen doesn’t say anything for a moment. Steve sees the hurt that flashes across his face, but he doesn’t really care. The depth to which the King and Queen betrayed him, cost both him and Bucky things they did not know they could lose--it’s not a betrayal he will forgive lightly or get over quickly.
“Tell me then,” the Queen says, almost begs. “Tell me what I need to know.”
“I don’t think you’ve earned it yet,” Steve says and the Queen almost physically flinches. “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Bucky.”
“Steve,” Bruce says, gently. “We don’t know if--”
“I’m going to wherever he is,” Steve says and his voice is hard. He looks both the Queen and Bruce in the eyes. “Wherever he is.”
The meaning of his words could not possibly be lost on either of them.
finally, a merlin, or: the greatest the world has ever seen.
High in the Merlin’s Tower, Tony Stark has been having A Day. First, his idiot apprentice returns, banged up, scratched up, having spent so much of his own magic that it’s going to take at least a few months for him to replenish himself.
“What am I supposed to do,” Tony Stark says, staring at him. “With an apprentice mage who can’t mage?”
“Tell me one thing you need me for,” Sam says, unimpressed. “A single thing.”
“Don’t sass me, Wilson,” Tony says, pointing a chicken foot at him. “I gave you a task once and I lost my Tower for an entire week for my effort.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Sam says. “The Tower wandered away for a day, maybe two.”
“You made an entire Tower wander away,” Tony says.
“You once turned the King into an elk,” Sam retorts, which, well, Tony can’t really deny.
Second, his idiot apprentice tells him that Johann Schmidt is dead.
“What do you mean he’s dead?” Tony asks, clarifying.
“I mean he’s dead. Gone. Steve turned him into a crumbling pile of ash,” Sam answers, clarifying back.
“I knew that kid was more trouble than he was worth,” Tony mutters to himself.
And third, well--third.
“He’s not dead yet,” Tony says. Thor, with help from no one at all, has helped shift Bucky’s body onto Tony’s kitchen table. Tony leans toward the princeling’s chest, ear to where his heart should be beating. “There’s no heartbeat, but there’s a hint of soul left. It’s clinging to this body, desperately.”
“Don’t you need a heartbeat to be alive?” Sam asks, frowning.
“Technically yes,” Tony says. He straightens, watching the red ghost looking eagerly through his potions stores. She’s standing in the middle of a table--not on a table, in the middle of a table, as in, through it. “But magic doesn’t abide by technicalities.”
“What does that mean?” Thor asks him. He’s sitting on a counter, slumped forward in exhaustion.
“It means it’s not the end of the world that he’s dead,” Tony says. “Or, well, it’s not dead that he’s the end of the world.”
“That’s not a real sentence,” Sam says. “In any configuration of sentences. In any language.”
“What he means is that your friend still lives because his soul is bound to his body,” Wanda finally sighs in the air. “There are three deaths--of the brain, of the heart, and of the soul. To die a true death, all three must stop.”
“What happens if you lose two and keep one?” Sam asks, watching Bucky’s body uneasily. “If you bring back his heart and brain, will he be the same? Or will he be different? The...undead?”
“It’s hard to say,” Tony says, and for one he’s not joking or trying to make some sort of posturing statement. He looks serious, troubled. “It depends on the brain and the heart.”
“Why is he not dead yet?” Thor asks, softly.
Tony jerks his head toward Wanda.
“Ask your witchling here. This is all her handiwork.”
Wanda says nothing for a moment. Then she walks, or floats, to the table where Bucky is at. As she approaches him, she starts flickering, like a candle.
“I have bound him to me, to my magic.”
“What happens to him if you die?” Sam asks, cautiously.
“Then he dies too,” Wanda says.
“And what happens to you, if he dies?” Thor asks next.
Wanda looks up at them and flickers again, in and out of existence. She doesn’t have to say it for them to know her answer.
Tony spends an hour examining Bucky’s body, running tests up and down his limbs. Bucky’s only alive because he and Wanda are sharing a single, magical life-force right now, he confirms.
“It’s not sustainable,” he says. “We need to bind him to something else. Something powerful.”
Tony taps a finger to his chin, thinking his options through, when, suddenly, there’s a scraping sound and voices in the hallway.
The door bangs open and there, standing defiant and stubborn, with gauze hanging off his arms, is Steve.
“How about a magical sword?” he says and shoves Furore onto the table, on Bucky’s stomach.
“That’ll do it,” Tony perks up. Then he eyes Steve. “You’re a little dramatic, aren’t you?”
“Save him,” Steve says, ignoring him. “Prove to me you’re the greatest Merlin the world has ever seen.”
Tony’s eyes glitter as he rolls up his sleeves.
“Now, now, little Plot Twist,” he says, almost gleefully. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”
Steve is told to hold Bucky’s arm steady. It will hurt, Tony warns him. If it works, if Bucky wakes up, he’ll be screaming in pain. He’ll try to thrash about, but Steve can’t let him. No matter how much he begs, Steve has to hold him still, he has to let Tony let his magic run.
“As long as he wakes up,” Steve says softly. He looks down at Bucky, at his unusually white pallor, and moves back hair from his forehead. This has to work, he thinks. He’ll die if it doesn’t.
Tony instructs Steve to lay the sword across Bucky’s chest.
What will happen is this: Tony is going to meld Bucky’s soul, the bit of his life’s force that was touched by magic, to Furore. It will act in the same way the mirror acted for Schmidt, except instead of amplifying power, this will amplify Bucky’s life, it will catch it and bind it to his body, in an object that will hold it there.
To do this, Tony will need to use all of the power available to him. And maybe Sam’s. And probably Wanda’s.
“If I overextend myself and crumble into ash,” Tony says, preparing the flow of magic in his hands, “There’s a woman at the Order who you will need to apologize to. Her name is Pepper and I’ve owed her a date for the past, let’s say ten years.”
Steve holds Bucky’s arm down. He closes his eyes tightly, feels the warmth of Furore as Tony starts his binding spell. Next to him, Wanda stands. He can’t feel her hand on his shoulder, but he can feel her presence.
“Thank you,” he says.
“I will not let Schmidt take another from us,” Wanda replies, quietly. “This is not what my brother would have wanted.”
For a moment, he still feels her there, still feels Bucky’s unbearably cold shoulder under his fingertips. Then, everything vanishes.
Magic is a powerful, overwhelming, fickle thing. It takes a mage of considerable experience to control it, one of considerable power to temper it, and one of something beyond--something that cannot be quantified or qualified--to shape it into something else altogether. Tony Stark may have been a lot of things--insufferable, arrogant, annoying, dramatic--but one thing he was not was a liar.
The magic flowed from his fingertips, set alight by his incantations. Furore lit brightly, a beacon in a dark oasis of power. He tugged from what remained of Sam’s power, from the magic binding Wanda to Bucky and Bucky to this life, and even from Steve, whatever part of Steve’s soul had been touched by Furore. Then, with immense strength and power of his own, he took those forces and bound them together, melded them with the metal of the sword, pushed them into Bucky, solidifying the aggregation of power where it was easiest for something to form--his arm.
Steve can feel it under his fingertips, when the vibrations start.
The metal, magic arm forms slowly, excruciatingly, and with it, the anchor for Bucky’s soul to finally catch back into his body.
He gasps when it finally happens, his soul slamming back in, his heart jumpstarting, his body convulsing with the shock of it all. His body arcs up for a moment, as though hit by lightning.
Then Bucky starts screaming.
Steve holds onto the arm, as instructed, with all of the strength remaining to him. To one side, Wanda suddenly re-materializes, solid, and spent of energy. Sam catches her before she falls.
To the other side of the table, Tony’s incantations suddenly stop. His face, sweaty and slightly green, goes slack. He collapses backwards.
“No you don’t!” Thor says, leaping forward. He catches him in his arms, the greatest Merlin the world has ever seen.
a curse broken, a prince rescued.
Steve finds himself curled around Bucky when the other boy finally moves. It had been four days since Tony’s magical experimentation. In that time, Tony, Wanda, and Sam had been taken to the infirmary to recover their energy, as well as their magic.
“I’m going to need a raise,” Bruce had muttered, but it was all bluster.
Bucky, on the other hand, had been taken to his chambers. If he was going to wake up, it was going to be in his own room, in his own bed. Steve had not been willing to negotiate about that.
As a result, Steve hadn’t been to his own chambers in as many days. He takes meals here, recovers here, sleeps here. Around them, the castle and kingdom must go on, but Steve has little to no awareness of it. He starts the day watching Bucky’s face for signs of improvement and ends the day next to him, curled up in bed beside him, an arm thrown carefully over Bucky’s chest.
It’s four days later, when Steve’s face is nestled into the cool crook of Bucky’s neck, that Steve awakens to movement.
“Steve?” he hears a voice he had thought, at one point, he might never hear again.
Steve awakens immediately, his heart hammering in his ears.
“Bucky,” he breathes out. “Bucky? Bucky, it’s me, it’s Steve.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, voice hoarse with disuse. “I know who you are, Steve. We’ve...known each other our entire lives.” A pause. “Did you hit your head or something?”
And Steve is so relieved, is so deeply, stupidly, horrifyingly relieved, that he nearly cries.
“Hey,” Bucky says, a frowned etched into his perfect features. “Hey, what’s wrong, Stevie?”
“You’re an idiot,” Steve says, his voice thick and watery. “Norns, you’re an idiot. I told you.”
Bucky clearly doesn’t know what Steve is talking about, but so used to easy charm is he, that he gives Steve a lopsided, tired smile anyway.
“I’m the idiot?” he asks. “You’re the one always provoking dragons.”
It’s the miracle of magic, or maybe Tony Stark, but Bucky begins healing rapidly after that. At first he’s wary about his new, magical arm, not trusting it, after the entire, sordid story of how he died and was forced back to life.
“What if this thing is evil?” he asks, squinting at it suspiciously. “What if I become the next evil mastermind?”
“You’re too obvious to be an evil mastermind,” he says. “You’d tell everyone what your plan was before carrying it out.”
“That’s the genius of the plan, Stevie,” Bucky says, with his easy, charming, bright grin. “People don’t expect you to go through with an evil plan that you’ve already told them about. It’s like a fake of a fake. That’s why it works.”
“It doesn’t work,” Steve says, deadpan. “That would never work. That is a stupid idea.”
“You’re a stupid idea,” Bucky says, automatically, and Steve has to snort, he’s so typically endeared by it all.
Then, after a while, Bucky really starts growing fond of his magical arm.
“Hey, Stark,” he says, one day, as he’s doing magical arm therapy in the Tower, “What d’ya think? Now that I’m bound to a magical arm and shit, am I the world’s greatest magical object? Maybe I’m a mage now. Maybe I’ve been the real Merlin all along.”
“Don’t push your luck, princeling,” Tony says, pointing a cauldron ladle at him. “I’ll turn you into a soup bowl.”
“You are all very obsessed with turning things into other things,” Wanda, who is testing the potion they’ve both been making, says mildly.
“Yeah, they are,” Bucky says, tilting his head. “I really don’t get it. They’re not great at it, either.”
He spends a lot of his time in his chambers, or at the Merlin’s Tower, or by the lake. His magical arm gleams in the light, sun or moon, and he has to learn how to use it, to move with it, to manage its magical byproducts. It binds his soul to his body and keeps him alive, but he tires easily, at least for now. He also sometimes sets off sparks around him or accidentally makes objects levitate when he’s upset. Magic always comes with a cost.
Usually--almost always--Steve is with him. He’ll sketch while Bucky naps, head on his lap, or they’ll watch Tony and Sam and Wanda perfect spells together, or they’ll lay in Bucky’s bed, just talking or existing in comfortable silence. Bucky’s a little more fidgety now than he was before, a little tenser, a little more reserved. It breaks Steve’s heart, in a way, but he’s also grateful, just to have him. Sometimes, he’ll catch himself staring at Bucky when Bucky’s not looking and when Bucky does turn to him, when he does catch that look in his eyes, he softens too. It’s never unwelcome, for either of them.
“Is this okay?” Steve asks one afternoon. They’re laying on the grass by the lake. The others have been assigned to a village quest, including Sam, who is to use his magic to quell some particularly annoying magical creatures that keep attacking the village’s livestock, either because of a wayward curse or because they’re bored. Even Wanda’s ridden out with them, eager to see what silly creature feasts on goats, cows, and villagers’ spare shoes.
“Hm?” Bucky, as usual, is close to dozing off, his arm cushioned behind his head, his legs sprawled out below him. They’ve been lazing in the sun a lot lately and Bucky’s skin is a beautiful, golden brown for it. He turns his head toward Steve. His eyes, bright and fond, almost light up with the setting sun behind him.
Oh, Steve thinks, forgetting to speak. Just as it has since he was a child, something flutters in his chest, rapidly, steadily. He almost looks away, it’s so painful. He almost reaches out and touches him.
“Steve?” Bucky asks quietly.
“I’m taking up all your time,” Steve says. “I’m sure you have better things to do. Duties. People.”
Something flickers across Bucky’s face that’s never been there before. Uncertainty, maybe. A lack of being completely sure of himself.
“Not right now,” Bucky says. He looks back up at the sky, stretched peach and pink above them. “I’m being given some...time off.”
“We haven’t talked about it,” Steve replies, softly.
Bucky says nothing for a full minute.
“Sam and Natasha told me,” he says, finally. “The King and Queen told me too, but Sam and Nat told me first. Thought I’d want to maybe hear it from some friendly faces, so I wouldn’t be blindsided.” He pauses, then his eyes flicker toward Steve. “I had these dreams, while I was dying, of you in a crown. I thought they were dreams anyway. Maybe I really saw you as you were.”
Steve’s throat tightens, something heavy weighing down his stomach. He’ll never be able to let go of the image of Bucky, pale and lifeless, on a stone table. As long as he lives, he’ll have nightmares about that one moment and the ones that followed after.
“I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorr--”
“Steve,” Bucky says and suddenly his hand is on Steve’s face again, fingers spread across his cheek. “Don’t apologize. I can’t stand it when you say you’re sorry.”
“--am a victim of my--your--our parents too. They’re the ones who lied, not you. Norns, you spent your entire life thinking you had no parents and I always thought, surely it wasn’t so bad, you had mine, but now it’s not like that anymore, you’re the one with parents and I’m--”
“No,” Steve says swiftly. “I hate them right now too, but they love you, Bucky. They love you like they always have, it’s the one lie of theirs I actually believe.”
Bucky laughs, low and sad.
“I guess I have parents somewhere.”
“You have them right here,” Steve says, fiercely. “You have all the family you need right here.”
Bucky says nothing to that, just sighs.
“I don’t blame them, you know,” he says, after a while. Steve looks at him curiously and Bucky avoids his eyes. His expression--whatever it is--almost breaks Steve’s heart. “They did it because they loved you. Because they wanted you to live. I--well, I can’t say I don’t understand.”
“Bucky--” Steve starts, but Bucky shakes his head.
“I’d do it again, for you.”
Steve doesn’t know what to say to that. It almost overwhelms him, the love he has for his best friend. He doesn’t attempt to say anything at all, in the end, but he does move slightly closer, shoulder pressed to shoulder, and he thinks Bucky should know that is enough. Bucky lets out a low breath and smiles, so it’s likely that he does.
They both watch as the sun dips down below the horizon, but make no attempts to move. Somehow, Bucky’s head ends up on Steve’s shoulder. His hand is palm down on Steve’s stomach and Steve--
“Buck,” Steve says, with conviction.
“Yeah, Stevie?” Bucky asks, sleepily.
“I’m gonna hold your hand now,” Steve says. He has his stubborn voice on and his stubborn face, although Bucky can’t see that. He can definitely hear it, though.
Bucky’s laugh tinkles a little, a sweet melody in the cool night air around them.
“Okay, Stevie,” he says.
Steve curls his fingers into Bucky’s own. Bucky doesn’t hesitate, he intertwines them together.
They fall asleep like that, outside, curled together. No one thinks to disturb them and wouldn’t, even if they did.
When they eventually wake up, it’s to dew on the grass and the sun breaking just over the horizon. Bucky lets out a little muffled noise and rolls in closer to Steve.
“Five more minutes,” he mumbles, sleepily.
“We should go inside, Buck,” Steve says, softly. “We’re gonna catch a cold.”
“No,” Bucky shakes his head into the crook of Steve’s neck. “Five more minutes.”
Steve hesitates, then lets his hand rest on Bucky’s back. When Bucky doesn’t protest, he lets it trail up to the back of Bucky’s head, fingers resting on the back of Buck’s neck. Bucky only stills for half a heartbeat, then he curls into Steve more.
“Princelings need their sleep,” he says, smiling into Steve’s collarbone. “I’m gonna have to teach you how to be one, now that you’re mine.”
Steve shivers a little at those words, despite himself. He’s Bucky’s princeling is obviously what Bucky means, but--he feels the faint pressure of Bucky’s mouth at the base of his throat and Bucky’s hand, sneaking back into his own and--maybe, well. He can’t really be sure.
things settle, or: the truth about forever.
It takes a few months for the kingdom to settle, for Bucky to stop seeing Red Merlins over his shoulder, and for Steve to stop expecting Bucky’s curse to trigger, for him to disappear again, or drop dead. Bucky’s hair grows a little longer than he usually allows it and sometimes, when they’re pressed together, shoulder to shoulder, at the edge of the lake, or in the library, or at dinner, which they take either by themselves in their chambers or at the Tower with Sam, Tony, and Wanda, Steve will reach out and run his fingers through it. Bucky never pulls away at his touch, never does anything but smile, soft and happy.
“You two are killing me,” Tony says one day, when Bucky is meeting with a diplomat and Steve is helping Tony and Sam with a magical experiment. It doesn’t matter to Bucky that he’s not the real prince; he has his duties and responsibilities and until Steve decides to take his rightful crown, he’s stuck doing them, by his own volition, albeit more cooly with the King than he used to.
Steve, for his part, refuses. Every time he sees the King and Queen it’s tense, short, and no matter how many times his parents beg, he can’t stand to look at them, can’t stand to be around them. Bucky always was the more forgiving one. He was always the best of Steve.
“What are you talking about, Tony?” Steve mutters. He’s squatting, trying to reach something that’s fallen under the kitchen table.
“You two. You and the artist formerly known as our princeling.”
“What about us?” Steve frowns, his arm trying to reach under. It was a vial of something and with his luck, whatever magic is in there is corrosive and he’ll accidentally set the entire Tower on fire.
“You’re killing me,” Tony says. He stirs something vigorously. “Tell him, Wilson. Tell him how he’s killing us.”
Now Sam doesn’t usually make a point of agreeing with Tony. In fact, he’s made it a habit over the years to distinctly disagree with him, no matter the point or cost. But now, when Steve looks up at him, Sam wears an unsympathetic expression.
“He’s right,” Sam says. “You’re killing us.”
Steve’s mouth drops open.
“Finally,” Tony exclaims. “Thank you, Wilson, you can now take my place as the rightful Merlin of this place.”
“That’s all it took?” Sam asks skeptically. “Agreeing with you?”
“Wish you’d started earlier now, don’t you?” Tony asks, waggling his eyebrows annoyingly.
“I don’t know what you two are talking about,” Steve declares, then lets out a noise of triumph as his fingers close around the vial.
“You are killing us,” Tony repeats. “All of us. Every single one of us. Your unresolved sexual tension is ruining lives and potions. It’s throwing all of the magic off kilter.”
“We’re not--” Steve blushes. “We don’t have--”
“He’s not wrong, Steve,” Sam says and crosses his arms, looking as though the thought of agreeing with Tony Stark is making him feel a little ill. “Everything is just a little off and it’s probably because you two can’t stop making eyes at each other long enough to actually stick your tongues down each others throats.”
Steve turns a bright, unmistakable shade of crimson.
“Sam,” he splutters, but Sam just shrugs with a wry grin.
“I said what I said.”
“And it needed to be said,” Tony says. “What are you waiting for? This has been the most obvious culmination of your entire lives.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Steve says, muttering in embarrassment. “He’s betrothed.”
“He’s not the princeling, you are,” Tony points out.
“It doesn’t matter,” Steve says. Even his ears are pink, but this pronouncement makes his chest twist miserably, as it always does. “He’s still a prince and he’s still the acting prince and he’s betrothed. He’s going to marry someone and it isn’t--”
He doesn’t finish his sentence, but Sam looks at him with sympathy.
“I’m sorry, Steve,” Sam says and he looks it.
“I’m not,” Tony says and both Sam and Steve look at him in annoyance. “What? You can break a two hundred year curse, but not a twenty year engagement? Ask the King and Queen. If they don’t agree, have the princeling wave his magic arm at them menacingly.”
Steve thinks about that conversation more than he cares to admit. He’s thinking about it through dinner, when he’s a little quieter than usual, and throughout their evening reading hour, where he can’t focus on reading, and even when he’s in Bucky’s chambers, helping him put on his suit. There’s a delegation from the Western Crown here to meet with the King, Queen, and the Crown Prince. If the news about Steve’s own lineage has gotten out yet, no one has spoken to him about it or even made him confront the realities of it. The King and Queen, in their guilt and heartbreak, have left him alone, which suits him perfectly fine.
“You’re somewhere else today,” Bucky says quietly as Steve fixes his tie.
“Hm?” Steve, who doesn’t realize Bucky’s been watching him in silence for the past ten minutes, looks up.
“You’ve barely said a word to me all day,” Bucky says. He looks down at Steve with concern. His hair falls into his face. “Are you mad?”
“Mad? Why would I be mad?”
Bucky swallows, looks distinctly uncomfortable. Steve’s fingers are at the knot at his throat. Bucky’s still inches taller than him, so Steve has to tug him down just a little.
“Because I’m still being the...Prince,” he says. “Because, despite everything, I don’t hate them the way you do.”
Steve is taken aback by this. His fingers stall and he looks up at Bucky, really looks up at him, into his kind, expressive blue eyes. Bucky carries so much weight with him at all times, quietly, behind his outward happiness and charisma that Steve often forgets that he’s not the only one who’s had his life torn apart in recent months.
“I don’t--” Steve starts and stops. There’s a churning in his stomach. “I don’t hate them.”
“I thought I did,” Steve admits. “I think I wanted to. I do want to. But they’ve loved you your entire life and I think they’ve loved me mine too. I’ve been trying to think about what I would do, in their situation.”
“And?” Bucky watches him expectantly.
“I wouldn’t,” Steve says fiercely, but then softens. “I wouldn’t do what they did. I wouldn’t sacrifice another child for mine. That’s not right, that will never be right. But I think I would do almost anything else, for someone I loved that much.”
“You’re going to make a great father one day, Steve,” Bucky says quietly. His fingertips brush Steve’s hair, and then trail down his face, to his jaw.
“Bucky,” Steve’s throat is thick. He has so many things he wants to say, that he can’t. He keeps thinking here they are, they’ve survived it all, but still he can’t cross that line, still he can’t take Bucky away from what’s been written for him. Bucky would never allow him to. “You too.”
“Maybe,” Bucky says, distantly. “With someone. One day.”
Neither of them can say what’s on their minds--that that someone might appear soon and that one day is not far enough away.
Bucky’s hand slides to the back of Steve’s neck, cups him there, and Steve looks up. His eyes are shining brightly and Bucky shakes his head, again, his hair falling into his eyes. Steve reaches up, pushes Bucky’s bangs out of the way.
“I’m selfish,” Bucky whispers. “Too selfish to be King. I want--”
But just then, a loud knock comes at the door.
“Your Highness,” the guard says outside. “It is time we leave or you will be late.”
Bucky doesn’t let go, just watches Steve instead. He looks at Steve as though he’s never seen anything like him in his life, as though try as he might, search though he will, he might never find anything like him again.
The guard knocks again.
“Your Highness,” he says, louder.
“He’s coming,” Steve replies for Bucky, softly.
They’re a mere inch away from one another, if even that. He could close the distance easily. He could take this, what Bucky’s offering to him. He’s never wanted anything more.
“Okay,” Bucky says sadly, when Steve doesn’t. “Okay, I’m coming.”
He pulls back and straightens his tie and jacket, secures the sigil to his chest.
“How do you think I look, Stevie?” Bucky asks, masking his heartbreak, as he always does.
“Perfect,” Steve says, thickly. He looks away. “You look perfect, Buck.”
Within months time, it’s Steve’s twenty first birthday too. It’s a week-long affair, although Steve really doesn’t care and, honestly, doesn’t want it. He’d rather spend his time as he usually does, finishing his studies, training, spending time with Sam, Tony, and Wanda in the Tower, with Thor, Natasha, and Clint in the fields, and with Bucky, at all other times. He doesn’t want to be celebrated. These days, he feels even more disconnected than he usually does, unsettled in ways he wasn’t before. He misses the feel of Furore sometimes, the comfort of that power in his palms.
Still, his friends aren’t going to let this occasion go by unmarked. Natasha, Clint, Thor, and Sam take him and Bucky out to a nearby village for drinking and merriment, Tony, Sam, and Wanda set off fireworks from the Merlin’s Tower, and even the King and Queen convince him, this once, that they should have a birthday dinner together. The latter Steve isn’t keen on, but Bucky gets annoyed at him, tells him to stop being a stubborn jerk.
“They love you and you know it,” Bucky tells him when Steve expresses his reservations. “You’re breaking their hearts and that’s not okay, Steve. Get over it, forgive them. You have parents now and isn’t that all you’ve ever wanted?”
Bucky’s not wrong and it chastens Steve, as reluctant as he is. He arrives at the dinner before anyone else does. The table is set for a feast for four, but he ignores it, walks to the tapestries hanging on the wall instead. Most of them are threaded with color and gold, all scenes of battle, of kings and queens in the past, of the subtle shades of Merlins and magic. He’s staring at a particularly vivid one, of a young boy with blond hair and blue eyes, when he feels someone approach him.
“That was your great, great, great, great, great...great grandfather,” the Queen says. “William the Bold.”
“Why was he so bold?,” Steve asks, quietly, after a few seconds of silence. "He looks like a child.”
“Rumor has it he hated the Merlin his family had adored for generations. A powerful mage by the name of Johann Schmidt. No one would listen to him, but he didn’t care. He spoke out against him and exposed Schmidt for who he was.”
Steve tenses, but continues looking at the tapestry anyway.
“He was the one?”
“Yes,” the Queen says. “He died on his twenty first birthday.”
Steve lets out a wary breath, looks at William’s face, so much like his own, and turns to the Queen--to his mother.
She’s watching him closely, sadly.
“When you were born, I was the happiest woman in the world,” she says. “And then, just as quickly, I wasn’t. All I have ever wanted was your happiness and safety, Steven. I just wanted to see you live past your twenty first birthday, to not be bound by the curse of your ancestors.”
The Queen is looking at him with too much unconcealed emotion and it makes Steve emotional too, makes it settle thick in his chest. He knows that she loves him. And he knows that she loves Bucky, has seen it in the way she’s looked at him and held him and cared for him their entire lives. Whatever her sins--and she had sins--she had paid for them by almost losing not one son, but two.
“I don’t hate you,” Steve says. “I wish I did.”
“I understand,” the Queen says. “I hope, one day, you will be able to forgive me and your father.”
“One day,” Steve echoes. Then he looks away. “What about Bucky?”
“What about him?”
“His parents,” Steve says. “Are they alive? Will he ever seen them again?”
The Queen gives him a smile.
“They are the King and Queen of the Northern Realm,” his mother says. “They will be here in a fortnight to see their son.”
A fortnight, Steve thinks, and his stomach twists. There’s no reason for other royals to come to the Middle Kingdom unless it was for--Bucky’s betrothment. Steve’s stomach sinks so low, he feels sick with it.
“Your Majest--” Steve starts, but he’s interrupted by the doors opening.
The King and Bucky come in. They’re cooler than they were before, but father and son still love each other very much. And anyway, Bucky’s never been able to keep a real grudge. He and the King are joking about something or another, whispering conspiratorially.
“Steve!” Bucky says, brightening as he sees him, as he always has, and always does. “Happy Birthday!”
Steve can’t help but return that smile, a little helplessly.
“You’ve already said happy birthday to me, Buck,” he says. “At least fifty times over the past week.”
“What, suddenly there’s a limit?” Bucky clutches his chest dramatically, in shock. “Old age is already making you grumpy.”
The King chortles next to him and Steve shakes his head in exasperation.
“You’re older than I am,” Steve says.
“I know,” Bucky replies, very seriously. “And I am very grumpy.”
Steve rolls his eyes, but laughs, which ruins the effect of it all. They stare at each other, grinning a little goofily, until the King shushes them to the table, saying the birthday dinner will get cold. They still grin goofily, throughout dinner, and it’s hardly any secret at all that they’re probably kicking one another under the table, one jostling the other, until the other makes some sort of biting comment that makes the other laugh out loud.
The Queen watches the proceedings from beside him, and then from her chair, a knowing smile on her face.
After they’ve availed themselves of all of the food they can possibly eat, including Steve’s favorite desserts--pies of all sorts--and copious amounts of wine, and after the King and Queen have given him their presents--a new, beautiful sword from the King, modeled after Furore, and a sigil of his own and a new set of paints, from the Queen--Bucky drags Steve through the castle and up three flights of stairs to their favorite stretch of parapet.
He’s holding Steve’s hand and, frankly, they’re both a little too drunk to care or pretend otherwise. In his other hand, there’s another bottle of champagne.
“Where’d you get that,” Steve squints at it and Bucky laughs. He slides down the wall at their favorite spot, still not letting go of Steve’s hand, and tugs Steve down to join him.
“Secret,” Bucky says, waggling his eyebrows. “Magic.”
Steve snorts and then, because he’s definitely drunk, he starts laughing. Once he starts, he can’t stop and that makes Bucky start laughing, and soon they’re curled into one another, laughing until their lungs hurt.
“That wasn’t even funny!” Steve says, after he’s finally calmed down enough to catch his breath.
“I know,” Bucky says, chortling a little, dazed. “I’m hilarious.”
“You’re somethin’ all right,” Steve admits. “Mostly drunk.”
They sit in comfortable silence for a little while, passing the bottle of champagne back and forth between them. The alcohol is sweet and bubbly on his tongue, warming him up on the way down to his toes. Their hips are pressed against each other, their knees pulled up and knocking into one another every once in awhile.
“Anything you want for your twenty first birthday?” Bucky asks.
“A pony would be nice,” Steve says and Bucky nearly chokes on his champagne.
“Yeah, you’ve never had a horse before,” he snorts. He passes the champagne back to Steve. “What else?”
Steve hums, takes a small sip. He tilts his head back onto the stone wall, watches the night sky, starry and unfolded around them. No dragons this time, thank Norns.
“Nothing I can think of. This is all right.”
“Hey, you think--” Bucky pauses.
Steve turns to look at him and Bucky looks a little nervous. Steve nudges his knee with his own.
“You think it’s time yet? For you to be the Crown Prince?”
“You trying to get out of doing your duties?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Definitely.” And then. “But also, you’re a prince too, Steve. I know I’m one--Ma--the Queen told me. She told me about my parents. But you are too. And it’s not right that you’re running away from this.”
Steve frowns at that.
“I’m not running awa--”
“Yes you are,” Bucky says. “Maybe it was about the King and Queen at first, but it’s not about that anymore. You’re running away because you’re scared. You don’t think you’re good enough to be The Prince and that’s just not true.”
Steve is briefly annoyed, although whether it’s at Bucky or at himself, he couldn’t say.
“A kingdom needs its prince,” Bucky says softly. “And you’re theirs.”
Steve sighs, closes his eyes. Bucky’s right, of course. Bucky knows him better than anyone else in the world.
“I’m scared,” he admits. “I’m scared of messing up.”
“I can help you,” Bucky says with a wry smile. “I got years of practice.”
“What if I’m not good enough for them?” Steve asks.
“What if they don’t love me like they love you?”
“What if I I’m not a good king?”
“You will be.”
Bucky’s always had this; this unfettered, untempered belief in Steve. A belief Steve has never felt himself. Bucky believes in him so much, Steve can’t breathe with it.
“Besides,” Bucky says. He looks over at Steve, reaches over and ruffles his blond hair. “You look good in a crown.”
They sit together, leaned against each other, talking and laughing, happily wrapped up in nothing but one another and the company they bring to each other.
Sometime, a few hours before midnight, Tony, Sam, and Wanda set off fireworks again, from the Merlin’s Tower. Steve watches, his face illuminated by bright lights of purple, blue, red, orange, green, and pink, his head tilted onto Bucky’s shoulder.
It’s a good night, Steve thinks. No, it’s the best night he’s ever had.
“Hey Steve,” Bucky says, a long time after the fireworks have ended, when they’re still together, at their favorite spot, under the cool, beautiful night sky.
“What?” Steve smiles. He takes the bottle of champagne back, takes a swig. It’s almost done.
“I’m not gonna marry her,” Bucky says.
This startles Steve, who turns to him.
Bucky looks relaxed, drunk, but serious. He’s not uncertain about this. He looks like he’s made a decision, like nothing can change that decision.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, smiling. “I can’t marry her.”
“Bucky, you’re engaged.”
“I know,” Bucky says. “You think I don’t know that? I know that.”
“I can’t marry her,” Bucky insists. “I’m in love with someone else.”
Steve’s heart flips in his chest--actually flips. He can feel the flush spread across his cheeks, crawl up his neck.
“Yeah?” he says. Their hands are intertwined again, resting on his lap.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. His grin widens. He’s not looking at Steve.
"You're drunk," Steve says.
"No," Bucky shakes his head. "Well, yes. But I'm in love sober or drunk."
“What’s she like?” Steve asks.
“He--” Bucky says. “Don’t be heteronormative.”
Steve laughs at that.
“Okay. What’s he like?”
“Oh, let me tell you,” Bucky starts. His eyes are gleaming, he’s grinning so wide his face might break. “He’s kind of a punk, first of all. Never listens to anyone. Pretty reckless. He’s nearly gotten himself killed like twelve times already. He hates dragons? I don’t understand, he really has something against dragons.”
Steve snorts next to him, but there’s warmth spreading through his stomach. He feels giddy.
“And he’s loud when he wants to be, and brash. He always says what’s on his mind and always sticks up for others. Honestly, he has no sense of self preservation. Like none. As in, zero.”
Steve rolls his eyes.
“He sounds like a nightmare.”
“Oh he is,” Bucky agrees. “He’s awful. He’s so stubborn it makes me want to scream. And he’s always sick. You could knock him over with a cold.”
“Hey--” Steve starts to protest, but Bucky squeezes his hand.
“But,” he says.
“But, I’m crazy about him. He’s the best guy I’ve ever known. I think he’s probably the best guy I will ever know. He doesn’t think that or know that, mostly because he has a crap sense of himself and has never understood how much everyone loves him.” Bucky turns to him and his eyes are shining with emotion. “He saved my life. Can you believe that? He actually saved my life, like the heroes in the stories. I’ve been in love with him longer than I can remember.”
Something lodges itself in Steve’s throat, something thick and heavy. He can’t seem to swallow around it.
“So I can’t marry her, you see,” Bucky says softly. “Because I'm gonna marry him.”
“What--” Steve’s eyes widen, but Bucky just continues smiling at him, pink and happy. Completely and utterly genuine.
“Norns,” Steve says, after a moment, blinking, breathless. “Norns, you are an idiot, aren’t you?”
“I am,” Bucky admits. He turns on his side, facing Steve. “What do you say, Stevie? Think you’d wanna marry a fake prince like me?”
And Steve isn’t one to be overcome my emotions or even cry, but it’s a close thing.
“I mean,” Steve says, thickly. “I did kill the greatest Merlin of all time for you. It’s the least you can do.”
Bucky laughs, bright and loud and delighted, and Steve can’t stand it anymore, he literally, physically cannot stand it anymore. He shifts to his knees and crawls over to Bucky’s lap. His hands frame Bucky’s open, delighted, stupidly affectionate face, and he kisses him.
Bucky’s hands move up Steve’s waist, come rest at his back, and he tugs him closer, pulls him so close Steve is flush against him. Bucky tilts his face up and Steve kisses him openly, eagerly, messy with years of barely contained love. Their mouths move against each other, opening and closing, eagerly exploring, nipping affectionately, and they fit together, like their bodies fit together, like their lives have fit together, ever since they were little boys, ever since they had met, at the tender age of three, and had known that this person, this little, brilliant person, was going to be their best, most beloved friend for the rest of their lives.
“I love you,” Steve murmurs between kisses. When he pulls away, Bucky chases him, and when Bucky takes a breath, he kisses the side of his mouth, trails kisses down to Bucky’s chin and up the side of his jaw. He’s flushed and Bucky’s flushed, alcohol and happiness coursing strongly through them both. Now that he’s said it, he can’t stop saying it. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
“I love you,” Bucky says, grinning, breathlessly. “I’ve always loved you. Let's spend the rest of our lives together. Marry me.”
“Okay,” Steve says. "If you insist."
Steve nearly protests when Bucky pulls back, but it’s only far enough to take something out of his jacket.
“Bucky?” Steve blinks and Bucky produces a small box. He opens it and inside, there’s a smooth, silver ring. It has a little red star in the center. It matches Bucky’s magical arm.
“Forgot to give you your birthday present,” Bucky says, beaming. “Hope it’s not too late.”
Bucky asks the King and Queen to meet them in the Great Hall the next day. They’re Steve’s parents and Bucky’s, in a sense, but Steve still feels nervous.
“It’s okay,” Bucky says. He presses a kiss to Steve’s temple, holds his hand. “What are they gonna do? Disown both of us?”
That makes Steve snort, but it’s a snort of nerves.
They open the door and the King and Queen are sitting on their thrones, heads leaned together. They’re whispering something, smiling. The King is holding the Queen’s hand in his. There’s a smile on his face, a soft thing, that Steve recognizes. They might not be blood related, but Bucky wears the same one when he’s happy.
“Your Highnesses,” Bucky says, formally, and the King and Queen look up at them.
“Come forward, James,” the King says.
Bucky tugs Steve forward, still refusing to let him go. The King and Queen don’t miss this, of course. They stare at the two of them and--specifically--at the ring on Steve’s left hand.
“I have something to say,” Bucky says as they approach the raised platform. The King and Queen look down at them. Steve watches them nervously, but pulls himself taller.
“I see,” the King nods. “Speak freely, then.”
“I appreciate what you’ve done for me,” Bucky starts. “You’ve both raised me and I know the circumstances were...unusual, but I’ve never wanted for anything, not even love. You’ve raised me like your own son. You’ve raised me as your son. You’re my parents, for better or for worse.”
The Queen’s expression softens.
“I’ll never be able to repay you that. You could just as easily have treated me like someone else’s, which I am, technically, but,” Bucky looks nervous now, but carries on. “I can’t do it.”
The King tilts his head.
“Go through with it,” Bucky says. “The engagement. The betrothal. I don’t know who she is and I don’t know when she’s coming, but it wouldn’t be fair to her.”
“I see,” the King says. “And why not?”
“I’m already engaged,” Bucky says and he can’t help the smile on his face. It lights up all his features.
“To the person you were betrothed to,” the King points out.
“No,” Bucky says. Then pauses. “Well yes. Technically yes, but also no.”
Steve’s not certain, but the King looks like he’s going to laugh.
“I was engaged to her, but I broke that engagement. And now I’m engaged to someone else.”
“So let me get this straight,” the King says and leans forward on his throne. “You were engaged, but then you broke that engagement with another engagement and now you can’t be engaged to that person because you’re engaged to this person?”
“Yes,” Bucky, says, relieved. “I’m so glad you understand.”
“I’m afraid we can’t allow that, son,” the Queen is the one who speaks now.
Bucky tenses next to Steve.
“Excuse me?” Steve is the one who speaks now.
“You made a commitment,” the Queen addresses Bucky. “We made a commitment. And I’m afraid your betrothed is quite set on marrying you. I suspect there’s love involved.”
“What are you talking about?” Bucky asks, eyebrows furrowed and Steve bristles.
“Are you serious? Bucky’s never met her. How could she fall in love with him?”
“James is very lovable,” the King says, sagely.
“This is outrageous--” Steve splutters.
“You were promised, James,” the King says. “You cannot just break a promise with no consequences. We raised you better than that.”
“But I--” Bucky’s voice falters. He looks down at his feet. “I can’t marry her. I love Steve. You know I love Steve. I don’t think anyone in this entire, stupid castle is unaware that I am in love with Steve.”
Steve flushes, but the King and Queen just watch them mildly.
“That’s true,” the King says. “There can be no question about that.”
“Then tell her--” Bucky says. “Tell her I--”
The King raises a hand and Bucky stops. He looks miserable and crestfallen. Steve is ready to spit fire, he’s so angry. His nails are digging into Bucky's palms.
“Her?” the Queen tilts her head now. “When did we say you were betrothed to a her?”
Bucky looks up, confused.
“I can’t believe you, son,” the King says. “I didn’t raise you to be so heteronormative.”
“What the hell is going on?” Steve, finally tired of this nonsense, asks.
“Oh Steven,” the Queen sighs. “We were just trying to protect your heart. It’s obvious how much you love Bucky and if he breaks his engagement with you, I’m afraid you’ll be dearly hurt.”
“I’m not breaking my engagement with him,” Bucky says, perplexed and frowning.
“That seems to be what you are asking,” the King says, mildly. He takes a goblet of wine from the table next to him and sips it, casually. “You two have been betrothed from birth, after all.”
one final story, or: a story of two princes.
What happened, was this: the Northern Realm, a failing kingdom, made a deal with the Middle Kingdom. They would send the Middle Kingdom their youngest son. In exchange, the Middle Kingdom would be the North’s allies, through this time and the next. The young princeling would be raised as one of the Middle Kingdom’s own, a wardling destined to become a prince and a king. To seal the deal, to make sure nothing would break this alliance, they agreed: both the young princeling and the Middle Kingdom’s princeling would be betrothed, to be married.
The King and Queen never told Steve and Bucky this, partly because they weren’t sure if Bucky would survive his twenty first birthday, and a doomed marriage was a heavy burden for children to carry, and partly because they could see, from the moment they met, that Steve and Bucky had and would have a genuine love and affection for one another. The moment they met, Bucky’s face lit up, and Steve, small and shy though he was, tumbled over to his new friend to give him a hug. They had been inseparable ever since and the King and Queen, for all of their sins--and they had many--couldn’t find it in their hearts to break the hearts of the two boys they loved, as their own sons, so dearly.
That it happened anyway--their love--was to the King and Queen’s extremely good fortune. That, after the shock of it wore off, Steve and Bucky took it in stride, that they even delighted in the irony of it, was something the King and Queen could never, and would never, take for granted.
Steve and Bucky stood at the altar, months later, with the King Joseph and Queen Sarah on one side, and King George and Queen Winnifred of the Northern Realms at the other, their Knightlings and Wanda standing around them, and one very powerful, very annoying Merlin, officiating behind. Sam, as their best man, stood beside them. He held two matching silver rings, infused with a hint of magic, on a velvet cushion.
The two, dressed in suits that matched their eyes, crowns glinting upon their heads, were glowing--out of friendship, out of affection, out of deep, finally uninhibited love. They stood, hand-in-hand, flushed and incandescently happy.
They exchanged vows and exchanged rings, promising love and life and eternal laughter. Some words they allowed everyone to hear and some they left for later, when it would be just the two of them, alone, just as they always preferred. They looked at one another the way they always had, their entire lives, with unconcealed tenderness and devotion. Two best friends, two princelings, promising to love one another and care for one another, as they always had, and always would, for the rest of their days.
And when the Merlin finally declared them wedded and when he finally announced that they could now kiss their princeling and when Bucky took Steve’s face between his palms and finally kissed him, for the world to see, the entire chapel rang with cheers and laughter. Perhaps it is a cliche, but there wasn't a dry eye in sight; but then again, things are cliche for a reason.
No fairytale could have ended better.
ever after, or: a king is born.
Steve fidgets nervously. The gown is too long on him, the deep, red velvet too plush. The sigil is clasped at his chest, gleaming bright in the chamber light. There’s another pin under the sigil this time, a sword with a blue hilt and a red ruby at the end.
“It took us an hour to get you into this thing,” Sam says. “If you ruin it, I’m going to turn you into a frog.”
“Hey, you actually did turn someone into a frog the other day,” Steve says. “Good job.”
“Thank you, thank you,” Sam says. “I’m the greatest Merlin this kingdom has ever seen.”
“Tony know you’re going around saying that?”
“Tony Stark is currently on a lovely, romantic vacation with his beloved Pepper Potts, so I don’t think he cares what slander I’m spreading here.”
“It’s Tony,” Steve says. “He’ll know and he’ll care.”
“Can’t win ‘em all,” Sam shrugs. “Good thing I have my own tower now.”
He helps Steve adjust his Prince’s crown and then steps back.
“You’re ready,” Sam says.
“Am I?” Steve asks.
“Yeah,” a voice comes behind him, warm and fond. “And even if you’re not, you gotta bullshit your way through it, because I only married you for your title.”
Steve turns around, immediately smiling.
Bucky, in his own royal blue robe and crown, gives him a crooked smile in return.
“I thought you married me for my personality,” Steve says.
“Oh god no,” Bucky says. “Are you kidding? You have a terrible personality. Reckless, impulsive, stubborn, combative, annoying--”
“Are we breaking up?” Steve asks and Bucky reaches down to him, fingers brushing his chin, and kisses him.
“No,” Bucky murmurs, seriously, into Steve’s mouth. “I told you. I’m here for the title. I demand to be married to a king.”
“You two need a room?” Sam asks from behind them.
“Mm, yes,” Bucky says, pulling back, eyes glittering. “That’d be great. We have some unfinished business from last night. My husband was very generous and I didn’t quite get the chance to fully return the favo--”
“Gross, guys,” Sam says, loudly. “Gross.”
Steve only laughs, pink around the ears, and reaches up to kiss Bucky again, deeply, lingering, his hand messing up Bucky’s hair.
“Time to go, lovebirds,” Natasha’s voice comes from the door. She’s in a beautiful, sweeping green gown that only accentuates her assets. At her neck, she’s wearing a golden necklace with a tiny bow and arrow at the tip.
“Okay,” Steve says.
“You ready?” Bucky asks and squeezes his hand.
“Is anyone ever ready for a coronation?” Steve asks.
“Yes,” Thor says, from somewhere toward the entrance. “I believe I am always ready for a coronation.”
Steve takes Bucky’s hand as they approach the curtained entrance. Bucky squeezes it, reassuringly.
“Can’t believe this is the last time you’re going to be wearing that crown,” Bucky says, nostalgically. “The other one looks heavier. And garish.”
“Gee Buck,” Steve says. “I hope our love can survive such a tragic change.”
Bucky sighs, dramatically.
“Guess we’re going to find out.”
The trumpets blare from the room beyond, signalling for the beginning. Steve and Bucky walk through, as practiced.
In the room beyond, there are Kings and Queens, there are royal dignitaries and diplomats, there are Knights and Knightlings, mages, and people from the village. Surrounding the stage, protecting him and Bucky, are their friends, their mages and Knights, the Knights of the Red Star. They’re all here to see this one thing--to see the transition of power, from old to new, from father and mother, to son and husband. Steve doesn’t know if he’s ready. Frankly, he doubts he’ll ever be ready.
But as he bows to take his crown, as his father places it atop his golden blond head, with a deep, proud, smile, and as the torchlight catches the silver on his ring finger, makes it glint in the deep reverence around them, he thinks okay.
He’ll never be ready, but at his side he has the one person who will make him want to try anyway.
Bucky, too, bows to receive his crown and Steve can’t help but smile at him, that same goofy, helplessly-in-love smile.
God, he’s terrible at being a King already.
Luckily, he’s not the only one the Middle Kingdom has now.
The two of them raise their heads, crowns resting on top, fingers linked together, wedding bands glittering. Trumpets blare and the crowd cheers and it’s the beginning of a new legend altogether.
The courtyard is more deserted these days. In the middle of the cobblestones, there stands a large stone, but it’s empty now, nothing protruding out of it to taunt or challenge anyone who passes by. There are still knightlings, but they train only at the grounds and only to become part of the Kings’ Guards, nothing more. It’s strange, at first, but months pass and then years and this becomes the new normal. Time always has a way of erasing the unthinkable, of making it perfectly ordinary; it makes the mundane absurd and the absurd mundane, a magic all of its own.
One day, no one will remember it at all, the sword in the stone--how it stood, for centuries, enchanted, protecting, waiting to save a princeling who had been cursed long before his birth. One day, there will only be the legend left, told, over dinners and fires, person to person, a story: that once upon a time, there was a curse, on a princeling. That the princeling was fated to die, that there was a sword, in a stone, and what rescued both was not bravery, or valor, or even worth, as rumored, but something else entirely--confidence, perhaps, desperation, maybe, or love, as it may be, pure and simple.
The love between two best friends, or two princes, destined to be two kings. Legend even has it that they did--together.
the end, or: just the beginning.