Chapter 1: My apologies to great questions for small answers
The kingdom of Leoman lay to the east, nestled between the curve of the mountains and the sea. Leoman was an awfully small kingdom—not so zealous as her neighbor to the north, nor so affluent as her neighbor to the south—but that made her no less prosperous. It was said by some that Leoman's fields never withered, while her orchards always bore fruit. Her lakes and rivers teemed with the freshest of fish, and there was no shortage of game in her many forests.
Into this bountiful kingdom—on the fourth day of the seventh month of the eighteenth year—a baby was born under the light of a new star.
It’s a curious thing about stars, really. People often speak of them as if they’re omens—portents or good or ill that have the power to determine the course of one’s future. Constellations made oracles and soothsayers, bearing away hopes on those stars which form the wings of a soaring eagle or the horns of the charging bull.
But of course, that’s all stuff and silly nonsense. The baby came into the world under that star’s light because it was his turn to be born. No more and no less. Simply a boy squalling at the heavens as his mother wrapped him in blankets and held him to her breast, thinking she had never in all the world loved someone so much as she loved her son.
As he grew older, Steve (for that was the baby's name) heard the whispers, and the rumors—those who said being born under the light of a new star was lucky, bringing with it good fortune and good health.
Privately, Steve thought that was all botheration and bull, being as he’d not had much of either in his short life.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, my dears, and must return to that brief, halcyon childhood.
For, you see, there had never been a baby so loved as Steve. His mother (whose name was Sarah, just as it ought to have been) had recently been widowed by a soldier boy who’d left her to fight in another man’s war. Sarah carried on as best she could, surrounding herself with friends and clinging to them in her grief. When she was nearly ready to have her child, one of those self-same friends offered Sarah the use of a small cottage on the grounds of her vast estate.
That friend was named Margaret (though everyone called her Peggy), and while the estate was indeed grand, Peggy was rarely at home, being as she was a lady-in-waiting to the queen of Leoman (a bright, pretty woman who had come from a neighboring nation to steal the heart of their king). That left Sarah alone more often than not, but the cottage was warm and well-appointed, and she did her best to make it a home she could be proud of and call her own.
On the day Steve was to arrive, Peggy materialized as though she’d had an inkling it might be very nearly time. So it was that when it happened, Peggy delivered the baby boy of his mother and pressed him into her waiting arms.
“He’s awfully small,” Sarah said.
“Rather loud, though.”
Sarah didn’t mind.
When Steve had been in the world for precisely one month, Bucky arrived.
Peggy came through the back door of the cottage late one night, as Steve lay in his cradle and Sarah dozed nearby, attentive to his every need. In Peggy’s arms, there was a boy of not quite one year and six months, with wide blue eyes and a shock of brown hair on his head.
“Oh, dear,” said Sarah.
“You’ll look after him?” Peggy asked, dark eyes earnest.
“You know I will.”
And so, she did.
Months passed, and Steve grew, as babies have a tendency to do. In time, he found that there were things to know and discover in the world, and one of those things was Bucky. His constant companion, always two steps ahead.
The two were inseparable and bound together with the sort of love and intimacy that one only ever really has in childhood. A love that’s unconditional. Fierce and unrelenting, without guile or cunning. They fought and they scrapped, apologized and made amends. There were countless scraped knees and knocked foreheads as they explored their tiny corner of the world, tucked away in that perfect little garden.
It was, to put it rather plainly, a very happy childhood. They were not rich, but they had everything that they needed. Sarah doted on them both in equal measure—kissed their cuts, scolded when they’d been wicked and joined them in their games as often as she was able. Whenever Peggy or other assorted friends came to visit there were lovely presents and games, filling their cottage with bric-a-brac and toys of all sorts.
Even the bad times weren't so bad in those golden years. Steve had been born small, and as such, he was prone to sickness and agues, the ailments keeping him abed for weeks on end. During those achingly long and dreary days, Bucky sat with him, refusing to play on his own and proclaiming it not fair that Steve should be lonely. Steve was eternally grateful for the company, as Bucky was a wonderful storyteller, and he'd make up the most fantastic tales of dragons and fairies, frightening Steve right down to his bones (but only in the very best way of being frightened, all shakes and shivers and delight).
Steve's fifth birthday found him battling a terrible cough, and he'd been in a predictably sour mood all morning. Until that was, Sarah presented him with his gift—a toy soldier, dressed in the bright blue colors of Leoman's regimental army.
The soldier had accompanied them on their picnic, as it was a lovely, warm summer day and Sarah didn’t see the harm in Steve’s being outside, so long as he didn’t run or shout.
“Mama,” Steve said, his small voice rasping as he leaned against her chest, curled up tightly in her lap with his right hand fisted around his soldier. “Do you know, I’m going to be a soldier, too?”
Bucky looked up from where he’d been sprawled on the blanket, finishing the folding of a large, white paper star Sarah had helped him make for Steve. (The star was a complicated construction, and while Sarah had done most of the work, Bucky had been sure to take care that the edges were very crisp.) “You can’t,” he proclaimed.
“No, you can’t, Steve. You’re too sick.”
Steve balled his left hand into a fist, his lower lip quivering and his cheeks going red. He was going to tell Bucky just precisely what he thought of that old can’t, and then Bucky would be sorry.
Sarah—recognizing the tell-tale signs of Steve’s temper—cuddled him close and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “I know it’s very hard to be sick. I’m sorry that you are. But it’s a funny thing, my good boy, that you don’t need to become a soldier to be good, or to do good in this world. There are so very many other ways to be brave.”
Steve frowned, squeezing his toy tightly as he worked up a head of steam for a vocal protest.
“It’s better, I think,” Sarah continued. “To be a good man, rather than a perfect soldier. And…” her nimble fingers found Steve’s sides, tickling him enough to make him smile, though not quite enough to make him laugh. “Even the smallest stars shine bright.”
“Like this one!” Bucky bounced to his knees and held out the paper star as Sarah drew him into her embrace. Steve took the star and smiled, his anger blowing out like a candle as he examined his gift.
Words are wondrous things, the way they work like magic. How a suggestion—dismissed out of hand by an exasperated child—can take root within him all the same.
Time passed, and the spring brought with it Bucky’s seventh birthday. Steve was feeling very much himself—not sick in the slightest—so Sarah decided a party was in order. Small, yes, as there were only three guests, but being as they couldn’t imagine inviting anyone else, it suited them fine.
Sarah made them each a new jacket—Bucky's of deep green velvet, and Steve's of blue. They were terribly proud of themselves when they tried them on, making a fuss over one another and strutting about like little peacocks until Sarah reminded them that vanity was not becoming in young gentlemen.
“M’not a gentleman,” Bucky informed her. “I’m a lion.”
“Be that as it may, Master Lion—”
There was a knock at the door of the cottage.
Thinking, perhaps, that it was Peggy come calling, Sarah went to open it and found a fearsome man in black standing there, a scarlet sash laid across his broad chest.
“The king is dead,” said the stranger.
“No.” Sarah stepped back and did her best to shut the door on the man, eyes wide and bright with fear.
When the stranger kicked it open, the force of the blow sent her sprawling.
Steve ran towards her, and she lifted her head, a bright red trickle of blood on her forehead and a dazed expression on her face.
“He has to run—” she whispered.
There was a fierce, angry scream from behind him then, and Steve turned to find Bucky doing his best to yank his arm away from the awful stranger. The sleeve of his new jacket ripped, and Steve could only think that his mother had made it especially for Bucky as Bucky stumbled backward, nearly falling. The stranger stepped forward and caught him by the hair before that could happen, wrenching him forward as Bucky gave another yowl of pain.
Lifting his other arm, the stranger took Bucky by the shoulder and shook him. Bucky bit him on the wrist. The man snarled and cuffed him so hard that Bucky’s head lolled forward, his eyes sliding shut. Steve—who moments before had felt frozen to the very spot—charged forward, even as Sarah begged him not to.
The stranger took no real notice of Steve as he hoisted Bucky’s limp body over his shoulder. It was only when Steve tried to drag Bucky down by grabbing his dangling hands and pulling that the stranger deigned to turn and deliver a kick so hard that Steve saw stars before the world went black as his head cracked against something unyielding.
Fate spared Steve the sight of what happened next.
Sarah Rogers rose to her feet, trembling and dizzy, placing herself between the stranger the door of the cottage.
“You can’t have him,” she said.
The stranger didn’t deign to give her an answer. Simply unsheathed his blade and cut her down where she stood before stepping over her body on his way out the door.
It was some time before Steve woke, wobbly and unsure as he found his way to his mother and held fast, burying his head against her unmoving breast.
Eventually, there came voices. There were tears, and someone was trying to move him, but they couldn’t move him because he wouldn’t leave her. Couldn’t leave her.
Then, there were two firm hands under his arms, lifting him up and gently helping him relinquish his hold.
Peggy knelt and embraced him, her voice a dim comfort in the darkness.
“Oh, my darling. I am so very sorry.”
Thank you so much for reading! This story is complete and will be posting weekly on Saturdays. The main title, as well as chapter titles, come from the poem Under One Small Star by Wislawa Szymborska.
I can't give enough thanks to ellebeesknees for her incredible artwork, partnership, friendship, and the fact that she inspired this entire story from start to finish. "Have courage and be kind" is something we both take to heart, and that message (in addition to a massive pair of crushes on Lily James) was the impetus for this entire endeavor.
Huge grateful hugs to awwtopsy and chemegeek for their initial beta work, and a special thank you to Pineau_noir for her second-run beta, and making sure this story hung together for someone who hadn't been privy to the outline and my endless yelling. (Oh, and extra double thanks to awwtopsy for basically writing the description for this when I gave up and threw it at her in frustration.)
Chapter 2: Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger
Steve goes on an adventure.
Sarah Rogers was buried on a dreary Wednesday morning, and while the mourners were few, they grieved her bitterly. There were none who had known her that hadn't loved her, and they all turned out under the drizzle of the grey sky, standing over her grave whilst feeling all the while that the world had become dimmer and smaller somehow.
Steve wore an ill-fitting suit that had once been Bucky’s, clinging to Peggy’s hand as the priest spoke solemn words over the coffin.
"Where's Bucky?" he asked, once the service was over and they'd left their roses behind them. The question had become a common refrain, and for days on end, he had vacillated between crying for his mother and begging an answer from Peggy.
“He’s gone away for now,” she said, in the not-quite-right way all grown-ups have when they try to be a comfort to a child.
“But where will I go?”
Peggy slowed the length of her strides, allowing him to keep up. “I’ll manage something, my darling.”
What she would manage, however, remained something of a mystery to Peggy, who had been ruminating on the problem since arriving at the cottage a week prior to find Steve holding fast to Sarah’s body, unwilling or unable to let her go. In what examination he had allowed during the hours that followed, Peggy had discovered the boot-sized bruise on his stomach and a lump that was bigger than a goose egg on his scalp.
Briefly, selfishly, she had hoped for his sake and her own that he might not remember what he’d seen—that the day might retreat into a fog of memory, sparing him the worst of it. She had wished for it as he fell into a fitful sleep in her arms, but when he woke, the endless barrage of questions had begun.
“Where’s my mama gone?”
“When will she come back?”
“Who was that man?”
“Where’s he taken Bucky?”
“When is Bucky coming home?”
“Where is Bucky now?”
That final question was the one which had caught in his mind, becoming his constant and never-changing refrain. Peggy’s responses were no more than variations on a theme, meant to assuage him while revealing little. Bucky had gone away. She wasn’t sure why. She didn’t know where. She didn’t know who the man had been, but she couldn’t imagine why he’d done something so terrible and wicked.
It wasn’t right, lying to someone so small, yet she did it anyway, telling herself that the end would justify the means.
At least, she rationalized to herself, they were awfully little lies. Manageable. Putting things into the world in a way Steve could understand. He was a lonely, grieving boy, and it wouldn’t do to burden him further.
The problem remained, however, of what to do with him. Undoubtedly he was too small to be left on his own, but circumstances did not give her leave to care for a child—she had already tarried too long, and she could not take him with her, as he would be another burden alongside the ones she already carried. She was running out of time—which had never been on her side—feeling the weight of it now more than ever, torn between her duty and the small boy left in her charge.
When the solution came to her, though, it was as if it had been there all along.
Steve, stubborn as a goat and twice as prone to butting heads when he was vexed, had curled up in his mother’s bed on the third day after the funeral, refusing to be moved for hours on end. He was the most impossible boy when he wanted to be. Not unlike…
Not unlike someone else she knew. Hmm.
It was a rather unconventional idea, but the more she thought about it, the more it seemed to suit their situation very well. Steve needed a home, but more than that, he needed a family. Peggy supposed she could just about manage that.
“Steve,” she said, joining him on the bed so they were face to face. He peeked out at her from beneath the quilts, his eyes wide and red-rimmed still. “Darling, I have such news. Today, you’re going to go on an adventure.”
The quilt came down another few inches, revealing a thumb stuck between pouting lips as he considered her proposition, unable to resist the temptation of something brave and new, no matter how sincere his sadness.
Peggy smiled, brushing a lock of lank hair from his forehead. “It’s a proper adventure—we’re going to see an old friend. My very old friend, that is to say. Would you like that?”
“Bucky?” he asked, pulling his thumb from his mouth.
Oh, but didn’t Peggy want to make him forget, then? To strike the memory of Bucky from his head with a swift and steady hand. To take away his pain.
She didn’t, but the want was there, and that want frightened her. Steve ought to be allowed to feel precisely how he felt, no matter the discomfort it awakened within her.
But then, he was very small. The sadness would not consume him forever. In time, the wound of his grief would heal and leave behind no more than a scar—small and faint. Meanwhile, she had high hopes that the happy, gold-colored memories of when he had been loved would linger throughout the course of his life, giving him comfort where they could.
And, in time, he would be loved again—so long as their adventure panned out.
“Another friend,” she said, forcing a smile onto her face. “You’ll like him very much, I think. Now be a good boy, come and help me pack your things.”
Steve wriggled his way out of the sheets that still smelled very much like his mother and did as he was told. When they were through, he had filled most of one small trunk and no more. Peggy had said he could bring all of his toys and his games, but there was something he didn’t like about them now. The very idea of playing games that his mama and Bucky couldn’t play made him angry, and he thought perhaps nobody should ever play any of those games again.
Part of him wanted to break those toys and games in half. To crumple the pieces up in his mighty hands and stomp on them to make them kindling, then throw the kindling into a fire until it was nothing but ash and cinders.
In the end, though, he simply lay the blue soldier suit he’d been wearing the day his mother died atop the pile and closed the lid before looking up at Peggy.
“Will we go on our adventure now?”
They would, and Peggy went to call for her carriage, which was a cumbersome business—she much preferred the simplicity of horseback—but with the luggage and the need for discretion, she thought it wise to ride where nobody could see them.
It was only when the carriage had been brought round to the yard near the cottage that Steve remembered. He tore his hand from Peggy’s and went running back inside, climbing onto his small bed and reaching up to carefully take down the paper star Bucky had given him for his birthday.
His toys and his games weren't his anymore, not really, but the star was different. It was something of his very own, and he had nearly left it behind. Feeling somewhat ashamed of himself for that, he ran back to the carriage, a bit short of breath as he clambered inside.
“I forgot,” he said, holding out the star for Peggy to see.
Peggy smiled, leaning forward and touching the star just as the carriage jolted forward.
The trip was longer than any Steve had been on in his short life, though in truth it took no more than two hours for them to leave behind Peggy's country estate and make their way into Leoman's capital city. Steve parted the curtains of the carriage and gaped, wide-eyed, at the bustle of activity in the streets—other children running about, and more people in one place than he'd ever known. Certainly, his mother had taken him to town a time or two, but this was a proper city—the heart of the kingdom, replete with a great big castle on a hill, bordered on three sides by the royal woods.
Winding its way through the cobblestone streets, the carriage took them past fine houses and fancy shops. Then less fine houses, and less fancy shops, until finally, they reached their destination—a neighborhood on the outskirts of what one might think of as respectable society. The carriage turned down an unimpressive alleyway before pulling up outside a plain wooden door gone grey and sagging with neglect.
Peggy stepped from the carriage before offering Steve a hand. He took it and followed her, his other fist remaining firmly clamped around his paper star.
Gathering her skirts, Peggy approached the door and knocked three times. Then two times. Then four more.
Nothing happened for what felt like an eternity, and the stiff collar of Steve’s shirt was beginning to itch him in the most fearsome way.
The door swung open to reveal a redheaded girl of perhaps fourteen years, small and slight as Steve, but with a certain grace and power he’d likely never possess.
“Who’s that you’ve got there, then, Peggy?” the girl asked, not bothering with any greetings as she looked down at Steve.
“A pleasure as always, Natasha,” Peggy said. “Is he at home?”
Natasha smiled, putting a hand on her hip and jerking her head towards a set of stairs Steve could see inside. “Upstairs.”
“What’s that?” came from above. Steve looked up to find another boy—this one very nearly a man grown—leaning out of a window directly over their heads. To Steve’s very great astonishment, the boy proceeded to flip neatly onto the top of the carriage before jumping to the ground.
“Show-off,” Natasha sniffed. The boy grinned, walking past Steve and Peggy to join her, where he looped a lazy arm about her waist and kissed her cheek.
Steve looked at his toes. Peggy made a noise that some might describe as a snort (though it would be crass to do so) before taking Steve and sweeping past them both.
“Who are they?” Steve asked as they climbed the stairs. “You said he, was that boy he?”
“No. Those are children.”
“His children. The man we’re going to see.”
“Who’s the man?”
“That’s the man.” Peggy pointed as they reached the landing.
Steve looked up to find the tallest man he had ever seen striding towards them—majestic and frightening all at once with an eyepatch covering one eye and a terrible scar running down the opposite cheek.
“Are you a pirate?” Steve asked. Pirates were to be respected.
The pirate looked at him, and Steve took a step back, hiding behind Peggy's full skirts.
“He’s not a pirate,” she laughed. “He’s a knight.”
“He was a knight,” said the knight.
“You took the vows.”
“I had the vows taken.”
Silence descended for a moment. Two. Three. Peggy was the first to break it, stepping forward to embrace the man. “It’s good to see you, Nick.”
“Wish I could say the same,” Nick replied, before looking back down at Steve, who took a hesitant step forward. “Picked up a stray?”
“He’s Sarah’s boy. Steve.”
Nick straightened, stepping closer and half-crouching as his heavy hand came down on Steve’s shoulder. The weight of it nearly caused his knees to buckle.
“There’s room in the attic for him. So long as he doesn’t mind Clint.”
The startling realization that he was to stay with this pirate-knight named Nick took Steve by surprise, and he twisted his head to look up at Peggy. “But I—”
Peggy crouched down to meet him as well, looking him right in the eye. “You are awfully brave, my darling. Aren’t you?”
Steve didn’t feel very brave at all. “I don’t know.”
“But you trust me?”
“Nick is my very old friend, you see? Just as I told you. He has a place here for you, and—”
“I want to go with you.”
At that moment, Steve neither knew nor cared where she was going, only that she was leaving and taking away the last shred of familiarity from his rapidly crumbling world.
Sarah Rogers hadn’t put up with tantrums—she’d had no patience for little boys who kicked and screamed, and was quick to put them with their nose to the corner until they’d composed themselves. But if she had been watching then, as Steve lost his composure and bellowed his anger into the world, pounding his fists on Peggy’s chest? She wouldn’t have begrudged him that fear. That rage. No, her arms would have ached to hold him close. To comfort him as best she could and tell him that he would be alright in the end.
In Sarah’s absence, Peggy tried to do what was right, gathering him up and soothing him until there was nothing left but the hurt and the sorrow as he hiccuped his last sobs out against her neck, the paper star crumpled in his palm.
“Oh, now,” Peggy said, taking the star from him once the hiccups had subsided and Nick had long since disappeared downstairs. “Oh now, what’s this?”
When Steve saw what he had done, the tears started anew. He’d ruined it—ruined everything he’d had left of his friend, whose face was already fading from his memory. “I—”
Someone was whistling. Momentarily distracted, Steve turned to find the boy from the window—Clint—carrying his trunk up the stairs, passing them by on his way to the attic.
“Why don’t we go and see your room?” Peggy offered, using the distraction to her advantage as she took him by the hand. “Then we’ll see what we can do about mending that star.”
They followed Clint along the corridor to a door that led to another staircase which wound up and up to a turret room overlooking the town. Clint was just setting the trunk down as they arrived, and when Peggy shut the door behind them, he turned to Steve with a smile on his face before walking to the window and showing himself out. Steve ran after him, poking his head out and watching in wonderment as Clint used the drainpipe to shimmy down and let himself in through the same second-floor window he'd come out of before.
“Perhaps,” Peggy said, laying a hand on his shoulder, “Clint could teach you how to do that.”
Momentarily preoccupied with the very idea of it, Steve nearly smiled before turning to take in his new room. There were two narrow beds—one unmade, the other untouched and tucked under an eave. Peggy brought him to the latter and sat down with him, humming to herself as she smoothed out the crinkles in the star, flattening it as best she could.
Steve was sure he had ripped it beyond all repair, but as Peggy’s hands pressed the paper out, it seemed to be nearly as good as new. Frayed at the edges, but whole.
They hung it above his bed, same as it had been at home, before Peggy sat him down once more and knelt on the floor in front of him, taking his hands in hers.
“I know you’re angry with me for leaving you here, and you can hate me if you like.”
Steve didn't hate her, though he didn’t feel like telling her so, either. He shrugged instead.
“You don’t understand yet,” she murmured, more to herself than to him. “But how could you?”
“Why can’t I go with you?” He knew the plea was futile, but he had to ask. To try one last time.
“It’s...so much bigger than you or I, Steve. But I’m leaving you with someone I trust. Someone who can keep you safe.”
Steve frowned, not understanding at all. Who did he need to be kept safe from? The man in black who had taken Bucky, or someone else? He shrugged again, looking at his lap.
“When I can,” she said. “When this is all...I’ll come and bring you home. I promise you that.”
Steve looked up to find her extending a hand, her pinky finger in the air. He hooked his own around it, and Peggy leaned in to kiss his forehead as if sealing a contract. "Good boy," she murmured against his skin. "Brave boy. You'll be alright."
Peggy left him, then, her heart wrenched in two, a piece of it remaining behind in that tiny garret room with her good, brave boy who had seen so much. Who was burning up inside with a white, hot fire and had no means of venting it. Nick would help, she had to believe that—for all his gruffness, he served on the side of the angels.
When she reached the ground floor, Nick was waiting, a long-forgotten cloak of her own making in his hands.
“Thought you might need this, nightingale,” he teased.
Peggy laughed, her burden momentarily eased as Nick swung the cloak around her shoulders, its weight as comforting and familiar as the embrace of an old friend. “Where did you find it?”
“Mmm,” Peggy smiled. “She’s learning.”
“I’m an excellent teacher.”
Pulling the hood up, Peggy covered her hair and bowed her head for a moment, as if in prayer. “Tell her thank you,” she said, once she’d finished. “This will come in handy.”
“You’ll be gone a while? Plenty of work to do here…”
“There’s more work elsewhere. We can’t all fight on the home front.” Reaching into the pocket of her dress, she produced a small, silver object and pressed it into his palm. “For exigency.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Peggy shook her head, touching her finger to Nick’s chest and feeling the familiar outline of the insignia he kept so carefully hidden. “Keep him safe, Nick. For Sarah. I couldn’t bear it if something happened to him.”
“Trouble comes around,” Nick said as they walked to the door together, his hand in the small of her back. “But I’ll keep him safe, best as I can.”
“Thank you, Nick. I—”
From the window of the turret, Steve watched Peggy leave the house wearing an unfamiliar cloak of deep blue with red trimmings. She climbed into the carriage and shut the door, before being driven away to an adventure on which he couldn’t join her.
It was the last he would see of her face for more than ten years.
Thank you for reading! I'm going to answer comments from chapter one soon, I promise. Next week involves some growing up on Steve's part, literally and figuratively.
Chapter 3: May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade
Steve grows up.
Note: the image in this chapter includes some minor blood/injury. Please skip to the end for a detailed description if you think you might not want to see it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s a funny thing, the memory of a childhood. Ever malleable, those things we remember might be conjured by the taste of a favorite food, or the lingering smell of the perfume worn by a mother long gone. The rest of it fades into a multicolored blur of days passing, remarkable only for how perfectly unremarkable they are. Childhood is remembered in fits and starts rather than specifics, though it is those early lessons which shape so much of who we are to become.
Steve Rogers was no different than anybody else in that regard. As he grew older, his happy memories of life in his mother’s cottage faded until they were no more than wisps and flutter-bys in his mind—snippets of songs his mother had sung, games he and Bucky had played together, shrieking with delight in the garden.
He remembered their voices long after their faces slipped away, though in the end, even their laughter left him.
Sometimes, late at night during those early days living with Nick, unable to sleep even under the comfort of his small star, Steve would close his eyes so tight it hurt, convincing himself he could see them somewhere in the bright spots that burst before him in the darkness. When he rose in the mornings after those long nights, he would attempt to capture what he’d seen on paper—simple, childish drawings that showed great promise, though they lacked refinement.
Time passed, and Steve grew, as children often do. He remained small and sickly, but he was happy enough with his new family. They were not who he had lost, but they found places in his heart all the same. But then, Steve's heart had always had room to spare, and love to give.
Natasha became Steve’s fiercest defender, as well as the person who would jibe and goad him in his tempers, her words as sharp as the blades she strapped to her body whenever they went out into the city. Steve had never met a girl like Natasha before (though his experience was somewhat limited). She preferred trousers to skirts, swords to sewing, and knife sharpening to needlepoint.
Over the course of several months, Steve learned that Natasha had once been Nick’s apprentice—back when he had been a proper knight. After Nick had been disgraced and stripped of his order, Natasha had remained loyal, staying with him even as his status diminished and he was forced to leave the service of the king.
Steve knew better than to question her to her face, but privately he’d asked Clint why she’d remained so faithful to the man. Clint had spoken in hushed tones of Natasha’s girlhood—forced into servitude as a child soldier in a foreigner’s war. Nick had liberated her, though he could just as easily have had her head. Natasha had clung to his side in every way that mattered, and Nick had helped her take her rage and channel it into something useful—something that helped make her whole again. Something that would allow her to do better by her adopted people than those who had raised her.
Natasha grew in Steve's estimation daily, and he worshipped her, following her around like a lamb bleating for attention from its mother. Unused to such slavish devotion, Natasha ignored him entirely until he'd been with them nearly four months and did something that served to catch her attention.
It was two weeks after Steve’s sixth birthday, and he’d been sent on his usual errand to the baker. Nick believed that the best way to cure grief was through distraction, and as such Steve had been given daily chores. Being that he was the youngest and the smallest, those chores tended to be menial and thankless, though he did like the baker—she always gave him a biscuit, which was the surest way to his heart.
On that day, while he was making his way home, biscuit half-eaten and a smile on his face, he heard a squeal and a yelp coming from an alleyway as he passed by. Following the sound, he discovered a trio of older boys gathered around something small and squalling. The biggest boy was wielding a sharp stick, poking viciously at the noisy thing, which Steve realized was a puppy as soon as he got close enough.
Instinct drove him to drop his bread and shout, running forward and grabbing the end of the stick, feeling for all the world like a big, brave soldier rather than a small, sickly boy.
As it happened, the rough boys didn’t particularly care who they tormented, and Steve was as easy a target as the pup.
When he finally limped through the door of the house some time later, he had a cut cheek, a blackened eye, a rattle in his lungs, and a one-eyed puppy in his arms.
The boys had stolen the bread and the other half of his biscuit.
Natasha had been sitting by the fire with a knife and a block of wood, whittling something ugly (she had no eye for detail, but liked the work). She took one look at Steve and nodded, getting to her feet and reaching out for the puppy. Both Steve and the dog were bandaged in short order, with the puppy being placed on a pile of blankets in the corner, artfully arranged.
“Next time,” she chided as she straightened Steve’s collar. “You come and find me first. Don’t pick a fight you can’t win.”
“I nearly won,” Steve replied, before spitting another mouthful of blood into the bucket that had been procured for him.
“Did you?” Natasha raised an eyebrow. “Remind me to teach you how to duck, then.”
Clint stuck his head in as he passed by the kitchen and raised an eyebrow, taking one look at Steve, then at the puppy, before grinning. “Lucky fella,” he said.
The puppy was known as Lucky from that day on.
Clint was good at that sort of thing—declaring his thoughts and speaking his mind. Different from Natasha in nearly every way, Steve found. He was easier to know, and easier to make oneself known to. Steve learned Clint’s story within days of his arrival, the older boy pouring his heart out one night while they lay in their beds.
Having been orphaned at a young age, Clint had been raised in a carnival by his older brother. The two of them had gotten an act going that combined acrobatics and archery, to the delight of all (or so Clint claimed). Life had been rough but bearable until the night of the fire. Whether the cause had been deliberate or accidental, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that his brother had told him to run and so he had, barely eight years old and getting himself lost in his panic. He never found out what happened to his brother, as it had been Nick who saved him in the end.
Clint—starving and lonely, several days later—had crept up on the knight one evening after he’d made camp. Nick had caught him immediately, but instead of turning him in, he had asked him his name and his story. Clint had confessed, and Nick had informed him he was in dire need of an apprentice archer.
Whether or not the need was truly dire, Clint had been grateful. He had ridden with Nick to the palace, where he’d begun an apprenticeship. Two years later, when Nick came home with a rageful young girl named Natasha, Clint had helped where he could in tempering her anger and her fear, becoming loyal to her in the process.
They had fallen in love, and as such when Natasha chose to follow Nick, Clint had followed her, effectively ending his apprenticeship. Better a lost art than a broken heart, he explained.
(Steve, who at that time was missing Bucky with an intensity and grief that bordered on physical pain, thought the very idea of it was the most wonderful, romantic thing he'd ever heard.)
Steve’s affection for Clint was more like loving an older brother, rather than worshipping a goddess. Clint was a miracle worker with a bow and arrow, though utterly hopeless at taking care of himself. Steve had never seen someone so clumsy—his clothes were always torn, and he was such a messy eater that there were occasionally gravy stains on the back of his shirt. He was funny, though. More than that, he was affectionate and always sweet. One of his ears had been damaged in his youth—he never would say how—and Steve, Natasha, and Nick often had to shout to get his attention.
Then, of course, there was Nick. Steve was equal parts in awe of and frightened by the big knight, with his long strides and one-eyed appraising glances. Still, as time passed, Steve found that he wasn’t so frightened as to keep from asking questions. Not so frightened that he was ever genuinely intimidated by Nick. How could he be, when Clint and Natasha were so devoted to him?
“How did you lose your eye?” Steve asked for the umpteenth time one sunny morning, the week after his seventh birthday, feeling right at home as he sat on a fence rail, watching Nick groom his great, white destrier—a horse named Fury who had a tendency to bite.
Nick ran a currycomb across Fury’s back and shrugged. “Lost it during a game of cards. Had to cut it right out and lay it on the table.”
Steve leaned forward. “Really?”
“Would I lie?” Nick looked up at him, and Steve grinned. “You know how to groom a horse?”
“Come on down from there, then. Learn something new.”
Nick was forever doing things like that—teaching without meaning to teach, so Steve learned without realizing he was learning. Mostly, Nick was a man who believed in hard work, especially for children who might otherwise be prone to sorrow.
Steve, under his care, worked quite a lot.
Seven turned into eight, and there came a day when he was nearly nine that Steve proclaimed loudly over breakfast that he was going to learn to shoot a bow and arrow just as well as Clint.
The problem, however, was that no matter the size of his heart or the strength of his convictions, Steve’s body simply wasn’t able to manage the very same things that Clint and Natasha could do with ease. He was often sick, and even when he was well, he was frail. Pale and sallow complected, he walked with stooped shoulders that came from a crooked spine, his arms and legs spindly as spiders. There were whispers in the marketplace that he hadn’t enough to eat (leading to the aforementioned biscuits), but Nick saw to it they were never left wanting. It was only that most of the food didn’t agree with him, and he had a terrible constitution.
All the same, Clint indulged him. The two of them left the house early one morning and marched to a clearing just outside the woods that bordered the city. Natasha and Lucky came along, the former perching on a log with an apple in her hand and the latter stretching out on the ground for what he felt was a well-deserved nap.
Steve tried to follow Clint’s every instruction. To nock the arrow and pull the bowstring taut. To release it just as Clint did, sending it sailing across the field and into the heart of the target Clint had nailed to a tree.
He failed. Time and time again. Truthfully, he could hardly bear the weight of the bow, much less exert the necessary force to pull the string. The sun crept towards the middle of the sky, and Steve's arms trembled, his brow damp with sweat though he kept his upper lip resolutely stiff.
“You’re too small,” Natasha proclaimed eventually, having grown weary of watching him suffer.
“You’re small,” he snapped.
Natasha was small, but she was the right sort of small. Agile and compact, with muscles and a lissome strength Steve would never possess. She had been training as a knight of the whispers before Nick's disgrace. A spy. Which meant she could be rather ruthless at times, especially with her opinion.
Steve’s eyes smarted at her words, and he dropped the bow on the ground with a clatter before walking over and making a furious attempt to push her from the log. It didn’t do much, being as she was nearly a woman grown, and he was still a boy.
Natasha caught both his wrists in her hands, giving him a shake when he threatened to shove her again.
“You’re small, not stupid,” she said.
“I know I’m not stupid!”
“Then act as though you’re as smart as you are. Why not focus on what you can do?”
Steve scowled, yanking his wrists back before folding his arms across his chest. Considering that what he couldn’t do could fill an ocean, he’d never been particularly inclined to acknowledge the opposite perspective.
"You're good at watching," Natasha said. "Paying attention. Clint and I—you're always thinking about what we're doing and making plans based on what you see. You're smart, Steve. That means something."
Scuffing his toe in the dirt, Steve shrugged. “Planning doesn’t win fights.”
“No,” Natasha agreed. “Cunning does, sometimes, and you’ve got that in spades. But you’re right, it’s mostly brute strength that wins fights. Planning wins wars.”
“We’re not in a war.”
“Aren’t we?” Natasha shook her head, cuffing him on the shoulder before getting to her feet. “Pay attention, little star. You’re always watching—why don’t you start thinking about what you see?”
“This is pointless,” Clint broke in, which was his frequent complaint when he couldn’t hear the conversation properly. “Let’s go swimming.”
Swimming, Steve could manage.
Nine became ten, and Steve took Natasha’s words to heart. He began to see what he hadn’t seen before. To pay attention to the little things. The forgotten things. Nick’s occasional mysterious visitors. Natasha’s curious disappearances. Clint’s tempers until she reappeared, safe and sound. The way the three of them would stop speaking altogether on some occasions when Steve entered a room.
“I know you’re talking about me,” he snapped one day, just before his eleventh birthday, unable to take the whispers any longer.
“How awfully self-centered you are,” Natasha replied, picking at her thumbnail.
Steve hated her and her secrets at that moment. He gave her his most defiant glare before turning on his heel and slamming out the front door, where he ran headlong into a woman who had been standing there, poised as if to knock.
“Oh,” he said, in lieu of politeness.
“Hello there,” the woman said. “I wondered if anyone was home.”
Steve squinted at her, a faint blush rising in his cheeks. The woman was blonde, and pretty enough in her way—the sort of unremarkable, bland pretty that left behind a momentary pleasure but no lasting memory of the face or the features that went with it.
“My family’s inside, if that’s who you mean,” he muttered, because he might have been angry with Natasha, but she was his sister.
“I see,” the woman said, crouching down to his level before pushing her hood from her head. “What about you? You’re not at home?”
“Well, I was, but—”
“What’s your name?”
"It's very nice to meet you, Steve," the stranger said, before reaching into the folds of her cloak and producing a rather ornate box. "I'm afraid I can't stay long, but I was told someone was living at this address that might be in need of a present like this."
Natasha had taught Steve well—wariness around strangers was second nature. Steve frowned and took a step back. “What is it?”
The woman smiled, opening the lid and revealing a set of colored pastels, as though she’d known how very much he liked to draw. “I heard Nick had adopted an artist. I don’t suppose that’s you?”
“Oh.” Common sense compromised, Steve took the gift. “Would you like to come in?”
“No, thank you,” she replied. “I only came to meet the artist.”
Leaning in, she pressed a firm kiss to Steve’s forehead before straightening her spine. The shock of the kiss caused him to fumble the box, the pastels scattering across the stones. Steve swore, dropping to his knees to gather them. By the time he got to his feet again, the woman had disappeared.
Strange. He hadn’t heard footsteps.
When Natasha asked where he’d gotten the pastels, he lied to her for the very first time and said he had found them abandoned in the alleyway.
Steve could have secrets, too.
Ten became eleven, which turned into twelve, as eleven is prone to do. Steve continued to grow, though not half so much as the others.
Natasha and Clint, as a matter of fact, grew into proper adults, and they were married to one another on the day Natasha turned twenty-one. Steve cried himself to sleep that night, afraid they would leave him alone with Nick, who was very good to him, but wasn’t his sibling. He didn’t think he could bear to lose them, and he found that the sick grief was not unfamiliar at all.
All his worries were for nothing, though—Natasha’s loyalty to Nick was unwavering, and their work was not yet done. Clint moved out of the attic and into Natasha’s room, though he did complain bitterly that there weren’t enough rafters off which to hang in his new abode.
(Steve informed him that he was more than welcome to come up to the attic and hang from the rafters there any time he liked.)
Twelve became thirteen, and Steve found himself drawn more and more to the artwork he created with the box of pastels he’d received. He wore the colors down to nubbins, and yet they never seemed to be quite at their end.
Anything and everything was fair game for his discerning eye. The horses were frequent subjects—Fury, Widowmaker, Hawk’s Eye, and his own Star, who had been a gift from Nick on his tenth birthday. He drew Lucky—now an austere gentledog of not-quite-seven—bright and golden as the sun.
He drew what he could recall of his mother, though there wasn’t much left. There was even less of Bucky in his mind’s eye, which made him sad, though not as sad as it might once have.
Thirteen became fourteen and fifteen in turn, and while Steve was never well, he began to be useful. Good at sums, he managed the household accounts. Defender of the weak, he kept the animals watered and fed. Talented with his hands, he sold his work in the village square and helped to bring in extra money for Nick’s purse.
Beyond all that, he watched everything happening around him. He watched the knowing looks that passed between the members of his small family, and the way something seemed to be brewing just under the surface.
What he couldn’t see, and did not yet know, was that they were determined to keep him safe, and keep their secrets, though they each had their own reasons for doing so. Nick, because of a promise he’d made to Peggy. Clint, because of a debt he owed to a long-lost brother. Natasha, because she saw in him things he could not yet see in himself.
Thank you for reading! Next week: where is Bucky? And how does his growing up compare to Steve's?
Image description: Steve, after rescuing Lucky the puppy, is holding him. They are both a bit cut up, and Lucky is missing an eye, with a trickle of blood to indicate the loss. If it helps, Lucky goes on to live a long, happy life, loved and cared for by everyone around him.
Chapter 4: Truth, please don't pay me much attention
In which we meet the king.
“You look,” began Sam, supine on a sofa as he watched the spectacle taking place before him. “Like a peacock.”
The king—and he was a king, though still an awfully young one—looked down at himself and sighed. He did look like a peacock, the green coat he was being fitted for already adorned with too much gold embroidery for his tastes. All the same, he wasn’t about to give Sam the benefit of his agreement.
“You,” he said instead, doing his level best to make his tone officious as he stared down his rather patrician nose. “Are obsessed with birds.”
“Maybe so,” Sam agreed. “Doesn’t make you look any less like a peacock, though.”
“A fine peacock, Your Royal Highness!” proclaimed the tailor from beneath the tails of the coat. His voice was muffled, being as he had his lips clamped around a mouthful of pins, one of which he stuck into place before emerging and spitting the rest into the tin his apprentice was holding. “There, now. That ought to give us enough to do before the hunt.”
“Thank you, Jacques,” the king said, the dismissal implied rather than overt. Truth be told, he had little interest in the hunt, save for the opportunity it would give him to escape the confines of the palace. Having a new coat made for the occasion seemed no more than frippery, considering he’d be riding over hill and dale in it, wrinkling and soiling the fine fabric.
Another bit of pomp and circumstance in a life that had been full of nothing but rituals and rules that could never be broken.
The king was very tired of ceremony and tradition, and at seventeen he had grown weary of the expectations placed on his shoulders by virtue of the crown on his head.
Slipping out of the coat, he placed it in the apprentice’s arms and turned his full attention to Sam. Undoubtedly he’d broken some inane rule of protocol by taking off his own coat, but being as there wasn’t anyone in the room likely to tell his secrets, he felt safe in that small rebellion.
“Let’s go and see your birds, then,” he said as soon as the door had shut behind the tailor.
“At your leisure, Your Royal Highness,” Sam teased, stretching his arms above his head before getting to his feet.
The two of them bickered good-naturedly all the way to the mews, where the birds were waiting to be admired. Or, rather, they were in the midst of being fed, so they paid Sam and the king very little mind when they entered, their focus entirely on the young man bringing them their dinner.
That young man happened to be Sam’s husband, Riley, the term and their marriage a relative novelty around the palace, being as the two of them had only been wed three months prior.
“Your Roy—” Riley began.
“James,” the king corrected, because James was his name, even if the title to which it belonged was rather cumbersome.
(His Royal Highness King James Buchanan of the House of Barnes didn’t quite trip lightly off the tongue.)
“I’m sorry, Your...James.”
Sam laughed, James grinned, and Riley yelped—he’d forgotten the task at hand, and the birds were hungry for their supper.
It would take time, but Riley would learn, same as Sam had. James didn't care much for formalities and did what he could to avoid them with what few friends he had. Two friends, now, if Riley was considered such, though he'd had Sam for much longer.
They’d met when James had been king for three lonely years, having been crowned at the tender age of seven.
It was a strange business, how James came to be king. Rumors and half-truths abounded regarding the boy, who had never once been seen in public before his coronation, during which he'd hardly been strong enough to hold the scepter, his back bowing under the weight of the crown.
James was simply too young to rule, but with his father dead and his mother following soon after (or just before—the rumors were unclear on that matter), he did not have the luxury of choice. And so it was that his father's most trusted advisor was appointed as the regent, ruling in the boy's stead and giving him wise counsel until he came of age.
This appointed regent was a stalwart foreigner from the Kingdom of Cinnair, who had befriended King George as a young man and quickly rose through the ranks to become his most trusted advisor. The third son of a minor lord, Alexander of the House of Pierce had struck out on his own at seventeen, determined to make his way in the world. Well-versed in politics, culture, and courtly behavior, he made fast friends with his adopted king and soon the two were inseparable. When the king named him to the head of his council, it was the first time any man had risen to such a position in Leoman without a title to his name.
(There was a rumor—albeit unsubstantiated—that Alexander had been presented with the opportunity for a title and turned it down, which was so unfathomable that hardly anyone believed it.)
There was nobody more devastated than Alexander at the death of the royal couple, and he declared a state of mourning across the kingdom that lasted for months, coming to an end at such time as the young king was crowned.
The new king. The invalid. Hidden from the world and overcome with illnesses that left him weak and easily confused. Those in attendance at his coronation reported his pallid complexion and weak constitution, the stories morphing over time until it was difficult to separate the sincerity from the nonsense, though there was a bit of both in every tale told.
The king was strange, they said.
The king was difficult.
The king was prone to dark tempers and fits of rage, with a tendency towards melancholy and forgetfulness.
A sad case.
A pitiable case.
Thank goodness for Alexander.
James—having lived that sequestered life—had never heard those rumors. The days of his childhood, in as much as he remembered them, muddled together in a haze of tutors and governesses, prone to scolding him and slapping him, pinching him and prodding him. Sometimes, he thought he remembered his mother—a kind touch, holding him close and singing him songs. Strange, though, that the mother in his memory had golden hair, while in the miniature he carried with him at all times, her hair was raven.
As he grew older—nine, ten, nearly eleven—the governesses had gone, and Alexander had taken charge of his education. Alexander did not scold, though he often slapped. He had other reprimands as well, ones that were harsher and harder to predict, and as such, James did what he could to appease him and assuage his temper.
Because in some ways, Alexander was decent to him, especially when times were troublesome. Those times when his mind played tricks on him. When he saw lions and stars, heard voices that were not his own, and saw faces he did not know, hovering just out of reach. It was during those times that James' temper got the better of him, and Alexander would send for the physician—a short, pinch-faced man who only ever called himself Zola.
When Zola came, the doors were locked, and the curtains were shut before treatments were administered to calm the king's mind. Bringing the fragmented pieces of his scattered thoughts back to a centered whole, leaving him biddable and docile.
Amenable and plaint.
It was during these calm times that wise Alexander thought it best to have the king sign any necessary proclamations and documents. To do what needed to be done for the kingdom before his sanity began to slip once more.
Yes, the king was difficult, but Alexander was wise.
Which brings us to Sam, and how it was that James found his friendship.
It began on an evening when James was ten. He’d had a long day of terrible lessons, and when faced with the gruel-like consistency of his dinner, he’d knocked the plate to the ground. Alexander’s reprisal had been swift—a vicious slap to his cheek, which had sent him reeling, leaving his ears ringing and his face bright red.
“You see now, my boy?” Alexander said, his eyes flashing fire, delivering the question as though James were stupid or slow. “Weakness breeds vulnerability.”
James nodded and looked at the ground, his face hot and his eyes damp with unshed tears. It occurred to him, standing there, weeks out from his last treatment, that he did not particularly want to be the king any longer. If he were not the king, it stood to reason, it wouldn’t matter whether he was weak or strong, slow or stupid, ill or well.
So, in that moment, James decided to run away, and that decision—though it cost him dearly—was one of the better decisions he ever made.
Because that decision? It brought him to Sam.
Sam, the falconer’s apprentice, had been all of thirteen years old and out doing his morning chores when he stumbled across the lost little king sitting on the cobblestones behind the mews, his knees hugged to his chest, his eyes wide and teary.
“Are you lost?” Sam asked.
“Yes,” the king replied, wiping a hand across his face and drawing it away with a smear of mud and mucus left behind. “I was running away, but I got turned around.”
“I see,” Sam said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Sam. Where do you live, James?”
The king pointed towards the magnificent castle, rising from the mound. Sam quirked an eyebrow.
“Right,” he said. The son of a servant, most likely. “Who’s your family?”
“Haven’t got one,” James sniffled.
Sam, feeling the great burden of his age and responsibility, offered a hand to the king, then clapped him firmly on the back before wrapping an arm about his shoulders. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll set you straight.”
They went into the small house Sam shared with the master falconer and her husband, who were just sitting down to breakfast. The master falconer took one look at James—the cut of his clothing, the golden crest on his jacket—and went white, bowing low to the ground. She had not seen the king since his coronation, but there was no mistaking him as he stood, muddy and disheveled in her kitchen.
“Sam,” she said. “Don’t you realize who this is?”
That great understanding came upon Sam at the precise moment the king burst into noisy tears.
“I don’t want to go back,” he begged. “Please don’t make me go back.”
Back he would have to go, all the same. The falconer fetched the guards, who had already spent most of the early morning looking for the missing king.
Sam, though, was not a stupid boy—couldn’t be, to do what he did so well as he did it, and at such a young age. So when the guards came, he insisted—in his charming, affable way—that he be allowed to accompany them to see that James got home safe and sound.
James clung to him, shaking like a leaf, as they made their way back to the palace, walking that long walk up the stairs and down the labyrinth of hallways that led to the royal apartments.
When they arrived, James was embraced by the regent, who gathered him close and fussed, straightening his clothes and clucking about how terribly worried they’d all been, and how glad they were to see him.
James, Sam was quick to note, never hugged him back.
The regent's attention turned to Sam after that, pumping his hand heartily and promising him a proper reward for his troubles.
“I don’t need anything, sir,” Sam said, watching James. “I’m only glad he’s alright.”
“Please,” James blurted, even as Alexander’s hand weighed heavy on his shoulder. “Please, can’t I go and see Sam’s birds sometime? He promised—”
Sam saw it when it happened—the briefest slip of the pleasant mask Alexander had firmly fixed in place. “I’m sure Sam is busy, Your Royal Highness. Far too busy for you to be bothering.”
“I don’t mind, sir,” Sam said. “I’d be happy to.”
Alexander’s expression shuttered, and he looked down with a smile so devoid of warmth that it sent shivers up and down Sam’s spine. “We’ll see about arranging a visit. Thank you, Sam.”
As he was ushered out, Sam looked back at James, convinced he would never see him again and that his last, lingering remembrance would be of the boy’s pale, frightened face.
To his utter surprise, James was brought to see the birds less than a week later, accompanied by two guards and hardly allowed to stand up on his own. He was perfectly pleasant, but when Sam stole a moment alone with him to ask him why he’d run away, James seemed confused at the very notion.
From that day forward, Sam saw a fair bit of James, and as time passed, he began to understand that there was something wrong with his friend. That he was prone to fits, to confusions, to nightmares, yes, but more than that was the fact that he was a lonely, sad boy with a kind heart, who was desperately eager to please.
Sometimes, months would go by between his sicknesses, during which time James would grow bolder, funnier, happier, only to be struck once again by whatever affliction made him recede into himself, forgetful and unsure, his life an endless litany of queries.
“Did I say that, Sam?”
“When did we do that, Sam?”
“I don’t recall, Sam.”
“Surely we didn’t, Sam.”
“My head aches, Sam.”
Years passed, and eventually, Sam stopped prodding. The questions only confused James further, and a part of Sam worried that one day he'd ask the wrong thing, or do something stupid to jeopardize what friendship they had. Alexander held the power, and one word from him could have James isolated from Sam's small corner of the world all over again.
If he couldn’t save him, Sam would do his best to be a good friend to him instead. To tease him and laugh with him. To keep him grounded when the weight and the worry of his position proved too much a burden.
When James was fourteen, Riley had come—a new gardener who turned Sam’s head with one well-timed wink. James had been the first person Sam had told.
"Do you love him?" James asked because he'd always been prone to flights of fancy.
“I might like to, one day.”
“I think I’d like to fall in love, too. You’ll have to tell me if you enjoy it.”
Sam didn’t like to say that there wasn’t much chance of love for James, considering. He would marry whomever Alexander told him to marry, likely not long after he turned eighteen. Granted, as the king, he could have married anyone he liked, but when had James ever done anything other than precisely what Alexander told him to?
“I will, and perhaps you will, too,” Sam offered.
James smiled the sort of smile that broke off a bit of Sam’s heart every time it crossed his face.
Nearly two years later, Sam and Riley married in a small ceremony attended by those they loved best. James had not been permitted to come, his outings only granted in fits and starts by Alexander.
Still, the older James got, the better he seemed to be, and for longer. Sam made sure he had what freedoms he could, and while they weren’t real, true freedoms, he seemed happy enough whenever he was able to spend time with Sam and Riley, the guards having stopped accompanying him on his visits when he was fifteen.
A small miracle, that. At least, now, when Sam brought him home, he could protect him, if only for an evening.
Now, where were we? Ah, the mews. Riley red-faced over his error and Sam laughing at his side.
“Sam said you won’t be joining us on the hunt,” James said, crossing to his favorite bird—a pretty, fierce beast named Redwing, for reasons that were obvious when you looked at her.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Pity,” James said. “I thought you’d have like to see Sam fall on his ass.”
“That was once!” Sam protested.
“It left an impression,” James grinned, pulling on a glove before holding his arm out to Redwing, who took to her favored perch with grace. (James always had excellent treats, she’d learned years before.)
“We’ll see who’s laughing when I’m the one to bring down the stag.”
“Oh, lofty ambitions, Master Falconer. When was the last time you shot at a thing?”
“When was the last time you did?”
The king looked briefly affronted before he began to laugh, and he had the sort of laugh that made it difficult not to laugh with him, the strength of his smile lighting up a room. More was the pity that he did not have occasion to laugh often, as it would have served to uplift more spirits than his own.
Riley shrugged, kissing Sam on the cheek. “If he falls off, I’ll expect a good story from you.”
“It would be my distinct pleasure.”
“You two deserve one another,” Sam huffed. “See if I make your supper now.”
“Oh, please, Sam,” James begged at once. “Please do. I’m sorry for laughing.”
James, Sam had learned over the years, was fed mostly unpalatable nonsense at the palace, the flavorless, watery mush of oats and milk meant somehow to improve his constitution. It was not all he ate, but it made up enough of his diet that Sam took care to feed him well whenever he had him at home, and soon enough they were sitting down to plates of bread and cheese, along with bowls of steaming chicken soup.
For James, the taste of the bread that night was more like a recollection on the tip of his tongue. The smell of a loaf filling a small room bathed in sunlight. A woman singing. A lion roaring. No, not a lion in the memory—he was the lion. Here and now, and oh, there was something else.
James bit into the bread and could nearly see him.
“James?” Sam asked, laying a hand on his arm.
“We’re going on an adventure,” James whispered, the bread caught halfway between his mouth and the plate.
“But he’s sick, Sam. He’s sick.” A hysterical laugh bubbled up in him, and James found he was blinking back tears.
“Who’s sick?” Riley asked, as Sam cast him a fierce look and he understood at once. Sam had spoken to him of the king’s fits, but Riley had never seen one.
“I don’t know,” James moaned, dropping his bread before clutching at his temples. “It hurts…”
Everything went dim for the king as he lost himself between the shadow of a dream and what he knew now to be true. There were voices all around him, whispers from the past and those doing their best to guide him back to the now. A hand fell to his shoulder, and he knew, he knew, he knew he could see the golden boy standing there waiting for him, just outside the shadows, silhouetted by the sun.
“Steve?” he whispered.
“No, my boy.”
James opened his eyes and found he could not move his body.
“You’ll be quite alright, Your Royal Highness,” came a second voice, this one pitched high and reedy. “It has simply been too long since your last treatment.”
There was a hand on his forehead, and James began to scream.
Chapter 5: My apologies to chance for calling it necessity
A ride through the woods.
The question of what, precisely, was to be done with his life weighed heavy on Steve’s mind as his sixteenth birthday came and went. Granted, his was the only mind on which it weighed, as neither Nick nor Natasha had any particular worry about Steve, who had always proven adept at sorting himself out, even if he picked up a bruise or a scrape in the trying.
No different than when he'd been a little boy, Steve's thoughts turned towards whether or not he could pass muster as a knight or a soldier. Yes, he was small and prone to sickness, but he was no stranger to hard work and was sure he could prove himself with a bit of effort.
When he brought his military notions to Nick, he was turned down flat every time. Infuriatingly, Nick never gave him any reason beyond a simple no, and so Steve raged against it, doing whatever he could to prove his worth.
“No,” Nick said, watching Steve heft a sack of potatoes over his head in the yard, holding it there until his arms began to shake and he was forced to drop it to the ground, where it split open and sent its contents rolling across the dirt.
“No,” Nick said, walking away from the field where Steve was turning tricks on his horse, pulling an imaginary sword from an imaginary scabbard, hacking and bashing at imaginary enemies.
“No,” Nick said to the begging. To the pleading. To the tears and the tantrums that might have been considered childish, if Steve weren’t so very grown up.
Natasha was less likely to say no outright, choosing instead to show Steve the futility of his plans by besting him time and time again when they sparred, leaving him breathless and sore, laid out flat on his back with her wooden sword pressed to his neck.
“Why?” she asked, on one particularly sunny day, holding out a hand to haul him up. “Why does it matter to you so much?”
“Because what good am I?” Steve snapped. “I’m useless.”
Natasha released him and wiped her hand on her trousers, considering her words carefully. “You aren’t useless, Steve. You only think you are. If you’d—”
Steve cut her off with a feint and a parry, jabbing her in the flank and earning her ire. It landed him on the ground again, her strike having knocked the wind out of him so much that he rolled back and forth, gasping for air.
“Cunning, though,” she said, advancing on him and poking her sword into his sternum. “So smart, and so stubborn.”
Steve scowled and scrambled away from her jibes, his weak lungs rattling in his chest, as pathetic as the rest of him. "Don’t.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” she snapped, tossing her sword on the ground and walking away.
It was easy advice to give; harder to heed. The problem with feeling sorry for one's self is that it becomes quite difficult to see the truth in one's own reflection. The image distorts into something warped by self-pity and sorrow until a body hardly knows where the truth ends and the lie begins. Of course, there were hardships in Steve's life, but for all that he struggled, there were none so hard as the ones he created for himself.
So Steve grew angrier. More sullen. Prone to picking fights with those who wronged others, pushing back against the world in the name of whatever justice his mind meted out. A defender of the weak, brave of heart if limited in ability.
One morning—not an especially remarkable one, though the most important days rarely let you know they are going to be important—Steve and Nick were arguing in the courtyard, with Steve having informed Nick that he didn’t particularly care what he thought or wanted for him, he was going to do as he pleased. It was a familiar tune, albeit one they’d played with a number of variations of late.
“When I come of age,” Steve snapped. “I’ll enlist.”
“You won’t,” Nick replied. Being as how he had promised Peggy he would keep Steve safe, he wasn’t likely to budge on that point.
“You can’t stop me.”
It wasn't often that Nick was forced to remind his young ward of the man he had once been, but Nick's temper won out, and at that moment he was fearsome, drawing himself up to his full height and looming over Steve, who shrank back.
“Would you like to test that theory?”
Steve's lower lip trembled, and he told himself he would not cry. To hell with the lot of them—he didn't need them, and he could take care of himself. So he turned on his heel and ran to the stable, where he tacked up Star as fast as he could before riding past the yard, past the fields, and into the woods, where he went further in and further up than he ever had before.
As it happened, those woods—past a certain point—were no longer the woods belonging to the city and the people in it. Eventually, those woods became the royal woods, though there was no fence or marker to show it as such.
And it was there, in those serendipitous woods, that the angry young boy met with his destiny in the form of a frightened stag, the great beast bolting in front of Star and letting out a bellow, causing the horse to rear and come back down before dancing backward on her hooves.
“Oh,” Steve managed, as the stag pawed the ground, its horns fearsome and its eyes wild. “Oh, I’m sorry if I frightened you.”
A horn sounded nearby, and Steve realized that the stag wasn’t frightened of him at all. No, there were far more fearsome creatures roaming the woods—horrible creatures with guns and knives and a thirst for glory throbbing in their veins.
The mantle of savior fell to Steve's shoulders once more, and he nodded at the stag as if communicating some silent understanding. He was neither a soldier nor a knight, but he could save a life.
So the stag ran, and Steve spurred Star in the opposite direction, shouting for help as though he wasn’t perfectly capable of controlling the horse beneath him—as though a single whispered word wouldn’t have brought her to a gentle, loping halt.
He turned in the direction of the horn, shooting past the hunting party as no more than a blur of brown and faded purple in his worn coat and trousers—hand-me-downs from Clint that Steve had put on in the hopes of impressing Nick. It hadn’t worked, but the purple of the coat made him easy to follow, which was precisely what he wanted.
There was a cry of alarm, and Steve glanced back long enough to note that another horse had broken away from the party, the rider in a coat of bright green riding pell-mell towards him.
Steve grinned, and urged Star on in a burst of speed, doing his best not to laugh out loud, his chest burning with the exertion of the ride, gleeful in the knowledge that he’d disrupted them while giving the stag plenty of time to run.
It took some time for the rider to catch him—Steve was a skilled horseman, but the other horse was faster than Star. Eventually, the stranger's mount grew even, and the rider reached over to catch Star's mane, giving a low whistle and calling out a, "whoa!"
Discreetly, Steve slowed her, running a hand across her neck as her sides heaved, while his wood-be rescuer pulled ahead, turning his great, brown horse to block Steve’s way.
“Are you alright?”
Was he? Now that Steve looked up and saw the young man—more a boy, really— he wasn't sure. He felt a tug, low in his belly, the sensation one he did not understand. Had he been older or wiser, he might have known that pull as one of recognition. Instead, he interpreted it as an attraction to the stranger, with his swept-back dark hair and high cheekbones. The boy's eyes were as blue as some terrible poet's trite metaphor, perfectly set off by the green of his hunting jacket, which was made of a vibrant green material embroidered with gold.
Steve’s heart stuttered out a beat, and his palms began to sweat. He wasn’t immune to the charms of others—from the daughter of the baker to the blacksmith’s apprentice—but never before had he looked at someone and found himself so entirely overwhelmed that he couldn’t quite find his voice.
“Sir? Are you alright?”
The repetition of the question reminded him of the occupation of the asker—blue eyes aside, he had been hunting the stag. Steve remembered his anger, and let it wash over and consume him. He was angry at this young man for the hunt, yes, but also for being so handsome in his finery, for being lovely and strong—able to fight in a war if he wanted.
Granted, it wasn’t his fault that Steve was angry, but anger has a strange way of finding its way to the fore in the most inconvenient of places, and Steve’s rage was a directionless compass pointing all manner of ways.
“I’m quite fine,” he replied, his voice crisp as he held his head high, wheeling Star in a circle to settle her. “I’m afraid I can’t say the same for your conquest, though.”
His so-called savior smiled. Spoiled, rich, arrogant brat—Steve hated his smile as soon as he saw it.
“Well, of course,” the young man said. “I’ve been told that’s the purpose of a hunt.”
“I think it’s awful,” Steve snapped.
“I’m sorry,” said Spoiled and Laughing. “But one cannot participate in a royal hunt without the hunting. It simply isn’t done.”
Steve scowled, gripping the reins tightly as he jutted out his chin. “It’s one thing to hunt because you’re hungry,” he said coolly. “But you’re hunting for sport. To mount that poor beast’s head in your...your…”
Where, precisely, one might mount a stag’s head left Steve at something of a loss, and his frown deepened. Wherever it was, it was terrible. Probably a smelly hunting lodge or a stodgy, dusty old room full of nothing but insignificant trophies.
“What’s your name?” asked the young man, who was hardly older than Steve, now that he looked closer.
“Why?” he replied, Natasha’s voice in his head, warning him not to reveal too much while questioning everything. “Going to get me in trouble?”
“Of course not.” He frowned. “I only wondered what you were doing here. These are private woods, or so I’m told, and—”
“So you mean to have me arrested, then?”
“No!” He shook his head as if he meant to clear it of a troublesome thought. “I’m ah, Jamie.”
The name didn’t suit him, but Steve didn’t think it polite to say so. “Jamie,” he repeated. “Are these your private woods, then?”
Jamie smiled again, this one shyer, his cheeks going pink. “Not really. I’m only watching over them for a little while.”
Steve cocked his head to the side, leading Star in a circle of the stranger, observing him from every angle. A handsome young man, but a sad one, with eyes that made him look older and a smile that didn’t quite reach them.
“You must be the caretaker, then,” Steve said, coming back around to face him.
“Not yet,” said Jamie. “I suppose if I’m anything, I’m the caretaker’s apprentice.”
"Seems a shame the caretaker should participate in the hunt," Steve countered. "Do you enjoy your work?"
“I enjoy it as much as I am able,” Jamie said, straightening his shoulders and sitting taller in the saddle. “And what is it that you do?”
“Soldiering,” Steve replied, mimicking Jamie as he sat up straighter, willing his crooked spine into alignment. “Or, leastways, I will be soldiering soon enough.”
Jamie did something then that endeared him to Steve forever—he smiled, nodded, and accepted Steve’s declaration as the absolute truth.
“You must be very brave,” he said. “To be so young, and to be a soldier.”
Steve flushed red, his thoughts towards Jamie suddenly much more charitable. How had he ever believed him spoiled and arrogant, when in fact he was so very intelligent, in addition to being so very handsome.
“I’m not terribly brave,” Steve demurred, as Jamie leaned forward. “Others do far more.”
“Maybe so,” Jamie agreed, shifting his grip on the reins. “But I think that perhaps it isn’t the size of the deed that matters, only the intention of the person performing it.”
Steve was reminded of his mother’s words, locked close to his heart for all those years. “Even the smallest stars shine bright.”
“I—yes,” Jamie agreed, though his voice faltered, and Steve watched with concern as a brief tremor shook his body, hands trembling as he brought them to rest on the horn of his saddle. He blinked twice, his mouth turning up, then down, before he squinted at Steve. “Yes, I do believe you’re right. Tell me, have we met—”
The hunting horn sounded, stopping him from completing the query as both he and Steve turned to look for the riders, who were just cresting a hill nearby, visible through the trees.
“Please,” Steve said. “You said you’re the caretaker, so take care. Don’t let them hurt the stag.”
Jamie gave him an odd look, his eyes fixed firmly on Steve’s face. Steve shrank back under the weight of that gaze, and for a moment he felt as trapped as a moth under a glass, fluttering and nervous, freedom hovering just out of reach with an invisible, impenetrable barrier keeping him apart from the world. Because of this boy—this stranger—who felt at once both familiar and foreign.
Steve very much wanted to know him better.
“I give you my word,” Jamie said, moving his hand from the reins to Steve’s arm, where he gripped him tightly through the threadbare fabric. “But—”
“There you are!” came a new voice, as the first of the riders caught up to them. The man was older, and Steve decided he might have been handsome once, though time had worn his features down into something severe and unkind.
Jamie lifted his hand from Steve’s arm and retreated into himself, sitting up straight once more and locking his jaw, swallowing hard.
The man cleared his throat. “We were quite worried, Your Ro—”
“Jamie!” Jamie exclaimed, which seemed rather a strange thing to shout. “Jamie. It’s Jamie. And I’m coming now, Alexander, but I’m awfully sorry.”
Any trace of joy, any hint of lightness in his countenance had been erased from his expression as Jamie turned his horse about to face the other man.
Steve was a boy who had spent a lifetime watching. Thinking. Listening. He saw at once that Jamie was more than deferential to this Alexander—he was frightened of him. Truth be told, he was petrified. His breath came quicker now, his knuckles gone white where his hands gripped the reins, and the bloom of color in his cheeks had faded, leaving him ghostly pale and very nearly shaking.
“You needn’t apologize to me, my boy,” said Alexander as he rode closer, followed at a distance by a young black man, who seemed to have much more regard for Jamie and was watching him with a wary, fond expression. “It was only that you worried us, riding off like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Jamie said again, his earlier charm disappearing as he stammered his way through the conversation. “I’m sorry, Sam, I’m very sorry…”
The young man who had followed Alexander closer smiled and waved his hand in the air. “Should have known you’d play the hero, Jamie.”
“Well, his horse was...running away, and…” Jamie shrugged, gesturing towards Steve helplessly.
“Mmm.” Alexander gave his reins a flick, horse pawing at the earth. “How very generous of you, my boy. You’ve given this young man a gift, haven’t you? Saved his life, I’d say.”
“Yes, Alexander,” Jamie replied.
“And has he thanked you?”
"N-no, or, rather, that is to say, yes, but—”
“Ah,” said Alexander. “You’re confused. It’s been such a taxing day, and to have such excitement…I think it’s time for us to go home.”
Steve saw it, then—the small crease in Jamie’s brow, only to have the hint of consternation smoothed out moments later. But there was no mistaking that tiny hint of rebellion.
Heaven knew he could sympathize.
“It’s my fault, sir,” Steve said, feeling compelled to help.
“Oh, I’ve no doubt of that,” Alexander snapped, turning on Steve with bright, angry eyes. “Jamie, say goodbye. It’s time we were going. We’ll leave the rest of the party to the hunt.”
“They can’t kill the stag,” Jamie blurted. “Please, Alexander. I promised—”
Alexander’s eyes flicked towards Steve again. “The stag’s a friend of yours, I suppose?”
Steve drew himself up tall and wished he were bigger or stronger. That he could pull horrible Alexander’s sword from his scabbard and cut him down where he sat. Because Steve felt then—as surely as he’d ever felt anything in his short life—that this man was not a good man. Not a safe man. No, this was a man who enjoyed cruelty. Who would use others however he saw fit, so long as they served as a means to his ends.
(Steve, as it happened, was an excellent judge of character.)
“We’ve only just met,” he said, doing his best to use his brains to deflect the brawn. “But I felt very much he’d rather not have his head mounted on your wall.”
“You are aware,” Alexander parried. “That these are royal lands?”
Royal was entirely different from private, and Steve fought to keep himself from looking at Jamie. The king's caretaker was a damn sight different than a man responsible for a private house. "I wasn't," he said. "And anyhow, I wasn't looking for signs when I got lost. Jamie was only helping me find my way home."
“And do you know your way home, now?” Alexander asked, riding closer to Jamie, where he lay a hand on the reins of his horse. Jamie slumped in his seat, and he looked so desperately unhappy that Steve wanted to scream and shout.
Something was not right, though he couldn’t say what, and he didn’t have the opportunity to rectify it now. Not with twenty men so close at hand.
“I do,” he said instead of screaming. “But I wouldn’t have, without Jamie’s assistance, for which I thank him very much.” Turning his attention to Jamie, he did his level best to catch the boy’s eye. “I hope I’ll see you again?”
“Yes—” Jamie began, as Alexander tugged on the reins to guide him away, speaking over whatever he had been about to say.
“I very much doubt so,” Alexander called back over his shoulder.
Steve watched them go, Alexander on one side and Sam on the other.
As Steve turned Star about and headed home (which didn’t seem so bad, now that he’d seen it could be worse), he mulled over his afternoon. Jamie worked for the king—or, rather, he worked for the king’s caretaker. And the king’s caretaker—this Alexander—was a wicked man. It stood to reason, then, that the king might also be wicked if he allowed such a man to flourish in his kingdom.
Jamie shouldn’t be in a place like that, not when he’d done his best to save the stag. Not when he was so frightened of the man who was his master.
There was only one solution Steve could see: Jamie was in dire need of help, and as the only person who understood the situation, Steve really ought to be the one to help him.
Simple enough—he only had to find his way into the palace.
Thank you to everyone leaving sweet comments - they make posting so much fun! Up next: the aftermath at the palace.
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Chapter 6: My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second
James finds his courage. Alexander would rather he didn't.
Alexander Pierce was a precise man with precise demands, who did not appreciate insubordination or ingratitude. Which made it especially galling when the young king in his charge began delivering both to him in spades.
It came in waves, the rebellions. When he had been younger, James had been easier to control. He had wanted to be good, then, while lately, it seemed he only wanted to be trouble. Zola's treatments—once capable of lasting for months at a time, leaving the boy confused and suggestible—had become less and less effective as the king grew older.
Which wasn’t to say they weren’t working, it was only that they had to be administered much more often. Alexander didn't mind that, really, because if he was entirely honest with himself (and God knew he was always honest), he took a perverse pleasure in seeing the king brought so low. In watching him cry, and plead, and beg for it all to be over.
It wasn’t Alexander’s fault James was such a stupid, spoiled child, raised away from Alexander’s influence to believe that he was something special.
He wasn’t special.
But he was useful, for a little while longer, so long as he was compliant.
The hunt should never have been allowed to happen, Alexander realized too late. That strange boy—the disrespectful, small one sitting astride the ragged horse—had gotten into the king’s head. Made him bold and prone to questioning Alexander’s orders.
Alexander didn't do well with being questioned, and yet he was forced to endure, having stupidly sent Zola away on an urgent errand which had kept him from the palace for far too long. The king ought to have had a treatment the moment he came back from the hunt, and yet there they were, days later, the king restless and Alexander at his wit's end, his usual manipulations having virtually no impact on the boy.
So Alexander sent out his swiftest messengers, seeking Zola’s whereabouts and bidding his hasty return. For as useful as the detestable creature was, finding him was always something of a bother.
Until such time as Zola returned, Alexander determined he would have to continue dealing with James in his own fashion. Less potent than Zola's methods, perhaps, but when Alexander put his mind to it, he found he had a particular talent for making the king suffer. He had learned to brawl in his youth, and he knew the power of a well-timed punch or kick. They were especially effective when one’s opponent was already down.
Bruises were easily hidden beneath fine silks and linens, while the reddened remnants of a choking hand could be covered by a cravat. James found there were all sorts of ways to hide his hurts, yet as he parried back and forth with Sam during a practice swordplay session, he wished his friend’s dull blade wouldn’t smack him quite so hard.
After all, he could only hide so many winces.
"That couldn't have hurt!" Sam protested when a poke to the king's stomach had James doubling over in pain. It was the first time James had seen Sam since the hunt, having been whisked away by Alexander nearly as soon as they'd gotten back to the castle.
“M’alright,” James grunted, closing his eyes and doing his level best to breathe. “Caught me funny.”
Sam—with his keen eyes and calm countenance—began to understand, and he lay a careful hand on James’ back. “I think we’re done for the day.”
“Only…” James panted, straightening up and hoping Sam wouldn’t notice the tears in his eyes. “Only because I’ve got the fitting.”
“You’ve always got a fitting.”
Sam wasn't wrong. James—growing ever taller and broader as childhood faded from his features—was subjected to an endless series of sessions with the tailor. The one on that particular morning was for a new suit, cut in a military style, as befitted a proper, grown-up sort of king. This, of course, was because James would be coming of age in the spring, and at such time would be ruling in his own name, rather than under the supervision of his regent.
Meaning that Alexander would no longer be necessary.
As he and Sam made their way to his apartments, James found himself looking forward to that day.
It was strange—he couldn’t recall ever being so angry with Alexander as he had been since the hunt. The man had always been difficult and prone to temper, leaving James ill at ease with him under any circumstances. However, to the best of James’ recollection, he’d never struck him before.
But then, James didn't think he'd ever spoken back to Alexander, or refused an order. Stupid of him to try when Alexander was still much bigger and stronger. A lesson swiftly taught, and not quickly forgotten.
The fight that had precipitated the bruising had been stupid. James had sought permission to find the boy in the woods—to see that he got home safely, and to assure him that no stag had been killed that day.
Alexander had denied the request, citing the relative difficulty of the task. Without a name, there would be no way of finding the boy, and wasn't James selfish, what with the kingdom having much more pressing matters of concern than the whims of its childish king. How very self-serving James was, said Alexander, and wouldn't his father have been so terribly disappointed in him?
James, who remembered nothing of his father, had found his voice, replying that he thought the man might have appreciated him taking an interest in the common folk.
Alexander had silenced him with a slap before knocking him to the ground and kicking him hard enough to leave a bruise on his stomach.
The barrage had continued until James begged him to stop.
“You, my boy, are a disgrace to the memory of your father,” Alexander had spat, before turning on his heel and leaving James alone to nurse his wounds.
The word stayed with him. Disgrace. He didn't mean to be one, it was only that he was worried about the boy in the woods. James thought of him often—that slight, fierce, angry boy, who had shouted at him in a way nobody (save Alexander) had ever dared before. James was fascinated by his righteous rage, the way he'd drawn himself up before informing him precisely what he thought of him and his hunt.
And then, when he’d smiled. James couldn't shake the memory and wished more than anything that he had a name to put with such a wonderful, interesting face.
Yes, James had liked him very much, and now wished to know him better.
“You’re distracted,” Sam teased, their conversation having fallen by the wayside as they reached the royal apartments.
James shrugged, doing his level best not to be sheepish as he began stripping out of his sweaty clothing. “I was only thinking, is all.”
“The hunt,” he admitted.
“Mmm,” Sam smiled, shrugging out of his jacket and perching on his favorite settee. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with the way you ran off, would it?”
“I didn’t run off—you saw that wild horse, same as I did.”
"Oh, I saw the horse," Sam teased. "Saw the rider, too. I suppose he groveled at your feet?"
“No.” James smiled at the memory. “I don’t believe he knew who I was. He shouted at me.”
“Shouted at you?”
“Because we were hunting the stag. He said it was an awful thing to do—that I was awful for doing it.”
Sam grinned. “Don’t know that I agree with that, but if he’d claimed you smelled awful, or looked awful, I’d concur.”
James snorted, before making a show of tossing his damp shirt at Sam’s head, hoping it did smell, on principle. “Anyhow,” he continued. “I think he’s right. What’s the point of hunting for sport? If an animal isn’t useful—”
“You sound like Riley.”
“Riley’s an intelligent man. Pity about his husband.”
“Uncalled for…” Sam trailed off, his barb forgotten as caught James’ arm, pushing up the sleeve of his undershirt. “What’s this?”
James realized a moment too late that the bruises on his arm had turned a mottled purple, visible through the thin fabric.
“Oh, it’s stupid,” he lied. “I fell.”
Sam frowned. “James—”
“Anyway,” James cut him off, his voice a sight too cheerful as he pulled his arm back. “The boy in the woods. I liked him, I think. He was...mmm, strange, I’d say.”
“Strange?” Sam echoed, watching as James’ face softened, his eyes going bright. Strange, indeed. “I wasn’t aware you liked strange boys in the woods.”
“I don’t,” James protested, before realizing he was entirely contradicting himself. “Or, well, I suppose I do, but—”
“What was his name, your stranger?”
“...he neglected to tell me.”
“Hah!” Sam laughed. “Maybe he didn’t like you half so much as you liked him.”
“But I did like him, Sam,” James smiled, crossing to his wardrobe where the tailor had hung the suit for his fitting. “I thought, perhaps, if I weren’t myself, being who I am, he might be a boy I could. Well. Let’s say like, still, and leave it there.”
(Unfortunately, James could be no more nor less than himself: king of a country, duty bound, a fact which of which Sam was hesitant to remind him.)
Their conversation was curtailed by Alexander, who sailed through the doors moments later, the tailor at his heels.
“Not dressed yet, my boy?” Alexander frowned. “We haven’t time to waste.”
Alexander, you see, was in a hurry, because this new suit—this suit cut for a king—was no ordinary suit. It was, in point of fact, the suit James would wear for his official portrait, which he would be sitting for later that same day. Said portrait would hang in the palace when the king came of age, alongside his father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s mother and back and back and back until it was nearly impossible to know who was who.
It was not, however, this portrait that interested Alexander. No, his interest lay in the series of miniatures that would be created from the same sitting. These tiny versions of the larger portrait would be sent with haste to every eligible prince or princess in the neighboring kingdoms, making them aware that King James was soon to wed. It was his duty to marry, after all, and Alexander was bound and determined to see it through, for reasons he did not feel compelled to share with the young king, nor anyone else in his confidence.
“I’m sorry, Alexander,” James replied, buttoning himself into his coat with only a bit of assistance from the tailor. “Sam and I were distracted—I haven’t seen him since the hunt.”
“Oh, the daring rescue,” Alexander said with a most unbecoming snort. “Goodness, my boy, aren’t you tired of talking about that yet?”
James' fingers shook as he slid the last button into place. Sam noticed and thought to himself that he did not care much for Alexander's tone. (Though, that wasn't saying much, as Sam cared very little for Alexander in general.)
“He’s a hero,” Sam laughed. “Why shouldn’t he talk about it? Anyhow, don’t you think it’s good that he spent time with the common people?”
In Sam’s opinion, James could do with a bit more of the common folk, and with quite a lot less of Alexander, who at that moment was choosing not to answer the question, instead sniffing imperiously in the direction of the tailor, who hastened his efforts.
Soon enough, the fitting was finished (though not without a few pins being jabbed where they oughtn't to have been), and James was posing with a rather stupid expression on his face in front of an ornate landscape painting, which would serve a the background of the portrait. He was doing his level best to keep his face neutral and serious, but it was difficult, with Sam making ridiculous jokes at his expense every time he so much as twitched.
For his part, Sam only made the jokes to infuriate Alexander, who could do nothing in retaliation, being as there were no fewer than a half-dozen courtiers in the room, granted the dubious honor of being allowed to watch the young king having his portrait painted.
“For God’s sake,” Alexander snapped, peering over the shoulder of the painter. “He looks like a child. Make him look at though someone might care to marry him.”
James sighed, turning his stiff neck to the side until it cracked. It was difficult to keep one’s temper, being as he was hot and sore and rather tired of posing. “What is the point,” he began, scowling. “Of sending the miniatures out?”
“They will be accompanying the invitations to the winter’s ball, Your Royal Highness.”
“But you said,” James continued. “That there are already two dozen eligible persons who have been issued invitations.”
Alexander gritted his teeth. “Merely Leoman nobility, Your Royal Highness, not foreign royalty. It is customary that we send—”
“But why must I marry someone royal?” James shrugged, as Sam blinked in surprise. Never before had James spoken so out of turn in front of other people. “Perhaps I might prefer someone...local. A soldier. Or a knight.”
“Because knights do not bring alliances,” Alexander said, forcing false cheer into his tone before stepping closer, lowering his voice so only James could hear. “See that you don’t forget to whom you’re speaking, my boy.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” James replied coolly, before speaking out once more, allowing the room to hear him. “It’s only that I don’t see the point of alliances, Alexander. We’re not at war, we’re not in any danger. Why can’t I marry whom I like?”
“Just because we are not now at war, doesn't mean we never will be," Alexander said, by way of explanation, before chuckling and turning to the assembled crowd. "Nervous, I think. But no matter, Your Royal Highness. You are the king, so of course, you will be gracious to your guests. For the good of the kingdom!"
Thinking that over, James twisted in his seat. “Alright, Alexander,” he said. “I can understand that, so—” He looked around the crowded room, understanding perhaps for the first time in his life (that he could remember) what power he wielded. “I’ll meet your royals, so long as every eligible commoner in Leoman is invited to the ball as well.”
The unprecedented idea set the assembled nobles into a tizzy of titters. Alexander, betraying nothing of his rage save for a slight pinking of his cheeks, shook his head. “Your Royal Highness—”
“A most excellent suggestion, Your Royal Highness,” Sam broke in, loudly. “The commoners will sing your praises at this uh...uncommon generosity.”
James did his best to hide his smile, allowing Sam to play up the pomposity as much as he liked if only to further excite the nobles.
“A splendid idea,” said one woman, resplendent in an eggplant-colored gown.
“Marvelous!” said another.
“Indeed. How very magnanimous—just like his father,” replied the second woman’s husband.
Alexander watched as his options for controlling the situation became somewhat limited. Still, he was not a stupid man—he understood that rumors would start, and spread, and that he needed to stay two steps ahead of whatever the king and his tiresome friend were attempting.
Frowning, he considered the situation. Inviting commoners would make the king popular, of that there was no doubt, and a beloved royal was nearly as good as a dead one.
“Of course, your royal highness,” he said after a lengthy pause. “What a marvelous suggestion. We will see to it that the invitations are issued across the length and breadth of the kingdom.”
The proclamation went out the very same day. Alexander waited until the evening to mete out his wrath on James for his insubordination, splitting the boy's lip with a single slap. After all, with the initial work on the portrait done, there was no need to worry about his face.
“I hate you,” James said, tears in his eyes and blood dripping down his chin. “The day I come of age, I’ll have you banished, I swear it.”
“Oh, my boy,” Alexander smiled. “You know so little about the ways of the world. Don’t you understand? You’re no more than a pawn in a better man’s game.”
“I am the king.”
“You are a child.”
James did not have time to reply before Alexander swung his cane with the ease of a man who bears no guilt and shoulders no burdens.
After that, James saw nothing but bright, white stars overhead.
When he woke, he was in his bed, a familiar, horrible, mean little face was hovering above him.
“Ah, Your Royal Highness,” said Zola. “I see you are awake. Alexander tells me you have been terribly unwell in my absence.”
"I haven't," James slurred, though when he struggled to lift his head, he was overcome with a wave of dizziness. "I—"
“Do not worry,” Zola said in a tone that might have been soothing, coming from anyone but him. “It will all be over soon.”
James attempted to fight and found he couldn’t move his arms, his tongue heavy in his mouth.
Zola stepped closer and held out a hand. “Hold still now,” he said, hardly able to contain his delight. “Or I will be forced to make it worse.”
It was nearly four days before James was allowed to see Sam again, with Alexander claiming his illness was far too severe for visitors. When at last he was given permission, James had a page fetch his friend at once, wanting some company for his first meal taken out of bed.
Truthfully, he didn’t have much memory of his sickness, only that he was unsteady on his feet, and had a healing lip along with a tender lump on the side of his head.
“What happened?” Sam asked, indicating his mouth.
“Alexander said I had a fit,” James replied. “That I fell out of bed—split my lip and knocked my head on the floor.”
“Must have been some fit.”
“Alexander says I’m lucky to have survived it at all.”
“Did he, now?” Sam frowned, though anything else he might have thought to say was interrupted by the arrival of their food—something substantial for Sam, and the usual porridge for James, who only ever picked at it.
"The dressmakers and milliners are singing your praises," Sam said after a moment, pushing his food around his plate. James was unusually quiet, in his opinion—calm in a way Sam hadn't seen in some time.
“Oh?” James said. “Why?”
“Because you issued every common person in this kingdom an invitation to the ball, of course,” Sam laughed. “Finery doesn’t happen by magic. There’s been a rush on work—everybody wants a new gown, and those who can’t afford fancy clothes are buying ribbons or hats or…” he trailed off, disconcerted by the blank expression on James’ face.
“Did I do that?” James said, frowning as he mulled it over. “I...yes. I think I remember that. Stupid of me, forgetting.”
Sam forced himself to smile, even as a pang of worry shot straight to his heart, and he gently knocked his boot against James’ bare foot under the table. “Don’t pretend with me,” he teased, though he feared his friend wasn’t pretending. “I’m sure you did it in the hopes that the boy in the woods might attend.”
James smiled a terrible smile, then—an awful, blank thing with nothing at all behind the blue of his eyes, his voice bright but his expression empty.
“What boy in the woods?”
Thank you to everyone reading and following along, especially to those of you leaving comments! Every comment I get makes the sun shine brighter and flowers bloom, or something. (Seriously, it makes my day.)
Up next: gee, I wonder if news of the proclamation is going to get to Steve? Nah, probably not.
Find me on Tumblr at notlucy, where I enjoy yelling about Steve Rogers, daydreaming about Hayley Atwell, and answering every ask I've ever gotten. Swear it.
Also, don't miss Lena's incredible artwork of Pierce here.
Chapter 7: Don't bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words
News of the ball reaches Steve.
On the day King James’ invitation was spread across Leoman, Steve and Natasha happened to have gone to town. Steve—who was nursing a rather nasty cold—had gone to avoid Nick, as he was still giving him the cold shoulder. Natasha, meanwhile, had gone to avoid Clint, as they’d gotten into an argument over something as small as a grain of sand that had ballooned into a squabble the size of a desert.
Being at home whilst one is in a strop with someone is never any fun, so the two of them took their time, picking through the stalls and haggling over prices, as well as stopping to speak with anyone they liked. Natasha had a great many acquaintances, on account of all the secrets she kept, and Steve watched as she japed with the baker, flirted with the bookseller, and bartered with the butcher.
All those secrets, all those whispers—Natasha took them and spun them into a web of her own understanding, teasing them out until they made sense to her. Until they formed a pattern only she could understand.
Steve was normally fascinated by her, but on that afternoon he found himself bored and sullen, with a handkerchief pressed to his nose, body racked by an occasional cough or sneeze. It wasn't fair, being sick so often, and though he knew it was utter nonsense to blame anyone for his ill health, he was still angry. Especially with Nick, who had proclaimed his wild afternoon ride to the woods as the cause of this particular ailment.
Ridiculous. He’d had his coat on, and it hadn’t been especially cold. He’d felt fine in the woods, speaking with Jamie.
And then there was Jamie, who had been on Steve's mind quite a bit since their chance encounter. Sad Jamie, scared Jamie. Steve hadn't forgotten him, he just didn't know what to do about him.
Dawdling and dallying, Steve and Natasha were near the center of the square when a trumpet blew—rather off-key, more of an angry ‘blat’ than a proper proclamation—bringing with it a processional of pompous men in coats of green with the royal crest emblazoned on their uniforms.
“Come on,” Natasha said, taking Steve by the elbow, being as she was content to sink back into the crowd whenever anyone official was nearby.
“Wait…” Steve twisted away, his interest in all things royal piqued ever since he’d met the king’s apprentice caretaker.
“Steve!” Natasha hissed, just as the most terribly officious of the quintet began speaking in a way that indicated he believed himself to be nearly as important as the words he’d been sent to say.
“Hear ye, hear he!” the man shouted, while at the same time unfurling an oversized scroll. “Three months hence from this day, there shall be held a Royal Ball, to take place at The Palace.”
The capital letters, of course, were only implied, but Steve had no doubt they were written down on the paper. A crowd began to form as the man cleared his throat, waiting for what he undoubtedly felt was an appropriate amount of attention. Steve was rudely jostled by a young woman in a fussy yellow dress, and he’d just opened his mouth to tell her where she could stick her parasol when the man began speaking again.
“At this ball,” he continued. “In accordance with royal custom, our beloved and noble King James may choose a partner to wed.”
There was a titter throughout the crowd, and Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes. At the very least, Natasha had stopped pulling at his arm.
“Additionally, King James has decreed that all eligible persons within the kingdom—noble or commoner—are invited to attend.”
A veritable squeal of delight went up from the woman in yellow, as whispers began to pass from body to body.
Steve, meanwhile, lit up with something warm and wonderful.
A royal ball.
At the palace.
Which anyone could attend.
Surely he’d be able to find Jamie among the throng—apprentices were just as eligible as commoners, weren’t they? Steve could speak to him, find a way to help him. To convince him that there was another life outside of the palace and away from the influence of the horrid man who’d seemed to frighten him so much.
(And if it was mad, to wish to run away with a boy he’d only just met, well, Steve was rather young, and those who are young are allowed to be foolish.)
“So it is commanded!” the herald shouted over the din. “By our most gracious and adored king!”
Steve wasn’t sure about gracious or adored, but he certainly felt grateful for the opportunity, even if he still had his suspicions about the man himself.
Natasha’s hand fell to his wrist, her eyes bright and cheeks gone pink with excitement as she pulled him. “Come along, Steve,” she whispered. “We’ve got to get home.”
“What?” Steve laughed, pulling his wrist back. “What does it matter to you? You’re married.”
Natasha fixed Steve with such a fierce look that it sent a quake through him, right down to the soles of his feet. Apparently, he’d said something stupid.
“Let’s go,” she snapped.
There was no arguing with that tone, and Steve had plans of his own to make, so he followed behind her, ducking and weaving through the crowd until they burst out the other side and scurried towards home.
“Nick!” Natasha called the moment they were through the front door. “Clint!” (That one was more of a bellow, meant to reach him regardless of which rafter he might be hiding atop.)
Steve hung back by the door, blending into the shadows. Listening, the way he always did. The way he’d been taught to do.
“What’s all the fuss—” Nick began, stepping into the entryway.
"They're opening up the palace!" Natasha cut him off, giddy with the news. Steve had never seen her giddy and found it most disconcerting. "They're opening up the palace, Nick. There’s going to be a ball.”
“There often are.”
“They’re inviting commoners,” she said. “The king will be there—he never attends. You understand? Any eligible person—”
“Why?” Nick said, suspicion coloring his tone.
“I don’t know,” Natasha said, waving her hand idly. “Some stupid thing about the king choosing a spouse—as though he’d ever choose a commoner. It doesn’t matter, though. This is the best chance we’ve ever had to get close to Pier…”
Trailing off, she glanced over her shoulder at Steve, who scowled.
“What’s going on?” Clint asked, vaulting over the railing of the rickety staircase to land near Nick.
“They’re opening up the palace,” Nick and Natasha said in unison.
“Pardon?” Clint cupped a hand around his bad ear.
“They’re opening up the palace,” Steve shouted, all three of their heads turning to look at him as he strode forward. “And I wish the three of you would stop pretending I’m stupid.”
“We don’t—” Natasha began.
“You do,” Steve snapped, allowing the anger buried down deep to bubble up to the surface. To let them know precisely what he thought of all their secrets. “My entire life, you three have been whispering in the dark where you think I can’t hear you. Nick, with all your missions. Natasha, all your stories. Clint, you’re always watching. But I watch, too!”
Drawing in a ragged breath, Steve found himself struggling to breathe around the stuffy nose and the phlegm in his throat. Damn cold.
“I have secrets!” he continued, ignoring their shocked faces. “I know things, too. I could help, but you treat me like I’m nothing. Like I’m too small and young to know what you’re doing, and maybe I don’t know everything, but I know some things. I could help. I want to—”
He never made it through the last sentence, the fight going out of him with a whimper as a spasm of coughing racked his frame, doubling him over with his hands on his knees. Natasha moved closer, putting her palm on his back as he hacked and gasped for air.
His head hurt. He was dizzy.
He very much hated being sick.
The next thing Steve knew, he was in bed, moonlight casting a thin spill of light across his quilt. When he tried to move, he found he couldn’t—there was something heavy on his legs, pinning them down.
Struggling to sit up, he found Natasha laid across his lower half, fast asleep.
He nudged her once. Nudged her twice. Gave her a kick so she grunted.
“What happened?” he asked as she sat up, his voice accusatory.
“You shouted yourself sick,” she replied, muzzy with sleep as she pushed her curls away from her face. “Coughed until you fell over, and Clint carried you up here.”
Steve remembered at once—the proclamation, the promise of the ball. The fight. The bitterness roiling in his stomach. “Oh. I suppose the three of you were pleased, then? Got me out of the way so you could keep your secrets.”
“So dramatic,” Natasha scoffed. “And here I was, ready to talk…”
That shut Steve up and he blinked, wide-eyed. “What?”
“Steve…” she sighed, reaching out to lay a hand on his chest with a frown on her face. “Before I tell you, you have to promise me something.”
Steve—raised as he had been by Nick and Natasha in equal measure—was not prone to making promises without understanding. He didn’t fancy the idea of giving something up in exchange for knowledge, just in case the knowledge gained wasn’t worth the price he paid.
“Promise me you’ll let us manage it,” she said. “The difficult parts, at least.”
Steve scowled and pushed her hand away before sitting against the pillows and crossing his arms over his chest. “I won’t promise anything until I know what it is.”
Natasha’s lips pressed into a thin line, and she raised an eyebrow. “Then I suppose you and I are at an impasse.”
The brick wall of Steve’s stubbornness met the immovable object of Natasha’s, then, and the two of them sat for what felt like an age, staring one another down.
“Oh, Steve,” Natasha snapped eventually. “You absolute ass.”
Damn it. Steve was going to smile. He just knew it. The horrid certainty building up around his jaw and his chin. The turn of his lips and damn, damn, damn, there it was.
Natasha smiled as well, shrugging her shoulders and finally dropping her defenses. “I do love you, you know,” she sighed. “So I suppose I can trust that you’ll be...prudent, with what I’m going to tell you.”
“I can promise to try,” Steve offered, which just made Natasha purse her lips.
“You know,” she said. “Before all of this, I was training as a Knight of the Whispers. With Nick.”
“I hadn’t been at the palace very long when it happened—when the prince was born.”
Natasha could be hard to follow at the best of times, and Steve had to wonder if she was being deliberately obtuse now, to throw him off. “The prince?”
“He’s the king now—King James. When he was born, he came early. Those who saw him said he was ill. Small and very sick. None of us ever met him, and they never had a baptism—there were rumors he’d been sent away to convalesce.”
“Oh,” Steve said. “That’s sad.”
“It was,” Natasha agreed. “Everyone assumed he would die, of course. So another heir had to be produced. It took some time, and we’d left the service of the royal family in the interim, but the queen fell pregnant again.”
“But there’s no princess.” Even Steve—who had never cared much for scholarly pursuits—knew that.
“No, there isn’t,” Natasha agreed. “The queen and the babe—it was a girl—they both died in childbed.”
Another sad story, though Steve still wasn’t sure what any of it meant.
“The old king—King George—he was driven mad with his grief,” Natasha continued. “And the very same night his wife died, he took his own life. Poison, they said.”
“Poison?” Steve frowned.
“Poison,” Natasha repeated.
“I don’t see what any of this has to do with—”
“Now, we only knew this from hearsay and speculation, at the time,” Natasha continued. “As I said, Nick had been dismissed some years before, ostensibly under orders from King George, though he’s never truly believed that. I had only been training for two years when Nick was driven from his order like a trespasser, a vagabond, a…”
Natasha’s voice was shaking with rage, and Steve reached out a hand to lay it on her knee. He had never seen her so angry—her temper like a burning flame of bright blue, hotter and fiercer than any fury he’d ever felt within himself.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a moment. “It’s only, well, when I think about how they treated him, Steve, I…” Natasha cleared her throat and blinked twice, smiling in that way people do when they are trying their very hardest to school their emotions. “The three of us, we came here. And we set to work—Nick trained us to make us useful.”
“Mmm,” she nodded, her voice dropping low. “Nick has never believed that King George took his own life. Because you see, there was a man—an interloper from the House of Pierce in the kingdom of Cinnair. The king was strangely taken with him and became reliant on his advice. Made this man, this Pierce, his most senior advisor."
Steve frowned, his sharp mind beginning to fit the convoluted story together. One king dead, and a boy king rises. No more than a child—a malleable child. “So…” he began slowly. “You believe Pierce—the interloper—that he killed the king? The old king.”
“Yes,” Natasha said, solemn as Steve had ever seen her.
“To what end?” Smart as a whip, Steve worked it out for himself. “To control the new king, I suppose. The boy—the one who was sick.”
“Yes.” Natasha was smiling now. “You see how it all fits together.”
“Yes, but…” he trailed off, frowning. “Why would he bother to keep the boy alive? If this man was staging a coup, wouldn’t he have killed the boy, along with his father?”
“That is the question,” Natasha agreed, leaning closer. “And our conundrum. We haven’t ever been able to figure out why. For years, we’ve been attempting to infiltrate the palace, yet all I’ve ever gotten out of anyone are rumors and speculation. This Pierce trusts no-one and nothing. He keeps the king firmly under his thumb—likely by the same means as his father. Whether that means the king believes in Pierce’s lies, or it’s more nefarious than that, I couldn’t say. But—”
“But you think you can use the ball,” Steve realized. “To infiltrate further.”
“Yes.” Natasha paused, her eyes bright as she studied him. “Fury is loyal to the king and the king’s family. He swore his oath to them, not to Pierce. You understand? If they were wronged, then we must put it right.”
“For the good of the kingdom.”
“Yes,” she said. “Nick swore fealty.”
“I’m loyal to Nick,” she replied. “I owe him my life. I don’t know this king—I owe him nothing. But if this is what Nick is asking of me—if this is our chance, his chance. Then we have to take it. You understand?”
Steve nodded, his frown deepening.
“We didn’t tell you, because—”
“Because you think I’m useless.”
“No!” The rebuke was sharp, and Natasha’s hand moved quick as a snake, taking him by the chin and giving him a shake. “Because when you were left here, Nick swore another oath. He made a promise to the woman who left you, that he would keep you safe. And so he has, even though you seem bound and determined to put yourself in danger.”
An oath sworn to Peggy that Steve hadn't known existed. Of course, nobody would have thought to tell him. Would have thought it better to leave him ignorant, as Steve lived his life sheltered and swaddled, taught only what he needed to know to defend himself, but not how to start the fight or swing the sword. Never how to bring down the enemy with a mighty roar, only to cower in the shadows, safe and secure.
“He ought to have told me,” he said, his voice dark as Natasha released her grip on his chin.
“Maybe,” Natasha agreed. “But Nick’s never been very good at that. I suppose I haven’t either.”
“You learned from the best,” Steve said, a touch bitterly. “But I can appreciate an oath. A promise. And I understand now, that he’s seeking to right a wrong done not just to him, but to the king and the kingdom.”
"Yes," Natasha agreed, her brow furrowing slightly. She'd been expecting Steve's wrath, and instead, she'd been met by pragmatism and understanding. "Thank you, I—"
“I’ll make you a promise,” Steve continued, as though she hadn’t spoken at all. “That promise you asked for. I’ll swear my own oath.”
"Give me a moment," he said. "I won't interfere with your plan. I'll let you manage the...doing of it. But I'd like to help if I can. You're always telling me that I'm smart, so perhaps I can help you think it through, even if I'm not participating."
Natasha’s expression softened, and a smile crossed her face as she reached out and squeezed his hand. “I’d like that. I think we’d all like that. I’m sorry we kept it from you, we were only worried…”
“That I’d go off half-cocked and do something silly?” he teased. “You were helping Nick keep his word. I understand that.”
Steve didn’t blame her, not really. She had been no more and no less than herself—loyal to Nick, and all his promises.
That was alright. Steve could keep promises, too.
Yes, he would help them make their plan, then he would step back and allow them to execute it. He had no need to interfere—it wasn’t his fight. Wasn’t his oath.
Steve’s reasons for going to the palace were entirely separate from theirs, and they didn’t need to know about his own plans. His own schemes. And when he turned up on the night of the ball, ready to attend but not interfere, they’d have no choice but to allow him to attend.
After all, he’d be staying out of their way. Just as he’d promised. All he would really need was a place in their carriage and the opportunity to speak to Jamie.
Nick's oath was to the king and everything he represented.
Steve’s oath was to himself and the lonely young man he’d encountered in the woods.
(And wouldn’t James have been shocked, in truth, to know that there were so many people in the world who cared so much for his well-being?)
Thank you for reading! Up next: James meets a potential suitor, but it's not Steve.
Find me on Tumblr at notlucy and say hello!
Chapter 8: My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first
James entertains a visitor.
Sam had been correct in stating that dressmakers and milliners throughout the kingdom were praising the name of King James. However, he conveniently ignored that those employed by the palace were much more inclined to be cursing him.
(Under their breaths, of course—he was the king, after all.)
For you see, by having the proclamation issued in his name, King James had rather befuddled his staff, throwing them into a tizzy and thoroughly upsetting the apple cart. There was a Way Things Were Done, and so things were always done in such a way. What, after all, is the point of order if one cannot keep it?
The first and foremost Royal Steward, in particular, stewed for days, attempting to work out how many people were likely to attend. Répondez s'il vous plaît, in his opinion, was not a request but a requirement when planning a ball, yet it seemed unlikely that milkmaids and stable boys all across the land would be indicating their plans for attendance. As such, he had proposals written for five hundred as well as five thousand before throwing up his hands in defeat and leaving the rest of the staff to pick up the pieces.
It was not going especially well, though nobody liked to say so, in case it upset the king, who was apparently feeling rather poorly.
The Royal Chef ran out of flour in his attempts to bake the perfect cake.
The Royal Butler fretted daily over whether or not the additional casks of wine would arrive.
The Royal Housekeeper wept nightly over the copious pile of napkins needing to be starched.
Finally, there was a rumor going about—after an under-gardener accidentally beheaded a prize-winning topiary—that the Royal Footman found the Royal Gardener drowning his sorrows in the potting shed, where he was deep in his cups and also one of the Royal Scullery maids.
(But that, my darlings, was only scandal and hearsay, and one should not always believe such rumors.)
King James would have been quite distressed to realize that he’d caused such a fuss, but considering he was pinned firmly under Alexander’s thumb, trotted out like a prized pet when the occasion called for his presence, he had no understanding of the madness happening mere floors below his own.
As the days grew closer to the ball, James signed a hundred decrees and watched as Alexander mediated countless disputes. If anyone had been allowed to get close to him (and, mind, nobody was), they would have seen that his eyes were dull, glassy and at times confused, as though he’d forgotten where he was, or why.
Sam fretted, but even he was kept at a distance, out of Alexander’s professed concern for the king’s frail health. According to Alexander, his royal highness would so hate to have to miss the ball, and therefore, it was vital that he rest as much as possible, with Zola on hand to administer treatments as necessary.
It just so happened that a treatment was required on the eve of the day that marked one week before the ball. James needed to be in his right mind on that day because there was to be an early arrival—a royal arrival—from the Kingdom of Cinnair.
The Kingdom of Cinnair was Leoman’s neighbor to the north—something of a poor relation, with a history of war and strife that left her fields barren and her people grim and grey. Life in Cinnair was not easy, though with Leoman’s aid a peace had been struck nearly a century earlier, and the relationship between the two kingdoms had been strained yet cordial ever since.
To keep that peace, the king of Cinnair had sent his son as an emissary, to meet King James, and to attend the ball.
Brock—for that was the name of Cinnair’s prince—thought himself a charming man. At four-and-twenty, he was a stranger to marriage, though not to love, being as he’d discovered early that his position brought with it certain perquisites, shall we say. In truth, Brock was rather stupid, quickly swayed towards what was easy rather than what was right. Any moral fortitude he might once have held was whittled away by a series of mollycoddling governesses and tutors, who indulged any and every whim he had. His father, conversely, saw him as no more than a useful tool in his toolbox. So, when he sent Brock to Leoman, he informed him that his sole job was to win over the king. To beguile him and seduce him the way he’d beguiled and seduced so many chambermaids and footmen before him.
If he did not, the king had said, he would find his life much changed upon arriving home. Perhaps even passed over for his younger brother when it came to the line of succession.
For all that he was dim, Brock grasped that meaning and determined to himself that he would fail neither his father nor his kingdom, though he’d never given much thought to the wellbeing of the latter before. Pride in one’s homeland was hard to come by when you never looked much beyond the nose on your face.
When Brock arrived, after a tumultuous journey that left him with a sore backside from so many jolts and jostles along the way, he was met by the regent—a man formerly of Cinnair, his father had said—at the gates of the palace. This regent, Alexander, clapped Brock on the back in an overly familiar fashion, welcoming him to Leoman before showing him to his rooms.
After that, Alexander showed him to the king, leading him from the guest wing down the opulent hallways towards the royal apartments. As he took in the splendor around him, Brock decided his own palace was rather dull, and that marrying this young king would be no great hardship, so long as he could live part of the year in a place like this.
“I’m afraid the king has been unwell, Your Grace,” Alexander explained, as Brock studied an ornate tapestry that appeared to be woven with gold, causing him to wonder if it was possible to spin gold into thread. (This particular concern would go on to preoccupy him for some time, being as he never thought to speak with a weaver.)
“Unwell?” Brock echoed, momentarily distracted.
“Indeed, but I’ve no doubt he’ll be cheered by your company.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” Brock said because it seemed like the sort of thing one ought to say about an illness.
“Oh, we’re used to it,” Alexander said, turning to him with a serious sort of expression. “He’s been sick since he was a boy. I hope you understand that if you were to marry him, you’d be taking on that burden.”
Brock's eye caught on a massive golden urn, sat high on a shelf, and he smiled with all his teeth. "Sir," he said, feeling very benevolent indeed. "I'm certain that I'm equal to the task.”
Alexander lay a hand on Brock’s arm, looking for all the world as though he might cry, the sight of it sending Brock’s skin crawling with a million panicked little bugs, horrified at the thought that he might have to comfort the man.
“We are so...very pleased, to have you here,” Alexander managed, clearing his throat before turning towards the doors.
Brock, of course, couldn’t see the way Alexander’s expression cleared immediately, or the slight smile that crept onto his face. Yet there it was, all the same.
James, who was still recovering from the previous evening’s treatment, hadn’t been expecting visitors. His head had been sore all day, so he’d been dozing on a divan. As Alexander pushed into the room, he was startled awake by the doors swinging open.
He sat up quickly, finding himself face-to-face with his regent and a handsome stranger whose gaze fixed fast upon him.
“Oh dear,” Alexander said. “Your Royal Highness, we...assumed you’d be dressed by now.”
Had he been supposed to have gotten dressed? James pulled the too-big nightshirt he was wearing back up onto his shoulder and frowned, adjusting the blanket on his lap. He did forget things, but usually, if he had an engagement, a valet would come to dress him.
“I’m sorry, Alexander—”
“You see,” Alexander tutted, turning to the stranger as though James wasn’t in the room. “He forgets.”
The stranger nodded, looking quite concerned and taking a step forward. “Your Highness,” he said, a half-smile on his face.
“But of course, you haven’t been properly introduced,” Alexander said. “Your Royal Highness, this is His Grace Prince Brock of the House of Rumlow and the Kingdom of Cinnair.”
“Cinnair,” James repeated, blinking. “Are you here for the ball?”
"Yes, your highness," Brock said. Goodness, but he was a small king—pale and sallow, with circles under his eyes and lank hair that could do with washing. "It's my very great pleasure to make your acquaintance."
“But the ball isn’t until next week,” James said, frowning and squinting. “Isn’t it?”
“There’s no cause for rudeness,” Alexander chided. “Prince Brock has traveled all this way just to spend some time with you, at your behest, mind, and this is how you treat him?”
“He has? I...I’m sorry, but I can’t recall.”
“You issued him a special invitation,” Alexander said slowly, before casting an apologetic glance at Brock and shrugging as if to say you see? You see how he is? “It’s no matter, I suppose. Why don’t I leave the two of you alone—give you the chance to come better acquainted.”
Brock, who had been made to feel slightly uncomfortable by the slow, growing confusion of this boy, thought that was a capital idea. Time alone would give him a chance to charm, to flirt, to ensnare, just as he'd been instructed.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling at Alexander, who returned the expression before stepping out and allowing Brock to shut the door behind him.
After that, there was nothing for it but facing the young king, who was studying him carefully, as if trying to place him.
“I believe I’ve seen a miniature of you,” James said after a moment’s careful consideration.
Ill and forgetful, perhaps, but not stupid.
“Yes, your highness,” Brock said with a rueful smile. “My father’s been sending them out for years, hoping I’d finally settle down.”
“Oh.” The king offered him a small smile. “Alexander’s the same. Or he has been recently.”
“It’s a shame,” Brock said, hoping to find some common ground. “Not being able to choose for ourselves. Takes the shine off a romance, don’t you think?”
The king frowned, his nightshirt slipping again as he shifted his position. He was pretty, at least—slim, with delicate features and full lips. Marrying him wouldn’t be a hardship, so far as that sort of thing mattered. A few good meals and a tumble or two would set him right, ill or not.
“I suppose I’ve never given much thought to romance,” the king said. “Alexander’s always saying I’ll marry for the kingdom.”
“Still, it’s a shame, your highn—”
“You can call me James if you like.”
Caught a bit off-guard by the forthrightness, Brock laughed—a genuine laugh, not one born from calculation or conceit. “James, then. Will you do the same and call me Brock?”
“Yes, of course,” James replied, before gesturing to a chair set close to his divan. “Please, sit. There’s no need for ceremony here.”
Brock was glad for the respite after his long day, though he did wince as he took his seat. The chair didn’t have much in the way of cushioning.
“What’s wrong?” asked James, alarmed.
“It’s been a long few days of traveling,” he explained. “Makes a man feel he’s worn his backside down to nothing more than a saddle sore.”
(And so what if he hadn’t been precisely on a saddle. His arse still smarted from the carriage seat well enough.)
“I’m sorry. You must be awfully tired—please don’t feel you have to stay and keep me company.”
A solicitous boy—Brock could appreciate that. “Nonsense. I’m enjoying your company.”
The king’s slight smile widened, his cheeks going red at the small, insignificant compliment.
“Thank you. I’m sorry I’m not dressed.”
“You’re sick,” Brock laughed, waving the apology away as though it were nothing at all. “When I’m sick, I scarcely want to get out of bed, much less receive visitors.”
“All the same,” James shrugged. “I’m hoping to be better for the ball, though. I’d like to be able to dance.”
“Are you a good dancer?”
The king’s smile faded, and he thought about it for longer than was warranted by so simple a question. “I think so. That is to say, I can remember dancing, but not any specific occasion on which I danced.”
Stranger and stranger. Brock smiled anyway. “But you liked it?”
“Yes.” James nodded emphatically. “Very much.”
“Then I hope you’ll save a dance for me.”
Looking down at his hands, James twisted his fingers together and smiled. “Yes. I’d like that.”
Brock, to his very great surprise, found that he quite enjoyed James, though he hardly knew him. There was something appealing in his very way of being—an attractive quality that was hard to quantify, but one that set people at ease and made them want to know him better. From the way Alexander had spoken, he’d been expecting an invalid or an idiot—a gormless, simpering child who could barely string a sentence together. James wasn’t that. A sick young man, perhaps, but a well-bred one.
“What else do you like, James?” he asked, leaning closer, pleased when the king’s face went a bit pinker.
“I like to ride my horse when I’m well enough,” he said after a moment’s consideration. “And I like going to the mews. My friend, Sam, he’s the falconer here, so I help him with the birds sometimes.”
“A falconer? We haven’t one of those in Cinnair. I’d like to meet this Sam and his birds.”
“Oh yes, of course,” James agreed, sitting up further, his eyes bright as he spoke about the birds. “They’re wonderful. My favorite, she’s named Redwing.”
“Let me guess,” Brock teased. “She has red wings?”
“Yes, and she’s vicious,” James grinned. “She’s wonderful.”
“And when you’re not with your horse or your birds?”
“They’re Sam’s birds,” James said quickly.
“They’re royal birds,” Brock corrected, only to have the king’s face fall, which hadn’t been his intention. “That is to say, you’re the king, so everything here is yours, isn’t it?”
A crease appeared on James’ forehead, and he shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m only the caretaker.”
Humility, as it happened, was a virtue Brock greatly admired, being as we often admire in others things we lack in ourselves. “That’s one way to think about it,” he agreed.
“I serve my people. If anything, the birds are theirs.”
“I’d give my left arm to see a stable girl or a page boy trying to tame a falcon,” Brock teased.
“Well,” James laughed, going a very particular shade of pink that Brock found beguiling. “We do have Sam for a reason.”
Brock grinned, then reiterated his desire to meet the falconer. That led to a series of questions about Sam—his husband, his life, the time James spent in his home and the food they ate there. They talked about what sorts of foods James liked, as well as the other small things in his life that gave him pleasure. Brock found his company to be continually charming, even when at times he couldn't recall certain things. It was odd, Brock decided, how what he could and couldn't remember seemed to have no form or fashion, as though someone had simply scooped out vast swaths of his memories while leaving others intact. A strange illness, indeed.
“I’m certain I’ve read it…” James protested at one point when he couldn’t quite remember how his favorite story concluded.
“No matter,” said Brock.
Then, later, over a game of chess. “Oh, it’s the, the…”
“The knight?” Brock supplied.
“Yes, the knight.” Perplexed, James held the piece up to his eye. “How could I have forgotten it’s called a knight?”
Later still, whilst discussing their youth and childhood. “My mother had...blonde, no brown...I remember…” James shook his head. “Her name was Winifred.”
“It’s a lovely name,” Brock replied politely.
Eventually, after nearly two hours spent in one another’s company, supper was served. James, with his terrible constitution, had what looked to Brock’s eye like porridge, while he’d been given heartier fare. They ate together at a small table under the largest window, James insisting he was well enough to sit up and eat a meal properly.
(Brock turned his back as the king put on his trousers. It seemed only polite.)
The food was excellent, and Brock ate his fill, though James just picked at what was in his bowl.
“You won’t get well, eating like that,” Brock chided.
“Oh,” James said, offering him an apologetic smile. “I suppose I’m not hungry.”
“Hungry or not, you ought to eat,” he said. “I’ll give you a gift if you do.”
James perked up, curiosity written on his face as he did as he was told. It struck Brock that perhaps he wasn’t half as sick as he let on—or wouldn’t be if he ate proper meals. Maybe it was only that he had been spoiled or coddled, used to getting his way when he refused to eat or took on some other whim or fancy.
Yes, the king might only need to be handled—not indulged the way Alexander obviously had been indulging him—and all would be well.
“Wonderful, James,” Brock praised, once his plate was nearly clean.
James beamed, looking at Brock with a raw openness that might have caused a more intuitive man to wonder why it was that he soaked up the praise like a sponge. Brock, however, saw himself as having been correct in thinking motivation and a bit of guidance could cure a myriad of ailments.
“You said…” James trailed off, biting his lip.
“I did.” Brock rose to his feet and went to the other side of the table, where he leaned down to press the lightest of pecks to the king’s pale cheek. “There,” he said, as he straightened back up. “How do you like that?”
James lifted his hand to touch the spot Brock’s lips had brushed and shrugged, looking at him with a glimmer of something in his eyes. “I think I might like it better if you did it as we were dancing.”
Brock laughed, pleased with the response, and he raised an eyebrow at James before folding his arms across his chest. “Let’s see if you can’t earn another one first, Your Royal Highness.”
James had just opened his mouth to reply when the doors swung open, unbidden. This was something entirely foreign to Brock, who had lived his entire life surrounded by people who knocked.
“Ah, wonderful,” said Alexander (for of course it was Alexander). “I see you’ve finished supper. I apologize for staying away so long, Your Grace. You must be tired.”
“Has it been so long?” Brock smiled. “The time’s flown by. Hasn’t it, James?”
James, whose smile had faded the moment Alexander came through the doors, nodded, and though Brock was too preoccupied to notice, anyone else might have seen that his hands had begun to shake in his lap. (Brock, you see, was quite good at noticing the things that benefited him directly, but rather dense about everything else.)
“There’s a page outside,” Alexander said, ushering Brock towards the doors. “He’ll show you back to your rooms. Say goodnight, Your Royal Highness.”
“Goodnight,” said James, Brock failing to hear the tremor in his voice.
“Goodnight,” Brock replied, turning to give the boy what he hoped was his most dashing smile. “I hope to see you again soon.”
As the doors shut behind him, Brock couldn’t keep the grin off his face. When his father had insisted he take this journey—win over this king—he’d assumed some nefarious intent or ulterior motive. Why else would his father place such great importance on him doing his duty for king and country?
But James—James would be no bother. Brock was sure he could fix him. Shape him. Make him into an asset for the sake of both their kingdoms.
Marrying James wouldn’t be any trouble for him at all.
Thanks to everyone reading and leaving comments, kudos, and other love! Next week brings the ball. Or, at least, the preparations on Steve's side.
Find me on Tumblr at notlucy. Heads up that I'll be starting to post my Cap Big Bang fic this week, but Small Star will continue to post on Saturdays, right on schedule.
Chapter 9: Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time
Steve does his level best to carry out his plan, with a few complications.
The day of the ball dawned bright and cold, the frigid morning air causing Steve to pull his toes right back under his warm blanket as he turned on his side to face the window, which was spidered with a shimmering frost, the fractals sending shafts of sunlight dancing across his bed.
Eventually, when he thought he could just about manage the cold, he sat up, stretching his arms above his head. His fingers brushed the paper star—as they did every morning—a ritual performed in remembrance of those not-quite-forgotten.
“Today’s the day,” he mumbled as he got to his feet, hopping from one foot to the other in an attempt to keep warm while he searched out a pair of cozy, woolen socks, knitted for him by Clint, who had a deft touch with that particular handicraft.
Clint was not, however, the only person in the household who had skill with a needle. Steve’s fingers were perhaps even more deft and nimble, and as such, he’d been preparing for the ball for weeks. Sewing in secret—taking every nice thing he’d ever been given, most of them hand-me-downs, ripping and remaking them into something he thought befitting a person attending a ball. Not a high-born prince or duke, but a merchant’s son, perhaps. Someone worthy of consideration, at least, who might weave his way through the assembled crowd to seek out a caretaker’s apprentice without seeming out of place.
The clothes he’d crafted lay within his trunk, tucked in beside the small suit of blue velvet sewn by his mother.
Upon descending the attic stairs, Steve found the house in an uproar. Or, rather, Natasha was in as much of an uproar as Steve had ever seen her, passing by with a scowl on her face, her hair bound up in rags to tame her curls into something manageable rather than the usual wild tangle.
“Don’t laugh,” she said when she saw him on the landing.
“I’m not laughing!”
“Then make yourself useful and fetch some eggs from the coop—we’re starving, and you’ve been laying about all morning.”
Any sharp retort Steve might have had to her bossiness was bitten back when he remembered that he still needed to be in Nick and Natasha’s good graces for the part of his plan that involved journeying with them to the palace. Granted, they didn’t know about any part of his plan yet, but once they understood, surely they’d allow him a place in their carriage.
So, he fetched the eggs and cooked breakfast, watching as Nick, Natasha, and Clint wolfed it down before going back to their endless planning and preparation.
The plan was for Natasha and Clint to attend the ball together, whilst Nick waited in the carriage, posing as their driver. Natasha and Clint had only been children when they’d been forced from the palace at Nick’s side, so while it was unlikely anyone would recognize them, Nick’s visage would be more than familiar to a fair few folk inside.
Once within the palace, they would use their cunning to learn what they could, and if they were caught they were to pretend to be no more than a canoodling young couple, wandering somewhere they oughtn't. No more, and no less than the throes of passion.
It wasn’t a terrible plan, as plans went. Steve had commended it on them several times, and not just because he felt he ought to flatter them.
As the day wound towards dusk, there was a palpable buzz of tension in the air while the trio dressed, beginning with Natasha, who had the most to do.
Her dress was beautiful—a deep, rich velvet, the color of moss on a rock in a stream—and it set off her perfectly pinned curls, which she had piled atop her head and caught in a clasp. She'd even gone so far as to rouge her cheeks and paint her lips, which Steve thought made her look lovely, if something of a stranger.
“You look beautiful,” Clint informed her.
“I hate this,” Natasha replied.
Clint's suit complemented her dress perfectly. He was dashing in one of Nick's old uniforms, recut and recolored until it was unrecognizable. It came as something of a shock to see him looking so polished, being as his clothing was usually stained or torn from some mishap, and Steve caught him preening in the looking glass when he passed their room.
When the three of them were nearly ready, Steve went to dress, knowing he would have to be hasty in order to surprise them all with his plan.
Only when he reached his room and opened his trunk, the clothing he’d worked so hard on was nowhere to be found.
“No,” he said, disbelieving as he slammed the lid shut. His heart began to hammer, rage building in his chest. “No!”
Taking the stairs two at a time, he burst into Natasha and Clint’s room in a wrath, pointing an accusatory finger at her, because it had to be her. “What did you do?”
Natasha, who had been holding onto Clint’s shoulder as she slid her feet into her shoes, looked up with a frown. “You broke your promise.”
Rising to her full height, Natasha gave him such an imperious look that Steve very nearly quailed and shrunk back before forcing himself to stand his ground.
“You said you wouldn't interfere, and then you went behind my back,” Natasha said icily. “As though I wouldn’t notice what you were sewing in secret.”
“I wasn’t interfering!” Steve said, hating that his lower lip was beginning to shake, his grand ideas dashed on the ground. “I don’t care about your stupid plan—I only want to go with you so I can see my friend!”
Natasha and Clint exchanged a skeptical glance, which only served to stoke the fire in Steve’s heart. “You have a friend at the palace?”
“Yes,” Steve snapped. “A boy. An apprentice. I met him in the woods, and I only—I only want to see him again. I thought perhaps you could bring me with you—”
“Why?” he shouted.
“Because we’ve work to do, and I won’t spend my night looking after you. Not after you lied to us, all this time. Concealing—”
Steve hated Natasha at that moment, and he told her as much. “I hate you.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “I suppose I might hate me, too, if I were you. But this is for your own good, Steve. There are strange things—”
“I hate you," he shouted again, somewhat disinclined towards rational arguments or sound reason.
Natasha paused, a small, sad smile on her face. “I know. I do hope you won’t hate me for always. But I don’t mind if you hate me for tonight.”
Steve wanted to scream. Wanted to wail. Wanted to fly at her with his fists and his fury. Tear her lovely dress to pieces and see how she liked having her plans thrown to the ground and stomped on.
“I’m sorry,” Clint said, breaking the silence between them. “Steve, I’m—”
“You two planning on making an appearance?” Nick’s voice called to them from downstairs.
Clint cast Steve another apologetic glance before heeding Nick’s call. Natasha hesitated, opening her mouth as if she had something else to say, before closing it rather abruptly and pushing past Steve, skirts swirling around her ankles.
Steve stood alone and let himself think of all the things he should like to say to her. All the horrible, twisted, mean words that he could use if he followed her down the stairs and shouted them after the carriage.
But, of course, he wouldn't. Because he wasn't that sort of person, and in his heart, he knew that Natasha was no bully. She was merely doing what she thought was best, and what she thought was best was keeping Steve from being anywhere near the palace that night.
(Fate, as it happened, had other plans, but it was good of her to try, all the same.)
Steve didn’t bid them goodnight. Instead, he snuck into the darkness of the stable and lay with Lucky in his bed of fresh straw, watching as Clint and Natasha climbed into the carriage pulled by all four horses. Nick, sitting on the driver’s seat, looked splendid in a fine frock coat and a hat with a brim wide enough to leave his face shadowed, in case someone was looking closely.
As they left the yard, Steve cried into Lucky’s fur, feeling useless and stupid and terribly, terribly young. Once again dismissed, overlooked, and ignored.
It was only when he’d been alone for quite some time that he heard it. Something moving in the dark. Sitting up, Steve squinted into the darkness, seeing what he had not been able to see before.
A person was sleeping in one of the empty stalls, the rising and falling of their chest more than obvious now that Steve knew where to look. Curious, indeed—he was sure he’d been alone.
“Hello?” he called. Perhaps a wiser boy would have been nervous, but Steve was nobody’s fool.
The lump shifted, and when it lifted its head, Steve saw it was a man, straw clinging to the sparse tufts of grey hair that ringed his balding scalp. “Ah, hello there,” said the man, groping in the darkness until he found a small pair of spectacles, which he pushed onto his face. He had an accent, his voice clipped and curiously foreign to Steve’s ears. “I hope that you will not begrudge me a place to lay my head. I’ve been traveling, you see—”
“That’s alright,” Steve said. Living with Nick had taught him that there were plenty of weary, lonely souls in the world—they’d opened the doors to his old friends a time or two—and this man didn’t seem to be a threat. Only someone tired, and in need of some kindness. Steve could provide that. After all, what was the sense in making someone else’s bad night worse, simply because his own had been awful? “Are you hungry?”
The man smiled, adjusting the spectacles on his nose. “Quite.”
“You ought to come inside, then,” Steve said, clearing his throat, which was still a bit muddled up from all the crying.
“Thank you,” the man replied, getting to his feet along with Steve. He was awfully scruffy, with stubble darker than his hair, and a shabby brown suit with elbows that desperately needed darning. “I think...you are a good man.”
Steve shrugged, as Lucky went to sniff the man’s hand before bounding in the direction of the house. “I’m not really,” he said, thinking of all those unkind thoughts he’d had towards Natasha.
“Perhaps you underestimate yourself,” said the man.
Steve frowned at the words, pushing open the back door to the house and ushering him into the kitchen. “I...well. What’s your name?”
“An excellent question. Some have called me Abraham.”
An odd answer to something so straightforward, but Steve had spent his life with odd people. So he nodded and went to put the kettle on, fussing about for what felt like ages to get the stove lit.
When he turned back around, there was a second man in the kitchen, standing right next to Abraham.
Steve nearly jumped out of his skin, his mouth falling open as he took a few steps back. This second man was younger, with neatly combed hair and a trimmed mustache.
“This is him?” asked the second man.
“This is him,” said Abraham.
“We have worked with smaller. The heart is big.”
“What?” Steve stammered. “I don’t...who are you?”
“Err…” the second man turned to Abraham, raising an eyebrow. “What are we going with?”
“I said Abraham.”
“Well, there’s a blast from the past. Future.” He chuckled, as though Steve ought to be in on the joke. “You can call me Howard, kid.”
Steve, recovering himself with remarkable acuity, crossed his arms. “Why are you in my kitchen, Howard?”
“Not very perceptive, is he?” Howard turned to Abraham and sighed the sigh of the long-suffering, mostly because Howard had never had any semblance of tact in his entire pompous, overly-large, magic-addled head. (But that, my dears, is getting personal.)
“Don’t be rude, Howard,” Abraham chastised, being as Abraham felt much the same way. “Steve, my friend, tell me—”
“I didn’t tell you my name,” Steve said sharply.
“Dear boy,” Abraham laughed, taking a step forward. “I have always known your name.”
“But—” Steve frowned. “Who are you.”
Abraham flicked his wrist, and suddenly there was a shower of stars. Instinctively, Steve turned his head from the light, and when he glanced back a moment later, Abraham's shabby suit had been transformed into something refined.
“I am,” he replied, “your fairy godfather—”
“You are an opportunist at best, Howard.”
“Spare me the specifics, Abe. You know I bring the flash, and—”
“Excuse me,” Steve bellowed, his mettle finally overcoming the absolute insanity taking place in his kitchen. “But that’s simply not true.”
Two sets of eyes blinked at him, then. “Which part?” Howard asked.
“All of it!” Steve replied, throwing his hands up. “It’s impossible.”
“Improbable, perhaps,” said Abraham. “But possible enough, being that we are here, and you are here, and there’s not much time before the ball, so speaking of—”
“What about the ball?”
“Isn’t that why we’re here?” Abraham asked. “You wish to go to the ball, to seek your friend.”
“Well, yes, but how did you know?”
“It is a noble wish,” Abraham continued, as though Steve hadn’t spoken at all. “And so, we’ve decided to grant it.”
“So what are we thinking, Abe?” Howard queried.
“Don’t call me Abe.”
“I’m thinking courtier. Duke, maybe? Or—ooh—vizier, or an emperor. We could do something with an elephant. I love elephants.”
“No,” Abraham replied. “He’ll be a knight.”
“Ugh,” said Howard. “How typical.”
Howard turned, then, and snapped his fingers at Lucky, who had been watching the entire exchange with interest. When Howard paid him attention, he sat up, cocking his head to the side, tongue lolling from his mouth.
Only there was something wrong with Lucky. He was bigger, somehow. Then smaller. Then bigger. Then...smaller still? No, his ears were smaller. His snout was bigger. Longer. There were paws and hooves, and Lucky was bigger and bigger and bigger until…
There was a horse in the kitchen.
Lucky was the horse in the kitchen.
A giant, golden horse with one eye and the most affable expression a horse had ever expressed, tongue hanging from his mouth in a decidedly doggish manner.
(That, of course, is the most interesting thing about magic—it can change the appearance of a thing, but never the character within. A dog may become a horse, yet it will always retain the very essence of a dog.)
Lucky, who as you might imagine was slightly shocked by this turn of events, gave a sharp, high pitched whinny before stepping closer to Steve, seeking some comfort as he crowded him up against the wall, licking his cheek frantically with that big, horsey tongue.
“Oh, help,” Steve croaked
“Oh, Howard,” Abraham sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Howard grinned, looking quite satisfied. “Now that’s a horse.”
“In the kitchen,” Abraham reminded.
“Right,” Howard said, as though he’d only just realized. “I’ll uh...take him outside. Get him used to the idea of his...horse-ness.”
“Why don’t you just,” Abraham agreed. “Steven, you come with me. We’ve business upstairs.”
Steve nodded, dumbfounded, and did his best to squeeze past Lucky, who was ready to sit down and scratch an itch. Howard had his work cut out for him.
It was a lot for Steve, really, given his limited understanding and the fact that his dog was now a horse. All the same, he had been jolly well convinced that magic was real, and he was in the company of fairies. Even if the entire thing turned out to be some fantastic dream, and he was still asleep in the stable, at the very least it was an entertaining one.
When they reached the attic, Abraham stood for a moment, surveying the scene before nodding his head. “Yes,” he said. “This will do nicely.”
Steve watched as he crossed the room to his trunk and opened it as though it were his own. Rifling through the contents, he pulled out the blue velvet suit, hand-stitched by Sarah—the last gift she had ever given her son—faded and crushed by age and time.
Abraham held the suit up, looking from it to Steve and back again. “Small,” he said. “But I can work with that.”
When he let go, the suit hung suspended in midair, before moving towards Steve of its own volition. Steve yelped and took a step back, only to find that he couldn’t move. The same stars he’d seen in the kitchen began to swirl around him in a vortex until he could no longer see the clothing or Abraham or anything that was happening. All he knew was that when he came back to himself, he was wearing the suit, perfectly fitted.
Or, more precisely, imperfectly fitted. The clothing had been made new, bright and beautiful with shining silver braid and buttons. Steve spun around to see himself in the looking glass before laughing out loud.
“Something is funny?” Abraham asked.
“It’s too big!” Steve grinned. “I look ridiculous.”
“Ah,” Abraham shrugged. “A small problem, with many solutions.”
Before Steve could ask what he meant, the air began to shimmer once more, the shower of stars rising from the ground to shape him. Steve had no words for the sensation, but then, how could he? What words exist to describe becoming big enough to contain one’s boundless heart?
When the stars had faded, and Steve was left standing, the uniform fit him impeccably. Every line crisp, every stitch perfectly aligned, Sarah Rogers' handiwork made grand. Not because it had shrunk to size, but because Steve was huge—a proper knight, tall and muscled, with broad shoulders and strength to spare.
“Your mother made this?” Abraham asked as he stepped forward to admire the stitching.
“Yes,” Steve managed, looking down at himself, hands touching his chest, his sides, his face, as though afraid it might slip away if he didn’t hold himself together.
“I hope she will not mind that there are...some alterations.”
“She—” Steve blinked, coming back to himself as he looked down (down!) at Abraham, who was genuinely concerned by the thought that she might. “Oh, no. No, I think she’d like it very much. She was always using old things to make something new.”
“A wonderful skill to have,” Abraham agreed, before smacking his forehead in such a fashion that Steve wondered how he didn’t do himself an injury. “But I’ve forgotten! A knight needs a sword.”
Casting his eyes about the room, they fell on one of Steve’s drawings, and the nub of a pencil sitting on the paper. Abraham waved his hand, the pencil lifting off the desk. By the time it reached Steve, it had been transformed into the most magnificent sword he’d ever seen, alongside a rather impressive scabbard.
“Thank you,” Steve said, sliding the weapon home before fastening the belt about his waist.
“Just so,” Abraham agreed. “Now come, or you’ll be late. Let’s hope Howard’s wrangled that horse.”
Howard had just about managed it, though Steve didn’t like to ask how he’d gotten Lucky out of the kitchen and into the yard. Judging from the look in Lucky’s one good eye, it seemed his dog could only take so much magic in an evening.
“Hey,” said Howard, when Steve stepped out the back door. “You don’t look half bad, kid.”
“Still missing something, though,” Howard mused, circling him. “Where’s the panache, Abe? The zazz?”
Abraham scoffed. “I will show you zazz, Howard—”
“What about the...oh, I can feel it,” Howard exclaimed, before pointing his finger up towards the attic window. There came a glow from within, and moments later, Steve’s paper star floated towards them, carried on an invisible current.
Steve watched, transfixed, as the star settled between the three of them, hovering in the air.
“Are you sure?” Abraham asked, as solemn as Steve had seen him.
Howard only cocked an eyebrow, which was answer enough, as both he and Abraham raised their hands, the star beginning to spin between them.
It turned a hundred times. A thousand. Turned until there was no more to be seen than a blur of white, which became blue, which became red, which became silver until all the colors blended together into something much grander than a paper star.
When the spinning stopped, Steve saw that the thing the magic had crafted was a strange, metal shield, which he reached for with both hands. The shield was a perfect circle, with markings the likes of which he’d never seen—two rings of red broken up by a ring of silver so pure it was nearly white. These three rings surrounded a blue circle, and within that blue circle was a gleaming star that looked remarkably like the paper one which had created it.
“Oh,” was all that Steve could manage, words failing him.
“Welp,” Howard said, breaking the poignant silence in a way only a fairy of Howard’s particular tactlessness could. “Can’t stand here jabbering all night. Let’s see how fast this horse can run.”
“There’s no time to waste,” Abraham agreed.
Steve did as he was told, swinging the shield onto his shoulders before climbing onto Lucky’s back with nary a boost needed.
“Thank you both,” he said, once he was seated. “I don’t know how to—”
“It’s not forever,” Abraham cautioned. “Forever requires...deeper magic.”
“Oh,” Steve said, frowning. “Then how long do I have?”
“Until the clock strikes twelve. You must find your friend before then. You understand?”
Midnight. Steve could manage that. “Yes,” he said. “And, however long this lasts, it’s a gift. Thank you.”
“If it is a gift, then you must use it wisely,” Abraham said.
“Now go,” Howard laughed, dropping a hand to Lucky’s rump, which started him forward.
Steve looked back only once, just before they’d rounded the corner, his hand lifted in a wave.
The yard was already empty.
This chapter was the nexus for this entire story, and I'm so excited to finally share it. Thank you to everyone who's reading and following along. I'm currently in the midst of posting my Cap Big Bang story, but Small Star will be updated faithfully, every Saturday, no matter what. Next week: THE BALL! Finally!
Chapter 10: Bear with me, o mystery of existence
The ball begins.
Never before in his short life had James seen so many gathered in one place. Even at his coronation—dim and grey as it was in his mind—there hadn’t been such a crowd.
And what a crowd it was! Young people, old people, short ones, tall ones. Big and small, rich and poor, all were welcomed and given leave to enjoy the spoils. There were grand treats and tiny ones, fountains overflowing with fizzy drinks and (mercifully) precisely enough cakes for every attendee to have two. The musicians were perfectly pitched, keeping time with the dancers as they twirled. It was the finest party most of them had ever seen—the sort of party that would be spoken about in reverent whispers for years after, passed down in awed remembrance to an attendee’s children, and children’s children, and children’s children’s children until it was mere myth and legend. That glittering, golden evening spent at the palace, dancing until dawn and drunk on the delight of simply being.
Looking out over the assembled crowd, James couldn't help but wishing he might join them. The food looked marvelous, and the company entertaining. However, Alexander thought he ought to save his strength for his suitors, and as such he hadn't been allowed to mingle. His evening, in fact, had been horribly dull, sitting high up in the gallery, sequestered from the commoners, surrounded only by archdukes and advisors.
One of those advisors had been droning on about trade delegations for twenty minutes, and while James had done his best to remain attentive, he’d begun to slump in his chair as the time ticked by, watching the whirl of colorful gowns on the dance floor below him. The musicians were playing a waltz, which was a dance he felt sure he could learn—had he learned it before? Couldn’t remember—if only Alexander would let him.
“Your Royal Highness?” the advisor queried, having apparently finished his speech.
James forced himself to smile, looking at the man, who had a somewhat droopy sort of face. "Yes, of course," he said. "We must maintain the routes to the north."
“...yes, indeed, Your Royal Highness, but I was speaking of routes to the south…”
It was becoming increasingly difficult to force a smile as James lifted his chin from his hand. “I see, well that’s an entirely—oh, Alexander!”
Alexander, for once fortuitous in his appearance, had chosen that moment to arrive with another delegation of royals—the children and grandchildren of lesser monarchs, attending the ball in the hopes of catching the king’s attention.
As if the king’s attention hadn’t already been caught.
Or, more accurately, as if the king's attention hadn't been deliberately swayed. James wasn't stupid—he understood that Brock was the choice he was expected to make for himself when all was said and done. The only choice. The inevitable choice. The choice that would guarantee Leoman safety and security throughout his reign.
It wasn't such a bad thing, though. Brock was nice enough. Pleasant company, even, if a bit pompous. James could manage the pomposity if that were Brock's least desirable characteristic. After all, he was handsome. Respectful. Decent enough, in his way.
James supposed that ‘enough’ was all he could hope for, given who he was and the expectations that came along with his crown. And Brock was entertaining, which was more than he could say for these new arrivals. As he was introduced to the passel of royal hopefuls, he wished he had Brock there to shield him from the banality.
“Your Royal Highness,” Alexander said, executing a sweeping bow that James thought looked rather stupid, though he would never say so. Instead, he plastered a blandly pleasant expression on his face and nodded, giving him leave to continue. “It is my honor to introduce—”
And so, it began.
“Lovely to meet you,” he greeted Princess Who-Knows from the Kingdom of Who-Can-Remember.
“I do hope you’re enjoying yourself,” to Prince Red-Nose from the Kingdom of Fermented-Grapes.
“Please, take my handkerchief,” offered to Prince Sniffles from the small Principality of Has-A-Nasty-Cold.
The latter boy took the handkerchief and blew his nose forcefully into it before returning it to James, who discreetly wiped his hand on the seat of his chair.
Disappointing. Not an interesting one in the bunch. Meanwhile, the people down below were laughing and dancing, and it wasn't fair at all.
“Don’t look so glum, James,” came a voice from behind him, pitched low and so close to his ear that it sent a shiver down his spine.
Turning, he found Brock standing there, resplendent and handsome in a suit of red so dark it was nearly black. James grinned—the first real smile he’d allowed himself all night. Brock, arrogant as he was, could at least be counted upon for some decent conversation.
“Hello,” he greeted. “Where’ve you been?”
“Enjoying yourself?” Brock replied without replying at all.
“No. Not particularly,” he sighed, turning his attention back to the crowd, where his eyes caught on a lovely redheaded woman in a green dress, who was dancing with a scruffy-looking man in a suit of dark purple. They were laughing together—happy with one another, and in their dance.
A pang of jealousy washed over James, even as Brock stepped to his side and lay a familiar hand on his shoulder.
When Brock’s fingers squeezed, the gesture undoubtedly meant to be a comfort, James found that he wanted to twist away. The couple on the floor were in love—anyone could see that—and the touch of Brock’s hand reminded James that he never would be. However much they liked one another’s company, part of their friendship was no more than playing politics. It was the best he could hope for, under the circumstances, but it still pained him to be reminded of what he could never have.
“I don’t suppose you’d like to dance?” Brock offered after a moment’s silence. “I happen to know for a fact they’ll be playing a polka soon…”
“If Alexander says so,” James said, twisting his neck to see where his regent had gotten to.
A murmur ran through the crowd, pulling his attention back to those assembled beneath him. The doors—those massive, unwieldy beasts that dominated the top of the grand staircase—were being opened, ushering in an unfashionably late arrival.
James frowned, rising to his feet and shaking off Brock’s hand as he craned his neck to see precisely who had deigned to turn up well after the doors had been shut and the party started. After all, it was his party and—
James quickly changed his tune, deciding that everyone ought to be allowed some tardiness if they would all make such dashing entrances.
For the man at the top of the grand staircase was undoubtedly the most handsome person he'd ever seen—a shining beacon in a dark blue suit set off with elegant silver braid. He was young, hardly more than a boy, with a head of golden hair and a magnificent set to his shoulders.
He must have been a knight. Or a prince. Or a duke. Something royal, or noble, or important. James didn’t care who he was, didn’t mind a bit about his titles or his nobility, only that he was there. A curious calm settled in him the moment his eyes locked on the stranger, as though everything would be alright. As though he didn’t have to worry any longer.
The young man was heedless of the attention he’d attracted in entering the ball. He scanned the room from the top of the staircase, and when his eyes fell upon James, he had a moment of shock before he smiled, the expression lighting up his face like the sun.
There was a faint buzzing in James’ head as he stared back, their eyes locking together. This man—the stranger—he was familiar. James knew him, all the while knowing for sure and for certain that he had never seen the young man before in his life.
Because of course, the cruel magic that held James in its thrall prevented him from seeing what was right before his eyes: the boy in the woods. The friend long forgotten. For as you, clever reader, have no doubt surmised, the stranger on the stairs was simply Steve.
James did not know him. And yet, there was some small part, some burgeoning beginning, that felt perhaps he knew something. Seeing Steve standing there was not nearly enough to break the spell cast on James’ head, yet it served to remind his heart that it, too, had a purpose in the world.
“...Highness?” came Alexander’s voice, drifting to him as if in a dream, before the regent lay a hand on James’ arm.
“No,” James said, shaking off that offending hand. “No, Alexander. I have to...if you’ll excuse me.”
Steve had already begun making his way down the steps of the grand staircase two at a time, laughter in his eyes. James turned, pushing past the gathered nobility as he left the gallery. The crowd parted for king and commoner alike, and when the two met in the middle of the empty dance floor, James reached out and clasped Steve’s hands tightly, hardly aware of what he had done, only that he’d needed to do it more than he’d ever needed anything before.
“Hello,” he said, shyness overcoming him as he realized his own boldness.
“Hello,” Steve replied, eyes bright, looking at James as though he knew him. “You’re...Jamie. James, Or, it’s...well, you’re…” he laughed. “You’re the king.”
(Steve, who was quite an intelligent young man, as you know, had realized very quickly that he had not come to rescue a mere caretaker’s apprentice. And while he found the idea of rescuing a king from his own castle a much more daunting prospect, he never saw it as an impossible one.)
While Steve stammered his way through an introduction, James busied himself with studying Steve’s not-quite-perfect features—his nose was crooked, blunted as if it had taken one too many blows. He had a long, silvery scar on his left cheek and one of his bright blue eyes was slightly wider than the other. Every imperfection served to make him all the more appealing to James’ eyes.
It was only when Steve finished speaking that James realized he ought to say something in return. “I am the king,” he agreed. “But I’m also only James. Or Jamie, if you like, though I don’t think anyone’s called me that before.”
Steve frowned, minutely, his head cocked to the side. “Oh, but I—”
“What’s your name?”
“Steve,” said Steve, because it was the truth. No grand titles. No pronouncements. No great houses nor noble fathers.
“Hello.” Steve squeezed his hands before shaking his head and smiling an abashed sort of smile. “I never thought you’d…” he trailed off, shrugging.
“I never thought you’d be so handsome,” he said, the lie a small one—more white magic than anything else, being as he couldn’t very well explain to James about the time they’d met before. “Would you like to dance?”
“Yes, please,” said James, all thoughts of asking Alexander for permission banished from his head.
James gestured to the musicians the way he'd seen others do, hoping for a waltz. He was rewarded with precisely the sort of waltz he'd wished to dance earlier in the evening. Steve stepped back, releasing his hands only long enough to bow. James did the same, a smile curling the corner of his mouth as they joined one another in perfect symmetry. Two halves of a whole, cleaved by circumstances beyond their control, fitting themselves back together again.
There was no way for them to know, of course, how very important they were. To them, it was merely a dance. Two young men, drawn together for reasons they could not begin to comprehend, clinging together as they had as children, unaware of their connection even as they forged a new one. No longer those boys playing pretend pirates under someone's wiser, watchful eye. Now, they were the ones watching, if only for one another.
“You’re an excellent dancer,” Steve said, letting James take the lead.
“I’ve only ever practiced a little,” James replied, sure in the statement even if he couldn’t recall a particular memory. “Watch you don’t step on my toes, clumsy.”
“I wouldn’t!” Steve said, his perfect white teeth all in a row as he threw his head back and laughed in a way that had James’ stomach twisting into another knot of near-memory. “Everyone’s looking at us.”
It was true—the crowd had grown transfixed by the mysterious golden stranger dancing with their long-reclusive king.
(Which made it the perfect opportunity for the redheaded woman in the green dress to slip down a corridor with the scruffy-looking man in purple, so that they might carry out the mission with which Steve had promised not to interfere. In the end, he had spectacularly broken his promise, but being as the interference was ultimately for good, the broken promise wasn't so terrible after all.)
“If they’re looking,” James said, stepping closer and pressing his hand to the small of Steve’s back, ignoring the whispers that passed through the crowd. “It’s only because they’ve never seen such a dashing knight before.”
“Oh, I’m not a—” Steve began, before clearing his throat. “That is to say, I’m not very dashing, I don’t think.”
“I think you are.”
“Dashing would have a silver tongue and a sharp wit,” Steve replied. “I’m too overwhelmed.”
“Because I didn’t expect to be dancing with the king,” he said
“I’m not a very experienced king,” James said. “More...an apprentice sort of king.”
Steve snorted, belying his dashing reputation even further. “You and your damned apprenticeships.”
“Nothing. I only mean—” Steve glanced up, noticing Alexander for the first time. “That man.”
James looked up as well, finding Alexander watching them with an expression that could curdle milk. “What about him?”
“Who is he to you?”
James blinked and struggled to remember. How odd—for a moment, he'd nearly forgotten that Alexander existed in the world. He'd nearly forgotten everything that wasn't standing directly in front of him. "Oh, that's just Alexander," he said. "He's my regent until I come of age. Which makes him—"
“The caretaker,” Steve said quietly.
A frown marred James’ features, and he fixed his eyes on Steve’s face, studying him closely. There was something—something, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. “I—”
Realizing that they were skirting dangerously close to a conversation he was not yet ready to have, Steve neatly trod on James’ toes, drawing a howl from him, albeit a very kingly howl. “Very sorry,” he apologized. “I only meant to say, isn’t a king a sort of caretaker, too?”
James cocked his head to the side, thinking that over. It sounded right—in fact, it sounded like something he might have said himself. Something perhaps he had said to Sam at one point. “I...suppose I am,” he agreed.
“Do you enjoy it? Being the king?”
Nobody had ever asked him anything like that before, and James—a born diplomat if ever there was one—hesitated before replying. “I enjoy it as much as I am able.”
“That doesn’t really answ—”
“It’s warm in here, don’t you think?”
“Is it?” Steve asked, distracted from his questioning. “If you say so.”
“Much cooler outside,” James continued. “I don’t suppose you’d like to see the gardens?”
Steve smiled, his thumb stroking the fine material of James’ coat, just above his waist. “There’s snow on the ground.”
“They’re prettier in the snow.”
“Then by all means.”
James smiled the sort of smile that brightened him from the inside out—a smile that set off the same confused familiarity in Steve that James had felt upon seeing him enter the ballroom. But while James’ muddles and mix-ups came from the magic in his head, Steve’s were no more than memories long forgotten. Memories of a dark-haired boy whose face he couldn’t recall, but who had made him feel happy and safe and as though they could take on the world together.
He did not know him, not yet. But his bright mind was beginning to puzzle the pieces together.
The two of them and those missing pieces made their way towards the terrace, drawn to one another by something truer than any spell could diminish.
From above, Alexander watched them disappear through the garden doors, his weathered hands tightening on the railing so much that his knuckles went white.
“Who,” he snarled, turning to the unfortunate staff member who was closest at hand. “Is that boy?”
“I’ll...I’ll find out, sir,” the man stammered. “He’ll have had to give his name at the door—”
“Alexander?” Brock came up beside them, a frown on his face. “Why didn’t you tell me James had another suitor—?”
Alexander sputtered, at a loss for words, which was something to which he was entirely unaccustomed. “That is not a suitor,” he snapped, turning back to the advisor. “Find out everything you can. His people, his pedigree, everything.”
The man scurried away, and Brock stepped closer. “Forgive me, Alexander, but that looked like a suitor to me.”
“Did it?” Alexander replied. “Let me be the first to apologize for the unconscionable rudeness of our young king.”
“You shouldn’t be the one apologizing,” Brock said.
“And yet, here we are.” Alexander sighed, his countenance softening in an act of contrition as he placed a hand on Brock’s shoulders. “Let’s take a walk, Your Grace. There are things...things you ought to know. About our young king. And about your king.”
Brock nodded, ignorant of his place as Alexander’s pawn as he was led away from the frivolity and down a long hall.
Meanwhile, out on the terrace, Steve and James had yet to let go of one another’s hands.
Thank you very much for reading! Up next: what happened in the gardens.
Come hang out on Tumblr at notlucy - I'd love to chat about this story, or whatever else!
Chapter 11: My apologies to everything that I can't be everywhere at once
Steve and James take a walk.
There is no such thing as love at first sight.
Before we continue, we must be perfectly clear on that matter. Love at first sight is balderdash—a silly, fanciful notion borne on children’s wishes and lies spun by unlucky dreamers.
However, love at hundredth sight? Thousandth? That, my darlings, is perfectly reasonable.
It was a lucky thing, then, that the young king and his pretend knight were more the latter than the former. Certainly, the king remembered none of those sights and the pretend knight only the most recent, but being as love ran truer than faded memories, what did it matter?
No, it was not first love that drew them together, neither was it mere infatuation that had them walking through the gardens, hand-in-hand, exchanging shy glances and secret smiles. It was old love, bone-deep and bound up in their very souls.
“Where do you come from?” James asked as they stepped down from the terrace and onto the snow-covered garden path.
“Nowhere very important,” Steve replied, eager to avoid a lie as he took in his surroundings, focusing on one topiary in particular. “That’s an excellent lion.”
(Truthfully, it was a bit lopsided, but that is another story altogether.)
“Is it?” James said, inspecting it. “I don’t even notice them anymore. The lions, that is to say.”
“They’re the symbol of your house, aren’t they?”
“They are,” agreed the boy who had never allowed himself to roar.
"They suit you," Steve said, before squeezing James' fingers, feeling a memory, clean and clear, prick at his mind. He'd known another lion once, he was sure of it. A little boy with dark hair, playing at being the king of the jungle to make Steve laugh. Funny, that he'd think of Bucky now.
“Does it?” James said. “I never thought much of it before.”
“Oh yes,” Steve replied. “Not a vicious lion, though. Fierce when you have to be. Loyal, too.”
“But you hardly know me,” James protested. “We’ve only just met.”
“I suppose it’s just something in your nature,” Steve lied, thinking of the way James had charged after the runaway horse. His loyalty in keeping his promise and leaving the stag alive.
Steve wanted to tell him. To confess the when and how of their prior meeting. But how could he? James knew him as a boy, slight in stature and short of breath. He wouldn’t understand. Or, worse, he’d prefer this temporary version of Steve’s true self.
“My nature?” James echoed.
“Of course,” he smiled. “Aren’t all rulers lions, in the end?”
It was the wrong thing to say. James’ face was like a thundercloud, and Steve immediately regretted his choice of words.
“I’m no ruler yet,” James said stiffly.
“I shouldn’t have made assumptions…” Steve began. “I only...I was only saying something stupid about the hedge.”
James stopped, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he considered this man. This stranger who somehow did not feel strange. The way the light of the garden torches caught in his hair, his lips pink and cheeks rosy from the cold.
There was that feeling again. That intimate understanding, tugging him forward so fast he feared he might trip and fall right into the knight’s waiting arms.
“Do I—” James bit his tongue before shaking his head. “It’s the silliest thing. But I feel as though we’ve met—”
Steve, believing that James might recognize the rather unique bend of his nose, demurred, looking down before lifting their still-clasped hands to his lips, where he pressed a kiss to James’ frozen fingers. The gesture was so staggeringly romantic it served to distract James from his query, though that was undoubtedly because James was very young, and to the very young, romance can be quite overwhelming.
“Show me more of your gardens?” asked Steve, relieved that his ruse had worked, being as what he knew about romance could barely fill a thimble, most of it gleaned from Clint and Natasha, neither of whom were especially well-versed.
They made their way further into the maze of snow-capped hedges and trees, some gone spindly and brown with the season, others evergreen and biding their time until their friends rejoined them in the spring.
Turning the corner, they came upon a magnificent statue, this one a stone dryad clinging to the trunk of a living tree. Steve found something familiar in the dryad’s expression, and he smiled as he stepped close, stroking his free hand down the creature’s unmoving cheek.
“She’s nice,” he said. “Does she have a name?”
James frowned, shaking his head. “No, I—but she ought to. I don’t—”
“What is it?”
“These gardens are here all year round,” he said slowly. “But I never come here.”
“Don’t you?” Steve looked back, one brow raised. “You know your way around the maze awfully well for someone who’s unfamiliar.”
“Yes, that’s…” James sighed, furrowing his brow.
The thing of it was, he did know. He knew every twist and turn of these gardens. If need be, he could have walked the two of them back to the palace or further into the maze without a second thought. He knew these gardens as surely as he knew how to dance, yet he couldn’t recall when he’d learned about either.
Another casualty of his sickness, he supposed.
“You ought to know,” he said quietly. “If we. Because…” he shrugged, gesturing to their entwined hands. “Sometimes I have trouble remembering things. I get very sick, and I—”
“You’re sick?” Steve said. “So am I.”
James scoffed. “You don’t look sick.”
Steve stiffened, his hand loosening its grip as something akin to disappointment shone in his eyes. “Appearances can be deceiving. You don’t look sick, either.”
“I’m not—” he frowned. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have made assumptions. My sickness is...it’s like I said. I get confused. And I forget. Alexander—”
“That’s...the regent,” Steve said, his face drawn into a sneer.
“Yes,” Bucky said, surprised at his tone. “He sees that I receive treatments. He’s very good to me…”
Even as he'd said it, James felt that it wasn't right, and Steve's question confirmed it. Alexander is very good to me —the thought was in his head. The response on his tongue. And yet, he found that he didn’t believe it to be so.
“It seems to me,” Steve said. “That he bullies you, whether you’re sick or whether you’re well.”
How could Steve know that? James frowned. “No, he—”
“You’re frightened of him.”
Steve knew he ought not to push. Knew he was revealing something he could not yet know. But he couldn't help it—he'd never been good at keeping his tongue, and he'd seen what transpired between Alexander and James in the woods. How petrified James was of the man who was in charge of both his life and the welfare of his kingdom.
James took in a shaky breath. “No,” he said, haltingly, as he looked up to meet Steve’s eyes. “He’s the only one who helps me.”
Another line. Another lie.
“I don’t believe that’s true, either,” Steve said, drawing James away from the path and towards a bench which had been tucked under a bower of now-bare branches. “Haven’t you got friends?”
“No,” James frowned, even as Sam’s face sprang into his head. Sam was only an acquaintance. Not so good to him as Alexander, surely. Not a very good friend at all. Wasn’t that so?
James wasn’t sure.
His head was beginning to hurt.
“I could be your friend,” Steve said softly.
James looked up sharply at his words, sure he’d heard them spoken before. “But Alexander—”
“Are you the king or aren’t you?”
“I am,” James said, though it was more a question than a definitive answer.
“It seems to me,” said Steve, turning his head in a way that exposed the fine line of his jaw, perfectly matched to the stubborn set of his shoulders. “A king can do as he likes. Why should you—”
“A king serves his kingdom,” James snapped, his voice sharp.
“Oh,” Steve laughed, knocking their knees together. “There’s the lion.”
James couldn’t help but blush.
“Anyhow,” Steve went on. “All I mean to say is that you don’t serve this Alexander. He serves you, and he serves your kingdom. Whether or not you’re sick—and I’m sorry that you are—I think you ought to be allowed to make your own choices about your life and your friends. Don’t you?”
Now that Steve said it, James found the idea intriguing. Sam was his friend, he was sure of it. Steve could be his friend, too. After all, he was nearly a man grown—he’d be eighteen in barely a month’s time. Surely choosing them couldn’t corrupt him too terribly?
“I suppose,” he said after a moment. “We could be friends. But—”
“But as for the kingdom ,” James continued, casting Steve a reproachful look. “I’m so...forgetful. What if I make the wrong choice when it matters most?”
Steve considered the question, balancing what he knew of James with what lessons he’d had imparted to him over the years—from his mother, from Nick, from Natasha, even from Clint a time or two. He wasn’t sure of much; wasn’t sure whether James was sick, or only manipulated into believing himself to be. Wasn’t sure if he could save him at all, now that he knew the truth of his station.
But what he was sure of—what he felt right down to the quick—was that James was a good man. The kind of person who would be decent to a stag, or a lost boy in the woods. Kind and careful to the bitter end.
That was something.
“Perhaps you will make the wrong choice sometimes,” Steve said. “But I feel as though, because you are who you are, if you do make the wrong choice, it will be the wrong choice for the right reasons. Whereas this Alexander fellow—”
“How do you know so much?” James said, a bit breathless as he leaned closer to Steve’s warmth. “I don’t understand any of this.”
Steve smiled and bit his lip. "I don't know very much," he said. "Only that I've spent my life surrounded by good people. I was born to one, raised by another. My brother and sister are the best people I know. I know what good looks like, James. And I see the goodness in you."
A flush ran through James' body, and he sprang to his feet, pulling his hand from Steve's, which brought with it an instant sort of regret. "My head hurts," he said. "You can't say things like that, Steve. Please…"
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, though he didn’t look very sorry at all.
“I ought to go—” James began, taking a few steps back before nearly stumbling over an errant tree root.
“Wherever you’re going,” Steve said, rising to his feet and reaching out to steady him, recognizing the look of a spooked colt that was ready to run. “I’d like to go with you.”
It was only when Steve’s hand closed around James’ arm that he relaxed, allowing Steve to accompany him with a single nod.
Together, they wound their way further into the gardens, leaving the maze behind them and wandering far past what was well-kept and into the wildness of a place long forgotten.
“I think this was my mother’s,” James murmured as they stepped through a worn wooden gate into a small, walled garden lit only by the bright moon overhead reflecting off the snow.
“I’ve never been here before,” James said, walking towards an archway made of twining rose stems, long since dead. For someone unfamiliar, he certainly knew his way.
“Do you miss her?” Steve asked, ducking under the arch with him, the withered wood giving them scant cover from the snowfall.
“I never knew her.”
Steve frowned, something about that not quite sitting right with him. By his count, and Natasha’s story, the king would have been six or seven when she’d died—old enough to remember a little, at least. “Oh no?”
“No,” James said, before reaching into his jacket, down past his cravat, where he drew out an oval locket on a simple gold chain. “I carry this, though.”
Stepping closer, Steve watched as James opened the necklace to reveal a miniature portrait of a woman who resembled him greatly—same dark hair, same dimple in her chin, same smile on her lips.
She looked awfully familiar.
“I know it’s foolish,” James said, as Steve frowned in his confusion. “But I like having her close.”
“It’s not foolish,” Steve murmured, reaching out to draw the locket closer, studying the picture, then James, then the picture once more.
“I don’t understand,” Steve said. “Now my head hurts.”
They were standing so close, there, under the winter sky. The pretend knight and the not-quite king, frozen by their forgotten past.
Neither of them would be able to say who leaned in first, but it happened, all the same, their lips brushing together in a tentative, awkward kiss. It was terrible and wonderful, memorable for its loveliness and gawkishness in the way most first kisses are.
Steve pulled back, laughter on his lips. “My nose got in the way,” he said apologetically.
“That’s alright,” James said. “It’s not a bad nose.”
“Too big,” Steve shrugged. “I’ve had it broken a time or two.”
“I don’t mind,” James said, before leaning in again.
Hesitation gave way to tenderness, their second kiss lasting longer than the first. That one was broken by James, who pulled back with a shy smile. Steve chased after him, seeking out a third when the chiming of the clock tower rang out across the gardens.
Steve froze as the bells died away; only eleven chimes left.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “James, I’m sorry, I have to go.”
He would come back. He would find his way again, of that he was certain. But he couldn't let James see. Couldn't begin to explain. It wasn't the right time, and there was never enough time.
He’d have to find his fairy godfathers. Beg for more magic. Deeper magic. Magic that would keep him big and strong and brave.
Though as he turned on his heel and began to run, he didn’t feel very brave at all.
The second chime sounded. Ten to go.
“Wait!” James shouted behind him.
Steve prayed he could find his way through the gardens, taking turn after turn in the maze as time stretched and bent before him, his legs carrying him along at high speed.
The third chime sounded as he left the gardens. Nine left.
The strength in his legs was fading; the magic beginning to weaken its hold.
Eight now, the bells tolling into the night.
“Steve, please ,” James’ voice rang out again, but further off now—Steve was losing him, by what miracle he wasn’t sure, given that James knew the grounds better than he did. There wasn’t time to think about that, no time to ponder further magic.
He charged across the terrace and through the crowd, reaching the top of the steps where he could see Lucky waiting at the bottom. Right where he'd left him. Only now, he was looking slightly more like a giant dog than anything resembling a noble steed.
Steve began to run down the stairs, his mind full of mixed up thoughts. The woman in the miniature—the queen. His mother. Peggy’s house. A boy holding a paper star. A boy named Bucky. A boy with dark hair and wide eyes and—
As he neared the bottom of the steps, Steve looked back, but only once. Selfishly wanting one last glimpse because it had all gone wrong, somehow. He hadn't rescued James, hadn't done anything at all, really. Wasn't even sure he could come back, because how could he let James see him small and weak when he'd obviously preferred the bigger, stronger version?
James was standing at the top of the stairs, wild-eyed and frantic. “Steve!”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, more to himself than to James as he turned away.
Something slipped. A leather strap loosened. The shield clattering to the ground behind him. Damn, damn, damn …
“Steve, I don’t understand—” Bucky’s voice. Closer now.
No time to fetch it. He’d be lighter without it, anyhow, even if he would miss the star. The star!
A sob rose in his chest as he reached the bottom of the steps and flung himself onto Lucky’s back, spurring him onwards into the darkness.
No more James.
No more magic.
No more secrets.
Steve tumbled to the dirt outside the gates of the palace, Lucky yelping as his master landed on him with a rather undignified grunt.
And so, there Steve sat, heaving for breath with his dog at his side, nothing to show for himself but the tattered blue rags of a soldier’s suit clinging to his now-small body.
Instinct drove him the moment he made out hooves in the distance, crawling to the side of the road, Lucky following. They hid behind a bush as half a dozen riders went roaring past—members of the royal guard, no doubt. James must have sent them, but they wouldn’t be looking for him as he was now. Only as he had been.
How had they mounted so quickly? More magic. Perhaps the same magic that had allowed him his escape within twelve strokes of the chimes.
Steve waited until he was sure he was alone before getting to his feet, scrubbing a hand across his red eyes and squaring his shoulders, facing the world as a failure.
Because he had failed. James was still trapped within the palace walls, more so now than before, and Steve hadn’t been very brave at all. Hadn’t used the magic he’d been gifted. Hadn’t done anything, really, save for stealing a kiss in a snowy garden.
He had been a fool to think one night would be enough.
Early chapter today! Thank you for sticking with me. As Doctor Strange would say, we're in the end game now. Chapter twelve features Steve and his compatriots putting their heads together, finally.
Find me on Tumblr at notlucy if you need a place to yell.
Chapter 12: My apologies to the felled tree for the table's four legs
Steve sits down with his not-so-wicked stepfamily to figure things out.
Once the hubbub and excitement had passed—the guards long down the road in search of a man they would never find—Steve picked himself up from his hiding place and called Lucky to heel, setting them both towards home with sorrow in his heart and something small and uncertain niggling at his mind.
It was an itch he couldn’t quite scratch, a worrisome wriggling worm of consternation over a face he couldn’t place in the proper context.
He might have worked it out sooner, if not for the fact that the carriage carrying Nick, Natasha, and Clint caught up to him when he was only a mile from home. Steve stepped to the side as the horses drew to a stop and Natasha opened the door to poke her head out.
"Steve?" she said, confused as she'd ever sounded. Although he supposed, she hadn't expected to find him there. "Why don't you have any shoes?"
Or barefoot. She hadn’t been expecting that, either.
“Because my boots disappeared,” he replied, as though she ought to have known.
Natasha frowned. “What are you wearing?”
“What aren’t you wearing,” Nick called down from his perch in the driver’s seat, doing his best not to laugh.
“As you can plainly tell,” he said, attempting to appear as regal as possible, considering the circumstances. “I am in my underthings.”
For, you see, while there hadn’t been enough of the suit to salvage, the magic hadn’t gone so far as to leave him in the altogether.
Steve sniffed, just as the first fat raindrop of the storm that had been threatening for twenty minutes landed atop his head. “Doesn’t matter why. Are you going to offer us a ride, or keep asking stupid questions?”
(As it happened, Steve hadn’t entirely forgiven Natasha.)
Pursing her lips, Natasha opened the door wider, allowing him to squeeze in, though Lucky was given no such berth, forced to the front to share the driver’s seat with Nick.
“Don’t start,” Steve snapped, upon seeing the twin looks of consternation on Clint and Natasha’s faces.
“Who’s starting?” Clint said, even as Natasha pulled Steve’s feet into her lap and began trying to warm them with her cloak.
Steve glowered as the carriage started forward, sulking with his face turned toward the window. Suited him fine to ride in silence, even if he did have to swat Natasha away a time or two. (He did allow her to wrap him in a blanket—he wasn’t a martyr).
By the time they reached the yard, the storm was upon them, a deluge of water soaking them to the skin as they rushed to settle the animals in the stable before retreating to the house. Steve's head and heart were aching as one, and as soon as he was inside with a cup of tea in his hands, he attempted to make his escape to the attic only to be caught around the collar by Nick's firm grip.
“Now,” he said, steering Steve towards the sitting room, where Clint was stoking the fire. “I think we ought to talk.”
Steve scowled, slumping into an overstuffed chair, nursing his tea as he huddled beneath his blanket, back to them as best he could manage. “Nothing to talk about,” he muttered.
“Isn’t there?” Natasha replied as she settled into her own seat by the fire, Clint perching at her side, while Nick stood opposite them. “You might start by explaining—”
"Was your mission a success?" Steve blurted, eager to divert attention from himself because he didn't know how to begin to explain yet—too many unanswered questions and confusions in his mind.
“Yes,” Natasha replied.
“Very nearly wasn’t,” Clint corrected, his good ear turned towards the room. “Couldn’t get near Pierce for ages and ages, and then—” he exchanged a glance with Natasha, who shrugged.
“Then he turned up,” she finished.
“He?” Nick raised an eyebrow, and it occurred to Steve that Nick hadn’t heard the story yet, either, being as he’d been waiting in the carriage the entire evening.
“I don’t know who he was,” Natasha admitted. “A young man—never seen him before, but he walked in as though he’d lived in the palace all his life. Walked straight to the king, just as the king was walking straight to him.”
“No title? No introduction?” Nick pressed.
“None,” Natasha shrugged. “Though I’d imagine it was all orchestrated—some secret lover revealed. Building goodwill with the people.”
Steve nearly choked on his tea.
“Alright there, Steve?” Clint asked, reaching over to clap him on the shoulder.
“Yes, fine,” Steve rasped. “Go on.”
“As I was saying,” Natasha continued with a reproving glance. “The whole party went into an uproar—everyone was whispering as the two of them danced like they’d been born to it. Pierce had no idea it was coming, that much was obvious. Perhaps the king has more of a spine than we thought—”
Steve squawked, unable to keep from painting his heart directly onto his sleeve.
Natasha cast another funny look in his direction before she went on. “Anyhow, Pierce was furious, he stormed off the moment the king and his paramour disappeared. We were able to follow him, as the guards were paying more attention to the uproar than the regent.”
“And?” Nick prompted, leaning forward.
“He had that idiot with him, the pompous one—”
“A Cinnairian prince,” Clint supplied. “Brock.”
“Yes, that one. Brock was furious at first—insisted he’d been tricked by Pierce, that his family had been shamed, and why had they brought him to the castle at all if he wasn’t to marry the king?”
“To marry the king,” Steve whispered, eyes widening as he remembered the handsome man leaning over the balcony beside Pierce.
“Yes,” Natasha said. “Only the stranger turned up and took his place quicker than a blink. Pierce was angry, you could tell, but he got Brock alone—thought he was alone, anyhow—and insisted that everything was going according to plan. That there was a plan at all.”
“What’s the plan?” Nick and Steve said in unison.
“The arrogant ass didn’t know anything about it—he’s a political dilettante at best, sent here by his father—”
“King Johann. Of Cinnair,” Nick said slowly. “Interesting, being that Pierce…” he trailed off.
“Is also from Cinnair,” Clint agreed.
“The House of Pierce,” Natasha nodded. “An old family. Built on the backs of thousands of dead soldiers, profiting from their loss. Only now—”
“Only now, there’s peace,” Nick finished. “Brokered by the king’s grandfather, well before my time. So—”
“That’s the thing of it,” Natasha grinned. “The regent has been playing a long game—longer than you realized, Nick. He explained to Brock in an attempt to keep him in Leoman, placate him in the name of the plan.”
“You keep mentioning this plan,” Steve said.
“I’m getting there,” Natasha snipped. “Who’s telling the story?”
“Not much of a story if we die of old age before it’s done.”
“You might show me a little respect, even if you are still angry with me. And don’t think I’ve forgotten about your barefoot escapa—”
“Children,” Nick broke in. “Now is not the time.”
"Sorry, Nick," they mumbled together before Natasha resumed her story.
“Pierce alluded to killing King George,” she said quietly. “We knew that bit already. But why he kept King James alive, that was always the tricky part. Why not kill him off, too? Leave the kingdom without an heir and prone to upheaval.”
“And?” Nick prompted.
“Upheaval and chaos was never the goal. It was to be a bloodless coup in the name of furthering the peace—Leoman and Cinnair joined together by the marriage of King James and Prince Brock until, days after the wedding, the king’s long illness finally does him in.”
“And without an heir,” Clint said. “The kingdom falls to Brock. It’s not exactly a line of succession, but Pierce plans to say it’s temporary. Although—”
“What’s temporary becomes permanent, under Pierce’s guiding hand,” Nick finished.
“Yes,” Natasha said. “Cinnair gains our lands and our bounty. The food they need to supply an army, which they will then use to bring every other kingdom to heel.”
Nick exhaled a long, slow breath, face placid save for one brief twitch of his jaw.
“That’s been the long game,” Natasha finished. “Not the king, but the kingdom. Cinnair over all others, a tentacled beast winding its way across the world. Beginning with us.”
“So how do we—” Clint began, only to be interrupted by Steve, whose clever mind had been puzzling over that unscratchable itch the entire time Natasha had been telling her tale.
“You said killed King George,” he blurted. “That Pierce killed him. Just him.”
“Yes?” Natasha frowned.
“What about the queen?”
Natasha shook her head, as though Steve had forgotten something fundamental. “The queen died in childbed.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do you mean to say that Pierce killed her, too?” Natasha reasoned. “I suppose he might have, if only to set up the story of the king killing himself.”
“No,” Steve frowned, a veil parting as he stared into the fire, the shadowy shapes taking form. “James said—”
“Yes,” Steve blinked, forgetting that they didn’t already know. “The king.”
“Steve, are you fevered? We didn’t speak to the king…” Natasha said, in that way she sometimes had of thinking she knew best.
“Oh, for heaven’s…” Steve shook his head. “No, Natasha, you didn’t speak to the king. I did. I was the stranger.”
Natasha’s mouth fell open, and a vicious little part of Steve felt proud to have shocked her.
“I’m surprised you haven’t deduced it already, being as you’re such a gifted shadow knight,” he snapped, before immediately regretting his tone. It wasn’t Natasha’s fault he was miserable; she was simply a convenient proxy. “I’m sorry—”
“What do you mean, you were the stranger,” she said softly.
“James is the boy I met in the woods,” he replied, looking between their confounded faces. “Jamie, James. The king. It doesn’t matter how—”
“Steve,” Clint said slowly. “We saw the stranger. It wasn’t...you. That’s not possible.”
“Well of course it’s not possible,” he said, nearly upsetting his tea, voice shaking in its recollections. “It’s magic. And it’s the truth. I was there. I can tell you a million stories. I saw the chandeliers and the band with their blue coats. I danced with James, and I walked with him in the gardens. And he kissed me, and I'm in love with him, and now everything's spoilt because the stupid magic only lasted until the clock struck twelve, and—"
“There’s no such thing as magic!” Natasha yelped. “Steve, stop it, you’re—”
“That’s not entirely true.”
Three heads swiveled towards Nick, who was doing his best to look innocent as he cleared his throat.
“I beg your pardon?” Natasha scoffed.
Nick smiled, spreading his hands out before him and shrugging. "Magic is real enough. I've known fairies."
“Nick, you shouldn’t indulge—”
"It's not an indulgence," he replied evenly. "And you'd do well to remember you don't know everything there is to know in this world, Natasha. None of you do."
Natasha’s mouth closed with a snap, her already-rouged cheeks going a shade darker. Steve almost felt sorry for her, but not sorry enough to forgive her quite yet.
“What fairies?” Steve asked instead, turning his attention back to Nick. Perhaps, if Nick knew Howard or Abraham, he might be able to find them, and they might be able to turn Steve back. To give him a second chance with James.
“Just one,” Nick amended. “I knew of others, but only through hearsay. The fairy I knew was in thrall to Pierce—despicable creature by the name of Zola—”
“My fairies weren’t despicable,” Steve said quickly. “They were good.”
“Fairies?” Nick echoed.
“I had two,” he said, looking around. “They made me...bigger. Stronger. Better.”
“Not better,” Natasha said quietly, still disbelieving, but sure in her conviction that her little brother could be no better than he always had been.
“I…” Steve frowned, finding it impossible to stay annoyed with her. “They weren’t wicked. That’s all I know.”
“No doubt there are good fairies and bad ones,” Nick replied. “As with most things. This one belonged to Pierce, like I said. Turned up out of the blue after a trip he took on behalf of the king, though I can’t imagine George ordered such a capture.”
“Pierce has his own agenda,” Clint agreed, patting Natasha’s hand, being as she seemed to be undergoing a bit of shock.
“Indeed,” Nick said. “I walked into the king’s chambers one day when I heard George shout, and I saw the creature—the fairy—with its hands on him. I tried to stop it, but I didn’t see Pierce. He hit me from behind, and when I came to, they’d turned the king against me.”
“You were cast out of the palace,” Steve said quietly, the bits and pieces of the story coming together.
Nick nodded, casting a glance at Natasha and Clint to gauge how they were absorbing the information.
“But that’s...but you never said,” Natasha replied, blinking back her impractical tears. “Nick, it’s impossible.”
“I didn’t think you’d believe me,” Nick shrugged. “I hardly believed it myself. But now here we are, and here Steve is—”
“I don’t know why it happened to me,” Steve said, rising from his chair and looking at each of them in turn. “Only that it did. The fairies came here and granted me my heart’s desire, and what I found at the end of it was James. Maybe they knew I would, I don’t understand it, but here I am. Changed.”
“Magic’s a funny thing,” Nick said. “Stands to reason that if the fairies wanted you to be at that ball, they had a purpose in putting you there.”
“Yes,” Steve frowned. “It’s...that’s what I was saying before. About Pierce. About the queen.”
The conversation coming full circle, Nick raised an eyebrow. “What about the queen?”
“James showed me a picture of his mother,” he said, sounding it out. “When I saw her, she seemed familiar, somehow. At first, I thought it was because she looked so much like him, but now I think it's more than that. I think I've met her.”
“What?” Natasha’s voice came sharp, as Nick hid a smile.
“That is to say, I met her a long time ago. As a little boy. The woman in James’ portrait would come to visit us, at our cottage.” Steve frowned, realization dawning as he looked at Nick in growing shock. “She’d come to see Bucky.”
Bucky, his friend whose face he had forgotten, only to recall it once more in the memory of his mother. Bucky, who had been taken from him in an instant, resisting his captor with every bone in his body.
“Nick,” Steve said slowly. “Nick, there’s something—”
“Go on,” Nick prompted.
"Bucky. James—" his eyes went wide, and he sat back down on his chair with a swiftness, feeling somewhat dizzy.
“I was wondering when you’d figure it out,” Nick said. “He’s changed a bit.”
“Peggy, of course,” Nick said with a smile and a shrug. “She called herself a lady-in-waiting, but she was much more than that. The queen’s personal guard—a knight of the whispers, herself, and my very good friend. When we saw the influence of Pierce and Zola on George, we spoke with the queen, who agreed that measures ought to be taken to protect the prince whilst we figured out a solution to the problem at hand.”
“Bucky,” Steve said softly.
“The very same. Peggy said you’d given him that nonsense nickname. The prince was taken someplace safe—someplace we knew Zola couldn’t find him. We left him with a person Peggy and the queen trusted more than anyone else. You understand?”
Steve nodded, his mind whirling with the realization of certain truths that he had both known and not known—the familiarity, the understanding, and the way he’d been drawn towards James from the very start.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, looking up at Nick with hurt in his eyes.
“I made a promise that I’d keep you safe,” Nick replied. “I knew that if you knew, you’d go charging off to the palace with a practice sword in hand and get yourself killed in the process.”
“That’s not fair—”
“Is it wrong?”
“I—” Steve frowned.
“Would you two please stop speaking in circles and tell us what you mean, before Natasha breaks my hand?” Clint pleaded, drawing both of their attention to the two other occupants of the room—one of whom was grimacing in pain while the other bore down severely on his fingers.
Nick smiled, beckoning them closer and beginning to speak. However, his version of the tale was peppered with incessant questions from his wards, who were always seeking to understand things they could not possibly hope to fathom. Therefore, my darlings, here we will attempt a more poetic telling of the tale.
Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Leoman, there ruled a good and just (if rather easily influenced) king named George, who was married to the wise and incorruptible Queen Winifred. In the early years of his reign, King George made the grievous error of appointing a man named Alexander, who hailed from Cinnair, as his top advisor. In retrospect, this was a terrible decision, but being as this is a story of what has come to pass, there’s not much to be done about it now.
Alexander grew powerful and influential within the kingdom, in some ways through his own cunning, and in others through the influence of a horrid little fairy named Zola who the other fairies regarded as an embarrassment to the entire lot of them, but that is also neither here nor there.
As the years went on, Alexander and Zola poisoned the mind of King George, turning him against his wife and his stalwart friends. The queen, concerned for the safety of her unborn child, confided her fears to her two closest friends—her ostensible lady-in-waiting, Peggy, and a young woman named Sarah.
Sarah had grown up in the queen’s household, though the queen had been merely a princess at the time. The two had become fast friends, as they were of an age, and though Sarah’s rank was only that of a lady’s maid, Winifred never made her feel lesser or poorer than, treating her as a sister instead of a servant.
As such, when Winifred married George, Sarah came along, finding her new home rather strange, but happy enough.
Sarah also found love in that new home—a soldier named Joseph, who was brave as a bear and stubborn as an ox. They were married in the same late summer that Winifred discovered she had fallen pregnant with her first child.
Prince James was born on the tenth day of the third month, and the kingdom rejoiced whilst his mother fretted, having already begun losing her husband to Zola's madness. Around this same time, Sarah learned two things: she was going to have a child of her own, and Joseph had been killed in a minor land dispute at Leoman's southern border. A senseless death, one which she grieved, fretting for her child and clinging to her friend.
Winifred’s kindness was unparalleled, and she arranged for Sarah to convalesce in a small cottage on Peggy’s vast estate. Winifred visited as often as she was able, but with a baby at home and things in the palace growing dire, those visits became few and far between.
Peggy, meanwhile, watched. She watched as the king dismissed his bravest knight. She watched as the queen fretted over her newborn babe. She watched as Sarah’s baby entered the world, and she watched as Pierce’s nefarious eyes turned towards the prince.
So, Peggy bided her time, all the while hatching a plan. Only when she was sure did she bring her proposal to the queen, who fought against it at first, as any mother would, before coming to see it as the only decent thing to do for her son.
For by then, the king had become a shell of his former self, and Winifred could not bear to see the same thing happen to her boy, who had begun to see and understand more of the world around him with the passing of his first birthday. Winifred grieved over her choice, but as Peggy spirited her son away under cover of darkness, with the assistance of that recently disgraced knight, she felt sure she had done the right thing.
The plan, such as it was, had been to raise the prince outside the sphere of Alexander’s influence. To wait until the time was right to bring him home. To explain to him who he was, and how very much he was loved.
However, that time never came. The queen perished, along with her husband, and it was Alexander who brought the boy home in the end.
“We never did figure out how Pierce discovered the cottage. How he knew where James was,” finished Nick, steepling his hands as he surveyed the three sets of wide eyes turned towards him.
“Don’t you see?” Steve said, his voice tremulous as he fought back tears. “It was his mother. She loved him so much, she couldn’t stay away. She must have been followed.”
A plausible theory from a sharp mind. Nick thought it over, puzzling it into place. “Pierce knew where James was well before he killed George—the man he sent to retrieve the boy had come and gone before Peggy was able to reach the cottage, and she left the palace the moment she received word of the king’s demise. By the time she found you—-”
“My mother was dead, and Bucky was gone,” Steve said, his voice no more than a whisper, body aching with recollections long-since suppressed.
He remembered now. The fabric of his mother’s skirts, stiff with blood under his hands. The way her body had gone cold as he’d clung to her. He remembered hearing a woman sobbing, her cries mingling with his own.
Only, he hadn’t been crying. He felt sure of it. He’d been numb to everything, hardly able to make a sound.
There had been a baby crying.
“She wasn’t alone,” Steve croaked, the puzzle finally complete. “Peggy wasn’t. There was...the woman was there, too, at first. The queen.”
Nick shook his head. “You’re mixing things up, Steve. The queen was dead by then—”
“No,” Steve said, shaking his head violently as he shot to his feet. “I’m sure of it. She had a baby, Nick. Peggy left me with my mother, and when she came back, she was alone. And Peggy—” he frowned, trying to remember the words Peggy had spoken to him on the day she’d left him behind. “She said she would come back for me. When this was all over.”
“It wasn’t safe for her here,” Nick said. “She knew too much, and Pierce would have been looking for her. She had to run—”
Steve snorted, unable to help it. For being so smart, Nick was having a hard time seeing past the nose on his face. “Why would Peggy hide? A knight of the whispers, in retreat?”
A most intelligent question. Nick found himself at a loss for words.
“She’s not hiding,” Steve reasoned. “She’s been doing her job, al this time. Protecting the queen, and her daughter. They’re both alive—I’m sure of it.”
It’s the most curious feeling, when things that have never made any sense at all suddenly make all the sense in the world. For years, Peggy’s hasty retreat had bothered Nick, who had justified her absence a thousand ways, while always wondering why she hadn’t stayed behind to continue the fight. To help with the plotting and the planning of it all.
She had disappeared with nary a trace, and deep down, in his heart of hearts, he had thought her cowardly for doing so.
When Steve put forth his theory alongside his remembrances, Nick's world, so long tilted on its axis, was righted once more. He smiled a broad smile, before beginning to laugh—the latter such a rare occurrence that it rather startled his wards, though soon they started laughing right alongside him, the sort of hysterical laughter that only comes about when there are no other reasonable ways of expressing oneself.
“Oh,” Nick managed, once they’d gotten their breath back. “If there were ever a time to bring Peggy home—”
“What do you mean?” Natasha asked. “If she’s a knight of the whispers, you won’t just find her—”
“Leave that to me,” Nick replied. “I still have a trick or two up my sleeve.”
“We’ll have to work quickly,” Steve cautioned. “I don’t think James...err, Bucky...I don’t think he has much time.”
Bucky and James, James and Bucky. It felt strange to merge the two of them in his mind, and yet at the same time, it was perfectly natural. Because of course, James was Bucky, and Bucky was James. He had been all along, simply waiting for Steve to put him back together again. His lion, long forgotten.
There was no time to waste.
We're so close! Thank you to everyone sticking with this little story, I'm really excited to have the last few chapters play out. Next week features Bucky after the ball, and what Steve's influence brings out in him.
Find me on Tumblr at notlucy and say hi!
Chapter 13: My apologies to necessity if I'm mistaken after all
Funny old things, words. Don't you think?
It is generally understood that there is power in words, albeit a power that is often overlooked. Seen as lesser or somehow insignificant because it does not bear the weight of a sword or the swiftness of an arrow.
But there is power, all the same.
Take ‘please’ as an example. It makes a harried request kinder, improving the day of the recipient. Or, perhaps, it is the last gasp of a desperate man, begging for his life. ‘Please’ has the power to heal or hurt in equal measure.
Most words do.
Love, loss, loneliness. They all hold within them an element of grief along with an element of grit. A determination to carry on despite the pain of loving and losing another; the sorrow of remembering a family long forgotten; the sharp pangs of not-quite-hunger when the source of love has been taken away.
Yes, there is power in words.
No magic, though. Magic’s a separate beast—unpredictable, and able to be wielded only by a few. And even of those few, many are easily corrupted.
James did not have magic. He did not have might.
But he did have words.
Or, instead, James had one particular word, a word which he used to great effect on the night of the ball and in the weeks following.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you just what that word might be.
Steve left James bereft, standing on the steps as the royal guard went charging after him. More than that, Steve left him confused—which, for someone who spent as much time confused as poor James, was a considerable feat.
The fallen shield lay at his feet, and he bent to pick it up, surprised at its lightness. It weighed nearly nothing, and the thought crossed his mind that he should like to meet the smithy who had crafted such a tool. Strange, though—the strap wasn’t broken, though there was no other way it could have slipped from Steve’s shoulders.
Still shaken, he put the strap over his head, finding the presence a comfort as it came to rest on his shoulder blades. James might not have understood Steve in the slightest, but the shield's slight weight on his back reassured him that Steve would have to come back. Surely no knight could afford to leave such an excellent piece of craftsmanship behind.
He turned at the voice and found Sam coming down the steps, looking resplendent in his charcoal-colored suit, the material slashed strategically to allow the bright, scarlet underlayer to peek through. In truth, he looked a bit like a bird, showing off its plumage. Riley undoubtedly did not mind.
“Sam,” James said, his voice only shaking a little. “I’m afraid he’s gone.”
“The stranger?” Sam raised a brow.
“Yes. His name is Steve. And he’s gone now, as I said, but...you see, he’s left his shield behind.”
“I see,” Sam echoed. “And where’s he gone, this Steve? And for that matter, who was he? Everyone’s talking about him.”
Gossip traveled fast—even a sequestered king knew that—and James smiled. “I don’t know an answer to either of those questions. But…” he hesitated.
“Sam, I’m in love with him.”
Sam—a very practical person, who would have gotten on well with Natasha, had he known her—thought that was patently ridiculous. He did not believe in love at first sight, and as such he was the sort of person everyone ought to have as a friend, because as has previously been established, love at first sight does not exist.
(Granted, Sam could not have known that the sight between James and Steve was far from the first, and the love was nearly as old as they were.)
“That seems...sudden,” he offered, diplomatically.
“I have to find him,” James blurted, just as another shout came from the top of the stairs, though this one was not so friendly.
“Your Royal Highness,” Alexander said, scraping and bowing his way to his so-called liege lord (being as there were witnesses about). “We’ve been worried sick. You’ll catch your death out here—come along inside—”
(Such power in that word, don’t you think?)
Alexander was brought up short by the refusal, though he recovered quickly, his smile simpering as he stepped closer. “Now now,” he chided. “Don’t you think it’s time for you to retire? You’ve had an awfully exciting evening.”
“No,” James repeated, straightening himself. The strap of the shield pressed into his shoulder, much like a comforting hand, and he smiled. “I’m going back to my party.”
“Your Royal High—”
“Come, Sam,” James interrupted, brushing past Alexander, who could do nothing with so many people nearby.
James spent the rest of his evening with his guests—courtier and commoner alike—dancing with anyone who looked as though they weren’t having any fun, and seeing that they all found their way back to their carriages or (in the case of a few unfortunate souls) onto a royal mattress or settee or sofa to sleep off their intoxication.
Once the guests were either gone or settled, James declared that he was having Riley and Sam to stay over in the royal apartments, thereby putting a crimp in Alexander’s plans. It seemed, in fact, that the young king did not need his presence at all.
Alexander found himself once again hating the stranger. However, he was not yet deterred. There were other ways to manage the boy.
There was that word again, employed the following morning as James took breakfast with his friends, in response to Alexander’s query as to whether or not he ought to rest.
“No, I don’t think so,” James repeated. “I’m afraid I can’t rest, as I’m very busy all day.”
“Doing what?” Alexander asked, stiff-cheeked whilst attempting to hide his rage.
James picked up a piece of toast—having ordered something more than his customary porridge—and popped it into his mouth. “Caretaking,” he said around the bread.
When he put his mind to it, James was an excellent caretaker. Bolstered by the shield he wore on his back and the memory of a shared kiss in a snowy garden, he began to return to himself, bit by bit. Bolstered by a gift given to him by someone who believed him to be the lion he very much wished to be.
If he were going to be worthy of Steve when Steve returned to claim his shield, he'd have to start acting like one.
The days after the ball were spent thanking each and every person who had put extra time and effort into making the event a success. It came as something of a shock to the servants when the king entered their quarters, being as only a scant few had ever met him before. As it happened, they liked him—he was kind, humble, and quite funny, asking everyone their name, and doing his best to remember them later.
“What sort of memory problems does the king have?” they whispered, for this charming young man was nothing like the king they’d heard about through hearsay and speculation.
Thus, as time passed, different sorts of rumors began to spread. Stories of kindness and charity; goodwill and good cheer. James, meanwhile, in a show of prudence, did not allow himself to be alone for any length of time, dining with Sam and Riley either in the palace or at their cottage. It was on the fourth night after the ball that he confided in them the thoughts he'd been harboring.
“I worry,” he said as they finished their supper. “That perhaps Alexander has been...taking advantage of my illness.”
Sam and Riley—who had suspected as much for ages—exchanged a glance.
“It does seem that way, on occasion,” offered Sam, seizing the opportunity.
“We’re not saying he does it to be cruel,” Riley began.
“Only that he might enjoy his position,” Sam finished.
“Steve said that he bullies me.”
(The more Sam heard about this Steve fellow, the more he liked him.)
“He is...overprotective,” Sam agreed. “We’ve noticed that. Especially when you’re ill.”
“And he keeps you away from other people,” Riley said. “Too often, even when you’re not ill.”
James considered their words, one hand reaching out to touch the shield, which was resting against his leg, ever-present at his side or on his back. “Alexander has never been cruel,” he said slowly. “But sometimes when I see him, I’m frightened, and I can’t explain why. It’s as if I don’t like him at all, even though I know he’s doing what’s best.”
Even as he spoke those words, James wasn’t sure he believed them.
“If you’re frightened of him,” Sam said gently. “Then that’s not what’s best.”
Sam was very wise, James thought, and for the life of him, he couldn't remember why he'd gone weeks without seeing him before the ball. His good, smart friend. Hadn't he said that to Steve in the garden? How good Sam was?
Or, no, Steve had said he would be James’ friend.
But surely they’d talked about Sam? Why wouldn’t he have talked about Sam?
Frowning, James stared down at his empty plate. “You know,” he began slowly. “I think that so long as I’m well...perhaps I should spend more time with you both. If...you’d like to stay at the palace until Steve comes back.”
The husbands exchanged another look, this one with a half-smile, and Sam nodded. “We’d be happy to stay at your side,” he agreed, an unspoken understanding passing between them that Alexander was not to be left alone with James, regardless of whether or not the mystery knight ever deigned to show his face again.
The very next day, in front of a large crowd of assembled courtiers and other hangers-on, James proclaimed Sam and Riley as his official advisors. His very first advisors, in fact, being as Alexander had handled those appointments in the past.
When Alexander protested his plans, James said, “no.”
The word became a constant refrain.
“No, Alexander, I don’t need a treatment.”
“No, Alexander, I won’t.”
“No, Alexander, I can’t.”
“No, Alexander, you can’t.”
No, he would not take supper with Brock. No, he would not sign the proclamation until he'd had the opportunity to read it. No, he did not think Zola ought to take a look at him. No, he did not believe he was ill.
Each new day brought with it a further strengthening of James’ newfound convictions. Alexander loathed it—loathed him, that infuriating boy. Loathed Sam. Loathed Riley. Loathed that damnable shield he wore everywhere, given to him by that damnable mysterious, missing knight. The one who had started all the trouble.
And what trouble it was! The king insisting on greeting those courtiers who wished to see him whilst distributing gifts and lending an ear to grievances. Petty, the lot of them, Alexander thought, claiming that things had been better under King George. Stupid of them to beg King James to relieve their burdens. As though the silly, simpering boy could ever hope to understand the people. It didn’t matter how much he sat and listened, how many questions he asked, or how often he turned to his sycophantic little friends for advice.
In the evenings, when they’d return to the royal apartments, things were no better. Brock was furious at being snubbed, ready to ride home to his father and tell him of Alexander’s abject failure to bring James to heel. The insolent boy kept himself surrounded with his friends and well-wishers, leaving Alexander no space to slip in—no opportunity to send Zola to him on the sly. All Alexander had left, stripped of his usual tricks, were his wits and his words. Oh, and his absolute, blinding arrogance—we mustn’t forget about that.
Twelve days after the ball, the king convened a special council to discuss the problem nearest and dearest to his heart—the missing knight. And while several of those at the table were loyal to Alexander, several others were not, the balance of power tipping ever so slightly towards James.
“You see,” the king explained, sitting at the head of the table with the shield in front of him. “I intend to marry this knight—the Shield Knight, as I believe you’re all calling him now, though that’s not his name.”
“What is his name, Your Royal Highness?” asked a portly vizier who had been a good friend to his father’s father, and who thought Alexander a bit of a blowhard.
“Steve. Steven. Sir Steven. I’ve no idea, really, but—”
“Your Royal Highness, this is lunacy,” Alexander snapped.
“Be quiet, Alexander,” the king said evenly.
(Alexander nearly flew across the table and choked the life out of him with his bare hands. He was going to enjoy killing this boy, he really was.)
“As I was saying,” the king continued. “I want him found, but I’d rather not spare our soldiers on such a frivolous outing. As such, I’m at a loss.”
“Begging your pardon, Your Royal Highness,” said the very same vizier. “But what if you sent out another proclamation instead?”
Intrigued, James leaned forward. “Go on.”
“It stands to reason that this Shield Knight, this Sir Steven, heard your first proclamation and came to the ball, seeking you out. So it would seem that if you sent another, inviting the man back to the palace, in order that he might retrieve his lost property, he’d be very inclined to take the opportunity.”
“Along with every other eligible knight in the kingdom!” Alexander shouted. “What absolute nonsense.”
"Is it?" James replied. "I don't believe it would be. If I have to see five thousand men to find the one I want, then what's the harm in searching?"
“Because you’ll be eighteen soon, Your Royal Highness.”
“I wasn’t aware the occasion of my birthday made marriage a requirement, Alexander.”
Alexander gritted the teeth, envisioning a scenario in which he twisted the king’s head off his body and tossed it into the fire, before he spoke again. “The plan, Your Royal Highness, as you well know, was always to have you marry as early as possible so that we might secure the peace of the kingdom. Prince Brock—"
Alexander spluttered. “No?”
“I will not be marrying Prince Brock. If I marry anyone, it will be Steve, and only if he wants to be married.”
“Your Royal Highness,” Alexander said again, this time attempting a conciliatory tone. “What if this Shield Knight of yours doesn’t turn up? Will you never marry?”
James frowned while his fingertips, which had been resting on the edge of the shield, inched up further to cover the star, as though that cold metal could be a replacement for its owner. “He will.”
“For your sake, Your Royal Highness, I hope that he does,” Alexander lied. “But for the kingdom, the search cannot continue forever. Surely you can see that?”
“Well yes, but…” James looked down at his hand. The hints of the star peeking through between his fingers. And he wondered, not for the first time, about what secrets Steve held in his own heart that had caused him to disappear so suddenly and completely.
“Perhaps,” Alexander said, infinitely understanding. “We can agree on a reasonable length of time. If this knight of yours hasn’t presented himself by, oh...let’s say a fortnight past your birthday?”
“That’s not very long,” James protested weakly.
“Surely if he loves you,” Alexander continued. “It won’t take him a day, much less weeks.”
“And if he does not appear, you will marry Brock. For the good of Leoman.”
James hesitated, feeling the weight of his responsibility to his people just as much as he felt the burden of love placed on his heart. Steve would turn up. Steve had to turn up. “If he hasn’t appeared by then,” he agreed quietly. “Then yes, Alexander. I will marry Brock.”
Alexander sat back in his seat, a self-satisfied smile on his face. Naive fool of a boy—as though they didn’t remember what the Shield Knight looked like, with his hulking frame and gormless face. They’d capture him the moment he arrived if he arrived at all. Truthfully, Alexander couldn’t imagine the idiot actually wanted James—fleeing the palace at the first available opportunity. But they'd have him if he was stupid enough to show himself.
James dismissed the council soon after that, though they did take a brief foray into the planting of spring crops—a topic which had held no interest for James before, though the affairs of the kingdom meant more to him these days. His birthday brought with it certain opportunities, and if he was going to become king in his own right, he was going to do his best to be a worthy one.
Alexander, meanwhile, had tucked the vial of poison intended to kill James inside his left boot some time ago, ready and waiting for the first available opportunity to use it once the boy was married and Cinnair’s dominance was secure.
Like father, like son.
The king left the council chamber with Sam on one side and Riley on the other, Alexander trailing behind.
“Your Royal Highness, would you like me to—” Alexander began, only to be cut off at the knees with a hard stare.
So be it.
Shorter chapter this week, but as I said before, we're in the end game now, pals. Next week brings with it the results of the king's proclamation, as well as a few twists and turns. I'm so excited to share it!
Chapter 14: Pardon me, deserts, that I don't rush to you bearing a spoonful of water
Steve arrives at the palace for the second time...and the third.
The problem, as Steve saw it, was merely one of access.
This problem plagued him during the days after the ball. Sat with him as he saw Nick off on his journey to find Peggy and the family in her charge. Weighed on his mind as Clint and Natasha worried for his health, both of them knowing he sat awake every night, focused on what they could possibly do.
Ostensibly, he was meant to wait—wait for Nick to return, wait for Peggy and the queen and the princess and the plan they would no doubt devise.
Steve didn’t want to wait. He’d waited long enough.
If he could only see Bucky once more (and wasn't it strange, how he’d once thought of him as James, when there could be no other name for him than Bucky), he was sure he could find the words to explain. To make him see. To make him remember both their meeting in the woods and their childhood companionship.
Surely Bucky’s mind hadn’t been so addled by Alexander that he had forgotten Steve entirely? There was magic, after all, but then there was love—Steve couldn’t imagine a force in the world more powerful than that.
But the access. It was damnably elusive. One did not simply stroll into the palace and ask to see the king. There were protocols. Procedures. Guards with sharp swords and strict orders. The fact that the winter’s ball had been open to the common folk did not mean that the palace doors would swing wide for all and sundry forever. No, they had shut tight once the last guest had departed, closing the king off from the commoners, same as before.
Steve would not wait another ten years for his next opportunity. He was not patient like Nick, nor cunning like Natasha. Knowing Bucky was in the world and that he could not be with him splintered his heart further with every passing day. And yet, for all his desire, he found no way of overcoming his obstacle.
Wasn’t it lucky for him, then, that King James was so given to grand proclamations?
When the call for the Shield Knight’s return was issued, word spread through the kingdom like wildfire. Anyone and everyone who had been in attendance began proclaiming themselves the stranger, deciding they ought to have the same opportunity to prove themselves as any of their neighbors—to see the king and hope to catch his fancy.
As though, Steve thought, upon overhearing the baker proclaim his candidacy, Bucky would have eyes for anyone but me.
Or, at least, the man Steve had been that night.
That was a niggling little worry—explaining about the magic and all. But Bucky loved him. Surely he would understand?
Once again, however, we are getting ahead of ourselves. We must return to the day Steve heard the news of the announcement. Natasha, to no-one's surprise, heard of the proclamation first and returned from town brimming with excitement.
“The king’s looking for you, Steve!” she said by way of breathless greeting as she burst into the front room.
"What?" Sitting straight up, Steve's eyes widened, and he glanced towards the door, as though Bucky might be coming in behind her.
“There’s been a proclamation,” she explained. “The Shield Knight—that’s what they’re calling you, which is rather a stupid name but—”
“Right. Sorry. This knight is to present himself at court. To the king.”
Unable to keep the grin off his face, Steve scrambled to his feet. “We have to go! Right now—”
“But you’re not—”
“Bucky won’t mind.”
“Steve,” she laughed, catching him by the shoulders as he tried rushing past her. “Hold on a moment.”
“But Natasha,” he cried, ready to be angry with her all over again, should she deny him his opportunity.
“I’m not saying no,” she said. “We all know how well that worked out for me the last time. I’m only saying—let’s be smart about it, rather than hasty.”
Steve supposed he could see the logic in that, as on the whole, Natasha tended to be right more often than not. It wouldn’t do to burst in, looking the way he did, shouting about magic and fairies.
“Alright,” he acquiesced. “But let’s make it a quick plan, this time.”
Natasha pursed her lips to hide a smile. “Yes, well. They’re only seeing suitors for a short while—hardly more than a fortnight, so we haven’t all the time in the world. Still, I wish Nick were here.”
“So do I, but he isn't. And there’s no time to waste.”
“Then let’s go and find Clint.”
Clint was discovered napping by the kitchen fire, curled up with Lucky. That might have seemed an unusual occurrence if it hadn’t been one they encountered nearly daily. Once roused, he was happy to help, though he left most of the planning to Steve and Natasha.
“Tell me where to put an arrow, that’s all I need,” he said, biting into an apple.
“As always,” Natasha smirked, shying away as he crunched noisily near her ear.
Natasha's cunning paired perfectly with Steve's practicality, and they soon had a plan that was remarkably simple (and familiar, if Steve was entirely honest). Steve would be dressed in the most elegant clothes they could muster—cast-offs from Clint, cut down to size, paired with bits and pieces of the outfit he'd initially planned for the ball. They had no armor that would fit him, but a scabbard and a sword of Natasha's might make him seem respectable, at least.
Once he looked like a man of means, he would join the throngs of suitors proclaiming themselves to be the Shield Knight. Then, when he was in the room with Bucky, he would be able to explain just who he was. With any luck, Bucky would remember meeting him in the woods, and that would give Steve the chance to start talking.
For all Steve’s optimism, Natasha remained ruthlessly practical and insisted on taking extra precautions. She and Clint would be joining him—ostensibly seeking their own audience with the king, with Clint as the Shield Knight. When Steve protested the need for guardians, Natasha reminded him that they were dealing with a man who had committed regicide, so perhaps Steve ought to exercise a bit of self-preservation for once in his headstrong life.
It took them several days to outfit themselves appropriately, Steve was anxious the entire time. His peevish behavior had Natasha sending him to town for supplies a time or two, where he heard the boasting of the aforementioned baker.
Finally, though, they were resplendent and ready, mounting their horses and making for the palace. However, when they arrived, they found they were hardly the first people to do so. There were dozens—hundreds, even—aiming to try their luck with the king, the queue visible through the closed gates, which were guarded by four unsmiling soldiers.
“Bit of a line,” Steve said as they approached what they now recognized as a checkpoint. “Good morning, we’re—”
The guard in charge, judging by the crest on his jacket, began shaking his head before Steve finished speaking.
“Too big,” he said, pointing to Clint.
“No women,” said another, pointing to Natasha.
“You’ll do,” from the first guard again, directed at Steve, who had never in his life been chosen over Clint or Natasha and didn’t quite know what to do about it.
“Pardon?” Natasha scoffed. “He doesn’t look anything like the Shield Kn—”
“Doesn’t matter,” replied the guard. “No big men. No women. Them’s the orders.”
Squaring his shoulders, Steve stepped forward, just as Natasha caught his hand. “No,” she said, firm as ever. “Not alone, Steve.”
“No. We’ll find another way. I promise.”
Reluctantly, Steve allowed Natasha to lead him away. They returned home in rather glum moods, and when Natasha rose the next morning, she found Steve’s bed empty.
Part of her had expected it, though another part—a hopeful part—had hoped that perhaps her promise of finding another path would have been enough to keep him from doing something reckless and brave.
Touching her fingers to the indentation Steve’s head had left on his pillow, Natasha allowed herself one moment of worry before going to rouse Clint.
Steve knew Natasha would be angry with him. All the same, he hoped she would understand his reasons, once it was all over. Once he’d reunited with Bucky, and they were safe and together once more.
Waiting had never been an option. Not when Bucky was so close; not when the window was so small, and the opportunity so fleeting.
Four different guards were stationed outside the gates when he arrived, the soft light of an early dawn breaking over the horizon. They waved him through without question, and in his excitement, Steve did not stop to think about why, precisely, these guards had been tasked with keeping out men like Clint and allowing men like Steve to slip through.
As he entered the grounds, Steve was dismayed to find he was not the only early arrival. Or, rather, those who had not been seen the day before were still waiting, sleeping where they stood in line, the length of it snaking up and down corridors before ending in the throne room, where they would be received by the king.
(James, for his part, had been having a terrible time of it—hundreds of lying, simpering pretenders, none of them half as handsome as the man in his memory, each souring his mind on the prospect of ever finding his Shield Knight. Steve, it seemed, had abandoned him, and he grew more and more resentful of that with every passing day.)
Taking his place in line, Steve waited, impatient and fitful as the palace woke and the men began inching forward. An eternity passing in a morning, boring him silly. This was stupid—he was the damned Shield Knight! Only none of them could see it.
Fate, however, chose that moment to intervene.
Sam, who had been with James all morning, swapped places with Riley before going to see how many people were waiting. His task, whispered to him by a frustrated James, had been to observe the suitors and see if he might spot the Shield Knight among them.
Sam—a very observant sort of person—saw Steve instead, and found him quite familiar. He recognized him as the boy on a runaway horse, with tousled blond hair and a worn purple jacket, who had stood up to Alexander while staring boldly at the king.
Oh yes, Sam remembered. The boy’s clothes were finer now, though his hair was no less mussed.
Smiling, Sam stepped towards him. “You’re him,” he laughed. “I recognize you!”
Steve, who undoubtedly thought Sam meant someone else entirely, looked down at himself, wondering if perhaps he had been transformed without noticing. “I...yes,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “I am. Him.”
“James—err, the king, that is—he wouldn’t shut up about you after the hunt.”
“That’s where I know you from, isn’t it? You’re the boy with the runaway horse.”
Steve’s face fell; no magic, merely coincidence. “Oh. Yes. That’s...yes. That was me.”
“What are you doing here?” After all, he was no knight, shield or otherwise.
“I wanted to see Jamie again,” he said, and it wasn’t precisely a lie, even if it wasn’t entirely the truth. “Didn’t see how I could pass up the opportunity to visit the palace.”
“Well,” Steve went red. “He said he was a caretaker. But you’re...you’ve said he’s the king.”
(Steve wasn’t much of an actor, and did a rather poor job of showing any real surprise at the ‘discovery’ that he’d made the acquaintance of the king in the woods.)
“Yes,” Sam said slowly, looking Steve up and down. “You’d better come with me—I’m sure he’ll want to see you.”
“Oh, yes, please,” Steve said, stepping out of line.
“Only…” Sam hesitated, wondering how much to trust this boy, of whom James had seemed so fond. “He doesn’t quite remember meeting you.”
“No?” Steve said. “Well, he told me he had memory problems.”
“Yes.” Granted, it hadn’t been in the woods, but what did that matter?
"Come on, then," Sam smiled. "Let's reintroduce you. He'll be pleased to have a change of scenery, at any rate."
Steve’s feet carried him forward, his mind whirling with possibilities as he followed Sam down the long, ornate corridor. Past the guards. Past the pretenders. And finally through the massive wooden doors that opened to the throne room.
The awfully, awfully long throne room—almost impossibly long, with a raised dais at the far end and half a hundred courtiers lining the walls. It was massive and ornate, imposing in its splendor, and Steve worried he could never make James understand. Who was he, when compared to all of this?
"Come on," Sam said, breaking into his anxious thoughts with a smile and a nudge to his shoulder. "James is waiting."
Steve swallowed and forced a smile onto his face, nodding to Sam as they made their way towards the throne. There were two guards placed on either side of the dais, and as they drew closer, Steve recognized Alexander, standing to the right of the throne. Next to him was a short, brute-faced man that he could only assume was Zola. On the left side of the throne was a handsome young man Steve had never seen before, who smiled at Sam the moment they were near enough.
Then, there was Bucky, sitting on his throne with Steve’s shield on his arm, unmistakable in red and blue. Upon seeing him again, Steve was ashamed at not having recognized him before. How could he be anyone but Bucky? The softness of youth had faded, leaving him with a sturdier sort of handsomeness, but there was no mistaking the line of his nose, nor the dimple in his chin.
The king’s attention turned to Steve, and something extraordinary happened: he laughed a laugh of great surprise before rising from his throne in a way that caused every assembled courtier to gasp at the lapse in protocol.
“You…” Bucky said, shaking his head as if waking from a dream. “I know you.”
“Yes,” Steve agreed, his own laughter bubbling up at the inevitability of it all. “We met in the woods.”
A boy. A stag. A chase and a conversation. A memory returned, not forgotten but buried deep and locked away.
The king smiled. “Yes,” he agreed. “I had forgotten—”
“You’ve forgotten quite a bit,” Steve said, stepping closer, turning his sharp eyes to Alexander. “Or been made to forget it.”
“Your Royal Highness,” Alexander said, voice cool as he met Steve’s challenge with perfect calm. “As wonderful as it is to see this...boy again, we have more pressing matters—”
“I assume you’re referring to the business of the Shield Knight?” Steve said.
Alexander turned on him with a venomous expression. “Yes. Though what you’d know about that…”
“Quite a lot,” Steve replied, turning his attention back to Bucky. “I never introduced myself, in the woods. You said your name was Jamie.”
“My name is Steve.”
“Steve,” Bucky echoed, a frown marring his features as his mind began to shake off the dust of disuse.
“I am the Shield Knight,” Steve continued. “I danced with you at the ball—”
“Your Royal Highness,” Alexander said sharply. “You oughtn’t to entertain this farce. Look at him! He could hardly lift that shield, much less wield it.”
“Be that as it may,” Steve said, taking another step towards Bucky. “That is my shield.”
“Be quiet, Alexander." The king's command brokered no argument. Steve didn't bother to hide his smile as Bucky lifted the shield. "You ought to have it back if it's yours."
Steve took one more step forward, then reached out to touch his shield.
No sooner had his fingers brushed the metal than curious things began to happen. The shield shivered and shook as if waking from a long slumber. What had been made by magic and held together with hope and heart was unmade in the same fashion, the spell unraveling and falling away, leaving behind two boys holding a simple paper star between them.
“Steve?” Bucky spoke first, his voice tremulous with newfound understanding.
“It’s you. I remember you…” Bucky shook his head. “We used to play soldiers. Your mother made us suits.”
“You always said I was too small.”
Steve’s voice hitched, and after that, it was unclear as to which one of them started laughing first. Which one started crying. Which one began the hug that very nearly crushed the small star between them.
In the legends of later days, the stories told about that moment would be exaggerated into something grander—something worthy of renown. A pitched battle, an exploding star, a fierce knight saving a lost lion. People, after all, enjoy a tall tale, and a quiet hug isn’t half so entertaining as a melee.
For Steve and Bucky, however, it was more than enough.
Alexander, meanwhile, had begun to look as though he’d swallowed a pickled earwig. His face twisted into a grimace when faced with the embrace, although by the time they’d released one another, he had schooled his features into something nearly pleasant, his wicked mind working to stay one step ahead of the splintering situation.
“How wonderfully touching,” he said. “Your Royal Highness...perhaps you ought to retire. We ought to retire. There’s so much to discuss.”
“Yes,” Bucky agreed, though his eyes never left Steve’s face. “We’ll go to my rooms—it’s private there. Alexander, you can have the other suitors dismissed.”
“Wait,” Steve said, looking up and catching Sam’s eye. “Please, my brother and sister...I didn’t tell them I was coming, and they’ll be worried. Can someone go and fetch them?”
“I’ll go,” Riley said, and though Steve didn’t know him, he trusted the way he was holding Sam’s hand.
“Brother and sister?” Bucky echoed.
“They’re not really,” Steve said, tucking the paper star into his jacket, before turning to Riley. “I’m Steve.”
“So I heard. I’m Riley. Where can I find these siblings of yours?”
Steve told him where, precisely, Clint and Natasha could be found, before turning back to Bucky with a smile. “There’s lots to tell you,” he said. “It’s been so long…”
“We have time,” Bucky replied, ignoring Alexander’s spluttering presence as they brushed past him, hand-in-hand.
They made their way out of the throne room, through the passage that would lead them to the royal residence, accompanied by the two guards, Alexander, Zola, and Sam. Once they arrived, the door was shut behind them, and Zola slunk to the corner as the guards took their positions by the wall.
Alexander cleared his throat, determined to keep things under his control. What he could not know, however, was that Bucky had already been lost to him. The magic that had so long addled his mind had begun to fade the moment Steve stepped into the throne room, and the longer they stood together, the more Bucky was able to recall.
He could remember fragments of his happy childhood.
A man in black, stealing him away.
Days spent begging for Steve.
The first of his treatments. And the last.
How close he’d come to the edge of remembrance, only to have it stolen away time and again.
Everything Alexander had taken from him, never gone but long forgotten.
“My boy,” Alexander began.
“I’m not yours,” Bucky said, standing tall and proud and belonging to no-one but himself.
And so, Alexander knew he had run out of options. Knew he had lost the king, and all his planning was for naught. An entire lifetime spent preparing to usher in the glory of his kingdom, undone by this insignificant boy and his paper star.
Oh, Alexander hated that boy, and that hatred was a twisting, panicked thing that made him rather desperate. Such desperation can make even the best people do monstrous things. And the worst people, like Alexander? One shudders to think.
“Oh, my boy,” he sneered. “You have always been mine.”
“No.” Bucky released Steve’s hand, determined to stand for himself as he stepped towards Alexander. “Guards, I want both of these men removed at once.”
Neither guard moved. Bucky repeated his command, and Steve realized, a moment too late, that they had put themselves into a very precarious position, alone with Alexander and away from prying eyes.
“Such a child,” Alexander chuckled. “Did you really think they’d be loyal to you?”
Alexander snapped his fingers, and the guards moved with a swiftness—one restrained Sam, while the other took Steve. Bucky, meanwhile, was grabbed by Alexander himself, who spun him around and pressed a sharp knife, hitherto concealed, against his throat.
“No!” Steve shouted, struggling against the guard’s tight grip.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Alexander taunted, pressing the blade against the pale line of Bucky’s throat, a spot of blood welling from the cut.
Steve stopped struggling, his eyes going wide.
“You’ve ruined everything,” Alexander said, his hysteria overtaking his tone as he rambled. “No matter, though, no matter. It’s—” He laughed, the sound of it so cruel and callow it shook Steve to his bones. “I only needed a few days, I—” He dug the blade in further, and Bucky gave a pained whimper.
"Please, don't," Steve begged, desperate for time as his sharp mind played out every outcome—the skill coming naturally after years of living with a sister who was always three steps ahead of him in any game they'd ever played.
“A country in mourning,” Alexander mused, ignoring Steve’s protestations. “There’s an idea. Stupid of me, I ought to have...doesn’t matter. There’ll be three bodies, but there won’t be an heir…”
“People saw!” Steve blurted in an attempt to cut through the man's madness, grasping for anything that would delay the inevitable. “The star! All those people saw the shield transform. You can’t hide it! Can’t force him to marry, when—”
“How,” Alexander replied. “Do you know about his marriage?”
Steve hesitated, caught with information he ought not to have had. Natasha would have been ashamed, no doubt, though he channeled her as he steeled his fear into his annoyed response. “Does it matter?”
“I…” Alexander shrugged. “No.” He turned to the guard holding Sam. “Kill him first.”
“Wait!” Steve shouted as Sam struggled. There was something—a glimmer of an idea in his mind, dim at first but brightening quickly as the threads came together. “What if I weren’t the Shield Knight? What if this was all a trick.”
“But you are!” Bucky cried.
“But they don’t...nobody knows that,” Steve said. “They saw magic, but not me. Not how I was.” Turning his gaze to Alexander, he did his best to keep his voice even. “You could spread the story that I’d been coming here to coerce the king. To do harm to the kingdom. But you discovered the plot—confronted me and killed me.”
“No!” Bucky shouted, even as Alexander tightened his grip.
“You’d be a hero,” Steve said. “A legend.” And Bucky? Bucky would be alive.
Granted, Steve wouldn’t be, but his life was but a small sacrifice.
For all his youth, Steve wasn’t naive. He understood that even if Alexander agreed, his word meant nothing. Steve would lay down his life to save Bucky’s, and Alexander would still attempt to carry out his plan, killing Bucky days after his wedding to Brock. To be sure. To be safe.
But Steve knew things that Alexander could not know. Things about Nick. Peggy. The lost queen and a little princess.
There was still a chance for Leoman, which meant there was still a chance for Bucky.
Steve could buy them time, at least.
“A noble idea,” Alexander mused. “You wish to strike a bargain, then?”
“Yes,” Steve said, lifting his chin. “My life for both of theirs.”
“Steve, no,” Bucky begged, his voice breaking as he came to understand the terrible exchange being made.
Steve couldn't meet Bucky's eyes. Couldn't bring himself to acknowledge the truth of it: he had set out to save Bucky by any means necessary, and he would—even if he broke his heart in the process.
“Swear it,” Steve said. “Swear you won’t kill him. Even after he’s married, you’ll let him go—let them all go, Sam and Riley, too. They won’t come back here, and you can have your coup, so long as he can have his life.” His eyes briefly flicked to Bucky, who was looking as though he might do something stupid—breaking away against the point of the knife, perhaps. Steve shook his head minutely, begging him not to.
“I swear,” said Alexander, a grotesque grin spreading across his face as he nodded to the guard holding Steve. “Do it.”
Steve held Bucky’s terrified gaze and smiled. “I love you,” he said as the guard’s blade found its mark, plunging deep into the tender flesh of torso. In perhaps the cruelest stroke, Alexander released Bucky the moment Steve crumpled to the floor, the blow struck true, death inevitable and nearly instantaneous.
The last thing Steve saw before his final broken breath left his lungs was Bucky’s face above him.
The last thing he heard was the snick of an arrow being loosed from its string.
Y'all, I'm so sorry. It's an AU with magic, I did not tag MCD for a reason, and this is a story with a happy ending. Bear that in mind. Chapter 15 features...a lot! Of stuff! And is the last real chapter of the story before the epilogue.
Find and yell at me on Tumblr at notlucy.
Chapter 15: Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home
What do you suppose magic is?
Alexander lived no longer than the time it took for the arrow loosed from Clint’s bow to find its mark, striking a clean blow through the socket of an eye that would never see his grand plans come to fruition.
Yes, my darlings, Clint’s aim proved true, even if the killing blow did not come soon enough to save Steve.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves once again. First, it is imperative that we turn the clock back and look to Riley and his errand. If you’ll recall, he had been sent to fetch Steve’s adopted siblings, and because Natasha was Natasha, Riley did not have to go far, being as she and Clint had made haste to the palace upon her realization that Steve had snuck away without them.
Riley—who had not believed in magic until seeing that shield transform into a star—might once have thought it too much of a coincidence to find Natasha and Clint at the gates of the palace, perfectly matching the descriptions given to him by Steve. However, considering the utterly implausible events which had already taken place that morning, he was inclined not to question the whims of fate.
Natasha was arguing furiously with a guard, as yet blissfully unaware of what turmoil was taking place just within the walls of the palace, but angry all the same. The guard was refusing her at every turn, though the ferocity of her temper had the man going a mite pale as Riley approached.
“It’s alright,” Riley said to the guard, the crest of the king on his shoulder conveying the import of his words. “Let them through.”
The guard did as he was told, allowing Natasha and Clint to enter against the stream of men—remnants of the long line of would-be suitors—making their way out the grand gates of the palace.
“You must be Natasha,” Riley greeted. “And Clint?”
“Who are you?” Natasha asked at once.
“A friend,” he said. “Of the king’s, that is. Name’s Riley. I suppose you’d like to see your brother?”
“Is he alright?”
“He’s better than alright.” Riley smiled and gestured towards the palace. “He’s with the king.”
“You mean Bucky,” supplied Clint, as though they were old friends.
“James,” Riley corrected. “Though you two had better call him Your Royal Highness until you’re told not to.”
“But Steve’s alright?” Natasha repeated, not caring for the semantics.
“He was when I left him,” Riley said. “Come with me.”
They made haste, running through the now-empty corridors of the palace. Past the throne room and through the hidden passage, down the hall to the royal apartments. Only when they arrived, they found the door locked with a burly, unsmiling guard stationed before it. There was shouting within the room beyond.
Natasha stepped forward. “Move,” she said to the guard, who towered three heads above her and was surely twice her weight.
Feeling that his size gave him a considerable advantage, the guard scoffed. Natasha did not hesitate before cutting him down cleanly—a disabling stroke, though one that left him alive. Clint, meanwhile, nocked an arrow on his bow as Riley opened the door.
They were met with carnage and chaos. Natasha stood frozen, a cry of despair caught in her throat when she saw Steve fall and Bucky rush forward with a strangled sob. Alexander’s gaze turned to them only briefly before Clint’s arrow sailed through the air, felling him where he stood.
He would neither be missed nor mourned.
Time stood still, the air thrumming and throbbing as the creature in the corner—Zola, detestable as he was—appeared to divide and disappear into nothing the moment Alexander’s last breath left his body. The guard holding Sam was momentarily distracted by the magic, allowing Sam to strike a blow that set him free and sent the guard reeling.
Natasha didn't waste the opportunity when the guard stumbled towards her, pulling a knife from her belt and slicing through the tendons of the man's left ankle before he had the chance to regain his footing. Another left alive if perhaps wishing he hadn't been.
The third guard was brought low by a second arrow, this one lodged deep in the meat of his shoulder just as he raised his sword to strike a killing blow to Bucky, who was still crouched over Steve in despair. Clint didn't allow him the opportunity, and Natasha finished the job, her blade thrown with expert precision, rooting itself deep in the murderer's neck. There would be no mercy for the man who had killed their brother.
The battle was over in less than a minute, the room falling still and silent.
“Steve—” The name pierced the quiet, torn ragged and hoarse from Bucky’s throat as he curled himself over Steve’s broken body.
Riley and Sam rushed to one another, shaken by the understanding that it could have just as easily been one of them there, crouched on the cold stone floor. Clint and Natasha did much the same, the four of them making their way to where Bucky lay with Steve, the stones stained crimson with blood.
“They were coming,” Bucky whispered, as though Steve might only be dreaming. “They were coming to save you. Please, please don’t be gone. I’ve only just remembered you—”
If they’d had a minute more. If Steve had spoken for longer. If Bucky had fought Alexander harder. If Riley had been quicker. If Natasha had cut the guard down faster. If Clint had been the first through the door. Any one of those might have bought them the seconds necessary to change the course of fate, giving Steve back his life.
But then, what if Steve had spoken longer? If Bucky had fought harder? Perhaps Alexander’s blade might have slipped, killing Bucky instead. And if Riley had been quicker, if Natasha had been faster, if Clint had been first, the battle might have ended a different way, with others dead. With Alexander victorious.
There were countless outcomes. And Steve? Steve would have been pleased with the one they got—his life sacrificed to guarantee the safety of those he loved. Bucky, freed of his bondage, just as Steve had planned all along.
Time passed. Bucky refused to leave Steve’s side, even as things began to settle and move forward the way things have a tendency to do. Sam—loyal and lucky with his husband by his side—did what Bucky could not, and stepped in to advise on what must be done.
The bodies, save for Steve’s, were removed. Those guards who were wounded were taken to the infirmary, in an effort to ensure they would live to atone for their crimes. A regiment of the royal guard loyal to the king was sent to search for Zola, though nobody held out much hope for finding him.
There were other concerns to be addressed—weeding out those who were faithful to Alexander, deciding what ought to be done about the business of Brock still residing in the palace, and informing the courtiers of what had transpired, to name a few. Yet, with Sam in charge, things would be set right, even as the king grieved.
And grieve he did, refusing to relinquish his hold on Steve’s body, even as it grew cold. Clint and Natasha stayed nearby, numb with shock and disbelief that someone they held so dearly and loved so much could be gone. Eventually, though, even they were coaxed into taking a bit of food and retiring to a room where they could sleep.
Hours later, when Bucky began to shiver, wrung out of tears and hardly able to lift his head from Steve’s chest, Sam stepped in, kneeling next to his friend and placing a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“James,” he said quietly.
“Bucky, then. You have to get up now. You need to eat, and—”
Sam gave him a moment, wishing that he could suffuse some of his own warmth into his friend’s weary soul. But Sam was no wielder of magic; he had only his words.
“I know it hurts,” he said after some time had passed. “And it’s not fair.”
Bucky turned his face against Steve’s body, saying nothing in return.
“But I don’t believe,” Sam continued. “That Steve would have wanted you to grieve him this way. He said...he did this because he wanted you to live. Don’t you owe him that?”
“I can’t, Sam,” Bucky replied, his voice cracked.
“You think you can’t. But I’m going to help you. I’m right here.”
Eventually, Bucky acquiesced. A turn of the head, a shrug of the shoulders. Sam took the opportunity when he saw it, helping Bucky from the floor. Shouldering as much of his burden as he could manage.
“Don’t let them take him yet,” Bucky said, once he was on his feet, his eyes never leaving Steve’s body. “Please, Sam? Please don’t let them take him—”
The plea ended with a sob, so Sam nodded. There was a limit to how long the body could stay where it was, of course, he knew that. Perhaps, when Bucky was clean and fed, with a night of sleep under his belt, they could have that discussion. But Sam wasn’t about to cause him any further pain. Not yet.
Bucky spent a fitful night tangled in his bedclothes, tossing and turning as he whimpered his way through nightmares and memories. The last of the magic that had been holding his mind in thrall for years dissipated through his dreams, leaving him with both the remembrances of his golden childhood and the knowledge that he alone had caused the deaths of both the people who had made it shine so brightly.
In the early hours of the morning, he dreamt of his mother. Not Sarah, but his mother. She was sitting on the edge of his bed, golden in the dawn’s breaking light that slipped through the curtains. Oh, he remembered her now. Remembered long summer days spent at the cottage together. How she’d smelled of lavender and how she’d hugged him so fiercely. The way she had cried every time she’d had to leave him behind.
He knew her face from more than the miniature around his neck, now. He had those memories back, every happy day.
Funny, though. How in his dream, she looked older than she had when he was small.
“I know you,” he said, sitting up just as she leaned forward, her blue eyes bright with tears. “Don’t cry—it’s only a dream.”
Winifred put her arms around him then, and she was real. Flesh and blood and that very same lavender memory. “Oh, my poor boy. You’re not dreaming.”
Bucky started, pinching himself and pulling away from her embrace, his eyes widening. “But—”
“I’m so sorry, Bucky,” she said, her voice trembling as she reached for his hands, only to have him yank them back. “We always thought we’d have time—we went to the cottage, we went to find you. But you’d already been taken, and Sarah was…” she broke off, tears spilling over onto her cheeks.
“We?” Bucky said, still half-convinced he was dreaming.
“Peggy and I,” she said quietly. “And your sister.”
“Oh, darling. It’s such a long story, but...we’ve been trying to find a way to get you out of here for so long, but we couldn’t get close and—”
“I don’t…” Trailing off, Bucky put his fingertips to his temples and rubbed. “You’re real?”
"Then…" He didn't want her close. Not yet. Not when she'd been gone so long, and he'd been so very lonely. But if what she said was true, and she'd been trying, he supposed he ought to listen to her story. "But you were dead.”
“I know that’s what you were told, but it’s not true. We’ve been in hiding—never staying in one place long, but Nick found us and brought us back, you see?”
“Ah, you wouldn’t remember him. I did say it was a long story,” she offered, an apology in her tone.
Bucky bit his lip, not quite sure what to feel just yet, and more than a bit overwhelmed by his grief and his memories. “You’d better start at the beginning.”
Winifred took a deep breath and steadied her voice before starting to speak. She told him of Alexander and Zola. How they’d corrupted his father. How she’d always had her suspicions, and how those suspicions had informed her reasons for sending him away to live with Sarah and Steve. She told him of the plans they’d hatched—of Nick, of Peggy, of Sarah—and how she’d stolen Bucky away from the king in his madness. How she’d tried to keep him safe, only to fail when it counted the most.
“We made haste to the cottage the moment we knew your father had been killed,” she said. “Only by the time we arrived, there was only...Sarah’s body, and Steve, of course. But you were gone, and Peggy said there wasn’t time. That we had to go, to wait for her at the rendezvous she’d chosen, and that she’d follow soon after.”
“You ran away from me,” Bucky said quietly. “Abandoned me to this.”
“Oh, my heart, I didn’t want to,” she replied, and this time when she reached for his hands, he allowed it. “Peggy took care of Sarah’s affairs and found a place for Steve, but the moment we were together again, I insisted we go back and find a way to rescue you. She didn’t like it, but I can be...persuasive. So she agreed to try, but when we tried to use the old passages to sneak into the palace, that damnable fairy had already put wards up to keep us out.”
“They’re a sort of spell,” she said. “Near as we could figure, they kept out anyone who sought to kill Alexander, which certainly included me. And Peggy.”
But not Steve. Steve hadn’t wanted to do harm to Alexander; he’d only wanted to save Bucky. Knowing that made it worse somehow, and Bucky frowned before looking down at his hands, fisted in the bedclothes.
“We couldn’t get close,” Winifred continued. “And I had to...I had to think of your sister, too. Peggy promised we’d find another way.”
“That’s not true,” Winifred said gently. “Bucky, I know you’re angry—”
“I was alone!” he spat, bitterly. “I thought you were dead. Steve was taken from me, everything...my life was taken from me, and Alexander—”
“Alexander kept me away from you for a decade,” she broke in, taking him by the shoulders. “Him and his magic, that fairy of his. The wards faded the moment he died, you understand? They were tied to him, and he was tied to you.”
“Magic wasn’t what killed him,” Bucky said.
“No. They said it was an arrow. One single arrow…” she blinked, shaking her head. “All that secrecy. All that hiding. And all we ever needed was a clean shot and a skilled archer.”
Bucky didn’t say anything, though the set of his shoulders softened. “Did you really try?”
“To get back to you?” she asked. “Every day. We sought out spellbooks and sorcerers, spent all our time and effort doing our best to break those charms. But you didn’t need us in the end. You saved yourself.”
“No,” Bucky said. “Steve saved me.” Saying Steve’s name aloud brought tears to his eyes, and though he was sure he would have more questions in the days to come, at that moment all he wanted was his mother.
Winifred gathered him close, letting him lie with his head on her lap as she stroked his hair and murmured endless apologies.
“I met Sam,” she said after a time, clearing her throat. “He said that Steve died—he died to save you.”
“Yes. Just like his mother. We ruined that family.”
Winifred let out a strangled breath, her voice hitching when she spoke. “Sarah,” she said, before lifting a hand to wipe her eyes. “Sarah was my darling girl, you know. I loved her very much.”
“I loved him,” Bucky replied, before turning his face against his mother’s lap and beginning to weep once more. It took some time for his sobs to subside, but when they did, he looked at her and smiled despite the tear tracks on his face. “Do you think,” he queried. “I could meet my sister?”
Princess Rebecca met her big brother in the room that had once, a long time ago, been his nursery, its creation presided over by a young couple with bright hopes and dreams for the future. Now, it would be hers, and despite his sorrow, Bucky couldn’t help smiling as he watched her laugh and exclaim over the books and toys. She was a bright light on a dark day, and he was grateful. The three of them—that small, misshapen family—took breakfast together, and though Bucky only picked at his food, it did him a world of good to see that there were people who had loved him and grieved for him even in his darkest hour, during the worst of Zola’s treatments.
When the meal was over, however, he returned to the royal apartments alone. Steve's body had been moved from the floor to a settee. Bucky tried not to look at the spot where Steve had died but found himself drawn to it anyway, convinced he could make out the stain left behind by the blood, though it had long since been scrubbed away.
“Hello,” he said, once he’d had his fill, turning from the center of the room to face Steve’s body, skin gone waxy and ashen as death began to collect its due. “My mother’s come home. I suppose you knew that might happen, same as you knew your friends might be turning up. Seems you knew everything, and there’s...so much you never got the chance to tell me.”
For a moment, Bucky was sure Steve would answer. When he remained cold and unmoving, however, Bucky let out a hysterical laugh to keep his tears at bay, crossing the room to kneel by the body.
“When we met in the woods, I thought you were so brave because you were a knight. And I remember now, that you always wanted to be one when we were small. But you weren’t a knight. You never were, and you were never going to be. You were only ever yourself.” Taking one of Steve’s hands, he lifted it and pressed a kiss to the cold skin on the back of his palm. “That was enough. That was always enough.”
“Even the smallest stars shine bright,” said a voice from behind him.
Bucky jumped, having heard no door open nor footsteps on the stone. Turning, he found a woman standing above him wearing a cloak of dark blue with scarlet trimmings.
He remembered her face.
“Hello, my darling,” she said. “I am so very sorry for what’s happened to you.”
Bucky looked back at Steve, as Peggy lay a hand on the crown of his head. "My mother says you protected her, and Rebecca," he said, voice hitching. "I'm grateful."
“I ought to have been protecting you, too,” she replied. “The fact that I wasn’t able to will always be my greatest sorrow.”
“Steve is mine.”
“Just so,” Peggy said, moving her hand from his head to catch under his chin, tipping his face and allowing him to truly see her—to understand her—for the first time.
For unlike his mother, Peggy was no older than the version of herself who lived in his memories. Not a line or crease on her skin, nor a grey hair on her scalp.
“My good and darling boy,” she murmured, leaning down to press a kiss to his forehead. “Don’t you know who I am?”
Bucky shook his head, though he found that his eyes were growing damp.
“I am your fairy godmother.”
“I have been looking after your mother’s family for an awfully long time. Backward and forwards and then there’s you.”
She cupped his cheek as she knelt by his side, her other hand coming to rest near the tear in Steve’s shirt that had been left by the damnable blade.
“What do you suppose magic is?” she asked, her nimble fingers reaching past the ragged cloth and drawing out the paper star Steve had tucked into his jacket the day before, stained red by his blood and cut nearly in half. “A story we tell ourselves, perhaps. A symbol. Or a shield.”
Something was happening. The same strange thrumming as had been in the room the day before. Bucky could feel it, now. A million gossamer threads warping and wefting the air around them.
“It is goodness, Bucky,” Peggy continued. “Kindness and bravery, yes, but not in the way Steve imagined it to be, for it is better to be a good man than a perfect soldier. And this man?”
She moved swiftly, bringing Bucky’s hand to bear against Steve’s wound before drawing a long, thin wand from her cloak.
“He is the very best of us, my darling, and you are the very best of him.”
Peggy flicked her wrist, and Bucky felt Steve move. An inhale. An exhale. A powerful force lifting him into the air. He was brighter than the stars in the sky, and Bucky looked away, shielding his eyes as the magic—the deep, pure, real magic—did its good work.
It was only when the glow began to dim that Bucky lifted his gaze and found Steve standing there, small but whole, his magnificent shield held on one arm as the last of the magic faded from view.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has been cheering this little story along. It's outside of my wheelhouse in a big way, but I've had such fun with it. Next week brings the epilogue and a few lingering answers.
Find me on Tumblr at notlucy if you'd like to say hello!
Chapter 16: Please, don't be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due
And they all lived happily ever after - or so they'd tell you if you asked.
What then, my darlings, became of them? Our two boys with their stars and shields. The would-be knight and the wounded lion.
To tell a simple story would be to say that the reign of King James and Prince Consort Steven was one of peace and prosperity. That, however, would be only a story. For despite his good heart and wise counsel, James was still a very young king. He made mistakes—some great and some small—and he learned from them, becoming in the process a ruler who relied upon the sound advice of others, as well as his own compassion and concern. More than anything else, he was sincere and strove to do right by the people of his kingdom.
It was said that he and his consort were rarely out of one another’s sight—a love match, according to rumor. A true love match, if one was prone to professing such fanciful notions as that. Courtiers do love a good romance, so the outlandish story about the man with a magical shield spread across the kingdom until every babe in arms had been rocked to sleep by the tale.
(When pressed for details at pompous parties, however, the royal couple denied every charge.)
The consort himself was a mystery, with neither noble blood nor reputation to set him apart from the throng. Some stories cast him as a fairy, others a wizard. None of them could fathom the truth of it all: a common man who had stolen the heart of the king.
But of course, you know as well as I do that Steve was no common man.
In the end, there were only three witnesses to the magic that had restored him: James, Steve, and Peggy herself.
Peggy—who had somewhat more pressing business to attend to, what with tracking down the wicked fairy named Zola and bringing him to justice—gave them her blessing as she readied herself to leave them only moments after they'd been reunited, pulling her scarlet-trimmed hood over her curls.
“You look very well,” she said to Steve, who had yet to leave Bucky’s arms, having been pulled into them moments after having his life restored.
“I—” he squinted at her, feeling quite fit, for all his troubles. The last he could recall, he’d been bargaining for Bucky’s life, and it seemed rather a lot had happened since then. Bucky had given him the briefest of explanations, though he was still baffled. “This whole time, you’ve been out there?”
“Did you ever wonder,” she replied, stepping closer. “Why your pastels never ran low?”
Steve’s eyes widened. “It was you!”
“What was her?” Bucky asked.
“How else was I going to keep you safe?” she replied, leaning down to press another kiss to his forehead, renewing the protection she’d given him five years earlier in that alleyway. “Nick did his best, I’m sure. But…” she smiled, stepping away. Steve blinked twice, staring in shock as her face became the woman he’d met in the alley as well as his own Peggy, all at once, every bit of her beginning to shimmer and fade. “You can be rather stubborn, my darling.”
“Oh, don’t go—” Bucky protested, pulling back from the embrace just enough to reach for her as she slipped away.
It was the last they would see of her for quite some time, though she’d left Steve with one parting gift: in his restoration, his ailments were removed, leaving him hale and hearty for the rest of his days. Small of frame yet sound of body, he never again had so much as a cold.
Steve and Bucky were married within a fortnight, and life in the palace began to improve by leaps and bounds.
Queen Winifred was instrumental in setting things right, restoring those who had been disgraced and weeding out what was left of the traitorous vermin loyal to Alexander.
Nick was returned to his former place at the king’s side, watching over Bucky just as he’d done for King George. He brought with him a self-trained Shadow Knight and an archer whose bow was rumored to have magical properties.
To Bucky, they were family, being as they belonged to Steve just as much as Steve belonged to him.
Such a family he had now, that lost and lonely boy. Love surrounded and uplifted him, teaching him not with lies and manipulation but with honesty, thoughtfulness, and kindness. Above all else, there was kindness.
So great was his kindness, in fact, that he eventually became known as King James the Lionstar. But that, I think, is a story for another day. That’s the thing about stories—they’re always getting away from us in the end. Therefore, we must remember where it was that we began.
Or, rather, where they did.
On the eve of their wedding, two not-quite-grown-up boys sat at a table, their heads bowed over a piece of paper, mouths furled in consternation.
“No,” Bucky said. “Fold it this way—”
“It’s my star,” Steve replied imperiously.
“Forgive me, but I thought it was our star.”
Steve hesitated. Smiled. Leaned in and pressed a kiss to the corner of Bucky’s downturned mouth. “It’s only,” he explained. “That I want it to be perfect.”
“It will be.”
Together, they looked down at the book which lay in front of them, open to a well-worn page that held an illustration of how, precisely, one might fold a paper star.
Steve had been the one to discover the book, lonely and neglected at the bottom of the trunk he’d packed with Peggy all those years before. It was a small, unassuming little thing—a slim volume he’d never paid much mind to until he’d been unpacking his belongings in Bucky’s rooms.
Written inside the cover was a simple dedication.
To my darling Sarah on her wedding day. I wish you all the happiness in the world.
The note had been signed by Bucky’s mother, and when Steve realized what he held, he’d clutched the book close to his chest for a moment or two before going to show Bucky.
Recreating the paper star had seemed the fitting thing.
“I seem to recall you being good at this,” Steve teased, watching Bucky hold the half-formed star up with a frown.
"Your mother did most of the work if my memory serves."
“And does your memory serve?” Steve asked, because sometimes he liked to check in. To make sure.
“It does,” Bucky assured him with a smile, setting down the paper before running his fingers across something Sarah had scribbled in the margins. “I wish she could be here.”
“So do I,” Steve said, placing his hand atop Bucky’s. “Though I like to think she is, in a way. We all loved her, didn’t we?”
“Very much so.”
“Then she’s here. If I can believe in magic, I can believe in that.”
They exchanged a smile, stealing one more kiss before continuing their work.
When the star was completed—perfectly imperfect, just as it ought to have been—they hung it above their bed, alongside Steve’s mighty shield.
“It’s perfect,” Bucky proclaimed as they stepped back to observe.
“It’s crooked,” Steve replied.
It was both.
Thank you to everyone who has been following along, and to those of you who waited until the story was complete to join in the journey. I hope you've enjoyed it! Thank you to ellebeesknees for her impeccable, beautiful work on every chapter. Please go check out her Tumblr and reblog all the art, because it's gorgeous. If you want to spread the word about Small Star, you can like or reblog the masterpost.
This story is done, but there's more Stucky coming. Follow me on Tumblr at notlucy, or subscribe to my author page if you want to read more.